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Short Story

11898940_10153633488311095_2218785026502278564_nThe candle guttered as the breeze from the open window blew across the flame. The room was otherwise dark and silent, Charlie and Evie long having run out of conversation and retreated to their own thoughts. Charlie assumed that Evie was composing a poem. He had always envied her ability to ‘write’ in her head and only later commit to paper. He needed to see words on a page, to see what they looked like and to capture them before they were lost. He was thinking about money. Or lack of money. Hence the Friday night blackout. It saved on electricity. At least that was what Evie said. ‘With what we save on a Friday we can go out or have a take away on a Saturday, and anyway it’s a great way to come up with ideas and work on them’. Except it never seemed to end up that there was enough money left for a night out and he never came up with ideas that he could remember long enough to use.

Charlie knew that Evie was by far the better writer of the two of them. She seemed to turn her hand to any genre, sold articles and fake agony aunt letters and responses to the local papers and even had some interest from an agent for her unfinished novel. Not that they ever had any money, even with his part time wages and the money he managed to get from selling by the inch filler pieces on local clubs and societies to the local free papers, they still struggled.

A moth flew in and started to circle the candle. Charlie watched as it flew close to the flame, then further away only to be drawn back again. Evie gasped as it flew straight through the flame and trailed smoke as it circled a little wider for a while before, inevitably, being drawn back. Charlie just knew she was composing some deep meaningful poem. He tried to come up with some ideas himself. He could write about pilots in a dog fight. Something meaningful about how the pilots had more in common with each other than with the politicians who sent them to fight. He reached for the ever present notebook and pen, then realised that he couldn’t see well enough to write and Evie would never allow a light. Even so, he stared at the flame and started to plot the story even though he knew he would never remember it, hoping that something useful would remain somewhere in his subconscious.

Time passed. The moth continued to flirt with the flame and somehow just avoid being burned alive.

“Bed time.” Evie said. “Have you come up with any ideas?”

“A few” he lied.

“I’ve got a poem on the go. That moth was a brilliant inspiration, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, of course I am. Always.”

Evie went to bed. Charlie blew out the candle and closed the window before he followed her up. As he got into bed Evie recited some of the poem she’d ‘written’. She was using the moth circling the flame as a metaphor for a destructive relationship, subverting what appeared to be a love poem into something really quite dark in the final verse. It was genius. Charlie was devastated. Again.

Charlie dreamed. He was a moth and Evie was the flame he was circling. Every time he tried to get away she drew him back. But whenever he got too close he got burned. He woke with a start. Realising he would not get back to sleep he quietly got out of bed and went downstairs. The candle sat where it had been the night before. The moth was dead, its body preserved in the re-hardened wax. Before Evie woke he had packed and gone. Out into the darkness.

 

 

Photograph (c) Karen Downs-Barton 2015. Thanks to Karen for the writing prompt and kind permission to use her photograph. You can find her at: http://karendownsbarton.blogspot.co.uk/

Words (c) Chris Johnson 2015

 

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She parks the van in a different place every night. At least once a week she’ll find a campsite and shower. In between times pull ins, car parks and quiet roadsides will do. Bathing in rivers and drinking from her carefully rationed wine stores. She sleeps with the doors double locked, the windows closed and the phone off. Avoids the radio, hides from the newspapers and hasn’t seen a TV, let alone watched one, for weeks. There’s a lap top hidden in the van somewhere, but she’s not looking for it.

No one knows her, her anonymity is closely guarded. Last week she tried to stay for two nights in one place and someone tried to make friends. That’s not the plan. She needs some time being no one and be nowhere.

All too soon she’ll be back. All too soon she’ll be Miss Brown, the art teacher. But not yet.

Author’s note: This story is part of a work in progress, a series  stories inspired by the people and places of the Peak District National Park.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

“Pass me that spanner would you please?” Asked Vi’s disembodied voice from under the battered Mini. “And you may want to stand back a bit.”

I did as she asked, then moved back a few feet.

“Further!”

I stepped back a few feet more.

“ Little further!!”

And again.

Finally she pulled herself out from under the car.

“What are you doing all the way over there?”

“You told be to step back, then said ‘further’. Twice”

“Oh, sorry, the ‘further’ was me talking to myself about how far to tighten the nuts. She’s fixed now.

