A Penguin Comes to Tea
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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.
“Kyle?”
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.
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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.

A Weakness

Some might say it is a weakness, and Sadie calls it her hobby, but to Howard the collection of garden gnomes that surrounds him is an obsession. There are gnomes along the path, on the front steps, in the flower beds, on the window ledges, in the pond; there is even a gnome umbrella stand in the hall. At first Howard thought it was amusing when Sadie bought a new gnome but when she had over a dozen and showed no signs of stopping he no longer saw the funny side.
“But I like the gnomes, Howard, they add character to the place.”
Howard was not so sure about that, but it was easier to tolerate the gnomes than to cross swords with his wife, so he came to an arrangement: Sadie could have as many gnomes as she wanted, provided none were placed in his vegetable patch, and none obstructed him when he wanted to cut the grass.
So when Howard finds a brightly painted gnome sitting under a rhubarb bush he is not very happy.
“Sadie, damn it, how many times do I have to tell you to keep those creatures out of the vegetables?” he says, heaving the gnome onto the grass at his wife’s feet.
“How did he get there?” she asks, taking the dead heads off the roses, “he should be on that stone over by the pond. It must be those kids again, coming in and moving my little people in the night.”
“Well, if we didn’t have so many of them, perhaps the youth would find something else to do,” puffs Howard, picking up the smiling gnome and shuffling over to the pond. Sadie follows Howard, stopping to pull up a weed between two flowering heathers before repositioning a small gnome holding a hunting rifle.
When he reaches the stone overhanging the pond, Howard sees an identical gnome, although it appears somewhat weather worn, and he lowers the new gnome onto the rock next to the old one.
“Surely we don’t need two the same,” he mutters, “can’t we call a halt to it if you have the whole collection?”
“Oh, my goodness! There’s two of him!” Sadie says, “I wonder how that happened?”
Howard has a good idea how that could have happened. Somebody probably received a gnome for a present and wanted to get rid of it without causing offence; it is not the first time they have found other people’s gnomes added to their collection.
“Well, we don’t want two, do we, so I’ll just take this one away,” says Howard, bending down to pick up the new arrival, his face turning pink from the strain. “They must be making them out of concrete now, instead of plaster; this weighs a ton.”
Howard carries the gnome around to the side of the house, intending to dump it, but with both hands full he cannot get the lid off the garbage bin so he takes it into the garage instead and puts it on his worktable.
Howard has his own weakness: he enjoys the occasional cigar, a habit he began in his teens and which he has not been able to shake. Sadie won’t allow him to smoke in the house so he usually paces up and down the porch, inhaling the warm smoke and enjoying the brief feeling of calm. When it is raining he retreats into the garage and cleans his tools, which is almost as relaxing as the smoking.
Howard lights a cigar now and looks at the gnome. The red paint on the pointed hat looks brand new, and the black boots are just as shiny, as if the little man himself had polished them. Howard puts the end of his lighted cigar against the toe of one boot and watches the paint blister and peel off, then he shakes his head and stops himself. Although he hates the gnomes, if somehow feels like torture, and Sadie would be upset if she saw him. As he puts out his cigar, saving the rest for another day he notices that the gnome’s toe is visible under the paint and it is not white, but a shiny yellow colour.
Howard takes a match from the shelf and uses it to carefully scrape away some more of the paint, revealing a distinct golden boot. His heart thumping wildly, Howard scrapes the paint from the gnome’s white beard, and discovers gold underneath there too. He picks at several other places on the gnome and each time discovers gold under the paint, then he stands back and looks at the little creature. ‘Worth its weight in gold’ suddenly has a new meaning.
Howard imagines all the possibilities: he and Sadie could go on holiday or build that second bathroom or maybe get a newer car or-
Just as suddenly, it dawns on Howard that somebody put the gnome in his garden and therefore it is likely that somebody will want it back. What if the gnome is not under the rhubarb when the owner comes back? Would they break into the house, tie him and Sadie up and demand their gnome back? Could Howard claim it was now his gnome as it was on his land?
Howard does not know how criminals operate, but he has seen enough TV to be worried, so he pulls down his box of paints and carefully touches up the paint on the gnome, covering all signs of the gold, then he carries the gnome back out to the vegetable patch.
“What are you doing?” Sadie asks, looking up from her weeding, “I thought you didn’t want any gnomes in your part of the garden?”
“I kind of like this one,” Howard says, and places it under the rhubarb again, making sure that it is visible, but not too obvious. He does not want to give the impression that he knows what it is.
Howard walks back to the house, goes to the computer and types ‘gold’ into the Google search. Pages and pages of gold prices and gold merchants come up and he spends some time navigating around the sites, reading up about gold and discovering that the worth is all determined by weight, so he goes upstairs and fetches the bathroom scales.
At the door he pauses. Should he take the scales out to the gnome, or bring the thing into the house? Either way, Sadie will think he is mad, but perhaps he can hide the scales better than the gnome.
Howard goes into the garage and puts the scales into a garden bag, along with a trowel and a pair of gloves. He walks back to the rhubarb, kneels down and carefully places the gnome on the scales, making sure to keep it level.
“What are you doing with the scales?”
Howard jumps, as if shot, and the gnome falls back into the earth.
“Gee, Sadie, don’t creep up on me like that,” he says, pushing the basket between the gnome and the scales. “I’m trying to work out how dense this soil is, and whether it is right for the rhubarb.” He knows this sounds ridiculous but Sadie just shakes her head and moves back to her weeding, so Howard quickly weighs the gnome then goes back inside to the computer.
After a bit more research Howard discovers that he needs to know if the gnome is solid gold, or just gold plate on something else. It feels heavy enough, but perhaps the gold is covering another metal. He looks out of the window and sees that Sadie is talking to the neighbour over the fence.
Howard finds a large bucket and takes it over to the rhubarb; it is too small for the gnome to fit inside entirely, so he goes into the garage and empties out one of his storage bins and brings that over to the rhubarb. When lying on its side the gnome fits inside this bin, so Howard drags the garden hose over and fills the storage bin with water, up to the brim.
