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Black Door Pt. IV: Softly, Bearing Gifts

Welcome to Part IV of my short serial ‘Black Door’. Previous parts of this story, are here:

I: Softly Does It

II: Rowan

III: Adam

IV: Softly, Bearing Gifts

***

M

r Softly splashes into a muddy plashy, and growls at himself. This is not how to sneak. Especially not up through this tall, pine hillside, that is barren and brown and smells of spicy pine oil, each twig a pistol shot.

The next hour is silence. Branches thrust up to his guts in crazy angles, but he squeezes on through the standing dead, as greased as the wind may be.

He chuckles. No clothes catch or drag, like flickering sails.

Instead, he holds the gun.

The gun is wrapped in layers of cloth – a shirt from the old man’s cabin – and the warm checks hold Softly’s delicate claws away from the blistering meteorite of cold iron.

He wonders once again, if such a gift from one of its own will turn the Clutcher to talking, or whether it’ll just eviscerate him where he stands.

Make no mistake, there’s no love lost between Softly and Clutcher, oh no, and what’s more to the bother, it seems – suspiciously – that the Clutcher can see Softly, perhaps as clear as day.

Clear as day: that most disreputable of solar events.

Softly sighs, and continues to drag that heavy old gun up the hill, arms straight, chest wheezing, as if, for all the world, he’s carrying Death itself. Which, he suspects, he may well be. Man, Softly, Clutcher, they all carry their deaths with them – death to share, death to give or take.

And he with a Clutcher to befriend, or at worst, threaten.

Who knows what might happen if this offensive weapon went off? Indeed, he may wonder for some time immemorial, for this gun is not loaded.

More’s the pity.

Still, threats and surprises. General bluffery and skulduggery, invisible claws slipping around the throats of…

A hillside, where the light has gone from the ground; these shaggy-tailed, dogs-of-pine scattering needles on his head and arms. His own, fragrant scent of musky animal, wet cat, gives way to flecks of resin and amber droplets, tacky like honey. Flies fizzing around his invisible crevices. The sun dropping like a splot of fat beyond the ridge, the moon opening up like white cartilage in the bloody sky.

‘Come, Softly,’ its says. ‘Bring your bleedin’ iron and let’s have at ya.’

“Softly, softly,” he mutters. Wouldn’t do to rush it. “Clutcher is as clutcher does.” And my, my what long, long, fingers it has, for whiskings yer eye-bobs out, and sucking a peeper like a popsy.

But softly, softly, for the man called Adam is most necessary.

“Oh, yes,” mutters Softly. Guns and graves and whispered stories needed, if a weavings to capture. A wonderful, wonderful, weavings to make more’n invisible than invisible. A shadow of horrors, without a shadow.

Ha.

He slips past a branch, and more resin falls to invisible, upon the flesh he’d want as slough. But to do it, tricks and favours; eh, mah boy?And with that, finding the body; soft, and wet, hanging like a bony tent of flesh out here in the wilderness.

And guarding it?

Why, the Clutcher, like as not. Smell its spoor – like treacle, glands ripe – marked a branch right here with urine, oily as lamp oil.

A distance, yes, from cliff and the Black Door? “Complicated,” he hisses. But he wants the weavings, yes?

So does it.

Simple.

But the Clutcher is unpredictable.

While Softly has lived most of his life on the outskirts of urban brick and cobbled ways – in the damp truckle of cellars and beer-swilled alleys, dragging and eating whatever limb may drop, half-cut between his jaws – not so the Clutcher. Wilderness fills it like a bag.

Ah, the limbs, Softly muses: often sweet-meat tainted by beer, wine or cider, or his favourite, Stout. People like pig? Not so that apple goes. No, Stout to a liking. That’s what’s best. But the malty, treacly treat is rarer these days.

Licks his lips.

And now, the ridge, and into the crator. Birds die. No light. No moon. A reek of death behind pine, like a sewer running foul beneath a shady, dappled street. Gun ridged up in cloth, claw to the useless trigger. Aye, the weight of it dragging on his steely soul; metal on metal.

