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The following story is a guest post, written by Meg Johnson. It was inspired by this Writing prompt from Pinterest.

Meg has co-authored a book ‘Rose Scar’ which is due to be published soon.

 

 

Mr Henry Brookwood was reading the newspaper for the tenth time that day.

‘Absolute rubbish. They make me out to be a fool!’ He shouted. He scrunched up the paper and threw it across the room. ‘I saw them. Why don’t they believe me?’

His secretary entered the room, picked it up with a sigh and put it back on his desk.

‘Go home Miss Berling, and take that rubbish with you.’

‘Thank you, sir. Good night.’ As she got her coat and hat she glanced at the story that had so enraged her employer.

Once again last night the wealthy Mr Henry Brookwood from Brookwood and Sons contacted this newspaper and the police. He claims that is late wife, Clara, and two sons, Charles and Samuel, are still alive and walking the streets at night although they were found dead in the Brookwood household only five days ago by the maid. The police are investigating their murder. Mr Henry Brookwood has declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, but has sent regular letters.

 

Henry worked late into the night. Every time his thoughts turned to home he found something else to do. No point in going back to that empty house, or worse, a house full of grieving friends and relatives all after tittle tattle! He convinced himself. Finally, with clocks striking midnight across the city, he packed away his papers. He placed on his coat and his top hat, grabbed his cane and left his office at Brookwood and sons locking the door behind him. No one would be around this late at night he thought. No need to speak to anyone.

It was a cold and blustery winter’s evening with a typical London fog. As he walked his mind started wandering. It drifted to thoughts of his wife and sons from years before when Samuel was just a baby and Charles was a young boy starting at school. As the happy thoughts came back to him Henry saw the fog clear for a moment in the wind. On the street ahead of him he saw his young wife and holding the hand of a young boy, and pushing a pram. He shouted and walked a little faster but as he got towards them the fog moved again and they disappeared.

Henry’s shoulders sagged as he walked the next few streets slower than before. His eyes moistened, making it even more difficult to see. His mind wandered again and he thought of the times he’d spent teaching his teenage sons about his business and that they would one day takeover after him. His thoughts were disturbed as he heard his name being called. It was the voice of Clara calling out to him, he was convinced. He stopped and looked around him, blinking to clear his vision. At first he could see nothing, but then he heard his name again, this time from across the street. As he looked the fog drifted away and he saw his wife and teenage sons. But by the time he ran across the road to them they were no longer there. Henry turned and in despair walked the rest of the way home as fast as he could. He tried to shut out all thoughts by singing hymns to himself.

When Henry finally got home he got the keys from his coat pocket to open the door. At first, hands shaking, he fumbled the key into the lock but couldn’t turn it. He realised that it was already unlocked. Strange he thought the maid should have already have gone to her rest by this hour. I will need to speak to her about that. he thought as he walked to the drawing room, planning to take a small brandy and cigar to try and help him sleep. But as he opened to door he saw four police constables standing, hats in hands looking down at the floor and the police commissioner standing by the fire.

‘Henry Brookwood I am arresting you on suspicion of murder of your wife, Clara and your sons, Charles and Samuel.’ The Commissioner stated calmly, adding, more quietly, ‘I’m sorry Brookwood, old man. I can’t stop this, so thought it was better to do it myself.’

But Henry had stopped listening. All he could her was the cries of his sons shouting Father, you’re home! and his wife patently telling them to stop shouting. They sounded so real to him that he was smiling as he was handcuffed and led away.

 

(c) Meg Johnson 2016

 

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Horses gallop across a field, their riders in red trumpeting and hooting, jumping over aeons old dry-stone walls and churning the ground to mud. Ranks of men, women and children line up against a wall. Sickles, scythes, knives and rusty shovels at the ready. Blood mud and carnage as they meet. Unearthly sounds break the day, screams from horses, men and ravens waiting their meals. Walls destroyed allow cows and sheep to stand sentinel to the madness, witness to the carnage but too afraid to get any closer. Hours later survivors pick over the corpses looking for their loved ones, their sons, husbands, lovers, or filching clothes and valuables from the bodies while Valkyries circle, waiting their moment to swoop.

In London the presses run the headlines. ‘The revolution has begun’

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

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

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

 

“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

“Enjoy your walk, you’ve got a lovely day for it.”

“Thank you.” Isla replied, having just picked up a selection of picnic food from the nearest shop to their destination she walked outside to where her companion, Eric, stood with a guitar case slung over his back. He was smoking a cigarette and had a face like thunder.

