A Penguin Comes to Tea

Keeping a Secret

“Sit here, Mrs. Weston,” said the nurse who met Barbara at the nurses’ station. “Your husband is doing fine after his operation. He’ll be up on the ward soon and then you will be able to see him.”
Barbara sat on the hard plastic chair and clutched her coat around her neck, subconsciously fending off the germs she knew ran rampant around hospitals. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the smell of disease and unwashed bodies curled around her nostrils, taunting her. Arthur wouldn’t like it here. He would want to come home as soon as possible. Everybody knew that you only went into hospital to die.
Barbara wondered how they expected patients to rest with constant humming of machinery and the bright lights, not to mention the nurses bustling in and out of their rooms clanging metal dishes and making the poor patients swallow dozens of pills.
After about twenty minutes the doors opened at the end of the hall and two orderlies came pushing a large bed down the passageway, tubes trailing and monitors bleeping. A pale, droopy version of Arthur lay on the pillow, a large bandage across his chest, his face small and lined. Barbara choked back a tear as she stood up and followed the bed into one of the rooms where a nurse uncoiled tubes and cables, plugging them into the control panel at the head of the bed and then switched on the monitors on the table nearby. She pumped the bed up higher then reached under the bed and pulled out the bag containing Arthur’s clothes, and looked around the room for a place to put them.
“I’ll hold his clothes,” said Barbara, reaching over and taking the bag. She felt comforted clutching the familiar, worn sweater and blue shirt. She had told him to wear something decent for going into hospital but he would not hear of it.
“Why do I have to dress up if I’m going to be asleep?” he had said. “Besides, I’ll have to wear one of those awful gowns.”
The nurse left the room and Barbara opened the bag, taking out the sweater, shirt and pants which she folded properly and placed on the arm of her chair. Arthur’s shoes were also in the bag and she pulled them out and set them on the floor by the bed. She thought the bag must be empty so she was surprised to feel one more thing and she drew out a small clear bag with something pink inside it. Barbara opened it up and found a set of false teeth grinning at her.
“How disgusting,” she thought, “they’ve gone and given me somebody’s teeth and the owner is probably wondering where they are.”
She went outside to the nurse’s station and handed them the bag, saying, “I think we’ve been given somebody else’s teeth.”
Back in the room Arthur was stirring and mumbling as the effects of the anaesthetic wore off. Barbara took his hand, so thin that she could feel every bone through the mottled skin.
“Arthur? It’s me. How are you feeling?”
But Arthur only mumbled and drooled, so she began to tell him news from home: how the neighbour’s dog had scratched the fence again, and what her sister had said on the phone that morning. Soon Arthur drifted off to sleep and Barbara fussed around him, straightening the bedclothes and moving the curtain. He looked smaller, somehow, as if his face had shrunk.
Barbara sat down in the chair by the bed and she must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew the evening sunlight was reflecting off the mirror on the wall next to her and Arthur was sitting up in his bed, mumbling, and feeling around himself, as if searching for something.
“What is it, Arthur?” she asked, “how are you feeling?”
“Mrrlf,” said Arthur, his cheeks pumping like bellows. He put his hand up to his face, then turned away from her.
“What is it, love? Do you need a nurse?” Barbara looked around for the call bell, then ran out in to the passage and summoned one of the nurses who came in and checked all the tubes and monitors while Arthur waved his hands around as if conducting an orchestra. He motioned Barbara away then beckoned the nurse closer and whispered something. Barbara wondered if he needed to use a bedpan or something; she could have helped him with that, after all they had been married thirty years and had no secrets.
A moment later the nurse came back in with a tray and bent over Arthur; she must be giving him some medicine, Barbara thought. Poor man, he was probably in a lot of pain.
Whatever the nurse gave him must have done him good, for as soon as she left Arthur looked more like his old self, and he turned to Barbara with a big smile.
“Hello Barb,” he said, “come to take me home?”
Barbara stayed until the end of visiting hours, then, promising to come back first thing in the morning she headed out, stopping first at the nurses’ station to thank them for looking after Arthur.
“Bye, Mrs. Weston,” said a young nurse, “I’m glad we were able to find Mr. Weston’s dentures.”
The nurse smiled at Barbara who stood gaping at her.
Dentures. All these years of marriage and she had not known. What other secrets was Arthur keeping from her? Well, she would find out in the morning.

I Know How it Feels to be an Outsider

“My father is a registered sex offender.”
The students in the auditorium gasped and began murmuring while some of the teachers looked at each other in surprise but the young girl standing at the podium just looked straight out at her audience and continued speaking in a slow, calm voice.
“You’re probably all thinking that he’s a pervert who preys on little kids and that he deserves to be locked up for life.”
Many heads nodded in agreement, some swivelling to see the reaction of the teachers standing at the back of the room. Mrs. Hughes, the English teacher, was used to the shock aspect of Speech Day; it was the one opportunity to say controversial things in front of an audience, and students sometimes crossed the line, forcing the teachers to shut down a speech, but she had not expected this from Jessica Wilson, the new girl who always sat at the back of the class, and rarely spoke.
There had been the usual sighs and sniggers from her class of teenagers when she reminded them that Speech Day was coming up.
“And before you all ask,” she had said, “yes, you do have to participate, and your speech must be your own, not one copied off the internet or from one of last year’s students, so you can use the rest of this period to think about your topics.”
The students groaned as they pulled out fresh sheets of paper and began doodling and writing about the usual subjects of pets and family holidays. Now that she thought about it, there had been some commotion in the class.
“Ugh, gross!” cried Nick Dobbs, peering over at Jessica’s paper. “Jess wants to talk about sex offenders.”
“Pervs, you mean,” said Elizabeth Culter, “like you.”
“Lock them all up,” called somebody from across the room, and several other voices began to chime in, until Mrs. Hughes quieted the class. She noticed that Jessica’s head was down, her long hair obscuring her face while she wrote.
When the bell rang the students all jumped up and gathered their belongings, moving out of the room in a herd, already talking about other things. Jessica gathered her books and left on her own before Mrs. Hughes could say anything and now here she was, giving her speech.
“He’s not like that, but I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, now that you’ve heard the term ‘sex offender’. That’s all you’ll focus on and you’ll all avoid me and whisper about me behind my back.”
The girl looked directly at the student on the end of the first row, then moved her gaze along, pausing at each student in turn. The room was silent now, and some students began to squirm in embarrassment. Mrs. Hughes glanced over at the school counsellor and raised her eyebrows, indicating the obvious: this girl needed some form of help. The counsellor nodded and Mrs. Hughes wondered if the school had a file on Jessica, whom she had always found to be so quiet and withdrawn you could almost forget she was in the class.
“That’s OK. I’ve been there before; I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be excluded.”
Jessica talked about her lack of friends and Mrs. Hughes wondered if this was a result of bullying, and if so, how long it had been going on for. She sighed; in spite of the rallies and pink shirt days, bullying was as much a part of teenage life as it had always been, and teachers were always the last to know.
“Well, let’s forget about the offender part and talk about sex,” continued Jessica, breaking into a grin.
The students sniggered; they were back onto a favourite topic, one they could relate to. The teachers rolled their eyes and some looked at their watches.
“I know you’re all interested in sex, and some of you have even tried it.”
The students laughed and all looked around, wide-eyed, as if they could spot the cavorting couples. Some pointed fingers at particular students while others whispered in the ear of the person next to them, no doubt passing along salacious pieces of gossip. Mrs. Hughes took a step forward, intending to stop the speech, but the deputy head signalled to her to wait.
“Well, my Dad had sex with my Mom,” said Jessica, “and they had me. Just like each of you is here because of an action by your parents. It’s simple biology.”
The students were now making gagging noises; sex was all fine when it was on TV or between themselves, but totally gross when connected with their parents, or any adult that they knew.
“My Dad was eighteen, the same age as some of you,” Jessica pointed at the tall, lanky boys sprawled on the chairs the in back row who cheered and waved their fists in response.
“This is getting out of hand,” whispered Mrs. Hughes to the deputy head, “should I stop the speech and move on?”
“No, I think this could be interesting,” he replied, “wait and see what point she is trying to make.”
“But my Mom was only fifteen, the same age as some of you,” and here Jessica pointed at the first row of students, and the younger ones blushed and glanced at each other.
Jessica waited until all the snickering and elbow nudging had died down and addressed her audience again.
“And because of that one time, when a teacher found them in their school’s store room, my father was declared a sex offender and placed on a national registry.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
Jessica moved away from the microphone and began to pace back and forth along the edge of the stage, her voice rising in volume as she spoke.
“My Dad is not allowed to come within 300 metres of this or any school. I take a twenty minute bus ride to come here every day just so there’s no chance that anybody who becomes my friend might try to walk home with me. I can never invite kids to my house. My Dad can’t watch me play sports, and he can’t come swimming or bowling with me. My Dad never pushed me on a swing in a playground because he is not allowed in the parks. We’ve moved house six times because the neighbours threatened him after discovering he’s a registered sex offender; one time we nearly had our house burned down.”
The students were all staring at Jessica, mesmerised by her speech. Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor, wondering how many students would seek advice after this revelation.
“You probably think this speech is all about avoiding underage sex,” Jessica continued, “but it’s not. It’s about accepting other people. People like me and my Dad. I’ve been bullied, ignored and threatened, all because of something that’s not my fault. I’ve learned to ignore it, mostly, but it can be hard. My Mom and Dad just want to lead a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
There was a moment of charged silence as Jessica walked back to the podium, gathered her notes and turned to step off the stage. Then the students at the back began to clap, and the applause spread across the room, with many students standing, and all craning their necks to follow Jessica as she took her seat in the centre of the auditorium.
“Well, how do you follow that speech?” the deputy head muttered as the next speaker stepped up to the microphone.
Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor who was already surrounded by a group of students.
“It’s not Speech Day we have to worry about,” she said. “Just wait until this news gets out to the parents.”

