Elfshot at Dawn

They got Jenkins just as dawn broke and the mist was sidling away from the valley.  It was elfshot, straight in the chest above the heart.  We carried him back as he raved, our legs dampened and cooled with the morning dew and the light spilling golden through the mist and down the valley.  Into the farmhouse we took him and put him near the roof with a Bible next to his bed and a rosary over the bedstead.  The priest was slow to come but prayed hard when he came and someone was always watching as Jenkins told us about the sky kingdoms sailing through the skies like swans and cooed at pictures on the walls that only he could see.

The hen keeper could hear his shouts as she collected her eggs and topped up the water trough.  The cows being milked in the cool dairy with rowan twigs hung above the stalls could hear his cries.  Neither the doctor not the priest could pull the elf shot as Jenkins sang wildly as if under a mackerel sky.

He died at sunset, not well, and we did not bless the day the Shining Ones, the Fair Folk, the Faerie returned.

Book Review: Darker Daze by A L Mabry

This collection of short stories is not for the fainthearted.  AL Mabry looks unblinking into the darkness that lies within and tells it without flinching.  The stories spread from the modern account of domestic violence to the story of a witch’s execution in an historical setting to a fantastic tale of demons and their demands.

To be honest, it scared the life out of me.  It is not a collection that makes for easy reading.  It is disturbing precisely because of the chilling insight of the author and the clarity of the writing.  I think it’s a great collections of stories, but I’m too chicken to ever read it again!

You can find this book on Amazon and other leading stores.

Grave Insight

“I miss him.” Geoff said, looking around the hall.

“So do I, but I hate admitting it.” Stephanie took off her Chanel coat and hesitated for a moment before hanging it on the peg next to Uncle Jeremiah’s dusty jacket.  “He never approved of me.”

“Or me.” Geoff took off his own faded jacket.  He thought it was quite a spectrum as he hung his jacket up next to his wife’s fuchsia model.  Uncle Jeremiah’s old jacket was probably older than most vintage cars.  Stephanie’s up to the minute coat was probably worth more than most vintage cars and was absolutely right for a top flight barrister.  His own humble raincoat was not as old as Uncle Jeremiah’s but was far more battered and had been bought only with practicality in mind.

“I looked over the will.  It’s not worth contesting, but what was his solicitor thinking?” Stephanie ran a finger over a dusty table and shuddered.  “I mean, the house is signed over to us, all the bank accounts are closed and the estate is considered settled.  But there is still around a million pounds unaccounted for.”

“It’s not unaccounted for, according to Colin.” Geoff had not had a good opinion of the solicitor.  “It’s hidden in the house.”

“To be precise, the whereabouts is hidden in this house.” Stephanie sighed and got out her phone.  I suppose I had better start making a list.”

“What do you mean?” Geoff opened the door into the sitting room and wandered in.

“Well, a list of what we need to do.” Stephanie followed him, automatically straightening some sagging cushions.  “It all needs a deep clean and we should probably redecorate.  This is a beautifully sized room with a great view of the garden and we could strip out all these bookcases and go for something more minimalist.” Stephanie trailed off as she checked the side table and adjusted an ornament on the mantelpiece.

“It wouldn’t be the same.” Geoff said.  He stood motionless in the centre of the room, an older, greying man with a nondescript sweater and faded jeans as his curated, blonde wife darted around the room, unable to stay still.

Stephanie paused.  “No, it wouldn’t.  I can’t imagine it changing.  It would be like losing another member of the family.”

“It needs a good clean,” Geoff said, “And perhaps a lick of paint, but I can’t imagine it ever changing.  There has always been a sofa at that angle, so that you can watch the birds in the apple tree outside.”

Stephanie tested the sofa with a cautious hand.  “Do you know how hard it is to get hold of a decent upholsterer these days?  But it’s sound.” She checked the small bookcase in the corner.  “I mean, I can imagine replacing the sofa but putting the new one in the same place.  I can imagine different books in the bookcase, but I there always has to be a bookcase here.” She sat down suddenly.  “I wish we had seen more of Uncle Jeremiah in the last few years.”

“My nerves couldn’t stand it.” Geoff said, sitting next to her and taking her hand.  “He would be arguing that you should be at home in the house and why wasn’t I in the London office.  You would be arguing that he was an old fossil and when was he going to get out of the nineteenth century.  He would be complaining about how much you spent on handbags and you would be complaining that he hadn’t replaced his wreck of a car.  It would be murder.”

