John Leaves Home

John knotted his tie and pushed it up to the top button of his shirt.  He checked the way it looked in the bathroom mirror.  He put on his suit jacket and dusted the shoulders with the back of his fingers.

Not too shabby, he reflected.  Rather smart.  I look like I’m off to a job interview or to make an appearance at court – instead of being off to my doom.

He walked through the bedroom with his shoes hooked on his fingertips.  He padded down the stairs in his socks and slipped into the Brogues.  He stooped to tie the laces and caught his own eye in the mirror in the hall.

This is it, Johnny.  This is the end.

His stomach flipped.  A whole reserve’s worth of butterflies made themselves known.  I’m not ready, he thought.  I’m not ready.

He looked up the stairs.  Perhaps I should go back up.  One last embrace.  One last kiss.  One last goodbye…

No.  Better to be quick and clean.

He took an envelope from his inside pocket and propped it up on the hall table, using the snow globe they had brought back from their honeymoon.  She would be heartbroken but it was inevitable.  And anything was preferable to telling her the truth.

My dreams have always been small, he mused.  Singularly lacking in ambition – that’s what my last appraisal had boiled down to.  Well, wouldn’t you be, if you knew your days were numbered?  Scratch that: we all know our days are numbered but John knew the actual number.

And now there were no days left.

He opened the front door and stood on the step.  A long, black car was waiting at the kerb.

John pulled the door to, careful not to make a sound.  Goodbye, house, he thought sadly.  I could have gone for bigger, a mansion, a palace!  But I was content with you, you modest post-war semi.  We were happy here, the girl of my dreams and I.

One last guilty look at the first floor window.  The curtains were closed; John’s wife slept on.

I had to do it.  There was no other way.  You would never have looked at me otherwise.  And we were happy, weren’t we?  We had a good life?  I have to believe that.  I have to believe I didn’t sell my soul for nothing.

He closed the garden gate behind him.  At this early hour, the street was deserted.  No one will see me go, he realised.

The rear door of the car opened of its own accord.  A definite whiff of brimstone greeted John as he climbed in.

The door closed.  The tint of the windows was too dense to afford John one final look at his marital home as, silently, smoothly, the long, black car glided away.



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Made To Order

“You’re home early,” a rather startled-looking Adrian pulled the sheet up to his neck.  In the doorway, Joe glanced around the room.  He dropped his briefcase and tugged at his tie.

“Afternoon off,” he said.  “I told you.”

“Did you?”  Adrian was nervous.  Joe approached the bed – their bed.  He perched on the corner.

“You’re in bed early; not well, baby?” Joe reached to feel Adrian’s forehead.  Adrian recoiled.

“I needed a lie-down.  I’m not feeling the best.”

Joe squeezed his knee.  “I’ll order in.  A slap-up Chinese will sort you out.”

“Or finish me off,” Adrian attempted a smile.  Joe leaned in and pecked his cheek.

“Menus in the drawer?”

“You say the sweetest things.”

Adrian watched Joe leave the room.  He heard him pad down the stairs and rummage in the kitchen.  While his husband made the call, Adrian crept from the bed, the sheet cinched around his waist, and opened the wardrobe door.

“He didn’t suspect a thing,” he told the figure standing within.

“Good,” came the whispered reply.

“I don’t know how you stand it,” said Adrian.  “Just the thought of him, touching me, pawing me… never mind anything else.”

“Well, I don’t have to anymore,” the figure emerged from behind the hanging shirts.  “That’s your problem now.  And you must obey me.”

Adrian groaned.  “Do I have to?”

The man, dressed in a suit, pulled out a device and waved it at Adrian’s head.  “A few more adjustments.  Joe won’t know the difference.”

Tears welled in Adrian’s eyes.  “How can you do it?  How can you leave me?  You go to all the trouble of making me and then you abandon me.  Why?”

“Why?” Adrian – the real Adrian – dusted off the shoulders of his jacket and looked at his clone with pity.  “That’s the eternal question.”

“Please!” the clone tugged at his maker’s sleeve.  Adrian brandished the device.  The clone adopted a vacant expression.

“You’d better get back in bed,” Adrian instructed.  “I’m going to sneak out the back way.  In an hour I’ll be at the airport on my way to a new life where I can conduct my research without hindrance.  Just keep Joe distracted long enough for me to clear out our bank account and please, try not to get black bean sauce on those sheets.  They’re Egyptian.”



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Meanwhile, on a desert island…

Twenty years.  That was his best estimate.  Twenty years stranded on the tiny island.  At least!

