Monday, 18 October 2021

The Shadow Wood by Gareth Clegg

Let me tell you a tale of the Shadow Wood
A place of darkness, misunderstood
Legends, Myths and Stories told
Keep away all but the bold

A girl sat shaded by an ancient oak
Enveloped by it’s dappled cloak
But as she leaned into that trunk
From within came a deep… dark… thunk

She waited till the night drew near
With strangely not an ounce of fear
The wood stood silent as the grave
No signs of life at all it gave

No animal or bird or sound
Naught but silence all around
Nothing moved, the air was still
Just a sudden deathly chill

As darkness fell, another sound
And warm light spilled across the ground
Her shadows shifted as she stood
And turned to face the Shadow Wood

Oh foolish child can you not see
The danger of that ancient tree
From deep within a golden glow
Spread through its roots an eerie show

Dancing shadows light and dark
Shifting shapes on roots and bark
A silent carnival gold and black
The girl reached out but the roots… reached… back

Shrouded in their warm embrace
Tendrils gently cupped her face
Her blood runs cold, mind locked in fear
The roots so slowly draw… her… near 

Deeper, darker, down and down
They drag her underneath the ground
Forever falling through the night
No sense of sound, smell, taste or sight

Just the air that rushed on past
Her shivering limbs until at last
The noose constricts—end of the line
Suspended, hanging out of time

As light retreated from her eyes
All around her, mocking lies
Poking, prodding, truth or dare
You’ll never ever stay out there

Not when the sun has finally set
You wouldn’t dare, you’ll lose this bet
She would show them all, she said
And off to Shadow Wood she fled

She screamed and flung her arms about
But not a sound was coming out
And now what dreadful end was fated
Deep in the ancient tree she waited

The frantic antics of this child
Whose will was strong but mind ran wild
Did naught but entertain the wood
In which she now silently stood

Throughout the wood moans filled the air
from all the children standing there
They stretched, sap running red as blood
Welcome to the Shadow Wood 

So if you think the village low
In children, now you finally know
That though they warn them all when young
They never listen, there’s always one

The one and only who could lift
The Shadow Wood’s eternal gift
But if you’re smart, when daylight’s fled
You’ll stay at home safe in your bed

Stay at home throughout the night
Safe from branches grasping tight
Stay at home just like you should

Safe from ancient Shadow Wood

Monday, 11 October 2021

Monday, 4 October 2021

The Black Balloon Arch by Owen Townend

I’m not a detective but a party planner. Not professional, just the kind of girl who likes to do nice things for her friends. With a clipboard checklist.

            I’m not particularly a fan of balloons either though, Lord knows, some of my friends are. When duty calls, I can blow up four or five balloons before losing puff. Helium seems like cheating to me.

            It’s obvious when balloons have been freshly made. That’s precisely what I was looking at when I saw the gate. Two black balloons on either end, bobbing in the wind. And there was a gale that day: that’s how I knew they had only recently been tied up. If they had been there longer than ten minutes, those flimsy knots would have pulled loose and the balloons would be down the other end of the field.

            Still I didn’t like the look of those black balloons. They had an odd stickiness to them, definite stains when I took a closer look. I spied another on a post further along the path, like it was a trail marker. I know I shouldn’t really have followed but I did.

            The next balloon was much smaller than the ones on the fence. Rookie mistake, I thought, whoever had blown these up must have been running out of puff by this point. The distance between post and fence was short. Whoever did it was either out of shape or moving very fast. I assumed the latter.

            I carried on till I found the next black balloon. This one I saw it tangled in a nearby tree. It had just finished deflating though the balloon hadn’t been pierced by a branch. That told me the tie-off had been neglected. It also told me that the balloon inflator wasn’t far away.

            It took some nerve to enter the wooded area. While I enjoy country walks, Blair Witch scarred me for life. Still there was a mystery to solve, poor balloon craftmanship to address.

            I certainly didn’t expect to see a balloon arch in the middle of the clearing. All black and perfect. The inflator had obviously found a pump and had been working it hard.

            I heard a hiss from behind me. My trained ears could tell it was helium but still there was a doubt. My heartbeat was thudding louder than anything.

            I turned slowly round. For some reason I expected to see a demonic clown. There are those ‘clown in the woods’ sightings, aren’t there?

            Still it wasn’t anything like that. It was two teenage lads: more chav than goth. Even so they looked spooked.

            “What’s going on here?” I asked them. No answer.

            Then a balloon popped and they ran. It was one they had just that minute blown up. Near as I can figure it, the sun had come out from behind the clouds. There were definite rays shining through the thick canopy above. Black balloons have been known to burst in direct sunlight.

            I turned back to their black balloon arch. I’m no gardener but I could tell the earth beneath had been disturbed. Then was this arch some kind of commemoration? An inflatable grave marker?

            So I called the police. You came down quick as a flash with a million and one questions. I gave you descriptions of the boys but still you seem to be having a hard time believing I just stumbled across the crime scene.