“Whatever are you doing now, Howard? Are you washing that gnome?”
Howard nearly drops the hose in surprise, but he points it at the rhubarb and sprays the plant all over.
“I’m just watering the rhubarb, and that damn thing fell into my box of stuff.”
“You don’t have to keep the gnome there, you know; if you like it we can move it somewhere else.”
“No, I like it; I mean it’s fine here,” says Howard, turning off the hose and moving around to the other side of the rhubarb bed, while he keeps a close eye on the gnome in case the water has washed off the paint.
Once Sadie moves away Howard tops up the water in the tub, then takes the gnome out of the container and sets it back in the earth. Howard marks the water level on the side of the bin with a piece of tape, then he scoops out the water, one cup at a time and dribbles it onto the rhubarb.
“I say, Howard, that’s an odd way to water plants – new technique is it?”
Howard looks up to see Mrs. Fitch from next door staring at him. Sadie is nowhere in sight, probably she has had enough of chatting.
“Er, yes, I’m making sure they each get the same quantity of water. It’s part of an experiment, and now I need to go and record my data in the garden manual.”
Howard gathers up the bin and the hose, nods to Mrs. Fitch and hurries back inside, wondering if she will tell Sadie about Howard’s garden manual. This whole thing is becoming too much; perhaps he should have thrown the gnome out after all. He puts the bin back in the garage and relights his cigar, inhaling deeply until clouds of smoke swirl around his head and he feels himself relaxing.
All afternoon Howard walks back and forth, inspecting the gnome, moving it into and out of view, measuring it, feeling it, and in between, dashing back to the computer to read up about gold. After a while he becomes fairly certain that the gnome is solid gold, and a feeling of worry starts to grow inside him.
“Whatever has got into you, Howard?” Sadie asks as they sit down to dinner. “I’ve never seen you so interested in your vegetables. Are you entering a competition or something?”
“Yeah,” mumbles Howard, “it’s a new project.”
“You don’t have to keep the gnome there just for me; I know you don’t like them, and it is your patch of garden.”
“No, no, really, it’s fine. He’s going to be my scarecrow.”
Sadie looks at Howard as if he has become unhinged and Howard quickly changes the subject, asking about her sister’s health, a topic that is guaranteed to last the rest of the meal.
After supper, Howard takes a stroll around the garden, enjoying his final smoke, and making sure that the gnome is still in place, although he is not sure what he would do it if were gone. He checks on it again from the window before going to bed and wonders whether he should tell anybody about the golden gnome. Perhaps he should report it to the police, but then, there is no proof it is stolen property.
In the morning, after collecting the newspaper from the front porch, Howard checks that the gnome is still lodged under the rhubarb then opens the paper to the Classifieds section. He has no idea what he expects to find, but in movies secret messages are always sent this way so he reads through several pages of ‘help wanted’, ‘for sale’ and ‘companion sought’ notices before he gives up and sits, staring into space, munching on his cold toast.
“Howard!”
Howard jumps, knocking over his teacup.
“What is it, dear?” he asks, noticing that Sadie is frowning at him.
“I said, are you quite well? You’re behaving very strangely today. Perhaps you had too much sun yesterday, with all the work you did on your rhubarb?”
Sadie sniffs, as if she does not think the rhubarb merited such attention and Howard opens out the paper to the financial section and gives it a loud thwack to straighten it, and to indicate that he is busy contemplating important matters. He looks at the paper and really tries to concentrate but it is no good; all he can think of is that gnome and how it came to be in his garden. Finally, he decides to go and speak to the local police: they will know what he should do.
“I’m going out,” Howard says, putting on his hat and striding down the front path.
All the way to the police station he rehearses what he is going to say. ‘I have a golden gnome,’ sounds like a line from a movie; ‘somebody left some gold in my vegetables,’ sounds rude, and ‘my garden gnome is valuable,’ sounds ridiculous, so by the time he reaches the station he has no idea what he will say.
Howard need not have worried as the constable on duty is out and the receptionist gives him a form to fill out to record his complaint.
“In triplicate,” she says, paying no more attention to Howard.
Howard considers the form. He has not been burgled, assaulted, murdered, hit from behind or had his human rights violated so he ticks the box marked ‘other’ and writes, ‘I have a garden gnome which may belong to somebody else,’ signs his name and gives the form back to the receptionist who nods and adds it to a pile of papers in front of her.
As he walks home Howard worries that he should not have left Sadie alone with the gnome. What if the real owners show up and she does not know what they want? What if somebody else knows about the gold and steals it? He wishes he could smoke but he does not have his cigars with him. Instead he quickens his pace until he is almost running and nearly knocks into Mrs. Fitch coming out of her driveway.
“I’m back!” he calls into the house, “is everything alright?”
Without waiting for a reply Howard runs into the garden and over to the rhubarb patch where a depression in the soil marks the spot where the gnome had been. He looks all around the rhubarb but cannot see the gnome; there are not even any footprints in the soil.
“Sadie! Where are you?” Howard bellows and runs into the house, but he cannot find her anywhere, not even in the bathroom where she usually spends her mornings.
Howard can see the conspiracy now. The gnome was planted as bait and now Sadie has been kidnapped. He grabs the phone and dials the emergency number.
“Hello, Police? I was just down there with you reporting a gnome but now it’s gone and so’s my wife. Yes, I did fill out the form, in triplicate. I think they took her because the gnome is solid gold, but she doesn’t know that.”
As Howard speaks he looks wildly around, trying to see if anything else is gone, but he is too flustered to think. What if they demand a ransom for Sadie? What will he do?
Howard puts the phone down, hoping the police will come soon, and goes into the garage to find his cigar. He really needs a smoke after that shock; not only losing the gnome, but Sadie too. He puts the cigar in his mouth but does not light it, thinking instead of the little gnome’s shiny boot and the way the paint peeled off it.
Howard does not know how long he has been in the garage when he hears Sadie calling for him.
“Howard? Come in here and take your medicines. I returned that gnome to the Martins; their lad admitted to leaving it here for a prank. And the police said you were down there bothering them again. Don’t you know I always pop out in the mornings?”
Howard sighs. He remembers all the plans he had for spending the gold. Now he’ll have to come up with a new plan to escape from Sadie and the gnomes.

