Image by MabelAmber via Pixabay
Summer Holidays – Sarah O’Connor
It’s still there. Draped aloft on the wall by the tram stop to attract attention, by some kindly passerby who recognised it as a precious object. Worn but cared for, loose wool strands carefully stitched back in over the years. I pass it twice a week, crossing the bridge on my way to the Co-op for milk or bread or other essentials. Only essentials now of course. And yes, those bottles of wine down the bottom of my basket are essential. Maybe the volume is a bit much for someone living alone but… People said to be kind to myself and a nice Valpolicella is my treat. Nothing cheap obviously. I’ll keep my standards if nothing else.
The thick wool looks increasingly incongruous. It was March back then, and still cold, on the Thursday evening he last came back from the office with winter carried on the breeze. Laden with laptop and office files and a stack of panic buys from Waterstones to keep himself occupied for what he could see coming, he hadn’t noticed it fall from one of his many overstuffed bags for life. Now people pass it in flip-flops and shorts or linen sundresses and despite the cheerful colours calling out, its weight is like a relic from another time. A different world within touching distance – both millimetres and universes away from us. Before the coughs and breathlessness. The lethargy and pain.
I could just claim it of course. Take it from the wall, bury my nose deep within familiar fibres and carry it home to join the rest of his wardrobe. But I can’t. The scarf sits there like graffiti marking his last journey in the world. Before the fever hit and we stayed within our walls. I only spotted it about a month ago when I started doing my own shopping again. And by then it already felt part of the landscape. A shrine to his existence in this place and time. I keep wondering if someone will recognise it. Will they pick it up and return it to me as a symbolic offering? But no-one here knows us. On this anonymous street where even distinctive flourishes like his Tom Baker scarf go unremarked. Of course Sharon next door knows – she saw the parade of official vehicles that morning. Whenever she sees me over the fence, she straightens a spine crooked from years and gardening to give me a serious, sympathetic half-smile. I will let her know if there’s anything she can do, thanks. But there won’t be. We both know that, and perhaps the offer comes from knowing that. I sit and stare at the grass growing tall – it’s past my knees now for lack of his skills with the half-broken lawn mower. I put down the unread tome from his reading pile, take a sip of my chilled Chenin Blanc, and watch some ants as they scurry around my feet.
Monster Maze – Thomas Roberts
Alice was wearing only her nightie which wasn’t nearly enough, all things considered. She was standing on a cold, dark road which was flanked by two grey brick walls. She was alone in the maze – his maze. And there he was, in front of her, semi-transparent and chuckling. The ugly Troll Prince.
‘You’ he said, ‘Ha Ha! You will not find your way through my maze. You will not reach my Castle. You will not earn the right to become my Queen.’ He pointed at her. He wore several large rings with shining stones which looked like they should snap his shrivelled little fingers. Ugh, and his nails were long and brown with filth.
‘When I get to you, I’m gonna…’ she reached out to throttle him, but her hands just passed through.
‘Oh, fair maiden, I am a gentle Troll. We cannot have you freeze to death as you try. No, Ha Ha! Good luck, my dear, in the – Ha! – in my Monster Maze’. He stepped back, and blurred away into non-existence, leaving only a striped scarf in its place.
Marry him? She was going to bloody well kill him.
She kicked gently at the scarf with the end of her toe. It seemed to be just a normal scarf. She picked it up and, satisfied that it wasn’t going to strangle her, put it on. She took a deep breath and set off. She would find the way to his Castle.
On that first day in the maze she saw several small creatures which looked like rodents, though they had very long ears with fluffy whiskers at the end, and they were bright bubble-gum blue. That evening, as the sun fell, an incredible darkness fell between the cold brick walls. Exhausted, she found a corner and fell asleep quickly.
Someone was tugging at her scarf. She opened her eyes in a panic – it was one of the blue creatures sitting cross-legged beside her, pulling it. She reached out and snapped its neck. She hadn’t eaten in a day, and at least now there would be breakfast in the morning.
