Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Horn's Last Rite


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reaching For Nadir


Sunday, August 26, 2007

(He Believes)


A collaboration with Craig Sernotti

Published 'Mindmares' 1998

It's darker towards the middle of the room. John's thoughts spark off each other, take fire from fire. He dreads the eventual outcome of his own thoughts: insanity, complete and utter.

John awakes on the parlour window-couch having, the previous night, fallen asleep (he believes) in his usual bed upstairs. The couch is under the inset bay: a wooden surface with narrow mattress. For most of the daylight hours, John has been snoozing between supposed dreams. Now. with the onset of dusk, he infers that the outskirts of the room, including the windowless walls, are shimmering with light, leaving the central rug between the fireplace and the bay in shadow. Or is the shadow a sooty mist rising towards the ceiling? With growing horror, he realizes that the supposed dreams were not dreams at all but merely what he fears most: the onset of insanity. complete and utter. Then comes an even bigger doubt - the one flaw in his line of argument. John's mind floods with mental flame, as he grows less confident regarding the demarcation of dream and insanity. There is, of course, a rogue force called reality which feeds equally from both dream and insanity, but then calls itself sanity for convenience (or just for the laugh). John feels confused, without realizing that such confusion is affecting more than just his own thoughts. All senses sense each other wrongly. John smells awful. John tastes John's own dead body. John sees nothing but John's own eyeballs slowly revolving in their sockets. John touches the top of John's head and feels gluey substance below where the skull should have been, and this sense of touch itself seems to send other senses haywire.

"I must be seeing an angel ..." John sputtered. Fresh blood leaked from his mouth with each word.

John looked down at the fallen John. This had happened during the night. John knew. A man broke in. using a knife to cut open the screen door. (John cursed John for only barring the outside world with a screen. It wasn't his fault really, though. He lived in the quiet part of town. Nothing exciting or dangerous happened. He knew people elsewhere in the world that did wrongful things, but he didn't think it would happen in his town.) The Intruder then walked calmly to where John slept, the television on, and demanded for John to wake. A groan, a moan. The man jabbed John in the ribs with a gun, which awoke the tired house's owner. The intruder asked for money. He received only a "Pay day's in two days my friend," and, in a rage of disappointment, the Intruder shot John.

"Thank you God. Thank ... you for sending an angel. One to....protect..." His sentence died, and so did John.

John heard noises inside the house. The first floor, in which room it was vague. The Intruder was still in his house.

John returned to the piece of glass that John called a mirror, and moved downstairs. He appeared in the framed portrait of John's mother, dead seven years a month ago thanks to a tumor of the brain. No one. He moved into the dining room, gazing into its dark corners from the polished lining of the table. No one.

Something solid but quite breakable shattered on the kitchen floor. Someone quite real swore gruffly at the breaking noise.

The Intruder.

For someone to intrude, there must be something other than mere money for which the intruder intruded. The outside was safer, cleaner place for non-¬intruders to stroll. Indeed. there was a band in the park, this evening. And Old George Saintsbury - the town's favourite ever mayor - would no doubt be sounding off about the way crime was beatable as long as everybody pulled their weight in the Neighborhood Watch Scheme. John had always or often been one of the leading lights - getting up at the crack of dawn or even earlier to spy out the intruders before they had even thought of intruding.

John's mother - the one who carried a tumor in her head like an old woman's next-best-thing to being pregnant - had once been Old George Saintsbury's even older flame. Well, John's father had died before they started carrying-on, hadn't he? There was no overlap of misloyalty. John's mother and John's father (then the same John in each case), after all had both shared the same tumor. No more could a husband and wife do for each other that bear the burden of the same tumor. A slobbery, grey tumor of bulimic blubber that fed upon the brains at the same time as the brains fed upon it. This tumor had eyes, John once believed. And a mouth that was continuously sick, the same John later guessed.

The Intruder (to John's mind) was also intruding John's house in hope of burgling the tumor, the rich tumor of fluted ambergris and slime that had been passed down (via all manner of probate-wills which Old George Saintsbury's legal firm had overseen), passed down seven years ago this month when John's mother passed over (whilst the selfsame tumor's eyes were temporarily averted and its mouth pursed shut upon a brand new tide of vomit), passed down for incubation within John's (or was it John's?) head.

