The night was cold and grim; the night had been cold and grim for some time. Wind howled between the eaves and under the door, sending great clouds of dust tumbling into the fireplace. It was a night of storms. A night of felled trees and clouds across the moon.
And I was huddled by the fire, watching my mother sew a blanket.
My mother sewed blankets of all shapes and kinds. Great heavy things they were, made of wool and sturdy stitching, adorned with every pattern imaginable. She’d sewn blankets for farmers and greengrocers, for the lord and lady up in their big house on the hill, for grieving widows and expectant mothers; it was said that everyone in town bought a blanket from my mother eventually, and she never refused a request.
This one was small and square, no larger than my baby brother’s bed upstairs, made of the richest, deepest indigo wool I had ever seen.
“What’s it going to be, Mama?” I asked, enraptured. For my brother’s birth, my mother had sewn herself a blanket of coarse emerald wool, zigzagged with grey thread fences and soft white sheep. I’d taken it out once, as she slept, and laid it carefully across the bedroom floor, watched an eternity of green roll out ahead of me, as if I were a bird floating above the fields outside town.
That was when I had fallen in love with my mother’s work.
“A very special blanket,” she replied.
I stared down at the deep blue wool, spotted with the first haphazard points of multicoloured thread.
“Who for?” I asked, wide eyed.
“A birth,” said my mother, and refused to be drawn on the subject. She never liked to speak of her creations before they were done, as if doing so might steal some vital spark of character.
The rest of that week I watched my mother sew her blanket, watched it sprout a cacophony of glistening needlepoint stars-- some red, some yellow, some twinkling baby blue-- laid out across the wool in great intricate swirls. I watched as she added buttons, added twinkling sequins, until, like magic, the entire night sky appeared beneath her deft fingers, rendered in perfect cotton miniature.
I ran my hands over the pattern, feeling each bump and lump of that tiny woolen galaxy, and waited with bated breath to see who it was for.
Usually the blanket’s new owner would arrive on our doorstep, flushed pink with cold and the long walk through the woods. My mother would unroll the blanket, and they would coo and whisper, wide-eyed at its fine stitches and swirls.
But this time there was no knock, the star-blanket’s new owner never arrived at our door. Instead, I awoke one night to the sound of someone moving about downstairs.
Quiet as a mouse, I crept to the landing and watched my mother slip out into the night, the galaxy blanket bundled carefully under her arm.
Seized with a fierce curiosity, I slipped on my shoes, ran to the door, and hurried after her. Down the garden path, out onto the lane, then a sudden swerve right, into the forests surrounding our cottage. The night was darkest here, threaded with sudden chills and whispering shadows. Things rustled in the undergrowth, and I wondered how my mother could possibly know where she was going; without a path, without a light. How she would ever find her way back.
Suddenly the trees ahead of us opened up, revealing a tiny woodland glade, deep within the forest. Moonlight lanced between the branches. The night sky circled overhead, dotted with stars.
My mother paused here, her hair whipped by the wind, the bundle tucked safely under her arm. She didn’t see me, crouched there in the shadows, my eyes wide, my heart pounding, but I saw every movement she made. Her breath steaming in the air.
The darkness shifted, and out of the night on the opposite side of the clearing stepped a woman. Tall and stern and handsome, she stood as insubstantial as shadow; her hair as black as night, her eyes the colour of constellations. The darkness pooled around her shoulders, trailing off between the trees in a great black cloak.
It was as if all the stars in the sky had conspired to reform themselves here, in this little glade, for the benefit of my mother.
Carefully, my mother set the bundle down on the grass at the woman’s feet and bowed her head. The woman returned the gesture; slowly, sedately, like a queen. There was no fear on my mother’s face, no expression at all on the woman’s, but it was as if an understanding had passed between them; a deep, wordless gratitude.
Something snapped in the dark behind me, my mother’s head turned in my direction, and I bolted for home. As I hurried through the woods, I realised what else had struck me about the night-woman, twinkling with stars and washed with swirling nebulas; she was very obviously pregnant.
Back in my bed, waiting for the gentle tread of my mother returning home, I stared at the ceiling and wondered what a child of the night would look like. If it would wail with the howling winds, or cause shooting stars to fall with its tantrums. If it would look small and pink and helpless, like my baby brother, or as gossamer-silver as a moonbeam; barely human at all.
I was certain, however, that it would surely be cold up there. Colder than snow, cold than the coldest night, even under the brightest moon.
A child more in need of a blanket than anyone.
My mother sewed blankets for everyone. Rich or poor, desperate or decadent, God or mortal. Whoever asked, she provided. And she never refused a birth.
(c) Georgia Cook
The letter from the medical centre was both a relief and a concern in equal measures. The sharp stab-like pains that Kevin Sparks was experiencing periodically in his stomach, abdomen, and arms and even once in the side of his face were definitely real to him. But a series of examinations followed by blood tests, X-Rays and finally a full body MRI couldn’t uncover any medical reason for his suffering.
They had started about two weeks ago. The first resembled a knifelike grip in the centre of his stomach which was swiftly followed by two more in his side and one right in the centre of his chest. The pain lasted for just a few seconds, but it was intense enough to make him double up. At first he dismissed them as cramp or indigestion but they worryingly returned each evening usually starting just after 7 o’clock. The pains then intermittently occurred, at irregular intervals, throughout the evening until they stopped at about nine. His nights were pain free as were his days, it was just in the evenings when the pattern began.
His doctor was sympathetic and thorough, but could find nothing wrong. Neither could the hospital. On one Wednesday evening and when the fifth jab hit his ribs in just one hour; he found himself Googling “psychosomatic”.
