Like The Prose 2021 – Day 10

Today’s prompt asked me to write about denial. As a parent and a teacher, I’ve had plenty of experience of being told, “It wasn’t me!” and thought that might be a good starting place for my story. What if my protagonist genuinely hadn’t done any of the things she was accused of? What if it was actually her reflection coming to life when she was asleep and doing things that the ‘real’ person got blamed for?

Unfortunately, this is a very sketchy version of the story – it will have to wait until I have more time to develop the idea properly and turn it into the story I’d like it to be. For the time being, sit back and enjoy the first draft of “It Wasn’t Me!”

“It Wasn’t Me!”

Someone,” said Laura’s mother sternly, “has eaten the rest of the chocolate cake.”

“It wasn’t me,” Laura whispered.

Someone,” said Miss Spencer, with an angry look on her face, “has flooded the girls’ toilets.”

“It wasn’t me,” Laura muttered.

Someone,” Maxine said meaningfully, “told Jake Watts I fancied him, and now he won’t stop pestering me.”

“It wasn’t me,” Laura protested.

Of course, no one ever believed her denials. “But I saw you,” people would say, shaking their heads as Laura refused to admit culpability. They said it so often, that Laura began to wonder if they were right. Perhaps she was doing all these things – only without realising, like a sleepwalker.

*

As the years rolled by, Laura began to wonder if she had a split personality. Were there two sides to her nature: a ‘good’ Laura and an ‘evil’ Laura? (She had studied ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ for her English GCSE.) She certainly had no recollection of the things she was being blamed for, and they were becoming increasingly more embarrassing.

Take last Sunday, for instance. One of her neighbours claimed to have seen Laura spraying graffiti on the wall of the local old people’s home. As if Laura would ever do something like that! And only yesterday, she’d been stopped in Tesco by a security guard who claimed to have CCTV footage of her shoplifting a few days previously. The person in the grainy black and white footage did look a bit like her she decided, but whoever it was, they were stealing a bottle of Malibu and Laura never touched alcohol; besides, she was allergic to coconut. The last straw, though, was when the rather handsome man who’d just moved in next door put a polite yet frosty note through her letterbox asking her to refrain from sunbathing nude in the garden as his elderly father had been visiting the day before and had almost had a heart attack when he caught sight of her. Since Laura had been suffering with a migraine on the day in question and had spent the entire afternoon lying in bed in a darkened room, it definitely hadn’t been her – and there was no way that she would ever expose herself in the back garden. It was bad enough trying to change into her swimming costume under the cover of a towel at the beach.

Miserably, she climbed into bed and turned out the light, and as she drifted off to sleep, her reflection climbed out of the mirror and began to plan what she would do while Laura slept. The graffiti had been fun, and she’d enjoyed the Malibu she’d stolen from the supermarket. As for the naked sunbathing… She’d thought it would be amusing to tease the man who lived next door. He was far too stuffy for her tastes – as boring as Laura when you came to think of it – but she’d wanted to see him blush with embarrassment. How was she to know that his father would spot her? Or that the old man had a heart condition? Still, at least the ambulance had come quickly.

She stared once more at Laura, sleeping soundly and dreaming of goodness knows what. It was annoying that she could only leave the mirror when Laura was unconscious, but the woman seemed to favour ridiculously early nights, meaning that between the hours of 9pm and 5am, anything could happen. (Migraines that allowed her to escape in the daytime were an added bonus.) Perhaps she should go clubbing tonight? Or there was a new karaoke bar in town that was open until midnight. Laura’s reflection smiled: whatever she did, she would certainly have a better time than her alter-ego.

*

It was around 2am when the shadowy version of Laura began to wend her way home. She had danced herself dizzy, partied like it was 1999, and completely murdered every song she’d attempted in the karaoke bar. It had been wonderful.

Feeling slightly the worse for wear with a whopping alcohol-induced headache, she stopped for a moment, wondering if she was going to be sick. Perhaps she shouldn’t have had that kebab after all?

That was when she saw him. A man was running down the street, clutching what looked like some kind of briefcase. Presumably he was late for a train or a bus – well, he should know better than to be making such a noise when she had a headache. Instinctively, she stuck out her leg, tripping him up. The briefcase flew open as it hit the ground and Laura’s reflection stared in surprise at the jewellery boxes that spilled onto the pavement.

She was just about to reach for one or two of the boxes when the world started to shimmer and she knew Laura was waking up. “No!” she shouted desperately, but it was no use: as Laura regained consciousness in her bedroom, her reflection found herself trapped once more in the mirror. What a time for the woman to have woken up needing a glass of water! It was at least half an hour before Laura turned off the bedside lamp and sank back to sleep, and her reflection knew that the burglar and his boxes would be long gone by then.

*

The photo in the paper definitely looked like her, but she hadn’t been anywhere near the Jewellery Quarter on the night in question. It was a pity, really: the unknown woman had foiled what was potentially one of the biggest robberies the city had seen in a long time. Whoever she was, the Good Samaritan could expect a substantial reward from the grateful shop owner.

Laura was just making another cup of tea when the front doorbell rang. Her good-looking neighbour was on the doorstep and he wasn’t alone.

“I hope you don’t mind…” He blushed, turning his ears an endearing shade of pink. “Only, I recognised your photo in the paper, so I called the police and told them where you live.”

As if in a dream, a bewildered Laura allowed the two police officers to enter her home, then made them cups of tea and plied them with homemade flapjacks. Since they were so convinced that she was the woman they were looking for, she deemed it more convenient for everyone just to go along with it – and the ten thousand pounds in reward money was definitely a bonus.

Dan, her good-looking neighbour, put in another appearance as the police left. Stammering slightly, he asked her if she was free for lunch. “I was going to ask you out anyway,” he added hurriedly. “Before I saw you in the garden, I mean.”

And although Laura knew full well that Dan had not seen her in the garden, she smiled roguishly and muttered that she might feel like sunbathing again later – if he cared to join her.

Standing in front of the hallway mirror, Laura gazed at her reflection as she applied lipstick. “I know it was you,” she muttered under her breath. “You see, the woman in the video footage at Tesco looked just like me, but she was wearing her watch on the opposite wrist. Anyway, for once, your tricks have done me a favour: I’ve got money to spend and a date with Dan.”

Her reflection’s eyes widened with shock. “You knew?”

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Laura said cheerfully as she turned to leave.

“But it’s not fair!” protested her reflection. “It wasn’t you: it was me!”

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 9

Some of you may have realised that I love myths and folklore. Today’s brief was to write either a horror story or a revenge story or a story about South Africa, using the South African Tokoloshe as inspiration. I decided to create my own piece of African folklore about a woman who seeks revenge for her husband – although the crocodile god Effiom is my own invention, the names, clothes, plants and food are all indigenous to Africa as a whole.

How Kalifa Took Her Revenge

The sun beat down upon the small African village, baking the ground until it cracked with the heat. Lying under the shade of an acacia tree, Jawara watched the women as they made their way to the river. He was ready to take a wife. And when he saw the chief’s daughter, Kalifa, and how her hips swayed as she walked and how gracefully her neck arched as she carried the heavy water pot on her head on the return journey, his heart sang within him for her eyes were large and her bottom was round and he knew she would bear him strong healthy children.

               Later that day, Jawara picked wild hibiscus flowers and wove a bridal crown and laid it at Kalifa’s feet. And Kalifa saw that his hands were gentle and his heart was true, and she knew that here was a man who would not beat her as some husbands do but sing to her and cherish her, and so she smiled at Jawara and he took her to his hut and there made her his wife. And all night long, they lay wrapped in one another’s arms, under a moonlit sky with the song of cicadas in the background.

The wet season came and the river Afrim swelled its banks. Effiom the crocodile god floated in the water, his eyes just above the surface, looking for all the world like a big, brown log. He watched and he waited – waited for the local children to scamper down to the river that he might feed. And while he waited, his eye caught sight of a woman in a brightly coloured kitanga with beaded bracelets and anklets. Her hips swayed as she walked, and her eyes were large and her bottom was round and he knew he had to have her, so clambering out of the river, Effiom shed his crocodile skin and stood before Kalifa in his man form, and she recognised him immediately as a god because he was arrogant and proud, and she turned her gaze away from him.

               “Woman, look at me,” Effiom demanded. “I have chosen to lie with you. See how strong my thighs are and how magnificent my body is and tell me how grateful you are that I should bless you in this way.”

               And Kalifa turned to look at Effiom, saying, “You do me an honour, sir, but I already have a husband. I cannot lie with you when my heart belongs to another.”

               “Are his thighs as strong as mine, and is his body as magnificent?” Effiom asked.

               Kalifa shook her head. “His thighs are not as strong as yours and his body is not as magnificent,” she admitted, “but his hands are gentle when they touch my face and his heart is true, and I will not lie with anyone else while I have such a husband.”

