Monday, 26 July 2010

First, Conquer The Heart

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In the summer of 2012 it seemed that everyone except me was having recurring dreams.

I didn’t dream at all: I hadn’t done since I was 12, when I’d fallen out of a tree and fractured my skull. I’d had emergency surgery and after a few initial dizzy spells, the doctors thought I’d recovered fully. I realised quite soon though that I’d lost the ability to dream.

Of course, my family and all my friends knew that I didn’t dream; (I’d often told them I didn’t, though I’m not sure if they ever believed me,) so when everyone else started having dreams, I was the person they all wanted to talk to.

Everyone wanted to talk about how great their dreams were, how much their dreams meant to them, but nobody wanted to listen to anyone else’s dream experiences: only their dreams mattered. I was the ideal sounding board. I was there to listen, and whoever told me about their dreams knew that I’d listen with no chance of me subjecting them to tales of my own.

My friends described their dreams to me. They weren’t just good dreams: they were incredible dreams, beautiful dreams. Nothing spectacular seemed to happen in them, but after a while, I discovered that they all had one thing in common: every dreamer experienced immense pleasure because they spent time with a very special person: someone who to them was more important than anyone else they knew or had ever known. Every person who dreamed was totally and completely devoted to their dream companion: they were a combination of a lover, a parent, a mentor and a devoted friend. The more religious of my friends saw their companions as all this, but also as angels, as saviours, almost as gods. People would spend their waking hours looking forward to their dreams; they even started to go to sleep earlier and to stay in bed later whenever they could, just so they could experience their dreams sooner and enjoy them for longer.

My best friend’s wife spoke to me of how wonderful her own dream companion was, how she’d be prepared to do anything for him, about how devoted she was to him and how much she loved him. I wasn’t surprised: her husband had already said pretty much the same about the lady who inhabited his dreams. I asked her if she minded her husband feeling like that about another woman, even an imaginary one. She assured me that she didn’t care, and that she didn’t even want to know about her husband’s dream. It didn’t matter to her, only her own dream was important.

Everyone had the same opinion. I seemed to be the only person who wasn’t walking around in a half-trance with a love sick smile on my face.  Everybody else went on with their lives pretty much as normal, but I could tell that they were just biding their time during the day, until the time they could go to sleep, to be with the person that they really wanted to be with.

So when the first ‘event’ of 2012 happened, I was the only one who was surprised that it did. It would appear that every other member of the human race (or so it seemed to me at the time) had been prepared for what happened at noon on August 12th 2012.

It was a Sunday, and I was taking advantage of the warm weather by walking in the park. These past months, there had been hardly anyone around on Sunday mornings, (most people took advantage of the weekend to sleep until the afternoon, and to spend more time with their dream companions,) but today there were a lot of people in the park, all either sitting alone on the grass or wandering around by themselves. Even though I should have been used to it by now, it was odd not to see groups of people, or even couples spending time together.

I was just beginning to wonder why everyone was out of their homes this early when, on the stroke of noon, everyone sitting on the grass stood up, everyone walking stopped in their tracks, and everyone, every man, woman and child I could see, started to smile more than I’d ever seen people smile before as though every one of them was looking at something wonderful.

“George,” a voice behind me called my name.

I turned to see a lady standing there. To say she was beautiful doesn’t do her justice: she was the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen. She reminded me of a girlfriend I’d once had in my teens, and in a way she also resembled a girl I’d worked with and admired from afar a couple of years ago. She smiled, and it was the smile my mother used to have: the smile she used to make things better when I was upset. This woman’s eyes shone with love and with desire, and I knew that those feelings were intended for me and me alone.

Had she not spoken again, she would have won me over; I would have decided there and then to do anything she asked of me; but she did speak, and what she said shook me out of my trance.

“We have shared our dreams for a long time now, my love,” she said. “I know how much you have longed for this day to come, now that you can behold me here with your waking eyes.”

“But I haven’t dreamed of....” I started to explain, but my protests were cut short.

“In thirty days time my love, we will at last meet in person,” she interrupted, “and from that day onward, we will spend our lives together.”

I realised that she couldn’t hear me. She was as oblivious to anything I was saying now as I had been to the dreams she seemed to think I’d been experiencing.

“I will not arrive alone though,” she continued, “All of my people will be with me, each one of them coming to be with their chosen member of your race, each of us choosing to spend our future here with you. I trust you will welcome all of my people with the same joy and the same spirit with which you welcome me. It will please me if you do.”

Then she was gone. I looked around at the other people in the park. Some had tears in their eyes, though they were quite obviously tears of joy. Everyone seemed to be as happy as they possibly could be. Then for the first time in months, they turned to each other; they nodded and smiled at each other.

So it was that our world was invaded, for invasion was the only way to describe it. Not invasion by force though, nor by guile and cunning. The alien population that arrived on Earth during the second ‘event’ on the 11th September were welcomed here by almost the entire population, with almost every member of it eager to welcome their own personal companion. We gave our world over to them with no resistance and no objection.

Now they walk amongst us and they rule us. Physically, they’re identical to us, or at least to the most attractive of us; only by their manner and their attitude are they distinguishable from humans, and then only by the few of us who are unaffected by their glamour.

They treat humans with contempt; they consider us animals, using us for whatever purposes they require, and every human does as they are bidden, just to make their own companion happy.

It means nothing to the companions to let millions of our people die if it benefits them. They enslave the very people who worship and adore them and still, nobody objects because the humans serve them through misguided loyalty and with unconditional love.

In the entire world, there are only a few hundred of us who were not taken in: a handful of us that are unaffected. We wait, we bide our time and we plan. One day we will find a way to release our people from their subjugation, and then when the time is right, we will oppose these alien invaders and drive them from our world forever.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Lost Weekend (Or Something Like)

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I've based the following short story on an anecdote an old school friend told me about an experience one of his workmates had early in his career in sales. I can't say that it's loosely based, because I'm sure that if anyone involved should ever read it, they'd recognise the episode right away. But I have changed the names to protect the guilty; (to be honest I can't even remember the names of the original people involved, so if by some strange quirk of chance I've accidentally managed to use the original names by mistake, I apologise to all concerned.)
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A Lost Weekend (or Something Like)

I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go to the firm’s summer barbecue. Usually, I was all for taking part in social events but so far they’d consisted of nights out on the town, and that had been fine: that was my idea of socializing. This one was different: it was being held at noon on a summer Sunday. I wasn’t usually up until noon on a Sunday. My regular Saturday nights out made sure of that.

