March Short Story: Hysteria

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts (I know the graphic is incorrect) during March 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Hysteria

‘You’ve not heard, have you?’

Harry is the Senior Sub and my liaison since January. I was here to catch up with Connie in Lifestyle, returning her West Wing DVD’s, and he’s collared me by the vending machine.

‘I don’t look at social media every 10 seconds, what have I missed?’

‘Your favourite bonkers actress gave possibly the most honest post-Golden Globes interview anybody ever wished for.’

Looking at my watch it’s 3am in LA. Alice Hooper was a shoe-in as Best Supporting Actress for a remarkably subtle turn in ‘Surviving’, a World War 2 blockbuster. The win I knew about, because I’m in the same WhatsApp group as her publicist. We’ve kept in touch since graduating from Guildhall together: Pip and I shared a curry the last time she was in London. This turn of events is a surprise, and isn’t being spoken about privately as yet.

I know what Harry’s going to ask this freelancer next: the paper’s editor can spot a story half a mile away with headlights on long before anyone else. What needs to happen now is me at a workstation, firing up YouTube, in the hope this interview’s bonkers content has gone viral. Polly Acres has the footage on screen already, trawling it for comment, and is happy to re-run the three minutes and twenty three seconds in its entirety. The first thing that strikes is Alice isn’t herself: both hands grasp the award, working hard to keep a shake under control.

In two hundred and twenty three seconds she calls her co-star a misogynist devil, attacks the director for sacrificing historical accuracy over trite one liners and confirms the production company insisted that their CEO’s daughter be given a totally pointless walk-on cameo role. None of this is lies, if rumours online were to be believed, but they’d all been strenuously denied or redacted. For Alice to pretty much rubbish everybody she’d worked with in such a short space of time is an impressive show of defiance even for her, but that’s not the killer.

The final question comes from this paper’s Entertainment editor: what do you have to say to your fellow nominees? Alice stares straight at the camera, eyes full of tears:

‘You’re wasting your lives. Nobody cares about you, or what you’ve done. It’s time to change profession.’

The press room falls suddenly silent as Hooper extends her arm, before theatrically allowing the Golden Globe to fall to the ground, where it quite impressively disintegrates into several pieces. As she walks away, there is undoubtedly signs of a limp that wasn’t there yesterday.

I’ve interviewed Alice eleven times in twenty years. She’s never done drugs, remains proudly bisexual: last time there was a lover in her life was over a decade ago. Their death from a pulmonary aneurysm had profoundly altered both outlook and approach to the entertainment world. As the expert on Hooper in the room, Polly is told the facts: this woman will have drunk water all night, it isn’t prescription pills or drugs talking. No slur, eye contact with cameras the entire time. This is just her and utter truth.

The question we should be asking is why.

My phone ringing at this point would normally be a massive inconvenience, until I notice the caller ID: Harry’s eyes widen as I show him, before connecting to Pip. She should be asleep, but if the call’s being made now, I’ll be on a flight to LA before the end of business today.

I know what’s going to happen before it does.


Eleven hours on a plane and a small fee for internet is all I need to get back up to speed on Alice’s life to date. There’s an immediate red flag: an appearance on a US genealogy programme was suddenly cut a couple of months ago. Buried away in a Variety byline are the details, language which is quite obviously chosen by someone with a legal eye on proceedings. I had no idea such programmes even existed, and with time to kill there’s an opportunity via the flight’s entertainment system to watch an example.

Fourteen minutes into this particular episode, elderly male celebrity makes jokes as he’s asked to swab inside his cheek for a DNA test, and I’m curious. My mother used to tell me I was wasted as a journalist and would have made a fantastic policewoman instead. She was right. This would have been something Alice would have loved: history, romance and intrigue around her family who emigrated from Italy to New York in the 1880’s. What if that DNA test had flagged something serious, the knowledge of which had forced her to withdraw from this documentary?

I’ve not replied to Pip’s last WhatsApp message yet, details of when to meet Hooper when I get to LA. Normally we’d meet at the Chateau Marmont, but instead it appears I’ll finally get to see Alice’s home for the first time, which fills my tired mind with a measure of excitement. El Cabrillo was built by Cecil B. DeMille in 1928: a two-story, ten-unit Spanish-style courtyard apartment complex, which has a history as rich and torrid as the man who was responsible for it’s construction. It has featured in countless TV shows and movies across the decades.

It’s one of three homes in LA, originally owned by her last long-term partner Lucy Welles. It was generally accepted she never stayed there any more as a result, but she will be there at 9am tomorrow morning, waiting for me. Nobody else will be offered either invite or interview. I ask Pip via WhatsApp if she’s okay, expecting a generic response. It takes fifteen minutes, then a video arrives: she’s still in the outfit worn for the Golden Globes. She thanks me for my discretion and honesty, before bursting into tears.

