Umbrella people

Umbrellas

Rain patters on the flagstones that pave the square. Rivulets of water converge forming ever growing puddles, till the place resembles an immense lagoon bordered by a forest of pillars curving upwards, arching protective over tables huddled like bedraggled lambs.

A poster clings to a pillar flapping like a trapped bird in the wind. In a moment’s respite, a sketch of an umbrella unfurls, beneath which is scrawled in childish script: Derided by our fellows, cast out by our parents, hounded by the police, we protest by exhibiting our beautiful bodies, so abhorred by those who fear that which is not like them.

Under the arcades, in the warmth of fizzling gas fires, faded enchantresses sip tea and nibble cakes, their fur stoles wound tight round wrinkled necks. With bright red lips, they murmur powdered cheek to powdered cheek. “No! Really?” Waiters stand stiffly in the shadows, trays at hand, while beyond, within, enthroned at her cash register, Madame sees all.

Not to be out done, San Marco surges upwards, arch upon arch harbouring sacred scenes, topped by spires and saints that stand stolid against the storm. From within, trebles soar above tenors and basses amid a haze of incense and candle smoke. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Response and counter response in an ordered procession, a celestial counterpoint composed centuries before.

Outside, like an archipelago of tiny, colourful islands in the rain-spattered square, we children crouch, each concealed beneath a rainbow umbrella, naked and shivering. Droplets rebound from puddles and splash our tiny feet, our ankles, our calves, our private parts. Icy rain-water drips from goose flesh and our young teeth chatter. Will people ever accept us as we are?

Amid the faded onlookers, a woman gets to her feet, abandoning her tea and cake, and with her left hand cupped over her mouth, her eyes wide in horror and distaste, she points a trembling finger in our direction. A flock of words rises squawking beneath the arcades. “Shocking!” “Disgusting!” One after another the women rise, their dresses fluttering in the wind, one hand outstretched, till an armoury of accusing fingers aims in our direction.

A whistle slices through the clamours of indignation and a body of Carabinieri trot into the square, their boots squelching in step, their truncheons dancing at their hips. Fanning out, they rain blows on our umbrellas sparking screams and cries for mercy. In a flurry of dark blue and silver braid, they bludgeon the difference out of us and with it our lives. Order restored, they regroup and trot away. The echoes of our pleas die down and quiet returns, even the lamb of god is silenced. Dazed, the women sit and stare, betwixt fear and fascination, unable to resume their whispered commerce.

In the square, rain continues to fall on the rods and riders of umbrellas twisted almost beyond recognition and the tatters of colourful canopies float on a growing sea stained red.

(Many thanks to the members of the Geneva Writers Group, whose critiquing of this story helped me see what was creating difficulties in an earlier version.)

Her

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Time to crack open my eyes, to yawn and yawn again, to stretch, to scratch, then pounce on the ball of wool sending it shooting under the bed. And I’m off, skidding on the carpet, slithering past the ball, almost colliding with the wall. Arching my back, I spring again, digging my claws into the woolly prey. It clings to me and we struggle. I roll on my back, splaying my legs, and wool tumbles over my belly.

A shape looms at one end of the bed, it’s tiny, round eyes struggling to pierce the dark, its breath hot and unsavoury, calling the name it gives me. I move to slink away, but it corners me, its hand grabbing me by the scruff of my neck, and drags me through a flock of dust bunnies into the light.

I am whisked into its arms, the breath knocked from me. “Lie still,” it says. As if I could do otherwise in its vice-like grip. Its fingers dig into the crevice behind my ears till I am forced to purr and nuzzle against it. So much for self-respect. “It was only a dream,” it says, dumping me back on the floor.

What nonsense. As if we could dream. It was nothing but a ball of fluff I saw, or a mouse scuttling away, caught inches from its hideaway, or a bird, its wings fluttering, feathers flying free or maybe a rabbit, terrified, trying to stare me down with big round eyes. All are gone now, and it with them, leaving me alone with a bowl of pellets tumbling to the floor. I turn a disdainful back.

Ooh! An open window. I  jump up and sit on the sill, sniffing the air. Hmm. Others. Across the road. Down the alley with all those smelly dustbins. Through the scented blackcurrant bushes. And there, amid it all, the hint of a treasure, a she-cat of the most exquisite sort. I lift my nose and incline my head, straining forward. Yes. The scent has my whole body quivering. But the wind swings to the north and the delicious smell is swept away.

