‘Hot and Cold’ – short story by Lesley Atherton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Marta,’ I said. ‘Shall we do it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be Grand

Purple heather crackles under my mud-crusted feet as I tramp downwards towards the small, grey dwelling.  And the rain begins to fall, thunder booming from some distance away, but I know it will be with me soon.  I must make haste.  I’ve no fear of the weather but I’ve fear of the people who I’ve been told are following the storm to be in my village.  Bad people who want to take all that’s good and turn it into all that’s not.  I pick up speed now, almost stumbling over stones and bumps in the ground.  Without realising, I come upon a sheep, forlorn and unusually friendly to me, but having no time to pet it, I shoo it back to its herd.  And, looking up, I can see the beauty of what lies below me in this summer-green valley, framed by hills and mountains of such splendour.  I’m proud that this is my home and I will defend it, my family and my kinsmen, with my life if need be.


As my feet kick against something hard, I look back at the intrusion: the hilt of a sword, plunged deep into the peat-topped land.  Is it a trap?  Are there enemies at hand?  I am Ewan, my father’s son, my mother’s mischievous spirit child and my wife’s lover and support in all times.  Ewan Armstrong.  Strong of arm but not of head, my father would say.  But many would disagree.  It is of no matter.  We are all strong in this small part of the clan. But enemies we have aplenty amongst those who covet fertile valleys and water that sparkles come rain or shine. 

It is a simple sword; simple and strong – as I am – and I can see the sharpness of the blade as I slide it from the flesh-like peat.  The handle is plain with the exception of two small carvings, and it is a long blade also: long and heavy.  But when I fully extract it from the ground it lightens in my hands.  I was made to hold this sword.  One hand.  Both hands.  I was made for this and it was made for me. 

I examine the blade and see how it hadn’t been found before now – it was definitely not newly placed.  Moss and lichen touched the blade and handle and the seasons had changed the metal’s colour a little, blending it in with the heather and peat.  Off the path in rarely travelled land, I was truly fortunate to have found this magnificent thing. 

Or was it meant to be?  A destiny of sorts? Was this sword something to me?  I wasn’t usually given to such meanderings of the mind, but the moment I’d stumbled over this I felt it deep in my bones that I was to have it, to take it back with me and to use as need be.

It wasn’t comfortable to run with the sword tucked away deep underneath my cloak, and I knew I ran the risk of again stumbling and injuring myself.  But I had no choice.  I could not leave it.  This sword was already speaking to me, instructing me, strengthening me…  As I ran I knew the thunder was nearing, almost like drums of warning banging and banging to alert village and crops and livestock of what catastrophe lay ahead brought in by the storm.

I ran, with no concern for anything other than my return home.  I ran with the sure feeling that if I didn’t there would be blood on my hands and pain in the heart of all I knew.

As I neared the village, there were calls to me.  I ignored all sounds and objects in my path – till I arrived home to Fionna.  Her usual welcoming expression transformed to shock as I searched for a hiding place for the incredible sword.  As I hid it, I told her hurriedly all I knew about the weapon and its placement, and about the clan wars soon to be brought by the wind. 

‘We’d better do something then, Ewan.  When you get a bad feeling it usually means something.  And that storm is stronger than it was.  It is a difficult one, Ewan.  I sense something also, but…’

We hugged because there was nothing more to do. 

Our ‘better do something,’ had become ‘nothing can be done just yet,’ because we didn’t know our enemy and we didn’t know when the enemy would arrive. 

We ate barley and mutton broth and nettle tops.  And shortly after, dried apples and herbs with honey and roots from the fields – a sustaining meal to strengthen us for the battle we were sure was approaching. 

And we were right.  The rumbles came upon us harder and faster.  Louder with every passing moment.  And out of the mist that was gathering with the strengthening of the rain came a shout or two.  It was impossible to tell who was shouting and from where.

‘Do I use the sword?’ I asked the air.  Both the Gods in my head and my Goddess wife answered ‘Use it’.  I scrambled for the sword as the noise came to me more clearly now, horses’ hooves accentuating the crash of the thunder, and out of it, the sound of men’s voices bellowing like wild pigs.  Loud and deep and rough, the noise was.  Shouting sounds of fear and devilment. 