John, though, has no wife or children to whom it can eventually be passed down. John does, after all, sleep a solitary bachelor’s sleep, of a fastness complete and utter, in either window-couch or bed, or both. Only the darkness can wake him.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Blanket

First published 'Doppelgänger 13½' 1991

The blanket that my grandmother (and my mother after her) had knitted from at least a century of tail-end wool was one of my most cherished possessions. Its brightly coloured squares were sewn together with no concern for matching, but beautiful nonetheless. Its beauty not only stemmed from such sentimental attachment but also from seeming to be a living creature which delighted in lying on top of me, blunting those shadows sharpened from the winter darkness.

The rot set in, however, when I got myself a husband. It had been knitted upon the bone-needles of my mother and grandmother, who had lovingly clicked whole nights away watching it grow faster than any child of theirs, and so I knew the blanket could not be suffering from jealousy. It was a proud tradition in our family to marry, after all. No, I assumed that the stitches were loosening (and even laddering from square to square) because the blanket disapproved of the man I had chosen, not the fact he was my husband. It little cared to protect HIM from the cold.

What option did I have then, m'lord, when I saw the unravelling, the pitiful thread-barren, the fraying and teasing out, the sheer worrying of its texture into straggly tangles? At first, I lay awake at night, listing to him snoring, my fingers fiddling uncontrollably with the tantalizing bobbles of wool, weaving the loose ends into cats' cradles of torment: knotting and unknotting mischievous strands which should have stayed unknotted and knotted respectively.

Luckily my conscience remained untrammelled. I pulled the blanket off him night after night, hoping he'd catch pneumonia from Jack Frost himself. He merely tugged it back in his sleep with a greater strength than that he possessed during his waking hours. In many ways, some of the blanket's unseaming must be laid at the door of such antics. But not all. The blanket literally loathed my husband.

So, m'lord, what could I do? I merely watched it suffocate him. You see, it didn't need my help. How could I have managed to tame such a bucking monster with my own small hands? No, it were the blanket, m’lord, that killed my husband. How else could it have become threaded through from one end to the other, indelibly stained with his sticky black blood and all his innards trawled?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Man Too Mean To Be Me

A collaboration with Gordon Lewis (1922-2007) written in 1998

Being a perfectionist — inquisitive too, has helped me in my profession as a Detective Sergeant in the Police Force. The trouble is I am the same ferretty person off duty. Even a crossword puzzle has to be solved by fair means or foul. This passion of mine has resulted in my walking with a limp — more painful when the weather turns to cold and damp. An unsolved crossword clue was the cause of the injury when a heavy tome of a reference book fell on my foot in the local library. As I was wearing nothing but flimsy open-toed sandals at the time, this resulted in three broken toes and a badly bruised metatarsus — and early retirement from the Police Force.

Too young to retire completely, I decided to set up a private investigation agency; at least I could turn my ferreting nature to some good effect.

By fair means or foul? I should come clean straightaway — or as soon as possible without altering too much of anything I’ve told you already. It is easy to tell lies. Once you have told one, then the rest just follow. Like the fact I broke two toes. Or was it three? You see — telling lies takes concentration, concentration which I damn well can’t maintain. Well maybe the hefty reference book broke my toes. Maybe it didn’t. Whatever the case, I eventually had to plant a stone in my shoe to remind me to limp. After all once you have gained a ‘character’ for yourself — a character that distinguishes you from the otherwise blank backdrop of the rest of humanity — then you’ve got to plug on and be that person. Be that hook upon which to hang a story...

And this story I have to tell is one you’ll never forget. Anyway, not wearing a long dirty mackintosh, and not wielding the rump of a blasted cigar in my mouth, not even with a pair of ill-repaired spectacles perched on my huge nose, I simply had to depend on my limp to mark me out.

The day I first encountered Mrs Carmichael (‘Winnie’ to some) she swayed like a top heavy galleon down the corridor towards my office, a smirk on her over-painted lips, finally arriving at my desk...

“I want you to find my husband,” she simply said, with the tang of a dialect I couldn’t quite place.

