In Memoriam – Cecil the Lion

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image credit: Brent Staplekamp

image credit: Brent Staplekamp

I imagine if you were to lay Homo sapiens out upon the anthropological slab and dissect him as a species you would come up with a number of anomalies. He is an ape, yet not – we can’t be sure. He has a large brain, yet not the largest. The brains of several less versatile species are larger. His opposable thumbs have been cited incessantly as explanation for his dominance, whilst that is as likely to be explained by his upright stance and his strong tribal leanings. In large measure these are traits shared by all the greater anthropoids – the chimpanzee, the orangutan, the gorilla, and so on.

I am not an anthropologist, and this first paragraph is merely stating the patently b****ing obvious. It needs to be said, though, because apparently it is not obvious – not to a substantial slice of our kind. That strange, developed brain of ours is capable of endless self-justifications and delusions; the most poisonous of which insists that none of that first paragraph is true.

Poisonous? Well, yes, because we put that argument, in most cases, to toxic use. If we say we did not evolve naturally into our present state, but were created somehow by a superior being who – guess what – looks just like us, we can justify slaughter without conscience. We can divorce ourselves from the rest of the inhabitants of this planet and plunder their species, torture them, then finally drive them to extinction without regard to morality. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ only refers to another one of our own, doesn’t it? Animals are ‘beasts’. They have no value.

Thus it is perfectly possible to reconcile religious and moral rectitude on Sunday with a hunting expedition on Monday which might involve shooting a lion, whether or not the shooter is hungry for its meat. We can self-justify, describing the process of slaughter as a pastime, even a ‘skill’, when all we are really doing is satisfying a primitive blood-lust. Some go further; they describe this barbaric trait as ‘Sport’.

We don’t seem able to rid ourselves of a ghoulish urge to destroy. In establishing our dominance we became omnivorous. We learned to eat animal flesh when fruit and berries failed us. That was reason enough to treat a hairy mammoth like a pin cushion to bring him down, before beating his brains out with rocks, but those times are long gone. We still eat our fellow species, we still treat them in an unforgivable way. We have made some improvements, even made token gestures towards mitigating their death agonies, although, intriguingly enough, we explain our reasons as ‘improving the quality of the meat’. In the interests of ‘Sport’ though, all rules are suspended.

‘Sport’ is unique, in that it has created its own societal structure. The social elevation of the blood-thirsty is enhanced by its kill tally. Apparently a perverted status attaches itself to the trophy, to the photograph of the killer standing triumphantly over the victim. It is often considered a rite of passage. The old need for self-justification creeps back in to insist there is some sort of equality in the battle with the lion, or the charging rhino, or the mighty buffalo. Equal battle? A battalion of beaters standing close by? All those guns against a set of claws and a sense of outraged privacy is hardly a fair fight, is it, especially since we picked it in the first place?

Long ago, we as a species became lords of the earth. Infestation though we are, only Nature can unseat us, and at the last she surely will, but while we stay here we have a duty to remember we share our world with its other rightful tenants, and we should respect them, because in a time to come we may need their mercy. They would be wholly justified in showing us none.

A curious apparatus, that Homo sapiens brain. Somewhere inside it there lurks a streak of supreme arrogance that will, eventually, provide the fuse for its own destruction.

 

Holiday Reading for the Departure Lounge

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“Harwest Radar, this is Yardfly three four one niner at flight level one five zero. I have Airbus 310information Echo. Is it wet down there?”

“Yardfly three four one niner, radar contact, Echo is current, descend and maintain five thousand feet. Proceed direct INGAR.”

“INGAR?”

“Yardfly three four one niner. Waypoint INGAR, confirm my instruction?”

“Yeah alright. It was pissing down in Rome.”

“Yardfly three four one niner?”

“WHAT??”

“Yardfly three four one niner, confirm my message. Course correct to INGAR. Go right zero three zero.”

“Is INGAR that flashing thingy?”

“Yardfly three four one niner, you will have instrument confirmation for INGAR. Descent to five zero imperative. You are too high.”

“All right, all right!”

“Yardfly three four one niner. Correct your course to heading zero three eight. You are in conflicted airspace.”

“Listen Harwest Radar, don’t get pissy with me. I’ll do it in a minute, okay?”

“Yardfly three four one niner, Alert. Descend immediately twelve zero. Go right heading zero three niner immediately.”

“Make up your mind, it was zero three eight just now. If I push….”

“Yardfly three four one niner, do you read?”

Shit, what was that?

“Yardfly three four one niner, you were on course intercept with Speedbird two three zero.”

“No problem. I missed him.”

“Not by much. Will you hand me over to your number two?”

“I AM the number two.”

“I see. Where is your flight captain?”

“In the bathroom. He ate the Sushi.”

“Will you send your cabin crew to get him out of the bathroom for me?”

“I tried that. He’s groaning a lot. Why aren’t you using my call sign anymore?”

“Tower has given us use of this channel. Your descent is too rapid. Maintain six zero.”

First you want five thousand feet, then you want twelve thousand, now you want six. What’s a boy to do?”

“I’m going to get you down as soon as possible. Maintain ten zero and look for waypoint MARGO. Wait a minute – I know that voice. Is that Desmond Hardaker?”

“Oh, my god! Brenda?  Brenda Schulmann?”

“None other. What are you doing up there? You were cabin crew six months ago.”

“Well, I’m in the little room at the front, now, sweetie! Wait a minute – is that MARGO flashing at me?”

“You’re missing it to the south, but never mind. I guess it helps if Daddy owns the airline, doesn’t it?”

“Now don’t be a jealous bitch! I did the course!”

“I don’t know how. It usually takes two years even if you have a current pilot’s licence, which you didn’t. So..”.

“Well, darling, let me tell you, there’s a perfectly adequate course with Mgabe Airlines and you can pass it in three months if you cram. So less of the green envy, now. At least I’m not stuck in Air Traffic Control. Shouldn’t I be looking for another waypoint or something? I wouldn’t want to hit anything, now would I?”

