Back to The Shadows.

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The cat dashed past Gerard’s legs and up the stairs in a black, scrabbling blur. Moments earlier the backdoor had crashed open, squeaking and clattering noisily in the frame.

He ran to the backroom and wrenched the door closed against the resistant wind and whipping rain. Gerard locked the door, leaving the key slightly turned. He took a final glance through the frosted pane into the garden, weakly lit by a neighbour’s security light, and returned to the living room.

The family watched as he knelt on the sofa under the front window and peered out into the street. They sat across the room, on the larger sofa, huddled together in the far corner.

‘I take it that’s the last of you?’ Gerard said without turning from his watch.

‘I told you, we’re all here’ the father replied.

Gerard turned his head and grimaced.

‘You didn’t mention the cat. I don’t remember a cat. I don’t remember any of this. Thought I would. Any other potential visitors I should know about?’

Of course I didn’t mention the cat! The father wanted to scream at the intruder. You break into my house, threaten my family, and you think I give a damn about the cat? But instead he just nodded and simply said, ‘No. Why does it matter?’

Gerard turned to the window. The family watched the leathery curls on the back of his neck wrinkle as he spoke.

‘Nothing matters now. Everywhere is locked. No getting in, no getting out. Now it begins.’

Despite her husband’s hurried appeal for calm when the intruder was out of the room, the mother struggled to hide the frustration in her voice.

What begins? What do you want?’ she snapped, clinging to her son tightly.

‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to save you from what’s out there.’ Gerard peered into the gloom between the streetlights.

‘There’s nothing out there’ said the mother.

Gerard turned, smiled, and sat facing them. As he crossed his legs the mother noticed how he repeatedly toyed with the laces of his gnarled boots. A nervous tick? Obsessive behaviour? She’d seen it before somewhere she couldn’t place.

‘Not yet. We’re in for a long night. You might want to get some bedding down for the little one. Looks like he might need it.’

The son, despite the adrenalin and confusion, was nodding into his mother’s armpit, the whites of his eyes rolling up under flittering eyelids.

‘I’ll go’ said the father.

‘We’ll both go’ insisted Gerard, pulling himself up to his intimidating six and five, wreathed in his long, worn leather jacket.

The father ran another mental bout against the monster before him. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight, and he guessed there’d be nothing fair about it. When the intruder had first appeared in the house just twenty minutes previously, having casually just walked in from the street through the unlocked door, he had quickly subdued the father’s attempts at retaliation with little more than a sturdily outstretched arm and a firm grip.

So far the intruder had revealed no weapons, but that coat could hide a small armoury. There was nothing in the house the father could use anyway, save a sturdy walking stick in the storm-porch, but that was locked away like everything else.

He got up and walked to the corridor and was signalled by the intruder to go first up the stairs. As he reached the top he realised there was one weapon that was available to all, given the right circumstances. He stopped and waited for the footsteps behind to catch up.

‘What are you waiting for?’ said the intruder, one foot half on the landing, his knees bent and arms spread to the walls.

The father turned, planted his hands firmly on either side of the stair walls, lifted his leg and kicked the intruder squarely in the chest, putting his whole weight behind his straightening knee.

Gerard instinctively reached forward to grab the assailing leg, but was already toppling backwards as he did so. His hands flayed pointlessly into the void between them. He hit the steps hard, with the weight of his body on top of him, and then tumbled through all the angles to the foot of the stairs.

The mother came running out of the living room, in an instant seeing the contorted intruder and closing the door behind her.

‘Stay in there darling, just stay in there a moment’ she called back, holding the handle to stop her son from following. The handle wobbled and then fell still.

‘That’s it,’ she said, trying to hide the shake in her voice, ‘just have a little lie down, we’ll be there in a minute.’

The father descended the stairs quickly, lunged and landed purposefully with his knee on the intruder’s throat, figuring he could at least hold him down him while his wife and child ran to safety. All the heap below him could manage, however, was to turn his head slightly to meet his eye.

‘I came to save you’ Gerard moaned, pushing back against the waves of pain and cold numbness that phased across his being.

‘Don’t move!’ the mother yelled. ‘I’m calling the police.’

She thrust her hand into the intruder’s pockets and pulled out the keys he had stashed away earlier after bursting into their home and overpowering her husband. She felt a guilty pride now as all the intruder could do to try and stop her was strain against unresponsive muscles and limp limbs, thanks to her husband’s besting.

She unlocked the storm porch and retrieved the mobile phones the intruder had sealed away.

‘Close the door’ he whispered through strained breath, but the mother didn’t listen, busy as she was frantically checking each of the devices.

‘No signal?’ said the father. She nodded.

‘Use the landline. I’ll be okay.’

She ran to the kitchen.

‘Don’t go out. Don’t let anyone in. Not till light. Please!’ Gerard’s eyes bulged with the effort of speaking.

The father twisted his knee. He could barely force out words through the anger.

‘You come into my house, you say we will die if we don’t do what you ask, you threaten my family and now you beg me not to call the police?’

‘They can’t help you!’ Gerard pleaded. ‘They can’t help anyone! Not tonight. Only me.’

‘Why? Because there’s something ‘out there’? There’s something in here, and you’re done, man. You’re sick, you’re a sick…’

The father was interrupted by the sound of his wife’s cursing from down the hall. He called out to her and she returned, clutching the telephone handset.

‘There’s nothing’ she said, handing it over.

The father pressed fruitlessly at buttons, listening to the silence.

‘You cut the lines? Why would you do that?’

The intruder seemed to be coming to some kind of peace. His breathing slowed, his features calmed, his eyes looked past the father and to the ceiling.

‘They’re all down. Everything’s down. I came back to stop it from happening to you again. I failed.’

‘Damn right you failed. Sarah. Go next door, now. Get the police, and an ambulance.’

There was a loud scratch from behind the living room door.

‘Darling?’ said the mother tentatively.

‘I told you. They’re here. But how can… How did I make it? If…’ the intruder babbled weakly. There was another scratch in the wood of the door, deep and jarring. And another. It grew louder, furious.

‘Mummy!’ the son shouted from beyond.

‘Get him out!’ she yelled at her husband.

The father jumped to his feet and quickly but cautiously eased the door open. His heart pounded violently as the cat flew past him and down the corridor to the kitchen. The son followed soon after, sniffling from the fright of the dark living room and the sound of animal claws. He stood blinking in the doorway.

‘Just the cat!’ the father said furiously to the intruder, but the intruder said nothing. His eyes twitched urgently, but the words wouldn’t come to his lips, his breath failing in his throat. All he could do was look to the top of the stairs.

‘What?’ said the father. ‘What’s up there?’ He peered up, trying to follow the intruder’s line of sight but could see nothing on the dark landing.

‘It was me!’ the intruder croaked suddenly and violently. ‘I let it in. But why send me back here if… Oh dear.’ the intruder choked on the end of his sentence.

There was another scratch, and a deep, rattling growl, this time it came from upstairs.

‘But, Claw just went to the kitchen?’ said the mother.

‘Probably a stray’ the father said. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’

‘I’m coming too’ insisted the mother. ‘What if he wasn’t alone?’

The father looked at the dazed son in the doorway.

‘We can’t leave him. Not here, not with,’ he nodded at the intruder who had closed his eyes, and was very, very still. ‘Oh god. I think he’s…’ the father stopped short of saying the word in front of his son, even the sound of it in is head made him shudder.

The mother turned the boy by the shoulders and stepped him into the porch.

‘We’re going out soon, so you put your shoes on, Mummy and Daddy are just going to get some things. I’m going to close the door. Only for a few seconds, I promise.’

The son sat down on the cold tiles. The father winked and rubbed his hair before locking the door behind him and heading upstairs with his wife.

That was the night the shadows came in from the darkness and waited for those who went looking. That was the night that changed everything.

Gerard fiddled with the laces of his shoes while he waited for his parents to return.

THE END

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks.

Garry.

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Pin the Devil.

It was something my grandma told me. I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, or a common myth, but I’m guessing she didn’t just make it up.

The way it goes is this: if you have lost something, simply take a pin (any type will do), and say out loud “I pin the devil”. Follow this by the name of the lost object and stick the pin in the back of a cushion. Leave it there for three days and the object will turn up.

