Interaction

“Do come in, Ms Winton.

[It’s also Dr and Mrs, but she would rather neither were highlighted: the first because she doesn’t want to put herself forward or make him feel the need to compete; the second because she is private and somewhat feminist – also, she can flirt more easily this way]

I’m afraid I’m running late this morning. Work has been frantic.

[He got chatting with Elaine French, also interviewing for this position, who has recently completed a year-long sailing trip. Since he is also an avid sailor, they were soon on the floor of his office, retracing her voyage on his charts. This encounter makes it unlikely that Kathy Winton will get the job]

I also have to leave sooner than planned – some crisis at head office.

[His wife reminded him about his son’s soccer match this morning over coffee. He promised to attend it and, having broken the last two such promises, intends to keep this one if possible]

Can we reschedule the interview to tomorrow, same time?”

“Of course. That’s fine.”

[She’s not sure whether it is, but it will have to be]

“Thanks. I’m really sorry for all this. I hope we didn’t put you out.”

“Oh, don’t worry, you didn’t. I have some shopping to do here anyway.

[To get here, she had to change trains twice and catch a bus. She wants to get back to watch the end of the Buffy episode that she lost track of time with before having to leave for the interview, sure she was going to be late and so desperately worried for the entire, wasted journey. Also, she can’t afford to even think about shopping here, so will be going straight home]

See you tomorrow.”

“Until then, Ms Winton.”

The Eye of the Tiger

There it was – a golden yellow brilliance that seemed to illuminate the far end of the cavern. It was the Eye of the Tiger! The man thought back to all he had done to get here: the shimmering desert sands crossed so arduously; the barbarous blades and arrows evaded; the ancient traps disarmed.

Now, finally, the stone was within his reach. He pushed back the brim of his hat, wiped his forehead and began painstakingly to search for any final surprises. There was no sense in hurrying foolishly now.

Unfortunately, this wisdom was not shared by his last remaining guide, Karkul, who leapt forward intoxicated by the size and brilliance of the stone. Karkul had barely crossed a quarter of the space when the floor collapsed beneath him and the guide fell with it, his shrieks echoing behind him.

Sighing, the man examined the last spot on which the unfortunate guide had trod. A shaft of light spanned the cave and disappeared into the shadows on the far side. His torch illuminated the triggering mechanism cunningly hidden in the far wall.

Carefully stepping over the beam of light, he peered into the gaping chasm but could see no bottom. He detached the lasso from his belt and used it to swing over the rift, landing neatly next to the carved stone beast in whose talons the yellow diamond rested. He pried the stone from its setting and carefully placed it in his knapsack.

Now to get out.

Minx

She sleeps on her back, carefully positioned in a golden patch of afternoon sunlight. The light glistens in her long silver-grey fur, blurring individual strands. Her front paws are bent as if in supplication, but there is nothing beggarly about this cat. I watch as she twitches her ears; they glow hot pink from the light that shines through them. She reaches a paw up to swipe in slow motion at something in her dreams.

As I approach and sit beside her, she wakens, reaching her paws straight up in a slow, sensual stretch. She gazes up at me with soft, languid eyes and an expression of utter contentment forms on her face: mouth curved up at the edges, eyes half closed. Her mouth opens in a wide, leisurely yawn, revealing rows of tiny, sharp, white teeth set prettily against the pink of her tongue. She slowly arches her back and languorously stretches her limbs, then rolls over and stands up in one fluid and effortlessly elegant movement.

She considers her options; then pads determinedly over to me. She climbs onto my lap and scales my chest. Now we are face-to-face and she stares into my eyes, emitting her signature purr – the soft rumblings broken with periodic hiccups. Then, with deliberation, she takes my nose into her mouth and holds it and my heart gently for a moment before curling up high on my chest, her fur softly tickling my chin.

I wonder whether I can bring myself to move just yet: I really should clean up the slaughtered bird whose bloodied remains lie casually beside us.

