Probably the Best Lager …

space invaders large 2

(800 words)

Looked at financially, the arcade had been a massive money-spinner. From the days of Atari Pong through Pac Man to the twenty-five grand Tomb Raiders II, punters had poured in. Then came the meteorite, and the arcades, along with seven billion people, had been wiped out.
Now Sam stood at one of the only games that still functioned, a nineteen-seventies’ Space Invaders, attempting to zap the red spacecraft whizzing above the rows of aliens dropping bombs on his base. Bom-bom-bom-bom, faster and faster. “Damn!” His last laser canon was hit. Game over. He looked past the rows of sand-blown, soulless machines out to the desert. “Walt, pour me a drink,” he called.
Walter stopped his task of endlessly wiping the same glasses. “What’ll you have, Boss?”
“I dunno, lager, what’ve we got?”
Walter laughed. “We’ve got Red Stripe or … uh, Red Stripe.”
Sam grimaced and spat onto the sand. “I guess I’ll have Red Stripe then. Don’t they ever bring nothin’ else?”
Walter ran a hand over his chin, bristling with two days’ white beard growth. “There ain’t many breweries still workin’, you know that, Boss.” He turned a tap and golden liquid ran smoothly into a long glass.
Sam walked across the sandy floor and took it, leaning his tawny, leathery face back and letting the nectar slide down his throat. The arcade hall swam and he felt better. “Say, Walt, I got news for you, boy.”
“What, Boss?”
“We’re gettin’ us a visit from the environmental health, can you believe?”
“Yeah, what’s left of the council’s decided to clamp down on the unlicensed stuff that’s goin’ on around here, and for the legit folks – like us – they’re lookin’ to make examples of us, to scare the rest of ‘em.”
“What! When’re they comin’?”
“Friday, so gives you time to get that bar spotless and Norman to sort his burgers out, throw out them ones that are six months past their sell-by-dates!” Sam looked at the sand blowing in through the gates. He suddenly felt depressed. Hardly any punters nowadays, the odd passerby calling in for a game of Space Invaders, a dodgy burger and a pint of lager – Red Stripe as long as he could remember. And all the while the desert blew sand in their faces, encroaching little by little, piling up against walls, blowing in through windows and doors, filling what was once the local swimming pool, its shiny blue tiles now worn matt by the sand’s abrasion.
Estelle Davies gave a pearly-toothed smile. “Well, you know I’ve got enough here to shut you boys down?”
Sam looked at the attractive, slim woman in a smart suit. Where in hell’s name did they get her from? She could be earning five times what they must be paying her by lying on her back. “Come on, Ms. Davies, go easy on us, it’s hard to make a living out here, you know that.”
Ms. Davies put her crocodile-skin briefcase down and regarded the three of them. Sam, Norman and Walter. Her eyes flashed disdain below the mascara. Any one of them could be taken for a tramp! “Personally, I’m not interested. What interests me is poisoning people with out-of-date burgers and drinks where the lines aren’t cleaned and sterilised regularly.”
“We’ll do all that, Miss,” said Walter, rubbing a hand over his bristly old face.
Ms. Davies picked up her briefcase with red-painted nails. “I’ll give you one week. If it’s not done by then I’ll close you down. Q.E.D.”
“What?” said Walter.
Without looking at them again she turned and walked back to her Land Rover. “Quod Erat Demonstrandum!” Dust clouds rose as she began her eighty-mile journey back to Orgainsville.
“What we goin’ to do, Boss?” asked Norman. “We can’t get no supplies. She knows that.”
Sam took a snow globe from his pocket and shook it. “Well, boys, when she was in the bar I took the liberty of inspecting her fan belt.” Snow drifted down upon a lighted cottage and a snowman with a carrot for its nose. He held up a knife. “Reckon it’ll only last about … 40 miles.” He grinned, showing a tooth missing in the centre of his bottom row.
Norman looked shocked. “But, Boss, you know planes and choppers can’t fly in this air.”
Sam laughed, “Look, that woman represents this bullshit government. Anyway, she’s got legs ain’t she?”
There was the sound of a roaring engine and, from the other direction, a cloud of dust and sand.
“Look, Boss, I don’t believe it!” Walter exclaimed.
A tanker pulled up and they all looked in disbelief, then turned, laughing and high-fiving each other. Huge green letters spelt out CARLSBERG.

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Never Lovelier


(850 words)

