Nice ‘n nasty.

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It was hard to stay “nice”. Sometimes it hurt.

Sarah, her twin had no such qualms, had risen to the top, stepping on whoever dared get in her way. Sometimes Jenny felt like a failure by comparison.

The day had been awful, an argument at home, a put down at the school, nothing was going right. What a birthday!

It slipped out at recess. Her year four pupils had been discussing star signs.

“When’s your birthday, Miss?” an eager voice chimed. Should she lie?

“March 12th.” She hoped they didn’t notice, but they did. Jace caught on right away.

“That’s today! Is it your birthday today?” She nodded. Her eyes moistened as the word caught on and “happy birthday” squeals and songs sped around the playground. it didn’t stop there… Grubby hand written cards appeared, candies wrapped in pages stolen from exercise books and a small bunch of ragged daisies and dandelions appeared on her desk. Best of all was the shy hug from Eisha, the girl that hardly ever spoke.

Back home nestled contentedly with a cup of tea she surveyed her  news feed, predictably full of her sister’s birthday posts, food, wine, luxury presents and false smiles. She grinned into her tea cup. She’d had something better.

“Putting your feet up love?” a voice whispered in her ear. “I managed to get off work early. I felt so bad about this morning. I forgot it was your birthday… thought we could go out, do something.”

“It’s OK, I had the best day ever!”

“Really? I’m so glad… Here … for you.” Embarrassed he thrust a bunch of daffodils into her hands. She knew they were only Tesco, he’d forgotten to take off the label, but to her they were perfect, as all her presents had been.

strange bonding.

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He had to go – one last time, while he could still make the climb.

His companion was not the best, but everyone else “had commitments”. He’d met him in the park sleeping rough, a turbulent young fella Chase was, with hard, rebellious eyes.  He hadn’t understood but he’d been willing, for the pittance Jim was able to pay, (already sleeping rough, what had he to lose?) He was sullen, but, considerate of Jim’s aging frame, he carried the rucksack, appreciative of the new sleeping bag and use of bed and shower as they prepared.

The slope steepened, the going was harder. Jim had to stop frequently to catch his breath.

“Why are you doing this?” Chase asked. “If I were your age I’d be curled up in an armchair.”

“ You’ll see when we get there.” Chase thought the old duffer mad, but he’d been kind, besides he liked crazy folks, he was half crazy himself. He didn’t care. Help the old duffer up the mountain and maybe he could doss with him for a while after, till things turned sour…

The road lay far behind, the car a matchbox toy. Things were quiet up here. They sat and ate sandwiches feasting their eyes on the growing panorama.

“Wait till we get up.” Jim whispered, “It takes your breath away.” It was beautiful, Chase thought, but not worth this whole expedition – Jim must be in his seventies, maybe more! A cold thought hit. Suppose the old man was to peg out up here, would they hold him accountable? He’d have to leg it if something happened…

Nothing did happen. They camped under the stars, Chase gathering wood, Jim starting the fire. Chase watched the flames as the bacon and sausages sizzled on their sticks and the foil wrapped potatoes steamed. Jim knew what he was doing that’s for sure.

“You must have been a bit of an adventurer when you were young?” Chase ventured. He wasn’t much for conversation, but he was curious.

“You could say that,” Jim beamed. He went on to tell tales of his youth and how he’d found this place. Chase listened entranced. Despite himself he liked the old duffer.

“So why the mountain?”

“I was pretty wild back then. I could be myself up there. It puts everything in perspective, everything is small, seen from up there, only the important things are big – like the sky! … and you can see the horizon…”

They made the summit next afternoon. While not requiring much in the way of hard climbing it had been long and arduous, Jim was exhausted.

“Just help me on that big rock up there and I’ll rest a while.” Chase was concerned. Shedding the pack he picked Jim up in his arms. He was surprisingly light.

“You’re a good lad Chase,” Jim whispered. “Don’t let folks ever tell you otherwise.”

Together they sat above the world looking down on scattered clouds, distant hills, and swathes of pine forest. Chase gasped, awestruck, head turning to appreciate the 360 deg. horizon.

“I think I understand now,” he breathed.

“I thought you would. It’s not something you can explain, but I just had to feel it one more time before I go, kinda get me ready.” Chase looked alarmed. “Now don’t worry son, I’m not gonna peg out on you, still got a bit of strength left. I just need to rest a bit”

“Just as well, ‘cos I’m sure not gonna carry you all the way back,” Chase teased. Then he realised – yes, he would if it came to that, and bugger the consequences. He liked the old duffer – he liked the mountain too.

Coma (blog bite 5 from a short fantasy story)

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deer

“I want to stay! I want to stay! Please Doc give me another shot!” Alex sobbed. But the words no longer found utterance, trapped as he was in the useless shell that had once been his body, muscle and sinew slowly wasting away as he himself wasted inside, trapped!

Tears of frustration forced their way out seeping between prison bars into the old world he’d once known. A nurse noticed, retrieving a tissue to wipe them away.

“Poor sod.” She muttered. “He must be conscious somewhere inside.”

“Nonsense,” said the impassive doctor at the foot of his bed. “He’s practically brain dead. Not much hope there. ” The nurse slipped her hand into Alex’s, as the doctor strode away, leaning over to kiss his forehead before, with a sigh, she resumed her duties. The small touch of humanity made the pain even more poignant. Something broke inside. Like a torrent of water it gushed forth its pain and fear then suddenly, without the injection, without Doc, he was there…

Animal foot prints in the snow? Something had passed this way. He stood at the edge of a forest. Passing among the trees he glimpsed tiny faces peering out, curious, but strangely unafraid. Chipmunks and squirrels dashed through the trees as if intent on appraising their visitor. A deer raised its head in his direction but did not run away; rather, satisfied it returned to its grazing, impassive…

*

“I thought you’d make it here eventually!” Doc was walking through the trees towards him.