Days and weeks passed.
The blue vermin had disappeared, she had probably eaten them all – they tasted like mint and had been easy to catch – one day she came across a pair of identical yellow birds and caught one, though the other managed to escape, flying away. It stayed far from her now, and sang a beautiful lament for its dead partner every sunset.
She was so hungry now that she couldn’t move. She couldn’t even bring herself to lick at the moss and morning dew on the walls. She just lay there.
She died there.
She decayed there.
The scarf gradually worked free, finally breaking through her mouldy neck and flying up into the sky, riding the wind for a short while, before finally settling atop one of the grey walls not that far away; right beside the exit of the maze, where there was a gaggle of the small blue creatures and the lonely yellow bird. They were all glad to see the scarf for they understood that the awful monster was now dead. One of the blue critters held a small paw and took the yellow bird’s wing.
“Now we can go home” it said, and they all walked back into the maze together.
Cosplay – Mike Hickman
In 12 foot multi-coloured scarf, cigar-scented maroon velvet jacket and 1970s Bernard Manning comedy club clip-on bow tie, the boy was many things – he was certainly called them, too – but what he was most of all was a collision of Doctors. A provocation of Doctors, if not a deliberate, panama hat topped frustration of Doctors. No Class 10 child from Derby Road Junior was meant to look like he looked. No child in town had perhaps ever tried to look like he looked, not on a Saturday afternoon, not on any afternoon, and certainly not in Fleming Park, amongst the jumpers for goalposts and the dog walkers and the winos. Although, in truth, he wasn’t meant to look like this. Hadn’t even perhaps intended to.
But it was his birthday.
Now, with the internet and the relaxation in mandatory anti-Anorak prejudice, it is possible to get the knitting pattern online. You’ll need size 4 knitting needles and 26 25gm balls of wool in various colours (purple, camel, bronze, mustard, rust, grey, and greenish brown, if you want to get it exactly right). Cast on 60 stitches and then begin – 8 purple rows, 52 camel, 16 bronze, and on and on exactly as Begonia Pope had – you can look her up too; that’s a real name – when James Acheson had given her the wool, told her to knit the scarf, not told her when to stop. The boy had heard the story then and he accepted it as funny. It’s almost certain he would have wanted stories of his own. The costume – they call it ‘cosplay’ now – might have helped, he thought. If he’d had chance to think.
It was a present. Along with the jacket and the bow-tie his father had worn once in 1977 to a do that may or may not have involved naked ladies.
Someone must have said he would like it. A scarf, you know, like that “Doctor ‘oo” off the telly. That bloody thing he talks about all the time, when he’s not reading about it. He wants to look like him. He’s got the hair, too. He won’t have it cut. Looks like a bloody circus clown. Why not knit him the scarf? That’ll keep him happy.
It didn’t. Not then. And none of it went. If he’d joined the kids jeering and throwing spit wads, he’d have said it was all Wrong, all of it. Not just the length of the scarf and the colours, but you couldn’t have the Pertwee jacket and the McCoy hat together in the same place. It was all Wrong. As wrong as the boy on the mound in Fleming Park, as if put there for Obloquy’s sake. And still there years later, too.
But. He had been a collision and a provocation of Doctors out there in front of them that day. He had worn the scarf. He had looped it round that moment and he had pulled himself out and over.
He would wear it again.
All Was Left A Scarf – Fred McKenney
So what do we have now
I see it from the window
the neighbor’s daughter
must have gotten out again
poor thing, she walks
and doesn’t know yet
what happens when you
step outside your depth
we have walls now
and fears, with phantom
images at play in our front lawns,
– simulated hopscotch
and I’ll pretend the children’s
laughter is all I miss,
but that girl, she’s gone too
(dissolved like all the others)
and the unkempt yard
overrun with ghosts.
