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I remember when this frame was new, shiny, silver plated. It had pride of place on the fireplace. My mother would take it down and polish off the nicotine and dust at least once a week. More often if someone was coming round. She bought it for her favourite picture of me. Taken at my cousin’s wedding in June 1950, I was wearing my first ever suit, a new hat, highly polished shoes. I’d been allowed to stand at the bar with the grown up men for the first time, allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with them. Bitter tasting, warm and flat, it tasted like nectar to my seventeen year old self. It explains the crooked smile. My mother thought I looked grown up. I thought I looked drunk. We were both right.

My mother died in 1965. The frame went into a box. It was, lost, forgotten. No one wanted it any more. Not until one day in 1968 when my nephew, John, in bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt, found it while he was looking for inspiration for a university assignment. He wrote the assignment, passed and so kept the frame and my picture in his bedsit as a lucky charm. The room that was always full of loud music, the smell of pot, sweat and cheap beer. The silver plate got black in the thick smoke, the glass got covered with dust.

The frame moved around with John for another ten years. From his bedsit until his first divorce he kept it on display. In the early seventies cigar smoke replaced pot smoke, dinner party conversation and playing children replaced the loud music. By the late seventies his marriage had broken down and the sounds of arguments and screaming adults took over. The silver plate flaked. The picture faded. Eventually Amy issued the ultimatum and John took the easy route. He packed a bag and walked away. She dumped the rest of his belongings on the street. All but the picture frame. It sat, forgotten again, on the top shelf of a book case full of unread Dickens, Shakespeare and Chaucer along with a hundred Mills and Boone romances with broken spines and loose pages. A witness through her days of tears, sadness and endless David Soul ballads. Right through to the day when Amy started dating again. It was the new boyfriend who noticed it.

‘Hey, Amy, who’s this bloke?’

‘I don’t know. It’s one of John’s family I think. I’d forgotten it was there.’

‘He looks drunk. Shame this frame’s not real silver, it would have been worth something.’

‘It’s just a cheap thing. I’ll give it back to John.’

She put the frame face down on a telephone table in the hall. It stayed there for three months. Dark, dusty and ignored until John saw it one day when he was collecting the kids and Amy told him to take it.

John passed the frame on to his nephew, Julian. He was real eighties success story, a young millionaire trader in the city with a blonde girlfriend sharing his converted warehouse apartment. It sat on a shelf in the bathroom because Julian thought it was funny to talk to his Grandad, who told endless stories of austerity, while he was literally pissing away a fortune in overpriced champagne. During one of his parties someone thought it would be a good idea to snort cocaine off the glass. The party went on for days. The conversation fast and meaningless. The smoke as thick as it was in the sixties, the drug of choice and the price of the alcohol massively different. Then the market crashed, and so did Julian. The frame was taken from his repossessed apartment in the mid nineties and sold in a job lot to a second hand furniture dealer. Where it stayed. For two decades. It got moved from time to time. Picked up, dusted, put back somewhere new. But no one wanted to spend six pounds on a faded picture of a stranger in his first suit on his way to his first hangover in a battered frame with few patches of silver plate left.

At one of those dinner parties in the seventies one of John’s friends drunkenly joked that there was a tribe in Peru that believed that having their picture taken stole part of their soul. He found it hilarious. But it’s true. I’ve looked out from this frame for fifty five years. I’ve seen so much. And I’m ready for another change of scenery now. Please.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015

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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

 

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

I saw the shadow pass across the frosted window in my door three times before it finally stopped outside. I heard a knock.

‘Come in!’ I shouted, and got up, closing the lid of my lap top and sliding it in to a drawer of my desk.

I met my visitor at the door and looked her up and down. Tall, long red curls. A looker too. I didn’t recognise her, wondered how she’d found me. She’d been crying, her green eyes were blood shot. I offered her a seat, and a drink.

‘You got any scotch?’ She asked. She looked at me, looked round my office and added, ‘or, based on the look of this place maybe I should ask for bourbon? What is this, a film set?’

I smiled, pouring us each a Black Jack. ‘I often got asked that question or a variation of it when people came to visit me for the first time.’

‘You’ve got this place done out like a cliché of a 1930’s New York private detective. Come to think of it, you’re dressed like one too. You for real?’

I handed her a bourbon, took a drink of mine.

‘I like it. I find it helps me to concentrate, Miss?’

I left it hanging. So did she.

‘Does this impress clients, or scare them off?’

‘Clients?’

‘Yeah, whatever, I’ve got a job for you and I need someone below the radar. You took some finding, I had to ask around, so I suspect you’re not well known? And no doubt you’re either very cheap or very expensive?’

‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your name and I have no idea what it is that you want? Can we rewind a little?’

‘You can call me Scarlett. It’s close enough. I need a detective.’

‘I’m not…’

‘I don’t care how busy you are, or how expensive you are, I haven’t got time to find anyone else.’

‘Haven’t got time?’

‘I have to get this pen drive,’ she pulled a USB stick out of her bag and placed it in my hand, ‘to the right people within the next 24 hours. They’ll pay me well for it.’

‘So what’s on it?’

‘Some files that I stole from work.’

‘I’m not getting involved in anything illegal!’

‘Call it whistle blowing then. I need you to find the right people, deliver this and bring back the money. Simple.’

‘Scarlett, you need a courier not a detective, and certainly not…’

She banged her glass down on my antique desk.

‘I don’t have a name and address you idiot, just a place and time to meet with someone. I don’t know if I can trust them so I want to send someone who can help, maybe follow them if need’s be. I need a private detective. That’s you.’

