Blast from the Distant Past

I’m having something of a shake up. Traditionally I bite off more than I can chew in September. This year is no exception. You would think that at my age I would know better, but here we are.

I will be posting spooky stories and poems every day this October, just as I always do. There will be plenty of old favourites with some new stories sprinkled in. I’ll also be taking part in the October Frights Blog Hop Oct 10th-15th, which once again is organised by the amazing Anita Stewart. There are always great stories shared in that.

I’m rejigging the old ‘Tales of the White Hart’ stories. I should be able to get them into book form soon, but I have found an old, free blog that means that I can make them easily available, just as they used to be. I’d love to hear your opinions, and you can go to that blog and give your (polite) suggestions here. You, the person reading this and the one who may be interested in the stories, have the most important views.

This means that I am armpit deep in all sorts of things and a little distracted. Rather than not post, though, I thought I would share a story I wrote and put on an old blog back on the 21st May 2014. I hope that you enjoy it. And please let me know if you have any ideas, suggestions or just want to say hello. I am grateful for all who read this blog.

“Did you see her, the one with the dress?” Angie asked as she splashed the dirty cups through the water at speed.

“Her with the dress and the handbag?” Betty said. She switched to a dry cloth for the next batch of cups.  They had been washing up together after the meetings for thirty four years this June and they had perfected the routine.

“No, the one with the dress and the handbag is Zoe. She reckons that the handbag is designer and cost a fortune. But you can’t tell me that handbag is designer, I saw one just like it on the market,” Angie sniffed.

“Well she said that he was doing alright and had got a bonus at Christmas. I told her that everyone gets a bonus at Christmas but she wouldn’t have it.” Betty rattled the teacups into a stack and slotted them neatly into a cupboard.

“My Den said that he was doing well, but they aren’t spending that much. You should see the state of her sofa.  I’d be ashamed.”

“You do like your furniture nice,” Betty nodded. “Of course, he could be spending some money on her at the corner, you know, just past Mrs Henderson.  She always has nice things.”

“Her at the corner, she’s the one with the dress. She said that it was a charity shop find, but you can’t fool me. That dress cost a fortune, and her with her car in the garage.”

“She spends her money on something. There must be some money going into that house with them both working and I know they ask the lad to tip up now he’s started at the call centre, but they still have that old car.”

Angie sniffed again. “My Jim said that it was a scandal that car, they’ve had it for four years now. But I saw her in the supermarket and she had a bottle of wine in her basket.” 

Betty nodded knowingly as she switched drying cloths again. “Mind you, I heard that her aunt was the same, you know, the one who married the plumber and moved to Brighton.”

“Is it her aunt that married the plumber? Well that explains it.” There was a pause as Angie changed the washing up water.

“I see Mary’s got new curtains.” Betty rattled some more cups into the cupboard. “I would have thought she would have done something with her kitchen first. I don’t know how she cooks.”

“Mary told me that she got them second hand. You can’t tell me that they are second hand, not with those seams. And as for cooking, she buys frozen veg. I pity her husband.”

“Of course he makes up for it with the darts team. They were out again last night. Ted from two doors down came in at midnight.”

“By the way, what was the talk today?” Angie rinsed out the washing up bowl.


“The dangers of gossip.” Betty gathered her cloths for the wash.  “See you next week.”


I have never, ever known a function where the washing up wasn’t a chance for a full exchange of views.  I did ‘hear’ it in the local accent, but I am confident that the sentiments expressed are universal.  

The Orchids

purple and green flower in close up photography
Image from Unsplash, taken by Rae Galatas

“Charles, are you listening to me?” Cynthia tapped her foot impatiently.

“Hmm?” Charles looked at his sister. “What? Look, this is incredible. I’ve managed to cross pollinate and look at the results. I may present them at the Society next month.”

Cynthia peered at the orchid that Charles was presenting so triumphantly. “It’s a funny sort of pink.”

“No, my dear, look at the markings! They are extraordinarily exquisite. And there is nothing else like these in the world! I created them in my glasshouse.”

“Most people grow pineapples in their glasshouses,” Cynthia said. “But Charles, this isn’t why I came.”

“Isn’t it?” Charles’ gaze was fixed on his orchids. “Perhaps you came to see my latest acquisition. Ellington sent it to me from Nicaragua.” He glanced up at his irritated sister. “Come and see this! I don’t suppose there’s another specimen like it in Europe. Ellington was stationed on the Mosquito Coast, you know, and retired there. You remember Ellington? Friend of father.” He caught Cynthia by the hand and dragged her from the drawing room. “It’s all the aether crystals,” Charles said. “They’ve revolutionised the keeping of orchids. It’s made all the difference.”

“Aether crystals can send you mad, you know,” Cynthia said. “Alfred won’t have them in the house. And about that…”

“Your husband is an old fusspot and always has been,” Charles interrupted. “Look at this!”

Cynthia caught her breath as she entered the glass house. The humid heat almost overwhelmed her and she grasped at the nearby table to steady herself. “You could have warned me to loosen my stays!”

“Don’t touch the table!” Charles shrieked as he tenderly closed the door. “There can be no draughts or sudden disturbances. These flowers are valuable. I was offered a thousand guineas for that specimen on the counter.”

“Did you tell Helen that?” Cynthia asked.

“Helen is always so busy with the business,” Charles said. “Besides, I would never part with it.” He frowned and stroked his chin. “Though if I can get some decent plants grown from seed… But it’s a dashed tricky business, Cynthia, and I’m loathe to risk being without it.”

Cynthia looked at the black and violet flower that seemed to smirk malevolently. “The business is doing well, but Helen said that you were spending a lot on these flowers.”