The rest of the guys on the sales force pestered me all week: “You’ll be there on Sunday, won’t you Paul?” they’d keep on saying, along with things like “We look forward to it every year,” “You’ll finally get to meet my wife,” and “You’re going to love it.”

I was pretty certain that I wasn’t going to love it. Being an organised event, there would be awards and prizes given out and if there were going to be awards then it was pretty certain that there would be speeches too, and I always got bored listening to speeches.

The promise of a free bar almost swung it for me, but this was back in the days of restricted licensing hours, and since all the pubs stopped serving at 2pm on Sundays, the free bar would only last for two hours.

I mentioned my reservations to Mike. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “The prize giving's all done light heartedly, no speeches at all really; as for the bar, they’ll stop serving at two all right, but there’s always plenty of wine to see us through the rest of the afternoon.”

As it happened, two of the guys I normally went out drinking with on Saturday were at a wedding that week, so it looked like I’d be staying in the night before. Under the circumstances, I could get up early on Sunday and make it to the barbecue.

It went quite well to begin with. I always got on well with the guys I worked with, and it was great to meet their wives and girlfriends. I was there by myself, and Mike’s wife and a couple of the others picked up on that saying they felt sorry for me being all alone; they pretended to mother me, and flirted with me. Still, the guys didn’t seem to mind, and it was all in fun after all.

When the prize giving started, I got the surprise of my life. The sales director stood up and the first name he called out was mine: “Best new salesman,” he announced, “is Paul Harris.”

All the guys applauded loudly and overdid the cheering a little. I stood up and went forward to receive my prize. I can’t say I wasn’t flattered, but I was more embarrassed than anything. Anyway, what the hell was I going to do with a trophy?

Only it wasn’t a trophy the boss gave me. It was a bottle of whisky and not just an ordinary bottle either. It was the biggest bottle of whisky I’d ever seen. When I got back to my seat, I checked the label and it was three litres; that made it a little over four times the size of a standard bottle. “Fantastic,” I thought, “Much better than a flaming trophy, and worth coming for.”

The barbecue continued. The bar closed as expected around 2pm but there seemed to be plenty of wine to keep us going. I noticed a few glances toward my whisky, and to be honest, I fancied having one myself, so I opened it and for a while we all drank whisky from wine glasses while most of the women stuck with the wine.

We all got very drunk as the afternoon went on. I looked at my whisky bottle. There was less than a quarter of its contents remaining. I couldn't find a glass, so I unscrewed the top of the bottle and started to swig straight from the bottle neck.

Mike spotted me drinking from the bottle, and laughed; then he started to clap slowly and chanted “Down in one! Down in one!” The other guys heard him and spotted what I was doing; soon they were all chanting  along together: “DOWN IN ONE! DOWN IN ONE!

What can I say? I was already very drunk, and I know it wasn’t a good idea, but before I knew where I was I’d drained the bottle. There were cheers from my colleagues; some of them slapped me on the back, as though I’d done something to be proud of. I didn’t feel good though; I didn’t feel at all good.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the day. I remember feeling very sick and rushing to the toilet, but I don’t remember coming back. Somebody must have taken me home, because that’s where I awoke: back home in bed, on top of the bedding, fully clothed.

I had the mother of all hangovers. I noticed it was light outside, and I glanced at the clock. Shit! It was the morning, and I’d slept right through my alarm. I had just over half an hour to get up, get showered, do whatever I could about this bloody hangover and then get to work. I resigned myself to being late this morning.

I raced around getting ready, at the same time as dosing myself with paracetamol. I thought it best not to drive into work, as I suspected there might still be quite a lot of alcohol in my blood stream, so I rushed out and jumped on a bus.

I arrived at work about twenty five minutes late. I raced through reception, jumped into the lift and arrived on the floor I worked on. I stood outside on the landing to compose myself, then opened the door and walked slowly into the office.

As people saw me, they went quiet; this caused others in the office to look in the direction they were looking and they too stopped talking immediately. There was total silence as I started to walk the length of the office. Then someone started to clap slowly. Someone else joined in, and then another until by the time I got to my desk, the entire office was giving me a slow hand clap.

I spun around defensively. I might have made a fool of myself at the barbecue, but I’m sure lots of other people did too. Why single me out? “OK you lot,” I shouted, “I got drunk, and because of it, I’ve got into work nearly half an hour late, but what about it?”

I’d stunned them into silence again by shouting at them. Suddenly the silence was broken by a couple of people giggling. Then Mike walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “But Paul,” he said, “Today's Tuesday!”

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Pretty Rough for the Billy Goats Gruff

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Another twisted fairy story. This time I've just taken the story of the Billy Goats Gruff and updated it  a little, relating what really would have happened if the troll hadn't been quite as stupid as he was in the original tale.
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(Twisted Fairytales III)

Pretty Rough for the Billy Goats Gruff


There were once three brothers called ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’.

Now if truth be told, they probably weren’t actually brothers. It was certain that they were at least half brothers, because nobody could deny that they’d all come out of the same mother, but apart from the fact that goats don’t usually breed for life, all the other goats knew that their mother, Nanny Goat Gruff had particularly loose morals, even for a goat. It was therefore almost certain that the three brothers all had different fathers, which would account for the vast differences in their sizes.

Had Nanny Goat Gruff ever possessed a book of baby names together with the ability to read it, and if she could have been bothered, she’d probably have named her sons something like Frank, Simon and Gavin, but not having the book, the talent or the inclination, she left her sons unnamed. The other goats recognised them more from their appearance than anything else and since goats as a species are not renowned for their imagination, they became known as ‘Big Billy Goat Gruff’, ‘Middle Billy Goat Gruff’ and ‘Little Billy Goat Gruff’.

