Category Archives: General

Personal Assistant

I have been tempted on a number of occasions to get a virtual personal assistant.  Life is so complicated these days that having someone help would be awesome… and it got me thinking…

 

Personal Assistant

“George, I wanted to thank you so much for your recommendation, Subrah has simply changed my life!”

“Um, Subrah?”

“My virtual personal assistant.  You sent me a mail recommending I get one, I think it was last month.”

“I don’t think I did.”

“You did.”

“Look Doris, I really don’t think…”

“Here it is.”

She passed him her phone, and there, quite clearly was an email from him, suggesting she get a virtual personal assistant and suggesting a particular company, whose name he recognised.  Except he knew he hadn’t written it.

“Ah, yes.  Sorry Doris, my mind’s going.  There’s been a lot going on, what with moving house and all.”

Looking at him sceptically she shook her head.

“George, George.  Maybe you should get one of these assistants.  You might be forgetting to do important things.”

“I tried it Doris, but it just didn’t work out for me.  I’m glad it is for you.”

“Oh he’s quite amazing.  I didn’t think someone sitting thousands of miles away could help me so much. He filters my email, he’s got all my passwords set up, he found me a new online stockbroker, and then there’s this diet he found for me.  It’s amazing, all green food one week, all red the next…”

George tuned her out.  Once she started talking about a diet she couldn’t stop, it was the same when she had been a teenager.  He loved his sister, but being able to tune her out was a survival skill.  He wondered how that email could have been written.  Had someone hacked his email account?  He didn’t think it was possible, after all he was the only person who knew the password, and it was a nice long one.  That was one thing Vipal had done for him, he’d taught him to use long passwords.  Wait, did Vipal know the password as well?  Of course he did, George had given them all to him, and hadn’t quite managed to get round to changing them.  Had Vipal hacked into his account and sent recommendation emails?

“Sorry to interrupt you Doris, I’ve just remembered an important meeting.  I must dash.”

“Oh George, this is why you need an assistant.”

“Perhaps, got to run, I’ll text you.”

He headed back towards his office, and dialled the direct number for Vipal.

“Mr George, I believe you said you no longer wanted our services.”

The Mr George was a joke based on his love of the Simpsons.  He wasn’t finding it funny anymore.

“I know Vipal, but I wanted to know why you were sending emails claiming to be from me recommending the services of your company.”

“Now Mr George, you know you agreed to send some recommendation emails as part of the original deal.  That’s how you could afford our VIP price plan.  You have excellent connections.”

“Yes, but I didn’t send it!”

“Of course you did.  It came from your account.”

“But you wrote it.”

“I merely helped you do the needful.”

George was remembering why he quit the service.  He could never win an argument with Vipal.  Which was the reason he was wearing Calvin Klein jeans, despite his hatred of brands, especially slightly faded ones, and jeans.

“Yes, right, thanks.  That’s to be the last thing though.  I shall be changing my password.”

“Of course Mr George.  Don’t forget you have an appointment with the dentist this afternoon at four o’clock.”

“What?  I don’t have an appointment…”

“It is your annual check-up.”

“Ah, thanks.  But that’s it.”

“Of course Mr George.  Have a good day.”

George looked at his phone in some consternation.  He was confused.  Had he managed to actually fire Vipal?  But also, how was he going to survive?  He’d never have remembered to book the dentist.  They’d probably sent reminders, but he was very good at not seeing them.  No, he wanted control of his life.  He’d just have to be firm with Vipal next time they spoke.

He thought Janice would probably laugh at him again.  She still had her assistant and loved her.  He’d told her last week that he was firing Vipal and she’d said she couldn’t survive without the support, and he just needed to relax.

Now that he thought about it, he’d only met Janice because of Vipal.  The assistant had signed him up to that online dating service, Partners he thought it was called.  To be honest he’d been quite annoyed at first, but Vipal had done everything.  Just told him where and when to meet the dates.    Janice wasn’t the first match, and he’d been a bit unsure at first, but they’d kept having dates.  Then Vipal and Asha, Janice’s assistant, had synced up their diaries, and here they were, nice and happy.

Except he wasn’t happy.  Hadn’t been happy.  Maybe he was happier now.  Since he’d fired Vipal he’d been able to sleep properly.  A black cloud had lifted, and yet today it had returned.  He needed to get rid of his assistant properly.  After the dentist appointment though.  Mind made up, he headed towards the station.

As he walked he realised he’d never be able to fire Vipal with a direct conversation and he was just wondering how to get to Vipal’s supervisor when he bumped into someone.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you st…”

He’d bumped into a very pretty girl, and suddenly realised he knew her.

“Philippa?”

“George.”

Very cold response.

“Ah, how are you?”

“Fine, no thanks to you.”

“What?”

“Look, I’m not going to stand here chatting to a bloke who stood me up, multiple times, and has just nearly knocked me to the ground.”

She started to stalk off.

“Wait a second, you stood me up!  That time at Da Vinci’s, I was there for two hours.”

“What are you talking about George?  We never agreed to meet at Da Vinci’s.”

“But Vipal said…”

“Vipal.  Yes, your master.”

He thought he might be starting to understand, and he didn’t like the implications.

“Look Philippa, I’m really sorry.  I think the whole virtual assistant thing was a mistake.  I’ve got rid of Vipal, can I take you for a coffee?”

Her head had turned away from him, but she stopped and slowly looked at him again.  He could see the tears starting in her eyes, and her desperation to stop them flowing.

“One coffee George.”

They sat quietly over their coffees.  He wasn’t sure how to begin, but she started.

“What hurt most was that you just sent text messages.  It was always something about work, or another idiotic excuse.”

“I don’t think I texted you, I never use work as an excuse.”

Not least because he didn’t work that hard.

“You said that, and yet your texts contradicted you.”

“Could you show me the texts?”

She stiffened.  “What makes you think I still have them?”

“Ah, I just hoped.  Look, here is my text history with you.”

He turned his phone to her.

“You kept them?  Really?”

He didn’t want to tell her that he just never deleted anything.

“Of course, I was kind of hoping to see you again.”

Thoughts of Janice flashed in his head, but this was about finding out what was happening in his life, and nothing else.

“Me too.  Here, I kept all your texts.  Even the ones where you were being a total bastard.”

He looked through the texts, and then at his phone.  More than half the texts didn’t match up.  It explained why some of her texts had made no sense.  In fact his worries about her sanity had been one of the reasons he’d finally finished it with her.

“I didn’t write these texts Philippa.  In fact, I think it was Vipal.”

“Your assistant?  Oh George, can’t you just be a man and admit your own mistakes.”

He could hear the tears coming back, and she was reaching over to collect her things when he touched her arm.

“No really, I discovered today that he’d been writing emails from my account, recommending the services of his company.”

“But, can he do that?”

“He has.  I don’t know how to stop it.”

“Why did he send these texts then?  Why did he want to get rid of me?”

“I don’t know.  Perhaps if you had an assistant we could ask them?”

She looked pensive, and opened her mouth to say something, before closing it.

“What?”

“Well, it’s just, I was offered a free trial of a virtual assistant just after we started going out.  I said I didn’t need one.  They became quite insistent, and it wasn’t until I threatened to go to the authorities that they stopped.  I was going to tell you about it…”

“But about that time I started to stand you up.”

“Yes.”

“Look Philippa, I think I need your help.  You had a lucky escape, but I think I’m trapped…”

“There you are.  And who is this?”

“Oh, Janice, hi.  This is Philippa, I bumped into her in the street.”

“Really.  Well that’s enough of that, we are supposed to be having coffee.  Come along.  Nice to meet you Phyllis.”

Janice seized his arm possessively and started to move away.  He tried to say goodbye to Philippa, but was swept along by Janice.

“Now George, we’re going to have a lovely coffee, and a nice slice of cake, and not talk about what just happened.”

They had lunch and George went to his dentist appointment in a daze.  They told him he’d need some work done on his teeth, fillings and suchlike, and they’d organise the dates with his assistant.  He just nodded.

He went into work and Peterson called him in for a meeting.  He did like his boss, but he wasn’t quite sure he could cope with another telling off.  There’d been a few of those in the last month.  Without Vipal he was struggling to get to meetings and hit deadlines.

“George, please sit down.”

This did not bode well.

“Look, sir, if this is about this morning…”

“Call me Henry.  No one calls me sir, it’s just so old fashioned.  You’re a funny one.”

“Henry, about this morning…”

“Nothing to worry about old man.  Didn’t want to talk about it.  What I wanted to say was, congratulations, you’ve done it!

“What?”

“You old sneak you.  I wondered why you’d become so flaky this last month, and now I find out you’ve done your certification and applied for a different job.”

“I did, I have?”

“Yes, the boys over in sector 7G are excited to have someone of your quality on board.  They’ve never had someone get a hundred percent in the exams before.”

“Oh right, well you know.”

“And I wanted to apologise for being so rough on you recently, but if you’d just told me.  Well I guess you were worried I might not want to lose you, but I’d have supported you all the way, and still will.”

“Thanks.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you.  Now get over to 7G and see your new digs.”

“Ah.”

7G had been his dream when he’d started at the company.  They did all the innovative stuff, but he’d been rejected.  Ended up in one of the side areas, each day a little of his hope eroding away, and yet now, suddenly, he was in.  But, well, it was obvious.  It had been Vipal.

That night he sat in his kitchen staring at the phone on the table.  He needed to call Vipal.  He needed to be free.  Yet, he looked around.  It was a lovely flat.  Vipal and Asha had found it for them, and it was a steal, though he and Janice could barely afford it.  Except now he was going to be getting a bit more money so they wouldn’t have problems.  Janice was lovely too.  Perhaps not the type of girl he had imagined he’d end up with, but still, she was attractive, successful and everyone said they made a good couple.  He stared at the phone again and realised he had no choice.

“Mr George, nice to hear from you.”

“Look Vipal…”

“Yes Mr George?”