To be honest, incantations over pierced furnishings wouldn’t have occurred to me, if it wasn’t for the ghost. Had my mind not already been on the supernatural, my grandma’s words would have remained a forgotten memory when I lost the ring. But I am getting ahead. Perhaps I should start with the ghost.

I don’t know when the ghost started. It was in the house before me I’m sure, so who can say? When I first moved into 32 Forge Lane, the landlady had neglected to mention that I would be sharing my little terrace with a poltergeist.

Maybe she hoped it would be masked by the plethora of other phenomenon the house presented. She would have been right to. For the first three months I accounted every strange going on in the house to faulty heating, dodgy wiring, and incessant drafts. But after a while, when all the doors had been oiled, all the cracks plugged, and your step dad has kindly given the boiler and the electrics a once-over, you start to notice the difference between a knocking pipe, and just plain knocking.

For a start, a knocking pipe doesn’t knock back. It may seem to, if you are prone to an over-active imagination, or chance so happens to time the random expansion and contraction of metal with your own signals. But that kind of chance, or whimsy, is not demonstrable to others. You know for certain when you can spend a whole evening with your sometimes-boyfriend, rapping knuckles with the other side, asking questions.

The problem with the whole ‘knock once for yes, twice for no’ system, however, is that it rather puts the emphasis on the person asking the questions. But it can get you so far, if you are persistent.

 

Isabelle

Do you want to talk to us?

Knock.

Isabelle

Good. We want to talk to you too. Did you use to live in this house?

Knock.

Josh

Did you die here?

Knock knock.

Josh

But you are dead?

Knock.

Isabelle

Is it you who opens the doors upstairs?

Knock.

Isabelle.

I thought so. And opens the windows?

Knock.

Josh.

See? I told you it wasn’t me.

Isabelle.

Shush! Are you happy here?

Knock.

Isabelle.

And do you mind me living here?

Knock knock.

Josh.

Does that mean no he doesn’t mind, or no he doesn’t want you here?

Isabelle.

He doesn’t mind, I think. Actually, are you a ‘he’?

Knock knock.

 

Call me a sexist, anti-feminist if you want, but something about knowing it was a ‘she’ made me feel better immediately. I’m sure you could argue that women are as free and equal to turn into spirits just as terrifying as men, but another female presence in the house reassured me. After all, how many tired ghost stories have you heard about dirty old misogynistic man that died in the battered armchair in the corner? That’s not what I wanted at all.

After our conversations, things settled down. If something ever happened that I didn’t like, or that disturbed me, I would ask very nicely for her to stop, and she always did. It just became normal to talk to the ghost when needed, but other than that, life continued as normal (at least for me). Then things started to go missing.

It was just little things, usually, and they almost always turned up. Josh’s tobacco, my hairbrush, house keys and whatnot. I know that you’re thinking: who doesn’t lose their keys? We all do, I know, but they don’t usually turn up on top of a six-foot bookshelf that you can’t even reach without climbing on your armchair.

It caused arguments between me and Josh, before we realised it was the ghost. He can be, let’s say, controlling, and I thought he was hiding things to put me off kilter, to make me feel like I was losing it. Josh said it was stupid to blame him when I was the one living with a mischievous spirit. He had a point, so I decided to speak to the ghost again, this time alone.

 

Isabelle

Are you there?

Knock.

Isabelle

Did you hide my keys?

Knock.

Isabelle

And Josh’s tobacco?

Knock.

Isabelle

I’m not angry, but can you please stop hiding things?

Knock.

Isabelle

Thanks. Also, I don’t know how you can answer this, but I still can’t find my grandma’s ring. Only, it’s valuable to me, and I really don’t want to lose it.

Silence.

Isabelle

Is it possible you can put it back for me, where you found it?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

Please? You did hide it, didn’t you?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

No? You didn’t?

Knock knock.

 

Of all the luck, I had an honest light-fingered ghost willing to return my goods, but the one thing I really wanted back wasn’t in her possession. I searched everywhere I could reach and clambered on furniture for those places that I would normally send Josh. He was having another of his ‘absent’ patches, so was no help at all.

The ring was an heirloom and was of more than just sentimental value. Mum had smuggled it out of my grandmother’s house when, in her dying days, long absent relatives suddenly started appearing like so many woodworm. It had always been intended for me, but with the hyenas around, Mum wanted to make sure it was safely out of reach from sticky fingers.

It was thinking of my grandma, and what mum would say if she found out I’d lost the ring, that trawled up the memory of ‘pin the devil’. It’s a funny thing, I’d only ever heard her mention it once, a long time ago when I still lived at home, but it had stuck with me. I think I’d lost something innocuous, probably my Walkman, and was scampering around the house in a blind panic. My grandma sat there watching and told me I should ‘pin the devil’, and exactly what that meant. Mum was there at the time, and for a rational sort of person, she didn’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion.

I never did it. The thought gave me the same chill as I got from playing Ouija with my friends, and a lost Walkman just didn’t seem worth the risk of dabbling with dark forces. But the notion that we could call for help on forces beyond our understanding stuck with me, as if there was a symbiosis at play between worlds.

It took a bottle of wine on a particularly lonely night before I plucked up the courage to give it a try. I had found out earlier that day that Josh had found somewhere else to hang his hat. He’d got his hands on some money, for a change, and no longer needed my social, sexual and financial subsidies. Apparently he was telling people it was my fault for being too overbearing. Presumably because I once asked him if he could bring some milk around, or some other torturous domestic request.

It’s funny how you can’t find a pin when you want one, and realise that you haven’t needed one since you were 12 and wanted to stick a Take That poster up on your wall. Fittingly for that teary night, the only pin I could find in the house was from the back of a badge that Josh had bought me at a gig. It was a black badge with a picture of a green skull in a bowler hat. I don’t even remember the band it was for. I never liked it, and had no issue with bending the pin back and probably ruining it forever.

I performed the ridiculous ceremony, calling for the ring and thrusting the badge pin into a sofa cushion. I went to bed expecting nothing, at least not for three days, but my wait was considerably shorter.

Now, I didn’t know if I had forgotten the added detail about the feathers, or if my grandma neglected to tell me, but it was a nice touch. At first I thought that Bart, my long missing cat, had returned with a present to say sorry for having disappeared three years ago. The feathers were dotted around the living room. There wasn’t hundreds of them, but enough that the eye noticed them straight away. I couldn’t honestly say what kind of bird they had come from, but they were white with black roots, and relatively small, about the size of my thumb nail.

I gathered them up one by one, following a trail of my own making, so I thought, until they led me up to the mantelpiece where I spotted the last one behind the carriage clock. And there it sat, the last feather, resting on Josh’s favourite lighter. He had kicked up a huge fuss when it had gone missing, accusing me of throwing it away to spite him. I remember how he’d been a miserable bastard all night after that, but wouldn’t leave because he knew I was making dinner and wanted to eat, basically.

Now I had found it, I actually did throw it away, along with the feathers. I checked everywhere and found no more. Okay, it wasn’t the ring, but it was something. A warm up. I resolved to leave the pin in place, and see if anything else turned up. Sure enough, the next morning, the feathers were back.

This time, they led me to the bookcase, and the last feather lay on one particular book. The book itself was not lost, evidently, but I opened it up and a photo dropped out from between the pages. It was a picture I had forgotten even existed, so I suppose in a sense, it was lost. The picture was one of me from back home, before I moved out here, when I wanted so much to get out and make my own world. I am kneeling on the sofa at Mums, throwing my hands out to the camera, and I have a look in my eye that I haven’t glimpsed in the mirror for a long time. It was a look of wide-eyed determination and hunger for independence, if such things can be gleamed from a Triple-Print Kodak.

When did I lose that look? If I was going to blame anyone, it would be Josh, but I’ve never been one to lay my shortcomings at other’s feet. Maybe, on some dark nights of the soul, I have been guilty of bitterly blaming my underwhelming existence on his toxic blend of possessive none committal. But I have always checked myself. I am more that the product of someone else’s whims, I know that, even if the hurt can occasionally make me feel otherwise.

I thanked the feathers for the discovery. To find something you weren’t looking for, but needed, is a gift indeed. I resolved to capture that look once again, and looked forward to what day three would bring.

I didn’t have to wait to the next morning, however. I woke during the night, for reasons unknown. There was no startling dream, no wind whistling down the terrace, and no bodily functions to satisfy. I was simply awake at 3am. Trying to find some reason to satisfy and return to sleep, I decided I must be dehydrated and went to get some water.

