Thursday, December 18, 2008

Invasion of the Snotty Badgers by Karin Weber

At first she thought they were raccoons; the spilled garbage and nightly caterwauling under the hedge. The next morning clumps of grey fur were lodged in the armpits of her garden angel. Raccoons for sure.

Luckily they ignored her garbage, and went can tipping next door. Pizza rinds and baloney wrap festooned the shared chain link fence like punk Christmas lights. The neighbours cleaned up their side. They copied her garbage security system of bungee cords, yet night after night their garbage was chosen.

Actually it was irritating. Her can, with its smears of organic humus and tofu, just didn’t rate for raiding. She glared out the window at midnight. To her surprise the raccoons were flat and had stumpy tails. Badgers! In suburban Canada? How exciting!

She googled Badgers. They couldn’t yawn but they liked corn and mushrooms. She made a portabella stew and promptly threw it out. The next morning an empty bacon package was left under her car. She felt angry. She adored Nature, religiously recycled, shopped organically, left miniscule footprints wherever she trod, and the Peaceable Kingdom up and supped on crappy food next door.

She put out fresh corn only to be greeted by shredded Pop Tart boxes on her patio. She raged. Time to shop for new tactics: Fruit Loops and Cheez Whiz. While mixing them in a big bowl, she casually licked a finger. Then, as if she had become someone else, she took another intoxicating taste.
Karin Weber is a writer and visual artist. "Invasion of the Snotty Badgers" won the Writers' Union of Canada's postcard story competition. Check out three poems and three photographs by Karin here.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Desmond and Hoover, by Alice M. de Munnik

Desmond opened one eye, peered around the room, then opened the other. He flexed each paw, extended his toes and bared his claws. Great! Everything was in working order. Desmond arched his body into a Hallowe’en hump, relaxed and settled back into the corner of the sofa where he’d been dozing for the past two hours.

Good sleep! The best he’d had for a while, nice and quiet, no one to bother him. And the dream he’d just had was everything a Maine Coon Cat could want – delicious, indulgent, satisfying. There was no snot-nosed baby to insist, despite his best efforts, on wiping her dirty, sticky hands on his fur. It took hours for him to lick his black, maroon and brown-fur coat back into pristine condition. And after all, he had a reputation to maintain. He came from pure stock. Both parents were Maine Coon Cats. His mother was given to stoutness at an early age just like Desmond was. But, make no mistake, that didn’t mean he couldn’t move fast. It just meant he took a little longer to get his 30-pound body where he wanted it to go.

What also made his dream so good was it didn’t have Hoover in it, the overgrown, slobbering Labrador, with whom he shared the house. If Hoover had been a female, Desmond would have called him theatrical, a “diva” for sure. Those sad liquid brown eyes were always on call for the next soft-hearted human he wanted something from. Hoover would look up at his human owners and anyone who came to visit and turn on his smarmy, martyr charms.

“Oh, look,” the hapless human would croon. “Isn’t he the saddest dog you’ve ever seen? He’s going to cry any minute now. See how he bows his head and looks like he hasn’t got a friend in the world?” Desmond’s gag reflex worked overtime when Hoover was in his feel-sorry-for-me mode.

Hoover was well fed and certainly didn’t lack for food. It made Desmond sick to see how he mooned over the baby in her highchair at meal times. Not only did the baby offer Hoover little bits of whatever she was having, but she spilled so much of her food on the seat and the trough at the bottom of the highchair that Hoover had trouble controlling himself. He couldn’t wait for the baby to be pulled out of her highchair and taken to the bathroom for a good hosing down. In a flash, Hoover would gulp down the spilled leftovers and be ready for more.

Desmond couldn’t stand it anymore. He was going to do something about that dog and he was going to do it soon. He’d made a plan that involved Hoover being blamed for everything that went wrong. And that would be the end of Mr. garbage disposal. Adieu Hoover, hello freedom!
For now, he relived his wonderful dream. It included bowl after bowl of cat food. Not the regular canned variety, but the gourmet hand-churned kind that Nancy, his human owner, bought from Essence Par Excellence every year as his Christmas treat. In his dream, Desmond spent endless hours together with Nancy. There was no noise, no baby to wash, feed, diaper and rock to sleep. No husband to cater to.

If truth were told, Desmond believed that Nancy was a most excellent specimen of what a human should be. She was tall, trim, beautiful, had long auburn hair with dark highlights and high cheekbones, like he had, and she loved him. When she rested after putting the baby to bed and read the historical romances she was so fond of, he always lay by her side. She would stroke his thick fur and give him a massage. He purred more contentedly when there were just the two of them. Nancy always saved some catnip for those quiet nights together. And there were saucers of thick cream, morsels of salmon saved from dinner and, his favourite of all, cashew nuts. Desmond knew that they were fattening, but he just couldn’t help himself.

Of course, these magical moments always came to an end when Nancy’s husband, Gary, came home from work. Desmond knew that if it were just he and Nancy in the house, he would want for nothing more. Nirvana would have been achieved.

The back door slammed shut. Footsteps intruded on Desmond’s reverie. He sighed. He knew he couldn’t expect to have lovely dreams all the time. He was a realist, but still ...
Nancy came into the family room and kicked off her shoes. Gary was behind her, carrying the baby whom he set down on the carpeted floor. Then he went back out to the hallway. The baby crawled to where Desmond sat, yanked on his tail and reached out her arms to him. She buried her face in Desmond’s fur.
Baah, he cried out. Get away from me, you dirty little cretin. The baby was an ankle biter and a smelly one at that and he would not let her anywhere near him.

Hoover came running from the basement, jumped on Nancy and licked her face. “Down Hoover!” Nancy yelled. Gary returned carrying what looked like a small animal carrier. There was something moving inside it.

Oh my God! It was a cat. A tiny, ugly, striped little thing. Desmond couldn’t believe it. He’d been the only cat in the house for the past twelve years. What did they need another cat for? There must be some mistake, some misunderstanding surely.

Gary took a grey tabby gently out of the cat carrier, settled it on his knee and slowly rubbed his finger along its tiny nose. The kitty looked frightened. It wanted to climb down from Gary’s leg, but Desmond saw that it was too high and it seemed too afraid to try. The kitten already had a little collar around its neck with an S.P.C.A. tag and its name on it. Fiona! Oh, no! It was a female. What was he going to do with a female cat in the house?

Gary set the kitten on the carpet. “Come on, Fiona, that’s it,” he said. “Here’s the baby.” As he said this, he lifted the baby up and set her back down onto the carpet beside Fiona. The kitten sniffed the baby all over, turned up her nose and moved away.

I don’t blame you, Desmond thought. The baby’s a real stinker, especially when… He was too well bred to say it. A disgusted meow was his only comment.

Hoover nosed around the baby and, like the kitten, quickly moved away. Instead, he hunkered down on the carpet and started licking the kitten, curling his massive front paws around Fiona in a protective arc.

This can’t be happening, Desmond thought. He hissed and gave the dog and kitten a stare that would have withered most humans.

Naturally, Hoover was oblivious and kept on licking the cat. A contented purr escaped from the kitten’s tiny mouth. She relaxed and settled into the big dog’s embrace.

That’s it, Desmond thought. It was over. My life’s over. I’ve nothing more to live for. After all I’ve had to put up with in this house, now this betrayal. He stepped to where Nancy stood observing the scene on the carpet. Desmond held his head high. His fur bloomed out and his claws were itching, ready for anything that came. He slid his large body around Nancy’s legs. He expected a pat on the head or some indication of her love from her. There was nothing! Nancy completely ignored him.

“Isn’t that the living end, Gary? Who would have thought that a big dog like Hoover would take to her? They make a nice pair. We won’t have to worry about anything happening to Fiona from you know who.”

Gary laughed and pointed at Desmond. “Look at him. Never thought he’d be jealous. He wasn’t when the baby was born. But, just look at him. He’s in a major snit. Fur all bushy, claws out, eyes focused and nothing good on his mind.”

Nancy giggled and looked down at Desmond. “What is it, Desmond? You never seen a kitty before? Come on now. You didn’t think you’d be the only cat in the house forever, did you? You’re getting old and we want to make sure that when it’s your turn to leave us, the baby will have another cat to play with.”

How could Nancy do this to him? They’d had a bond, a love for each other that transcended species, that he was sure would never end, death notwithstanding. He just wouldn’t stand for it. He knew his Nancy wasn’t to blame. She loved him. In fact, she adored him. It was Gary’s doing. Of that he was certain.

Desmond sprang onto Gary’s lap and dug his claws into his arm. The blood started immediately. Gary yelped and jumped out of his chair. “That’s it, Nancy. I’ve had it! That cat has got to go!”

Go? Well maybe till Gary calmed down, Desmond decided, and tore off towards the basement stairs.

“You’d better run!” Gary shouted. “And run fast, you fat brute. I’m serious, Nancy. I want him put down today.”

“Oh, no. Not yet, Gary. He’s not sick and he’ll behave. It was just such a surprise to him, that’s all.”

