Andrew James Whalan

Poet Blogger Writer

Category: Stories (page 2 of 3)

The Glass Slipper (3)

Celebrities, I now realise, live in a perpetual fog. And nowhere more so than on the red carpet. This night I’m slow prancing through a warming mist of light. Camera flashes and phone selfie stick shots leave me blinking rapidly and staring dumbly. Further along, the spotlights surround me like a hot cloud. I’m suited up, white shirt, black tie, the male uniform of universal fame. But I do look good, I have to admit that. So my social feed tells me anyway.

Ella like a vision is in front of me. The classic fairy tale goddess : tall, blonde, slim, leading everyone’s eye towards her. Remember, I thought, people don’t stare at beauty like that, they just hold their gaze for longer. It’s her night, after all. That much this simple man does know.Right now, I have little idea why I’m here. It’s an opening night for a product Ella is endorsing. Something, something, folate. I start to fall behind.

“Folate? What the hell is Folate?”

I’m open-mouthed staring at the TV. My reality mega celebrity wife is yet again endorsing another product. And no-one has told me about it. She’s saying what a great health supplement it is. Which is of no use to me at all. I don’t know a thing. And that secret leaks out very quickly. For my followers have tapped into my confusion. According to the social media feedback, that is. The joke continues, smart wife, dumb husband. Not dumb I say to myself. I just do what I’m told. She’s the ball gown, I’m the plastic handbag. And so long as it stays that way, I will have ongoing success.

There’s Ella, in glorious 3D. So real I could almost reach out, tap her on the shoulder and ask, “What’s it for?”

But it’s not me doing the asking. Or the tapping of the shoulder.

Out of the misty light, the voice spoke to me, “Good evening sir, I hope you’re well tonight.”

I squint. I try to see who is talking to me. A smiling urbane gentleman of the old class I thought.

“Thank you, I am”, I replied. As my eyes adjusted, I could see who it was. He was a head taller than me. He was perfectly clean shaven. He had green eyes that were both piercing and twinkling set in a pleasant thin face. He was dressed in a thin grey woollen suit and wearing a earpiece. I couldn’t work out why he was not behind the silken barrier. Then I looked at his badge. And then he spoke again.

“You can’t go any further.” His voice hardened slightly as he emphasised all the words. The scene now starts to make sense to me. Here I am speaking to the most well mannered security guard I’d ever met. And now he is very diplomatically telling me my night was over. I looked behind him. He had firepower on his side. On his left and right were two heavy set men. Now these were the security men that I would cast in the role, I thought. Exactly alike, they were dressed in jet black suits, short, squat, standing silently and watchfully. If my new found acquaintance had asked to burrow they would. But they were more suitable for scrummaging. When I saw men like that coming for me, I always threw the ball away. Although it didn’t help. But this time I stood still.

I said nothing. I was outnumbered. I was told the reason. I was with a rival company. They had orders that it was best I be turned away. The pop and flash of cameras continue as if these were fans asking for a selfie or even an old-fashioned autograph. But not for long, as the real star is moving on.

I started to say, “I’m with Ella.” But I thought better of it.

I decided to be an anonymous celebrity for now. I stayed in the fog. I waited for rescue. Any other reaction I realised would be all over the media in seconds. I looked down at the phone. “What’s happening Jack?” was the theme of the feed. “Who are these people?” they asked. Tempted, I started to tap on my phone. Remembering the advice I had received about social media, I pulled my hand away. I chose to shut up and wait for the lifeline.

When it happens, it makes me believe in science fiction. Yet again, out of nowhere, John and Tash materialise. My producers, who had been avoiding me for reasons unknown for the last week turn up at the time of crisis.

I always thought of them as the perfect couple. Interchangeable. One could substitute for the other. As they do right now. They step right up to the security supervisor, so no-one can easily listen. Two people invading his personal space. The security gentleman doesn’t flinch. He is inscrutable. He tilts his head down to listen. All I can see is his bald head with a light sheen of sweat.

John or Tash speaks first, the other continues the sentence, without the other even stopping for breath. All I hear is the phrase, “Endorsement conflict.” My head just tick tocks as I look from one to another. I know I still look as stunned as I did during the camera, phones and spotlights on the red carpet. I look down. My feed is full of a jumble of emoticons, some funny, others puzzled, of course, some obscene.

John and Tash stop at the same time. They both look at me. They speak in unison, “Don’t do anything until we tell you.” I think to myself, yes, mostly that’s what I usually do, but not always. Especially when I have an unexpected surprise and try and fix it myself. Just like when I tried to placate Ella after she shattered the glass slipper. But we fixed that, didn’t we?

They continue to speak to the butler. I think to myself, he would make an excellent butler. But his tone is firm. Then without speaking to one another, John and Tash start calling on their mobiles. I’m stupefied by now. I think I hope the camera’s aren’t zooming in on my open flapping mouth as well. They’re speaking as one person to different people. “How did they do that?”, I thought. “How did they decide who called who and who went first?”

Meanwhile, twilight surrounds us. The lights, phones and cameras have moved on, seeking Ella’s long gaze. I’m sure she’s thinking of me. But that would be reality TV being too real?

The next thing I hear is a whisper. The two of them talking into my ear. How can they get so close? “Text her and tell her you’re not feeling well. And then go home.” I do as I’m told. It always works. My new found security detail escort me to the waiting car.

Talking Pizza

If it wasn’t for the windchime, I would’ve made the pickup and left.

I’d made the order just after a day’s snorkelling. Diving and swimming makes me thirsty, hungry and distracted.

Once dried off and packed up, I jumped into the 4WD : my global explorer. I desperately needed to return to civilisation. I had caught nothing and was hunting for a real meal.

And the Talking Pizza was calling me. Excellent, I thought, the world is reaching out to me. I spoke my order to the app. And before I could breath, it came back with a time and a place.

I started the car. I stalled it. I started again. It jumped forward and I heard a dull thud.