Edna stretched out and switched off her tiny radio. Humming the Archers tune softly under her breath she picked up the half-sewn, half-pinned white satin dress that lay at her side. Although late in years and with fingers riddled with painful arthritis, Edna felt she couldn’t say no when her niece, Zoe, asked her to make her wedding dress. An accomplished seamstress in her youth, Edna had never lost her touch, making toys, skirts, jackets and other garments for her extended family. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without receiving a handmade gift from ‘Granny’ Edna.
In pride of place amongst her array of dressmaking tools was a little pin cushion. This well used object had been fashioned from scraps of old cloth and made in the distinctive shape of a man. He wore black trousers, a blue shirt and a bright red waistcoat. His face had been inked in and just a few strands of black wool made up his hair. His body was stuffed with cotton, wool and horsehair. Edna had named him Ronnie. The waistcoat and black hair reminded her of Ronnie O’Sullivan the snooker player and one of her favourites.
“Come on Ronnie,” Edna said out loud holding the pin cushion in her hand, “Let’s get this dress finished, the wedding is next week, and we’ll be in trouble if it’s not done in time.” Edna started to remove the pins from the dress and then one by one jabbed them into little Ronnie for safe keeping. “Sorry Ronnie,” she whispered, “But it’s your job, keeping my pins together”. An unmoved Ronnie stared blankly back at her.
In fairness Kevin Sparks knew very little about his Grandfather Jack. The man had always been a recluse and in his final years at the Grange Nursing Home, he spoke very little of his past. Kevin had visited him a few times, but their encounters became strained once the early pleasantries had been exchanged.
Grandad Jack’s funeral was swift and perfunctory, although he had reached the grand age of 102; he had few friends and a dwindling family. Sitting in the function room of the local British Legion Club where the wake was being held, Kevin found himself accompanied by his Aunt Thelma.
They soon got talking about Grandad Jack and his past life.
“Your Grandad was a very talented Bridge player, you know, he belonged to quite an exclusive club.” Aunt Thelma was in full flow, only pausing to sip tea from a china cup. “He never married, you know, I don’t know why, he did have a bit of a fling,” Thelma’s eyes fluttered upwards when she said ‘fling’.
After a moment’s reflection, Thelma carried on, “It was with another Bridge player, a lady of some means, if you know what I mean”, and Thelma winked at John. “It came to nothing. I was told that Jack called it off suddenly for no apparent reason. I gather the lady was a bit miffed to say the least. Apparently, she left the Bridge club soon after their relationship fell apart.”
“I will always remember him in that awful red waistcoat he wore to his bridge club. It seems like it was yesterday.”
“Anyway,” continued Aunt Thelma, hardly pausing for breath,” I hear you are suffering from the same pains that Grandad Jack had. You know that they never found out what was causing them. They just suddenly started and then stopped about a month later. How long have you had yours?”
Kevin replied, “About two weeks now, hopefully mine will follow the same pattern as Grandad’s. Funny how he never mentioned them to me when I visited him, that’s strange.” Aunt Thelma finished her tea and stood up, “He was a very private man, and he had probably forgotten that ever had them. You must have inherited his insides,” smiled Aunt Thelma.
“It’s all I have inherited,” Kevin said to himself, quietly.
Saying her goodbyes to the last of the remaining throng, Aunt Thelma slipped through the doorway. Kevin sat alone. He thought to himself, “Old Grandad Jack eh, dumping a rich lady, blimey I could be raking in an inheritance if he’d gone through with it. Oh well, he must have had his reasons. Funny about the pains though. Can stuff like that be passed down?”
“Uh oh, look at the time,” Edna was talking to herself, “One last pin out and that’s done, Zoe said she will be here just after four for her final fitting.”
“Oh Aunt Edna, you’re a bloody genius, this dress is perfect, thank you, thank you.” Zoe gingerly hung the newly sewn dress carefully on its hanger and skipped across to her Aunt Edna planting an affectionate wet kiss firmly on her forehead. She sat down next to her Aunt and poured a glass of wine for each of them. Spying Ronnie on Edna’s lap, she asked, “What’s this you’ve got here Aunty?” Zoe picked up a now pin free Ronnie. “Isn’t he cute? What a wonderful pin cushion. Where on earth did you get him?”
Edna explained to her excited niece that she had been given Ronnie by her elder sister Rose. “I’ve had him for a few years now but this is the first time I’ve used it in ages. I’d forgotten all about him.” Zoe brushed Ronnie’s woollen hair with her forefinger. Edna continued with her story, “Rose was given it by her step sister, a weird woman apparently. She lived alone in one of those single mansion flats on the Broadway, a bit of a hermit”.
Edna started gathering her sewing things together, “Rose wasn’t into needlecraft or anything like that, so she had no need for a pin cushion, she just handed him over to me knowing that I would make good use of it,” explained Edna. “And for the past two weeks he has been my helper and companion.” Edna retrieved Ronnie from her niece and squeezed his cloth hand gently.
Zoe pushed herself onto the edge of the settee. “Ooo do tell me more about this mysterious relative, Aunty, you know I like to hear about our dark family secrets,” Zoe fixed her bright eyes onto her Aunt. Edna smiled at her niece and continued. “Well the woman, I think her name was Felicity, led a quiet life, she never married. She played that card game; you know the one with partners ……… Bridge, that’s it. She was damn good to and a bit obsessed with it, or so Rose told me.”
Edna’s forehead wrinkled into a frown. “But there was a bit of tragedy in her life. Evidently she had a torrid affair with a fellow Bridge player. But he shunned her soon after they got engaged. She took it really badly, Rose said that her step-sister vowed bitter revenge on the bloke, but nothing came of it, she just withdrew from life and eventually passed away, only a few months later.”
