Sunday, 25 August 2019

Mr Squiggles

by Dawn DeBraal

cherry cola

“Come on Mr. Squiggles!” Chet pleaded as he gently pulled on the leash. They were parked on a busy highway along the forgotten coast of Florida. He pulled over the big F250 and 35-foot camper when Winnie insisted Mr. Squiggles really had to go this time. Chet gave her the look. The dog had been whining for over 20 miles. He pulled the rig over as far as he could off the highway, grabbed Squiggles and marched out to the mowed area. The dog had sloth-like reflexes at 13 staring and sniffing at the tall grass in front of him. No doubt 6000 other dogs had taken a piss on that same poor weed. The sun burned down on Chet as a rivulet of sweat rolled down his face. Winnie rolled down the window of the air-conditioned truck.
“If you drop the leash and step on it, he will think he’s not on the leash and he will do his duty!” she shouted. Chet’s hand snapped up in a sweeping motion to the right with his palm down. It was the signal to stop a crane, and Winnie knew full well after forty-seven years of marriage that meant STOP! Chet retired after thirty-five  years in the construction business. Even though he’d been retired fifteen years, the signals were still ingrained in his psyche. The window of the Ford rolled back up. Chet dropped the leash and stepped on it, wishing he could be smoking a cigar right now. Something he had to give up after the by-pass five years ago. Mr. Squiggles then started to do his circle dance. Damn if Winnie wasn’t right! He chuckled. He looked at the wheels of the camper sinking in the loose sand on the side of the road, and shook his head as he sighed. Mr. Squiggles stopped his dance. Chet encouraged the dog.
They bought the camper to come to Florida to escape the cold Wisconsin winters. They left Sky High camp ground that morning. Too many young people smoking pot. Chet figured that was what “Sky High” meant and not that it was on a hill. Not in Florida. There were no hills; there was low land and lower land. He turned to Mr. Squiggles.
“I’m taking you back to the truck and I don’t care if you crap all over it, you hear me?” he hissed. Squiggles looked properly reprimanded. Winnie was looking out the window shrugging her shoulders. His grade school sweetheart. He still loved her and found her beautiful even after she had put on over a hundred pounds. Winnie turned to food when he could no longer take care of her intimate needs. She had saved herself for marriage, something Chet appreciated about her. She was all for it when the vows were said, and up until the doctor told him, “The little blue pill will kill you!” did he let her down. Winnie turned to food with all the gusto she had she when wanted Mr. Squiggles after the grand kids no longer needed her and stopped coming over.
“I need a baby!” She told Chet as she showed him a picture of a shih-doodl-ier, a combination of a shitsu, poodle, and terrier or some kind of special-order lap dog. Chet finally capitulated and Mr. Squiggles entered their family.
Mr. Squiggles hated men, Chet especially. He served as a permanent wedge between him and Winnie in bed, but since they couldn’t consummate their marriage anymore Chet let that go. The growling though. That ticked him off. He would reach for Winnie and Mr. Squiggles bared his teeth and went into attack mode. Chet secretly hated the dog.
“Maybe if you feed him and walk him, you will grow on him!” Winnie insisted. That was three years ago. The dog still hadn’t warmed up to him and now he was on the side of the road waiting for Squiggles to take a dump! He fantasized letting Squiggles go and seeing him hit by a car. But he knew Winnie would never forgive him. The camper was sinking further into the soft sand. He needed to get out of here soon.  
A small butterfly flew in front of Mr. Squiggles and the dog dove for it pulling the leash out from under Chet’s foot. Bounding across the mowed area Mr. Squiggles ran across the busy highway to the median strip in the middle, narrowly escaping on-coming traffic. Winnie had both windows down now. Screaming.
“Chet he’s across the road!” Winnie opened the door trying to get out of the truck. Her legs were so bad she couldn’t walk.
“Winnie, stay put! I’ll, get him!” Chet picked up the pace and crossed over to the median when the traffic subsided, but Mr. Squiggles had already maneuvered the next two lanes and was in the far side of the road in hot pursuit of the yellow butterfly. Chet called the dog who was oblivious to Chet’s voice. Winnie was out of the truck calling Mr. Squiggles.
“Winnie stop! He will cross the traffic to get to you!” Chet shouted. Winnifred Cotter put her hands up to her mouth in the horror of realization and started to cross the road where she was soundly struck by a lumber truck. Chet heard the screeching tires and the scream that emanated from Winnie’s mouth. He abandoned the pursuit of the dog and raced back to where Winnie lay pinned under the lumber truck. The driver had already called 9-1-1.
“A woman is hit on the highway. She just stepped out in front of the truck, I couldn’t stop!” The driver sobbed. 
Chet came around to the front of the truck. “Winnie!” He knelt down and cradled her head, as tears came down his cheeks. He could already hear an ambulance coming.
“Chet, get Mr. Squiggles! Please!” Winnie cried. She cared more about that damn dog than her immediate situation.
“I will Winnie, let’s take care of you first.” Chet stroked her hair keeping her calm. The ambulance arrived too late Chet thought. But the paramedics kept working on Winnie. Police were taking statements. Chet finally walked back to his rig. Ready to take it to the nearest Emergency Room, back to Winnie who he fervently prayed was still alive. He started up the truck.
Dammit! Mr. Squiggles! He promised Winnie. But his heart was hardened. If it weren’t for that dog, Winnie would be alive today not dying in the hospital he supposed. He put the truck in gear, but the sand had allowed him to sink deeply. Chet got out and put the truck mats under the camper wheels. He got back to the truck and slid it back into gear. The camper rolled forward. He was picking up the truck mats when Mr. Squiggles came bounding back across four lanes of traffic and barked to get into the truck. Chet looked at him wanting to leave him behind but knew if there were any chance that Winnie would make it, Mr. Squiggles was part of that equation. He picked up Squiggles who growled ferociously at him dumping him soundly on Winnie’s side of the truck as he headed north to the hospital where he prayed Winnie was still alive.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Past Imperfect, Present Tense

by David Gower

white wine Spritzer

Faces in the dog eared album brought back memories of childhood. It had seemed a big and heavy book in her childhood. Now it seemed to have shrunk. She realised the book had not changed but she was now a grown woman. As an only child she was clearing Dad’s effects from the sheltered flat. Strange how his valued but simple possessions were now just things. They had in a sense died with him. The album alone seemed to have meaning and history within the covers.

