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The Happy Carrot

“Hello, is that the Happy Carrot?”

“Yes.  How can I help?”

“Well, we’ve probably left it a bit late but I’m enquiring about booking our Christmas do.”

“Ah, yes, ha ha.  You have a bit.  We can squeeze you in on Thursday – how many in your party?”

“Um, well, there’s me, and Carol, and Liz, and Linda, and Pete off the vans, and Manjit, and Rob, and – possibly – Dave.   But there’s a question mark over Dave.”

“So, seven or eight?”

“Yes – but as I say, there’s a question mark over Dave.”

“We can do you a table for eight at seven, but we will need to move you on at nine.  Is that OK?”

“That’s great!  Fine, thank you.”

“And would you like to pre-order from our Christmas menu, to save time?”

“Um, yes.  Hang on, I’ve got it written down.  Carol and Linda want Option A; Liz, Pete and Mary want B – but no coriander on Manjit’s; and Rob wants C with extra chips.”

“And you?”

“No, I don’t think Rob wants me.  Not even on the side!  Ha!”

“What do you want to order?”

“Oh, yes, I’ll have the B as well but could I swap the tomatoes for extra green beans?”

“That’s no problem.  And your other guest?  Steve?”

“Who?  Oh!  Dave.  Well, as I say there’s a question mark over Dave.  He’s a bit faddy, you see.  He doesn’t think you’ll be able to cater for him.”

“Oh.  Well, we can try.  We can do gluten free.”

“Oh.  It’s not that.  He’s a – he’s a – one of those what-do-you-call-thems?  He’s a mortist.”

“Ah.”

“So, you can’t do it?”

“I’ll have a word with the chef.  But are you sure he wouldn’t be happy with seitan or some other form of substitute?”

“No, he says there’s no point to it.  He wants meat, freshly killed meat, barely cooked.”

“I’ll be honest, we don’t get much call for it.”

“What if he brings his own?  Would you be able to warm it up for him?”

“What are we talking here?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know what they eat, do I?  Bit of pig, maybe.  A chunk of cow.  Half a bird?”

“I’ll be honest – I don’t think… I mean, we’d have to use separate utensils and everything.”

“If it’s too much trouble… Bloody fussy eaters!  Why can’t they have what the rest of us have?  I mean, it’s not natural, is it?  Having all that flesh, rotting away in your intestines!  We haven’t got the guts for it, have we?”

“You don’t have to tell me.  Listen, I’ll have a word with the chef and I’ll call you back, OK?”

“That’d be brilliant.  Do you know, we had him round for Sunday dinner once.  Dave, I’m talking about.  Well, I made a special effort.  You do, don’t you, for your guests?  Well, I went online looking for recipes.  And I thought I’d make him a stew.  But as for buying the – stuff, well, I didn’t know where to go, did I?  So, in the end, I bashed the cat’s head in, skinned it and chopped it up.”

“Ugh.  And how did that go down?”

“Well, he wolfed it down, didn’t he?  Then he asked what it was and when I said ‘Tiddles’ he ran off to the bathroom, didn’t he?  Said I was mental.  And I said, what’s the difference?  If we’d had a pet pig and sacrificed that for his Sunday dinner, he wouldn’t have minded, would he?  Ah, that’s different, he said.  But I can’t see it.”

“They do have some funny ideas, those mortists.”

“Weirdos.  I’ll tell Dave it’s no go. I’ll say you’re all booked up and I’ll get the rest of the team to keep shtum.”

“That’s probably for the best, isn’t it?”

“I mean, what he does in his own home is different, isn’t it?  If he wants to make himself ill, that’s his business.”

“Quite.  So that’s seven for Thursday at seven.”

“Lovely.  Thank you!  Bye!”

cartoon-carrot-hi

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Tinsel the Christmas Manatee

The manatee pup yelped for its mother and swallowed most of the wave that crashed against his face.  Overhead, black clouds raced each other in front of the moon and in the distance, thunder rumbled, growing ever louder, ever nearer.