“Died of a broken heart, how sad,” sighed Zoe, “Gosh I hope that doesn’t happen to me, I’m only six days away from the big day.” Enda nodded reassuringly towards her niece, “That’s not going to happen and you know it, James is a nice man. Anyway, that’s my work done for a while, I’m glad you like the dress, but it’s time to hang up my pins and needles for a bit, me and Ronnie are going to have a wee rest.”
Just as quickly as they had arrived, the pains disappeared. Kevin recalled the last stab; unusually, it occurred at around four in the afternoon last Friday, then nothing.
Perhaps it was psychosomatic after all.
(c) Graham Crisp
‘You’ve heard of Cain and Abel,’ said Mum wearily to an old school friend she met at the bus stop one day, ‘Well, these are my boys.’
Henry and Roger. Twins, but two less identical ones would be hard to find. They were complementary in a way that implied no harmony. Henry was a little cherub, with golden curly hair and dimpled baby face. Roger had a narrow, fretful look even when he was tiny; he soon developed lank hair and what looked like a permanent scowl.
As his mother talked, Roger studied her. Henry might have watched her intently like that for the sheer pleasure of looking at his beloved Mummy. Roger was waiting for the moment when her vigilance faltered. It happened, finally, as she was trying to say goodbye and get on the bus at the same time; instantly Roger kicked Henry’s shin.
‘Ow!’ said Henry, but turned to his brother with a smile. ‘The step isn’t there, silly Billy!’ he said, ‘that’s my leg!’
‘Did you just kick him?’ demanded Mum.
‘No,’ said Roger, ‘he did it himself.’
‘Liar!’ said his mother.
‘It’s not fair,’ said Roger ‘I always get the blame.’
‘You’re always the one who did it.’
‘Don’t be sad, Roger,’ said Henry, ‘I know it was an accident.’
‘Bugger off!’ said Roger, as quietly as he could.
When they were almost nine years old, Henry was given a guinea pig. Gregory was beautiful; a smooth pale brown with white around his snout.
‘I want a guinea pig!’ said Roger.
‘You can’t have one,’ said his mother. ‘I’m not subjecting an innocent creature to you.’
‘But it’s not fair,’ said Roger, genuinely upset. ‘If he’s got one, you have to let me have one too!’
‘Henry will look after it,’ said their mother, ‘you would not.’
‘You can share him, Roger,’ said Henry.
‘Oh no,’ said Roger, ‘I want my own.’
‘But he’d belong to both of us.’ And Henry smiled sweetly. Too sweetly. For the first time Roger felt his brother was not just annoying by nature; he knew he was being maddening – it was deliberate! He needed sorting out.
Two weeks later, Roger was left behind at home, with no-one but his distracted, negligent father to supervise him, while Henry and their mother went to visit Aunt Helen. So Roger invited his friend Sam to bring his terrier round, to play with Gregory in the garden.
Roger was never sure himself whether he actually meant Gregory to be killed, but it happened almost instantly; snapped up in the terrier’s jaws and shaken like a rag. Sam, in fact, made no secret of his feeling that Gregory had put up a poor show and provided very little sport. When Henry and Mum got home, Roger pretended that he had merely released Gregory into the garden and lost him. He was severely punished; they searched for a week and Henry cried for days, occasionally accepting or giving a hug. Even Roger took a couple of those hugs, but secretly he had the broken little guinea pig body in a cardboard box, and after a while he wrapped the box in scarlet paper and put a ribbon around it. In just a couple of days, it would be their shared birthday.
‘I’ve got a special present for you,’ he told Henry, ‘You’re going to love it.’
‘Thank you, Roger,’ said Henry, ‘and thank you for telling me now so I can get excited about it.’
Mum was suspicious about Roger’s present, but she let things ride. On the day, it was the last of the presents to be opened at Henry’s party.
‘This is Roger’s special present,’ he said, ‘isn’t it, Roger? I’ve enjoyed looking forward to this present so much. Do you know what? I like looking forward to it. I don’t want that to end just yet. Can I open it tomorrow, Roger?’
‘Well… I suppose so,’ said Roger, taken by surprise.
‘It’s not something that will spoil if I don’t open it now?’
‘Oh no,’ said Roger, smirking.
Next day, Henry decided he wanted another day of looking forward to his present. Mum was not altogether happy about this repeated deferral, but it was hard to refuse Henry when he wore that special, pleading face. She turned to Roger instead.
‘What is it?’ demanded Mum. ‘What’s in there? You’d better tell me.’
‘I can’t,’ said Roger, ‘It’s a surprise.’
‘Listen; if he opens it and it turns out to be something awful, I promise you’re going to regret it,’ said Mum. ‘If you tell me before this goes any further, I’ll let you off, OK? Otherwise, take the consequences. This is your last chance.’ But Roger couldn’t resist the opportunity to see Henry’s face when he found Gregory’s rotting remains inside the box.
Next day, Henry announced that he was going to keep the present unopened until his next birthday.
‘Maybe it’ll be best if we put it away and quietly forget it,’ said Mum.
‘I want him to see it,’ said Roger, though he was not altogether sorry to avoid the unprecedented maternal fury which would surely have followed the opening. The present was duly put into the attic, and the worst phases of Gregory’s decay passed quietly by in the darkness. The following year the present had to be brought out again - and after Henry had enjoyed holding it and talking about it, the opening was deferred for another year. It became a tradition.
