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.)

 

 

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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

Treasure Hunters – Part One

1975

Jane and I were enduring our homework. I chewed my tongue as I worked my way down a page of decimals but Jane’s struggles with history were beyond tongue-chewing. Mum came and peered over her shoulder.  

It looked simple enough.

Queen Elizabeth I was portrayed standing smugly before two windows, outside one of which the Armada stormed towards England in anticipated victory and outside the other the Armada foundered in an actual storm. Various symbols of Elizabeth’s reign, ambitions, superiority and personality were placed about the Queen herself who was stiff with brocade, jewellery and cosmetics.  

The teacher had drawn arrows pointing at various things in the picture and the aim of the homework was for Jane to complete labels to explain what they represented. So far, she had written Armada arrives,  Armada sinks and was staring at the ceiling for inspiration. Mum told Jane to stop dawdling. She only gave a cursory look at mine, having less idea where the decimal point should go than I did before she went into the kitchen to start dinner.

Jane sighed. History she could get, just about. Symbolic art she couldn’t. And if she didn’t finish soon, the cartoons on children’s TV would be replaced by something boring. Pushing the homework as far across the table as possible and laying her head on her arm, she scrawled a thought next to one of the arrows and then gave up.

Mum returned to examine progress, preparing her ‘in my day we had proper homework’ speech and looked down at the label pointing at good Queen Bess with her hand on a globe. Jane had written ‘she liked jography’.

We could almost feel the seismic response working its way through our mother’s system. The only thing stopping her from yelling immediately was the fact that she didn’t know whether to start on history, laziness or spelling. She had just worked up enough steam to open her mouth when Dad came home early from work.

‘I’ve bought another house,’ he said.

Mum’s mouth shut, opened again, shut again. After a pause she choked out, ‘what do you mean you bought another house?’

‘Well, it’s more of a holiday cottage,’ said Dad. ‘It needs a bit of doing up.’

Mum peered round at the ancient anaglypta that Dad had tried to remove and then painted over in two shades of blue (going round the furniture rather than moving it) and the bit of plastering he’d started but not quite finished and finally in the general direction of the lean-to which was leaking yet again, despite all Dad’s attempts to fix the roof. If that moment had been frozen as a picture with arrows and labels explaining things, I suspect all the comments would have been very rude.

‘Everything will be fine,’ Dad said. ‘It’ll be an investment. We can let the cottage out. Besides, it’ll be good for the girls. Fresh air, countryside, wildlife, history and -’ he added as an aside to us, ‘pirate gold.’

‘Pirate gold?’ Jane and I breathed.

‘It’s right by the beach. There are caves. It’s Cornwall. Bound to be pirate gold.’

I often wonder how my mother’s eyes never got worn out from all the rolling.

A month later, we went to Cornwall.

By the time we got there, our senses were on overload. Four hours of trailing through country lanes had made us stiff. We had taken Harlequin the cat with us and she sat on our laps in turn. When Dad cornered too sharply, she anchored herself with her claws. Dad’s efforts to install a radio meant there was a hole with a draught and lots of dodgy loose wires in the dashboard. We were thus reduced to making our own entertainment. Dad had sung his way through the entire contents of the 1956 Youth Hostellers’ Association song book about three times. We joined in to start with and then simply sat back and suffered. Dad, I should point out, was tone deaf. 

Jane and I discussed the cottage. We decided it would be white, with a thatched roof and roses round the door. The sea would be just a few yards away and when it stopped raining, we’d go down to our own private beach and swim before treasure-hunting in the caves. The sitting room would have window seats. We would each have our own bedroom with a sloping ceiling where we could pretend to be Anne of Green Gables.

Mum broke into our thoughts as the car splashed through another huge puddle. ‘It does have a functioning kitchen and bathroom, doesn’t it?’ she said as if that sort of thing was important.

Dad, as perhaps you can tell, had never got round to showing us any details.

‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’ said Dad, backing up a lane to let someone else go through for the four millionth time.

It was early evening and still pouring, when half an hour after that, we met the cottage.

‘I thought you said it needed just a bit of doing up,’ said Mum.

