Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Balloon Man

He came every week. Never on the same street corner two weeks running, and that was half the fun.  Kids would run all over Bridgetown looking for him, The Balloon Man. We’d never seen balloons like his before. Always animals, but they were so real! Beasts of every shape and size, but that wasn’t the only surprise about our town balloon seller.
After chasing all over town kids would eventually track him down. He only ever carried one balloon and we all wanted it, but being first in line had no bearing on who got the gift. He’d look at the kids, a slow, lazy consideration, and then he’d say the same thing every time:
‘Ah, that’s the one.’
He’d hand the balloon to the lucky kid, the rest of us pretty much green with envy, before walking away without further comment. Growing up we all wanted a balloon and I think most got one over the years. There didn’t seem to be much of an age limit. I’d seen kids as old as 12 handed a balloon, seen their eyes light up same as any toddler. I also knew dozens of locals who had kept their balloon long after it was flat as a pancake and earthbound.
I still had mine. I remembered the pure joy when I wrapped my grubby six year old hand around that purple string and floated on air all the way home, my snowy owl – almost as big as me – flying free in my wake. He survived for nearly a year and I cried a little the night he began to drift toward the floor. Once all the helium had dissipated I carefully rolled him up, tied him with the purple ribbon and popped him in my sock drawer. Over the years, through college and becoming a teacher and marriage and kids that owl stayed with me, a little roll of crinkled security. I held it close now, drawing on the vestiges of a happy childhood to get me through the day.
It had been all over the news, Bridgetown’s only claim to fame, and one I doubted it would ever live down. The bullied school kid who worked at the local coffee shop. His internet searches and strange purchases. The invitations to a reunion of Bridgetown school pupils before the place was bulldozed and lost forever. A school hall filled with laughter and memories blown away, half the pupils gone with it, more forever scarred in mind and body.
The mayor and town council had sent out elegant, black-edged calls for any remaining pupils to come, to attend a mass funeral and the laying of the first stone of a memorial park on the site of the disintegrated school. Two hundred and sixty-five coffins, generations of Bridgetown erased. I couldn’t stay away, but I took my owl with me.
The coffins were lined up row after row, all the families and friends lined in echoing rows, reminding me of a bizarre chess game. The first move came from the mayor. He called for a representative of each coffin to step up and place a memory which would go into the grave with their absent loved one.
In the drizzle, under leaden skies, specially bought funeral outfits saturated, new shoes slipping on the turf, men, women and children came forward and I caught my breath as I watched. The town was so silent I felt I could hear the rain drifting onto my skin, no-one needing to strain to hear the words spoken by each figure. My heart lurched as I realised every single person was laying a rolled up balloon on the coffins.
A series of people brought tears to my eyes. These were related to my classmates. Marge Graham’s wife laid her balloon gently:
‘She was so unassuming but she was my life.’
The balloon, I remembered, had been a mouse.
George Temple took his turn:
‘My brother had a sharp tongue, but a heart of gold.’
The balloon drifted in my mind’s eye, a crocodile.
Anna Lyons wept copiously, placing a balloon for her husband:
‘Everyone knew he was slow, but he never hurt a soul, and I loved him.’
His balloon had been a turtle.
I tuned out then because my gaze was captured by movement by the graveyard wall. The balloon man stood there, head bent, paying his respects. I was frozen for a moment, thrown by how he had not changed, not even his dated coat and hat, but then a child began to wander over, smiling, a bright spot amongst the melancholic litany of death and destruction.  A chimp balloon rose up from behind the man. He smiled down at the girl, handed her the pink string and began to walk away.
I made to run after him, but the girl’s mother scurried over, embarrassed by her child’s brilliant presence in the depths of bleak despair, I heard her clearly in the sepulchral silence – ‘She’s such a monkey! – and I gazed after the retreating coat and hat, wondering who the child might have been had she not been given the chimp balloon.
Later, when the people had faded away I wandered over to the fenced off, ignored section of the churchyard. Behind the locked iron gate I could see where they had buried whatever they could find of Logan Miles, the kid with the lisp and chronic acne who had attained revenge on a whole town. A balloon had been left, tied to the crooked wooden cross at his head. I wasn’t surprised to see it flap pathetically in the wind, a hawk moth.

Sunday, 6 August 2017


I bought this book (Dean Koontz - What the Night Knows) in a charity shop. Wasn't til I got home I realised where it had come from and I was vastly amused by the idea of a story about a cop and serial killer ending up in a prison library. It also inspired this story.