A life of comfort and love, happiness and hugs was not good for Henry’s health. He ate a lot of cake. By his mid sixties he was badly overweight and his veins were blocked. He underwent a series of major operations. He got confused easily now. Roger, who had lived a bracing life of distrust, conspiracy and malice, was cadaverous and lean; his system was in excellent condition and his mind remained as sharp as ever. For the last five years, he had paid for his impoverished brother’s care; Henry, who trusted everyone, no longer had any money of his own.
Now Roger sat by Henry’s hospital bed. The doctors had told him that Henry’s collapsing cardiovascular system was incapable of further repair; it was just a matter of time.
‘I was sorting your stuff out,’ he told Henry, ‘and I came across this…’
‘Ah!’ said Henry, ‘The best present ever! The paper’s so faded now. Still, it’s not in bad shape, considering, is it? It’s not our birthday, though… is it?’
‘No. But I felt we needed to deal with this,’ said Roger. ‘I haven’t had a chance to mention it privately till now, but it’s been on my mind. I thought we might have got enough distance on it now…’
‘Oh no,’ said Henry, ‘there’ll never be distance on this.’ He took the faded, bent parcel and smiled. ‘You want me to open it? Finally? Before I die, you mean?’
‘I didn’t intend it like that. But actually, yes.’ Henry smiled.
‘I don’t need to open it. I’ve always known what was in it,’ he said.
‘Really?’ said Roger, taken aback. Was Henry sharper than he thought?
‘Of course. Love. Oh, I don’t know what actual gift you put in there. I know it might not be nice.’
‘It is not full of fucking love,’ said Roger, carried away by anger of a kind he hadn’t felt for years now.
‘Yes it is. You may not know it, but even if it’s a stink bomb, love is what’s really in the box. The love you could only ever express through kicks and punches. Roger… come here.’ He leaned forward and gathered his startled brother in his arms.
‘Don’t…’ said Roger, but Henry gave him the very last of a lifetime of hugs. As he was doing it he whispered in Roger’s ear.
‘I love you too, Roger,’ he said, ‘I always have. Perhaps if I’d kicked you back you’d know that already.’ He lay back and quietly died.
Hours later, as Roger still sat by the bed, a cardboard box of tiny bones in his hand, a sympathetic nurse laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘Your brother is at peace now,’ she said.
‘Of course he is,’ said Roger, looking up. ‘The fat fool has always been at peace. He had no capacity for anything else. Love and hugs! You know he only behaved like that to needle me, in the beginning? Then he sort of got trapped in his own rose-tinted bubble. Wouldn’t come out. Couldn’t, in the end.’
‘He was a lovely man,’ said the nurse, ‘a bit vague, but completely sincere.’ Roger grunted. He looked at the little parcel. ‘I tried to help him,’ he said.
‘Of course. Because you loved him.’
‘What? No, because I hated him…’ Roger frowned for a moment. ‘He should have opened it. But of course he didn’t. He knew it would annoy me.’
(c) Peter Hankins
There had been no indication that the day ahead was going to be special.
The weather was foul and by the time I had jostled my way under the crowded bus shelter, I was drenched and fed up.
My fellow travellers were an eclectic mix of young mums, pensioners, teenagers, and a rather cute looking guy in his mid-twenties. My gaze had lingered on him longer than was decent.
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, I began looking around for something to distract me, but Darren’s love for Claire proclaimed in purple graffiti on a nearby wall, didn’t cut it. I decided to steal another glimpse and nonchalantly turned in the young man’s direction, jumping slightly when I found him standing right behind me.
“Would you like to sit down?” He gestured towards the place on the plastic bench he had just vacated.
“I’m fine. Thanks anyway. The bus will be here soon.” The words had tumbled out. He had looked disappointed.
“I’ve been telling myself that for about twenty minutes. Please, sit down. You look as if you could use a rest.”
It was only ten-thirty but apparently, I already looked knackered. “Okay, I will, thanks,” I’d replied. Cute and good manners, this guy would be a great catch. I silently wished my daughter Sarah could meet someone like him instead of the deadbeats she hung around with. She never brought them home for me to meet and I was consequently left to formulate an opinion based on the snippets of information she occasionally dropped.
I looked up and saw that he was smiling at me again. Evidently, he had said something else and was patiently waiting for a response. Embarrassed, I decided to come clean. “I’m sorry I was miles away; what did you say?”
“I was just saying what a lousy day it is.”
“Yes, it was… is.” I was behaving like a tongue-tied teenager.
Seemingly satisfied, he glanced away. “Finally! Here comes the bus.”
I followed his gaze and spotted the number 300 crawling through the mid-morning traffic, its windows steamed up and its windscreen wipers working overtime. The people around me started to jockey for position, eyeing each other suspiciously for potential queue jumpers.
The bus pulled up and they started to board it. Finally, it was our turn and I stepped back gesturing for the young man to go first.
“No, please, after you,” he said.
I climbed on board hoping there would be enough seats for everyone. I didn’t want him to have to stand again just because he had been courteous.
Thankfully, there had been two vacant places. I sat down by an overweight woman who took up more than her fair share of the seat, whilst he had seated himself a little further forward. I spent the whole journey surreptitiously studying him.
Eventually the bus arrived at the town centre and as I rose to get off, I was delighted to see him get to his feet. I crept forward until I was standing directly behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. He smiled when he saw me.
“I just wanted to say thanks for giving up your seat back there, not all blokes would have done that,” I said.
“It was my pleasure.”
“Well thanks anyway, it’s nice to know that chivalry isn’t dead, just wounded.”
“No worries,” he said laughing. “You have a nice day now,” he added before alighting.
“You too,” I replied, but he had already gone.
I’d aimlessly wandered around the shops for a couple of hours, totally preoccupied with thoughts of him. Eventually, after a strong coffee and an even stronger self-rebuke, I reluctantly got on with the grocery shopping. What had I been thinking? There was no way a young guy like that would even give me a second thought.
