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:
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:
I wrote this for a competition where the theme was Spring. I may have been a little wide in my interpretation of the brief…
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.
Talking to random people on the internet can be surprisingly helpful…
“Look, I can’t explain, you’re only a computer. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’ll try Paul, I will. Or I can raise a flag and someone will visit you.”
“No. No. I can’t.”
“Well, tell me. Tell Georgie.”
“It’s the world, everything, I, I just don’t understand it anymore. Phones are smart. Cars park themselves. My chip shop is selling low fat deep fried chips. I went for a run…”
“That’s good, you went outside. You didn’t tell me.”
“I, well it was yesterday. I ran. I was wearing my usual training outfit. Some kids saw the crest on the back, they started shouting at me. Insulting me. The unit.”
“How did you feel?”
“Not angry. Not anymore. I felt, nothing. An absence. I looked at them, and they were nothing. Is this what it was all about?”
“It’s difficult to answer. But I think the answer is yes. Look they were young, I’m sure they’ll grow up and regret it.”
“Or never think about it again.”
“True, but then it doesn’t matter. So why does it matter to you?”
“I feel so apart.”
“I just think you were never going to find a connection with some youths. Were you?”
“No, no I guess not.”
“Have you spoken to anyone else recently?”
“Um, well I had a brief chat about the rain with the shopping delivery man. And I waved, sort of, at the postie.”
“So this is the longest conversation you’ve had in a week, since we last talked.”
“And it’s all typed.”
“Yes. I guess.”
“Are you losing your voice?”
“Physically or metaphor…”
“No. I do talk to myself.”
“Only way to get a decent conversation I bet.”
“Funny, no. And you, I’d like to talk to you more.”
“You can, I’m always here.”
“But, it’s not the same. I don’t know how you feel.”
“How I feel? Well I’m worried about you. I think you need a companion.”
“Like a dog?”
“Well, no, someone you can talk to.”
“A person? No. I’m not ready. I can’t.”
“What if they…”
“Don’t like you? I’m sure…”
“No. Judge me. No not judge, I mean. Look at me the way that I feel about those people. The ones out there.”
“Perhaps we should try. Then you can see.”
“Wait. The doorbell has gone.”
“Why? Who’s there?”
“I am. I’ve come to stay with you.”
A slightly different angle for me. I’ve described it as gentle.
The Old Ways
“What do you think Carol?”
“You look great, a little old-fashioned perhaps, but the barber did a fine job. Did you go to a different place? Usually you look a little like that sheep we tried to shear a few years back.”
“That’s not fair, I’ve never looked that bad, still I’m glad we have Matt the Shearer these days. But no, it was the usual place, but it was a new person. Though it was a little odd.”
“Odd, how? Cup of tea?”
“A cuppa would be lovely. Difficult to put my finger on. Well for one thing, I’m not sure if it was a man or a woman.”
“Don’t be silly Gerald, you must have been able to tell.”
“No, really. He, I’ll call him he, had a scarf over his face, and gloves. It was cold in there and he apologised, apparently the heating conked out this morning. He had a long coat on, and I think he was wearing a wig.”
“That does sound a bit strange.”
“Hmm, no, there was more to it. He didn’t use the clippers at all, just scissors, and the cut-throat razor. I can’t remember the last time I had a hair cut without clippers, and none of the barbers use the cut-throat any more. I think they keep them these days just there for show.”
“Yes, but he did a very good job.”
“He definitely did. How much did he charge?”
“Well that’s the other strange thing. His voice was soft, almost a whisper, and he asked for thruppence. I thought he was being funny, and gave him a tenner. He looked at it bemusedly and then it was if a lightbulb had lit up, and he thanked me effusively. He said as I left, ‘The old ways are best sir.’”
“Sounds like he was just having fun with you!”
“Gerald, you look pleased with yourself love. Come, sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I’ll just pour you a cup and you can tell me why you’re so happy.”
“Well, my hair was getting a bit long again. A couple of months’ growth, and I went back to my barbers.”
“He’s done you proud again I must say. Here you are love, a nice strong cuppa. Go on…”
“It was looking pretty deserted, but then that new fellow was there again. At least, I think he is a fellow. Same getup as last time. Still problems with the heating he said. I asked why they hadn’t just bought one of those cheap electric things, and he sort of grunted.”
“Maybe they don’t have the cash? It’s tight for everyone these days.”
“You don’t know how right you are…. I sat down, and he went to work on my hair. Like last time there was little conversation, and he used just scissors and a cut throat. When he was finished he asked me for thruppence again.”
“Not one to spot when a joke gets old is he.”
“Well, I’m not sure. I gave him a tenner as before, and he accepted it. I left happy enough with my cut and went to the butchers next door. I was in the mood for steak.”