“They’re orchids, Cynthia, not just flowers. Besides, now that we have all the aether heaters and humidifiers, we only have the cost of any replacement crystals. Travers sorted it all out. The new aether science has made all the difference. Look at this!” Charles dragged his sister to a large mahogany cabinet. “See – heat controls here, humidity here, all on timers. Travers sorted out everything. Of course, I have to keep on top of distilling the water. The water around London is shocking for orchids. But even the distillation is aether powered, look!” He dragged Cynthia over to a glass contraption that was hidden behind the ferns. “This is the absolute latest thing in orchid culture. I think I’m the only one in North London who has one.”

Cynthia fanned her face, desperately trying to catch her breath. “Charles, we really need to talk.”

“I know it cost a few more guineas than I normally pull out of the business, but it can stand it. Helen’s doing sterling work and so is Travers. Look, the water comes in from the mains supply here, then goes through the evaporator here. It was a devil to set up, pardon my language, but worth it. It goes out of this window here, to allow condensations – this room has to be at this temperature for the orchids, you know. They are so delicate. Where was I? Oh yes, then the condensate is fed into this flask. I don’t water automatically, though. I wouldn’t want to risk it. I had a nasty case of root rot in one of the specimens from Siam, lost quite an expensive example of Dendrobium to it, and overwatering at the port was no doubt the cause.”

“Charles, you need to listen!” Cynthia said. “Aether crystals aren’t always safe. Travers said you didn’t get any of the latest shielding.”

“Didn’t see the point, old thing, and I suppose I have been dipping into the business somewhat so I didn’t want the expense. But I have a private buyer for these, which I’ll keep for any further investment. Why, I could even turn a profit.” Charles waved an expansive hand at some unprepossessing shoots.

“Charles, do you miss Helen?” Cynthia asked.

“What do you mean?” Charles turned back to aether engine. “I saw at breakfast. No, hang on.” He stopped and thought for a moment. “No, I don’t know if I did see her. But I’m sure that I saw her at dinner last night.” He looked at Cynthia with doubt in his eyes. “Or was she at one of her meetings. The business is quite demanding, you know.”

“I need to get out of here,” Cynthia said, carefully making her way to the door. “And you need to listen to me.” She opened the door and stood there, waiting.

Charles hesitated for a moment and then rushed through the room, meeting Cynthia at the other side before carefully shutting the door. “I told you – I cannot allow draughts in there. What is so damned important?”

“Your language around ladies is dreadful,” Cynthia said, walking away and back to the drawing room where she collapsed into a chair. “And the heat of that room is insufferable. Please ring for some tea.”

Charles looked around absently and rang for the maid. “Well what is so important?”

Cynthia stared at him. “You know Helen, your wife, the one you moved heaven and earth to woo, the one that took our family business and actually made it turn a profit? The pretty woman with the red hair?”

“Yes, what about her? She hasn’t met with an accident has she?” Charles said. “Because it would damned inconvenient if she had. I’ve had a telegram this morning about a package on its way and it takes time to get a specimen settled, especially if it’s come from some distance.”

“May I remind you of your language,” Cynthia said. “Helen left you. She’s been living with her brother for the last six months and taking a salary from the business. Mr Travers, your secretary, is leaving because his father died and he needs to go back home to support his mother in Manchester. And Mrs Callaghan, the housekeeper, won’t stay another week as there is no lady of the house. You need to do something.”

“But I can’t possibly spare the time,” Charles exclaimed. “I’ve just told you, I have a package likely to arrive any day now.” He looked at her. “Are you sure that Helen left? I can’t think why she would. We haven’t had a cross word since Christmas.”

A housemaid came in and set the tea things on a side table. Cynthia waited until she left before pouring herself a welcome cup of tea. “She left just before Christmas. I helped her move. And I don’t blame her one bit! At least she’s keeping the business going. If she didn’t, you wouldn’t have the money for these orchids.” Cynthia watched her brother carefully. “If I were you, I would not upset her.”

“Why would she leave?” Charles asked, bewilderment in every inch.

“Because you didn’t attend your only daughter’s wedding,” Cynthia said. “I can’t see any way of reconciling with Helen, at least, but I would avoid antagonising her. And I think that you will need a new housekeeper as a matter of urgency.”

“Simply not possible, my dear,” Charles said. “I don’t have the time. And if that is all, I must get back to the glass house. Some of the blooms were looking fragile and I need to check the water levels.”

“At least get some shielding for those aether crystals,” Cynthia said as she watched her brother stand and head towards the door. “They can power anything, but they can send you mad.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles said. “I show absolutely no sign of irrationality of any sort. I’m sure that Mrs Callaghan will see you right before you leave.”

Cynthia listened to the door close firmly, then took a long drink of her tea. She had never felt more worried in her life.

Broken Cage

white spider web on brown wooden wall
Image from Unsplash, taken by Batuhan Dogan

Darren leant back against the wreck of the sofa and looked over to Sir Dylan. “How are you doing these days?”

Sir Dylan shrugged. “I’m okay, I suppose.” He ducked out of the way of a flying mug and flinched as it smashed on the wall behind him. “Do you think we should help out?”

Darren shook his head. “It would be a shame to spoil their fun.” He watched as Flynn grabbed a boggart by the neck and tried to squeeze, but what looked like a werewolf in fur hit him hard in the side and knocked the boggart out of his hold. He spun around, caught the werewolf by the tail and threw it hard against the wall. It slid down, whimpering. Lord Marius, snarling through a spatter of someone else’s blood, was trading punches with Mercury. Mercury was putting up a hard fight, but he was starting to fall back.

“They’re going to have to pay to put the flat right,” Sir Dylan said. “I mean, it’s trashed.”

