Thursday, December 31, 2009

DDisaster Story

I was one of the lucky ones. When the lights appeared in the sky and  robbed the sight of most of the world's population, I was hundreds of feet underground. The local Sheriff had called me in to help look for a bunch of women that had gone missing while on a caving expedition. We never did find any trace of them.

The descent had been tricky and we had wasted a lot of time trying to find a way past a recent cave-in. That alone had prompted a near endless argument about whether we shouldn't high-tail it back up straight away. Longfellow was spooked the whole time we were down there, kept on telling me he had a bad feeling. He always does. He's the brake that Gomez and I need sometimes or we'd just go throwing our dumb selves into every stupid, dangerous situation there is. When we got back to the surface it was late and the light show must have passed.

First thing we heard was a god-awful, keening moan that set the hair on the back of my neck up stiffer than a wedding dick. As I was pulling myself out of my rig, my torch illuminated the Sheriff crawling about on his hands and knees. Just as I freed myself he got to his feet again, took a few steps and stumbled back to the ground. I ran over to help him and he clutched at me, took a grip on my arm like a vice.

"I can't see!" he yelled at me, then in a calmer voice he asked, "Who is that? You've got to get me to a hospital."

Longfellow was out of his gear right after me. "I'm out of here, man," he said. "I've got to get to my family. Something ain't right."

He took off in his car straight away. Gomez helped me get the Sheriff calmed down and into my truck, but I could tell Longfellow had spooked him. "Go on, get home now," I told him.

I never saw my two buddies again.

I debated whether to take the Sheriff to the local clinic, or all the way out to the hospital. I figured it would be best to get him seen by somebody with proper training as quickly as possible so I headed for the clinic. Even if there was no-one on duty this late, I knew Doctor MacManus lived close by and he'd have skinned me if he thought I'd let him sleep while the Sheriff needed help. The decision to head for the clinic probably saved my life.

The Sheriff was mostly lucid now, except for when he just moaned and thumped at his legs with his big, balled-up fists, like he was angry at himself for being blind. I'd heard about the light show everyone was getting all giddy for, but it hadn't seemed like any big whoop. Me and the boys had spent upwards of two years, back in our dim and distant youth, in Fairbanks, Alaska, working some at the gold mine just so we could say we'd done it, and we'd seen our share of the Aurora Borealis. Judging from how the world had been cut off at the knees, I guess the solar lights had been a bigger deal than we reckoned, but I can't say I'm sorry to have missed them.

There wasn't another car on the road, but that wasn't so unusual until we hit the outskirts of town and then it just got eerie. I pulled up a good distance from the clinic, plain freaked out by what I was seeing. It was like some scene out of Dawn of the Dead, with all them folks clamoring to squeeze through the doorway. They were tugging and pulling at each other, some where outright attempting to throttle one another. I had them lit up in my high beams but no-one turned to look, and the racket they were making must have drowned out the sound of my engine as I came to a stop. The door of the clinic had been clean pulled out of the frame and there were no lights on inside. Those lucky bastards that managed to bully and fight their way inside were probably getting slowly crushed to death in there.

"Why've we stopped?" the Sheriff asked me. He had his hands on my arm again, fingers digging into my flesh.

"Calm yourself, Sheriff," I said. "Looks like a few other folks have got that same temporary blindness, and they're getting a little crazy. I'm gonna walk you over to Doc MacManus' house, but you gotta promise me you'll keep quiet."

"Sure, sure," he said. I never heard that man sound so pitiful. He looked lost as I got out of my side of the truck and by the time I was round to let him out he already looked near panicked to death. He signed with relief when he could get his hooks back into my poor bruised arm again. I fished a hand torch out of the bed of the truck to light the way.

"Now remember, Sheriff," I said. "You promise to keep hushed, okay?" He just grunted and gave me an impatient tug at my arm like I was an uppity guide-dog.

We hadn't gone two dozen yards, just to the point where we were closest to the clinic as we skirted past it, when the Sheriff, speaking loud enough so he could be heard over the rumble of the mob, asked me, "Are there any other people about that can still see?"

I shushed him, and he must of gotten the point because he looked suitably embarrassed.