I spring to the ground and race to the gate. Ducking down, I peer out under the metal bars. Nothing. Not a hair nor a whisker of her. I sit back on my haunches and wait, my head held high. No sign of her. Better clean my paws while I wait.

What’s this coloured thread caught between my claws? It flows beneath the gate, weaves amongst the leaves along the stone path, jumps up onto the window sill, only to plunge to my bowl below from where it hurries across the kitchen, down the corridor and through the bedroom door till it disappears beneath the bed.

Seized by a wild desire to run, I grasp the wool between my teeth and tear off down the lane, past the ruins of a tractor, round a toppled signpost and away into the orchard, trailing a coloured tail wherever I go.

Reaching the middle of the orchard, the thread goes taut and I tumble forward, head over heels, a bundle of fur, over and over, in a shower of leaves till I come to a halt. When I look up, a pair of eyes stares down, and whiskers that twitch, and a paw that gives me a playful tap. It’s her.

The Light Knows No Secrets

Light-2

“What did you say, Sandy?”

“I didn’t speak, my love.”

“Then who said that about the light?”

“What light?”

Please don’t tell me I’m hearing voices. That’s what happened to mum. Although she was much younger than I am now. She claimed a soldier came to her every night, it was a secret she said, he talked to her about the great war, how they got buried in the trenches, stumbling in the dark amid the stink and smoke, and them clawing at the mud trying to free the wounded, moaning and praying to God, without the least medical help and all the while shells showering them in sods of earth and broken bones, threatening to bury them amongst the dead…

“You look deathly pale, dear.”

Why do people go pale when they are afraid? Blood drains from their faces. Where does it go? Bet I went pale at the mention of her ghost soldier. Not her. She was scared of the hospital though, with its smell of disinfectant, a bit like here, and the white coated men and nurses in blue and all those wires snaking from the machines, wires they hooked up to her moistened temples, and the whirring that announced the impending shock… I saw it once. Peeked round the screens. Fool that I was. Can’t forget her scream or the gruesome grimace on her face. Never.

“Should I call the nurse?” she asks.

“No. Tea and biscuits will do the trick, my love.”

How long have the two of us been in this home, pottering old codgers finishing off our life together? There was a time when a whole house was ours with rooms to spare, a car of our own and a well-tended garden to roam in. Now all we’ve got is a single room, chocker with washed out memories, a load of useless trinkets, and us surrounded by other shrivelled folk biding their time, breakfast, diner and tea with a stroll in between, for those who still can.

“I put two sugars.”

She knows what I like. Haven’t got many secrets left from her. Nor she from me.

What did that voice say? It’s fading fast. Something about the light. Light of my life. Pretty idea. But it wasn’t that. The knowing light. Not quite. Something to do with secrets.

Sandy sits next to me on the sofa and lays a wrinkled hand on mine. I sip my tea now it has cooled.

“Better?”

I nod.

A knock sounds at the door.

“Come in,” we say in unison.

The door opens and a nurse strides in pushing a trolley. “So how are you two ladies today?”

This flash fiction was first published in Off Shoots 13.

The Chapel

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The latch clicks shut as I pull the porch door closed and feel my way in the dark. A faint hint of incense hangs in the air, vying with distant memories of flowers. I catch sight of the stone font in the gloom and run my hand round its worn rim then, tracing the curve down and across its depths, I encounter water. Drawing back, I glance around, but no one is there to see. I pull a handkerchief from my pocket and hurriedly wipe my fingers then hold it to my nose. Despite the time, her scent lingers on.

She stood alone on the hillside, her hands outstretched, her head upturned. Above, uncountable stars blinked down, setting off bitter sparks of joy in her chest. The full moon crested the horizon and arced upwards taking leave of the earth. “Mother,” she called out, her voice quivering as she stamped her feet to stave off the cold. A wind murmured in the distant trees, swirled across the exposed hilltop and ruffled the skirts about her ankles. It had been so long. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Venturing into the tiny nave, my footsteps echo hesitant off the walls. A shaft of light from a solitary window high above the altar pierces the gloom, casting a host of dancing colours across the floor. Laying a hand on the green cloth that runs the length of the wooden slab, I kneel where so many have knelt before. I am about to close my eyes when a faint rustling has me on my feet. It comes from behind the altar. A mouse surely. I skirt the table with cautious steps, one hand raised to strike, only to discover a cowering girl.

