Lady Aethelflaed in Paddington

LadyAethelflaedInPaddington

(Maciek M [CC / Flickr])

I saw Aethelflaed in Paddington Station.

I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t like that time I thought the red-haired woman in the Starbucks queue was Guinevere. That was silly, Guinevere’s just a story. Never really existed.

Now Aethelflaed on the other hand, she definitely lived. And I saw her getting off the train from Worcester, which was the capital of Mercia in her time. That proves it, doesn’t it?

No, of course she wasn’t a ghost. There’s no such thing as ghosts. She’s a spirit anchored to a place and Aethelflaed’s place was half of England when you add Wessex and Mercia together. She must have been delighted when trains were invented. Imagine a thousand years with nothing faster than a horse-drawn carriage to get around in.

Don’t roll your eyes. This isn’t like the time I asked that woman sunbathing in Hyde Park if she was Queen Mab. I was thinking about something else and when I saw that long red hair of hers… well, I apologised and she was very gracious about it.

I’m talking about Aethelflaed. She was wearing this purple dress that set off her pale skin. Couldn’t have looked more regal if she’d been wearing her torque. And did I mention her flaming red hair?

No one else noticed her. That was the clincher. No one who had actually seen her could have thought for a moment that she was just one more woman getting off a train, but they were all bustling past her like she wasn’t there. Spirits are like that. They see us all the time, but it’s only once in a while that one of us is lucky enough to see them.

If she was looking for someone who keeps our heritage in our hearts, she’d found him. I waited for her to come through the gates and got down on one knee before her. My lady of Mercia, I said to her, your servant.

She stopped and her blue eyes widened. Not a lot of people who have heard of her, and most who have think she must have been a queen given that she effectively ruled Mercia and Wessex.

She looked amazed to be addressed by her proper title, but she didn’t say anything. She stayed as composed as any true queen ever could. I told her I was hers to command in case she was so used to not being seen that she wasn’t sure what I was getting at.

I meant it, too. There was a bunch of blonde teenagers looking Scandinavian by the Café Nero kiosk and at one word from her, I’d have put and end to their Viking and driven them back across the Watling where they belong. I know we can’t be sure where exactly the Watling was, but I’m sure it was east of Paddington Station.

She didn’t looked like she’d noticed them. Her attention was all on me.

She took a couple of steps back, which made me very conscious of what I don’t know about Saxon etiquette. I was probably too close for a commoner. She’s the daughter of King Alfred the Great himself after all, and blood doesn’t get any more royal than that.

I said I was hers unto death, in case she still hadn’t got my point.

She didn’t say a word. Just turned around and strode into the Lush shop with her long red hair dancing over her shoulders. I guess the novelty of bath bombs might take another century or two to wear off.

I could see I’d failed to convince her of my fealty. Perhaps she expects full prostration from a true servant. All I can do is spend every spare moment in Paddington Station until I see her again and when I do, I’ll fall on my face in front of her. I hope that will get a different reaction from her.

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Green in my Desert

GreenInMyDesert

(Michael Gwyther-Jones [CC / Flickr])

I lay where I fell on the desert sands until the figure shimmered out of the ochre dust. Its hazy outline resolved into limbs, a torso and a head that were the green of seedlings given life by rain.

“What’s your name?” My dry mouth reduced my voice to a croak.

The figure did neither slowed not turned in my direction. “You know my name.”

I touched my forehead to the sand at the truth of its words.

“Have you come for me?” I asked.

I dragged myself forward to intercept the figure, but it passed me before I could crawl into its path. Its shadow brushed over my hands, bringing them a moment of blessed cool that I might have imagined.

It spoke to me without looking over its shoulder. “If you know my name, you know I come for no one who waits for me.”

The truth of its words only hit me when it was no more than a shimmer of green in the dust. I hauled myself upright and forced one foot in front of the other. Trudging after it was so much harder than simply lying down and awaiting my fate, but I dared not lose sight of it because I would become one with the desert without ever seeing the colour green again.

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Arctic Adagio sets sail

Arctic Adagio coverHow do you catch a murderer when your suspects own the law?