Darren looked around as one of Lord Marius’ warriors kicked a severed head against the wall where it left a dent and a mark that would be really hard to clean. “The brownies will sort it out. Have you ever seen what brownies can do? They take a real pride in their work. Of course, they’re expensive. If I didn’t have to be so careful, I’d definitely get them in. And they are wonderful when they clean a church. They don’t miss a corner.”

“It’ll need to be a full refit,” Sir Dylan said as an armchair flew across the room and caught a boggart squarely in the stomach, winding them and pinning them down long enough for Flynn to grab them.

Darren ducked out of the way of a stray piece of coffee table. “Lord Marius is not happy to find these sort of games going on. He has strong views. Apart from the risk of getting noticed and upsetting the local Knights Templar, if anyone should be extorting the locals, it should be him.” Darren grinned at Sir Dylan. “Lord Marius will make sure that he confiscates all the profits and it won’t be a hardship to refit this place. All we need to do is make sure that it’s to taste of Mrs Cook.”

Sir Dylan thought of Mercury’s latest victim and glanced around the wreckage. “It will have to be pink.”

“It will have to be completely replastered first,” Darren said as he watched sparks fly from an ambitious elfen next to Mercury.

Steve Adderson, waiting in the wings, raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so.” He gestured casually and the elfen dropped like a stone.

Darren and Sir Dylan moved back a little as the battle raged. The neighbours were already starting to peer out of their doors and a few phones were being pulled out. Darren shook his head. “We need to wrap this up.” He nodded to Steve. “Any chance of messing up the phones for a few minutes?”

“Not a problem,” Steve said, and muttered a few words.

Darren stuck his head back into the shell of the living room. “We are getting attention and the police will be here soon.”

Lord Marius’ eyes narrowed and he roared with fury, grabbing the reeling Mercury and slamming his head hard into the nearest door frame. It cracked. As Mercury sank to the floor, he looked around. “Get this filth out of here!”

Elfen shimmered around the room. Darren found it unnerving as, without any sort of flourish or warning, the members of Lord Marius’ court disappeared. One minute they were flinging a goblin against the mantlepiece, the next minute both they and the goblin were gone. The remains and captives were whisked away until only Lord Marius and Steve were left facing Darren and Sir Dylan across the unconscious form of Mercury.

“I will make all this good,” Lord Marius said casually. “I’ll get the brownies to clean up and I’ll send an interior decorator to meet with Mrs Cook.” He glanced down at Mercury who was slowly coming to his senses. “I shall also personally apologise to the poor woman, affected by one of my own, taking advantage of an elderly widow.” His eyes narrowed as he hauled Mercury to his feet. “And I shall make an example.” He glanced over to Steve.

Steve was looking grim. He disappeared through a door for a moment and came back with a large shape covered in a grey silk throw. “I have a special surprise for you, Mercury,” he said. “You’ve terrorised elfen and normal for decades, if not longer.” Steve’s cold smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Now it’s your turn.” He pulled off the covering and Mercury flinched at the sight of the broken mirror.

“You can’t do this to me.” Mercury looked desperately from Lord Marius to Steve and then turned to the exorcist and the Knight Templar. “You have to help me.”

“We really don’t,” Darren said. “You have made too many people suffer.” There was a finality in his shrug. “Besides, it’s not our jurisdiction.”

“No, it’s mine,” Lord Marius stated. He nodded to Steve who began a low voiced chant. There were strange harmonics and the remaining glass in the windows vibrated.

Mercury shook his head in disbelief. “You can’t, you can’t…”

Lord Marius held him high and at arm’s length. Mercury thrashed helplessly but Lord Marius’ grip was relentless.

Sir Dylan shivered as a cold breeze ran around the room and he turned away. Darren watched, unflinching, as Mercury was stripped of his glamour until all that was left was a small, skinny twisted thing. Steve checked with Lord Marius, and, at the nod, Mercury seemed to flow and swirl, like oil in water, into the broken mirror. There was a long, inhuman wail, then silence.

Darren walked forward and peered at the shattered reflections. He could see a myriad of himself, reflected in the crazed and damaged glass. And in the very corner, almost out of sight, was a frantic elfen. If he caught the angle just right and tilted his head, he could see Mercury’s mouth opening and closing. There was no sound. “Seems like a just punishment to me,” he said.

Mirror Mirror

Rose opened the door a crack and timidly peered at the two men outside in the grubby yard. “Hello.”

“Good evening,” the dark haired man said. He was impossibly handsome and his hard muscles showed under the thin, well-washed shirt. The air of dangerous focus that hung around him was at variance with his clerical dog collar. “My name is Darren King, and this is my associate, Flynn.”

“I preferred being called Vertiver,” his associate grumbled. He was just as tall and muscled but more casual in t-shirt and jeans. A shock of thick red hair hung to his shoulders. He noticed Rose’s appraising gaze and smiled like the devil. “I didn’t realise that you were so young and beautiful. We should have been here sooner.”

Rose found herself blushing and tried to claw back some control. At 24 she was no longer used to being thought young, and she hardly thought she was pretty. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“In what?” Flyn leant against the door frame, at least six inches taller than her and full of flirtatious intention. “You don’t know why we called.”

“The Church fund?” Rose guessed. It had to be some sort of scam.

“May we come in?” Darren asked, glaring at Flynn.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Rose said. “I mean, as a woman living on my own, I have to be careful. I’m sure that you are both perfect gentlemen, but I don’t want the neighbours to talk.”

“But you don’t live on your own, do you?” Flynn leant in a little closer.

Rose stepped back involuntarily. “I want you to leave,” she forced out, “Or I’ll call the police.”

“You can call the police if you like,” Flynn said. “He’s with them, sort of.”

