A Penguin Comes to Tea

My Mother Was Constantly Confused

My mother was constantly confused over my brother’s business arrangements. Most of his schemes fell on the wrong side of the law so he was careful not to tell her much about his activities but he could not stop her from talking to people she met at her medical appointments, which often resulted in a hasty winding down of the current business.

It started when Norman was a teenager and he filled the shed at the back of the house with pot plants, while a constant stream of visitors called at night and at weekends, to ‘help with the horticulture’.

“My son has a gardening business,” my mother said to her doctor one day, “he has ever so many pots.”

Norman threw his weed into the river later that night, before the doctor could recount the story to the authorities, and he complained about his lost profits for weeks.

His next venture was an unofficial liquor outlet for the local youth which lasted for several months before the parents of the local youth found the source of their offspring’s frequent inebriation at weekends and paid a visit to my mother.

“Your son is selling alcohol to minors,” said one man.

“Miners? I didn’t know there was a mine around here,” said my mother, looking at the deputation on her doorstep. “My son has a business selling boots, I think, although I can’t say that I have ever seen any boots. I’ll ask him when he gets home.”

The liquor business closed after that and was replaced by a series of other shady ventures which he tried to keep a secret from our mother. I moved out once I graduated from school but Norman stayed, taking advantage of the large property and using our mother as the excuse.

“She’s old, she needs looking after,” he would say, while my mother would fuss and cook for him.

There followed a number of years when Norman dealt in stolen goods, buying them low and selling them on at a healthy profit but my mother’s mouth ended that trade also.

“My son does fencing,” she told one of the neighbours who called to talk about an actual broken fence on the property. Norman evaded that question by saying that he would get one of his men to fix it and then had to engage a real contractor to mend the fence, all the time grumbling at the cost and the fact that his activities may have been compromised.

The biggest problem came when my brother agreed to keep some cows for a friend who had been ordered to destroy them after an outbreak of disease on his farm.

“But is that safe?” I asked when I heard of the plan. “What if the disease gets into the food chain?”

“Nobody’s getting diseased,” said Norman, “and there’s no food chain if the cows are kept alive. Just think, we can have fresh milk every day and when the ban is over my friend will still have his cows, instead of being ruined, like the other farmers.”

“How long are you going to keep the cows,” I asked, “and “who’s going to milk them?”

“Only until this scare is over; a year at most” he said, “Isabel is going to milk them and maybe you’d like to come home and help?”

I snorted at the idea of going home to a barn full of illegal cows, although the sight of my brother’s girlfriend squeezing her ample behind onto a milking stool might be worth a day trip.

“And how will you stop Mum from telling anybody about them?” I asked.

“Oh, she knows. I’ve told her there are no cows here and that some film people are making a movie on our land, so there might be some noises and movements, but that she’s not to worry.”

I could not resist going to see the invisible herd so when Norman said he and Isabel had some business out of town the following weekend I drove over to the farm with my husband, Richard.

“No cows!” said my mother as soon as we came through the door. Her eyes opened wide and she shook her head to be sure that we understood.

“Yes, Mum, I know there are no cows here. We just wanted to come and see you,” I said, while Richard went into the kitchen to look for a drink.

“Have you come to be in the movies?” my mother asked, shuffling over to the kettle which was on a constant heating cycle in that house.

“No, Mum,” I don’t think I’d be any good in the movies, and Richard’s too ugly.”

Richard, who had found a beer and was looking out of the window, made a rude sign at me, which my mother did not see as she was reaching into a cupboard for the good tea cups, the ones she only used when visitors came.

“Oh, it’s just that I mentioned to that lady in the pharmacy that we had a movie set here and she said that movies often have parts for extras.”

Richard turned and looked at me, shaking his head in a way that said, “what has she done now?” while my mother set out the tea cups and saucers on the table, still chattering away.

“I told her the movie’s not a Western, as we don’t have any cows, but I don’t know much else about it.”

“Maybe it’s best not to talk about the movie, Mum,” I said, “we don’t want crowds of people coming to try and get autographs or anything.”

“But that’s just it,” she said, her hand wavering as she poured hot water into the teapot, getting almost as much water on the table. “The pharmacist says that her children want to meet the movie stars and can they come over here one day. So I said that no, they couldn’t come because Norman says we don’t have any cows and it’s all a secret.”

