The Ancient Relative – or the pursuit of perfection

I wrote the short story Ancient Relative quite some time ago now, thinking about how different from us our far future descendants might become, to cope with the world we are currently creating.

The Ancient Relative

“Rinse away, please.” 

The final patient of the day gobbed a mixture of filling, rotten tooth and spit into the silver funnel, to be whooshed away with a gurgle.

Alan’s back ached after nine hours of picking, drilling and filling. His head ached from endlessly giving his new assistant the same instructions. At last he was done for the day and for the week. It was Friday – and his wife Maria was away for the weekend.

Maria Turner-Smythe was considered by some to be pushing forward the frontiers of the paranormal, and by others to be completely dotty.  A year ago, she had been elected Chairperson of WUU (Women of the Universe Unite), a radical group dedicated to linking all females regardless of the constraints of race, space or time. Since then, she had spent so much time on the Internet or at UFO conferences that Alan rarely saw her. This weekend was a climactic event for Maria. She was to give the keynote address at the WUU Annual Conference.

…That left him alone to play with his cactus collection. Filling tiny pots with the right mixture of soil and sand. Lovingly writing on the little labels. And best of all, sprinkling the tiny seeds on top, each with its tiny spark of miraculous life. To Alan, they were his children. The large greenhouse, originally constructed for Maria to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other necessities was now filled with an alien landscape of cacti that resembled everything from small green hedgehogs to enormous grey-haired phalluses, and the floor was thick with sand.

The greenhouse was Alan’s home planet.

As Alan scrubbed flowerpots in the kitchen sink, his thoughts turned to his wife. He could not understand Maria’s obsession with WUU. Could it be possibly to do with him? But he was rational and in no way obsessive. She had become increasingly obsessive about the whole subject of UFOs and had been convinced by fellow WUU members that THEY were already here, controlling the media and advertising.  Maria explained to him that the only way of avoiding intergalactic warfare was for females of every intelligent race in the universe to get together and do their networking. 

Alan wondered whether he should at least try to get involved in WUU so that they could share an interest.  Could men really participate in networking? Cactuses had failed as a form of communication between him and Maria. She made it very clear that she did not like extracting spines from her fingers, and the holiday to the Peruvian desert had not been a success. 

Pleasantly exhausted from another two hours of sieving and mixing soils, he sat on the patio supping a pint of beer and reading Cactus Grower’s Weekly, but at the back of his mind was a niggling thought. What could be so interesting about the possibility of life on other planets, when there were so many different types of Cactus on Earth?  If only Maria could try to understand the importance of his interests.

He sighed and went indoors. 

The kitchen could wait to the morrow. Its work surfaces were covered in the dirtiest flowerpots, destined for the dishwasher. Soil and sand seemed to be everywhere.  He smiled at the prospect of potting up his babies, then climbed the stairs wearily, a Cactus Keepers’ Annual under his arm.

As usual, he donned his striped cotton pyjamas, buttoned to the neck, pushed the lank strands of hair across his shining scalp, and of course, brushed his teeth properly for five minutes. Once in bed, he blew the dandruff from his glasses and placed them on top of the annual before snuggling under his duvet. His last thought before falling asleep was the hope that aliens might be half-human and half-cactus, thus unifying his interests with those of his wife.

At about 3 a.m., Alan awoke with a terrible pain in the chest.

His first thought was that he was having a heart attack, but he could not move his arms either. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his thinning hair tried to stand on end. There was someone sitting on him.  He worked his dry mouth and a strangled croak came out. The stranger made a dry rasping noise like a wood-boring insect. Alan could now see that it was indeed a huge insect of some kind. Very thin (but quite heavy), shiny like moulded plastic. Hairy too. The head was a smooth oval shape like a hazelnut, with a hooked mouth and bug eyes. It looked like some kind of praying mantis. Alan kicked his legs furiously until two gleaming claws waved into the air and clamped them fast. He relaxed, and to his surprise the creature nodded sagely.

Still holding him, it scuttled off the bed and then let go. Alan floated about one metre in the air, he estimated vaguely. His body started to rotate ever faster and as he span, he could see two streams of silver liquid being jetted over him from the sides of the creature’s head. Eventually he was encased in silver. Rather than being terrified, he felt drowsy and strangely relaxed.

When Alan awoke, he was sitting in what looked like his favourite armchair, but it was located in a room so big that he could not see the ceiling or the walls. There was only a silvery-white glow that faded into the distance. Nearby there was a new greenhouse of breathtaking proportions. He stood up, not noticing that his skinny body was quite naked, and walked over to it. Inside was the biggest collection of cacti he had ever seen, and at least half of the species nearby were unknown.  Te greenhouse seemed to go on endlessly. He walked through it for some time until he came to a white door. He entered and stopped in surprise.

The room was just like his lounge, complete with television and shelves filled with reference books. In front of the television sat a very old man, also naked other than his white beard, which was long enough to hide his genitals.  The old man looked up from reading an ancient cactus manual.

“Welcome, my friend. Do make yourself comfortable. Tea?”

Alan was so astonished that he sat down on the sofa, and was handed a Dresden china cup filled with an aromatic brew of Earl Grey tea.

“I know you like Earl Grey tea, Alan.”

Alan smiled. “Yes, it’s my favourite.  Now, I’m being very calm because I am a dentist, but I don’t think I can continue much longer. Who are you?”

As he spoke, his hand trembled, spilling some of the tea.

“I am Marcus Turner. My son married Wendy Smythe in 1879 thus creating the Turner-Smythe line, so you are my direct descendent, carrying the obsessive potting gene into the future.”

“Okay,” Alan said slowly, and took a sip of tea. “Go on.”

“It’s very simple, really.  The people that live in this city collected me when they were gathering cacti. They thought that I was a natural part of the greenhouse ecosystem, and I suppose I am.”

Alan started to worry. He did not want to take over as the curator of this alien collection.  “So why am I here? I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Marcus, but…well, you are just like me…”

Marcus shook his woolly head emphatically. “Not very interesting, you mean? You are here for a different purpose, Alan.  You are here because you have something that they need.”

“What?”

The old man smiled. “You have cactus DNA in your body. Didn’t you know?”

Alan recalled the Sci-Fi channel. “Are they going to put something in my brain?”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Alfresia will explain it to you herself. She’ll be right along any minute.”

Alan heard the scaly scratching noise again and shrank back in fear. As the door opened, long black antennae waved in the air. In the strange white light, it did not seem so horrifying.  It was about the size of a human and walked like a human, but the body was as thin as pipe cleaners and seemed to be made of a beetle-like substance, black and shiny. Its shoulders were spiny, its fingers long and thin. It walked up to Alan and held out one of its repulsive claws. Years of etiquette kicked in and he took it then gasped as his fingers were crushed and his arm pumped up and down vigorously.  Then it turned to Marcus and started to speak.

“She says, put this in your ear so you can understand what she is saying,” Marcus translated. He opened his hand and on his palm was a shiny little worm. Alan prodded it doubtfully and it curled into a defensive ball.  He counted to five and placed the worm in his ear. There was a pleasant sensation like warm eardrops, and that was all.

“Alan, can you understand me?”  The voice was distant and tinny, but definitely feminine.

“Yes.  It’s remarkable. What the hell is going on?  I demand to be taken home immediately. You…you…,” he clenched his bony fists in rage.

“Follow me, Alan,” she replied, then hopped up and strode from the room.  He had to walk fast to keep up and did not have time to say goodbye to Marcus.  They entered another long white corridor, and then the spindly insect figure stepped into a room.

When Alan entered, his jaw dropped. It was his dental surgery, complete in almost every detail, including the faded Van Gogh print and the tropical fish.  Alfresia was waiting by the chair and had donned a white coat. Alan wandered forward in a daze and settled into the chair.  The creature leaned over him. She was wearing a surgical mask above which her huge, multi-celled eyes reflected his face a thousand times. She turned and picked up a syringe from the instrument tray.

“Wait- I’m not quite ready for this,” he babbled, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

“Alan, I am just going to numb your mouth a little bit. I have to take a skin sample and we don’t want it to hurt.” 

Before he could stall her anymore, she injected his gum with surprising skill. “There, not so bad, was it?  Would you like to sit and read a magazine for a few minutes, whilst I prepare for the next stage?” She waved a claw at a chair.

Alan sat, naked, reading a special issue of Cactus Almanac. It contained species that he knew could not come from Earth because of their colours – blue, red and purple. A few minutes later it was time.

“Nice and numb now, Alan?”

“Mmmm.”

He settled back and Alfresia turned with a long, silver blade in her claw. The creature looked at him with her head tilted to one side, and then made a curious grating sound. She moved so quickly that he did not have time to react, and then triumphantly held up a sliver of skin, before dropping it into a small metal container. There was no blood. The implement she used seemed to cauterise as it cut.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Alan? Would you like to wash out your mouth?”

She held out a cup of purple mouthwash, and he swizzled it then spat into a silver funnel.  She handed him a paper towel.

“Can I go now?”  He was incoherent.

She removed the facemask.

“Alan, try to understand me.  We are on Earth. We are the humans of the distant future and we need your DNA for our survival. We are genetic engineers, modifying our race so we can survive in hostile environments.  That’s why we travel the universe, collecting other cactuses and merging their genes with ours, but it all started with you. The planet has changed a lot, you know.”

He was shocked beyond belief. “You mean…?”

She laughed. “Yes, Alan. Only you can provide us with the essential genetic material. However, we are also interested in your wife.”

“What, you want to take Maria as well?”

Alfresia looked like she might be trying to frown. “Why are males so stupid?” she asked via the earworm. “We are a race of females. We want to join WUU. Tell her that we will visit again soon. Goodbye, Alan.”

Alan felt he was falling and spinning. Streaks of light whizzed past and translucent veils parted and then he stopped. Cautiously he opened an eye and looked around.

“Holy Christ, what the hell are you doing? Look at the state of the kitchen.” Maria sounded equally annoyed and astonished. He was still stark naked, lying on his back on the cushion linoleum floor, and a small worm had just dropped from his ear.

“Maria, thank God it’s you. Thank God.”   Alan sobbed with relief.

She looked at him. “Honestly, Alan, you really need to get out more. Why don’t you look up an ancient relative?”

The girl with tattoos – or be careful what you wish for

A short story about a girl with tattoos who is not what she seems.

Jason was strictly nocturnal, his life an endless round of night clubs, dark streets and immorality. Until one year ago, he had been studying philosophy at a London university and if you asked Jason why he dropped out, he would find it hard to explain, but it was to do with taste and the pursuit of truth. Not any more.

After he had lived life on the other side, he could never go back. The other side was like diving into cool water on a scorching day. An initial shock, but afterwards, everything so clear and real. Living on the other side had initially sated his primeval urges, but drugs and women no longer kept the devouring hunger at bay. He needed more, and something about his look betrayed his insatiable need.

“Your name Jason?” Her voice was rough from too many cigarettes and hard living.

He could only see her outline against the garish lights but the little he could make out was enough. The nightclub music pounded through his body, exciting his senses to snapping point.

“Who wants to know?” he shouted back, moving up close.

Instead of replying, she walked towards the exit. The blasts of red light offered her silhouette to him until the excitement grew unbearable. He followed, a dog after a bitch in heat, curious, hungry. Outside, the air was a cool damp caress, soft on his fevered skin. He was about to call out to her, telling to stop when a man spoke.

“I’ll pay you five hundred.”

The man stood in front of car headlights, but Jason could see that he was big and well spoken, his voice authoritative.

“Legal?” Jason asked, his face screwed up against the light. He hoped it would not be.

“You don’t need to know.”

“What’s the job?”

A pause. “I want you to follow someone. She works nights, like you. I want to know what she’s up to. That’s all, to start with.”

“Half now,” Jason said, testing.

The man held out a brown envelope. “There’s two hundred and fifty and everything you need to know. Be here tomorrow, same time. If you do well, I’ve got a bigger job.”

“Wait – is it dangerous?”

The man smiled. He climbed in the car and reversed fast down the alleyway. Jason caught a glimpse of something lean, expensive and silver under the streetlights. Tyres shrieked.

He left the club a couple of hours later and walked back to his apartment through deserted alleyways, kicking at empty cans and takeaway boxes. Once inside, safe behind the deadbolts he lay back in the cream leather recliner and tore open the envelope. He tossed the bundle of notes on the glass table without bothering to count, and looked at the two sheets of paper. One of them was a list of locations and he knew most of them well. Nightclubs and bars the inexperienced would be wise to avoid.

The other was a photograph of a girl with tattoos.

She looked to be in her early twenties, with features that were almost Asian, her eyes almond-shaped and slanted, pale skin, many tattoos. Silvery hair, dark streaks. Those lips – they set his pulse racing. Poutingly full, with an enticing gap full of promise. The photograph looked like it had been taken in a nightclub. The girl with tattoos was wearing a skimpy mini-skirt and top, not much else that he could see. Her eyes had caught the flashlight and gleamed red. He stared at the photograph, memorised the face, tossed the paper on top of the money. The sun was beginning to rise and a grey light crept across the room. Jason was asleep before the first bird began to sing.

He awoke in the early evening, spending an hour on the phone setting up illicit deals for the night, put on his leather jacket, checked his stubble was the right length and set off. He did not find her until late. He leaned against the bar, watching the way she moved on the dance floor. A space had developed around her as the other dancers stopped to watch. She danced as if the music was not just inside her, but part of her being. She seemed to be wired up to the speakers, and every move made him want her more. Her sexuality was like a disease, spreading to every man around and eyes gleamed with a feral light as they stared.

She turned, shaking her body seductively, and he could feel energy lance between them. Her eyes momentarily caught his but Jason turned away, watching her in the mirror over the bar and she knew he was watching. She was dancing for him now but he said nothing, made no move. He followed her around three clubs watching her toy with men, teasing and rejecting them, shopping. At three a.m. she clicked her heels from the last nightclub and headed for a taxi, accompanied by a tall black man with a shaved head. Jason made his way to the meeting place and waited.

“Hello, Jason.”  The car headlights cut into Jason’s eyes as he turned to look. “What did she do?”

Jason told him.

He was angry at that. “That’s unfortunate. Do you want to do some more work for me?”

