Thursday, 26 December 2013

Some Stuff I've Been Writing

I haven't been posting on here that regularly recently-partially because I haven't been in the country, partially because I'm working on some bigger projects, and partially because I've been writing for a couple of other sites as well. And on that last point, the more people who see these new things, the more I get paid (I've earnt like 10p so far. Yay.) So, I'm going to link the articles I've written each week to this blog, in the hope of earning literally pennies more... An article about orcas. An article on humpback whales. An article about Narwhals (because they are so awesome) A football one, a slightly irreverent match report...

And one I wrote for a completely different audience than it was published for, a religious satire sketch that got put onto a religious website... With apologies to anyone offended although, really, it isn't that offensive (or, I suspect, funny, but that's another matter)....

Anyway, hope you enjoy! And clicking on the ads on these articles gives me money, so...

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Back in Bloxwich

To celebrate my return from Africa (well, they're certainly celebrating now I'm gone), here's a poem about Bloxwich, and a sight I once saw there. With apologies to Percy Shelley, whom I've shameslessly ripped off.

I met a traveller from a common land
Who said: ‘Two vast and legless spray-tanned slags
Sleep in the gutter... Near them, on the street,
Half-drunk, two bottles of red wine, uncorked
And pouring vaguely crimson juices out
Into the bunged-up overflowing drain
To mingle with the faeces and the piss.
Under the bright half price stickers is shown
The label, read by flickering street-lamps:
"This wine was made from vines in Portugal
A mild and fruity taste, goes well with fish."
No dignity remains. Round the still shapes
Of those colossal wrecks, in rainbow hue,

A pool of vomit stretches far away.'

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Q.U.E.S.T: Episode One: Which Witch is Which? (Part 4)

Here we go, the fourth and penultimate part of Q.U.E.S.T (well, the first episode of it anyway.) Hope you enjoy, and as ever feel free to put your comments, hateful or otherwise, or indeed to completely ignore this. Parts one, two and three, in case you missed them and want to catch up.

“Right, it’s time. Get in the sack, Scrote,” Quentin said. The pair had removed most of their clutter from the cart, hiding it under a pile of leaves a little deeper in the forest, leaving only the empty money sack draped over the back. Quentin’s stumpy companion emerged from the trees, where he had been making some last minute adjustments to his costume. He was still wearing the grey wig and black pointy hat he had sported the night before, and he was now wearing a long black cloak to match. He had died his skin a pale green using some sort of cabbage dye, which had done nothing to improve his peculiar bouquet; and onto his long fake nose he had managed to affix even more massive hairy warts. Truly it was a frightful sight, or at least a frightful smell; perfect, thought Quentin. He himself pulled on his black gloves as Scrote climbed onto the cart and into the sack.

“Now, remember, when we get to the village, you have to stay perfectly still, OK? Remember, you’re dead. Stay in the sack, so they can’t see you breathing. And no screw-ups this time, right?” said Quentin. There was a muffled grunt of affirmation from the sack, and Quentin climbed up behind the horse, taking the reins in one gloved hand as he pulled up his black hood with the other.

“Showtime,” he muttered, cracking the reins; and the horse pulled them forward into the village of Springar.

A crowd of villagers were waiting for them, gathered in the large cobbled square outside the doors of the village hall. Quentin drove the cart towards them slowly, enjoying the theatrical nature of his entrance. As the cart approached the crowd, he thought he saw the hem of a purple robe disappearing around the corner; but there was no time to investigate further, because the Mayor was taking a cautious step towards him, and he had to concentrate. He drew the cart to a halt a few yards away from the crowd, and spoke in the deep commanding tones of Cornelius Ravenheart.

“The deed is done,” he said, “the witch is no more!”

There was a moment of silence that seemed to stretch on for an age. Quentin’s heart beat faster, and beads of sweat appeared under his hood. Were they going to fall for it, or had they realised it was all a scam? All the noise seemed to have been sucked out of the air, time stopping as he gazed at the villagers and silently, inscrutably, they gazed back at him. 

Then sound returned. The crowd cheered, and broke ranks, swarming around the cart, chanting Cornelius’ name. Quentin raised his hands, accepting the acclaim, and took a bow as the chanting grew even louder.

Only the Mayor seemed to be sceptical. Approaching the cart behind the others, he called out: “How do we know you aren’t lying?” Some of the crowd shushed him, lost in the moment, but others, Quentin saw, were looking a little more thoughtful. Well, that was no problem; time to play to the crowd a little more first, though.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” said the black-clad goblin in his deep voice. “I am Cornelius Ravenheart, and the last man to call me a liar did not live to regret it.” The inflection of the last phrase allowed no doubt as to his meaning, and many of the villagers cheered again at his display of heroic bravado. The Mayor, however, kept coming.

“Nevertheless, we need proof before payment,” he insisted. Some of the crowd, completely swayed by Quentin’s performance (and, he privately admitted, by their own lack of functioning brain cells), booed the Mayor; but Quentin raised his hands for silence.

“Very well,” he said. “Then I shall provide it. Gather around the back of the cart and I shall show you the corpse of your tormentor.”

Excitedly, pushing and shoving for the best view, the villagers crowded round the back of the cart as Quentin hopped into it himself. He dragged the sack to the back edge of the cart so that the villagers could all see it. Looking directly at the Mayor, he opened the sack wide, and Scrote’s disguised head flopped out, eliciting gasps from those villagers who could actually see it.

Whispers of joy and amazement rippled through the crowd as they saw the closed eyes and green hue of Scrote’s skin. “Well, fuck me, he’s done it!” shouted Emmeline, to general approbation. Even the Mayor looked impressed as the villagers once again started to chant Cornelius’ name.

“And in case you fear I am fooling,” he said, “the witch is, most certainly, deceased.” He aimed a mighty kick at the sack, connecting squarely with the seat of Scrote’s trousers (which had been padded for exactly this occasion). Scrote, as instructed, did not move, and the crowd cheered again.

Quentin bowed once more. “I have slain your foe, and rid your village of a pestilent threat,” he said (an apt choice of word, given that those villagers closest to Scrote, in spite of their jubilance, had started to gag from the stench). He pulled up the sack to cover Scrote’s face again, realising that the less time the villagers had to properly look at the “corpse” the better, then held out his hand to the Mayor. “I believe my payment is due,” he said.

The Mayor’s face contorted into an expression that resembled a badly constipated puppy (no public servant likes giving away money), but he nodded and beckoned forward a man carrying a bag that made a tantalising clinking noise as it swung from his hand. Taking it, the Mayor opened it to show Quentin the contents, then made to pass it up to him.

“Springar thanks you for your service,” he said gruffly. Quentin smiled under the hood. Finally, a plan that had gone off without a hitch…

There was a sound like tearing paper, and a foul stench filled the air. The Mayor pulled the bag away sharply, just as Quentin’s fingertips brushed the rough hessian material. “What was that?” he asked, nose wrinkling and eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“What was what?” Quentin said quickly, though the fact that his eyes had started watering from the new smell made it clear to him that this bluff might not come off.

“That noise, and that appalling stench… It came from the sack, I’m sure of it!” the Mayor said.

“Come now,” said Quentin, beginning to panic. The crowd closest to the cart were beginning to wrinkle their noses as well, some starting to gag again, which, given that they’d acclimatized to the previous ripe odour, was saying something. A few of them, who had also heard Scrote’s unfortunately-timed bout of flatulence, were looking suspiciously at the goblin, their mood suddenly changing from the previous euphoria as they put two and two together (with the aid of their fingers in some cases). What was worse, Quentin’s acidic tears, flowing unbidden down his cheeks because of Scrote’s new emissions, were starting to eat away at his hood; as soon as the crowd saw that he was not some dark and mysterious warrior, but a baby-cheeked goblin, the game would most surely be up. “Come now, the witch is dead! You have my word!” he said, but the eyes of the crowd (at least, those not taking deep breaths due to sudden nausea) told him that this would not be enough.

“Not even a witch could make a smell like that,” the Mayor said. “And whatever is in the sack just let one off. We all heard it.” The villagers took a step forward, hands tightening around pitchforks.

“No, no,” said Quentin, backing away towards the front of the cart with his hands raised in a placatory manner in front of him. “That’s just… that’s just gas escaping from the corpse,” he said. “Perfectly natural phenomenon.” For a brief moment, Quentin thought he might have saved the day, as a couple of the villagers paused in their advance towards the cart; then Scrote, still inside the sack, started to cough and splutter as he choked on his own emissions. The Mayor smiled nastily up at Quentin.

