Tag: Fiction

For the Greater Good

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‘I only wanted what was best for you,’ she whimpered. ‘What was best for us all.’

The man’s expression darkened with each word. His eyes flashed bright green as she spoke, and he knew that she could not be allowed to win. Not again.

‘What’s best for us all,’ he whispered with venom, ‘is a world without you.’

He thrust his hidden knife towards the breast pocket of her jacket, and pierced her right in the heart.

The woman clutched the invading weapon and fell to her knees, then to the floor. Her final words ‘This is not for the greater good. This is…’

But a stab in the heart was not enough. For this to work and for her evil to truly be eradicated, she must be symbolically thrown to the wolves. Hence their location on the roof garden of a trendy office block. He dragged her still-alive body to the edge wall and hauled it to rest on the thick glass security pane. Into her pocket he placed a carefully folded piece of paper, then with a final energetic spasm, heaved her body over the glass.

‘Goodbye Mother,’ he said, and immediately began his brisk walk back to the office block’s ground floor. If he kept his speed up and used the emergency stairs, he knew he would be unseen and out of the door in less than five minutes. It took just under three minutes, and with latex-clad hands he opened the rear door and made his way out.

Fortunately for Ben, his black hooded sweatshirt and black joggers – the uniform of house-breakers and car-thieves everywhere – provided sufficient anonymity. Add to that the additional padding he’d sewn into the clothes, a fake blonde beard, a shoulder length blonde wig and tinted contact lenses, and he’d ensured that his own mother hadn’t recognised him till her final moment.

Ben thought back to the events of earlier that day, and what had been required to ensure his own peace and the peace of mankind. Truly, he was working for the greater good. Holy Wars had proved that any act, even murder, could be justified providing one’s motives were true and were for the greater good.

Ben’s mission to kill his mother had been four months in the planning. Four months of scheming and sucking up to the people around him. Four months of ensuring that each and every piece of the puzzle fitted. Of secreting items away, of careful observation and, in the end, of targeted violence.

All because he finally realised that his estranged mother had been responsible for the death of his wife, for the smuggling and distribution of illegal firearms, and for the most blatant of benefit scams which defrauded the government of millions. Those misdemeanours were bad enough, but what of the innocent lives who’d taken a wrong turn and been sucked into her drug trafficking and provision?

Well away from the back entrance, Ben stopped behind a large van to remove his wig, beard, hoodie and tracksuit bottoms, stashing them into his rucksack. The person who emerged was an anonymous-looking dark-haired man who had barely broken into a sweat during his mission. He strolled around the corner, feigned dismay at the growing crowd who had already gathered around the fallen woman, and disappeared into the crowd. He stood behind two indistinguishable young women.

‘I’ve just been out to get my lunch,’ the slightly taller girl said. ‘And then I get back to the front door and this sound happens behind me. I turn around and there’s my boss on the pavement, covered in blood. And she was dead!’

Her friend shook her head. ‘I know! I was only a few steps behind you. Are you sure it’s Joyce? Why would anyone kill Joyce? She’s just the sweetest and kindest…’
‘I know. Proper old school. Very real.’

‘Does Joyce, I mean, did Joyce have a family?’

The young woman shrugged. ‘Her husband died. She just had a son, Ben, but he’s been in a mental home since he was a teenager. He was always seeing things that weren’t there, and thinking the world was out to get him. A proper uncurable headcase if you ask me, but Joyce didn’t give up hope for him. He was why she started working in mental health.’

‘Is he the next of kin?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t know how they’ll tell him the news. He broke out from his ward a couple of days back, killed two of the nurses and set fire to everything. Proper psycho, I reckon. He even raided the creative room’s dressing up box on his way out!’

The other girl mouthed ‘Wow’ and both fell silent as they watched the body of Joyce Mackenzie,founder of the charity, Mental Health Support UK, being removed from the scene and taken away in the waiting ambulance.

And Ben watched too, delighted that Mission Stage 1 was now accomplished. He wished he could have been there when the police found the paper in Joyce’s pocket. Never mind, the deed was done, and it was all for the greater good. Stage 2 next.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #thegreatergood #mentalhealth

Another Adult Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time, high in the locked tower of a castle on a hill, there existed a young man who believed himself to have once been called Alexander. His days could hardly be called living since he had been imprisoned within the confines of his locked landing and suite of rooms for the previous seven years.

Each meal arrived through a hatch in a locked door. His few brief conversations arrived through the whispers of the wind, the scurries of the rats, and the occasional overheard chatter of kitchen lads and lasses who would run through the courtyards shrieking on the way to their errands. He’d reply, but was never heard.

Alexander had been locked away, not owing to some terrible crime, nor to the curse of a spurned witch. No. Alexander believed he had been imprisoned for protection against a world that was not yet ready for his peculiarity. Though he felt it would not last forever, it mattered not, for he knew not when it would end.

Every day, he prayed for release, and on no day had release yet come.
The young boy had grown to be a young man, and, following years of acceptance, he suddenly knew that he must leave his prison, come what may. He had passed 15 summers and his heart was breaking with what he suspected was loneliness. He’d read of it within his room’s library, just as he had read of valour, of love, of friendship, of work and of the ideas of great thinkers since printing began.

But book knowledge, though important, did not equip him with the skills to remove himself from the only existence he remembered. Even had he discovered a physical method of escape, he knew he would struggle with life on the outside, it being a place that was full to the brim with confident souls accustomed to the outside’s vagaries, and that that would not accept hi for all he was.

Books assisted in passing the time, but only his dreams brought true relief from the tedium. They provided faint memories of the life he’d had before this place, and of walking in the forest when, from a gap in the bracken, a woodland creature had emerged, with head cocked. The creature had been curious at Alexander’s approach, and he had greeted the young boy with a nod of his head and a lifting of his leafy green hat. He held out his hand to Alexander, and being a well brought up boy, Alexander extended his own to meet it.

But, once their skin touched, Alexander regretted all friendliness, as half his boy-ness disappeared into the creature, and half the creature-ness seeped into him. The young man and woodland creature were both transformed, two into two, and each half of the other, and Alexander’s mother, with whom he’d been strolling, fell into a dead faint at the vision of her creature-son.