“If you can find it, set course for IPSEL. And no worries about other traffic. Everyone else has left the control area. Three months! How can you cram a commercial flying course?”

“Simple. It’s all done by correspondence, Bren. Absolutely wonderful – you should try it!”

“I don’t think I will. I quite like ATC. Are you and Bobs still together? Has he still got that dreadful acne?”

“Bobsy? Don’t! Oh, he was so neurotic, that boy! Do you know I had to stop driving him to work. It was awful, darling. He just sat and shook like a jelly, all the way. He used to go quite white sometimes. Didn’t you say we were the only flight in the control area?”

“Affirmative.”

“Then why is there a dreadfully big Airbus alongside me on my left?”

“Shit! Go right zero nine zero, cleared to three zero!”

“It seems to me there’s far too much poo around your airport Bren. You worry too much – don’t get your knickers in a twist, dear. There! You’ve sent him away now, haven’t you? Do you know who that was?”

“Don’t pretend you could see into the cockpit! You can’t have been that close!”

“Give me a minute, there’s something flashing at me. I think its anti-stall. There. And yes, I absolutely could – it was Carl – you remember; that dishy pilot we met at St. John’s graduation party: oh, sweetie, what a night that was! Anyway, he recognized me. He was waving, isn’t that nice?”

“I was just talking to him Des.  That wasn’t waving.  Listen, we have to get you down right away. You’re cleared to course one eight zero. Descend to three zero, alright?”

“Must we? We so rarely get the chance to catch up. I hate this bit.”

“What bit?”

“Landing, darling.”

“Was it a weakness in your simulator training?”

“Simulator?”

“Never mind. You’re cleared to land on runway twelve. You have wind zero four zero degrees, six knots. Begin glide path.”

“Let me see, I have to put the wheels down, or something, don’t I? Speed one five zero. Super. Runway twelve? How do I know which is runway twelve?”

“It’s written on the end. Oh, and Desmond?”

“Yes?”

“There’ll be a lot of fire engines and things about. Okay?”

“Gorgeous, darling, I simply love firemen! Fifteen hundred and descending.”

“Des, you’re a little low.”

“Looks fine. Altimeter reading one thousand. What do I do to switch off that stupid buzzing?”

“It’s your altitude warning. Des, you are too low! Abort!”

“There’s so many red lights in this thing – how’s a boy to concentrate? I’m over the final markers. Height five hundred. Perfect for zero feet slap on the end of the runway. Leave it to me, Bren, dear. All under control!”

“Des, your altitude meter registers height at sea level.”

“Do you  know, I often wondered?”

“Yes. This airport’s elevation is three hundred and twenty two feet. Pull up! Abort!”

“Des? ABORT!

“Des?”

Living with The Ditch, and Electric Dreams

Pin any Geography teacher into a corner and they will tell you Britain is a group of islands – which means we are surrounded by sea, of course, and that defines our integrity as a race: ‘This precious jewel set in a silver sea’ etcetera. Except it doesn’t. Our island race is constantly compromised, and the problem is the sea, which isn’t wide enough.

Specifically I refer to the English Channel, which guards our southern shore: in one place it is only 22 miles wide. I mean, that isn’t a sea, is it? It’s a channel, or, in the familiar, a ditch. In places the River Amazon is over 6 miles wide, so that makes less than 4 Amazons’ widths between us and France.

Uncomfortable.

Proximity aside, there’s something about the English Channel. Cosmetically unattractive (cold, rough, rather bad-tempered) it draws out the expeditionary spirit. Everyone wants to cross it, even if they have no conceivable reason. Caesar tried, and no matter how loudly we Brits voiced our objections, he tried again; this against the Channel gales with ships that were powered by oars and sails that couldn’t tack.

In 1785 Blanchard and Jeffries crossed it in a hydrogen balloon. They landed in a tree, which should have put them off, but didn’t. January, it was, and they even had to throw off most of their clothes to save weight. Can you picture a moustachioed Frenchman and an American falling out of a snow-laden tree in their underpants? Zut alors!

Soon people started swimming across.

A sailor did it first, floating on top of a bale of straw: why, I ask you? Why?
Then there was Captain Webb in 1875, the world and his wife since. In 1961 Antonio Abertondo swam from England to France, but disliked the French so much he swam straight back again, and did the whole thing, there and back, in 43 hours .

These days the swimming thing’s gone off the boil a bit, but in the 1960s and 1970s you couldn’t move on the beach at Dover for a thin straggling line of goose-grease smothered intrepids – housewives from Oldham, bank clerks from Surrey, all doing their bit ‘for charity’. Their times have improved, too. Captain Webb took nearly 23 hours, whereas today’s man-in-the-street time for the crossing seems to average around 14 hours.

Louis_Bleriot

Back in 1909 Louis Bleriot flew across in his monoplane; the first heavier-than-air craft to do so, in a flight that took around 36 minutes.

Someone else did more or less the same flight, last Friday, a little more slowly. Didier Esteyne flew solo from Lydd, in Kent, to Calais, the opposite way to Bleriot, in about 40 minutes. 106 years after the French inventor and aviation pioneer this may seem unremarkable, if I were to neglect to include the information that his plane, the two-seat Airbus E-Fan, was entirely powered by electricity.

It is a little longer, 112 years, since the Wright Flyer made its first teetering steps at Kitty Hawk. Few can have foreseen in that frail agglomeration of wood and string the great jets which have taken over modern travel; yet Alcock and Brown were making their first flight across the Atlantic within 20years and within 50 years we were transporting passengers halfway around the world using jet engines. From the Wright Brothers to the De Havilland Comet: from 37 miles per hour to 490. Evolution has been rapid.450px-BEA_de_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Berlin

Another electrically-powered, and solar energy fuelled ‘plane, ‘Solar Impulse’ is resting in Hawaii today, waiting to take the next step on its round-the-world flight. Watching the video footage of its improbably gawky frame as it is helped into the air, its wings held up by poles in the hands of two supporters sprinting alongside it and a frantic cycle rider beneath its tail I cannot help thinking of the Wright Flyer’s first tentative steps. As a writer with an interest in Science Fiction these achievements, one mighty and one small, are honing and altering my vision of a future where the oceans may be crossed without leaving behind a trail of black smoke: they induce a picture of a slower, more stately version of civilization; one in which, perhaps, our kind can reap some rewards from our centuries of chasing after those two impostors, power and growth.