“I’m not police,” Darren snapped. “Flynn stop intimidating this woman.” He turned to Rose and tried a professional smile. “We have reason to believe that you have a haunted mirror.”

Rose stared at him as all colour drained from her face.

A deep voice behind her spoke. “It’s okay. We knew that this day would come.”

Rose shook her head. “I can’t lose you.”

Darren and Flynn exchanged glances as Flynn pushed past Rose and into the tiny hall with Darren following close behind.

The hall was a marked contrast to the grubby yard and grubby street outside. Inside was completely different. Pale walls and clever lighting gave an illusion of airy space in the narrow entrance. The wooden floor was polished and a subtle hint of lavender hung in the air. The men followed Rose as she retreated to the living room. Darren shut the front door firmly behind them.

The living room was a similar revelation. Outside there was a dirty street, cluttered with rubbish. Inside was a cool, understated minimalism centred around an unexpectedly ornate mirror. It had a flat copper sheen, picked up by the few decorating accents, and it only showed the magical inscription to the knowledgeable.

In front of the mirror was a transparent, ghost-like figure, an older man, with streaks of grey in his dark hair, lithe and slim in a grey, three piece suit. Magical energy whirled between the pale hands. Rose grabbed the iron poker and whirled to face them. “I don’t know how you found us, but I won’t pay you and you can’t take him. Leave us alone.”

Darren raised a sceptical eyebrow then, with snakelike speed, caught Rose’s arm, lifted, turned and pulled. The poker clattered onto the floor leaving Rose trapped in an impersonal, iron grip. Flynn moved with equal speed. His hands darted out, tangling his own magical energy into the glow in front of the ghost and unravelling it, reeling it in and catching it in a spinning, glowing sphere above Flynn’s left shoulder. Colour drained from the apparition and it faded into a translucent shadow. There had been barely enough time to breathe and suddenly Rose and the spirit were completely at the men’s mercy.

“I wish people would not jump to conclusions,” Darren said. “You have a haunted mirror, obviously. We are here to release the spirit. If there is any threat, we would deal with it, but it appears that there is an amicable arrangement here. I can’t see any reason for us to be involved any further once the spirit is released.” He grinned. “If the spirit behaves, that is.”

Flynn was staring at the apparition. “Lucius? Is that you?”

“Vertiver, what are you doing here? I was searching for you but got trapped.” Lucius managed a roguish grin. “I wasa at least aware enough that they couldn’t control me. They gave up trying to make me haunt properly, but they still sold on the mirror. I laid low, until I was lucky enough to meet Rose.” He paused and looked at Rose with love in his eyes. “Unfortunately they were still tracking me. We’ve been trying to hide from them.”

“You did a good job,” Flynn said. “I would never have thought to find you in a dump like this.” He smiled at Rose. “But the decorating is as excellent as ever.”

“You know who is tracking you?” Darren asked. “I’m trying to catch up with them. Flynn isn’t the only spirit we’ve managed to release over the last few months. Someone or something, somewhere, is making a fortune from fear, while trapping non-normals and effectively torturing them into slavery.” He released Rose and stepped back warily.

Rose stared at him. “You’re not going to try and take Lucius away.”

Darren shook his head. “Flynn should be able to release him. But we should step out of the room while it happens. Perhaps the kitchen?”

The kitchen was as minimalist and airy as the rest of the house. Darren leant against the counter. “How do you feel about Lucius?”

Rose blushed. “It’s complicated.”

“Do you love him,” Darren asked.

“Like I said, it’s complicated,” Rose said. “I think so. And I think he loves me.”

“Has he said so?” Darren said.

Rose felt her face glowing with embarrassment. “He said that he gave his word it was love and not lust that he felt,” she said. “He promised.”

“That sounds like love.” Darren said. “I’ll have a proper talk later, but you know that your life is about to get…” Darren searched for the right words. “Fairytale romances can be difficult. But they can work.”

“They can?” Rose asked cautiously.

Darren nodded. “I’ll have a proper talk later. For now, do you have records of any contact with the people looking for Lucius? Someone called Mercury?”

Rose nodded. “I kept everything.” She pulled out her phone. “I’ve saved everything, taken photos of the letters, made notes of conversations, times and dates – the whole lot. And I’ve saved it in plenty of places as well.” She jumped as a sudden crack rang through the room next door.

Darren ignored the noise. “Here are some places to send copies,” he said, pulling a small notebook from his jeans pocket and scribbling some notes. “Once you have sent them, change passwords and find another safe place to copy them. There shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s best to stay safe.” He tore out the page and handed it to Rose. “We’ll take it from there.”

Rose shook her head. “I’m sure that Lucius will want to be involved,” she said. “I don’t think you could stop him.”

The sound of Flynn swearing and the smell of brimstone seeped into the kitchen. Darren took no notice. “It may take some time for Lucius to regain his strength. Besides, he needs to look after you. Mercury doesn’t like being thwarted. We’ve heard enough to ask you and Lucius to move to a safe house.”

“A safe house?” Rose stared. “But I thought you weren’t police.”

“Other people than police have safe houses,” Darren said. “And you and Lucius have a lot of catching up to do.”

Tied In

Darren looked around the small flat. The chill of an unwelcome and supernatural presence hung heavily and the bunch of flowers his host had brought in with them was already shrivelling in its supermarket cellophane. “Yes, there is definitely a problem.” He frowned. “Can you tell me a little of the background.”

Emma looked around her, wondering where to start. “It’s been going on for a few weeks. I thought it was the guttering at first. I got mildew on the wallpaper in that corner, for some reason, but the plaster behind it was dry. The landlord couldn’t work it out.”

“What’s the landlord like?” Darren asked.

