The Sorceress and the Cursed Chide

There was once a powerful sorceress who cast her magical spells to the delight of her acolytes, not to mention those for whom she conjured gold from the air around her. The sorceress then turned her attention to other matters important to her and cast other spells over these. But not everyone was as enamoured with these spells as they had been with her earlier ones. Some said she was a misanthrope who should no longer be casting spells, especially ones they did not agree with. Her new spells, they said, were designed to hurt and harm others, and were spreading hate. (They said this because they didn’t know hate was a verb and not a noun.) They responded to the sorceress with incantations of their own: a Cancelorium Censorium curse that would see her immediately silenced and eventually withered away to nothing. They wished fulsomely for her to be banned from ever casting spells again. The sorceress said she did not intend harm to anyone but needed to preserve something of the old magic she believed in.

Some of her detractors then appealed to the self-appointed Ministry of Freedom and Truth (MOFT) who took up the case, protesting to Professors Bloomsbury and T. Witter, asking them to shut down the sorceress’ means of casting her spells. But these professors, especially Bloomsbury, were among those for whom the sorceress had created much gold from nothing and they were loathe to cancel her. So they did not.

The Ministry then appealed to the Council of Wizards to write new rules that would, in the twinkling of an eye, render the sorceress’ spells ‘black art’ and so forbid them from ever being uttered again, anywhere, on pain of imprisonment in Azerbaijan or even the deathly gallows themselves. But the Ministry had forgotten that the last time the Council had been given the power to regulate what others could say it had introduced the infamous Incantation 28 that had prevented anyone from even mentioning that left-handed witches and wizards existed. It was not wise to consider embarking on such a road again. Fortunately, the Council was preoccupied with magicking away a pestilence that was stalking the land and had no time for quarrelsome spats between well meaning, but offended defenders of Freedom and Truth and controversial conjurors.

So the sorceress continued to cast her spells, while others continued to object to her doing so. Still others helped her create even more gold by buying her latest books about a striking shambling eccentric who was just the same as the striking shambling eccentric in her earlier books of wizardry and witchcraft. There was also a volume about an anthropomorphised farm animal that did rather well too, though some deemed it hateful to those who held such animals in low regard. Little wonder the sorceress shrugged her shoulders and set to creating another spell that, she had no doubt, would offend someone somewhere.

 

Enough frivolity. Where do I stand on these matters? As a trustee of an LGBT+  organisation, I am actively involved in the support of trans as well as gay, lesbian and questioning people. While I don’t necessarily agree with J. K. Rowling’s views on trans issues that she expresses on Twitter, I do believe she has the right to express them.

As part of a minority that has frequently been subject to censorship in the past, I cannot endorse the silencing of dissenting voices. Once we start to do that it becomes only a matter of time before it’s our turn again. If we want to be critical of religion and those who practise it, if we want to comment on politics, and challenge those who do indeed espouse hatred; if we want to have a view on anything at all, we have to accept that others have the same right to express their opinions on matters that are dear to us.

Christmases With Grandad: Christmas Past (1960)

Part three of a three-part Christmas story written for BBC Radio Cumbria.

It was still really dark when I woke up. Really dark. Very, very quiet too. I knew it must still be the middle of the night but I couldn’t see my clock. Even if I could have done I might not have known what time it was because I was only just learning how to do that. I didn’t know if Father Christmas had been. I wriggled my feet down to the end of my bed where it was really, really cold, to see if I could hear any paper rustling down there. I wasn’t very sure I could. I was a bit worried then. If Father Christmas hadn’t been yet, he might not come at all if I stayed awake. I closed my eyes to try and get to sleep again but I couldn’t.

I thought maybe it’d be a good idea to sing one of the songs I’d learnt at school. We’d done a nice concert about a baby being born for our mummies and daddies and we’d learnt some songs for it. I’d had a piece of paper to read too. It said Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to have a baby, but as I couldn’t really read I just remembered what it said. Then we had sung Little Donkey. So I sang some of that in my head and then O Little Town of Bethlehem because we sang that too, but I could only remember the first bit so I did that two times.

When I finished singing in my head it was still dark, and still quiet and cold. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I decided I’d switch my light on. I got out of bed as quietly as I could, tiptoed across the cold lino and reached up to the switch. That’s when I saw that Father Christmas had been after all! There were my presents at the end of the bed. I pulled the red crinkly paper off the first one. It was the train engine I wanted! And the next one was some railway line. I got the rails out of the box and tried to fit them together but it was hard. I must’ve made too much noise because the next thing I knew was my mummy and daddy came in to my room. My mummy sat on the edge of my bed wrapped up in her eiderdown because there was ice on the inside of the window and she was very shivery. She said, ‘Neil, it is still only half past five. It’s far too early,’ but she didn’t mean it because she didn’t make me go back to bed. My dad fitted the railway line together into a big circle and we wound up the little engine and watched it go round and round the track. I knew then it was going to be a lovely Christmas.

