Like The Prose 2021 – Day 20

Day 20 must mean time for another story about the summer solstice. Last year, I wrote a story involving Robin Goodfellow (or Puck as he is known in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This year, I’ve taken a character I created for one of last year’s briefs, Saint Aidan, an Irish holy man, and imagined what would happen were he to be called to an English village not far from Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Eve…

Saint Aidan and the Summer Solstice

It so happened that Saint Aidan was called to England – there were rumours of hobgoblins teasing a small village and the local priest was his wits’ end. Never a one to turn down a plea for help, Aidan sought the services of Padraig, a local boy with a boat, and the two set off from Wexford and rowed across the Irish sea, landing on the Welsh shore for they were heading for the south west of England and a village not far from Salisbury. Saint Aidan was pleased to know they would pass through Salisbury for it had a fine cathedral which had recently been completed, and he thought how grand it would be to see the edifice that had been built to the glory of God.

It took several days for them to reach Salisbury, some of walking on their own two legs and some of it riding with farmers in their carts. Padraig was a little in awe of the saint for as they walked along, Aidan stopped and listened to the birds, talking to them as if he could understand their twitterings, and several times along the way, foxes crept out of their holes and trotted along beside them or squirrels scampered down trees and leaped onto his shoulder.

They had expected to sleep under the hedgerows, for it was almost midsummer and the nights were mild, but somehow, they always seemed to find a farmhouse that was willing to offer them shelter – and it was always somewhere that needed Aidan’s help. “The Lord provides what is needed,” Aidan said, smiling serenely when Padraig commented how strange it was that things always turned out so.

At length, they came to Salisbury and spent half a day wondering at the magnificence of the cathedral and kneeling in the nave for prayer and contemplation. Padraig thought there would be plenty of offers of hospitality for them both, but Aidan said no, they were aiming to reach Amesbury that evening for how could he deal with spirits that played tricks at night if they were tucked up here in Salisbury?

*

It was still light when they approached Amesbury despite the fact that the cathedral clock had struck seven before they left and they had been walking briskly for at least two hours. Padraig noticed that most of the houses had their shutters closed and many of them had bunches of St John’s-wort nailed to the doors.

“It’s to ward off evil,” Aidan explained. “Superstition and faith go hand in hand with a lot of these people,” and he strode towards the most imposing house of all and knocked loudly on the door.

Padraig saw the shutter being drawn back and a face peeping out, and then the door opened slightly and a voice whispered, “Are you the man who’s come to help us?”

When Aidan replied that he was, a hand beckoned him inside and Padraig went too.

“They’ll be here soon,” the man said. He was wild eyed and frightened and Padraig felt sorry for him.

“What makes you think it’s hobgoblins?” Aidan asked.

The man began to stammer out a litany of all the things that had happened in the village recently: milk turning sour in the cows, blighted crops, babies born with twisted limbs and a dog with two tails and three legs. Aidan listened patiently. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said as the list came to a halt; then striding towards the door, he disappeared into the half-light of Midsummer’s Eve.

*

The sky was a strange colour when he stepped outside. It was not yet night but it was not day either. Aidan looked about him, sensing the presence of faerie folk. “Show yourselves,” he called for he knew that Midsummer’s Eve is the night on which the veil between the world of spirits and the world of men shimmers and divides, and that the faerie folk then walk among us, and – if we are unlucky – we might stumble into their world too.

 Some of the shadows shifted and become small, pointy-eared creatures, having the shape of men but with a wildness about them. They rubbed their long-fingered hands together, grinning maliciously as they wondered what sport they would have with this foolish human.

“Have you been tormenting the people of this village?” Aidan asked sternly, and the goblins shook their heads and grinned all the more.

“Their cows give sour milk,” one whined, “but that is the fault of the stream from which they drink. A man killed his brother by drowning him in the stream, and now the water is bitter.”

“The crops are blighted,” added another, “but that is because the farmers refused to help an old woman in need and she cursed them.”

“And babies are born with twisted limbs,” said a third, “but the mothers have all eaten berries that cause birth defects. What need have we of mischief here when the villagers have created trouble for themselves?”

Aidan listened gravely and then nodded his head. “I shall put things right tomorrow,” he said, “but tell me, you who are kin to the faerie folk, why is it that you walk abroad tonight?”

“The Great Hunt!”   one of them cried out and the others took up the refrain.

“The Great Hunt!”

“Robin Goodfellow comes! And Merlin himself!”

The air swirled and it was night and not night, the world taking on an otherworldly gleam. The moon rose, pale and fat over the horizon, and a sound was heard like the tinkling of bells and the laughter of children and the murmur of the wind all at the same time; and a tall figure stepped out of the shadows of Faerie and into the village of Amesbury, and Aidan knew without being told that this was Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous sprite of legends.

“Ill met by moonlight, man of the Church,” said Puck (for that is one of Robin Goodfellow’s names). “What business have you being abroad on such a night as this when the Old Religion is strong?”

“Your pardon, Goodfellow,” said Aidan humbly. “I mean no disrespect to you or the Old Religion. I ask simply that the people of this village might not be harmed as you go about your revels tonight.”

“Then run with us,” Puck said, letting an impish grin spread across his face. “Join us tonight in the Great Hunt – and if you can keep pace with us, I will grant your request.”

And putting a horn to his lips, he blew a note so clear and strong and beautiful that it would have charmed the birds from the trees – had they been still awake – and so terrible that it would make the bravest man hide under his bed (as indeed many of them were doing at this point). The sound reverberated in the strange half-light and Robin leapt high in the air, shouting, “The hunt has begun! Tally ho!”

And as he did so, hundreds upon hundreds of faerie folk streamed through the gap between the worlds: elves and pixies, leprechauns and kobolds, dryads and naiads, trolls and hobgoblins. Thick and fast they came, caught up in the mad whirl – half-dance, half-chase. And Aidan picked up the skirts of his robe and ran with them, faster and faster, over hill and dale, through streams and rivers, forests and dells. The wind tugged at him as he ran and the night-time moths fluttered round his head, but on he went – never once losing sight of Puck and keeping pace with him and the others.

Finally, just as dawn began to break, Puck came to a halt and Aidan realised that they must have circled the world or at least England for they were standing on an area of grassland less than a league from Amesbury and two circles of standing stones looked down at them.

“Well run, man of the Church,” Puck said mockingly. “You have earned the right to converse with Merlin.”

And Aidan looked and saw a man standing by the stones. His beard was long and white and yet it was impossible to tell what age he was, for he was young and old at the same time and his eyes held the wisdom of maturity yet there was not a wrinkle upon his face.

“Salutations, Aidan,” Merlin said. And Aidan bowed his head and returned the greeting.

Then Merlin said, “You have kept pace with my people tonight and no man has done that in more than a hundred years. Thus will I reward you by granting you a boon. What is it that your heart desires?”

“Truly,” Aidan replied, “I am grateful for your offer, but I want nothing for myself, only that the people of Amesbury might be left alone tonight and all other nights.”

A golden glow began to creep across the sky as the sun rose, and Merlin noticed that a nimbus of light encircled Aidan’s head.

“It will be done,” Merlin said, “and now, man of the Church, you have leave to go. For we have gathered to perform the summer solstice rituals, but you do not follow the Old Religion and your presence would besmirch our rites.”

So saying, he tapped his yew staff three times upon the ground and Aidan found himself back in the village of Amesbury without the inconvenience of needing to use his two legs to get there, and though he would have been pleased to lie down and rest a while, he thought of the hobgoblins’ words the night before and knew that he must right the wrongs of which they had spoken.