“Nice try,” he said, then turned to the villagers. “Get him, lads!” he shouted.

And this may well have been the end of the story, if the bony horse yoked to the front of the cart had not finally got a whiff of the gas escaping from behind it. With a whinny of disgust, it bolted forward, throwing Quentin off his feet and tearing the cart from the grasp of the villagers as it shot off, attached to the accelerating horse. Quentin desperately tried to regain his footing and regain some kind of control as the maddened creature sped down the village street towards the gates; Quentin saw with horror that they had been closed, blocking their only exit. Scrote managed to extricate his bewigged head from the sack, coughing and gagging.

“You bast-“ shouted Quentin, then the air was smashed from his lungs as he was once again dumped hard onto the floor of the cart. The horse had veered violently aside as it approached the thick panels of the gate, slamming Quentin back down onto the nail-strewn wood; Scrote, most of his body still inside the sack, was thrown completely out of the cart and onto the hard cobbles of the street, where he lay still. The cart itself skidded on the stones, the rotten wood attaching it to the frantic horse finally giving way and freeing the creature from its traces. It galloped away as the cart, with Quentin still inside it, smashed into the gates and fell apart with a crunch of half-rotten wood.

The goblin groggily moved aside a piece of timber and struggled to his feet in time to see the mob of villagers bearing down on a still prone Scrote, who was lying about fifteen yards away. For some reason, despite it still being light, one or two of the villagers had found and lit torches to brandish; most of the others were, far more worryingly, carrying a variety of sharp pointed objects, with the Mayor seemingly especially proud of the large halberd he was clumsily waving in the air.

Quentin, still dazed, tried to concentrate enough to weight up his options, which did not look good. He knew he only had a few seconds before the villagers reached Scrote, not enough for him to get to his companion even if he were so inclined; the horse had vanished into the midst of the village, so there was no hope there; and even if Quentin managed to get the gate open, there was little chance of him managing to escape the pursuit of the angry villagers, especially in his current condition. His black hood slipped off his head as acidic tears flowed down his face. As the shouting mob bore down on Scrote, Quentin decided that little chance was better than the no chance he’d get if he stayed here, and turned to try and force open the gates…

Which flew open of their own accord, sending Quentin flying to the side to land against the wall of the nearest house. He lay there for a moment, then pushed himself up onto his elbows to see the mob of villagers stopping five yards away from Scrote, sudden terror etched onto their faces. The Mayor dropped his massive halberd next to the prone, sack-imprisoned goblin as the villagers, in one mass, turned and fled, wailing and screaming, back towards the village hall.

Trembling, Quentin turned his head to the now wide-open gates, knowing that what he saw there had been terrifying enough to scare several dozen angry villagers on the verge of satiating their bloodlust into fleeing like mice from a hungry cat. He whimpered as he realised what he had done.

The figure that stood there was a witch, grey-haired, with a long warty nose, pale green skin and red eyes. She looked a bit like Scrote, in the same way that Anne Widdecombe looks a bit like Scarlett Johansson; if you squinted, you could see that they shared some characteristics, but it was hard to look past the tell-tale differences. Whilst his grey wig had drooped down his forehead like damp seaweed, hers moved with a life of its own, each strand waving eerily around her head; whilst his dyed skin had been a dull and lifeless green, hers was acidic, vibrant, and glowed with an inner light; and whilst his warts had been large and hairy, her warts had started their own families and were fighting turf wars with spots, styes and what looked like rare mushrooms for control of what little was left of her face. And Quentin realised that the Mayor had been wrong when he commented on Scrote’s smell; whilst he smelled of month-old compost, dung and cabbages, she smelt like someone had just dug up a half-rotted corpse and poured tabasco sauce on it.

The witch took a step into the village, her black dress billowing around her, though there was no discernible wind. She raised a hand, and from her palm roared a ball of lightning that smashed into the house opposite Quentin, blowing the door and surrounding wall apart with a tremendous explosion. A pig trotted out, dazed, and collapsed onto the street with a disgruntled squeal. Then the witch spotted Scrote, still lying unconscious in the middle of the street, his green head and grey wig protruding from the sack. Quentin, unnoticed, struggled to his feet as the witch unleashed an unearthly screech, and remembered what the fat hobbit had said not two days previously in the tavern: “There’s a witch terrorisin’ that village, they say, and she don’ like people musclin’ in on ‘er act.” With a jolt, Quentin realised that was exactly what Scrote had been doing, and he cursed his companion’s recklessness; it seemed that he was about to pay for it with his life. The witch raised her other hand, a grimace on her ugly face. A purple fireball, spitting and crackling in the cold air, appeared balanced on her fingertips; with a savage overarm gesture, she sent it flying towards Scrote, who, unconscious, could do nothing about the spell that was about to end his life.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Q.U.E.S.T: Episode One: Which Witch is Which? (Part Three)

Apologies for the delay (he says as if anyone cares or, indeed, is reading). I've been having lots and lots of trouble with the ending, but anyway, here's Part Three; hope you enjoy!:) Links to part 1 and 2, if you missed them...Oh, and feel free to comment and tell me how great/awful I am!

Jeremiah the baker was woken up from his dream about sunbathing hippopotamuses by a faint tap at the window. He pried his double chin away from the pillow, blinking groggily. Beside him, his wife mumbled in her sleep, and he looked down on her. After all these years, he still couldn’t get over the way her moustache glinted in the moonlight; he would have to lend her his razor again. Sighing, he rose from the bed and went over to the window, gazing out over the rows of houses it faced.

He blinked. Still half asleep, he wondered if he had just seen what he thought he had; a shadow had flitted across the window, a shadow that looked for all the world like an old woman on a broomstick. He wiped his hands across his tired eyes, and pressed his face up to the glass, peering out over the street beyond. 

Nothing. Just his imagination.

“What’s the matter?” his wife mumbled from the bed. “Hippopotami again?”

“It’s actually hippopotamuses, dear,” the baker said. It is the sign of a successful marriage when a couple can move from waking up to a petty argument within fifteen seconds.

“Either is acceptable, actually,” his wife murmured; her subsequent snore told the baker that she did not want to talk to him anymore. “Old cow,” he said under his breath as he took one last look at the street outside.
There! A shadow had definitely passed across the window, cutting off the pale moonlight for a split second. The baker stepped in close, his jowly face pressed right up against the glass.

BANG! The baker threw himself backwards as a face smashed into the other side of the window. It stayed there for less than a second before vanishing back into the night, but would imprint itself in Jeremiah’s memory forever, or at least until the story had been told a few times down the pub. It –whatever it belonged to, because to the baker’s frightened eyes it did not look even vaguely human-it had long grey hair that trailed down its forehead like poisonous snakes, murderous bloodshot eyes, and a long nose covered in massive, hairy warts. It was the ugliest thing the baker had ever seen, and he had seen his bride undress on their wedding night. He started to tremble; the look in those eyes, the sharpness of the red-stained teeth! And, for that brief moment of time they had been almost nose to nose at the window, the smell…

It must have been a demon, he thought wildly, some devil, come to steal away children, or… His heart beat loudly in his chest, and sweat started to roll down his chin and drip onto his already-stained nightshirt. It couldn’t have been-it must have been-please let it not have been…

“Witch,” he said aloud. His wife threw a pillow at him, catching him squarely in the groin.

“Don’t you dare call me a witch, you fat bastard!” she screeched; and the argument began anew.
Up on the roof, Scrote removed his wig and untucked the broomstick from in between his legs. Quentin was busy coiling up the rope he’d used to swing his assistant across the window.

“Good job, Scrote,” said Quentin. The rarity of this tender moment between them almost bought a tear to Scrote’s eye, no mean feat given that goblin tears are highly acidic and usually used as a form of self-defence. “Now, on to the next house…”

It was the next morning, and the Mayor of the small village of Springar had arrived at the village hall to find a crowd of villagers already gathered outside the door. Given that it usually took them until noon to wake up, let alone drag themselves to anything resembling  a place of work or industry, the Mayor had immediately realised something was dreadfully wrong, and had called a meeting on the spot. It was this kind of decisive action, he knew, that had won him the position of Mayor in the first place, and the accidental death by sheep stampede suffered by his only rival for the role six months previously probably had very little effect on the final outcome of the vote.

After about thirty seconds, he wished he hadn’t been so decisive. Half the village was shouting at him, the other half shouting at them for interrupting their own tirades. The Mayor banged the gavel he had for some reason on his special Mayoral lectern.