The pup flapped his flippers, striving in vain against the tide.  Around him, debris and litter carelessly dumped by the human inhabitants of the bay were also buffeted about by the choppy water.  He could not be far from the shore, he reckoned.  Perhaps he could find a helpful rock or sandbank on which to wait out the storm.

The thunder was at its loudest.  The pup imagined a huge monster roaring, opening its enormous jaws to devour him.  He gave a squeak and dove as deep as he dared to go.  Something caught him, yanked him back.  The claws of the monster!  The pup thrashed around but the thing tightened around his head.  Gasping, clawing his way to the surface, the pup realised it wasn’t a monster but more of the rubbish thrown into the ocean by the humans.  It was a length of string, shiny, with metallic strands that glinted like the scales of silvery fish.  The pup’s head broke the surface just as a bolt of lightning struck the thing around his neck.  In a flash, he was illuminated, revealing his skeleton.  Breathless, the pup floundered, all his strength gone and the water closing in…

He awoke in bright daylight, his snout full of sand.  He blinked his wide-set eyes.  I’m on the beach, he realised.  And I’m still wearing the shiny stringy thing from last night…

“Help!  Help!”  It was the voice of a human child.  The manatee didn’t know how he could understand but the child was in distress.  The manatee plunged back into the waves and swum out to the flailing human.  Gently, the pup took the human cub’s arm in its jaws and towed the child back to dry land.

Two adult humans ran up, a male and a female, laughing and clapping.

“He saved me!” the child spluttered, throwing his arms around the manatee.  “It’s a Christmas miracle.”

The manatee did his best to appear modest.

“You should be careful near the water, Timmy,” he said.

The humans screamed.

“I’m as surprised as you are,” the manatee confessed.  “I’ve never spoken before.  I remember last night – the storm – I was struck by lightning.  This tinsel I’m wearing, damn near killed me.”

The human child clapped its hands.  “That’s what we’ll call you: Tinsel, the Christmas Manatee!  You’re my hero!”

“Oh, I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done,” the manatee looked embarrassed.

“Nonsense!” the child’s father shook the manatee by the flipper.  “Thank you for saving my boy.  I’m going to write your story so everyone knows about you.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” said the manatee.  “I’d much rather you expended your efforts into tidying up around here.  The amount of rubbish I have to swim through – it’s affecting my fishing ground.  And the run-off from the chemical plant up the coast is killing my family.”

But the humans weren’t listening.  They had linked arms and were walking back to their beachfront home.

“You could write a song!” the woman enthused.  “A good Christmas song will set us up for life.”

“I’m thinking a series of picture books,” said the man.  “And you’ll be in them, Timmy.  You and Tinsel are going to have all sorts of adventures.”

The boy turned back.  “So long, Tinsel!” he called.  “See you next Christmas!”

“Not if I see you first,” muttered Tinsel.  He wobbled back to the water’s edge and let the tide carry him out to sea.

Humans!  Their priorities were always wrong.

tinsel

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Meanwhile, at the book signing…

Martin thought the line would stretch out to the crack of doom.  Dozens upon dozens of eager parents with their eager kids, all holding copies of his latest picture book, waiting for a magic moment with him, an autograph, a photograph, with the man who created the international best-selling hit, Tinsel the Christmas Manatee.   He checked his smile was turned up to full and beckoned the next fan forward.

He opened the cover and, pen poised, asked what name.

“Marigold,” said a red-faced girl with an earnest expression.

“To… Marigold…” Martin narrated as he inscribed, “Best wishes…from Martin Murdock and Tinsel…Kiss, kiss.”

Behind her, Marigold’s parents went aww and ahh.  Their daughter was not so easily impressed.

“Where’s Tinsel?” she asked.  “I want Tinsel!”

Her parents pulled an apologetic face.  Martin waved.

“It’s OK,” he said.  “Tinsel can’t be here today.  You know where Tinsel lives, don’t you, Marigold?”

“In the ocean,” said Marigold.

“And where are we now?”

“Birmingham.”

“Exactly.  We’re a bit far from the ocean, aren’t we?  You don’t want Tinsel to get ill, do you?”

Marigold narrowed her eyes.  “Tinsel is magic.  It says so.  In Tinsel and the Christmas Fun Run.