Jason’s instincts warned him against it, but he wanted the money and he wanted the girl more. “Sure.”

Jason walked to his apartment, fixed himself a coffee and tore open the envelope. This time there was a lot of money and he did not need to count it. He put his hand back into the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of paper, on which was written ‘Take her home. Do not let her go with anyone. Don’t touch her. Do not go into her apartment. She will ask you.”

The girl with tattoos was already at the club when Jason arrived, and so he settled down with a vodka coke, watching her in the mirrors on the wall. She drew a lot of attention, dancing suggestively in a black skin-tight body suit – latex or similar – the light reflecting off her curves, laughing as she moved between couples, drawing hostile stares from the other women.  Jason turned away to order another drink and when he turned back she was next to him. A breast brushed against him and it felt electric.

“He asked you to watch me.” Her voice was soft, not English. “What did he say?”

Jason pushed back his streaked hair. “Only to make sure you were okay, to get you home.”

She laughed. “Alone.”

“Yeah. Alone,” he agreed.

She ran her hand around his neck. He could feel her long nails crease his skin, then her lips brushed his ear. “OK, Jason. That’s your name, isn’t it? Come and dance with me, then you can take me home.”

Any contact with her made him burn up. He followed her onto the dance floor. At first it was intoxicating, but he soon became self conscious as the other dancers stopped to look. When he stepped back from her, she continued to dance alone until a man stepped forward and moved against her. Jason warned him. The man looked tough, but the girl pushed him away and turned to Jason.

“Come on. Do your job.” She took his hand and he led her from the club.

Outside, it had been raining and wet pavements flickered under the neon. He waved down a cab and they jumped inside. As soon as they were seated together, she was upon him in frenzy and he lost all sense of time. When the cab arrived at her address, Jason fought to calm himself and control the lust hazing his mind.

“Are you coming in?”

He shook his head. “Sorry.”

She drew back her top lip in an animal snarl. “Bastard. Useless bastard.”

Jason recoiled in surprise at her fury. “Look, I get paid for this. At least tell me your name.”

“Carla.” She almost spat the words at him and ran to the door.

Jason felt tired. It was three a.m. again and the rain was coming down hard. He took the cab back to the club, and was already waiting in the alley when the long silver sports car glided in. The lights were left on as usual, pinning Jason against the wall. He heard the door slam, steps approached then the man spoke.

“You passed the first test. Here’s the final assignment.”

He held out the brown envelope, and Jason took it reluctantly. It was heavy this time. Before the man turned to leave, Jason stopped him.

“Who is she?”

The seconds ticked by. “She’s death.”

Before Jason could ask him more, the man turned away, walked to the car.  Jason dragged himself back to his apartment. He looked at the brown envelope and contemplated throwing it away, but the bulk of it told him that there was a lot of money this time. He threw the envelope unopened on his coffee table. It landed with a dull clunk.

He woke up at midday, and watched the news over coffee, but then he saw a face that he recognised.  “…was found murdered last night,” droned the newsreader.

Curious, he picked up the brown envelope and emptied the contents on the floor. The gun seemed strangely light when he picked it up. He released the magazine. It was loaded with bullets tipped with black. He ejected one and tapped it with his nail. The weapon was slim, made of some lightweight grey alloy.  Next, he picked up the sheet of paper.

“Kill her. Or we kill you.”

Jason poured himself a whiskey, and looked out the window. It was dusk, streetlights a dingy orange. A storm was brewing, the skyline flickering with distant lightning, thumps of thunder.  He started to count the money.  £5000 this time, half now, half later.  He lay back and toyed with the possibilities, wondering how much a life was worth. He had been seen with the girl, but so had others. If he did the job quickly at her place, no one would know. He could be back at his own apartment in good time.  His conscience was overwhelmed by hunger. He realised that he wanted to kill and he wanted blood. He had no choice.

Breaking into her apartment proved to be easier than expected. A ground floor window was not closed properly. Jason climbed in quickly and shut the window behind him. Inside, the rooms were unusual. They looked almost unlived in, apart from the bed with its black satin sheets. The bathroom was empty, nothing in the medicine cabinet, no make-up, no towels. In the kitchen, same story. Empty fridge, empty larder. He sat down in the living room, wondering about what kind of person she could be, and waited. The sound of a key in the lock woke him.  He moved silently, taking position behind the door but the girl with tattoos did not enter the room. He cursed and peered around it. She was following someone into the bedroom – a man. He waited, his palms slippery with sweat, wondering what to do.  What difference would another killing make?

Then he heard it.

The sound was halfway between pain and pleasure, somehow animal. Jason smiled appreciatively but the smile froze when he heard the other sound – the hiss of a snake, but too loud. Not human. The moan was changing to something liquid. Without thinking, Jason ran into the room, gun raised.

Carla was sitting with her narrow back to him, long legs astride a naked man, head lowered, thrusting. The man’s limbs dangled lifelessly. This was not making love. It was feeding.

As he squeezed the trigger she was inexplicably in front of him, her hand a band of fire around his wrist. He could feel her nails drawing blood as he looked at her.

“Hello, Jason. Come to kill me?” She let go of him, laughing.

He looked into her eyes and they were mesmerising, drawing him close, her touch burning hot. She pushed him on top of the dead stranger and was on him, ripping open his trousers. Her breath panted against the skin of his neck and then the hissing began and when she sucked the warm liquid from him it was better than sex. He closed his eyes and gave himself to her.

When Jason awoke, everything was changed. He had no appetite for food or drink. The tiled floor was not cold against his bare feet, he could not feel himself breathing. At the same time, he could hear a barrage of noise coming from all directions. It was if the walls separating the apartment from the others had been dissolved away, and he even could smell the body warmth of the inhabitants. Only then did he start to feel the hunger and it ate at his insides like acid as saliva gushed into his mouth.  He walked into the living room to find her sitting in front of the fire and she was still naked.

“How do you feel?”

“I feel alive.”

The girl with tattoos laughed, mouth wide. Eyes slitted, cat-faced. “That’s amusing,” she replied, purring.

“I have a job to do. The man-”

She stroked his face. “I want you to kill him, for me. Use the gun.”

“Who is he?”

“He pays the weak and foolish – dispensable people, to kill my kind.”

Your kind?” She rose, and kissed him on the mouth. “Our kind.”

Stripper Killer – a short story about partying to excess

Intro to Stripper Killer

This short story about a rather dangerous stripper is a modified version of the opening chapter to Creation. The first of the five book vampire series Drakul, Creation tells the story of estranged vampire king Tepesch Drakul and the struggle to restore his race. Tepesch and his family seek to combine human and vampire DNA to allow assimilation. The novel opens with estate agent Jake’s stag party. Jake has just sold some disused warehouses to a mysterious buyer.

Stripper Killer

The rope seared his wrists as Jake squirmed against the sweaty plastic chair. He scanned the stamping bawling mob for a friendly face but found no pity in their eyes, only cruel anticipation. A storm was coming, the whole weight of atmosphere pressing down and the feeling that something bad was about to happen was getting stronger. Jake’s scalp prickled as the first bellow of thunder came, a dull thud that vibrated upwards through the chair followed by a tearing explosion. Lightning painted faces into clown masks. The incessant drumming fought back, deafening. The crowd bayed, waving bottles and cans, but when the woman finally appeared, everything changed.

The mob fell silent and parted respectfully to let her through, no one dared speak as she sauntered up to Jake. He inhaled her scent, something musky and wonderful that set his senses aflame despite the danger. The alcoholic haze cleared with a popping sensation and the room stopped spinning. Sounds faded to nothing as he observed the woman with startling clarity and it came to him then, that the stag night was a bad mistake.

She was dancing directly in front of him and Jake had never seen anyone move the way she did, gazing hungrily with parted lips as if in a fashion shoot whilst she brushed against him. The police officer’s hat sat at a jaunty angle on flowing blond hair. Her face was almost elfin, the ears delicately pointed. Her eyes were enormous, the gaze questioning and promising. Black, spun with Tiger’s Eye, set wide above Slavonic cheekbones, they gleamed with the essence of lust. To poor Jake, dreams of forbidden pleasures swirled in their depths. Her full bottom lip was blood red and pouted dangerously. She was looking straight at him as if they were the only people in the room, even in the world.

An errant thought flitted through Jake’s over-heated brain – someone like her would never be interested in an overweight, beer-sodden lump like him – but he was lost and he was damned and truth had no meaning. Even her mocking laugh turned him on but below his lust was a deep void of fear. When she stuck out her pointed tongue, he noticed small silver balls nestling above and below the dark flesh, matching the metal pierced through her right breast. The chrome was dewed with condensation and the tongue was strangely dark as if she had been eating liquorice, but he doubted she would do such things. Her perfect teeth were very white, the canines pronounced – catlike, sexy.

She held onto her hat as she lowered her head to whisper secret words whilst she continued to sway to the music, but the words meant nothing to Jake. He was only aware of her cold tongue caressing his ear and that cinnamon smell seeping into his brain. Sweat, musk, pheromones. His own swelling urgency, the distant yells of his friends.  Jake felt reality slipping away until he seemed to be floating in space, tied to his plastic chair, alone with the woman.

The music changed as ‘Addicted to Love’ throbbed through the room, and Jake’s infallible memory clicked into place – Robert Palmer, 1985. An ancient classic if a bit sexist, as Jenny had once pointed out, as someone who had never been a love addict. It had never sounded so good. As the cop danced before him, she undid the tight, dark blue shirt and took it off. The little he knew of females told him she was as excited as he was, from the swell of her lip and each nipple standing proud in its dark aureole.  She moaned softly and a thin trickle of saliva escaped from the corner of her wanton lips, the remarkable eyes half-closed.

Jake felt he was going to explode or have a heart attack or both and as she brushed against him, he wished more than anything that she and his friends would go away. He wanted order restored and he needed Jenny. He longed to put on his striped cotton pyjamas and slide under cool sheets, safe and alone with a book and a mug of tea. Jake was to be married the next day, but the man who craved normality was staring down a precipice and about to fall.

Robert Palmer screamed out the message. You can’t be saved, oblivion is all you crave

At that moment, it was true.

Her hips swayed enticingly as she slowly unzipped the dark blue miniskirt and let it fall, running her fingers down her gleaming thighs. Her lips moved, but she wasn’t singing to the music. Each sighing word was a shining jewel spinning a web of poison and he was the plump, tasty fly. 

“Caruu aamisa, caruu yazu,” she mouthed and wiggled her tongue in his ear. He could guess what it meant. The song thundered on. Your heart beats, in double time, another kiss and you’ll be mine

Two a.m. Jake remained lashed to the chair as the drunken cries and singing receded. The old biddy in the flat below had ceased banging on the ceiling and laid down her stick. He was finally alone and grateful for it, but still thinking about the stripper no matter how hard he tried not to. He heard the strange mantra of lust whispered endlessly – caruu aamisa, caruu yazu.

Thunder rattled the windows. Jake peered at the sky as lightning punished the spire of a distant church, leaving him dazzled. He tried wriggling but the rope tightened obstinately and he realised he was soaked in sweat. It occurred to him that he could probably stand up and walk into the kitchen to get a sharp knife, and the sense of relief made him feel like weeping. He would free himself then take a shower and go to bed with his cup of tea, Earl Grey. All would be well in the morning, when the sun came up and drove away the darkness, and he would be with Jenny for the rest of his life. He tried to stand as the first hailstones clattered against the glass, but it was more difficult than he had expected.  His feet scuffled against the marble tiles as he tried another lift-off and nearly toppled backwards.

It could be worse, he could be in Poland, or tied to a lamppost . . .  or both . . . and he had not done anything to regret. Not done exactly but boy, he’d thought plenty and Jake could still detect that primordial smell. It seemed to hang in the air, unsatisfied and insatiable. Addicted to Love seemed to be stuck in his head and at that same moment, the lights dimmed to twilight.

“Hello, lover.”  The stripper seemed to appear from nowhere.

Jake let out a small yell of surprise.

She placed a finger against her lips. “Shh.” She pouted the sound, as if blowing him a kiss.

He gaped at her, wondering what to say whilst he experienced the plunging sensation of pure fear. The police hat was gone and her hair had been tied back in a ponytail to reveal a perfect neck, but his thoughts of lust were flown and all that remained was a strange anxiety. This was not a lad’s adventure any more, it was real, disturbing, wrong. She moved in front of him so that her endless, naked legs were either side of his, and her stilettos clicked against the expensive Italian tiles that his mother chose. She had abandoned the ridiculously short skirt and the police officer’s shirt hung open. He could not avoid seeing inside and a voice in his head was telling him to be very careful. His mouth dried up.

“What are you doing here? I thought you’d gone.” It came out as a panic-laden squeak.

“I came back, Jake. You have something I need.”

“Look, my wallet’s in the bedroom, in the right hand drawer. There’s plenty of cash. Take it and I won’t tell anyone, I promise. Take it and go, please go.”

The stripper smiled perfectly and tossed her head, swinging the ponytail. “I have much money. That is not what I need, Jake.”

He was nonplussed. “So what do you want? Tell me.”

She smiled again, so perfect and yet cold. “I will show you.”

She moved in closer and trapped his knees between her cool thighs. It was surprisingly painful, her grip unexpectedly strong. She put her hands on her hips, lifting the police shirt in the process, and he found himself staring at her crotch and its narrow strip of golden fuzz. The ruby in her belly button gleamed like fresh blood.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to insult you. But I d-don’t want you here, you understand.”

“We have unfinished business, lover,” She chuckled.

Her voice was husky, the accent exotic. Central European, he surmised pointlessly as he tried to make sense of what she was saying. He squinted up at her. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” was the best he could manage. “What’s your name?”

The stripper laughed loudly, the sound harsh in the silence. “I am Angelica Drakul, but you will call me Angel. Yes, my name is Angel.”

