This section contains very short pieces usually written in response to competitions or requests for submissions to magazines. They are much shorter than short stories and could be nuggets for longer pieces but stand alone as they are.
PERCHANCE TO DREAM
I was in my bed. I glanced around the room. I was in my bedroom too. The absurdity of why the bed would be in someone else’s room didn’t occur to me immediately. I checked first, thought afterwards.
The dream, it had to have been a dream, seemed so vivid. In those few waking moments, more vivid than my bed and the reality of my room. I sat up and leaned over to twitch the curtain aside. The usual sliver of sky and hillside greeted me. Why wouldn’t it? Nobody had the means or the interest in building a replica of my room somewhere else did they?
I shook my head and got up.
Shower and shave, dressing, all went prosaically enough which seemed odd in itself for some reason, as if nothing should be quite that normal, that ordinary after what had happened. I walked, quite easily down the stairs, no lurching, no hangover, no signs of debility, and went into the kitchen. I hadn’t been drinking last night, hadn’t had a drink for over a week, not that I was counting thanks, so why was I surprised about not having a hangover?
The radio didn’t seem bothered about the day. The usual collection of misery gleaned from around the world blathered out of the speaker. Radio. I still had a radio. How old was I? People didn’t have radios anymore did they? News was on the phone, on social media, on the computer, at a pinch on the television but radio? Come on!
I turned it off. The sound died but the machine was still there, plugged into the wall. It even had an aerial.
I made toast and a black coffee. I always drank tea didn’t I? White no sugar? Non-NATO standard. A nightmare when drinking from a metal cup dipped in a Norge container of NATO standard white two sugars on an industrial or at least military scale.
Why would I do that? I wasn’t in the army. Or any other armed service. Why would I think about dipping a metal cup into a big green bucket of tea so sweet you could feel the dental cavities forming as you drank?
I looked at the clock on the wall, half past seven. I drained the cup.
I had to go.
I tried to remember the dream as I locked the front door behind me. It had been so vivid, so real, so alarming that it had woken me from my sleep, my much needed sleep and caused me to doubt where I was and who I was and my radio for some reason and yet I had forgotten it. In the manner of dreams the feeling of unease was still there but not a single detail of what had so engaged me remained accessible.
I pinged the car open with the electronic tag and got in. I turned the radio on. It was eight o’clock. I’d better get a move on. Someone had left it on a music station. I like music. Did I? When had I last put a record on? A record? I switched to the news station and put my seatbelt on. As I drove out of the driveway the announcer mentioned what I was listening for. Russia.
I’d told everyone who would listen, and a lot more who wouldn’t, not to ignore Russia. That had been what? Twenty five years ago? When Francis Fukuyama’s end of history had been all the rage. Even he knew it was a mistake now.
Russia, our potential great ally again, no ideological differences to spike the deal, had been turned into a threat again apparently. Jesus what a mess. I went right at the roundabout. Five past eight. I should have left earlier. They’d have to wait for me. How many Russia experts did they have these days?
Putin. He’d been a KGB major in East Germany when I’d been over the wall in West Germany. Same rank. Not the same organisation of course. Alex Younger said there was no moral equivalence between us and he should know. I laughed out loud at that thought. The woman in the Audi next to me, turning right at the junction looked askance at anyone being so happy in the morning. Why was I happy? Was I happy? Where was I actually going?
I hadn’t looked at Russia professionally since about 1993. What the hell was I going to say? I crept up to the stop line, braked and changed into neutral. The junction was always difficult, even turning left at this time of day. No need to rush. Ten past eight, maybe a little rush to be there for nine. I looked right, past the Audi, all clear , first, clutch to biting point, up off the brake and away we went. Nine? Why nine?
Something in the dream, something about time and driving? What about tea and Norges? The man was saying there was going to be a war. Not us though. Someone else and Russia. Why hadn’t someone told me? I’d been the desk analyst for it after all? I could have told me if I’d still been on the desk I left in ’93 Or had it been ’89. What happened in those four years.
I was at the top of the hill now. It was 100 yards to the big roundabout and then 400 yards to the motorway junction. I’d need to step on it to make the meeting. Twenty past eight. I must have been on autopilot. I didn’t remember driving from the village into town. Had I got enough petrol? I always filled up the night before if it was getting low. I looked at the gauge. Yes, I’d be fine. Full tank. I must be doing something right. Maybe Claire had filled it?
A moment of panic struck me. Where was Claire? She hadn’t been in bed with me! She hadn’t been in the house! And I was in the car so she couldn’t be at work. And the kids! I’d gone without telling them I was leaving!