I played my torch across the seething crowd of people, but as far as I could tell most of them hadn't heard and all I saw were their backs. All except for one fellow with a thin, feral face, dressed in nothing but underpants, an inside-out jacket and a pair of cowboy boots. He was turning his head left and right in our direction, like he was ready to gauge where we were if we made another sound. I hurried the hell up, dragging the Sheriff along behind me. I checked behind us several times on the way to the doc's house, but we weren't being followed as far as I could see.

There was a light on in the front room of MacManus' house when we got there. I banged on his front door, but when I saw the light go out a few seconds later, I thought he might be trying to lie low. Then a couple of seconds later the hall light went on, but the door didn't open.

"Who is it?" It was the doctor, shouting at us. I told him who it was, and that I had the sheriff with me. When I told him I could still see he quickly opened the door.

I was shocked, and saddened to find that he was also blind. He led the way into the front room, turning off the hallway light as he left and flicking on the switch as he entered the other room, arm stretching out instinctively to do it from years of habit. He peeled the Sheriff off me and settled him on to the couch. I started to tell him what had happened with us but he interrupted me. "I need you to do something for me," he said. "Tabby is down the cellar. Got all confused after the lights, and took a fall down the steps. Can you check on her?"

"Sure," I said. "But-"

"I know how she is." He squeezed my hand. "I've already been down there, but I have to be sure. You understand?"

I found my way to the cellar, turned on the light and took my second descent of the day. She was lying at the bottom of the steps. It was obvious from the twist in her neck that she was dead, but I checked for a pulse anyway. The doc's wife, Tabitha, had been an imposing woman, inclined to scolding but thoroughly decent through and through. I stayed there a little while, hunkered down by her body, trying to put some words together into a prayer for her.

I didn't know what to tell the doc when I got back up, but he seemed to understand just fine from my silence. "You turn the lights out down there?" he asked. "She was real particular about the lights." I hadn't, but I told him that I had.

With the benefit of my sight, he had me answer a bunch of questions about him and the sheriff, having me shine the light in their eyes and report back what happened. He wracked his brain thinking of tests he could perform but there just wasn't much that could be done here in his home and there was no way we could go to the clinic.

"It's gone crazy all over, son," he said. "The TV was saying nearly everyone has been affected. It's not working now. I think the cable is out, and I can't find her damn radio. You've got to get over to ARH, find out what's happening."

"He's not leaving me here," the Sheriff said. "He's gotta take us with him." He reached out for me but grabbed MacManus' arm by mistake. Regardless, it seemed to settle him a little.

"Don't be crazy, Buck," the doctor said. "We'll just slow him down. You'll come right back here with help, won't you, son?"

"Of course," I said. "But the clinic was bad, the hospital is going to be even worse."

"Don't you worry," the sheriff said. "Folk are basically decent. They'll have settled down by the time you get there."

He hadn't seen the scramble at the clinic, but I didn't see any benefit in educating him. "I guess so," I said. "I'll head over there now." Before I left, I went back to the cellar and turned off the light. The doc was there in the hall to see me out, so to speak. He didn't say anything but he must have known what I'd done and he seemed to appreciate it.

As I left the doc's house I got knocked over. I was lying on my back with somebody on top. I hadn't even had a chance to turn on my torch but it was in my hand so I used it to swipe at whoever it was.

"I got him! I got him!" he was shouting, so there must have been more than one of them. I flicked on the torch and could see if was the ferret-faced guy from the clinic. Now I could see his face I hit him a stiff blow on the side of the head with the torch and rolled him off me. Just as I was getting to my feet a grizzly in a human suit came weaving towards me, arms outstretched, head swivelling side to side like he was motor-boating invisible titties. I ducked around him easy and shoved him on top of the weasel, then planted my boot in the side of head, leaving him out cold as his pal struggled for air under his enormous belly.

There were sounds from the doc's house now and the Sheriff was out shouting something I couldn't quite make out. He had his gun in his hand and his hollering was getting higher pitched and more animalistic with every second. I wanted to tell him I was okay, but, honestly, I was frightened he'd put a bullet in me before he realised who it was.