Angelica widened her stance and sat astride him whilst unbuttoning his beer-sodden shirt, her elfin face filled with mischief and a betrayal of cruelty. Her tongue curled out to dab her top lip and flicked again as if tasting the air. The image of a snake came unbidden.  The snake’s eyes were soulless drops of gleaming jet, her skin pale and perfect but so cold in the choking heat of his flat.  Before Jake could protest, she had undone his trousers. She laughed throatily as he pushed the chair backwards across the room, panicking. She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him forwards with astonishing strength. The sound she made was half way between pain and delight and he had the unpleasant feeling that she was about to feed.  The drop of saliva that fell from her tongue onto his lap was almost black and his mind cleared instantly at the sight.

“I want you to stop. Take the money and go,” he shouted.

Her expression hardened as she stood. She yanked his trousers off with brutal force, lifting his body half out of the chair so that it rocked forward alarmingly, and Jake weighed well over two hundred pounds. 

“Jenny and mother will miss you,” she whispered.

She straddled him again, taking his head between her hands.  Her bear-trap nails drove into his skull as he screamed. The fingers were icy. She was panting as quickly as he was praying and a strand of dark saliva swung from her lip, but he felt no breath on his face. The hands suddenly twisted his head with shocking force, the room blurred and Jake heard a cartilaginous crack. There was no pain and all sensation ceased instantly.

He found himself looking down on his vast, flaccid body as if it belonged to someone else and he knew he should be screaming or fighting back, but he could only experience an absurd sense of disbelief. Angelica did not simply lift herself off. She seemed to float upwards, drifting toward the ceiling and he was a puppet with severed strings. A weight had settled on his chest making it hard to breathe and he knew what she had done, but he also understood it was not over.  He licked his lips and his tongue tingled with pins and needles.

“You’re going to kill me.” Each word an effort.

Her eyelids lowered in silent acknowledgement. “Are you frightened of death, Jake? Do you know what death is?”

He was more frightened than he had ever been.  All he could think of was why him, when there were so many others more deserving. He needed to say goodbye to Jenny and the thought that he would never see her again was more than he could bear. Jesus would look after him and he imagined the son of God taking him by the hand, guiding him into the light but below the comforting image was a gaping void.  The finality of death was more terrifying than he had ever realised and he felt utterly alone.

She was watching him with a cruel smile. “Did you pray hard enough? I don’t see him.”

“Jesus loves me,” he gasped.

“How sweet you are, a fat little boy who believes in Jesus. Would you like to see me, Jake?”

Jake tried to understand the question. Part of him was too tired and cold to care, part of him needed to know the truth. “Yes.”

The stripper slipped off her shirt and darkness seemed to swirl around the perfect form until he could only see an outline. Within her cocoon of darkness, the woman was growing taller, the head flattening and needle teeth glinted where soft lips had been. Grey scales rasped as long limbs unfolded and the air was freezing. Bony wing struts scraped against the ceiling, setting the lampshade swinging and the dim light played over the monstrous shape. Angelica’s eyes alone remained unchanged and Jake stared into them, transfixed. The thing before him was ancient, brutal, hideous yet strangely beautiful. The giant head tilted and lowered to his neck, a strangely intimate gesture that was more invasive than any atrocity. Jake felt a rush of warmth when Angelica looked up at him, blood poured from the grinning shark’s mouth. Sleep washed through him as if he had been drugged, but Jake was not ready to go and life had never seemed more precious than at that moment.

“Mmm.” She licked a curved talon. “Very tasty, Jake.”

He managed to utter one word. “Why?”

She shrugged. “I get bored, you know?” The words were sighs.

The snake-woman was bored so he had to surrender his future and his very existence. Jake was dying and he had never seen God and he had never seen Jesus, but he had finally seen the devil. As he watched with detached interest, the dark angel knelt down before him and bent her scaled head towards his lap. He could not see what she was doing to him because of the mound of his stomach but he could hear, and the trickling sound was his own blood pooling between his feet. His mind was slipping into a confusion of memories and he allowed his eyes to close. Sleep would be his escape and when he awoke, he would get married. Sleep would make the devil go away.  She must have known what he was thinking because she sucked hungrily, a race against the last of his free will. The huge, curved wings trembled against her slender back.

When Jake’s eyes closed and his tongue lolled, Angelica stopped. The transformation came fast until the human form she loved so much was returned and she ran bloodied hands over the perfect body, gasping with pleasure. It could never be enough and frustration was already bubbling up inside. She knelt next to the dead man and stroked his hair back in place, disappointed but also angered by his passiveness.

“Was it good for you, Jake?” she whispered.

Meteorite – short story about a life-changing experience

The short story Meteorite was written for a competition rather a long time ago, and did quite well although I lost the certificate.

Meteorite

Max looked at the clouds anxiously.

“Typical.” 

Only an hour ago he had painstakingly pegged quantities of voluminous underwear and bedding onto the washing line in his manicured back garden. Now they would all have to be draped around the inside of the small terraced house, making it untidy. Sighing at life’s hardships, he paused the rail-travel DVD he had been watching, heaved his vast bulk from the armchair and waddled into the garden.

Max lived a solitary fussy life, deriving secret satisfaction from his numerous obsessions, the best of which was cleanliness. The only person he would allow into the house was his twin brother Thomas because he shared many of the same afflictions. Thomas was coming round later that same day and staying for supper. Max knew that he would comment on the laundry drying in the house. He carefully took down and rolled up each pair of socks from the line and placed them in a black bin-liner but when he came to the first of the sheets, he stopped.

“That’s odd. That’s very odd.”

Two round holes had been burnt neatly through the sheet. He peered through one at the tidy house, and made a mental note that the curtains had not been drawn back evenly. Then he noticed that the two holes in the sheet were identical in size, and perfectly round, slightly black around the edge.  They had been burnt. He walked around to the back of the washing line, which was a large rotating frame on a pole. The duvet cover also had two holes burned through it, but these were lower down. Max walked back to the sheet and then lined up the uppermost hole in the sheet with the corresponding one in the duvet. Through the two holes he could see the perfectly mown grass. And something else.

When Max’s twin brother Thomas arrived, Max opened the door in a state of wild excitement. “Thomas, come into the garden. It’s like… a dream come true.”

Thomas followed Max’s equally rotund form through the house to find him waiting next to the washing line with legs and arms spread wide.

“Don’t come any closer,” he said. “They might be dangerous.”

Thomas stopped next to him. “I can’t see anything. What do you mean?” He screwed up his fat face and peered about.

Max pushed the glasses back up his button nose. “Look at the grass and tell me what you can see.”

Thomas looked. “Rocks?” He sounded disappointed at the anticlimax.

Max laughed delightedly and a little crazily. “I’ll give you a clue. Look at the washing.”

Thomas showed signs of frustration; his nose twitched irritably. Something had burned holes in the washing. Hot rocks. Where could they have come from? Volcanoes?  Too far away from England, never mind Woking. Good God, they must be…

“Meteorites.”

Max had hoped to be able to tell him. “Of course they are, Thomas,” he said condescendingly.

The meteorites resembled lumps of coal half-buried in the lawn. Max pulled on his yellow kitchen gloves and knelt down on a newspaper.

“Careful, Max.” 

They had both read the same sci-fi stories as children; meteorites that emitted strange green light bringing dire consequences. Alien bacteria that could change people into vegetables while they slept.

 Max prised the rocks out of the soil with a trowel and dropped them into a salad bowl before carrying them proudly into the kitchen. In a moment of generosity he handed Thomas the magnifying glass. “You look first,” he said.

Thomas bent over the rocks. “Mmm,” he mouthed. He moved the glass around and looked up.

“Well?”

Thomas blinked through his thick glasses. “They’re black, with bits of blue. They look like… well, they’re just rocks.”

“Just? Just? What do you mean, just?” Max hated that word. It was so weak.

He snatched the magnifying glass back, but after a while he had to agree. “Well, they are rocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that, Thomas. These are history-making. They must be three or four billion years old for a start.”

Reverently he placed the bowl containing the meteorites on the window ledge, before preparing lunch, which took them a long time to eat.  They spent an excellent afternoon together researching meteorites on the Internet, joining discussion groups with others around the world who had similar luck. Finally, it was time for Thomas to leave and Max was getting anxious to do his ironing.  At the door, Thomas lingered until Max realised what was going on.

“I don’t think you can have one, Thomas. They are part of the –” he paused, searching for an excuse, “scientific record.”

Max knew he had upset his brother. He watched him waddle down the front path, a lonely bear-like shape in the dusk. Then he locked the front door, and rushed to the kitchen to study the meteorites.

“Oh no. No, no,” he gasped. Thomas.  There was only one rock in the bowl now. Max lowered himself wearily into the chair, the bowl on his lap, and looked at the remaining rock, puzzled. Was it bigger than it had been? A reckless sensation took control and he watched detachedly as one of his plump fingers moved towards the rock and pushed it. The rock felt warm and slightly yielding. Gaining confidence, Max watched his hand enclose the rock and then he was looking at it resting in his plump palm.

“So, Thomas didn’t take one. They must have joined together,” he muttered. “Hmm. Perhaps I can see the join.” Then he sat up. “That’s strange.”

The rock looked different. Before, it had looked like a lump of coal, but now he could see that the surface was covered in tiny pits; it was a more pleasing shape, too. When he stroked its surface, the rock definitely felt faintly squishy. A small voice deep in his brain was begging him to put the rock down. With a huge effort of will he eventually did so and mopped his florid face. When he checked the time he was shocked. It was 2 a.m.

The next morning, Thomas was awoken by a call. “It’s Max. Look, did you come round here this morning?”

“No, you just woke me up.”

Silence followed until finally Max said, “It’s gone. Both of them have gone.” He sounded upset.

“What? What are you talking about, Max? I’ll come round, okay?”

Max was waiting for him. “After you left there was only one meteorite in the bowl and now there are none.”

Thomas sounded unsure if he was being accused. “I haven’t been back to your house. I wanted to have one of the rocks but you said they were part of the scientific record, remember?”

“If you didn’t take it, Thomas, then where is it?”

“What do you think, Max?”

Max shook his head. “How should I know? Maybe they joined together somehow. I’ve got no idea, alright?”  He was close to tears.

The brothers decided to search the house. Max puffed up the stairs. He had not been upstairs for some while, as he slept on the ground floor and he found the physical effort too much. He searched the bedrooms first. They were mostly filled with piles of dusty, unopened Internet purchases and little else. Then he approached the bathroom and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and looked in cautiously. The room had no window and was dark. He reached up with some difficulty and pulled the light cord. There was a click but nothing else happened. Peering into the gloom, Max had the feeling that something was not right. Where the toilet bowl should be, there was something bigger. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the shape of a person sitting on the toilet.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

He listened. At first there was no sound, then after a moment, he distinctly heard breathing, and saw slight movement. Then a faint green light began to grow around the toilet. Max stood and stared, too scared to move. Now he could definitely make out the body of a person, but it was not sitting on the toilet as he had first thought. It seemed to be growing out of the bowl, like a plant in a pot. The lower half was a ridged green column, similar to a cucumber, which then merged into what resembled a human torso, albeit a green and spiny one. The figure had rudimentary arms and a stub of a head with a slit which pursed out as it breathed. Even as he watched, the slit trembled. Two dimples started to pucker inwards above it where eyes should be. Max felt a dull pain in his chest and realised he had not exhaled for some time. He finally did so, noisily. Immediately, the cucumber-thing shivered and the stubby head moved in his direction. Max fled from the room and locked the door behind him, then went down the stairs as fast as he dared.

“Thomas, I…” Words failed to form.

His brother looked at him with alarm. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Oh, Thomas. There’s something awful upstairs. Something is growing out of the toilet. I’m sure it’s the meteorite.”

“Wait here whilst I go and look,” Thomas said, for he knew how Max could panic at the slightest thing. He gave Max a glass of water and then climbed the stairs. Max could hear the steps creak, complainingly under the weight.  He heard the bathroom door open and he strained to listen. He was sure he could hear a voice. Thomas must be talking to it. For a moment, he thought he could hear a second voice that rasped unpleasantly, but then the door closed. He sat and waited, heart thumping in his ears. It was a while before he heard the creak of the stairs once more. Thomas was coming down them surprisingly quickly, and he did not say a word to Max, but left the house immediately. Wondering what could have happened, Max laboriously climbed the stairs a second time, once more peering into the bathroom. Now, he could see that there was nothing in the toilet bowl, but on the floor lay something like a mucous coated fur-ball. But this particular fur-ball would fill a suitcase and an unpleasant, sweet smell made him choke. Starting to feel queasy, Max shut the bathroom door once more. With an awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he returned to the living room and sat down, wondering what to do.

The next morning, Thomas opened the door, and looked surprised. “Hello,” he said.

Max was nonplussed. “Er, hello, Thomas.”

“Thomas. That’s right,” Thomas murmured, and then he said “Come in.”

Max entered the house, peering about suspiciously. Thomas had returned to his chair where he had been reading. Max was shocked to see that it was a men’s magazine with a scantily-clad female on the cover. He looked around. His brother had been busy reorganising the room. His collections of books about trains and Victorian kitchens were piled up by the back door. The curtains were open so that sunlight flooded into the drab room. On the wall, Thomas had been testing different shades of paint.

“What’s going on?” Max demanded.

Thomas smiled. “Which colour do you like the best? I like the cream myself. Look, there are real floorboards under this green carpet. They’ll polish up nicely. I can expose the fireplace as well. Lovely old bricks.”

Max stared at him. Thomas seemed taller and he looked, he also looked slimmer. There was something else; he was not wearing his glasses. Thomas always wore glasses.

Thomas read his thoughts. “Contact lenses – Max. You should try them. Now, what’s the problem?”

Max remembered why he had come. “That thing in the toilet has gone, and there’s something revolting on the bathroom floor. You were there last one in there. What happened when you went up?”

Thomas shook his head sadly. “Max, listen to me. There was nothing in the room.”

Max felt annoyed. “There was. You were talking to it. You were there for ages.”

“I needed the toilet. I can’t help how long it takes. I always talk to myself when I’m on the toilet.”

“All right, explain the fur-ball thing.”

“Probably something that died up there months ago. Maybe a cat got in the house.”

“It was too big. Besides, you said there was nothing in the room. Didn’t you see a fur-ball?”

Thomas’s face was blank. “No, nothing like that. Let’s go back and have another look, shall we?”

