FEASTING

Ann Henderson

 

It was good to get out of the castle.

Prince Henry reined in his horse, allowing his huntsmen chance to catch up, and enjoyed several grateful breaths of cold air. Away from his father’s courtiers, the endless untrustworthy smiles, the machinations of the royal advisers, he felt able for a change to be just himself.

 

This was not home to him. As the custom was, he had been sent off at the age of seven to the castle of a distant lord to be trained in the skills and practices of knighthood. That was where he had grown up, among a group of other noble youngsters, jostling, joking, quarrelling, making friends and enemies. He had been a young man by the time he was recalled to his father’s court and had discovered, to his horror, that a suitable bride had been arranged for him there.

He had known of course that this would have to come at some time. He would be a king and kings had to have heirs. But his father was not old or sick. Surely there was time …

Unfortunately, his opinion on the subject had not been sought. He found himself splendidly dressed and escorted to the royal chapel which was already thronged to capacity with the lords who owed service to his father – one of whom, he assumed grimly, had succeeded in getting his daughter selected as the future queen. The girl had been brought in, swathed in so much rich fabric as to be almost invisible, and the marriage ceremony had been conducted.

Afterwards, there was a great feast in the King’s Hall. He did not remember much about it. There had seemed an endless succession of rich dishes and everybody drank a lot. After a while, the women left the room. A while later – he was not sure how much time had passed – he was swept along, on a great tide of drunken good humour and coarse jokes, to the chamber where his new bride awaited him.

She looked small and pale in the huge bed and he felt sorry for her. He assumed she was no more enthusiastic about all this than he was and had probably been allowed as little choice. Somehow, they would have to find ways to get along with one another. He attempted to open a conversation with her but failed. She had clearly been trained to be obedient, not responsive. She was polite, acceding without question to whatever he said or did, but showing neither interest nor pleasure. In fact, the only trace of emotion he could detect in her, on that night or succeeding ones, was a faint, cold distaste.

She spent her days with her women, behaved impeccably when they met at meals and at formal court occasions, and came to his bed when required. He could only hope that she would soon be with child so that this phase of their lives would be over, at least for a while. He was sure this would be a relief to both of them.

 

Meanwhile, the uncomplicated pleasures of a day’s hunting lay ahead and he gently stroked the sleek grey head of the goshawk on his wrist. His little squire came level with him, panting with exertion and excitement, and Henry grinned down at him. He had tried to be kind to young Jehan, remembering clearly what it had felt like to be a youngster in a strange court and as a result, to everyone’s amusement, Jehan adored him.

They all rode out into the crisp morning with high expectations of good game to be had, but after an hour’s hard riding the deer were still to be found. They stopped at a stream to water their horses and Henry sent scouts up a nearby hill to spy over the countryside. The news was good – a large herd of deer just to the west of them. A slight change of direction after re-mounting and they clearly sighted their prey.

A doe that had stopped to feed when the rest of the herd moved on was their first target. This one Henry designated as fresh meat for the castle. The body was swiftly cleaned and strapped across the back of a spare horse. Two of the knights then set off, retracing their steps, to present this first kill as a courtesy from the prince to his king.

Henry and his remaining huntsmen next turned their attention to the main herd and as the deer shifted position, he saw what he wanted. The antlered buck towered above the rest. “That one’s mine!” he laughed and his men laughed and cheered with him, anticipating good meat that night. But they had already come a long way. Their horses were not as fast as they had been and the buck was not eager to be caught. He led them a rare dance over unfamiliar countryside and the shadows were lengthening before Henry finally brought him down.

 

Amid their satisfaction with the day, they had to give thought now to what they did next. They would never get back to the castle before nightfall. They could build fires, roast their meat and sleep out – they had done it before – but tonight was going to be cold and some shelter would be pleasant. One of the men had climbed a tree to look around and now shouted down that he could see a building, so they mounted up and went eagerly to investigate. As they got closer, however, they moved more slowly.

Henry had seen no building like it. He was reminded of an old poem he had once read about a solitary traveller coming across “the ancient works of giants”. How could stones be so neatly cut – and then made to stand one on another like that?  This was a ruin, but it still looked grander in some ways than his father’s castle.

However, it seemed to have a roof, there was nobody else around and there was certainly room for them. “Here we are for the night,” he said, moving swiftly towards the great door.

“Sire…” came a small voice from just above his knee as Jehan tugged at him, trying to hold him back. Henry looked down, slightly irritated, until he saw the look on Jehan’s face. The child was terrified.

“Whatever is it, lad?” he said, bending to catch the whispered words.

“Sire,” said Jehan urgently, “I lived in these parts. Nobody comes here. ‘Tis said it’s haunted.”

Henry laughed, came back to his full height and dropped an arm, at once reassuring and commanding, across Jehan’s shoulders. “Well, lad,” he said firmly, “it’s definitely going to be haunted tonight – by a lot of hungry hunters. Find a place to put my horse, then come help light a fire. Can you do that?”

The child swallowed hard, but managed a slightly uncertain “Yes, sire,” before going off with the two horses.

 

The huntsmen worked efficiently together. They were good at this. In much less than an hour, fires were lit, thick slices of meat were roasting, warm robes had been brought in and the mead was broached. Even Jehan relaxed enough to eat some meat and drink some of the mead. They had left the door open to give them light, but the fires they had lit also gave light as well as warmth. They were all comfortable and the party was relaxing into merriment when the light from outside was abruptly and totally extinguished, a loud howling was heard and the ground began a rhythmic shaking.

“Bar the door,” said Henry and all the men rushed to obey him, struggling frantically to force the great oaken beam into position, blocking the entrance.

The shaking of the earth began to feel like giant footsteps that were getting nearer. Then they stopped. With one single crash the oak beam broke in two, the door creaked open and the men sprang back, swords drawn.

 

It was clear, however, that their swords were going to offer no protection against the thing that entered the hall. Its head almost touched the roof beams. As it stepped forward, those nearest the unbarred door ran through it, disappearing into the darkness.  By the time it came up to Henry, still standing with drawn sword in the centre of the hall, he was the only one left.

Except one.

“No!” came a fierce little voice and he looked down to see Jehan standing in front of him, fiercely confronting the monster that threatened his prince.

Henry almost wanted to laugh. Instead, he bent and took Jehan’s sword from his hand, replacing it in the scabbard and holding his own hand over it to keep it there. Then he looked up at the monster. “He cannot hurt you,” he said calmly. “Let him go.”

The monster picked up the squire, carried him not ungently over to the doorway and sat him down by the wall. Jehan remained there, either unwilling or unable to move, and the creature turned back to Henry.

Oddly, although it was a monster – or a fiend from Hell – something about the way it moved made it appear female. Having no other resources to fall back on in such a situation, all Henry’s knightly training came into play.

“How may I serve you, my lady?” he asked.

The voice seemed to boom around the hall. “Meat,” it said.

The butchered carcass of the deer still lay by the wall and slices of meat abandoned in panic were all around the fire. Henry gestured towards them.

It shook its head.

“Live meat,” it said. “Kill your goshawk, Prince Henry, and give it to me.”

Henry glanced involuntarily towards the rafters, where his hawk waited patiently for scraps. He had reared and trained her himself. She trusted him. He could not do this.

