Off with the fairies

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Her hat and gardening gloves were on the bench, but Granny was nowhere to be seen.

“She’s wandered off again,” called Anne.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Martin called back from the conservatory, without looking up from the paper.

“I thought you were keeping an eye on her,” replied Anne.

“She’s fine,” repeated Martin. “Stop fussing. She wanted to do some weeding.”

“Well she isn’t weeding and I can’t see her anywhere in the garden. She wasn’t behind the bushes when I went to throw the scraps out. I’ll have to check the back lane.”

“She’ll turn up. Don’t worry about it.”

“Or maybe she’s gone off down the shops. On Tuesday she bought five boxes of After Eight Mints and a loo brush. You could at least help.” Anne had come back in and was standing over him reproachfully.

“Like I said, she’ll turn up. She always does. She’s indestructible.”

“She’s certainly vigorous. She’s stronger than me. But mentally – completely off with the fairies. It’s impossible, it’s driving me crazy, I feel like I never have a moment – and just when I was starting to cook dinner. Look, Martin, she’s your mother. I’ll check upstairs in case she’s – I don’t know, painting magical swirls on the wallpaper with lipstick or something, and then I’ll go to the shops. You do the back lane.”

Sighing, Martin folded the paper. He stood up slowly. He went to the door, opened it, and ambled down the path to the sheltered arbour where, as it turned out, his mother was sitting on the bench with her hat on her head and her gloves in her lap.

“There you are, mum,” he said. “Perhaps you should come in now. Anne is fretting.”

“I’ll come when I’m good and ready,” said his mother.

“Fine, fine,” said Martin. He went back to his paper.

Granny waited a little longer until she was sure the sparkles from the portal behind her were completely gone and it was safe to get up from the bench. She patted her pocket. Wonderful stuff, this magic dust. Perhaps it was reckless to get the habit at her age, but it made her feel brilliant and my goodness she needed it living with that pair. As she walked back to the house she calculated she could nip to the shop after dinner. This time, the fairies wanted Milk Tray.

What’s up duck

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On Noah’s Ark the ducks had started a jazz band and it was almost unbearable, though perhaps marginally easier to deal with at close quarters than the African Large Mammals’ Morris-Dancing Collective (to whom, after initial resistance, Noah had yielded the use of the foredeck every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. The rhinos were persuasive negotiators). Mr Duck had recently taken up the saxophone, while Mrs Duck fancied herself as a sultry crooner. They had recruited the moorhens, the geese, the female flamingo and a coot to be the rest of the band, with, on drums, a platypus from whom they would soon part owing to irreconcilable creative differences. They practised assiduously and promised to put on a concert as soon as they were ready.

 

“Is there any sign of land yet?” Noah asked Mrs Noah, as they huddled in their cabin, doing their best to relax with the Epic of Gilgamesh.

“My budgie had a look around earlier,” said Mrs Noah, “and she says there’s still twenty feet of water over the highest mountain top and aggressive mer-people have colonised the city of Uruk.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything you learn from tweets,” said Noah. “But the dove said the same yesterday about the twenty feet of water. I wish I could get off this boat. The noise is appalling.”

“The hedgerow birds’ choral singing is quite good,” said Mrs Noah, who believed in positive thinking and was also slightly deaf.

“If only they didn’t do it at dawn,” groaned Noah. “Whose stupid idea was this ark nonsense, anyway?”

“It was God’s,” said Mrs Noah.

Continue reading “What’s up duck”

The Saved

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“I want to do burlesque,” said the hen. “A striptease. I’ll take my feathers off, one by one. Would you like me, like that? Would you think I looked tasty?”

The cat said nothing. Why did she have to say these things? It was the sacred rule of the Ark, the foundation on which everything rested – you didn’t eat your fellow passengers. Look, there was the lion, lying down with the lamb, not even drooling.

“Or a magic trick. Saw the head off the lady. I’ll keep on dancing. Oh, how beautifully I would dance, if I couldn’t think.”

“It’ll be over soon,” he said, without looking at her. “The waters are already receding. You can lay your eggs and raise your chicks and be happy.”

“Oh yes, of course. Repopulating the earth. The brood-mother of nations. What an honour.” She laughed bitterly.

“Look, we didn’t ask for this,” said the cat quietly. “We aren’t to blame for our luck or for what happened to the others. What kind of a world is it going to be if all we do in it is mourn?”

“I don’t want to mourn. I want to dance. I want to die of music.”

