Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Miss Briana

This week, a story that seemed to pop out fully formed, where other attempts to fill this post felt horribly overworked or disconnected – other stories which, having gone ‘bump in the night’, may yet see the light of day, but only after some rather deconstructive editing.  Instead, text hacking to a minimum, I present Miss Briana and her dog, Enid, who have both come to visit.     

***

M

iss Briana arrives at the Flodden wall at her usual time – Enid, her black Labrador beside her, tail a flag in the early morning mist – and smiles through the postern gate, fingers over an iron cross-bar, head framed in an iron square of cullis. Is it my imagination, or is that smile tighter than normal? Blond hair and pink lips are a smooth curve to the harsh black paint and blistering metal.

There was a time when she’d have to clatter the bars with a stone or stick to call me, the ‘man on duty’, but now we are aware of each other’s routine. I have just walked the circumference of the battlements, high over the falling slopes of grass and wild flowers that fall away to the jumbled crush of buildings waking up below, a fine flow of fog about them; tendrils of smoke rising from breakfast fires. The air is still. The smoke dissolves above like frayed rope.

There is something I must remember for her; in the words.

Enid has Briana’s handbag in her wide, soft mouth. It is a peculiar image: dog’s muzzle agape on Versace; black leather softer than gun-cloth. It drops the saggy, clasped bag carefully, unblemished, by her foot.

“Hello Calla,” she smiles. “All well?”

“All well, Miss Briana.” I don’t quite manage a smile in return. That, we both know, is not my way – the serious, automatic firearm in the crook of my arm, man of the watch, and all – but it is always good to see her.

“My, it’s cold today.”

“Aye, it is. It is.” I nod, thumb and forefinger touched to my beret. “Hot yesterday. Misty morning and harr today.” The stones are damp with it. The steps, the narrow doors and transitways between towers are moist. Moisture glistens on Briana’s woollen bonnet.

“So what has Methrin done today?” Her eyes bob in a ‘Lord only knows’, a well-practiced intro she knows will get me talking. I barely catch my gulped desire to avoid the answer.

“Ach,” I sigh, slipping down the gun, though it still rests in the crook of my arm, its magazine full of silver and mercury. “I probably shouldn’t go on.”

“But?” She smiles.

“Ach. He’s a rogue. Always away from the job. Down in the town, last. When a night watchman should be doing what his name suggests: watching the night.”

“In the middle of the night.” she adds, biting her lip, eyes grown large with theatrical consternation and that little twinkle that never quite leaves.

“Aye. But, uh, I’m sure the Calloch will have him right shortly.”

She places an arm through the grille, as if looking to pat my own, but instead loops the stem of a buttercup around her finger. The bloom is quick to bruised and oily. “My father, my brother, should sort him out soon.”

“Aye, well. They will. Old friend or no. I always say nepotism is your father’s only flaw. Last night was the last of it. There was some unformed thing climbing the wall.”

“There was?” all trace of humour gone.

“Aye. Rounds were fired. The alarm went off.”

“Where?”

“Down there a bit, by the sports centre. Don’t worry,” I say, off her expression. “There’s a knack to living through the nightshift. I keep myself happy, tell a few stories of my own, and hope they don’t come back to haunt me. But Methrin always liked ale and women too much.”

And she gives me a slightly longer glance that seems to say, ‘maybe you should try it sometime’. Or, at least, my heart imagines it so.

Instead she says – popping the bloom off that buttercup and, smearing it, looking down to her fingers and the mess she has made – “I heard he was already dead.”

I stay level, though the ground moves. Well, she was bound to know it soon enough, if told it long enough.

Behind me, parked under a bridge-like arch of medieval stone, is a jeep. In the back is the body, wrapped up in paint-stained cotton, taken from a decorator’s store. Not all the paint is paint. He’ll be making a mess. That, at least, is how the shadows show it.

“I heard it was you, Calloch.”