One day, as Little Billy Goat Gruff munched on the dry grass, he gazed across the river to the lush, greener pasture on the other side, and longed to be able to graze there. He knew there must be a way across, because on Sundays the shepherd and his dogs would lead the sheep through this very field and head upstream, and a little later, the sheep would appear grazing in the field over on the other bank. Now he had no idea whether sheep could swim or not, but the very fact that they went upstream implied to him that the chances of crossing the river were better there. Little Billy Goat Gruff was the clever one amongst the three of them; his brother Middle Billy Goat Gruff would never have thought of that, and his other brother Big Billy Goat Gruff probably couldn’t be arsed to even consider it.

There was talk amongst the other goats of a bridge upstream. It was said that it was guarded by a troll who was known to eat anything that attempted to cross his bridge, including goats. Nevertheless, Little Billy Goat Gruff told his brothers that he intended to cross over and off he went on his way upstream.

When he arrived at the bridge, he started to cross, but underneath, the troll that guarded it watched him until he reached the halfway point, then suddenly jumped up and blocked his way.

“Where do you think you’re going boyo?” asked the troll. “This is my bridge, and nobody crosses it without my permission.”

Little Billy Goat Gruff was a little frightened by the big ugly troll standing over him, but being a clever goat he decided he’d try to talk his way out of it. “I’m off to the opposite bank to graze on the green grass,” he said. “Look how small and thin I am. I need to eat that lush green grass, so that I can grow as big as my brothers.”

“Well I don’t think I’ll let you,” said the troll, “I’m hungry you see, and I’ve had barely a scrap to eat since breakfast time. I could let you cross, but I think I’ll eat you instead.”

Little Billy Goat Gruff had to think quickly. “Why bother with a little thing like me?” he asked, “I’d hardly be more than a snack for you. Why not wait until my brother tries to follow me across then you can eat him instead? There’s much more meat on him.”

The troll thought for a while. He looked up at the sun and noticed that it wasn’t at its fullest height yet. “Well,” he said, “I don’t usually have my lunch until about noon, and that won’t be for an hour or two yet, but I do have a terrible nagging hunger.”

“Oh,” said Little Billy Goat Gruff, “My brother is sure to be along by noon. He’ll be here well in time for your lunch.”

The troll stroked his chin as he considered his options. Little Billy Goat Gruff smiled inwardly to himself. He was sure he’d talked himself out of trouble.

“You’re right,” said the troll after spending a moment or two considering. “I’ll have your brother for lunch when he comes along.”

Little Billy Goat Gruff started as if to continue his journey across the bridge, but the troll stopped him, grabbing him around the throat.

“However,” he said, “I am terribly hungry, and though you speak truthfully when you say the little meat you have on you is unlikely to fill me, you will make a tasty snack to keep me going until lunchtime.”

“Oh shit!” thought Little Billy Goat Gruff as the troll dragged him under the bridge. There was a little pleading and complaining on the part of the goat for a short time, and then the only sounds coming from under the bridge were the sounds of the troll chomping flesh and crunching bones followed after a while by a satisfied burping sound.

Just before noon, Middle Billy Goat Gruff approached the bridge. He stood at one side and peered across to the green grass on the opposite bank. He saw no sign of his brother. Middle Billy Goat Gruff wasn’t as clever as his brother, but he was braver, though he was also a little cautious.

The troll watched the goat from under the bridge. So this was the promised brother was it? Well, there was certainly more meat on it, that was true. He realised that this goat wouldn’t be as easy to overpower as its smaller brother had been, but he was still hungry after his snack and had set his heart on a proper meal. As the goat stepped onto the bridge, the troll jumped up from underneath and barred its way.

“And where do you think you’re going, my lad?” he asked the goat. “This is my bridge, and if you want to cross it you’ll have to take me on first.”

Middle Billy Goat Gruff looked the troll up and down. He looked like a tough one this troll. The goat was pretty sure that he’d have had a chance of beating him, had he managed to surprise the troll first; getting a good butt of the horns into the creature’s crotch before it noticed would certainly have given him an advantage.

“You think you’re big enough to stop me, do you?” asked Middle Billy Goat Gruff. “You seriously think you’re hard enough to take me?” This was a technique the goat had used before in sparring fights with other goats. He found that it often helped to appear confident and tougher than he really was; that way his opponents started to doubt their own abilities and even began to fear him a little.

“Oh, I’m sure I am,” said the troll. “I’m sure I can stop you, certain I can take you, and I’m even positive I can eat you.”

At this point Middle Billy Goat Gruff realised that his blustering technique hadn’t worked this time. “Sod it,” he thought, “I might have to fight him after all.” What would his clever little brother do in this situation? Of course: he’d bluff his way out of it.

“Why try to make a meal out of me?” he said to the troll. “First of all, you can be certain I’ll make a fight of it, so you won’t best me easily, and if you’re going to work that hard for a meal, wouldn’t it be better to make it a feast? My brother will be along in a moment or two. There’s a lot more meat on him. The meal you get from him will be worth the struggle.”

The troll looked at Middle Billy Goat Gruff. The animal had a point: it did look as though it’d put up an awful struggle for the size of the meal it’d make. After a while he said: “Well the thing is, as much as I appreciate you’re likely to put up a fight, and even though I believe you that your brother may have a lot more meat on him, I also realise that your brother is likely to be an even tougher opponent than you.”

Middle Billy Goat Gruff didn’t like the sound of this. He braced himself ready for combat.

“However, I do like a challenge,” the troll continued, “and normally I’d relish the idea of going up against your big brother. But I ate your little brother, not two hours ago and to be honest, it took the edge off my appetite. I’m still hungry, but I think the extra meat on your brother would probably go to waste, so I’ll just settle for you I think.”

