Entries in the adult category in our new writing competition
STRANGE ENCOUNTER by Malcolm Linfield
Dappled light gently flickered across rows of white stones standing to attention in the fading autumn sunlight; military precision at its finest, each and every one in commemoration of a life bravely given. A gentle breeze kissed the white marble in eternal tribute to the young men who had given up everything. So many futures gone, so many hopes and ambitions turned to dust. The Great War ‘to end all wars’ had failed miserably.
The reason for my visit was to find my uncle’s grave. I had never known him, of course, except through the stories told by my grandmother. She never gave up hope that he would return one day. Even when they eventually found his body - months after his death - she refused to believe it. ‘He may have been captured - you know, a POW - still in Germany somewhere. He could have lost his memory, poor boy. He’ll be back soon, you wait and see . . .’
But of course, he never came back and she could never be persuaded it was time to let go. She kept a framed picture of him by her bedside - an attractive face, grinning at the camera in his new uniform, containing a pressed flower he had picked for her near the trenches in spring. Naïve, of course, like they all were at the beginning. She remembered his excitement, and the words he had used. It was going to be a ‘huge adventure,’ and he ‘must join up before it’s all over.’ And, most poignant of all, ‘we’ll all be home by Christmas,’ phrases which must have been heard thousands of times across the country. Little did they know . . .
Eventually, I found the row where Uncle Harry was buried. I slowly ambled down, taking in every inscription, all faceless names lost in the anonymity of time. At least I would be able to put a face to Uncle Harry, even if it was the sepia toned image of saintliness created by my grandmother. But she had every right to think of him that way – at least it helped her to deal with her tragic loss.
There was an unbroken line of stones dated 9th May 1915, and then I found Uncle Harry. I could hear my heart beating as I read the inscription: G/129X Private H.D. Cartwright/Royal Sussex Regiment/9th May 1915. At the bottom was an unexpected inscription, added by my grandparents:
Dear Harry, Never Forgotten, Your Loving Mother and Father
It was a moving experience to see those words carved in stone. Lost in thought, I was suddenly aware of someone standing next to me. A ruddy faced gentleman with bushy brown whiskers and military precision moustache put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It was a terrible show, that one. Poor lads didn’t stand a chance. They were literally mowed to the ground, many were shot before they even got over the parapet.’
‘Really,’ I replied. ‘I knew it was bad from what my grandmother said, but she never gave any detail and I didn’t want to upset her by asking. Actually, I’m not really sure she knew that much anyway.’
‘Probably didn’t to be fair. There was a massive cover-up because the authorities thought it would be bad for morale.’
‘What else do you know?’ I asked the stranger. ‘I’m really interested in finding out what happened.’ I pointed at Uncle Harry’s grave. ‘This soldier, Harry Cartwright, was my uncle.’
‘I know,’ he said, which rather surprised me. ‘Well, let me see. Royal Sussex Regiment. If I’m not mistaken, your uncle was in the 2nd battalion in the front trench. They were supported by their brothers in the 5th immediately behind in the first support trench. They were facing the Hun on the Aubers Ridge, a slightly raised plateau immediately in front of them, which gave the Germans a strategic view of the British front. So it was regarded as an important target.’
‘The problem for the British Army was a dire shortage of heavy artillery and munitions. So they only bombarded the enemy lines for around 40 minutes prior to ‘going over the top’. Although it felt to our boys as though nothing could have survived such a barrage, it was absurdly short and made little impact. But the troops expected a walkover. The bombardment was supposed to cut through the barbed wire protecting the German trenches and to severely damage them. But it achieved nothing. The area was defended by hidden machine gun emplacements every 20 yards, enabling every square inch of ground to be covered.’
‘So as soon as Harry and his comrades climbed over the parapet, they were slaughtered by enfilade machine gun fire. The few soldiers who made it to the German trenches found the wire uncut, and could go no further. It was an absolute nightmare. Harry was shot down immediately at the beginning of the attack, as soon as he began charging with his comrades.’
‘But how can you know all this?’ I asked.
‘Well, sadly, it is fairly obvious. The British attack totally failed, no ground was gained at all. Most of the fallen had to be left in No-man’s land because their bodies could not be retrieved. It was too dangerous. Only bodies near the parapet were eventually recovered because they were close to the front line. Harry was among them. It still took some 4 months before they found him and the several others who now rest in this cemetery.’
‘How did they know it was him?’
‘Each man had to wear an identity tag with their service number on it. They were ordered to make a second attack later in the day, equally futile. Pity the survivors, waiting to crawl back after nightfall, who were then bombed by their own artillery falling short of its intended target.’
‘How awful!’ I replied. ‘Surely something must have been achieved that day. I can’t believe it was all for nothing?’
‘Well, militarily it was a waste of time. I suppose it provided some distraction which helped the French in their simultaneous attacks further south. However, although they tried to cover it up, it eventually caused a scandal which brought down the government. The fact that our boys weren’t being provided with the weapons they needed was dynamite. They were being asked to do the impossible. The disaster at Aubers Ridge was a catalyst for change. Lloyd George was made Minister of Munitions, and everything was gradually put right.’
‘Thank God, I do feel slightly better for knowing that it hadn’t all been in vain. Well, thank you so much for all the information - it has been most enlightening. Are you often here at the cemetery?’ I asked.
‘Certainly am, spend much of my time here. Know the place like the back of my hand you see, like to help visitors find their loved ones.’
‘So where were you then?’ I asked my guide, anxious to find out how he knew so much.
‘Oh, the Spanish Civil War? That was later, of course.’
‘Something like that. But we ended up near here .’
I was intrigued. ‘Where exactly?’
‘It was so long ago. Various places: Ligny, Quatre Bras’, he hesitated, ‘. . . I was in the Royal Engineers. The final battle was very nasty, thousands slaughtered, but me and my mate were captured by the Frenchies, hostages I suppose, and they dragged us back here as they tried to get away. Thought if they took hostages, it would secure their escape. Then they wanted to kill us . . .’
‘Which battle was that, then?’ I asked, intrigued by his story.
He hesitated, almost whispering, ‘. . . Waterloo,’ came the astonishing answer.
‘What? But . . . that’s impossible, you’re talking nonsense!’
