Suddenly, we find it. The prom dress shop. Right up till that moment, we’re still not sure we’re on the right road, and I for one am completely convinced that we must be wrong. No way would a posh frock shop be situated in such a downbeat place. We’re in the most downtrodden of areas, just outside the bus station. On this pedestrianised stretch, only one shop in every six is still trading. Most are boarded up, desolate and dirty, and despite the day being bright and clear, I’m uncomfortable here. The brightness is that of a grating strip light and the air metallic. People are shabby with eyes downcast. I still can’t believe my daughter, who had always insisted that she would never attend prom, is dragging me here to a posh frock shop. I also can’t believe how excited she is. She’s been non-stop talking and practically bouncing as she walked.
She bounces even more as we open the door. We’re here because her friend Emma has a Saturday job at the dress shop. Caitlin and Emma aren’t traditional friends, and it is becoming more and more common that friends haven’t met in person. In this case, Caitlin and Emma have met. Ish. It was when we went to see Harry Styles at Manchester Arena. We had been drawing pictures in the air with our phone torches and noticed that another group of three about quarter of a mile across the arena, were copying our actions. Then we copied theirs. We did so for hours, and went home feeling as if we’d communicated in an age-old signalling ritual. That evening, one of the girls posted in Harry Styles fan group that they’d been copying flashing phones across the arena. They told the group where they’d been sitting and where we had been. Caitlin replied. ‘That was us!’. And voila, the online friendship of Emma and Caitlin was born. The two girls run to each other and hug and talk non-stop. They know each other so well, but have never been in such close proximity. The shop is all bridal dresses on the lower floor, and the furniture metallic and sumptious. Black and silver. White and ivory. Velvet and steel. But Caitlin notices nothing, just shrieks excitedly with her friend. Emma soon directs us upstairs and we walk up a twisting staircase to the top floor where we were confronted with alien swathes of satin, lurex, taffeta and lycra. Most of the gowns are royal blue, baby blue, peach, beige, red and navy. Three jump out as the freaks in the room: peppermint green, lemon and buttercup yellow. I’m immediately drawn to them as their colours are different though the styles are the same. I wonder where a person would go if they wanted a gown in deep purple or bright orange. Or if they wanted a non-traditional style. Long sleeves. Shorter skirt. High neckline? While non-stop chattering, Caitlin chooses her first 3 frocks and I am led to a set of bright modern chairs (lime, pink, blue and scarlet) to wait. As I sit, I glance at laminated photos of the various dress styles and effects. They leave me cold, though it’s nice here. I’m happy enough to look at the royal blue carpet with occasional spilled sequin, and to wonder what’s happening behind the matching royal blue curtains with silver sequinned stripe. The strip lights buzz reassuringly, so I write and wait. Caitlin and Emma, secreted in the large dressing room, are giggling as if they’ve spent their whole life as best friends. Over this, I occasionally hear the near- whispered conversation of women in the next dressing room. That young woman is apparently a size 4. Size 4! I don’t think my girl was a size 4 even at primary school. Its incongruous. The staff here dress in navy jeans, navy uniform t-shirts printed with the shop’s logo, and flat white shoes, yet they coax young women into tiny dresses and enormous heels in shades of peach and grey and shiny nude. Still, I sit and listen as the curtain rustles and ripples and Emma fits Caitlin into the first of five dresses. There are mild noises of cars outside and occasional shouting of drugged up or drunk men, and I feel as if I’m in another, far more privileged world than that of the outside. The kids now demand so much more elegance than I did at the same age. Tight bodices and floaty skirts. Off the shoulder strips of satin. Fairytale frocks. I sit and make notes and observations of this alien place with its fleur de lys wallpaper and the clean glowing chrome curtain and clothes rack rails. I turn my head. Next to me on the painted white shelf, is a long bent pin, but it isn’t the pin that catches my eye. It’s a box adorned with pink and white stripes and displaying the product name Nudi Boobies – “Reusable Backless and Strapless Silicone Bra”. It takes me back to the days of working at Transformation in Prestwich when I assisted transvestites with their silicone breasts. There it smelled of old buildings and mildew. But this place doesn’t smell of mildew. It smells of nothing but the lightest of floral perfume. Maroon 5 come on the shops speakers. Memories. I love this song and sing along which makes the girls giggle a little more. Caitlin has decided to try dresses only in grey tones. She plans to rainbow colour her hair so wants a simple dress She’s ready to show me the first, and even I feel the sense of anticipation and thrill as the curtains are swept back. The gown has an off the shoulder, tight fitting bodice and floor length A line skirt. Grey. Not metallic, but silvery blue dove grey with a corset back. It looks lovely on her, its satin drapes and sparkling lace bodice, with lace drifting from below the bodice, weeping organically onto the skirt. I can’t fault the dress and how it fits her. Caitlin’s second choice is far simpler but looks equally lovely. It is black and silver lurex with a corset back. Strange how she should choose such tones as she’s such a colourful character. Around me are sumptuous deep cherry red gowns of satin and taffeta, covered in beads reflecting light. My daughter’s usual butch style, her denim coat with blue and white polka dots. 1980s shape. Tan leather, her broken iphone lies on top. Screen cracked in a spider web. Her pink and green charging cord snakes around it. I’m struggling to see her as a fairy tale princess, yet she is clearly not uncomfortable. I’m also no princess, and neither do I feel uncomfortable though I’m scruffy here in my oversized jumper, flat laces ups and old jeans. Now the shop’s stereo is playing disco classics from the 1980s. Wailing ‘Don’t leave me this way’ puts me in a good mood. Caitlin tries another two pale grey dresses. Neither fits properly around her lower half. We discard them immediately. Her final dress is of a dark teal colour: very slinky with a mermaidy look which was not at all flattering. With very little discussion, we choose the first dress she’d tried. As she dresses again in her own clothes I hear the girls talk of the corona virus and how there are now quarantined Chinese people being cared for in the Wirral. Strangely, the location of the quarantined Chinese people is round the corner from another of Caitlin’s friends. We leave after paying the deposit and giving more hugs. Unsurprisingly, my daughter is high as a kite for the remainder of the weekend!