“Am…am I dead?”

“No,” Doc smiled. “You are very much alive Alex, perhaps more than you’ve ever been.”

“But then how… You didn’t give me a shot… at least I don’t think you did…”

“There never were any shots Alex.”

“I don’t understand…”

“No but you will.” He fell silent for a moment looking around.

“It was like this at the beginning,” he continued, “before they began to prey upon each other. That’s why the smaller, weaker ones flourish in such abundance now. There’s plenty of room for them to expand with the cities gone.”

“Cities? What cities? Where is this?”

“Not where, when!”

“So much was destroyed in those final years, now it is being replenished. These trees are young, a mere one or two hundred years. This was a city once, an urban area reduced to rubble. Now the sands of time have clothed it once more with beauty, and nature, once perverted by man, flourishes.”

“People moved away from the cities after a while to make a new start at life. They took what was useful and left. Hardly any knew anything of the new agrarian lifestyle most were to pursue. Few survived but those few were special. Most were happy to leave, in fact most already had left of their own accord for one reason or another- they couldn’t buy or sell. They’d been hunted, lost families and loved ones; these were the survivors. Like the animals they were few, but their needs were few also, content to be alive, to be free. Some had survival skills and helped others, all were ready to learn. From one day to the next farmers became the new elite, teaching businessmen and ex heads of state how to farm and care for the land.”

“How do you know all this? Who the hell are you anyway?”

Doc smiled. “You think I’m a figment of your imagination don’t you?”

“No you… you were…”

“Was I?”

“I don’t know! Am I going crazy?” Doc stopped, taking Alex’ hand he looked deep into his eyes.

“You’re not dead and you’re not crazy Alex.”

“Then what?”

“I brought you here for a purpose. You’ve always been a traveler, reveled in new cultures…”

“Yes, but never anything like this”

“No, not like this. I want you to talk about it, write a few more books. Use your celebrity status to pass on the message.”

“I’m hardly a celebrity.”

“Not yet, but you will be, if you accept the task.”

Coma.

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children playing

(third blog bite of a short sci fi/fantasy story)

Alex woke with a jolt in his own personal penitentiary, aching to feel the response of his body. Hope glimmered. “Doc” said there’d be other times…

“Stupid, stupid idiot!” he admonished himself “Doc” was a fragment of dreams, a character created by his subconscious due to his administering the medication. It was all an illusion, a paradise conjured by the meeting of a desperate mind hallucinogenic drugs.

Would the real doctor return? He had no way of knowing. Fear seized him. Night came with its nightmares, but none as bad as his waking state.

Morning dawned, faces swam and retreated, the drip rattled as it was changed. Then there he was, Doc.

“Bet you thought I wasn’t coming!” he grinned as Alex felt the prick of the needle.

*

The hospital gown was gone; replaced by a shirt and loose, brown, cotton pants.

“Do you like your new look?” Doc chirped. “I thought you might want to blend in more.”

“Well it sure beats that gown! Simple and functional, suits me!”

“Yes, I think it does,” Doc said slowly, looking him over. “No multi-million fashion industry here!” he added, as if picturing with pleasure its demise, “or Anorexia.” A cloud of sadness passed his face, then he continued. “No gyms either, there’s plenty of “work out” to be got out in the fields. No uncomfortable business suits for anyone! The air is fresh and unpolluted, there’s plenty of good food for all, rest and exercise, the little ones thrive on it.” Alex remembered the healthy, laughing children at the pool.

“My kind of place!” he agreed. (If only it were real)…

“Let’s look at the school!” Doc grinned. Strolling over the hillside they sighted a crowd of children sitting under an oak, a vivacious young woman standing among them.”The location can change with each lesson.” Doc informed him. “Today it’s here.”

The children flocked to him. He gathered them in his arms as they laughed and squealed. They seemed to know him. The teacher was unconcerned at the interruption of her lesson, smiling flirtatiously at Alex. They began telling Doc some of the places they’d been and things they’d done. Alex listened enthralled. This school was no longer about books it seemed one joyous festival of learning, doing and experiencing!

“There are whole areas for them to come where they can learn constructively. ” Doc explained, “They come any time they want, it’s not required. Some parents also teach them at home, but they like to come, there’s no need of cajoling. Even reading and writing are not compulsory, though they all learn because there are so many beautiful books and stories. Some things must be learnt the hard way and reading is one of them, but it’s taught without pressure so some learn early others late. You’d enjoy teaching here.”

“Me a teacher?”

“Why not?”

“But what would I teach?”

“Oh, believe me you’d have plenty to teach! As you can see this school system is quite different!” He laughed and the sound was pure joy reflected in the laughter of the children. It all became one and blended together as darkness invaded.

The Price of Peace

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from May 2014

Song Bird Songs

After_the_Battle

(Short story for the theme “Loss”)

 Dusk hung over the grim Northumbrian field, veiling, but not obliterating the sights that swam before Edwin’s eyes. Shield and banner, once glorious in their pomp, now lay in jumbled heaps amidst torn limbs and lifeless forms, contorted, muddy, and everywhere was the stain of blood. He leant on the shaft of his sword to steady himself, red streaking the fair hair and face in lurid patterns of death, his lean form panting hard. It was over. They had won! He was alive and relatively unscathed, but inside dwelt a sickening emptiness.