Both were discovered by an elderly gentleman riding within a carriage, who bundled the creature-boy and his mother into the carriage. Then, the elderly gentleman’s coach had carried the unfortunate pair to the man’s manor house, where the man had locked the boy into his secret hidden bedroom, having told the boy’s mother that he died from his transforming. He had soon married her as she had become weak and vulnerable through her grief.

So, what remained for the young man? Only two people knew of his existence – the elderly gentleman and the butler who brought all his meals, though the boy had never espied the butler.

Still, the boy had matured to a strong young man whose brain was full of thoughts arrived through his enormous supply of books, and somehow or other, he believed fervently that he would discover the means to escape. Only then would he know for certain how the world viewed his creatureness.

The sooner came earlier than he’d expected, and later than he’d hoped, when one fine and warm morning, a bell tolled in the courtyard. It rang once then, following a count of ten, would ring once more. Alexander watched as flags were erected – three black cloths on three tall flagposts. Black. He knew well enough that it signified a death of importance within the house. As the day went by, Alexander heard enough to know for certain that a wasting disease had taken the old man, and his successor had been fully primed of all his duties within the manor.

That was all very well, but would Alexander’s life continue as it had? Would he be remembered? Would his meals arrive as they had? And what had become of his mother?

All was quiet in the rooms of Alexander for one day, two days, three days. And, towards the end of the third, the young man, requiring much sustenance for his growing, had made the decision that his only way to live was to break out of his confines that very moment.

Though no knives were provided on his food trays – he ate only food he could hold, and chopped food using a spoon – on one occasion he’d mistakenly been provided with a tiny, rounded end palette knife. He’d stashed it, of course, and now was the time to use it.

Hunger dictated the urgency.

He knew that there were wooden barriers over his window, and that they had been attached by means of what he believed were screws. The tops of the screws were some straight and some crossed, and he set to work to turn these. His learning was all through books, so it took a few efforts to make even the smallest amount of loosening, but once the first screw fell to the floor of his room, he was energised enough to continue.

Unscrewing took the whole rest of the day, until the light ended and he was forced to sleep.

He woke early and immediately walked to the window. How marvelous the view was. How vibrant and colourful. How cheery were the people.

And next to his bed was a bunch of flowers in a small jar.

And a sheet of paper. It read ‘My Darling Son, I too have been locked up all these years, though free on the outside, the old man kept me in such torment of my own grief at having lost you. Yesterday I discovered from the person who brings you meals, that you were still alive. He led me here as you slept. I saw the wooden bars you’d removed from the windows. I will be preparing our belongings for leaving this place. So, when you wake, come to me’.

The young man lay back on his bed. Relief. Escape! It was all going to happen. He was to return to his mother, and perhaps even to the rest of his family. And he would get healed.

He smelled the flowers next to him and noticed a small round item – silver and shiny and looking so fragile and delicate that he didn’t like to touch. But, as he brought it up to his face, Alexander remembered. The item was a mirror. He hadn’t seen himself for so long and his heart beat with speed and excitement as he held it in front of his face. He was no longer the boy he had been before the imprisonment. He was no longer the creature that he’d seen in the bracken. He was a young and handsome man, with long dark hair, skin as white as snow and lips as red as blood.

He was the image of the mother he remembered, and he could no longer stop his feet from carrying him to her.

‘Mother,’ he shouted as he opened the always-locked door, and left the hated and loved prison and shelter for the final time.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #adultfairytale #lockedinatower

Collecting the Detectives

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One day I tried to write ten short stories inspired by fictionalised detectives and solvers of crime. You see, crime has always been my preferred television genre –

I adored the relentless surliness of Morse, Tom Barnaby the family man, the astonishing prim Miss Marple, and Hercules Poirot with his neat squares of breakfast toast.

I sat at my computer and began to type – but, despite all my interest in the genre, I couldn’t make it work.

Perhaps I was getting hung up on technicalities and legalities: all the problems of copyright and the like. But I couldn’t help but wonder.

How would one go about creating the perfect character?

Perhaps the detective would be Bergerac-like, though less smooth.

Perhaps he would now be retired and back in Jersey, ready to meet up with an old flame – a retired ex-jewel thief?

Or perhaps my hero might be more like ex-police detective, Henry Crabbe, now running his own restaurant, who would be found cooking up something amazing when Tony Hill, criminal profiler and psychologist arrives for a meal. Crabbe and Hill might discuss whodunnits and Tommy Cooper, and over the course of the meal and a couple of after-dinner drinks, the crime would be solved. Or perhaps my detective would be more like Inspector Rebus – a rough-around-the-edges Scot, set apart from society, but who eats, drinks and sleeps crime.

But my plans didn’t turn out. I realised that all I was doing was listing and exaggerating. I was collecting the detectives.

Being an aficionado of televised crime fiction (with Columbo being a personal favourite) I accidentally began writing a short story about the rain-coated, cigar smoking wonder. It led to some experimentation and has been interesting to say the least.

My composite detective is dysfunctional, non-family oriented, and his tale began as ‘The Flag, the Arm and the Chestnut Brown Hair’. Inspector Derek Jones (or Cal Durham, or Vern Smith) scratches his fingers against his chin’s stubble.

Four days now without the flick of the razor, and people were beginning to notice, and to comment. His latest work mission, to infiltrate an unusual outwardly pagan group with links to organised person trafficking, was a total nightmare. The people he met in the group were great and he found it extremely hard to mistrust, dislike or even retain any scepticism about them. They were simply decent people. Sometimes his work was a pain.

The Flag was scruffy and dated bar, and the Inspector fitted in pretty well with the old and dated clientele.

One woman in particular he had his eye on, not for the usual reasons – though he wouldn’t have said no. Her hair was chestnut brown and as wavy as his had been as a child. It shone like the outside of a newly polished conker.

It was simply the most beautiful hair he’d ever seen. His own, once wiry and wayward, was now almost gone.

That which clung on for dear life was shaved to a millimetre’s length and usually hidden under one of a collection of flat caps.

 On this particular mission he had chosen to wear a bandana. God, he felt a prat. In fact, he couldn’t believe his ‘mates’ hadn’t seen through his plain clothes policeman disguise. What a fraud he was.

The woman turned slightly to look towards the doorway, and he realised with a shock to his system that he knew her. He hadn’t nicked her, and he hadn’t slept with her… but he had sat beside her on an evening course.