#

 “How did she get into this state?”

“A little run in with an anti-war protest. I was there to see Jimi Hendrix, nearly got myself stuck there. Could have been nasty.”

“And there’s no time for me to fix her up properly?”

“No, I’ve got a job on that’s pretty urgent.”

“So you’re an actual witness? That must be exciting. We don’t get many of you guys down here.”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“What do you do?”

“Well, you know the old philosophical question, ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no-one’s there to hear it, does it make a noise?’”

“Yes.”

“I’m there to hear it. For centuries archaeologists and historians argued about what actually happened in history, and in some cases whether anything happened. My job is to go and find out.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not if I stay on script and don’t get caught up the action.”

“So where are you off to now?”

“A minor war in Europe 5th Century by the modern calendar. I’m commissioned to witness the death of a minor noble who otherwise may have unified most of the Germanic world.”

“And you just turn up and seen him die?”

“Pretty much, a quick in and out.”

“Ok, I’ll just test run her for you and then you’ll be off.”

“I’m in a hurry. How long does the test run take?”

“Half an hour real time, maybe a bit longer.”

“Look, tell the truth, I stayed in 1970 a bit longer that I should have done. I went early to see Hendrix play before he died and kinda got sidetracked. Can I take her without a test?”

“No. But I can come to 5th Century Europe?”

“It’s strictly against the rules you know.”

“So’s taking an untested machine. First she goes back and forth on auto, then I take a ride, then you get her back. But, I’ve always wanted to see history. Real history. We’re only allowed to test drive these things to certain times, and even then we’re not allowed to stop. So there’s a deal there if you want it?”

“Ok, hop in.”

#

 I fiddled with the controls and set the trip computer for the correct time and place.

“Buckle up, we’ll be there before you know it!”

The first sign of a problem was when the year counter started to accelerate. The second sign was the noise. By the time the stars started accelerating past us towards a spot light years into the distance I knew that we were beyond control.

Vi looked across and shouted “Even I know this is not normal – what’s happening?”

“As far as I can tell the trip computer’s failed and we’re accelerating into the past.”

“At least it’s not something I fixed then!” Vi screamed. “What’s that?” She pointed ahead at the ever growing point of light.

“We’re heading into the ‘big bang’. Backwards!”

“Well, my philosophy on life was that I wanted to go out with a bang!” Vi laughed manically.

We both blacked out.

 #

 “Where are we?” Vi asked after we had both come round.

“I think the question is, ‘when are we?’”

“Is anything working on the time machine?”

“All the dials read ‘0’. But then, if we’re before the big bang, they would. The life support must still be working, otherwise I think we’re nowhere and nowhen.”

#

 There was an explosion. The battered Mini flew at an enormous rate out from the pinpoint of light.

“How far into the future do we need to go for you to be able to fix this?” I asked Vi.

“A few tens of millions of years…”

“Oh well, by the time we get there you’ll have witnessed a lot of history. Might as well sit back and enjoy the ride!”

Author’s note. This is not a ‘fan fiction’ but there is more than a touch of ‘Dr Who’ and more than a touch of Connie Willis’ ‘Blackout’ in the inspiration for this story. I am indebted to both.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

“Angie! Angie, wake up!”

Towelling his wet hair, Grant walked into his bedroom.

Grant reached down to shake her. He really wanted her to leave before his house mates woke. He told himself it was to protect her reputation, in truth it was probably more about his. Like a number of newly qualified doctors he was older than the student nurses he often drank with and was well aware that a reputation could badly impact on his future employment prospects.

He touched Angie’s shoulder. It was cold. He pulled his had away, she rolled on to her back. That’s when he saw the blood on the pillow, dribble from the corner of her mouth.

Grant stood stock still for what seemed, to him, to be hours. Then he grabbed a bag, filled it with some clothes, found his passport, phone and wallet and headed out of the house.

***

An hour later blue lights strobed across the front of the house. Grant’s housemates stood around waiting for the police to tell them what to do. Grant was at the ticket desk at St Pancras praying that he could get on a Eurotunnel train before the police got his name and address on some watch list. He succeeded. He travelled fast, Paris, Mediterranean coast, North Africa, on and on further South into sub Saharan Africa. Days later, tired, hungry, dirty and unshaven he washed up at a refugee camp. Giving a false surname, he volunteered to help in the field hospital.