Senses reeling he staggered forward, blue eyes shot with scarlet, searching among the heaving bodies for what he could not find, the living body of his brother. He had seen him go down in the first charge, like a bird pinioned in flight, the bright eye shocked, unbelieving. Wulfric had thought…

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Beginning Again (coffee flavoured).

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coffee

She hadn’t wanted to do this. It was too painful. Images flashed before her eyes as she neared the old café. Images of Colin in bed with her best friend, blurs of flesh seen through tears. Kori was hers; there was no disputing that. He could see her weekends, that was only fair, she knew he loved her too. He’d always been a devoted father; she couldn’t fault him in that.

The coffee shop bustled around her as she sought out his table, reassuring in its ambiguity. There he was, she could spot that smile anywhere, though today it was dimmed, without its normal sparkle. Kori burst into rapture.

“Daddy! Daddy,” she squealed fighting the restraining strap of her buggy. He rushed over to release her, clutching her in his arms, tears welling.

“Daddy where you been. I missed you.” The three year old lisped affection broke Lia’s heart. Why did he have to do this, reopen old wounds.

Setting Kori on his lap he looked steadfastly into her eyes.

“We need to talk Lisa.”

“I won’t stop you seeing her. She needs a father. You were always a good dad to her, just not much of a husband.” She sensed the spite on her tongue, the salt on a raw wound but she couldn’t help herself.

His eyes darted warningly at Kori, didn’t want her caught up in all this. Perhaps it had been a mistake to bring her, but what other option did she have; besides a part of her wanted this revenge, to see him suffer. She looked up rebelliously twisting the knife.

Tears welled over, the smile puckered. She felt cruel, vindictive. Why did it have to end this way?

“I told you I’m sorry. I’d do anything to undo what happened that day, anything to make it up to you. We were drunk, I told you…”

“I’ve heard it all before, Colin,” she snapped.

Kori looked up alerted by the catch in his voice. “Daddy, what’s wrong, why are you crying. Shall I sing you a happy song?”

“Nothing’s wrong darlin’ I just missed you and mummy.” He put on a brave smile.

“And mummy?”

“Hell! Of course “and mummy!” You think I don’t miss you? Every morning when I wake up alone, every time I make a lousy cup of coffee,” a little of his sparkle came back.  Most of all I missed those first days when you looked at me with that doggie look, when I was your world … when you found time for me, before you got that God awful job.”

His arrow struck home. She was not entirely blameless. Home late every night too tired to talk, too tired to make love, work obsessed. Not any more, she’d had to quit her job, go part time to care for Kori. Would it have made a difference if she’d been there for him? “Probably not”, she told herself, but deep in her heart she knew. She’d driven him away. The fault was hers too.

Seeing her hesitation he grabbed her hand across the table.

“Lisa, please, I’m not asking you to forgive me, just please let’s try to get back together for Kori’s sake.”

“Kori’s fine with me.”

“You think so?” He glanced down at the anxious toddler, not understanding why her parents seemed so angry. Had she done something wrong?

“She would have been fine if she hadn’t seen you!”

Kori burst into tears. “No, I want to be with daddy. Daddy loves me!” The words sung like acid.

“She doesn’t mean that Lisa. She’s just upset. You love mummy too don’t you Kori? Tell mummy you love her Kori.” He prized her away from his shoulder looking in her eyes, but Kori was not to be placated.

“No, I hate her! She took me away from you! I hate her!” Colin looked up helplessly.

“Kori, listen to me. Daddy did something very bad, that’s why mummy took you away. It’s not mummy’s fault it’s daddy’s.” Eyes were watching over their coffee cups, a hush had fallen on the café. Lisa reddened, humiliated before all the world; their dirty laundry strewn for all to see. Why had she come? Why had she brought Kori?

“I’ve got to go!” she hissed grabbing a screaming Kori from her father’s neck.”

“No, don’t do this Lisa. You’ll regret it forever just like I regret what happened between me and Tansy. Some things you can’t undo.”

“Forgive me for butting in,” their heads swivelled, mouths open, as an elderly waitress set two cups of coffee on the table. “I couldn’t help but hear. It’s not true what you just said young man. Things can be undone. It ain’t easy, I’ll attest to that, but it can be done. Now why don’t you just sit right back down and give the poor mite back to her dad for a bit.” Nodding to a man behind the bar she pulled a chair from an adjoining table. Sitting she waved them to the other seats. Kori had stopped screaming, studying the old lined face. Lisa hesitated, then passed her back to Colin as he took a chair.

“Now you’s all can get back to your coffee, shows over for the day. Give these folks some space.” The waitress looked meaningfully around. Folks pretended to ignore them, resumed their conversations.

“My husband cheated on me once too, well more than once if truth be told.”

“What’s cheating?” a small voice interrupted.

“Why it’s when you play a game and someone doesn’t stick to the rules. You knows what cheating is child.”

“So daddy cheated and that’s why mummy’s mad at him?”

“You’s got it child.”

“But my friend cheats all the time and I forgive her.”

“Of course you do, of course you do, ‘cos she’s your friend right?” Kori nodded. “But some games are more important than others and you’re not supposed to cheat.”

“But daddy did.”

“Right child. Someone cheated on me too, honey and I’ll tell you I was angry just like your mamma, but I had to forgive him. See I didn’t have a job and I had five little ones not just one to take care of.”

“So you forgave him.”

“Yes, child I did. But you know what, that son of a bitch never cheated on me again and he dang well made it up to me. He was the best dam father and husband a mamma could ever want. He learnt his lesson and he was real sorry.” Her eyes shifted back to the man behind the counter and they smiled. There was something in that look that stirred doubt in Lisa’s heart. Could it be that she was wrong?