“My lady,” he began, “I cannot …”

He got no further. The head moved, glancing away from the bird towards Jehan, still sitting by the door. The message was very clear.

In despair, he summoned the goshawk and she came readily to his wrist. Murmuring to her in the way she recognised, he offered her a piece of meat left from the meal and she picked it delicately from his fingers. She had just started to eat when the fingers that had fed her moved swiftly to break her neck. She died instantly but he continued to hold her for a moment, still smoothing the glossy feathers, before he laid her gently at the monster’s feet and turned his back.

The sounds of enthusiastic and uninhibited eating were almost more than he could bear. When the sounds stopped, he turned back to find that only feathers remained.

“More meat,” it said. “Kill your hounds, Prince Henry, and bring them to me.”

He knew now what the terms were. With a heavy heart he took his hunting knife and summoned his dogs one at a time, each by name, feeding and fondling them until he killed them. He took the warm, limp bodies and laid them at her feet.

He had to steel himself to keep still through the tearing, grinding and chewing that followed.

His horse went the same way.

With no livestock left to lose, he faced her again. “What more might my lady require?”

“Drink,” it said briefly.

Clearly, vast quantities were needed. Luckily, she had left the horse’s hide. He cut strips of the leather and tied the bloody skin up at the corners to make a vast cup that he placed at her feet before pouring into it all the remaining wine.

This time he faced the monster as it drank, seeing its need and urgency and wondering how long it had been hungry and thirsty to feed so desperately.

Finally, the creature dropped the empty wine skin and he questioned it again.

“What now, lady?”

“A bed. Make a bed soft for me.”

This he could do. The men had already fetched in piles of grass and straw and he gathered it all together, topping it with his own fur-lined cloak.

He gestured towards the freshly prepared bed and made to withdraw politely and leave her to sleep, hoping to be able to scoop up Jehan on the way out.

But the horror was not over yet.

“Take off your clothes, Prince Henry,” it said. “This night I must be your wife.”

“My lady,” he stammered, “It cannot be. I already have a wife.”

“She does not want you,” came the utterly unexpected reply. “Come to me.”

As he still hesitated, appalled, she rose up in the makeshift bed and glanced towards the doorway.

That was all it took. Courteously, he took the outside of the bed so that she lay between him and the wall, protected from any harm, and laughed humourlessly at himself even as he did so.

But as he joined her on the bed and she reached towards him, he had another thought – that he had never before been wanted like this. In that respect, the nightmare was very instructive. Her eagerness for food and drink was mirrored in her eagerness for him, and once he had firmly closed his eyes, he had no problem fulfilling her wishes. Indeed, he did so throughout the night and slept exhausted just as dawn was breaking.

 

He was awakened in the early daylight by movement next to him and he turned cautiously towards his bed-mate, dreading to see what she really looked like. What he saw made him close his eyes very tightly and open them again. The result was the same. Tucked in between him and the wall lay the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen.

“M-my lady!” he stammered.

She smiled up at him. “Good morning, most noble and courteous prince. You have broken the spell that held me for many weary years. I’ve often been supplied with food and wine by the knights I have encountered, but only you in your courtesy have fulfilled all my needs.”

Her eyes twinkled at him and he felt himself blushing. He reached for her, speechless, but she laughed and slid from his arms.

“The spell is ended and I return now to my own people. But I shall remember you always as my perfect knight.” Approaching the doorway, she gave a low call and a white mare came running to her. Before he could move again, she was on its back and gone, one white hand raised in farewell.

 

By the time he had dressed himself and roused Jehan – who seemed to have little recollection of the night before – his shame-faced huntsmen were appearing, hugely relieved to find him alive. He told them about the feast of food he had been obliged to provide, but made no mention, then or at any other time, of the other feast in which he had involuntarily shared.

 

It was those memories that stayed with him, though, and clouded all his thoughts on the journey back towards the cold bed that awaited in his father’s castle. He was glad to have freed her from her spell, he thought – but he wondered what it would take now to free him.

 

THE SINS OF BROTHER CERDIG

Pat Stearn

 

Brother Cerdig was happy. He hummed a little tune as he wandered among the sloe trees and the blackberry bushes. He carried two baskets, one almost full with the dark purple sloes and the other not nearly so full with blackberries. Truth to tell Brother Cerdig had eaten as many as he had picked; his lips bearing the tell tale stains of the juice. Then he looked at the basket and wondered what to do. The sun was beginning to dip down behind the wood and he should be heading back to the monastery. He would be late for Vespers but more importantly he would miss the last meal of the day and in spite of all the blackberries that he had consumed he was hungry.

He wiped his stained fingers on his black robe, thankful that he was a Dominican and not a Cistercian; how the marks would show up on that white fustian. He gathered up his baskets and began to hurry towards the monastery. He was quite out of breath when he arrived, which was not surprising as Brother Cerdig was a rotund little monk. He entered the large kitchen and found Brother Anselm, the Cellarer, overseeing the preparation of the meal. He turned and saw Cerdig standing by the table.

“There you are, Brother. You have been a very long time. Let me see your baskets.”

Cerdig proffered up his two baskets and waited nervously for Brother Anselm to comment. But he had his reply ready. As he expected Brother Anselm scowled and said,

“The sloes are good Brother, but what about the blackberries. You have not picked many, or perhaps you picked many and ate many?”

“Oh, Brother Anselm there were not so many blackberries. Some were rotten and some were too high up for me to reach.” The lie came easily and confidently.

“But you have stains around your mouth Brother, which tells me that you ate some. How many did you eat?”

“I ate a few Brother but only the ones that fell on the ground, but my fingers were stained and I wiped them across my mouth. That is why my lips are stained.”

“Hm, well I suppose I must accept your explanation. But get you gone, go wash your dirty face and fingers and prepare for Vespers.”

Cerdig scuttled out of the kitchen with relief. His excuse had been accepted.

Back in the kitchen Anselm was pondering the conversation with Brother Cerdig. He was aware that Cerdig was lazy and a glutton but there was little he could do about it without firm proof.

In fact, the whole monastery knew of Brother Cerdig’s failings. Complaints had been made to the Prior, who gently countered them with exhortations to love one another. But even he knew that something would have to be done. Catching Cerdig in a compromising situation was proving difficult. He was indeed devious and managed to have a ready explanation to any criticism levelled at him.

 

The year continued its cycle. Winter came and food was scarce due to the poor harvest. The Christmas feast was not as good as in previous years but no-one complained, except Cerdig who said he was always hungry. In spite of his complaints he remained rotund, while some of his brother monks began to look quite gaunt. The Hospitaller was making good use of the tinctures that he had produced from the sloes and blackberries that Brother Credig had gathered. However, the paucity of blackberries meant that the tincture for coughs and colds soon ran out. The monastery endured and awaited the arrival of Spring. But there were the rigours of Lent to come before that. Meals became extremely simple. Pottage was served for the midday meal and supper, without vegetables, sometimes there were a few herbs and leaves gathered from the frozen fields. Even the dried fish that was served on Fridays was absent. A thin gruel was the first meal of the day with a small piece of poor quality bread. In spite of these privations Brother Cerdig remained rotund and in good spirits. There were mutterings amongst the brothers. Brother Anselm, the Cellarer, decided to take matters into his own hands. He kept watch in the kitchen and store room, sleeping under one of the tables each night.

