Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Short Stories’ Category

The Bridge Builder’s Son

Stood 800 feet overlooking the River Tees on the peak of the Transporter Bridge. A closeness beyond life. A moment of pure clarity as to why he was standing transfixed, arms outstretched in a christ-like crucifixion pose. Inhale, deep breath, the chill plummeted into his masculine chest like a thousand razor blades degrading all the shivering resilience he was able to muster.

Exhale, warm breath evaporates from his lips to be lost in the orbiting world of colliding satellites, which sail haphazardly above him in the north sky and its carpet of stars. The perplexed matrix of lights from homes, industrial estates, office blocks and shopping centres surrounded his landscape. Flickering dots, the headlights of cars cascading through the urban, barren streets of Teesside.

Below him, the industrial nightshift belches out its obnoxious clouds of smoke and flames, a dancing pyre cavorting with the rhythm that will soon be daylight. Silence, only broken by a gentle breeze, which swirls between the ribs of the bridge and his hair. This bridge is a testimony to resistance, her untouched remorse formed by the regrets of pitted souls belonging to the hardest of men who laboured to bring her to birth.

Unlike the lives, she once touched she bares no consequence of time but static she remains. Once she stood amongst the toils of labour. Now she casts a deep shadow over the sterile conformities of carparks, shopping centres and cheap alcohol redemptions, which paper cracks with little sincerity.

Intimating primal childhood fears, a mesmerising steel monster sitting alongside the insecurities of her riverbanks, weeping with remorse. The empty streets, industrial units and vacant pubs where the ghosts of landlords celebrate the wages of lost generations. Scaling the bridge every step recoiled in memory for his father now missed. A bond rooted in love and the gentleness that had guided him from boy too man. Perched on top, the river flows like black blood below him. Unzipping his backpack, removing the canister secured inside. Closing eyes, he whispers words, “I love you, dad.” His father’s ashes drift downwards in the open sky and into the black blooded river. There to be washed out and to return on the evening tide where the Bridge Builder will wait for his son.

Rough Grain

Dramatic clouds, seagrass bending too the breeze. The warm ceramic cup between the tips of fingers, I took a sip of black coffee. The melancholic mood of Sunday morning’s interrupted by the reality of life. The noise of parents seeking desperately to control their offspring, making demands, they surrender, and staff behind a makeshift counter rapidly took orders, shouting them through to a small kitchen where a large lady made a note.

Driftwood retrieved from the sea on display, clumsy art, the smell of fried food. Through the window, I’d noticed she had been stood there for quite a while. On the sand dunes, still, just staring out across the waters, motionless. Her silhouette set against the sky. Is she playing with memories? Looking down at my coffee, I take another sip and a trail of old cup stains ground into the rough grain of the bench. Each cup mark representing somebody, who sat here and no doubt pondered the universe.

Aasma was her name. She had explained in struggled, broken English,  She asked “please time” as she sat on the nearby bench alone. Her demeanor, as if waiting for a train, flight or ferry. “Have a nice day” I said as she exited the beach cafe. “Thank you” she replied, before making her way up the sand path to the water’s edge. A silent sadness followed her steps. An intense sense of solitude.

I had noticed she had bent down as if to tie shoelaces, then standing upright, she calmly placed her hands on her face, turned and made her way back down the path and passed the cafe window, which I sat behind. A small nod of acknowledgment from each other and she was gone.

Leaving the cafe, inhaling the sea air, the sound of waves in the near distance and seagulls screaming their constant hunger I made my way up the sand path to where she had stood. Looking across the seas, no lands were in view to these naked eyes. Nestled in the sand, where she stood, 3  separate pebbles lay on the stems of 3 carnation flowers.

Just Yesterday

Simple acts of generosity and the kindness they embrace can often be overlooked especially in a world where harshness towards compassion is projected by political leaders as a weakness.  The collective mass of these simple gestures of kindness, like a stream of water smooths a jagged stone into a pebble, is the ultimate antidote to this political harshness. This happened yesterday.

