Meanwhile, at the wedding…

“No!  No, you can’t marry her!”  Steven cried from the far end of the aisle.  In the pews, every head turned to see the source of this interruption.

Barry, the groom, shook his head and sighed.  “Ste, mate…”  He took a few steps but Zara, his intended, pulled him back.

“Don’t go to him!  Don’t listen to him!” she hissed.  Behind her veil, her lips curled in a snarl.

But Steven was striding toward the supposedly happy couple and the celebrant, whose lips were pressed together in professional silence.

“She’s not right for you,” Steven announced, his voice rising to the vaulted ceiling.

“You dare!” Lazlo, father of the bride, got to his feet.

“She’s not, mate!” Steven urged.  “Look around you.  Ask yourself a few questions.  Why did she insist on having the ceremony after dark?”

Barry scoffed.  “We have an early flight, so we’re jetting off straight after the do.”

“That’s bollocks, mate.  And why here, in this building?  You do know it’s not – whatsit – consecrated land any more, don’t you?”

Barry shrugged.  “It’ll look good in the photographs; won’t it, babe?”  He gave Zara’s hand a squeeze.

“Oh, will it?”  Steven whipped out his smartphone and snapped a few shots of the congregation.  “Look.”

He thrust the screen in Barry’s face.  “Look, that’s a good one of your mum and dad.  Your brother.  All your lot.  But look…”   He swiped to the next photo.  Barry’s jaw dropped.  In high definition, the pews of the old church stood clearly.  Clearly empty, that is.

He shoved the phone away.  “You’ve got some app or something that’s doing that…”  But he didn’t sound convinced by his own words.

“Mate…”

Behind them, Zara’s family were on their feet.  Their black outfits, more suited to a funeral than a wedding, seemed to fan out, like cloaks.  Like wings.

“Here, love,” Steven thrust a garland of garlic at the bride.  “Something for your bouquet!”

Zara recoiled, hissing like a startled snake.  She tore off her veil, revealing a screaming maw, brimming with needle-like gnashers.

Her father flew to the rafters, screeching and spitting.  Steven pulled out a machete and lopped off the celebrant’s head.

“Here you go, mate,” he handed Barry a wooden stake.  Barry looked at it and blinked.  He seemed to come to his senses and plunged the sharpened stick into his fiancee’s heart.  Zara gaped, dumbstruck, and exploded in a cloud of ashes.

“Now we’re cooking,” grinned Steven, standing back-to-back with his best mate.

“What are you doing the rest of your life?” laughed Barry.

And then the fun really started.

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Dinner Date

Cathy forced herself to stop twiddling with the cutlery.  She had been waiting long enough.  Too long.  How long does it take to go the Gents’?  Depends on what he’s doing in there, she supposed, but even so.  Half an hour.  Half an hour he had left her at the table, looking like she had been stood up.

A hot flash of panic flushed through her.  What if he’d done a runner?  What if he’d climbed out of the window and was already miles away?  It happens.  But would it happen to Cathy?  How could it?  All right, so she had been late.  Three quarters of an hour.  He’d said it didn’t matter.  Perhaps it had mattered after all.

A cold shiver shuddered through her.  What if he’d had an accident?  What if he’d collapsed?  A heart attack!  Or he’d fainted and cracked his head on the edge of a wash basin on his way down?

Cathy scrunched up her napkin in anguish.

Well, sitting there like a lemon wasn’t going to resolve anything.  There was one way to find out for sure.

She rose from her chair and stalked over to the door with the toilet symbols on, trying not to look rushed or panicked.  Just a normal woman, walking normally to the Ladies’ for normal business.

She shoved the door open and found herself in a short corridor with three doors.  One bore a symbol of a woman, one a man, and the third was marked ‘Private’.  Cleaning materials, she supposed.  She pushed the Man door open and gingerly peered inside.  It was empty.  And the window was shut.

She tried the Woman door.  The Ladies was also empty.  Its window was also shut.

Where, then…

She froze.  Sounds emanated from behind the Private door.  Sounds she recognised with a sinking feeling.  Sounds of a couple going at it.

Could it be?  Could it be Wayne and some trollop?  Having a quickie!

She reached for the handle.  Do I really want to see this, she asked herself?  Wouldn’t it be better if I just left, got a cab, blocked his number?

Cathy had to be sure.  She reached for the doorknob, her heart racing, the sound of her blood pumping in her ears.

