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.
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.
Beware of shortcuts down deserted corridors. There may be a good reason why no one goes that way. You should know. Did you not stumble on an ex-lover drooling over a younger woman in a disused corridor? Disgust. Anger. Pity. What did you feel? Abused. Besmirched. You wanted to cry out, to hammer your fists against his chest, to knee him in the groin. But you opted to retreat, believing it was safer. He hadn’t seen you. He was as bewitched by his prey as she was by him. Yet you did not leave. You couldn’t. You slipped into the safety of the shadows and spied. The young woman stared up at the man, wide-eyed, expectant, the perfect victim, begging to be taken. The sight of it disgusted you. Surely you had not been like that, not you. His eyes were ablaze with triumph. You could sense his greed, his lust. You knew it well. You rubbed your lips as if that could erase the trace of his kisses. His hands trembled as he reached across the table that separated them. The moment his finger touched her face, she snarled and sprang forward. The table flew from between them, crashing down the corridor, sending cups and glasses smashing against the walls. You slunk deeper into the shadows, knowing the noise would bring people running. The woman dug her claws into his face, a feral cry on her lips, ripping, tearing, shredding him apart. Blood spurted everywhere. You closed your eyes, unable to watch, aware only of a whirlwind of screams and muffled thuds. When quiet finally settled and your eyes blinked open, the horror had gone. No trace of him or her. No blood. Nothing. Well, not quite nothing. All that was left was the man’s look of surprise and disbelief hanging disembodied in mid-air.
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Sound the trumpets, ring the bells, cry out from the tower tops.
Oh yeah! Oh yeah! A wonder just walked in the door.
Courtiers jostle, elbowing each other to catch a glimpse.
Weaving between bystanders, I yearn to get a look.
I choose to go incognito, otherwise they’d let me through.
Out of the way, cursed adults, I want to see too.
I push and shove till I burst free and there she stands.
Yellow flowered hemline dancing over calf-length stockings,
Her jacket tight about her waist, all buckles and buttons
Light and airy, a scarf in soft green frames her face.
Her lips, her cheeks, that auburn hair and above all those eyes
Oh radiant original that outshines all these painted imitations.
Is it the light, the warmth, the colour or just the sheer magic?
Her presence sets the room singing, bewitching all who behold her
A force that draws my attention like an in-sucked breath.
The joy of it. No page can rival that swirl of colours, those curves.
Certainly not with the gaudy frippery pages have to wear.
Would that I were like her. Not the man I am destined to be.
Brought up to be an unfeeling lout, all bluster and self-importance,
My days are filled with combat training and prancing displays.
Life as a page has left me ill at ease, estranged from my body.
Whenever I see her, I am transformed, buoyed up, light and free
She has me enthralled, entranced, lost to myself and to the world.
What is this magic I take to be a girl? Is it really her I see?
I celebrate her beauty. I envy her brightly coloured clothes,
The sway of her hips, the grace with which she smiles.
Yet for all my longing, would I really trade places with her?
Prince that I am – albeit seventh in line – I will probably never know.
Maxim flung the script across the room where it hit the wall with a satisfying thud and broke apart, showering papers over his desk and onto the floor. The cat, that had been curled up by his desk, took a lazy swipe at several sheets, then, bored with the game, sought refuge in an armchair, from where it stared at him unblinking. He shook an angry fist at it, but his attention quickly returned to the script. Selena should not have been lashed to the stake. In the gloom of early evening, several men were moving forward with flaming torches. No! No! No! That wasn’t what he’d written. She was supposed to escape. Getting down on all fours, he shoved away the cat that was rolling in the discarded sheets, baring it’s hairy belly to the world. Rummaging through the pages, he searched for the last scene, but it was nowhere to be found. Snatching up a sheet, he turned it over and, grabbing a pen from his desk, scribbled on the blank side: Selena shakes off the shackles that bind her… as if writing it again might sway history … but it didn’t work. The smell of smoke was everywhere and he could hear the crackle of flames. Balling up the paper, he tossed it to the floor where the cat pounced on it, tearing it to shreds between claws and teeth. Maxim clamped his hands over his ears when the ripping of paper gave way to a piercing scream. A moan broke from his unwilling lips and tears streamed from his eyes. Smoke curled round him ever denser. “Selena?” he called out. Jeers were the only answer he got. “That’ll teach you, witch!” one man cried out. A fit of coughing had Maxim bent over double as the fire roared ever louder. He sank to the floor, a wave of intense heat washing over him, sapping his strength. Cracking open stinging eyelids, he saw two large, round eyes emerge from the swirling smoke only inches from his face and a tiny pick tongue darted out and licked his nose, its touch rough and wet and reassuring. When the cat turned to leave, despair threatened to overwhelm him, but the animal halted and glanced back, waiting. Gathering what little force he had left, Maxim pushed himself up on all fours and crawled after the cat.
