The Invisible Man

By William David Baker

2700 words

Just look at him. Doesn’t look much does he? Slouching, humped over his lab bench. God-knows-what chemicals splattered down his what-used-to-be white lab coat. Snot on his sleeves. Half eaten ham sandwich on the side. Scruffy bastard. Who’d believe he is one of the biggest names in the 21st Century? The whole world wants Professor Mungo Cameron? Yes. He could name his price, his employer, his passport.

Cameron is a chemist, but no ordinary chemist. Cameron is an inventive obsessed genius. And prolific too, churning out successful new drugs and medicines like some people shell peas. Yes, to many, Professor Mungo Cameron is a hero. The many are a particular segment of society: the adolescent, and in particular those adolescents who suffer the angst that usually goes with that most feared of teenage scourges – facial acne.

Cameron is also a fraud. His peers believe his obsession stems from his maybe suffering the same angst when he was a teenager as those who now hero-worship him. They could not be more wrong. They also believe that the miraculous lotions he creates, remedies that actually work, – a rare event indeed in the cosmetic ‘medication’ industry – are the results of deliberate and painstaking research and experiment. They are only partly correct.

True, this gaunt chemist is haunted by obsession. Not with acne, but with his own baldness. His hair began to recede when he was just twelve years old. By the age of thirteen he was left with a tiny wisp of red above each ear, which he stubbornly refused to shave off despite his father’s promise to buy him the best hairpiece that money could buy. When Wayne Rooney was laughed at for getting hair implants Cameron consulted an implant specialist but found he was not a ‘suitable case for treatment’ so he opted for a baseball cap instead, ‘Imagine, Invent, Inspire.’ See, he’s wearing it right now.

True, his obsession drove him to try every hair gain product ever launched on a highly gullible marketplace. He soon realised that the industry was full of crooks and charlatans. Nothing worked. The industry still blossomed. His red wisps did not. All this did was to drive him to become the great undeserving chemist he is now.

After years of study in which, fair enough, he excelled, he was head-hunted by one of the largest of the pharmaceutical giants. They offered him the best research facilities money could buy, staffed with all the help he could ever need. He would have none of it. He asked instead for a small well-equipped lab and insisted he could only work alone. After some debate, the company decided the risk was small, and the benefits potentially massive, so they let him have his way, but monitored him closely. Their instinct proved to be sound as in quick succession he presented them with effective patent medicines for indigestion, heartburn and trapped wind. After that, they felt there was no longer any need for close monitoring and left Cameron pretty much to his own devices. How easy he found it to manipulate them.

He was then able to spend most of his time doing what he wanted to do: find a real cure for male baldness. That is where fate took over. Because, try as hard as he surely did, as great a chemist as he surely was, he failed every time. Failure force-fed his obsession so much that he ran a real risk that his employers would find out what he was actually doing, except that fate again took a hand. There were bi-products from his undercover work, things that he threw out in temper, that others in the company thought might have promise.

Their first reworking of his rejected compounds produced a wrinkle cream that actually appeared to work. The improvements they found in volunteer complexions were small, certainly, but nonetheless measurable. They were also if not quite permanent then very long lived. A new range of creams was launched and, for the first time in their long history, the company did not have to concoct spurious misleading advertising claims, saving them millions. When Cameron found out what they’d done he was furious. How dare they steal his work? How dare they deceive him? They tried to compromise with him. Mungo Cameron does not compromise. He sued them, successfully, and almost bankrupted the company. Hundreds of people lost their savings and their livelihoods. With the proceeds from his successful lawsuit, he bought a sprawling farm in Devon which he let go to rot. But he invested heavily in extending the farmhouse itself and building his own laboratory.

He continued his research into male baldness, but, following his earlier experiences, learned not to throw away potential bi-products of his failures, the first of which was his to-be-famous preparation for teenage acne. This proved even better than the wrinkle cream. It provided an overnight, 100% guaranteed permanent cure. Cameron became famous and very rich. He also quickly ran out of new ideas and became a frustrated lonely recluse. To cure his first problem he became a welcomed Professor of Chemistry at his local university, where, completely without remorse,  he stole the best ideas from his more talented students. To cure his second problem, he flew to Thailand and brought back a thirteen year old bride. That’s her, Ha.nhQui, now a young woman. She is taking him drinks on a tray.

Cameron presses the record button on his digital recorder. “December 20th. Sample #7452. Failed.” He smashes the on key off.

Ha.nhQui shuffles nervously over to Cameron’s bench, trying not to look at him. She places a cup of tea, as quietly as she can, close to the dog-eared sandwich.

Cameron looks up. Though he is still unable to grow hair on his head he is sporting a three day stubble. His face is drawn and tired but his dull brown eyes are wild with anger. He sweeps the tea and sandwich from his bench, smashing them to the floor, only just missing Ha.nhQui, who does not flinch.

“Not while I’m in the middle of something, woman,” he screams. “How many times must I tell you?”

He raises his right arm back and goes to strike her with the back of his hand. He stares right through her, looking for a reaction, daring her to defend herself. She does not, and he drops his hand.

Hit him. Hit him. But, she won’t.

“At least have your whisky, and then come to bed. It’s getting late.” She pours a drink from a decanter on the tray and leaves the room.

Cameron picks up a sheaf of papers and reads through them quickly. He stops, and quickly leafs back a few pages and re-reads them, more intently this time. He snatches up a single sheet and leaps up from his chair like he has just been passed the Olympic baton. He downs his whisky in one triumphant gulp. He works in a fury, setting up equipment, measuring and mixing chemicals, and within three hours he produces a blue liquid which he siphons off into a large syringe. He injects the liquid into his scalp, and waits for one hour. He grabs a hand mirror from a drawer, and adjusting it to an angle that works for him, studies his scalp intently. He is sure that his usually downy skin is looking darker. He gets a scalpel and takes a small slice of skin. Strange. I thought it would bleed profusely. Head wounds usually do. But  he doesn’t bleed at all. He places the piece of skin under a powerful microscope. Yes, the down appears to be red in colour, but it hasn’t grown any, it’s just got darker. He refills the syringe and injects his head again. Suddenly looking very tired, he falls asleep.

Cameron wakes. He goes to pick up the mirror. He fumbles it. Why is he so bloody clumsy? He realises why. It’s not easy to pick something up when your fingers have disappeared. No, they’re still there. He can feel them. But he can’t see them. He manages to grab hold of the mirror. He looks for his reflection. Great chunks of his face are eaten away. No, not eaten. His fingertips find where the missing chunks should be. He undresses, and puts his clothes in a locker. He is becoming invisible throughout his body, and it’s spreading rapidly. It isn’t curing his baldness, but what a discovery! His body itches all over. He scratches violently at his skin, howling like he’s being stung by a swarm of bees. There’s a gentle tap on the lab door. It is Ha.nhQui.

“Mungo. What is the matter? Are you alright? What is that noise?” She tries to speak respectfully, but finds it difficult to be heard through the shut door, and remain dutifully quiet. His almost empty chair swivels and Cameron snarls like a wounded animal. She gasps.. “Mungo. It’s very late and I’m tired. Can you please come to bed. You are working far too hard, you know.” She again chooses her words and tone with great care. He flings what is left of his head back, and opens his mouth to abuse her but collapses, unconscious, back into his chair.

Morning. Ha.nhQui enters the lab, but stays close by the door. She looks around. Mungo has gone. It’s not the first time he’s turned down her bed for another, I know. He likes to brag about it when he comes back. Every dirty detail. Bastard. She looks confused. She shudders, but she must be happy he’s gone, surely? One less night with him has got to be a blessing. She sees the mess on the floor from last night. She goes to clean it up. The summer sun is heating the lab nicely, but making it feel stuffy.

A dog comes trotting in. It’s Mungo’s. It’s a hound of sorts – allsorts. The animal looks around nervously. Its master is as likely to kick it as he is to roll on the floor with it, and it never knows what to expect. It stops to satisfy an itch on the patch of skin its master has been recently applying chemicals to. It sniffs the air, then trots over to Mungo’s bench. It sniffs the air then stiffens and growls and drops to the floor, flattening out all four of its legs. It growls, keeping its stare on the empty chair. It crawls in a belly-wobble towards Mungo’s chair, staying flat to the floor. After a few moments, its flopped down ears flick up. It sniffs the air again and gets to its feet. Turning its back to the chair, it cocks its leg and pisses on the chair legs. The yellow stream seems to hang momentarily in the air before cascading onto the hard wooden floor, where it pools thinly between the joints in the floorboards. The dog shakes itself and trots off.

Near the chair, a shape forms out of the edge of the yellow pool. It looks a little like a footprint. Tiny waves speed across the pool. The pool is already evaporating in the growing heat. She stares at the drying pool. She clears up the broken crockery and food, and leaves. Later that day, there were visitors.

“Mrs Cameron. Sorry to disturb you but it’s really important we see the Professor. Zoey and I need our data back for our revision.”

“I can’t let you in, Ethan. You know the rules. Professor Cameron sees no-one without an appointment.”

“Sod that. Come on, Ethan. Let’s go get our stuff.” The students brush past Ha.nhQui before she can stop them and they head straight for the professor’s lab. She rushes after them and reaches the door first.

“At least let me check first to see if he’s come back yet.” Ha.nhQui opens the door slowly and looks around. Still no sign of him. Zoey pushes past her and rushes over to Cameron’s desk.

“Hang on, Zoey. There’s no need to push Ha.nh –  er, Mrs Cameron like that,” She ignores him and rifles through a pile of papers. Ethan hangs back outside the lab.

“Sorry about this. You know what Zoey’s like. Hard to stop her sometimes, when she gets going.”

“A little like you.” Ha.nhQui pushes Ethan against the wall and kisses him, smothering anything else he is going to say. He can’t stop his hands grabbing her small buttocks. She shudders.

“Not here. She’ll see us.”

“Ethan. Here, quickly. I can’t believe what I’ve found!” He breaks away and joins Zoey in the lab. “Sorry, Ethan. Here, read it for yourself.” Ethan does as he is told.

“I don’t understand. It’s got his name on this, not mine.”

“Exactly. I told you not to trust the bastard. He’s been ripping your work off as his own.” Ha.nhQui joins them.

“Did you know about this?” Ethan is losing it. He is screaming his words. His face is full of pain.

“No, Ethan. I did not.” She does not sound convincing. Ethan is almost in tears.

“I know. I know. Come on, Ethan. We’re taking this to the authorities.”

Ha.nhQui tries to answer but is flustered. The students dash off with a large pile of papers. She stamps her feet and screams. “I warned you, Mungo. I warned you you’d go too far one of these days.”

The empty chair moves almost imperceptibly. She hears it scrape first before she sees it wobble. She is silenced immediately. She looks puzzled.  She takes her mobile out and dials it.

“Hi, John. It’s me. Can you talk? Good. No, don’t worry. Wasn’t your fault. I understand it was awkward for you to get out last night. Yes. Me too. Yes. Your loss. I was going to fuck your brains out.” The chair trembles again. She looks up and smiles, looking a little less puzzled. “Listen. Any chance you can get away tonight? Make up for lost time. You can! Yes, come over. As soon as you can. He’s away for a few days. By the way, that stuff you gave me to knock him out last night. Yes, I know it was wasted. No matter. How long was it supposed to last? Well it didn’t stop him from sodding off last night, did it? What would have happened if I’d made a mistake, say I’d increased the dosage? Oh, is that all? Temporary. Perhaps he’s in some brothel sleeping the effects off then.  What was that you warned me about? Not to put the stuff in a syringe? What?  Permanent loss off motor function. No means of communicating? Good job I got it right then. OK. See you soon. Yes. Can’t wait. I’m keeping it warm for you.”

She walks over to the lab bench and pulls a large syringe from a drawer. She takes a glass bottle from her pocket and fills the syringe with its contents. She turns to the empty chair which trembles again. She pats the nearest arm of the chair and her hand stops, suspended a short distance above it. She pats along towards where a wrist ought to be. She opens her fingers, grasping at thin air, and twists her hand ninety degrees. She feels a little further up with her sensitive fingertips, searching for something. She launches the syringe at the spot she has found. The needle disappears. The chair jumps. She presses the plunger, dispensing its complete contents.