An owl swept low overhead and with a flurry settled on the young woman’s shoulder, letting out a mournful cry. Not content, it turned its head and butted her ear with its beak. She raised a hand to stroke its back when a sharp twang in a nearby bush had her flinging herself to the ground. An arrow whizzed over her head, skimming the screeching bird. A second arrow dug into the ground inches from her knee. She rolled over, sprang to her feet and darted this way and that before she dived for shelter amid the leaves.

In rags, the wretched girl stares at me with haunted eyes. One step is enough to have her skittering away on all fours, halted only by the chapel wall. “I won’t harm you,” I whisper. A moan bursts from her lips as I stretch forth a helping hand. Hammering at the door has us both jump. She scampers beneath the altar cloth and I hurry back to my prayers. With a crunch of hobnailed boots, a wave of sweat and laboured breathing bursts into the chapel. The soldiers fan out, thrusting with musket butts behind curtains and beneath pews.

The owl screeched a warning overhead. Too late. A rough hand gripped her shoulder and, despite her struggles, forced her to the ground. The wind rushed from her lungs as a boot kicked her once, twice, three times in the stomach. When she came to, her wrists were bound behind her back and two hooded figures were heaving her up. “Try calling your mother now,” a third man taunted. The two others laughed. Mother, she called out silently. Now is the time.

Eyes closed, I brace myself. A heavy hand seizes my shoulder making me start. My eyes fly open and I peer up at twisted features and a cruel mouth. “Where’s the brat?” I shrug. I’ve been through this before. Better not to speak. I am hauled to my feet and dragged behind the altar. The men scour every recess, but come away empty handed. Dumping me on the floor, they curse their way to the door and slam it shut.

“My eyes,” a man screamed, falling to the ground, his bloody hands clasped to his face. The man closest to her whipped out a knife and pressed it to her throat. “Stop that!” A second man collapsed with a piecing scream. “Call off your bird or I’ll kill you,” he said, as cold metal dug into her flesh. Then he gasped and his hand relaxed, letting the knife fall to the ground as he sank in a heap. The owl landed on his back, its claws and beak red with blood. Recovering the man’s knife, she cut herself free and, fingering her neck, sighed with relief. “Thank you, Mother.”

I take a deep breath and hasten in search of the girl. But all I find are cobwebs and dust. Could my longings have conjured such a waif from the shadows of hope? I sigh. The sun must have broken free of a cloud, because light bursts through the window, spotlighting the lectern with its rays. I draw closer, feeling a fluttering presence stir within my chest and my heart unfurls, a part of me surging upwards to join the light. On the lectern a volume lies open, it’s illuminated letters colourful in that shaft of warmth. Three sentences stand highlighted in a dainty script, singled out by a sole affirmation: Yes. I read aloud: There is nothing richer than silence. Nothing more moving than being still. Nothing more all encompassing than being alone.

A Voice in the Storm

Storm

The sun’s rays burst through the clouds and skim the ruffled waters of the lake. At the sight of a large villa, they prize their way between the half drawn curtains and splash light across a table set for two.

Eyes downcast, an old man ruminates, his boney fingers smoothing creases from the cloth. The roast lamb and potato gratin have hardly been touched. He picks up his glass, swills the red wine, sniffs it, then replaces it with a sigh. In the distance, a clap of thunder rolls off the hills.

“That Mrs. Adams has been at it again.”

He looks up startled. Not that he has any reason to be, she accompanies him wherever he goes. His eyes return to the food. He pushes a morsel of lamb with his fork leaving a streak of blood across the plate.

“Her husband found her sprawled in the arms of that bartender. The one down by the lake. The brawny one. Bob the fireman had to hold Mr. Adams back…”

He stares at the clouds pitching across the sky in tune with the staccato of her voice. She may be well preserved and still takes care of how she looks, but maybe he should have divorced her back then, like his colleagues said.

“It makes no sense. What with her late and him not hearing a word. A typical man. Couldn’t face the pain, his reputation was all he cared for.”

He grits his teeth and tries to remember if there has ever been a time when he is not flooded by her mindless words. His thoughts go blank.

“I told her so. But she wouldn’t go. Too ashamed. Her niece works there once a week. Afraid the chit would spill the beans.”

He grips the edge of the table, bunching the cloth between his fingers. He has a wild impulse to wrench the linen from under the plates. A resounding crash shakes the house as  lightening strikes nearby.

