In the Bleak Mid-Winter

Bleak mid Winter

Christmas! Mary’s favourite time. Snow had fallen, muffling the world in its embrace. Yet, no wise men laboured knee-deep through the snow. Only Old Ted driving the cows into the stalls. Night fell early and the full moon rose, casting eerie shadows across the snow-covered landscape.

Some whispered Christmas Eve was a time when spirits walked abroad. Talking of spirits made her nervous. Father would scold her if he knew. Spirits were the makings of the weak-minded and the dark-hearted, he always said. But if spirits there were, let them stay outside. All good folk were indoors, warm and safe.

Her family would soon gather about the Christmas tree to sing carols and Father would read from the Good Book. Only when they’d finished would they eat. The smell of roasted poultry, baked potatoes and sage and onion stuffing filled the house. It made her mouth water, but hankering after food wouldn’t be right on such a holy day.

Her younger brothers and sisters came tumbling down, knowing Father would not tolerate lateness. The family, joined by Cook and Old Ted, stood in silence, waiting. Had Mother been alive, she would have accompanied them. Instead Mary gave the first note. As ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ came to an end, Mary listened hard, hoping to hear the sledge bells heralding Christmas. But all she could hear was the faint rustle of mice.

Could there really be spirits? Mary glanced at Father who began to read. At the moment the wise men discovered the baby in the manger, a crash interrupted Father’s reading. One of the crystal balls on the tree had fallen to the flagstone floor and shattered.

Everyone stared aghast. A growing carpet of pine needles had gathered under its branches. A second ball slid from the tree and smashed. Mary risked a look at Father. He was on the verge of exploding. In the deathly silence, the rustle of falling needles continued unabated.

Who did this?” Father roared.

Nobody answered.

Who let the devil into our house?” he asked.

Her youngest sister was in tears.

Remove the decorations, Mary,” he ordered.

She hurried to obey, helped by her sisters.

Fetch my axe!” Father told his eldest son, John.

She’d never seen him in such a rage, he who said anger was the devil’s work. When John returned, Father dragged the tree outside, letting a blast of freezing air steal into the house. He vented his fury on the hapless tree then set fire to the broken branches.

Back inside, he ordered Cook to return the food to the pantry. She tried to remonstrate, but he would have nothing of it. Mary feared he’d set about the woman, but instead he turned on the children, sending them to bed. As she shooed her sisters up the stairs, her heart heavy and her stomach empty, Mary wondered who had let the devil into their house. For whoever it was had ruined their Christmas.

The Sixth

Rainbow

Her eyes stared off into the distance, blank and unseeing. What a shame, he thought; such an attractive young girl yet afflicted that way. One of her auburn curls repeatedly fell in front of her eyes. Each time she’d tuck it behind her ear, no irritation in her movements, just care and attention. When she’d entered his workshop he hadn’t at first noticed she was blind. He’d been busy working on his latest canvas, putting the ultimate touches to the sky. He’d promised himself he’d complete it that day and, true to form, he’d done so.

That she had negotiated her way unaided amongst the many small tables that were scattered around his workshop, each piled high with Christmas decorations, might explain why he had failed to notice she was blind. He wasn’t an untidy person, but painting had got between him and festooning the house with the tiny glass balls of all the colours of the rainbow.

Now she stood next to the table, his latest canvas flat in front of her. When she’d insisted he lay the painting on the table, he been worried she might damage it. The oils were far from dry and one clumsy movement would give him days of work. But as he watched her delicate hands glide some inches above the painting, he knew he had nothing to fear.

Oh!” she exclaimed. “This is wonderful!” Her outstretched fingers hovered over the rainbow that hung low in the rain filled sky. It had taken him ages to capture the tension between the pelting rain and the emerging sun. “Such a burst of warmth and colour,” she enthused.

Her index finger repeatedly ran along the lower rim of the rainbow as if searching for something. He shifted his attention from her fingers to her face. It seemed painfully intrusive to stare at someone who couldn’t stare back, but the intensity of her expressions fascinated him. Thoughts and emotions were constantly flickering across her face. She looked so guileless. As he watched, a question seemed to form. “Something’s missing,” she finally said. “Here!