Softly, softly.

Ask yer question, bugger off. That’s what he says to himself.

Crash of leaves!

… whisked off his feet and pinned six feet up a tree trunk, like a plank to a broadside.

September 22, 2011   15 Comments

I Made £65.70 for Sick Cats Last Week

Hello wonderful readers.

Fear not, work progresses on my ‘Black Door’ serial. I’ll have the next instalment up today or tomorrow, digital gods willing.

Thing is, the latest Black Door is quite long (and pretty dark) so I thought: I’ll post a #Friday Flash as well and I’ll make something a bit, y’know, upbeat. So here it is, my ‘little flashy’. And, I think there’s plenty of quirk in this one, but it’s also too darned long at around 1370 words.

In all conscience, I couldn’t call this Flash Fic, so it’s posted in Short Stories. Yeah, what a dimbo.

As for the serial, I’m probably gonna chop the latest episode in half, or I might wear you all out. On the plus side, it features Mr Softly, and he’s all about chopping things in half.

Stephen.

I

’m Laura [60p!]ing Campbell, and No, I’m not proud of myself.

Did you know that fairies can’t stand bad language?

I didn’t know that.

I mean, I can totally imagine those razzy, little, flittery critters dropping the ‘F-bomb’, so why should it bother them?

Stupid Sindy Dolls with wings.

Well, apparently, fairies have a ‘sensitivity’ to such things, and you aughta’ stop-up your gums if you’re gonna cuss the ‘blue end of a bus’, or a fairy might just jump out and do you in with Chinese rope burns n’ stuff.

Or maybe, a good old cuss-word or two could save your life. How about that?

That’s what I tell my mom, now, every day.

And she says, ‘Little miss, just you stick another 20p in that swear box. I heard that language what you was using, so delicate, like.’

An’ I say, ‘It’s not a box, dearest mama, it’s a [60p!]ing bear with a slot in its head.’ Then she says something equally rude, in the steamy hiss of a kettle, and the Sick Cats of Bearsham and Barthem get £1 for both us slackers.

Shakespeare we ain’t.

Short an’ up, I pretty much got a paper-round to support a forty-a-day F-word habit. I really did – Gordon Ramsey aught’a come cook in my kitchen. Then he’ll learn a word or two.

But think of the kitties – I’ve got them all on-board the ‘rabbit in gravy’ train with every exquisite expletive.

Anyway, there’s this old set of allotments down by the railway. I help out the oldies there: Toothless Tony, Nick the Nettles, Fingers M’ilotment and the rest of the Green Gardening Mafia. It ain’t all Dons, either, so a shout out to Molly Flower, Two Tins Tallulah, an’ the rest of the ‘Rattan Pack’.

Their whole area might once have been romantic, when the steam chuffers went past, taking coals toNewcastle, or whatever (or is that just a euphemism?).

Anyway, now, it’s kind of red crumbling brick at the bottom the hill, grass grown over old plots, walls shrouded by ivy, the occasional hoop of corrugated iron; while to the top, it’s pristine allotments, neat little sheds, shades of blue paint, dahlias dancing in the wind.

They call me Little Sweet Pea Soup up there, on account of me bein’ fourteen and three quarters (which is fifteen goin’ on sixteen right?) an’ a lay-dee an’ all, an’ a Campbell.

That nickname put at least 60p in the tin, day one.

I hate the nicknames those old codgers and codgettes come up with for me. Couldn’t they get a cool name from Ben 10 or something?

But mom says mind your P’s and Q’s [I don’t know any swear words that begin with ‘Q’. Those that start with ‘P’, kick off at around 10p and peak at around £2.10].

Anyway, down at the railway end, they’ve let the allotments grow over. I asked why. They said, “On account of…”

And that was it.

Uh? Hello?

