Short Stories, Uncategorized

Local Halloween Short Story Competition Entry – Tumbleweed

During October, my local library ran a short story competition on the theme of Halloween. Having had the beginnings of a ghost story on my laptop for over a year, I decided to work on it some more and enter it into the competition. It was just a bit of fun while I’m in the throws of editing, and having never won a writing competition before (I’ve always been runner-up), I never thought I’d win. So I was very surprised when I actually did.

I have very mixed feelings about winning, as I know most people who enter only write as a hobby, and because I’m technically an author, I had the sudden thought that entering was unfair to everyone else, as really, writing is something I’m supposed to be good at. Yet I am also delighted, as I don’t usually write ghost stories or much aimed at adults, so winning did give my imposter syndrome a much-needed kick.

I also wish there were more people in attendance when the winners were announced on Halloween night, as the library had obviously gone through a lot of trouble to make it a fun event – all the staff were dressed up and they read out all the winning and running up entries for everyone to listen to, before giving out prizes (my own was a lovely notebook and quill set). My favourite story was actually the winner of the children’s category, which featured creepy porcelain dolls.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my entry here for anyone interested. It’s rather silly, being inspired partly by The Frighteners and Stardust, but I had fun with it:

Tumbleweed

‘I think this one might have a chance.’

‘Oh?’ Alphonse said, glancing at his brother. ‘Looks like an idiot to me. No different from the others.’ He shifted his buttocks into a more comfortable groove on top of the bookshelf, staring down at the rest of the detective’s office.

The detective himself was busy reading through pages of notes about the case, oblivious to Alphonse and Wesley watching his every move. They were hardly there by choice, though. For some reason, they couldn’t leave the block where they’d died, so it was either observe the investigation or float around aimlessly in the hope that the gateway would open again. Which they knew it wouldn’t, until their murderer was found, and they had even less of an idea of who it was than the police did. Which was saying something.

So far, all the detectives put on the case had gone crazy after only a few days, regardless of how determined or level-headed they’d appeared to be. Word around the department was that the case was cursed.

Still, this detective had taken the case without so much as a tremble.

‘I think this guy’s strange in the head. He doesn’t look like a detective – if it wasn’t for the badge on his desk, I’d have thought he was nothing but a nosy caretaker. He’s even wearing overalls,’ Alphonse complained.

A knock sounded at the door, startling the man so much his flailing hand caught a cup of half-drunk coffee and sent it cascading across the desk, soaking every sheet of paper it could.

The sergeant who appeared a second later was hit with a barrage of profanities and scarpered before she’d uttered a word.

‘You know, brother, I’m not sure I even know the meaning of some of those,’ Wesley said, scratching his translucent chin with an equally translucent hand.

‘Well, you were always naïve. I doubt having your head chopped off improved things much,’ Alphonse jibed.

‘I was trying to save you. It was the right thing to do.’

‘The stupid thing, more like. I was already dying when you got there. You had every available chance to get away. But no, you decided to stay and play hero. Now look at you.’

‘At least I died wearing trousers,’ Wesley pointed out.

Alphonse glanced self-consciously at the strawberry-print boxer shorts he was sporting. ‘Had I have known some maniac would plant an axe in my spine while I was in bed, I would have dressed for the occasion,’ he countered. ‘And as I recall, you were done in from behind without even a glimpse of our attacker. No use at all!’

‘Shh!’ Wesley said as the detective stopped mopping up the mess on his desk and turned to stare right at them.

‘Relax, you know Bloods can’t see us.’

‘What about psychics?’

‘What about psychics? They’re notorious for making up nonsense. Praying on the bereaved and tricking them into emptying their pockets. There’s not an ounce of supernatural ability among them.’

‘Are you sure?’ Wesley pressed. ‘This guy is certainly acting odd for someone who can’t see us.’

The detective was now moving towards them, his expression curious but reserved. Standing next to the bookshelf, level with their legs, he jumped up and plunged his arm straight through Wesley’s stomach.

‘Ha, so that’s where you were hiding all this time!’ he declared, holding a thick file triumphantly in his hand. He returned to his desk to flick through it.

Shaken, Wesley vomited ectoplasm into the air. Alphonse wafted bits of it away in disgust. ‘Can’t you control yourself?’ he snapped.

Wesley jerked as if he was about to vomit again, but clapped his hand to his mouth just in time. There was a pause in which he made a thick swallowing sound while tears grew in the corners of his eyes, then replied, ‘I’m sorry, but he just violated me! It felt—’ another judder ran through him, and Alphonse floated away through the wall before more ectoplasm could assault him.

Wesley slumped over. Losing ectoplasm was a tiring experience. ‘Why does it always happen to me?’ he murmured, putting his head in his hands.

From the desk came a thump as the detective suddenly collapsed onto it, followed by a whitish haze leaving his body and vanishing.

‘Well, that was the quickest ascension I’ve ever seen. He must’ve been in a hurry,’ Wesley said, hopping down to take a better look. As he got closer, Alphonse’s head popped out of the detective’s back. Wesley swore. ‘Please tell me you didn’t?’

‘Didn’t what?’ Alphonse said innocently, stepping out of the body altogether and shaking himself off. ‘I only spoke to his soul, that was all. Apparently, he’d bored the poor thing to a husk of itself, it was only too happy for me to help it get away. Besides, the idiot was getting on my nerves. He’d never have solved it. We’re better off doing it ourselves.’

‘We already tried that. You ran into a paranormal investigator and got caught on film, and I ended up being shredded by a lawnmower when you pushed me out of the way as he was running after you. We’re not doing that again.’

‘Spoilsport,’ Alphonse replied. ‘At least we can watch the rest of the Bloods scramble in and panic. It’s always fun to watch them make fools of themselves.’

