Meanwhile, at the Library…

The doors swung inwards to admit Jones to the library.  He nodded in greeting to the woman walking out but she didn’t respond; too busy putting the books she had borrowed in her shopping bag, Jones realised.

He approached the first machine in a bank of five, pulling from the pocket of his overcoat the book he wished to return.  Three options glowed on the screen: BORROW, PAY, and RETURN.  He selected the last – or rather, tried to.  He touched the rectangle on the screen; it was meant to represent a button, but nothing happened.  He tried again, a little more firmly this time.  Again: nothing.  He pressed the pad of his fingertip across the word RETURN.  Nothing.  He prodded and pushed and tapped and kept trying but could not get the machine to respond.

Faulty, he diagnosed, and shuffled along to the next machine.  Here it was the same story.  He moved on to the third, and then the fourth.  At last he came to the fifth machine and he could still not get the system to respond to his touch.  He wiped his fingers on his trousers but that made not one jot of difference.  He wiped the screen with the sleeve of his coat.  He may as well have not bothered.

He looked around for someone to assist but, like policemen, the library staff never seemed to be in evidence when you wanted them.  Other library users approached the machines.  Jones tried to warn them that the machines were on the blink but they ignored him.  They touched the screen and processed their books with no trouble at all.  Jones could not believe it.  He hurried to a machine he had seen working perfectly, but when he tried, it refused to acknowledge he was there.  What a waste of time!  Jones longed for the old days before all this computerised, automatic rubbish, when someone would stamp your books for you and you could have a nice chat about the weather and the price of fish.

With a grunt of frustration, Jones marched toward the exit.  He rammed the book back in his pocket.  If they wanted the book back, they could bloody well whistle for it.  As a final insult, the silver square on the wall wasn’t working.  Jones had to wait for someone to come in from outside before he could slip through the automated doors.  He sidled past the woman who had activated the switch on the other side.  She looked vaguely familiar to Jones but he couldn’t place her.  She looked upset, too, poor cow, and was clutching a letter.

Jones watched her approach a desk – unmanned, of course! – but no, within seconds a library assistant appeared and smiled a welcome.  The doors closed then so Jones didn’t hear the conversation that took place.

“I’ve had this letter,” sniffed the woman, her eyes brimming with tears.  “My husband was always a stickler for getting his books back on time.  He loved the library; it was a favourite haunt of his.  But he – he – passed away, and what with all the arrangements and everything, I’m afraid it got overlooked.”

The library assistant took the letter and typed something into a computer.

“That’s quite all right, Mrs Jones,” she smiled.


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Hello, dearie. Buy an apple, dearie? Freshly picked this very morning they was. Look at ’em, all succulent and round. Like this big red one. No? Well, perhaps I could come in for a moment, dearie? I’ve come a long way. I’ve got old bones and my lungs ain’t what they used to be. If you get to my age, well, you’ll know – What am I saying? Through here, is it, dearie? My, my, you have got it nice in here. Ceiling’s a bit low, isn’t it? You must bump your pretty head on a regular basis. It doesn’t bother me – I’m old and bent but once – oh, once, I stood tall and proud in the knowledge that I was the fairest in the land. You might not think so, looking at me now, but I was. The fairest in the land.

I’ll just sit here, if I may, dearie, by the fire. This is a little chair! Kiddies’ chair, is it? Got yourself a kiddie running around, have you? And where’s the man of the house? At work, I expect. Left you to look after the kiddie, has he? What? What’s that? You’re unmarried! Well, I’m not here to judge, dearie – You have no children, you say? I don’t follow you. Why all these little bits of furniture?   I’m not being rude, dearie, but your backside – pert though it may be – isn’t going to fit on one of these seats, is it? How on Earth do you manage? I’m old and bony now so it’s no trouble to me. I won’t keep you for long, dearie. Just having a breather. It’s a long way back through the forest. Long way to come for nothing. Do you know, I haven’t sold a single apple? What a waste of a day it has been! And they won’t be as good tomorrow. They won’t be as firm and as crisp as they are today. Such a pity not to snap them up while they’re fresh. What’s here? Four –five – six – no, seven chairs… Listen, if you buy them one apiece I’ll chuck in the big red one for yourself free, gratis, and for nothing. What do you say?

