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.

gavel

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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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Poochums

“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.

Shit!

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.

poochums

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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.

cat

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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!”

sphere

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Teddy

“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.

“Teddy?”

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.”

teddy

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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!

easter-egg-md

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Richard

I haven’t used my feet for centuries – I find they are no longer attached to my mortal remains – and it is amazing how my back has cleared up. Divorced from my spine, I am released from the affliction that caused me so much pain.   The agony I faced on a daily basis affected my temperament; I know it did, and so I prayed and prayed for a clear mind when it came to policy-making and affairs of both the state and the heart.

Now, I am as free as the air. I roam around this city of Leicester, marvelling at the changes and the expansion of its borders. The people here too are unrecognisable to me, and it is not just their strange attire with its symbols and names that I know not. Their complexions are of the widest range of hues imaginable and they speak tongues I have never heard in England. They are lining the streets as horses pull my remains on a bier. Some of them throw roses – white ones, of course. It is a touching tribute.

I am feted, it appears, centuries after my murder. I am the last king to die in battle. What a cossetted bunch must have followed me! Dying safely in their beds! Weaklings! I overcame my physical deficiencies and redoubled my efforts – I had more to prove and everything to lose.

And I lost it.

And then, my humble grave, defiled! My remains pored over and analysed by quacks and charlatans. And a descendent appears! With my sister’s blood in his veins but none of my courage, it would seem, and nothing of my will to succeed. He is no leader of men.

What has happened to my country, and to its people? Where is their fire? And where is their piety? Their church is diluted, fragmented and irrelevant. Are they prepared to burn for their beliefs? Do they believe in anything at all?

And a hollow show follows as my remains are sent back to the soil. I am an attraction, a curiosity to bring people to the town to spend their pennies and say they were there. Where is the honour in that? It is hardly Bosworth Field.

But for me there is no eternal rest. I am bound to this Earth just as a tree is fixed to the ground. I am doomed to roam, to hear my name blackened and my defenders derided. I am doomed to spend forever in Leicester, forever avoiding the shades of two little boys who seek me in the darkness. I cannot face their angelic countenances. I cannot bear to hear them crying, over and over into the night, Why, Uncle, why?

King_Richard_III

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Making Sacrifices

I wish I had not been called to this exalted position. Mind you, it has kept me alive for decades longer than my contemporaries. They were all bled years ago, their entrails fried and their bones pulverised. I would have undoubtedly met the same fate because I was not built to be a warrior. I had no proficiency with the hammer and chisel and so I could not be a stonemason, carving effigies and tributes to the mighty Quetzalcoatl – glory on his name! I would most definitely have been altar-fodder, like the others from my region.

But instead, the High Priest took a shine to me. He kept me apart from the others and spared me the narcotic in my maize, the drug that makes the chosen ones compliant and subdued. Like cattle strolling off to slaughter.

He taught me the mysteries of his role. I was his apprentice. There was a lot to learn. And every night, I had to sharpen the great stone daggers in readiness for the dawn sacrifices.

I saw hundreds of young men come and go. The honour of their selection meant their families would eat well. For about a week – after which, they would have to try to survive with one less mouth to feed, but also one less pair of hands to till the soil and reap the harvest. They arrived awestruck by the palace – although they saw precious little of it, confined to quarters that are only one step up from dungeons. The drugging begins at once; any insurrection is quickly quelled and quashed. Only the willing will give up their hearts to Quetzalcoatl (glory on his name!).

But now, as I scan the cartloads of new arrivals, seeking out an apprentice of my own, I question the whole gory business – and not for the first time. It does not seem to do any good, this bloodshed on the grand scale. The crops are never more bountiful. The wars are no easier to win. And the Emperor is insatiable in his quest for victory, his hunger for power. He sips wine thickened with the blood of the innocent and feasts on bread made from the flour of their bones. I am quite sure he is insane.

But what can I do? As High Priest serving Quetzalcoatl (glory to his etc etc) it behoves me to carry out the grisly task, the ritualised massacre of so many of our nation’s youth. I am as trapped in the tradition as any of the hapless victims who prostrate themselves across my slab. And all I can do is to try to be as quick and efficient as I can, like a fisherman’s wife gutting a catch; I strike just beneath the rib cage, slicing once! twice! so the guts tumble out like a nest of snakes and then I reach in and pull, ripping out the heart and holding it aloft. If there is a beat of two still left in it, this is regarded as a propitious omen. I have learned how to make them jiggle on the palm of my hand – There is no shortage of propitious omens.

But still, nothing gets better. Nothing ever gets better.  And the populace is told they must face yet more cuts.

And I tire of the whole squalid business. Let Quetzalcoatl (blah blah blah) find his own bloody victims. If there is such an entity as Quetzalcoatl. I have serious doubts.

A trumpet blares, calling the people to the foot of the ziggurat. And I must get to work. It is not the work of appeasing a god; it is the work of keeping the Emperor on his golden throne.

If I am to keep my head upon my shoulders, I have to swallow my qualms and ignore my queasiness and suppress my questions.

At least I can take pride in my stone blades. I keep them nice and sharp.

Quetzalcoatl_magliabechiano

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