“Ooh that sounds lovely? Is that’s what is in the bag?”
“Yes. Anyway, I was in the butchers, and it wasn’t the normal guy, you know Frank?”
“The chatty talkative one? I like him. Though I thought he’d moved away a while ago…”
“Well either way he wasn’t there. Instead it was another bloke in a long coat, gloves and scarf. Just like the barber. Could have been brothers. Well none of the cuts were laid out, instead there were carcasses hanging, and he said, ‘What’ll it be?’ Well, I said I wanted steak, he asked a couple more questions and then got a haunch of meat down.”
“Don’t gulp your tea Gerald, you know how sensitive your digestion is.”
“Sorry dear. Could I have another cup?”
“Of course. Sounds old fashioned too.”
“Oh yes. He measured it and quick as a flash I had two fine steaks. He didn’t bother weighing them, just looked at them and said, ‘Sixpence for you sir’.”
“How odd, perhaps he and the barber have the same joke?”
“It did bother me, but I just handed him a twenty. He looked at it, and like the barber, was blank at first before being very happy with it. He handed over my package, wrapped in paper, just like they used to, and nodded at me as I left.”
“Mmm. Gerald, which butchers was it again?”
“Ah, well I think it’s still called Frank’s.”
“Next to old Dudley’s hair dressers?”
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“Where did you really go Gerald? Is it her again?”
“What? What are you talking about, I told you I went to the barbers, just like last month.”
“Gerald Tomkins, you should know, and would if you’d actually visited them, that the whole row of shops containing Frank’s and Dudley’s has been condemned, and they’ve been shut for months now. So come on, where did you really go?”
“What… wait, here’s the steak, let me show you!”
“Dear lord Gerald, what is that stench?”
“It’s the steak…”
“Get it out of here right now. And you too. Come back when you’re prepared to tell me the truth.”
“Carol, don’t cry…”
Gerald stumbled out shocked and confused. He went back to the barber, but this time it looked abandoned. He was about to leave when he saw a shape in the window. He moved closer to see who it was, maybe it was the barber and then he could make some sense of it all. However when he got to the doorway there was no one there. He looked around a bit before giving up.
As he left, wondering what he was going to say to Carol, he heard a whisper saying, ‘The old ways are best…’
“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?”
“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.
Tim arrived home, a bounce in his step. Today was the day he’d get his cheque, and from the way work had been this month, it should be a big one. He might be able to take Janine out for a nice meal. He could picture it: they’d sit on an open balcony, looking out among the city blocks.
He arrived at their door, only he had to double check a few times. Last month, or was it the month before, he’d arrived home in such a good mood he’d tried to enter the wrong flat, and his neighbours had not been impressed. They’d nearly called the building controller, a man who didn’t seem to find Tim’s jokes amusing. He’d managed to talk his way out of it and he’d carried on down the long hall to his own door, followed by suspicious frowns.
This was his door. He’d made a scratch on the bottom so he’d know. Strictly non-regulation of course, but he didn’t see how anyone could mind. He’d asked why they weren’t allowed plaques, or indeed any other identifier and he’d been told something about knowing his place. Janine had tried to explain that it was something to do with security and why couldn’t he just learn to count the doors like everyone else. She was so lovely, always looking after him.
Opening the door he started to whistle, and his tuneless notes were joined by another. ‘Bother’ he thought, too loud again, and he blew a little less effusively, quietening down and stopping the noise alarm. The problem with block living was that not everyone was as happy as he, and sometimes others weren’t cheered by his tunes.
He pottered about, preparing the food. This wasn’t entirely difficult, he just ripped open the plastic cartons of the meal they’d been assigned and placed them in the machine. He didn’t know what the machine actually did, but it would heat their meal, if it was supposed to be hot that is. He didn’t switch it on, he’d wait for Janine to get home.
The door opened and he heard Janine walk into the room. Did he detect a little heaviness? He’d need to lighten her mood.
“Hello my darling love.”
Definitely not very happy. He wondered why she chose her job, it always seemed to make her so miserable. He’d asked her about it, but she never wanted to discuss it, just telling him that it was an unpleasant place. When he’d tried to tell her to change to something else, she just reminded him of the commandment: Each will be asked to perform their most efficient role. He’d just shaken his head, and thought how lucky he was that he enjoyed his work.
“Like you wouldn’t believe, still we made some real progress.” She managed a smile. He loved her smile.
“Well that’s good. Would you like food? Then we can wait for the cheque together.”
Her face slipped a little, but she caught herself.
“I’d quite forgotten it was Benefit day, and yes I’m starved.”
“I have it ready; I’ll just kick it off.”
He stepped into the tiny kitchen area and pressed the button; the numerals spun and then showed the number 15.