“OK then you big ugly bugger: Have some of this,” shouted Middle Billy Goat Gruff as he charged the troll catching him full force in the middle of the belly. The troll grabbed the goat’s horns and wrestled him to the ground. The pair of them rolled over a couple of times and gradually the troll managed to drag the goat under the bridge. The sounds of the struggle continued for a while and then there was silence; a moment later, the only sounds coming from under the bridge were the sounds of troll jaws munching on goat flesh.

Later, the troll snoozed under the bridge; he’d enjoyed his two course meal. Goat meat wasn’t one of his favourites, but it was palatable. Tomorrow was Sunday, and the men and dogs would be leading their sheep across his bridge. Perhaps if he looked out for stragglers from the flock he could catch a couple of stray lambs. Yes, lamb would be lovely for his Sunday lunch.

Suddenly the bridge above him shook. He peered out from underneath it and saw the biggest goat he’d ever seen standing on his bridge. So this was the third brother was it? It was enormous this one, almost as large as a small bull. Its legs and shoulders were covered with muscle; its back was straight and strong, and its horns looked like deadly weapons as they curved upward and backward from the top of its massive skull. Steam appeared to come from its nostrils as it breathed and the whites of its eyes were marbled with blue and red veins as it gazed across the bridge to the other bank. The bridge shook again and then again as Big Billy Goat Gruff slowly walked across the bridge unchallenged.

“I’m buggered if I’m going up there,” thought the troll. “I wouldn’t want to face that big ugly sod at the best of times, and certainly not when I’m struggling with a full stomach.”

Big Billy Goat Gruff walked over the bridge, and the troll fell back to his snoozing, thinking about tomorrow’s lunch.

Big Billy Goat Gruff slowly munched the lush green grass. He was the quiet one of what had once been the three brothers. Not so much strong and silent: more quiet and timid. He may have looked like he was as hard as nails, but in reality, he was as soft as shit, and if he had come to blows with the troll from under the bridge, it’s a fair bet that the troll would have absolutely twatted him with very little effort at all.

The moral of this story is that you don’t have to be big and tough to get on in this world, you just have to look the part. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving, and if people think that you’re harder than you are, it can often prevent you from getting beaten, or even eaten for that matter.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

All the Better to Cheat You With

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Another twist on a traditional fairy story. This time transferring the role of villain... (wolves always get such a bad press!)
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(Twisted Fairytales II)

All the Better to Cheat You With


Althea examined her patient. She pressed lightly on his stomach and he whimpered; a little firmer pressing and his whimper changed almost to a howl. As she had suspected, he was suffering from severe stomach cramps: nothing serious or life threatening, but painful and unpleasant none the less.

In less informed, more superstitious times, people would have called Althea a witch. It wasn’t that she practised the occult in any form of course, but more because of who she was and where she lived.

She’d been brought up in this very cottage, deep in the woods. Althea’s mother had taught her all about the wild flowers and forest herbs and what they could do. Ever since being a child she’d managed to keep herself healthy by relying on what she knew; it was very rare that she had to visit a proper doctor even now, in her seventies.

Her life had been very different for a time. She’d moved to town and joined the ‘real’ world when she’d reached her teenage years, and eventually she’d settled in town and raised a family there.

Once her family had grown up she’d longed for a life like the one she’d experienced in her childhood. She’d had two children of her own. Her daughter had emigrated, so when she’d retired, she’d signed over the family home in town to her son and his wife, and had decided to move back into her mother’s old cottage, here deep in the woods.

Of course her son and daughter-in-law had objected to that. They wanted her to live with them, they said; but she knew that probably wasn’t true, and even if it was, she knew them both well enough to be sure that their opinion would change in time. Anyway, she didn’t feel old, she wasn’t an invalid, and she wanted her independence.

Everyone had said that it wasn’t safe for an old lady to live in the forest, so far away from the rest of civilization, but she knew her way around the woods, and knew that she was in no danger. They’d warned her about wolves, and she’d laughed and told them that there were no wolves in the forest these days.

She’d lied, but only to stop them worrying. Of course there were wolves in the forest, but they were harmless. The reputation of wolves was much worse than the animals themselves. She liked the wolves; she got on rather well with them. With some more than most, she thought as she looked down at her patient lying on her parlour floor.

She helped the large overweight wolf gently to his feet, and led him into her bedroom. She couldn’t leave him lying on the floor, and she was sure he was too big to feel comfortable lying on any of her furniture other than her bed.

He cautiously jumped onto her bed, and lay stretched out on her mattress. She’d had the foresight to remove the bedding, because she knew that wild wolves were crawling with fleas, but then, when his groans and howls got a little worse, she pulled an old blanket from the chest at the foot of the bed and covered him over with it.

When she’d first moved back here, she’d soon heard the pack amongst the trees. She didn’t seek them out; she just left them to themselves, but they were obviously aware of her presence, and eventually they came closer to the cottage to investigate. She’d leave kitchen scraps out for them. After a month or two, their visits became more frequent, and they began to supplement their diet of woodland mice, rats and rabbits, with whatever she felt she could spare from her larder.

The majority of them were timid and cautious even after months, but a few were a little braver, coming really close to the house. One such wolf was the one that was now lying on her bed. He had been the most forward of them all, actually scraping at her back door, and standing his ground when she opened it to feed him.

After a short while, she noticed that he was seriously putting on weight, and she realised that he was consuming almost all the scraps she put out for the pack. She decided to cut off his supply for a while, but each day he would paw at her kitchen door, or stand on his hind legs with his forepaws on her sill, looking through her window with a pleading expression on his face. How could she resist?

For the past month he’d actually been coming into her cottage on cold nights. She found this unusual, until she realised that the rest of the wolves had probably expelled him from the pack, and he was now relying on her more and more. He was grossly overweight, and couldn’t hunt for himself, which was probably why the pack didn’t want him. She decided to do her best to get him back into shape. It had been a setback when he’d raided her food store this morning and had eaten the entire contents, hence the terrible stomach ache he was experiencing right now. She looked down on the now sleeping wolf on her bed and smiled. You might be big, she thought, but you’re not bad.