It was a beautiful day, thought Mr. FtF as he sat on the patio with his newspaper waiting for his wife to come down. Why did it always take her so long to get ready in the morning, he wondered? All that … preening! He put his paper down and gazed at the canal that flowed past the bottom of their garden. Purple liquid sparkled in the light of the two suns in a way that never ceased to amaze Mr. FtF. It depended on their positions relative to each other he supposed, as he sipped his kaffa.
The canal was wide, twenty times as wide as their house, he’d once calculated, and theirs was a big house too, a grand affair on many levels fabricated from clear plastic. He liked the way passersby on the canal could see their expensive furniture, pictures and ornaments, not least the life-size statue of the Great Ruler, carved from a rare and precious green stone.
“Good morning, Mr. FtF.”
He looked up at his wife. “Why, Mrs. FtF, you look lovely today! The kaffa’s hot and there’s toasted fragen. Come and join me.”
Mrs. FtF, sat down. She loved the way she could feel warmth on her front and back at the same time and watch the canal flowing slowly past, in no hurry to go anywhere. “Anything in the paper, Mr. FtF?”
“Hah. Look at this!” He held up the newspaper to show a picture of some kind of craft.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A goddamned rocket ship can you believe! That’s what this addle-brained government want to build!”
Mrs. FtF poured a cup of kaffa and spread a slice of fragen with a creamy blue paste.
“Well, they must have a reason.”
“Reason be damned!” exclaimed Mr. FtF. “They say they’re going to fire it into space!”
“Where would it go, and who would drive it?”
“That’s just the point, Mrs. FtF, there is nowhere to go! As to who would pilot it, airmen would be specially trained.”
Mrs. FtF felt excited. “Maybe they’ll find some new people out … out in space!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Our scientists have scoured the sky with the best telescopes ever built. Looked out to other galaxies even. No sign of anyone! In any case, the Great Ruler says that GdG created the universe specially for us, here on this planet.”
Mrs. FtF stood up and bowed her head. “Praise be to GdG.” Then she sat down again.
“Anyway, where are they going to get the money to build this thing?” asked Mr. FtF, rhetorically.
“Good morning Mr. FtF, good morning Mrs. FtF!” It was their neighbour, Mr. DnD, sailing past on his silver sail-boat. He pulled into the bank, tied the sail-boat and walked up their garden path. “You’re looking lovely today, Mrs. FtF, if I may say so!”
Mrs. FtF felt a flush of pride. “Why thank you Mr. DnD, and, yes, you may say so!”
They all laughed. “Come and join us,” said Mr. FtF.
Mr. DnD sat down and Mrs. FtF poured him some kaffa and spread some fragen.
“I suppose you’ve heard about this crazy space ship idea?” asked Mr. FtF.
“Well, my son works for the government, as you know, so I’ve been hearing about it for a while. But I’ll tell you something you don’t know. Where they’re going to get the money from.”
“Where’s that then?” Mr. FtF asked. But Mr. DnD seemed in no hurry to spill the beans, chewing his fragen, sipping kaffa and gazing at the leisurely-flowing purple canal.
“Come on, Mr DnD,” said Mrs. FtF. “Out with it. Don’t keep us in suspense!”
“Clothes, Mrs. FtF. That’s where it’s coming from. Clothes, they’re going to tax our clothes!”
“Tax our clothes. How will they do that? I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous!” exclaimed Mr. FtF.
“Well, a government inspector will call round and count your clothing items. You’ll pay one percent of a unit per month for each clothing item.”
Mr. FtF made an exasperated gesture. “Well, Mrs. FtF’s going to cost me about …” He made a quick calculation “… about three units a month!” He turned to his wife. “Right Mrs. FtF, tomorrow I’m going to take half your clothes to the tip. So, you’d better get started sorting!”
Mrs. FtF pulled a face. “What about you, Mr. FtF, all those old shirts that don’t fit you anymore! All that fragen you eat!”
“Pah,” exclaimed Mr. FtF.
“Anyway, Mr. DnD, what about gloves, does each one count as a clothing item?” asked Mrs. FtF anxiously.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. FtF,” smiled Mr DnD, “each set counts as one item.”

Mrs. FtF got up. “Excuse me, I just need to er, powder my face.” She went indoors, both hearing and seeing the men arguing about the relative values of firing a rocket ship into space. Whoever heard of such a thing, she thought? She went into the bathroom, reached out a tentacle for a towel and wiped her forehead. She admired herself in the mirror, where her five eyes blinked back. She felt so happy she could feel drool spilling from her beak. Yes, she did indeed look lovely today!

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The Window Crack’d

the mirror crack'd

(650 words)

Lawrence closed his eyes, listening to the quiet lap lap of water against the old buildings, the drip drip from the gondolier’s oar. Somewhere in the distance a baby was crying, but it was almost silent on the narrowest of narrow canals down which they now proceeded.
There’d been no problem getting a gondola ride. For the second day, a thick white mist hung in the air over the city, and at the gondola station at San Moisè the vessels had loomed out of the fog like Viking ships. A man in a pink T-shirt with horizontal red stripes, and a body-warmer had appeared from nowhere. “You wanna ride, signor e signora? Is foggy. I give you special price of sixty euros!”
Lawrence was surprised when Melissa had showed enthusiasm. She couldn’t swim and had a fear of going on or near water. He felt tempted to barter the price down to forty euros. No one wants to see Venice in the fog. But it was the last time she would see the city, perhaps the last time she would take a holiday.
As the gondola glided along, the gondolier, Enrico, had at first been chatty, saying how unusual the fog was, talking about the gondola and the eight different woods used in 280 pieces to construct it, as if Lawrence could care less. Now, as the mist enveloped them, enclosing them in its silent fingers to create their own private space, just himself, Mel and Enrico, Lawrence thought back to an incident at their guest house the previous evening.
They’d gone to their room after a fine dinner – Osso buco alla Milanese – and were sitting, discussing Melissa’s upcoming chemotherapy, when they’d both been startled by a crash. “Oh, my God, did you see that?” Melissa exclaimed. “A bird just hit the window!”
He’d seen a flash of black and now there was a crack in the glass. He opened the window and looked down onto a small garden, illuminated by lights from the guest house but mysterious in the thick mist. Sure enough, on a path directly below, he could make out a large black bird, unmoving. It looked like a crow.
“It’s an omen,” Melissa began pacing up and down the room, “someone’s going to die.”
Here she goes again, thought Lawrence. “Get a grip, it was just a bird hitting a window, these things happen.”
“First there’s this bloody fog, now this, it’s an omen I tell you!”
“Look, we’re on holiday. Can’t you forget all this paranormal nonsense for once?”
Melissa began to sob.
Lawrence held her, stroking her hair, trying to sense the cancer inside. “Calm down, darling, take one of your pills. I’m sorry, let’s call the signora for some more drinks, perhaps a brandy?”
Now, a smell like musty linen rose from the water as Enrique rowed them between buildings just a few yards apart. Lawrence gazed at silent barred and shuttered windows, peeling paint and shabby plaster-work, revealed by gaps in the mist. A world away from the gilded domes of the Basilica di San Marco, he thought.
Soon, through the fog he saw the looming shapes of gondolas secured to a mooring and realised they were back at San Moisè. Enrico jumped off and tied the boat up, helping Melissa off with a friendly “Grazie” and a gold-toothed smile. “Enjoy the rest of your ‘oliday. Arrivederci.
The sun began to penetrate the mist as they walked across the square, sunlight playing on Melissa’s auburn hair. Lawrence laughed. “Well, no one’s died yet!”
Melissa was silent. Then she turned to him. “Lawrence, through one of those windows, in that tiny little canal, I thought … I thought I saw … something.”
“You’ll think me mad, but somebody … hanging from a ceiling on … on a rope. Should we tell someone?”