 

His suspicions were correct. One night a shadowy figure entered the kitchen. He produced a key and unlocked the store room. Brother Anselm waited several minutes before striking his flint and lighting his lantern. The light revealed Brother Cerdig sitting on the pantry floor with a huge slice of cured pork in his hand. His mouth was full of food and juices dribbled down his chin. Brother Anselm was so shocked that for several moments he was unable to speak. Cerdig looked at him in horror and struggled to swallow his mouthful. He rose, shakily, to his feet, still clutching the meat in his hand.

“I can explain,” he stuttered.

“No, Brother, there is no explanation. Go back to your cell. I shall speak to Father Prior in the morning.”

At that moment a bell sounded to call the monks to Matins, the first service of the day. Brother Anselm turned to Cerdig.

“Go to your cell. Do not attend Matins. You are not in a state of grace.”

He waited until Cerdig was shuffling off, just managing to wrest the piece of pork out of Cerdig’s hand. Then he locked the pantry and made his way to the chapel for Matins.

 

The following morning Brother Anselm sought out the Prior and informed him of what had happened. Father Brethoc was shocked by what he heard and sent for Brother Cerdig.

“Brother Cerdig you know why I have sent for you,” he said to a cowering Cerdig. “What have you to say?”

Cerdig was silent for some moments.

“Oh, Father I am a very bad monk. But I can’t help it, I am always hungry.”

“That is a very poor answer. And where did you get a key to the larder?”

Again, Cerdig was silent for some time but Father Brethoc’s piercing eyes forced him, eventually, to reply.

“I took it from the pocket of Brother Jowan’s apron.”

“I think you mean you stole it, my son.”

“Yes, Father,” mumbled Cerdig.

“And you are aware that Brother Jowan was punished for his carelessness?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Your sins are mounting, my son. You admit that you stole a key, you broke into the pantry and stole meat meant for the Easter Feast, and Brother Anselm tells me that you lied about eating blackberries that you were gathering last Autumn. Those blackberries were meant to make tincture for coughs and colds and because of your gluttony we have run out and your brother monks are suffering. Furthermore, I am told that you often miss Matins because you do not get up on time. So, you are a liar, a thief, a glutton, and slothful.” The Prior sighed. “Tell me, me son, why did you become a monk as you seem to have no calling for it?”

“Oh, Father, I know that I am a very bad monk. But it seemed the only answer to my problems.”

“Please explain yourself. I am a patient man but I am beginning to tire of you excuses.”

Brother Cerdig took a deep breath and began,

“I lived with my parents in the settlement surrounding the castle and estate at Penhallam. We were poor farmers but we were happy. Then my parents died of the bloody flux and the Lord turned me out of the cottage. I had nowhere to go so I began walking west looking for somewhere to live. Wherever I went there was no shelter and no work. Eventually I came to Bosvenna and the monastery. Brother Cador was the Cellarer in those days and he let me in and fed me. Oh, such wonderful food, it…” Cerdig caught Prior Brethoc’s eye and stopped in mid sentence. “The monastery seemed a nice welcoming place and Brother Cador was kind. He suggested that I become a monk. So I did.”

“I see,” said Father Brethoc, “so what do you think I should do with you? You cannot expect to get away with these sins. What do you think would be a suitable penance?”

Brother Cerdig fell on his knees and began to beg for forgiveness.

“I know that I am a very bad monk and deserve to be punished, but…” he stopped. He could see that his entreaties were having no effect on Father Brethoc.

“I have decided that in atonement for these grievous sins you shall be locked in your cell until the day of the Resurrection of our Lord. You will receive one piece of bread and a pitcher of water daily. During the two weeks until then you can ponder on your shortcomings and failings, to our Lord, to your Brother Monks and to the Monastery. On Easter Day you may attend Mass and during the Feast you will read from the gospel. You will not partake of the Feast. I am obliged to absolve you of your sins, which I now do. Go to your cell and begin your penance.”

 

On Easter day all the monks gathered in the refectory. Brother Anselm and his assistants brought in huge bowls of pork cooked with herbs and garlic. This was followed by a large haunch of roasted venison. There was good bread and jugs of ale. The aroma of the food filled the Refectory. On a dais at one end of room Brother Cerdig stood with tears running down his face. He seemed to have shrunk somewhat, he was no longer quite so rotund. Haltingly he read from St Luke’s gospel beginning at chapter 15.

Father Brethoc regarded the wayward monk with something like pity. He turned to Brother Anselm and said,

“Let us pray that Brother Cerdig has learned his lesson and will amend his ways.”

“Yes indeed, Father Brethoc,” he replied. But in his heart he rather doubted that this was so.

THE FEAST

Rosemary Thurlow

 

The saloon bar at the Dog and Duck was full, as per usual, on a Friday evening. A log fire burned in the corner with two terriers stretched out in front, assorted tables and chairs were occupied by regulars enjoying pints of beer or the local cider. Patrons at the bar chatted whilst the landlord and his wife took orders and joined in the banter.

Seated in a corner, round a somewhat stained and well used table, the members of the Feast Club were gathered to organise their annual dinner to celebrate the feast of St Baldwin, which occurred on the 4th March. Nobody knew who St Baldwin was, what he had achieved in his life, or what amazing miracle he had performed but the group had adopted his name and celebrated the date every year. It seemed like a good enough reason to have a ‘general knees up’ to welcome the beginning of Spring and put the dark days of Winter behind them.

The eight men chatted amongst themselves whilst Fred, the nominated leader arranged his paperwork, checked a few details and taking a swig of his beer and called the meeting to order.

‘Well, good evening everybody, it’s nice to see we’re all present apart from Reg, who, of course remains at home. I rang him this morning, his rash is improving, the tablets are working and hopefully he’ll be with us for the feast. I’m not sure whether Reg will be bringing June; she’s still suspicious of how he got tangled up with those goats and just what the pretty farmer’s daughter was doing at the scene. I’m sure that getting his trousers off was the only way to get Reg out of the predicament and I quite understand her feelings that Reg has never fully explained things to her. But that’s a confidential matter between husband and wife and I don’t think we should pry. Is everybody in agreement?’

Heads nodded, some sniggers and a few comments were passed. Reg was popular, always up for a joke and took life with a smile and as somebody had once remarked, being married to June he needed to have a bit of fun now and then.

‘So, onto matters outstanding. I’ve got the menus, if you could all take one home and make your choice and let me know by the end of next week. The usual deposit of £10 will be required and the names of those you are bringing as a guest,‘ Fred paused. ‘You can bring who you want, wives and girlfriends are the usual or workmate, friend or neighbour will be welcome.’

‘So, who do I bring?’ Arthur enquired, looking round at the group. ‘Marnie died five years ago and I haven’t looked at another woman, didn’t feel the need somehow.‘

‘Well Arthur, we’ll have to get you fixed up with someone, won’t we lads’? Robert answered. ‘How about that lady who lives on the corner with those cats, she seems nice enough and I’ve caught you chatting to her on more than one occasion.’