A lovely Christmas to both my readers.

Go easy on the wobbly juice.

A Christmas Murder Mystery

I do love reading a good whodunit at Christmas time.

Here’s one I discovered recently, called 

And One For The Dame

by Agnetha Crispin

Obscured by the large Christmas tree in the drawing room, Miss Palmer put down her knitting and listened intently to the conversation going on in the hallway outside. 

Listen Lucinda,’ a ridiculously plummy male voice said, ‘if that old bird keeps asking questions she’s going to rumble us, don’t you know.‘

Oh Rupert, darling, don’t be silly. She’s completely ga-ga. In any case, she’s not interested in us. She thinks she’s here to find out how dear old uncle Bertie died. All she’s really succeeding in doing is getting under the inspector’s feet. He told me so himself.’

Oh, Luce,’ Rupert Hayes-Hickson whispered softly. ‘You really are a first-rate sort of chap.’ The two of them drifted down the hallway and out of earshot. Miss Palmer resumed her knitting. She resolved to catch up with Inspector Petherbridge… or was it Carmichael? – these token policemen really were interchangeable – at the earliest opportunity. Ga-ga indeed!

* * * * * *

So you see, inspector,’ she said, ‘It’s becoming so much clearer who poisoned Bertie. When you think how like Colonel Arbuthnot he was…’

Colonel Arbuthnot?’ the inspector said with requisite weariness, ‘Who is Colonel Arbuthnot?’

Oh dearie me, yes,’ murmured Miss Palmer absently, as she purled another stitch. ‘Such a difficult man, you know.’

Colonel Arbuthnot or Bertie Mallowan?’ asked the inspector, irked with himself for showing interest in the old lady’s seemingly inconsequential remarks.

Arbuthnot, of course,’ she replied with gentle disapproval. ‘He moved into the old manor house in my quintessentially English village, St Mary-Westmacott. Dear me, no; Colonel Arbuthnot was not loved at all. It came as no surprise when my friend Dotty Lumley discovered him dead in his study with multiple gunshot wounds. Goodness me, the blood!’ she exclaimed. ‘That one took some sorting out, I can tell you.’

Miss Palmer, I really don’t see…’

Come closer, inspector,’ she said. The inspector reluctantly drew his chair up to hers. ‘It’s most suggestive, you see,’ she continued. ‘Yes, most suggestive.’ She turned towards the inspector, ‘So I really would prefer it if you did not address me as Anna.’

I don’t recall…’ began the inspector.

You know, it isn’t quite the thing to call respectable elderly spinsters by their Christian names, inspector. It is also as I say, much too suggestive. It all but announces how like an anagram my name is.’ She leant into him conspiratorially, ‘You do take my point, don’t you?’

The inspector’s eyes glazed over. He gurgled as the blood forced its way up his throat and into his mouth. ‘Yes, much too suggestive,’ repeated the old lady, withdrawing the knitting needle from between his ribs and wiping it on his pristine breast-pocket handkerchief.

Gathering up her wool, Miss Palmer glided surreptitiously from the room. There would have to be at least two more grisly murders – quite possibly Lucinda and Rupert’s – before she would reveal how poor old Uncle Bertie had met his end.

 

Food For Thought

The late Patricia Highsmith’s diaries were published recently. Highsmith is the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train among many others. She wrote a mean short story too – mean in every sense of the word – some of which I read a while back. The following is a spoof of the kind of thing she came up with.  

Vernon had read somewhere about how ancient Aztecs – or perhaps it was Mayans – would eat the hearts of brave enemies so that they might absorb their courage. He was sure too he’d read something about how, on the same principle, consuming the flesh of intelligent creatures endowed the consumer with whatever intelligence the creatures had originally possessed. He read some strange things, he knew, but had become fully convinced that in principle these facts must be true. As he was, he felt, averse to cannibalism, he researched what would be the most intelligent animals one might reasonably devour. He supposed that dolphins and chimpanzees were off limits – though hadn’t he read of an African tribe that considered chimpanzee a delicacy? – and discovered an article that suggested intelligent life had evolved twice-over. Next to humans, it said, cephalopods were considered to have the greatest intelligence. Apparently the octopus brain was diffused throughout its body and therefore to eat it did not entail ingesting lumps of grey matter. Rather, it could be taken into the body in a soup or stew made from the entire organism.