“That’s when she went all pale, her eyes rolled up and she sank to the floor in a heap, trembling like a new born lamb. Moaning she was and me unsure what to do, what with the little one not yet come and her husband shouting for help and the maid running round like a headless chicken…”

“Enough!” The shock of his fist on the table has his fork scudding from the plate and the wine glass topples, casting a slur across the virgin cloth. He shoves back his chair and struggles to his feet. Raking his fingers through the remains of his hair, he glances about perplexed. How come he is all alone?

Outside, beyond the hills, away over the lake, atop the peaks, a rent in the clouds rolls shut and the rays of sun are snuffed out shrouding the world in listless grey.

Encountered

Encountered

The whir of colour wheels settled and a familiar sinking announced the return to gravity. Ahead the docking station took shape. AT381. Home. He let out a deep shuddery breath. He was almost there. Out of habit, he glanced at the screens. No one was following.

Docked, he was about to undo the airlock when a second craft drifted into the next bay. His hands froze on the crossbar. Cast off you fool, get out of there. But he was so close. Through the port he caught a glimpse of the aeronaut, a young woman, stern and beautiful, her angular face looking vaguely familiar. Could she be one of those life suckers? They could so easily shift shape. But no. The memory of her was older. Flight school maybe. Intrigued, he opted to risk it.

She had her back turned when he reached the platform, her silver suit helmet wedged under her arm. She was typing in her credentials and taking her time about it. Fear spiked again. Could she be ratting on him? But when she turned, the sight of those black eyes and her pointed ears, had it all come flooding back. Brooke. His first lover. Their little adventure had almost cost him his place at school.

He glanced at his reflection in a porthole. Surely she wouldn’t know him after all he’d been through. She nodded blankly and squeezed past, heading for the space station. How strange to be so close. Sliding his ID into the console, a message flashed up. Who could possibly know he was there? He glanced around, but he was alone. Pulling up the message he read: 381 taken over. Get out while you can. Brooke.

He wrenched his card from the panel and tore down the tunnel after her, but she was nowhere to be seen. He halted short of the reception desk, spotting several guards sporting the latest sigma laser nonsense. Drawing back, he swore under his breath. Blast the woman. How did she know? Could he trust her?

He ran back to the airlock, unlocked the door and climbed inside his craft. He sniffed the air as he glanced around, wary that someone might have entered while he was away. He sensed nothing. Screwing the airlock into place, he hurried to the main console. A hammering came from the safety hatch. Checking the screens, he saw two guards setting about the door with the butts of their guns. The idiots were going to depressurise the whole station.

Releasing the craft’s hold on the dock, he sped her away, rapidly computing hyperspace coordinates as he did. He was about to order the shift when he felt fingers brush his neck. His hand flew to the knife at his belt. Turning his head, he caught sight of Brooke grinning down at him. He relaxed and sheathed the knife. Leaning forward to give her a kiss, he felt her grip his collar and then her teeth sank into his neck.

Flowerpot scientists

Flowerpot

“No. I insist. They hide under flowerpots,” she says, draining most of her cup, turning it upside down and placing it dripping over a solitary sugar lump.

“What are you talking about, my dear?” She can have such wild ideas at times that I find it hard to keep up. And if I can’t keep up, whoever else could? Somebody has to accompany her in her wanderings. She might get lost forever. Then what would I do?

“Scientists of course,” she insists, pointing at the upturned cup. A small puddle of tea has escaped from under its rim making the cup look like a bloated pirogue cut lose in the middle of a tiny pond.

“What scientists?” I ask. Sometimes, if I humour her, I manage to catch the thread of her ideas and can haul myself back along the twisting path of her thoughts to where she is.

“The ones who are studying the hedgehogs,” she says, her tone triumphant, as if it were self-evident and I should have known.

The eruption of the prickly creatures in her story throws me for a moment. I feel cut adrift, unable to decide where to turn next. The muscles of my face slacken, my eyes blur and I sense my jaw slip open.

“Close your mouth,” she says. “A fly might get in. Filthy things.”

I snap my mouth closed, making a noise like a miniature guillotine that resonates in my head.

“There are no flies here,” I reply, my words almost as cutting as the guillotine. Sometimes she can be downright silly. Hospital wards are the last place you’d expect to find a fly.

“They are attracted by the hedgehogs.”

I want to protest that there are no hedgehogs either, but that would be going too far. I would surely lose her then. “And why would hedgehogs attract flies?” I ask, shifting back in my chair in dread of what she might answer.

