Wednesday, June 24, 2020

THE OTHER THINGS

Pitt sat with an old newsreel on. She had always wondered what Kennedy meant by the other things. Well go to the moon and do the other things he'd said.

It was a strange turn of phrase. Vague yet prescient. It bothered her that it was so endearingly imprecise.

Anyway, it was 2035 now and Kennedy and the first moon shot were long long gone. The famous astronauts from '69 had been dead for years. Space was in the hands of billionaires now. Men of iron and money. She should know. She was Lieutenant Pitt of the Private Satellite Corp, Pisco, owned by one.

Yep. The moguls had got us all paying through our teeth. As soon as you breathed you had to pay. They owned the air already. They were big shots in space too. The big Four: Epsilon, Big River, Hail and The Forty Thieves.

They were rivals in everything. They owned the world, its air, its land, its seas and its peoples. They had divided it into four parts and ruled everything in them. They were the Kings of omnipotence. Governments were mere vassals. Sub-contractors baying for crumbs at the table of Lords.

But the Big Four had never set foot on the Moon. The space tycoons were too busy netting the Earth. Its atmosphere, the blue arena of their competing games. Everyone was hooked on their games. You had to be. It was required. OK, you got free global internet as long as you played their games and they weren't free. In fact they cost you everything you ever had or will have.

We were all slaves to the whims of the Four. Grist. Fodder. A funeral of mites.

All this monopoly, this industrial greed had heated our world. It was roasting like a spud and the seas were rising fast. But fresh water was scarce. There was a worldwide drought. The quartet had sucked us dry. The Earth was really dying.

Water was the new frontier. Fresh water. We all needed it. Thirst, the universal mint. We would all pay for it. And space was the place to get it.

The Moon to be exact. Ice had been found in its vast poles and the plan was to thaw it and ship it back. The Big Four raced like maniacs to be the first. To reach the moon and rule its waves. Whoever pushed their flag in those giant icecaps would be the one set the price, the one who reaped the rewards and the be one who ruled the moon.

Pitt was sick to the stomach. Pisco was part of Big River and Big River had big plans for our lunar neighbour.

"Dammit. Can't believe I'm being sent up there. We've screwed up the Earth so lets just screw the moon why don't we!" she fumed.

But it was no use. Big River had been secretly shipping substrate up to the surface for years. It wanted to farm the regolith and sow the seeds of clouds. Money would pour from the sky and collect in vast silver lakes of revenue making them top dog in the Big Four.

You can't keep a good idea secret for ling though, especially when grown on greed. The Forty Thieves had cottoned on to Big River almost immediately. In fact all of its three rivals had. Their spies were everywhere. Like a mist of gnats swarming in the desert.

All four had fed the moon. All four had sent up soil packed with aminos and all four had heated the ice. The baby bio, as it was called, had begun, stirring the craters like giant cauldrons filling with water.

A date was set for Big River's rocket. A whole colony would go to tend the water. Pitt's Pisco were chosen to escort.

The launch went well and Moon River sailed towards the stars followed by Pitt's space jet Pisco.

It landed safely in the Ocean of Storms. Camp was established and a reconnaissance team was dispatched in a rover bus to the baby bio crater.

Pitt's Pisco swooped by and all was AOK. She gave the bus pilot the thumbs up.

The vast crater had started. Started to terra-form. Plants were everywhere creating a huge bubble of mist like a gassy dome. The reccies got out and explored the ground. It was soft and mossy. Ferns soared into the sky and horsetails rose like plumes. Dew sparkled in the daylight and it looked to the crew like a garden of Eden. Water pooled everywhere. Lakes of dividends. The Big River project had worked.

Suddenly the radio crackled.

"Mayday. Mayday. This is the Forty Thieves flagship. We have been attacked. Everyone's dead. Ship obliterated. Epsilon gone. Hail too. Big River, they're coming for you. Forget the water, get out!" The radio stopped.

Everyone at Baby Bio looked at each other confused and frightened.

"We must return to the ship!," instructed the rover leader.

Turning to leave, they all heard a terrible smashing and trampling of vegetation as if something large was coming. It was. They were.

Huge glistening worm-like creatures broke through the forest and stared at the crew. Disgusting suckers shot out of where a mouth should be and retreated back in. They were writhing with hunger and quickly ran towards the astronauts.

The first one was slurped up into the massive sucker and the spaceman screamed as his skin was de-gloved from his agonised body, which was promptly ejected out and landed at the feet of the leader like damp washing.

"They suck off the skin!" He cringed. "Oh my God! They suck off our ski .."

The leader was swept up twenty feet into the air as a giant puckering beast hoovered him up. It only took seconds for his entire dermis to be peeled off like a plum and his red body to be exhaled onto the mossy ground still twitching and fully conscious.

His crew gawped at his damp scarlet muscles and his lipless mouth opening and closing. His discarded space suit followed swiftly and hit them in a shower of mucus and slime.

It wasn't long before they joined their leader and landed on his corpse with a loud sickening splat, jerking in their death-throes like a heap of hooked cod.

One got away and drove the rover like a mad man back to the ship. He shrieked when he saw the creatures following him in a long shambling line. He crashed into the rocket leg and sent a shudder up its structure towering one hundred feet in the new foggy air.

The Moon River crew felt the impact and peering through the portals were terrified to see a group of creatures in single file outside the ship like a queue of maggots. To their horror the biggest one at the head took the rover driver into its mouth!

With a nod from the monster the gathering beasts fingered the ship looking for a way in. The main bay doors buckled under the strain and the creatures slid inside.

Pitt and her crew watched in abject terror from their patrolling space jet. They had strafed a couple of the monsters with flybys but the Pisco wasn't weaponised. All they could do was watch as the pale giants crawled into Moon River and listen to the dreadful screaming and slurping on the comm.

"The other things!" she whispered.

"These are the other things Kennedy was on about! He was warning us! The early space race sent up all sorts of stuff besides people.....seeds, plants, sounds, people's ashes and ......"

Pitt trailed off.

"Tardigrades!" someone else said.

"They're giant tardigrades. I remember some crash landed decades ago. They've thrived on baby bio!"

"But now they want more. Our skins! They're carnivorous and they want to grow bigger!" finished Pitt.

Suddenly the enormous rocket fired its engines and flames bucketed from its nacelles.

"Oh my God! Someone's launching!" she yelled.

"Going back to .... Earth!"

Pitt stared at her crew. A vision of giant sucking tardigrades skinning everyone back home as they sat playing games hit them as one.

"You know what we must do."

It was agreed without speaking. Pisco jetted off at full speed and tailed after Moon River ascending out of the lunar mist.

Pitt and her crew saw massive eyes peering at them through the portals.

They were still watching those lidless eyes when they flew Pisco straight into the rocket's main thrusters.

Moon River exploded at once and everything in it was obliterated. The last of the colonists, Pitt and her crew and .... 

Thank God, the other things too!

Monday, June 22, 2020

BEYOND THE SHOALS

The blue lights blinked like coins in the sea. I could see them. On the high street near the bridge. An emergency but nothing to do with me.

I stuffed my hands in my pockets and walked away. It was a cold misty Winter's day in early November. The final breath of normality before the Christmas Season blurted out its neon-tinseled casino.

I sat in a cafe and drank hot coffee. The windows were steamed up and I felt like I was in a submersible diving to the bottom of my cup. People sat hunched over steaming drinks or full breakfasts. No-one was speaking. Everyone was busy with their own lives. Nothing to do with me though. Winter made the world selfish and harsh. No-one cared about each other. There was simply too much to do before the ice settled on your bones and Jack Frost took your chips away.

The street was half-empty. I looked around for someone I knew.