“Why do we have to walk to this place? Can’t we take the car? Why are we going anyway?”

Isla rolled her eyes.

“You said that you would do this for me and with me. It’s important. You know it has to do with the husband that I lost. I need to close that chapter before I can move on.”

Eric shrugged, and set off to follow a pace behind. He was smarting slightly that in the two months they’d been dating she’d never let him get as physical as he would have liked. But she was perfect in every other way, and way out of his class, so he’d decided that he was prepared to wait. Then she’d suggested this walking trip, and hinted at more if he supported her visit to a place that had some relevance to the husband she’d lost two years earlier. He’d agreed reluctantly and was beginning to regret it.

***

They walked for about at hour, first on a flat path then picking their way across some fields and up hill to a dense patch of trees. Finally, having followed Isla in to the trees and around in circles looking at half a dozen places that all looked alike to Eric, she spoke again.

“This is the place”, Isla said, “this is where we have our picnic.”

“Why among all these trees when we could sit over there and admire the view?” Eric asked.

“Because amongst these trees we’re hidden from everyone else, dummy!” she replied, giving him a wink.

Like a shot Eric dumped the guitar and started fumbling with her shirt buttons.

“Not yet, we eat first.” She said, batting his hand away. She took a blanket from her rucksack and spread out the food. “Come on, stop sulking and eat.” She popped open a can of lager and handeed it to him. Eric sat down across from her. “Not there, come and sit here, next to me.”

He drank down the first can in two gulps, thirsty from the climb.

“Did you bring any more?” he asked.

“There’s four. I don’t want one, so they’re all yours.” She turned her back on him to get another can from her pack, pooped the top and very carefully poured in to the lager a small amount of white powder. Eric drank, again taking almost half of the can with his first drink.

Isla picked up her guitar, and checked the tuning. “Eat something,” she said to Eric, “I just want to play a little while before I eat.”

Eric felt drowsy, putting it down to the walk up the hill and drinking too quickly he started in on the sandwiches. Isla was playing a soft song, and had started singing. He didn’t recognise the words. He found himself closing his eyes and lying back trying to make some sense of the song. Before long he was fast asleep. Isla carried on playing. The tune becoming quicker and the words, ones she’d learned from a dusty book found in a library basement, became simpler and simpler as if the song were regressing through language back to the very earliest forms of communication.

A mist started to rise. It crept over Eric; soon Isla could barely see his sleeping body. As she continued to sing and play she could make out what looked like tiny people dancing to her song in the mist. In her nightmares these people were very real, with pointed teeth and tiny swords the size of toothpicks. In her waking hours she told herself that all she could really see were eddies in the mist. But if that were true, her conscience asked, why are you here?

She carried on playing. Tears formed in her eyes and made it even harder to see through the mist as the tiny dancers worked themselves to a frenzy. The words ended, her last syllable echoing as the dancers in the mist all held that note for slightly longer than she did. Still she played, the music getting simpler and simpler until finally she was just tapping a rhythm on the guitar body. And then she stopped. Reluctantly she drank a small mouthful of the lager, lay down and slept.

***

She woke an hour later. The mist had cleared. Eric had gone. She sat up with a start, consulted a notebook and then shouted a few syllables similar to those in the song she had played earlier. A few seconds later a voice replied, this time in English.

“This time we accept.”

Isla started to cry again. From among the trees a man staggered towards her, as if drunk. He was not unlike Eric; tall, good looking with dark hair. But this man was not Eric.

“Tom! Isla shouted, “It’s me, over here.”

The man called Tom staggered over.

“Wow, sorry, I must have fallen asleep while you were playing. That wine we brought for our picnic is stronger than I thought.”

“Did you have any strange dreams, Tom?” Isla asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“Let’s get our gear together and get back to the car, you can tell me your strange dream on the way and I can tell you mine.”

Isla packed the guitar carefully into its case and gave it to Tom to carry. She turned her back on the blanket and food. An observant person may have noticed the rotting remains of another, similar, blanket close by. Careful examination may have suggested a third. Forensic examination would have found two more.

As she turned to leave the copse for the last time Isla smiled her first true smile in two years.

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. The Low was particularly inspired by a picture I first saw in The Rook, Hartington. The picture is not there now, it’s hanging up at my home. The Rook is still there, and I heartily recommend it to anyone in the area for food, drinks and snacks and some beautiful art.

There are a number of ‘Lows’ across the Peak District. All of them have some mythical stories attached. This story was not written with any specific one in mind.

(C) Chris Johnson 2015