Something is terribly wrong here.


There’s a man waiting outside the Complex as I get out of the cab the next morning. LA is surprisingly sullen and grey, sweater weather for most. I’m still too hot and suddenly nervous, uncomfortable at this man’s presence. I’d come fearing the worst: this serves as confirmation. He’s a care nurse, unphased I’m a reporter, explaining that Ms Hooper has left strict instructions for my handling. There is breakfast inside: I must wait until Alice wakes naturally. It is important not to disturb her. As he opens her apartment door, I’m left completely stunned.

The place is a shell: no furniture except my chair, full breakfast tray and Alice’s hospital bed, for that’s what it is. Surrounded by quietly bleeping and clicking machines is the woman who yesterday was very much upright and defiant. As the front door closes, eyes flicker open.

‘Good morning, Ruth. I hope you brought enough hard disk space for a sizeable expose…’


I wish now I’d taken a proper camera, looking at photos downloaded from my ancient and much in need of an upgrade mobile phone. Back now at the Hotel, they’ll tell this story regardless. Alice Hooper was diagnosed with Lichen planus eleven months ago: after the disease failed to respond to traditional medication she was sent for specialist testing. Then came the discovery that her immune system had begun attacking other organs, including liver, heart and lungs.

She provides me with details of a charity set up to fund research and promote knowledge of this new condition, using her personal fortune after she finally passes. It could be weeks, or hours from now. Nobody really knew. Death stood, waiting for a prompt she was ready to leave. Asking about the outburst at the Golden Globes, why she spoke brutal truth elicited the only real smile in her entire interview.

‘I was a lousy actress, never made a difference. However as a test subject I might end up saving lives. I really wish I’d changed careers far sooner.’

It’s impossible to transcribe any more of the interview, I’m crying too much. This woman is a personal heroine, and I will be the last person to have interviewed her. This legacy, gratefully received, will ensure devotion to her life and career ends on the most positive of notes. On the way back to LAX that evening four calls in thirty minutes go to my answerphone. Rumours are flying after Alice’s performance that this is way more serious than a spat with the production company. People want to know why I’m in LA: they’ll be told, when I am good and ready.

Once upon a time I’d have been hustling for a deal, playing one media outlet against the other. Not any more: what she told me, with brutal honestly over four hours has already had a profound affect on existence.

To be so fearless, that close to death… her greatest performance.


Alice Hooper dies when I’m somewhere over Newfoundland.

Pip’s message is two minutes of tears, trying to get words out: she doesn’t need to. A stewardess asks if I’m okay, only passenger in First Class Alice bought for my return trip. I tell the truth: a dear friend passed away.

3am Eternal

The Mind essay’s already gone, by the way. Two passes, a husband edit and BOOM, away it has been sent, to the people I don’t really need to read it any more, but hey. It has proved its worth not simply as the mental equivalent of a bowl of Bran Flakes, but as the physical manifestation of a rule I’d conveniently forgotten in the midst of my unhappy week: write what you know.

However hard I try, right now, an intellectual short story doesn’t exist within me.

Therefore, speculative fiction is my future, and this story won’t go the original place I thought it would. This is now going to end up somewhere else. A new story will take its place for the original, which isn’t speculative, but autobiographical, and that is how we beat this block.

surprisemeidris

I’ve already written the first piece, slightly ahead of my schedule, and it is sitting here ready for a visual (and not a screen) edit. The other piece is, I suppose about a quarter done, and should not take long to complete going forward. If I am smart, that could be double the planned number of stories for next week, which considering as of Monday there was effectively nothing…

Crucially, if I count my Mind entry as legitimate, that makes three short stories in March.

That’s progress.

February Short Story: Change

This story was first serialised in 28 daily parts during February 2019 via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Change

I can’t do this any more.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, with consideration. You know better than I do how the last year’s worn us both down to stubs, lead and wood slivers scattered across a professional landscape tainted with chaos.

At some point something had to give.

It might seem heartless to announce my departure in letter form especially as you’re half a world away, but that’s part of my point. The virtual paper trail is set. My phone’s off. You’ll see the blog post, and if there’s actual care and concern to read it, then the game’s afoot. Will you drop everything in Chicago when my answerphone is all you can contact? How long will it take to notice you’re blocked on all social media? Will you rush to the airport, desperate to make it back to leafy Oxfordshire, begging me to reconsider?

Fat fucking chance of that.

I became a useful scalp in your upward progression through publishing, and for a time… yes, you did love me, of that I’m certain. There was care, consideration and passion that would ignite wherever we’d inhabit, but… and there’s always one, I wasn’t enough for you to be sated. That voracious appetite. Drugs that made me uncomfortable. Random strangers via Skype. A slow drip of extra-curricular activity that prevented a long term commitment and then, when everybody else deserted your sinking ship, I was the lifeboat that never punctured.