He had changed – obviously, he was older.  Hairier too.  I must look like a walking haystack, he thought.  He no longer looked at his reflection in the rock pools that yielded him crabs to eat.  The diet kept him lean.  He had forgotten the taste of cake.  There was fruit on the island.  From that he got his sugar.  Sometimes he would let it ferment in the sun and then he would get drunk.  It was worth the stomach cramps the next day, for a few hours of blissful oblivion.

The loneliness was the worst thing.  It had eaten away at his peace of mind and now proved his greatest danger.  There were no animals on the island to predate on him.  There was shelter and fresh water.  And coconuts – he had learned not to walk directly under the trees when the coconuts were falling.  What a way to go that would be!  Brained by a falling coconut!

But the loneliness stretched his isolated hours.  Perhaps it had not been twenty years.  Perhaps it only felt like it.

Oh, to see another face!  To hear another voice!  He had thought about catching one of the colourful birds of paradise that roosted in the trees and teaching it to say Hello.  Or to swear, because that would amuse him.

He drew pictures in the sand.  Places he had been and people he had known.  He imagined stories for them.  How their lives had gone on without him!  When exactly had they given up the search?  Had they even searched?  Had they bothered?

His paranoia told him he had not been missed.  People had shrugged and got on with their lives.

He couldn’t say he blamed them.

And then, at long last, a blot on the horizon.  He climbed to the highest point so he could watch as the dark spot grew larger.  It was a ship!  A ship heading directly for the island!

A ship meant people!  A ship meant salvation!

His ordeal was over at last.


He hurried down to the beach and kicked sand over his fire.  He tore down the shelter he had built and scrambled into a cave.

If I lie here still and silent, they’ll go away.  He held his breath.

Good man, said his loneliness.  It’s just you and me now.


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A Visit to the Wise Woman

“Now then, what seems to be the problem?”  The old woman gestured to a stool, her hand a bunch of twigs held together by knotty veins.  The Princess Rosamond demurred – the stool was little more than a tree trunk upholstered with moss.  Gingerly, she lowered herself onto its edge, aware of the old woman’s eyes, black and gleaming, like a raven’s, watching her every move.

“I – I don’t know where to begin,” Rosamond faltered, her voice barely above a whisper.

“At the beginning, dearie!” the old woman suggested.  “And speak up!  My old ears!”

“I –” Rosamond wrung her hands in her lap, her fingers wrestling each other, like worms in competition.  “You’ll think me foolish and wanton.”

“My dear, many young ladies have perched on that stump.  They come to me for help.  They come to Old Helga for help when they can find it nowhere else.  I have seen all and heard all.  There is nothing you can say that will shock Old Helga.”

Rosamond frowned.  “And, so we’re clear, you’re Old Helga?”

The woman laughed, a cackle like a rusty hinge, exposing a row of broken teeth like the palings of a ruined fence.  She confirmed she was indeed Old Helga, the wise woman of the woods.

“What is it, dearie?” she said, in a softer, kinder voice.  “Tell Old Helga.”

“Well,” Rosamond looked at the writhing fingers and forced them to be still.  “I’m not happy.  With who I am.  With my body.”

Across the table, the wise woman grunted.  If I had a ducat for every time I’ve heard this one.

“I see,” she said.  “What is it, your nose?”

“No!” Rosamond’s hand flew to her nose in horror.

“Your teeth?”

“No!” Rosamond’s hand dropped to cover her mouth.

“Your chin?  Your tits?  Your fat arse?”

Scandalised, Rosamond got to her feet.  “How dare you!  You cannot talk to me like this.  I am a Princess!”

“And you’re cured!” Old Helga held out her hand, a dry leaf, cracked and paper-thin.

“What?” Rosamond gaped like a landed fish.

“Pay up!”

“But, I –”

“Three florins, as per our agreement.”

“But, I –”

There was a rustling as Old Helga got to her feet: the susurration of a pile of leaves disturbed by wind.  “Shazam!” she cried, pointing a gnarled stick at the princess’s face.  There was a puff of green smoke and Rosamond disappeared, her gown billowing to the floor.  From a sleeve, a tiny green frog emerged.  It looked up at the wise woman and let out a doleful croak.

“That better?” said Helga.  “Or would you prefer longer legs?  A stickier tongue?  Be off, before I drop you into my soup.”

Rosamond muttered a disgruntled ribbet and hopped out into the forest.  Overhead, a heron swooped.

No, thought the bird, passing up the chance of a froggy snack.  That one’s too ugly.