Heather had been writing to Stephen Miller for three years. She’d stored every letter, neatly bound in a manila folder which belied the slow burning romance inside. Once in a while, when she missed him most, she took them all out and read them. As much as they cheered her, she couldn’t help but wonder how they would read if they didn’t have to be careful. It hurt to know that every soft word and loving declaration was read by someone before her, before him, but prisoners had no choice. Especially men like Stephen.
Heather glanced over at the pile of letters, mostly single pages, but occasional doubles. In order, resting one on the other, she realised there was something odd about the edges. She shuffled the sheets tighter, aligned them neatly but could only see an odd darkening along the left-hand side. In a moment of inspiration she fetched a large book from the shelf and set it carefully on the tightly hand-written pages. The sheets compressed and the oddity manifested into words printed down the left side of the pile.
It was like those old pads her dad had used. He’d kept a thick pad on his desk for notes and they were often printed on the sides with company names or logos. It had amused her to watch these images or words slowly disappear as the pad was used up. Stephen had used the same technique and written a phrase which she alone would see. She wondered why he had used such a slow method to send her his words.
Perhaps to stop the officials reading them? Maybe as a get out clause. If she turned out to be one of those flakes who fell in love with unattainable serial killers he could just stop and she’d never know. It was only chance which had revealed them to her now, her natural curiosity and penchant for observing the small things. The fact of his finished missive made her glow. In meant he trusted her. She read the words again, pondering their meaning.
Setting the letters on the desk with the words facing the sofa, she settled down to think, staring at the wonderful, frustrating message. Her mind wandered over their strange and beautiful connection.
Like the rest of the world, she’d followed the unfolding story of the Evangelical Executioner and his bloody trail. To this day no-one really knew if the handsome young vicar was a master manipulator or a dog-collared hypnotist. All the police could confirm was that twenty-eight people had killed a total of two hundred men, women and children, and then committed suicide via a vast array of methods.  As one of the tackier tabloids had gleefully written, in horror movie blood-dripping fonts, ‘…and he’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darn kids!’
Two of the twenty-eight killers had been seventeen-year-old twins. They’d gone into a local nursery and released an airborne toxin, killing 7 children, 2 nursery workers and themselves. No-one knew why they were the only killers to leave suicide notes, but they had and it lead to the arrest of Stephen Miller, a well-liked reverend whose parish was at the epicentre of all the killings. The note had read simply:
‘We did as you asked, Reverend Miller.’
Despite flimsy evidence – mainly the note and a witch hunt by the media that whipped people into a pitchfork and burning torch frenzy – Stephen Miller was branded a modern day Manson and committed to Blakewood Secure Unit for the rest of his natural life.
At which point Heather, a firm believer in the goodness of all men and second chances for all, had decided Stephen Miller needed a friend. A quick search online had delivered his prisoner number and the unit address, along with so much fan worship from teen girls Heather had felt physically sick. Forging ahead, she’d written and been happily surprised when a reply, complete with an explanation of what could and couldn’t be said or sent, had landed on her welcome mat.
The intervening years had been difficult and divine. Heather found it harder and harder to reconcile the wise, funny, clever and gentle man of her letters with the world view which called him Svengali, cult leader and squarely blamed him for manipulating the twenty-eight into doing his killing for him. They struggled with a motive, just as the prosecution had, but Stephen had given them an in. Throughout the trial he had sat silent, hands resting in his lap and a soft smile on his lips.  Interpreted in the media it was decided his motive had been pleasure and some hack attributed a fictional line to Stephen which sealed his fate, despite his never uttering it. When asked why he had done it he was supposed to have replied ‘Because it was fun’.
He preferred not to discuss his case, but once she had asked ‘Why do you think it happened?’ His reply had been more detailed than she had expected.
‘Perhaps, and I speculate, my sermons were more powerful than I thought? They became very popular, as you know, and people came from parishes other than my own to hear them. Was there something in them which inspired this misplaced desire to cleanse the world? I can’t say. If you could read them you might be able to see something I suppose.’
He’d said no more but she had pondered and eventually written to his old parish. Under the guise of writing a psychology piece for a local paper she’d persuaded the new incumbent to hand over a batch of Stephen’s sermons which had been put into storage, on strict instructions that they were not to leave her sight and not to be quoted with any reference to the parish. She’d agreed readily and now she reached out and opened the slim folder. Just three sermons within but maybe enough to give her a sense of what caused the terrible events of three years ago?