Emma shrugged. “I’ve been here around three months. He leaves me alone, and I’m glad of it. But the boiler is in good working order and the appliances are quite new.” She looked anxiously at Darren. “I’m tied into the lease for another nine months. I can’t just walk away from it. I need to get this sorted.”

Darren grunted. “What about the neighbours?”

“There’s a man downstairs, a little older than me,” Emma said. “He’s in his late fifties, I suppose. He works in the week and gets drunk on Saturdays.” She grinned. “He starts singing punk anthems around 8.30pm and is usually quiet by 10. He seems pleasant enough. I’ve not really spoken to him.” She nervously adjusted a cushion. “Won’t you sit down?”

Darren shook his head. “How about upstairs?”

“The flat directly above is empty,” Emma said. “It was a mother and a couple of kids. They moved out the week I moved in. I’ve not heard any noises. Apparently the leases ran from the same dates. She was tied in as well.” She watched Darren pacing up and down the flat with leashed energy. He was not her idea of a priest. Priests, in her opinion, were not tall, well-muscled and ridiculously handsome. And they definitely did not wear well washed supermarket jeans with heavy boots, a faded black shirt and a leather jacket with their dog collar. They also had better people skills. Emma felt that she was getting marks deducted for silliness. “I suppose you could get in there, if you needed to.”

“I’d rather not start by breaking and entering,” Darren said. “Do you know why the people above left?”

“I thought priests could get all sorts of permissions,” Emma said. “I can give you the number of the agency.”

Darren peered through the blinds and out over the car park. “I’m not good with bureaucracy. And did they say why they were moving?” He turned and gave Emma a pointed look.

“Sorry, Phoenix next door said that they were moving in with the woman’s boyfriend,” Emma said. “Are you sure that I can’t get you a cup of tea or coffee?”

“Phoenix?” Darren said. “What sort of name is ‘Phoenix?’ Does she think she’s a superhero?”

Emma thought of the plump, dishevelled lady next door. “No, I don’t think so,” she said. “She told me that her name was revealed to her in a sitting. I think she used to be called Tina.”

Darren stared. “What?”

Emma smiled weakly. “She’s very nice, but into the new age stuff. You know, Tarot cards and crystals and stuff. I never believed in it much, until this.” She gestured helplessly at the blackened flowers on the table. “I think I’ve heard it described as, ‘weird washing powder and knits her own rice’. She follows an alternative lifestyle.” Emma trailed off a little in the face of Darren’s evident disapproval. “She’s saving up for a smallholding.”

“Does she look like she could farm?” Darren asked.

“Um…” Emma didn’t like to be cruel but the man downstairs had more than once been called to help Phoenix with spiders. Besides, she didn’t seem like the outdoor type. “I’m not sure.”

Darren shook his head. “Let’s hope that she’s bad at saving.” He paced back across the room. “What’s this?” he asked, waving a hand at the macrame wall hanging.

“Phoenix gave it me,” Emma said. “She seemed to think that it was lucky.”

Darren looked closer. “How long has it been here?”

“She gave it as a house-warming present.” Emma looked embarrassed. “She was insistent that I put it up straight away, and she always checks that it’s there. It’s not really my taste.”

Darren frowned. “Did you tell Phoenix about the problems?”

Emma nodded. “She said that the previous tenant had the same issues and that’s why he moved out as soon as the lease ended. But then she said she knew someone from her spiritualist group who could help me out. She was quite keen, but I felt better with someone more traditional.” Emma shot an uncomfortable glance at Darren, who looked absolutely nothing like a traditional priest. “I didn’t want to offend her, but I don’t feel comfortable with crystals and that.”

Darren sighed. “Do you have anywhere to stay if things go bad?” he asked.

Emma looked around nervously. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if your neighbour starts harassing you?” Darren said, looking closer at the macrame piece. “Do any of her group turn up here?”

Emma thought for a moment. “I don’t think that I’ve seen anyone. And I can’t just leave here – like I said, I’m tied into the lease.”

“It depends,” Darren frowned and then pulled out a pocket-knife. “The flat isn’t cursed. This knotted thing is.”

“What?”

“It’s a scam that seems to have been doing the rounds of the area,” Darren said. “A nice neighbour brings in a housewarming gift that you have to put up straight away. And that neighbour can keep coming around and checking that it’s still in place. After all, the neighbour is so nice and helpful so you can’t really stop them coming in. And that knotted thing holds a curse.”

“It’s macrame,” Emma interrupted. “And it is nice.”

“Yes, quite pretty,” Darren agreed. “But the nice neighbour, Phoenix in this case, knows someone and while they won’t charge, they will accept donations to their group. It’s all for good causes and above board, of course. They make sure that you’re so grateful that the curse has gone that you’ll be generous. And they’ll encourage you to come along and be part of that group. Before you know it, you’ll be buying their crystals at inflated prices, and paying for workshops and blessings and courses in their faith.” Darren almost spat the last word out. “I’m a minister of the Anglican Church, the Church of England. My faith is my rock. And I’ve worked with all sorts of Christians, from Greek Orthodox to the most austere Presbytarian, and their faith has been just as solid. I’ve worked with Imams from the mosques, and Buddhists and Sikhs and Wiccans and pagans and all the shades of faith, all of them taking strength from their beliefs. This is nothing to do with belief. This is to do with greed and spite and malice.” He took a deep breath. “Could you give me a moment to compose myself.”

Emma watched in silence. Darren appeared to be praying in front of the macrame hanging. She could feel the atmosphere changing around her. There was still the edge of decay and despair, but now there was a charge of electricity around the room, like the beginning of a thunderstorm. She jumped as there was a knock on the door.