(more…)

Walking the Pier

I wrote this story for a competition where the last sentence had to contain the words walked the pier again so I decided to give that phrase a specific meaning.

‘Walking the pier’ they called it, but everybody knew what it really meant. In the old days an elder would go out into the forest, or perhaps take a canoe, and never return from that final journey which was presumed to end somewhere in the shadow lands with the spirits of the ancestors. But canoes were valuable and these days the people could not afford to lose one each time an elder went on their final journey while over time the white men came and cut down the forests, building large houses and roads instead. So now the elder would walk the pier instead.
The white men built the pier, a long wooden walkway on stilts that stretched out over the sharp rocks into the waves towards the sunset. It had no purpose, as far as the people could see, for who would walk all that way for some food when ice cream or fish and chips could be bought on the promenade? However, it was popular. In summer time the children jumped off the pier, shrieking with mock terror and waving their arms like fledglings before plunging into the icy water, while the hobby fishermen watched over their lines and occasionally landed something, drawing oohs and aahs from the assembled crowd as the poor fish flapped its life away on the boards of the pier, but the people knew that the best fish was still to be found way out in the bay.
And in the evenings, after dusk had settled and the people had gone back to their homes, an elder whose time had come would walk the pier alone, and when they reached the end, would climb over the railing and continue walking, into the water and the arms of the ancestors. It was as it should be.
But now the white men had installed lights and cameras and emergency phones at the end of their pier, and had erected a gate to stop people walking along it at night. One elder had already been ‘rescued’ from a fall off the end of the pier and brought to a hospital for a cursory check over; then the newspapers got wind of the story and began to write about the sanctity of life.
“Pah, sanctity!” thought Sings Softly, “What did they know about the salmon and the otter and the bear?”
“How can you profess sanctity for life and then cut down all the trees?” she asked but nobody gave her an answer. Only White Feather spoke to her of the need to adapt and to take note of the world around her. He told her stories of the trees he played in as a young boy, trees that gave way to schools and a hospital.
One night as she sat in her small house, mending a dress by the last of the evening light, a shadow passed in front of her and she looked up, startled, to see White Feather shuffling off towards the town.
“It’s time,” her father said, “he’s gone to walk the pier.”
Sings Softly liked White Feather; he had always been kind to her as she grew up hovering between two worlds and had taught her much of the history of their people. She had been saddened when his sight failed and he could no longer fish, although he continued to carve, by feel, until his fingers had become too bent with pain and then he just sat in his chair, nodding to visitors who came to see him, and telling his stories to anybody who would listen.
She thought of him now, proudly walking out to meet the waves and a tear rolled down her eye. Then she remembered the gates.
“How will White Feather get over the gates, if he can’t see them?”
“He will find a way,” her father said without looking up.
Sings Softly finished her mending, then tidied up and put things away for the night, all the while glancing out of the window and wondering what had happened to White Feather; she could not stop thinking about the gates to the pier and how White Feather would not be able to join his ancestors. When the moon reached the highest point in the sky she knew she would never get to sleep so she slipped out of bed, wrapped herself in a cloak, and, stopping only to take something from the shed she crept away towards the pier.
The moon was bright, but brighter still shone the lamps the white man had placed along the street, casting circles of light even though there was nobody around to see. Sings Softly moved around the pools of amber, keeping to the shadows in case anybody should be watching. While she was still some distance from the pier she could see the gates, shut tightly across the front of the pier, but there was no sign of White Feather. As she neared the pier she slowed down and looked around but still she saw nothing; then a scraping sound caught her attention.
She shielded her eyes from the street lights and looked out across the water. Something was moving, part way along the pier, and as she watched she saw a shape clutching one of the posts. White Feather must be walking out into the water, using the posts of the pier as a guide, to get around the gates.
Sings Softly took off her cloak, threaded her way between the rocks along the shoreline and waded into the sea. The cold water took her breath away and she had to move carefully, picking her way around the sharp submerged rocks.
The moon shone down on the water like a beacon, a golden pathway leading far away, and by the light she could see White Feather hanging onto one of the pilings of the pier with one hand, while his other hand struggled to undo his coat, which was caught on one of the nails. He was wearing a white man’s coat, one with many zippers and toggles and pockets that had always fascinated him and Sings Softly wondered if he had left his blanket behind for his family.
“Here, White Feather, let me help you get free,” she said softly, reaching up to unhook his coat.
“Huh? Who’s there? Long Arm?” White Feather sounded confused, calling on his brother to help him, but he must have felt when his coat was released and he stretched out his arms in front of him, moving his legs slowly, feeling for the rocks under water.
“Wait!” called Sings Softly, “there’s a better way. You don’t need to climb over all these rocks.”
She pulled White Feather back towards the shore, holding his frozen hands and guiding him around the underwater rocks. Once they emerged from the icy water she found her cloak and wrapped it around him. White Feather reached out to her and drew her to him in an embrace; his body felt cold, but still strong. When he stopped shivering she led him up the slope to the top of the pier and let his hands feel the bolt cutters she had brought. His twisted fingers tightened over hers and he waited while she cut through the fastenings of the gate.
“Come,” he whispered, when she pushed the gate open, “walk with me.”
He took her hand and they walked slowly along the pier, with only the creaking of the boards to mark their passing. A cloud drifted in front of the moon and the light dimmed on the water, making Sings Softly wonder if the way to the ancestors was closing. She began to hum a song that her mother had sung and beside her she could feel White Feather humming also.
“You went without saying goodbye,” she said at last.
“It is never good bye,” he replied, “you know that.”
“You don’t have to go,” she said, “we could get help.”
“Help for what? No, I have all the help I need right here.”
White Feather patted her arm and they continued along the pier, walking farther and farther from the shore until at last they stood at the very end, suspended above the deep water, listening to the gentle swish of the turning tide, staring at the golden pathway that led from the pier out into the centre of the bay.
White Feather began to speak, recounting the names of his ancestors while Sings Softly hummed. After a while she felt a great calm coming over her and she closed her eyes, trying to commit White Feather’s face to memory. When she opened her eyes again she found she was alone at the end of the pier, her cloak lying discarded on the bare boards.
Sings Softly stood for a long time looking out at the water, where small waves were breaking up the moonbeams, while the tears rolled down her cheeks. When the first tinges of dawn touched the edge of the sky she turned and walked back along the pier, stopping only to pick up the bolt cutters. She slipped back though the gate, pulling it closed then she walked slowly back to her house barely noticing the stirrings of the town with the early morning runners and the thrum of car engines warming up.
Later that day somebody pulled a coat out of the water. A bright yellow coat with a whistle and pockets full of small wooden carvings. It was not long before a crowd gathered at the pier, followed by policemen and ambulances and reporters who gave a running commentary on the local radio shows, while the coast guard boat roared around the bay in a shower of spray.
“It’s a shame, … something should be done, … old customs. The pier was vandalized,….should be prosecuted.”
Sings Softly barely heard the words as she sat staring out at the ocean. Some people came and questioned her and her neighbours; they knew the coat belonged to an elder, and White Feather was missing.
“He is gone,” she told them, and would not say anything else so after many days the white people all went away, talking about putting higher railings and taller gates with stronger locks on the pier.
One month later, at the next full moon, Sings Softly went down to the pier at night and stood in front of the gates looking along the empty walkway stretching out towards the horizon and the golden pathway on the water beyond it. She had brought a handful of blossoms; stretching her arm high she threw these over the gate and watched the petals flutter gently onto the wooden boards. Peering through the bars of the newly reinforced gate she thought she could make out the faint shape of White Feather, as he walked the pier again, for the last time, and she smiled.