She knew what she had to do. She’d make a herbal brew that would put him right. She thought about what she’d need: marjoram she could find just a few paces from her cottage door, and she knew of a nearby woodland meadow where she could find wild yarrow. For the brew to work effectively though, she knew that she also needed calendula, and she would probably have to walk over to the other side of the forest to find that; there were no paths going that way, so the trip would take her at least an hour.

It was Monday: pension day. Today was the one day of the week when she expected a visitor. Usually she’d be undisturbed here, so far off the beaten track; even her son and his wife refused to visit. They felt so strongly about not wanting her to live here, plus there was no way they could get their car close enough to her cottage to park, so they just didn’t visit. She would occasionally visit their home from time to time, when she went into town shopping, but she was happier being left alone most of the time and living here away from town suited her, so even those trips out were rare.

Her granddaughter, Leticia did visit her regularly though, every week. Leticia held her pension book, and would devotedly collect her grandmother’s pension every Monday and then do some shopping for her on her way home from school. Without fail at about five o’ clock she’d turn up carrying a basket of groceries, and also hand over the pension money.

Leticia had no idea about the wolves, and certainly didn’t know that one of them was sharing her grandmother’s house; she’d be here in a couple of hours, so if Althea was to gather her herbs, prepare and administer the medicine, and get the wolf out of the cottage before her granddaughter arrived, she’d have to be quick.

It was a little chilly outside, so Althea grabbed her coat, picked up a bag, and left the house, hurrying as quickly as she could.

~o~O~o~

Leticia looked into the basket: honey, apples, tea, breakfast cereal, a couple of cans of soup and assorted vegetables. That hadn’t cost very much. So once she’d given Gran half her pension money which was all she’d grown to expect, that would leave a nice bit of extra pocket money for herself.

Holding Gran’s pension book had been a brilliant idea. Gran appreciated it, and Mum and Dad were ok with it too. The letters from the pensions department always came to their house, because it was the last address they had for Gran, so Leticia dealt with them. She also dealt with collecting Gran’s pension every week, and unknown to Gran, she also dealt with keeping almost half of it for herself.

To begin with, she had felt a little guilty, but Gran seemed to manage very well on what little money she passed her way, and Leticia really struggled to buy make-up and clothes on the allowance that her parents gave her. The ‘granny money’ as she thought of it, came in really handy.

On Saturday she’d bought herself a new pair of jeans and a really cool hoodie. Together they looked really good. She told Gran that she was planning to buy the hoodie and would wear it today; she hoped her Gran liked it; if she did, it would ease Leticia’s conscience in a way.

She walked along the path through the forest toward Gran’s house. This would have to be a short visit: the nights were beginning to pull in early this time of year, and she didn’t want to be walking back through the trees in the dark.

She approached Gran’s house and called out: “Hello Gran. It’s me, Leticia.”

There was no answer. Gran was probably snoozing in her armchair. Never mind, she never locked her door during the day. Leticia would let herself in.

She let herself through the kitchen door, and walked through to the parlour. No sign of Gran: where could she be? Then she heard a muffled groan coming from the bedroom and realised that Gran was in bed. I hope she’s not ill, she thought, Bloody hell, if she dies, I’ll have to get a part-time job!

Leticia put the basket of groceries down on the kitchen table. She realised that she still had Gran’s pension book in her hand, so she stuffed it hurriedly into the pocket in her hoodie. She walked over to Gran’s bedroom and knocked. “Hello Gran,” she called softly, “Are you ok?”

She slowly opened the door. It was quite dark in the bedroom because the curtains were closed. She could see movement on Gran’s bed, the blanket moving up and down as she breathed heavily in her sleep.

Leticia put her hand on the sleeping form of her grandmother and gently shook her. The blanket slipped a little. She looked down on the grey haired head lying there and thought about how much fuller Gran’s hair looked in the dim light. Then one thing occurred to her: she noticed how for some reason, Gran’s ears seemed to be big, hairy and pointed. She took a step back as the head on the pillow rose slowly.

Leticia noticed a couple of other things apart from the unexpectedly large ears. She didn’t have time to remark about the eyes, considerably larger than she expected, or the enormous teeth that surprised her as the wolf in Grandma’s bed yawned quietly.

Leticia turned and ran from the room. As she ran, her hip caught the armchair in the parlour and she fell, full-length onto the floor. The thought of an enormous wolf behind her was enough to make sure that she regained her footing almost immediately and she ran from the cottage, as quickly as she could and raced through the woods back into town.

~o~O~o~

Althea returned soon after. As soon as she walked in, she noticed the basket of groceries on the table. Leticia must have been.  The bedroom door was wide open and the old lady realised that her granddaughter had probably discovered the wolf. She hurried into her bedroom. The wolf was still sleeping soundly. Althea wondered what would happen now. Leticia would have probably run straight home, thinking that her grandmother had been eaten by a wolf.

It would be best to brew the herbal tea right away and get the wolf up and fit and out of the cottage before the girl’s parents or the police or goodness knows whoever arrived. She turned and walked out of the bedroom and back to the kitchen.

On the way, she noticed something on the floor. She picked it up. It was her pension book. Leticia must have dropped it as she left. She studied it. So THAT’S how much I’m supposed to get is it? She thought to herself. She knew that Leticia had been leaving her short, but didn’t know by how much, and to be honest, she didn’t really mind. She welcomed her granddaughter’s visits; a little embezzlement was a small price to pay. Anyway, she had her other pension: the private pension that went straight into her bank account. The state pension that Leticia collected for her didn’t really make much of a difference.

She thought about what to say when her son arrived. Of course she’d deny any knowledge of a wolf; she’d even tell anyone who asked, that as far as she knew there were no wolves in the area. That should keep them happy.