Not any more. For the record, I was heartbroken the first time lies replaced what had been the most precious and refreshing honesty I’d ever seen. It’s still painful, uncomfortable feeling whenever your name comes up in meetings or on publications. I loved you once, now it’s officially over. I’ve paid this company a not inconsiderable amount to deliver this letter in person. You’ll assume it’s another contract or offer, that one of your many lovers is playing a game with you, and it is, after a fashion.

You see, after patching up my cracked psyche, I hired a lawyer. The one thing you’ve always been great at is deception, which fits nicely into that professional persona so carefully cultivated. It also means that there’s a couple of quite important people in your circle that would find any hint of public involvement with you quite damaging. Don’t worry, this isn’t blackmail. I was clearing out the flat, ready to move out and away from your horrible, damaging influence and found the bag you’d either hidden there because you thought I’d never find it, or were stupid enough to forget ever existed.

Either way, you lose. You already know what was in it, and now it’s been passed onto the police, because honestly? I was a complete idiot. You played me: I was stupid enough to think that actually, I mattered when that was quite obviously never the case. You’d call me your dependable port in a storm. Not any more, it’s game over. I’ll see you in court. Oh, and as I’m reliably informed by my legal team this letter is admissible as evidence, I look forward to you trying to prove this was some kind of entrapment or deception on my part.

Time to reap what only you have sown.

Mags.


The removal men drive away, battered blue van disappearing into wonderfully bright, blue Oxford morning. I never liked this town: too posh, full of self-righteous pomposity. Christopher fitted right in here, utterly in his tweed and brogue element. It was the right time to leave. His letter should have been delivered exactly as my life departed this town for good: I’ll have got him up at 4am, just as the sun is rising over his immaculate brownstone apartment in New York. He’ll think it’s a lover, probably Anton or Elizabeth, starting his day with a smile.

I imagine him standing there, immaculate white dressing gown suddenly far too hot to wear, staring at my words: more powerful than an any threat made, means by which this entire ridiculous charade will be shattered and broken for good. High time he ended up as the injured party. It is fair to assume his legal team will not simply be sharp but also extremely clever: good luck however if you even try to prove I faked those photographs or any of the video files stored on Chris’ memory stick. You won’t find a single fingerprint of mine on any of those items.

There’s pages of notes, history written up and ready to go. What I heard: lies and duplicity, playing other people off against each other whilst keeping multiple individuals in the dark. Under normal circumstances, none of this would have been of interest to the police, except… Sickness rises in an empty stomach: it’s time to walk the short distance to the station, waiting for the train back to London and my new life. No more breakfast in bed, staring across Oxford’s classical architecture, end to the late nights staggering drunk through narrow streets.

I’ve not touched a drink since the day Chris’ bag was discovered. No cigarettes either: time to go cold turkey from everything. There’d been suspicions over drug use, and now there’s documentary evidence that’s the least of his sins to consider… no, I’m not going to let him win. Hindsight is a wonderful thing: I got played, just like everybody else, except this time there’s no running away from the truth. I’ve offered myself as evidence, willing and ready to stand up in court, because there are points in life where keeping quiet is just flat out wrong.

Part of me is already considering how long it’ll be before the truth comes out.


In the end, it takes a week.

The Metropolitan Police arrest Chris quite literally running off a private plane at London City. He makes the Guardian’s front page, as publishing goes into meltdown. The sympathy garnered from my family is remarkable, who had initially been beyond disparaging at my relationship with this man, who was twelve years my senior. The biggest surprise however is how my employers firstly handle the revelations, before swiftly acting on consequences.

I am offered free counselling, plus a leave of absence. It seems only right to be up front with them over the deal with the prosecution lawyers and when I am, their understanding and support is an unexpectedly comforting surprise. It takes six months to work out their motivation. Chris is the father of my editor in chief’s six year old daughter, which only becomes apparent after a tabloid newspaper breaks the story. It’s news to everybody, including the errant father, and I’m very glad to be working in Manchester that week and not stuck at Head Office.

Trial is set to begin the week after I move into my own place overlooking Olympic Park in Stratford. The legal team are quietly confident of their case: I’m surprisingly nerve free the night before proceedings are due to kick off, using unpacking as a useful displacement activity. At 10.15pm Kim calls me, in a state of considerable shock. The lawyer’s been informed by Police that Chris has suddenly been taken ill, is possibly unconscious and that the trial may need to be halted as a result. TV news already reports that he’s been taken to a London hospital.

By the time I’ve been woken by my phone alarm at 7am, he’s been dead for three hours. Kim has no more details at this point than that, and is amazingly far more upset than I expected. Without an accused, there’s no trial, and the story of the man with many appetites will be lost. Christopher Eastwood died of a massive heart attack before his story of abuse, exploitation and considerable excess was ever publicly known. After the trial was cancelled an awful lot of people were left without closure, including me. My response on reflection is utterly perfect.