“Order!” he shouted, his voice completely lost in the cacophony of complaints. “Order!” he shouted again; this time, he was heard, but the people simply decided to ignore him.

“Gurt big it were!” shouted Ern the combine harvester (combines were a type of roof vegetable found only in Analgesia). “Caught me roight with moi shorts down!”

“Bloody thing damn near made me drop my Emmeline!” yelled Marjorie Carter the weaver. “You’re fucking right!” shouted her two-year-old daughter Emmeline, who stood beside her, middle finger proudly upraised.

The Mayor took a deep breath, and decided to change tack. “WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THE HOLY GODS ARE YOU ALL DOING HERE?!” he screamed at the top of his voice. Finally, the people fell silent. Hrolf the blacksmith, the muscles of his enormous shoulders rippling, stepped forward, holding his anvil effortlessly in his mighty hands.

“Sorry, old chap, we thought we’d told you. We really are most dreadfully sorry,” he said.
The Mayor took another deep breath. “That’s fine, Hrolf. Now, please, will somebody-one person-” he added as several of the crowd simultaneously opened their mouths- “-one person kindly explain why you are all here?

“Well, it’s the witch, innit?” said Jeremiah the baker, who was sporting a bandage covering half his face. He looked around at the other villagers, all of whom were making the sign of the evil eye. “We all saw the witch last night. She’s back.”

“She’s not taking my Emmeline!” said Marjorie, clutching her foul-mouthed spawn to her breast and bursting into loud sobs.

“Now, Marjorie, I can’t see why she’d want to,” the Mayor said soothingly; luckily, Marjorie was too busy caterwauling to register his actual words. “Now look, people,” he said to the room at large. “You know it can’t be the witch. We have a deal with her, remember? We give her two pigs and thirty combines a month, and she leaves us be. I sorted that out ages ago.”

Some of the villagers nodded at this, clearly swayed by the Mayor’s superior powers of recollection, but Jeremiah was not to be denied.

“Well, I saw her, last night, with my very own eyes!” he said.

The Mayor looked at him. “Did she do that to you?” he asked, pointing at Jeremiah’s bandage.

“Naw, that was the wife, but that ain’t the point,” said Jeremiah. “She was there, outside our windows, looking in! She’s back!”

The Mayor shook his head. “Look, if she was back, we’d know it! None of our pigs have gone rogue, have they? No cats turning into dogs and dogs turning into cats? No mysterious noises coming out of the vestal virgin’s room of a night, like the last time the witch visited town?”

The villagers all reluctantly shook their heads. The Mayor, sensing victory, continued.

“And in any case, how could you know it was the witch? None of us have ever seen her, have we? Except for Blind Dave, and he can’t speak anyway.” The unfortunate man in question did not respond, having not heard the Mayor’s slightly insensitive words. The villagers shook their heads again, some even beginning to sport relieved smiles. Only Jeremiah seemed unmoved.

“I know what I saw,” he said. “It was the witch. Saw her with my own two eyes.”

The Mayor put a conciliatory hand on the baker’s shoulder. “Jerry, Jerry, Jerry,” he said. “We appreciate what you do for the village of Springar, we really do, but can’t you see this kind of scaremongering is just causing trouble?”

The baker’s answer was lost as the door to the hall flew open. “Actually, Mayor, your trouble has only just begun,” said a deep, booming voice. The villagers stared open-mouthed as a figure dressed entirely in black-black cloak, black shirt, black boots, black gloves, and a black hood which concealed his face in shadow (also black)- strode purposefully into the hall, coming to a halt in front of the Mayor. Although only of average height, the figure seemed to tower over the cowering public official.

“Your citizen is right to be concerned. The witch is indeed back, and ready to wreak terrible vengeance upon your village for the crimes you have committed.”

There was a gasp from the villagers, and many of them began to make the sign of the evil eye again. The Mayor, though clearly intimidated, did not, however, seem convinced.

“But, we haven’t done anything! What could she possibly want vengeance for?” he said.

The figure in black shook its head, emitting a short, humourless laugh. “You put on a good show, Mayor, but your act will not fool her. You know very well that the pigs you gave her last month had curly tails, but you hoped she would not notice! And now, you have doomed all of these people!” There was another gasp; Marjorie started wailing again.

The Mayor’s forehead wrinkled. “But pigs are supposed to have cu-“ he began, but the figure in black cut across him.

“Silence! For though you are all in grave peril, I bear good tidings. I, Cornelius Ravenheart, have tracked the witch to her lair, and this afternoon intend to end her reign of terror forever!” the figure said. The villagers burst into cheers; even the Mayor smiled. Then Cornelius, as the figure styled itself, raised a hand for silence, which instantly descended.

“Of course, I will only do this for the right price,” he said.

“Name it!” shouted Jeremiah the blacksmith. Despite the Mayor’s protestations, the rest of the villagers nodded and called for the same. Cornelius raised his hand again, and silence once more descended. The Mayor enviously wished he knew how Ravenheart was doing this; he’d kill to be able to make this rabble shut up occasionally.

“Very well,” Cornelius said, and turned his hood to look straight into the Mayor’s face. “For this mighty task I will require a payment of…” he paused for effect, the villagers hanging on his every word- “one hundred gold pieces.”

The villagers gasped. The Mayor’s jaw fell open.

“One hundred…” he began. “There’s no way we can pay that!” The villagers, for once, seemed to agree with the Mayor; there was a great deal of muttering among the crowd, though their faces still showed traces of fear.

Cornelius shrugged, spreading his long-fingered, gloved hands wide. “Well,” he said, moving around the crowd, “then I don’t suppose you mind putting your wives,” he gestured to the baker, “your daughters”, pointing to Emmeline, “or your…erm…anvils,” pointing to the lump of iron Hrolf was cradling in his arms, “in mortal peril,” he finished, turning to face the Mayor again.

“Pay him!” shouted a voice in the crowd. The rest of the villagers, Marjorie and Jeremiah loudest of all, picked up the cry.

“Pay him! Pay him!” they chanted. The Mayor frantically looked round for support, but none was forthcoming as Cornelius stood in the middle of the crowd, unmoving. Finally, the Mayor’s shoulders slumped.

“OK then,” he said. “We will pay, if you can provide evidence that you have done the deed.”

Cornelius’ hood bobbed up and down as he nodded gravely. “Then it shall be done,” he said. “I shall present the witches’ corpse to you by this evening. Gather in the square outside this hall, and bring my payment.” With that, the black-cloaked figure turned and strode out of the hall, leaving behind an awestruck crowd.

Once he had made his way outside the village, Quentin took off his gloves and pulled down his black hood, a wide grin on his face. “Did they buy it?” asked Scrote, who was busily mashing up some cabbage in a chipped and well-worn bowl.

“No, Scrote, I’m smiling because they said no,” said Quentin. Scrote’s brow furrowed for a second, but then he too smiled as he worked out that Quentin was being sarcastic. “Now, hurry up, we need to get you ready for tonight. This is the one, Scrote, I can feel it. Nothing can go wrong.”

In the next village over, a farmer happily chalked the number 14 on the blackboard that hung on the door of his chicken coop. As he turned away, an egg fell out of his pocket and broke upon the ground; grumbling, the farmer turned round and changed the “4” to a “3”. “When will I learn,” he asked himself with a rueful smile.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Q.U.E.S.T: Episode One: Which Witch is Which? (Part 2)

Part number 2 of the current story. Hope you enjoyed the first part if you read it; if not (and if you do want to read it), there's a link here. Enjoy!:)

Quentin smiled as the barmaid placed two mugs filled to the brim with foamy brown beer on the worn wooden table in front of him.

“Lovely jugs,” he said with a wink. The barmaid, who was indeed extremely well-endowed and wore the clothes to show it, giggled at the goblin.

“Ooh, sir, you are a card,” she said, then sashayed away to the next table, blowing a kiss to Quentin over her shoulder as she walked. The goblin sat back in his chair with a self-satisfied sigh, picking up one of the beers with one long-fingered hand.

Across from him, Scrote furrowed his brow slightly. Quentin noticed this, and his sigh turned into one of exasperation. “It’s a figure of speech, Scrote,” he said. Scrote’s face uncurled and he grinned as realisation sunk in. Quentin shook his head and looked around at the other patrons of the “Croak and Stagger” tavern.