‘Oh, you mean Rachel. Yes she’s OK, but once she’s had a few sherries she gets a bit noisy and wants to dance around the place; it could get a bit embarrassing.‘ Arthur looked down at his beer glass and shook his head. ‘Marnie always behaved well, never showed herself up in public, I’m not sure that—‘

‘Never mind Arthur, forget Rachel and her cats, we’ll find someone for you,’ Robert answered, putting a friendly arm around his friend, ‘we’ve got plenty of time to look for a suitable lady, don’t you worry.’

Then it was Charlie’s turn to speak,

‘Well, you all know which way my interests lie, so can I bring Mike? He’s my partner, my other half, my significant other. Need I say more?’

Heads nodded in understanding; glasses were raised. This feast was going to be an interesting night some of them thought. Putting down his beer Stewart turned to Charlie on his left,

‘And what will your partner be wearing on the night, may I ask? The last time I saw you two together he was in a dress and high heels, very Grayson Perry I thought’.

Several eyebrows were raised and looks exchanged between the seated friends as they turned to hear what Charlie’s response would be.

‘My Mike is an individual sort of person, never one to worry about what others think. Do you know he makes all his own clothes?’ Charlie retorted. ‘That dress he was wearing, Stewart, was adapted from a vogue pattern circa 1950, very exclusive.’ He paused and looked around at the others, and then rather pink in the face Charlie coughed, ‘Mike is thinking about getting his kilt out of the wardrobe for the night in question. He does look good in the MacDonald tartan, just you lot wait and see. Anyway, what’s wrong with looking smart and well turned out, eh?‘ With that remark he stood up. ‘Anybody want another drink? I’m having a shandy. Stewart, do you want refuelling?’

‘Yes, thanks that’s good of you Charlie, I’ll give you a hand,’ answered Stewart as they both made their way over to the bar.

A silence descended round the table, someone could be heard laughing at the landlord comments; one of the slumbering terriers barked in his sleep and logs spluttered in the fire.

Fred cleared his throat,

‘Um, well let’s get on to the next item shall we, and that’s the change of venue. After last years ‘sad incident’ we all decided not to return, go for pastures new, as it were. So, it’s to be the ‘Petit Chou’ on the 4th, everybody ok with that?‘

He looked around at his friends for signs of agreement.

‘Sure, sounds alright to me,’ someone answered.

‘Yes, that’ll do the job, I’ve heard it’s good,’ replied Phil looking down to switch off his mobile. ‘We don’t want to be reminded of last year, I think it took Samuel three months to recover from the food poisoning and he’s still waiting to hear about compensation. I spoke to him yesterday in the supermarket, he’s still not put weight back on, reckon he must be under ten stone now. I know he needed to lose weight but not that way, sick one minute, on the toilet the next. His doctor prescribed some weird tasting powder to put into his drink, what that’s meant to do God knows.’

‘Yes well, that was last year; thank goodness,’ Fred replied quickly, ‘I’m sure that this restaurant will be of a higher standard in every respect.’

 

‘So, what’s it called, this here place?’ asked Arthur. ‘The Petit what?’

‘The Petit Chou,’ replied Fred. ‘Its French for cabbage, I believe and it’s The Place to go around here so I’ve been informed.’

‘That’s as maybe,’ Arthur muttered, ‘but I don’t want to spend money on eating cabbage, French or otherwise. Too much like school dinners if you ask me.’

‘No Arthur,’ Fred turned to his friend, ‘you won’t be eating the stuff if it’s not on the menu, so don’t worry about that. And not only is the food good but there’s musical entertainment from nine till midnight which should add to a pleasant atmosphere.’

‘What kind of music Fred, will I have to remove my hearing aid? If the sounds get above a certain level all I hear is squeaks,’ interrupted Robert. ‘Just a load of squeaks.’

‘It’s not that heavy metal stuff, is it?’ enquired Arthur again.’ My grandson’s into that and believe me it’s—‘

‘No Arthur, you fool,’ interjected Stewart, ‘it’ll be what’s called ‘middle of the motorway music’, sort of easy to listen to, like. Isn’t that the case?’

He looked around the table for confirmation from his friends.

‘I think you mean ‘middle of the road’ music Arthur,’ Fred responded with a laugh. ‘Yes, it’ll be popular tunes I expect played on a piano with a guitarist accompaniment. It’ll be nice for our partners, male or female. Somebody might feel the need to dance, eh gents?’ Fred questioned with a smile looking round the table. A few worried faces returned his gaze, ‘Ah well,’ he thought, ‘get some good food and wine inside them and a few would be up for dance, no doubt encouraged by their wives.’

‘So, finally it’s a question of transport gentlemen, how we get to the Petit Chou and back again?’ Fred announced to everybody. ‘Last year’s was a freebie which unfortunately can’t be repeated so we’ll have to look elsewhere. Anybody got ideas? It needs to be affordable and local transport, a coach or a couple of mini buses would do it nicely, but because it’s a weekend evening and involves time after midnight the costs are somewhat high.‘ He paused, waiting for a suggestion from somebody. There followed a lull with a few ums and ahs, but no ideas were forthcoming.

Fred spoke out loud.

‘Remember, it’ll be the evening, down to the harbour front to the restaurant and back later. It needs to be a mode of transport that isn’t in use and that can fit all of us in.’

‘And clean mind, my Avril is very fussy about getting in clean cars,’ uttered Robert. ‘Doesn’t like getting her clothes creased in any way. Only last week we passed a funeral procession and she remarked on the smart turnout of the hearse and following cortege. I must say she had a point—‘

Robert stopped mid-sentence and looked around at the others who all looked at one another.

‘Geronimo! We’ve cracked it,’ somebody shouted from the table. ‘That’s it chaps, we’ll hire a couple of hearses, they’re never used weekends or evenings, clean, yes, always shiny bright and the driver wears a hat. What more do we want?’

‘Oh no, you’ll not get me in a hearse, well not alive,’ announced Phil. ‘I’m against travelling lying down anyway, it’ll make me dizzy and upset my blood pressure something dreadful’.

‘No, no, we’ll all be in the limousines, not the actual hearses,’ Fred quickly interrupted. ‘What a brilliant idea, who’s stroke of genius was it?’

‘Well, that was me actually,’ answered Robert. ‘I mentioned about passing a funeral cortege and how smart and roomy the vehicles were.‘ He paused, turned to his friends round the table, ‘anybody here got connections with undertakers?’

‘Well, funny you should mention them,’ Arthur answered, ‘I play bowls every week down at the park and one of my partners happens to be Andy Johnson, you know, everybody, from A Johnson and son ‘Funeral Directors to the Discerning’. Well, he owes me a favour or two so I’ll sound him out for you Fred that OK?’

‘More than OK if he can do the job for us Arthur,’ Fred answered. ‘Let me know as soon as possible. I expect two or three limos will be enough and ask if the adverts concerning funeral payment plans can be removed from the side doors of the vehicles.’

‘Will do,’ replied Arthur. ‘I’m beginning to look forward to our feast celebration on the 4th. Perhaps I will approach Rachel about coming with me, she’ll be tickled pink about a drive in a limo, specially after a couple of sherries.’

Fred took to his feet,

‘Thanks for coming. I’ll be in contact. Anyone want a lift home?’