Who are they all, dearie? If you don’t mind my asking. The people what sits on these seven chairs. Some kind of nursery, is it? Are you running a kindergarten on the side, dearie? Is that what this is? Well, apples is good for growing children. Keep the doctor away.

What’s that? They’ll be home soon? Well, I won’t keep you. I’ll be getting along. If you could just give me a hand, dearie. Help me get back on my feet. That’s it.

Are you sure I can’t tempt you? No?

I’ll tell you what. Because you’ve been so kind and hospitable to a frail old woman what’s come a long way, I’m going to give you an apple. The big red one! With no obligation to purchase. Go on – have a bite. That’s the way; go on.

What do you mean it tastes funny? Are you insinuating there’s something wrong with my apples, my lovely apples? How dare you! I’ve never been so insulted. I’ll have you know – oh, my dear! You have gone a funny colour. Here, lean on me, dearie. Let’s get you to a chair – a couple of chairs for your ample behind. Can I get you a drink of water, dearie? You’ve gone rather pale, if I might make an observation.

Oh dear! Well, if you’re more comfortable on the floor, dearie, you go right ahead. No, no, I can’t hear what you’re saying with all that frothing going on around your mouth. Steady now, you’ll get froth on my dress. Oh, for pity’s sake, just lie still, you little slut, and stop clawing at me or you’ll have me down with you.

That’s right – you recognise me now, don’t you? I can tell by the way your eyes is widening. Yes, it’s me. Took you long enough, but then again it is a fool-proof disguise.

I’m off back to the castle now, dearie, to slip into something more regal. I can hear your seven housemates coming up the lane so I’ll nip out the back way. Through here, is it, dearie?

Dearie? Oh, dear.

Not the fairest in the land now, are you? Not no more. And at last I can stop speaking like an insufferable old pleb. Toodle-pip.


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Gretel Regrets

Looking back, perhaps we shouldn’t have done what we did. We were young, we were desperate, we were so hopped up on sugar we didn’t know what we were doing.

She was partly to blame. Whose gingerbread cottage was it? That’s right. If you build your residence out of confectionery and don’t have so much as a fence around it, you can only expect to have chunks bitten out of it when two hungry, frightened children stumble upon it.

Perhaps that’s why she locked my brother in the pantry. Perhaps she thought we were literally going to eat her out of house and home. Bit of an overreaction, a citizen’s arrest. And then she didn’t even call the cops. She kept him locked in but she made sure he had plenty to eat while I did all the bloody housework for her to compensate her for the bits of her dwelling we had devoured.

Like I said, we were frightened. Our parents had turfed us out – they couldn’t afford to feed us, they said. We were tearaways with no respect for anybody. I blame the ruling class. They made things tough for our parents – no wonder they abandoned us.

And what kind of future will we have now, my brother and me?

We can claim it was self-defence. We can claim it was her or us. But who are they going to believe, two tearaways disowned by their own parents, or a frail old feeble old woman who lives alone in the woods?

They’ll throw the key away and chalk up another mark against the wayward youth of this kingdom.

I kept asking when will our debt be paid. And she kept saying one more day, dearie, one more day. Stupid old witch.

And then I found the shoes. Dozens and dozens of pairs of children’s shoes, all colours and all sizes, filling every drawer in the house. I asks her about them and she goes crazy. She tells me I’d soon find out what happens to naughty little girls who couldn’t keep their noses out. And she grabs a knife and pulls my brother from the pantry. She’s going to stuff him in the oven and he’s crying to me to help him so I grabs the tablecloth and chucks it over her head. While she’s stumbling around, flailing and flapping, we both rushes at her and it’s her what goes in the oven. We slam the door shut and we peg it out of there. The old woman’s screaming is enough to bring the house down but Hansel has a better idea. He grabs a log from the fireplace and whoosh, the whole wall goes up. We pelt it out into the forest and we watch, breathless and exhilarated, as the gingerbread house goes up in smoke. And the old woman is screaming no more.

