Monday, 20 January 2020

The Poisoned Chalice by Jo Cameron-Symes

They sat around the table, poised, as if to see who was brave enough, who would take the first sip. Richard audibly swallowed, Gwendolynn coughed, Arthur flinched. There was an art in waiting and it seemed like they were all keen to be the victor of it. A chill wind blew through the ramparts and William shivered. He knew that he should be king by right and that none of these so-called contenders had any right to the throne, unlike him, the nephew of reigning monarch, Edward. Edward, who too, sat at the table, ailing fast, willing the victor to have courage and take a sip from the gold etched chalice in the centre of the table. 

The chalice filled with wine so sweet that it made angels weep, or so Gwendolynn claimed, though William was certain it was poisoned. Edward was meant to have procured and poured the sweet wine himself into the vessel but as he was so ill, he entrusted Gwendolynn to perform the task, a task that she was happy to fulfill.

“Now it is time,” Gwendolynn said. “Please take a sip from the chalice, then the ceremony can begin." She passed the chalice over to Richard.
“Ladies first,” he said, pushing it back.
“No, I insist,” she said, returning it to him.
“For God’s sake, this will take all day!” cried Arthur and he picked up the chalice and took a hefty swig from it. Everyone gasped and Gwendolynn’s eyes shone, reflected in the gold of the cup and the fire that burned in the corner. Everyone was poised, silent.

“Therefore, I am King,” shouted Arthur, who stood victorious, only to fall to the floor.
“He’s dead!” cried William. “You killed him, Gwendolynn,” he shouted. Before she could answer, a great noise shook the ramparts. A thundering, shaking vibration rocked the great oak table.

“Tis time, God has come for us! Have mercy!” shouted Edward.
“Don’t be ridiculous! Look outside,” said Gwendolynn.

They moved across and peered out of the window, pushing themselves against the wall to try to stay upright. A great army could be seen advancing on the castle. An army full of flags, carrying an unfamiliar insignia. Leading the army were knights, riding huge, giant mammoths. The battle had begun. 

Monday, 13 January 2020

When Time Intervened by Yvonne Witter

Maisie met Phil again after 40 years at the Rosebud grammar school reunion dinner in Coventry, they danced and flirted for most of the evening. Phil had aged well, he was on the athletics team at school, and had obviously kept that up, but Maisie had not liked him while they were at school together. He confessed that picking on her from time to time was the only way that she would have taken any notice of him. Maisie had rolled her eyes at that comment. Teenaged Maisie had turned young boys’ heads and had the girls gossiping about her even when she was asleep. 

Middle age was a turning point for many, and Phil having said that he was now separated sounded plausible, after all Maisie was a divorcee. No surprise when she had received a call from Phil a month later, telling her that he was in London and wanting to take her out to dinner. He had told her that he travelled to London quite frequently from his base in Madrid. Maisie has a fear of flying and was fascinated by anyone who was a frequent traveller.

They met in Mayfair on a Friday night and enjoyed a sumptuous Thai meal, and far too much alcohol. The next time Maisie saw street lights was on Sunday evening waving Phil goodbye as he jumped into a taxi.  She closed the front door and leaned against it, hitting her forehead with the underside of her wrist to check if her brain was in situ or not. 

Her decade old weekend routine was now truly messed up. She took a deep breath and tried to figure out what domestic chores could be shovelled into five hours, and instead grabbed an opened bottle of red wine, a clean glass and microwaved the yellow sludge that was chicken korma. She slumped in front of the flickering screen, tired but grateful and satisfied.

Soon, she had a handle on these weekends and looked forward to them, Phil and her rarely went out and his visits were never planned well in advance, and she nearly always felt exhausted but very happy on a Sunday evening. 

She had to be prodded by colleagues at work as she ruminated about the possibilities for their future together. Whenever she had tried to have a conversation with Phil he was always busy with the remote control while he farted in her bed. Their exchanges over WhatsApp were brief.  She had thought about sending him a long email to his Hotmail account but decided against it for fear of appearing rather desperate. She decided to wait, to see if he would suggest something more permanent.

The following eight months flew by and apart from four nights in the Lake District during August, his visits became pretty predictable in format. Short notice, short stay, short chats, short attention span if Maisie wanted to talk about her feelings. Long on sex, wine, champagne, dining in, TV, gifts and farting.

He left on Sunday 18th November usual time, to catch his flight back home. Having not received a single emoji or brief message of endearment by Monday 19th this was deemed unusual and by Wednesday the radio silence was totally out of character and by Friday still nothing! Maisie was frantic with worry as she had not been able to get through to him either. The Hotmail account did not reply, his phone line was active but all calls went to voicemail.  She now had the time to think more fully about this encounter and realised that she did not have any real basic information on Phil.

When she had called the organiser of the Ball, he read out the same number that she had for Phil, which he had described as a New York number. She did not contradict him because she did not want to appear stupid. She did however use Google to find out where the area code +718 was located.

Christmas was nearly a month away and Maisie had plans which included Phil, she had assumed that they would be spending the holidays together. She wanted to celebrate after a decade of being on her own, to finally have a man of her own for Christmas. She had already collected eggnog recipes via Google for Xmas morning. His gift was a trip for two to Corfu, as she had decided that he would be the one to help her get over her fear of flying. As she pressed redial and listened to the ringtone, Maisie was trying to remember the name of the company that he said he worked for. She threw her phone across the room, and was grateful that it landed on her sofa, as the voice message for the umpteenth time interrupted the ringing tone.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Ward 15 by Andrew Shephard

My friend, Keith, Kevin? You know who I mean. He helped me up from the floor and to his car. He drove me to the hospital. At the reception desk he told the computer to take good care of me and wished me a speedy recovery with a pat on my shoulder.

I answered a lot of touch-screen questions and sat on chairs outside three different clinics. Bright lights were shone, images taken, blood extracted from both my arms by robotic machines. A grey-haired doctor decided I needed to be kept in for observation. I asked if he knew what was wrong with me. ‘The computer is reading your epigenome now. We’ll have your entire medical history – and future – in a minute or two.  He invited me to sit in a wheelchair to be transferred to Ward 15 – a journey involving two lifts and a travelator, up, sideways, and up again.

The view from my bed close to the windows of Ward 15 was spectacular. I could see the stars in the night sky in crisp detail all the way to the other side of the galaxy without interference from street lights or the headlamps of cars. Was I on my way to eternity?

There were five beds in the side-ward. An occasional groan came from the bed nearest the doors, but it was surrounded by curtains.  I surveyed the other patients: a young man, with blond hair like mine, not much more than a teenager, hooked up to an array of tubes; a sleeping middle-aged, middle-manager type with his legs in plaster and an oxygen mask; and a fleshy man, younger than me I’m sure, but struggling for breath and sweating heavily.

Time passed, neither slowly nor quickly. My brain, deprived of all stimulus bar the stars, wondered about things. Where were the nurses? Why hadn’t I been given any pills? Where were the toilets? I attempted to swing my legs off the bed. They didn’t move an inch in response to my brain’s instruction. Nor could I raise my arm. When I opened my mouth to call for help no sound reached my ears. I was about to panic when I saw the assistance screen beside my bed and eyeballed the ‘Help!’ icon.

The grizzled doctor who had allocated me to the ward appeared by magic at my beside. I told him I couldn’t move. He nodded as though that was normal. He answered my queries with a smile. ‘E-beds. Sheet sensors monitor your condition, deliver the appropriate interventions and filter away any waste. Nurses are a thing of the past.'

I asked him if the chap behind the curtains was going to die. ‘Well that depends. It’s up to you.’ I followed his gaze around the ward.

‘Recognise these people? Do you really believe you deserve another chance?’

Monday, 30 December 2019

Musings on a Wet Afternoon by Virginia Hainsworth

Transition excites me.  It means development or growth.  Enhancement.  Improvement.  I want to exist in a state of transition.  To set off on a journey and arrive back in the same place but to have developed en route.  That is a good journey.

A word used too often.  ‘I love Asian food’.  ‘I love Oxford.’  We should only be allowed to utter the word a maximum of 100 times in our whole lifetime.  Then we would use it wisely.  I love that idea.  Oops!

I like people who are oddballs. Unless they sit next to me on a bus.  Then I feel intimidated by them.

I wish I had a magic wand and could conjure up intensity when I required it – focus, concentration, passion, expression – at the drop of a hat.  How wonderful that would be.

Everyone should have a place of their own.  A small space where they can be themselves.  Be safe, be warm, be content. If only for a moment.  It troubles me to think that many people do not have such a place, not even inside their own mind.

Adventure is the spice of life.  Even for those who are cautious. What would the world be without adventurers?  Scott of the Antarctic.  Ranulph Fiennes.  But you can go on an adventure inside your own head.  In fact, that is the greatest adventure of all.  You are capable of anything.  Can become anything.  

The biggest and most exciting adventure of all is the one from who you are now, to who you can become.

A Happy New Year to all readers and contributors.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Elf Trouble by Holly Berry (aka Clair Wright)

Jane was starting to wish she had never given in to the Elf on the Shelf.
   Emily had started her campaign in September. “You want an elf, don’t you Thomas?” she asked her little brother.
  “What does it do?”
  “It watches you, and it tells Santa if you’ve been good,” said Emily.
   Thomas looked doubtful. “And it’s funny! It does lots of really fun things!” said Emily. “Everyone else had one last year.” She looked reproachfully at Jane.
   It was true. Jane’s Facebook feed had been full of cute, clever photos of little red elves getting up to “mischief” in the homes of other school mums. It all looked like a lot of effort.
   By the end of November,  Jane had been worn down. If the elf could get the kids to do their chores, then it was worth a try.  
   On the first day of December, she played it safe with the elf sitting in a plant pot, watching over the dinner table.
   “I don’t like him watching me,” pronounced Thomas, as he tried to hide his broccoli stalks under his fork.
   “He’s cute!’ said Emily. “You’ll just have to be good, won’t you?”  She finished off her peas. “I wonder what he’ll be up to tomorrow?”
   Jane was quite proud of her efforts in the first week. On Monday,  the elf was writing his tiny Christmas cards, on Tuesday, he was cleaning his teeth (to promote good oral hygiene).   On Wednesday, he was revising his spellings (it might be Christmas but education is still important). On Friday, he was tangled in the fairy lights, to show his fun side. Thomas was still not convinced.
   “Does he really report back to Santa?” he asked Emily, keeping a close eye on the elf as he set the table.
   “Oh yes,” said Emily. “He goes back to the North Pole every night, doesn’t he Mum?”
   “That’s right!” nodded Jane.  “Don’t forget the coasters.” She was starting to like this elf thing.
   On Saturday, the elf was tidying the Lego. On Sunday, he was pairing socks. Thomas rolled his eyes. “This elf is such a goody-goody!” he said.
   “He’s setting a good example!” said Jane. “You don’t want him to tell Santa to put you on the naughty list.”
   On Monday, Jane woke at six with a start. She had forgotten to move the elf! She pulled on her dressing down and ran downstairs. 
   The elf was no longer sitting on the paired socks in the corner of the kitchen.  She rummaged amongst the clean laundry, but the elf wasn’t there. Jane hurried into the living room, listening for sounds of the children waking.
   There was the elf, lying on top the bookcase. He had made a perfect snow angel in the film of dust. Jane gave him a quick shake and flicked off the dust with her sleeve.  She propped the elf between the books (to promote reading).
   “Why is the elf all dusty?” asked Emily.         
   “No idea!” replied Jane. “Go and tidy your rooms!” Thomas scowled and slouched upstairs.
   On Monday evening, Jane remembered the elf. She wasn’t going to get caught out again. But the bookcase was empty – the elf was gone.
    This time, she found him in the pantry, peering out of the empty biscuit tin. Jane had finished the last hobnob while the children did their homework.  She brushed crumbs off his red suit. “I’m allowed a hobnob!” she retorted as the elf frowned at her.  Jane popped the elf in the fruit bowl (to encourage health eating) and went to bed.
   On Tuesday morning, Thomas rubbed his eyes over the breakfast table. “Where’s that elf?” he asked, warily.  
   Jane glanced at the fruit bowl, sitting on the kitchen table. The elf wasn’t there.
   “He’s there!” shouted Thomas, jumping out of his chair.  He pointed to the oven.
   Through the grease-spotted glass, Jane could indeed see a little red figure, staring accusingly at her. “What’s he doing in the oven?” Emily pulled open the oven door. She snatched up the elf. “Look at him! He’s filthy!”
   Jane peered into the oven, which was indeed overdue a clean.  Thomas looked anxious. “Are you on the naughty list now, mum?
   She held out her hand to Emily. “Give that Elf to me,” she said. “I’ll take care of him.” She glowered at the smug expression on his grubby face. 
   Jane had a feeling the elf would be delayed on his trip to the North Pole tonight. Very delayed indeed.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Faerie Queen by Charles Penrose (aka Chris Lloyd)

In a time long ago, before mountains were fully grown and the cold, harsh, rocky land was covered with snow and ice and the nights were as black as the inside of a black cat, (or an old oven) and wolves and other, unknown animals, (Hmmm), roamed with impunity, a Faerie Queen ruled over her people with a kind, beatific sense of peace and calm.  The Faerie Queen had been on her noble throne, (in reality a so-called magic rock), for many eons and she was thinking that it was time to hand over the wand to a younger queen and besides her bum was numb from sitting on the damned cold stone. So, one bright sunny day, the first for a while, she called a meeting of her sub rulers and their customer-facing drones. (Drones were mainly males but most did not have the parts that definitely meant they were males in the Faerie Queen’s eyes, well not eyes, you get the drift.) Her desired meeting was a call for the election of a new Queen and her most trusted Sentinels. This was the first time for two eons that such an election was called during the time immediately before the faerie’s most joyous time of the year, Getting Pissed and Fat Day, (that is a loose translation but near enough.)  All the faeries would visit each other, let their wings down and the younger ones would generally slag each other off by sending images of themselves in various state of undress, to the faerie media companies. It was such fun until someone sent an image of you with a Sentinel when you were at a Faerie Party, then it was tears, denials, resignations, recriminations. Thankfully, the Faerie Queen didn’t have any Princes being silly.

But I digress. The Election call was met with much shouting, waving of bits of paper and pointing. The head Sentinel had to visit the Faerie Queen to formally ask her to suspend the powers of all concerned so they could all have a jolly good time wandering around schools, hospitals, Faeries’ doors, and other places where they were not welcome. Now I think it fair to say at this juncture that there were no chickens in Faerie Land in those days so the shouting and strutting could go on without fear of having an egg collide with your clothes, or your face which was a shame. The Faerie Queen was putting a great deal of trust in the Election Committee, which was a semi-power house of old Sentinels who were deaf, incontinent or blind drunk. When they got out of hand, the ruling Sentinels ignored them and did their own law making anyway. It is termed “democracy.”

There was to be a short time to complete the election as Getting Pissed and Fat Day period was usually devoted to rushing around with bags of useless tat purchased from the Ezelek shops, (Faerie Land currency), which was all broken by the end of the celebration. However the fact that the date of the election was near that time, it could be said that the result would favour those people of Faerie Land who were, shall we say, less likely to be chasing around the Ezelek shops for gifts, as they had “Faeries” bring presents to them in order that they could select in the comfort of their own well-appointed underground maisonettes.

The day of the Election dawned and the time of seeing Sentinels that you had never seen before passed. This was met with great relief by the general Faerie population; all that remained was the vote and all over Faerie Land little houses were erected in case it rained and so that the voting Faeries could go in and stab a hole in a spot next to their candidate. Easy, you would think. No; simply because if the bits of paper of the stabbed ballot paper, (called chad, after the Chad Hole Punch Company), did not cleanly fall out, that vote could not be counted by the notoriously unreliable counting machines. This was clearly a dilemma, (had there been tampering, or other nefarious deeds to make less chad?) Anyway, they would never be used again.

The head Sentinel summoned senior sentinels and discussed whether to hold a referendum to determine if the “Chad Votes” as they were known, should be in the vote or out. The Sentinels, except Jimmy K from Northern parts, refused a referendum as they were worried Jimmy K might turn it into a different referendum.

At last, ten days before Getting Pissed and Fat Day the result of the election, minus Chad, was announced. 

The ruling group would remain in power with enough seats to ensure that fairness among the populace would remain firmly in the south. The second main group with the beardy Sentinel gave up. The Faerie Queen decided that actually she could have sat on the rock, sorry throne, for a bit longer so all in all a complete waste of time and all the high street shops, or what was left of them, complained for weeks after Getting Pissed and Fat Day that they had lost stacks of money because the interference of the election diverted faeries’ minds just before the biggest shopping period of the year. It makes you feel sorry for their highly paid Directors!

And on that bombshell, things in Faerie Land did not change one iota! Except that the beardy one sort of disappeared from the scene with a lot of his friends. Happy Getting Pissed and Fat day!

Charles Penrose

Monday, 9 December 2019

Snapshot by Dave Rigby

With the girlfriend gone, I can’t afford this place, so it’s downsizing time.
   Going through box after box in the attic, I come across my old camera. There’s an unfinished film inside. With the camera pensioned off when I got my first smart phone, the film must be all of ten years old.
   In town the next day I find a feller down in the arcade who still does developing. The age of the film shouldn’t be a problem. But it turns out the price tag includes having to listen to an endless story about his dog.
   When I collect the prints the following day, I’m suddenly quite excited. No idea what they’ll show. I escape the storyteller and grab a coffee. Most of the snaps are either under or over-exposed. There’s one or two where I’ve tried and failed to be arty. But the final one stuns me.
   I’ve no memory of it being taken. Perhaps the barman took the shot.
   Four of us, arms over shoulders, like first row forwards, grinning like idiots. Me and my old school pal Jonno and two Aussie’s we’d just met in a club.
   A down-at-heel place, above one or other of the rivers, on the edge of the old town. I can still hear the deafening music, taste the cheap, greasy pizza and feel the stifling heat – and my thumping head. We’d all had more than a few.
   A summer night, warm as hell, t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. We walked along the bank to where the two rivers joined. Right at the end of the spit, there was a grassy patch and two ancient tram rails leading nowhere, apart from into the river.
   We lay on our backs star-gazing. Jonno and Luc fell asleep. Their snoring set me and Mads off giggling. When she kissed me – well I couldn’t believe it.
   The next moment, she was up and away, standing on the edge of the water, waking Luc with a shout and telling him to follow her. They waded out between the rails.
   Then in a flash they disappeared.
   I thought they’d resurface further downstream, laughing their heads off. But they didn’t.
Jonno was still out of it. Besides he couldn’t swim, so it was all down to me.
   The water wasn’t as cold as I’d feared, but just as murky as I’d imagined. Submerged, I had to feel around for any sign of them. But there was only water and mud – and those rails, sloping away.
   Coming up for air, I called to Jonno. Had he seen anything? No reply.
   My search continued, but as exhaustion set in, it dawned on me that I had to save myself.     With no chance of getting back to the spit, against the current, my only option was to drift further downstream and hope.
   A few metres to the left and the boat would have hit me. But I was in luck. It saved me. Breathless, I managed a few garbled sentences and listened as they put out a search and rescue message. The incoming was an incomprehensible squawk.
   No trace was found of Luc and Mads.
   Jonno refused to believe they’d perished. Hard to understand, but he felt sort of responsible for their disappearance, the way he’d been out of it that night. Over the years he’s made enquiries, but with so little to go on – no surnames, no addresses and only our own hazy descriptions – he’s got nowhere.
   But now we have a snapshot. They’ll have changed after all this time, but still, there’s a chance someone will recognise them.
   I scan and email the pic to Jonno. Message back – he’ll be on to it straight away. ‘Mr Social Media’, him – a foreign language to me.
   Nothing, until two months later, an email from ‘Melbourne Mads’.  
   How did you get that photo?
   I reply, explaining about the long-undeveloped film, asking what had happened after she and Luc disappeared into the darkness of the river, telling her of my rescue attempt.
   She phones me.
   The two of them had just drifted off downstream, too high to be worried, never a thought that I’d try and follow them. I’d seemed far too sensible for that. And where is Luc now, I ask. She doesn’t know. They’d drifted apart. And that kiss. Does she remember. Sure, she does!     How about a repeat performance, she asks?
   That would be great, I tell her, but it would take a while to save up the air fare to Oz.
   No need, she says.
   She’s in London and has been for nearly ten years.