Wait a minute. I did have kids didn’t I? And a wife. Claire yes. But where was she? And why was I in her car if… I arrived at the roundabout, checked the right, put my right signal on and coasted through into the traffic. Lucky to get a space immediately, one exit, two exits, check the mirror, left signal, clear, pull over and past that minor exit and down the dual carriageway to the motorway. No problem.
Where was I? Dream. Something familiar all of a sudden. Claire? Kids? They were at Uni of course, no need to worry about them. Actually no need to worry about Claire. This was my car of course. She must be at work. Mustn’t she? Why was I on my way to work, I’d retired hadn’t I? Some time ago from that job. I’d just go right round the motorway interchange and go home. Maybe pick up breakfast at the garage. I’d had breakfast though hadn’t I? It was all getting a bit confusing. Better concentrate on the interchange everybody was mad there.
The lights hurt my eyes and there was a crushing pain somewhere. There were people puling and pushing at me and people muttering to each other. There was a lot of sudden activity.
‘Got that line in?’
‘Yes. In now.’
‘Heart beat’s too fast, thready.’
Was that a Russian accent? No Polish.
‘Okay, induced coma then?’
‘Yes, go for it.’
I was in my bed. I looked round the room. I was in my bedroom too.
RIDDLE ME REE
I have always hated riddles.
The English have a penchant for them apparently. It comes from the Saxons’ idea of how to beat boredom and passed for humour amongst the type of people who invaded other peoples lands on the pretext of ‘helping’ them.
You may have heard of the thing, though they appear to be less popular now than they were supposed to be when I was at school. They go – Question: What has six legs but no brain, three heads but cannot be driven by a hammer and is scared of a woman’s tongue? Answer: three drunken Saxons.
Oh! How we laughed.
I scratched my head and wondered what the hell they were on about, but apparently it was risqué and clever and amusing all in one, which made the English the cleverest race on God’s Earth. So they said.
But I knew a Gaelic proverb which, translated into the cleverest language on earth, goes: ‘Three things come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.’
That tells it from the shoulder without the hiding behind the addled humour of the riddle. That sums a man’s soul and warns you of the pitfalls of life, though no warning can prepare you for that triumvirate when they come.
I was delivered of them each in turn and had I thought of it, would have paid the price of the two for the chance of the one.
I looked at the lock of hair and wondered if there was a riddle in her going. I could only feel the pain. The fear of life without her and the jealousy of the man she went to. There may be life after loss but many is the day I have wished there weren’t.
The riddle was in the living.
A silver disc was rising in the darkening sky above the Cotswolds. I helped her over the stile, my hands on her waist. She let herself fall into me and she kissed me full on the lips. We always kissed here. She stepped back, smiled, but I knew this was probably the last time we would do this. In a month the road diggers would bulldoze where we stood and as one link opened another connection would close. We crossed the field. Ridge and furrow. Up and down. The moon was full, but every moon wanes. I wiped a tear.
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Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/0ae6e0″>NASA Goddard Photo and Video</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/007e41ec”>VisualHunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”> CC BY</a>
‘There’s an imperative.’
‘This isn’t a grammar lesson.’
‘Don’t be obtuse Leahan.’
‘I’m just saying that there are different ways of approaching this.’
‘And I’m quite clear there aren’t and I’m giving you an order. Comply with it.’
‘But it’s a sentient being. The rules say we have to consider that in a response. If it was a virus or a…’
‘They are laws, not rules. And I have complied with the laws. I’ve considered it. My consideration is clearly recorded in the determination. I have considered its characteristics at every level, and it is my determination, based on those considerations, that the threat posed outweighs any benefits or moral guidelines about the sanctity of life.’
‘But think what…’
‘It can teach us? Show us?’
‘Yes, and what we might be wiping out if we remove it.’
‘You think there’s just one of those things in the universe?’
‘I don’t know, but what if it was the last one and we wipe out the memory of an entire species? If we lose all chance of finding out where it comes from, why it’s here?’
‘As we appear to be unable to communicate with it using our senses, and our scientific probing lends us little insight beyond the basic biology, it strikes me as highly unlikely that we can learn anything by direct communication. On the other hand,’ the commander flicked a switch on the desk top console, ‘these records discovered on the craft, show an aggressive, violent and self destructive species, constantly fighting itself and destroying competing civilisations.’