I ran half the way back to my truck, only slowing down as I got to the clinic. The Sheriff had been right, after a fashion. The scramble was over, but it looked like half the mob that had been fighting their way in were lying dead, either inside or right in front of the clinic. The rest were drifting about and I had to dodge past them to get to the truck.

Once I was back behind the wheel, I couldn't get the images of the riot outside the clinic out of my head every time I thought about having to go over to the hospital. I switched the radio on, anxiously twisting the volume knob down so I could just about hear. I scanned up and down the wavelengths. It was still mostly music, running on automated systems this late at night, everything pre-programmed with nobody but a security guard actually manning the station. Every so often I heard a human voice, but they were all reporting the chaos, the madness. Nobody had an explanation. Nobody was telling me what I should do.

Something banged on the glass beside me. Something else slapped against the passenger side window. I turned the high beams back on. They must have heard the radio anyway, because there was a crowd gathering around me. I jammed on my door lock and was reaching over to the passenger side when it opened. It was someone I knew, my insurance agent Jeff Harrington, but I didn't recognise the face behind him, or the face behind that.

"Can you see?" Jeff begged. "Please, you have to help me."

All I could say was, "Sorry!" I drove my fist into his face, again and again until he fell backwards and I could get the door shut and locked. I blared my horn, but the press of hands and faces on the truck just kept getting worse. I made my decision. There was no way in hell I was going to the hospital to get drowned in a sea of desperate people. I threw the truck into gear and tried to blank out the thought of what I was bumping over as I reversed out of there as fast as I could go.

I headed straight to the big out of town mall. I was going to need provisions. Food, fuel, camping equipment, and guns. Lots of guns.

My initial plan had been simple, to wait it out until some kind of normality returned. But it never did. It was around two weeks later that the reports began coming in about the triffids. I couldn't believe it at first, thought it was a sick joke. Were they seriously telling me I should be worried about a bunch of plants we sweated for gasoline? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I had had friends back in Fairbanks who had swore blind we'd regret the day we ever started using plants for fuel, when there was still tens of thousands of square miles of Alaska we hadn't raped for oil yet. Admittedly that was not a universal point of view.

We all knew that Big Oil had lied to us every chance they got, so why would the triffoil companies be any different? Maybe triffids really were deadly, and they'd been keeping us in the dark all this time.

I was safe where I was for now, up in the mountains, but I figured somewhere with a healthy stretch of desert would be the best place to keep the killer plants at bay. Arizona sounded like a safe spot, but since I was going to be travelling clean across country I might as well stop off in California and see if my grand-folks had made it. Mom was dead, and dad was a mystery. I had lost track of my sister years ago. Gramps and Grammy were all the family I had left. Or might have left. I owed it to them to find out if they were still alive.

I went back to the mall to re-supply. Somebody had been getting organized there and had begun to systematically strip away food and other goods. I toyed with the idea of waiting around to see if anyone showed up but there was no telling how I'd be greeted so I took what I needed and hit the road.

In the weeks that followed I saw a whole lot I wish I could forget. Like sighted children on leashes leading around groups of hard-faced, blind adults. One time I saw a group of triffids use their stingers to whip a man into something unrecognisable as human, and another time I saw a mob of blind men overwhelm a lone triffid, tearing it to pieces with their bare hands and eating what they wrenched free until there was nothing left of it.

I was treated fairly and politely at a Nation of Islan compound, but after we had traded goods and gossip I was firmly sent on my way because of the color of my skin, though none but a handful there could see it. Still preferable to the countless times I was chased away with rifle fire by white trash warlords.

And so, eventually, I reached California, and like I had expected all along, there was no sign of my grand-parents at their home. No sign of anyone for miles around in fact. The fire that had claimed the neighborhood had been a big one. There was no way to tell if they had gotten away and no way for me to pick up their trail even if they had. I decided to set off for Arizona, after finding another mall to grab supplies.

It was at the mall that I found Roddy, lying under a stack of fifty pound sacks of flour, looking like Casper the friendly, if somewhat pissed-off, ghost.

I was wary at first. I'd seen too many traps like this, baited with an injured person and with a gang of cut-throats ready to jump on you when your guard was down. But, damn, Roddy just looked pathetically happy to see me.