She walks away from the chair then turns and spits at it. “Bastard.” Then she thinks about all the years he’s denied her use of her own language. “Con de hang.”

She leaves the lab and returns a few minutes later struggling with a large duvet and matching cushions. She makes a bed by the side of the empty chair, “Maybe John will find this interesting. Fucking the great man’s wife in his own laboratory.”

I should show some sympathy toward you, Professor, I suppose, but I won’t. I should try to help, but I can’t. Why should I? You did, after all,  kill me.

OK, so you didn’t exactly put the rope around my neck. I did that myself, fair enough. But it was you who cost me my job when you sued the company. It was me that couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments on the house. It was me that couldn’t keep my wife and son. And I’ve been waiting all this time just to see you get yours. I only wish the world could see me laugh.

The Infallibility of Fingerprints

Fingerprints taken using carve on from pencil, paper and sellotape. Not sure if much detail of prints can be seen. Original is better.
Fingerprints taken using carbon scraped from pencil, paper and sellotape. Not sure if much detail of prints can be seen. Original is better.

 

By William David Baker

No two finger prints are alike, or so I always thought
Then in a FutureLearn “Introduction to Forensics” I was taught
That the FBI arrested Oregon Lawyer, Mayfield, for bombing a Spanish railway station
Because he matched a partial taken from bomb parts found at the scene of devastation
He protested he was innocent, but was left in jail till three weeks later
The Spanish Police matched the marks to the real Lebanese terrorist perpetrator.

Doesn’t this dreadful tale just go to show,
that a singular evidential reliance will simply not do?
So dependent on modern science have we sometimes now become
That the basics can be forgotten in the clamour to see Justice is done.
Mayfield was a continent removed from where the outrage took place
Yet the FBI, in the infallibility of their database, far too much faith did place.

Now it emerges that 100 years of claimed infallibility
Have just been taken for granted, and never tested empirically
Claims of ‘zero-error rates’ are now admitted as just tales.
Scores of criminals, by our human frailties, betrayed, condemned and jailed.
Here’s an idea that might make civil libertines rant and rave and fuss.
Why not fingerprint every newborn and give the data robustness?

No baby is a Maynard. No baby a terrorist
But, if in evil they eventually enlist
Then give us the power to pursue them to the end
And the innocents we can then defend.

Deus ex Machina

By William David Baker

2500 Words

Warning: lots of explicit language, but no sex. It’s the main character’s fault, not mine. The language, I mean. Not the sex.

I have never been superstitious. Well, not until recents events, anyway. And I’m not talking about the daft things we all did before all this happened, without really knowing why, other than they were what our parents always did, like not walking under a ladder or flicking spilt salt over the shoulder. I’m talking about the thing I used to think just as illusory, just as mythical. I’m talking about fucking ghosts. You see, I know the truth now. I know ghosts exist. Cast iron. Irrefutable. Call it what you will. There are fucking ghosts among us. You’ll know too soon e-fucking-nough, believe me.

When I talk about ghosts I’m not talking about chain-clanging, woo-wooing, white-sheeted shit either. That’s nowhere near the truth of it. Wish it was. Wish it was that fucking easy.

Shit! Did you hear that?

What’s happened now, for fuck’s sake?

I’d better get on with this while we still have time.
Well, this is how it all began.

All week long I’d had trouble sleeping. Nothing unusual about that. I’ve always been a fragile sleeper. Too much booze, not enough booze. Too much worry. Not enough to worry about. Family trouble. Lack of family trouble. Yes, anything might do it. This time is was work. There’d been some trouble at the office on Monday. It was so serious I can’t even remember exactly what the fuck it was about. All I can remember was that my usual bottle of red got topped up that night with several large glasses of Appleton Estate 15 year old spiced Jamaican. This led to the inevitable big row with my wife. There was a new twist to the old routine – my teenage daughter got in the mix for the first time, and she wasn’t on my side, either. What began as a bad start to the week just got fucked up even worse, and by Thursday I was down to two hours sleep, and not very good sleep at that. I was also confined to the spare room, and no fucker was speaking to me.
I hoped once Friday came around, that things would cool down, and maybe we could have a more normal, civilised weekend. Was I fucking wrong! Anyway, that explains why I was in the kitchen, just before midnight, fridge door open, scratching my head, scratching my balls, wondering what I could eat, being as no-one else seemed bothered whether I fucking well starved to death or bastard not.

So, I stood there, freezing my feet off on the cold kitchen floor, when the lights go out. All of them. The light in the fridge. The down lights. The under cabinet lights. Even the fucking light on the microwave’s display panel. I was what you may call well and truly in the dark. It didn’t take much working out later that it must have happened at precisely midnight. Now, the day, need I remind you, was Friday? You must remember the date, of course? Yes, the thirteenth.

Something spoke. Bugger, it said. Just that. Just one word. Clear as day, except it was night, and dark as hell.

No, that wasn’t me who spoke. Let me recap. There I am, all alone in a black kitchen, middle of the fucking night, blah blah blah, and a voice I’m sure I’ve never heard before has just spoken. No, it wasn’t my long-suffering wife, and it wasn’t my wound-up teenaged daughter. I’d have recognised them. In any case, they don’t usually talk to me – when they are talking to me that is – from the inside of the fridge, whose open door I’m still holding on to. And that’s where it came from.

I jumped in the air. Don’t mind admitting it. Well you would, wouldn’t you? Anybody would.

I heard it again, twice this time. Bugger! Bugger!

I’d only just cone down from the first shock. Now I was shaking.
Who the fuck’s there was all that I could think of to ask for a second. Then I tried a what the fuck’s going on, but what the fuck answers I expected, Christ only knows – I was trying to have a conversation with a fridge!

The voice spoke again, a nice short sentence this time. It went something like – Pardon! Is there anybody there?

This was getting more ridiculous by the minute. Now the fridge had apparently started to play games with an Ouija board. Very polite though, I thought. Sounded like a nice old gent. I was wrong, of course.

I told the fridge that I was asking the bloody questions. I made it as crystal clear as you like that I still wanted to know what the fuck was going on and now I wanted to know who was hiding in my fucking fridge as well.

Something inside the fridge clicked. The fridge motor banged in and all the lights in the kitchen, including the fridge light, came back on. I had to squint and rub my eyes because the light seemed so bright, me coming right out of the dark. I looked inside the fridge. Couldn’t see a fucking thing. I was grateful in a way. One of the last things I probably wanted to find was a chilled out axe-wielding very small homicidal maniac jumping out of the fridge at me from between the leftover casserole I’d not been invited to eat and a large lump of Stilton that needed burying somewhere deep. Yes, I know all of that was very unlikely, but I actually preferred that as an explanation, rather than the very last thing I wanted it to be which was to think I’d got an attack of bottleache from downing too much booze. Pink elephants? Bollocks!

I was beginning to lose patience and said so, which resulted in a lot of tut-tutting from the voice in the fridge, a couple of oh dears, and a polite request for me to moderate my language a bit.

Whatever this thing was, it looked like I was at last getting through to it, and so what it felt a bit offended, Hell’s Bells- it was my fucking kitchen.

It was at that point I noticed that every time the voice spoke, the fridge light sort of flickered and dimmed. Then I twigged. This thing, whatever it was, was right inside the fridge’s gubbins. It was somehow part of the workings of the fridge. I immediately thought radio. Well, you would, naturally. What else? The fridge wiring must’ve been picking up the radio. Not just broadcast radio, either. Must have been CB. I was picking up some hairy fucking trucker’s CB.
At which point the voice told me I was quite wrong, and that it had never driven a truck. Oh, there were a couple of more Oh Dears, too. It was sounding more and more frustrated with me. I can have that effect. Then I thought, Great. Now it was reading my mind.

The voice from the fridge seemed to be getting into its stride and started to blurt it out that it was a serious disaster that I’d caught him. Caught him doing what I had no idea but I was determined I was sure going to find out, Before I could get a word in though, it rambled on about how there’d be hell to pay and that nothing good was going to come of our meeting as it never had before. I was kind of pleased to hear the last bit because it meant that what was happening to me wasn’t new. So, I thought there had to be an explanation, reasonable or not, didn’t matter, so I demanded one. Straight out. No more fucking me about.

Well, what a strop that brought on, I can tell you. It wasn’t speaking to me now, it was shouting it out, screaming at me, giving me a real blasting. Told me I couldn’t talk to Ghosts in the way I was doing.
That startled me, though why, I don’t really understand now, as it was no less bizarre an answer as any explanation I could come up with. All very easy for me to say now, of course, now that the truth is out there for everyone to see.

I wasn’t going to spoken to like that either, not by any fucking ghost, or anybody living come to that. I’ve dropped fuckers before now for less. So, I told him, if he was really a ghost why wasn’t he haunting some old church yard somewhere, what the fuck was he doing haunting my Electrolux? That didn’t get exactly the response I was expecting and the ghost just started laughing, no cackling – like an old witch. Then it calmed down a bit, accused me of being quaint. Me? Fucking quaint! It said I was talking about the old ways. And that I needed to get with the times.

Well, now it was me that beginning to lose my rag. No one calls me an old fuddy-duddy and gets away with it. I’m not always that quick with getting my licks back in and while I was trying to think up a good one to go back with he starts telling me the whole fucking shebang. Like how there are two plains of existence for all of us. We get on average a good 85 years of life. He called it our four score years and five. He got quite a kick out that, but said it didn’t quite have the old ring to it, but was accurate. Anyhow, he says we get that long for living, and for the rest of eternity we are ghosts. Told me it had always been like that. Said I wouldn’t understood the science if it, but it was something to do with the conservation of energy. How when we die our bodily chemical energy is absorbed back into something he called the pool. Mental energy was a different matter altogether. He said it can’t be absorbed, but it can’t dissipate either; it remains forever. Fact. Hence ghosts. Hence him.

My thoughts immediately went to all the beatings I’d had in the Orphanage when I tried to argue with the Sisters about those Heaven and Hell fairy stories they tried to brainwash me with. The Ghost said I’d been sort of right. There was no Heaven, true enough, but there was a kind of Hell. Ghosts got punished pretty badly for any, he called them serious transgressions. He wouldn’t be drawn on it. Said it was too painful for him. Lost too many friends. I was almost starting to feel sympathy for him, but then the red mist descended on me again, and I told him I didn’t give a flying fuck for either him or his fuck-up friends. But he was a persistent fucker. Said I’d hear him out if it was the last thing I ever did. I didn’t like the sound of that.

He told me to shut up,and listen. Me! Prattled on about how you can’t have all this non-dissipated deceased energy going to waste. Things weren’t designed that way.

Fucking designed? If it had a face, I was laughing right in it now, right nose to fucking nose. It’s voice went up really high. Right from the back of the throat jobby. The fridge started to flicker like fuck. I’d really pissed it off this time. Not that I was bothered. I was told straight that I couldn’t be allowed to impugn the Great Designer like I had, and expect to get away scot-free with it. Now, I wasn’t sure what he meant when he said impugn, and I sure wasn’t going to have him threaten me with retribution from any mingin’ Scottish bastards either. I’d been the perfect gentleman up till then, but that was it. I was just about to let fly with a real mouthful when he went hysterical. Said I didn’t know what it was like in the old days. We thought we had it bad, the living. But Ghosts, billions of them with nothing to do. Just jobs for the lucky few. It was no wonder some of the unemployed spooks broke out into our world. For some kind of existence. Was it that much to ask for? And weren’t they punished enough for it? How it was only when modern science and technology evolved that they all found something useful to do at last?

Well, I had to ask, didn’t I? You would have, if you were in my shoes! You’ll know too, soon enough, anyway. All I got back was this maniacal laughter. It said there’d never been a machine or a tool made by living man that had ever worked properly. It was only the devoted intervention of Ghosts that kept our rubbish things working. I told him to go fuck himself. Telling me everything we made was fucked up. And me a Design Engineer. The fridge was not only flickering mad on and off now, it was beginning to shake like a spin dryer. I should’ve listened properly. Should’ve seen the damage I was doing. I didn’t.

