A Bad Day

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Mel was having a bad day. Walking into town, for the umpteenth time, ready to bury Mr Atkins in his own bank vault for eternity, she tried to count the number of times her debits and credits had been turned to incomprehensible gibberish by his new software. This morning, no telephone, no electric and and a final demand from the gas company on her doormat. All because his cursed ‘new world of banking’ didn’t know its arse from its elbow!

Growling under her breath, fists clenched, she happened to glimpse a woman and her ratty little dog crossing the street ahead. For the briefest moment, Mel thought ‘Nice’ as the little handbag toy pulled at its lead happily. Then she thought ‘Really?’ Instead of turning down the path to the lake and large green fields, woman and dog – woman taking a furtive glance around first – slipped through the unsecured gate which led to the abandoned car park of a defunct supermarket.

Mel slowed a little, watched the dog snuffle and then dump amongst the weeds, the woman about to walk away. Bubbling rapidly, Mel’s anger gave voice to a yell.

Oi! Take it home with you!”

The startled woman whirled and received her pet’s mess right between the eyes. Mel left the woman frozen in disgust and incomprehension, continuing her stalk into town, up the hill.

Sadly, even for the most perceptive, and the teen coming down the hill was not that – there is no warning when a mental hurricane of fury is about to hit you. He strolled along, eyes glued firmly to his phone in one hand, his vap pipe in the other. Sauntering down the middle of the pavement, he forced Mel out of his path without registering her presence, leaving her enveloped in a cloud of pungent smoke worse than any tobacco she’d ever encountered.

Seriously? You obnoxious little oik!”

She muttered a few words and heard a satisfied yelp and clatter as she turned and walked on. In her wake the teen gaped stupidly at the phone which was slowly melting over his palm, not yet aware of the dropped and shattered pipe at his feet.

Mel’s step had slowed a fraction, her brow smoothed ever so slightly, when she reached the high street. Stopping to rest after the rapid, breath-snatching hill climb, she gazed into the elaborate window display of local shoe shop. Through the open door she could hear the young shop assistants chatting. She corrected herself; bitching.

Her anger came back to the boil as they carelessly ripped apart a shy young lady Mel happened to know. With a small hand gesture and two words, Mel gazed at the pair. She heard their horrified screams, noted the fierce acne breaking out on one, the hair falling like scythed wheat from the other and felt a tiny smile twitch her lips.

By the time she reached the bank and Atkins bustled toward her with a smile at his lips but unease in his eyes she had decided her adventures had earned him the smallest reprieve.

A pleasure, Melissandra” he effused, “Please, sit.”

He ushered her to a seat.

That’s Mistress Hexbane to you, and I want a word.”

She saw his shoulders sag, covered a smile as he sat, his eyes widening and then he wriggled awkwardly.

Piles would do… for now.

 

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Scrapped

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Clara’s eyes snapped open. Had she slept? Not possible, not behind the wheel. She was always so careful when driving. For her, being behind the wheel was a necessary evil. Living in the back of beyond, where buses were rarer than blue moons, a car was a must. Groceries, the school run, getting into the city for work; she couldn’t do it without a car.

It was at that point her building panic eased somewhat. Her brain began to take in what her eyes were seeing and it could only mean she was dreaming.

She stood on cracked and weed-strewn tarmac. A bright sun burned down – she could feel it already pinking the nape of her neck – and left the road tacky under her soles. There was a faint smell that drifted on the occasional breeze, taking her a moment to place it. Her dad’s garage; oil and grease and gas. She smiled, remembering happy afternoons, covered in dirt, messing with a handful of motor parts under the workbench while her father had repaired someone’s old banger; usually their only means of transport and regularly what the motor magazines called a ‘classic’, shorthand for ‘scrapheap fodder’.

The patch of tarmac was just that. Two foot square and hemmed in on all sides. Left and right ran long hedgerows, scraggly, wild. Trees tottered skyward, bent and gnarled, punctuation among the bush lines. Unable, and not particularly wanting, to take in what lay ahead, Carla turned to look back. It was no better. In both directions the road ceased to exist. It became a highway graveyard, a long buried road to scrapyard hell.

Under the increasingly warm sun, there wasn’t so much as a glimmer of light sparking from metal. No shattered glass refracted sunbursts or rainbows. All thrumming, screaming energy, all brilliantly polished colour and life had been sucked under, pulled beneath encroaching earth. The cars were buried. Roofs appeared to have been wrenched off, interiors eaten away, gone to mould and insect food. Open to the elements, they had sat, gradually, over how many years she could only guess, filling with dirt and plants. Never to move again, but for a slow, insidious collapse into flakes of rust.

The only difference she could see, looking between forward and back, was age. Something, a greater sunkeness, a sense of deeper despair, told her the path ahead was newer, Path? What path? She felt a panicky chuckle burble over her lips clapped a hand to her mouth, the sound almost blasphemous in the absolute silence.

‘It’s just a dream. You’ll wake. Meantime, what do you do?’

Muttering to herself, unconsciously rubbing at the itchy skin on the back of her neck, she considered her options. In theory she could just stand still and wait to wake up, but some inner sense told her the only way to get up was to move on. She edged forward, regarding the bumper of the nearest car, wondering how much support there was in the shattered, decaying chassises which stretched far beyond her vision.

Looking up, mulling over her options, she caught movement. A good street length away someone was moving. Even at a distance she thought the figure too small to be an adult. A child then? Without further consideration, desperate for company, for anything but dead cars, Carla scrambled up the first car and began a clumsy, unbalanced run over the tops of the cars. Closing the gap, she realised it was the back of a little girl, no more than eight or nine, similar in age to her daughter.

Hello? Please, wait for me?”

The girl looked backover her shoulder briefly, frowned fleetingly, then her eyes widened and she began to flee, skipping lightly, adroitly, from car to car. Carla couldn’t keep the pace. Her footing slipped constantly, loosely packed earth crumbling, twice pitching her face first into the the body of a car. The second time brought her completely to a standstill.