Superintendent Rex Harme’s job is to protect the super-rich from pirates and anarchists. It’s not his job to investigate them. If they cared to be investigated, they wouldn’t be living on a luxury cruise ship that accepts no national jurisdiction

But when one of the super-rich is thrown into the Arctic Ocean, Harme will need to remember the detective he used to be because someone is going to pay for that murder.

Whether or not it’s the right person depends on whether Harme can beat the clock he isn’t supposed to know is ticking.

If any or all of that catches your attention, you might like to see whether Harme can beat that clock or not in my latest novelette, Arctic Adagio which is available as an ebook from Amazon.

There’s a preview and some author notes on this site, and it’s open to messages of love and hate on Goodreads.

With many thanks to Melanie Nelson of Annorlunda Books for taking it on and sending it out in the world, and to Nerine Dorman whose editing saved me from showing my embarrassing mistakes in public and also for designing the cover.

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Actaeon’s Landlady

ActaeonsLandlady

O banho de Diana by François Clouet (1560) (Sailko [Wikimedia Commons])

Brian had been lodging with Diana for three weeks when he walked in on her posing in the nude. Her back was to him when he walked into the living room, so his first instinct was to try to slip out before she noticed him but his body insisted on standing frozen to the spot until she spun around.

“Brian,” she said.

Brian locked his eyes to hers, which absorbed so much of his effort that he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“What are you doing home?” asked Diana. “I thought you were at work.”

“I am. I was. I mean… I left early today. Finished a report, sent it to my boss and, um, you’re not really interested in a report on quarterly sales of printer ink, are you?”

Diana looked down, breaking their eye contact. “I’m sorry. You weren’t to know. I guess I haven’t got used to not living on my own and I shouldn’t be using shared space for… this.”

Diana waved a hand that pulled Brian’s gaze down the length of her body with an irresistible force, collapsing three weeks of resolute failure to notice how attractive his landlady was. It was going to take Brian three months of reminding himself why it was a bad idea to fancy his landlady to make up the lost ground.

“I really am sorry. I’ll go and put something on.”

“Erm.”

Diana walked toward the door Brian was standing in front of without trying to cover herself. She was more contrite about being caught posing in the living room than bothered about Brian seeing her naked.

He scuttled sideways to avoid her having to brush past him.

A clatter of paws on floorboards announced that Diana’s Alsatian, Herne, had woken up and was galloping down the hallway. He must have been mortified at having slept through Brian coming into the house because he delivered his tail-wagging, tongue-lolling welcome with twice his usual enthusiasm.

“He’s really taken to you,” Diana said over her shoulder.

Which made it impossible for Brian not to watch her mounting the first step toward her bedroom.

Brian let out his breath and put a hand on Herne’s head. “She’s not making this easy, is she?”

Herne jumped up so his paws reached Brian’s rib cage. Brian held him under his doggy armpits for a moment, placing them almost nose to nose. “What was all that about anyway?”

Brian let Herne slide to the floor. He noticed Diana’s tablet propped up so the webcam faced where she’d been standing. The last image she’d taken pouted at him from the screen.

“Definitely not easy.” Brian crossed the room to it and closed the webcam app. “There’s only so much full frontal a man can take.”

Herne nuzzled his leg.

A bank statement had appeared on the screen. Diana must have had it open before she opened the webcam. Brian’s gaze went straight to the figure of £5,876 in bold red type.

“Ouch.” Brian stroked Herne’s back. “That’s not good. No wonder she took on a lodger.”

The two apps told the story of Diana’s anxiety over her finances driving her to try taking nude pictures to sell. “Not good at all.”

“What are you doing?”

Brian spun around to see Diana in a bathrobe, glaring at him. It occurred to him that they were each standing exactly where the other had stood when he’d walked in on her.

“I…”

“Are you looking at my bank statement? That’s private.”

“I didn’t mean -”

“Are you snooping on my tablet? What kind of pervert are you?”

Herne picked up on the change of mood and bounded across the room to stand beside Diana.

“How dare you invade my personal… to think I was about to apologise to you!”