Above, a flash soundscape of God be Blown! You can follow the reading in the text below.
God be blown!
The blast flung Scott the length of the corridor, through the back door of the pub and all the way into the yard. When its force finally waned, he crumpled to the ground to a round of applause. Looking up, he saw a row of people arrayed along the wall grinning. What had he done wrong? And what was this clasped in his hand? A brick! Where in blaze’s name had that come from? He clawed his way up the wall then squinted at the object in his hand. Apart from its excessive weight, it seemed quite ordinary, a dull orange pitted with tiny holes. Scratching his head, he tended the brick to the young woman leaning against the wall a few feet from him. “What do you make of it, Louisa?” She might once have been an acclaimed Miss Chichester, but for all her bold colours Louisa was no hero. She shied away, her glass sloshing its sherry over the bank clerk parked in a wheelchair next to her. But Scott insisted. Pulling a hanky from her pocket, she dabbed the sherry from the clerk’s knees then took the brick and, feeling its full weight, almost dropped it before she deposited it in the clerk’s lap. He manoeuvred his wheelchair into a patch of light and examined the brick as if it were a holy relic. “‘Ere. Give it t’ me, Mate,” a young man in paint-stained overalls said, plucking it from the clerk’s lap. He stroked its bevelled edges, a broad smile on his lips. “Now there’s a good un. What d’yer think, Louisa?” She scowled and sipped her sherry. Flexing his biceps, he tossed the brick a short way into the air, sizing it up. “It’s a good un, Reverend,” he said and bowing deeply proffered it in outstretched palms. The vicar grasped it with both hands and shook it vigorously, no doubt expecting a tiny devil to fall out. “If you didn’t drink so much, Walter, you wouldn’t be so amazed by a mere brick.” He looked like he wanted to dispose of it as fast as possible, but that wouldn’t be very Christian, so he bestowed it on the last of those propped against the wall: a boy whose feminine features and frail form were almost angelic. The youth cringed at the feel of the brick as if it might bewitch him. Flicking the long hair from his eyes, he pulled away from the wall and watched the others slink towards the pub door as if they wanted to have nothing to do with him. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another, he screamed and hurled the brick, shattering the window at the back of the police station. The resulting blast blew out the window, frame and all, and hurled the boy back across the yard where he landed at the feet of an astounded group, the brick firmly clasped in his hands.
Words: 492 Text: Feb, 2, 2015 Audio: Nov. 2, 2092
“He’s not a Complex Weaver…” The young woman’s voice broke off as her words encountered silence.
Such a name should never have been heard; not even by an errant spirit like me. But the Lord’s Keeper strode in at that moment and conversation faltered, then failed completely. A few patrons eyed the Keeper and with good reason. He was a striking man. Taller and more solidly built than any of those present, he wore a full length riding coat, pulled in at the waist but unbuttoned, revealing a silk waistcoat. But most of the men in the tavern craned to see the woman, hoping to catch a glimpse of the one who had dared say that name.
No one, apart from myself, had noticed the slender woman take a seat in an alcove close to the door at the back. It said something for her skill that she passed unnoticed in a crowded tavern despite her bright red hair and her finely chiselled features. Even when the patrons awoke to her being there, no one could make out whom she was talking to. Even I, shroud in my natural invisibility and gifted with the ability to flow where I liked, could not get a close look at the illusive form that addressed her in hushed tones from the shadows of the recess.