Moving House

I wrote this story for a competition which asked for a one page submission on the theme of Wood

“Sell this house?” said Mrs. Pig, “but my grandfather built it with his own hands! And-”
“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Pig, “he built it brick by brick, and it withstood all the huffing and puffing from the wolf, while your great uncles’ houses were demolished. We’ve all heard the story many times and I know how important this house is to your family, but can’t you see we’re running out of space?”
Mr. Pig waved his trotter at the room behind him where a dozen little piglets lay squealing in a heap on the floor while four older pigs ran around them, dribbling a soccer ball. In the corner a hanging crib held three baby pigs and underneath that several more pigs sat at a tiny table, pretending to study.
Mrs. Pig sighed. She knew the house was too small, but what could they do? The children were too scared to move out, and their family kept growing and growing.
“Look, I spoke to a new realtor today,” said Mr. Pig, producing a brochure. “We can build our own house out of wood, over beyond the pond, on that new patch of land that used to be a forest, and we can have as many rooms as we want.”
“Wood? But Great Uncle Tom’s house was made out of wood and look what happened to him!”
“No, I don’t mean a house of sticks; flimsy wobbly things – no wonder they fell down. I mean a log cabin, with interlocking pieces that you can expand by adding modules. It would be perfect for us.”
Mrs. Pig was troubled, but after studying the pictures of the large, spacious houses, and reading the realtor’s proposal, she thought that perhaps she should put her family’s needs first so she agreed to the move. Mr. Pig began designing their new house with lots of advice from the younger members of the family.
“Can I have my own room?” asked more than one little pig, only to be told they would still have to share with some of their siblings.
Mr. and Mrs. Pig made a point of supervising the construction, to be sure that the windows were installed properly and that the optional chimney was included. Each time they visited the building the younger piglets played leap frog over the steadily diminishing piles of logs; the wails when their tails became trapped between the stacks of wood made Mrs. Pig worry that the house would be a hazard but her husband assured her that the logs would form a solid wall when slotted into place.
Before she closed the door on the brick house for the last time, Mrs. Pig took down the photograph of her grandfather and his two brothers from the mantelpiece. Poor Great Uncles Tom and Bert never had a chance to raise their own families. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, then gave the key to the family of goats that had bought the house and climbed onto the back of the moving van which held all their possessions. At the new house the piglets had started a game of sliding down the long, smooth bannister, landing in giggling heaps on the floor, while Mr. Pig oversaw the unloading of the furniture. Mrs. Pig propped the photo of her grandfather up on the new mantelpiece and took a moment to absorb the strong smell of wood. She walked around the house, testing the window latches and the lock on the front door until she was satisfied that the house could be secured, then she made a pot of tea, and, ignoring the pandemonium, sat down to relax in her new kitchen.
“Look, Mama, we even have a cat flap!” cried one of the tiniest piglets, poking his head through a small swinging flap at the bottom of the kitchen door, and waving his front trotter at her.
“Goodness! Whatever do we need that for? We don’t have a cat,” said Mrs. Pig. “Is that safe?”
“Can we keep it, please?”
“All the homes have them,” said Mr. Pig, coming into the kitchen with the paperwork to sign. “It’s an added benefit, according to the brochure. The realtor said that all the neighbours love them.”
It took a very long time for the family to settle that night, with the young ones rushing around, claiming bedrooms and opening all the windows to lean out and wave at the people outside, but gradually exhaustion took over and once the house was quiet, and the door latched, Mr. and Mrs. Pig curled up together on the sofa and raised a toast to Grandfather Pig.
In the kitchen, the cat flap opened silently and a long furry arm reached inside and felt for the latch.