Brian tried to adopt a placatory tone. “You’ve already apologised.”

Which weren’t the placatory words he was groping for.

He opened his mouth to try again but a growl from Herne cut him off.

“Get out,” said Diana.

Herne stalked toward Brian, ears back and teeth bared.

“Good boy,” said Diana.

Brain sidestepped to put his back to the wall. He sidled toward the door, keeping his eyes on Herne. Herne growled again, making Brian very aware that Herne’s very sharp teeth were level with his crotch.

Brian made it to the living room door and bolted down the hallway to the front door.

“Go on, Herne, get him,” said Diana.

Brian already had his hand on the latch when he heard Herne clattering across the floorboards toward him. He yanked the door open, shot through and slammed it shut. Herne thudded into it behind him.

“And don’t come back,” Diana shouted through the letterbox. “Pervert!”

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Diminuendo in Three Letters

Constellatory Tales Issue 3I thrill to music I’ve never heard before.

That’s the beginning of this week’s hooptedoodle. The rest of it is over on the website of Constellatory Tales, who have published Diminuendo in Three letters in full.

Many thanks are due to Brian Hirt for accepting and editing it, and I have the honour of sharing space in Issue 3 with three other stories by very accomplished authors:

Parsley, Pennyroyal, Paracetamol by JL George

Under the Hat by Forrest Brazeal

Roads That Ain’t by Buzz Dixon

Have a look and enjoy them all!

If you’re interested in the thinking behind Diminuendo in Three Letters, I’ve left some author notes lying around.

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Tough Old Game

ToughOldGame

(marcokalmann [CC / Flickr])

Meeting a writers’ group was always like sticking her hand in a lucky dip. The commissioning editor never knew what to expect. She cast her eye around the table of earnest faces of which only a couple looked over thirty and decided this lot would need to hear the facts of life.

“Writing’s a tough old game. I wish everyone who submits to us would understand that up front.”

She paused to see how that had landed. Most were drinking it in wide eyes so wide that she wondered if she’s be asked to sign an autograph. One of them was scribbling notes with his head down. She watched his mouth form the words, tough old game.

No point in pulling punches with this lot. “I meet groups like yours because I think it helps you to know what to expect. As we’re one of the last imprints left who take submissions from writers who don’t have agents, we often find we’re the first to explain how tough it is to…”

She broke off at the ripple of movement precipitated by her mentioning that her publishing house didn’t need an agent. Everyone was sitting up a little straighter, which meant she’d just provoked a dozen submissions over the next week. She suppressed a sigh. “To writers like you.”

Time to double down. “I’m not going to sugar coat this. We publish a fraction of a percent of the subs we receive. You’re likely to spend years writing your first novel and even then, it won’t be any good unless you get as much feedback as you can. That means proper critique, not encouragement from your mum or your best friend. It means getting your heart broken and then rewriting it all over again half a dozen times.

“When you’ve done all that, the odds against getting it published are still stacked against you and even if you do get into print, that novel won’t make you enough money to give up your day job while you do it all over again with the next one. I’m afraid that’s what being a novelist means today.”

The writer who raised her hand looked like she had the widest eyes of the lot. Or perhaps it was her spectacles. The editor nodded to her.

“Is there anything we can do to improve our chances?” she asked.

“Yes, there is. Write a really good book. So good I can’t put it down.” She smiled with the sympathy of the doctor saying that no, the test results aren’t what we hoped for but don’t despair, you could have as much as a year left. “All right, the truth is that your brilliant novel will still come to us in the middle of a pile of slush so we can’t promise we’ll see the wheat for the chaff even if the wheat is solid gold.

“That’s why I’d always look for ways to make personal connections with whoever you’re sending your novel to. Writers’ festivals are good. Take a few days off work for a long weekend. There are courses and retreats that are good for making contacts as well.”

The writer with the glasses raised her hand again. Poor girl, thought the editor as she nodded. She looked like she’d spent her schooldays happy to be called the class swot as long as she was at the top of that class, and spent the years since trying to claim that position in the wider world.

“Festivals, courses and retreats,” said the girl, “these things aren’t cheap, are they?”