Lawrence grimaced. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s get some coffee.”

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On the House

on the house

(700 words)

“Hey, Tony, look, there’s a kiosk open!”
Sure enough, there, amongst the boarded-up beach huts and closed-down amusements, was a shutter up and a sign of movement, an arm placing cups onto a counter. I gazed down the beach. The sand was a dull ochre, covered with sporadic patches of sea shells, creatures that had died heaven-knows how long ago, their little homes washed ashore, then back into the ocean, then back onto this beach for generations. But along the shore and to the horizon in either direction, apart from the kiosk, no one. “Yeah, amazing.”
We approached across sandy concrete to the faded green panels of the kiosk. Behind the counter, bustling around, moving cups and plates and things, a lady with a thin face and grizzled curly hair, the Loreal-colour long since faded. She smiled, her teeth falsely white against her brown, wrinkled skin. “Hello.”
“Hello,” Joy said, “it’s been a long time since anyone’s been open on the beach. Me and Tony, er, my husband, we walk along here most days.”
The lady compressed her lips, “Well, it’s exactly a year today since my Fred died, I figured I should do something to mark his … passing.”
“I’m sorry,” said Joy.
The lady made a waving motion with her arm. “What would you like? I’ve got burgers, fried onions, cheese slices, hot dogs, coffee, tea ….”
“Can I have a cheeseburger with onions then please, and coffee. And, Tony, what about you?”
“Yeah, the same for me please,” I said.
Without a word, the old woman turned and busied herself with frying burgers on a griddle. The smell of fresh coffee permeated the air. I looked down the beach once more. In the far distance, palls of smoke. They’d be burning bodies.
I hesitated. “Er, d’you ever open since … your husband died?”
“We were married fifty-seven years … fifty-seven good years, can you believe it? Then … this.”
“I’m sorry,” said Joy.
From her misty eyes, I knew she meant it.
The woman laughed, “I’m hardly the only one!”
Behind us, the waves caressed the beach, as they had done since time immemorial, and as they no-doubt would for eternity, until our planet was subsumed by the sun.
I felt the spring sunshine on the back of my neck. “It’s good to see you. What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Look!” she exclaimed, pointing out to sea. We turned to the undulating blue-green landscape. Against the distant horizon was an unusual sight – a ship!
The old woman produced a pair of binoculars and, propping her arms on the counter, gazed out towards the vessel.
“What do you see?” asked Joy.
For a minute, the old woman said nothing, then she stood up and put the binoculars down on the counter in front of us. “Take a look.”
I picked them up and looked out to sea. Then I understood. “Ah, the Black Cross.”
No one spoke. We bowed our heads in respect for the dead to be dumped at sea, ‘buried’ if you like to be proper, but we all knew what it meant.
“They’re ready.” The old woman put down two white china plates. On them were soft white buns filled with steaming burgers, brown-black fried onions and melted cheese. I felt my saliva glands going crazy. Then two large mugs full of dark, pungent coffee. “Do you want hot milk and sugar?” she asked.
Joy smiled. “Hot milk for both of us please, no sugar for me, four for Tony ….”
The old woman began spooning the sugar in, showing no sign of disapproval.
“How much?” Joy asked.
“On the house. Thank Fred.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you, thank you … Fred.” A warm breeze blew in our faces. There was a smell like seaweed. Joy looked down, grinding sand against concrete with a toe. “D’you think it’ll ever end?”
The old woman smiled and I saw a gold tooth in her bottom row I hadn’t noticed before. “Come back here this time next year, 2022, and I’ll tell you.”
Behind us, the waves crashed, carving ripples on the sand as they always would, virus or no virus.

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The Old Fuse Trick

priory hotel 2

(950 words)