A Morning Surprise

When I discovered the leg I knew I was in for a very bad day. It was trapped under the bulkhead at the swimming pool, and if I had not told anybody it would probably still be there, but I was in a hurry to get to my weekly coffee morning, so I opened my big mouth.
The day had already started out badly when I got up late and missed my normal swim time at the pool and instead found myself stuck behind some slowpokes while being deafened by loud music for the old ladies in their exercise class who wiggled their hips and waved their dumbbells like palm trees swaying in the wind. Half of them don’t even move; I think they just come here for the gossiping. You would think they could gossip in a coffee shop, like normal people, instead of spending hours taking long showers in the pool changing room.
By the time I had finished my thirty laps the pool was becoming quite crowded, so rather than fight my way past the waddling ladies to get to the steps I ducked under the dividing section between the lanes and the deep end. You are not supposed to go under this – it says “no swimming” and “lifeguards only” in big letters on the side, but if they only provide one ladder to get out of the pool what do they expect? It’s not as if I were swimming, anyway, I just dived under and surfaced on the other side, right in the middle of a group of youngsters having a lesson, but in that brief moment I caught sight of something above me, trapped under the bulkhead.
I should have just ignored it and gone on my way but it was such an unusual sight that I repositioned my goggles and ducked under again to have another look. It was a complete human leg, severed at the top of the thigh.
As I surfaced, a lifeguard caught sight of me and came walking along the bridge towards me.
“There’s no swimming under the bulkhead.”
“I’m just trying to get out,” I said in my most polite voice, “but did you know there’s a leg stuck underneath there?”
“Yes, that’s right, you could get your leg stuck, so please stay away,” she said.
I suppose that’s what had happened to a careless swimmer, but you would think the pool staff would clear away the leg – it must be very unhygienic.
Two of the youngsters nearby were watching me and as soon as the lifeguard turned her back they dived down under the bulkhead. A moment later they resurfaced, shouting and waving their arms, gulping great mouthfuls of pool water.
“A leg! Help! There’s a leg under here!”
Lifeguards are trained to react to words like ‘help’ so in an instant the young lady jumped into the pool with her red, floaty people-saver and began hauling the kids out of the water while they continued to thrash and shout.
“It’s all red and gross!”
“It’s a leg, a real leg; somebody’s stuck under there!”
Well that wasn’t true; there’s no way you could get a whole person under the bridge, but some of the other pool staff jumped in to have a look and the person on the top of the lifeguard chair began to blow on a whistle and make semaphore signals to the office. Of course everybody stopped swimming and waddling and gossiping and looked over to the section of pool near me, so I swam over to the ladder and climbed out, thinking that I had better get to the showers before everybody made a rush for them.
“Excuse me, but you need to remain on the pool deck until we establish what the danger is,” said a youth with a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘staff’ and a tattoo of a snake on his arm.
“Oh, there’s no danger,” I replied, “the leg’s not attached to anything, and it’s not mine. But I do have an appointment to get to so I need to get dressed.”
I tried to get past him but he stretched out his arm with the snake and guided me over to a corner of the pool where the young children were being gathered and inspected, to make sure they each had two legs, I suppose. Since I plainly did have two legs I did not see why I should have to wait and I said so out loud, only to be scolded by the swimming instructor.
By now the exercising ladies were being helped out of the pool, but it was slow going with only the one staircase and most of them not understanding what was going on.
“Why is the class ending early?” asked one, “we haven’t even done the stretches yet.”
“They found a leg in the pool,” said another.
“It must be Mabel; she always used to ask for a leg up out of the pool.”
“No, it’s a leg on its own, not attached to a body.”
“What’s that? Who’s not attached to anybody? I can’t hear without my hearing aid. I have to take it out for swimming, and now I’m as deaf as a post.”
“They found a human leg in the pool!”
“Ooh, did they really?”
As the news spread the ladies became more agitated, some of them falling back into the pool from the steps, which upset the lifeguards who were trying to clear the water, others arguing over the pile of flip flops by the edge of the pool.
“Attention please,” boomed a voice over the p.a. system, distorted by the echoes in the large pool hall. “Due to an unforeseen incident we ask that everybody leave the pool area and retrieve their belongings.”
Unforeseen incident. Well of course it was. Nobody plans to leave their leg behind in the pool. I tried to sidle around the tattooed youth; I would be last in line for the showers now, I could see, but at least I could get my clothes and go on to my coffee meeting, but three firefighters strode down the pool deck towards us, looking very overdressed in their flameproof outfits. I hoped they were not going to spray water everywhere.
“Are these the witnesses?” one of them asked the tattooed youth. “I’m sorry, but the police will need to question them.”
“What about the kids? They’re freezing,” said the instructor pointing to the youngsters who were standing, knock kneed, teeth chattering, peering into the pool with rapt attention, no doubt hoping for a parade of other body parts.
“We’ll be as quick as we can,” said the firefighter and turned to talk to the kids, while the pool management staff gathered around.
Well, great, so here I was, the only person not allowed to leave the pool, and on the one morning I needed to get going. The only good part of the delay was that it allowed the police to arrive so that I would not have to answer questions twice. Two of them rushed down the pool deck, totally ignoring the signs about not wearing street shoes, and zeroed in on me like homing mosquitos.
“So, can you tell me how you found the leg?” asked one policeman, taking out a notebook.
“Well, I swam under the bulkhead,” I said, “and when I looked up, there was the leg above me, trapped against the underside.”
“You didn’t see anybody leave it there?”
This was getting ridiculous. Did he seriously think that somebody would leave their leg behind in the pool and just climb out, one legged, and hop off to the changing room?
I shook my head, trying to look serious.
“What were you doing under the bulkhead?” asked the second cop, who had just joined our small group. “It says here, clearly, ‘no swimming.’”
He turned and looked at the pool manager, who nodded in agreement, as if the very fact of a ‘no swimming’ notice should have prevented the leg from getting stuck under the bulkhead.
“I wanted to get out of the pool, as I have an important appointment to get to, and it is very hard to get out of the pool without a ladder.”
I glared at the manager, so that he would get the message about the lack of ladders, then I looked up at the clock in the hope that they would get the idea that I was in a hurry, and so I nearly missed what they said next.
“…contravening the rules of the facility; possible suspension of membership.”
What? Were they serious? After I did them a favour by reporting the leg?
After much talking back and forth between the cops, the management and the firefighter, who was now holding the leg as if it were a fire hose, they allowed me to return to the changing room to get dressed, and wouldn’t you know it but the showers were all taken by those gossiping women who couldn’t get enough of the leg.
“A man’s leg, all hairy it was.”
“I heard it was a woman’s.”
“Blood dripping from the end – it’s disgusting, us being in the same water. It will affect my allergies, it will.”
I gave up on my shower and dressed as quickly as possible. I was already an hour late but luckily I was able to sneak out of the building without being called aside for more questioning.
I jumped into my car and raced to my destination, fixing my hair as I drove. I worried that everyone would have given up waiting for me, but I was pleased to see they were all still seated at the table.
“A double frosted mocha frappucino with extra cream,” I said to the server, then I turned to my Thursday coffee morning friends and said, “you will never guess what happened at the pool this morning!”

