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Rebirth in Earth
An estranged daughter goes to her father's funeral. "I am sitting on the fourth step curling my toes around the stair where the carpet is worn; the naughty step. I was left there once, forgotten; so I’d picked at the wallpaper. And here it is now, the same ripped hole. It’s almost time for my father’s funeral. A man who insisted on a vertical burial underneath a tree. This, of course, is understandable – he was a sixties teenager and wore a garden in his hair. I now imagine his body being lowered into a hole feet first, then being covered with soil, then being topped off with a baby oak. I can see the roots winding themselves around his neck. While picking at the wallpaper, once again – it’s been twenty years – I hear a van arriving. So, rising from my naughty step, I turn and give it a little pat before descending to heaven knows what. The van is yellow like my plumber’s, except this one has REBIRTH IN EARTH written on its side – thankfully with no painted flowers. Dad is inside the van, inside a cardboard box painted blue with lots of clouds on it. It looks like a screensaver..."
Beware Green Eyes
Ceinwen E. Cariad Haydon
A young girl's ghost friend turns out to be a liar. A story for readers of 9 years of age or older. "It all started on a Friday in February when I stayed home from school with a bad cold. I’d had my twelfth birthday the week before and I’d got a chill at my ice skating party. The rink was a temporary one put up in the town centre each year from November through to February half term. My birthday had been the last day. At least it hadn’t snowed, I could remember at least three birthdays when my celebrations had been cancelled because of the weather. So, I was off school and for the first time I was alone in my house for a whole day. Mum and Dad had gone to work and my younger brothers were at school, even though they’d made a drama of coughing and spluttering their way through breakfast as they made a play to stay off too. I think that buildings sound different when people go out and they’re empty, or almost empty. I was still there of course, but I was tucked up on the living room sofa and lying quite still. I heard the central heating pipes knock and moan gently as the hot water passed through them. The clock on the mantelpiece quartered the hours into minutes and seconds with brisk, quiet ticks. The eaves dripped and splashed as ice melted in the reluctant, shy sunshine of the early spring day. I watched a spider as she spun her web in the corner of the window that looked out onto our garden and I swear I could hear the silken skein being stretched into a silvery geometry all of its own. The fridge buzzed and slept and buzzed and slept as the thermostat regulated the temperature. I was mesmerised by the insistent hum of home and the liquid gurgling of my gut. I’d slept the night before with my nose blocked and my mouth open and swallowed a lot of air that was now singing its own tune. I must have drifted off but then my doze was interrupted and I sat up with a start..."
When a bank forecloses on a company it's a case of numbers of a spreadsheet, but for those giving and receiving the news... things are more immediate. Bad news travels fast, so we had to travel faster. This, in essence, was the notion that guided us. You get it, you give it, you move on. Do it right and you’re away before things get messy, before the condemned have had time to let the reality of their new circumstances sink in, before that hollow look they get in their eyes has had a chance to take root in your memory. Do it that way and it’s smooth and efficient. Do it that way and it’s as close as something like this gets to being a job well done. And that’s generally how it went. Most of the time. This particular call came in late morning one Christmas Eve and swiftly killed off any hopes I’d had of any early finish. That disappointment was then exacerbated by the fact my car wouldn’t start, having been left parked up with the lights on for a few days. I’d been drinking most nights, medicating a malaise that often reared its head around that time of year. Happily, my thirst meshed well with the festive season. Our office’s underlying culture of functional alcoholism always received a shot in the arm that time of year. Yet, that morning as I sat in the car park turning the key in hope and then without, I wasn’t feeling all that functional. Jump leads and attempted push starts proved useless. The battery didn’t need so much a mechanic as a coroner. I was calling a taxi to take me to the train station when Russell Boyd sauntered over, all three-piece suit and Italian loafers. He sparked up ceremoniously and took a long pull before acknowledging me. It never did to be too cosy with the underlings. “Shouldn’t you be out bringing comfort and joy to the masses?” he asked. I explained the situation. Russell’s smoke curled in my direction. “Where to?” “Grantham, Lincolnshire.” “Sounds a shithole.” He paused a moment, as if sounding out a thought and finding that it pleased him, “I’ll drive you.” I laughed and waited for the punchline. It came in the form of the central locking system of his gleaming, bottle-green Jaguar yipping eagerly to attention..."
