Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
Random header image... Refresh for more!

The Wallpaper Forest

S

am has to stay at his grandparents. It’s not their fault they smell of nasturtiums and week-old steak.

He arrived at 3:00am, in a dressing gown with twelve pairs of underwear and no socks. Those are his Ben 10 pyjamas, and he’s about six, if he remembers correctly – which he might not.

His bed, in the spare room, has a curiously slick-edged throw on top of the duvet: it’s all plastic and silk, bordering something like a pink, baby’s blanket. The duvet is heavy and lumpy, shedding feathers between stitched diamonds.

There are doilies everywhere on the windowsills and sideboard.

In the morning, a delicious smell of fried breakfast will waft upstairs, suggesting crunchy, smoky bacon – Tulip of course – and fried bread, which his grandparents have every day and which his parents do not.

To eat this heart-clotting feast, will mean stepping out on goose feet; bumping down tall treads and a red stair carpet the colour of raw liver; shuffling past peculiar, Little Lord Fauntleroy paintings and miniature brasses; before squeezing through (under?) the beaded screen hanging over the kitchen door. It will also mean jumping at his grandfather’s explosive tirades about the local neighbourhood cats ‘shitting in his goddamn beech-tubs, again’ – the only earth that hasn’t been concreted-over in four square miles.

At this point, Sam has to ask: is getting a new baby brother or sister worth it?

The room is stiflingly hot. Scared of the dark, Sam would usually put his head under the blankets, breathing through a narrow fold. But it’s too hot to do that right now. In fact, a limb will have to stay outside the covers, at all times, to avoid his nightly claustrophobic sweats. Tonight, the ‘Thing Under the Bed’ may take that arm, but he’d gladly sacrifice his lefty, because the righty is really important for zooming his fire truck around.

Old people like heat and boiled sweets and doilies and fatty, fried bread.

The wallpaper in the room is raised and tactile – a wandering forest of English oak, with interlaced branches in a pattern that’d make you go mad if you followed that branch up and over there, and under that one, and around that one – next to that sprig of spiralling oak leaves – and so on. The forest endlessly repeats.

The radiator is banging and gurgling – presumably shifting in its fittings due to the inferno coaxed from the boiler beneath the stairs. The room is cast to a dappled, forest-floor, where light from the street lamps comes through the emerald curtains. And he’s staring at that wallpaper, trying to work it all out.

When Sam awakes, broiled and sweating, tongue thick, he is not at all surprised to find the forest awake and eager to greet him. There are birds, and squirrels and the great trees arcing overhead, and it’s stifling and damp beneath the endlessly interlocking canopy.

His Pokémon keychain is still in his pyjama pocket, so he knows this cannot be a dream.

“Well, well, well,” says a green figure, whose eyes gleam a peculiar shade of sun-kissed clover – seeming to glow like Spring – while its limbs, and features are of sprouting leaf and gnarled wood, grown up from the forest floor. Indeed, some leaves sprout from its eyes, ears and mouth. “There are not so many as you, m’boy. What brings you to this patterned place, and why?”

“I think I’m lost,” sniffs Sam,

“No need to think it, and it’s no sooner done,” says the figure with an elaborate bow.

“Oh.”

“Ha. Ha. Look at your face, kind Sam. No need to worry. Drop that hand. Come, boy.”

And there is a fire, and the smell of charred pig, roasting over the flames, and the pop of ‘crackling’ in the making – something his grandfather would favour, despite dodgy teeth. Sam squeezes beneath the trailing oak leaves that rattle and clatter together, and sits cross-legged, as those others in the camp.

There are various nods in his direction, from a shadow; a boy as blue as the empty sky; a very, very big cat; and, of course, the man in green.

“This is for you,” says the Green Man, sliding a greasy platter his way. The plate is a huge, battered, thing of stone-hammered copper, floppy like a hat. “Aye, that’s it, in with the fingers and teeth. Best way to do the rinds, eh? That pig-flesh was fed only flowers.  Now then, let me tell you about the cats. There was this one, big, ginger bugger, a bit like our friend here –”

Oh, great, thinks Sam. He looks down, chin dripping. This is a mighty piece of pork he is faced with: deliciously inviting, but so large as to become slightly sick-making.

“I’m curious,” says The Boy in Blue – who is also a lord, in his own time and place – “Do you remember about the pictures, Sam? About the magic? I mean, you are Britanni? Aren’t you?” His skin is the colour of the sky, the woad etched with spiralling runes of broken charcoal.

“Or is this,” says the shadow – the Thing From Under the Bed, which is as much an absence of light, as it is a sack of joints, and too many long, grasping fingers – “what you would call ‘just folk stories’? Old fogey stories? Stories by old fogies?”