“Emma, are you alright?” Phoenix called through the door. “Is everything okay?”

“Keep her away from me,” Darren muttered as he frowned at the macrame in front of him. He muttered some words and a quick flash of purple light ran around the knotted hanging.

“It’s okay, Phoenix,” Emma called. “I’m just in the middle of something.”

“My telly’s gone all funny,” Phoenix called. “How about you?”

“I’ll check in a minute, Phoenix, and I’ll be around to let you know,” Emma said, stalling.

“Are you having a manifestation?” Phoenix called. “Should I call Mercury? He can be here in twenty minutes. I’ll give him a call, shall I?”

“No!” Emma shouted. “I mean, no, it’s okay. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Let me in, Emma,” There was an unexpected steel in Phoenix’s voice. “I can help.”

Emma forced herself to stay back from the door. Phoenix’s voice was strangely compelling and it rang around her head like a chimed wineglass. “Just five minutes.” She looked back at Darren who was raising a hand slowly towards the hanging. He muttered a few words in what sounded like Latin and carefully, every inch of him braced for action, slit the rope at the bottom of the hanging.

Emma was flung back by the force of the blast as something hot and foul-smelling washed over her, pushing at her like a tidal wave. At the same time she heard her door splinter and Phoenix fell into the room through the ruined frame. Darren turned and spat out a few strange words which Phoenix seemed to knock physically aside. To Emma’s horror, Phoenix bounded across the room with unheard of grace and speed and grabbed Darren by the throat. Darren raised his shoulder, spun, broke the hold and continued around to get the momentum for a hard kick to Phoenix’s side. Phoenix gasped and then swung a wide, arcing punch but Darren ducked under. “Get out!” he yelled to Emma.

Emma turned to the door but lightning flashed across the room and blocked her path. She turned back. Darren was fighting hard against Phoenix, who seemed, somehow, to be a lot stronger than usual, and, as Emma watched, Phoenix picked up the sofa and hurled at Darren, who ducked. Emma turned back to the door as the sofa frame cracked behind her. The air in front of her seemed to be somehow thicker there, somehow darker. The lightning swirled and crackled, discharging around the ruins of the door frame and the corners of the windows. A shadow was forming.

She turned back to the fight. Darren was keeping Phoenix at arms’ length, dodging and blocking as he weighed up his options. “Emma, you need to get out,” he yelled.

“The door’s blocked.” Emma turned back and flinched as a sharp crack of thunder echoed through the flat and suddenly there was a man standing there, tall dark and absolutely furious. He glared past Emma, as Phoenix swung Emma’s favourite lamp at Darren’s head. Emma flinched as the lamp hit a mirror.

The stranger gestured at Phoenix who spun around as she noticed his presence. “No!” she cried out, “No, I can explain…”

The stranger gestured again and Phoenix twisted, wreathed in the same purple lightning. Somehow she was being folded, smaller and smaller as lightning crackled around the room. In front of Emma’s appalled gaze, the untidy, plump woman was turning and twisting like an origami crane, her features blurring as she shrank. Darren stepped clear. “Wait a minute!”

It was too late. Phoenix screamed one long, last scream and then twisted into a small, knotted, brown bundle of tattered hair and fur which fell with a prosaic thud onto the floor. Emma stared and then jumped as the stranger stepped forward and bowed to Darren.

“My thanks for your rescue, sir. I apologise for any distress and inconvenience to you and your fair lady. I am Vertiver, and I have been trapped by this creature…” he waved a dismissive hand at the bundle on the floor, “…for far too long. I owe you my life, and more.”

Darren shook his head. “No, I’m happy to help.”

“My life was a mere existence, trapped and twisted, forced to perform harsh magics.” Vertiver bowed to Emma. “I apologise for the unpleasantness I brought. I swear that I would not willingly torment a lady.” He turned back to Darren. “My rescuer, my lord, I owe you my freedom. I cannot turn away from my obligation.”

“You can,” Darren said with conviction. “You really can.”

Vertiver shook his head. “You are mortal. I shall pledge to serve you for the rest of your days. That is my oath and my word. I can do no less after being freed from that prison, that dark, dreary, desperate dungeon where I was bound by their cursed knots.”

“No, not at all.” Darren stumbled over his words in his haste to get them out. “No obligation, seriously, my duty.”

“But it is my honour. And no service could be more onerous than the labour recently forced,” Vertiver said, bowing again. “You are a priest? Well, that should make my service interesting and with far nobler deeds than my late captor.”

“Bloody hell,” Darren said.

Eggs for Breakfast

“These are hard,” my mother said. “You should make some new ones.”

“Sorry, I’ll get them done now,” I said.

“I don’t know why you can’t them right first time,” Mother complained. “It’s not like you never cook eggs.”

“Sorry,” I said as I put the pan back on the heat. “Maybe I should get the pan hotter first.”

“You never think!” Mother said. “You’re going to have to have them. I can’t have them going to waste. And what about dinner? I suppose you haven’t thought about that?”

“I’ve got some chicken out of the freezer,” I lied, knowing what would come next.

“I don’t fancy chicken,” Mother said. “I think that we eat too much chicken. Is that toast fresh?”

“Yes, it’s just come out,” I said as I buttered it quickly and slid it on to the plate. I pushed it over to her and cracked two more eggs into the pan.

“You could have at least cut the toast for me,” Mother said. “I have to do everything. You have no consideration for me. I’ve had such a bad night.”

“Sorry,” I repeated, as I quickly poured tea into her mug. “Here, this will help.”

Mother took a sip. “Is this milk okay?”

“It’s fine,” said, turning the eggs. “I had some in my tea when I got up earlier.”

“It tastes off,” Mother said. “Could you open a fresh carton?”