“See it were my pride that was hurting most. That he’d cheat on me and play games with someone else, that hurt.”

Kori nodded knowingly. “Best friends should always be best friends; they shouldn’t let other kids spoil their game.”

“That’s right honey, best friends are forever.” She turned to Lisa.

“Now I ain’t gonna say no more. Choices is yours to make. But I jus’ want you’ll to know it’s not impossible. It sure ain’t easy, but you got this little one to think of haven’t you.” She nodded at Kori and smiled. “Now don’t you go worrying your head little one. You ain’t done nothing wrong. Your mamma and papa they’s had a fight, but you’s had fights with your friends right?” Kori nodded. “And you’s worked it out, right?” She nodded again.

Colin picked up his cup of coffee and took a sip. “Not bad, but not as good as you make Lisa.” He looked up, “I want you back. I’ll make it up to you I swear.”

“You’re not gonna cheat again are you daddy?” the little face was serious.

“No sweetheart, I’ll never cheat again, daddy was an idiot, a stupid idiot, ‘cause I only really like to play with mama.” He looked into Lisa’s eyes and she felt her heart start to melt.

“I’ll think about it.”

“Good, well that’s a start.”

“And you can have Kori over anytime you want, she needs you.” A sneaking suspicion was forming in Lisa’s heart. She needed him too, needed to know it had been, as he said, a stupid one off thing fuelled by neglect and alcohol, needed to know he loved her the same way he loved Kori, not perfect, but love.

Colin raised his cup. “Here’s to the hope of some decent coffee in the near future.” He winked at the retiring waitress, “No offence, but no one makes it quite like Lisa.”

“None taken.”

Hesitantly Lisa raised her own. Kori leant to clink them together spilling some on the table. No one cared, it was just a spill, between they could clean it up.

A rabbit prolongs my life. (a true story)

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pupand rab

The Burmese doctor looked hesitant. They all knew, despite medication, she was slowly slipping away.
“She sees the spirit world and wants to go.” He whispered. “You need to rekindle her interest in this world somehow.” He glanced at the mother for reassurance. This was not something he usually told his English patients, but she understood. They looked down at the pale five year old, her lungs ravaged by double pneumonia, breathing barely audible as she slipped peacefully back into sleep.
“We could hospitalize her…” the doctor ventured. They knew it wouldn’t help any more than the medicine had.
“No!” the father exclaimed fiercely, “she stays here with us…”
The voices sounded distant to childlike ears, like the whisper of a dream. Around her the light glowed as she drew closer to the music that called her, soothing and peaceful. She felt at home here in this place. She was drifting home…
Angry tears welled up in the father’s eyes. He’d waited so long for this child, lost four already in pregnancies that ended in despair. He would not give up. He would fight.
He remembered her joy on her birthday when they’d bought her a kitten, a fluffy ball of ginger delight and her sadness when it died a few weeks later. An idea formed in his head. He’d get another cat, a pretty one, surely that would rouse her.
Cycling home from work he stopped off at the pet shop, not a cat of any description to be found…

*

She was aware of someone coming into the room, her dad’s jolly chuckle. Half opening her eyes she looked in amazement at the thick leather bag he carried. The purple and brown triangles were wriggling. Eyes popped wide in curiosity.
“What is it daddy?” the little voice piped with sudden interest.
“It’s a monkey,” Dad said.
It wasn’t a monkey, (dad was always a tease). Opening the bag onto the bed he let loose its occupant, a small, frightened, black and white rabbit. Running in circles about the bedding it flung one leg in the air, spraying the room with its jubilant freedom.
The little mouth puckered and laughed. A laugh echoed with tears by both parents.
“I don’t care about the mess, that rabbit stays.” Mother said stubbornly.
Stay it did for a whole blissful week as child and rabbit became friends. Laughter rang often through the room and more pillows were fetched so she could sit up and watch it. She even ate again sharing carrots with the rabbit.
Father was busy every night after work on his special project, a home for Bibi as he was now called.
One day father sat on the bed watching the child, eyes now clearer, sitting unsupported, rabbit in arms.
“He needs to move out to the shed,” he explained. “It’s too much work for your mother with all this mess he makes. I made him a nice hutch. When you’re well enough I’ll carry you down and you can go see him.”
Recovery went fast after that and soon she was rewarded. Carrot in hand, dressed in her dressing gown and smothered with a blanket, she went to look over her friend’s domain. All was perfect, a “bedroom” he could snuggle away in, a meshed area she could see him through and lots of fresh straw. Snuggling in her father’s arms she thrust the carrot through the mesh delighted as sharp, white teeth munched away.
Soon they were playing together in the garden, the old dog who’d played nursemaid in her infancy strangely accepting Bibi’s coming, as if also thankful for the service the little rabbit had performed. Later a cat was added again, the three often to be found snuggled together enjoying the sun.
And the child? She lived of course.
How do I know this is true? The child was me.

The Price of Peace

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After_the_Battle

(Short story for the theme “Loss”)

 Dusk hung over the grim Northumbrian field, veiling, but not obliterating the sights that swam before Edwin’s eyes. Shield and banner, once glorious in their pomp, now lay in jumbled heaps amidst torn limbs and lifeless forms, contorted, muddy, and everywhere was the stain of blood. He leant on the shaft of his sword to steady himself, red streaking the fair hair and face in lurid patterns of death, his lean form panting hard. It was over. They had won! He was alive and relatively unscathed, but inside dwelt a sickening emptiness.