Hopes and fears come out in stories and later climb the walls. Her face, itself, is like a dry wall of black stone, so artfully fitted that not one shred of paper could be fitted between the cracks. Her expression is bitter as blood.

“And I’m sure I’ve got a story to tell, tonight, when the candles flicker and everyone’s imagination is up for it. Secret, like. To amplify things. And anything we conjure, I’m sure they’ll want to say hello.”

“Perhaps.”

“Oh, they will. I’ll send you my love.” Her eyes glitter. Flint from the wall is reflected there.

And the dog picks up the purse, careful as a downed duck, and Enid and her mistress pick their way down the path to the city again, to safety and storytelling – to how Calloch took Briana’s love with a bullet, and how that story came back in the night to scramble up the stones, scritching and scratching, reaching out – the colour of bile in the yellow sodium light of the streets – and came with long fingers and claws to open him like he was only stitched closed, because he’d found the man, Methrin, in league with stories, dancing with them in the moonlight, lost to the swirling dance of mumbled dreams.

I can hear the guard coming to change old for new – relief for those suddenly found weary – and the flag on the flagpole clatters its metal cables as the cloth cracks in the gathering breeze. The city below swirls as the fog shifts, but it still feels like illusion.

I wish, to the fullest of my heart, she would not come like this – each morning, the last of the unbedded dreams – before all fades on the touch of the sun.

June 7, 2012   17 Comments

The Last Kazarine

I have a few stories I want to write involving disembodied heads. Why? I nunno. Here’s one to get started.

A head start… ha, ha, ha… (ahem).

***

T

his is a last supper of hard, flat bread, washed down with water. Black cumin cracks on snagged teeth and gums bleed on dry rises slashed with a knife.

There is no clay-cooked smell of summer’s harvest here – just the aged, malodour of dust.

Father Markus is not accustomed to such fare, but that disastrous girl is fled, so who will get more? And there is certainly no time for him. Sand bulges in the bottom of the narrow-wasted glass; the sun is squeezing down into the hollows of the mountains.

His eyes are drawn to the window latches and the heavy draw-bolts on the door. Pushing back – mouth a gummed hollow – he hobbles to these locks and gates and peers out into desert; an ocean, where stone formations break amongst the long dunes.

And then, the ragged stones beyond – an edge to all things.

Sundered blocks corrode and the torsos of great statues decline. Stoic faces and forms, broken swords and shields, become a harbouring wall, or a causeway, lost to historical tides. But that arrowed line from horizon to horizon is a close-veiled barge – in a few, short breaths, the sun dies in the funerary reds and oranges of crushed lilies.

There is nothing else to do, so he carefully closes the hatches over, with rough hands smoothed to wood and iron.

Forgive him that final tremor.

The ceiling is low, the floor creaks. On the table are four heads – large blocks of stone, crumbling into sand at their severed necks, but very much cold and open in their faces; where white eyes, like blank, stone mirrors, regard the room. The stone is local – a soft, white sandstone from the cliffs of Notumra, not two days away, where great dark pockets of stoneworking can still be seen, open like toothless cavities. The heads are old and dramatically pagan, worn to touch and desert winds, teeth set in the compressed sand of long-dead seas. Chisels have loved them, their hair curled like succulent grapes, dry and rough as the skin of a dogfish.

Their canines, also dog.

Markus desires more than anything to throw a sheet over them, or remonstrate with their blank indifference, but there has been much too much ignorance and beseeching, already.

“Once,” said Kyla, “these heads were brightly painted.”

He imagined – suggested – gaudy, wishful in the gaze of their massive faces.

“Like clowns,” he sneered, “smeared with blood and berries”.

The girl had made a fleeting, pained expression.

“Not so,” said the girl. “These were beautifully painted, to look like gods.”

“Hah,” Markus had said.

Their pupils have the white, blank curve of the horizon.

Now, the lantern is flickering. The goat fat is a thick, pungent tallow that burns fitfully, with too much meat and gravy. If it were not for the importance of light – drawing its long shadows of severed limbs – he would have eaten it on the bread.