She twisted and pulled.  Out tumbled two bodies.  One of them was a waiter, his trousers around his ankles.  The other, in a similar state of undress, was Wayne.

“You’re gay?” Cathy gasped.

The men picked themselves up and adjusted their clothing.

“My dear,” said the waiter, “This is not how it may appear.”

Cathy ignored him, focussing all her outrage on her date.

“How could you?  With me sitting out there!”

Wayne frowned.  “Do we know each other, young lady?”

Cathy was aghast.  The look on Wayne’s face was one of bafflement.

“Listen,” the waiter continued.  “Every year, we do this.  On our anniversary.  We come to this place, the place where we first met, and we find a young couple, and for one hour, one sweet and precious hour, we are able to enjoy each other again, enjoy the pleasures of the flesh denied to us for the rest of the year.”

Cathy scowled.  “What is this bullshit?”

“It’s true,” said Wayne, albeit with a voice that was not his own.  “Your beau will be restored to you in due course.  And he will have no memory of this encounter.  I suggest you return to your seat and order yourself a stiff one – a drink, that is.”

The thing inside Wayne smirked and pulled the waiter closer to him, planting tiny kisses on his neck.

“Thing is,” said the waiter, “Had you not been late for dinner, this could have been you.”

stood up

 

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Bear-faced Liars

The detective on the doorstep flashed his warrant card.  At his shoulder, his partner did the same.

“Mr Bear?  We’d like to have a word with you.”

“Oh?” Daddy Bear’s eyebrows went up.  “What about?”

“A girl has gone missing.” He held up a photograph of a pretty face framed by a shock of golden hair.  “We wondered if you might have seen something.  Anything.  Her mother, as you can imagine, is frantic with worry.”

“I can imagine,” said Daddy Bear.  He called over his shoulder.  “Love, have you seen a young girl around here recently?”

“You what, love?”  Mummy Bear came from the kitchen to join her husband in the hallway.  She was holding a tea towel and drying a breakfast bowl.

“Young girl,” said Daddy Bear.  “These policemen are asking questions.”

The corners of Mummy Bear’s mouth turned down and she shook her head.  “Can’t say that I have.  Sorry.”

“Muuuuumm!” came a high voice from the living room.  “I’ve got glue on me!”

Mummy Bear rolled her eyes.  “Kids!  I told him to let it dry.”

She handed her husband the bowl and the towel and padded into the living room.

“It’s a bugger to get off it you don’t leave it to soak,” said Daddy Bear.

The detective frowned.  “What is?  Blood?”

“Porridge,” said Daddy Bear.

“Can we come in for a minute?” the detective stepped forward.  Daddy Bear shrugged and stepped back.

The detective and his partner headed into the living room where they found Mummy Bear trying to tug a chair leg from a young cub’s fur.

“What happened here, then?” the detective took in the scene.

“Bloody cheap furniture,” said Daddy Bear.  “Swedish rubbish, I think.”

A thud from overhead made everyone look at the ceiling.  A panicked look passed between Mummy and Daddy.

“Probably the bed collapsing,” Daddy Bear smiled uneasily.  “Swedish too, I expect.”

“What have you got against the Swedish?” the detective’s eyes narrowed.

“Nothing!” Daddy Bear stammered.  “It’s just that the instructions are so difficult to follow, and you try using an Allen key with paws the size of dinner plates.”

A second thud, louder than the first.

“She’s awake!” cried Baby Bear.

The detectives ran up the stairs.

“Shit,” said Daddy Bear.

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The Makeover

The car pulled up in the clearing.

“You can take off the blindfold now,” said the p.a. flatly.  She got out and opened the door.  Winnie climbed out of the limousine, blinking against the sunlight.

“Here she is, folks!” the host boomed, encouraging the rest of the film crew to clap.  Winnie blushed, her pale green cheeks dotted pink with embarrassment.  The pink turned to red when she saw what had happened during her absence.

“What.  The Hell.  Have you done to my house?” Her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened as she took in the abomination ahead of her.

The walls were fashioned from bricks of gingerbread, glazed and gleaming.  The window panes were transparent sugar sheets and icing, like drifted snow, lay on the sills and on the roof.  Candy canes stood in a vase on the doorstep and the front door was studded with boiled sweets of every colour.

Winnie put her hand over the camera that was trained on her reaction.