“Ah, yes.  But that was just a story.  And I hope you’ll enjoy this new story just as much.”  He tried to hand back the signed copy but Marigold swatted it away.

“I want to see Tinsel and I want to see him now!” she stamped her foot.

“Come on, darling,” said Marigold’s mummy.  Marigold shrugged free of mummy’s hand.

“I want to see Tinsel!” she roared.

“I want to see Tinsel!” cried the next child in line.  In no time at all, every child in the bookshop had joined in the chant.  The manager hurried over to Martin and whispered urgently in his ear that he had better take charge of the situation or the event was over.  And that means: no more sales.

Martin tried to placate the crowd with gestures.  He climbed onto the table and waved.  He appealed for quiet at the top of his voice.

“Ssh!  Ssh!” he put his finger to his lips.  “Right.  Now, listen, everybody, boys and girls.  Tinsel isn’t here because Tinsel is a water-dwelling mammal.  Besides which, Tinsel isn’t real.  He’s made up.  I made him up.  I had the idea.  I wrote the stories.  I drew the pictures.  But it was only when I put ‘Christmas’ in the title that the character really took off.  It seems people will buy anything if you say it’s for Christmas.”

Marigold was beside herself with rage.

“What do you mean?  Tinsel isn’t real?”

“It’s just a story,” said Martin.

“So, there’s no magic manatee who teaches orphans to swim, who rescues shipwrecked sailors, and who delivers presents to all the children at the seaside?”

“Of course not!” Martin snapped.  “There is no Tinsel.  There is no magic.  It’s your parents.  They buy you everything and tell you all sorts of lies to make you behave yourselves.”

A collective gasp almost sucked the air from the room.

Marigold turned to confront her parents.

“Is this true, Mummy?” she put her hands on her hips.  “Daddy?”

“It’s just the silly man being silly, darling,” said Daddy, sending Martin a threatening look.  “Isn’t it, mate?”

Martin climbed down from the table.

“Yes, yes, of course.  Sorry, everyone.  Tell you what: half price off the books.  My agent won’t like it but hey, it’s nearly Christmas.”

That seemed to appease the parents at least.

Marigold snatched up her copy with a haughty sniff.  She tucked the book under her arm and took her parents’ hands in hers.

“I don’t care if Tinsel is a silly lie,” she announced.  “Now, let’s go and see Father Christmas and after that we can go to church.”

manatee

 

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Christmas Police

Karen opened the front door to find two broad-shouldered men in uniform on the doorstep.  They looked like cops except their outfits were red and trimmed with white.  The one on the left flashed his i.d. although Karen’s brain saw it as a Christmas card.

“Karen Greenford?” this man intoned.

“Yes?” Karen frowned.  “Only if you’re going to sing me Happy Birthday, it’s not my birthday, so…”

The man’s lips tightened in a grim smile.  “It is important to do things at the correct time.  You recognise this?”

“Well, yes, like I say, it’s not my birthday, so go back to whoever’s paying you and tell them there’s been a mistake.”

“Ms Greenford, when is his birthday?”

“What?” Karen blinked.  “Who?”

“You have Christmas decorations in your windows.”

Karen beamed with pride. “Lovely, aren’t they?  Did it all myself.  I love to feel all Christmassy, don’t you?”

A brief looked flashed between the men.

“When is his birthday, Ms Greenford?  It’s a simple question.”

Karen paled.  So this is what this is.  It wasn’t a singing telegram.  It was religious nutters.

“I’m sorry,” she backed off.  “I have something in the oven.”

She moved to close the door but one of the men blocked it with a big, black boot.

“May we come in,” he rumbled.  Before she could answer, Karen found herself pushed aside.  The men stepped into her hallway and looked around.  One tipped back his head and sniffed.

“Mince pies…”

The other man made a note on his tablet.

“There is something wrong with your calendar, perhaps,” he strode into the living room.  “You have perhaps turned two pages at once?”