And I’m glad. I’m glad she’s dead.

My only regret is I didn’t save the shoes. They all got burned up too. And now, without them, nobody’s going to believe a word of our story and we shall swing for it.

And our mum and dad, when they hear about us, will look at each other and say, Told you so.

gingerbread house

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Vegan Justice

The old judge peered over his half-moon spectacles at the defendant in the dock. The child was fidgeting nervously; he had turned himself in and was now awaiting sentence. As always in such cases, the judge was predisposed to be lenient.

“You admit you trod on the snails, albeit accidentally, as you were passing through the alleyway that links your street to the public park.”

“Yes, your honour.”

“It was dark and the alley is poorly lit – if at all. The deaths of the snails were accidental. You are free to go, but rest assured I shall be having strong words with the Council about the installation of street lamps in that alley.”

The usher steered the somewhat stunned but exhilarated youth from the court. The next case came in to be heard.

The defendant had caught a fly in her kitchen. Instead of letting it out through a window or door she had crushed it. Her pleas of accidental slaughter were unconvincing. Oh, thought the old judge, you have blood on your hands all right. The sentence was three months of community service in an animal sanctuary.

Since the world turned Vegan, violent crime had all but disappeared. Every life has value was the widespread belief and the law protecting every creature had to be seen to be upheld. It was found that those who revere even the tiniest creeping thing were unable to inflict pain on their fellow man.

The old judge could remember the time before, when life was cheap and the planet was ailing because of industrial farming. Half the world starving to death and the other half obscenely obese and dropping like flies – fat, bloated bluebottles engorged on crap. Things were much better now. Everyone was well fed and healthier for it at both ends of the scale. Peace had come to the planet at last.

Then came the third case of the day.

The accused had caught, skinned, cooked and eaten a rabbit, and seemed altogether unrepentant about this foul and calculated murder. He stood, unfazed by the old judge’s withering stare, sneering as the list of charges was read out and smirking at the gasps that went around the appalled courtroom.

When all the evidence had been heard, the old judge retired to his chamber. He consulted some leatherette-bound law books for guidance. This was one of the most sickening cases he had encountered in decades. If he had his way, a life for a life would be the sentence.

But on a Vegan planet there is no capital punishment. That barbarity went the way of abattoirs and factory farming.

So what was to be done about the rabbit-killer?

Life imprisonment was such a burden on the state. Community service did not seem stringent enough. A fine, perhaps…

The old judge lowered himself into his chair, weary of his work.   He reached into a desk drawer for his stash of wheatgrass wafers.

They tasted like ashes in his mouth.


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To Do List

  •     Take a stroll around the deck
  •     Drink tot of breakfast rum
  •     Get wooden leg sandpapered.
  •     Agree course with first mate
  •     Set sail
  •     Elevenses – rum
  •     Put myself about a bit to strike fear in the crew.  Whipping arm could do with a work out.
  •     Get hook sharpened.
  •     Luncheon – rum and ship’s biscuits (sans weevils, I hope)
  •     Arrive at Ocracoke Island – take half a dozen of the scurviest dogs in jolly boat.  Remember shovels.
  •     Follow clues on treasure map
  •     Improve orienteering skills with a hip flask of rum
  •     Find spot marked X
  •     Get scurvy dogs to dig up the treasure
  •     Kill scurvy dogs in surprise act of treachery
  •     Bury treasure somewhere else
  •     Amend map
  •     Return to ship
  •     Set sail for home
  •     Stop off for rum
  •     General pillaging and plunder as and when.
  •     Send black spot to Mum


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“Lovely evening for it,” said Archie’s neighbour, locking up his car.  Archie nodded and waved his free hand but kept moving.  He didn’t want to get caught up in any gossip or putting-the-world-to-rights right now.  He just wanted to get Poochums to the park, let him do his business and then get home before his date arrived.