“First thoughts?” the host thrust his microphone under Winnie’s chin.

“It’s – horrible.  It’s not what I asked for at all.”

“We played a wild card!” the host laughed, ignoring Winnie’s distress.  “Our design squad has gone for a fairy-tale aesthetic.  Old woman in the woods, lives in an edible house.  It’s a classic!”

“It’s horrible,” Winnie repeated.  “It’s a cliché.  What will people think?”

“They’ll think there lives a woman with style and a sense of humour.”

“They’ll think I’m a wicked witch!”

“Nonsense!  No one thinks that way anymore.  It’s all ‘new-age practitioner’ now, isn’t it?  Alternative medicines?”

Winnie grunted.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  Now, piss off, off my property.”

She shoved the host aside.  He rolled his eyes at the camera, pretending to flinch as the front door slammed.

He waved the crew into the bushes.

“Now, viewers,” he addressed the camera with conspiratorial glee, “we’ve installed a brand-new oven in Winnie’s kitchen and we’ve placed hidden cameras in every corner.  Here come two innocent little children; let’s hang back and see what happens…”

witch-hazel-kids-wb-98.4

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Sis-Boom-Bah!

The pitch cracked open.  The turf was forced apart from below as the crack widened.  Dirt and stones burst from the rift.  Somewhat redundantly, the referee blew his whistle – as if the game hadn’t already come to a halt.  Players, cheerleaders, coaches and linesmen picked themselves up.  The entire stadium watched in fascinated terror as a figure arose from the cleft, a gaping fissure that had not been there only seconds ago.

The figure sprouted up, like a beanstalk rushing to the clouds, until it towered over the arena.  Slender it was and scaly, its skin the deepest green, its eyes like furnaces burning red.  Horned it was, with a sharply angular snout and rows of fangs that gleamed in the floodlights.  It stretched out leathery wings in a show of might, plunging row after row of spectators into the darkness of its shadow.

The crowd held its collective breath as above them the long head turned, and the bright eyes scanned the scene.

And then a voice, from deep within the creature, like thunder on the boil.

“Who summons me to this place?  Who has disturbed my slumber of a thousand years?  Who DARES?”

No one moved.  No one breathed.

The creature sneered.  “Will none of you address me?  Fools!  Prepare to be incinerated!”

The nostrils flared.

“Excuse me?” a voice cut through the silence.  “Mr Dragon, sir?”

The creature’s eyes darted, seeking the source of the shrill, small voice.

“Down here!  Hi!”

The creature stooped and stared.  A fiery glow washed over the tiny mortal, Cherri Malone, as she waved red, white and blue pompoms.

“Is there some kind of a problem here, Mr Dragon?  Only we’re down to the last quarter and our boys are winning.  We’d like to finish the game, if’n you don’t mind.”

Sinuous and serpentine, the creature’s neck swooped around the human girl.

“Game?” the deep voice rumbled.  “You woke me up for some game?”

“Sure!  Well, not on purpose.  But it’s the last game of the season and we’re in with a shot and –”

“SILENCE!”  The creature’s roar caused the cheerleader’s hairdo to collapse.  “Why have you called me?”

“Nobody called you, silly!” Cherri giggled.  “You just showed up and crashed the party.”

Confusion clouded the creature’s countenance.  “Are you sure?  I could have sworn I heard my name… Ritualistic chanting, the lot.”  His gaze swooped around the stadium.  “Did no one call for Sis-Boom-Bah?”

“Oh…” Cherri swatted at the behemoth with a pompom.  “Now I get it.  Your name is Sis-Boom-Bah?  Well, ain’t that a co-inky-dink?”

“Hmm.  Oh, dear, I do feel rather foolish now.  I must apologise.”

The creature stamped an enormous, taloned foot, squashing the turf back into place.  “Please, please continue.  I shall be on my way.”

“No, why don’t you stay and watch,” Cherri grinned.  “There’s popcorn.”

“Temptress!” the creature grinned back.  “Raw will do.  I can cook it myself.”

With that, the creature climbed up onto the roof and stretching out in a reclining posture, settled down to watch the rest of the game.

Fin_Fang_Foom_001 (1)

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The Widow and the Snow

“It’s sticking!” Davey cried, his nose pressed against the window.  Janet pulled him away and drew the curtains.

“Never mind that!  Bed!” she barked, steering the boy toward the stairs.  As he got ready for bed, he babbled about the falling snow and asked her how deep she thought it would be by morning.