“Reproduction.” A broad grin lights up her face, as if she has proved a long and complex proof or won a drawn-out argument.

“Sorry?” I have to admit defeat. I can’t keep up. Her grin broadens even more.

“Do make an effort. You are so slow sometimes,” she retorts, pursuing her advantage. “Hedgehogs need flies to reproduce. Everyone knows that.”

All of a sudden I feel weary, dreadfully weary. My brain is in a muddle and my stomach feels like somebody shifted it slightly sideways. I would willingly close my eyes and escape in a nap, but she barrels on.

“That’s why the scientists are there.” She lifts the cup, revealing a sticky puddle where the sugar lump had once been. “You see. They study how hedgehogs overcome their genderlessness with the help of flies.”

When I sit there staring at the sticky mess, unresponsive, she continues.

“The way things are going, that is how we’ll all end up.”

Devouring folk tales

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Something went wrong, dreadfully wrong, once upon a time.

Von stood alone on a broad open plain, hills of pink dust rolling away in every direction. The sun blazed high in the sky causing waves of heat to ripple over the desert making it look as if it throbbed. No folk were in sight, but danger hung in the air, he could sense it in the pit of his stomach. He wished there were something he could do, but intuition told him that nothing would change this tale. If only he knew what form it would take.

A shudder rocked his body, his lungs heaved and he started to cough so violently he feared his  chest would burst. Then, with a gut-wrenching spasm, his mouth flew open and a tiny girl popped out. She landed feet first on the ground in front of him, perfectly formed and all dressed, rearing to go. Clutching his throat which was raw from the girl’s passage, he stared at her, his mouth fallen open in disbelief.

“Well that’s better,” she said, her piercing voice setting his teeth on edge.  “It was so stuffy in there.” He wanted to ask who she was, but his throat was so hoarse that speaking was out of the question. “Right,” the girl said, licking her lips. “Now let’s sort you out.” He didn’t like the sound of that. There was nothing about him that needed sorting. And the look of greed in her eyes was alarming.

She opened her mouth so wide, he was afraid she was might bite him. Yet the gaping hole continued to grow till he felt giddy and tried to step back. It was then she drew in a deep breath causing the wind to howl around him and he felt himself being sucked forwards. He flung out his arms clutching at memories in a desperate attempt to hold on to all he’d known, but the world slipped through his fingers. He flew into her mouth and  slithered down her throat. His screams only ceased when he thudded to a halt in the slime of a pulsing pink abyss.

The new story index

Story-index

There are now over fifty of Alan McCluskey’s short stories published here. To find your way around, you can use the new Story Index. There’s also a link to the index in the menu to the left of every page.

The colourful bandstand

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Sun glints off the varnished roof of the bandstand, sending a rainbow of colours showering over the surrounding tiered steps as they climb row upon row high above. Sheltered from the bright light by the bandstand, children in period costumes sit at several small tables sipping tea from bone china cups and nibbling dainty sandwiches. The dull murmur of their conversations mingles with the lazy lapping of the sea around the girders below the pier. Gulls circle overhead cawing to each other. In the distance, a brass band plays a familiar air. Choosing a place midway up the steps, I sit to watch. One by one, then in tight-knit groups, silent people settle on the tiered steps around me, their eyes riveted on the children. There’s a muted sense of excitement in the air to which the players in the pageant continue oblivious. When a man lowers his large frame next to me, I whisper: “What’s happening?” He looks at me blankly, then turns back to watch the children. A foreigner maybe. Or dumb. Or just plain rude. As the silent crowd grows, partially blocking my view, I get to my feet and weave my way between disgruntled spectators till I reach the railing that protects the bandstand. From this close I get a clear view of the intricate lace-trimmed costumes the boys and girls wear. One of the children stands and raises a long tube to her lips. Her cheeks puff out and she blows, causing a glowing white ball of glass to swell at its raised end. The crowd bursts into applause, sending alarmed gulls rising into the air, cawing in complaint. The scene merits a photo. In a panic, I fumble through my cloth sack in search of my camera, but find it nowhere. Could someone have stolen it? The fiery glass ball is now as big as the girl’s head and all the children have risen in salute, their teacups raised. My fingers latch onto something cold and hard in my bag. But when I pull it out, I discover not my camera, but a flat silver tablet encrusted with complex gold markings. At that moment the glass ball explodes showering all in bright light and the world turns white.