The Edge of Tomorrow – Geraldine Renton
We fell in love with strangers.
We drank some more.
The night became close to dawn as we strolled through the uninhabited streets of Galway.
We ambled past the Spanish Arch as the sun rose over the old long walk.
We wandered towards the Claddagh and sat with our legs dangling over the water’s edge.
Swans began to make their way toward us, despite us repeatedly telling them we had nothing for them only vodka.
We sat side by side and watched them seamlessly float along the still water, ever hopeful.
We didn’t speak.
Maybe, we each knew that this was the end; right here, right now.
We broke the silence only to recall drunken snippets of the night before.
We felt, for now, time had stood still,just for us.
We sat for another while longer, we were in no rush.
We laughed about the things we did over the years and marvelled aloud about what was yet to come.
“Are we doing anything today?” I glanced down our line of four.
“Don’t think so. I’ve to go home and pack,” she shaded her eyes from the heightening sun.
“Yeah me too”, “Yep me in all” echoed the final voice.
Deflated, I peered down at the water and watched the swans veering closer to our feet.
Slowly I bobbed my head up and down.
We drained the last of the vodka before getting up.
“Halloween, so?” I inquired.
“Ah hello?! Halloween!” They traded glances before adding “We will do our best! But definitely Christmas”
“Well, that will be some night then, eh?” I grinned.
“Yep, for sure” they all agreed.
I yanked my scarf up off the ground, shaking the final pieces of grass loose.
They began to chuckle -“What are we going to do without you, the one who always brings something for us to sit on?!”
“My dad assumed I was telling him that I was gay when he saw it.”
We all cracked up.
“In fairness, I’m impressed your dad knows it’s a pride scarf!”
I contemplated Would I ever have friends like this again?
“Well, it’s actually just a multicoloured scarf, but it could be used for pride, I suppose” I studied my scarf.
“Here take it, sure wouldn’t it be grand in the big smoke for ya” I passed it to her.
She held it, “You sure?”
“Absofuckinglutely…plus it guarantees at least YOU will come back, it’s not for keeps though, my dad likes it too” I winked.
“He might be trying to tell you something!”
We all laughed.
“We will be back soon, promise” we hugged for a moment.
I’d miss them more than they would miss me, I knew that much was true.
We walked through the awakening city, arm in arm, before getting into four separate taxis.
Image by sasint via Pixabay
Sanctuary – Judy Darley
Mo wasn’t in the mood for the tourists this morning. Tata could see that from the rigidity of her ears and the way she tried to swish the stump that was all that remained of her tail. While visitors rushed to feed other elephants, he shielded Mo from them, clucking to her softly.
“Elephants have moods like we do,” he told a white-blonde child who crept close. “Mama Mo tired so we her give space.”
Mo was the old grandma of the group. She’d spent her youth carrying tourists before that was frowned upon.
Given the choice, he knew Mo would be alone with her thoughts, remembering the family she’d lost, the men who’d taken her, and the one who’d cruelly severed her tail. When she arrived at the sanctuary two decades ago, she’d held a calf in her belly; he remembered it shifting beneath his palm in the vastness of her womb.
“Touch firm, so she knows it’s you,” he recalled his father teaching him. “Otherwise you’re like a mosquito, not much anything good.”
He watched as the child withdrew to stand a short distance away. Her quietness contrasted sharply with the youngsters shrieking, waving food and retreating from searching trunks. At first, he wondered if she was afraid, but the look she and the elephant shared was one of curiosity, of trust. It had taken him months to earn Mo’s confidence that soundly.
She held a small cucumber in her hand but made no move to offer it to Mo.
“You want to feed her?” he asked.
The child didn’t respond.
Mo’s trunk swayed outwards, exploring the scents in the air.
“You tease Mo,” he warned. “She smell cucumber and don’t know why you don’t give it her.”
He left Mo’s side and walked to the child. She blinked at him as he gently lifted her arm. “Come closer,” he said, but it was Mo who stepped forward, not the child.