A young Mum and and her bawling daughter were bustling through the decaying precinct on their way to the old cinema. I followed them in. I'd been here as a kid many times years ago. I'd been mesmerised by the vast iridescent screen speckled with swashbuckling pirates and dangerous spies. I stared at it now and it seemed like a portal into another time, a fogged film covering haunted mouths trying to speak. I couldn't understand them anymore. I shuffled past the mother and child shovelling popcorn in the wide gobs and left.

Outside it was raining. It was that fine rain that seems to soak everything even wetter than normal rain. I put my coat collar up and wandered down the high street getting slowly drenched.

There was a queue at the butchers. Dewbursts. High Class. I never understood that. High Class Butchers. I used to say to my Wife that no-one wants a low class one so why even bother putting it!

"Still," she said "it was better than the awful shop-sign Family Butchers!" We laughed at her black humour, which she kept till the very end. It helped us through the darkest days of her illness, which no light could penetrate. I would sit by her bed and brush her hair gently singing Smiths songs. She loved The Smiths. Always had since college. She said there really was light that never went out somewhere in the world. Morrissey and her were both wrong.

I gazed through the shop window. It was damp on the inside. Condensation ran down it like tears and mixed with the blood of the kidneys at the bottom of the inclined window display. A fly gulped it like a cocktail and I felt sick. "High Class my arse!" I tutted and meandered away.

In the park I saw kids running round a lake. They were feeding the fish. 

I shambled over and gawped at the maelstrom the large goldfish were making whilst the children threw in bread excitedly. The surface of the lake was boiling and I stooped down fascinated. The fish were really big and shining like bullion. I peered closer when one of my eyes fell out straight into the mouth of one of the fish. For a moment my eyeball stared at me before it was swallowed whole, plup! and sailed beyond the shoals.

I was distraught and covered my empty eye socket with my hand. The children didn't seem to notice so I loped away clutching my face. I realised my hand felt lighter and to my horror I saw that several fingers had dropped off. I could see them, pink and sausage-like, in the grass near the lake edge.

Frantic I ran to the town centre but I fell before I got there. When I looked down one of my feet had come away, trapped in the iron gutter, near the butchers of all places. A choice cut I joked without wanting to as I dropped to my knees. It was still drizzling a fine mist like the vapona fly spray I used at home.

Home. God, I need to get home. I'd better get back in the car and make my way.

The blue flashing lights were still spinning round, daubing the shops in aquamarine. Maybe they would never go out.

I crawled to where my car was and as I went my other foot tore off near the shoe shop. It'll only need one I laughed without wishing to.

Soaked to the skin I craned my neck to admire the whirling blue lamps of the police cars. I wanted to speak but my teeth clattered to the pavement like dice. I mouthed something to the officer like a carp in the lake and wrestled my body onto the front seat of the car.

For some strange reason the whole front end was crushed in and I struggled to jam myself behind the steering wheel, which was jutting upwards like a TV aerial. I wondered if there was anything good on the telly.

Sat behind the crumpled dash plastered with blood and glass I stared at the wall which my car was folded up against.

Strange that. The things people do. I better get home now. My wife will be waiting for me. I hope she's left a light on.

I fingered the wheel but suddenly felt terribly tired. I may have lost my teeth but best not lose any sleep I chuckled without wanting to.

With the turquoise strobes caressing my face I stretched my gums in a huge red yawn and slowly closed my remaining eye.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

THE GLASS JAR

My Dad was a traveller. 

He travelled around and sold stuff door to door. Hoover parts and shit like that stuffed in a suitcase.

He was also a complete bastard.

After a bad day he'd make sure Mum and me had a bad evening, usually involving one of the hoover parts from his piss-poor case.



It was worse when his customers couldn't pay. Times were hard and people coughed up grudgingly.

Some had cash, some sweaty cheques and some good old fashioned barter.

Barter was Dad's bane and he ended up bringing home more shit than he'd set off with.

This bartering usually lead to an argument with Mum and her and me getting a beating.

"I go out to graft all day long and all I get from you two is lip!" he'd shout whilst belting us both on the kitchen floor.

One day he was given a "weird bit of crap" as he called it and flung it disgustedly into the swing-bin.

"Fuckin' shite!" he bellowed.

For some reason he looked back over his shoulder as he walked away. Something about that crap he'd just chucked had bothered him.

Mum and me were bracing ourselves for a leathering but it never came, which was unusual in itself. The old bastard must be ill or .... it's something else.

When he was settled in his favourite armchair like a big fat toad watching telly I sneaked over to the bin and reached in for the object he'd thrown away.

My hand clasped around cold glass and I pulled it out quietly. It wasn't just cold glass, it was freezing and I very nearly dropped the damn thing.

I took it gingerly to my room and got under the bed-covers. I didn't want Dad to find me with it.

I grabbed my bedside torch and looked at what I was holding.

It was a glass pickling jar with something rammed in it. I turned the jar round. It had the word Kilner on the glass.

I noticed bulges, stitching and furry mounds inside.

And then I saw it, a face.

It was the face of a teddy bear!

A teddy had been crammed into a pickling jar. Why on earth would anyone do that I wondered!

I stared at the bear's face and realised that it had a sort of grimace. This could have been because it was all scrunched-up but I got the feeling it wasn't. It looked mean.

"You're one fuckin' grim teddy aren't you mate!" I whispered in the torchlight.

For some reason I was loathe to take the bear out of its jar. Something niggled me about it. Maybe that was what had bothered my Dad when he looked back at the bin. A niggling feeling about this freezing jar.

But if it bothered the old bastard then it had to be good, so I put my fears aside and unscrewed the tin lid.

I could have sworn I heard a grunt as the lid slid out of my hand.

"Must have been stiffer than I thought that lid," I consoled myself.

Resting the torch on a pillow I'd dragged in I reached into the jar with my free hand. I gripped the thing. It felt cold as hell but holding on tight I started to pull it out.

Plup! It popped out like a whelk!

It felt like a frog fresh from a ditch, slimy and wet. Maybe they'd really pickled the fucker. I held it closer and yes, vinegar. Yuk! Some sad twat had actually pickled this teddy!

As I was debating this puzzle the scrunchiness of the bear started to smoothen and it began to get ... bigger!

I jumped and yelled. Fortunately my mouth was muffled by the blankets but unfortunately the torch rolled out and fell onto the wooden floor.

Bang!

"Stop making a racket up there and get to bed you little wastrel!" my Dad screamed.

I heard Mum say he's only a boy and I heard the familiar slap like a fleshy full stop ring out.

"Don't fuckin argue with me!" Warned Dad. No doubt his hand raised for a little more punctuation.

"Bollocks!" I muttered. I'd got Mum hit. Again! I reached for the offending torch and shook it.

"You twat torch!"

I shone its beam at the bear. During the 'interval' the teddy had doubled in size! It was just finishing unfolding as I looked. God damn! it seemed as if it was stretching after a long sleep!

I shivered! This was some right bastard monkey business as Dad would say. Well, this was more like bear business and I was bricking myself under that blanket I don't mind admitting.

The ted stared at me with its dark grave-yard eyes. It reeked of Sarsons Malt but the cold was fading. It was warming up under my cover.

"I reckon I'm going to keep you bear. You'll need a name though. I can't just call you bear."

I shone the light onto the pickling jar and noticed again the brand.

"Thats it! Kilner. Kilner the pickled teddy!"

I was quite chuffed with myself and almost sensed the same in that plush minger facing me.

"Just don't let Dad find you or he'll have my balls on a plate!"

We curled up like badgers in our den and fell fast asleep the whole night through. I dreamed of wide open spaces where we dined on pickled onions.

The next day I rushed home from school to talk to Kilner my new buddy. He always listened and never gave me any grief.