It will not happen in my time, perhaps not in the time of my sons, but of their children, and those who come after them. It is, for me, a first gleaming beacon of hope in a dark sky: something we can achieve in our world which causes zero damage. I would love to be here to travel the skies fifty years after Solar Impulse – maybe some of you will.

GRANDPA, AM I A EUROPEAN?

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When I am asked for my view of Europe (which is not very often) I always answer that I can’t see it from here. Any deeper significance in my reply is usually lost; but then why should it not be? I, after all, represent a passing generation. I am not, it is generally thought, in a position to judge.

But I am, you see. I really am.

I was among millions of Britons who voted for The Common Market, who agreed to suffer the idiosyncrasies of French agriculture and the ingress of Spanish trawlers as the price of a trade agreement that benefited the strike-torn economy of nineteen-sixties Britain. For a while I was an enthusiastic European. After all, my Liege-Lords for the last three hundred years had been German, had they not? And it was all so inspiringly liberal and democratic! I felt certain of the Euro, too, had we joined the currency in the early days. Not now, of course.

Oh no, not now.banker 2

Why? Well, gone are those democratic visions. The Euro has become a political tool of federalists who see Europe as one great nation (and for ‘federalists’ read ‘bankers’ and for ‘one great nation’ read ‘several component nations among which speculators may engage in uninhibited play’). Please, don’t misunderstand me: nationalism is dangerous, and there is nothing wrong with tearing down walls between nations: a common currency is a great way to start. But to the federalists the Euro-zone, and especially its outer fringes, is a chess board upon which to execute some particularly profitable moves. In short, even on a wet Sunday in a fog it would be difficult to find a bunch of more disparate nations to unite, and these people are simply not the ones to try it.

Their spores have spread like fungus in the decaying democracy of a group of member nations which not only have nothing in common, but do not share a common language, and in many cases are combatants in blood feuds centuries old. The pot of member states is now so large and political interests so diverse that conflicts are inevitable and insurmountable. No-one wins, nothing gets done.

The political engine of Europe is misfiring; its mechanisms are cumbersome and slow. It is going precisely nowhere fast.

Yet this is at a time when quick, decisive action is needed. Whether or not we are aware, a major migration is taking place, originating in Africa and sweeping across Europe. It is stimulated, maybe even motivated, by the ‘open borders’ policy said to be at the heart of Europeanism. And while that policy is in place we have Canute’s chance of holding it back.

Meanwhile, the engines of change in our own country have signally failed to leave the station. We still drive on the opposite side of the road to other member nations. We adhere stoutly to our Pound Sterling and yearn for all else that was Sterling. The mile, the yard, the ounce, the inch. Even after more than four decades of ‘Decimalization’ and ‘Metrication’ if I ask the Automobile Association’s route finder to calculate a distance for me it gives the answer in miles, with the kilometer distance in faint, small print underneath (for the foreigners, I assume). When I purchase wood from a wood yard, I am likely to be asked for my requirements in foot runs.

According to British law, road signs, speed limits and the speedometers that record those speeds must be quoted in miles or miles per hour.

Edicts from those very federalists who constitute the backbone of ‘Brussels Bureaucracy’ are deeply resented because they are measures conceived undemocratically, and by colleges of thought outside our own nation, who often calculate to satisfy interests that are of no benefit to ourselves.

At some point in the next year or so we will be asked to vote in a referendum – should we be in, or out, of Europe. But the decision will be taken long before then, as the spinners and grafters steer the argument. Our political engineers are masterful manipulators of public opinion and they will do their work. They have already scored some early points. There is much more to do and they have a lot of time to do it.

I am anti-Europe, though I may be open to persuasion. Our Prime Minister is seeking ‘concessions’ from the member states which may make continued membership practical. The trouble, if I may be frank, is my instinctive mistrust of our Prime Minister – well, no, it is more than instinctive. So far the promises he has broken outweigh the promises he has kept. He has far too many concessions to deal with: our over-run borders, our plundered fishing industry, and our disadvantaged agricultural interests to name but a few. Even if he told the nation he had resolved these issues I would have trouble believing him. But then, these are not the reasons why I am likely, on balance, to vote ‘no’.

I am British. I am a member of a fiercely independent nation which has few friends on the international stage, apart perhaps from the United States. Certainly we have no friends in Europe and make no mistake, were we ever to hazard the Euro as a currency we would be savaged by the same lupine pack that currently has its teeth buried in the neck of Greece, and will move on to Portugal or to Italy in their turn.

I believe our advantage and our future – our trading, our cultural and our political future – lies not within the turgid mire of European bureaucracy, but with the wide diversity of nations waiting outside our door. Nations ready to trade. My argument is that which applies to the majority of divorces: irreconcilable difference. We have tried to make it work, but we are an insular people whose relationships within Europe have always been adverse, perverse and sometimes downright abusive. English is our language in common with much of the free world, and very little of Europe. We are notoriously bad at learning other tongues, but, I’m sorry, that is something of which I refuse to be ashamed. As a couple we are fundamentally unsuited, and some things are impossible to change.

And we get to keep the kids! So, my child, though for a while you may be persuaded otherwise, rest assured you are not European, you are British. It was a nice idea while it lasted, this Europe thing, and maybe one day it will be so again, but in the meanwhile I hope and trust we will vote intelligently so your island can stay afloat in the storm to come. If we don’t, I’ll keep a place for you: third lifeboat on the left.