First he went to the stream and tasted the water and it was indeed bitter, so he dipped his finger in it and stirred the water around until it sparkled in the sunlight and he knew it was pure once more. Then, he returned to the house he had visited when he and Padraig arrived and knocked on the door, and the anxious man opened it, still in his nightshirt and nightcap, blinking in surprise at Aiden.

“Call the villagers together,” Aidan said, and the man did as he was told.

Then Aidan looked at the men and women of Amesbury and he spoke of love and forgiveness and of how God blessed some people that they might share with others; and he noticed three men in farmer’s smocks who stood at the back of the crowd and looked at each other when he said this; and by the expression on their faces, he knew his words had reached their hearts and that they would not be so selfish again; and so he walked to the barley field and the rye field and the field of oats and then he walked through each field in turn, and as his feet passed, the crops ripened suddenly and there was not a sign of blight or mildew anywhere.

Finally, he asked one of the women where the berries grew that were craved during pregnancy, and she led him into the nearby wood and showed him bushes that bore a yellow-red fruit and he sighed for he recognised them as solanum pseudocapsicum, or Jerusalem cherries as they are better known, and he knew too that it is a species of nightshade and that the berries cause sickness; and so he placed his hands above the bushes and let daylight fill him and the villagers blinked in surprise for they had been sure that the berries were yellow-red and yet now they looked, they could see that these bushes produced blueberries.

By this time. Saint Aidan was beginning to feel tired, so as the sun continued to rise to its highest point, Aidan stretched out under an oak tree and promptly went to sleep.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 19

Today’s brief was to write about emancipation and was inspired by a comment my great-grandmother made when I was 13 and she askedme if I’d “started wearing corsets”. This got me thinking about how restrictive life was for young women in the early 1900s – my great-grandmother was born in 1893 and would have been wearing corsets from the age of 12 or 13. (She started work in the cotton mill at the age of 11, so she would have been seen as an adult rather than a child.) I’ve set my story in 1909 when suffragists and suffragettes were both campaigning for women’s rights, but kept the focus on a more domestic thread of the story.

The Emancipation of Violet

“And how’s your sister?” Mrs Wilkins asked, nibbling at the corner of her piece of bread and butter as she waited for a response.

Violet’s mother sighed. “She seems to have become very political these days. I think it started with Emily – you know what these young women are these days (Violet excepted) –“ She smiled at her daughter before continuing, “They’re both mixed up with those dreadful suffragettes. I daren’t tell Henry: he’d forbid me to see Alice ever again.”

“Suffragists, Mother,” Violet chimed in. “Not suffragettes. The suffragettes are the ones who use violence. Aunt Alice and Emily campaign peacefully for women’s rights.”

She had spoken out of turn and she knew it; nevertheless, she could not let her mother and Mrs Wilkins remain in error.

Mrs Wilkins regarded her coldly. “Violet seems as outspoken as your sister and niece,” she said at last, her tone chillier than the November afternoon outside.

Violet’s cheeks burned with shame. She lowered her eyes and regarded her teacup, waiting to see what her mother would say.

“It doesn’t matter what they call themselves,” her mother said crisply. “Do forgive Violet, Mrs Wilkins. She’s too young and impressionable to understand these things. As if women should be allowed the vote! Men run the country and we run our homes – and that’s the way God intended it, Violet.”

She knew the last words were a reproach. Her mother believed in a God who ordered the estate of rich and poor, male and female. She was so Victorian in her attitudes! Violet thought despairingly, forgetting that it was less than a year since she herself had begun reading exciting pamphlets that challenged the ideas she had been brought up with.

At eighteen, she was still three years off her majority, but her mother had already been making noises about finding a suitable husband for her. Since leaving Miss Minchin’s school two years earlier, she had asked her mother about secretarial courses, thinking it might be fun to seek gainful employment for a year or two before she married – Emily worked in a bookshop in London, not just greeting and serving customers but actually doing the accounts at the end of each day – but her mother had looked so horrified at the idea that Violet hadn’t asked again. From time to time, though, she wondered how other girls in her position managed not to die of boredom living lives that consisted solely of tea parties and tennis matches, sewing bees and piano recitals. Her mother spent time with her each week instructing her in the skills needed to be a perfect hostess and efficient household manager, but Violet wasn’t sure she wanted the life her mother lived. She would hate to spend the rest of her life with a man as uninteresting as her father.

She came back to the present, realising with a start that her mother had addressed her directly. “You will enjoy that, dear.”

“Yes, I’m sure I shall,” she replied absently. What would she enjoy?

“I don’t suppose you’ll be able to avoid seeing your sister?” Mrs Wilkins sounded as disapproving as she had earlier.

“Not really.” Her mother paused. “But if we meet at a Lyons tea room, the conversation can be controlled. Alice would never discuss anything vulgar in a public place.”

So they were going to London? Excitement bubbled within Violet, but she managed to maintain a composed expression. She would see Aunt Alice and maybe Cousin Emily too. Smiling inside, she reached for a slice of seed cake, her head already filled with daydreams and plans.

*

“Do hurry up, Violet,” her mother snapped. “Anyone would think you wanted to get wet.”

The rain had begun while they were at the dressmaker’s.  Her assistant had found them a cab and Violet had enjoyed the swaying of the vehicle as the horse trotted through the steadily increasing drizzle to the Corner House where they would take tea. It had set them down only yards from the entrance so that it should have been a simple matter to dodge the drops, but she stood transfixed for a moment, her eyes taking in everything she could see around her. London was so very different to Tunbridge Wells: it seemed a world full of exciting possibilities.

Heeding her mother’s words, she scurried into the Tea Rooms, her heart fluttering with anticipation.

Aunt Alice was already ensconced at a table. She sprang to her feet as they approached, ignoring their slightly damp costumes to enfold first Violet’s mother and then Violet herself in a warm embrace. “Sybil! And Violet! My, how you’ve grown, child!”

Sybil extricated herself awkwardly from the display of emotion. She was not a demonstrative woman. “Alice,” she said, injecting just enough chilliness into her voice to reproach her sister. Then, “Is Emily not joining us today?”

“She’s at work,” Alice said casually, gesturing to them both to sit down. “I told her to ask for the afternoon off, but she said Mr Herring couldn’t cope without her.” She lowered her voice to a confidential whisper. “It’s my belief they’re sweet on each other. He’s quite young – about twenty-six or twenty-seven – and he’s not married.”

“But you wouldn’t allow that!” Sybil sounded scandalised. “A man who owns a bookshop – why, it’s like letting her marry into trade!”

“Emily is twenty-two,” Alice replied calmly, “and she knows her own mind. If she thinks she’ll be happy with Mr Herring, I won’t stand in her way.”

Sybil removed her gloves fussily before muttering, “If Albert was still alive, he wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Albert had his faults,” Alice’s tone was sharp, “but he was a good husband and a good father. He would have wanted to see Emily happy – like I do.” She picked up the menu. “Why don’t we drop the matter and order tea?”

A Gladys was already hovering at their table, pencil poised over her notepad.

“Afternoon tea for three,” Alice told her. Attempting a smile at her sister, she said, “The cucumber sandwiches are excellent, and I’m sure Violet will adore the petits fours.”

“I don’t hold with this modern idea of letting girls choose their husbands,” Sybil said in a low tone. “You didn’t believe in nonsense like that either before you… before you and Emily got mixed up in that distasteful political business.”

“Times are changing, Sybil,” Alice said mildly. “This is 1909, not 1809. Young women today have all sorts of opportunities we didn’t.”

“Well, it’s not Christian,” Sybil said fiercely. “If God had wanted women to be as bold as you claim, then there’d be something in the Bible about it. We’re told to be submissive, Alice – or had you forgotten that?”