Dad was home early and had sent Mum for fish and chips. She looked upset. I could see the wetness under puffy eyes.

"Did you remember the fuckin' bottle of vinegar like I asked you you fuckin' tramp?" Dad roared from the head of the table, knife and fork erect in his fists like a demented butcher.

Mum placed the brown bottle on the table next to the Daddy's sauce.

"Good bastard job too or I'd ...."

She crept away like a shrew in the grass, though she managed a thin smile as I passed her to sit down for tea. I smiled back and knew she couldn't survive much more of this.

Clearly Dad had had a really "shit" day.

We ate in silence and at the end I snook a chip butty upstairs for midnight munchies.

As I closed my door I heard Dad mutter, "this fuckin family will be the death of me. Workin' every hour God sends and what does he send me. You fuckin' two. I'm going to have to sort you out once and for all!"

I'd heard Dad's threats before, usually said to his mirror shaving. But this was different. A bad omen. He sounded serious.

I got under the covers and stroked Kilner my new best pal. It seemed to purr but I'm sure I just imagined it. I was already hungry again and bit into my chip sarny. Kilner eyed me up enviously, or so I thought, smiling.

"So what does a jar ted like you eat anyways Kiln?" I asked, half expecting the toy to say pickled onions and pie! I chuckled but my merriment was cut short by a shout at the foot of the stairs.

"You little streak of piss! Have you been using my vinegar! You've left the cap off! What have I told you about leaving the lids off my food. I work for that food. Not you or your fuckin' slut mother. Meeeeee!" Dad howled like a rabid wolf.

"But he's only a b..." Mum squeaked.

I heard the thump from under my covers and dropped my sandwich. The shrew was taking a real beating and she fell silent except for faint whimpers of pain as Dad's fists pummelled her like dough.

He climbed up the stairs in three strides ....

.... and smashed open my door.

"Look what you made me do you little fucker! Your Mum's all upset because of you and your lazy fuckin' ways!"

Dad strode in and ripped my cover away.

He saw the chip butty all over my sheet and then he saw the jar and Kilner. His eyes blazed.

"What the fuck! You unruly scrote. You've hidden food up here. Food I pay for. Look at the bed. Looook!" Dad bellowed as he rubbed my face in the fries, tomato sauce and buttered bread. I came up looking like a car crash victim.

"And what's this?" He yelled as he picked up the jar, "I threw this in the bin!"

He stepped back and hurled the glass jar at my head, where it clonked me with a sickening thrump! As a huge welt appeared on my forehead the last thing I recall was Dad taking off his studded belt and blurting:

"A fuckin' tip rat! That's what you are. Well, if you want to live like a rat then I'll treat you like one!".

I'd more or less passed out as the first stud hit my cheek but I could have sworn I also heard another voice in the room.

It growled "Don't!".

Hours later, in fact the following day, I opened my eyes and felt the tender lump spanning my brow. I felt groggy and thankful I wasn't dead. I thought of Mum and staggered out of bed on shaky red-lashed legs.

What I saw in front of me froze me to the bone and I screamed like I'd never screamed before.

Kilner was eating my Dad!

At least I thought it was Dad. The bear's woolly chops were munching on the very last of his fingers. I recognised the cheapo ring someone had palmed him off with. There was thick blood all over Kilner's paws and he sucked the finger like a chicken bone.

His furry belly was completely distended and I knew why.

It was then I heard Mum. She was laughing like a lunatic. A trail of blood running along the floor lead under my bed covers. I peeled them away and saw what Mum was holding. It was lit up by my torch.

The glass jar.

Something had been stuffed into it!

I peered in and saw it was ....... Dad's head!

His face was all scrunched-up like a little bloody pillow. 

I began to laugh loudly as well and when Kilner hobbled up and poured Dad's precious vinegar over his squashed head we all howled uncontrollably and rolled around the bed happier than we'd ever ever been.

Me, Mum, Kilner and Dad's jarred head.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

BROUGHT UP BY SPIDERS

When I was a newborn I fell into a well.

I may have been dropped. I'm unsure. I was barely out of the womb.

I fell many hundreds of feet into the pitch dark of night and cried my lungs to rags.

At the bottom my descent was suddenly softened by gentle sheets of thread.

A papoose of webbing cradled me and I lay still in the cushion at the base of the world.

I stopped crying and cooed as rustling began in the thick of the blackness.

A large shadow stepped forward, tentatively, and then another.

The shadows trotted towards me across the threads and stared with lots of bulging eyes.

I gurgled.

The walking shadows nibbled the vernix from my body. They lapped at its cheesy taste.

Then they spun a blanket of silk that draped my little form and made me warm. 

I cooed.

The biggest shadow came closer and felt my face with something soft and furry.

It palped my cheek and forehead and slowly drew an invisible line around my skull, tapping my thin fontanelle.

I felt drool drip onto my mouth and I instinctively drank.

It was good and I puckered my mouth wanting more.

The big shadow lowered her maxilla and I suckled. The thing stiffened, then relaxed.

I could hear the feeder's book lungs slapping as I gorged my eager stomach with fluid.

When I was full the shadow rose and I smiled into the darkness warm and contented. 

My wardens both trilled, touched tarsi and padded away into the night gently clicking.

I slept soundly in their web and when I awoke they were both there like attentive maids.

Feeling the tender maxilla once more I suckled on something thicker than the last. A gloopier, more nourishing liquid with lumps. I gobbled it up from both shadows this time.

When their sucking stomachs ceased pumping I lowered my head and fell back onto the gossamer.

Day after day they fed me twice and I was growing.

Occasionally they re-wrapped me in a fresh cocoon as ice bloomed on the darkness around me and I felt cold flakes touch my face.

Every now and then the biggest shadow once more traced a line across my skull and morsed the tightening fontanelle, my brain twitching just below.

Every now and then I was pricked very gently and sensed something hot flow into my arm. It hurt the first time but after many many jabs I enjoyed its warm venomous tingle.

Several years passed and I had grown too big for the shadow web. My guardians, who had both tended me with care and affection, stared at my glistening eyes, their nightly coat of film intact since dawn. They cocked their heads and I sensed some agreement had been reluctantly reached.

Snipping away the bedding my parents positioned themselves beneath me and they climbed onto the darkness.

Piggybacked I rose with them as they ascended the night until eventually a circle was cut out of the dark.

They clambered on until they reached this circle. It was a cold pool of brightness that stung my pupils terribly.

My parents hauled me into it and I lay on the edge of something hard, my head still facing them in the safety of the black well. 

They cooed and clicked and stroked my face lovingly and I knew that something was about to change. I felt my book lungs empty and my throat tighten as tears sprang from my string of eyes. 

I caressed them both and gently, steadily they pushed me over the hard rim into the bright stuff.

I landed on my feet and looked up at the round wall from which I'd fallen. I scrambled to get back in but lacked the skill to climb the vertical stone.

I scoped all around me, my face wet with uncontrollable sadness and I was sure I heard my parents tapping in the darkness as they climbed home.

I remembered my mother tracing a line around my skull and rubbing my closing fontanelle and I felt my brain tighten. She was telling me to use it in this strange bright plain.

In the distance I saw a tumble of buildings and sensed food and warmth. I heard a baby crying.

Excited, my ring of legs quickly carried me there.

KNOCKOFF

I always had a feeling that I was a fake, a bootleg.

I first heard of it when my parents had me checked over for weak joints.

"He's got weak joints I'm afraid," said our GP.

"He's always been a fragile boy," explained my mother.

"He's not fragile. He's poorly made. Johnny lacks articulation. He's cheap," replied the doctor, "Give him vitamins every day and fish oil."