Book Club

The ladies of Upper Westing met for book club every week, alternating hostess duties. This week it was May Tolman’s turn and she had provided an excellent tea. The table was laden with fresh cucumber sandwiches, hot currant scones with lashings of creamy butter and tart jam, and delicate finger biscuits dipped in cinnamon. There were also several teas, infusions and home-made lemonade. The ladies were now engaged in animated social chit-chat, the real reason for book club’s popularity.

When they had dispensed with Sarah Hillin’s youngest and his lack of discipline (“just needs a good whipping”) and Tory Manley’s frequent visits to Dr Barham (“obviously a budding romance”), conversation turned to the newest resident of Upper Westing.

“John told me he’s a retired colonel. Rich as sin and nobody knows where the money came from.”

“Molly down at the grocers says he’s had builders at the old Foster place for days, tearing out all those beautiful Victorian fittings.”

“My Tom knows one of the builders. He says there’s some pretty strange things in that house – like books in German and foreign coins.”

“I heard he was the only survivor of his regiment. They all died in suspicious circumstances and he only reappeared after the war. Its all rumour of course, probably false, but where there’s smoke….”

****

May smiled to herself as she cleaned up. It had begun. The next bit was out of her hands, but she knew her friends well. Soon, the titbits she had passed on would spread throughout the village. Another few hints in the right ears and he would never be accepted here. He would always be an outsider. That would teach him to slight her, calling her a busybody when she was only trying to be a good neighbour.

The Auction

The scene is set; the actors in their places. The room is over-filled – witness the grubby legs dangling from rafters, where their youthful owners have found an excellent view of the proceedings. A gentle hum of excitement pervades the space. If we examine the crowd, three oddly still figures catch our attention.

Mabel Sherman is dressed in her Sunday-best; a painfully patterned (though thankfully faded with time) summer dress, and an elaborate straw bonnet artfully decorated with cherries and hyacinths. She sits very upright and stares straight ahead, the only external sign of her inner turmoil a handkerchief that she twists compulsively in her lap.

Beside her and in contrast, Jack Sherman is weeping quietly and unashamedly, tears sliding down his face like the streams of new rain on a desert-floor. He has also dressed for the occasion, wearing his only suit and well-polished shoes.

Elizabeth Harwood lounges casually, seeming relaxed and comfortable. Her trouser-suit is unrumpled despite the heat. She has a slight smile on her perfectly made-up face. Only her eyes betray the truth behind the insouciance: they are hard and glittering with a combination of triumph, anger and grief.

All three protagonists share the same intense focus. The object of their interest follows convention and occupies a raised position at one end of the barn. It is solemnly attended by no less than five persons in black suits and collars. One of these now raises his voice and his hand: “Going, going, gone.” The gavel slams down, “Self-portrait by Susan Sherman sold to Mrs Elizabeth Harwood.”

To understand the significance of this scene, we must investigate events commencing fifty years before the auction. Let us begin.

Home

Let me tell you my story – how I came to be here in this lonely place. The land stretches out, so flat and yet layered with muted sunset colours and the odd brilliant flash of green. This alien beauty was what drew me here initially; but I wish I had never come. I have been here for so long that my memories are fading. That is why I must tell my story, so that I don’t forget.

We’d planned the trip for months, my friends and I. It was our first adventure as adults. We were so excited to be leaving our childhood playgrounds and experiencing something different. And it was amazing, those first few days. We watched the countryside change from its familiar deep greens and blues and golds. I had always thought our mountains were arid and stark, with their cragged orange and brown peaks and hidden cool clefts. But then I saw the stretched out vistas and the endless sky of the plains.

I think that this landscape is why I am still here. If the accident had happened earlier, before we left the Cape, I think I would have gone to my end peacefully. I cannot rest here. I miss my home with what still feels like a physical ache: the rich colours, the industry of tilled fields and the towering mountains. But what I miss most are the sounds. It is rarely still or quiet at home – there are the winds and the breezes and the gusts, so strong that you can smell the sea kilometres inland. Here, there is just silence. So I tell my story again and again to fill it, and I moan through your dwellings to recapture the sounds of my home.

