The Wrong Road

The near-blind walk in the foggy dark is long and slow and terrifying. 

I track my route forward by feeling the crumbling edge of the road through my shoes. When the ground beneath my thin soles feels too smooth or solid I know I’m potentially veering into the path of traffic and step sideways onto the verge where the low, wet branches catch in my hair. This way I keep myself safe from traffic that won’t see me in time. But no traffic comes. It is, after all, very late.

Every few moments, ribbons of fog caress my face or drift in front of me or hover under the trees to watch me prod on along the edge of the ridge. Somewhere below the river rushes over low flat rocks, and above me the branches drip and around me my footsteps echo with a soft, sticky squelch.

My phone is dead. My car is somewhere miles behind, also dead.

Ten years ago I knew this road well but now I’m not so sure where I am. The fog has blurred all the half-familiar points. Instinct told me to go up the valley rather than down in search of help. Sooner or later I’m sure there’ll be a village and then at the very least, I’ll be somewhere rather than nowhere.

And then, at last, I see a pub across the road, lit up, the only oasis of hope in the darkness. 

I gasp, remembering it from all those years ago when it stood graffitied and abandoned, loitering, glowering with its back against the rock of the mountainside, derelict and empty. But now it is bright.

I cross the tarmac and stand for a moment outside, unable to believe the pub is actually open, clean, welcoming, after all that time I’ve been tramping in the dark. I’m soaked through, dishevelled probably, but there’s nothing else to do but enter. I open the door and step inside, the soft light more blinding than the fog. 

It’s empty but for the landlord who leans on the bar fiddling with his mobile phone, straightening with a puzzled smile when I appear then looking over my shoulder. I half turn as the weight of the door is taken by someone else. 

A woman, as damp as I but somehow yet elegant is crossing the threshold behind me. 

She has a face I could never forget. Her hair seems too heavy for her head and her long damp skirts cling to her legs. I expect her to follow me to the bar, but instead she just sits near the window and stares out into the darkness. She, like the road, seems familiar and yet not quite.

I tell the landlord what’s happened and order a drink, then realise I have no money on me and find my bank card has expired.

‘You both look like drowned rats,’ he says. ‘Sit down and have a coffee on the house. I’ll see if I can get a recovery vehicle for you.’ 

The woman says nothing when he puts the drink down in front of her. If he’s surprised we aren’t sharing a table it isn’t obvious. Perhaps he thinks we’ve argued over the break-down.

There is a pool of liquid on my table. I use it to doodle, trying to capture the curve of the woman’s head and shoulders as she clasps her cup and peers within as she’s scrying.

Forcing my finger into sweeps and lines slows my heart from panic to mere anxiety. The wall lamps in the pub are dim and the night beyond the windows is not so much darkness as a subtraction of light so the woman is shadowed, her features cast into angles and swirls. Hers is the kind of face people describe as ‘not remotely beautiful but-’. The kind of face that has stared with silent authority from babyhood onward.

In the background, the landlord speaks into his mobile too low to follow. He’s taking his time. How hard can it be to get a recovery vehicle? I falter over sketching as my agitation grows and then the woman says, ‘is that what you really want to do?’

Her eyes are fixed on me.

I smear the image away and shrug.

She rises and presses her nose to the window. The fog is thicker than ever and seeping wisps of it squirm on the doormat.

‘No good,’ says the landlord, stabbing his phone to end the call. ‘He’s got a family emergency.’ His expression is one of curious pity. ‘This isn’t a road to drive without enough fuel.’

‘I know,’ I snap. ‘It wasn’t that. Where’s your payphone? I’ll reverse the charges.’

He shakes his head. ‘We haven’t got one. There’s one down the road a bit. You probably walked past it after you abandoned your car.’

‘I could have walked past my own grandmother.’ I shiver. Even in the moonless darkness drifting strips of fog had seemed like people. ‘And I didn’t abandon it. I left it. Can I borrow your mobile?’

The landlord considers his phone. ‘Signal’s gone again. It’s a bit intermittent look. Weather’s probably affected the mast.’

It isn’t hard to imagine the fog coiling up and suffocating whatever emits a signal up that forsaken mountain. 

‘Have you got a landline?’ I’m desperate. ‘Could you phone someone for me?’

‘What’s the number?’

I look at my dead mobile and realise I can’t remember.

‘Can you phone me a taxi?’

‘No taxis round here,’ says the landlord, surprised. ‘People need driving, they’ve got friends, isn’t it?’

I wish I had friends.

I turn to the woman wondering how to ask a stranger for a lift back down the valley. She’s watching our exchange, impatient, indifferent and unbiddable. I lock eyes to shame her into offering but all that fills me is a swirl of cold doubt before she breaks the connection to stare back into the fog.

‘You dunno this road then,’ says the landlord. It’s a statement.

‘I used to.’

‘Follows the river look.’

‘I know.’

I remember the river well. It hides below a tree-edged ridge to rush towards the distant sea, minor rivers falling in behind as they join from other valleys. And the road keeps step with it – more or less – winding here, straightening there, shadowed, with blank wet rock high on one side and lurking water below the ridge on the other. Not a road to wander in the dark, let alone fog.

‘Where you off anyway?’ he says.

‘Home,’

‘No you weren’t,’ the woman interjects. ‘You were running away. And you don’t have long.’

‘How long you need to run away?’ says the landlord with a chuckle but he’s looking at me more closely now, his eyes flickering from my dripping hair to sodden shoes.

The pub is warm and bright. You can tell by the decor it’s only newly opened. I don’t want to go back outside.

‘It’s time to leave,’ says the woman. ‘Tell him what you have to.’

She is familiar, too familiar. Her hair flows and her skirts slink. 

‘Tell you what, I’ll drive you back down the valley,’ offers the landlord. ‘I’ll close early. No-one’s coming out in this.’

I imagine going down the valley with him – going back – going home. There are people wondering where I’ve gone. 

Or at least, ten years ago there were people who wondered and then – then they misunderstood.

I push my driving licence across the bar into the landlord’s hands. 

‘My car broke down,’ I said. ‘I just wanted help. This isn’t a road to walk in the fog. Not so high above the river.’

‘It’s time to leave,’ repeats the woman.

With a sob bubbling in my throat, I turn to join her. There is nothing else to do.

‘Tell them I didn’t do it on purpose,’ I tell the landlord over my shoulder. 

He stands open-mouthed as the door closes behind us, my licence in his hand. 

The woman and I are in the dark again and there is no light but a small glow from the pub though the fog is lifting. It seems like a nice pub.

It was never like that ten years ago. It was closed.

It was closed every foggy night for the ten years I’ve tried to reach it. But now it’s open and I can’t do any more to get my message through.

‘It’s over,’ says the river, her hair sleek to her face, her skirts clinging. Then she walks away.

And, as the landlord wrenches the door open and calls for me to wait, I follow her, fading into the fog as I cross the road, then the verge and finally, tumble for the last time over the crumbling edge of the ridge into the river’s waiting arms.

foggy

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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Three Blue Moons

There once was a rich man with three sons and three daughters.

Now the lads were all much of a muchness being young and puppylike – each competing to gain their father’s approval; but the girls were quite distinct. The youngest was pretty as a wildflower and rather spoilt, the middle one was so merry, she could make a corpse laugh and the eldest was serious and wise.

Well you know how it goes, men came from far and near to court the pretty daughter and the merry one but all were unnerved by the serious, quiet eldest girl and in her turn, she couldn’t think of anything to say for all she knew so much. Once she fell in love with a likely young man, but he soon tired of her. Even if he was interested in the wonder she felt at the unfurling of a leaf or her love of music, it all tangled into dull nonsense when she spoke. And the young man turned away to laugh at her younger sister’s jokes and flirt with her littlest sister before leaving for another place and break the hearts of other girls.

Alas, at that time and in that place, it was the custom that the younger girls could not marry until the eldest married and the boys could not bring home a wife until their sisters were gone. The family chivvied the oldest girl but she grew quieter and duller and more serious by the day until the youngest sister declared she might as well be dead and the oldest brother persuaded their father that the girl must marry the first man who asked, whether he be beggar or prince.