 

There were songbirds on the gunwales, blackbirds, starlings, swallows, finches, rising and calling and fluttering over each other with a constant rippling motion; below them, the sunlight dazzled on the water. There was no sail, because there was nowhere to go. Noah and his family were busy with the work of the ship, sluicing and scrubbing and tending their stores.

 

“I was a temple cat,” said the cat, “in the city of Uruk, at the temple of Ishtar. The front of the temple was faced with coloured tiles of white and blue and the white steps to the gate were washed each day. The statues were gilded and the temple women wore circlets of gold wire and gold rings in their ears. Men came to couple with the women, in honour of the goddess, and to make sacrifices. They killed doves and lambs. Then the bones and scraps were thrown on the refuse heaps at the back of the temple, which grew bigger every year and stank, swarming with rats and buzzing with flies. The dark ooze seeped from the rubbish and ran down to the river. There was always sickness in the city, but the people went on worshipping Ishtar, who brought them prosperity and made things grow.”

“It sounds horrible,” said the hen.

“It was a good life for a cat,” said the cat. “There was plenty to eat and the women were kind to me. There was one I remember. She would stroke me and share fish with me when she had some. She was trying to save the trinkets the men gave her so she could buy an inn when she was too old to work in the temple – she’d put them in an old oil jar she kept in the corner – but she never managed to save very much; she kept shaking the trinkets out again and exchanging them for new sandals or wine.”

“Was there music in the temple?”

“Oh yes, lots. Voices, flutes, drums, harps. Formal music for the goddess, worksongs for cooking and washing, lullabies for the babies, story-songs for the fireside. But mostly love-songs, because Ishtar is the goddess of love.”

“Will you sing me one of the songs?”

“My singing was never encouraged. But my point is, it was always going to end. They knew it. The woman I told you about knew she couldn’t live that life forever, that her youth was passing; and everyone knew that the stink and the filth were getting worse and worse. They talked about cleaning it up, they had a lot of quarrels and arguments, but they never changed anything. So, in the end, the change simply happened. And I suppose we have to make the best of it.”

“All my life I’ve loved music. I used to like to sit at roost and hear the people singing in the evenings. Entertainers would come to the village and I’d dream of all the places they’d been to that they were carrying in their music. I’m really not suited to be the mother of all hen-kind, you know. I’m dreamy and impractical, I was always quite low down the pecking order…”

“You’ll be fine,” said the cat.

“I wonder what we’ll find to eat, when we get off the boat? I just used to follow the flock, before. I guess there’ll be loads of, what do you call it, alluvial mud, and that makes things grow, doesn’t it? And bugs coming up, like after the rains? Well, it is after the rains.”

“I’m planning to stick close to the humans. There’s always something to scavenge where the humans are.”

“Yes, all the mice and little birds and things will stay around the humans. Have you ever had a bird as big as me?”

“To be honest I was more of a mouse man. And just stealing things and getting treats from the women.”

“Don’t you want me?”

“You’re a very fine hen.”

There was a silence and then the hen began to speak once more.

“It’s going to be hard, starting again. I’m frightened but I’ll simply have to try, because there isn’t any other way. There won’t be much time to think, I suppose – the humans will be building and sowing and chopping and making, and I’ll be fussing over my chicks and learning to forage for whatever there is to eat, wherever we end up living. But I want you to promise that one day you’ll come to me, when the sun is setting, and you’ll sing me the songs of Ishtar. I’ll dance for you, and then I’ll lie down, I won’t struggle at all, and you’ll eat me all up.”

“I promise. I’ll savour every bit.”

“I’m glad we’ve had this time together.”

 

Noah’s family had finished their chores and the sons sat down to rest on the deck while the women went below to cook the evening meal. Noah had gone into his cabin. Now he came out with a dove on his hand. He whispered in its ear. Then he raised his hand and sent it forth, and it went out to search the face of the waters, looking for the first rebirth of land.

A Ghost Story

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At the waning of the year I gather my ghosts. This is their time, in that dark pause, when between the bustle of Christmas and the trudge of January the memories return, drifting from familiar walls, pooling under lamps. Like the living, the dead want to be heard, but they are more confused than the living and fainter, thinner – shreds of old love and pain. I try to listen and piece them together. I give them four walls to stop them wandering.