We made our introductions as I helped him up. He'd climbed up to reach for something at the top of the racks when he slipped, bringing the flour down on top of him. He must have banged his head, knocked himself unconscious and was just coming round when I found him. He'd managed to sprain his ankle pretty bad, but I didn't think it was broken. When I asked him where he was staying, so I could take him there, that's when he got cagey.

"I've been helping some of the blind," he said. "Just been doing what I can, you know?"

"Sure," I said, wondering what his angle was. Was he trying to make me feel guilty?

"It's been pretty hard most of the time," he said, then he giggled. Honest to God, giggled.

"Roddy, dude, I'll help you get back home, if you ever get round to telling me where it is, but I can't stick around to help you with a bunch of blind guys. It's every man for himself, and if you had any sense you'd-"

"Hear me out!" he said. "I've picked a good bunch. There were so many, I had to be selective. Kandy was a nurse, and so was JoJo. Tina's dad taught her everything about being a mechanic. Grace has a masters degree in science. Kim is a black belt, and Tiffany used to be a cop."

"Roddy, did you pick them all because just because they're chicks?" I asked.

He waved his hands at me. "Of course not. I told you, they all have skills. There are millions of ordinary women out there. I wanted smart, funny women... and there was the other thing..."

"What other thing?"

"Whoever I was going to take in, needed to be...  well, they had to have really big boobs."

I was flabbergasted, but all I could do was laugh.

Roddy grabbed my wrist and shook it. "Hey, come on man, I needed some criteria to narrow down my selection."

"Okay, Roddy," I said. "I'm real happy for you, but what do you need my help for? Sounds like you have a pretty sweet set-up."

"It's too much, buddy. I've shot for the moon and hit the Sun. Come back with me and, you know, help me keep the girls occupied."

I had just been thinking that my trip West had been a bust, and now this. "Just how big is big, Roddy?"

"Are you kidding me, man? This is California. We're talking monster titties, my friend."

I did the sums in my head. "So... three each?"

He winked at me. "Six each, pal."

Suddenly Arizona wasn't looking so good.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Dear Husband

You got what you wanted.

Perched upon the lofty, snow-capped peaks of Mount Kaligari, were you but to look, there would not be the tiniest square inch of soil visible that you do not clasp in your greedy fist. Neighbourhoods, districts and cities all fell to your ambition. What you could not take with threats, you ripped away with bloody actions.

Sage leaders surround themselves with wise counsel, but when you told me of the joy and pride you took in finding the best and brightest minds, I never knew it was so your torturers and executioners would be entertained. I did have my suspicions, but what was I to do? A mere woman, engaged upon household chores, I was pre-occupied. Staff do not organise themselves.

It delighted me to hear how gratified you were on receiving my gift. The Emperor was a tricky fellow and a hard nut for you to crack. Having his skull fashioned into a nut-cracker was simply destiny. If only he had known it, he might have kept a lower profile.

Now that you have conquered these lands, now that your enemies are beaten, dead or enslaved, now can we do what I want?

Mother wants to meet you.

I realise I may have painted a picture of her that is less than flattering. We are not estranged, as you have suggested, we merely hold different opinions on who ruined who's life. Please, do not take sides, however your conscience might urge you. I trust you will treat my mother the way she deserves. All I ask is that you journey with me to her estate. She is simply dying to meet you.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


The revelation slapped him in the face like a sodden cardboard box full of wet towels hitting the side of an Amish barn at midnight during a hurricane. An eerie grey-brown owl hooted urgent warnings in his head, chasing away the sheets of boiling field-mice, each clutching an indecision, bad thought or sabotaging instinct. As they fled to nothing, he understood with perfect clarity where he had been going wrong. The map of shoddy choices was revealed as the dreck swept from his mind.

In the split second that he shed the negative, a massive vacuum formed within him. Inspiration clasped his ears, pressed his face to her bosom but when he opened his mouth, so his tongue might play across her soft flesh, his head was filled with wondrous ideas.

He felt re-born. Reborn and renewed. At last purpose motivated him, something solid, real and tangible. He had a goal, and for the first time in his life he ached and burned to achieve that upon which he had set his heart's desire.