Black and white images of people long dead and places far away. Square photographs and wavy edged postcard sized pictures told of travels around the globe to places which would once have been coloured pink in her school atlas as part of the British empire. Pink was not in evidence so much now in any atlas. That world was no more.

As the pages turned the architecture in the snapshots evidenced their locations. Arid desert somewhere in the Middle East, busy scenes in African ports, elephants in India and Buddhist temples in Hong Kong. A pictorial record of a life in a post war world.

Some of the pictures had been taken by her father. Others showed him with his friends as they enjoyed shore leave. Young men, smiling and waving at the lens, frozen in a moment of time.

Her daydreams were interrupted at the sound of the post falling onto the hall floor. The post these days only ever had adverts and bills. No one ever seemed to write proper letters any more.

How had her Mum managed to bring up her child with Dad at sea so long? How had they maintained a life which held them apart for several months every year and then brought them together only to part again? 

No time to fret about the past. It was almost as her birthday card had said – Wine O’Clock – time to meet her girlfriends and enjoy some bubbly and cake. 

“Happy birthday Rosie, many happy returns of the day.” Rosie’s best mate Alison smiled as she gave her a gift wrapped parcel. Sheila and Rona produced their gifts. The wine flowed and the only evidence of cake was crumbs and dirty plates. 

Giggling and relaxed the women started to talk about television. Why would people expose their private lives to the viewing public? That sort of thing was so awful nevertheless they admitted their fascination and compulsive viewing. 

The day after Rosie’s birthday she was back at Dad’s flat. Clearing things just seemed to take forever and his mail remained unopened on a side table. He was never one for opening post when it arrived. Time to wade through that later over a cup of tea. How lovely it would be to get home and get clean after all this clearing.

The doorbell chimed. She opened the door to find three women standing in the rain. Rosie’s immediate thoughts were that they were collecting for charity or wanted to convert her to their beliefs. They were about her age but markedly different in appearance. 

The tallest one, olive skinned and dark haired, asked “Excuse me, is Mr Ron Andrews at home?”

“I am sorry to say that he died a few days ago. I am his daughter. Who are you?”

The women looked at each other. After a moment the tall woman spoke for the other two. 

“We think we are your sisters. Can we come in? We wrote to say we were coming.”

Friday, 23 August 2019

The Delivery

by Allison Symes 

Lemongrass and Ginger Tea

I knew the third letter was coming.  I was warned.  It is difficult to ignore anonymous letters especially when in the last week I’d already received two and I knew the third would be the most significant.  There are certain rules here everyone knows from age five up.

It is possible to ignore said letters but difficult.  They linger in the mind especially with the language used.  Oh it wasn’t foul (unlike the writer) but let’s just say the letters are not designed to put the mind at rest or to encourage any thoughts of continuing to have a happy and healthy life.

I recall, on getting the first letter, I entertained a vague hope the red ink was ink but given who I managed to offend I knew that was unlikely.  It’s odd, isn’t it, how the mind can make you look for false hopes like that at times even when, deep down, you do know better. I suppose it must be some kind of attempt at survival mechanism.  I do know it isn’t going to work.

No, the only real thing to ponder about that “ink” was who was the unfortunate “donor”.  They wouldn’t have survived the process.  Nobody did.  Word got out to ensure everyone knew it.  The Dark Lord likes social media.  It is a great and cheap way of spreading terror and everyone here is online so he will get everybody.  I expect he gets a special rate. Perhaps someone should put viruses on his system.  I should have thought of that sooner.  Too late now.

All knew who used up the spare “red ink”after a batch of the Dark Lord’s letter writing and the boss ensured there always was lots spare.  It’s a great way of keeping the vampire population sweet after all and everyone else cowed, well almost everyone else.  Who would turn down a free meal?  It has been speculated (very quietly and definitely not online) the vampires are the only ones the Dark Lord has feared but I suspect he simply knows it pays to keep them sweet. 

I expect he bribes the werewolves and giants too. It’s just there nobody knows what the bribes are.  Course it is possible the vampires are showing off.  They do put on a show so we can all see what a glamorous, dangerous species they are.  I wouldn’t bother.  I’d let the fangs speak for themselves if I was a vampire.

Sorry I’m getting distracted.  I don’t really want to think about the letters but know I am out of choices now.  I could’ve fled last week when the first one came in but I hoped the Dark Lord would change his mind.  It is not entirely unknown (he once threw an offender to the werewolves instead of the giants.  The advantage?  Death comes quicker at the paws of the werewolves.  It’s the nearest the boss gets to being merciful.  Surprised everybody too.  Maybe he needed to show he could be capable of it). 

I was the Dark Lord’s faithful servant, his favoured hired hand when awkward jobs needed doing. I hoped that would have counted in my favour.  After all can’t everyone screw up the once and not die for it?  I knew when the second letter came the day before yesterday the answer was no.  I didn’t go then because my house was surrounded by sightseers.  I think the Dark Lord must send them to intimidate.  I wasn’t intimidated but was bloody annoyed.  How can anyone make escape plans with onlookers?  But then that’s the idea isn’t it?  The less time you have to plan, the more likely it is you will get some crucial detail wrong and then only Death awaits.

The letters of course did mean technically I had three chances to get out or face the consequences of defying the Dark Lord.  Course as I’ve mentioned he makes sure nobody can use the first two chances.  I still think this letter writing business is on the cissy side though.  I remember the days when a Dark Lord was a proper Dark Lord.  No messing about with anonymous letters.  He’d just have people killed and that was it. 

I heard rumours he had read up about the merits of psychological warfare.  And maybe he wanted his victims terrified for ages first.  Maybe in some cases fear and anxiety build up would do the job of removing the offender for him.  You never can tell who has a weak heart just by looking at them can you? 

Not a problem for me though.  I am made of tougher stuff but then I have had to be.  When you carry out certain assignments, which at best involve long journeys and the ability to remove those getting in the way of the boss, weakness is not an option.