Natural Laws according to Fred

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Once upon a time I lived in a tree. I was probably quite furry, because the tree did not 220834951_nman_xlargehave central heating, and I may have weighed something like 98lbs, most of which was devoted to muscle; the kind of muscle you need if you are going to climb a lot of trees, but not much use as body fat to keep me warm. I didn’t have a great deal of brain; I didn’t need it. Before she threw me out of her tree, Mummy taught me which berries were food, and the bushes on which they were to be found. Paradise, she said, is a tree that bears berries you can eat – then you never have to climb down. Apart from that, she didn’t teach me very much.

I had one asset of much greater value than my brain, and that was my speed. I could run. You see, although berries were not particularly nice, they were survival. When one of us discovered a new bush the competition could get really serious, and first there got most berries. Of course, that meant the winner got more berries than the others, and that made them fatter, so they were slower next time. From this was created the first law: Natural Balance.

There were those among us with just a little more brain. They could predict when a bush was about to yield berries, and camp out either on the ground or in trees nearby, so as to be sure to get more than their share. There was a lesson here, however: the saber-toothed tiger was cleverer than they were. He camped out there too, but he wasn’t waiting for the berries. The more scientific name for the sabre-toothed tiger was the Smilodon, probably because he always looked so happy. After all, he was never short of food. From this was created the second law: clever people are always looking for ways to circumvent the laws of nature and natural balance. They always fail. And they never learn.

When we were happy, the rule was simple. The third law: one person one tree. There were occasional neighborhood disputes, but never anything of substance, until there were more persons than trees. This shouldn’t have happened. Two persons sharing a tree did not work, because it meant one had to be underneath. Now, in those days my bathroom habits would have been less than perfect, so it was obviously more desirable to have the penthouse. With the onset of competition, the law of Natural Balance was violated. The first real evil in the world was born. The clever people learned that Might is Right.

Now I began to lament my lack of brain, because the day that clever people discovered how to use strong people was the day the fourth law was written. Why get yourself killed if you can persuade bigger, more aggressive persons whose power is physical rather than mental to die for you? Law number four, then: the most powerful force in nature is hope.

Simple people have simple loyalties: promise me four and twenty virgins and I’ll be on the next train to Inverness. Tell me this ticket is the winning ticket and I will keep on buying it. Convince me I will have a place at my Lord’s right hand and I will gladly do whatever you ask. What is more, I will be loyal. Week after week, year after year, on one last walk into the crowded market place wearing that large, rather awkward belt: as long as you never actually honor your promises I will serve your cause. I have been taught to hope.

Today I walk in a world ruled by clever people who dedicate their whole lives to contravening the natural laws. More people pay more taxes, so they continue to cram the trees with people. They dispatch the strong to the bushes that bear the thick black food of life, not caring where the smilodon lurks or how many victims that barbaric creature might take. All they seek is the power that ownership implies, and hope is their tool for controlling those who serve them; for keeping them on the knife-edge of life.

And they still haven’t learned. They haven’t understood, somehow cannot, that the first law must be observed. You can prevaricate, you can evade, you can use all the powers of paper progress to persuade; but when the trees are too full, when promises too oft repeated are unfulfilled, the decisions which finally steer our species are not made by you: they are made by those for whom hope has died: the engine drivers, the laborers, the shelf-stackers, the young with no future and the guy on the station who sleeps in a cardboard box. The Visigoths, the Vandals, the Vikings; the ordinary inhabitants of the trees will always be there, and ready to be led. It just takes another clever person with a message of hope which, however nonsensical, is new.

It is, in the circularity of reason, simply a return to that first law as written on a billion ancient graves – Egyptian, Macedonian, Persian, Roman, Mayan – all the great empires that were the dreams of clever people.

One person, one tree. Natural balance has to be observed.

A Word in Passing

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There are two places in my world where I would wish to be.

The first is a seashore, a mile of firm wet sand beneath my feet, a spray-loaded westerly gale in my face, and white-caps marching in military file upon the rocks. To stand before the might of nature and feel her snatching at my toes: to be for an instant at one with the primal power that speaks to us all, had we the ears to listen, these are the sights and sounds and sense of glory for me.

The second place within my heart is a quiet wood, among placid deciduous trees where tiny sunshine sprays of summer heat slip in between the leaves and birds provide quiet music to a percussion of breeze-stirred leaf and twig. A different perfection this, to sit upon some ancient bench beside a tripping forest stream, watching time drift past me into nothingness.

In either place, alone – for at the last Nature is our one true friend – I would gladly meet my fate. If I could my quietus make from earth to oblivion with such an image imprinted in my soul I would pass through the gate without fear.

When I watch the brief lives of our smaller cohabitants on this planet pass before me, expired in little more than a season, or a year, or ten, I reflect that the one true advantage we have gained over them all is comfort. Churchmen may sanctify life, politicians may play with it, but we normal mortals gain only by having food on our table, a place away from the snow, and the ability to express and resolve pain: and yes, it is right that we should bestow those gifts upon our brother species, and it is charitable to do so, where we have the means, so even when we feel the need to satisfy our carnivorous appetites we afford some dignity to the hordes we kill. If we count ourselves as ‘civilized’ we try to make death quick and painless, for every species but our own.

Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by an argument that human life is different to that of the other animals that are forced to co-exist with us; that we are made ‘in the image of God’ and therefore a special case. We have taken the simple truth of death as an ending and made a science of an improbable land beyond it; and from that science derived a plethora of reasons why we should delay and protract our own death in a way that, if we observed it practiced upon an animal, we would denounce as gross cruelty.

I have my views about religion. It has been responsible for the genocide of millions yet we still espouse it in one or other of its forms, whilst I regard it as the greatest perversion of thought to be visited on mankind. Our greatest gift, on the other hand, is not a theoretical, but a real victory over death. We can end life, terminate it without pain. We should feel free to reject the sorrowful protestations of the former and joyfully sanction the latter.

If I wish it, and of course only if I freely wish it, I should be allowed my final hour without pain, dreaming of that seashore, or resting in that wood. Rejecting all peripheral arguments about family pressures and financial complications I should retain that essential right. By simply gaining agreement that medicine is primarily about mercy, at a stroke I would save treatments and bed-space needed for those with hope, rather than wasting them upon my losing battle. The timing would be mine. I would give my relatives peace, and leave my life as I have lived it.