“He didn’t understand us.” Stephanie looked around.  “But he was always there.”

“I know, my dear.” Geoff said.  “The problem was, he was always there with an argument.  And then your career took off and I was busy with the kids.  There was never the time.”

“At least you called him.” Stephanie’s thin fingers clung to Geoff’s sturdy hand.

“I rang for a listen at least twice a week.” Geoff agreed and smiled.  “Come on, let’s look around.  According to Colin, we need to have a grave insight.”

Stephanie snorted.  “I suppose we need to look out for stone crosses.”

“That would fit Uncle Jeremiah’s sense of humour.” Geoff helped his wife up and they wandered back into the hall.

It was hard, going from room to room.  Every room had a ghost of an argument and a swathe of happy memories.  The study was the hardest.  It seemed to have become Uncle Jeremiah’s living space, with a tray for his meals sat on a table near the door with a salt cellar perched in the corner.  Photographs were everywhere you looked.

“Look, do you remember this?” Stephanie picked up a picture.  “It was the summer after we married.”

Geoff looked over her shoulder.  They looked so young in their dated clothing, sprawled on the unkempt lawn at the back and filled with joy.  “I remember.  We had the most amazing time.  We had most of our meals in the garden, played cards for matchsticks every night and you and he had a ding dong battle about the Children’s Act.”

Stephanie shrugged and put down the picture, wiping her dusty fingers on a tissue as she wandered around the room.  “Geoff, come and have a look at this.”

Geoff followed her to a dim corner.  “That’s a lovely picture, and it’s full of graves.  Perhaps it’s a clue.”

Stephanie looked hard at the painting.  It looked nineteenth century, with dark, small leaved trees and sprawling shadows.  Graves framed the path to a ruined church and it pulled you in to its sombre centre.  “If Uncle Jeremiah was here, we would be having an argument right now about Romanticism versus Classicism and I would be quoting Byron and he would be talking about Tchaikovsky.” She swallowed a lump in her throat.

Geoff leant forward.  “I bet this is the clue.  This tells us where the money has been stashed.”

“I suppose so.” Stephanie straightened the picture.  “It’s got graves on it.  Perhaps we need to count them or something.”

“At least it doesn’t refer to his grave.” Geoff said, his head to one side as he studied the picture.  “He was cremated and his ashes scatted at sea.”

“He said he was going to do that so I couldn’t dance on his grave.” Stephanie took a deep breath.  Hardened barristers did not cry.

Geoff frowned.  “It’s not a very good clue.  I mean, shouldn’t it have a map or a motto or something?”

“You are a genius with numbers, my darling, but you never worked out how Uncle Jeremiah’s mind worked.  The grave is a red herring.” Stephanie lifted the picture down.  It was surprisingly light and left dust marks across the sleeves of her silk blouse.  “He would never give us a plain clue.” She turned the painting over.  On the back was a small key and a nondescript envelope taped to the corner.  She laid the picture face down on the desk and picked at the tape holding the key as Geoff worked the envelope free.

“It’s numbers.” Geoff said, spreading out the slip of paper.

Stephanie wasn’t paying full attention.  The key was small but well made.  She looked around the room and the large, mahogany desk had keyholes in its drawers.  She found which lock the key fitted on the third attempt.

“At least, it’s numbers but I don’t think it’s about the numbers.” Geoff said.

Stephanie turned the key in the oiled lock and pulled open the drawer.  It held a handbag, a beautiful, Hermes Birkin bag, in her favourite fuchsia pink.  She picked it up and stroked the immaculate surface.  The clasp moved easily under her fingers and nestled inside the perfect lining was a note addressed to her in Uncle Jeremiah’s spiky handwriting.

“It’s a bank account number.  I’m pretty sure it’s international.” Geoff said but Stephanie wasn’t paying attention.  She unfolded the note.

Dearest Stephanie, Over the years I’ve come to appreciate more and more that while you may not be my idea of a good wife, you are perfect for Geoff and an asset to the legal profession.  Please forgive an old man his mistakes.  And don’t go spending all the money on handbags.  This one should be enough. Jx

Behind her, Geoff was checking his phone.  “It’s a Swiss account.  We’ve found the money.  Stephanie, we’ve found the money!” But she couldn’t answer.  All she could do was choke back the tears as she hugged the bag.

