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.

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.

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.