The next set-back, he was disappointed to discover, was that octopus soup was not readily available in any of the stores near to where he lived. However, after further enquiry, he was pleased to learn that a Japanese restaurant in the next town specialised in such a dish. Accordingly, he determined to travel there on a daily basis, Sundays not included, to take his evening meal. He was surprised, though pleasantly so, to discover that octopus soup had a certain piquancy to it, reminiscent of a crab paste he had once tasted. He found it eminently palatable and for the next sixteen days, Sundays not included, partook of cephalopod consommé.

He would have continued with his regime for longer if not for a peculiar development. While his intelligence and capacity for deep thought had, he was pleased to say, improved considerably as a result of his new diet, he discovered on rising on the seventeenth day, that unsightly red blotches had appeared all along his arms. He was further dismayed, on swinging his legs from the bed, to see that the same marks ran from ankle to thigh.

Doctor Highsmith was at a loss to explain them. ‘Probably a virus of some sort,’ she said vaguely, washing her hands after what Vernon considered to be a perfunctory examination.’Or an allergic reaction to something. If I didn’t know better, I might even say you’d contracted plague – ring-a-roses and all that,’ she joked; impertinently Vernon thought. He wondered if his new diet could have played a part in his condition, but considered it best not to mention it to the doctor. He had, he knew, already surpassed her level of intelligence and did not therefore expect her to understand.

He was further alarmed two days later, however, when the red blotches had assumed a more three-dimensional appearance. They looked now rather like miniature, red-rimmed volcanic craters. He counted sixty-four in total, a neat multiple of eight. They were not painful but had blossomed so that his normal pasty flesh tones were all but obliterated with zig-zagged rows of the little craters. They somehow looked familiar and so he returned to his Encyclopaedia Animalia and the pages relating to cephalopods. Yes, that was what it was; the craters were like the suction cups on the arms of the creatures. He was not unduly alarmed; it was perhaps only to be expected after consuming so many of them and he was sure the symptoms would pass. His confidence was shaken a little though, when he caught himself adding an excess of salt to his food. It was rocked when he noticed that when passing water he was instead emitting a blue-black substance, indistinguishable from the ink secreted by octopuses themselves.

He was on the point of dialling Doctor Highsmith again when he was struck with a stabbing pain in his right arm. He rolled up his shirt sleeve to discover the entire limb had now a deep gash of glistening crimson, running its entire length between the rows of suction cups. Each side of this channel appeared to be on the verge of parting company with the other. His left arm was the same. He dared not look at his legs. He took up the telephone again but was shocked to discover that his lips had hardened around his mouth to the point of being beak-like. He was simultaneously overtaken by an urgent and compulsive need to visit the coast.

He drove to the sea – he knew not how – and abandoning his vehicle, tore off this clothes with what remained of his hands. He ran, gulping for air, to the cliff top. Launching himself from its prominence he entered the water, eight limbs trailing behind a now bulbous body, and disappeared beneath the surface.

 

Scourge

He came from out of nowhere. Myalgic was his name, but he was more commonly known as The Scourge . He was dressed in an impenetrable armour, shining shades of metallic blue and purple, like a beetle’s carapace. He towered over me and despite my own superhuman powers, overpowered me with one blow from the back of his axe. The first wave of unbearable pain swept over me as, in that same instant, my arms, from shoulder to finger ends, became as iron, rendered immoveable, while the muscles of my back twisted into knots of corroded steel. My legs likewise were seared, down to my toes of shattered bone, inside my own inadequate armour. I was being broken from the inside out; every part of my body succumbing to an agony unlike any I have never known.

And then he moved on, leaving me there, smashed into innumerable agonised pieces, defeated.

That was years ago. The pain has not left me. Yes, I have days when it abates, but always it returns with vengeful severity. I cannot, will not, allow it to prevent me from living as fully as I might – of course not – but my days of using my abilities to serve others are gone, ending the day Myalgic The Scourge descended and conquered the world; my world.

The Traveller

Ever wish you could go back and start again?

Irving woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up with pillows behind him. There were two figures at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t tell who they were; he didn’t recognise either of them. He realised, furthermore, that he’d no idea where he was. This was not his own bed, certainly not his own room. There was an oxygen cylinder beside him and an intravenous pole on his other side, a tube from which was attached to his arm, delivering some colourless liquid into it. And what an arm! Not his own. He raised both: skin and bone, fingers like arthritic spindles. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was 49, for God’s sake!