“The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner you can go out in it,” she reminded him.  She pecked his forehead and turned out the light.

With Davey tucked in, she went downstairs.  The snow was coming down in earnest; the forecasts warned of a countrywide white-out for the weekend and it looked like, for once, they had got it right.  Already the garden was blanketed, already the world outside was muted.  Peaceful and pretty.

Janet steeled herself.  Knowing Davey, he would be up at first light and would hurl himself outdoors without dressing properly.  She put his wellies, his scarf, his bobble hat at the foot of the stairs, hoping to be able to intercept him.

Then she began the preparations for the ritual.  Her late husband’s hat, scarf and gloves, secured in their own suitcase, were fetched out from under the stairs.  Also in the case was the fragile scroll of parchment – there would be time to rehearse the incantation, she hoped.  One day, she knew, she would have to teach Davey the words, the rhythms, the gestures he would need to make it work.

Finally, she fished in the freezer for the Tupperware box that contained the final ingredient.  It would need a few hours to defrost.

Janet shivered, but not from the cold.  Hugging herself, she sat by the kitchen counter, looking at the items she had laid out.  As was usual every year, she wondered whether she should give it a miss.  It was time to move on, time to let Harry go, once and for all.

But Davey needed his father.  The chances of sufficient snowfall were few and far between.  And he was so looking forward to it, to seeing his dad again.

She prised the lid off the plastic container.  The vial glinted at her, its precious contents, like smoke, like pale green smoke, swirled as though to greet her.

“Hello, Henry,” she muttered.  “This is the last time.”

The smoke curled and roiled as though angry.  Janet could imagine her late husband’s voice, pleading, begging.  Find clay! Henry would urge.  Find clay and make me from it.  The snow is too fleeting, too transitory.  Make me from clay and I can stay around.  Davey needs his dad.

Janet snatched up the vial.  Her thumb toyed with the stopper.

“What about what I want?” she whispered.  “What about my needs?”

The smoke glowed angrily.  The glass grew hot in her hand.

“This is the last time, Henry,” she held the bottle to the light.  “When the snow melts, I won’t be putting you back in.  I’m sorry.”

Knocking at the back door startled her.  She almost dropped the vial and that would have been an end to it, her husband’s life-force dashed on the kitchen tiles.

It was Gerald, her neighbour.  Her handsome, hunky neighbour.

“Just checking in!” he grinned.  “Brought my trusty shovel if your path needs clearing!”

Janet hid the vial behind her back.  “You’re very kind,” she pouted.  “Do you remember, inviting me to dinner one night?”

“It still stands,” Gerald beamed, his blue eyes bright in his snow-reddened face.

“Good,” said Janet.  “Because I think I’m ready.”

Behind her back, her thumb flicked the cork from the bottle and the contents dispersed into the air.  Davey would be disappointed, but it was high time he learned that the past is like snow and you shouldn’t try to hang onto it.

window snow

 

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Meanwhile, at the Garden Centre

“Excuse me,” Saunders approached the woman in the green body warmer.  “Do you work here?”

The woman – the photo-card on the lanyard around her neck revealed her name was Katherine – pulled her attention away from the bedding plants she was crouching nearby and blinked at Saunders from beneath an unruly fringe.   “For my sins,” she smiled, rising to a standing position.  There was soil on her cheek, Saunders noticed, and her teeth were large and square like a horse’s.  Otherwise, she wasn’t in bad shape, he assessed.  It must be all the outdoor working and the lifting of heavy things like those flat, unwieldy bags of fertiliser.

She waited, her equine smile unwavering.  Saunders looked her up and down.  The green wellies, the chequered shirt, and the dungarees beneath the padded, sleeveless jerkin.  He supposed she had to wear this garb as some sort of uniform.

Katherine blinked.  It seemed unlikely the tall man currently towering over her was going to say any more so she helped him out with a prompt.  “How can I help?”

She looked up into his bland, expressionless face.  “Was it the pansies you were interested in?  Or…”

Saunders stared at her.  “Pansies?  No.  I do not wish to purchase any plants.  My query is something of a contrary nature.  I do not wish to buy any plants at all.  Quite the reverse.  You see, I have a plant of which I wish to be rid.”