My mother bought 6lbs of fresh cod liver at the fish market as I stood there staring at a jar of real fish eyes blinking back at me.

My Dad ground those livers with his bare hands and wiped his face, smearing the stuff allover it. He ground his teeth and flexed his massive biceps as the offal perished in his grip. He was more like two men than one. I was half a boy.

They ladled the liver oil down my throat as my weak arms flailed like cooked cotton.

"Uuuurgh" I cried with non-patented lungs and filled up with fish juice like a small jug.

"Now you can run around and be a stallion like me Johnny" my Dad roared pounding his bare chest with his tattooed fists.

My Mum smiled as I got up stiffly off the kitchen table and flopped to the slippery lino.

"Black pudding for tea. Get some blood in you boy," she smiled dropping thick puds in boiling water. They looked like nooses being sterilized.

I ate the puddings awkwardly with a knife and fork in my rigid hands. I sat at the kitchen table. My Dad shook a storm of salt and pepper over me.

"Put hairs on your chest that will!" He declared rifling his fingers through his own.

"I don't have any hair Dad. I don't have any at all. It fell out after a few months remember." I whimpered.

He stared at me and shook his big head.

"What did we do wrong Son? Why are you so cheaply made?"

I dressed in second hand clothes and knotty woolen socks an Aunt had knitted. Nothing fitted right and my boots were too big. My toy rifle didn't work and my helmet was cracked, the chin strap dangling. It was shoddy, the whole damn thing. My unfinished face scrunched as I tried to cry but there just wasn't enough detail to do it.

I crawled into my plastic bag and lay flat with my clumsy rifle at my side. My Mum had put a medal in there to cheer me up but the pins were blunt and it wouldn't stick to my army jacket.

Staring out from the open cupboard I saw my parents phoning the agency. They wanted a real one they said. Not a knockoff. They wanted full articulation, flocked hair and proper hands. Oh and a facial scar. That was important. The neighbour's small man had a facial scar.

I smiled without lips and tried to imagine a scar. I slowly closed my already closed eyes and turned.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

THE NEIGHBOUR

WARNING: VERY EXPLICIT CONTENT!

We moved in the place, the winter of 1970. It'd been empty for years. We were gonna raise a family there. Our dream-house.

The wind was screaming like a wraith when we arrived. It rained forever. Very unusual weather.

When the freakish storm subsided one warmer evening I was stood on the stoop. The world was scrubbed clean, the dusty petrichor lingered in the air. It felt like a page had been ripped out of a diary.

I drank my bottle of Coors slowly taking in the new night. It was real quiet. Crime had dropped dramatically in town. In fact crime had fallen everywhere. Really weird.

Not far from us was another wooden place. It was the only neighbour for miles. Someone was sitting on the veranda in the shadows. Smoking. I could see the cigarette's red glow and the tip of a nose. It looked red too. There was a really huge plume of smoke rising up.

"Seen the neighbour Hon. He's a smoker. Looks OK though. Old."

"We'll take him some pumpkin pie tomorrow and say hi" My Missus was always using pie as a social handshake. It seemed to work.

The next day we knocked on the door. It seemed strangely charred round the handle. A crooked elderly male slowly opened up.

"Yes" he said with a sort of lethargic hiss.

"Hi there. We're your new neighbours. We brought you some pumpkin pie seein' as its Halloween tomorrow an' all".

"Thankyou" he hissed again, "Very kind. I'd ask you in only I'm just heating the place up for the day. It's so cold. I hate the damn cold."

He took the pie and closed the door and that was that.

Outside we noticed a rusty old beat-up but ultra-long Lincoln Continental. The Presidential no less! It was knee-high in weeds and the garish custom crimson paint job was flaking off everywhere like scabs.

"Jesus. A Lincoln Presidential! That's kinda ... "

I didn't get to finish as my wife tripped over something.

"A goddam whip! I could have sworn it wrapped round my ankle ... on purpose!"

We inspected the thing and besides being made of long tanned hide it also had a very nasty barb on its tip. Like an arrowhead but rusted to hell.

The next day I busied myself hollowing out pumpkins and the Missus was cooking up a colossal pan of gumbo in the kitchen. We'd invited a few old friends from back North for a Halloween party. A house warming too.

As I was throwing beers into a tub of cold water on the stoop I noticed our neighbour leaning against his Lincoln smoking again.

"Howdi!" I shouted, "fancy a beer?" I held up two bottles.

The old man nodded and shuffled over to our house and sat on the step. He was wearing a woollen hat and a huge overcoat. There were bulges in his hat, which were odd. His trousers were far too long and draped over his ancient boots. These seemed too big as well. Maybe he was sick and had lost weight. His skin was awful tight and sunburnt. He looked scalded. Maybe he'd worked outdoors all his life. He looked like a bum.

"Here ya go!"

I handed him a cold one and I could have sworn it sizzled on the wet glass when he got hold.

My Missus came out from the kitchen and joined us.

"Why Howdi!" she said as I gave her a beer too.

"You lived here long?" she asked the old man.

"Years. Years. I been here years. I think. I lost my way and here I stayed. I've been sick you see" he rasped, "sick and weary. A weary soul you might say. I lost all my faith and fell. Or rose, depending on your view. My friends deserted me. I'm alone now. No more important work. Job done it would seem. Idle and alone now. No flamin' fun. No sexxxx....." he droned and this babbling just faded away as if he were daydreaming.

The wife and I looked at each other. I nodded to her to say something.

"That sounds awfully sad. Tell you what. Why not come round tonight. Were having some guests over for a Halloween party!"

As if a switch had been flicked the old man lifted his sun-dried head and stared at us.

"A Halloween party you say! Is it Halloween today? I used to know it off by heart. Today. Well I'll be damned!" He seemed to chuckle at this and quickly stood.


He stared at my wife and asked in all seriousness, "Will you be there my dear?"

"Yes of course"she said.

"Fancy dress. You got anything to wear?" I asked.

"Fancy dress! Oh yes. I'm all sorted in that department thanks. What time shall I sweep by?" He asked with new enthusiasm.

"8".

He shuffled off but something had clearly put a spring in his step. Maybe it was the thought of a party. He can't have let his hair down in years!

Our friends arrived, after a long drive, suitably attired. They looked like the Monster Squad in their chevvy.


Dracula. Frankenstein. The Witch, his wife.

My wife was a She-Devil complete with pitch-fork and tail and I was Wolfman. Teeth. The lot.

The party started in earnest and we drank cold beers and danced to the Stones. The gumbo went down a storm and a few more beers too. We'd completely forgotten about our neighbour.

He arrived at 11pm. Jagger's line "pleased to meet you, don't you ....." was blurring out of the speakers as he knocked.

"Hello neighbours!" He beamed when I opened the door "I hope I'm not too late. I couldn't find my flamin' horns!"

The old man pointed to his head and I could see he'd come dressed as the devil: horns, red fork and barbed tail an' all. He looked good.

Something was different about him though. He seemed taller. Younger. More agile. His costume was the best devil outfit I'd ever seen. He looked like Old Nick himself!

"Come in, er, Satan!" I laughed.

"I thought you'd never ask!" he hissed. 


The old man wore a swirling red cape and blew into the room like a wind. He howled at the sight of Frankenstein.

"The Baron's bastard child! How adorable! One of my own!"

Dracula brought an even crazier response.

"Ah, the Count, you sly old leach, what mischief, what bloody mayhem! So close to my heart. I think I've got one somewhere!" 

He laughed loudly at his own unintelligible joke and our friends looked bemused by this stranger. Bewildered. Even a little frightened.

"This is our Neighbour everyone!" I declared to the party somewhat half-heartedly. Somehow I felt a little embarrassed.

"What you drinkin'?" my friend Dracula asked the old fella.

