Liz's stories · Shared World

The first time

By Elizabeth Parkes

IT was the first time that Clare had ever dealt with a dead body and today she had two, you didn’t get this kind of variety in the tax office, ‘definitely a good move to retrain’, she thought as she closed the ambulance doors, ‘this is life in the raw’.

ambulanceThe man had been a possible suicide. He was off road in a little copse near Champney’s Wood. Difficult to manoeuvre the ambulance but Jack had congratulated her on her driving – another first, for the old cynic usually choked on compliments.

Jack had talked at her all the time as he rifled through the man’s pockets.

“No life signs. Suicide eh? Too much Eastenders. Never assume. Pills, empty bottles, packages? Check them out, is he on anything, taking anything? Wallet, credit cards? Any name, address, contact numbers, the police will deal with that.”

The blues and twos of the police car had appeared right on cue.

The second body had been more gut wrenching. Call out to an old lady, mid-day. After a frustrating wait outside A&E it had been a relief to be back on the road again. The police were already there, the door open.

She had got herself into the kitchen. The porridge pan was black, the kitchen covered with a sooty film, burns on the upper body, smoke inhalation. The young policeman had been business-like.

“Neighbours saw the smoke. Fire brigade. Nothing we could do for her.”

Clare marvelled at his calm, he had seen so much more of life at only half her age. They had been about to deal with her when the front door exploded back to the wall and a woman appeared. Her riding boots left muddy footprints across the hall. Funny the little things you notice at such times. The scream had jangled Clare’s nerves, Jack immediately went into the procedure for shock, sitting the woman down suggesting she put her head between her knees.

Surprisingly the woman seemed furious, less concerned with the old lady than with cursing a ‘she’.

“She left mum here to die. Sent me a bloody text. She knows the phone spooks the horse, I’d always have it on silent. What has she done with the dog? Murdered that too, I should think.”

Her mother lay, rigour mortis already taking hold, collateral in the family warfare.

© Elizabeth Parkes 2019

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Shared World · William's stories

Palimpsest

By William Gallagher

JUST sometimes, the rocking of the boat annoyed Esme. Usually it was a comfort and really the rocking was so little that she only noticed it when several other ones moved down the canal beside her. Even then, if it made her mug of tea slide a tiny bit to one side, it was only enough to remind her that it was good to be here. That it was good to be alive.

narrowboatToday, though, anything would’ve annoyed her, but the timing was unfortunate. She’d done her hair up, she’d relished the way that concentrating on fixing it with a scarf had stopped her thinking about anything else. Then she’d even been satisfied when she pulled on her poncho and had everything just right.

This time the rocking of the boat was from someone stepping onto it and for just that one moment, Esme was back in Leeds. Her fingers tensed and she caught the poncho, tugging it down as she tried to calm herself.

“Who is it?” she called. No one answered and she hoped that was because she had overcompensated. Trying to sound calm, her voice had come out quiet. She preferred that idea to the image she now had of him waiting on the boat. Waiting for her to come out.

Her fingers reached for a saucepan on the shelf behind her. She was lifting it up when a man’s voice called. It was a young man’s voice, not the old one she’d feared. It was maybe an Indian voice, certainly not Irish. And it was educated, too. All he called out was “Hello, sorry, is this Claire Thompson’s boat, please?” but Sebastian would’ve doubled the length of that sentence with swearing.

“Next one along,” called Esme.

“Thanks,” he said. And then there was the matching little rocking of the boat as he stepped back off.

Esme looked back at the mirror. The scarf was fine but the poncho had shifted and you could see the tattoo of a penny farthing at the base of her neck. At least if anyone saw that, they wouldn’t notice the bruise written underneath it. She tried rearranging her clothes and considered redoing the scarf so that it better draped over her neck but the idea of spending one more second looking at herself repulsed her.

She couldn’t help but hesitate before climbing up out of the boat but the man was gone. As she took a step off the boat, she heard a squeal. Jolted, she looked up at the next boat and there was Claire. She was managing to hold on to an enormous bouquet and at the same time hug the life from of what turned out to be a much, much younger man.

And now Esme recognised him from the station. She tried to remember what he’d been there for and couldn’t but knew it hadn’t been serious. The kind of youthful exuberance that wouldn’t even have been noticed in a city but here got you a night in the cell and a stern telling off by the sergeant when you sobered up.

Claire and the man went inside the Dauntless, which Esme yet again thought was a ridiculous name for a boat. She leaned on her own, Palimpsest, and decided right then that she would leave. Write a new history for herself somewhere else. She had to move the boat every few weeks to avoid paying fees for being permanent, this was as good a time to go as any other. Maybe this time she’d move a little closer to the city. Maybe she’d get away from this village.

Maybe she could become a waitress. Call herself Claire, see how that fit.

She let herself dream for a moment of a job where, okay, she might be badly treated by the public but at least there’d be a salary. For the first time, she wondered what had got into her head when she came here and signed up to be a PCSO.

Esme realised she was still standing with one foot on the boat and one on the path. Rather than move, she looked at her two feet and tried to decide between solid ground and travelling. There was no telling what would happen if she just climbed back on the boat and got the motor running, but she could guess. She knew how much longer her money would last. She was less sure about her nerve.

That made her lean toward staying and as she thought that, she also leaned on the foot on the bank. She moved forward and then thought about how ridiculous the police work was, how they neither deserved nor needed to be told she was leaving. That sent her back onto the foot on the boat and now she laughed at herself for her indecision.