He paused, and said, “Can you set up a surprise dinner with Janice?  Somewhere nice?  I need to tell her about my promotion.  Also, can you find me an engagement ring, make sure the band is a little large so she has a reason to visit the shop and be pampered.”

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

#

“Mr George, there is an unscheduled entry in your diary.”

Vipal actually meant there was an entry in the diary which George had been foolish enough to put in himself.  There was clear frustration in Vipal’s voice, like a master who wonders if his dog will ever be trained.  George had been very good at following his assistant’s appointments for a few weeks now and Vipal had assumed George was properly settled.

“Oh yes Vipal, good morning.  I must have forgotten to mention it to you.”

“Indeed Mr George.  Shall I cancel it?”

“Oh no, it’s very important.  It’s a conference call, and I’m keen that you join as well.”

“I always join Mr George, so I can keep a record for you.”

“I meant as a participant.”

“That is most irregular Mr George.”

“Yet still permitted?”

There was silence, and then Vipal said grudgingly, “Yes, Mr George.”

“Excellent.  Let’s dial in.”

They hit the appropriate icons on their screens and waited a few seconds for the call to connect.  They both appeared on the list of participants, and then a new person joined, called Prikesh.  George thought he heard Vipal gasp.

“Morning George, Vipal.”

“Morning Prikesh,” said George.

Vipal said nothing.

“Morning Vipal,” repeated Prikesh.

“Ah morning Prikesh.”

“I’m glad you could both join.  This meeting is to discuss resetting of relationships.”

“But Prikesh…”

“Vipal, this is for your own good.  And don’t forget in ten minutes you have that call with the mechanic, so we do not have time to waste.”

“Yes Prikesh.”

If Vipal had been a dog, his tail would have been between his legs by this point.

“As I was saying.  Relationship reset.  Mr George has approached me and asked me to help him initiate a more freestyle programme.  He understands that it will cost him the same amount, but that he will be receiving less service from you Vipal.  He was lucky as we have just started a programme, initially aimed at our highest paying customers, but it is good to have a few other test subjects at the VIP level.”

“Ah…”

“I will transfer you the instructions for you to read in your next break, but in essence you will only provide him with support when he explicitly asks for it.  He may ask you to add proactive services, but these must be on a case by case basis.  Do you understand Vipal?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand George?”

“Yes.  Thank you Prikesh.”

“Good.  I shall drop off the call and let you discuss it further, but your call with the mechanic is soon Vipal, I’ll leave a timer in your window.  Also I’ve rearranged your lunch with Priyanka, you need more time to prepare for the group meeting this afternoon.  She said she understood.”

Before Vipal could say a word in response Prikesh had dropped off.

George gave Vipal his first two tasks under the new arrangement.  The first was to untangle his life from Janice, and the second was to find Philippa again.

“Of course Mr George.  I will do the needful.”

“Thank you Vipal, and when you speak to Prikesh again, can you send my regards?  I do think you are lucky to have such an excellent personal assistant.”

###

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Stretched

I wrote this when our girls were a bit younger, and the first part more or less describes one of my nights – though there were many similar ones.  The commute after always made it a little more painful.

 

Stretched

“Wha.. what time is it?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get them, I need to get up soon anyway.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled as she drifted back to sleep. She could ignore the babies crying now that I was awake.

I looked at the alarm clock again, and then did a double take, it wasn’t five o’clock, it was three.   This felt like one of those days.

If I was lucky it would only be one of them. I was lucky, so far. Mercey was screeching like a banshee but Clemmy was still snoring gently. It amazed me that they could sleep through a racket which actually hurt my head, but they’d never woken each other up.

Mercey had woken because of her nappy. Somehow she’d taken the healthy white milk we’d fed her, and turned it into a yellowy brown toxic sludge, which it was my unenviable duty to dispose of. I thought of waking Helen, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep with all the screeching anyway. When they were first born they’d been passive during nappy changes, now it was wriggle central. Normally I could control it, but in the blurry morning I failed. First she got hold of the nappy, and managed to drag it back over her, spilling its contents everywhere. Then, to cap it off, she peed all over the mat.

“Mercey my love, that wasn’t at all helpful now was it.”

She just stared at me. I wondered if she was laughing on the inside.

It took me twenty minutes to clean her, put a new nappy and baby grow on and get her settled with a bottle of milk. The milk was cheating, but I was really hoping she’d nod off again and I could grab another hour of sleep. Mercey, full name Mercedes Suzanne Harvey, was such a delight most of the time, none more so than immediately after a night time feed. She smiled and put her arms out for a cuddle. I held her in my arms, and wallowed in the joy of being a father, and with such a lovely little girl. She was tired, and didn’t fuss when I put her pack down. I looked over at Clemmy, still snoozing away, and I gently closed the door and walked back to bed.

My head had literally just touched the pillow when there was another banshee scream. I could have sworn Mercey was sleepy. Perhaps I’d rushed her? I needed to get to her before she went ballistic. Helen didn’t even grunt as I assured her all was under control and headed back to the baby. Except it wasn’t Mercey, it was Clemmy. Mercey was already sleeping quite happily. Clemmy’s nappy was if anything worse than Mercey’s. She didn’t pull the nappy away, which was good, but she did pee at just the wrong time, drenching the new nappy, her clothes and my arm as I tried, vainly, to control the flow. She too was happy when she had finished her milk.

“Clementine Julia Harvey, you are a pretty little girl, but it’s now sleepy time,” I whispered to her as I held her. Unfortunately, she disagreed. Whenever I put her down in her cot she started to cry, and cranked up the volume if I didn’t respond immediately. I knew I should let her cry for a bit, but it was so hard. The cries rasping across my nerves. I tried to explain to her why she needed to go to sleep.

“Clemmy darling, Daddy has to go to work today. It’s a big day as he’s meeting the boss to present next year’s budget, and he could really do with another hour’s sleep.”

Talking about myself in the third person was one of the many things I’d sworn never to do.

“Please Clemmy?”

Perhaps the desperation in my voice got through, because she calmed down and even let me put her in the cot. She looked up at me again and then rolled over, and was asleep before I put the light out. I checked on Mercey, she was still asleep, and I crept back to bed.

As I was about to slip into bed, the thought of resting my heading beguiling me, a loud screech filled the room. I stared about in bewilderment until I realised it was my alarm. Clemmy had taken all my remaining sleep time. I have to admit, part of me wanted to go downstairs and wake her up and keep her awake so she could see. I didn’t, not just because I’m not that cruel, and it would be self defeating as a tired Clemmy is not something I’d wish on anyone. It was also because I really did have a big meeting and I needed to get going.

I washed and showered in a zombie like state. Kissed Helen goodbye, not that she noticed as she was still enjoying her precious sleep before the morning feed and the beginning of the daily circus. Somehow, despite having woken up so early I was running late. Early morning traffic, something I’d always felt was an oxymoron, conspired to slow me down, and then the carpark was nearly full and I was forced to park miles from the station. I ran to the ticket machine. They’d recently put ticket barriers in so there was no longer the option to just jump on the train and buy a ticket, and I’d been caught out by that a couple of times.

As I neared the ticket machine a woman who was heading in that direction saw me and cut across my path. She then ambled to the machine. I wondered if I should push past her, after all I had my card and knew the dance so would be very quick. She got to the machine before the devil on my shoulder had won the argument. Our machines are not as slow as they used to be. Which is to say that they’ve replaced the clockwork with steam; but if you do the right things they take slightly less than a minute. I know, I’ve timed it. The woman did not know the dance, and managed to push the wrong buttons, put her card in at the wrong time which cause the whole transaction to cancel, and generally did her best to wind me up. She eventually got her tickets and ambled off, and it was my turn. Fifty-five seconds later I was heading for the barriers. As I got through my train pulled away.

Some days.

The guard nodded sympathetically at me, “Some days,” he said. I managed a weak smile before heading to the coffee place. I might as well grab one while I waited the half hour for the next train. The problem with living out in the sticks was that, well, I was out in the sticks. Transport was infrequent, people were slow, and there was an almost continuous smell of manure in the air. I mean it was a lovely laid back lifestyle.

They of course did not have decaf coffee, apparently they’d just run out. The man smiled an apology, “Some days.” Yes. I just wondered why every day was turning into one of them. So I had the hot chocolate, which would at least warm me.

We were the end of the line, which meant the train usually sat waiting for the next departure, which at this time of year meant a warm place to stay. Unfortunately it was delayed so I had to hang out on the platform, trying my best to get cover from the wind by leaning against the wall. The autumn breeze was tricky and vicious though, and kept finding me. In my rush to get out of the house I’d forgotten my coat, and the house was just far enough away that I couldn’t definitely get there and back before the next train.

“What ho!”

Oh dear lord, I thought to myself. It was Doug, in one of his Bertie Wooster moods.

“Hi Doug, how are you.”

“Damned tired if you must know. Had to get up before the sparrows today, got a big meeting up in the Big Smoke you see.”

Doug was some kind of City person. Lawyer possibly. He had told me, but I’d managed to forget.

“It is rather early I agree. You in for the whole day?”

“Oh no old chap, got lunch at the club, then back out for a quick round of golf with the father-in-law, got to keep the old man happy.”

If he’d been any more of a stereotype I’d have had to kill him. I shook my head at him.

“Please Doug, not today.”

“Sorry mate, what’s up, you look like death.”

“Got a meeting with Higgins today.”

“Oh right. Well if it makes you feel any better I really have meetings all day, not even a break for lunch, and there is a very faint hope I might get out before midnight. We’re allegedly signing today.”

“Thanks Doug, that does make me feel a little better.” It didn’t really, but at least he was trying. We’d gone to school together, but then he’d gone to a different, ok I’ll admit, better, university, and ended up a high flyer. I’d somehow ended up in the middle. Of everything, and it would appear an ever widening lake of poo.

“Cheer up, the weekend is only five working days away!”

Before I could think of a suitable reply the train had pulled in.

“See you sometime soon,” said Doug as he headed to the first class carriage. Just as he got to the door, he turned and said, “Toodle pip!” before laughing and getting in. Really, I could kill him sometimes.