As he spoke a series of images flashed across the screen in the room. Explosions, kinetic energy weapons, projectiles, thermonuclear explosions, destruction from chemical and biological attack flooded the room.
‘Happy to let it run amok in our solar system now you have an idea of what it did in its own?’
Leahan looked at the images that continued to flicker in horror across the screen. Hundreds, thousands of the creatures died, tormented and in agony from the actions of others of their own kind.
‘It might be a refugee from all that. The whole crew could have been escaping. We don’t know until we learn how to communicate with it.’
‘And the contents of the various pods and projectors of the craft?’
‘Have we determined definitively what they are?’
‘Thermonuclear warheads. Stimulated light emission beam weapons. And other destructive devices whose exact mechanisms are unclear, possibly electrical interruption of nervous pathways.’
‘That doesn’t mean…’
‘Leahan, your desire to learn, your desire to reach out and share with alien races, your essential kindness does you much credit. But that is why I am in command. Sometimes kindness has to be tempered with a hard eyed appreciation of the facts.’
‘That being may individually not be a threat to us, although two of the crew are already severely ill with parasitic infections it is carrying. But if it tells others of its kind what we are like, where we are, what we may offer them and their, I hesitate to use the word, civilisation, we may have to fight a brutal campaign against their predations simply to survive. They are clearly not a pacific species. We cannot take the risk. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Good. Now for the sake of all we hold dear, terminate the creature painlessly, and pray that it is last thing from planet Earth to come our way, wherever that God forsaken planet may be.’
THE CONSTABLE CODE
Blair, Kennedy, Howard, each from a Celtic country. Could the prophecy be true? Wilson seized Charlotte’s hand, evaded the grip of the three Arch Druids and dived through the fourth floor window.
The symbolism of The Hay Wain shrieked at him louder than Charlotte’s fear as they plummeted towards the Thames. The Lydney dog cult of the Silures, the horse of the Iceni and Trinovantes from Constable’s own country, the Lindow Man like water sacrifice. The Celtic Twilight was coming.
Constable! Of course! The keeper, of a castle, the country, the dark secret! The black water closed over their heads.
Written for a BBC Radio4 Front Row spoof on the then very hot ‘Da Vinci’ Code, the brief was to write a 100 word pitch for a Dan Brown-esque treatment of a well know cultural artefact and the mystery/conspiracy/plot around it.
They didn’t use it and I had no idea what else to do with it – haven’t written the book yet – thank goodness – so here it is, for you, in all its glory!
The old railway sleepers were wet from overnight rain. Slap, squelch, every step, trainers fighting for grip. Cheap steps, but they were slippery beggars. He pump
ed his arms. Careful now; no repeat of the fall last year. Old wet wood soaked in diesel fuel, lubricating oil and the contents of British Rail toilets. But without them the hill would be almost impossible to run up.
Another couple of minutes and the steps ended, a track crossing his path. Thighs burning Will turned left and the climb became less steep. He burst out of the trees and a long vista opened before him, down the valley to the spires and roofs of the distant town. He felt himself slowing as he stared. Try as he might his pace always dropped here. It was cruel to put such a view after that first dramatic climb. It was almost impossible not to slow down and peer through the haze at his distant Shangri La. She was down there, in those streets, somewhere among the warm yellow glow. A few miles away. Could run it in under an hour. Might as well be the other side of the world.
He glanced at the stop watch on his wrist. Damn! Three seconds slower. Supposed to get better. He kicked on. Lost time to make up. Only a few seconds. Might as well be the end of time.
ANOTHER VICTIM OF AUSTERITY
Written in response to an exercise set by a member of Caldicot Writers. The brief was to write a short piece about a crime related to an obect in the room we meet in. Obviously the characters do not reflect any library staff current or past, living or dead.
‘Hello Delyth, what you doing?’
‘Trying to move these shelves a bit.’
‘Why’s that then?’
‘We’re going to have to clear this room before the redesign.’
‘I know that, but that’s not for weeks yet.’
‘Pinner wants the shelves out before then.’
‘They haven’t moved for years – aren’t they screwed in or something?’ Bob said.
‘Well, don’t you need a note or something to start doing that?’
‘Are you going to stand there criticising or are you going to help?’
Bob stood in the doorway and watched as Delyth, a small bird like woman with grey hair and over large glasses, tugged ineffectually at the edge of a bookcase full of children’s stories.
‘I don’t think I should Delyth. Not with my back.’ he wandered into the room a little despite himself. ‘You know what Pinner said, we aren’t covered for that sort of thing anymore. If you need to move anything bigger than a chair you need to get a qualified kinetic handler in.’
