Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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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.

January 8, 2011   14 Comments

Dreams on the Estate

S

helly walks the palomino down the estate at night, after the scratchy kids go to bed and the lights come flickering on. She likes to carry a silver pistol and Merrick – the palomino – wears matching silver harness.

Shelly thinks this is a dream she has each night, after she mumbles through her little ritual of tea, toast and then hot chocolate. If it wasn’t for these things, it would be so much weirder, she thinks. She doesn’t know the half of it.

Out in the gardens, and streets, around the monotonous, uniform pebbledash, she wanders like a shadow. She doesn’t know what she’s wearing. If she did, she’d blush.

The palomino is a consistent friend. Shelly’s not a girly-girl into pink and ponies – she’s never had a thing for horses – but Merrick waits by the gate every night, as dusk falls and the sodium lights fire up, pink and dull. He nickers softly as she hands him some peanuts. She’s not sure where the nuts came from or whether nuts are good for horses (at least they’re not salted), but he scoops them up appreciatively with his wide, rubbery lips; hairy lips that tickle her hand. Afterward, she wipes her hand on her hip, amazed once again, that all her fingers are intact. Clever horse.

They clip-clop along Waveatree road, the night smelling of laburnum blossom – the trees as enthusiastic as fireworks – warm plants, and humidity. It’s quiet. She never sees other people out here when she walks with Merrick – another reason she thinks this is a dream. “It’s not a very complex dream, is it,” she says, patting the horse. He snorts and rolls an eye in her direction. She snickers.

They clip-clop along a few more garden fences, pass a few more identikit cars and front lawns. I feel like a suburban Indian, she thinks. Then: a suburban Native American, don’t you know.

Out in the darkness a cuckoo or a unicorn calls – Shelly really has no idea about wildlife, apart from the fact that horses like nuts.

Two houses down, a flicker of moving pictures comes from an un-curtained window. Inside, there is no one watching the TV, but a cup of tea sits next to the big fat couch, a couch as bloated as a witchetty grub and as multi-layered as a chocolate pastry. Merrick shakes his head. Shelly cannot but agree – how many more episodes of Red Dwarf can they show on Dave, before everyone in the whole, wide world has seen it twice?

Down at the bus station, Shelly peruses the timetables. Strange – she has never done this during the day. Shelly has no illusions about leaving Crestwood and all the humdrum monotony of her life. I was born here and I’ll die here, she says. If it wasn’t for these flights of fancy, I’d just be like everyone else. That’s what she says; mostly in this dream.

But Merrick found her and now she carries this pistol. That too is an anachronism. Why the gun? It rather implies she has to shoot someone, something, or defend herself, but unless TV can attack in a dream, nothing moves. The gun maintains its mirror shine, Merrick’s harness sparkles, the moon smiles down.

During the day, she could get a return fare to Burton. But that’s just the same as Crestwood. She could take the horse. It occurs she’s never tried riding him, and to do so would be somewhat impolite. Another scratch around horse ears. She thinks Merrick agrees.

Outside the football ground, Shelly considers turnstiles and horses and can see a traffic jam before it happens. They pass on, with Shelly wondering if Merrick might like some of the wide, green lawn that is Crestwood FA. There does seem to be a somewhat resigned plod to his step when they turn away.

Outside the bead shop, Shelly plays with her hair, wondering about how long it would take to braid it and fill it with colourful beads. She also looks speculatively at Merrick and his lovely long mane which flows like ice. Merrick is obviously not impressed.

They return through the ‘big park’, and once more down Waveatree Road.

Shelly tries a few quick draws and ‘howdy partners’ with the gun. There are a few hysterical moments, but it’s not as much fun as doing it in front of the mirror with a hairbrush. She carefully retrieves the gun again from the bushes. It is thankfully undamaged.

A block later, Shelly unlatches the gate to her garden. Merrick has already gone ‘poof’. She leaves a small pile of peanuts on the brick post and smiles happily.

In moments she’s upstairs, asleep once more.

September 25, 2010   No Comments