Fionna grabbed her own sword as she made her way out of the door. My hand felt for her waist as she passed and I pulled her back just for a moment.  ‘Be strong,’ I said.  ‘I know,’ she replied as I kissed her long auburn hair, filled with straw and dust from the fields.  ‘Be grand,’ I said.  ‘Be grand,’ she replied as she ran, unbending and uncollapsed into the throng of kinsmen we loved and who we would protect with our lives and our dignity.

How I wished now for heather under my heels and the soft trickle of a mountain stream in which to take my fill of life-giving liquid; how I wished for peace and harmony and whispered conversations of love in woodland clearings.  But this was real.  Conflict was real and as necessary as air to breathe and water to drink.  Peace was merely a lull between times of conflict, a time to rest and to re-gather strength.  The sword had appeared to me for a reason – and if I was to die that day then so be it.  I would die with sword in hand and honour in heart. 

My wife three paces ahead of me I left our home behind, running into the mist as she had, unknowing  who, if any, might return.

Ahead were, oh yes I could see them now, the enemies – the tribesmen without honour.  I knew that, maybe not today, but some day, our kinsmen would return here in glory in the knowledge that we were coming back to our ancestral home.  In our native land and with sword in hand, I was imbued with a power I couldn’t explain. 

Fionna shouted ‘Ewan,’ and I ran to catch her up, sword raised, heart pumping, fearless, even of death.  And I wasn’t mistaken, but a green gold light glowed from the tip of this weapon.  I closed my eyes, lifted up my arms in simultaneous submission and attack and shouted to the skies – ‘Protect.  Honour us.  We will be grand’.

We would be grand.    

‘Book of Longing’ by Leonard Cohen

This attractive book of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, prose-poems and artwork, was taken from content that first appeared on http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com.  Some became song lyrics, and many in their current form, do have that feel.  Indeed, it is these shorter and more lyrical pieces of writing that speak to me the most.  Consider stanza 7 from the poem, ‘Better’.
 
better than darkness
is darkless
which is inkier, vaster
more profound
and eerily refrigerated
filled with caves
and blinding tunnels
in which appear
beckoning dead relatives
and other religious
paraphernalia
 
Some of the poetry is bewildering and clever, and I become overly aware of how many references I don’t understand.  This is nobody’s fault but mine. The poem, ‘Fun’ is about believing in God.
It is so much fun
to believe in G-d
You must try it sometime
Try it now
and find out whether
or not
G-d wants you
to believe in Him.
 
And another short poem is called ‘Thousands’. It simply reads:
 
Out of the thousands
who are known,
or who want to be known
as poets,
maybe one or two
are genuine
and the rest are fakes,
hanging around the sacred precincts
trying to look like the real thing.
Needless to say
I am one of the fakes,
and this is my story.
 
Shorter still is ‘Sorrows of the Elderly’.
 
The old are kind.
The young are hot.
Love may be blind.
Desire is not.
 
The shorter and snappier poems appeal more to those of us who aren’t poets and aren’t that well informed either.  However, I intend to pick up this book on future occasions and attempt to understand more of what I haven’t already picked up! 

Emmelines

(For Tracy) 

I’d arrived at her home to pick up my latest eBay purchase – a large, lead-lined, mahogany box.  I planned to use it as a form of strong box or safe.  Given the weight of the item, posting it had been prohibitively expensive, but I’d borne that in mind when placing my bids.  I’d checked in advance, and discovered the seller lived nearby on the opposite side of town, and had been amenable to my picking it up.  In fact, she’d been most understanding and had closed the auction, allowing me to do a Buy It Now for a reduced price. 

The seller’s home was a dark, three-storey Georgian place with chequer tiled entranceway, in a part of town I hadn’t been to before.  It reflected the gentrified suburbs as they had likely been more than 100 years ago. 

I was met, at first, by a young girl, who invited me into the drawing room.  I’d never been in a home that had a drawing room before, living as I did on a down to earth council estate where living rooms and lounges predominated. 

As I entered her living space I was overwhelmed by the pinkness, the puffiness and the laciness of the lady and everything around her.  The decor was far too feminine and glitzy for my taste, being rich with chandeliers and crystal drop lightshades, mirrored furniture and even a rug with pile so deep that I got my shoe a little stuck. I was immediately fascinated and couldn’t take my eyes off LadyPinkland, the eBay seller of all things esoteric. 