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Wicked Queen

The peasants are getting cocky.  They come right up to the castle walls to forage their herbs and fungi.  They use them to lend flavour to the myriad dishes they concoct from the humble turnip.  They have developed quite a cuisine, I’ll say that for them, but you won’t catch me – or my taster – sampling any of their homely fare.  It’s the hygiene, you see.  They’ve never heard of it.

But I can’t have them and their grubby mitts pawing my things.  Not even the black stones of my retreat.  Time was, they wouldn’t come within a league of my domicile and I would have a bit of peace.  Now, they encroach upon my personal space – I need a lot! – as if they’ve never heard of me other than as a figure of legend.

It’s time I flexed my muscles once more.  Remind them who’s boss.

Last week I tried showing myself on the parapet.  There was a full moon and I angled myself so the horns of my headdress would be in silhouette against its pallid splendour.  My high collar was turned up and the jagged edges of my cloak – oh, I looked the part all right.  Three hours I stalked along the battlements, wafting my dragon-headed staff about as though I might smite someone at any second.

Waste of time.  No bugger was out that night.  Oh, they still fear the full moon, all right.  They daren’t traverse the forest when there’s a full moon.  Werewolves and all that nonsense.  Why they have to invent monsters to frighten their children into an early bedtime when I’m right here, I’ll never know!

I’ve been too complacent; I see that now.  It’s been too long since I last put myself about.  So long, I can’t remember the spell for turning someone into a toad.  I’d better look that up in the grimoire before I venture out.  I’m a bit rusty with the staff, if I’m honest.  I’d better get some practice in – I don’t want to put my shoulder out.  You must never show weakness to these people or they start getting ideas.

No, toads and staff-wafting won’t cut it.  I’ll have to go full dragon if I’m to reassert my reputation in these parts.  The peasants are thriving.  More and more of them build their ramshackle shacks closer and closer to my land.  But that’s the thing when you fashion your houses from twigs and dried dung: they burn up a treat.

A quick sortie, a flyover and a few blasts of fire from my nostrils ought to do the trick.

Sometimes you just have to remind people of their place.


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Meanwhile, at the phone shop…

“I have to return this phone, I’m afraid.  There’s something wrong with it.”

The shop assistant looked at the handset the man had slapped on the counter.  His young face contorted into a grimace.

“Not one of ours, mate.  Sorry.”

The customer was incensed.  “But I bought it from this very shop only last week.”

“Got the receipt?”

“Ah, no, well, you see, there was a problem with your till or something.  I wasn’t given one.”

“Who served you?”

“A young girl.  The one with the hair.”  The man mimed long, flowing locks with his hand.

“Oh.  Right.”

The assistant picked up the phone and examined it from all angles.  He had never set eyes on this model before.  “What’s wrong with it?”

“I keep getting calls on it.”

The assistant chuckled.  “That’s kind of what they do, mate.”

“You don’t understand.  I keep getting calls.  When it’s switched off.  When it’s in its box, blanketed in bubble-wrap. When there’s no life in the battery.  When I’ve taken out the bloody sim card.  I keep getting calls.”

The assistant frowned.  “Who from?”

“I don’t bloody know.  I don’t answer them.  Could be anybody.  It happened when I was driving; I nearly went off the road.  An eerie sound it is.  Almost hypnotic. Even after I changed the ring tone to the theme from Match of the Day, it reset itself.  It went off while I was cooking some toast; I went to see to the damned thing and damned near burned the house down.  I swear the bloody thing is trying to kill me.”

“And no number comes up on the screen, like?”

“I told you: the bloody thing’s switched off.  Something fishy is going on.”

The assistant scratched at his wispy chin.  “Best I can do is a credit voucher.  You can spend it here or on our website.”

“That will have to do.”  The man huffed and puffed while the assistant printed out a voucher, then he snatched it from the young man’s hand and strode from the shop, muttering about bloody nuisances and consumer rights.

The store manager emerged from the backroom, picking bits of lunch from between his teeth.

“Problem, Joe?”

Joe the assistant showed him the handset.  “Lorelai’s been at it again.”

“The Siren Three Thousand,” the manager clicked his tongue.  “We’ll have no customers left if this keeps up – she’ll have killed the bloody lot.”  He smiled the bitter smile of someone who has been proved right about something wrong.  “I knew it was a mistake going into business with a mermaid.”

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Speed Dating

“I don’t really do this kind of thing,” Nate squirmed.  Across the table, the woman smiled.  Pretty.

“And yet here you are!” she laughed.

“And here you are!”

She nodded and looked at her hands.  A moment passed.

“I think we ought to – you know – talk or something,” she suggested.  “Before they ring the bell.”

“Yes!” Nate agreed.  He puffed out his cheeks and expelled air.  “I got nothing,” he grinned.