Some weeks ago, just as my personal crisis was reducing to a manageable normality, my friend, Tabitha, informed me that she needed my help in getting rid of her caravan. The storage site was having some issues, and had told her that the caravan needed moving by the end of the month. I told her that I couldn’t really help as I didn’t have a towbar, but our conversation led to my already overactive mind cogs leaping into action.
I thought Tabitha had sold the caravan before she set off on her holiday to Greece, and forgot to ask her about it for a couple of weeks, but when I finally did ask, she admitted that the sale had fallen through. This led me to think even more, and the thinking pattern went like this…
My first novel, Past Present Tense (published under the name of Lesley Atherton, and now republished as Finding Dad by Meredith Schumann) was primarily about hoarding, but a subplot was about alternative life, and time spent in a caravan. My second novel, The Waggon, is basically set almost entirely within the setting of a traditional gypsy waggon.
So, my thinking was that 1) I could acquire Tabitha’s caravan and pay someone to transport it to my driveway. 2) I could use a lot of my creativity (at that time, deeply frustrated) in updating the inside of the caravan by doing a lot of sewing and painting (two of my favourite things). 3) I could get someone (possibly my daughter) to spray paint the outside of the caravan in the style of a gypsy caravan. 4) I could set up the inside and an awning to be a kind of shop for the crafts that we make, and we could travel to events and festivals, selling stuff and running workshops etc. 5) I could get someone to signpaint text on the rear and side of the caravan, in order to promote the two novels which mention caravans.
I believed I might get the therapy I needed from all the making and painting, and would also end up with a useable promotional tool, a potential working space (writing room or craftervan), a potential holiday home for me, and a potential holiday home for others (a decent money earner, according to my friends) should l need any of these things in the future.
So, I acquired the caravan. It had a flat tyre, but I was able to get hold of a local guy on Facebook who was willing to transport it half a mile to my driveway, for a small consideration. It arrived, and then the work began. Being of a creative attitude, rather than possessing an engineering state of mind, I began with the bits that I could see, rather than the hidden bits. My thinking was that I would enjoy the caravan space far more if it looked and felt good.
First of all, I pillaged my secret DIY space (behind the fridge and freezer) and scooted around for some spare paint in interesting colours. My first task was to remove most of the curtain fittings (not the pelmets) then to get painting. So, in vinyl silk throughout (as recommended by many caravan adaptation websites) I began painting the ceiling a deep, dusky pink, the walls of the living area a paler grey-pink, and the walls of the kitchen area a funky blue. Once this was done, I began on the soft furnishings.
I bought thousands of metres of a subtle ethnic stripe fabric in shades of red, gold and green, and covered each of the seats. The rear of the backrest cushion was also trimmed with an ethnic tapestry design. Then, the four weirdly shaped armrests were upholstered with a funky green wool fabric, with fancy trim. I’ve had the fabric for many years, and had never found a use for it! After that, I made seven cushions, some with printed panels of a gypsy fortune teller, or gypsy dancers. I also mended three rag dolls (the two largest made by a friend of my mum’s and the smallest a Holly Hobbie doll I found in a charity shop’s 10p bin).
After that, it was curtain time. I used the same fabric as the seat covers, but trimmed it with lots of ribbons, braid and black cotton lace that I’d acquired over the years. I then made the pelmet covers from the most expensive of all the fabrics I’d purchased (£12.99 a metre!), and created the net curtains for the kitchen window, and long drapes separating the bed area from the kitchen area. These aren’t ordinary nets – they are embroidered with red and yellow flowers in a Jacobean style. I’ve still to make the curtain tie backs. I purchased braid online for them as I couldn’t find anything nice locally, but only then did I realise it would take 2 months to arrive as it was coming from Hong Kong.
The kitchen, being a brighter area than the more subtle sleeping/living area, was given a set of rainbow stripe curtains. Lovely. And, while I’m in the kitchen, I managed to get hold of a lot of bargeware and brightly coloured items. They fit in beautifully, including pans and a kettle, storage pots and tins. Then, using rugs pinched from my house – red fur and a circular rag rug – I laid the floor and was set up. I began to move things in – cutlery, plastic pots, toiletries in tiny bottles, some of my home made items for the craft shop, a television and DVD player, some brightly coloured plastic plants, lanterns and candles, books, and a few rapidly dwindling snack items. I even moved in my wooden parrot and my painted African four string oilcan guitar, and they look amazing!
I was then ready for the next step, and painted the cupboards a fantastic combination of forest green and ruby red. I’m still in the process of doing this, and absolutely love how homely it looks. A cross between a caravan, a narrowboat and a gypsy caravan. Now, I want to buy a bigger and more powerful car so I can get the caravan out on the road, but before I do anything like that, I have to get the outside of the caravan sorted.
My idea of painting the caravan’s exterior in the style of a gypsy caravan has been taken on board by my daughter who says she’ll do all the painting and design work in exchange for a new mobile phone. OK, I said, so that’s in the design stages at the moment, which is fantasic.