He used the internet terminal in the hospital office once a day to check for any news. By the time he’d arrived at the camp the main story, the death of one student in another’s bed had already been archived. The only news story that appeared to be updated daily was the search for him. He swore to himself not to go back.

Six months passed.

Grant stepped out of the operating theatre and into the shower tent. Wet, refreshed, he looked in the only mirror on the camp. A tanned, bearded and haggard man he barely recognised looked back.

Soon afterwards Grant’s boss offered him the chance to work even further into the interior of the desert. After six months there he moved on again, then again, then again. He carried on running from his own past, concentrating on his work. Forever moving to the next trouble spot, never taking any payment except for food and board.

Time passed. The man in the mirror’s beard bleached blonde in the sun, his hair grew first long, then bleached the same colour as his beard. He still occasionally checked the internet. It was clear that the police had stopped actively searching for him, but he was on a number of missing persons databases. He’d never seen anything indicating that Angie’s murder had been solved. He was sure he was still a suspect. He wasn’t sure that in some, unspecified way, he was guilty.

***

Grant’s boss found him one day, taking a nap in an otherwise empty dormitory tent.

“Grant, I need you to go to the UK on a fundraising lecture tour.”

“No.”

“I need you to go. You’re intelligent, erudite and most important you could earn a good living in the UK but you’ve chosen to be here. It’s a story we want to cash in on, it’s a great recruiting tool.”

“No.”

“Grant, I’ve been suspicious for a while that you’re running from something. But please, reconsider.”

“I have no passport.”

“We’ll get you one. Any name you want.”

“You can’t do that.”

“We do it all the time. We get passports for loads of refugees. What’s one more?”

Grant realised he had been cornered. “Ok.”

***

“Sir?”

“Yes, PC Hains?”

“Sir, we’ve got a hit on an old case. Facial recognition on CCTV at Heathrow.”

“Let me see.” He looked over the PC’s shoulder. “That is an old case. Ok, track him and bring him in to a local nick.”

***

The hotel manager opened the door to Grant’s hotel room at dawn, the PC with him was obviously wary as he entered the room. Grant was awake, reading his presentation for that day at the small desk in his room.

“Sir, please stand and turn to face me.” The PC said.

Grant’s shoulders drooped. His head too. “Ok” he said, and did as he was told. “Am I being arrested?”

“No sir, I’ve just been asked to take you to the station. Someone wants to talk to you.”

***

The interview room was something from Grant’s worse nightmare. After years of desert life and refugee camp hospitals, the damp, dark room felt like a tomb. An overweight balding man in plain clothes, escorted by the PC who had brought Grant in, came in to the room. Sitting, the detective checked Grant’s name and confirmed his address at the time of Angie’s death.

“Where have you been Grant?”

Grant told the short version of his story.

“You’ve been on the run?”

Grant nodded.

“From what?”

“The girl in my bed was dead. I am a murder suspect. You’ve never caught anyone as far as I can tell. I’m fairly certain I didn’t do it, but I was very drunk. Anyway you probably think I did?”

“She was murdered?” the detective asked.

“Yes…wait”, Grant frowned, “ I never checked. The internet news stories never actually said murder. I just assumed.”

“Some doctor you are. Didn’t even check. For God’s sake never work on me. Off you go.”

“Wait? What? I can go?”

“Natural causes. She died of natural causes. You would have been back at college that afternoon with a story that you could have dined out on for life. Goodbye Grant, good luck with your lecture tour.”

As he walked back to his hotel the early commuters gave Grant a wide berth as his laughter turned to massive, loud, sobbing tears.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