“Oh, most of them are only a few hundred pounds. Or a thousand or two for some of the better courses.” The editor couldn’t imagine this girl turning out anything worth reading past the first page, but it cost nothing to be kind. “I’m not here to pretend any of this is easy.”

A glance around the table told her that everyone around it was still giving her their full attention. The note-taker was mouthing, not here to pretend it’s easy, while his pen flew across his moleskin.

“What sort of thing are you looking for,” asked the girl whom the editor knew she’d always think of as the class swot.

“I’ll start by telling you what we don’t want. No more stories of twenty-somethings living with their parents in Hampstead, going on disappointing Tinder dates while trying to decide what to do with their lives. No more novels of stalking the wrong boy or girl across the campus in between tutorials on Camus or Colette. Our slush is full of quarter-life crises and middle-class angst already, and one more of them isn’t going to stand out.”

She threw another look around the table. Several of the writers looked down to avoid her gaze. The class swot was going red. The editor wondered if she’d taken the measure of this group a little too well.

“In fairness, those stories do reflect most of the people who write novels that end up in our slush.” It didn’t hurt to pull the occasional punch, and this group deserved some sincerity after she’d landed a blow like that. “I must admit to being both of those characters myself. But what we need is something more… real. You know, I can never understand why we never get any working class writers submitting to us.”

It was a thought that often occurred to the editor when she contemplated the slush. She stopped to give it yet another moment’s thought that brought no answers.

The note-taker was mouthing the words, ‘working class writers’.

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Voice on the London Underground

VoiceOnTheLondonUnderground

Chris Brown (CC / Flickr)

You walk home from the station? Twenty five minutes? That’s…wow. Well, I used to do that sort of thing. Of course. Didn’t used to be so, well, like this. Used to go to the gym every day. Well, maybe a couple times a week.  Would’ve been more but work…you know. Then I got sick. Don’t know what it was. Is. Doctor did a lot of tests but nothing came up. Tested everything but HIV. Said that was the one thing left to test. I said…whew…ha ha…not going there. Still tired. Sick a lot. Don’t know what it is.

Went back home last year. Had a great time. Really great time, you know? Yeah, I see you know. Met a few guys who went back. Not doing well, most of them. They just thought they’d go back and make millions. You can’t do that. Got to have a plan. Me, I’m doing fine here and I’ll stay here until I work something out. Got to have a plan in life.

Just wish I wasn’t so tired.

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The Bailiffs’ Bet

TheBailiffsBet

(Alex Pepperhill [CC / Flickr])

ete gave the cottage a once over while Gerry parked the car. It looked like the last man to paint it had been paid in shillings and the front garden was halfway to being a jungle, but at least the windows weren’t broken.

“Bet you a fiver he’s not in,” he said as Gerry pulled up the handbrake.

“Seriously? You’re on.”

“Yeah, seriously. He knows the bailiffs are coming so he’s not going to be waiting around for us, is he?”

Gerry laughed. “You’re still new to this.”

“What..?”

But Gerry was already out of the car.

Pete scrambled after him and caught up as he reached the rusty gate that was hanging off its hinges. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean he knows the bailiffs are coming this week. He doesn’t know when. He owes sixty grand, he’s declared bankrupt and all he’s got is a run down cottage on the edge of a village that don’t even have a pub. Where’s he going to go?”

“Hold up.” Pete had been following Gerry to the front door, but a rose bush that had grown across the garden path snagged his jacket.

Gerry turned and waited while he freed himself. “And he’s fifty-eight years old with a bad back that’s keeping him out of work and by the looks of it, bad enough that he can’t even keep a little garden under control.”

“Oh.” Pete stepped back from the bush. “Right.”

Gerry led him the last couple of steps to the crumbling cement of the doorstep and pressed the doorbell.

“Sixty grand,” said Pete. “How does a man who lives in a dump like this work up a sixty grand debt?”