There’s the lost child. “Mother, mother,” he calls, from very long ago. “Here I am, dear,” I say. It’s all he wants. It quiets him for a while. And then there’s the angry ghost who cries “Justice!” and makes his case to me – oh, it’s only jabberings now, and the dream he gives me of the scaffold and the noose – but there is no justice, only time. Some are faded to whispers with the centuries; some have stories I’ve tried to complete, with discreet researches in the newspaper archives. The detective side is fascinating, though I don’t like to travel and go into the city rarely. The poltergeist shook itself into nothing in the pantry when I gave it jars to throw. I swept out the glass and was glad this is such a big house, so far back from the road.

It was in the road I found some of them, chilling the hollows or rattling in the hedges, or rather they found me and followed me back. The ghosts recognize a listener. A sensitive, as some would say, though I’d almost say an insensitive, for they don’t frighten me and never have. I can comb through their pangs and terrors and stay apart. I confer a little order. It is my work now.

Continue reading “A Ghost Story”

The Dressing-Up Box Nativity Play

This is a nativity play designed for the needs of the modern parent i.e. it uses only costumes that the average time-poor, pointless-crap-rich family already owns. It preaches a message of love, acceptance and extreme laziness highly pertinent to our frantic society.

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SCENE ONE

A generic nativity play set with stars and stuff. Enter Mary (a princess) and Batman. All their luggage is piled on the back of a patient grey zombie.

Song: “Little zombie”

Mary We need somewhere to rest. I am about to have a baby and our zombie is very tired.

Batman knocks in mid-air.

Batman Is there room in the inn?

Witch No, but you can sleep in the stable where I keep all the ghosts, vampires and ghouls.

Enter ten children in their Halloween costumes.

Song: “A Wraith in a Manger”

Narrator (a knight) Mary had her baby and she called him Jesus. She laid him in the manger.

Ghost Wooooooo, what a beautiful baby!

Count Dracula He looks tasty.

Mary (indulgently) Count Dracula, you need to learn about the spirit of Christmas!

SCENE TWO

Still the same generic nativity play set, only now Mary, Batman and all the Halloween characters sit down at the side of the stage to indicate we can’t see them.

Narrator And there were superheroes abiding in the fields, keeping watch over the city by night.

Enter six or seven superheroes.

Song: “O little town of Bethlehem, how full you are of crime” 

Narrator Suddenly, the sky was full of princesses.

Enter fifteen princesses. Fourteen of them are Elsa from “Frozen”. The fifteenth is Xena, Warrior Princess, as she has a geeky mum who does cosplay.

Song: “The people that walked in darkness have Xena great light”

Xena, Warrior Princess Be not afraid! A child has been born in the city of Bethlehem who will save everybody much better than you do. However, he is being menaced by Count Dracula.

The superheroes have a quiet but intense argument among themselves.

Spiderman We will go to see him and bring him presents.

SCENE THREE

Same as Scene One but now with all the superheroes. The superheroes present the baby with a random selection of cuddly toys, weapons, pokémon cards etc.

Count Dracula This baby must be important, but I am getting very hungry.

Superman Don’t you dare try it, Dracula! We defeated you before!

Song: “Last Christmas, we skewered your heart”

By the way (thanks to Comics Alliance):

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SCENE FOUR

Nothing about the stage has changed, except perhaps a small ghoul has fallen off it. Enter three wise Jedi: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Song: “We three kings escaped the Death Star”

Obi-Wan Kenobi We felt a disturbance in the Force and set out to bring gifts to the newborn king.

Luke We bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh-derous lightsabers.

The Jedi lay the lightsabers beside the crib.

Count Dracula I admit it, I can’t harm this baby. There’s simply too much peace and goodwill around. From now on I will give up sucking blood and eat only foil-wrapped chocolate coins and chestnut stuffing.

Everybody Hooray! Count Dracula has discovered the spirit of Christmas!

Song: “Dracul, the sharp-toothed vampire”

Darth Vader Jesus, I am your father.

Teacher Stop it, Nathan, that’s not in the Bible.

Song: “Have yourself a very mixed-up Christmas”

 

THE END

Backwards

[Braille Face effort no. 12, based on Jot. The last of the set]

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Let’s go backwards. Let’s rewind.

Ten. We’re in the ruins of Babel and your loyalty is my hate-speech and my sublime music is your god-awful satanic racket. I’ve taken the books. You’ve got the house. I sit under the cliff, by the great black wall, and listen to the scream of gulls.

Nine. Here are medications for the cruelty of the world: Xanax, Prozac, Facebook, kittens, knitting, strategic deafness, reality television. We are sealed to our separate devices.