A cold gust of wind blew. I turned to face him, but there was nothing . . . he had vanished into thin air. A shiver went down my spine . . . I soon wondered whether I had imagined the whole thing, but determined to put it out of my mind. Probably just a weird sense of humour, though hardly really appropriate . . .
I decided to finish off the row. Dates changed, moving slightly forward in time, a chronological order of death and sacrifice. Finally, I came to the very last stone:
In Respectful Memory/ An Unknown Soldier/ of /the Napoleonic Wars/ who was discovered here/ during the construction/ of this cemetery/May he rest in peace/ and act as Guardian/ of this hallowed place/ in perpetuity/18th June 1915
I felt uneasy and craved the warmth of some human company. A shadow flickered into the distance, and I shouted to attract attention, but it disappeared into the twilight. It was getting late, and with the light now fading rapidly, it was time to go. I needed to get away from this place of sadness and death . . . and, most of all, from the strange encounter I had experienced.
Now, where did I come in? I started to panic and run back down the row, desperate to find the entrance . . . Someone was following me . . .
The Last Dragon-Slayer
By Yolanda Herdman
For Christina and Lewiz
Once, there was a village nestled in the foothills of some mountains of a country far from here. It was spring time so the children of the village were allowed to play in the fields above the village with the sheep and goats. There were a girl and a boy, no more than ten, who were flying a kite in the mountain breeze.
Their story is set in olden times, when the old people still told tales about dragons coming to the village and destroying the huts, carrying off the people inside to who knew where for a purpose no-one knew (though they thought they probably ate them, or so the old folks said in gory detail). Either way, the children of our story didn’t believe in dragons because nobody they knew had ever seen a dragon (or a mermaid, or the tooth fairy, or the Œstra hare). So you see, the children frolicking in the field had no idea that their lives were about to be ruined.
Yelena and Gant were exhausted from running up hill with the kite and had collapsed in the long grass. They were virtually invisible amongst the colourful range of spring flowers that smelled sweet as they drew in big lungfuls of mountain air. The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, so it was a great surprise when it was suddenly blocked by a large shadow. The long shadow twisted along the valley to the village and the owner of the shadow glimmered as it glided effortlessly through the air. It had massive wings and was long, not fat as old grandma Baines had once said in her story. It was as scaly as they had been told; yellow and green too, with huge talons and a distinct smell of bad eggs. Just as the two children realised that it was a dragon, the village was engulfed in a blast of fiery breath.
“Papa!” cried Yelena in dismay as they sat up.
“Mama!” yelled Gant. Their hearts in their mouths, they ran towards home. Everyone else was running away, only these two were more concerned about who they loved than the peril they were facing.
The dragon turned this way and that, beating its powerful wings hard in ever tighter circles whilst the braver of the villagers were throwing every sharp object imaginable at it. Suddenly it swung back towards the running children and flew towards them, spades, spears, knives and swords flying off in all directions.
Yelena, who had seen the danger of being spotted by the dragon, managed to get hold of Gant and the two tumbled to the ground.
“Hide!” she hissed. They were hidden in the long grass and virtually invisible as the long stranger glided up to the mountains on the spring thermal. Both breathed out a sigh of relief that the beast had missed them. They spent a few minutes more collecting their thoughts and checking the air before going onwards to the pile of rubble they once called home.
There were many burned people amongst the rubble and one of the oldest ladies was desperately trying to help them. The children were most concerned with finding their families and searched amongst the rubble of their homes. There was no trace of anyone inside but others were coming back now. Yelena’s father came back with some of the women of the village who had been foraging for fruit and seeds.
“Papa!” she squeaked excitedly and ran to him with open arms. She was so relieved to see him but then she started shaking and crying. To hug someone you love when you thought they were dead is the best treat the world. There was still no sign of Gant’s mother and his search turned frantic when he saw people being re-united. The villagers slowly found each other, some injured, some frantic with worry, some crying over lost things and the wise woman struggled on, muttering to herself. Yelena stayed with the old lady, pounding herbs for dressing the burns while her father and the villagers started a search for Gant’s mother.
Yelena and the old lady worked all day, gathering healing herbs and dried stalks, pounding the herbs, cleaning the wounds with wine, juice from the healing plant and vinegar, placing the herb poultices on the wounds and binding them with stalks, woven together. When every burn had been treated, the people built a fire and cooked some food. Those villagers who were able to work built temporary shelters from blankets and everything not burned by the dragon’s visit.
Gant and Yelena’s father split the rest of the villagers into search parties that went off in all directions, calling out as they went. They had been searching all day and eventually came to a high mountain valley, where there were two mounds that looked as if they could be person-sized rocks. Yelena’s father called out a signal that sounded like a yodel. The response came back as Gant studied the two. They were indeed people, burned badly and broken in other ways. Gant cried and cried, for one was his mother, still breathing, and one was his uncle, who was not. His salt tears washed his mother’s wounds as the searchers helped. His uncle was laid to rest under a pile of stones to keep the mountain beasts away.
The last rays of the sun were dying away as the search party returned. They carried the wounded woman between them using cloaks and walking sticks. The injured villagers had helped Yelena to build a fire and cook some roots and herbs in the largest pot. There was enough to sustain them through the night and the old woman was able to dress Gant’s mother’s wounds as they ate.
Gant came to sit with Yelena and as they were eating he said,
“I hate the dragon. I will kill the dragon!”
“I will come with you to help you. I will heal your wounds when it breathes fire on you” returned Yelena. Some of the villagers were laughing, some were shouting, they all agreed,
“You cannot kill the dragon!”
The old woman muttered to Yelena,
“You cannot kill the dragon with a sword or a spear. See how the sharp things are all around us still? They did not kill the dragon. The dragon can only be killed another way”. Yelena understood. The old woman knew much and had seen more than all the other villagers. She had shown Yelena many things in the past few hours, healing things, not destructive things.
“How?” she asked.
The old woman told her the old legends, of a stone that was made from precious rock that came from the same place as the dragon, a stone that could change to light by taking the warmth from the heart of the dragon. She told of the high mountains to the east where both had been forged, the old myths about women who could bring life to the world and take the soul from a body, passing it safely onward. She told of the people who would help her find the stone, about their long necks, dragon-coloured skin and strange habits. These were old stories and there was no real detail for the children to follow.
