Excerpts

 

Mr Clarence’s Hot Chocolate Varieties

Kicking my way through flurried drifts, I’m finally at the coffee shop and its solid warmth greets me like a long-lost friend; my winter triumvirate of hat, scarf and mittens will soon be abandoned, replaced with the glowing, bitter kick of beautiful, steaming coffee… I step towards the counter –

And realise that there’s something wrong. There’s barely more than two people in here. Anywhere else, on a snowy, almost Arctic day, that might be normal. But here there’s only one high street coffee shop and I’m standing in it. Jeff Wayne’s Musical War of the Worlds could be happening outside, Martians blasting houses and Richard Burton rumbling in the background – the locals would still be crammed in here, queuing for their lattes.

The teenager behind the counter is as twitchy as a cornered gazelle.

‘Cappuccino please?’

‘I’m-sorry-but-the-coffee-machine-is-completely-broken-today,’ He bursts it out in one breath and steps back. I wonder how many other pent-up caffeine dependants have railed at him so far today. Not that I want to rail at him. No, I just want to crawl across the counter and bawl into his shoulder how much I need a warm, artificially stimulated drink to help ease my defeat and nurse my courage. I’ll even eat the beans raw if I have to.

Somehow, though, I manage to restrain myself.

‘Sounds like your morning has been as good as mine.’ I muster up a reassuring smile; not just for his benefit, but my own too. I need to make sure Carl hasn’t destroyed it.

‘We can still do smoothies,’ He offers. I don’t need to raise a sceptical eyebrow towards the sub-zero temperatures outside the window for him to see how inappropriate this suggestion is. He rapidly clears his throat. ‘Or hot chocolate?’

I hesitate.

It’s a universal paradox that, unless you have a fantastic cafetière, coffee is usually better when someone else prepares it for you – yet with hot chocolate, the opposite applies. Bitter cocoa, stove-warmed milk, a couple of marshmallows… None of this over-sweetened, whipped-cream, commercial nonsense.

But I’m cold, tired and grateful to be out.

Five minutes later, I’m languishing at one end of a booth, a steaming frothy mug warming my palms. I’ve fished my notebook out of my bag, determined to devise a kids’ holiday activity that Carl can’t possibly object to – book-related, yet wintery, with the potential for active creativity – no cost, no extravagant staffing requirements, no politically disputable planets –

Oh good God, I’m done for.

My guardian angel must be on strike…

 

The Stone Fox

Robert Penrose was out of ideas.

That thought came to him as the taxi rumbled up the flagstone path to the daunting manor house front.

Set back in the Cheshire countryside the Hartstone estate was a modest Tudor manor house, made up of tiered floors with blacked out liquorice windows and peacocks colouring its gardens. Robert had seen its black and white patterned front before, but only in the brochure. It had been ranked highly in Writer’s Annual’s top 100 inspirational places, and was regarded as one of the most impressive privately owned estates in Cheshire.

Robert had taken all of this into account when he had booked his place at the writer’s retreat. Held twice a year, and mainly filled with elderly novelists with similarly old and tired ideas, the retreat’s aim was to gather writers with a struggling muse to share ideas and bask in the historic atmosphere of the house.

Robert thought it was a terrible idea.

His agent had been insistent, threatening him with all manner of consequences if he hadn’t ventured further in his ideas for future titles. Of course, Robert wasn’t convinced the ideas were going to come. Half formed genius plagued his mind and then disappeared; leaving the once bestselling author lost and useless, like a pen without ink. He didn’t hate the idea of the retreat, but he had no confidence in it, or in himself.

The cab pulled up at the house front, where a red faced woman in her sixties came bustling out to greet him. Her grey hair was knotted into a haphazard bun, with strays sticking out at mad angles, quite a contrast to the spotless summer dress she wore; yellow with floral pattern, overlaid by a frilly white apron.

Robert emerged from the car, giving her a rather nervous look. At forty, Robert was going to stick out like a sore thumb as the youngest – and that was saying a lot.

‘Welcome to Hartstone House,’ the slightly erratic woman proclaimed, presenting herself to Robert with bright, friendly eyes and a welcoming smile. ‘Are you here for the retreat?’

‘I’m here for ideas,’ Robert smiled, shifting his backpack higher up his shoulder.