You’d think of course that this would bring forth any number of suitors but in truth, as soon as any drew near, their heads were turned by one or other of the younger girls and the older sister grew yet quieter and more serious and more tongue tied.

Still it came to pass after many months, on the night of a blue moon, that a wealthy stranger came by and asked for shelter for himself and his retinue. The rich man welcomed him in, gave him a place of honour at his table and in exchange for hospitality demanded the stranger’s story. For surely the man was from afar, his clothes strange and bright, his hair silver as starlight, his accents smooth and rolling as the sea, and surely he had a tale to tell, for his face though young was scarred with many wounds and his left hand ever wore a fine leather glove even as he ate. 

The stranger looked round the table and perceived a rich man and his wife and three ruddy, handsome sons, and a girl pretty as a wildflower with a pout and a sidelong glance, and a girl merry as a lark, with eyes that sparkled like crystal and a girl with a serious mouth and downcast face, and a hand that crumbled her bread into her dish. 

And the stranger said. ‘I fear to disappoint you, for all that I have done for seven years is search high and low, over mountain and sea and through forest and river, for a wife who could live on a lonely hill in a quiet house and sleep beside a man who never sleeps. I have climbed towers in deserts and hacked through thorns and wrestled dragons and yet I have not found her.’ 

‘And what dowry do you demand?’ demanded the middle girl.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘no dowry do I require but the girl’s own tender heart.’

‘And what riches do you offer her?’ cried the youngest girl, her head on one side.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘she shall wear the finest clothes and eat the best food for as long as she stays with me. And should she ask to return to her parents, I will send her home with a casket of jewels as heavy as her tears.’

‘And why can you not sleep?’ whispered the eldest girl.

The stranger looked on her and said, ‘because I am under a spell and until it is broken, I must live on a lonely hill in a quiet house. If I marry, until she chooses otherwise, my bride will be forever bride but not wife. But if before that time she wants to go home, she will be free to do so and I will see her safely on her way with the treasure I promised.’

The two younger girls shook their heads in disdain but the eldest brother said. ‘Will you take our eldest sister? She’s quiet. A lonely house should suit her.’

And the eldest girl sighed and gazed into her wine and foresaw nothing but sadness if she remained at home and perhaps some peace if she went away and nodded.

The stranger looked kindly on her and said. ‘Will you give me your hand? If we marry tomorrow that will be the first blue moon and it is seven days travel to my house. You need then only stay two more blue moons and then you may choose whether to go or stay. And from the moment I put the ring on your finger, I vow never to touch you again until you ask me to.’

So the stranger and the eldest daughter married the next day and good to his word, from the moment he put the ring on his finger, he did not touch her. Servants helped her mount a horse behind a groom and she waved goodbye to her family and for seven days and seven nights they travelled until they reached a lonely hill and a quiet house inside a walled garden.

This was her new home. That night, she was dressed in her finest linen and laid in the bridal bed and after a while, the stranger came to lie along side her. 

Sure that he must break his promise, she lay awake as long as possible, bedclothes held tight around her. She could hear his breathing, feel the warmth of his body, knew that he was not sleeping. They did not speak. 

Yes, she lay awake as long as she could, but in the early hours her treacherous body gave into exhaustion. Yet he did not touch her and when she finally opened her eyes in the morning, still cocooned in bedclothes, he had gone.

Every night she did the same but eventually, beyond weary, she allowed herself to drift off earlier and earlier. Soon after midnight on the sixth night, she woke to find herself cold and her husband’s side of the bed already empty. She rolled herself more tightly in the covers and drifted back off into dreamless slumber.

During the daytime, they spoke politely whenever they were together. He asked about her ideas and home life but never about her hopes and dreams. She pushed the food around her plate and take tiny sips of wine, aware when his glance fell on her and when it did not. Once she looked up and saw he was hunched within himself, staring down on his uneaten food. When his eyes lifted to meet her gaze, she thought there tears in his eyes reflected hers, but perhaps it was just the candlelight sparkling. 

On the seventh night, she dreamed of wild dances and climbing trees and setting sail on silent seas. She awoke, chilled. Beyond imagining, it was another blue moon. It streamed through the window, illuminating the room and casting a broad stripe across the bed, over the slopes of her body and into the valley of the empty space where her husband should have been. After a moment, she rose and putting on a wrap, went to the window.

Below, on the garden wall, some creature, a cat or fox perhaps, sat hunched and still. She had never thought that an animal could look sad but this one did. Its head was lowered as if it didn’t care who might attack, did not care if there was prey to be caught. She leaned out and whispered to it and the creature stirred and looked up. Its face was indistinct, silver in the moonlight, its size and exact shape somehow ungaugable. Perhaps its fur was striped or perhaps it had been attacked with razor sharp claws. But its eyes, dark and unblinking gazed up at her and the starlight made them seem wet. 

‘Are you lonely?’ she whispered. 

And she heard her husband’s voice say ‘yes.’

Startled, she turned. But he was not there. She was quite alone. There was a cry from the garden and she gazed again, looking for the creature until she saw it slink over the wall, limping a little, to disappear into the lonely hills and whispering forest.

When she asked her husband of it the next day, he said nothing for a moment before telling her that the whole land was under a spell and he with it. 

‘Is it that you’d like to go home?’ he asked. 

And the girl thought of her quiet room and the fragrant garden and shook her head. ‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘But will you not tell me why the spell was cast?’

Her husband sighed and ran his left hand over his right as if to ease its ache and then he said, ‘my father stole my mother from the forest folk. He treated her most cruelly for she wept for home and for the sweetheart she had lost and she never gave him one babe but me. When I was seven years old, he said I looked too unlike him and he treated my mother so ill she died and her people came and cursed him, casting a spell that he would be forever alone. He laughed in their faces and held up a knife of iron to deflect the curse onto me, child as I was, even as he lunged to kill me. But the spell rebounded through a shaft of strange moonlight and the knife turned in his hand and killed him and my mother’s people brought me up in their quiet ways until I was a man and they told me that the spell could only be lifted when all the hate I’d inherited had been wept away. And I have wept and wept and I been lonely and yet the spell still binds me.’

The girl sat for a moment in silence and said, ‘Let me see those scars husband, and the hand you keep covered, for I think there are herbs in the garden from which I could make a salve and ease your suffering.’

And so the days and nights passed. The girl slept, lying in the bed with him awake beside her and no longer feared that he would break his promise. She picked herbs and made salves and his wounds became less angry, his hand stronger.

On the seventh night of the second month, she saw again the strange sad creature in the garden, its markings even less distinct but its eyes still full of tears and its paw still tender. She spoke to it without hearing a reply. 

Time went by. The girl worked in the garden, nurturing herbs and flowers. She ventured into the edges of the forest and sought mushrooms and bark and spoke with respect to the listening creatures that hid from her and then she returned to the quiet house and went to work with her salves and medicines, not noticing that she sang, not noticing the paintings on the walls and the figures in the dull tapestries brighten as she did so. 

When the third month started, she was teaching the maids to read and polishing a lute to play in the evening, and the silverware sparkled and the paintings and the tapestries almost danced to the music in the air and her husband’s wounds began to heal.

On the sixth night of the third month, she stayed awake until he slipped out of bed and then followed him on tiptoe, her feet chilled by the stone floor. He paced the house for a while and finally stepped out into the garden. She lost sight of him in the shadows, distracted when the strange creature leapt onto the wall and away. Quietly she crept to the place where it had been and saw a single silver hair glisten on a leaf. And she pondered.

On the seventh evening of the third month, there was another blue moon. 

She said at supper, ‘Husband. I have stayed with you for the time you said I must and tomorrow I will decide. But I beg that you will understand if I spent tonight alone in another room.’

For a wonder, his wounds seemed to deepen again as if freshly cut and his eyes filled with tears but he nodded and said no more.

Now the girl made to yawn and casting off her maids, went to bed in another room alone and locked the door. Yet it was from the outside she locked it. And she went out into the moonlit garden and hid behind the tree where the silver hair still sparkled on a low hanging leaf. It was cold in the garden and strange voices came from beyond the wall but yet she stayed.

