Meanwhile at the coffee shop…

For Colin Dobson…

Mr Davies waited patiently in the queue. He had hurried through the mall to get to the coffee shop but now that he had arrived, he was enjoying the opportunity to watch ‘him’ at work.

Behind the counter, shrouded in steam, the young barista blew his blond locks from his brow and made the umpteenth cappuccino of the day. Davies enjoyed the way he shook the canister of chocolate sprinkles on the foamy surface of the drink. He watched, holding his breath as the young man, whose name badge revealed he was called Steven, gave the customer her change and spouted the company script, imploring her to have a great day and, of course, to come back soon.

Davies stepped up to the counter.

“Yes?” said Steven, mechanically and then he saw who it was. “Oh! Hello! If it isn’t my best customer.”

Davies found his voice wouldn’t cooperate, his words were thick and caught in his throat.

“And how are you today, Steven?” he managed to get out.

“OK, thanks. Somebody sounds thirsty. Usual?”

Davies nodded.

He watched Steven prepare the skinny latte, transfixed by the ripple of muscles beneath the polo shirt and the play of tube lighting on the fine hairs on the barista’s forearms.

“Three pounds twenty.”

Davies fumbled with his wallet, pulling out a five-pound note. He wanted to say keep the change, but the branch manager was lingering in the doorway to the storeroom. Watching.

Davies paid, thrilling as Steven’s fingers brushed his palm as they deposited his change in his hand. He picked up the drink and shuffled over to a table that would afford him a clear view of the counter.

A few minutes later, Steven emerged from behind the counter and began a tour of the floor, wiping tables and straightening chairs.

“Here,” he whispered, leaning over Davies’s table. He slipped a couple of extra biscotti onto Davies’s saucer. Then he winked at the older man and went back behind the counter and into the storeroom.

Davies relished every crumb of those illicit biscuits. All sorts of ideas began to blossom and bloom in his imagination.

He likes me! Steven likes me! He actually likes me back!

He spent the rest of the afternoon, wandering the mall with its gaudy shops and blank-faced customers. He too was in a daze. He couldn’t believe it. Steven actually liked him back!

He lingered outside the coffee shop. Closing time couldn’t come fast enough.

At long last, the staff filed out. The manager pulled down the metal shutters and padlocked them to the floor.

Steven walked away, stuffing his arms into the sleeves of his jacket. Davies had to hurry to catch up.

“I say, Steven!” he called out.

The young man turned. “Oh. Hello,” he said, but kept on walking. Davies struggled to keep abreast.

“I just wanted to thank you. For the biscotti.”

“It’s OK,” said Steven, but did not slow down.

“Listen,” said Davies. “I was wondering if you’d let me repay you with a drink. Something stronger, of course – and I don’t mean espresso!” He laughed, but Steven didn’t.

But at last he had the boy’s full attention. Steven came to a halt and looked Davies in the eye.

“I’m busy,” he said. “Sorry.”

“But – but – the biscotti – I thought…”

“They were past their Best Before date anyway. Look, I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. I’m straight, by the way. It’s just that – and I mean this in a nice way – you remind me of my Dad. Sorry.”

He continued on his way, out of the mall and into the night.

Davies’s face burned hot with embarrassment and shame. How could I be so foolish? He scolded himself. It’s true: there is no fool like an old fool.

Feeling ridiculous, he stumbled out into the fresh air. There was no sign of Steven.   Oh, well, I can’t show my face in that coffee shop again, Davies cringed.

I know, Davies perked up as he waited at the bus stop. I’ll get some chips on the way home. They always cheer me up. And, because it’s Tuesday, I reckon that hunky Tony will have started his shift there by now…

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ALL THE FEELS

R4769 trundled along the thoroughfare. He was in a rut – and not just the literal, electrified one that powered his castors. Every day the same routine, the same tasks, the same files accessed by his processor.

He was joined at an intersection by F8223 and they bleeped at each other in greeting. They had known each other for years, had travelled through Robo-City along this same groove and had developed a kind of compatibility that went beyond docking USBs.