You know the kind of thing. It was Predictable with a capital P.

That’s what happened on the day I tried to piece together a composite detective.

I failed.

I finished.

It isn’t as easy as you might think.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #crimefiction

Room That Smells of Sawdust

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Even from the double doorway, its clear that the room that smells of sawdust and electrical current, or perhaps ancient floor polish combined with brand new dust. Just the aroma was enough to release a weight into the pit of my stomach, and its name was social anxiety. Social fear, to be precise. Or to be even more precise, the dislike of leaving the house after dark and the even stranger dislike of attending school meetings without a child in tow.

I enter the school hall and find myself a chair at the side, half way back. As I sit I realise that turquoise spray paint decorates each brown chair’s rear. Presumably intended as a blob of identification, the paint has dripped and dropped like the liquid plastic it is.

With aching stomach and creaking back, I watch as the Amazonian in front of me sweats profusely. She wiggles her feet with skin yellow-dry and scaly, and for a second I’m sure that she’s an entirely different form of creature than human. Still, she seems very nice – smiley, chatty and sociable – so she’s better than I am.

As the hall fills with the white noise of other peoples’ unintelligible chatter, I feel as though I’m the only person alone. The only person resentful at this time imposition, and this weird return to high school education that all parents must tolerate. But, I’m not tolerating.

A man gesticulates in front of the projector screen. His black jacket with red arms makes him look like a superhero. I realise I’ve forgotten my glasses and know I’ll need a superhero to see the PowerPoint’s text. It isn’t just the blindness that makes me feel out of it. I’m just lost. Dazed. Unseeing. Unhearing. I want to go home.

A beautiful tattooed woman takes the seat next to me and I am temporarily distracted by her punky purple hair and multitude of silver rings. The youngest child of two snuggles contently on her lap and I hear him telling his mummy that he loves her.

My eyes blur as I look at the school’s handout. None of the words make sense.

I look again at the Amazonian as she presses her feet onto her soles, and for the first time I notice her ankle tattoo – a lizard climbing. I’m grateful when a latecomer takes the seat next to her as it enables me to concentrate instead on the smoothness of the young lad’s fuzzy scalp. He’s a little lad, but big too – on the verge of adolescence or perhaps just past it. He rests his head on her shoulder and she kisses the top of his head.

My heart melts and the school presentation begins.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #schooldays

Just One More Thing

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As soon as he’d seen that scruffy mackintosh displayed in the charity shop window, the beginnings of a plan began whirling around his head. The mac was crumpled and had seen better days, but its possibilities were endless. He’d laughed out loud – and it had been a very long time since he’d laughed.

Yes, Matthew was inspired. He was also late, which was not good as Irena was a stickler for good office timekeeping. Half his age and half his size, she could still floor him with her disapproving stares. The fact that he was her boss mattered not at all. He’d better get a move on.

All through the afternoon, Matthew was in excellent spirits. How he hoped the mac would still be there when he finished at work and wondered if he should leave early to make sure. Even while asking himself that question, Matthew realised the ridiculousness of his daydreams. But just this once he was determined to act out of character.

“Is anything wrong, Matthew?” Irena asked, hovering by the side of his desk.

He decided on the truth – she was his assistant after all – if she couldn’t appreciate his flashes of wisdom and imagination, then there was no hope for him.

“I have to leave early, Irena. There’s something I need to do urgently. To do with Sarah. We’ll come in early tomorrow and work on the Jamieson contract together, shall we?”

Irena’s face changed and softened.

“Of course, Mr Hanson,” she said, “Do whatever you need to do. I’ll see you tomorrow”.

Matthew then left the office early for the first time in as long as he could remember.

Increasing his pace as he made his way down the stairs to the front door, he almost tripped in his excitement. It was a ten-minute walk to the charity shop, and he ran the distance in just short of three minutes. Today was indeed a day of firsts – laughing, leaving work and running! Something was changing in him. That slightly stained and character-filled mackintosh was working some magic.

He arrived at the shop just as it was closing.

“Please…” he shouted through the glass. “Please, I need to buy something. I’ll only be a minute.”

The matronly manager must have decided he looked harmless enough (if a little eccentric) as she let him in.

“What did you want, lovie?”

He pointed out the mac, and she giggled a little too. Something about that mac brightened people’s days.

“Sorry lovie,” she said, with what sounded like real regret. “The boss says that if it’s in the window, we can’t get it out for another three days. I’ll reserve it for you. Four pounds it is… can you manage that?” 

Matthew smiled, graciously – “I think I can manage that, yes. I’ll call in on Friday then, OK?”

She attached a small pink piece of paper to the lapel with a pin. The slip read ‘Sold. Collect Friday’. Matthew left her to the cashing up, disappointed but able to tolerate the wait. It would give him time to relish the planning. Sarah would be laughing all the way down to her cold little toes when she saw what he’d been up to.

Friday was a very long time coming, but as soon as the charity shop opened, Matthew was there, waiting.

“Gosh, you’re keen,” said the manager as she unfastened the coat and readied the mannequin for its replacement – a flashy 1980s style shirt. As she handed him the mac, her face fell a little.

“I’m not sure it is the right size for you. It looks quite big. And the arms are an odd shape.”

Even better, he thought.

All the way to work, Matthew kept checking inside the bag and chuckling to himself. Irena glanced at him continually once he was seated.

“Is everything alright, Matthew?” she asked.  “I never thought I’d see you smile again.”

“Yep, me neither. Everything is good, Reen.”

His smile lasted a few moments, and Irena told him she liked him better when he was smiling. Matthew was enjoying the rediscovered spring in his step.

Once home that night, he changed out of his suit, with relief. In its place, he put on some old-fashioned slacks, a faded shirt and a cheap tie, all especially bought for the occasion. He looked at himself in the mirror. It was quite a transformation. All he needed was a little more stubble and a slightly more tousled hairstyle. Matthew had been preparing by watching one DVD after another copied from Sarah’s collection. He was almost ready.

It was Friday. ‘Their’ night. They would eat and drink, and he would tell her stories or read the newspaper. Maybe play a board game. Sometimes they would enjoy the companionship of each other: pure pleasure and pure love.

He was ready. Costume prepared. Stubble unshaven. Heart lifting by the second as he imagined Sarah’s face. He took a deep breath and walked into her room. There was no way she could have guessed what he’d been planning.