Esme jumped onto the path. She’d finish the latest stupid assignment and give getting to know the locals one more go. She didn’t really believe that there was a thriving ecstasy problem and couldn’t see how the village would remain so dull if there were. And the suspicion that the sergeant was just giving her work to keep her out of his way had been cemented last night when he told her a code word.

“Really?” she’d said.

“Really,” he told her.

“I slip this word into a conversation and they just give me something.”

“First one’s always free.”

“Sure.”

Esme was thinking of this when she saw a woman far away down the towpath, looking like she was being pulled by a tiny, butt-ugly dog. With a shudder, Esme got back onto the boat. She’d make some tea and think about it.

The gas bottle on the boat was running low and it took several minutes to boil the kettle. Yet when Esme came back up top and sat to drink her tea, the woman didn’t seem to be a lot closer.

The dog seemed to have given up. And the woman. looked as if she were anywhere but here. Worried, thought Esme. Or stoned.

Here goes. “Oh, isn’t he lovely?” said Esme, smiling at the mutt. No reaction. Okay. Try again. “Is it a he?”

The woman seemed to have to think for a ridiculously long time. ‘Maybe she suspects I’m police’, thought Esme.

“A girl,” said the woman. “Sorry.”

“No, I shouldn’t assume. What’s she called?”

The woman smiled. “Take a guess.”

Definitely drugged. Here we go, thought Esme.

She tried petting the dog like she’d seen on TV and took a great breath.
“I think -“
Oh, God, the little runt was eating her face now. “Gerroff,” she managed through a fake smile. Just say it.

“I think you’re a… Petal.”

Esme looked straight at the woman as she said it. Daring her to react.

“You’re right. That’s amazing. However did you guess?”

“Really?”

Esme jolted. It was all true. Drugs in this ditchwater village.
“I can’t believe it.”

She waited for the woman to offer her whatever it was, pills or something. She couldn’t see this prim woman taking out needles.

“Take her,” said the woman.

“What? I can’t possibly.” Was this some kind of test? Look after the dog while we get you crack cocaine from John Lewis’s.

And yet here she was, holding a dog away from her like it was another unwanted baby, and there the woman was, walking away.

Esme sat on her boat, watching the woman walking away so very much faster now, and she wondered if she’d been set up somehow. Then the dog started shaking to get free and Esme recognised the signs of someone needing feeding.

She fetched a biscuit from the boat and began walking the dog to the station, resenting being responsible for yet another life.

 © William Gallagher 2019
Shared World

Unravelling

By Alex Townley

THE body was found in a small copse of horse chestnut trees, about five miles from Champney’s Wood. It’s a bit of the countryside I remember as a child, where the fields slope up and away from the far side of the canal up to a low hill.

new st stationApparently, it’s a regular dog walking spot in the summer, and in autumn people go blackberry picking or to collect conkers with the kids, but this time of year it’s rarely visited because it catches the brunt of the wind.

I got called in because of the train ticket they found in his pocket, and because there wasn’t another chump willing to sit through hours of CCTV footage to find evidence of him as he left Birmingham.

“Ann-Marie will do it.”

I like the viewing room though. Tucked away from all the inane office chat and jokey comments behind my back, lights dimmed. It lets you concentrate. Awful and claustrophobic if you’re watching something really severe, like Andrews who has to sit through snuff movies and all sorts.

But this was different.

I pour myself a glass of red wine and tip some black Kalamata olives into a ramekin, setting them both down on the coffee table. I nearly put on some music, but it feels wrong somehow, so instead I curl my legs up under myself on the sofa, and just stare at the black square in the wall, where I haven’t yet closed the curtains.

He was found lying on his back with his shoes neatly laid out beside him. They checked him over, and he had the end of a packet of Tunes in one pocket, £22.76 in cash, and a train ticket from Birmingham New Street, but no ID or anything personal.

At first they thought he must have been mugged, or the body touched before he was officially reported, but there wasn’t any indication of that. Why would they leave the cash?

I went up there after I’d been pulled in, just to get the lay of the land. We used to walk that stretch of the canal on sunny weekends, and the place has a lot of happy memories for me, but the area where he was is scrubby and unwelcoming. All frost and brambles.

Maybe it’s just the time of year.

The local station is only a part time sergeant and a bunch of shell-shocked PCSOs, so I asked about, with my photo tucked in my pocket. ‘Do you remember this man?’ and the landlord at the Blue Boar on the High Street said he’d seen him earlier in the day, just hours before he died. He’d called in for a pint and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, and he’d asked about local beauty spots.

Was he trying to kill himself? The official post mortem says he died of natural causes, but exacerbated by the cold, which probably means it triggered his heart condition.

He didn’t have any medication with him though. Not even an empty bottle.

The wine warms my throat and I lean back into the sofa staring at clean lines all around me.

I bought that book the other year about the magic of tidying up, and went through the flat like a whirling dervish, purging old Christmas presents and unread books and more than half of my wardrobe, and now when I look around it feels a little like one of those showrooms in Ikea.

It’s supposed to make me happy, but it makes me feel a little like I don’t live here. And if I don’t. Who does?

The problem was I didn’t own much I did like. And I don’t really have time to buy new things, what with the job.

