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    Writers Retreat – a short story

    Writers Retreat

    ©Peter Barnett 2018

    The girl looked out over the swift flowing river, as raindrops tumbled out of the sky, creating crowns of glory, as they crashed into the water. Mayflies, hit by the sudden downpour, plunged into the water, only to be gobbled up by the ravenous school of trout, delighted at the unexpected windfall.

    She surveyed the old tumbledown station behind her and the forlorn space, where once, twin tracks of freedom and travel lay, bringing monsters of metal, surrounded by steam and smoke and their greasy drivers. Cracked and worn platforms beneath her feet, where once upon a time, happy holiday makers, full of excitement and laughter, had once disembarked for their summer holidays.

    No hustle and bustle today, even the birds had fallen silent, hiding amongst the larger leaves attempting to keep their feathers dry, until the storm passed over. The girl’s large brimmed hat dripped water in a circle around her feet, before running down the cracks and over the platform edge. The faintest blodges of white paint remained, long past the time when pristine lines once warned passengers not to get too close.

    The rain turned into hail and Kathy moved back under a canopy that was growing over her head. The hailstones became larger and larger but now in a narrow band along the disused track and the edge of the platform. The noise level increased as the hailstones turned to granite, hammering into the thin area in front of the platform, becoming the full ballast that would be needed for the track.  The noise of the falling stones stopped, to be replaced by the heavy crunch of sleeper logs dropping into place, one by one as they slammed into the ballast. Metal on metal clanking reached Kathy’s ears as two rods of steel approached, hammered into the sleepers and screwed down. Shiny rods of rail track stopped past the end of the platform and huge buffers with new shiny red paint, solidified at the terminus of the line. A gantry with green signals appeared on the far corner of the track and at a road crossing an old car was stopped from crossing.

    “Are you waiting for the train?” asked a rumbling voice from behind her.

    She spun around to find a concerned gentleman, holding up a brightly coloured umbrella to protect his perfect station masters uniform. A peaked cap with a red band, navy blue coat with bright buttons in two rows down the front. Kathy could see that the station was now far from the dilapidated building she had found when she first arrived. A row of lamps, now lit because of the dark thunderstorm; pretty green doors and perfect white writing on all the signs. Waiting Room, Ticket Office, Exit, Ladies and Gents, proclaimed the signs. A new clock proclaiming the time of 6.31, ticked loudly for the first time.

    “I’d have to wait for a long time, wouldn’t I?” said Kathy.

    “Sadly yes. Beecham and the car have certainly spoilt the romance of travelling,” said the stationmaster. “George by the way.”

    “Kathy. Nice to meet you,” said Kathy. “Writers made the most of unexpected meetings of strangers on long journeys, leading to romance or maybe just lustful encounters.”

    “There are lots of love stories set on trains it’s true,” said George. “But think how many murder stories were set on train journeys, especially Agatha’s novels.”

    “Well I suppose she had many journeys on the trains to and from Devon.”

    Talking of which, a whistle in the far distance heralded the arrival of the 2.45 from Paddington. The station and its surrounds were now fully restored, complete with colourful flower beds and new posters welcoming guests to the mini Riviera of England.

    “Not a touch on Torquay of course,” said George.

    “But close enough,” responded Kathy. “Will it be on time?”

    “Always is,” he replied.

    Above the glorious tree line, now bathed in brilliant sunshine, puffs of smoke and steam rose, heralding the approach of the train. Around the corner a black and green metal monster appeared huffing and puffing away. Now that the rain had dried from the warmth of the sunshine, the hail on the edges of the platform had melted and turned into a brilliant white as if newly painted.

    “Will he stop in time?” asked Kathy, as the train hurtled towards them. “He seems to be going awfully fast today.”

    “Always does,” said George.

    At last the engine driver applied the brakes and steel on steel screeching, filled the air. Sparks flew in all directions and there was a shuddering along the platform threatening to shake down all the newly revived buildings.

    The carriages swung and swayed with the force of the abrupt halt throwing passengers into disarray. The engine stopped exactly at Kathy’s feet and the driver leapt out.

    “Do you have to stop so suddenly Fred?” asked Kathy.

    “Wouldn’t be getting their monies worth,” he said. “Besides they expect it, wouldn’t be an express without screeching stops.”

    “Well be that as it may, we need to check our guests.”

    Kathy looked into the first-class carriage, well apart from the dining car and guards van, there was only one carriage.  The passengers were all heaped at the front covered by small trunks, hat boxes and loose-leaf papers. They were laughing as usual.

    One called out “Good one Fred.” before they picked themselves up.

    “Gather my manuscript,” said an elderly lady. “I spent hours writing it, so don’t get it out of order.”

    “Welcome to ‘Bolsloe Writer’s Retreat’ everyone,” said Kathy, leading them down the path through the overhanging branches of the flowering rhododendrons, to the mansion, overlooking the river estuary.

    The guests formed a disorderly queue at the desk all clamouring for their voices to be heard, the excitement of their week ahead getting to them like little children, all hopeful of sorting out their writers’ blocks.

    “Patience everyone, I’ve sorted all your favourite rooms, no need to rush,” said Kathy. “Your cases will be delivered to your rooms, as soon as George and Fred have sorted them out.”

    “I should think so,” said Enid.

    “I assume you’ve all labelled your bags.”

    A couple of guests looked a bit sheepish. “I’m sure they can work it out,” said Kenneth.

    “Now don’t forget early morning writing exercise and then your one-on-one sessions start at 11, after morning tea.”

    “Get on with it Kathy, we need to freshen up,” said Lewis.

    “Agatha you’re in our mystical room of course.”

    Agatha gathered her bags and manuscript and took herself off up the stairs.

    “Enid, you’re the room overlooking the beach.”  Enid took her bag, bucket and spade off to her room.

    “Arthur, I’ve given you the room overlooking the estuary.”

    “Thanks.”