“Hello there, my angel. I’ve missed you.”

Her head lifted slowly to look at him, and she smiled back in greeting.

“Would you like me to put a DVD on? One of your favourites?”

She pointed out a title from her collection. Matthew smiled to himself – two films on one disc: Uneasy Lies the Crown and Murder in Malibu.

This was going to be fun, he thought, and hopefully would be fun for his beloved Sarah too.

Matthew set the disk whirring in her machine, selected Uneasy Lies the Crown and took hold of Sarah’s hand. They looked at each other, and he stroked her hair. They sat in silence, waiting for the film to begin.

Partway through Matthew got up.

“I won’t be a minute,” he said, “You carry on watching”. 

Sarah lay with the faintest trace of a smile about her lips as he left the room. In the bathroom, Matthew hurriedly put on the crumpled clothes, the threadbare tie and the raincoat that was variously too big and too small in the places that mattered. He messed his hair up, adjusted his facial expression and lit a large, curiously perfumed cigar. He was ready.

“Just wait till I tell Mrs Columbo about this…” he mimicked as he opened the door.

Sarah stared at him with the biggest grin ever. He scratched his head.

“You know, madam, there are some things I just don’t understand about this case. Like why was the car in neutral? Why did a perfectly healthy man have a heart attack and plunge to his death? And why you can’t speak to me anymore? Please speak to me.”

His plea was heartfelt. Sarah grinned weakly, obviously trying to articulate words which wouldn’t come.

He took a deep puff of his cigar, and the smoke filled the room as he scratched his head in much the same way as Lieutenant Columbo. Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off him. Their eyes locked and he walked over to her, beaming.

“Did you like it, my angel? I saw the coat and couldn’t resist it.”

They hugged tightly and happily. Again, Sarah opened her mouth to talk, but the door burst open as she struggled.

“Mr Hanson! A cigar? In here? Put it out immediately. You are more than aware of the rules. You could be doing serious damage to the health of our patients, not to mention your own. This is disgraceful behaviour and I…”.

The nurse’s voice trailed off.

“You’ve been coming here for six years. Surely…What on earth are you doing?… Oh, Sarah, it is Columbo! Matthew is being Columbo for you! Still …Still, the cigar gets put out and the window opens. I don’t know what you were thinking of”. She wiped the small tear dripping down her cheek.

Matthew ignored her fussing and her mock-strictness. His eyes were firmly on Sarah, his step-mother from the age of two – the only mother he could remember, the only person who had ever given him what he needed: shared confidences, shared memories and shared joy.

The years had not been kind. For the past six years, the only joys in Sarah’s life were her fifty-something stepson Matthew, and an American-Italian detective called Lieutenant Columbo. She loved his scruffy beige raincoat, his cigar and his formulaic stock phrases that they both knew by heart.

Sarah had given him more than anyone else had. She’d supported him through the far-too-early loss of their beloved husband and father, through university, his wedding, his devastating divorce and the birth of his children – Sarah’s adored grandchildren. And this lady, this wonderful lady was now opening her mouth to speak. She hadn’t spoken in months, other than muttered unclear phrases in her more lucid moments. Her health was deteriorating rapidly, and so was her ability to communicate.

The nurse took the cigar from Matthew and began to extinguish it in the corner sink.

“No”, came a frail, elderly voice from amongst the pillows, “Here. Bring it here”.

“Sarah!” Matthew almost shouted. “Hello, my angel. You spoke. Oh my God, you spoke! Give her the cigar nurse, please, just this once.”

The nurse dripped a little tap water over the glowing end which sizzled then blackened, and she took it over to Sarah shivering under the pristine white sheets.

“No dropping ash now, nurse,” said Matthew.

Sarah reached out with her bony right hand and took the cigar, lifting it to her face and smelling the familiar scent.

“Your dad…” she said, her voice weak.

His father had smoked exactly that brand: one on a Friday night and one on a Saturday. That was why Matthew had chosen it in the unfamiliar atmosphere of the tobacconist.

Both nurse and Matthew sat by Sarah’s bedside, each holding one of Sarah’s hands expectantly.  Warming the frail hands of this determined but very ill 96-year-old woman who had spent a lifetime in caring, loving and sacrifice.

She was struggling to move her lips, and Matthew held a glass of water and a straw to her mouth.

“What is it, Sarah?” asked Matthew with love.

Sarah carefully placed the cigar in her mouth with a wicked smile not seen for many years. That was when Sarah whispered her final, carefully-chosen words while the tears fell from Matthew’s eyes onto her paper-thin skin.

She spoke clearly.

“Just one more thing, sir,” she croaked with delight… as her eyes closed and the cigar fell onto the crisp, white sheet.

#meredithschumann #author #authors #fiction #shortstory #shortstories #columbo #raincoat

Elmer and Louise by Meredith Schumann, Part 4

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Elmer had assumed he was dead but, as occurs regularly in the cliffhangers of psychological thrillers, the ‘death’ he experienced proved to be an enormous exaggeration of his symptoms.

He was hurting, bleeding a little, and had bumped his head and almost every one of his body’s protrusions on the van and on the pavement’s kerbstone… but he was a strong and sturdy guy, and despite his injuries was in far better condition than he deserved to be after being hit by the large, white plumber’s van.

Following Elmer’s self-ejection from the stolen car, Dulcie and Louise had done exactly what he’d expected. The car had stalled right next to Elmer’s fallen form, but his girlfriend and sister had chosen not to scoop him up, return his forcibly to their stolen car, and take him with them on their journey.

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They’d driven off, without even a backwards glance, leaving Elmer crumpled in the gutter and with nobody but the driver of the white van to offer assistance. The plumber, at least, showed some empathy, squealing his vehicle to a halt and practically falling out of the van door in his eagerness to get to the crumpled shape.

‘Oh my God, you alright, mate…? Mate…? You just fell out of the car and my van hit you and then you rolled to the edge. It’s lucky there were no cars coming.’

Elmer shuffled slightly on the kerb and grimaced. ‘You can go. I’ll be alright.’

‘I can’t leave you here like this.’ The plumber’s forehead dripped with perspiration.

Elmer wiped his eyebrow with his forearm and was less concerned than he should have been when the blood seeping from his skull coloured the skin a deep crimson.