See them little dots. That’s actually what they said. No, not ‘dot, dot, dot’, but nothing. Then, like they forgot or was havin’ a senior moment, they’d add: ‘Oh, hey… there’s a plant that needs watered’ or ‘Hey, Jim, got a lovely set of marrows there.

[To which Jim now owes 30p on account of his ‘Ooooh, Matron!’ shenanigans. That’s 3x10p = 30p for sick cats, which is cheap on the account of no actual rude words bein’ spoken, but plenty of Nintendo].

What I’m saying is, that all I got was ‘On account of…’ avoid, avoid, avoid.

And I knew the mysterious thing wasn’t dry plants, or Jim and his oogly marrows, but something strange that made the committee of Red Barns and West Allotment Association let their greenest and most abundant plots – judging by the size of those hocks – go to waste.

But another thing, didn’t my grandfather have one of those plots? If he did, well, there’s a kind of inheritance scheme up here…

So I went through the records, secretly one night, then tabled a hostile motion over a wheelbarrow. The Sunflowers (the ‘yays’) carried the day, but the Sprouts (the ‘nays’) weren’t too happy about it.

Elbows nudged back and fore, glances exchanged, there were dull harrumphing sounds behind soup strainers, the odd heave of a bosom and potting trowl, until one Mr Roy-Boy Berloti was pachinkoed forward, hat in hand. His fingers ran along the peaked brim of his cap like he was typing LOL over and over.

He says – wait for it – he says, “Sweet P” –”  [20p in the bear] – “SP,” he says. “You can’t go dig that allotment on the account you may get grabbed.”

“Grabbed?” says I.

“Grabbed. Yeah. Your old man, Al Capon [Gramps, on account of his chickens] knew what’s what and he let that strip go fallow.”

“Well tough rhubarb,” I say. “It’s time for a stiff broom, and afore that, a stout spade and a spruce up with a fork.” What-the-fork? Ha, ha. [0p – No, that doesn’t count. Besides, I only thought it.].

“Anyone got a scythe?”

“Out back,” said the long faces.

I went and got it and a whetting stone and some oil. Grass flew and then I broke and I spaded and finally I pricked out some seeds.

The sun was shining, there wasn’t an F-word in sight.

When, I was grabbed [£3!].

Old door and peeling paint, crawled up and crazy-paved like that old painting mom has over the fridge (I call that poster ‘Moaning Lisa’, on account of  her looking a right moany moo, and she’s obviously hot-breathing a few choice words).

Anyway, grabbed.

And when I say grabbed – really grabbed. I couldn’t move. At first I think I’m lying on a compost heap. There’s old wizened carrots, and leaf, and an earthy smell, of rot and humus, sweet beets maybe. Tar from the roof.

My new, best joggies were covered in clart [20p!]. I looked around. It was cold [20p!], dark [40p!] and unfamiliar [50p!].

There could’ve been [80p!]ing rats.

Only faint slivers of sunlight rafted in through the wood roof, and even those gaps were shrouded in leaves. Dust motes danced in the fingers of light. I tried to sit up. Nothing doing.

Then the mound shifted. [£1.50!].

I was sprawled in the lap of what can only be charitably called a heafter of a huge, fat hag (my, my how delightfully PC).

There was no fee, fi, fo, fum. But this old, bearded besom had me held tight, my head resting aside her crook chin, back to her breasts. I could see right up her nose, to nose-hair like root-bound geranium. Warts bulged like splitting rose buds, fingers clasped around me like roots and twigs grown in.

“Stop with your yammering, child. Your mother teach you to talk with a mouth like that? All cussing up words like old broken stones? No good trying to twist n’ turn, little missy, I got you held, as close as ivy spreading its leaves, or flesh grown to the bone.”

And her organic fingers synched in all the tighter.

I was of course polite and reserved, in this situation of extremis.

“Well, I wish I was a pile of [£1.85!]ing [£3!] what you was holding. How’s about them potatoes?” My voice was all hand on hip, red lippy, snark-snark.