Hidden Secrets

Everyone was staring at me as my wife handed me the painting she had pulled off the wall then removed the carved wooden cylinder that was taped to the back of the canvas and hid it in her pocket, while the guard waved his arms and babbled into his radio.
“Quick, we must get out of here before they stop us!” she said, heading towards the exit, and she elbowed her way past gaping tourists and the gesticulating guard, intent on reaching the street and the next stage of the search.
I spared a glance at the museum staff, who were already re-hanging the painting, and the guard, still talking into his radio, wondering how many times a week they had to endure these crazy re-enactions then followed my wife down the back stairs of the Louvre and out onto the streets of Paris where the rain splashed onto glistening cobblestones and the traffic sped by, horns honking, oblivious to our plight.
“We must travel to the east,” Marlene said, consulting her booklet. “That’s where we can find somebody to decipher this puzzle. And we only have six hours before they’ll be onto us.”
I looked back at the famous museum, half expecting to see commandos rushing out of the glass pyramid to take us captive but instead I saw a park cleaner sweeping up the debris from the morning’s visitors and I felt a tinge of regret: my first time in the Louvre and I had not even had a chance to see the Mona Lisa. As I watched the even strokes of the broom the man turned and stared straight at me.
I panicked, even though I knew he was probably just a park cleaner, but all the same I had no desire to be captured by the other side so I hailed a cab and, without looking back, I pushed my wife inside and slammed the door.
“Versailles,” I said, giving the name of the first place that came into my mind.
“No, not Versailles,” squawked my wife, thrusting a map under the driver’s nose. “Here! Ici! We want to go here, I mean, ici!”
The taxi sped off into the traffic and I sank back onto the seat, wondering how I had ever agreed to this nonsense.
It had all started a year ago when my wife suggested we should go on a tour of the Scottish highlands. Imagining that we would be striding across moors stalking grouse and dining on haggis in famous castles, I readily agreed, only to discover that my wife had other plans: retracing the footsteps of the hero in one of her romance novels. To my amazement, the publishing company, who obviously could spot a money-making stunt, had created a tour that took fans to all the places mentioned in this book and for the two weeks of our journey I had to endure a gaggle of ladies, my wife included, clucking over the site of the wedding chapel where they were married, the inn where they fought off the redcoats, the cave where they were held prisoner and other unremarkable locations, with not a grouse, haggis or castle in sight. To make matters worse, the tour guide, dressed in a kilt, had played the role of one of the characters, causing the ladies to swoon and blush and behave like heart-struck teenagers all through the trip.
“We are not going to Scotland again,” I declared upon our return to the safety of our house and the sanctity of my study, “next year we’ll go to Paris or Rome.”
While I went back to my business my wife undertook her own research. She was so pleased with the results of the romantic rendezvous that she wondered what other books had spawned tours of the locations the characters had visited and she found a company that specialises in re-enactments of fiction. Not only can you visit the location where the hero walked, you can experience the story for yourself, solving clues along the way, emerging victorious at the end, no doubt with a pre-printed merit certificate signed by the author and a 50% off voucher for a repeat experience.
Romance books are not normally filled with action, at least, not the sort that you can recreate in public, but spy novels and thrillers are perfect fodder for re-enactment scenarios and since the idea was first floated a host of companies had sprung up to provide the thrill of the chase, as it were, with safety clauses built into the contract. I was glad that my wife did not like to read Stephen King novels, but she was a keen fan of Dan Brown, which is why after breakfast this morning we had found ourselves outside the Louvre, eagerly anticipating solving the mysteries of the Da Vinci code.
Well, when I say eagerly, I mean Marlene, of course; I would much rather have spent the morning in the Impressionists gallery, but it was her dream vacation, so I agreed to tag along.
It was not going to be exactly like the book, otherwise the punters could just read up on the precise locations and solutions to the mysteries and there would be no fun in the experience – if you could call racing around Paris fun. Instead, the tour company had devised a series of puzzles that were loosely based on the book but changed with each tour so that you could not give away the clues to the next unsuspecting victims.
I wondered if the tour companies wrote their own scripts or employed a team of mystery writers to do it for them. Perhaps there was a job opportunity there; I could write clues sending the participants to my brother’s hotel.
“Who comes up with these questions?” I asked once the taxi had stopped swerving round corners like a Formula-1 racer, and I had an opportunity to examine the carved cylinder, a small wooden tube which was covered in symbols like a scientific journal.
“The Illuminati of course,” said my besotted wife, grabbing the cylinder from me, “and Dan Brown is helping us to expose them.”
I rolled my eyes and wondered if there would be any decent beer in Versailles, or wherever we were going, or perhaps a small drinking establishment that I could park myself in while my wife indulged her fantasy but suddenly the side window shattered and something whistled past my head and embedded itself in the side of the car.
“They found us!” said the driver, swearing under his breath and accelerating hard.
“Who? What?” I stammered, bending down so that my shoulders touched my knees.
“They’re after this,” said my wife, tucking the cylinder into her ample bosom and sliding down the seat.
