Monday, 31 July 2017

Elspeth's Magic Lamp by Annabel Howarth

Elspeth was in the corner, tucked between the wall near the window, and her bedside table.  She was looking at the white lords and ladies on the base of her pink lamp, and talking to them, as she did at times like this.  They were dancing to an increasing crescendo, while she beat the bass drum in time, by flicking a round ball at the top of one of the tassels on the fringe of the lampshade.  She counted as she flicked, as she felt the sound of the orchestra play faster and louder, stomping along the hall and crashing through her bedroom door.

Elspeth didn’t hear much of what he said.  From under water, sounds are muffled.  His lips moved, mouth wide, teeth, spittle, eyes large, face red, neck tight and stretched with rage.  Elspeth heard the odd word.  “Stupid” mostly, and “selfish”.  She saw the hand, raised her arms across her face and closed her eyes, as she felt her head jerked from side to side.  The blows were grey and purple behind her eyes, but she felt nothing.  A disembodied voice said, “I’m sorry.  It was an accident.”  That just seemed to add to the rage.  The force from the tug of her hair, she did feel.  She heard a scream and “Please!” and heard the thud of her own feet trying to keep up and the bang of her shoulder against the door frame.  Saw the bird cage fall from the stand by the front door, onto its side – a flutter of yellow and green.  The cage door fell open.

            “Leave her alone,” screamed a voice from the kitchen, “I’ll deal with it.”  She was thrown to the floor.  From where she lay, Elspeth could just see her mother, through the open kitchen door – on her hands and knees, mopping up the white puddle Elspeth had left there, 10 minutes before.

“That’s right!  Take her side! You always do!  I’ll leave all right.  I’m off t’t pub and this lot better be cleaned up before I get back!”

Elspeth relaxed a little, when she was sure he had gone.  She still lay there on the floor, staring at the open cage door, marvelling that the budgie didn’t spy his chance and fly away.  In her head, she was the budgie, Noah, traversing the mountains and running through the mazes of the green patterned carpet of the hallway floor.  But Noah, simply stood up in his upside down house and sang the “telephone ring” song he always sang, to his friend in the mirror, just from a different angle.

Elspeth pushed her head and shoulders up with her arms.  She could feel the bruises on her arms and shoulder begin to ripen, and her head was a ringing fizz.  In her make-believe world, her mother, a lady dressed in white, would dance over and help her up, cradle her in her arms and say, “Come on my love, let’s pack our things and leave this place.  I’ll never let him hurt you again.”  But this mother didn’t run to comfort her.  This mother continued to clean up the broken glass and mop up the milk, with her back to Elspeth, in silence.

Elspeth got up slowly and picked up the cage.  Noah flapped about again and then found his perch.  “Fly away, Noah, while you can,” whispered Elspeth.  But Noah wasn’t listening either.  She left the door open for a few moments, watching and willing him.
            “Mu-um,” Elspeth said, her heart beating fast, her tongue feeling enormous and like a foreign object in the back of her throat.
            “Yes, Elspeth.”
            “Why don’t we leave?”
            “I want to go Mum.  He scares me.”
            “But where would we go, Elspeth?” said her mother, sounding hollow, like an echo. “And besides, I love him.”

            Elspeth felt a familiar thud, as her rapidly racing heart plummeted into her stomach and the grey Nothing worked its way into her intestines.  She turned to walk back to her room. 
Her mother spoke again.  “It’ll be alright, Elspeth.  You’ll see.  You’ll just have to learn to be less clumsy.”

Elspeth felt a black stabbing pain in her chest.  The Nothing now seemed to bleed through imaginary wounds and with every step her veins carried it back to her heart.  “Those are HIS words,” she thought.  As she passed Noah, she closed the cage door.  She’d be blamed if he did get out and made a mess anywhere.  “Not this time, Noah,” she whispered.  “It’s just you and me now, we’ll have to find another way.”  Elspeth walked back to her room without wishing her mother the usual “good night” or telling her that she loved her.  She closed the door of her room, went to the window, and gazed out at the grey buildings and the expansive sky, and imagined herself flying. 