Feeling dejected but with my feet firmly planted back in reality I had thought that was the end of it, until heading home later that day he had climbed aboard my bus and back into my life.
Instead of trying to hide I felt myself sit up straight and tuck an errant strand of hair behind my ear. What was I playing at? I quickly turned my head to look out of the window hoping he wouldn’t notice me.
Too late. “Oh, hi, how are you?” I had asked, feigning surprise.
“Mind if I sit down?”
Mind? My heart had practically jumped out of my chest with joy at the thought. “No, please do.”
Then we talked. In fact, we talked like old friends all the way back to the stop where it had all begun that morning. He introduced himself as Mark and then proceeded to tell me all about himself. He’d apparently been for an interview in town and thought it went well.
“It’s a pity you don’t drive,” he had said nodding towards my shopping bags huddled around my feet, “that must be hard work?”
“Oh, I do, but my husband took the car when we split,” I blurted before I could stop myself.
We got off at the same stop and despite my weak protestations, he insisted on carrying my bags all the way to my garden path.
“I wish my daughter could meet someone like you,” I said.
“Well if she’s half as nice as her mum, I’d be the lucky one,” he smiled back.
Trying to hide my blush, I thanked him again and hurried into my house. I could feel his eyes on me all the way.
“So, who was that, Mum?” Sarah slyly asked as she caught a glimpse of the back of a man’s head receding into the darkness.
“Just someone who was kind enough to help me with my bags. A nice bloke, the sort you should be dating.”
“Sounds boring. He wouldn’t last five minutes with me.”
“Probably not, more’s the pity.”
“Whatever. By the way, I don’t need dinner as I’m out with Danny tonight.”
“Danny? Which one is that?”
“You’ve not met him.”
“I don’t get to meet any of them. What happened to the one you were seeing a few weeks ago? He sounded nice for once.”
“A few weeks ago, could be several,” she giggled, “but if you mean who I think you mean, he’ll make some librarian a nice husband, but not me.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I ventured into town far more often than I needed to in the hope of running into Mark, which I frequently did. He had got the job and was now working in the town centre and caught the same bus home every night. I knew that I was behaving foolishly but was delighted and surprised when he tentatively asked me out for a drink one evening. I had jumped at the chance, probably a little too eagerly. Desperation will do that. My perseverance and frequent trips to the shops had paid off - I’d got my man - and a larder full of unnecessary groceries.
Despite our age difference our relationship flourished, and Mark gradually dragged me out of the dark hole I’d cowered in since my divorce. Every day with Mark was exciting and different and he made me feel ten years younger.
Eventually I dug up the courage to invite him round to meet Sarah and David, both of whom were keen to meet the man who’d had such a profound effect on their mum. I was hoping they would overlook the age difference.
I was getting ready upstairs when the door knocked.
“Sarah, would you get that for me?”
“Okay.” Sarah hurried downstairs to open the front door and was taken aback to find one of her many ex-boyfriends standing before her. The one her mum had said sounded nice. “Mark, I thought I’d made it clear that you’re a nice bloke, but not my type?”
“Er, hi, Sarah, yeah, you did,” replied Mark, equally startled.
“So, what are you doing here? I told you there was no chance of us getting back together.”
“I didn’t know it was your house. You never invited me round remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right. So, what do you want? My boyfriend will be here soon.”
“Actually, I was looking for...”
“He’s here for me,” I interjected from the bottom of the stairs, shocked by what I’d overheard.
“You mean…?” asked Sarah wide-eyed. “Boring, dull, do nothing Mark is your date?”
“Charming!” said Mark.
“Sorry.” She clearly didn’t mean it.
“Yes,” I replied. “Though that’s not how I would describe him.”
“Perhaps if you’d given me more of a chance rather than one awkward first date…” said Mark defensively.
A car pulled up and tooted its horn. “That’s Danny,” Sarah stammered before hurrying down the path.
“Well that was awkward,” said Mark as he came in and kissed me.
“Yes,” I replied, “but I think we’re over the worst of it.”
Behind us stood my teenage son. He was grinning broadly.
Maybe not then…
(c) Jeff Jones
I took a deep breath and knocked on the door but there was no answer. I needed the captain on the bridge. The typhoon was upon us and I was very concerned. I knocked again and entered.
‘Captain you should be on the bridge.’
There was a particularly strong gust and the ship heeled, the wind even inside the accommodation howling, which emphasised my appeal. There was still no answer from the recumbent form lying on the settee dressed in his rumpled shore going clothes. He was curled up in the foetal position.
I shook his shoulder and said loudly. ‘Are you ill Sir?’
‘Go away,’ he screamed, the sound shocking in the confined space, the wind shaking the accommodation.
My heart sank and that first flicker of fear, that first feeling of panic started. I was young to be chief officer and this was my first ship in that rank but I knew I must fight the rising panic inside me. The realisation the captain was in a funk, or mad, or sick hit me and I had to do something about it or we would lose the ship. She was jerking on the too short a chain cable to the buoy and the ship would break free. What should I do? I thought hard as I looked at the captain and realised I had no option. I had to take over command, usurp the captain. It was a terrifying concept but once I accepted the situation there was no more time to ponder.
I quickly returned to the bridge. It was raining heavily, the water drops hitting the wheelhouse windows like bullets fired from a gun.
‘I’m taking over command John, the captain is in a funk or ill and will not come to the bridge. Log it, I will sign and you witness it.’