            Like I said, black balloons. Try Brookmoor’s Party Emporium. That’s the only local shop where I’ve seen them sold. I should know, I’m a party planner. I know it’s hard for some people but please try to take me seriously.

            And how about a little counselling?

Monday, 27 September 2021

Flight School by Vivien Teasdale


I never thought I’d go back to school, certainly not at my age (thirty-one and three-quarters as Adrian Mole might have said). That was before I saw the advert, in the airport of all places. “Heathrow Flight School. New term, new start. Apply …”

Returning to my hotel, I thought hard. Flying is something I’ve done a lot of, but somehow, never really felt, well, comfortable with. Oh, I’m competent enough, don’t get me wrong, but there’s always room for improvement and I felt I needed that little extra something.

I’ve known a few people who always seem more confident, more skilful than me. Now it was my turn. Off went my application form and, to my surprise, back came the offer of an interview. Did that mean, I wondered, that I have all the right qualifications to be a top flyer or that I was so hopeless they thought any improvement would make them look good? There was only one way to find out.

But for a start, what should I wear? Should I go for ‘man-about-town, jet-setter look?’, the ‘casual competency image?’ or play safe with old-fashioned formality? There was no one I could ask. My mates would have taken the mickey or wanted to apply too. I didn’t want to be competing with them. And I certainly wasn’t going to discuss that sort of thing with my mother. She’d ask too many questions, give me some very hard-talking answers and send me off, no wiser. That’s the trouble. I always feel wrong – under-dressed or over-dressed.

I finally settled for smart casual: new jeans (no machine-made holes or ragged bottoms, though), white shirt (newly ironed), suit jacket and polished shoes. By the time I reached Heathrow Flight School’s newly painted front door, I felt a complete idiot. What had I been thinking of?

It was too late. Before I even knocked, the door opened and a quite nice-looking receptionist invited me in. ‘Ernest Hunter?’ she asked in a voice that sent tingles down my spine. ‘I’m Scarlett. Do come in.’ The way she tossed back her long, wavy hair – the colour of mahogany in firelight – and gazed at me with those Belgian chocolate eyes, I’d already decided to take the advanced course, not just the beginners.

The interview went better than expected so my only problem was which modules to take. No wonder I’ve been such a low-grade flyer. I had no idea there was much more that could be learned. I began to think that the Government should enforce a P-plate scheme, just like car drivers. From Learner to … Practitioner? Passable? Proficient? No, I thought. I should be aiming at complete Professional.

So it began. I moved from Basic Information; Pre-flight science and service; Take-off - under myriad conditions; Dealing with Turbulence; and Back to Earth. I’ve never worked so hard or had such strict, strait-laced but stimulating teachers. I passed, with flying colours, you could say.

That was ten years ago. The course certainly made me a professional. I can now fly from unpaid hotel bills, bullies twice my size, angry animals, irate fathers – with or without shotguns and weeping women (or men, actually, that was part of the same module). I can fly a room or house, town or country.

But there was a snag. Scarlett was not the receptionist. She was their top instructor and, in fact, proprietor of the school. I know far more than fifty ways to leave your lover … but then so does she. Personally, we don’t fly anymore. We just keep each other on our toes.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Net Zero by Dave Rigby

A riverside seat.

Flask emptied, sandwiches finished,

Eyes closed for an early afternoon snooze,

Lulled by a Sibelius stream,

Delivered by ear pods,

Transporting me to Finnish lakes and forests.

The sun warms my face,

A breeze ruffles my hair,

Total relaxation until … a sudden splash.

Eyes open, the symphony stops.

A dog paddles slowly down river,

Its head just above the water,

Tail rudder-like,

Someone calling from a bridge in the distance,

“That’s far enough Archie!”

A natural symphony takes over,

A blackbird in the blackthorn,

Wind in the beech tops,

Water rushing over smooth pebbles, swirling in eddies.

A dipper doing what it says on the tin,

The heron statuesque on the far bank.

Eyelids start to droop again until,

The sound of a tinkling bell.

The line is taut!

A catch?

I grab the rod from its stand.

Too late! Whatever was there … isn’t now.

A whistling walker appears, all boots, rucksack and bonhomie.

“How much have you got in there, mate?”

Meaning the net.

Nothing at all I tell him.

“But it’s not really the point, is it.”

Monday, 13 September 2021

NaCl by Anna Kingston

Harriet rummaged through the spice jars, frowning impatiently when her fingers didn’t land immediately on the one she wanted.

“Rosie, next time you cook, put these jars back properly!” She exclaimed crossly.  “You know I have to have them in order so I can find stuff!”

“Mum, they’re better stored alphabetically, much more logical,” sighed Rosie.  “Basil doesn’t go next to oregano or marjoram.”

“It makes sense to me, and it’s luckier to group them according to recipe,” Harriet mumbled absentmindedly, as she painstakingly re-organised the cupboard.  She sent a silent prayer to the Goddess she believed in, apologising for her daughter’s ignorance.