Gary muttered something, and Desmond muttered something back as he slunk down into the basement. He skulked there for the rest of the week and barely touched his food. He’d have to rethink this whole thing and decide the best way to get rid of not only Hoover, but also Fiona. No one was going to replace him. But, first, he was going to have a nice long sleep. Then he’d decide. It’s what his Mother would have done.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Awakening, Tabitha Kot

Sitting innocently in my car,
weaving my way through rush hour traffic,
distracted and crunching on a tart Macintosh.
She silently, invisibly, slinks through the
of my open window.
Gliding across the breadth of my shoulders,
licking Her way up the back of my neck,
She slides seductively across my jawline,
rises up to my ear and
whispers, hotly,
Your life
is your sacred space.
And She is gone.
I blink once,
My eyes open to a
She is in everything I see.
She is in everything I hear.
She is in all that I touch,
all that I taste,
all that I smell,
all that I know.
I see the jewel of Aphrodite sparkling
in everything I behold.
The world becomes precious to me
in a heartbeat
with Her
in it.
I am home.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

Pillow Talk, Gloria Nye

I knew I was in trouble when the pillow started slipping. Mrs. Greenspan, the wardrobe assistant, had just finished pinning up my hair and I suggested she secure the strap tighter. She patted my opulent bosom with a reassuring, “You’re fine, my dear.” Then added, “If we pull the strap any tighter across your midriff, it will leave a dent. The director’s orders were to make you look like an opera singer.” She cocked her head. “And you do look large enough for one.”
I loved amateur theatre, and that fall when my grade nine teacher announced a drama class, I eagerly joined. For five months, we practiced diligently for the annual year-end school concert, culminating in a successful dress rehearsal.

Finally, it was on opening night. There I was in front of my family and friends, and I was playing opposite, Kevin, the best looking boy in school.  I thought Kevin would laugh when he saw my high-necked, salmon-coloured dress stuffed with pillows and dragging on the floor, but he looked equally strange. Wearing football pads under a white shirt and a black jacket two sizes too big for him, he resembled a crash-test dummy about to run into a brick wall. His head and shoulders moved stiffly as one, and his string necktie seemed to be strangling him. Would we pass as soprano and tenor?

The play was a take on a talent contest with a variety of acts: a spinning ballerina, a tap dancer, a frantic hip hopper, a comedian, a pop singer, a baton twirler and us - the hopeful opera duo. Sitting in a row of chairs, lined up in the middle of the stage, we all waited for our turn to audition.  After each performance, the audience clapped politely. Kevin and I were last in line.

Finally it was almost our turn. Kevin gallantly (and briefly) took my hand as I stood up.  I was feeling quite confident until I took my first step forward and that’s when I felt my front pillow drop an inch. I had four more steps to centre stage, enough I figured, to cause my stomach to fall completely to the boards.

Puccini’s noble music swelled. It was our cue. Kevin stepped up and flung his left arm out from his oversized shoulders and chest. Tentatively, I took another step, then wrapped both arms protectively across my front. Would it be enough to keep me together? I glanced over at the wing where the director was gesturing wildly for me to lift my arms. A trickle of sweat rolled down my forehead into one eye, no doubt leaving a white trail in my makeup. I blinked at the audience, took another step and began drawing in my breath for the aria. I gasped as the pillow, tied to my backside, started its slow descent.

Kevin twisted around to see why I was not keeping up with him and saw me whip my left arm behind my back to grab a fistful of flopping salmon. A strangled note escaped from my throat as I glanced desperately at the director who was now pumping his arms up and down gesturing to me to lift my arms. Alas, although I’d memorized the grand movements of divas, my arms were busy containing unruly body parts.

A titter came from the audience. The comedic parts of the play had already been presented; my part was serious. My voice cracked again as I attempted to lift my bosom back to its appropriate place and, with the other hand, tried to hold up my posterior. Kevin, singing loudly and raising his arms aloft, saw my plight. My face felt hotter and I knew it was turning red under the rivulets of sweat; he would never ask me out now.

A pin flew from my up-do and a thick strand of hair escaped. The tittering from across the footlights changed to laughter. It rose louder when Kevin reached out to grab my falling bosom but snatched his hand back abruptly before he got a handful of me under the collapsing dress. Meanwhile, I was contorting myself in vain trying to control the activity of my front and back pillows, which, being feathers rather than foam, had a mind of their own.

Another hairpin let loose and a large clump of hair tumbled down to rest on my sagging shoulder. The laughter swelled to loud guffaws and Kevin’s broad smile had turned his usually rounded notes into a wailing siren. The director was now holding his head in both hands; was he laughing or crying?

At that precise moment, I made my decision. Finding my voice, I joined Kevin in the last musical phrase as I twisted and turned in mock horror, while grasping and yanking at my falling anatomy. The higher the notes climbed, the lower the pillows sank and, as the final crescendo sounded, I raised my arms high. Then I reached down, swept both pillows majestically up into my arms, and, as the curtain fell, made a grand and awkward curtsey to a standing ovation.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Taken, Bev Irwin

This piece is an excerpt from a juvenile novel in progress. Enjoy…

The computer-generated photo didn’t really look like him. But then that was a good thing. It had some of his features, but not enough to cause somebody to take a closer look.

Luckily Jeremy resembled his grandfather more than either of his parents. Maybe if his hair wasn’t dyed so dark… He tipped his head and examined the picture. Yeah, maybe if his hair was still blond. Jeremy shrugged and walked away.

He could have ripped the poster off the wall but that would draw attention. Somebody might wonder why he’d want to take down a profile of a missing child. They might take a closer look. They might see something familiar in the blond boy in the right hand corner of the poster.

Jeremy forced himself to keep to an even pace despite the overwhelming urge to dash out of the school and never come back. But he had to. He’d promised his grandmother that he would finish school year.

Would he never stop looking for them? It had been ten years now. I won’t tell Mom, Jeremy decided. That was the last thing she needed. As it was, she was hanging on by a thread.

Jeremy looked at his watch. Three-forty-five. He had to hurry. He had to get back to the apartment before Doc MacKay showed up. How long would it take him to clean up? He should have stayed home today but he couldn’t miss any more time. He couldn’t take a chance on the school sending anybody to check on him or teachers trying to phone his home. Nobody had bothered yet. Otherwise they’d know the number he’d put on the forms was incorrect.

The last time a teacher had tried to phone – at the last school, that was – he’d just shrugged and given them another number. By the time anybody got around to trying the new number they’d moved again. How many moves did that make? Too many to count.

He slid the key in the lock and prayed the damage was minimal. He didn’t have much time. The door squeaked open. Raised talk show voices blared from the television set. The curtains were drawn, allowing minimal light into the room. The combination living room – kitchen smelled as dank as it looked.

He saw the prone form stretched out on the worn plaid sofa. A multi-coloured crocheted afghan partially covered her swollen form. Her long brown hair was tangled and in need of a wash. It was tied in a loose, ineffective ponytail. Thin strands spread across a high forehead. He wanted to brush them off her face but he didn’t want to wake her yet. He stared down at his mother.

Her face was sallow and plump, not reflecting the years or abuse it had suffered. Her mouth was open, droops of saliva lay in the v of her lips. His shoulders sagged. At least she had made it out of bed today. He knew it was her illness and side effects of her medicine that made her this way. But on a good day, the drugs kept her this side of sane and functional. But there weren’t many good days and fewer all the time.

With his eyes closed, he thought of the picture he kept hidden in a box under his bed – a photo of a petite, laughing woman, her gleaming brown hair styled like the pixie she resembled. No one would recognize her now. He shrugged. Maybe that was a good thing.

Jeremy turned and started cleaning up the pile of magazines and papers that were scattered over the stained carpet. Next he cleaned up the empty plates and crumbs on the Arborite kitchen table. When he was done, he looked around the confined space. He crossed to his mother’s bedroom and closed the door. Doc Mac Kay would be here any minute. His attempt at tidying would have to do.

“Mom.” He shook her shoulder. “You have to get up now. Doc will be here soon.”

Her eyes drifted open. “Hi, Jeremy. School over?”

“Yeah, Mom. It’s after four. You have to get up. Brush your hair, your teeth. Remember, Doc Mackay is coming to see you.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” She smiled up at him. “Just let me sleep for a few more minutes.”
“No, Mom. You have to get up.”

He reached down and slid his arm under her shoulders, gently lifting her. He supported her unsteady steps to the bathroom. He leaned on the closed door until the toilet flushed. She had washed some of the sleep out of her eyes and the drool from her lips. Her hair was still unkempt and she had a water stain on the front of her sweat top. He guided her back to the sofa, hoping the stain would dry soon. He didn’t know if she had anything else clean to wear.

“Can I brush your hair, Mom?”

Her fingertips caressed his cheek. “That would be nice, dear.”

Jeremy drew a wide toothed brush through her brown stands. Not great, but it was an improvement.

He heard a knock at the door and shoved the brush into his backpack before crossing to the door and letting Doctor MacKay into the apartment.

“Hello, son. How is she today?”

“She’s okay.”

Jeremy picked up his backpack and disappeared into his room. He pulled a book our of his backpack and tried to focus on the words until he heard the Doc’s discreet knock on his door. The doctor came into his room and closed the door behind him.

“I’ve let a bottle of pills on the table. I’ll come back and check on her next week.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“Next time, Jeremy, I won’t let you keep her at home. I’ll admit her and get her help whether she wants it or not. You shouldn’t be dealing with this. When’s your aunt coming home?”

“In a day or so,” Jeremy lied.

It was getting so easy. He opened his mouth and the lies poured out. He didn’t even flinch anymore. And Doc MacKay, he never questioned. Never asked to meet the fictitious aunt.

“Sure you can manage until your aunt gets back?”

“I can. She’s not so bad, really Doc.”

Doc raised his eyebrows and shook his head but didn’t pursue the point.

Jeremy suspected the real reason Doc didn’t admit her was more to do with him being too lazy to fill out the forms and arrange for somebody to see her in the hospital. Jeremy was sure it had nothing to do with a minor being left to fend for himself. Doc wouldn’t want social services checking in and finding out how long he had been aware of the problems and not done anything about it.

Yeah, Doc just wanted to get away with as little work as possible until he could retire. But at least Doc’s relationship with his mother had prevented the old guy from reporting them. Jeremy had insinuated just one time that he knew about it. Doc had blushed like a schoolboy, became all flustered and left in a hurry. At least they didn’t have to worry about paying for any medical treatment. If they needed any medicine, Doc would magically appear with what was needed...