So, that’s the story of my caravan. I’m writing in it at the moment, and it is a lovely work space with muted lighting, and is peaceful most of the time. My recommendation, for anyone who is creative and is going through a dark time – find yourself a project. A big, but deadline-free project seems ideal to me. Give yourself no pressure, but do give yourself as much ambition and enjoyment as you can manage at any time. The caravan has been the saving of me, and for that I am very thankful!
Even when I delve right back into my earliest memories, I knew that he was fucked up.
That was why I needed no clues from the police who arrived on my doorstep.
No sooner had they introduced themselves than I said the words that had been darting round in my head for the last twenty years.
‘I know why you’re here. It’s my brother. He’s a serial killer, isn’t he?’
I’d invited the officers into the living room and sat them down. I guess they were far more accustomed to denial, to shrieks of ‘Oh my God’ and determined statements of ‘No, that’s definitely not true. He’s a lovely guy. Keeps himself to himself. Never been in any trouble’.
So, when they asked me ‘Why didn’t you report him to us?’ I told them the truth. I knew he was a psycho and a serial killer in the making. I knew what he was capable of, but what I didn’t know was when he’d strike, and, as I told the police, you can’t arrest someone for being an arse.
My early memories were vibrant, hence unforgettable. Like the time, my brother pinned me to the floor and used my chest as a trampoline. Like the time when he listened in on a phone call and told my friend that she was a slapper because she had been sexually attacked at a party. Or the time when he ran onto the street, grasping a yard brush, yelling and shrieking at the kids hanging out. ‘My sister’s a bad person,’ he shouted. ‘She always steals my friends.’
And how could anyone forget the time when he’d thrown the dog downstairs in the laundry basket asking if I’d pay a million pounds for him not to do it. I was an eight-year-old child. I didn’t have more than 50 pence to my name. So my brother threw the dog downstairs with a sneer and the accusation ‘You did that. It’s your fault that he’s crying’.
I’m writing this because I know the story needs to be told. The world needs to know who and what my brother is.
And in answering those questions, I’ll also answer another question. The answer to the life, universe and everything. Not in general. Not for everyone. Just for him.
I was going to begin at the beginning, as that’s where most stories start. Then I wondered if I should begin when Colin’s crimes formally began – at the point when the bell-ringing police arrived at my door. But the police have had little to do with solving my brother’s crimes, or in apprehending him. I decided to begin where my mind took me.
I won’t bore you police procedure, as that’s got absolutely nothing to do with the story I’m about to tell. It is my story and Colin’s. It isn’t a tale of police or trial.
I started this writing to assist the police, as a convoluted statement, but it’s grown and grown as it seems once I start writing, I can’t stop.
It’s not pretty.
Being three years older than me, my brother has always enjoyed a kind of power. When I was a toddler, he’d offer to change my pull-up nappy when I was potty training. I don’t remember much of this, but I do remember mum telling me years later that he had put all sorts back into my nappy and had also opened the nappy up to look at the contents, then closed it again without removing a single piece of excrement. He seemed to enjoy getting people on their own and vulnerable, preferably partly dressed too. We went to a party when he had just started in high school. I guess that must have made him 11 or so. It was one of those family parties where you’re visiting your ‘Auntie’, who is your mum’s friend. Auntie Hannah had just one child who was a little older than me but not as old as my brother. She was called Selena, and we got on well.
Colin, my big and already brutal brother, took Selena into the garden and climbed into the fishpond. He removed all the fish and threw them onto the lawn. Selena and I rushed around in a panic, attempting to pick them up and put them back, all the while screaming for our mothers. But when my mum and Auntie Hannah came out, Colin told them that he was putting the fish back and that it had been us who’d tried to kill them. Amazingly, our mums believed the older boy. Colin walked away with a smirk, while Selena and I got in big trouble.
From that point on, I noticed that Colin was always believed. He just had that charisma that only truly psychopathic people have. Like you get sucked into it, despite yourself, like you believe all the terrible things they tell you, and you decide, that yes it must have been you who was at fault all along. He was a monster back then.
So many fish died. And cats. Birds from the garden. Hate to remember how many frogs he destroyed, and all the frogspawn he watched hatch, only to fry in a pan over a camping stove, once they emerged to become tadpoles. And it wasn’t only animals that he hurt. I had a plant – it was a rubber plant – on my window ledge, and I liked it. It was bold and beautiful, and I thought that it was indestructible. It wasn’t. Neither were mum’s red hot pokers or dad’s roses.
Not even granddad’s hydrangeas escaped his control.
Even our parents.
One time, our dad made that tip trip. He was doing the best and most beautiful thing he could have done for our family. By removing some of the house’s excess junk, you would be helping us all to lead a better life. The things he removed were mainly the boxes that items arrive in, and old unusable stuff, like school pants, made for someone ten years younger, and instruction manuals for now-broken electrical items. But on dad’s return, what did the psycho say? He said that he needed those things. He demanded them back. He demanded that dad must get them back. But dad refused. Colin insisted and flipped out big time. Dad still refused. It was the correct thing to do, but Colin never forgave him.
Colin had a lot of flip outs as a kid. I’m sure I had my share. But he had far more.
‘Profound,’ he said, and it was immediately apparent that both syllables were stated with reluctance and disdain.
‘Don’t you approve, Colin?’
‘I don’t, but then you knew I wouldn’t.’
‘Did I? Oh, I’m sorry, Colin.’
I used his name as I knew he hated it. I told him for precisely that reason.
‘What part was profound, Colin?’
My brother looked away and appeared to be staring at the family’s group photo. Dull brown frame for a dull brown photo.
Colin turned quickly and glared in my direction.
‘Why do you never smile in photos?’
I shrugged and continued drying the dishes. There was no way I was going to answer that question and even less chance that I would ever be ‘pleasant’ to him, even when forced to wash up alongside him.