“Your husband has a name? And is there a reason for finding one who probably doesn’t deserve you?” I asked in a toneless, tuneless drawl.

“Yes, he has a name, Mr Crosland — it is Richard Carmichael, but I could call him many things — but for now, let’s say ‘Rat’ would be most appropriate. I don’t want him back in my life, I just want to stop him drawing money from our joint bank account. I don’t suppose he has committed any crime in the eyes of the law, so going to the police is not going to do any good. Actually I don’t want to involve them. I don’t want them swarming all over my place, for reasons that should not concern you. I have had a word with my bank manager and he says I can close the account if my husband and I both agree to do so. While there is money in the account he can travel all over the place, living the ‘life of Riley’ until there is nothing left.”

“When did you last see your husband?” I asked, breaking into her flow of words.

“It was a fortnight ago on a Monday morning as I left the house to go to work. He complained of a headache, said he was taking the day off. When I arrived home in the early evening I found he had packed all his personal things and left home.” She paused for breath before I could question her, then carried on with her story.

“He couldn’t take anything other than what was his, since the house and all it contains are in my name.”

“How long have you been married?” I said managing to get a word in.

“He simply walked into my life about two years ago — full of charm,

good looking too. Why I ever listened to him I’ll never know — I know I’ll rue the day I agreed that we should have joint accounts. He put all his own money in — or so I was led to believe — not a substantial amount though. I should have smelled a rat then, but he was too plausible, professing he was happy in our married life.”

I told you how easy it was for me to slip into telling lies — to such an extent that, in the end, they even ceased to seem like lies to myself. Whether this facility allowed me to better judge when other folk were telling lies, I’m not wholly sure. Anyway all this business Winnie Carmichael mentioned about joint accounts didn’t then — and doesn’t now — ring true at all, really. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it...

I suddenly got up from my chair, accidently pushing my desk forward, almost to the extent of its edge hitting the wide belted stomach of her loudly checked coat.

“Oops, sorry, Mrs Carmichael, but..,”

“Call me Winnie, do.”

“Well , Winnie, it just dawned on me... we can kill two birds with one stone here...”

And I winced since, upon getting up so quickly, I had jabbed my foot on the stone in my shoe with rather more vigour than I intended.

“Your husband,” I continued, “works for Regis Insurance, doesn’t he?” Her husband was indeed well known to me... and I noticed that she blushed, self consciously patting the bun of her hair.

Pouring water into a glass that I provided for her from my sideboard (only important clients got anything stronger), I said:- “It is just that I’ve recently been apprised of some undercover work available for the Claims Adjusting department of Regis. They want me to see if any of their staff are bent.., whether they are inflating customer’s claims — for backhanders, you know, that sort of thing.

“How will looking for my husband help?”

“Well, not sure yet, Winnie, but one may help the other… and vice versa. Filters are often two-way. And then I can cut my fees to the bones for you. You see, I like to give my persona1 customers the edge over conglomerates...

She nodded again, having by now regathered herself. Eventually, by the time she left my office, we had fixed the terms of my mission, I looked out of the window and saw that night was aready shrouding the geometrical building-tops with shifting shadows.

The smell of Winnie’s perfume hung in the air as I sat and reflected on the turn of events. I was still bemused at the coincidence of suddenly having two cases that could be linked in some way. God knows business in my line of work was hard to come by, and here, all of a sudden, I had to find someone’s husband who could well be intricated in my investigation at the Regis organisation. It was not merely the run of the mill case of a man on the run from his wife, but that same man could well be guilty of fraud within the company he worked for.

I shivered as I heard the rattle of cold winter’s rain on my office window but resisted the urge to partake in a nip or two from the whisky bottle in the top drawer of my filing cabinet; remembering that drinking alone was not advisable, I decided to lock up shop to call in at my local bar just a street away. Maybe my old friend Roger Portway would be there. He was another ex-cop struggling on in same profession as myself, someone I worked with at times. He often helped gain information from his younger brother still in the police force.

I switched off the office light and locked the glass panelled door where was emblazoned my name and profession. Ben Crosland... Private Investigator.

Descending to Street level I hunched my shoulders in my raincoat, pulled my hat down firmly ready to meet the elements in my dash to the ‘Old Boar’s Head’ pub around the corner.