When the moon was at its highest, she saw her husband come into the garden and walk towards her. She tucked herself deeper into the shadow and watched his approach. He stood for a while bathed in light and then with a sob, he changed from man to a silvery creature a little like a fox or a cat or a wolf with stripes like scars. With eyes full of grief, he lifted his front right paw a little and whispered ‘so lonely’ hunching down as if he wished something might attack him and end his misery forever.

And the girl slipped out from behind the tree and put her arms around him and kissed his fur and wept and her tears and his mingled in the moonlight and as they flowed along the scars on his face, they dissolved away and the creature’s form changed again until he was a man, tall and strong and whole. Yet still he wept as his bride held him close for he dare not break his promise by putting a hand on her.

Until in wonder she reached up and wiped his eyes and said, ‘Cry no longer, my love. The spell has been wept away and soon it will be time for sleep.’

‘Soon?’ he whispered.

And then she kissed his lips and held his hands and said, ‘Yes, soon. I have made my choice. I am yours and you are mine and now I long for you to touch and hold me. We will sleep, my darling but not until the moon sets and we are one and worn out by love.’ 

 

blue moon

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Hot Water

‘And this,’ said Desmond, opening a gate within the high walls and ushering his new pal Gerald through, ‘is the laundry area. It keeps everything in one place, well away from the main house so that we don’t have to look at billowing sheets or smell soap. Bertha loves it, don’t you Bertha?’

A maidservant, sleeves rolled up over muscled arms and a strand of hair stuck to her sweating face, scowled as she stirred the copper in the courtyard.

‘It’s Bessie…sir,’ she replied.

Behind her, other maids scurried across the cobbles between the laundry rooms and drying rooms under grey unforgiving skies. The steady rain which had been falling since breakfast soaked into Bessie’s cap and her boots were stained dark with wetness.

‘I call all the maids Bertha,’ Desmond said as an aside to Gerald. ‘They don’t mind, do you Bertha?’ He stroked her face.

In silence, Bessie kept stirring the boiling cauldron with a large wooden paddle, her eyes narrowed. From time to time, a fold of white linen popped up from frothing bubbles which were a brownish-pink. The smell of soft soap was less pleasant than Desmond remembered, and some small part of his small mind wondered why she was boiling laundry in the yard rather than inside the building but then – he hadn’t been interested in laundry since he was six and wanting bubbles for his toy pipe.

‘Someone had something of an accident with a tablecloth, what?’ Gerald suggested.

‘Something like that… sir,’ said Bessie.

‘By the way Bertha,’ wondered Desmond. ‘Have you seen Lord Charles this morning? He can’t resist a pretty young maid,’ he added to Gerald. ‘He’ll get himself in hot water one of these days. Ha! Ha!’

Desmond pinched Bessie’s flushed cheek and patted her backside. 

Her grip on the paddle tightened, but still she said nothing. 

She merely stared down into the copper and with a small smile watched another brownish-pink bubble explode with a malodorous ‘pop’.

laundry murder

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Christmas Eve – Journey Home

Edgar ground his shoulders into the train seat and scowled. 

There was insufficient leg-room and the arm-rest was at the wrong level, but he could have put up with that. It was the stifling heat of the carriage which really got to him. It was a complete waste of money. No wonder tickets were so expensive. They had been waiting on the cold platform in the rain for ages, so every single passenger was steaming and somehow smelt of old dog. Edgar wondered if compensation was due for the delay. It lifted his spirits to think so.

Across the aisle, a damp youth was dozing, his knees splayed, an irritating beat coming from his earphones and a slight dribble trickling through his stubble. He looked wet in more senses than one.

Edgar thought of his employee Bob. They had left the office together when the cleaner, another person without commitment, had threatened to resign if she had to work another evening beyond her contracted offices and on Christmas Eve too.

Last seen, Bob had been on the bus-stop, sodden. His cheap umbrella was being turned inside out by the wind and ripped from its spokes. Struggling with it, he had stared up into the rain, his mouth downturned and his eyes half-closed. He and Edgar had worked through lunch and now the shops were shut. Edgar had caught him making a call in office hours earlier: ‘yes, I promise, I won’t be late.’  Judging by the bus which was driving through puddles towards him, crammed to the point of bulging, the promise would be broken.

Well, it was nothing to do with Edgar. Just as he thought he might have space to stretch out his legs, a small boy and his mother appeared. There were only two seats left, one on either side of the aisle. If Edgar moved, they could sit together. On the other hand, he would then be next to the damp youth with thumping ear-phones. Edgar averted his eyes and stayed put. As the train pulled off, he felt someone prodding him and turned to find the small boy next to him, grinning and pushing some scribble under his nose.

‘Look at my train!’ said the boy.

Adjusting his glasses, Edgar glared first at the child and then at the paper. There was something like a wobbly rectangle with smiling faces on the side, several misshapen circles and clouds of what was presumably smoke billowing from a red shape which defied geometric description.

‘Do you like it?’ said the boy.

’Those wheels would cause a serious derailment and steam trains stopped running before I was your age except for special trips,’ said Edgar, turning to glare out at the sodden landscape beyond the smeared window. Something vibrated in the case he held clasped to his chest and he rummaged inside until he found a mobile phone. He stared at it in confusion.

The name Madeleine was displayed above a picture of a pretty young woman.

‘Swipe the green thing,’ said the boy, reaching over and doing it before Edgar could stop him.

‘Hello? Bob?’

Edgar remembered. When his plan to work late had been thwarted by the cleaner, Bob had rushed off without a backward glance and Edgar had swept everything left on the table into his case in disgust. It must have included Bob’s mobile.

The little boy’s mother leaned across to her son and said ‘are you all right darling? Do you want a cuddle?’

‘Who’s that Bob?’ said the phone. Then the battery died.

‘Train!’ said the boy, shoving a scribbled his drawing of shapes and billowing smoke back under Edgar’s nose.

‘I told you: trains don’t run on steam anymore,’ said Edgar and turning from the child, settled down to doze.

***

He awoke, startled to find the carriage very different. Two banks of seats faced each other with a corridor to the side. A different small boy was jiggling as his mother pulled down the window, letting in cold air and smuts.

Happy, weren’t you? Knew how to appreciate the small things in life.’ 

Edgar turned to find an old man next to him. Edgar looked closer at the child who wore a badly created sweater with a train on the front. He remembered his mother with her knitting needles, tongue stuck out, dropping stitches and tangling colours with more love than skill. He stared at the woman who had been more beautiful even than he remembered. His vision blurred.

When it cleared, the train was different. He and the old man sat at a table. Across it, a girl had her curly head on a boy’s shoulder, pointing at an article.

‘Just a year, Ed, travelling the world. Let’s do it!’

‘Not now,’ the boy replied, ‘I want to get money in the bank first. Buy a house. I’m not wasting time now.’

He hunched the girl’s head away.

All change,’ said the old man.

***

Edgar opened his eyes, feeling disturbed. He’d dreamed of his mother, who’d died when he was in his teens and of his one time girlfriend Jennie, last seen dwarfed by a backpack at Dover, heading out to have adventures alone.

The little boy and old steam train had gone. Now a young woman sat next to him. Across the aisle, a large man pointed at the young woman. Tears were running down her face and she bit her lip, looked at the suitcase in the rack above, then dialled on her mobile. The name Bob appeared and then cut out. Edgar looked closer at the woman and remembered the image of Madeleine on Bob’s phone. He started to speak.

Don’t bother,’ said the large man, ‘you’re not really on the same train.’

Edgar gawped. What could he mean? He turned to look out of the window but it was too dark to tell where he was. When he turned back, the young woman had been replaced by one in her fifties, who was looking at a website on a tablet. On her lap was a tatty, discoloured photograph of a young man hugging a curly haired girl. On the tablet’s screen was Edgar on his company website, scowling. The woman sighed. She turned the screen of her tablet off, tucked a stray curl behind her ears and the photograph into her bag, and muttered to herself, ‘don’t be silly.’

All change,’ said the large man.

***

Edgar woke. Now he’d had dreams within dreams. It was so disconcerting.

