Roads Go Ever One – The First Leg

Why?

First steps

I had two possible versions of today. Three and a half miles away (seven miles from my starting point at Cheddington) was Tring Station, and for an out of condition man with a leg that had turned to jam a couple of weeks ago, a seven or eight mile walk up and down the chalk hills might be enough. If it wasn’t, I’d be walking on to Wendover, a further seven-ish miles, for a what, to my mind, constituted a full day’s walk.

I felt good as I started out. The air was fresh, and I had the broad chalk ridge almost to myself – after I set off, the only fellow hiker I encountered for some time was a cheerful German man who seemed as excited by the blue skies and broad, open landscape as me. We exchanged happy greetings. Butterflies danced in front of me. Harebells and late daisies bobbed in the fresh breeze. Then I found the grave.

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Continue reading Roads Go Ever One – The First Leg

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Roads Go Ever On – The Beginning

Why?

I’d set an alarm for six o’clock in the morning and I actually rose to meet it with some enthusiasm. I had a few things to do and I needed to be on a train at Euston at 7.24.

I filled a water bottle and a coffee flask, took my packed lunch out of the fridge, made sure I’d packed my map and notebook, plasters, a spare blood thinner syringe and sun cream. I left the house.

At 8.03 I arrived at Cheddington, or as everyone I’d told about my plans said “where?” and I had to agree to with them.

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Continue reading Roads Go Ever On – The Beginning

Roads Go Ever On – Motive

There’s all sorts of reasons I wanted to do something.

I’d been laid up for a few days with a blood clot. It’s surprising how minor a blood clot can be. This one was a thrombo-phlebitis in a surface vein on my right leg. I was (and still am) injecting myself with blood thinners once a day and was (but am not currently) working from home with my foot up on a cushion.

There’s also the state of the world, which is an open invitation to escape. What with politics and the exposure of a number of people in the world of videogames (among them an acquaintance of mine, horribly enough) as sexual predators, I was eager for something, anything that would stop me refreshing Twitter, and indeed obsessively seeking out the worst possible voices to…torture myself with? I’m not hugely sure why but god knows, I was doing it!

So that’s an impetus.

I read a comic book by Warren Ellis called the Injection. It’s very good and you should read it to, but specifically, there’s a couple of brief scenes showing a mystical character in a big coat walking the Ridgeway. It describes it as the oldest road in Europe. It connected the South with the East over five thousand years ago. It occupies the same position on a map of England as the lifeline does on a human hand.

So that took root.

We went walking a lot when I was a child. I’ve got lots of happy memories of my dad constructing routes over OS maps – or getting them off the peg from books of walks, and then we’d set off, parking the car somewhere unprepossessing and tramping off across fields in pursuit of a tumulus or a long barrow, or a pub. Old Winchester Hill, West Kennet. That time when, due to a mistake, all four of us had to climb a steep, muddy bank to reach the road that turned out to be going past on a bridge quite a bit above the level of the path we were walking.

The books I read as a child had a lot of walking in them. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows all have what you might call significant rambles. And that sort of thing gets into your head. You start to think ‘could I?’. ‘If I had to, could I walk to the Stone Table or The Lonely Mountain or, you know, Mole’s House?’

And all those different bits of thinking and feeling sort of crystallised together and I found I was working out a route using a time table and a map and calculating distances and buying some walking shoes.

Card Tricks

Eight years old. Basically old enough to be given a handful of coins and free reign at a fete, if it’s in the grounds of your school and your parents are within shouting distance wherever you are. At eight years old, this is enough to feel an almost infinite sense of freedom and possibility which is only reinforced when you win a coconut on only your fifth throw. You deposit this with your distractedly proud mum, and go on to win a goldfish (an actual goldfish) and an inflatable dinosaur by hooking ducks out of a pond. Not actual ducks, of course. That would be cruel. But you still smile a bit and remember to draw a picture of an actual duck but with a hooky head in your book when you get home.