Demonic, he was.
Evil, patronising and disgusting.
How I hated him.
Twice a month, every month, we’d arrive at the house of our parents and would sit at opposite sides of their living room, while mum and dad fussed and hovered.
I’m still not sure how much mum and dad understood about their errant son back then: how much they suspected or sensed.
They treated each of us the same as kids. Same sized bedroom, same pocket money, same number of classes and activities per week, same time and same attention. I had been intolerant of him even back then, despite my parents’ decency towards him presumably because I was his primary victim.
As young adults, we began this fortnightly routine, and it had continued, with breaks only for holidays or sickness.
I loved being their daughter, but have never accepted being HIS sister. Still, I had to dry up next to him. There was none of the silly foam-flicking washing-up that may occur between siblings who get on well, but neither was there violence or argument at that stage. It was more that we had an uneasy, temporary truce.
‘I don’t smile when I’m not in photos either,’ I said to him as he sponged a knife far too enthusiastically. ‘Something to do with childhood issues, I suppose.’
I settled my gaze on the tea towel and my hands on a Bohemian crystal brandy glass. I told myself not to grip it too hard. It had been a wedding present 30 years earlier. I placed it on the counter in front of me and breathed deeply. I could hear mum and dad chatting in the living room, so I left him there alone.
‘I’ll finish drying later,’ I said.
‘Sit down and watch Inspector Morse with us,’ my mum suggested. Of course, I did.
I know that this might not seem all that relevant, but it is. Believe me. Colin didn’t have an average person’s relationship with the seven deadly sins. He enthusiastically embraced as many as he could without joy, and with cold appraisal.
Mum and dad aren’t around any more. Their car skidded on black ice when they were coming to visit me. Apparently, Colin had been following behind in his car and had witnessed everything.
He’d inherited their house, in time. I was supposed to have inherited many of their artworks, their car, their small boat, and a lot of jewellery. But Colin kept hold of them all, and even a court order demanding that he release the items to me, he didn’t. Anyway, without mum and dad, the possessions were cold. They had lost their sparkle. I let him keep them, without fuss.
Investigations indicated that there had indeed been a patch of black ice on the country lane.
But I knew Colin was to blame.
Just as I knew he’d been to blame when a young woman was found concussed and raped and stuffed into the lining of a ripped-up armchair left at the entrance to a local beauty spot. Though her attacker had worn an Ironman mask and bulky clothing, the description of him sounded like Colin, as did the few words he said to her. ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘Don’t you understand what I’m trying to do here?’ ‘Why don’t you smile?’
And when the holiday home for dogs was ransacked, and about 20 poor animals had been butchered on the premises, a CCTV image of the man was shown on local news. I knew it was him, despite the Wolfman mask.
It was the same when I arrived home after a night out and noticed a blood-stained dagger on my doorstep, the very same step that the police arrived at just three years later. The blade was written off by my boyfriend as a joke, but never had it been written off by me. It was a warning. It couldn’t have been anything else. I just wasn’t sure what he was warning me against, though I knew what the punishment for not heeding the warning would be.
That same night as the dagger appeared on my doorstep, Chris and I were preparing for bed. We’d had a couple of drinks, so we were jolly and giggly, but nothing more. Chris went out to give Oscar the dog his final walk of the night.
Neither of my two best boys returned. Chris was never found, but Oscar’s collar was left next to the reservoir.
I will never forget that night. How could I? How could anyone?
So, when people ask how I know that my brother’s a serial killer, I am prepared. I carry these sheets of paper in my bag at all times. It only takes one person, on one occasion, to listen.
I just hope that person gets to me before he does, and before I finish writing this account.
‘Kick her out,’ the man boomed. Stefan knew that Jonny always was determined to get his voice heard. ‘Just do it. Simple as…’
Stefan turned from Jonny’s piercing unstable gaze, smoothed his first ever goatee and shuffled a little in his position perched against a table. No way was he going to do as Jonny said, just because Jonny said it. Not only was Heather a fantastic player, when Jonny’s skills were definitely taking a downward turn, but Stefan also reckoned there might be a chance of a romance developing, if he played his cards right.
‘It’s not as simple as that. I reckon we’ve got to give her a chance. Having her on the team is awesome. She’s awesome. It can’t be easy being the only girl on the Under 18s. All the footballers. All the hormones!’ Stefan began a laugh, but stifled it after he noticed Jonny’s expression. The thug had jutted out his jawline and pelvis simultaneously, looking like a letter C in the making. He exhaled as he jutted.
‘Kick her out. It’s easy. Get it done,’ Jonny demanded once again, scratching an itchy patch stimulated by his pelvic jutting.
‘But think about it, Jonny. Why? She’s a miracle in motion. She’s like a terrier the way she gets the ball.’
‘She’s good to look at, Stefan, but she can’t shoot!’ Jonny’s cheeks and forehead glowed.
‘You can’t shoot either, Jonny. At any rate, she’s a defender, and she’s little and strong and wiry. She’s brilliant and she’s been through the same trial period you all have. She’s good at what she does, and the rest of the team like her too. So, no way is she getting sacked. Coach agrees. She’s one of our best assets. ’
Stefan, the club’s assistant coach for the past seven months, was beginning to regret his decision to continue this role till the end of the season, for he suspected that Jonny Hart would make his life miserable till he got his way. But he’d no intention of letting Heather go. She was 17, and he was only 18 himself. He liked her. He more than liked her. He admired her. More than that too – she made his ankles tremble.
‘Have it your own way, Stefan. But I’ll tell you this. You’re letting all this power go to your head. Coach should no way have given you the team selection job. No doubt about it. You’ll see, when it comes back to bit you on the arse.’