“Shit”, I said. I opened the driver’s side door. I circled the car and found the culprit. A small tree had collided with the passenger door and dented it.

“Add it to the rest”, I said. It wouldn’t be out of place. I circled around the front of the car. I got in, started it up again and reversed out of the sand trap.

Now I was running too late for my liking. I sped into town. Beaches on the right, dunes to the left, tarmac in the middle. Then I arrived. A one pizza shop town, I thought. And not crowded too. This should be a quick getaway. I parked close by and sprinted one with my hunger.

The Talking Pizza was welcoming me. A few scattered plastic chairs, a counter, the oven must be out the back, the girl at the counter and a guy in a suit towering over her.

The man in the suit hadn’t seen or heard me at all. He was staring straight ahead at her. Both hands were clenched. He seemed in a hurry. I thought : a city man in a country town has to wait like the rest of us.

She wouldn’t look at me at all. I thought it must be her first day. She barely was taller than the console. I thought of jumping up and down to catch her eye but changed her mind. She and her customer weren’t talking. She had her head down, looking at the cash drawer. I could see her hands moving as she counted out the takings.

She looked up. She had a small elfin face, framed by closed cropped straight brown hair. Her eyes were pure fear. Then she averted them. She stepped back. I heard a windchime sound.

The man in the suit was startled. He said something to her that I couldn’t hear. One of his hands was more clenched than the other. I could see he had a knife.

I went back and got my spear gun.

The Glass Slipper (2)

The TV screen went black. For three seconds. A sliver of white light appeared. It flickered, flashed and exploded, filling the screen. It was a white out. For three seconds. The screen panned back. The torch started searching the room. Spotlights painted the walls, shadows wavered and stopped. It found two shiny high-heeled shoes floating in the air. The crystal slippers began to spin slowly.

The screen went green-grey. A figure could be seen sleeping on a bed. Ella.

“Will these new slippers win back her heart?”

Another pause to build more suspense.

“I hope this works,” I said.

I wasn’t acting. I looked away. A short clip replayed the fell events of the previous week. I looked away. The shouting, the crying, me trying to calm her down, finally culminating in the smashing of the old glass slippers. And then I made it worse. I tried to reconcile. But I was only doing what I was told.

The week that had been was superficial casual reality TV fare. We were kept occupied, too busy to think for ourselves. We had spent a great deal of time together. But we had spent little time alone. For they had chosen activities that didn’t require us to communicate at any depth. The last week had been an interminable spin of social activities and commercial endorsements. We had ended up being both half-awake and half asleep but too tired to argue or discuss anything. This frenzy of activity was also interlaced with a lot of old footage of us being loving assuming the fans would think things were great.

For Ella wasn’t talking to anyone. As her husband in reality I had even less idea of what was happening. The producers, directors and script writers, when I saw them seemed more energetic than usual. I didn’t think there was a problem until they sent Ella away for a commercial endorsement without me.

That all happened quickly. I had woken early, showered and had gone downstairs to browse for some breakfast. While I made my coffee (ensuring that this week’s brand faced the cameras), I looked out the window. Our coastal home away from home was sited on a peninsula facing east. It was early, and the sea was still blue grey. But then there was that pink-red glimmer that preceded dawn. I watched it as was my habit. Then I saw movement near the bedroom. I saw a a clutch of assistants quickly ascend the stairs. I was signalled not to take any notice. So obediently I didn’t.

But it was only a few minutes and then they returned with Ella. Tall and blonde, the camera caressed her like a lover’s glance. She was stylishly dressed and ravishingly beautiful. I thought for a second, perhaps, she and I? And then she, assistants in tow fled out the door, presumably to another pre-managed, highly-planned but seemingly impulsive media event. Ignored, I went back to my real occupation. Social media lurker. Reading the comments and advice. Ignoring the nutters and crazies but attempting to find a consensus and follow it. After all, that’s how I stayed popular.

For both of us, this had been the first moment of pause since the breaking of the slippers.

And then John and Tash appeared. They were the veteran husband and wife couple who had produced many reality TV shows. They were so close they finished each others sentences. Somehow I felt they wanted the same for myself and Ella.

They spoke together and said that they had sent Ella for the day and wanted to see me for a long meeting. I felt like I had been called into the principal’s office again. I always thought I was in trouble with them. And the meetings followed the same pattern. But today they would offer me a way out. A new set of slippers and a new hope for both of us.

They had already spoken to me about my actions after the slipper was broken. I had acted without authority and they had had to sort it out. I hoped that conversation wouldn’t be repeated.

My response was to say I had only done what I was told to so. After the incident, I simply asked my many followers what to do next. It had always saved me from the freeze of indecision. And this was a major crisis.

I typed the situation as I saw it and asked the usual what do I do here? (#whatshouldcharmingdo).

And then yet again I became a screen watcher. Replies, counter replies and controversies all started streaming into my feeds. Some of the contributors were familiar and they said what I would expect. The usual trolls and misogynists more or less telling me to show her who is boss (or worse). Some of these were quite direct in the means and method of application. It had never even occurred to me to take control like that ever.

I waited. I had been through this before. It was the jury handing down a verdict. Part of being a well-known celebrity was the required bowing down to your followers. Most found it a drawback of fame but it was an upside for me. All I had to do was find out what the majority wanted. And stay famous.

Then the usual unfollowers. Words, often mis-spelt, to the effect that you were both horrible and now I don’t believe in you anymore. And worse. I just hoped those numbers didn’t rise too much. Otherwise we wouldn’t get our bonus.

Then finally the feminists with a message especially for me. Then the trolls calling them worse names and threatening more evil than they would ever say to Ella or even me. I kept away from the ongoing battle between misogyny and misandry. Then the comment directed at me, “Ella has finally rejected the male-dominated constructs as exmplified by the glass slipper.” Yeah right. I hadn’t done the degree. I’m sure even the fairytale didn’t mean that. Besides I had no idea what it meant and how insulting it was meant to be. So I ignored it. Besides I could always block. So I blocked the troll.