He showed the girl how to hold the cucumber where Mo could grasp it, her trunk tip as sensitive as human fingers. The child’s eyes widened as Mo’s breath huffed over her and the trunk curled upwards, coiling the cucumber onto her fleshy tongue. The girl’s laughter was almost noiseless, punctuated by small gasps. She glanced from Mo to Tata and returned his beam, clapping small hands with a patter like rain on banana leaves.
Tata and Mo watched as the child ran to her waiting parents, who’d been observing throughout, Tata realised now. Her fingers danced in the air, painting a story of courage, wonder and joy. The parents signed back, and the mother mouthed a thank you to Tata across the sanctuary.
When the other elephants marched to the pool where tourists would cloak them in mud, Tata allowed Mo to lead him to the spot where she liked to stand and gaze. He rubbed her shoulder, as high as he could reach, feeling the thick skin move beneath his hand.
Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her fiction has been published in the UK, New Zealand, India, US and Canada, and performed in Hong Kong. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now. Find Judy at http://www.SkyLightRain.com and https://twitter.com/JudyDarley.
Where Buddha meets Bambi – Bayveen O’Connell
When you visit Nara, Japan’s first capital, you will most likely be frisked by Bambi or one of his cohort. Roaming Nara Park freely, resting, and grazing, these deer are considered to be a National Treasure. So if one trots over all spindly legged, with perfect eyelashes and candelabra antlers but you don’t have any of the coveted shika senbei (specially made deer crackers available from park vendors), this deer is wont to stick its muzzle in your pocket and chew up your map or tissues. Don’t fear though, these rather tame Sika aren’t all pushy. Although I did see one young woman yelping and zig-zagging down the road being chased by a cheeky one; it would be unfair to think of the deer as pests due to the fact that they are constantly being pursued by tourists with selfie sticks seeking the perfect Insta snap. The locals don’t bat an eyelid if a deer is sniffing around outside a 7 Eleven convenience store, and look on amused while the Sika and the visitors negotiate their own, often comical, symbiosis.
You were wondering what’s so special about these animals and why they have the run of the park and city? Legend has it that the Shinto god of thunder, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, rode into Nara on a white deer over a millennium ago. Takemikazuchi and three other gods became absorbed into the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, leaving the Sika as their messengers and protectors of the city.
Some tourists go to Nara just to hang out with the deer, others for its second biggest attraction: the Daibutsu or 15m bronze Buddha statue housed in one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, Todai-ji Temple. The Daibutsu, which was my main draw, is a vast sight to behold and well worth running the gauntlet of curious Sika. I stood in front of the Buddha and craned my neck to take in the whole tableau of the gargantuan sitting deity lit up from behind by a golden halo of smaller buddhas. After traversing the temple in an anti-clockwise flow, noting the warrior protectors that flanked the Daibutsu on both sides, I took one last stare at him, marvelling at this feat of art and engineering dating back to the 700s. Given that this was the busiest of all the temples I’d visited in Japan, I didn’t feel any calmness or inner peace but that was restored on the long walk back out of the park. And there was a deer waiting for me just beyond the Nandai gate as evening was starting to fall.
A world away from the Celtic horned god Cernunnos, the elusive herbivores of The Phoenix Park, and carrots I left out for Rudolph in my formative years, I strolled the way I came passing more posing Sika, some of them bowing for a biscuit. The souvenirs I’d passed earlier near the train station suddenly made sense: little laughing bald guys with horns. Of course, nothing marries Nara more than a horny Buddha.
One Evergreen Autumn – Mark Sadler
I was a crater wirer during the early years of the second great war. I am neither proud, nor ashamed of it. I knew my way around explosives so that’s what I did. We operated in teams of three, wiring the shell craters with booby traps. It was battlefield terrorism. Getting your enemies into a mindset where they were wary of taking cover.