“It’s the last carton,” I said. “I usually pick it up after work, but there was that after work meeting, remember, and I didn’t have time before getting home to cook dinner.” I slid the new eggs onto her warmed plate and pushed the toast nearer.

“You’ll have to pick up some tonight, and some eggs. We seem to go through so many eggs with you wasting them.” Mother shook her head sadly. “So what are we going to have for dinner if we can’t have chicken?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You should know!” Mother exclaimed. “You are the one in charge of the kitchen, you should know what we have. We’ll just have to order pizza. I know you say you don’t like it, but you should have thought of that before getting the chicken out. And today of all days! You know I’m out for the day with Mrs Timmins and you didn’t even press the blue dress.”

“What blue dress?” I asked, bewildered.

“The one in the wardrobe. It’s been there so long that it was looking sad. I’ve had to put on this pink one. Of course, if you took me out more, it wouldn’t matter so much.”

“But you know I work,” I said wearily and took a bite of the eggs she’d rejected. They tasted fine.

“I keep telling you that you should give up work and get carer’s allowance. You and me could be quite cosy, just the two of us here,” Mother said. “I don’t know what you need your job for. They only pay a pittance.” She looked out of the window. “There’s Mrs Timmins – I have to go! Where have you put my bag?”

I watched her leave, sipping my tea as she glared one last time at me through the window as she climbed into Mrs Timmins’ car, then breathed out. Finally she was gone. I dumped my unwashed plate and mug into the sink and raced upstairs to grab my one remaining bag. My job paid extremely well, thank goodness, though she never knew, more than enough for the very reasonable rent on a tiny flat near work. The down payment had cleared, I’d picked up the keys and today was the day I moved away from Mother and into my own home. And what was more, I thought, as I shut the door and pushed the keys back through the letterbox, I would never, ever have to eat eggs for breakfast again.

Dark Cupboard

bald eagle door chain lock
Image from Unsplash, taken by Thom Milkovic

Jim looked around. “It’s not a bad little flat,” he said. “It’ll turn a good profit once we’ve tidied it up a bit.”

Steve nodded. “It really just needs a few coats of paint and perhaps new doors on the kitchen cupboards. Everything is pretty sound.”

“She didn’t want to leave,” Jim said thoughtfully. “I mean, she handed over the keys alright, and the place was cleared, but she kept warning me about the cupboard.” He nodded to the cupboard set into the wall, with chipped paint and an ornate chain.

“I’ve got the bolt cutters here,” said Steve. “I’ll get into it in a sec.”

“I’ll nip back to the van and get the camera,” Jim said. “She seemed a sweet old dear, and a little confused, but she may have been playing crafty. There could be structural stuff inside that cupboard and there go our profits.” He glanced over at Steve. “Don’t start without me, we need to document this.”

“I’ll get it opened up,” Steve said. “I’ll get the lamp shining in by the time you’re back. It’s probably where she hid the empty bottles. She was talking about spirits when she left.”

“Or it could be a Ouija board,” Jim said with a shudder. “You know I hate anything like that.” He glanced uneasily at the cupboard. “Back in a tick.”

Steve shook his head as he heard Jim clatter down the stairs. You couldn’t even read your newspaper horoscope around Jim. He hefted the bolt cutters and checked the chain. It was steel but old and the bolt cutters were top of the range. The chain fell apart without much effort.

The cupboard was dark inside, much darker than Steve expected. He pulled out his phone to use the torch and shivered as a cold draught ran through the room. He looked closer and saw a few chalked symbols, faded and barely visible under some dusty leaves, on the base of the cupboard. The stench was stomach churning.

“There’s nothing here, Jim,” Steve called, heading to the windows. He had to get some fresh air into this room. “But we may have a sewer line issue.” He tugged at the window catch. “Have you got some WD40?” The window was jammed, no matter how hard he pushed and shoved. He frowned. They had been fine earlier and there had been nothing in the survey. He could hear Jim on the stairs. He had better get the chalk marks wiped off before he got here, or he would have a fit. “Hang on, Jim, I need a cloth.” Steve strode over to the door, shivering as another blast of icy stench ran over him, and grabbed the door handle. It wouldn’t move. “Jim, the door’s stuck. Give it a push, will you?”

There was a rattle. “I can’t shift it,” Jim said. “Is there a lock?”

Steve peered at the door. “I can’t see anything.”

“I’ll get the toolbox,” Jim called. “Back in a tick.”

The light in the room dimmed. Steve turned around, hit by another icy, stinking draught, but there was nothing over the window and the sun seemed just as bright. He shivered as the room got colder and, as he heard a low, malicious chuckle, he wondered if they would have been better leaving the cupboard alone…

Domestic Demon

two Caution signages
Image from Unsplash, taken by Oliver Hale

“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. She came in 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?”

I’m working hard on a deadline at the moment, so I thought I’d have a look back at a story I first published back in 2015. I smiled when I re-read it, and I hope you also found it fun. Wishing good health to all.

Monster in the Forest

trees on forest with sun rays
Image from Unsplash, taken by Sebastian Unrau

“I told you to stay away from me.” Cana rolled away from him. There was plenty of room in the clearing and the fire was still bright.

“I thought we stayed close when camping in the woods,” Sion said. “To keep warm.”

“It’s past midsummer,” Cana said. “It’s not cold.” She rolled over and looked at the stars peeking through the canopy of leaves overhead. “The fire will keep away wolves and the horses will warn us if anything approaches. Get some sleep. We should reach the castle by noon tomorrow.”

“You won’t come into the castle with me?” Sion asked.

“I’ve been warned about monsters in the castle.” Cana said. “Besides, as you said, I’m just a girl.”