I looked through 46 hours of CCTV footage in the end. It’s a little like the opening montage of Love Actually with the sound off. You worry you’re becoming blind to it, but I spotted him. It’s strange to see him up and moving about. He had a really distinctive walk, not confident, but not embarrassed or shuffly either. He walks up to the ticket counter (I talked to them later, but they get too many people to remember just one) and then through the barrier and down to his platform.

There’s no CCTV at the other end. It’s one of the few spots in the country where you’re spared it. Is that why he chose it? Or did he stick a pin in a map.

Watching through different camera angles, I found out which entrance he came in through. And then I tracked him back through the city, slowly and methodically. He didn’t speak to anyone, stop anywhere much. He bought what looks like a sausage roll from a bakery, but they don’t remember him.

It does something to you, watching a dead man, sends you somewhere inside yourself. Watching this unravelled life in reverse.

Eventually (or to begin with, depending on how you see it) he got off a Megabus from London, and that’s where I handed him over to the Met, who will probably lose him somewhere in their case backlog. One man, alone, leaving his life behind.

I wonder whether someone is missing him. I wonder where his possessions are now, how much he really left behind.

I should call my dad.

I stare out into the night and eat an olive.

 © Alex Townley 2019

Shared World

Ashes to…

By Matthew Warburton

AS she steered round the corner by Champney’s Wood, they skidded slightly to the right. Anna pulled the wheel to correct it, and the car slipped again, dragging across so the front passenger wheel bumped up onto the grass by the side of the road. The engine stopped. Mark sighed.

Forest“Stalled it,” he said, folding the newspaper. “I did say I’d drive.”

“It’s the tyre,” she replied. “I think we’ve got a puncture.”

“Are you sure?”

She glared at him, and stepped out, into the sunlight coming down through the trees. Inappropriate weather. Mark joined her behind the car. He hitched up his trousers at the knee and eased himself down, prodding at the tyre with the index finger of his right hand. His nails, she saw, were polished, glossy, almost as if they’d been lacquered. Does he wear nail polish, she wondered? Or just have a manicure in his office every two weeks.

“I’ll call the AA,” she said, reaching in to get her bag, “you don’t want to get dirty.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, anyone can change a tyre.”
“Are you sure?” she copied his intonation.

He glared at her. “Just because I work in a bank, doesn’t mean I’m completely incapable of physical work.”

“You don’t work in a bank.”

“No, what’s RCMJ then?” He took off his jacket as he talked, and laid it gently on the back seat, like an injured animal.

“All right, but you make it sound like you’re behind the counter on the high street, counting the change.”

“The High Street doesn’t exist any more,” he told her, taking the keys and pressing the switch to unlatch the trunk.

“Doesn’t it? Well done you.” She leaned back on a fence post and watched as he moved the bags of their dad’s stuff from one side of the boot to the other.

“And I’m not apologising for working in the city.” He dropped a Tesco bag full of papers on the road behind the car. A photograph blew off the top and onto the grass. She snatched it up, then moved forward, picked up the bag again and opened the back door.

“Careful of my jacket,” he barked, heaving at the spare wheel.

“Careful of Dad’s papers”, she replied. But she put the bag in the foot well behind the driver’s seat, well away from his coat. When she stood up he had found a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on.

“Where did you get those?”

“At Mum and Dad’s”, he stopped himself, and restarted. “At Mum’s. Thought they might come in handy clearing out the rubbish.”

“It’s not rubbish.”

“Well, you keep what you want.”

He was more efficient than she expected, using his weight to get the wheel nuts loose, and picking the wheel off, swapping the new one on and getting the flat into the boot without fuss. He even manoeuvred the bags back into a semblance of order, glancing in at the things she had saved as he finished.

He snapped off the latex gloves, dropped them in the boot, and jerked the trunk down. When it closed, she saw that he was holding the urn. He raised his eyebrows.

“Do you want to go on? There’s a path in here.”

For a moment she was shocked, and her lip trembled. He smiled at her.

“The wood’s the wood. No?”

“Yes.” He was right. Dad had said Champney’s Wood. He had walked every path, with the irritating little dog. Anne nodded. Mark clicked the lock, and they set off up the slope and into the deeper shadows. The car ticked in the heat.

“How do you think she’s coping?” Anna asked.

“Fine. She’s got the dog. And Granny to talk to.”

Anna peered at him. Did he really believe Mum was taking solace from either of those two things? She shivered as a breeze rustled the leaves, and they pushed on, looking for a suitable spot.

Half an hour later they were back.

Mark surprised her again with a hug, after she had placed the urn back in the boot, two seconds of family time. Then he patted her heavily on the shoulder, and went back to business. He reached into the car, retrieved his jacket, and put it on, pulling his shirt sleeves so each extended a visible inch. He took a handkerchief from an inside pocket and wiped his hands on it. As far as Anna could see, they were spotless anyway. Then as if in a dream, it seemed so familiar to her, he pulled a small tube of hand cream from another pocket, squeezed an orange blob onto the back of his left hand, snapped the lid back onto the tube, and deliberately massaged the cream into his skin. As he finished he moved the fingers of both hands through each other, then flicked them abruptly, as if shaking off water. As he bent down to open the passenger door he saw her staring and scowled.

“I have very dry skin.”

“No, she said, and smiled at him, though for the first time that day she felt like crying. “That was Dad.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The way you… the way you did your hands, I’ve seen Dad do that, after the washing up, a hundred times. That weird flicky thing. It’s Dad.”