It went quiet for a minute, then the voice started up again. It told me it had been off to convene a meeting with all the other fridge Ghosts. They were incensed. They were withdrawing their labour as of then. The fridge stopped working. I checked the plug. I pulled the fridge out. I gave it a shake. That seemed to do the trick. The light came back on, which was strange, as I hadn’t plugged it back in yet.

The ghost spoke again. It had calmed down a bit. It told me it thought I might like to know that Ghosts in other disciplines had got wind of how badly I’d treated him, and that there was a great deal of talk about them coming out in sympathy. I told him I should worry. He asked if I drove a car, or took the tube, or flew, or sailed. My stomach sort of sank. It said goodbye, then the fridge went off again.

So, as you try to get you work on Monday, if you have any problems, then I’ll have to confess that it’s probably down to me. Im not sure what can be done to put it right. Maybe it will just blow over. We can but hope. Hang on. Wife wants me in the kitchen.

I don’t know what all the fucking fuss was about. You’d think she’d never heard a fridge talk before. Took me five minutes to shut her up, and let the Ghost have its say. You see things have escalated out of all proportion now. Things could be worse, but I don’t know how. It seems some of the ancient, senior Ghosts have really taken up the cudgel. There’s talk of Gravity joining the picket lines. The Ghost is trying to diffuse things, but he doesn’t sound hopeful. My advice keep fucking calm and don’t fucking panic.

Just hold on to something real heavy.

End

 

Seasons to be Fearful – Part 3

(With apologies to Ian Drury and the Blockheads)

By William David Baker

5000 words

I don’t usually begin a story with an explanation, but I wrote this originally in 2010 as an homage to EC Tubb, a British Sci-fi writer (1919-2010), who penned under many different names, including his own, and was an acknowledged master of the space-colonist, multi-generation journey saga. He also wrote many of the ‘Space 1999’ episodes, and a hell of a lot more.
The AutoPilot had chosen its landing site well. The ColonyShip touched down surprisingly softly, considering its immense bulk. A dozen huge LandingFeet punched great circular patches into the carpet of lush purple vegetation wafting beneath the ship. The AutoPilot, responding to the SafeLanding light that suddenly blinked green, started running the AtmosphereSensor programme. It took only a short time for the AtmosphereProbes to confirm that the air outside the ship was, as it was predicted to be, safe for the Colonists to breathe. The AutoPilot triggered the ReviveColonists programme. Had any of these outcomes been otherwise – a disastrous crash landing, or an atmosphere not conducive to their survival, the Colonist’s revival from stasis would not been triggered. They would thankfully have known nothing of it, as such a failure would have resulted in their instant vaporisation – a humane response, everyone had agreed in the planning of this latest colonisation target. As it was, only fourteen of the fourteen thousand StasisPods had failed, a ratio that would have pleased the ship’s DesignEngineers as their estimates had been losses of between five and ten percent. Before any Colonists could emerge from their DeepSleep, the AutoDisposal system dissolved the remains of those in the failed pods, piping their contents into the NutriTanks for recycling either as food or fertiliser. The surviving Colonists would at least be spared a distasteful start to their NewLife, and the deceased had already made their contribution to the success of the Colony.

The Leader was first to emerge from his DeepSleep in Stasis, and he was quick to organise the other Colonists as they followed. He was much relieved to find that their losses had not only been small but also fragmentary. The algorithms that had been used to distribute the Colonists through the StasisSystem StasisPod network, so as to minimise the risk of losing all Personnel in any particular KeyDiscipline, had worked quite well, though he made a PadNote that two of the Doctors would need to brush up on their Dentistry as there had been just the smallest of blips in the DistributionAlgorithm. The reviving Colonists were ordered to their sections immediately to get their everything up,and running. The Leader drew the ExplorationTeam around him, and ordered the AirLocks to be readied so that they could take their first steps outside and claim the Planet for the MotherHome.

When the OuterDoors opened they were met with a warm sweet-smelling breeze. It was the Planet’s mid-morning, and it’s TwinSuns were high, the nearer a dull orange, the farther a much brighter yellow. The horizon facing them was serrated by a wide mountain range, it’s tallest peaks dressed in virgin snow, a stark contrast to its black slate slopes. A curtain of waterfalls to the East of the mountains fed a crystal river that flowed through the valley they had landed in, providing natural irrigation to the purple rich plains that rolled before them like an ocean, as far as they were able to see. As they moved forward, away from the bustle of the ship, the air became almost silent except for the gentle breeze that seemed to whisper encouragement.

“This is a good beginning,” the Leader pronounced. Everyone relaxed and smiled. BlastRifles were leaned on and hands no longer hovered nervously over unclipped BlastPistol holsters. “Remain on you guard, however,” he cautioned. Tension crept back in as they stood scouring the landscape near and far. “You have your instructions,” he continued. “Go to the SearchGrid allocated to you, and begin your exploration. Remember. Instruments only. Identify. Catalogue. SafeSample. And do not eat or drink anything you find until the Scientists have vetted it and pronounced it safe. Use StunAmmo if you come across any fauna. I will call in Transport if any help is required. The sooner we get the Scientists to check things over, the sooner we can establish this planet as our new HomeWorld. And remember. Fifteen minute check-ins. No excuses. Set your TimePieces.” There was a murmur of approval, as they moved away in small teams to begin their work. The Leader turned to his grup. They listened attentively to their tall imposing Leader. “And let us pray that the Scientists declare this purple vegetation edible, because from what I’ve seen so far, there’s precious little else around here that will sustain us.”

The Colonist’s prayers were soon answered. The Scientists’ tests proved the purple vegetation safe to eat; the Nutritionists found the material remarkable – there was not a vitamin they needed that could not be extracted from it, and they had never before found such a foodstuff that could satisfy every dietary requirement necessary to sustain life; the FoodTechnologists had never worked with such a versatile and tasty ingredient, and were soon dashing amongst the Colonists with delicious samples of soups and stews, breads and pastries, fabricated meats and cheeses, ices and puddings, and hot and cold drinks of all kinds. It was even promised that a rudimentary beer would be ready within days. They would certainly not have to rely solely on Hydroponics and Cloning as their only sources for their vast larders.

Having established the Colony’s basic needs of survival, the Scientists continued to analyse the purple foliage and found that, processed in different ways, it would also prove an efficient fuel, it would give them oil and plastics, and was a marvellous source of essential chemicals. After some the processes they put the foliage through, a residual fibre remained that they discovered could be further manufactured into a wide range of materials, anything from from silk to steel.

Despite theIrvLeader’s fears, as the Explorers spread further from the LandingSite, they indeed discovered other vegetation and flora, from the smallest of weeds to the largest of trees, but these proved vey sparse, and when tested, their usefulness paled into insignificance compared to the purple. They reported no signs of fauna, not even a flying or crawling insect, let alone a bird or an animal. One team reached the river. The water tested clean, but sterile of life. Things began to change about three weeks later.
As each week had passed, the temperature, day and night, had risen steadily. This appeared to have triggered great storms which came rolling down at them from over the mountain tops. A monsoon raged for days. This tropical weather made for ideal growing conditions for the purple vegetation. Already well established when they landed, it grew at an almost alarming rate, and, after the last of the monsoon ceased, they rose one morning to find the clearing and their ship towered over by an imposing forest of purple. The Colonists took this as a good omen, and everyone, irrespective of caste, was put to work harvesting the vegetation immediately surrounding them. It was not an easy task, as every stem they tackled had bulked out, requiring two Colonists to handle each stem. The holds were soon filled with the purple, but even though they had harvested well, they were no longer able to make much headway into the deepening purple jungle, so thick it had become.. One morning, a group of Gatherers were toiling near the fringe of the forest when they heard rustling coming from its depths.

“That’s not a breeze,” one of them warned. “Quiet. Listen. Something is moving. It’s coming our way.”

Sure enough, in a few moments, the purple vegetation nearest to them parted, and a most peculiar looking creature emerged into the open. It was a ponderous thing, about knee high, and seemed to consist, much to their amusement, of a pile of gelatinous looking purple pneumatic tyres stacked on top of each other. It’s feet were three smaller ball-like tyres, and it manoeuvred itself uncertainly by rotating its bulk through them. It had no legs they could see, just a body made up of fat tyres wobbling on top of each other. It had a balloon head and the only feature they could see on its head was a very large beak, which was overflowing with purple vegetation. The animal made no noise, other than an occasional clucking. It ignored the Gatherers and continued tearing off great chunks of purple foliage as if it was starving to death.

“Why, it’s nothing but a big wobbly eating machine,” one of them said laughing, not realising how near to the truth he was. They moved as a group towards the animal, some of them still wary, others more bold. It ignored them as if they weren’t there. More rustling was heard from the forest, and from several different places. “Look out,” shouted one, “There’s more Wobblers coming out.” The name was to stick. Half a dozen identical creatures emerged. Then a dozen more. One Gatherer, remembering the Leader’s brief, took out his StunPistol and dropped the first Wobbler they’d met to the ground. It’s compatriots continued to forage the purple unfazed. A container was brought up and the comatose Wobbler safely caged inside.

The Biologists and Scientists gathered together in the AlienAutopsy facility. The Wobbler was strapped to the AutopsyTable, still comatose from the StunBlast. “Should we not humanely kill the Wobbler before our examination?” one young Biologist asked. The others laughed, and explained that only a live specimen would satisfy the investigative algorithms of their AlienAutopsy software and hardware. The Wobbler remained inert until the first LaserScalpel laid its skin open. It squirmed and clucked but went still and silent once it’s beak was removed. Automatic dissection and examination continued without further incident until every machine in the room had its required sample to work with. Nothing remained on the AutopsyTable but the the tiniest smear of purple gel. The Analysers were quick to reveal results rich in mysteries.

Only two discernible organs were found, and these were both stomachs. They found no brain, heart or lungs. Apart from its stomach organs, the rest of its body was a simple mass of purple fat. The head existed only to hold its chomping beak. A gullet descended from the beak to the first of its stomachs, where primary digestion converted the purple vegetation into a gelatinous liquid. The second stomach acted as storage for the first-processed gel allowing it to be absorbed by osmosis into the mass of the Wobbler’s body. Strangely, they found no system or orifice that would allow the egress of waste liquid or solid.

“Beats me hands down,” the Colonists’ most senior Biologist said. “I’ve never seen anything like this on any planet. We have found no brain, so the creature must operate by instinct alone, like the SeaCucumber of TerraSenex,” she continued. “But even that creature is known to excrete. This Wobbler is evidently unable to do so.”

“If it survives its own toxins, which I doubt it can,” one scientist said, “then common sense dictates that it must eat until it bursts.” He laughed, but no one else took it up. One of the Alien Autopsy printers tapped out another message. The SeniorBiologist scrutinised the report.

“Well, that’s one mystery solved,” she said. “The AlienProbe has found what it has determined to be a brain of sorts, right in the dead centre of the creature’s largest belly ring. Another few microns smaller and we’d have to call it microscopic. That is how we missed it. But it’s there alright. More good news. There is no sign of pathogenic bacteria in the carcass. In fact, there are no no micro-organisms to be found at all. The creature is no threat to us and, indeed, like the BlueManna, might prove of great use to us. Now, if no one has any more to add, I’ll recommend that the Nutritionists, and of course our Scientist colleagues here, take over.” Her suggestion was agreed by all around. The room buzzed. BlueManna had become the new byword. Most were in awe of the SeniorBiologist, some jealous that they had not thought of the name first.

The Nutritionists were pleased to have something resembling meat to work with at last. Although much of the butchered Wobbly seemed to be fat, it soon emerged that once fried, boiled, poached, roasted, stewed or fricasseed, the fat transformed into meat of the highest quality, each cooking method imparting its own stamp on the base material. It was as lean as chicken, but more like a red meat in texture, and a little gamey but still sweet to eat. One brave soul even declared it to be good Sushi. The carnivores and omnivores aboard heard the news with anticipated delight; the herbivores were happy with what they already had.