“How can I stop fire burning?” asked Gant. The old woman held up her blanket.
“Must be sheep’s wool;” she muttered, adding “close weave”.
“We must find them;” said Yelena, adding “they will help us”.
And so, after a day or two to gather things for a long journey, two children left a blanket tent in the midst of burnt rubble, heading in the same direction as the swift, silent and deadly beast of the air. Many of the villagers walked with them for a day, two for another day but by the third day of walking, they were alone in the mountains. Deciding which way to go was hard for them at first but when they remembered how the dragon had glided silently towards the village they knew. They thought about kites, about uplift and thermals, about wind speeds and scorched earth and they found their way. There were people along their route who gave them food, water and shelter in exchange for stories and healing herbs. Language was becoming harder and harder the further they went, after twenty days the only word that people recognised was ‘dragon’. Still they walked on, sheltering where they could, learning skills and new stories as they went.
Much time passed and shoes wore out, as did clothes and blankets. They had run out of mountains and crossed a vast plain and three rivers, before once again climbing up into mountains. The healing herbs did not grow here; neither did familiar roots and berries. With the help of the local people, they learned to hunt different beasts; what berries, roots and nuts were safe to eat and how to protect vital organs from dragons. The children were still young and adaptable so, even though it was much harder, they learned to communicate with these new people. They learned new skills to replace worn-out stuff. Once they had learned the language, they heard many more stories about dragons; about their fiery breath coming from the flames of the campfires, not from their bellies, about their impenetrable hides, about their fondness for a certain type of lizard as food
Finally, the smell of the dragons grew stronger. The mountains trembled from the liquid fire within, the air was thick and too hot for the snow, which evaporated as it fell. The earth itself was pock-marked stone and ash; orange, brown and black with the occasional yellow patch of stinking sulphur. Gant was excited, running up the mountains and searching amongst the tunnels for signs of dragons. Yelena moved quickly over the hot ground, knowing that there was too much heat for normal life to exist. Gant found something and called to Yelena. In a long tunnel there was a steaming lake, heady with the stink of sulphur. Beside the lake was a set of round objects, not quite egg shaped but with a distinct point. As they looked further in, they could see a batch of round eggs, hatched many years ago.
“They are dragon eggs!” squeaked Gant at the top of his lungs, sound echoing through the tunnel, magnifying as it went
“We can’t be sure” said Yelena as calmly as possible, thinking that they looked a bit like turtle eggs from the country they had passed through about a year ago.
Gant smashed one with the hilt of his sword. Inside, there was indeed a tiny, hand-sized dragon, nearly ready to hatch. Just as Yelena was starting to think it was quite cute really, Gant smashed it to pieces with his sword. Yelena watched sadly as he smashed every unborn dragon to pieces. He was frenzied in his attack and Yelena knew that he was unstoppable. She suddenly had an urge to protect them though she knew in her heart that if a dragon grew to the size of the one that had attacked their village, the people of the world would suffer greatly.
A great flapping of heavy wings drew their attention back to the outside of the tunnel. Yellow and green reflected from the surface of the water in the cave and Gant, still in frenzy, wrapped his new wool blanket around him and rushed out to meet the beast. Yelena followed, forgetting ideas of saving hatchlings, determined now to protect Gant against the monster. Gant managed to hit the belly of the dragon as it lunged, snapped and flapped at him. The beast knocked him sideways several times, chasing after him and ignoring Yelena, who remained as close to Gant as she could be, knife in hand and wrapped tightly in her blanket. Gant inflicted as many bruises as he received in blows from wings and tail but the fight came to an abrupt end when the behemoth burped. The noxious gas came over the pair and knocked both to the ground, putting them into a death-like sleep.
There had been no fire or death; the dragon had not eaten them. They awoke on hot ground near the volcano’s mouth. Their bruises were extreme but they must have been carried here. Yelena thought about being carried in the dragon’s mouth but it seemed so unlikely. The two had a long discussion about what had happened. They could not agree on anything.
Gant said “The dragon tried to kill me”
Yelena said “We’re not dead, so that can’t be true”
Gant Said “It was attacking us”
Yelena said “It was defending the babies; it only attacked you because you had just smashed them”
Gant said “I miss my mum”
Yelena said “Come and find the special stone and the people with the long necks first. Let us learn how to defeat the dragon”
Gant said “No! I’m going home!”
Yelena was saddened by this. She said “Let me treat your wounds first”
“No!” yelled Gant and twisted away from Yelena. “I can do it myself!”
Yelena knew that there was no reasoning with him. He had not calmed down enough yet and would not be at ease until he saw the village again. She saw that he had been robbed of his reason by this long quest and could not rest until the dragon was destroyed. Without a word, she left him there. Without looking back, he ran towards home.
Battered and bruised, weak from the fight, the two went in opposite directions.
Gant found signs of destruction and was determined to travel back home to protect his family. He never managed to catch up with the dragon but went home and stayed there, knowing that he could not kill the dragon.
Yelena found the people with the long necks, who lived further on, surrounded by the skeletons of dead dragons. When she had learned yet another language and helped to tend the sick, they helped her to find a stone, yellow with sulphur, the shape and weight of a dragon’s egg. They taught her to say the magic that would destroy the dragon. They taught her all the magic they knew and she taught them everything she knew about herbs and healing.
She went back home too, eventually. It took years to get there, she stopped with the peoples she had met along the way to tell them new stories and ask about dragon sightings. Sure enough, the dragon had passed through and she realised it had been heading towards her home. She might be too late to save the village from the dragon’s revenge.
The day she arrived in the valley near the village, the dragon came and destroyed all the huts that had been rebuilt. Thankfully, she could see the villagers stamping out fires as she and the dragon approached. She wanted desperately to go to the village and greet her father but the dragon was already overhead.
Yelena found an outcrop of rock that she could stand on, attached the stone to her walking staff and yelled at the beast to get its attention, waving the staff in the air. She uttered the start of the spell, drifting into a trance. Her pounding heart calmed to a slow, deep thump and her skin turned white as the snowy mountain peaks. The dragon turned and came back up the mountain towards her, villagers with sharp objects running after it.