Then Effiom was angry, and he returned to the river, putting aside his man skin and becoming a crocodile once more. And Effiom the crocodile swam out into the middle of the river and thrashed his powerful tail and gnashed his terrible jaws, and the stars trembled in the heavens at his anger and the clouds whirled and twirled about them and lightning cracked the sky apart. But Jawara and Kalifa still lay in each other’s arms, even though the sound of distant thunder now drowned out the cicadas’ song.

And early next morning, Jawara went to bathe in the river Afrim while Kalifa prepared fufu and nkakra nkwan, and seeing his chance, Effiom thrashed his powerful tail and stirred up the waters so that Jawara was sucked beneath the river’s surface and Effiom ate well that morning, devouring the flesh from Jawara’s body and crunching the bones, but the teeth he spat out at the side of the river for teeth are indigestible.

And Kalifa waited for her husband but he did not come home, and so she walked to the river and when she saw the teeth lying on the ground, she knew what had happened and she picked up the teeth with a grim face, saying not a word, and when she walked back to the hut she had shared with Jawara, her hips no longer swayed.

That night, Kalifa took a piece of cloth and wrapped up her dead husband’s teeth and buried them in the ground as muti. She buried them under the light of the moon, and the song of the cicadas was Jawara’s funeral dirge and Kalifa’s heart cried out to Takhar Takhar, the god of vengeance. All night long, she sat beneath the acacia tree, her tears unshed and her heart like a stone inside her. And when morning came, she knew what she must do.

The dry season came once more and the sun beat down again upon the small African village, baking the ground until it cracked with the heat. And Effiom the crocodile god saw Kalifa walking towards the river, hips swaying, carrying her water pot on her head. So he clambered from the water and shed his crocodile skin and stood before her in his man form.

               And this time, when he demanded to lie with her, Kalifa stared into his eyes and said, “I no longer have a husband, and my bed is cold. Come with me to my hut and I will make you eba and take you to my bed, and we will have strong, healthy children.”

               And Effiom followed her swaying hips and her round bottom back to the hut she had shared with her husband, and Kalifa mixed cassava flour and water to make the dumplings, but she also added ground snakeweed leaves for she knew that these would induce sleep. And Effiom ate many eba, and the heavy dumplings and the snakeweed combined to put him in a deep sleep so that he lay on his back and snored and Kalifa looked at him with revenge in her heart.

               She could not poison him and she could not stab him, for the only way to kill a crocodile god is to drown him in his own river. Instead, she took her dead husband’s dagger and she cut Effiom open while he slept and she filled his stomach with rocks and then sewed him up again. And when he woke, he felt the weight of the rocks inside him.  

“Aieie!” he said to Kalifa. “Your eba are as heavy as stones!”

“You are weak,” she replied, “for my dead husband would eat twice as many eba as you, and then we would walk to the river and swim in the moonlight before making love at the side of the water.”

And Effiom looked at Kalifa and thought of her large eyes and her rounded bottom and how he would like to see the moonlight gleaming on her mahogany skin as she swam in the water, so he heaved himself to his feet and followed her swaying hips down to the river Afrim.

They reached the river, and Kalifa removed her kitanga and her beaded bracelets and anklets and stood before Effiom, and the moonlight danced on her rounded bottom and her swaying hips as she walked to the water’s edge. And Effiom wanted to put aside his man skin and become a crocodile once more so that Kalifa might admire his powerful tail and his strong legs, but his stomach was so heavy he could not bend to remove his skin, and so he slipped into the water in his man form and the stones in his belly pulled him beneath the current and his lungs filled with water and he drowned.

Kalifa left the water and wrapped her kitanga around her. Her beaded bracelets and anklets clicked as she walked back to the hut she had shared with her husband, and her hips swayed in the moonlight and her heart sang with the cicadas.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 8

Many writers of books and films choose to start their story near the end and then work backwards towards the beginning. This story starts near the end, then uses a series of non-chronological flashbacks, taking us three weeks, fifty years, a hundred and fifty years and finally three hundred years back into the past, thus effectively ending at the chronological beginning. Hopefully, this is less confusing when you read the story.

Cercul Morții

The room is dark. Elena and I are sitting on the floor, a circle drawn on the bare boards in front of us and a strange smelling powder burning in a mortar. As the sickly-sweet smell permeates my nostrils and she begins chanting the strange hypnotic words, my mind skitters back to the first time I saw her, three weeks ago at a party, and I wonder how different things would be if I hadn’t talked to her then…

There’s something strangely compelling about the dark-haired girl in the corner of the room. This place is crowded with young people going crazy after the ease up on Covid restrictions, but despite the mass of heaving bodies, she’s the only one I’m aware of. Something tugs at the back of my memory, but I can’t quite access it; know only that I’m tempted in a way I haven’t been for almost sixty years. Still, no matter how much I want this girl – and she’s a stunner – I know I can’t let anything happen. Not after last time…

She’s smiling at me now and coming over. Damn! I look for somewhere to hide, but it’s no good. My heightened senses are almost overwhelmed by her cloying, heady perfume. A hundred and seventy years old – give or take the odd part of a decade – and I’m acting like the sort of callow youth I look like to the outside world. Go away! I want to tell her. I’m a century and a half too old for you! But her eyes are deep and lustrous and the outfit she’s wearing accentuates her curves and I’m falling just like I did for Janine all those years ago.

Memory swirls me into the 1960s and a deserted park somewhere in the middle of London – well, not quite deserted because there’s a figure in front of me, walking quickly as if she’s afraid to be out on her own, every so often casting a look over her shoulder in case there’s someone following her. I slip silently from one shadow to the next, my eyes perfectly attuned to the darkness of night. I spotted her leaving the party twenty minutes ago and decided to keep an eye on her. Even though I don’t run with the vamps, I know where they hang out and this blonde girl’s just the sort of sport they like for an evening’s entertainment: pretty and innocent looking. She’s wearing one of those ultra-short dresses that are all the rage right now. Still, rising hemlines are probably less provocative than the plunging necklines I remember from my own youth in the 1860s; and I wouldn’t be what I am now if I hadn’t been seduced by a pretty ankle and a heaving bosom.

Someone – or something – emerges from a bush in front of her and the poor girl screams with terror. Don’t run, I beg silently. You can’t outrun a vampire and you’ll just get him more worked up. She can’t hear me, of course, and within seconds, she’s running for her life. At least those white boots she’s wearing don’t have any heels to speak of, although if she was wearing stilettos, she’d have a ready-made stake.

Deciding it’s time for me to make a move, I start running. I could catch up with them both easily if I used celerity, but I don’t want to warn the other vamp that I’m like him; and, besides, using celerity in public isn’t encouraged as it breaks the masquerade. I’ve spent a hundred years trying to keep beneath the radar, trying to live as humanely and as humanly as possible; and the last thing I want is for someone in the Camarilla to put two and two together and work out that the vampire hunter who’s been killing so many is actually one of their own kind.

He’s grabbed hold of her now, but he doesn’t bite her – not yet. He’s playing with her as a cat plays with a mouse: letting her break free and totter a few feet away, then putting out a paw to let her know she can’t escape after all. I’m expecting her to scream again, but she’s lost her voice, rendered dumb with shock. Checking the stake in my back pocket, I edge forwards, trying to act like a good Samaritan out for a walk. “Is everything all right?” I call.

Yellow eyes glitter in the darkness. He’s already started moving into feeding mode, his teeth elongating and sharpening, but he still tries to pass it off as a date gone wrong.

“We’re fine, thanks. Just wanting a little privacy.” In other words, Go away.

“Are you sure? Because it seems to me that the girl you’re with is frightened of something.”

I’m almost there now. If I can just get him to turn away from her for a moment…

He spins round, finally showing me his true face. Most people would run from something like that – but I’m not most people. The stake is in my hand before he has time to register what’s happening, and then it’s in his heart, and then lying in a pile of dust.

The girl’s crouched on the ground, eyes squeezed shut, making little whimpering sounds.

Hey,” I say softly. “You can get up now. He’s run off.”

I don’t like lying to her, but what’s the alternative? That guy was a vampire, but don’t worry: I staked him.

She looks up at me and my heart squeezes inside me – or rather, it would do if I still had a beating human heart. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen with big, lustrous eyes that are blue one minute and green the next and then a sort of aquamarine, almost hidden by the heavy fringe that falls over them. The rest of her blonde shoulder length hair is caught up with a ribbon, giving her an alluring innocence and making me long to protect her.

“Where do you live?” I ask. “I’ll walk you home – at least that way, you won’t be bothered by anyone else.”

She gets to her feet, still trembling a little, and then flashes me a weak smile. “Thanks,” she says. “I’d like that.”