The stone in my shoe must have lodged in a niche where it ceased to remind me to limp as I sped along the rain-washed deserted pavements until I burst into the lounge bar of my favourite public house.

“Hi George,” I cried out to the Barman, “not fit for dogs out there.”

Roger was there too, sitting in his usual corner seat near the bar.

“So what’s new Roger,” I said, as I greeted him in my usual manner.

“Nothing’s new Ben,” he answered “Oh forgive me, everything is new. I forgot — I’m getting wed...”

Roger poked one of his fingers at me upon which sat the chunkiest stone I’d ever seen on a man’s hand. It sparkled as he beckoned to the barman for my usual beverage.

“My intended gave me this ring,” he continued, She is richer by far than...”

I waved aside the rest of what he had to say. I’d heard it all before. Not only was I a liar, but I seemed to mix with nothing but liars, too, and Roger Portway was no exception. The slickest liar. A forked tongue, A truth twister.

He laughed, as he knew I’d seen through his silly pub talk. The ring was obviously a present — not from a sweetheart (for who could possibly fancy an ugly lump like him?) — but from a grateful customer for whom he had wielded his ‘private eye’. The fact that he was half-blind always made me admire his skills. On the other hand, perhaps, his enhanced inner sight gave him more analytical ability than some with a full complement of eye-power... like me.

“Roger, I need your help,” I gulped my drink ignoring the dry fizz at the back of my throat which momentarily tickled a chronic cough.

“Yep, what is it this time? And, by the way, Ben, you forgot your limp coming in here. There’s no telling who may be watching...”

I winced. Not often did I drop my guard in such a fashion. My shoes leaked water. I’d need a new pair before long — and a chunkier stone! I laughed… but it was not really a joke. Life in this city was dead serious.

“Anyway, Rodge, you know Carmichael of Regis?”

“Yep, he’s been seen frequenting the Square at night, fingering things I wouldn’t let the Devil see me fingering.”

“You mean he’s into the looser sort of woman this city is duly proud to entertain?”

Roger sneered at my turn of phrase, then came clean with the goods.

“Nope. Carmichael’s into the looser sort of substance that’s passed around the square these days ... and I don’t mean hard cash. More hard...”

I waved Roger to join me on a foray even before he could carry on with his extrapolations. We left the pub separately and headed for the Square... the heavy drizzle infiltrating between collar and skin. The city lights flickered momentarily giving me a vision of Hell. Not another power cut, I hoped. They should stay stable till the small hours at least. They’d never failed me before and I breathed a sigh of relief as they bloomed brighter again. I steadfastly limped in Roger’s wake — into the square. The air round here was pretty dark at the best of times, as if the city authorities simply knew that the black economy was vital to intrinsic City well-being and needed only a modicum of subtle illumination to oil its machinations!

I began to wonder if I was on a wild goose chase. If Carmichael was still in the city, large and sprawling though it may be, his wife Winnie was labouring under a delusion that he was far away by this time. Surely a man of his stature would be frequenting classier areas than the one the city square encompassed, where the dregs of humanity came out of the shadows at night.

Thankfully the rain had stopped as I caught up with Roger.

“What are we doing here Rodge?” I asked in a conspiratorial whisper. Though why I was whispering I don’t really know, for in spite of the weather the square was quite a busy place at this time of evening.

“I’m looking for a particular person, Ben, a character who seems to know everything that goes on hereabouts. She is known by the name of Margie, never knew what her surname is. She has her finger on the pulse of the city square and its environs so to speak. Perhaps because of the weather she is in her favourite pub the ‘Coach and Horses’ down a side street just off the square.”

I was glad I was not alone as I limped along with Roger. I certainly didn’t want to appear to be on the prowl, waiting to be accosted by one of the ladies of the night. I had to go along with Roger’s way of doing things. I had to start somewhere and for the life of me I couldn’t think of any other way to begin my twin investigations.

As I told you before, I am a perfectionist... so understandably, I had become irritated at the number of loose ends that threatened to pile up in this particular investigation. I wished now that I had earlier depended on my own resources, rather than take up with such waifs and strays as Roger Portway and the woman called — what was her name? — Margie. And then there was Carmichael, the one we were meant to be seeking with Margie’s help — not to mention the shadowy figures who ran the Regis conglomerate.