Martha came back from the ladies’ loo, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “You’ll never believe who’s in the Gin Room!”
“That actor, what’s his name, you know, the one who looks like Tom Hanks.”
I racked my brains. “Oh, you mean the one who was in that film, oh, what was it called? About the air force, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Ooh, he’s so dishy.”
I took a sip of my vodka and lemon. “Actually, I don’t care for him.” I put my glass down. “I always think Vodka smells like cement glue, don’t you? You know, that stuff boys use to glue kits together.”
We were seated in the bar of the Priory Hotel, a quaint old place that comprised a network of small rooms, variously used for dining or just sitting, drinking and staring at ancient photographs on the walls. The Gin room was so called as there were numerous empty gin bottles on shelves that covered two walls, the rest of the space being taken up by old books. I supposed the bottles were of renowned gins, if there were such things, otherwise why display them?
The manager, Saul, appeared, a large fellow with black collar-length hair and a beard. He smiled. “Good evening, Julie, good evening, Martha.”
“Hi Saul,” I said. We were regulars and had often spoken with him.
“Listen, we’ve a rather famous visitor staying with us.”
“Yes, I just saw him,” said Martha, “isn’t it thrilling!”
“Well, we’ve a camera crew arriving soon, they’re doing a documentary about him.”
Martha laughed. “How lovely, I’ve always wanted to be on TV!”
Saul looked embarrassed. “Sorry, Martha, they don’t want anyone else around.”
I felt indignant. “What, we’ve only been here five minutes. Why should we have to push off cos of some ham actor?”
Saul dangled a key in front of us. “If you’d like to go up to this room a waiter will bring you more drinks, and they’ll be on the house. We’ll call you to let you know when the coast is clear.”
Martha seemed to forget about the great actor. “Free drinks! OK, where’s this room?”
The room had a four-poster bed and two sofas. A huge arched window looked out over lawns and, just below us, a pond covered with small green lily pads. It was a warm spring evening and I opened a pane, letting in the smell of fresh mown grass and the sound of birds singing.
I laughed. “This is a bit of alright,” throwing myself down on the bed. The mattress was deep and enveloped me with its warmth. “Phone down and order us a bottle of chardonnay, hun. Maybe I’ll have a kip afterwards!”
“In a minute, I’m just going to the bathroom.”
There was a quiet knock on the door. I got up and opened it to a young girl, dressed in black, pulling a vacuum cleaner. She looked apologetic. “Sorry, I’ve got to clean this room.”
“What! Can’t you do it later, after whatshisname’s buggered off?”
The girl’s face flushed. “Sorry, we’ve had a late booking. It’s a doctor who’s very anxious that the room be spotless. He’s said he’ll be here in two hours.”
Martha appeared. “Look, tell you what, leave the vacuum cleaner with us and we’ll clean the room after we’ve had a drink.” Martha winked at me.
The girl looked down at her feet. “I don’t know. He’s very fussy.”
“Look, don’t worry, I used to clean at my dad’s hotel.” She winked at me again. “You go and take a break. Tell you what, come back in an hour and you can check it’s clean enough.”
Mollified, the girl left.
“What was that about?” I asked
“Look, we’ll do the old fuse trick, that’ll knacker the vacuum cleaner, then we can’t be blamed for not cleaning the room can we?”
I looked out of a window to see a large van parked up on the narrow pavement and enormous quantities of gear in black wooden crates and aluminium flight cases being unloaded and brought into the hotel.
Suddenly there was a flash of flame and a loud bang. The wall socket where Martha had plugged the cleaner in for her ‘trick’ was covered in soot.
I flicked a light switch to check they were still working. They weren’t.
“Whoops,” said Martha.
Shortly, there came another, louder, knock on the door. It was Saul, red-faced and agitated. He looked at the sooty wall socket. “What on earth‘s going on? All the electrics have gone, in the rooms, in the kitchen. The fuse board’s up the creek. I’ve called an electrician. He reckons half an hour to get here and sort it out.”
“I don’t know,” said Martha, “The vacuum cleaner must have short-circuited.”
“What were you doing with the vacuum cleaner, for heaven’s sake?”
“Oh, I just fancied a spot of cleaning. I can’t help myself. Can we go down to the bar then?”
Saul looked like he was about to explode.
Just then, a famous face appeared at the door. “Excuse me, I hope you ladies won’t mind but I want to keep out of the way of autograph hunters while they’re sorting the electrics out. Would you mind if I join you? Saul, could you bring us a bottle of your best champagne, please?”
Martha looked at me, wide-eyed. Her face was flushed and her lips opened soundlessly. She looked like she was going to pass out.
“Yeah, that’ll be OK, take a pew,” I said, patting the unoccupied cushion next to me on the sofa. “My name’s Julie, but you can call me Juju.”

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Having the Family for Dinner

creepy house

(900 words)

Hope, Faith and Charity were Jacob Anderson’s three daughters. Hope was on stage, under the bright lights, on tour in a production of Royalty Calls, a farce involving an actress marrying a prince. Now, the other two, Faith, thirteen and Charity, nine, decked out in hiking gear, accompanied Jacob along snow-covered tracks and through the endless trees of the Johnson National Park, north-west Canada. As a photographer for Toronto Times, he’d taken an assignment to photograph the wildlife and the rugged, desolate landscape there.
The day had started off fine – an early spring breeze, the snow crisp, its crystals gleaming in the sunshine and little icicles dangling from the pines. The girls were happy, pulling Jacob’s gear and some supplies on a small sled, whilst singing camp songs. “With my hand on my head and what have I here, this is my brainbox, Oh I do declare ….”
After photographing an ice-lake and the unexpected success of snapping a pair of bull moose sizing up for a fight over a female, it had suddenly grown dark. Jacob eyed the oppressive snow-laden clouds overhead. “Come on, kids, better head back to the Land Rover.”
Charity’s huge brown eyes looked up at him from beneath a green bobble hat. “How far is it, dad?”
“Only a mile or so,” he improvised. “Come on, let’s get back.”
Three days earlier they had flown into Yellowknife at the head of Great Slave Lake, then hired a Land Rover to drive to the Spruce Tree Hotel, a couple of miles off the main highway near a place called Fort Stark.
It was a surprisingly comfortable hotel with thirty-five rooms, a sauna, gym and outdoor Jacuzzi hot tub. So, Jacob thought it a good idea to bring the younger girls, expecting to leave them at the hotel in the daytime, not anticipating that they would have other ideas.
Now, Faith’s red hair protruded from her ski-cap as she let out a sigh, which expanded as mist, ghost-like into the cold forest air.
Jacob glanced at his phone, seeing that he’d either forgotten to charge it, or the battery was faulty. The indicator showed just two percent battery power left. There was no signal for miles in any case. He took a compass bearing. “Come on, kids, this way.”  He gestured through widely-spaced trees, where the snow didn’t look so deep. “Soon be home!”
Half an hour later, the temperature had dropped considerably, it was starting to snow and the forest seemed unfamiliar.
“Dad, I’m scared,” Charity whimpered.
Jacob crossed his fingers. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll be fine.”
“Look, there’s a house!” Faith exclaimed , gesturing through snow-laden pines.
Sure enough, there were lights shining through windows. The forest-dwellers would be pleased to help, Jacob thought. It must be lonely out here. They would know the direction back to the track, and maybe they might have some kind of satellite phone too? Then he could let the hotel know they would be late back.
The house was large, built from timber with a substantial porch and a snow-covered sign that brushed to show Erebus. An odd name for a house, he thought. He pushed on a doorbell. Far off, there was an answering chime.
He rang again … and again, then Faith turned the door knob. “Hey, the door’s open!”
An objection stalled in his throat and he followed the girls into a large room. A fire blazed in a huge fireplace and rustic wooden tables and chairs lay around the room in disorder. A jar of coins stood on a central table.
“Hello,” Jacob called, “Hello.”
There was no response. He looked up some stairs and called again, “Hello, is anyone there. We’re lost!”
Total silence.
“Look!” Faith exclaimed. In a corner, a chicken carcass hung from the ceiling, swinging almost imperceptibly, as if rocked by an invisible hand.
“I don’t like this, dad,” said Charity.
“Everything’s fine,” Jacob said. “Perhaps the owners have just popped out … er, to get some wood for the fire,” he added lamely.
There was a loud rattle that made him jump like a scalded kitten. “For God’s sake, what did you do that for?”
Faith stood, regarding a pile of coins on the table, looking sheepish. “I just felt like it, I guess.”
Jacob picked one up, noticing the head of George the Fifth. He realised they were old English pennies.
“Make a wish, why don’t you?”
They all turned, startled. There stood a woman, her face as sallow as the faded dress she wore, and her skin as lined as a severely wrinkled prune. Her hair was thin and long and white, and her eyes, the palest yellow, the pupils barely visible.
“S-Sorry, we … me and my girls, we were lost. It’s snowing, we saw your lights ….”
There was a thudding sound on the stairs and a huge man appeared. He wore old brown corduroy trousers, patched and oil-stained, and a green plaid shirt over his barrel chest. They all gasped at his face. There was just one eye. Where the other would have been there was no sign of an eye socket nor eyebrow, just fleshy skin. But what frightened them even more was the meat cleaver he clasped tightly in a huge, hairy hand.
The woman turned to the man. “Look, Henry, dinner just walked in!”