Senses reeling he staggered forward, blue eyes shot with scarlet, searching among the heaving bodies for what he could not find, the living body of his brother. He had seen him go down in the first charge, like a bird pinioned in flight, the bright eye shocked, unbelieving. Wulfric had thought himself unconquerable, now somewhere on the bloodied field he lay food for carrion.

Dead? Probably… The horses would have performed that had the arrow not. The flight of the songbird had ended forever. No more would they laugh and carouse together, the gay voice and nimble fingers beguiling away the shadows that beset him. No more would he know the claims of kinship …

Voices were raised shouting the victory! A strong, eager arm clapped across his shoulder, but his heart was empty. He was alone now, hero of the hour, but alone, the last of his line. He dare not show his pain, morale is a fragile thing. Too many had died. He must raise his arm and shout with them, regale his men with cries of victory…

 

It was some time later they brought the body wrapped in a concealing cloak, but it could not mask the crimson seeping through the folds. He felt sick to his stomach but he must face this, he could not run from his grief as others. He must play his part as ever and play it well. Clenching his jaw he pulled back the corner of the cloth. He had expected it, but it was none the less overpowering. The face, once fair and fine, had become a mangled mess of blood and bone; the sandy hair sullied and smeared red with carnage. It was ever so in battle, he had seen it before, but not his brother. He replaced the cloth, nodding to the men to take the body thence.

Now he must feast, and celebrate. He must show himself strong while inside he fought with his own inadequacy. Why had he not been closer? Why had he allowed him to come at all? He knew the answer. He could no longer spare him while others died, others brothers, sons, and husbands. Only sixteen summers Wulfric had seen, many had died younger running to embrace their fate, eager for the fray only to find the truth –death lurked for all.

 

He swilled the wine around his cup, partaking sparingly, afraid to indulge lest hard held emotions betrayed him. He must face it like a man come what may. The promised match would now materialize. The land stood secure, secure with but one heir, one arrow left in the bow. Any family now must be of his own making. He would take the girl and with her the lands. He would sire offspring, other sandy haired boys, but for what he wondered dully, to end as his brother? No! He would secure peace. Somehow he must secure a lasting peace. The marriage would help. He would seek judicious men to advise him. Their position was strong now; peace could be achieved, peace but without Wulfric.

*

The proffered bride was attractive (more than he had hoped for). Edwin looked across at her lightly veiled face, her lithe curvaceous figure. He was lucky he thought glumly, securing his line would not be arduous with such a creature. She smiled shyly beneath the covering.

“Why should she not,” he thought, “he was the victor, possessor of vast territories, soon her own also.” He nodded acknowledging the smile. She’d be willing enough. He was himself still pleasing to the eye, young, strong, with his brother’s fair features marred only by a scar on his forehead not yet fully healed from his last foray. He had what he wanted, but at a price, and that price ate away at him inwardly where none could see.

*

Edwin knelt on the sodden turf, the clean white stone masking the horror that lay somewhere beneath his knees. He felt the guilt, the blood on his hands, blood, not just of Wulfric but of so many others. A sense of loss assailed him.

“War had been thrust upon him,” he reasoned. It had been part of his life since ever he could remember, the biers, the carts carrying the wounded. It seemed every spring there was fighting of one sort or another and every winter they nursed their wounds, physical and otherwise.

He’d learnt young. He had to! It was said there had been no peace here since the iron heel of Rome had withdrawn leaving its in print on the land, a shadow of past dreams. His fathers had come in search of rich, fertile acreage. They took it by the sword and still paid the price in blood, striving for supremacy in a deadly game of death.  Just intentions were not enough, he must show himself strong or all would crumble to ashes, have been for nothing… Now he had opportunity, peace might blossom once more on these ravaged lands. He must make it so! He must set aside his inward wounds, staunch the bleeding of his heart and begin to build as he had before, but this time on a better foundation…

*

It had been six months now, lonely, empty months consolidating their gains, endlessly traveling too and fro, appointing men he could trust, seeking out troublemakers and disposing of them in grim executions he told himself were necessary – a weak ruler would soon be no ruler! Now he was headed home to see a bride and mother to be with whom he had spent less than a fortnight all told, yet that it seemed had been enough, God willing, to secure an heir. Back to a woman he scarcely knew and a household he had neglected. Yet peace there was and tiny buddings of prosperity to come. Spring was in the air, the cold gloom of winter meeting its death in gleams of the returning sun. Yet in his heart there could be no spring, winter reigned established forever in his emptiness.

There had been those who tried to ease his pain along the way. The woman he took to his bed then found excuses to bring along. She knew him, as women of her breed know a man well. She sensed the inner hurt and turmoil, but was unable to quench the fire of his grief, though in her arms he found some respite. He had had to leave her behind, one more offering on the altar of peace to maintain his façade with his new wife. It was not that he was unhappy with his spouse; she was just too young, too cloistered to understand.

They passed a scattering of hovels beside the road. A girl looked up as their procession rode by spluttering mud. He had seen her somewhere before. Her look turned to confusion as their eyes met. She hesitated a moment then dashed forward weaving haphazardly between the horses to grasp his stirrup, eyes scared, fingers clutching .

“Be careful girl!” he yelled. “You’ll get yourself killed!”

“My Lord! My Lord!” she cried. “I must speak with you! Please, I must speak with you!” One of his guards was already pulling the girl away. He tapped heels to his mount to continue when her words stopped him in his tracks.

“It concerns your brother Wulfric, my Lord. “ He turned to face her, eyes gleaming, twin fires ignited by the passion below. Fixed with his gaze she trembled before him.

“Tell me!” he commanded.