I believe that, given a vote, an overwhelming majority would agree with me, and at last even the great and the good seem to be coming round to acceptance. After all, we take willingly all the other benefits medicine can give us – why not bestow the freedom upon us to use this last one?

A Five-Minute Poem

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Peace?
I have too much of it!
Mellifluous music, softly played,
Honeyed voices, whispering.
Bird song attuned to silence
Garden wars, life and death in hushed tones
Whispering wind in hushed groans
Among timbers old where beetles creep
Among stones cold where old ones sleep
Around mullioned windows glassless
Unseeing from the ruin of ages
Among dusty books by dusty sages
About the hordes in contemplation
About the words that inspire my nation
No longer.
Abandoned – like principles
Like honor.
Like love.
In the corruption of silence.

Give me noise!
Give me voice and proclamation
Give me passion and inspiration
March as one
March for freedom of expression
Call it loudly from your rooftop
Shout it boldly from your platform
Play it harsh in raucous chords
Sing discordant honest words
We are but one stop on the journey
A visit briefly to our planet
Which may not blink as we pass by.
Leave your message for tomorrow
Pass your word to those who follow
That we may not be lost forever
Forgotten in the silence.

Bellarc Wood

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I just realized this morning how long a time has elapsed since I last posted!  My excuse (which is no excuse) is work upon my new book, which is taking shape at last.  Anyway this, with apologies, is a story I wrote in 2011, which, though included in my website, has never appeared here.   I will warn you, this is not a children’s story.

Bellarc Wood

Angela bit at her lip, because just being on that street in the closing light of evening made her nervous. Where was the car? Mark was late. Last week he failed to come in spite of his promise. This time it was imperative. This time he must!

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When first he came upon Bellarc Wood, Tam was tired and very much afraid.

All afternoon he had played in the great meadow, watching minnows in the brook, running and hiding from the monstrous Mardigal and the Fromigal of fiery breath, who chased him through the wild hay; then the faceless Oot people who teased and poked at him until he dispatched them horribly with his laser sword.

He stayed late, very late. Before he knew it the sun was setting behind Coldharbour Hill, and the last shadows were stretching themselves, ready for sleep.

When did Tam realise he was lost? He took this path, then this path, then this – but none seemed to go the right way – the way he knew. His head hurt, the bushes grew bigger and shadier in the twilight, each ready to conceal a boy stealer, or a hungry wolf. The trees, bigger still, frowned down on him, as if in disbelief that so small a boy should be abroad at such an hour.

Then there was a path he had not tried and a wall of darkness, and before he knew it Tam had wandered into Bellarc Wood.

Forestwander.com

Now in the normal way of things, in the proper way of things, if a few little trees made Tam afraid, the sight of a great wood – so many big, black, forbidding oaks and chestnuts and beeches should have made him very afraid indeed: but somehow these big trees did not. In fact, thought Tam, these seemed very friendly trees – warm trees, trees which beckoned him.

“Don’t fear us!” They seemed to say. “The moss beneath us is soft, and warm: our shelter is proof against rain, or hail, or snow. You can be safe here, Tam.” And they waved their branches a little, just to show they were sincere.

He wandered through the wood’s deep shade; breathed its sweet resin smells. The gnarled oaks, who despite their age were very kind indeed, spread their mighty limbs to shelter him, and curled their roots into a cradle of warm moss; so when he grew too tired to wander any more, he lay down upon the moss, and fell asleep.

Which was exactly how Mr. Fitzprickle discovered Tam when morning came. Mr. Fitzprickle, being a night time sort of person, was taking a morning time sort of stroll before returning home for dinner and bed. His lungs were so full of the fresh dawn breeze and his stomach was so looking forward to a hearty meal he almost missed the strange white thing that lay in the moss: in fact, he very nearly walked right over Tam without seeing him.

“Well I’m blessed!” He said, unrolling himself (Mr. Fitzprickle had an unfortunate habit of rolling himself up in a ball whenever he came across anything unusual – it often got him into trouble, and his wife never ceased to remind him of a time by the riverbank when he was surprised by O’Henry the otter’s boy, and rolled right into the river. “If that log hadn’t been across the weir, Mr. Fitzprickle, you’d be several miles out to sea by now!”).

“Well, I’m damned!” He said. And…

“Well!”

He sniffed around the thing to see if it would move, then he prodded it to see if it would squeak. It did neither. Then he ran straight home to Mrs. Fitzprickle, as he always did when he discovered anything really marvellous and extraordinary: which was quite often, for the most boring and unexceptional things were extraordinary to Mr. Fitzprickle.

“This,” declared Mrs. Fitzprickle, with a warning in her voice, “had better be something really extraordinary, Mr. Fitzprickle!”

It was.

“Why, ‘tis a little human child!” The lady declared between gasps for air. (Mrs. Fitzprickle was of ample build, and the climb up the wooded bank did not suit her constitution).

“It doesn’t do much.” Said Mr. Fitzprickle, critically. “From what I’ve heard, human children never stop doing something; usually involving damage.”

“Well, this one’s stopped. Sleeping, I do believe.” Mrs. Fitzprickle opined. “But it shivers, see? So it mustn’t stay here, now, must it?”

“Why not?” Enquired Mr. Fitzprickle, who was less inclined to charity than his wife.

“Coldness, Mr. Fitzprickle: dampness!” Said Mrs. Fitzprickle. “Bad for little human children – yes.”

She made her way back down the bank, and disappeared inside her tree-stump house, and in no time at all reappeared with the largest, thickest, driest of blankets you could imagine. It was a blanket covered with pictures of all the things hedgehogs (for Mr. And Mrs. Fitzprickle were, of course, hedgehogs) love the most – of grass, and earth, and flowers – and woven in among the pictures were little models of all the things that hedgehogs love to eat; tiny grubs and worms and beetles that live on the forest floor, who nobody speaks to because, after all, they are only tiny, and are unlikely to have anything interesting to say.
Mrs. Fitzprickle wrapped the blanket around Tam so that he would stop shivering, placing a thoughtful paw on his forehead.