They made their way out of the Dog and Duck towards the car park, talking amongst themselves. It was a clear evening with a half moon in the sky and the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

‘Night everybody, see you all on the 4th.’ Someone said.

POLLY PELLAR 

Ronnie Puttock

 

I always wake when the bell in the clock tower strikes midnight. It’s pitch black, except for the quiet glow from beneath the door guiding my way. It’s where my friends are waiting. The door is always opened for me. It never makes a sound.

I walk lightly, almost as if floating, along the bare wooden corridor. My feet are naked and the rough linen gown is all I wear. It’s all I ever wear and doesn’t concern me in the least.

I follow the glow. Suddenly it’s outside. It does this all the time. Through the window it’s there. The window is open. It always is. I climb through into the night. I gulp down huge lungfuls of that fresh fragrant air. I stretch my arms out to feel the blood flow to my fingertips and I stand on tiptoe to bring life to my feet. For two or three moments I stand like this. Stretching down to the earth and up to the sky, looking upwards where there are always stars and a moon.

I brace myself for the moment I rise up, carried by my little friends; high over the straggling houses and farmyards; over woodlands, pastures and streams and into the wilderness of the rocky moorland. Here, sheltered from any prying human eyes, I once again greet my fairy friends. I have known them all my life. They knew my mother and grandmother and taught us all we know. It is my duty to pass on this knowledge if I am able. Whatever happens, the knowledge will never die. It will live on as long as my friends live on.

We flit over the moor, seeking out the herbs and plants we need. There are berries to pick and special stones to collect. The wind ruffles my hair as we go and seeps through my gown bathing my body with its refreshing, dewy coolness. I am light and feel ageless. I am one with the heather and gorse, with the owls and buzzards. I am part of the boulders and the gaunt giant tors who slumber on until woken on the day of reckoning. I have a name. I know it. It’s Mary Moyle but that means nothing out here in the vast, boundless eternity.

Later, we will eat and drink and make great merriment with music, song and dance. This always happens but I never tire of it.

Once every year, I think, though time is immaterial here, I see my mother and grandmother. We hug each other, smile and laugh together but no words can pass between us. Our mutual friends do not allow it, for obvious reasons.

 

*****

 

A flash. The lamps are lit.

I am lying in bed. I cannot move my arms and legs; they are strapped to the bedframe. I become aware of foul smells. Is it me? It might be. A man’s face suddenly appears. He says nothing. He just looks at me, then disappears. I can now hear noises. Human noises? Crying, screaming, howling. Is it me? It might be. A woman is here now. She has a bowl of liquid which she tries to pour into my mouth. It’s foul. I try to spit it out and I choke. She calls me Polly Pellar. Is that my name? I don’t know. It might be.

I do know I don’t like it here. Is there somewhere better to be? I don’t know but I hope there is.

 

Note: ‘pellar’ is a Cornish word meaning a wise woman or white witch.

ONE GOOD TURN DESERVES ANOTHER

Judith Jones

 

The workshop door squeaked a little as the small elf crept round it. The huge space was silent, workbenches empty; barely a glow came from the potbellied stove near the middle. Stamping snow from his shoes and rubbing his chilled fingers, the elf’s belled hat gave a little ring and he yanked it further down his pointed ears to keep them warm.

Settling himself close to the stove he pulled out the small letter from his pocket, propped it up and set to work with brushes and paint. He had a lot to do before morning arrived.

 

‘Good morning young elf and what might you be doing down here so early?’

The elf jumped and almost slid off the bench, he’d been fast asleep, head on his arms, brush still between his fingers.

‘Oh dear, ah, yes good morning Sir,’ he stood up and pulled his cap off quickly making a little bow. Father Christmas was a kind employer, fun to work with, always ready with a joke or smile but a lowly elf knew his place and that was to be respectful of the great man.

He’d really meant to be back in bed, job finished, long before anyone else was up for breakfast or work. Looking about he realised he had finished the painting and a loud sigh of relief escaped.

‘That was a big sigh for a small elf,’ the bench creaked with the weight of Father Christmas, ‘how come you’re up so promptly? Before breakfast even.’

Father Christmas put a large net of carrots by his black shinny boots and smiled down at the elf. The elf looked pinched with cold despite the warm jerkin and muffler.

‘Well, um, er, well Sir I had a job to finish last minute and must have dozed off,’ the elf began then stopped wondering how to explain. Reaching for the letter he passed it to his bemused employer to read.

‘You see it was my job to sweep up before supper and I was under the benches when I found it, I was quite upset so straight after dinner I came back to paint it ready for the morning,’ the elf stopped talking and glanced shyly upwards.

Opening the letter out Father Christmas felt in a pocket of his waistcoat for a pair of wire rimmed spectacles, balanced them on his nose and began to read.

Deer Faver Chissmus,

Plees can I have a bluu train wiv red weels and 3 lello carijis. Not for mee but mi lill sister Sally. She has a bad coff.

Fank you

Billy Franklin

Father Christmas read it again and rubbed his nose, ‘that was very kind of you to come back specially to do this. May I see it?’

The little elf reached across the work bench and drew the train and it’s carriages along. The red wheels shone in the light from the stove.

‘That’s quite exceptional workmanship; I think Sally will be very impressed. I’ll add it to the lists. My goodness it’ll be a busy night,’ leaning forward slightly Father Christmas smiled, ‘tell me young elf, what’s your name?’

‘Barnaby, Sir,’ he bobbed and bowed again quite overcome talking to the great man.

‘Well Barnaby few children ask for presents for other people and not themselves. I think Billy should have something special for himself. What do you think?’

Barnaby nodded making his hat jingle and jangle madly, ‘we have some lovely bears with growls.’

‘Perfect,’ Father Christmas tapped his nose thoughtfully, ‘we’ll add that to the list, then breakfast for you, me,’ he lifted up the carrots, ‘and the reindeer.’

Father Christmas rose slowly to his feet, ‘first though may I ask you a favour?’

 

Tucked into the corner of the sleigh, a warm furry rug wrapped tightly around him, Barnaby hung on as the reindeer gathered speed then with one mighty leap left the frozen ground. The North Pole fell away, the trees retreated and the snow clad hills become no more than wrinkles on a table cloth. Father Christmas clicked his tongue, snapped the reins and off they sped in to the dark night’s sky. Behind them the sleigh was piled high with beautifully wrapped presents, sacks of them neatly labelled ready for Christmas morning.

Barnaby had never imagined he might one day be asked to help Father Christmas and now here he was in charge of the present list. On every roof top he would be responsible for giving Father Christmas the correct presents for the children tucked up below.

‘It’ll be a long night Barnaby,’ he’d said, ‘a magic night when time stands still just enough for me to deliver every special present. I could use a helper, could that be you?’

‘First one coming up Barnaby,’ Father Christmas had smiled at the small elf and so the long night began.

 

The moon had begun its descent as Father Christmas guided the sleigh down on to the last roof. The train for Sally and bear for Billy were the only presents left. Barnaby watched Father Christmas disappear down the chimney then re appear with a little more soot powdering his beard.

‘Time for a well-earned snooze young Barnaby, after a very large bowl of porridge,’ clicking his tongue he snapped the reins and the sleigh took off for the final time.

