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

Spring Tidings – a Christmas Story

I

must run now, I can’t be late or everything will be late.

“Take out the trash,” mum calls, as I run downstairs – two steps at a time – and jump for the back door.

“Damn it!”

“Just get it done,” shouts dad.

Great. I haul the trash out into the snow, startling a few birds pecking at the fat on the bird feeder.

The neighbour’s cat swings by, peculiarly fluffy and black against the snow. “Leave those birds alone,” I growl. The cat is in a mad, springy mood, though, and hops off, appearing and vanishing, in drifts up to its ears.

Trash stored, I get the key for grandma’s house. The slender iron is freezing cold, where it hangs on the hook by the stairs. For its wards, a heart is cut through the bit.

I get my bag of cereal and cans from the washroom and then head down the wynd.

Why is it that wellies are so crap on snow? Dad’s car has carved the lane into awkward tracks and humps. I think I’ve jolted everything by the time I get to that tree-lined, ivy-shrouded, tunnel that leads up to grandma’s house.

My carrier bag hangs low, clunking against every stick, branch and mound of snow. My nose is running. Grandma would have something to say about that. Grandma was never late, never untidy, always had a good word to say about everybody; liked to keep me sorted, though. I think half the village was at her funeral – mums, dads, small kids; some of the farmers from one parish over. I found it really sad, but mum said, don’t worry: everything comes around.

“What do you want for Christmas?” was the next thing she said, staring at the rectangle of fresh sod, in the copse, where we’d planted grandma. We had to break the ground with a pickaxe.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe, maybe I don’t know.”

“That’s fine. You’ll think of something,” and she squeezed my arm.

The cottage is low and white and sits back in the trees, against an immaculate lawn, now sleeping beneath a deep, duvet of snow. A trellis, border plants, the old garage, stand darkly.

There has been so much snow, I’m dragging a furrow up to the front door.

Nobody else has been here. Once, I’d meet all sorts up here, asking grandma – old Mrs. Salter – for one of her ‘ha’penny cures’ as she put it, or a little, ‘silvery curse,’ that wasn’t so bad. Grandma didn’t do the bad stuff – she liked everyone too much.

The ice is riming everything, getting in under the eaves and the guttering. The outer surface of the snow is crunchy; the inner, soft and yielding, like marshmallow.

I practically have to break into grandma’s garage, even though I have the key – the snow is so insistent. Old tools, the smell of damp. A drip from my nose lands on the saw, creating a darker spot of rust.  I dab it with my gloved hand, without thinking, and end up with a rusty glove. Bright, Suzy, bright.

More wading in my rubbish boots – toes cold as elbows – and some sawing at an evergreen in grandma’s garden. I don’t know if it has to come from here, but I think it probably does.

What is it? I hear grandma ask.

I dunno… birch?

Gods. No. Got your head on back to front? That’s holly, child.

They all used to look the same to me. I have the twig – dark, succulent, still with some green growth in it – and jumpity-runny-hop-drag myself to the front door.

Head down, watch the lintel. Grandma was tiny. Watch the little hawthorn men; the scratchy pictograms in charcoal, crumbly on the flaking white paint; the horseshoe nailed firmly upright, in a two-pronged salute to luck. To the left of the portico is the name of the cottage – ‘Dun Roamin’; grandma’s little joke.

Bang the door shut – sticking now. Flick the calendar to the 23rd, one page over: an awesome winter scene of muntjac deer grazing by Woburn Abbey.

I love the smell in here: wood smoke and age. I feel the damp coldness of an abandoned house. Grandma’s things are still here, though. I don’t feel sad, really.

I fire up the wood-burning stove, remind myself to pick up more logs, pull open the curtains – feel that wall of cold, from behind the window glass – and get to hanging that sprig over the fireplace.

I tie on the bells, salute the cardinal points, say the rhyme – I even rap a bit of it, ala Jay-Z (my own invention; it seems to work. Just don’t tell grandma) – and finally tack the thing above the hearth with a silver nail. There are plenty of holes here already.

Silver nails… tricky to get hold of now grandma’s not around. This is mum’s – a bit rough, a bit bendy. “I’m definitely not my mother,” she said, shaking her head. “I think you got the craft. It jumped over me like a forest jack.”

Mum says that quite often.

Buckled, or no, the nail holds.

Just to see what I’ve got, I drop a few crumbs of chocolate on the mantel and go crouch behind the sofa. The material is an old patchwork, re-sewn, and carefully re-mended. Feels like luxurious sail cloth.

Grandma is a shadow in a hospital bed. She has a two-pronged tube up her nose. She says, “You got to stay with them over Christmas, Suzie. And let them out on the twelfth day after.”

“Of course,” I say, crying even though I don’t want to – Salter women don’t cry. “What happens if you forget?”

“Nothing. Winter lasts forever.”

“Oh.” Are you joking? I wondered. But no, there was only a fierce grandma Salter staring back at me with that level expression of hers. Some kind of bellows was hissing up and down, keeping her breathing.

There is scratching on the mantelpiece – rats you might think – or noisy mice with clogs on, until you hear the tittering. You don’t see anything, but you feel it. Nom. Nom. One chocolate flake, then the next vanishes.

The sprig rustles once more with a jingle of bells and everything goes quiet. Just the pop and soft roar of the burner; a drop of snow, falling from a bush outside.

“Keep it warm, Suzy-girl. You’ll do it proud. But don’t forget – it has to sling its hook on the twelfth.”

“I got it.”

“Blessed Be.”

She is quiet for a moment. Then a hand, cold as old bone, touches my arm.

“Oh, and take chocolate. They bloody love chocolate.”

I stoke the fire some more, keeping us all warm for the winter. I can’t get what I really want for Christmas – that part has gone now – but a spring thaw will be just fine. Fine enough, I guess.

December 10, 2010   16 Comments