‘It’ll look better in the sunshine,’ said Dad.

‘Will it really?’

There are some things that whitewash can’t cover up and this was one of them. The cottage looked as if had been thrown together from grey lumps of rock without the use of a plumb line and each stone was fighting to escape back to the quarry. The windows were grimy. The roses round the door looked diseased and overgrown. They were whipping round in the wind and rain on a loose trellis as if they wanted to pull the house down on purpose. The gables were green. Or perhaps more accurately, they were mossy.

‘Chop chop,’ said Dad, handing us stuff to take inside. Jane and I exchanged glances. Most of it seemed to be camping equipment. Juggling a large box and a struggling cat, Dad unlocked the door and let us in. Harlequin jumped down and vomited on the cracked lino. 

It improved the smell of damp.

‘Right,’ said Dad, ‘this way.’ He led us into a small bright room. It had a table. Otherwise, there were just spaces where a cooker and fridge should have been. He rummaged in the box for a camping stove, a kettle and a container of water. ‘While we’re waiting for that to boil, we’ll have a look around.’

‘You said this place had a functioning kitchen,’ said Mum.

‘What’s wrong with this? It’s got a roof and walls. Don’t you remember all the fun we’ve had cooking on camp stoves? It’ll be fine.’

‘Bathroom?’

‘Weeeelll,’ he indicated my box. I opened it to find the dreaded camping bucket with the loo seat.

My mother was not a swearing woman, but I thought she might finally break her rule at that point.

We started the tour.

What seemed to be the sitting room was large but very dark: overhead lights producing less illumination than a birthday cake candle. The grubby ceiling’s black rafters seemed to get lower the longer we stayed under them. Things dropped onto our heads.

‘We’ll just pop back to the kitchen and make something to eat,’ said Dad. ‘You girls go and explore upstairs. Maybe we’ll have a nice Spanish omelette.’

Jane and I exchanged a glance. Our friends said Spain was wonderful but we’d been put off by the thought that Dad’s Spanish omelette, which comprised undercooked potato, onion with bits of peel on, eggs burnt on one side and raw on the other with the occasional bit of shell for extra crunch summed up Spanish cuisine. 

I’ll make something to eat,’ said Mum. ‘You find something to drink.’

With some foreboding, Jane and I went upstairs. A creaky flight of steps led up to four bedrooms. Sloping ceilings abounded, so did peeling floral wall paper and threadbare curtains. From the biggest room, we looked down onto the sea which crashed and slammed against the beach as if it was trying to eat its way towards us. 

We went back out onto the landing. There was some sort of pointless cupboard with a warped, vomit green door between two of the bedrooms and opposite, a much smaller, even more pointless cupboard embedded in the thick wall of the house itself. Masses of cobweb stretched right across its small brown door. A large spider sat in the middle. It was hard to be sure if the web was trembling from the draught or the spider was stamping its feet in warning.

Above us tiles rattled and a steady drip had made a puddle on the thin carpet. 

At the end of the landing was another door. Varnish had been applied in streaks and lumps, congealing as it ran down in dark trickles. As Jane reached to open the door, Harlequin, whom I’d been carrying, hissed, squirmed out of my arms and shot downstairs.

‘Shall I get Dad?’ I suggested but Jane was made of sterner stuff. She pushed at the door. Nothing happened. 

‘Come on Laura,’ she said. ‘Help me.’ She grabbed my hand and forced it onto the handle.

‘You don’t want to go in there,’ said a deep, warm voice behind us.

We both jumped and spun round. There was no-one there. 

‘Perhaps we should go back downstairs,’ whispered Jane.

A plate smashed in the kitchen followed by a muffled exchange. It sounded bad-tempered.

‘Oh don’t leave me,’ said the voice.

A breath of warm air wafting round our ankles made us look down. Out of the small, pointless, cobwebby cupboard poked a dark green snout.

‘Don’t go away just yet,’ said a dragon. ‘I haven’t had anyone to talk to for decades. Come and make friends.’

 

END OF PART ONE

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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.

Treasure Hunters – Part Two

 

 

Rooftop Dragon

Aerwin called it yoga.