‘Oh, yes. Terribly fun,’ Wesley said, pinching his nose as the body released an enormous amount of gas.

Poetry, Short Stories

I thought my executive function was on holiday, turns out it’s missing in action

I need to do the housework today, but now I’ve had a knife shaped letter prodding me in the ribs, there’s no room in my brain for anything else. What am I doing? Cleaning the birds? Emptying the bins? I seem halfway through both, but how did I get here? Oh, look, the laundry, I’ll do that today. Time to hoover. Mind is racing, letter thoughts stabbing, stabbing, what way am I facing? Oh, yes, the hoover. Move all the things. It’s raining outside. Why am I in the kitchen again? The hoover is in the lounge. Oh look, the laundry, I must do that today. What about the washing up? Ah, those plastic pots in the sink are recyclable, I’ll just put them in the…oh, I forgot to get the bin bags from the other room. I’ll just go and get them–no, hoovering first. Done! Now I can do the washing up and put those pots in the bin…once I get the bags. Finally, I’ve finished. Phew…

Oh look, the laundry.

Poetry, Short Stories, Uncategorized

A letter about autism to my childhood self

Hey. Try not to panic. It’s you from the future, and

I’m writing to say don’t worry. Everything

that’s getting to you at the moment will make sense in the end.

 

Like the times you wait by the fence watching the other kids play

wondering when they’ll ask you to join in, and what you’ll do if it happens.

How you’re confused at the ease they interact, talking freely,

while you stand their silently, their shouts and screams of joy

overloading your ears – until the whistle blows and hits you like ice up your spine,

locking you into rigid limbs and wriggling insides. The hold authority has.

And those times you’re unsure what Miss is asking of you, fretting about if you’re doing your work right

because she didn’t go through it fully first. So you wait

and watch the other kids, trying to guess their thinking as they set straight to it

and hoping you can catch a glimpse of their work so you can copy.

Then there’s the time you have to go to the dentist during rehearsals for the school play. Should you put your hand up? Should you just stand?

You ask around in whispers, and everyone says put your hand up. You do, but the teachers don’t see, so then you do stand.

And get told off for not telling them to put you on the end of the row, even though your form tutor read the note at registration.

How about all those times the kids take advantage of your attempts to join in? Sharing

your cat’s cradle only for them to run off with it and claim to the others that it’s theirs,

or when a girl steals your toy and tells the dinner lady you stole it from her

and you can’t speak up properly so give in and let them keep it?

When they’re supposed to share textbooks

and drag them away so you can’t see?

Let’s not forget how you can’t co-ordinate your body in P.E,

or have so much trouble learning in class that you take your work home.

When you have your nose in a book at the doctor’s because you can’t deal with what is going on, and get called rude for not paying attention.

Then there’s your many attempts to get the timing right on Mario’s jump and fail at every try.

When you tell a stranger about how bad mum’s morning breath is

and don’t understand why she’s embarrassed. It’s fact, isn’t it?

Why you can’t understand why people play with dolls when you can just make up characters in your head.

 

Like I said. It’s all fine. There’s a reason for it, a simple explanation:

Autism.

A condition meaning

your brain is wired slightly differently to most people. You notice

things they never will while missing the unspoken signs

they give each other all the time.

It doesn’t mean you’re strange, weird, stupid or a freak.

It means you’re you,

and though you haven’t met them yet, there are others out there

who are wired in the same way

and know just how this feels.

 

So remember, you’re not alone. If you explain

your difficulties (and your strengths)

then eventually the world will start to understand.

 

P.S. In the meantime, try sunglasses and earmuffs — all year round.

Short Stories

The Magic Bauble

The Christmas lights blinked on and off, making the tree look as though it was twinkling. I sat under it, filling my nose with the smell of new wrapping paper and tinsel, wishing it was already morning.

‘Now, Rupert,’ Nan said, sitting down in the squashy armchair next to the tree. ‘I have a very special present for you this year. You can open it tonight, but you have to promise not to use it until tomorrow.’ She had a mysterious smile on her face as she said it, and produced a small box from her handbag. ‘Do you promise?’

‘I promise.’

‘Very well then,’ she said. ‘Here you are.’ She handed me the box, which was wrapped neatly in silver paper. I undid it carefully, knowing that this wasn’t the type of present you could tear at in a mad rush. Inside was a bauble. Just a single bauble made of blue metallic glass. I felt the happy expression slip off my face, replaced by one of extreme puzzlement.

‘It’s a bauble,’ I said.

‘Yes, but a very special bauble,’ Nan said. ‘I gave your father one just like it when he was your age. Now, you must be careful not to drop it. And don’t forget, you mustn’t hang it up until tomorrow.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s bad luck,’ she said. Then she laughed. ‘Don’t look so disappointed, Rupert. You can have the rest of your presents tomorrow.’

While I was in bed that night, I heard Mum and Dad talking to Nan. Since I was too excited about Christmas day to sleep, I crept onto the landing at the top of the stairs and listened to what they were saying. To my surprise, they were talking about me.

‘Are you sure it was wise giving it to him this year? He’s awfully young,’ Mum said.

‘Nonsense, Maggie. Alexander here got his at the same age, and it didn’t do him any harm,’ Nan said.

Dad laughed nervously. ‘We should be getting to bed, you know how early he wakes up on Christmas day.’

I heard then get up, and not wanting to be seen I ran back into my room and threw the covers over my head. Dad poked his head around my door, and I let out a few fake snores. Satisfied, he left, closing the door behind him. I sat up, my heart thumping with excitement.