Whilst the interior of the ‘Coach’and Horses’ was stuffily warm, its atmosphere was cold and strange, with stern faces rubber-necking in our direction as Roger and I sidled into the bar. Notwithstanding my self-conciousness, I laughed out loud as I heard that the music on the old juke¬box happened to be ‘Gotta pebble in my shoe’ by Ella Fitzgerald. Margie herself was found wearing a floral head scarf and poring over a crossword puzzle in the lounge bar; the puzzle was a useful ice-breaker as I proceeded to help her with some of the knottier teasers. One solution, I recall, was ‘bounty hunter’, But I forget the exact nature of the clue.

“Where’s Carmichael?” Roger suddenly asked, without preamble, amid the otherwise self-perpetuating tussle with words and meanings.

I looked up — startled. I had momentarily felt my mind elsewhere. Why were we here at all? My brain, even at the best of times, was never acute enough to retain a single purpose nor to distinguish between various goals. One moment I was supposed to be chasing tails in the murky world of Insurance claims, the next moment closing in on an aberrant husband whose imputed dabblings with joint bank accounts had never made much sense in the first place.

In any event, I soon quit the disabling claustrophobia of the ‘Coach and Horses’ — on my own now, refreshingly controlling my own single-minded

— if diffuse — destiny. Roger and Margie themselves seem to have other geese to fry and probably nothing to do with crossword puzzles!

The Square — like a crossword itself the way the lighting worked — now seemed a more restrictive world as if the small hours diminished everything in their path. I forgot whether I’ve told you that a City like this one has more than its fair share of coincidences. Whatever the case one gets used to coincidences around here, almost becoming disappointed if one doesn’t duly turn up. As Margie had instinctively pointed me in the general right direction for full exposure to night’s serendipity, I was not suprised when I found the hunched shape of a threesome near the arches of the vegetable market. One of them was Carmichael. I dodged nearer between the brighter segments of the Square’s acrostic — but I was soon spotted. It was as if they actually expected me.

They fell silent as I approached; I decided to bluff it out as I thought there was no way Carmichael would recognise me. He couldn’t possibly know that I was employed by both his firm and his wife. I tried not to limp as I staggered towards the three men: pretending that I was a little the worse for drink. I wasn’t ready to confront Carmichael, but the fact that I stumbled upon him and the two murky characters confirmed that he had not left the city.

“Can you tell me where the Coach and Horses is?” I asked in a feigned alcoholic drawl. “Seem to be going round in circles, and I have lost my bearings.

“You are heading in the wrong direction,” said one of the men. “It’s off the other side of the square, in a side street called Mason’s Lane.”

I must have played the part of a drunk very well for the one that spoke turned me round and gave me a push in the right direction to start me meandering away from them.

When I thought I was out of sight I dodged down an alley-way, one that would take me back to the three men without being observed.

They had been joined by another man by the time I was near enough to see without being seen. Of course I was interested in the bulkier one of the quartet. Eventually they broke up. Two of them walked North in the direction I had wobbled, whilst Carmichael and the fourth man moved away to the South of the square, with me following at a discreet distance — until they suddenly stopped at the entrance to a car park that providentially was but a few yards away from the building where my office was situated. Carmichael moved off on his own into the car park after saying goodbye to his companion. I hurried to my own car, parked conveniently in a spare bit of ground next to my office building, then waited a few minutes until I saw Carmichael emerge from the exit of the car park in his Mercedes. All ready with my car’s engine warming up, I was able to drive behind him still heading south away from the city centre.

Abruptly, I recalled something I had noticed but not consciously dwelt upon. I drove — interminably it seemed — a drizzly route at which neither vehicle (followed or follower) seemed to be able to make rhyme or reason — and, then it came to me. Carmichael had been limping! This realisation, in turn, caused me to weave backwards in my thoughts. Those human shapes I had automatically assumed to be unknown strangers caught up in a web of deceit with which this city was so rife were probably none other than the half-blind Portway with his latest bit of stuff (Margie?) — and two faced Winnie Carmichael, no doubt. The women were muffled up to look like men... there were pieces of the jigsaw floating towards each other, even as I pondered in automatic free-wheel. It was all to come together with a crash.