“Ah.”  Katherine shook her head.  “I’m afraid we don’t do that kind of thing.  We don’t buy ’em, we only sell ’em.  I mean, we have our suppliers, of course, who keep us stocked up – but perhaps you’d like to speak to the manager?  Is it a lot?”

“Is what a lot?”

“The plants you want to sell.”

Saunders shook his head but his blank features remained unperturbed by the impatience in his voice.  “No, no; you are not understanding me.  There is just the one plant.  Just one.  And I have said nothing about selling it.  I wish to be rid of it.  I wish to destroy it.  I have made several attempts but it seems fortified against every attack.  No blade can harm it or even make as much as a scratch on it.  It is impervious to fire and I suspect it thrives on the various brands of weed killer I have rained upon it.  I have tried everything I can think of but I fear I have reached an impasse.  Please say you will help me,” he nodded at the lanyard, “Katherine.”

“Well,” Katherine exhaled an upward puff to dislodge her fringe.  “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.”  Her eyes narrowed.  “What kind of plant did you say it was?”

“I did not,” Saunders retorted.  “Mainly because I do not know.  It is unlike anything I have ever seen.  I can find no listing for it in any work of botanical reference you can think of.”

“Hmm.  Have you tried Wikipedia?”

Saunders hung his head.  Katherine bit her lower lip.

“Perhaps you can describe it to me.  Then I’ll have some idea what we’re dealing with.”

Saunders let out a sigh, as if he knew it would be a waste of time.  “It’s tall,” he began, measuring the air.  “Easily as tall as me.  Its trunk is as thick as my chest and appears scaly, like it has its own suit of armour.  The leaves hang like dead snakes but they emit a noxious aroma periodically; the stench of rotting carrion.”

“Hmm,” said Katherine, trying to picture the plant.  “And where did you get it?”

“That is just it.  I did not ‘get it’.  It just turned up.  It is a blight in my garden, Katherine.  Everything else is dying.  It is a blight on my life.”

Katherine pursed her lips.  “I don’t suppose you have a photograph.”

“I do not; but perhaps you would do me the kindness of visiting my garden and taking a look for yourself.”

Alarm bells rang in Katherine’s mind.  She snatched up a nearby trowel, ready to defend herself.  “That won’t be possible!” she snapped.  “We don’t do house calls.”

“A pity,” said Saunders, gloomily.

His head split open from crown to chin and a long, green shoot sprang out, shaking off its human form and snaking around the garden centre worker before she knew what was happening.  Tendrils coiled around Katherine’s waist and throat, pinning her arms to her sides and binding her legs.  A leaf slapped across her mouth like a sticking plaster.

“A pity you could not be more trusting,” Saunders’s voice tickled her ear.  “Now I shall have to ingest you right here and regurgitate you for Mother when I get back.  She was so looking forward to a solid meal for a change.”

trowel

 

 

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A Midsummer Night’s Murders

“It’s a right bloody mess, that’s what it is,” opined Detective Inspector Goodfellow, surveying the scene.  The morning light cast shadows of tree trunks over the site, like prison bars.

“Verily,” agreed Detective Constable Selkie.  “Although there is more to do with dust than blood.”

“That’s what you get,” Goodfellow held a handkerchief to his mouth.  “With the fairy folk.  Kill them and they turn to dust.  Like something you’d find under your bed.”

“So many… It looks like the whole of Oberon’s court.”

“A bloodbath – a dust bath.”  Goodfellow’s toe struck something shiny.  He stooped and retrieved it with his pencil.  It was a tiny, intricate thing, glistening in the sunlight, bejewelled with dew.  “Oberon’s crown…” Goodfellow marvelled.

Selkie shook her head.  “The King is dead.  Long live…  Who?  Who stands to sit on the throne now?”

Goodfellow shrugged.  “Titania’s diadem.  Over there.  Mustardseed’s wings… Someone really went to town on this bunch of fairies.”

“But who?”

“Our job to find out.  Duke Theseus is keen to keep this thing under wraps.  Swift resolution before the rest of the Underworld finds out.  Last thing we need is that lot waging supernatural war against Athens.”

Selkie nodded.  “Those youngsters who were messing about in the forest.”

Goodfellow shook his head.  “Already questioned.  They were all off their tits on love potion.  Courtesy of…” he dropped into a crouch, “this little chap here.”

Selkie held her breath lest she blow away the dusty form of Puck.

“Know him?”

“He had form.  Now he is formless.”  Goodfellow grimaced bitterly at his own humour.