I was looking out from the ground floor window. It was a damp, rainy morning, overcast and cold. I decided to venture across the road to the local cafe for breakfast. The cafe, managed by a local Chinese lady who is always cheerful, keen to engage her customers to elicit ideas for the menu and on this dull day her cheerfulness will not go amiss. I open the door of the cafe, step from the chill into the warmth. A tame radio is playing, and the Chinese lady welcomes me. Four customers acknowledge my presence by raising their heads, they glare for a moment and quickly return to their food, drink, and chatter. After ordering, I sit quietly, frequently and addictively gaze at my iPhone reading the latest news and social media updates.

The table to my immediate right sits two guys in their late 40s discussing the incidental happenings of the universe. Conversation voids are filled with slurps of teas, munching of a full English. Newspapers laid open on their table generate observations concerning the weather, football, Trump and the ostentatious lifestyle of the rich and famous. They share stories about Valentine’s day. The cards they bought their wives, the meals they enjoyed and the wine they drank. Clicks, clangs, and the fragrance of cooking emerge from the kitchen while the traffic steers through the rain outside. People hurry by the window, collars turn up and hats firmly fixed. The table in front of me sits a man mid-30s and his teenage daughter. It’s like watching two chess players engaged in an enthralling game. They are negotiating about the arrangements for the day. He has care duties, and it’s the school holidays. It transpires that for the teenager her parents have recently separated, and he has just picked her up from home. There is a nervous tone as the pair start the journey of building a new path from the rubble, but shared giggles are heard as they leave the cafe for their day ahead together. He holds the door for his daughter and the young couple entering the cafe.

The young couple,  in their mid-20s, entering the cafe, without any eye contact, make haste to the corner table and empty their pockets on the top. The coins clatter, they are sorted and counted. There is a tension, a nervous tension. The young man has a swagger about him, he is heavily tattooed, wears a black baseball cap and refers to his partner as darling with a thick South Bristol accent. The young lady has a tired face, looks exhausted and she calmly nods at her man as he talks through the various options from the menu. He is taking his time, offering options. She confirms he makes the order with the Chinese lady at the counter. The young man turns and walks back to the table, sits opposite his women and reaches out to her. She leans forward slightly, gives an awkward smile and takes his hands. They stare at each intensively, he provides a nod of encouragement, comforting her, “everything is going to be ok, I promise.” There is a muffled cry, her head lowers and he tightens his hold of her hands.

There is tenderness in their exchanges of the ordinary. The proprietor of the cafe, with her small, unimposing Chinese persona, realising there is something not quite right strolls to the table where the young couple sat quietly.“Forgive me for intruding, but I could not help but see you are upset is everything alright?” asks the Chinese lady.  An uncomfortable silence, she gently smiles and asks again. The story unfolds. The young couple had recently moved in together against the strong wishes of the young man’s family. This had resulted in tensions and the breakdown in relationships between the young man and his family. He had chosen his love. The young lady had slowly, painfully and successfully weaned herself off a drug addiction. The tortured lines of despair on her face, which amassed around her eyes echoed her determination, but nobody except her boyfriend believed she had the willpower to keep up the fight. As the Chinese lady listened, the young man watched on attentively with a look that could melt icebergs. Due to a small change in personal circumstance, they had just received a letter, which had confirmed their social security benefits had been reduced to the point they could no longer manage to pay the rent for their shared flat. Both young people were without employment.

The young couple now faced the risk of separating. The only feasible option was for the young lady to move back with her parents while he sought a short-term arrangement with friends. The young couple shared their journey of highs, lows and self-inflicted wounds. The Chinese lady waited until the story had unfolded. She paused for a moment and turned her attention to the young man. “I was just about to put an advert in the window for help in the kitchen and serving would you be interested?” Without giving much thought, the young man eagerly replied, “yes, when can I start?” the Chinese lady answered, “No time like the present”  The young man and the Chinese lady stand up and walk to the kitchen area. As they approached the counter, the young man reached into his pocket to pay for the breakfast he and his girlfriend had just enjoyed. The Chinese lady said, “No payment required employees get food as part of their job.”