The bauble was on my bedside table, still in its box. I picked it up, switching on my bedside lamp so I could see properly. It looked just the same as before, plain metallic blue, without any decoration at all. My own reflection stared back at me, so distorted that I let out a snigger.  Wanting to stifle the sound, I forced my fist into my mouth, but dropped it away again as I saw what was now on the bauble. It was a picture of a giant air balloon. It looked so real that I put my hand out to touch it, but it vanished, leaving me staring at my reflection again.

Certain that it hadn’t been some trick of the light, I looked away again and turned back to it quickly. There it was again. The exact same air balloon, drifting across a cloudy sky. Careful not to touch it this time, I looked closer. There was a man in the basket of the balloon, dressed in a short brown leather jacket and a matching cap with giant goggles on the top. He was waving at me. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but it he was still there, grinning widely and swinging his arm in great arks. Staring stupidly, I waved back. As soon as I did, the picture changed and I saw myself taking the bauble downstairs and hanging it on the tree. Then the picture changed back to the man in the balloon. He was looking at me expectantly.

‘I can’t,’ I whispered. ‘Nan said it would be bad luck if I hung it on the tree before tomorrow.’

The man folded his arms and shook his head. Again the picture of me going down to the tree appeared, but this time it didn’t go back to the man, just to my reflection. I sighed, not knowing what to do. In the end, my curiosity won out and I crept downstairs, wincing at every creaking floorboard.

The tree lights were still on, twinkling away merrily, and I noticed that several more presents had been placed under the tree. Gingerly, I reached out and placed the bauble on one of the middle branches. I looked at it reflecting the lights, and suddenly felt myself falling. The room fizzled away and I landed with a bounce on a giant cushion, floating along in a pinkish sky.

A group of birds flew past me, circling around the other cushions floating about. I watched them swerve as the bright greens and reds of the air balloon floated up to my level. The man in the basket appeared soon after, chuckling to himself.  ‘I thought you’d never make it, lad,’ he called over to me. ‘Welcome to the World of Impossibilities. Anything you wish will come true while you’re here.’

‘Anything? Really?’

‘Of course, lad. Your imagination is the limit,’ he said.

‘Then I wish for…a hamburger,’ I said. A hamburger appeared in my hand, hot and smelling as scrumptious as any I’d ever had.

‘Now you’re getting it, lad. ‘Fraid I best be off now though. I’ll be seeing you,’ he said, and waved goodbye as his balloon sailed higher and higher.

I waved back, before attacking my burger with delight. It tasted just as delicious as it smelt, and while I was eating it I considered what the man had said. Anything I wish would come true? I had to test it. Ignoring the sudden butterflies in my stomach, I took a giant leap off the cushion, landing on another that was at least a whole football pitch away.  I bounced straight off it, high into the air, and went on to bounce off another and another.

Fifty giant cushions later, in mid-jump, it occurred to me that I could choose not to fall if I wanted. I stuck in the air, looking around at the cushions floating around me, and spotted a rainbow, bright and colourful as the one painted on my bedroom wall. I could slide down it and find out if there really was a pot of gold at the bottom.

Excitedly, I ran through the air. A thick red carpet appeared from nowhere, rolling out in front of me, taking me directly to the rainbow. It was soft and squashy under my feet, and I felt so light and springy that I had to practice my cartwheels all the way along. Unfortunately I wheeled my way straight into the side of the rainbow and hit it with a thud. I got up, putting out a hand to steady myself and felt that the rainbow was smooth.

Giggling with excitement, I jumped on it and whooshed down with incredible speed. I put my hands down to try and slow myself, and found that the colours of the rainbow were now precious jewels. I gathered up whole handfuls of them, but then landed in a giant black cauldron, buried up to my neck in gold coins. No, not gold, chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil. They were just like the ones that Mum usually hid in the Christmas tree. If only my pyjama bottoms had pockets, I would have stuffed them full of jewels and chocolate to take back with me.

That brought me to a sudden halt. How was I going to get back?

I climbed out of the cauldron and looked around. There were great buildings of marble and granite all around me, with wide streets full of market stools covered in brightly coloured awnings. In the square where I had landed, a musician played a flighty trill of his flute, and jugglers and fire eaters competed for spectators. Dancers swirled about, trailing sleeves of fine silk. It was the most wonderful sight I’d ever seen.

‘Come here boy, and taste the fruit of your dreams,’ a merchant said.

‘No, try on our finely tailored suits,’ said another, brushing the first one away.

‘Don’t listen to those petty traders, boy! You should come here, and take home one of our fine woven scarves for your mother, or a clay pipe for your father,’ said another in a stripy suit. It was so colourful that it made my eyes dizzy.

More and more people called out to me to come and look at their wares, and some even got into heated arguments over who would serve me first. ‘But I don’t have any money,’ I replied each time, but they would simply say I could pay them next time or that it was a gift. Soon my arms were growing tired under the amount of boxes I was carrying, and my feet grew hot from walking. I was sleepy and I wanted to go home.

‘Please,’ I said to the people I passed. ‘Please, how do I get back?’ But no-one took any notice, they simply laughed and said I was pulling their leg.

It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would miss it all if I stayed. I had to get back.  Still everyone laughed at me, and the faces that had looked so kind now looked cruel and began to frighten me. I was lost and alone, and I began to cry.

I found a shadowy corner and sat down, trying to rub away the tears. A shadow passed over my face, and I looked up.   ‘What’s the matter, lad?’ It was the man from the air balloon, still with his leather cap and goggles.

‘I don’t know how to get home,’ I sniffed.

He knelt down and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t despair lad, just remember what I told you. Anything you wish in this place will come true. Though I have to say your wish is a rare one. Most people that come here don’t tend to go back,’ he said, rubbing his chin. ‘Only once has someone done it, and that must be nigh on thirty years ago now. A young boy, if I remember rightly. Looked just like you in fact. If I didn’t know better I’d have said you were one and the same.’