When you take the dinosaur and the goldfish back to your mum, she’s a bit aghast (Aunty Sue got you a word-a-day calendar for Christmas. You were very polite at the time but actually it’s been quite a bit brilliant and you are pleased to recognise ‘aghast’ on your mum’s face). She actually makes you choose between the dinosaur and Professor Scales McTavish and ultimately the dinosaur has to win, to your mother’s evident relief. Prof. Scales disappears into the recesses of the tea tent, there to be bestowed on some other, less lucky child. That makes you feel a bit virtuous (thanks Aunty Sue) and that, you believe is as good excuse for candy floss as any.

Five sticky minutes later, you have one fifty pence left, and a difficult choice to make. It all feels a bit urgent now and a bit more special. All the tents and stalls have taken on a magical aura. It doesn’t feel like a school fete anymore, it feels like a circus that’s come to town for one day only, and absolutely anything might be around the next corner. Nothing would surprise you: halls of mirrors that show you what most want in life, an actually magic wizard (not your maths teacher in a hat), a fortune teller. Oh. There is actually a fortune teller.

You don’t think twice. Or really even once.

Your remaining fifty pee  is shining in your tight fist like a silver sun. You go in.

It’s supposed to be Mrs Oswald, and you know because you heard her talking about it, even though you weren’t to. You didn’t tell anyone though, you just happily knew. But you knew wrong, but this woman is a stranger. She’s young and sort of fierce looking, and not how you imagine a fortune teller but she smiles and invites you to sit.

“You’re Bethan, aren’t you?”, she asks, and her voice is kind.

“How did you know?”

“Did you not see the sign? I’m a psychic. They don’t let you in the tent without the powers. Now Bethan, are you going to cross my palm with silver?”

You hold up your fifty pence, and as she smiles encouragement, you drop it into her hand. She smiles.

She smiles.

The tent feels quite small, suddenly. Just you and her. And there’s a smell: some candles are burning and they’re making the air sweet and sort of challenging. Like trying to breathe entire branch of Lush at once. She’s talking.

“These are my cards. They’re called the cards of Marseilles, and they’re a bit like my gran: they’re very old and they only tell the truth. That’s not always comfortable but then, uncomfortable isn’t always bad.”

She spreads them across the table so you can see all the images: kings and wizards and beasts and ships and on and on until it’s nearly too much. Then she gathers them up, flips the over and hands them to you.

“Shuffle them around, till you feel happy with them. Then turn over the top card, and we’ll see”

She doesn’t say what you’ll see, but you do what she says. It feels strange in the tent with the candles lit and you sort of want this to be over now.

The card shows a colourfully dressed figure at a table of dice and cups and ribbons. He looks a bit like the jack from normal cards.

“This is La Bataleur” the Fortune Teller explains. “It’s a good card. He’s a magician and a showman. Look on the table: he’s got all the tools he needs to do his tricks. He’s in control, but he’s in control because he’s prepared, and creative and very clever. If you stick close to La Bataleur, and be inspired by him, you’ll do great things.”

You smile. You sort of hoped you’d do great things, but your mum and dad only seem worried about why you hand your homework in late. They’re never interested in the stories or drawings in your book. Then again the Magician is clever and prepared so maybe…maybe…you think. You’re a bit startled when the Fortune Teller leans forward and says “Next card?”

You turn it over.

It’s La Bataleur.

You’re glad to see him again but the Fortune Teller’s not.

“That’s…there’s only meant to be…that’s not possible”. She doesn’t seem very mysterious now. It’s like she’s tripped over without leaving her chair. “Draw another”

It’s La Bataleur.

“What did you do to my cards?” she asks, like she’s trying not to shout. She doesn’t want to be scary but she is, because she’s scared. It’s scary when grown ups are scared.

“I didn’t touch them it’s not my fault! It just happened, look!”

You draw more cards, one after another.

La Bataleur

La Bataleur

La Bataleur

The Fortune Teller’s sitting back in her chair, now, in shock. “You might be a bit…this is…OK, I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a fortune teller, I’m Miss Oswald’s niece. She’s done her back so I said I take over. I’m a drama student.”