Reading through the words, at once new and yet familiar, Heather found herself slipping into Stephen’s voice. She drifted through the text, imagined him speaking the words aloud in his cell. Prison guards came to listen, moved by his eloquence and the righteousness of his words. Some consensus took them, caused one to step forth and open Stephen’s cell door, no man stepping up to stop the action. They parted to allow him to walk to the main reception, their heads bowed in reverence, a few whispering that none who spoke thus could commit heinous acts. The prison governor stood at the main doors, clearly enraptured as Stephen continued to speak. He inserted the combination of keys, paused before throwing the lock switch and embraced Stephen, tears in his eyes. The door swung open and the men started to sing a hymn as Stephen walked into the encroaching darkness of night.
Heather shook herself awake, realised she’d dozed off to dream whilst reading the sermons. She couldn’t quite figure if the light was dusk or dawn and flicked on the tv to get the time. She surfed to the news channel and saw it was morning. She’d slept on the sofa all night which explained her crook neck and aching back. About to rise and get coffee she abruptly dropped back down, listening as a serious-faced anchor read the story.
‘Last night, Stephen Miller, known as the Evangelical Executioner, walked out of Blakewood Secure Unit and vanished. Authorities say they have no ideas why prison staff simply let him walk out, but people are already asking if the rumours about Miller’s ability to control people is more than just media hype. Police have issued a warning to refrain from any kind of engagement with Miller should the public see him and …’
Heather startled when the front door vibrated under three loud knocks and she could see a shadowy figure through the frosted glass.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Fairy Door

“What… is that?”
It was the first sign of interest Blake had shown since he and Anna had arrived to look over the house. She couldn’t figure out why he was so disinterested in a free and clear home, an inheritance from her grandma. It rankled the more because Anna had so many happy memories of summers there. Following his gaze she spotted the tiny door set just above the wainscot, the teeny ladder which gave access.
“Oh wow, I can’t believe it’s still there!” she cooed, clapping her hands in delight, “The fairy door!”
“The what?”
“I told you I used to stay here, summer holidays and that, right?”
Blake nodded, his eyes wandering the room, judging and finding wanting.
“Well, Grandma had a tribe of house fairies who used to come out and do the housework overnight. She always said it was how she managed to spend all day playing with us kids and still keep the house spotless.”
“And you believed that? Geez, thought you had more sense.”
 To hide the hurt, Anna knelt, running a hand over the faded and cracked paint of the little door, noting one rung of the ladder was hanging loose.
“I was a kid, Blake. It was nice, no matter if it was true or not. We all loved Grandma’s tales of the games the fairies played.”
“I assume you are now grown up enough to understand that the woman was (a) nuts and (b) probably working herself into an early grave by playing with you lot all day and then cleaning all night.”
Anna hated his condescension, how he swung out of the room before she could make any point of her own in counter. She followed him downstairs, trailing in the wake of his dislike for the old, lived in house, fighting not to let his bleakness overwhelm the happiness she felt at being back in the place she considered safest in the world.
He stopped in the Formica and gingham kitchen, rubbing his hands on his pristine jeans after accidentally touching the stained porcelain sink, and her heart sank as his face set into ‘implacable’.
“We’ll give it a lick of paint, bland it out, get it on the market in a couple of days. I suppose we have no choice but to sleep here until the work is done.”
Anna concealed her smile. Even a couple of nights in Mercy cottage was more than she had hoped for,
Afternoon of the next day proved warm and bright. To Anna’s eye it lit the cottage with inner warmth which spoke of her grandma’s own. On a wave of nostalgia, Anna decided to fix the door. She had a quick search through grandma’s bits and bobs cupboard, found a broken wooden spoon, a trial pot of brilliant white paint and the dregs of some wood glue. Upstairs she painted the tiny door, one ear cocked and listening for Blake’s return from town and his mission to find estate agents, then used the broken spoon handle. Snapping it to size, she glued it in place, held it for a minute and then set it back against the wall. With a little dab of hand cream to grease the doorknob the job was complete. She flopped onto the bed she had slept in for so many idyllic summers, gazing at the door. On the verge of sleep she whispered,
“I want to stay”
Waking with a start, she realised a couple of hours had passed, the light now peachy with evening. She swung off the bed, scurried to the window and noted the lack of Blake’s car with relief. Sleeping on the job was sure to be a no-no. Only as she turned away did she note the peculiarity. The windows had been cloudy, in need of a polish, the sill the same. The curtains had been faded, home to the evidence of a moth or two. Turning back she realised the windows sparkled in the setting sunlight, the sill felt slick and reflected back light from the panes. As to the curtains, it appeared they had undergone some sort of regression back to the vibrant paisley pattern she had recalled from childhood. Of holes there was no sign.