The hag twisted uncomfortably, her stubble scraping my neck.

“And another thing,” – as those hands crushed tighter – “you old [50p!]er, you aughta stop [£1.50!]ing around and let us go. Eh?”

With that, ma exquisite potty-mouth was too much for the old dear. A hag all dainty and proper you say? What courtly places she been lately? But still, there’s a screech that could lay-off a slug at fifty meters on a cloche frame.

“[2/6d!] Take her away!” she commands.

There’s a patter of ickle wings. Zoot I’m out cold, zoot I’m back on the ground, earth in my hair, ants on my face, grit on my tongue, and sunstroke, so they say.

–oOo–

“Laura Campbell? Yeah, that’s the [50p!]ing ragamuffin down the bottom of the [50p!]ing allotments. She’s got us all [60p!]ing swearing, on account of the [80p, 60p, 60p!]ing fairies!”

 

September 16, 2011   10 Comments

Black Door Pt. III: Adam

Welcome to Part III of my short serial ‘Black Door’. If you want to read the previous parts of this story, they’re here:

I: Softly Does It

II: Rowan

III: Adam

***

I

f it happens, Adam knows about it. That’s just the way it is. Some people are ‘the news of the world’, but Adam’s more the ‘news of tomorrow’. And that’s not just because he runs a hostel.

You know the hostel? Down in the Grass Market? The one that used to be a refuge?

Back in the day it was the ‘West Port Night Refuge and Home for Deserving Men, Women and Children’ (or, if that’s a bit of a mouthful, it was often called ‘The Port of Providence’ to those in need). It was run by the Daughters of Charity and first opened for salvation in 1718. You can still see that date on the swan’s-wing pediment over the front door.

A lot’s happened since then.

Today, above those slightly austere, stone numbers, there’s a hand-painted sign in green whorls and brown, peeling paint. It might once have been merry, crafty and welcoming. Now it’s merely comfortable. The borders are stylised knotwork, the letters Celtic. Ten years that sign’s been there; long enough in Edinburgh’s toothy winters to see to the end of words and the beginning of illegibility. But look, that’s a ‘W’, and that’s an ‘E’, and you get the rest: World’s End Hostel.

‘World’s End’ is the name of a pub not too far away, but Adam liked the name so much, he decided to ‘adopt it’ for the hostel, turning the name, he said, into a district.

At least, that’s his justification.

In actual fact, cards on the table, that particular borrowing was Rowan. She made the sign, when Art College was a reality and travel was still for pleasure. And when you look at it, there’s an amazing elegance to the slap-dashery of it; if the whole thing wasn’t quite so distressed.

That’s telling.

Truth is, Adam probably should’ve chucked that sign out years ago. Said he would a hundred times. Still hasn’t. And there’s still paint everywhere.

So, once the hostel was a refuge.

Kind of still is. Now the hall, leading in through the tall, Georgian façade, is covered in posters for Polish theatre, and there’s a life-size wooden monkey at the door.

Yeah, I know, most people look twice.

At first glance, it’s a grotesquery of mid-colonial, plantation art, but it’s holding a sawn-off shotgun. The paint’s peeling, but that monkey does have a certain look in its eyes. That ain’t a bird-scaring banana in its paws.

To the left of the monkey, an art space. Although it’s small – more of a shop window from outside – it does host the occasional flamboyant revival of healing art, aura photography, and automatic writing from psychic dabblers. And then there are the special exhibitions of the downright weird (if those weren’t weird enough): paintings, or photographs, from all around the world, some out of time or place. Travellers bring them. It’s easy to miss it from the street, but the hand-labelled names are kind of funky: ‘Sasquatch at Dawn’?

I mean…

Except, that is a photo of some guy in a monkey-suit drinking from a Canadian lake; could almost be a dog standing upright.

I love that photo.

To the right, a café.