It was the kind of bar that attracted people who, for one reason or another, wanted to avoid the glittering lights, glamour and watchmen of the rest of the town. It was a dim, gloomy affair, the kind of place where it barely matters if the barman spits in your beer because it would probably improve the taste. A pair of burly men sat at the bar, comparing tales of their sexual exploits in loud voices, whilst next to them sat a pair of cat-headed ladies who were merely comparing their tails. A group of hobbits fresh from their holes occupied the table next to Scrote and Quentins’, bits of soil and worms still stuck in their curly hair; their annoying squeaky voices could be heard even above the dreadful piano music that filled the tavern.

Quentin’s eye was caught by a shadowy figure who sat alone in the corner, half-concealed in the smoky gloom. He was a strange-looking man, with a hood covering the top half of his face; what could be seen of him looked weather-beaten, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. He wore a dark green, travel-stained cloak and sat with his feet up on the table, showing off muddy boots of supple leather. In his hand he held a long-stemmed pipe which was responsible for much of the smoke that floated around the room. The hilt of a sword protruded from the level of his waist, its pommel plain and its handle well-worn.

 His demeanour and the air of mystery surrounding him spoke of some hidden agony, some inner majesty, some manifest destiny that would inexorably place him amongst the greatest heroes ever known on Analgesia. Quentin was almost lost in the sense of legends yet to unfold that radiated from the man; he flagged down the busty barmaid.

“That man,” said the goblin as she leant down close to him. “Who is he?”

“’im? Rightly, sir, no-one really knows,” the barmaid whispered, directing a swift and fearful glance at the man in the corner. “Some say ‘e’s one of them woodland folk…”

“An elf?” Quentin said, eyebrows raised in shock and not a little awe.

“No, no,” the barmaid said, “’e just lives on ‘is own in the woods, like. ‘E comes to town quite often, though. ‘E’s a master of camouflage, I ‘eard; ‘e can ‘ide in any bush and you wouldn’t be able to see ‘im ‘owever ‘ard you tried!”

“Wow,” said Quentin, avoiding the temptation to forcibly introduce the barmaid to the letter “h”, “he sounds… amazing. What’s his name?”

“Well, sir, no-one knows ‘is real name. We do ‘ave a kind of name for ‘im, though, round ‘ere, cos of ‘is night-time ‘abits…”

“Yes?” Quentin insisted. Both he and Scrote, who had been listening in, leaned forward as the barmaid’s voice dropped another octave.

“”Well, round ‘ere,” she whispered, “all the women call ‘im “stalker”.”

Scrote immediately burst out laughing. The barmaid sashayed away again as Quentin turned bright red and took a long, steadying pull of his pint.

On the table next to them, the group of hobbits were still chatting incessantly, their heads just about protruding above the tabletop. Usually Quentin tried to avoid hearing any aspects of a hobbit conversation, due to their idiotic accents and their rabbit-like obsession with fornication; but as in this instance it was either eavesdrop on the hobbits or listen to Scrote repeat what had just happened in his usual tiresome way, Quentin chose the lesser of two evils.

As is usually the case, the biggest and fattest hobbit seemed to be leading the discussion, the rest of the group caught in his gravitational pull. He seemed to be telling a funny story, judging by the laughter emanating from his fellows. Quentin strained his ears to listen in.

“And then, right, then, this bloke, the one wiv the bad ‘alitosis, well blow me if ‘e dain’t throw up bloody everywhere!” More howls of laughter; the fat one joined in this time, tears streaming down his wart-covered face. They couldn’t be talking about… Quentin thought.

“What ‘appened then, Hobo?” asked one of the hobbits, whose hair had been styled into spikes (Quentin shuddered to think what he’d used for hair gel).

The fat one, Hobo, wiped his face with his hand, adding an extra layer of dirt to his already grotty visage. 

“Then, right, they grab the little smelly one and cover ‘im in feathers, right, and they chase ‘im and ‘is stupid mate right out of the bloody village!” Again, gales of laughter; on the next table Quentin clenched his jaw, as steam began to trickle out of his ears again. He picked up his beer mug with a white-knuckled fist and drained it to the dregs.

Gradually, the hobbits’ laughter died down, although the occasional chuckle still sporadically escaped.
The fat one leant back in his chair and inserted a stubby finger into his excessively hairy nostrils, wiggling it around thoughtfully as he spoke his next words.

“They’re lucky they dain’t try that in the next village over,” he said. “There’s a witch terrorisin’ that village, they say, and she don’ like people musclin’ in on ‘er act.” Having found what he wanted, the hobbit withdrew his finger and flicked the enormous bogey he’d extracted into the air, where, in accordance with the dual principles of gravity and comedy, it described a beautiful parabolic arc and landed, unnoticed, in Scrote’s beer. “Terrified of ‘er, they are. Do anything to get rid of ‘er, I’ve ‘eard say.”

Quentin stopped listening, and turned excitedly to a still chuckling Scrote. “Did you hear that?” he said.

“Yeah, I did! “Stalker”!” Scrote broke off into another fit of laughter. Quentin put his hand over his eyes, and spoke through gritted teeth.

“No, you idiot, not that. What the hobbit said, about the witch in the next village.”

“A witch?” Scrote’s eyes were suddenly wide, the laugh dying in his throat. “Those poor people!”

“No, Scrote,” Quentin said, “not poor, stupid. Witch indeed! There’s no such thing. Probably just some old woman who lives in the woods that they all blame for their crops failing ‘cos she mumbles a lot and owns a mangy cat.”

“Oh,” said Scrote. His brow furrowed, as it usually did when he was pondering a large problem, like which direction was “left”. “But, what does that have to do with us?”

Quentin turned his eyes up to the ceiling and took a deep breath. “Seriously, Scrote, that fall from the ugly tree really messed up your brain as well as your face, didn’t it?” Scrote gave him a blank smile. “What it has to do with that it’s our ticket to being able to drink and sleep in a better place than this dung-heap, for starters.”

“Ooooh,” said Scrote, leaning forward. “Does this mean you have an idea, Quents?”

“Don’t ever call me that again, idiot,” said Quentin. “And yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”

“Is it a particularly clever and guileful idea, Quen...tin?”

“It is indeed a most devious scheme, Scrote.”

“Could you perhaps describe it as a cunning plan, then?”

Quentin frowned at him. “You need to stop reading those stupid parchments,” he said. “Nobody speaks like that. ““Cunning plan”, who’d ever call it that? Now, listen, because I’m only going to say this once.”

“Why?” said Scrote.

Quentin was saved from having to answer as the door to the tavern burst open. Every head in the bar turned to see it, some patrons even moving their chairs so they could get a better view. The wind outside howled, the rain driving against the cobblestones and forcing its way over the threshold. There was a flash of lightning and a tremendous peal of thunder; the barman peered out of the small window above the bar that let some light in on its customers, a puzzled frown upon his superbly moustachioed face.

“It was sunny a second ago,” he said, but his customers’ attention was elsewhere. A large and impressively bearded figure had filled the door, silhouetted by the sudden lightning. Its wide cloak billowed in the doorway, as if its wearer was gathering the shadows around itself; in its hand it carried a long wooden staff carved with strange and eldritch sigils that twisted and writhed as the awestruck crowd looked on. Something about it looked familiar to Quentin, but he couldn’t quite place it.

The figure stepped into the pub, the door swinging shut of its own accord behind him. The wide brim of its large pointed hat cast a shadow over its face, obscuring the detail; the staff made an impressive booming noise as the figure grounded it on the floor. After taking four paces forward, the figure halted, and threw its arms wide.

The penny dropped for Quentin. “Oh, not again...” he said.

“Good mowwow to all in this place!” said an annoyingly nasal voice. Quentin looked down into his mug and shook his head sadly as around him the entire pub burst into laughter. The figure’s face fell; it reached up a scabby hand and adjusted its hat, which was in danger of slipping over its eyes.

“Godwin!” cried Scrote, beaming happily. Quentin swiftly grabbed him and forced his head down under the table, hoping that the wizard had not noticed them; but it was too late. Godwin’s smile reappeared, and he strode over to the table; Quentin noticed his staff had stopped making the booming noise. Entertainment seemingly over, the rest of the tavern’s customers turned back to their drinks, although the occasional smirk was aimed in their direction throughout the conversation that followed.

“Well, hello again,” the wizard said, in his annoying, nasal voice. Quentin straightened up to greet the weary traveller.

“Sod off,” he said.

This time the smile on Godwin’s face did not disappear. Instead, completely ignoring Scrote, he insinuated himself onto the seat opposite Quentin; Scrote was pressed up against the wall by the wizard’s bulk. “Can I at least buy you a dwink?” he said.