I come back to the present and find the dark-haired girl looking at me curiously. “Are you okay? For a moment, you just zoned out.” Without waiting for me to reply, she continues, “I’m Elena, by the way, and you are…”

“Daniel.”

I know I shouldn’t be striking up a conversation with her because it’s bound to end in tears when she wants to hook up with me and I have to decline. And in case you’re thinking I sound way too full of myself, I’m speaking from personal experience. I’m a good-looking guy – always have been – even before I was turned in the late 1860s. I’ve come to realise that people today can access a lot of information about vampires through RPG games like Vampire: The Masquerade and shows like Buffy and Angel and True Blood. (Just don’t get me started on Twilight, though – that book series has a lot to answer for. Vampires sparkling in the sunlight! Where did the writer get that load of garbage from?) Anyway, the shows and the games and the books get some of it right, but hardly any of them tell you about vampiric allure. It’s as if being turned takes the best bits of you and makes them ten times more attractive, and if you’re someone blessed with good looks in the first place… Well, you can see where I’m going with this one, can’t you? It’s one of the reasons I tend to hang around in the shadows – or in badly lit parties – because I can’t afford to let anyone fall for me and think that they’re in with a chance. I’ve been celibate ever since Janine and I… Let’s just say it didn’t end well.

“You look lonely, Daniel…”

She’s flirting with me, but it won’t do any good even though she’s insanely beautiful with the most hypnotic eyes I’ve ever seen and a body that makes me want to… I toss my drink down quickly, hoping the cool liquid will quench the flames of desire, but I know I want her, and I think she wants me too.

Black polished fingernails reach out and touch my arm. A jolt of electricity runs through my body, threatening to accelerate a pulse that no longer exists. The room stills. For a moment, we are the only two people in existence.

“I can’t…” The words force themselves out in a thick fog of despair, coating my tongue with disappointment. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“You’ve already got a girlfriend?”

I shake my head.

“A boyfriend?”

I shake my head again.

“Nothing like that. I just… It’s complicated.”

The room spins and I’m arriving at Janine’s front door – or, rather, the front door of the building where she rents a bedsit. I start to make my goodbye, confident that she’ll be safe now, but she turns those incredible eyes on me, and I find myself falling, falling, falling…

               “Would you mind coming in with me?” she says. “After what happened, I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

               It sounds like an invitation for something else, and I’m about to say no when she speaks again.

“Please. We don’t have to do anything. I’d just feel safer with another person around.”                                                                                    

“I guess I’m coming in, then,” I say, struggling to keep my feelings under control. It’s a long time since I had a woman – not since the night I became what I am. I know plenty of vamps have active sex lives – with each other or with humans; but getting it on with someone like me isn’t going to help me to stay under the radar, and besides, there’d be all sorts of awkward questions about why I don’t feed on humans and some of it might trickle back to the Camarilla; and I don’t exactly know all the ins and outs of what would happen if I tried to make love to a living girl, but from what I’ve heard, being aroused in that way arouses other things too, like the desire to taste her blood, and I swore years ago that I’d never do that…

But she’s leading me inside and up a darkened staircase and then another to a little room at the top of the house with a washbasin and a gas ring and a bed with rumpled covers. There are charcoal sketches tacked to the walls and a couple of prints – one’s a Spanish looking lady with dark hair and eyes and a bodice that’s showing rather more cleavage than it should and the other’s a piece of op art – Bridget Riley, maybe, or Richard Allen. I look around for somewhere to sit, but all I can see is the bed. Janine sinks down onto it and pats the space next to her, and so I sit down too, a part of me knowing that this is a bad idea; but it’s been so long since I felt a girl’s arms around me, so long since I kissed anyone; and when her lips move towards mine, I let it happen…

I pull myself back to the present, making eye contact with Elena. There’s still that niggling feeling at the back of my memory as if I recognise her from somewhere, but it slides away from me, refusing to be caught. Perhaps it’s the Spanish girl from Janine’s room and that’s why she seems so familiar.

“I’m not going to change your mind, am I?” Her voice is full of regret.

I watch her pick her way across the room to the group of people she left and one of them hands her a drink. A moment later, his mouth lands on hers and they begin kissing. I turn away uneasily, wondering why I mind so much.

It must be almost an hour later when I catch sight of the two of them going upstairs. I find my gaze following them. There’s something off about this. The guy looks back at me and his eyes gleam yellow in the dimmed light. And that’s when I know.

Muttering something about using the bathroom – even though no one’s listening – I start treading the stairs myself, hoping I’ll be in time. They’re not behind the first door I come to, but when I push the next one open, the vamp looks up from where he’s pinning Elena to the bed, and I see his face contort with a mixture of annoyance and hunger. Celerity puts me beside him within seconds – we’re the only people in the room and Elena’s eyes are closed so I don’t need to worry about blowing my cover. I’ve staked him before he has a chance to fight back and so I turn, intending to slip out quietly before Elena opens her eyes, but she’s staring up at me, a strange look on her face.

“You’re a vampire hunter,” she says.

My mind spins. How did she…

As if reading my mind, she continues, “I’ve encountered vampires before, but never someone who hunts them.” A pause. “I’m part Romany,” she continues. “One of my ancestors was turned by a vampire sometime in the 1600s, and the story’s been handed down the generations.” Another pause before she continues, “I always knew I would meet you one day.”

Me. Not someone like me. I know Romany people have powers – magic some people would call it – but her words still make my spine crawl.

“You feel it too, don’t you?” she says, touching my arm the way she did before. Her eyes are large and hypnotic, but I force myself not to respond.

I know what she means, though: there’s a strange electricity between us as if we’ve met somewhere before. Again, that elusive memory fluttering just out of reach. I want her so badly, but I can’t afford to lose control the way I did with Janine.

Janine’s lips on mine. My body a flame of desire: a heightened sensation that’s more intense than anything I ever knew as a living man. Hunger for her consumes me. I need to get lost in her, to feel her body pressed against mine, to sink my teeth into that pulsing vein in her neck…

Giving way to the monster inside me, I feed.

“There’s something you should know.” Back in the present, I force myself to be honest. “I’m a vampire hunter, but I’m a vampire too. I kill my own kind.”

A hiss of – what? Shock? Disappointment? – escapes her mouth. Then, “Are you telling me I’m not safe with you?” she asks.

I shake my head. “You’re safe – as long as we don’t get physical.”

Janine’s lips on mine: the kiss of a newly turned vampire. Surely, I reason, we can stay beneath the radar. There’s animal blood aplenty in the local abattoir, and we can hide away in this room of hers so no one ever finds us.

It’s not what she wants, though. By the time she’s made her seventh kill, I know I have to intervene. I made her, and now I must unmake her. I wait until she’s asleep and then I drive the stake into her heart. If I were any braver, I would have turned myself to dust too.

So, no more getting physical – not ever, although it’s ironic, really, that my lust caused me to be turned in the first place. Back in 1860, I was a wastrel, a gambler, a ne’er-do-well, but I had coin and plenty of it, and the girls who walked the streets were easily bought. I can’t even remember now what the girl looked like – whether the one who dragged me into Mother Seddons’ establishment was a vamp herself or just a human compelled to do her mistress’s bidding. There must have been four or five of them in the room, and at first, it seemed like every man’s dream come true to have so many willing beauties wanting to make him happy. I remember the wine – lots of it and probably drugged – but the faces blur into one so that I cannot recall which one of them it was who bit me. Perhaps they all did. It only took one to turn me, though: to change me from a man of twenty to one of the living dead.

At first, I was unaware of the change. I awoke from what I took to be my usual alcohol-induced slumber to find myself in a room that had all the aura of a house of ill repute. There was nothing new in this, but I felt… Peculiar. The buzzing of a fly echoed a thousand times louder than it had any right to and I could hear the blood coursing through the veins of the girl who was bending over me. A pretty thing she was, and yet it was not her face nor even her bosom that caught my attention but the smell of her blood: a dizzying sweetness that called to me as if begging me to taste it.

Perhaps I would have given in to the monster inside had it not been for the arrival of Mother Seddons herself. Striding across the room, she threw the shutters wide open, and I cried out in pain as a shaft of sunlight hit my arm, causing it to smoke.

Even then, I did not realise what I was, my alcohol-fogged brain telling me that this was bit imagination. But as I caught sight of the mirror hanging on the wall and the empty space where my reflection should have been, I suddenly knew. I was one of the soulless: one of the vampires from the poems of Mr Southey or Lord Byron.

Elena sits patiently while I stammer out my story, listening while I describe how I sought help from the Church but was turned away by one priest after another. Determined not to give in to the craving for human blood, I lived on the streets for months, skulking in the shadows, venturing out only after dark and feeding on rats and other vermin. I spent decades living thus, and then England found itself at war with Germany and I resolved to go and fight for king and country, reckoning that at least my immortality could be put to good use on the battlefield.