The Big Secret

With his cutlass clamped tightly between his teeth and two primed pistols tucked into his waistband, the pirate captain vaulted from the forecastle of the Flying Dragon onto the deck of the captured ship, avoiding the sword fight that was engaging most of the crew. He scaled the rigging like a monkey, hand over hand, pulling himself up to the topmost spar before launching himself on a rope across the deck, swinging like a pendulum over the heads of the struggling sailors, from where he was able to pick off both the ringleaders, with two carefully aimed shots.
After that, the battle was over, save for the trussing up of the defeated sailors and the symbolic walking of the plank. The pirates had discovered that it was more lucrative to ransom captured sailors than push them into the sea, but as the sailors did not know this, the pirates enjoyed lowering the plank over the gunwale and watching the prisoners cower as they teetered on the bouncing board, pleading for their lives.
“You won’t get away with this!” shouted one of the victims, as he was led down to the hold, “there’s a bigger ship coming after us and when they catch you, you’ll all hang!”
The pirates laughed and set to looting everything of value from the ship.
“Shall we scuttle her?” asked one of the pirates, getting ready to chop a hole in the side of the captured ship, as was their usual custom.
“No, let’s keep this ship,” said the captain, so the pirates raised their own flag on her and set sail, in convoy, for the sheltered bay where they had established their winter quarters.
It was a very convenient hideaway. Wide sandbanks protected the bay, and tall cliffs provided a good lookout, making it hard for enemies to approach unseen, whilst a tree lined river that flowed into the bay provided fresh water. The only problem was the women who had taken up permanent residence by the sea shore, and who had re-buried the pirates’ treasure, refusing to divulge its new hiding place.
“Avast, ye landlubbers,” cried One-eyed Pete, standing up in the longboat and shaking his fist at the women standing on the beach as two junior pirates rowed him ashore. “This is our camp, so move off, if you don’t want to become shark bait.”
The two women laughed, and waved their weapons: a pistol and a nasty looking axe. The longboat slid onto the sand and Pete jumped out, raising his hands in the air as one woman pointed the pistol at him, while the other lady minced up to him and, dropping the axe on his toes, put her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek. One-eyed Pete cursed, and kept his good eye on the pistol, worried that it might go off, but then he noticed the medallion hanging around her neck.
“Hey, that’s mine! Where did you get that, you little strumpet!” he shouted, but had to step backwards into the water as the woman advanced on him waving her pistol.
“That’s our treasure!” said Pete.
“And this is our land,” said the woman, gesturing around her. “You can visit here, and re-supply your boat, but you leave us in peace, and in return, we keep your treasure safe.”
While Pete gnashed his teeth and stomped in the sand, keeping his distance from the women, another longboat slid onto the seaweed, bringing several more pirates, armed with the usual cutlasses and pistols. The captain leapt ashore, but instead of disarming the welcome party he swept his hat off his head and made a smooth bow.
“Well, my lovelies, have you missed me?”
“Captain Jasper, come back to visit us again, have you?” said axe woman, kissing him, and winking at Pete, who curled and uncurled his fists, glaring at both women.
“I couldn’t stay away, darling,” replied the captain, squeezing her round bottom, which earned him a clout on the head from the axe.
The longboats made several trips to and from the ships, transporting the captured sailors who were made to walk up the beach and into a hut made of stout logs with a door secured by a heavy bolt.
“Not more mouths to feed,” said axe woman, “it’s bad enough having you louts here once a month, scaring all the fish away.”
“Don’t worry, Marianne, darling; they’ll be gone as soon as we get paid for them, and then you can have your house back,” said the captain.
“House, indeed!” she harrumphed, but she swung her hips as she walked back into the trees.
With the prisoners stowed out of sight, the pirates got down to the serious business of celebrating their haul, while the women, now numbering several dozen, listened wide-eyed to their tales of adventure. By the time two casks of rum had been emptied and the last cooking pot had been licked clean, there was not a sound to be heard from the beach but snoring.
A few hours later, the sun rose slowly, majestically, almost unnoticed, sending out fingers of light, tentative at first, soft pink hues as if testing the terrain and then longer, more definite rays, broken only by puffs of clouds, which reached to the farthest corner of the shoreline, turning each blade of dune grass and each strand of seaweed a brilliant green, where once they had appeared black and sombre, and dispatching the morning dew into a gentle mist that rose to the heavens in the endless cycle of water and cloud.
Down at the beach the pirates lay in a drunken heap, eye patches askew, cutlasses tossed aside, while crabs scuttled into and out of their discarded boots. A couple of the women had lit the cooking fires and were brewing coffee, with much banging of pots and muttering about good-for-nothing layabouts, while the birds, who had been up for hours, cawed to each other from the tree tops until a sudden disturbance sent them all flying away.
A moment later, a young boy came racing down the hillside onto the beach, scattering sand onto the sleeping pirates and yelping with excitement.
“A ship! A ship! It’s coming around the headland!”
“What sort of ship?” asked Marianne, throwing a bucket of water over Jasper, who sat up with a start, reaching for his pistol.
“A big ship,” said the boy, “it has guns at the side.”
“Who was on lookout duty?” roared Jasper, kicking the nearest pirate, who grunted and then covered his head with his hands as Marianne threw water on him and his companion. Either the cold water or the unwelcome news had a sobering effect on the pirates who began to scramble up and pull their boots on, sending the crabs flying.
“There must have been a warship following the ship we boarded,” said One-eyed Pete, “that’s why the prisoners said help would be coming soon. Now what do we do? We can’t get the Flying Dragon out of the bay in this low tide.”
“You men take your ship up the river,” said Marianne, “and leave the warship to us, but bring me some rope.”
“How long do we have?” Jasper asked the boy who had brought the news.
“The big ship was rounding the point, and it seemed to be coming fast,” the boy said, his eyes bulging out of his head.
The pirates struggled to their feet and collected their cutlasses. The more sober ones were already rowing out to the Flying Dragon and shouting for the sails to be raised and they quickly steered the pirate ship into the mouth of the river where it was concealed by the tall trees, leaving the looted ship anchored alone in the bay, still flying the pirate flag. The women cleared away all signs of revelry from the beach and then trussed each other up like turkeys and waddled into the wooden hut where they knocked the terrified prisoners unconscious.
“Drag some of those green branches over here and set fire to them, to make smoke,” shouted a woman to one of the pirates, “but mind you don’t cook us – put some water on the roof first!”
As the building began to burn, the women began to wail and screech like banshees and the remaining pirates sneaked off into the trees.
It was not long before the warship arrived and soldiers landed on the beach and rushed up to the burning building, carrying buckets of water to put out the flames, creating more clouds of smoke, while the distressed damsels all cried at once about the evil, depraved pirates who had tied them up, and worse, and clung to the soldiers in gratitude for their rescue. In all the commotion the group of unconscious sailors went unnoticed, and so did the small posse of pirates who swam out to the captured ship, clambering on board in time to repel a boarding party of soldiers.
By the time the soldiers who had remained on the warship realized that the pirates had overcome their comrades the tide had turned and the warship was stuck in the soft sand, her cannon pointing uselessly at a sandbank.
Pirates swarmed out of the trees and overpowered the soldiers on the beach, while the women resumed shrieking and flailing about with smouldering branches. Within an hour the pirates had roped the soldiers together and were unloading the supplies from the warship, while the women huddled to one side, whispering among themselves.
“This is treason!” cried a soldier.
“No, this is piracy,” said One-eyed Pete, grinning.
“I ask that you spare the women,” said another soldier, who had obviously been brought up on tales of chivalry.
“Spoils of war!” cried one of the pirates, drawing a finger across his throat and making a gurgling sound, which caused several of the soldiers to flinch, and shuffle backwards.
It took some time to ferry all the soldiers out to the captured ship, where they were laid out on the deck in rows, like sausages, each with a cannon ball positioned on a delicate part of his anatomy, and then the pirates and the women sat down to parley.
“They’re our prisoners; we lured them onto land,” said the women.
“They came searching for us, so they’re ours,” said the pirates, “besides, we swam out to the ship, and we fought the soldiers. All you women did was weep and wail.”
“We were being burnt to a crisp!” said one woman, pointing to the soot marks on her face.
“It seems to me,” said Jasper, rubbing his hand along his stubbly chin, “that we should come to an agreement. If some of us were to stay here permanently – for protection, you understand – then perhaps we could share the ransom money.”
“Stay here?” repeated the pirates, with a mixture of horror and excitement. “What would we do here?”
“Well you could build me a house, for a start,” said one of the younger women, sidling up to the pirate and putting her arm around him. “This is a great place to live.”
The other pirates whooped and slapped their thighs, which seemed like an invitation for other women to make similar offers.
“But won’t the Flying Dragon be shorthanded?” said one pirate. “And how do we know you’ll come back for us?”
“Oh, we’ll be back,” whispered Jasper, “after all, the treasure is here somewhere, and it’s your job to find out from these sirens where they’ve hidden it.”
And so, gradually, a small settlement grew up around the bay. Several times a year the pirate ship called in for supplies; sometimes one or two of the pirates would stay and settle down, and sometimes one or two of the settlers who wanted adventure, or just to get away from their women, would join the pirates. The young boys were always eager to spend time on the pirate ship, returning home months later with tall tales of plunder and pillage. The girls were content to stay in the bay, waiting for their sweethearts to come back to them, for the girls shared a secret which they guarded fiercely and would tell to nobody, even to this day: the secret of the buried treasure.