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Vintage vampire, Sheila Gale

When I drank the blood of my first victim, the night was gentle, like silk against my skin. My crimson taffeta gown rustled as I followed a servant into the private dining room to sup with the handsome Prince Igor. As I neared the table, our eyes met. Desire flamed in his eyes, and I knew that, after we had enjoyed the tender venison and the rich claret, he would do my bidding…

Later, he led me to the castle ramparts, where we gazed at the stars as they twinkled in the inky sky, like fireflies. “I am a creature of the night,” I whispered. Our fingers entwined. “I believe that you, too, like the dark.”

I made the mistake of smiling. When he saw my fangs glitter in the moonlight, he let out the most blood-curdling cry. Even though he struggled to free himself, he couldn’t resist the delightful sensations that coursed through his veins. He saw my eyes no longer a soft green but red and wild. He felt my powerful grip as I pulled him towards me and sank my incisors into his throat.

For many years after that evening, I fantasized about the Russian prince. In my mind’s eye, I saw him swathed in a long black cloak as he roamed the dark alleys of St. Petersburg searching for victims. Then I found out from an old friend of Igor’s that the prince seldom ventured out at night, preferring to drink pig’s blood rather than hunt down a human victim.

I rushed around the house looking for Uncle Vladamir and found him in his blood cellar, relabelling some bottles. I told him about Prince Igor.

“So what is your problem, my dear Luna?”

“What kind of vampire drinks pig’s blood?” I raved. My uncle had been a vampire since medieval times, so he should know.

A smile played on his lips. “Becoming a vampire isn’t everyone’s cup of blood.”
“What do you mean, uncle?.”

“He didn’t choose to become vampire, remember.” He patted my hand. “I’m sure he has other strengths. Perhaps he’s a good coffin maker.”

“A coffin maker?” I couldn’t imagine the sensuous Prince Igor spending his nights hammering nails into coffins. With a heavy heart, I returned to my room. How could I respect a vampire who would rather drink animal blood than search for a human victim?

That was a long time ago. 250 years, to be precise. Today, I am launching my first book, Feast of Blood – Memoirs of the World’s Most Famous Vampires. Being of a practical nature, I’ve included a list of questions asked by aspiring vampires. Here are some sample questions from the book. To simplify things, I’ve avoided the awkward "he/she" reference and refer to all vampires as "she."

How do you know if you are changing into a vampire?

Count Dracula, the great, great, great grandson of the Count Dracula urges you to see a vampire doctor if you develop one of the following symptoms:

1. You find hair growing on the palms of your hands
2. Your index finger has grown as long as your middle finger
3. You develop a lust for blood - be warned - this is a sure sign of vampirism.

How does a vampire occupy her time?

During the day, most vampires sleep in a coffin. You must be sure the coffin is well hidden in a swamp or cave. After sunset, the vampire opens the coffin and climbs out. She searches for sustenance, but not all vampires are fussy. If human flesh can’t be found, an animal will do.

How does a vampire attack?

She hypnotizes her victim, instilling a sense of peace, well being and/or sexual desire, then attacks the jugular vein. If the vampire kills the victim, the victim in turn becomes a vampire.
She doesn’t always kill but may take sufficient blood to cause extreme lethargy, and keep the victim alive. This is known as the "store cupboard" method. It’s a bit like stocking up your freezer or pantry for future meals.

Two Disadvantages of becoming a vampire:

- She can operate only at night
- If traveling, she has to take her coffin with her so she can climb into it before dawn. In Victorian times, when Count Dracula arrived for a vacation in England, he had several specially prepared coffins in various parts of London. He could therefore expand his area of operation without fear of destruction at sunrise. These days, with baggage restrictions on flights, it’s difficult to take anything bulky like a coffin. However, you can pay extra and have it transported by cargo.

How did I acquire enough knowledge to fill 13,000 pages, you may ask? 300 years of vampirism didn’t hurt, and dear Uncle Vladamir with his centuries of experience was a tremendous source of information.

My vampire teaching certificate helped as well. I studied for the certificate so I could teach Vampirism 101. It bothered me that so many new vampires didn’t have a clue about their rich history, and their general vampire knowledge was abysmal. As I studied for the certificate, I learned many interesting facts. Did you know, for example, that some people believe vampire blood improves their sex life? There have been documented cases of vampires being drained of their blood – or V-juice as humans call it. Currently, V-juice sells on the black market for something like $1,000 a pint!

The extensive research needed for such a lengthy book couldn’t have been completed without the help of my partner, Prince Igor. We had met up again at a three-day vampire conference in Moscow and became good friends. When I told him of my plans to write the book, he tracked down and interviewed fellow vampires in various parts of Europe and Africa. He did the Transylvania portion himself. I concentrated on the Americas, including the US and Canada.
Unlike most vampires, Igor doesn’t like spending his nights in dark alleys, but he sure knows how to do research.

The book’s publisher had turned down J.K. Rowlings’ first Harry Potter book. When I submitted my manuscript, they were so pleased that they practically grabbed it out of my hands and offered me a 200-year contract. Not bad for a first book.

As for me and Prince Igor, living in the 21st century means we see a lot of each other, even though we live in two different countries. I don’t have to worry about bringing my coffin with me when I fly to Russia because he keeps spare ones for guests. We stay in a private apartment in his castle. The rest of the castle has been turned into a luxury five-star hotel. He in turn, enjoys his visits to Canada, where we take canoe trips in Algonquin Park after sunset during the summer and night ski Whistler in the winter.

These days, I seldom go searching for human victims. It’s such hard work and, over the centuries, Igor’s lack of enthusiasm for the task has rubbed off on me. Now, in the evenings, we relax by a roaring fire with a goblet of blood.

Speaking of blood, when Igor is in Canada, we like to root around Uncle Vladamir’s blood cellar. We eyeball each bottle, having learned from Uncle Vladamir that the darker the color, the more concentrated and intense the flavour. The one we usually select for special occasions is True Blood, a medieval blend of royal and peasant blood. Full-bodied, it has an earthy texture and an aroma of oxen roasted over an open fire.

This evening, we are celebrating the night that Igor became a vampire. He makes a toast in Russian. Although I don’t understand the language, his sensuous voice arouses me. My body floods with desire as he lifts my hand to his lips and runs his tongue over the fingertips. He takes me in his arms. His lips close over mine, sucking at my mouth, teasing it. With a low moan, I surrender. The goblet falls out of my hand, splattering dregs of blood over the stone floor.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Only On Sunday, Donna Kirk

I learned early on to be wary of cloth napkins, except for my mother’s. Mom put our Sunday table linens in the Monday wash, to be dampened and ironed on Tuesday, ready to be laid out in the dining room for the next Sunday. However, this was not the case at my best friend Kathy’s house. Occasionally when we were together playing she’d ask her Mom if I could stay for dinner. This was a dubious pleasure for me. I was an only child and enjoyed the family banter between her brother and sister, but not the table napkins!

It was Kathy’s job to take them out of the buffet drawer and place one at each setting. I was horrified to see that they were stained with the residue of past meals. It spoiled dinner for me every time, watching this boisterous family eating heartily and wiping their mouths. After the meal Kathy put them back in the buffet to wait for the next evening when they would be brought back out again. I visualized residue food festering on those napkins, the inside of the buffet drawer alive with creepy crawlies.

But, almost as horrifying as the way Kathy’s family used the same napkins night after night was the way they always ate at the dining room table. Was nothing sacred? At my house, Sunday dinner was the only meal served in our dining room. My mom always cooked some kind of roast with all the trimmings, ready at precisely 6 o’clock. The table sparkled with the good dishes, silverware and table linens. As we unfolded our crisp white cloth napkins Dad said grace, also an “only on Sunday” happening.

I like to think that the best dishes, silverware and cloth napkin ritual was easier for my mother. She only had me to keep an eye on, with my Dad at the end of the table, dressed in his church attire, silently but watchfully backing her up. The family attitude was more formal too. Mom worked hard to prepare these feasts and all the proper accoutrements paid homage to her efforts.

Dad was a master carver, a skill he was proud of. Presiding over the carnivorous offering, his knife flashed over the sharpening steel many times before he was satisfied. He made an impressive display, testing the acuity of his efforts with the tips of his fingers on the knife blade while gazing thoughtfully at the ceiling.

If we had guests, Dad poured liqueurs for the adults from a carafe that sat on the buffet, which offered six different kinds in brightly coloured sections. I didn’t like crème de menthe but enjoyed all the others, when I snuck into the dining room for a sampling.

After the meal, Dad and I helped clear and tidy the room. No one entered again until the next Sunday. During the week, when he was in the living room reading his paper Dad always entered the kitchen via the front hall, never passing through the dining room, which would have been the shorter and most obvious way to go. I never sat at that table to do my homework. No plans were ever spread out and discussed there. It was a roast beef sanctuary.

After I married, Sundays at my home were less formal than at my parent’s. In four years we had three children, so the best dishes, silverware and table linens stayed put where they lived in the dining room buffet. Placemats had long been de rigueur. Punishable ones. We also used paper napkins by the ton with never a guilty feeling. My dining room sat empty on Sundays, surrounded by our glorious wedding gifts that were used only in wistful dreams.

Not to say that many of my family’s routines weren’t followed. Sunday was the one day of the week when we all ate together. With the activities of our three children and work for my husband and I, this was a day we looked forward to. My mother came each Sunday to spend the day with us. My Dad died before I was married so we were all she had, and she was all the kids had. My husband’s parents passed away early in our marriage.