Landing on hands and knees, groping for grip, her fingers curled around some strut, barely covered by earth. Taking a firmer hold, she thought to use it to get back to her feet. It came up in her hand, too frail, snapping like a twig. She cast it from her with a breathless shriek. A small white bone sat atop the earth, close to where a passenger seat had once been. A nurse for 25 years, Carla knew the bone for the horror it was. The bone of a child, a rib.

Fighting her instinct to run, holding down the burgeoning terror and racing of her heart, she reached for a faint hump in the dirt, uncovered something which might once have been fabric. A strip, a buckle, tarnished; no denying it had once been a seatbelt, the hump the arch of a headrest, a child’s car seat. She skittered back, scrabbled wildly for a footing and pelted to the next car.

Regaining a modicum of calm, she looked for the little girl. Fleet and sure of foot as only a child can be, the girl was a dwindling dot against the horizon. An idea was beginning to form in Carla’s mind, one she did not like at all. Before it could take hold and send her into insanity, she fled across the car and pushed into the hedgerow. It fought back, seeming to fight with sentience as she reached for the trunk of a tree. Old, battered but reassuringly solid when she clung to it and shimmied into its canopy.

She wished she hadn’t, soft whimpers escaping, blinking furiously, as if such would clear the vision she was faced with. In every direction stretched absolute nothing, as if the greyest sky had dripped and leached until it covered the world entire. With an arm shaking so badly she had to support right with left, Carla reached and drew back convulsively. There was a sense of flat, of a wall, but it swirled and writhed, a feeling that the barrier was created by the greyness, a blank bar to any form of beyond.

Miserably convinced there was only up and back, no exits left and right, Carla slipped down the tree and back onto the cars. Trudging forward, her mind threw up two thoughts. It occurred to her that the sun had not moved in the time she had been awake. A good hour had passed but the shadows remained the same, hers trudging at her side. Secondly, it was impossible that she was asleep. From whichever direction she approached it, the problem was that she had been driving and now she was dreaming. It had been a long day, she’d been in attendance for two fatal RTAs and a fatal heart attack. Even with all her years of experience, death knocked you back, wore you down. Michelle, her daughter, had been watching some monotonous drone of a tv show on her tablet as they drove back from school…

She didn’t want to hear it, see it, think it, but… Oh that ‘but’

She’d lost track of how long she’d be walking churning the idea over and over in her head, before she noted the change in the cars. At first they were simply closer to the surface, less buried. Then, her pace quickening with the faint hope change brought, she took in crazed but intact glass in their windows. Colour blinded her, winking in the relentless sun, and she realised these were newer cars, had rested in their graves for maybe months rather than years.

Hope winked out when she saw the battered, buckled and broken state of these newer cars. These were wrecks. Not scrappers her dad might repair, but no-hopers, bent and beaten beyond any recall. These were RTA victims.

She could run now, squeezing and squirming between the vehicles. If they were newer, surely they must end soon? She skidded to a halt, faced with the final vehicle in the newest grave. There was an inevitability about the small red car with the crumpled bumper, the smashed windscreen and the wedge-shape driven into the passenger side door. To the splodge of blood on the shatter of glass in front of the driver seat. To the little girl standing just beyond her reach, frowning.

Michelle?”

You killed me.”

No. Oh baby, no. This is a dream, I promise.”

Even children know when things are not dreams, mummy. You are my monster under the bed.”

As if compelled by some external impetus, the girl turned and fled into the grey. Carla flew after her, shedding endless tears.

Carla opened her eyes. Ahead lay a long line of broken, buried cars, fading to the horizon. At some distance she could see a young girl, running as if chased by a monster.

Time to Say Goodbye

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It was the damage she noticed first. Small things which grew. Her wooden garden fence began to fall over and show signs of rot; patchy at first but gradually to a point where the woods beyond could easily encroach. Seared circles appeared in her once pristine lawn. Her planters cracked. Her wind chimes wafted in a gentle breeze, snapped their chains and fell down the drain.

Mia sat on her sofa, an unread book open in her lap, the TV rambling one soppy chick flick after another. Her answerphone blinked red, red, red. When the phone rang her jaunty message – Philip and Mia are out having fun. Say Hi. – no longer played. Instead, a robotic voice announced messages could not be left and please call again. She didn’t really hear it these days.

She clutched the small silver pocket-watch in her fist, felt the winding mechanism dig into her palm. She no longer wound it, left it forever stuck at 8:20, the sad face. Her dad had been a watchmaker. He’d told her about how shops sold clocks with their hands at ten to two because it made a smile. The watch she had bought for Philip, engraved with ‘Time has no meaning for us; there is only forever’ was stuck on misery.

Three months since he’d left, wandered out of forever time to normality with Janine from the office. Just ‘We’re done’ and gone. She wasn’t sure if she’d moved out of the house since. She had a vague understanding that she had slowly stopped eating, rarely drank anything, but it felt unimportant. Work had been patient but Barry from Human Resources had finally rung – when was a blur – and softly said they had to let her go. After all, his voice ever so slightly mocking, it was only a break-up; not like anyone was dead.

Just her life.

Time passed. The damage spread. She noted broken slats in the blinds at most of the windows. It annoyed her letting in light she wished to avoid. Her steps heavy, exhausting, she made it upstairs – noting a broken bannister and some loose carpet on the way – dragged the duvet from the bed she had shared with Philip and slumped back to the living room. She never registered that, this time, she did not pause to hug and sniff his pillow, anxious for any trace of him. She draped the duvet over the curtain rail and noted an eerie red glow in the dimness. She pulled the phone plug, returned to the sofa. The watch never left her hand.

Later, time no longer relevant, maybe days, maybe weeks, she drifted through the house. Wrapped in the only one of Philip’s shirts without moth holes, legs bare and beginning to be skeletal, she wandered through the house, faintly aware of a bad smell. The kitchen yielded a universe thriving in old cheese and half a bottle of milk. Who was she to wipe out life? She knew how it felt. She shambled back to the sofa, dropped, unaware she was the smell, of the dirt deep in her nails and in the skin which clutched the watch.

She closed her eyes, recalled the light, the happiness when he had held her, promised her all. What had that felt like? Now there was only the void, the darkness, the long expanse of never, stretching away, rolling over the space which had contained her life, her future, her forever. Distantly she was aware of a slide, a scrape, a clatter. A brick plunged down the chimney breast, fell into the cold hearth and coated the room in a cloud of black soot.