He looked around at the decorations.  Paper chains spanned the ceiling.  A too-large Christmas tree dominated a corner and was already beginning to shed.  Every shelf was cluttered with ornaments: apple-cheeked Father Christmases, cutesy-pie reindeer with enormous eyelashes, a penguin in a Santa hat…

The men affected a professional air but their eyes betrayed their horror.  It was worse than they had thought.

On the television, framed with lengths of tinsel, played an American movie about a child learning to walk again in time for Christmas Eve.  The two men shared a look of concern.

“Is this a recording?  A DVD?”

Karen shook her head.  “It’s on now.  They’re showing them every afternoon in the run-up to the big day.”

“So, you are aware today is not the big day?”

Karen laughed.  “Of course it isn’t!  Don’t be silly!  Although I am ready for it; I’ve done all my shopping.”

“Ms Greenford, you have heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas?”

“Yes!  Of course!  Is that what this is?  Carol singing?  Are we going to have a bit of a sing-song?  Hang on; I’ll get some mulled wine.  It’ll get us in the mood.”

One of the men stepped sideways to block Karen’s exit.

“Ms Greenford, there are twelve days of Christmas, none of which occur in November.”

“So?” Karen shrugged.  “Look, if you’re not going to sing to me about Rudolph or Frosty or Tinsel the Christmas Manatee, I’d like you to leave now, please.  I’ve still got lots of presents to wrap and cards to write and –”

One of the men held up his hand.  “Ms Greenford, no one is saying you shouldn’t be preparing for the holiday.  A good Christmas cake can take months to get right.”

“That’s right!” Karen agreed.

“But we have concerns that you are using up your allotted share of Christmas spirit too early.”

“I haven’t touched a drop!”

“You see, Ms Greenford, there is only so much Christmas spirit to go around.  People use up their ration too early and it leaves others with nothing when the big day comes.”

“Eh?” Karen was puzzled.  “What are you going on about?”

“Ms Greenford, use up your Christmas spirit early and, during that darkest week of the year, you will have no goodwill, no fellow-feeling for those less fortunate than yourself.  People go hungry, Miss Greenford.  People are lonely.  There is no Christmas spirit left for them.”

“We’ll let you off with a warning this time,” the second man touched the peak of his cap.  “But we’ll be watching.”

“We’ll know if you’ve been bad or good,” warned the other.  “We’ll see ourselves out.”

A little stunned, Karen stood rooted to the spot as the men went out.  The sound of the front door closing brought her to her senses.

Bloody Scrooges, she sneered.

She fetched a couple of warm mince pies and a glass of sherry from the kitchen, dropped onto the sofa and put her feet up.  On the telly, Tinsel the Christmas Manatee was teaching blind orphans to swim.

Lovely, grinned Karen, already misty-eyed.

I love a traditional Christmas.

arresting-santa-clause-hi

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A Walk on the Cliffs

Andy packed his sandwiches and filled his thermos.  He had splashed out on new laces for his trusty hiking boots and a brand new pair of gloves to match his bobble hat.  He checked his backpack: map, compass, mint cake, water… It was all there.  Most of it he wouldn’t need; he knew exactly where he was going and could probably find his way there blindfolded.

He drove to the little town on the coast and parked.  He put three hours on his parking ticket and affixed it to the inside of the windscreen.  Nice day for it, he gave the sky an appraising look.  Powder blue broken here and there with feathery white.  Lovely.

He hitched his backpack over his shoulders and, clutching his staff, set off on the pebbly footpath that led away from the town and toward the sea.  The path rose and his lungs had to work harder as he climbed.  Must be getting old, old man, he laughed to himself.  After all, he had been making this trek for twenty-five years.

As he strode, enjoying a light breeze taking turns with the sun on his cheeks, he thought back to the first time he had visited the beauty spot.  Sandra had come with him, not quite kicking and screaming, but she had complained with every step.  Her new boots were giving her blisters.  Her clothes weren’t keeping the wind out.  She’d forgotten her sunglasses… and so it had gone on until they had reached the clifftop.

Even then she had failed to appreciate the majesty of the view.  The roiling waves far below like molten metal.  The seagulls wheeling in the air, their keening cries music to his ears, agony to hers.