They conversed in unspoken messages, data appearing in each other’s circuits.

HOW ARE YOU

SAME OLD SAME OLD

DITTO

WHAT YOU GONNA DO

They travelled like this until their ways parted. F8223 worked at the Admin Centre, processing digital information. R4769 was an assembler, putting together upgraded versions of himself and sending them off to be programmed. They arranged to meet after their shift at Oiler’s Bar for a swift lubrication.

With each new model he put together, R4769 believed he was closer to the scrap heap. I am fabricating myself into redundancy and obsolescence, he thought.

He turned a corner and tried not to see the heap of dented, scarred and scratched components at the side of the road.

SPARE A DIODE

R4679 ignored the plea, keeping his photo-detecting sensors fixed firmly ahead.

SPARE A DIODE. WILL FIND WORK AGAIN IF I CAN GET THE DIODES

R4679 kept going. He even sped up a little.

His shift passed slowly. Hours of mindless, monotonous labour. It seemed as though he’d never get to Oiler’s, never be able to unwind with F8223.

On his way to the bar he stopped off at the automated teller. He plugged himself into the keypad and a window opened. In her box, the human operator woke up.

“What can I do for you today?” she asked, in a pleasant sing-song voice.

ALL THE FEELS said R4679. GOT A BIG NIGHT OUT PLANNED.

“Of course,” said the human.

And as the Robot drained her of emotions, her eyes rolled back in her head.

robot

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Three Bears

“Porridge is ready!” Mommy Bear called up the stairs.  Daddy Bear waddled into the kitchen, tucking his newspaper under his arm.  “Will you tell him, love?  I’m sick of shouting myself hoarse.”

“He’ll have that music on, I expect,” said Daddy Bear.  “Bloody racket.  In my day, it was proper tunes and words you could hear properly.  Not this shouty rubbish.”  He threw back his head and roared.

In his room, their son Teenage Bear lifted his headphones off one ear.

“I’m coming!” he roared back, embarrassed by the little squeak his voice made at the end.

He shut down his laptop and left his room, taking care to lock the door behind him.  Having reached a certain age, Teenage Bear valued his privacy.

The porridge was just right – that was one thing his mother could do: make decent porridge although Dad always complained about the temperature, and by the time Mom had sorted him out, hers had gone cold.

“We’re going for a walk in the woods later,” she looked at her son with hope in her eyes.  “Perhaps you’d like to come too.”

Teenage Bear sneered.  “Got homework,” he said.  It was his all-purpose excuse for getting out of family things.

“Perhaps the weekend then,” said Mommy Bear sadly, stung by his rejection.  What had happened to the joyful bundle of fur he used to be?

“Actually, love,” said Daddy Bear, “I’ve got some things to sort out in the shed. Lend me a paw, Junior?”

“Oh, but Dad!  I’ve got homework!”

“This won’t take five minutes.  Come on.”  Daddy Bear stared at his son.  Junior was growing up fast but he was still no match for his old man.  With a theatrical sigh, Teenage Bear capitulated.

“Come on then,” he pushed away from the table.  “But only five minutes.”

He followed his father out to the shed at the bottom of the garden.

As soon as they were out of the house, Mommy Bear hurried upstairs.  With one swipe of her mighty paws she dashed the lock from the door.  She went into Teenage Bear’s room for the first time in years.

Her nose was assaulted by a wall of smells: the usual teenager stuff like forgotten socks and mouldy plates but there was something else…  It did not take much snuffling to find it out.

At the foot of the bed was an ottoman.  It had been used as a toy box when he had been a baby but now… With trepidation, Mommy Bear lifted the lid and peered inside.

Her scream could be heard at the bottom of the garden.

“What the hell?” said Teenage Bear. His father shoved him roughly to the floor then sprang outside and locked the door.

Daddy Bear tore across the lawn and into the cottage.  He bounded up the stairs to find his wife, gasping in horror and pointing at the box at the foot of their son’s bed.