Yes, Yes, why had one of the shapes taken off its shoe, taken something out of it and passed this something surreptitiously to another shape — who had scuttled off like a rat. Why this? Why that? Carmichael was just another mean and dirty drug runner. And, yes, all bank accounts were joint ones in this city — leading even to those rubber accounts to which the highest boardroom of Regis turned a blind eye. Money laundering was not a clean business, at the best of times...

I shuddered. It had all come together… with a crash! My car — due to the inattention of its driver — had collided, almost in slow motion, with the Mercedes it followed. Several shapes had, by now, surrounded my car, pulled me from the driver’s seat — and I was sure it must have been my own face (or a remarkable likeness) that leered at me as a gun barrel was jammed between my teeth with a blood-curdling screech. After all, lies were selfish. After that, any clue was merely duplicitous — no other word for it.


He ushered the walking wounded, as well as the dead, into the field chapel. Better under a roof (if ramshackle) than the bomb-laden sky, he thought.

Taking example from a dream he once saw, he knelt before the rude cross and mumbled inanities under his breath. The rest followed suit, where they were able. Some relinquished their crutches, others had already fallen off their stilts, yet others cut their own strings.

The chapel's roof had not been conducive to the puppet-master's continued vigilance, the strings having been stretched at right angles under the door, others slipping through the gaps in the makeshift roof, yet others tangling up in games of blind cats' cradle.

He turned to face the flock. Some had fallen flat on their faces, others belly up, yet others hanging from the creaking rafters like flesh-coloured spiders.

He prayed deeply that he would be alive by morning.

The war raged on outside. The bombs slipped down the strings like head-to-toe acrobat toys; and, as the night set in for the third time that month, the whole sky dripped rattling bead curtain streamers of black.

Some wars were thus, others not, yet others neither.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Anonymous Tale

I had no soul. Yet the place where my soul should have resided did not feel entirely empty, did it? But one could never be exact as to the degree of such emptiness, unaware, as all emptinesses were, of how much space they were called upon to fill.

In my case, the place-of-no-soul eventually became a shrinking, if tantalising, fallowness, fraying at the edges and sucking me towards the middle of my own tiny body - or, at least, towards where the body's centre of gravity appeared to be.

A sense of absence - a sorrow without sadness - a wish without desire - a bereavement in a world where death was more by good luck than misjudgement - a pain that killed painkillers in ever-increasing circles - an anxiety for a loved one who was never to be born - a hope without faith - worse still, a faith without hope . . . these were the various symptoms of a missing soul.

I did not know my own name, but someone else did. She, this someone else, was Elspeth who, despite being a human being in contrast to my own elfinness, was even smaller than me. Many called her petite; many more a midget. She enjoyed that part of the day which was neither afternoon nor evening, but a bit of both, especially when the trees around her mother's cottage collected sighs for their leaves to articulate with their needlepoint of rustles.

Having left her mother to clear up after her own attempts at clearing up which her lack of height prevented her from perfecting, Elspeth wandered the place that, in her dreams, was her own garden with swing and see-saw. But, now, it was a nondescript expanse of set-aside belonging to a local farmer. Were it not for me, she would probably only play there during her actual dreams. Instead of which, she went there as often as possible; she knew, in her heart of hearts, that I was essentially a dream, albeit an insulated dream that lived autonomously in the waking world of reality.

"How are you today?"

As soon as Elspeth spoke, I emerged from behind a vision of myself which I had planted as a prop in my un-vanishing act, performed to amuse the girl.

"I have no soul, therefore I cannot possibly exist." My voice was spoken with confidence, as if it could actually be heard.

"You don't exist?" she said, inevitably ignoring my words. "But who wants to exist? My life is nothing but trouble."

There was a grain of truth in her statement, although it had primarily been made as a comfort, like a nurse with a dying child.

I, the 'dying child' in question, looked at the girl from my greater height and said in pining troubled tones: "At least trouble is something. It's better than nothing."

"You are silly!" she announced, suddenly aware of the paradox regarding the simultaneous awareness of my own predicament.