A HuntingParty was formed but it proved to be poor sport. The senseless Wobblers were easy enough to take, and some of the Hunters became sickened at the ensuing slaughter, which was only stopped when the StoreMasters cried “Enough!” But many Hunters were also puzzled. They had been told to expect a few dozen Wobblers, but they had killed hundreds – and yet the clearing remained full of them, pecking away at the PurpleManna, and clucking unperturbed at their fellows’ slaughter. It was also noticeable how much bigger these creatures were than they’d been led to believe. These Wobblers were well above average head height. By the end of their futile cull, it seemed obvious to most Hunters that Wobbler numbers were still growing, and that the Wobblers were growing even bigger, and all right in front of their eyes.

Hearing the unrest coming from the Hunter’s CommsLink concerning the size and the number of Wobblers they were finding, the Leader demanded a FullReport. After a few moments considering the Report, and with memories screaming at him of when he was a JuniorOfficer on the Ill-fated landing on TerraNequando, when most of the Colonists fell under the Great Stampede of the ninety-nine-hoofed giant Iulus, he ordered the launch of the HeliCams, small but powerful RemoteControlled aerial cameras, so that he could reconnoitre the situation from a safe distance. Technicians and Pilots got to work straightaway and within ten minutes the first HeliCam began transmitting back. For reasons of his Iulusian nightmares, the Leader restricted distribution of the broadcast to his OperationsRoom where only SeniorStaff had been allowed to remain.
The leader’s instincts soon proved to be sound as the scenes meeting them soon proved alarming. The clearing itself had doubled in size, in what? – less than half an hour since the Hunters had begun their work. There were so many Wobblers that it was impossible to count them. Those farthest away from the purple forest had grown to the size of single storey buildings and were now, maybe because of their ponderous size, unmoving and inert. Beyond them, Wobblers were decimating what the Colonists had previously thought would be an abundant source of plant material. The PurpleManna was under threat. Then something happened which completely threw the Leader, who was quite unable to speak for a few seconds. One minute, there was frenzied foraging by the Wobblers in the distance, then as the HeliCam flew nearer to them, the forest suddenly vanished. Where had it gone? The Cameras zoomed to what should have been the edge of the forest and the screen was filled with – even greater numbers of Wobblers. It slowly dawned on the Leader. Theirs were not the only Wobblers feeding on the PurpleManna. Other Wobblers, vast hordes of them, must have been doing the exact same thing. And in a ridiculously short period of time they had combined to eat the lot.

The SeniorStaff around him were dismayed, but rallied around a little when he pointed out to them that they had already gleaned a good harvest for themselves. “Look at what is now ours for the taking. More meat than we can ever eat,” he shouted.

Despite the Leader’s reassurance, a SeniorHunter, another of the few survivors of the disaster on TerraNequando, also had some concerns at the sheer number of Wobblers out in the plains, and wondered what might happen if they decided to turn nasty, but he kept his own counsel. The HeliCam returned to the largest Wobblers, the ones that had ceased feeding, and revealed a new phenomenon to those watching. Some of these Wobblers had begun to point their beaks towards the golden sky, More joined them in this action. They began to shake violently, clearly in some distress. The SeniorStaff watched as the Wobblers torsos began to split apart at their centres, their two largest belly tyres appearing to become unglued. They bobbed and wobbled, and their top halves fell to ground. Several things happened in quick succession. The purple gelatinous wound caused by the Wobblers’ splitting in half healed over in seconds, revealing new familiar purple skin. The base halves grew a new balloon head and beak, and the top halves grew three round feet, and those that needed to do, righted themselves. Each new half Wobblers then expanded in size so that they were again the size of a bungalow. The Colonists watched open mouthed as field after field of Wobblers went through the same transformation, and at the speed of superheated popcorn. In no time at all they covered most of the plain.

A SeniorScientist screamed, almost hysterically. “If they continue multiplying like this there’ll be no room on the planet for anything but Wobblers.” The SeniorHunter was pleased he’d kept his own counsel, and was happy for the SeniorScientist to voice their joint fears.

“Silence!” The leader spoke. “You are SeniorStaff. Do not show panic. And in any case. I feel this will be an end to it. After all, they have consumed all their food. A strange cycle indeed, I’ll agree, but come on, you Biologists, it’s your field. What do you say?”

“I believe you are right, Leader,” the SeniorBiologist added. We have indeed witnessed a most strange biological process, but all of this can be explained easily enough. Every creature that wishes to reproduce has basic needs. To me they have acted little more than oversized bacteria might. They have fed to take on the extra energy required for multiplication. They have reproduced by what seems to be simple binary fission, not a new phenomenon to us surely?”

“But what if they don’t stop? What will we do then?” The SeniorHunter asked.

“You need not concern yourself on that matter,” the SeniorBiologist added. “For the same reasons that bacteria do not rule every planet in the universe, these Wobblers are already experiencing the vital balancing effect we find in nature wherever we explore. Their colony is reaching its limitations for growth. Their food source has gone. Their last throw of the dice is the natural urge for their specie to survive, so they have increased their numbers. Only the fittest, of course, will survive till the seasons come around again and present them with a new harvest and a new beginning.”

“Unless they turn to us for their next meal,'” the SeniorHunter suggested.

“Unlikely,” the SeniorBiologist said. “Their metabolism seems uniquely linked to the cycle we have observed. It is unlikely they have a backup.”

“Nevertheless, we will keep a close watch on events out there,” the Leader said. “”Keep the HeliCams operating until I order it otherwise. And none of this leaves this room either.”

The ship was locked down. There was some unrest amongst the Colonists, which was further exacerbated when it became increasingly obvious that their Leader and his SeniorStaff were not making public the reasons for the LockDown. The Leader got round the unrest by declaring a RecreationPeriod, as a reward for their valiant efforts following the PlanetFall. He also explained that he and his team were working on solutions to a minor hiccup they had come up against, and that he would update them as soon as his team had the answers he had demanded of them. His words helped, but what helped even more was his further announcement that the first PurpleManna beers were ready, and that each Colonist was to take free delivery of a firkin of beer for couples and a pin for singles.

The SeniorBiologist was in private talks with the Leader. “Leader, this was the best way to proceed. We have lost too many Colonists in the past to decisions made in the heat of adversity. I was sure that you would be the kind of Leader to break that mould.”

“You are kind. But I need answers, not kind words. I believe we must do something, and I fear we do not have much time to act.”

“I think it would be a mistake for us to interfere.”

“Interfere with what?” demanded the Leader.

“With the ecology of this planet. We do not know enough about it yet to make safe interventions. I advise we hold back and observe. We have harvested enough BlueManna and Wobbler meat to last us two years at least, before we have to fall back on rations. It would seem the prudent thing to do.”

The Leader sat down and thought about what the SeniorBiologist had said. For five years he had considered her to be his most reliable SeniorStaff member. He looked up. He was puzzled why it had taken him so long to realise that his SeniorBiologist was also a handsome woman, though her Biologist greens did little to enhance her beauty. He wondered what her GymTrim body might look like in a dress. Something light to contrast her sleek black hair? And the ponytail, it would have to go. He made a mental note to follow this up, when the crisis was over.

“I agree,” he said. “We will leave further consideration of this until the morning. First light. In the meantime we will rest, and come to the problem refreshed.”

“I can think of other ways we might take our minds off things,” she said, releasing the TouchSeal on her TunicBlouse.

He smiled and led her to his SleepChamber, thinking that the ponytail was the first thing he’d take down.

Early next morning, Technicians were already busy fixing new FuelCells to the HeliCams. The Leader ordered them launched and the SeniorTeam gathered, breathless, as they waited the first images. They soon found that outside was now carpeted with almost comatose Wobblers. Here and there an odd shard of BlueManna still survived. The SeniorBiologist stood very close to the Leader, some noticed, with a nod and wink to others that had not. She spoke. “It is as I thought. The Wobblers have done with their feeding and their reproductive cycle, yet still some of the BlueManna remains. Not much, I agree, but given the fecundity of this planet’s ecology, I have great hope for the future that we shall see it rise again.”

“Is it safe for us to go outside again?” the Leader asked. There were nods of agreement all around, so the Leader ordered the OuterDoors opened. As the Colonists gathered outside, it became instantly obvious that there had been a significant change in the weather.

Where before it had been tropical and sultry, now it had become cool and Autumnal, and a strong wind blew, making the cool air feel even colder. The colonists turned up their UniformThermostats against the cold. They could not move far from the ship as the Wobblers took most of the ground.

Several Colonists remained at the top of the ExitRamp, and from their vantage point were able to get a better view over the massed Wobblers. They pointed towards the mountains and shouted an alarm. The Leader, accompanied by the SeniorBiologist, ran up the ramp to investigate the commotion. On reaching the top they took out DistanceClosers and scanned the far mountains. A sandstorm had blown up at the foot of the range and was growing higher and wider, and it was bearing down on them at terrific speed. The Leader called the Colonists back to the safety of the ship. The massed Wobblers, thought to be inert, now began to stir. The Colonists had only heard the odd clucking from them before. Now, they seemed to have found a corporate voice. As a body, they started a terrible fearful howling. They tried to move, but were so massed together that all they could do was spin and bounce off each other.

Above the din being made by the Wobblers another noise could be heard. Quiet at first, but growing rapidly as it neared. The Wobblers clearly recognised its source as their panic grew even greater. The Hunters present understood the Wobblers. The Hunters knew what fear was. Didn’t matter what planet. Didn’t matter what animal. These Wobblers were scared. The approaching din became familiar to them too. They knew the sound of the hunter. A new smell filled the air. The Hunters recognised it instantly. They’d smelled a little of it when they were culling the Wobblers. This was the same, only many times worse. They knew the true nature of what approached. As sure as the humpback whale harvests the herring, as sure as the killer red ant consumes all inferior nearby colonies, as sure as the Vashnack of Curran 5’s relentless Gathering of the Nackvash, the Wobblers were about to get theirs. “Get in the Ship,” they screamed to the others. “Get in the Ship.” There was just enough time for everyone to get onboard before hell took over the plains, and the killers met the killed.

A SeniorScientist went to switch off the PublicviewScreens inside the ship. The Leader ordered them to stop. “Enough. No more secrets. We shall watch together what befalls us.”

Some of the Wobblers, those in the far distance, were seen flying through the air. A new phenomenon. Who knew they could fly? Closer. No, not flying. They were suspended by long whiplike tentacles, and, as huge as they were, they were being shaken like a terrier with a rabbit. The gaps left by the suspended Wobblers were soon filled with a new type of creature, the owners of the tentacles. Behemoths, the size of a two-storey building, looking at first sight reptilian, yet also having much of the insect about them, brushed Wobblers aside as if they were toys. Like the Wobblers, they seemed to possess no sensory organs, but were nonetheless very efficient as they bore down on solitary Wobblers and hoisted them upwards with their groping tentacles. They moved efficiently on dozens of pairs of tri-jointed legs. They displayed other appendages, lined up like oars in a GalleyShip, not smooth to cut through water, but sharpened at each end by a slashing claw that cut through the Wobblers like the most powerful of LaserBlades. The flat top of their bodies was a morass of purple-stained gnashing teeth. They dropped Wobblers whole from their tentacles into the maw, and in seconds the suspended Wobblers were gone. The SlashingOars they had used to fell the Wobblers around them were turned to another use as they flicked pieces of Wobbler from the ground to their waiting mouths. Hundreds of the beasts filled the ViewScreens. Several came perilously close to the ship. As big as the Ship was it was soon booming to the sound of their bouncing against its OuterWalls. Before the Leader could stop them, a small group of Hunters snatched up their BlastRifles and opened the OuterDoors just wide enough to get outside onto the ramp. They got several shots off at the nearest marauder, but did little to harm it. At the hurried behest of their fellows outside, two Hunters struggled with a BlastCanon, manoeuvring it out onto the ramp. Apart from blasting through a handful of Wobblers, and chipping off the odd chunk of behemoth carapace, even this powerful weapon could do little to stop the behemoth onslaught, but the brave few kept on trying, their senses and sensibility overcome with the sounds and the smell of the kill.
Those inside shouted a warning to the Hunters outside. The behemoth was rapidly approaching them. The Hunters could not hear their warning, and were swept from the ramp, every one of them crushed and broken. The strange thing was, the behemoth made no attempt to harvest them, but ran back down the ramp and tore back in to the diminishing Wobblers.