‘Stuff Pinner. I only need it moved a few inches.’
Bob considered this. It seemed a bit unreasonable to phone someone to book a mover to come round to shift a set of shelves a couple of inches, and then presumably put them back. But his sciatica had only just subsided after the last bout of agony, and he didn’t want to tweak the nerve again. Then a thought occurred to him.
‘Why do you just want to move it a few inches if you’re getting ready for the redesign?’
Delyth gave up her fruitless assault on the shelves.
‘I… never mind.’ She started pulling books off the shelves and stacking them on the table. ‘Give me a hand with these then. They aren’t heavy enough to damage your back, and they’re smaller than a chair.’
Bob conceded the point and shuffled round the table. He began to follow Delyth’s lead, taking small groups of books from the shelves and placing them neatly on the table.
‘What are we doing?’ he asked.
‘To make the book case lighter, then I can move it.’ Delyth said through gritted teeth.
The logic was impeccable but didn’t explain why Delyth suddenly wanted to move the shelves a couple of inches. He moved a set of Harry Potters in Welsh and felt the need to clarify.
‘But if he’s arranged to move them out before the move, why are we doing this now?’
‘There we are.’ Delyth ignored the question. ‘That’ll be a lot lighter.’
Bob pushed at the shelving. ‘Yeah, it is.’
‘You can go then if you like. I can manage now.’ Delyth said turning and managing a smile at Bob. ‘Thanks’.
‘No. It’s okay Delyth. I’ll help.’
And with that he took one end of the shelving and waited while Delyth stood there hands on hips.
‘Come on Delyth, before Pinner comes and fires us both for breaking health and safety orders.’
Delyth’s smile returned
‘Couldn’t have that could we.’ she said.
They lifted and slid the shelves forward.
‘That’ll do thanks Bob. You can go now.’
Bob stood up.
‘I’ll help put the books back will I?’ he said.
‘No need. Off you go.’
Bob shrugged and as he did so bumped the shelving with his shoulder. There was a thump as something hit the floor and then another.
‘What was that?’ he said.
‘Just a book. Off you go Bob.’
But Bob was already behind the shelving.
‘There’s something down here. Two. Two packages. Looks like they were sellotaped to the back of the shelves. Thin but wide and long mind.’
‘Don’t worry Delyth I can get them.’
With that Bob dragged the packages out from behind the shelving.
‘This one’s weird. Actually they’re both weird.’ And with that Bob ripped open the brown wrapping paper.
Delyth hadn’t wanted to hurt Bob, but hitting him with a copy of “Harri Potter y Maen ar Athronydd” seemed a decent way for him to go. She picked up the two packages and the £50 notes that had fluttered loose from the one he had ripped open, before pushing the shelving over to make sure the sharp heavy edge hit him neatly on the neck with a satisfying crunch. She scattered the books from the table about his body before putting the packages in her large shopping bag. She walked out of the room and wondered whether she should ring to tell Pinner there had been an accident before she left on her half day. Best not. He’d like the ‘I told you’ so moment of discovery. Not to mention filling in the health and safety forms.
Besides she needed to put the £100,000 somewhere safe from Council cuts.
GASLIGHT was originally published some years ago in an anthology of fiction and poetry ‘The Tall and the Short’. No longer in print.
Simon hadn’t told his mum the whole story earlier in the week when he asked if he could stay on Friday. Mum didn’t usually like him staying out late in winter. She said it was too dark to be lingering on the way home and eleven year olds shouldn’t be out wandering the streets at night. Just this once however, as it was a cultural event, she had agreed to let him go to the school film club.
He hadn’t lied. He had gone to the film club, but he had been a bit vague about the film that was showing. Art house production or not, she didn’t approve of horror films and would have said ‘no’ had she known. Simon wasn’t that keen on them himself if he were being honest and he had only asked because Steve had said it would be really cool to go when they wouldn’t be allowed to see it in a cinema for years yet.
The film had been worth the small subterfuge, it was much better even than Steve’s hyped billing in fact. A little too good for their tastes as it turned out, and so nerve jangling that Steve and Simon had felt the need to look away from the screen for long stretches. Both boys had been glad when the end credits rolled.
The night was very dark after the lighted precincts of the school. That had been part of the appeal in the planning of course, but in the reality of the film’s aftermath the thrill palled.