Isabel Scarcliff

Sirius Scarcliff’s disfigured existence brought terror and trepidation to those facing his judgement. Those gathered to witness his deathly endeavours prayed in fear of avoiding a similar predicament. A short reading from his black leather Bible and a slight nod of his cloaked head, the hangman pulled the rope, the final whimpered cry as the struggling torso swung from the water bank and then slowly stillness. Silence. The wretched soul of his latest victim departed from their mortal existence. Upon the execution of his deadly deed, Sirius would turn to those gathered, warning them of the dangers of witchcraft in the village. To be vigilant of their friends, neighbours and family. The witchfinder for Brislington, Bristol 1694-1696. Sirius had been appointed by the Puritans of the village who wanted to purify their church and community. Sirius was tasked with undertaking the exorcisms of demonic possession. He had come to prominence during the Salem witch trials of 1692–1693. During his ruthless charge, he showed no mercy in applying his judgement regardless of age or circumstances. His youngest known victim was a seven-month baby boy, whose parents had reported the child for demonic possession. A 70-year old village elder fell foul of his judgement for speaking in the tongue to other witches, when alone, although the most notorious case that set off a sequence of events, which ultimately led to his demise, is the case of the Morgan Family.

The head of the Morgan Family was Oswyn 38 years old. His wife Katherine was 33 years old. Their two sons were Daniel (12 years old) and Samuel (8 years old). Following accusations of witchcraft Sirius consulted his book of Daemonologia (published in 1567) and the whole family were subject to persecution. Katherine Morgan was thrown into the nearby river Avon with her thumbs tied to her opposite big toes. If she were to float, she would be guilty of witchcraft, but if Katherine sank then she was innocent. Kathrine Morgan was to die from her experience. After initially submerging below the current her body surfaced and floated on the river. Her body was brought back for judgement, alongside the rest of the Morgan family. The sentence of death for witchcraft was given. Oswyn, Daniel and Samuel were simultaneously executed from the village hanging tree, which to this day can be found on the Brislington Brook trail. Katherines lifeless body was burnt nearby. The persecution and subsequent execution of the Morgan family had caused both anger and revulsion, which also came at a time of growing unrest at Sirius’s murderous reign of terror.

On the evening of 13th September 1696, the villagers gathered around Sirius’s house and summarily dragged him, his wife, Martha and their young daughter Isabel down to the hanging tree. Each member of the family was branded with a crucifix on their foreheads, but instead of being hanged they were entombed alive in the hollow of the hanging tree. As the days went by their cries because more and more faint, until silent.

To this date, this incident has divided ancestors of the Puritans. On the anniversary of the entombment of the Scarcliff family, a small gathering of Puritans leave offerings of fresh fruit, burn candles and prays are given. It is said by locals that on dark winter evenings when the wind is blowing through the trees a murmured cry can be heard from the direction of the hanging tree.  During the winter months of 1976, Sidney Thompson, a local resident, claimed to have caught a black and white grainy image of Sirius and Martha Scarcliff walking and searching the woods. To his dying day, Mr Thompson claimed to have heard them repeatedly call the name, “Isabel.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Additional photographs can be found at the lost woods

1000 miles from home

Devizes Road Cemetery

Devizes Road is a busy artery shuffling vehicles to and from the heart of Salisbury. Houses lined like lego on both sides with intermittent shops, occasional commercial garage and the oblitory public house that seem to have seen better days. Frustrated drivers sound their horns as they navigate the obstacle of illegally parked cars, radios and banter from builders, a young tired couple argue intensively whilst their offspring peers out from the relative safety of his pushchair absorbing the chaotic sounds.  Built before the advent of mass car use it takes little to bring Devizes Road to an halt, especially when large delivery trucks thunder down towards the city centre ladened with commodities from faraway lands to be sold to ever demanding consumers.  Eight brand new cars vibrant and shake like charms on a Pandora bracelet as the truck carrying them slows down. The big beast stops. Its tremors burst along the footpath and cause vibrations under my feet. An elderly resident steps out from her home, closes the wooden gate behind her, looks up at the sky and with no expression slowly walks past me. Opened in 1856, with its small chapel it would only take a flicker of an eye to miss the cemetery on Devizes Road, which is closed to full earth burials.