‘You don’t seem to understand, or you don’t want to hear…’

‘I understand, you’re a bit odd with all this ‘30’s noir stuff, but you’re it. I haven’t got time to go looking for anyone else.’

‘Please listen to me. This 30’s noir stuff is a movie set. Well, set dressing anyway. I’m not a detective, I’m a writer. I write detective novels set in 30’s New York. This stuff helps me write. If you need help, call the police. Or a real private detective. I’m not who you’re looking for.’

She burst into tears again.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

“You have to listen, you have to hear this.”

The man bounced about on his makeshift podium, shouting to be heard over the hubbub of other speakers at speaker’s corner and the traffic noise from Marble Arch.

“Please, it’s important. Please stop and listen.”

He had a small crowd, probably more interested in his behaviour than anything he might have to say.

“Get on with it!”

“Yeah, what is it you’ve got to say?”

A smartly dressed man wearing medals shushed the others into silence.

“Sir, if you start to speak people who are interested will listen. You can always repeat yourself if people arrive mid way through your rendition.” He gave a slight bow of his head, then looked intently at the speaker.

Pausing, the speaker visibly shook himself, drew himself up to his full height, then started speaking in a quiet yet firm voice.

“The Government are after me, they want to silence me, stop me from telling people what I know. I have been followed for days now, and it can only be a matter of time before I’m assassinated.”

A few more people started to gather round. The man with the medals glanced around.

“I found out the truth. I am a web designer and programmer. I was approached by a civil servant, and asked to write a programme to search the web for patterns. Certain words, phrases and images. They wanted it set up so that they could change the search criteria themselves, for social research. I thought it was odd that I was asked to work from home rather than in Whitehall, but it didn’t really make any difference to me. They agreed my asking price for the contract and my contact spoke to me twice daily. I wrote the programme downloaded it on to the IP address they’d given me.

“Two days later I realised I’d left a back door open in the programme. I decided that all I could do was to hack my own programme and close down the back door. That way they’d never know I made a mistake and I would know I’d finished the job properly. I logged on to their network through the same IP address and opened my programme. That’s when it happened.”

“What happened? Get to the point!”

“My computer crashed, it couldn’t handle the data flow. When I finally got it re-started and tried again all I got was error messages, then it crashed again. I tried to recover it but nothing worked. They must have found my back door and booby trapped it.”

“Or your computer just crashed?”

“No, this was deliberate. I was scared. I sat around for an hour or two. Then I went and got an old PC out. By the time I’d hooked it up my home wi-fi network had gone down. I went to look at the router and I saw the man who had contacted me to write the programme stood by a black Range Rover parked outside my flat. I was sure he’d come to kill me for what I know, or what I’d done.”

The old soldier stroked his chin.

“I’ve been on the run for three days, hiding from them. But I decided if I tell enough people I’d be safer than if I keep the story to myself. They can’t kill us all!”

He stopped, staring at the crowd as if challenging them to argue with him. One woman cleared her throat.

“So what is it that you’ve found, other than that they’ve fixed your programming mistake?”

“Don’t you see, they can see everything that’s on the internet.  They can search for anything, draw together all of the data on any issue, subject or person and use it”

“So can I, it’s called Google you fool!”

He leaned forward, hopping from foot to foot as he replied in a louder voice.

“No, no, it’s not like that, it’s quicker and more detailed and…”

But he’d lost his crowd, they slipped away first in ones and twos then in groups;

“Stop, you have to listen, you have to hear this.”

Eventually only the old soldier remained, still listening intently, head bowed while apparently fiddling with his medals.  Anyone close enough may have just heard him speak quietly.

“Stand down the snipers, no one’s listening.”

On nearby rooftops, men in black began to disassemble their rifles.

(C) Chris Johnson 2013

My response to “The Daily Post” Daily Prompt:

The Deserter

Alfie knew that he was in big trouble. Both of his compatriots had run and left him when he fell and broke his ankle. Conscripts to the army, and now deserters, he didn’t really blame them for looking after their own hides. Deserters were usually shot on sight, there was no room for heroics in the military state that was the UK.

Even before the coup, use of tactical nuclear weapons had laid waste to much of the country. Fighting in the streets had done for even more. Great chunks of the mainland were irradiated and lethal. He was lying in a foxhole now, in one of the fallout zones with, by the sound of it, dogs and men searching for him. Imagining the bullets striking his body, he shuddered for a second, and tried to burrow even deeper into the muddy ground. ‘Just pass me by’ he thought, praying for the first time in years to a god he didn’t believe existed anyway.

Knowing how close he was to death, Alfie’s thoughts seemed to speed up. Like he had suddenly recovered from a bad migraine, his mind cleared and he found himself able to think clearly about his options. ‘Make the most of it’ he thought. ‘Nothing is over until they find me.’ ‘Observation, that’s the key to survival’ he remembered the words of his drill Sergeant; he tried to move to somewhere he could see the approaching men. Pain shot through his damaged ankle, he caught his breath just managing to stifle a scream. ‘Quit and die’; another of the Sergeant’s favourites, so Alfie ignored the pain and moved until he could see the approaching men and dogs.

Rebels!. Soldiers always wore some variety of uniform. These weren’t soldiers they were rebels. ‘Unbelievable’, Alfie thought to himself, ‘I might still be saved’! Very carefully he poked his head above the edge of the foxhole. Waiting, still half expecting to hear a shot or a dog bark, instead he got a wave and a hand signal to stay down. “X-Ray papa to Zulu control” his saviour spoke into an old shortwave radio set. “Yes X-Ray papa, this is Zulu Control, go ahead”. Zulu control from X-Ray papa, we’ve found him, tell his two friends they got to us in time, we got to him first”.

(c) Chris Johnson 2013