Still I suppose this letter business has given me time.  My bags are packed.  The horse is saddled and I’ll head off… well I don’t really know where.  It will have to be a gamble. 

The werewolf packs are to the north of me and let’s just say nobody has returned from that part of the country.  All that has ever been found have been the remains of travellers and their animals.  Oh and wolf prints and the odd sighting of werewolves.  They do that on purpose.  Let everyone else know they are there. 

This realm is not for those who like a quiet life.  Any life at all come to that if you don’t fit in with what the Dark Lord wants.  He has too many beings to get rid of problems for him and I was one of them.  Sometimes having someone who at least looks human helps.  Or he found so anyway.  I could get into places where the more obvious monsters would have been stopped by all the force that whatever unfortunate targeted town could muster.

The one time I show some mercy and I find myself in this position.  The Dark Lord had asked me to kill, well it’s probably best I don’t say even now as had I carried out his wishes the realm next to ours would have been plunged into turmoil. 

Let’s just say Death had my “victim” on his appointment books anyway and it was just a waste of my time and energy to bring this forward.  I took the view a few weeks (it couldn’t have been more than that by the look of my “victim”) and the Dark Lord could have had all the turmoil he wanted. 

Politically it might have been useful to have had a natural death here.  Guess who lost that argument!
To the south of me are the giants, to the west are the vampires and well the safest part of the country is where I am now - the east.  Still I can’t change what’s happened. 

I also know the next time our Dark Lord sends an anonymous letter, it is likely it will be my blood that he’ll use for ink.  I suppose it is touching in a way to see what faith he has in the postal services given most of us gave up on them years ago.  Mind I guess if you have to get the mail through vampires, giants and the like, only the hardy go in for being a postman!

So next time you think about complaining all you ever get in the mail are wretched bills and junk advertising, just remember it could be worse.  It is a matter of what environment you are in.
I must go.  I hear the wolves howling.  They’re early.  That’s unusual too.  I have been known to set my clocks by the time of their first howl of the night.  They must’ve been given instructions by the Dark Lord. 

Oh did I forget to mention if you dither too long the Dark Lord sends the werewolves, the giants or the vampires after you?  They will have no trouble finding me.  The postal services here publish all addresses of offenders. 

So there is no question of me holding out here and staving the threat off.  I leave or die or stay and die.  At least if I leave I have a chance of getting through. A bit like the post really!

About the auhtor

Allison Symes, who loves writing and reading fairytales with bite, is published by Chapeltown Books, Cafelit, and Bridge House Publishing.  She is a member of the Society of Authors and Association of Christian Writers.  A round-up of her writing is at and she blogs for Chandler’s Ford Today -

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Looking for the Colonel

by Robin Wrigley 

a large glass of Malbec

Stopping to unlatch my garden gate I was momentarily relieved to rest one of my shopping bags. As I pushed the gate open I dropped the bag this time in shock because my front door was wide open and I could make out the shape of a person standing in the hallway.
     It was the hat that caught my attention as I drew closer and I realised I had seen it before at the market on Tuesday. It was black, seen better days and the type I had seen Colonel Gaddafi wearing on the news. This wearer was a young man with a pale face dressed in rather grubby white clothing one associates with Arabs.
     As I approached the doorway I noticed he had a half empty bottle of milk in his hand and the traces of milk on his upper lip. My mind was competing with anger, shock, fear and confusion as to what to do in this extraordinary situation.
     ‘Excuse me young man what on earth do you think you are doing in my house?’
     ‘I didn’t break your door it was open, missus,’ he replied putting his left hand over his heart as a sign of apology I presumed.
     ‘You mean it was unlocked? I’m quite sure it was not open as I leave it unlocked for my son who will be here in a moment,’ I lied. That must be the second time recently that I walked off to the shops leaving the house unlocked.
     ‘Is that my bottle of milk you are drinking?’
     ‘I didn’t know it was yours.  It was standing on the path outside the door. I’m sorry if you think I am bad man but I was told at school that the colonel said that when we came in from the oasis we could live in any house if the door was open.’
     I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Who on earth ever heard of such an excuse or explanation?

That was three months ago and I’m still as undecided the long-term answer to this conundrum created by this young Libyan called Omar Abdul Hamid walking into my house and now my life.
     It transpired he was the son of a minor diplomat in the original Libyan embassy whose father mysteriously disappeared one day and left him effectively an orphan at the age of seventeen. It was at the time that Libya was in the throes of a devastating civil war and rumours were rife about the fate of all the members of the Libyan government and its followers, so Omar decided to make himself scarce.
     His main excuse he offered me that day I found him in my front hallway was that he was looking for the colonel, Gaddafi that is. What could I say in reply to that I ask you? Apparently when his father was first called from his home town of Sabha for service in Tripoli he and others like him were told by the colonel they could live anywhere they liked if the door of the house was open. It seemed my house fitted the bill for young Omar.
     I hadn’t the heart to tell him that Gaddafi’s government had fallen and that the whereabouts of his dear colonel was unknown. So then I faced a choice of throwing him out or offering him a place to stay. Looking at his forlorn face I chose the latter.

I covered the situation by telling everyone who noticed his presence that I had taken a lodger. It was all very simple. In the meantime I scoured the internet for useful information that invariably offered me no help unless I contacted the authorities and made his presence known. Charities were also no help other than being a source of cheap clothing to put him in which was essential if he was to avoid any awkward questions when outside the house.
     It was at this point having exhausted all the legal ways I could help this lad whom I had become attached to, I hatched a plan. You see I lost both my husband and twelve year old son nearly five years ago almost to the day that Omar came into my life. It was a sign that God had given me a new, replacement son.
     My plan was very complicated in many ways but the boys’ similarity in ages made it simple in others. The fact that both Henry my late husband and I were both only children with no close relatives also helped.
     First thing was to put the house on the market and start looking for a new home in Cornwall. Money was no object as the insurance money from Henry's and David’s accident was sitting in the bank, plus London property prices would go a long way in Cornwall.