“But you could have been staked by a bayonet!” she protests, almost as if chiding me for my heroism; so I make myself tell her the sordid side to my story: roaming the battlefield at night, feeding from those who lay dying. At the time, I told myself I was doing those men a service in helping them to die quickly rather than in prolonged agony. I did not believe it then and I do not believe it now.

“And when the war was finished?” she prompts, so I tell her of the way I made myself blend into society, living ten years here and ten years there to avoid arousing suspicion when people saw I did not age.

“That was when I became a vampire slayer,” I tell her. “I realised there were plenty of others like me – but they were hiding by day so they could hunt at night. The priests had told me I couldn’t enter heaven, but at least I could try to send a few vampires to hell.”

“Speaking of slaying vampires…” Her hand strokes my arm again. “How would you feel about rescuing my ancestor – the one who was bitten?”

I want to tell her that such things aren’t possible, but she’s already outlining her plans, her words tumbling over one another in her haste to explain. “My grandmother taught me a Romany spell,” she says. “One handed down over hundreds of years while the rest of my family waited to find someone they could send back in time to prevent that fatal turning.” Noticing the sceptical look on my face, she adds, “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life. I always knew I would find you one day.”

So that’s why I find myself here now, a few weeks later, sitting in a darkened room with Elena – a circle drawn on the floor in front of us and a strange smelling powder burning in a mortar on the floor. Elena’s black hair is loose about her shoulders and her eyes burn with something other worldly. Hecate herself could not look more disturbing. She’s dangerous and alluring at the same time.

Strange, arcane symbols are chalked around the circle. Elena wipes the dust from her fingers and sits back on her heels, muttering under her breath. She produces a small cloth bag and begins to scatter herbs from it into the mortar. Blue flames flare; shadows dance on the ceiling. Her eyes are wild and strange in the half-light. I shudder involuntarily.

“You must enter the circle,” she says, her voice low and guttural.

I do as she says and find myself stepping into the past.

I’m on a hillside somewhere out in the countryside and there’s just enough moonlight for me to make out the shape of someone struggling not far away. The vamp must have his hand over the girl’s mouth because the only sound I can detect is a muffled grunting that hints at terror and the sound of him trying to hold her still enough to bite.

I can risk celerity in a time centuries before my own, and even though he hears me coming, I’m still too swift for him. He disappears into dust and I gaze at the girl I’ve rescued, realising with a shock that she’s the spitting image of Elena. Memory tugs at me again, like a kite begging to be set free. Desire tugs too: Elena’s relative is the Spanish lady in Janine’s painting come to life, her eyes dark and hypnotic, her breasts swelling against the low-cut bodice she wears.

All the longing I’ve supressed since Janine suddenly breaks free and I find myself covering her mouth with kisses, imagining it’s Elena beneath me and not some distant relative. The girl’s struggling again, but I’m caught up in something primeval: I need to taste her; need to drink from her.

As I sink my teeth into soft, tanned flesh, the elusive pieces of the past suddenly complete the jigsaw: I’m back in 1860, looking into Elena’s hypnotic eyes as she savours my blood then makes me drink from her. She’s my sire! But if she’s a vampire, why has she sent me back to save her ancestor?

No, not her ancestor: the girl in my arms is Elena herself. I’m her sire and she’s mine. We’re connected through blood: mine in her and hers in me. I am responsible for my own downfall.

My scream echoes through the centuries as I realise the enormity of what I’ve begun.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 7

For today’s challenge, I had to write a saj’. For those of you not familiar with the term, saj’ pieces are characterised by rhyme, with most, if not all, of the phrases ending with a perfect rhyme that is carried over variable lengths throughout the piece. You can find examples of saj’ in the Qur’an or in The Thousand and One Nights. According to Wikipedia, the ‘consistent, incessant rhyme is what makes the saj’ style so melodic and akin to cooing of birds and jingling bells.’

My piece tells the story of someone who meets an old man (presumably Sinbad, since the title refers to him) who is possessed by a Djinn. The storyteller kills the Djinn and the old man is restored to himself. He then tells the storyteller the tale of how he came to be possessed by the Djinn.

If I had time to do this properly, I would vary the lengths of my lines in keeping with traditional saj’; as it is, I’ve stuck to iambic pentameter since this mimics natural speech rhythms – the rhyme and rhythm are present here, but to do the saj’ form justice, I’d have to spend a lot longer.

The Seventh Saj’ of Sinbad

I met a traveller from an ancient land:

Careworn was he, and frail of limb and hand;

With stooping back, he found it hard to stand,

Yet he had travelled far across the sand.

Across the sand, he’d come for many days

‘Neath fiery sun, his skin tanned by its rays.

He had a tale, he said, that should amaze:

He’d tell me of the Djinn and all their ways.

Indeed, he told me of a Djinn so tall,

So fierce, so ravenous it made me pall.

This Djinn, he said, would answer to his call.

But then, alas! I saw my traveller fall.

I saw my traveller fall as falls a tree

When woodsmen cut it down. How could this be?

For lo! upon his face now plain to see

The features of a Djinn stared back at me.

‘O, mortal man, free me!’ the Djinn now roared.

His eyes blazed fire; his birdlike talons clawed.

I pierced his demon-visage with my sword

And then, like that, the traveller was restored.

‘How came this transformation?’ I enquired.

For now my curiosity was fired.

‘By what strange fate were you and he so mired?

How in your skin was such a one attired?’

The traveller sighed and thus began his song,

And strange it was, and plaintive too, and long.

‘In all my years – they number thirteen score –

I’d dealt with Djinns and faerie folk galore –

Until the day came when I finally swore

I’d take a wife and travel thus no more.

So, take a wife I did, a beauteous mate

With almond eyes and lips as sweet as dates.

But Heaven frowned, and by some twist of fate,

Her love for me did swiftly turn to hate.

Love turned to hate – I was not what she sought;

And though I gave her everything I ought,

She spurned my gifts and said love is not bought,

And thus her anger flared and our love came to naught.

She left me in the night and ran away

So far across the desert, far away.

Upon a camel’s back she chose to sway.

I could not stop her flight nor make her stay.

An empty shell was I without my wife.

I did not eat nor sleep; I tired of life.

And though her nagging words oft gave me strife,

Her going pierced my heart like cruellest knife.

‘Twas then the Djinn whom you have late despatched

Revealed at length the plan that he had hatched:

His soul with human body would be matched…

“But that’s absurd!” I cried, and anger flashed

Within his eyes, and then his teeth he gnashed,

And thought I to myself I would be dashed

Upon the rocks for doubting his fine plans

Or buried in a bottle in the sands.

Instead, he let me live, but stole my shell

And while he lived, I was in living hell.

One body with two spirits walked the earth

Until the demon’s death gave me new worth.’

O, he had travelled much and suffered more!

His tale of woe now shook me to my core

For everyone might one day meet a Djinn

And grief can be a door to let him in.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 6

Write a love story, they said, but don’t be afraid to be subversive. Oh, but do make sure it has a happy ending.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written a lot of love stories: some have ended happily; others not so happily. This time, I wanted to challenge myself to do something I hadn’t done before, so I decided to set my story in a circus – a Victorian circus. These days, we’re all very aware of equal opportunities and accepting people’s differences, but the Victorians saw things quite differently. ‘Freak shows’ abounded in which anyone who didn’t quite fit society’s perception of ‘normal’ was branded an outsider – whether it was for being too tall, too short, too hairy, or having any kind of physical disability. In my story, the protagonist is the outsider by virtue of being the only person in the circus who isn’t considered a ‘freak’ by the rest of society. He despairs of ever finding love in a world where being ‘normal’ is seen in a negative light.

The characters in this story are based on real people who travelled with circuses in the 1800s. If you look past physical appearances, you realise we all share the same hopes and dreams and we’re all capable of love and/or jealousy. It’s all a matter of perspective.

This story is dedicated to all my family and friends who know what it’s like to be ‘different’ and to all the people who face challenges with a disability of their own. Not all disabilities are ones we can see: depression, anxiety, ASD, eating disorders and addiction are just some of the battles being fought on a daily basis. In the words of Christina Aguilera, ‘You are beautiful in every single way…’

Love Freak

The smell of sawdust assaults Arthur’s nostrils as he waits patiently for the high wire act to finish. His face is hot beneath the white greasepaint that hides his handsome face and his heart thumps wildly as he gazes upwards, One of the tightrope walkers stumbles and sways and the crowd gasps, holding its breath lest the diminutive man falls. He won’t, of course: Pippo is one of the most talented acrobats in the business. He may be small in stature, but his talent is gigantic. He is the brother of Lorenzo, the circus ringmaster, neither of them standing any higher than Arthur’s chest, and the husband of Venetia, the Bearded Lady. He is also Arthur’s father.