“I don’t get it.  All those lives, snuffed out.  It makes no sense.  Who could possibly have a grudge against the fairy folk?”

Goodfellow held up a hand to silence his partner.  He took stealthy strides toward a thicket.  Selkie followed, taking care not to step on any dusty corpses.

A child was sobbing on the ground, hugging his knees, his turban askew.

“Oh, you poor thing,” cooed Selkie.  “He must have hidden in here to escape the carnage.”  She beckoned to the boy, telling him everything was going to be all right, no one was going to hurt him.

The boy looked up, warily.  He gave a wet sniff and surrendered himself to Selkie’s arms.

“A changeling…” Goodfellow realised.  “Oberon snatched him from India, it looks like.  Poor little chap.”

“We’ll get him down the station and have social services have a look at him.”

Selkie headed back to the car.  The boy watched Goodfellow over her shoulder, his eyes expressionless and unblinking.

Too late Goodfellow noticed the dusty handprints the boy was leaving on Selkie’s back.

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The Last Man in the World

The last man in the world woke up.  He cursed his fate; perhaps one of these nights, he would die in his sleep and not have to face yet another bloody day of solitude.  A nice, quiet heart attack would suit, in the wee small hours, so slight he wouldn’t feel more than a pinch but enough to finish him off, once and for all.

And then what?  If I, the last man in the world, pop my clogs, what next for this poor, benighted planet?

Not my problem, the last man in the world shrugged.  Whatever transpires, planet Earth will be a lot better off, finally cleansed of its human infestation.  The Earth will be able to heal itself at last, and Mother Nature will be able to reassert herself as the dominant force.  Thinking of the fresh air and the renewed greenery almost made the last man in the world wish he’d be around to see it, to breathe it, to run around barefoot in it…

He got out of bed.  He considered having a wash – which was the closest he had come to actually washing himself in… how long?  He couldn’t remember.  And who cared?  There was no one around to complain about his b.o. or the halitosis that wafted through his unbrushed teeth.

And you might feel better

A small voice popped into his head.

Better in yourself if you have a wash.  Refreshed.  You don’t have to go the whole hog, just spruce yourself up a bit.  Change your socks at least.  Drag a comb across your bonce.

“What’s the point?” the last man in the world cried out, silencing the small voice for a moment.

You want to watch that

It piped up after a brief but deafening silence.

Shouting at me like that.  If I stop talking to you, there really will be no one left.  And then where will you be, eh?  Well and truly on your lonesome.  And that way, madness lies!

“Shut up,” the last man in the world grumbled.  He padded across the apartment to the kitchen and put the kettle on.

No sugar in mine

“Make your bloody own!”

He stood by the kettle, listening to its rumbles growing to a roar and an eruption of steam.  He made camomile tea but left it on the counter and it went cold, forgotten.

The last man in the world decided to put some music on.  It would help him to ignore that small, nagging voice in his head.  But the more he scanned the rows and rows of albums he had collected over the years, the less able he was to make a selection.  Nothing appealed.  Nothing took his fancy.  Pieces he had loved for years had taken on the appeal of cold vomit.

It was the same with films.  Nothing in his collection seemed worth watching.  Nothing suited his mood.  Unable to choose, he stood dithering at his shelves for an hour.  At least that killed sixty minutes, he supposed.  He went back to bed.

It’s too soon.  You’ve only just got up.  You haven’t done anything.  You should get up.  Move about a bit.  Tire yourself out.

“Leave me alone,” the last man in the world put a pillow over his face.  “Just let me lie here in peace, damn you.”

Sleep would not come.  Why would it?  The small voice was right: he had not used enough energy for the slightest amount of physical fatigue.  Energy?  That was a laugh; the last man in the world lacked the energy to do anything.

But I am so tired, he wailed.  Tired of the same thoughts going around and around in my head.  I just want them to stop.

Hang about!

The small voice interrupted the last man in the world’s thoughts before they could begin another cycle.

“What?”

There’s still running water

“What?”

In the taps.  You filled the kettle – There’s still electricity to boil the water! There’s still power for all the music you no longer listen to and the films you don’t want to watch

The last man in the world lifted the pillow from his face.  “What do you mean?”

Think about it.  If there’s power and there’s water, there’s somebody else!  Out there!  You’re not the last man in the world after all

The last man in the world shook his head.  “Automated systems.  Same goes for the food delivery, before you say anything.  It’s all drones and such.”