“Lord, I cannot … It is a private matter…” The girl was terrified, the smudged dirty face and tangled hair adding to her look of wretched degradation. He had seen many such, their families scraping a living from neglected fields, women taking the place of their men folk rendered dead or useless by the ceaseless fighting that consumed all before it. His demeanor softened.

“Bring her along!” he ordered. “But for your own sake I warn you,” he continued to the wretch, “it better be worthy of my attention.” The soldier swung her up behind him and they continued on.

Reaching the gate he reined in his mount. Curiosity consumed him concerning the girl. Probably an unpaid strumpet of Wulfric’s he reasoned – it happened. He had been young and not always wise in his choice of women, though this one seemed to have little enough to recommend her. He’d give a few coins for his memories sake and be free of her…

His wife came running down the tower steps her belly swollen with child. He greeted her with a false smile and took her arm. The wench would have to wait a while.

“Take her to the kitchen and give her some food,” he called to the soldier accompanying the girl.

It was a full hour later when, changed and finally quit of his adoring bride, he made his way to the small room where the girl had been taken. He saw her leaning against the wooden beams as he entered, her face emancipated, eyes red as if she had been crying. She started at his entrance.

“So woman, here I am. What is it so important you dare run the gauntlet of my horses?”

“Sire …” she whispered eyes glued to the rushes that carpeted the floor at her feet. “Sire, it’s…”

“Out with it girl! I don’t have all day. You said it concerned my brother Wulfric. Does he owe you money? Is that it?”

The girl looked up in surprise, eyes open, mouth agape.

“No my Lord. Never that! He was always good to her.”

Edwin paused. “Good to whom?”

The voice was quiet as her eyes once more clung to the rushes, “my sister… he’d bring food and coin, but … there were so many in need … and now he’s gone and the child is born I fear for her…” The eyes glanced upward to meet his gaze, tears brimming within.

“Child? …” The word hung on the air. Edwin scarce dared breathe it forth. “Your sister bore Wulfric a child?” The smudged face nodded.

“When did this happen?”

“About a month since. A fine baby boy sire, but a mite small seeing she’s had little enough to feed him since the money ran out. My father won’t have her back in his house, calls her a whore! But she’s no whore. She’s never been with anyone else. I take her food when I can but there’s little enough to spare…” Edwin stood silent. Was she telling the truth? Or if so what guarantee was there that the child was Wulfric’s?

“Where bides she now?”

“Not a league from here my Lord.”

“Very well, if what you say is true I shall go look at this child and if it indeed be his…” his voice faded.

 

Soon they were cantering down the path from which he had so recently come, a handful of men at his back and the girl once more riding pillion. They stopped outside a small hut of wattle and dub. Edwin braced himself as he entered. The smell of the place was overwhelming. A small, emancipated woman lay on a mattress of straw; a ragged quit covering her shoulders. From beneath the covers a faint whimpering sounded. The babe was hungry. Eyes looked up squinting at the bright light streaming through the doorway, her hands clutching the quilt as if in some way it could make her invisible. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he recognized her as one of the kitchen maids. He knew his brother had from time to time indulged his youthful lusts in such quarters, but to father a child, and take care of the mother thus seemed unlike his wild and irresponsible sibling.

“Show me the babe,” he whispered, his tone calming the girl. Frail hands pulled back the cover to show tiny fingers, large luminous eyes and a small triangular mouth quivering in search of sustenance. He gazed in wonder, there could be no doubt, the cherub face, patches of soft sandy down that lined the crown, the eyes, there was no mistaking the eyes. It was like seeing the ghost of Wulfric reflected there. The tiny face reddened, the cupid mouth opened in an unexpected roar. The girl hugged him close to her chest.

“He’s hungry,” she explained. “I don’t have enough milk for him…”

Edwin reached down and picked up the squawking bundle. Looking into the child’s streaming eyes he smiled, the first true smile since that awful day.

“Don’t worry we’ll get him a wet nurse.” It was a bastard but it was his blood, his brother’s blood. In his illicit wonderings his brother had left him a consolation. Wulfric lived on in this tiny fragile vessel. He would guard it, feed and protect it, gently blow on the flame of hope till it rekindled. The songbird might once more fly and he, the eagle, might find rest for his soul.

“Come,” he said quietly, “I’ll care for you now as he would have done had he lived. You can return to your old work when you are recovered and the child shall live with me. Bastard though he be, he is all that remains of my brother and as such he is precious to me.”

It seemed the spring sunshine found its way within at last; the snow began to melt in his heart. Though the scars of loss would ever remain the pain was gone. Soon, if his luck held, there would be boys in the hall once more. He had brought peace, not for Wulfric perhaps, but for his son and for those other sons yet to come forth.

OTHER’S WORLDS

Standard

fireworks

(A short story from a competition theme of “fireworks”.)

It was Chinese New Year 1985. Elaine looked out over the harbour anticipating the spectacle. Every year the British Consul hosted a gargantuan display to placate the Chinese population’s frustration at firework restrictions.  Random sprays of outlawed splendour  still sometimes lit the sky above the hills encompassing Hong Kong Island with a show of their defiance, but the stream of injured previously dampening the festivities was stemmed.

Though familiar with the history and the complex relationships between native Chinese and her own British expatriate counterparts it was not this that engulfed her mind as she waited for the first triumphant bursts to issue forth from the ships anchored in Kowloon Bay. ..

She was remembering the last time she watched the sky transform in its choreographed blaze of glory. It had begun with the unexpected phone call, from a Chinese friend…

“I need your help. Can you help me?” the voice smooth, cultured with that hint of accent and the odd slip of “Chinglish grammar”. It was “Susie” Chan, or so she was known by her foreign friends. Susie ran a very respectable escort agency supplying guides and dinner dates for the many foreign businessmen that swarmed the city hoping to make deals with the elusive mainland market via enterprising Hong Kong compatriots.