He frowned at her.

“Do you want me to drive, if you’re going to get all emotional?”

“I wouldn’t be all emotional if you weren’t the spitting image of Dad. You freak.”

“I’m going paint-balling next week. Dennis would never do that.” He got into the passenger seat, pinching his trousers up at the knee again.

“Go get ‘em, Killer.” But she said it under her breath, and walked round to the driver’s side. The sun was still coming down. Just the wrong weather for the day. She held her face up into the warmth for a moment, then opened the door, and climbed in.

 © Matthew Warburton 2019

Alex's stories · Shared World

Talking the dog for a walk

By Alex Townley

POPPY enjoyed taking the dog for a walk, mainly because it got her out of the house. It was a terrible dog really, quite nervous and that inconvenient height that meant you were likely to trip over it coming down the stairs or nearly tread on it standing up from the sofa.

a_frosty_morning_on_the_staffordshire_and_worcestershire_canal_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1672333Dennis had bought it for her one Christmas as a surprise, and she always got a guilty feeling when she looked at it, because she would never have chosen it, and because everyone knows you shouldn’t buy dogs at Christmas, there were poster campaigns about it even. She half expected some sort of dog police to interrupt her as she came out of the house and finally make her pay.

She felt like that about a lot of things. Mainly to do with Dennis’ mother.

Dennis was the sort, she suddenly realised, to turn up with events fait accompli, like dogs and mothers, so you couldn’t exactly turn them down, and yet you ended up being the one doing all the feeding and cleaning and clearing away poo. In both cases.

And she couldn’t really complain now.

That was the annoying thing about losing a spouse. All their decisions were suddenly set in stone.

It was a sharp sort of frosty morning and the dog had stopped to sniff at something, probably another dog’s mess, there seemed to be more of it about these days, so she averted her eyes, looking automatically over the road at the house where the watering can woman used to live.

When they’d first moved to the village she used to invent details and nicknames for all of their neighbours. She’d thought back then they might turn into friends, but it never happened, probably in no way unlinked to Dennis’ insistence on starting all DIY jobs at 8am on a Sunday morning.

They were probably talked about by all the neighbours. Maybe everyone else became friends united against them.

She wasn’t sure she knew how to drill anything. When should one get rid of one’s drill following a bereavement?

The watering can woman used to stand in her window watering house plants every morning as Poppy walked past to pick up milk from the corner shop, and she would hope every morning that the woman might look up, and smile and perhaps they’d have a silent conversation, a wave, an offer to get anything from the shop, but the woman wasn’t interested in passers by.

The dog finished examining the pavement and pulled her on. It was surprisingly strong, and determined for a small dog. They crossed the road and entered the snickett that went down towards the village shops and the canal.

This bit always took a while because there were a lot of interesting things for the dog to investigate. Poppy dressed warmly though, so she didn’t mind standing around. She layered up with multi-coloured scarves that Dennis would have disapproved of, and a big gorgeously warm and ridiculous hat. You could get away with a lot as an eccentric widow.

Her mother in law Dorothy, Dotty, (they sounded like two public school girls on a hockey team,) would be asleep for hours yet. She defied the usual habits of the elderly and regularly slept for 12 hours straight. There was a daughter, Dennis’ sister, who had moved out of the county, and sometimes when Poppy was feeling particularly self-righteous she nearly picked up the phone and told her to take some responsibility for heaven’s sake, but it never quite came to that.

She stood under a street lamp in the middle of the snickett and nudged at a patch of nettles while the dog conducted its own investigations. She regularly found little glass canisters in amongst the undergrowth and wasn’t sure whether they were drugs paraphernalia, or something to do with vaping, but thankfully the dog avoided them.

Should she take up vaping? There were always gangs of youths, well, a small group of well-behaved teenagers, huddled under the children’s playground shelter doing it and some of the flavours smelled quite nice. You were supposed to make some wild and crazy decisions after a major loss, but vaping seemed a bit underwhelming now she thought about it.

The dog pulled her forward out of the snickett, and they mixed for a moment with other dog walkers in the early morning light.

There was a man who had sight problems and lived round the corner from Poppy. He wore dark glasses and his dog was a little terrier type, so not a guide dog, but he always smiled and said hello as if he recognised her. She wondered if she had a distinctive walk, or smell. She most likely smelled of Dorothy if anything.

Poppy considered the day ahead. Making breakfast of soggy Weetabix for Dorothy, and carefully spooning it into her mouth, watching a morning chat show maybe, or one of those quizzes, and then possibly some recycled drama from the 1980s on one of the high numbered channels they had these days, or people auctioning off their unwanted belongings.

Should she call in Channel 4 to clear out her house on TV?

Dennis was everywhere she looked. Even the house itself was Dennis’ choice. She’d tried to make the garden her own, but there was no time since Dorothy moved in (she couldn’t bring herself to call her Dotty), and the dog of course, peed all over the grass and regularly dug up the flowerbeds, as if it knew she wasn’t fond of it.

The not quite blind man wasn’t there today. She might have left the house a little early. It gave her the confidence to take a right turn, toward the canal. Time was on her side.

Walking off the road down to the water’s edge, the season revealed itself properly, frozen puddles in the muddy towpath, and frost thick on the bramble bushes and the elders. The edges of the canal were frozen too around some of the stiller areas where people’s back gardens came down to the water in gentle slopes and handmade jetties. Those were the sort of houses she would have liked, but no-one really asked. No-one ever asked her anything.