‘That was wonderful Sir,’ Barnaby tried to yawn quietly, ‘I hope Billy likes his bear.’

‘I’m sure he will. Close your eyes and I promise you’ll know very soon.’

Barnaby nodded and snuggled down; eyes closed and began to dream.

 

In a room that was bright with decorations two small children sat opening presents.

‘This is for you Sally,’ her mum said helping her peel the silvery paper off a long box, ‘oh my goodness a train, who bought you that?’ she sounded puzzled.

‘Father Christmas mummy,’ the little boy shuffled closer, ‘I asked him for a blue train with red wheels and three lello carriages in my letter.’

His mother turned the paper over searching for a label. How odd, it wasn’t anything that she’d bought. Sally seemed delighted and was crawling along pulling it. Her mother shrugged and turned her attention to a tall, odd shaped package. Lifting it up, she read

To Billy,

A special little boy who thought of his sister before himself.

One good turn deserves another.

Father Christmas

 

Barnaby sat up as the sleigh bumped down, ‘I saw them, and Billy loved the bear, Sir. His mummy’s very confused.’

Father Christmas grinned, ‘but Billy understands and that’s the magic of Christmas Barnaby.’

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Jennie Thomas

 

Jess drew up at the roadside and peered at the large, imposing sign beside her. ‘Burningfold Manor and Stud’ it proclaimed in impressive gold script. She switched off her sat nav that was annoyingly repeating, ‘ You have reached your destination’, still not quite believing this could be the place she was looking for.

Glancing, nervously, down the beautifully, tended drive with its manicured edges she hoped they hadn’t missed a nought off the price in the advert, it was far smarter than the yards she normally visited when trying out a horse.

She drove self-consciously down the drive, in her dusty Land Rover and under a brick archway topped with an elaborate clock tower into what was ,unmistakably ,the Stable Yard. She glanced approvingly at the yard with its neat rows of hay nets, tidy stack of wheelbarrows and someone sweeping industriously at what she could only imagine to be an odd speck of shavings.
It pleased Jess, greatly, as she liked to keep her own yard impeccable, although it was only a quarter of the size.

Catching sight of a beautiful 16hh bay tied up outside one of the stable doors, a vast, gleaming powerhouse of a thoroughbred, munching contentedly at a haynet, Jess hoped fervently this was the horse she’d come to see, but again came the thought that the price in the ad really didn’t match this glorious beast. He was all tacked up and ready to go, though, so maybe, just maybe.

Climbing out of the Land Rover, she saw friendly looking girl in jodhs and a top with a ‘Burningfold’ logo striding across to greet her.

‘ You must be Jess,” she smiled, ‘ come to try out our lovely ‘Finn’ here,’ gesturing towards the bay Jess had spotted earlier. ‘I’m Pippa. Come and introduce yourself to him, then we’ll grab a coffee while I tell you a bit about him.’

It seemed the horse had been bought ten years earlier as a potential racehorse and trained at ‘Burningfold’ by the owner of the yard, Paddy, and his then business partner Lex. Pippa wasn’t sure why, but, apparently, the two men had fallen out, Lex had disappeared and Paddy had lost interest in training the horse, christening him ‘Unfinished Business’ with ‘Finn’ as his stable name.
He’d run a couple of races after Paddy had relented and tried to bring him on but
Fin really wasn’t competitive enough for the Racing World. He’d lived happily enough alongside the other racehorses, being exercised with them and generally living a life of luxury. Pippa thought Paddy had a bit of a soft spot for him, but now he’d decided the time had come for Finn to be found a new owner.  But only if one could be found of which Paddy fully approved.

It was a lot to take in, but Jess already loved the look of Finn and was eager to try him in the School.
He was a superb ride, not particularly forward going, but happy enough to comply with anything asked of him. Jess was in love.
She was a bit worried, as she’d only just started looking for another horse and wasn’t sure her husband, Ben, was expecting her to find one quite so soon but as he soared over a couple of jumps with the minimum of effort she knew he was the horse for her.

Jess had owned and ridden horses for as long as she could remember. Been given her first pony for her fifth birthday and never looked back.  Her childhood and adolescence had been a round of pony clubbing, gymkhanas and shows, eventually competing in show-jumping at a very respectable level.
She’d reluctantly had to let her two horses go when she was eighteen as she was off to University and living away from home. They were too good just to be left grazing in a field until she was back in the holidays to ride them and she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else exercising them. Better to let them go to new homes and make a clean break.

She’d ridden off and on since then to keep her hand in but marriage and children didn’t really gel with the exacting world of show-jumping.
Only now could she hope of returning to it, albeit it at a much lower level, as her own children were at College and University.

Jess had been aware of a middle aged man standing quietly in the far corner of the School, his cap pulled down above his eyes, sucking on a piece of straw and watching her as she put Finn through his paces. She could see Pippa talking to him, then he nodded his head before walking off in the direction of the house.

She jumped down from ‘Finn’, and patted his neck as he nuzzled gently against her with his big, velvety nose in search of one of the mints he’d already detected in her pocket. She laughed, giving him a mint and another good few pats.
When Pippa walked over and asked, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Both of them already knew the answer.

Apparently, the ‘Watcher’ in the cap had been Paddy. He’d approved of the way she’d ridden and handled one of his favourite horses, so Finn was hers for the asking.

She’d paid her deposit and agreed to pick up Finn the following weekend. As she drove home excitement bubbled up inside her knowing that she was to be the owner of such a beautiful horse.
Jess was relieved to find that Ben was as excited as she was for her to resume show-jumping in earnest. He had known little about the equestrian world until he met Jess at University but her enthusiasm for all things, ‘horse related’, had rubbed off on him and although he had his own career, he was a willing extra stable-hand for her in the evenings and at weekends. He was making sure that the biggest stable in the yard was ready for Finn on the eve of his arrival while Jess fixed Finn’s shiny, new nameplate on the door.

‘ Not sure I like, ‘Unfinished Business’ on the door’, she mused, although it had ‘Finn’ as his stable-name written underneath in brackets.

‘It’s fine’, said Ben, ‘Gives him an air of mystery.’

‘That’s just what I don’t like,’ said Jess. ‘I like my horses to come from a settled background. Maybe I’ll find out more about him when I get his Passport tomorrow.’
‘You’re just like your Mother,” laughed Ben, ‘Nosey!’
Jess giggled as she tried to deny it and defend her Mum, all the while fully aware that her Mum was the only person she’d ever met who knew a person’s entire life history five minutes after being introduced to them.
‘All the same, it’s good to know,’ said Jess, trying not to notice just how much like her Mother she sounded.

As luck would have it , Jess’ Mum was arriving the following day to spend a few days with them and Jess was to pick her up from the Station on her way to collect Finn.
Her Mum loved horses almost as much as she did. She had owned and ridden horses herself and loved going to Shows with Jess. She didn’t ride nowadays but was in her element helping Jess with her ‘brood’ each time she visited.

They were both excited to see each other and even more excited about Jess’ latest purchase. They chatted away as Jess drove giving her Mum a ‘potted history’ of ‘Finn’, as she knew it, and Jess could feel her becoming more intrigued by the minute. She fired a dozen questions at her daughter and was quite disappointed at Jess’ lack of knowledge.