He could hold a pose for weeks, his gaze fixed, his breath so shallow it couldn’t disturb a feather. Through his toes, he felt hard ridged tiles and soft lead. He was aware of his stomach’s slow digestive churn, his low patient hunger, and his mind, like a diamond: sharp, sparkling, clear. 

A long way below and across the road, tourists queued to enter the Abbey, snaking along cool, hallowed paths out onto the hot, secular pavement. Never had so many people wanted to get into a place of worship at the same time without a national emergency, a royal wedding or a legal obligation. The tourists chatted in a million languages, took a billion selfies and seeped one by one in through oak doors out of Aerwin’s sight.

Some of them looked tastier than others. 

Occasionally one would notice Aerwin and take a photograph. They called him a statue of a dragon. Aerwin called himself a dragon who was expert at keeping still. 

How he missed the fogs and smogs of the past, when he could swoop down, carry someone off under cover of gloom and sit amongst chimneys to crunch them up. Everything had been ruined since they banned coal fires and leaded petrol to clear the skies. Nowadays there was no chance of snatching a meal unseen in daylight.

Aerwin contemplated the tempting line of juicy humans. He only really hungered for bullies and louts and could spot them in seconds. He argued that roosting on the Supreme Court from time to time had imparted a sense of justice but truthfully, to a dragon, the flavour of nastiness is nectar. 

Even so, his stomach ached as he peered at the potential feast. In the old days, people were scrawny. Now they were fat and shiny from constant shovelling of snacks as if preparing for famine. Delicious.

Aerwin let one drop of saliva wet his lips.

His gaze drifted south from the Abbey, over the tourists, over the commuters to the crenellated Parliament building where he normally roosted inconspicuous among the gothic carvings. Unfortunately right now, the roofs and turrets were covered for renovation. Aerwin gave a tiny sigh. Such rich pickings missed: if he wanted to munch on the tastiest bullies and louts Parliament was the place to be.

The drop of saliva fell onto a commuter scurrying along the pavement. She looked up in surprise at the dry old building under a cloudless blue sky then shrugged and rushed away, without appearing to wonder why a stone dragon nestled out of symmetry with carved muses.

With a susurration like stones slithering down slate, the Muse of Justice whispered ‘Aerwin, stop drooling. We’ve told you before: you mustn’t eat people.’

‘Don’t want people,’ muttered Aerwin, ‘want politicians.’

The Muse tutted and rolled her eyes.

Aerwin let his tongue flicker, his tail twitch. Then he and the Muse settled, still as statues again. 

The Muse called it contemplation. 

Aerwin called it waiting for dinner.

dragon

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. Photograph of muse on the Supreme Court copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon and dragon courtesy of Pixabay. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Insight

Dear Niamh,

I blame you. 

Rhys doesn’t believe me but I just know it’s your fault that he and I are invisible. You’ve always stared at me as if I’m something nasty on your shoe. I hate that. I used to try and wind you up but it was a waste of time. Nothing gets to you. Nothing. I’ve never seen you cry and you don’t laugh at my jokes. You’re the only girl who doesn’t think I’m funny. Apart from Freya of course. Freya doesn’t laugh at anything at all. She just cries.

It really gets to me how you don’t like me,Niamh. You and me, we could make a good team. You’re brighter than the rest of these trolls. You read the same books, watch the same movies. To be honest, I even think you’re almost as pretty as me. We could run this school between us but you’re just not interested. You just hang out with Lauren and ignore me. Or I thought you did. But look at you now: you’re the only one who can see us and you’re grinning. So I know it’s all your fault.

I’ve been thinking about it and reckon it all started the day Freya went to Mrs Jones after break and said I was picking on her. Rhys sat there looking smug (made a change for him to be out of the limelight didn’t it?). He was just sniggering at me and nudging those thugs he hangs out with.  Charlie was looking gutted. Everyone could see the marks on Charlie’s neck but Rhys had got away with it again. Mrs Jones’s eyes rolled as she listened to Freya drivel on and then you stood up for her. You know how Mrs Jones thins her lips and stares at us as if she’s thinking how dare you interrupt my day with your pathetic little lives? Well she looked at Freya like that and then she looked at me like that. Me. I mean, Rhys, he’s a bully. Everyone knows he’s a bully. He chases people and thumps them. That’s bullying isn’t it? He even tries to thump Freya, when Charlie isn’t around, only she can outrun him – the lard arse. But me? I’m not a bully. I just tell it like it is.  