Alice rolled her eyes at her niece. Violet sat enthralled, trying to take in what she had heard. Emily engaged to a man who ran a bookshop! (Well, not exactly engaged, but still…) It all seemed so romantic.

*

Somehow, they made it through tea without any further disagreements, sticking to the safer topics of the weather and hemlines. When Alice realised that Violet and her mother were in London for a few days, to facilitate fittings, she promptly suggested a meeting between the two cousins. “Emily would love to see you, Violet,” she said, smiling at the girl. “She doesn’t work on Saturdays, so I’m sure she’d be happy to meet up in one of the parks for a ladylike stroll.”

Violet wondered if these last words were meant to appease her mother.

Before Sybil could express disapproval, Alice went on, “And you and I could chaperone them.”

Violet’s heart flooded with despair. How could she and Emily talk about anything properly with her mother eavesdropping?

“I’m sure,” Aunt Alice continued, “that it would be perfectly respectable to let them walk ahead of us and exchange girlish secrets while we catch up on our discussion of mutual acquaintances. And there may be a concert in the bandstand – that would be a pleasant way for all of us to while away an hour or so.”

“Please, Mother.” Violet tried not to sound too eager. “I haven’t seen Emily for over a year and we used to be close when we were younger.”

Trying not to appear ungracious, Sybil acquiesced, and so it was decided.

*

It was an unseasonably mild day for November as Emily and Violet strolled through the park, arm-in-arm, chatting quietly with their mothers just a few paces behind.

“Did I tell you I’ve learned to ride a bicycle?” Emily murmured.

Violet’s eyes widened with surprise. It sounded very daring.

“I haven’t told Mother,” Emily continued. “She’s quite forward in her thinking, but I was worried she’d think I was fast if I admitted to something like that. Besides, lots of people think women shouldn’t ride bicycles because it might interfere with their reproductive system.”

Violet blushed at the shocking comment. Had Emily no shame?

“Doesn’t your corset get in the way?” she asked a moment later. The stiff, whale-boned instrument of torture had been the bane of Violet’s life ever since the age of thirteen when she had first been forced to wear it.

“I’ve stopped wearing corsets,” Emily said airily, looking around to make sure her mother wasn’t listening. “There’s so much more freedom in wearing just a chemise and drawers. And when I ride my bicycle, I wear bloomers.”

Forcing herself to keep on walking, Violet tried to process the information. No corsets! How wonderful that would be!

“Is that what the suffragists do?” she asked. “Not wear corsets, I mean.” It was one of the most daring things she’d ever heard.

Emily laughed. “We’re more about campaigning for women’s rights in general – but I suppose the right not to wear corsets could be seen as part of it. You should try it yourself, Vi – it’s so liberating.”

There was no chance of it happening within the next few days, Violet thought gloomily. She and her mother were sharing a hotel room at the Regency, and it would be impossible to leave off her corset in the morning without her mother noticing. It was bad enough that she was scolded for not wearing it to bed – how her mother’s generation put up with that she did not know; but she could imagine the fireworks that would ensue should she be caught without it in the daytime as well.

“I’d give anything to be as free as you,” she said, meaning every word, “but I’m only 18, Em. Mother watches me like a hawk all the time.”

“You poor thing!” Emily sounded sympathetic. “There must be a way to emancipate you from all that whalebone. I wonder…”

A moment later, she stopped walking, turning around to face her mother and aunt. “I’ve just noticed something unmentionable on my dress,” she said apologetically. “A pigeon, I expect. Violet and I will have to pop into the Ladies’ Conveniences so she can help me sponge it off.”

Sybil’s face looked suitably horrified at her niece’s words and Violet knew that she would not examine Emily’s dress for proof.

*

The ladies’ lavatory was a tastefully designed building of late Victorian architecture – far too pretty when one considered its purpose – complete with a  buxom attendant who sat in a chair by the entrance, accepting people’s pennies in a pretty china bowl. Alas, the cubicle was not big enough for two.

“I could unbutton your dress out here and then you should be able to take it off on your own once you’re in the cubicle,” Emily said doubtfully, “but I don’t know what to do about your laces.”

“My corset fastens at the front,” Violet told her, scarcely daring to hope that they might pull this off after all. “I’ll need help rebuttoning my dress afterwards, but I should be able to get rid of the horrid thing on my own.”

No one else was in sight, apart from the attendant – and she was engrossed in a book from the lending library – so Emily helped with the buttons and then Violet slipped inside the empty cubicle. Wriggling out of her dress, she hung it carefully on the hook on the back of the door while she unlaced her corset and took it off. Emily was right: it felt wonderfully liberating to remove the restrictive article.

Placing it carefully on the floor, she stepped back into her dress, pulling it into place and doing up as many of the buttons as she could manage herself before opening the door and stepping out. Turning her back to her cousin, she allowed Emily to complete the task, then swivelled to face her.

“Well?” Emily demanded.

Violet grinned happily. “It feels wonderful,” she said.

No doubt there would be recriminations later when her mother discovered what she had done; but for now, Violet felt free.

“It’s your first step towards emancipation,” Emily said, laughing. “Come on, let’s go outside.”

And leaving the corset on the floor, they rejoined their mothers.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 18

Today’s brief was another short one – just one paragraph focusing on a moment in time. Since I was about to take my daily Covid test, I thought about waiting for the result and how it’s a similar situation to waiting for the result of a pregnancy test. The pregnancy test is a shorter wait, but both involve looking to see whether there are two lines or only one. I tried to inject an amount of ambiguity into my paragraph so that it’s unclear until the final sentences what kind of test this is. It’s not a great piece of writing, even if I call it micro fiction, but tomorrow’s brief is a proper story.

Waiting

Waiting for what seems an eternity, wondering if I will see the two lines. A positive result will have consequences – but will the consequences be positive? Waiting for bodily fluid to react with the testing device; minutes have never dragged so slowly. Seconds swell into lifetimes; time is out of joint. Waiting. What lies ahead? Will my future be bright or clouded? Will I be trapped or free? A moment’s madness, getting too close to a stranger – will the consequences ripple through my life and his? Waiting. Slowly letting my eyes move to the piece of white plastic, knowing the result I long for, not daring to hope… Negative. Covid free. From now on, I’ll be more careful.

Like The Prose 221 – Day 17

Today’s brief involved writing a very short story in 49 words or fewer. I’ve experimented with styles to give you a trio of microfiction stories.

A Trio of Genres

1. Fairy Story

“Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” said Mummy Bear.

Daddy Bear was silent.

The photographs from the private investigator showed Daddy Bear romping with a girl with long golden hair.

“She got lost in the forest,” he said feebly.

There was no more porridge for Daddy Bear.

2. Dystopian

Jenna could not believe her eyes. This was something far too terrible to contemplate. The world had gone totally mad. How could something like this even exist? It was beyond her worst nightmares. Finally, she screamed at the top of her voice, “Pineapple does not belong on pizza!”

3. Romance

Jack loved Holly. Every evening, she would snuggle next to him and he would gaze into her big, brown eyes and stroke her long, silky hair, thinking how lucky he was to have her.

“You give that dog far more attention than you give me,” said his wife.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 16

Today’s brief featured the rapper Tupac Shakur, widely considered to be one of the most influential rappers of all time, who was shot four times by an unknown assailant in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada and died six days later. Since I know nothing about Tupac apart from the brief details above (purloined from Wikipedia), I decided to to write about ‘two packs’ of cards instead of Tupac the rapper. My finished piece is a modern fable and features the chat show host Larry Loveheart who has appeared in three other stories I’ve written. Those of you with a working knowledge of the French language will probably pick up on the significance of the professors’ names…

Two Packs of Cards

Two packs of cards lay on the table. They looked identical – almost.