Quentin looked at his empty mug, and bit his lip. “Alright, then,” he said. “You get five minutes, then you can sod off.”

The wizard clapped his hands. “Barmaid, bring some dwinks for my fwiends!” Beside him, Scrote smiled, despite his uncomfortable position; Quentin rolled his eyes.  The barmaid looked coolly at the wizard for a moment, then pulled three pints into stained mugs and bought them over. Godwin took his and quaffed it with every sign of enjoyment; a good quantity of it slopped down his fake beard, which at least washed off some of the remaining residues of bird droppings. Quentin sipped his own drink more decorously, whilst Scrote at least managed to avoid spilling his down his filthy shirt. Godwin set his now empty mug and smacked his lips.

“Well?” Quentin said.

Godwin steepled his fingers and gazed over them at Quentin. Evidently, he felt that it gave him some gravity, but to Quentin it looked like the wizard was about to blow his nose. “I have a... pwoposition for you, my fwiend,” the wizard said.

Quentin pressed his back against his chair, his eyes widening. “No,” he said. “Look, no offence, I have nothing know, what you like or whatever, but I don’t swing that way.”

Godwin looked puzzled for a moment. “No, no, you don’t understand-I mean a business pwoposition,” he said, and Quentin’s suddenly tense shoulders relaxed a little.

“Oh... well, go on then,” he said. He may as well hear Godwin, he thought, at least until he’d finished his own drink; the idiot hadn’t paid for them yet.

Godwin cleared his throat, and leant forward. “What if I told you that I was here on diwect orders fwom the King of Analgesia?” he whispered.

Quentin gave a gasp of barely concealed awe, his eyes wide. He leaned in close, taking a conspirational glance around, and placed his mouth next to Godwin’s ear. “I’d say you were a lunatic,” he said.

The wizard pulled back, his bushy eyebrows drawn together. “Look, are you going to take this sewiously or not?” he asked.

Quentin just smiled. The wizard adjusted the hang of his false beard, peering suspiciously at the goblin. Satisfied that his carefully rehearsed speech was not going to be further interrupted by anyone other than himself, he continued.

“I am here on the diwect orders of His Majesty, and I have chosen you to aid me on my noble and dangewous quest to save the wealm from destwuction,” he said. “Our land faces gwave and tewwible thweats, even here, deep within its borders, and it is my sworn duty to oppose them in any way I can. And, having heard about your talents, Mr Quentin, I want your help. I feel there is more to you than meets the eye. What do you say?”

Quentin looked deep into Godwin’s eyes. Solemnly, he placed both of his hands flat on the table before him; when he spoke, it was in the deep and earnest tones of a goblin ready to face up to his patriotic duty.
“Would this mean I would travel with you far and wide, risking death on a daily basis for king and country, with you always close by my side?”

“Well, er, if you want to put it that way, then, yes,” said Godwin, smiling.

“Oh. Then, no.” said Quentin. “The day I aid you is the day pigs start flying.”

The wizard’s eyebrows shot sharply upwards, and his false beard slipped from one of his ears and ended up hanging loosely from his face, exposing rose-tinted cheeks. “You would turn down a chance to save your country... to save the world?” he asked.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Quentin said.  “Scrote, show him the door, will you?”

Scrote, with some difficulty given the squashing proximity of the wizard, turned around and pointed towards the door to the tavern (Quentin rolled his eyes again). Godwin stood up, false beard swinging wildly. He extended an ominous finger towards Quentin.

“Mark my words, goblin,” he said. “You will wue your flippancy!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Quentin. “Now you’ve had your five minutes, so get lost.”

With a snort of rage, Godwin turned on his heel and stormed off towards the exit. As he passed the last table, the swarthy man sitting there called out “’Ey, mate, you’ve got bird doin’s all down yer cloak!”, and the tavern burst into laughter again. As the door slammed shut behind the irate wizard, Quentin turned to Scrote again.

“Now, where were we... Oh right, this “witch” thing. Well, Scrote, here’s what we’re going to do...”

Monday, 30 September 2013

Q.U.E.S.T: Episode One: Which Witch is Which? (Part One)

So, another new short story, a (hopefully) funny one this time. As you might have guessed from the title, I'm hoping this will develop into a series (read: if I can overcome my crippling laziness, and if people like it, I'll write some more); please let me know what you think of it:) Anyway, hope you enjoy!

As the first arrow whipped about three inches past his head, Quentin decided it was time to re-evaluate his life.

Quentin was a goblin, and as far as he knew he was the only intelligent person in the realm of Analgesia. That might sound arrogant but, given the available evidence, it was the only conclusion he felt could be reached. After all, he had been making a living for the past few years by tricking gullible idiots out of their money with every scam, swindle and con he could think of, and as he hadn’t yet been thrown into a ditch covered in tar and feathers, it was fair to say that most of them were a needle short of a haystack.

Of course, even idiots get lucky sometimes; and this was why he was currently running for his life as a baying mob made up of the angry villagers of Dodge attempted to turn him into a very well-dressed sieve. The long crimson cloak and large floppy hat he’d been wearing as part of this particular scheme were not exactly aiding his attempts to escape, but at least he cut a stylish figure as he sped along the cobblestones, trying to remember the way out. Now you may ask why, if he was so clever, he was having to evade the stream of arrows, stones and the occasional piece of excrement that were being sent his way; and, as luck would have it, the answer was just hoving into view around the corner.

“Get the goddamn cart going, Scrote!” he shouted. Scrote was his assistant, or as Quentin preferred to think of him the moron who he’d been unfairly saddled with and who seemed hell-bent on getting him into trouble. Scrote put down the “artistic” parchment he had been intently studying whilst perched on the seat of the ramshackle collection of splinters and woodworm that the two of them called “home” (with entirely different levels of honest enjoyment and bitterness, admittedly), and grasped the reins tightly.

“You’re facing the wrong way, you idiot!” Quentin screamed. Behind him, the villagers were gaining, most of them with various sharp and pointy instruments to which the word “brandishing” could so easily be applied. Scrote turned around to face the front, smiling and shaking his head at what a silly billy he’d been, and in his most leisurely manner began to shake the reins, trying to coax the flea-bitten horse that pulled the cart into as close an approximation of life as a nag that looked like it was yearning for the glue factory could manage. The horse, however, wasn’t budging; it just flicked its tail and aimed a snort of derision at the short podgy idiot faffing about behind it.

If Quentin could have spared some time from his current preoccupation, he would have described Scrote in the following way. Imagine the tallest, prettiest, fairest maiden, with long, flowing golden hair, a sweet and noble countenance and a sharp, inquisitive mind. Scrote was the complete opposite of all these things. He was short, he was dirty, and he was monumentally stupid; though he was a goblin like Quentin, the comparison was akin to saying that kisses and vomit are the same because they come from the same orifice. The best thing that could be said about his appearance was that usually most of his body was obscured by his clothes; that part that could be seen looked like a blind man had tried to shave a baboon and made a particularly bad job of it. He had hairy legs, hairy arms and hairy palms; and the less said about the smell...

This was slightly harsh on Scrote, who was almost certainly not as stupid as he looked, if only because if he were as stupid as he looked he would have had great difficulty breathing; but then life, for the most part, is harshness, and why should Scrote be spared?

Currently Scrote’s short stubby little body was covered not only with his habitual dirty rags but also in tar and feathers. There was no time for Quentin to shake his head meaningfully at his assistant, however, because at that moment a lump of cow dung the size of a fist smacked him in the back of the head and pitched him, spitting and cursing, onto the ground. The mob were about twenty yards behind the goblin; this, he thought, was it. Not how he’d pictured going out, hacked to pieces by angry country bumpkins whilst covered in shit; but then not many people get to choose how they die, and fewer still enjoy it.
The first villager reached him as he lay on the ground, a big ugly brute with blue paint all over his face who brandished what looked like an old rake with bits of cabbage leaf still stuck to the spikes. Oh, great, he thought, death by gardening implement, how very heroic. The man’s face curled into a smile of righteous satisfaction and he raised his makeshift weapon above his head.

“This’ll teach ya tae defile oor virgins!” he said in an outrageous accent. Quentin closed his eyes as the rake descended.