And so they found her, cold and still beneath a blanket of black shadow. Six months since anyone had seen her, since anyone had checked in. Several people commented on the state of the house, how it seemed to have fallen into death alongside its tenant, far more dilapidated than to be expected in the time. At the funeral home, gently washing the slender body, the mortician carefully prised open the clenched fist and set the intricate pocket watch to one side. He smiled, echoing the ten to two hands on the dial.

Behind the keys

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Carl sat with his finger poised over the ‘T’ key. He shifted his posture, resettled his finger, adjusted the chair under him, reset his finger. The anglepoise lamp shed a sharp wash of light over the typewriter, limning each metal pad with a personal spotlight. Carl reached out, intending to reposition the lamp’s neck. It jigged backward, just out of his reach.

Fine. Stay there.” he muttered and realigned his finger, the lamp nodding vigorously, momentarily spraying light into his face and across the desk by turns.

He rolled out the sheet of paper, flipped it over, rolled it back in, set his finger over the ‘T’, pecked at it. ‘T’ appeared on the sheet.

Is the ribbon running dry?” he asked, squinting at the paper from various angles. The lamp shuffled over, craning its supple neck to examine the sheet. It shook its conical head from side to side, looking up and blinding him briefly.

I think it is.” Carl decided and drew a fresh ribbon from the drawer in his battered but much loved wooden desk. The lamp looked down, shook its head, would have rolled its eyes, and shimmied back to its original position.

Ribbon changed, Carl settled back in place, snapped the key and smiled at the bold ‘T’ on the page. Having sat there for a couple of minutes, the silence thick and oppressive, he rose, changed the paper, sat again. He plucked a pencil from the drawer, chewed it thoughtfully. The lamp wandered over, looked at the blank page, laid a supportive head on Carl’s arm. He stroked the slightly overheated metal absently;

Why aren’t the words coming?”

They stared a while longer.

David, chucked his older, half-finished notes and stories into a box and shoved it, a little canted, into the bottom of the wardrobe. He smiled at Gilly, his patient wife;

“Carl and his magic lamp are a distraction. Need the space for the novel. Publisher has given me quite the deadline. Need to forget these.”

She nodded, smiled, laid her head on his arm, radiating love and support.

Carl snatched frantically at the lamp, grabbed the typewriter in his other arm, as the world tilted, slid sideways and went dark.

Once Upon a Blank Page

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The book, all glossy black leather and faux age, replete with feather quill pen, had screamed at her from the shop window on the high street. The bookseller within had smiled, asked if she was a writer, what she hoped to use such a beautiful thing for. Something special? ‘Who knows?’ she’d replied before scurrying into the flow of humanity beyond.

Home, sat at the tiny desk with backless stool she’d managed to stash in the under-stairs cupboard, she’d pushed the door bolt into place and flicked on the battery lamp. Trying very hard to convince herself she wasn’t attempting to channel JK in her Potteresque cubby, she’d flicked open the book and gripped the pen firmly.

Two hours later she had learned that doodling on pretend parchment paper created a fine film of paper dust and quill pens had a vile habit of tickling the end of your nose. These caused sneezing which brought a bevy of needy and inquisitive children away from watching Peppa Pig with Daddy and right to her hideaway. She tore the page of peculiarly wonky squares and infinitely uneven spirals from the book. It landed in the kitchen recycling, bounced out and was promptly eaten by the dog.

It was three weeks before she found time to open her precious purchase again. With the kids having sleepovers and husband on a stag do for the weekend, she dropped onto the sofa and chewed the end of her Biro thoughtfully. ‘Once upon a time…’ Her pen flew and she only quit when her hand began to ache. Out of practice, that was a mere five pages, but she sipped her wine and re-read her efforts.

‘Seriously?’

She dragged the pages from the book, balled them and aimed them at the waste basket. They sailed out the open window and floated accusingly on the surface of the lily pond, twirling. How could she have not seen she was writing a cross between every generic high fantasy and some weird twist on Fifty Shades? Bondage amongst the elves huh? This time it appeared all she had learned was just how strange her sexual proclivities were, given a quiet five minutes. She finished the bottle whilst watching The Hobbit – which gave her very odd dreams about dwarves, hobbits and wizard staffs.

Over the course of the summer, she wrote, ripped and wrote again. She tried journaling, but there are only so many times you can write ‘Child threw up. Cat ate the goldfish. School want to see me about Tom… again’ without getting disheartened. Those pages she destroyed to protect the (possibly) innocent.

Next came sketching, but it appeared what her eye saw and her hand drew travelled through some Dali time tunnel and returned as incomprehensible smudges of grey pencil and a joyous blending of colours to the inevitable brown puddle. As to her stills of fruit and flowers; best disposed of before the kids saw them and had night terrors.

Recipes, poetry, thoughts on books she read, all seemed to become lost in translation. The patch of world between her eyes, pen and page formed an odd literary triangle. Every bit as peculiar as its Bermuda cousin. What went in either refused to come back out or became distorted; like coherent sentences were shoved through a sieve, whizzed in a salad spinner and then thrown at the page.

One night in mid Autumn, the kids in bed and hubby watching darts, she sat at her cubby desk and stared at the final page in the book. Oh it was a sight to behold, speaking volumes of the abuse it had suffered since becoming her possession. The spine was broken, the binding scuffed to the point it was easy to believe some demon lurked within and that last page was creased, spotted with tomato ketchup and what might possibly be cat food… or not.

She sighed, let the pen dangle idly over the page and barely noticed when she began to write. The words were minimal but they spoke with clarity;

‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers!’

She rose, left the whole caboodle where it was and went to snuggle with her hubby on the couch.

Twenty years later, when they were selling the house, moving on up now her book series was a ridiculously enormous success, she opened the under-stairs and saw the dusty old artefact lying there. She barely remembered writing those final words on the last sheet, but she smiled gently, running fingers over the page. Funny how her fictionalised tales of life as a soldier’s wife had been the making of her as a writer…

Thank you!