The dog did its business at the entrance to the tunnel going under the road, and she carefully picked it up in a little plastic bag, which she looped around one wrist, trying to ignore its disturbing warmth.

It felt refreshing walking along the canal. It stretched hundreds of miles out in front of her. All the way to Manchester possibly. The roads did too obviously, but down here it felt more intimate, designed just for her, for feet to move one in front of the other and get there in the end.

“Oh isn’t he lovely. Is it a he?” A woman sat on the edge of a decoratively painted narrow boat. Her hair tied up in an elaborate scarf arrangement, Poppy could see the tip of a tattoo licking at her neck from under a knitted poncho.

She had to think for a second, she was so used to calling the dog ‘it’. “A girl. Sorry.”

“No, I shouldn’t assume.” The woman sat next to a steaming cup of tea. She looked cozy and free and completely at ease.

Poppy tried not to hate her a little.

“What’s she called?” The woman had jumped down and was petting the dog, who was acting as though all its Christmasses had come at once.

Poppy smiled, “Take a guess.”

The woman didn’t take her eyes off the dog, “Umm, come here girl. Let me look at you. You’re lovely.”

The mutual love-in continued for a second or two, and Poppy let go of the lead while the dog licked the woman’s face enthusiastically, something Poppy personally hated, and refused to let it do.

“I think you’re a Petal.”

Poppy leapt on the answer. “You’re right. That’s amazing. However did you guess?”

“Really?” The woman’s face lit up. “I can’t believe it.”

“I know.” Poppy tried half-heartedly to recall the name Dennis had given the dog, but it might just as well have been Petal. It was ridiculous enough.

“She’s so lovely. Such a lovely temperament. I’ve been thinking about getting a dog myself. Something like this, so they didn’t feel too hemmed in on the boat. Is she expensive to keep?”

Poppy took a subtle step back. “No.” She hesitated for a split second, and then gathered her resolve, “In fact. You should have her. Take her.”

“What?” The woman looked vaguely alarmed as if she were being offered a child, “I can’t possibly.”

“No, you can.” Poppy smiled. “I don’t want her. You take her.”

And she turned and walked off along the towpath. She waited tensed in anticipation of the woman following her, even though she was walking quite quickly, but nothing happened. She was free.

Still she was walking the wrong way along the canal now, away from her exit, and she didn’t want to have to go back past the woman and the dog.

She put it out of her mind for a moment. Enjoying the stillness of the morning, the absence of the dog, making the ducks braver as they swam over toward the towpath in a flotilla of tiny v-shaped ripples.

She looked at the crystal clear reflections of tree skeletons and blue sky dotted with clouds, the way the water went on and on like the yellow brick road in the land of Oz.

That reminded her of Dorothy, waiting at home, still blissfully sleeping. She slipped off her glove, slipping off the bag of dog mess with it and dropping it under a hedge. It wasn’t her responsibility anymore technically speaking.

Pulling out her mobile phone, she typed a text message, polite but firm to her sister in law, asking her to please kindly come to the house and collect her mother. Preferably before breakfast time. There was a spare key behind the wheelie bins.

It shouldn’t take more than an hour to drive over even in bad traffic. Not that she’d ever made the journey before.

Poppy turned her phone to silent, and pushed it and her hand deep into her pocket, feeling lighter, more alive, and started to walk, one foot in front of the other, toward Manchester.

 © Alex Townley 2019

Shared World · the project

Hello again

Hi there. Yes, we still exist.

We went dormant for a fair while, mainly because the Prompted Tales project came to its natural end at the end of 2016, but then over the Christmas break we had an idea for a new Prompted Tales spin off project, and we’re a little bit excited.

It’s called Shared World, and over the next month we’ll be sharing some more of the details with you, as well as inviting any short story writers interested in contributing to join us in our adventure for 2019.

world

December · finally · William's stories

Tim Enough at Last

By William Gallagher

A sequel, an update and maybe even a replacement for It’s About Tim, my first Prompted Tale from January.

TIM Lambast woke up like he was wrenching himself from sleep. An urgent drive forced him upright before he opened his eyes and then when he did, it was as if realisation caught up at the same speed. “Oh, sod this again,” he said, and fell back dodecember-williamwn.

He stared at the slanted ceiling just above him and he looked at its pristine new paint. Just about the last thing Dad had done around the house before he left. Tim reached out to the beside table, grabbed the marker pen he knew would be there, and then he wrote the number 37 onto the ceiling.

Tim threw the marker pen as far and as angrily as he could, knowing that the next time he woke up it would be right back there by the bed. Knowing that the next time he woke up, the ceiling would be pristine and the desk mirror would be clean and the door where he used to carve the count on would be unblemished.

The phone under his bed bleeped with a text message but he didn’t consciously hear it. The sound was just one more of the endless repeating details that he was stuck living through over and over.

Yet maybe something of that detail did register somewhere because now he found himself raising a finger and holding it poised like a conductor. “Annnnnnd cue Mum,” he said, smashing the finger down exactly as her voice called up the stairs telling him to hurry or he’d miss his exam.

He knew every movement, every word his mum was going to say. If he closed his eyes and bothered thinking about it, he could work out the movements of everybody. Pamela is next door, getting ready and coming to walk with him to school. She can whistle for that. Mr Brown the chemistry teacher is right now considering whether he’s got time before the exams for a second coffee in the café up the street.