Then the sound of galloping hooves and tortured wood filled the air, and the big man threw himself sideways as a massive bulky shape hurtled past him. Scrote had finally managed to get the horse and cart moving. 
Quentin struggled to his feet as the horse, maddened by whatever Scrote had done to it, ploughed through the mob of villagers, scattering them aside like stalks of wheat (if the wheat was also screaming obscenities as loudly and angrily as it could). As it reached the end of the street, Scrote managed to drag it around, the wheels screeching in protest as they raised sparks against the cobblestones, and drove it back up towards Quentin. Those few villagers who had managed to stagger to their feet after the first time the cart had gone past were bowled over again, various farming implements flying into the air; with a clatter of ill-fitting horse shoes, Scrote managed to halt the cart just in front of Quentin, and he swiftly leapt up beside his ill-smelling friend.

“Get us out of here!” he said, taking control of the situation as ever. Scrote cracked the reins and the horse leapt forward again, the impotent howls of the villagers following them as they sped through the village gates and out into the woodland. Soon, they were safe, and Quentin allowed himself to relax and remove his hat and cloak. “Well, that’s one place we won’t be going back to,” he said, to a blank stare from his befeathered friend. Sighing, he told Scrote to slow down a little whilst he clambered into the back of the cart.

Moving aside all the various paraphernalia the pair used to undertake their nefarious schemes, and the book of bedtime stories Quentin had to read to Scrote when he had a nightmare, he reached the very back of the cart, the part they slept in, and placed his long-fingered hands on the small brown sack which contained the money they’d managed to scam from the villagers back there. At least, he thought, all that running around had been worth it; for once, they’d managed to get away with the gold, and that, after all, was all that mattered.

In hindsight, he should have realised that one should never count their chickens, especially given that the idiot he was forced to travel round with was covered in feathers a few feet away from him; but the thought that they might actually be able to eat a proper meal tonight had blinded him to caution. He opened the sack, expecting that lovely glimmer of light reflecting off metal that meant beef, gravy, and lovely cold beer, and saw … nothing. Just a single moth, which flew out of the empty darkness and fluttered happily off into the forest. After scrabbling around the back of the cart for a second, hoping that Scrote had, for some reason, hidden their earnings underneath the old cloaks they used as blankets, he straightened up and, in as polite a voice as he could manage, enquired as to the whereabouts of the money.

“Oh, that,” Scrote said. “I emptied it out of the sack in the village.”

Quentin took a deep breath. “And why did you do that?”

“Well,” Scrote began whilst drumming his overlong nails on the seat beside him, “well, you remember back there at the village fete, when you went onto that stage and shouted about how you had that miracle potion that would cure all ills...”


“Well, and then, I was supposed to come on the stage like I’d never met you and say I had terrible, terrible venereal diseases...”


“Well, and then you gave me the potion, and I leapt up and said I was cured and had never felt better...”

“Yes, Scrote, and then you threw up because you’d been eating candy-floss despite the fact that I told you not to, and then you shouted “Sorry, Quentin,” at the top of your voice so that the whole crowd, who had been shoving money into my hands faster than a greyhound with a wedge of ginger stuck up its bum, realised we’d been scamming them and turned on us... I was there, remember?”

“Well, yes, but then, once you’d run off screaming that I was an idiot and you wanted me to die, and they all chased after you except for the two who decided to put me in that bucket of tar and cover me in feathers,” Scrote paused for breath whilst raising his feather-covered arms to demonstrate his point, “and then they left me alone because I was crying too much for them to be having fun... well, I remembered that you’d told me to put the sack on the cart and get the hell out of Dodge as soon as we’d pulled off the scam, and so I emptied the money out and put the sack on the cart just like you said!” Scrote finished triumphantly, and grinned, exposing surprisingly white teeth.

“You took the money out, and put the sack in the cart on its own...” Quentin said, his voice exhibiting that calmness that usually comes just before an island-consuming storm.

“Yes,” said Scrote, still beaming widely. “It was quite heavy to carry, you see, and you’d kept saying we’d have to move fast before they found out that the potion was just nettles in water, so I thought, if I took the money out, I could move much quicker. And you told me to put the sack in, so I did. No problems.”

Quentin was still making an effort to stay calm, although steam was starting to rise from his ears, a common occurrence in angry or stressed-out goblins. “And you didn’t think that I might have meant keep the money in the sack and take it all with us, so that we could buy things like food and drink and a place to sleep that isn’t strewn through with rusty nails and infested by termites?”

“Oh, of course I thought of that, Quentin,” Scrote said, grinning even wider. “So I picked up two of the coins to take with me. I thought it was a bit odd you hadn’t told me to do that, to be honest.” He turned back to the road, whistling a jaunty tune. Quentin reached his hands out, fingers extended to choke his companion, but with a roll of his eyes decided against it, and slumped back into the cart, steam still spewing copiously from his shell-like ears. Not for the first time he wondered if Scrote’s idiocy might actually be a carefully constructed facade put on solely for the purposes of winding he, Quentin, up, but as usual he dismissed the thought. Nobody was that good an actor. Not particularly wanting to continue the conversation, he rooted around the cart, locating a quill and a piece of parchment headed “Places we shouldn’t go back to”. He licked the nib of the quill (goblin saliva has a similar consistency to ink), and bent down to add the village of Dodge to the list. He sighed heavily.

“Now, now, what can the matter be?” came a voice from the trees. Scrote was so startled in the driving seat that he immediately pulled back on the reins and the cart slid to a halt. A figure emerged from the holly bushes, wearing a flowing robe of deep purple, lined with what appeared to be badger fur, an equally grandiose pointed hat, and carrying a long mahogany staff with strange sigils carved down the shaft, sigils which writhed and twisted in the cool forest air. It was an effect only slightly spoiled by the thin streak of bird droppings matted into the stranger’s luxurious red beard.

“Well met, my fine fwiends, on this fine mowwow!”

Quentin paused whilst he worked out what “mowwow” meant, then raised an eyebrow. “Nobody speaks like that,” he said to the stranger. “What do you want?”

The stranger strode into the middle of the road, and spread his arms wide.

“The question is not what I want, but what you want,” he said. His voice had a nasal quality to it that 
Quentin, his mood not aided by the day’s previous events, was finding incredibly annoying.

“What I want is for you to sod off,” Quentin said. The stranger blinked a couple of times, but managed to rally.

“I believe we may have got off on the wwong foot,” he managed. Scrote looked like he was about to agree and introduce himself, until Quentin shot him a murderous glance. “Don’t you dare encourage him,” the goblin told his olfactorily-offensive companion.

The stranger, evidently choosing to ignore this, held out his free hand. “My name is Wandolf,” he said, “but most people call me Godwin, because of copyright issues.”

His speech impediment really was incredible, Quentin thought; it was taking the goblin a second to actually work out what Godwin was saying, and he wasn’t quite sure if this annoying moron (or possibly mor-won) realised that his speech was so befuddling.

“Godrin?” the goblin said.

“No, no, not Godwin, Godwin,” the stranger replied. The goblin closed his eyes, hoping this was all just a fairly tedious dream, but when he opened them again, the stranger was unfortunately still there, a wide and innocent smile upon his face.

“Oh. Well, Godwin,” Quentin said, “I’m Quentin, and I’m going to go away now, before whatever’s wrong with you becomes wrong with me, OK?”

Godwin turned a delicate shade of puce, and tightened his grip on his staff. Quentin continued.

 “Before I go, though, I feel like I should let you know that you’ve got sh-hang on, is that a false beard? Scrote, look at this-this guy’s wearing a false beard!” Quentin laughed out loud, and Godwin’s face changed colour again, this time matching the bushy red beard that, as Quentin had noticed, was held on by two paper-clips secured over his ears.

 “You are being exceedingly wude, you know,” Godwin said. “It’s starting to get on my wick a little, if you must know. And I warn you, you won’t like me when I’m angwy!”

“What are you going to do, turn into a giant green monster and rip us to bits? Stupidest thing I ever heard. I’m bored now, so could you please just go away? Come on, Scrote, let’s leave this idiot alone and get out of here.” With that, Quentin turned his face away from the stranger, and his assistant cracked the reins again. After a few false starts, the horse evidently decided it might as well start going forward, and the cart started on a sedate pace along the road, leaving Godwin standing alone.

This is the point at which, in most fantasy adventures, the wizard-for that is what the stammering stranger was, if you hadn’t already guessed- smiles a secret smile, knowing they have found the hero that will save the land from evil and, more importantly, learn a valuable lesson which will make them a far better person/hobbit/green tentacle thing. However, this isn’t most fantasy adventures. As the wizard took off his large purple hat, ready to knowingly peer over the top of it at the goblins’ retreating cart, a whole flight of geese directly overhead decided it was time to lose a bit of weight. Godwin’s scream of disgust could be heard all the way back to Dodge.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Through Different Eyes: Part 3

Third and final part of the current short story! Rated R for being a bit gruesome at the end. Enjoy! (Parts one and two, in case you missed them!)