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Just in case you have no time to tarry, the TL;DR version – THANK YOU! Likes mean the world to a fragile writer’s ego. The fact that you took the time to pass by my page, read my tale and click ‘like’ is a huge deal to me; I’m sure it is so for a multitude of writers.

It is a terrifying moment when a writer hits ‘publish’ and send those words into the big wide world. None of us let ourselves believe anyone will ever read a handful of words in an obscure corner of the endless expanse which we call the Internet. With a million other writers blogging and sharing day after day, how will our tiny contribution ever get seen? In our deepest hearts we hope, but on the rolling surface waves we resign ourselves to talking to the void, to no-one ever seeing those carefully crafted, lovingly curated thoughts and stories.

Why do we do it? The urge to write, to share and communicate is as old as the paintings in long forgotten caves; simple images which speak volumes. If a creature meets another creature, communication is a deep-seated need. Who are you? Are you like me? Do we think the same? How are we different? Let’s share information and ideas. Writing a blog or a story is no different. It is the driving desire to share, to speak and be heard by as many other being as possible.

The internet has made the sharing of images – mostly cats and porn, but c’est la vie – and words as simple as a click. Anyone who wants to communicate can. The internet has also brought out some of the worst traits which we hide from polite society, but allow free reign from the anonymity of screen and keyboard. Trolls devastate lives day after day and there is little anyone can do to stop them. The disease of cold indifference is an unstoppable force.

That habit of ‘Who cares? I don’t know them and never will.’ means that countless people suffer blows to their self-worth and confidence on a daily basis; from which some never recover. Too fat, too thin, no talent. That last has happened to me, and I know it has happened to others. When it takes so much courage to commit words to paper (well.. screen and keyboard mostly), to send those words out for complete strangers to read whilst sublimating the yelling voice which says no-one will read, ever, imagine how much pain it causes when someone – a person who probably never even reads what they comment on – leaves a snarky, mean, or outright vicious comment.

I can’t stop them. Trolls will wander out from under their bridges unless we find a way to wall them up. What I can do though is say THANK YOU. Thank you to every single person who has ever read something I have written and released into the wild and left a like or – Let trumpets sound, roses shower down and joy be unconfined – written a positive comment. You, beloved stranger, dearest reader, are the reason I can continue to free my words because you restore my faith in the basic decency of humanity and strengthen my resolve to never let the b*stards get me down!

Please, if you feel the urge, write a comment with your like. I promise faithfully to reply and you will also have the simple pleasure of knowing that someone, somewhere is happy because of you. Thank you.

The Tower of Toys

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Melinda stared through the narrow slit of a window which gave so little light to her study. Throughout the university she could hear low murmuring, soft shuffling and the constant swish of robes against cold stone floors. Drapes and carpets were considered an unnecessary frippery, a distraction from the learning of cold hard facts and the creation of magic. Catching the faint tang of ozone on the breeze – the constant draughts through lack of glassed windows was considered bracing, strengthening – Melinda craned to steal a glimpse of the beach and perhaps a hint of sails.

Her movement brought her dozing tutor, Bairnforth, back to wakefulness with a cough and a disapproving ‘tut-tut’.

Lady Glenfirth, it is unbecoming for nobility to peer and pry. Be seated and recite the fourteen causes of magical backfires.”

Melinda dropped into her stiff-backed wooden desk, closed her eyes and pictured page 1294 of ‘A Student’s Guide to Magical Missteps’. She wondered how many other children of six were sitting in similar seats, reciting similar mantras and rules and spells. Declaiming in a piping rhyme, she considered the possibility that the children whose voices she could hear remotely, shrieking and laughing as they raced across the pebbled beach, were perhaps luckier than she, for all her exalted status and wealth.

Trudging along a freezing corridor to her rooms in the South Loft, tutor trailing in her wake, royal guards a step ahead and behind, Melinda knew she didn’t have any of the gravitas, the pure magical presence of her mother, Queen Elisa. Nurse Gracie promised her little Melly would grow into her power and position but from the height and frailty of six that seemed a distant dream at best. Sensing her entourage stop respectfully at her door, wishing her goodnight, she nodded and quietly clicked the door shut. With a wave of her hand she silently levitated a wooden bar and dropped it into place, effectively locking herself in.

She crossed the room, scaled the four-poster with all the agility of a squirrel – but none of the grace of a princess – and rolled onto the canopy. It gave a little, settled and she fetched up next to a tome which was half her size and probably weighed more. Without her magical efforts she had no doubt it would have had to remain in the dusty, half forgotten realms of the university back library. A smile finally brought her youth to light, gleeful and as mischievous as a street urchin purloining juicy fruits from market vendors. Sitting cross-legged, idly creating a ball of light with a click of her fingers, Melinda began to read further into the delights of ‘Advanced Seeing for Search and Research’. Several hours later she slipped into bed with a satisfied smile, her favourite toys tucked about her as she whispered to them of her idea.

A week later, Melinda thought she was ready. All students were allowed two hours freedom on the sixth day. Most lay abed but Melinda was up just as the dawn began to caress the sky fringes. She collected her small menagerie, a little heartsick at their departure, stuffed them into a sack at her belt and went over the various spells in her head a final time. On a deep breath she muttered the word ‘Tiny’, gestured a series of finger movements into the air and watched the world become gigantic around her. Shrunk to the size of a squirrel, she scampered up the bed in truth, took a flying leap from the canopy and made it through the arrow slit window and into the great elm beyond. A short scurry and she was on the ground.

‘Normal’ heralded her return to usual size and was followed by a very slow blink and a murmur of ‘vanish’. Invisible, she trotted down the great gravel drive of the university, turned sideways, slid through the gates and took off running for the stables. Gaffer Brown headed to the beach every morning to gather from his overnight fishing lines. She secreted herself amongst the sacks and ropes on his donkey-drawn cart and let herself be transported to the beach, dozing gently as the sky turned from pink, through yellow to smoky blue.

She alighted once Gaffer had trundled off to the shoreline, checked her sack of goodies and then gave herself up to ten minutes of simple pleasure, kicking through the surf, skimming stones, feeling the tickle of sea foam against her bare legs. At this hour it was too early for the village children who would be helping with chores, but she saw signs of them. Castles of sand with rag flags dancing merrily in the sea breeze, the remains of a skipping grid not far from a makeshift den and then what she wanted. Atop a flat rock, wider than she was tall, stood a tower of stones.