On the landing, my bare foot twitched as a tickle ran across it. I didn’t need to turn on the light to see the feather, the white down echoing the moonlight against the grey carpet. My eyes adjusted quickly, seeing the line leading down hall, past the bathroom, and terminating below the hatch to the attic.

The attic. That strange none-place in most houses where lost things are forgotten, and forgotten things are lost. I recalled the last time I was up there. It was Christmas, in the obligatory annual attic-opening to recover the old biscuit tin full of decorations and the bin bag with the plastic tree. It was possible that the ring had fallen off when I was up there.

I retrieved the stick from the corner that existed solely for the purpose of clicking the hatch up and off the magnetic catch, allowing the wooden door to swing open and the folding ladder to swivel on its hinge to a reachable height. It was okay getting it down. Putting it back up was another matter. Last time I was up here, Josh had to do it for me. As I pulled the ladder down to it’s full height, another feather drifted slowly down beside me.

I climbed the stairs, lit only by the night through the hallway window, knowing that a small switch on the inside of the hatch frame would illuminate the void above. I positioned myself half way up the stairs and switched on the solitary bulb. I was surrounded on all but one side by my hastily stacked decorations and boxes that I had never unpacked since moving in. Some were open, which I couldn’t remember doing. Maybe I had a taken a little look one of those Christmases, and decided that the memories were exactly where they needed to be, but I was sure I hadn’t.

Either way, as my eyes reached the level of the floorboards, more feathers came into stark contrast, leading through the gap to the small triangle of space by the apex of the rafters, where one could just about stand crooked by the water tank. I crawled up and around the corner, and that’s when I saw them.

Both birds were skewered to the boards by a single metal peg driven through the breast. I would say the pegs had come from my stashed camping gear, but these were thick, rough, mottled iron pins, the kind that you could imagine hammered into the hull of a boat. The poor beasts were dead, of course, their white feathers with black roots haloed around them. They both lay at his feet.

Just when and how Josh had found his way into my attic, and who it was that did that to him with the third peg, will forever be a mystery, if you believe these words. Don’t bother going to the house and trying to ask the ghost; the knocking stopped that night.

I submit this to you as my statement, as my declaration of innocence. I doubt it will help me now. When I pulled the peg from his chest, I swear it was only to retrieve the gold ring that was looped around it. In my shock I handled everything that has now incriminated me in his murder. All I wanted was my grandma’s ring back, and now it is locked up, like me, awaiting the exhibition of justice.

THE END.

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks. 

Garry.

Is Anybody There?

‘Is there anybody there?’ said Carla, curling her lip as she did so, looking like the idea was a bad smell. ‘Why?’

‘She doesn’t get it Baz’ said Simon.

‘Nah, she doesn’t Si’ agreed Baz. ‘Never mind. More for us.’

‘No, wait’ Carla said seriously, seeing the boys smirking and Baz’s shoulder turning her away. ‘I just don’t know what you mean. I’ll do it.’

Baz turned back to face her, studying her closely, looking her up and down, weighing her up. Carla fancied she caught him talking a little too long to bring his eyes past her chest, until the light from a passing car bounced off the bus shelter and he quickly snapped them back up, feigning disinterest.

‘It’s scary. You know? Like…’ Baz waved his hands and adopted a floaty, vibrato voice. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he repeated, ominously.

‘Alright.’ Carla flapped her arms and shrugged. ‘Is there anybody there?’ she said to the boys, the bus stop, and the raindrops.

‘Not here!’ Simon laughed, holding his hand to his mouth instinctively, like cool kids do when they risk showing some emotion. ‘It’s got to be someplace scary, and on your own.’

‘Like where?’ said Carla, looking down the grey, sodden street, past the yellow stain glow of the chip shop window and weak clementine streetlights.

‘The old house on Parsley Lane’ said Baz. ‘It’s haunted.’

‘You mean, the squatters place? That old wreck?’

The old cottage stood stoically at the end of an old lane that had once connected the village to the main road but had been cut in half and hidden away by a glisteningly dull concrete bypass. The other houses on that street had withered and died, as appendages of any severed artery must, but not the old cottage. It still stood, crumbling, but erect. It probably belonged to someone, somewhere, but it had long been the refuge of teen drunks and rural junkies.

‘You been there before then?’ said Baz.

‘Kind of, but it was in the day, and I didn’t go in very far.’

In truth, Carla had only gotten as far as the doorway before she was overcome with guilt and worry that someone would find out she was trespassing. Her so-called mates has been standing on the lane, egging her on and teasing her when she turned and ran back to them. But that was years ago. Now she was older and not scared of her mum, or anyone else, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, like sneaking out with the naughty boys from school. Skulking off to get out of her mind and forget about everything going on back home.

‘It’s not haunted!’ Carla said, surprised that boys like Baz and Simon would believe in things like that or anything that wasn’t alcohol, drugs or girls.

‘Then it won’t be scary, but you still need to do it if you want one of these’ said Simon, unfurling his fist, revealing three blue triangular pills embossed with a dove in flight.

Carla’s eyes widened. She hadn’t really believed Simon had them, and didn’t think she should ask in case she seemed desperate. Part of her had almost hoped he’d been lying about it. They looked like sweeties.

‘Are they real?’ she said without thinking.

‘You calling me a liar?’ Simon snatched his hand back, thrusting it into his jacket pocket.

‘I’ve just not seen them before. They look like sweets.’

‘Yeah’ laughed Baz. ‘They are. Sweeties. That’s what people call them.’

The two boys laughed. Carla had got away with it. She was treading a thin line with this pair. She didn’t know them very well, other than by reputation, which was exactly why she had made it her business to know them now.

‘Let’s do it’ said Simon, heading off as he did so. Carla and Baz fell in behind.

‘Don’t you want to know?’ said Baz, glancing sideways from under his hood.

‘Know what?’

‘Why it’s haunted?’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ Carla didn’t really care. She knew they were testing her, for kicks. She just needed to get through this stupid game so she could get what she wanted. She was sure they’d get bored of winding her up soon enough and just take her money.

‘You know there’s an old bed up there?’

Carla shrugged.

‘Well, there is, on the top floor. People always think it’s the squatters, but what squatters bring their own wooden bed?’

Baz waited for a response. Carla waited for him to continue.

‘The bed was there before the house was empty. It’s the only thing left that was. It was a bloke and his son who lived there last, but the boy had fits, and his dad had to tie him down sometimes to stop him hurting himself. But the dad was like a proper slob, and a bit of an alky nutter, you know what I mean?’

Carla nodded. Yeah, she knew.

‘So one of these times, he tied him down, and went off to the pub.’

‘What pub?’

‘I don’t know. But he got proper wasted and ended up getting robbed and the shit kicked out of him. He was in hospital for three days before he died. Beaten up so bad, no one recognised him.’

‘But what about his…? Oh.’ Carla saw where this was going.

‘It was almost a week before they found out who he was and sent someone out to the house.’

‘I suppose they found the son dead in the bed then?’ said Carla, thinking this whole story was a crock.

‘Nah. All they found was a bloody mattress, the restraints, and on the floor, a severed hand, chewed off at the wrist.’

‘Whatever.’

‘It’s true!’ Baz insisted.

‘How do you know?’

‘Because, that boy,’ he looked at Carla with puppy dog eyes, ‘was me!’ He waved his arm in the air, his hand withdrawn into his jacket sleeve.

‘You’re an idiot’ Carla said, trying not to laugh.

‘Baz! Come here. You, wait’ Simon called out from ahead. He had reached the entrance to the alley that ran behind parallel rows of houses all the way to Parsley Lane. Baz ran ahead to join him. Carla hung back as instructed, worried he was going to change his mind and ditch the square that had tagged along.

Simon waited till Baz joined him, keeping out of sight around the corner.

‘When we get there and she goes in’ he said, ‘I’ll go round back and climb up the fallen floorboards. You go up the stairs after she gets to the top.’

‘Then what?’ said Baz, ever the eager pupil.

‘When she says it, we give her a scare.’

Baz laughed. ‘She’ll shit herself.’

‘I hope not’ said Simon. ‘Not if we’re gonna do it.’

‘Do what?’