It Wasn’t My Idea

It wasn’t my idea to take Uncle Brad’s truck out onto the ice, but I guess everything that happened was my fault.
I had never been anywhere so cold. My hands and feet felt disconnected from the rest of me, and my nose felt as if it would shatter into a thousand pieces if you just tapped it lightly. I wore layers and layers of clothes, even inside the house, and when we went outside, past snowdrifts higher than you could see over, I jumped up and down, waving my arms like pistons while my breath formed clouds that drifted away into the dark.
“How do you live up here all year round?” I asked Felix, after I’d been there a week.
He shrugged and said, “You get used to it, I suppose.”
There was no way I could get used to living in a place that was dark half of the year and cold nearly all of the time, so I hoped Dad would hurry up and finish whatever it was he had come up to do so that we could go home.
My cousin Felix’s idea of fun was to grab a couple of beers and sit in his friend Jason’s room, drinking and smoking and watching reality TV. I went with him the first time, so as to be friendly, but I soon got bored, while Felix and Jason got drunk and passed out. I suppose I would end up getting drunk if all I did was watch reality TV at sub-zero temperatures.
“Hey, how about we drive over to Beaverton?” Felix said the day after the big storm.
It had snowed for over a day, with the wind shifting the snow into piles, so that it was almost impossible to make out any of the portacabins that served as houses in the small settlement, but today was clear, with a blue sky stretching for miles in every direction, while the sun did its best to warm up the permafrost. I was not sure I trusted Felix in the truck, but I did not want to be left alone while he and Jason went off so I struggled into my coat and boots, pulled my hat over my head and at the last minute remembered my gloves. You never go anywhere without gloves up here.
We never made it to Beaverton. The fresh snow was piled thick on the hard packed strip that served as a road and the truck kept getting stuck and then stalling. At least digging it out of the snow kept me warm; too warm, as after a while I could feel the sweat trickling down my back inside my woolen undershirt. By the time we got going, the last of the daylight was fading, with the sky changing from a pale blue to a dark purple with strips of orange. The first stars flickered in the sky like distant beacons and soon we were in total blackness with only the headlamps of the truck reflecting off the snow.
I had never been anywhere so totally dark before, other than hiding inside a closet, when I was younger, but this was a wide open space, with the land stretching out forever in every direction.
“We’d better turn back,” I said, wondering if we would have to dig our way over the snow lumps again.
“Nah, this road goes all the way to Beaverton. We’ll just keep going and crash at my buddy Dave’s place,” said Felix, while Jason nodded and opened a beer. I wondered what my Dad would say when he discovered I was not at the house, but I figured we could call from Beaverton and let them know where we were.
I stared out the fogged up window at the inky blackness and saw an arc of green shimmer across the sky.
“What was that?” I asked, pointing to the spot.
Felix and Jason peered through the darkness as a curtain of green light pulsed across the sky.
“Oh, thash’s the Northern Lights,” slurred Jason, who appeared to be well on the way to becoming drunk.
“That’s so cool,” I said, gazing at the rippling colours that appeared to dance across the sky.
“We get that stuff when the sky is clear,” said Felix.
The road passed between a line of trees and I twisted my neck to keep sight of the display in the sky, peering through the tree branches.
“Stop jiggling around,” said Jason, as I squirmed in the back seat. “Can’t you stop the truck and let him out to have a good look?”
“I’ll drive out onto the lake,” Felix said, swinging the wheel hard over to the side, which made Jason fall against the door and curse loudly.
The truck passed through a gap in the trees and bounced along a small track, without getting stuck once, and then rolled out onto a smooth flat sheet of ice in a large clearing. Felix stopped the truck and jumped down onto the ice.
“Welcome to Beaver Lake.”
“Is it safe?” I asked, looking across the ice covered lake.
“The ice is as thick as a door post,” said Jason. “My Dad comes up here ice-fishing and he has to drill a huge hole to get down to the water.”
I climbed out of the truck and stood on the ice, which seemed solid enough, then looked up at the sky, where the green swathes of light flickered like flames above the tree tops. It covered almost half of the sky, with the stars shining through the light like pin pricks. Jason and Felix began to argue about something and I walked away from the truck until I was standing right in the centre of the lake, craning my neck upwards to see all of the sky at once. I felt as if I was drinking in the light, trying to absorb it all in one swallow. Maybe it was worth living out here in the middle of nowhere if you got to see sights like this.
I could hear the others shouting but I was not ready to go back yet. I wanted to stay and watch the lights for as long as possible as the tendrils of colour twisted and floated, as if touching each one of the trees before moving on. I wished I could take a picture of the sky but I had given up carrying my phone when I discovered it did not work up here.
“C’mon man, this thing’s shifting!”
The honking of the truck’s horn jolted me out of my dream and I began walking back towards the truck. The floating lights were just bright enough that I could see the truck moving and I thought maybe Felix had begun driving off without me but then it slumped forward at an odd angle and I heard a loud crack followed by shouts.
“It’s going down!”
I saw Felix jump out of the cab just as the front of the truck sank slowly into the ice. I began to run, slipping and sliding on the ice, then slowed to a fast walk as I saw Felix back away from the lilting truck. There was no sign of Jason.
“What happened?” I asked, “Where’s Jason?”
“Oh, man, that ice shifted,” said Felix. “We must have stopped over an old fishing hole, where the ice is thinner.”
“Where’s Jason?” I shouted, looking around the truck.
“Inside the cab,” pointed Felix. “He went to get another beer.”
Damn those beers, I thought. Can’t they do anything without beer? I should never have come on this trip. Placing one foot carefully in front of the other, I slowly moved towards the truck and peered in the passenger side window. I could see Jason moving, so I reached for the door handle, but the door was locked.
“Jason!” I shouted. “Can you hear me? Unlock the door!”
The arms moved a bit more but the door remained locked.
“Felix, give me the keys. We need to unlock this door to let Jason out.”
I went back to Felix who was standing by the side of the truck, holding his head in his hands, and felt in his pocket for the key, but it was empty.
“My Dad’s going to kill me,” he muttered.
“Felix – the key. Where is it?”
Felix pointed at the truck, which gave another lurch and slid farther into the lake. I looked down at the ice between my feet, wondering if cracks were spreading, but I could not see anything.
“Come on Felix, we’ve got to get Jason out of the truck.”
I tugged at Felix’s sleeve and dragged him over to the other side of the truck. Jason was no longer moving.
“Help me open the door,” I said, pulling at the driver’s door. The truck was now leaning over on a slant, with both front wheels under the ice, and the driver’s door almost level with the edge of the hole.
I yanked the door open as far as I could and called out to Jason.
“Come on, quickly, come this way.”
I heard whimpering from inside the truck and looked in to see dark water swirling by the pedals and Jason clutching his leg.
“Felix, give me a hand here, we’ve got to pull him out.”
Somehow, I pushed Felix towards the open door and made him grab hold of Jason’s arm and tug, while I pulled off my gloves and reached down into the icy water. I gasped as the cold hit my fingers and numbed them, but I wiggled them and felt around the pedals. Jason’s bootstraps were caught on the gas pedal. I pulled and worked at it as my fingers became number and number and the truck shifted and settled, but I could not get the straps untied.
“I’ll have to take his boot off,” I said, yanking my hands out of the water and shoving them in my armpits. I wondered if my fingers would have the strength to work Jason’s boot off his foot before they turned numb.
“Here, move over,” said Felix, who appeared to have recovered his senses.
He plunged his hands under the water and a moment later camp up with Jason’s boot. I grabbed Jason by the arms and pulled him over to the door. Between us we dragged him through the small opening and laid him down on the ice, his bare foot shining white in the eerie green light.
“Pull him away from the truck,” said Felix, climbing onto the back of the truck, “I need to get something.”
I took hold of Jason’s shoulders and pulled him away from the truck and a moment later the truck gave a final groan and sank into the hole in the ice, causing the displaced water to slosh over the surface of the ice towards us. Felix, who had jumped from the truck just as it tipped over, was scrambling on the ice close to the hole, clutching a box, and he slowly crawled over to us.
My gloves were in the truck, along with Jason’s boot, so I stuck my fingers into my mouth and blew on them, but I could not feel any warmth. I knew we should put something on Jason’s exposed foot but my hands hurt too much to do anything.
“What’s that?” I asked Felix, when he came near and began to open the box.
“Flares,” he said, taking out a long stick and ripping open the end. “We’ll fire some of these off and somebody will come and find us.”
With a practised twist Felix set off the flare which shot into the sky like a rocket, leaving a bright long tail of fire. Up, up it went, until it exploded in a shower of flame. A single point of light set against a backdrop of green and purple. Would anybody see it? I wished the lights would go away and make the sky dark again so that our flare would be visible.
Felix took his scarf off and wrapped it round Jason’s bare foot, then pulled his friend into a sitting position.
“C’mon, man, we’ve got to get you moving. Can’t go to sleep out here.”
Jason shook his head and mumbled something. Felix lifted one of Jason’s arms and I took the other. Together we dragged him across the ice to the edge of the lake.
“Now what do we do?” I asked, wondering if we would have to carry Jason all the way to the road.
“Now we wait,” said Felix, “and make sure we keep warm.”
“What about a radio?” I asked, remembering I had seen Uncle Brad use one earlier.
“It was in the truck; it’s gone now,” said Felix, who was rubbing Jason’s foot through the scarf.
I looked around at the looming shapes of the trees, surrounding us like an armed guard. Above us the lights continued their display, but it was no longer the awesome spectacle it had been; now it was as if the heavens were laughing at us, and our helplessness.
Rescue came, eventually, and Jason’s foot survived the ordeal. Felix got into a lot of trouble for taking the truck and losing it but I think the insurance paid out something. Dad and I went home soon afterwards and the biting cold became just a memory. People often ask me if I saw the Northern Lights during my stay up north and I shake my head; if it had not been for me wanting to get a better look at the lights, Uncle Brad would still have his truck.