Sergio, the taverner, a stout fellow with an almost perpetual smile, frowned, no doubt sensing that an ugly situation was only a few words away. He called out “Last orders, gentlemen, please.” Only to add more quietly, no doubt for fear of offending, “And lady.”
Timidly at first, then with more gusto, conversations rekindled till the room was loud with their interrogations, each individual glad to sink back into noisy anonymity.
The Lord’s Keeper hastily snatched the broad cap from his head and, being careful not to look at the shadowy form squatted opposite her, bowed to the young lady. “Milady Aurelia,” he said quietly. “Might I accompany you back to your mansion?”
All knew the Keeper had no authority over her. Lady Aurelia was the Lord’s daughter, after all. But his words were more than a polite request. They were a warning. There was danger and both of them knew it.
Pulling the hood of her cape over her head, such that it concealed her face and most of her long red curls, Lady Aurelia nodded to the shifting shadows swirling across from her, rose and took the arm the Keeper offered her.
I searched to make sure the shadowy force hadn’t shifted to some dark corner ready to prey on an unsuspecting patron. Then I followed Lady Aurelia out.
No one ever pays attention to errant spirits such as me, except perhaps the likes of her. Sure enough, when we were out of earshot of the tavern, Lady Aurelia turned to greet me, much to the Keeper’s surprise. As most men in town, he was blind to spirits.
“Jonathan,” she said. I loved the way she spoke my name, her voice like a caress. Had I been a cat, I would have purred. “What brings you here?”
“The same thing as you, my Lady.”
“Make yourself visible to the Keeper. The poor man must be alarmed watching me talk to empty air. He’ll be telling Father I’ve gone mad.”
The Keeper shook his head, no doubt used to witnessing inexplicable phenomena in the lady’s presence.
“Keeper,” I said, shifting to look like a travel-worn peddler unburdened by his wares.
He bowed stiffly but remained silent, showing no surprise at my sudden appearance.
Lady Aurelia laughed, tossing back her head so that her hood fell away revealing her pale face and causing her curls to tumble over her shoulders. “Don’t be fooled by Jonathan’s appearance,” she said, drawing the Keeper closer as if they were conspiring. “He’s far more than he seems.”
I held back, allowing them to walk ahead and as I did I let my human form drift away till nothing of it remained. Some people might think errant spirits crave the body they don’t have, but truthfully, I feel more comfortable and safer being invisible, especially at such dangerous times.
Had I been human I might have been jealous, watching her walk arm in arm with the Keeper. He was a handsome man, a good ten inches taller than her, impressive with his sword attached to his belt. But instead, I savoured the way her presence danced with my spirit, making me feel light and joyous. I didn’t need to hold her arm to be linked to her. It was part of my nature. All Weavers did that to me, but Lady Aurelia more than any other.
Weavers! Few of those meddling human magicians merited the name. Thank heavens the powers of mere magicians were limited. The world would be an ugly place if those self-centred, petty-minded magicians were to wield the power of a weaver. As a weaver, Lady Aurelia was one of the best. She could weave the fabric of the world, shaping places and people alike. But she did so sparingly, concentrating her efforts on healing.
When we reached the mansion, bestowed on her by her father, she invited the Keeper in. I needed no invitation.
The building was eerily quiet. No one greeted us in the entrance hall, no fire burnt bright in the fireplace, and no one waited on us in the reception room. She must have sent the servants away. A wise precaution.
Settled in a padded chair, the Keeper spoke up. “I heard you mention…” He balked at pronouncing the words.
“The complex weaver,” she said, causing him to glance nervously at the many bookshelves, as if one might jump out from between the books.
“I always thought it was a legend,” he said, turning back to her.
“I wish it were.”
“A misheard ancient name…” she paused, “or maybe a way of not evoking the unnameable…”
The Keeper looked perplexed.
“Pronouncing such a name is akin to summoning the being you name.” Her lips curved in a twisted smile that verged on a grimace. “And I can assure you, you really don’t want that.”