Both boys lived on the edge of town, only a few hundred yards apart, but their routes home from school lay along different roads. Simon lived up behind the church at Walley Heys and Steve’s house was at the back of the Old Hall up on Hambleys Rise. Each had two miles to walk alone in the dark, a boring commonplace trudge on normal school nights. Now, with the memory of what they had just seen lurking in every shadow, those miles were a marathon of fear.
There was an alternative. Sometimes after school they would walk together to one of their houses and the remaining boy would then walk the short distance home alone. They took turn about being the one to walk past the Old Hall and the squalor of Bailey’s farm, but tonight, being a one off sprint of terror, they tossed a coin.
Together they walked to Steve’s house, talking over loudly and being as macho as eleven year olds could. Anything to occupy their minds and stop the furtive glances at the shadows gathering as town turned to country. Their laughter became a little more brittle as they left the main road and turned off past the brick pond with its inky depths and soughing, leaf shrouded banks. They reached the driveway of Steve’s family home. Simon started one last conversation to delay the inevitable. The few hundred yards between the houses had seemed trivial outside school. Here the night seemed to swallow the road ahead in its hungry maw.
Steve trotted down the drive and Simon dragged his feet to the end of Steve’s road. Here his way led left, down the lane past the Old Hall, long deserted, and Bailey’s farm. No cars could get past the farm, the gate there remaining locked at all times. Pedestrians had a right of way through to the canal bridge and what had been the village beyond. If the brick pond and its surroundings had been gloomy, the grounds of the Old Hall and the fields around Bailey’s Farm were stygian.
The gaslights on the lane were a relic of the highpoint of the town’s nineteenth century expansion. They were supposed to have been replaced by electric lights the year before, during the summer of 1966, but council money was tight and they had received yet another year’s reprieve. Each lamp cast the feeblest of yellow glows, and Simon ran from one illuminated circle to the next, loitering in each as long as he could before darting to the next oasis of light. As he ran, shadows and flickering reflections wakened memories and ghosts of long gone splendours in the windows of the neglected Hall. Above him, the arching boughs of trees lining the lane scraped and screeched against each other where they met overhead. At last he was past the Hall and to his left front, across the canal, the lights of his own lane twinkled and beckoned. All he had to do was pass the farm, slide through the gap at the side of the gate, cross the canal bridge, and he was back on tarmac with electric street lights and the houses of living people. The things from the film that hung close on his heels and in the hedges and fields, and in each patch of darkness between the lamps could not follow there. He would be home.
Simon made a vow.
He would tell his Mum and Dad he didn’t want to go to film club again. He would do his homework before Sunday night, and he would help with the washing up and the gardening and wash the car, he promised in his head. Just as long as he got across the bridge in one piece. Fingers ran down his spine. Sweat from running between lampposts he told himself, but the hairs on his neck belied his thoughts.
He rounded the last bend before the farm. At the farm entrance he could see the gate and the pedestrian access at its side leading to the canal bridge and safety. Another gas lamp grew out of the grass verge, out of the shadows by the gap he had to walk through, out of time. From the iron cross piece, barring the way, grimly marking the transition between two worlds swung something grey and shapeless, bumping, slowly spinning at the end of a rope , a shapeshifting gatekeeper to his world beyond.
There had been a time. There had been a time when he had known there would be time like there was now. But he had not known it would be like this. He had not felt it.
He had watched the sad old men down on La Playa del Mar and laughed at their sadness. How they tapped at a typewriter. And from their tapping came only letters on the page. Men scribbled on cigarette packets with biros long turned white with their emptiness. No words, not even letters for them. The memory of letters indented on wood pulp. Indented like the memory of words in his head.
But now was the time he had known would be his, but had not known that it would be like this. The time he had not felt before it arrived.
He looked up from the sand and watched the young men, the men with juice in them, with life in them, with words in them. Words they did not use, or used too much as the fancy took them because for them, now, there would always be words.
He should tell them, shout to them as they promenaded past him, laughing. He should shout, ‘Write. Write right now’. But they would laugh more, and go about their laughing with a joy, because that was what there was now, for them. Laughter at the endless flow of words. As he had once laughed.
He looked at the empty screen. He could write on the sand. It would be the same. It would be better.
Would he have laughed at writing in the sand when he walked where they now walked, laughing?
He would. He knew he would have laughed. Laughter was cheap when one had words.
They would laugh. Writing on sand. The wind and sea and feet would erase the words. Why write words to have them erased?
But the memory of the words was in the sand. Clearer than in the memories of men. Sand and sun, red in the Plaza de toros would sanctify the words. Each spilling and recasting of grains and blood recast the words anew.