She looked down and noticed the spilt water on the table and reached for a cloth. “Now look what I’ve done; this movie business has me all worked up.”

I waited while she wiped the table, refusing any help, and then poured the tea into the cups, and set out the milk and sugar, all the time muttering about cows and movies. Richard, who hates tea, sat down with his beer while I added milk to my cup and stirred it, obliging my mother with the familiar ritual.

We talked of other things and soon my mother had relaxed and wanted to know about our health and our jobs and she appeared to forget about Norman and his deals until the door burst open and Norman himself came in, followed by Isabel, both of them looking very flustered.

“No cows!” said my mother at once, her hand raised to her breast, as if she were swearing in front of a judge.

“Mum! What have you been telling people?” Norman asked looking all around the room as if he expected somebody to be hiding behind the sofa. “I’ve had a call from the agriculture department who say they have been told we have cows on the property.”

“No cows! I said no cows!” my mother repeated, looking from Norman to the rest of us, becoming agitated.

“We’ll have to hide the cows,” said Norman, looking at his watch, “we have about two hours before the inspectors get here.

“Where are you going to put them?” Richard asked, “they’re not exactly small and you only have one barn.”

“We’ll have to bring them into the house,” said Norman, “we can cram them all into the parlour; nobody ever goes in there, and we’ll get Isabel to fry up some onions to cover up the smell, and Mum can be watching TV with the volume turned up due to her bad hearing.”

“You must be joking,” I said, but Norman was not listening, he had already opened the back door and was racing towards the barn.

“Come on, everybody, there’s no time to argue!”

It took us nearly two hours to move all thirteen of the cows from the barn into the parlour. We had to lay some sheets of plywood to create a ramp up to the porch as they refused to put their feet on the steps and they stood lowing on the grass while Norman kept shushing them and Richard, who was thoroughly enjoying the escapade, whacked them with a stick.

The whole house stank from the onions and garlic that Isabel was frying in the kitchen and Norman turned on the compressor to make more noise so that we had to shout instructions at each other.

“What about the movies?” I asked, “Won’t they expect to see sets and cameras?”

“No, we’ll just say they were shooting a scene with two people talking so the director didn’t need any equipment.”

An hour later, just as we had gathered around the table with plates of fried onions there was a knock at the door and an official with a clipboard came in. He nodded to us all and asked for Norman, while I held my mother’s hand, willing her not to speak, wondering why we had not taken her upstairs to her bedroom.

“I’ve had a report that there are cattle on this property, sir,” the inspector said.

“Well that’s not true; there are no cattle here,” said Norman, sweeping his arm around to point at the fields outside, “come out and have a look.”

Norman and the inspector went out to the barn and I turned to Richard and said, “did anybody clean the barn after we moved the cows out?”

He grimaced, and I could tell what he was thinking. Evidence of the cows was all over the barn. I wondered if Norman would be fined or arrested, and what would happen to the cows when they were discovered, and how we would ever get them out of the parlour. The band on the TV belted out its songs and the compressor whined while we sat in silence waiting for the verdict. After a while Norman and the inspector came back, both laughing.

“So I said to the producer that he could bring in cow manure to set the scene, but then they left it all behind after they’d finished shooting and now I’ll have to clean it up myself,” Norman shook his head as he recounted a tale to the inspector.

“I hope they paid you well to dump all that poop on your land,” said the inspector, who appeared to believe the story.

“Oh yes, we got a good deal, and they’ll mention us in the credits, too,” said Norman, and I wondered if he was going to name some big star who was appearing in the movie and further complicate our lives.

“Well, I look forward to seeing it,” said the inspector and turned towards the door. “Thank you for your time, and sorry to bother you.”

“Cows,” said my mother, who seemed to suddenly remember what we had been doing earlier.

“No Mum,” said Norman, “the man was looking for cows but there are no cows here.”

I gripped my mother’s hand and shook my head at her, while moving a plate of congealed onions in front of her.

“No cows,” I said.

“No cows,” she repeated as the door closed behind the inspector, “so who’s in the parlour then? Shall I make them tea?”