“Can you lose them?” she asked the taxi driver.
“Oui, oui, madame!” said the driver, nodding his head enthusiastically and taking a sharp left turn.
I wondered if he was part of the re-enactment or whether he just happened to be there at the right time, but surely they could not just shoot at any random taxi; it would have to be all pre-arranged, and given the forms we had signed, and the liability we had waived, not to mention the insurance we had been obliged to take out, this was probably all planned.
There were no more shots but I was not taking any chances with my head so I stayed crouched on the floor, wondering how they had found us. As I wriggled around, trying to avoid the pieces of broken window glass I felt something hard in my back pocket and pulled it out. We had each been issued photo ID passes which had got us into the Louvre in advance of the crowds of tourists but as I examined the barcode and felt the weight of the plastic I realised that the ID must also be a tracking device.
I was tempted to throw the thing out of the window and tell Marlene we would finish this tour on our own, but then I realised we would have a lot of explaining to do to the local police, and we would have no protection, if you can call a flimsy piece of plastic protection, should the re-enactment villains persist in pursuing us.
The taxi came to a stop, engine idling, no doubt for a quick getaway, and the driver reached behind him and opened the door.
“Notre Dame!” he said, pointing at the famous church, whose spires towered above us.
It was either the right place or Marlene was desperate to get out of the taxi because she practically fell onto the pavement and pulled me out after her, then the taxi sped off without waiting for payment. That was one part of this adventure that I did like.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We go inside the church,” she said, consulting her booklet, “and find the Keeper of the Key.”
“Oh,” I said, none the wiser, thinking for the hundredth time that I really should have read the novel before I came along on this caper. “And how do we recognise him?”
But Marlene had already turned and was striding towards the church door, ignoring the line of tourists waiting to climb the tower hoping for a glimpse of the ghost of Quasimodo. I gave them an apologetic shrug and hurried after her.
In the cool interior of the church I took a moment to adjust my eyes to the gloom that was pierced by coloured motes of light from the stained glass windows high above. My footsteps echoed a measured beat on the stone floor, contrasting with the clicking of my wife’s heels as she hurried away from me down the centre of the church. As she passed one of the side chapels a man wearing a long red robe stepped out from the shadows and beckoned to her. She moved towards him and after a moment she pulled the cylinder out from her blouse and passed it to him.
I had to dodge around a large group of tourists, each listening to the history of the church on individual hand held speakers, and when I caught up with Marlene the man in the robe was examining the cylinder as if it were an aged bottle of wine.
“I thought we were supposed to keep that,” I said, “and don’t we need a key?”
“It’s okay,” said Marlene, “this is Monsignor Philippe. He’s going to help us decipher the code.”
Just then a flash of light blinded my eyes as one of the tourists snapped a photograph of the carved pillar behind me. I stepped backward, blinking, and trod on the foot of an elderly lady who grimaced and bent over, massaging her toes.
“Sorry, er pardon, Madame,” I said, while a stream of visitors pushed past me.
A man took the limping lady’s arm and escorted her away, while she scowled and shook her fist at me and the tourists moved on to the next statue, clutching their portable audio guides. I looked around for Marlene and saw she was turning back and forth, searching for something.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He’s gone!” she said, “Monsignor took the cypher and vanished!”
“Isn’t he supposed to do that?” I asked, beginning to feel a bit worried.
“No! He was supposed to help us solve the puzzle and lead us to the next clue.”
I looked around the vast cavern of the church but there were no men in robes, no lost keys or ciphers and no likely looking bestselling authors lurking nearby.
“Maybe he’s double crossed us,” I suggested. “Don’t the books usually have a good guy who turns out to be a bad guy?”
“But that’s not until day three,” Marlene wailed, “It says so in the booklet. Here; I’ll show you.”
She reached into her bag for the re-enactment booklet, the set of instructions for the game which also contained the emergency number to call if something went wrong and the details of how to quit if you were not satisfied. It was not there.
“I had it a minute ago,” she cried, “I was consulting the diagram of the church layout. It was right next to my ID card.”
With a gasp Marlene looked up. “My ID card’s gone too!”
“What do you mean gone?” I asked, putting my hand into my pocket, but even as I spoke I knew what had happened.
We had been robbed. Ether by the re-enactment company or by common Parisian pickpockets, but either way we were lost in a strange city with no identification, no money, no phone and no belongings.
“What shall we do?” Marlene sobbed as I stood looking at the flecks of dust floating in the shafts of coloured light that angled towards the floor from the lofty windows.
“Do? We’re in Paris; we’re going to stroll arm in arm along the Seine and later we’ll sit at a small café and have a delicious meal.”
“But, what about our plans, and the re-enactment and our money and everything?”
“Oh, I’m sure we can change our plans,” I said, putting my arm around my wife, “I can get my brother to wire some funds and as for re-enactment, we could try re-enacting our engagement, and then we could go and really tour the Louvre.”
As we walked out of the church, holding hands for the first time in many years, I caught sight of the woman whose foot I had stood on and she smiled at me, slightly inclining her head. I winked at her, then steered my wife towards the riverbank and our real holiday.