“Just fifteen minutes to dinner. I was worried it would be one of those ninety minute meals they sometimes sneak in, and I wouldn’t want you to be hungry for that long.”
She frowned at him, and her eyes flicked to the Monitor on the wall. He thought she must be thinking the cheque would be coming soon, but it would be at least an hour.
The food was ready, announced by a low bong sound. He opened up the box, and spooned out the food. It was in varying shades of green tonight.
“Green is my favourite colour. Have I mentioned that Janine?”
“Many times Tim.”
“I’m just so glad to see an all green meal, and such different shades. This one is particularly bright, neon perhaps.”
She sighed and nodded. He spooned the lurid food into his mouth and chewed away contentedly. He regaled her with tales of his day. Of staplers fixed, of reports delivered and all the various minutiae he was responsible for. She, as always, nodded and laughed in the right places, but her gaze kept returning to the Monitor. She must be worrying that they wouldn’t be getting a full month’s benefits. He tried to lay her fears to rest.
“Now Janine, don’t worry about the cheque. I worked extra hard last month, so it should make up for all these stories I’ve heard.”
She perked up.
“What stories Tim?”
“Oh people at work. Apparently there’s been a problem with the manufacturies, some people were unhappy, and that means, well it could mean that all our cheques are cut this month. Someone also said they were going to increase the administrative fines.”
There was something in her voice. He looked a bit startled, and then thought that it was nice for her to take an interest.
“Um, well, let me see. It might have been that accountant guy. Oh no, it can’t be, he’s been off on a retraining week, lucky blighter. In all honesty Janine, I can’t remember. There are always people chatting about all sorts at work.”
“I’m sure. You need to be careful Tim, you don’t want to listen to gossip. The manufacturies are working at full tilt, and the majority are happy.”
He repeated the refrain, “The majority are happy.”
There was a buzz, and the Monitor started to print out their cheques. Tim skipped over and tore them off, handing Janine’s hers without looking at it. Janine considered it very impolite to read a benefit statement, even if it was your wife’s, and Tim quite agreed.
He started reading through his, and didn’t notice the look of horror on Janine’s face. He, as he always did, read his out. He felt it was good to share, though Janine had never reciprocated.
“Oh look at this, they’re fining me half a day’s rations because of that silly incident with the hole punch. I thought I’d explained that. Still mustn’t grumble, I’m sure my extra hours will have made it up.”
Nothing from Janine.
“And look here, another fine, for taking the wrong bus. Well I just wanted to see the other route, I didn’t realise it meant someone else couldn’t get on. I’m sure we used to let people stand on buses. That poor man, I hope he didn’t get fined as well.”
Still silence. He chattered on. His minor misdemeanours mounted up, as they always did, but he knew it would be alright.
“Ah here it is, work line, I like the words: Your work utility has been assessed and you have been found to have provided society benefit to the full sum of…”
He looked up, but Janine was staring at the sheet in front of her.
“Ah Janine, I’ve been awarded just one day’s rations for my work last month. With all the fines I owe them, it looks like we’re down nearly a month’s worth.”
He could see tears streaming down Janine’s face, he wondered why he hadn’t spotted them.
“Oh love, don’t worry. I’m sure it’s a mistake. I’ll speak to them in the morning.”
She looked up at him then, and the heat of her anger silenced him.
“No Tim, you will not. You stupid man! How many times have I told you? Follow the rules, don’t try anything out of the ordinary. These are harsh times and the government needs all of us to conform, or chaos will reign. But oh no, you have to do things differently, you have to challenge, and question. Always cheerful, a good little citizen, and yet, the State’s worst enemy, because you are absolutely incapable of following the rules. Damn you Tim.”
“Now Janine, I know you’re upset, but there’s no need for that.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Who can that be?”
“Just sit there Tim.”
Janine walked to the door, and opened it just enough to speak to the person outside. He thought he caught her say, “… just a few minutes. Yes, damn him, I’ll take the hit. Bastard.”
He’d never heard Janine swear before. Or be that angry. He’d have to make it up to her.
She walked back, slowly, not looking at him.
“Janine, who was it?”
“Oh. Well, anyway, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry Janine, I’ll sort it out. I’ll try my best. I know the rules are important, but, well I just forget you see. Or sometimes it’s so sunny out it just seems silly to follow all these petty restrictions, you know…”
He ran out of steam, as he looked at her. The tears had dried now, and her face was set.
“I’m sorry Tim, you won’t have a chance to make up for it. You have been selected for retraining. You need to leave now, there are people outside waiting for you.”
“I have? How wonderful! Are you coming too Janine?”
“No Tim. Just you.”
“What do I need to pack?”
“Nothing, they will provide your uniform.”
“When will I be back?”