Her index finger pointed at the lower edge of the rainbow. He looked closely, but could see nothing. “I don’t see,” he said. What a silly thing to say, in the circumstances, he thought, feeling embarrassed. “Yes,” she insisted. “Something dark and smooth that feels like velvet. Something so deep and rich you could fall into it and lose yourself,” she continued. He still couldn’t grasp what she was getting at. “Just a touch of it. Like a faint sliver wedged between the other colours, but so powerful.”

He leaned forward to look closer. It was then that she took hold of his hand, and gentling stretching out his index finger she pointed it to the violet edge of the rainbow. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “How could I possibly not have seen that!” He laughed and she laughed with him. “I’ve forgotten the sixth colour without which no rainbow can be complete. Indigo.

Hold that thought …

Bus stop

Hold that thought…” was all the message said. If it had been scribbled on a piece of paper you’d be tempted to turn it over and look at the other side to see if there was more. But it was an email, and there was no other side to it. He wasn’t even sure it was addressed to him. You never could tell with those forums.  What troubled him most was that the phrase was so familiar. He’d heard a young woman saying it. He could even smell her perfume. But wrack his brains as he would, he couldn’t remember who, let alone when and where. It must have been a film he’d seen once, or twice. Or maybe a TV series. He felt like the man at the bus stop. You know. The one standing there dreaming of better times, when someone says “Oie you!” He looks around to see who is being addressed. But there’s only him. “Yeah you!” the voice persists. Perplexed our man at the bus stop points his thumb at his chest as if to say: “Who me?” Incredulous. “Sure! You! Can you hold this for me?” the person asks. He hadn’t noticed the little man before. The guy is holding an enormous sheet of glass at least four times his size. And he launches into a lengthy explanation which involves his aunt, a stray dog, the neighbour’s young daughter and a great deal of glue. Our man at the bus stop is tempted to ask “Why me?” but he keeps his mouth shut. It wouldn’t do to show he doesn’t understand a word that’s been said. “Oh my God!” the dwarf exclaims. “Is that the time?” And he agitates the sheet of glass making our man at the stop take a step back for fear the glass might shatter. “Here hold this a sec,” the dwarf says and thrusts the glass in his direction. More to protect himself than to comply, our bus stop man takes what he’s given. “Where did I put that letter?” the dwarf asks himself the moment his hands are free. And he begins searching frantically in every pocket. And he’s got a lot of them. Pockets, I mean. Nothing. “Oh how irritating!” he exclaims. “I must have left it at home.” And he hurries off, calling out over his shoulder: “Be back in a mo!” Our man at the bus stop feels a bit foolish, to put it mildly, but luckily he’s still alone at the stop. Five minutes later though, quite a crowd has gathered. The bus is late. As usual. And several people are looking at him as if he’s escaped from a local mental hospital. He tries desperately to look inconspicuous. It’s a hard task in the circumstances. When the bus finally arrives, there’s still no sign of the dwarf. Our man is getting desperate. People push past him to get on the bus. Some more roughly than others. He tries to fend them off, to protect the glass. What should he do? He can’t just leave the glass there. It would be dangerous. And it’s too big to get on the bus. The bus conductor looks at him quizzically but all our man at the bus stop can do is shrug. So the bus pulls reluctantly away from the curb and accelerates down the street with all its occupants staring out at him.

The photo: Celebrating thirty years of a shop called ‘Chez Josiane’

Tribute

The station

The following dream of Celi, a fifteen-year-old girl, is an extract from my latest novel code-named Story Five.

Celi stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to the platform. She dearly wanted to stay but it was time to go. People milled noisily around her hurrying to catch a last train home or to meet a loved one about to arrive. She paid no heed to them. She stood alone, her back curved with old age, watching her new-found friends climb slowly away from her. Vata and Kit were amongst them, holding hands, whispering to each other as Vata laid her head on Kit’s shoulder. Celi longed to go with them, to bound up the steps with renewed energy and join the happy group, but she couldn’t let that be. Her destination was elsewhere. She could not undo what had been done. The weight of so many years tugged at her, holding her back. They had all spent a last carefree evening together, joking and laughing, but now their time together was over. They might never see each other again. She hadn’t realised how much she relished being with them, how much their joy and youthfulness filled her with wellbeing. Would knowing have made any difference? Probably not. She felt utterly bereft. A sea of sadness well up in her, threatening to drown her completely. She turned aside to save herself from being washed away and trudged painfully in search of her own train. Tears overflowed and streamed down her cheeks as she laboured step by step up the stairs, aches in all her joints. She made it to the final step, but couldn’t go on. She turned and sat heavily on the cold stone stair, her head in her hands and wept.

