Doorstep

Briony opened the door and almost immediately shut it again but the man on the doorstep was too quick. His foot jammed against the post.

“Briony, please!” his face appeared, scrunched up, in the gap. “I’ve come a long way.”

That voice – that Californian accent recognised the world over – at one time would have given Briony a shiver down her spine. But now it was the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Go away, Joe,” she told him. “I’m busy.”

“Can’t I come in?” he pleaded. “Your neighbours are staring at me.”

“Let them,” Briony folded her arms. “You should be used to being looked at, Mr Movie Star.”

“That’s different. I’m not there when the audiences see my work. Listen: I just want a minute of your time. Please, let me come in.”

Briony’s mobile vibrated. A text message from Sally over the road. “Do you know Joe Starr is on your doorstep?”

“Yeah, sad face,” Briony sent back. She was startled when the phone rang and she almost dropped it. “Hello?”

“It’s me – don’t hang up!” The famous actor was calling her from the doorstep. Millions all over the world would kill for a call from him.

“Piss off, Joe!” Briony hung up but she could still hear him from the front step.

“You used to love my calls,” he wheedled, “Our little midnight chats. We had something special.”

“Let it go, Joe.”

“And our Skype calls – they were pretty hot. No one turns me on like you, babe. I think it’s because you really get me, you know? You talked to me like I was a real person – which I am, of course I am. And I don’t get that from anyone. Everyone just wants the movie star, the good looks, the glamour. But you, you talked to me like I was the boy next door. And you listened – I’ve paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to shrinks who don’t listen as well as you. Please, Briony, let me in. Oh, wait.”

She heard him agreeing to pose for photographs with various people in the street. The excited chatter of her neighbours was growing. Soon there was quite a commotion.

Briony managed to close her front door and slide home the bolts and attach the security chain.   She looked at her signed, framed photographs of Joe Starr on the mantelpiece.

Oh Joe, she sighed. Why did you have to be real?

How she wished she’d never followed him on Twitter!

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Sparky

Sparky hopped up onto the kitchen counter at the old woman’s whistle.  His claws and leathery tail clattered on the hard surface. He panted eagerly while she sliced the loaf.

“Thank you, Sparky,” she said.   She pierced the first slice of bread on a long-handled fork and held it out towards her pet. Sparky inhaled, filling his lungs, and then he stretched his mouth as wide as he could and exhaled a steady jet of flame. Within seconds the surface of the bread was browned to perfection. The old woman pulled it from the prongs and turned it over so that Sparky could cook the other side.

“Thank you, Sparky,” she repeated. “Now, one last blast for the butter knife.”

Sparky obliged. The hot knife sank into the slab of butter. The old woman smacked her gums in anticipation. Sparky would be lucky to get the crumbs.

She set him to boiling water for a cup of mint tea while she munched and crunched on her toast. Sparky’s mind wandered as he heated the pot. A recurring memory – or perhaps it was a dream – idled its way into his thoughts.

We were mighty beasts once, the dream reminded him. We soared through the skies and laid waste to our foes, searing the flesh from their bones, vaporising those who challenged our dominion.

What happened to us? The voice of Sparky’s ancestors spoke mournfully in his mind.  Why did we let Man clip our wings?

Centuries of collusion and domestication has reduced out once noble species to little more than a house pet, a working beast – a kitchen appliance!

The water in the pot began to boil. Sparky whistled through his slanting nostrils to summon the old woman from her armchair.

“You’re a good boy, Sparky,” the old woman croaked as she shuffled in, bent almost double by the aches and agues of old age.

She sang as she infused crushed mint leaves in the hot water. Sparky curled up in his basket and dreamt of freedom and the open sky.

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The Message

“Captain, I’m picking up a signal on a covert wavelength.”

“Hmm?” Captain Splot was roused from his daydream by his communications officer. “What’s that, Yoohoo?”

“Captain, I’m picking up a signal on a covert wavelength,” Lieutenant Yoohoo repeated patiently. She was accustomed to the Captain’s absentmindedness. He was always like this when they had gone without adventure for several parsecs.

“Origin?”

“Unknown. Automated translators are working on it now.”

“Good. Let me know as soon as you know what it says.”

“Aye, sir.”

Splot returned to his musings. It had been the dullest mission to deliver grain DNA to a distant settlement where they were as yet unable to download and print off their own food. Now, homeward bound, boredom had set in. The captain was giving serious consideration to deviating from their course and popping over to the Wayward Sector just to annoy the Barclom. They would send out a few ships to intercept and Splot would have a feisty bit of target practice on his hands.