Upon entering its gates one is suddenly embraced by the mythical silence cemeteries bring, which is coupled Devizes Road Cemeterywith a feeling of unease and humbleness. So many stories of love, loss and sadness. Husbands, wives, children to their journey’s end. An elderly lady is attending a grave, she is the only person I come across.  A childs windmill is spinning, weathered, standing slightly askew, pinned down near a small grave.  Sitting amongst the scattered, ageing and often crumbling memorials are new headstones, sand coloured, identical in size and shape. Maybe 30 of them shattered around the site each inscribed with a crucifix, reference number, name, rank, date of death and if known date of birth, “34593 Edward Daniel Curtin,  Army Medical Corps, 11th April 1915 Age 21. Second Lieutenant Goodyear….also his son Leonard….”  Whatever one things about the cause, process or purpose of war the sacrifices these people have made is beyond calculation. As I walked through the uneven grounds, taking care and pausing to read the inscriptions, trying to imagine the impossible, their fleeting lives, fears, the horrors that they must have witnessed. Towards the rear of the cemetery I find 4 distinctively different headstones marking the resting places for Ulrich Helma, Adolf Dolejš, Antonin Plocek and Richard Hapala. I was intrigued given their foreign names to discover more and so a small journey began.

On the night of the 1st and 2nd July 1941 Ulrich Helma, Adolf Dolejš, Antonin Plocek and Richard Hapala were part of a six-member crew and RAF squadron tasked with carrying out a bombing raid on the port of Cherbourg, northwestern occupied French. Whilst the team was led by Ulrich Helm, an experienced pilot amassing 18 11401044_852209188190430_5873817122638950119_nprevious air raids the remainder of the crew were young rookies. Their target that night was the Prinz Eugen, a battle cruiser, which had arrived in Cherbourg after leaving the ill fated Bismarck that had been sunk. According to reports there was at least one direct hit, which crashed through the deck of the ship preventing its from leaving port until vital repairs were undertaken. Returning to British shores after their mission the British Royal Air Force picked up the returning plane on radar defence and made several attempts to contact the crew, but with no success. The plane’s identification, friend or foe system, which was designed to make home stations recognise incoming friendly aircraft was malfunctioning. The plane was considered hostile and shot down. The stricken plane crashed at Lower Park Farm, southeast of the town of Mere, Wiltshire. The entire crew consisting of Sgt. Ulrich Helm (pilot), Sgt. Anthony Plocek, (copilot) P.O Richard Hapala, (navigator), Sgt. Adolf Dolejš, (radio operator), Sgt. Jaroslav Petrucha, (leading scorer) and  Sgt. Jaroslav Lančík, (rear gunner) died. Ulrich Helma, Adolf Dolejš, Antonin Plocek and Richard Hapala were buried in a Devizes Road Cemetery, Salisbury.

They were all members of  No 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF, which at the end of world war 2 was disbanded as an RAF unit and became part of the reformed Czechoslovak Air Force. That day I walked back home, along Devizes Road opened up my laptop and pieced together this story. 4 brave men who escaped the tyranny of hate spreading across their homeland 1000 miles away in what is now known as the Czech Republic.  In these turbulent times we live where we can casually dismiss  the suffering of others through the flick of a TV remote we can also easily forget the sacrifices of people like Ulrich Helma, Adolf Dolejš, Antonin Plocek and Richard Hapala who laid down their lives for a better Europe and indeed a better world.