You’re still drawing cards. They’re all La Bataleur. You just keep doing it, looking the magician in the eye each time.

“I’m not special. The cards aren’t special. They’re just cards, but you – you might be special. You could do great things. Maybe. Just…I don’t know. Be careful, eh? Don’t tell anyone”

You’re done. 72 cards, all La Bataleur. You feel unusual. “Yes. I mean, no I won’t. It’s not like they’d believe me. Will I be OK?”

You look at the Fortune Teller, looking at the spread of cards. La Bataleur covers the table. “I think so” she says. “I do probably think so.”

You walk out of the tent, because there’s not much else to say to that. And you don’t tell anyone. And because you don’t tell anyone you sort of forget about it. It becomes a weird story from your childhood that you must have seen on TV and misremembered, or something that happened in an book that got lost or given away (because you did check, actually, just in case). But you do feel, even as you grow up, a little bit of confidence. La Bataleur’s watching out for you, so maybe you’re a bit more clever and a bit more prepared than you would have been.

That’s how you grow up.

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*******

The Time Traveller watches the sticky little eight year old back out of the tent, then she stands up. She pulls off the flouncy costume dress she’s been wearing, dislodging the deck of Tarot cards she dropped into her lap, before she passed the Magician deck to Bethany.

Conjuring tricks? She’d been pulled out of the army and made to learn conjuring tricks like the worst kind of teenage boy, then dressed up like an idiot and sent two hundred years back in time to play a prank on a child. This was not why people joined the army. People join armies to defend their homes, stand side by side with comrades and get shot at in interesting countries you don’t normally get to visit.

“I hope that was worth it, Greyhound” she mutters into her watch “Because, assuming permission to speak freely, I felt like a proper berk. That’s got to be the most expensive lie anyone has ever told a child”

“Well, TimeFly” The reply came as the world went all woozy, prior to a Jump “You’ve just given a sense of destiny to a clever, inventive little girl who’s going to make a much better Prime Minister than Lewis Beckham”

“What?”

“Remember when your grandad died in World War Three?”

“What? No!”

“Not anymore you don’t”

The Crack in the Sky

(A microwrites story from this prompt https://microwrites.wordpress.com/2019/07/01/microwrites-prompt-july-2019/)

We live in a world with a crack in it. That’s always been true: the world has always been broken, but it became visible on the 1st of January 2021. The midnight revellers of New Year’s Eve went to bed, and when they woke up, blinking in the cold light of a new year, they saw it. 

The crack – The Fracture is how most media and governments refer to it – runs around the world. It shatters through the sky of London, runs in a rough line Southeast across Europe, Africa and the Indian Ocean to Australia, Northwest across Ireland and Canada and the long emptiness of the Pacific. One of the best things about it (I thought) was the way America doesn’t seem to know if it’s relieved to have been missed, or annoyed at being somehow left out. 

I prefer to call it the crack in the sky. Giving it a name lets us pretend we understand it, and for all that we talk about it, we do not. A description is all we’re qualified to offer. 

It’s a thin crack, black, running across the sky like a more mundane one might run across the icy surface of a pond in winter. Sub-fractures spider out from it, like the one over Iceland. It has no substance, no dimension, no measurement. The crack isn’t hot or cold or heavy or light. It doesn’t push or pull, and nothing comes out of it. It’s just there. It’s very just there-ness is talking up a whole world’s worth of talk and action. 

Clouds drift across the crack, and the other side emerges slightly off kilter, at a fractionally different position in sky. Aeroplanes appear to do so from the ground: those on the flight experience no sensation whatsoever. Tourism, briefly interrupted, is renewed. People from the clear skied countries travel to see the crack in the sky. Americans flock to watch the Northern Lights flicker across the black absence, turning the ancient curtains of silent light into an anxious, broken kaleidoscope. 