He hailed his trusty Chief Engineer. “How’s things, Mister Murk?”

Murk wiped his proboscis and held it out of the way of his com-link. “All shipshape, Cap’n. I’ll get us home in good time, never you fret.”

“Hmm,” said Splot and a twinkle came to his eye, “Mister Murk, how’s our fuel? Have we enough for a little diversion?”

“I don’t know, Cap’n. How little a diversion might it be?”

“Oh, just, you know, the Wayward Sector…”

“Wahey!” enthused Mister Murk. “I should say so, Cap’n.”

“Set a course for the nearest Barclom outpost, Mister Murk.”

“Aye, sir!”

Splot settled back in his chair and rubbed his hands in anticipation. They were asking for it, the Barclom. Just by existing. Just because they were there.

Lieutenant Yoohoo materialised at his elbow with the translation of the message; it was an invitation to a formal dinner from the Barclom high poobah. “It’s been transmitting for aeons, Captain. The Barclom have wanted peace all this time.”

Splot took the message and deleted it. If the Barclom hadn’t the sense to use open channels, they deserved what they’d got coming.

Formal dinner! Where was the fun in that?

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Brough & Miller ride again

This morning I reached the end of the first draft of my next book, which will be the fifth case for Dedley detectives, Brough and Miller.  And it’s their most gruesome one yet.  It’s called COFFIN DODGERS – I’ll post an extract once I’ve edited the manuscript.

It’s been a different way of working on this one.  I wrote it by hand in three notebooks while travelling on trains.  Not only is it a great way to pass the time on those interminable and invariably delayed journeys, but it was like a return to how I used to do things: first draft by hand, second on a typewriter (remember them?).  This method has slowed me down but I hope the plot is as fast-moving and funny as their other cases.

And now, the editing begins… This is where I find out if the story hangs together and the jokes work.  But not just yet.  I’m taking the rest of the day off.

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Mother’s Day

Jasper’s sisters greeted him on the driveway. Their eyes were bright with relief at seeing him. We didn’t think you’d come, they said. Two of them linked his arms. The others took his bags from the car.
They took him to the kitchen and fussed over him with tea and scones. For all their laughter and small talk, Jasper could see the strain on their faces. The stress of being back at the house was taking its toll. The eldest, Millie, was the worst at hiding her true feelings. Jasper took her aside while the others were playing a rowdy game of cards.
“It might not be you this time,” he tried to cheer her up. “It could be any of us.”
“Look at them,” Millie nodded to the others around the kitchen table, shouting and slapping their hands down whenever two cards matched. “How can I let it be any of them? I’m going to put myself forward. Let her take me. I’ve lived the longest. It should be me.”
“Mother won’t like that,” Jasper was tight-lipped. “You know how she loves her lottery.”
They both glanced up the staircase. Mother was up there, asleep in her four-poster bed. As soon as the sun went down, they would hear the tinkle of the bell from her bedside table. Then they would troop upstairs and say Happy Mother’s Day to her and she would plunge her gnarled claw of a hand into a velvet bag and pull out a numbered ball. Whoever held a ball with the corresponding number was the chosen one. The others would say their goodbyes and withdraw, glad it was over for another year, glad they had not been chosen.
“I have to,” Millie’s chin jutted resolutely. “Who knows, I might be the last? Mother can’t go on forever. This could be the last year.”
“We can hope,” said Jasper. “It seems terrible to say it – our own mother – but let’s hope she won’t wake up and ring the bell.”
As if on cue, the soft tinkling they had come to dread could be heard. Mother was awake and calling for her offspring.
Millie, with a noble expression, began to climb the stairs but Jasper pulled her back and bounded to the top.
“I can’t let you do this, Mill,” he called over his shoulder. Seconds later, he slammed Mother’s door shut behind him.
Millie went back to the kitchen.
“Is it done?” said Trish, the youngest.
“Has he gone?” said Bella with a hopeful glance at the ceiling.
“Brothers are so stupid,” said Althea. “Every year one of them falls for it. But Jasper was our last one. You don’t think –“
“Relax,” said Millie. “We poisoned the scones, remember. By now, they’ll both be quite, quite dead.”
She elbowed her way to a space at the table. Her sisters giggled and parted, glad it was over and they were free at long last. They didn’t know it but next year Millie would take their Mother’s place.
“Deal me in, girls,” she said, with a sly smile. She pinched Althea’s cheek. Her plump, juicy cheek.