It’s not Pippo who sets Arthur’s pulse racing, however. He has seen his father perform this act many times. His eyes travel to the woman who waits at the other end of the tightrope: a beautiful creature with large, lustrous eyes and hair as long and as black as his mother’s beard. Sophia stands on her hands atop the tall platform that is his father’s destination. Her daring costume fits snugly over her hips, accentuating her curves, and her leg bends over her body, almost touching the surface in front of her. There is more perfection in that single leg than other women possess in two: firm, supple, and oh, so delicate! He longs to stroke that chiselled limb whilst gazing into Sophia’s dark, sensuous orbs. He has loved her hopelessly since the day she first joined his parents’ travelling circus, but he knows his feelings will not be requited for how can Sophia give her heart to a freak?

Before he was born, his parents had assumed he would take after one of them. When it became obvious that he had not inherited his father’s lack of height, they were still hopeful that he might have gigantism instead. Arthur would have been happy to please them, but try as he might, he was unable to grow taller than 5 feet 10 – and whilst this would have been seen as a respectable height had he possessed any other interesting features, his lack of excess body hair, unusual protuberances or misshapen limbs only serves to highlight how out of place he is in this collection of weird and wonderful characters that form the circo di mostri. In truth, he looks more like a member of the audience than a performer: he is a freak of normality in a diverse and vibrant band of misfits.

His father has reached the end of the tightrope. Slipping onto the platform, he nods to Sophia who marches forwards on her hands, retaining her balance perfectly as she traverses the high wire. When she reaches the identical platform at the opposite end, she gracefully arches her leg further over her body until it touches the floor, then rolls herself forward until she is standing upright. Just as the crowd begin to applaud, she executes a backflip, landing delicately on her five perfect toes. Cheering soars to the roof of the tent and Arthur’s heart swells with pride tinged with sadness. He will never be anything more than a clown, and Sophia will not stoop to marry a man whose only talent is to make people laugh.

Nevertheless, he steps into the ring, falling over his feet as if to demonstrate how clumsy his two legs have made him. He would gladly amputate one of them if he thought it would make Sophia fall in love with him, but she’s said many times that people who alter their bodies deliberately are charlatans and not true artistes. He knows she was referring to Yanni, the Tattooed Man, when she said this – the rest of the company regard Yanni with suspicion at best – but he can’t help cursing his straight nose and matching limbs. Other Victorians might regard him as a perfect specimen of humanity, but their standards mean nothing in the world he inhabits.

All these thoughts whirl through his mind as he tumbles round the arena. He is head over heels in love with a girl who is completely out of his grasp. She tops the bill whilst he elicits laughs by sprawling on the ground.

The rumble of wheels announces the arrival of Luigi and his lions. Arthur drags himself to his feet and makes way for the one-armed lion tamer. It is his job to unlock the cage for Luigi before the moustachioed animal handler cracks his whip and puts the creatures through their paces. He is careful not to get too close to them: Luigi had two arms once, but he was careless one night and let down his defences. The lion ripped his arm to shreds so that bone and muscle parted company for good and the only solution was to let a sawbones complete what the beast had started.

He’s noticed Sophia looking at Luigi recently, her eyes skimming over his empty sleeve; and his gut twists when he thinks of the older man putting his arm around her. Luigi is thirty-eight to Sophia’s twenty-two, but she has far more in common with him than the boy with two arms and two legs who’s as out of place in this circus as the rest of them would be in the outside world.

*

The show ends and Arthur begins his nightly duties. Lorenzo and his Giantess wife, Grandina, are counting the night’s takings in their caravan. If the money is good, they will give everyone beer; if not, there will be nothing. Pippo pulls off his sparkly costume, spilling sequins on the ground as he does so and earning Venetia’s anger. She towers over her tiny husband physically, but whenever she shouts at him, he only needs to raise a finger for her to back down and apologise. She’s said many times that no one else had ever been man enough to stand up to her until Pippo came along.

Arthur checks that the ladders up to the tightrope are secure, then leaves the performance tent and heads for the smaller ones housing the members of the troupe who form the sideshow. The Tattooed Man has already returned to his caravan, the Monkey Boy is asleep on a pile of old sacks and only Wanda the Mermaid remains awake, her eyes glittering in the dark. She’s shivering slightly, so he sets down his lantern and wraps a blanket around her shoulders. “It’s too cold for you to be dressed like that,” he says.

Wanda is at least fifty, but there is nothing matronly about her attire. She wears a close fitting, flesh-coloured top that has two large scallop shells sewn in place to protect her modesty. In the dim light of the tent, her outfit suggests that she is wearing the shells and nothing more. Her legs, which have been fused together since birth, are encased in a shimmery sheath that ends in the shape of a fish tail, the blues and greens of the fabric echoing the colours of the sea. A long, blonde wig completes the ensemble. If Arthur squints, she looks almost convincing.

Pulling off her wig, Wanda scratches her head with a sigh of relief. “That’s better,” she says. “Now, tell me all the gossip. How was the show tonight?”

Arthur describes each act in minute detail, beginning with Lorenzo’s display of his riding abilities – always a crowd pleaser – and Grandina’s turn as the Human Nightingale (Lorenzo thinks that sounds better than the Singing Giantess), then describing Sophia’s acrobatics and his own father’s tightrope skills.

“Pippo’s always known how to put the fun in funambulism,” Wanda says, yawning. “He’s a talented man. The girl’s just a novelty act – if I could actually use this excuse for a leg, I’d show her a thing or two.”

Arthur’s surprised by the vehemence in her voice and wonders what Sophia could have done to earn the mermaid’s displeasure.

“Will you carry me outside, Arthur?” Wanda sounds suddenly vulnerable. “I sometimes feel as if I’m suffocating sitting around in this tent all day and all night.”

He bends to pick her up in his arms, her papery-thin skin rustling at his touch. “Can you take the lantern?” he asks, but she shakes her head.

“I like the dark. Besides, if the stars are out, they’re better than any lantern.”

The freak of normality and the fifty-year-old mermaid leave the tent. The black velvet sky is studded with diamond stars. If only, Arthur thinks, it was Sophia in his arms… And then he looks down at Wanda and her wigless head, and he feels a rush of compassion for her almost naked scalp and the wisps of grey hair that cling to it like seaweed. What sort of life does she have as part of a static sideshow? Wanda will never walk on a highwire or prance around the ring on a horse; the most she can hope for is a handful of curious voyeurs, paying their pennies to gaze at her deformity. Instinctively, he touches his lips to her forehead. She smells of sequins and sawdust with a faint tinge of sadness.

He lowers her onto the grass and they sit in silence, wrapping the night around themselves like a cloak, each lost in a private world. Footsteps pass by them in the darkness and whispered voices carry on the midnight air: the giggle of a girl who thinks she’s in love, and the low rumble of a man old enough to be her father.

Beside him, Wanda stiffens. “Luigi,” she breathes, and Arthur tastes the pain and regret in that single word. He is not the only one suffering from hopeless, unrequited love.

The laughter continues and Arthur stands up. Eavesdropping on their lovemaking is more than he can bear. He scoops up Wanda before she has time to protest and carries her back to the grimy display tent, and then he goes back to his parents’ caravan and cries himself to sleep.

*

The lantern still glows where Arthur left it. When your heart is broken, you forget all about fire safety. Wanda shifts irritably on her battered chaise-longue, trying to get comfortable. She’s developed bedsores from being confined to this excuse for a bed. By day, sea shells are sprinkled around it and she lies on a turquoise satin sheet as if in the sea. At night time, the sea is tidied away and a coarse woollen blanket delineates the couch’s true purpose. Carefully, she reaches her arm behind the cushions and draws out a bottle of brandy. She’s existed for years on malice and eau de vie. I’m a pickled herring, she thinks drowsily.

JoJo the Monkey Boy stirs in his sleep, and Wanda is struck with a sudden urge to confide in someone. “Wake up, JoJo,” she calls. “I need to talk to you.”

JoJo blinks awake and stares at the pretty mermaid. He is short-sighted and the tent is kept mostly in shadow; when he looks at Wanda, he sees the girl she once was.

“I’ve lost my Luigi,” Wanda continues, her voice slurred by alcohol and despair. He has never been hers, but she ignores that small detail, sure that – were it not for Sophia – it would be only a matter of time before the lion tamer succumbs to her charms.

JoJo listens and nods, understanding only half of what she says. Someone has made the beautiful lady cry, and the sight makes JoJo’s heart hurt.

“It’s that one-legged trollop’s fault,” Wanda insists. “She’s dazzled him with her hand-walking and her sparkly costumes. One of these days, though, she’ll fall from the high wire and who’ll want her then when her bones are broken and her face is smashed to smithereens?”