“What do you need Susie?” Elaine tried to sound breezy. What would Susie need at Chinese New Year? Most of her girls would be with their families, even the foreigners would be somewhere imbibing the cultural grandeur of the celebrations.

“One of my girls is sick and I need a favour. It’s a special client…”

With her light brown hair that passed for blond in China, petite features and classic blue eyes Elaine had with difficulty managed to elude Susie’s enticements to work for her. She knew even the most respectable escort girls were not adverse to “turning tricks” on the side and agencies turned a knowingly blind eye. Not that Elaine worried what people might think (she hated expat society and all it represented). She just dreaded the embarrassment of possibly getting propositioned.

“Look Susie I’ve told you before…” Elaine interrupted.

“But it’s Chinese New Year, everyone’s busy. I pay you double! Come on you know you need it. You could buy some things for the girls…” While a charming friend, Susie, like most Chinese women, had a hidden tiger when it came to business.

“He just needs a partner to go to dinner. He’s clinching a big deal. He’s crippled, can’t pick up a girl so easy, anyway he needs a foreigner. Just this once, no need to do anything, just go to dinner and smile…”

Images flashed before her eyes.  Gone was the picture of the slimy businessman, wallet in hand, instead the image of a human being in need… a cripple she said … someone who needed help to clinch a deal… Susie had accidently found a way past her defences. She sensed her indecision.

“He’s a nice man,” she said, “rich…” her tone heightened as she paused knowingly. Elaine didn’t share her perception that rich men were to be pursued and “landed”. Susie, who knew of her divorce and difficulty raising her two girls alone, doubtless felt she was throwing good fortune her way –It was every Chinese girl’s dream to marry a rich Englishman!

“That’s not important,” Elaine stammered still having a hard time swallowing just how upfront her Chinese friends could be. She could tell Susie didn’t believe her.

“He’s staying at the Peninsula,” she continued. “You’d have to dress up.”

“He’s crippled you said?” She wanted to get back to that point, the humanitarian gesture that would enable her integrity to disengage. Susie misunderstood.

“Oh it’s not so bad, he can walk with a cane, he’s not in a chair. I pay you double. ”Elaine could almost hear her smile over the phone.

“How much?”

“Two hundred dollars Hong Kong. Maybe he give you tip, big tip …” Elaine squirmed.

“No tip” she said firmly knowing exactly by what means girls got those “extras”!

“Maybe you like him…” Susie’s voice was full of innuendo.  Elaine wasn’t sure if she felt she needed money bad or that she must want a rich English husband even if he was a little damaged. Susie sensed she was losing her and changed tactics.

“Come on, you’re the only English girl I know, with your high class accent and college background you’ll be perfect. Just this time, I won’t ask again, I promise.”

She did need the money that was for sure, classes stopped over the extended New Year as half the populace, like lemmings in mass exodus, endeavoured to fight their way home for their family gatherings. Pickings for an English teacher were slim and having only returned to HK a short while ago she’d not had time to create much of a cash buffer for her and the girls. “I’m doing this as a favour to Susie and to help a crippled man pull off his business deal,” she told her conscience. It was placated.

“OK, OK Susie, just this once…”

Having finally managed to procure a cab for an extortionate price Elaine stood nervously at the door of 709. The porter eyed her suspiciously. Would he challenge her? She thanked God for her English demeanour. The Peninsular claimed the elite place among Hong Kong hotels and looked frowningly upon any but the upper classes that frequented there. She could imagine what it must be like for those Chinese escort girls trying to gain entry. Avoiding eye contact and trying to look confident she knocked. The sound echoed along the plush carpeted corridor and bounced off formally papered walls. She heard a shuffling sound within. Involuntarily she held her breath as the door opened revealing a man leant awkwardly on a cane as he pivoted the door ajar. The impression lasted but a moment as her eyes were fixed by a glowing smile. He greeted her like an old friend quelling the reservations of the porter still attending his luggage trolley. Embarrassed she rushed to help close the door.

He turned to her.” Did he give you any trouble?”

“No.” Elaine felt the colour creep up her cheeks in a humiliating flush. He pretended not to notice, though she was sure he did.

“Russell,” he said extending a hand, “and you must be Elaine. Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable. We have a little time and I want to fill you in on what’s happening.” Elaine grasped frantically at her social graces as he eased himself into a chair, placing the cane alongside him.

“Susie said you had some kind of business you needed to conclude?”

She wanted to make sure he knew she wasn’t a usual escort girl, that she was Susie’s friend… She sensed a glimmer of amusement in his eyes as he motioned to a bottle of wine set on the table. She nodded and he poured her a glass before answering.

“Yes. I’m in shipping. I’m afraid you’re going to be having dinner with an Arab oil Sheik. Are you up for that?” The corner of his mouth twitched imperceptibly at her confusion. “Don’t worry, just be yourself.” He passed her the glass.

“A little out of my league,” she ventured.

“Don’t worry, all you have to do is look pretty and enjoy the meal. I’ll be the one doing all the talking!” He smiled again. It was not the kind of smile she’d expected. It was far too open, too comforting. She had felt herself on a private crusade to help one in need (and breach a financial pitfall) but instead she found herself quite taken with him.

The wine took a relaxing effect as they chatted informally, his humour setting her at ease. Her curiosity was aroused. Why was he the way he was? Had he been crippled from birth or had some sickness or accident maimed him? How did he handle it so well?  She took in the deep green eyes, the brown curly hair that seemed to match his immaculate informality as, anticipating her thoughts, he explained.