She sat beside the rock and fished out the three toys from her sack. Tongue poking between her lips in concentration she set them against the rock, a toy tower echoing the stone one. She retrieved a slip of parchment from the sack, re-read the words – Listen Hear Speak – and then reached up to her hair. She winced a little as a few long strands came loose at her tug but soon forgot, absorbed in winding the hair about the parchment, using it to tie the charm to the topmost toy, tucking it out of sight within its ticking.

She heard Gaffer whistling, saw him clumping up the beach with a couple of slopping buckets and knew her time was up. She gave a final wistful glance at her toys then raced for the cart.

Later, whilst Bairnforth droned through the liturgy of ‘Magical Ancestors and Why We Remember Them’, Melinda let her mind wander. It drifted out the window, across the miles to the beach and settled within the toy tower. Her mental eyes opened and she took in the delightful view of several children running in and out of the water’s edge, and one small girl, about her age, walking over to the stone tower. For a moment she stared puzzled at the tower of toys which had appeared overnight, the tentatively stroked the plush of the topmost.

Quietly, gently, Melinda let her words slip from the toy, activating the charm.

Hello, my name is Tinker. What’s yours?”

The girl stumbled back, but curiosity is a powerful force in the young and she sidled back.

Diana. You can talk?”

I can, Diana, but only to you. If you keep me in your pocket, I will be your playmate and we can see everything there is to see, but I am magic and must be secret or the magic will vanish! Can you keep a secret, Diana?”

The girl nodded eagerly, seemed to think that wasn’t enough, and whispered;

I never even told what I saw Gaffer doing with Old Ma Bates in the fish sheds!”

Then pick me up, sit me in your apron pocket so I can see and we will begin our adventures!”

The girl did as she was bidden and, deep in her uncomfortable chair a the university, Melinda grinned.

The Amazing Invisible Woman

Milly stared at the flashing cursor, sitting snugly in the familiar search bar, idly twiddling her hair around one finger. It was the hair which had been the final straw. She’d dyed it just before a family outing. For months she’d ignored the creeping grey, trying to embrace incipient cronehood. In the end it had been more than unbearable; it had made her feel ancient, verging on decrepit. The dye bottle had come out and she’d heaved a sigh of relief on seeing gentle waves of chestnut stare back from the bathroom mirror.

Not a soul had noticed.

She was actually beginning to feel like the woman in the old sketch show; the one who had always had the solution to a situation but, in a group of men, she had been ignored and her ideas stolen by one of them. Week after week she had plaintively cried ‘Can any of you actually hear me?’ The Amazing Invisible Woman the skit had been called and that was exactly how Milly felt. As if she simply melted into the background and became a part of it, invisible to the eyes of those she knew and loved.

As a woman ‘of a certain age’ she was well aware of menopause and all its delightful symptoms, from hot sweats to crippling anxiety, insomnia and packs of lard which appeared fossilised to her hips, impossible to remove. What she hadn’t known was that with that ‘time of life’, as her gran had put it, came invisibility. Women did not go quietly into that dark night known as old age; they just faded into invisibility, no longer relevant, only good for doing chores, feeding hordes and occasionally babysitting, always quietly, always in the background of the lives she had created and nurtured. Lives which no longer needed her.

Feeling the tears begin to threaten, the cloud of sadness hovering, Milly shook herself and resolved to type. She couldn’t be the only invisible woman out there, could she? She considered a moment then typed:

Menopause feeling invisible

She hit enter and was unsurprised to see 451,000 results returned. There were a lot of women of a certain age in the world. Although most results were selling something, variations on the elixir of youth, a couple of forums stood out. The first turned out to be a basic bitching place for every possible complaint associated with menopause and Milly was fairly sure reading other people’s issues would make her feel worse.

Then there it was; The Amazing Invisible Woman – A Place for the Faded. She clicked, watched the forum load and felt miserable when the page showed just one thread titled ‘Help Here’. Without any hope, expecting it to be yet another con, Milly clicked anyway. A box flashed up, plain white with a flashing cursor. It jerked into action;

I”m coming, hang on’

That didn’t seem like a robot so Milly waited.

‘Ok, thanks for waiting. My name is Sarah.’

Milly hesitated but the cursor remained still.

‘Hi… I’m Milly’

‘Nice to know you. I’m guessing you are looking for other invisible women?’

‘I guess so. Thought I couldn’t be the only one feeling this way’

‘You’re not. Know the Daisy Chain cafe on Broad Street?’

‘Yes’

‘I’ll meet you there at eleven tomorrow morning. Gotta rush, job to do. Bye!’

Feeling a bit bewildered, Milly typed ‘bye’, bookmarked the page and sat back. Sarah seemed to be a vital force and Milly couldn’t imagine her ever sitting in front of a window and staring out of it for hours, often in floods of irrepressible tears. She probably ran some self-help group with an iron fist and indefatigable jollity. Probably a WI member, did the church flowers and went to the gym for Iron Man training in between! Milly giggled at the mental image, somewhere between the horrifying Trunchbull of Pam Ferris and Joanna Lumley in Purdey mode, before trudging off to make dinner and fold the washing.

Morning rolled around, the house fell into weighty silence and all but shoved her out the front door, eager to go anywhere there was sound, not just the faint sifting of dust and clocks counting constantly. She stuck her hands deep into her pockets whilst sitting on the bus in an effort to keep from chewing her nails. It was ridiculous to be so nervous. This was just a woman. A stranger to whom she owed nothing. If worst came to worst, Milly could simply turn and walk away from the cafe if anything struck her as odd.

The Daisy Chain was bright and welcoming. It sported sunshine yellow walls dotted with hand painted daisies in riotous abandon. Rustic round tables with two or three chairs apiece scattered across the scrubbed wooden floor and the air was scented with good coffee and baking. It was exactly how she had always wanted her kitchen to be and she felt oddly at home sliding behind one of the tables and ordering a coffee. There were two other occupied tables, one duo and a triple. Women of her age chattering and laughing over doughnuts and coffee. Both tables smiled her way and then greeted a woman coming through the cafe doors with more smiles and waves.