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Meanwhile, at the museum…

The loudspeaker announced the museum’s closure for the day. The last of the visitors shuffled to the exit. The old attendant was not sorry to see them go. They were always sticking their fingers into everything – Oh, he knew it was what passed for progress these days: interactivity, they called it. Bright buttons to be pressed. Boxes to put your hands in. And smells – smells, for pity’s sake!

In his opinion, there was nothing wrong with bunging the lot in glass cabinets and then roping off those cabinets so that no one could get within three feet of them. Progress doesn’t necessarily mean better.

He slid the bolt on the front door home and proceeded about his rounds, ensuring doors and windows were shut and locked, lights were off and there was no one in the building. The curator had long gone. Knocked off at lunchtime, the attendant reckoned. Lazy article. Well, good. The attendant preferred to have the place to himself. He liked it quiet, without the irritating noise of irritable schoolchildren, or the clatter of women’s heels on the marble floor, the rumble of the coffee machine, the clink of cutlery on ceramic. Why they had to have a cafe was also beyond his understanding. Why couldn’t the museum just be a museum?

With the turning off of the main lights in the foyer, the building was swathed in shadow and as quiet as the tomb. The attendant smiled to himself. It was his time to enjoy the place without the intrusive presence of anyone else.

He went to the staffroom to make a cuppa. He had long since given up fears that objects would come to life after closing time. He often laughed at the foolishness of his younger self when he had taken on the job decades ago.  Yes, he had been younger then, and so had Harriet, the eager student of antiquities who would come in at lunchtime with her sketchbook and pastels.

Their fiftieth wedding anniversary was fast approaching, not that Harriet would be aware of it. She wasn’t aware of anything much these days, and whenever he visited her she thought he was a policeman in his dark blue uniform with its silver buttons. And with every visit, his heart would suffer another crack, like one of those fragile prehistoric vases pieced together by archaeologists.

He could have taken retirement years ago and have nursed Harriet when her mind had started vanishing. But he hadn’t. He’d preferred to stay at work, where you knew where things were, where objects familiar from years of his presence stood reliably where they had always stood.

He stirred the tea in his ancient mug, chipped and faded, commemorating some long ago jubilee – Harriet had given him that mug. Perhaps I should lock it away somewhere safe, he wondered. Before it gets damaged or destroyed and becomes just another memory of something I used to have.

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Meanwhile, at the Doctor’s

“It’s my sinuses, Doctor. Terrible pressure behind my eyes. I just cannot shift this headache.”
The doctor nodded and smiled. Joe gave himself a tap on the forehead.
“Just here, you know?”
The doctor nodded and smiled again.
“I’ve tried steam, I’ve tried painkillers and I think it might be an infection. Do you think antibiotics will help?”
A few seconds passed before the doctor spoke in his soft, professional voice.
“And what makes you think it’s your sinuses, Mr Roach?”
Joe shifted uncomfortably on his chair.
“Well, I looked it up online,” he shrugged. His jaw dropped. “You don’t think it’s anything more…serious, do you?”
The doctor shook his head and smiled.
“I shouldn’t think so. Let’s take a look at you, shall we?”
Joe hitched his chair closer to the doctor’s. The doctor waved at a screen across a corner of the consultation room.
“Nip behind there and get undressed, will you?”
Joe sat back. “What? It’s just my head.”
The doctor laughed. “Let me reassure you; there’s nothing untoward about my request. Please.”
Puzzled, Joe went behind the screen and took off his clothes. The pressure in his head pounded, making him dizzy. As he undressed, the doctor spoke.
“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Joe. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
“Er…”
Joe stepped from behind the screen.
The doctor’s clothes were pooled on the floor. Standing over them was a huge insect, six feet tall. It was looking at Joe with its bulbous compound eyes. Its mandibles moved and the doctor’s voice came out.
“You’re one of us, Joe. Welcome to the Hive.”
Joe scrambled across the room, frantic to reach the door. He didn’t care that he was naked; he just had to get away.
The skin across his brow rippled and began to split.

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No Refunds

“You startled me!” the old woman gasped.  The young woman did not look apologetic in the slightest.  She waited while the old woman pulled down the metal shutter and secured it with a padlock.  It occurred to her that she could have offered to help but decided against it, choosing instead to remain aloof and businesslike.

The old woman straightened as much as her humpback would allow.

“What can I do for you, dearie?” Her face creased with a smile.  Her ancient eyes glinted like wet pebbles catching sunlight.

“I want a refund,” the young woman said, keeping her lips tight.  She pulled a padded envelope from her bag.  “It doesn’t work.”

The old woman glanced at the packet and shook her head.