He had made his fortune as a mercenary he said, before the leg injury that brought his career to a close. Bringing to bare his experience of several Middle East cultures in the business world he had slowly increased his wealth till now he dealt in liners. He said nothing further of his disability but seemed so at ease Elaine soon found herself forgetting the cane propped beside him.

Dinner was far less tranquil. Escorted to their table by a stream of overly attentive waiters Elaine took her seat. The Sheik seemed far from aloof, gesturing them to be seated with the practiced wave and perfect manners of a monarch he fulfilled his role with a finesse that set others at ease.

It was the woman that troubled her, excluding culture and charm. Russell had told her his colleague would be there with a companion but…

Elaine took in the perfectly matched co-ordinates, manicured nails, and beautifully coiffured hair as the icon entered into a discussion of the wine list with obvious familiarity. Elaine cringed, as, feeling distinctly inferior in her blue party dress, she hid her untended hands under the table.  Taking a few sips of wine to cover her confusion she was further intimidated as a waiter at her right elbow instantly replenished it. There were five placed about the table like implacable soldiers on guard ready to move imperceptibly forward should the slightest need arise. It was like eating in a goldfish bowl.

The conversation moved around shipping and finances between the men. She remembered Russell’s words.

“All you need to do is smile and look pretty.” Certainly that was all she could manage.

She watched in envy as her nemesis mingled effortlessly in the conversations. From time to time Russell would inquire as to her meal, her comfort etc. rescuing her when she didn’t know which spoon to use, but she was relieved not to have to engage in conversation for the most part.

Her eyes were drawn beyond the retinue of waiters to a magnificent view of Kowloon Bay. The men were making wagers about the speed of a vessel clearing harbour and eventually a call was made, courtesy of the hotel, to the ship’s captain to ascertain the facts. Elaine was strangely proud when Russell’s assumption proved to be correct.

Business finally concluded, the woman took her elegant British self to the ladies room.

“Are you enjoying your meal?” Russell asked leaning over.

In agony over her ineptitude Elaine whispered, “I’m sorry.  I’m not used to dining in such company. I wish I was as accomplished as your colleague’s companion.” A grin crossed his face.

“She’s a prostitute, a very costly one, but a prostitute none the less.” He whispered. “I thought you knew. We all know her (hinting at services rendered).  I told you, just be yourself.” Elaine was dumbfounded.

“I think the fireworks should start soon, we’ll have a splendid view.” He continued gesturing to the window.

The liner was steaming on towards the horizon and with it went Elaine’s misconceptions. When Paula returned she was no longer the English aristocrat but a fellow being of suddenly intense interest. What was her story Elaine wondered? One could not ask.

Glasses were raised as the first fireworks pumped their splendour into the night sky, their glowing colours reflecting in her opulent surroundings. Now she could enjoy the spectacle, enjoy the meal, even enjoy the company. Russell was admiring her along with the fireworks she noticed. She felt a warm glow remembering Susie’s words, “Maybe you like him…” She did like him. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter about the cane, the injury. It didn’t seem to matter to him, why should it matter to her? She watched as explosions of red and yellow silhouetted towering skyscrapers and felt her emotions blossom with their swell. She glanced round at Russell. Ever the gentleman he had given her the seat with the better view. He looked back confident in himself. Elaine smiled and knew this date would entail more than dinner.

It did. As the cane lay unheeded beside the bedside table Elaine felt her body respond like a finely tuned instrument in the hands of an artiste.  He knew how to draw notes of passion from deep within her, how to stretch them upon the air and release them in tumbling crescendos. She knew it could come to nothing, he would be here only a few days, but like the fireworks it burst in a splendour that could not be denied.

Next day she brought the girls to meet him. They were too small to understand what was happening, only that this strange man with a cane was so much fun to be with. He played with them and told stories, bought toys and chatted to them like they were great friends. When they fell asleep tucked up on the plush sofa of Russell’s suite Elaine withdrew to the bedroom.

“That’s one thing I regret,” he said. “I never had children. Maybe one day. Maybe one day I’ll settle down and have a family.”  Having gotten to know him better Elaine doubted it. There was a restless energy about Russell that had to somehow run its course.

“I hope you do someday,” she replied. “They are the most precious things in life.”

“I can see that. In some ways I envy you!”

“But not enough to change,” she teased.

“No, not enough for that.” He turned towards her his fingers beginning already to touch keys of sensation…

He had not changed, she knew he wouldn’t. Like the fireworks the time they shared fizzled and dimmed and the sky was as it had ever been. They saw him off at the airport with promises to write but the letters never materialised, yet she was grateful to him. It was not only the envelope he had sneaked into her bag containing enough to last them well beyond the New Year. It was the illumination of her life. Though short lived the bursts of enlightenment had allowed her to see far beyond her usual surroundings. He had welded his cane like a fashion accessory, something added that made him special and she must do the same. She came with her own “cane” did she not, two adorable young children. She could let that limit her or make her special. She understood, as he had said, she just needed to be herself, that was enough…

Her thoughts returned to the present as her fiancé’s arms enveloped her. She gazed out of the window of their Mid-Levels apartment leaning back into his embrace.

“Still waiting for the fireworks?” he asked.

“Not really.” She turned to look up at him curling her fingers past his collar into the enticing curls at the nape of his neck.  He bent to kiss her as outside the first explosions lit the sky. Elaine was not worried, she knew now fireworks were to be had at any season; you just had to be brave enough to light the match.