I remember his voice being quite deep, not rough but just sounding like it came from a place much further down his body than his throat. He asked about what had happened to my eyes and I told him all about it and they ran some tests and examined the place my eyes used to be and he said that he’d be able to help me. Me and Heather were so happy! I couldn’t wait to see all the things I remembered seeing before, to see if they’d changed or stayed exactly the same, even whether I’d remembered all the colours right, because it’s easy to forget exactly what red and blue look like when you’ve only seen them in your head for ten years. I was so excited at having eyes again, to be able to live a normal life, maybe get a job, talk to people again without them being all sympathetic and awkward with their breathing, and see if the picture I had of Heather was like how she was in real life, whether her eyes were the same colour as they were in my head. We got told I’d have to wait for a donor before I could get new eyes, so we flew back to England, and we waited.

Those days of waiting were really hard. Like I say, I’d managed to get used to not being able to see, but that was because there was no chance I’d ever be able to see again, other than in my own head; but now I was going to be able to, not with my own eyes exactly but I’d be able to see all the things I hadn’t seen for ten years. I was going to be able to see Heather and my friends and my mum and my dog and myself, see the sky and the trees and the sun... We were both so excited, and scared a little, because no-one likes having an operation, and I was scared things wouldn’t look like I remembered them looking, scared that I had forgotten some of the things I’d seen. But I was so excited, I could barely sleep, I just kept hoping for a donor to come along, even though I knew this was basically saying I wanted someone to die so I could have their eyes; but I really did, once or twice, really did wish for someone to die so I could see again...

I didn’t have to wait all that long, really, even if every day I had to wait seemed to last four hours more than it should, long drawn-out hours that seemed to stretch me tight and stop me from breathing properly. The call came; a young man had been killed in a car crash, he’d been speeding and had smashed his car into a tree, apparently, and so... I had my eyes. And me and Heather went to the hospital and they put me in one of those open gowns and sent me to sleep on a cold steel table; and when I woke up, it was done. I couldn’t open my new eyes at first because of the bandage round my face but i could feel them there, feel them filling up what had been empty for so long.

I remember how I felt when the bandage first came off. I could barely open my eyes, they were still swollen and sore from the operation, but I remember the light, the first light I’d seen for more than ten years. It was brighter than I’d remember light being, but then I had been in darkness for a long time, so I guess that was to be expected. I remember the wonder I felt, the kind of simple childish delight in being able to make out shapes, blurred dark ones against the backdrop of white for now, but I’d been told my vision would get better once my body got used to the new eyes. I remember the relief I felt, relief that I could live my life now on my own terms, not needing a dog to guide me round but just my own eyes, my new eyes, the sense of power and independence that surged through me. I remember the pain too, like the nail was being driven through my eyes all over again, pressing agains thte back of my new eyeballs where they’d joined them up to my brain. And I remember the fear, the fear of the new, the fear I wouldn’t like what I could see, the fear that everything would have changed so much in ten years that I wouldn’t know my own world any more. Yeah, the fear, rising up in me, making it so I almost didn’t want to open my eyes any more.

But I did, I did open them and look out at the world again after ten years, and it was amazing. I saw my mum again, for the first time since before I went blind, even; she looked older, her hair was greyer, there were far more lines on her face than I remembered... but I could see her face again, that face I’d seen looking down on me so many times before. That was a beautiful moment, the first time I saw her face again. We both cried, joy I think, relief, yeah, that too, and amazement, because I never thought I’d see again and now I could.
Now I come to think of it, I remember her looking a bit puzzled, a bit put off by my new eyes, but I guess I just put that down to surprise, because my old eyes had been brown and these were green. I know that because I looked in the mirror as soon as I had the chance and my eyes were green, a kind of pale pastel colour, quite light and a bit chalky, I guess you could say. It felt pretty odd, seeing someone else’s eyes on your face. Hell, it felt quite odd to see your face ten years older than when you’d last seen it. But it felt good, too.

It was strange, seeing light where before there’d only been darkness. It was painful at first, while my body healed from the operation and accepted the new eyes. But eventually that pain stopped, and I got used to seeing things again, used to the way everything seemed a little darker than when I was 18; I put it down to age, and to the way hospitals always seem to suck the whiteness out of everything and make every surface seem somehow grey... It felt strange, as well, that the images were coming from a different place now, from a few inches of my head rather than from points all over my body, from outside rather than in, so that whilst I could see everything, it all seemed shallower than it had been before, like pictures painted on canvas rather than pictures painted in my mind. I expected it would be a little strange, though, seeing again, and so I didn’t get too worried, just put it down to my body needing to adjust and work out what it was doing with this new sense it had been given.

Even more than my mum, the person I wanted to see most was Heather. I was so scared to see her, it was like a fist had clenched inside my chest, and I was so excited at the same time, knowing that I’d finally know if the picture I’d built of her from her smell and her touch and her taste was how she looked to my sight...I remember exactly the moment that I first saw her, first laid my new eyes on her. She wasn’t exactly like the picture in my head. Her hair was a bit lighter, her eyes a bit darker, not like leaves but like stagnant water in an old forgotten pool, and her face didn’t seem as round s I’d thought, didn’t seem so smooth… But if I looked hesitant, surprised, I don’t think she noticed, because she threw her arms around me and said she was so happy I was back and did it hurt and was I OK and we both cried a bit, which felt strange because I hadn’t cried for a long time, hadn’t been able to, and the hotness and the wetness hurt my new eyes a little; and seeing her cry meant all the other stuff didn’t matter because it was the worst thing I’d ever seen and I wanted it to stop and it had to stop and I was so, so glad when she buried her head in my chest and I couldn’t see the tears any more. And I looked down at her hair instead, the hair on the top of her head, and saw that it went a bit darker as it neared her skull and that made me feel odd, kind of disjointed, because I’d always imagined it to be one colour and now it looked like two and neither of them were like I thought her hair should be.

It was OK, though, because I knew that not everything would be exactly right and anyway it wasn’t as if I could complain about seeing my girlfriend for the first time in my life and it wasn’t like she’d changed, you know? Except… Except that, after we’d gone back home and started life again, and I started looking for a job and watching the television and I didn’t need my dog to lead me anymore because I could do it myself… Things didn’t seem right any more. I tried to read but the letters didn’t seem right, black against white not blue against black; and none of the colours I saw were quite how I remembered them, greens were always a bit darker and reds deeper and blues were always light and weak-looking, somehow, as if blue wasn’t a colour itself but a draining away of colour, the last stage before a colour faded into black… And Heather was different as well. She didn’t look how I’d imagined and she stopped sounding like I remembered, she stopped being kind in her voice and she started to feel more rough and started to feel less soft…
I started to hate seeing her, started to hate the way that I kept seeing new things about her that I hadn’t been able to see before, to see the tired lines around her eyes and the scorn that sometimes appeared on her face and the tiny blemishes on her skin, the brown marks on the white, reminders that she wasn’t stainless or pure and that when I saw her every time she changed as I noticed someone different until she wasn’t even really Heather any more, she was someone else, someone completely different to the Heather I’d known and seen in my head, because now I could see her outside my head and it was all wrong, all of it.

I started to think that the operation had gone wrong somehow, because surely sight should be something wonderful, something magical, something that you gain because otherwise they wouldn’t describe blindness as “lack” of sight but as an escape from it. And this sight felt terrible, like I was looking at everything through dark green glass, and it was only getting worse as time went on, as I saw more things and each thing I saw tore away the image I had of it and replaced it with this dark, flat drawing, just a shadow of what it used to be to me...

So I called the doctor in New York, the one who’d perfected the eye transplant, but I couldn’t get hold of him, not even his office or his secretary; the number just didn’t work at all. This didn’t make me feel much better, I’ll admit; and after I searched round on the Internet and in a couple of magazines, forcing the letters into my brain however wrong they looked, I found out that the doctor had disappeared off the face of the earth, just vanished like he had never been there in the first place, nobody knew where he was. And almost all of the people who’d had this transplant had started going mad, done things like throw themselves off bridges or run onto train tracks. One man in Houston had even killed his girlfriend three months after he’d had the operation, just taken a knife and stabbed her and then, more horrible, cut off her face and burnt it... And he’d told the police, when they came to him with his hands still covered in blood, that he’d done it because “She looked wrong”, that was the phrase he kept repeating, “she looked wrong”, and he’d thought she wasn’t his girlfriend but some kind of shapeshifter who’d taken on the appearance of her face and got it slightly wrong, that’s why he’d taken off her face, so he could see the shapeshifter underneath... And just after I’d read this, tears still wet on my cheeks, Heather came in and I looked at her and I realised that she looked wrong, she didn’t look like the Heather I knew before I had my new eyes and she was still changing, she was still getting darker every day...