The Handsel Sisters

The four Handsel sisters were of Danish origin who had moved to Wilton, Wiltshire at the same time of  an outbreak of smallpox in 1737 killed 132 people.  The local people became convinced that the sisters were responsible for the deaths and accused them of witchcraft and an alliance with the devil. Without an official hearing the sisters were taken to Grovely Wood, murdered by being bludgeoned over the head, and buried a little way apart from each other so that they could not conspire against their murderers. There are four gnarled beech trees associated with the sisters; because either the trees were planted to mark their graves or they mysteriously grew on top of the unmarked graves to remind the locals of their dreadful deed. Sightings of the sisters have been reported over the years. There is a hollow at the back of the largest tree where people leave offerings.  Grovely Wood is one of the largest woodlands in southern Wiltshire. It is situated on a chalk ridge above the River Wylye to the south of the village of Great Wishford, within the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Stanley’s Magical Rose

2nd week May 2012Silence. The fragility of stillness is like numb and paralysed limbs void of energy, redundant. Disturbed only by the rhythm of breathing. Life’s ever-decreasing cycle, unachieved ambitions. Closed eyes and memory flickered dreams projected like old camera films on stained wood chip walls. The taught rituals of work from the first day to first weeks pay. Good days, the bad days and the in-between days, but always the grind. Homemade sandwiches, canteen-banter. Dirt pitted hands, stewed tea, page 3 and practical jokes. Dust in the hot foundry that told no lies and hid no secrets. Shudders and cries of sweat covered men as splashes from molting metal discovered unprotected skin. The cranking cogs that churn day in and day out. Sulfated sands. Weakened lungs are wheezing accidental poetry. Now speeches are made, and words evaporate from unintended lips. A £250.00 gift voucher. A shake of hands. A promise of continued friendships followed by a thoughtful,“ goodbye.”

Awaken. The first sense is confirmation of surrounds. Open eyes. Traffic was passing without intent. A chilly June morning beckons as the 6 am alarm sounds. The first domino of the day falls for Stanley, and the momentum starts anew. A routine of acceptances had to be maintained. A deceiving Sunbeam has penetrated the gaps of his faded paisley curtains. Across the polka dot duvet, it searches up the chimney breast, glancing the photograph of his parents who offer warmth in returning judgments.

The bookshelves constructed while listening to a transistor radio and interruptions from his mother with offers of tea,  one sugar, tuna fish sandwiches, and a custard cream biscuit. The shelves crammed with diaries, poetry books, autobiographies, George Orwell novels, photograph albums and the occasional treasure discovered in second-hand bookshops. A shower and piss down the plughole. Watching the yellow whirlpool dilute and disappear.

Dressed, tea, two pieces of toast. Stanley stands by the front door, pauses, inhales a profound conscious breath, turns the lock, and opens the door and steps outside. The housing estate is quiet. It’s young inhabitants whose lives seem full of noise and disputes sleep, recharging their batteries like the mobile phones they possess on pay as you go contracts with unlimited texts. Stanley stands motionless. The bus is late. The glass panels of the shelter lay shattered and, like the fragmented lives, he witnesses on most days nobody was keen to pick up the pieces and put it back together again. Warm breath lifts like clouds. The shattered glass grates under his feet as he steps onto the bus. He nods to the driver who nods back; no words are exchanged, none is necessary, and the bus pass is presented.

Faraway places were to remain distant places for Stanley. Although he envied those who travelled he was not bitter, he celebrated their fortune and sought any opportunity to find travellers to discuss their experiences. Often disappointed with tales of cheap alcohol, crowded beaches, and industrialised hotels. Since his redundancy from work five years ago Stanley had been volunteering three days a week at a local charity bookshop. The shop had become his universe where he learned and explored faraway cultures from abandoned books delivered to the stores from house clearances after an elderly death.

2nd week in May 2012, It was 3 years ago when cleaning old stock from the dark basement that he came across a book entitled ‘Physic Transformational Meditation, as Practiced by the North Korean Talesi Monks.’ Little is known of the Talesi Monks, and it was the only book Stanley discovered on the subject after extensive searches of local libraries, the Internet and retail bookshops.