The slaughter and feasting continued until no more Wobblers remained. The behemoths, having finished their feasting collapsed to the ground and became comatose.

The next morning, when all was deemed safe, a party was sent out to recover the remains of the Hunters. When they returned they reported that the weather outside, previously cool and Autumnal, had now grown very cold, well below freezing and falling rapidly. The Virgin snow at the tops of the mountains now covered the them top to bottom like a full length skirt. The wind, strong before, had grown to storm proportions, and the ground had turned to permafrost. They also reported that the behemoths must have fed well, because, overnight, their bellies had doubled in size. The HeliCams were refuelled and dispatched.

“Look,” cried the Leader. It’s snowing!” What began as a light fall of snow soon turned to a howling blizzard. The snow helped to hide the grim sights on the plains, and many Colonists felt uplifted by it. Others were not so sure. They drifted off into small groups, feeding off each other’s moods Something on the ViewScreen caught the Leader’s attention. The behemoths appeared to have become agitated, waking from their rest, their coils flaying in the air.

“What’s that?” the Leader shouted, pointing at the top of the screen, his voice noticeably higher, more tremulous than the Colonists were used to hearing.

In the the far distance, at the foot of the mountains. a dirty snow filled cloud had blossomed, and was moving rapidly towards the plains. The cloud was the biggest, fastest moving they’d seen yet. The behemoths became frantic and began to screech.

The Leader held the SeniorBiologist close , and called out to the others.

“Brace yourselves.”

End

The Dexys

By William David Baker

3200 words

They were the Dexys, and they lived in a gang. The Dexys had no written language, and so their history, spoken father to son, mother to daughter, had over time become diluted into a narrow and corrupted understanding, and they relied much on ritual and lore for their continued prosperity.

The Dexys’ commune was a large fortified farmhouse, located in the centre of a peninsular jutting out on the East Coast. A long narrow isthmus linked them to the mainland. It was covered by high tides for a good deal of the day, and night, which gavethem a natural defence that needed a minimum of guarding. When tides ran low, they watched the mainland with great care.

The Dexys knew that other gangs existed, though it had been a while since any had last dared an attack. They knew about the Rollers in the far North, the Stones in the far South, and the Beatles, to the West, and there were many others. The Dexy Code protected them from other gangs. The code was made up of a number of immutable, handed down laws, the First Law of which said: “Our Place. Keep Out. Or Die.” Straddling the middle of the isthmus, at the point where it merged with the mainland, a tall stout poll held a large faded notice, that they would overpaint when needed with the symbols that proclaimed the First Law, symbols that they were quite unable to read. Also close by, and hanging from similar polls, were several wicker cages that were occupied by the remains of those few trespassers who ignored the First Law; who also may not have been able to read the symbols, but should still have understood the Dexy Code anyway, as It differed very little from the Codes governing other gangs.

The sea surrounding the rest of the peninsular, never benign, and the ever savage jagged rocks below the sea cliffs provided further easily managed natural defences.. There were two sandy beaches that they spied on every day, using powerful but cracked binoculars, in what was always a fruitless search for any human tracks. There was an ancient story about a ship that was once forced on the rocks below the cliffs by an especially angry sea. There were supposed to have been several survivors. The story told how the Dexys stood on the cliff tops and watched them struggle in the rocks. The Dexys did not try to help them. The Dexys did not go down to the sea. Law Two: “Keep Away From The Sea.” One of those struggling to survive the wreck, by some miracle, managed to clamber up the cliffs, and seeing that she was a looker for Lucy Morgan, and seeing as they hadn’t a fiddler at that particular time, the Dexys allowed her to live; that was until she stripped off in the showers and a Dexy saw her Jacko tattoo, and for that blasphemy the survivor had to be eliminated. The Dexys were not a cruel people, and they despatched the woman quickly using a humane killer fetched from the farm. Her body was thrown over the South Cliffs, where fast tides would take her corpse safely away from their lands, and save them from its corruption.

The Dexys’ farm spread over ten acres of good arable land. Their crops grew well, apart from the occasional blight, but they learned by practice that rotating crops helped reduce the blight problem. They kept pigs, goats, chickens and bees, which gave them meat, milk, eggs and sugar. Their large farmhouse was skirted by a number of smaller buildings, with a generous lily-edged pond at the front which was well stocked with carp that happily prospered on a diet of bloodworms and manure, all of which made for a deceptively bucolic scene.

Their leader was JohnnyRay. All of their leaders had been JohnnyRays. Each JohnnyRay had to meet a set of immoveable criteria: they were all tall, thin men, with short neatly parted hair; they were clean shaven; they each wore a tattered-with-age light grey summer suit, handed down JohnnyRae to JohnnyRae, single breasted, always buttoned by a single top button, showing a strip of white handkerchief poking above the breast pocket; underneath their suit jacket they wore a slim fitting grey sweater buttoned up to the top; they always carried a light coloured hand-me-down mackintosh hanging over their left arm.

This JohnnyRay sat eating, his Eileen sat by his side. Eileen wore a shabby red dress, that might once have been very pretty, but, though rag it was, its fading rubescent allusion still contrasted sharply the dirty earth-faded denim dungarees worn by all the others present. In darker corners of the large dining room, immune from the Dexys’ candlelight, other figures hid, cowering, waiting, hoping for some sop from the well stocked table. Eight other couples drank and dined around the large roughly cut wooden table. Eight of the males made up the Band, and with JohnnyRay and Eileen, combined to form the Dexys’ ruling elite. Law Three, and the longest of them all:

“Carlo and Al shall they sing and strum, 

as they did from the start in Brummajum,

Big on the ‘bone, Pete on the bass

Sharing sax, JB and Babyface

T’other Pete the keys and Junior the drum

And so the line up shall be done.”

And so the eight of the Band were always, would always be, until the big breakup came: Carlo, Al, Big, Pete, JB, Babyface, T’other Pete and Junior,

The remaining eight diners, mostly but not exclusively female, were the Groupies. The Groupies were partners of the Band who also doubled as dancers, session air musicians or groupies. Most of the Groupies retained their given names, with the exception of one, who, like the legendary survivor of the stricken ship, the Band decided looked too much like Lucy Morgan to be overlooked, with her Celtic broodiness, and, crucially, her own Celtic folk dress and stringless fiddle. Groupie Lucy Morgan earned more favours as an ‘unofficial Band member’ than she would as a plain Groupie. While they remained in favour, Groupies enjoyed great privilege, but as followers do, they came and went.

And so by these devices JohnnyRay, Eileen and The Band ruled the Dexys’ land.

Completing the Dexy Code was Law Four: “Dextroamphetamine shall drive the Dance.” With the meal over, JohhnyRay passed around a large blue-glass bottle, with a faded torn label which, had they been able to read it, would have informed them: ‘Dexedrine,’ It would also have given them a direct answer to one of many puzzles surrounding the origin of the Dexys. Each of the Band took two transparent brown capsules from the bottle; the Groupies took one. They swallowed their capsules, and finished off their drinks in one long pull, banging their various drinking vessels down with a rippling clatter.

Everyone departed the table except JohnnyRay and Eileen, who remained studying the others in their preparations for the Dance. A small staircase block, four stairs high and built on castors, complete with banister rails, and with symbols paired on its sides showing wings over a rondel, was wheeled out from the dark, and set against a wall. Two of the Groupies pulled on long almost ankle length raincoats, and balanced berets on the side of their heads, another pulled on a similarly long billowy yellow Lindy-hop party dress over her dungarees, and tugged a short curly blonde wig onto her head, another put on a high-waisted, ankle-length slim skirt, and a tight pointy-breasted jumper. They each carried pens, even though none of them could write or read; two carried notebooks; two carried ancient 45rpm records still in their deteriorating sleeves. Groupie Lucy Morgan stood in the middle of the floor, dressed in her traditional Celtic dress, waiting, her stringless fiddle under her chin. One of the gang signalled to JohnnyRay that they were ready to begin. JohnnyRae rose from the table. He hung his raincoat over his left arm, and climbed the mobile staircase. He then turned to face the assembly.

“It is the time,” he called, his shrill voice a childlike contrast to his maturity. A Dexy picked a bone from the table and threw it to a wretch huddled in a far corner, chained to a rusty box with pedals attached to it. “Music,” JohnnyRay demanded. The urchin picked up the bone, and looked nervously around, is if expecting to be robbed. He stuffed the bone into his pocket, then limped back to the machine. He took hold of the pedals, turning them awkwardly at first, but once he found his rhythm, he was able to rotate the pedals much more quickly.

Weak yellow lights flickered and glowed, revealing several more raggedy-arsed creatures, some young, some a little older. They huddled together in the dark trying to hide themselves from scrutiny. A worn-spring crackly music began, and JohnnyRay, Eileen, the Dexys’ Band, and their Groupies began their Dance.

A Celtic fiddle played the haunting opening lines to ‘Believe me, if all These Endearing Charms,’ imitated by Groupie Lucy Morgan, note for note, on her stringless fiddle, in a perfect one-sided duet. Eileen wiped away dramatic tears

A drum, a double bass, and piano joined the violin and established the song’s rhythm and chords. Each instrument was mimicked by one of the Band, who air played their part with passion and verve.
Junior picked up his Bodhran and air tapped out the beat

Al sat picking furiously at his air banjo, left hand running up,and down the neck, like it was greased, his right foot stomping the beat.

Pete stood picking at his bass-made-from-a-box-and-broom-handle.

T’other Pete sat squeezing his invisible accordion.

Big tinkled a keyless piano.

The Groupie Lucy Morgan continued her inimitable fiddling.

JB and Babyface came in, supporting with their air sax’s.

The opening verse was begun, and the action started.

Poor old JohnnyRay
Sounded sad upon the radio
He moved a million hearts in mono
Our mothers cried, and sang along, who’d blame them
You’ve grown (so grown up) So grown (so grown up)
Now I must say more than ever
(Come on Eileen)
Toora loora toora loo rye aye
And we can sing just like our fathers

Dexys’ Groupies mimicked aeroplanes landing in a strong side wind. JohnnyRay waved a royal wave with his right hand and descended the stairs, waving and smiling. The four costumed Groupies rushed at him, squealing and swooning, frantically waving their records and books under JohnnyRay’s nose. His smiled widened. He laughed and took their pens, scribbling doodles in their notebooks and on their record sleeves. JohnnyRay rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of his closed fists in an exaggerated sob. Everyone did the same.

Carlo took the floor. Carlo the songwriter. Carlo the founder. Carlo, the single minded. Carlo the ringmaster. He was tall, with short black straggly hair and moustache, with several days of stubble growth, and with a slim but well muscled torso immodestly displayed. He wore his dungarees in the lead singer style: five inches too short, exposing sock-less boxer boots; the exposed skin of his body bare  except for the Gypsy bandana around his neck, a match for the Gypsy gold loop in his ear; one clasp to the dungarees left unclipped, leaving the denim to fold down one side. Always the left clasp. Never the right. A woman with tight curly blonde hair, dressed the same as Carlo, joined him on the floor. They played the coy lovers.

Groupies began their Celtic influenced stomp dance: hands behind backs, raising left knee, then hitching left foot over right to touch the ground, then a reverse, their short dungarees too revealing bare legs and boxer shoes. Carlo and his Groupie looked at each other with the shy awkwardness of first love.