‘Seems quite a lot more to discover about Finn,’ she mused ‘and maybe Paddy too!’.
Jess looked at her and shook her head as they turned into the drive of ‘Burningfold’ and up to the stable yard.

As they drove in, Paddy was walking around the stable yard checking the horses and he looked up and smiled as Jess drove in with her horse trailer.

Pippa was also there to greet them, offering coffee and biscuits to Jess’ Mum as she and Jess went off to the office to complete the paperwork and haggle over the price of Finn’s tack which was also on offer.

Jess’ Mum was leaning on the railed fence of the ménage drinking her coffee and watching a handsome grey gelding being schooled when she heard a voice behind her. It was Paddy who’d come over to introduce himself and find out a little more about the people who’d bought Finn.

He was a stocky man dressed in jeans and a tweed jacket, his cap pulled down to just above his eyes, which were the brightest of blues, twinkling out of his walnut brown, weather beaten face. She noted that most of the wrinkles were around his eyes and deepened as he smiled and introduced himself.
They were soon chatting away like old friends and as Jess emerged from the office her mother was being given a tour of the impressive stables.

Having loaded Finn and put the tack in the back of the Land Rover, Jess walked over to meet Paddy and collect her Mother for their journey home.

‘Ahh, Jess’, said her Mum, ‘ I don’t think you’ve met Paddy,’ as Paddy put his hand out to shake hers.
‘Grand to meet you, Jess. From what your Mother says you’ve a good understanding of horses and will give him a fine home. It’s time he moved on, been treading water for too long, much like myself.’
Jess looked up into the cornflower blue eyes in the crinkly, weather-beaten face and thought what a kind man he seemed to be.
As he spoke of Finn, something that Jess couldn’t quite fathom sent a cloud across the brilliant, blue eyes but the shadow passed as quickly as it had come when Jess promised faithfully to look after Finn and regularly email updates and photos of him in his new home.

They were soon in the Land Rover and setting off up the drive with their precious cargo loaded in the trailer. Jess couldn’t wait to get him home now he was hers but she also was impatient to hear what further info her Mum had extracted from Paddy about her new steed’s background.

It turned out that Paddy and Lex had been firm friends since their childhood in Ireland. They’d both moved to England as young men and set up a small racing yard between them. They had both worked hard to make it into what was now Burningfold. Paddy had married, Bridie, a girl they’d grown up with and the three of them had run the yard together. Apparently, Bridie’s interest had been more in the young stable-hands than the horses. Well, them and the profits the yard was making, Paddy had told her.

Soon after they’d bought Finn, Paddy said he’d noticed a bit of a change in Lex’s attitude towards him. Couldn’t meet his eye and hung back in paying up his share of the horse. Paddy had questioned his old friend, but he couldn’t get any answers, then one day he just disappeared and hadn’t been seen or heard of since.
‘That was eight years since’, said Paddy, ‘ and never heard one word from him.’

Bridie had run off with one of the stable hands a year later but Paddy had neither been surprised nor sorry to see her go.

‘But didn’t he try to find Lex?’, asked Jess.
‘No’, replied her Mum. ‘You can see he’s a proud man. Not about to beg for friendship nor money.’
‘Well, he’s left Lex’ name on Finn’s Passport as ‘joint owner’, mused Jess, ‘so he can’t dislike him that much.’

Jess thought it very sad but was so delighted with Finn that she spent the next couple of months getting to know him and settling him in to his new home, not giving the mystery of his past life much thought, except when she sent her regular updates on his progress to Paddy at Burningfold.

At least, not until she was chatting to Rob, her regular Farrier, in an idle moment as he admired Finn and asked where she had found him. She told him the story of Paddy and Lex which seemed to hold his interest just as much as it held hers. He kept asking questions about it all as he shod Finn, quite reminding Jess of her Mum and her inquisitive nature.

‘Come on, Rob, just why are you so interested?’ she frowned, ‘Tell me. You’re worrying me a bit, is there something I should know?’
Rob laughed, ‘Well it may be nothing, but there’s a trainer called Lex who works out of my brother’s yard up in Hertford. He’s a bit of an enigma, I’ve only met him once or twice. Keeps his cards close to his chest and doesn’t speak about his past. Irish, he is. Maybe that’s how they are. Bit of a coincidence about his name, though.’

Jess was, by now, desperate to know more and instantly hitched a ride with Rob who was due to drive up and check the feet of his brother’s horses the following week. She could hardly contain herself during the journey, sure that she would, at last, find out more about her magnificent Finn.

When they arrived, Rob’s brother pointed out a man in the ménage schooling a jumpy looking thoroughbred with a young jockey on board.
Lex looked like a man completely engrossed in his work and didn’t acknowledge Jess as he walked out of the school at the end of the lesson.

Jess screwed up her courage and spoke, startling him out of his reverie.
‘Excuse me, but are you Lex? Sorry to startle you, but I think I may have just bought a horse you once owned.’

A frown crossed his brow, but she persevered and smiled up into eyes almost exactly the same shade of blue as Paddy’s.

After a few more minutes of conversation he’d relaxed a bit, she wasn’t her Mother’s daughter for nothing, and couldn’t contain his curiosity about Finn, the horse that Jess adored, as had Paddy, and clearly Lex, before her.

They chatted for an hour over hot cups of strong, sweet tea and Lex told her all about Finn, Paddy and Bridie.
The words tumbled out, almost as if he was happy to tell someone after all this time.
He confessed, that to his eternal shame, he’d been bewitched by Bridie. Couldn’t resist her emerald green eyes and titian hair. Once she’d chosen Paddy, he’d thought that was an end to it, but she’d never really cared for Paddy. Just for the money and her passport to an exciting new life in England.

Lex and Bridie had grown close and there was even talk of running away together. Lex very uncomfortable with the situation but unable to help himself. They had argued bitterly when Lex said he must, first, pay Paddy the half he owed for Finn, whatever happened.

She’d lost her temper and spat at him, ‘That he owed Paddy nothing as he’d been cheating him out of money for years!’

Lex hadn’t believed it but it had brought him to his senses.
‘I know Paddy like a brother,’ he said. ‘He’d no more cheat me than I would him.’ Realising the irony of his words he stopped abruptly, a deep flush rising from his neck and engulfing his face.
After a couple of minutes, and realising that Jess wasn’t there to judge him he continued with his tale.

He’d felt so much shame for betraying his oldest friend for this devious woman that he packed up and left, hoping never to set eyes on Bridie again and unable to face Paddy.

The blue eyes were luminous with barely held back tears as Lex told his story.
Eager for news of his old friend and sad he’d let this keep them apart for so long. Jess urged him to contact Paddy, telling him Bridie had left years ago, and judging from what her Mother had told her, Paddy was glad to see her go.

But Lex was stubborn, as proud as Paddy, and, as she left, she knew that this wouldn’t be happening anytime soon.

Jess felt a bit despondent when she arrived home and told her story to Ben, whilst they were feeding the horses and settling them for the night.
Ben laughingly said, ‘ Women were the root of all evil,’ but more seriously, advised her that now she had her story she should, ‘Leave well enough alone.’