Jonny stormed from the clubhouse, virtually colliding with Heather on the way in.
‘Look what you’ve done!’ Jonny shouted, and Heather apologised, though clearly no apology was necessary.
‘What’s up with him?’ she said as she neared Stefan. ‘What did I do?’
‘Nothing, Heather. With him it’s enough if other people just live.’
Heather pushed her floppy red fringe behind her ear. ‘I’ve worked that one out.’
She cleared her throat. ‘Coach has just given me the tickets for the club dance. I’m to sell them to all the age groups and supporters. Twenty pounds each. You want any?’
Holding out the pile of tickets, Heather sat herself on the edge of the table opposite Stefan and manouvered into a cross-legged position. Stefan watched her thigh muscles twitch and flex and his gaze carried down her leg to the purple football socks, and matching boots. Her calves were tremendous – so well defined that he could trace the shape even through the thick ribbing.
Feeling sure that Heather must have noticed him staring at her lower half, Stefan attempted to look away, to move his body, or to even answer her question – anything but continue the awkward silence and the feeling that she surely must be perceiving him as nothing more than a pervert. But his awkwardness had meant that he failed to notice the very things that would have made him feel better. Heather was looking back at him with a warm smile, she was crinkling her eyes, and she was playing with her carroty fringe. Her head cocked to one side, she had no sooner got herself settled on the table, than she was already moving towards Stefan, with a tiny, nervous giggle.
‘Stefan, I want to ask you something.’
‘Sure. Anything,’ he spluttered as she extracted a ticket from the pile in her hand.
‘Fancy coming with me?’
‘Sure. Anything,’ he repeated, shakily taking the ticket from her hand while attempting to control the tremble in his ankles. ‘I’ll pay, of course.’
Wow. Success with a lady at last, and a dynamic and beautiful sportswoman at that.
‘I’ll buy mine, you buy yours, OK? And, Stefan?’
‘Don’t you think that Jonny is becoming a liability? I think you should kick him out.’
Stefan couldn’t help but nod his head, and pull the young woman towards him, his hand gently crushing her purple and orange strip top while her hand snaked under his.
He would go to the dance, and he would sack Jonny Hart, and both activities would be extremely beneficial for the team’s success. They wouldn’t do him any harm either.
Tiny corkscrew curls cascaded onto Holly’s browned shoulders and she ran her fingers through them. “Damn it,” she muttered. “No time for a retune”. The stage manager gave her an almost imperceptible nod, just as the festival compere shouted his terrifying words from the stage mic. “And performing here, for the first time since Woodstock… The most iconic and secretive performer ever to grace our Barbarian Festival stage… Holly Bay-Jones!”
And the crows hushed as Holly walked slowly onto the stage. The woman who’d once been a fiery mass of kinetic energy was now an unrecognisable grey-haired OAP. But she still held her famous yellow Rickenbacker guitar, and the crowd waited in near-embarrassed silence for her set to begin. The quiet was broken by a faint and accidental guitar strum, and, in her coarse, and creaking voice, Holly addressed the audience of thousands without fear.
“I don’t know anyone here. But I now that most of you think you know me. Let me tell you now, people. You don’t! And how do I know that? Because even I don’t know me. The person I was, does not equal the person I currently am. And for those of you conspiracy theorists who’ve been wondering where I’ve been all this time, I’ve got something to say that will confirm or deny whatever rumour you’ve chosen to believe. I’m not a young woman now. But I was less than 22 years old when I had my first stroke. Then 23 for my next. Let me tell you, kids. Psychotropic drugs are not your friends. Believe me. I know first hand.
But I can tell you something straight. There’s nothing like a stroke to get you mind aware. Whoever and whatever you are, listen to someone who knows. You don’t need mind-altering. All you need is mind-clarifying, and you aint gonna get that from anything other than the greatest music ever heard. Here at the Barbarian!”
A cheer arose from the front row of the audience. “We love you, Holly!” a middle-aged man shouted, and it was followed by a wolf whistle. “Still sexy, darling!” the man continued, and the audience chuckled awkwardly, though Holly looked as though she hadn’t heard. Perhaps she hadn’t.
“I love you all, too. But I guess you’re not here to listen to a couple of old folk talking.”
She awaited the cheer, and it came. “You wanna hear some music?”
She adjusted the mic stand. “This one’s for Dolly,” she shouted.
#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #musician #dolly parton
Emma should have realised that her family weren’t the greatest of influences. After all, who on earth would call their only daughter Emma when their surname is Bezel? Poor Em Bezel was virtually set up for life as a swindler.
Instead, Emma spent most of her life trying her best to stay out of trouble, though it wasn’t easy. Her dad regularly encouraged her involvement in each of his latest schemes: a beach hut hustle; a shop scam; an online dating deception… and Emma determinedly refused to participate in each and every one. By the time she was in her early thirties she was the only member of her huge family who had completely kept out of trouble. But still she found herself in prison. I didn’t do it, she said. I don’t know him. I wasn’t there.
But the police were determined. That’s how it can sometimes be when a crime family is involved. It’s almost a game to the police – who can set up the next family member. Everything possible is used as a bargaining tool, and Emma, good old Emma was simply an expendable pawn and a means towards the end of finally putting away her father, Brian Bezel. Before she knew it, Emma was lost and lonely in a woman’s prison, and was likely to remain there for a couple of years.
The weeks passed slowly. She made friends – just a few – and she learned how to live within the system. She also learned how to accept the constant teasing of her fellow inmates once they worked out her name, ‘Hey Embezzle. Done any fraud today?’ Those who understood it, thought it was so hilarious. It wasn’t , but these jeers were an improvement on the usual idiocy of cat calls and declarations of intended sex from her fellow inmates, and one of the seedier wardens.