“Do you know Mr. Fitzprickle, I think the poor boy might have a fever?”

“I’m blessed if I’d be surprised!” Exclaimed her husband. “Lying out here in such thin clothes!”

“We must take him in, Mr. Fitzprickle! We must take care of him! And when he is warmer, we shall feed him up – I never saw a creature so thin!”

“Feed him up, Mrs. Fitzprickle?” Mr. Fitzprickle enquired, looking doubtful: “Would he er……?”

Upon the stove in the tree-stump house was a steaming brew of Mrs. Fitzprickle’s special recipe, a spicy MIgwit casserole. “And why not?” Demanded Mrs. Fitzprickle.

“Well…..Migwits, you know. Not everybody likes them.”

At once Mr. Fitzprickle saw that he had said the wrong thing. Mrs. Fitzprickle gave him her most withering of stares. “Migwits,” she said weightily; “are all we have.”

Oblivious to all of this, Tam slept on, enwrapped by his world of dreams. They were not pleasant dreams. The great Mardigal and the Fromigal – so easy to chase in his waking fantasies, wrought their revenge in sleep. They danced about him, taunting. The Mardigal gnashed at him with its great hooks of fangs, the Fromigal flailed its long arms like whips; and the Oots came, with their glassy mouths, their claws raking his flesh, their talons grabbing and pulling. Tam knew the Fromigal and the Mardigal feared the Oot people, shied away from them as they charged, but try as he might he could not set one upon the other. All, it appeared, were intent upon tormenting him.
And so he was glad to wake, and somehow it did not seem odd to Tam to find himself looking up into Mrs. Fitzprickle’s concerned face. Half-drowsy, he reached up to stroke the soft fur of her cheek. A surge of warmth ran through him the like of which he had never known, bringing a moist tear to Mrs. Fitzprickle’s dark eye.

“Why, bless me! The boy’s awake, Mr. Fitzprickle! Awake! What a sweet smile he has!”

Sitting up, Tam took in his surroundings. A shady room with walls rising irregularly from an earth floor, complete darkness relieved by the light from two small lattice windows, and a lamp placed upon a table in the centre, where sat a sagacious-looking hedgehog with greying quills whose glass spectacles perched perilously upon the end of his nose. These were turned in his direction, and behind them Mr. Fitzprickle (Tam had no doubt this was he) emitted such a look of pleasure and benevolence that Tam almost crowed aloud with delight.

“He’ll be hungry, Mrs. Fitzprickle! Yes he will!” Then Mr. Fitzprickle added: “I know I am!”

As Tam’s eyes grew more accustomed to the light he took in the rest of the room. There was a fireplace glowing comfortably with an armchair at either side, a brass bed warmer hanging from the wall, a stove at the further side from which there wafted a hot, spicy scent of food. Often most hungry when he woke, Tam experienced pangs of anticipation.

Here he was, as far as he could understand, waking up to morning in a room scraped beneath the roots of a great tree. About his shoulders a blanket woven from dried mosses, illustrated with little insect creatures, and so very cosy he did not ever want to let it go. It did not occur to him as strange that he should have become so small, his hosts grown to be as large as he. Why should it? This was Bellarc Wood.

Mrs. Fitzprickle sat Tam at the table on a wooden stool opposite Mr. Fitzprickle. She ladled three portions of dark stew from a pot upon the stove into three bark dishes, which she set before Tam and her husband and at a vacant place for herself. Three black carapaces were laid as spoons.

“Dig in, dear boy!” Mr. Fitzprickle coaxed Tam cheerily: “Dig in!”

Tam dug in. The stew was quite spicy, a sort of chocolaty flavour that tingled in the back of his throat.

“What is it?” He asked when he was sufficiently sated to draw breath.

“Migwit stew, my dear. The very best! Niceness! Tastiness!” Answered Mrs. Fitzprickle seriously. “Eat your fill, now. Eat your fill!”

There was an aftertaste of liquorice. “I like it very much.” Said Tam.

At this Mrs. Fitzprickle beamed from ear to ear with pleasure, and they ate dedicatedly for a while, the three of them, in silence. From a corner by the hearth, a single black beetle ventured out onto the great open expanse of the floor. Mr. Fitzprickle spotted it instantly. He leapt from his stool to pounce upon the creature, bringing it back to the table in triumph.

“There! Fresh Migwit!” He popped the hapless insect into his mouth. “Completes a meal!”

“Don’t speak with your mouthful, Mr. Fitzprickle!” His wife reminded him tersely. Tam laughed.

It was a magical morning. Mr. Fitzprickle postponed his usual morning snooze to take Tam for a walk deep into the wood, down through the tallest trees to the river. They went to visit O’Henry the otter’s family. Mr. and Mrs. O’Henry were very polite, and the kittens (three of them) were quite charming, although they prodded at Tam in a way which reminded him of tiny Oots, and smelled appallingly of fish.
Afterwards Mr. Fitzprickle and Tam strolled beside the water, shuffling among the dry leaves, listening to a gentle wind riffling the treetops and the cry of rooks wheeling above while the river picked up their reflections as though it would take them on a journey of its own. Beside them, clumps of reeds waved in graceful dance. As boys will, Tam reached for a stick to thrash at them – a long, straight stick which stuck straight up out of the water. He grasped it and pulled.

“Do you very much mind?” Said a gruff voice.

Mr. Fitzprickle squealed and, disconcertingly, rolled up into a ball. Still holding the stick, Tam looked upwards in the direction of the voice: upwards into the stillest, roundest, most piercing eye he had ever seen.

He found words. “I’m sorry! Who are you?” He gulped.

The owner of the eye turned its head slightly to one side. Tam’s mind registered a long, rapier-like beak, needle sharp, a feather crest bristling with annoyance.