‘Here, get in. I’ll take you to the hospital. It’s only a few minutes away. It’s the least I can do.’

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Elmer nodded and allowed himself to be helped to his feet and guided towards the van. His right shoulder, hip, ankle and knee hurt like mad from the impact, and he struggled pathetically onto the front seat.

‘I’m Simon.’ The plumber offered a hand to shake.

‘Elmer.’ He shook his head. ‘No handshake. My wrist is killing me.’

‘I’m not surprised… You hit the ground pretty hard. And Elmer’s a pretty weird name.’

‘Yeah. Even worse when you try living with it. My sister’s called Louise. She was in that stolen car. That’s why I got out.’

‘What do you mean?’ He started up the van and the tinny rumble seemed to trigger cognition.

 ‘Hell! Elmer and Louise! No way! Your parents named you after a film?!’

‘Yeah. They had a terrible sense of humour. And look where it led us. Lou’s on her very own criminal road trip. I’m surprised it took her this long to come up with the idea, to be honest. I’m the straight one. She’s always been a wild card.’

Simon put on his seatbelt and took a toke of his e-cig before replacing it into his overall’s pocket. Elmer’s nose crinkled.

‘God, that smells like my grandma’s mouldy pot pourri. What’s it supposed to be?’

‘Can’t remember. Cinnamon biscuit? Strawberry and lime cheesecake? These things are a pile of crap, really. All they ever taste of is charcoal briquettes and ethanol… Strapped in?’

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‘Strapped in?’

‘Seatbelt. Get your seatbelt on.’

‘Oh. Yeah. I’ve done it. Thanks.’

‘Guess that means your arm isn’t broken. Still need to go to the hospital though.’

Elmer shrugged, then nodded in resignation, closed his eyes, leaned his congealing scalp against the van’s head rest, and began to sob.  

Love You, Mummy

‘Love you, mummy,’ he said, and threw his chocolate-covered arms around that most favoured parent. It was snuggle-time – a time they both loved, chocolate arms or not.

Trudie tickled Alex’s feet, sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ a couple of times, and gave her son exactly what he needed and what her loving heart happily granted: time, attention, love and cuddles. And Alex spoke back to her as if she were the silliest but most adorable pet – a naughty puppy, perhaps, or a cat that had insisted on scratching the leather sofa. ‘Mummy, silly sausage,’ he gurgled. ‘Lalalala, mummy moo, mummy moo, mummy mummy mummy poo!’

It was mother/child bonding at its best. Trudie knew it. Alex knew it. But somebody else was not so sure. Trudie knew that because of the smashing sound that shocked mother and child out of their reverie. Shocked but not entirely surprised by the noise, Trudie turned and followed the eyes of her son to look towards the source of source of the smash – her husband, and Alex’s dad, Mark.

‘What’s going on?’ Trudie shouted. The vase he’d smashed against the sideboard was scattered in sharp and dangerous pieces all over the floor, and Alex had already jumped off his mum’s lap and was making his way curiously towards the mess. Trudie began to rise to retrieve the brush and dustpan, but Mark pushed her back down.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I was just… shocked.’ Mark scratched his beard and looked down at the mess, shaking his head.

‘Shocked? Why? Nobody was doing anything wrong.’

Why could this man never talk to her about anything?

Mark said nothing, just pointed to little Alex who toddled over to his daddy with arms outstretched.

‘What’s Alex done that’s so bad? What on earth could a little boy of two years old do that was so bad? I know I’ve not done anything wrong… so it’s obvious,’ said Trudie. ‘You just can’t bear to see us happy.’

He shook his head. ‘No. No, it’s not that. It’s just… inappropriate.’

You snowflake, Trudie thought. In what way was it EVER inappropriate to hug your baby, specially if he was gurgling happily in his loving mum’s arms, as Alex had been?

Mark was just so different. So irritable. So annoying and so incredibly annoyable – and a victim of his own restrictive thoughts. Nobody could get anything right. Not ever.

He didn’t like Alex’s bedtime routine. Apparently, it was wrong to give and receive kisses and hugs between parent and child. It was also not right to hold that child’s hand in public, or to affectionately ruffle his light brown curls.  

‘Why are you like this, Mark? It’s got worse every month since we got together. Is there something I should know?’

‘What do you mean?’ Mark turned his back to her.

‘Well, you know, some reason why everything about me and Alex irritates you?’ It was a question often asked and never answered, not even in part.

‘It isn’t you. It isn’t him. It’s just…’

‘Just? Just..? Come on man, look at him. He’s just a little boy. He needs his daddy to hug him sometimes. To play games. To laugh a bit. To tickle him. Why don’t you? Why can’t you?’

Mark walked back into the kitchen. Trudie glanced at their son who was transfixed by Cbeebies on the television, and made the decision that he would be safe from the broken vase for a moment.

She followed Mark and stood in the doorway, leaning against the raw, unpolished wood marked with the growth record of their home’s previous residents.

Her hand automatically went to her hip in a ridiculous representation of her own mother. ‘Well. Why can’t you? Why won’t you?’

Her husband stood, clearly shielding himself from her inquisitions with the fridge door. Nothing. Just a deep, agonised sigh.

‘Come on, Mark. Why? Please…’

The door was slammed, and for the second time that evening, Trudie jumped.  ‘Mark, stop slamming, and just talk to me. Talk to me. Tell me.’

And that’s when it all came out. After all their years together. Her big, tough man. Her sheltered, physically hung-up man. Her man without positive loving feelings towards either her or their child.

Mark cried. Trudy cried. Alex rushed to comfort them, and fell, cutting his knee, just a little on the shattered vase.

‘Mummy moo,’ he cried, and his mum scooped him from the floor, placing him straight into the arms of his daddy.

‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Feel it… Be the dad you know you should be.’

Mark’s body, overtaken by tremors caused by thirty years of backed-up tears, shook and near-collapsed, but Trudy gently guided him up to the wall, supporting the weight of her two loved ones.

‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Comfort him… your past isn’t your future.’

Mark looked at his ever-patient wife and then to his beautiful son. The pair of them slid to sitting position on the floor of the kitchen, and Mark’s arms wrapped round his little boy for the first time ever. Both sobbed quietly till the sobs transformed to giggles and tickles.

‘Love you, daddy,’ said Alex. Another first.

And somehow, something was healed.