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What’s in a Name?

whats in a name

(600 words)

Dr. Rowina Scott stood at an enormous round window, gazing in awe at the towering pyramidal blocks a thousand stories high that dominated the city. She never grew tired of looking at them nor ceased to wonder at their immensity. Multi-coloured sky pods darted around and between them. A bleep from her pager jolted her out of her reverie. The director, Dr. Abraham Klein, wished to see her urgently. What the hell did the old bugger want?
She knocked softly and entered the chamber. Klein’s office was circular and enormous, and painted in brilliant white. Huge oval windows in the ceiling far above showed a cerulean sky dotted with small white clouds. Dr. Klein did not look happy, she thought.
“Take a seat, Dr. Scott.” Klein gestured to a sumptuous white chair and retreated behind his desk. He sat down and rested his chin on the inverted ‘V’ of his fingertips. “It’s about the Oceanic Integrity Committee.”
Rowina crossed her legs, admiring her slim calves, trim ankles and painted toe nails. The hours on the treadmill were paying off, much as she disliked the old-fashioned methods. “Yes?”
“It’s being headed up by Professor Yasarin.”
“What!” Rowina almost exploded. She stood up, put both hands on the edge of the enormous desk and looked Dr. Klein directly in the eyes. “What the hell are you saying?”
Dr. Abraham Klein’s eyes wavered, looked down at the polished amboyna burl, then, bracing himself, back into Rowena’s. “Look, I knew you wouldn’t be happy.”
“You can say that again!”
“He’s a changed man, into environmental conservation, reforestation, breeding endangered species, stricter emission controls ….”
“For Chrissakes. If he’d got his way at the 2030 climate summit, we’d all have drowned in our beds by now!”
“Look, he was wrong, we all know he was wrong; he openly admits he was wrong. Anyone can make a mistake.”
“Oh, opposing anyone and everyone who argued for emission controls for ten years. A mistake!”
“Now, now, Dr. Scott, listen to the man. Be reasonable.” A smooth voice with a hint of Russian accent came from behind.
Rowena whirled around, surprised. The man had entered the chamber soundlessly.
Professor Yasarin adjusted silver-rimmed glasses on his Roman nose. She had to admit he was quite handsome, in that cruel Gulag-commandant way. She could feel his eyes scanning over her, undressing her mentally. “Dr. Scott, er, Rowena, if I may be so bold. Look, I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye.”
“But, look, things have changed, I myself have changed, and now I want you onboard. Onboard as someone on the committee I can trust to make the right decisions. The right decisions to care for our oceans.”
“OK, well, look, they’ll come at a price.” Rowena looked from Professor Yasarin to Dr. Klein and back to the professor.
The professor took a seat and put his head back, staring at the distant ceiling. “Yes?”
She continued, “One, I get the right of veto, two, I move to the office on the top floor, and three, er, I want the next research vessel named after me.”
The professor laughed. “Is that all?” whilst Dr. Klein made a noise like a fart.
Rowena looked down at her holographic nails, watching seagulls fly. “Uh huh.”
“Well, my dear, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t I take you out for dinner and we can discuss it?”
Rowena looked from Klein’s apoplectic visage to Professor Yasarin. She noticed his teeth were white and straight, something she always looked for in a lover. “Well, I’m free tonight.”

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Deaf Date

sign language

(500 words)