Emma’s confinement coping strategy was simple. She wrote. During every solitary moment the prison system granted, Emma would scribble onto A4 pads with the tiniest of writing. The prison’s general hubbub was a major distraction, and headphones, music and other noise cancellers didn’t help much, but eventually she managed to blank it out. Once her own mission was determined, her heart rate slowed, her anxiety calmed, and her life settled. Sure, she was in prison, but it wasn’t the end of the world. It gave her time to make peace with her thoughts.
And that was when Bonny came along. Bonny, an average looking woman of average height and build, with average length hair, an athletic build and soft grey eyes. The outside was mainly average too, but it was the inside that stunned Emma. Bonny’s thoughts. Wow. What a brain. The concepts she put forward. The long and convoluted words she used. The way she tapped into Emma’s own scrappy ideas and developed them into strong and fully formed concepts.
Bon and Em. Emma knew that they were a perfect couple in the making. Their bodies would meld together as would their minds. One would complain, and the other would put things right. That was just how things were and how things would likely always be for the pair of them.
Alone on her bed, Emma would ponder her own responses to Bonny’s hypothetical questions and remarks and every day, her obsession became more intense. Soon, it was clear that Bonny had bewitched her in a way she’d never experienced before, and Emma’s fascination was as much intellectual as it was an affair of the heart. Even the thought of Bonny would send Emma’s toes twitching. She knew she must get to know her better and make things real between them. But how?
The idea came to Emma deep in the night. At these times, lights were turned off and bodies were turned on. Emma would write to Bonny. She’d write of how they might get together and begin a relationship that would last lifelong.
So, Emma wrote. Bonny, as clear in her mind’s eye as she had ever been. Bonny, perfect and thoughtful and considerate. It made it so easy for Emma to pour out her heart. ‘I can’t stop thinking of you… I sit each day hoping you will turn up outside my door… please understand… please listen… please just be real to me’.
And in her story to Bonny, the protagonist, Emma, lost in a prison cell not of her making, presented her would-be lover Bonny with two sides of scribbled pleading. And fictional lover to be, Bonny called Emma to her, and touched her hand. ‘Yes,’ she said.
And in Emma’s reality, the cell expanded along with her emotions, and she allowed herself the beginnings of happiness. Sure, Bonny was a fictional creation. Certainly, she was a fantasy perfect woman, but surely she was a fantasy that could come true, one day.
Emma continued to write, half-smiling, heart beating with a regular flutter, and lips pursed, and looked forward enormously to getting to know the following day’s intake of new girls!
It was dark night when we returned, much depleted in numbers, and much wounded in bodies and souls. But we had achieved a victory of sorts. Our village was whole and still standing low but strong against the glow of the moonlight. Tired, hungry and hurting, we knew our words would come, but for now those words were caught tight within our throats, straining against our tense yet weary muscles. The time for talk would be come morning. Once our door had been opened by Ewan, from inside our croft the sweet scents of mutton-broth and fresh grasses welcomed us and gave us peace. We each lay silently and slept till the morning sun was truly risen, and the cattle’s lowing was becoming more urgent, for need of milking and for need of feeding.
I could hear Father preparing bread and cheese and apples for our breaking of the night’s fast, and hear Mother’s light coughing as she also rose. The silence of words would soon also be broken, alongside our fast. Mother limped to her place on the bench, shaking Ewan’s shoulder as she passed. He yawned and sighed. For a boy of merely eleven summers, his need for sleep was deep and intense. My fourteen summers had bade me well, and I was now a young woman, already courting and ready for the responsibilities of life.
As Ewan struggled onto the bench alongside our Mother, his eyes sparkled with the energy gained from his first battle. He’d been training well, and it showed. The first words of the morning came from my mouth. I held his arm as he sat.
‘You did grand, Ewan. That was a fine first battle. One to be proud of’.
Mother and Father nodded in agreement then looked over to me with pride.
‘Your contribution was strong and mighty, daughter,’ said Father, and I knew this to be the truth. Mother nodded and we all sat to eat.
I had been wrong. I’d assumed that this meal would herald analysis of the battle’s highs and lows, but instead we ate in silence. We rose in silence also, each attending to our usual duties.
What had, at first, felt as moments of togetherness, now was confusing.
Why the silence? Had we done what we should not?
I was thinking to speak and to question, when came a friendly deep voice shouting from outside, and at our doorway appeared Geld, a man of more than fifty summers, and the head of our village. We all rose from our benches but he gestured to us to continue with our tasks.
‘Geld,’ said Father.
‘Brother,’ said my Mother, for she was his blood.
‘Angus. Morag. Please eat. You’ve strength enough, but need building further.’
I looked up at my Uncle Geld and he smiled, moving over to ruffle my hair.
‘You were grand.’
‘And Ewan too. Angus and Morag must be proud.’
‘Indeed we are,’ my Father replied. ‘Indeed we are.’
I knew from the times of other battles that had rudely interrupted our peace, that a success would bring a visit from Geld. Father called such times ‘Tidings’ as uncle Geld would bring news from the battlefront, of those who’d died and those who’d lived, and of the results of our battles.
‘So…’ Mother said. ‘Will you tell us more?’
‘I will,’ Geld nodded. ‘Indeed…’
He sat in a bench space I made available for my uncle, and began to talk.
‘We’ve thirteen losses. Of the village’s forty-three, it’s a large number.’
Mother sighed. ‘Who?’
My head went down into my lap. John. Not my John.
‘I am sorry, Fionna. John has not returned.’