Sarah was a force alright, but not even close to how Milly had pictured her. She sashayed across the room, a cloud of hair escaping her careless ponytail in bright red strands, her gypsy blouse and billowing skirt – both in eye-popping shades of purple – catching on chairs and tables, hands beringed with what looked like the toys from the tops of Gregg’s cakes, and a smile a million miles wide as she flopped into the chair opposite Milly.

Gimme a minute. All this extra padding takes ya breath away to carry it! Clare? Coffee and caramel doughnuts please”

Five minutes later, wiping caramel from her mouth and swallowing a second cup of coffee, Sarah grinned at Milly.

So, feeling invisble huh? Bit useless? No-one even sees you any more, let alone hears you and thinks what you say is relevant?”

Milly nodded, feeling the prickle of tears. Sarah scrabbled a hanky from the vastness of her bosom shelf.

None of that now. Help here that thread said and it was true. We’ve heard it all, how it is time to slow down, take time for ourselves, do what we want to do with the rest of our faded grey lives, right?”

Milly nodded, scrunching and flattening the hanky between her fingers.

But I don’t know…”

Who you are or what you want, right?” More nodding and swallowing of the ever teetering tears, “We are all like it, darlin’ but some of us decided invisibility might be useful.”

Milly perked up, sipped some coffee and frowned.

I can’t think of a single way being ignored and undervalued can be useful.”

What did you do before you became ‘mother and wife?”

I was a teacher.”

Excellent. We can always use brains.”

I’m sorry?”

Oh not that way, dafty. We’re not some clandestine cannibal group. Nope, we’re just a group for women with a unique ability.”

Which is?”

Walking the world unseen.”

Milly drank again, pondering. She pushed her plate and cup away – which had held four bacon sarnies and then two eclairs, set her elbows on the table and cocked her head, interested but wary.

We’re not really invisible. It’s just a phrase. We can’t actually walk around with no-one seeing us. We can’t…”

She gasped then gaped as Sarah gently faded out of view. Glancing up Milly noticed the women at the other tables had followed suit. To anyone peeking through the café’s lace-curtained windows the place would have held just one lonely lady and Clare behind the counter.

What the…”

Sarah reappeared, smiled at Milly and called to Clare.

Couple of drinks over here, love.”

Clare brought two G&Ts and retreated. Milly swallowed most of hers in one gulp, staring in disbelieving silence at Sarah.

Amazing huh? Never thought I could hide in plain sight until I realised it was what I was doing every day. Yes? You see?”

I understand the idea, but how…?

Oh that bit is easy. You already think of yourself as invisible. Now you need to believe it. As soon as you do you’ll be able to fade in and out at will. It’s fun sometimes, I promise.”

She went on to describe popping out of nowhere behind two jeering girls in a communal changing room, remarking on their underwear and vanishing as readily as she had appeared.

…Their faces!” she chortled and then drew a steadying breath, “Hun, there is a reason we have embraced our invisibility. Think about what you can do, what good you can do. Do you want to hear?”

Milly nodded slowly and listened whilst Sarah explained the purpose behind the Faded Females group. Once a member learned how to truly fade in and out they were assigned an area of work. Sarah had been a social worker and she chose to watch over children.

I have a friend who works at the local social offices. She lets me know if there is a case I can help with. I take the ones where no-one is sure if there is an issue. That usually means they drop through the cracks because there isn’t enough by way of resources to check on everyone. I check the ones who are silent, who slide away and only get noticed when the dead kid turns up on the news and the neighbours say ‘but they were such a quiet family.’

How do you help?”

I follow them around, slip into the home, watch what happens. If there’s no cause for alarm, cool beans. If there is, I appear, grab the kid and leave. I swear, the parents are always too stunned to do anything and I can walk away easy.”

All of you do this?”

Different strokes, different folks. Julie there” she pointed to the trio, “ She helps out old folks who are on their own, vulnerable. Kathy works with homeless and Anna with folks in homes who are dying alone.”

Why?”

Really?”

I know why I would do it, but I would like to know why you all do.”

Because we have a gift hun. We have the gift of experience and we can make this world just a tiny bit better. I’m not a fool. I know it also gives us faded ones some purpose, makes us feel needed, but mostly we do it because we can and feel we should. You in?”

Milly drew a deep breath and nodded. Sarah swept up and around, hauling Milly into a vast embrace.

Welcome aboard you amazing invisible woman!”

That night, when the house was still, the dust sifting and the clocks ticking, Milly stood in front of the mirror and concentrated very hard on learning to truly fade.

New Years Resolutions

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Glenys stared down at the blank sheet of paper, idly twirling the pen in her right hand. What to choose, what to choose? Her gaze wandered out the window, roamed vaguely over the animal sat on the fence and back to the paper.

Don? Don! The kids have painted the cat again”

She bellowed from the study, trusting her husband would hear her above the kids as he fed them pancakes in the kitchen.

She wondered if she had ever spent a single New Year not drawing up a list of resolutions she wouldn’t keep. Lose weight; currently she was a stone heavier than she had been in a decade. There was a house full of food she wanted to eat to contend with. She knew she should lose weight but the urge simply didn’t outweigh her desire to eat good food (and sometimes bad). Get some exercise? Another loathsome activity that her mind and body had no interest in. She walked pretty regularly, but seriously, the gym? Everyone and their dog knew that was never gonna happen!

The animal on the fence stretched, arched its back, turned full circle and sat again, staring at the back door. She realised it wasn’t the family cat, Boris. In fact, said cat was just about visible as a pair of eyes gleaming from the depths of who knew what under the garden shed. For an unneutered tom who owned the neighbourhood this was unusual to say the least.

Don? Don, there’s something on the fence. It’s scaring Boris! Get rid of it in case the kids get it!”

It probably said all she needed to know about her kids that the animal was in more danger than they were. They weren’t mean, just boisterous and not always aware of their limits.

She chewed the pen, spat out plastic shards, binned it and thoughtfully picked up a pencil. Limits, huh? Was that a possibility? Maybe she could make a resolution in that regard. Throw out all the stuff she failed at every year and try something different instead. Should she take up a hobby, something unusual. Skydiving? Maybe not; throwing yourself out of a plane for no other reason than to fall back to the ground seemed a little silly. Not to mention heights weren’t good.