As a man who’d been almost stone-deaf since birth, meeting women was something out of Christian Brown’s comfort zone. They may have smiled, but from their eyes, and replies, he knew he was less than intelligible.
Now he was shown to a seat in the Koh-I-Noor restaurant. He took a deep breath and looked around at the mainly empty seats, then at his watch. 7.55 p.m. His councillor and psychologist, Susan, had arranged a blind date for him with a lady called Stephanie. She’d told him nothing about her, just that she was attractive, divorced and in her early forties.
But he trusted Susan. Over the past three years, she’d helped him gain social skills and a measure of confidence. Looking in the mirror, he recognised his good looks, despite the hearing aids behind both ears.
A woman with a white stick and sunglasses passed his table, aided by a waiter. “Are you Christian?” he enquired.
Hearing the dull thudding of his own voice, Christian responded that he was Church of England. He must have been intelligible after all, as he saw the woman stifle a laugh. The waiter struggled with both Christian’s pronunciation and the joke, reiterating the question.
Christian read the lips of the woman, presumably Stephanie, as she stood at the table. “Are you Christian Brown? May I join you?” From the way she felt the table and edged around it, he realised she was blind.
Stephanie had likewise been told very little about Christian, and now sat, trying to understand his strange manner of speaking. Susan had said he had a good heart, and that was what she now needed most in a man. She asked Christian if he could lip read and heard a noise that sounded like ‘yes.’
Christian admired her long chestnut hair and judged from the parting that it was her natural colour. She had high cheekbones and perfect teeth. He felt a strong attraction building and told himself to relax, to let her feel at home with him. To his surprise, a waiter brought her a beige plastic-coated card, covered in small bumps.
Stephanie skimmed it with her fingertips. “May I have Chicken Vindaloo and Tarka Dahl, please?” She smiled in Christian’s direction, “I like things spicy!”
Christian read her lips and felt his face flush, then, with relief, realised it didn’t matter.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. It was Susan, all smiles at seeing the two of them together. She gestured in sign language to him, whilst speaking it out loud for Stephanie’s benefit. “Hello, Christian, are you alright?”
Stephanie felt a kiss on her cheek and Susan’s hand on hers, and a whisper in her ear.
“Are you OK with Christian?”
They both smiled at Susan, one seeing, one unseeing, one hearing, one unhearing, realising that this wise and compassionate woman was trying her best to bring much-needed romance into both of their lives. Neither felt inclined to object.

  • To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle, eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.
  • If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 600 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.
  • Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on this blog. There are over 300!

Pie in the Sky

pie eating 2

(1100 words)

Sergeant Rowena Martens stood five feet three inches in her stockinged feet and weighed one hundred pounds almost exactly. Despite her petite size she was strong, fast, and had a talent that gave the men in her platoon quite a surprise when first encountered.
She was twenty-four years old and from the city of Mountain View in California, where her parents’ extensive house and gardens gazed up at the Santa Cruz mountains, and where she’d discovered an aptitude for rock climbing. Her father, Heinz, was a German who’d worked on V-rockets in the war and subsequently found a niche at NASA and then in Silicon Valley. The fact that he’d been a member of the Nazi party and, through his rocket designs, responsible for thousands of deaths was dismissed, like someone brushing a few specks of dust from the collar of their jacket.
Rowena had the same quick intelligence, and when her friend, Natalie, said she wanted to join the army, her surprise gave way to acceptance and then enthusiasm to do likewise, to everyone’s amazement.
Natalie opted for the Finance Corps as a ‘cushy option.’ Rowena applied to the Signal Corps, and, in the time before joining, worked on her physical fitness and fighting skills.
“Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves a midget!” laughed Tanner Sutherland, standing behind her in the dinner queue on her first day.
Rowena turned around. “Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves an ugly moron!”
There was laughter and a few soldiers gathered around to watch the scene. Tanner’s face was red with rage. “There shouldn’t be no women in our army, especially not little shortarses, you’d be no good in close combat.”
Rowena pulled out of the queue and stood facing Tanner, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet.
“Hey, lay off her, Tanner,” said Norton Breakspear, “it’s brains, not brawn we need in the Corps. You seem to be lacking in the first department, bud.”
Tanner ignored him. “Looks like we got us a feisty one!”
Rowena knew she’d have her work cut out to beat up this creep. “Tell you what, soldier, you know anything about pie-eating?”
Tanner’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “Pie eating, I’m the platoon champ for God’s sake. Tell me you didn’t know!”
“Actually, pal, I didn’t know but I’ll take you on. Loser cleans the latrines for a week!”
A look of disbelief crossed Tanner’s face. He laughed; how could he lose? Then this little runt could work her sweet ass off all week in the toilets!
“OK, OK, settle down peeps!” It was Lieutenant Rushmore. He addressed the dining room in a booming voice. “I heard all that and I’ll get Sergeant Shiner to set up the competition. Breakspear, it’s your lucky day. You were down for latrine-cleaning duty next week, now it’ll be Martens … or Sutherland, of course,” he added hastily. “Also, listen up peeps, we need a candidate from this camp for the National U.S. Army Pie Eating Competition in Atlanta in the Fall. I propose that the winner of this Eat Off be that candidate. Anyone got any objections to that, come and see me afterwards.”
Rowena sat gazing out of the train windows as the fields and woods flashed past. In the far distance she could see the first foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. She was going home. She’d given it her best shot but at the end of the day, the army was all about killing people, no matter how they tried to dress it up. After much soul searching, she’d handed in her dog tags and was heading back to her parents’ house. She stroked her belly where new life was beginning.
Her mind flitted back to the contest. The evening of the competition came and Rowena and Tanner sat side by side, with hands tied behind their backs. Rowena had eaten a huge meal eighteen hours earlier, mainly easily-digestible fruit and vegetables, high in fibre. She’d eaten for nearly an hour, then after ten minutes, she’d drunk water until her stomach was at bursting point. After a night punctuated by toilet visits had followed a light breakfast of pancakes and frequent drinks of electrolyte and a protein shake during the day. At 4 p.m. she’d gone for a light two-mile run. Now her stomach was empty again, she was hungry as hell and ready to chow down!
All she remembered after that was the shouting and hollering of a couple of hundred GI’s, oblivious to everything apart from the next pie being placed before her and burying her teeth into the crust and apple filling. She never wanted to eat another apple as long as she lived!
Whilst in the rock-climbing club, she’d perfected the art of competitive eating, chewing gum constantly to strengthen her jaws and maxing out on big meals and water to stretch her stomach to the limit, even having her teeth filed to bite through tough fillings more easily.
But the army was a harder taskmaster. When the final whistle blew, she’d eaten the fillings and most of the top crust of four and a half pies. The bottom crust was not to be disturbed. Out of the corner of her eye she’d spotted Tanner chomping like a man possessed and tried to put him out of her mind, battling the clock only.
Now, she was dismayed to see he had almost finished his fifth pie. Her heart sank as her hands were freed and she was able to wipe the muck off her face. A week cleaning latrines – shit!
Then she heard Tanner give a large belch and smelt vomit. There it was on his chin. Before he could wipe it off, a huge cheer went up as a judge waved a red flag above Tanner’s head. Disqualified for vomiting. Rowena was the platoon pie-eating champ!
However, Rowena was petrified of flying and the army baulked at paying for her time off to travel to Atlanta and back by rail. So, to her dismay, her pie-eating career had ended and Tanner was reinstated as camp eating champion.
She patted her belly. She didn’t know or care which of her ‘well-wishers’ the father was or whether the baby would be black, brown, yellow or white. Nor did she care what her parents would think. The army was history. This was her job now. To be the best mother she could be. She brightened up. Anyway, thinking about it, wasn’t it nearly time for the rock-climbing club’s annual pie-eating contest?