He would write in the sand and die.
Other deaths would retell his tale.
And he would laugh again.
He took his laptop.
He could not write in sand with a laptop.
He would go and drink Sangria and think what one wrote with in sand.
Maybe he would ask one of the men and they would laugh together and watch the young girls laughing.
In the morning he would write.
Trouble Amongst the Turnips:
A Counterblast to Television Remakes
In the hot sunshine of the early summer afternoon Demelza and Prudie were thinning out the young turnips which had been sown in the lower half of the long field. Prudie dashed a particularly weedy specimen to the floor in disgust.
‘Why is he growing turnips in here again?’ She asked in a tone that matched her actions.
Demelza turned her head quickly, the dark curls flashing in the sun.
‘You shouldn’t be speaking like that of your betters Prudie.’ she said her mouth set in stern disapproval.
‘Stuff that. He’s mad. I thought he was a follower of old what’s his face from Raynham?’
Demelza was shocked by the impertinent tone and the offensive language.
‘If you mean Viscount Townshend, Mr Poldark is indeed a fervent admirer of the Norfolk four field system and our late Secretary of State. And I’ll thank you to remember your manners.
Prudie dashed another stray turnip to oblivion and sighed.
‘Sorry missus but be fair, if he’d actually bothered reading them pamphlets proper like, he’d know you have to rotate annual or you get all sorts of bother.’
Demelza gently pulled a wastrel root vegetable from the ground and laid it aside.
‘Leaving aside club root, flea beetle and root maggots you mean?’
Demelza nodded sagely not having heard of any of them.
‘Well has he had any nitrogenous fixing crop in here recent like?’ Prudie fixed Demelza with a gimlet eye. ‘Well? ‘as he or ‘an’t he?’
Demelza had not the faintest idea what a nitrogenous fixing crop was but was reluctant to let her beloved Ross take any blame.
‘I’m sure that your master has attended to all the needs of…’
‘Tush my pretty one, he had turnips in here last year and he tried wheat the year before and it was turnips again afore that. And why? What beasts have we to feed ‘em to? We ‘ad boiled neeps, fried turnip, turnip fricasee, roast turnip, turnip soup, turnip broth, stuffed turnip, turnip hash, turnip gallimaufry, and turnip surprise.’ She looked around to ensure their privacy, which was a rather pointless exercise as they were in the middle of an empty field. ‘I don’t like turnip.’ she confided.
‘Ah.’ cried Demelza ‘but the noble turnip…’
‘Noble! Pah! god rot ‘em. And let me tell you another thing. They’ll be weedy little runts anyway without no dung on em. And if you haven’t had any clover in for so long where will the goodness be anyway? And why’s he growing wheat this far west? Barley I could see but when have we had barley? Never. He should ave stuck to fighting and wandering around without a shirt. It’s what he’s good at. Bloody turnips.’
‘Ah but you see Prudie Mr Poldark has read the works of other great agriculturists and whilst he rightly respects and admires Viscount Townshend he believes that Mr Tull had the right of it when he observed ‘Too much nitre corrodes a plant.’
‘Tull?’ Observed Prudie with a sneer. ‘Posh bloke from Berkshire, big hair?’
‘That was a wig Prudie, it was the fashion.’
‘Aye I knows him. Jethro. Stood on one leg all the time?’
‘I believe at one time he did have a certain preference for a monopedal stance, but that has little relevance to his agricultural credentials.’
‘That’s as maybe but its hard to develop real hands on experience hopping behind a plough playing a flute that’s all I’m saying. Should have stuck to his flute. Folks would have paid good money for a big haired bloke playing the flute on one leg. And he could have let country folk get on with a proper crop rotation system.’
Demelza decided that perhaps, despite Ross’s nascent one nation Toryism mixed with quasi socialist overtones, she would let the hired help get on with the work themselves. She rose to her feet, playfully boxed Prudie’s ears, told her to keep her radical ideas to herself and marched off for a quick gin, wishing that someone would hurry up and invent tonic water and a refrigerator, whatever that was.
Better Get on With It
Under the cover of fading twilight Piers Lomond narrowed his eyes against the drizzle coming up river from the west. Pinpricks of orange twinkled into existence through the murk on both sides of the great estuary. He knew from previous forays onto the bridge at night that those pinpricks would soon blossom into clusters of electric fireflies winking through the darkness, struggling to reach out to him across the waters.
