The Game

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The game was over. Marc watched as Lou put the old lead soldiers back in the box, each one slotting neatly into a cushioned slot, neat as a row of – well, soldiers on parade, der – even in the box they seemed to stand to attention.

After three hours, it was finally over. The game played in earnest. For Marc, the unwelcome victory was no ceasefire, no end to hostilities. It was merely the provocation Lou had needed to shout “Best of Three!” and now Marc was doomed to relive the torment at least once more. Possibly twice, if the unthinkable happened and he was stupid enough to lose the next game.

Lou’s joy was evident in the gleeful chuckling as he took each soldier from the field of battle and carefully put it away. His false teeth flopped about inside his slack jaws. Marc’s stomach lurched at the sight. Old people were creepy.

His heart seemed to have fallen to his boots. Just when there was a chance of him living some kind of normal life, of going out and seeing something of this town on a Saturday night like other teenagers, hoping against hope to actually live, his soul was snatched away to babysit his weird grandpa. Lou’s slippered feet pounded as he did his victory dance.

“You’re such a loser.” Marc said. Lou just laughed.

“Let’s get some dinner, Son. Then it’s Round Two!”

Marc put on his coat and went to the chip shop. His friends were just coming out as he went in.

“You coming down town later?”

“No, I’ve got to stay in. Mum’s on a late so I’ve got to look after my grandpa.”

They nudged each other and laughed. “What a loser!” One of them said and they all laughed again.

Grandpa was waiting for him, plates out, salt and vinegar on the table. “Thanks, Son.” He said. “Not every kid your age would stay in on a Saturday night and keep his old grandpa company.”

“It’s all right.” Marc said. He didn’t mind all that much, he thought. His friends were all freaks and idiots anyway. He ate his chips. “How old are you Grandpa?”

“96. Why?”

Marc shrugged. “Just wondered. Why do you like playing soldiers so much?”

“Ah well, you see, my Dad, he was there.”

“There?”

“Yes, there. When I was old enough to be aware of him, he seemed like some frail sickly old bloke, but it was the war made him like that. When he died, I found all his medals and all his photos with his comrades and that. I was surprised to see how young he looked, quite good-looking really, not that I take after him. And he looked – I don’t know, strong, I suppose. Healthy. And in the wedding photo of him and me mum, well, they both looked so – alive. It made me wonder. So I spent all my life finding out about the war, what happened and why. I started to see him as the hero he really was. He stopped being some useless old bloke. He made me these soldiers for my eighth birthday.”

Marc thought for a moment. He balled up his chip wrapper. “You were in the war too, weren’t you?”

“Yes, Son. I was in the war.”

“Tell me about it.” Marc said.

1915

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Finally the detachment laid aside their shovels, moving back into place and we all stood there, hands folded, heads bowed. A mile away the sound of shellfire continued unabated as we stood there in the grey morning in our ranks. The chaplain stepped forward and read, not The Lord’s Prayer, not the burial service, but from a slim volume unordained by the Church.

‘Come you home a hero

Or come not home at all,

The lads you leave will mind you

Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

 

And you will list the bugle

That blows in lands of morn,

And make the foes of England

Be sorry you were born.

 

And you till trump of doomsday

On lands of morn may lie,

And make the hearts of comrades

Be heavy where you die.’*

As the bugler stepped forward to sound The Last Post, a single tear rolled down the young Captain’s cheek. Twenty-two years old and a veteran of just a week, his first duty was to oversee the burial of our dead. Talk about the blind leading the blind, he was greener than we were. Poor chap. I felt sorry for the man. All that on his shoulders, while we just have to do as we’re told. And in front of him, the reality of a misguided strategy.

The last notes of the bugle died away, the wind blew softly, and grey clouds promised rain.

 

*A E Houseman's A Shropshire Lad

Flash Fiction – The Only Child’s Christmas

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I pulled the car onto the driveway and sat. And sat. And sat. I didn’t really know what I was waiting for, all I was aware of was a creeping reluctance to leave the warm oasis of the car and go up to the front door.

Once I got out, once I went up to the door and rang the bell, there would be no going back. So I told myself I just wanted to hear the end of the song playing on the radio – a plaintive old blues tune, a tale of loss and sorrow. Blue.

But songs on the radio – even blues songs – tend to be short. If you want a long, meandering wallow, you need to listen to classical music or some of that prog rock, and my radio wasn’t picking up any of that. Blues – ma baby dun left me and ma dawg is daid. That’s it, two and a half minutes. Then you’re on your own.

A thin, scrappy snow was falling. It lacked the commitment of real snow. This wasn’t going to keep us shut up in blessed isolation for any length of time. When I was a child it seemed like every winter we had a good heavy fall of snow. Not anymore.

The radio announced a new song by some boy-band. I wasn’t going to sit there and take that. With a sigh I turned off the ignition, grabbed my bags and got out of the car. A few seconds later my husband was opening the door to let me in. He grabbed some of the bags as an ear-splitting shriek rent the air somewhere in the direction of our sitting-room. His sister and her husband had finally arrived with their four small children, I surmised.