“I? I am Helmut Heron. You are holding my leg und this is not good. Vill you let go, please?”

“I thought it was a stick.”

“Ja.” Helmut glared down at Tam: “This I understand, but, as you see, it is not. It is my leg. Vill you let go, or must I peck you?”

Mutely, Tam took his hand away.

“Gut. Very gut.” Said Helmut approvingly. Then as if to recall his anger, he added: “You realise you have ruined my fishing? Who are you?”

“My name is Tam.”
“Ah, Tam.” The heron’s great eye clouded a little. “Now I understand. Ja. The vood has been expecting you, Tam.”

“Has it?” Tam was amazed that his name should be known.

“Ja, Ja.” The heron said. “Ve shall meet again, you see, from time to time. You must come back, I think. You!” He snapped at Mr.Fitzprickle: “Stupid spiky thing, unroll yourself!”

Mr. Fitzprickle reluctantly allowed a black nose to protrude from his sphere of quills. “Yes, sir: yes, Your Mightiness!” As if to further gratify the heron, he stuck out one leg as well.

“You are taking him to ze Father of ze Forest?”

“Ja, sir. I mean, yes, Helmut.”

The great beak inclined slightly, as though in a nod of approval. “It should be so. Now, go avay unt let me get on mit my fishing!”

For a while afterwards progress was slow. Every few paces the crackle of a twig, or a louder rustle of breeze would send Mr. Fitzprickle back into a ball and, coax though he might, Tam could not unroll him until he was convinced the coast was clear.

“I can’t help it, you see. It’s health and safety.” Mr. Fitzprickle explained. “It just happens – yes!” And he gave his quills a vigorous shake, as if to rid himself of this particular demon.

A half-mile up river they crossed an old log bridge, up through a willow copse (“All sorts of nice snacks here.” said Mr. Fitzprickle, plucking something small and wriggling from the leaves: “Try one!”) to Bellarc Ridge.

“There!” Mr. Fitzprickle said proudly: “The Father of the Forest!”
Before them stood the largest, the oldest, the most venerable chestnut tree in the whole of Bellarc Wood. The mighty spread of its branches loomed over their heads like a vast domed roof, its web of wooden girders interlacing the sky into leaded windows of blue or white. At their centre a trunk of such girth as might support a town of wild creatures; wrinkled and knotted by the frown of age. Beneath the tree’s canopy chestnuts old and new coated the forest floor.

“Conkers!” Cried Tam enthusiastically.

“But you must not touch them, dear boy!” Warned Mr. Fitzprickle. “They are his children!”

So they approached the huge tree carefully, picking their way.

“Be respectful now.” Mr. Fitzprickle warned Tam. “He can be a bit crotchety in the mornings.”

Why, he did not know, but Tam walked forward alone. And as he did so, he felt the old tree’s boughs like arms stretching out to him, as though in welcome. He saw at once how these were not just of one tree, but the arms of the whole of Bellarc Wood. They were the arms which first beckoned him when he was lost, which cradled him as he slept: they brought the wonderful Fitzprickles to find him, and they made him warm, and at home.

“Come to me.” The great chestnut’s invitation was somewhere inside his head, deep and profound. “Come and rest.”

Tam sensed the tree’s tiredness, its age and its wisdom. His ‘must I?’ was not a spoken question, but it was answered. “We all must rest.”

All at once Tam saw that he could not make the final step towards the tree without pain! He shook in the grip of this sudden fear, tried to rebuff it, to step away. But then he understood: the hurt was the last hurt, the gateway to the freedom of the wood. At last he had found a place where the Fromigal and the Mardigal, the Oot People could not go. If he could but suffer it this once, just this once, he was safe. So Tam accepted it, took the agony to himself like a fire of resurrection and stepped, wholly and willingly, into the tree’s embrace.

They were all inside. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzprickle, the O’Henrys, Helmut, their welcome reaching out to him – all affirming.

It was the right thing to do.

#

Angela had been standing in the doorway for a long time.

“Come on, Ange, it’s a police matter now.” Mark said.

Nodding, she turned away. Not that she would ever turn her back on the picture: the tiny details of the picture; the ragged book with its illustrations of trees and animals, a strange shape like a hedgehog scraped by broken fingernails into the bare floor. And then, scrawled in who could tell (who would want to tell?) what, upon the timber nailed over the window, a word or a part of a word: T-A-M. Was it possible, Angela wondered, this poor creature taught itself to write in some way? Had it given itself a name?

That sight, that stench would be with her forever: the little naked body tortured so, torn so, lying twisted but finally content in death, would haunt her to her grave.

There was still a post mortem to endure, when they would find bruising from a thousand blows, traces of cockroaches and earwigs in the stomach, last desperate attempts at sustenance by a child in a locked room for whom food stopped coming: for whom love never came.

Mark, at her side, guiding her, shaking, to the stairs. “You can’t save them all.”

The police: “Come on, this is a crime scene. Let’s get the suits out of the way, shall we? What’s the name of the tenant?”

“One Thomas Madrigal and his girlfriend Andrea Forminghall.” The young officer’s reply was steady and unemotional. But even he had dreams.
“Why didn’t you come last week?” Angela asked Mark.
“Its case overload, babe.” Mark said. “We did all we could.”
The coffee breaks, the committees, the case conferences, the endless reams of paperwork, the ticking heartbeat of a relentless clock. If Angela looked into his eyes she would see the lie:
“Did we, Mark?” She asked; “Really – did we?”

#

© Frederick Anderson 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Wishing

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Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully. It had two doors, ornately carved, in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Fashioned from olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom. He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape (sterling; he never could stand metric). Yes, perfect. Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below would accept his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear – eminently suitable.

Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.

“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan. Fifty for it?” The auctioneer asked.

Silence. Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.

“Forty then. Twenty! Come on, must be worth that?”

Silence.

“Alright. Last chance. Ten. I’ll not go any lower…”

“Five.” Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.

“Got to be ten. Want it?”

Poulter sniffed. “Alright.”