This is a Map to Where I Live

“This is a map to where I live,” said the leprechaun, struggling furiously to escape, as he drew spidery lines on a crumpled piece of paper using a stick and some strange liquid he had taken out of his coat pocket.
“And you’re expecting me to let you go in exchange for this?” Daniel held on tightly to the little man’s legs. “You must think I was born yesterday.”
“Well that’s all yer getting so ye can make the most of it,” huffed the leprechaun, going suddenly limp, then trying to bolt for freedom, but finding his legs still clamped in an iron grip by Daniel.
“So what will you give us if we do find our way to your house?” asked Patrick, “a wish or a bag of gold?”
The leprechaun waggled his head; it was impossible to tell if he was agreeing or disagreeing.
“You’re supposed to give us the gold now,” growled Daniel, “we caught you fair and square.”
He shook the leprechaun in the air just to prove it, provoking squeals of terror from the captive; whether real or imagined the boys could not tell.
“Well I can’t give it to ye if I don’t have it, now can I?” wheedled the little man. “Be reasonable. What sort of creature goes out to breakfast lugging a great big sack of gold around? Gold’s heavy, you know; can’t be just taking it all over the place for walks. Anybody might get a-hold of it.”
“Yes, but we’ve got a-hold of you instead, and you’re going to tell us where the gold is,” said Daniel, bringing the leprechaun’s face right up to his own so that they could see the whites of each other’s eyes.
“Like I said, there’s the map. Ye’ll be alright if ye follow the road I marked.”
The little man threw the map to the ground and crossed his arms around his chest. Patrick and Daniel reached out for the map at the same time, causing Daniel to loosen his grip on the spindly leg. It was enough. The captive wriggled free, and was gone in an instant.
“Hey! Come back!” shouted Daniel, but all he heard in reply was the wind swishing through the grass. “I should never have looked away,” he muttered and turned angrily to the map.
“What’s this? I can’t see anything!”
The liquid was evaporating, removing all trace of the drawing. The map was swiftly becoming just another crumpled piece of paper.
Patrick reached down, scooped up a handful of sand and threw it onto the paper. The grains of sand stuck to the liquid, and remained in place even after the inky substance had completely faded away.
“Hey, that’s cool – where did you learn that?” asked Daniel, staring at the still incomprehensible drawing, which now looked like a worn piece of sandpaper.
“We’re dealing with the little folk here,” said Patrick, “no telling what they’ll get up to so as to trick you out of their gold.”
“So let’s get going.”
The two boys looked at the map. A series of lines, criss-crossing each other, filled the paper, with no other markings, and no start or end point.
“That little rascal has tricked us!” said Daniel.
“Wait,” said Patrick, “we know leprechauns live in hollow trees, and we know that they are shoe-makers. Maybe that will give us some clues.”
“This map doesn’t look like a tree or a shoe,” said Daniel, gazing around the field, “and we’ll never find him again in this long grass. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off him when I had him. Leprechauns vanish if you stop looking at them.”
Patrick didn’t say anything. He turned the paper over and over, then folded it and unfolded it, and then rolled it up, all the time looking around the field.
“Just my luck,” muttered Daniel to himself. “Nobody will ever believe I really caught a leprechaun and I don’t even get a wish.”
“Hey,” said Patrick, “I think I’ve solved it!” He had rolled the paper into a tube and now held it out in front of Daniel. “Look, the little fellow did give us a map. I think these markings are the bark on his tree.”
Daniel looked closer. With the paper rolled up, the trails of sand really did look like cracks in bark, with bumps for the knots and branches.
“Great,” he said, shrugging, “and how do you propose we find the right tree? There must be over forty around here!”
“Easy,” said Patrick, digging around in his pockets, “leprechauns love shiny objects, so we just lay a few around, like this watch with an alarm, which I will now set. When the leprechaun takes the watch we just listen for the alarm and then we’ll know which tree is his. While we’re waiting we can check out the bark patterns on the trees.”
Daniel shook his head, but as he did not have a better idea he went along with his friend’s plan. Patrick set the alarm for one hour, then left the watch on a stone, together with a couple of bottle tops and a shiny coin. The two boys retreated to the edge of the field and began to study the bark on the trees. It was boring work. The bark all looked the same to Daniel, and as the morning wore on the map looked less and less like bark, and more and more like a messy piece of paper, but as Patrick was diligently working his way through the line of trees he felt he ought to do the same. Every ten minutes one of them would go and check the rock for the bait.
On his third trip Daniel found the rock bare.
“It’s gone!” he shouted to Patrick.
“Shh, we don’t want to give the game away,” said Patrick.
Daniel thought the leprechaun was probably watching their every move but he was too excited to care.
“How long before the alarm goes off?”
“Um, I’m not sure,” said Patrick slowly, “that was my only watch.”
The two boys looked at each other then burst out laughing.
“Come on,” said Patrick, “let’s stand in the middle of the trees so we’ll be sure to hear it.”
The boys moved farther into the trees and Patrick continued examining the bark patterns while Daniel looked anxiously around. It seemed an age before they heard a faint ringing sound from somewhere to their right. Both boys dashed through the trees until they stood under the one the noise was coming from. There was no hollow at the base, but the noise seemed to be coming from high up the tree.
“I didn’t know leprechauns could climb trees,” said Daniel.
“Me neither,” said Patrick, “but I’m about to find out.”
Gripping the trunk firmly, Patrick climbed up the tree and was soon high up, hidden among the leaves.
“Wow! There’s a real hoard up here!”
Daniel hopped around on the ground, wanting to climb the tree too when suddenly he heard a squawk, and a loud beating of wings. A large bird swooped down into the tree at just about the same height as Patrick. Daniel heard sounds of a scuffle and a moment later Patrick crashed down through the foliage, one hand grabbing at branches as he fell, the other clutching his watch.
“What happened?” asked Daniel, glad that he had not climbed up after Patrick.
“It was a magpie,” said Patrick, “not the leprechaun, and he nearly had me.”
The boys sat in the grass, feeling despondent. Daniel imagined how close he had been to getting the gold, if only he had not looked away. He poked idly at the map with a stick, then he rolled over onto his stomach. The map lay on the grass in front of him, and he could see the line of trees beyond it.
Suddenly he sat up.
“Patrick, look!” Daniel jabbed his finger at the map. “Lie down here, with your head level with the top of the long grass. Now look at the map and the line of trees – what do you see?”
“You’re right! These lines aren’t bark markings but the trees in their right position, and the one at the end must be-”
“The leprechaun’s!”
The boys set off at a run, bent over double to keep their heads level with the top of the grass, so as to check their progress against the map. They slowed when they approached the last tree and Daniel was sure he could hear the soft tap-tapping of a hammer. He lunged forward towards the sound and a flurry of green showed they had been right.
“You weren’t expecting us, were you?” asked Daniel, reaching to grab the leprechaun’s leg, but this time the little man was too quick and he darted out of the way, behind the tree. Daniel made sure not to take his eyes off him.
“Sure I did, jest haven’t had time to put the kettle on for the old cup of tay yet.”
The leprechaun lifted a big heavy kettle from a hollow in the tree trunk, waved it around until steam came out the spout, and set it back on the ground, where it sat, bubbling happily without any obvious source of heat.
“Been too busy counting the gold have you?” asked Daniel. “Where is it then?”
“What about the wish?” asked the leprechaun, “have you forgotten about that?”
Daniel and Patrick looked at each other. They had not forgotten.
“I think we’ll take the gold,” said Daniel.
“Ah, sure they all say that,” said the leprechaun, “they all think the gold will buy them everything they want, but they don’t know what trouble it is to spend leprechaun gold. No sir. Can’t just walk into a shop and buy fries and a drink with a solid gold piece – ye’d be arrested for counterfeiting. No, ye have to go and change it all at a bank, good and proper, and then they’d want to know where you got it from, in case you were laundering it, and they’d charge you commission.”
The leprechaun shrugged and turned away, “then the old historians and archaeologists and anthropologists and journalists would all want to see it – ye’d be lucky to keep a tenth of it. Ye’d be better off making a wish – then you could ask for paper money, like you’re used to. But if gold is what you want…”
The little leprechaun was hopping from foot to foot, just out of reach, but he did not run away while Daniel continued to glare at him. The boys had a hurried conference.
“What do you think?” asked Daniel, “I think he’s cheating us.”
“Maybe,” said Patrick, “but he has a point about the problems we’ll have with the gold.” He turned to the leprechaun. “If we ask for a wish can we make one each?”
The leprechaun put his hand on his hips and glowered. “Is it torturing me ye are?”
“A wish each or the gold,” said Daniel.
“Very well,” sighed the little man, “make your two wishes and then close your eyes and count to ten.”
“And have you disappear again? No way!” said Daniel.
“Fine, make the wishes, then shake hands on it.”
Daniel though for a moment. “I want a thousand, no a million dollars,” he said, “in notes of ten,” he added, to make quite sure.
“And I’ll have my own car,” said Patrick, “a red, sports one.”
The leprechaun screwed up his face for a moment and appeared to be concentrating hard. “Now shake each other’s hands,” he said.
Daniel and Patrick turned towards each other with hands outstretched, and as they did, their eyes moved off the leprechaun for an instant.
The little man vanished.
“Hey!” shouted Daniel, “what about our wishes? We’re entitled to them – fair is fair!”
The grass around the tree tinkled with laughter.
“Nothing is fair!” came the leprechaun’s voice from somewhere in the air. “I said you could make a wish and you did – so what are you complaining about? I never said I’d grant it for you! Hee, hee!”
And the grassy glade exploded with peals of laughter.

A Very Bad Day

There is something about the idea of finding a leg that intrigues me – why else would I keep coming back to this opening line?