Then the marriage counsellors. With them it was either I give in to her or she give in to me. Rarely if ever they said we should give into each other. Besides how would we manage giving in to each other if our followers didn’t like it? It would be fatal for us both.

But in the end there was a majority decision and it was final. They suggested I return to her and make it up to her as soon as possible. Maybe they liked seeing us make up. I know I did. It had worked before. Nietzche was right about reality TV, one lived the same life over and over again! But I hadn’t told John and Tash the producers. And there had been consequences from that action.

I kept my thoughts to myself but inwardly I was disquieted. Even during a public romance watched by many millions, there had been tiny cracks and fissures. But me being me, I just papered over those worries and made sure that she stayed happy. I had also assumed that such disturbances were the result of the very public attention and affection that we both received.

She had lost her temper before but only over minor trivialities. And that made great drama for our audience until she was distracted and moved onto something else. It wasn’t until I reflected carefully that I realised the truth. What I had missed was that those occurrences were becoming more frequent and more intense. I really didn’t see the warning signs. I was too infatuated I suppose.

I waited an hour. My thought was I’ll return and we’ll be reconciled.

Someone had suggested that I surprise her a little. So before climbing the stairs, I took my shoes off. I had been advised to be silent and stealthy and enjoy the moment of surprise. I ran up the stairs on tip toe so I wouldn’t be heard. My heart began to race with both exertion and more than a little anticipation. I imagined that I was not the only one that felt that way. I imagined millions of people holding their breath too.

I stopped short at the door. I didn’t knock. I threw the door open. I ran to Ella. I didn’t really notice how she was until much too late.

Ella was standing by the windows. She seemed to have effectively wrapped herself into a ball. Her head was bowed, her shoulders shrugged forward. She had drawn herself into herself.

She didn’t see me. She didn’t hear me at first. So that part of the plan had worked.
I slowed down as I came closer. I spread my arms wide to embrace her. As soon as she heard my foot fall, she turned and faced me. She was crouched down. I had no idea if she still thought the cameras were off.

All the same she let me embrace her. I leant a little forward as I always did expecting the embrace to continue and be embraced myself. It didn’t.

It was like a dream with me still in it. I can still bring it to mind even though the hurt has gone. She unclasped her hands. She lifted them in front of her face. She stepped back a pace. She put both hands on my chest and pushed me backwards.

Apart from the shock and surprise, I lost my balance and wobbled like a toddler. I stumbled a half step I think. Then I nearly fell on Ella. That was too much for her. In all of that she had not spoken to me.

She jumped backwards. Her back was now against the bedroom window.

Then she looked at me. I will never forget that look. It was desperation and anger and sadness all in one place.

I was angry at being rebuffed. But then this new look-at the time I didn’t know what I was seeing. I locked eyes with her and tried to search her soul for this new sadness.

But those eyes pushed me away as well. It looked as if she had gone back home to her stepmother and stepsisters! But that was my initial guess. My first inclination was to comfort her.

“Don’t touch me. Don’t go near me,” she said.

“Ella, we’re on, they can hear you,” I whispered. But I knew that every whisper carries further on the internet.

I moved forward a little then moved back. I felt her desperation and need for comfort and I felt that she had been alone too long.

In all of my life, all the counsel that I had received about loving women came to naught in that moment. I had to think of something else but I couldn’t.

I chose the most cowardly course. I left the room and left her to herself.
And in the aftermath I had to face John and Tash. I had acted too hastily without consulting them. They said they had a storyline to preserve. My reply was I had followers who depended upon me. Inwardly, I felt caught between many masters: the producers, the audience, and Ella.
And today, they began, “We want you to recreate the fairytale…”
I watched (as did the millions) as the floating slippers disappeared. The grey faded. The scene changed.
Dawn stole softly through the bedroom windows. Framed by the windows the mottled sunlight gently stirred Ella. She slowly woke. As one eye opened, she saw all was white.
“Am I still in my bed?” she said. “Is this real?”

As she woke everything around her was white as snow. The walls, the ceiling, the curtains and the floor all white.

The room was filled with white flowers. As she took her first breath and sniffed we all smelt the tinge of a sweet perfume.
She looked out of the bed towards the window. In front of the window there was a small gilt table. On that table was a clear glass box. Suspended in the box as if caught in air, were two new crystal glass slippers.

She had no idea how any of it had happened. Perhaps she really did have a fairy god mother!

She slid out of bed. She glided as she walked towards the table. She bent down and delicately opened the box.
The shoes! We all heard her gasp softly at their beauty. We watched as she slowly and carefully and gently retrieved the shoes.
Time now stood still. Even the commentary decided to be silent. I watched and waited as she tried the shoes on.

They were new. They were soft. They fitted perfectly. They were perfect. I felt it.

Then she spoke. My heart fell like lead through the floor. I felt my cheeks flush hot. I never had felt so embarrassed and ashamed. And I started to shake. Her face started to quiver. “How much he must love me”, she said.
I felt a nudge in my back. I stole into the bedroom. I approached her slowly. This time she didn’t back away.
It was a beautiful scene. But she wasn’t saying anything to me. I could lipread what she said but they were sweet nothings (to use the cliche).
Then an odd thing happened. Both her arms moved at once, as if she was having a spasm. I paid no attention to it at the time.
It wasn’t until we played it back that Tash pointed it out to me. She said that she had seen two people talking in the same way : a man and a woman. The woman had both arms by her sides. But she held them down quite stiffly and firmly, she said. And then she had lifted her left arm quickly, as if to ward off a blow. She then began shouting.

I realised Ella had raised both arms in the same way. Twice.

The Glass Slipper (1)

“You broke the fucking glass slipper.”

“I didn’t hear that. She didn’t say that. I’m still asleep. I’m in a better dream right now and can’t be disturbed. Leave a message and I’ll talk to you later.”

Her hand on my shoulder. I sigh. The loving touch of my bride. I relax. I start to wake up. I’m happy. We’re still on the honeymoon. I know what happens next. I’m about to become even happier.