‘Love you, mummy,’ he said, and threw his chocolate-covered arms around that most favoured parent. It was snuggle-time – a time they both loved, chocolate arms or not.

Trudie tickled Alex’s feet, sang ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ a couple of times, and gave her son exactly what he needed and what her loving heart happily granted: time, attention, love and cuddles. And Alex spoke back to her as if she were the silliest but most adorable pet – a naughty puppy, perhaps, or a cat that had insisted on scratching the leather sofa. ‘Mummy, silly sausage,’ he gurgled. ‘Lalalala, mummy moo, mummy moo, mummy mummy mummy poo!’

It was mother/child bonding at its best. Trudie knew it. Alex knew it. But somebody else was not so sure. Trudie knew that because of the smashing sound that shocked mother and child out of their reverie. Shocked but not entirely surprised by the noise, Trudie turned and followed the eyes of her son to look towards the source of source of the smash – her husband, and Alex’s dad, Mark.

‘What’s going on?’ Trudie shouted. The vase he’d smashed against the sideboard was scattered in sharp and dangerous pieces all over the floor, and Alex had already jumped off his mum’s lap and was making his way curiously towards the mess. Trudie began to rise to retrieve the brush and dustpan, but Mark pushed her back down.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I was just… shocked.’ Mark scratched his beard and looked down at the mess, shaking his head.

‘Shocked? Why? Nobody was doing anything wrong.’

Why could this man never talk to her about anything?

Mark said nothing, just pointed to little Alex who toddled over to his daddy with arms outstretched.

‘What’s Alex done that’s so bad? What on earth could a little boy of two years old do that was so bad? I know I’ve not done anything wrong… so it’s obvious,’ said Trudie. ‘You just can’t bear to see us happy.’

He shook his head. ‘No. No, it’s not that. It’s just… inappropriate.’

You snowflake, Trudie thought. In what way was it EVER inappropriate to hug your baby, specially if he was gurgling happily in his loving mum’s arms, as Alex had been?

Mark was just so different. So irritable. So annoying and so incredibly annoyable – and a victim of his own restrictive thoughts. Nobody could get anything right. Not ever.

He didn’t like Alex’s bedtime routine. Apparently, it was wrong to give and receive kisses and hugs between parent and child. It was also not right to hold that child’s hand in public, or to affectionately ruffle his light brown curls.  

‘Why are you like this, Mark? It’s got worse every month since we got together. Is there something I should know?’

‘What do you mean?’ Mark turned his back to her.

‘Well, you know, some reason why everything about me and Alex irritates you?’ It was a question often asked and never answered, not even in part.

‘It isn’t you. It isn’t him. It’s just…’

‘Just? Just..? Come on man, look at him. He’s just a little boy. He needs his daddy to hug him sometimes. To play games. To laugh a bit. To tickle him. Why don’t you? Why can’t you?’

Mark walked back into the kitchen. Trudie glanced at their son who was transfixed by Cbeebies on the television, and made the decision that he would be safe from the broken vase for a moment.

She followed Mark and stood in the doorway, leaning against the raw, unpolished wood marked with the growth record of their home’s previous residents.

Her hand automatically went to her hip in a ridiculous representation of her own mother. ‘Well. Why can’t you? Why won’t you?’

Her husband stood, clearly shielding himself from her inquisitions with the fridge door. Nothing. Just a deep, agonised sigh.

‘Come on, Mark. Why? Please…’

The door was slammed, and for the second time that evening, Trudie jumped.  ‘Mark, stop slamming, and just talk to me. Talk to me. Tell me.’

And that’s when it all came out. After all their years together. Her big, tough man. Her sheltered, physically hung-up man. Her man without positive loving feelings towards either her or their child.

Mark cried. Trudy cried. Alex rushed to comfort them, and fell, cutting his knee, just a little on the shattered vase.

‘Mummy moo,’ he cried, and his mum scooped him from the floor, placing him straight into the arms of his daddy.

‘Do it,’ she said. ‘Feel it… Be the dad you know you should be.’

Mark’s body, overtaken by tremors caused by thirty years of backed-up tears, shook and near-collapsed, but Trudy gently guided him up to the wall, supporting the weight of her two loved ones.

‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Comfort him… your past isn’t your future.’

Mark looked at his ever-patient wife and then to his beautiful son. The pair of them slid to sitting position on the floor of the kitchen, and Mark’s arms wrapped round his little boy for the first time ever. Both sobbed quietly till the sobs transformed to giggles and tickles.

‘Love you, daddy,’ said Alex. Another first.

And somehow, something was healed.

Viva Miss Merryweather – Politics Warning

Joanne Merryweather’s speech to the Republican-Democratic Party Conference in Blackpool, 2021, promised to be quite a spectacle. Not only because Joanne had triumphed brilliantly in her most recent commons speeches and had transformed the stubborn British electorate from a fragmented, angry mass into the most weirdly aligned voter-pool this group of countries had ever experienced…

Not only that. But also because it was to be her inauguration as party president (for life). Such was her reward for the reversing of the previous two years’ worth of both pro and anti-Europe decisions, in a way that each and every person on all sides of the argument could nod their head and say. ‘Well, well, well, that’s one hell of a solution. Of course. That Miss Merryweather’s a genius, for sure.’  

And as befitted such a major inauguration event, the like of which had never before been seen, the ceremony promised pomp and ceremony to exceed even the most jingoistic of American electioneering, with accompanying preachy speeches and crowds of overly-enthusiastic supporters. Two weeks before the event and Blackpool was already awash with slogan t-shirts, specially-written conference anthems, flags, posters, and banners. Even more unusually, there were no dissenting voices and no disrespectful slogans. The Indomitable Joanne Merryweather had managed to get her message absorbed by the inner souls of each and every Briton. All now met in the middle, yet nobody lost any ground.

Five days before the scheduled event, gigantic portraits of the dynamic Miss Merryweather appeared on every billboard in the Blackpool area, winning the universal approval of all residents and visitors. And every pole flew a flag of her face, overprinted with the words: Unity through Federalist Independence.

Joanne Merryweather’s speech had been eagerly awaited by politicians on both sides of the house – male and female, youngs and old, and both front and back benchers. The media in all its forms dedicated hours to detailed anticipation of the speech’s content, mainly during radio and television programmes usually more well known for pig-headedness and bigotry.