Scuba diving. Hmm, you probably had to be able to swim in the first place. Learn to swim then? The idea of swimming in pee water whilst being forced to take her feet off the bottom of the pool gave her the shudders. Nope, Terra Firma thank you very much. Actually, the idea of earth wasn’t a bad one. What about metal detecting? She pondered finding the next Viking hoard, but found herself picturing trudging through thick mud in the persisting rain, freezing cold and not so much as a sniff of treasure. What then?

She sighed, flicked a gaze out the window and noticed the animal was gone. Don must have scared it off, but Boris hadn’t plucked up enough courage to come out apparently. In fact he was yowling piteously. Still churning ideas in her head she decided to talk to the family, see what they’d come up with. Reaching for the doorknob, releasing herself from her woman cave in the back room, she realised the house was hushed. Much as this was a blessed relief, lack of noise from her kids usually meant they were up to no good.

The kitchen was deserted, but a piece of paper had been blown from the dining table and was about to vanish under the fridge as another blast blew through the room. She stepped on it with one be-socked foot whilst reaching to poke the back door shut with an overextended arm. It was no great surprise that the inelegant pose did not prove balanced and she descended to the floor with a painful bump; just in time to see the presumed note flee out the not-quite-closed door with a gleeful little flutter.

‘Gymnastics is out then’ she mumbled to herself, hauling upright via the kitchen counter and searching for her phone. She stared at herself in the dead screen. ‘Not memory master either it seems.’ She hadn’t a clue where she’d left the charger and the idea of hunting for it through the piles of new toys and, as yet un-tidied, boxes and wrapping paper was actually less appealing than braving the snow in the back yard. She stuffed her feet into her wellies, flung wider the back door and almost landed back on her behind as Boris shot in, barrelled through her legs and fled upstairs at roughly Mach 2.

She stomped down the path, grumbling incoherent complaints about everything, aiming for the note which had secured itself in the depths of the climbing rose that rambled over the shed roof. Of course it was bare of all but thorns and she had no gloves. Cursing virulently, she winced and ouched the note free and read it aloud in the silent garden.

‘I have your family. If you want them back, bring me a cow.”

She read it three times, growing ever more infuriated before bellowing;

Don, if this is your idea of a joke I am not bloody amused!”

She turned and began to stamp back to the house, then the voice reached her. Smooth, low, made her think of the Cheshire cat crossed with that snake from Robin Hood. What was it called? Terry Thomas voiced it. Was it Hiss? Sir Hiss?

She was well aware her mind was desperately trying to avoid acknowledging that the animal had slunk to the edge of the shed roof and spoken to her.

“Don’t you want them back?”

She rotated on the spot, stared into those yellow eyes with the enormous pupils, at the mouth full of teeth, and couldn’t think of a single word which suited the situation. Instead she went with cliché and was pretty sure the animal was rolling those penetrating yellow eyes.

You can talk?”

Bring me a cow and you can have them back.”

Seriously? A cow? Where the bloody hell am I gonna get a cow?”

Not my problem.”

I could just be hallucinating.”

The creature was suddenly clinging to her jumper, staring her in the eyes. She hadn’t even seen it move, but now its claws were slowly driving through the wool, heading for her skin.

Do I feel like a dream?”

She shook her head, well aware of its warm weight on her chest. It was kinda cute, close-up, in a terrifying ‘I will eat you and suck out the bones’ sort of way.

How do I know you have my family?” she managed.

The thing was back on the shed roof, grinning. It waved a dagger-clawed paw and a hole seemed to tear open in the space beside it. Inside, lit by a purple light and seemingly in a torrential snowstorm, Glenys saw her two boys and their father, huddled around a candle which was guttering repeatedly.

Candle goes out, so do they.” the creature grinned, clearly enjoying itself immensely.

Which is how, on New Year’s Day, Glenys Jones, school teacher and harassed mum, came to be desperately bidding on prime cow at the nearest cattle sale she could find; simultaneously trying to save her family and make a New Year Resolution; Lose weight, exercise, learn to swim… anything normal!

The Little Drummer Boy

She wandered about the house, idly fluffing tinsel and blowing off stray glitter. The tree twinkled in the window and she paused a moment, pondering. Her mother had always told her never to put her tree in the window; ‘It’s just showing off… a lack of taste. It attracts the wrong sort’. She’d never been very specific on that point, but her tone was the one reserved for those who had the audacity to rise out of the ‘normal’ pile. For years Mari had followed the tradition, bound on all sides by many of her mother’s pretensions wrapped in adages. This year was different and she had to admit, it was mostly because she was bored rigid.

In the last few days before Yule she would usually be baking frantically, the kitchen a dumping ground for every conceivable mince pie variation, pudding concoction and cake experiment she could get her spoon into. Not this year, not with her very own conception cooking and due out of the oven before the New Year. She wasn’t a weakling, terrified to move in case it damaged the sleeping babe; she was simply exhausted.

Instead she had ended up decorating the house with the same dedication she gave her baking and there was barely a space free of glitz and holly, sparkle and mistletoe. She’d spent a couple of days shifting the tree around until some spark of rebellion, a need to start anew with the new life, placed it firmly in the large bay window of the front room.

Gazing at the slightly drunken fairy, seemingly uncomfortably pinioned aloft, Mari heard a thunk. She turned, trying to locate the sound and had to steady herself on a chair back, her girth unsettling her balance. Silence settled firmly over everything and she took to pacing through the ground floor once more.

She still wasn’t quite used to her childhood home suddenly becoming her domain. It had always been ruled by the iron will of her mother. Shoes off the second you came through the door and stood on the mat. Elbows off the table. Bed made before you were even dressed. No boys brought home. All dates inspected during a ‘tea’ for said purpose. So many other rules that Mari had spent her youth creeping from foot to foot, almost silent and dateless because she couldn’t face putting any boy through the ordeal of ‘tea’.