A Bedtime Story, featuring a fairy, a wizard, a dragon and a castle

I read a news article that suggested the ideal bedtime story should be 8.6 minutes long, feature a dragon, a fairy and a wizard and be set in a castle, so …

Once upon a time there was a king who lived in a small house by a muddy pond, while high on the hill in the middle of his kingdom a magnificent castle with three ballrooms and seventeen bedrooms was inhabited by a single dragon.
“I do wish you would do something about that dragon, so that we could go home,” the queen would say every morning while eating breakfast.
“I’m doing the best I can,” the king would answer, and then they would finish their breakfast in silence, neither looking at the other.
The two princes did not mind the dragon being in their castle because they rather enjoyed playing in the muddy pond with the village children, and, in any case, it was their destiny to grow up and slay the dragon one day.
The princess did mind that the dragon was in her castle because it meant no balls and no opportunity to dress up and meet young men, other than the village boys who were always in the pond with her brothers. She blamed the princes for the family’s predicament and she was right.
When the twin princes were born the king was so delighted to have two sons that he decreed a public holiday and arranged a big feast for all the nobles in the kingdom and also all the people in the nearby villages. He invited sorcerers and mages, fairies and wizards, making sure that nobody who could take offence was left off the guest list, but with so many magical people around something was bound to go wrong. One of the sorcerers drank too much spiced wine and conjured a dragon for the young princes, saying, “every kingdom should have a dragon: that’s how legends are made.”
The other guests were scared of the creature, even though it was no bigger than a lizard, because the sparks from its sneezes burned holes in their fine dresses and waistcoats. The king ordered a page to put the dragon in a box and then went back to enjoying himself while the page took the dragon to the kitchen to show his friends, who began to poke at the poor creature to get it to spit out flames.
“What are you doing?” called a fairy, fluttering through an open window, while the pages quickly stuffed the smouldering animal back into the box.
“We’re looking after this dragon,” said one page, “it’s a gift for the princes but the king wants it out of sight during the party.”
“Quite right,” said the fairy, flying away from the ball of flame that was heading for her wings, “but you must be careful not to let it get away. Here, I’ll put a spell on it to contain it to the castle,” and she waved her wand, sprinkled some dust in the air, and then, with a flick of her wings, she went upstairs and joined the guests in the main ballroom.
The fairy’s spell worked very well. The little dragon was prevented from leaving the castle by an invisible barrier and for the first couple of days it remained on the ground floor, exploring the kitchens and all the rooms in the servants’ quarters, terrifying the maids and the cook and delighting the pages. On the third day the dragon began to grow. First his tail grew longer, then his legs, one at a time, causing him to walk lopsidedly, and finally his head caught up with the rest of him. As he grew he became stuck in small spaces, knocked over things with his tail and burned most of the furnishings. Everybody wanted the dragon banished to a cave but because of the spell he could not be removed from the castle.
The poor page could not remember which fairy had cast the containment spell and none of the fairies the king contacted could do anything about it, so the only solution was for the royal family to move out of the castle and let the dragon take it over. Soon, the dragon had grown so big that each of his legs stuck out a different window, his tail poked up the chimney and his nose lay outside the front door on the drawbridge, where his tongue was able to reach down to the moat and scoop up any unfortunate duck which came too close.
At last the beast stopped growing, but it was impossible for the king and his family to move back to the castle, a fact that the queen and the princess bemoaned every day.
“Won’t the dragon die of hunger?” one of the king’s advisors had suggested, but after seven years the dragon showed no sign of starving.
“We need somebody to undo the spell,” said another advisor, “or at least, to disable it.”
“You must announce a contest to get rid of the dragon,” said the queen, who understood how men functioned. “Promise the winner a large sack of gold, and a title and we’ll soon have our castle back.”
“Good idea,” said the king, “I can offer the winner half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage.”
“Oh no, you won’t,” said the princess, who had just come in to breakfast, “I’m not a prize to be given away to some lout who happens to kill a smelly dragon.”
“And the kingdom is too small to divide in half,” said the queen, “especially as you already have two sons who each expect to inherit.”
The king grumbled but agreed to the contest and told his advisors to announce the news. Soon the people could talk of nothing else but the coming contest and strangers began coming from far away, eager to try their skills against the dragon.
It soon became apparent that the spell binding the dragon was a powerful one, as it could not be undone or changed; it could only be improved upon, and each new spell made the dragon even stronger.
After one week of spell casting, during which time the dragon had been changed into a giant mouse, a snake, a jellyfish and a pink canary, and everybody was getting tired of the constant bangs and flashes and the smell of enchantments, a wizard and his son came to the kingdom to try their luck against the dragon. The wizard’s son stopped at the muddy pond and joined in a game of chicken fighting with the other boys while the wizard strode up to the king and said that he could rid the castle of the dragon, but only if he were allowed to inherit the kingdom.
“That’s preposterous!” said the king, “I have two sons who will be king after me.”
“Well, send them on a quest or something, or marry them off to princesses in far lands.”