When I discovered the leg I knew I was in for a very bad day. It was in a clear plastic bag labelled as first class hand luggage and I was supposed to stash it somewhere in the cabin.
“Why can’t it go in the hold?” I asked, “or at least be put in a box or covered up somewhere?”
“Regulations,” was the answer – it always is.
So I took the leg onto the plane before the cleaning staff had even finished clearing up from the previous flight and I put it at the back of the hanging closet – the one where we usually put the suit carriers – and I moved the first aid kit in front of it to hide it.
“So, why is somebody transporting a leg on a plane, anyway?” I asked the Chief Purser as we got ready for the flight.
“It belongs to one of the passengers in first class. It’s his uncle’s leg and he’s bringing it back home for burial.”
“Oh. Is he leaving the rest of the body behind or is that following on another flight?” asked Felicity, another attendant, her eyes wide with shock.
I had visions of the dead uncle being repatriated limb by limb and I hoped I would not have to see any more of him.
“No, apparently the leg was all that was left of him after an accident and the nephew wants to take it back to the family.”
I wondered whether the customs people at the point of arrival had been forewarned, but that was not my problem, so I set about getting the aircraft ready for boarding. I could hear the noise building up in the departure lounge as passengers were parted from their oversized hand luggage. It happened every time on the journeys to West Africa; people tried to bring sacks of potatoes and even live chickens onto the plane. It is a wonder we ever get off the ground in time.
“Welcome aboard. Good morning. Down this way on your right. Please put that in the overhead bin.”
I fixed my smile on my face and tried to hurry the people along as they boarded the plane dragging enormous cases and clutching overflowing bags, with small children bent over under backpacks almost as big as themselves. I hoped we would be able to stash everything away securely. Felicity had told me once a family tried to bring a goat onto the plane with them; that must have been quite a spectacle.
I glanced back at the Executive cabin where Felicity was serving the first round of drinks and I wondered who the owner of the leg was, and how we were going to get it off the plane at the other end without the other passengers noticing. I hoped the nephew had brought a large empty suitcase with him, or even a coat to cover it up.
“Excuse me, is there somewhere I can hang this?”
A man who clearly had expected to be upgraded stood in front of me clutching a large garment bag that would definitely not fit in the overhead bins.
“Certainly,” I said, trying to maintain my smile, “let me take it for you.”
I waved him on to his seat, not wanting him to watch me putting his suit away in case he went to retrieve it at the end of the flight and found the leg instead. Perhaps the nephew would be the last to get off the plane, that way nobody would see him with the leg, except that he would walk into the crowded terminal and be seen by everybody. No, that would not do. He would have to get off first, but then, how would we get the leg off the plane unseen?
I sighed and continued to welcome all the passengers, checking their seat belts, moving their enormously heavy suitcases and trying to get people to switch seats so as to reunite families. I was exhausted and we had not even got off the ground.
Once we were airborne and we started serving the food I had to watch that none of the other flight attendants stashed a trolley in the hanging closet – sometimes they do that if they want to move one trolley in front of another. All went well until a small child cut himself on one of the food tray lids and needed a bandage.
“I’ll just get the first aid kit,” I heard one of the flight attendants say, moving towards the closet, trailed by a wailing child and his anxious mother who was clutching a baby in her other arm. “I think I saw it in here somewhere.”
“Let me get that,” I said, thrusting a coffee pot into my colleague’s hand. “You go and calm the child and get the family reseated.”
I wanted to get everyone away from the closet so I grabbed the first aid kit and followed the sniffling child back to his seat then waited while he decided between a Batman and a ninja bandage. As I was putting the kit back together I looked up the aisle and saw the owner of the suit carrier looking into the closet.
Forgetting the first aid kit I rushed back up the plane towards the closet and its gruesome cargo, only to be stopped by the food trolley coming out of the galley.
“I must get by,” I hissed at the other flight attendant and pushed the trolley back into the galley, causing one of the orange juice cartons to topple over.
“Sorry,” I mouthed, then reached my arm across the entrance of the closet.
“Excuse me sir, but we don’t allow passengers to access this closet during the flight.”
“But my suit is in there and I need something from the pocket.”
“I’m sorry, you will have to wait until we arrive at our destination,” I began, but then realised that if he really wanted his suit he would draw attention to the closet with his arguing, which was the last thing I wanted.
“Er, perhaps I can get the garment carrier for you?”
I leaned in and unhooked the bag, making sure that the leg was still safely stowed away at the very back.
“Here you are sir, now we do ask that you move away from this area as it is an emergency exit.”
Holding his elbow firmly I escorted the man back to his seat where the garment bag flopped over onto the person next to him, and I made a hasty retreat back to guard the closet. Only another hour, I thought, and then we’d be safely there. I glanced at the movie and saw the closing credits rolling down the screen and soon people began to struggle up out of their seats to visit the washroom. It happens every time; they should really stagger the movie showings by row to prevent this mad rush as sometimes the line-up stretches into Executive Class.
Just then the plane dipped and the ‘fasten seat belts’ sign came on followed by the ping of the safety announcement.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are experiencing some turbulence so could you please all return to your seats and ensure your seat belts are securely fastened.”
As usual the people at the front of the washroom line stayed where they were, and those farther back began to return to their seats. There must have been around twelve people standing up when the plane lurched again and dipped to one side, causing the passengers to lean against the seats and coffee cups to roll around the floor. I looked up in horror to see the leg come sliding out of the closet and come to rest in front of a young woman who opened her mouth and screamed the most blood curdling sound.
I was right; it was, indeed, a very bad day.

It was Time to Change Schools Again

It was time to change schools again. I would probably be expelled for starting the fire in the chemistry lab, but it was such a spectacular explosion that it was worth it. The magnesium strips burst into an incandescent whiteness that seared my eyeballs, even with the safety glasses I had put on, while the copper filings sputtered into blue and green showers and made me wish I had thought to put them in a tube to make a firework. The glass bottles containing some of the solutions began to explode just as the overhead sprinklers came on and showered the whole room with water and by then a small crowd had assembled outside the lab, wondering who the culprit was.
Mr. Denby, the head of science, did not even ask what had happened; he searched the crowd for my face, then pointed towards his office. I grinned at my friends and walked into the small room, and out of another chapter of my life.
I have loved flames ever since we sat around a campfire back when I was three years old and my father showed me how chestnuts would pop if left in the heat long enough, while my mother transformed small cubes of yellow corn into white fluffy treats, accompanied by a staccato of shots. I sat up all evening, watching the orange flames dance on the chopped wood and change it from a yellow brown colour to glowing red and finally to dark black with a wispy beard of white ash.
As we grew older my father would build enormous bonfires out in the open field and my brother and I would compete to see who could create the most sparks and the loudest noise. We burned some weird things in our time, such as a mannequin from a store, whose arm waved a crazy goodbye as it melted; old aerosol cans, which made a huge bang and half a sofa which sent up clouds of black smoke so thick that it could be seen from three blocks away. We coughed for days after that fire, and that was the first time the police visited our house.
“No matches at school,” my mother warned, when she dropped me off at my first elementary school. “And no lighters, incendiary devices or candles, either,” she added after the first week.
It did not take long for me to work out how to make a flame with a magnifying glass and the sun, and I can still remember Lucy Shen running away howling to the teacher after I burned her picture of a tree. My magnifying glass was confiscated, but I soon found that spectacles, broken bottles and even cleverly arranged plastic could work just as well.
When I was eight I burned my first real structure: an old playhouse in the park. One of the doors had fallen off its hinges and not many kids played in it any more since the city had put up the shiny metal monkey bars, so I thought nobody would mind if I got rid of it. Starting the fire took a long time, because the roof was still wet through from all the rain, but once it caught and the flames licked up the sides, reaching higher and higher with their flickering points all stretching up to the stars, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Then the firemen came and poured water all over it and my lovely flames shrank and dwindled to nothing, leaving a single black wall standing amid a pile of singed planks.
After that I was sent to the counsellor.
“What do you see when you look at a flame, Kyle?” Mrs. Jakes asked, while she scribbled in her folder.
“Uh, flames, I guess,” I said, wondering if her glass flower vase would bend light enough to make a fire.
“Yes, but what do you feel?”
“I dunno, like I’ve had a cup of coffee, I guess.”
And so it continued, year after year. How could I explain to her the surging of energy that rushed through me when I saw the flames leap into life from a small spark? The way the flames danced, as if to a hidden rhythm, never following the same pattern? That the roar of the fire and the crackle of the burning wood spoke to me like a symphony?
My teachers did not understand this either. At first they treated me as if I were slow and fragile, then, after the first burning incident, they were more cautious, and eventually they all became afraid of me. That was usually when I was asked to leave the school, but I did not care; school was boring. But finally I got to high school and discovered the chemistry lab and a whole new world opened up before me.
It had been a good display, I decided, as I waited in Mr. Denby’s office. Maybe I should have put some of the paper closer to the centre of the fire, or perhaps opened up some of the Buntzen burners. Oh, well, there was always next time.