 

When they were tucked up in bed that night with Ben snoring gently beside her, she decided it was time to send a further update on Finn to Paddy, with, maybe a little extra info attached. ‘
‘After all, it wasn’t actually interfering,’ she thought, ‘he could decide what he did with it’, and she drifted off to sleep.

It was a full six weeks before Jess received an email from Paddy. She held her breath as she clicked on ‘open’, wondering how he’d felt about her intervention. After all, she hardly knew the man.

She needn’t have worried, he was intrigued with what she had told him and had contacted Lex straight away.
It had taken a while with lots of explanations and recriminations but their old ties had been strong and now Lex was back in the yard with Paddy. After all, Burningfold was rightly fifty per cent his.

He had thanked her and sent his regards to her ‘delightful’ Mother. Maybe she’d keep that to herself, thought Jess.

A couple of weeks later a package arrived for Jess.
‘At last!’ She squealed as she ripped off the wrapping.
‘What is it?’ asked Ben, smiling, as he looked over his excited wife’s shoulder.
‘It’s Finn’s new nameplate, I re-registered him with the BHA,’ she grinned , holding it aloft like a trophy.
There it was, in shiny, new letters, ‘No Loose Ends’, with ‘Finn’ in brackets underneath.

THE HOSPITAL

Gill Briggs

 

James sat patiently in the bright, ostentatiously decorated waiting area and glanced apathetically at the myriad of TV screens which surrounded him, blurting out message after message which he did not wish to hear.

‘Have you measured you heart rate today?’

‘Watch your weight, so we don’t have to!’

‘Sugar is the root of all evil’

 

James cringed.  Don’t they even realise that sugar is a cane, not a root?  Not that anyone is taking any notice, it’s all just white noise, he thought to himself.

The room was crowded, each seat occupied by someone who looked exactly like himself; elderly on the outside, refurbished on the inside, trying to live a life they hadn’t planned for and had no idea what to do with. In an attempt to lift his gloomy mood, James turned to the man sitting next to him.

‘In for a tune-up?’ he asked politely.

‘Yes, just the usual – the data monitor threw up a caution message so I got an automatic review appointment.  How about you?’

‘The same’, James replied miserably. ‘Third time this month, but you know what they are like if you don’t turn up.’

‘Just covering their backs, basically,’ commented his neighbour. ‘They’re terrified we’ll sue them if they don’t act immediately on the data and something goes wrong. They just don’t seem to understand that some of us might have better things to do than sit here’.

Just as he finished talking, his wrist monitor flashed and he stood up.

‘That’s me’ he said, ‘maybe see you later’.

James settled back to wait for his call.  Unlike his new acquaintance, he didn’t have anything better to do; the best he could currently manage was to finish watching the tv crime drama which he could automatically play in his head, courtesy of the app in his wrist monitor. As the drama played out, he mentally noted that there was nothing new in the plot – one of the disadvantages of growing so old was that while technology advanced at an unrelenting pace, TV drama scripts didn’t.

Before long, James received his notification and made his way to the adjustment centre. Hospitals had changed dramatically in the first half of the 21st century, but one thing that hadn’t was the inevitable long walk down the clinical, uninviting corridor devoid of any colour or human interest. Of course he didn’t have to walk – the moving walkway would get him there eventually – but he was keen to get this over as soon as possible so he quickened his pace in defiance.  Full body sanitisation happened instantly as he passed through sets of automatic doors, giving him the distinct feeling of what it must be like for animals going into the abattoir, if that even happened these days now most of the population was vegetarian.

Somewhere along the interminable corridor he saw his hospital number flash up alongside a blue door. He stepped off the walkway and touched his thumb to the entry button, causing the door to open and let him in. Inside the room he stood in front of a bank of equipment and computers, with various leads or cables attached, some resembling innocent-looking tools he was familiar with – arm cuffs for testing blood pressure, headphones for him to interact with the monitors – others looking more like instruments of torture, exhibiting needles and syringes, or electrodes to attach to assorted parts of his head or body. The computer screens jumped into action as he moved around the room, linking to strategically placed microphones which issued instructions for him to follow. A pleasant, accentless, ageless, genderless voice coaxed him to relax, swallow the small vial of medication which was set out on the table in front of him, sit down for ten minutes and then attach himself to various items of equipment which would produce a specified set of data analysing the impact of the medicine on his bodily functions.  There was no escape; the door could not be opened until he had completed the tests.

James dutifully went through the motions. When the tests were completed a bottle of pills was dispensed automatically down a chute near the door and he was instructed to pick them up.  As he walked towards the door to leave, he was aware of a light flashing above a second door within the room, and he was asked to enter.

‘Ah James, good to see you’ said the man sitting in a chair opposite the door – a real human being, a doctor complete with white coat and something digital resembling a stethoscope around his neck.

‘Good afternoon, Dr Stewart’ replied James. ‘I wish I could say the same.’

The doctor shook his hand and smiled.

‘Rather unusual set of results again for you this time – I really don’t know what you get up to!  Every time you come in your levels are adjusted and despite your age, you should be good for another thirty or forty years at least! But not long after you’ve gone home we get a data report from your chip telling us everything’s gone awry again – I’m completely baffled. It doesn’t look good for me if I have to keep seeing you personally, you know – much though I like your company – the machines ought to make a better job of prescribing the right medicine and dosages these days, they have all the right algorithms.’

James sat quietly and listened to the doctor. ‘Perhaps the algorithm’s gone wonky?’ he suggested weakly.

‘Of course not’ said the doctor. ‘Not only can the machines assess your illnesses and resolve them, but they give themselves a good check over every day as well.’

After exchanging a few pleasantries and being told by the doctor to take better care of himself, James was allowed to leave the hospital. He made his way home slowly, stopping here and there at yet more banks of computers, ordering dinner at one to be delivered shortly after he would arrive home and at another to collect parcels from his safe lockers. He then made a detour to the crematorium and stood in quiet contemplation in front of the small plaque which bore the name of his wife Dorothy, just as he had almost every day for the last thirty years. Things had changed so much in that time, he thought; if only the treatments available today had been around then, maybe she would still be with him, and that would make his life worth living again.

‘They think they are doing me a favour, my love’ he told her, ‘but none of their fancy tests and medicines will help me live without you.’

He placed a pink rose in the small vase by the side of the plaque and turned for home.

Once there, he scanned himself through the front door, flopped down into the recliner with a sigh of relief and allowed himself to slip into a fitful nap. He woke an hour or so later when his wrist monitor alerted him to the food delivery at his door.  He unpacked it in the kitchen, tipping the unappetising contents into one bowl and returning to the living room to eat in front of the TV wall. Reaching into the armrest of the now-upright recliner, he pulled out a packet of salt and poured it liberally onto his dinner then ate the food as quickly as possible. He turned off the TV, with its depressing images of wars, environmental emergencies and space travel disasters, and feeling a little queasy, he took his empty plate into the kitchen and made himself a cup of tea, adding several spoonfuls of sugar. As he loaded his plate and cutlery onto the conveyor belt connected to the dishwasher, he felt in his pocket for the pills he had been given at the hospital and poured them down the sink.

‘That’ll confuse them’ he said out loud with a wry smile. ‘So they think I’m going to live to 140? Their algorithms might predict it, but they clearly don’t know how to deal with a bit of simple human interference.  See you before too long, Dorothy’.