Historically, and internationally, no speech had been more theoretically dissected, and all political commentators were claiming insider knowledge of its contents. The broadsheets congratulated Miss Merryweather on the speech’s energetic intellectualism and analytical capacity. The tabloids simply stated ‘Jo’s got balls’.

The Republican-Democratic Party Conference was soon in full swing. Blackpool was buzzing, but for Danny Beacon, Miss Merryweather wasn’t just a well-respected party leader with an uncanny ability to entice compromise. She was his life. A long-term Republican-Democrat, Danny had never before allowed himself feelings for a fellow party member before, let alone an MP of such high-standing.

As was his usual practice, Danny had purchased his Party Conference ticket five months earlier, and had also booked his room in the Royal Hotel, where the curtains were referred to as ‘drapes’ and the bed linen wasn’t only  changed daily, but was also hand-sewn organic Egyptian cotton with a thread count of 1200, and was topped off with a high quality duck-down duvet. He’d advance-purchased his train ticket, and had booked a week off work. His boss asked ‘Where you off to, Danny-lad? Canaries again?’ – and Danny had nodded absently. Although the country was buzzing with Merryweather mania, he was reluctant to share his interest with his workmates. Why should he? Every person in the country seemed to have something to say about Joanne Merryweather, but nobody knew her as he did.

Danny had sat next to her at the bar twenty years earlier when she was simply a local party member who was considering taking baby steps towards a political career. And Danny had provided a sympathetic ear for her semi-drunken ramblings. He had walked with her along the sea front, and had even rescued her from being hit by a late-night tram. She became the reason why he retained his party membership card, why he attended each year and why he told all his friends he took a yearly trip to the Mediterranean. Each year they’d meet up, chat and enjoy each other’s company. Always innocent, and always intense. Perhaps she’d been a little busier in recent years, but she always made time for him. He knew she loved him, and this year was to be ‘their year’.

Of course, the key note speech was a rip-roaring success. Danny had been there to congratulate her, but was just one face amongst the crowd of acolytes. She scanned the crowds, but failed to notice his face. He watched her stand on tiptoes and saw her talk, knowing her lips formed the words, ‘Danny, where are you?’ He watched her brows twitch. He saw her shoulders hunch and noticed how she scratched her scalp. A nervous twitch that nobody else would interpret as he would. He knew more clearly than he ever had before – she needed him, and him alone.

‘Joanne, Joanne,’ he called, his voice lost in the melee of glib shouted questions and sycophancy.

That night was to be their first night together, and a fitting celebration of her untouchable victory against all she despised. And only Danny knew that night was to mark the end of her political career. He’d purchased tickets – one way to Tasmania. He’d found them a home and had arranged their marriage licence.

It therefore came as a shock when Danny found himself escorted roughly from the conference centre by a battalion of eight soldiers. He was forced to the ground in the delivery area of the converence centre, and whined at the large man who sat on his back. As the man brutally rummaged in Danny’s pockets, Danny moaned.

‘Mr Danny Beacon?’ came the man on top’s voice. ‘We know all about the tickets and the marriage licence. Oh yes, Danny. Miss Merryweather told us all about your stalking, your letters and your internet messages. Now perhaps you could tell us who you really are.’

The flattened man shivered. ‘Never,’ he whispered. ‘Long live the revolution.’

And the pistol held to the back of his skull was activated. The danger of Danny was no more.

‘Hot and Cold’ – short story

Perfection. That’s what she was, and I was sure that today would work out just the way I’d planned.

I first saw her on the castle walls and our eyes met, just for a second.  I yearned to catch up and not to lose sight, but her tour party was turning the corner, and mine was five minutes behind and still being forced to listen to the John Major impersonator who masqueraded as a tour guide.  I knew the history of the King’s Tower as well as he did.  When you live in a tourist location and have a season pass, you tend to come every day, just for somewhere funky to eat your lunch. This is my place, and I knew she’d come today.

But I stayed with my group of misfits for a little longer: the elderly and the bored, the kids who wanted to be on the beach, and the mums who wondered if incorporating education into their annual vacation was necessarily a good idea.  As if to answer, a boy of about six elbowed his mother in the thigh. She turned to glare as he moaned ‘This is boring’ at the top of his little voice. Donald, the tour guide pretended not to hear, but I knew how often such things happened, especially to Donald.

It didn’t matter. She was the one, and today was the day. My shoulders hunched as the tour guide droned on about the monks who had built the castle’s brewery and had supported their order with the proceeds. I followed each word, and mouthed them along with him.

I adjusted the hoody around my face, then smoothed it down around my waist. It was of a snorkel style that wasn’t at all appropriate for a summertime holiday destination, but it suited my needs.

Pushing a black curl behind my ear I tried to disregard the heat emanating from beneath the matching fleecy black fabric of my hoodie. It was too bad that the day of her visit was also the warmest day of this Welsh summer, but I had coped with worse in my life, and for worse reason. 

Walking like a drunken crab, I followed the tour party, while poking my head round each gate and turret and wall to catch a glimpse of the girl and ensure I didn’t lose her.  I thought I’d been mistaken and she’d gone already, but no. We arrived at the second west-facing tower as the girl’s tour party was just leaving. She lingered, just a little, at the rear, and I took advantage of the crowds to change my tour group allegiance. It went without a hitch.

There were only two more stops to go on the tour. We’d just been to the north tower with views over the kelp-covered rocks of the defended coastline, and our group were passing in and out of the gatehouse dungeon, before being directed to the inevitable gift shop and tea shop. Never a café.  Always a tea shop.  I moved closer to the young lady, and we stood alongside each other at the entrance to the dungeon. I nudged her Indian-cotton-clad arm with intention.

She turned, expectant, and smiled at the face inside my hood.

‘You’re Tarim.’ More a statement than a question.

‘Marta,’ I said. ‘Shall we do it?’

She nodded with vigour. ‘I’ve built myself up to this for weeks and can’t change my mind now. It’s the right time.’