It had been the last straw.  “There, you selfish bitch!” Andy had shoved her over the edge.  She plummeted in silence, too surprised to scream.  And when he peered over the edge, there was no sign.  The hungry waves had seized upon her, devoured her, erased her completely.

And so, every year, Andy came back.  Why?  Not to make sure, he told himself.  But out of respect.  He hadn’t bothered with women since then; he had been happy enough alone.  And on his country walks, he could be king of all he surveyed.  And he would rather have the screech of a seagull in his ear any day of the week than the nagging tongue of a woman, wearing him down, as the waves erode the rocks…

“Andy?” A voice behind him turned his blood cold.  If I turn, he thought, I will see her, pale blue with seaweed in her hair, and little creatures crawling from her eyes.

“I thought it was you,” the woman’s voice continued.  “I saw you park the car and asked in the café.  They said you come here every year on the same day.”

Andy froze.  She certainly didn’t sound as though she had been dead for twenty-five years.

Steeling himself, he turned.

A woman stood smiling at him with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes like grooves in the sand.  Her cheeks were ruddy from the walk up the path and rounder than he remembered.  In fact, everything about her seemed rounder – she’d put on weight, which is the opposite of what he would imagine the dead to do.

“Sandra?”

“Yes!” she laughed.  “Have I changed that much?  Let myself go a bit, I suppose, since the wedding.”

“Wedding?”

Andy was confused.  He looked over the edge at the waves crashing over the rocks as though an answer would be down there.

“Oh, Andy – you’re not still thinking about all those years ago?  Look, I’m sorry I stood you up, but in all honesty, it was never going to work between us, was it?  You were too outdoorsy for me – not saying there’s anything wrong with that!  If it makes you happy!  And I must say you’re looking good on it.  Trim.  Rather good shape for your time – our time of life.  Why don’t you come down to the Red Lion for a spot of lunch with us?  Trevor will be tickled pink to meet you, and you can hear all about the kids.  Donna’s just graduated and Simon’s in the army.  Andy?  What’s wrong?”

“Sandra…” Andy gaped.  “It’s so good to see you, I –”

His mouth worked like a landed fish, and as he traipsed after her to the pub one question burned in his befuddled mind.

Who the hell did I chuck off the cliff?

cliff

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Meanwhile, in the Laboratory…

“Quickly, Igor!  Throw open the skylight!  This storm will not last forever!”

“Yes, master!”  The hunchback threw all his weight into turning the wheel that operated the mechanism.  High above them, at the top of the turret, a panel slid open.  The doctor’s maniacal laughter was drowned by a thunderclap.

“And now, the first switch.”

Igor pulled down a large handle.

“The second!”

Igor obeyed.  “Let me guess: the third switch!”

“Now!” the doctor cried.  He clapped his hands together and rubbed them.  His eyes were wild and rolling as overhead lightning flashed.  A bolt struck the conducting rod.  A streak of hot blue energy flashed down the length of the apparatus, cracking and buzzing with electricity.

“The time is upon us!” the doctor yelled with glee.  “Igor, attach the electrodes to my creation’s neck.”

“Yes, master –”

Their work was interrupted by sonorous knocking at the castle door.

“Who could that be?” the doctor wailed.  “Who would be out on a night like this?”

Igor’s shrug accentuated his hump.

“Weary travellers, perhaps?  Got themselves lost.  Shall I let them in?”

“No!  Hang on, wait!  Yes!  Let them in!  They will do for spare parts.  But be quick about it!”

Igor shuffled off to answer the door.  While he was gone, the doctor made final checks to the equipment.  He allowed himself a snigger of excitement and anticipation.  He was going to be famous!  He was going to be remembered forever as the creator of eternal life.  He –

“Master,” Igor was back, appearing somewhat downcast.  “It wasn’t weary travellers.”

A man in a pinstripe suit stood dripping on the flagstones, his drenched raincoat draped over one arm and a briefcase dangling from his fingers.  He held out a business card.  The doctor snatched it and peered at the inscription while lightning flashed anew.

“What the hell is this?” he gasped.

“I’m afraid I’m shutting you down,” said the man in the suit.  “This equipment has not been PAT tested and until it has been, it is not to be used.”