Omar had everything he needed; a loving parent, a birth certificate and a National Health number all he needed now was to remember that his name was David and his father’s name was Henry.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019


by Paula R C readman

Mojito: 3 mint leaves, white rum, lime juice, syrup. 

 On the billboard before me an old poster flutters. Torn and tattered by wind and rain it announces to the world that once there were only nine of us, but a newer advertisement, partially covering it states that the latest exhibition by the renounced artist James Ravencroft now contains ten sensational works of art. 
Six months ago, I worked, with my friend, Jude as a picture hanger in the fashionable Kasmin Art Gallery in London. To some, I was the quieter one.  Naturally shy, I guarded my expressions by allowing my shoulder-length dark brown hair to fall forward, so I could avoid making eye contact.
Though when needed, I could be forthright.
 Jude was the complete opposite.  She was out-going, with her fiery red-cropped hair. Romantic by nature, Jude with her bubbly personality, could sometimes be a little naïve, too. 
When it came to our job, we both took it seriously and could be quite outspoken on what we liked and disliked. Jude always said that one day my frankness would get me into trouble, but invariably I laughed it off.

One morning when we arrived at work, the manager called us into his office.  He informed us that the trendsetting artist, James Ravencroft would be launching his career at the gallery. He expected us to be available to help at the evening’s event.
Two days later, when we arrived at the galley for the evening’s event to our horror, we were required to wear some sort of statement uniform that made us look like a pair of hookers.  We stood self-consciously at the gallery entrance, handing out glasses of cheap wine to welcome the influential aesthetes of the contemporary art world to Ravencroft’s swanky first exhibition.
At the end of the evening as the connoisseurs raised a glass to toast Ravencroft’s achievement, Jude and I were having our own celebrations. In the ladies’ loos, we stripped off the ghastly outfits relieved to be wearing our own clothes. After Jude reapplied her more subtle shade of make-up, she raised a glass.
‘Cheers, Tina,’ she giggled. ‘Here’s to the last we’ll see of Ravencroft’s creepy exhibition, and especially him. Let’s get out of here and go somewhere we can party until dawn.’
I shook my head, and declined Jude’s offer.  Too stressed out by the evening’s event I was desperate to get home, so I agreed to lock up.
As I watched Jude and the rest of our colleagues bustle away arm in arm, their laughter floating back to me.  I slipped the gallery key into my pocket and set off in the opposite direction.   My thoughts returned to the dreadful paintings. Early tomorrow morning we would be in to pack them up ready to send them off to their new owners.
I hurried the best I could in my ankle-breaking shoes along the empty street, with its smell of traffic fumes and takeaways towards the bus stop on the corner. Relief washed over me as the bus came into view.
Then without warning the darkness to close in on me and when I woke I found I had become part of an unknown city within a Ravencroft painting.  

First, I need to explain something of what came before so that everything will make some sort of sense.
No one could describe Jude and I as professional art critics. In the course of our job as picture hangers, we have to work out how best to exhibit the paintings. Jude and I would discuss our thoughts and opinions on what the artist’s work was saying to us. Unbeknown to most viewers, there’s an art to showing art, a scientific way of guiding the viewer around the exhibition, to show off each piece as a single entity, allowing every painting to reach its full potential.
Six months ago, when Ravencroft’s art arrived in our gallery, Jude fell completely in love with it. I found the nine paintings the artist had titled ‘Roofscapes’ somewhat bizarre.
Each painting was funereal in my mind.  They depicted a sombre city roofscape that went unnoticed by the public as they hurried about their business. I tried to get inside the artist’s mind as Jude and I hung them.
‘Don’t you just love them, Tina?’ Jude said as she held one end of a massive frame while standing on the top of a ladder. ‘Don’t you think they possess a kind of dark beauty?’
I nodded, as I tried to stay focused while balancing at the top of my ladder. Once I had secured my end of the painting, I stepped down.
 Jude was right; the paintings did have a kind of beauty.
It lay in the artist’s brushwork. He revealed to the viewer a secret panorama above the streets. The rain-washed grey slate roofs interspersed with blood red tiles roofs, ornate stonework of angels, gargoyles, and demonic creatures that inhabited a world above our heads.
At the centre of Ravencroft’s paintings, he had depicted realistic angel-type figures. I found subject matter unnerving.  It verged on torturous. Their beautiful faces showed pained expressions as though they suffered in silence.
‘Why only nine?’ I asked as I moved my ladder into position ready for the next painting. ‘It makes no sense at all, and unbalances the exhibition.’
Jude gave an exaggerated tut and rolled her eyes. ‘You and your sense of balance,’ she said as she positioned herself, too.  
‘One needs a natural flow otherwise, it messes everything up,’ I said attaching the next large canvas to the ceiling pulleys and hauled it up as I climbed the ladder. ‘Remember everything has to have balance. Yin and Yang,’ I continued, as I gave the painting a gentle nudge to swing it towards Jude’s outstretched hands.  ‘Night is to day as happiness is to sadness. It’s like good and evil.’ 
‘Rubbish!’ A man’s voice boomed.
I gasped and let go of the pulley rope. As my end of the painting to drop I was left tottering on the top of the ladder.  The sudden shift in the painting’s weight caused Jude to unbalance, and left her clinging to the top of her ladder with one hand as she tried not to drop the painting.
‘Hey, be careful with that!’ snarled the man as he stepped forward.  With a single sweep of his hand, the dangling picture found its place and hung dead straight. He turned his dark blue eyes on me. I noticed the way his shoulder-length black hair shone under the lights.  In an upper-class tone, he stated, ‘Aesthetics, my dear woman, art is for art’s sake,’
Relieved that the painting was safe, I stepped off the ladder.
‘Ravencroft,’ the man said, offering me his hand.
I ignored his proffered hand, and instead snatched up my clipboard, hoping he would just leave us to do our job.
‘I love your work,’ Jude stated, fluttering her eyelashes and flashed him a winning smile.
He chose to ignore her as he turned his attention fully on me.
Ever since he had walked in with these godless pictures, Jude swooned over this hedonistic, overbearing man in his tight black jeans. 
I had kept my distance.
‘Tina isn’t it?’ he said, extending his hand to me again.
I nodded, still not accepting it.
He let his hand drop, unlike his smile. With a nod in the direction of his paintings, he said, ‘You’re doing a grand job, though I expect the public will find something to criticize.’
I lowered my clipboard, ‘Really?’
‘Yes,’ he said, letting the word out slowly.  ‘Tell me honestly what you think of my work.’
‘Your work?’ I shook my head. I had no wish to share my thoughts with the likes of him
‘Yes,’ He stepped forward, blocking my way.
‘I see a darkly delicious city alive in the crowded street below,’ Jude said. 
Ravencroft turned to her, his smile too sweet, too nauseating. ‘I wasn’t asking you, my dear.’
‘She doesn’t like your work.’ Jude giggled.
‘I see no beauty in them,’ I snapped, forgetting myself.  I glared at Jude who just shrugged her shoulders. How could she sell me out for her infatuation? After all the times I had stood by her, even lied for her.
‘So tell me, Tina, what it is you don’t like about my work?’ Ravencroft asked as he ran his slender fingers back through his black mane, lifting his dark locks from his shoulders. 
I owed him no explanation. I had a job to do which did not include pandering to the likes of him. However, he was an important client so I reluctantly turned to the nearest painting and studied it for a moment.