While Mom was still driving she’d arrive before lunch, bringing a straw basket filled with baking, knitting and goodies for the kids. Mom always had to have a job to do at our house, thriving on “making herself useful”. My laundry room was cleared of any clothes that had been dumped there. Usually three full loads. The washer and dryer hummed all afternoon. Folding, ironing and putting away followed. If there was any time left before the dinner routine started, her knitting came out. The Salvation Army was the recipient of these efforts. Afghans, baby clothes and mittens were her specialty. She also managed to stock pile an array of baby garments for her future great grandchildren, which, sadly, she would never see.

True to tradition, and from lack of imagination, I served the same Sunday meals my mother prepared, learning to cook by watching her and copying everything she did. Mom’s specialty was her wonderful gravy. Any roasted thing in my house was also accompanied by this eighth deadly sin, and plenty of it.

When my mother’s sister and her husband, Nellie and Pat, moved to Toronto after the referendum scare in 1980, they joined us frequently for Sunday dinners. They’d arrive in my uncle’s huge black Lincoln. Uncle Pat always drove black Lincolns. I thought it must have been a status thing in Quebec. Sometimes they brought Margaret, my uncle’s spinster sister, who my kids referred to as “spun,” which I thought was unkind and immature of them, but accurate; she was more than a little dizzy.

The dialogue between my mother and her sister fascinated me. Mom said that Nellie was ‘the family favourite’ when they were growing up. Aunty reiterated that my mother had always been number one. These women were in their eighties. They criticized their two brothers, one of whom Aunty hadn’t spoken to in 30 years. My mother was somewhat sanctimonious about staying out of the family fray, but only because she lived in Toronto and they were in Montreal.

One thing Mom and Aunty both agreed upon, and let us know in the not so subtle terms of the ageing, was our lack of religious responsibility towards the children. This was a favourite Sunday topic. She and Nellie discussed the relative merits of that day’s sermon for our benefit. Uncle Pat sat silently. He was a lapsed Catholic. My aunt confided to me that he’d lost interest in the church years ago when a priest came to stay each summer at a lodge they managed. And, each summer, a different woman had accompanied him.

I acquired religious apathy from my Dad. Every Sunday, wedged between my parents, in a pew precipitously close to the lectern and buffeted by the opposing forces of my parents, I made my decision. The red faced minister, billowing arms flapping in front of me, was of no consequence. It was my parents, my role models, who guided the choice I made. I took the path of least resistance.

Dad always sat at the end of the pew, close to the aisle, falling comfortably and audibly asleep as soon as the sermon started. Mother’s rapt attention was fractured by her futile attempts to awaken him, which took a lot of effort judging by her expression, snapping fingers and hissing whispers. Of the two protagonists, Dad’s Sunday role was by far the most appealing. On the walk home after a long hypnotic service, admonishments from Mom bounced from him like bullets off Superman. He’d take her hand and smile, looking forward to the afternoon, napping and reading, while she prepared the feast.

After our third child was born we gave in to pressure and made one grand gesture, the baptism of all three kids on the same Sunday. We managed to persuade three sets of friends to stand in as godparents, an Anglican imperative. I’m sure my mother was shattered when she realized that this peace offering was not the start of a Sunday church routine. Some months after the baptism we heard that the minister ran off with one of the parishioners, leaving his wife and seven children. I loved reminding mother of this. She worried that his transgression made the baptism null and void.

Mom’s trips to our house in her own car came to a sudden end. One Sunday morning my husband Ed and I received a call from a police officer. My mother had had a mishap with her car. When we arrived at the scene we spotted mother’s car, parked on the rear bumper of someone else’s vehicle. Police officers were writing on note pads and surveying the situation. I was relieved that no one was hurt, particularly my 86 year old mother. The posture of the other driver and the officers told me that something was up besides the fender bender.

As I approached my mother, she said: “I don’t know where he came from.”

“He was right in front of you Mom, you rear ended him.” I looked towards the officers.

One distracted my mother while the other took me aside and whispered, “Your mother should not be driving.”

“You’re the authority,” I said. “You tell her.”

Within a week Mom had her car fixed and sold. From then on, each Sunday, Nellie and Pat became her chauffeur. At the end our day together, my family and I would stand in the doorway, watching these three dear old people walk towards their chariot. The drive home would be slow and steady along the city streets, no highway driving for them after dark.

One by one they exited our Sunday scene. In 1989 Uncle passed away in my Aunt’s arms, nice and quick, no complications. Nellie, after 55 years of bantering with him, was inconsolable. She died six years later, suffering the stroke she dreaded. My mother’s death was the saddest and most prolonged. At 93, after enduring the symptoms of a motor neuron disease for four years, she died in 2001, the last of our Sunday cheering section.

I can still see that Lincoln, creeping up the driveway, the passengers gathering their packages as it comes to a stop. My mother and my aunt walking slowly toward the house, carrying baskets and bags full of goodies. Uncle, trailing behind, a fedora on his head no matter what the season, waving and calling to us, his favourite hosts.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Peony Pie, Michele Dunsford

Two memories are forever joined in my mind: the beauty and splendour of my mother's perennial peony bushes, and the wounding of my pride and a stinging sensation on my wee bottom.

It was a glorious summer day.  A recent thunderstorm had left water droplets on the peonies in the side garden of our home and had washed away the ants who loved to wander among the leaves.  The buds were full but not quite ready to bloom into fountains of fragrant pink petals.

At five years of age, I was seldom left to mind myself, but that day I had been.  Mommy was inside the house, tending to my three-year-old brother, who on that particular day, I had named Brat.

All morning I had been hounding my mother, vying for her attention.  She ignored me.  “Michele, I’m too busy,” she said.  “Your brother needs more help, he’s smaller than you.”

Well, I thought, everything was just perfect before he came along!  I ran straight to the phone and picked up the receiver.  “Sears?” I said.  “Come get my brother.  You can take him back.  We don’t need him anymore.”

Looking back, I’m sure my mom must have thought that one was pretty funny.  She used to order everything from the Sears catalogue, so naturally, I thought that was where everything came from.

After I got off the phone, she sent me outside with my favourite bucket and spade.  I headed straight to the peonies. No ants, no wasps, just plenty of peony buds waiting to be made into a delicious peony pie. Or so it seemed to me.

I filled my bucket with water from the garden hose.  I was good at that.  I helped Mommy water the garden almost every day. 

I harvested the peony buds, plopping them into the bucket one by one. T hen I took my spade and swished them around, the way Mommy taught me to mix things when we were baking.

One last swish and I sat back on the pathway, admiring my work.  Mommy will be so pleased with my peony pie, I thought.

The slam of a door, the patter of feet, and Mommy appeared around the corner.  She seemed in a hurry.  Perhaps she had to pee.  Before I could think another thought, I was pulled off the ground by my arms and catapulted onto my feet.  Mommy grabbed my mixing spoon and began whacking me on my bottom.  Tears streamed down my cheeks.

I guess Mommy didn’t like peony pie!

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

White Door, Helen Skelton

“What’s Daddy doing? What’s Daddy doing?”

I stood with my doll Ruby, watching my father on his hands and knees at the end of our oak-floored hallway. He was making grunting noises. He was doing something to the white double doors that didn’t fit properly.

I rocked Ruby back and forth a few times to show my father. She had blue glass eyes that blinked open and shut. At least one of them did. The week before, Rachel Grimes from down the road, had poked her finger into Ruby’s left eye giving it a permanent lazy eye look that would never go away.

My father seemed oblivious to Ruby’s one blinking eye and continued on the floor making grunting noises and muttering strange words to himself.

“Frank! Will you just leave it!” My mother’s irate looking face appeared round the kitchen door at the other end of the hallway. “I do say, just get a carpenter or someone in to fix it properly, will you!”

Her Welsh accent became more pronounced when she got annoyed, and when she said, “I do say,” at the beginning of a sentence, we knew there was going to be trouble.

I moved to the bottom step of the staircase and sat down to see what would happen next.

“I don’t need a bloody carpenter. I just need to skim some wood off the bottom of this door and re-hang it. The floor’s not level!”

My father was kneeling up now, supporting the arch of his back with his arm and looking as irate as my mother, but with a slightly disheveled dusting of wood shavings on and around him.

“You’ve done the thing twice already. It’s still wonky!”

Pointing out the blindingly obvious has always been one of my mother’s special talents. One of the white doors was indeed quite wonky.

“Will you just shut up and let me get on with it?”

My father had hauled himself to his feet, turned his back, picked up a screwdriver and was taking off the offending door for the third time. Ruby and I sensed that this would not be a good time to help.

My father began to plane wood from the bottom edge of the door. With muttering and cursing as a background track, he re-hung the door. Then he repeated the process some more times. I don’t know what number I could count to at that age, but the number of door hangings was greater than the number of my fingers.

My mother re-appeared. She stared at the door with “you should have listened to me” confidence, and said “Oh, you daft bugger.”

The hanging door now had a clear gap of at least an inch between itself and the floor.

It was not level. My gerbil Frieda would have been able to fit under the door if she were allowed to run free in the hallway. Frieda and I did manage to test the size of door gap later that year when the gerbil cage was left open. She escaped, headed for the hallway, then squeezed under the door and found a convenient gap between the skirting boards and the floor. No amount of treats could coax her out from hiding under the floor boards, which had to be taken up to allow gerbil recovery. But that was all still to come.

My father winced and bent down, then began deliberately putting his tools away in a defeated show of male pride. He stood up and said, “Just leave it Jill.” Then walked away to the security of the garden shed.

My parents still have those white doors thirty years later. They are still wonky. But we don’t mention it.

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Watchtower, Brandon Pitts

“I must kill Steve Jahl! Erase his existence, deny him a future and rob him of his sentience.”

No, that’s not what I wanted to write. I just wanted to tell you that I love you and I’m sorry I didn’t believe in you before. I believe in you now.