Walking through the room, heading back to finish the magnolia painting in the kitchen, she noted several more small changes. The stairway lampshades, gorgeous art d├ęcor glass, were brilliant, bathing the stairwell in kaleidoscopic light. The runner in the hall felt springy under her feet, the pile no longer stubby or flat. The brasses hanging over the parlour chimney breast also caught gleams and sparks of light. Anna smiled; maybe the house fairies had liked that she’d fixed the door and ladder. Her smile faded as she heard Blake’s car crunch over the gravel drive.
The following morning Blake declared he couldn’t help any more – not that Anna had seen him lift so much as a paintbrush – as the local vendors were worse than useless and he needed to go further afield. Watching him drive away, Anna couldn’t help but notice the oppressive cloud of his presence lifting. The whole cottage seemed brighter, freer. Her heart railed against the idea of selling, but it also recoiled at the idea of Blake living there.
‘Maybe you should get rid of him’
Her treacherous little mind always seemed to speak the words she dare not form and cast into the world. The idea had all kinds of merit, but how would she cope on her own? She never had. Her parents had taken care of her, boarding school had taken care of her and then Blake. He called her Mouse and laughed, her self-esteem shrinking with every chuckle.
Walking back into the bedroom she noticed a pin sticking out of the curtain. Left over from the restoration work perhaps, she smiled, tucking it into a drawer and being hit by a very clear memory. Grandma teaching her how to do patchwork, telling her the story of the mouse and the lion when Anna stuck herself with a pin. Could she ever quit being a mousey Mouse and turn into a hero Mouse?
She gazed at the door, gave in to the urge and knelt before it, speaking softly.
“I was never brave enough as a child. I don’t know if I can change that now, but if you exist, if it’s you restoring the house, show me, please? Some sign that you are there and want me to keep the house. I don’t know how to do that, but I need to know.”
With her index finger she tapped lightly on the tiny door and sat back hard on her rear when her knock was repeated from the other side. Gathering herself she whispered,
“This sounds so silly, but I feel I shouldn’t open the door. If you can’t or won’t speak, how about the one knock for yes, two for no code? Can you do that?”
One knock.
“Do you want me to find a way to keep the cottage?”
One knock.
“Can you help me?”
One knock.
“Thank you.”
She didn’t really know what to do or what to ask so she backed away and headed into the garden to sit under the oak on the swing seat. She spent the day dozing, thinking, planning and discarding, flying to her feet a little before five. Blake had said he’d be back then. She fled upstairs to wash up and change, aware he would be crazy angry because she had accomplished nothing and then stopped.
On the bed lay two objects. The first was a poppet, a stuffed doll with two pins laying next to it. The second she recognised as a memory card for a laptop. Scooping up the doll and tucking it into her dress pocket she plucked the card and headed to the bathroom with it and her laptop. Locking herself in she turned the machine on, inserted the card and opened the single file it contained. It proved to be a recording of a conversation. The background noise suggested Blake had been somewhere busy, like a pub or restaurant, but his words were clear enough.
‘Yeah, I found an agent in Barking who’s willing to fight for a good price. Once it’s sold the money will go into the account, I’ll syphon it off to mine and we’re good to go.’
A pause, a short, nasty laugh.
‘Don’t worry, Shirley. She’s dumb as a sack of bricks. By the time she realises I’ve drained both her inheritance and our savings we’ll be on a beach in Spain, planning our next adventure.’
Another pause, a softened tone.
‘Yeah, love you to. Can’t wait to get back to a real woman. Not long now, lover’
The file stopped. Anna sat on the bed feeling as if she were caught on some bad tv drama. Her mind flipped through all the humiliation and misery Blake had put her through. Her anger boiled up, the hero mouse finally shoving the mousey one over the cliff.She picked up the poppet, took it and the pins to the window, and gazed into nowhere. He’d be coming over the bridge about now. Now a turn left onto the side track. Now a sharp right to avoid the river. She stabbed the pins neatly into both poppet eyes.
When the police came, the older one, who remembered Anna and her grandmother, was  surprised at how much she had turned the cottage around in just a couple of days. Surfaces shone, open windows allowed brightly patterned curtains to billow out, and the smell of coffee and cake drifted lazily on the air. Anna seemed unsurprised at the news, explaining how Blake had a habit of lunch-time drinks and then driving too fast. She wasn’t at all surprised he had come to a poor end in the river. Perhaps she would stay after all. She had been happy here in her youth.
“Do you remember your grandma’s fairy stories?” the man asked, smiling when Anna nodded.
“Oh yes. A lot of silly nonsense for us kids really, but that little door in my bedroom did give me a certain sense of protection and happiness.” She said, walking them to the door with its new coat of green paint and shiny door knocker.
Upstairs the last trace of the poppet vanished through the fairy door and the house fell quiet.