“This one,” said Professor Roublard, pointing to the first deck, “will ensure success at the gaming table. With this pack of cards, you will never lose – but you’ll realise the truth of the old adage, ‘Lucky in cards, unlucky in love.’ Whereas this one,” and now he pointed at the first pack’s twin, the image of the other save for the elastic band around its middle, “ will not bring you luck in any card game – but you will find true love.”

Henry yawned. At twenty-one, love didn’t seem terribly important; whereas a pack of cards that never lost… His eyes glazed over as he made rapid calculations. Within months, he could have enough to buy a car = a house even.

“I’ll take this one,” he said, reaching for the first pack.

Professor Roublard grinned and jotted something in his leather-bound notebook.

“We’ll see you in another six months, then,” he said as he showed him the door.

*

Meanwhile, in another room, two packs of cards lay on the table. They looked identical – almost.

“This one,” said Professor Reynard, pointing to the first deck, “will ensure success at the gaming table. With this pack of cards, you will never lose – but you’ll realise the truth of the old adage, ‘Lucky in cards, unlucky in love.’ Whereas this one,” and now he pointed at the first pack’s twin, the image of the other save for the elastic band around its middle, “ will not bring you luck in any card game – but you will find true love.”

Edward thought for a moment. He was never particularly lucky anyway – he’d never won even so much as ten pounds with a lottery ticket, hadn’t managed to get promoted at work and had certainly never been successful with women. He wasn’t convinced a pack of cards would make much difference really, but he chose the second one anyway. If nothing else, he could learn how to perform a few card tricks.

“We’ll see you in another six months, then,” Professor Reynard said as he showed Ed the door.

*

Henry had always been a fairly successful poker player, but with these new cards, he was unbeatable. Just knowing he couldn’t lose increased his confidence by several hundred percent so that even when he had what anyone else would have considered a losing hand, he still put down huge stakes to win – and he always did win: his opponents folded, thinking that his cards must be incredible for him to hazard so much money.

Within weeks, he had amassed money beyond his wildest dreams – and so much for that ‘unlucky in love’ warning: women flocked to him. It was unusual for him to spend an evening without six or seven of them at his side, each one making it very obvious that she’d be happy to get to know him better. He kept them at arm’s length, though – for the time being anyway. At the back of his mind was the idea that there would be plenty of time for that sort of thing once he’d made enough to give up work and live in luxury on the proceeds of his gambling.

At least, that was what he thought until he encountered Melissa. Tall, leggy and with jet black hair that fell to her waist, Melissa wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He let her pursue him for ten days before he finally succumbed, taking her upstairs to the penthouse suite of the hotel that was now his home. He’d finally handed in his notice, confident that with the hundreds of thousands he’d accumulated so far, it would only be a matter of time until he owned millions. The bigger the stake, the larger the winnings. He’d seen Melissa’s eyes widen as he’d flashed his wallet about and he couldn’t resist flaunting his wealth by ordering champagne and caviar for their suite before he treated her to what he was sure would be a night she’d never forget.

When he woke next morning, she was gone – along with his wallet and all his credit cards and money. She’d even taken his lucky deck. He punched the wall in frustration. His life was ruined – and it was all the fault of those cards.

*

Knowing that he was no card player, Ed politely declined whenever his friends asked him if he wanted to play poker. Instead, he trawled the internet for easy to learn card tricks, practising the moves until he had around a fifty per cent success rate. Most evenings would see him sitting in the pub, shuffling his deck until he’d drawn an audience, then asking for volunteers to take part in a card trick. When the tricks worked, he drew gasps of amazement from his audience; when they didn’t, he just laughed it off and the others laughed with him – and often they would buy him drinks too.

After a while, he noticed that a girl with brown hair always seemed to be in the pub when he did his tricks – no matter which pub it was. He got chatting to her one night and found her name was Charlotte but her friends called her Lottie. He liked the way her brown hair tumbled to her shoulders in riotous curls and the way her eyes crinkled when she laughed. She laughed a lot, and he laughed too when he was with her. Eventually, they started spending all evening with each other, meeting at the pub for a meal before Ed started his nightly ritual of entertaining the crowd. They flowed into a relationship as naturally as a stream drifting into a river, and Ed thought he had never been happier.

*

“So,” Professor Roublard said, “tell me about your experience with the ‘lucky deck’, Henry.”

Henry scowled. “The cards were lucky all right – when I had them. I made a fortune – and then some-“ he used an expletive Ed had never even heard before – “stole the lot. She cleaned out my bank account and I’ve got nothing – I’d just chucked my job too.”

“And you, Ed?” Professor Reynard asked.

Ed cleared his throat. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “I didn’t use my cards to gamble. I learned card tricks and now I spend most nights entertaining people in the local pubs.”

Henry sniffed contemptuously. “That can’t pay much.”

“I don’t get paid for it,” Ed said in surprise. “I do it for fun – because it’s nice to make people smile. And,” a grin broke out on his face, “that’s how I met Lottie. We’ve just got engaged.”

The two professors exchanged glances.

“So the experiment was a success for Ed but not for Henry,” Larry Loveheart broke in. The TV host turned to the cameras. “We’ve shown you footage of both our contestants choosing their pack of cards, and then we’ve shown you how their lives panned out afterwards.”

Ed and Henry looked shocked. No one had told them they were being filmed.

“Professors Roublard and Reynard, you devised this experiment between you. Would you like to tell your guinea pigs – and the studio audience – what you were trying to achieve?”

“Well, Larry,” Professor Roublard began, “the first thing you need to know is that both packs of cards were identical – apart from the elastic band of course.”

The audience tittered.

“We told Henry that one pack would make him a successful gambler and he gambled that we were telling the truth.”

By now, Henry’s face was thunder.

“But he was successful,” Larry persisted. “He didn’t lose a single poker game.”

“But only because he knew he couldn’t lose,” Professor Reynard broke in. “Under normal circumstances, he would have decided not to play on with the hand he had if he had low cards, but because he knew he was going to win, he bet ridiculously high amounts on cards anyone else would have thrown away. And it worked: it made his opponents believe that his cards were amazing.”

“So you’re saying his confidence psyched them out?” Larry leaned forward, his interest obvious.

Professor Roublard nodded. “Unwittingly, of course. He thought he couldn’t lose and so because he thought it, it became his reality. And that, in turn, became others’ reality too. It’s incredible how much power there is in self-confidence.”

“But it all went wrong, didn’t it?” Larry pursued. Melissa’s face flashed back on the screen; Henry’s eyes clouded. “She didn’t break your heart, did she, Henry? She just broke your run of good luck.”

Henry opened his mouth, but before he could comment, the camera cut to Ed, sitting there with a shocked expression on his face.

“And you chose the other pack of cards, Ed,” Larry continued. “Tell me, why didn’t you choose to be lucky in cards like Henry?”

“I… well, I’ve never been lucky,” Ed answered truthfully, “and to be honest, money’s not that important.” (Light applause rippled around the audience.) “I took the pack of cards because I thought it would be fun to learn card tricks – they don’t always work, but when they don’t, we just have a laugh about it. I’ve made so many friends since I started doing this.”

“So would it be right to say that your pack of cards gave you confidence too?”

The crowd leaned forward like Larry, waiting for Ed’s response.

“Yes, I suppose it did,” Ed said reflectively, “but not because I thought I couldn’t get the tricks wrong – I think it was from realising that people are pretty nice really, and they appreciate you having a go even if it doesn’t work out. When the tricks work, people are impressed; but when they don’t, we see the funny side.”