He hoped he hadn’t slept through his stop. Blinking, he looked out of the window and recognised nothing, because it was a blur.

The train was unlike anything he’d seen outside a science-fiction film. The passengers around him were arranged in rows watching holographic Christmas movies or making holographic video calls. A few, festooned with tinsel, were snoring. Next to Edgar was a person bundled in a cloak, face and hands invisible.

Nearby, an old lady sat, rearranging white curls. She was talking to a middle-aged man but the man wasn’t paying attention, he was too busy talking via a headset to a hologram of another man who was waving his arms.

The old lady was saying ‘I wanted to make up with him, but I can’t track him down. Do you know anyone who could help? I used to try every year, but never had the courage to do anything. I’d like to see him before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late…’

The middle-aged man ignored her, snapping at the hologram. ‘He left the company to me, not himself. I’m not responsible for his ashes…. we were not related. I really don’t care what you do with the them, Mr Murgatroyd. Goodbye.’

Edgar stared. ‘That’s Bob!’ He said. Gone was Bob’s cheerful face. It had been replaced with one like that in Edgar’s mirror: cold, empty. The bundled figure nodded.

‘But whose ashes is he talking about?’

The bundled figure moved and a skeletal hand pointed at the fading hologram. Mr Murgatroyd was holding an urn with the name…

‘Me?’ said Edgar.

All change!

***

Edgar woke with a jolt. The original small boy was beside him, lip wobbling, looking at his crumpled drawing.

Edgar took a breath, ‘I’m sorry, son, that all came out wrong, it’s a lovely picture. I went on a special train like that when I was your age. I remember it looking just the same.’

The child’s mother smiled. She nodded at the phone. ‘Is the battery flat? I’ve got an emergency charger here.’

After a few seconds, Edgar dialled Madeleine.

‘Bob left his phone behind. I’m his boss… yes, er, yes, I’m the one who makes him work late all the time… anyway, don’t dial off, he’s on his way. And tell him… he can have an extra few days off. And ..er.. his bonus is overdue. For the last … er… five years. Happy…er…Christmas.’

He handed back the charger. At the next stop, the mother and little boy left. The passengers started to thin out and Edgar started to stretch, looking forward to some leg room and then someone else sat next to him. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that it was a woman his own age, taking a faded photograph out of a bag and opening a search-engine on her tablet. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear…

Edgar reached over and shielded the screen.

‘Stop searching Jennie,’ he said, ‘here I am. I’m sorry for everything. Happy Christmas.’

All change.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

(Photograph taken in the Apple Market at Covent Garden, London.)

An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Dog’s Diary: a Day in the Life

7am.
Waking the Idiot was more fun than usual this morning. All the extra weight I’ve gained made a lot of difference when I jumped on her and then sat on her chest. Her face went an odd shade of grey. It was a shame to find that my tongue is now too fat to get in her ear to extract the wax, but it was fun finding out. For me.

7.15am.
The Idiot is mad. Did she really think I was going out in that rain just because she wanted me to? And on a lead. Per-lease. I’m sure there’s a pile of paper somewhere if I need to do anything private. I’m certainly not doing it with an audience.

7:30am
What was this stuff she expected me to eat? (It smelt quite nice, but I ignored it on principle. She should have shared her bacon sandwich.)

7.45am
BOOOOOOOORED. Need to recharge.

1pm.
Exhausted. My sleep was constantly interrupted by her waking me to ask if I wanted walkies. It’s still raining. I thought perhaps she was lonely and sat on her computer keyboard. I hope she washes her mouth out with soap after she called me all those names. 

4pm.
The Fool was chucked out first thing this morning but clearly didn’t know what to do. Could have sat under a bush, could have gone to ‘Mrs Cake’ three doors down and eaten treats, but noooo, don’t let’s use our brains, let’s just sit in the rain looking confused for hours. He looks like a dead rat. The Idiot finally realised and brought him in and is now trying to dry him with a towel. I never get that kind of treatment. Although there’d be trouble if she tried. 

5pm.
OK so I’m now a bit desperate and I can’t find any paper except for the pile next to her keyboard. I’ve tried sneaking up on top when she slopes off to make more tea, but all this extra weight meant I couldn’t heave myself up properly. Now there is paper all over the floor, the Idiot’s probably using more bad language, but it’s hard to tell because she’s crying too. I would hide under the sofa but I have a sneaky feeling my bum would stick out. I miss my old figure. The Fool is eating my food as well as his. Gutbucket. I want it now. It’s not fair. Just because I’ve ignored it all day doesn’t mean I didn’t want it eventually.

7pm.
Bored again. Need something to do.

7.05pm.
Well that was rubbish. She doesn’t usually mind when I rush round the furniture and up the curtains. Usually she films it and puts it online. She’s NEVER chucked me into the back garden in the rain. And I can’t get under a bush with this body. And now the curtains have been pulled off the wall I can see right into the sitting room and the Fool has finally got the hang of things and is curled up all smug on the Idiot’s lap. 

7.30pm.
The Idiot has relented and brought me indoors but if she thinks she’s getting me rolled up in towel, she’s got another think coming. I’ve got more important things to do. I hate being a dog and the Fool is rubbish at being a cat.
Where’s that spell book?
Time to reverse the body swap.

dog&book

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Photograph a composite of two from Pixabay.

Treasure Hunters – Part Five (final part)

Don’t move, said Rimath’s voice in our heads. I need to think quickly.

There were twelve krakenmen. They were the same height and shape as humans, wearing ragged pirates’ clothing. But their eyes glowed red. Sharp teeth snarled behind immense dark, tangled beards. Shaggy hair was pulled back into greasy braids under battered hats and faded kerchiefs. Their coarse shirts and brocade waistcoats were frayed. Torn trousers revealed green feet with red veins, webbed toes and toenails like talons. Ancient cotton sleeves, some with lace cuffs, rotted on wrists. 

But there weren’t enough sleeves for the number of arms the krakenmen had. Or rather, in addition to the arms, each creature had four tentacles which squirmed and twisted through rips in the seams of the shirts and waistcoats. Hands and suckers alike waved weapons: swords, daggers, antique pistols…

One, who wore the biggest hat and carried the largest sword, had bent down to be nose to nose with Dad. His voice was a slow, angry growl.

‘No-one defies Noggler. For the last time: tell…me…where…the…treasure…is.’

Dad squirmed in his bonds and made noises through the gag. Mum was trying to kick him with her foot. Her eyes scanned the room as if trying to catch a krakenmen off-guard and plead for mercy. For one brief second, her glance fell on me as I peeked from behind the detritus. She blinked, swallowed and turned her head in the opposite direction, following the slow lope of a smaller krakenman as it crisscrossed the floor of the cave.

‘I said,’ bellowed Noggler, ‘where… is…the…treasure?’ Another monster leaned in and whispered something. Noggler slapped it and grunted. ‘Well, what are you waiting for, fool? Remove his gag!’

The krakenman did as he was told.

Jane nudged me and whispered ‘oh dear.’ We both recognised the look on Dad’s face. 

‘My dear sir,’ he snapped. ‘Where did you learn your manners? Untie us, go to your room and don’t come back until you’re sorry.’

Noggler recovered himself and said with a sneer. ‘Where is the treasure please?’ 

‘I really have no idea what you’re talking about,’ said Dad. ‘Do I look like a pirate? Although actually, I have to say, I do like your costumes. Where did you get them? We’ve got a fancy dress party coming up haven’t we Bella?’

Mum’s eyes rolled.

Noggler blinked. 

Jenith whispered, ‘is your father an idiot?’

Jane and I nodded silently.

‘He who owned the cottage took the treasure and hid it two hundred and fifty years ago!’ 

‘Do we look that old?’ argued Dad.

‘You own the cottage!’ screamed Noggler. ‘The treasure is rightfully mine!’ There was a grumble from the other krakenmen. ‘I mean ours! You have five minutes to tell us where it is, or you will become one of us: cursed to lurk in these loathsome caves; trying to outwit the dragons; living on nothing but cuttlefish and seaweed; unable to bear full daylight; needing to spend half your time under the waves until eventually the call of the sea drags you out into the westward currents and far, far away to an unknown dooooom.’