“WHAT?” the doctor gaped.  “Are you serious?”

“I always am,” said the man proudly, “When it comes to matters of health and safety.”

The doctor tore the card into confetti and threw it in the man’s face.  Then he slumped against the table, crushed by defeat.

“It was the villagers who put you up to this, wasn’t it?”

The man remained tight-lipped but a smirk played at the corner of his mouth.

The doctor shook his head.  “Time was this place would be under siege with a mob armed to the teeth with flaming torches and pitchforks.  Now all it takes to halt the march of progress is bureaucracy.  What a world!”

“You can arrange for a tester to come out,” said the man.  “Could have one with you within a fortnight.”

“No, no,” the doctor lowered himself onto a stool.  “I shan’t bother.  Igor, show the nice man out.”

Igor did so and returned to find the doctor bowed and broken.

“Master?” he hardly dare approach.

“Society has monsters enough,” the doctor sighed.  “I am redundant.”

mad scientist

 

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The Morning after Hallowe’en

The friar emerged from the crypt, blinking against the morning sun.  It was later than he had expected; there had been no cockerel crowing to herald the dawn.  He found the bird – little more than a collection of scattered feathers now and the odd gout of blood.  Who would do such a thing?

Not who, he corrected himself.  What?

His heart quickened as he picked his way down the hill to the village.  From a distance, he could see the tiny settlement was quiet – too quiet.  No vehicles were on the roads.  No pedestrians bustled around.

There was no sign of life.

The friar thrust the back of his hand into his mouth, trying to stave off the horror rising in his gorge.

I must not get ahead of myself.  I must find out for sure…

But he knew it was true.  Despite his warnings, everyone was dead.

Fools!  Damned fools!

At the end of the only thoroughfare stood the general store.  Still shuttered but an arc of blood splashed in an upstairs window confirmed the friar’s fears.

Shaking his head in sorrow, with revulsion leaping in his stomach, the friar crossed to the saloon.  He found the doors unlocked but the place abandoned.  Debris of the night before was all around: empty glasses, discarded bottles, the odd upturned piece of furniture.

Something moved on the stairs.   The friar froze.

“Who’s there?”

Silence.  The friar held up his hands to show they were empty.

“I will not hurt you,” he smiled.  “Please.”

With a sob and a shuffle, a child peered over the banister.

“Peter!” the friar cried.  “Come down, child!  Let me look at you.”

The boy hesitated then descended.  The friar inspected Peter’s throat and wrists for injury and was relieved to find the skin unbroken.

“I’m hungry,” Peter snivelled.  “Mama – her bed – empty.”

More relief.  The child had not walked into an horrific scene.

“I shall find you something,” the friar shuffled to the kitchen.

“Not pumpkin!” the boy followed.  “I’ve had enough pumpkin.”

Despite himself, the friar chuckled.  More pumpkin might have saved them all.  He found some bread that wasn’t too stale and set about toasting it, rummaging in the cupboard for jam or some such.

“Father, where is everybody?” the boy chewed thoughtfully on the crust.  “Is it true?  Were they taken in the night?”

The friar nodded sadly.  “I am afraid so, my boy.  Despite all the warnings, they are gone.”

“But – but – that’s not fair,” the boy scowled.  “They did everything they were supposed to.  Dressing up as scary monsters.  Carving scary faces into pumpkins to frighten the evil spirits away.”

“Yes,” said the friar.  “But not at the right time.  You see, my boy, one must do all these things on the appropriate evening or else the magic will not work.  But we live in an age of convenience.  People want to observe the traditions but only if it is fun to do, and if it is convenient.  And so, everyone did their dressing-up on Saturday night.  And I’m sure everyone had a lot of fun.  But last night was when it mattered.  But no one bothered.  They were all partied out.  And they have paid a heavy price.  We have these traditions for a reason and they are not to be taken lightly.”

The kitchen door slammed shut as though shoved by an invisible hand.  The friar wheeled around.  The boy elongated until he towered over the holy man, his teeth bared, sharp and glistening.