“Sorry Sweetheart, I couldn’t reach my keys,” I said as I kissed his cheek. I frowned at the Christmas-red jumper he was wearing. Another little treasure from his great-aunt, it appeared.

“Guess what?” He said in a good-news voice. Hope flared within me.

“What?”

“My parents missed their train.”

I stared, unable to believe it. “Thank God,” I said with fervour, and I began to wrestle inside with my shopping. “That’s the best possible…”

“But my brother and his family drove them here. They arrived just a few minutes ago. That means everyone’s here. Sixteen for dinner.” He added, but he was no longer smiling, having registered what I’d just said.

“Sixteen?” I gasped. The only child who married a man with what seemed like a gigantic family. I felt like crying. My perfect Christmas, ruined by children and people and noise and mess. I was tempted to go and get back into the car. Shouting came from the kitchen, accompanied by the crash of pans and tinkling of glass. I whimpered. “Sixteen?”

With a sigh I straightened my shoulders and slapped a smile on my face and headed into the chaos, with a cheery “Happy Christmas!”

Resistance – a short story

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I’ve had this on here before, a while ago.  I came across it again recently and ‘tweaked’ it.  It’s rather bitter-sweet.

Resistance

The pockets of Gran’s bathrobe were empty. She found an old tissue, that was all, nothing useful. No matches. There wouldn’t be anything in Lottie’s school backpack apart from homework and her sports kit, so no point in even looking.

Lottie’s giggles were gone now, the fun was over, the outing spoilt. Their transport, the ambulance, was parked crookedly behind them, the doors open, the driver’s seat empty. Gran didn’t know where the ambulance-driver had gone. She remembered arriving in the vehicle but the details eluded her. She knew she had sat in the front, with Lottie beside her, giggling and asking where they were going. Gran remembered telling her it was a surprise. But there must have been a driver, surely? So where was he?

This wasn’t how Gran imagined it would be. And now she was puzzled. Why had she thought this would work? Outings needed to be planned, not carried out on the spur of the moment. It was growing colder now, and soon night would crowd in around them. Lottie was hunched on a tree stump, kicking her feet, bored, miserable. They needed a fire. Rubbing some sticks together hadn’t helped, had not produced the required spark. Everything was damp from the rain earlier.

“What are we going to do, Gran? Are we going to live in the forest forever?” Lottie asked her. Gran knew her granddaughter was trying hard not to cry. Then as half-expected, Lottie said, “I think we should to go home now, Gran. It’s cold. Mum will be worried. Can we please go home?”

Gran shuddered. Home meant different things to different people. To Lottie, home was a big, bright kitchen, a cat on the window-sill, a plate of chicken nuggets with a blob of ketchup.

To Gran, her childhood home was a dark, cold place where bombs fell from the blacked-out sky. Where all around you was ruin and destruction. Or more recently, home was a converted old manor house, down on its luck and smelling of boiled cabbage, a place filled to the brim with old, crazy people like Gran herself, and harried nurses who had no time to spare for a chat or a cup of tea.

She felt a surge of resistance rush through her. She was not going back. She renewed her attempts to kindle a fire, girl-guide style, in the little pile of damp twigs and leaves. Nothing happened. After another half-dozen attempts she gave up. She had lost the knack, along with so many other things.

In spite of her original expectation, there was no fire, no food, no fun. She slumped down next to Lottie and the nine year-old leaned against her and they sat together for a while.

Gran was wondering about the driver of the ambulance parked behind them, but Lottie spoke and her voice chased the other thoughts away.

“Gran, what does it mean when you say resistance is futile?”

Gran looked at Lottie. “Where did you hear that?”

“Dad says it sometimes. He got it off the telly.  What’s it mean?”

“It means there’s no point in trying to fight,” Gran whispered, and a tear crept down her cheek. She looked down at her slippers as if seeing them for the first time. Why was she wearing her bathrobe and bedroom slippers? And where was the ambulance driver? She had a mental image of herself at the wheel. But surely not? She hadn’t driven for years, and she had never been a paramedic or driven an ambulance, she had been a teacher. That’s right, mathematics, that had been her subject. She had even written articles and books on teaching maths in junior schools. But another mental picture showed her coming out of the day-room and seeing it parked there, the paramedics had been summoned for Mrs Watson who had died in the night. Yes, Gran remembered, she had seen the ambulance and wondered what it would be like to drive a big vehicle like that. It had seemed exciting, she had thought of the places she could go, the things she could do. Yes, now she remembered. She looked about her and saw it was growing dark, and she trembled. She was aware of Lottie, warm, valiant, sweet as ever.

“I never fight,” Lottie said, “you get kept in at playtime for fighting. And then you can’t go on the climbing frame.”

“I know, Darling, I know.” Gran placed a kiss on Lottie’s hair. Then, “shall we get back in the ambulance?”

Lottie nodded. “Yes, Gran.” Brightly, she added, “we could do this again next week. If they let you borrow the ambulance again. It was fun going along fast with the siren on.”

Gran nodded, but she still didn’t move. Lottie grabbed her backpack.

“I did you a picture at school today.” She hauled it out, slightly bent at the corners. Gran took it and carefully smoothed out the creases and looked at the bright yellows and blues.