Rosie studied her mum, trying to conceal her concern and - let’s face it - growing impatience and unease at her mother’s erratic behaviour, becoming more so with each anniversary.

“Mum, let me make it this year, and I promise to put all the jars back as you like them - won’t spill anything either,” Rosie gently offered, taking her mum’s fidgety hands from the jars, as she tried to keep the annoyance from her voice.

“It’s an important anniversary this time, love,” Harriet replied, anxiety (and almost terror it seemed to Rosie) etching the lines more deeply into her face.  “13 years since I found this recipe that saved your life.  Please don’t muck it up, or everything will go wrong - I can’t lose you again!" 

Rosie really did sigh and didn’t hide her impatience this time.

“Mum, it’s just herb bread from that tatty old recipe book of grandma’s, it’s you and your superstitions that have made it into this big thing, all woo-woo and black magic!  Nothing will happen if it’s not 100% the same - this is just a nice tea for us to share as a memory - nothing else!”

“It’s not black mag-!” Harriet started, before suddenly - and literally - snapping her mouth shut.

“Ok, you make it then, but PLEASE don’t make a mess or spill the herbs, especially that” - and pointed to her ‘special’ salt that she’d trekked all the way to Lizard Point for - “and if you do, for the Goddess’ sake throw a pinch over your left shoulder!”

“Or the devil will get me?” laughed Rosie.

Harriet looked terrified, and Rosie was instantly mortified - she was usually more forgiving of her mum’s increasingly fragile mental state.  She shooed Harriet from the kitchen and began baking.

True to her word, Rosie put every jar back precisely in its own place, exactly as Harriet had organised it 13 years ago on the day that Rosie had inexplicably awoken after being pronounced brain dead following the throw from the horse.  Her mum had spent weeks researching science, medication, surgery, religion, and what Rosie termed mumbo-jumbo.  Harriet claimed that some ritual or other - plus this bloody bread! - had brought Rosie back to life, and she would countenance no other explanation.  Rosie’s dad became unable to cope with his wife’s fixations, her obsession with rituals, and her slow retreat from the real world, and quietly left Harriet and Rosie after a stroke in the middle of the night.

Harriet was convinced that making the bread each anniversary would ward off Death or the devil, or something equally unspeakable, but Rosie was sick of it now.

She washed up, cleaned the kitchen, and checked the bread.

“Five more minutes,” she thought, ”soup now”, and rummaged for a couple of tins of their favourite.

A moth flew out of the cupboard, startling Rosie into knocking the salt off the worktop.

“Bugger!” she muttered irritably, and swept it all back into the tub, totally forgetting her mother’s admonition about throwing salt over her left shoulder, absentmindedly flicking a pinch over her right

At ten past one, as per Harriet’s superstitions, the two women sat down to lunch, ready to begin eating at precisely 1.13pm.  Harriet saw the spilled salt and anxiously asked Rosie about it, who replied, “Yeah, chucked a bit over my shoulder,” indicating her right.  The clock ticked over to 13.13 just as Harriet fully understood Rosie’s words, and terror struck her face.

“Oh, Rosie, what have you done?” Harriet breathed, colour draining from her face and her spoon fell, unheeded, to the floor, tomato soup splattering like blood droplets.

THUD! THUD! The front door shook in its frame, and Harriet leapt to her feet, slipping on the spilled soup. She staggered, losing her balance, and fell, her head striking her prized Aga with another, more sickening, thud and then was suddenly motionless, horror still etched on her face.

Rosie calmly opened the door to the burly delivery man, smiling as he apologised for knocking hard but those were his instructions, and took the parcel back to the table.  The hard copy of the book she’d read electronically a year ago today - ‘The Dying Art of Auto Suggestion and Subliminal Advertising” - aimed at salesmen but very useful in so many other contexts peeped out of the packaging.  Rosie dipped the last piece of herb bread she’d ever eat into her soup as she began to read.

Anna M. Kingston

© 2021

Sunday, 5 September 2021

The Legacy by Virginia Hainsworth

Some people might not have opened their doors to me were I not rich and famous. But I was. And they did. I was welcomed everywhere I went. People had seen me in films, at glamorous award ceremonies.  They had read about my failed relationships in gossip columns, they had seen the inside of my penthouse apartment in celebrity magazines, knew what perfume I wore and what I ate from the products I endorsed. The wealthy and powerful invited me into their homes, to their parties, to their yachts. They adored me with that air-kissing, over exaggerated, gushing sort of exuberance they called love. And my fans worshipped me with that obsessive, grasping, over inquisitive attachment which they called love.

All of that was before I came across the diary. That yellowing, miniature scrap of a book which had lain hidden for so long in my uncle’s attic and which he had left to me in his will. My uncle was a multi-millionaire businessman, unmarried and with no living relatives other than me. He was even richer than I had become. We hadn’t spoken in years and I learned of his death from The Times obituary column. He left his entire wealth to charity. He left the diary of his grandfather to me. What a bequest. It was to become my downfall and my salvation. Shall I tell you about it? Will you open your doors to me if I do?