It took just over a week to write the story of my time with him; three months to interview everybody else involved, including my then ex-editor in chief. That final manuscript was rejected by my employers quite rightly on grounds of conflict of interest, but it wasn’t a problem. Nepotism might be unpalatable to many, but it was how Chris kept himself hidden for so long. My brother saw the manuscript and within a week, his TV company had mobilised one of the most famous scriptwriters in the country.

This story will soon become compulsive, must watch TV…

January Short Story : Whole

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during January via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Whole

It is very, VERY dark, down here.

There’s no idea how long ‘down here’ has existed either. There are no clocks to mark time, calendar to record moments. All that exists is the whole, then myself. Both are indivisible, immutably connected. This black with my might; here together. Am I sure that whole and me aren’t the same thing? That’s a really good question: right now, without a doubt we are two separate entities. I exist, within the whole. Inky blackness is absolutely not part of my essence. It and me, two different things.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the beginning, everything was the same. That lasted for the longest time, too, just being here, in the dark, comfortable with nothing except silence, motionlessness… is that even a word? I was motionless. Still. Just here, breathing, before sounds began and everything changed.

So many birds are up above me.

Chaffinches, blackbirds and turtle doves. Sparrows and robins, magpies… quiet in the night-time but active at dawn, except there’s never light this far down. I must be in a hole: the only logical explanation available within my particular conundrum. Listening to them now, pre-dawn chorus, eyes remember shapes. Ears connect calls to outlines, brain provides background details. Latin name, portrait drawn by unknown but accomplished artist. Identification, habits, voice, habitat, food… all that’s needed to identify species.

With the noise arrived final proof: I have a body. The brain exists within my head. My hands are at either side, torso and legs in the correct place, just… unmoving. It’s all here, body present and correct. Because this is a hole, I can’t move, but remain whole. Whole, in a hole. This should be frightening, but it isn’t, because there’s always hope. It’s always darkest before the dawn, that’s what Nanna used to say. Nan didn’t want to be in a hole when she died, but dust in the breeze, and so that what happened. Flying above, keeping time on bird’s wings.

I’m not dead, because then there’d be nothing. I remain whole.

The next problem is working out why I remain: once that’s dealt with? I’m assuming more stuff just becomes clear. That’s how it worked with the sounds, so logically it makes sense that other senses will follow suit.Except I don’t remember what those are. There’s feelings, then sounds and after that? It’s all a mess so maybe, possibly that’s a better place to continue investigating. Inside, not out. The thing in my head. BRAIN. Why did you forget all of a sudden? Hang on, that’s the problem.

A woman is singing, over there, bluebird’s lullaby making mind want to stop, ignore everything else. Rest now, go to sleep, easier and less painful than the alternative within. Dust swirls around my whole, sharp on skin. No, it’s harder, heavier… grains. This is sand, lots of it. Without warning, everything is amazingly, blindingly bright. From black to white, dazzle of brilliance: freshly washed sheets, school socks, favourite linen top with blue piping… and it’s gone, vanished into a space, same one the birds come from. Up, that way. Your escape route.

NO, I’m not going to sleep: movies tell you must stay awake, fight demons, don’t head for the light because if you do then hole is gone, lost to the other side: seaside, kids in the sea… breakwaters, traffic, roller-coasters. Seagulls, noisily circling around top of this whole. Concentrate on the light because it wasn’t just white: inside was definition, substance that can be deconstructed. Lots was really blue: cornflowers, bedroom wall, sky on long summer afternoons… warmth seeping through a fluffy towel, covered with pink elephants, marching in time.

A tiny hand wraps around mine: stubbier fingers, still growing and forming inside skin, held within me. ‘Child what is it you want?’ I ask, lying inert, darkness wrapped but he says nothing, just stands and there’s no shape to him: first deeper understanding we’re still one body. ‘I’m killing you,’ he replies without fear, simply presenting facts as if they alone are enough to explain why all of this is happening, joint whole naturally impermeable. There’s no fear presented only quiet statement, inescapable fact. An unformed life keeps me trapped within.

Finally comes context, past presented quietly, monotonic drone: words on the blackboard I wrote myself, explanation to the class. Pre-eclampsia, hypertension, oedema, caesarian. Then, with careful, smooth strokes of soft, blue chalk, each stage is eliminated, only one remaining. This wasn’t the plan. Holes didn’t feature anywhere. Everything organised and under control yet suddenly, inexplicably this last stage hasn’t happened yet. It was supposed to be on Friday and today is Thursday, or at least it was the last time I remembered who it was in the hole.