Image taken from WikiCommons, Cemetery by a Ruined Church by Hermann Lungkwitz, in the public domain

Is It Art

I went into Leeds today.  I had a few errands to run, the sun was shining and I thought I would make the most of it.  I got off the bus in City Square and saw this.

It’s a statue of some legs, in case you haven’t guessed.  It’s been done very well, and someone has gone to a lot of trouble and effort and it’s bright and colourful and contemporary.  I wasn’t sure about it, though.  I’m not educated in Art, and I think if you have a fine arts background and you know more about context then it’s probably a really great piece.  For a philistine like me, it just looked like some colourful legs.  There’s some more about it here.

A little later, in Briggate, I took this picture.

As you can tell, I’m not brilliant when it comes to pictures.  This is a statue of Minerva, apparently, and I think was sculpted more recently.  As I said, I’m completely uneducated, but I love the way that the solid metal is made to look like fabric folds.  According to a snippet here, Minerva was the goddess of weaving and commerce which is absolutely perfect for Leeds which was built on textiles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and I love the owl mask, as owls are on the Leeds coat of arms.  I understand this as much as I understand anything.  It tells me stories in the way that the Legs don’t.

The question is – are they both ‘Art’?  Of course they are, and some people will prefer one and some the other.  In both cases someone took an idea and translated it into something solid using skill and passion.  The problem isn’t in the sculpture, the problem is in the question.  The question is poison.

In Leeds Art Gallery there is a huge canvas painted blue.  That’s it – just a vast, flat, blue rectangle.  My instinctive reaction is – someone had a sale on blue paint.  However I have been told that there is a lot of skill in getting an even tone and texture over such a large canvas and that those who paint will really appreciate it.  I know that whoever painted it did a better job than I could ever do.  Who am I to say that they are wrong?

That question – is it art? – is poison to writing as well.  You can be caught up writing the most exciting, challenging, thrilling story.  You can see the action, hear the voices, even smell the smoke and flowers but there is always a little doubt.  There’s always a little niggle.  Are the characters deep enough?  What about extended metaphors?  Have I let an adverb sneak in?  Should I have included this character?  Should I have cut that character?  I need to edit more.

I think that the questions you should ask are things like, are the characters believable?  Are they consistent?  Do they have the same eye colour from one chapter to the next (it happens!)?  Does the story make sense?  Does it have variations in pace?  How about the descriptive passages?  How does the dialogue sound?  All these are valid questions.  You should never stop unless you can say that you are proud of it.  But if you find yourself asking, is it art? then I think you need to step away from the writing and do grocery shopping or cleaning or something that ties you back to the mundane.  From my experience, chasing Great Art is bad for the mental health.

I don’t agree with everything that Rudyard Kipling wrote, but darn it, he could work rhythm and I was reminded of his poem when I saw the Legs this morning – The Conundrum of the Workshops

Feeling the Tension

Your monuments, what do they mean?

Build your stone high and shout your deity.

Hope that the stone outlasts the age

Hold tight to written, lawful piety

 

And when the old roots wrack your faith

When the cold moon bites and rags your mind

How do you hold on to the bitter dregs?

How do you slip into your role assigned?

 

Old shadows creep and stretch before your feet

Old lanes and lines cross across your path

You’re happy to bask in summer’s generous warmth

Are you willing to take the lash of winter’s wrath?

 

Look at the stone path, that’s where you tread,

Turning away to turfed green paths that roam.

Is it because your faith outlasts the stone?

Or do you listen when your soul hears home?

Originally posted April 4th 2018

Perspective

I look around, my mind is filled

With pots and cloths and clothes and things

The clutter that comes in bags from school

The scattered stuff the postman brings

 

A sock hangs off the angled chair

A cup is perched right on the edge

Fingerprints on walls abound

Cat fur lines the window ledge

 

But if you walk across the park

And head towards the underpass

Ignore the coloured painted tags

Step round the routine broken glass

 

Look up, a square of pristine sky,

Windwashed leaves are dancing free,

Nothing besides, that’s all I want

The sky, the leaves and, down here, me.

Originally posted February 8th 2018

As It Should Be

 

Tell me again, about the fight

And how you fought it to the damnation

See me writing how you fought the fight

And I look on and nod in admiration.