But the small voice would not be appeased.

Wouldn’t hurt to go and have a look.  Get some fresh air, feel the sun on your face

“Get lost!” the last man in the world snarled.  “Get out of my head!”

He clamped the pillow to his face and thrashed around on the unmade bed.

What are you afraid of?  Are you afraid you’ll find others out there?  Other people who think and feel the way you do.  Or are you worried that you won’t?  That you’ll find out once and for all that your truly are the last man in the world.  Instead of just carrying on as though you are.  It’s pathetic.  You’re pathetic.  You’re not the last man in the world; you’re depressed, that’s all.  Pick yourself up off this bed this minute.  Put your shoes on and march through that front door

“Or else?”

Or else I’ll stop speaking to you

“Promises, promises.”

And then you really will be all alone

“All right, all right!”  The last man in the world hurled the pillow across the room, sat up and snatched his shoes from under the bed.  “If it’ll make you stop nagging,” he muttered, tying the laces.

You’ll feel better

The small voice promised.

The last man in the world stood.  He froze.  He looked across the apartment.  The front door seemed an impossibly long way away.

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The Elephant in the Room

“Gosh!  Will you look at this, you chaps?”  Hemming shone his torch into the room.  Over his shoulders, Pearce peered and Covington cowered.

“I don’t think we ought –” Covington jabbered.  In terror, he buried his face into the shoulder of Pearce’s blazer.   Pearce shrugged him off.

“Grow up, Covvy,” he sneered.  “We’re forty-eight not fourteen.”

“Even so, I don’t think we ought – Out of respect and all that.”

Hemming rounded on him; Covington recoiled, squinting from the flashlight.  Hemming too was glaring.

“Forty-eight and still entirely without balls, eh, Covvy?  I’ll say this only once and then what you bloody do is up to you.  Squiffy’s with me, aren’t you, Squiffy?”

“Bloody am!” Pearce confirmed with a grave nod.

“This place is ours now – well, the Consortium’s.  So we have every right – and what better way to show our respects than to raise a glass to the Old Bastard in his own office?  Which is now technically our office, and which is soon to be the fourth floor of a multi-storey car park and part of the largest retail park in the whole bloody county.  Wahey!”

“I should cocoa,” Pearce agreed.

“So come on in or bugger off; it’s entirely up to you.  See if I care.”  Hemming strode into the room and perched on a stack of boxes.  “About here, his desk was, wouldn’t you say?”

“Rather!” said Pearce, joining him.  Hemming gripped a bottle of champagne between his knees and twisted the cork.

“Bring those glasses, will you, old boy?”

“Rather,” said Pearce.

Covington remained in the doorway and peered at the scene.  In the gloom and after the passage of three decades, it was difficult to believe this room had been the Old Bastard’s lair.  Stripped of all furniture and denuded of decoration, the office seemed paradoxically smaller.  Or perhaps, Covington reflected, it is we who have grown?  Hemming certainly had – mostly around the middle – and he, Covington, had always been what people used to call ‘portly’.  What had once been dismissed as puppy fat was still hanging on his frame – doggedly, you might say, what!  But Pearce.  Good old Sheridan ‘Squiffy’ Pearce was as lithe and taut as he had ever been.  A bit weathered around the eyes, perhaps, with the odd fleck of white in his moustache, certainly, but of the three of us, he was certainly the best preserved.  And it made Covington feel a kind of warmth, to think they had stayed in touch, throughout all these years.

“I say, Hemming,” he called from the doorway.  “Do you ever hear from Whatsisface these days?”

“Who?” Hemming grunted, still twisting the bottle neck.

“Whojimmyflop – Perkins!”  Covington wracked his memory.  “Good old Percy Perkins!”

Hemming let the name sink in.  He shook his head sadly.  “No, can’t say that I have.”

“After it happened, he sort of disappeared,” nodded Pearce.

“That’s right,” Hemming agreed.  “Got sent down.  Quite right, too, after what he did.  Dreadful shame, though.  I always liked Percy Perkins.  He was a good egg.”

“Um…” Covington, who had only arrived at the school the term after ‘it’ had taken place, inched a few footsteps over the threshold.  “What did he do exactly?  Your friend, Perkins.”

Hemming and Pearce glanced at each other, enjoying the memory of a secret shared.