In a vast, bleak landscape, painted in shades of grey, dull green, blue, and inky black a semi-naked woman stood on a stone plinth.  Her arms constrained behind her as she leant slightly forward, like a figurehead on a ship.
Against the fading light of evening sky, the woman stood at the centre of the painting, surrounded by a host of saintly statues and gargoyles on the side of some Gothic building, possibly a church. I leaned in closer to take a better look.
Something about the picture unnerved me. What I first thought was a necklace around the woman’s neck, I realised was the halter-strap of a restraining bodysuit. It emphasised the shape of her breasts, giving the painting an air of eroticism.
It puzzled me that an artist of his reputation would have made such a blatant mistake as to illustrate the restraint that held his model in situ, thus giving the painting an amateurish feel.  I knew the painting was undoubtedly from his imagination. Yet, I wondered why he had deliberately painted in the halter- strap.
Did he work from…still life?  
Ravencroft stood directly behind me.  I refused to allow him to intimidate me as his hot breath caressed my neck. I shuddered and continued to inspect the picture, trying to make sense of what it was saying to me.

I focused on the woman’s features. The rain had plastered her hair to her head like a skullcap. In the vast gloominess of the roofscape, the only bright colour came from several small ribbons of lustrous red.   I traced the ribbons that ran down her ashen face and over her hollow cheeks and I recoiled at what I saw.
Four small metal bird-claw shaped clips dug into the woman’s forehead and held her eyelids open. I cringed at thought of her suffering and stepped back almost standing on Ravencroft’s foot.
Had he really made his model suffer for his art?
I glanced nervously over my shoulder. His pale complexion suggested that he spent many hours labouring late into the night on these paintings. He smirked as though reading my mind.
I swallowed hard, not wanting any contact with him.  He bowed to me as he stepped back. I ignored his wry smile and focused on the second painting.
It depicted another woman isolated in a similar position, high up on a building, but this one looked out across an alternative roofscape.
By the time I had finished examining the other seven paintings an icy chill had enclosed my heart. Each painting portrayed different women in a similar sort of setting.
I let my breath out slowly.
Something about these stone-carved women intrigued me.  They seemed so familiar. Was it an illusion to the fact that they were still living and breathing? Were they out there somewhere waiting for rescue?
As I straightened, his voice filled my mind.
 ‘What do you see, Tina?’ he whispered in a lover’s tone.
Jude giggled, breaking the tension. ‘She’s changed her mind about them. Go on, Tina, tell him,’ she said.
‘Are they painted from real life?’ I asked sensing somehow that he knew what I had realised.
‘Roofscapes? Yes.’ He smiled. His eyes sparkled as his lips curled at the corners.

I looked back at the painting he had just helped us to hang - the last of the nine. I nodded in its direction and asked, ‘So that’s painted from your rooftop?’ I emphasised the words ‘your rooftop’ though I did not know where he came from, nor did I care. 
‘You could say that,’ he said, in a chilly tone. ‘I paint what I see.’
Jude threw him a puzzled look. She too studied the last painting and began chewing on her bottom lip. A sign I understood clearly that she knew something was awry.  She glanced in my direction. I nodded slightly and her eyes widened. 
Jude turned to Ravencroft and flashed him one of her dazzling smiles. ‘Well, we must get on,’ she said, in a breathless tone. ‘Otherwise, there won’t be a show tonight.’
The artist gave us both a dismissive nod before leaving. 
 ‘Is there something bothering you, Tina?’ Jude asked once we were alone.
‘Yes, but… Oh, Jude, I’m not sure you’ll understand… or anyone will believe me, but the women in the paintings remind me of…’  I crossed to my handbag, pulled out an old newspaper article. It listed nine missing women alongside grainy black and white photographs of them.  ‘See for yourself.’
‘Why on earth do you carry this around?’   Jude asked as she unfolded the article.
 ‘Why… I’ve always been… well, you know… fascinated by what happened to them.’ 
 Jude skimmed the article before handing it back to me. ‘Yes, I do remember my parents talking about them. ‘You don’t really believe that these women are one and the same?’ she said pointing to the huge canvas panels.
We looked at the blood-stained weeping angels who stared back at us with unseeing, painted eyes. I shook my head in an effort to free my mind and picked up the clipboard again.
I flicked a few pages and studied the details for our next exhibition, before answering her. ‘Well…no. Let’s forget about them. They’re nothing more than an artist’s imagination. After tomorrow, they will be gone, and we’ll only have beautiful, rural landscapes to concern ourselves with.’

As Ravencroft stepped out of the darkness into a pool of light before me, the relief I felt on seeing the bus drained away. I didn’t have time to scream as a numbing pain ripped through my neck. The last image I saw as a cold mist descended was the bus full of people passing me.  
Six months after Ravencroft’s first exhibition, in another art gallery, the connoisseurs gathered like laughing hyenas around a collection of ten stony-faced angels. With morbid fascination, they philosophised about the artist’s inspirational theme, his fine brushstrokes, and the significance of the desolation of the roofscape, but no one questioned the dark beauty of his paintings, but me.
I am his number ten: the ever-watchful face above the city, seeing all but saying nothing. 