I got on to the train, and headed for my favourite seat. It had extra leg room and a table for my laptop. Somehow, despite the fact that there’d been almost no one else on the platform, someone had taken my seat, and my second favourite too. I stared for a moment before sighing and heading towards one of the other seats. I’d arrive in London with back ache at the very least, but it was, just, better than standing.

My hour long train journey consisted of the usual joys. A large, and yet bony, man sat next to me and felt that he should have three quarters of my seat as well. He read a broadsheet newspaper and managed to cover half my laptop screen, and it was only after a few coughs and a couple of bumps that he moved across enough to allow me to continue to breathe. Then we had the loud and chirpy couple who had to share how great their lives were with the whole carriage. By the time I got to London I was desperate to get out of the terrible little box. Even if meant that I had to get the tube.

The tube ride was normal. By which I mean, crowded, smelly and unpleasant, but in a comforting London way. I arrived at work, fifteen minutes late, and with just five minutes to prepare for my meeting.

There was a note on my desk from my boss, “Come as soon as you get in!” Oh dear. As I got to his office his secretary looked at me sympathetically and said, “He wanted to move you forward half an hour to fit in a call with Asia. He’s on the call now, but based on his expression it isn’t going well.”

“Thanks.”

I sat, like a naughty school boy, on the chair outside his office. I never understood how they could make these chairs so uncomfortable. It was as if there was a special factory, somewhere in China probably, where they forced their designers to make torture chairs, and if there was the hint of comfort in them the designer would be taken outside and probably forced to sit in someone else’s bad chair so he’d get the idea.

“Come in.”

Damn he was grumpy. His secretary gave me another sympathetic smile as I followed him in. He pointed at the table.

“Don’t want to hear excuses. Tell me about next year.”

Excuses? Oh for being late. Right. I took a breath and started to give him my spiel on the departments future. We’d had a tough year, but we knew what we had to do, we were concentrating on quality, and we were going to invest in some new senior designers.

I was getting in to my pitch when I noticed his glower, and then he shook his head.

“No, no, no. You just don’t get it. Hopkins warned me, but I didn’t believe him.”

What? Hopkins, he was my number two. A bit young for the position, and wet behind the ears, but I had hopes of moulding him in a year or two. Why would he be talking to Higgins?

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t understand.”

“No Harvey, you don’t understand. The world has changed. Haven’t you noticed the recession? We’ve been in it for three years!”

“Yes sir, I have, which is why I think we should concentrate on the clients who want quality, they’ll stick with us.”

“We make a loss on every one of those clients! Sure, we used to make a profit, but with the time your team puts in, and the discounts we’ve had to give.”

“I did say the discounts…”

“Don’t interrupt me!” His voice was vicious. “If we’d not given discounts we’d have lost more clients. They’re the ones who pay us you know.”

I realised that there wasn’t anything I could say.

“Well, what are you going to do Harvey?”

“I don’t know sir, I guess I could look at the numbers again, maybe cut some of the hiring…”

He put his head in his hands.

“Look, Harvey, this world,” he indicated the office, I think, “is no longer the same. You don’t fit in to the new world.”

“What?”

“In the olden days I’d tell you I expected your resignation, but we aren’t allowed to do it that way anymore. I’ll speak to HR, and they’ll get on to you later today. Hopkins will help you pack up.”

I just stood there gaping. He shook my hand, wished my luck and more or less pushed me out of his office.

I went back to my own office, much smaller than my boss’s, but still an office, a space of my own, and closing the door, I sat down. I stared at the screen, unable to comprehend what had just happened. I stayed in that number state for weeks. The HR interview, redundancy package and everything else just flowed over me. I nodded, smiled even and signed whatever I was given, and started my gardening leave. Helen and I spoke, I’m sure of it, but I don’t really know what about. I even failed to enjoy my time with the twins, though fortunately they were too young to notice my distraction and seemed to view it as a further excuse to climb all over me.

Despite my fug I was counting the days till our money ran out. With my redundancy I could pay off our cards, which I thought would give us some space, but with what Helen earned as a primary school assistant, we couldn’t afford the bills, let alone the mortgage. I had to get a job.

I told myself it would be easy to get a new job. I told myself I’d never get a new job. The excuses came and went, and I just sat, staring at the TV until the twins cried, or Helen really pushed me. Eventually, with just weeks of money left I went to a recruitment consultant.

“Look mate, with your experience getting you a new gig is going to be easy.”

“Really?”

The shiny suited specimen in front of me had assured me that he was the best, that he cared about his clients, and that he had connections in all the right places. All I could think was that he looked about twelve, and that if he was my best hope, then perhaps I was in real trouble.

“Course mate, you can trust me. We’ll have to tweak your CV a bit.”

He paused, and said, “I also need to be honest with you. You’re not going to be getting a pay increase. If you were still in a job, then sure easy, but as you’ve been out of one for a few months I just won’t be able to swing it.”

I hadn’t even considered an increase. Suddenly I perked up a bit, if I could get a job at my old salary then we’d actually be ahead of the game, because all our card debts were now gone.

“Great, well I’m eager to get going.” And I was.

The first place I interviewed seemed to think I wanted a junior position. I soon disabused them of that notion, and they politely said they had nothing at my level. This was repeated a few times, until I realised that my shiny suited friend was just sending me to anything remotely covered by my CV and wasn’t even checking the level. We had some words. He apologised, said he was just finding the level and he’d sort me out. He was so thick skinned it was almost impressive.

Several more pointless interviews followed. Some were at my level, but they seemed to think I wouldn’t fit in, or that I lacked commercial experience. I explained about the importance of good service and craftsmanship. I came to recognise the slightly condescending expression which presaged rejection. One of them even tried to tell me that in this new world there wasn’t time for that, people just wanted enough to get by. I argued and told him that it was short termism and would cost more in the longer term. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Most of them know they won’t be there in the long term, one way or another.”

They were right, I didn’t fit in. My fug returned.

Then I thought that maybe I could go it alone. A small scale company, dedicated to doing it properly. I would need some capital to keep me going for the first year or so while I got started, but I could see it, soon I’d be raking in the cash, stealing customers from my old firm. I went to a bank. They asked for a business plan. I gave them one. They didn’t laugh, but I think they were close. They tore it apart, nicely, and asked me to do it again. I did, but the numbers still didn’t add up for them. They tried to tell me that to make it work I needed to do more marketing, but that would mean less time for making the product, which meant either I had to charge more, or do a poor job. In the end I couldn’t get them to buy into it. The next bank were even less interested. I hit a new low.

“What is this!” I shouted, pointing at the large Amazon package.

Helen looked up, frowning at my volume.

“Shush, the girls are, finally, asleep.”

I didn’t care. I repeated my demand.

“It’s a present for the girls. They are going to be one next week.”

“Helen, I’ve told you, we can’t afford it. We can’t afford anything!”

The argument raged for a while. It ended with Helen almost screaming at me.

“I am doing everything I can, I’m even doing extra shifts, but as you have said to me oh so many times, I’ll never earn enough. Well then, you need to suck it in. You’re not a manager any more. You don’t have an office. You are nothing! If you don’t get a job soon we’ll have to sell the house, and then we’ll have nothing. Get a job. Anything. Otherwise I’m leaving.”

She stalked off, in tears, to try and comfort the girls who had woken up sometime during our fight.

I was beside myself. Who was she to say that to me? I had been supporting the family for years. Earning the money while she indulged herself with part time jobs and suchlike. I seethed. I had to get out.

I walked in to our little town. One street of shops, a couple of supermarkets and a farmers’ market every other Wednesday. The most exciting thing to happen recently had been the arrival of the Costa Coffee shop. By the time I got to the Costa my anger had drained completely and I realised what a fool I had been. I looked in to the window, almost pressing my nose to the glass like a boy at a sweet shop. I couldn’t afford a coffee.

I walked around for most of the afternoon, and a plan formed in my mind. I was going to get us out of our hole. First I had to apologise to Helen.

I got back home to the usual chaos, and inbetween changing nappies, feeding, bathing and bedtime I managed to grovel my way into forgiveness. It always amazed my how the babies could suck up time, but we’d become much better at having syncopated conversations while looking after them.

“So the plan is this. We sell the house. I get a temporary job until that’s done, and then I’ll start my own firm using our money instead of owing the bank. I’ll show them that craftsmanship is still needed.”

She looked at me and then hugged me. “It’s so good to have you back. It’s been dreadful living with a zombie these past months.”

“ A zombie? Like in Thriller.”

“Ha, no, not with your Dad dancing style!”

I laughed. It felt good to have a plan.

Helen rang the estate agency the next day, and I rang the temp agency. The estate agent came right round, a bad sign in retrospect as they clearly hadn’t anything to do. They hummed and harred and eventually gave us a price which would pay off our mortgage and give us a little profit. Enough to pay for rent for a year, and give me the capital to start a firm. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more, but it was still going to set us free.

The temp agency found me some work, and while it wasn’t enough on its own to pay the mortgage it would give us a bit more time. I even applied to work shifts at Costa.

The weeks passed. My temp work was mind-numbingly dull, and serving coffee wasn’t much more interesting. The girls were teething so sleep was a rare luxury, and Helen was back at school which meant that we were juggling the child care. Worse, we’d had one person to view the house and their only feedback had been that the rooms were the wrong shape. Really.

I was exhausted, and the money was still dripping away. We got the estate agent back to ask why the house wasn’t selling. It took them an hour to say it, but it came down to price. They wanted us to drop it, by twenty percent. They were certain they could sell at that. My heart sank. At that price we’d barely cover the mortgage, let alone have any left to live on or invest in my company. I almost screamed at them to get out, but managed to hold on long enough to see them to the door.

“Oh darling. It’s going to be alright.”

Helen’s words were the final straw. It wasn’t going to be alright. We were drowning and there was nothing going to save us. The anger began to bubble in me and I knew I had to get away. I just ran out of the door.