Hey, look at you, I lean in closer

You fought the fight and here I am admiring

You are the destiny, I just cook the meals

You come home to a hero’s welcome

And as I scurry round to find the feast

And wonder whether the wine will last the night

Tell me again about the fight

And I’ll make sure an audience awaits.

I do a thousand thousand tiny works,

I find your shield and shirt and sword

And lay in preparations for your feast

And wonder if I’ve done enough

So here you are, hero and warrior wild

And I am grateful that you stoop to me.

You are the centre of the bardic tales

And I, peripheral, will worship thee

 

Originally posted February 2nd 2018

Not As It Seems

Jeff kept his professional smile as he showed the couple around the car dealership.

“It’s a very reasonable price,” he said.  The Ford Fusion gleamed.  “Very low mileage and we include a full service before delivery.”

India’s lips were pressed together so hard that you couldn’t see her lipstick.  “I don’t see why I have to pay out for that kid.”

“Sweetheart, it’s my godson.  He’s seventeen, he has a hobby…”

“He’s a spoiled brat.”  She turned back to Jeff.  “The kid is just going to take it to pieces.  He hasn’t even got his licence yet…”

“He’s got his test booked…” Jason said helplessly, taking a swift mouthful out of a small flask as India turned back to Jeff.

India hadn’t noticed the flask.  “I have to scrape by and make do, but when it comes to the kid he can’t say no.”

“His name’s Oliver.” Jason muttered.

India shrugged then turned to Jeff.  “Honestly, something a little cheaper.”

“He should have been called Nancy.” Jason mumbled.

Oliver can see it as a project.  What have you got that needs work?”

“I wouldn’t let them call him Bill.” Jason managed another crafty mouthful from the flask.

“You’re making less sense than usual.” India looked at Jeff.  “Anything?”

Jeff smiled.  “Between you and me, there’s one vehicle we weren’t thinking of selling at this moment,”he said with absolute truth.  It was booked for the scrapyard.  “It’s a fixer upper, but at a very good price.”

“What do you mean?” India followed Jeff to where the wrecks were stored.

“It’s a nice little car.” Jeff waved a hand at the wreck in front of them.  “Once it’s done up it could be quite desirable.  Is the lad handy?”

“He’s a good lad.” Jason said quietly.  “Good with his hands.  I was thinking of taking him on as an apprentice.”

Jeff watched India’s hands clench into fists and then slowly unclench.  Then her shoulders slumped.  She nodded.  “We’ll take it.”

“Why don’t you look it over while I sort out the paperwork.” Jeff didn’t like leaving people alone, but today was an exception.  “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Jason slumped against the Toyota, shielding India as she knelt next to the wheel arch and quickly felt inside.  She looked up.  “Keep talking to cover me,” she whispered.

“She could have called him Sikes,” Jason said, his voice getting a little louder. “She never called him after me.”

“Hang on.” The woman struggled a little then nodded.  “I’ve got it.”  She pulled out a small, tightly wrapped package.  “Okay, let’s stage the argument and get out of here.”

Jeff was shuffling the paperwork on the when he heard them shouting.

“What do you mean, he’s your son?” India yelled.  “I can’t believe it.  After all these years!” She stormed over to their car and threw herself into the driver’s seat.

“Sweetheart…” Jason scrambled into the passenger side as the car rattled out of the yard and screeched around the corner onto the main road.

Jeff shrugged.  He may have lost a sale, but at least he didn’t have a headache.

Originally published June 5th 2017

Domestic Demon

“I’m sorry, darling.” Darren smiled nervously at me.  “But it is only twice a year, and it is only from Thursday to Tuesday.”

I took a deep breath.  “Of course, I know.  Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye, but that’s okay.  She’s your mother and we both love you.  That’s why I’ve got the day off to get the house all set up for her.”

Darren winced.  “I’ll pick her up from the airport.  I’ll pick up a takeaway on my way back.”

“Absolutely not.” I said firmly.  “I’ll make a lovely casserole and that way it doesn’t matter if you are a little late.”

“Thank you, darling, I do appreciate it.” Darren gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to work.

Pamela, my mother-in-law, did only visit twice a year, the first weekend after the Christmas break and the first weekend in July.  It was some awful ritual where a demon was unleashed twice a year.  They could make a Nicholas Cage movie out of it.  As for the takeaway, I was not falling for that again.  Four years ago I had made the mistake of allowing Darren to pick up a pizza on the way back.  For the last four years I had been hearing about how a proper wife made her husband meals, no matter what the circumstances.