A walk

Thousands of raucous birds chatter in the branches at the top of the highest trees awaiting the magic moment when they rise as one, circle the village and fly south till spring. It could be days away. But no. Suddenly the incessant chirping stops and all is silent. Joy and loss at once! Loss? A deep feeling of it permeates the air. And you know they’ve gone. And you remain behind, glued to the ground.
The forest floor is russet brown with fallen beech leaves. A gust of wind rustles its way through the tree tops while a lone woodpecker hammers repeatedly at a resisting trunk. Woodpeckers are a sign of a healthy forest, a forest ranger once told me. This time it really is rain. It’s been threatening for a while. Softly at first. Then penetrating between the leaves, it reaches the ground progressively changing its colour. Startled, a roe deer rears up and bolts, crashing noisily through the undergrowth, leaping over rocks. If only it had stood still no one would have paid it any heed.
Rain falls more heavily and the path is now wet and slippery. I pull up my hood and walk on. It’ll only be a short shower. The smell of wet earth and the odour of mulch and mushrooms fills the air. But I am not alone. A car labours up the hill and slows as it passes me. The driver salutes but I ignore him. How dare he drive through my dream! Following the car, some distance away, a man walks briskly into sight. He offers excuses for the car. It was his son driving. He’s expecting to be criticised. Cars driving through the forest always are he complains. But they have every right to be there. They’re the owners of the house a couple of kilometers down the track. I try to turn the conversation to other things but he persists in defending their rights. Finally I get him talking of their house and the forest around. And some ten minutes later he walks on as we wish each other a good day. In the mean time the sun has come out, it’s rays slanting between the trunks. Occasional drops of rain continue to fall from the leaves, but the shower has passed.

The commemoration

We drove across the abandoned tarmac of what must once have been a majestic airport. Grass had forced its way through the many cracks that breeched the surface. The car came to a halt at a faded, red and white barrier on which was written: No entrance! Radiation! Danger! My father, my mother, my sister and I got out of the car cautiously. What desolation! Here and there jagged remains of masonry pointed skywards, accusing. Years ago, on this very spot, the ultimate war had begun. And tonight, twenty years later, that event was to be commemorated with my father, as President of the Alliance, giving an allocution.

All four of us stood heads bowed in the late afternoon sun. Our remorse was that of a whole nation as a raw wind tried to force us to retreat. The relative silence was shattered by the roar of an engine. As we turned in shock to look, a hyped-up scooter tore towards us, causing us to scatter as it smashed through the barrier and wove its way into the heart of the forbidden zone. The meaning of this outrage was clear to all of us. Someone way trying to spark a new conflict. We jumped into the car while my father got behind the wheel of a smaller vehicle and we drove at full speed for the city. Pausing at a crossroads in the city centre, father dashed from his car to ours. We’d be safer together. The moment he climbed inside a hooded man surged from the shadows and hurled a sticky black mass at my father. The touch of it burnt terribly. My sister screamed and my father slumped forward his face and arms on fire. The stuff was clearly radioactive. My father was going to die and we might well die with him. With a supreme effort my father flung the substance from the car and slammed the door. My mother drove off at break-neck speed. Where should we go? Home wouldn’t be safe. They’d surely be watching out for us. Nowhere would be safe now. It was a risk, but we opted for an unused warehouse that had been converted into a theatre. We hoped we’d find people there we could trust. As the car slowed and drew into warehouse entrance a figure appeared and walked toward us. “You can hide in the loft above the theatre,” the man said, glancing from my father to us, clearly understanding our predicament requiring no for further explanations. “That ought to be safe for a while,” he said. But my father, disfigured and torn with pain by the attack, refused. “Call the TV cameras,” he ordered, clearly finding it difficult to talk, his face swollen with blisters. “I need to warn everyone what is about to happen…” and he collapsed in a heap on the ground.