“Or, worse still,” says the ginger cat, staring, “not something to talk about, at all, over a polite piece of pork?” Those eyes are twin Cairngorm’s, each the size of a fist, and the cat, itself, is the size of a small pony.

“Sweet?” inquires the Thing, rustling some paper deep inside its shadows. It produces a ‘Soor Ploom’ clamped between a thumb and fore-claw, like a marble on a skewer.

“Go on, I want you to have it.”

Sam tugs.

“No really.”

Sam tugs, again. It still doesn’t shift.

The shadow titters.

Sam tugs harder still, and the candy finally scrapes free, leaving curled shavings of sugar between the claw points.

“Nice arm,” says the Thing, thoughtfully. “I may take that later. Ha, don’t worry: you’ve got another for the truck, and all. Besides, I do hope your mother is okay.”

“Thanks,” says Sam, sweet rattling on the back of his teeth. The pork is already turning to clotted grease.

“I’m beginning to think,” says The Boy in Blue, “that you and yours don’t remember this.” He casts a hand around at the lush, paper swards.

“I’d say not,” says the ginger cat.

“Shouldn’t you be ‘tail up’ in a bran-tub, somewhere?” says the Thing.

“Meh,” snorts the cat. There is a pained pause. “Eh… you all for… having that, ah… pork, there, Sammy?”

The Boy in Blue crinkles up with laughter and then turns, once more, to Sam. “Listen Sam, there are things you’ve long forgot. Not just you, but your people. There used to be pictures – pictures on goat skin. There were sweat lodges, and the endless forests betwixt seas, when it was easier, and safer, for a man to travel by coracle – bobbing like a cork around the peninsulas – rather than take the forest ways, and where a man’d know it wasn’t done to stare so intently at the trees.”

“Lords,” said the cat, ears flat, “they’d never do it. Never, ever.”

The Green Man hunkered down and threw a twig on the fire, his face a spreading woodland mask. “And now it’s all gone, eh, kind Sam? Less than folklore: where the men of now talk only of what men once knew, eh? Like those past were naught but ignorant children. Aye, it’s a forgetting is what you’re telling me, eh?”

The cat sighed. “Well, never you mind. Finish your wild berry. The fire is dying and we should be away.”

“Aye,” said The Green Man. “So, we’ll let this be a dream – all things considered, all limbs intact, all things forgotten – and we won’t talk about the Fear Glas, who grows his bones and skin of woodland green; and the Pintealta Duine that once sprang from bloody daubs of ground ochre, and illumed themselves all blue and black with sticks from the fire; and the greedy Purraghlas that’d take the food off your plate as soon as look at you; and the sly Sgàil, skittering through the nettle plants, hanging black and dangerous from the oakland trunks. Aye, these were once fine old stories, and I see from your eyes, now not even that.” He shook his head regretfully. “Aye, well.”

With that, the little group went to their feet – and one to moiling shadow – and bid their fond farewells.

“Your mama is coming home, kind Sam,” said the Fear Glas, stepping once more into bark and tree.

“Aye, tomorrow-a-day,” said the blue boy of the Pintealta Duine, who strode confidently towards the smell of the sea.

“With a fresh little sister, said the Purraghlas, dragging Sam’s cutlet away, with a faint scratch of claw on copper.

“At least tell her all about me,” said the Sgàil, seeping back into the darkness, “though I won’t take her arms. I promise. But maybe, just maybe, tell her my proper name, and describe this giddy vision as something real, so I and she can talk again.”

And the forest leaves crashed together like a wave, slick to its outside and woollen to its centre.

Sam awoke. He was in a fearsome sweat, nose pressed to the endless paper, with a sweet and acid taste in his mouth.

Part to tears of tiredness, he groped for the glass of water on the bedside cabinet. As he did so, his fingernails brushed the tepid glass, ringing a dull ‘ting’, and he was glad that the Sgàil had seemed so reminiscent. So much so, it had forsaken its favoured arm-flesh. At least, for now.

14 comments

1 jcunknown { 01.08.11 at 8:35 pm }

Wow this is going to be one of my favorite story
I really enjoyed it got lost in the middle but found my way back but because my computer turned off lol
Great job

2 Stephen Hewitt { 01.11.11 at 9:07 pm }

Thanks John – glad you liked the story and that you managed to get your computer back on track. Thanks for commenting 🙂

3 Aidan Fritz { 01.09.11 at 7:24 pm }

Nasturtiums are a great opening. I imagine they actually smell reasonably good but a boy might disagree… however, they sound like they smell downright nasty. Loved the vivid, unique smells and ways of looking at things of this kid and the way it lapsed into the fantastic worked nicely.