Daddy Bear saw for himself.

Bent double, beneath some old comics and football kit, was the rotting corpse of a human child, a female with curly blonde hair.

brown bear

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Meanwhile at the Ball…

“There!” the fairy godmother stepped back to admire what she had done. The girl was pretty to start with – that always helped – but now she was truly beautiful. She would take the Prince’s breath away as soon as she walked in.

She walked around the girl, inspecting her from every angle. “That gown is the best I have ever created. It seems to trap the starlight and twinkle as you breathe. And those glass slippers make your legs look so elegant, my dear. Right, so: gown, coach, horses… I believe that’s everything. Just one more thing: whatever you do, you must, you absolutely must, leave the Palace when the clock strikes midnight. For that is when my charms must end and you will be the lowly scullery maid you were when I found you. Is that understood? The very stroke of midnight. Not a second later.”

“Yes!” enthused the girl. “That should be plenty of time.   Thank you so much, Godmother. I could never have dreamed a girl like me would ever go to the Royal Ball.”

The old woman beamed. “Tush, child. And hurry you to the Palace. You must make the most of the opportunity.”

The girl stepped into the glittering coach of sparkling diamonds and the team of white horses bore her away to the Palace.

The Ball was well under way when the mysterious Princess Starlight made her entrance. She strode down the grand staircase with her head held high, for she knew in her heart that beneath the fancy clothes and the glamour, she was just as good as anyone there. The other guests parted, leaving her a clear path to the Prince who was holding the Ball in order to find himself a bride.

“Charmed, my dear,” he bowed low in greeting. He reached to kiss her gloved hand but instead found the blade of a kitchen knife slashing his throat wide open. The guests cried out in alarm as the Prince toppled. A pool of blood that was undeniably red rather than blue, spread from the dying heir to the throne. The girl had taken his breath away, right enough.

Starlight wasted no time. She curled a finger and thumb in her mouth and whistled. Her army of peasants and fellow servants swarmed the ballroom, hacking and slashing at the startled aristocrats.

It was a bloodbath but it was also the party of a lifetime.

As the grand clock struck midnight, and the chimes rang out heralding the start of a new day, Starlight’s trappings faded and fell away but she made no effort to flee from the Palace.

“Comrades!” she cried as her tattered clothes reappeared. “We have seized the seat of power in this land. No longer will we be oppressed by greedy, unelected tyrants who exploit us and deny us our fair share. Join me now and drink champagne from my slipper of glass!”

The peasants and the servants cheered, brandishing their blood-drenched weapons.

But when Cinderella took off her slipper, it crumbled to dust.

Oh well, she thought as the corks popped all around her, can’t have everything.

She surveyed the carnage, the hacked-off limbs, the bloodshed and the gore.

Someone’s going to have to clean that up, she thought.

princess-md

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Author William Stafford speaks to Jason McCrossan

williamstafford:

Here’s the interview I recorded the other week, babbling about KISS OF THE WATER NYMPH

Originally posted on Jason McCrossan:

Seeking inspiration, hack writer Hector Mortlake embarks on a journey across late 19th century Europe. He invites the people he encounters to submit short stories to a contest but soon the travellers find themselves at an isolated hotel and caught up in a series of suspicious deaths. Could there be something to the local myth of the water nymph after all?

William Stafford lives and writes in the Black Country. After working in libraries and teaching Drama in schools and colleges, he now devotes much of his time to his novels, which blend his irrepressible sense of humour with science fiction, historical fantasy, or whodunits.

He speaks to Jason McCrossan on 106.9 SFM www.sfmradio.com about his latest novel Kiss of the Water Nymph: A Hector Mortlake Adventure.

Seeking inspiration, hack writer Hector Mortlake embarks on a journey across late 19th century Europe. He invites the people he encounters to submit short stories to a contest but soon the travellers find themselves at an isolated hotel and caught up in a series of suspicious deaths. Could there be something to the local myth of the water nymph after all?