I looked at him and saw he was serious. ‘I…I think my Dad might have come here, when he was young.’

‘That must be it then,’ the man said. ‘Still, if you really want to go back like he did, all you’ve got to do is wish it.’

‘Th-thank you,’ I said.

‘No problem, lad. Have a safe trip now.’

His face swam out of focus as he spoke, and I found I was being pulled upwards as though someone was pulling on the back of my pyjamas. Faster and faster I seemed to go, and then…THUD. I landed back on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, blinking. Light was pouring in through the window, and I could see snow falling outside. I heard footsteps behind me, and turned around guiltily.

It was Dad, wearing his chequered dressing gown. ‘Merry Christmas, champ,’ he said, smiling. Then he caught sight of the bauble still on the tree and raised his eyebrow. ‘Didn’t get much sleep last night then?’

I shook my head, thinking he’d be angry, but his mouth split into a wide grin and he started laughing. I laughed too, so hard that my stomach muscles hurt.

‘I feel like I’ve missed something,’ Mum said from the doorway, with Nan appearing behind her. ‘What’s the joke?’

‘Nothing, Mum,’ I said innocently, and Dad laughed even more.

‘See, Maggie?’ Nan said to her. ‘I told you it would be all right.’

 

 

 

 

 

Short Stories

The Spectacle on Jingle Street

Max clung tightly to his mother’s hand as they crossed the street. She was so tall that her face was nothing but a shadow to him, framed by her wide brimmed hat. He wondered if he would even recognise her if he saw her when he was out with Nanny Kate. He thought not, for it was a rare thing to see her at all.

He sighed and looked around him. Unlike the previous winter, there was snow this year, and Max couldn’t stop staring at it. He remembered Nanny Kate telling him that it was made of flakes of frozen water, but Max thought it looked more like the white powdery sugar dust that she usually put on her cakes. It didn’t taste like it though.

‘Max, please refrain from eating that. I refuse to have people think that you are nothing but a filthy street urchin,’ his mother said, bending slightly to brush the snow off his jacket. He caught a glimpse of pale skin and wheat coloured hair, but then it was gone again, replaced by shadow. ‘I simply don’t understand why your father wished us to come out in such weather without a carriage at least; and to think we must walk past that awful spectacle on Jingle Street, too.’

Max looked up at her. He had no idea what a ‘spectacle’ was, but he had heard of Jingle Street. Nanny Kate had told him about it only a few weeks ago. She said that every year, on Christmas Eve, a group of performers would arrive and do the most dazzling things; acrobatics, dancing, fire breathing and playing fine music. At the end of it all, they would call all the children forth and give each one a present.

Nanny Kate had made it sound so wonderful that Max had pleaded with her to take him there; but she had simply smiled and said that Christmas Eve was an important day for her family and perhaps his mother would take him instead. He had doubted that very much and he had been right to, for no sooner had he asked her than she sent him to bed without any supper.

From what he had managed to overhear, the purpose of their outing this evening was for his mother and him to meet his father for a party at the ‘establishment’. The ‘establishment’ sounded rather terrifying to Max, for Nanny Kate had told him it was a place where many important people gathered to meet, though they often disliked each other and some, she had said, were even enemies.

The rules at the ‘establishment’ were strict; he was only allowed to wear his best clothes and he wasn’t allowed to run around or talk unless he was spoken to first. Nanny Kate had been most certain about that, for his parents’ reputation depended on it. He supposed that if it was that important, then he had better be on his best behaviour. Still, he wished Nanny Kate was here now, taking him for a walk in the snow and perhaps making the snowballs that she had told him so much about. He had spent the previous Christmas Eve’s with his other nannies, so he couldn’t understand why he had to go to this awful party. Why couldn’t he have gone wherever Nanny Kate had gone instead?

His mother turned down a small side street, walking so swiftly that he had to almost run to keep up with her. At the end she stopped and he heard her inhale deeply. Then, she marched out into the next street, her head held high and holding his hand so tightly that it began to hurt.

Max gasped. Large lanterns made of paper hung down from thick rope attached to the side of the buildings, lighting the entire street. They were every colour he had ever seen; bright blues, purples, greens, yellows, oranges and reds; even silver and gold. They extended back so far that he couldn’t even see when they ended. But that wasn’t all; there were men, with legs longer than most people were tall, gliding around with long, trailing costumes. There were rows of dancing girls in delicate gowns flowing just like water; they spun and leapt across the snow while tiny bells at their wrists and ankles tinkled gently.

Crowds of people, many of them children even younger than he, stood in the street to watch them all, laughing and joking with each other in a way that Max had never seen people do before.

Further back was a man surrounded by small fires and, as Max watched, he picked up the fire and ate it before breathing it back out with such force that the flames seemed to lick at the very moon.

‘Mother, did you see that?’ he asked, pulling excitedly at her arm.

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Max. Now come along, or else we shall be late,’ she replied without even glancing at him.

He sighed and looked at the ground, but then a voice caught his ears, singing a song so soft and sweet that he thought it would lift him off the ground and let him float about the sky, drifting on the wind. As they walked closer, the song became clearer and he realised he recognised the voice.

Jumping up, he saw over the heads of the other children crowded about the centre. There, standing in a gown of red velvet with her golden hair spilling down her back, was Nanny Kate. He had never seen her look so beautiful before; all she wore around him was her grey dress and apron with her hair pinned back tightly away from her face.

Tugging free of his mother’s grip, he ran forwards into the crowd, pushing and crawling past until he was right at the front. Nanny Kate saw him and smiled, coming to the end of her song.