    “Lewis, I given you the room next to the garden, so you can walk right out.”

    “Kenneth, you are in the lodge in the woods, next to the stream.”

    “Alan I hope you don’t mind, but you’re in the double rooms, with the children’s toys.”

    “I hate that room.”

    “I’m sorry, but you were a late booking.”

    “I hope they are not as much trouble as last year,” said Jane, appearing out of the kitchen, followed by the delicious smells of dinner, wafting in behind her.

    “Don’t worry, we’ll sort them out,” said Kathy, confidently.

    The next morning after a raucous and slightly drunken evening, recounting their frustrations and successes with their books, followed by the more subdued morning exercise, it was time to help sorting their respective challenges out.

    Kathy was sitting with Agatha, “So what’s the problem?”

    “I’m stuck with names for my new detective.”

    “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

    Agatha handed her a piece of paper with words ‘Toriop the detective, eating his favourite Belgian chocolate.

    “Doesn’t sound very glamorous does it, nor mysterious for that matter.”

    Kathy picked up the slip of paper which twirled it as it passed through a shaft of sunlight.

    “Can you see what I see?” asked Kathy.

    “What?”

    “Read it backwards.”

    “Oh. said Agatha. “So, Poirot, the Belgian, eating his chocolate.”

    “Voila.”

    “How clever. Thanks Kath,” said Agatha, as she rushed back to her room. “I knew you would be able to help.”

    “So how are you doing Arthur?” asked Jane.

    “I’m stuck,” he said. “I want to write for children but can’t quite put my finger on the story.”

    They were sitting outside his room, overlooking the lake. Spring swallows were flitting to and fro across the water picking off flies with practised ease.

    “It looks just like the Amazon,” said Jane. “All the trees and overgrown foliage.”

    “Very peaceful, but no inspiration yet,” said Arthur.

    “Oh look, it’s the children’s dingy race,” she said, seeing the happy children take to the water and spinning around, waiting for the starters gun.

    “I think you may have cracked it,” said Arthur.

    Jane looked over his shoulder as he typed a title page. ‘Swallows and Amazons’

    “Who have you got next, Kath.”

    “Lewis Carrol, no idea who he is. Another wannabe writer with no idea where to start,” said Kath.

    “Good luck.”

    Kath came around to the garden table where Lewis was playing patience.

    “Not writing yet then?”

    “No sit down, we’ll have a couple or rounds of whist and see what happens.”

    Lewis shuffled the cards and started to deal them out, when a sharp wind came in from the sea and started to swirl the cards around and around in the alcove, lifting them higher and higher. The wind calmed down as quickly as it started and the cards floated down, face up on the table with the queen of hearts on top. “That’s it.” he said.

    “What seems to be the problem Enid?” asked Jane, when she found her in her room, looking out over the coast.

    “I have the story sorted but it has something missing, especially the title, not catchy enough.”

    “Which is?”

    “The Fabulous Four, it doesn’t ring true and it seems they are all pairing up and there’s no real interaction or conflict.”

    “What compared to that group out there,” said Jane, pointing to a group of five children, digging for treasure in the sand.”

    “And why would five make me famous. Oh, I see what you mean,” said Enid, leaping up and giving Jane a hug.

    Kathy made her way out to the lodge in the wood to find Kenneth with his head in his hands.

    “What’s wrong. How can I help?” asked Kath. “Why don’t we go for a short walk, it always helps me.”

    The wind that had disturbed Lewis, now tore through the willow tree in front of them, bending its fronds as they reached towards the stream. A water vole scuttled across the water and into the undergrowth, as badger snuffled through the vegetation, searching for tasty worms. More scrambling between the fronds of ferns, as a rat stood up on it’s hind legs and sniffed the air.

    “I think you may have stumbled on something here,” said Kenneth, striding back to his room.

    Jane found Alan walking up the path to the small bridge over the stream and watched new leaves float past under the bridge. Jane picked up a couple of sticks, “Here, I’ll race you.”

    They both dropped their sticks and raced to the other side to see which one appeared first.

    “I win,” said Jane.

    “Anyway, why are you out here?” asked Jane. “I thought you were writing.”

    “It’s all the stuffed animals in the children’s room, it’s like they’re mocking me because I have no ideas,” said Alan.

    “Why not get your own back and put them in the story.”

    Alan stared at her for a second. “Forgive me Kathy, I have to get back.”

    Two days later Jane and Kathy waved goodbye to their guests, all feverishly writing on their tables, as the train pulled out of the station.

    “Do you think we’ve sorted out all their problems?”

    “We’ll see when their books come out,” said Jane. “Now, who’s down next week?

     

     

     

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    The Love Triangle

    Heather stood at the back high enough to see over the heads of the others, picking out the heads she knew and the one that she desired. Love could be a wonderful experience, if the novels in her bookcase were anything to go by, although she had not yet had the full experience yet. Well from her side she had, but it was all in her mind as she lay sleepless at night dreaming of romantic candlelit dinners.

    But it seemed as if the object, sorry person, of her love was oblivious of her, despite all her efforts to be noticed. Maybe he was also shy and not versed in the ways of true love. In fact, he was the reason she was standing here in the first place.

    She had met him in the local café where he sat in a corner, nursing a large cappuccino, huddled in front of his laptop. Well ‘met’ was probably too strong a word, she had passed him and said “Hello,” and he had muttered something but that may have been at something on his screen. Hiding behind a newspaper she had snapped a picture of him engrossed in his work, which she had blown up and was now hanging in her bedroom.

    She heard the barista greeting him one morning, after she had set her alarm early to catch better look at him. Paul was definitely the man of her dreams, tight chinos showing off his athletic legs, chest hugging blue shirt, highlighting his toned torso and a brilliant smile as he greeted his server. Once he had gone she quickly got up for a refill.

    “He’s a bit of a dish, isn’t he?”

    “Yes too good looking for his own good,” replied the barista. “Bit wrapped up for me though.”