The Yellow Cloud

The Yellow Man

I stood in the shadows of a nearby building waiting, watching, wary when a stocky man threw open the folding trap-door across the square. It landed with a thud on the pavement as he clambered up the steps from the underground passage and headed away from me. Right in front of him hung an astonishing yellow cloud just above the ground, dense and toxic. The man walked right into it. How could he possibly not have seen it? It was large enough to engulf him completely and so bright that even with his sunglasses on it must have dazzled him. Sharp angular movements noiselessly erupted behind the smooth surface of the cloud like lightening in a storm or blows being slugged. After a short pause the man emerged from the cloud seemingly unscathed, although I could have sworn his skin had veered faintly yellow. It was then I realised the cloud had disappeared. In his hand the man held a tiny, old-fashioned oil lamp that could have been borrowed from the story of Aladdin except that it was canary yellow. The man suddenly awoke to the fact that he had something in his hand and glanced at it uncomprehending then tossed it nonchalantly aside. But the moment he turned to move on, the lamp sprang back to his waist and attached itself to his belt, unbeknown to him. His shirt was hanging loose, revealing a tanned, muscular belly. To my horror the lamp began to inch upwards and started burrowing under the man’s skin till it had completely disappeared inside and the skin had congealed concealing the wound. His eyes were shut, he seemed oblivious to what was happening. Then he abruptly turned in my direction. His eyes flicked open revealing a piercing yellow that sought me out in the shadows. I couldn’t control myself. I ran screaming.

Transformations

Water

You don’t have to be down a rabbit hole for things to transform unexpectedly in front of you,” he told those who could be bothered to listen to him as he waved his pint of beer dangerously in the air. “The first that I noticed of the alarmingly high level of the sea was when a giant wave overflowed the seawall in slow motion and flooded the deck of the boat that the towpath had become.” He paused in his storytelling, unable to continue as a violent fit of coughing wracked his body. “I frantically tried to pick up the cushions and pillows scattered here and there in a desperate attempt to keep them dry,” he pursued breathlessly. “There were already several inches of water in the boat as I stuffed the cushions onto the top bunk beds. Suddenly the boat heaved violently to one side,” and he staggered drunkenly sideways as if struck once again by the waves. “It couldn’t be possible, I thought, boats just don’t capsize so easily. But to prove me wrong, the boat rolled over on its side and began to sink, filling corridors and berths with water. It all happened so quickly.” He paused again to catch his breath as he ran the palm of his hand absentmindedly across his forehead and then rubbed his eyes. “Navigating the water-filled corridors I swam under water till I finally made it to the surface. Several things troubled me. The water was not cold at all. I would have expected seawater in the middle of the ocean to be freezing. And then there was the breathing. I had no difficulty holding my breath for what must have been minutes. Not that I had much time to worry about these things at the time.” He shook his head in disbelief, as did many of those listening to him, although probably not for the same reasons. “To my surprise, once outside, only one young man on a wind-sail was in sight. ‘Is that all the rescue we get?’ I spluttered as I fought against the waves. ‘Of course not!’ the voice of an unseen man called out. ‘There are many more of us.’” He paused to take a long swig of his beer, wiping the froth left by the beer around his mouth with the back of his hand. “Pushing downwards, I felt my feet touch the bottom of what had become a shallow river. Don’t ask me how. And sure enough, as I looked around I could see the river bank not far away.” He went to take another mouthful of beer but his glass was empty. He grunted as someone took the glass from his hand to have it refilled at the bar. “I strode through the water till I reached the boat,” he pursued, “and heaved it out of the water. As I did so it shrank to the size a toy. I hunted all over, but I could find no signs of either the drowned or the survivors, much to my relief…”