Well, this is undoubtedly progress, because now there are things that didn’t exist before. My unborn son’s heartbeat, strong and steady in stark contrast to what is clearly my own: far too fast and thready to be healthy. The pain in ankles, below my ribcage, weren’t there before. The sounds of clattering knives and forks, school cafeteria, sitting with the Year 10’s discussing K-Pop and how lucky they are to have the history of music at their fingertips. When I was your age it was just CD’s and Minidiscs, borrowing my father’s old albums as inspiration.

No, this isn’t dinner time, but exams: quiet hum of voices, walking from table to table, praying everybody remembers which quote is Twelfth Night and which comes from Much Ado. All those lives, dependant on my ability to teach, and I’m stuck down whole with no means of escape… That’s not true, because over there’s a sign. No angels, burning bushes or heavenly music. An actual wooden sign, floating in mid air, just at the right height to be easily read. Words are not what I’d like to hear (Don’t Panic) or what’s needed (You’re Safe) but statement: WAIT.

FOR WHAT? I’ve been here forever! Except there’s change: we’re moving. The whole glides, gentle drift; stick caught in a brook’s constant, bubbling stream. Hole begins to shrink, edges visible, inhale and exhale, space breathing in time with heart, less stressed with each beat. There’s a hand, wrapped around mine. Fingers are thick, strong: as thumb strokes my palm there’s memory of Nanna’s house. Grampy would do this, soothing upset when mam didn’t make it home before bedtime. The old man passed when I was fifteen: who’s this, impersonating that past?

A hand reaches out across School Formica dinner table. It’s neither forceful or confident, tentative hope that maybe, just for a moment, I’ll show him that there’s more to this than two colleagues parting after one gets promoted. He’s only going to the Grammar School after all… Five years together, concertina into a feeling; devotion. I’ve never loved anyone as much as Matt: care and respect unlike anything else experienced. Not just a gentleman but friend, lover, partner and absolutely superb cook. What I’d give right now for his Breakfast special…

… but this is better, just a cuppa, another night he slept on the sofa bed as I’m so large its impossible to get comfortable. Standing by the bed, little Roo then appears, carefully holding toast on a plate: brilliant, quiet care for the pregnant mum and wife…

‘Wake up, love.’

I’m not sure what’s just happened, whether it was a dream or a really odd fracturing of reality: the last thing remembered with any clarity was being at the beach with Roo. Sitting on a deckchair, watching him running, whilst Matt was digging the most enormous hole in the sand… I was supposed to go for a check-up tomorrow, our Doctor already warning me that body could be exhibiting the first signs of pre-eclampsia. It might be time to think about a C-Section and not a natural birth, and if so they’d want me admitted to Hospital at beginning of next month.

Matt’s telling me about how I literally wobbled and collapsed getting out of the deckchair before losing consciousness as we waited for an ambulance. Roo was calmer than he was, all the way from the seaside to A&E, and never once let go of my hand until being rushed into theatre. They’re still not sure why I passed out, but there’s no immediate signs of concern. Blood pressure and heart-rate are normal, protein levels in my urine have dropped plus swelling in both hands and feet is now barely noticeable. Dull pain in lower body can mean only one thing…

Looking to my left, a plastic cot on wheels holds tiny form, wrapped in yellow blankets. Matt goes and retrieves him, fetching fresh life: meeting our baby for the first time. Perfectly healthy, utterly beautiful; worth being in the dark for.

Our son, in his arms.

I am whole.

The Long Kiss Goodbye

Amazingly, we’re seven days into January already, which I have to say feels more like a full month of brain pushed to the literary grindstone. Amazingly, there is break scheduled at the end of this week, as there’s two major submissions on the board. Number one went this morning, after more than the usual portion of existential angst last night… [WARNING: Contains Swearing]

The brief, that’s sat on that wall [points] for two weeks since January calendars were created, was a 3000 word short story. Firstly there’d been flirtation with taking an existing work and refreshing, and that was still the plan on Saturday morning when I arrived in the kitchen for my pre-planning cuppa. Then, summat remarkable happened: a title hit me, followed shortly afterwards by an opening visual, fully formed in my head.

In the end, planning became largely unnecessary.

There will be those of you who will be looking at this with open-mouthed horror: you can’t write anything of note like this! On any other day there would be a definite, distinct agreement: stuff takes time to plot, then to write and finally bed down as complete or polished. This story, quite literally slapped me in the brain and DEMANDED to be written there and then, so that’s what happened. When it comes back having been rejected, then there’s an indicator it can be reworked. Now, the story’s submitted as is, because the whole thing begged me to do just that.

It also didn’t help that Mr Alt (the go-to proof reader and normal barometer of awesome) didn’t like it. Amazingly, it wasn’t because it was poorly put together or presented, it simply did not click with him. What isn’t clear is whether that’s because it needs more work, or whether the plot itself is not up to what he’d consider as a decent standard. Lying awake at 4am this morning, brain still wrestling with the comments, came a significant epiphany: I love this story.