The grip tightens. “She’s never gripped my arm like that before. She must be really…”

The grip now hurts. She shakes my shoulder trying to wake me. I open my eyes. I look up. Her face is in mine, her skin on my skin. I feel her heat. I feel the hiss of her breath.

“You broke the fucking glass slipper.”

Red skin stained by tears fill my view.

“She’s just upset. I’ll just reach out and comfort her. That’s what worked last time. Besides that’s what she’d want. That’s what’s they’d expect.”

I can’t. I can’t even move. I’m now fully awake. We’ve run out of time. I wiggle my shoulder. I duck down into the bed. Her grip follows me now even stronger. Her full weight pushes against my shoulder. Her face is still in mine. Her eyes blaze but there are no tears. She gasps then sobs then gasps.

“This looks bad. I’m going to have to fake it.”

I smile. I go for the joke. I say.

“Ella! My darling Princess! You’ve never sworn before!”

“You broke the fucking glass slipper. It’s fucking shattered in fucking pieces.”

I twist left. I twist right. I break her grip. I wince in pain. Comforting her will just have to wait. There’s a bigger crisis to solve.

I reach across the bed. My fingers fumble for the phone. I must turn off the stream. Right. Now. There is no phone. I can’t find it.

“Isn’t she the one to lose things and then find them?”

My eyes scan the bedroom, the floor, everywhere. Nothing. I whistle for it. Nothing. No response.

“What the hell is she talking about? I haven’t broken any glass slipper. Why would I do that? Besides that’s what happened when every woman in the country found it didn’t fit. And we went through hundreds. Hundreds.”

“What would they want me to do?” Without a phone, I couldn’t ask my followers for help. I had no idea now how to play it right. Until now that was my secret. And it had worked out beyond my expectations. I had married the woman of my dreams. We were social media superstars. We were on the way to making billions. We just had to play it right.

But now I have to think on my feet. I choose apology and appeasement. I say.

“I’m sorry. Did you want me to get you a new glass slipper?”

“And did you turn off the webcams?” I mouth silently.

“Besides I didn’t break the glass slipper.” A whisper now.

“Bullshit!”

I may have made things just a little worse. I push further away. I reach under the bed. I can’t feel anything.

“Where the hell is the spare one?” I look down at the floor. I can’t see it. I push aside the bed curtain. I bend over and look under the bed. Nothing.

I look across the bed. She’s closed the curtain on he side. I just hear her harsh hoarse whisper.

“I’ll just put on the other fucking slipper won’t I?“

She growls, “Then they’ll know. They’ll know…when they see me walking like a fucking lop-sided hunchback on that one good one! Mine! They’ll know you broke that one bad one… yours…that they will.”

She yells, “Your royal fucking Highness! Then if I trip and fall, they’ll troll us again. Won’t they? Of fucking course! Then I’ll lose everything. Everything. Just as I knew I would.”

A rasp as she tears open the curtain at the back of the bed.

“My slipper”, she points to herself and then drops her voice, “doesn’t have a worn sole and a heel. My slipper isn’t now in pieces…like the one you gave me.”

Her voice trails off. She heads towards the shoe room. She opens the door and disappeared.

“Hopefully this will end soon and no-one will know…perhaps we’re not live either.” I think.

In seconds, she’s back. As promised, she’s walking, lop-sided on the remaining glass slipper. She limps and sways and stops at the end of the bed.

“How can she stand like that?” I start to crawl across the bed towards her. But she answers my unspoken question. She reaches out and steadies herself against the post.

I stare. “Another joke perhaps?” I start to open my mouth.

I see a flash. She kicks off the slipper. She catches it in mid-air. “Nice work,” I think. She then draws her arm back. Slipper in hand, she bends her arm.

I shut my eyes tight. I think to put up my hands. I’m too slow. A soft thud. A tinkle of breaking crystal. The throw is wide. Barefoot, as she was before me, she runs from the room.

I look left. The silken pillows and bed-clothes are silver white.

I creep out of bed. “What about the other shoe?” I stumble-walk in a daze to the shoe room. ”Is it true what she said?”

I open the door. I see it all. Now I know. The dark is silvered with crystal. The other slipper.

The Poet and His Muse : Prelude to a Nightmare

It was the crushing that woke her. She opened her eyes. She couldn’t breathe.

She pushed out against the weight but in vain. She tried to wriggle out from underneath it. But this time she couldn’t. For the dark matched her every move silently and carefully.

She opened her eyes wider. She tried to look around. All was pitch black, an empty void. A small quiet note of panic began to echo within her.

She willed herself fully awake. Yet she still couldn’t move. She tried to stretch herself out. But her body refused. It pushed in on her. Beyond the edges of her skin, she felt nothing. She couldn’t feel the bed she was lying on.

She was floating in emptiness. She made herself draw breath. But none came. She strained to listen for her heartbeat but it was silent.

A light glowed near her. Her phone? She reached out. Nothing happened. Her hands refused orders.

“Is anyone there?” She thought but couldn’t say the words. She reached out in her mind, but her thoughts were swallowed up by the darkness. She could only move her eyes. She looked around. There was nothing beyond her bed. She was suspended in the void.

Beyond the bed, she could discern more light. She tried to make sense of the unreality. Perhaps the ceiling fan is turning and casting shadows on the walls, she thought. As she watched, the shadows began to change.

She saw faces. Faces she had never seen ever before. Faces from another time. Inhuman grotesque twisted faces. Grey purple eyes leered and laughed at her in triumph. Mouths showed twisted and broken teeth. All swirled around her in a seething cloud of smoke.

Slowly the silent panic became deathly fear. Now she couldn’t move at all. She became more and more scared. The faces grew closer jeering and laughing at her. Then she heard the names they spoke of her. “Witch, traitor, whore…” Words she couldn’t understand. Words from another language and time.

Then she fell into the dream.

The faces faded into a light. Red, yellow, blue light that shimmered around her. She was standing in a fire. Then she felt the heat. Worse than heatstroke. This time she would be boiled away.

Then the dream spoke to her.

In the distance, I felt them approach. Four of them I discerned. Four to take me to my fate. So they thought. I knew.

I first heard the pad of their tread. I then heard the dull clank of sword on mail. I knew that sound. As a lady in waiting always knows.

Today the sounds were so clear. Like raindrops each falling as thunder. Then they stopped. They were here.

The rattle of metal. Keys fitted to the lock. The door yanked open.

Two guards entered. They stopped stock still. I didn’t move either. Then I knew.

I held up my palms pale and white. They then saw me.

Quick as night, both moved either side of me and pinned my arms. The one on my right took both arms and fastened them. He growled and cursed, “Traitorous witch.” To them I was both but to myself neither.

Then they took my elbows and led me forward. One in front on my left and the one behind on my right. I was pushed and pulled through the door.

As I turned the two outside guards grabbed my elbows. I was marched along the passage I didn’t know towards the steps I knew well.

I stumbled forward up and then through a door and into the light.

Oh the light! How I missed it!

Its power was fire through me and more. I was filled with peace and hope and joy and love. As I was led along the parapet I could see the clouds rising from the valley below. It would bring cold but I trust not cold for me.

I fell naturally into the rhythm of the guards as they walked. It felt as if I was comforting them in their hapless duty. We marched along the wall and then turned and entered the keep.

Here was familiar territory if only for an instant. Memories of the times I had spent here filled me. I recalled my duty and the love that had stolen into my life. I remembered the vow we had made and how our hope had risen only to be stilled. Yet it would rise again. I knew it.

I was being brought for judgement and sentence. Perhaps in this world but certainly not of the next.

It was a small knot of people hardly enough for a small repast. A priest, an overseer or judge and the executioners.

Ah yes and the priest. A small man, bowed and beaten and too bruised by life. I had always sensed his unbelief. A vocation so riven by doubt. He had been mostly silent when he had visited me. He had not even proffered his name to me. Today he muttered his Latin incantations and stretched his hands hopefully to pray for my soul.

I felt his pain and sadness wash over me. I too reached out to comfort him. As I did I felt power leave me. He drew back in shock and surprise.

He went back to his prayers. He asked if I wanted to confess my sins. I shook my head. I needed no shriving today. He asked me if I had anything to say.

I stood up. The coverlet fell from my shoulders. I spoke and the words were ready.

”Place me like a seal upon your heart, for love is stronger than death,its jealousy as unyielding as the grave, it burns like blazing fire.”

I heard an audible gasp. I saw the witnesses draw back as if I was the plague itself.

I heard the final order and my name, Margaret Barclay. I heard the executioner accede.

The guards freed me and I was led forward.

Then the executioners tied me to the stake.

The kindling drily crackled as they laid it around me. Then they piled the logs around me. I could feel the bark like a rough embrace. The dry wood still had a faint crisp tang of pine. From a growing distance I saw men leap forward with torches.

They leant down to light the fire. The flames started to leap around me. I felt the heat and the light and the sound and the smell.

And then their faces.

And then their expression changed. The flames remained. For I had left.

Now the dream left her, Elisabeth slept.

If the world was this way

There are swings, a slide, see-saws, a lop-sided spinner, a playhouse, a sandpit and a rope climbing frame. All covered by a rainbow coloured sun shade which looks like a circus tent that’s been slashed. And bark chips for bedding. A child’s oasis in an adult’s grassy park.

The sun is clear bright yellow. The sky blue with no clouds. A breeze blows. A beautiful day even for an adult to play!

There are only two people in the playground. Myself and her. And she won’t look at me. I hope it stays that way. I’m not even interested in looking at her. I’m standing there hands in pockets, a part time father. She stands too, her body turned away from me.

Her attention is fixed on the child allocated to her. And I hope her stare stays that way. For my eyes are fixed on my daughter at play. Every so often I furtively steal glances at them both.  I don’t want either to move from their place. She in the playhouse. He in the sandpit.  Sandkasse

I want to ensure the circle of safety around my child at play stays that way.  But she has other ideas. As does the other child.

I watch carefully as the intruder appears. He approaches slowly. He plays by himself. But each time he gets closer to her. I’m torn. I’m wishing the children would play together. I’m afraid she’ll get hurt. I’m waiting for the slightest movement. Then like a wraith, I’ll run in and snatch her away from harm. The worst is having anything happen to her. Even worse is informing her mother who will accept no explanation. It’s all fear at the moment.

But then the two children starting circling each other. They eye each other carefully. I wait to see who will strike the first blow. I’m feel I’m witness to the beginnings of a conflict. The tension increases. I’m coiled ready to pounce. I squint and watch carefully too.  I start composing an explanation for the other (absent) parent.

I look across the playground. The other (present) parent doesn’t seem to be bothered. She doesn’t seem to worry what her son is about to do. Although she is watching.

Who started it I cannot tell. Perhaps it was my (borrowed) child or hers. Perhaps both at once?  They soften their gaze at the same time. They ask and answer the unspoken question. “Do you want to play?”

Then she looks across the playground at me. She visibly relaxes. We both smile the same wish at the same time.

Wouldn’t it be a better place if all the world was this way?

 

The Longest Match

I saw white. I’m supposed to see stars. Not me! Not now! White light, sound and impact merged into a wall of noise and pain. I didn’t feel myself fall. No, I feel myself float. I saw myself glide to safety. And there in the calm and silence I slept.

I then woke up and I slowly look around. I’m sitting on a bench. Behind me are lockers. Sporting equipment is scattered all around. I’m dressed in white. So are the others around me.

I slowly start to make sense of it all. My mind is foggy. The world is grey-white. I know these people. Now I understand. I’m in a dressing room. I’m in heaven with my cricket mates. What?

But none of them could be angels. I’m sure of that.