LadyPinkland was reclining on her chaise longue with a contrived Barbara Cartland-type air, accentuated by the fact that she was entirely dressed in pink.  It was possible, in my curiosity and interest, to forgive her the tiny lap dog and gallons of perfume.  It was also possible to forgive the terrible (but thankfully short) poetry on Spring and Kittens and Babies she spouted at me the moment I arrived.

Her poem finished on the line “Oh, her ears were so fluffy, my adorable Muffy,”  and I genuinely wondered if it was possible to be nauseated by words, when the lady rose from her lying position and said, “The name is Emmeline, like Emily Dickinson, of course”, before flopping back down.
I nodded.  “Oh yes, of course, of course,” I said.

Emmeline brushed off some dog hair from her pink angora cardigan.  She was quite a woman – and it wasn’t just the air of pinkness about her (the cardigan of course, her long pink skirt, and the little peter pan collar on her tiny, tight pink blouse), but if you’d got closer you’d have noticed how the effect was spoiled by support stockings and far-too-comfy shoes.

Being at least ten years younger than her at the time (I estimated she was 70, to my 55), I was unsure of why she read me poetry, why she showed me so much interest and why she had allowed me to purchase the box for less than the reserve price.  It was hard to say.  And, even now, in hindsight, I know more, I still struggle to make much sense of any of it. 

It did cross my mind that perhaps she’d been one of those women who had always received a lot of attention as a youth, and who didn’t understand why it should ever stop. 

I found myself wondering, as I stared at her orthopaedic  shoes, flat and brown and wide, if she’d ever been married, and reckoned that if she had, then her husband had died young, leaving her to go slowly insane.  But I wasn’t uneasy, really I wasn’t.  The only thing which might have made me a little uneasy was her constant and noisy crunching of parma violets – an easily forgivable attribute – as were her odd attitude and the way she hand-fed the sweets to her revolting mutt.

After all, ladies of that age who weren’t particularly nimble and couldn’t get out much, must get a little lonely.  Her dog would likely be her best friend.  Her only friend.  And the little girl who answered the door must surely have been a neighbour’s child who came in occasionally to keep an eye on her and assist her with her pearl earrings and other womanly stuff. 

That was a point.  The girl… where was the girl?  I looked around, and though I heard no door open or close, the girl had gone.  No mind.  I was there for the box – nothing else.

“Hello, Emmeline,” I said, “I’m Stewart and I’m here to pick up the lead-lined box I ordered on eBay”.

“I know,” she said, displaying a slight nervous twitch round the corner of her mouth.  “Would you like a sweet?  Chocolate?  Chopped banana?”

“No thank you,” I say.  “I’ve paid for the box so if you could point me in the direction of it, I’ll collect it and soon be out of your way.”

“Nonsense,” Emmeline boomed, popping what looked like barley sugar into her mouth.  “Nonsense, you must remain here and partake in tea.  I shall get Emmeline to bring some in.”  She reached and pulled a pink velvet bell cord as her tiny dog scuttled to the floor to hide behind the furniture.    

So, the girl must also have been called Emmeline.  That was strange.  Such an unusual name.  Such an unusual household. 

“Is the little girl your neighbour?” 

“Oh no,” said the older Emmeline.  “She is my…” She seemed to struggle finding the right words.  “She is my ward.”

“Ah,” I said, “named after you?”

“Oh no.  No, no. No.  Not that at all.”

A knock came to the drawing room door.  The young Emmeline, no doubt.  From her couch, the older Emmeline commanded “Get some tea. But first, the box. Mahogany, lead-lined.  Show the man where it is”.

I was relieved – I can’t pretend I wasn’t.  I was going to get what I came in for, and get the hell out of there pretty damn soon.

I watched as Emmeline re-entered the room as silently as she had left it.  She looked in the direction of the older woman with what I could only describe as a sulky glare, then turned her glare to me as she walked towards another door at the far side of the room.  Her face was too pale.  Her eyes were too tired.  Her clothing was odd too… why the hell hadn’t I noticed that clothing before?  She looked like something from a fancy dress shop with her blue smock and ridiculous bonnet. 

“Emmeline, more speed,” came the older woman’s instruction. 

More important than the young girl’s obvious pallor was the equally obvious fact that she also was becoming transparent.