‘I think you’ve just used half of my five minutes with that speech,’ said Dad. ‘It was very good though. Have you a piece of paper I could write it down on? Laura would like the bit about dragons.’

‘Where is the treasure?!’ Noggler waved one of his pistols aloft followed by the others. They all shot into the air at the same time and a small shower of rock fell down. Jenith sneezed. The monsters looked wildly round to locate the noise. Mum faked a loud sneeze to draw their attention back to her.

‘We’ve run out of time,’ whispered Rimath. ‘Jenith and I will distract the krakenmen. You untie your parents.’

‘How will we all get out?’ I said.

‘We’ll have to use magic. Now watch out. The pistols can’t be fired again until they’ve been primed and the swords are rusty, but you can still be hurt and the krakenmen’s magic is recharging. We need to move… Now!’

The dragons flew out from our hiding place in opposite directions, firing jets fire onto the krakenmen below. Two hats caught light and the wearers whipped them off to stamp out the flames. Jenith’s tail whisked weapons from the monsters’ clutches and Rimath tipped a bucket into a barrel marked gunpowder.  The dragons sang a high-pitched song that echoed and whirled around us. The krakenmen stared up, tried to protect their ears and at the same time flail their limbs to counter the aerial assault. Jane and I ran between them, as they staggered in confusion, picked up a dagger each and rushed to free our parents.

‘Quick,’ I said, ‘we’ve got to go back to the pool.’

Dad was mesmerised and didn’t move. ‘But Laura, look! Dragons! And pirates.’

‘It’s not a play, Dad. It’s real. Come on!’

I dragged him with one arm and Mum dragged him with the other.

As we ran to the pool, the battle wore on. From nowhere, fork beetles came to bombard heads, tangle in braids and fly into furious krakenmen eyes. Beards were on fire, and sparks flew off rusty swords. But fork beetles were crushed underfoot and blood trickled from cuts on the dragons’ flanks. Two krakenmen caught one of Jenith’s legs with their tentacles and started to drag her to the ground. She lashed out with her tail and blew fire in their faces, but the flame was as weak as a candle’s. The pressure in the air was increasing. I caught Rimath’s eye in the second before he went to his sister’s aid. The krakenmen’s magic was nearly at full strength but the dragons’ was nearly exhausted. I scanned the cave. Maybe if Mum and Dad could go back through the tunnel wearing the diving gear to warn Rimath’s father, Jane and I could escape another way. Rain was coming through a small crack in the rocks half way up the cliff wall. Before I explain my plan our shelter blew apart and Noggler stood before us flanked by two of his henchmen. Behind him, I could see that Jenith was nearly on the floor of the cave and Rimath’s tail had been injured. There as no escape.

‘Where…is…my…treasure?’ shrieked Noggler. 

‘We don’t have any!’ I shouted. ‘The only treasure we’ve got is each other!’

‘And books,’ said Dad. ‘Don’t forget books. That’s what’s wrong old chap. You haven’t any books. I can recommend some.’

‘I don’t want wormy old books that turn into mulch!’ growled Noggler. ‘I want gold and silver and jewels. I want what’s mine!’

‘It was never yours!’ shouted Jane. ‘You stole it. You were pirates and wreckers. You’re thieves.’

‘You are going to make a wonderful krakenman, little girl,’ Noggler snarled. He raised his hand and started to whisper under his breath. There was a shimmer in the air and Jane’s outline grew fuzzy and started to change and then… and then… the wall of the cave exploded and Rimath’s father stood over us all. He leaned down and stared into Noggler’s face for one second and then from his mouth came a flame of ice-cold pure translucent gold. It engulfed the krakenmen but they didn’t burn. Instead they squirmed and writhed and shrunk until there was nothing but a pile of rags and rust on the floor where they had stood. 

‘That was surprisingly satisfying,’ said Rimath’s father. ‘Should have done it years ago.’ Rimath and Jenith limped over. Jane kicked at the rags and they turned to dust in the air. In a shallow rock pool beneath were twelve sea-anemones, clustered together and quivering. 

‘They’re not going anywhere now,’ said Rimath’s father and burst into deep, echoing laughter.

Dad was, for once, speechless. 

‘Thank you all,’ said Mum. ‘Without you…’

‘Well, I have to say,’ said the dragon. ‘I felt a little ashamed. The human children seemed very honest, even though the slightly cleaner one definitely craves pretty things and the grubby one is definitely naughty. Still, at the end of the day, I suppose it was my fault all these kidnappings have happened over the years.’

‘Wh-what?’ I said.

‘The thing is,’ Rimath’s father scratched his ear with his tail. His expression was a mixture of pride and contrition. ‘That night all those years ago, when the krakenmen battled with the wreckers, in the er… confusion… I … er… borrowed the treasure. After all, it didn’t belong to any of them. It was ours as much as anyone’s. And humans never appreciate treasure. They just want it to become powerful and lord it over each other. Dragons just like sleeping on it.’

‘So how do we get home?’ asked Jane. She was back to her normal self, no sign of a beard or tentacle. 

‘Don’t worry,’ said Rimath’s father. ‘I am full of magic. You can depend on me to get you back to normal.’

***

The next day we woke up to blazing sunshine. The smell of slightly burnt bacon wafted upstairs. 

I rubbed my eyes and got up to look outside. It might have been a different place. The luscious green grass rolled under blue skies up onto cliffs and down towards the beach, where lacy waves tickled the sand and then retreated. 

I caught sight of myself in the mirror and wondered how my hair had got into such a dusty tangle. I must have been tossing and turning all night with that awful dream. 

Jane was apparently asleep in her own room. Her socks, black on the soles and stiff as cardboard were discarded on the floorboards. She stirred as I prodded her.

‘Come on girls!’ Dad’s voice boomed from the kitchen. ‘I’ve made some bacon and fried egg sandwiches. Someone’s come to put a cooker in.’

Jane opened the other eye and we looked at each other. 

Without speaking she got out of bed and together we went onto the landing. The door to the end room was slightly ajar and through it came the sweet smell of the sea and a golden light. The two pointless cupboards faced each other. The small one in the wall was criss-crossed with an enormous web and in the middle a spider more or less shook its fist at us as we wrenched the door open. Inside was a small square whitewashed cupboard with a stone back and a wooden base.

‘I had the weirdest dream’ whispered Jane. She went back to her bedroom, picked up the socks and contemplated them. ‘One more day? What do you reckon?’ 

‘No,’ said Mum, coming in and whisking them away. ‘You’re disgusting. Now get washed and dressed and come downstairs.’

In the kitchen workmen were sweeping out the space for the cooker. There were cobwebs staining the plaster on the wall which almost looked like the outline of a square, but as they brushed the mark faded to nearly nothing. 

***

We had breakfast on the beach. Above us, the cliffs loomed in an absent minded sort of way, sea-heather sparkling in the sun and wafting in the breeze.

‘There was a village up there once apparently,’ said Dad. ‘I wonder what happened.’

‘Dragons,’ said Jane.

‘Ha ha!’ said Dad. ‘Plague more likely. Although funny you should mention dragons, I had a bit of a nightmare.’ He frowned. ‘Anyway, I’m sure you’ll be disappointed but we’ve decided too much work is needed on this cottage. I’m going sell it and get a caravan. Use the spare money for books.’ He lay back on the blanket and closed his eyes. Within seconds he was snoring. Mum packed away the picnic, settled against a rock and started to read. 

Jane and I walked barefoot along the beach until we found a cave entrance and clambered through.

We found ourselves in a huge, gloomy space like the inside of a stone tent. At one side there might have been a fissure. The lower half was blocked with boulders and when we climbed to the top, there was no entrance for anyone bigger than a cat. What might have been a gap on the other side, too narrow for anything bigger than a mouse, seemed to glow a little.

‘Was it a dream?’ said Jane.

I shrugged.

‘Wait!’ she said and bent to delve in the pebbles at our feet. 

She pulled out a slender pendant with a tiny emerald drop and a small bangle, studded with garnets. 

‘Our birthstones,’ whispered Jane as I slid the bangle onto my wrist.