Finally, We Were Both Free

I heard a loud pop and felt as if I had been pushed in the chest and there, standing in front of me was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Except that he was naked.
I screamed and he screamed back, then I threw my apron at him and covered my eyes with my hands.
“Put that on, quickly,” I said, “and I’ll get you some proper clothes in a minute.”
Two thousand, one hundred and forty three frogs I had kissed, and now the moment I had been waiting for had come and I had forgotten to bring the clothes. The prince – for I assumed he was a prince, or why else would he have been transformed into a frog – held my milking apron in front of him and looked at me with a frown. I suppose he could not remember much about life in the palace, it had been so long since his enchantment, and he had probably never even dressed himself.
“Here,” I said, wrapping the apron around him and tying it off in the front. He looked better covered up, although his long hair definitely needed brushing and his teeth looked a bit green, but there was something in his face that made me wonder if his brain had remained in the frog state.
“I’m Rachel,” I said, holding out my hand.
The prince stared at my hand and then looked at me. I suppose I should have curtsied or something, but it is hard to feel humble in front of a man wearing your own apron. I grasped his hand and shook it, saying, “pleased to meet you.”
“Okay, I guess I’m going to have to give you a quick history lesson,” I said, while he looked around at the field we were standing in.
“You’re the long-lost prince. Or at least, if you’re not him then you must be some sort of prince. I’ve been looking for you for years; in fact we’ve all been looking for you for years. All the girls, that is, I don’t think the boys care too much about missing princes. And now that I’ve found you, I’m supposed to take you back to the palace and claim my reward.”
I don’t know what I expected after all that frog kissing and turning him back into a human; gratitude maybe, or at least a reaction. It was too much to suppose I’d be swept off my feet with a proposal of marriage and get to live happily ever after in a palace, but really, you’d think he would say something after being rescued from the slimy pond I found him in. Instead, he stood there, his two feet planted in the cornfield as if waiting to turn into beanstalks, and his long arms hanging loosely by his sides like pump handles, while the ridiculous apron flapped around his knees. I couldn’t help laughing, but I stopped when he looked up at me with those big, brown eyes, just like a lost puppy.
“Come on, then, let’s go back to the house, get you some clothes and food, and plan how to get you to the palace without being stopped by the guards.”
He did not move, so I took his hand, so as to lead him away and then, thinking I might not get another chance once he regained his senses, I stretched upward and kissed him.
This time the pop was louder and the pressure lifted me off my feet, depositing me on the ground next to my apron, which was heaving and squirming. Thank goodness I recovered quickly and pounced on the apron before my royal frog could hop back to his slimy pond friends.
Well, this was a surprise, I reflected, as I put my apron back on and stowed the frog into the pocket, but not a major problem, provided I could make the prince appear once more when I needed him. The good thing was that I would not have to introduce the prince to the other farm girls, and it would be easier to get inside the palace gates on my own, provided I could think up an excuse.
“Okay Prince,” I muttered, “we’re going to collect our supplies and set out for the palace, so you just have to sit there and be patient.”
The frog did not reply; I think he had fallen asleep, if frogs do sleep, so I grabbed a handful of pond weed to keep him comfortable and made my way back to the milking shed.
My plan was to slip inside the barn, borrow some clothes from one of the stable hands, gather some food, and set out to claim my reward, but I had not counted on bumping into Brenda and Cassie, who were finishing up the milking.
“You’re late, Rachel, have you been off kissing frogs again?” Brenda asked, looking at my mud smeared apron.
Cassie smirked and smacked her lips together.
“Found any princes lately?”
I did not bother reminding them that they had both kissed a considerable number of frogs in the early days of the craze and went to step around them but they blocked my way.
“What have you got there?” asked Brenda, pointing at my pocket. “I hope you haven’t brought any of those toads up here.”
“Ooh, what if it’s the one?” said Cassie and reached forward.
I held my tongue, as I knew any sign of annoyance from me would lead to more teasing, and just shrugged my shoulders, as if I did not care. I hoped the frog prince would stay quietly tucked away in the corner of my pocket until the girls lost interest but as Cassie jabbed her hand in my pocket the frog gave a mighty leap and jumped out, sending her flying backward into Brenda.
“Hey, watch it,” said Brenda, waving her arms around. The frog had landed on a milking stool and sat looking at the three of us, the bulge on its neck pulsing in and out like a bellows.
Brenda stepped towards the frog and pounced, but the prince was quicker and jumped through her hands and over her head. I saw a flash of green and then heard a loud plop as he landed in the closest milk churn.
“Eew! Now you’ve done it!” said Cassie, staring at the bubbles collecting on the surface of the milk. “Mrs. Banks is not going to like that!”
The two girls stood making faces, while I rolled up my sleeves and plunged my arm into the warm milk. I hoped the frog would not drown in the milk, or have his pores clog up or whatever it is that frogs do to keep alive, but I need not have worried for I could feel him scrabbling away at the inside of the pail. I grabbed the frog tightly and pulled him out of the milk, making sure to spray both girls as I shoved the creamy creature back into my pocket.
“Ugh, now I’m covered in milk!” said Brenda, pulling off her apron and blouse. “Here, you can wash this. I’m going up to the house to tell Mrs. Banks you spoiled a churn of the best milk.”
Cassie pulled off her own stained apron and her skirt and followed Brenda out of the barn; they both held their noses so high in the air they looked like geese waddling along in their white underwear, but at least they had forgotten about kissing the frog, who was now struggling to get out of my pocket.
I gathered up the discarded clothes and poured some of the milk into a gourd that hung inside the barn. There was no sense in wasting it, and I knew I could not get food from the house now. However, the skirmish had given me a plan. If I travelled on my own I would stand out, especially if I had to deal with a frisky frog in my pocket, but two girls would be able to pass unnoticed through all the market towns. I would transform the frog back into the prince and dress him as a girl, using Brenda and Cassie’s clothes. His hair was longer than mine, and the guards would not question two girls bringing goods to the palace.
“Okay, Prince Charming,” I said into my pocket. “I’m going to carry you down to the end of the lane and then we’ll get you changed back and dressed up. You get to go home, and I get to leave this farm for good.”
I slipped out of the barn, carrying the bundle of clothes and the gourd and added a couple of apples that I found near the horses’ stalls. I also carried an empty pail so that it would look as if I were busy with chores, should anybody catch sight of me, but I met nobody along the lane and reached the edge of the farm without further incident.
Setting the clothes and provisions down on the ground I took the frog out of my pocket and stared at its spotted nose, thinking I should remember what it looked like, in case it ended up as a frog again.
“I hope this works,” I muttered, closing my eyes.
Once more I kissed the rubbery skin, only this time I was prepared for the pop and kept hold of one of its arms, which transformed into a human hand. I reached for the clothes with my other hand and pulled the shirt over the prince’s head, then made him step into the skirt and tie on the apron. He looked just as shell shocked as before, but he did not resist, and even drank some milk when I offered it to him.
“Right, this is it; we’re on our way.”
I took his hand and pulled him onto the road, wishing that I had thought of taking some boots, but he did not seem to mind walking on the dirt. With his long hair and the skirt he looked just like another milkmaid, and I felt myself relax slightly, and even look forward to the journey ahead. No matter what happened from now on, finally, we were both free.

Barn Stomping

The inspiration for this story came from a newspaper article in the Telegraph newspaper.The situation is real; the solution is from my imagination.