At that moment, the sun performed its own un-vanishing act, having earlier duped we pair of playmates with its version of Peek-a-Boo between some distant trees. A shaft of gold penetrated our heads, causing eyes to become torches playing noughts-and-crosses, and, then, who-blinks-first.

We played touch-catch, with nobody winning, until there was no longer any doubt that night had lost the need to cheat in its tenebrous game of hide-and-seek. After Elspeth, amid blown kisses, had departed for real dreams under cottage-thatch and cot-top, I loitered in the soon-to-become-even-more-nondescript meadow, along with the memories of our games. Anxiety was something I could manage to set aside. But love was something else altogether. My emptiness, still yearning for a soul, vowed to wish fulfilment of different thoughts tomorrow, one of which might make us play leap-frog - instead of the ardently breathless chase involved in touch-catch. Meanwhile, Elspeth was a wayward sleeper, stretching her legs towards the cot bars, to test if they were now long enough to reach the end.

So as to sleep, she told herself stories . . . and, once upon a time, there was a Prince who loved the river flowing through the beautiful birdsong wood. Although the Prince owned the wood, he wondered if he owned the river or, at least, that part of the river flowing through his wood or, at the very least, the river-bed under that part of the river flowing through his wood or, at the very very least, the edges of the river-bank. Such considerations regarding the rights of ownership stirred him further to consider things - and one such consideration related to the air directly above the wood's winding river. Indeed, what about all the air in the wood?

And then, of course, there was the sky itself above the wondrous wood - and one must not forget the earth reaching from below the wood towards the Antipodes - and beyond. The Prince sat in his beautiful birdsong wood musing upon considerations that fed further considerations until his brow furrowed. And while he sat musing, he dabbled his toes in the flowing river itself and, thus, he mused not only upon the edge of the river-bank but also upon the edge of the selfsame river-bank both by subject-matter and position of his posterior. He wondered if, at the very very very least, he owned his own toes. But further considerations ceased as, suddenly, the wood erupted with squawks of birds scattering from the Prince's trees into the wide blue sky...

In a second story which she abruptly told to rectify the inconsequentiality of the first one, Elspeth herself swung an axe at a mighty bole. The sun, doubled by sweat in the eyes, lifted in unseasonable speed above the other shaggy trees, stage-lighting the forest-clearing in readiness perhaps for the Prince's grand re-entrance. Her voice picked out heart-felt ditties - ditties from those shanty song-cycles often forced out between oldster's crooning lips in despairing lullabyes, at dead of night when the deep pan moon floated into antique windows.

She kept a weather eye on the inn, where a-woman-with-no-name would even now be speaking half-truths to nobody but the ghosts. Then, wiping her face with the bottom of her blouse, Elspeth turned in the other direction to see whether the ferry across the river was back in action. The ferry-keeper had been poorly for some days, so the cargo-stacks queued along both banks further than she could ever remember those henges to stretch. But most important of all, there was one area she scanned with more anxiety than the rest - the forest path along which I, thePrince, had earlier departed with the earthenware jug. She hoped I would soon return it, brimful with the sweet coolness of golden spring wine.

Not long since dawn - even so, the giant silver bird-fish which emerged from the rivers of the sun were more surprising for their punctuality than ever their lateness or earliness could evoke. These were the carving mysteries of the heavens above, which Elspeth had never questioned because, like the sun itself, they were simply always there. Her ancient parents - whom she'd concocted specially for this story - despite the blind spot of their lives between childhood and old age, said these smooth-lined fish had always brooded in the sky's heartlands, visiting Earthen by-ways within certain tolerances of timing. The plumes of fire from tails and gills were the strangest ingredients of bird-fish flight which, paradoxically, appeared the most normal. Elspeth would often place her hand in mock salute above her big brown eyes, thus shading them from the glare, whilst keeping watch on those she suspected kept watch on her.