I look down. Attached to both legs are bulky cricket pads. A bat is leaning across my knees. Cricket gloves inhabit the bench next to me. Why are we expected to play cricket in heaven? Are we in hell? I must have said it aloud as I hear the reply, “That’s where opening batsmen go to.” Another adds “…that’s where they are now!” Grim laughter. We have a match to win.

And then began the interminable waiting. I wish for something to happen to break the monotony. Then I hope the monotony returns so maybe I’m not needed. One thought and then another only make me more and more nervous. In the meantime, I listen to the other conversations. I hear the radio with the commentary. Perhaps it’s my teammates talking about the game. As for me, I prefer to suffer in silence. I finally decide that it would be easier being out there batting. And just when I relax, it happened.

A moment of quiet. The game stops for a millisecond. A shout from the middle of the field. Yeah-that! I know what that means. Everyone goes quiet. The commentary stops. My teammates stop what they were doing. And look at me.

“You’re next,” the captain said to me. I check that I’m ready. I’ve got my pads on. I have my bat nearby. I reached down for my gloves. I stretch down and reach out for them. Found them. Then I put them on. I had to push one finger through at a time. Am I nervous? Not at all. I’m too worried. I’ve never been this slow before. I almost forget my helmet and tuck it under my arm.

Even more slowly. I open the door. The heat slams into me. I stop and almost step back. I duck my head as I slowly walk my way down the steps. I don’t look to my left or my right. I steal through the gate and out to the wicket. There’s no crowd or perhaps a silent one. I start to worry. If I take too long, they’ll send me back. Which would be terribly embarrassing. But they wait for me. Very patient they were. Or maybe it was time standing still in crisis. I somehow fumble and put my helmet on. My head is now in a hot plastic cell with a steel grille for a door.

I reach the crease. I look at the wicket. It’s a white grass carpet with too many flecks of green. I stand still. I lean down and tap my bat. I look up and ask the umpire for centre. He just nods at me. I scratch out my mark with my foot. Then I place my bat there. I look around me. I only see one fielder. He’s on my right halfway down the wicket. I look to my left over my shoulder. A helmeted fielder is crouched close. I turn my head further to my left. In the distance is another white suited fielder. I know where the rest are. So I wait. And wait. And wait.

I could hear the commentary in my head. “One down for eighteen. The new batsman has just arrived. He’s taken strike. He looks a little nervous to me this morning, don’t you think? Let’s see how he shapes up to the first delivery.”

Nervous? I know so. I look beyond the umpire. In the distance is the bowler. He seems to be pawing the ground like a bull ready to charge. He starts his run towards me.

I hear the scrape of his right toe on the ground. I hear the whoosh of his arm. The clump of the ball hitting the pitch. The fizz as it instantly appears near me. Lead-footed and lead-armed, I pull my bat away. I feel like I’m walking through molasses. Except I don’t see it at all.

“Swift ball first up. He steps back and across. He shoulders arms and lets it go. Lovely judgement there.”

And the next ball. I feel like I’m stumbling and falling in slow motion. And no-one knows but me. And more nervous. One false move and I’ll be gone.

I hear the ball after that. I know that it’s closer. I just see its outline in time. I move my foot towards it in slow motion. The bat even more slowly follows. I hear the hollow clunk as ball hits bat. A thud and the ball rolls forward a little. My arms jar slightly at the impact. My hands start to sweat. Whether it’s from the heat or fear I cannot tell.

“He jams down the bat. He’s just managed to get hold of that one. This boy’s a few yards quicker than last match. He’s really worked up a lot of pace. He’s really putting the batsman under pressure.”

I am a thin man in a fat suit. I’m not playing cricket. I’m waving a match stick at bullets. I think that if I don’t get through this game, it will be my last. And that really scares me. But it also comforts me somehow. I get to finally find out after all the uncertainty. And then slowly ever so slowly the game gets better.

I can see the ball now. It’s still dull. It’s vaguely shaped. But I know better where it is. I still feel that I inhabit another body. A body borrowed from another sportsman who vaguely remembers the game.

“And he’s just starting to get his eye in now. The new boy is showing some more confidence after a pretty torrid spell here.”

And then the commentary stops. There are no more balls to be bowled. I have to know what’s going on. I try to speak and ask, “Have we declared? Has the skipper called us back in and closed the innings?”

Somewhere in the distance, I hear the commentary resume. I hear another voice, “He’ll find it a comfort in his condition.” At that moment, I assume it’s my mind saying that. But why are there footsteps nearby? They fade away.

The game continues. I even smile a little in between balls. I hear a shout and my heart sinks. The fatal rattle of the stumps falling. It’s over. I look up and my batting partner is out. He looks up at me. I just look back as he turns and ashamedly leaves the ground.

The new batsman arrives. He’s sprinted onto the ground. But then he’s out. He looks like he has played and missed, but then there’s a shout. I turn and look at the umpire. He’s raising his arm and one finger is outstretched. Out. Another one. How many is that?

And then it’s a procession. One in, another out. And I’m standing there as my team falls away in front of me. Yet I still keep going. I’m still there. Until they turn their attention to me. They call back the swift fast bowler.

The game becomes a blur. He’s quicker than I remember earlier. I have to force myself to relax to keep playing. I start playing and missing. I get more and more nervous. I’m hounded by the recurring thought, if I go, we all go. I stop and catch my breath. I become more insistent on calming myself.

And then it happens. I see the ball leave his hand. I see it hit the wicket. I see it fly towards me like a whiplash. I move back and then pivot. I start to play the shot. The ball hits the bat. I’m hit by an uppercut. I see white.

I lie there on the ground. I resolve to myself that I will never ever play cricket again. It’s all too difficult. And then a voice interrupts. “We’re yet to find out if he will continue. He’s taken a pretty nasty knock there, but he’s come back before. Let’s see if he does this time.”

I decide that I would like to find out too. I lean forward and grasp my knees. I pull myself to my feet. I wander around a little. I stretch my arms and kick out my stiff legs. I feel some warmth return.