Of course Leticia wouldn’t ever visit again, partly out of fear, and partly because sooner or later she’d realise that her little scheme had been discovered. That was a shame. She’d been looking forward to seeing her granddaughter this week. She’d promised to wear that new red hooded top she was going to buy at the weekend.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Case of the Beanstalk Burglaries

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(Twisted Fairytales I)

I stood on the high stone step in front of the door, but what a door? It was immense. Solid oak and seven feet wide, and it stretched up so high in front of me that I had to strain my neck to see the top of it. About nineteen or twenty feet, I estimated.

It wasn’t just the door that was peculiar; it was a strange house altogether. I noticed how deeply the door was set back into the solid grey stone, and realised that the walls must be at least ten feet thick. There were no windows set in the wall at this level, and only thin narrow ones that were more like arrow slits higher up. They seemed too high to be on the first floor above ground, though still a little low to be at a higher storey. Perhaps this place just had very high ceilings.

I scanned my eyes along the entire front of the building before I knocked. It was more like a castle than a house. How the hell did anyone manage to break into this place? But that was why I was here: a robbery had been reported and I was here to interview the householders.

I knocked. I waited. After a while I heard footsteps approaching: slow, deliberate, heavy footsteps, and the sound of a deep male voice, a voice muttering something under its breath. It sounded a little like “fee fi fo fum” or something. Perhaps the householder was singing to himself.

Then I heard more footsteps. This time faster, shuffling footsteps. They stopped, as did the heavy ones, both clearly a long way from the door by the sound of it.

“You go sit yerself down agin, moi dear,” I heard a woman’s voice saying. “You’se still a bit shaken moi love. It’ll be the man from the police. oi’ll deal with ‘im, so oi will.”

The heavy footsteps sounded as though they were moving away from the door now, sounding even slower than they had done. The other steps came closer to the door then stopped. The latch clicked then the door creaked as it slowly opened.

Two things occurred to me right there and then. One as the door opened, and the other seconds later as I saw the person that had opened it.

First I realised that the door hadn’t been locked. When would these people learn? They were bound to be victims of robbery if they didn’t take the security of their property seriously. A place like this would be impenetrable if they’d bothered to fit a cylinder deadbolt lock or even a decent mortise.

I made a mental note to mention this to the householders before I left, then the door was fully open and all other thoughts were forgotten as I saw the lady standing there.

She was big. I mean really big! I knew that there were a lot of people around who were much taller than me; I'm only just above average height, being only thirteen feet, three and a quarter inches; (the quarter inch is important, when the minimum height for the police force is thirteen-three,) but this lady must have been at least sixteen feet tall. I’d never seen a woman as tall as her; in fact I couldn’t remember seeing a man as tall as that.

“Hullo moi dear. Can oi help you?” she said.

“Jacobs ma’am,” I replied, “Sergeant Joseph Jacobs. I’ve come about the robbery.”

“Ah, we’ve bin waitin’ for yer,” she said as she stood back from the door to let me enter. “Only since we called, it’s been an' gone an' 'appened agin. This morning, it were. It’s two robberies now, so it is.”

I entered the house and she closed the door. She led me up a staircase and through to a side room off the first floor landing.

Two robberies?” I said, “You’ve been troubled again?” Thieves were known to return to the scene if they knew there were further pickings, but not usually this soon after the first robbery. “How long is it since the first robbery? Two days?”

She offered me a seat. The furniture here all looked a little on the large side. I sat down in an enormous armchair, as did she. Even she looked small sitting in the matching chair opposite mine. It was as if they’d been designed for someone larger even than her.

“Yes moi dear,” she replied, “it were Tuesday when we was first troubled. Oi’ve told my ‘usband not to leave ‘is bags o’ gold lying around on the table after ‘e’s bin counting it, ‘cause the big old beggar falls asleep," she shook her head slowly, "Eee, the times it’s bin left to me to lock it away for ‘im.”

“I noticed that your front door was unlocked when I arrived,” I informed her. “Was it unlocked earlier this morning, and on Tuesday?”

“Oh we never locks the door,” she said chuckling to herself. “We don’t usually needs to. Not with that ruddy great castle wall and moat around the ‘ouse. The only reason you managed to get in today was because oi saw you comin’ from the tower, so I lowered the drawbridge and raised the gate. Nobody can get in ‘ere if we don't wants 'em to. Nobody gets even as far as the front door if we don’t let ‘em.”

“The robber got in though,” I said. “How do you think he managed it, if your grounds are so secure?”

“Ah,” she said, “Benjamin and oi have bin talking about that.”

I presumed Benjamin was her husband. I waited and let her continue.

“We thinks he’s tunnelled ‘is way in.” She paused and looked at me, clearly expecting me to be surprised. I wasn’t. In my days with the force, I’d seen burglars try all kinds of tricks.

“If you looks out that there window behind you,” she said, pointing, “You can see to the far corner of moi garden.”

I struggled to escape from the enormous armchair and when I had done, I looked through the narrow glazed slit in the wall.

“You see ‘ow just beyond the veggies, there’s all that ground mist?” she said.

I looked. Ground mist, indeed: it was very curious; it looked for all the world like clouds at ground level.

“Well you see that small beanstalk poking out the mist? That weren’t there last week, an' moi Benjamin reckons if an ol' beanstalk can poke its way through there in a few days, then maybes someone can tunnel in from the outside too.”

“It’s a possibility,” I told her.

“More ‘an a possibility it is,” she said. “Oi saw the young bugger runnin’ that way this mornin’. Bold as brass wi' our little ‘en under ‘is arm. And he disappeared as he jumped into yon mist right near that there beanstalk.”

“A hen?” I said. “This morning it was a hen that was stolen? So the thief didn’t even have to enter the house then?”

“Oh ‘e entered the ‘ouse all roight,” she said. “Crept through the front door and lifted the ‘en from roight under our noses, so ‘e did, while we was havin’ a little cuddle before we got out of bed this mornin’”

“You keep a hen in your house?” I asked, “and in your bedroom too?”

She laughed. “No, not usually in the bedroom, you daft ‘un,” she said, “We usually keeps ‘er in the parlour, but after the bag of gold got robbed, we decided to take ‘er into our room for safety like.”