“And what are your thought on this, Professors?” Larry asked. “Did you achieve what you hoped for with Ed?”

“Ed’s shown us the power of positive thinking,” Professor Reynard began. “Not in the same way as Henry, obviously – he was arrogant even before he picked his pack of ‘unbeatable’ cards. No, Ed’s talent – if you want to call it that – is to respond positively no matter what happens. Like calls to like and it’s obvious that his friendly personality has attracted a mate with similar values.”

“So this was a study in personality, then – not a study in luck?” Larry didn’t really need to ask his question, but it was what the cue card told him to do.

“Absolutely,” Professor Roublard nodded. “Each of our contestants has reaped what they sowed. Henry’s greed resulted in disaster and Ed’s affability gained him friends and a love interest.”

As the music softly started in the background, Larry turned once more to the audience. “You’ve heard from the professors and from our two contestants – which pack would you choose?”

The closing credits rolled and then the camera faded to black.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 15

In previous Like The Prose competitions, I’ve written stories without ‘e’ and without ‘t’. You need to solve the mystery of this one too.

Where is it?

It is not here. It is gone. It went some weeks previously. When I woke up, I couldn’t find it. Where could it be? No one knew.

I needed to find out where it might be. I questioned everyone. No one knew. I sought help from detectives: people who were used to looking for things, finding clues, solving mysteries. Still no solution.

Did someone remove it while I slept? My locks were secure – no sign of someone entering the house – so where could it be? How did it suddenly stop being in my home, in the spot where I kept it? It seemed mysterious – frightening, even.

The mystery deepened. Someone must’ve seen it: it couldn’t just become invisible. Things don’t shimmer out of view – there one minute, gone the next. But I looked everywhere with no success. No one could help me; no one offered useful words or helpful suggestions. Would I ever find it?

For weeks, months even, I continued my quest. Stories often show people hunting weird objects or describe items which get stolen, needing to be recovered, but how often do people seek things like this? How would I survive without the essence of my soul? Which foul beings decided to do this to me? This must be some plot to ruin my life.

In time, I would cope without this precious thing, but for now… Minutes ticked into hours; hours lengthened into longer periods. I counted every second of being without it, but it didn’t help. I just felt numb, lifeless, not believing I wouldn’t ever see it in my future. How would I survive? How could I survive? But I did.

I’m older now, coming closer to the end. Wrinkles line my cheeks; my locks look grey. I’ve lived most of my life without it, but I still feel the void where it used to be. Do people deprived of limbs feel like this – like something is  missing? Would losing my leg be better? People cope when they need to – they fit their lives round the things they possess, not their losses. Do substitutes exist – things which perform like this missing item?

Philosophy brings comfort, giving me focus. Others suffer this loss too: I’m not the only one. They’re inspired to write poems, sketch pictures, compose music. Loss is the stepping stone to one’s improved lifestyle, the holes being filled with something better. If I found it now, would I still desire it? It’s difficult to be sure.

It’s still missing – but I’ve begun to notice the loss of it less. I must be growing up.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 14

Today marks the final prompt relating to the Five Stages of Grief and today’s theme is Acceptance. Since yesterday’s story dealt with depression post-bereavement, I decided to write a much lighter story today. Set in a northern town in the Victorian era, it centres around Maggie and her pie stall (street food was very popular in Victorian times, and for poorer people, it was often the only way they got to eat). The theme of acceptance is playing softly in the background of what is mostly a duet between Maggie and a rival pie seller from London. At some point, I may develop this into a longer piece, but for now, enjoy ‘Peas and Queues’.

Peas and Queues

“Maggie!” Her sister’s voice was shrill, but that was nothing new. Effie was always shrieking about something or other. Ignoring the cry, Maggie continued rolling out the pastry, mindful that she had to get another batch of pies in the oven if they were to have enough for the regular customers.

“Maggie!” The voice sounded again. “They’re selling pies! And peas!”

No! Maggie drew in her breath sharply. She and Effie sold pies on Market Street – everyone knew that. Leaving the pastry sitting on the kitchen table, she hurried outside to take a look for herself.

*

Effie was waiting for her, the tattered shawl about her shoulders not offering much protection from the cold.

“Where is he?” Maggie said grimly, wishing now that she’d taken the time to inspect this new lad from London as soon as he’d arrived earlier that morning.

Effie pointed, her eyes wide with consternation. Maggie swept over to him with the ferocity of a wildcat. “Is this your stall?” she demanded.

The young man she addressed straightened up from the crate he’d been unpacking – were those china cups? – and gazed directly at her. His eyes were the bluest she’d ever seen.

“Yes, Miss, it is. What can I get you? A steak pie? A cup of hot green peas?”

Hot green peas? Whoever had heard of such a thing?

“You can’t sell pie and peas,” she said firmly. “Not on this street anyhow. We sell pies – Effie and me. You’ll have to sell something else.”

The way he was looking at her right now made her feel as if she was a pie – one he was interested in biting into. Trying to ignore the strange feeling in her stomach, she held his gaze and carried on.

“It’s a family business, see? ‘Arkwright’s Pies’ – that’s what we’re called. And if you sell pies too, then people’ll get confused, won’t they? ‘Cos you’re not an Arkwright. And they’ll wonder why the pies you sell taste different-“ Lord, she hoped they tasted different – it would be galling to think that a Londoner could make a butter pie as good as her ma’s handed-down recipe – “And what’s all this cup of green peas nonsense anyway? Everyone knows you have black peas with your pie.”

There, she’d said it. Just let him try to wriggle out of that one!

“Black peas?” He looked intrigued. She should have held her tongue.

“So you’ll have to sell something else,” she repeated, trying to act as if she was unaware of the dimple in his cheek that danced when he smiled and the way his hair flopped over his eyes.

“And why can’t we both sell pies?” he wanted to know. “Or are you scared I’ll steal all your customers?”

Scared? She was never scared of anything!

“You’re a bit young to be running a stall, aren’t you?” he said next. “How old are you? Thirteen? Fourteen?”

She bristled at the insult. “Sixteen. I left school four years ago.”

“Perhaps I should speak to your parents. You did say it’s a family-run business.”

“It is,” she said stiffly. “Effie and me – we run it. That’s Effie over there. She’s eleven.”

“Just the two of you?” He sounded startled.

“We’re the only ones left.” Why was she telling this to a stranger? “Our ma got this cough and she didn’t get better. We didn’t have money for a doctor.”

“And your father?” His voice was surprisingly gentle.

“Drink,” she said simply. He’d always liked a beer or two when he could afford it, but after Ma had passed away, Pa had taken to spending every evening in the Rose and Crown until, one night, he lost his footing in the dark and slipped into the canal. By the time he was found next morning, he’d been dead for hours.

“And how long have you been selling pies on your own?”

“Eight months,” she said. They’d been lucky: Pa’s sister had taken them in and she let Maggie use the tiny kitchen every morning to do the baking. Twenty pies a day, except Sunday, at a penny a pie – and a ha’porth for a screwed paper of black peas – made enough to pay for the flour and butter and potatoes and onions, and anything that was left went to Aunt Jenkins to help pay for their keep.

“Why don’t we come to an agreement?” he said now. “I can’t stop selling pies – I don’t know how to make anything else; but I can make different pies to yours – stop people getting confused.”

“They’re not likely to get confused if you’re giving them steak,” she muttered. Steak! Was the man made of money?

“You don’t make steak pies yourself, then?”

She shook her head. “Butter pies.” He looked quizzical, so she elaborated. “It’s potato and onion in a pie. It tastes dead good with red cabbage.”