A boy from one of the flat’s below was leaning against the veranda, staring at the horizon too.  He lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply.  Elspeth recognised him.  He used to call for her and ask her to play, when they were younger, but she’d never seen him like this before.  She watched a while, standing back from the window.  She liked the way he flicked his fringe.  Less so the way he shoved away a cat, but she’d stop that. 

Elspeth lay on her bed, with a smile on her face, staring up at the ceiling.  Now she was the white lady, dancing, with her sights on a white lord.  She thought of her friend, Sue, with her baby and her own flat.  She pictured Noah, in his cage, in a big kitchen window, as she closed her eyes.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Light Bulb Moments by Dave Rigby

Great Grandma’s house. I still think of it as hers, even though she’s been dead over forty years. My home now.
Down the stone steps and into the front cellar, door slamming behind me. Screwdriver needed from the toolbox for a minor bit of DIY. Poking about in the dim light of a 40 watt bulb. Sudden darkness.
We’ve had power cuts before. We’re told there’s a problem at the switching station – whatever that is. They don’t generally last long.
Pitch black is a good description. No phone to light my way – it’s on the bedside table – not even the illuminated dial of my wristwatch. As for a torch or a match – forget it.
Inch over to the doorway, arms outstretched to give forewarning of hidden obstacles. An unnecessary precaution as the cellar is empty apart from the tool box and two packing crates which I know I’m walking away from.
I try the handle, but the door won’t budge. There is a knack to it but after several increasingly panicked attempts I realise it’s not the handle that’s the problem. It’s the bolt on the other side. But how…..
The creak of floorboards from the living room above. It’s just their age. That’s what they do.
Another creak. That’s not age, that’s footsteps – pretending not to be footsteps. Breath held.  
Mind racing. Someone’s up there. Maybe it’s not a power cut. Maybe that someone has thrown a switch and silently slid the bolt into position. And now they’re up there, car keys, house keys, wallet, phone, tablet all for the taking. Shouting for help? No point! It’s an end terrace and beyond the single party wall is hard-of-hearing Mrs Jackson. The only person who’d hear me hollering is him upstairs. At least I assume it’s a him. I’ve a sudden distracting vision of a lady burglar in a black catsuit and mask. No, sweep that away! I can picture him, all my prejudices to the fore, trousers tucked into socks, retro trainers, baseball cap on backwards, hoodie up, sniggering.
The coal shute! In my head, the dull rumble as each bag is emptied, the smell of the dust, the whistle of the coalman.  A way out? Back to the tool box, fingers searching for hammer and chisel. Striking one against the other in the darkness, left thumb vulnerable. An almighty racket as I remove the panel from the boarded-up shute. He must have heard it. Relief as light trickles in. As a boy I’d ignore dire parental warnings, remove the grid above and climb down the shute. But going up is a different story and I’m somewhat larger than I was. Trying to grip the rough brick sides and haul myself upwards, worrying that ‘he’ will appear above me at any moment, sneering. Almost in reach of the underside of the grid, my hand hold slips, I slither back down, falling in a heap onto the flagged floor of the cellar.
Winded, sore, grazed, angry. Slowly pulling myself to my feet and hobbling across to the door, I’m disbelieving when the 40 watt flickers back into life, incredulous when the handle behaves perfectly. Climbing the stone steps is agony. I peer around the cellar-head door cautiously.
‘The burglar… with a piece of lead piping … in the hallway?’
But the hall is empty, as is the rest of the house, I find, when I finally manage to cart my bruised limbs around the place. All my precious belongings are where I left them. Imagination can be a wonderful thing – or a curse.
A cup of tea, a string quartet on the radio, a bag of frozen peas on my left knee, a cigarette smouldering on a saucer. Contentment.
Instant darkness descends again, the strings are silenced, floorboards creak in the bedroom above. Fear swoops back onto my shoulder. He’s playing games with me. But what if he’s just my creation? What if Great Grandma was right all along about what she saw, what she felt? She never stopped talking about it, but nobody listened, nobody believed her.

She was never the same again.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Field by Clair Wright

“Get down!” Lisa flapped her arm urgently. I dropped to the ground behind the stalks at the edge of the field and shuffled closer on my haunches.

Lisa was eleven, two school years above me.  James and Andrew, aged twelve and from the next road, knelt ahead of us, further into the field. 

“What? What is it?” I whispered. 

“It’s the Crow Man!” Lisa pointed. “Up there!”

“Who?” I craned my neck towards the bridge across the motorway, which over-looked the field.  I couldn’t see anyone. “Who’s the Crow Man?”

“Shush!! He’ll see us!”

I crouched down lower. My legs started to prickle with pins and needles. 

“But who is he? What will he do if he sees us?”

The boys glanced back at Lisa, and she shook her head. She held her finger to her lips. 

“We can’t tell you,” mouthed James.  “Sorry.” 

I stared up at the bridge but I still couldn’t see anyone. The sun was harsh and my eyes smarted.

The stalks scratched my ankles and stuck into my bare feet in my sandals. I tried to shift my position, scared my head would bob above the waving heads of barley.

“Should we go?” I whispered to Lisa. I glanced behind me.  We were still close to the path which led between the back fences of the cul-de-sac. I thought I could reach it, if I ran fast.

“We can’t.  John’s disappeared. The Crow Man’s taken him.” 

“What? What do you mean?” I looked towards Andrew, John’s older brother, but I could only see the back of his head. 

John was only seven. He liked to hang around with his brother’s friends. I was nine, and considered John to be a baby, and rather annoying.  But now I imagined him, frightened, black glossy wings bearing down on him, sharp beak tearing at his eyes.... I shuddered.  

“What are we going to do?”  Sweat began to gather behind my knees.  I needed the toilet. 

“Come on!” James beckoned to us, urgently. I stayed close to Lisa as she half crawled, half crouched along the stony edge of the field. Andrew and James stayed close to the fence. Every few steps they stopped, and stared up at the bridge, whispering to each other. 

We followed.  I tried to hear what they were saying but the sound was lost in the constant growl of the motorway and the hiss of the barley. Nettles stung my legs and feet and I bit my lip to stop myself crying. 

“Down!” James and Andrew flung themselves into the dust. Lisa and I did the same. Panting with fear, the soil caked my wet face and crept into my mouth and nose with every sob. I waited, sure that any moment there would be the beat of wings, of claws in my neck. 

Nothing happened. The silence went on. The pressure on my bladder burned.  I lifted my forehead from the ground, and squinted through my fringe at the bridge. There might have been a dark figure there, in the shadow the hawthorns. It was hard to tell. 

There was a scuffling and panting and Andrew and James crouched beside us. We got to our knees, still keeping our heads low.

“We need to get John back,” said Andrew. “My Mum’ll go mad.” 

“What’s the plan?” asked Lisa. 

Then they all turned towards me. They suddenly seemed very big. They seemed to surround me.

“A swap,” said Andrew. “Cathy, you go up there, and take John’s place. You are nine, after all.” 

Lisa nodded.

“No!” I stammered. “No! I can’t!”

“You have to,” said James firmly. “We have to get John back. Go up to the bridge. The Crow Man will take you, and let John go. Then you can try and escape.”

“No!” Tears dripped muddy trails down my knees. “No!” I shouted, and scrambled to my feet. I ran back towards the path, my hands clamped over my ears.  I didn’t look back. I was sure the Crow Man was swooping down on me, casting a great black shadow over my head. 

“Cathy!” Lisa shouted after me, “Cathy!”

I ran all the way home, scuffing my toes as I tripped in my sandals. My feet were bleeding through the dirt, my legs covered in nettle stings, and, shame of shame, I had wet my shorts. 

“What on earth have you been doing?” asked my mother when I burst into the house. “You’re filthy!” 

I tried to stop crying as she changed my clothes and washed my face.  “I’ve told you about playing with the older children,” she said, stroking my back in a soothing way. “You should have come home earlier if you needed the toilet. Never mind.” 

She gave me some orange juice and I began to see it all. They had played a trick, to frighten me, to make me look stupid. I burned with humiliation.

I didn’t try to explain what had happened. It all seemed silly now. 

It was a few hours later, when I was in bed, when there was a knock at the door. I listened in the dark at the top of the stairs. The policeman said a seven year old boy was missing. He had disappeared, while playing in the field.