    Not me, thought Heather. He must either live locally or a least work in the area, she’d have to keep her eye out for him. She soon spotted him carrying a small good quality box, with gold lettering on the side. She noted the word Altus, there would be a clue on the internet.

    Which indeed there was. Altus was the high end manufacturer of musical instruments and, by the size of Pauls case, probably a flute. So maybe the evening outings she had seen him going to, were for an orchestral rehearsal. Her next investigation showed that there would be a classical concert highlighting Hans Rott’s works at the Royal Albert Hall in the summer.

    Heather had been interested in music but had never mastered the violin or piano, although her drum work and rhythm were excellent.  Looking up Hans Rott she found that his Symphony in E major had extensive use of the triangle, maybe this was her way of getting close to Paul. Being in the audience wouldn’t do at all. There was a music shop in the High Street, where to the amusement of the sales assistant, she purchased the best one he had.

    “So what are you darlin’, the new wave of music?” he asked.

    “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

    “I could teach you a thing or two,” he said, with a leering wink. “It’s George by the way,” holding out a hand.

    “No thank you,” said Heather, ignoring the proffered hand. “I have had enough of sexual predators. Thank you.”

    “Predators could teach you lots.”

    Heather walked out before he could grab her, which she thought was his intention, She could imagine his overfamiliar arms reaching around her, whilst teaching her the triangle. No she would and indeed did, learn everything from YouTube, until she had mastered the complex rhythms required.

    Now all she had to do was get into the orchestra. Life was full of opportunities and as luck would have it a small article about a car crash mentioned that the victim had been a member of the orchestra and that she was the lead proponent of playing the triangle. Thrilled that she had a chance to fulfil the dream of getting close to Paul, she rang the leader of the orchestra to see if they had already filled the part.

    “I’m sorry but we are thinking of dropping that symphony, as without an expert player the movement is very flat.”

    “I have mastered that sequence, give me 5 minutes and I could show you.”

    “Well, it would save us having to reprint the programme,” he said. “Five minutes, no more, come over at 5pm.”

    Heather arrived early, almost too eager but after her recital was delighted to be accepted.

    She joined in the rehearsals and excelled at her role and had even had a few words with Paul, mostly about music and his flute. The only fly in the ointment was the boy, George from the music shop, who was also part of the orchestra and kept trying to corner her and actively interfered when she was close to Paul.

    The big day arrived and she was smartly dressed and full of excitement hoping to finally nab Paul after their triumph. Sitting at the back waiting for the Symphony she watched Paul in his impeccable dinner suit, expertly play his flute, as she daydreamed of what might be.

    The time for her performance was upon her. The orchestra played the opening sections of the symphony until the conductor looked at her to ensure she was ready. She had her instrument ready and striker poised, until the conductor pointed at her and with a flamboyant movement signalled her to start.

    Instead of the joyous tinkles and dings of the triangle there was just a dull thunking. George turned towards her, grinning like an ape. The rest of the players studiously avoided turning around.

    Heather looked at her triangle to find clear Sellotape wrapped around the metal. George stifled a laugh.

    The conductor glared at her, turned around, standing on one leg and staring out at the sea of faces, sure that they would understand when he gave a shrug as if to say ‘Look what I have to work with!’

     

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    The Jewel Thief

    Jewel Thief

     

    A spark reflected in the torch and caught the eye of the caver as she squeezed her way into an unexplored chamber. Why on earth had she decided that this was a great holiday, scrambling down dark, damp, cold holes, covered with mud and underground roots, but it had been on her friend’s bucket list before she had died. The challenge of dealing with her passing, was nothing compared to the promise she had made to live out her friend’s bucket list. She had already suffered a bungy jump, a climb up Kilimanjaro, frightening, white water rafting down a swollen river in Wales, a death defying Skydive and potholing was the last on her friend’s list.

    Jane’s preferred bucket list, had been sitting in front of a log fire, sipping Bailey’s, chocolate in hand, being hugged by her special girlfriend. But as with all rash promises made to a dying partner, she was determined to finish them all. She hoped that living out her friend’s wishes would take away the deep pain Jane had felt since she had gone.

    Jane was drawn closer to the sparkle and dragged her body towards the source, trying to reach the mysterious object. One last heave and she was close enough to see a white diamond, surrounded by a pink flower, glistening in her head light. She grasped the jewel and screamed as she realised it was still on the skeletal remains of a finger. Recovering from her fright she played the torch into the alcove to see a complete skeleton, half submerged in the mud floor. How on earth did that get down here, obviously old, maybe even an ancient burial, or worse a murderer hiding a body. She quickly extracted her phone and took a picture before she backed away, retracing her passage through the cave until she could turn around, still clutching the finger and jewel, as evidence in case she was not believed.

    Once on the surface she couldn’t help blurting out about her discovery. “There’s an ancient body down there,” said Jane. “Well a skeleton anyway.”

    “Really,” said James. “Where?”

    “In that unexplored chamber you told me to try,” said Jane, taking out the finger with the jewel fused to the bone. Now she could see it, there was a central diamond, set in a ruby shaped like a rose with green emeralds, depicting leaves, set around the outside.

    “We’ll have to call the police,” said James. “Even if the finger seems to be old.”

    “The ring is amazing,” said Fran. “I hope you can keep it.”

    “I’ll have to hand it in to the police and inform the local antiquities department,” said Jane. “So, I suppose my chances of keeping my hands on it are probably slim.”

    They tidied up all their potholing equipment, whilst waiting for the police to arrive.

    “Was there a whole skeleton down there?” asked Fran

    “I think so, unfortunately I got a bit of a fright and I don’t think the photo will be that clear.” She showed them the fuzzy picture outlining the skull and ribcage.

    “Wow a ‘skeletie’,” said James, trying to make a bit more of a light-hearted comment, to brighten up their mood.

    The police finally arrived complete with an expert potholer. Jane showed them the finger with the jewel and the dim photo she had taken. The police agreed that with the level of decomposition and the fact that it was half buried in silt, suggested it was ancient and not some sort of modern murder case.

    “Where did you find the body?” asked the potholer.

    “I don’t think ‘body’ would describe what I found,” said Jane and showed him on the map where she had made her discovery.

    The police asked Jane and the others for statements and contact details before asking them to keep the discovery to themselves until they could determine exactly what had gone on.

    Six months later Jane was sitting in the lounge of the Dartmouth Hotel, looking out over the sunlit bay, having enjoyed a long, leisurely walk along the river. She twirled the recently returned ring, having not been claimed by anyone, nor such financially valuable to be classed as treasure, leaving Jane as the rightful owner. She had dedicated it to her lost friend, the hurt of her loss gradually lessening as time moved forward.

    “Do you mind if I join you?” said a portly gentleman, sporting a wonderful moustache

    “I’m sorry,” said Jane. “There’s lots of other tables.”

    “I’ve been admiring the ring your wearing.”

    Jane quickly hid the ring in her palm, before realising who was standing there. “Poirot?”

    “Actually, David Suchét. We’re doing some filming down on the front and I couldn’t be bothered to change again.”

    “Oh yes, well Poirot, sorry David, please sit down.”

    “Thank you.”

    “What are you filming?”

    “Evil under the Sun.”

    “The one with the jewel hidden in the pipe?”

    “That’s the one,” said David. “Hence my curiosity with the ring. I assume that’s the one found on the skeleton in the cave.”

    “Yes, such an adventure. I had my 15 minutes of fame there didn’t I?”

    “Indeed,” said David. “But they never found who the body belonged to, nor the jewel.”

    “No, very curious. I’m sure there’s a detective story there somewhere but I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

    “May I see the ring?”

    “Of course,” said Jane, easing the ring off her finger and passing it over.

    “Very distinctive. I’m sure we can find out its origins.”

    “We?” she said, reaching out for her ring.

    “Sorry, yes we, you and me,” he said, handing back the ring.

    “But you’re not a real detective.”

    “But I am an actor with a rabid curiosity,” he said. “When are you free and we can start at the local library.”

    “I’m down here for a week, so anytime.”

    “Let’s say, I meet you here tomorrow at 10 and then we’ll start a voyage of discovery.”

    “OK, but only if we do it incognito.”

    “If you wish, lovely to meet you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    Well here’s a turn up for the books, getting involved with a star of Agatha’s movies and becoming a detective all in one go. Once her childhood dream had been to work as a detective, investigating crimes that the police couldn’t solve, but as usual, life was never what you planned.

    The next morning Jane was sitting in the hotel lounge, dressed in lacy blouse, a mauve cardigan and sporting a crochet hat, as Poirot arrived mincing across the floor.

    “Mrs Marple, I presume,” holding out for her hand.

    “Poirot, how good to see you.”

    “Is that lavender I can smell,” asked David.

    The both started giggling, wondering what the other patrons must be thinking.

    “I have been told the ring is from the early 19th century,” said Jane. “We can start looking at the archive from that period.”

    They walked into the local library building and asked the astonished receptionist where they could research old newspapers and historical archives.

    They were soon scouring the papers and articles for any mysteries and disappearances from 1800 forward.

    “I’ve found something,” said Jane, triumphantly, after an hour or so. “Look here.”

    ‘Nothing has been seen of Viscountess Dartmouth for 7 years now. She disappeared on the 5th June 1820 before her impending 2nd marriage to the Duke of Cornwall. Her sons are now seeking to have her death legalised so that they can inherit the estate of approximately 26,000 acres.’

    “Now that’s really interesting” said David. “I’ve noticed a few depictions of local heraldry around the walls of the library. I wonder if the Dartmouth coat of arms is around here.

    They walked around the building looking at the depictions around the walls.

    “Here it is,” said David. “It’s exactly like your ring.”

    They stared at the crest, a white shield covered in black symbols with the double pink rose in the middle and a bright white stamen in the centre. Jane held up the ring and they were astounded by the similarities.

    “This is definitely her ring,” said Jane. “Now to find out how it got down the cave. We need to investigate this family further.”

    David went back to the librarian. “Is there a history of the local family, The Viscounts of Dartmouth.

    She went through her rolodex for any mentions. “If we have anything it will be under section F over there.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Jane.”

    “Sssshh!”

    “Sorry.”

    Jane and David went over to the local family section and after a few minutes came across a large volume entitled Dartmouth – A Short History. “I’d hate to get the long one,” said Jane, lifting the huge book onto the reading desk.

    They slowly thumbed through the book until they reached the relevant era.

    “Here we are,” said David reading the chapter title. “Lineage 1820 to 1830.”

    ‘The line of the Dartmouth family was almost lost when the Viscountess was about to marry a Duke, which would move all the property into his control. However, fate took a dramatic turn when she disappeared one stormy night, whilst taking her hunting dogs out for an evening walk.’

    “Are you thinking what I’m thinking,” asked David.

    “It sounds a bit suspicious to me,” agreed Jane. “Three lads about to lose their inheritance would certainly be my suspects.”

    “But we’d never prove anything after 100 years.”

    “No but I might do some digging on my own and see if I can get friendly with some of the descendants.”

    “Be very careful,” said David. “I’m sorry not to be much help but filming continues back to Majorca tomorrow. You will keep in touch, won’t you.”

    “I will, Poirot.”

    “Bye, Mrs Marple.”

    That should confuse the locals a bit more, thought Jane, trying to suppress a chuckle. Now for some more serious investigations. Jane realised that this was going to be a long process, starting with local ancestry and old census documents.

    Jane, after trying to fit investigations between the need to earn money and make a new life for herself, took many months, but she had finally discovered what had happened to the Dartmouth family. The three sons had been challenged about their desire to have their mother declared dead and the estate passed to an elder daughter. There were suspicions, but no proof that the sons had somehow done away with their mother.