About the author

Paula R C Readman taught herself ‘How to Write’ from books which her husband purchased from eBay.  After 250 purchases, he finally told her ‘just to get on with the writing’.  Since 2010, she's had 29 stories published and is now busy editing her novel again.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

The Hen Night

by Dawn Knox

 Cauli Wobble (a vegan cocktail consisting of cauliflower florets, whiskey, vermouth, bitters and an olive)

Persephone Perkins, CEO of Persephone’s Perfect Wedding Planning, took the orange garment out of its bag and holding it by the shoulders, allowed the legs to dangle. 

“What the heck is that?” Aunt Edie asked. 

“It looks like she’s holding up someone’s shadow,” Mary whispered with a shudder.

“I think it’s an orange catsuit,” Betty said, shaking her head in disbelief. 

“I’d never get into that!” Florrie looked down at her ample hips, then back at the skinny costume the wedding planner was holding up.

“Of course, you will. Look…” Persephone pulled sideways and the catsuit stretched to several times its usual width. “I’ve got a range of sizes, from small to jumbo, so I’m sure I’ll have one to fit everyone.”

“That Lycra’s certainly got a lot of give,” Aunt Edie said, “but isn’t it going to be a bit clingy?” 

“It’s a catsuit,” said Persephone coolly, “How often do you see a baggy cat?”

“But it’ll show all my bulges,” Florrie said.

“I’ve thought of that,” Persephone said looking Florrie up and down, “So I got bomber jackets to go over them.” She pulled one out of the box and held it up in her other hand.

“And you expect us to wear those to Betty’s Hen Night?” Mary asked, shaking her head in disbelief, “They’re both orange! They’ll clash horribly with my hair.”

“Don’t worry,” said Persephone, laying down the clothes and taking a small packet out of her box. She opened it to reveal a green beret, “You can tuck your hair into this.”

Dipping into her box again, she withdrew a matching green, feather boa. “And here’s the final part of the outfit.”

“Couldn’t we wear ordinary clothes?” Betty asked, a hint of desperation in her voice.

“Absolutely not!” said Persephone, “A successful Hen Night needs a theme.”

“And what is the theme you’re proposing?” Florrie asked, “Wearing those orange catsuits, it’s going to look like we got trapped in a spray tan booth and have just escaped.”

“I promise you,” said Persephone, “these outfits will be the envy of everyone and you’ll have the perfect Hen Night.” 

“But you said there was a theme,” said Mary, “So, what is it?”

“Carrots,” said Persephone.

There was silence while Betty the bride-to-be, Mary and Florrie her bridesmaids and Aunt Edie self-appointed chief guest, digested this information. 

“Perhaps you’d care to elaborate…?” Betty asked eventually. After all, she was paying for Persephone’s services even if the woman made it sound like she was doing Betty a favour. 

“Well,” said Persephone, fluffing up her blonde hair, obviously relishing the fact that all eyes were on her. “Firstly...” she said, leaning forward as if confiding an important secret, “What do you think of this? I’ve got you tickets to see the Eye-kia Boys.”

More silence as the ladies looked at her in bewilderment.

“I thought you said the theme was carrots. You didn’t mention furniture,” said Betty, “Anyway, you don’t need tickets to go to Ikea.”

“No, not Ikea… Eye-kia!” said Persephone, “you know, the male troupe of dancers.”

“You mean like the Chippendales?” Mary asked, her eyes wide in alarm and her cheeks reddening.
“Similar,” said Persephone, “but the Chippendales are performing in Las Vegas this Saturday and they’re much too expensive for Betty’s budget.”

“But, don’t they…” Mary blushed, “Err, don’t they… strip down to their smalls?”

“If they’re anything like the Chippendales, they won’t be smalls,” said Aunt Edie with a knowing nod.

“Aunt Edie!” said Betty, “How on earth do you know that?”

Aunt Edie winked, “I was young once, you know.” She turned to Persephone, “Well, that still doesn’t explain the carrots…” She gasped in horror, “Does it? They don’t do anything risqué with carrots, do they? Please tell me they don’t!”

“No!” said Persephone, “Not as far as I know. The carrot theme is more to do with the second part of the evening.”

“Second part?” Mary asked weakly, “You mean there’s more?” her voice trembled. 

“Of course!” said Persephone, “I’ve managed to get you into…” she paused dramatically, “The Khaki Carrot! The newest and fabbest Vegan Nightclub and Restaurant in Basilwade!” 

“When you say vegan, do you mean, well… vegan?” Florrie asked, “Only I don’t do fad diets.”

“Veganism isn’t a fad, I assure you,” said Persephone, “it’s the hottest new thing.” 

“Not if it’s salad, it’s not hot,” said Aunt Edie, “I loathe salad. All that chewing! It’s not dignified.” 

“Oh, I see,” said Betty, “The Khaki Carrot. And that’s why we’re supposed to dress up like carrots?”
Persephone nodded with enthusiasm. She was almost hugging herself with glee.

“But,” said Florrie, “Why are the catsuits orange?”

Persephone shook her head and tutted as if dealing with a rather foolish child, “Because, my dear, carrots are orange.”

“Don’t you take that patronising tone with me, miss!” said Florrie, crossing her arms indignantly, “I know carrots are orange but you said we were going to the Khaki Carrot! So why didn’t you bring camouflage catsuits?” 

“Look,” said Betty making calming gestures with her hands. The last thing she needed was for her wedding planner and her Maid-of-Honour to get into a fight, “let’s calm down. We’ll have a nice cuppa and then we’ll talk the arrangements over some more.”

“Non-refundable?” spluttered Florrie when Persephone explained she’d already purchased tickets and costumes, “You mean we’ve got to wear those ghastly clothes and go to watch men prance about in their undies and then eat cabbage?” 

“You’re going to love it! You’ll have such fun!” Persephone said.

When the wedding planner had gone, Florrie held up her catsuit, “I suppose I could make dusters out of it,” she said. 