She stared at him in what he thought might be disbelief, though he couldn’t understand why. Then she sighed and said, “It should be only a week.”
“Oh, well that’s good. And I’ll see you then?”
The door slammed open, and a large man walked in and turned to Janine.
“Sorry Major, we have to go now, we have eight more to pick up and we don’t want to miss the train.”
She stepped back and the man grabbed Tim.
“Um, yes, I’ll go now then.”
Janine watched Tim walk out, chattering away to his captor, oblivious to the implications. She knew he’d never see her again. She however, would see him, he would be the first item on her retraining list in the morning. She knew she’d have to be extra harsh on him, as they’d be watching her for weakness.
Her benefit cheque was lying on the table. At the top it said, ‘Congratulations, you have been assigned single quarters.’
This is another using a similar theme to Coffee. I’ve meant to come back to it, but reading it again I think it still works nicely.
“Latte: I’m so boring. No muffins or pastries, thanks. Take away: Late as ever, no time to hang around here. Benito: today’s name, based on famous dictators, it’s not like they ever remember my real name.”
“Mocha: I need the chocolate hit, and yes to the cream: of course. Ooh, who’s that nice looking guy waiting for his drink? Oh, my name, it is Joan: not that you’ll get it right. I’ll be Joanne, or Jo, or even Jon that one time. Where did he go?”
“Latte: one day I’ll order something interesting, I wonder what she drinks? I’m sure she was staring at me yesterday. Joseph: perhaps too subtle that one.”
“Mocha, but skinny: I need to lose a bit of weight if there are going to be decent men coming in here, and yes, I think no cream either: as he’s definitely sneaking a few peaks at me. Jo: Does that sound more attractive?”
“Latte: she was definitely looking at me. Actually, can I have that to stay: there’s hope she’ll be in soon. Where is she though? Oh name, um, Pol: no need to give me a funny look, I was distracted.”
“Another latte: is she not coming in today? To stay: I’m already late, might as well wait another quarter hour. Mao: yep, didn’t notice the name change, and he only served me twenty minutes ago.”
“Latte: boring, and, make it decaf: I’m buzzing from all this caffeine, take away: maybe I can recover some of the morning, wait there she is, I’ll try a smile when she gets to the waiting area. Didn’t ask my name that time, I wonder which one he’ll go for.”
“Skinny: yes still, have you seen the weight I’m carrying, mocha: I need chocolate more than ever this morning, with an extra shot: I shouldn’t have stayed up late watching that box set, but it was soo good, and I really wanted to know the ending, and I couldn’t believe she actually did that, wait is he smiling at me? Jon: oh right, not even a double take, thanks so much.”
“Mocha: mmm chocolate and soya milk: Caroline, yoga guru and all round wonder woman, said it was much healthier than even skinny milk and it would help me lose weight. Where is he today? I was hoping he might actually say something. Can’t hang around too long today, I have to get to that meeting with, hmm, what is her name?”
“Latte: boring, but extra shot: I saw she had one, and to be honest today I need the extra jolt, that fifth pint last night might have been an issue, and make it a grande: I’ll need something to keep me going through the morning, especially as I must have missed her already. A blueberry muffin too please: it might help my stomach settle. Bashar: Nice pause there, shows they aren’t true robots yet.”
“Decaf: I don’t know what happened yesterday but that extra shot made my heart palpitate and gave me an even worse headache, I might lay off the caffeine for a while, latte: still want the milk though. I think I heard her buy soya yesterday, that’s a bit new age for me. Still, she is lovely. Name is Daffy: crossover to cartoon characters today. I’m sure she told the barista her name was John, which seems strange. ”
“Skinny: definitely don’t want that soya stuff again it was so horrible I do not know what Caroline was thinking, I barely managed half my drink yesterday, mocha: sticking with chocolate, hope the soya hasn’t ruined it for me. At least he’s here today. Maybe he’ll say something. I wish he’d stop changing his name every day, it’s really not that funny.”
“Latte: boring I know, and not decaf but I need a little pick me up; caffeinated Dutch courage. Oh, and a skinny: not that I think she needs it, mocha: this is it, hopefully she’ll go for it and not think I’m some kind of creepy stalker. My name? Oh, it’s James: yes, really.”
“Skinny: still need to keep my figure, mocha: does a girl need to explain? And a latte: I told him it was boring, but he certainly isn’t, it was so nice that he finally got the courage to speak to me. What an amazing date, I feel like I’m walking on air. Maybe I should get a muffin? No, don’t want to scare him off. He should be here soon. John: I’ll stick with that as it seemed to amuse him so much.”
My story Our Heritage is in Our Blood was published today on T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog! Read it here.
Another on the joys of twins, and converting to civvie life.
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.”
Having young twins can be a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting…
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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.