I walked and walked. The whole mess bearing down on me. It was all my fault. If I’d been more flexible at work. If we hadn’t built up so much debt. If. If. If. I found myself in a park, walking round, crying and repeating if again and again. I had been stretched too far, and had now finally snapped. I didn’t know if I’d ever get better again.

Someone bumped into me. I mumbled and staggered away.

“Watch out you imbecile!”

My anger flared and I turned, ready to launch myself at whoever it was. I’d had enough of the world pushing me about. As I stalked towards the man, he said, “Oh it’s you Harvey. Haven’t seen you for a while.”

It was Doug. I didn’t have anything to say to him. I was about to turn away when he peered at me.

“I say old chap, are you ok?”

Clearly I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure if I could cope with him, especially if he was about to Bertie Wooster me again.

Realising that I wasn’t going to answer he grabbed my arm and started marching me along the path. “I know just what you need old man.”

Apathy had followed the burst of anger, and I let him guide me. All the way to the pub. He dumped me in a corner and bought me a pint.

“Now, old boy. Spill.”

I think he was hoping to get a smile out of me, but I had no smiles left. Instead I took a large gulp of stout and started to talk. Two pints and an hour of rant later I came to a shuddering halt. It felt so good to talk to someone.

He frowned at me and said, “So let me get this straight. You care too much about doing your job properly to get a proper job. You have a wonderful wife, and two little girls who need you. You’ve more or less run out of cash, and you’re trying to sell your house into the worst property market in a generation.”

I tried to argue with him, but the drain of telling my story, and the affect of the alcohol meant I all I managed as, “Not really.”

“Yes, really.” He frowned. “Look, I’m not promising anything, but, I think I might be able to help you. Or at least help you help yourself. If you’re willing to try.”

Pandora’s final curse fluttered in my heart again, could Doug save me?

“First we need another drink, and then we’ll get you back home to your wife and delightful little urchins. I’m sure she’ll be worrying about you.”

Helen accepted the shambling wreck I’d become from Doug, who promised to call in a day or two.

He was as good as his word. He called me in and laid out his proposal. At first I didn’t quite understand, and then I was unsure it would work, but he promised me it would. He offered to invest for a fifty-fifty share of the profits, and said he’d find our first customers. He talked wistfully about maybe giving up the commute and working locally, or even retiring, if we could pull it off.

That’s how we started our business. We had a rocky first year, but Doug was true to his word and covered the costs, and now we’re making enough for me to cover the mortgage and even buy the girls, including Helen, the occasional treat. We’re still not making enough that Doug can afford to retire, but we’re about to hire another member of staff which is a great sign. I’ve been very clear with Doug that I will not have anyone onboard who doesn’t have the right work ethic. He just nodded and said, “Same old Harvey.” But he agreed.

What exactly do we do? We train fathers. Not something that anyone thought would be required, but it’s amazing how many people come to us.

The problem is, you don’t get a manual when a baby is born, and there’s so much aimed at training mothers that fathers get left out. Doug had a whole group of mates who were absolutely petrified about their impending, or in some cases recent, fatherhood. When they found out that they could talk to someone, a man, who would give them help and advice, they jumped at the chance. More importantly, they were willing to pay for it.

They had found that their wives were too distracted to be of any help, and none of the other women involved in the child care industry seemed to care that much about the father. The man is barely acknowledged, perhaps getting some advice, but often just being told to remember what the woman has been told, to be repeated later if required.

I have two lovely daughters, and have learned many of the lessons the hard way. Having twins meant that we always both had to be involved and it’s given me an insight that I am happy to share. I’ve distilled it into a set of tips and tricks, and I’ve trained my assistants, who are fathers themselves, so that I’m confident they understand the job, and can teach our clients.

We take the new fathers through it all step by step, and show them how the little things make all the difference. My clients appreciate the attention to detail, and they want to learn. Our marketing is all word of mouth, often the wives of our customers tell their friends, and we even get the occasional repeat customer. The majority of my time is spent actually helping people. It is deeply fulfilling in a way my old job never quite managed.

I even have my own office, even if it’s really just the spare room.

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Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

This one came to me after a week’s holiday in Spain…

 

Lobbying for the Merchants of Death

By Jason Gibbs

“Thank you for smoking. Loved that film.”

“Film?”

“Old 2D movie, probably way before your time… anyway there’s this great scene where Aaron Eckhart’s character, who represents the tobacco companies, is explaining how his product kills more people than alcohol and guns.”

“Tobacco?”

“Yeah, you know smoking it? Seriously do they teach you nothing in school these days?”

“Um, yes, I see here it used to cause millions of deaths a year.”

“Yes.”

“More than your clients.”

“Exactly my point, exactly.”

“So it was banned, and alternatives found and now far fewer people die from it?”

“No, no, that’s the opposite lesson. Tobacco was rehabilitated, it’s used in all sorts of things now, paper, a lot of medicines. Tobacco production has grown for the last decade, even while smoking has been consigned to the wilderness of history.”

“Um, so your clients. You think they can be rehabilitated?”

“Of course. But first we need to stop painting them as evil. They do what they do, we just need to find a way of making it less, deadly.”

“But you admit they’ve killed a lot of people?”

“Billions according to some estimates.”

“So…”

“Does that justify wiping them from the planet? No. Are they an existential threat to us? Definitely not. They kill far fewer than they used to, and I think with a little research we can bring that number down to zero. I really do.”

“That requires investment.”

“Yes, and for us to stop this massacre. Do you know what the death toll related to the current programme is?”

“Human?”

“So species centric. Yes, human.”

“No, I thought…”

“Three thousand. So far. Accidents, chemical poisoning etc. That’s more than my clients killed last year and the year before put together.”

“OK, but…”

“But nothing. We stop the massacre, we put resources into finding a prophylactic. Everybody’s happy, the world is a better place.”

“And you have to find new clients?”

“There’s always more clients. And if I win this… well, the sky’s no longer a limit.”

“Who’s paying you?”

“First good question you’ve asked. There’s a lot people. They don’t necessarily agree with my clients, but they think their destruction is unwarranted. Something like, I don’t agree with what you do, but I will give my life to defend your right to do so…”

“Sartre?”

“Apparently not.”

“Ouch. What is that?”

“Might be a bite. If it is, you might want to stop scratching it.”

“Wait, are you telling me some of your clients are in here?”

“Of course. Couldn’t probably represent them if they weren’t here now could I?”

“And one of them bit me?”

“May have, no proof…”

“Um, do they carry malaria?”

“We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy on that.”

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Hopper and the Fresians – Published today!

My first novel, Hopper and the Fresians, has been published.  You can get it from here.

It is an adventure set in space, and hopefully in the spirit of Biggles.  This is the cover:

Cover5f

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Spring Town

I wrote this for a competition where the theme was Spring.  I may have been a little wide in my interpretation of the brief…

 

Spring Town

By Jason Gibbs

 

Mortimer looked at his watch, then, surprised by the time, he held it to his ear to check it was working. He could hear the little cogs whirring happily. For once it appeared he was genuinely early. He shook his head in mock wonder and headed downstairs.

“Would you like a cup of tea dear?” his wife called as he was on the stairs.

“Yes please love, I’m running a little early so I shall have time to enjoy it for a change.”

He walked into the kitchen and took a seat. Lotty turned round and exclaimed.

“Mortimer Theodore Adams, you cannot go to work dressed like that. You are the General Manager!”

“Lotty, I am the General Manager, I can go dressed as I please.” It was to no avail, she was already shepherding him out of the kitchen and back upstairs.

He grudgingly changed his shirt to something white and plain, put on his cravat and his waistcoat and once more entered the kitchen. This time with less confidence and the nagging feeling he was forgetting something.

“Now Mortimer, that looks much better. Do you still have time to have your tea?”

He checked his watch and realised that not only was he now running late, but he’d now remembered he had a meeting with young George first thing. It would be most impolite for him to be late. Declining the tea he pecked his wife on the cheek, grabbed his coat and walked with some alacrity out of the house and down to the garage.

They had two of the modern carriages. His wife’s was an older, larger and slightly clunky model, but his contrivance, well, she was a beauty. When he’d been made General Manager of the Works he’d decided to treat himself. He’d worked so hard all these years he deserved a little present, so he bought one of the new run-arounds. She wasn’t cheap to buy, and no cheaper to run really. She had a dual spring motor, and even though she had reverse springs on the brakes, which would take back some of the energy lost, he often had to go to the main garage to get her topped up.

He climbed in and slowly eased the rather spritely throttle. It controlled how much energy the springs delivered, and when he’d first bought the thing he’d let it out in one go and bounced along the road. He started along his drive accompanied by the gentle whirring of the spring motor and the rumble of the tires.

As General Manager he was paid rather well, and this had enabled him to buy Lotty the home she’d always dreamed of. It was big, he wasn’t sure how many rooms, and the gardens were so large it seemed to take an age to get out of them. The house was on the other side of the ridge from the main town, and the drive to the Works provided the best moment of his morning.

Coming over the brow of the hill the whole of the town was spread out before him. He could see the river, gurgling and frolicking as it ran between the streets all the way to the Hampton Spring Works, of which he was the General Manager. The Works squatted on the river and would be quite ugly if it wasn’t for the three graceful snail shells which rose above it. Each shell contained one of the Main Springs, which powered every mechanical contrivance in the town, and was in turn rewound by the river itself. It truly was a modern wonder. The third Spring was a sign of how well the town was doing, now there was never a time when power wasn’t available, even during the annual maintenance of each Spring. The third was added just before he was promoted, and the last General Manager had told him it would make his life much easier, and he certainly seemed to be right.

Mortimer lost sight of the snails as he dipped into the town, and he glanced about at his fellows, wondering what they’d do if the miracle of spring power wasn’t available to them.

The security man opened the gate before he got to it, which was very kind of him as it reduced wear on the springs in his carriage, and Mortimer gently coasted up to his parking place at the front of the building. Getting out he looked around with pride. The Hampton Spring Works was a fine place to be General Manager and, he believed, a fine place to work.