Max felt deflated. He went back to his own house with Thomas, who bounded up the stairs. Max puffed behind him. When he got to the bathroom, Thomas was standing in the centre of the room, licking his lips and fingers.

“Look. Nothing at all. Come on, Max, admit it.”

Max said nothing. Thomas seemed to have forgotten all about the existence of the meteorites.  Max was a little frightened by his brother.

Over the next two months, Thomas changed. To start with, Max was startled to see his brother jogging past the house, wearing a vast red track suit. Thomas jogged further and faster every day and the weight seemed to fall away. Compared to Max he seemed so energetic. He ate all the time and he read book after book. Most surprising of all, were the women. When Max phoned to invite Thomas round, Thomas said that he was too busy. But when Max walked round to his brother’s house he could hear what was going on inside quite clearly.

Max was not stupid. He had watched the ‘body snatchers’ film and he was now certain that the giant fur-ball on the bathroom floor had been all that was left of the real Thomas when the cucumber-man took his place. Now the cucumber-man was living it up, enjoying Thomas’s life to the full. He was reading men’s magazines in his trendy terraced pied-a-terre with its pine floors and minimalist decorations, enjoying the company of attractive young ladies or hanging out at the fitness centre. His faded brown Morris Minor had been replaced by some ridiculous sports car. It was embarrassing. It was evil and embarrassing. No, not embarrassing. Evil and Annoying. Not evil, exactly.

It was unfair.

Max walked home, lost in thought. Unfair. The word had shaken him to the core. As soon as he arrived, he started to search for the meteorite. He looked everywhere. He was beginning to despair when at last he found it, jammed deep down the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, as if it had been trying to burrow its way out. He pulled the meteorite out of its prison, feeling the warmth and softness. He could feel life. As quickly as he could, he stumped up the stairs for the very last time and dropped the rock into the toilet bowl. Then he sat down on the floor, and waited for his cucumber-man to grow.

Iceman – a winter’s tale of crossing time

A tale inspired by a skiing injury and the discovery of Otzi the iceman.

Kris Jarrett stared at his leg, still anchored to the ski that failed to detach. The leg had a new joint, half way down his shin. He wasn’t surprised, because he’d heard the dry crack as he fell.  On the far side of Kornock the village of Turrach nestled beside the frozen lake, lights twinking in the frozen air. He knew that no one would come this far off-piste, it was already six p.m. and the lifts were closed.  He was not scared, he was angry. Arrogance had made him break the most basic of rules and on the mountain, rule-breakers paid the price. Kris was determined not to panic, not yet. Fifty years of living in the mountains had taught him how to survive.

“This might hurt,” he muttered to himself. He calmed his mind in preparation, breathing deeply, bent forward and pushed the release mechanism on the binding with his ski pole, pulling his leg from the ski. The pain took a while to start, and then it blew through his body like a firestorm. The scream echoed off the crags like the cry of some mystical beast. He lay back, nauseous.  The wind chill was extreme, freezing skin, numbing fingers.  He lost time at that point.

When he eventually surfaced and forced his eyes open, the world was alien, the sky dancing with stars. The wind had dropped, and the surface of the mountainside sparkled in the pale blue light. He checked his leg. An ominous patch of pink was spreading through the snow. Again his instincts took control, and he focused his thoughts on stabilising the leg. Kris decided to use the ski pole as a splint, and one of the skis as a crutch. He would have to descend on the other ski, at least until he was low enough to dig a snow hole for the night. He made a mental list of what he must do, concentrating on the first task. Over the next five minutes, the pain would be extreme.

He started by strapping the ski pole to the top of the ski boot, breathing in short gasps. The boot lay limp in the snow as if his foot was detached from his body. Despite his ski gloves, his fingers felt like sausages, thick with cold. Clenching his jaw, he tried to straighten the break, starting by aligning the boot with his body. The sensation of grating bones frightened him, and a sudden flare of pain made him pull his hand away with a cry: a spike of white bone had lanced into it. He swore, pulling the break hard, straightening it, before falling back into the snow, covering his face with his hands to hide the sobs. It was a further ten minutes before he could sit up and complete the splint, binding the top of the ski pole to his leg using his scarf.

Now there was a chance of survival. Shaking with cold, he pulled himself up and balanced on his good leg, and looked around for the ski.  It was not there! God Almighty, he only had one ski. The other ski pole had also gone. He remembered taking it off after he fell, but where in God’s name was it?  He felt so tired now. Perhaps he should just lie down in the snow and sleep until morning.

His first attempt took him two metres before he crashed into a pocket of snowdrift. His ski sank a metre below the surface and the prospect of two broken legs flashed through his mind. He waited until his breathing calmed, listening to the silence. Softly, the wind started to skim snow over the icy crust into his face. The hissing increased, and he looked up. Clouds were boiling across the moon and he could smell the snow before it started falling. Big, soft flakes whirled down out of the blueness and collected on his goggles and he was dreaming of home; the fire cracking in the stone hearth, his brother Hans, serving gluwein in pewter tankards. His cows would be breathing out clouds of steam and eating the summer’s hay in the barn behind the big house. He would see them again.

“Give me strength,” he shouted into the snow, and the words echoed from Kornock. The mountain was laughing at him. 

He realised that he was desperately thirsty, and collected some snow, cramming it into his mouth. It melted away to nothing, bitter. As he lay there, his thoughts began to wander again. He began to remember his childhood, helping his father on the farm, working on the slopes. The pistes were crowded with noisy tourists and assaulted by machines, smashing and taming the snows each night but he liked the long mountain walks more than anything, because of the solitude. One summer they had walked in the mountains of Slovenia, staying in remote huts with the other travellers, singing songs around the fire.

Images flicked past. Races, the sensation of flying across the slopes, legs jarring, the wind tearing at his face, followed by images of his body, blue and still, lying buried in snow until the Spring. As the cold lulled him to an easy death, he could see his oldest son winning his first championship, and then the moment of his birth, the happiness on his wife’s face as she held the baby.

He heard a noise.

He lay quietly, listening and straining to see through the driving snow. A shape moving through the blizzard. A man. Loping across the snow, moving easily on snowshoes, at one with his world.

Kris called out. “Friend, I am here. Thank God you found me.” The wind blew the words away.

A deep chuckle. The man spoke in a strange language, familiar yet impossible to understand. When the figure came into focus, Kris could not help his reaction.

“God almighty” he whispered to himself, and then pulled off his snow-caked goggles to see more clearly. 

The iceman was dressed thickly in animal skins lined with straw. A shaggy hat of sheepskin came down to his shoulders, a hunting bow of wood across his back. However, it was his face that surprised Kris, because he had seen it so often in the classic features of mountain people, the large, broad nose and heavy brows, thick beard, leathery skin and laughing eyes. It was not a face of this time. The stranger shuffled up to Kris, and reached down with a thick arm. Kris took hold and was pulled up with great strength.

The iceman said something, pointing at the ski and motioning for Kris to take it off.  Kris did as he was told, standing unsteadily, holding the ski for balance. The stranger picked up the ski and ran his gloved hand along it, face filled with wonder. He hefted it, considering what it might be useful for then came to a decision, and threw it away. He reached out and took Kris’s arm, leaned down and lifted him across his shoulders. Kris could smell the strong tang of sweat and fur as he was carried downhill effortlessly. The man was strong. 

After what seemed like hours, they were deep in the forest. The iceman was heading for a cave, although Kris had never noticed one before. Once inside, the iceman lowered him gently onto a bed of hay.  A fire glowed at the back of the cave, the flickering light playing over drawings painted on the walls. Kris lost all sense of time and place. The drawings depicted mammoths and other wildlife that had died out long ago, but the colours were bright and the animals seemed to move in the firelight.

The iceman brought cool water in a leather flask. Kris drank hungrily.

“Who are you?” Kris asked, wiping his mouth.

The iceman cocked his head to one side, looking at him steadily. He pushed his matted hair from his eyes, and then pointed to himself. “Arthik.”

Kris imitated the man and pointed to himself. “Kris,” he said.

To his surprise, Arthik held out his hand, and they shook. He spoke rapidly, and Kris did not understand a word. He tried to show that he did not understand, but Arthik simply shrugged and walked to the back of the cave. He returned with a strip of dried meat and offered it to Kris. Something swung out from his neck and caught the firelight,  a crystal of rose quartz, hanging from a cord of plaited leather. Kris took the strip of dried meat and thanked him. Then, as he ate, Arthik started to paint on the cave wall, dipping his fingers into a pot of red liquid. Kris watched him in awe.

The man was a skilled artist, and before his eyes, Kris saw the figure of a man take form. The man was a skier, crouched, balanced to traverse a steep slope and Kris realised that Arthik must have been watching him before he fell. When Arthik had finished, he patted the wall with his hand and held out the pot of paint. Then he came across, and reached down, helping Kris to stand. Patiently, he helped Kris across the cave, and then took paint and put in on his palm, before doing the same himself. He pressed his open palm to the cave wall, then took Kris’s hand and pressed it alongside his own.

As the fire crackled and spat, Kris drifted off to sleep. The cry of wolves hunting in the forest nearby did not disturb him.

When he awoke, it was light and he was alone. “Arthik?”

There was no reply.

He realised that there was no sign of a fire and the iceman was gone. He was not lying on a bed of hay, but on the cold, hard ground. He tried to stand, but was so stiff and sore that it seemed to take an age before he could hobble to the cave entrance. He started to struggle into the snow, and had only travelled a few hundred metres when a distant shout stopped him. Someone was calling his name.  

“I’m here!” he yelled, and the voice answered.

Bright red showed between the trees as his rescuers approached.

Kris told no one of his experience and no one pressed him for an explanation. His friends and family had been surprised that he had fallen, and shocked that he had gone skiing in such a dangerous place. Kris avoided the subject. It was hard to explain why a man of fifty would try to achieve what he had failed to do when twenty-five. The incident was best forgotten. His leg mended and by the spring, Kris was already taking long walks, when he could find the time. One Sunday afternoon he was walking with Hans not far from the forest where he was found, when the story came out.

“Hans, you remember where you found me?”

“Sure. Not too far away from here. Somewhere in the forest.”

The two brothers continued to climb the path, and Kris did not answer for a while. “There’s a cave there. It was strange. After I broke my leg, I became delirious. I dreamed that an iceman found me and took me to this cave. It was so real! His name was Arthik. He fed me- then he painted, on the walls of the cave. But when I awoke in the morning, everything was gone. He had this ornament around his neck. Rose quartz.” He rubbed his face, wondering.

Hans grunted. “Bad injuries do that. Make you dream when you’re awake.”

Kris was irritated by his brother’s answer. “I want to find the cave.”

“Sure, why not?”

They descended into the woods, and Kris visualised the route someone would take from where he had fallen. He led Hans across the mountainside, until he saw rocks through the trees. This was the place.

“This is where he brought me,” he shouted, limping towards the cave.

The light was dim and mellow, the air dry and old, like a crypt.  “He laid me down here, on a bed of hay. There was a fire over there,” he pointed.

Hans walked to the back of the cave. “Just dust here now,” he said, kicking at it. A cloud of earth flew up, clouding the air.

Kris walked over to the wall. “Come and look at this,” he said in amazement. As Hans watched, Kris held his hand against the faint remains of a handprint.

“I did that, next to his handprint. Look, you can see it too,” he mused, pointing.

Hans looked closely. “These look like they were done a long time ago. You can see where lichens have grown over them.” Then he fell silent and stared. Painted on the wall, next to the faint outline of a mammoth was the weathered drawing of a skier. Some of the painting had gone but there was no doubt as to what it was.

“Is that you?” he asked quietly.

Kris nodded. “I watched him paint it.”

Hans went to the back of the cave again, lost for words. Where he had kicked the earth away, something caught his eye. The two men dug away the earth. There was something, hard and yellow-stained. They dug some more and then sat back, astonished. It was an ancient skull. Next to the vertebrae of the neck lay a crystal of rose quartz.

Perfume – a tale of seduction and murder

Short story centred on a strange perfume, inspired by the books of Daphne du Maurier.

The attractive young woman pushed back her wet hair as she came in from the darkness. Then smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry it’s so late, Mr Macon.”

Something about her expression made him feel protective, but she was also sensuous. Chris Macon felt like a dirty old man, but he could live with that. He savoured the slight huskiness of her voice. “Please, come in, sit down. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

She sat opposite him and Chris studied her with interest. ”what’s the problem?”

 “I – I think my fiancée is seeing someone else, Mr Macon,” she said hesitantly.

“Chris,” he corrected, as he poured coffee. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself, first?”

“My name’s Laura Overton.  My fiancée is called David. David Lewis. We live on Goldsworth Park, in Surrey.”

“Have either of you been married before?”

She flushed. “David was married, but his wife went off with someone else. His Best Man, he said. He managed to get a divorce eventually. I’ve never been married.” 

“Do you know why she left him?”

“No, he never talks about it and I don’t like to ask. He won’t have anything to do with her or his past; it’s as if she and his friends never existed.”

“So, how long have you been with him?”

She answered without hesitation. “A year in April. We met on the Internet, and then found that we live in the same town. Imagine that.”

Chris sipped his coffee. “and has David ever shown interest in other women during this time?”

She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. In fact he’s very possessive. If he thinks someone else is looking at me, he gets mad; he doesn’t like me wearing short skirts and – other stuff.”

“Describe your typical movements, Laura. For example, where do you work?” 

“I’m a nurse at St Peter’s, in Chertsey. I work shifts. David’s a teacher.”

He watched as she smoothed her skirt over her thigh. “So how much time do you spend together during the week? How often are you alone?”

“When I’m on nights I get back about six-thirty in the morning, and I go to bed when he leaves for work. I see him from when he gets home to when I leave in the evening. So I’m alone all day and asleep for most of it.”

“Are you both from this area?”

“I am, but David moved here from Redhill about five years ago, after his wife left him. He said he couldn’t bear to stay there.”

“and when are you getting married?”

She looked at the engagement ring. “We haven’t set a date yet. He keeps putting it off; sometimes I think he is frightened of being left again.”

Chris did not like the picture of David Lewis that was forming.  “It’s understandable, I suppose. What makes you think he is seeing someone else?”