The date had said he was a dog-lover and had made some off-colour remark about liking their style.  Archie had laughed – well, he had typed HAHAHA, which somehow seemed more genuine than the ubiquitous LOL.

Poochums was dragging his feet.  It was almost as if he knew Archie had company coming and was already trying to sabotage the evening.  Poochums was a friendly dog up to a point.  He could get jealous and possessive if he thought Archie was lavishing a little too much attention on someone or something else.

“Come on, Poochums,” Archie walked ahead.  Poochums affected interest in every gatepost, lamppost and other item of street furniture as if he had all the time in the world.

Eventually they reached the park.  Archie let Poochums off the lead, knowing he wouldn’t tear off.  Poochums never went far.  He would root around in the flowerbeds and circle the tree trunks, taking inventory of which other dogs had visited recently.  And then, his investigations over, Poochums would squat and begin to tremble as he ‘did his business’ on the grass.

While he waited, Archie took out his phone.  He scrolled through the text messages his date, Andy, had sent.  Andy.  Andy and Archie.  A and A.  It was like destiny or something.

Poochums trotted back and Archie realised he had a duty to perform.  He reached in his pocket for a plastic bag.  He couldn’t find one.  He had neglected to bring one, so distracted had he been in anticipation of Andy’s visit.

He swore.  He toyed with the idea of just leaving it there, just walking away.  But the prospect of a fine or a guilt-trip next time he saw a blind kid was too much.  He had to pick up Poochums’s poop and dispose of it in the red bin on a stick.

An idea!  He strode to the nearest waste bin and, checking no one was watching, delved his hand in to pull out a carrier bag.  It contained a sandwich wrapper and some bits of salad.  Archie tipped these into the bin and, wrapping the bag around his hand, returned to his dog’s doings.

This was the worst part of owning a dog.  The warmth!  The smell!  Gagging, Archie bundled the bag into a neat parcel and tied the handles into a bow.  It was then that he noticed the bag had holes in it.  Air holes.  Some of Poochums’s leavings had oozed through and smeared Archie’s palm.


Well, exactly.

Archie managed to open the lid on the red box on the stick and drop the bag inside.  He also managed to clip the lead onto Poochums’s collar without his palm brushing against anything.  Poochums tried to sniff the hand but Archie kept it out of reach.

They headed for home.  Mercifully, the neighbour was no longer lingering.  There should be just enough time for Archie to get indoors and wash his hands.

He was at the front door and fumbling his left hand into his right trouser pocket for his key when Andy arrived.  Poochums gave a yip of alarm.

Andy was tall, tanned and gorgeous.  He smiled and said hello and his teeth flashed white in the porch light.

“Um,” said Archie, taken aback.

“Lovely to meet you,” said Andy and before Archie knew what was happening, Andy had seized him by the hand and was shaking it heartily.

Archie cringed.  At his heels, Poochums let out a sound that was not unlike a snicker.  A snicker of triumph.  He wagged his tail and panted, as if to say, Let’s see how long this one sticks around.


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Cat Woman

O’Grady the landlord sent his sons to sort the old woman out.  She was a cantankerous old boot, hard of hearing and should, by rights, be in some kind of home, but no, out of the kindness of his heart, O’Grady had graciously allowed her to remain in the end-of-terrace house, without much of a rent increase.  But now, the old biddy was in arrears and this was the chance O’Grady had been waiting for, the excuse he needed to kick her out.  Let social services take care of her.  As far as he was concerned it was a business deal, pure and simple.  And everyone knows there is no room for sentiment in business.

His boys, Liam and Finn, went around first thing.  They were uneasy about turning her out and stacking her belongings at the side of the road but, as their dad said, it was purely business.  She hadn’t kept to her part of the contract and so out she must go.  There must be dozens of families waiting for top quality accommodation like this.