When her mother had suddenly announced, Mari at the start of her 7th month, that she was going to live with her sister, Maud, in California, there had been a long moment of speechlessness. Gladys had then informed her daughter that the house was hers to caretake until Gladys died; then it would be hers alone, mortgage free. Inside two weeks, Mari was installed and Gladys was a ghost under the Cali sun.

Mari desperately wanted to change the furniture, but so far had managed only to rip off all the plastic protectors. She still fought the urge to instantly make beds and dust constantly, but chances were that would fade when baby arrived and she had no time for such nonsense. On which thought she trekked upstairs, shoved open what had once been the door to her bedroom and surveyed the nursery she had created.

Art school had been the saving of Mari. Away from home, with no restrictions, she had spent the first three months drinking, partying and saying yes to any boy who looked in her direction. Joel had been her salvation. One of the ‘catches’ in her year, his art was of the sublime to look at, impossible to understand school and it was rumoured he was already on several shortlists for patrons and awards. He turned up at Mari’s flat one day, dragged her hungover form to a greasy spoon and shoved a full English and copious amounts of coffee into her.

Whilst he fork-fed her eggs and tilted coffee over her lips, he’d berated her for wasting her prodigious talent, told her he wasn’t going to let her do so any more and set her straight on a few realities she wasn’t sober enough or honest enough to face alone. By the time she left the school she had a job with a very exclusive interior designer who adored her fresh ideas, and she was married to Joel, living with him in an exquisite penthouse in one of the nicer parts of the city.

Now there was a mini them, due as close to Yule and a new year, new life mentality as they could manage, given the vagaries of conception. They’d agreed to stay in the house, give up the flat to save money for baby and nappies and college, but Joel couldn’t get away from his final commission before the holidays; an unfinished mural in a church at Christmas wasn’t really the thing. She hadn’t minded, pouring her efforts into the nursery which exuded warmth and light, colour and impatience as she leaned on the door frame. The only room she’d dared change so far.

She dropped wearily into the rocking chair, set within easy reach of the yellow robed cot, and let the wealth of cushions pillow her aching back. The walls were a riot of fluffy animals, fairies, gnomes, abundant trees and innumerable flowers all laced together with sparkling streams, achieved with subtle applications of glitter. The window blinds were blue with a blazing sun for daytime and deepest midnight bedecked with stars for sleepy times.

Mari felt herself drifting to sleep, which often happened as soon as she sat down. Her eyes flicked open on hearing a thud, followed by two more. Probably Maisy, next-door’s cat who liked to try all the windows in case she could sneak in and sleep in the washing basket. Her eyes slid shut. Thud. Thud thud thud.

She shoved herself out of the chair with an effort and crossed to the door, looking along the length of the hall toward the airing cupboard. Thud thud. Thud thud thud. Mari felt there was almost a rhythm to the sounds. Daft cat was probably stuck. The sounds returned again and again, varying the beats, but becoming steadily louder, insistent.

Finding no cat on her upstairs tour, Mari set off downstairs. She slipped on the fourth stair from the bottom, felt her heart stop as she began to fall and grabbed frantically for the bannister. She achieved a less than graceful descent onto her behind, landing with a jarring bump, but no obvious damage. Having barely managed the process of hauling herself back up, she slumped into the front room and dropped onto the sofa. Staring at the tree in the bay window, listening to the thumps, now in a constant pattern – Parrupapumpum, ruppa pum pum, ruppa pum pum, she sighed.

With no energy to search for the cat she shuffled her phone off the table and considered dialling Anne, her neighbour who was on standby. Whilst pondering if it was worth sending Anne into a panic she noted the picture on the opposite wall jump slightly. A terrible print of some bluebell wood, it bounced out, a good inch off the wall, settled again. The phone forgotten in her hand, Mari watched the picture dance two, three times more and then bounce straight off its hook, clattering to the floor.

Could the cat be stuck inside the walls? Was it, gods forbid, a rat? The thumping was definitely louder. Perhaps a pipe having problems in the freezing cold? About to lever herself to her feet, she dropped the phone and gasped as pain shot across her stomach, tensed her body and then dropped her back to the sofa, exhausted. ‘Not now, no, not now’ she muttered; ‘Not until Joel gets back, please’.

Staring at the lighter patch on the wall she rode out three more waves of pain which seemed to resonate with the thumping in the walls. Phone! Get Anne! Ring Joel. Parrupapumpum. Pain. Tense, relax, breathe. Breathe like the midwife taught. Ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum.

The wall began to move. Gods, let it be some delirium caused by the pain. Breathe. Parrupapumpum. Breathe. Phone. It had slid into the bay, fairy lights twinkling on its mute screen. She couldn’t get up, couldn’t reach. Pain.

The wall pressed outward. Hands. A face. Moulded in unfaded wallpaper. Parapapumpum, ruppapumpum, ruppapumpum. Breathe like the… breathing with the drumming, breathing through the pain, watching the face in the wall. Watching it burst through.

Figures began to stream through the room, dancing, singing, piping, drumming. Wings fluttered, voices sang in dulcet melodies. The air shimmered, sparkled, showed light and laughter. A man and woman, waltzed in the centre of the maelstrom, diadems on their brows. They halted for the most minute moment at Mari’s sofa, smiled, blew kisses, spoke blessings on mother and child before whirling away in scents of pine, holly, mistletoe and fresh snow. They swept through the room, passed through the tree in the window causing its lights to shake and jitter and vanished.

In the sudden silence Mari, stunned into forgetfulness of her pain, heard one final sound; the panting of someone running to catch up. A young boy burst from the wall, his drum bouncing wildly off his chest, eyes wide. Mari pointed to the tree and he fled after his troup. Reaching the tree, he looked back, looked down.

‘My phone’ Mari managed as another wave took her.

Confused for a moment, looking about, the child caught her gaze, directed at the phone and picked it up. Hesitant, he stepped lightly to her, his drum beating a faint tattoo on his chest as he moved, and dropped the phone into her open hand.

‘Thank you’ she murmured.

He smiled, gently beat out a final ruppapumpum and then set his drum and sticks under the tree before disappearing into the lights.

As Mari called up Anne’s number she smiled at the tree in the window;

‘Mum, I reckon you were wrong. Trees in windows attract just the right sort.”

My favourite version of the song