Come on Eileen, Oh I swear (well he means)
At this moment, you mean everything
With you in that dress, Oh my thoughts, I confess
Verge on dirty,
Come on Eileen

Carlo and his Groupie lover touched hands. They kissed lightly, briefly on the lips. Carlo was filled with guilty desire. Both too young. Too soon. But he wanted her. Another Groupie ran across the dance floor with a battered old pushchair. The lovers gave chase and caught the runaway. They argued. The lovers returned and joined the others in the stomp.

Carlo raised both arms in the air as he stomped, exposing his black hairy armpits.

Eileen took to the floor, circling JohnnyRay, teasing him, JohnnyRay grabbed her and held her close, then stood back and with the passion of a matador facing the bull, tore the loop off one side of her dress exposing her breast. He closed in on her and held her tight again.

The Band mimed and the Groupies stomped.

These people ’round here
Wear beaten down eyes sunk in smoke dried faces
They’re resigned to what their fate is
But not us, (no never) no not us (not never)
We are far too young and clever
(Come on Eileen )
Toora loora toora loo rye aye
I’ll hum this toon for ever

The Band continued their air play. The Groupies pulled off each other’s costumes in a frenzied hurry. They picked up large canes, and ran around the shadows thrashing their ragged quarries, who did not yell or scream – it was forbidden them.

Come on Eileen, oh I swear (well he means)
Ah come on let’s take off everything
That pretty red dress, Eileen (tell him yes)
Ah come on let’s, ah come on Eileen,
Please

JohnnyRay tore the tattered red dress from Eileen’s back, leaving her naked, She stood like Venus rising from her shell, coyly covering her breasts and pubis with her arms and hands. JohnnyRay pulled her hands roughly to his sides, then forced her to the floor, where Eileen, looked up at him, egging him on, tearing his trouser belt open, and with some help from JohnnyRay removed and kicked away his trousers. She lay back on the floor, her knees raised, her legs open, and invited JohnnyRay to take her.

A chorus cycle began, repeating each time with increasing speed,
The Band mimed and the Groupies stomped.

(+) coda
Come on Eileen, toora loo rye aye
Come on Eileen, toora loo rye aye
Torra torra ta loo rye aye

Repeat from (+) Coda, 3 times, accelerando

JohnnyRay and Eileen reached their climaxes together.

A final,chorus started up.

The Band continued their mummery. The Groupies stomped, and added new instruments to their session air plays.

Come on Eileen
Oh I swear (well he means)
At this moment you mean everything
With you in that dress oh my thoughts I confess
Verge on dirty
Ah come on Eileen
We are far too young together,
and we won’t ever change I said
Toora loora toora loo rye aye

Carlo ran to the shadows, and dragged one of the cowering vagabonds to the floor, by the side of JohnnyRay and Eileen. The man simpered, but did not call out. That too was forbidden. Carlo took out a small pistol from his dungaree pocket, the humane killer from the farm, and killed the man, who knew what was going to happen, as he had reached his twenty ninth summer. Groupies ran onto the floor to take away the corpse and brush the floor clean of debris.

Come on Eileen, toora ta roo lye aye
Come on Eileen, toora ta roo lye aye
Torra torra ta loo rye
The music approached the outro chorus.

(+) (+) Coda
Come on Eileen, oh I swear (what he means)
At this moment you mean everything to me
Oh to me, oh Eileen
You mean everything
Come on Eileen, oh I swear (well he means)

Ah come on let’s take off everything
That pretty red dress, Eileen (tell him yes)
Ah come on let’s, ah come on Eileen,

Repeat from (+) (+) Coda, to fade, allargendo

Eileen peeled off JohnnyRay’s jacket and Polo sweater. Naked, they coupled again. The Band and the Groupie Lucy Morgan mimed, while the Groupies stomped until the music faded. Some continued as if they were unable to stop.

#

The Rollers hid in the dark, in the dunes at the mainland end of the isthmus. Their leader LesMcK, called his warriors close for quiet prayers, raised up to their fabled revolutionary founder, Deev O’Lucien.

He intoned the cant that told of ages long ago, when Deev O’Lucien, in his wisdom, had pushed through the rebuilding of the walled defences that kept them safe from the heathen southerner. That allowed them to hold on to their precious resources, so terribly coveted by their greedy enemies. That allowed them to thrive where their enemies declined. That allowed them to develop while their enemies regressed.

It had taken them many generations to grow in sufficient numbers, to invent and develop appropriate science and technology to bend to their needs, but now they were ready to have their day.

LesMcK’s forces had taken many a detour in their southbound campaign of conquest and evidence of that rested on top of their pikes. The mop-haired heads of the West Coast gang, the Beatles, looked down in grim silence. They’d added to their trophies as they crossed the mountains to go eastwards, with the lesser gangs of the Lindis, the Stings, and the Dires. The Dexys were next. They would then mop up the Motleys, the Frankies and the Kinks, and others, before the final prize was theirs – the Stones.

A team of Rollers pointed parabolic microphones across the water. A messenger ran over to LesMcK and told him that the Dexys’ revelries had quieted. He readied his warriors for the attack. Low tide approached. A cloudy sky hid the moon. The omens were good.

Doc Martins received a final spit and polish. Toe knives checked for sharpness Sand brushed from tartan trimmed wide bell bottomed whites, cut short above the ankles. Tank tops were pulled down to remove any offending creases. A final comb was pulled through long mullet backed locks. The Vanguard troops were first to confirm their readiness. They swung their long tartan thuggee scarves, sharpening their weaponry skills. They would reach the farmhouse in stealth and strangle many a Dexy, even before the main force arrived.

The main force checked their power packs on their light-claymores. Archers checked the fletching on their rocket powered Bowies and Dorlochies, taking care not to touch the sharp tips that had been kissed with strains of necrotising fasciitis-spreading Streptococcus.

LesMcK held back the long barrelled culveringis, believing that sub-atomic cannonry would probably not be needed, and they would also avoid what would otherwise be a messy cleanup.
Kept in whispers for now, but soon to be their screaming battle cry, they murmured, quite appropriately:

S ~ A ~ T ~ You ~ Are ~ D ~ A ~ Y ~ Night
S ~ A ~ T ~ You ~ Are ~ D ~ A ~ Y ~ Night
S ~ A ~ T ~ You ~ Are ~ D ~ A ~ Y ~ Night

End

Bus Stop

By William Baker

1840 words

Frank Kendrick had no need to be standing at the bus stop, at the rear of the small queue that waited in silence for the 8:15. In fact, when the bus eventually reached the bus station in town, Frank would – as he always did – exit the bus, walk to the return stop, and wait for an hour to be taken back home. Only once had he ever diverted from his routine, when he tried a coffee in the station cafe, but the coffee was poor, and he never bothered again.

This bus used to be Frank’s commute, until he was made ‘voluntarily redundant’ by the bank. Then, when his wife died, unexpectedly, just as they were beginning to enjoy his forced retirement, Frank took to taking the bus again, thinking it would ground him in some sense of normality, and maybe help to stop the constant rocking motion that he’d begun to suffer from, but that no-one else seemed to notice. That interminable rocking motion; forwards, backwards, just like he had felt after their ‘retirement ‘ cruise was over, when he couldn’t find his landlubber’s legs for days. The motion sickness had lasted the whole two years following Jenny’s death.

The make up of the queue rarely changed, except that some members might disappear for a short while, and then return carrying a few more pounds in weight, and with darker complexions. From time to time, a stranger might join the queue, and be scrutinised though rarely spoken to, except perhaps by a nod of the head, in answer to the question ‘Is this the bus into town?’

In the absence of any personal knowledge of who his fellow travellers really were, Frank had invented, and pursued, an imaginary game for him and them to play. He devised names for them. He gave each player a life. Who would he pick today to play with, on their journey into town?

Would it be Patrick? Patrick, the University Lecturer, who Frank had named because of the man’s obvious obsession with a strange TV serial from the Sixties called ‘The Prisoner’ that very few, Frank included, had ever properly understood. Patrick only ever wore one jacket. It was a tight fitting, white trimmed black blazer, complete with an Official Replica Number 6 badge. Frank had checked this out. £149 it cost, and it was an officially recognised exact replica of that worn by Patrick McGoohan, Actor, the original Danger Man, Prisoner Number 6, and he of ‘I am not a number’ fame. The original jacket could still be found displayed in the Prisoner Shop in the Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion, the backcloth to the serial.

Frank had made him University Professor of Literature, as Patrick always carried with him a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Now, Patrick would be a good choice today, because Frank had left him the previous day on the horns of something of a dilemma, and Frank had yet to decide which horn he would have him wrangle. Should Patrick accept the flattering invitation from the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia to accept their ‘Zasluzni Profesor’ in recognition of his extraordinary achievements in his field, or would that serve only to offend the Hollywood moguls who were sniffing at his latest historical tome, ‘Henry 8, and his First Husband.’ Yes, with such a quandary to solve, Patrick, the University Professor, was a definite possibility, but there was no great imperative to rush at a decision, as it seemed the bus was running late again.

Would it be Mercury? Mercury, the White Witch. Mercury was named, originally, because she was constantly either texting or phoning, and Frank knew that Mercury, the Planet, was, astrologically speaking, the Planet of Communications. Further weight was given to Frank’s choice for Mercury, because of the capricious and often volatile way she spoke, to men especially, on her telephone. Then one day, she came to the bus stop with a lightning grey streak through her electrified black hair, and immediately the picture was fully complete.

Frank had enjoyed many adventures with Mercury, and though he did not let on to the others, Mercury was a favourite. He could return to Mercury, and claim the prize she had offered up to him at the end of their previous game, when he had rescued her from the Dragon Fire Pit, after he had bested the Black Wizard of Firis Wolds. Images of heaving bosons, ripped bodices, fulfilled lusts, and heavy seas crashing onto deserted shores occupied him for a while. What has happened to the bus?

Would it be Dotty Dee? Dotty Dee, the Librarian. Nominated librarian because she was Frank’s epitome of what a Librarian should be. Petite. Demure. Thin pointed face, with very little make-up. Hair in a bun, with two chopsticks holding it up. Horn-rimmed spectacles at the end of her pretty button nose, with silver chain keeping them safe. Sober beige dress. Sensible shoes. Leather briefcase.

Named Dotty Dee simply for the light green sparkle of other-world mischief in her eyes. Frank wished that Dotty Dee would transfer to his library and replace the bearded, chunky-cardigan wearing, curry burping, stale-beer smelling oaf who worked there.

He could return Dotty Dee to the battle she was having with her bosses who wanted to extend her library portfolio to include the likes of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ‘Leave me Breathless,’ ‘Over the Knee,’ ‘Shoe Leather,’ and many other titles in the same genre that Dotty Dee had been trying hard to resist. Would she win? Frank was certainly rooting for her, so she might. But, in the face of rising costs and budget cuts . . Not today, though. Frank was not looking for a fight today.

Would it be DJ? DJ, the DJ. Frank was still unsure that this one was going to prove a runner. DJ had been the most recent to join the queue, and Frank wondered if he had perhaps rushed to judge a little too quickly. He should have realised that, to make these characters work hard, required hard work itself, and DJ had been, in retrospect, far too easy. The gangly youth, the hoody, and always the music. The godawful tinny buzzing from his ears. He would not pick DJ today. Instead, he marked him down for a possible re-write, which he’d do as soon as DJ did something new to trigger Frank’s imagination.

Choices. Choices. Choices.

#

There he goes again, the dirty bugger, the Prisoner thought. Look at the way he’s ogling her all the time. And she doesn’t seem to mind, the cow. Completely blanked me when I tried to chat her up. Altered her hair just after that. What was she thinking of? That I wouldn’t recognise her, or something? Christ, where’s that fucking bus?

The Prisoner knew he must get to his mate’s gaff soon, pick up his guitar, amp, bedding and dog and claim the best spot before the other bastards beat him to it. He clenched his book close to his chest and chuckled at the idea that the coppers would ever think to look inside it for his stash. Nah, not much chance of being caught he thought. Half of the bleedin’ coppers had never heard of a book, and the other half that had, couldn’t read. It had taken him hours to dig out the hole out with a blunt Stanley knife.