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Update: Next book

Greetings!

Over on my Facebook page (please Like me!) I’ve been hinting at a “secret project” that I began in November.  It’s all very exciting so I hope you’ll forgive me if I keep it on the downlow for a while longer.  Watch this space!

Also, last week I recorded an interview for the wireless.  I’ll let you know when that’s going out and how you can listen.

Meanwhile, I am currently working on my 20th book, the seventh case for Dedley detectives, Brough and Miller.  I’m not going to say much about that either – So why am I bothering to post this update? – but I will say it involves lots of murders and an escaped animal from Dedley Zoo.

Here’s a pictorial clue, which gives nothing away.

pepe le pew

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Ginger Bred

There once was a couple who lived in a cottage in the woods.   They longed to have a child but were unable, and so they consulted the local wisewoman who lived in a hole in the old oak tree.

The wisewoman told them what to do in order to have a child of their own. She provided a list of instructions, ingredients to gather, and a ritual to perform by the light of the next full moon.

The couple paid the wisewoman with food and hurried home to their cottage to wait for the night to fall.

They divided the list of ingredients between them and set out to acquire them. An hour later they met up and pooled their acquisitions. They read and re-read the instructions and followed them to the letter, as the moonlight poured in through the kitchen window, illuminating their arcane task.

By dawn, it was done. The couple had dozed at the kitchen table and awoke to hear a knocking coming from inside the oven. Wiping flour from their cheeks and noses, the couple gazed at each other in amazement. Secretly, neither of them had believed the wisewoman’s words. This can’t possibly work, they had both thought in their hearts, but now, here it was, their very own child, demanding to be released from the womb, the oven in which he had been baked.

Out he sprang, their child of gingerbread. They hugged him and inhaled his sweet smell. We shall always love you, they told him, and care for you and protect you, and no harm shall ever befall you.

The years passed and the time came for the couple to send their gingerbread son into the village to attend school. The child wept: he did not want to go. I am not like the other children, he sobbed. They will sneer, they will call me names, and they will hurt me.

His parents tried to assure him that he would come to no harm. The other children might be curious but they would soon adjust and accept him as the charming, funny, generous boy his parents knew him to be.

Off he went, with his new satchel over his shoulder and a polished apple in his hand to give to his new teacher.

All day the couple waited for their son to come home.

When he did, he was in a terrible state.

I am never going back there, he vowed, spurning all attempts to comfort him.

We can bake you a new arm, they told him. We can make you new buttons of icing. We can rebuild you as good as new. But we must report this bullying to the head teacher. No child should suffer this treatment just because he is made of gingerbread.

The boy stopped sobbing and stared at his parents.

That’s not the problem, he sniffed. Nobody cares what colour my skin is or what it’s made of.

The couple frowned at each other and held hands. Then what, they asked, is the problem?

The gingerbread boy looked at the floor. He hardly had the heart to tell them.

It’s because I’ve got two dads, he said.

gingerbread-man-md

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Meanwhile at the pond…

“Here she comes, lads!” Grandfather Frog splashed the alarm. “Take cover!”

The younger frogs – some of them barely more than pollywogs – dived for safety. The deepest recesses of the lily pond would afford them shelter until the danger had passed.

Huddled together in a rocky nook, the froglets trembled but their fear was tempered with excitement. It was an exhilarating game to them and Grandfather Frog was keen to impress upon them the severe peril of their predicament.

“Don’t look up,” he warned. “No matter how prettily the sunlight dapples the surface. If you look up, she will see you and, if she sees you, she will reach down and seize you. And if she seizes you, she will hold you up to her face – a face as big as the sun appears now – No, don’t look up! You must never look up! She will hold you in her hand and look into your eyes and you will be spellbound and you won’t think to leap – and if you do think to leap, you won’t do it. You’ll be too high up. The surface of the water will be like stone rising up to meet your belly and split you open.”