The second officer looked shocked. Another strong gust heeled the ship alarmingly and the bow swung off brought up suddenly by the chain accentuating the typhoon raging outside
‘We are going to fill the deep tanks with sea water John. Fill in the water ballast order book and the third mate can take it down. I will phone the Chief Engineer’
While telephoning I looked out of the wheelhouse window criss crossed by strips of plaster in case it shattered. The squall had passed and I could see up the harbour. The air was filled with spume and it was blowing so hard the tops of the waves were blown away making the sea appear white. I could not see the chain but I knew it was bar taught. It was time to use the engine and I pushed the telegraph lever to slow ahead.
‘Steer north,’ I ordered the quartermaster as I watched the engine revolution counter flicker then move to 20.
Another gust hit the ship heeling her sufficiently to make me hold on and I knew if I did not do something else quickly the chain would break.
‘John, do you think you could go forward and let go the starboard anchor? Take the bosun.’
‘I can but try,’ his slight frame belying an inner strength and determination. At that moment the chief engineer appeared in the wheelhouse agitatedly waving the ballast book in his hand, his normal unflappable manner gone.
‘What’s this Mr. Mate?’ he said pointing at the instructions I had written. ‘Its not signed by the captain.’
‘Captain is sick chief, I’ve taken over command. He is lying on his daybed. I have logged it.’
I felt rather than saw, as I looked out of the wheelhouse window, the “Redshank” was moving ahead. The whole accommodation was shaking in a gust and the air was filled with spume and spray blown off the sea. The noise of the wind meant we had to raise our voices to be heard. I did not want to overrun the buoy and so stopped the engine for a short while and then resumed slow ahead. The chief engineer, ballast book in his hand, stood watching and I said...
‘The sooner we ballast her down the better, chief, the eye of the typhoon will pass over Hong Kong and the wind may be even stronger afterwards.’
The door of the chartroom was flung open and the captain appeared, still in his shore going clothes. He staggered in and clutching the chart table for support shouted.
‘Everything alright Mr. Mate.’
‘Yes.’ I replied shocked.
‘Then I will leave you to it,’ and he left the chartroom slamming the door behind him.
My steward entered with a tray of tea and sandwiches wearing a life jacket over his uniform. He put the tray down on the chart table and left without a word. The chief engineer followed him out.
Suddenly over the noise of the raging typhoon I heard the rattle of chain, very faint, but I gave a sigh of relief. With the anchor down there was every chance the ship would stay attached to the buoy. The violent swings caused by the gusts would be much reduced and when ballasted she would be much heavier in the water.
John returned soaking wet but smiling, ‘we had to crawl and were lucky to make it.’
‘Well done well done,’ I said shaking his hand, ‘you’ve given us a good chance of making it now. The eye will soon be here.’
The eye of the storm passed over, an eerie calm with a cloudless star speckled sky. I could see the ships in the harbour all appearing to be normal but I knew we did not have long. I used the engine to try and swing the ship to head in the opposite direction so she would be bow onto the renewed typhoon once the eye passed. Quite suddenly the first gusts of wind and then the typhoon was upon us again with a vengeance from the opposite direction. The bow swung violently heeling the ship but the cable held. The wind moaned around the wheelhouse, shaking it ,vibrating the windows, causing the whole ship to shudder as though it was trying to detach the wheelhouse and fling it away. The tumult had increased and it was difficult to even think but I kept the engine on slow and sometimes half ahead guessing when she started to move ahead. The anchor made all the difference and eventually it was over, the wind decreased and life returned to normal. I went down to the captain’s cabin, knocked and walked in. The captain I had usurped was lying on his back and there was blood all over the place, he had cut his wrists. I turned to find the chief engineer standing in the doorway.
‘Well Richard, he was a weakling, you now really are the Captain.’
(c) Ian Tew
“Don’t get too comfortable.”
The words were spoken silkily, with an oily smile that pushed his cheeks upward into two lumps just below his glittering eyes. His head was bald, shiny and red, and a black ‘mutton chops’ beard paired very suitably with a curled-up moustache. He looked rather weird in the noisy and neon-lit pub; the bartenders were enormously muscled and scantily clad, the music blared loudly, disco balls flashed from the ceiling and gorgeous, naked women gyrated sensuously around poles.
Bizarrely clad in nothing else but a loincloth, he was red toned – one would say that it might have been the effect of the lights, but it really wasn’t – because when the women and their glistening bodies turned green or purple under the onslaught of the illuminated discotheque, he still remained red.
The batch of newcomers, young and old that had entered the pub wondered.
“Enjoy the services here,” he continued with his slippery smile. “It’s…” and he nodded once and sideways, and his bald pate gleamed like the disco balls, “complimentary.”
The newcomers whooped loudly. This was not going to be bad after all.
“Like I said, don’t get too comfortable.” He grinned again. “This is what I call the ‘Honeymoon Period.’ With an aslant nod again, he pulled out a gadget from within his loincloth and peered into it, scrolling his fingers across the screen, giggling all the while.
“My!” he exclaimed. “Scandalous. You folk are truly something.” He winked at them, turned brusquely and disappeared behind an elaborate door, slapping the ample bottom of a dancer as he did so.
And while his new batch of arrivals caroused gaily under the lights, the red man’s slimy smile suddenly vanished; he now glowered pitilessly over an endless furnace, where a million souls groaned in eternal agony.
(c) Cindy Pereira
The dull copper light of the early rising sun tinged the darkness of retreating night. Distant stars, overwhelmed, faded into the obscurity of encroaching day.
The ground beneath her was cold and damp, the chilly dew soaked into her jeans, freezing her bottom. She lay back and looked up into slowly transitioning skies.