Feared by their Japanese rulers in the early 1900s and the secretive North Korean regime all Talesi monasteries had been systematically destroyed, their practices outlawed, old monks sent to isolation camps and the separated young to state re-education programmes. The book brought instant warmth to his hands when he picked it up, which had encouraged him to set it aside. Upon opening the book, he discovered a small white-foiled package, which was acting as a bookmark for the section entitled ‘Teaki the practice of dreaming and dying.’

The little white-foiled packet contained a single seed. An individual child Stanley was born to parents who were much older than any of his peers. By 15, he became the part-time carer for his aging parents. His parents had both died while Stanley was in his 50s. Now he found himself at 71 years old living alone in the house where he was born, brought up and no doubt one day would die in. Reflecting on his circumstances, he knew his choices, which he had made without regret.

To avoid the constant disputes between neighbours, children beavering away like a colony of worker ants intent on dismantling the housing estate brick by brick and the regular intrusion of police raids seeking to extract the latest suspect for questioning Stanley timed his arrival home in the early evening. It was March when Stanley planted the seed and placed the small pot by the kitchen window. He had tendered to its every need with daily dedication. When the foliage was about 2 inches long, he feeds the plant a high nitrogen food to encourage foliage and stem growth. When the stems started to elongate, he had decreased the nitrogen feed to promote a full bloom. During late May, the buds began to open and expose the delicate dark red petals.

The following morning Stanley had followed his routine. With a spade in one hand and potted rose in the other Stanley made his way to the large grassed common area that lay in the centre of the housing estate. In the heart of the common area, he dug a small hole, knelt down, planted the rose and stood back. Immediately the sun’s rays broke through the morning clouds. A tender, sweet smell emerged from the rose and entered Stanley’s nostrils. He stood perfectly still. It was one hour before his neighbour Angie Ward, who had been peering at Stanley for 45 minutes through her bedroom curtains, came over to see what he was doing.

2nd-week June 2012When Angie Ward caught a smell of the tender fragrance she too immediately stood still, relaxed, let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes.Next, it’s was Tom Ridbridge, the neighbourhood thug who was to succumb then Jenny Heartbelt, one by one this reoccurrence was maintained until 11.45am. By this time every resident of the estate was standing in a large circle 100 people deep, in a state of total bliss and calm.

By 12noon the police were in attendance, but were powerless due to the numbers and density of the residents they could not access the centre of the circle to ascertain the cause nor were they able to smell the fragrance of the red rose. No matter how many times they demanded information the residents did not respond and only continued to remain silent, head slightly bowed, as if in deep sleep.

TV crews from the local media arrived. Politicians, who had not been seen on the estate for many years pronounced theories and point accusations at their opponents. Noble people from the town hall held discussions into the phenomena, which was taking place in their jurisdiction and without their consent. They passed emergency resolutions demanding the residents to disband and return home, but to no avail. As the day slowly became, night police helicopters hovered above with piercing searchlights scanning the crowd below. Barriers were erected to prevent people from entering or leaving the estate. At 11 pm the chief of police Edmond Clarke addressed the residents through his standard police issue loudhailer, “I have been ordered to disperse you all from this unlicensed gathering. I will give you until midnight to do so. If needed, I will use force, so please disperse peacefully now,” but no response was forthcoming.

At 11.55pm, Stanley opened his eyes, bent down and removed the red rose from the soil and placed it back into the pot. He stood up and like a regimented army his fellow residents slowly came to their senses, smiled, turned and calmly started to make their way back to their homes in silence.

10 am the day after; Stanley was sitting in his front room enjoying a cup of tea when he realised a calmness he had not felt for a long time was emanating from the streets outside. Calmness he had not experienced since before his parents had died. He glanced at the rose, which he had placed on the living room table. Its colour had drained. Leaning forwards Stanley took a photograph with his Polaroid Camera and wrote a single word and the date on the photo.

He sat back, closed his eyes, inhaled gently, smiled, and exhaled a deep sigh followed by a low murmur. His hands relaxed and opened on each arm of the chair. His body eased into the contours of the seat. A warm glow appeared in front of him.

Teaki

 

%d bloggers like this: