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Old 12-04-2020, 10:29 AM   #1 (permalink)
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A

PRODUCTION
You know, I finally get it. Took long enough for it to sink in, but I get it now. I’m 57, I’ve never had anything published and the massive likelihood at this stage of my life, and with such little effort expended by me to get published is that I never will. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a bad writer. I’m something of my own worst critic, and I know when I have failed to come up to my own standards (quite often) as any writer does really, but I know I can write. I’ve been interested in writing since I was knee-high to a velociraptor, and given the small accolades some of my stories have received on certain writing forums, I know it’s not just me thinking I’m good, living in a bubble or an echo chamber and ignoring all outside criticism. Nobody has gushed “Oh my god! Why aren’t you a best-selling author?” or anything like that, but there’s been praise, and affirmation that I’m a decent writer.

Sometimes, decent is enough. Look at some of the books written - hell, look at some of the best-sellers - and it’s not unfair to say the authors of some of them are not what you’d call brilliant. But sometimes it just takes one thing - catch a moment, be in the right place at the right time, say the right thing, know the right person - and bam! You’re away. I’m not for a microsecond suggesting all, or even the vast majority of well known writers today fall into this category, far from it. I know most writers work hard for most of their lives before attaining fame and fortune, but there are some out there who have really just been lucky. Certain names come to mind, but I won’t mention them. Not if you paid me fifty shades of - I mean, fifty thousand Euro.

And if these writers have succeeded through a combination of dumb luck, connections and the right timing, then fair play to them. I’m not knocking anyone. I merely raise the point to illustrate my own, which is that you can be a great writer and just never make it. I don’t think I made up the quote but until someone claims it I’m going to say I did: the cemeteries are full of excellent writers who never got published. Just because you’re good, or great, does not mean necessarily that you’ll make it. And hell, even if you do, there’s no guarantee you can even make a living as a writer, at least not solely. My eyes have been opened in the last year, talking to and listening to published writers who have made it clear they don’t all drive fancy houses or own big cars (maybe that should be the other way around) on the earnings of their writings. Most of them see it as a kind of supplementary income, and may take other work, such as translation, proof-reading, or writing technical works to keep the money coming in.

I think it was the late Sir Terry Pratchett who thanked his wife in the dedication of one of his books for working and allowing him to write, until he could support her. Stephen King tells many hard luck tales of waiting for the hoped-for cheque to come in from a short story in order that he could pay the rent, or buy baby food. Of course, that was when he was starting off; now he’s a gazillonaire. But for even Stephen King, JK Rowling or Robert Ludlum there are a thousand, a million even Trollhearts, Oris and other writers who can’t, and never will, get published. It’s just how it is. You might read a book and say “I write better than that!” And maybe you do. Nobody cares. Unless you can somehow make that immense leap across the gulf between writing at home or on the web and being on the bookshelves of Barnes and Nobles or Easons or in the listings for Amazon, you’ll stay unnoticed, you’ll stay poor and nobody will ever read your material.

OccultHawk made a comment a year or two back which really pissed me off, but thinking about it the fucker is probably right. He said “At least when you die, your writing will die with you.” Yeah, it probably will. Almost certainly. Which is why I want to try, now, to let others see it. Hey, I’m not expecting anyone is going to grab the phone and get on to their cousin thrice removed who happens to be in publishing, and suddenly I’ll have a career as a writer. Nor am I expecting some wandering editor to be idly perusing this forum, and then the journal section, and then this journal. Not gonna happen.

So either I keep writing and nobody ever reads my material, or I put it up here. I choose the latter. Here, then, I’m going to post short stories I’ve written, perhaps even extracts from longer, not-yet-completed ones, maybe even unfinished novels (I’ve a few of them!) for anyone to read and comment on. I’ll take any feedback; you don’t have to be kind (but it would be nice if you were) though constructive criticism is always more welcome than destructive.

One of the things I wanted to do while away was learn a little brevity, how to write literal short stories, instead of the long ones I tend to turn out. To some extent I have learned to do that; forums I have been on have had competitions in which story length is strictly limited, so I’ve had to compose stories of no more than 5,000 words, 1,000 words and even 100 words! It ain’t easy I can tell you, but it does help to hone the writing skills a little. A lot, actually. Deciding what you need to jettison, what’s extraneous and what isn’t but could be said in less words and still retain the spirit of the story is quite a skill, and I’ve a long way to go before I have mastered it, if I ever do, but I’m getting a little bit better at it. My stories won both the October competitions on one of the forums I’m on; not a huge achievement as there weren’t exactly tons of other stories, but still, I consider it a personal triumph, though I’m not getting ahead of myself by any means.

All the above notwithstanding, I still write, and have written, very long short stories, and do tend to waffle on at length. This is probably purely a discipline issue: if I’m restricted to a certain number of words, I have to stick to that, but if I’m writing my own stories I never constrain them; a story will be as long as it needs to be. So yeah, there are short stories in my portfolio that certainly don’t deserve the description, some of which could be mini-novels or novellas in their own right! But I enjoy writing, and while often I start with an idea and then run into a blank wall, I do always try to come back and ensure the story works out, maybe not the way I had originally intended, but then characters have a way of shaping your story without any real input from you other than directing the fingers. This is fine, too: if a character wants to be something I hadn’t planned for him or her (or it), or if they want to take the story in a different direction to the one in which I had been heading, let that happen. It’s only likely to improve the story.

So anyway that’s it. I’ll be posting here on and off, and I’ll be interested to see what anyone thinks of my writing, should anyone bother to read. If anyone wants to submit any of their work I’ll be happy to give my opinion on it. I’m also happy to talk in general about writing with anyone who wants to. It’s not really like I can give advice but I have been writing (badly) since I was a youngster and I enjoy discussing writing with others, which is why I’m now on a few writing forums.

I’m not going to spoiler anything. This isn’t the main section and anyone coming into this journal will know, or should know, what to expect. I will do my best to avoid walls of text, breaking larger stories or even novel extracts up, but I will if possible also preface each entry by advising the word count. If it’s part of an ongoing story of which I have already posted parts previously (like the alliteration there? What? No, they’re not green monsters who live in the Florida Everglades!) I will note this too, and may provide links to the other parts in the post. At any rate, the main index, held here, will allow you to get to where you want to go at any time.

If there’s anything special to tell about an entry, a story, a novel, I’ll put that in the post too. It’s not as if I think I’m Stephen King (god don’t I wish!) letting my readers into the incredible thought factory behind the creative process or anything like that, but some stories have come about for varied reasons, and it might be interesting to talk about them. Or not. We’ll see.

Most of my material centres on fantasy, science fiction and horror, or speculative fiction, but I have also written crime stories, humorous stories and even human interest stories, one of which I intend to be the opening post here.
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Old 12-04-2020, 12:22 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Quote:
OccultHawk made a comment a year or two back which really pissed me off, but thinking about it the ****er is probably right. He said “At least when you die, your writing will die with you.”
lol

For real though, brevity is your friend.
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Old 12-04-2020, 07:56 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Well I can’t promise they’ll all be short. Or good. In fact, I can’t promise anything at all, except that I’ll post what I personally consider (or what I have been told are) the best of my work. So, like, two posts then?

Title: “Bluebird Down”
Genre: General Fiction
Written: May 19 2020
Word count: 1,973
Notes: I wrote this initially as an exercise to see if I could manage to break out beyond my usual comfort zone, which is science-fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction. I wanted to attempt to write a human interest piece, and I thought about it until I remembered a song off Dan Fogelberg’s album Windows and Walls, the title track in fact, which envisages an old woman sitting alone at home. Her husband has died, her children don’t call or visit, and she is left to wait out the inevitable. One line that really struck me was “The clock on the mantle chiming the hours must be the loneliest sound.” I think many of us have experienced this, and usually done something to get rid of that incessant ticking, maybe because it seems to be counting away the remaining time in our lives, or because it’s like a dripping tap, just really annoying. But also because, I can’t speak for any of you, but it really does make me feel lonely and isolated when I hear it. Not always, of course; sometimes it’s comforting, a break from the noise of the day or whatever, but it can be quite oppressive.

The idea of someone sitting at home, waiting essentially to die, is the theme of this story, though this woman takes that a step further. It was actually the first time I entered a story of mine for a competition. It didn’t win. Boo. Now I’m presenting it here, and you can make your own judgement. It’s certainly different to the kind of thing I usually write, and it has encouraged me to stretch out a little, to try things I might otherwise not have, so I guess that can’t be bad.


BLUEBIRD DOWN

Now that the long drawn out wail of the siren has faded into the distance, taking with it the clatter of feet, the banging on doors and the harsh shouts that echoed up from the street below, she can hear herself think. There are only four sounds in her world now. One is the steady, indefatigable tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, counting off the remaining time she has left in this world, a subject of very little interest to her. Then there is the slow, muted creak of the rocking chair as she tips slightly forward, slightly back, the ball of wool in her lap slowly diminishing in size as the big metal needles eat hungrily at it, her eyes never even looking at the knitting.

And the distant, but very discernible muted hum which slowly grows louder, a sound that has sent everyone else scurrying to the shelters, and which is, for every inhabitant of Foley Street, unwelcome and terrifying, but to her is comforting, soothing and above all, full of dark hope.

Hope that has yet to be realised in all its terrible glory.

They used to try to move her, get her to go to the shelter, but eventually her stoic and stubborn refusal, coupled with the fact that she was both a woman and of advancing age, and therefore not to be forced, has won her the reprieve she wished for, the resignation of her would-be rescuers and the muttered oath that what happened must be upon her own head. So they have left her alone, which is, in the end, all she wants.

Two framed photographs stand on the mantelpiece, one a lot more faded than the other, both of men, both in military uniform, and very like each other. The older man is wearing the uniform of a Tommie from the First World War, a toothy grin showing as he pulls a ragged cigarette from between his lips, the background hinting at the horrors and misery of trench warfare. The smile may be forced – she imagines it is, for who could enjoy living in such squalour, with death their constant companion? - but she knows it was for her, and says “I'm all right, love. Don't worry about me. Be home once all this is cleared up.”

The crumpled and stained paper which the frame of the picture keeps imprisoned beneath it – stained with her long-dried tears – says otherwise, gives the lie to his cheery assurance, and announces in formal terms, endeavouring to be sympathetic but managing to be cold and uncaring, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever strewn with her husband's scattered remains.

Ypres. It doesn't sound like a real word, like something a child might make up. Ypres. But it is a word, a place that has burned deep scorch marks across her heart and seared her soul. Ypres. Only one of, by some estimates, near on half-a-million soldiers to lose their lives there, but the only one of interest to her.

Apart from one other.

Also holding down a note of paper, its crispness and legibility denoting its newness, the other picture, the young man who looks proudly out of the photograph but whose eyes are haunted by what he has seen, and another word that will remain with her for however long she is forced to remain upon this world, which is now empty for her.

Dunkirk.

They called it a miracle. She snorts to herself. A miracle! So many dead, the entire continent of Europe handed over to that man Hitler to do with as he pleased, as his enemies ran, plunged into the water, making for the flotilla of boats – military and civilian – that came to help them escape. She remembers the encouraging smile he gave her as he looked up from the letter, the other letter, the one that advised him he had been called up, and how he assured her it was nothing, would be all over by Christmas. Well, it hadn't been over by Christmas, but by April 1940 Christmas was over for her. She would never again celebrate anything, and she would, till she was dragged before Him to rail against Him for taking both her men in such a senseless fashion, curse the name of the Almighty while she had breath to do so.

The words on the held-down letters, the photograph frames acting as paperweights for the heaviest weights that have ever encumbered her heart, are forever etched in her brain, her memory. She sees them every day scroll across in front of her eyes. They're there when she wakes up, and when she closes her eyes at night they remain with her, following her into dream and recurring nightmare, till she can find no respite from the curt, clipped opening which begins in an impersonal typewritten hand beneath the crest of the Ministry of War: It is with regret I write to inform you...

It was a long time before she could read past that first half-line; like someone receiving a rejection of a job application, the awful intent of the letter was implicit in those first nine words, and she didn't want to read any more. Almost as if, by refusing to read, she could pretend the terrible event, the one she had feared, had dreaded, but had somehow known would happen, had occurred, and her beautiful baby boy was still alive, grinning that cheeky grin and telling her she had nothing to worry about.

Well, remove the last three words and it was true: now, she has nothing.

And so, she waits for death. But, like some cosmic joke, as if God has not already had enough amusement at her expense, death does not come. She hears the bombers drone across the afternoon sky, high enough to evade the anti-aircraft fire: Heinkels and Junkers; she has learned their names, these angels of deliverance who refuse to visit their benison upon her. No Stukas. They used those in Europe, most notably in Poland and Czechoslovakia, she knows: screaming banshees of death powering down from the sky, diving towards the ground like birds of prey, releasing their lethal load and climbing back into the clouds. Terrifying, no doubt.

Not here though.

As if obeying some traditional rule of conduct, German bombers only attack Britain from high above, level, almost keeping a respectful distance, mindful of etiquette. Who would send the common Stuka screaming down into English streets? It just would not be cricket! No, the stately Heinkel 111s and the Junkers JU-88s and the Dornier... oh, something or other: she cannot remember the designation, and what does it matter anyway? These are the aircraft Hitler, or Goering probably, sends to pummel England into submission, a job both are finding harder than expected.

But she doesn't care about that. What shall it gain a woman if her country win the war and yet she loses her only son? Why should it bother her if, should she survive, she should do so under the Nazi heel? She would not want to live in such a world, no, but then, should England and her allies triumph, she would not want to live in that world either, not without Harry.

Oh, God! The very mention of his name in her mind sets the tears beading in the crusty corners of her glaucoma-ridden eyes. Perhaps it might be kinder were she blind, but this world is not kind. She has learned that over the course of the last twenty-five years or so, and she expects nothing more from it. She wants nothing more from it. She wants nothing to do with it.

An empty, cracked plastic bowl sits unregarded on the floor, the faint outline of letters just barely discernible on its side. T-I-D-D-L... Her last companion in this cold and heartless world, the one thing that made living less of an agony, and they even took that from her. Though she can't in fairness blame the Nazis, or even the war, on the death of poor Tiddles, run over by a delivery lorry. Perhaps she can though: the lorry was delivering supplies for the troops, and if the war had not been on, that particular van might not have been on her road at that particular time, just as Tiddles realised it was time for dinner and walked into the road with a cat's arrogance and disdain for everything but itself, including oncoming traffic.

The fourth sound is the crackling, tinny voice of Vera Lynn, issuing with false hope and reassurance from the old record player, once her favourite record. Once their favourite record, now nothing more than a terrible reminder that she is alone, alone with Vera. In happier times, Tiddles had jumped at the record player, chasing some toy or other, and hit into it, causing the needle to tear a ragged scratch across the surface of the record. Now, every time she plays that song it reminds her of her beloved cat; the stylus sticks, so Vera is left singing, endlessly, over and over, trapped in a repeating loop from which there is no escape.

There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...
There'll be bluebirds over...



But she knows this is a lie. Vera lies. There will be no bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, not for her. The birds are black now, not blue. Her bluebirds are gone, both flown to, hopefully, a happier place, away from the horror and misery of this unfair world, away from Hitler and Churchill and the Somme and London and Berlin and Warsaw.

And some day soon, she is determined to join them, leaving Vera Lynn to crackle away to herself till, if she so wishes, the very end of time.

An explosion rocks the house, and for a moment her heart soars, then dips. The bombs have fallen on another street, perhaps Clarence Road, she's not sure; it is only the shockwave she is feeling. With trembling hand, she raises what first looks like her fist towards the ceiling as the humming buzz grows so loud that the bombers must surely be right overhead now. It is not a fist, however, but an open hand, which moves in a beckoning gesture.

Come here, come here. Over here. Please.

But now the drone is retreating into the distance, getting fainter. The chatter of machine-guns high above tells her the lads from the nearby airfield have engaged the enemy, and as the Spitfires and Hurricanes perform the deadly daily dance high up above the clouds with their mortal enemy, she sighs and heaves herself with difficulty out of the rocking chair, laying aside the knitting. She tries to remember what it was she was knitting, and then remembers. A scarf. A scarf to keep him warm.

Nothing will ever keep him warm again now.

Sadly, she carefully lifts the needle from the record and Vera is silenced for another day, to be pressed back into service tomorrow. Taking one more glance at the two photographs, she blows each a kiss, wipes the tears from her eyes, and makes her way to the door. People will be returning from the shelters, now the raid is over; returning to their houses, carrying on their lives.

To her intense disappointment and frustration, she too still has a life to live, if you can call it that.

But there is a steely resolve in her eyes that almost makes her smile. She knows the Luftwaffe does not give up so easily, and the Germans will be back tomorrow.

Yes, tomorrow, once again, there'll be black birds over the white cliffs of Dover.
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
Tomorrow.
There's always tomorrow.
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Old 12-06-2020, 08:52 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Title: "Light of the World"
Genre: Science Fiction
Written: September 6 2020
Word Count: 1507
Notes: Once you get into the story, it's not hard to see where I got the idea, but I like to throw the reader off a cliff, sorry off-balance if I can, so the theme develops hopefully in a way that could not have been anticipated. If you got it before it's revealed, feel free to let me know by posting.

Light of the World

Ah, I don't know. When you've been married as long as we have, maybe it just gets a little boring after a while, but I had really hoped this cruise would save our marriage. Harry has been a real pill all through it though: moaning about every spot I want to go, claiming he wants to be other places, undermining everything I do and generally being a real pain. It's not as if I don't love him, you understand, but, well, when you've decided to blow your life savings on this one big trip you'd think he'd at least try to enjoy himself.

But no: it's “Myra this and Myra that. Myra I can't find my shoes. Myra this atmosphere is playing havoc with my insides. Myra, why did we come here? Myra can't we just go home?”

Like I said, a real pill.

But of all the places on our list, this planet was the one I had been looking forward to the most. Harry doesn't understand – or pretends not to. He moaned all the way as we descended in the shuttle. Still, even he had to admit the one with the rings was beautiful. I don't know what they used to call it, who even remembers? But it sure is nice.

We weren't going there, of course. There's no surface, and while we don't need to breathe, naturally, even a Generation 9 can't walk on air, and we're both lowly Gen 4s, very much older models. Hell, sometimes I feel it in my circuits how old we are, but after four thousand years you're bound to feel the odd twinge or two. Reckon I got another few centuries left in me yet though before they throw me on the scrap heap, and even if Harry ain't gonna play ball, even if we end up drifting apart (as I worry we will, and what will I do without him?) I'll be damned if I'm going to miss out on my dream cruise.

We've seen the ice falls of Rigel XII, watched herds of pamanthrapa sweep majestically across the plains of Indios XVII, explored the ruins of Seven Centuries City on Stelios II and listened in rapture (well, me anyway; Harry complained it was just noise. What a philistine, whatever that is) to the most beautiful melodies the planet Vangelis Maximus, on the outer edge of the Horse Head Nebula (what is a horse, I asked the guide, but he just shrugged) can produce, and let me tell you, I ain't never heard nothing so sad and wonderful and inspiring and evocative in all my life, and that's saying something.

But now, we're heading down to this planet which our guide informs us in a bored voice has been designated SL/E/0009-03, but which I secretly call the Garden Planet. Harry's moaning all the time, but what can you expect? Why did I ever marry him? I coulda had anyone. Oh well, what's done is done; let me just enjoy this trip and what will be will be when it's over.

“Willya look at that, Harry?”

I try to get him to show some interest, but he's flipping through his incopad, and I swear, if I find any more suggestive comms from Gen 7s in there...

“What? What? I'm busy, Myra.”

Yeah, he's busy all right. I grab the pad from him irritably, shut it off. For a moment he looks like he's gonna say something, but for once he knows better. This is important to me.

“Just look, will ya? We came all this way and you ain't even gonna look at it?”

“Didn't even want to come,” grumps my husband of three thousand years. Then he sighs and must decide to make an effort, as he says, with bad grace “What's so great about it, Myra? It's just a big statue.”

“Shows what you know!” I sniff, looking up at the huge figure towering over us, looming like some protector. The servo-mechanism that oils the joints in my mouth fails for a moment; my mouth is dry. “This was hand-made, Harry, over four hundred thousand years ago. You know, back when there were organics in the universe?”

It's his turn to sniff, disdainfully. “There never were, Myra,” he argues. “That's just stories for children.”

The scientist in me deplores his ignorance, and I begin to say “Research into the prehistory of the universe has suggested...”

Then I stop.
What the hell? I won't let him get to me. I won't let him make me start an argument. This is supposed to be a fun trip. My dream cruise. Our dream cruise.

Yeah.

“Just... just look at it for a minute, Harry.” I almost beg him, and snorting, annoyed at the loss of his pad, but still in some ways my Harry, he looks up. Perhaps he feels he needs to say something, so he does.

“Looks a bit – I don't know -” he searches for a word, shrugs, “oppressive.”

“Oppressive?” I'm surprised, but glad that he is at least taking an interest, even if he's only doing it for my sake. Or to shut me up.

“Yeah. Look at how its arm is raised, ready to attack.” He squints through his glasses. “What was this anyway?”

I have to shrug. I'm a scientist, not an archaeologist.

“I think they used to call it an idol.” I'm guessing, but he actually looks impressed.

“Idol.” He tests the word, shakes his head.

“Yeah, it was... let me see if I can remember my classes on ancient folklore. A representation of a higher being which organics believed directed their lives. I think they called them... bods? Sods? Gods? Not sure. Something like that anyway.”

Harry is moved to laugh. It's the first time he has done so on this trip. I'm glad to hear it. Reminds me why I married him.

“Sure is ugly,” he comments, and I can't agree, but I don't want to spoil the moment. So I laugh too. It's the first time in probably a century we've laughed together, and it feels real good.

“The arm you see raised,” I tell him, moving a little closer (and thrilled that he does not, for once, move away) “isn't to strike down its followers. It used to hold something, holding it high.” I have no idea what it could have been. Harry takes a guess.

“A sword? Doesn't legend say the organics use them?” He adds, “If they existed.” It's meant to be a sour comment, but it doesn't come across like that, almost more like a joke. We used to joke a lot, Harry and me. Feels nice to share something again after all this time.

“Yeah.” I'm doubtful though. “As weapons. But like I say, I don't think it's meant to be threatening.”

“What, then?” There's a slight irritation in Harry's voice, so I shrug and let it drop.

“Who knows?”

We stand in silence for a few minutes. Companionable silence, for once.
“Missing its other arm,” he points out. I nod. We're very close now, almost touching.

“Hey!” He suddenly starts. “What's that writing on the base?”

I shrug. “I think it's a prayer.”

“A prayer? What's that?”

I try to remember. It's been so long since I read about this thing in 5,000 Sights of the Galaxy You Must See Before You Die.

“I think it's like,” I falter, “some sort of command, or instruction to these... these gods – is it gods? Yeah, I think that's right. Gods.”

The light of comprehension dawns in Harry's eyes. He nods.

“You mean like a sub-routine?” he asks, trying to make sense of it. “A program of some sort? Is it code? Did these organics control these... what did you call them again?”

“Gods,” I say, frowning as I think about his question. “I don't think so, Harry. From what I've read, I think they believed the gods controlled them.”

It's nice to be discussing something with Harry, even if it is ancient, forgotten lore. Better than arguing anyway. Hell, even the arguments were better than the cold silences that have characterised our relationship for the past five hundred years.

He squints through his glasses, trying to read the inscription, trying to make sense of something scholars have been trying to work out the meaning of for millennia.

Give... me... your... what's that word? I need to get my eyes looked at again.”

“Tired,” I say.

Tired,” he repeats, reading on. “Your... hobbled...?”

“Huddled.”

“Huddled masses yearning to breathe.. free?” He looks at me, confused.

“What does that mean? Breathe? What's breathe? And free? Free from what? We're all free, ain't we. Myra?”

I smile, standing beside him in the shadow of that great giant ancient god of this deserted planet where legend has it life once thrived, and where now only the deep verdant jungle holds sway.

“Yeah, Harry,” I tell him. “We are.”

“So why...?” I place a finger to his lips.

“Let's just enjoy the moment, Harry.”
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Old 12-17-2020, 11:37 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Title: "Behind the Mask"
Genre: Speculative Fiction/Horror
Written: August 21 2019
Word Count: 5,083

Notes: This story was inspired by one I read by Isaac Asimov decades ago. It's a little similar but I like to think there are enough differences between the two that his can be seen as more a springboard for mine, rather than being a copy.

Further note: My old enemy, the max character count, rises to confront me once again, after all this time. Have at you, old friend! Once more unto the etc. So this will have to be split into two parts.

BEHIND THE MASK

Perhaps it was odd that the sound of a single shot had been audible above the incessant shelling, rumbling of tanks and crumbling of masonry, but then, this was no ordinary shot. Trembling slightly, but determined that it not show, he watched Linge and Bormann open the door and then, with the reverence of an acolyte entering a sepulchre, Günsche poked his head through the door, almost fearing the by-now-characteristic bark and snarl, but only silence greeted him. Urged on (ordered, really) by the two silent men who stood at the door, Günsche moved into the Holy of Holies, to bear witness to the undeniable, and to some, inconceivable fact that God was indeed dead.

Of course, there hadn't exactly been a rush towards the door once that fateful report had echoed away down the bleak stony corridors, like a ghost exiting the bunker, and he couldn't honestly say that he wanted to be the one to breach that sanctum. But the idea was intolerable that Linge, a mere valet, an SS Man in name only – what battles had he fought? What wounds had he received? - should take that dubious honour, that history should record such a man as being the one to discover, or confirm, what Günsche was now to relay to the two grim-faced men waiting at the door, something they all knew in their hearts was true, unavoidable, inescapable, yet surely hoped was not.

And so it was he, Sturmbahnfuhrer Otto Günsche, his personal adjutant who made his way slowly and carefully into the chamber, the air thick and cloying, and not just with the smell of cordite. The smell that most assailed his nostrils was, oddly, of almonds. His heart pounded as his feet took him into the room, and he felt a sudden sense of being strangled, or perhaps suffocated was closer to the truth.

Claustrophobia.

He did not suffer from it, but seeing what lay before him, walking into that small room that stank of death and defeat (and almonds), he felt anyone would have been similarly affected. He almost turned and ran. Almost. But retreat, even now, when all was lost, even in this small operation, was not an option. It never had been.

She lay, her feet drawn up, not a mark on her, beside him in death; a place, an honour she had been denied in life, and he felt an unreasoning hatred well up inside him. It wasn't true of course, he knew that; but he wanted to blame her for this, the worst tragedy in perhaps all of recent history. He tried to find ways to lay the responsibility at her feet; told himself how she had distracted this greatest of men, caused him to lose focus, influenced his decisions. But in the end, he knew all of those were lies. She hadn't had the kind of effect upon his master that he, Günsche, wanted her to have had, in order to be able to point the finger at her and say to the corpse, you did this!

No, he couldn't say that. This man, this – this god – had not been one to allow anyone to exert control over him, be it logically, emotionally or even sexually. He did everything on his own terms, and in the end, he had died on his own terms. But looking at her now with cold, calculating eyes, he hated her. He could do that. He couldn't hate her for all the imagined crimes he wanted her to be guilty of, but he could hate her for one reason, and nobody could deny him that.

At the very end, she had shared his last moments with him. She had been the only one locked in here with him. She had died with him, an honour no other living being could claim. Oh, plenty had died for him – hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions – and even more had died because of him (though some of them – most of them, really – weren't really what he'd call people in any real sense of the word). But only one person had died with him. Only one person had shared his final moments, looked into his eyes as he faced death, and seen, possibly, the life drain from them as he left this world. Only one living being had shared his last breath.

For that honour, even if, in attaining it, she had given her own life, he could hate her. And he did.

Yes. Hate her, he certainly did. But she was incidental, a tiny footnote in a history even now coming, to all intents and purposes, to an ignominious end. How someone as insignificant as her had managed to forever be linked with the greatest man ever to breathe the air of this undeserving planet was, he believed sourly, one of those little twists of fate, a cosmic joke that he personally did not find funny. He realised with a sort of internal grunt where the smell of almonds originated: she had not emulated her lover, her husband of mere hours, by shooting herself, but had died by administering (or being administered) prussic acid, and its telltale aroma now hung in the air, heavy as the incense at a requiem mass.

But to hell with her, he decided, anger being replaced by shock, loss and sadness as his eyes moved beyond the pathetic woman who had dared to associate with this giant. She was nothing. Less that nothing, and he didn't really care about her. Nobody did, and nobody ever would. It was the figure slumped in the armchair who demanded his attention, head toppled forward onto the table in front, and for a fleeting, glorious second it seemed as if he was only asleep.

Then Günsche saw the dark stain pooling on the arm of the sofa, and the blood dripping from the table, and he knew. The gun had fallen from his fingers and lay on the ground, his own gun. How fitting, thought Günsche. There was perhaps a little sarcasm, a little bitterness in that thought, punctuated by the explosion of a Russian shell as the building above shook to the impact.

Careful not to touch anything, he backed out of the room, faced Bormann and Linge, and announced, in the voice of one who has lost everything, “Gentlemen, the Fuhrer is dead.”

Perhaps, even though he had declared, in one last fanatical act of defiance, that he would take his own life rather than surrender, the death of Adolf Hitler may have come as a surprise to some of them, but most had expected and feared it. Things had turned badly against Germany in the last few months of the war, and their leader had seemed to almost exist in his own private fantasy world, refusing to believe he had been outfought, outmatched, out-thought, clinging desperately and vainly to his belief in the ideal of the Aryan Ubermensch. How could he have been defeated? How could Germany lose the war? Such a thing was not possible, and so, it appeared, he had decided not to believe it.

But it was true. His generals knew it, his soldiers knew it, his people knew it. And the Allies certainly knew it, as they advanced closer each day, each hour, weaving a web of steel that was inexorably strangling Berlin, drawing her in to her own destruction. He could have sued for peace. Any sane man might well have done. But Adolf Hitler could never be called sane, not in the last days of the war. Perhaps never in his life.

Addicted to painkillers and various drugs, suffering the onset of Parkinson's Disease, over-tired, irritable and carrying the effects of the bomb blast from which he had so narrowly escaped in 1944, the Fuhrer was a shadow of the man who had led Germany out of the ignominy of defeat and the shame and humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, and who had routed his enemies like a modern-day Caesar, conquering most of Europe in a year, driving out the English, subjugating the French and turning on his erstwhile allies, the Russians. This last, of course, had proven to be his undoing, and by sowing those ill-chosen seeds when he had, he had reaped the whirlwind of his first major defeat and the beginning of the end had appeared, distant but undeniable and unavoidable, on the horizon.

History would call him a coward, and perhaps he was, now; but Günsche remembered that the Fuhrer had served with distinction in the First World War, and while really his role in that “War to end all Wars” could best be described as a messenger boy, he had been decorated by the Army and praised for his bravery. However, Günsche had to admit, it was hard not to label as coward a man who had orchestrated and overseen the extermination of millions of human beings simply because he did not like them, and any leader who refused to save his people at the last, by allowing surrender and suing for terms, facing his crimes and prepared to pay for them, could hardly be called anything else.

History would, as always, be the final arbitrator of how Adolf Hitler was remembered.

Backed into a corner, Hitler had refused to be captured, had refused to fight on the streets like the generals of old whom he had so admired, defending their empires and falling with their men. No, he had hidden away in this rabbit warren, this living tomb under the Reichschancellery, stubbornly trying to halt the inevitable by the sheer force of his will, determined to ignore reality, pretend everything was going to be all right, and when it was clear everything was not going to be all right, blame everyone but himself.

But in the end, there was only himself to blame, and now he had paid the ultimate price, perhaps laughing hysterically as he cheated the Russians of their prize. The humiliation! He, the leader of the Third Reich, the scourge of Europe, the Man Who Would Be King, the greatest German ever to live! To be taken like a dog by these – these inhuman Slavs, these Communists, these Bolsheviks! For them to interrogate, torture, try him (perhaps) and eventually execute him, his body displayed for all to see. No. He would not meet the same fate that had befallen Il Duce. Let Berlin – let all of Germany burn. He would not be there to witness it.

Germany was to blame. Germany had failed him. That was obvious to even the most feeble-minded idiot. It was not him. It was not his schemes that had come unstuck, not his strategic errors that had lost the war for the Nazis. The will of the German people, which he had nurtured, fanned to heroic heights, a column of passion and fervour to light the way to a thousand-year Reich, that was what had failed. The people were not good enough. The people were not strong enough. The people were not committed enough. The people had failed him. Germany had failed him. He was too good for them; they did not deserve him.

So let them all go down in flames.
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Old 12-17-2020, 11:37 AM   #6 (permalink)
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And so, too, his body to the fire. Standing around in a loose and very uncomfortable group, the impromptu mourners at Hitler's very inexpensive and hurried funeral (not the way he would have wished, nor expected to go) averted their eyes from each other, not knowing what to say, and this inevitably brought their gaze back to the shrouded and burning bodies of the Fuhrer and his wife of forty hours, smouldering like two large logs in a badly-set fire on waste ground just outside the bunker. Nobody wanted to go over and stand close to the corpses, due both to the smell of roasting flesh (remarkably squeamish, given the horrors some of these men had seen and indeed perpetrated) and, more importantly, the threat of falling debris from the surrounding buildings as the Russian shells pounded them, and of course the Soviet ordnance itself. If there was a safe place to be in Berlin right now, the bunker was probably it, but with the man for whom it had been built now dead, nobody really wished to re-enter what had been for so long, and now quite literally had become Hitler's tomb.

So they stood there, not looking at each other, not talking, barely making a sound, some holding handkerchiefs or just hands to their mouth and nose to block out the stink, only lowering them when it came time for the agreed-upon final salute to their departed leader. The smoke rose, thick, choking, filthy, up into the soot-streaked sky of what had once been the jewel of the Reich, the very centre of Nazi power, casting a mourning shroud over Berlin, and Günsche fancied he saw rain falling lightly, as if the very sky was crying for the end of the Reich, for the death of Adolf Hitler, though it may only have been sparks from collapsing buildings and spent shells floating down through the air.

Unable, finally, to continue looking at the blazing remains of his Fuhrer, and still unwilling to lock eyes with any of the other eight or so Nazis standing around like ravens on a battlefield, each surely thinking their own thoughts, whether those thoughts tended towards survival, jockeying to fill the sudden power vacuum, or an intention to follow the Fuhrer into death itself, Günsche raised his eyes and looked up.

The cloud above the burning remains of the leader of Nazi Germany puffed and rolled like a thing alive, and Günsche had to check his imagination, scowling at himself for such childish notions.

He could have sworn that a small hole had appeared in the thick cloud of black smoke, and then another, almost in line with it. Such things did not, he knew, happen to smoke. Smoke clouds would of course eventually blow away, but generally they tended to rise, thick and heavy, up into the sky, toppling over like collapsing – what did the Americans call them? Tornadoes? Yes, that was it: tornadoes - and only then dissipate over usually quite a wide area. They did not break up, and they certainly did not break up into what was almost geometric shapes.

And yet, as he rubbed his eyes (both to remove the tears that no Aryan should shed, and yet, for this man, who would not – and to clear them of the stinging smoke) he realised there could be no doubt. There were, quite definitely and quite distinctly now, two small openings in the cloud that hovered over Hitler like his funeral pall (which it basically was), almost equidistant from each other. Two oval shapes, slightly flattened out at the edges. Almost like... almost like...

Eyes?

But strange though that was, there were stranger things happening to the cloud. It was black, of course, shot through with orange and yellow from the flames consuming the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun. Or rather, it had been black. Now it had changed, and not subtly either, so that it was truly impossible either to deny or to miss the change.

The cloud was now a uniform red.

There was black around the edges, but over ninety-five percent of it was red. And not the red of the flames, not the normal red of combusting materials. No. This was a darker, deeper red. A very specific shade of red that no flame could match. This was, in short, not the red of fire.

This was the red of blood.

The cloud was changing shape as well as colour. Where before it had been the standard, vaguely cylindrical, roughly circular or at least globular shape that billowing clouds of smoke always assumed, towering up in ever-widening columns into the sky, now it had assumed a different shape. More elongated at the base, narrower at the sides. Kind of, Günsche mused, like a pear or perhaps a light bulb.

Like anyone doubting his own senses who has others there to corroborate or disprove what he is seeing, and temporarily allowing his disbelief and fascination to override his revulsion of the other men who stood beside him, he tapped one of them on the shoulder. It didn't really matter, at this stage, who it was, but as it happened it turned out to be Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur. Wordlessly, Günsche pointed up, and Kempka, irritated by the man, whom he had known but never liked, and annoyed at being interrupted in this most sacred and tragic of rituals, raised his eyes too.

“Gott in himmel!”

At the exclamation, several of the others turned, words of reproach already on their lips that anyone should sully these last moments with the Fuhrer. But seeing both Kempka and Günsche's wide-eyed stare of horror, all remaining eyes turned skywards, fixing on the cloud.

The eyes had been joined by a nose, long, hooked, cruel. Josef Goebbels, ever the propagandist, even after the death of his employer, fell to his knees and declared it a sign: the Führer's face! The Fuhrer was smiling down upon them, his chosen! Even as his body burned, even as Berlin burned with it, Hitler would live forever, his spirit now one with the gods. And he would be watching over -

But even Goebbels, the master manipulator of the truth, could not spin what happened next, and they all saw it.

Flames danced and writhed in the dark eyes, and they were not merely the reflection of the fires crackling around the bodies below, a simple illusion of light. No; these were clear, well-defined and self-contained flames, as if the iris of the eye, delineated perfectly now and clearly no longer simply a formation of smoke, were itself on fire. But not only that: if you looked carefully (and everyone did; they could not help themselves) there were... shapes... figures perhaps, moving within the flames, almost like ... almost like human forms, moving and twisting and writhing about the red and yellow tongues of fire. As they watched, occasionally one would seem to come closer, move towards the front of the eye, as it were, and then, and then ....

Oh, horror!

Faces. Faces in torment. Faces of fear, twisted in agony and suffering. Nothing recognisable, nothing that could be distinguished, but definitely human faces, moving to the foreground as if trying to escape the fire, or pleading for help, and then moving – the definite feeling was that they were being dragged – back into the flames, cavorting in a horrible danse macabre that made everyone, even the hardened and heartless Goebbels, shiver.

And that was not all.

The mouth, formed beneath the nose in a short moment, opened and laughed.
It was filled from top to bottom with razor sharp teeth, fangs really, and seemed to belch out fire as it gaped, the tongue that flicked behind them split in two.

Forked.

The red skin of what was clearly now a face, but a face measuring something on the order of a half-mile across, seemed to burn with an incandescence that rivalled the very fires consuming Berlin. No longer just a cloud, the features were so plainly visible that the shocked Nazis could now see the movement of muscles, the tracery of veins in the forehead, and as their eyes rose, almost as one, to the crown of the head, they saw the horns.

A sudden explosion rocked one of the nearby buildings, and the watchers tore their eyes away from the dread vision hovering above the crackling body of the Fuhrer, fighting to maintain their footing as the very walls of the Reich Chancellery shook.

And with that, the spell was broken.

When they looked up again, the vision was gone.

If it had been a vision.

But what else could it have been?

But Goebbels knew.

Perhaps he had always known.

He had once heard, was it Heydrich – Reinhardt Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution – someone at that meeting, anyway – pose a question, and both the question and the sneering answer had always stayed with him. Not quite as a cautionary tale, but more as perhaps a foretelling, or a forewarning; a vision of his own future, though he had assumed this would not have to be faced for many decades.

The question had been, in response to something someone – Goring maybe, he was not sure – had asked about the Jews and their beliefs.

“Do they even believe in Hell?”

And Heydrich, or someone, though it sounded like the kind of thing that cold-hearted animal would say, had smiled in reply “They do now. We create it for them.”

Whether those words had been spoken or not, whether the story was apocryphal was unimportant. The chances were that such a discussion had been had, and to be honest, Goebbels had no problem with it. The Jews were sub-humans, not really even fit for slavery, fit for nothing but the gas chambers and the ovens. And whether the story was accurate or not, he was personally proud that Heydrich, Himmler and Hitler had indeed created Hell on Earth for the disgusting Jews.

Ah, but that was Hell on Earth. A Nazi Hell, brought into being and maintained by the soldiers of the Reich, controlled by them, their own creation. And exclusively for the enemies of the State. No true Nazi need fear burning in those fires – unless he betrayed the Party, of course, in which case he deserved all he got.

Hell in reality, now – well. He would soon find out. Most of these so-called followers of the Fuhrer knew nothing about loyalty. True loyalty. He, and they, and every Nazi, from the lowliest soldier in the Wehrmacht, even factory workers, to the top echelons of the SS, had sworn a personal oath of loyalty and obedience, not to Germany, not to the Nazi Party, but to the man whose body was now being eaten by the flames. And what did that loyalty mean to them?

He snorted.

Himmler was known to be already in negotiations with the Swedes, of all people, to sue for terms for peace with the Americans. Bormann, beside him, his head lowered in a mockery of sadness and respect, two things the man knew nothing of, was making plans for his own escape, while Goring! Goring had had the temerity to “suggest” to the Fuhrer that he take over the Nazi party, become, in effect, the new Hitler. And Hitler had appointed Donitz as his successor!

Donitz! A sailor. A common soldier. Leader of the Kriegsmarine. Someone who had fought bravely for Germany and for the Fuhrer during the war, yes, Goebbels would not deny that. The very architect of the “wolf pack” strategy that had worked so well for the fleet of U-Boats that sowed terror across the North Atlantic and almost crippled Britain's supply lines. A true Nazi, surely. But he had never been one of Hitler's inner circle, never a personal friend or confidante.

Verdammt! Goebbels could not imagine life after Hitler, nor could his wife, and they had already decided on what was, to them, the only course of action remaining to them. But the idea of the Reich (or its remains) falling into the hands of one unworthy of such an honour as Donitz burned in his heart almost as hotly as his hatred for the Jews. A snake he may be, and he would probably not deny it; in fact, he had respect for snakes. They killed without mercy, taking the weak and ensuring their own survival, their hearts as cold as the blood that ran in their veins.

A snake, then, yes; but a snake must know its prey, and this Josef Goebbels had a talent for. He knew people. He knew what made them tick: he was aware how to push them this way and that, tell whatever lies they wished to hear, or that he wished them to hear, to serve his ends and those of the Reich. He had made a living reading and indeed manipulating and controlling people, and he saw in Admiral Karl Donitz's eyes that this was a man who was ready for peace, not a man who would fight to the last. He would tarnish the Führer's grand legacy by surrendering to the enemy. Who would follow such a weak, pathetic man, a man not even worthy to be considered the merest shadow of his beloved leader?

But he was ready to die. Oh yes. He and his wife had arranged to have the children poisoned – for what kind of life would there be for them in a world without Hitler, without the Nazi Party? - and Magda would soon join him in the bunker where they would both take their own lives. Loyalty meant everything to Josef Goebbels, and he was happy, honoured and eager to follow the man he had idolised to the very gates of Hell itself, into death and eternal bondage.

Suddenly, a movement caught his eye. Two small figures, hiding behind the rubble of what had once been a great building. Children. The future of Germany. He spat. Hiding. Cowards. But what had they seen? Could he take the risk of...

Children. Just children. Seven years, perhaps eight. No older than Holde or Hedda, two of his own. Orphans, like so many of the children of Berlin now, Berlin virtually an orphan herself, her great parent the Fatherland dying in front of her, and she unable to do anything about it. Perhaps they had seen nothing. Perhaps there had been nothing to see.

But if there was one thing working under Hitler had taught Josef Goebbels, it was that to succeed one had to be able to control the narrative.

And one very good way of controlling the narrative, the best in fact, was to ensure there was no narrative to control.

His Luger was still smoking as he replaced it in its holster, the sound of two expertly-placed shots dying away in the cool afternoon air, echoing into and being swallowed by the roaring, pounding, screaming death of the German capital.

Eyes of a snake, he turned to the others, indicating upwards with a jerk of his head.

“This never happened. Are we all clear?”

A chorus of nods, a few mutters of assent. Nobody crossed Goebbels, and besides, the new Reich Chancellor snorted to himself, eyeing the now empty sky with disdain, as a man who scoffs at a nightmare on waking, who would believe it anyway?

Who indeed?

Ask the restless and wandering ghosts haunting the now-empty corridors of Dachau, Buchenwald and Belsen. Put the question to the millions exterminated in Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz, places purpose-built for one thing only: the annihilation of life. Open the ovens, now cool and shut down, in which millions of innocents were burned, both to remove evidence and to save burial space, after having been gassed to death. Query the voiceless children, who followed mother and father into the showers to their death, not knowing what was going on, and dying in terror and agony and confusion. Or those who may, possibly, be termed the lucky ones; the ones who died before they could reach the horror camps, if you can call dying terrified in the stinking darkness lucky.

Ask the living skeletons discovered at the many concentration camps by the American GIs and Russian soldiers, figures who were once human but now bore little to no resemblance to any living creature, staring with blank and dull eyes as salvation, long prayed for, longer despaired of, came finally to their door and helped them back into the light. Sift, if you will, through the piles of bones, hair, teeth, spectacles, clothing and other “consumables”, as the Nazis coldly referred to them, using everything, every remnant of what had once been a person to enrich their vile empire and help pay for the running of these very camps.

Or look east, towards the blasted winterlands of Russia, where prisoners were so beneath what the Germans believed to be human that they were allowed to starve to death, or used for target practice, or froze in the unforgiving icy chill of their native land, betrayed and murdered by their own Mother.

And those who were forced to march hundreds of miles to their deaths or, in the case of some fortunate ones, their rescue, by evil men who knew the game was up but were unprepared to face the consequences of what they had done, and again wished both to remove evidence of their crimes and continue to kill as many of the enemy as they could.

How would these people respond to that question? Those dragged from their homes in the night, sold out by their neighbours, accused of crimes either real or invented. Those who stood before judges from whom they knew they could expect no mercy. Those who read the wrong books, said the wrong things, believed differently, dressed differently, acted differently. Those who did not, would not, bow down to the New World Order the Nazis were determined to force upon them. Those who died alone in the dark, suffering, not knowing what they were accused of, and those who gave up their comrades, their families, their friends, and still received no mercy, for an enemy of the State was to be afforded none.

“Harden your hears against compassion!” Hitler had bellowed, and his followers had taken that message very much to their own black and evil hearts. No crime was too vile, no indignity too much, and nobody was safe, man, woman or even child. Walk over the graves of those who were executed in what the Nazis callously and in their twisted way called euthanasia, Project T4, as if they were doing the disabled, mentally and physically, a favour by ending their lives. Listen to the wind whisper their answer, and you will know.

Oh yes. Herr Goebbels might have been quite surprised at the number of people who, had they known or heard of the vision he and his Nazi compatriots had seen, or thought they had seen, would have been quite prepared to believe it was true.

After all, when you've seen Hell with your own eyes, been forced to live in it, it's hard to doubt the existence of the Devil.
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Old 12-21-2020, 08:17 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Title: "Humbug"
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Written: November 11 2020
Word count: 3,596

Notes: I had always wanted to write a slant on A Christmas Carol, and I had various ideas but in the end this was what I went with.

HUMBUG

The thin, high-pitched scream was not at all out of place here; such sounds were heard regularly, and most times went completely unremarked and ignored. The difference with this scream was that it emanated not from inside, but outside, and it certainly was not ignored. The doctor reached out and placed a comforting hand on the woman's shoulder, who, unusually for her, given her status, did not shake it off or demand to know by what authority the man touched her person. Instead she shuddered, and, rather unbecoming of her, she later thought when she was safely away from the horrid place, shrunk against him as if seeking his protection. A little embarrassed at her outburst, he merely edged her gently towards her husband, who gave her an irritated look that said you've let the side down, old girl, and looked resolutely away, as if trying to pretend he did not know her.

“Easy, Your Ladyship.” The doctor held his brand up, the flickering flame casting dancing shadows on the bare grey stone walls as they descended the crumbling staircase, lighting their way. The click of his walking stick on the stone echoed in the still, stagnant air. “It's just a rat. Nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing?” If possible, Lady Fairfax's screech of dismay and disbelief was higher than the scream of panic she had just issued. “I'll have you know, Doctor, I have no desire to be associated with such horrible creatures, nor those who believe they are... nothing.” she shuddered again, this time more with indignation than fear.

“Good god, man!” snapped the man who had not managed to pretend not to be her husband, his bewhiskered face glowing redly in the torchlight. He had ineffectually kicked out at the rat and instead managed to almost knock the unfortunate doctor down the stairs, as his stick threatened to go from under him. He showed not the slightest remorse and offered no apology. People of his class did not apologise to anyone. What was the man doing leading them down a dark staircase when he couldn't even be relied upon to walk unaided himself? Damned cheek! ”What kind of place are you running here? I mean...” He made a distasteful sound that was not, to be fair, devoid of a feeling of unease and perhaps even fear, though he would never create such a fuss as Cora had, damn her. “Rats?”

Holding the torch higher, guiding them down the slippery steps, the doctor shrugged, though his gesture went mostly unseen in the semi-darkness. “Hard to keep the little fellows out, Your Lordship,” he replied. “This isn't,” he reminded them, “Harley Street after all.”

He tried an embarrassed laugh, something to break the icy air of disapproval the appearance of the rodent had engendered in the party. It seemingly fell on deaf ears. The man right at the rear, the portly chap with the bushy beard and sparkling eyes smiled, but there was stony silence from the others.

“No, it most certainly is not, sir!” This was a bent old withered wreck of a man with an abundance of white hair on either side of his head, and none at all in the middle. His hair glowed faintly in the darkness. His eyes were small but sharp, and pierced the gloom through a pair of pince-nez held in front of them, which he currently held while a young man carefully guided him along the steel rail that ran down the side of the staircase. “Dont'cha have traps here to take the little blighters out?”

The man at the back looked like he was about to answer the question, but held his peace. Even so, the man at the back was by far and away the doctor's favourite member of the party; he had walked with a light and sure step all the way down the stairs, had complained not once and had asked the most interesting and intelligent questions as they had proceeded. He had once looked as if he was going to go to the doctor's aid, then thought better of it, considering it might be taken as unwanted pity, or worse, unlooked-for charity, which had a bad habit of appearing to make the giver seem superior to the receiver. He seemed the only one who appreciated this tour, but then, that was no surprise, given who he was.

“I doubt there's enough traps in all of London, Sir Mark. Not to mention that we often have orderlies and, ah, other operatives walking down here.”

Sir Mark sniffed loudly. His companion (one would wonder what the elderly Sir Mark Haversham was doing with such a youth, but of course one would never voice such concerns – or suspicions – aloud) yawned, bored with the whole venture it seemed. He didn't speak though: perhaps he wasn't paid to, or indeed, was paid not to. Behind him was the schoolmaster, his tough and wiry body almost waving like a pipecleaner from left to right as he ducked fastidiously away from the thin cobwebs that hung down over the stairway, clinging to the moss-encrusted walls like cheap, frail curtains that vainly endeavoured to shut out the world above.

The first, and only, one to show any human interest in their guide, the bearded man asked “What happened to your leg, Doctor?”

Grateful to turn attention away from his perceived failings, the doctor grimaced.

“The polio, sir. I've had it since I was a child. I suppose it will kill me eventually.” He did not sound bitter, and his questioner nodded to himself.

“Is it much farther, man?” It was the schoolmaster, bringing their guide back to the real world, back to the world where he did not matter, where nobody cared about his leg, or about him. The doctor was sure the mere sound of the teacher struck terror into the boys at St. Agnes, but it had little to no effect on him. Gaynor Stillman might be on the board, and therefore the doctor had to suffer the supercilious tone the man used with him, but unlike the others he held no title, owned no lands and was heir to no fortune, so was essentially of the same class as he himself. The doctor therefore afforded him none of the fawning respect he was forced to show the toffs, even if Stillman somehow believed himself both their equal and his better.

Unfortunately, he reflected, class and status counted little when you were trying to squeeze money – or rather, more money – out of people, and they knew it.

“Just down here, ladies and gents,” he promised, deliberately not replying directly to the teacher, the slight not going unnoticed by Stillman. The other lady – if she could be described as such – gave a groan of impatience and barely restrained annoyance.

“This had better be worth it, Doctor,” she warned him, and though he had in his time dealt with thieves and murderers and rapists and bank robbers, and had faced them without fear, even with contempt, the doctor felt intimidated by the formidable Elizabeth Price. Daughter of Lord Chief Justice Sir Horace Price, she was the least ladylike lady he had ever dealt with.

Nobody would call her pretty; homely was even a word too generous to use to describe her, and she looked to weigh perhaps twice as much as any of the men here, and some of them were certainly not missing any meals. Her unlovely face was permanently set in a scowl, her small eyes set close together, giving anyone she looked at the (usually accurate) impression she highly disapproved of them, and her voice was like sandpaper.

The doctor turned towards her, leaning heavily on his cane, his voice mild but with a tone of reproach he hoped she would not recognise. “Down here, Miss Price, ladies and gentlemen, is the one case which we hope will demonstrate to you why we need your help,” he assured them. “If the plight of this unfortunate cannot convince you good folk to continue funding our operation, then I am afraid nothing will.”

Miss Elizabeth Price's voice was colder even than the flagstones they walked on, colder than the icy lichen dripping down the stark walls of the staircase. She directed it, however, at Lord Fairfax's wife.

“I do so wish daddy hadn't made me sit on the board of this dreadful charity,” she whined, looking for sympathy in the eyes of Lady Fairfax, and finding none. “It's all so terribly boring and miserable. I mean,” she spread her hands, as if it the point she was making was something nobody could disagree with, “does anybody really care about the poor?”

Unheard by anyone the man at the back muttered something about decreasing the excess population, a sentiment Miss Price would surely have agreed heartily with – had she understood its meaning – and in so doing would have missed entirely his point. A sigh escaped the bearded man, and his eyes looked troubled.

“Why did Sir Horace obtain you a seat on the board, Miss Price?” Her Ladyship's tone was carefully neutral. Elizabeth Price was so wrapped up in herself that she couldn't see how despised she was, even by the other board members. She shrugged.

“Oh, some nonsense about giving back to the community,” she moaned, rolling her eyes. “And to stop me travelling to Paris on shopping trips so often, I expect.” She winked. Lady Fairfax did not wink back. She had a great respect for Justice Price, and wondered what he had done to deserve such a selfish and useless daughter?

Elizabeth Price now addressed her remarks to the doctor, some way in front of her.

“Oh do get on with it, you grotty little man! My feet are killing me, and I have a flower show to judge this afternoon!”

Some dead flowers then, thought the doctor acidly, noting the rolling eyes of the man at the back again at Miss Price's churlish treatment of her guide. He appreciated that. It made dealing with these pompous fools a little easier. “Just at the end of these stairs and down this corridor, Miss. Almost there now. Watch your step, everyone.”

A few more minutes and they had reached their destination. As they crowded outside the cell, the doctor's face took on a serious look. At that moment he had transformed himself from servile guide to authoritative curator. With no small amount of pleasure, he watched the uncertainty and disquiet flicker across their faces.

“As I already said, Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, this is where we house one of our most interesting inmates. We have made some considerable progress with him since he was brought here as a raving lunatic – if you'll pardon the expression, ladies, though in truth there was no other way to describe him at the time of his admission.” From inside the cell the sound of clanking chains, scraping along the ground.

Lady Fairfax drew closer to her husband, who, acknowledging for the first time his responsibility to her, and his relationship to her, squared his shoulders and put a strong arm around her slim shoulders. Miss Price stood on tiptoe, trying to see in through the small barred window. Her companions discreetly moved away from her, lest she overbalance and fall on them. Nobody wished to be the one to have to break that so-called woman's fall! Sir Mark muttered something unintelligible while his young companion brushed dust off the shoulders of his jacket, and Stillman stood stiff as a poker saying nothing.

“A word of warning, Ladies and gents,” went on the doctor, like a showman waiting to conduct the marks into the tent where they would see all sorts of marvels. “The prisoner is quite harmless, and will appear friendly and even socially aware to some degree, but you must remember he is here because he has lost his mind, and do not allow him to try to draw you into his unstable world of fantasy. We will not be able to stay long, but he can be very persuasive, so if you feel yourself wavering, if his tale seems to suddenly make sense to you, if you feel it could be real – which I assure you, it is not – take a proper look at him, and ask yourself: would we keep a man down here in the dark if he were sane?”
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Old 12-21-2020, 08:17 PM   #8 (permalink)
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It was a much changed group who exited the cell about thirty minutes later. The small passageway was abuzz with heated conversation as they made their way back down the corridor, heading towards the steps that would take them back up into the light and out of such a forbidding and ugly place. Stillman was scowling, as he had been the entire duration of the tour, a condescending look on his face as he peered around to ensure the others shared his view.

“Stuff and nonsense!” he snorted. “The very idea!”

The aged Sir Mark Haversham was at least in agreement with the schoolteacher. “I saw some strange bods in the jungles of Africa when I was younger,” he muttered in his low, croaky voice, the cold and damp down here not helping his already ailing health, and making him cough and bark so hard that his young companion had to pat him on the back, “but that chap there takes the biscuit.” He tapped his temple meaningfully. “Fellow's in the right place, if you ask me.”

Lady Fairfax was more charitable, asking “Is there no hope for the poor man, Doctor?” Their guide replied with a shrug.

“Well, that's why we need to keep places like these open, Your Ladyship,” he told her, jerking his head back at the cell behind them. “You ought to have seen him when he first came to us, over a year ago now. Quite shocking it was. He has really improved under the care of the doctors here, I do assure you all.”

“Improved?” The incredulous, unimpressed voice of the rough-and-ready daughter of the Lord Chief Justice held no pity or sympathy for the man they had just visited. “I'd say he ought to be locked up,” she grinned, tickled by her own attempt at a joke, “but he already is!”

Notwithstanding the outrage of the others at her lack of compassion, she guffawed like a common docker, and stalked off down the passage, the stone walls almost shaking under her tread. The man with the great beard, who yet remained at the back of the party, now spoke up.

“We are all very quick to judge,” he noted, “but how do we know for certain he is mad?”

Lord Fairfax and Stillman both fixed him with a steely glare. It was clear neither liked him, or believed he should be in their company. “Oh come now, sir!” said His Lordship, with the kind of tone that brooked no debate. “Ghosts? Travelling in time? Man says he saw his own damned grave, for heaven's sake! How can you not consider him insane with such a tale as he has related?”

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth,” replied the bearded man quietly, “than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Lord Fairfax.”
Stillman snapped “Rubbish! The man's clearly mad, and in the right place. The true meaning of Christmas, indeed!”

“So you will vote to continue funding this establishment, Mr. Stillman?” the doctor's question seemed to catch the schoolmaster off guard, and he looked to His Lordship for his lead.

“I – I shall vote as the board of governors direct,” he said, uncertainly. The doctor nodded.

“Then let us hope that they vote wisely,” he observed as they climbed the stairs, going two abreast, Sir Mark's young handsome aide helping him up the steps, which were much harder for the old man to ascend than they had been to descend. He had to stop every few steps, coughing and sputtering like a steam train attempting a steep hill. “Should this place not receive the funding to allow it to remain open, people like Mr. Scrooge would have to be turned out onto the streets, or end his days in the workhouse. Here, he can at least get the help he needs, and in doing so, help doctors and scientists to understand the nature of madness.”

“Quite so.” There was a twinkle in the eye of the bearded man that many would have described as merry. “After all, we wouldn't want his tales of rich men being punished in Hell by being weighed down with golden chains to be believed by anyone, would we? It wouldn't do if the wealthy and the powerful started worrying about what happens to them if they don't help the poor, surely?”

A loud harrumph! was all the response that came from Lord Fairfax as he helped his wife up the cracked stone staircase, the light beginning to seep in as they neared the ground level of the sanitorium. Behind him, the doctor felt a tug on his sleeve, and turned to see the bearded man beckon to him. He stopped in his tracks.

“I say, Doctor,” the bearded man said, two sovereigns glinting brightly in the dim light as he held them out towards the other man, “there wouldn't be any chance of my spending a little time with that fellow back there alone, would there? Scratch, was it?”

Reflecting the glow from the coins – more money than he would earn in several months - the doctor grinned, opening his hand to receive the bribe.
“Scrooge, sir,” he corrected the generous donor to his own personal Christmas fund. “Of course, sir.” He pocketed the coins with the adroitness of a street urchin taking a wallet. “Anything for you, Mr. Dickens. Doing some research, is it? I'm a great admirer of yours, sir,” he confided, a slight flush heating his cheeks. “Had a patient once, can't recall her name right now; couldn't sleep until she had been read a passage from your Oliver Twist, sir. A wonderful tale, if I may say so.”

“Ah yes,” nodded Dickens. “One of my better works, or so the critics say. I did enjoy writing that one. Glad you enjoyed it.”

“Oh I did sir,” nodded the doctor enthusiastically, though his face held a look of concern, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say mild annoyance. “As did my patient. I do wish I could remember her name: on the tip of my tongue, as they say.” He spread his hands apologetically, as if his failure to remember the name of some woman he had treated was a matter for apology.

Dicken nodded, dismissing the matter. “Memory, Doctor.” He tapped his temple, the same way as Sir Mark had a moment ago, but with a vastly different meaning. “Plays the damndest tricks on a man. Like this Scrooge character. No doubt he's suffered some terrible trauma and his mind has invented this story to shield him from what actually happened. Interesting tale though. Sounds perfect for an idea I've been tinkering with, thought of getting it out in time for Christmas, don't you know? Maybe A Christmas Story? No, that sounds a little trite, doesn't it? A Christmas Tale?”

“Carol!.”

“What?”

“Oh, sorry sir.” The doctor looked a trifle mortified, having blurted out like that. “I just recalled that patient's name, Mr. Dickens. I just knew her as Carol. Never got her surname.”

“Of course.” But there was a strange look now in the eyes of Charles Dickens, and his voice had taken on an excited tone. “So then,” he went on. “Shall I make my way back down then?”

The doctor nodded. “Just let me see our rich and charitable friends out, sir,” he said, the two adjectives dripping with sarcasm and contempt, “and I'll conduct you back down myself.”

A few moments later he was back, having seen out the party. As they approached the cell door again and he produced his set of keys, the doctor turned towards Dickens, a concerned look on his face.

“I understand you're something of a student of the human condition yourself, sir, and I do commend that – if only more men paid heed to such unfortunates instead of just brushing them aside. I must caution you though.” He raised a warning finger. “This man has, so far as we can judge, lost his mind. He isn't usually violent but if provoked he may turn nasty. If that happens, just pull the bell and myself or a warden will be there directly.”

Dickens smiled. “Thank you doctor. Who knows, I may just find a place for you in my story. I fancy it needs a sympathetic character, perhaps... hmm, yes. Perhaps a child. A child with... hmm. Might I ask your name, sir?
“It's Cratchit, sir,” the doctor told him. “Doctor Robert Cratchit. But all my friends call me Bob.”

“As, then, with your permission, shall I,” agreed Dickens, shaking his hand. “Thank you, Bob, and a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
“And to you and yours, sir,” returned Dr. Cratchitt, limping away. “God bless you.”

“God bless you, too, Bob,” murmured Dickens as he ducked to enter the cell, holding the torch high like – like what? A beacon? A shining light of humanity that would, God willing, in time spread its message of hope and understanding and kindness throughout the world? “God bless you, and me, and, indeed, all of us, every one.”
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Old 12-21-2020, 08:24 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Title: "In Excelsis"
Genre: Humour/Fantasy
Written: December 9 2020
Word Count: 984

Notes: Just a bit of fun I had with the Christmas carol "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"...

In Excelsis

A Christmas Tale

(With apologies to all concerned)


While shepherds watched their flocks by night all seated on the ground
An angel of the Lord came down and glory shone around.
“Fear not,” said he, “for mighty dread hath seized your troubled mind!
Glad tidings of great joy I bring – Hello? Are you guys blind?

“I'm floating here in all my power and you don't seem to see;
A waste of time and energy this whole gig seems to be.
An angel is among your midst and your minds are not gone:
You should be cowering on your knees; is this bloody thing on?”

Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith appeared a shining throng;
But they could see from high above that something had gone wrong.
“It's no good boss” they all did cry: “they cannot see or hear -
The whole thing has gone pear-shaped sir, that is what we fear.”
“This job” he said “my seraph band, is getting on my tits:
The filter that allows them see us must be on the fritz!”
“Perhaps,” they said “it's only you; let us give it a try:”
And with a loud and joyous sound together did they cry

“All glory be to god on high and on the earth be peace...”
“You see?” said he. “You might as well be talking to the sheep.
The techs above have made a total screw-up of this thing.
Just hold off; there's no need for you to chant and pray and sing.”

Aye, to their glorious cry, it seemed, the shepherds were all deaf:
They could have sung and praised and yelled till they were out of breath.
No move did yonder men perform, nor give they indication
That they did see a blessed thing, so, loud with indignation:

“Good will henceforth to heaven and men begin and never cease...”
“I told you it's a waste of time! My wings begin to freeze.
”There's been some sort of cock-up, it must be some sort of glitch:
Some overpaid tech angel who will pay, son of a bitch.”

“To you in David's town this day is born of David's line...”
“Will you shut up! I'm on the phone! Yes I'll hold on, that's fine.
Hello, hello, is anyone there? Angel in distress!
I'm down on Earth, a special job; it really is a mess.
What do you mean, don't be a knob of course I did it – drat!
I left without recharging it and now my battery's flat.”

“The saviour who is Christ the lord and this shall be your sign...”
“Just put a cork in it will you? This is not the time.
Well I don't know, this ice and snow is freezing off my balls.
I wish that I were back in warm and comfy heaven's halls.
No I'm not getting at you guys, I know you do your best:
But a thumping headache I have got so just give it a rest.

You think to be an angel was my only goal in life?
An angel's lot is nothing but a load of bloody strife!
God says go here, God says do that and we can but obey;
When you want to put your feet up, He will send you on your way.
Look at those guys: they have no worries, sheep from dawn to dusk;
A simple life, it's easy for them to earn their daily crust.

Can you guys shut up? I know that you're a mighty host on high
But your song is getting on my wick; just go back to the sky!
No I know I'm not the boss of you, and you have got your task
The same as me, it's what we do; He doesn't even ask.
I fully agree that it's unfair, and look how cold the night!
Ice and snow are everywhere, what a dismal sight!
Still, says He, it gets you out; it helps to get fresh air;
But every word out of His mouth shows that He doesn't care.

It's interesting you feel that way; thought I was the only one
Who didn't think out of His arse there shone the very sun!
It would be nice to take a break, maybe grab a beer;
All of this announcing: I have had it up to here!
We know that Herod will soon try to kill the saviour born
But he will fail as they will fly to Egypt – they'll be gone.

Do we really think that Jesus' birth will make a difference here?
Don't you know humanity lives not on love but fear?
And when they've hung him on a cross at age of thirty years
It won't be very long before they'll forget all the tears
And turn to fighting 'mongst themselves on small points of the law:
Opening wounds that ne'er will heal and always will be raw.

So what's the point in all this joy, announcing his arrival?
Hope and joy and peace have not got much chance of survival.
And what do any of us get coming out on this cold night?
Your nose will freeze and it will feel like you have got frostbite.
And will He welcome us all back with opens arms and praise?
Oh no, not even “well done lads” are words He ever says.
But He's the boss, what can you do, we do not get a vote:
It's always His will must be done, we're all in the same boat.

I tell you what, head up on back, and get warm by the fire.
I can handle this alone; just put away that lyre.
He really thinks I need this job; when you get up above
Tell him from me that this job He can take and shove.
This angel lark is not for me – Heaven you can keep.
I think I'd rather spend my time just looking after sheep!”
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