“Why don’t you tell me about yourself,” she peered at his name tag, “Nate?”

“Hello, I’m Nate.”

“And I’m Shirley.”  She pointed at her own badge as proof.

“Hello, Shirley.”

“Hello, Nate.”

They laughed, the genuine laughter of amusement.  Nate found he was grinning broadly; her laughter was delightful, like music or something.  Her eyes – they laughed too.  She really was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen –

Since –

“Something wrong?” she stopped laughing.

“No, no!  It’s just that –”


“You remind me of somebody.  Somebody I used to –”

“You know, you look vaguely familiar too.”

“I do?”

“Yes!  You look like a man I used to know.  A man I married, in fact.  And then, one year, on our anniversary no less, we went out for a drive along the coast road, and wouldn’t you know it, the car ran out of petrol, and off he went, down to the valley to fetch some from a village we’d passed, and when he got back to his car – this was a couple of hours later – there was no sign of his wife to be found.”  She looked him squarely in the eye.  “No sign of me.”

“No!  No!” Nate got to his feet, pushing his chair over as he rose.  “Get away from me!  Get away from me!  You’re not her!  You’re not, you’re not, you’re not!”

He covered his face with his hands.

The bell rang.  He heard the sounds of people moving around the room.  Someone approached his table.

“Hello?” said a woman’s voice.  “It’s Nate, isn’t it?”

But Nate wouldn’t take his hands from his eyes.  He didn’t want to see her.  He didn’t want to see another woman.

Sooner or later, they all turned into that bitch Shirley, the woman he’d pushed off a cliff on their wedding anniversary all those years ago.


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Alan buzzed the intercom.  “Let him in, Janine.”  He squeezed the bridge of his nose.  What a mess!  What an unholy mess!

Bruce shuffled into the office and closed the door behind him.

“G’day, boss,” he offered a smile.  Alan didn’t reciprocate.

“Sit,” he barked.

Bruce pulled out a chair and lowered himself onto it.  There were still bloodstains on his safari suit.  Alan shuddered; they would have to be painted out digitally – adding more expense to what was already the biggest disaster of his career in wildlife television.

“Look, I know what you’re going to say,” Bruce held up his hands in a gesture of surrender, “But I think we can get away with it.”

Alan stared at him.  Eventually, he shook his head.  “Not this time, Bruce.  I’ve covered your arse countless times – literally covered your arse on one memorable occasion –”

Bruce snorted a laugh, remembering the time his sarong had mysteriously dropped just as the Queen approached.

“– but not this time.  This time you’ve gone too far.”

“Aw, geez, mate.  Listen to me.  We can save it in the edit.”

“I don’t see how.  You killed the damned thing.”

“Well, yes – but –”

“The last male of its kind.  You are personally responsible for the extinction of a species.”

“It was an accident.”

“How many times have you been told?  Check before you sit down!”

“I know – I tried to give it mouth to mouth.  Maybe should have used my bicycle pump on the little bugger, eh?”

Alan looked aghast.  “If this gets out, we’ll lose our contract.   We’ll never get another commission.”

“It’s not as bad as all that.  Look.”  Bruce withdrew a DVD from his blood-stained breast pocket.  “Have a squint at this.”

Unbidden, he placed the disc in Alan’s player and pointed a remote control at the screen.

“There’s no sound,” Bruce explained, “But we can dub that in later.”

Alan watched in mounting horror as a somewhat flat and bedraggled bird bobbed across the scene in jerky movements.  “What the hell is this?”

“It’s a stroke of genius, that’s what it is!” Bruce beamed with pride.  “I stuck my finger up its arse.  Instant puppet!  So lifelike, don’t you think?  No one will know the difference.”

“Get out!” Alan pointed at the door.



Bruce got to his feet.  He reached for the eject button.

“Leave it!” Alan barked.  Startled, Bruce backed towards the exit.

“Thanks, Al,” he mumbled.  He left.

Alan pinched his nose again.  He buzzed the intercom.

“Janine, get me the head of Children’s Television.”




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Meanwhile at the Restaurant…

“That was lovely, darling; thank you.” Susan sat back and regarded her husband from behind her coffee cup.

“I only ordered the food, darling; I didn’t cook it.” Claude put his debit card in the bill. A waiter flitted past the table, scooping up the wallet in a swift, elegant move.

Claude raised his brandy snifter to toast his wife. “To us, darling! To ten years!”

“Hurrah for us!” Susan raised her cup and clinked it against his glass. They laughed. Claude excused himself and went to the Men’s room.