The flow is strong, descriptive imagery complete and believable in my head. The plot is a spin on the ‘alternate histories’ of this here planet that derive such pleasure when explored and exploded as potential reality. Every major player is a woman, except one. Am I being blinded by confirmation bias, or is this indeed the best piece of fictional reality that’s been created in a decade? No, this is really good. I know it, and as a result it’s gone to be judged, and I’ll know it’s fate in a few months, because this stuff takes time.

I have two poems to finish and then edit, and the last pile of scheduling for the week.

Maybe this whole thing really is doable after all…

December Short Story: Solstice

This story was first serialised in 31 daily parts during December via the @AlternativeChat and @InternetofWords Twitter feeds [9am and 4pm GMT respectively.] It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Solstice

In indistinct, freezing first light, Eric cannot forget why he is here. All that matters is to guard the perimeter fence, wood and wire, stretching along this natural escarpment. Scrub and frozen ground below suddenly transforms into the most dense and foreboding of pine forests. Standing tall in tower to his left is Hilda, daughter of Franz. Looking right, Melody, daughter of Rachel’s rifle is trained towards the tree line, perennial vigilance with outstanding attention. Both are barely older than him: at 16, youngest of nearly a dozen morning sentries.

Somewhere in the forest are his parents, one of the few  lucky enough to still have both alive. They are due home today, with or without enough food to last the camp for the next few weeks. The worst of winter has yet to hit Station 12, and when it does, everyone will be going hungry. Yet in the last week change has been inescapable: December’s normally brutal cold and bitter wind not yet arriving from the north. Eric is briefly distracted by movement upwards: birds wheel and shift as a group from the trees, hundreds moving in perfect, beautiful synchronicity.

A sound is coming from the forest, deep guttural rumble that is strangely familiar. The last time Eric heard this he was very young, whilst Station was in the depths of despair. This is an armoured transport heading up what remains of dirt road towards entrance to their compound. He’s scrabbling for ancient monocular, locating beast amongst fir, looking for the Saltire to confirm approaching vehicle is friendly. It is spread along the bonnet, battered blue and white flag undoubtedly his father’s. They have returned with a far greater prize than just food.

Behind the solar powered vehicle are two other, considerably smaller transports. One is obviously some kind of medical vehicle, the other a large, grey box on many wheels. Elsa, Eric’s mother is waving from the roof, second Saltire as confirmation the entire convoy is friendly. He’s not due to leave this post for another hour but there’s relief on the way: Saul’s smile tells all that is needed. Eric requires no further encouragement to sprint across concrete battlements, down battered metal ladder, jumping to ground level. He can meet parents in person.

Their convoy’s swamped as he approaches, support staff and medical team already looking beyond excited at these discoveries from the forest. The large, multi-wheeled box appears to be full of supplies: unused weapons, fresh construction materials vital for repair and maintenance. The hug from Mum is nothing compared to that of his father, more emotional than he has ever seen them both. The reason becomes apparent: the entire cache of equipment and supplies had been found hidden, area previously inaccessible northwards due to snow and large amounts of ice.

This is nothing compared with news camp leader is now reacting to: the only way out of the valley, previously completely inaccessible due to accumulated ice, has now opened. That provides unrestricted access all the way down the mountain, opening a direct path to the coastline. For close to a century, camp has been cut off from rest of the World. In the last decade their numbers have begun to dwindle: lack of food, an airborne virus and the cruellest of winters have slowly eroded away these survivors. Dense forest’s protection offers little nutrition.

Eric helps unload myriad contents of what he now knows is a refrigerated container in great condition as is everything else that parents liberated. The significance of that alone is enough to make months of harsh living and empty stomachs a memory: supplies can now be kept fresh. In the back of the container is a box full of items however that make no sense: strings of brightly-coloured, shiny material, electric cable with glass dots attached, and several smaller cardboard boxes fill of delicate glass ornaments which have not been handled for a long time.

Both parents are uncertain as to what these items are used for, but hold hazy joint memories as children of a tree being cut from this forest. It was bought into the compound before being placed and decorated with hand-made ornaments and garlands made of recycled cloth and paper. It was a tradition that the eldest member of Station’s staff had held, part of faith-based beliefs that had been forgotten over countless cruel winters, barely lived through since the base was built.

Items were instruments of long lost celebration, before World froze over.

With power, the cable easily activates: dots light up, emitting an ethereal, pulsing glow. Eric is then sent to outskirts of the forest with his father as backup, where a suitable fir is chosen and dug from ground that seems far less hard and frozen than was previously the case. Large, deep storage bin is located to act as pot, allowing tree to be prominently placed in the main compound. Suddenly, nothing else matters but process of decoration, sparking memories from the last three remaining base staff over sixty of what this process entailed: Christmas.