Finn knocked the door.  There was no answer.  Liam peered in at the windows but the interior was too dark; he couldn’t see a thing.  And then he jumped back, startled, and trod on his brother’s foot.  A black cat with malevolent eyes had appeared on the inner windowsill.

Finn laughed and deemed his brother a softie.  He stooped at the letterbox and peered into the hall.  “Christ, it stinks!” he turned his face away and gulped fresh air.  “Does she keep cats or something?  She must have dozens in there.”

His phone buzzed.  It was O’Grady.  “Yes, Dad, we’re there now.  No, Dad.  She’s not answering… Well, we can’t do that, can we?  Can we?”

“What?” said Liam, trying to listen in.

“He wants us to kick the door in,” Finn explained.  “If she’s out, we can make a start on bringing her stuff to the kerb.”

“I don’t like this,” said Liam.

“We’ll go around the back,” said Finn.  “Away from prying eyes.”

The back door was easily dealt with.  One shove from Liam’s shoulder got the wood splitting around the lock.  He stumbled into the kitchen and was immediately assaulted by the stench.  The floor seemed to be alive and crawling.  Finn pushed his brother aside to see for himself.

“Shit me,” he gasped.  Everywhere they looked there were cats, of all colours, breeds and sizes, a sea of fur constantly moving.  His outburst drew the attention of the mass of moggies.  The animals began to hurl themselves at the intruders; hissing, spitting, projectiles of tooth and claw.  The brothers staggered backwards into the yard.  Cats poured from the house and over the fence and were gone.

Only one remained, the black cat with malevolent eyes, standing sentinel at the side of a motionless figure on the kitchen floor, a skeleton in old lady’s clothes.

“So that’s all that’s left of her,” said Finn, recovering from the shock.  “I’d better phone Dad.”

“Not all,” grimaced Liam, examining the sole of his shoe and the cat shit he had just trod in.  He thought of his own grandmother, alone in her farmhouse with only a Collie for company, and resolved to try to see her more often.


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Meanwhile, up at the flats…

O’Malley crashed into the police station and stumbled towards the front desk. The duty sergeant glanced up from his crossword puzzle.

“This is a turn-up!” he laughed. “You bringing yourself in. Your usual cell do you?”

O’Malley shook his head. The sergeant could smell the whisky. “Lock me up if you must,” the old drunkard sounded weary, “but first hear what I have to tell you.”

“Favourite for tomorrow’s 1:15 at Chepstow is it?”

“Will you just listen? I ain’t after talking about racing tips on this occasion. I’ve seen it – something terrible – and I’m telling you so you can do something about it.”

“Oh?” the duty sergeant actually put down his pen. He folded his arms. “Go on then – and this better be good.”

O’Malley leant over the counter, his eyes wide and urgent.

“Up the hill behind the flats,” he swung his arm in the vague direction of the location he mentioned. “I’d just come out of the Cobbler’s Arms and I was after taking a short cut. Well, I hadn’t gone far when the call of nature forced me to seek out a – well, you can imagine. I found a bush and I was just finishing my business when I saw it. Just hovering in the air, about as far from the end of my nose as you are now.”

The duty sergeant felt his nose itch. “What was it?”

O’Malley’s face contorted into a mask of wonder. “Oh, it was beautiful! A perfect sphere, like a soap bubble but made of something else. Not glass, not even thin air. But there it was just hanging in front of my very eyes. Like it was having a good look at me. And then it bobs away, about six foot off the ground. Well, I zips up and stumbles after it. It was heading towards the first block of flats and getting higher and higher. I had to strain my eyes to see it and then, all of a sudden, it comes rushing back at me. Fair bowls me over, it does. See here on my hands, where I’ve skinned them on the tarmac. That bloody ball thing did that to me. That sphere! That orb! And then I picks myself up and it was gone.”

The duty sergeant sighed. He’d been a fool to entertain the old drunkard’s latest tall tale. He got to his feet and reached for a bunch of keys. “Come on then; number three. You can sleep it off in there.”