Misfortunate it was that this vision and clarity, this new direction in his life, struck him while he was two steps into a five step crossing and the bus that struck him seconds later was hampered less by epiphanies and more by physics and a slow foot upon the brake.

Friday, December 25, 2009


I hear voices, but I am afraid to open the attic trapdoor. Afraid of what I will find.

So I do nothing. Lie awake. Still afraid.

I hear voices, but the silence is worse. The silence is worse because that is when they speak in hushed tones so I can not hear. That is when they plot.

I hear voices, but I am afraid to open the attic trapdoor. Instead I press my ear to the wood and wonder who they are and what plans they are making, down there.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


The river pawed at him, its great, greedy fists pummelling, pulling him away from the shore. When he finished sawing at the straps with his dagger both armour and blade were swept away into the churning water. It felt as though he was being spat upwards as his frantic clawing was finally repaid. He hauled himself onto the bank and lay there, suddenly shivering and shaking, aware just how cold he actually was as the brisk wind buffeted his quivering body.

"Charles?" The voice exploded trees filled with birds in his head.

"Steady, sirrah!" Charles said, spitting the last of the water from his mouth in the process. "My men are close behind me and, on my word, will treat harshly with you."

"Hah!" the voice replied. "I have a veteran company ready to fall upon you at my single word."

Charles recognised the voice now. "What single word? Charlatan? Liar? Thief?"

There was a sigh. "So it is you, Charles. Do come a little closer. I can barely see you from here."

"What sort of fool do you take me for, Henry?" Charles asked. "Do you really-"

"It's is drier here, and sheltered, somewhat, from the wind," Henry said. "Don't be a ninny."

Charles, aided in no small part by his bull-headed nature, stood and after teetering on his feet a while, took step after shaky step towards the voice. He moved, slowly and deliberately, from the riverbank to a small copse of trees not far from the water. The owner of the voice lay here with his back against the trunk of a tree and his hand pressed to his side, ineffectually staying the flow of blood that soaked his shirt.

Charles slumped to the ground, opposite. "Is it bad?" he asked.

Henry raised his hand to show the bloody palm, but winced and quickly pressed it back again. "Bad enough."

Charles snorted. "But for your trickery, I might have laid a heavier blow myself and decided the matter for sure."

"But for your stupidity," Henry replied, "you might not have charged your cavalry across a bog."

"It was green grass, as far as anyone could tell," Charles said.

"Aye, and a bog it became, after the previous week's rain and your horses churning it to mud at a gallop."

Charles snorted again. Then, after a while, he asked. "So... you won the day then?"

Henry raised his bloody palm anew and laughed. "Hard to say. The day is not yet done, but I may be."

"Pah, it'll take more than that paltry nick to finish you, Henry."

"While I value your opinion, I... well, anyway... there was another matter."

"Speak your mind," Charles said. "I welcome the distraction after this debacle."

"Quite," Henry replied. "I just wondered whether I should have sent young Catherine some token last week."

"It was her birthday." Charles shrugged. "Despite our disagreement, she is still your niece. Oh, she is with child."

"That young dolt finally figured out what he was doing then?" They both laughed.

"You're quite the favourite uncle, you know," Charles said. "She became ever so cross when I told her I intended to have your head."

"Sweet child," Henry said. "And such a doting daughter for thinking you capable of achieving the deed."

"I could yet..." Charles slapped at his empty scabbard. "If I only..."

"Why not come over here and finish me off with your bare hands?" Henry asked. "As father would have."

Charles barked a laugh. "With his bare hands? Why the merest glance would have shrivelled you to ash, the way he told it. Anyway, it would be undignified. Suppose we were to be found out, rolling around here, attempting to slap and pinch the life from each other? It wouldn't do."

Henry nodded his agreement. "You know, of course, who will benefit most from this? Your man, Le Croix. I expect he is already back at your castle, digging your grave."

"As if Penningham will let this opportunity go to waste," Charles said. "You may hope to leak away completely from that pinprick, for you can be sure he will squeeze some advantage from whatever else is left."

"He is an ambitious man," Henry agreed.

"As is Le Croix," Charles acknowledged.

The wind howled over the river. The sounds of battle were distant now, and growing quieter as the sky darkened.