Eric assists with the container’s contents being sorted, listening intently to the story of how his parents had discovered, then buried remains of the Army convoy they’d come across. Six people transporting supplies to this base, literally frozen solid in a horrendous snowstorm. It was during that winter he had been born, last time snow fell continuously for almost a month. Ever since, temperatures had begun to rise, giving hope that upper atmospheric levels had finally begun to clear of dust from the 101955 Bennu meteorite’s impact in southern Algeria.

Eric still finds it hard to believe everyone knows about somewhere half a world away, but was able to forget about a holiday as important as Christmas at the same time. He might not be essential in this hierarchy, but celebrating anything well seems an idea worth working towards. It is now new task to inject a new, exciting set of events into the normal and often boring beyond belief drills and maintenance routines. The younger children are charged with a far more enjoyable task than painting and cleaning: they make cards, for exchange around the station.

Mother takes Eric to one side after evening meal that night, entire camp more energised and happy than anyone can remember for many, many years. She hands her son a small box, tied with what he knows is a ribbon, taken from one of the few non-military items of clothing she owns. From pocket comes a letter: not recently written, looking incredibly old yet is still sealed. On the front however is his name and date of birth. Asking who it is from, his mother tells him to go find a quiet spot alone, before reading what’s been given and then returning to her.

Sitting in his favourite spot, warmth from Guard Tower’s perpetually burning fire, Eric knows deep down what is held in his hands. This is confirmation that current parents aren’t his birth family: that mother died after giving birth, father was Station 12’s last adult casualty. He had perished when Eric was nearly five: remembering that day when he’d volunteered to hunt for food after weeks of punishing, crippling frozen rain. His ID bracelet, worn around left wrist, pushed into the boy’s palm: memory of kiss to forehead, tears falling onto his face.

Except, it appears, it wasn’t a hunting mission. His father had willingly taken a one way trip into the forest, in order to reconnect Station with their only supply of fresh, untainted water: that journey meant descent into cave from which there was no possible means of return. There is a second, older note too, written after mother passed away. Many apologies have been contained within, most significant at those who kept majority of planet in the dark prior to the meteor impact. In the end, father concluded, politicians allowed evolution to decide who survived.

He knew Eric grasped mother’s boundless optimism, warmth, practicality to improve the World and others. Watching boy grow, that was apparent; providing man no qualms over leaving. The right future was with his best friend and her husband, incapable of producing children of their own. With shaking hands, it is time to open box given to him by station commander who never said out loud she was his mother, yet did the job with fierceness and pride that was without equal. Inside is a badge, ancient crest of Army regiment who built this base a century previously.

Eric understands the gesture: he’s in charge of the Station, free to begin a new era of development and exploration. His first task is simple: once the solar powered explorer has fully charged there’ll be an expedition arranged: high time to leave valley and head towards the sea.

 

November Short Story: Piper

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during November. It is now reproduced in a complete form, a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Piper

Maggie Piper can’t sleep, won’t take the chance she’ll miss her son again. It’s 1.15 am, brain’s ramped up on coffee, waiting for when the phone sounds a tinny, dissonant alarm at 2.26. Then, without fail, Alfie will start what’s become a weekly, unstoppable sleepwalking ritual. When her husband left in the spring, things were initially difficult between mother and son. Alfie was quiet to begin with, and for a while said nothing at all at school or to friends. Then, Maggie decided to just tell him the truth, no frills. That altered a lot between them.

He admitted relief that Dad had left, watching violent abuse meted out after drinking and late shifts and had no idea how to help. His father had ignored him for years, the loss was nothing he felt either angry or upset about. What mattered more was their happiness going forward. For a few brief and glorious months, life had been full of smiles and laughter, but after the boy turned 12 in October, something changed. There are gaps in memory that cannot be explained, irritable behaviour, and now, twice a week at 2.26 am, he leaves the house without fail.

She took him to her aunt’s in Blackpool at half term, hoping sea air might help. He was less irritable, but still found his way outside regardless. There he stood, looking down for six minutes before returning to bed. She is too scared to lock doors, no attempt to restrain him… There’s a chirp from the phone, and immediate confusion: who could be sending texts at this time in the morning? Looking at the message, Mags’ brain is simultaneously amazed and frightened by what she reads:

‘My son is going to sleepwalk again tonight too. You are not alone.’

The first thought is to respond but there is no time, as second message appears:

‘Please pack an overnight bag. A car will come at 3am. Don’t be scared, please get in, because if you do we can provide all the answers required to not only help but support you both right now.’

‘How can I trust you?’

‘30 kids in Manchester wake up twice a week like him. One goes to Alfie’s school. We want to help them all and all the other kids across the country who have been doing the exact same thing since October 15th.’

‘There are others?’

‘There are thousands.’

Mags’ not scared any more, but comforted. If there are others like this, there will be a reason why this is happening, and if someone else is already dealing with the issue, she should be involved. There’s twenty minutes before Alfie walks; just time to pack a bag for them both.