    Jane was now about to meet the youngest descendent in the place where it had all started, the small hotel lounge overlooking the river Dart.

    A pretty girl was shown to her table, “Hello, you must be Jane, I’m Felicity Dart.”

    “Hello Felicity thank you for coming, I have some news and information for you since I sent the letter.”

    “Exciting or unhappy news.”

    “Exciting I think,” said Jane. “The courts were right not to give the male ancestors the estate. The skeleton’s DNA did match yours and therefore the skeleton is most likely to have been the Viscountess of Dartmouth.”

    “Which is exciting but sad that she met such an unfortunate end,” said Felicity. “Do they know how she died?”

    “I’m sorry to tell you, but probably strangled.”

    “Oh!” sobbed Felicity.

    “Come here,” said Jane, giving her a heart-felt hug.

    “It was a long time ago, so I shouldn’t be sad.”

    “But she has left you her ring,” said Jane, sliding it over her finger, surprised at the tingling sensation she felt in her own hand. “And now I no longer feel like a jewel thief.”

    “Thank you, Jane it’s lovely.”

    Not long after, Jane and Felicity sat entwined on the sofa, in front of a log fire, sharing chocolates and a glass of Baileys.

    “No more bucket lists,” said Felicity.

    “No, once was enough.”

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    Worst Christmas Ever – a text message goes wrong

    Julie had woken refreshed and over excited; she had always loved Christmas mornings and this one promised to be the best ever, only to have her dreams shattered by one simple text message.

    She had met John last Boxing Day on a blind date, set up through an internet dating site. She realised she had hit the jackpot from the first meeting, a gentle giant, full of interesting stories of his travels but grounded by his love for his family. He had been attentive from the first, fascinated by her looks and enchanted by her conversation. He had even been understanding of her compulsive tidying of the table as they enjoyed a meal at the local Chinese restaurant.

    She looked back fondly at their interesting dates, not only the usual trips to the cinema and theatre but also to the museums and historic houses that she loved. Many of these visits prompted by her role as contributor to House and Gardens magazine.

    When it eventually happened, their lovemaking had been wonderful and mutually exciting. In truth she had secretly visited the ‘naughty’ sites on the web, to make sure she was doing everything right.

    This Christmas promised even more joy, as she was convinced that John would propose, as they had been looking in jewellers’ windows, discussing engagement rings and she had picked out one she especially liked, as it reminded her of her mother’s ring she had always admired. Sadly, it had been lost when her mother had been killed in a plane crash over the seas in Asia.

    She had adorned her house tastefully, with exquisite Christmas decorations and a perfectly shaped tree, symmetrically hung with twinkling blue and white lights. They had switched on the lights in a little ceremony, pretending to be superstars invited to turn on the town’s lights. A small pile of neatly wrapped presents huddled under the tree, heralding a joy of secrets, waiting to be opened on John’s return. One of the boxes could even be her ring, although no visible box was small enough.

    She had spent the morning cleaning the small house, proud of her achievement in having purchased it with her mother’s legacy. She had created a tiny version of the elegant houses she visited, small but perfectly formed, which was just as John had described her, after their first few meetings.

    She sat in the kitchen, tears dripping onto the screen of her smartphone, blurring the message, staring brightly back at her.

    ‘Relationship Broken won’t be back forever leave stuff outside’

    He didn’t even want to come inside and tell her what had gone wrong. She decided to make a list of possible problems with explanations, so that she could leave it outside with his personal things. She inserted into a plastic sleeve, so that the snow wouldn’t smudge her message.

    She carefully took his small collection of clothes, neatly folding each article and arranging them from largest on the bottom, before wrapping the pile in clingfilm. She put his toiletries in a plastic bag after meticulously cleaning each item. She took her presents from him and placed them with his clothes.

    Finally, with tears streaming down her face, she placed the ensemble outside the door under the protecting porch, after clearing the snow from the step. Errant snowflakes floating onto her cheeks, putting the final touches on her already devastated face.

    She closed and locked the door and went upstairs to change into her nightdress and gown, before coming downstairs to watch a happy Christmas film. Unfortunately, the happiness of the heroine, highlighted her own situation, and far from helping her forget today’s sad event. made her even more depressed.

    ………..

    John arrived at Julies house soon after his expected 4 o’clock return, having had a fearful journey through the thickening snow. Despite the frustration of other drivers’ inability to drive through the lightest of snow and the smallest of ice patches. He was feeling particularly happy though and he inserted the key into Julie’s front door only to find the Yale lock had been snibbed shut.

    “Hello!” he called. “What’s going on?”

    Julie was obviously at home, where else would she be, he thought, as there was a flickering glow from the TV, behind the closed curtains.

    He saw the pile of his clothes neatly folded and stacked on the porch. Had she kicked him out for being a few minutes late? She must have guessed he was about to propose. Maybe that had scared her off, but to end what promised to be a life of happiness for the sake of a few minutes, seemed a bit extreme, even for her.

    He spotted the plastic envelope with the enclosed list of Julies possible problems but as he read it, he realised this was obviously a list of her own perceived shortcomings and insecurities, ending with ‘I’m sorry I haven’t met your expectations and I wish you well for the future.’ followed by the smallest x.

    This was not what he had expected and certainly not a result of being a few minutes, late but some sort of misunderstanding. He rang the bell and called out to her. “Julie, answer the door please. I love you and we need to talk.”

    “Go away,” came a muffled reply from inside the locked door. “I’ve left your stuff outside as requested. What more do you want?”

    “I didn’t request anything, when did I do that?”

    “On your text, you said we were breaking up.”

    “What? No, I don’t think so.”

    She opened the letterbox flap to show John her smartphone with the text message.