“I can’t do that, but maybe you could marry my daughter instead?” said the king, who was willing to try anything to get rid of the dragon.
“Daddy!” shrieked the princess, “I am not marrying some old wizard, even if he does get our castle back for us.”
While the king and the sorcerer were arguing the two princes and the village boys huddled outside in the bushes, listening.
“Why does it have to be a spell that removes the dragon?” asked one boy. “Can’t we just knock down a wall and lead it out?”
“Because the dragon’s confined to the castle, silly,” said another boy.
“Well why don’t you just make the castle bigger?” asked the wizard’s son.
This was something nobody had thought of and when the king heard the idea he immediately called for his royal architects and commanded them to design an extension to the castle. However, the architects were more concerned with becoming famous, so they spent a lot of time sketching plans for battlements and turrets, and nothing actually got built. The wizard was so proud of his son’s suggestion that he began to draw up his own designs, which relied on magical walls, so nobody paid them any attention.
The princes and the village boys had taken to walking up the hill each day to visit the dragon while the architects adjusted their drawings. The princes were eager to show off their muscles and boast of how one day they would kill the dragon, but the village boys were more interested in looking at the dragon’s teeth and playing a game to see who could run up and touch a scale without being singed by the dragon’s breath.
“I don’t think you need to actually extend the castle,” said the wizard’s son, “you could just build a big wall from the moat and enclose a field large enough for the dragon to live in. Technically, it would still be part of the castle grounds.”
“But how will we get him out of the building?” asked one of the boys.
“What if he grows again?” asked one of the princes, who was secretly not looking forward to killing the dragon.
“Let’s worry about that later,” said the wizards son, who was pacing out the ground, “help me drag some rocks over here.”
So the boys carried rocks from the fields and piled them up against the castle wall, while the dragon watched them with his big green eyes, and snorted smoke at them when they got too close. After several hours they had built a small pen next to the castle wall and the dragon stretched out his front foot and planted it into the earth, leaving a large footprint, then he lay his head down on his front paws and let out a loud belch.
The boys ran down to the village to fetch the architects and the wizard and soon everybody who could haul stones was engaged in extending the wall to make a larger pen. The wizard tried conjuring some stones into place but they rolled away and he concluded that the spell on the dragon was preventing any magical interference.
By the time it grew dark they had enclosed what looked like a large paddock and the dragon was sniffing around the edge of the wall, and scrabbling with its front legs.
“How’s he going to get his tail out of the chimney?” asked a small boy.
“I think he’s getting smaller,” said another.
Everybody looked at the dragon and they saw that he was no longer trapped in the doorway, and his legs were not poking out of the windows, but tucked underneath him. A moment later his tail slithered down the chimney and curled around his body and soon his eyelids closed and the people could just make out little puffy snorts of sparks.
“He’s gone to sleep!” said one of the princes.
“Well at least he’s not trying to eat us,” said the other prince.
The people stood around for a while, looking at the sleeping dragon but they began to feel tired themselves, after their hours of lifting stones, and so they went back to their houses.
In the morning one of the village boys was the first to go up to the castle and he discovered that the dragon had gone.
“Are you sure?” asked the king when he heard the news, calling for his carriage to take him up the hill to reclaim his castle.
The dragon had indeed gone from the castle, leaving a pile of broken scales on the floor, claw marks on the dining room table and burned shreds of fabric hanging from the windows. The king, queen, princess, both princes and the household staff went from room to room, holding their noses against the smell of dragon, examining the damage and wondering how soon they could move back in.
“I’ve found him!” said the wizard’s son, walking up from the far end of the new paddock, holding something small in his arms.
The boys all crowded round and saw that he was carrying a small dragon, which spat out flames and flapped its wings, becoming more and more agitated as it was brought closer to the castle.
“I think it knows that it will grow bigger and get trapped again if we put it inside the castle,” said the wizard, who was trying to take credit for the building of the paddock wall. “But if you let it live in this field, which, thanks to this wonderful wall, is now technically part of the castle, then it will probably stay small.”
The king began thinking over the benefits of owning a dragon which could be made bigger just by hauling it indoors. He could scare his enemies, or charge admission to watch the transformation. Perhaps the dragon was going to be of use after all.
The queen began making lists of the furniture she would have to replace, and wondering how she could get the princes out of the pond and into their royal attire, now that court visitors would be calling again.
The princess walked around the three ballrooms imagining the parties that they would soon be giving, and the dances that she would be able to enjoy. As she pirouetted with her hand in the air, holding an imaginary partner, she bumped into the wizard’s son, who was standing watching her.
“What are you doing here?” the princess asked.
“I’ve come to claim my prize for solving the problem of the dragon,” he said.
“What prize?”
“Well, there was talk of a sack of gold, or half a kingdom, or was it half a princess?”
“What cheek!” said the princess, “I’m not a prize, and anyway, the dragon’s still here.”
“You’re right,” said the wizard’s son. “I’ll have to fix that, and then I’ll come back for my prize. Save the first dance for me.”
And he winked at the princess and skipped out of the room.