‘There’s that bed up there, ain’t there? After she’s had one of these mate, she’ll be up for anything.’

‘Huh. Yeah’ Baz said, uncertainly. Simon seemed to notice, and gave him a jab on his chest.

‘What? You scared you might actually get some for a change? Here. Let’s take ours now. We’ll be up by the time we get there.’

Simon fished in his pocket and picked out two of the pills, handing one to Baz and immediately swallowing the other. Baz did the same, ever the faithful student.

‘Come on’ Simon shouted back around the corner to Carla.

On the small trek down the narrow passage, lit only by the occasional suburban security light and the second-hand glow of the moon, Carla tried to pick up her conversation with Baz. Until now he was just a lad, some guy whose mate could score pills. She didn’t even know Baz would be here, or that this whole exchange would take longer than five minutes at the bus stop. But Simon had insisted they all took the ‘sweeties’ together. He said it would be safer, cos she’d never had them before. She didn’t really care, as long as she got to scratch this itch, this idea that one small thing could take her away, if only for a short while, and make her happy again. Ecstatic, even.

This Baz though, had surprised her. That little tale about the house was not expected. She thought these guys generally communicated in grunts and insults, not elaborate jokes. Maybe she’d misjudged him. No, maybe she misjudged people like him. Then again, Simon wasn’t exactly breaking the mould so far. Since they’d met up he’d done little else but tell her what she needed to do to get his approval and directed her around his stupid little ritual.

‘You been in this house then?’ Carla asked Baz, while simultaneously trying to keep up with the boys who were walking quickly ahead in single file.

‘Erm, a bit, yeah’ he said without turning.

‘Of course you have, when you were strapped to the…’

‘I was just being stupid’ Baz snapped, this time throwing back the hint of an impatient sneer over his shoulder.

Never mind thought Carla. I’m not here to make friends.

There were no street or porch lights at the end of the alley. It dwindled away into a muddy path that led out to the puckered dirt and gravel track that was Parsley Lane. The rain gathered in treacherous star-speckled puddles of indeterminable depth at almost every step, and the scrub land on either side was overgrown with bramble and nettles. The rain had stopped, but the overhanging hawthorns still dripped noisily with its remnants.

The rest of the journey was silent, save for the occasional splashing of misplaced feet and cursing from the boys. The house was a welcome sight to Carla when finally they arrived, if only to get the conversation going again and break the monotony of silence in the dark.

They stood by what remained of the gate, the two posts that almost sarcastically opened the way to a garden that had long ago lost any fence that required a passing point. Hints of flagstones parted the long, limp grass of the front lawn in a straight line to the front door that hung desperately from one hinge. The frames of the two symmetrically placed front windows on either side of the door were smashed, cracked or absent entirely. The paintwork on the wooden sills was blistered and rotten, and the roof tiles, while mostly still in situ, had slid into precarious ceramic drifts in several places. Only the stonework of the exterior walls retained any of the dwelling’s former charm and glory, standing sturdy, mossy ,weathered and worn in that strangely desirable way.

Neither Carla nor the boys knew this place when it was occupied, when the grass was trimmed and the borders were in bloom and the fence freshly varnished. When the polished windows reflected the life outside and in. It had, for many generations, been a happy place, full of memories that it shaped and sheltered. It had also been an unhappy place at times, as almost all homes have.

Baz was not completely wrong with his half-remembered tale that had been passed down, chewed up, diced and deranged by the local schoolchildren. A father and son had indeed lived there once, and the boy was unwell and rarely left the house. The father was a drunk and met his end following a brawl, but by that time the boy was already dead and buried in the back-garden alongside the mother he’d never known. They had both died from tuberculosis, and the father’s alcoholism had followed the tragedy.

Perhaps, at the time, the boy and his father were mocked by jealous and suspicious neighbours who sowed tall tales of torture and neglect to keep idle minds busy. People can be cruel, and that cruelty has consequences, sometimes even beyond life.

‘Right’ Simon said, taking a deep breath through his nose, feeling an unnatural welling of energy inside him starting to build. ‘You’ve got to go in, go upstairs, stand by the bed and say ‘is anybody there?’ three times.’

Happy to get this over with, Carla stepped towards the house.

‘Wait!’ said Simon, his eyes widening, quite out of his control. ‘I haven’t finished.’

Carla waited, bored.

‘You’ve got to say it three times, and wait for, I dunno, thirty seconds after each one. Otherwise it doesn’t count.’

Carla considered asking him again if he wouldn’t just take her tenner and let her have the pill without this charade, but he had made it clear to her that wasn’t going to happen when she first asked at the bus stop. He wanted a read on her, she reckoned. He wanted to know she was compliant enough not to go crying to anyone about him should something go wrong. He wanted her to prove herself in some way, and if this was the best his stupid little head could come up with, she was happy to play along.

‘Alright, alright’ she said, and headed off again.

‘We’ll come to the door, so we can hear you’ Simon added, hopping behind her. He seemed agitated, animated. Carla noticed Baz seemed a little strange too, his eyes bulging slightly, his breath quickening. Maybe they were more scared than she was? It was their idea after all. Maybe they actually believed in this kind of thing.

Carla nonchalantly pushed her way through the diagonal door.

‘Whatever.’

Happy she was inside and out of sight, Simon grabbed Baz heavily by the shoulder.

‘You feeling it mate?’ he said, not really looking at him, but instead, at everything else in the Universe.

Baz nodded, or thought he did, it was more like a twitch.

‘Uh huh. These are strong. Proper…’ Baz trailed off, another wave hitting the back of his eyelids.

‘I’m going round back.’ Simon said, his jaw jutting out involuntarily. ‘You sneak up the stairs behind her. When she says it the second time, we jump out.’

‘What do we say?’ said Baz, trying very hard to focus on the instructions.

‘Boo?’ said Simon, instantly.

‘Yeah, alright. Boo. Got it’ Baz confirmed.

They would have laughed, had their minds not been too busy blowing at the time.

They heard Carla reach the top of the stairs, and scurried off to their mission. Despite the blood pounding through his heart and temple, Baz stepped as light as a burglar up the stairs, keeping his weight spread to each side of the steps that hadn’t perished, and steadying himself on the damp plaster at each side. He was half way up when Carla spoke.

‘Is there anyone there?’ she said quickly, unconvincingly, and with a sigh.

Simon had circled around to the back garden and jumped through the broken window at the rear of the house. He clambered up the broken boards that had created a ramp between the floors and was now cowering behind the door frame in the bathroom, waiting for his moment to pounce. He heard Carla’s first attempt too, and was angry that she wasn’t taking this seriously. He wanted her to be scared. He’d hoped she’d be scared already, let alone when they jumped out. But it didn’t matter. He had something she wanted, and she had something he wanted, and maybe even Baz would get lucky if he didn’t wimp out. Simon felt another euphoric crash come over him as he anticipated the coming moments. He was still trembling with the sensation when he heard her.

‘Is there anybody there?’ Carla said again, more impatiently than anything else.

Simon and Baz both moved into the corridor from their respective hiding places and spotted each other. They crept towards the opening to the bedroom. From each side of the empty frame they peeked in and saw Carla standing with her back to them, hands on hips, one knee slightly bent and ticking off the seconds under her breath until the next shout-out was due.

Just as she was ready to speak out again, Simon gave a small nod and they jumped up and out into the room, both forgetting the script and just screaming like maniacs when they did so. They really let rip. Baz squealed like a stuck pig, and Simon roared like an altogether more ferocious beast. Together it made quite the hellish chorus as they waved their arms, rolled their eyes and shrieked just inches from the girl’s head.

Carla just stood there and sighed.

‘Is there anybody there?’ she said monotonously for a third time, and then turned, walking past the boys without a glance or start.

They followed her out to the top of the stairs.

‘You deaf or something?’ Simon spat.

Carla looked down the stairs.

‘I’ve done it’ she shouted down, and then waited. ‘I said I’ve done it!’ she shouted again, louder. ‘Is there anybody there? Hello? Are you guys still there? Is anybody there?’

Then Carla seemed to notice something in the gloom below.

‘Baz? Is that you?’

‘I’m here!’ said Baz, standing right beside her, but still Carla looked away. He followed her gaze down the steps, and whimpered.

‘Is… is anybody there?’ Carla said one last time, reaching for her mobile phone.