    John knelt down to read. ‘Relationship Broken won’t be back forever leave stuff outside’

    “Oh dear, predictive text and cold fingers,” said John. “What I meant to say was my aunt and uncle’s car had broken down. I’ll be back at 4pm this evening and leave the outside light on.”

    He grabbed a special present and passed it through the letterbox. “Here, open this one.”

    He watched through the gap as she carefully opened the present, careful not to tare the paper before spreading it out flat. Inside the first box was a second and a third before revealing the last blue, felt box.

    “Julie I’m already on my knees out here. Will you marry me?”

    “But what about my OCD?”

    “That’s one of the things I love about you, I need your neatness to combat my chaotic life style.”

    The door flew open as she rushed out, tripping over him and falling together into the snow. “Oh yes oh yes,” she said, smothering him with kisses.

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    A House is Forever not just for Christmas

    Pauline woke with a start. Someone was creeping into her bedroom. Her heart was thumping in her chest and she could hardly contain her excitement. She was sure that Father Christmas could hear her, despite desperately trying to keep still. Why did she have to have such a squeaky bed, any movement would betray the fact that she was awake. Convinced that if she made any sound, Father Christmas would rush out without leaving her any presents. She controlled her breathing as the shape cautiously crept around the room to the foot of the bed.

    Earlier in the month, she had helped her father put up the lights – greens; whites; reds and her personal favourite, blues. Draping them across the small tree in the corner of the cottage, with a special angel on top for her mother. They were only allowed to put up the decorations after 1st December, so that was always when Pauline started counting down to the big day. Her father had taken her to the local toy supermarket where the dazzling and bewildering array of fantastic toys were beyond her imagination and also beyond her father’s wallet. They had bought nothing at the till and Pauline’s eyes started welling up at the lost opportunity. Maybe if they had been to a smaller shop, she could have picked out something affordable that she really wanted.

    The door quietly closed behind her welcome intruder, but Pauline waited an age before she felt comfortable in checking the anticipated gifts. Finally, she had waited long enough, her curiosity too demanding to leave well alone. She crawled to the end of her bed and cautiously pulled the stocking onto her blanket, thinking back to the days before Christmas break, when the children in her class had talked about all the presents they would be getting for Christmas, from the latest dolls and their outfits; prams and pushchairs; kitchen sets; fashionable clothes; shoes; typewriters and even sewing machines.

    Pauline had kept quiet, in case she revealed that her chances of any meaningful presents was slim. Her father was a mere carpenter, didn’t earn a lot, and since the death of his wife, Pauline’s mother, seemed to be in a state of quiet shock, left without his soul mate and unable to properly console his daughter. Pauline tried her hardest to cope without her mother who had passed away suddenly, last Christmas, the worst present ever.

    Pauline felt the lumps and bumps in the stocking. A most wonderful feeling, desperately trying to guess the contents. The apple and orange were too obvious, and disappointing, but then a square box crackling with wrapping paper, held more promise, as did the strangely shaped, unfathomable oblong. Something soft and squishy, promised maybe the cuddly teddy she had seen in the shop. Maybe her father had snuck back into the shop and selected the one she had coveted.

    She daren’t switch her light on, as it was far too early to get up, so she tucked the unopened stocking under the covers, unwilling to let it out of her arms.

    Pauline felt something pressing into her side, before realising that daytime had finally arrived and she had turned over onto her wonderful stocking. “Yippee,” she cried. “Time to get up.”

    She sat up, opened the curtains and gasped with joy as she watched the snow tumbling out of the sky, turning everything white. “What a perfect Christmas, now for my presents.”

    She opened the end of the stocking and extracted the first package, ripping the wrapping paper and tossing it to the floor. “Oh, wine gums,” Not the cuddly bear she had thought. “Maybe the next one would be more exciting,” but she saw it was only chocolate buttons. The oblong present contained only an oblong box. Pauline began to realise that maybe this Christmas would be the same as all her previous years. The apple and orange were placed carefully on her bedside table. “Only one more,” she said, crossing her fingers as she slowly opened the plain cardboard box.

    Inside, laid out carefully, were three miniature dolls. One dressed as her father, one of herself and the third, a beautiful depiction of her mother. Tears welled up in her eyes and dribbled down her cheeks. Not only at the memories of her mother, but also at the thought that her father, and his small income, had managed to construct such beautiful present. She knew in her heart that her father played Father Christmas and loved him for the intrigue and pretence.

    It was time to go down and thank her father, not only for the presents but the wonderful thought behind them. Miles better than all the expensive, impersonally built toys from far off factories. She dressed in her best outfit, well cleanest at any rate, and walked downstairs, smelling the toast and hopefully a soft-boiled egg for her breakfast.

    “Good morning dearest sweetheart,” said her father, giving her a kiss on her forehead. “Happy Christmas.”

    “Hello Daddy,” said Pauline, giving him a hug as he leant down to the floor. “Look at the dolls Father Christmas made for me. They look just like us.”

    “How wonderful,” said her father “Let’s have breakfast and the see if there’s anything else Father Christmas left under the tree.”

    “More presents?”

    “Maybe only one, but let’s eat first.”

    Pauline had never eaten her egg quicker than today, dipping her soldiers into the egg, spilling bright yellow yolk down the sides of the shell and onto her plate.

    “Careful! Don’t waste it.”

    “Sorry,” she said, wiping the side with her finger to get the last morsel.

    “Ready?”

    “Oh yes.”

    “Close your eyes,” as he led her into the lounge. “Open them.”

    Pauline gave a shriek as she saw huge present by the tree, “For me?” Maybe this would be something she could talk about, as she knelt down and slowly undid the brown paper wrapping. A roof emerged, with all individual tiles marked out, followed by the outside walls and windows. “A doll’s House!”

    “Not any doll’s house,” he said.

    “No, it’s our House,” she replied. “How wonderful. But it has no insides and no people.”

    “Where are your other presents?”

    “Oh upstairs.” She said excitement building once again. “I’ll get them.” Pauline rushed up the stairs and collected the box and fruit.