#

Dotty Dee wondered who was up first today. It would probably be Mr Tomkinson, the manager who had replaced the Thinker, when he was sacked from the bank. Mr Tomlinson had told him a little abut what had happened, but she suspected he’d left out the really juicy bits. Hush, hush, and all that he’d told her. Had she put his special cream in her briefcase? Didn’t matter, she had spares at the ‘studio.’
While she waited for the bus, Dotty Dee reflected on how her life had changed so dramatically in the last two years. She reflected on those pivotal moments that had wrought the changes.

Like when Li first came into the chip shop in town where she worked part time.

Like when they had scraped enough money together for that incredible first, and only, boyfriend/girlfriend holiday in Bangkok.

Like when Li suggested what a laugh it would be to go visit a brothel in the Ratchadaphisek entertainment district in Bangkok.

Like when Li forced her to watch as this beautiful, wordless, tiny Thai woman undressed him and bathed him in fragrant oils and soaps, and then climbed, gracefully, on top of him and used her own tightly towelled body to brush his skin until he was dry.

Like when Li did not have to force her to watch as the woman then loosened the towelling from her body, letting it fall from the table to the floor, leaving Dotty Dee mesmerised, needing no compulsion to watch this expert perform her duties, with the finest of delicate dedication.

Like when Li decided that she would stay in Bangkok, alone, until she became as learned, as dedicated, as skilled as her teachers, and she would take that teaching back home with her and change her life.

#

The White Witch watched the Thinker, from the hooded corner of an eye. When is he going to find the courage to talk to me? He’s had enough time now, surely, to have mourned his wife’s passing? But, she quickly forgave him, because it was his adoration, a legend in the village, that had made her sell up her town flat and move to the village in the first place, so that she could be nearer to him, and for once a day, at least, be close to,him, in the queue for the 8:15 into town. She had followed him a few times from the station, but apart from one occasion he seemed to be taking the ride into town simply for the sake of the journey alone.

How she longed to help heal him. Yearned to end their loneliness. What would it take for him to notice her? Even the crazy streaks in her hair hadn’t generated the interest and the contact that she craved. And the ridicule, behind closed doors, that she knew she had suffered for it. And would suffer again in an instant to get what she wanted.

Today would at least go mercifully quickly for her, bringing tomorrow morning that much closer. The interviews for the Chief Inspector vacancy were scheduled to start at nine. It wouldn’t do for the Deputy Chief Constable to be late. Just enough time to pick up her freshly laundered dress uniform, and change out of her civvies. And as for that stupid little beggar in the hoody was concerned, did he not think that coppers had any sense of smell? Skunk. Yes. He smelled just like one. She’d send a patrol round town to sort him out.

The bus arrived.

#

DJ thought ‘Wish those two would get a room.’

End

If I could turn back time

By William David Baker

1500’words

It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, and I’ve tried to be in so many different places. It happens just the same. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, and I’ve tried to occupy myself in so many different ways. Again, it happens just the same. You see, I live quite normally for a year, if living without ageing can be considered normal, that is; and then on the anniversary of the crime I am certainly guilty of, I am transported back to that place and time to repeat again that most heinous act.

If you were to pass me in the street I sincerely hope that you would not notice me. I’m thirty years old. I’m not especially tall. I’m not especially handsome. I dress as most average 30 year olds do. I do try not to stand out in case anyone realises that despite my appearing to be 30 years old, I was actually born in 1870 and by today’s reckoning I am 145 years old.

At this moment in time, I’m sitting in the Pushkar Indian restaurant in Broad Street, Birmingham eating a fine fish curry. It’s a cuisine I’ve come to admire, but tonight I’m not enjoying the meal. My mind us on the clock on the wall opposite. I like to be constantly reminded of when the shift, which is what I call it now, is about to happen. It’s just five minutes short of 8 pm and the shift will happen in 5, 4, 3, 2,

I’m in the street. The first thing I notice is the smell. The city smells of diesel and petrol fumes are gone. Now my nostrils are assailed with the smell of horse-shit. Nostalgia tells me I should like the change. The decadence born of 145 years of living tells me otherwise. Another smell overlays the horse-shit. It is the smell of coal and wood burning, and my eyes sting and run like hell. In seconds I develop a persistent chesty hack.

When I first entered the restaurant, it was a clear night. Now the air is full of swirling smog, and at times I can only just see across the cobbled street. The dull yellow from the gaslamps opposite and the torches on my side of the street do not improve my vision one jot.

The noise of traffic bombing around the city has gone, and that’s a good thing. I’ve never got used to it, being a country lad at heart. Very few people have chosen to leave the warmth of their homes to go out in the cold fog. Those few that have, are shuffling along, in rags most of them, trying to stay warm, trying to shield their mouths from the killer fog.

I see a a long building opposite, three stories high. Quite a fine, stone building, and well guarded by black iron railings set in stone. I take care not to step on the cobbles, as the noise of iron grinding on stone, and the familiar clip clopping of hooves tells me that the traffic is, for the period anyway, quite heavy. Broughams, Stanhopes, Traps, all kinds of vehicles pass close by, their horses snorting steam into the fog.

I walk along knowing exactly where I am heading. I’ve tried digging my heels in and refusing to move. It makes no difference. I still end up there, so I’ve stopped trying to beat it now. I step over the open sewer pouring into the gutter from the rougher looking terraces on my side of the street. I’ve learned over the years that it pays to be aware of open windows above too.

I see a door open opposite and a tall, well dressed man leaves the building. He is formally dressed in tails and top hat, white silk scarf and gloves. One of the wretches shuffling by, turns and puts out his hand for alms. The man raises his cane and strikes the beggar once. He falls to the ground and curls himself into a tight ball to protect himself. The man laughs and walks up to the carriage waiting for him. He taps it impatiently to wake the driver. And then he and his carriage are gone into the gloom.

I’m heading towards the railway station. Always the railway station. I think I’ve spotted them just ahead of me. Yes, it’s them. The girl is aged 11 and the boy 5. They will be quite well dressed, and well fed, though the boy will have terrible wheals across his back where his father has whipped him cruelly, for no reason other than the boy exists. They are running away from home. The boy, because he fears he will not survive if he stays. The girl, because she loves her brother and wants him to live. They have bread and cheese wrapped up in a muslin cloth and have some crazy idea that they can reach sanctuary with an aunt who lives in a village nearby. I quicken my pace. I must not let them get too far ahead, though they’ve never escaped me yet.

As we leave the busier part of the town, the road and pavement merge into one muddy track, and the light diminishes almost to nothing. The children hold eachother close. They look around from time to time as if they know I am tracking them. I keep to the shadows so as not to spook them even more.

I quicken my pace again. It’s not that I want do it. I just cannot stop myself. And yes, you might well think that I could kill myself. That would stop me, I’ll wager you think? Well believe me, I’ve tried that. It does not work either. There isn’t a method of ending my life I haven’t tried. I often despair that I’m not just long-lived but that I might be immortal. Now it is my turn to shudder.

It’s getting close to the place now where it will happen. I can almost reach out and touch them already. They don’t even seem to know I’m here. I won’t do it! I won’t! But, I know that I can protest all I like, I will do it. I will have no choice in the matter. You will see for yourself, soon enough.

Up just ahead at the train station I know a brewer’s dray is being loaded with huge barrels of beer, destined for the local taverns. I know the driver is drunk out of his head. His dray fully loaded, he climbs aboard and whips his horses into action. A brougham rushes past me heading towards the station and is going far too fast. I knew it was coming. It can’t be stopped. It heads straight for the dray. In his drunken stupor, the drayman overreacts and his dray starts to turn and tip. He is losing control. I’m already running. I can’t stop myself. My legs just take command.

Several large heavy barrels are released from the dray, and I’m reminded momentarily of Barnes-Wallace’s dambuster bombs, and find it impossible to suppress a wry smile. The barrels bear down on the children, who, seeing the danger, freeze like rabbits caught in a poacher’s lamp. There is no one anywhere near who can save them. Not even me, even if I wanted to. But, as you should now fully realise, I have no control over the events that must proceed. With superhuman speed I manage to reach the children. The barrels are almost upon us. I scoop the children up, one in each arm. I’m not a strong man, but no matter, they are as feathers. I leap to the side and the barrels brush me as they pass.

I have saved the children. As I have done for 117 years, time after time again. And I can’t change it. I even thought once that if I only had a left arm, then I’d just be able to save the girl, and things would be alright. I tried severing my right arm many times. I’d just wake up the next day intact. No, the boy had to live, didn’t he? He just had to damn well live!

I snap off a large piece of poppadum and dip it in the bowl of lime pickle by the side of my plate of fish curry. I wonder about the uselessness of being able to turn back time, when all that one can do is repeat the same mistake over and over again. I wonder what possible infernal power could exist that could make me relive this hell, year in, year out, Then I realise that 50 million dead souls must have power enough to make me pay for saving the boy, and I have a sudden hankering I haven’t felt in decades. The Eastern spices disappear, and all I can smell is my dear mama’s hearty Kaiserschmerren, with sweet Tafelspitz for afters. I think I will return home to Austria for a while.
End

Second Sight

By William David Baker

started as an idea for a ghost story but didn’t end up one, really

2870 words

Coira McKay was about as perfect a gift as any man could ever wish for. I was sure of one thing – that this time I was not going to fall into my old habit of giving my unwanted gifts away. In all my past entanglements, I had always been the less significant half; never able to commit, never able to open up; able only to give so much and it was never enough. With Coira things would change.

I was sitting alone, daydreaming, in a coffee bar in Knightsbridge, when I first met her. She brushed past me and made me jump, and my chair scraped the floor, wood on wood.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I haven’t made a mess of your clothes, have I? Do let me get you another coffee.” Coira’s voice was velvet and lyrical, and had in it the vaguest hint of the Highlands.

I shot up from my chair with half a mind to have a go at this clumsy woman, when I noticed her stick. I saw too that, despite the dark interior of the coffee bar, she hid her eyes behind large reflective sunglasses. I don’t know why, but I imagined straightaway that her eyes would be the brightest blue steel possible. She had long black hair, imperfectly curled and roughly textured, which she wore with a deep side parting. Her pale but pretty face was a small smooth heart with a wide forehead and pointed chin. She had high wide cheek bones and apple cheeks. She had a long, slightly flattened nose. Her lightly glossed lips, thin upper and thicker lower, were slightly open in a permanent smile that seemed so perfectly natural.

“No. Just a near miss,” I replied. “And don’t worry, no damage done. Thanks for the offer, too, but I didn’t spill a drop.” I sat back down and watched her walk confidently up to the barista’s station, only occasionally testing her way. I couldn’t really stop myself watching, as Coira looked as good walking away from me as she did close up. As she talked to the barista I noticed that she seemed to be in the habit of flicking her side bangs, first one side, then the other, before letting her imperfect curls fall in small black coils onto her white shoulders.

It was late October, and the weather had just begun to turn wintry. Despite a strong chill, she wore only only a thin black silk scarf over a long sleeved pleated white blouse, open at the neck, and showing a simple gold chain. She wore tight black jeans that finished three inches above a pair of smart patent black leather corset heels. Coira was tall and slim and had an hypnotically narrow waist. A police siren wailed, closing in nearby, and everyone looked out of the window, curious for a second or two.

When I turned my gaze back to where I’d left it, Coira and the barista stood at my table. The barista placed two coffees down on the table. Coira thanked him in Caledonian velvet, and pressed a two pound coin into his reluctant hand. He went back to his duties, scratching his head and whistling.

“You don’t mind if I join you?” she asked, in a way that was unlikely ever to be refused. Sliding a coffee over to me, she sat down. “Skinny latte OK?”

“Yes – er, a skinny latte. Fine. How did you guess?”

“You just looked the type.”