Freya is boring. She is gangly. She does have a funny accent. She does cry all the time. She is good at boring things like history. Her Dad is fat. Her house is a mess. 

Do you remember when Freya moved to this school from whatever God awful place she came from? She tried to make friends by inviting all us girls round to her house for a party. I mean, don’t you remember Freya’s home? Her parents are so weird and old fashioned they’ve only just about got a CD player and put on total crap music that even my mum wouldn’t listen to. Her Dad kept bleating on about stuff from about fifty years ago and Freya just hung on his words if he’s God or something. He didn’t even know how to do an internet search. I’m not sure he even had a smart phone. He just kept proving his point by digging out one of those dusty old books he’d got piled up everywhere because he’d run out of space in his stupid shop. I don’t think half of them were less than a hundred years old and there were about a million. There were cats asleep on them, her Dad was putting plates down on them. They were all over the place. Is that your idea of a party? So yeah, she’s weird. She can’t help it. It’s how she is. And it’s not my fault if I point it out to the other kids and they laugh. I’ve just got a good sense of humour and she hasn’t. It’s no good me pretending to everyone that she’d be any good on their team, she’d fall over her feet or cry or something.  It’s obvious.

I’m not like Rhys. He’s a bully. I’m just honest. He pushes Charlie around to get money and to make himself look scary. I just want Freya to face up to facts. If she laughed at my jokes I wouldn’t get so irritated with her. Not as much anyway.

The day when you told on me, good old Mrs Jones wasn’t putting up with all that soppy crap. She said ‘Just keep away from her then’ to Freya, just like she says to Charlie about Rhys, ‘just keep away from him then.’ See, she understands. If you don’t want people to get annoyed, don’t be annoying. 

People were a bit fidgety that afternoon. Well the girls were. The boys were just morons same as ever. Some of the girls wouldn’t look at me. But it was ok. It gave me time to remind Abbie about how Ellen’s Mum drinks like a fish and how it couldn’t be true about Georgia’s dad and then I wondered out loud why Chelsea is so short. After lunch, things were back to normal. Except you kept staring at me.

I decided to ignore Freya. It was the best thing to do, ignore her.

I thought, I’ll keep away from Freya, then she doesn’t need to keep away from me and I’ll make sure everyone else keeps away from her too. No-one has anything to complain about then. So I just mentioned to the rest of the girls how I’d heard that Freya had fleas and cockroaches in that slum she lived in and that was why she was so good at biology. I said it a bit loudly but it got a couple of the girls laughing anyway and they moved away from Freya and pretended to scratch. The ones that looked awkward probably didn’t understand the joke.   

Now I reckon that was the trigger point. You gave me evils while Lauren took Freya away with her arm round Freya’s shoulder. Freya was crying again: the big wet cabbage. That’s when you decided. I remember you asking Freya really loudly if you could go round hers that evening. It was after that.

Yes, I know it didn’t happen the next day or the day after, but I reckon that evening at Freya’s house, you found something in one of her dad’s disgusting old books.  

So everything was fine for a couple of days and then on Monday, I overslept. Mum didn’t wake me. She’d gone to work without dropping me off, which she does sometimes, but this time, she hadn’t found someone else to take me. So I just had to walk there on my own. I was a bit late so the only person arriving at the same time was Chelsea and she just ignored me. Didn’t even look at me. It was as if I wasn’t there. It was the same with everyone. They all ignored me. The bell rang and I went into the classroom and Mrs Jones took the register and when she got to my name she said ‘absent’ and that was that. It was the same all day. I put my hand up, no-one noticed. I kicked Sam under the table. He didn’t flinch. At break, no-one heard me. After lunch, Mrs Jones got to my name on the register again, looked a bit confused and said ‘why’s her name still on here?’ At the end of the day, she said ‘Chelsea, tomorrow, come and sit in that empty seat.’ and pointed where I was sitting. I looked round the class and no-one looked surprised or anything. Except you. You were looking straight at me and smiling in that quiet way of yours. God I was mad. I went up to Rhys and punched him really hard, just to prove I was there. I got up out of my seat and did it right in front of everyone, but no-one said a thing and Rhys, that great oaf, he just waved his hand a bit as if there was a fly around him.