‘Yes.’

‘You don’t think we should people tell there might be treasure in another cave?’ whispered Jane. 

But she already knew my answer. 

 ‘Don’t worry, Rimath,’ I whispered. ‘Your secret is safe with us. I promise.’ 

I traced my hand over the rock face. It seemed to sparkle as if the quartz and fossils came to life under my fingers and for a moment, through a translucent doorway, I thought I saw a smiling autumn green dragon with trusting topaz eyes wave before it faded away.

blue blur

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

If you enjoyed this story you might be interested to know that Laura & Jane are main characters in ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ (some of which is true) and turn up in ‘Kindling’ (in a true story) and in ‘The Advent Calendar’ (in a story which is half true – you’ll just have to guess which half.)

 

 

Treasure Hunters – Part Four

I slipped on a wet rung and stopped. I clung to the ladder as invisible things fell past me to bounce and clatter into the darkness below.

Jane stepped on my head.

‘Ow!’ 

‘Shh!’ hissed Jane.

Rimath’s voice echoed down to us. ‘What’s the matter?’

It was really eerie when I looked up. Far above was a dim line of light which showed where the edges of the kitchen cupboard was and the just beyond where I presumed Jane’s head must be were two glowing green eyes. While Jane and I had to go down the steps feet-first, Rimath was coming down head-first, his tail flicking somewhere behind him. He’d said it was the way he always came and also because that way he could see downwards. I was starting to wonder if I’d been right to trust him. The walls were damp and the shaft seemed never-ending. 

As if reading my thoughts, Jane whispered, ‘how do we know what’s at the bottom of this thing? For all we know he’s leading us to the krakenmen. We should have gone for the police.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ I whispered back. ‘Even if we could find a phone-box what would they do when two kids say “we don’t actually know where we are but our parents have disappeared and a dragon says they’ve been kidnapped by monsters”?’ 

Jane grunted.

‘Trust me,’ said Rimath. ‘Keep going. I can climb over you and go ahead if you like. I don’t think anyone has followed us.’

‘No-one’s leaving me at the back,’ said Jane. ‘And you still haven’t explained what this was all about.’

‘I’m sorry, I forgot’ said Rimath. ‘Well, this coast was notorious for wreckers.’

‘Wreckers?’ I felt my way with my foot.

‘Wreckers were people who, in bad weather, lured ships deliberately onto the rocks with lamps. When the ships started to sink, the wreckers looted them, letting the sailors drown. Or worse. This village was notorious.’

‘What village?’ said Jane.

‘It’s been destroyed.’ Rimath’s voice was solemn. ‘Only the cottage you were in is left. It’s built on top of a natural tunnel which leads down to a cave. Very convenient for the wreckers and for smugglers. They put the rungs in so they could bring things straight from the beach to the house without being arrested.’

‘How…’ before I could finish, I realised I’d reached the bottom of the ladder. I could barely hear myself think. Somewhere nearby echoed sounds of destruction: crashes and thuds, a sucking intake of rattling breath and a groan of fury. In the seconds it took me to realise it was the sea rolling into a cave and out again, I had opened my mouth ready to scream.

‘Use your flashlight if you like and follow me,’ said Rimath, slipping around us to stand in front. ‘Don’t bang your heads. You need to duck down, turn left, then we’re nearly there. We need the others to help.’

‘Others?’ said Jane. 

Her hand slipped into mine as we followed Rimath, slipping into a hollow space which felt like a huge stone tent. Through a low opening, I could just see dull daylight and hear the sucking and crashing of the sea so terrifyingly close. 

‘This was the way the wreckers and smugglers came,’ said Rimath. 

‘I thought your cave would be a bit more cosy,’ said Jane. 

‘This isn’t my cave. This cave is where it all went wrong.’

‘What went wrong?’

Rimath stepped sure-footed over the tumbled stones and Jane and I scrambled after him. ‘One night the wreckers lured a pirate ship onto the rocks,’ he said. ‘That was dangerous enough. Pirates are not easy prey. But they didn’t know that this particular ship had been overwhelmed by creatures from the deep far out to sea and those on board were no longer human. The villagers dragged the treasure into this cave, thinking the pirates were drowned, but before they could take it any further the crew of the ship came after them – not men but monsters. In the battle, the wreckers were either killed or transformed. They became half-human, half-sea-monster, boiling with magic but burning with one unending desire which they’ve passed through the generations – to get their hands on the treasure they lost that night.’

‘How did they lose it? Surely if they weren’t dead, they could have just taken it.’

Rimath cleared his throat. ‘I imagine there was a lot of smoke and confusion. Come this way, quickly.’

He led us to another fissure too narrow for even the smallest child to get through. Jane held my hand again and we both peered around wondering if we had time to escape.

But as Rimath muttered, the fissure opened into a smooth doorway lined with quartz. After one final look at each other, Jane and I followed him through. 

Beyond the doorway was another cave, this one like a smooth upturned bowl. In the middle there was a pool, deep and sparkling. It moved as if the water ebbed and flowed from underneath and its glow filled the space with light. Around the pool were slabs and pebbles laid in an intricate grey and purple pattern and the walls were studded with designs in amethyst and fossils. On the opposite side of the cave was a platform made of treasure: coins, jewels, caskets and goblets. Sitting on this were two more dragons. Their eyes stared as Rimath motioned us forward. One was about the same size as him, skin as soft, eyes a deeper brown, wings and tail tipped with dark blue. The other dragon was twice as tall, skin the dark green of water under trees, eyes flecked with orange, arms crossed and tail pointing at us. 

‘Rimath!’ bellowed the larger dragon. ‘Why have you brought humans here?’

‘Laura and Jane need our help Father,’ said Rimath.

‘We do not help humans. They are traitors.’

Jane put her hands on her hips and small as she was, glared. The large dragon recoiled a little but the blue one grinned.

Rimath whispered, ‘my little sister Jenith recognises a kindred spirit, Jane. She’ll talk Father round.’

Out of the corner of her mouth Jane murmured to me ‘what’s a kindled split?’

‘Father, please listen,’ said Rimath, ‘these children’s parents brought them to the house…’

‘Are the parents spies or fools?’

‘Fools,’ I said, finding my voice. ‘Definitely fools.’

‘Fools,’ concurred Rimath. ‘I couldn’t warn them in time and the krakenmen came and captured them.’

‘And why should we care?’ said Rimath’s father. He turned his gaze on me. ‘All humans crave wealth don’t they? What does your father yearn for child?’

‘Books,’ I answered. ‘Dad just yearns for books. The older the better.’

‘And your mother? What does she desire?’

Jane intervened. ‘All Mum wants is some peace and quiet.’

Rimath gestured wildly with his tail. ‘We have to rescue them from the krakenmen. You know what they will do otherwise. This time, we must intervene.’

‘It is always too late,’ said Jenith. There was pity in her eyes. ’We never know which of their caves they take their captives to and by the time we find them…’

‘If they kill Mum and Dad…’ there was a sob in Jane’s furious voice. I rubbed my own eyes. The thought of finding a skeleton was no longer an adventure. 

‘Oh!’ Jenith flew over and put her arms round Jane. ‘They won’t kill them. They… they will recruit them – turn them into more krakenmen. They never grasp that nowadays humans know nothing about the treasure or where it is. Father, Rimath is right, we must stop them.’

‘This time, I know which cave the krakenmen are in,’ said Rimath. ‘It’s the ammonite chamber. It’s not far, and we can get there the last way the krakenmen expect.’

Rimath’s father flexed his wings and scratched his chin with his tail. ‘I am not sure I trust these children. The grubby one -’ he pointed at Jane, ‘looks belligerent and that one -’ he pointed at me, ‘looks desperate for pretty things.’ 

‘It’s true I haven’t changed my socks for three days and if I want a necklace I’ll make one out of chewing gum again, but I’m not a thief’ said Jane. ‘And Laura’s soppy but she’s not a thief either.’ 

‘And you’re not leaving us behind,’ I argued. I’d deal with Jane for calling me soppy later.

‘But how will you manage?’ said Jenith. ‘The way we need to go…’ She shuddered.