“Oh, I suppose it won’t hurt to let you in on it,” Hemming conceded.  “After all this time.  And you are part of the Consortium, after all.”

He jerked his head, beckoning Covington to approach.  Hemming lowered his voice so Covington would have no choice but to draw nearer.

“Did you never hear the story about the elephant, Covvy?”

Covington’s eyes darted as his mind raced.  His jaw dropped.  “You mean – but that – that was just a legend, wasn’t it?  Something to tell the younger boys.”

“On the contrary!  It was all true.”

“Rather!” confirmed Pearce.

“And it happened right here, in this very room.”

Covington’s eyes widened as they appraised his surroundings anew.

“That’s right.  In this very spot it stood.  Right where you are now.”

Covington’s mouth worked and his eyebrows dipped in a frown; it was a while before he could get any words out.  “But – how?  Where?  It’s impossible!”

“How: we shall never know,” Hemming shook his head.  “Perhaps Perkins was some kind of magician.  And as for the where – well, there is a safari park not far from here – which is why our retail park is so well-placed.  Shop till you drop and then take a leisurely drive through some animals – their enclosures, I mean, of course.”

Pearce nodded sagely.

“Of course, the whole thing was hushed up,” Hemming continued.

“Utterly,” added Pearce.  He even placed a finger on his lips as illustration.

“It’s reckoned it’s what triggered the heart condition that eventually finished the Old Bastard off.”

“No!”

Hemming and Pearce nodded gravely.

“Of course, we – the boys, the staff, even the groundsmen – were under strict instruction never to talk about it.  Not to breathe a word.  The Old Bastard was keen not to have his reputation undermined.  If word got out that he had been made a fool of – well!” Hemming gestured expansively as if the dire consequences were self-evident.

Covington wasn’t listening.  “I suppose if you took those windows out and got a crane – a bloody big one, mind you – Er, how did they get it out again?”

“What?”

“Perkins’s elephant!”

“They didn’t,” laughed Hemming.

“I should cocoa,” Pearce joined in.

“He couldn’t, you see.  So the Old Bastard kept it in here.  And no one was allowed to say a word about it.  You had to pretend it wasn’t here.  So, when he called you in for a talking-to, or a telling-off, or what-have-you…”

“Six of the best,” Pearce interjected.

“You had to squeeze into a corner and pretend it wasn’t there.  We all got used to it, after the novelty had worn off.”

Covington’s frown deepened.  “But what about the smell?”

Hemming smirked.  “I suppose the elephant got used to it.”

At last, his efforts to liberate the cork proved successful.  Pearce cheered, eagerly holding up the glassed.

“Wahey!” Hemming cried as he poured.

The trio clinked their glasses together and raised them in a toast.

“To Percy Perkins!” proposed Pearce.

“To the Old Bastard!” cried Hemming.

“To the elephant!” suggested Covington.  They drank heartily to all three and to each other and to their Consortium.

Later, as they staggered down to their cars, Covington nudged both Pearce and Hemming.

“You were having me on, just then.  Own up!”

“What?” Pearce was puzzled.

“No, we really want you in the Consortium,” grinned Hemming.

“Not about that.  About the elephant.  I don’t see how it was possible.  Nobody puts an elephant in their headmaster’s office.”

“Don’t they?” Hemming pulled a quizzical face.

“I mean, I think it’s a good story and all that, but, as you said, the Bastard was Old and had a heart condition.  I think perhaps your friend Peter Perkins –”

“Percy!” Pearce corrected.

“I think he did something else.  Scared the old man some other way.  Perhaps – perhaps – he knew something – and he threatened to blab – perhaps.”

Hemming and Pearce stopped in their tracks, all humour evaporated.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hemming, his lips tight.

“Some things you just don’t speak of, old man,” said Pearce.

Sensing they were no longer in the party mood, Covington let himself into his car.  As he drove away, he glanced in the rear-view mirror.  His friends were still there but they were not watching him drive away.  They had turned their backs and were gazing up at the headmaster’s window.

What had happened in that office?  Covington would never know.  What was so bad that the entire school would enter into a conspiracy to scare an old man to death?  Carrying on as though there was an elephant in his office and he was the only one who couldn’t see it!  It was absurd!  What had the so-called Old Bastard done to deserve that?

A shudder of realisation ran down Covington’s spine.

All those boys, those poor boys…

It was no wonder Covington’s chums had strived for years to gain the means to knock the building down.

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