Never Again

“You’re looking very smug tonight, Harold,” said Edith, as she set the table for dinner.      
Harold took a long swig of his beer, leaned back in his favourite chair and smiled at her.      
“I’ve fixed that yapper for good,” he said.      
“What do you mean?” Edith turned and frowned at him.      
“Never again will we have to hear that constant yapping from next door,” said Harold. “Never again will we have to watch where we step in our own front yard because that mutt has done his business on our property.”      
Edith’s eyes widened as she stared at her husband.      
“What have you gone and done, Harold?”      
Harold shrugged and looked away.      
“A dog needs a good home. It needs space; not concrete paths like in this street full of houses.”      
“Harold! What have you done with their dog?”      
Edith put down the plates and marched over to Harold’s chair, standing in front of him with her arms on her hips.      
“You’d better not have done anything with their dog, or I’ll—well, I don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll be very angry.”      
“Relax, Edith, I haven’t touched the dog.”      
Harold waved her away and went back to his beer, refusing to say any more about the dog, or the neighbours, talking instead of his day at work, and by the time they had finished dinner, Edith had worked herself into a state over the dog. She kept getting up to look out of the window but she could not see all the way into the neighbours’ yard, and she did not want to look as if she were spying on them.      
“They’ll think you’ve got something to hide, if you keep poking your head around the curtains like that,” Harold said, thrusting his arm into his coat and grabbing his car keys. “I’m just going out for a bit.”
Harold disappeared into the garage and a moment later she heard the noise of the garage opening and the car reversing out. Edith busied herself with the dishes and keep looking out of the window, hoping to catch sight of the dog, but instead she saw Joanna Marley from next door coming up their driveway. Edith hurriedly wiped her hands and rushed to open the door before Joanna had even rung the bell.      
“Oh, hello, Joanna, I was, er, just, er—”      
“Edith, have you seen Charlie?” Joanna asked, peering around Edith as if she expected the dog to be hiding inside the house. “He’s been missing for several hours and I know he sometimes likes to run around in your yard.”      
“No, sorry, I haven’t seen him,” said Edith, glad that she did not have to lie about that, and wondering where Harold had gone and what he had done with the dog.      
“Will you keep an eye out for him?” asked Joanna, who had turned and was now looking around the shrubs, clenching and unclenching her fists.      
“Of course I will, and I’ll ask Harold if he’s seen him as soon as he comes home.” Edith kept the smile fixed on her face until she closed the door and then let out a big sigh. She was certain Harold had somehow got rid of the dog next door and that he would be found out and there would be a horrible fight with the Marleys. And all because the dog yapped. And left stuff in their yard. And there was the time it bit her nephew. And–      
Edith stopped thinking of the dog and began to think about Harold. What could he have done, and where had he gone?      
It was late before Harold came back and from the smell of him he had been drinking, but he was still very pleased with himself and he planted a loud,wet kiss on Edith’s cheek.      
“Nice and quiet here, isn’t it?”       
Edith pushed him away and frowned at him.      
“Harold! What have you done with that dog? Joanna was here asking if we’ve seen it and I didn’t know what to say.”      
“The dog’s gone out west,” said Harold. “There was a removal van two streets over; the people are heading out to the country and they had a big sofa in the back of the van. All I did was throw some dog treats into the van and that mutt was in there like greased lightning. I’ll bet those two young kids will be delighted to have a dog when they get to their new home.”      
Edith stood staring at Harold, her eyes wide, not sure what to say.      
“Come on Edith, you hated that dog as much as I did, with its constant barking. Think about it—the dog gets a new home, some kids are happy, the Marleys find something else to fill their time and we can walk on our grass in bare feet again.”      
Edith shook her head. She was sure there would be trouble once the dog was discovered, but at least she could truthfully say that she had no idea where the dog was. She opened the window to let in some air and for the first time noticed the quiet, and even heard the frogs croaking. Perhaps Harold had done the right thing after all.