Susan’s face fell. She put a hand to her chest. It wasn’t the food’s fault but she was suffering from terrible indigestion. How he could sit there, nice as pie, and reminisce about their lives together!

Theirs had been a marriage crowded with incident from the start. The vicar getting sick at the church. The water pipe bursting during the reception. The plane to their honeymoon destination hijacked – Years of such disasters, fuel for stories to tell, had followed, and they had come through it all, Claude and Susan, Susan and Claude. No couple on Earth could be closer or more in love.

But he’s having an affair, Susan’s eyes welled up! He’s been having an affair all along. All these years. He must think I’m stupid. All the phone calls, abruptly concluded when I enter the room. The mysterious markings in his diary. “Oh, they’re just meetings, darling. Business meetings.”

Meetings, my arse!

In the Men’s room, Claude dabbed at the scratches on his back with cotton wool soaked in antiseptic. He winced as he put his shirt back on and retied his cravat.

She suspects! He looked his reflection in the eye. Perhaps she always has; she’s not stupid. Perhaps I should tell her the truth.

That vicar had taken the poisoned carnation, the one intended for Claude’s buttonhole. The bomb at reception had been mostly contained – there had only been water damage. He had seen off the hijackers personally, ejecting them from the cockpit sans parachutes… In ten years, he had done all he could to ensure the safety of his beloved.

But now the time had come to tell her the truth. He buttoned his blazer, feeling the scratches sting again. That lion wouldn’t be inconveniencing anyone again.

Claude returned to the table in time to see the waiter approach with Susan’s coat. Beneath the folds, the muzzle of a gun. With exquisite aim, Claude raised his fist to his mouth and coughed. A tiny dart struck the waiter’s neck. The waiter crumpled to the floor. Claude caught his wife’s coat and helped her put it on.

Susan eyed the unconscious man at her feet with a puzzled look.

“Probably overworked,” shrugged Claude. “We have kept them behind long after closing time. Don’t worry, darling; I’ll be sure to leave a generous tip.”




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Last Orders

It was closing time. As always, the last stragglers were taking their time to drain their drinks, reluctant to leave, to face the night, to go to their homes and whatever awaited them there. That was not Reg’s concern. All he wanted was to get them all out of the pub, bolt the door and crawl upstairs to bed.

“Night, Reg,” old Mr Price saluted as he shuffled over the doorstep.

“Night,” said Reg with more than a hint of impatience.

At last, the old buffer was off the premises – invariably the last to go – and Reg was able to shut the door. Well, he would, were it not for the foot that appeared there, a shiny black shoe forcing itself between the door and the frame.

“We’re closed!” Reg grunted, pushing against the door. The foot stayed where it was. In order for it to withdraw, Reg would have to relent and pull back the door a little. It was just the moment the foot’s owner needed. He took advantage of the let-up in pressure to shoulder his way in, forcing the landlord to stumble backwards and against a table.  Empty  glasses rattled.  One fell to the floor, tinkling into splinters.

“Here, you can’t do this! Coming in here! We’re closed!” Reg tried to mask the fear in his voice. “This is my pub. Go on, get out of it.”

Instead, the figure, tall and hunched, closed the door behind him. Reg saw he was wearing a long, black coat, black gloves and an old-fashioned hat that cast the wearer’s face into shadow.

Reg steadied himself against the table as the man pulled off his gloves.

“What is this?” said Reg. “What do you want?”

“You,” said the man. His voice was high-pitched, a screech like a nail dragged across the blackboard that advertised the pub’s lunchtime specials.

“What for? What do you want me for? A drink, is that it? A shot of whisky to warm you on a night like this and then you’ll be on your way?”

“No,” said the man, stalking toward Reg, towering over the cowering landlord.

“What then? A sandwich? I could rustle one up for you in two shakes.”

“Ha!” said the man. Beneath the brim of his hat, his eyes flashed, red. Hungry.

“Please!” said Reg. “What’s this all about? If it’s Environmental Health, I’ve been given the all-clear. Those rats won’t be back.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” said the man, removing his hat to reveal thick, black hair, sleeked back. Like wet fur, Reg thought. And his face! Those beady eyes! Those high, cheekbones, that nose…

The man shed his clothes. His body was covered in the same, slick fur. His hands were long and thin and pink, his fingers like claws.  Reg recoiled in horror.

“You put down poison,” said the man-rat, through large, yellow slabs of teeth. “We don’t like poison. But we adapt, we survive. We mutate.”

Reg let out a whimper and scurried around the table as though he was the rodent.

“What do you want?” His voice was little more than a squeak.

The man-rat loomed large, his whiskers twitching.

“You mentioned a sandwich. Cheese and pickle should do it”




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