He does. Every time through this day, though, he panics during the delay waiting for that second coffee to be made and hurriedly changes the order to a take out. He drives to school, sipping as he goes, and arrives in enough time that he could’ve just taken as long as he likes to finish it. But there’s a problem with either the Bobson twins in Year 9 or Mrs Hendry pretending she wants his help with her PC. It’s weird how there must be something Tim does that alters something he has no obvious connection with. He’d never spoken to the Bobson twins, he didn’t know Mrs Hendry until a few times through this loop. Yet something he does at some point makes the difference between who gets Mr Brown’s attention.

Tim doesn’t even know what happens to the twins or what they do. But he has seen that Mr Brown deals with it faster when it’s them than when it’s Mrs Hendry. Either way, he gets to the exam all in plenty of time to see Tim come in.

When Tim can be bothered to go to the exam hall.

Of course Tim had done the exam the first time through this day and once or twice he’d somehow been manoeuvred into it again. On the 17th and 27th times through it all he’d chosen to sit the exam out of sheer frustration at his inability to change any other outcome of the day.

The 27th time was actually fun. Again, it must be something he did that somehow cascaded on into making a significant change – why could he change all these things and not the one he wanted? – but the 27th was fun. Because of Pamela. Every time up to then she’d been concerned for him like a sister and patronising him like another sister. On his 27th go around, she seemed to share his new attitude to the exam. She seemed to realise that in the end the exam didn’t matter.

It was funny to think how much pressure he’d felt under the first time he’d sat it. Now there had been that one time when it was actually was fun and in the last few loops Tim had come to realise that he even enjoyed sitting the exam over and over. He could handle the exam now, he could do it. The exam made sense and it felt like the sole thing in his life that he could control.

What he cannot seem to control is that his mum dies today. And she has done, 36 times in a row.

It makes Tim angry that in all these times through the same day he has still not found out who her new boyfriend is. He’s tracked the man’s car by waiting ahead at each point in its route, seeing where it turns and then being there for the next go-around.

Still it happens. For the first 31 times, it looked like a car accident as she goes out with this man, whoever he is, and he drives them into a tree.

On the 32nd time, Tim gave up trying to delay his mum, trying to get his dad to come back, trying to divert this fancy car, and instead told her straight what was going on.

Before the end of that 32nd time around, his mum was calling someone for advice about mental issues in teenage boys and it turns out to be this new boyfriend. He’s not a doctor, he’s a PhD like Tim thinks Pamela’s dad is, but he knows something or knows someone, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that for the first time Tim is successful in stopping his mum going outside the house and getting into that car, getting into that accident. But still she dies.

For this boyfriend, presumably freaked by being told he was going to kill them both in a car crash, he chooses now to come to the house instead. Not to pick her up outside, not to have her admit to him that there is anything going on between these two. Instead he comes to kill her, Tim and himself.

The world went black for Tim on this 31st go around, it went black before he could even see the face of this man. Then when he woke up yet again at the start of the morning. The only differences were that he had drenched the bed in sweat and he now vomited onto the floor.

So the 33rd time was spent trying to get his mum away from the house while the 34th was getting out early and going to the police. Didn’t make a difference. Not enough of one anyway.

So for 35 and 36, Tim just stayed in his room, stayed on the bed, and let his mum go out, get in that car and be killed in what was apparently no accident at all.

He put his hands over his ears as his mum called louder. He stared up at the number 37 he’d written. Tim remembered now that he’d sat the exam on the 17th and 27th times, maybe it was something to do every ten times.

His mum was calling even louder now and for a moment he was back to being a normal teenager, back to before he got stuck repeating this day, for he forgot that he knew every syllable, every moment, every gust of wind in this day. He forgot that he knew everything and so he forgot that this was something new. He just yelled back “What?”

This was also new.

He could hear his mum talking but not what she was saying. Because she wasn’t talking to him, she wasn’t calling up the stairs.

Tim sat up and swung his legs to the floor. He sat on the side of the bed, trying to hear what was going on. And then as he got up, as he trod on the Coke can by the bed, there was a knock at his door.

“God, you’re a mess,” said Pamela. She was holding her revision folder against her chest. It was like a shield against the room’s smell of body odour and a long-forgotten curry.

“Er, do you want to come in?” asked Tim.

She gave the room a look and then gave him one too. “I think I might catch something. Anyway, I need us to work together now.”

“Oh, would you fucking forget the chemistry exam? That is truly, totally, absolutely the last thing on my mind.”

“Tim, concentrate. I’ve tried everything else I can think of to change today. If we work together, maybe we can finally put it right. Hang on.” Pamela paused for a moment and then turned around her revision folder. “I’ll lose count if I don’t make a note.” Then she wrote the number 11 on it. “Ready to save my dad’s life?”

© William Gallagher 2016

Damien's stories · December · finally

Where They Waited

A sequel to the January tale Where They Can Be Found

By Damien McKeating

MAYA looked up. The crumbling castle was a patch of darkness against the night sky. Stars above her twinkled and drifted downward, surrounding her in a glittering snowfall of light. She reached out and the movement of her hand sent them spiralling away. Where they touched the floor their light guttered and went out.

What would happen when all of the stars fell?

She knew the answer to that, of course. When the moon came out they would evaporate back into the sky and form new stars.