JoJo listens intently, his mind trying to decipher his idol’s meaning. Does she want him to do something? If he slipped his chain, he could climb the tall ladder and push the bad lady off the tightrope. Yes, JoJo thinks: he will make Wanda laugh again. He goes back to sleep with a serene smile on his face.

*

When Arthur wakes the next morning, there is still a stone inside him where his heart used to be. Oh, Sophia! he thinks miserably. How can she let herself be swayed so easily by another’s missing limb? He is aware that were Luigi fully armed, the tightrope-walking goddess would not look at him twice.

Sophia, meanwhile, has problems of her own. Luigi has been courting her persistently for several weeks now, and while she admires his work – for how could anyone fail to be impressed by a man who treats lions like housecats? – she has to confess that his wooing of her feels… incomplete. She’s always dreamed of a man putting his arms around her and holding her close, and an awkward single-armed embrace just isn’t the same. She’s constantly looking at his empty sleeve and imagining how different life would be had the lion chewed off one of his legs instead.

I’m a terrible person, she thinks miserably, and the shine has gone out of her sequins as she pulls on her costume, ready for the night’s performance.

*

The moon is fat in the sky as JoJo slips his chain and heads for the circus tent. Sidling in and out of shadows, he reaches the canvas structure, marvelling at the way it towers over everything. It does not take long to slide under the tough material and creep towards the heavy, iron ladder that leads up to the tightrope.

Arthur stands beneath the high wire, gazing up at the woman he has lost. She has never looked more beautiful than she does tonight, her dark hair caught up in coils above her ears, her snug costume gleaming like moonlight.

She has reached the centre of the rope. She balances on one hand and raises the other to wave at the audience. The crowd cheers wildly. Then, out of nowhere, a shadowy, simian shape appears at the foot of the ladder, scampering up the rungs in pursuit of Sophia. Leaping from the ladder, the figure closes its fist around the tightrope and begins to swing itself towards the balancing acrobat. Time stills; Sophia’s pose trembles.

As if in a dream, Arthur watches her slip, her hands scrabbling wildly at the vibrating rope. She falls in slow motion, an endless movement frozen in eternity, and then the spell is broken as the ground begins to rush to meet her, and Arthur finds his two strong legs carrying him with a speed he hadn’t known he possessed so that he’s ready and waiting to catch her in his arms before she hits the sawdust.

From his vantage point on the high wire, JoJo sees the failure of his plan and lets out a howl of fury. He is not the only disappointed one: incensed to see his lover in another’s arms, Luigi lashes out in frustration, inadvertently disturbing the equilibrium of the ladder. When JoJo leaps back onto it, the force of his weight causes the ladder to topple. Down it plummets, moving far more quickly than Sophia’s gentle descent. The crowd screams as the weight of several tons threatens to fall on several of Lorenzo’s best acts.

Pushing Sophia to safety, Arthur tries to calculate the ladder’s trajectory. Realising that if it falls on the lion cage, it could release several ravenous beasts into the audience, he sprints for the cage, thinking to roll it out of the way.

“Move your lions!” he yells at Luigi.

The older man stares at him stupidly, not seeming to understand.

Arthur tries again. “The cage – it’s going to be flattened.”

Galvanised into action, Luigi put his shoulder to the cage and begins to push. Arthur joins him, shoving with both hands as hard as he can, and the wheeled enclosure trundles out of the way seconds before the ladder lands on Arthur, grinding the bones of his right leg to powder.

*

Arthur opens his eyes slowly. He is lying on his bunk in his parents’ caravan, a fiery pain in his head and an ache in his ribs. His left leg hurts and his right leg feels… numb.

“How do you feel?” his mother asks softly. Her beard is stained with tears.

“Sore.” His eyes search the room. “Is Sophia unhurt?”

“You caught her just in time,” Pippo says. “In another life, you could have been a trapeze artist.”

His father has never praised him like this before. He’d always claimed that Arthur was too tall, too ungainly for the high wire.

“Perhaps I should try,” Arthur says. “When my bruises heal.”

His parents exchange worried looks.

“My left leg hurts a bit,” Arthur continues, “but there’s no pain in my right one.”

Venetia takes hold of her son’s hand and gently guides it to the space where his leg used to be. “There was nothing for the doctor to save,” she says. Tears flood her eyes. “I’m so sorry, my brave, darling boy.”

The room spins. Arthur does not know whether he feels joy or shock. “Find Sophia,” he says, and then he faints away.

*

When he regains consciousness, Sophia is smiling down at him. “My hero,” she says, bending to kiss his forehead.

He remembers doing the same to Wanda: it’s the gesture of someone who feels compassion, not love. No matter how many limbs he loses, he will never gain her heart.

“Thank you,” Sophia says, “for saving me.”

He lies there in silence, still feeling her in his arms as he stands on his two strong legs. How can he protect her now when he is only half the man he used to be?

“You get used to it with time,” she says suddenly. “I was eight years old when I lost my leg and at first, I thought I would never adjust. But I did.”

As he stares at her, she produces something wrapped in white tissue paper. “You need something to live for,” she says.

His fingers are trembling as he tears the paper away from a sequinned costume.

“Join me on the high wire,” she says. “Two one-legged acrobats – what could be a bigger crowd-pleaser?”

He trembles momentarily on the tightrope between past and present, friends and lovers. If he should fall…

“You caught my heart when you caught me in your arms,” she says; and then she kisses him on the mouth and stars fill the caravan.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 5

Today’s challenge combines travel writing with historical fiction. Whereas yesterday’s story incorporated real places and factual information about my chosen location, today’s invents a tourist attraction and gives the fictional backstory to it.

Elf Wood


Several years ago, I was out walking my dog when I stumbled across a hidden wood only a couple of miles from the centre of Birmingham. How I’d managed to miss this before, I didn’t know, but the place was beautiful: a carpet of bluebells stretched as far as the eye could see and there was a general feeling of tranquility and wellbeing as soon as I set foot amongst the trees. Walking past elm and birch, poplar and oak, it felt as if I’d been transported into a Tolkienesque world: I almost expected to see elves and hobbits peeping at me from behind leafy branches.
Wanting to visit this magical world again, I made a note on my phone of where it was. I’m not famed for my sense of direction, but Google Maps has proved pretty infallible so far.
Only, it turned out it wasn’t as infallible as I’d thought. The following weekend, dog in tow, I checked my map app and headed for Cotteridge’s answer to Lothlorien. It wasn’t there.
At first, I thought it was just the app playing up, but after searching for over an hour, I had to admit defeat. The dog thought his extended walk was wonderful whereas I just wanted to find the spot that had induced such a feeling of calm and rightness.
I asked around, but none of my friends seemed to know what I was talking about. That, I thought, was the end of it – until a random Instagram post by a friend in Cornwall caused me to think again. Amidst photos of clifftop scenery and crowded beaches, a familiar scene caught my eye. That was my hidden wood – but how had Jen found it, and what had she been doing in Birmingham?
I left a comment on her post to the effect of she should have let me know she’d been in my neck of the woods (I was proud of the pun) and could she remind me exactly where this spot was located. Her answer appeared an hour or two later, claiming confusion as this was a wood she and a friend had discovered whilst walking near Bodmin. “I’m not exactly sure where it was,” she wrote. “I’ve been back to look for it since but couldn’t find it.
Even then, I might have chalked the whole thing up to coincidence – after all, one bluebell wood looks much like another – had it not been for a third photo, identical to the ones Jen and I had taken, which popped up on a Facebook feed from someone holidaying in Yorkshire. Despite their diverse locations, all three had something in common: the person who’d taken the photo had never been able to find the spot again.
It was at this point that something tugged at my memory. Hadn’t there been a documentary on TV a while ago about a wood that seemed to vanish and reappear at will? A Google search uncovered at least a hundred YouTube links – some relating to the programme I vaguely remembered watching and others that showed people talking to the camera about their own experiences of ‘Elf Wood’ as some of them had named it. Most of the personal vlogs were pretty standard: people who were so desperate to be famous that they would have claimed anything if they thought it would get them more likes. I discounted anything supernatural or downright weird, thinking that you were always bound to get a few nut jobs with something like this, and then turned my attention to the clips from the TV programme, trying to sift through them to find the ones with the best quality.
I hadn’t been far off the mark when I called the wood ‘Tolkienesque’: it turns out old JRR himself had discovered Elf Wood as a boy, shortly after moving to Sarehole in 1896. Part of the documentary featured the narrator reading out bits from Tolkien’s personal diaries where he described his memories of being taken on a walk at the age of 5 or 6 and finding himself in a magical fairyland. “At the time, I thought I had stumbled into a less disturbing version of Alice’s Wonderland,” he wrote, “and although I went back time and time again to recapture the delight I felt, somehow the precise location of the wood eluded me, so that after a few years, I began to wonder whether it had actually existed or been just a figment of my childish imagination.” Another clip suggested that when Tolkien came to write The Lord of the Rings many years later, he had had modelled the elves’ woodland realm on this unknown location. There was also a strong possibility that it might have been the inspiration for Alan Lee’s paintings in illustrated copies of the book – paintings which had then been used as a guide for the sets in Peter Jackson’s well known film trilogy.  
Since then, I’ve found myself obsessively researching bluebell woods, fairy woods, vanishing woods and just about anything else that might possibly be something to do with the place I discovered by chance and haven’t seen again. Familiar-looking photos pop up on social media with great regularity, and the given location is different every time. From what I can tell, it’s mentioned in countless local records as far back as the 1530s, so it’s been casting its spell on those who find it for centuries.
I’ve resigned myself now to the knowledge that I’ll probably never find it again. ‘Elf Wood’, as I’ve come to think of it, isn’t the sort of place you can visit twice. What’s more, I think I always knew there was something otherworldly about the experience because the ground was carpeted with bluebells and yet I discovered it in the middle of winter.