Eight. You’re away a lot now. I say “mm” when you talk and wish you didn’t snore. There’s a fear in my gut I don’t tell you about.

Seven. On holiday we carefully study the phrasebook and memories from past lessons come back to us. We tentatively join hands with a strange place, a brief touch, and are warmed.

Six. The words and the music are one and fit us perfectly. The celestial spheres revolve.

Five. Music teaches a love looking for names. An aching in the chest, blood quickening, a sense of all the space in which you might be waiting.

Four. You throw your shoes over the power line and walk home barefoot. They dangle there, cheerfully unexplained.

Three. As a child I write words in the sand on the beach for the waves to remember.

Two. I learn jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? Me! And a big hug.

One. The mouth speaks to the milk and the fist to the air, flailing. We have to learn object relations. The world emerges: mama, tree, mine, again.

Zero. Heartbeat and darkness.

Hold me.

Three marches

[Braille Face flash fiction no. 11. I think this story really wants to be longer: this is the skeleton of it. It’s based on Moiety and especially the track ‘Political Monsters’.]

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He first met Jenny at the protest against the Criminal Justice Bill in June 1994. He was eighteen years old, about to go to university (Warwick, History), and he and some mates went up to London because they’d heard The Manic Street Preachers would be playing and also, secretly, because they were hoping to witness a riot. They didn’t witness a riot. They almost missed the protest altogether because they didn’t know London and weren’t sure where to go. It was Jenny who set them right as they walked in the wrong direction with their droopy cardboard KILL THE BILL sign. She wore purple doc martins and a tie-dye dress. He got talking to her as she guided them to Trafalgar Square, or, rather, she got talking to him. She must have liked him because he went home with her address on a slip of paper in his pocket.

They exchanged letters and, when they got to university, emails. She educated him. The world weighed on her: Tibet, the rainforests, Bosnia, underprivileged youth. She was reading Law and Anthropology at LSE. He had always been a kings and battles kind of person, but he grew interested in social history. He joined Young Labour. He and Jenny became a couple: he visited her in London and made love to her nervously in her student room, wanting to please her and unsure how to do so. After a while they split up.

 

In 2003 he was writing a PhD on social mobility in fifteenth-century Warwickshire and he got an email from Jenny: she was organizing a big group to join the march against war in Iraq. He’d been uncertain of his views on the issue, but he wanted to see her again. On a chilly February day he walked beside her in the largest crowd he had ever known. She wore a black coat and red lipstick. She had a training contract with a big legal firm, but planned to go into charity law. He felt provincial and addled with libraries. She was alight with anger at the arrogance of Bush and Blair. He rode the wonderful wave of her conviction all the way to Hyde Park. Afterwards he went back to Warwick and his manor court rolls, and wanted to email her, and didn’t think she would be interested.

In the years that followed he thought of her often. Teaching, he imagined her as an observer in the corner, and tried to show her why history was important, or at least how it was humane. He reminded himself sometimes that he was charged with the shaping of young minds, though they didn’t always seem that malleable. He was teaching about contingency, about the complexity of causes, about the mattering of minor lives; he was trying to get his students to pay proper attention. He did admin. He made submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise. He had girlfriends but did not marry.

 

In 2015 he went on a march entirely by himself. It was the anti-austerity march of 20th June. He had made a cardboard sign, which he carried self-consciously: CUTS KILL. He was thin-skinned to the crowd, a little emotional. It was unlike him to do this, but he finally felt that he had to; everything he’d once taken for granted had eroded so far.

And by chance he saw Jenny. Somehow in the mass of people they encountered each other. She looked tired and plump now, but so, he knew, did he. They fell into step and exchanged the summaries of their lives. Hers was not as he expected: a daughter, a divorce, an illness, and now she was running a community centre, struggling for funding.

“It’s wonderful to see you again,” she said. “Remember the Criminal Justice Bill march? They passed that bill, of course. Sometimes I think we only march so we’ll feel better when the government goes ahead and ignores us.”

“Ah, but think of the chartists,” he said. “They didn’t get what they wanted in the short term, but it came good in the end. Think of the suffragettes.” He couldn’t help also thinking of the Luddites, the Britons petitioning Rome for protection against the Picts and Scots, and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Sometimes terms were very long.

“You must come and see me,” she said, “for old times’ sake. And maybe some new times too.” And he went home that day with her number in his phone.