"I shall be going now," Charles said. He stood and stretched, shook the blood back into his limbs and turned away.

He had walked just a few yards when he heard: "Stop, Charles. Lend your brother some assistance."

Charles sighed. He retraced his steps, then went over to his brother and helped him to his feet, choosing not to comment on the pained grunts he heard as he hauled the other upright.

"You know, brother," Henry said, "much of the trouble between us would be settled if you were to wrest Penningham's estates away."

"I expect so," Charles said. "And I fancy you might help me with that, in exchange for some land on my western borders."

"I expect so," Henry echoed.

With their arms about each other they made slow progress away from the river.

"Doesn't Le Croix have his lands on your western border?" Henry asked.

"Do shut up, brother."

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Ruth didn't want to brush the tear from her eye, afraid it would attract the attention of her other sister. Miriam was holding court in the centre of the trailer, looking so slim and elegant in her tailored black jacket and skirt. It wasn't supposed to be about her coming back with her stories about offices and pensions.

Vladimir, Ruth's husband appeared by the chair she was sat upon and swapped her tea for a fresh cup. His hand reached out and stroked her hair, and with sleight of hand that would have pleased his father he rubbed the salty tear off her cheek. He looked so handsome in his black tails. They exchanged sad smiles before he slipped back into the crowd. She took a sip from the cup. It was far too sweet again, but she so appreciated the gesture.

"Sorry for your loss, Ruthie." she clasped the long bony hand that was offered to her. Poor Marco, forced to stoop inside the confines of the trailer. Such a sweet young man, but already he had to use a cane to support his frame.

Vladimir returned, set a plate of buns on the arm of her chair, squeezed her hand and was away. He had spoken such beautiful words about her sister. His rasping accent painting an aching portrayal of her love for live, love for her friends and for her work.

Lolo and Bolo both tried to hug her at once, bounced off each other and settled for patting her shoulders, an arm around each other's waist. Sad, nonsense words burbled from their quivering lips and their beady eyes in their tiny heads looked so miserable, though they probably didn't quite grasp what was going on. They knew their friend Ruthie was unhappy, so they were unhappy.

Vladimir came and steered them away, gently shoving them towards Miriam, who he knew detested them. He handed Ruth a heaped plate of biscuits. With her free hand she pulled his head down to kiss him on the check, making him wriggle. He put his hand over her hand, pulling himself free, fingers trailing off against her fingers until just their tips were touching and then he was gone again.

"She was a fine, fine woman." Henry's eyes were level with her own and she recognised the moist redness of genuine grief. There had always been stories, rumours about Henry and her sister. He was a decent man, but she wished they had been more open. People would have been happy for them. The opportunity to be a couple was lost for fear of ridicule. Faint heart.

Vladimir reached down to rest a hand against Henry's back, exchanging a silent nod of understanding with him. With his other hand he placed a plate bearing a whole coffee cake on Ruth's lap.

Ruth looked at the cake, stared intently at it for several long seconds. Her whole upper body fell forward, curled into a ball of sobs, her beard bunching in the the cream topping of the cake. She stood suddenly, sending the plate to the floor and the cake with it. She swept biscuits and buns after them, charging through the mourners to collide in a desperate hug with her sister Miriam, who stared daggers over her shoulder at Vladimir.

Her husband started towards her, but Henry's grasp on his coat tail stopped him short.

"Give her a minute," Henry said. "We've all taken Two Ton... I mean... Tessa's death pretty hard" He looked at the pile of food on the floor. "But you have to remember, Vladimir, there's no getting her back."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

oh no doctor lies

He threw out his chest, tossed his unruly mane of blond hair and roared, "No, Doctor Lies, YOU are mistaken! Do you think I am so easily duped? I, who saw through the String-Tingler's insidious plot to replace the world's currency with blood-sucking mimics? Do you think I will be so easily defeated?  I, who single-handedly stopped a swarm of meteors from crashing into the earth and destroying all of civilization? When there wasn't even anything WRONG with my other hand! Do you think I will crumble under the pressure? I, who so silently, and with admirable nobility, bore the heartache of my lover's betrayal with Maximus Slime, the details of which you can read in my best-selling autobiography? Oh no, Doctor Lies, inform your wicked plan that it has a mighty foiling in ITS future!"