I clearly looked puzzled, and I was. Why the hell would a burglar want to steal a chicken?

“Oh ‘ere’s me confusing you,” she said. “She ain’t just an ordinary ‘en. She’s a magic ‘en. Moi Benjamin collects magic ornaments an' stuff. The big old fool ‘as quite a few of ‘em now so ‘e does. ‘E Loves to jus' take ‘em out an' look at ‘em. E’s like a kiddie with ‘is toys sometimes, as big as ‘e is.”

“Magic hen?” I said. It looked like we might be looking at something of real value being taken here.

“Aye,” she answered. “She lays eggs o’ gold. Only tiny ‘uns mind, because she’s only a tiny ‘en. But oi can see why she’d seem to be worth stealing to a little lad like that.”

“Little lad?” I asked. “So he was smaller than usual, was he?”

“Smaller than us, much smaller than you an' oi are used to,” she said. “But moi Benjamin tells me 'e’s been places in ‘is younger days where all the people are little folk. None of ‘em much over six foot tall ‘e says. 'England', I think 'e said the place is called, an' they really ‘ate us big folk there ‘e says.”

I made a note. I’d heard of these places where the little folk lived. Places where they called us ‘giants’. It was well known that we were hated amongst their people, but to come here to steal from us? It was looking  like this may even be a racially motivated crime.

“Are we certain that the perpetrator of the first robbery entered and made his getaway the same way though?” I asked. “Could there be any other way someone has entered your premises?”

“Well oi doubt it very much moi love,” she answered. “It were the same lad after all.”

I had to agree that there was a very good chance that both robberies had been committed by the same person, but unless there was evidence, we couldn’t just assume that. She could clearly see me frowning as she’d made her accusation.

“All roight,” she said. “Maybe it weren’t the same lad, because in all ‘onesty neither Benjamin or me saw ‘im the first time, but ‘e were certainly one o’ them little folk from that England place, so ‘e probably got in the same way.”

“How can you be certain if you didn’t see him?” I enquired.

“There was a pong left in the ‘ouse,” she said. “We noticed it soon as we woke up Tuesday, then agin as the lad left our bedroom this mornin’. Benjamin recognised it. ‘E said ever since ‘is younger days e’s recognised it. ‘E can smell the blood of an Englishman, can moi Benjamin.”

“Your husband’s magical collection:” I said. “Is there anything else of value in it that might tempt the thief to return?”

“Most of it's either worthless, or too big and bulky for one of them little folk to carry off,” she replied. “There is the ‘arp o’ course.”

“The harp?”

“It’s the pride of moi Benjamin’s collection,” she said, “It’s a little magic ‘arp that plays itself. It sings too. ‘E loves that ‘arp, more ‘an ‘e loves me sometimes oi reckon.”

“I would suggest that you lock it away then,” I said, “In case the thief returns before we can apprehend him.”

“Oh, moi Benjamin won’t do that,” she said, “though I wouldn’t put it past ‘im to ‘ave it sleepin’ in the bed wi’ us from now on. ‘E was most upset this morning about the ‘en, an’ when he discovered we’d bin robbed agin, ‘e went straight to where is ‘arp is.”

“Still,” I told her, “You ought to make certain it isn’t stolen.”

“It won’t be,” she said, “Moi Benjamin says if anyone tries robbing ‘im o’ that, ‘e’ll grind ‘is bones to make ‘is bread.”

“I must point out that we don’t advise taking the law into your own hands Mrs Tabart,” I warned her, “nor can we condone your husband using violence against any intruder.”

“Oh ‘e won’t though,” she chuckled, “E‘s as soft as anything; as gentle as a puppy, despite ‘ow big ‘e is.”

“And if anyone else does enter your premises uninvited,” I said, “call us on our emergency number. On no account try to apprehend them yourselves, and don’t even try to pursue them.”

“Just what oi said to my Benjamin,” she replied, “‘E said he’d chase the little sod off, if ‘e comes back. But I said to ‘im: Benjamin, oi said, You’re getting’ on a bit ‘an you’re not as fast on yer feet as you once were; if you chase ‘im down toward that beanstalk, you might just stumble an' fall."

"Oi ‘ad a look at the ‘ole that beanstalk’s growin’ out of," she continued, "and it’s a big ‘un. Moi poor ‘usband could come a cropper if ‘e fell down there!"

Monday, 5 July 2010

An Ending....

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He sat in the armchair.

So what happens next? He thought to himself. Of course he knew exactly what would happen next. It was just that he had no idea of exactly when it would happen or how it would happen.

He glanced at his watch. His family wouldn't be home for hours yet. Suddenly intense guilt flooded over him: No. Not just over him, but through him. His entire being felt it flooding through his body, drowning any resolve he had and for a brief moment he regretted what he'd done.

Perhaps it's not too late, he thought, perhaps I can still do something about it. But then he stopped panicking and relaxed a little. There was no going back. He'd thought about taking this action for months, weighed up all the consequences, wondered how his wife and family would take it, and whichever way he looked at it he'd decided without a doubt that what he had in mind would solve absolutely nothing. But he also knew beyond question that it would end his part in it and that, he'd convinced himself, was what he really wanted.

He picked up the empty pill bottle that had been half full only an hour before. He'd been very careful selecting what he was going to take. He'd done research at the library and on the internet about the nature and effects of different drugs, to ensure that he selected something he was easily able to get hold of, and would do the job properly as he intended it to. But also he'd made sure that he chose something where the effects would be painless.

He chuckled to himself. He was such a coward when it came to pain. The idea of cutting his wrists had occurred to him, but just the thought of that first slice of the blade had frightened him away from that idea. He'd thought of throwing himself under a train or jumping in front of a passing juggernaut on the busy trunk road near his home. Death that way would be pretty instantaneous he'd thought, but then he started wondering about what would happen if he timed it badly; what if he just bounced off, not dead but suffering serious injury and still living this awful life? He couldn't cope with the added agony of constant physical pain to match the emotional pain he already endured.