  • To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle, eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.
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  • Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on this blog. There are over 300!

The Moonlit Garden (A Play)

moonlit garden gate

The Moonlit Garden, a play for five voices

(2000 words)


Martin – retired banker

Rebecca – dance teacher and daughter of Martin

Nicholas – dealer in rare books and Rebecca’s husband

Lucy – art student and daughter of Rebecca and Nicholas

Woman on the Beach


Scene 1 – Dining room in sea-side hotel. Sometime in the 1950’s


Martin – Good morning, Becky, my dear, I trust you slept well?

Rebecca: Like the proverbial log, thank you, father.

Martin: It’s the seaside air, my dear, nothing like it for lifting the spirits in the daytime and lulling one to sleep at night!

Rebecca: Would you pour me some coffee please, father?

Martin: Yes, of course, dear. Where’s my son-in-law? Out for his morning constitutional?

Rebecca: Alas, no, he is still deep in slumber. After you’d gone to bed, he sat up drinking whiskey with a couple, Claud and Maria, till the wee hours. They’re antique dealers. No doubt swapping stories of buying rarities for a song! And Lucy, well I don’t know where the girl’s gone. She was up but said she was going for a walk to the sea.

Martin: I was early to bed. With Miriam gone, I’m not one for staying up late, as you know. By the way, I ordered poached eggs and smoked salmon, and for you too, my dear, I hope that’s OK?

Rebecca: Perfect father, you must have read my mind!

Martin: Actually, my dear, I had a rather odd dream. Would you permit me to recount it?

Rebeca: Of course. I’m intrigued!

Martin: Well, there I was in a garden. It was night and there was a gibbous moon in the sky, turning the garden to silver. There was a fountain made of brick, with a large shallow pool around it, the whole set in a large depression off from some lawns.

Rebecca: How lovely!

Martin: Well, that’s the odd thing, the brickwork was old and the fountain nozzle bent and dry. The cement pool around it was cracked, with weeds poking through in places.

Rebecca: How odd.

Martin: Yes, as I looked around, everything seemed overgrown, as if time had forgotten the garden. But then I heard singing, soft gentle voices. I walked up from the fountain to a lawn, and there were women in long dresses, and with their hair unfettered and flowing free. They were beautiful, smiling, holding out their hands; wanting me to join with them in a circle.

And as I joined hands with them, we began to dance and sing. Oh, what a wonderful song, so sweet. I wish I could remember the words. Round and round we whirled and I realised they must be fairy folk. There were some young men too, clad in tunics of the most vibrant colours!

Rebecca: Then what happened?

Martin: I don’t remember. I just remember awakening, feeling sad that my fairy friends were gone. Forgive an old man his whimsy.

Rebecca: Don’t be silly, father. Ah, here comes the waitress with our eggs.

Martin: Ah, and here comes Nicholas too, looking a bit the worse for wear, if I may say so!

Rebecca: Good morning, darling!

Nicholas (to waitress): No food for me thank you. Good morning, Martin. Good morning, Becky.

Martin: How are you feeling? Becky tells me you sat up late with a pair of antique dealers, no doubt you had many tales to swap!

Nicholas: I can’t really remember the conversation; I just remember waking up about six with a sore head. I took a couple of aspirin and went back to bed. Then I had a strange dream.

Rebecca: Have some coffee and toast, at least, and do tell us, whilst we eat.

Nicholas: Well, I was in a garden, similar to the grounds of this hotel, but unkempt, like it’d been left for many years. Statues with moss on them and the grass long. It was night and there was a bright moon. There was a rectangular pool, I think with a fountain in the centre. But the cement around the pool was cracked and there was grass and weeds growing in it. I imagined it once held golden carp.

Martin: Did you see a large fountain, down in a depression?

Nicholas: No. But I heard singing. Tuneful voices of men and women. Then they appeared, the women in long diaphanous dresses, and the men in green and red tunics.

Martin: By Jove, Nick. That’s almost the same dream I had! Did you dance with them?

Nicholas: Yes, I did. They whirled around and around in a circle, and I joined hands with them and whirled around with them.

Martin: Do you remember what they sang?

Nicholas: No, but it was very beautiful. Wait a minute, I remember something else. There were big cats there, you know, lions, tigers, pumas, leopards, that sort of thing, but they were all friendly. You could pet them and they had these deep, rumbling purrs. I was so sad to wake up and find them all gone.



Scene 2 – Nicholas and Rebecca’s bedroom


Rebecca: Well I must say, it wasn’t helpful of you getting plastered last night and embarrassing me at breakfast just now.

Nicholas: Plastered! I had a few whiskeys, that’s all.

Rebecca: No doubt neat with very little ice, judging from the smell when you came to bed.

Nicholas: You were asleep!

Rebecca: How could I sleep with the racket you made undressing, banging into all sorts?