She laughed nervously. “The perfume. I can smell it in the house when I get back from work. Also, David’s moody with me; he didn’t used to be like that, he was kind and he was fun.”

Chris sat back. “Perfume’s not proof, Laura.”

“Women wear perfume like that for a reason.” 

“Alright. Is there anything else I should know?”

“I’m certain that she’s been in our house. The perfume is in the bedroom and I can smell it on my pillow.”

Chris said carefully, “Laura, you must talk to him. Suppose there is no other woman and he finds you’re having him watched?”

She smiled. “I must sound crazy; I will speak to him. You’ve been very kind.”

Back home, Laura watched David prepare supper. He sharpened the Sabatier knife fastidiously before slicing a generous steak into neat cubes; she was repelled by the sound of knife on flesh. Afterwards, he scrubbed the bloodied utensils, then his hands and nails. He sharpened the knife once more, testing it with his thumb, dark hair falling over his forehead, thoughts seemingly far away.

“I – if there was ever someone else, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?” Her words were out of control.

“Someone else?” She could not tell whether he was amused or annoyed.

“Yes, having an affair. Having sex with someone else,” she said, irritated.

He paused, and she saw his hand tighten on the knife. His head whipped up, eyes angry. “What d’you mean?”

Laura felt defensive. “It’s just that I’ve noticed perfume in the house.”  It sounded ridiculous to her even as she spoke.

He frowned and the lines at the sides of his mouth deepened. “Where’s this going, Laura?”

She persisted, “We haven’t made love for a while, have we?”

There was a tangible silence, as if he knew the subject would come up. “Because you’re always too tired. Don’t try to blame me, Laura.”

He started chopping vegetables, banging the blade down. “I have no idea what perfume you’re talking about. I haven’t noticed anything unusual. If anyone’s screwing someone else, it’s you and one of your doctors.”

She was surprised at his anger. “David, I didn’t mean to – “

“That’s enough.” His face darkened. “I’m going to have to keep an eye on you, Laura. Your clothes when you go to work – look how short your skirt is, for Christ’s sake. You don’t dress like that when we go out. Now look at me. Do I look like I’m seeing someone else? You’ve got a bloody nerve.”  He clenched his jaw and stabbed the knife deep into the chopping board.

“I was worried, that’s all. Can’t we talk about this sensibly?”

David did not think so. However, when Laura came home from the hospital the following morning, she could smell the pungent scent. It hung in the air blatantly and followed her around the house; then she recognised it; Seduction, heavy and sweet. She undressed and showered, but was so exhausted that she crawled into bed without bothering to eat. Less than an hour after sleep finally came, Laura awoke clammy from a nightmare. The lingering memory made her feel nauseous. She lay in bed, aware of the sliver of winter sunlight that striped the floorboards, listening to her heart. Instinctively, she picked up her mobile and called Chris. “It’s Laura Overton. I need to see you.”

Chris sounded breathless. “Sure, where?”

“I can’t come to your office, someone might see. Can you pick me up from the car park by the canal? At four?” He agreed, and as she dressed, Laura smiled at her memory of him; more farmer than private investigator with his ruddy complexion, blond hair, big hands and guileless blue eyes. So different from David.

Chris saw her waiting by the footbridge, dressed in jeans and a short black jacket, long auburn hair blowing in the wind. He stopped the silver Golf next to her and opened the passenger door. As they drove away he was acutely aware of her proximity.

“Did you speak to David?”

Her voice sounded unsteady. “He got angry and denied everything and I believed him at the time, but I could smell the perfume again this morning. Chris, I can feel that she has been in the house. Looking at my things, leaving draws open. She wants me to know. I need you to watch the house, Chris, but he mustn’t find out about it.”

“Are you scared of him, Laura?”

“David would never hurt me. Never. I’m frightened of her.” She rubbed her eyes and turned her head away.

“You look tired.”

“I’m not sleeping well. I dream about her. I don’t want to go to sleep any more.”

“Tell me.”

“I can only remember bits – images. It’s so dark I see nothing, but I’m on a bed but I’m unable to move; my hands and ankles have been tied with something. Then – Damn, I can’t remember.” She banged her head with her fist.

“Take it slowly.”

After a while, she continued, “I can hear someone breathing, close by. Short breaths, in and out, like they’re excited.  I feel cold metal moving on my skin. I am so scared.”

He prompted her again. “Describe the sensation.”

She closed her eyes. “A point, drawing a line down my body, all the way down.” She looked at Chris, wide-eyed, and with her finger drew a line from the v-neck of her cashmere sweater to her navel. “And I think I’m naked.”

Chris focused on the road ahead. “What can you hear?”

“A rustling, and the breathing getting closer. A voice. I don’t know if it’s a woman or a man; it whispers Bitch. You stupid bitch, over and over. There is a green flash. It lights up the room. I glimpse a face. I don’t remember who it is, but they are wearing a long dress of some kind. The metal burns hot. I feel it inside me. I want to scream but I can’t make any noise – something is in my mouth. I’m suffocating.”

He could see her eyes were dull with fear. She gripped his hand, but then relaxed and impulsively he leaned across to kiss her.  “It’s just a dream, Laura. Don’t be frightened.”

Whilst he drove her back he kept replaying the dream in his mind, alternately excited and disgusted with himself. Before she got out they agreed to meet the following week, at the same place, then an hour later, he drove to Goldsworth Park and turned into Laura’s street. Her house was at the end, a mock Tudor semi. He parked behind a similar car and away from the streetlights and then settled back with the Times crossword. After half an hour, Laura walked down the close. She gave no indication that she noticed him and entered the house, then re-emerged a little while later and left for work.

As darkness fell, a Landrover turned into the close. The headlights swept through Chris’s car, and then it parked in the driveway. David Lewis got out and sauntered to the front door and Chris noted the man’s confident manner. It irritated him. He settled down expectantly, camera ready, hoping that Laura could be proved right. However, by 2 a.m. he gave up. Surely no-one would come now. Stiff with cold he headed back to his rented apartment.

He followed the same mind-numbing routine for the remainder of the week, peering at the house through the frosted windscreen. Every night he also watched Laura leave for work and each time, his hunger grew. By the end of the week all he could think of was their next meeting. He picked her up from the car park and they drove to a secluded spot out of town.

“Laura, no-one came to the house. Do you really want me to continue with this?”

She looked like she would cry. He reached out to touch her cheek but she turned her head away. “She spoke to me.”  She sounded defiant.

Chris looked at her incredulously. “What?”

“Last night. As I was opening the front door, a woman came up behind me. I couldn’t think of anything to say; she said I shouldn’t be with him. David belonged to her. I asked her who she was, and she said she was from David’s past. The she said something weird. That she was a bitch, like me. Then she turned around and walked off.”

“Describe her.”

“She was very attractive. Short blond hair, good body. I think she was in her twenties. Quite petite. She was wearing black. No makeup. Her eyes were kind of glassy. She frightened me.” She looked at him. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I don’t know, Laura. I didn’t see her go to the house. Why was she frightening?”

“She was so sure of herself, and cold. Like the person in the dream. She was wearing Seduction. That’s the perfume,” she explained.

 “I’ll watch the house, Laura. You can trust me,” he said, but as he spoke his eyes were drawn to her lips, and then without thought, they were kissing. She pushed him away.

“Laura, I’m sorry, that shouldn’t have happened,” he said awkwardly.

She looked at her hands and answered, “No, it’s my fault. I wanted you to do it. I’m confused.” A pause, then, “take me back, please.”

They drove in awkward silence to the car park. Just before she got out of the car, she reached into her handbag. “I managed to find one photo of David’s wedding. I don’t know why you asked for it.”

She handed him a picture of David standing next to a tall, dark man with a mischievous smile. They were posing for the camera in morning suits. Chris turned it over. David and Michael was written on the back in pencil.

He shrugged. “I thought it might provide some more information, that’s all. Who’s David standing next to?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t know. Might be his Best Man. I never met him, but I think he was called Michael.”

By the time Laura left the house for work, Chris was once more stationed at the end of her road, his mind in turmoil. He eventually fell asleep in the early hours and awoke with a start as grey dawn broke. Blurry-eyed and perplexed, he drove back to his apartment and managed to get a few hours rest. By ten o’clock he was at the Redhill library, searching obsessively through endless editions of local papers for more information about the wedding. He was close to giving up when he finally found what he was looking for. The few lines also mentioned David Lewis, his wife Devina and Best Man Michael Hansard, but there were no photographs. It only took a short while to find a member of the Hansard family in Redhill. James Hansard lived in a luxury apartment a short drive away from the town centre. When he answered the door Chris could see the strong likeness to Michael. Tall and darkly handsome, but he also looked considerably annoyed. Chris introduced himself.

“You say you’re trying to find my brother?”

“Yes, that’s right. Can you help me?”

“I suppose you’d better come in.” James offered him a chair and threw himself back onto the sofa, then rubbed a hand across his face. “You’ve no idea at all, have you?”

Chris looked at him blankly.

“Someone killed my brother. They smashed him over the head and tied him to his bed, on a plastic sheet. Then they cut him and left him to bleed to death. I had to identify his body. How could someone do that?”

Chris was shocked. “I don’t know what to say. I’m really sorry to have bothered you.”  

He started to get up, but James exhaled noisily and held up his hand. “No, it’s OK. What did you want to know?”

“When did it happen?”

“It would be almost five years ago by now, but it always seems like it happened yesterday when I remember. They never found out who did it.”

Chris looked around the room during the silence and his attention was caught by a framed photograph on the window-ledge. It showed David and Michael with their arms around a petite girl with short blond hair; Devina’s face and body were turned towards Michael, not her husband. It looked like they were on holiday together, standing in the sea. It was altogether too cosy, easy to imagine the friendship with Michael turning into something more intimate.  Chris stood up and walked to the photo.

James picked it up and laughed. “Michael was irresistible to women. He couldn’t help it. Devina didn’t stay with him for very long after she left David. Once the thrill had worn off, she went to live abroad. In France, I think. She didn’t even bother to come back for Michael’s funeral. David was devastated. He’d been friends with Michael since they were children.”

“Did David remain friends with Michael?”

James looked at him. “He did eventually. They were round here one night, getting drunk. David blamed it all on her. He never called her by her name afterwards.”

“What did he call her?” Chris asked.

“Stupid bitch. And a lot worse.”

Chris thanked James and headed back down the motorway. He was now convinced that Laura had seen Devina outside her house and he became aware of a growing sense of dread. Why had she come back now, after so many years? Was it because David was going to marry? About three miles from the house, the traffic slowed to a standstill. It was November 5th and cars were queuing for a show at the school where David taught. Cursing, he grabbed his mobile and called Laura, whilst explosions lit up the sky in gaudy colours.

To his dismay a man’s voice answered. “Hello, Chris.”

“Is that David? Listen, you are both in danger, you’ve got to get out of there,” Chris said urgently.

David sounded amused. “Nice to finally speak with you, Chris. Danger, you say?”

“Yes, Davina – “

David’s voice cut in. It was now icy cold. “Laura can’t come to the phone right now, but she’s quite safe with me. You shouldn’t mention Devina. Now you’ve made me angry.”

The call ended abruptly.

Chris ran back to his car and floored the pedal. The car swerved onto the other side of the road. He drove recklessly, oblivious of the vehicles and pedestrians in his way. He prayed for the first time in many years. If there is a God, please me get there in time.

David hurled the phone against the wall and it shattered.

“What’s the matter?” Laura asked.

Without warning, David turned and hit her in the face with his fist. She tumbled backwards over a chair, struck her head on the coffee table, and remembered no more.

When she regained consciousness, Laura was unable to move her arms or her legs. She looked down and discovered that she was spread-eagled on the bed, stripped to her underwear, tied to the metal rails with duck tape. Beneath her was a plastic sheet. It felt warm and sticky with her sweat. Her mouth was dry and her head pounded. She felt sick with fear and she could even smell it on her skin.  Downstairs she could hear David in the kitchen. It sounded like he was sharpening a knife and talking to himself.

“What are you doing, David?” she called out, angry and scared. “Let me go.”

He climbed the stairs, and her heart sank when he entered the room. David was wearing a long yellow plastic cape that rustled as he moved. It would have been funny apart from the knife. It was the one that he used for carving; the one that could slice half a pound of meat in half effortlessly.  He tested the edge with his thumb.

She shrank back from him. “What in God’s name are you doing? Untie me right now. You’re scaring me.”

His eyes glittered, and his voice was thick. “You think you’re clever, accusing me of cheating, but I’ve been following you, Laura. You’re the one who’s screwing around. You whore. You stupid fucking bitch.” He spat the word.

Laura was stupefied. “What? That’s insane. You’ve made a terrible mistake, David.”

He stood, unmoving. “No, it’s your mistake, Laura. You meet Chris in the car park. You get in his car. You go somewhere with him and you have sex. You bitch, I’ve seen you. I followed you.”

“Please listen to me, David, I can explain -“

The words shrivelled up because his eyes were dancing mad. Outside, fireworks fizzed and thundered, lighting the room with splashes of vibrant light.

“No more talking, Laura.”

He grabbed her face and stuffed her mouth with her flannel. The soapy taste burned her throat. He sat on the edge of the bed.

“Now, where should we start?” 

He traced the tip of the knife down her body, teasing. He watched Laura strain against the bonds and try to scream for help, and then his mind filled with rage and savage pleasure.

“Davina played around too. You remember my wife, don’t you? I knew she was screwing Michael. Can you imagine that, Laura. My best friend and my wife?”

He pricked the knife point into her and a drop of blood trickled down her side. “Devina took a long time to die, but it would have been too obvious to do it the same way as Mike, so I took her into the woods. I buried the remains deep so they wouldn’t be found by foxes. She’s not coming back, Laura.”

The knife point started to burn against her stomach.

“Why?” she managed to say through the flannel.

“Because you’re all stupid bitches, thinking I don’t know what you want. I hoped you might be different but you’re just the same. Now, no more questions, Laura. I need to concentrate.”

David stood up and leaned over her, but then the rich perfume cut through his anger. The sound of fireworks dimmed to silence, and the room became chill. He sensed someone behind him, turned and gasped. The blond woman was standing in the room.