“Ten then. Anybody?” Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably. “Ten it is. Sold.”

Poulter was secretly pleased with the price. He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet into the back of his pick-up truck.
“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.” The porter grunted, from the heavy end.

Poulter would not enjoy his drive home. Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing. He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.

Was it a wheel bearing? His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise. So – was it a wheel bearing? He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be. It could be. It would be another repair bill! His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.

Corner!

So preoccupied was he with the wheel he had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, left him.

Panic! Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line. It skidded; it slewed.

It bounced.

With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road. He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror. When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac, miraculously undamaged: it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though. It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!

“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!” Exclaimed Poulter. (Poulter was accustomed to summoning his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis). “I’ve killed someone!”

‘Someone’, however, was still moving. By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone. A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter: “Bloody hell! What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool? You bloody near slaughtered me then!”

“I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry!” Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief. “Are you – are you badly hurt?”

“Dunno.” To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off. “Nay, no harm done, lad! Don’t upset yerse’n, now. But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right? Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”

“Yes, yes.” Humbled, Poulter felt he should try to make amends. “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere? Are you going far?”

The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if an important decision depended on his answer. “Aye,” He said. “Awreet. But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck. Back up, will ye?”

For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong, and together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck. Poulter drove away with his new passenger sitting, and breathing rather heavily, beside him. A horn sounded its impatience.

“Call me Albert.” Said the little man. “What’s tha name, lad?”

“Oh, I’m – please call me Jarvis.” Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about Albert. He almost felt he had found a new friend. Jarvis Poulter had few friends. In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.

A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.

“Bloody Stephen!” Said Albert. “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis! Yer nearly mashed that poor lad! He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”

“I am, aren’t I?” Poulter agreed. “I wish I could do it better.”

“Sorry?”

“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”

Albert tightened his seat belt. All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch. His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear. His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar. As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him. The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently. The tyres sang. Ahead, evening traffic was gathering.

“What’s happening?” Poulter cried. His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him. He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor. “I can’t stop!”

Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between. Eighty, ninety! Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes. Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.

“Lost ‘em!” Albert said triumphantly.

“Help me, please!” Screamed Poulter.

“Nay, lad! Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”

Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel. Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before the staff of Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home. The engine switched itself off. Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.

“What have I done? What have I done?”

Albert glanced about him. “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome. This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.” He undid his seat belt. “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.” Poulter seemed incapable of movement. “Coom on, son. The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”

“The police? Oh my god!” (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion). “But they’ll trace me! Their computers…”

“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays. So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it? But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”

“No! I mean no. You see, I didn’t report it stolen!” Poulter shook his head helplessly.

Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile. “Aye, lad. Yer did.”

Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. We’ll need to hold onto it for forensics for a bit, but you should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table. With the help of several pills his mood had recovered. “What was it?” He demanded. “You did that to me, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see how yer can say that! You were driving!” Albert replied. “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer? Yer got yer wish.”

Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound. “Wish? What wish? Absolute nonsense! You crossed the road without looking! I had to swerve to avoid you. After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed. I reacted. That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!” Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it. It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.

“Nay, lad!” Albert said quietly. “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet. I were inside it.”

Poulter sniggered. Then Poulter guffawed. Finally, Poulter snorted.

Albert said: “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Poulter snapped. “You simply can’t be serious!”

But Albert was serious. And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince. “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad. Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see? T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”

Poulter shook his head. “ Oh, really! When did you get in? How long were you in there?”

“About four hundred year this time. That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”

A long silence. Eventually, Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh. “Four centuries? Wishes? You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”

“Aye lad. Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am. That’s me.”

“You really believe this, don’t you?” Poulter sneered. “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”

Can’t do that, you mean.”

“Won’t. See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish. I like a challenge! Then again, tha knowst how it goes. Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer? Be careful what yer wish for. Yer got two left.”

Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him. After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation. “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes? I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”

“Aye, that were me. Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat? My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”

It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal. As he worked, he called through the opened door: “How old are you, Albert?”

“I don’t rightly know. Age doesn’t come into it really. I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back. T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”

“Really!” (worth another snigger) “Who was that?”

“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make. There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’. Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see? But he wished for me to feed ‘em. Five thousand fish suppers, he said. Think o’ theet!”

“And you did it anyway?”

“Aye, I had to. He told ‘em I were t’Catering Manager. They would have killed me!”
Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan. “What else did he wish for?”

“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate. He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”

“Amazing.” Poulter said drily. “Any others I might know?”

“What d’yer want, bloody references? There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”

“Fat chap?”

“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat. Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank somethin’ awful. Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”

“Henry the Eighth?”

“That’s the chap! He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said. Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er. Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end. See, here’s the thing: you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad. Look what ‘appened to the fella with the fish suppers!”

Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening. By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables that Poulter kept displayed in his upstairs room, it was late. It was therefore obvious that Albert should stay overnight.

Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room. “Aye, that’ll be grand!” Albert said.

After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter. Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind. The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time. So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’. His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in herThe Kiss lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work: how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection. How he wished…

Possibly, being so close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed. He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that. Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement. There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.

“By ‘eck, lad!” Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater. “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet. Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”

Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared. Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable. “But I didn’t wish for this!” He wailed.

“Well, yes, lad. You did. One left now, mind. Use it carefully, like!”

Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair. His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.

“What do I do now?” He asked Albert, plaintively. “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar. Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”

“I won’t lie to thee, lad. Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed. An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift. If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.” Albert advised. But then he added: “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”

“Right now,” Poulter admitted. “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me. But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”

#

The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.

“Not again!” He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.

“’Fraid so.” Said Albert. “He wants it put in for t’next sale. Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”

“Why is it so heavy?” Complained the porter.

“Well built, lad; like me!”

After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom.

“I’ll get the paperwork.” Said the porter.

“Aye. You do that.” Agreed Albert. He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle. As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him.

With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced. And so the following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.

After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered. It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.

As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times. Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.

Albert has never been heard of since.

© Frederick Anderson 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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