It’s funny, in my hour of need; I instinctively reach for you as I fall.

Lord, I was just going to write you a letter, not a confessional. But after he raped my sister, I had an itching need to touch his body and feel it turn cold as his life left him.

In my daydreams, I would murder him slow, nothing crude or hasty. Quite awful for him, but it would be the only beauty he would ever know.

You know how it was with me back then, if there were no God, then I would have to assume the responsibility. Offer a vital judgment so a soul could be dealt with justly.

So I sat down and leaned my back against a rock that would serve as his headstone, pondering life before his acquittal.

The day Amanda got raped; she was hanging out with Steve’s pubescent slut of a sister, Tabby. Though her indiscretions seemed to know no limits, Tabby managed to conjure scruples when it came to her brother Steve.

“Perhaps if he were hot,” she confessed to a friend, but Steve lacked the visage and physique necessary to inspire incestuous attraction.

I pulled up to Steve’s house at 2121 Billiard Street. A piece of crap castle made of wood and plastic siding, hovering over a basement and surrounded by a moat of browning grass. Their father was out front in his wife beater.

“Hey young man,” he said. “Got a new van?”

“I wouldn’t call it new. Just bought it used. I’m here to pick up Amanda.”

“I think they’re around back. If you see Tabby, tell her I’m going to Mickey D’s to bring back supper.”

I walked through the dead lawn to the backside of the A-frame house. There was Tabby, all thick legged with blonde hair and fat ass. I had lusted after her all through school but to no avail - seems she’s gone out with everybody but me.

“Hey Tabby.”

Stepping on her cigarette, she barley acknowledged me, the vibes cutting between us like an unwanted wind.

“Where’s Amanda?”

“I think she’s in the basement with Steve.”

I found this odd. Amanda hated Steve.

“He stares at me in between classes at school,” she would say. “Always cleaning up some mess by my locker. It’s really creepy. I hate going over to Tabby’s. Even her dad is a slime.”

Tabby went to the back door and yelled down for Amanda. My gaze followed her skintight shorts. She stood halfway through the doorway, waiting for a response and then went down the stairs.

I turned to look around their back yard. Artifacts from Steve and Tabby’s childhood were strewn around the property, rusted bikes and toys, and an aboveground pool, half covered, half full of leaves and algae water.

Amanda and Tabby emerged from the dungeon. My sister was crying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She avoided eye contact, shaking her head and waving me back with her hand.

“She’s fine,” said Tabby. “Aren’t you?”

“What’s been going on down there?” I said.

“Nothing. She was fooling around with Steve when she shouldn’t be.”

“I’ll kick his ass if he’s touched my sister.”

“It’s her fault, not Steve’s.”

“Let’s go,” said Amanda. “I just want to leave.”

We got into the car and pulled off.

“What was all that about?”

“Look,” I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What are you doing with Steve? You told me you thought he was a creep.”

“Shut up, Deek.” Amanda started to cry.

It wasn’t until three months later that Amanda came forward, stating that Steve had raped her in his basement. Seems his mother; father and sister were watching TV upstairs, ignoring her screams for help.

Even during commercials.

The day after the cops came to speak to Amanda; I met my buddy Ted Buckner at the Toad Bucket Café. He wasn’t so into the coffee thing, preferred beer, but dug on the chicks who worked at the Bucket.

Sure the chicks were cool but I hit that place every day and didn’t want these broads thinking I was a creep. Ted didn’t mind what they thought.

“Wow,” he said, after this one girl, Janet, brought me my cappuccino. “She’s got to be the hottest girl in Fairdemidland.”

“Yeah, she’s pretty fine,” I quickly agreed, hoping he’d keep his voice down or change the subject.

One reason Ted didn’t care about what these girls thought was that he was dying, or so he said, and if his tenure on this earth was to be cut short, he was damn sure that etiquette wouldn’t get in the way of his zeal for a fine girl like Janet. Janet took it in stride and went back to her espresso bar.

Ted had diabetes bad and loved doing dope. The doctors had given Ted six months to live if he didn’t give up the drugs. But he just couldn’t stop himself.

“I sure would like to make it with a chick like that before I die.”

“Yeah, good luck. Better think of something else for your dying wish.”

“There is one other thing I want to do before the devil takes me,” said Ted, looking down at his whipped cream without guilt or concern for his health. “When I know I’m about to go, I’m gonna walk into the Fairdemidland police station with a gun and shoot every cop I see.”

“Not very nice.” I frowned, glancing over at Janet. Ted was a fool but he knew true beauty. Janet was pretty special. “Why waste bullets on Fairdemidland cops?”

“Because they’re a bunch of assholes. They’re supposed to serve and protect, instead they just harass the youth. They’re worthless. You were just telling me about that dick that was investigating your sister’s case. He won’t help your sister. He thinks she’s a slut.”

I was beginning to get angry.

“I say we take the law into our own hands,” Ted said, “and kick Steve Jahl’s ass.”

His words pierced deep. “Or murder him,” I said.

“Or murder him.” Ted sat back into the black leather chair. “A vigilante would be far more effective than the these cops. You could be like a guardian of the community up in his watchtower. Nobody fucks with a vigilante.”

I stared into my coffee, thinking about how much I’d like to kill Steve Jahl.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A mouthful of sherry, Pratap Reddy

It was while Mrs Holmes sat on the veranda of her villa in St Martin’s Lea-upon-Thames, sipping a cup of Orange Pekoe, that she got the idea of how to commit murder and get away with it.

Her friend Katherine sat opposite her, nibbling on a petit-beurre. “That Mr Wentworth,” her friend was saying, “running after girls young enough to be his grand-daughters!”
While her friend prattled on, Mrs Holmes’ mind was elsewhere. She had always thought how ironic it would be if her husband were to die of unnatural causes and the person responsible for his death was to go scot free. After all, Sherry had made such career of catching criminals, earning fame and perhaps a fortune in the bargain.
Katherine leaned forward almost spilling the tea onto her lap. She steadied the clattering cup and saucer, and whispered, “Hedwiga, I heard that Mr Wentworth keeps some potions imported specially from Hong Kong in his bedroom.”
Katherine was a small thin woman who lived in a red-tiled house down the lane. She was a childless widow and an inveterate gossip. Because of her tongue she had made more enemies than friends in the village. She would always say to Hedwiga, “You are my one and only true friend. Had I been a rich woman, I’d have left all my wealth to you.”

Hedwiga remembered the day she met Sherry for the first time. She was a teenager living in a small impoverished village by the river Aar in central Switzerland. Skipping school one day, she had gone with two other classmates to the riverbank to pick wild flowers. Imagine their horror when they came upon a man lying prone and insensible on the riverbank. The three girls rushed into the river and pulled out the man. Hedwiga eagerly knelt down and gave a mouth-to-mouth. The man spluttered and came round. It was the very first time that Hedwiga had kissed a man full on his lips.

And the man turned out to be Sherlock Holmes. Hedwiga had not known then that Holmes had taken a tumble at the Riechanbach falls only a few miles upstream. The girls gave him the apples and boiled sweets they had brought for their picnic.

When Holmes appeared to regain some of his strength, Hedwiga took him to her house which was a small stone cottage perched halfway up a hill. Her family was astounded to see an Englishman pop up in the fastness of the Alpine mountains, having bloomed out of water like some Venus in drag. Hedwiga’s father who was an avid reader of the international page of Schweiz Zeitung while waiting for his turn at the barber shop, recognised the famous profile, as Sherlock Holmes sat down to eat the sauerkraut her mother had made.

“Don’t you like it?” her mother asked, as Sherlock Holmes peered at the dish through his magnifying glass.

“Not at all, Frau Nicklausmeyer,” said Sherlock in perfect high country German, which these simple Swiss folk found hard to follow. “I was merely deducing that whoever made this must be a German-speaking woman, a wife, a mother and a cook.”

“How clever of you!” said Frau Nicklausmeyer.

Sherlock stayed with them until he recovered completely. Afterwards he took a room in the village and began to live there instead of going back to England. The Nicklausmeyers were convinced that Sherlock Holmes was simply loaded so they encouraged their daughter to cultivate his friendship.

“But Mama, look at him. He must be ninety at least!”

“Use your head, Hedwiga,” Frau Nicklausmeyer said. “The older your husband is, the less likely he’s going to last. I wish I had got that advice when I was young – now I’m with stuck with your father. Forever, it looks like.”

Sherlock Holmes used to visit them regularly and sometimes played on the violin to entertain Hedwiga. She could never recall when exactly she began to call him Sherry. It must have been the night he tweaked out a reedy Moonlight Sonata. Later they went out into the garden and kissed under the full moon. Hedwiga had a sneaking suspicion that it was for the first time that Sherry was kissing a woman, not counting of course the time he was lying half dead on the riverbank. It took two years of tireless efforts on the part of the entire Nicklausmeyer clan to make Sherry propose to Hedwiga. They were married at the English church at Meiringen, and soon afterwards they left for London. In the boat it became evident that while he had lots of stuff in his head, there was little to be said about his lower half. But she didn’t let that worry her too much; after all, she hadn’t married Sherry to make babies.

When they arrived in England, Sherry took up residence in the country instead of living at his lodgings in Baker Street. It must have been because of Mrs Hudson. She mightn’t have liked the idea of another woman monopolising Sherry’s attentions, thought Hedwiga. But her friend Katherine had another take on the matter.

“It’s because of that Dr Watson,” she said. “There’s something going on between the two of them.”

But Katherine was wrong about Dr Watson, Hedwiga was sure of that. Once when Hedwiga had fallen ill, Sherry who was busy pursuing a criminal in Denbighshire, sent Dr Watson to look her up. Dr Watson not only cured her of her illness but he had some interesting antidotes for her acute loneliness.