A question of light

flashes-s

Bright streaks of colour  rained down like so many tiny meteorites leaving their short-lived traces suspended in the air in front of them only to be replaced rapidly by others following different paths. She shuddered at the beauty of it. She had never seen anything so moving. And to think that she’d been expecting one of those typically predictable lessons that he often dished her up with. “I don’t get it,” she said after a while, turning to face him in the dark. “What is there to get?” was all he replied, pretending to be bored. For all her affection for him, he was absolutely exasperating she thought, clenching her fists knowing he could not see them. It was as if frustrating people was his idea of how best to get them to learn. “How can you ask such a question?” she asked, irritated, turning back to the display in front of her, still fascinated by its unending play of colours. “Here we stand in complete darkness, the most beautiful shower of lights splaying inexplicably through the air in front of us and all you can say is that there is nothing worth explaining.” “That is not exactly what I said,” he clarified. She could hear the amusement in his voice, but she didn’t rise to the bait. She remained silent in her efforts to force him to explain. “Well what do you think it is?” he asked, clearly changing his tactics. Typical, she thought, once a teacher, always a teacher. “I’m not buying your pedagogical tricks,” she said fiercely. “You know well enough what it is. Just tell me.” There was a long silence. She hadn’t realised that what she saw was almost noiseless. She said noiseless, but in fact thanks to the silence she could hear a faint hum that fluctuated and modulated when the lights intensified or decreased. If she concentrated, she wondered, would she be able to hear the music of it?”Well?” she pursued, giving up on her attempts to listen carefully such was her impatience with what she understood to be his hesitations. “Have you ever heard of the theory of Parallel Worlds?” he began. “You’ve spoken about it several times,” she reminded him. She could hear his footsteps as he moved around in the dark. She was surprised to feel him place his hands on her shoulders from behind. A little worried, she asked: “What are you …?” But her question remained unanswered as he shoved her violently forward. She felt herself caught up in a whirlwind of movement and colour that pulled off her feet, swung her round and round and carried her up and away. She should have been terrified as she lost all sense of direction and hurtled onwards but the music of the light was so beautiful and engrossing now that she could hear it clearly that nothing else really mattered.

Members only

Members only

Members-3-s

The room was hot and stuffy making him sweat profusely and causing his shirt to cling uncomfortably to his skin. He wiped his forehead and neck with a large white handkerchief that was none too clean and stuffed it back in his jacket pocket. Thick velvet curtains veiled the windows shutting out most of the torrid sunlight of the Italian summer. Since he’d arrived in Rome, the temperature had unfailingly surpassed all records with a number of elderly people succumbing to the heat, or so the radio said. This was to be his last day and he relished the thought of returning to the rain and wind that prevailed in Aberdeen. His whole stay in the Vatican City had been given over to negotiating access to what he was about to see now. When he’d heard that such a thing existed, he had hardly been able to believe it. He had known getting access would be difficult, but he hadn’t anticipated the barriers he would have to surmount to get where he was now. In the beginning there had been denials and even threats. Later came the endless interrogations and questions about his motives. Finally, when all else had failed, came the time to take out his wallet and pay his entry fee as a new member of this most exclusive club not to mention various additional contributions here and there. His guide, a little man who barely reached his shoulders, halted in front of a plain metal door that offered no sign of what might lie within. Pulling a large bunch of keys from the pocket of his cassock, he sorted through them till he found what he was looking for: a long slender key with large handle. Pushing it into the lock up to the hilt, he then turned it till a resounding click was to be heard and the door sprang open on well-oiled hinges. The priest invited him to enter. Stepping over the threshold he was relieved to find the room cooler than elsewhere in the building. Maybe it was because there were no windows and the walls seemed particularly thick. Rows and rows of broad, squat filing cabinets made of varnished wood, separated by wide alleys filled the entire room which must have stretched from more than a hundred meters. Each cabinet, which reached up to his waist, had a number of drawers of varying sizes. “You realise,” the priest said, donning a pair of white gloves, “that the Church could not have such objects in full view of the faithful.” He then extracted a large black velvet cloth from his pocket, unfolded it and laid it meticulously on the top of one of the cabinets. “So they were removed with the greatest of care and stored here for posterity. We have thousands of them in our collection.” On the verge of pulling open one of the larger drawers, he hesitated a moment, saying: “You might wonder why we bother to keep them. The answer is simple. They are real works of art, many of them by the greatest artists of their time.” He pulled the drawer open and lifted out a giant marble erection, some forty centimetres long and placed the penis lovingly on the velvet cloth. “Note the exquisite curves of the head,” the priest continued. “And the way the artist has sculptured the bulging veins that run along its length. And here,” he went on, turning the sex gently on its axe to show where it had been severed from the rest of the sculpture, “you can see with what workmanship the member has been removed without leaving the slightest trace.” Replacing the sex where in its drawer, the priest asked: “Would you like to see others? We have them from all ages and sizes.”