Somebody was there. Two bodies, in fact. One slumped by the front door, and another, collapsed across the broken window looking over the back garden. Both had expired following a massive allergic reaction to recently ingested narcotics. The chances of such an extreme reaction, a coroner would later report, were several thousand to one, yet both boys had suffered the same fate the moment they’d crossed the threshold.

The house in Parsley Lane still stands derelict, but the stories have changed. Now, any playground raconteur will tell you that if you stand at the front door and call out ‘Is anybody there?’, you will surely hear the faint cries of two cruel boys who can never go home.

THE END.

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The Timeless Whirlpool of the Talkers.

I can still hear them, at night, long after the bell has rung and the doors are locked. I lay, restless and buzzing from the constant hum that has followed me to bed. The echoes of a hundred simultaneous voices still reverberate in my weary skull, punctuated by the chink of glass on glass.

Sometimes, when I am not so tired and lay alert and listening carefully, I can almost make them out, as if I have the ability to listen again to everything that was said that night, even those words I paid no attention to before. But somehow the utterances evade me. They crescendo and fluctuate with the familiar cadence and rhythm of a million well-worn conversations, but not one syllable can I decipher.

It’s not every night I hear them, just those evenings where the energy generated in the public house seems to overcome the natural order of the silence that should follow. You can tell, when you are down there, a night like that. It is when the edges of the various social bubbles meet and begin to merge. Ripples of mirth, mayhem and intrigue can spread from pocket to pocket, through lounge to bar and back again in a circle of electricity, growing ever more potent and powerful. Fuelled by flowing confidence from tap and optic, sometimes it can be frightening, but always exciting.

The weak willed like me get swept away with it, well past the end of the shift and the hasty clear-up and into the after-hours when tips are turned to drink, and drink is put to good use. Those remnant handfuls of workers and the few favoured regulars, leaching off the residual glow in the last illuminated corner of the now barricaded sanctuary. Here we tell on ourselves, and others. Here we share secrets we ought not. Here the accumulated gossip of a good night is doled out and dissected. We take more from you than your money.

And here, when those of us who don’t retreat because we work for our board (and maybe, board for our work?), are all that’s left, one last door is locked behind us as we ascend to our dowdy refuge. In my room, directly above the epicentre, I try to unwind and the murmurs begin anew.

Now, it appears, they are growing ever more frequent and raucous. Even in the quiet midweek, when fever pitch is seldom reached, I have begun to hear them. I wonder how long the auditory afterimage of the last searing evening can actually last. Is it there all the time? Have I partook in one-to-many extra-curricular sessions so that I can no longer shake them? Is it only when hush is mixed with dark that my senses notice the ever-present drone?

Here on a quiet and almost forgotten Wednesday, alone in the flat, punters long departed and lines well drained, I cannot catch that sober and elusive early-night, thanks to the infernal chatter from below. Yet I know no one is there. I turned the keys and set the alarms myself, but for all the world, beneath the boards the night continues. Without intoxication or high spirits to blame, there can be no doubt.

It’s 2am. It’s been 2am forever, it seems. Whatever the point was of lying here, it has long gone, and all I can think about is the chatter. A laugh breaks out of the mumble soup, as clear as the day will soon be. I swing my legs out of the sheets and pull on the jeans that lay waiting where I stepped out of them an eternity ago. I wrap the rest of me in the tatty gown that smells of smoke so stale it’s almost become fresh again, like everything here, smothered in an amber film of nicotine.

I don’t like to go downstairs after the furore has been sent home and its fallout contained behind the frosted door at the top of the stairwell. I don’t even like coming up those stairs with the cloying darkness on my heels. I never go down, usually, until the daylight has worked its normalising charm. But I’ve got to exorcise this madness from my mind and  give my eyes chance to lay waste to this myth in my ears.

I light up the stairs from the single switch at the summit and make the dash down to the extensive panel at the bottom, around the corner, groping in the darkness for the top row. I realise I have my eyes closed as I do this, a fire-with-fire defence against the heavy black. I click the switches and open my eyes. Only the inside of the bar is lit-up, as it must be at this time of night, should a passing lawman suspect some unlicensed frivolities peeking through the heavy curtains. Beyond the polished and worn oak, shadows prevail.

I tread the extended horseshoe that links bar to lounge yet never has the full view of either. I round the last corner to the far end of the lounge. The sticky, sickly orange glow of the bar lights barely penetrates as far as the upturned chairs resting uneasily on the squeaky red leather benches that run the line of the outer walls.

There is no one here but me, of course, and I hear nothing but the wind in the streets and the slight hum of meters and machines in the cellar. Suddenly I feel awake, stupid and thirsty. Why not pour myself a drink? After all, I’m alone tonight, for a change, and I can put it on my tab to be paid for later by the cheap generosity of clients with too many coppers in their change.

The optic drains into the tumbler, once, twice, hell, let’s make it three times. The ice machine has a few flakes left to push the whisky even further, and a cigar from the tin next to the limes tops it all off.

I don’t really want to go around to the other side, with the shadows, but my bare feet are cold on the dampish tiles behind the bar, and the high-stools are still out, customer-side. There’s a small envelope of pitch black where the hatch lets me out into a small corridor that joins the bar, lounge and services. I skip through it and back to the lounge, a shudder running with me all the way. I take the first stool I come to that hugs the last trap before the door, partitioned by thin, carved pillars.

My drink waits for me on the bar. It feels reassuring to sit facing inwards, like any lonely regular drinking alone at early doors, lost in thoughts, or found in their absence. The whiskey stings at first as it runs on dry, cracked lips. A slither of the ice remedies that as I work it around my gums before taking that first retching gulp. It makes me draw breath through my teeth, and now I’m ready.

‘I never knew him, not really…’ a woman says from behind, from the corner where we normally huddle after hours, cackling and gossiping. My bad habit of ear-wagging kicks in, and then I remember: I’m alone.

‘That’s not what I heard’ a guttural, male voice says, mirthlessly, almost menacingly. I don’t recognise it, I don’t like it, and I won’t, no, I can’t turn around. My glass is frozen at my mouth, tilted but not pouring, I can feel small discrepancies in the rim of the glass tremble sharply against my lips. I can’t move it, no, I daren’t move it.

‘You hear too much, and not half of it true’ the double-negative woman says. Is this it? Has the senseless chatter finally crystallised in my delusion? There is no doubt now. I can hear them, but they can’t be there. For one thing, the rear of the bar is mirrored, and although it is hard to see past my own pale reflection into the murk beyond the reach of the lights, I find not even a hint of a silhouette.

‘I know more than you think’ the man says. ‘I know he wasn’t alone that night, even if that was how they found him. Even if all the doors were locked from the inside, like they said.’

‘Oh yeah, detective?’ the woman says, sarcastically. ‘How’s that then?’

‘There was the glasses, for a start.’

‘Glasses?’

‘That’s what I said. Two glasses, on another table.’

The woman laughs in a breathy cackle I feel I’ve heard before, in the dusk chorus.

‘It’s a pub!’ she finally manages to spit out. ‘So what?’

The man doesn’t seem to find it, or her, funny.

‘It was after hours. The chairs were put up every night, the tables polished, the ashtrays emptied. Every night. Without fail.’

‘So he missed one.’

‘And didn’t notice it when he came down? Sat hardly a yard away?’ The man was speaking to her like she was stupid, barely tempering the contempt in his voice. Something tells me these two knew each other too well. Well enough to hate and abide each other’s companionship until the miserable sun burned out. The kind of couple who come to the pub every night to get away from each other, but end up spending each and every night in the same corner, trapped in contemptuous companionship.

‘And there’s more’ the man continued while the woman scoffed and gulped something down. ‘The mirror was broken.’

‘Which one?’

‘Behind the bar, over there.’

My spine locks. They’re looking this way. I can feel it, them, burning through the back of my neck. But in the mirror, nothing.

The woman grumbles, unconvinced, but curious.

‘I thought they found him slumped over there?’ she says. Now the burning is right on me, all over and around me. The man grunts in agreement.

‘So how did he smash the mirror? Unless he had a funny turn first.’

‘And then sat down for a whiskey and cigar?’ the man pointed out.

‘Maybe to calm his nerves’ she says, sounding unconvinced. ‘Anyway, he never lit the cigar, I heard.’ The pair fall quiet as both take slurps from drinks.