After living for a year in England, it began to dawn on her that far from being rich, Sherry was neck deep in debts. His place in Baker Street had been used as collateral for a loan, and the house in the country was taken on a lease which would expire in a couple of months.

“The only asset I have,” Sherry had admitted, “is my life insurance policy.”

What a waste! All the collective efforts of the Nicklausmeyers had gone down the Rhine into the North Sea! Hedwiga was so mad that she wanted to pick up the violin and hit Sherry on his head with it. The next day when she regained her composure, she went straight to the local library and borrowed a book on poisons. In the trial that followed the murder that occurred at the villa, the prosecution would produce the book from the public library as an important piece of evidence.

They had drunk the tea to the last drop and eaten all the petist beurres, but Katherine was going on and on.

It must have been Katherine’s talk about old Mr Wentworth that started the train of thoughts in her mind. Not arsenic, not belladonna, but cantherides...that’s what she would use. But how does one get hold of it? Surely, one couldn’t walk into Marks and Sparks and ask for a pound of it?

When Katherine had finally left in a flurry of goodbyes and kisses, Hedwiga sent a telegram Dr Watson, now her Watson, a willing if witless collaborator in her fiendish scheme.

On the fateful evening, they all were present at the party: Sherry, Dr Watson, Katherine and Hedwiga herself. Hedwiga had bought a bottle of real Sherry imported from Spain for the occasion. They sat in the veranda and sipped their drinks appreciatively, except for Katherine who, not having a head for liquor, made a brave effort to gulp hers down.

The gentle breeze that wafted across from the Thames had a nip to it, reminding them that the summer would soon be over. Boats of every kind bobbed in the river, and now and then a steamer would bulldoze its way to London, sounding its horn stridently.

Katherine suddenly uttered a groan and fell forward, crashing on a tea-poy. When Sherry and Watson rushed to her side, it was already too late. Katherine died, exactly in the way Hedwiga had hoped.

At the inquest, Hedwiga testified that she had wanted Sherlock Holmes to have the doctored glass of Sherry because the drug cantherides, better known as the Spanish fly, was reputed as an aphrodisiac. But somehow the glasses had got mixed up and the dose meant for her husband was too much for a frail small woman like Katherine.

The verdict was death by misadventure. Contrary to the claims she had made when she was alive, Katherine was indeed a rich woman. She left all her wealth and property to her one and only true friend, Mrs Hedwiga Holmes.

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Bible Man, John Jeneroux

Willie sat down heavily on the park bench. He had it all to himself because the blistering sun had disappeared into an angry mass of dark clouds and it looked more like rain by the minute. Just right for the way he felt – hungry, hung-over and perishing for a drink.

He sighed and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. He reached into his pocket and jingled the few coins he had remaining. How was he going to stretch $2.53 to the end of the week? It wasn’t even enough for a beer, let alone a bite to eat.

Willie looked up at the scurrying sound of a black squirrel scampering across the leaf-covered sidewalk. “Fine for you, you little rascal. The park’s full of acorns you can eat. But that don’t do me any good.”

Then Willie’s attention was drawn to the rapid footsteps of a man approaching along the sidewalk. Left, right, left, right – heels clicking on the pavement. The man was about as wide as he was tall and he was decked out in a brown checkered suit and a natty yellow bow-tie. He stopped in front of Willie and blew his breath out with an exaggerated “Whew.”

“Man, it’s hot for this time of year,” he said, his round face glistening with sweat. “What d’ya think, is it hot or is it hot?”

Willie looked up. “I guess so – haven’t been payin’ much attention. I’m just –”

“Well, I’m tellin' you, for September…. By the way, the name’s Jamieson, Waldo P. Jamieson. And you’re…?”

It was only polite to respond. “I’m Willie –”

But the man cut him off before he could finish, thrusting his hand out like a steam piston. “Say, I’d like to shake your hand, friend. Ha, ha…Jamieson’s the name, and Bibles are the game. Ha, that gets ‘em every time. Cute, huh?”

“Look, if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon sit here by myself. I’m not really in much of a mood today.”

“Course you’re not, friend. But say, can you look me in the eye and say, ‘Waldo, I’m proud to tell ya I’m saved...saved like a dollar in the First National Bank, and all my troubles are behind me?’ Can ya, friend? Can ya?”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a huge red bandana handkerchief and mopped his perspiring face with it. “Oh, that’s lots better. Hot as a fryin’ pan, ain’t it?”

“Saved? Saved from what?” Willie said. “I don’t put much stock in that kinda thing, uh…Waldo. I’m –”

“Why then, you don’t have no idea how lucky you are I come along just now. For the ridiculous low price of only four dollars I can put you right in the driver’s seat of that bus to Heaven. I can –”

Willie looked the man up and down – decent suit, shiny shoes. Sure hadn’t missed too many meals lately. Hmm…?

“Waldo, I hate to bother you about this, but I wonder if you could see your way clear to maybe lending’ me a couple of bucks until Saturday…?”

“Well, I don’t know about that, friend. But let me tell you I got something here’s worth more’n all the money you’re ever gonna see. Right here in my case.”

He opened his black imitation leather satchel and pulled out a paperbound New Testament. “Last one I got until my new shipment comes in. They’re goin’ like hotcakes.”

“Just till Saturday. That’s all it’d be. I got a buddy that’s gonna lend me fifty then and I can pay you back.”

“Yes sir, they’re sellin’ like hot butter at a popcorn sale. And they’re up to the minute too. Modern as can be.” Waldo held the book in front of him and pointed with his stubby finger at the cover. “See, says right here…New Testament. It’s not cluttered up with a bunch of old things that don’t matter no more – just the up-to-date stuff. The New Testament. Why, with this little beauty in your pocket you can write your own ticket to Heaven.”

“Maybe five bucks? That’s all it’d take…or ten?”

“Only four dollars! Now ain’t that an amazing price for a giant step on the road to those Pearly Gates?” Waldo riffled through the pages. “ More good readin’ in here than a whole monthful of Sunday funnies.”

Willie persisted. “Even a couple bucks would help. I gotta see the doctor, and you know there’s gonna be a prescription to pay for. And then –”

“And then, when you get done readin’ your way through this, and blessin’ the lucky day you met yours truly right here in this park, why you call me back. Here’s my card…Waldo P. Jamieson – Bibles for All Occasion. And my phone number. You call me, brother, and for just another four dollars I can get you a matchin’ copy of the Old Testament to go with it.”

“But what I really need –”

“Is that a deal, friend, or is that a deal?”

Willie shrugged, his stomach grumbled, and he went back to watching the squirrels.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Will anybody notice? by Urve Tamberg

August 23, 1989
An apartment complex on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia

Three teenagers lay sprawled on the fragrant grass, eyes closed, their faces turned to seek the warmth of the late summer sun. Dozens of dingy grey apartment buildings with hundreds of identical rectangular windows formed a monotonous concrete maze. Tiny patches of green lawn dotted the massive Soviet built complex. Residents, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and cheap shoes, scurried along the paths. To home. To work and back home again.

Tina shaded her eyes to gaze up at the blue Baltic sky and watched the tiny clouds scatter out to sea. “Do you think the Soviets control the clouds along with the rest of our country?” Tina asked. “Perhaps with biochemical spray or electronic control?” She thrust herself onto one elbow and shoved her blonde hair aside with the other hand. Her eyes flashed her anger about the Soviet occupation of Estonia as she bit the fingernail on her thumb.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they did,” Reeta replied. She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin with her hands, revealing nails bitten to the quick. Her brown eyes glinted with annoyance. “They control everything else. What we eat, what we write, how we’re supposed to think!”

“Their days are numbered and they know it,” Marc said as he lay on his back, hands clasped behind his head. “The political rally tonight clinches it. Gorbachev plus glasnost equals the end of the USSR and the beginning of independence in the Baltics.” He opened one blue eye. “Can you believe they finally admitted that there was a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin? Everyone knew they were lying about it for fifty years. And this week they confessed. To the world, no less.”

Tina and Reeta nodded their heads in unison. Everyone knew about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed exactly fifty years ago on August 23, 1939. Millions of lives changed as Russia annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Now, half a century later buoyed by the momentum of glasnost and perestroika, the Baltic people intended to commemorate this anniversary with the largest protest ever planned.

Footsteps pounding on the pavement interrupted their conversation. Tina craned her neck to see four figures strutting along the path. She squinted then frowned when she noticed Vladimir, a Russian boy from their class, stop and glare at them. She always attempted to avoid him since he never missed an opportunity to insult anyone who wasn’t a Communist. Classmates bit their tongues since his father was a high-ranking KGB official and retaliation could be far reaching.

“Are you talking about the Baltic Chain planned for tonight? You think that joining hands and standing in a line is going to change anything. Well, it won’t!” Vladimir curled his upper lip into a snarl. “You Estonians are like fleas on an elephant. The Soviets won’t notice even if there are a million of you.” He pursed his lips as if he wanted to spit on them.

Tina stood up to face him, arms crossed. She didn’t feel brave, only tired - tired of hearing snide comments from people who didn’t see an alternative to tyrannical communist rule. Plus with her friends around, she assumed Vladimir would only spew empty threats. She involuntarily leaned back as he stepped close enough for her to see the dark stubble on his chin. She focused somewhere over his left shoulder. “We don’t care if the Soviets notice,” she said. “But the world will notice when over a million people join hands across three countries.”

“There won’t be a million people,” Vladimir scoffed. “Most people will be too scared to show up. They’re frightened of tanks and rifles and the powerful Russian army.” He took a step back and pretended to have a machine gun bucking in his hand. Tina didn’t flinch. She felt Marc and Reeta stand up behind her.