It was always the thought of the pain that had made him turn away from actually taking this step so many times before. He wasn't afraid of dying. Well, that wasn't quite true: He wasn't afraid of being dead, though the process of dying and the pain that may well come with it really terrified him. That was just the way he was. He was a coward.

Yes. A coward, the thought occurred to him. Only a coward would see this as a way out. That part of his mind that wanted to turn back was getting to him again. But he wasn't going to give in to thoughts like that. He wouldn't be tricked into changing his mind. His resolve was stronger than that and he only had to hold out for a few more moments because soon it would definitely be too late to turn back. A glance at his watch again. It was probably too late already.

So what would dying be like? He'd read accounts of people who'd attempted suicide, but of course none of them had actually succeeded. Mostly he was convinced that his experiences would be similar to theirs: surroundings gradually fading away, as senses become less and less acute, until eventually everything just stops.

However a small part of him wondered about fate and whether things were predetermined. If there was such a thing as fate, then would an attempted suicide definitely feel the same as a real suicide or could the feeling have more to do with the final outcome? He half smiled to himself and  half grimaced: So if he felt anything he didn't expect, that could well confirm to him that his attempt was destined to be successful.

The radio was on. He couldn't help but listen, but the music was all wrong. Every so often a happy song would be played and it would annoy him. How the hell could anyone anywhere be happy? Life wasn't like that. Then he'd hear a sadder song, but it was never sad enough for him, or relevant to the way he was feeling so that maddened him too. It was too loud. He was sure he'd turned it down earlier; how come he could still hear it clearly?

He picked up the remote to lower the volume some more. That was strange: he'd taken his glasses off, and usually his eyesight without them was terrible, but all the numbers and the functions on the remote were clearly in focus; he could even read the remote control's brand logo clearly. He turned it over. The small print describing how to open the battery compartment was clearly visible. 

He smiled to himself. Perhaps he'd found something else in these tablets, perhaps they'd cured his terrible eyesight. A breakthrough, he thought to himself, a bit bloody late though!

Suddenly he wondered where he'd left his note. It had been difficult to write a goodbye letter, attempting to explain why he'd done what he did, apologising for it to all the people who loved him, while still trying to justify the decision he'd made. He glanced over to the coffee table by the sofa. His letter was there. He thought about some of the details he'd included in it. Strange, he found he could read exactly what was written on the paper, even at this distance, at this angle and despite his own awful handwriting.

He looked around the room. Everything he saw seemed somehow more solid, but he couldn't explain why, and then it struck him: he was focusing on everything at the same time. Wherever his eyes fell, the things he looked at were in focus, but so were the objects in front of and behind them. Even things just in his peripheral vision were distinct and clear.

The radio still seemed loud despite him turning it down again, but then he realised: it wasn't loud, only clearer to his hearing. It must have been relatively quiet, because he could also hear the two neighbours up the road discussing football as they washed their cars. He recognised their voices. He knew they lived four or five houses away, but he could still hear every word of their conversation clearly. He heard the birds singing in the garden, but he could distinguish between those in the trees at the front of the house, and those in the back garden; not only that but each individual birdsong was distinguishable from the rest.

He rested his eyes for a moment. The sounds continued, and then he became a little frightened: even though he couldn't see his surroundings with his eyes closed, he was aware of every object in his sitting room. He could almost see in his mind's eye, everything on the desk adjacent to where he was sitting; he could even read the spines of every book on his shelf without actually seeing them, even down to the publishers badges on their spines.

He opened his eyes again. Things had changed: Now the colours of everything had increased in intensity. No. Not actually more intense, but each colour was more saturated, everything more colourful but without being brighter. The darkness of the mahogany woodwork was more positive in its darkness; the brightness of the paper on his desk was purer, whiter and more definite in its brightness. Everything he looked at was somehow more solid, more intense and more real, as though it somehow appeared to him in more than three dimensions.

The sounds he heard now were clearer, with more definition, as though everything he'd ever heard before had been muffled and muted. Now, not only could he hear the sounds from his own radio, but he could hear clearly what the people next door were listening to, as though the wall separating them wasn't there at all. He heard every conversation that people were involved in for yards around, and every single one of these sounds that he heard was registering in his mind as though he had been concentrating and listening intently to that sound and that sound alone.

So this was what happened when you died was it? He sat forward and listened; the sounds within his own house were nothing compared to those in the world outside. He looked toward the nearest wall and found that he could even sense objects outside through the brickwork, just as he'd sensed things through his closed eyelids moments earlier. So much was happening and he was experiencing much more of it now than he ever had before. The rest of the world had somehow become part of his own life in this small way; he realised that so much more went on than just the events that were important to him. Some of them had been trivial to him but so, in a way had his own problems been.

He looked around the room again. The walls that surrounded him weren't real anymore. They may as well not have been there. He was still within this room, but his consciousness was outside of it too. Every object in the room with him became more real to him, became a part of him, but then none of it was more important than anything outside was. He could now even see the air around him. Even the air was relevant to him now as was every single thing he was aware of, and he was now aware of so much more.

He was conscious of everything now: he was at peace with the world, with the whole universe, but also finally at peace with his place in it, his small part in it. He knew at that moment that his problems weren't worth killing himself for, because there was always something else that was as important or more important. If he'd known all this earlier, he'd have coped with his problems, realising that there was so much more out there in the universe around him to balance the questionable relevance of his minor problems: a universe that he was just a small part of, but that he was a part of it nevertheless, or at least he had been.

He closed his eyes. He wept. He'd cried a lot recently, but his tears then had all been selfish tears. It was himself that he wept for even now, but not in a selfish way. He wept because he realised that he'd finally come to terms with the meaning of existence, with the beauty of the world, with the relevance of the universe. He wept partly with joy, partly with relief, but mostly because he knew what he'd discovered, and that he'd discovered it too late. He was a part of the universe, only a small part, but just as important as any other, and soon the universe would continue on without him in it. 

He sat back, he closed his eyes and he died.

The universe continued on without him. But it was without him.