‘Max,’ she said, stepping forwards off the platform she had been standing on. ‘You’re just in time, my father and I are about to hand out the presents.’

‘Why, of all the people!’ Max’s mother said behind him. ‘Nanny Kate, I cannot say how disappointed I am in you. To think that you are involved in all of this; encouraging my son to consort with such riff-raff!’

‘I’m sorry that you feel that way, Ma’am,’ Nanny Kate replied, a crease appearing at her brow. ‘I thought that perhaps you had brought Max here at his request.’

‘What foolishness. I would never consent to such an idea,’ his mother sniffed airily. ‘I shall expect you to hand in your notice first thing tomorrow morning.’

‘But Mother, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. Don’t make Nanny Kate leave!’

‘That’s enough, Max. Now come along,’ she said, and pulled him back out of the crowd.

He looked at Nanny Kate and cried; large, fat tears rolling down his cheeks to drip in the snow. She looked back sadly, but smiled all the same. Then the other children crowded back around her, begging her to sing something else, and she was lost from his sight.

That evening went slower than any other time in Max’s life. He refused to talk to his mother and ignored everyone who tried to ask him something, even when his father took him aside and threatened to return all his presents to the shops if he didn’t behave.

When they arrived home, he was sent straight to bed. He went gladly, wishing desperately that he could run away from them both.   Jumping on his bed, he picked up his pillow and beat it angrily at the window.

‘Max?’

He stopped, thinking that he had imagined it. Nanny Kate couldn’t have returned and come into the room without his parents knowing.

The thought made him cry again, and he flung the pillow across the room and buried his head in the bedcovers.

‘Max, there’s no need to cry.’

He looked up. It had definitely been her voice, but how?

Looking around the room, he saw no-one, not even a shadow. Then he glanced at the window and gasped. There, as though it was a reflection, was Nanny Kate’s face, looking straight at him.

‘Nanny Kate?’ he said, touching the glass.

‘Yes, Max, it’s me, though this is just an image of myself. I have something to attend to at the moment, but I will be along shortly. Promise you won’t do anything bad until then?’ she asked softly.

Max nodded, unsure what to say. How was Nanny Kate doing this? What did she mean, an image of herself? She was here but not here. The thought made him dizzy.

‘Good boy,’ she replied with a smile. ‘I won’t be long.’

Her face vanished then, with Max’s own taking its place as he continued to stare at the glass.

 

He wasn’t sure when it was that he fell asleep, but he woke to a loud clatter on the roof.

A moment later, there was a rustling coming from the fireplace in his room, and, lighting the lamp beside him, he saw two feet appear under the chimney.

An old man ducked under the grate and walked out into the middle of the room, his long white beard hanging down to his knees. He wore a large red coat, trimmed at the collar with white wool.

As Max stared at him, another pair of feet appeared in the fireplace. Nanny Kate gracefully knelt down and came out, hopping over the grate to stand beside the old man. She still wore the red velvet gown that he had seen her wearing at Jingle Street, but now she was wearing a green cloak too, covered with holly berries and leaves embroidered in gold thread.

‘Good evening, Max,’ she said, embracing him fiercely as he ran over to her. She turned to the old man, who, Max saw, was also carrying a large sack made of patched leather. ‘This is my father. He wanted to give you a present earlier, but you left before he was able to.

‘A present? For me?’ Max asked, staring at the old man.

The old man smiled warmly and pulled a small package, wrapped in green and red paper, from his bag. ‘Here you are, young man,’ he said, placing it in Max’s hands.

With a nod from Nanny Kate, Max opened it. Inside was a silver pocket watch, with his name engraved on the inside. The dial was strange, for the numbers went round first in the usual order, but underneath they went in reverse.

Nanny Kate knelt down and took him around the shoulders. ‘Merry Christmas, Max,’ she said. ‘Remember, no matter what happens tomorrow, you can always speak to me by wishing on this pocket watch.’

‘I can?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘Yes, but make sure your parents never find out about it. I would hate for them to take it from you.’

‘I will,’ he said seriously. The old man chuckled slightly.

Nanny Kate stood up. ‘We must go now, I’m afraid. Goodbye, Max.’

Both she and the old made stepped back into the fireplace, directly under the chimney. Max blinked and found they were gone.

He sniffed sadly and looked at the pocket watch, listening to the ticking of the second hand. There was something soothing about it, and soon he found himself back in bed, drifting gently off to sleep.

 

Short Stories

The Ice Unicorn

The sun reflected brightly on the newly fallen snow covering the entrance to the take-off pad. The trap door shuddered, making the snow atop it shake, and then it sprang open as the square take-off pad was raised up from deep within the grotto below. When it reached ground level, it came to a smooth stop.

The reindeer tethered to the polished sleigh upon it snorted and stamped their cloven hooves; their breath steamed out in front of them to merge with the air. From a smaller trap door a few metres to the side three people emerged. The first was a man with a silver beard and wearing a large red velvet suit. Following him came a tall, dark haired woman with rosy cheeks and warm eyes, and a slender, nervous looking boy barely into his teens.

Together they were the Claus family, and today was Christmas Eve, the day they’d been preparing for all year. And for young Garret, this particular Christmas Eve would be the most important day of his life. He was dreading it.

He watched as his father and mother made their final checks on the sleigh, making sure that everything inside was secure and that the reindeer were happy and healthy. Garret smiled; he knew they would be because he’d fed them Super Hay that very morning, so that had plenty of energy for the night ahead.

‘That should do it dear,’ Santa said to his wife as he adjusted one last strap.

Imelda raised her eyebrow. ‘Are you sure? You haven’t forgotten your No-Chimney key like last year? You couldn’t get into a single flat until you came back for it just before dawn.’