I start again. Now I have nothing to lose. Now it doesn’t matter if I get hit. If I’m hit I’m hurt. Now it doesn’t matter if I get out. That’s enough to ensure I relax. I see the ball clearly now. I even can pick out the scuffs and cuts on it. I hear the ball coming towards me. I hear the sound of the bat. I hear silence as I hit the ball. Silence now means perfect timing.

At last, after so many years of waiting, I’m having fun. I’ve discovered that this is a game that can actually be enjoyed. I wish for it to last forever.

The afternoon sun stretches into twilight. Finally, the night comes down: the umpires are asked to adjudicate on the light. They accede and I trudge off.

“Welcome back to the second day’s play. It’s a beautiful day for watching cricket.”

I slowly feel I’m not a wooden marionette anymore. I hear the ball tossed to me. I bend forward and just catch it.

“Looks like they’re giving the all-rounder a trundle.” I didn’t know I was an all-rounder! I’m just a batter who bowls or a bowler who bats a little.

I take my few steps back. I hold the ball in my hand. It’s not a cricket ball. It’s a red grapefruit ripe and ready to fall out of my hand. I grip it tightly enough so it doesn’t slip and loosely enough so it might spin. It still feels more difficult today. But I slowly spin it, toss it in the air and catch it even more slowly. Why is everything taking so long?

But now I feel the spongy grass under my feet. My feet scuff as I start my run up. I hear the slow swish of my arm. Then the slow bubbling fizz of the ball as it spins towards the batsman. Then the almost silent thud as it hits the pitch. Then the drawn out whoosh as it flies a little higher and quicker than expected. A soft click of wood against leather. The extra-long silence as the ball flies high, higher than even the fielder expects. The endless silence of fingers stretching and falling short. The softest thump as the ball hits the ground. I walk back to bowl again.

“Well, he’s got that to bounce and spin more than the batsman expected. Too bad the fielder grassed it. Remember catches win matches and a dropped one is an extra batsman.”

Ugh! I don’t need to re-read the coaching manual. In the meantime, I am slowly turning from a human scarecrow into a bowler. But the pains and aches are so real. The exhaustion starts to set in. I start to flag a little. But then I know from past experience if I push through, it will become easier. And so it does.

And then I hear the shout. All go up as one including me. Howzat! We turn and look at the umpire. Well? I say to myself. There’s an eternal pause. Up goes the arm and he raises his finger. Out!

“And he’s given him. Took a while for the umpire to make up his mind. Smart bowling that.”

And then it all stops. I open my mouth to protest and say, “Skip, I was just getting into it. I’d got my length and line right. I even got the top spinner to work (which was unusual).”

Then I hear the commentators start to wrap up their description of the game. Then from a distance I hear other voices. They grow louder. “We decided to leave the radio for you. We thought it would help you get better.”

I wake up. I’m in a room. I’m wearing white. I’m not in heaven. I’m in a bed in a hospital. I slowly recollect what happened. But all I remember is the near-fatal blow. I open my eyes and say, “Long match that was. But I got there in the end.”

Thanks for the Non-Advice

“Been a while. What’s happenin’?”
Long pause while I rummage through my thoughts and find the right answer.
“Errrm… Not real good.”
“Not real good. You mean not real bad?”
“Errrm…Nup.” Another safe answer.
“How’s Josie J?” Everyone asks after her. Not really safe now.
“She’s not.” One faltering step down the path.
“Not what?”
“With me.”
“What?”
“She left a couple of weeks ago.”
A long pause from the other side now.
“Oh…nah…not real good mate. Really bad is it?”
It’s the first time anyone has asked me. I want to talk. But I’m not sure what to say.
“Yep.”
“What happened?”
“I got home. She was gone. Cleared out. Her things. Gone. Everything. Gone.”
“That’s real bad. I’m sorry.”
“Yep. She just texted me. ‘I’m outta here.’, she said. And blocked me.”
“Facebook? Twitter? Phone? Email?”
“Yep, yep and yep. Front door. Back door.”
“What did you do?”
“Went to church. Hoped she was there. She wasn’t. But they all knew. They said,’I should’ve seen it coming. I should’ve treated her as a submissive wife. Been more of a man.’ You know. That sort of thing.”
“You’re not that kind of man.”
“Thanks. Which means I’ll never be your type.” I crack a small smile. At last I find out that I can laugh a little even in this.
“Yeah they said, ‘Josie’s just going through a change of season.’ Didn’t know what that meant. Summer? Winter? Autumn? Can’t tell!”
“Anything else?”
“Told me to pray.”
“What about your family? Do they know?”
“Yep.”
“What did they say?”
“Yep. Plenty of good advice. The usual. I’ve been given an opportunity to grow. I just need to move on. You know that things change. I have to focus on the future.”
“Everyone’s full of advice mate. Same as it was for me. Worse were those afraid of it happening to them. Now or ever. Took me a little while to see that they’re shit scared of seeing someone go the same way as them.”
“Yep.” A pause. “You’re not going to do that to me.”
“What? Do you want me to tell you to get stuffed now or later? Just because I went through the same crap as you. FFS!”
“Well?”, I ask, “Got any advice you bastard, any wise words?”
“I could tell you to get…”
“Come on,” I interrupt, goading him,”Tell me WTF I’ve done wrong.”
An exasperated sigh from the other end of the phone.
“You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“What about telling me what worked for you?” I’m winding him up now, hoping for a response, more in anger than in hope. He’s refusing to even be a little provoked. Then he says.
“Nup. It’s World Series Crap for you now. Then it’s gonna be World Series Crap playoffs for a while. How long? Don’t know. Haven’t been told. Maybe you should ask for yourself.”
“Errmm…that’s not really helpful,” I reply.
Then he pauses. He then does the best he can do.
“Nup. Not at first. Right now you probably think you’ll break. You’re just being bent out of shape. Maybe more than before. Maybe enough to break you. But you’ll know what to do. Just call it for what it is. Then you’ll get what you need to learn.
Then little by little, it will get better. Maybe it’s started. I don’t know. But you’ll get back better than before.”
He pauses and finishes.
“I’ve said my bit. Call me if you need me. Next time I might even shut up and listen. I might even learn something from you.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Thanks for the non-advice, you bastard.”