“Oh, you can see? I’m sorry, I though you were – ”

“No, it’s me that should be apologising. I’m confusing matters. I am blind. I’ve been blind nearly half my life, but being blind has also made me sensitive in ways that most people would never understand. I just had you down as a skinny latte type. That’s all,” she said, then added “Coira. Coira McKay.”‘

Coira offered me her hand and I took it willingly; it felt warm, despite the chill. Her fingers were long and thin, with natural manicured nails. She pressed my hand firmly. “Alexander Thurston.” I mumbled, my brain momentarily attenuated from my tongue in favour of my eyes. I kept hold of her hand for longer than two Mississippies certainly.

“Hello, Alexander, and please tell me you are an Alex and not a Zander.”

“Alex is fine – Coira.”

“There, that was easy, wasn’t it? We’re getting along fine. Just as I knew we would. Now, tell me all about Alex Thurston and I shall tell you all you need to know about me.”

“Not a lot to tell really. I’m a graphic artist, or at least still trying to be. I’m 32 years old. About the same as you, I’d guess?” I said.

“You’d guess wrong. I’m 34. But, carry on. You’re doing fine.”

“I’m single.” She smiled, and waved her fingers in front of me to show that she too had no attachments.

“I like the way you look straight at me, Alex. So many people seem unable to do that.”

“You’re confusing me again. How can you see me looking at you?”

“You’ll get used it, the confusion, I mean. And, yes I can see you, in my own way, that is. It’s like I can feel you in my face when you speak. It’s quite lovely.”

“Can I – ”

“Yes, you can. Never be afraid to ask. It’s not that bad.” Coira removed her sunglasses to reveal the most piercing light blue eyes I’d ever seen. Not quite steel, but I was shocked at how close I’d been to getting it right, and found it even harder to believe that behind those two bright gleams there was nothing but darkness.

“Beautiful.” It was out before I could stop it.

“Thank you, but utterly useless too, except for captivating you it seems.”

“How long have you been blind?” I asked, with a little reservation, not wanting to frighten her off. I needn’t have worried.

“I lost my sight altogether when i was seventeen. I was born with a genetic form of macular dystrophy called Startgardt’s Disease. I was diagnosed at the age of three, but there was no cure, just the inevitable decline.”

“I’m not sure what could be worse. To be born blind and never know the difference, or to lose the sight you were born with.”

“Either way, you still can’t see.”

We talked over two more coffees, and I learned that Coira worked as a computer consultant with the Home Office and that one of her crowning projects was ‘Holmes 4,’ the latest version of the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, a sophisticated data management system for managing major crime incidents. Coira heard how I was only just beginning to develop some serious clients for my work after quite a long struggle to break into the market. She owned a flat about a half mile from the coffee bar. I had a share with Barry, an ex-Uni pal, just off Baker Street. She loved to cook. I could manage the basics, but my real interest was wine, and I had recently enrolled in the London Court of Sommeliers. She kept a cat. I was allergic thankfully only to dog hair. We both loved to read. Coira had collected many Braille and Audio books since she went blind, but had also kept all of her standard prints from Hans Christian Anderson to Jung Chang. I too liked real books best but was also never far from my Kindle. I was also in my third year of trying to finish writing a first novel. There was very little music she disliked, and was an accomplished acoustic guitarist, mainly jazz. I was tone deaf, but had good rhythm.

“Gosh. Is that the time?” Coira asked, switching off the audio time alert on her watch. “I really must be going, Alex. There’s some work I must complete tonight.”

“I’d like to see you again,” I told Coira.

“And I’d like that very much too,” Coira said, squeezing my hand and breaking my heart with her smile. “There’s a Egon Schiele exhibit at the Courthold I want to see. The Radical Nude. You can be my eyes. I hope you don’t blush easily.”

I told her I knew and admired Schiele’s work and didn’t blush easily, and, anyway, she would not see me blush.

“No. But I will feel your heat, Alex.” She laughed. “We’ll meet at the gallery at 11 tomorrow.”

Coira left me sitting in the coffee bar, and it was only when I saw her standing outside the gallery the next day, prompt at 11, that I was properly convinced that I hadn’t just imagined our first meeting.
After the Gallery, we met another twice at the coffee bar before we became lovers.

“Alex, when you walk me home today I want you to remember one or two important things.”

“What are they?” I asked, hoping that this wasn’t going to be the big brush off, the DearestJohn of all DearJohns.

“I want you to remember when I ask if you would like to come up for a drink, that what I’m really saying is for heaven’s sake take me to bed.” She paused, and burned me with her blind stare. “And I want you to remember as well, when we make love, that I am not made of eggshell. I will not break.”

We left our coffees behind, untouched, and almost ran the half mile to her apartment. I’m not sure now who supported who in that mad, crazy dash. And people must have thought us mad, crazy. Running through all that sleet and rain when we could so easily have taken shelter. Coira, as I knew she would be, was as good as her word.

We made love, and the passion that we shared was so gentle that even the the most delicate of eggshells would not have had any concern, but it was also so honest, so deep, so complete that we sobbed liked babies in each-others arms when we were finished. Every time that we made love felt like that first time.

We spent Christmas and New Year apart, as we both had committed ourselves to visits home; Coira to see her father in Edinbugh; my mother and sister in East Anglia for me. We kept in touch daily, either through short messages, or long telephone calls. On the last day of the holiday, we skyped, and Coira said she had missed me so much she couldn’t stand it, and asked me if I wouldn’t mind moving in with her when I got back to London. I thought about it for about a second – it may have been less – and said yes. I had no choice, really, as I had planned to say something remarkably similar, but Coira had beaten me to it, and, in any case, her idea was better as it did not involve me having to sling Barry out of his own flat.

Then came the new year and with it new hope for both of us, but new fears for me too. Hope from Coira’s doctors that they might be able to help her gain some of her sight back, and fear for me that should they perform that miracle, then she may see me properly for the first time and hate what she sees.

Coira’s doctors wanted her to undergo stem cell implant procedures. Early stem cell research was initially focussed on finding a cure for age-onset macular degeneration. Promising stem cell successes in treating Alzheimer’s and spinal injuries hit the headlines at the time but research had continued quietly into macular degeneration, and blossomed. New treatments were succeeding in re-seeding lost retinal photo receptors. Success rates were low to begin with, with only one thousand cells taking out of two hundred thousand implanted, but the numbers were improving all the time, and the real breakthrough was that the re-seeding appeared to be stimulating a natural regrowth of receptor cells too. Following treatment, volunteers for this pioneering surgery were reportedly able to see shades of light, colours and object outlines. Coira’s doctors believed her genetic variant of the disease was prime for this new treatment.

Coira underwent stem cell implants for a total of eighteen months, and every few months she would tell me how much more she was able to perceive. It started with seeing something other than black, just a suggestion of light. She would sit opposite me for hours, using first her fingers to sense my face, then she would remove her glasses, and stare. The first time Coira did this, her delicate fingers easily found the second nose break I’d received when playing rugby as a schoolboy.

“It didn’t completely ruin me, did it?” I asked when she managed to drag the story from me.

“Oh, not at all. I think it gives you gravitas. Like a venerable Roman Patrician.”

“Steady on, Coira. I hope I’m not that bloody ancient.” She laughed.
On another occasion her fingers even found the tiny square scar I had above my right eyebrow, a long forgotten reminder of an encounter with a homemade wayward childhood arrow, a scar that even I could no longer see.

“You’ve never told me what colour your eyes are.”

“I have,” I told her. “I told you several times, I’m like David Bowie. I’ve got different coloured eyes.” Coira curled her right hand into a fist and punched me in the chest, and not lightly too.

“I’ve been waiting for you you to say that again. Liar! I looked it up. Bowie’s eyes are the same colour. His best friend George Underwood hit him in the eye when they were kids. Arguing over a girl. Boys! Men! His nail damaged something and the wounded eye was always differently dilated after that, making them look like they were different colours. Now, own up. And I shall know if you you lie, so watch it.” Another punch emphasised her point.

“I give in. I give in. Green. They’re green. Both of them.” She laughed.
A few weeks after her penultimate session she again sat with me across the table.

“I’m so close, Alex. So close that I’m afraid.”

“Why should you be afraid. You’ve come so far.”

“I’m afraid something will go wrong and I’ll go back to the darkness again. When I look at you now I can see the outline your head makes quite clearly. And I can see your awfully funny sticky out ears.”

“Thank you. I always thought they were my best feature.”

“They’re not bad, silly,” she said, gripping both and pulling my face towards hers, kissing me hard. “Got their uses, too,” she said, breathlessly.

“What else do you see?”

“It’s facial recognition all over again like every baby has to learn. A combination of eyebrow positions and eye and mouth shapes. I look at your face and I know you now. I could pick you out in a crowd of people. Even from a partial glance. And I can see your moods. I can’t risk losing this.”

We talked for hours until her confidence and bravery returned.

Then came her final treatment in the schedule the doctors had given her. For a month or so after the treatment Coira just clammed up and would talk about anything but her progress. Fearing a setback, I didn’t want to push her. She would tell me when she was ready. Then over coffee one morning she just came out with it.

Coira was already at the breakfast bar, pouring filter coffee from a glass jug.

“Coffee darling?” she asked. “You look tired. Haven’t you slept well?”

I had gotten used to her intuitions and and so didn’t get it at first

“How do you want your milk? Full fat, or semi?” she asked.

I looked at Coira, who had two almost identical cartons of milk in her hands. She held each one in turn in front of her face and said “I’ll try again. Do you want this one? Full Fat. Or, this one? Semi-skimmed. And don’t looked so puzzled.”

Coira could see again. Her doctors estimated her recovery at almost 80 percent, by far the best they’d achieved up to then, and though they were pretty sure there might be even better to come they could not guarantee it.

It was a few days later that Coira had her stroke. An awful, terrible stroke. One minute we were talking and laughing over a nightcap of single malts, the next I knew I heard her glass shatter on the floor and she lay slumped beside me on the sofa. She died almost immediately.

As Coira took her final agonal breath it must have taken, oh, about the same length of time that it must take for light to travel from the moon to earth; probably less than the time it takes for another cosmos in another place to be created, but for me that time is frozen, it has never ended. Now Coira and I are ghosts. Not in any chain-clanging, white-blanketed way, but we live on together, forever suspended within those precious final moments.

Road Rage

By William David Baker

INSTRUCTIONS
Because of my sensitive nature
And being a true gentleman too
I ask you to fill in the gaps yourself
And do try not to make them too blue

You may use some words more than once
Something you will have to – unless
Your vocabulary is bigger than that
of the kind of a prat
that we’ve all met before
that we’ve all been before
The kind who makes the following true.

 

You _______ , You stupid _______ ,
Did you see that? Did you see that?
When did he pass his test? I ask you!

Look at that one. Look at her. Look!
You’d think she’d never seen a roundabout before
There’s three lanes, luv
Take yer _______ pick.

Oh no, you ________ well don’t
I’ll die before I let you in chum
I’ll bet he’s a rep. Yes he is.
I can see his jacket hanging inside

Lights! Lights! Put yer _______ lights on
You’re not paying for the _______ electricity
See. That’s better.
Everyone gets the message eventually

Knight of the _______ Road be ________
You could drive a tank through that gap
Couldn’t you, Eh? Couldn’t you?

What do mean _______ bus lane?
I’ll give you ________ bus lane.
Let him out? Let him out? _____ off!
They wouldn’t let me out would they, the _______ ,

Come on. Move it. Move it you _______ ,
Use yer mirror. Yer _______ mirror, you blind ____ ,
If he gets any closer you’ll be sitting on his _______ lap

Get off the phone. Get off the ________ phone, for ______ sake
Look at the drunken _______. He’s all over the place
Where’s the coppers when you want one?

Faster. Faster.
It’s what yer right _______ foot’s for

Fog? You call that fog!
I’ll tell you when it’s _______ foggy
I’ll decide when to put my _______ lights on

Variable _______ speed limit?
I’ll vary my ________ speed when I _______ say so.
Someone’s set fire to that Gatso
Deserves a _______ medal, the ____

Yes I know it’s him I’ve been flashing
Take no _______ notice
No. Don’t look at him, look straight ahead
What do you mean he’s stopped at the lights?
What do you mean he’s coming over?
How big?
A _________ crowbar?
Oh, ____ !