He lifted the knife, threatening to plunge it into Laura’s body and then stopped, eyes wide and unblinking.  Devina stepped towards him, her face calm and pale. “Tell me what I am, my love.” Her voice seemed far away.

David slowly lowered the knife and then stood, his arms hanging loose by his sides. He continued to stare at her, grey as a corpse. He tried to fight the sentence as it formed in his mouth.

“You – you stupid fucking bitch. Bitch.”

“That’s right, David,” she said. “I am a bitch, but I’m not stupid.”

Her eyes were locked to his as she raised her hands to her heart. At first, David resisted. Slowly, his hand white with effort, the knife came down until the tip was placed against the centre of his chest. Then Davina smiled, and pressed her hands into her body, and as Laura watched in silence, David did the same, pressing the knife through the plastic cape and then slid the entire blade into himself. He sank slowly to his knees, and looked at Laura for the last time but there was too much blood in his mouth to say goodbye. As he fell back against the door, his final expression was one of disbelief.

When Chris arrived, the front door was open. He ran inside and called out, and hearing a noise, pounded up the stairs yelling Laura’s name. He cried out in fear when he saw the pool of blood soaked into the carpet under the bedroom door. He had to throw all his weight against the door to push David’s body out of the way. Laura was still tied to the bed, motionless, her eyes closed, alone.

He bent over to check her pulse, and at his touch she looked at him with wild eyes. She appeared to be unharmed. He knelt down and gently removed the gag from her mouth, and untied her.

“Chris, oh Chris, thank God you came.” He held her against him whilst she cried with a mixture of relief and shock, and he asked no questions. He could still smell the perfume, strong at first, then fading away. He helped her dress then took her down to the kitchen and made them both a hot drink. They sat close together, waiting for the police.

Kelpie – a tale of paying the price for love

Short story inspired by tales of mermaids and the legend of the kelpie.

“Holy Mother, bring me some fish. Okay, bring me one, that’s all I ask. One lousy fish.”

Peter Cruickshank cast his net one last time, breaking the moonlit waters of the loch in a gentle arc before drawing it in hand over hand, whilst the boat rocked gently under his weight.

At first he felt no resistance, until the net pulled him to his knees and the boat lurched over in answer to his prayer. He peered through the glassy surface into the dark blue world. Below was a pale curved ghost, dappled opal by moon beams. It flexed to and fro, fighting the imprisoning mesh. The dripping net coiled wetly amidst the clutter by his feet, until the thing he had caught bumped against the side of the boat, foaming the water in its efforts to escape.

He hissed fearfully, and without hesitation opened his clasp-knife to slash the net, allowing the abomination to slide into the depths. It flicked clear, glinting silver as it sped down to merge with the shadows.  Once ashore he called to the others.

“Come, help me pull her up.”

Michael and John clumped over the shingle bank to him, and the three men guided the Henrietta onto the battered old trailer and ran it up the beach until her scarred hull nestled alongside the dark bulk of the other fishing boats.

“No fish again? What’s causing your bad luck? Annie will be disappointed,” said Michael.

“Your luck will return, Peter. Please, take some of mine, I’ve too much,” John said gently.

Peter’s eyes were downcast, his weather-beaten face strangely pale. “I thank you. The favour will be repaid. I can’t bear to go home empty-handed.”

John held up the netting. “What was it?” he said suspiciously, with a trace of anger. “You said you caught nothing.”

Peter took the net from him, afraid. “I – I couldn’t see clearly – a seal perhaps.”

The others exchanged a glance. “It must’ve been difficult pulling it in, then. A mother of a seal. You should have called us over – now you’ve got to mend the net,” John replied, “and no fish tomorrow, either.”

In the morning Peter was shaken awake, hearing his name called as if from a great distance. When he opened his eyes, Annie had drawn the curtains and he could see the concern in her brown eyes. He pushed back the black curls that framed her elfin face.

“Peter, you were moaning and talking to someone,” she said. “You’re soaking, too.”

He wiped his brow. “It was just a bad dream, that’s all.”

“Tell me about it,” she persisted. “Then you will not dream it again.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he laughed.

“Satisfaction brought it back,” she finished. “Come on, who were you talking to in your sleep? It was a woman, wasn’t it?” He could tell she was anxious.

He closed his eyes, trying to reassemble the dream fragments into a story to tell her. As he did so, he saw the face again. Corpse-white, fish eyes and lank sea-ribbon hair. Full lips concealing a piranha mouth, and below the nightmare face, the perfect, slender body of a woman that made him shudder with a mixture of lust and revulsion. Even as he remembered, he heard a soft voice sighing to him from the water, and he wanted to go to her.

“I can’t remember who she was,” he answered defensively.

“Fine, then go and wash, before you make the sheets smell.” He knew she was irritated by his secrecy, but he could not tell her about the kelpie. He had convinced himself that it had been no more than a dream. As he was stumbling back to sleep, he thought he heard her say, “Peter, I want to have a baby.”   

He pretended not to hear.

When the sun was at half-mast and the air was crisp-chill, John came to the cottage and tapped on the window. “Are you ready? We’ve work to do, if you remember.”

The two men walked down the cobbled street between rows of stone cottages, each with a different coloured door. At the end of the street they jumped down the seawall onto the dry sand, enjoying the rich smell of salt and decaying seaweed. The sea was on its way in, spilling up the smooth tan in shallow cusps of foamy water, rubbing away the strange marks.

John ran towards them, his rubber boots pressing deep, and then stopped abruptly.  “Come over here,” he said quietly.

Peter walked across, experiencing both curiosity and an inexplicable sinking sensation that soon changed to nausea. “It looks like a seal’s track,” he said weakly.

“No, they leave flipper marks each side. Look at these.” John knelt down and pressed his hand into the sand, then stood up. Next to his large handprint, there was the handprint of a child, or a woman. “There are more. See how they are placed on each side, where a seal would have used its flippers. This creature pulled itself up the beach using its hands.”

He backed off. “Come away,” he said urgently, pulling at Peter’s arm, but he seemed to be frozen to the spot. He tugged harder and Peter let himself be led up the beach but his eyes were drawn back to the marks in the sand. About half-way up, they vanished, and the sand was disturbed as if something had writhed about in pain. A short distance further on was the single imprint of a small naked foot.  Fishing forgotten, the men tried to follow the faint marks, afterwards returning to the boats.

Peter leaned on the Henrietta’s warm hull. “What should we do?”  He kicked a sea-bleached branch.

“Go and see the Leckie. No-one else will know what to do. All you would get is folk tales from them.”

“What about you? Aren’t you coming with me?”

John shook his head and squinted out to sea. “No, I have fish to catch. Help me with the boat and you can use my net. It was a sea-witch in your net last night, wasn’t it? She saw you, and now she’s come back for you.”

Peter grabbed his friend roughly. “Don’t you say that. You take it back. Take it back now.”

John staggered, and pulled himself free. “I was joking. There’s obviously some other explanation. I’m sorry to have upset you.” He sounded hurt more than angry.

As they pulled the trailer down the beach, Peter laughed. “You’re right, I’m being foolish. A sea-witch? Have you ever seen one? Do you know anyone else who has? I think someone’s playing a joke on us.”

John pointed at the footprint. “Did they walk backwards down the beach, and sweep the other footprints away?”

“Or maybe they walked along the edge of the loch, then up the beach. That would be easier,” Peter said but his heart said different. Maybe the kelpie had been following him for weeks, scaring the fish away from his boat, until he netted it. Those fisheyes had not been expressionless; they were circles of fire. It – she – knew him.

The Leckie was a woman of such great age that she had been very old as long as anyone could remember. She lived in a dilapidated cottage beyond the end of the short street and everyone looked after her despite her bad temper, because she was wise and she was fey. Peter knocked on her door with trepidation.

After a long pause he heard shuffling feet approach and the door swung open.  “What?” The voice creaked.

“Leckie, I need to talk to you,” he said hesitantly to the hunched figure.

She moved into the light so he could see her face, baggy and seamed as an old tortoise, and she beckoned. She lowered herself carefully into a creaking cane chair and pointed to her bed, a bare, stained mattress.

He sat down, ignoring the stale smell, rubbing his rough hands on his jeans. “I caught something yesterday and it wasn’t a fish, or a seal-” he stopped, struggling to find the words.

The Leckie said nothing and waited.

“It was the size of a seal, but, well it had hair like ribbon-weed. And it had arms,” he paused, and licked his dry lips. “It had-”

“Tits?” The old dry voice made him jump. The word seemed somehow obscene the way she said it, heavy with meaning.

He nodded, and whispered, “It had. But it was so pale, and cold, like it was dead. Was it a sea-witch?”

She shrugged. “Do you think that’s likely? Maybe it was a dead body. They go white.”

“I don’t think so, it was moving a lot, trying to escape. When I cut it loose it swam to the bottom of the loch and I could see its tail, like a dolphin’s. I saw its scales flash.”

There was another long pause. “There you are then. It was a dolphin.”

She rocked the cane chair so that it complained, and Peter wondered how much longer it could survive before pitching her to the floor.

“The chair will outlast me,” she said, reading his thoughts.

“She looked at me. I saw her eyes. They were – burning.”

The rocking stopped and then she said, “You should have killed her when you had the chance.”

“What was it?” he asked.

“A kelpie. She’s looking for a mate. They come into the lochs for that and nothing else. Their home is in the deepest waters far out to sea, deeper than nets can go.”

Peter was curious about the sea-witch. It was quite small, after all; no bigger than Annie. “Are you saying that there are males in the loch as well? Why don’t we see them?”

The Leckie laughed, an unpleasant grating sound like rough stones being ground together. “Kelpies are all female. That is the reason they need men.”

He tried to decipher her expression, but he could not read the sloe-black eyes. “Where did it go to, when it left the water?”

She smiled unpleasantly. “How should I know? They always disappear. No-one knows where they go, but we can guess what they do.”

Peter knew the old woman was hiding something from him and he began to feel frightened. “People who see them drown, don’t they? That’s what everyone says. Don’t you know that? Will I drown?”

She struggled out of the ancient chair and shuffled to the door. “Looks like you more about them than I do. Stay away from the loch if you are scared.”

He hung his head. “I’m a fisherman.”

“Then do something else. You’re not much good at fishing.” She opened the door and waited for him to leave and Peter pushed past her, frustrated. The door slammed behind him.

He went back to his house, angry and confused. Annie was hard at work in the small back yard, mending the net that she had hung from the washing-line. She did not pause in her work when she saw him. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

He sat against the wall in the shade, knees drawn up so that only his brown feet were in the sun.  “I don’t think I was meant to be a fisherman,” he said sadly.

Annie laughed. “What else would you do? You have been catching fish since you were able to walk. What did you catch last night? A shark?”

He picked up a pebble and rubbed it between his hands. “It was a seal. I could go to the town and labour. There are new houses being built all the time. Or I could get work on a ferry. That sort of thing.” He threw the pebble away. “I cannot catch fish anymore and we need the money.”

She continued to mend the net. “You heard what I said this morning, when you pretended to be asleep.”

He got up then and put his arms around her. “I might have. If you want a baby – if we want a baby then we’ll need money.”

He made his mind up. “I’m going to the town today. Maybe I will have more luck with jobs than fish.” He kissed her.

As he was leaving she said, “I may not be here when you get back, for I’m visiting John’s sister. She has had a baby.”

Peter went to the town, and entered the employment agency. When he sat behind the desk, the man asked, “What’re you able to do?”

Peter shrugged. “All I know about are boats and fish.”

He arrived back late but exultant, and threw open the door triumphantly but Annie held a finger to his mouth. “Wait until we’re eating.”

She had laid the table with their best things; their only tablecloth, new candles. As he waited, she brought in tuna, roasted with garlic and rosemary, potatoes and shellfish, and she was wearing clothes that he liked the best.

He stared at the food. “Where did you get this?”

She smiled. “Friends gave them to me. Now, tell me everything.”

Then he told her that he had found a job even before arriving at the town. The ferryman had known his father, and needed someone to jump ashore and tie-up since his own son had fallen, injuring his back.

“I don’t know how long I can work for, but its money and we can save. I start tomorrow.”

When the meal was ended, Annie led Peter down to the beach. As they reached the water’s edge, he heard a woman calling his name and laughed. “She sounds just like you, Annie,” he said. “Look, she’s walking along the sea wall.”  He felt a strange misgiving deep inside and stared at the woman, trying to see who she was.

“Annie?” he whispered.

He looked again at the woman next to him, staring into her eyes. “Who are you?” he asked, grabbing her arm. “Tell me who you are.” 

But he already knew.

“I’ll show you,” she said, laughing. She drew his head down and kissed him deeply and he felt as if he would drown in her, fears driven away by a mad lust. They made love under the stars and the cold waters ran over their feet. Peter felt as if he was falling into a long tunnel towards a bright light, and the light was as water, soft and flowing and he was floating within it. Below, he could see the beach, and a man and a woman were making love as the tide flowed up around them. The woman that looked like Annie was not. She was an insatiable beast, devouring the man she was straddling.

At the top of the beach, Annie stood watching, hands over her mouth, tears running down her face, before she turned away in anger and misery and ran to the cottage.

Peter fought desperately for his life but the kelpie was too strong. She threw him down and both their heads were under the red-stained sea. She pulled him ever deeper, his struggles weakening and the last thing he saw before darkness took him was one burning eye.

Wasp. A short story of a queen’s quest for revenge

Short story inspired by the most hated and extraordinary creatures that live alongside us – wasps.

I might die tonight. I am a fugitive, exhausted and hungry. The vicious winter is draining away my last, precious drop of energy. My ancestors go back 500 million years, when humanity was no more than a crazy idea, but now they are my greatest enemy.  I am tired but I am proud….and I’ll never give up. I’m deep in the land of my greatest enemy, but I see a cave ahead – and it’s perfect, if only I can get there, if I can stay alive that long. I am crawling now, deep inside, into the cool darkness. I am safe at last, and it’s time to sleep.

“Put yer ‘kin hand in it. Do it now.”

            The boy closes his eyes, and lowers his trembling hand towards the shoe-box. He thinks he might wet himself, and grits his teeth.