Calm my nerves? She might be right. That’s what these people are, my nerves, at devilish play. Nothing more. The mirror isn’t broken, and I’m not leaving this cigar untouched, I’m having it right now, except… The matches. Not here. Not in my pocket. Behind the bar. No problem. I take the cigar and break it in two.

‘It was snapped in half, though. What was that about?’ says the man, followed by a long sucking noise of moisture being drained from a presumably hairy top lip.

Oh come on! This is beyond madness now. This is a joke. A joke on myself. The mirror already confirms what I know. There is no one there. A quick glance over my tense shoulder will further validate this absence of reality. All I need to do is turn, but the thought of doing so, of actually peering into that dark corner, is the same thought as my heart stopping. But look I must. I must.

I turn my eyes first. Slowly my head follows, hastened by the confirmation from my periphery. There is, thankfully, no one, nothing. The voices have stopped. They haven’t just taken a break from their gossip, they have ceased to be present at all. I can feel the settled ambience of the empty room and my eyes have adjusted to the dimness. It is, as usual, just another corner of a smelly, locked, abandoned pub, save one. I shall take my drink, and another, and what remains of my cigar to bed. I swivel fluidly on my stool back to the bar.

‘Last orders?’

The shock is automatic, the snap of my hand to the drink beyond any conscious decision. The intense, sepulchral face is inches from mine and the bottomless eyes are absorbing my own. I hurl the glass at the craggy faced man who has appeared before me. I take in the dirty blue apron, sweaty white shirt and crooked teeth of the foul barkeep as the vessel passes through, and crack! I blink heavily at the shattering impact. My eyes open. The mirror is broken. The spectre has gone. The drink, somehow, is still grasped tightly in my white, blood-starved fingers.

I try to relax my grip, but the messages don’t get through. The tumbler is at eye level. The cold oak veneer is pressed against my cheek. Am I resting? Did I fall asleep? If so, why can’t I sit up? I can only feel myself tipping backwards from the stool, falling out of myself, away, into the baying crowd who ramble noisily behind me. They claw at me with their fingers and their words, tearing me cell by cell into the timeless whirlpool of the talkers. All that is left of me out there is a husk, broken, like the cigar, in so many fragments and tatters.

I understand now. If you hear them, their stories, their musings and mumbling in the night, then they have you. If you know their words, they know you. They have you.

I am with them now. This was my story. Soon we will have you too.

THE END.

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Bernie II – A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

robot-dog

Bernie II

A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘Frisky little thing, isn’t he?’

The little Yorkshire Terrier was jumping up again at the bars of the cage, his bright green eyes shining under a fringe of curly snow white fur and his tongue flicking in and out of his dark mouth as he panted excitedly.

‘That’s up to you,’ said the engineer, sensing a sale. ‘I can adjust his docility settings if you like? Most people do, eventually.’

‘No that’s okay’ Gareth said quickly before the engineer could fish his spanner out from his tattered leather utility belt. ‘I like him just the way he is. He reminds me of my old dog Bernie, before the, you know, the thing.’

The engineer understood. His whole trade had grown from the thing that happened that one time. The thing with the animals. No one liked to talk about or remember it anymore, that’s why they only called it the thing. It was mostly unavoidable for the engineer though, having made a roaring trade from creating realistic robot pets to replace those that were lost.

‘You want me to leave him as he is then? The default is the most accurate representation of this particular breed’s average behaviour and temperament. You can always tweak it later on, it comes with all the instructions and even a little screwdriver’ the engineer said, waving his own rather large screwdriver at Gareth.

Gareth chewed on his lip. The engineer was a good salesman, with talk of settings and accessories before he’d even said he wanted it. But it was, after all, what he had come here for.

‘Just as he is please. Yes.’

***

Gareth named his new dog ‘Bernie II’ and chose to walk him home, declining the engineer’s offer to have him safely packaged in a foam lined storage crate and drone-dropped the next morning. He even fitted him with a collar and lead, ignoring the funny looks he got from passers by, some of which were being followed obediently and unleashed by their own mechanical companions. Unlike those fashionably placid automaton, Bernie II pulled at the lead, yapped at anything and everything, and even stopped a few times to eject water vapours on the occasional lamppost.

Back at home Gareth managed to dig out the old blankets and cushions that had been stashed in the loft behind the boxes that held all the Christmas decorations. It was Christmas that had made him think about going down to see the engineer in the first place. He had stood there, last December, half up the step ladder, wresting with the awkwardly stacked and sagging boxes, baubles bouncing off his head and tinsel getting up his nose, when suddenly a box pulled free and a cascade of junk came streaming after it, including a chewed up plastic food bowl that rattled to a halt on the landing below.

Almost a year to the day, he now held the same bowl in his hands and used his little screwdriver to scratch the roman numerals ‘II’ next to the embossed ‘Bernie’ that was written across the side. He set it down and filled it with the food the engineer had given him. It looked and smelled just like real dog food, and for the most part it was very similar. It had just a few extra ingredients thrown in designed to make Bernie’s digestive battery converter sparkle with energy, and keep his replaceable teeth nice and white.

As soon as he had filled the bowl and tapped the fork on the edge, little Bernie II came bounding over and began to chomp away greedily at the slimy contents. As Gareth watched Bernie II gorge himself, he heard the key turning in the lock of the front door. His wife was home.

‘What a day!’ he heard her say as he quickly shot up, closed the door to the kitchen behind him, and kicked the dog cushion out of sight behind the armchair.

As always Tina walked in to the living room dressed in her long cream coat and black scarf, dropped her handbag on the sofa, and threw her keys on the pine coffee table with a loud scratchy clatter.

‘How was your day?’ she asked as she carefully plucked the fingers of her burgundy gloves away one at a time. ‘Mine was awful. The printer wasn’t working, so no one could print any paperclips to hold all the papers together.’

‘That sounds annoying’ Gareth said with a half grimace. ‘I’ve had quite an eventful day.’

He smiled and waited for Tina to ask him what had happened, but instead she flung her gloves on top of her keys and headed past him into the kitchen before he had chance to stop her.

‘What is that!’ she yelped, amidst a chorus of even higher pitched yips from Bernie II. He had made straight for her and was attempting something biologically impossible with her shins, even if he had been a real dog.

‘That’s what I was trying to tell you’ Gareth extracted Bernie who was panting and grinning wildly. ‘I did it. I got one. Like I said. He’s a bit lively, but then, so was the other Bernie, you know, the real one.’

Tina comprehended the drooling fur ball in her husbands hands with thinly veiled disgust.

‘So what’s this one called?’ she sneered, holding her hands close to her as if the dog may bite them off at any moment.

‘Bernie II. Do you like him?’

‘Well you can sort that leg humping business out for a start’ was all Tina said before turning away and heading upstairs to get changed.

There was no point in arguing, Gareth knew, not after such an unplanned and frankly unflattering introduction. So instead he got out his little screwdriver and removed the panel behind Bernie’s neck. Before long he found how to turn the dog’s sexuality setting to ‘neutered’ and put him back together again. Gareth thought that was fair enough, the original Bernie had been ‘done’ after all, so nothing had really changed.

***

That evening, Gareth, Tina and Bernie II settled down together on the sofa to watch an old film on the flat screen. It was some farce about a mad scientist who accidentally blew up reality, and at their feet, little Bernie II lay rolled up with his eyes closed, gently wheezing with each breath.

‘He’s sleeping’ whispered Tina, craning over her drawn up legs to look down at the little bundle on the floor.

‘I know. Isn’t he sweet?’

Gareth was happy to see Tina smiling at the sight. Since that afternoon she had paid little attention to the new addition to the household, save to step over him when he got in the way.

Next Bernie started to twitch his eye lids and paws and make little whimpering sounds as he did so.

‘Chasing rabbits’ Gareth suggested, quietly.

‘Or running through…’ Tina stopped before she could finish the sentence, interrupted by what sounded like someone letting a little air out of a tightly filled balloon. ‘What was that?’

It didn’t take long before they knew exactly what that was. The smell of digested dog food mixed with battery fluid filled the room in a near an instant, and Tina’s smile soon was soon replaced by a look of shock and a wrinkled nose.

‘Good God that’s awful!’ she spat, as if the miasma had gotten into her taste buds. ‘Tell me you can switch that off?’