The tour party had already begun to move off, and I could see my original party leaving the north tower to walk over to join us at the dungeon. We didn’t have long but I was ready. My camera was ready. Marta was also ready.  Allowing the remainder of the earlier party to leave ahead of us, I stood with my back against the now-closed heavy wood door and sighed deeply. We’d be lucky if we got a couple of minutes. As agreed, Marta moved to the far end of the underground room – the end with the wonderful sunlit rays emerging through the skylights – and speedily arranged herself on the straw-covered stone slabs. She placed the chains next to her arms and legs.  With just a little Photoshopping, I could make it look just as it should.  I took photograph after photograph, as I walked over to Marta and gently pushed up her skirt.

‘Tasteful, Tarim,’ she said, posing as I clicked.

Suddenly, the dungeon’s door creaked open and a Scottish couple giggled about finding us alone in there.

Marta raised herself from the straw bed, brushed down her skirt, and in a calm, unflustered voice announced to the couple ‘Sex pics. For an art magazine. We pose somewhere different every day. You should try it’. She winked, and the bearded, anoraked man watched with clear admiration as she left the dungeon. ‘Lucky sod’ he said to me as I followed Marta out. For that he earned a slap on the head from his lady.

But I was not lucky. Things weren’t as Marta had said.

In 1998, precisely twenty years earlier, the body of Marta’s mother had been discovered in the dungeon, bloodied and beaten. Marta had been five then, and a little girl, but now, as a young woman, she was the spitting image of her lost parent. We’d met on a cold crime web forum and it didn’t take long before we got talking properly. Eventually I persuaded her to meet me, and she agreed to come to the castle on this special day. She’d wear her mother’s clothes, and style her hair just as her mother had. I’d dress myself in a black hoody because, on the murder day, there had been a man creeping about in one just the same.

The murder had quickly sunk to the realms of forgotten and unsolved, and not even into infamy – as not once had any of the tour guides mentioned the fate of Marta’s mother or responded to questions asked by the tour parties. A woman’s death had been forgotten and a little girl was forced to live her life without her mother. No cold case team had ever been assigned to discovering more. So it was down to us. The pair of us would make things right.

For the first time in years, I was putting my journalistic skills to good use. My article was written and scheduled for publishing the following day, and the reconstruction photos would be a perfect accompaniment to the headline: ‘Who Can Solve This Twenty Year Old Mystery?’

Marta and I walked together towards the exit, flushed with excitement at our recent activity and with anticipation of tomorrow’s headline . ‘Fancy joining me for tea and a scone?’ I asked. ‘A tribute to your mum?’ She nodded with enthusiasm. ‘I’ll pay,’ she said.

Mother Gracie

‘You have to eat your chucky egg everyday, don’t you, Raq?’ said Mother Gracie, affectionately gesturing with her one good eye towards her aged schnauzer. With opaque and rheumy eyes, Raq cocked his ears in the direction of the woman who had been an old crone even thirteen years ago when she first took him in. She was virtually blind herself nowadays, so they made a fine, though barely functional couple.

Mother Gracie shuffled over to her stove. Raq remained where he was. Long gone were the days when he followed at her skirt hems if she moved more than a few footsteps from her craggy watchdog.

On the stove were placed an eclectic mix of pots large and small. The biggest, Mother Gracie’s cauldron, was exuding a stench that even she herself disliked. But there was rhyme and reason behind the cauldron’s rancid contents. Frozen tripe, boiled with barley and vegetable peelings was to be Raq’s evening meal.

‘Chucky egg, then, little chicken?’ said Mother Gracie, and Raq the dog reluctantly rose from his ragged bed. Every morning for the last thirteen years, this old lady would use her precious firewood to fuel the stove and make Raq a poached egg, then rest it for a little, allowing it to harden as it cooled. She’d then present it to him on an ancient, cracked saucer, and Raq would devour it in one mouthful. This morning was different in only one respect. The new location.

As Raq chewed on his egg, the old crone refreshed the water dish he always sought straight after his breakfast. Mother Gracie replaced the lump of rock sulphur in his water and laid the bowl on the floor in front of him. She wet her fingers in the cool water and, encouraging him to lick the drops she led his bearded face to the bowl and the scraggy, grey dog lapped up the cool, grey liquid.

Mother Gracie turned off the heat to the back burner. Even though she had all mod cons in her brand new flat and all the bills were prepaid, she intended to make no real changes to her habits, and to live as if she was in her old house where every stick of wood had to be collected, brought home, dried and stored for fuel.

The front right burner of her new electric stove fired up and heated the contents of the pans above. The brown Pyrex pan burbled and bubbled with its watery contents and the sticks, leaves and dried seeds that would be stewed then infused for another 24 hours. Mother Gracie had made this particular concoction every two days for the last fifty-seven years, and moving to her new sheltered accommodation certainly wasn’t going to stop her from continuing her tradition.

Raq shuddered as he stumbled back to bed and almost collapsed into his ragpile, then let out a long and deep sigh. ‘You’re not sure of it here, are you boy?’ Mother Gracie said. ‘We’ll get used to it.’ Mother Gracie echoed her dog’s sigh and began the laborious process of removing some of the twigs and leaves from the Pyrex pan with a slotted spoon, while ensuring that those ingredients which required a longer steeping time remained in the pan. That way Mother Gracie could get her money, time and effort’s worth from them.

Dried turmeric root, acrid and yellow would heal her pain and reduce her swollen joints as well as keeping both memory and heart strong. There was no sign of the dreaded dementia as yet, but it didn’t do any harm to do a little bit of preventative therapy. Sage, both the leaves and the woody twigs, were included to assist in the expulsion of phlegm and to ease her regular coughing fits.

And cinnamon went in too, along with ginseng, lemon, garlic, gingko biloba. All would be strained and the resultant liquid would be mixed with equal parts of apple cider vinegar. The potent mixture had kept Mother Gracie alive to this wonderful old age, and the fumes from that same potent mixture had seeped into the steam-filled air of the tiny flat.

Mother Gracie sat on her easy chair with a sigh, and prepared for her morning snooze. Had she forgotten to turn off the heat under the hobs? She had not. Had she forgotten to eat her own breakfast? She had not. Had she said her final goodbye to Raq the dog? She had not. She had not realised it would be necessary. But it was. The old dog passed away, happy, content, warm and dry in a small flat with all modern conveniences, and with a tummy full of chucky egg and sulphur-water. His tripe and barley mix would not be eaten.

When she woke, Mother Gracie cried and wished for the thousandth time that she’d been able to get him to drink her own eternal life formula. Just the once.