‘But he may still be…’
‘He may. But we do not think so. Our enemies were many and were strong. We believe the sword slash to have taken him, as it did twelve others.’
I raised myself from the table.
‘I must go.’
My legs strong but without direction, my chest rumbling with rage.
I left my home with speed and urgency, and forced myself up Stony Crags, till I’d climbed half-way: to where the landscape plateaued and softened into a small misplaced copse. Exhausted and heart-sick I rested my head on my usual stopping place against the beech tree. Its bark, silver and fresh, brought John’s white-fair and glossy hair to mind. He had been my intended one, as I had been his.
Of all of us, he had been the brightest, shiniest star, with the strength of three men, though he was neither Darkhaven’s tallest nor its broadest young man.
But he was my young man, and we suited each other just fine.
As I rested, I felt a tear run its path down my pinkened cheek. It was followed by another and another. I was not alone, I knew that. I was blessed to still have my family around me, but John had been a blessing too, and one I could not and would not lose easily.
Our handfasting was to be held two summers hence.
I wiped my eyes and rubbed my cheeks with the cleanest part of my cloak, then stood to survey the battle’s scene. Our lost warriors would be missed.
I felt some kind of something. Being too young to name such feelings, I allowed them to overtake me. Perhaps I felt merely anger, but it was different somehow, and more powerful – but whatever it was surged up inside me and I stared towards the sky and screamed.
‘John’ I yelled. ‘Don’t be gone. Be here. Be with me.’
The skies wept and screamed along with me.
It was only then that I realised how the rain was soaking me through to my skin, and just how heavy my sword had become, held as it was by my leather and flex strap by my side. It was time to return home and time to consider how best to avenge my John.
The sword tingled in my hand, and raindrops steamed off its gleaming metal as I ran, ready to embrace the comfort of family, once again. And ready to embrace any challenge the Gods might set for me.
Purple heather crackles under my mud-crusted feet as I tramp downwards towards our small, grey dwellings. And the rain begins to fall, thunder booming from some distance away, and I know it will be with me soon. I must make haste. I’ve no fear of the weather but I’ve fear of the people who I’ve been told are following the storm to my village. Bad people who want to take all that’s good and turn it into all that’s not. I pick up speed, almost stumbling over stones and bumps in the ground and I come upon a sheep, forlorn and unusually friendly to me, but having no time to pet it, I shoo it back towards its herd. Then, looking up, I see the beauty of what lies below me in this summer-green valley, framed by hills and mountains of such splendour. I’m proud that this is my home and I will defend it, my kinsmen and kinswomen, with my life if need be.
I am Fionna, my father’s daughter, my mother’s mischievous spirit child and my young brother Ewan’s support at all times. Fionna Armstrong. Strong of arm but not of head, my father would say. But many would disagree. It is of no matter. We are all strong in Darkhaven, our clan’s village. But enemies we have aplenty amongst those who covet fertile valleys and water that sparkles clear, come rain or shine.
I cross the dried up mountain stream bed and my feet kick against an uncommon hardness. I look down at the intrusive shape and discover the hilt of a sword, plunged deep into the peat-topped land. Is it a trap? Are there enemies at hand? It is a simple sword; simple and strong – as I am – and as I slide the blade from the flesh-like peat, it’s clear that the sharpness of the blade has not been affected from its time in the ground. The handle is plain with the exception of two small carvings, and it is a long blade also: long and heavy. But when I fully extract it from the ground it lightens. One hand. Both hands. I was made for this weapon and it was made for me. I examine my find closely and understand how it hadn’t been found before now. A rock has been misplaced from the bed of the stream, uncovering the hilt of a sword not newly placed. Moss and lichen had touched the blade and handle and seasons changed the metal’s colour a little, staining it in shades of heather and peat. Off the path in rarely travelled land, I was truly fortunate to have found this magnificent thing, perhaps placed here in this fertile moorland, in honour of Gods or Goddesses past.
It felt as though it was meant to be. A destiny of sorts, even? I wasn’t usually given to such meanderings of the mind, but the moment I’d stumbled over the sword I felt deep in my bones that I was to move it, to take it back with me and to use as need be.
It wasn’t comfortable to run with the sword tucked away deep underneath my cloak, and I knew I ran the risk of again stumbling and injuring myself. But I had no choice. I could not leave it. This sword was already speaking to me, instructing me, strengthening me… As I ran, I knew the thunder was nearing, their drums of warning banging to alert village and crops and livestock of what catastrophe would be brought in by the storm.
I ran, with no concern for anything other than my return home. I ran with the sure feeling that if I didn’t run there would be blood on my hands and pain in the hearts of all I knew.
As I neared the village, there were calls to me. I ignored all sounds and objects in my path – till I arrived home. My mother’s usual welcoming expression transformed to shock as I sought to hide the incredible sword and told my mother hurriedly all I knew of the weapon and its placement, and about the clan wars soon to be brought by the wind.
‘We’d better do something, Fionna. Your feelings are always true and we ignore them at our peril. The omen of the discovered sword is powerful, and that storm is stronger than it was. I sense something also, but…’ Mother sighed and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
I moved towards her and we hugged because there was nothing more to do. Mother left the house to tell her brother, and returned, shaking her head. Our ‘better do something,’ had become ‘nothing can be done just yet,’ because we were ignorant of our enemy and when they might arrive. When my father and brother returned from their working, we ate barley and mutton broth with nettle tops. And shortly after, dried apples and herbs with honey and roots from the fields. It would be a sustaining meal to strengthen us for the battle we were sure was approaching.