    “Right. Now open the front wall of the house, there’s a small catch.”

    Pauline fumbled on the catch with her trembling fingers and finally opened the door wide. “But there’s nothing inside.”

    Her father brought another rectangular box from behind the tree and handed it to Pauline. She was shivering with delight as she ripped open the package to reveal a perfect Kitchen, just like theirs, complete with another Mum doll, this time in her pinny.

    “Right, now push the kitchen into the house.”

    Pauline eased the kitchen in and set her mother in front of the oven. “Look Dad she’s cooking our supper.”

    “So she is,” as he handed her another box.

    Pauline opened this one more carefully as it rattled slightly, inside was a perfect dining room this time with her mother laying the table.

    A third box appeared as if by magic, now she had a lounge with her mother sitting in front of the fire, knitting a tiny blue jumper. “Oh Daddy, this is wonderful thank you so much.”

    She unwrapped the fourth box to reveal an exquisite bedroom with her mum doing her hair in front of an exquisite mirror.

    “Put that on top of the lounge,” instructed her dad.

    Pauline carefully slotted the bedroom into the first-floor section, followed by another room her father passed her, made to look exactly like their bathroom.

    “Where’s my bedroom?” queried Pauline.

    “That’s the other box you have. I thought we could decorate that together.”

    Finally, he produced a tiny garden with mum in her gardening clothes, planting flowers.

    “Dad this is the most wonderful Christmas, thank you so much.”

    “We both miss your mother so much and I thought that if we couldn’t have her with us, we could have her in spirit, in this house and we can do all the things together, as if she had never left.”

    Pauline hugged her father so tightly to make sure he realised what a wonderful gift he had made for her.

    “Now then, how are we going to decorate your room?”

    “I’ll get some things but I think mother should be reading me a bedtime story.”

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Merlin’s Travelling spell goes wrong.

    “I’m sorry,” said a burley man, as he bumped into me on a crowded byway.

    I stood up and backed into an open room away from the crowds, but was thrown forward to the floor by an invisible force. “What!”

    “Careful,” said the strangely dressed man. “You’ll break the glass.”

    “Glass?”

    The man picked me up, “Yes glass,” he said, tapping on the invisible barrier. “What are you doing, promoting a play.”

    “I have no idea, what is this place.”

    “Oxford Street. I assume you’re lost, here let me show you.”

    From nowhere he plucked a black box and showed me a picture, all lines and squiggles and red dots.

    “Here you are. Where are you going? I’ll set it up.”

    “I’m here to see King Arthur,”

    He tapped the black box, “Ah yes that’s on at the Odeon, just up on the left past the Virgin shop.”

    “Uhh thank you.” I replied, a little amazed. “There’s a shop where they sell virgins, how interesting.”

    “Sorry?” asked the man.

    “Nothing,” I said making my way through the crowed market place, full of people in the strangest garb.

    My last travelling spell had obviously transported me to a major town with all these people, but what were those big red square boxes, full of people, moving along the road without horses.

    “What’s the matter with you,” said a young woman as I brushed into her. This one was dressed in more respectable clothes of a lady of the court.

    “Sorry, miles away,” literally I thought.

    “Love the outfit.”

    “Outfit? Oh, you mean my clothes.”

    “Yes.” she said. “Well Merlin, are you off to see Arthur?”

    “Yes,” I thanked my lucky stars to find someone who understood. “Do I know you?”

    “No, but the staff and the hat give you away,” she said “I’m Gwen by the way.”

    She linked arms and we wove our way through the bustling crowds.

    “So, who built these huge castles or are they monuments,” I asked, looking around at the series of immense buildings, stretching into the distance.

    “These things? Oh, they’re just monuments to the Gods of consumerism.”

    “That’s a new religion to me.”

    “I think we might be late if these people don’t get out of the way,” said Gwen. Seeing a massive sea of teens in matching red t-shirts.

    “No problem,” I said with a wave of my arms, parting the crowds all the way to the flashing signs.

    “Is everyone off to see the king?” I asked as the signs above flashed ‘King Arthur’ at us.

    “Where are you sitting?” she asked.

    “I normally stand at his right,” I told her.

    “No, your ticket. You do have a ticket?” she said showing me a slip of paper.

    “Let me see,” I said, taking it out of her hands. I marvelled at the tiny neat symbols on the bit of paper. I waved my hands once more and handed her ticket back, retaining the copy I’d made.

    “Oh, very clever,” said Gwen, admiring my sleight of hand.

    She led me down an aisle towards an immense white wall and pulled me down into the softest seat I had ever encountered.

    “Nicer than the moss and ferns seats we use,” I told her.

    “Where do you come from?” she asked, as the lights dimmed and music started.

    I jumped up “What’s happening.”

    “SSShh, sit down, people are looking.”

    “Oh sorry, very different to the ceremonies we have at home,” I told her.

    The white wall in front of us turned black, then changed to a scene of rolling hills and in the distance a castle.

    “Have I been transported again?”

    “What? No, it’s a picture.”

    “How did they paint it so quickly?”

    “I beg your pardon.”

    “Granted,” thinking she had burped.

    “Just watch.” she commanded.

    I couldn’t understand how they had all these people, battles scenes and fighting, all on what was such a small stage.

    Certainly, there was a king of sorts, and some sort of magician, presumably pretending to be me, who made lights like lightening from his stupid stick, turning people into frogs. What a waste of magic I thought.

    The temple lit up again and she took my hand directing me out into the open air and pulled me into a smaller temple to a God called Costa, where people sat around sipping at frothy drinks, leaving milky lips each time they dipped into their pots.

    She brought me a white pot filled with a hot steamy drink.

    “Is this a magic potion?” I asked. I hadn’t tagged her as a witch.

    “No, have you never had a cappuccino before?”