“It’s lovely, Lottie. Thank you, Sweetheart, thank you.”

“You can put it on your wall. It’s you and me at the seaside.”

“It’s lovely, Sweetheart. Thank you.” Gran said again and she carefully folded it as she got up. She and Lottie gathered up their things. They got into the ambulance and Gran started the engine. “Let’s go then, buckle up!”

Gran knew by the time they got back, the police would be waiting, and her daughter Jo, Lottie’s mother would be there, frantic with worry. Gran had a feeling this might have happened before but she wasn’t sure, perhaps she was remembering what was about to happen. But in any case, she was too tired to resist any more. There was nowhere to go. And it was getting darker and colder.

“Gran, did you have electric when you were a little girl?”

“No, love. When I was a little girl, your age, we were very poor, and we lived out in the country. Then there was a war. A lot of houses got destroyed. And people. Lots of people died.”

“So how did you see to watch telly with no lights?”

Gran hid a smile. “We had candles.”

***

 

Candleflame

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Candles. Flames. Bobbing gently, like stars reflected in a pond. Shining points. Barely moving. Warm. Sun-bright. Thinning darkness and concentrating it, darkness is smaller, denser, turning on night instead of light. Two candles together, mirroring. Let there be light. Rasp of match. And there was light. Prometheus stole me to illuminate Bede, to shine upon Shakespeare’s moving nib. Does the flame recall their struggles with words, with pages?
I’ve seen it all before. You aren’t the first, you won’t be the last. Flame is eternal, the word is fleeting.

New short story – Early Finish Friday

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The open-plan office gaped, empty, the cubicles like crooked teeth in a vast mouth from where she stood by the lift.  Although it was only five minutes past five o’clock, on a winter Friday that meant the place was as deserted and dark as at midnight on Hallowe’en.

Jo had been in the archives longer than she’d realised and now she was alone in the building, it seemed.  Every hallway was gloomy with only the security lights on.  Half an hour ago, there had been a hundred people here.  But now …

Two rows down a computer screen glowed.  As the lift doors closed behind her, she could see the blue sky and yellow sand of the beach-scene screensaver.  She was halfway down the aisle when the music started.

Say ‘Night-ie night’ and kiss me

Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me

While I’m alone and blue as can be

Dream a little dream of me

The sudden sound brought her up sharp, and the tiny hairs on her forearms prickled upright.  She shivered.  The tinny, hollow sound continued, the song bouncing off the cubicle walls and seeming extra loud in the emptiness.  She had a feeling she wasn’t alone but a hasty look over her shoulder, then another showed her emptiness by the water-cooler, and deep shadows by the photocopier.  Nothing moved.

Swallowing a sob and forcing herself to walk with measured steps to the computer, she reached out her hand to jiggle the mouse to bring up the desktop.  Confused, and not taking in what she was seeing, it took her a moment to realise the music was still playing, but not on this computer.

There was someone here, she knew it.  Someone watching her.  She turned to look behind her again, but could see nothing but shadows.  It was ridiculous, she told herself, it was only just after five o’clock, still early evening.  Everyone had only just gone.  Then, as she flicked the switch under the monitor to turn off the screen, she felt angry.  Someone, a colleague, was playing a joke on her.  And not a nice one.  Let them be in the office in the dark when everyone had gone home, see how they liked it!

She paused where she was for a moment, considering.  Should she go back to the lift doors to the master switch and turn on all the lights, or should she just figure out which computer the music was coming from, turn it off quickly, then run all the way back to the lift and down to the main doors and freedom.  As this last word echoed in her mind, she lost patience with herself.

“Oh for God’s sake.”  Her words braced her.  She turned to face into the office, trying to track the direction the music was coming from.  It sounded like it was coming from the far right corner, either from Gina’s computer, or Sophie’s.  She moved down the rows until she reached that corner, going slowly because it really was dark here at this spot furthest from the window and the security lights.  She went first to Gina’s desk, it was closest and on this side.  Just when she got to within ten feet of the desk, the music stopped, the song had come to the end.

Relief flooded through her, but the silence that filled the void was too heavy, too brooding.  She started violently when the song began again, the gently measured female voice eerie in the darkness.  The music wasn’t coming from Gina’s machine but from Sophie’s.  Jo made a detour round to the last line of computer cubicles, jumping when the leaves of the huge potted palm brushed her cheek.

When she saw how dark it was round this side she thought about just going home and leaving it for the security guys to find at some point during the night.  But she knew they wouldn’t be likely to notice.  She doubted they’d even leave the ground floor where they had their office.  She didn’t want to leave that music to play on a loop the whole weekend.  She glanced back to the lift doors, waiting at the far end of the office.  No one would know.  She could just leave.  Why should she be concerned if someone else hadn’t bothered?  But then the next verse began, and seemed so much louder, it started her into action.  She hurried round to the desk, relieved to discover this was indeed the right computer.  She jiggled the mouse to get rid of the screensaver and clicked to open the media player.

And then it was all too late.  The hand came from behind her to cover her mouth, and by the time that she realised what was happening, it was over.  The music started again.