“And black peas,” he finished, grinning at her. “I still can’t get my head around those.”

“Maggie!” Effie was shrieking again. “Your pies are burning!”

Lawks! She’d forgotten all about the first batch, and she hadn’t even put the second lot in the oven. Without stopping to say goodbye, she turned and fled.

*

Some forty minutes later, the pies were in her basket ready to take to the stall while the black peas simmered on the stove top. She’d show that fancy London gentleman, that Mister… What was his name? She couldn’t remember him telling her. She’d show him anyway.

Pulling the back door shut behind her, she hurried to the stall. A queue was already forming. Good. Then her heart sank as she realised they were queuing for the adjacent stall – the one that offered steak pies and fancy green peas done the London way.

*

Once more, she stormed her way towards the ridiculously handsome – what was that word people used in novels? Cad, that was it – the ridiculously handsome cad who had stolen her customers. Eyes blazing fury, she stared him down.

“Maggie!” he said cheerfully. “I was just telling your customers you were on your way. They say your butter pie’s even better than the one your mother used to make.”

Before she knew what was happening, he had helped her dole out thirteen pies to eager patrons.

“I think some of them said something about black peas,” he murmured. “Have you got some? I didn’t want to cause a riot by giving them my green ones instead.”

He was laughing at her! Nevertheless, she returned to her aunt’s and rescued the dark, gelatinous mass from the stove. She wasn’t used to people offering her help – and she wasn’t used to accepting it either. But there was something about this annoying man  – this handsome, annoying man – that made his help hard to refuse.

*

They were married within a year.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 13

Today’s prompt was to write about depression. I started with the idea of being trapped in a dark cave – a great metaphor, I thought – and then realised several other people had thought of the same idea. Winston Churchill’s “black dog” also sprang to mind – and then I saw that someone else had got there before me with that one too. In the end, I went for an exploration of grief-induced depression, focusing on the protagonist’s deadness inside after the loss of her husband. I’ve entitled it ‘Gone To Earth’ to echo her husband’s funeral but also because the phrase signifies an animal that is hiding away from the rest of the world.

Gone To Earth

November mist was creeping in, shading the sky in a muted grey that was deceptively gentle. She smiled as she lit the candles, thinking the fog romantic. When he arrived home, the two of them would be shrouded in secrecy, their tiny cottage hidden from the rest of the world. That was how they liked it.

When eight o’clock came and he still hadn’t returned, she began to grow anxious; by 9pm, she felt sick with worry; and when the knock sounded at her door, a little after ten, she had already prepared for the worst.

Strange how you think you’re prepared until a kindly policewoman sits you down and tells you that you’re now a widow.

*

From that moment onwards, she moves through life as if in a dream – keening like a wild animal, unable to understand why, aware only of the intense pain that presses in around her, suffocating her until she cannot breathe. Watching the wooden box being lowered into the ground is almost more than she can bear: each clod of earth that descends onto the coffin is echoed in the lumps of raw grief that gradually smother her heart. When people try to comfort her, telling her that the body placed in the earth was only a shell, she nods wearily, knowing that she too is now only a shell: her life ended at the same time as his.

*

In the winter months that follow, she wraps grief around herself like a thick, impenetrable blanket, unable to sleep or eat or work or cry. Somehow, she manages to exist from one empty day to another, but her skin is pale, her eyes smudged with dark circles and her figure gaunt.

Looking out of her window at the vast, barren moors that surround her empty house, she feels at one with the desolate landscape. Brontë country – that’s what they used to call it. They joked about him being Heathcliff and her being Cathy; now she’s reminded of Heathcliff’s devastation after Cathy dies, of his determination to climb inside her grave and drag her out. Perhaps she should have had him cremated and then she could have scattered his ashes in the countryside he loved? Her indecision catches on the wind as it howls around the cottage.

*

She resists her family’s invitations for Christmas, preferring to shiver in draughty solitude rather than expose herself to the painful warmth of others’ sympathy. Her cottage is not as cold as her heart; the icy temperature inside her is reminiscent of the Snow Queen in the children’s story.

*

It’s only later, when Spring is still shyly waiting to make an appearance, that she notices the hint of green poking through the cold, hard earth in the garden. He planted snowdrops last October, not long before… Anger pricks at her eyes; hot, salty grief leaks down her face. He’ll never see the flowers bloom; but the shoots promise new life – and so do her tears.

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 12

Today’s prompt continues the five day theme inspired by the Five Stages of Grief. I was asked to write a story about bargaining and it got me thinking about all the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ stories that are out there, such as ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W.W. Jacobs or all the stories about genies granting wishes. But what about all the wishes we make every day when we say or think, ‘If X happens, then…’? Are we unwittingly entering into a cosmic bargain with the universe? (I don’t think we are, but it’s an interesting concept for a story.)

Follow our protagonist, Jonty, as he enters the Bargain Basement and realises the importance of choosing our words carefully.

Bargain Basement

Jonty hadn’t noticed that the lights were still on in the shop or he might have headed there straight away to wait for the rain to stop instead of standing at the uncovered bus stop, getting wetter and wetter with the unexpected deluge. He’d just thought to himself, “If the bus doesn’t come soon, I’ll find a shop to shelter in,” when he looked up and caught sight of a solitary lighted building amidst the row of closed and deserted shops. The sign above the awning proclaimed ‘Bargain Basement’ – no doubt that meant it would be full of tacky plastic gifts that were made in Taiwan; but beggars can’t be choosers and so he splashed his way through the puddles and then scuttled into the welcoming warmth of the shop.

*

It wasn’t a tacky gift shop at all.  If anything, it resembled a bookshop with carefully delineated sections, each labelled with a specific area of interest. ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Health and Fitness’, ‘Spur of the Moment’ and ‘Relationships’ all sounded reasonably interesting, but there were no books on the shelves that ran floor to ceiling around the whole establishment: instead, fat ledgers were arranged in date order, starting with today’s date and then stretching back as far as… Jonty blinked his eyes in disbelief. Surely these records, whatever they were, didn’t really go back as far as 6000 years BC? For a start, anything as old as that would be in a museum, and what were these ledgers for anyway?

He was just reaching a hand towards a rather dusty volume on a shelf that promised ‘Universal Truths’ when a voice behind him remarked, “Please don’t touch the records, Sir.”

Records? Jonty turned to see a wizened, white haired man in an Edwardian frockcoat. He was smiling as he said the words but there was something… sinister about that smile.

“Your paperwork for the current bargain is in the Weather section, Sir.”

Paperwork? Current bargain? A puzzled Jonty let himself be led towards the back of the shop. The man – what was he? A shop assistant? The proprietor? – darted for a volume bearing the current date and pulled it out, carrying it back to the shop counter with a flourish.

“If you wouldn’t mind signing here, Sir.”

He produced a pen – one of those novelty ones that looked like a quill – and then a small bottle of ink.

“Tonight’s transaction is here, Sir.”

Jonty stared at the page in front of him. If the bus doesn’t come soon, I’ll find a shop to shelter in. How was that a transaction?

“I don’t understand…” he began.

“These are your words, Sir? You did say this just before entering the repository?”

Framing the statements as questions didn’t help him to know what was going on.

“I said those things,” he began, “but I wasn’t making a bargain with anyone.”

The man looked at him pityingly. “Bargains are watertight, Sir. Once they have taken effect, the proposing party cannot plead ignorance of any possible consequences – especially when said consequences have been decided by the proposing party.”

Consequences?

“Did you or did you not suddenly find a shop that was still open when the bus didn’t come?” the man asked sharply.