“What happens now?” A plume of vapour filled the air with her whispered question. She had been reluctant to ask, filled with a sense that the sound would break the perfection of the moment.
There was no reply beyond the sound of birdsong from the trees around her.
He lay on the sand, looking up into the purple skies of the twilight hour. The extreme heat of the sun had warmed the ground beneath him and he felt the uncomfortable prickling of it on his skin as it seeped into the soft flesh of his body. The sound of waves, lapping at the shore, filled his ears. The gentle clacking of pebbles, pulled back into the ocean depths, a random percussion that lulled him into a meditative state.
“What happens now?” He cried into the night.
She lay there for an hour, watching the world wake, a rabbit had scrambled from its warren not far from where she lay, it sniffed at her toes and hopped on past her. The dawn chorus had morphed into a cacophony of sound, like the chanting crowds of a football stadium. “There must be more than this.” She sighed, her thoughts still lost in the labyrinth of her mind.
He lay there for an hour, watching the world fall into sleep, a crab scrambled from under a rock not far from where he lay. “There must be more than this.” He sighed as the creeping ocean water tickled his feet.
(c) Madelaine Taylor
His glare cut right through me as soon as I opened the door. Dark. Dead eyes.
The man was huge. Not tall, but wide. Solid.
He walked past me, even though neither of us had spoken a word. He was who I’d expected.
I followed him down the hall and into the kitchen. I indicated a chair at the small table. My hand was shaking from adrenaline.
He didn’t sit but drew a small pistol from his pocket, chambered a round, and clicked the safety off.
My heart stopped.
But he put the pistol on the table. Then he took out a mobile phone and held it up to me.
A man in silhouette was on screen.
‘Good to see you,’ the voice from the calls said.
I couldn’t speak.
‘By now, you should hear the police sirens, yes?’
Listening carefully, he was right. Distant, but getting closer. ‘I never called them. I promise. It wasn’t me.’
‘Pick up the gun,’ the voice said again.
‘Let me see my…’
I did as he said. Reaching slowly, terrified the stocky man might react. The gun felt heavy despite its small size.
‘They are coming for you,’ the face on the screen said.
‘I don’t understand. What have I done?’
My mind was a fog, head spinning. The picture on the phone changed to a short, repeating GIFF.
My wife tied to the same chair as before. The man stood next to her holding the knife to her throat. And with one cut…
‘I warned you,’ the voice said. ‘I always collect. Cash or Claret.’
My eyes raised to meet those of the man in front of me. The red mist came down.
I raised the gun and pulled the trigger.
(c) Colin Ward
Patricia Wright was not like most people and she had learned to accept that. When she was nine, she walked along Brighton Pier holding her daddy’s hand and felt the excitement of being among all the amusement rides and daytrippers. “Look Daddy, that lady is wearing her hair like Granny in that photo from the war.” Patricia was confused when her daddy said he couldn’t see the lady.
It continued like this. There was the man on the bus who disappeared. The girl who stood at the end of her bed and hummed while brushing her hair. The ginger cat that nobody else saw. She was visited regularly and she knew when the returners were coming. She’d bite her lip and feel shivery.
Patricia lived in a flat in a suburb of London where bins got attacked by foxes and car alarms went off nightly. She had a boyfriend called Carl who fixed people’s boilers and would get ‘double bubble’ as he called it, if he was available on weekends. “I’m on call, like a doctor, when a boiler goes into cardiac arrest.” Patricia loved Carl. He was kind and funny and made fantastic curries.
It was a cold January night. Patricia and Carl were cuddled up on the sofa watching a film. Carl’s phone pinged. “Where are my keys?” Carl looked everywhere but couldn’t find them. He wouldn’t find them. Not if Patricia had her way. She had seen Carl, face down on the steering wheel, blood dripping onto his lap. She’d warned him about texting while driving.
“Someone else can do that job. You’re staying here with me.” Patricia said.
“You hid my keys again, didn’t you? What was it this time? Did I slip on fox shit and make friends with the pavement?” Carl laughed.
(c) Liz Breen
"We are unfashioned creatures, but half made up,
if one wiser, better, dearer than ourselves—
such a friend ought to be—do not lend his aid to
perfectionate our weak and faulty natures."
- Frankenstein's Creation
The candlelight shadows shivered at the sudden opening of the door behind her.
She caught her breath and readjusted herself—but didn't get up from the chair. Two heartbeats later, she recognized who it was by the faint smell of rotting flesh beneath the perfume and alcohol and decided to stay still. If he was going to kill her there would be no stopping him, anyway.
Without preamble: "Who is Fritz?" the monstrous visitor demanded.
She had to sigh at that: "Who, indeed?"
The daemon circled into view, towering over her with the grave air of a parent about to tuck their child in for bed. Beneath his overcoat and breaches, he was wrapped from head to toe in soaked bandages of methanol and gin. And where bandages failed, so, too, had his yellow flesh—rather the sinews and blood-soaked innards underneath were quite visible.
But she did not avert her eyes. She did not scream.
"You do well to hide your horror, Madam. But perhaps you and I have met before?" Its voice was surprisingly soft.
"Yes. I was there at the beginning. Your beginning. When you were just plans and drawings and equations. Such wishful fancies the genius of youth can produce."
Then the daemon did a strange thing, he removed his cap and bowed before her and apologized, "M'lady. You have my sincerest apologies for this intrusion. Indeed, since my...creator's death I have had every intention of dying, myself. It is, after all, what he wanted. But, somehow...I do not. And, so, as life continues, I have grown with the need to investigate and attempt to understand the mind of he who was my creator. And, so I further ask forgiveness that I broke into the laboratories in the far wing and read his journals...
“...Truthfully, they revealed nothing...