Well, when I say café: more somebody’s living room. It’s strewn with battered-down furniture from the eighteen hundreds, parachuted and covered in Indian throws. Sit down and they’ll swallow you whole. Put your hand down the back of the frayed leather, and you’ll find a sediment of crumbs left by Arthur Conan Doyle or Dr. Joseph Bell, and a silvery seam of a sixpence. The smell of patchouli fills the air. Then there’s the time-polished tables from a brewery, cut out of barrel-tops; cups, hand-thrown and wobbly, glossy and matte – made out of snakes; a tea urn from a car plant that closed down years ago (more reliant than Reliant); and the moistest, densest, black-hole-chocolate-walnut cake you’ve ever had. Sticks to your teeth; crumbs up the wazoo. But, hey, some folk have travelled halfway round the globe for it.

Help yourself and put the money in the tin.

The café, ‘The Smaug’ – that’s what you get when a Tolkein aficionado misreads ‘The Snug’ (I know, hostel humour) – is always busy with travelling folk, and with others who stop by whenever they’re in Edinburgh. Stand out on the West Port and you could see them in there right now, though you’d have to peer through the crawling jungle of cheese plants and yucca that are steaming up the windows, tuning the light inside to the exact, forest-green of Venezuela.

Mood lighting, the way we like it.

If you’re more of the pin-stripe-mugger variety, and like your Mocha-Latte with hand-tweaked sheep’s cream on the side, and an al-dente pinafores biscuit, then you know ‘the type’ who frequent this place: they’re ‘crusties’, hippies, ‘travelling folk’, Indies, Emos, bikers, students, and honest-to-god ‘weirdos’.

Undesirables.

And those are just the ones you know about.

But if you’re any one of that breathy brethren, then you got here by travelling in every conceivable meaning of the word, and I love you all.

And Adam was here to great each and every one of you, because he knew you were coming.

He’s the perfect host.

We don’t even have a brass bell.

He’s standing at the door right now, shirt sleeves rolled up, watching the rain pee down. Alas, we’re well past the warm, wet smell of virgin pavement from the first few drops. In fact, this being Scotland, we cut straight to the downpour and drainage of an incontinent horse. But if you stand just to the left of the splattering water from the broken down-pipe, there’s plenty of dry space in the portico, monkey-and-gun not withstanding.

Adam’s back on the rollies.

He quit yesterday.

I guess he knew he’d re-start again today. You can smell peaches – his specialist rolling tobacco frustling as he draws in with a tight whistle and blows out, thin-lipped.

Got a black mood rolling, despite the eclectic crowd.

Humidity is five hundred percent in the Smaug – you can feel it boiling down the hall – and there’s a load of American writers, comedians and musicians in there. It’s Festival time, which transforms ‘The End’ into its own punked-out, carnival-venue of crazy. Glee, shouting, banging floors, music unplugged, folk jumping down five steps at a time. You can hardly get in over bikes and rucksacks in the hallway – downed traveller’s tools, for those with that eclectic heart-bone in their bodies. Right now, the World’s End is so rammed, you need a gorilla on a broom-handle to push ‘em back in.

Long live health and safety.

But that’s not it. Adam loves all those high spirits, even if he does sometimes wish those travelling boots were on the other foot.

And that’s the third time he’s looked at his watch in as many minutes; a watch that’s not on his wrist. He doesn’t even need a watch.

Why doubt himself now?

I guess he’s looking for a shit-kicking, punch-in-the-face argument. In other words, he’s looking out for another body through the misty downpour; a ‘certain someone’ who’s not here yet.

Man, he looks depressed. It’s hardly ten am and he’s already done one terrible thing – and one beautiful thing – today, all at the same time, and he’s made a deal with something that wasn’t there, just because he knew he did.

And he’s got a funeral to sort out.

Ever stop to wonder that foresight can kinda kick-in-the-teeth of free will?

If you know in advance?

Really know?

But what do I know about it? I’m just a gun-toting monkey with walnut for brains.

September 10, 2011   15 Comments