The incantation took hold of her and the stone glowed, drawing the dragon onward. It landed clumsily in front of her, growing weaker as the stone glowed more ferociously. It curled its tail around, like a dog curling near a fire. Gant carried on running, the others came more cautiously. The dragon was mesmerised by the stone and the incantation, fascinated by the thing that looked like its own egg but was sucking the life from it. The monster’s breath was heavy and laboured, the energy draining from it, one last bellow came from its enormous mouth and, at long last, it died.
Yelena was weak, close to death herself. That was the dreadful secret, that the stone dragged the life out of the enchanter and the enchanted. This was it, the end of the adventure. Gant threw his blanket over the stone and hurled it as far away from Yelena as possible. He held her in his arms whispering “Sorry” over and over again. She was surrounded by everyone from the village who had not been injured by the second attack in a generation.
“Papa?” she asked.
“Here” he said as he helped lift her up. Everyone looked older, especially Gant who had turned from a boy into a man. Everyone offered her seeds and nuts, whatever they were carrying.
“What’s this?” she asked, taking hold of a woollen garment worn by her father over his hands.
“Gauntlet,” said her father, “made by Gant. Heat proof, fire proof, dragon proof!”
“You killed the last dragon” said Gant, accusingly.
“We found eggs, there might be more” replied Yelena, deeply hurt by his tone.
“You are the last dragon slayer” he said softly.
She knew that she had taken his dream of revenge away. She also knew that he would never have killed the dragon with a sword and that only magic could end them forever. Was this the end of the species?
“I will wait” she said, recovering slightly from the ordeal. She stood up tall. “Pass me my staff;” she commanded “I will be here if another comes.”
The people she loved did as she asked, gave her the staff and glowing orb. She stood on the rocky outcrop and muttered another incantation. The villagers watched in horror as she slowly turned to stone.
She waits there still, a stone statue, staff in hand, in the foothills of a mountain range, far away from here.
Long Weekend in France by Julia Macfarlane
Hallo, old chap, I take it you’re my new neighbour, what? Nice bit of tarp you have there. I’d suggest angling it south by southwest, wind gets up in the evening from that direction. Somali, are you? Yes, lots of you lot at Calais. Not expecting to stay long myself. Fact is, didn’t think I’d be here this long, to be honest. Yes, yes, I am British, but no passport, you know how it is, what?
Long story, long story. Fancy a drink? Here, bottle in this bag, have to rough it, no glasses, ha-ha-ha, not exactly the Ritz, is it, eh? Still, used to roughing it, used to be a mountaineer, you know, back in the day. Yes, wouldn’t guess it now, what? That was the life. The stories I could tell, eh? Once, halfway down from Kilimanjaro, we were taken by this multi-millionaire type into a base camp he’d set up, full of young lovelies. We wanted for nothing – drugs, drinks, couldn’t have told my backside from my elbow most days. We stayed there for weeks, ha, ha, told ourselves it was the only way to recover from a mountain trek. ‘Course, thinking back, that was the start of this trouble, I suppose…..
Well, good a place to start the story as any. You following this, eh? Another swig of the bottle, wet the throat, what? So, yes, Kilimanjaro…. I was a young academic back then as my day job, head of English literature at a minor public school. Newly married to a pretty young gel; smart as paint she was, had a way of tilting her head when she caught me out that thrilled me to the soles of my feet. But, you know how it is, thrill of the chase and all – once you’ve bagged the fox, well, you start looking for the next thrill, eh, what? So, offered a chance to climb Kilimanjaro during the summer hols and jumped at the chance. Told young Daisy she could come with us, have herself a nice little break at the bottom then we’d visit the Serengeti National Park as a late honeymoon – eight days to the top and back was the plan. Left her in a small hotel in Moshi with another wifie and set off. ‘Course, as I said, blinkin’ Dickie, yes, that was the guy’s name, Dickie, had laid on his surprise on the way down. By the time I made it back to Moshi, wife gone, left me with no money, nothing. Took it as a sign, escape clause, what? –met up with another bod and set off around world on this guy’s yacht. God, things we got up to – make your hair curl, young man, if it wasn’t so – harrumph – curly already, what?
Anyway, eventually, couple of years later, back to Blighty, dropped off from yacht – may have overstayed my welcome, looking back, ha, ha – developed a bit of a routine with the whisky and the old marching powder, what, hey? Knew no point going back to my old job so started living rough around Sussex and Kent area –bit of begging when I needed money for the old baccie and what not but hey-ho, simple life suited me. Lasted for years like that.
But then got a hankering to see bright spots of Paris, don’t ask me why, just did, may have been the bottle of Ricard I’d drunk the night before, found it in the hedge, don’t you know – left by the green fairy, what? Ha, ha – oh, lost on you, eh? So hitched a lift to Dover, shared a lorry cab, and made it across with hardly a bat of the eyelid from the customs people – didn’t even have to pay my fare. Thought it would be as easy back after a few days. But, as you can see, no, here I am, in tent city with you lot. Easier to escape Colditz than cross back into Blighty, what?
Anyway, there I am in Paris, sleeping by the Eiffel Tower, when the French police woke me up. Bit rough, the old gendarmes, makes you realise the worth of the British bobby, eh? Arrested me, would you believe? Well, I know my rights, insisted I be taken to the British Embassy. So they did, threw me in the old Black Maria and dropped me off at gates of the embassy. Soldiers out front wanted to give me back but French chappies insisted they take me in so I was escorted into a holding pen, a prison cell affair in the basement and told to wait. Knew there’d be a cup of tea, always is, in these places. Spent the odd night in a cell back home now and again – when I’ve been enjoying myself too much, eh? Bet you have too, eh, what – no – oh, well. Anyway, eventually, young flunky came in, a little perfumed mummy’s boy – with a form to complete, while he held his hankie to his nose. Told him my name, date of birth, said I’d lost my passport, (I’m not stupid), and needed embassy help to get home again.
“Where’s home, sir?” he asked.
“Middle of a wood in Sussex,” I told him. “Ha, ha, no postcode for that, is there?”
He went away and came back, looking quite irritated. “Are you sure your name is Roger Fylingham–Smythe, sir?”