 

Remember, Remember

‘You’re really not coming?’

Sophie felt tongue-tied; she desperately wanted her oldest, closest friends to think highly of her – but equally she couldn’t hide away how much she just ended up feeling like a stupid little kid around them these days. She was blushing furiously now – a beetroot beneath a grape-purple beanie – and she could feel Debs glaring daggers into the back of her neck. Lou, meanwhile, was gone; linked with Daniel Stockett, her laughter shot back to Sophie, too high, and the irritation boiling her blood finally overtook the flush of embarrassment. Her stupid, so-called friends only wanted to go on the stupid ride to “accidentally” fall against the clueless boys, screaming girlishly all the while –

She’d rather just have her toffee apple by the bonfire.

‘Yeah, I’m fine – I’m actually really hungry, so… I’ll just grab some food and wait for you guys by the railings or… whatever…’

Sophie trailed off as Debbie frowned at her, looking as though food was something so un-cool she’d actually never heard of it before. Then, with a dismissive shrug, she turned away to rejoin the others: no backwards glance.

Always; yeah, right.

Bristling, Sophie turned her back just as deliberately on the superficially chattering group, squaring her shoulders in the direction of the bonfire and food – the night’s only potential salvation. The warmth of the fire smouldered against her cheeks, the logs crackling and snapping above the voices and laughter of neighbours and friends. About fifteen feet from the bonfire, Sophie paused, deliberating the stands: toffee apples or candy-floss? She could even go for a hotdog, but it seemed less fitting somehow…

She was veering towards the pink, sickly-sweet fluff of some candy-floss (less embarrassing to try to eat in front of the others, lest they find her again after their ride) when she saw it – and her heart froze mid-beat.

‘Hey!’ The yell burst from her chest and Sophie took off running, ignoring the strange looks from surrounding teens; how the hell had no one else noticed him? ‘Hey! Zach! Zach! What do you think you’re doing?’

Sophie curved around the side of the bonfire, nearing the hazard tape that was flapping in the November breeze; up this close, the flames were sizzling hot, the sparks miniature firework explosions above the smoking logs and debris. Lurking in the shadows, just beneath the hazard tape, was a small figure, crouched on his hands and knees, poking a long stick into the burning embers with the naivety of the very young towards his safety…

 

The Hidden Dove On Hood Street

‘Welcome to the show,’ he drawled. ‘I assure you all, by the end of this, you won’t quite believe what you have seen…’ Harvey sniggered; it was fun, very tacky, almost exciting. He folded his arms to feign nonchalance.  ‘I am Demas Boltof. And this,’ he drew a wide scarlet sheet from within the confines of his jacket. ‘…Is my assistant, Iola.’ He held the sheet up in a matador fashion, twitched and shook it on the spot; then he jerked it away from its place in the air.

Harvey sat up.

The casual introduction hadn’t prepared him for this – hadn’t prepared him for Iola.

Her hair was a cascade of warmth, flames of liquid gold that tore down her back in unruly, mad snarls. Her eyes reflected a mind that was whirring and thinking, always far away; her lips, full, red and heart shaped begged to be ravished with kisses. Her cheekbones were sculpted like the thin edge of a blade, drawing attention down to the hollow of her neck, and lower, to the soft curve of her hips, which pressed against the clinging fabric of her royal blue dress, like undulating sea currents.

Everything was accentuated, and yet everything was not enough.

The show went on, building from pantomime tricks – floating above the ground without strings, miraculous recoveries from severed limbs – to bigger, more impossible things.

Nick continued to drink and drink, sometimes cackling at the tricks Demas and Iola produced: rabbits that back-flipped into top hats, doves that emerged, flapping from the confines of sleeves. Harvey’s pint remained untouched. The heavy beats of his heart, and the damp sweat on his palms and brow were more than enough to be getting on with.

 

Suburbia

It was January; one that was cool and crisp, without too much heavy rain and a chilling wind that seemed to catch you with its stinging, whipping grasp the second you stepped outside. Due to my job as an on-call electrician, I stepped into its path quite a lot, although once the first couple of clients were out of the way, I was usually growing used to the numbing spread of biting cold that gnawed at me, even despite my thick, uniform jacket.

This particular January, I remember vividly, was the scene of a mounting economic recession, a word that was thrown out into the face of the public so many times that one began to feel as if there had never been anything before the downturn. Money was tight, but then for many it always had been and I was no exception.

It was mid-morning when I arrived at the address listed. The neighbourhood itself was nothing out of the ordinary. It presented itself as an unimposing, regular little circulation of modern, semi-detached houses, so completely indistinguishable from any other district that it caught me off guard. The residents there at the time of my horrific visit, those that chilled me to the bone quicker than even a full-blown gale of that January wind, are gone now, of course. Discovered and brought to justice themselves finally.

I rang the bell of the attractively modern detached house that loomed centrally above its neighbours in the area and waited, kit in hand, naively admiring the neat order of the garden and the building’s solid frame, similar to the others around it. When the door opened, I was met with a middle-aged, gracious woman, whose dark blonde hair was short and perfectly curled, her whole appearance immediately discerning her as one whom, whilst having a pleasant, welcoming face, liked everything to be done properly and in order.

Once inside, Mrs Adams asked me if I would like a cup of tea; I politely declined. I’d had three ‘courtesy cups’, as I called them, already. Her house was as pristine inside as she was, everything typically beige, muted and well-ordered; very middle-class “keeping up appearances”.

There was a funny smell though, one that lingered everywhere, despite the numerous pots of potpourri studding the polished surfaces. It even overwhelmed Mrs Adams’ own powerful brand of sickly perfume. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that odour was at the time – it was the smell of something charred, but not the same as  wood or food smells when burnt… It mingled with this sort of… wet, fleshy, overwhelming scent, like burning fruit pulp or vegetable fat.

The smell wafted down from the upper storeys and was deeply unpleasant; I tried to rearrange my expression into something carefully neutral at exactly the same time as trying to work out what on earth could have caused such an intense stench to permeate the entire house. It was almost like it had seeped into the furnishings and the walls over time…

 

Jessica’s Wise and Future Self

Tears trembled down my cheeks – I shed so many now I barely noticed the beginning, anymore – and I wiped them away absently as I searched for the source of the noise.

It had been a whisper of a sound – something hitting something so softly it could have been placed down with human hands. Bemused, I looked around, and almost immediately my gaze settled on the bedside table… and the passport resting lazily atop it.

Considering I hadn’t been out of the country in at least two years, this struck me as odd, and taking into account that the only thing on said bedside table as of late had been the final Harry Potter book – which the passport now sat upon – it struck me as absolutely one hundred per cent Twilight-Zone odd.

I took it in hand, noting how battered it was – slightly bent and tatty, but evidently used and loved. Last time I had seen it, my own passport had looked nothing like that. I flipped to the back page to get a look at my thoroughly unattractive passport photo, and uncovered my slightly chubby twenty year old self staring back at me with eyes of one severely hung over.

The next thing I found made my heart double in pace.

Well before the hard plastic back page, my fingers paused in their rapid flicking of the pages so that I could focus on the middle spread.

Two stamps, one on each page – side by side like frames on a wall – proudly declared themselves as entry and exit to Bangladesh. I scratched my head. I had certainly never been to Bangladesh. I had never even left the EU. My brain rattled around in confusion, until it noticed the next bizarre revelation.

The dates.

I had apparently arrived in Bangladesh on February 14th 2015. Over a year on from now. The second stamp informed me of my leaving, three weeks after that.

My eyes desperately searched for more information, while my mind reeled through explanations like negative camera film.
Was this a joke? I couldn’t imagine Eva, or any one of my estranged friends playing a joke on me in my current emotional state. Ironically, it was something Granddad would have done. The twang of hurt at the thought was almost instantly stifled with curiosity. If this was a carefully choreographed joke, it didn’t explain how the passport had gently thudded into existence on my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Apart from the well-used state of the passport, it was certainly mine. It even boasted the same smudge of nail varnish I had spilt on its burgundy cover the night before a university trip to France. I flipped to the front. I had been to Australia, apparently. Two months were spent there… Or were going to be, in the spring of 2014.

My fingers became a quivering blur – scraping through page after page – the next two years of my life mapped out and displayed in stamp form, like a bizarre collector’s book. Thailand to China, China to Bangladesh, Bangladesh to Egypt, to Morocco, to Russia, to Canada, to America…

Except none of it had happened yet.

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