Santa took a small key from his top pocket. ‘Right here, dear,’ he said with a grin. Imelda inclined her head and stepped back as he heaved his considerable bulk into the sleigh. He blew her a kiss and gave Garret a thumbs up, before clicking his tongue at the reindeer. They heeded his signal and in moments were racing off, gaining height with each step until they were well above the clouds, hidden from sight.

Imelda sighed and turned to Garret, putting her arm around his shoulders. Soon he would have to leave, too, and she could feel his anxiety as keenly as if it were her own. ‘You are just as much a Claus as your father, Garret. The Ice Unicorn will see that and grant you the Claus powers too,’ she said softly.

Garret slumped his shoulders. ‘But I’m nothing like him,’ he said. ‘He’s a born leader; he makes decisions quickly and the elves respect his opinions. The only thing they do with me is ask why I continue to fix broken toys when I could just ask them to make new ones.’

‘That’s because they don’t understand you yet,’ Imelda said. ‘Don’t forget, they’ve known your father for a very long time, but they’ve only known you for a few years. Now, do you have everything you need? Gloves, cloak, boots, fairy-dust lantern?’

Garret nodded.

‘Good,’ she said, and embraced him tightly. ‘Be confident, Garret. Meet with the Ice Unicorn and receive the powers that you were born to use.’ She gave him one last hug, and then went back inside, leaving him to face the sudden flurry of snow on his own.

He looked to where it was blowing from; Crystal Mountain, the home of the Ice Unicorn. Wrapping his cloak tightly about him, he took a deep breath and began the long trudge to its peak.

 

After an hour, Garret was forced to stop. A deep crag blocked his path; too wide to jump across and too long to go around. The light was also fading fast, soon everything would be obscured by darkness.

He took out his fairy-dust lantern and shook it briskly. The dust inside activated and sent out a cloud of glowing particles to illuminate the area around him. They were bound to the lantern by a magical field, so the particles moved with it.

In its light, he spotted the brown and white trunk of a Mocha tree half hidden by a clump of snow. It was on its side; if Garret could free it from the ground, maybe he could use it to fashion himself a bridge.

He pulled on his elf-spun gloves, enriched with candy wax to make them waterproof, and began to dig away at the snow covering the tree. It wasn’t easy, the snow had started to turn to ice and was difficult to loosen, but eventually he succeeded.

The tree was long enough to reach the other side of the gap with several feet to spare, and after he’d heaved it into place, he stepped lightly across it and continued on his way.

The mountain grew steeper and the air thin. Even through his many layers, Garret felt the keen sting of the icy wind as it roared down at him, causing him to lose his footing time after time. It wasn’t long before he had to grip the mountain with his hands too, not just to keep his balance, but because the path angled up sharply, forcing him to climb.

Just as exhaustion set in, he reached level ground again. Relief flooded through him, but only for a moment. The climb was over, but the test was yet to come.

Before him, carved from the magnificent crystal of the peak itself, was a set of double doors.  After a fleeting desire to turn back, he forced himself to open them— and plummeted straight down a hole to land in a mound of soft snow.

Shaking himself free, he swung his lantern around and caught sight of a single door lit with a ring of glowing crystals. He went through it, following the spiral path within until he came to the entrance chamber, opposite the double doors that led outside. Wryly, he saw the hole he’d fallen down, marked clearly with a large warning engraving. He sighed and turned right, where a tunnel led further into the mountain.

Inside, the walls were carved crystal. They depicted members of the Claus family throughout the ages, showing the workshop of the grotto and the age-less elves, and even the different sleighs that had been used. The carvings sparkled in the light from the lantern’s glowing particles, giving them an ethereal quality, as though they were real people frozen in time.

Garret came to the end of the tunnel and found himself in an enormous cavern bedecked with multi-coloured crystals that hung from the top like giant stalactites. On a pedestal in the very centre was a crystal statue of a unicorn, detailed so precisely that every individual mane hair was visible.

He stared at it in awe. Could it be the unicorn, simply pretending to be a statue? After all, crystal and ice were hard to tell apart when carved, and perhaps the reason the Ice Unicorn was named such was because its body was made of ice.

Tentatively, he stretched out a hand and placed it on the statue’s muzzle. It was cold, but not enough to be real ice, and didn’t move at all. It really was just a statue.

Garret looked around, wondering if the real Ice Unicorn was watching, but he was alone. ‘How can I convince it that I’m worthy if it won’t even show itself?’ he said aloud, slumping to the floor.

‘Perhaps you should look again,’ a voice echoed around the cavern.

Garret started. ‘Who said that?’

He turned back to the statue, but it was unmoved. The only thing lively about it was his own reflection looking back at him from its glassy surface.

‘Well, that’s a start,’ said the voice.

Garret spun around. ‘Are you the real unicorn? Why won’t you show yourself?’

‘Because you are not ready. Look back at your reflection, and tell me what you see.’

‘I…see myself. Holding a lantern and looking confused,’ Garret said.

‘And?’ the voice pressed.

‘That’s it. There’s nothing else to see, it’s just me, Garret Claus—‘

‘There you have it!’ the voice said. ‘Think, now. What does it mean to be a Claus?’

‘I suppose…that we are the family people look to at Christmas, to help bring hope and joy to the children of the world. That’s what we’ve done for hundreds of years, anyway.’

‘And do you want to continue that, to share the responsibility with your parents? Or is there another path you wish to take?’

Garret looked down and picked at his sleeve. The voice had asked the very thing he’d been wondering himself. ‘I’m not sure. I’ve been brought up to expect to take on the same role as my father, but…what I really want is to fix old toys so that they can be enjoyed again.’

‘Do you repair these toys so that you can play with them yourself?’ the voice asked.