“Hey, Vlad, you’ve better things to do than talk to those losers,” one of his friends shouted. “Come on, we’re late.”

Vladimir pretended to fire a few more rounds into the air and then ran to join his buddies.

“He’s a bully, just like the Soviets. And the bully gets louder when he knows he’s losing,” Marc said, sitting back down on the lawn. “It’s just a matter of time before we regain our autonomy.”

“And we’re closer than ever. The Baltic Chain will show the world we want our freedom back!” Tina said with enthusiasm. “We’re all going tonight! Right, Marc? Right, Reeta? What time do you want to meet?” She glanced at her watch.

“Let’s meet at five to catch the bus,” Marc said. “It’ll take us a while to get into town, then we need to find a place to stand. And you know what Estos are like. Everyone will be early.”
Reeta remained silent as they chatted. Finally Tina turned to her, “You’re coming, aren’t you?”

Reeta shook her head slowly as she gazed down at her shoes. Finally she said, ”I can’t come. My dad and my uncle would kill me if the Russians didn’t do it first.”

Tina had forgotten that Reeta’s uncle was a high-ranking Estonian Communist. And that meant he supported for the continuation of communism, not independence.

“Can’t you sneak out?” Marc asked. “We need as many people as possible.”

“We know you’d come with us if you could,” Tina said. “We’ll think of you as we’re holding hands.” She cast an annoyed look at Marc. He ought to know that Reeta couldn’t risk coming with them.

“Will you do something for me tonight?” Reeta asked, looking hesitant.

“Of course,” Tina replied. “What?”

Reeta rummaged through her tattered knapsack and pulled out a well-loved scruffy teddy bear. She offered him to Tina and asked, “Could you take him along and pretend it’s me? I’d really like to be there and support you. This is the only way I can think of.”

Marc grinned. “Sure. We need all the people or bears we can get.”
“I’ll take good care of him,” Tina said as she gently placed the bear in her striped cloth shoulder bag.

They continued to talk about the once-in-a-lifetime event. The Baltic Chain called for people to join hands at seven o’clock along the six hundred kilometre stretch of road from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. This fifteen minute peaceful protest planned to show the world a massive demonstration of solidarity for Baltic independence. Momentum had been building for the last few days. Conversation on the streets, in the food shops, at the bus stops focused on the logistics of getting as many people as possible to participate.

With the mid-afternoon sun still high in the sky, Tina and Mark hugged Reeta and hurried home for a snack before their meeting at the bus stop.

Tina rushed across the compound to her building, which was virtually indistinguishable from all the others. The gloomy hallway felt like a cave after the dazzling sunlight. In the dim light of a bare bulb, she pressed the button for the elevator and waited, hoping she wouldn’t have to climb up twelve flights of concrete stairs. The building’s solitary elevator worked intermittently.

Today, the doors opened. Once inside, she felt claustrophobic since the elevator was only slightly bigger than a closet. It chugged up the shaft and bounced to a stop. Before the doors opened, the reek of cabbage and wurst assaulted her nose and she held her breath as she strode down the hallway. As she walked into the small anteroom shared by two apartments, she heard the neighbour’s radio blaring Russian music. She left her shoes in the hallway, found her key and opened the door.

She didn’t expect anyone to be at home Wednesday afternoon. Her parents had given her permission to go to the political protest with Marc and his family since they were going directly from work.

The one bedroom apartment seemed to become smaller with each passing year. Her bedroom, only a few steps from the front door, housed a single bed, a small fake wood desk and real wood bookshelf. The afternoon sun poured onto her faded green bedcover. Tina flopped onto the bed, rolled onto her back and propped Reeta’s teddy bear on her stomach.

“So, what do you think of this independence thing?” she asked the bear. The dream of self-rule in the Baltics had been whispered only amongst trusted family and friends as long as she remembered. But would she be risking her life tonight? What if Vladimir proved right and the Red tanks flattened their hopes?

Maybe life under the hammer and sickle wasn’t so bad. The black market provided most things they couldn’t find in the shops. For a dear price, of course. She’d only savoured a banana once in her life.

A slight breeze flowed through the open window and brought with it the possibility of liberty, as ephemeral and persistent as the smell of the sea.

“No, little bear, freedom is the only answer,” she said, holding the bear’s caramel coloured paws. She rolled up to sit on the edge of the bed, rested him against the pillow and patted his shabby head.

She made herself some toast, downed a glass of milk and changed into jeans. She located a candle and matches to take with her, grabbed a jacket and took a last glance in the mirror.
She drew her long blond hair back into a ponytail and grimaced at her shapeless blue and white t-shirt, baggy jeans and too tight running shoes. Maybe self-government would bring a better selection of clothing in the stores. She pulled the door tight behind her and locked it.
As she pushed the button for the elevator, she remembered she’d left Reeta’s teddy bear on her bed and sprinted back to the apartment.

Bear in hand, she rushed back as the elevator door opened. She stepped in, only to encounter Vladimir and one of his buddies. The elevator door glided shut her before she could back out. She stuffed the bear into her shoulder bag.

Vladimir leered. “You’re in a hurry, aren’t you?” He pushed the stop button, and the elevator bounced gently as it stopped descending.

Tina held her breath and clutched her bag in front of her as she considered her response. She eyed his athletic shoes - Nikes apparently but almost certainly counterfeit.

“My friends are waiting,” she said as she crossed her arms and bit on the fingernail of her right thumb.

“My friends are waiting,” Vladimir mimicked. “What are they waiting for? Do you think a couple of people holding hands along a road are going to make a difference? The tanks will roll in and shoot all of you.” Inches from her face, he reeked of garlic and she noticed his crooked front teeth.

She forced a glimmer of a smile to her eyes and lips as she considered the best way to deal with Vladimir. “Even the Russians don’t have enough bullets to stop eight million people from three countries.” She leaned against the elevator wall. “Even if I don’t go, it won’t stop anyone else from going. The world is going to know that the Baltics want independence from the Soviet Union.” She relaxed her arms and tried to breathe evenly. There was nothing else she could do.

He took a step toward her, his face only inches from hers. Sweat and garlic offended her nose. She held her breath and clenched her fists. She subtly shifted her balance to her left leg. Could she knee him in the groin? Of course she could, but then what?

“We don’t have time to waste on,” Vladimir sneered at her and turned his back. ”Next time. And there will be a next time.” As he pushed the button to resume the elevator, he said to his friend, “They haven’t got a chance.”

Tina continued to hold her breath. Once the door opened, she bolted out of the elevator and dashed outside to gulp the clean air. She didn’t care if Vladimir thought she was running from him, she needed to get to the bus stop.

Running hard, she dodged people as she veered on and off the path. She arrived at the bus stop panting but just in time to leap on the bus with Marc and his family. They settled into seats at the back of the bus. The only advantage of living far from town was getting a seat on the bus.
Her breathing now even, Tina looked out of the grimy bus window. Even this far from the city centre, traffic was heavier than normal.

“Marc, look at all the cars heading toward the city,” she said. “We’re going to make history, I just know it.”

As the bus got closer to the old city centre, hundreds of people filled the sidewalks, walking from all directions, holding candles, some with flowers and many holding the blue, black and white flag high in the air.

Finally, the bus turned onto the main road leading to Riga. Tina gasped as she saw the continuous line of people connected shoulder to shoulder along the road. Young men still wore sunglasses despite the evening light. Old women shuffled along the road, stooped and wrinkled. Small girls carried small bouquets of late summer flowers as their mothers held candles, protecting the flame with cupped hands. Cars parked end to end on the side of the road. Countless Estonian flags of all sizes fluttered in the wind.

Police stood by as the peaceful crowd made room for more and more people. Tina continued walking for a few blocks with Marc’s family until they finally squeezed into a space.

At seven, a hush fell over the crowd.

Tina took Reeta’s teddy bear from her bag and held its tiny paw while Marc took the other one with his thumb and forefinger.

“Now I feel that Reeta is with us,” Tina said. The fresh Baltic breeze rustled countless flags and raised just as many hopes. She felt energy soar along the kilometres buoyed by beating hearts and warm hands. For an instant, the Iron Curtain rippled and parted, showing the world three forgotten countries.

Historical note: August 23, 2008, will be the nineteenth anniversary of the Baltic Chain protest. Just two years after that protest, on September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized Estonia as an independent country. Latvia and Lithuania soon gained their independence, as well.
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“1999” by Surya Naidu

A gust created by a departing train tunnelled through the station. My hair swept up furiously and resettled in a new arrangement, and as it did, in the midst of the station’s dreary grey I caught a glimpse of red and decided to pursue.

It was 1999, the tag end of a British winter, that season when my plants would drown in the incessant rain and endure the raw bite of occasional frost. I had been headed to the high street to acquire a smart frock and hat for Sunday dinner at my nephew’s. I could have stayed at home that day, perusing the untouched abundance of the Sunday Best. Instead, the fates had lured me to the city shops that gloomy day. And on the way, in Northwick Park Station, I found myself obeying the womanly intuition that had eluded me thus far in my 62 years and following that glimpse of scarlet cloth. I chased it, lungs writhing from sudden action, until the illusion stilled and took form.

It was nothing but a crimson scarf, carelessly wrapped around the neck of a rather scruffy looking man. I quietly took him in. He was no more in height than me though quite a lot bulkier. Or was it just that his slipshod coat was oversized? He looked like a child stuffed into a winter coat two sizes too big because his mother planned to make that coat last two winters. He even had the meek demeanour of a boy with an overbearing mother. Benign on the one hand, beaten down on the other.

