Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Piano

Wind sang through the branches of the willows lining the drive. It whistled through holes in crumbling brickwork and shattered, glass panes. It rattled doors in their frames, set rotting wood to creaking and popping, and yet Rachel felt she was coming home. Her measured pace took her up the weed-strewn gravel drive, allowed her a slow circle of the decrepit statue of the founder before she turned to face what remained of Willowbrook Girls School – Established 1875. The sign above the vast double entrance doors hung yet, albeit by a single nail, but it clung.

Rachel rose slowly up the sweep of cracked steps and placed her hand on the ornate brass handle of the left door. Another sign, newer, of less presence, hung to the right, warning of the unsafe structure, of danger to life and limb. The words circled a stern hand, held up, palm out; Stop!  Smiling, she turned the handle and shoved. The door proved awkward, clearly undisturbed for many years. A heap of general detritus stood firm, but it was no match for Rachel’s determination. Shoulder to flaking paint and spongy wood, she gained ground, enough to allow her to slip inside.

Dust sifted through bars of light which speared down in strange places, illumination bent and distorted by fallen beams, draped furniture and the cut crystal clarity of shattered windows. The light was almost sepia adding to her sense of entering another world, another time. The reception hall showed signs of children other than pupils. The ghosts of long-dead masters could almost be heard shuddering at the graffiti poets and their abuse of the hallowed English language.

An elephant’s foot, once the home of uniformly black umbrellas, had been dragged front and centre, staged now in a glitter of broken bottles and phials, coated in charcoal from countless fires ignited in its depths. Patrons and masters alike peered down through sheens of dirt or seemed horrified by the addition of moustaches gifted by teenage artists. Rachel moved on.

Class after class revealed itself behind crumbling or beaten down doors. All retained their regimentation, some chairs still stacked atop desks, waiting for the morning which never came. Final lessons taught across the years in faded white chalk on scuffed rotary blackboards. An occasional pencil sat in the desk grooves. Inkwells stained forever occupied their correct holes. She riffled through a couple of abandoned exercise books, smiling at the rank and file of tables and verbs. She moved on.

The stairs to the upper floors rebuffed her. Vast chasms of broken treads and risers riddled with termites or mouse holes offered only broken bones. She turned her back and headed for what had once been her favourite place in the world.

A glass conservatory, the preserve of potted palms gone wild, stood silent, flooded with icy winter light. The smell was close to unbearable and she saw instantly where it belonged. Bookshelves lined the entire lower half of the room and every shelf contained rotting, mouldering books. She wandered in, finding something happy in the mushrooms and lichens growing from the books she had once cradled in her lap when this had been her territory.

Knowing her destination had been reached, Rachel turned to the centre of the room. The piano remained. Its sleek black finish was pitted and cracked. The ivory keys, once whiter than snow, now sat like yellowed teeth in split wooden gums. Seeds from the numerous weeds in the conservatory blanketed the piano thickly. She brushed a clear space on a handful of keys, played a few notes but did not hear the silent thud of dead song. Instead she heard…

…him call her name. Saw his mane of dark curls before his face popped above the bookcases. Heard him ask what she was playing. She watched him climb in the window, felt him sit beside her, solid, warm, smelling of sweat and earth. Knew he would ask her to play something soft for him, her hands already hovering over the keys for Fur Elise. She smiled as his hand slipped about her waist, slid round and caressed the curve of her breast, playing on, never missing a beat.

She felt his breath against her neck, his lips on her shoulder, her breath a little quicker, her tempo unwavering. She held fast until he lost patience. She laughed when he swept her up, laid her on the piano and the music danced in her mind as his hands played over her, as his body synched to hers. She reached crescendo in head and body, matching with him.

Moments later, as he left, he’d thrown a rose to her. She’d laid it across her hands as she played him out and back to his gardening. She’d promised herself one day she would write a piece for them, for the Musician and the Muse, but she never had… because he’d been taken with the bomb which had fallen on the school.

She kissed the rose in her hand, laid it on the keys and left quietly. She wanted to be elsewhere when the wrecking ball came in the morning.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Going Organic

Cindy and Mike loved the room instantly. It was formed from two attics, knocked through and lit by generous skylights. From their new home at the top of the house they could see clear across the city and the rent was ridiculously reasonable. To top it all, Mrs White – ‘Call me Martha, dearie.’ – Was a plum-shaped dream grandma as well as landlady. The house constantly smelt of baking, or soups and stews; food which was practically on a conveyer belt, on offer to both tenants and a couple of local cafes. Martha said she didn’t like to brag but she made a pretty penny from her dishes.
Cindy’s only real complaint, and a petty one at that, was the décor. The room came furnished and it had more than a hint of twee old lady, replete with doilies, china ornaments and underlying whiffs of Lily of the Valley. Still, dusting the silly clowns and fairy gardens built in cups wasn’t the worst price to pay for such a sweet set of lodgings.
The pair had been living at number 13 for a month when Mike started to complain of a cough. It nagged, scratched his throat and soon affected Cindy. They took to bed for a week, thinking the flu had them. Martha was wonderful, visiting them every day, always laden with soups and cold cures ‘my old gran swore by’. Neither tenant felt an appreciable difference but the effort was generous and warmly received.
A week in, Mike sat up in bed, started hacking and couldn’t stop. His breath came in wheezing gasps, whistling through a throat which seemed ever narrower. Cindy hammered his back, rubbed, cried, coughed in sympathy and begged Martha to send for an ambulance. Martha returned half an hour later, glum, reporting there was a two hour wait. It was already too late; Mike was gone.
Cindy couldn’t have been more grateful to the little woman who insisted on seeing to all the arrangements – ‘You being so sick yourself, dearie.’ The girl signed things, nodded and tried desperately to clear her cough, Martha plying her with – ‘Meaty broths to boost your health, dearie.’ – but wasn’t even able to attend the funeral. Martha went, brought back reports of – ‘A lovely turn out, and so many generous donations in lieu of flowers.’
A fortnight later Cindy passed. Martha called in Gus, her elder brother, instructed him on removing the body – in his capacity as local undertaker – whilst she caressed a pretty fairy garden in a china cup. She ran a finger over the ‘Happy Place’ sign and chuckled softly.
“A full tummy makes for a happy place, Gus.”
Gus grunted, nodded and carted Cindy off to the walk-in freezer behind the façade of his coffin making workshop. Martha wiped her fingers carefully on an antiseptic tissue.
“Meat needs to hang, but her Mike should be ready.”
She smiled, gently filling the gills of the mushrooms with fresh poison spores; another gift from her grandma, founder of the business. She stepped lightly on a floorboard, saw the gills close in response to the hidden pressure pad and left, satisfied the happy place was ready for its next victim – ‘Excuse me, I mean tenant.’ she giggled. Her head spun with ideas for the fresh meat Gus would bring over later ready to make a killing in the organic café tomorrow.

Monday, 18 September 2017


Jinny woke with a start, flashing into fully alert. Her instincts told her something was awry in the house, something involving David. She fled from her bed, along the upstairs hall and noted his bedroom door was open. His nightlight rotated serenely, visions of unicorns and rainbow stars dancing across the ceiling and walls. His miniature race–car bed lay empty and cold to her touch. How long had he been gone? Where did a three year-old go at four in the morning?

About to hurtle down the stairs, glimpsing the closed stairgate below, Jinny changed tack and headed to the end of the hall, turned the kooky l-shape which had been one of the things to endear her to the house and skidded to a halt at the bottom of the attic steps. David stood, apparently unharmed, on the bottom step, chattering and giggling. Jinny looked up, frowning at the open attic door and the light within.

Caught between fear for her son and frustration at these increasingly frequent midnight excursions he’d fallen into, she snatched the boy up, stuck a hand round the door to flick off the light switch, clicked the door into place and took him back to bed. Tucking him under his Paw Patrol duvet she smoothed back his hair and sighed.
“Sweetie, remember what I told you, about staying in bed at night? How it isn’t safe to wander about in the dark? That you could fall and hurt yourself?”
David nodded, but his reply gave Jinny little hope that this new turn of events was going to quit any time soon.
It’s ok. Mummy, Sariel says he’ll look after me. You too, if you want.”
Sariel huh? An imaginary friend to add to the mix. Joy.
Jinny kissed his forehead, aware he was already drifting away.
“Hunny, how about you ask Sariel if you guys can play during the day?”
“Sariel says I have to know how to run.”
His eyes closed before Jinny could figure what to ask next. Why was her son preparing to run? She sloped back to her room, fell into bed and lay watching the day grow, exhausted but sleepless.

Over the next three weeks, Jinny found David on that bottom step every other night. Her doctor suggested baby sleep meds, but she was loathe to take that step. Her mother figured it was just a phase he’d grow out of and her bestie suggested putting a bolt on his door. She took that one on board, but put the bolt on the attic door instead.

The night she fixed the bolt she fell into an exhausted sleep, her first full sleep since David’s wanderings had begun. At three am she woke, let the adrenalin wash away her exhaustion, breathed through the panic and headed for the attic stairs.
David stood on the second step. The door was open and white light spilled down on his intent face. He was clearly listening to something. Jinny recognised his expression for when he was trying to process something he didn’t fully understand. Suddenly he nodded, turned around and spoke to her.
“Sariel says not to lock the door please. It makes his job harder.”
Jinny looked up, saw a flicker of movement in the light and leapt up the stairs. She slammed the door shut and bolted it, screaming at the faded blue paint and cracked wood.
“Leave my son alone!”

Once David was back in bed and she in hers the ridiculous nature of her response hit her, but she had no idea if she should laugh or cry. The supernatural was for binge watching series on Netflix, right? No such thing as ghosts and spirits who possess humans, right? Then why had her innate instinct kicked in, her deeper level fears, causing her to react to a threat? She had no answers as sleep took her.

Another fortnight passed. Jinny had men in to check the attic for anything she could use to explain the strange occurrences, but nothing was found; not even a mouse or bat. She had a new door installed with an electronic lock, which garnered her some odd looks from the workman. His bantering tone was that of indulging a silly woman, but she didn’t care. That door had to stay shut.

Still, night after night, the door opened, the light spilled out and David went to chat to Sariel, now on the third and final step. Every time Jinny rescued him she expected an arm to shoot through the crack in the door, an attempt to take her son and she was ready to protect him with everything she had. One evening, desperate and lost, she sat on the bottom step with her back to the door, in some vain attempt to stop her boy climbing those stairs again.

In the drowsing quiet of 2am she heard the door open, saw the light fall about her, but she refused to look around. A voice, masculine but light, almost melodic, whispered into the envelope of light about her;
“Be ready to let him go. If you cannot do this one thing for your son he will be lost.”
Terrified, her brain screaming that she was hallucinating, sleep deprived, Jinny bolted from the steps and back to her room, shuddering under her duvet like a frightened child, half expecting the monster under the bed to be beat the barriers of the blanket shield this once. She woke to find David curled in bed beside her, smiling gently.
“Sariel says let me run.”

Jinny grabbed him up, holding him close, smelling his unique little boy smell and swore to never let him go. Wiping her eyes on her arm she told him they were taking the day off. Breakfast with pancakes and ice cream, a painting session, maybe a swim or a ride to the mall for a treat in the toy shop. David’s eyes shone with excitement and she held his hand,, leading him to the kitchen.

Mid-day rolled around, a time when they would normally be at work and pre-school. Jinny decided it was swim time, maybe mall after. She ruffled David’s hair.
“Go get your swim bag, kiddo. It’s hanging on the knob behind your bedroom door, ok?”
David nodded and headed upstairs. Seconds later the back door smacked open, kicked in by a young man who was as shocked to see Jinny as she was to see him. He recovered quicker, hurtling across the kitchen and pinning her up against the wall, threatening her with a gun to her temple.
“Can’t let you live, bitch. You seen me, huh?”
The circle of freezing metal against her temple faded to nothing, his words and wild eyes with it. David was descending the stairs, swim bag swinging happily against his shoulder. Silently, pleading with weeping eyes, Jinny mouthed to him;

Later, when the psychiatrists talked to him, David recounted his flight, the one Sariel had prepared him for. The tear up the stairs, along the hall and round the L. The race up the steps and through the open door, the white light, the feathered arm reaching to close the door behind him, cradling him against the bang which blew his world apart.
They thought it was the imaginary friends Jinny’s family had spoken about. A way for a disturbed psyche, a terrified child, to explain how he ended up in the attic behind an electronic lock which he couldn’t reach. Adults prefer not to believe, David came to understand. They like the rational, the door left open, unnoticed. He also knew better. Sariel couldn’t reach his mother, but he’d reached and saved David and one day he would know how to thank him for the gift of his life.

Thursday, 14 September 2017


‘Wanna come Carping this weekend?’
Visions of torrential rain hammering holes in the surface of a murky green lake surrounded by huddled men in green macs avoiding their wives and children filled Graham’s head. He shook his head firmly, hoping the office geek, Ned, would leave him alone.
‘I’ve never been into fishing; I’ll pass.’
Ned laughed, that annoying bray which set Graham’s teeth on edge.
‘No man, it’s like Larping, but real niche,’
‘And you think I know what Larping is because…?’
Ned was about to reply when Shirley, blonde, buxom Shirley from Accounts, who was currently between boyfriends and fair game, cut in with an excited squeal.
‘You are going Carping? Oh my gawd, you have to let me come!’
Graham jumped in, feigning the same level of enthusiasm.
“You can be my plus one, Shirl.’
He winked, she giggled, Ned frowned in vague annoyance, but buried it quickly in his reply.
‘Yeah, why not? Meet me at the Red Rooster on Acre Street, 6am Saturday.’
Graham’s splutter at the ridiculous hour was drowned by Shirley giving Ned a huge hug and squealing yet again, assuring the discomforted geek that she couldn’t wait. He tried to ask both of them what the heck Carping was, but Shirley tip-tapped on her stilettos back to Accounting at speed and Ned just winked and told him to enjoy the surprise.

Saturday dawned grey and windy, but at least it was dry. Graham swung his bike into the parking lot and noted Shirley decanting from her nifty little sports number. Despite the strange, medieval wench get-up, those magnificent mammaries beckoned above a froth of lace. She grinned at Ned, hugging him as Graham crossed to join them.
‘Can I get one of those?’
Graham flung open his arms but his dramatics were roundly ignored, Ned and Shirley heading towards the Red Rooster and disappearing inside. He had a sinking feeling his hunt for Shirley was going to fall flatter than a pancake stuck to the ceiling.

He was surprised by the interior of the pub. Outside it looked like ye olde worlde British inn. Inside the place was chock-a-block with screens. A row of plasmas seemed to be continuously streaming table-top gaming from around the world, complete with time-checks. Tiered tables in semi-circles filled the floor space and contained groups of cheering and groaning nerds all attired in ballooning shirt sleeves, tabards and green or red tights. Graham had never felt so out of the loop in his life.

Shirley simply threw herself into the mix, joining a similarly attired set of women by a long wooden bar. Ned put his arm around Graham’s shoulders and drew him toward one of the semi-circles.
‘Wanna make some bets?’
‘Sorry, I keep forgetting you’re new. We bet on the races we hold, all over the world. There’s a whole underground of these race clubs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to shell out too much.’
Ned seemed to find this comment incredibly hilarious, most of the group chuckling along. Several cries of ‘Good one’ and ‘Ned gets off a goodun’ followed. Ned indicated the screen.
‘Let the man see what he’s about to crack open his wallet for.’

Graham spent the next five minutes failing to close his gaping mouth and only remembering to blink when his moisture deprived eyes forced themselves shut.  A triptych of screens showed a race from the air, from the side and from some kind of head camera. His eyes swerved from one screen to the next, around and around as men in the same tights and tabard get-up as Ned and crew sat proudly astride their chosen chicken. 

It took Graham’s brain a few tries before it managed to stammer out the word. His vision saw chickens; bloody great chickens being ridden by grown men… in tights. His brain kept trying to tell him all was well, he was simply having bit of a nervous breakdown, what with end of year accounts and whatnot, but his eyes screamed ‘CHICKENS!’

Ned swept a chair under Graham with a practised flourish, catching the sinking man neatly.
‘Eggsactly what happened to the last three guys I introduced to Carping. Chicken Action Role Playing, in case you hadn’t got that yet. Cool huh?’
Graham continued to suck in the screen images, muttering a constant chant of ‘Chickens… bloody great chickens.’ Ned yelled to the wenches at the bar.
‘Ladies, something strong for our friend?’
Shirley bustled over, stuck a large whiskey in Graham’s barely responsive hand and clutched him to her bosom in her eggcuberance; which at least got his attention.
‘Awesome huh? I’ve been trying to  get an invite for years. Who knew our little Ned was gonna be my hero huh?’
She gave Ned another flirtatious wink and sashayed back to the bar. Reeling from all kinds of sensory overload, Graham really wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

A hush fell over the room, the plasmas were muted and all remaining screens began to show a large open field. A trumpet blared off screen and two groups of riders lined up at opposite ends of the field. Graham tugged on Ned’s sleeve.
‘What now?’
‘Best part of the day. The Battle of King HENry versus King Arthur. When Arthur draws Eggscalibur the battle will commence.’
Graham watched a rider with a slightly wonky crown and dragon-emblazoned armour stab a gold-painted, fake jewel encrusted sword at the sky. There was a thunder of talons, a chorus of squawks and then a cloud of feathers.
Graham slumped in his chair, downed the whiskey and gave in. If you can’t beat ‘em, he thought, as he scrambled for the door and the sanity of tax returns in April.