No one saw it appear, despite all the eyes looking up at any given moment, and all the satellites looking down. It wasn’t there on side of the night, and somehow, in a single, omnipresent blink, it was there on the other. No world power or terrorist organisation has claimed responsibility – though many since have taken it as an omen of their preferred judgement day – and no scientists emerged shamefaced from the Large Hadron Collider to accept the blame. Scientific consensus is, broadly and in longer words, that’s it’s simply one of those things, and we should all try to get on with our lives. 

But no one is getting on with their lives. The crack in the sky, once seen, can’t be ignored or forgotten. Parliaments and papers fill up with it, till the crack doesn’t just run across the clouds but through our thoughts and across whole societies. All anyone talks or thinks about is the crack – entirely insubstantial as it is, it’s eating our world and growing no bigger. 

Wars break out, the earth heats and islands drown. And we all chatter about this nothing. The crack in the sky has even eaten this letter to you, darling, though I suspect it’s the last one I will have the chance to write you. I wanted context, and all I got was this damn fracture that runs through everything.  

 

Full Stop – A Story for #microwrites

She was short and thin, I was tall and fat. It was one of the many ways we weren’t a classic double act. She’d never liked me, and I’d always hoped to win her round but it wasn’t looking likely. The car had gone as far east as it was going to do and turned south, lodging in traffic between the Tootings. No blues and twos, our corpse wasn’t getting any deader.

“So, they think it’s…him?”

She’d not told me much, just that there was a body. Since we got in the car she’d been quiet, muttering threats at other motorists. Subvocal. I’d hurried back to the station just to hurry out again. We spend out lives rushing in circles, until we stop.

Eventually, her gaze comes back inside the windscreen, takes me in. Remains unimpressed. “Fits his profile. Petty little local boy taken down a rung or two. Buried under the ladder. We think he was shaking down a shop that was already paying protection elsewhere.”

“The owner told you?”

“Hinted. Not exactly forthcoming, but I can take the hint.”

She had frosty eyes and a frizz of blonde hair. I couldn’t imagine her in uniform, but her record spoke for itself. You could say the same about me if you were being nasty.

“Morden”

It was a rebuke of a word. To those in the comfortable South West it was where the map ended. On the tube but beyond the pale. The sort of place murders are done. I didn’t know why we were going out this far.

“It’s not him”

“Why do you say that?”

I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned on blurting that out, I was operating on instinct. “Doesn’t fit the pattern. Too far out. Too petty a hit.”

“He’s a petty operator. Mopping up after the big boys”

That needled me. “He’s a killer” I murmured and I simmered the rest of the way down the long road to Morden, wondering what was waiting for me.

Off the high street, off the back streets, by an overlooked park fenced by the sort of houses where people dodn’t notice things is where she finally pulled up. I think I’d worked it through by then. I certainly didn’t feel surprise, only dread and relief.

“Out”, she said. I didn’t hesitate.

We sat on a bench. The sky overheard was grey, like ink dropped into cold water. She broke the silence.

“Why?”

“Just the money”. No point holding back. “I lost a lot. The divorce, some drinking. I woke up poor with retirement coming, and I thought ‘why should I put up with this?’. I’ve done a tough, shitty job for years and the world hasn’t got any better.”

“You had the contacts, you had the expertise.”

“They had the money. I become a cleaner.”

She looked me in the eye, then. I think she understood even as she said “So now it’s over. End of the line, Terry. You’re nicked”

***

Much happier with this. I wasn’t planning anything with it, just enjoying the grey clipped voice of modern noir. Entre nous, you may enjoy this little digression on the Pg Wodehouse/Raymond Chandler Paradox

Lamplight – for Microwrites

Everyone focusses on the sodding ravens. I swear, they have the best publicity in the world – some Tudor Max Clifford did his career best work on the ravens. “If they ever leave the Tower the kingdom will fall” my right gonad. They’re a moderately intelligent corvid sure, but the Men in Red still have to clip their wings to stop them fucking off en masse.

My beat takes me from Buckingham Palace, up the Horseguards (oi oi!), down the Mall and through Green Park. And if it occurs to me to stop putting one foot in front of the other and fly away, we are in trouble with a capital F, for fucked.