“No need to sound so smug about it, Father,” a deep voice rumbled.  “You’re an irrelevance, a throwback.  Obsolete.”

“Perhaps,” sighed the friar.  He whipped a small pumpkin from his robe, a snarling face carved into it.  The thing that had been Peter recoiled, screeching.  “But I still know what works.”

pumpkin

 

 

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A Bowl of Broth

“Gran…” Little Red closed the book she had been poring over.

“Yes, dear?”  Her grandmother was at the kitchen sink, washing and peeling vegetables.  Already a pot was bubbling enthusiastically on the stove and the inviting smells of herbs filled the tiny cottage.

“I’ve been thinking…”

Grandmother chuckled to see the little girl’s serious expression.  “That sounds ominous!” the old woman laughed.

“In this book, there are old ladies like you…”

“Go on,” Grandmother dried her hands on a towel.  “And less of the old, if you please!”

“Living alone, in the middle of the forest.”

“What of it?  I’m quite cosy here in my little cottage and I’ve got you to visit me, haven’t I?”

“But these old ladies – in the stories – they’re mean.  Sometimes their houses are made out of gingerbread and they set traps for boys and girls.  Sometimes they make potions out of all sorts of horrible things and they use them to turn people into frogs.  And sometimes –”

“Oh dear,” Grandmother shook her head.  “You can’t believe everything you read in stories.  Now, clear the table.  It won’t be long before the broth is ready.  And you love my broth, don’t you, dear?”

Little Red’s expression was noncommittal, but she put the storybook away and draped a cloth over the table.  She fetched soup spoons from a drawer and the hand-carved salt and pepper pots Granny’s friend the woodcutter had made.  One was an owl, the other a wolf – but a friendly, little wolf, not a big bad one.

Grandmother carved an oval loaf into thick slices before giving the broth one last appraisal.

“Yum,” she sipped from the ladle.  “As good as ever.”

She served two steaming bowls and watched with pride as the little girl tucked in.

“That was delicious!” Little Red wiped her lips with the back of her hand.  She yawned.  “It’s funny, Gran, but your broth always makes me so – so sleepy…”

A minute later, she was out like a light.  Grandmother wrapped a blanket around the child and carried her to a cot by the fireside.

Some old women have houses made of gingerbread.  Some make potions to turn people into frogs.

And some, Grandmother stroked the sleeping child’s hair, make broth to stop the ones they love from leaving them all alone.

In an armchair by the fire, the woodcutter slept on.  Grandmother swatted at him with her tea towel to rid him of his cobwebs.

broth

 

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Sheep-watching

Taran pulled the cloak around him.  It didn’t stop the shivers but it blocked out some of the biting wind.  Feeling sorry for himself, he rubbed his hands.  Beside him, the torch flickered; if it went out, he’d be stuffed.  It was hours until morning and he daren’t show his face back at the village before dawn.

We all must take out turn, his mother had admonished, although Taran had never seen her hobble up the hills.  He caught himself.  It was unfair.  Of all the people he knew, his mother was the hardest-working member of the community.  Everyone was in debt to her for something or other: some balm for a sick child, some potion for a nervous husband…

A rustling sound wrenched him from his thoughts.  He tensed.  His ears strained to determine the direction… There it was again.  Taran swallowed and reached for his staff.  The heft of it, and the nails sticking from the end, gave him comfort, made him a little bolder.

The rustling stopped.  He could hear the creature’s breath, gargling in the back of its dread throat.  It sounded close.  Too close.

Taran held his breath.  A pair of red eyes glinted, looking at him, looking into him.  Low laughter rumbled.

“And so you have come, my boy.”  The voice was deep but soft like velvet to the ear.  Taran frowned; he hadn’t expected the sheep-killing beast to have the power of speech.

A shadow stepped in front of the torchlight, the silhouette of a man.  Tall he was and broad-shouldered.  His hair was shaggy, flowing to the small of his back.  His hands were claws.

“Do not be afraid,” the shaggy man soothed.

Taran leapt to his feet, brandishing his spiked staff.  “I’ll not let you take no more of our sheep,” he vowed.

The man laughed.