Wolves in the Wilderness

Caroline hopped out of the small dinghy and pulled it up over the barnacle encrusted rocks on to the small patch of beach. She held the boat steady while Robert and Linda got out then wrapped the rope around a thick log.
“Wolves have been sighted on the island,” said Linda, pointing to a tattered piece of paper pinned to the post at the start of the trail, “do you think it’s OK to walk here?”
“Wolves?” Caroline looked up and peered into the trees but all she could see were branches dangling down in the few patches of sunlight. “What’s the date on the notice? Is it from this year?”
“I can’t tell,” said Robert, “that bit’s torn but the paper looks quite worn, so it’s probably from a few years back.”
As the three of them set off on the trail, Caroline tried to remember what she had learned about wolves. Be quiet and move away backwards. Or maybe climb a tree. Or is that what you do for a bear? No, that’s wrong; make yourself tall and be noisy, she thought. And do you look them in the eye or not?
She wished she had paid more attention to the dangerous wildlife section in the guide book, but she had been too busy reading about plants. The others had moved on up the trail and she hurried to catch up with them, looking over her shoulder so much that she bumped into an overhanging tree and grunted.
“Are you OK?” Linda called back without turning round or slowing her pace.
So much for keeping a look out for wolves, thought Caroline. If she’d been eaten they wouldn’t have even noticed. Linda and Robert were discussing hikes they wanted to do, trading tales, and laughing loudly, paying no attention to the woods.
Caroline felt her heart rate increasing, even though they were still walking on the level so she took several deep breaths and looked around her. The trees were mostly bare of branches until about ten feet above her, where the fronds formed a giant dome. Strips of bark lay on the ground beneath naked tree limbs and several species of fungi sprouted among the rotting wood. The path felt springy underfoot, from a mix of moss and fallen pine needles and Caroline enjoyed bouncing as she walked. It must be like this on the moon, she thought.
The air felt cool, even thought it had not rained for weeks, and the patches of sunlight offered a warm glow. Caroline counted eleven different shades of green, and had started cataloguing the browns when she felt a pricking on the back of her neck.
She turned and looked behind her but could see nothing except trees. Not wanting to stand still she hurried after the others, now a long way ahead, her breath wheezing as she pumped her arms and willed her legs to move faster. She kept looking back but the forest appeared just the same, although it felt more menacing, and now the various shades of green resembled lurking creatures rather than rooted vegetation.
Caroline stepped onto an old boardwalk over a stream and as she turned her head around her foot sank through one of the rotten planks and she lost her footing; she pulled her foot loose and when she looked up she saw a pair of golden eyes staring at her from under a fern.
She gasped, then screamed, fighting the urge to run, as that would mark her as prey.
“A wolf! A wolf!” she called out to the others, “do something, scare it off! Don’t leave me here!”
She waved one arm above her head while with her other she unslung her backpack then swung that around in a big arc, trying to make it look like it was part of her. She could not remember if wolves were clever creatures – did they know the difference between a chewy backpack and a tasty human? And for that matter, was this a lone wolf or did it have friends?
She could hear herself moaning with each exhaled breath, and her legs began to quaver, wanting to run yet awaiting instructions from her dazed brain. The golden eyes looked at her and blinked, directing her gaze to a long pointed nose; she knew there would be teeth below that nose but her brain refused to process any more information and was rapidly switching to panic mode.
“Caroline? What’s wrong?”
Linda and Robert came running down the trail, crashing through the bushes and in an instant the eyes were gone. Caroline sank down onto the damp ground and began to sob.
“It was right there,” she said, pointing. “Two huge yellow eyes, just staring at me.”
“All the better to see you with,” said Robert and Caroline kicked him.
“Are you sure it wasn’t this fungus; it’s a sort of orangey colour,” said Linda, pulling aside a branch to reveal two fungus spheres growing on a trunk right in the place where Caroline had seen the wolf.
Caroline sniffed and shrugged. It had been a wolf; she was sure of that, but she did not want to make a scene. She struggled to her feet and brushed the pine needles off her clothes, then shouldered her backpack once more. They continued on the trail, with Caroline walking between Linda and Robert, her heart still beating wildly while they teased her about yellow eyes and big white teeth. She did not say anything; she knew what she had seen and the sooner they got out of the trees the happier she would be.
The trail led gently uphill and eventually came out in a clearing with an abandoned fish farm and an information board describing the history of the area. There was another notice pinned to the board warning of wolves in the area, and this one did have a date on it, of the week before.
“I told you so,” said Caroline, feeling a hollow comfort, knowing that they still had to retrace their path through the woods to return to their boat.
Linda and Robert continued to be dismissive of the wolf story but agreed to wait by the trail head until other hikers showed up so that they would be a larger group for the return trip. Even so, Caroline stared at every bush and log as they tramped back through the trees, wondering where the wolf was hiding. She did not relax until they were safely in the dinghy, motoring back to their boat.
Later that evening, once the sun had gone down and the half moon was high in the sky, Caroline lay on her bunk, looking out of the window at the stars speckled across the sky. They looked to her like a million pairs of wolf eyes boring into her. She shivered and snuggled down in her sleeping bag, listening to the gentle slap of the water against the side of the boat. She was almost asleep when she heard a long, drawn out mournful howl. The wolf was calling to her.