The young frogs cowered and giggled at this horrific prospect.

“But you won’t think of leaping; leaping will be the last thing on your tiny mind once she fixes you with those eyes of hers. Eyes as blue as cornflowers and more dazzling than any star.   You won’t be able to look away. You’ll be stuck there on the pink lily pad of her palm and there’ll be nothing you can do to escape.

“Next come the lips, moist and puckered like rosebuds drenched in the morning dew. And they come right at you and they press against your face and you think you’re going to be smothered and all you can do is wait until it’s over. And when it’s over, those cornflower eyes dim and cloud with disappointment, and those rosebud lips curl in a sneer of disdain, and that soft, pink lily pad tips and down you fall, and the water races up towards you and you better have your wits about you and stretch your body out like a reed, like the beak of the deadly heron, or SPLAT! You’ve had it, lads.”

“Coo…” said the young frogs.

Except one.

One young frog raised a flipper to attract the attention of Grandfather Frog. “But why, Grandfather?” he piped up. “Why does this giant do this? When it only leads to disappointment for her and danger for us?”

Grandfather Frog smiled sadly. “Those are good questions, Filbert. That poor giant is a Princess in her land and she seeks a husband. She believes that if she can only find the right frog and kiss him, he will be transformed into her mate and they shall live the rest of their days in luxury and bliss. But, it was decreed, long before any of you were spawned, that at first sight of this deluded human, we are to conceal ourselves in the deep. I know, lads, for I have gazed into those eyes and I have plummeted from a great height because I could not meet her ideals. I was extremely lucky to survive – Hush now, and hold your peace until she leaves.”

The group fell silent but young Filbert was not satisfied. He could not see why – just because Grandfather had had a bad experience – he should be denied his chance.

Do I not deserve a life of luxury and bliss? His throat swelled indignantly. Perhaps there is a Prince within me who deserves his moment in the sun.

With that thought overruling notions of personal safety, Filbert broke free from the group and swam towards the surface where the sunlight dappled the water so prettily.

frog

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The Princess in the Tower

The Princess languished in the tower year after lonely year. She had almost given up peering through its only window to see the clouds pass by, just as life was passing her by, and the birds making nests in the treetops below, just as she would never have a family or home of her own.

Why she had been locked in the cylinder of stone since birth she couldn’t say. She suspected jealousy on the part of the old woman who was her gaoler and her only contact with the human race. The Princess would idle away the hours imagining stories: the old woman had stolen her as a baby and things had got out of hand and now she couldn’t possibly return her to her real, royal family… The old woman had entered into a pact with an enchantress and the price of having a baby had been her youth and beauty, and now she kept her daughter imprisoned in a place so secret no enchantress could ever find her…

Now, as her eighteenth birthday approached, she yearned more than ever to leave the tower, to feel the green grass, so distant and unknowable, tickle her feet; to paddle in the silver stream she could see glistening in the distance; to meet people – her subjects! – and talk with them and actually at long, long last live in the world that had been denied her for a lifetime.

She had concocted a plan years ago, when the old woman had become too frail to climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the tower. Nowadays, the old woman would put provisions in a bucket on a long, long rope and the Princess had to haul it all the way up to the window or go without her supper.

The Princess planned to climb down the rope and run and run and run, she cared not in which direction; she just had to get away. But she bided her time. She waited and waited. And waited.

One day the old woman didn’t come. Or the next day. Or the next. The rumbles in the Princess’s belly echoed through the tower. But she continued to wait. Perhaps the old woman was sick. She would get better and then she would return…

Perhaps – the Princess’s blood ran cold to think of it – perhaps the old woman was dead.

A week passed. The old woman was dead, to be sure, and the Princess would surely starve.

The time had come at last to climb down the rope and flee to freedom.

The Princess sat on the windowsill. A wave of vertigo nauseated her and she almost swooned. She put one foot in the bucket and held onto the rope with both hands, clutching it tight so that the bucket did not plummet to the ground and take her with it to certain death on the stony ground below.