Burma was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was jungle warfare. The enemy could strike at you from any direction. The only trenches were the natural ones that had been dug out by the forest elephants. I suppose that it made it easier for them to move around between the trees. It made it somewhat easier for us to move supplies around too, although there were risks attached.
We were camped where the beak of the savannah penetrated the forest. Nearby there was a church run by evangelical missionaries. When I returned to Burma, thirty years later, the only remnant of the Christian faith in the area were the hallelujah apes. They were descendants of the gibbons who had learned to crudely mimic the hymns that were sung by the revivalist congregation. They could never get to grips with the melodies, but they had the rhythmic structure down pat. They’re a tourist attraction now. Hearing them again; it brought back bad memories.
Buddhism always seemed a better fit for the country. During the war, you would sometimes spot the monks, in their saffron robes, wandering through the trees while the fighting was going on, as if everything was normal. They would sit cross-legged in the jungle trenches meditating. Every elephant who ambled past would very-gently lay down a single green leaf at their feet, as if they were bestowing a blessing.
One of the local guides told me: “The elephants are on a journey. They recognise the monks as travellers on the same path.”
“If they carry on much further south-west they’ll hit the Bay of Bengal,” I replied.
“Maybe these elephants no longer wish to inhabit the land,” he said. “They are making the long journey back to the water.”
Then he put his hand on my arm and said: “Who is wiser?”
Our patrols were being routinely ambushed. There was a feeling that somebody was leaking information. Suspicion fell on the monks.
One morning, we were moving heavy supplies through the jungle trench network. There was a young man mediating in the middle of the path, blocking our way. After he repeatedly failed to acknowledge our requests for him to move, I shot him in the head. Nobody told me to do it. We’d lost a few men the night before. Him sitting there in a trance, like none of it mattered, was the final straw for me.
When we came back later, there was a fresh pile of green leaves where the body had been.
In the trees, the gibbons hooted a discordant chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
Expiation – Mike Hickman
Do I give this to you because I want you to take it, or because you want to take it from me? Is this some kind of need, on your part as well as mine? Is it dependency if you are just there and I do not ask before weighing you down? And where does ‘just’ come into it when I don’t question how you come to find me here in this place? When we don’t so much as exchange a look before the offering – when I do not need to explain what I am handing to you as you reach to take it? As I assume so very readily that you can.
You know, of course, that I cannot explain what it contains – that much is unspoken. And yet you come, from how far away I won’t ask, and you don’t mind. You sit, seeming content, and I trust to the contentment without needing to see it because I have seen it before. Somewhen. Before I realised – did I? – what you were content to take. Realised what you could bear.
I feel you’d prefer not to tell me why you would so willingly accept the offering. Is this some kind of symbiosis? Is that the word? Or is it a form of desire? You look like you’d know – your eyes, they tell me that you’d know. Simpatico, perhaps? Is that what we could one day have again, even if I’m not sure we had it before?
Do I give this to you because you need to receive it from me? Because you’ve waited for this? Because our past, I’ve learned – is it learning? – was without the sharing that would have confirmed that there was properly something between us?
Did I realise – did you tell me? – how one-sided it had all been, that I wouldn’t ‘open up’? I remember those words, even if not who said them. It has to be two-way, this sort of thing. Whatever this sort of thing happens to be.
Did you tell me that?
It has to be two-way. But in order to receive, I first have to give. I have to commit to give. I have to know that you can bear what I am carrying.
So is this expiation? Do I give this to you because I’ve realised – or you’ve told me – that it will stand as expiation for the hitherto unshared and the half of us that wasn’t? And if you sit and you wait and you take it from me on those terms, can I be happy with that? Can I be happy with it being more about the recognition that you can receive – that I have been wrong in the past to assume that you can’t – and that the contents of the container matter less than this one act of recognition as it passes from me to you. As you are there, as you have always been, to take it?
Is that what this is? As ever, I pass.