Garret shook his head. ‘No, I give them to father so he can deliver them at Christmas.’

Suddenly a loud crack rang through the air, and deep lines appeared on the statue. There was a tremor, and whole chunks of crystal fell from it onto the ground, revealing iridescent white fur underneath. More crystal fell, and in one swift motion, the unicorn reared up on its hind legs, freeing itself completely. It shook its golden mane and pawed the ground as though it was glad to be able to move again. Its horn glowed a rich blue; the sight of it took Garret’s breath away.

‘Forgive me Garret, I did not mean to deceive you. But until you told me your true wish, I was bound to that form. I shall now grant you the powers that all the Claus’ before you have attained,’ the unicorn said, and began to lower its horn to Garret’s head.

‘Wait,’ Garret said, holding up his hands. ‘I don’t understand. I just told you that all I want is to fix things. I’m not worthy of the Claus powers.’

The unicorn snorted softly. ‘No, Garret. You fix toys to give to others, so that they may find joy in what was once broken and cast aside. I have watched you since you were small, so I know your true nature well, but even if I did not, your words would be enough to convince me that you are every bit as worthy of this power as your ancestors. With your insight, you can improve upon the legacy that they built,’ it said. ‘Hold still now, this will be cold.’

Without another word, the unicorn touched him with its horn. A wave of ice swept through him, but with it came a reawakening of all his senses. Voices of children the world over filled his ears, fading in and out depending on whether he wished to focus on them. Time was also no longer a mystery; he understood how to slow it like his father was doing that very night.

There was something else, too. A tingle in his fingertips. On a whim, he snapped them together; a pile of broken toys appeared. With another snap, they were fixed, like new again.

‘Do you understand now, Garret?’ the unicorn asked.

‘I…yes, I think so,’ he replied, marvelling at what he’d just done.

‘I am glad,’ the unicorn said, and stepped over to the far side of the cavern. It touched its horn to the wall and a window appeared, shimmering like water. Through it, Garret saw his father and mother waiting on the take-off pad with the sleigh. His father must have just come back. ‘Step through, Garret Claus. Live your dreams and inspire the dreams of others.’

Garret hesitated, but the unicorn nudged him through. Then he was standing by his parents, who smiled broadly at him.

The unicorn watched them embrace from its distant home, and silently went back to stand on the pedestal, turning into crystal once more

Short Stories

Turn Around

The sound of footsteps rouses me from my sleep, heeled shoes running along the hall. My clock reads three in the morning. Obviously, she’s just got back from one of her parties.

It’s unusual for her to go straight to Rich’s room, though. Usually she needs to vomit or sober herself up first. I can’t complain, my room is right next to the bathroom, and if she’s missing out that particular ritual tonight, that’s fine with me.
I hear his bedroom door open with a bang. There’s a startled cry, followed by raised voices. I can’t help it, I have to go and look. I slip the covers off my legs and slide out of bed, making no noise as I tread on the soft carpet. My door creaks as I open it but I doubt they can hear anything above the racket they’re making.

I carry on along the hall, reaching the door to the master room and resting my ear against it. The tapestry on the wall flutters. I start, but realise it’s just a breeze. I turn my attention back to the door.

‘Don’t give me that rubbish, Richard, I know you’ve been sleeping with her!’ Michelle slurs. I bend down to look through the keyhole and see her standing just in front of his bed. Her make-up is smudged and her short green dress has a dark stain on it, probably red wine.

‘Sleeping with her?  Don’t be ridiculous, she’s my brother’s widow!’ he says from somewhere beyond my limited view. By the mini bar, I’d guess.

‘That never stopped you before. I know you had a thing for one of your cousins.’

‘Michelle, please, we were children, and she was a very distant cousin anyway.  Believe me, there’s no other woman in my life more important to me than you. Haven’t I proved that several times over?’

‘Oh yes, you buy me jewellery and clothes and ship me off on expensive spa weekends, but that’s not love, is it?’

‘What more do you want? You know I work all week, and on weekends I see you as much as I can.’

There’s silence while Michelle ponders his words. I can almost see the thoughts trying to swim through her befuddled mind and come to a sensible conclusion, but then she screws up her face and lets out a nausea inducing wail. Again, the tapestry next to me quivers. I examine it, wondering if her astounding vocal talents are causing some kind of tremor effect, but then the tapestry is still.

‘You liar! You don’t need to work at all, you own two companies! They bring in all your money,’ Michelle says, at last stopping her awful noise.

Now I know it’s wrong to judge someone’s intelligence on a single sentence, especially when they’re so plastered it’s a wonder they can even talk at all, but good god, woman, have you no concept of running a business at all?

‘Companies need to be maintained, my dear. I can’t just hire someone else to oversee how they’re run, that’s how things go wrong.  Indeed, that’s how I managed to buy them out in the first place.’

‘Well, you could at least cut down your hours, instead of spending all your spare time with her.’

Mentioning me, again? Where had she got that idea?  As Rich said earlier, I’m his brother’s widow. Now that Jon’s gone, I have no other family apart from my brother Markus, who’s employed here as Rich’s butler anyway, and since I was already familiar with the house and grounds, Rich asked if I’d like to live here too. It’s true I like him, but not in any sort of romantic way.  I see him as another brother, nothing more.

‘Listen to me, Michelle. What makes you think I’m having an affair – with Jody, too?’

‘I’ve seen the way you look at her, the secret smiles, the twinkle in your eyes. Oh yes, I’ve noticed. I also found one of your shirts smelling of that sickly sweet perfume she wears.’

‘I can explain that. The shirt had a hole in it, and you were busy, so I asked her if she could mend it for me. As for those so called secret smiles, you know perfectly well that Jody and I are good friends and we share lots of jokes about how similar I am to Jon.’