It was all getting a little bit much.  Fair enough, I’d had a couple of pints at lunch, and had only finished one of my sandwiches, but I didn’t think I was becoming delusional from too much drink or too little nourishment.  It was the place and the people, not me – and it was all beginning to freak me out.  Certainly I could cope with a mad old lady with a Barbara Cartland complex, and I could cope easily with a weird little Wednesday Addams kind of kid but what I couldn’t deal with – and didn’t really want to deal with – was anything that defied the bloody laws of physics.  That really did get me down.  And that whole transparency thing.  Wow.  I’ve seen some things in my time, but that I really couldn’t grasp. 

What the hell was going on?  As Emmeline the younger had drifted past me, I’d caught a smell of something old and musty like moth balls and the old-style Germolene ointment my gran had always used to patch up my grazed knees.  But little Emmeline was young and sweet and should not smell  old and musty.  I wondered if I should ask her what the smell was, but as I blinked, the rapidly disappearing shape of Emmeline the younger was gone.

And then I realised.  Then, I got it.  My rapidly rising cold sweat and leaden feet confirmed I’d got it right, though I felt insane to even consider it… but there was no other explanation. 

Emmeline 1 and Emmeline 2 did not seem able to share the same room space. 

As one arrived the other departed.   

I had stumbled into some horrific, terrifying farce where two became one, and – to make matters more horrifying – I was seemingly unable to move.

The girl Emmeline had disappeared and the old lady Emmeline had lifted her hefty pink bulk once again from its reclining position.  “Where has that dreadful girl gone?” she asked.

I shrugged, suddenly brave.  “She became transparent and left.  You don’t seem to be able to co-exist.”

“Well, of course not,” the old Emmeline said.  “She and I are one and we are the same.”

One old and one young, as if the person was split in two and not quite whole in either of the forms.  It was then, and only then, that I wondered what the Emmelines would do with me and whether I would make it out of that house alive.

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked.

“Good heavens, no,” the old Emmeline said.  “You have come for the box, and you shall take it away.  And then you shall forget.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Oh, dear man, you shall.  You shall.”

I don’t remember the box.  I don’t remember getting home and getting into bed.  In fact, I remember nothing else till I woke the following morning. 

Well, that’s not strictly true. 

If I’m to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember any of the events that had passed since I’d left the pub.  But… and here’s the interesting part… I’d been interviewing a work colleague in The White Hart.  She was going through her presentation for our next sales campaign.  My memory being as it is, I had set up my dictaphone in my jacket pocket.  It was only when I woke fully dressed and checked my pockets for phone and wallet (thankfully still there), that I also saw the dictaphone.  It had recorded till the space ran out.

That’s how I pieced together the story and a couple of images and memories had returned.  And that’s how I knew I’d returned from the lady’s house without the mahogany box I’d paid for.  And how there was no way I was going back for it. 

And, anyway, I’d ended up with something else entirely more sinister…

A note, in an older woman’s spidery handwriting simply saying “A Liberation Commemoration.  Thank you”.

And a portrait of the young Emmeline (in lead-lined mahogany frame) now hanging over my bed.  Her expression odd, somehow trapped.

Ever Tried to Write a 100 Word Story?


Here are two of my recent attempts…

Story 1: The Trip
The ice cream falls, leading to inevitable toddler screams, face reddening to emerge a deep dark magenta. 
“Mummmmmmeeeeeeeee” he shouts.  She comforts. But still, I’m not at fault, his mother thinks.  He was running.  He was being silly.  His laces were untied. 
Adamant: he’s not getting another. 
Soon the screaming ends, the face normalises and the little boy sits and sniffs once, twice, three times.
“Are you still hungry,” Mummy asks. 
He nods a little.
“Want another?” Mummy asks. 
He nods again. 
“Go on then, but be careful this time,” Mummy says. 
He nods again, but both know he won’t.

Story 2: The Dress
The dress was pale blue gingham, the hair long, blonde, and ringlet curly: the child, almost three, with cheeks smooth, downy and pink. 
“Can I wear it tomorrow, Mummy?” 
The mother looked at her husband who stifled a scold. 
Ignoring her partner, she replied, “Of course, darling, if you love it that much”. 
Her son did love it that much.  He wore the dress daily, together with white sandals and a yellow ribbon in his hair.  The nursery teachers smirked, his sister sniggered and dad disapproved. 
But Mummy and son played with the dress’s lace trim, enjoying moments soon lost.