“Course it is. Think I don’t know my own name, you fool!”
“Are you absolutely sure, sir?”
“Yes, blast you!” I said.
“A moment, sir,” he said and went away.
Didn’t know what the heck was going on, I can tell you, but ready for a snifter, I knew that. Where was bally Embassy hospitality? Anyway, young man came back with two plain clothes security types. Hello, I thought, things are moving now. They escorted me to a better room, carpet, chandelier, and a rather plump middle-aged woman came in. Knew the type straight away, corseted up in tweed, face like she’s eating lemons, hair like a helmet. She came very close to me, looked me over like she was a judge at Cruft’s, finally took her hand from her nose and said to the flunky. “I can’t talk to him in this state. Have him washed, clean clothes, shaved - and cut that cowpat thing out of his hair.” I reacted with anger to this, my hair, young man, may have been slightly longer than regulations allow, and not seen a comb for a few years but really! No use, security guys lifted me up by the arms, and had me sheared and dipped like I was a Downlands lamb. Couldn’t complain too much as new clothes were a bonus I hadn’t expected - yes, m’lad, these clothes were a lot cleaner then – good quality, what?
Then I was shown back into m’lady’s throne room. The two security guys positioned themselves either side of the chair that they pushed me into; she sat opposite me and behind a huge desk with a screen in front of her. She clicked away then looked hard at me over her glasses, holding my glance for several seconds. She put her hand to her mouth, then sighed deeply, as if girding herself for a difficult conversation. Bring it on, I thought, no tight-laced battleaxe is going to scare me, no sirrah!
“Roger Fylingham-Smythe.” she said, slowly, spacing out each word. “And how did you come by that name?”
“Born with it.”
“And how did you - lose – this… passport for Roger Fylingham-Smythe?”
“My passport,” I asserted. “Don’t know, ma’am, woke up, it was gone.”
At this, her eyes narrowed; don’t mind saying I was at a complete loss as to why this harridan was so suspicious of what I was saying – presumed it was a psychological game. She rose from her seat, fingertips splayed on the desk and leaned her (considerable) weight forward. The two security guards each laid a heavy hand on my shoulder to keep me still.
“You,” she hissed, “cannot be Roger Fylingham-Smythe. Because,” she said, “Roger Fylingham Smythe was declared dead nearly 20 years ago.”
“Rubbish, woman! I’m here, right in front of you.”
“So how do you explain his having died in Tanzania on a mountain expedition in 1995?”
“But I didn’t,” I said, “I’m here, alive. As you can see. “
“I know for a fact you cannot be Roger Fylingham-Smythe,” she smiled a sad, pitying smile at me, and shook her head.
“I can prove that I am!”
“Please do. Perhaps you can explain how you rose, Lazarus-like, from your grave in Tanzania.” She gave a little humourless laugh. “I am all ears.”
So I told her the story I told you. Her face hardened during the telling and when I got to the point where I was back in England, she interrupted me. “You never thought to look for your wife? To let her know you were alive? To see how she was doing?”
I shook my head. “No good going over old ground,” I said. “Life I’d chosen wasn’t the life for a young filly like her. Tell the truth, I’d almost forgotten about her by that point.”
“Had you?” Her voice was high with incredulity. “Did you not think that she might have to live some sad half life grieving for her husband, waiting for news, having him declared dead after nine years of waiting, nine years before she could build her life again, finally being able to remarry. Did you not think of that ever?”
Thought the old bag was taking it a bit personal, I can tell you, and couldn’t help but notice that the grip of the two guys on my shoulders was getting harder as her speech went on.
She suddenly sat back down and fluttered her hand at me. “You are not Roger Fylingham-Smythe.”
“Good grief, woman,” I cried out. “Find this poor wife, then, she’ll confirm it’s me.”
Her eyes widened and again she rose up, pushing her face very close to mine.
“I know,” she whispered and her spit flecked my face, “I know you can’t possibly be Roger Fylingham-Smythe because I” she stopped and grimaced at me in a very strange way, I can tell you, as if she was choosing her words carefully. “I knew Roger ….and his wife – very well, as it happens. I think I - of all people - would recognise him, even after all these years.”
And she cocked her head and I knew the game was up. I most certainly had not recognised in her the slim young thing I had deserted in Moshi all those years ago.
“Get him out of here,” she said and turned away from me to click her keyboard with her painted nails.
And they did and here I am. Funny old life, eh, what?
MISSING by Gill Day
He ought to be home by now. This is all Mum and Dad’s fault, they should never have gone without us. How come I was left in charge anyway? I can’t be responsible (how they love that word) for him and me? I told him to take his mobile. If only I’d got around to showing him how to use it properly. Too late now.
Maybe my watch is wrong? Now I’m being ridiculous, it’s the same as the hall clock. Exactly eight forty two. They can’t both be wrong. He swore he’d be home by half past eight. Mum just laughs when he gets up to mischief but when it’s me, that’s a different story.
At least I don’t have to cook tonight. Having to do the dinner every evening is such a pain. No wonder Mum says she’s tired. Dad’s always going on at me to make more of an effort. Anyone would think I was lazy. I do have a life.
I know. I’ll count to ten. Go up the stairs in slow motion. Walk backwards into his room. By the time I get to the window he’ll be coming down the road.
It’s hard to imagine someone like him having such a messy bedroom. I keep my room a hundred times tidier. According to him, everything in here is absolutely vital. A load of old rubbish as far as I can see. Boring magazines on computers and model aeroplanes. They must go back years. I can’t understand why Mum doesn’t freak out. She would if it was me. His photos are okay though. I like them. And the posters.
What time is it now? Nearly nine. Where on earth is he? He’s old enough to know better. Best turn off the light, it’ll be easier to see out of the window.
Yuk. I must remember to tell her these nets need washing. Who’s that? Oh, no. Emily. What’s she doing with Zach? She knows how much I fancied him. I don’t believe it. They’re actually kissing! Some friend she’s turned out to be. And I lent her my best top for her so-called dream date.
For goodness sake, where is he? I distinctly remember Mum, even Dad, telling him to keep an eye on me. It’s me who should be keeping an eye on him. They obviously weren’t that bothered, or they wouldn’t have abandoned us. First holiday on their own for ‘donkey’s years’, whatever that means. Sounds boring to me.