Gerry shrugged. “C’mon, you’re not that new. You know how it works. You do your back in, you lose your job so you stick your head in the sand when the council tax bill comes in. Then there’s another, and another. Before you know it, you’re three years behind plus interest and the council calls in a firm like ours. Then you owe the fees that pay our salaries, and one day you fall out of bed and realise you owe more than you ever owned in your life.”

“I guess.” Pete looked down. “Don’t seem right.”

“in that case, my friend, you’re in the wrong job.” Gerry pressed the doorbell again. “You hear anything?”

“No.”

“Must be broken.” Gerry rapped his knuckles on the flaking blue paint of the door.

The door swung open.

“That’s weird,” said Pete.

“Looks like we’ve been invited in.” Gerry stepped through the door.

“Can we do that?” Pete hesitated but followed. “It don’t half stink in here. Must be a dead rat or something.”

“Doubt it.”

The front door opened into a small hallway with the kitchen on the left, a door that would open to the living room on the right and a staircase at the end. Gerry opened the living room door but didn’t go in.

Pete ambled into the kitchen. A saucepan and a couple of bowls were piled into the sink, looking like they’d been left there for long enough that the water had drained past the plug. A row of opened baked bean tins stood on the counter, empty but for a green fur of mould growing on the tomato sauce that had pooled in the bottom of each can.

“That’s rank,” said Pete, but Gerry wasn’t there when he looked round.

“Up here.” Gerry’s voice came from above.

Pete jogged up the stairs to find him standing outside an open door.

It was the overturned chair that struck Pete first. It was a cheap wooden thing, sold by the set for twenty quid in any second hand furniture shop. The same cut as the set his gran had round her dining table. A chair like that belonged with a table. It made no sense that it was lying on its side in the middle of a bedroom.

The polished shoes hovering over it made even less sense. Not until Pete allowed his gaze to travel upward, past the black trousers and dinner jacket, the black tie, the high collar of the white shirt to the sunken grey cheeks topped with grey hair. It wasn’t the face of a fifty-eight-year-old man. It was a face old beyond measure.

Pete’s gaze continued upward, following a foot of rope to the hook driven into a roof beam. The shining brass looked as out of place as the chair: it was the only new thing Pete had seen in the cottage.

“Bet that’s his only decent suit,” said Gerry.

Pete reached into his pocket and handed a five-pound note to Gerry.

“For Christ’s sake,” said Gerry, “we can do that later.”

“No,” said Pete. “We can’t. I’m never gonna owe anything to anyone again.”

 

It was the tragic stories related here that got me thinking of Pete and Gerry.

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Mueller Blues with Rosé

MuellerBluesWithRosé

(Rori DuBoff [CC / Flickr])

Ethan sat next to Caitlyn on the sofa and filled her glass with her favourite rosé. “Tell all.”

“His profile pic looked kinda hot.” Caitlyn touched her glass to Ethan’s. “But…”

“Sounds like he ticked the most important box, but that sounds like a big but.”

“Yeah.” Caitlyn drank half her glass. “He was a Trump supporter.”

“Oooohhh. Bad,” said Ethan. “Unless… was he, like, really hot?”

Caitlyn gave him the look.

Ethan held up his hands. “I’m your gay best friend. It’s my job to be shallow sometimes.”

“Huh. Well, we got on to the Mueller Report. I know, I know, politics on the first date. But who isn’t talking about it right now?”

“Sure.” Ethan topped up their glasses. “But even I need a load of this if we’re going to talk about it.”

“So I was saying how it showed the Russians totally wanted Trump in the White House and everyone who voted for him was basically working for Putin agent and he was all, I voted for Trump ’cause Kilary’s a crook, MAGA, MAGA, emails, Benghazi, I ain’t no Russian agent.”

“Awkward.”

“Yeah, awkward. Stop grinning.”

“Sorry.” Ethan didn’t stop grinning.

“I was trying to tell him it’s there. In black and white. He just didn’t get it.”

“Sure. A lot of it’s just in black. Have you seen how much of it’s redacted?”

“Well, no, I didn’t actually read it. Isn’t it, like, thousands of pages long?”

“About four hundred and fifty, less the redactions. But what happened next? Did you seduce him over to the dark side?”