The man behind the desk pushed the spectacles up the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Captain Awesome, first of all it's 'Doctor Silverman'. Secondly, I really appreciate your positive attitude, and believe me it will be a boon in the coming months, but the tests are conclusive. I'm afraid it's definitely cancer."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


As Alice pushed her battered tartan shopping trolley towards the mall she watched a child playing hopscotch in the distance. The blonde girl, in her red duffel coat reminded the old woman of Little Red Riding hood.

Sitting on a low wall, bordering the car park, was a young man who must be her father. The little girl would throw her stone, then hop, skip and jump the course, running to hug her father's leg when she succeeded and letting him lift her onto his knee and bury his face in her neck when she failed, kissing and snuffling and sending her squealing back to the course.

Drawing nearer, Alice could see the toy shop carrier bag next to the man's foot, and next to that the discarded MacDonald's wrappers, stacked ready for the bin. The man looked at his watch, and though she was still too far away to hear it, Alice sensed how wistfully he sighed as he called his child over for another hug, just because.

He caught Alice's looking at him, chin resting on the little girl's head and he gave the old lady a shy smile.

When she was level with him Alice looked at the hop scotch course the little girl had drawn on the paving slabs. Each chalk line neatly intersecting the middle of the block's edge. With every hop and jump the little girl's feet landed where the corners of four blocks met.

"Oh, love, doesn't she know?" she asked the man. "Step on a crack-"

"She knows," he replied. "She won't let me draw it any other way."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Late Shopping

He stopped in the doorway, fearful of entering. Early sixties, tall and broad, dressed in a heavy great coat over a smart suit and shiny black shoes. He brushed the dazzle from his eyes and inched forward into the shop.

It all looked so delicate, so precious, so perilously balanced on the tiered glass shelves.

“Can I help you?” A woman’s voice.

Pretty, mid twenties, dressed in a plain blouse and knee length skirt, she stood in front of the counter. Behind the counter stood a thin, angular man, arms folded across his chest, coolly weighing up the prospective customer, sneer barely disguised.

“I want to buy a vase. It’s for my wife... I’ve left it to the last minute, as usual.”

“Everything we have is on display,” the man behind the counter said, sweeping a finger in front of him.

The young woman tutted. She took the old man by the elbow, carefully leading him on a circuit of the shop, pointing out thin stemmed crystal, twisted metal and stark ceramic vases every few feet.

They arrived back at the counter.

“Did you see anything you think she’d like?” she asked.

“It’s all very nice, but I was hoping for something more colourful. Something, brighter?”

“There’s a pound store-”

The girl interrupted the man behind the counter. “I think we might have something in the back.”

“We certainly-”

“The old stock that was here when he took over,” she reminded him. She vanished into the back and returned with a brightly coloured pottery vase.

The old man’s face lit up. “Oh that looks perfect. She loves bright things. How much is that?”

“Forty pounds!” the man behind the counter said.

She shot a glance over at him. “It’s old stock. You’re doing us a favour by taking it off our hands. No charge. Special offer, today only.” She smiled at the old gentleman.

The thin man reached out to pull the vase from the girl’s hands. “At least let me wrap it up. Christ knows, I don’t want anyone seeing you leave here with that.”

As the old man was about to leave, the wrapped vase in a carrier bag in his hand, he turned and said, “Thank you. Thank you, both, very much. I was ever so afraid I’d left it too late, but I promised her I wouldn’t let them put her in a plain old urn.”

Friday, December 4, 2009

Twenty Seven and One Quarter Inches.

On that particular night I was closer than ever to giving up my volunteer job at the homeless shelter.It was hot out, hotter inside and the smell of stewed vegetables combined with the sweat and alcohol fumes coming from the clientèle had my stomach turning somersaults.

My initial enthusiasm and romantic notions had long since abandoned me, nudged off the sofa by the fat-assed dichotomy of monotony on the one hand, and the constant threat of violence on the other. We have no truck with the gallant knights of the road, those picaresque rogues with their tall tales and hearts of gold. They do not exist. Instead we deal daily with the psychotic, the miserable, those who have slipped through the cracks and those who use the cracks for cover. The drug addicts, the delusional, those who hear the whispering and those who whisper.