It was then I felt a distant shuddering deep in the fabric of the world, as if existence itself were quaking. She felt it to. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in the dulling of her spirit. Complex weavers draw their power from the magic of the world, and other weavers in particular. Even the Keeper seemed to sense something was amiss. He drew his sword and stood.
“Sheath your sword, ” she said, slumping back into her chair. “Someone might get hurt.”
He did as ordered, asking, “Is there nothing we can do?”
She shook her head, getting paler by the minute. It wasn’t that she was afraid. Of that I was sure. Rather that life was slowly draining from her. I could feel it, just as I could feel my own light dimming.
The trembling drew rapidly closer and stronger, until the closed door started to ripple as if it were water. Becoming more and more agitated, it finally burst into thousands of droplets that fell to the floor with a splash, revealing a second form that flowed into the room through the hole. Rapidly taking shape, a little girl no more than eight years old ventured an unsteady step towards them. Raw power raged from her like an army of wild hands clawing at everything within reach. It took all my effort not to be torn apart.
Alarmed, the Keeper looked to Lady Aurelia for an explanation, but she sagged in her seat, her eyes clenched shut, both hands gripping her head.
If Lady Aurelia’s earlier words had been like caresses, the girl’s “Help!” was like the desperate screech of a caged bird.
“Keep away from her,” the Keeper growled, his fist on the hilt of his sword.
Lady Aurelia held up a trembling hand to halt him.
His bravery would do no good, the girl could dispatch him without a thought, but at least he did something. All I could do was hover in a corner, desperately trying to hold myself together as the girl’s presence tore at my being.
The girl ignored the Keeper and knelt at the lady’s side. Taking up the lady’s limp hand, she said, “It’s got to stop.”
“I can’t help,” her voice a hoarse whisper, “you’re killing me.”
“Tell me how to stop.”
A long silence followed, broken only by Lady Aurelia’s ragged breathing.
“Stop sucking the sap from me,” Lady Aurelia finally replied, struggling over each word.
“Your skin,” was all she could say.
“Use your skin to curb the flow,” I said, my voice sounding frail and distant, the effort of talking exhausting me.
At the sound of my voice, the girl spun to face me, piercing me with a look of distain. My every instinct screamed, “Run!”
Many of the lesser spirits that normally congregated around a weaver had already fled. Magical artefacts that once lay proud on the shelves had crumbled to dust and Lady Aurelia’s impressive collection of magical treatises began to smoulder.
“Skin?” the girl asked.
“Use it to foil the flow of life’s force,” I said, wishing I had a physical object to hide behind as her force continued to batter me.
“But I will die if I don’t get my fill,” she said and sprang to her feet causing the few remaining books to burst into flame. Lady Aurelia screamed.
“No you won’t,” I managed to say. “Some may die.” I glanced at Lady Aurelia who lay sprawled in her armchair. “But not you.”
The girl groaned and sank to the floor, her fingers ranging over her skin in a desperate search for an answer. Then her back arched upwards as if she were having a fit and, as abruptly as it had begun, the forces that wracked the room collapsed back on her like a giant breath being sucked in. The backlash flung the Keeper across the room and blasted Lady Aurelia from her chair. As for me, an inhuman wail tore from me as I gave up the struggle and was ripped asunder.
When I finally flickered back into existence, faint and weak, I was scattered in many tiny clouds, making it hard to know who or what or where I was. I painstakingly drew the fragments together and managed to recall whom I was, then I looked around.
The room was in ruin. Lady Aurelia lay slumped by a broken armchair, seemingly lifeless. The Keeper was crumbled on the floor in a puddle of blood, his own sword stuck in his side. As for the girl, she was unrecognizable; a charred mass that bubbled here and there, letting off a foul smelling gas.
Moving closer, I felt short bursts of magical energy break from the sinister heap and spurt playfully about the room. Dare I use it? What if it were tainted? To my relief, I found the energy to be good and sucked in as much as I could. I had never held so much before. It had my whole being trembling with power; the feeling was so alarming I promptly stopped.