4 Stephen Hewitt { 01.11.11 at 9:13 pm }

Hi there Aidan – Nasturtiums are interesting. I wanted something sweet and something old, so added Nasturtiums and week-old steak. From what I remember, Nasturtiums have a pretty peculiar smell which is hard to quantify. To which I immediately thought: ‘that’s the one for me.’ Glad you liked the other bits and pieces and the transition into fantasy. As ever, hard to know how folks will find these.

5 Lara Dunning { 01.09.11 at 10:04 pm }

You have captured the imagination of a the MC so vividly-teetering in dream and reality so cause one to think which it is. I hope it turns out the be a fantastical reality.

6 Stephen Hewitt { 01.11.11 at 9:17 pm }

Hi there Lara – glad you liked that see-saw divide between reality and dream – it’s the kind of thing I’m always interested in. In the back of my head, I did see this as reaching back to an older reality that we’ve forgotten about 😉 Thanks for reading and commenting.

7 Brinda { 01.12.11 at 3:44 pm }

So that’s what the world looks feels and smells like to a little boy : ) I hope this one grows to like his grandparents eventually though….I liked the dream sequence and all the characters in it ..very vivid..

8 Stephen Hewitt { 01.18.11 at 7:44 pm }

Hi there Brinda – glad you liked the story and the dream sequence. The house bits were based on my own experience with grandparents, but not dislike, rather everything being very, very strange when you’re small in somebody else’s house, especially when they are older. Everything down to the carpet was weird. Particularly strange, considering they were my parent’s parents. Surely things should be more familiar?

9 justin davies { 01.13.11 at 5:49 pm }

Stephen, you capture the eesence of being at your grandparents so vividly. It was just like this for me too: exotic in an old-fsahioned way, different food, smells, textures. I also traced whole worlds out of wallpaper designs, although never had dreams like this! Strangely, The Green Man makes an appearance in a future episode of my series. Great read. (Yours).

10 Stephen Hewitt { 01.18.11 at 7:51 pm }

Hi there Justin – really glad you got into the texture of the story. Much weirdness to be had in grandparent’s houses. I’ll be interested to read your Green Man episode, because I do love that sort of stuff. Thanks for putting on a comment 🙂

11 Harry B. Sanderford { 01.17.11 at 11:21 am }

What a fantastic story Stephen. I hope you are looking for an illustrator. This would make a wonderful children’s book, especially for those expecting new siblings. Outstanding!

12 Stephen Hewitt { 01.18.11 at 7:53 pm }

Thanks very much Harry. It would be interesting to expand this out into a children’s tale. There’s plenty of places it could go, and no doubt it’ll be a concept I’ll be returning to. 🙂

13 Joan { 01.19.11 at 3:23 pm }

This is a clever story, Stephen.

It’s interesting the way Sam sees his grandparents’ place to be as strange as the wallpaper forest, really – ‘duvet’ sounding to me what used to be called an ‘eiderdown’ or ‘counterpaine’, ‘doilies’ everywhere – that is, those crocheted mats, some of which I have tucked away in one of my drawers from my grandparents’ days!

And then – the wallpaper forest – real because he has the pokemon keychain in his pocket – it sort of mirrors ‘minor’ but strange (to Sam) incidents in the grandparents’ home – the blue boy in the picture, the cats shitting in the flower-tubs. Yes, you do get the feeling he has just ‘stepped through’.

One thing – ‘heart-clotting feast’ – Sam wouldn’t know that, would he? Is that an authorial voice? Not criticising. It just stood out a bit from what was surrounding it. Also ‘Tulip’ – I know what that is. Everyone might not – especially people from other countries – but I don’t know if that matters or not. If you kept it, it’s not clear that it’s a brand, with it being the name of a flower. It could be something in the tub, along with the cat-shit.

Liked this story.

14 Stephen Hewitt { 01.22.11 at 8:03 pm }

Hi there Joan — I was happy the way the two parts came together. To young Sam, at that point, both the real and imaginary worlds are about as weird as each other. And yes, I’m glad you spotted the mirroring. ‘Heart-clotting-feast’ probably is authorial comment — my being misled by poetic rhythms, again. The Tulip thing is a strong memory from that time. Not actually sure my grandparents ate that type of bacon, but it fitted the right sort of mindset. Hopefully it doesn’t really matter whether folk are aware of the brand, as long as they can guess what it is from the context. Though you’re right — it might be a bit confusing, or at least, slow the reader while they work it out. Thanks for your comments and glad you liked the story.

Leave a Comment