“Well, yes, but… How’s that a bargain? I mean, the shop was already here and open…” Jonty’s voice tailed off. Now he came to think of it, there hadn’t been any lights on in any of the shops, including this one. And he was pretty sure that the shop itself had been different before he said those words – it had been a Gregg’s, not a ‘Bargain Basement’.

“The bus didn’t come, so we provided a shop you could shelter in.” The man sounded business-like. “This is a simple transaction, Sir. It’s not as if you’ve signed away your soul – unlike some of our customers.” He paused meaningfully.

“But I didn’t know I was making a bargain with anyone,” Jonty repeated.

The man tapped long, tapered fingers on the counter. “Your signature, Sir.” He proffered the quill to Jonty.

As if in a dream, Jonty dipped the quill in the ink bottle and signed his name. “Do you get most of your customers this way?” he asked sardonically.

The man looked at him with pity. “Bargaining is built into the human psyche, Sir. And while the majority of them are as trivial as the one you’ve just purchased, some of them have more permanent consequences.”

“Such as?”

The man shook his head. “All transactions are confidential, Sir.”

“Well, just let me look at mine then,” Jonty argued, feeling aggrieved that this everyday conspiracy was being practised without people’s knowledge.

The man hesitated.

“I won’t tell anyone if you let me look,” Jonty continued, then stopped short as he realised he’d used the word ‘if’. Had he just made another bargain unintentionally?

The man’s eyes gleamed. “Do I understand, Sir, that you’re saying you’ll go away and forget everything you’ve seen if I let you look at some of the ledgers now?”

“Yes,” Jonty said impatiently.

“Then if you would just add another signature…”

The man reached under the counter, producing a ledger much larger than any of the ones on the shelves.

“We don’t get much call for this,” he murmured. “Most people make unwitting bargains. Still, you’re in good company – Johann Faustus certainly knew what he was entering into when he made his pact. … If you’ll just sign here…”

Once more, Jonty dipped the quill in the ink and added his signature. The man snapped the ledger shut and replaced it under the counter.

“Where would you like to start, Sir? The new contract allows access to all areas, regardless of whether you’ve made a bargain in that particular field yourself.”

“I…” Jonty paused to gather his thoughts, his eyes scanning the various sections of the shop. “What about ‘Music’?” he hazarded.

“An excellent choice, Sir.”

His companion led the way. Was that the tip of a forked tail peeping out from beneath his frockcoat? Surely not.

“Was there anything in particular you wanted to look at, Sir?”

“Rock music,” Jonty said. Or should that have been ‘Heavy Metal’? All sorts of bands were rumoured to have sold their souls to Satan in return for their music being successful.

“And the year? Or the decade?”

“1980s.” Perhaps now he would be able to solve the mystery surrounding Bon Jovi’s popularity. He reached for a volume marked 1984: that was the year they’d released their first album.

Flicking through the pages, his eye was caught by another name he knew. Rick Allen – wasn’t he the one-armed drummer in Def Leppard? What bargain had he made? Yes, there it was: December 31st, 1984 – “I’d give my right arm if I could be a better drummer.” The shock hit Jonty like an express train – or possibly like the car that had hit Allen’s on the night he made his unwitting bargain. One of the teachers at school had told them the story years ago. The 21-year-old drummer had been involved in a car accident on the A57, just outside Sheffield, his home town, and he hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. (That part had been emphasised by the teacher as a warning to all of them not to do anything so stupid.)  He’d been thrown from car, leaving his right arm inside the vehicle, and although the limb had been packed in ice and reattached in hospital, it had to be amputated soon afterwards due to infection.

“How could you do that to him?” Jonty whispered in horror.

The man shrugged. “The client drew up the agreement; we just honoured it.” Noting Jonty’s disbelief, he continued, “Would that young man have become as famous as he did with two arms?”

Jonty paused. Allen’s story was inspirational. (That was another reason they’d learned about him in school.) He’d been determined to continue his role as the band’s drummer and had realised he could use his legs to do some of the drumming work previously done with his arms. He was back on stage with the band by August 1986.

“You might want to check out the ‘Classical’ sub-section too,” the man told him, searching the shelves and withdrawing a volume entitled ‘1800’.

Thumbing the pages, Jonty stopped at the name ‘Beethoven’. “I’d willingly give up my ability to hear if I could write a few decent symphonies.”

“His First Symphony was published that year,” the man remarked, peering over Jonty’s shoulder. “His hearing began to deteriorate straight away, but it became progressively worse with each successful composition. Still, it didn’t prevent him from writing the glorious Ninth.”

Jonty closed the book with trembling fingers. People needed to be aware of what they were letting themselves in for when they made such off-the cuff remarks.

“But they’ve done very well out of it,” the man said as if reading his mind. Perhaps he was. “Not all of our customers achieve fame on that level, but there are always adequate compensations to balance the losses. Take ‘Housing’ for example…” He gestured in the direction of the opposite wall. “We had a young man, similar age to you, whose wife wasn’t happy with the properties available within their price range. Eventually her husband snapped at her and told her if she wanted to live somewhere fancy like that, it would cost them an arm and a leg. Luckily, they’d taken out a good travel insurance policy before jetting off to Mexico on honeymoon, and the lump sum for loss of limb – I think she lost the arm and he lost the leg – was more than enough to cover the shortfall between the type of house she wanted and the ones they could actually afford. I think they received £20,000 each…” His voice tailed off. “Are you feeling well, Sir? You look a little queasy.”

Jonty was desperately trying to remember all the things he’d said without considering the implications.

“Perhaps this will refresh your memory.” It really was uncanny how the fellow seemed to know what was going through his mind.

Jonty stared at the volume marked ‘Spur of the Moment’. Leafing through, he spotted page upon page of names he didn’t recognise, each one containing apparently innocent statements:

“If I ever get rid of this hangover, I’ll never drink red wine again.”

“If I don’t have a starter, I can have a dessert.”

“If I hit ‘snooze’ on the alarm, I can stay in bed for ten more minutes.”

“You only ever call me ‘Darling’ if you want something.”

“If you’re naughty, Father Christmas won’t leave you any presents.”

“If you don’t eat your broccoli, you won’t get any cake.”

“But these aren’t proper bargains,” he protested. “I mean, people don’t mean those things when they say them.”

The man coughed slightly, jerking his head in the direction of the notice that was chalked on a board by the counter. ‘We do not give refunds.’

“If you enter into a bargain with the universe,” he said, “or with Heaven and Hell if you prefer to think of it in those terms, you get what you asked for and pay for it later.”

His eyes glittered like coals and Jonty felt suddenly afraid. He needed to get out of this shop straight away and expose this conspiracy to the rest of the world.

“The rain’s stopped,” he murmured. “Thanks for letting me shelter here.”

“Goodbye, Sir,” the man called after him as Jonty opened the door. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you – as always.”

*

Jonty stepped out of the shop and headed for the bus stop. He couldn’t for the life of him recall what he’d been doing for the last half hour or so. His mind had gone totally blank.

“If I could just remember,” he muttered. “I’d give anything to know where those missing thirty minutes have gone…”

Like The Prose 2021 – Day 11

Continuing with the theme of the 5 Stages of Grief which began with ‘Denial’ yesterday, we’ve moved onto ‘Anger’. I wanted to write another myth or folk tale and a retelling of one of the most famous stories about Thor and Loki seemed a good way to achieve this.