Escape

(STOP)  The voice seems to reverberate around my head, joining my own tortured and ragged breaths. It’s strange how loud I sound from the inside; in that intimate place inside my own skull. A place that this voice now penetrates. The shock of violation is sudden and disorienting. I almost do stop from the surprise of it, but I can’t afford to, not now when I’m almost there. It feels like I’ve been running away from him forever. Somehow I have found the strength to go on, even though my feet are bleeding and my lungs feel like they are being gouged with a hot poker.

(JUST STOP) Damn! I can’t believe I almost forgot about the voice. The violation of my internal sanctuary is not so horrible now. It has already been sullied; everything changed after the first time. As I ponder this, a black-on-black shape comes fast at me out of the night. I duck, but not quickly enough and its edges catch me across the temple, leaving broken skin and welling blood. Sweat immediately pools into the cuts, making them sting and burn. I cry out, involuntarily and glance behind me before I can stop myself. He’s just there, a shadowy shape heart-stoppingly close behind me. How did he catch up so fast! I can never get away.

(STOP NOW) No, I can’t. He’ll catch me and that will be the end. But the voice is compelling. It even feels a little friendly now, like it belongs in my sanctuary. So I stop.

And wake up, safe in my bed.

The Spanners of Xanxes

Dr Susan Eribaku wondered if she would ever cease to be amazed by Xanxes, the small planet on which she was Lead Exploratory Scientist. The latest addition to her planetary catalogue, the Spanner, was one of the strangest life-forms that she had ever come across.

Like any xenobiologist worth her salt, Susan had encountered numerous alien life-forms, both in person and virtually. There were some very strange ones: the flocks of giant winged crabs from Po, the Swarm-Bear of Magellus whose ‘appendages’ were spread over the entire planet, and the appealing Sluggies of Kieron V to name but a few. Spanners outdid them all, mainly because of how the creatures reproduced.

Spanners resembled large treacle-brown toadstools with burnt orange spots, legs and a mouth. They only reproduced over great distances and could somehow sense the location of other Spanners. If one caught the scent of another that was far enough away (the exact mechanism had not yet been determined), a tendril would shoot out of one of its spots and up into the sky. Once clear of all vegetation, the tendril would curve down towards the source of the scent and connect with a corresponding spot. The creatures would remain stationary for several months while genetic information was exchanged.

During this time, a diaphanous, orangey, rainbow-shaped strand connected them. At some point, the strand would unravel at both ends, revealing a cocoon at its apex which would drop to the ground. On impact, the cocoon would split open and a young Spanner would emerge.

At times, the sky of Xanxes took on an orange hue, so criss-crossed it was with strands spanning the planet. It was because of this vision that Susan’s team had given Spanners their name.

The Fall

Sunlight glinted off the feathers, which sparkled brilliantly, iridescent in the morning air. In this light, their colours were shot through with dancing threads of silver. The light also glinted off the metallic shaft of an arrow as it sped through the sky towards its target.

The arrow pierced the bird just below the heart, close and violently enough to be fatal. The bird faltered in the air. Its flight which had, moments before, seemed effortless and elegant became awkward; wing-beats increasingly agonised and out of sync. Then the bird plummeted.

The force of its fall pulled its wings and body into grotesque shapes, brutally moulded by the air currents which the bird had previously mastered. Its limbs twisted as it tumbled chaotically, corkscrewing around the foreign shaft on which it had been broken. Its feathers, ironically, seemed more animated as the life convulsed out of the bird. They bounced, extended, swirled, and pitched about as if individually motivated.

When its body first brushed the treetops, the bird was already dead, its neck broken from the violence of its catastrophic fall. It came to a final halt on a rocky mound, wings half open as if in embrace. There was an odd elegance in its final position despite the broken bones and scattered feathers.

Sunlight glinted off the feathers, which sparkled brilliantly, iridescent in the morning air. In this light, their colours were brought to life by the silver threads which bound them to the cloth, and they seemed to dance.