‘I’m not frightened,’ I said. 

‘Nor me,’ said Jane. ‘Laura may look soppy but she can climb a tree in a skirt faster than the boys can in jeans. And sometimes I let her beat me at arm wrestling. We’re not scared of anything.’ 

‘It’s not that,’ said Rimath, his wings slumping. He pointed at the sparkling pool. ‘The only way to go without using up too much magic is underwater. It’s too dangerous for you. You might not be able to hold your breath for long enough. We’ll have to leave you behind.’

‘No!’ said Jane and I together.

‘Wait!’ bellowed Rimath’s father. He started poking about in the pile of treasure. ‘There may be another way. Let me think…’

He pulled out two tarnished copper and glass globes attached to dirty rubber overalls. They looked a little like space suits. 

‘These fell off a boat a hundred or so years ago,’ he said. ‘Humans used them underwater. They seemed to survive. It was entertaining watching them when the air started to run out and the pump stopped working. The pump is long gone, but then the tunnel’s short. It’s on your head Rimath. I’m having nothing to do with it.’

***

If climbing down the shaft had been bad, travelling through an water-filled tunnel in an ancient diving suit, hoping that there was enough oxygen in the heavy copper helmet, felt like the longest five minutes of my life. I was terrified that when … if… we reached the krakenmen’s cave not only would they see us but they’d hear my thumping heart. But I needn’t have worried. The noise of waves crashing the outer walls and someone shouting was so loud I could hear it even while underwater.

As Rimath had promised, we emerged into a pool at the edge of the cave and hid behind some tumbled flotsam and jetsam as Jane and I clambered out of the ancient diving gear and found our bearings. 

The cave was a bad imitation of the dragons’. It was domed, with a soaring ceiling, but in between rock pools, the floor was laid unevenly with a combination of pebbles and what looked suspiciously like bones. The walls, on which swirling fossils had been picked out in luminous green, dripped with a reddish ooze and yellow candles flickered from small niches. Chairs and tables made of driftwood were dotted around and hammocks were slung from structures made from more driftwood and whale carcasses. 

In the middle of the room were two stools and on them were our parents, bound and gagged. 

Circling them, brandishing various weapons were twelve hideous creatures.

twirl

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Treasure Hunters – Part One

Treasure Hunters – Part Two

Treasure Hunters – Part 3

Treasure Hunters – Part Three

Jane and I pushed past Rimath and tried to open the sitting-room door. The handle refused to budge.

Jane kicked while I shoved and then she pushed me out of the way, and in desperation, started to pull at the handle even though it would never work.

Rimath reached our side, put his paws over our hands and stopped our feet from kicking with his tail. His eyes were wide and he mouthed the words ‘be quiet.’

From inside the room, we could hear our parents’ voices. Mum seemed to be threatening through gritted teeth: ‘as soon as I can get my hands on you, you’ll be so sorry…’ It was something she said to us all the time but this time she sounded like she meant it and also as if she were in pain. Dad’s words were just a muffled mumble. He must have been gagged but it wasn’t stopping him try to talk anyway. 

Then there was another voice. It reminded me of corners and unseen cobwebs; of slippery stone and murky water.

‘Silence!’ it growled.

Rimath tapped our hands until we looked at him and touched his mouth with his tail. Shh.

The voice came again. ‘The door was rattling. Is there someone else in the house with you?’

Dad’s mumble became more frenzied. I could hear the tears in Mum’s voice as she said ‘n-no. We’re here alone. It was just the storm. Let us go!’

‘Stop struggling or it’ll be worse for both of you,’ said the voice. ‘I am Noggler and I want my treasure.’

‘What treasure?’ Dad’s voice was a little clearer. He must have squirmed the gag away.

‘Don’t give me that,’ said Noggler. ‘The owners of this house have hidden it for centuries and so far, no matter what we do to them, they’ve never told us where it is. Well, this time, things are going to be different. Let’s go.’

‘Go where?’ Mum’s voice was shaking.

‘You’ll soon find out.’

‘But…’

She gave another scream and Dad’s words were muffled again. Jane was now kicking at Rimath but he shook his head. Her furious eyes were full of tears. There was a sensation as if all the air was being sucked from around us and a deafening noise like a firework exploding as it spiralled down a drain. Then everything was quiet apart from the sound of rain against windows and the wind in the tiles above. The sitting-room door popped open.

Jane and I went to rush inside, but Rimath slipped in front of us, barring our way for a second before letting us through.

The room was much as it had been earlier. The overhead lamp cast a pale, sickly glow onto a table where a blackened but half-cooked Spanish omelette congealed. The front of the cassette player had been ripped off and mangled tape spilled out over the edge of the sideboard. Something dropped onto my head and this time I grabbed it. In my palm a creature like an inch-long woodlouse with uncountable legs, long antennae and a long forked tail squirmed. Trying not to be sick, I stared into its face. Bulbous red eyes blinked and a mouth full of fangs opened silently. I loosened my grip as I screamed and before it hit the floor, the creature sprouted wings and flew to the ceiling to bury itself in the beam.

‘Don’t be scared,’ said Rimath, putting an arm round my shoulder. ‘The fork-beetles are harmless. They’re just not pretty.’ 

I shrugged him away. ‘Where’s Mum and Dad, Rimath? Why did you stop us from getting in here?’

‘It’s not that simple. I -’

‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’ Jane’s voice wobbled as she pulled chairs over and dragged the sofa round. I stared into the corners and prodded the ashy fire-place with the poker. There was nothing to see but cobwebs and I could just make out red blinking dots under the mantlepiece. I assumed there was a cluster of fork-beetles watching me and felt sick again.

There was no sign that anyone had ever been in here. Outside the grimy window, the rain still poured in a thick curtain. We were miles from anywhere, all alone, with no-one to help. I shook the tears from my eyes. I turned on the dragon. ‘Why wouldn’t you let us come in and rescue our parents?

‘There were too many of them inside,’ said Rimath. ‘And they’d sealed the door just in case…’

‘In case of us?’

‘In case of me.’

‘You?’ Jane went to kick him again. Rimath’s tail curled round her waist, lifted her and put her in a musty armchair. He pointed at me and at one of the few dining chairs still upright. I sat down. 

‘Who are you to boss us about?’ I shouted. ‘You’re no use. You’re a dragon. Why didn’t you just burnt the door down?’

‘Do you want to rescue your parents?’ said Rimath. We nodded. ‘Then you need to listen to me. Really carefully. It’s quite a story. I’m not sure where to start.’

‘Who’s Noggler?’ I said. ‘And where has he taken Mum and Dad?’

‘He’s a… I don’t know how to describe Noggler and his crew. I don’t want to frighten you.’

‘I’m not scared of anything,’ snarled Jane.

‘Nor me,’ I added, hoping he wouldn’t start describing large dogs, long-legged spiders, dark corridors or great-aunts.

‘Well,’ Rimath scratched his nose. ‘They’re krakenmen. Half human, half sea-monster. It’s very complicated. I won’t know which of his lairs Noggler has taken your parents to till we’ve worked out which way they went. Now what we’re looking for is a square of floor or wall which is a different colour to the rest.’ He peered up at the light-bulb. ‘That’s going to be hard in this light. I’d throw a very bright flame but there’s a risk Noggler has posted a guard and we might be seen.’

‘I’ve got a better idea,’ I said. I didn’t really want to leave the room, unnerving as it was, but there was nothing for it. I ran into the hall where our luggage was and rummaged in my bag. Buried at the bottom was the flash-light I had hidden for late-night reading under the covers. Every squeak and bang of the old house made my heart beat faster. I rushed back into the sitting-room and shone it round, shading the light from spilling beyond precisely where I pointed. 

‘There!’ said Jane. The rug near the sofa was askew and we could just make out a scorch mark. It wasn’t the usual sort of shapeless burn, but was geometric and neat. We dragged the rug back and revealed a large square on the floor-boards. 

‘That’s it,’ said Rimath. ‘If we hadn’t found it within half an hour, it would have faded back to normal. They have powerful magic, the krakenmen. On my own, I couldn’t have done anything but put you into danger too if I’d gone inside. Now I know which way they’ve gone, I know which lair they’ll have gone to and what to do.’