I went home and Mum couldn’t see me either. She made enough supper for two but looked a bit confused and put the second plate in the fridge. I ate it cold when she’d left the kitchen. I sat down with her to watch TV but it wasn’t the same without her telling me to go to bed and me telling her how useless she is. 

I’ve kept coming to school. What else was there to do? I just thought it was some kind of seriously unfunny joke. A day after it happened to me, when I was sitting at the back of the class in Chelsea’s old seat, I saw Charlie come in crying. He wasn’t even pretending not to. He had gravel burn all down his cheek and his jumper was all ripped. The other boys squirmed a bit but everyone knew Rhys would come sauntering in next, on the look out for someone else to thump. Mrs Jones  told everyone to settle down and asked Charlie what had happened. 

‘Fell down,’ he said.

She didn’t believe it but shrugged. She scowled at Rhys, but Rhys just looked as innocent as it’s possible for Rhys to look. And thinking about it now, you glared at Rhys then while everyone else found something else to be interested in.

On Wednesday, Rhys came in to class but when Mrs Jones got to his name on the register, she marked him absent though he said ‘yes miss’. 

She’d stopped calling out my name the previous day. 

Rhys was angry. He started throwing things about, only nothing actually moved. It looked like they’d moved but at the same time it looked as if they were still where they were supposed to be. It was really weird. Everyone just got on with their work. Rhys got up and walked about thumping people. No-one noticed. Then he got to me, said ‘where’ve you been hiding?’ and punched me in the arm and I said ‘Ow!  Stop it you prat!’ and punched him back. It’s not really my style but I had to do something.

So there we were. I could see him and he could see me but we were both invisible to everyone else.  And after a while Mrs Jones just referred to me as ‘that girl who used to be here’ but said it as if saying my name made her mouth taste bad and talked about Rhys as if he were a particularly stupid pile of manure.

I thought Rhys only came to school to beat Charlie up, so I expected him to bunk off once no-one would notice. But he’s still here. I guess even he has enough brain cells to get fed up with hanging out at home. All the same, he’s worried because Ben’s taking Charlie to judo with him now.  Let’s face it, if he’d known how to, Charlie always could have got the better of Rhys. Now I bet Rhys is almost hoping to stay invisible.  

Me, I actually want to learn stuff, so it’s a bit frustrating when I know the answer and no-one’s listening. The only thing that made school bearable until this morning was that Mrs Jones was good for entertainment. I liked it when she made Chelsea finish that problem on the white board only made sure it was so high up that Chelsea had to stand on a chair and it was such a laugh when she got Tim to read out that long poem then mimicked his lisp. Yesterday, I thought it was hysterical when she laughed in front of everyone at Freya’s bit of creative writing about her father’s magic books. 

I’ve only just clicked it wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t a story.

I’m normally so bright, I can’t believe I didn’t realise the truth till you did it to Mrs Jones too. She came in late this morning, in a foul mood and bellowed like a cow, but no-one paid any attention. She banged on the desk till it nearly broke, but no-one calmed down. 

I actually felt a little scared of her, but I thought at least she can’t see me. Then I realised she  could. She was staring at me and Rhys while the class was laughing and chucking things around her. 

When the head came in to see what was going on and totally ignored her, Mrs Jones just slammed her way out of the classroom. And I looked over to you, Niamh, and you were laughing your head off.

So Niamh, I’ve worked out it’s all your fault. I know it is. I don’t know how but you’re staring at us with that smug grin. I thought nothing got to you, but obviously something does. I’ve never done anything to you, yet you’ve played this trick on me. I don’t know why, but if you can see us. I’m hoping you can read this and can reverse the spell or whatever you need to do.