It Wasn’t Really Stealing

It wasn’t really stealing, Daniel thought to himself for the hundredth time, as he joined the two wires together and heard the engine come to life; just borrowing. He had done this every night for the last month and he still got a thrill out of driving away behind the wheel of a brand new car.
“Where are we going?” asked his younger brother Tyler, eyes wide with excitement.
“To the other side of the city. You always take the car far away from its own lot, but be sure you remember where it came from.”
Tyler nodded and ran his hand along the sleek hood. This was a flashier model than the ones Daniel normally borrowed, but he had wanted to show off on his brother’s first night.
The boys got inside the car, wrinkling their noses at the smell of polish, and Daniel drove slowly out of the lot, stopping the car on the street to replace the chain across the exit before joining the stream of traffic that pulsed through the city like an artery. He was careful to match the speed of the other cars and used signals for every turn, melding into the flow, until he pulled into the far end of the parking lot outside one of the larger casinos.
“Now, we wait,” Daniel said, studying the gamblers who were coming out of the main doors.
He watched men walk briskly to their cars, couples hail taxis and slide into the back seats of the cramped cabs, and valets hold open the doors of limousines for smart, young people who appeared to tip well. After half an hour or so a man stumbled out of the casino, looked at his watch and began walking out towards them.
“Here’s the first customer; I know this guy,” said Daniel and eased the car forward until it came alongside the man.
“Would you like a ride, sir?” Daniel asked in a cheerful voice, “only fifteen dollars to anywhere in the city.”
The man swayed and peered in at the two boys.
“Ah, Miguel, it’s you!”
Daniel silenced his brother’s confused look with a quick frown and a shake of his head while he leaned over the back seat to open the rear door.
“That’s right, sir, and this is Paco, my assistant.”
Tyler smiled and nodded mutely while the man fell into the back seat and yanked the door shut.
“Nice car, Miguel, did you get a raise?” he slurred.
“No sir, it’s my turn to take this car tonight; tomorrow I’m back to the older model.”
“Well, so long as it gets me home that’s what counts. Westmore Villas – you know the place.”
The man slumped back into the plush upholstery and closed his eyes, while Tyler made faces and gesticulated to Daniel who had already pulled onto the main road heading east.
They drove in silence apart from the wheezing of the man in the back which sent wafts of alcohol tinged breath around the car. Tyler opened his window and Daniel closed it again, motioning to his brother to sit still. Twenty minutes later they pulled up in front of a red brick apartment building and Daniel turned to the man.
“Sir, wake up, sir; we’re here.”
The man sat up, rubbing his eyes, and stared out of the window. After a moment he grunted, pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to Daniel.
“Thanks, Miguel, see ya next time.”
Daniel reached behind him and opened the door. The man peeled himself out of the car and stood in front of the apartment, fumbling in his pocket. Daniel gave a wave then drove away taking a different route to the one they had come by.
“See, it’s simple, like I told you,” he said, “just never give your real name and always ask for fifteen dollars. Most people don’t have change so they’ll give you a twenty and let you keep the rest. And go for the ones who are a bit drunk and walking slowly.”
Daniel picked up two more passengers before turning the car over to Tyler and borrowing another one from a different lot. He wondered if he should have given Tyler the minivan and kept the luxury car for himself but he could have that car any time he wanted, and after all, this was Tyler’s first night on the job.
All night Daniel ferried people around the city; mostly short rides making twenty dollars each time but he was lucky enough to get fifty dollars from a man who wanted a fast ride to the train station. Once Tyler had learned the ropes he would have to get his friends in on the scheme; it was so simple. Those dealers had no idea what a goldmine they left sitting out each night.
Just before the dawn began to tickle the tops of the buildings the brothers met in the parking lot behind the main movie theatre.
“Well?” asked Daniel.
“Wow!” said Tyler, holding up a fistful of notes, “we’re rich!”
Daniel laughed and told his brother to follow him back to the first lot. He wanted to return the fancy car before the first shift of salesmen arrived, and two boys driving a minivan would attract less attention.
As he approached the first lot he saw they were too late; a couple of dealers and a cop wearing a bright yellow jacket stood by the empty spot where the car had sat. He slowly drove past the lot, waving his hand to Tyler, hoping that his brother would see the signal and know to follow him but Tyler just waved back and drove the car into the lot.
Cursing his luck, Daniel looped around the block and parked his minivan at a gas station, then sauntered past the dealer’s lot, trying to spot Tyler without being noticed himself. He need not have bothered with the secrecy as a small crowd was forming on the sidewalk gaping at the cop who was holding a wriggling Tyler in a tight grip.
“You little thief!” shouted the dealer, shaking his fist at Tyler, “you’ve been stealing cars off this lot!”
“No, I never,” said Tyler, his teeth chattering, “I found it over by the mall with the engine running and I was just bringing it back. How can I be stealing it if I brought it back?”
Daniel had to admire his brother’s quick wit. He would probably get away with it as, after all, he had not actually stolen the car, and there was no way to tell who had taken it, but it meant that their careers as taxi drivers were over. He would have to find something else to borrow instead.