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Like The Prose 2021 – Day 4

Today’s prompt was to write a travel narrative. I was lucky enough to visit Iceland twenty years ago and we had an amazing guide who not only took us to places of interest but also filled us in on Icelandic folklore during our journeys to these different places. This piece combines my memories of that trip with the narrative of a woman who is trying to fulfil a promise to her husband.

Too Late For Whale Watching

They had always planned to go whale watching in Iceland.

*

The 4X4 rumbles through the snowy scenery, the sound of the guide’s voice washing over her. Gunnar is well versed in his country’s natural history – so far, they have seen fissures, extinct volcanoes and a waterfall; but he loves the land’s mythology too. Before he started lecturing them, Deirdre hadn’t realised that Catholicism and superstition were so intertwined in Icelandic folklore, or that the Huldufólk  (‘hidden people’) played such an important role.  

“You would call them Elves,” Gunnar says in his lilting accent, “and Icelanders believe that they are descended from Adam and Eve. God told Adam He was coming for tea, so Adam asked Eve to wash the children – they had many children. But Eve was lazy and she only washed half of them, and then Adam was embarrassed and hid his unwashed children so that God would not see them, and these hidden children became the Elves.”

Since it happened, Deirdre had hidden herself away too. Others’ sympathy was too intrusive while her grief was still raw; and then she had got used to being alone and had let her heart freeze over.

Gunnar tells the driver to stop and makes them get out of the jeep. They are standing on a cliff top, looking out to sea. “For many months,” Gunnar says, “tourists can see whales in the water, but we are two weeks – maybe three – too late for whales.”

The travel agent has said as much when she had gone in to book the holiday. “Whale watching finishes in October. You might be lucky with the Northern Lights.”

She had booked it anyway. It had been on their bucket list. She wonders now if they should have been more spontaneous instead of making lists of things to do when they both retired.

*

Deirdre lets her mind drift back to the present. Gunnar is telling another story. This time, it is the legend of Red Cap. There was a fisherman, he says, who was stranded on an island inhabited by Elves and took one of them as his wife. She bore him a child but he longed to return to his own people. She allowed him to leave but said he must promise to arrange a Christian baptism for their baby in the village church. When the fisherman arrived home, he forgot all about his Elf-Bride and his Elfchild; and eventually, he asked a local girl to marry him. But on their way to the church, the Elf-Woman appeared in front of them with the baby in her arms, reminding him of his promise and begging him to acknowledge his paternity. This is the spot, Gunnar says, where their confrontation happened.

The fisherman refused the Elf-Woman’s request, pushing her and the child out of his way, and then the Elf-Woman became angry and cursed the fisherman, transforming him into a whale. He was wearing a red cap at the time, so the whale had a red head and became known as rauð hetta or Red Cap. In some versions of the story, the fisherman’s bride-to-be flings herself into the sea after the whale, and in others, she wastes away from grief.

Those are a young girl’s reactions, Deirdre thinks sadly. At 54, she is too old for such dramatic gestures; her own sorrow has been tightly controlled.

*

They get back into the 4X4 and continue their journey. Yesterday, Gunnar took them to see an extinct volcano. Snow had fluttered around their faces as they walked to the man-made entrance cut into the side of the rock. Once inside, she had found herself in a large, airy cave with nothing to suggest this feature had once spewed molten lava. Copying the others, she had stretched out her fingers and felt the uneven surface of the walls.

“How do we know it’s extinct and not dormant?” The woman who asked the question fiddled nervously with her smartphone.

Gunnar gave what was obviously a rehearsed answer but Deirdre didn’t hear any of it, her mind returning to the last weeks with Martin. His cancer had lain dormant for years, waking up in time to give him an aching back for a week and then he was gone. Disease was as destructive as a volcano; it just killed on a smaller scale.

*

Their destination today is a waterfall. Öxarárfoss is part of a National Park, Þingvellir – about 48 kilometres away from Reykjavik. Deirdre stands with the rest of the tourists and observes the rushing water which, Gunnar says, freezes over entirely in the depths of winter. Þingvellir lies between the tectonic plates and Gunnar shows them where to stand on the atmospheric path along one of the fault lines. Originally, he says, Iceland did not exist, but when North America and Europe ripped apart, a new island was formed in between them, bridging the two continents. Even now, they are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm every year.

She feels a stab of something more painful than the biting cold of late October weather when he says this, aware that she and Martin have been ripped apart too and that every year, he will seem a little further away from her. His death has made her as empty as the extinct volcano and as frozen as a winter waterfall.

She knows she should be taking photos, but her fingers are too numb to operate her phone properly and, despite the layers of thermal clothing, she feels chilled to the bone.

Returning to the jeep, she catches sight of her face in the wing mirror and grimaces: frost glistens on the tiny, invisible hairs on her face, transforming her into a grotesque version of the Snow Queen from Anderson’s fairy tale. Didn’t she have a shard of ice in her heart too?

*

Driving back to Reykjavik, the others wonder out loud if there will be time to stop off at one of the hot springs. The Blue Lagoon is the most popular, Gunnar says, but it must be pre-booked. What about arranging a trip for the last day? The spa is only a twenty minutes’ drive from Keflavik airport.

 “I’d like a boat trip,” Deirdre says suddenly.

The others turn round, surprised. They’re not used to the single woman in their party voicing her opinions.

Gunnar explains again that it is too late for whale watching, but Deirdre shakes her head. “I don’t care if I don’t see whales. I’d just like to go out in a boat.”

After a while, Gunnar strokes his beard and says he thinks it can be arranged. It might be expensive since none of the others want to go with her, but she doesn’t care. She made a promise to Martin and she intends to see it through.

*

That evening, she eats by herself in the Mimir restaurant. Her excursion companions are staying at the Radisson too, but they’ve turned up their noses at the plokkfiskur and rúgbrauð, preferring to wander further afield to find something more compatible with their English palates. Perhaps they would have tried the ‘prix fixe’ menu, but she thinks they were put off by the typo which promised a dessert made from a “delicious subtle blend of mouse, ice cream and cream”. Through the large floor to ceiling windows, the sky is as black as widow’s weeds, and then a sudden burst of colour illuminates the night as green and purple and blue and white light begins to dance and twirl. The travel agent had mentioned the aurora borealis, but Deirdre had thought she was just trying to make a sale.

Pushing back her chair from the table, she stands up, trying to get a closer look, then waits impatiently for the waiter to bring her bill. Quickly, she scribbles her name and room number on the pad in front of her before departing the hotel, wanting to stand outside for this incredible light show.

 When she finally crawls into bed, hours later, she realises she has not thought of Martin since leaving the restaurant.

*

Gunnar collects the others early the next morning for a four-hour drive to Vatnajökull. They’d offered days ago to take her with them to see the famous ice caves, but she’d said no. Now she huddles inside her jumper, thinking she’s made the right decision. The caves can’t be any colder than her own heart has been since Martin left her. Although… The previous evening’s colours swirl in her mind; perhaps she is starting to thaw a little.

*

Her two hours’ boat ride is not until the afternoon and the Old Harbour is within easy walking distance, so she busies herself packing her suitcase for the flight home tomorrow. The 15”x5” cardboard tube is still carefully wrapped in her spare clothing. She lifts it out gently, her fingers tracing the bluebell wood design. 100% biodegradable. It was what he wanted.

When she steps aboard the RIB speedboat later on, the scatter tube is tucked in her capacious handbag. They’d wanted her to leave the bag in the ticket office, but she’d refused, promising to take full responsibility for its contents. It’s technically too late for whale watching, the guide says, but they should see dolphins. Deirdre feels the outline of the tube through the canvas of her bag and thinks of Martin and the whales and the dolphins, and a fissure seems to open inside her heart.