It's not much fun.

Ben "Lost Dog" Burling is one of the quiet ones and reputedly harmless. Scarecrow hair, scrawny body buried under multiple layers of patched clothing, his boots are as scuffed and worn as his grimy, tanned face. He approached the line, a plate in one shivering hand, a twist of trailing string wrapped around the other.

"Still no sign of your dog, then?" I joked, just as I'd joked with him every Tuesday for the last two months. The frayed end of the piece of string hung limp from his hand, quivering slightly as his decrepit body shook.

He mumbled something in reply. I reached out for the piece of string. "Why not give me that to look after while you get some grub in you."

He snatched the string away, the plate slipped from his other hand, smashing on the floor. "No!" he screamed. "I mustn't let go or the world will get away. Where will we go?"

The supervisor, Gloria, pushed past me, waving her arms to keep everyone away from the broken shards of plate. The glance she assaulted me with told me squarely who she blamed for this calamity.

But there was worse to come as from the line Doug Catterly decided he had to help me. He was one of the worst of the creeps, fawning and obsequious, bubbling enthusiasm that swiftly turned to frustration and rage. He'd taken it into his head to help me with the recalcitrant Burling, grabbed the old man by the scruff of his jackets as he tugged and pulled at the string wrapped round the old man's hand.

Gloria looked at them, tutting as though they were children, but I could see old Ben's fingers squashed together as the string tightened on them. I rushed to his aid, grabbed at Catterly's arm and instantly remembered the warning from my first day's training. Never touch anyone. The results can be unpredictable. Spectacularly so.

Catterly had the strangest look on his face now. I dropped his arm and pointedly turned away, helping old Ben up from where he had fallen. The piece of string was no longer in his hand and there were tears in his eyes.

I turned to Doug and said, "Give him back his string. He's only an old man."

Catterly shook his head. "I must not let go or the world will get away."

Confused, I turned to look at old Ben, staring at his reflection in a darkened window, hands on his hair, on his beard, looking at himself as if for the first time in decades.


I was in the park buying an ice cream when he approached me.

"Excuse me, my good man, might I interest you in an aeronautical display?"

He was in his seventies at least, a little stick of a man, dressed in an over-sized world war two RAF uniform, complete with leather skullcap and goggles. A white silk scarf, wrapped around his neck, completed the ensemble.

I didn't say anything at first, craning to look behind him. He could see what was troubling me.

"They won't let me have a plane any more. Not since the incident with the Germans."

"You were in the war?" I asked.

"No..." he said. "What do you say? A ten minute aeronautical display. Only five pounds!"

I looked through the change I'd received after buying my ice cream. "I'll give you a quid."

"I used to get a thousand pounds a performance you know," he said.

"You used to have a plane," I retorted.

"Very well," he said in a dejected tone. "But you get five minutes and no loop the loop."


He began by running a hundred yards back and forth in front of me, humming engine noises, with his hands on an imaginary joystick, the left occasionally working the throttle. Then he was twisting off to the right in a lazy turn that gradually became a graceful figure of eight.

And so it went on, with him at one point rolling on his side along the ground, before leaping back to his feet, looking very spry for a man of his age, and running two hundred yards directly away from me, turning and running back at me as fast as he could manage. Before he barreled into me he stopped, hunkered down, wrapping his arms around his legs before throwing himself backwards, ankles over head. Once again he leaped back to his feet, then sauntered casually back over to me.

He pulled his monocle out, winked at me, then replaced it. "I threw in that last loop for free."

I fished the one pound coin out of my pocket and placed it onto his outstretched palm. He wrapped his fingers about it, placed his fist to his forehead in a salute, then stashed the coin in his puffy trousers.

"Well, young man, what did you think?"

I wasn't sure what I thought, but what I said was, "I've never seen anything like it. Can I offer a suggestion?"

"Of course you can, young sir. I value customer feedback."

"When you're running around like that you should stick your arms out, like they were wings."

"Wings?" he exclaimed, his monocle popping out. "My dear boy, I wouldn't wish to appear foolish."