"A Bloody Mary my good Count, the bloodier the better eh!"

He really didn't seem like the same jittery old sod I'd met on our stoop earlier in the day. Its as if he'd been cured of whatever ailed him, as if he'd had an infusion!

It was really unnerving and I wondered whether my Missus would agree.

"Ah, devilled eggs! My favourite treat. After all, we should all take a bit of what we fancy" exclaimed the neighbour and popped several half-eggs between his thin red lips, "Exquisite! handy grenades of delicious life, eggs. Don't you think? But where's the cook? I wish to compliment her!"

He twirled his cape wide across the floor and burped loudly as he strode into the kitchen where my wife and her best friend were chatting. The air smelt suddenly goddam terrible and and I felt sick. I noticed with a little fear that my friend's looked sick too.

I clutched my stomach and thankfully staved off vomiting. I wandered towards the kitchen to get some water.

When I stood at the door the scene that confronted me froze my blood with horror and I dropped my beer onto the tile floor with a smash. I couldn't take it in and slapped my face.

Our old neighbour was penetrating my wife pneumatically from the rear with a huge engorged red dick, his hands behind his horned head as if modelling for some damn glamour magazine. Our friend, the Witch, was stark naked and licking the old man's scarlet ass, writhing in ecstasy like some fuckin' python on the floor.

"Ah, Come in Wolfie! Join the fun! I'm not greedy! For some devilish reason I'm just irresistible to women! I say though, your wife make's a damn fine She-Devil cock pocket! ha ha ha ha!" the old bastard laughed.

"What the fuck are ya doin' to my wife you cocksucking fuckin' hobo!" I screamed.

"Why, I'm fuckin' her senseless of course Wolfie! And my dear chap, I'll think you'll find that the Witch has been doin' all the cocksuckin!" he replied with mock indignation, his forked tail whipping round like a dog on heat.

It was then I noticed that his boots had been thrown off and his feet were ... weren't ..... oh, fuck me, they're not feet, they're hooves! Oh my dear God in fuckin' Heaven.

"Oh Him, he's a big party pooper. You didn't invite him too did you! I'm having so much fun again! Next I'll take Dracula, Frankie and then you my dear chap!" roared the neighbour.

I staggered out into the lounge blinking away tears and felt my knees giving way. My two friends came to help me.

"What's wrong?"

"He's fuckin' my wife and your's is fuckin' next!" I shrieked, my face contorting into a maniacal laugh.

"What? For God's sake who are you talking about?" they yelled.

"Our neighbour, the fuckin' Devil. He's really the fuckin' Devil!" I screamed at the top of my voice and knew something had snapped in my mind. I howled with laughter and fell to the carpet as my friends ran to the kitchen.

In my stupor I heard yelps, grunts, slaps, snorts, slits, moans, pain, agony and whimpers until all I heard was silence.

"Exquisite Wolfie my friend, quite delightful. I hope you don't mind, I helped myself to a big plate of ... well, everyone. I forked the whole lot! The best party I've ruined in years!" he sniggered.

As his crimson fork pierced my back with an audible pop, he cackled his thanks for being invited. 

"Great house warming!"

My final view was of the Devil himself walking into the street where goblins and imps were surging over each other's wet convulsing bodies in a sea of flames.

"I'm back!" our neighbour shouted.

"I'm back!"

Saturday, February 22, 2020

THE BOY BY THE HEADSTONE

I entered the graveyard as I always do through the iron gate at night. It soothes me to take the air of an evening after the fuss and clamour of the working day. As the village mortician I don't mind the dead and feel at home.

And so it was that I crossed the main pathway where the gaslight of the gravediggers' office still cast its pale clarity over the headstones. Sweep Teelins. Little Rath. Corporal Unbekant. They were all there. Once my work. Now my nocturnal acquaintances, dreaming in beds of earth and flowers.

My pipesmoke curled in the chill as I turned down the farthest path heading for the new field where the recent dead were buried. Some had yet to get headstones. Their serried ranks in perfect lines suggested orderly demises, but I knew only too well, having met them on the slab, that it was by accident, chance and grim tragedy that snatched most souls from this bustling world. And yet, despite this glum lottery and the sad inscriptions, the departed achieved a sort of stillness beyond the shrill whir of the living.

It was with such comforting philosophy that I rounded the field to the row's end. I hesitated. The night seemed suddenly colder here and I plumped my scarf as I felt the pinch of tomorrow's frost in the air. I reached the final grave and froze.

Crouched beside the headstone was a young boy staring at me in the darkness. Only the red embers of my tobacco afforded me any light and it was through this weak crimson glow that I saw the child or so I thought.

He was thin and naked and clutching the stone as if not wishing to let go. His drawn face seemed anguished and turned from side to side as if he were hiding from something I couldn't see.

I called out.

"Hey you there. Young boy. Don't be afraid. Are you hurt? What are you doing out here at night in the freezing cold?"

The boy stopped moving, stared in my direction with wide eyes, gasped and proceeded to do such a thing as I hope never to witness again in all my life. He stood bolt upright, sprang into air and jumped onto the grave, whereupon the child vanished into the earth entirely and was gone.

I stood still for a long while. My pipe burned out. I was gripped with abject fear from the craven scene I had just observed. My mind reeled. Had I really seen the boy enter the ground like some human mole? How was such a thing possible? And then there was a much less substantial explanation, one which I was unwilling to countenance until I was once more warming in front of my fire. Shivering, I decided that I would inspect the grave for any ingress but to do this the following day in the full light of the sun.

I took one more look at the startling plot and headed for home with a pace much brisker than when I came.


The next morning I revisited the grave. All was in order and I could see no entrance, hole or fissure through which the mysterious boy could have left. What I could see, however, was his name now I was in daylight. The inscription, albeit very short, read:

ALBERT MILK. 1880-1889. ROOKERY HOME FOR WAYWARD BOYS.

So this was the grave of Albert Milk, who at the tender age of 9 died far too young this very year. When he should have been climbing trees with his chums he was instead in the care of the Almighty Father. I felt so sad for Albert, plucked from this life so soon and felt guilty for my own rude health and longevity. I had certainly not worked on him in the mortuary.

But who was the poor boy by the graveside? His grieving brother? A fellow guest of the Rookery Home? I didn't know but my curiosity was deeply stirred. I took off my hat and paid my respects to the young Milk resting before me and pledged to afford him a few flowers at least, as nobody else had clearly not left any on this new burial.

Under the broadcast of a full moon I returned to the graveyard that night in the hope of seeing the strange child from the evening before. I had come bearing gifts, both for the living and the departed; a handful of fresh narcissi in a bottle of water out of respect for Albert and another corked bottle filled with milk from my own pitcher, a simple gesture toward the dead boy but also an offering of nourishment for his visitor. Next to this I lay a loaf of fresh bread.

Sitting at the bench at the pathside I pulled down my hat and bracing against the nocturnal chill I waited longer than the previous day. I may have fallen asleep a while but it was the sound of the milk bottle clinking against the headstone that woke me. I stared intently ar the grave in the hope of seeing who or what had knocked it over. And it was then that I saw him again.

The young mourner had returned. He was, as the night before, crouched and shivering at the edge of the sandstone slab, his eyes darting from side to side. The milk bottle lay flat now and its contents, I suspected, had seeped into the freshly turned soil as one small patch appeared to glisten. The boy paid no heed to me nor the bottle nor the bread. His dishevelled head flitted this way and that and suddenly he leapt up and hid against the stone facing me, cowering as if some malevolent force was at work. He was clutching a roughly-made wooden doll.

I stood and again called to him, beckoning with my gloved hand:

"Come here child, I mean you no harm. Let us leave here together for hot food and warmth nearby."