‘It’ll pass’ Gareth waved away her protestation, much as he waved away the dreadful odour, which was gradually diminishing.

‘I don’t care if it does!’ snapped Tina. ‘I don’t want to smell that ever again!’

Gareth went to laugh, but caught the seriousness in her eyes before he did. Instead he tried gentle persuasion.

‘But my darling, if I switch that off,’ Gareth found himself still whispering, as if Bernie may hear and take offence, ‘instead of feeding him to recharge his battery I would have to plug him in to the mains. The manual said that the, exhaust, was normal and necessary, just like a real dog.’

Tina on the other hand spoke quite loud and clearly in response.

‘But you only get the exhaust if you choose to feed him rather than plug him in?’

Gareth nodded.

‘Then plug him in. He stinks. And it will save money on food’ Tina said in a fashion that would brook no argument. She stared at Gareth until he understood that she also meant right now.

So Gareth took the sleeping Bernie out from the room in his arms, got out his little screwdriver, opened his control panel and found the ‘void’ button, being sure to hold him over a plastic bag in the back porch before he pressed it. The remnants of the digested food drained out of the system, along with a smell so foul it nearly knocked Gareth out, which made him think that maybe it was for the best to switch off the feeding mechanism. Not all dogs were smelly. The original Bernie was a little stinky, but it was hardly his best feature. He would miss the routine of feeding his new little friend and seeing him wag his tail and paw for attention when he wanted a meal, but there was still all the other stuff, all the good stuff.

***

That night Gareth decided not to plug Bernie II in as his battery was still full from the food and he didn’t want the little fellow to be restricted to just a few feet from the power point. Besides, it had always made him feel that little bit safer when he knew there was a dog downstairs, ready to bark at the first sign of an intruder.

Tina insisted that Bernie stayed downstairs, however, but Gareth didn’t mind that. When he was growing up they had never allowed the pets to come upstairs into the bedrooms, so it felt reasonable enough. He would be lying though to say it hadn’t pained him to see little Bernie’s sad eyes as they told him to wait and then closed the door on him.

It was about two in the morning when he first started to howl.

Gareth sprang out of bed. ‘I’ll go’ he said, as if there had been another option. Tina grunted and rolled over, pulling the sheets up to her ears.

When Gareth went into the living room he found Bernie sitting on his back legs in the glow of the moonlight that cast a thin monolith across the carpet.  The room was flickering with the shadows of branches dancing in the windy night. Immediately Bernie ran up and jumped into Gareth’s lap as he knelt down to pat him. He was panting so manically that Gareth was almost worried he would pant himself inside out.

Gareth tried to sooth him, and for a while Bernie at least stopped howling, even if he did still twitch and slobber. But every time Gareth tried to settle him back down and close the door, the howling began anew.

Eventually Gareth found himself stood in the doorway of the bedroom, fiddling awkwardly with the hem of his nightshirt and wondering if Tina had actually managed to get back to sleep yet.

‘What?’ she eventually murmured, without turning from her pillow.

‘He doesn’t like being alone when the wind is blowing. Can he sleep up here?’

‘No’ said Tina abruptly.

‘Then I don’t know what to do’ Gareth pleaded.

‘Turn. Him. Off!’ Tina shouted into her pillow.

‘But I don’t want to turn him off. What if there’s a burglar?’ he said, cautiously.

‘Then he can bloody well take him! Turn it off. Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!’ she screamed once more, this time without the pillow, her voice joining the howl of Bernie from downstairs.

Gareth actually jumped with shock at her anger. He decided in an instant that he would do as she said, at least for tonight. He thought that maybe he could train Bernie II not to howl at the wind eventually, but that for now it was better just to put him on mute.

It didn’t take long to find the volume controls once he had opened the control hatch with his little screwdriver. Bernie still yapped and panted, but now he did it in total silence, which had rather an eerie and unsettling effect on Gareth, as if it was he who had gone deaf.

But there was still a problem. Every time Gareth left the room to go back upstairs, Bernie would jump and scratch at the door. He was probably doing it before, but all they could hear was the howling. Now all they could hear was the scratching, and it was one of those sounds that the ear latches onto and makes louder and more distracting with every second that passes until you just can’t take it anymore.

Gareth tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t ignore the tossing and turning of Tina in the bed besides him. He opened his eyes briefly to see if she was just dreaming and chasing rabbits, as it were, but her eyes were very much open.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Tina slowly tilted her head to meet her husband’s eyes and said calmly, and steadily:

‘No. I’m not okay. And if you don’t sort that thing out right now, not only will I smash it into tiny, weenie little pieces and give it to the rag and bone man, I will also be staying at my Mother’s until I can find a man who has more going for him in life than A DEFECTIVE ROBOT DOG!’

Taking the hint, Gareth got up and powered down Bernie II completely and placed him on his predecessors old cushion. Gareth told himself that it was okay, and that Bernie II was just sleeping like a normal, real dog. Just like back in the days before the thing that had stopped people ever having normal, real pets ever again.

But it wasn’t okay, not really, and that night Gareth went to bed more depressed than he had been for a long, long time.

***

When the morning came the wind had settled down and Gareth had almost forgotten the trials of the previous night. That was until he came downstairs in his dressing gown to find Tina as usual nursing a cup of hot coffee, and the still  deactivated Bernie dumped on the table with his lead and open bag of food stacked unceremoniously on top of him.

‘What’s this?’ Gareth asked while blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Tina had barely managed to cover up the ever increasing semi circles under her eyes, even with a heavy foundation, but still she seemed calm and poised for work. She was dressed in her black skirt, striped shirt and long cream jacket with her burgundy gloves peeking out from the pocket.

‘You’ve got nothing else to do today have you? So you may as well take it back, see if you can get your money back.’

Gareth squinted back at her.

‘By it, I take it you mean Bernie II?’

Tina nodded.

‘Why would I do that?’

Tina lost her demeanour.

‘Because it’s useless junk!’ she whipped back at him, slamming down her coffee so hard a small tidal wave leapt out from the cup and onto Bernie’s tail.

‘Watch out!’ cried Gareth as he looked around fruitlessly for a tissue and then began to wipe up the hot steaming fluid with his sleeve.

Tina watched him as he fussed and fawned over the innate piece of metal covered in synthetic fur.

‘Pathetic’ she said, shaking her head. ‘What’s the point of him?’

Gareth drew a deep breath and turned his head away from her for a moment before standing up to his full height, which when he didn’t slouch, was imposingly greater than hers.

‘The point, if you had any inkling of such things, was to try and feel like I used to back when the real Bernie was alive, back when all the pets were still alive.’

‘But it wasn’t alive, and now it doesn’t even bark, or eat, or move for that matter.’ Tina waved a dismissive hand at the lump before her.

‘Only because you told me to switch him off, piece by piece! The whole idea was to believe in him, faults and all. Real dogs made mess. Real dogs were noisy, and Real dogs sometimes smelled bad!’

Graham found himself red in the face and shouting at his wife only a few centimetres from hers unconcerned smirk.

‘And real wives,’ she said with a wicked pout, ‘tell their husbands when they are being pathetic!

Graham couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t make her see. He could never make her see. He realised that now, and knew what had to be done as he reached his hands around her throat.

‘What are you doing?’ she whimpered as his grip tightened.

‘Maybe you’re right’ he said gently to her as she struggled against the force of his hands. ‘Maybe there is no point in trying to make something that’s fake ever feel real.’

And with that he twisted his hands sharply, removed the panel from the back of his wife’s neck, and went to fetch his little screwdriver.

THE END.

 

Scotland, Bombs and Book Sales – Speed Blog.

stopwatch

I’ve got too little time and too many possible topics to write about this week, so I’m going to attempt a speed blog. From the start of the next sentence, I will attempt to cover the title subjects in 30 minutes writing time (which will be a lot shorter reading time). As I finish this paragraph, my computer clock reads 10.35am. You will just have to believe me… and my time starts… now!

Scotland

So they said ‘No’ then, and what happened? Almost immediately the hastily compiled promises that swayed the debate started to unwind and become compounded with much wider, and much more complicated matters, of regional and national devolution. The leaders of the ‘No’ campaign claimed an ‘emphatic’ victory. Emphatic? I think just scraping 56% of the voting population is far from emphatic, which is described by Google as ‘expressing something forcibly and clearly’. I think a better adjective to use would have been ‘adequate’ preceded by ‘just about’.