Turning to Lady Aurelia, who lay unmoving, I could just make out a faint light glowing in her midst. She was still alive, but barely. I was no healer, but if I could just feed her some energy, she might survive. Errant spirits take energy; they don’t give it. I had no idea what to do. I tried pushing energy into her body. It didn’t work. Neither did anything else I tried. In desperation, I curled around her, cradling her like only an errant spirit can, and let my thoughts drift.
Memories of past encounters with Aurelia laced with delicious scents and sweet sounds floated to the surface, sparking a yearning that tore at the depths of my being. I lingered over words long forgotten and, one last time, I savoured an intricate magical procedure I’d seen her perform. Maybe it was the moment to let her go. My spirit drifted through her hair like a sigh, causing her curls to stir and I glided over her cheek; the closest I could come to a caress.
“Jonathan,” a delicious voice said, “that tickles.”
Above, a flash soundscape of The Blinkin’ Box. You can follow the reading in the text below.
The Blinkin’ Box
I peer out, my eyes pressed to the cold metal slit. The brick wall opposite often forms a landscape scarred with shadows, but today it is nothing but a red blur. It stings my eyes as I watch a beetle scuttle across, willing it on with silent words. When it reaches the other side, I leap for joy. Well I would if I had the room.
Early every morning, patches of deep blue trudge by. Then come the greys and blacks, hastening in a sole direction. But it is the flutter of colours filling the remaining daylight hours that delights me most, bringing with it delicate scents and whispered voices. Then, finally, as night falls, the whole ballet rewinds, ready to repeat again.
Not all is routine. From time to time, thin wedges of paper get shoved into my face through the narrow slit. Only yesterday, I got one in my ear. Damn sharp it was. Can’t complain though; they bring welcome sustenance, something I can chew on for hours.
It is time for the colours. My breath comes in short, sharp bursts and my mouth goes dry. I shift to squint out, biting my lip as I do, but the slit is obscured. Blast! A long drawn-out groan close to my feet, like metal straining against metal, has me scrambling to get away. But there is nowhere to go.
“‘Ere give us a ‘and with them bolts,” a rough voice calls out. It is so close, it could be in my head. “Pillar boxes ain’t no blinkin’ use any rate. Who’d be postin’ flippin’ letters these days.”
The shifting of metal on metal takes up again. Once, twice, three times in steady succession, only to stop, then start again. When it finally ceases, a metal object clatters to the ground and the voice calls out, “Right yer go! Lift ‘er up. Steady as she goes.”
The walls around me tremble and the unthinkable happens. Light streams in at my feet. I clench my eyes, wrap my arms tight around my chest and hold my breath, every muscle tensed to flee. But fleeing is no option.
Air swirls about me, setting my hairs on end as a stark light probes my every inch. I sway sightless. Exposed. Vulnerable. Seeking reassurance, I crack open my eyes. The world stretches away in every direction. Its sheer immensity has me blinking in amazement. People of all shapes and sizes stand frozen like grotesque statues, ogling. Their expressions shift from disbelief to disdain to disgust. Then the muttering begins.
With no box left to sustain me, I sag, then sink, till I am but a formless mess that flows out across the pavement, lost and bewildered, like spilt water far from its cup.
Lurking in the dank shadows, amid a heavy wreak of creosote, a rake, head held high, leans across a bundle of raffia, the strands of which escape and tumble to the floor and over earthenware pots plopped in unruly piles next to a bundle of slender bamboos each darkened at the tip where it has been thrust into the ground to truss up last year’s raspberries or was it peas or runner beans, no matter, oh and there’s Granddad’s butterfly net, I can see him now, careening across the tiny lawn and between the narrow rows of carefully tended greens in search of cabbage whites, brandishing the net at them, and Nana peering round the kitchen door, her pinny tight about her waist, her face red from cooking, calling out Hey Percy, lunch is on the table, while his stomach rumbles and him grumbling all the time, complaining that it is too early or too late, and all the time shaking the net at stray fluttery patches of white as he struggles a spade from the damp soil, shakes the clods of earth from it and plods away from their tiny terraced house, along the narrow stone path by the apple trees that have been trained along the fence until right at the end, there where a brick wall marks the boundary of his little world, he cracks open the door, returns the spade to the hoe and fork, before hanging up the net for the day and clicking closed the door of the shed.