They don’t care about what I want. ‘You’re only fifteen, Sarah.’ (as if I didn’t know) ‘You’re too young for…’ whatever. Only when it suits, though. Otherwise it’s, ‘You’re fifteen now, time to accept some responsibility’ and ‘You need to start thinking about your future.’ What about today? That’s what I want to know.
They wouldn’t listen to reason. Even when I said they needn’t pay me for being a housekeeper for a week. Surely a party, without them hanging around, wasn’t too much to ask.
I better text them. And tell them what? He’s gone missing. Better not. Dad will only remind me again it’s their first holiday since forever and to use my initiative.
What’s the time? Five past nine. I must teach him how to text. He’ll have no excuse then. Might as well go and watch a bit of telly. He’s bound to turn up soon.
“At least I can watch something I like for a change.”
Good job my friends can’t see me. Watching the box and talking to myself, while my so-called best friend is out with the boy I used to love. How sad is that? She’s welcome to him. Who wants to kiss a boy with smelly breath anyway? I could have told her if she hadn’t been so secretive.
I’ll have a flick round.
“What?” That’s his favourite computer games programme. Something must be wrong. Oh, no, it’s after half past nine. Something really must have happened to him.
“What shall I do?” Give him a bit more time. But if it has… No, of course it hasn’t.
How can he be such a pain one minute and sort of cool the next? That night when I couldn’t sleep, what was that all about? Oh, yes. I’d just split up with my first boyfriend. Whatsisname? For some reason Emily and I had rowed about it. I went down for a drink and there he was in the kitchen.
“Let’s make some popcorn,” he’d said.
Good job Mum never caught us. She’d have gone ballistic. The hot chocolate and biscuit nights are good as well. Mum never catches us. Doesn’t seem to notice the mess in the mornings. Weird.
Is that our front gate squeaking? Footsteps? Yes. Definitely footsteps. Please don’t let it be the police. How am I going to tell Mum he’s had an accident? Or worse. I’m not going to cry. I don’t want them to think I’m only a kid.
“Okay, I’m coming! Knock the door down, why don’t you? Hell!” Good job Dad’s not here. He’d have a real go at me for dropping the handset.
“Ssh – sugar!” Now I’ve broken my toe on the stupid coffee table.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me. Who do you think it is?”
“Where have you been?” It must be relief making my hands shake. Hope he doesn’t notice.
“Ah, yes, well, had to do a bit of a detour.” He chuckles. “Fish and chips are piping hot. Have you put the plates in the oven to warm? What are you doing standing there, hands on hips? You look just like your mum.”
“I’ve been worried to death about you.” Now I blinking well sound like her.
“Sorry, Sarah. There was a queue a mile long at the fish shop. I did pop into The Crooked Billet first, for a quick one with my mate, Harry. He insisted.”
Oh, no, his masterpiece, the theatrical wink. I mustn’t let him see me laughing.
“Yeah, I bet. Next time, please phone me.” I can’t believe I just said that. I didn’t mean to sound so cross. “Here, let me take the fish and chips.”
“If I’d stopped to fiddle around with that thing, I’d still be there. It’s noisy everywhere you go these days.”
“I know but…” He could have sent a text… if I’d taught him. I could have made more of an effort.
Mm, nice chips. It would be fun to do this once a week, when Mum and Dad are here. That’ll help Mum. I might even do the washing up, who knows?
I think I’ll wash those nets as a surprise for her. That’ll get Dad in an extra good mood and I might be able to talk him into letting me have that party. Double whammy.
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“It’s okay. You’re home now. That’s all that matters.” Better give him a hug. “I think we’re managing brilliantly on our own, don’t you?”
“Never doubted we would, darling.”
“But after dinner, Grandad, I’m going to teach you how to text.”
Bocca Baciata by Lucy Flannery
The breeze gathered force and propelled itself through the late winter afternoon, fluttering the wisp of lace at the old woman’s throat. She pulled the shawl tight around her, thrust her head forward like a battering ram and scuttled across the cobbled street. A cart narrowly missed her and the driver shouted an oath as he struggled to correct his horse. She shouted a worse one back. The gentleman at her side chuckled.
“You always had a picturesque turn of phrase, Fanny.”
She snorted. “It was not my fashionable conversation which drew you to my side, nor my pretty manners that kept you there, I’ll warrant. It was in my flesh that you found your satisfaction.” He turned reproachful eyes upon her. “Don’t talk in that hard, sad fashion, denying all poetry. Yes, I gloried in your form – but I ever worshipped your face.”
“Well,” she said, mollified, “that’s as maybe.” She strode onwards, warmed by both his words and the cascade of images and sensations which they unleashed: the feel of miniver brushes against her fingertips; the reek of turpentine; the scratch of the sofa’s worn brocade against her back as he positioned her; the draught which would creep in under the studio window, however many rags she stuffed into the crevice; the slight frown on his dear brow as he peered over the canvas seeing not her but the splendour of the finished portrait; then, his focus shifting back to her actual presence, the boyish smile which spread across his beloved countenance.
She could see the great spire now in the distance, dwarfing the buildings around it. As she looked up, the low winter sun emerged for one bashful moment before being swallowed again by the bank of cloud behind the Bell Tower. She watched the sky for so long, not looking where she was going, that she almost collided with a smartly dressed young man. He raised his hat to her, satirically. The old woman did not notice him. Thrusting her head forward and down again, she became absorbed by the rhythm of her own stoutly-shod feet and walked some distance watching their left-right motion, enjoying their precision. “Look,” she said, “the foot on that side turns out a little when I take a step. I wonder why?”
“Ill-fitting boots when you were a child, perchance?”
Bless the man, did he imagine she wore boots as a child? He thought every infant was swaddled in satin and sheepskins, like he and his sister were, and spoken kindly to and given sugar plums to eat. She felt an ache of tenderness in her breast at the thought of him as a baby and an accompanying impulse to mother him. “What would you say to a dozen oysters for your supper?” She turned, expecting to see eager agreement on his face, and was surprised by his grave manner.