“No refunds.  You read the terms and conditions when you placed the order.  You mustn’t have followed the instructions properly.”

“I did!” the young woman protested, her voice cracking.  “All that stuff about opening it at midnight and chanting to the full moon.  I did all of that; God knows what the neighbours thought.  And I waited and it didn’t work.”

The old woman shuffled away from her lock-up, keen to end the interview.  The young woman followed.

“Look, if not my money back how about a replacement?”

The old woman kept walking but the persistent young woman kept following.

“You must have more of this stuff,” she nodded back at the lock-up.  “Don’t make me get trading standards onto you.”

The old woman stopped.  She beckoned for the padded envelope.

“It looks tampered with.  Damaged,” she examined it from all sides.

“It arrived like that,” the young woman shrugged.  “There was some seepage.”

“Ah,” the old woman nodded, “that’s the problem.  You didn’t use enough.”

She hobbled back to the lock-up and fumbled with her keys.  This time, the young woman stooped to help her arthritic fingers with the padlock.  Moments later, the young girl was heading for home with a brand new phial of love potion in her bag.

Following her and closing in with every step was a confused and broken-hearted postman.

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A Letter of Complaint

Dear Sirs,

I am compelled to write to you after a disturbing incident that happened to me at lunch time today when I settled down to enjoy a packet of eyes – namely a packet of eyes with your brand on them.  I have been a consumer of your eyes for many years – some might say too many have passed my lips and ended up on my hips, but I’ve tried your low fat eyes and they’re just not the same.

Until today, yours was a brand I could trust.  And so I delved my hand into the packet of eyes and scooped out a few without giving it a second thought.  It wasn’t until I felt there was something wrong with the texture that I became aware there was a foreign object in the packet of eyes.  I removed it from my mouth, to the disgust and horror of my co-workers (and to the delight of some, I have no doubt).  There in my packet of eyes was an ear.  An ear, gentlemen!  In my packet of eyes!

If I’d wanted to eat an ear I would have bought a box of ears.  But ears are not to my taste.  Hence my purchase of a packet of eyes.  Now, I’ve got nothing against those in society who like to eat ears – good luck to them, I say.  I just think it’s unnatural and not something I want to be doing.

How this rogue ear got into my packet of eyes I don’t know and I don’t want to know.  I suggest there is something amiss at your factory.  Perhaps you have employees who don’t know their arses from their elbows never mind an eye from an ear.

I write to bring this to your attention.  I am not asking for compensation in any form – although if a year’s supply of packets of eyes was to arrive at the address given above, I would not be displeased to receive it.

With kind regards

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The Spirit of Adventure

They had waited a year for the opportunity and now it had finally come.  They had spent twelve months planning and preparing and at last the hour was upon them.

They waited until dark then Dad reconnoitred the garden.  It was clear.  The guests had all left.  The music had stopped and everything was still.  The tantalising smells of dropped or discarded food enticed him but he forced himself to stay focussed.  He gave the signal and his sons brought out the basket, while his daughters carried the provisions.

“Are you sure it’s safe, Dad?” little Harriet asked, her voice little more than a squeak. Her father patted her head.

“Of course it is, my love,” he said, although the furrows of his brow suggested otherwise.  He glanced at the sky.  It was too cloudy for his liking.  He had been hoping for a clear night and moonlight to help him find his way.

With everything loaded, the time came for his departure.  He kissed his offspring in turn, saving a special hug for little Harriet.  At the end of the line was his wife.

“You’re a damned fool,” she told him, tears glistening in her brown eyes.  “Just like your brother last year and your own father the year before that.”

“I’m not like them in the slightest!” he told her – they had had this argument many times.  “I am prepared.  Planning is everything, my dear!  You know I have to do this.  I have to go.  There is no other way.  Now give me a kiss and your loveliest smile.  Do you really want that sour face to be my last memory of you?”

“And you will send for us, Daddy?  Soon?”

“Yes, my boy,” he winked at little Thomas.  “As soon as I can.”

He climbed into the basket and nodded to his eldest son, Harold, to untie the knots. The basket lurched upwards as the balloon strained for the sky.  How quickly it ascended!  Already his family were shrinking away, tiny figures on the grass, straining up to see him.  There was little Harriet, waving her pink paw.

“Goodbye, my dears!” he whispered, for fear of waking the cat. Within moments, his family and the garden were gone.  The balloon bobbed and danced on a current of air, taking its message of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ALAN into the unknown. Mr Furface gripped the edge of the home-made basket, woven by his family from dried strands of grass.

This is one small step for a mouse, he thought proudly.  One giant leap for mousekind.

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