It’s still dark as car rolls into the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre. Alfie is asleep, head in Mags’ lap seeming far more relaxed and comfortable than she’s seen for a while. The driver, Bill, is a genial Mancunian but has kept silent to allow Mrs Piper time to read as they drove. The folder she’s been given is both reassurance and panic combined: across the UK, since October 15th, exactly 2027 children have been acting as a unit in Manchester, Liverpool and the market town of Nantwich in Cheshire, constituency home of the current Prime Minister’s family.

Elicia Redmayne, eldest daughter of Charles Redmayne, PM, is the most high profile of the 2027 sleepwalking children at the exact same time as Alfie. He’s also absolutely the last person Mag expects to have opening her car door at 4am: he waits, looking more nervous than she is. The papers have been full of his absence from Westminster in the last week: is he unwell? Is there an international crisis in full swing, with government leaders across Scandinavia and Europe also disappearing from public life? Mags now knows real reason why Redmayne’s gone AWOL.

He and his party may be disliked by large portions of the country for socialist policies and a distinct focus on environmental issues over encouraging profits, but there is no doubting the unerring commitment to three children after wife died from Breast cancer a year previously. This man would do anything for his family, and for others. Redmayne takes a still-sleeping Alfie in his arms, carrying the boy to a newly constructed area on the Jodrell Bank site. Khaki tents have been erected: portacabins mark temporary walls of a site where armed guards stand.

Perhaps before it would have scared Mags this place is protected but now there’s an understanding of the scale of Alfie’s significance, the Army serve as reassurance. It isn’t just kids in the UK who are acting as a unit, but across the globe, and to an extremely specific pattern. There’s a medical team waiting already, because this young boy is the last piece of an incredibly complex puzzle that’s taken since October 15th to decrypt.


Mags isn’t very hungry, pushing scrambled eggs around her breakfast plate. This temporary mess hall might be packed, but she feels very much alone. It’s almost lunchtime and Mrs Piper is exhausted, yet too scared to sleep. The briefing she was given still rattles around a brain that is simultaneously happy and stunned: her son is the last of the 2027 UK children to be located. This makes Jodrell Bank unique across the World.

Tonight sleepwalkers will be watched and monitored as the first complete unit to be gathered together in one space. Media is already saturated with this revelation after the story broke in Sweden the previous day. Redmayne will therefore address the nation in the next 30 minutes. The Army have already taken over the entire Butlins holiday camp in Skegness as the only place where 2027 children plus families and observers can be kept together without major issue. As soon as Alfie’s tests are completed they’ll be driven with the PM’s team to join the group.

Tonight, at 2.26am, all kids will be allowed to roam free across the camp. There have already been hints of individuals heading for each other, groups forming before moving to create some kind of shape or message. Various theories will now be examined under controlled conditions. Mags already knows what’s going on in her heart, and that’s what frightens her most. This is no different to all the times husband would manipulate them both, his threats of violence if they didn’t do as they were told. Nothing good ever comes of messing with other people’s minds.

Even if all this could be precursor to some wondrous, life changing event, Mrs Piper is already thinking ahead. Considering every possibility was how her soon to be ex husband was finally found out, his affair and misuse of joint cash exposed with quiet, unemotional efficiency. Her father, an ex Army man himself, had taught many lessons in survival. Always know your exits. Plan for the worst, so the best can be enjoyed as a true surprise. Most importantly, however charismatic and beguiling they may be, never believe politicians know little or nothing.

Watching the PM on screen in a now silent, rapt Mess Hall, all eyes are on his speech; Mags knows he’s lying. They’ll have a chance for conversation on the way to Skegness, and then she’ll push him for the truth. How he reacts will dictate what happens next to Alfie, and for her.

This is not the World she woke up to yesterday.


It is not the World anyone expected today.

Trying not to look back, it is impossible to ignore raging flames in Range Rover’s rear view mirror. Four children huddle on the back seat, too scared to even cry.

Maggie Piper is numb.

At 2.26am, every kid at the holiday park had woken simultaneously: not one sleepwalked. Instead, from their mouths issued noise unlike anything heard on Earth in tens of thousands of years. It was anguished alarm, sending unexplained fear into the souls of each assembled parent. Redmayne had argued long and hard against kids being bought together, but the Scandinavians were adamant. This had happened before in their history; no harm had come to any of the children previously. This time, circumstances were different. Many things had changed in a century.

As connections were lost with Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the UK Military’s communications were ruthlessly severed. These children’s presence alerted the first wave of invasion craft hidden on the far side of the Moon, that Earth was sufficiently self-aware to present a problem. This planet had solved a genetic puzzle planted by the Korsal 8000 years ago, ingrained to determine human’s level of sophistication, alerting when bodily harvesting should finally take place.

Redmayne and Mags, plus their children, are the only survivors from a deadly first strike.