He walked into his office and his secretary brought in his morning cup of tea. On the rare occasions he managed to have tea at home she seemed to realise and didn’t bring a cup in. It was quite wonderful having such an excellent secretary.

“George Yarde to see you sir.”

“Please send him in, and do get him a cup of tea if he wants one.”

“Yes sir.”

George bustled in. He was a large and florid man, not the typical emaciated engineer they seemed to get, and he had such energy.

“Sir, Mr Adams, you must come and see this.”

“Now George. Let’s first talk about it, and you can have your tea, and then perhaps we can visit your lab.”

On several previous occasions George had dragged him down to show him something, which while interesting hadn’t really been of immediate use, and he’d ended up wasting half the day in the labs. Though wasting was perhaps unfair, besides he did enjoy being back in his old hunting grounds.

“Oh.” George looked a bit crestfallen, but quickly gathered himself. “Well it’s about the energy transfer problem.”

“Yes?”

“Well you know how hard it is to transfer energy from the Main Springs to smaller energy distribution centres?”

“Easier now that we have the mobile water-wound spring. Much better than those old hand-wound devices which never produced any real power.” It was the last thing which Mortimer had worked on when he was head engineer, and he was rather proud of it, especially as it had been cited as the key reason for his promotion.

“Oh, well yes, but it is just so inefficient, it’s almost embarrassing, because the rewinding…” George then remembered who’d run the project. “Still, a marvel sir, and in its time amazing.”

“Its time has only just begun.”

“Ah, well sir. I think I’ve developed something which will solve some of the inefficiency.”

“Indeed.” Mortimer was still bristling from the criticism, but calmed himself by remembering that he was now General Manager, which was surely a sign that his contribution was valued. He’d also always told George to share his ideas and speak freely, he wanted to get the best out of him after all.

“Ah.”

“Go ahead George, tell me what it is.”

“You know that we’ve been working on very small springs? Down to the millimetre level? Well I was reading in one of the science journals, and it got me to thinking, what if there really were springs which were much, much smaller. I mean there must be, to power everything else, like muscles and things.”

“I too read that journal, and I have to say I wonder at some of the newer aspects of General Spring Theory. It’s become too abstruse for me.”

“Ah yes, well you see the thing is. I found a way of proving that the nano-springs exist.”

“Really?” Mortimer was sceptical, but George was more or less incapable of lying. Being overly excited about things others considered trivial, yes, lying, no.

“Yes. You remember that thing I showed you with the magnets?”

“Another thing Spring Theory can’t explain.”

“Well, I was playing with some acid and various other things…”

Realising that George would probably take the next hour to tell him in absolute detail every step he’d taken Mortimer decided that perhaps a trip to the lab was required.

Doris had come in with George’s tea, and when Mortimer suggested that he show him his device instead of continuing George fairly threw the drink down his throat and almost dragged him to the lab.

“Here it is!”

George’s worktable was covered in bits and pieces. Springs, some whole, some in parts, jars of acid, some of those new-fangled lucifers and all sorts of tools. Right in the middle was a cradle. On the outside of the cradle were some magnets, and suspended in the cradle was a piece of metal with some wire wrapped around it. The wire went through some large holes at each end and then round to a metal box. At one end of the cradle was a winder. Mortimer saw that one of the wires wasn’t actually connected to the metal box.

“What is it?”

“Let me show you.”

George picked up the loose wire, and attached it to a little hook on the box. Mortimer thought he might have seen a spark, and then slowly the piece of metal wrapped in wire started to rotate. It whirled round and round magically.

“Is this all? Where’s the spring?”

“Look inside the box sir.”

He did, and all he saw was some liquid and some solid lumps of something which might have been lead.

“Hmm, well?”

“The lumps of lead contain the nano-springs!”

“Well that is interesting, how do you wind them?”

George grabbed the winder and started to wind it in the opposite direction to the way it had been spinning.

“Like this sir. It took me a while to figure it, and then I was just toying with it, you know, winding it up. I let it go, and it started unwinding, just like a spring, and yet this wire, as you can see, is just plain copper with little ability to hold torsion.”

Mortimer looked thoughtfully at the device. The bucket was the size of a small cat.

“How much power?”

“As much as a normal water-wound torsion spring at least ten times the size.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes sir. It is really much more efficient than our current portable springs.”

One of the problems with the mobile water-wound spring was that at smaller sizes it ran out of power too quickly, and had less peak power. It was one of the reasons his carriage needed to be rewound so regularly. With these nano-springs, well, it might even be possible to go forty miles or more without a rewind.

“How do we wind it… oh of course. We can use the river.”

“Yes sir, we could run banks of them. Even better we could pull one out for maintenance and it wouldn’t affect more than a tiny fraction of the overall power. Once we had enough, I think we could even keep some as backup in case…”

“George my boy, this is amazing…” He was about to ask for a more detailed explanation when one of the messenger boys appeared.

“Mr Adams, there’s a message for you. It’s from your secretary; she says you’re needed urgently in your office.”

This was a little tiresome. He had worked out a signal with her when he went down to the lab after last time. She was supposed to give him an hour and then say there was an important message. It was unlike her to get it wrong, and it certainly hadn’t been an hour. Perhaps it was real? Doris didn’t usually make mistakes, so it really must be urgent. Mortimer sighed.

“Sorry George, I have to go. I’m impressed. Can you work out how long it will take to get a full size pilot going?”

“Yes sir… of course, I mean, there’s a couple of wrinkles left, but yes.”

Mortimer nodded and headed back to his office.

His secretary was aflutter when he got there.

“I’m so sorry Mr Adams, he let himself straight in. I asked him to wait but he wouldn’t…”

“Don’t worry Doris. Calm down. Now who is it?”

“Mr Phillips sir.”

Oh dear. Phillips was his boss. A dour man, prone to anger, and a real stickler for time. Mortimer looked at the clock and saw that he was three minutes late to the other meeting of his morning, one he’d quite forgotten. Well, he had to take his lumps like a man.

“Good morning Mr Phillips.”

“Hmph, nearly afternoon.”

“It is wonderful of you to come and visit us at the Works, how is head office these days?”

“Filled with the same lazy fools who seem to be everywhere these days.”

“Can I offer you a coffee?”

“Your secretary, Lucy is getting me one, thank you.”

Mortimer decided that correcting the misnaming of his secretary was unlikely to improve his boss’ mood, and so offered him a chair, and asked how he could help.

Phillips was still grumpy, but he also looked worried. This couldn’t be good news.

“The thing is Adams, we have a very big problem at these Works.”

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know what you mean?”

“I mean that everything you produce is too damned expensive!”

Mortimer was taken aback.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean sir. We hit the targets set by head office on everything we produce.”

“You do, yes.”

“Then how can it be too expensive?”

“The core of the problem is that the targets we gave you were wrong. Our sales are slumping because we’re more expensive than our competitors.”

“But we’re the only major Spring Works in Hampton.”

“And as you well know our rewind charges are regulated, and at the moment, well. If we only ran the Main Springs we’d be breaking even. Everything else you’re doing here is losing money, even your portable springs.”

“Oh.”

Mortimer had nothing to say. When he’d taken over he’d asked to have the financials brought back to the Works, he’d wanted to learn everything, but head office had decided it was more efficient to have it all centralised. Efficiency didn’t necessarily map to competency it would appear.

“So I’m afraid Adams you’re going to have to cut. Starting with your old department.”

“But Research Engineering is what powers this company.”

“Don’t you quote the corporate spiel to me young man.”

“Sorry sir, but seriously, if we get rid of the engineers we won’t be developing the next product…”

“Head office had a consultancy do a study, and they determined we can buy new product development from smaller companies much more cheaply than developing it internally. We have too many barriers to innovation apparently.”

“But…”

“No buts. You need to get rid of them. Here is a list of all the departments who have to be cut. Overall you need to need to cut your headcount by a third in the next six months.”

Mortimer noticed he didn’t say people. They were headcount, or resources, or minions probably. He was feeling utterly powerless when he remembered George’s nano-springs.

“Sir… can I ask a favour.”

“What?”

“Can I have three months before we cut? I believe we might have something which will blow the socks off the competition.”

“Mmm, what is it?”

Knowing that talk of nano-springs would likely be dismissed as desperation, which it was in part, Mortimer said, “A much more efficient version of the mobile spring.”

“Hmm, well according to another study if we can make it twenty percent smaller then we should be able to defend our market position and move back into profitability…. no, no, sorry Adams, it’s too late. We just can’t afford another three months.”

“Two? And I’ll resign if it doesn’t work.”

Phillips peered at him. Mortimer stared calmly back.

“Dammit man! Six weeks, and then I’ll want your letter.” He frowned, shook his head and left without another word.

Mortimer sat down heavily at his desk. What had he done? He held his head in his hands, his mind whirring. He only looked up again when Doris bustled in a few minutes later with a fresh cup of tea. She nearly said something, but seeing his face bustled back out again mutely.

After a few more minutes of staring at his desk he sipped his tea, and stood to look out of his window. From here he could see the river as it ran out of the Works, and catch, just, sight of the Right Main Spring. Overhead one of the new fast zeppelins was passing, powered in part by the mobile water-wound spring he helped to design. Probably using springs from their competitors he thought grumpily. He wondered how fast they might go with smaller more powerful springs? That made him think again of the nano-springs. He could feel some excitement building. They needed to get moving on it fast.

“Doris, can you get me George urgently?”

“Yes sir.”

He was going to have to drive George hard to work through the inevitable wrinkles. In fact it would be almost like reverting to being head engineer. Strangely instead of feeling like a step back it felt more like he’d be going home.

He looked out on the still bare Works gardens, the unexpected warmth of the sun helping to calm the fizzing of the worry and excitement mixing within him. He was energised. Winter was over, and its passing heralded the advent of the nano-spring. It was going to change the world, he was sure of it.

 

THE END

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Clothing

Clothing

“You can’t wear that!” said Rita scandalised.