I stepped forward.

The village clock sounded eleven down the way and in that very instant the wooden doll was ripped from his hands and torn apart in mid-air. The boy screamed.

He himself was then pitched violently into the night and then jerked back, his spine arching as he flew against the gravestone. He fell upon it with a terrible and audible snap.

Clearly injured he sobbed and shielded his head but his arms were viciously twisted away and his face was flung from side to side, as if being struck by an unseen hand and I could hear the appalling slaps against his young cheeks vividly. His small figure slumped down upon the soil and lay still.

I was aghast with frozen fear as I witnessed this heinous assault played out before me. I knew in my soul it was not of this world, that it was a phantasm of the dead. I had watched the ghost of the boy in its final moments. And it was those agonised moments that filled me with both pity for this poor wretch's sorrowful plight but also anger towards his grievous assailant.

I closed my eyes and wept as the full act swept over me. I clutched my hat and shakily made the sign of the cross.

But it was not over.

The crumpled child now stood up and with no visible signs of injury walked slowly out of the graveyard in his bare feet, the wooden doll dangling from his hand.

Still in a state of shock and badly shaken I was unable to move. I watched the spirit walk away and my chance to follow the boy was missed. I avowed to return the following night at the same time. It was half past the hour of eleven.

The next night I pursued the figure as I had predicted at the same hour. I walked behind him as he slowly strode into the heart of the village. I realised that late-night revellers could not see him ad I did as they staggered straight through him.

The boy entered an iron gate and into the large grounds of an estate. The winter trees were black and ominous in the pitch night and I could hear the caws of sleepless rooks in the dark crowns. 


The boy stopped some way in and stared up at the twisted sign on a vast dilapidated building, the old manor house long renamed as The Rookery Home for Wayward Boys. He trembled and walked straight through the door and out of sight. I quickly gathered my senses and gently opened the large oak door and I too stepped in.

The hall was without any light, cavernous and utterly deserted and I recalled that I had read in the local Herald that the home had closed suddenly some weeks ago under suspicious circumstances, the koffers emptied of their charitable stipend left by the long dead Lord of the Manor. It felt hollow like the receding edge of all that was good.

The boy climbed the colossal staircase in the centre of the hall and looked tiny on the massive steps, his wooden doll hitting each riser. He turned on the landing and I followed him round the corner onto a long, straight and pictureless corridor bereft of all life. He halted and gazed at a cracked door upon which was pinned a ragged chit of paper. On it was the word Milk crossed through and the word Spilt scrawled below it roughly in crayon with an exclamation mark. He looked at me blankly and walked through the door.

I realised as he looked at me and as I stood in front of that crossed-out name that the ghost I had accompanied from the graveyard was without doubt that of Albert Milk and that some dreadful ill had befallen him in the room before me.

I shuddered and was afraid of what I would see if I opened the door and entered the boy's room. I was sure he had met his shocking end inside.

Bolstering what little courage I had I made my way in. My candle spluttered violently and I struggled to see in the flickering gloom. I heard the voice clearly though, the voice of an angry man:

"You little bastard Milk, you're a fuckin' wastrel, a tearaway and a runt. I'm going to teach you a lesson you won't forget!"

"Please Mister Clay , don't hurt me again! I didn't mean to ..."

Albert Milk didn't get to finish his plea as I heard the man grab the child and wrench his doll from his hand. I raised my candle and saw clearly how its wooden limbs clattered to the floor, pulled apart just as I had witnessed at the boys's grave and I was filled with fear for what cruelty was to come.

The man was muscular and broad, hardened by years of savagery towards his innocent wards hidden behind the respectable pillars of the Rookery. he picked up tiny Albert as if he were an empty sack and, as I knew he would, flung him outwards and then inwards against the wall. Albert groaned in abject torment as the brute proceeded to beat him about the head with his powerful fists, spraying blood across the room. The beast of a man was breathing heavily as his rage peaked with one final bone-crunching blow and Albert made no further sounds as he collapsed to the ground. The man crouched over his body panting, his chest heaving having expended all his limitless fury on a young boy. Gradually he rose and clearly realised he had brutally murdered Albert Milk and like a fading mist the scene dissipated once more into nothing.

I saw all of this. Felt all of this and I was utterly shaken to the core of my being. I was violently sick and staggered out of the room clasping my spitting candle and into the corridor. My outrage turned to apoplexy as I saw that each door along the corridor had a note pinned to it. On each was a name crossed out. The enormity of what I had seen and what I was facing dawned on me and I was overwhelmed. The brute had murdered them all.

It was at that moment that I became aware of the corridor filling with a presence or more precisely presences. I peered into the gloom and through the yellow glow of my candle I saw a hundred or so small figures hobbling out of the rooms and shuffling towards me, broken toys hanging from their swollen hands. They were the ghosts of all the children slaughtered in the home, all hideously battered and misshapen.

I fell back and sat as this entourage of misery slowly shambled over me. I could feel the children's collective pain as they vanished as they passed. The last child to arrive was Albert Milk. He faced me intently and whispered a single word before he too faded to nothing.

"Clay".

I left the Rookery with the name ringing in my ears, growing louder and louder all the time. The crowing of the rooks in the dreadful trees pecked at my mind as each seemed to cough up this name.

"Clay".

Shattered I reached my house. I slept a whole two days, a slumber from which I awoke and knew clearly what I had to do. There was only one way justice could be served correctly for those murdered boys.

Being the town's mortician I made enquiries with my police contacts as to the address of one Mister Clay of the Rookery. As no evidence of fraud at the Home could be proven he had dropped from their sights and was of no longer of interest.

This confirmed my worst fears that Clay would never face any charges for any crime, so I lied and told the Sergeant that he was someone I had to find urgently in order to inform them of a relative's untimely death. His address was given freely to me.

"1 Rag Street".

I planned my excursion for the day after. I knew this to be an unsavoury quarter as I had had mortuary business there. I would have to be on my guard. I arrived in Rag Street early the next morning by carriage and knocked on the door of number 1. I expected trouble from the brute Clay so I readied my revolver under my cape. My hearse carriage was instructed to return in 10 minutes.

"Yeah, What do you want!" he grunted.

"Hello Mr. Clay. I am the village mortician. I have some news about the estate of a dead acquaintance of yours. It seems you are due a substantial windfall. May I come in?"

"Money you say? Hmmm. I suppose you'd best do"

We stood facing each other in the squalid hallway and before he could say another word I shot him twice, once in each leg. He fell to the floor screaming. I placed a mortician's sack over his head and opened the door to the waiting hearse. With the aid of my driver Clay was bundled into the rear and we drove swiftly. To the Rookery Home for Wayward Boys.

The coach rattled along the roads and swept through the open gates into the rook's domain. They jostled and joked in the far-off tops as we sped towards the huge doors of the old mansion.

Clay moaned under his sack and blood had slicked in the footwell. The driver and I nearly slipped dragging his bulk into the house and up the stairs. We wrestled him into one of the rooms, removed the sack and left him there crippled. It was the room marked on the door as Milk. I sensed the teeming throng of dead boys waiting for us to leave.

As the driver and I ran from the house we heard Clay's terrible screams peeling through the night. They grew and grew in intensity and I could not imagine the fearful wrath he suffered at the hands of the children from the home.

When at last his awful howling stopped the rooks ascended from the trees and I suspect they left that craven place forever.

Several days later, after resting my tired form, I revisited the graveyard and sat at the bench where I had been that fateful night. I had once again brought gifts but this time only for the peaceful dead.

I knelt and removed any debris and gently placed four items by the headstone: a fresh bouquet of narcissi, a simple wooden doll, a loaf of bread and a small bottle of milk.