The rumbles came upon us harder and faster. Louder with every passing moment. And out of the mist that was gathering with the strengthening of the rain came a shout or two. It was impossible to tell who was shouting and from where. Then my uncle’s voice rang loud and clear, calling us out.
‘Do I use the sword?’ I asked the air. Both the Gods in my head and my Goddess mother answered, ‘Use it’. My father shouted, ‘Do it, Fionna, be grand,’ and left, his own broadsword in hand.
I scrambled for my weapon’s hiding place and the noise came to me more clearly. The sound of horses’ hooves accentuated the thunder’s crashes, and through it all came the sounds of men’s voices like the bellows of wild pigs. Loud and deep and rough, the noise was. Shouting sounds of fear and devilment.
Mother and Ewan grabbed their own swords as they made haste through the door. Mother’s hand circled my waist briefly as she passed, and she pulled me back just for a moment.
‘Be strong,’ she said.
‘I know,’ I replied, and she kissed my long red hair, flecked with straw and dust from the fields.
‘Be grand,’ I said.
‘Be grand.’ Mother ran, unbending and uncollapsed, into the throng of kinsmen and kinswomen we would protect with our lives and with our dignity.
How I wished now for heather under my heels and the soft trickle of a mountain stream from which to take my fill of life-giving liquid; how I wished for peace and harmony and whispered conversations of love in woodland clearings. But this was real. Conflict was as real and as necessary as air was to breathe and water to drink.
Peace was merely a lull between times of conflict, and merely a time to rest and to re-gather strength. The sword had appeared to me for a reason – and if I was to die that day then so be it. I would die with sword in hand and honour in heart.
My mother ran three paces ahead of me as we left our home behind, disappearing into the mist, unknowing of who, if any, might return. I could see them now as well as hear them, those enemies and tribesmen without honour. The men and women we must fight to ensure the safety of our own. And, feet on our native lands and with sword in hand, I was imbued with a power I couldn’t explain.
I shouted ‘Ewan,’ and ran to catch him up, our swords raised, our hearts pumping strong and fearless. We were fearless, even of death. And I wasn’t mistaken, but a green gold light glowed from the tip of my weapon. I closed my eyes, lifted up my arms in simultaneous submission and attack and shouted to the skies – ‘Protect. Honour us. We will be grand’.
‘No thicker than turkey foil,’ he said, remembering the crinkling sound as he’d smooth it over mounts of meat and baking sheets. How they used to spend carefree hours in their unspectacular but divinely functional kitchen, whipping up something from virtually nothing, giggling inanely over the even more inane writings on the wine’s label, and referencing uncool of cookery books, to produce the most retro of meals.
Cal continued his staring for a short while, then a longer while, till his hunger pushed him in the direction of his food stash. His selection: a tin of stewed rhubarb pieces, or a tin of creamed chicken soup. Both watery, nutrient-deficient, and foods that would never have made it anywhere near his usual shopping trolley. But the trolleys were as irrelevant to life now, as the concept of food preferences were. He reluctantly selected the rhubarb. It would see him through till the following morning. He’d then hope for a break in the luminous skyfall, would breakfast on the cold soup, and would be forced to leave the shack. It had been a welcome shelter from the piercing, burning cold, but, food supplies exhausted, he had no choice but to say goodbye and to make his way to forage for supplies.
And that was precisely what he did with head cowed and heart just the same. The skyfall was stopped but had left behind oily blue-green puddles, and Cal ensured he avoided each and every one. Even welded protetive metal footwear offered little protection from the skyfall’s caustic nature. Cal counted each step, though he’d no reason to do so. He was sane enough to question why he did it, but no longer sentient enough to be aware of the answers.
The plain through which he walked had once been a field of potatoes, but the acid had cracked and eroded and warped and pitted the surfaces, removing and destroying organic matter. Each of Cal’s steps uneasily taken, and he manouvered with great care, so his going was slow and methodical. It didn’t matter. There was nowhere he needed to be, nobody he needed to see.
He’d barely counted to 30, and was still well within access of the shack where he’d spent the last two days and nights, when the surface under his foot gave way slightly, and Cal’s right ankle wobbled. In panic, and acting purely on instinct rather than sensibility, he reached down to steady himself. He retracted in agony as both hands, his right thigh, knee and buttock, his lower back and then his elbow, his shoulder, and his head fell onto and into the seeping, caustic surface.
But no soul heard his cries. No comrades would rush to his assistance. No wild animals would feed on his emaciated, fried carcass. No bacteria would reduce his bodily remains, to leave no trace. Nobody would mourn. Nobody would cry for him and miss him.
Cal would, at least die quickly, and was relieved to be removed from the agonies of this life. His final thought was of how things used to be and of coming here, the worst decision he had ever made. He’d been excited when, after a long and rigorous process, he’d been selected as Captain of the Pioneer Crew. The crew’s mission had been the colonisation of a beautiful, brightly coloured planet. It had been proved to have a perfect earth-like atmosphere of an almost perfumed quality, and so materials for shelter and agriculture had been deposited during the training process of Cal and his 149 colleagues. And yes, it was a beautiful planet. It was perfect, in fact, and shelters were erected, relationships were solidified, and female crew quickly became pregnant, as was always the intention.
But, in the planet’s cycle, and the one thing the colonisers didn’t know, came the irregular and sudden skyfall. It explained the soil’s infertility, and the lack of mature greenery. It explained the lack of settlers, of wildlife and even of insects, despite the apparent perfection of the place. With no way of return, the twenty young colonisers were reduced and destroyed one by one by the inhospitable skyfall. Cal was the last. He was the captain going down with the ship, just as had his chosen wife, their unborn child, and all the others. His life DID flash before him as his frail frame melded with the planet’s surface. And all was over.