“Tomorrow I go to fight a monster,” Sion said. “This could be my last night on this earth. Won’t you at least make it a little warmer for me.”

“No,” Cana said, shifting her blanket a little further away from him.

“I could come back laden with jewels and gold,” Sion says. “The rumours say that there is treasure beyond counting.”

“And that is why you are going to the castle.” Cana said. “If there was no castle then the villagers could rot under monsters for all you cared.”

Sion laughed. “A man has to make his way in the world,” he said.

“I’m only here because of the steward’s orders,” Cana said. “You could turn back at any time.”

“I received no encouragement from village,” Sion said. “Don’t you fear monsters?”

“We fear them,” Cana said. “And we have learned to recognise them. You are going into this with a black eye because you couldn’t learn to take ‘no’ as an answer and the men of our village are protective.”

“And the women are no fun,” Sion said. “You are sleeping with a knife under your pillow. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Is that why the priest refused to bless me and my weapons?”

“It’s because you wouldn’t confess your sins first,” Cana said. “The whole village heard the argument.”

“Tomorrow I face a blood sucking, immortal creature that has powers that no-one can measure,” Sion said. “Won’t you warm my bedroll, to give me the comfort I need?”

Cana turned back and looked at the greasy, red face, predatory intent clear. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.” She looked coldly into his eyes. “And you’ll never make the castle if you try to force me.”

Sion laughed again. “It’s worth asking, at least.” He placed his sword in the clear ground between them. “There, do you feel safer?”

“The horses will warn of any movement,” Cana said. “Goodnight.”

Cana watched him leave the next morning and then tidied the campsite. Those who tracked the creature in the castle came at all times of year, so she stacked up firewood against the winter. She had lost count of those that she had brought here, seeking their fortune and perhaps fame. There had even been a few that had wanted to serve what they thought lived in the lonely fortress that was a short ride down the path. There were raspberries in the forest, and she picked a good basket full before the shadows lengthened. Then she made up the fire and waited.

She became aware of a presence. “You defeated him?”

Calixtus nodded and joined her near the fire. “To be truthful, he was a careless warrior. And he was avoiding me as he searched for the fabled treasure. I think he would have fed you to me to buy time if he could.”

“And you’re unhurt?” Cana asked.

“I can’t be hurt like you,” Calixtus said softly. “But no, he didn’t land a blow. The black eye didn’t help. Let me guess, he tried to flirt with Maria?”

“He tried more than flirting!” Cana said. “Fortunately for him, her husband reached them before she could do much.”

“How is Maria?” Calixtus asked.

“She’s well.” Cana said. “Rhia has had her baby, it’s a boy and they are calling him Calix, after you.” She frowned. “Father John’s joints are hurting him, I think, though he isn’t saying anything.”

“I’ll call in soon and see what I can do,” Calixtus said. “And I’ll have a look at the mill while I am there.”

Cana smiled. “You know so much. Perhaps you should take an apprentice.” She loosened her tunic.

“Perhaps I should,” Calixtus said. He held up his hand. “I won’t need blood for a while. The would-be warrior gave me plenty and there are many animals in the forest. But thank you.”

Cana shook her head. “You have saved us from so many monsters. Now, sit, share some raspberries and let me tell you all of the news.”

Light up the Night

Image from Unsplash, taken by Thomas Allsop

“They always go over the top.” Dad turned away from the lounge window. “I don’t know who they think they’re impressing.”

“There must be yards and yards of the things,” Mum said. “Or metres or whatever. They’re not cheap, you know, not even in Aldi.”

Sandra drifted over to the window. The family across the street had swathed their house liberally with fairy lights – inside and out. The colours twinkled as they changed, spinning around the door and window frames and the miniature conifers in the front garden.

“Look at the way that they change,” Dad said. “That’s technology, that is.”

“It’s an app,” Sandra said, staring at the lights. They swirled and danced, echoed by their reflections in the cars parked in the drive and cast coloured shadows on the snow.

“They must have money to burn,” Mum said. “Those apps are expensive. And you need the phone to go with it.”

Sandra didn’t answer but instead watched the sequence chasing over the porch and across to the fuschias.

“I wonder what it does to their electric,” Dad said. “It must put the bill up something fierce. He frowned. “You won’t catch me wasting money like that, not for a few days when there are other things you can be spending on.”

“Or just putting the money away,” Mum said. “You never know when it would come in useful.”

Sandra looked around. As usual, her parents had only decorated the lounge, and the dusty paper streamers hung, sagging, across the ceiling. Faded tinsel wound around the miniature artificial Christmas tree. It was older than Sandra and beginning to show its age as the tinsel dropped. “You’ll need a new Christmas tree next year,” she said.

“No, it will do,” Dad said. “It’s not like you’re a little kid anymore. You’re moving out next week, for your fancy new job. I hope you’ve thought of all the expenses. You won’t be able to waste money, you know, not when you’re starting out.”

Mum nodded. “We’ve always been careful with the decorations, and it hasn’t hurt us. Some of these decorations are older than you. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”

Sandra thought of her skint friend, with the bright bells made of egg boxes and foil, the snowflake wreaths from thin sandwich bags and the newspaper garlands wound with cheap, bright tinsel. She looked back at the lights across the road. Their generous sparkle lit up the entire section of the street. “I’ll be careful.”

“Anyway, you’ll be back for Christmas next year, at least,” Dad said. “You’ll miss us.”

The lights across the road were reflected in cars on both sides of the street. The neighbours on either side had their lights reflecting with them, and mingled with the fireworks over head as they marked the New Year. The bright chaos made her smile. “I’ll be celebrating in the new flat,” Sandra said. “And I’ll have every room filled with fairy lights.”