“You’re still beautiful to me, Elephant.”
Still beautiful? To him? She was beautiful! She considered, with complacency, her alabaster skin, the haze of red-gold hair, that sensual mouth – the mouth that has been kissed. Why did that phrase suddenly suggest itself to her mind, and what was the source of its nagging familiarity? Was it a line from one of his poems? Or by one of those other gentlemen who visited him? He read poetry to her sometimes and she enjoyed the sound of the words although she didn’t trouble herself unduly with striving to comprehend their meaning. She liked it when he read to her. She liked it even more when he lay the book aside, took up the ivory hair brush and drew it gently but firmly through her hair. She closed her eyes.
O, but it wasn’t always like that. He had hurt her, hurt her deeply - struck at the very core of her being. She would never forget the pain of having another woman’s face painted over her own. It was a very long time before she forgave him for that. “You shouldn’t have done it, Rhino,” she muttered.
“ ’Oo you talking to, Missus? There ain’t no one there!”
She waited for her companion to send the insolent brat on his way, looking up sharply at his continued silence. Unaccountably, he had disappeared. She gazed about her, expecting to find him in animated conversation with one of his many friends or admirers, or lost in contemplation of some distant prospect, but he was nowhere to be seen.
The urchin had been joined by others; a whole gaggle of them now swarmed about her, hooting and jeering. Without warning of her intent, she grabbed the nearest and boxed his ears. They kept their distance after that, especially the one howling in pain, but continued to dog her footsteps until an actual dog distracted them. By then she was beside the Market Cross; a few stall holders were packing up their wares. She stood motionless, confused, trying in vain to remember what had been her goal, her purpose.
“Fanny! There you are! Oh, Fanny, you will catch your death in that flimsy shawl. This is a day for wool, not silk!”
Of course - she was on her way to buy oysters; but these streets were alien and unfamiliar, far from the well-trodden route of her recollection. An importunate young woman stood before her, attempting to rearrange her dress, even – the impertinence! – trying to drape a cloak around her shoulders. Fanny slapped her away. She peered up at the fine church – was it St James? But surely this was not Jermyn Street? Fanny passed a hand across her brow, attempting to clear her thoughts. Was she in Brighton? Or Steyning? O, where was Rhino?
“. . . a very distinguished gentleman, yes, an artist . . . . his housekeeper . . . . nursed him through his final illness . . . alas, dead this many a year . . . . not quite right in the head, poor dear . . . . a tendency to wander . . . . . take her back now . . .” The scraps of conversation reached Fanny as if from a great distance; she flapped her hand vaguely, as though warding off insects. One word leapt out from the haze and pierced her consciousness. “Graylingwell? I’m not going back there!”
“Oh come, Fanny, don’t be tiresome. You should like a cup of tea now, shouldn’t you?”
Fanny struggled but strong arms held her. She opened her mouth and shrieked, a long piercing wail which made all who heard it shudder. But abruptly it broke off and the old woman was suddenly still and quiescent in the hands of her captors, her attention fixed on a spot just beyond the knot of gawping on-lookers.
“Fanny? What is it that you see?”
He gazed on her reprovingly. “There is no cause for alarm. No harm can possibly befall you whilst I am here, you know that. There is no occasion for this public display.”
She never could bear his displeasure. She wrung her hands piteously, bewildered by their unaccountably fleshy and liver-spotted appearance. “I’m sorry, Rhino, truly I am. Don’t be cross with your Elephant!”
His brows remained furrowed in vexation but then, as she continued to plead, a change came over him and, like the sun coming out, the boyish smile spread across his face once more.
The muse stood erect, her head held high; regally she allowed the young woman to take her arm. Beloved, majestic, proud, she was borne homeward with the restored quotation singing in her head: for the mouth that has been kissed loses not its freshness; still it renews itself even as does the moon. Fanny was renewed.
By Matthew Scott
“British Bulldog, one two three.” Johnny had caught someone. No surprises there. He was the biggest and strongest of the gang. He was built like a carthorse, so his dad said, which meant he was best at all the rough-and-tumble games. When they played British Bulldog, he always started in the middle. Otherwise nobody could hold him and he was bound to win. He wasn’t just muscle, though. He was the group’s storyteller too. Every evening, when they were tired and muddy and they knew their parents would call them back in soon, they would all gather around Johnny and sit in an eager circle. Sometimes he would make the stories up himself, and sometimes he would tell stories his parents had told to him. Today he had promised to tell them the story of Sir Tristram of King Arthur’s Round Table. He had just heard it from his dad the night before, and he promised it was a good one. When Johnny told stories, they came alive. His voice captured every moment perfectly, and each child who listened would see everything vividly. As one, the little crowd cringed when he told them that a piece of Sir Tristram’s sword broke off inside the Irishman’s skull. Some almost wept when Isault married King Mark instead. Everybody loved Johnny’s stories. Everybody loved Johnny.
“I love you Johnny,” said his wife, full of tears. His time had come. When he was old enough, his father had told him about the last war. About the trenches and the blood and the rats. It had been terrible, even just to hear about it. He had nightmares, just from imagining it. He still did now and again. “The War to end all Wars,” they called it. But somehow they’d let it happen again anyway. Now it would no longer be up to his imagination to give him nightmares. This time, it was him off to fight, dressed up in khaki like his dad used to be when he came home.
“I love you too,” he said, fighting back the tears. He looked at his wife, so pretty, and his daughter, sweet and innocent. He smiled for his little girl; no easy task.
“Don’t worry, m’dear,” he told her. “Daddy won’t be gone long. He’s just going away for a while to join the army. I’ve told you ‘bout the knights of the round table at bedtimes, ain’t I? They were an army. I’m off to have adventures, like them. I’ll be back before long.”
She said nothing. Just clung to her mother’s side with glistening eyes. She was sad that her daddy was going away, but she was too young to understand it. That was for the best, Johnny thought. He reached down and hugged her. Then he hugged his wife, who was crying now. A tear rolled down his cheek and onto her shoulder. When they finally parted, he forced a smile and said in a voice which only trembled once, “Mustn’t be late for me call up. Goodbye darling.” He leaned in close to her and whispered in her ear, “I’ll come back alive. I promise.” He spun round and marched quickly away. He felt their eyes on his back, watching him as he went. He wanted to look over his shoulder, to see them one more time before he went. But he didn’t. He couldn’t look back or he wouldn’t be able to keep moving forward. He just kept that final promise in his mind, determined not to break it, as he moved further and further away.