*

Far out to sea, the other passengers are pointing phones and clicking cameras. Deirdre thinks of the plans they made and how she needs to do what she promised. She’s carried her dead husband around for six months now and it’s time to set them both free.

 Reaching into her bag, she removes the cardboard tube then slowly and deliberately drops it over the side of the boat. The dormant volcano of her grief erupts, tears of hot lava spilling down her cheeks, and she weeps for all the things on their bucket list that they will never do and for all the missed opportunities they wasted when they thought time was no object.

 Gradually, the hot tears become a cooler waterfall. Anyone who looks at her will think her face is wet from the spray of the sea.

*

Dusk is already falling as the boat begins its homeward journey. For now, the sky is grey; but later, colours will dance again in the darkness and she will dance with them.

Like The Prose 2021 Day 3

As an English teacher, I know that many teenagers today don’t read much apart from reading texts and tweets and other messages on social media. Today’s challenge was to create a story in bite sized chunks but I thought I would combine the format of social media with one of Mozart’s well-loved operas, Cosi Fan Tutte. The storyline is surprisingly relevant in 2021 – it’s basically a catfishing scam in which two young men decide to test their fiancées’ fidelity by going away from them and then returning secretly in disguise to woo each other’s lover – if they can. Mozart’s opera ends happily, but I’ve left my story on an ambiguous note. If you would like to find out more about the original opera, click here Così fan tutte – Wikipedia

Cosi Fan Tweety

Like The Prose 2021: Day 1

For anyone who hasn’t logged in before, Like The Prose is an annual writing competition which involves receiving a writing prompt each day in June and having 36 hours to write and submit a story. I took part for the first time in 2019 and it was a great way to make me step out of my comfort zone and tackle themes and genres I hadn’t thought of before. Last year, I took part again and was pleased to finish the challenge for the second year running with thirty new stories written in thirty days. I also signed up to the Facebook group for LTP and had the privilege of reading others’ submissions as well as making new friends who also love writing – and this led to a number of us contributing stories to an anthology of thirty stories written during Like The Prose.

I’m now back for a third year and happy to see lots of familiar faces taking part once more. Our first prompt arrived last night and, as in previous years, I’m posting my written responses on this blog each day in June. The short story below is based around the theme of waiting. I had all sorts of ideas such as someone waiting for the right moment to propose, waiting to kiss someone for the first time, waiting for the phone to ring, or waiting in a hospital to see if a loved one would survive – but one of the competition rules is that all stories must be new and I’d already written stories on all of these themes within the past year (you can find them on the Reedsy website) so knew I’d have to do something different. So, this first prompt is a bit of a first for me as I’ve abandoned my usual genres to write something a little more surreal as the characters in my story wait for a strange supernatural being called Jimli…

Waiting for Jimli

“Are you sure your family wants me around at a time like this?” Eric whispered.

Milena stopped adjusting her golden plaits just long enough to fix him with a hard stare. “It is the Czech custom,” she intoned. “My family would think it rude if you were not here with us to wait for Jimli.”

Eric still wasn’t sure he understood this bizarre ritual. From what he could make out, no one expected Milena’s grandmother to last out the night – but instead of a few family members sitting quietly by her bedside, it seemed as if half the village had turned out to watch as the old woman waited for some kind of spirit to appear at her bedside and tell her it was time to leave the mortal world. He’d seen some strange customs during the three or four months he’d been living in Lukov – it was only six miles away from the pickled cucumber business in Znojmo that was in the process of being taken over by Eric’s UK condiments company and it had been easier to find accommodation here – but when his work colleague, Milena, had invited him to a ‘party’, this hadn’t been what he had in mind.

“Remind me again what Jimli’s like,” he said now. Was he like the Angel of Death? Or perhaps he was more like Charon, the ferryman whom the ancient Greeks believed had taken the souls of the recently departed across the River Styx to the land of the dead.

Milena seemed amazed by his ignorance. “Jimli is many things,” she began. “He has one hundred relatives and they are all his father. He eats his hatchlings, and then he weeps over his greed. His carriage is drawn by ten fat slugs and so the hour of death comes slowly.”

She was mad, Eric thought. Quite mad.

“But we must all wait for Jimli,” she continued, “whether we are young or old. If Jimli does not see us waiting, he will hunt us down and steal our breath while we sleep.” She lowered her voice still further. “Every night, when we go to sleep, there is a kouzlo we must recite: one that will ward off evil yet let Jimli know he is welcome. If he knows he is welcome, he will not trouble the sleeper.”

“What does he do to people who forget to say the words?” He didn’t believe any of Milena’s story, of course: it was superstitious nonsense; but a part of him needed to know.

“Jimli will enter through the window and then he will find the sleeper’s bed…” Milena’s voice was hypnotic and slow. “And he will place his heavy hand on the sleeper’s shoulder and shake the sleeper to wake him up. And the sleeper’s eyes will open but at the same moment, his blood will freeze in his veins and he will be one of the mrtvoly: the living corpses who have no place in heaven or in hell but must wander the streets of memory for thousands of years until they turn into dust.”

She was absolutely bonkers – they all were. Well, he wasn’t going to sit around waiting for Jimli all night: he was going home now.

Stifling a yawn, he turned to Milena. “I’m sorry I can’t stay all night. I’ve got an early morning presentation tomorrow – it’s the new packaging for the pickled cucumbers.” He yawned again. “Anyway, I’ll need a decent night’s sleep…”

But it looked as if he would be staying after all, for a wave of fatigue suddenly overwhelmed him and he found himself sinking back down onto the sofa and closing his eyes. If he could just doze for a few minutes, he should be okay, but sleep was seeping through his entire body.

“You do not know the words of the kouzlo.” Milena’s voice echoed in his subconscious. “When Jimli comes, you will be unprepared.”

“Jimli’s not coming,” he muttered in his sleep. “He’s just a figment of people’s imagination.”

And that was when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder…

*

He came to with a start, opening his eyes to find a strange man shaking him. “Did you arrive on flight JML1? I have been entrusted with meeting an Englishman named Hopwood who will be working with my company.”

For a moment, he blinked in surprise, and then it all came back to him. He was in the Czech republic. He’d been sent here to oversee the new business merger with a pickled cucumber business in Znojmo.

“Thanks,” he said as he rose to his feet. “I didn’t mean to drop off like that. It must be jet lag.” His new colleague was still staring at him, so he held out his hand. “My name’s Eric. And you’re…”

 The man smiled. “Just call me Jimli.”

NaPoWriMo 2021 – Day 9

The (optional) prompt given for today was to write a poem in the form of a “to-do list” but to choose an unusual person or character. For example, what’s on the Tooth Fairy’s to-do list? Or on the to-do list of Genghis Khan? Of a housefly? Your list can be a mix of extremely boring things and wild things. For example, maybe Santa Claus needs to order his elves to make 7 million animatronic Baby Yoda dolls, to have his hat dry-cleaned to get off all the soot it picked up last December, and to get his head electrician to change out the sparkplugs on Rudolph’s nose.

I’ve chosen one of my favourite Shakespearean villains: Iago, from the play ‘Othello’. Iago is a wonderfully Machiavellian creature, always plotting and scheming to bring others down. If you ever get the chance to see the 1995 Kenneth Branagh film version in which Branagh himself plays Iago, he conveys this wonderfully well through the metaphor of a chess board, manoeuvring pieces into position as he rattles off one of his soliloquies describing how he will destroy the other characters’ lives. I’ve combined all of his soliloquies into one big fat ‘To Do’ list.

Iago’s To Do List

Put money in my purse…

Roderigo has a trusting nature – ‘twill

Work to my advantage.

Thus do I ever make the fool my purse.

Othello next…

The Moor did give my promotion to Cassio –

Curse him for that! I’ll be avenged.

He’s sweet on Desdemona, old

Brabantio’s only daughter, and ‘tis thought

An elopement has been planned.

I’ll rouse the old man from his bed this night

And Roderigo will fill his mind with images so foul

‘Twould make a doxy blush.

‘Your daughter and the Moor

Are making the beast with two backs!’

Curse the thought of her!

Sweet Desdemona, why

Didst not choose me to taste thy charms?

Othello’s old, and – how shall I say’t? –

Not one of us.

The better shall my poison work on him.

But oh! my lips do yearn to taste her still.

I’ll sow discord betwixt the two of them.

How so? Now let me think anon.

The self-same Cassio who took

The post I wanted cannot hold his drink.

He’ll be disgraced and then I’ll set him on

To Desdemona to implore her help.

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly – but we’ll see

If Cassio’s so pretty with a sword

Thrust through his heart…

Five lives ruined – and ‘tis not yet dawn.

All in all, I’d say a good day’s work.