I can hear the sorrow in his voice as he mentions his brother. Jon’s death was so sudden it cut both our hearts to pieces. It’s scarcely a year since his funeral, and Rich is the only one who I can share my pain with. How does Michelle expect us to act, when we each need to be consoled by the other?

‘You really expect me to believe that this is all because of Jon? Get over it, Rich, he’s dead. I’m not, so pay attention to me!’

Something made of glass shatters on the floor, I see shards of it skitter towards Michelle’s feet. Her jaw is hanging slack in shock. Rich must have smashed a bottle. How he stopped himself from throwing it at her after that remark, I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t have held back. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know barging in would only make things worse, I’d have punched her already.

‘Get out.’

With those two words, Rich projects enough authority to make even Michelle obey. She scuttles towards the door quicker than I can move out the way, but as it opens a pair of slender arms grab me and pull me behind the tapestry. Michelle stampedes past without any idea I was ever there.

I turn in the darkness, sensing that I’m in some kind of narrow corridor. Someone’s standing close to me. I catch a whiff of spiced aftershave. ‘Markus?’

‘Who else would it be, little sis?’ he replies, lighting a candle so that I can see his clean-shaven face. He nods to the surrounding area. ‘Being a butler does have its privileges. You get to know about all the secret passages in an old manor house like this.’

‘What are you doing here this late? Or early, I should say,’ I ask, remembering the time.

‘Same as you. I was curious about what was going on with those two. I never expected her to go that far, though,’ he says. ‘Breakfast tomorrow should prove to be interesting.’
Breakfast is indeed proving to be interesting. We’re all seated together in the dining room while Markus, dutiful as ever and with no indication that he has any idea of what went on last night, brings our food.

Michelle looks ill, but that isn’t enough to stop her giving me filthy looks. Rich, in his seat at the head of the table, catches her in the act and dryly announces how fine the weather is today. I cast my gaze out the window; it’s grey and stormy.

Abruptly, Michelle stands up and takes out a cigarette from the silver case she always keeps on her person. She lights it, and taking a deep drag, walks around the table to stand beside me and exhales the lot in my face. I cough and waft it away with the newspaper.

‘Is there something you want to say to me?’ I ask, getting up too. I hold my hand up to silence Rich as he starts to say something. I know I shouldn’t react to her childish behaviour, but frankly, after what she said last night, I’m ready to have my say.

‘You could put it that way, yes. I know what you’ve been up to with my husband.’

‘Really? Then perhaps you should tell me so that I can know too.’

She sneers. ‘He’s having an affair with you.’

I snort. ‘An affair? How original. When did this supposed affair take place?’

‘Don’t play innocent with me, Jody. Your perfume is all over his shirt, and ever since you got here he’s been distant from me.’

‘Michelle, when I came here Jon had just died. Rich was in pain just like me. Of course he’s been distant. As for his shirt, it’s just like he told you last night, I mended it for him.’ Okay, that last part wasn’t wise.

‘You were listening? How dare you eavesdrop on us! I bet you had your ear to the door listening to every word we said. You must have been hoping that I’d split up with him so you could move in like the snake you are and have him all to yourself!’

‘Michelle,’ I say in a pained voice, ‘for the last time, there is nothing going on between myself and Rich. Believe me.’

‘Believe you? Why should I? You think I’m an idiot, nothing more than white trash. You’re so bad at hiding it that I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone knows how you feel about me.’

‘Alright, it’s true that you’re not the type of person I can like easily, but I’ve never thought of you as trash.’ Though I do think she’s and idiot. I try my best to get on with you, but you certainly make it difficult when you go around accusing me of everything. Last week it was spilling paint on your new carpet, and now this.’
‘Jody, you are one patronising b—‘

‘Michelle, will you keep your mouth shut and listen for a change? Jody-and-I-are-not-having-an-affair-!’ Rich interjects, speaking through clenched teeth.

‘You’re wasting your breath, Rich,’ I say.

‘You’re both lying,’ Michelle hisses, proving my point.

‘Why would we lie to you?’ I say.

‘Why? Why? Because you think I’m just some silly tart and Richard just thinks I want his money, so stop insisting that there’s nothing going on between you two and own up. I’ve seen you walking around the grounds together, arm in arm—’

‘They’re not lying, Michelle. You’re just so paranoid that you’re seeing things that aren’t there.
She whips round to see Markus standing by the door with a tray of tea. His knuckles are white; he’s gripping the tray hard. I frown. He’s angry. Markus never gets angry.

‘What would you know?’ Michelle spits at him.

‘Jody would never do such a thing. She’s still in love with Jon, even if he is dead. However, seeing as you’re so bent at wanting to accuse someone, perhaps you should accuse me.’

I notice the colour drain from Rich’s face. What’s going on here?

‘Markus, perhaps you should just serve the tea and let me handle this,’ Rich says quietly.

‘Oh, no,’ Michelle says. ‘I want to know what he means by that.’

‘I mean what I said. Maybe you should accuse me of having an affair with Rich. After all, it’s true. He’s just too shy to admit it,’ Markus says bluntly.

Well, that’s a surprise. I also feel like a lousy sister. Markus knows so much about me, and I thought I knew everything about him. Yet I had no idea he was gay. How could something as important as this have slipped by me?

I do know this, though: Markus has always had great timing. The horror on Michelle’s face at her sudden revelation will stick with us for years, and I think even Rich was glad when she left the manor barely ten minutes later with her suitcase fully packed.

Honestly, how he ever ended up with her in the first place I’ll never know. At least now he and Markus can actually be happy. And, for the first time since Jon died, I think I can be too.