Cos you know what I hate. What I really hate? I hate how they all forgot me and Rhys so fast.  Or not forgot, but how those kids I thought were my friends are all so catty about me now. I was the one that made things interesting and now they talk about me like they hated me. Some of them even hang out with Freya and say they were frightened of me. Me? I wasn’t like Rhys – I never hit anyone. I just like a good laugh. What’s scary about that? What’s wrong with them all? Turns out Freya has a sense of humour too and can smile. Who knew? I’ve heard some of the kids say even though she’s weird and boring, she’s funny and nice all the same so they just roll their eyes a bit and talk to her as if she was normal. 

And I miss my mum who just sits quietly at home in the evening and looks at my photo as if she’s trying to remember who I am.  

I don’t know what you think I’ve done to annoy you, but maybe you can tell me and then you can make things go back to normal. Maybe I’ll even try to work out what you all like about Freya. 

Niamh, please reverse that spell. 

It’s lonely when you’re invisible, Niamh.  

And it’s sooo boring.  

grey zoe

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.

Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

When I joined Facebook, my ‘friends’ were family, close friends and/or colleagues. Some of them came under the ‘long-lost’ category and it was wonderful to reconnect and keep in touch but beyond that I didn’t expect to get much out of social media.

Then I discovered one of my colleagues was a member of a writers’ page. I probably didn’t at that point, even realise such groups existed on Facebook and I didn’t even know this particular friend liked to write since apart from discussing work, we mostly discussed cookery. But I had a peek anyway.

This was all around the time when I was taking my first tentatives steps to get back into writing. I’d entered a local short story competition and to my amazement had been short-listed in the flash category with a 300 word story. So I joined one of the on-line writers’ groups and started to read things that people posted: flash fiction, dribbles, drabbles, six word stories… I was astonished at the imagination, the camaraderie, the fun people were having.

At one point, someone wrote about walking in the woods at night. Then someone else did their own take and it brought to mind how much time I’d spent in local woodland when I was a lonely child.  I imagined revisiting it, something I have not done for a very, very long time and a story formed in my head. And then another. All of a sudden, I had two short stories, one funny, one serious. Longer versions of both are in my first book ‘Kindling’.

A little after that, I joined another writers’ Facebook group and found the same welcome and encouragement.

So there I was, catapulted out of my safety zone into the world of social media and something I never expected to be the outcome happened.

I made new friends. 

Now one of them, Val Portelli (aka Voinks), was intriguing. Mythical beings and sometimes romance peppered her often gothic stories. Somehow or other we ‘clicked’ and started contributing to the same threads and sharing ideas. 

We both like a little element of the fantastic and provided each other with ‘prompts’. Over time, this developed into enough trust to make constructive comments on works-in-progress. This is the author equivalent of asking ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and bracing oneself for the actual truth. It’s very scary.

Val and I didn’t meet in person until last year. In nervous anticipation I wrote a story called ‘Penfriends’ about what might feasibly go wrong, but we got on very well indeed. And then one of us said ‘why don’t we pull all our fantasy short stories, flash fiction and drabbles into a book?’

So we did. 

‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ is out today on Amazon. 

If you like short stories which may be funny or chilling or serious but always involving magic, myth or legend, take a peek. After all, the holidays are coming up!

Link to Amazon.co.uk

Link to Amazon.com

Link to Val Portelli’s website

weird & wonderful Tales black cover 30.3.18

The Start of the Bridge

The girl sped up, her heels clicking on the wet pavement. She was unsteady in her haste, or perhaps she was staggering because of what had been in her drink. Maybe it was both. Drizzle made her hair unstraighten. He liked it that way. And when she passed under the streetlight, raindrops sparkled in the curls like tiny translucent pearls. He smiled.

Just at the start of the bridge, her right heel caught in a crack and her foot twisted. She cried out, stopped, half turned and looked at him. Her eyes widened. His smile became a grin and he continued his nonchalant approach. The path along the river was just to their right, the scent of wet summer hedgerows drifted from the darkness. Her thin top was nearly soaked through, clinging to her body. He imagined the taste of the water on her skin, the softness under the wet fabric. She would be like a mermaid. It would be wonderful. 