Why this unyielding thirst?

The clatter of the clay ewer and the slop of water, to the bright trickle, to the cracked beaker, to the grit on teeth and the warm, almost claustrophobic, swallow of it. It tastes like earth.

Old, pagan things.

Beside the heads, the long iron mattock that struck them from their bodies. His hands still ring with the unyielding severing, and his mind with the fresh, bloody stone he saw at their necks.

The latch rattles. He turns, shoulders a webbed sling of sagged flesh on bone, forcing his eyes to the metal, considering: one more rattle, and it’s not the wind…

But at the slot beneath the door, there is just a fine waft of silt: a twin tributary sliding across the floor, one thread winding over the other. The hidden source is split where a scrubby patch of theselay – grown to the threshold – has a long thorn in its back; scratching back and fore, like an extended cat’s claw flexed with the desert’s breathing.

That white dust coats his nostrils.

The cup bangs down. “Devils!”

1900 years ago, the armies of Kazarine marked the great cliffs and the high valleys with a wall – a great wall of ponderous stone, high as two camels and a hamut, broad enough for wagons and men to pass, and the rolling way passed out across the desert, keeping the might and military of the south, from the great dark places and demesne of the painted people to the north.

Kazarine were Markus’ forefathers. Their hatred was directed where it most assuredly belonged, and where the wall lay was a great division between bronze swords and modern war; and the knotted and fierce, brown-eyed spirits of the north, who wore flesh below the sun, and horrific spirals of iron-coloured wode spat through formers of horn and jaw.

Their impurity is here: the lips-pursed blowing of the desert winds. Eyes to the latch. Hooooooooooooooooo-oooo.

Kazarine and painted dogs stood the walls together, eastern clans fighting northern, but one as pagan as the next.

Together, they carved four kings – full bodied, stone blooded – as a symbol of unity and souls best left eternal; uncollected.

Do not. Think not. “Lay aside that iron. Such heads are magical,” wept the desert girl, gathering her skirts, wide eyed – hands covering blasphemous lips, lest more ‘old country’ spilled forth.

And so he struck her, and she fled.

She left him marooned.

Find them in a cup, a well – the heads of severed men – at shrines. All over the desert, staring out at lost ages gone. Standing like an army.

Trivial magics  – long lost, forgotten; entirely diminished. Or so it had seemed.

“Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-aaaa,” breaths the desert, hot and warm at the door, though the sun has slid, the heavens gone to stars and wind-blown memories, the metal beaten from the bronze of the day.

The table creaks, gifting its expansion as heat, and a dart of terror, shamefully repressed.

There is but one God. And no severed heads are needed! 

May 25, 2012   18 Comments

“Your Kung Fu’s Pretty Good, Old Man. You’re Not Too Bad, Either – Old Woman!”

ORTHOPAEDIC ORIENTAL ADVENTURES PROUDLY PRESENTS:

Part three of love’s great adventure, and this time we go to a ‘mysterious nursing-home of the Manchester Orient’, where Grandma, Grandpa and wall-mounted weapons await,  in what I hope is a humorous escapade involving throwing stars and a light, eggy breakfast; just as soon as Grandpa has found his way out of the bathroom and Grandma remembers who he is.  

Cue Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting crackling into life on the phonograph at 45rpm…

***

W

hen Grandma became a Seventh Dan of Chai Gan Wo, Grandpa had to follow suit. Before long, he was also launching rather acrobatic attacks from the top of the stairs, knee joints popping, whopping the wooden practice sword with the natural grace of an abandoned typewriter. His ‘Huy!’ was a potential heart attack.

Over the weeks, the doddery dance-of-dementia escalated, with the slight whiff of Deep Heat.

Grandma retaliated with her own version of Chang Cha – Drunken Monkey Technique – involving no actual monkey, but a generous tot of gin, a sharpened walking frame, and the whizz of nunchucks spun from bird-like wrists.