Gradually, she lowered herself, moving hand over hand, until the window was a speck above her and the shadow of the trees fell across her, and the smell of the grass and the flowers rose up to her nose as though in greeting.

The bottom of the bucket hit the ground. The Princess held her breath and stepped out. She was free at last.

“Who goes there?” said a voice, a deep voice, quite startling the Princess. She gazed at the man who had spoken with wonder and admiration on her face. His armour was glinting in the sunlight and so was the tip of the pikestaff he was pointing at her chest.

“Why,” said the Princess. “Do you not know who I am?”

“Oh, we know who you are all right.” The man nodded to his confederates who were strolling around the base of the tower. “Here, lads. We’ve got her at last. This is Old Sal’s girl. For years, the old boot’s been robbing the palace kitchens blind and this one here’s been scoffing the lot. Eating the evidence.”

“She wants locking up,” said another.

“No!” cried the Princess. “That’s the last thing I want.”

But her words fell on deaf ears. The men marched her off to the castle where she was locked in a dungeon, deep under the ground, and left there to rot.

 tower

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Jack Goes Home

Jack hadn’t been back to the farmhouse for years. He’d kept in touch with his mother by letter, making the same promises over and over again: yes, he’d eat proper meals; yes, he’d wear his vest; yes, he’d find a nice girl.

He sent money whenever he could. His mother had grown too old to work the farm and with Jack working up at the castle, she had needed a couple of farm hands to help out. Now she was gone, the farm was Jack’s. He would keep the hands on – Hell, they could have the damned farm for all he cared.

His mother, from necessity, had always been frugal. Even when Jack left home and made something of himself and the weekly gold coins started coming in, she could not shake the habit. It was as though spending money on herself was a sin, a waste.

And so, clearing the house wouldn’t take long. All her clothes fitted into a single trunk – the same threadbare dresses Jack remembered from his childhood, patched and mended so many times, the material worn thin as tissue. He felt a pang of guilt: he could have bought his mother new frocks. She would never spend the money on herself but if he had taken the trouble to send her new clothes, if he had bothered to deliver them himself – but he had not set foot on the farm since their falling-out, their stupid, stubborn falling-out over the cow, the damned cow.

He slammed the trunk shut. He turned around on the spot, looking for anything he might have overlooked.

The dresser drawers were open and empty. The hook on the back of the door no longer held the dressing gown that had been her only indulgence. Jack was going to hold onto that gown, as a keepsake. It reminded him of his childhood, the softness and warmth of his mother’s embrace.

No; that was everything. It wasn’t much to show for a life, Jack thought.

He was about to leave when the floorboards creaked beneath his boots. A flash of memory lit up his mind like lightning. He remembered his mother’s secret hiding place and dropped to his knees. Under the bed, there was a loose plank. Jack remembered discovering it one day when a marble had rolled into his mother’s room. He held his breath as he hooked his finger into the knothole and lifted the floorboard. He reached into the hollow – yes, it was still there: the small wooden box in which his mother stored the miniature portrait of her late husband, Jack’s father.

Jack’s heart raced. He would love to have that picture. He felt it was rightfully his.

The box was heavy. Jack undid the clasp and lifted the lid. The box was brimming with gold coins – all the money Jack had ever sent was in that box, hoarded away – for what?

Jack’s fingers raked through the money, seeking the picture of his father. They closed on something else, the wrinkled leather of an ancient pouch. Jack pulled it from the box and his blood ran cold.

The old argument played in his mind, the row that had caused a divide between mother and son: You gave away our only cow for this? What am I supposed to do with this?

Jack pulled the drawstring of the pouch and upended it. The contents spilled into his palm: five dried-up beans, petrified and inedible.

What magic might they have contained? What adventures they might have spawned! How different our lives might have been!

Jack loaded up his wagon and began the journey back to the castle. On the way he tossed the beans at the roadside. The pouch would do for small change; there was that, at least.

coin-pouch-md

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