The girl started to cry. She pulled at the shoe caught in the pavement and then wrenched at the strap to take it off. He smiled. He only had to walk three strides and he’d have reached her. As long as she didn’t get across the bridge, he could take her down the path and show her what she was missing.

With one more stride he passed the funny little ruin at the start of the bridge. The girl was an arm’s length away now, still struggling with the buckle, tears mingling with rain.

Before he could touch her, something grabbed his arm and the world went black.

*****

His nostrils filled with a stench which made him retch: fungus, sodden straw, smoky, filthy clothes, human waste and body odours so layered in tone and undertone he wondered how mere sweat could create them. He reached out his arms in the darkness and touched, on one side wet stone and on the other softness restrained under slimy cloth. A breast. His wrist was gripped.

‘Oh no you don’t.’

The voice was hoarse, as if the whisper was dragged through smoke and throat-dissolving gin. The words stank of rotten meat. 

‘Let me go!’

‘What if I don’t want to?’

‘Let me go you…’

What was she this woman? She was short, that was all he knew. But he couldn’t work out if she was old or young, fat or thin. There was no light whatsoever. She spoke again.

‘What were you gonna to do that girl?’

’N…Nothing. I just wanted a bit of a cuddle.’

‘Didn’t look like she was interested.’

‘She never gave me the chance.’

He squirmed in her grip but the hand, though small, was strong. It tightened round his wrist.

‘Let me go!’

‘And if she’d ask you to let her go? Would you have? The truth now. I’ll know if you’re lying.’

He swallowed. He still couldn’t see, just smell the cold, damp of the room or whatever it was, feel her foul breath, taste the mould on the damp walls, hear the trickle of water somewhere outside. Was it the river? He thought of the river-bank, of holding the girl down in the undergrowth squirming like an eel. The grip on his wrist tightened even more. He pulled at it with his other hand but could not unpeel the woman’s small fingers. He flailed in the darkness for her face, for a door, for a weapon. Failing, he felt his bowels loosen.

‘Where is this?’ he said.

‘The jail.’

‘What jail? There’s no jail in this town anymore. They moved it to… I don’t know where, but we haven’t got one.’ He snorted. She was just a filthy idiot. He tried to wrench his arm away but her grip tightened evermore. 

‘Oh yes there is,’ she said. ‘You were standing right by it.’

He remembered. The funny little ruin at the end of the bridge: there were handcuffs carved into the old stone. 

‘Now in my day,’ the woman said calmly, her jagged nails digging into the soft flesh of his wrist, cutting the skin, ‘in my day, this was just for petty criminals to cool them down overnight. Pickpockets, drunks, brawlers. People like me. In my day, they never worried about men like you. “Fair game” they used to say about girls like her, out late, all alone. Times change.’

‘What do you mean “in your day”? Let me go! A girl like that’s still fair game. What’s she to you?’

‘Oh she’s my … let me see… great great great grand-daughter or something. Maybe a few more greats.’

He swallowed, this woman was filthy and mad. And then he was aware of the coldness of her small hand, how hard and tiny the fingers round his wrist, the way her breath was fading, the smells receding into nothing but damp stone. He could hear the river again, a car passing in the rain. He could hear people talking: a panicked girl, someone else comforting her. He could make out the orange glow of street lights through cracks in the old padlocked door. 

‘How can you know that girl was your anything?’ he whispered.

A voice, fading and cold, murmured, ‘any girl in trouble is my something.’

*****

The stench told them where he was.

‘Been dead a week I reckon,’ said the pathologist.

‘Beats me how his body got here,’ said the detective. ‘It took us an hour to break in. The lock’s been rusted solid for over fifty years and there’s no other entrance. What killed him?’

‘No obvious cause of death. There’s not a mark on him but some scratches on his wrist which … it’s hard to tell but … they seem to be words…’ 

The detective held the torch closer, covering his face from the stench and flies.

‘What do they say?’

The pathologist peered closer, twisting the wrist in the beam of light.

‘What do you reckon? To me it looks like “fair game”.’

 

bridge

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.

Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

f1

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

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.