I’ve got three colleagues and one boss, and on the org chart we’re a small unit within British Gas, but that’s not who we really are. We’re the thin line between civilisation and anarchy. We go out with the dusk and come in with the dawn. We’re the lamplighters, sonny, and you don’t know what darkness means and that’s because of us.

Do you know it hasn’t been properly dark for centuries? Candles and fires, pitch braziers and gas, electric bulbs and strip lighting and luminescent trees now. The story of humanity is driving back the darkness. Making a circle you can live in, where you don’t stub your toe in the night and the wolves can’t you. That’s what civilisation is like: driving back with the wolves.

There are people who bang on about light pollution, and I get it. I really do. The sky is huge and lovely and we’re blotting it out. But. I was there in 2008 when a busted fitting put out the gas lamps round Buck House and something bad came out to play. You need to keep the darkness under control because the things that live in it are so bad only children remember what they’re like. There are no wild wolves in England any more, but a thing that is the memory of wolves has a tarry black life of its own and I’ve seen it.

So every night we go out, we put one foot in front of the other, round the Palace, up and down the Mall, across the parks. We hold the line. We light the lights, we grease and polish clockwork mechanisms that have been ticking quietly since before the old queen died. We pass down stories about things that are worse than the memory of wolves, because some things must never be forgot.

If you want to worry about anything, worry about funding. We’ve been fighting the dark for a long time now, but there’s not many of us left, and fewer and fewer people who understand why we do what we do. We’ve seen off a few cutbacks, but we can’t win every time, and one day soon the lights are going to go off and everyone’s going to remember the wolves.

****

This is not the story I wanted to write this week. But everything the prompt stirred up was horrendously personal without being actually interesting. Maybe I’ll find a way to tell that story one day that isn’t terribly dull, but for now you’ll have to settle for me doing an impression of myself, for the sake of saying anything at all. Keep moving.

He’s Behind You – A January Story for Microwrites

When you’re an actor you’re a hostage to fate. It’s only the Denches that can pick and choose projects and I’m no Dench. The only lines I’ve drawn for myself are a determination to never appear in a payday loan advert or Conservative Party political broadcast. If casting agents for either ever contacted my agent, I might find my resolution tested.

So, back in July, when I got a call about panto work, I said I a hearty yes please. It’s a banker, panto – weeks of work, a solid cast and crew in the boozer afterwards and audiences that pay attention. I’d rather do panto for kids who love it than Arthur Miller at the National for pseuds. I assume. Again, I’ve not been asked.

So, as of October I was down in Frinton, getting drilled through dances, blocking out the script and over a few pints with the cast sorting out the important stuff: who was sleeping with who, who was therefore available, and where we were going to put the real jokes in.

I didn’t know many of the cast – panto’s a small world but not that small. There was Jennifer, who’d been ‘Cleopatra’ to my ‘Rannius (non-speaking)’ at the Reading Rep a few years ago and Thomas, who I was at drama school with, but the rest were all strangers. Back in the old days I was the rising star and Tom was the jobbing actor but that’s not how it turned out. The wheel, I suppose, will turn, even if I have to give it a push. Now he was bringing a touch of a classically trained punch to the King Rat and I was Ensemble (non-speaking).

The thing I always forget about panto is that it runs on too long. The Christmas lead up is fun and games, you’re beginning to get tired after Boxing Day and into New Year you just wonder what the point is. Two shows a day from the 1st of December is knackering to someone at the top of their game and I’ve been a distinctly middle of the road player physically since the late 80s.

Some people thrive on it. Lots of the cast were throwing in extra jokes, running on suspiciously alcoholic fumes, embracing the hysteria. I was…isolated. The remaining Christmas decorations around town seemed too bright, the trees still up in the theatre were an insult. I had a constant headache and Tom wouldn’t stop being successful. He was nearly late to yesterday’s performance because he had a casting for a telly – a prestigious BBC Dickens for next Christmas. I’d be back on the murder mystery parties.