That said, they did win, and for those of us who were up for a bit of constitutional mayhem (shake em all up, I say), we can at least hope that if the millionaire white English boys go back on their promises, we will get our shake up, but in a much less organised and civil way.

I’m running out of time for this section (10.41am), so I will finish by saying that I actually like some of the ideas about devolved powers to regions and nations within the UK. As I said, anything that just goddamn changes things around here has to be welcome as a start. But no one can promise anything about how things are going to work, because no one, as I am aware, has the power to look into the future. So if we start getting asked questions about constitutional reform, just remember, no one really knows, no one will really ever know. If we don’t go for it at some point, we will never find out, and things will stay the same, suiting the few at the cost of the many. They will try and scare us, threaten us and bully us into keeping things the same. Sod them. Time’s up. Next!

Bombs.

Two nights ago America started bombing Syria. Not just any old bit of Syria, specifically the bits with ISIL/IS/ISA/whoever the hell it is they are meant to be fighting in it. Of course, that’s how bombs work, they are discriminate, with excellent targeting that in no way kill innocent people.

It’s hard to speak up against this latest round of violence because of the stark and shocking news stories of hostages and beheadings that have been drip fed out of the region over the last few weeks. It is all equally as saddening to me. The violence on both sides sickens and disappoints me. Already we have an American General warning that this will be a ‘long and sustained’ conflict. That is the headline story on our public news channel. Why would they want us to know that? Why would they want their enemy to know that they think it is going to be a hard and complicated campaign. It hardly strikes fear into an adversary to tell them that you don’t think you are up to the task of a decisive victory. For some reason, there must always be a campaign of western intervention in the Middle East. As one ends, another starts.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a genuine crisis going on in Syria, but it is so intrinsically linked with what Western leaders have done in the past, is throwing more violence at it really going to help? Earlier this year, ‘peace prize’ Obama announced he was arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in the fight against Assad. There was much mirth about the definition of ‘moderate’ rebel fighters. Some ridiculous amount of US dollars and military support was pumped into the region. Within weeks this name-changing group had emerged and apparently ran a line through Iraq and Syria with superior force and the ability to take, control, and sell oil for millions of dollars a day on the international market (who exactly is buying it from them?). I wonder if the two things are connected?

Time’s nearly up for this section. Needless to say, I am sceptical about the whole campaign, and soon we will be joining in (Cameron is recalling parliament this Friday). Great. More life and public money wasted. They can’t help themselves. Not for a moment do I believe their primary objectives are for humanitarian reasons. Not for a blink of an eye.

Right! 10.54am, leaving me 11 minutes to write the next bit and check it over!

Book Sales.

As I’m sure readers will know, I published my book ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ earlier this year (April 22nd to be precise). It has been an equally exciting and harrowing experience. I realise now that the internet, while being the great connector, is also like a massive public shopping centre full of closed doors. Anyone can have a premises, but getting people to look into it and see what you’ve got on offer is a lot easier said than done.

The book has received good reviews, but moderate sales. It is extremely hard to get it noticed and circulated in a market that is swamped with titles. This isn’t deterring me though, but it does mean I have to try various strategies and spend nearly as much time marketing as I did writing the thing in the first place. Add to that the fact that I am trying to get my next book written, and occasionally I end up having little breakdowns. (nothing serious, just artistic fear and loathing).

So! The latest round of attempts is to reduce the price again and see what happens. Some authors give their books away for free to get noticed and build an audience – I’m not quite there yet, but is now available for a mere $0.99 or 77p.

The advert for the book is on the top right of this screen – it takes you to the Amazon page, but the book is available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Nook and Kobo. If you haven’t had a look, please do. And if you think it looks a bit interesting, why not buy it and find out? Or failing that, share it with a few people and see what they think. This whole ‘going viral’ thing isn’t a natural phenomenon. People will spend lots and lots of time and money in some cases, to get noticed. I would like to think that this can happen by mutual support alone, without the need for spamming and expensive advertising.

If anyone has any networks or channels that can help me get this ‘out there’ please let me know or just feel free to do so. I have quite a strong Twitter following and am happy to mutually exchange links and shout-out’s to those who have a creative endeavour of their own (within reason – no explicit or gratuitous material. You would be surprised how much of that is being peddled).

End.

And that’s it! The clock says 11.03am, so I will sign off with two minutes spare and do the fastest editing ever. I hope you’ve enjoyed my speed blog and I apologise if it is a little rougher around the edges than usual!

Goodbye.

 

Scottish Man Wakes from Coma to a Dystopian Placard Nightmare

body snatchers scot copy

 

A Scottish man awoke unattended from a five year coma yesterday and found himself wandering the streets of Edinburgh in only his patient gown, caught in the middle of a nightmare landscape of diametrically opposed placard waving humans.

With his hearing still yet to return, the 42 year old man, Alistair Craig, a delivery driver from Broxburn, became increasingly agitated and hysterical as on every street corner he found yet more mobs urging him to join them in their mysterious campaign. Scared and confused, Craig attempted to find shelter in a nearby building, only to find that the windows of each were also marked with the distinctive affirmative and negative logo’s of the bizarre gatherings.

Eventually, Craig found an unoccupied house, as yet unmarked. Presuming the house had once belonged to a poor soul that had now gone over to the sign-holders, he bathed, clothed and nourished himself from the little he could find in the abandoned dwelling.

Exhausted from his escape, Alistair fell asleep in a comfortable armchair, only to be woke by an ominous knocking coming from the front door. The joy of finding his hearing had returned was soon matched by the terror of what lay in wait.

He looked out sheepishly through the blinds to see a group of suited men and women gathered outside. As he could see, none of them were holding placards. His heart beat fast as he realised they may be other survivors, and hastily he opened the front door to the apparent leader of the group, a thin faced man with parted brown hair and a tired look of diminished ambition hidden behind the smile he just about managed to crack.

At first the guttural mumbles of the man seemed incoherent. Alistair feared his ears had not yet fully recovered. He shouted out in fear.

“What’s happening? Help me! I don’t know what’s going on! I don’t know what to do! Please, please help me!”

The man at the door gave a wry smile over his shoulder to his entourage. He spoke again, and this time Alistair could decipher some of the words.

“Then you’re exactly the kind of person we want to talk to! We can help you.” he said, his eyes flaring up like pilot lights in a rusty boiler.

“Thank God!” exclaimed Alistair, “I thought the whole world had gone mad. Nothing makes any sense anymore. I don’t, I don’t know what is real. Who are you?”

The brown haired man smiled and cleared his throat, “uh well, I’m Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats…”

For the first time in his life, Alistair was glad to see a politician. He must be leading the remnants of the population who hadn’t turned to the placards, he thought. All the other, proper, party leaders must have been converted by now.

“… and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom” he continued, “can I ask, will you join with me and Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives, and leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, in sending a clear message?”

What is this madness? Thought Alistair. The Liberal Democrats, in coalition with the Conservatives? The world had been flipped turned upside down.

“Wh… what message?” Alistair asked nervously.

“Why… ‘NO’ of course!” said the one who called himself Clegg. Suddenly, all the people in suits pulled out banners and placards and leaflets, and held them aloft, waving and smiling and grinning, and gritting their teeth.

Alistair tried to close the door but a black shiny shoe jutted out and blocked it. Alistair backed off as the mob approached. He tried to run but stumbled over the footing of the stairwell.  He hit the ground with a dull thud and turned to see the leering face of the deputy leaning over him with a badge in hand, the pin catch open and advancing upon his chest. Reflected in the watery eyes of the brown haired man, Alistair could see the word ‘no’ printed on the badge.

“God no!” Alistair shouted, just before he fainted and all was black.

“That’s right!” said Clegg.

 

Today in Edinburgh, a broken man stands on a street corner shoulder to shoulder with others. He sees another crowd across the street on the opposite corner. They are not like him. They have different signs. How did he get here? What was his purpose? What was his name? A faint glimmer of remembrance sparks in his subconscious, but before it has the chance to burn brightly, a group of people wander into the road. They have no denomination. They look awkwardly from side to side at the two groups that flank them, and form a huddle. Suddenly, the one they once called Alistair knew what he had to do. He raised his placard high.

“No! No! No!” he shouted, and it all seemed so clear.