“Florrie! Betty’s just paid for that! The least you could do is be grateful,” said Mary. 

“Yes, I suppose so. Well, in that case, perhaps we’d better try them on.”

“That dreadful woman was right about one thing,” said Aunt Edie, “We have had such fun, although I don’t suppose she intended it to be because we were trying on those outfits! I’ve never laughed so much in my life.” She flung the end of the feather boa over her shoulder with a flick, sending Mary into paroxysms of giggling. 

“I’m not sure we look much like carrots though,” Betty said wiping away the tears of laughter, “But you’re right Aunt Edie, we have had fun, and to think, the Hen Night’s not until Saturday!”

“Yes,” said Mary, “But I’m pretty sure if we asked we might get our money back for the tickets.”

“Although…” said Aunt Edie, “I rather enjoyed the Chippendales when I saw them… The Eye-kia Boys might be good.”

“Aunt Edie!” said Betty.

“What? It’s just a bit of innocent fun.”


“Well, of course! It’s always nice to see a well-dressed young male dancer.” 

“But I thought that was the point,” said Betty, “I thought they weren’t well-dressed.”

“Oh yes,” said Aunt Edie, “Beautifully dressed. You know, smart trousers, shiny shoes and bow ties.”

“Well, perhaps we ought to go and find out,” said Florrie, “it can’t be that bad, surely?”

“And if we don’t like it, or it’s too embarrassing, we can leave, can’t we?” said Mary, hope lighting her eyes.

On Saturday evening, the ladies assembled at Betty’s house, ready to start the Hen Night. They’d arrived dressed in their own clothes along with their orange bomber jackets, green berets and feather boas. And just in case Persephone turned up to check, they took the precaution of hiding their catsuits in their handbags.

“I’m sorry, Betty,” Mary said, “I just couldn’t bring myself to put that catsuit on.”

“Me neither,” said Betty, “but I think we all look splendid in our own clothes. And the jackets, berets and boas are enough to give a nod to carrot-dom.”

The bell rang and Betty opened the door. 

“Good evening, ladies. I’m Harris Tweed, your chauffeur and life-coach. Miss Perkins hired me to convey you to your Hen Night. Your carriage awaits.” 

“Did that young man say we were going in a coach?” asked Aunt Edie, “Only I get sick in coaches.”

“No, Aunt Edie, Persephone has laid on a car for us.”

“D’you think he’s bought a stretch limo?” Aunt Edie whispered.
“Knowing Persephone and her obsession with themes, it’s likely to be a vegetable truck or a supermarket delivery van,” said Florrie.

It was, in fact, an ordinary taxicab. 

Betty, Aunt Edie and Florrie squeezed in the back and Mary blushed as she realised she’d have to sit in the front next to Harris. 

“That’s a very fetching hat, you’re wearing, miss,” he said to her and she blushed even harder. 

“Th…thank you. I’m afraid my hair keeps falling out of it,” she said peering at herself in the vanity mirror on the visor and tucking stray curls up into the beret.

“Why don’t you leave it?” he said, “I think all those red-gold curls look glorious.”

“G… glorious?” Mary stammered and held her hands to her cheeks to hide her blushes. 

“I always say redheads have such beautiful, milky skin with angel kisses all over their noses,” Harris said.

“I should leave Mary alone, Harris,” Florrie shouted from the back, “she gets awfully embarrassed and if her cheeks get much hotter, she’s going to spontaneously combust.”

Harris pulled up outside the Basilwade Theatre and rushed around to open Mary’s door and help her out. 

“Don’t worry about us, we’ll manage to struggle out of the car on our own,” Aunt Edie grumbled as she climbed out. 

“I hope you have a wonderful time, ladies,” Harris said, “and I’ll be here to pick you up when the show’s over.” He winked at Mary.

“I think Mr Tweed’s taken a shine to you, Mary my girl,” Aunt Edie said.

“Rubbish,” said Mary with a furtive glance over her shoulder at the driver. 

“I thought you said the men would be beautifully dressed, Aunt Edie,” Betty said.

“They were!”

“But when you said they had bow ties, I assumed you meant they were wearing them on their shirts.”

“I didn’t mention shirts. Just bow ties. Weren’t they magnificent?” 

“But you definitely said they were wearing smart trousers.”

“Well, they were – until they took them off.”

“Their bodies were certainly very… um, dashing,” said Mary.

“And so… bulgy,” said Florrie, “I’ve never seen so much muscle, all rippling under lightly-oiled skin.”

“Oh, stop it!” said Betty, “you’re bringing me out in goose bumps!” 

They were all laughing when they arrived back at their taxicab.

“Evenin’ ladies,” Harris said, holding the front passenger door open for Mary, “it sounds like you all had a wonderful time. Strap yourselves in – we’re off to the Khaki Carrot.”

The four ladies sat at the bar.

“Let’s start with cocktails,” said Betty, passing around the menus. 

Aunt Edie studied the cocktail list. “Cauli Wobble? What’s in that?”

Betty read out the ingredients, “Cauliflower florets, whiskey, vermouth, bitters and an olive.” 

“Hmm, I’m not sure I like the sound of that. What’s in a Parsnip Paradise?”

“Parsnips, sherry, vodka, mango juice and an olive.”

“These cocktails sound revolting,” said Florrie. 

“Well, it’s one way of getting your five a day,” said Betty, “Come on! Let’s try something. I know the evening Persephone planned was a bit unusual but we’ve all enjoyed it so far, haven’t we?”

“All right,” said Florrie, “I’ll have a Strawberry Salsify Sizzle, please – and don’t tell me what’s in it. I don’t want to know.”

The others decided on Cauli Wobbles and Betty gestured to the barmaid.

“Yes?” the large, well-built woman in a green apron said brusquely, “Vot can I get you?”

“Vilya? Vilya Chekarova?” Betty said, her mouth agape as she recognised the woman who’d been a personal trainer at Muscle Bounders Gym. 

“Oh, it’s you,” Vilya said dismissively. She looked as if there was a disgusting smell beneath her nose, “Betty from the gym.” She peered at the four women, “Vy are you all looking so stupid please? Are you pretending to be carrots? Those hats are ridiculous and vot is this?” she said holding Betty’s boa up between finger and thumb. 