‘Dad?’ one of the figures said. ‘Are you okay?’

‘Dad?’ Irving repeated with a weak, quaking voice that was also not his own. ‘I’m not your dad. I don’t even know who you are.’

‘It’s me, dad. Mark.’

Mark was his son’s name all right, but Mark was only 24, not like this imposter who was himself in his forties. ‘No,’ Irving growled, tugging at the tube attached to the valve in his arm, and wincing at every painful movement.

‘Grandad, best not,’ said the second stranger, reaching towards him.

Grandad? What were these two up to? His grandson, his daughter Emma’s boy, was only just turned 3. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ he growled, ‘but I’m not your grandad.’

The pair exchanged glances. Irving ignored them, hoping they’d grow tired of their game and go away and bother someone else. Instead he took in the room around him. With a jolt he realised where he was. This was the hospice, where his own father had spent his final days a few years earlier. Suddenly, something about this made sense; he was here for his own last days, his mind was failing him. Perhaps it had already; the last 30 years wiped from his memory. In that case, the strangers might be who they claimed to be. Though it was still hard to believe that this bearded giant was the little blond boy he looked after at weekends.

‘Davey?’ he asked cautiously.

‘Yes, grandad. It’s me.’ He seemed pleased to have been recognised.

‘Where… ‘ Irving began. ‘Where’s your mother?’

Davey looked at his uncle again, unsure of how to respond. ‘He doesn’t remember,’ he said.

It was true: Irving didn’t remember, but he was sufficiently aware that something bad must have happened. He felt the room turn and his consciousness begin to drift. He gave into it and allowed himself to slip into the dark.

When he woke again, there was someone else in the room. ‘It will be tonight,’ they were saying. ‘If you like, we could increase the dose a little, make it easier for him.’

‘No,’ Irving shouted, ‘Not yet. I don’t belong here. I want to leave,’ but the sound that came from his mouth sounded nothing like the words in his head. They were more like a series of desperate groans, and before he lost consciousness for the last time, he heard his son say that it would be for the best.

* * * * *

Irving reasoned that he, like everyone else, was a time traveller. Everyone was travelling into an unknown future at the rate of one second per second. The direction of travel was always forward, or at least it appeared to be. There was no-one who travelled in the opposite direction, from present to past, not even at the same stealthy pace. Irving, however, had begun to entertain the possibility that it need not be so. If travel was possible in one direction, into a future that until it was reached had no actual existence, then movement back into a past that had demonstrably existed up to only a second earlier seemed more than a viable proposition. A visit to a known destination was much more of a sure thing than a mystery tour to somewhere that as yet had no didn’t exist. He spent many hours calculating how to reverse the direction of travel at a mere second at a time. He was not over ambitious. He did not seek to move in millennia or even decades like the time travellers of science fiction; he knew, from the everyday journeys of everyday people, like himself, that it was best to take things slowly; to work first with seconds and to build slowly and gradually to hours and then days.

The work progressed satisfactorily until matters came to a head with a greater sense of urgency the day after the department’s mid-summer party. He had not intended to drink quite so much, but after the award of a generous grant as a result of a successful research bid, everyone was in celebratory mood. The alcohol flowed more freely than was usual at these events. He eventually took a taxi home and after a pint or so of water, turned in.

It was the following morning that he hit the child. He just hadn’t seen her coming, darting out from between parked cars. Irving’s reflexes were slower than he anticipated; the result of the previous night’s alcohol consumption, and despite the fact that every aspect of the collision, every movement of the child’s body, jerking mid-air like a lifeless marionette, took place over several elongated seconds. Eventually she landed with a cracking thump on the side of the road while Irving sat motionless behind the wheel. He knew then, as time began to resume its normal flow that he would take advantage of its distortion and press backwards through it, leaving behind the accident one second at a time into the immediate past and beyond, to a time before he had hit the girl. On arrival at a time when the strands of time that had led to this point had unravelled, he would relive the last few hours so that they did not result in a dead child at the side of the road. He would not take the fateful car journey and the girl would live again. These thoughts were instantaneous; he was already moving, letting time peel away, first in slow seconds and then accelerating so that he felt himself moving rapidly. He began to lose consciousness, trusting in time itself and in his own calculations to propel him safely to a new beginning.

* * * * *

He woke suddenly. His first instinct was to sit up but he found he was already propped up by pillows behind him. There were, he could make out, two figures at the foot of the bed in which he found himself.