            “If you hurt any of em, I’ll hurt you more,” the grating voice promises, and Luke Penfold thinks there is more than a hint of anticipated pleasure in that promise.

            Luke opens his eyes. On the side of the shoe-box are the words ‘Betterware. The Shoe of Choice’. The Betterware shoes are long gone and now a seething mass of spiders of all sizes and colours covers the bottom, some starting to climb up the sides. He stares at them in disbelief – how could so many be found in a prison?  Some of them are inches across, and they crouch, poised to leap and bite. He sees their curved fangs and rows of beady eyes and a drop of sweat quivers on the tip of his nose.

“I can’t do it, Ken. I can’t. Please don’t make me.” He’s close to tears.

            Ken Ratchett laughs. “Okay.  I’m not ‘kin serious. Not this time, anyways.”

He pushes his small mean face up close to Luke and there’s no humour in it. ”As long as you do as I tell you.”  The little man’s eyes remind Luke of the spiders in the box. Machine eyes.

Ratchett’s instincts tell him that the boy is innocent. He is sure that Luke will be released soon and so, for the last few months he had been softening Luke up. He needs an assistant who will obey without question and cost nothing. He prods Luke in his thin chest. “Homework time. What’s the first job when we get out?” 

Luke looks at the floor. “Sorting out Inspector Worth.”

“Good boy.  I’ve decided how we’re going to get that ‘kin bastard.”

Luke says nothing.

Ratchett licks his lips. “When we get out, I’ll show you something. In my house, I got lots of spiders. Lots more than these common ones. I got fucking tarantulas, black widows, funnel web…” Spit runs down his chin.  “I got four types of tarantula – the biggest is like this.”  He suddenly thrusts his open hand at the boy, fingers spread wide. Luke jumps back, crying out, an arm raised protectively.

Ratchett laughs. “Prat. Do you know what a wolf spider is?”

Luke shakes his head, eyes red and watery. Ratchett reckons that if a boy cries when spoken to, he is ready to learn. He bangs the table in the small prison cell and shouts in the boy’s tear-stained face. “You know eff all. Wolf spiders is from Australia. They’s about two inches long, and the colour of a wolf. They’s smarter than a prat like you, and their fangs are ‘kin massive- must be ‘kin half inch long. If they escape in your house they hide in dark places and breed like crazy and if they bite you, the flesh rots away. When a wolf spider is annoyed, he’ll chase you. Even run up ‘kin broom handles. Someone told me that they lay eggs under your skin, then all these ‘kin babies eat their way out. Do you believe that?”   

Luke’s bulging eyes indicate that he does, but he keeps his mouth firmly shut. Rankin knows it’s to keep the sobs inside. He can’t stand cry-babies.

“We’re going to post a pair of wolf spiders through his letter box.” Ratchett drops his voice and Luke had to lean forward. “We’ll use a mating pair. They’ll run away to dark places, like the cupboard under the stairs, behind furniture and radiators. Maybe shoes or beds. And they’ll breed. When the central heating comes on, the spiders will be ‘kin mad and they’ll go for anyone. I seen them do that.”

I awake sick with hunger. The sunlight gives me enough energy to hunt for food most of today. By sunset I am sated, and return to the cave feeling exalted. Tomorrow, I will start to build a great citadel. I already know exactly how it will be, with its complex network of streets, depots, fortifications and buildings. It must be easy to defend and repair, and so I’ll draw upon the memories of each one of my countless ancestors. It seems right to build it here and when my army’s ready, I can avenge the deaths of my sisters. I heard their distress calls, their pain. I know everything, forget nothing. Part of my mind is a pool of white-hot anger, waiting to be released when my enemy comes. When HE comes. And when he comes, we will be many.

The weeks pass slowly for Luke, until one day the mental and physical torture breaks his will. Ratchett recognises the symptoms of drooping head and lowered eyes. He is due for release on the first day of September, and Luke will be tried the following week. If Luke is found innocent, Ken promises to wait at the gates for him. Meanwhile, he steps up the training.

“Pest control is the best game, Luke. Why?”

“Because they are a nuisance?”

Ken slaps the boy’s head. “’Kinell, Luke. Listen – old people always think they got pests. I find out where old people live, and I ring the ‘kin doorbell. They open the door. I say ‘I’m just doing a house round the corner, because they got wasps in the attic, and I noticed a lot flying around your roof.’ I don’t ‘kin swear, they don’t like ‘kin swearing. I say ‘d’you want me to check your attic?’ and they always agree because they think wasps can kill them.”

Luke sits on his steel frame bed, mouthing something to himself.

“Then it’s easy. I just have a good look around the attic, and take what I want. There’s lots of silver in old people’s attics and half the time they don’t even remember.”

“What about the wasps?”

“I get rid of them bastards. I hate ‘kin wasps. I hate all ‘kin insects apart from spiders. I don’t mind ‘kin flies, of course. I tell the old people that there was lots of nests up there and I stuff them for two hundred quid.”

“What if they don’t pay up, Ken?”

The little man’s face darkens. “I unleash the ‘kin plagues of Israel on the bastards. Rats, spiders, fleas, ‘kin anything I can get my hands on. I go back and ask them if they got any more trouble and they pay plenty.”

According to Ratchett Senior, insects are getting bigger and badder. Ants an inch long can destroy the foundations of a house and lay their eggs in larders. Fleas, bed bugs and cockroaches are worse still, each one providing the ideal excuse to check out every room in a house, whilst innocent old ladies make cups of tea downstairs.  Unlike his son, Ratchett’s father retained some shreds of dignity, and took pride in his pesticidal skills.

By the time he was old enough to leave school, Ratchett had disposed of countless thousands of his fellow creatures. He knew almost as much about wasps as he did about spiders, but he hated wasps with a vengeance. He knew that a single queen would find somewhere to hibernate in the autumn. In the spring, a tiny nest was built, just big enough for the first few wasp grubs to be raised, fed on other insects. As soon as they turned into wasps, they started to enlarge the nest by building a new outer wall filled with yet more egg chambers. More eggs were laid by the queen, whilst the wasps spent all day catching other insects to feed the grubs. Bees, greenfly, spiders – anything they could chop up and carry.

Ratchet knew that wasps only lived for two or three weeks because they worked so hard, and during their short lives they fed on sugar made by the grubs. By the end of summer, there could be ten thousand wasps in a big nest but as soon as they are not needed any more, they all get made redundant. No more sugar. Knowing the intricacy of their lives made it even more satisfying to kill them all.

Ratchett had used the ‘wasps in the attic’ ploy on Inspector Worth. However, as soon as the old man heard the words ‘round the corner’, he knew that the game was afoot. Whilst Ratchett helped himself to the family heirlooms, Worth called the police. When they stopped Ken’s white van it was found to contain property stolen from all the houses he had visited that day and he was put away for twelve months.

It’s high summer, and the citadel fills the back of the cave. I’ve trained my commanders will skill and patience. Each one now line-manages thousands of warriors, working with tireless efficiency to build ramparts, barricades and accommodation for the ever growing population. Meanwhile, an endless stream of supplies floods in through the entrance from sunrise until sunset. I never sleep, because I have to make all the decisions, ruling over eight thousand with my iron will. I think of new ways to dispose of waste, how to find new supply routes, where and how to build, how to defend. I am an effective ruler, but I’m utterly ruthless and any sign of weakness amongst my subjects results in summary execution. It’s the way of things. It’s the Way.

Just as Ratchett predicts, Luke is released one week after him. When the boy walks into the September sunshine, Ratchett is waiting for him like a funnel spider, sitting in a white van with ‘No Pest too Small’ painted on the side in yellow and black. Luke’s heart sinks at the sight of his oppressor, but he finds himself sitting in the van, all the same. Ratchett drives to a surprisingly large house in Epsom, talking all the way about the fate that will soon overtake the Worths.

As soon as they enter the house, Ratchett opens the door to the garage and pushes Luke inside. The boy shrinks back in fear when the fluorescent light flickers on, because the room is lined with glass tanks, each one designed carefully to represent a replica of the inmates’ natural habitats. He follows Ratchett at a cautious distance as the small man feeds them all, making loving, smooching noises through the glass. He handles each of the tarantulas, holding them close to his face so he can look into their eyes.

“Hold out your ‘kin hand.”

The tarantula is surprisingly heavy. He can feel the silky hair stroke his palm, and the claws are sharp. It taps his sweating palm with its dagger-like fangs.

Ken removes it angrily. “He smells your fear. I’m very ‘kin disappointed, Luke.”  He remembers something and brightens up. “These are what I wanted to show you.” He approaches the final tank reverently.

Two spiders swagger up to the glass and stare at the two men insolently. Ken looks at them admiringly with his shiny little spider-eyes but when he touches the glass, they raise long fangs threateningly. One even dashes towards him and Luke jumps back involuntarily. Ken chuckles and rubs his hands together. “You boys got a job to do for me,” he whispers to the spiders.

By eleven p.m., Ratchett and Luke have finished their fish and chips, and Ratchett heads up to his bedroom. The room is cold and damp. He notices that the window has been left open a crack the whole year and so he closes it, brushing the dead insects onto the carpet. It’s a miracle that the house had not been burgled. For a moment he wonders why there are no cobwebs in the room, but he is too tired to care.

Although he has not slept in the bed for six months, he does not bother about changing the sheets. He kicks off his clothes, washes briefly, brushes his teeth even more briefly, and climbs in. The damp bed smells curiously acrid. He feels something in the way. Probably the duvet. Irritated, he thrusts and kicks his legs into it.

The first earth tremor rocks the entire citadel and I wail with dismay. “Warriors attack,” I scream, “Attack, attack and die for me!” Even as I shout, the walls of the citadel burst asunder and fall with a mighty crash. The old enemy has returned, smashing the nursery to rubble. Hundreds of my children die in the first assault and I feel their pain within myself. A cold fury takes hold of me. “The enemy’s at the gate this very moment. Die gloriously, my warriors.  Our line must prevail,” I scream as over five thousand of my guards go forth in serried ranks, singing their battle cries, each armed with a sack filled with poison and a long, curved fang, hollow like a snake’s tooth. “We are strong and we are many – die well,” I whisper as they pour out of the nest and attack

“What the fuck?” Ratchett throws back the sheets and a vicious yellow cloud explodes into the air before descending onto his body, covering every inch of skin, and the pain is everywhere, white heat beyond imagination. But worst of all is the noise.

Next door, Luke jumps out of bed as soon as he hears the first rending cry, and runs into the corridor. He can hear Ratchett yelling and shrieking for help, fumbling desperately with the door handle – and another noise. It sounds familiar. A deep buzz-saw that fills him with dread. The handle starts to flip up and down. Quickly, before the door opens, Luke turns the key in the lock.  He does not notice the solitary wasp crawl out from under the door and fly away.

Volcano – when the Earth has had enough

A short story about volcanoes inspired by a past career in Earth Science and Ecology, and this Scientific American article.

Karen sipped her tea thoughtfully. “So, how long have you been living here now?”

I thought back. “Well, it must be five years.” 

My wife Gina disagreed. “No, John. It has to be six, because I remember that it first started when Annie was two. It was her birthday.”

“What was it like, being the first to see it? The discoverer?”

Gina glanced at me thoughtfully. We had tried to avoid the subject.

“I didn’t think too much of it to begin with. I remember that I was digging in the garden. It was a fine spring day; frosty and crisp. Surrey used to look really fantastic at that time of year. I shoved the spade into the ground with my foot and broke the soil, and then I noticed that the earth was steaming. I pulled off my glove – the ground felt quite warm to the touch. I dug deeper, out of curiosity more than anything else. It wasn’t only steam coming out. It was more like yellow smoke, and it smelt like rotten eggs. I could see the gas was coming out of a tiny crack in the earth.”

“Wow, what did you do?” she asked.

Gina ruffled my hair. “He came into the house cursing the local council. He was convinced that the house had been built on a landfill site. We’d only been in the house a few weeks and John had been waiting for something to complain about.”

“That’s unfair.” We laughed, because it was exactly what I had done.

“It wasn’t exactly like that, Karen. But I did phone the council the next day and someone eventually came around. They stood around it, dug deeper, and finally put a plank over the hole then left. We didn’t hear any more about it for a few weeks, until the water company came around. They poked about some more, and dug a much bigger hole. The bloke who was digging actually passed out and we had to call an ambulance.”

Gina took over the story. “So we were left with this big hole with red tape fencing it off, and yellow smoke was rising out of it high into the air. The local newspaper did an article on it too. Then we got an official notice to keep our windows closed and not to allow anyone in the garden. John had a brainwave and he called the university in Guildford and finally a Doctor James came round. She took soil and gas samples away. When she called us we couldn’t believe it.”

We were sitting around the patio table enjoying the warm summer night, and the story we were unfolding seemed impossible to believe even now.  I lit the candles to keep the mosquitoes away and opened a bottle of wine.  Karen drew her cardigan around her thin shoulders. “Well, don’t stop there. What happened next?”

Gina continued, “John and I did as we were told, and after a few weeks we almost forgot about the yellow smoke, apart from the smell. It made my throat sore.”

“Yes, Gina was busy with the baby and I went back to work.  I can’t remember how long it was until the ash started. First, the smoke turned a grey colour and then, little flakes of soot started to float away in the wind. I could see them rising up in the smoke and they came down all over the place. After a month, there was a pile of ash around the hole shaped like a cone, about a metre high to start with. Then the newspapers got interested and we were on television. Did you see us?”

Karen shook her head. “That must have been exciting.”

“It was bloody awful. It was raining and they trampled wet ash throughout the house. We were interviewed endlessly standing in front of the ash-cone, coughing with the fumes. Of course, once the story went out we were inundated with callers, cranks and geologists from all over the world.”

At the time Gina and I had been broken-hearted to leave our first real home together but glad to take the baby away from the danger. Needless to say, no one would buy the house. The ash-cone grew until it filled the garden, and it became hotter, too. Not just the ash-cone, but the whole neighbourhood. Even the floor in the house seemed to be warm and the windows were always steaming up. One day, our neighbour’s garden shed caught fire and we reckoned another ash-cone must be starting beneath it.

“Where did you go when you left the house?” Karen asked, as I refilled her glass.