“I’ll come back alive. I promise.” He kept the promise alright, for all the good it did him. He remembered the day. Captain Stewart had called for him. Johnny was actually excited at first. He was sure he hadn’t done anything wrong, so perhaps it was good news. Then he went into the office and saw the captain’s expression. When he saw that, he knew it was bad.
“Ah,” the captain said, “Sergeant McCoy.”
At ease, Sergeant, at ease. I’m afraid I have some bad news. I won’t beat about the bush too long, but you might want to sit down.”
He took the offered chair.
“Now, McCoy, I want you to brace yourself for a shock. I’m not going to waste time circling around the matter. I mean, I’m not looking forward to this but putting it off won’t do either of us any good. I’m going to come straight to the point.”
Johnny was almost amused by the irony. Almost.
“I received a telegram this morning informing me...” the Captain faltered for a moment, then continued; “informing me that your house was destroyed in one of the recent missile attacks on London.” Johnny went numb. He didn’t really feel anything, because he couldn’t bear to feel it right away. The captain continued;
“I’m afraid your wife and daughter were both inside at the time. Neither survived. It must have been quick. They probably didn’t even have time to realise the house had been hit” Johnny stayed frozen for a moment, with tingling hands, knotted stomach, numb emotions. Then he gasped several times and burst into tears. Captain Stewart gave him a handkerchief and some brandy for the shock, and then told him to go and rest. He was a good man, Captain Stewart, with kind blue eyes and a square, clean-shaven chin.
The razor blade pressed against the flesh of Johnny’s wrist, almost hard enough to pierce it. He thought about pressing harder, cutting, bleeding to death. About leaving this bloody war behind and joining his family. He wanted to break his promise. His thoughts were crooked. He turned up all kinds of memories. Half of them weren’t relevant at all, just random things. All sorts of memories. Did feeling death’s approach do this to everybody? Perhaps this was what they mean when they talk about your life flashing before you.
After a few moments, his mind lighted upon the man he had spared. A razor blade had saved that man’s life, in a way. It was changing a razor blade that had made him look so ordinary. That’s what made Johnny think twice about squeezing the trigger, seeing not an enemy but an ordinary man doing ordinary things. A life saved by a razor blade, and now look where Johnny was. Ironic. Thoughts of death bought his mind back to the moment. He thought of cutting again. He had sat there, feeling the thin, sharp piece of metal against his wrist, almost willing himself to press harder and cut. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t even draw a little blood. He wasn’t scared of death, but even now he was scared to break his promise. It would be an insult to their memory. So he kept the promise. He came back alive. There wasn’t anything to come back to. Or anyone. But still he came back. Still he kept the promise. Sometimes he still wished a bullet had broken it for him.
He found another home, of course. He didn’t liked it. It seemed so strange, and so empty without his family. The things weren’t his things. Not to him anyway. Those books on the bookcase, new editions of old favourites, were someone else’s books. Someone who happened to have similar taste, who had all the same favourites, but still somebody else. That wasn’t his copy of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. His copy was much older, and had been given to him on his twenty-first birthday. The new one wasn’t the same. It wasn’t his. Those chairs, those carpets were not his. He seemed to be living his life as a guest in a strange house. No matter how long he stayed, he never truly felt at home. Perhaps he had stayed long enough. He put on his old army coat. He took a few more things and stuffed them into the capacious pockets: the mud-stained, monochrome photo of his wife and daughter that had kept him company at war, his General Service Timepiece, his old serviceman’s Bible. Things that didn’t come from the house. Things that were with him when he was fighting for his family, when he still had a family to fight for. He put on the woollen hat his old cap badge was pinned to and a pair of brown leather gloves. He walked out and locked the peeling white-painted door behind him. He took the key out and looked at it for a moment, sparkling with a false glow from the street lamps. Then he walked to the nearest drain, held the key over it, and let go.
The little shining piece of metal fell neatly into his cup. He thanked the man, who walked on without acknowledging him. He looked at the little pile of coins he’d gathered. Mostly copper, with a few pieces of silver shining among them. Just as he started to count them up, the door opened to his right and David, the baker, came out.
“Are you doing alright Johnny?”
“Not too well today, sunshine, not too well.” he replied. David was a kind man. Most shopkeepers told Johnny to go away if he sat outside their doors, or at least looked at him suspiciously and hoped he would move on, but not David. He was kind, friendly. He’d offered at first to help Johnny find a homeless shelter, but Johnny didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go back to society, in any shape. He saw himself as a sort of modern day hermit. He couldn’t be at home anywhere after all he had lost, so he chose a life without a home.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” David continued. “I was thinking. It’s getting late. I’m not going to sell much more before I close. I’ve got to throw it all away tomorrow anyway, so would you like a few bits?”
Johnny smiled and thanked him.
“His name was Johnny McCoy. Or so they reckon anyway. Nothing was in the pockets to identify him. Probably emptied by whoever did this, but a couple of shopkeepers knew him. Used to let him beg outside their doors.” The two policemen looked at the old man stretched out on the mortuary table in front of them, bruised and lifeless.
“Reckon it was a motiveless crime,” he continued. “Gang of them. Probably didn’t mean to kill him, just give him a good kicking. No reason, I’ll bet, except they liked to act tough and feel big. And they thought he was nobody.”
“Almost strange to think he had a name,” said his colleague after a while. “I suppose we all have a little bit of that prejudice, thinking the homeless are nobodies. It’s silly, really, to think that looking scruffy and begging for coins is the only life they’ve ever had.”
“Suppose you’re right,” said the first one again. “I mean he can’t always have been homeless. He must have had a life.”
“Yes, he must have,” said his colleague. “But probably the last person who could have told us anything about it is lying dead on this table. I think we’re getting too deep about it, though. I doubt anything all that interesting happened to him, except the way the poor guy died. He was probably just an ordinary bloke like you or me.”
“You’re probably right. I doubt he’d have any real stories to tell.”