“I should have lied, when the council came round to measure the barn,” I told my friend Lucy, who was visiting us from America, “and then none of this would have happened, but now we have to pay a fine every year or else we’ll be sent to prison.”
“I can’t believe I am hearing this,” said Lucy’s husband, Martin. “You mean the council will fine you for having a building that’s the wrong size, but if you take it down they will send you to jail?”
“Yes, something like that. We built the barn a couple of years ago, to incubate the chicks, but George got the measurements wrong – you know how he is with his dyslexia. Anyway, it’s two feet longer and two feet wider than the planning permission – you’d think they’d have told us when we laid out the foundations, but no, they waited until the roof was on to come round and serve the notice and then it was too late.”
“Why can’t you just knock the building down and start again?” asked Lucy.
“Because of the bloody bats, that’s why,” said George, taking a swig of his wine. “The brown long eared bats moved in and the European Union won’t let us move them out without a licence. They’re protected or endangered or something. Anyway, they won’t give us a licence to move them, they won’t give us planning permission for a new shed for the bats, and they won’t let us tear down the existing barn, so every year the council people come round, with a big smirk on their faces and fine us for having an illegal building. It’s costing us a fortune and if it goes on much longer we’ll be ruined.”
George reached for the bottle and poured out more wine; if he continued drinking at this rate his liver and our marriage would also be ruined but I gritted my teeth and smiled at Lucy and Martin. They were only visiting us for two weeks, so there was no sense in burdening them with all our troubles.
“Why don’t you just fix the size of the building?” Martin asked.
“What do you mean? We’re not allowed to take it down,” I said.
“You don’t have to take it down; you just move each of the walls in by two feet and bingo, your barn is the right size.”
“How would we ever do that without the whole thing falling down?” asked George, “and we’d have to get builders in – the council would come round and fine us for disturbing the bats.”
“You could have a barn raising,” said Martin.
George and I looked blankly at him, wondering what he meant, and it was Kevin, our fifteen year old son who spoke up.
“Cool, do you mean one of those hillbilly events where everybody wears a straw hat and blue overalls and they build a barn in a day?”
Martin laughed and gave Kevin a thumbs up.
“Something like that, only you don’t have to wear overalls, or a hat, and I don’t imagine your neighbours are hillbillies.”
George snorted, no doubt at the idea of old Mrs Nash being taken for a hillbilly, but he stopped drinking and looked at Martin.
“How would it work then?” he asked.
“Well, you would need to ask all your neighbours to come and help one day, or better still, at night, as we’d be less likely to be seen-”
“That would be good for the bats, too,” said Kevin, “as they go out at night so you wouldn’t be disturbing them.”
“Right. So you have a team of people and you build a wall two feet in from one of the existing walls. Then you take off all the sidings and move them to the new wall and take down the old one. Do that for all four walls and presto, you have a smaller barn.”
George thought about this, twirling his wine glass around and around, the red merlot almost spilling onto the tablecloth, while Kevin bounced up and down with enthusiasm and I mentally reviewed the list of neighbours who we could count on, and more importantly, who would keep this secret.
“What do we tell the council?” George asked, “how do we account for the barn changing size?”
“You make it sound like it was their fault they got it wrong,” said Martin, “and with any luck you can sue them and get some of your money back. Tell them you got all confused with your dyslexia and you gave them the wrong plans, or tell them you used a bogus tape measure – heck, you can say it was one that I gave you, from Texas, and everybody knows that things are bigger in Texas. It won’t matter, the point is, by then the barn will meet the planning regulations, the bats will be back asleep and they’ll have no reason to fine you.”
And so it was decided. Martin took charge of the arrangements as if he were planning a military campaign. George made a list of who had the necessary tools we could borrow and I took photos of the barn from every angle, to be sure that we could make the new sides look just like the old. Lucy posed in all the photos, so that anybody watching would think we were just taking holiday pictures, and I took her to visit all the families we engaged to help us, using the pretext of showing my friend around the neighbourhood. Everybody we asked was more than willing to help, in fact they would do anything to get one over the council.
“What about old Mrs Nash,” I asked, nodding towards the house at the end of the field which belonged to our closest neighbour, “she’s the one who snitched on us in the first place.”
“I thought of that,” said Kevin, “I asked Jimmy to host a party on the night of the barn raising. You know how she hates noise and young people having fun, so if a bunch of us hang round at Jimmy’s place with the music on and pretend to drink and smoke she’ll be so busy spying on us that she won’t notice anything else.”
I had my doubts about how much pretend drinking and smoking would be going on, as opposed to the real thing, but I had to admit that it was a good idea for distracting Mrs. Nash, so I reluctantly agreed to let Kevin go to the party.
On the night of the barn raising, our friends turned up quietly, in ones or twos, some of them using the excuse of dropping their kids at Jimmy’s house to sneak up the back lane to our place, while others drove up and hid their cars behind the barn. George had assembled the tools during the week and they all got to work, following Martin’s plan. I had been doubtful about their being able to build and reposition four walls in one night, not to mention keep the roof from falling in, but after a couple of hours I had to admit that Martin had it all under control.
“Wow, I never thought this would work!” I said to Lucy, as we stacked the siding boards carefully in the right order on the ground, as George pulled them off the side.
“Martin loves big projects,” said Lucy, “and he especially loves fighting authority.”
Slowly the first new wall went up. As soon as Martin had tested that it was bearing the weight of the roof, some people began to remove the original, outer wall while another group started building the second new wall. Lucy and I passed the siding boards over to George, who positioned them back in the same order on the outside of the new wall. A few bats swooped down over our heads, no doubt curious as to what we were up to, but they soon flitted off into the night.
At midnight Sarah Stiles brought us all steaming mugs of hot chocolate and fresh rolls which we devoured like savages. She reported that Jimmy’s party was in full swing, with the kids gladly playing their part and their music at maximum volume. The local constable, one of George’s oldest friends, who knew what we were up to, had obliged by turning up in a squad car with the light flashing, and had given the kids a stern warning, while winking at Jimmy’s mother, who had seen Old Mrs. Nash’s curtain twitch. By then we had done the wall facing her house, so we were confident that we could get the rest of the job done without being seen.
I was surprised at how quickly we got into a rhythm, completing each wall in less and less time, and by the time the dawn began to break and the bats had returned to their relocated nests we were down to the cosmetic touches. Lucy transplanted the bushes that had grown around the base of the barn, while Sarah Stiles and Tommy Lewis painted new streaks of bat droppings on the walls, to coincide with the new position of the bat nests.
“Ugh, gross,” said Kevin, who had come back from the party reeking of beer, which he assured me was all from a spill, and that he had not been drinking, really. I sent him inside to change, but just as we were putting our tools away, and our neighbours were getting ready to leave he came rushing into the barn.
“She’s coming! Old Mrs. Nash! I can see her car at the gate!”
“Quick, everybody, hide the tools,” I said. “George, you take everybody round the back, and Martin, you and Lucy go out by the raspberries and look as if you are enjoying a stroll before breakfast.”
“We can’t let her come up here,” said George, “there’s still too much evidence, and she’ll report us to the council again.”
“I’ll stop her,” said Kevin and he ran off through the field, taking the short cut to the road.
I crept back to the house, put on my pyjamas and turned on the lights and the radio, popping some bread into the toaster so as to make it look like I had just got up, then I went outside carrying an armful of dirty washing just as old Mrs Nash drove up, in a great state of agitation.
“Oh, please, come quickly, it’s your boy,” she said, wringing her hands and pointing back down the lane.
“He fell out of a tree right in front of me and he’s lying in the lane clutching his leg and crying terribly. I didn’t want to move him in case I injured him, you know how they say about not moving people in case you hurt their backs, but it looks serious, so you had better come.”
I jumped into old Mrs Nash’s car, which smelled of cats and shoe leather, and she drove back down the lane at two miles an hour – her idea of going quickly – until we came upon Kevin, who was lying in the road, just at the bend by the big oak tree, clutching his leg and moaning.
“What happened?” I cried, jumping out of the car and rushing over to him.
“It’s my leg; I think it’s broken,” he moaned, “I heard a crack when I landed.”
“That’s what comes from climbing trees,” said Mrs Nash, who had come up beside me, but she must have got a whiff of Kevin for she stepped back. “You’re drunk, boy; no wonder!”
“We should call a doctor,” I said, wondering if it was safe to go back to the house, and whether Mrs. Nash would follow me, but Kevin moaned again.
“No, take me to the hospital, it will be faster.”
I was about to protest when I saw him wink at me, and he pointed to Mrs. Nash and her car, and only then did I realise what he was up to. It took some persuading for Mrs. Nash to allow Kevin into her car and even then we had to drive with all the windows open to blow away the smell of beer, so I hoped that the smell of cat would also be blown away. By the time we had carried Kevin into the emergency department it was mid morning, and I was sure that George and Martin would have finished the barn resizing, so I thanked Mrs. Nash for her trouble and invited her to come by later to see how Kevin was doing, but she gave one last sniff in his direction and said she would be on her way.
“Well that gets rid of the old baggage,” Kevin said, hopping off the bed. “Let’s call Dad and ask him to pick up us.”
By the time we got back home the neighbours had all gone and George and Martin were asleep on the couch, in front of the TV, while Lucy was cleaning up in the kitchen. We were all exhausted after the night’s work, so I was glad to just flop in a chair for the rest of the day.
Two days later George called the council and complained yet again about the fine, telling them that they had made a mistake measuring our barn, and that if they did not come out and re-do the assessment he would take the matter up with our Member of Parliament. It was not much of a threat but the council sent out another inspector to measure our barn and, to everybody’s surprise, it was found to be within the permitted size.
“I don’t know how that could have happened,” said the inspector, shuffling his papers and recalculating his figures. “It appears there has been a mistake.”
“I told you so,” said George rolling his eyes.
A week later, after Martin and Lucy had returned to America, we received an official letter from the council, apologising for the error and saying that the fines would be annulled, once the paperwork had all been sent to the finance department.
“You know what we do in America, after a barn-raising?” said Martin, when I called to tell them the good news, “we celebrate with a barn dance.”
“Just don’t disturb the bats,” said Lucy.

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