But O’Malley clung to the counter. “They’re here, I tells you! They’ve come at last! That was just the first. There’ll be millions of them. It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

“Now, now, I’m sure it’s nothing like that. Probably a kid’s toy you saw. They have all sorts these days.”

O’Malley let out a wail. “It weren’t no toy! They’re coming, I tells you.”

It took the duty sergeant and two other officers a while to peel O’Malley away from the desk and steer him toward the cell. He would have a sore head in the morning and would remember nothing of this latest wild claim.

But up on the hill, near the tower blocks, a tiny craft in the guise of a colourless orb hovered in the air.

“Shit,” said one of the occupants. “They’re onto us.  Abort the mission!”


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“Goodnight then, chick,” Davey’s mother pecked his forehead. She tucked him in tight. “You and that old Teddy. I don’t know; I thought you were a big boy.”

Davey didn’t reply. He hugged his toy bear tight and scowled. I’m a big boy now – Mum and Dad were always saying so – but why they wouldn’t let him stay up to watch the film, he couldn’t understand. If he truly was a big boy, then no stupid film was going to scare him.

Mum closed his door but left the landing light on. Davey heard her go downstairs and the sound of the television grow louder and then softer as she opened and closed the living room door.

“Don’t worry, Teddy,” said Davey. “I won’t let them take you away.”

Teddy’s plastic eyes – orange with black dots – stared impassively. His mouth had been stitched crooked, giving the bear a perpetual smirk.

“If I could show them I’m not scared…If I could show them how grown up I am…” Davey’s mind struggled to come up with a solution. He sat his teddy bear on the bedside table. It was a start. He drifted into disgruntled sleep.

He woke a couple of hours later, needing the toilet. Mum usually came in to carry him to the bathroom but tonight there was no sign. Huh, probably watching that film, Davey thought crossly. Eh, Teddy?

But Teddy was not there.

Davey climbed out of bed. Teddy was not on the floor or under the bed.


Davey padded out onto the landing. The blaring of the TV filled the hall. Flickers of light played on the walls. Through Daddy’s expensive sound-surround system, someone screamed.

Davey swallowed. It sounded like the film was really scary after all.

And there was Teddy, standing in the living room doorway, looking up at Davey and smirking that lopsided smirk.

Teddy was drenched. In blood.

He stumped toward the foot of the stairs and began to climb. It would have been cute were it not for the trail of red he left behind and the kitchen knife he carried in his rudimentary paw.

“No, Teddy!” Davey backed away. His bladder let go.

“Not scared are you, Davey?” chuckled Teddy as he reached the landing. “And I thought you were a big boy now.”


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Meanwhile in the garden…

The sharp knock on the front door roused M from his newspaper. He shuffled to the hall and opened. Three diminutive figures were on his doorstep: the neighbours’ kids dressed as detectives. Two sported overlong trench coats and trilbies, and the third a deerstalker and a cape. The lens of a magnifying glass made his eye inordinately large.

“We have reason to believe there is eggs on your property,” said one of the trench coats.

“That’s not against the law, is it?” M clutched at his cardigan in mock horror.

“That’s for the judge to decide,” said Deerstalker.

“May we?” said the other. M stood aside as the three bundled into his hallway. “Through here, is it?”

Bemused, M followed the trio through to his kitchen. The back door was bolted. M obliged by reaching up and unlocking the door.

The back garden was scrupulously neat. It was difficult to imagine there being anything hidden among its tonsured grasses and ordered flowerbeds.

Deerstalker apportioned sections of the garden to the other two. The detectives split up and, eyes down, set about their intensive search.

M remained on the doorstep, keeping out of the way and trying not to mind as they moved some things and disturbed others. One of the trench coats gave a squeal of disgust. M held his breath.

“A slug!” the child cried. The others laughed and told him not to be such a baby.

M couldn’t relax. Just hurry up and find the painted eggs and go back to your parents, he urged. And yet, if pressed, M would admit to enjoying the thrill of near-discovery, of almost being found out.

How different the neighbours would treat him if they knew what else was concealed in his garden!


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