‘So we need to lift the planks and chase after them.’ Jane knelt on the floor and started stabbing at the edges of the square with the poker.

‘No!’ said Rimath. ‘That won’t work. It’s completely sealed again and only they know the spell to open it. We need to follow them a different way. My way. I’ll explain the rest as we go. You have to trust me. But you have to be quiet and…’ he prodded Jane with his tail, ‘not argue back. Promise?’

‘Huh,’ said Jane. ‘If you think – ’ 

‘Oh stop it Jane!’ I said. ‘We’ve got to rescue them. Goodness knows what mess Dad will get us into if he starts talking. He never knows when it’s time to joke and when it’s time to be serious. I trust you, Rimath. Which way now? 

I thought Rimath would take us outside into the rain but instead he headed straight into the kitchen. In the space where the cooker or fridge should have been there was – now I looked closer – another small pointless cupboard door embedded into the wall near the stone floor.

Rimath muttered under his breath. A tiny flicker of flame licked round his mouth and then disappeared. The cupboard door opened to reveal a dark space. 

‘You’d best go first Laura,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a flashlight and you might need it. Jane can go in the middle. I’ll be at the back. We’ll just have to trust each other. Come on, what are you waiting for? We need to get to your parents as soon as possible.’

I crawled forward and shone the flashlight upwards. Above was the shaft leading to the cupboard on the landing. I redirected the light forwards and could see nothing but rock. I had thought maybe there would be a tunnel heading out from the house but I was wrong. With a trembling hand, I pointed the flashlight down and felt over the edge. The shaft continued deep into the ground. My terrified imagination made me think I could hear echoes and crashes. All I knew for certain was that the rungs were slippery and the beam of light was swallowed by the depth of the shaft. I had no idea how deep it was or what waited at the bottom.

But there was nothing for it. Someone had to rescue Mum and Dad and we were the only ones who could.

I turned the flashlight off and pushed it deep into my pocket. Then I slipped over the edge of the shaft until my feet made contact with a rung.

I took a breath and met my sister’s eyes. ‘Let’s go.’ I said.

‘Yes,’ said Jane. ‘Let’s go.’

gold spiral

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Treasure Hunters – Part One

Treasure Hunters – Part Two

 

 

 

 

Treasure Hunters – Part Two

All my life I’d longed to meet a dragon and here one was. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

He was a soft brownish green like a leaf that was about to change in autumn. His snout was long and narrow with an upturned tip. His eyes, wide and hopeful, changed from brown to grey to green as he emerged from the cupboard onto the landing. His mouth was stretched into a slightly daft smile. His skin looked soft as a ballet shoe and his claws were barely visible. He was beautiful.

‘How do we know you won’t eat us?’ said Jane, crossing her arms as if to make herself hard to swallow.

The dragon paused three-quarters of the way onto the threadbare carpet. A mixture of hurt and puzzlement crossed his face. 

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I’m not that sort at all. And besides…’ he scanned Jane from head to toe and settled his gaze on her feet, ‘you’re almost as big as me and your feet look a bit grubby.’

Jane gave a proud grin. ‘I haven’t changed my socks for three days,’ she said. ‘It’s an experiment. I want to see how stiff I can get them.’

The dragon said ‘yeuch’, stuck out a yellow tongue then oozed out of the cupboard to sit on his haunches in front of us. His tail had a life of its own. It scratched the dragon behind the ear and then flicked at the spider which was trying to build web to block the open cupboard.

I peered inside the cavity. There was a narrow shaft within the wall of the cottage. Rungs were embedded in one side or at least they were at the top. The shaft was so dark, there was no way of telling how deep it went or whether the rungs went all the way down. It was strange how I could hear the sound of the sea more clearly through the shaft than through the inadequate window.

‘I’m Jane,’ said Jane. ‘This is Laura. She’s not normally this quiet.’

‘I’m Rimath,’ said the dragon. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

We stood and stared at each other in silence. Outside the wind changed direction and rain crashed against the window with enough force to make pop the catch open. It was barely possible to see the beach now, the downpour looked thick enough to slice.

‘Wrecking weather,’ said Rimath and shivered.

Where do you start with a dragon? He wasn’t very large, perhaps as tall as Mum who said she was five feet high. His skin looked soft and the nobbles on his spine were small. Perhaps he wasn’t fully grown, maybe a child like us, and yet he’d said he hadn’t seen anyone for decades. On the other hand if you lived for hundreds of years, then maybe… my mind spun.

‘Do you live in the cupboard?’ said Jane. She lay down on the carpet, stuck her head inside and yelled ‘hellooooooo.’

Another plate or something smashed in the kitchen and this time, the sound of bickering parents and rude words were clearly audible. Only they were coming up the shaft.

‘No of course I don’t,’ said Rimath. ‘I live in a cave. But there’s a tunnel all the way from my cave into this house. Sometimes, when there’s nothing going on, I come in here and pretend I’m human. Although – ’ his tail reached to scratch his head again, ‘it’s a bit boring. What do you do all day?’

‘I play with my toys,’ said Jane. ‘And I put spiders and beetles in Laura’s room when she’s not looking. Then she screams.’

I glared at her. This wasn’t the sophisticated image I wanted to portray to a dragon. I put on what I hoped was a mature and intellectual face. ‘I read and write stories,’ I said.

‘Are they exciting?’

‘They’re ok,’ said Jane. ‘But they haven’t got enough blood.’

‘I’ll give you blood…’ I started.

The smell of burning wafted up the stairs. 

‘Oh no,’ I groaned. ‘Dad’s making dinner after all.’ 

Rimath wrinkled his nose. ‘That’ll bring them out.’

I remembered the mousetrap. ‘Are there lots of mice? I hope they keep out of sight. We’ve brought our cat.’

‘Mice won’t eat Dad’s cooking,’ said Jane. ‘But you should try it, Rimath. Dragons might like the taste of the burnt bits.’

Rimath stood on all fours and started towards the stairs. His tail was flicking. 

Strains of classic music drifted. Dad must have brought the cassette player. Rimath’s tail relaxed and started to wave. He sat down again.

‘Ah, music,’ he said. ‘I like music. They don’t. That might do the trick.’

‘Mice don’t like music?’ Well this was new. Our family had sat through hundreds of wildlife programmes but no-one had mentioned this.

The rhythm of the music altered and the melody distorted into a high pitched wibble. Rimath’s tail tried to plug both his ears at once.

‘What was that?!’ 

‘The tape’s bust,’ I said. ‘I think Dad got a really cheap player. It’ll be all tangled up inside.’

‘Yes but that noise!’

‘I know,’ said Jane. ‘It’s worse than Laura screaming when I drop a worm on her head.’

‘That’s not what I mean, the burning, the noise… they’ll come out. I know they will. Who are the idiots downstairs?’

Jane and I exchanged glances and with a shamed sigh admitted: ‘It’s our parents.’

‘We need to stop them.’ Rimath made for the steps. ‘We need to get to them before they do. They’ll be all right as long as they stay in the kitchen.’

‘Mum’s not scared of mice,’ argued Jane. ‘And Dad’ll probably make friends with them and want to take them home afterwards.’

‘Mice?’ said Rimath, pausing to turn and look up at us. ‘Who said anything about mice?’

The mangled music screeched to a halt and Dad’s voice bellowed up the stairs.

‘Come on down girls! Dinner’s ready. Mum’s laying the table in the sitting-room and I’m going to see if the TV works.’

‘No!’ gasped Rimath. ‘They mustn’t go in there.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Things will drop on our heads and in our food.’

‘That will just be the start,’ said Rimath. ‘Come on!’ 

We rushed down after him just as Dad crossed the hall and went into the sitting-room. The door slammed shut behind him. 

There was a muffled scream then silence.

‘Too late,’ said Rimath. ‘We’re too late. They’ve got your parents.’

‘The mice?’

‘Why do you keep on about mice?’ shouted Rimath. ‘It’s not the mice who are the problem. It’s the monsters!’

dragon eye

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Treasure Hunters – Part One