I first discovered Norse mythology at the age of eight or nine when I would be sent to choose reading books of my own from a selection of ‘more challenging’ texts. I loved these tales, and so recently, I bought Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Myths’ but felt let down by his ‘bare bones’ approach and prosaic language. (Sorry, Neil.) I know the stories are taken from a combination of prose texts and poetic ones, but I was looking for something more lyrical. Roger LancelynGreen’s version was closer to what I was looking for – but then he was an Oxford academic who had been part of the Inklings along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

In my version, I’ve attempted a poetic style but I’ve also tried to bring out the humour of the story. I found myself actually feeling quite sorry for Þrymr when I wrote this as I’ve made him someone who genuinely believes he’s found the perfect woman, only to be disillusioned when he discovers her true identity.

How Thor retrieved his hammer

In the morning of time, when the gods still lived in Asgard, Thor awoke one morning to find that his hammer, Mjölnir, was missing. His anger shook the walls of the chamber about him, and he pulled his beard so hard that tufts came away in his hands and shook his head so furiously that a mighty wind whistled through Asgard’s halls and great was Thor’s wrath as he set off to look for his weapon.

               And he found Loki the mischief-maker and, seizing him by the throat, he shook the fire-god so vigorously that his teeth rattled in his head. Then Thor demanded in a voice like the rushing of waterfalls, “Where hast thou hidden it, thou trickster?” For he knew that wherever there was roguery afoot, Loki would be at the heart of it.

               But Loki stared sullenly at Thor and answered that he knew not of what the thunder god spake, and though Thor’s anger threatened to erupt once more like a trembling mountain when the earth about it shakes and fire spews from its mouth, he dampened it down and bethought himself of how to find his hammer.

               And when Loki realised that it was Mjölnir Thor sought, he agreed to aid Odin’s son in his quest, “For,” he said to himself, “is not Odin my blood-brother? And while I am of the Jötnar and not the Æsir, I dwell in Asgard and Thor has been my companion through many an adventure.”

               Then went Thor and Loki to the goddess Freyja and begged of her the feathered cloak she wore when she transformed into a falcon. And Loki took the cloak and wrapped it about his shoulders, and his shape shifted to that of a keen-eyed, swift-winged peregrine and he set off to scour the earth and discover the whereabouts of Mjölnir.

               And Loki the jötunn flew to Jötunheimr to the land of his people, and there he found Þrymr the King of the Jötnar sitting on a burial mound and picking his teeth with the legbone of an ox.

               And Þrymr recognised Loki despite his falcon-form and greeted him, saying, “I know why you are here, Loki, son of Fárbauti, betrayer of your people, and you shall not have Thor’s hammer for it is hidden deep in the ground and no one knows where it is save I.”

And Loki tried to bargain with his kinsman for he knew full well that Mjölnir was Asgard’s only defence against the Jötnar, but Þrymr was deaf to his pleas, saying, “What care I for the Æsir? They have been our sworn enemies since time began.”

Three days and three nights did they argue back and forth until eventually Þrymr agreed to return Thor’s hammer if the Æsir would give him something in return. “I would take Freyja the goddess of love and beauty to be my bride,” he said, for he was crafty and thought the Æsir would be loath to attack a people wedded to one of their own.

So Loki returned to Asgard and told Thor of Þrymr’s request, and they went to Freyja and told her to put on a bridal headdress and accompany them to Jötunheim where her husband awaited. But Freyja’s eyes gleamed with rage and her anger shook the halls of Asgard as she declared that she would not be traded like a horse and that she would die rather than marry one of the Jötnar.

               An assembly was called and the gods met together to discuss Freyja’s incalcitrance and how they would persuade her to marry Þrymr, but Freyja would not yield to their threats nor to their honeyed words and she was adamant that she would not wed the King of the Jötnar.

               Then spake Heimdallr, the guardian of the Bifröst, saying, “Then Thor must put on the bridal headdress and go to Jötunheim with his face veiled and Brisingamen about his neck, and Loki will accompany him as a bridesmaid and they shall retrieve Mjölnir.”

               And Thor would have refused, but Loki spoke eloquently, reminding them all that if the hammer were not restored to Asgard, there would be no defence against the Jötnar and they would make the Hall of the Gods their home.

So Thor was dressed in a gown and his hair braided and a thick veil was placed over his face that the groom might not guess his identity; and he was most displeased to be garbed thus and he shouted and swore so that his anger shook the halls of Asgard, and then he sulked for he liked not this plan and thought that Loki would have made a better bride than he.

“Not so,” said Loki, grinning at Thor’s discomfort, “for I am slender of build and the Jötnar like women with meat on their bones.”

They set off for Jötunheim, riding in Thor’s chariot drawn by two goats. Freyja’s necklace Brisingamen glittered at Thor’s throat and Loki could not resist telling him how beautiful he looked – which made Thor seethe even more. And his eyes burned like coals in his anger and mountains burst into flame along their way.

               Eventually, they came to the river Ífingr which divides the land of the Æsir from the land of the Jötnar, and  Þrymr’s servants saw them and galloped to tell their master that his bride was on her way.

Þrymr  had prepared a feast to welcome Freyja to his home and his banqueting hall was lit with torches and their flames cast strange shadows on the faces of the bride and bridesmaid. But he was pleased to see that Freyja was tall and well built and that her arm muscles rippled beneath the folds of her gown. And he thought how fine the rest of her figure must be and that she would have child-bearing hips and a magnificent bosom, but when he reached towards her to lift her bridal veil, she slapped him so hard that his ears rang and his head filled with stars.

“You must forgive Freyja,” Loki said smoothly. “We have been travelling for eight days and eight nights and she is overtired from the journey.”

And Þrymr was so enraptured with his bride’s strength that he made no rebuke but led her to the banqueting table and set before her a golden platter that she might help herself to delicacies.

But Thor ignored the dainty morsels of pigeon and quail and reached for a roasted ox. And grabbing it by the haunches, he proceeded to tear off great slabs of meat with his teeth and the juice dripped down his face and onto his gown, but he cared not for he was ravenous.

     Þrymr sat and watched his wife with pride, for he had a hearty appetite himself but Freyja devoured three oxen in as many minutes, and when she had finished, she belched loudly and then looked around for more.

“She has not eaten nor drunk these past eight days and nights,” Loki whispered, “excited as she was to see her husband. Now she builds up her strength for the wedding night.”

And Þrymr tingled at the thought of his bride and the babies they would make together.

Then Thor called for mead, and instead of taking the goblet offered him, he seized the barrel in both hands and tipped it over his head so that the sweet, honey-flavoured liquid ran over his face and some of it into his mouth. And when he had emptied the barrel, he called for another and then a third, and Þrymr’s respect for Freyja increased even more.

And burning with desire for his bride, Þrymr leaned towards her once more to lift her bridal veil and her eyes burned like coals and he withdrew hastily.

“See how you have ignited the flames of her passion,” Loki murmured. “You and she will sport prettily tonight.”

Unable to wait a moment longer, Þrymr called for the goddess Vár to come forth and sanctify the marriage, and twelve of the Jötnar staggered in, bearing Thor’s hammer between them, and laid it in the bride’s lap as a sign of consecration.

And Thor’s eyes gleamed and his heart sang when he felt the weight of Mjölnir on his knees, and he grasped the shaft and stood up and whirled the hammer about his head. And Þrymr watched in horror as his bride’s veil fell from her face and he beheld the thunder-god.

Anger and delight danced in Thor’s mind. Turning to Þrymr, he slew the King of the Jötnar and the force of the blow was so strong that Mjölnir passed right through him and clove another giant in two. And as the bewildered guests shrieked and started to run, Thor set about him with the hammer, crushing skulls and maiming limbs until the entire company was no more.

Then Loki crawled out from beneath the table, and when he saw that the rest of the Jötnar were all dead or departed, he sat down once more and he and Thor feasted and drank with Mjölnir still clasped in Thor’s fist.

And that is how Thor got his hammer back.