Behind her loomed the forest. The trees were dying and crumbled like wicked old men. Their straining branches reached for her but were too weak to hold her even if they could catch hold.

She could feel something watching her. She peered through the trees and saw it. A darkness. A nothing. Past a certain point there was no more forest, there was just nothing. A blackness that covered everything. Maya watched it creep forward, the trees vanishing into its embrace and disappearing forever.

The only way was forward, she remembered that much. You keep running and, if you’re clever enough, you never get caught.

She was wearing her old boots, the kind she’d worn for most of her young adult life. She’d danced in them, ran in them, even found the right man and gotten married in them.

Now she stomped up the steep path, over fallen debris, and up towards the castle. Its tower teetered precariously, ready to tumble.

Over her shoulder she saw the nothingness reach the edge of the forest. As she climbed higher she could see the world around her. There was nothing left. The castle was the last island in a void.

With the stars still falling around her Maya stood at the castle’s shattered gate.

“Hey!”

On the floor were two door knockers. They were the faces of beautiful women, cast in bronze, their necklaces designed to knock at the door.

“Help us! Take us with you!”

Their voices were lyrical. Maya remembered them; one always lied and one always told the truth. She used to know how to play that game.

She picked up the pieces of wood they were fixed to.

“What happened?” she asked.

“The soul of the princess is leaving and now the sky is falling down and soon the whole world will vanish,” said one.

“The king has killed his jester and now there is only night because laughter is the key to light,” said the other.

“Which one of you lies?” Maya frowned.

“She does,” they replied together.

“Useful,” Maya said.

“I am,” they both said.

“I used to know these games,” Maya said as she picked her way through the wrecked doorway.

“She did,” confirmed one of the door knockers.

“She didn’t,” confirmed the other.

Maya emerged into the courtyard and stood in front of a shattered fountain. Glistening coins had spilt from its shattered side, like blood from a fatal wound. They glittered amongst the star rain, forgotten wishes left to die.

She reached down, picked one up and went to put it into the pocket of her dress. With a laugh she realised she was wearing her wedding dress. She had thought about it when she thought of her boots and now there it was. The hem was stained with mud; they had been married in a field.

“We were in love,” she said.

“Everyone knew,” said one of the door knockers.

“Nobody believed it,” said the other.

“I still love him,” Maya said.

They didn’t reply.

Feeling the approaching nothingness at her back she ran into the castle’s ruined hall, the last of the falling stars pattering against her skin. She ran past shattered tables and chairs, over fallen masonry, and up the stairs.

You always ran up, she remembered. Up the highest mountain to see the dragon’s treasure; up the tallest tower to rescue the prince; up the biggest tree to see the raven queen.

She followed a spiralling staircase upwards. A door joined the staircase and she took a moment to look inside.

It was a child’s room. There was a crib, burnt black by fire, and on the floor lay scattered alphabet blocks. On a small white chair sat a knitted penguin, its flagging stuffing giving it a middle aged paunch.

“I met him,” Maya said. She picked the penguin up, turning it over in her hands. “I gave him away,” she looked at the crib. The soot from it hung in the air and she saw patches of her dress turn black.

“We shouldn’t be here,” one of the door knockers said.

“It’s better to see,” the other added.

Maya placed the penguin in the crib. There was a hollowness in her chest. For a moment she felt as empty as the nothingness creeping towards the castle. Drip by drip she felt sorrow and pain fill her up, sloshing around her insides. She wrapped her arms around her stomach.

“It wasn’t your fault,” one of the door knockers said.

“There was nothing you could do,” the other said.

“Be quiet now,” Maya said, her voice lower than a whisper.

She stumbled out of the room and further up the tower. There were tears on her cheeks and she wiped at them angrily. Tears had been important; that was something else she remembered. Tears could open the fairy’s grotto door. Tears could heal any wound they fell on. A mermaid’s tears would turn to diamonds in the light of summer’s first full moon.

Staggered by the weight of memories she fell to her knees on the stone stairs. Dozens of different lives overlapped in her mind and she had lived all of them.

Almost too tired to move she climbed the last turn in the tower and stared into the face of a badger.

“Princess Maya!” the badger cried.

The small badger rushed forward and embraced Maya in a hug.

“Gemma,” Maya remembered. She hugged the badger back. Gemma looked like she had always done, armoured and gruff but so passionate.

“Come and see them,” Gemma grabbed Maya’s hand and dragged her into the room at the top of the tower.

They burst through the door and two faces turned up to look at them. One was a kindly looking raven, his head tilted quizzically to one side. The other was a large moose, his antlers surely too big to fit through the doorway.

“Princess Maya!” the raven cried.

The moose licked her face.

“Clatterbeak,” Maya fell to her knees again and hugged the raven. “Melville,” she murmured to the moose as he nuzzled at her hair.

The four of them sat, holding onto each other in the bare room. Outside of a single window the stars were gone, the sky was black, and nothingness surrounded the lone tower.

“We waited for you,” Gemma said.

“You grew up,” Clatterbeak said.

“You grew old,” Gemma added.

“I…” Maya fumbled through her memories. “I meant to come back. I did.”

“You never said it was the last time,” Clatterbeak said.

“I never thought it was.”

“It’s the last time now,” Gemma said.

“No. Don’t say that,” Maya held onto them all.

“Princess; look,” Gemma slipped out of the embrace and pointed out of the window. “Everything is going away.”