“No, I slapped a twenty on the table and walked out before the main course arrived.”

“You go, girl.”

They emptied their glasses. Ethan refilled them, still grinning. “A Trump voter on a date with a Hilary voter. I wish I’d seen that.”

“I didn’t actually vote for her,” said Caitlyn.

Ethan froze and arched an eyebrow. “No? You never mentioned that.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But after the way Hilary screwed over Bernie, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for her. I couldn’t tell you at the time. You were all about anyone but Trump, and I totally get where you were coming from. But I just couldn’t.”

Ethan said nothing.

“I hope the Dems pick someone decent this time. I can’t take another four years of the radioactive pumpkin.”

Ethan drained his glass.

“Do you hate me?” Caitlyn asked in a small voice.

“What did Hilary do to screw over Bernie?” asked Ethan.

“Oh, you know, the stuff everyone knows.”

Ethan drank more wine. He refilled his glass and topped up Caitlyn’s.

“I know that look,” said Caitlyn. “C’mon, say it.”

“How does everyone know the stuff everyone knows about how Hilary screwed over Bernie?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Caitlyn frowned. “I guess it must have been on CNN or something. Some of it ended up on Wikileaks, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, the stuff about how the Dems preferred the lifelong Democrat over the guy who only joined so he could run for president. Big deal.”

“I thought you liked Bernie.”

“I do. I’d have loved to vote for him.” Ethan shrugged. “But he wasn’t the candidate. Hilary was. And all she did wrong was to campaign within the system.”

Caitlyn sipped her wine. It didn’t taste as good as it had a couple of minutes before. “You haven’t finished, have you?”

“I’m thinking about how everyone knows the stuff that everyone thinks they know. It’s because the Russians sent it to Wikileaks and ran social media campaigns against Hilary. That way, everyone knows it without knowing how they know it and thinks it’s a bigger deal than it really is. That’s what’s in the Mueller Report.”

They both drained their glasses. Caitlyn looked at Ethan. Ethan looked sad.

“You’re saying…” Caitlyn paused and reached for the bottle, but it was empty. “You’re saying that when I didn’t vote for Hilary, I working for Putin as much as the jerk I walked out on?”

Caitlyn and Ethan looked into their empty glasses.

“You know what,” said Ethan, “I’m gonna go get another bottle of wine.

 

Rather obviously inspired by this PDF.

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Memorial in Mud

MemorialInMud

(Matt Gibson [CC / Flickr])

The only time I ever heard him raise his voice was when I tried to clean his boots. It was a few days after he’d come home, still wearing his fatigues. The only clean things he owned were the bandages swaddling his arm. I tried to be gentle when I helped him into his own clothes but we both needed to learn how to be careful with his injuries. He didn’t say a word, even when I pulled his sleeve too hard and made him bite his lip while beads of sweat ran down his forehead.

Having him back in his chair made our home feel complete again. I kept looking at him dozing as I washed his fatigues. I felt as if he might vanish at any moment while my back was turned, back to wherever it was they’d sent him while I was left here in half a home, waiting for news while my mind mixed hope and dread like my hands were mixing the grime from his trousers with soapy water.

I woke him by getting the boot brush from the cupboard under the stairs. He sat up sharply – it would be months before he would wake without a start – and stifled a moan of pain. I saw it on his face and went to him until he was sure he was safe at home. I made him a cup of tea and went back to the work surface to pick up the brush.

“What the hell d’you think you’re doing?”

His shout spun me round in time to se him slosh hot tea over his good hand. He dropped the cup, which shattered at his feet.

I gaped at him, too stunned to move, while he looked back at me with more pain on his face than a bucket of scalding tea could have caused him.

“I’m sorry.” His hand covered his mouth. “I don’t know what… how…”

His voice failed him, but his eyes carried more remorse than he could ever have spoken.

I looked back at the mud caking his boots. The mud of wherever they’d sent the man I married. The mud of wherever they’d brought back a man I wasn’t sure I knew from.

But they had brought him back.

“I will never clean these boots,” I said.

He nodded his thanks to me, still unable to speak.

I sat with him until he fell asleep again.

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