Medicine Woman

He bent over in pain. He tried to turn away from her. But she saw him. And it began again.

Like gunshots , her taunts echoed across the room.

“Got tightness in the chest, have you?”

“Getting hardening of the arteries are you?”

“Starting to die are you?”

Like a bolt from a crossbow, he pushed against the pain in his chest. His fingers flexed as if kneading bread. He thought if he could flatten the pain out across his body, it would go away. It did.

He tried to avoid any confrontation as it was never good for his health. But after all his attempts at reconciliation had been rebuffed, it would get too much. Then her answer would rise up to the mildest rebuke.

“How dare you treat me, like that?”

But now, his wife stood over him, now taller than him. Age had shrunk him but now all he wanted was invisibility.

But her eyes blazed. The spark is definitely gone, he thought cynically. He had never  been so tired. He had never felt so old.

He shut his eyes tight , pitch black. He could feel her eyes boring into him. He could feel the anger coming in waves like heat from a bushfire.

“Where’s my anginine?,” he gasped.

“You don’t need it,” she replied.

“Got slowing of the heart, have you?”

“Getting old are you?”

“No good for anything are you.”

It was like having a death sentence pronounced from on high without any appeal. He knew who to appeal to. He prayed silently for help.

“It’s only just a twinge now”, he said,”don’t worry about it”.

But he knew it was like storm against steel. First the steel resisted. In time it started to flex. In the end, it buckled and broke. It was now a matter of time. Buckle, break and make to leave.

She started to lay out her herbs and medicines. The herbs were meant to help her.

She would quote that the “herbs are for the healing of the nations”. He thought they would probably help if they weren’t corrupted with malt. Besides he thought that they were drugs anyway and watered down ones at that.

Her voice intoned the litany of healing:

“This one is for my headache. This one (St John’s Wort) is for my depression. This one is for my heart (Hawthorne).”

She turns and stares and intones:

“Not for you. You don’t deserve it, after all you’ve done to me.”

And then she would go through them one by one.

And it seemed to him that she still kept the headache but took the herbs. She still was depressed anyway and as for her heart what could heal that? It was like fighting a fire with an eyedropper.

He would say (to himself,never to her) that they just seem to work. And even when he grunted his doubt, she would fly at him. One minute calmly composed taking her dose, next second ablaze without warning.

“Know everything about herbal medicines,don’t you?”

“An expert know-it-all,are you?”

The irony was how studied she was. She knew the herbs and their effects back to front. He had from time to time sneaked a look at her notes until he knew more than her.

He would simply remain silent and think to himself, this will pass and besides if he said so it wouldn’t be a meaningful comment anyway.

It seemed to him that they both needed drugs to survive. Except that they weren’t in some dark alley shooting up with shared needles. Nor begging or stealing for the next hit. But just as desperate.

The soft tap of a bottle being tipped over. The crackle of tablets falling and tapping the floor. Then she loses her temper and scatters the tablets everywhere. She grabs some tablets and shoves it in her mouth. But too many, too soon. And she crumples and collapses to the floor as if the air has been gently taken from her.

At first he’s transfixed. Next he panics. He grabs the phone and presses the button for the ambulance. A few minutes away he hopes. Next he remembers the first aid, but it occurs that she would never help him the same way.

He gives her mouth to mouth. He gives her heart massage. But nothing works. The life is gone.

He always thought that he would save her. But always she put herself completely out of his reach. And somehow it was always his fault. And somehow it fell upon him to make things right.

As he leant over her lifeless body, he knew. He knew that this time it WASN’T his fault. He whispers the silent prayer and releases her soul.

He knew that this time there would be somehow release and redemption.

What Will I be When I Grow Up?

 

“What will I be when I grow up ?” asked Johnson.

“Whatever you want to be, dear”, said Mum.

“But I want to know what I’ll be before I grow up”, said Johnson insistently.

“How can I know that?” thought Mum. “Let’s just see what happens!”, she thought.

Well, you could be a carpenter”, said Mum.

“What’s a carpenter?”, asked Johnson.

“He makes cupboards and drawers and doors and windows out of wood”, replied Mum.

“Johnson is a very handy child, or will be one day”, thought Mum.

 That’s good. I like wood”, smiled Johnson. Then his face scrunched up as he thought hard.

“Johnson always thinks what I hadn’t thought of”, thought Mum. “What is it going to be this time?”

 “But. But does he have to chop down trees. I don’t want to chop down trees”, Johnson cried stridently.

“How could he remember so far back when Dad cleared the house site? He was so little”, thought Mum.

 “Carpenters don’t chop down trees. They just hammer and saw and nail.”

“Okay”, said Johnson,” I just don’t like trees being chopped down”.

“But doesn’t he remember that we planted so many to make up for the ones that were lost.”

Mum thought for a while, and said, “ Maybe you could plant trees instead”.

Johnson said, “Okay. I like digging and I helped Dad in the garden.”

Then he thought hard.

“Again. What is the surprise this time? Still its fun learning from him. And besides, he’s cute when he’s thinking!”

“Mum, how long do trees take to grow ?”

Mum said, “Years and years.”

Johnson said, “But how long really ?”

“There are so many different types of trees. Hmmm, how about a general figure?”, thought Mum. “After all Dad is the gardener isn’t he ? But ‘ask your father’ won’t work this time! Better answer the question as best I can now”.

Mum takes a deep breath, pauses and says, “ Forty or fifty years.”

Johnson replies, “As old as you?”

Mum says,”Nooo. As old as Daddy or even Grandpa”.

Johnson thinks some more and asks, “ But when I plant the tree and then I grow up, won’t I forget.”

The answer is faster than thought.

 “No”, Mum said, “It’s just like having children. You always remember.”

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