The Cart

James held his breath and poked the shovel one more time into the pile of manure. He did not know how one horse could produce so much dung and he did not see why he had to clear it up when it was not even his horse.
“I can ride my bike faster than any horse,” he had said, when his father first proposed the idea, “and I don’t have to feed it or clean up after it.”
His father had thought he was smart, beating the oil shortage by buying a horse – nag more like. James had been the butt of jokes at school for weeks until the girls started coming round to pet the horse and the boys realised that the best way to impress the girls was to claim to be able to ride the horse. Riding had lasted one week until the fourth boy fell off and James’ father had stopped them from riding.
“The horse is for transport,” he said, “so we must train it to pull the cart.”
The cart. That was another object of ridicule: a converted trailer with a sports canopy on top.
“We have to work with the materials we have,” his father had explained, “and your mother can hardly go grocery shopping or take your sister to school on a bicycle.”
James was so embarrassed the first time his father took the cart out that he had spent the day at home rather than let anybody he knew see his father riding around on the contraption. But that had been two months ago and he did not worry so much about appearances any more because their lives had changed so much, and all because of the oil ban.
He had never really thought about how much gas the old car used, nor where it all came from, although he had been aware of the prices creeping steadily upwards and his parents’ worries. When they told him he would have to give up baseball because they could not longer afford to drive to the games he was furious and sulked for a week, arguing each time the car was taken out that the journey was not as important as his baseball game but gradually all his friends gave up their sports and activities too. The lucky people who had electric cars had been able to keep driving for a few more weeks but then the government banned the recharging of cars and overnight all means of transport other than public trams were banned, and even they were rationed by a very selective coupon system.
That was when James noticed how far it was to everywhere, even on his bike. Riding the half hour to the skate park had never seemed a chore before, but now it was half an hour on his bike to the library, to school, to almost anywhere he wanted to go, and of course he had to carry his stuff with him. The smart kids had bought bike panniers when the crisis started but by the time James thought of that the store had sold out and of course with no new goods coming into the country there was a shortage of everything.
His mother still taught at the elementary school, although the number of students was declining each week as more and more kids stayed at home to help with finding food and work. His father had given up his job in the city once he could no longer get there on a daily basis and was now stuck at home, trying out this crazy scheme of using a horse and wagon as a taxi service, and he, James had to clean up the taxi poop.
It was just not fair.

Colours

“What does the colour red make you think of?” asked the teacher, looking around the class.
Several short stubby hands shot up in the air.
“My Dad’s car,” said a little boy in the front row, “it goes really fast but I’m not allowed to sit in the front because it has a hair bag.”
“Air bag, silly!” said another little boy.
“Why?” asked a child at the far end of the group.
“Because it will chop off your head,” said the second little boy, making a chopping motion across his throat with his hand.
“Okay, that’s enough now,” said the teacher, “let’s hear from somebody else. She pointed to a girl on her left.
“Valentines,” the little girl giggled.
“Valentines, yes,” agreed the teacher, “any more?”
“Lisa’s boots!”
Suggestions and comments came from all over the room.
“Apples!”
“Apples are green!”
“Not red ones.”
“John’s sweater!”
“The table in the corner!”
“The box in my bedroom!”
“What about you Liam?” The teacher turned to a boy sitting on the edge of the group who had not said anything yet, “what does the colour red make you think of?”
“Thursday.”
The class giggled.
“I’m sorry Liam,” said the teacher, “what did you say?”
“Thursday,” Liam repeated, even more quietly. He hugged his knees and looked down at his shoe laces. They were brown and curly, special elastic ones that were easy to do up and hard to lose, but they did not match his shoes, which were a lighter brown, and that bothered him. He could hear the class laughing around him; rather, at him, but he did not care.
Liam closed his eyes and thought of red. The soft, gentle, almost rose like red that was Thursday. The harsh, brash red that was A, the deeper red that represented 4, or 40, or 400, and sometimes 4,000 except that because 4,000 had so many zeros it sometimes came out as whitish, like the zero itself.
White. That was January, the cold month. Mrs Hadman had put up a big yellow poster on the wall with January at the top. Liam could not bear to look at it. Yellow was wrong. Yellow was for June, and July, warm summer months, and for Wednesday, and for –
“Liam!”
Mrs. Hadman’s voice brought him back to earth. She was standing next to him with some paper in her hand.
“Liam, please pay attention. We’re starting the colour journal and I would like you to draw some pictures of things you know are red. Real things, things you can touch and see.”
Liam sighed. Thursday was real, wasn’t it? He had to come to school on Thursdays so it must be real. He picked up his red pencil and looked at it. Yup, it was real. Carefully he drew a big line on his paper, then another, and another and another. Underneath, he wrote a big, red “4”.
Poor Mrs. Hadman, he thought, she just can’t see properly.

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