You might think that Grandpa stood not-a-chance – stuck for over twenty minutes in ‘bullet time’ as his back gave out, or when a nun (or chuck) clobbered his jaw with a plastic chackeroo, and his teeth rattled along the floor like escaped tap shoes. Not so. He gave as good as he got, cackling wildly as he spun – a master of Mr Chaplin’s Cane Gu – on a long-handled walking stick, and swept Grandma’s swollen feet from under her. It was a move he’d seen in The Tramp.

“Use your enemy’s mass against them,” his home-help had advised.

And this, indeed, was fruitful advice, as the continent that was Grandma went over like a plated whale, only to be caught on two fingers, hardened through years of Ko Lung Crochet.

“Think again, old man!” she growled, producing a vicious array of knitting needles and looped chains of spiked macramé.  The sofa was quickly punctured with a deadly volley of knitted ephemera, the weave of death carefully followed from a pattern in Martial Crafts.

Barbed wire, it seems, is knittable.

Grandpa back-flipped behind the sofa, using the simple expedient of slipping on one of Lionel’s – their  grandson’s – toy cars and was lost to view, railwayman’s tie fluttering around his head.

Grandma knew this was not the end.

Lights out! An insanely fast, shuffled attack from Grandpa!

She flicked on the radio and caught the last of the Archers, before his huffing and puffing eventually closed like a steam train, firmly on the siding, and a bony hand shot out with the cutting power of a spatula. This was blocked, minutes later, with the hefted end of a bed pan. K’tang!

Both combatants circled, with the cronk-squeak of rubber feet on walking frames, the shuffled drag of battle-worn slippers, and the gleeful sneering of the infirm. Who would find an opening first? Grandma with her inedible rock-cakes, bundled up in the ass-end of an old pair of tights – heavy as lead? Or, Grandpa, ready with that disgusting pipe of his – to parry a wild blow, create a fug-screen of Old Hoban, or gouge for an eye with the gnawed, plastic stem?

He could wish. Grandma’s eyes glittered in the darkness like a cobra with cataracts.

“Time for your suppository, old man,” howled Grandma, jaw cracking, lips dribbled and speckled with liver spots. The gesture she made with the TV remote control was quite disconcerting.

The white-haired ninja merely laughed, a dull “mwah, mwah, mwah!” in the dubbed on tones of a twenty year old. “You’re fooling no one, old woman.” But he knew she was already tracking him in the darkness, using the smell of his own wee.

Grandpa tried for a Murray Mint – the Heimlich choking-hazard a potential disaster on aged lips. Grandma caught the throaty lozenge between knitting needles clacked together, like those chopsticks catching Miyagi’s fly.

Grandma went for a ginger throwing star  – rolling her lips round her false teeth in an effort to warm up for crunch – but Grandpa slipped through her guard with a cup of Earl Grey in a best, China teacup. The saucer rattled delicately, as the razor-sharp biscuit-of-death was doused in the tepid, near black sea. Half its mass broke away, and the squichy blob bobbed on the surface like an expelled bite of an orthopaedic mattress.

Such dishonour!  The band aides and support socks were off!

There was banging on the ceiling; the yowled, feedback-howl of hearing aids; ugly gouging with rattley old elbows; and – quite disgracefully for a nursing home – the police were called twice.

Eventually, after the Night of a Hundred Arthritic Blows, both insomniacs dropped to the La-z-boy Recliners in front of the TV, exhaustion in every floppy sinew. They glowered at each other over their bingo wings, too proud to admit they were no longer as young as they once were.

Grandma’s hand wavered out. His, too.

They clasped hands.

“I love you, you crappy old ninja.”

“You too, you sloppy old, samurai!”

“Same time tomorrow? After The Voice?”

“Heh, heh – I wouldn’t miss it for the world… if you didn’t fight like a girl one-twentieth of your age!”

And so it went on.

May 12, 2012   30 Comments