The Lacquered Box
Yasuko works in a brothel in Tokyo. One night she is visited by a new client... "The front door was already closed against the storm, and I thought I was finished for the night. Crossing the landing, I was on my way to borrow a jar of face cream from Mayu, when I heard the bell. Then, Mama-san’s fulsome stream of welcome: of course it was not too late, it was her pleasure, she had the prettiest girls, as well as the most refined and cultivated... Her tongue ran on. That meant a stranger. How old? I paused, silent-slippered, at the top of the stairs. From here, you can see, in Mayu’s words, ‘close enough to spit’. Older men are generally sent my way. The ‘traditional’ clients, Mama-san calls them, those who like my tiny, doll-like feet and hands, and want to kid themselves they’re connoisseurs of high culture. I can even perform a tea ceremony and, in theory, play my late mother’s ancient koto, although I’ve not fitted the pick on my finger since I first left home. Fortunately, no client has ever asked me for that form of entertainment."
Lost children, a lonely woman, a secret witch...'October' was inspired by many things including empty nest syndrome and traditional remembrances of the dead. " The cherry-coloured school bus pulled up under the tall pines. Standing by her large bay window, the woman watched three children clamber in. She remembered her own boys waiting in the trees’ shade before they were old enough to go to comp. Watching the other mothers turn into their empty homes she recalled the silence waiting like a mouth. The woman went into her kitchen and dealt out bacon and eggs for her husband. For her sons there were poached eggs on toast and granola with orange juice. A warmed teapot – the husband always abhorred the bitterness of coffee – sat and steamed beside a ruby toaster. She herself took only milk for breakfast. Milk was a whole food. She was inclined to pick at the leftovers on their plates, though, like a little bird – or a carrion crow, her husband once had muttered. He had never been very nice to her, and any vestiges of civility were abandoned early on. Her table was well laid, and a source of pride to her. These days no one bothered to iron table linen, yet hers was crisp and clean beneath her polished silverware. A white candelabra furnished the centre of the table, a framed portrait of the family beside it. Miraculously, they had all been captured smiling. After the meal it was time to walk to school. The local comp was not far away. She did not really need to go, of course, but she enjoyed the walk, especially in this weather..."
A woman in a controlling marriage is liberated by an unfortunate turn of events. "“I have my routine… Wednesdays, I dust and do the midweek wash. Thursdays is market day; I take the bus into town and shop for the week. Fridays, I bake and prepare food for the weekend. Weekends used to be busy. When Samantha was younger the three of us used to go for days out, a picnic in the park, a trip to the zoo. She was all blue eyes and blonde curls then. And her clothes were pink, she wouldn't wear anything else. As a teenager, it was black, her whole wardrobe. Now at weekends I usually potter around the garden. Samantha's out a lot. And I'm not sure what Tom does half the time, apart from taking all day to read The Sunday Times. Mondays, I strip the beds, clean the bathroom and the kitchen, but Tuesdays are my favourite; bin day. I wait for Tom and Samantha to leave the house and I hoover; the whole place, from top to bottom, emptying the bins from each room as I go. When I hoover, I tune into the sound of the bits of dirt as they are sucked along the aluminium tube. I find it satisfying, comforting. Like listening to rain. Dry rain. That Tuesday, I started in Samantha's room. Her room is always a challenge; discarded garments, shoes. Used tissues and make up wipes surround the bin. Every surface cluttered like a beach in Benidorm.' ‘I don't like coming into your room,’ I tell her. ‘It's like an obstacle course, I don't know how you can sleep in here.’ ‘CBA, Mum,’ she says. ‘You're OCD. A clean house is a life wasted.’ That morning, when I finished her room, I took the hoover and her bin to empty into the wheelie bins. As usual, I sorted the rubbish; plastics into brown, cardboard into green, paper into blue and general rubbish into black. But, the black bin was missing; the third time in as many months. Twice before, I'd complained to the council and ended up having to pay forty pounds for a replacement. Things have changed in our street. There was a time when I knew everybody. Not now..."