I sat down and waited. I waited for an hour in the cold but thankfully there was no sign of the ghostly apparition from a few nights ago. I rose to go and in the corner of my eye I imagined I saw a healthy little boy heartily guzzling the cream from the glass bottle but when I looked again nothing had been touched.

I smiled and left.

As I walked away I whispered:

"Goodnight and God bless Albert Milk, you can rest in peace now".

Sunday, December 1, 2019

A YORKIST RAIDING PARTY

The autumn descended gradually that year. As gently as a rusted sword sliding slowly into bare ground. 

The brown leaves of the English oaks were heavy with dew, the branches quivering in the morning light. The air was chilled but not cold, sunshine casting the forest in gold for the final swaggers of the calendar.


The soldier, Gwynplaine, was fatigued. He had been lumbering his pack over wide grasslands before he'd reached that wood. His sabre jostled as he trudged through the mud, its basket hilt banging against his belt.


A toad licked the leather of his boot.


He had been with his York company on a raiding party before losing his way.


The men had become weary of battle and sought shelter in one of the many grand houses garnishing the Pennine estates. Here they could eat, sleep, release their load and perhaps wash away the blackened blood of Lancaster's men. They would also commandeer new weapons and mint for the imminent fray at Towdon.


But somewhere, in the dense Bowland forest,  Gwynplaine had been detached from this band and never reached the house.


After staggering wildly through scrub and brush he knew he was hopelessly lost.


His best plan now was to carry straight on through the trees in the hope of finding a river or trail which he could follow out of the endless woods.


The morning turned to midday. Shortly he came upon a grassy pool. Appearing clear and fresh, weighed down by army pack and halberd strapped to his back, the soldier loosened his dented cuirass and dipped his neck tie into the silver water to wash his hands and nape. He placed his helmet on the grass and dipped his face and long hair into the pool, at once cooling and soothing his chafed skin. He drank deeply and savoured the cold water rushing over his parched lips as he slaked his immense thirst. His throat felt unnaturally dry, as dry as bonemeal, as he drank.


Crows hopped across the bank sods.


In the distant marches his company, now resigned to him missing, had settled on a large regal house to sack. 


The owner, Lord Pendule, terrified of what they might do to his wife, bade her escape via the ginnel to the marsh. But she refused and only when he implored her for the sake of their unborn child did she relent and sobbing, turned with coin, water, pot and food through the sequestered snicket just out of sight.


But it was too late. A scouting pikeman, keen for a kill, came upon her and pushed his iron-tipped lance deep into her belly. She looked down at the impossible timber and moaned louder and louder until the soldier let go. Lady Pendule fell to her knees clutching the unwanted thing impaling the new life within her; gouts of their blood reddening the ground. 


With this she fell, full-poled and crawled into the yard. She grasped for Pendule, out of reach and watched as her beloved, unaware of her plight, tried to buy their guaranteed safety. 


He placed a gold coin in each of the Yorkists' pockets. He nodded as he did so, in deference, but also affirming the hoped-for meaning of his gift.


When all were proffered the warriors also nodded and suddenly, cruelly turned on the Earl.


They hurled him to the ground and laughing, each soldier took his turn to pierce Pendule's soft body with halberd, pike and sabre. He screamed in agony and stared in disbelief at their barbarism.


His faithful chimp, Fairsnape, dressed as his knave, was appalled and attacked several of the soldiers, flinging them aside. 


It tried bravely to protect its master, ripping off the white rose flag from a crumpling Yorkist. But despite its size and strength Fairsnape was savagely skewered through the ribs by the company's bitter captain, Ravenscar.


Fairsnape's almost-human eyes sought his master's forgiveness as the soldiers hurled its bleeding bulk against a tree where it fell into the undergrowth. Horribly injured and dazed, it waited and slowly crawled away into the forest scrub leaving a thick trail of blood where a wet flag dragged along the ground.


Profoundly gored and crying, the Lord Pendule gasped, as he now saw his crassly wounded wife just visible by the wall. He stretched  out an arm from his mangled frame and forged his departing spirit into one final wailing testament of "I LOOOOOOVE YOOOOOU!", before a billhook impaled his breast and with a sickening gargle he was gone.


Lady Pendule stared incredulously at the butchery of her husband and close to insanity she screamed an oath so chilling and plain that all those bloody curs of York froze still.



"I swear by the life of my Lord and of our broken child, so terribly metalled in my gut, that you Yorkists shall be braddled and poured by a hand of this Lancashire house before Autumn has fell. This is my curse on you all".

Fairsnape heard the Lady's aching words and saw his master so cruelly hooked by these grievous wolves. It wept into its palms and felt nothing but hatred for the the white rose they all carried. 


"M-a-s-t-e-r ugh oo", choked Fairsnape and as it banged its head upon the ground it began to imagine the Lady's terrible vengeance they so richly deserved.


Secreting into the shadows of the pines, the monkey made for the cover of the deep forest and after some hours had found a safe and hidden thicket where it sobbed till its simian heart broke like a bird's skull. Heaven took it but it was only sleep and dreams made it shake, damned dreams of human kindness, untold agony, gold and bloody reckoning.


Beyond the chase Gwynplaine slept in the autumn sunshine, small flies boozing on the blood dried-up upon his halberd. He dreamt of running through the crouchbacks with his razor bill, dispatching them in fine arcs and severing their handiness in the field. His face was showered with roses red-thick with blood and as they dripped into his cracked mouth he awoke panting, his shirt soaked with sweat, steaming in the cold evening air.


Rooks screamed in the oak tops.


He set out once more and shambled through sharp briars and thorn, slicing wildly with his sword and shredding his hands. Spots of blood flecked his cuffs, ruff and face and he panted and puffed, becoming increasingly anguished in the clasp of the agonising tangle. A large rose-thorn slit his cheek clean open and his cuirass was drenched in red. He screamed and cursed the land that irked him. His white rose banner was stained red.


Gwynplaine shuffled into a distant clearing like the battle-torn, a blood-soaked sack of cassock and steel. He only half-noticed a man on all-fours before he fell down like a bag of guts. 


He awoke violently to the cold slap of skin across his scabbed face. He opened his crusty wet eyes to half-see the fogged outline of a man stood erect over him.


"Ugh!" the man demanded, its face hidden in slit sunlight.


The soldier gripped the hilt of his sabre and began to draw. Quicker of hand, the man swirled a palm down onto his head and clamped it tight.


"Be still Sir, be still, I mean you no ill", flustered Gwynplaine, sensing the jittery grip of this hairy knave.


"I am Gwynplaine, soldier. And to whom do I speak?"


"Ugh Ugh," grunted Fairsnape still grasping his head.


Gwynplaine squinting, held up his empty hands as a sign of goodwill.


The man standing in blinding sunlight very slowly released his scalp.


"May I rise Sir?"


Fairsnape stepped back and lowered his arms to the ground but all the while staring at the soldier.


Gwynplaine stood and saw for the first time that the man was really a large monkey, an animal-man he'd heard whispers of in the loud bars of Whitby docks.


He noticed fully how drenched the monkey was in blood. He also noticed the white rose flag hanging ragged from his pocket and immediately relaxed. This was a Yorkist ape-man. One of his own, no doubt the mascot of a raiding company and like himself lost.


Fairsnape grinned alarmingly and scratched his hairy chin. He trusted not any man other than his master now dead. He eyed however the reddened rose banner draped on his sack and knew this soldier to be of his Master's pack and therefore his own.


Fairsnape pursed his mouth and grinned again, this time with no malice.


The soldier sighed and moved to release his sack. He realised that he was starving and sought make food before he collapsed.


"Sit awhile Sir Ape" Gwynplaine gestured kindly. "I am to make broth, which I fear we both need after much toil".