Adam was feeling good. He’d just done a deal, a big one, one that could make his career. He’d sold the farmhouse that had been on his company’s books since before anyone could remember. His mind, as ever on the money, was working out his commission and what he might spend it on; boat, holiday, replacement Range Rover, redecorate his apartment.
The traffic slowed, Adam cursed. He felt a headache coming on, reached for a cigarette.
Inching forward for a few minutes, he finally saw the cause of the hold up. A farmer, trailer full of sheep on the back of an ancient pick-up, two flat tyres. The farmer flagged him down.
“Give me a hand mate?”
“I’m in a rush, meeting.”
“You’ll not get far unless I can move this trailer”
Adam grunted, “Ok, hitch her up, I’ll get her out of the road.”
The old farmer introduced himself as Seb. Within ten minutes the trailer was hitched up and Seb was in the passenger seat.
“It’s only a couple of miles, and it’s in your direction.”
Adam was about to argue, he’d only agreed to move the trailer out of the way, but something made him think that an argument was not something Seb would want to listen to.
Ten minutes down the road Seb indicated a left turn. Adam was concentrating so hard on getting the long trailer turned without risking any damage to his car, that he nearly rammed the tractor and trailer blocking the road.
“Rigwelter!” Seb exclaimed, and was out of the car and away across the fields like a shot. Before Adam could react a couple of huge looking lads were standing on either side of the car, an old man by his door, shotgun held at just the angle that wasn’t quite a threat, but made the threat an option.
“Out.”
Adam complied.
“Sheep thief. Does thou know what we do with sheep thieves round here?”
Adam started to argue; “No, I was just helping Seb. He’d got two flat tyres.”
“He’d got two flats’ cause he got them shot out, trying to steal my sheep,” he nodded towards the trailer, “them sheep what you’re stealing now.”
Adam tried again to protest his innocence. The old man smiled.
“Well, that’s fine. Marlon here,” he nodded to one of the hulking lads, “will just drive your car and my sheep back to my farm. Me and you’ll go in the tractor, nice and friendly like.”
Adam thought, very briefly about arguing, but the shotgun and the sheer size of Marlon made mind up.
“Eric.” Said the man once he was in the tractor and heading back up the main road. He held out a hand the size of a shovel, and as course as sandpaper. “And you?”
“Adam.” They shook hands. Adam felt his bones grinding together.
“Good bible name that. Religious man Adam?”
“No, my mother was. Not me.”
“Ahh. You might want to learn quick.”
“Sorry?”
“Don’t be. You’ll get the same chance all sheep thieves get.”
Adam protested his innocence again, but Eric didn’t appear to be listening.

Twenty minutes up the road Eric pulled the tractor in to a farm lane and stopped at a farm house. Adam immediately launched into a sales patter.
“I could sell this for you when you decide to retire. It’s got to be worth a fortune. Land for a campsite, golf course, 4x4s, that sort of thing. The house itself could be a great holiday let, maybe converted to flats and apartments. You got brick barns too?”
Adam didn’t notice until too late that Eric had turned first red, then purple with rage.
“This is my land, farm land. When I’m gone Marlon and James will farm the land just like I do and my father and his father. You city scum ain’t turning this into a playground. Just where do you think all your food’s coming from when you’ve bought and sold all these farms. Now out, over there, bottom of the quarry.”
***
“This is country justice. You stole my sheep, I caught you. You climb the quarry,” Adam loked up at sixty feet of limestone walls, loose rocks and sparse vegetation. “You get to the top, you can walk away.”
“If I fall?”
“Brother keeps pigs. Family joke. Eat anything will a pig.”
Adam started to argue. Seb cut him off.
“Or I could just have an accident with this here shot gun, I’m an old man and my fingers sometimes shake.”
Adam started to climb. He carefully picked his way up the unstable wall. What seemed like days, and was probably hours later he started to think he could make it. His hands and knees were bleeding, his suit in shreds and he was covered in sweat, but he finally got a hand over the top.
As soon as he did a boot landed on it. Adam looked up. Marlon.
“Dad says no-one ever makes the climb.”
Adam looked down, Eric was waving his hands in the air and shouting. He looked up again. Marlon was distracted. Adam took the chance to free his hand. As he reached over the edge someone grabbed his arm. Looking up again he saw the uniform and face of a policeman.
“Let me help you up.”
As soon as he was safely over the top Adam started to tell his story.
“So you’re telling me that Eric made you climb the quarry because you’re a sheep thief?”
“I’m not, but he thinks I am!”
“I’ll need to investigate.”
He cuffed Adam, then walked him down to the bottom of the quarry.
“Eric,” he said as he uncuffed Adam, “You know I’ve told you before about country justice. You know our Mum would never have approved.”
Adam looked from man to man, noticed the family resemblance.
“Once is far too easy. You gotta give him at least the best of three.” He smiled at Adam. “Off you go again, young man.”

Big thanks to Ant for the inspiration. C

(C) Chris Johnson 2013