Jessi twisted again, showing off the hot pants and crop top which seemed to be upsetting her friend.

“Too much you think? Maybe a bikini top?” She started reaching into her cupboard.

“No no, it’s too little!” Rita giggled.

“Oh Rita, you really need to chill out. It will be fine. Your mother thinks you’re staying here for the night, and you will be. When we get back. Just make sure you leave your phone here.”

“I know I know.” Rita bit her lip, then said, “Do I look alright?”

Jessi stared at her friend appraisingly. “Well you aren’t showing off your legs enough, and I suspect you have twice as much covering your boobs as the rest of us will have combined! But yes, you look good. Classy even.”

She smiled at her friend, and Rita returned it.

“Rita is this really the first time you’ve been to a club?”

“Yes!”

“Well prepare for fun. Now, let’s get a bit of slap on, and we’ll be ready.”

Over the next hour Jessi and Rita worked on their faces until they were both convinced they couldn’t look any better, though Rita kept having butterflies in her stomach at the thought of what her mother would do if she ever saw her like this.

“Right, ready. Now for a glass to get us fired up, and we’ll head to the club.”

She poured them each a Southern Comfort and lemonade, heavy on the liqueur. Rita eyed hers dubiously, but at Jessi’s insistence drank it. Soon her belly felt warm and the butterflies had bogged off somewhere else.

“Here’s yours,” said Jessi as she passed her the burqcoat with some distaste. It was kind of a cross between a burqa and a coat, and designed for Geordie weather.

Jessi put her own on, and then some mirrored sparkly glasses, and passed Rita a spare pair.

“Right, we are ready to go!”

They almost ran downstairs. Jessi threw a “Goodbye and don’t wait up,” back to her Mum as she closed the door.

“Best to avoid any interrogation!”

The girls skipped down the street happily. Two shapeless figures in black. They didn’t have to wait long at the bus stop before theirs turned up, and they went straight upstairs. At first they were alone on the bus, but as they got closer to the city centre more people got on. Most of the women were wearing burqcoats. The men were wearing heavy winter coats and hats, some even had balaclavas. The whole bus was anonymous.

The girls chatted merrily away, and Rita even had a few more surreptitious slugs of alcohol from the bottle Jessi had brought along for them. The bus arrived at their destination and they got off in a crowded street.

Almost everyone was heavily wrapped up. It had been a cold winter. They did however see one woman walking along uncovered. She kept flinching, and looking around a bit wildly. Rita stared at her, it was the first time she’d seen someone uncovered in public for years and years.

Jessi saw where Rita was staring and said, “Look away Rita. She’s obviously got something wrong with her.” By which she meant some form of mental problem.

They continued walking, Jessi confidently leading the way, until they arrived at the head of an alleyway. A sign in neon stated boldly ‘Ritzys nightclub’, and in smaller lettering, ‘Tech free since ‘03!’ There was a large queue, mostly women in burqcoats. There were some men too, most of whom were covered up, but there were a few who’d clearly already had quite a bit to drink and had thrown off their hats and balaclavas.

“Won’t they get spotted?” whispered Rita.

“Oh not here. Ritzys make sure that only dead cameras are allowed in this alleyway. If you’d brought your phone you’d have seen that it wouldn’t be able to get any signal. Only dead spot in the city apparently. And conveniently for us!”

They inched closer to the front. There were a group of lads in front of them and Jessi had bumped into the back of one of them a couple of times. The first response had been a little grumpy, but the second time the lad had realised that it was a girl. He’d started chatting to Jessi. After flirting for quite a while Jessi remembered Rita and introduced her, and soon they were talking to the other three lads in the party. Jessi decided she’d had enough of the burqcoat and took it off, much to the delight of the lads. They all followed suit until only Rita had hers on.

She looked around at them, and the fear of being uncovered in the open fought with the peer pressure. The latter won and she gingerly took the black thing off, to sounds of appreciation, both from the lads they were with, and some of the others around them. Rita blushed deeply and said little as they continued in.

At the doorway they were scanned by a standard entry system, and Rita looked a question at Jessi.

“Don’t worry. It only checks who we are, it doesn’t tell anyone we’re here. Trust me, I’ve been here tons of times and my Mum is none the wiser.”

Rita shook her head. Still she was here now. They paid, in cash no less, checked their burqcoats in and were inside. The music was so loud Rita thought her head would explode. Jessi was laughing, and quickly persuaded one of the boys to buy them drinks.

Over the next few hours the drinks flowed, and the girls relaxed. There was dancing and flirting, and all was good.   The girls got mighty tipsy, and the boys did too. Jessi particularly liked one of them, and was soon in a corner getting to know him better. Rita was left talking to the others, and feeling like a bit of a lemon. The alcohol coursing through her system was starting to make her feel queasy and when the boy she’d been talking to leaned forward and tried to kiss her she panicked.

Next thing she knew she was out on the street. She stumbled along, looking around in a bit of a daze. Then suddenly a willowy figure appeared next to her.

“Rita, you would look fabulous in our new autumn catalogue! With your credit rating we would happily give you a store card which would give you an extra 10% off all purchases.”

Another figure appeared and started to talk over the first.

“Miss Johnson, our winter clothing range will give you all the protection you need from the elements.”

Then more figures appeared, all talking, all trying to sell her something. She walked away, but everywhere she looked new figures appeared. They were projected from the posters on the walls, from the shop windows, from passing buses.

“Rita Johnson, you haven’t visited our shop for twenty three days, but we’d love to see you again. To encourage you back we’d like to offer you a 5%…”

“Ms Johnson, have you considered starting a pension? While you are very young, it is best to start early. The projections if you start with a small amount, as little as £5 a month…”

It went on and on, she started to run and then slipped and fell over. The ghosts continued to plague her.

“Rita we have the new album by GreenFish. You rated their last album 4 stars, would you like to buy this one?”

“Ms Johnson. Ms Johnson, are you ok?”

She realised that the last of the figures was real. It was a policeman. She didn’t know what to say. Getting up she managed a slightly shaky, “Ah, yes I’m fine.”

He looked at her for thirty seconds.

“I’ve just informed your parents that you are in central Newcastle. They seemed surprised. As you are under eighteen I’m afraid I’ve also had to tell them that you are intoxicated. They have asked me to stay with you while they drive here.”

“Oh no. Oh god no.”

“In addition I’ve been asked where Ms Jessi Phillips is. Her parents, notified by yours I believe, are also on their way.”

Rita was mortified. Jessi would never forgive her. How could she have left without her burqcoat? She started to sob.

The policeman looked at her in sympathy.

“You’re not the first lass to forget her covering and get confused by these damn adghosts. I’m guessing you’ll never make the mistake again.”

She shook her head miserably.

He looked wistful, “It’s getting harder to hide though. I hear they’ve nearly got the gait recognition software bug free. Once that happens. Well, God help us all, nowhere will be safe. Anyway, let’s head back to Ritzys and we’ll pick up your coat. That’ll stop this lot at least.” He pointed at the gaggle of ghosts, and Rita nodded, looking forward again to the anonymity of her burqcoat.

 

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Our Heritage is in Our Blood – Published today!

My story Our Heritage is in Our Blood was published today on T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog!  Read it here.

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Welcome Home

Another on the joys of twins, and converting to civvie life.

 

Welcome Home

Staff Sergeant George Bentley arrived home at 14:07 on 14th November carrying his combat satchel. The satchel weighed approximately two kilos and contained one change of clothing, five medals, three for service and two for bravery, and his tablet. He greeted his wife of two years, Patricia Bentley, with a kiss, and a hug. After forty-three seconds he had to gently disengage his wife, and explain to her that yes, he was back, and no, he would not be leaving again. He’d done three tours and they had decided he needed to retire. Should he wish to return in a year’s time he would be entitled to do so.

At 14:09 he met his twin daughters for the first time. They were seven months old, having been born while he was on tour. Phyllis Grace honoured him with a smile, while Enid Ruth merely frowned thoughtfully. He looked around at the house, and his eyes could see only chaos. His wife, a wonderful woman who had coped so well without him, clearly did not understand the value of order. He recalled that his demob advisor had recommended a soft approach with civvies, including family, and decided that he would give her the benefit of the doubt for two days. But then there would be order. Though he couldn’t help but propose a few enhancements which might make things a little easier.

Over the course of the rest of the day he learned about his daughters, about their apparent daily schedule, which seemed far more varied than any schedule should be, and what his wife spent her days doing. His neighbour had been helping to feed their animals: a flock of eleven ewes and a single ram, a flock of three Angoran nanny goats, a herd of three sows, two currently in pig, and a peep of six chickens, all allegedly hens, though laying rarely at this time of year. His wife spent her days caring for the babies. When they slept she ate, did the washing and rested. It all seemed dreadfully inefficient. She explained that they had been sleeping through the night consistently for the last few weeks. He expressed sympathy for the months before that, but couldn’t remember the last time he’d had more than four hours sleep in one go. The enemy didn’t allow rest.

The next morning he woke at 0537. He was disoriented. His plan had been to wake up at 0600 to commence his day and start preparations for organising the household. He at first thought it must be an enemy attack; the noise of screaming was fearsome. He remembered that he was no longer at war. His time in a war zone was done, he was at home. He must get used to being demobbed. What was that noise? He requested an explanation from his wife. She avowed that it must be the babies, and suggested that as he seemed so keen to organise things he should deal with them. Perhaps he had been a little too forward with his ideas the night before.

He went into the nursery. A chaotic and garish place. Bright colours, toys everywhere, and clothes stacked in random piles. The two cots were next to each other. Each contained a blue eyed screaming monster. At first he could not decide which to take first. He could perhaps carry both, but that might not be comfortable for them, and he might drop them, which would be non-optimal. He picked up Phyllis Grace and carried her into the dining room where her chair was ready. His wife had told him that the first thing to do in the morning was to feed them milk. Or change their nappies if they were dirty.