“How dare you?” said Betty, “You rude woman. If you must know, these are guests at my Hen Night and next week, I’m going to marry Sydney Jugg, the man whose business idea you stole.”

“Bah!” said Vilya, her hands on her hips, “three course meal smoothies vere stupid anyway.”

“That’s not the point! Sydney could’ve made it work if you hadn’t tried it and given several people food poisoning!”

“Vot rubbish!” Vilya said with a toss of her head, and then added, “So, you are marrying Syderney? You must be desperate!” 

“I am not desperate! And it’s Sydney! His name’s Sydney!”

“That is vot I said – Syderney! Ha!” she said, her lip curled in contempt, “That man is a vimp!”

“How dare you call my fiancé a vimp!” Betty balled her fist and despite Vilya being almost twice her size, in height and width, she was poised to swing, ready to defend Sydney’s honour.

Vilya opened her mouth to reply, then froze. She appeared to be focusing on something or someone behind Betty and the look of scorn was instantly replaced by a deferential expression. In a silky voice, she said, “Good evening, ladies! May I get you a drink? I recommend the Vortercress Virl or perhaps the Ginger and Shallot Shocker.” 

Startled at the sudden change in demeanour, Betty un-balled her fist and meekly took the drinks menu that Vilya proffered. 

“Good evening,” said a voice from behind them. It was a tall, smartly-dressed man with a badge on his lapel – George Myers: Manager.
“Firstly, ladies, may I say how marvellous your outfits are! So in keeping with our modest establishment,” he said.

“Zey are supposed to be carrots,” said Vilya, smiling proudly as if she was responsible for the jackets, berets and feather boas. 

“Yes! Yes! I can see that! What a wonderful idea! Please order what you like, ladies – on the house!” 

“Well, let’s start with three Cauli Wobbles and a Strawberry Salsify Sizzle please,” said Aunt Edie quickly. “You know, Mr Myers, this is my niece’s Hen Night. I was wondering if perhaps you could see your way clear to giving us a meal on the house as well?”

“Aunt Edie!” said Betty, embarrassed at her aunt’s audacity.

Mr Myers laughed and nodded, “Why not? You ladies have given me an excellent idea for staff uniforms. When we opened, we decided to go for green aprons but as you can see, they’re not very distinctive. But I love your colour scheme and those jackets and accessories! They’re simply marvellous! They’d look spectacular on our staff.”

“And how about this?” Aunt Edie asked, taking her orange catsuit out of her handbag, “That lovely barmaid, Vilya, would look marvellous in this!”

“Aunt Edie!” Betty gasped. 

“Yes,” said Florrie, taking her catsuit out of her handbag, “See how much it stretches.” She pulled it sideways. “I’m sure this would fit over all of Vilya’s very substantial body. They’ll fit anyone.”

Mr Myers nodded approvingly, “And where can I get hold of these amazing garments?”

“I’m sure my fiancé, Sydney, could get you sufficient for all your staff,” Betty said, “He’s so entrepreneurial!”

“And in the meantime,” said Mary, “Why don’t you take these samples?” she got hers out of her handbag.

“Thank you so much, ladies!”

Vilya returned with the drinks and placed one in front of each of the women. 

Betty beamed at her friends. This Hen Night was turning out to be wonderful after all.
And then Aunt Edie made it even better.

“Here,” she said giving Mr Myers her beret and boa, “Why don’t you ask our lovely barmaid to try out the whole ensemble now. I’m sure she’d love to, wouldn’t you Vilya, dear?”

It had been just as well Persephone had booked Harris to take the ladies home. Vegan cocktails as served in the Khaki Carrot turned out to be more potent than the guests on the Hen Night had suspected – or perhaps Vilya had been more generous than usual with the alcohol. By the time they arrived at the Willows Retirement Home, it was locked for the night and Matron had not been happy about Aunt Edie’s late arrival, nor about the song she was singing – nor the actions which went with it. 

When they arrived at Florrie’s house, she couldn’t find her door key and Harris feared she’d left it in the Khaki Carrot and that he’d have to go back to retrieve it. But finally, after tipping the contents of her handbag over the doorstep, she found it. 

He then took Betty home and watched her weave her way up the front path. She successfully negotiated the dustbin and the disgruntled cat to reach the front door, only to find she couldn’t get the key in the lock. It was Harris who remembered he’d picked her up from the house next door and led her to the correct keyhole in the correct door. 

The ladies had been so drunk, no one had noticed that although Florrie and Mary lived next door to each other, only Florrie had got out. So, once Harris had dropped off Betty, Mary was still in the car.
Rather than being annoyed, he was thrilled at having extra time with her.

What a beautiful creature she is, he thought.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Mary said as he helped her up the path to her door. 

“Well, perhaps I ought to pop round tomorrow to see how you are,” he said.

“That’sh very kind.” 

“All part of the service,” Harris said.

Links to previous stories in the series:
1) A Question of Timing: 
2) In MaryWorld: 
3) Knit and Natter: 
4) Mint Pink: 
5) Sydney Jugg’s Book of Grievances: 
6) Is there Anybody There?:  
7) Going Freelance:  
8) So App-ealing: 
9) No Saints at All Saints’:
10) A Meal of Biblical Proportions
11) It is Better to Give than to Receive 
12) Superhero Worship
13) Playground Justice
14) Politically Correct at Christmas
15) The Life Coach  

About the auhtor

Dawn’s first success was with a short horror story published in a charity anthology entitled Shrouded by Darkness in 2006.
Several years later, she had a Young Adult book (Daffodil and the Thin Place) and a single author anthology of speculative fiction stories (Extraordinary), published as well as several historical romances, set mainly during and between the two world wars. 
She has written two plays about the First World War, one of which commemorated the beginning of the war and was first performed in England in 2014 and then in France and Germany. The other play commemorated the end of the war and was performed in England in 2018 and in Germany 2019.
Using her World War One research, she has also written a book entitled The Great War – One Hundred Stories of One Hundred Words Honouring Those Who Lived and Died One Hundred Years Ago.