He didn’t want to be reached out to. Not by the works of man. Somewhere out beyond the cloud mass rushing in from the Atlantic, the sun was declining beneath the grey storm tossed waves, light being swallowed by an omnipotent monster as the earth spun eastward. A wind was beginning to pick up, not yet strong enough to fleck the mud dark tide below with white caps, but already chopping the waters into black troughed waves. If the forecast was correct it would be a gale by morning, and then a storm. Lomond shook his head to flick the accumulated water from his face and hair. None of which would bother him.
He regretted the cloud and rain. He had imagined that if, he snorted as he corrected himself, no, when, this time came, Tir na n’Og would welcome him with blazing yellow shafts shining through the warm red sky of forever. But even the end was going to be grey and disappointing. Westerness, the land of eternal youth was weeping and Lomond felt as if he had somehow missed the boat. Even in his current frame of mind he allowed himself a wry smile at the inadvertent pun. He wouldn’t need a boat to get there. Below him the second highest tidal reach in the world was churning, turning to rush millions of gallons of water into the Irish Sea. The highest was a couple of thousand miles almost directly west of where he stood, across the waters of the Atlantic in the Bay of Fundy. He’d checked. Just out of interest. When he had still had any interest to spare. So, on to bigger, better things then.
He turned and leaned back on the safety rail, staring upstream now. The angles were all wrong. Mostly he could see the spread of the carriageways that crossed the span of the bridge. The rest was darkness of the eternal night from the East. At least the rain wasn’t in his face any more, and neither the darkness nor the weather prevented him seeing what he was looking for. She would be settling down for the evening. Forty miles upstream the world would seem a different place. A warmer, brighter, less elemental place, confused and cluttered by the ephemera of distractions that humanity constructed between itself and reality. Piers saw through it all to the nub, the heart, the essential futility of all the pastimes and geegaws, the bread and circuses. The pointlessness of obfuscation.
He’d done all that. He’d collected a lot of things. And all the while niggling, itching, growing inside, sapping the ability to pretend everything was fine, was the knowledge. The knowledge of having reached out and being cursed for daring and yet more, for attaining what he desired, that which was not his.
He turned again to face into the west and heaved a sigh of resignation.
[This was just an exercise that went a bit differently than I had imagined. I don’t normally like exercises that demand you write something to a set goal/formula/inspiration – if it isn’t my inspiration I think it is lacking something, some veracity, some depth – oops! Careful – sounding a bit twee there, but you know what I mean. Don’t you? Anyway this time I promised I’d have a go because I was asked and it seemed churlish not to and you know what? I enjoyed it. It may not seem like it from the tenor of the above piece. But I did.]
[Party Time note]
This is a very short piece I worked up from an actual experience (suitably embellished) and then pared down dramatically for possible inclusion in a magazine for Hallowe’en 2013. It didn’t make it but I thought you might like a read anyway.
I jumped on the train just as it was about to depart and the door slammed shut behind me. The carriage was empty. Ceridwen had warned me not to get on the first train by the barriers. Only the second went her way. I hoped her Hallowe’en party would be worth all this. When she asked me I’d only said yes because I was infatuated. I hated fancy dress parties, particularly ones with as vague a theme as this one. When I had asked what to come as, she had said ‘The past. I love old things’. An odd way of putting it, I had assumed she was having a dig at our age difference. The train fitted the bill at any rate, it was older than I was. It pulled out of the station and the rocking of the carriage lulled me to sleep.
I woke with a start. We had stopped, but where? ‘Beech Grove’, the sign said. I panicked. Where was that? I was sure it wasn’t on the line I was supposed to be on. Beyond the platform lights the night was black and the station deserted. I looked round for someone to ask where we were, but I was still alone in the carriage. The diesel moved off into the darkness. I must have got on the wrong train. I would have to get out at the next stop and retrace my steps. I checked my mobile. No service.
We seemed to rattle on forever before we stopped again. I got off and the train departed. I could see no station nameplates. As I made my way across the old bridge to the opposite platform the night seemed to gather more thickly about me with every step. Each light I passed seemed to flicker and dim to almost nothing behind me, darkness pressing me forward. Ahead, a station building reared out of the gloom. I reached the dilapidated ticket office. It was closed, but in the window was a crisp new notice.
‘This station will close on 31 October 1963’.
This piece was originally written in 2004 as an entry for a BBC competition for short pieces inspired by the series Hustle . Not sure it really fitted what they were after – too political not a jolly ‘crime caper- and obviously too hot a political potato for them at the time regardless of any (lack of?) merit or otherwise.
ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A SCIENTIST
Focuses the mind, death. I knew it was over for me when I heard he’d died. Didn’t quite foresee all the fallout of course, but I knew it was going to be unpleasant.
Of course I’d tried to limit the damage before that. I’d said to William: ‘Will he weather the storm?’ He was the man’s boss after all. Well, we all know the answer to that one now.
I thought we should have protected him more. This business is all about face and I didn’t see how we could keep face if we hung him out to dry.
As I said to William: ‘Ecce homo! This is the man! One of the five or six people in Christendom who understands what the bloody Iraqis are doing. Expose him and the public’ confidence will be blown to hell’
Didn’t think he’d die though.
Christendom was a mistake. Terribly unfashionable. Left a bad smell. Not at one with the PM’s values apparently, despite his bloody crypto Catholic views. Acknowledging 2000 years of history is a sin apparently.
Anyway, the poor sod’s dead and I know he wasn’t one of us, but does the public understand the difference? No. One spook’s the same as another to them. The fact that he was only a bloody technician means nothing to them.
I should have been firmer. I knew we had no real evidence. Nothing that would stand up in a court of law, but then, what intelligence would? It’s not that sort of game is it? Hand on heart how often is what we say unequivocal? Wouldn’t call it the bloody Assessments Staff if it were would we? We’d call it Truth Staff, or something equally Orwellian. This was worse though, all froth and no substance.
Never thought I’d have to justify this sort of stuff to anyone. That was always part of the deal. We’ll give you our assessment, warts and all; you don’t expose us to the public gaze. I mean what do they know? What can they know?
We put up a bloody good case, considering. Gave them what they asked for. They didn’t ask the objective questions of course. They never do, but we answered what we were asked, and by good Christ almighty they got the answers they wanted.
Of course, they didn’t ask for all the intelligence on the existence of WMD, but where would that have got them? Nowhere! As I said, intelligence is an imperfect science; one simply does not get clear answers with open questions. Asking the question the right way lets the politicos get the answer they need for public consumption. So HMG in its infinite wisdom didn’t ask the DG ‘What have you got on the existence of WMD?’ No. No open questions. This isn’t bloody therapy for Christ’s sake. That would have led to confusion. No. They asked ‘Give me everything you’ve got that confirms they’ve got WMD.’ Different bloody question. Different bloody answer.
Poor old 6 and the West Country running round like bloody loons of course. No way they’ve got a full brief for the politicos on that one. Tons of stuff the other way, but they weren’t asked for that. Some little oik turns up with a note from his mother saying: ‘however other evidence suggests…’ and he’s off to freight and mails or wherever it is that doubles for Siberia these days. So you dig where you’re told and not one inch left or right.
So when the old judge asks ‘Was the report manipulated by No10?’ we all stand up and say ‘Absolutely not sir’ with our woggles standing stiff and true without a word of a lie.
I lied my bloody arse off for the Crown over this one. Had to really, question of loyalty; pencilled in for a knighthood already. More than pencilled in actually, indelible ink, so to speak. Owed it to them to keep my face straight and nod and bleat when asked. I’ll get the K of course. Least they could bloody do under the circumstances; might get something a bit better than that actually. And of course, having proved how sound I am, there’s every chance of a few directorships, but I say!
Poor bugger’s dead after all and someone should say sorry. The politicians have all sloped shoulders of course. Bloody typical, I’d expect nothing less of any of ‘em, left or right.
But I looked at the judge and wondered what we were doing. Something stuck in my throat just a little bit at that point.
I mean, I know we pull the wool over the public’s eyes, good God one has to in order to have any chance of running the place, but did we have to sacrifice a poor old sod like that?
I did. I turned the No10 intelligence requirement into a set of tasks and my people came back like good little goats and bleated back the 10 per cent that backed the implied answer. And I paraded it up to the JIC.
There was no need to massage the answer, for God’s sake; do the press have any idea what goes on? You don’t need special advisors and press manipulators and policy wonks burning the midnight oil when the report hits the desk.
The massage was in the question. Just like it always is.
Thank God they got rid of the people bright enough to spot that one eh? And the poor old sod was left out to dry. To die
I’ve decided to take early retirement.
Oh it was inevitable really. The day he was reported dead I knew. Everyone associated would be moved sideways eventually. Oh, one may escape it for a while but I was right in there, I provided HMG with its alibi.
I’ll be okay, they have to look after me after all, or arrange for the traditional accident in a Norfolk ditch.
Here’s to the K and no sleepless nights!