    Not in our village.” Wonder what awful fate she had in mind. I waved my hands over the drink to dispel any potion she might have given me, but there were no warning bubbles so I hoped it would be alright to drink.

    “So, what did you think?” Gwen asked. “Great film wasn’t it.”

    “Is that your idea of what it’s like in King Arthur’s court?”

    “Well not mine but certainly the people who wrote it.”

    “Well they’ve obviously not been there.”

    “Have you?”

    “Of course, would you like to see what it’s really like?” I asked having realised what was wrong with my original travel spell.

    “I’ve been to Tintagel.”

    “I don’t know that place,” I said. “But I can take you to see the real King Arthur.”

    “Really, I’d love that,” she answered, with a sparkle in her eyes. “Where’s your car?”

    “I don’t know what a car is, but hold my hands and I’ll take you there.”

    “Oh no, wait!”

    Too late, the temple dissolved and stone walls appeared in front of us.

    “Ah, Merlin there you are,” said the man seated at the head of table. “What kept you and who’s this enchanting maid?”

    “King Arthur, meet Gwen.”

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    Flights Of Fantasy

    “Do you need a lift,” said a growling voice beside Casey, as she walked along the country road, making her turn and jump out of the way.

    She hadn’t heard the car draw up beside her, but when she turned it was not a car at all but a purple eyed flying dragon.

    “Where are you going,” she asked, thinking it best to humour the scaly monster.

    “The hills,” said the dragon, between its huge whiter than white teeth. Trails of smoke drifting out of its wide nostrils.

    “There are many hills around here,” said Casey, edging further into the hedge.

    “But only one that matters.”

    “Why does it matter?”

    “It holds my stash of gold.”

    “And no doubt the charred bones of unsuspecting maidens.”

    “Only the ugly ones.”

    “Not the gold diggers?”

    “Oh yes, maybe a few of those as well,” said the impatient Dragon, growing tired of trying to make conversation.

    “Where do you think I fit in?”

    “Well you’re very pretty of course.”

    “How would you know. I thought beauty for you would be another lady dragon.”

    “Few and far between these days.”

    “Dragons or lady dragons?”

    “Both. St George has a lot to answer for you know.”

    “Yes, bit of a tyrant that one.”

    “Yes, he killed my father. Mind you he was a bit long in the tooth.” said the dragon, baring his foot-long incisors.

    “Well he was attacking the village, what do you expect.”

    “He used a long sword and that wasn’t in the script.”

    “There was a script?”

    “Figure of speech. Talking of which you do have a fine figure.”

    Casey twirled around. “You think so?”

    “Yes, so what’s it to be?”

    “I prefer to keep my flesh on my bones.”

    “Your choice, mind you it would be a shame for people to find your charred remains in a lonely lane.”

    “So really there’s no choice then.”

    “No, just grab a scale and hop on.”

    “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

    “What?”

    “Use the word ‘Just’, editors hate it.”

    “What’s this, some sort of literary exercise.”

    “Much easier than going to the gym,” said Casey.

    “You’re just annoying me.”

    “There you go again.”

    “Stop it, come on I’m a hop on hop off person, I may even share some of my gold.”

    “Have you ever done that?”

    “Well, no not really but there’s always a first time.”

    “Can I bring my sword?”

    “You haven’t got a sword, I checked.”

    “Yes, but you missed this one here, stuck in the stone.”

    “That’s been there for years, no-one can pull it out.”

    “That’s just an old wive’s tale.”

    “Caught you.”

    “What?”

    “You used the Just word.”

    “Touché,” said Casey, pulling the sword from the stone with an easy sweep and holding it at the dragon’s neck.

    “I think I will take that lift to your lair, but on my terms.”

    “Are you related?”

    “What? Oh, to George, yes my great grandfather.”

    “I knew there was something suspicious about the way you were wandering the country lanes. Waiting to entrap an unsuspecting dragon.”

    Casey climbed onto the neck of the dragon, careful to avoid a sneaky snort of fire.

    “Now then, let’s not get too fiery today, anyway I’ve got my fireproof clothes on.”

    “Damn, health and safety gets everywhere these days.”

    “Says the dragon wearing a high vis jacket.”

    “George and his interfering do-gooders.”

    Casey pulled out her crash helmet and strapped it beneath her chin. “I’m ready,” she said digging her spurns into his weak flanks. Soon they were ensconced in the Dragon’s Lair, high in the hills, where Casey descended from the dragon’s neck and set about the next phase of her plan.

    “Oh Look! Someone’s stealing your rubies.”

    The dragon whipped around searching the depths for would be thieves.

    Casey quickly erected a cardboard cut-out of herself made out of old Quaker Instant Oats packages, depicted herself scooping up some nuggets.

    She hid behind the immense pile of treasure and helped herself to handfuls of gold and jewels whilst whistling the William Tell Overture. A white drone descended from the roof of the cavern.

    “Hey!” said the Dragon. “You can’t trick me like that.” sending a billowing cloud of red hot fire, hurtling to the figure by the gold. Whoosh and the cardboard cut-out was gone in the promised instant.

    Casey tucked her bag in her waistband and held onto the drone. “Home James.” Stupid name for a drone really.

    The dragon saw her ascending up the ventilation shaft, and despite huffing and puffing could not create another fiery bolt so soon after the first. “Drat,” he said “I won’t get fooled again.”

    Back home in her warm kitchen Casey relaxed in her favourite chair and picked up a book. Her husband, Jason, was soon home from making hay whilst the sun shone.

    “So, did you get some,” he asked.

    “Dadah,” said Casey pointing to the bulging bag overflowing with gold, sitting on the kitchen table.

    “Excellent,” said Jason. “That will keep the wolf from the door for another year. So did he suspect anything?”

    “No he’s getting old and dragomentia is very useful sometimes.”

    “I see you’re reading your favourite Jonathan Swift book again.”

    “Yes somehow ‘Gullible Dragons’ seem so appropriate somehow.”

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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