Today, again, she dabbed her watering eyes with the end of her blouse, fleetingly revealing the underswell of young breasts. At the back of her mind, she was intrigued and amused by the contrast between the ferry on its rust-cranking cross-river chain and the sleek silver bird-fish frictionlessly forging the sky. It made her feel uncharacteristically depressed. I was longer than usual making my anticipated entrance and the grain of the wood seemed set against her strokes. She took a plait of hair from the back of her head and placed it across her upper lip like a man's moustache, soaking up the ever-renewing beads of sweat. Her skirt fell about her legs as if it had a sculptor's will of its own, the complex pleats changing like a map in motion above the pretty ankles. She was bare of feet, long since transformed by weathering into the appearance of fine-textured wood themselves.

The other men who shifted around between fresh-cloven boles had only eyes for her, deeply jealous of my place in her soul. None noticed the hovering of one particular bird-fish within a proximity of which history had never spoken, even in the books which none now ever opened for fear of the pages being found welded together like spongey wood. The fact that none could read or write was another, secondary, factor.

The glinting underside passed over her head and then roofed the river. Even the old ferry-keeper could be seen emerging from his hut, face raised at an impossible angle, curved fingers crabbing at the back of his neck. His ferry was the only way to cross - and his croaking words could be vaguely heard despite the roaring fires which cindered the tree-lines on the opposite bank. The woman-with-no-name tottered from the inn, her drink slopping out of the tureen in her hand. She waved a fist at the intruder, her words, too, heard, but misheard, beneath the seething of the other bird-fish even now settling upon the river's wide kiss.

Where was I? Elspeth accepted everything in life, but not my absence.

Adventures were pleasurable risks - whenever I was about to calm the nerves and stroke the nape. But, now, all was coming apart in her hands, as she held fingers in snailshells to her smarting eyes. This squeezed prison of sight could thus discern pointed faces at the holes neatly arranged along the bird-fish's silver flank. Never even thinking that, one day, she, of all people, would be called upon to write new history books, the moment passed without her truly realising its importance. The humming monsters re-soared into the sky, their plumes of fire eventually forming a corona of tails around the story-book sun.

After hours into days into bigger units of time than could be countenaced by brief existences such as Elspeth, my princely corpse was eventually discovered near a spring of the river's source, a body incredibly and inexplicably bereft of its toes. Her tears had already dried in advance of real sorrow's proof source and inner pain. She knelt beside the man she loved. I, the Prince.

Wiping a sprig of hair from the tearless sweat, she kissed my dislocated lips with a passion that could only dig her deeper towards my mollusc soul.

I had possibly believed that the spring's golden flush held wondrous qualities of mind-change and, thus, it was my favourite haunt. I had once told Elspeth the source of the jug's contents, but she never believed me until now. My face was quite beyond recognition, but my buckled skins, freshly sliced each morning from dew-damp boles, were still clinging to my thews. My bone-case had become one with rank decay, however, my eyes blindshot and the inner carcass a taxidermist's false start.

Elspeth married me, as had been planned ... or as good as married me, by marrying my corpse that was being supported (by the best - or, at least, a better - man) on limp limbs at the woodside altar. The corpse was then placed to rest in the marriage cot, whereby for the years ahead, the-woman-with-no-name would help Elspeth with the regular ablutions and worship of the corpse-turned-human-soaked-quagmire. As the age-blotched moon dipped to peep beneath the eaves, the two women crooned shanties, eager for the renewal of the river's rusty cranking - forth where Elspeth never again chose to venture. Not being able to read nor form words, her previously overheard recitations from the old books she had read aloud (to the-woman-with-no-name-but-whom-Elspeth-once-called-mother) had merely been ad hoc pretence. Thus, the new history assigned to Elspeth remained unwritten - even though the neatly slivered wood paper had been specially supplied for so doing by the forest workers who loved her.

But the history was written, eventually - that is, when I, now daughter of Elspeth, spawned from my father's prolonged throbbing of rigor-mortis on the wedding night, grew up and taught myself to write out her lullabyes . . . but only writing them out when I'm not busy playing lonely games of touch-catch and who-blinks-first on hillsides swept by the translucent girders of golden Godly eyesight.

The silver bird-fish have not returned, no doubt blaming the sky for an earth they now cannot sur-fly. Yet, at deepest night, disowned moons tend to ghost their way into my cottage window, with dead-pan eyes and twitching gill-like craters.

Thus ends another anonymous story.

(previously published on Internet - Boneusers?)