Clatterbeak flapped feebly up onto the window ledge. “Soon there’ll be nothing left,” he said. “We’re the last.”

Maya stared out of the window and into the heart of nothing. She wanted to shrink away from it, she could feel her insides squirm at its vastness, but she made herself look. She clutched at the wish coin in her hand but wishes had no more power.

Melville nudged at the door knockers lying on the floor, making them wrinkle their noses in disgust.

“I’ll watch the stairs,” Gemma said. “It will be coming for us.”

“What happened to the Sun Knights?” Maya asked.

“All gone,” Clatterbeak said as Gemma left. “The sun doesn’t rise anymore.”

“The sun always rises,” Maya insisted. It was one of the things she knew. “What’s happening?”

“You’re dying,” said one of the door knockers, “and as your brain collapses the dream world is disappearing. Soon the nothingness will take you and you’ll be gone.”

“You’re dying,” said the other door knocker, “and as your brain collapses the dream world is disappearing. Soon the nothingness will take you and you’ll begin a new adventure.”

“Which one is telling the truth?” Clatterbeak asked Maya.

“I am,” both door knockers confirmed.

Maya looked at the door knockers lying on the floor and laughed. “I always assumed,” she said, “that one always told the truth and the other always lied. One of them told me that, but I don’t know which one.”

She stood next to Melville and rested her hand on the moose’s impressive flank. She felt his warmth and the steady rise and fall of his breathing. He looked at her like he had always done; full of eagerness and wonder, just waiting for her to lead.

“One last time,” she whispered into Melville’s ear.

He harrumphed gleefully as Maya climbed up onto his back. Clatterbeak hopped up behind her. Maya called Gemma back and offered out a hand to help the badger climb aboard.

“What are we doing?” Gemma asked.

“What we always used to do,” Maya replied. “We run.”

“There’s nowhere to go, princess,” Gemma explained.

“No,” Maya shook her head. “We’re running the way we always did; forward.”

“But we don’t know what will happen,” Clatterbeak cried.

“We never did,” Maya said as Melville crept through the doorway, his hooves clattering on the stones. “When we were lost in the satyr’s maze we didn’t know what would happen. When we went to find the clogs of127 wishes we didn’t know what would happen. When we sailed the cloud sea to the hatching grounds of the moon dolphins we didn’t know what would happen.”

Maya stared ahead of them. At a curve in the stairs she could see the nothingness edging towards them.

“Hold on tight,” she told them. “I don’t know what’s coming next but it better be ready for us because we’re going to be moving really fast.”

She gave a joyous cry and Melville charged forward. Clatterbeak cawed, Gemma bellowed and Maya, in that glorious moment before they ran into the nothingness and to whatever came next, remembered what it was to be young and to dream… impossible dreams… but true dreams, nevertheless.

© Damien McKeating 2016

 

 

Dan's stories · December · finally

The Story

By Dan Seavers

THE End.

He lifted his hands from the typewriter and spooled up the paper to re-read what he had written. Finally, finally, he had finished his story. It had taken, well, now that he came to think about it, he couldn’t remember how long he’d been working on it. Months maybe?   Years? It seemed a lifetime ago when he’d first sat down at his desk to write.

And then he’d lost himself. The rhythmic clack of the keys had lulled him into a daydream, and his mind had roamed to all sorts of places. Now that he was finished, he felt himself awakening, as if for the first time. He felt confused, like he didn’t really belong in his body anymore.

He looked down at his hands. At least, he thought they were his. He couldn’t remember them being so thin and bony, the hairs on his knuckles greying. And they ached so much.  How long had that been?

He rubbed his hand across his chin and found a thick, matted beard there. Yet, he had shaved every day. At least, he used too. Had he been so focused on his story so long that it had slipped his mind?

He lifted himself from his chair. His knees were stiff, and his back cracked as he stood. He shuffled to the bathroom.

And he found a stranger looking back at him from the mirror. It was him, for certain. He could see his steel blue eyes, but they were heavy and ringed by blackened bags. His face was valleyed with wrinkles, and his beard, his long grey beard, looked unshaven for months. If not years.

He returned to his study and peered at the typewriter. It was hard. His sight wasn’t as it used to be. Or his hearing. He thought at the edge of hearing he could hear a whisper calling him.

He was almost certain it was the typewriter talking.

But no. That was foolish. He was still a little dazed. A little dreamy, surely. He just needed to step outside for five. Or nip into town. Maybe call a friend and have a chat. Something to escape his own thoughts for a minute. He’d been alone for some time, and it must have got to him.

Yet, he wasn’t sure he could make it downstairs. And he couldn’t remember where the town was. And the only friends he could think of, he was pretty sure were dead.

And anyway, his chair looked so inviting. And his legs did ache so much.

So he sat back at his desk.

He looked at the typewriter. It was its fault, he was sure.

“I’ve put my life into that story,” he said. His voice was coarse and dry, unused for so long.

Imagine that, he thought. A magic typewriter. No, wait, a cursed typewriter. One that takes your soul and uses it to feed the story you’re writing. Where you sit down at your desk as a young man, and finish old and drained. Unable to escape until your story was finished.

He laughed. What a ridiculous idea. It couldn’t be true.

Though it could make for an interesting tale, at least.

He pulled himself up to the desk and lined up a fresh sheet of paper. Then he started writing again.

And he was alone once more with the clacking of keys, and the typewriter whispering happily into his ear.

© Dan Seavers 2016