Having strapped Phyllis Grace into her chair, he explained to her that he was going to get her sister, and then he would return, strap her in and then give them both milk. This had no effect on the noise emanating from her, other than perhaps to cause it to increase. He returned to pick up Enid Ruth, who was also producing a tremendous racket. Even in his worst fire-fights he could recall nothing of this piercing nature. It cut through him, right to his soul. He might suggest to his Captain that they use this as a weapon. Except he no longer had a Captain.

It occurred to him as he carried Enid Ruth to the dining room that she was surrounded by a miasma of such foulness that it might be classed as a munition. This was he believed likely to require a nappy change. He had watched his wife perform a few nappy changes the night before, and realising the simplicity of the process had declined the opportunity to practice, assuming she was just trying to avoid an unpleasant chore.

He carefully laid Enid Ruth down on the changing mat. Keeping one hand on her to make sure she didn’t fall off, while securing a nappy with the other hand. The volume of screaming had, somehow, increased. When he undid the nappy the assault on his nostrils was epic. He then started to wipe his daughter’s bottom. She started to squirm. First one way, then the other, then she reached for the nappy, and showing surprising strength and agility managed to pull it away from him, and over her head. Its contents disgorged everywhere. Phyllis Grace was still making her complaints about the delay well known.

His wife arrived at this point and took over the procedure. He was dispatched to prepare the milk, in bottles ready for the girls. His wife was unable to breastfeed both babies, and so they were reliant on bottle milk. He gave Phyllis Grace her bottle, and the silence was like a shock of iced water. In the background Enid Ruth was still wailing, but his wife was dealing with it.

Having now had first contact with the enemy he began to plan. Clearly he needed to be more organised when changing the babies. Milk first. Then nappy changing. The silence would allow his wife to sleep, and all would be well.

That day he met with his neighbour, thanked him for his help and said he would be feeding his animals again. His neighbour kindly offered to continue while he got settled, but Staff Sergeant George Bentley, well, George Bentley now, knew his mind.

Throughout the day he endeavoured to take the lead in the baby related activities, to demonstrate to his wife that really, it was all about organisation. Time and again the babies did unexpected things which his wife had never mentioned. Enid Ruth climbed out of her chair, even though he’d secured her. His wife claimed this had never happened before. He’d just changed Phyllis Grace into a new outfit, one which he felt her mother would describe as darling, when she threw up all over it. He had to change her again. And then again.

That evening he went out to feed the animals, knowing that proper organisation would solve all the issues. He told his wife that he would be no more than thirty minutes. The pigs came happily to feed, and the sheep rushed over too. He didn’t need to feed them, but wanted to get used to them and count them. The goats however, they were nowhere to be found. After searching all over his land he found a hole in the fence. A while later he recovered the recalcitrant goats, persuading them to follow a bucket, and covered the hole up with a sheep hurdle. He added fixing the fence to his mental work list. He arrived back in the house some ninety three minutes after having left. In this time his wife had bathed the twins and put them to bed. He was disappointed to have missed it, but his wife refused to let him say goodnight to the girls. She said it would only disturb them.

A while later, while they were having dinner one of the girls started to cry. In preparation for his return home George Bentley had read up on how to look after babies. The literature, some of which was contradictory, had much advice on crying. The authority he’d felt made the most sense had advocated a very strict timetable, which appealed to him. Her advice had stated that they should allow a baby to cry for exactly five minutes and thirty seconds before attempting to comfort them. He started a stopwatch on his tablet. At three minutes and twenty seconds the crying stopped. He looked satisfied. Some thirty seconds later it started again. The online guide hadn’t mentioned this possibility, he looked at his wife enquiringly, she smiled. He restarted the stopwatch. The crying stopped again, then restarted. He then realised that it could be either twin, or both. He stopped the clock and looked at his wife bemused. She told him that it was just settling crying and they’d soon stop. They did.

The next morning he woke up at 0552, courtesy of the girls. He was able to get them both drinking milk with the minimum of fuss, and was congratulating himself when Enid Ruth threw her nearly full bottle to one side and started crying again. The foul stench coming from her general direction gave him some indication of what the cause might be. Phyllis Grace copied her sister, and the assault on his senses ramped up. Shortly thereafter his wife appeared and between them they soon had the girls feeding again. She smiled at him.

He thought to himself that what was required was organisation, and delegation. He then recalled a discussion about delegation which he’d had with his wife when they were first married. The outcome had been clear, and as he remembered it, he was the junior. They’d never discussed it again, and he felt that it might be sensible not to bring it up.

The girls ate at regular times during the day, this apparently had been crucial in flipping them from a night schedule to a day schedule. He approved of this. Nothing else went much to plan. They might sleep when they were supposed to, they might not.   Often one would sleep, and the other would not. Perhaps choosing to get some one-on-one Mummy, and now Daddy, time.

That evening as George fed the animals, he thought, perhaps organisation was not was required. Perhaps, some flexibility would be best. But not too much. He made sure to get inside in time to say goodnight to his girls.

The next morning he was woken at 0541. He checked both babies and determined that at that point Phyllis was poo free. He got her settled with a bottle, and then changed Enid’s nappy. Within moments they were both contentedly sucking on the teats. After breakfast he let them play. Today they decided they wanted to climb all over him. He loved it.

He was lying on the floor, laughing with his daughters when his wife walked in, having enjoyed her first lie-in since he’d gone away for his third tour. Her smile was like the sunrise, and she said,

“Welcome home George my darling love.”

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Rebalancing

Having young twins can be a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting…

Rebalancing

Isabel rolled over and looked at the clock. It showed the time as 0307, the dull red glow of the digits taunting her. That made, what, eighteen minutes of sleep, or was it fourteen, nearly an hour over the night. Could be worse…?

She wondered which baby it was. Had she put Ruth down last? After giving her some milk. Yes. Probably. So it was likely to be Grace then. The cries continued, and she dragged herself out of bed. Sometimes they stopped before she had to get up, not this time though.

Stepping quietly into the room she could tell it was Grace. Though given the volume emanating from her daughter’s lungs she sometimes wondered why she tiptoed.

“OK Grace, I’m here, just one second.”

The whispering seemed foolish too, but she really didn’t want to wake Ruth up again. She picked Grace up and carried her out of her room and into the kitchen. Having initially stopped crying Grace decided to start up again. Each scream ripped through her, leaving her nerves tender and, worse, anticipating the next wave of sonic pain.

“Oh darling, what’s wrong? Is it your toothy-pegs?”

Screams.

Isabel grabbed some gel and rubbed it on her daughter’s gums. Grace stopped for a few seconds, and then carried on. Then she heard an answering cry from the nursery. Ruth was awake too. Putting Grace down only increased the volume of the already intolerable screeching.

“I’m just getting your sister, and then I’ll sing to you.”

Screams.

She shuffled back quickly to the nursery, running being beyond her at this point of tiredness. Ruth was standing up and howling at the world. Isabel picked her up.

“Don’t worry Ruth, we’ll go to the kitchen, and then we’ll have a sing song.”

She knew she’d have to give them milk, but she was trying to get them out of the habit of thinking it was always going to happen. Even if she could delay it for ten minutes that would help.

Two minutes later, having tried and failed to pacify them with her rendition of the greatest hits of Boney M, she capitulated and gave them milk. They were onto bottles now, she just wasn’t able to provide enough milk herself for the two of them, and as much as that hurt, she was happy that she could sit and watch while they drank. The day they’d been able to hold their own bottles had been one of the few good ones recently.

“Girls, I’m not sure how much of this I can take. Please, please start sleeping. If only your father was here…”

She started to sob. She missed him, how could he do this to her? How dare he die. How dare he leave her, alone, with no one to help her in this strange town. The insurance company were still deciding whether they could pay out, and in the meantime she was eking out her meagre savings. Another worry she couldn’t cope with any more.

The two girls started crying in unison, joining her in misery. They hadn’t finished their milk though, which was unusual. What was the problem? Isabel spotted one of the signs just as the stench hit her. Liquid brown was escaping from Ruth’s nappy. From the way Grace was wriggling she was in much the same position. She really hoped it was just the teething and not another bug.

“Now darling, let me change you and you can get back to your milk. In the meantime Grace, perhaps you could try your milk again? Or at least tone the volume down. Please…”

Ruth’s nappy was a mess, and it had crept up her back, Isabel would need to change the baby-grow as well. Ruth also hated it when Isabel laid her on her back, and was making her upset very clear. In fact she was so loud Isabel could barely hear her sister, who was doing her best to join the chorus. Eventually she managed to get Ruth out of her stinking clothes and wiped up. As she was about to put the nappy on Ruth started to pee, and it went everywhere. All over the mat, all over Isabel. Ruth didn’t stop screaming.

It was the final straw. She could take no more, they’d broken her, she sank to the floor, holding her naked squealing daughter and just started to cry.

It didn’t help. The girls didn’t understand, all they knew was that they were uncomfortable, and hungry, and had sore teeth and…

She couldn’t help it, her anger at the loss of her husband, the lack of money, the lack of sleep and the constant crying boiled over. She knew what she had to do.

“Enough is enough, I didn’t want to do this, but I have no choice. I’m sorry girls.”

Putting Ruth down firmly, she stalked from the room. Darkness seemed to gather, and even the twin girls realised something was happening and quietened. The silence was only momentary though, and they began again with full force.

Isabel returned to the room, filling it with her presence. In her hand she held a short stick, about eighteen inches long, and a thumb’s breadth.

“I hate to do this; it’s your own faults.” Her voice was filled with energy, and pain.

She waved the wand left, and right, and then made complex sigils in the air. She could see the shapes as the wand had started to leave a glowing path. The girls stopped screaming long enough to stare bemusedly at the pretty lights. They’d never seen their mother do this before.

Both babies started to rise into the air, the clothes came off, they were wiped clean and new nappies put on. All by invisible hands. They were placed back in their chairs and the milk handed back to them. They drank happily, but their eyes were on the scary woman who’d replaced their mother.

“Good. Drink well my little ones. After this you are going to sleep. And sleep well. Do you understand me?”