Nicholas: Well, why didn’t you speak to me?

Rebecca: Isn’t it obvious? I didn’t want you … pawing me in that horrid state.

Nicholas: What about you? Letting Lucy go wandering on her own. She’s a young girl, she should have someone with her at all times.

Rebecca: Don’t be so damned old-fashioned, Nick. Lucy is eighteen, she’s no longer a child, not in the eyes of the law even.

Nicholas: Maybe not, but she’s our child. You might not care if she gets assaulted but I do!

Rebecca: Don’t be vile! Of course I care about Lucy, just that she’s a young woman, and as a young woman she can make her own decisions, well, some of them anyway. And if she wants to go for a walk on the beach to take the air of a morning, well, why shouldn’t she? If you hadn’t such a hangover, you could have gone too.

Nicholas: Anyway, what on Earth do you mean about me embarrassing you at breakfast. All I did was recount a dream, almost the same dream as your father’s as I recall!

Rebecca: Do you know, Nick, that dream’s been playing on my mind. I’m not sure that I didn’t dream of that garden myself. But I’ve never been one for indulging in dreams, as you know. One of us has to live in the real world when bringing up a child!

Nicholas: Look, arguing about Lucy isn’t going to do any good, is it? Should we go and look for her, d’you think?

Rebecca: Well, they stop serving breakfast at nine. I don’t want her to go hungry. I think we should take a walk along the seafront in any case. The air will do us both good. And probably help clear your head too!



Scene 3 – The Beach


Woman on the Beach: Well, good morning to you. It’s a fine day.

Lucy: Indeed, it is ma’am.

WOTB: See all the pretty shells, my dear. If you look carefully you may find pieces of jet.

Lucy: Jet?

WOTB: Jet is fossilized wood, my dear, black as the ace of spades. (Laughing) Black as a witch’s eyes! Didn’t you know?

Lucy: Yes, now I recall the name.

WOTB: Don’t you just love the smell of the sea, my dear?

Lucy: Yes, a delight for the senses. I’m an art student.

WOTB: Well, my dear, you are in your element here. The waves washing on the sand, the smell of the brine, the beautiful shells in their many colours. And if you look carefully, you may see a crab scuttling across the sand.

Lucy: Do you live in this town?

WOTB: In a manner of speaking, my dear. What about you?

Lucy: Oh, I’m staying with my grandfather and my parents at Reboc Hill Hotel.

WOTB: Yes, it’s a lovely place, my dear, and the gardens!

Lucy: Yes, the gardens on the hillside are so pretty. Last night I awoke in the early hours. I couldn’t get back to sleep so took a walk out in the moonlight.

WOTB: Ah, yes, the moon is waxing and bright. The full moon’s just four days away.

Lucy: Do you know the hotel?

WOTB: Very well, my dear, I used to work in the kitchens at one time … many years ago.

Lucy: Well, I went down through the gardens and down some steps to the road.

WOTB: Ah, yes, those steps get wet at times. That’s why there’s a rope down the side. They’re steep as well.

Lucy: That’s right. They were wet and steep, so I held onto the rope you can be sure!

WOTB: And beyond the road, my dear?

Lucy: Well, beyond the road was a garden, a garden abandoned it would seem.

WOTB: But beautiful in the moonlight is it not?

Lucy: Yes, I wished I’d had my sketchpad and some charcoal.

WOTB: And what saw you there?

Lucy: Well, it’s left to ruin. A huge fountain in a special area with an earth wall around it, but no water. A long pool, empty of fish and water, the cement cracked and broken and a little curved bridge, over … nothing!

WOTB: That’s right, it was a folly constructed by his Lordship, long ago. And what did you see there, my dear, if I may be so bold as to ask?

Lucy: That’s alright. Well, I wandered amongst the moonlit grass and trees and there was a semi-circle of cream-coloured stone seats. I sat on one, it was so peaceful I wanted to stay there forever!

WOTB: (picking something up) Look at this, my dear, a lovely piece of jet. Put it in your handbag now.

Lucy: Oh, thank you!

WOTB: And what happened in the garden then?

Lucy: Well, I saw a circle of what I believe were fairy folk!

WOTB: Well, my dear, what we see with our own eyes should not be disbelieved!

Lucy: And they sang a beautiful song as they danced around in a circle, all about love and the harmony of the Earth. And there were lions and tigers and such, perfectly tame!

WOTB: And you joined in the dance?

Lucy: I did ma’am, and it was glorious, dancing and singing in the moonlight.

WOTB: And your family were with you, were they not, your grandfather and your parents?

Lucy: They were! But translucent, I could see through them! How could you know?

WOTB: That was their spiritual form; their physical bodies are long gone.

Lucy: What on earth do you mean? They are in the hotel!

WOTB: Alas, my dear, that hotel was hit by a doodlebug in 1944 and completely destroyed. The only part that survived was the garden of which you speak.

Lucy: But how can that be?

WOTB: Look, there they are! Down the beach. Do you see?

Lucy: I see a group of people waving. I cannot see who they are.

WOTB: Take these binoculars, my dear. Now do you see?

Lucy: Yes, I see my father, Nicholas, and my mother, Rebecca, and there is grandfather, Martin!

WOTB: And do you see any others?

Lucy: Yes, there’s Miriam, my grandmother, oh, and my other grandma and grandad too, and Auntie Jean and Uncle Bill, they’re there waving too! Oh, but they’re … dead.

WOTB: They’re no more dead than you and me, my dear. See them wave! Let us walk to join them.

Lucy: But … the hotel?

WOTB: The hotel’s long gone my dear. You’ve all been re-living that last day, before the doodlebug hit, for so long. It’s time to move on. Come on, let’s go down the beach to meet them, then we can go on.

Lucy: Go on … to where?

WOTB: To wherever you want to go, my dear … to wherever you want to go.

  • To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle, eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.
  • If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 600 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.
  • Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on this blog. There are over 300!