Hugh McPearson and the Confounding Riddles
In his sixth bizarre adventure Hugh (and his brother who is also called Hugh) face their nemesis. This mysterious master villain has already stolen all the gold from The Bank of England and all the paintings from Buckingham Palace and now Hugh (and Hugh) have to prevent the villain from... well, they don't know what to prevent unless they can crack the villain's mysterious coded riddles. According to Hugh (Hugh's brother) a total twit is needed. Confused... read on... "I was sitting at my desk ready for work, appreciating the fact that my desk was sitting at me, also ready for work. I hoped it had enjoyed its evening off the night before, like I had. However, for the desk that meant enjoying being in the same place as it was all day while we were sitting at each other ready for work (or actually working) but without us both sitting at each other being ready for work (or actually working.) The phone began ringing so I presumed that the desk and I would soon be working rather than being ready for work (or enjoying time off not sitting at each other.) I answered the phone. “Hugh McPearson Detective Agency…” I began. “All Mysteries solved for a small few plus exp…” “Oh, forget all that baloney!” interrupted a voice I recognised. “Particularly your ludicrous claim to be a ‘detective’ – someone should have you up for abuse of trade’s description – your claim’s an insult to we real detectives! You should describe yourself as ‘Hugh McPearson Totally Incompetent Twit’. After a while I recognised the voice denigrating me. It was my brother the so-called ‘Ace Detective’… Well to be honest the actual Ace Detective. “Hugh!” I declared when the penny finally dropped. “Why have you called me?” Despite his opinion of my competence – or rather lack of it – as a detective, Hugh had never bothered to call me just for the purpose of insulting me. Normally he saved up a year’s worth of insults for our annual family dinner at Christmas. I think mum and dad were finally getting fed up with it. “I need a total twit,” replied my brother curtly. “What?” I responded. Hugh seemed to have graduated to a higher level of brotherly abuse than usual but I still had no idea why he’d really called me. “I need a total twit,” repeated Hugh. “The villain I’m trying to catch is completely unpredictable – I need someone who might be on the same wavelength as them. So I need a total twit. Obviously I immediately thought of you.” “Let me get this straight…” I replied, trying to get things clear. “Despite calling me up out of the blue and insulting me, you actually need my help.” “Yes… you’re the biggest and therefore most completely total twit I know,” replied Hugh. Grudgingly, he continued, “Please will you help me?” There was a long pause. Hugh had never used the word ‘please’ in any sentence addressed to me… except possibly “please, go away” or “please, get out of the way” … although the word please was generally missing from those sentences in any case..."
Ceinwen E. Cariad Haydon
A story about friendship, loss and seemingly supernatural forces that may or may not be the product of a disturbed mind. "I came to in my own bed, as the August dawn was breaking. I sat up slowly, and next to me on the camping mat on the floor, was my best mate, Shell. The pain behind my eyes made me shrink from the light as I tried to remember the night before. We’d been on the beach, just the two of us. No wait, her brother, Ben, had been there as well. He’d been in a bad way. He’d lost his place on the ‘Back to Work’ scheme for turning up late three days in a row. That meant his benefits would stop. We’d gone out to the local dunes at Druridge Bay, with cans of Magners to try to cheer him up. And, if I’m honest, to keep an eye on him. I stumbled out to the bathroom and heard my mum call, ‘Jo, I’m off to get the bus to Newcastle. Could you give Shell’s mum a call, she wants to know where Ben is. ‘Bye, love.’ The front door slammed shut. Ben. Where was he? I remembered his face twisted with gloom and booze as he’d told me and Shell to get lost and go home. He wanted to be on his own. At the time I’d thought, ‘Sod you.’ Me and Shell’d been rock solid with him and he’d brushed us away like we were nothing. Just flies on his face. Shell must’ve thought the same. ‘Come on, he’s one stupid shithead,’ she’d slurred. Then she linked her arm into mine and yanked me away towards our estate. ‘We’re not the problem here, he is.’ ‘Too bloody right,’ Ben yelled after us. ‘Too bloody right, you’ve caught on at last.’ The wind picked up as we walked away and drowned out the sound of his voice. I don’t know if he said anything else. We swigged the dregs of our cider as we swayed back home, tearful but sure we were right to leave him to stew in his own bad temper. After a quick pee, I guzzled tap water from my cupped hands and splashed some on my face. Then I zombied back to my bedroom and lay back down on the bed. A crow squawked outside my window and the screech split my head in two. I buried my face under a pillow but it made no difference, the pounding didn’t stop. I must have dozed off again because the next thing I knew it was midday. The hangover was still alive and vicious in my skull and part of me wondered if I was dying. Then the recollection of my mum’s words brought me out of myself. ‘Could you give Shell’s mum a call? She wants to know where Ben is...”