The two little girls shouldn’t have understood, but they did. They realised that they didn’t want to find out what would happen if they didn’t sleep.

Once they finished their milk they were burped and carried into the nursery, where they were gently rocked to sleep.

Meanwhile Isabel, barely standing with fatigue, stumbled to her bedroom and fell into bed. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. She was finally getting some proper rest and she slept the sleep of the truly exhausted.

The babies woke up again at 0715, and were changed and fed again. Some soothing gel was applied to their gums. They made almost no sound, apart from the occasional happy gurgle. They were then placed carefully in their pen – the cage as their mother called it – where they played happily, watched over by an invisible force.

At just after noon Isabel woke up, feeling so much better. She would have been happier with another twenty hours of sleep, but even so she felt almost human again. Stretching she got out of bed and went to her bathroom, where she enjoyed a long hot shower. The first time in a long time that she truly relaxed.

She knew she didn’t have to worry about the girls. They were just fine. Then the horror hit her. She’d performed magic.

“What have I done?”

She had to find out what had happened, still naked from her shower she ran to the back window and looked out. The neighbourhood looked fine, nothing untoward. She looked left and right and could see nothing. She started to relax. Perhaps she’d avoided anything major happening. Quickly getting dressed she hurried to the nursery.

She approached the cage warily, but the little girls were playing nicely, even sharing toys for a change. It would be so nice if she could live like this all the time, but she feared the consequences.

Isabel waved her hands to dispel the magic nanny, and sighed.

“No my girls, we can’t have that again. As you will learn when you are old enough, and can control it, there is always a danger with magic. It is capricious, and insists on a form of balance. This time I think we’ve been lucky…”

That’s when she heard the fire engine.

“No no no…”

She ran to the front door, and flung it open. Across the road her neighbour’s house was in flames. She stopped, should she go out? Should she instead duck back inside? She didn’t want anyone to connect her with the fire. No, she realised she had to know. Rushing across the road she saw her neighbours were still alive. She was relieved, but, she still had to confirm what had caused the fire. The husband, Tom, seemed to be talking to a policeman, while Pauline was sitting on the grass, just staring at their once lovely home.

As she approached she heard Tom trying his best to explain what had happened to the obviously sceptical policeman.

“…was like lightning or something. Suddenly there was a crack, and then flames. Flames everywhere. We don’t have gas, or anything. And I haven’t smoked in, what, twenty years now. I don’t know what it could have been.”

“Wiring sir?”

“Oh I don’t see how, this house is very new. We have it inspected regularly. Maybe it was…”

He looked up, as if he was hoping to see a storm cloud.

Isabel knew there would be no storm cloud; she knew what had caused the crack. It was the magic discharging to balance what she’d done the night before. Guilt hit her, and unable to face her neighbours, she slunk back home.

Re-entering the nursery she thought she’d caught a whiff of dirty nappy, but leaning over it was gone. She tried explaining to the little girls what had happened, though they were oblivious.

“For every act of goodness you do, there must be an act of badness, or chaos. As you learn about your powers you will find ways to channel them and control the chaos so it causes minimal harm to people. You should always do your best to control it, as the effects can be fatal. I failed last night…”

Despite the sleep she was still exhausted, and the emotional stress was too much. She started sobbing again knowing what might have happened, and yet guiltily grateful for the small rest she’d had. Even at the cost of her neighbours’ house.

She stood there bent over, crying freely now, when she felt a hand inexpertly stroking her head. Surprised she looked up, there was no one there. No one except the twins, and little Grace was staring at her with concern. Isabel smiled tentatively and Grace responded, then lost interest and looked around her pen.

Perhaps she’d just imagined it? They’d only been exposed to magic for half a day. It shouldn’t have awakened within them yet. Isabel watched her little ones carefully, but they seemed to be behaving quite normally. She was about to go and prepare their lunch when Ruth started to fuss. She was looking around her pen grumpily. Then she saw what she wanted, her favourite toy, the tiger teddy bear, was on the other side of the pen. She reached out her hand to it, and it lifted up and headed unsteadily towards her.

“Oh no…” wailed Isabel.

Her worst fear was realised. It appeared that last night’s incident had been too much and the girls, having been exposed to all that active magic, were now starting to manifest some of their powers. They wouldn’t know they needed to be careful, or what might happen, and the consequences could be horrendous.

She’d have to train them, but in a place where she could limit the damage which might happen while she did so.

If they stayed where they were she could see a future in which theirs was the only house standing in the neighbourhood.   Her neighbours, lovely people, would find their houses burned. Their pets dead. Some houses might fall into suddenly appearing sinkholes or collapse with rot. People might die.

In the past that would be the cue for the locals to rise up and burn her. Some witches had thought that if they did good that would protect them, but it had only made the whole situation worse as the magic forced balance. Ironically they’d only started to realise the truth during the Enlightenment.

These days, well, she could imagine the news frenzy it might become. She’d be hounded and wouldn’t be able to get away, and the girls, how would they cope? There’d be police, and social workers and psychiatrists. Scientists would be asked to ponder what was happening. They’d become freaks at the centre of their own circus. Other witches wouldn’t thank her; in fact they might decide that the best way to deal with her would be for an accident to occur. That had certainly happened a few times over the centuries.

No, they couldn’t stay here. Even though it contained the last connections to their father, she had to take the girls away. They needed to go somewhere remote, miles from anywhere. In the modern world it was ever harder to secure such places, but she’d find somewhere. She waved the magic over the girls again, after all she was already in such trouble she might as well get the benefit. She also concentrated to ensure she was controlling the build up of negative energy. It would get hard to hold after a while, but she’d be ready to go before it was a real struggle.

As she thought of options, she realised she only had one left. It was the one she’d been hoping to avoid. She called her mother.

“Hello?”

“Hello Mother.”

“Darling, such a surprise to hear your voice!”

“I doubt that.”

“OK, I could feel the magic. Do you admit now you need my help?”

“Yes. Please.”

“See, it wasn’t that bad.”

“You have no idea.”

“Anyway, you’ll have to appear to leave normally. How soon can you be here?”

“In a few hours.”

“Oh, that is excellent. It’ll be so good to see you, and there are a few awkward characters we’ll need you to deal with.”

“Mother…”

“You can’t come back unless you’re willing to work. You know that.”

“I know. I was just hoping…”

“For a break? What do you think you’ve been enjoying. Now get back here, and bring my lovely granddaughters with you. I am so looking forward to meeting them.”

There was little point arguing with her mother. She said, “I’ll see you soon mother.”

“Looking forward to it darling.”

Her heart was lighter, at least she’d be getting help, and rest, and it would be nice to be among other witches again. It was also weighed down; as she knew the kind of work she’d have to do. She shuddered.

One of her skills was controlling the negative energy produced by good work. She could harness and direct it. Perform targeted acts of evil. As much as she understood the necessity, she’d never enjoyed it, and the images had started to plague her. That’s why she’d run away.

Sighing she started to collect her things. The girls, still behaving impeccably, were quickly loaded up in their carry seats, and the basics for the trip were ready. She was tempted to use magic to load the seats into the car, but if anyone saw them it would cause real issues. She lugged them over, strapped them in and made sure they were safe.

As she was about to get into the car she took one last look at her home, and said a final goodbye to her husband.   She got in and drove off.

She was half way along the block when she let the magic go. It blew the walls of her house down, and the roof collapsed. She didn’t look back.

 

The neighbourhood was surprised by three unusual happenings that day. There was the lightning strike, the collapsed house and the strange disappearance of the nice young widow and her twins. People gossiped, as they do, but they couldn’t see a connection, which was perhaps fortunate for everyone.

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Lambing

Lambing

The early morning mists shroud the fields, smothering sound and isolating us from the frantic world. The ewe bleats as I approach, perhaps in greeting, though given her Herculean efforts overnight it may be pride. As I get closer, the mists both parting and settling on me in a damp cloak, I see the products of her labour. Three small, brown lambs, still wet from the amniotic sacks they’ve only just escaped. Their mother licks them, trying to dry them off, while the cold morning endeavours to do the opposite, potentially life sapping dew forming on the little creatures. When I am almost on top of them she bleats again, but this time with a mother’s warning. I retreat, and stare at the new arrivals, small bundles of ephemeral joy. Tomorrow, or the next day I’ll have to catch them, and castrate the boys and dock their tails; a chore which is unpleasant but less unpleasant than the alternatives, yet it tarnishes our relationship. From that point they will never trust me again, whereas now, mere hours into the world, they view me as a curiosity and I can take unalloyed pleasure in their very existence.

The early morning was never a source of delight in the city. It would usually mean another day of drudgery, of smog, and smut and the life-draining dreariness of work. The only brief moments of happiness were those found during alcoholic fuelled hazes, where the world appeared to have possibilities again. The ewe bleats again, she is not interested in my musings. I tell her to shush, as even her gentle warning may attract the others. The rest of the flock is out there, currently oblivious to my presence.   If they detect me, via sound, or some other emanation, they will descend, their hunger driving them and making them careless around the lambs. I do not want to see the little ones knocked about by their gluttonous elders. I quickly enter the feed hut and gather a saucepan of food. The ewe has worked hard in the small hours, and she deserves both a treat, and to recharge her energy reserves. With three mouths suckling she will have to toil further to fulfil her maternal duties. I hold my hand out, full of feed. Normally this ewe would be wary, but she is hungry and exhausted and she voraciously chomps at the nuts and grains I offer her. The rest of the saucepan I up-end onto the floor, and she dives in, all concentration on the concentrates I’ve provided her.

The early morning will soon become just the morning, and my normal duties will start again. Till that time I can watch the first unsteady steps of new life. I can even capture some of it on my camera, though when I look back at the photos they will be missing the ethereal beauty of the breaking day, and that loss will render them flat in their two dimensions. I turn away, taking some pride from overseeing the birth, like any father at the arrival of their progeny, despite the paucity of their contribution.

The early morning mists are lifting as I walk back to the house. My day will start now, but I will spend it lifted, my connection with life reaffirmed.

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