“...But, in another hand, written in the margins, from time to time are additional notes. And those are signed, each time: 'Fritz'. No mention of a 'Fritz' was ever made by the Doctor. And, yet, the sum total of his notes lack the raw emotion of those few simple annotations from this mysterious choir. I feel that, only upon meeting this 'Fritz' will I truly know Frankenstein."
She said nothing.
He rose to his full height and nearly brushed the ceiling. "Madam, I have observed this estate, the late Doctor's estate, from afar, for some time. And from my observations, I have gathered that you have inherited it. Further, you have become its curator. And, so this is what brings me here. And why I must again ask you: M'lady, please, who is this 'Fritz'?"
His sincerity nearly compelled an answer. Instead she rose and directed him to sit in her chair. It creaked under his weight, but it held.
"May I pour you a cup of tea?" She walked to the bureau, "I am Lady Friederike De'rogi. As you have surmised, I am both curator and caretaker of this place. Castle Frankenstein is now my home."
As she handed him his cup, she answered, "And 'Fritz' was my brother. It is a painful thing to recall! For, even as Fritz was my brother, he was best friends with Viktor and we, the three of us, would enjoy many a...holiday during our youth at University. Fritz was also a 'man of science' and, indeed, his key insights led to such formulae that Viktor was able to perform his...reanimations."
"You are saying your brother helped him make me?"
"No. Not directly. He was only there at the beginning when Viktor first discovered how to do it! But, to be clear: by my reckoning, the discovery would not have happened without Fritz. Yet soon after that, they had a falling out. Partly it was...my fault. My failing relationship with Viktor ended up confusing the issue. But mostly it was about pride. Viktor did not want to share any of the recognition with my brother. He sent me - sent us - away! And for a long while after that we didn't speak."
"M'lady, when you saw me you recognized me. Yet I have no memory of you."
Lady De'Rogi nodded, "Yes, he invited...Fritz back to be there at your creation. But, the evening before, instead of their reunion being a joyous occasion, Fritz demanded that Viktor abandon the project. Abandon this creation: you. Fritz believed that these processes could be used to...help the living. And that that would be nobler. Fritz just wanted to renew their relationship in a purer endeavor. But only if Viktor would stop this design, as it was an abomination against nature!"
If the daemon was offended, he didn't show it: "Were you there as well, M'lady?"
She brushed the hair from her eyes as she sipped her own cup, "No. Viktor and...my brother fought. And he struck Fritz with a...fatal blow. But not before Fritz could return home to me and describe all that transpired. He died in my arms. When I saw you, I deduced what had happened. Though you have less about you then what..."
"Aye, yes. Again, my apologies, Lady De'Rogi. It is merely that, while my spirit stays strong, as the good book says, the flesh is weak." She had to smile at his little joke, but said nothing.
At length, her visitor rose to leave: "And, so my quest comes to an end. For even as I hear you recount the flaws of the Doctor, I have come to realize that we all must make choices. And the time has long since past when Viktor Frankenstein's choices direct our fates.”
He started to leave, but turned to finish. “The warp and woof of my life has been the doctor's madness. In the end, I must make my own choices in much the way one assembles a wooden pillar. Whereas once I only desired a pyre, now I see that such a pillar can also be a style upon which a great, lonely Saint can stand. The choice is mine. If...Fritz were here, I would tell him that."
At this, tears clouded Friederike’s eyes.
She only said, "Fritz would be proud of whatever choice you made."
The daemon doffed his cap and left, never to be seen again.
It was a long time before Friederike, or "Fritz" as Viktor always called her, left the study for the lavatory.
She slowly preceded down the hallway, mirrors on either side of her reflecting her reflection backwards into an infinite continuity of her female form. Slowly, front to back, those reflections shifted from one side to the other within the frames, until they disappeared, only to reappear in the next set of mirrors.
Were any of those images less real than the one she presented?
Finally she arrived in the lavatory and looked at herself in this final looking glass.
She removed her dress and turned her attention to the corset. It's metal frame was no longer a permanent part of her identity. These days, she only wore it when she moved about her house, just in case company came calling.
As she unravalled the knots and strap-work, she thought to herself about Viktor's creation. No less a success than me, she reckoned.
Removing the corset, her breasts dropped to their normal state, making it all the easier to apply the second set of straps. The ones to hold them down.
Then, as she stood over the wash basin staring into the looking glass, she could not help but reach down, slowly, purposefully, and touch the large member that Viktor had imbued her with in his very first experiment. Friederike had always felt more like a man than a woman. And she had always wanted to make love to Viktor as a man would. And such was Viktor's love for her, for him, rather, during that time, that he granted her wish.
Or perhaps the good doctor just needed a test subject.
Their experiment was a success, of course! But Friederike, Fritz, remembered the agitation. The arguments. His living subject became the object of Viktor's jealousy. For every love-filled day of beauty and lovemaking, there followed a day of scornful arguments and vitriol.
She left. But when she returned, it was no different. The warm feeling reading his letter inviting her back to witness the 'birth' of their creation (their 'son', Viktor called it) was repelled by the horror of it all. Indeed, Viktor had shrunken into a hollow husk of a man and much of his soul seemed now to reside inside the creature itself. This was no science—it was alchemy! How could her sweet, sweet Viktor have become such a monster?
Later, by a quirk of fate, a long forgotten will drafted by a young Viktor permitted her to inherit his estate. And now she had to live the life left to her, wandering about in the shadows at night...
She removed her make-up and replaced the dress with breaches and a topcoat. She combed back her hair and put on the spectacles. In the pubs she frequented, Fritz was expected.
She was, after all, a man about town.
(c) Mark Harbinger