“Oh, my boy!  The times I have heard that!  Do you know, this would be so much easier if they just told you the truth.”

Taran was puzzled.  “Are you telling me you do not take our sheep?”

The man stepped closer.  Long teeth glinted in the torchlight.

“Put the stick down and let me embrace you.”

“No!”  But Taran found he couldn’t move.  The man plucked the staff from his grasp and cast it aside.  His arms enfolded the youth and the heat of his embrace made Taran swoon and collapse.

He woke at midday, his head pounding.  Panicked, he looked around.  The torch had burned out and the scene was strewn with bits of wool and patches of gory red.

I have failed! Taran cursed himself.  He trudged back to the village, prepared to face the approbation of his elders.

But they cheered when he approached.  The whole village was there to welcome him, to celebrate his return.

Taran didn’t understand.  “Another sheep –”

His mother rushed forward and silenced him with a hug.  She planted kisses on his cheeks and neck.

“My boy, my sweet and lovely boy!” Tears coursed down her face.

The mayor clasped his hand and squeezed it tight.  “Well done, my boy,” he grinned.  “Now you are truly one of us.”

The mayor encouraged everyone to cheer.

What big teeth he has, Taran noticed for the first time.  What big teeth they all have!

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A Night Out

Charlie ducked out of the club and turned up his collar against the damp night air.  Another disappointing night.  There simply weren’t the pickings anymore.  Oh well, the students would be back in town in a couple of weeks and suddenly the sea would have plenty more fish.

A figure stepped from the alley between the club and its neighbour, an all-night kebab shop.  Eyes glinted beneath the figure’s hoodie.

“Oh, you’re not leaving already?”  The voice was rich, deep and more than slightly mocking.

Charlie shook his head to signify he wasn’t interested but the man in the hoodie blocked his path.

“I was watching you,” the voice continued.  “Across the bar.  You were looking for something – for someone.  Looks like you didn’t find him.”

Charlie shoulders twitched in a shrug.  “There’ll be other nights.”

“There’s still this one.”  The hooded head jerked toward the alley.  “And it’s still young.”

“And so are we!” Charlie laughed.  “All right then.”

He followed the stranger into the alley.  The walls were wet and slippery; on one side, the pulsating music, a dull, humming throb that got into your bones; on the other, the spicy aromas of the kebab shop, the tang of overcooked fat, the stench of death.

Charlie unzipped the hoodie, revealing the stranger’s incongruously frilled shirt, like something from a costume drama, from a time long ago.  The stranger’s hands, pale and skinny, reached for the buckle of Charlie’s belt.   His mouth nuzzled against Charlie’s neck while his long fingers searched in Charlie’s underwear.

Panting, Charlie sought to pull back the hood, to get a look at the man he was snogging.  The stranger froze, stepped back.

“If you don’t mind,” he said in steely tones, “I’d rather keep it on.”

Charlie laughed.  “I’ve been with worse, mate.  Don’t worry about it.”

The man took another step back.

“Bloody hell,” said Charlie.  “What are you, some kind of vampire or something?”

“Actually,” the man straightened, “I am.”

He swept back his hood to reveal a high forehead, the blue-black hair in a sharp point, the eyes red rimmed and hungry, the cheekbones sharp as the fangs teasing the thin line of his lips.

“It’s not a problem, is it?”

“Not for me,” said Charlie.  “You do what you want, mate.  Just not with me, OK.  Not being funny but it just won’t work.  I’m a – a – Undead too.”

He lifted his Britney T-shirt to reveal the stitches and scars of an autopsy.

“Impressive,” the vampire traced the Y shape with a pointed fingernail.  “But not my thing.  I need the blood of the living.”

“And I need their life-force to keep me going.”

“Oh well, no harm done.”

“No fun had either!” laughed Charlie, pulling his shirt straight.  “Tell you what, Sniffers is still open across town.  We could double up, try our luck there.”

The vampire zipped up his hoodie and linked his arm through Charlie’s.

“Double trouble!” he chuckled, “I’ve never done a three-way.”

They stepped out into the street.  The vampire’s grin glinted in the streetlight.  “I’ll get us a cab.”

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