I’ve always thought I’d make a good murderer. All that drama school training would let me face down a police interrogation with ease. I assume. I’ve not been asked. Though if I didn’t get all the fingerprints off the pair of scissors now sticking out of Tom’s back I might finally get a call. I’m almost looking forward to it.

********

Microwrites is an informal, supportive and fun writing community superintended by Thom, one of the best people on Twitter.

 

Ideal Holmes

These three Sherlocks walk into a bar.  A classic Holmes, a modern Holmes and an…other.  The classic Holmes, wearing a deerstalker said ‘I deduce from my surroundings that we are no longer in a crime or adventure format.’

The modern Holmes was shaking his phone petulantly. ‘We’re in a joke, aren’t we?  I can never get signal in jokes.’

The other leant on his cane and popped another pill.  “What am I even doing in here with you?  This is a pub – we have bars in America”

The classic Holmes let out a harsh, barking laugh. “You’re one of us”

“Like hell I am.  Idiot.  I’m a doctor.  You’re British detectives”

The modern Holmes spun round. “No.  Actually.  You make brilliant deductions about people based on their appearance?”

“Yes”

“Address?”

“221b, Baker Street”

The classic Holmes piped up. “Your best friend – Watson?”

“Ha. No.”

The other two Holmeses were crestfallen.

Wilson

They beamed.

“In fact, look around.  They’re all us”

The pub was full.  Crowded in fact.  There was an entire lineage detectives, propping up the bar, fighting over the cigarette machine.  Sherlocks who had been cryogenically frozen, beamed into space, sent back in time.  Holmeses fighting the Nazis, aliens, and eldritch horrors.

And what’s more, the descendants.  Every detached, genius detective since 1886.  Policemen with a taste for Wagner and ale; diminutive Belgians with a recognisably unshakeable faith in their little grey cells; action heroes, with lodgings in Baker Street; supremely logical monks; ancient aliens with a familiar habit of dying and coming back; talented amateurs and weary old pros.  All very clever and slightly broken.  Every one of them.

The modern Sherlock turned to the Classic. “Bit of sleight of hand.  This isn’t a joke.  That’s just an excuse to get us all together.  It’s more a reunion.  A tribute.  All your grandchildren.  We wanted to say…thanks.  None of us would be here without you. “

He turned to the room. “I give you Sherlock Holmes”

They raised their glasses.  “Sherlock Holmes” chorused the detectives.

If You Go Down to the Woods Today

If you go down to the woods, do not go on this particular day. Not when the stars are in just this pattern, not in this specific beat between two seasons, not when the wind stands just so and the clouds are drawing this picture. If you go down to the woods on this day, you’re sure of a big surprise. The sort of surprise that’s inimical the life you used to be so settled and secure in. If you go down to the woods today, you can never go home again.

On a date that you don’t know, according to a cycle that’s not set by humans for humans to work around, the woods are different. The collective noun for owls is Parliament, but this is the day when the entire house is in session: not just the owls, or just the birds or even just the animals. The earth itself sits together and listens to the arguments go back and forth and decisions are taken.

There is a clearing in the woods. It isn’t very big, but it’s somehow large enough for mountains to sit down with mice, for fire and rain to blackball each other, for the air and ice to strike deals that are expressed across the wide acres of the sky.

If you look for sense in the senseless fury of storms and earthquakes you’ll find it here, as the forces that shake the world hold parliament, make and break treaties and have their conflicts judged. This is not somewhere humanity has a say, or even a seat. We have no place at this table, nor the strength to make our tiny voices heard, even if we spoke the language.

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. And the surprise is this: that before the Parliament of Owls and Rats and Predators and Prey and Air and Water and Mountains and Caverns, you utterly, utterly unimportant. If humanity acted together for the first time since there were more than a hundred of us, we might just sway a single motion by one single vote.

It is a truth that defeats. It’s a truth that makes people pull the covers over their heads and turn over. That’s why you feel it in your bones that there are days when the rain stings and the wind blows through you and the world is simply not for you.

But, if you do go down to the woods on that day, when the parliament of the earth is in session, what you will find is that the bears are caterers par excellence.