“We stayed with Gina’s parents, in Reading. But I went back to salvage as much as possible. By that time, the rest of the neighbourhood had been evacuated as well, and people for maybe a mile around had their houses up for sale but no hope of selling. The whole of Woking was affected and right bang in the middle, the ash-cone was squatting. Did you see the aerial photo in the Times?”

Karen nodded. “Of course; a grey hill, bigger than houses and a circle of white around it.”

“Did you read about our house burning down?” I asked.

Karen shook her head.

“It wasn’t just our house, John. The whole area started to burn,” added Gina. “The ash started to get very hot, you see. At night, it looked like a firework and the whole area had to be fenced off. It could be seen from miles around and a television company even installed a webcam.”

In fact it got a lot worse than that. Woking became a ghost town and most of the people lost everything, because insurance companies would not pay out. A well-known and charismatic geologist from Southampton University seemed to appear on every programme, and he was the first to state openly that it was a volcano. It would carry on growing quietly until the magma followed the gases up the crevices to the surface. A significant number of scientists had denied the possibility of the phenomenon occurring so quickly and looked for other explanations, until the connection was made to global warming. The shell of the Earth was being distorted by the sudden melting of millions of tons of ice at the poles, fracturing the old fault lines, setting off something called a magma plume. For many environmentalists, the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions represented a cry of rage from Mother Earth.  Bus loads of new age travellers started to arrive, and the ash-cone became an icon of the Earth’s last warning to humankind.

“How about you, Karen? Where do you come from?” Gina asked.

“I carried on living in London for about five years after Tom was killed. I wanted to continue teaching, to give me something to focus on. After the first big earthquake, the flooding resulted in most of the Underground closing, and I couldn’t work, unless I moved out of the city. As you know, it wasn’t possible to sell our houses so like millions of other people, I had no choice but to take what I could, and leave. So I lived on benefits until I bought the motor caravan, and arrived here.”

The smell of cooked food interrupted the tale, and we started to eat at that point. Gina had been lucky enough to ‘find’ some sausages and baked beans. I did not ask her where she got them. As we sat under the stars eating the simple food, I found myself looking into the fire. I did not hear the friendly hiss and crackle of the wood, because all I could think of was the image of the lava flows spreading outwards from the volcano. Within two years of its appearance, the little ash-cone had grown to over one thousand feet high, and it was growing at an accelerating rate. Lava had initially done little more than stabilise its sides. As time passed, the eruptions grew in strength and at night, lines of fire travelled outwards following landmarks.

The Basingstoke Canal became filled with lava rock that turned rust-red under the endless rains. More lava blocked the Thames not far from Weybridge and caused massive flooding as the river found itself a new route. Thousands of refugees streamed out of the South-East looking for work and a place to stay, but many others murdered and looted and the army shot lawbreakers on sight. Not martians this time, just our planet.

“How do you feel, living like this?” Karen asked.

We looked at each other. “We just take one day at a time. We spend a lot of time planning where to find food and fuel. We’ve got guns and ammunition, and we keep away from others, unless they are part of this little community, that is.”  Fifty or so camper vans surrounded us, and beyond them, heavily armed neighbours kept watch.  We did not like having to raid the army barracks in Pirbright, but when the army pulled out, there was no point in letting the equipment fall into the wrong hands.

The three of us sat late into the night, watching the light from the volcano light up the sky. Occasionally, vivid flares of orange and red lit up the heavy curtains of cloud. When the ash started to fall again we went to bed. I was awoken by a dull thud at first light. I shook Gina awake. Another thud sounded. We could tell that the origin of the sound was very far away, but the ground trembled beneath us. By the time that we had left the camper, everyone in the settlement was up, and the dogs were in a state of nervous excitement. We knew what that meant and waited anxiously.

Finally, the Geologist got up and appeared in our midst, surrounded by a group of wondering children. He held up his hand, kneeling, placing his head on the earth to listen. Silence fell. A distant grumbling noise could be heard to rise and fall, like a living thing.  Finally, the Geologist rose, and stroked his long grey beard.

“My people, I have heard that a great rift will come. It will tear London in half along the Thames and when the waters pour in, there will be a large explosion. The distant sound you can hear is the beginning. Gases are finding their way to the surface. We must move to higher ground. The North Downs are not safe any longer.”

Someone called out, “Why stay in this country, Geologist?  We could find a way to cross the channel. We could go anywhere in Europe.”

He nodded. “Yes, you can and many thousands have done already. However, I know for a fact that Belgium and the Netherlands are under water. A big chain of volcanoes has reactivated in France. They are in a worse state than we are.”

Annie came over to us from her friends and held Gina’s hand. “What’s he saying, Mum?”

Gina wiped her eyes. “He says we’re all going to move a little further away, dear.”

We all knew what that meant. Travel was a slow and painful business because of the roadblocks. We were enough in number and arms to be left alone, but many settlements had barricaded the roads, forcing long and tedious diversions, or protracted negotiations before we would be let through. It was not surprising, because gangs from London were preying on the isolated villages of the Home Counties, the army and police unable to cope with the sheer numbers. We would also have to travel through curfew country, but we were a registered mobile settlement, had the necessary permissions and would pay our taxes, if anyone was interested in collecting them.

Within twenty-four hours we were on the move and it was an amazing sight to see an endless procession of mobile homes heading South-West. We passed other mobile settlements presumably without Geologists, camped around deserted stores and garages.

That night, the leaders met around the fire.  The Geologist started the meeting. “We’re safe here from floods, but we must lay in enough food and supplies for the winter. We can worry about next year later.”

We laughed but it was not funny. We had all heard of settlements where people had actually starved to death, and others where families had been turned out to fend for themselves rather than share their food. Rumours of cannibalism were rife.

“We raided a superstore when we passed Bristol,” I reminded them, “but it’s not enough. We need to grow food – winter crops, and we will need to plant enough to allow for some failures too.”

An experienced traveller spoke up. “Look, we’re not subsistence farmers. We’ve got enough skills within the settlement to be able to trade. Some settlements may be able to sell us food in return for other things that we can make.”

There was general agreement at the plan. As we were compiling a list of settlers and their skills, a red flash lit up the entire skyline. Moments later, as the families came running from their vehicles the sound wave hit us, leaving people clasping their heads, dazed by the enormity of it.

As we stared at each other in shock, the geologist raised his arms.  “London is no more. The flood will be here by morning. We must prepare.”

The earthquake arrived minutes later and it was the worst yet. Landslides were carved from the hillsides and we were tossed about helplessly. We stayed awake all night, waiting for daybreak, but when it came we could see that the waters had filled the valleys and as the water gradually surrounded Dartmoor, we stood together and prayed on our island.

Balloon Trip – A birthday treat has unexpected results

A short story inspired by the thought of a surprise balloon trip. With apologies to Jules Verne.

It is difficult to daub the thick paint onto the sandy rocks, but once dry, the colours will brighten and the paint is tough. Only Adrian knows how long it will last for.

He finds painting difficult since he lost two fingers to frostbite, but his skill is admired widely, and artists from other clans sometimes visit to exchange ideas and techniques. Without his skill, Adrian would have been banished to die of cold and hunger, because he cannot contribute to the welfare of the clan in any other way. Here, artists are the most valued of people, more so even than hunters.

The painting shows an unusual scene. Men are hunting mammoth, but they are travelling above them in hot-air balloons, hurling spears at their unfortunate victims.  Mammoths and the balloon seem to move in the flickering light. Adrian has chosen the site carefully and the natural contours of the rock emphasise the shapes and movements. Even now, several children are watching him, amongst them Ciera and Eve, Adrian and Tula’s daughters.

Other folk are also at work in the cave, chipping flint into arrow-heads, sewing, or chewing sealskin boots to soften them. Every one of these skilful tasks is essential to the survival of the clan. Tula sleeps by the fire. She is dreaming again. Her eyes moved restlessly beneath their lids and her breathing is fast.

He knows the dream about the balloon trip is always the same.

“And so the weather in the south-east will be warm and sunny. Bye-bye for now.”

Tula turned off the television, leapt to her feet and punched the air. Her normally excited hair stuck up in great orange tufts as she danced around the room. Adrian peered cautiously out of the window in case neighbours were looking and then smiling, loosened his tie.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he said modestly.

Tula was still dancing around the room but eventually stopped and threw herself on him, crushing his thin frame into the sofa.

“After ten years – Oh Adrian, I won’t sleep tonight.”

The next day Adrian awoke at six am and packed the car for the balloon trip, and finally woke up his wife. She thundered around the house pulling on her violently coloured clothes and crammed some breakfast into her generous mouth. Adrian drove maddeningly slowly to the field. They could see the orange dome of the balloon as they reached the turn-off and Tula’s pulse was surely racing when they entered the field. Adrian took an age to park but finally she was running to the balloon. She could hear the roar of the jets as the pilot kept it inflated. The basket hovered off the ground and strained against its mooring ropes.

“Hello there, you must be Tula and Adrian. I’m Roger, your skipper.” The speaker appeared from behind the basket and grinned. Tula had expected a younger person; Roger appeared to have been dried out like a raisin and his teeth were nicotine-stained. They clenched an ancient and offensive pipe.

“You’ve got warm clothes? Good. It gets chilly up there. Now, let’s go over the safety rules.”

The safety rules seemed to take forever but eventually they were ascending gently over the Surrey countryside and below, the landscape was laid out like a tapestry. A flock of geese skimmed across the fields and treetops and Tula called out to them in excitement, whilst Adrian studied the distant horizon thoughtfully through  a pair of large binoculars, his pale, sensitive face impassive. Roger leaned casually against the side of the basket and a trail of blue smoke from his pipe marked out their route.

“This is just heaven, Adrian. Heaven; I never want to come down,” said Tula.

There was too much to see from their vantage point. The slow curl of the Thames, settlements nestling along its banks. Far below, the shadow of the balloon skimming across the fields, still faint through their misty breath. Their skipper interrupted the reverie.

“Sorry to spoil things, but it looks like a storm’s brewing up ahead; we’ll have to go down just in case we get caught in an up-draught. When we get down we’ll see if it blows over. Nothing to worry about.”

Up-draught. That sounded dangerous. Adrian turned his binoculars towards the storm clouds and then wished that he had not because the dirty brown billows looked more like a sandstorm than ordinary clouds. Lightning seemed to be flickering everywhere and sprays of purple light were shooting out of the top.

Roger turned the burners down low. “We’ll start to drop now,” he said confidently.

“Roger, this one shows height, doesn’t it? It’s still going up,” said Tula.

Their captain tapped the dial with his pipe. “Hmm. That’s odd; the air must be getting drawn up into the storm. However, we will go down soon enough.”

Roger resumed his pipe and hummed a tuneless tune, but he sounded nervous to Tula. The three balloonists stood silently in the basket, as the fields far below gradually vanished beneath a thickening layer of mist. The temperature was falling rapidly. Even with all their spare clothes on, they were all shivering. The balloon was surrounded by whirling specks of snow and ice was forming on the rails of the basket.

“It’s growing darker,” Adrian said almost calmly.

A blinding flash of blue arced across right in front of the balloon. The thunder that accompanied it left Tula and Adrian stunned. After a few moments, Tula screamed in pure terror.

“Oh my god, Adrian – Roger’s gone. He’s gone and we’re all alone. This isn’t a balloon trip, it’s a fucking balloon nightmare.”

She pointed at the smouldering stump of his pipe and then she curled up in the bottom of the basket.

Adrian leaned pointlessly over the edge of the violently swaying basket, and then wished he had not. Below them the clouds were a raging black maelstrom. Large lumps of ice were being blown upwards around them, some the size of golf balls. Overhead, the flimsy balloon fabric flapped and billowed frantically as it fought against the storm.

They hung on to each other, shivering with cold whilst the lightning blazed continuously, and the thunder crackled and tore the air. The showers of ice hammered against the balloon and basket so that Adrian had to bale it out.

“Adrian, leave the ice in the basket. It’ll make us heavier,” Tula yelled above the wind. He sank back against her and closed his eyes. Soon they were praying together.

They were not aware of travelling any distance, but eventually the storm bored of the balloon and spat it out. Tula saw a small patch of blue appear between the sickly green billows of cloud, then another.

“We’re coming out of it,” she whispered to herself.

The wind dropped, and the thunder separated itself from the lightning, its voice falling to a familiar rumbling. There was no doubt that the balloon was now on its way down.

“How fast are we falling, Adrian? Are we going to die?” Tula screamed.

He looked at the altimeter, and at his watch. “Much too fast – we need to be going really slowly or the basket will smash to bits. I’ll use the burners a little. The ground must be a few hundred feet now.”

As the burners flared, Tula peered over the edge, gripping the wickerwork tightly. At her feet lay the ominous black stub of Roger’s pipe. The landscape below was not Surrey or Berkshire. They were crossing what appeared to be a river made of ice.  “Adrian – for God’s sake, look,” she hissed.

Adrian looked, then stared at her, his eyes huge through his glasses. He looked again. He could not say anything useful and so he closed his eyes. When he opened them it was still there. “It’s not possible,” he eventually gasped.

They watched the land come up to meet the basket. It was clearly some kind of tundra landscape. In the distance they could see the dirty grey mounds of ice and rock left by the melting glacier. Something like a vast hairy elephant stood watching with solemn eyes. The basket swept towards sickly yellow grass and patches of snow, and then thumped down hard, spilling over. As they crawled clear the burners set fire to the balloon. Dense black clouds of smoke billowed into the air. Tula and Adrian watched it burn.

“Don’t ask me how, but we have somehow been blown hundreds of miles – to somewhere like Iceland, Switzerland, Russia…”

“Or the Arctic?” Tula cut in. “That’s impossible. We were in the air for a few hours. How can a balloon travel five hundred miles an hour? We wouldn’t have gone that far.”

“We can’t just stand here. We need to find somewhere to wait until rescue comes,” he replied as calmly as he could manage.

“The balloon trip was your idea,” she said, putting down a permanent marker.

They looked for shelter, and found the cave by virtue of the flickering firelight that was a welcome sight as the weak sun set. When they walked in, groups of people dressed in furs were standing, waiting for them.

It took a long time to learn the language.