Composting

“What have you got there?” I asked my sister as she dragged a heavy bag out of her car.
“Wood shavings, or sawdust or something. It’s for George,” she puffed, pulling the bag up the two steps to the house. I ran to help her, worried that the bag would split and leave a trail of sawdust on her carpet, while the dog bounded around us, wagging his tail in my face.
“Whatever does George want that for?” I asked, wondering what new project her husband had taken up.
“It’s for the new toilet, actually,” my sister said, pointing towards the extension on the side of the house. “He’s gone all ecological and installed a composting toilet. It’s going to save the environment and save us lots of money at the same time.”
“So you’re the one who has to haul the bags of sawdust around?”
My sister just shrugged, and looked a bit embarrassed, so I moved the furniture out of the way as she pulled the bag along the floor with the dog following closely, sniffing hard at the bag.
“The sawdust is only temporary,” my sister said, wiping her hands as she came back to get the rest of her purchases from the car. “George says he is going to make his own wood shavings once everything is finished.”
“Oh, yes?”
I looked outside to the shed, which contained partially completed furniture and enough car parts to build at least three vehicles, except that none of the parts matched. Behind the shed stood a boat covered in a tarpaulin, and, beyond that, several pieces of rusting machinery. George was never short of a project.
“So how does it work then?” I asked.
“Well, you just pour the wood shavings into the toilet in place of water and it all composts itself.”
“Good luck with that,” I said, and went home to my old fashioned plumbing, grateful that my husband was not in the least bit practical.
The next time I visited my sister I made a point of checking out the new bathroom, which smelled of fresh wood from the large bin of wood shavings next to the composting toilet. The dog followed me around, looking unusually subdued. When I asked what was wrong with him my sister pointed outside to where George was standing in front of a workbench next to a large pile of logs. George picked up a log and clamped it into the workbench, then, taking his power saw, he whittled away at the end of the log, showering wood bits onto a mound under the table.
“Wow, that’s quite a process, just for a toilet,” I said.
“It’s awful. The logs were delivered in a big truck that hit the neighbour’s gate when it reversed and now George is out there for hours making that terrible noise, and the bits of wood blow all over the place and have already blocked one drain, and the poor dog is stuck indoors, to keep him safe.”
“Why don’t you just buy more of those bags of sawdust?” I asked, “isn’t that what the manufacturers recommend?”
“George says they’re a rip off and the company is profiting at the expense of the environment,” my sister said.
As we watched the power saw slice through another log, a sliver of wood flew from the saw and broke the window of the shed, sending shards of glass all over the grass. George stopped the saw and looked at the glass, shaking his head. The dog, no doubt taking the silence as a sign that he could now go out, began to bark and scratch at the door.
“Oh dear; George will have to clean up that glass before we let the dog out.”
“Perhaps you could train the dog to use your new toilet,” I said. “Now that really would save the environment.”

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.”
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.
“Hey!”
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.
“Shit!”
“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.

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