Fairsnape scratched his nose.


Gwynnplaine lit a fire and readied a pot from his supplies.


"Yes my friend, we are greatly fatigued from bloody cuts and would welcome a hot cup I wager," reasoned the soldier.


Gwynplaine busied himself with fruits, herbs, garlic, roots and stream-water from nearby and nimbly stirred them together. The pot was set upon a small fire of brash. Smoke rose like a dead man's soul and soon spooned the steaming soup into wooden beakers.


He passed one to the monkey, who having positioned himself on a large boulder, sat and held it like the Host,  clasped with both of his leathery hands to warm them in the evening chill. Like the man he blew the broth and drank. The meal was completed with bread from the soldier.


Both full, Gwynplaine brought out a large flask of rum and offeted it to Fairsnape. The chimpanzee gulped heartily and burped.


The soldier did the same and they both laughed and drank some more.


When the flask was empty Fairsnape was quite drunk and lolling round the clearing, dragging his hands on the scrub and slapping the trees. 


Holding a hide of water Gwynplaine flicked some at Fairsnape laughing  loudly at his antics. Before long both were emptying beakers of water over each other causing both to roll around with laughter.


With one final cup each they guffawed and threw the last of water at one another. Their waistcoats were soaked.


Bracing each other and howling, it was then that Fairsnape noticed the soldier's hanging flag. It was drenched and as the blood washed off it, the red rose had turned white.


"Ugh, ugh, ugh," moaned the ape as it pointed at the flag.


Gwynplaine looked down and saw too. The ape grimaced with menace and beat his chest.


Gwynplaine drew his sword and held it out towards the chimp.


"Stay back Ape Man! So you don't like the white rose eh! You must be Lancastrian scum after all! And to think I had you down as Yorkshire like me!"


Thinking of the men who had slain his master and lady Fairsnape leapt. With flailing arms he pounced on the soldier, who despite gashing the ape's cheek, was knocked unconscious to the ground.


When he awoke Gwynplaine found himself pinned down by large rocks on his hands and feet. He was spreadeagled and naked.


Fairsnape took the soldier's sword and to Gwynplaine's horror, drew it slowly down his forehead and his face in a central line, along his throat and down his torso.


The soldier screamed and tried to free himself but the rocks were too great to budge. Blood welled from the slit along his body and panting heavily he begged the ape to stop.


Fairsnape, eyes burning with hatred, panted back and kneeling over the man's abdomen, pushed his fingers deep into the cut and into Gwynplaine's body.


The soldier shrieked in pain but to no avail. The ape tensed his great muscles and drew his hands apart. The soldier's ribcage began to split and gradually fan outwards. With one final bloody heave it fell open like a cupboard.


Gwynplaine bellowed in agony as Fairsnape took hold of his guts. Staring in disbelief he watched as his own innards were pulled out and slung next to him steaming. It was the last thing he ever saw as death took him away.


Fairsnape continued to gut the body, bone it and eventually de-glove it. Finally and bathed in blood, the ape held up a perfect suit of Gwynplaine's skin.


"Ugh, ugh," he nodded.


The suit of skin was placed flat on the ground. Fairsnape removed all his knave's clothing and made them into a neat pile behind a bush. He folded out the skin so that it was open. He then laid down with his back on top of the skin. He gently eased his arms into the skin arms and then his legs as if putting on a pair of trousers. Lastly, Fairsnape pulled the hair and head bag over his own head and peered through the eye holes that had once been Gwynplaine's.


It was a tight fit as the Yorkist had not been a large man but the ape was able to move around quite well in his new 'suit'. He dressed in Gwynplaine's bloodied clothes and for all intents and purposes looked like him.


Gathering the soldier's sack and weapons the ape-man strolled off through the forest grinning. A toad leapt off his sleeve as he did so. "Ribbit!"


Jackdaws coughed in the canopy above.


It was dark when Fairsnape reached the House of Pendule. Flaming braziers stood at either side of the gateway, where a Yorkist sentry sat on watch. The fires cast shadows all round him and he blew into hands to keep warm.


When he saw Fairsnape approach he stood and stared.


"Gwynplaine, where the fuck have you been? Jesus Lord, you look like you've seen some action. The Captain thought you'd deserted. Christ, he was mad!"


The ape-man patted the sentry on his back, grunted and shrugged and without pausing for breath grabbed his head and shoved it face down into one of the burning braziers. The sentry screamed but Fairsnape pushed harder until the whole head was alight. There was no more sound coming from it.


He continued down the path to the house flinging some smoking scalp into the long grass. He removed his bag and chattels and left them behind a pedestal.


He opened the great doors gently as he had always done and steeped in darkness crept silently into his home. He moaned at the loss he felt for his beloved master and his lady. He had never felt pain like it and only the thought of revenge could salve the wound.


Fairsnape headed for the kitchen downstairs. All the servants had either been slain or escaped. He re-kindled the large fire and hung a cauldron above it. Next he repaired to the counting house nearby and dragged in sack after sack of gold and silver, the master's tithe from his tenant farmers.


The ape laboured and toiled in the kitchen into the small hours as he tipped the coins into the cauldron. He kept the fire stocked and the flames danced under his supervision. He stirred the melting metal until it was molten and nodded his satisfaction.


"Ugh, ugh, ugh," he approved.


Like a wraith he carried the pot to the pulley, where he turned the huge iron handle. The cauldron rose slowly through the ceiling hatch beyond the kitchens, the halls and up into the barracks where the Yorkists were certainly resting. The pot stopped in the nook behind the fire and swung gently on its hook.


Fairsnape bound up the grand stairs taking four steps at a time and nearing the end gate-vaulted over the balustrades until he was facing the barracks door. He eased it open and slid in.


He grabbed the pot of molten gold and silver and swung it over the fire to re-heat it. Some of the sleeping men moaned and shifted in their plump Lancastrian beds. Fairsnape stopped and looked, twitching his nose. When quiet again he unhooked a huge ladle from the fire wall and once stirred his golden pool.


The barracks were rigged with a ceiling pulley for the cauldron for feeding hungry troops. Fairsnape pulled the large smoking pot into the centre of the room, where it was lowered and wavered just above the stone floor.


The ape took the ladle and drew a full measure of red-hot metal. He loped over to the first of the sleeping Yorkists, their foul Captain Ravenscar and gingerly opening his mouth, poured the ladle's contents in. The gold sizzled as it entered the soldier's mouth and throat and his eyes shot open in shock, but no scream could be heard as the metal instantly burnt away his vocal chords. As it traveled further and slid into his stomach, it evaporated the acids and formed a bowl of gold, where it cooled and set. Some leaked out at the bottom but just a drop. The Captain choked to death, twitching as the gold set and then, completely still, smoke rising from his open mouth, nose and eyes.


Fairsnape repeated this procedure ten more times until every soldier who had rid him of his master was repaid so. These were their wages, the wages of wrath. The eleven invaders lay dead, their hands transfixed into rigid claws.


The ape stood and stared at his handiwork, the large ladle in his thick hand, metal dripping from it like amber broth.


He ripped off Gwynplaine's skin and threw it in the fire. Next he brought a set of sharp knives from the kitchen and set about his final task.


He butchered the bodies in the way he had seen the cook carve pigs, slicing, boning, removing. Gradually he found the gold again. 


Taking the cooled metal from each of the Yorkists he stared in wonder at them. He lined the metal up on the large table. Eleven golden ladles with long handles and deep bowls, where the metal had settled.


They gleamed in the firelight.


Fairsnape polished the ladles with rags and hung one on the wall above each of the mangled bodies.


The ape scratched his face and trotted downstairs into the kitchen to look for some fruit. He wondered if he would ever need to make any more golden ladles for his house again.