The scarf was surprisingly vivid, given its obvious state of disrepair. This man’s wife must have continually patched it with red felt in vain attempts to restore it to its original glory. Perhaps she had lovingly bestowed it upon him as a first anniversary gift, at a time when their faces still shone with devotion. The rich hue of the scarf would have accentuated his high cheekbones most attractively as they stood sipping hot chocolate in front of the town Christmas tree.

My gaze penetrated this man’s bulky coat and tatty scarf and I found his heart waiting for mine. Our souls intertwined as our bodies would some time later, awkwardly yet with genuine need. We instantly understood that we would share each other’s burden of pain and eradicate each other’s loneliness.
Like the scarf, the man seemed a tad worn with living. I would come to learn he had endured a divorce. His wife had not succeeded in restoring lustre to the scarf nor the marriage after years of raising youngsters. He only occasionally saw his children now and had not much of a relationship with them, simply sent them cards and gifts on special occasions as I did my nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews and the ever burgeoning cast of great-great nieces and great-great-nephews.

When I took him inside my cluttered home, the plants in my front window bloomed fervently as George showed me what I had missed in all these years of spinsterhood. The wellspring of womanhood burst forth like the tulips escaping from the moist soil in the jumble of my garden. Joyous love had finally come to me, and without the rigours of childbearing and childrearing. My mother and sister bore all the signs of these tiresome tasks. While they revelled in making me feel I had somehow missed out on the delights of motherhood, it looked like an uncanny trap into which most every woman I knew fell and was never freed. In the time that my sister had had her four children, I had traveled Europe four times over. When I spoke of my journeys I was met with silent scorn as if I had learned nothing that was worth a woman knowing.

But after our lovemaking, George would prop his threadbare head on his flabby hand and listen to me. He drank in my stories like pints at the pub after a long day at the factory. I was a fountainhead of adventure and he worshiped my luminous repertoire, my spontaneity. From the refuge of my bed he followed me to remote places. I only wished he had been with me in my youth when I had traveled so unencumbered, but felt so alone in my revelry.

George was 55 and entering the twilight of his work life. He was a sturdy fellow whose masculinity was a welcome force in my life. He penetrated parts of me that had leathered over after years on my own. He held forth the promise of things becoming fixed. If I couldn’t, he could pry open doors to rooms in my house that concealed the embarrassing disarray of my desolate solitude.

I had always loved the city shops and all their offers of better times. I shopped incessantly and impulsively. I had quite a few years back bought a new cooker. I saw projected onto its sleek black top languid candlelit meals. George could surely move the cooker from the position it had stood in since the delivery boys had dropped it aimlessly in the middle of the back hall.

The only use the cooker had served since was as a shelving unit for my tins and packets of food. When George came into my life, I quickly learned shame for the utter muddle in which I lived. Till then, the urge to tidy had rarely overtaken me as it regularly did my mum and sister. I thought their obsessive orderliness a hollow assertion of control over their ever-frenzied worlds as mothers and wives.

Their husbands had always seemed to contribute as little as possible to household maintenance, my sister and mum were to be satisfied with the pay purse they were offered biweekly after their husbands’ Friday night pub run. I had held out for a different marital configuration.

Sometimes when I observed my young great-nieces and great-nephews with their well-turned-out spouses I saw what I had wanted back in those days. These couples balanced illuminating careers, glamorous vacations, and the conscientious upbringing of their children with seeming ease. Had I been a young person today, would that be me?

It was too late for such aspirations, but my newfound nesting instinct heartened me. I suddenly longed to invite my relations in past the front door and offer them tea in the sitting room. Up till now the only occupants of this room were a unique array of kitchenware perched elegantly on couches and cozy chairs in their original wrappings.

My plants greedily gulped the water I offered them in the sweaty heat of summer. I thirsted for a sustained transformation in my life. George respectfully did not venture into the parts of my home that were cordoned off by stacks of books intended for shelves I was yet to purchase. He never questioned the absolute shambles of my home, nor the persistent stench that radiated from the kitchen quarters. He was oblivious to the cooker in the back hall.

How awful must have been his wife that he was willing to accept this state of affairs and my wretched arms? What could an old sack of bones offer him in comparison to that lithe being he had shared his previous life with? I had seen her once. She had to be ten years younger than him, and with that age difference came high expectations of how life should treat her. Her experiences were yet to fill her with resignation.

She seemed a determined and precise sort. Her tidy hair was pinned just so above her ears. Her scarf was not mended, but new and in the latest palette. She held her features stringently and she spoke curtly. Her cursory glance in my direction showed that she was not in the least disturbed by my presence in her ex-husband’s life. I apparently posed no threat to her self-image. She had eventually discarded George when mending and tending him had not worked. She was going to move on to the better life he had never quite offered up. She would never have a cooker in the middle of her back hall, this one.

On an unremarkable spree in the green grocer one day, I responded once again to a restless impulse and walked out with a sturdy cardboard box. Once home, I attacked the cooker with fervour. I began to feel giddy in a way I hadn’t since I was a schoolgirl swooning on a crush. I entertained fantasies of George taking me against the now lustrous surface of the cooker.

Devoid of its dusty companions, the cooker looked naked and vulnerable. I rifled through the contents of my sitting room and uncovered my state-of-the-art sauce pans. On the cooker I carefully arranged the ingredients for the Bolognese sauce I had learned to prepare in Italy 40 years ago. I was hardly aware of my plump tears until they splashed the immaculate surface of the cooker. A scene from “Like Water for Chocolate” came to mind. The protagonist weeps disconsolately into her cook pot and her despair infects her guests. My tear-laced meal would drive George to ecstasy. Most importantly, he would acknowledge how painful it had been for me to confront the cooker and the mad mess I had allowed to take over because no one was watching and no one cared.

I could not connect the cooker’s electric cord to the wall outlet and so the repast I urgently wished to prepare would have to wait until tomorrow night once the cooker was moved to an appropriate spot in the kitchen. I was exhausted at any rate and yearned to luxuriate in a bubbly bath. This would be a tricky enterprise as the bathtub was overflowing with a stockpile of cosmetic products. I would have to do with a shower in the stall, which was free of debris, though a bit mouldy.

I freshened up and sorted out some make-up from the bathtub and for the first time in years applied it to my face and neck. How I had aged and yet tonight my heart raced like a teenager’s and soared with the possibilities of my spring-summer romance. I reluctantly opened the door of the guest room to face the boundless pile of garments it contained, and lifted off the mound a never-used frock. Once clad, I lay down for a quick rest-up before the night’s intimacies.

When I awoke my face felt tight and encrusted. I glanced around the room to determine the time. The clock was buried under books and creams on my bedside table. Once found, its face revealed that something was not quite right. Perhaps I had not replaced the batteries. There was no way it could be so late in the evening already and George not here. He was due around 6:00 and here it was gone 11:00. How could this be? The heavy curtains over the windows gave no evidence of the time until I briskly whisked them open. A flutter of dust and cat dander pervaded the air and temporarily impeded my vision, but soon enough the truth was exposed.

It wasn’t that it was late in the evening but late in the morning. Things were worse than they had seemed a moment ago when George was five hours late. Now the effort of calculating how many hours he really was late was too much for my mind to manage. I lay back down on the bed and waited for the spinning to stop.

One day it did.

It was a day not unlike that blustery winter one in 1999. I caught my reflection in the mirrored window alongside the platform. An old lady at 71, wild in the eye, and hair flying from the slipstream as the train entered the station. And then, once more I saw that streak of red cloth. I veered toward the tracks, desperate to keep my eye on that vibrant crimson tinge over there. I ran towards him, arms outstretched. George!

Then red splattered everywhere.
A clutch of family members gingerly step through the backdoor, having made their way through the tangle of metre tall mange in the back garden. It has taken two strong men to break in the door as the frame is swayed and buckled with water damage. They are greeted with a powerful waft of pong as the door gives way. Rodents scuttle off fretfully into the snarl of the garden foliage. Everyone grasps scarves to their faces as the wretched stench of the kitchen reaches their quavering nostrils. Mixed with the dankness of the murky garden, the odour permeates the mood of the group and tension rises.

“How could we have let this happen?” sobs a great-niece, breaking the sombre silence. Guilt joins tension, and the collective head of the group lowers in shame and distress. How indeed?

“But really how were we to know?” comes the sullen reproach of a great-nephew. The nephews who have broken down the door remain soundless in dismay. This was the home o their mother’s sister, the auntie they have diligently invited to dinner every Sunday and who always presented herself in fine attire and joined in pithy conversation. She was the eccentric spinster auntie who would never let them past her front door but never missed sending a birthday card and thoughtfully chosen gift for their children.

Two nieces have wordlessly entered the kitchen collars turned up, scarves still pressed to noses. One picks up a jar of tomato sauce, another a package of pasta. Their eyes meet as they shuffle through the items sitting on a filthy never-used cooker in the middle of the back hall. All the fixings for a nice Italian meal it would seem. The rodents have long since emptied the packages of cheese and meat of their contents. They have even gnawed through a packet of candles and left hefty teeth marks in the wax.

“1999,” says one to the other in a bare whisper. They are beyond mortification and they have just entered the home. They fear what they will find as they move further in.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“It says Sep-02-1999 on this jar of sauce. That’s the expiry date,” explains the first niece. She pauses as the gravity of her observation settles.

“Mine too, or thereabouts. Definitely 1999.”

“How bizarre! 1999! And nothing to eat since then? Whatever is that about? Well, wasn’t she just the daft one!”

“I keep telling Amy to set up nicely with that fellow of hers before she turns into this lot!”

Flabbergasted by the kitchen’s disuse, the nieces attempt to move forward into the house, but are met with a precariously erected blockade of books. With a shrug the one leads the other out the back hall, primly circumventing the cooker, they retreat to the garden. They will have to hire some men to clean out this lot.

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