I slouched into the kitchen.  I had never felt less like being a domestic goddess.  It was all so humiliating.  I was far too particular, according to my friends, and wasted far too much time cleaning.  According to Pamela, I was a slattern.  Every inch of this house would be scrutinised.  Last time I thought I had her.  There was no dust on the top of the kitchen cupboards and the walls had been washed down.  I had put brand new bedding on her bed and I had dusted behind every stick of furniture.  I had had the oven professionally cleaned and steamed the carpets.  The old witch had actually taken the drawers out of her dresser and found dust on the inside of the frame.  She had been so smug, sitting opposite me in my kitchen, eating my food which I had cooked, while Darren sat between us, twitching.

I looked around my lovely, clean kitchen.  Not only would she go over the room like a forensic detective but she would also sigh and complain that it looked too bare.  “It’s a shame you don’t have any knickknacks around,” she had said last time.  “Of course, not everyone has a flair for decorating.  Perhaps it is just as well that you haven’t tried.” She had smiled a wide, fake smile and patted my arm.  “I’ll bring you some nice things next time I come.  Then you won’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”

The old trout had great taste – for 1972!  I knew that she would have a suitcase full of cheap tat when she turned up, and that it would have to be in the same place she left it when she returned six months later – and she would know if the plastic grot had been moved an inch.  I swear the old bat had a photographic memory.

I threw together a boeuf bourguignon and put it on slow.  I’d already taken out every removable drawer in the house and cleaned behind them.  All the carpets, curtains and rugs had been steamed last week.  Not only was the bedding in her room new but so was the curtains.  I’d cleaned all the lampshades yesterday and dusted all the lightbulbs.  I sighed and started to pull out the fridge.  Then I paused.

Why was I playing her game?  Why was I running round in circles trying to get her to like me when nothing short of a sharp blow to the head would ever make her accept the woman who stole away her baby boy?  I’d been doing it wrong for years.  If she ran out of things to check I swear she would pull up the floorboards.  Okay, if she wanted something different, she could have something different.

By the time Darren’s car pulled into the drive I was finished.  I ached with the efforts, and I had had to get a few friends to help out.  It had been entirely worth it.  I looked around as I heard Darren carefully reversing into the garage.  The kitchen was smeared with jam and I had done my best to give a greasy feel by spraying the wall with the oil spray I used in cooking.  I had found some kitchen curtains in a skip which were now drooping at the window.  I had gone to every friend and neighbour and scrounged the contents of their vacuum cleaners.  After some trial I found that a light mist of water helped the dust of a dozen homes cling to walls, sink and bath.  I had put a mouse trap at the back of her dresser, just where it would get her if she checked, and I put the contents of four dryer filters under her bed.

The trip to the charity shop had been the most fun.  The house was awash with ‘accents’.  Our house was now a temple to the worse taste that ever landed on an Oxfam donation table.  There was plastic everywhere.  I had also got some extremely washed bedding from the charity shop and begged some curtains for Pamela’s room that they were going to send to the rag man and rubbed damp instant coffee granules along the edges for an added artistic touch.  I had had fun, and so had my friends.  Everyone had got photos.

I turned round as Darren unlocked the door.  “Darling, my mother’s plane has been delayed and she has decided not to come until the Christmas break after all…” He stopped as he walked in to the kitchen.  There was a long pause.  “Darling, would you like a drink?”

Originally posted May 15th 2016

Sea God Calling

 

He stood between the land and sea.

He cocked his head and beckoned me.

I shook my head, ‘You let me be.

You’ll get no power over me.’

His hair waved dark, his eyes sparked blue.

He raised his hand and the cold wind blew.

I will not bow nor bend the knee,

You’ll get no power over me

Strong he stood, the clouds hung low.

I wanted him but dare not go.

A mortal woman’s not for thee,

You’ll get no power over me.’

The waves dashed high where the sea god stood.

I bit my lip and I tasted blood.

I wanted him, ‘You let me be,

I’ll give no power over me.’

He beckoned me, I felt the call,

The sun shone warm on the sea god tall.

I whispered, ‘Do not call to me,

I daren’t give power over me.’

He strode across the warming sand

And knelt to gently kiss my hand.

Lady, at your whim I be

You have love’s power over me.’

Originally published May 8th 2016