I couldn’t let it get to that stage, I just couldn’t. To think I might end up killing Heather because my new eyes had made me see her differently, or maybe see her how she really was... I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t, and even thinking about it made the tears flow again, crying so hard that my still-healing eyes started to bleed a little and the tears came out pink-red instead of clear... I didn’t tell her what was wrong, just told her I was finding being able to see again was overwhelming, which wasn’t a lie, but I knew I had to do something.

I didn’t sleep that night. I left Heather sleeping in our bed while I went downstairs and sat in the dark silence, thinking about what I should do, how I should stop myself doing anything stupid. I couldn’t understand why anyone would hurt someone they loved, why that man had stabbed his girlfriend; the only thing he’d been able to say that was coherent was that she looked wrong... And the others, that had committed suicide or gone mad, all of them... The only thing they had in common was this operation, was that they had been blind and now they saw... And they’d all decided they didn’t want to see any more, and I realised that nor did I, I didn’t want to see any more because everything I saw looked wrong and was wrong, as if by the very act of looking at something was making it warp and change and become something flatter and darker than it really was, than it had been behind my eyes... And that was the answer. The eyes. Everything had gone wrong since I’d had these new eyes, these eyes that weren’t my own, these eyes that should have been left closed on the body of that young man in the car crash and never opened again.

I could make sure they never opened again. I could make sure I never had to see again, even if as I thought that the darkness around me started to turn green as if someone had turned on night-vision goggles and I was looking through them now. I realised, now, that I was far happier being blind, far happier lacing vision than having the sight of so much that was wrong in the world displayed before me and knowing that looking at it and doing nothing to change it was making it worse.

So I went into the kitchen and I opened a draw and took out a knife, and I placed it against my left eye and I pushed so that I felt the blade penetrate, and flicked my hand and felt my eyeball detach and fall onto the floor, and then I did the same with my other eye and now I was weeping blood, pure red blood that pooled around me on the floor and felt thick and sticky on my hands as I knelt in the middle of it. And I didn’t make a sound, I just knelt there, still gripping the kitchen knife, with the pool spreading around me and the liquid pouring slowly down my face and dripping from my mouth and chin. And in the morning Heather came downstairs and found me and I heard her scream and felt her arm around me and heard her ragged breath and sobs as she saw what I’d done to myself and I smiled, because I couldn’t see her anymore and that meant that her image, the deeper image of her touch and sound and smell... that image would last forever, unsullied by the time that can only be glimpsed by prying eyes.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Through Different Eyes: Part 2

So, part 2 of the short story I started last week; hope you enjoy! (Part 1 is here)

We went to a pub she knew, the Horse and Hounds, I think; I remember it was really noisy, crowded, with that thick feeling in the air you get when there are too many people in a small space. That’s where being blind comes in useful, though, ‘cause people make room for you, move out of your way a bit most of the time; I think Heather appreciated it, anyway, we got served pretty quick. Blind man and pretty girl, huh, pretty much perfect for getting served at bars. Well, we got our drinks, made our way to the table, she led me over, actually, because I remember the feeling of her hand on my back through my coat and how it seemed to, I don’t know, kind of concentrate me in that one sensation, made the feeling of her hand all I could concentrate on for a moment... Anyway, we sat down and we started talking and we really hit it off. We talked about my eyes and my life and I asked her what colour her eyes were, and she told me they were green, and she let me touch her eyelids and I could see the green through my fingers, the kind of green you get when sun shines through an oak leaf, where you can see the life framed against the sky. And she let me feel the rest of her face and make a picture up of her...

I still remember that picture, that first picture I had of her. Funny, really; you’d think with what happened afterwards I wouldn’t remember that, but I do. I knew she was blonde because she told me; I pictured a kind of dirty blonde, that kind of almost-brown, like honey mixed with chocolate. And her face was soft, I remember that too; her nose was small, her mouth was small too, and it was so soft, like someone had soaked it in water for an hour, you know? She sounded perfect, she felt perfect; and she liked me. Can you believe that? She actually liked this blind bloke she’d just picked up off the street. She said later it was because I’d made her laugh, and she said she didn’t laugh much. I wanted her to laugh all the time, thought I could make her laugh all the time, didn’t want to do anything else. I mean, it wasn’t love at first sight or anything, hah, couldn’t be, but maybe love at first touch. I could believe that, love at first touch. And I knew that this picture of her was mine, and only mine, because everyone else would see her with their eyes and I saw her with my fingertips and my ears and my nose and so I had a picture that no-one else but me could ever see.

And she told me about her life, and how she worked in a charity shop and loved kittens and how her mom had been really sick when she was a little girl and- well, all the things you talk about when you meet a new person you like. I think we knew more about each other after that first drink than most people know about each other in their whole lives. Anyway, we arranged to meet up again, and again after that, and things just seemed to slip into place, and we were going out.

She’d come round some evenings and we’d sit and listen to the radio together or she’d read me a book, and we’d hold hands... I remember our first kiss, the first kiss I’d had in ten years, the way we were sitting at a table in the pub and we were talking and I said I loved her and felt her breath stroking my cheek so I could see where her lips were, where her face was, and leaning in as she put her hand on the back of my neck and I could see her fingers as they curled in my hair...

 It was the best I’ve ever felt in my life, just feeling the softness of her lips and tasting strawberries on her tongue. Since then I always saw her lips as being red as strawberries; that was another thing about not being able to see, it meant the picture in your head could change without the thing you were picturing having to change at all. And I did love her, as well, I wasn’t just saying it to get a kiss; I loved the way she felt when she held my hand and the way she always smelt like strawberries even after a hard day and the way she’d laugh whenever I said something stupid or not even that funny. I loved that I could make her laugh. And even though I couldn’t see her I felt like I knew what she looked like; I knew she had slender hands and she wasn’t that tall and she had dirty blonde hair and green eyes like the leaves on a tree and she loved the colour purple, because she said it always reminded her of her name.

After that, things just kind of melted into reality. She told me she loved me as well, told me while we sat stroking each others’ faces on the sofa in my flat, and it felt like I was flying above the clouds. That was my picture of love, then; flying above the clouds and seeing them red and gold as the sun came up above them... That’s one of the things about not being able to see physical things, you know, it means you can see abstracts, see things that don’t really exist except in your head. So love was like being above the clouds, and hope was like a fire burning against a deep, dark forest, and sadness was this kind of purple smoke that folded itself around things and became solid and wouldn’t let go... People who can see can’t see that, because they were too preoccupied with what they could see; or at least I was when I could see, before I went to Northern Ireland and the nail took out both my eyeballs in less than one second and changed my life forever.

Soon enough Heather moved in with me; said we spent so much time together anyway that it made sense, and anyway it would be better for me to stay in a place I knew well enough to walk around even without my dog to guide me.  And we loved each other, me and Heather, as much as we ever could, and we learnt about each other, met parents and everything, shared everything that two young people in love usually share, hopes and pains and dreams...

Maybe I should have started here, because this is where all the trouble started, really. We were sitting on my sofa, she was stroking the dog and I was stroking her hair, working out the new style she’d had done with my fingers, and she was reading a magazine with her other hand, just flicking through while we listened to the radio. Then I felt her tense up under my hand, and I asked her what was wrong, what was up. And she laughed, kind of nervously, really, there’s a little tremor in her laugh I hadn’t heard there before and didn’t like too much. I suppose that should have made me pause, but... She said there was an article in this magazine, this thing about a doctor in America who’d perfected an eye transplant. Like, you’d get a pair of eyes from someone who’d died, like an organ donor type deal, and as long as they were kept in the right conditions you could use them to replace the eyes of someone who’d lost their eyes. Obviously, we were both excited. I mean, I dealt with having no eyes, had to deal with it, but I missed it, you know? Missed being able to see new stuff properly, regretted that I’d never really seen Heather as she really was, just a picture in my mind and my fingertips... So yeah, we were excited. And I’d saved up some money, I mean it’s not like I was going to theme parks every weekend, right, and so we decided to go to this doctor’s clinic and see what he could do. Tried not to get our hopes up, because I’d lost my eyes so long ago and neither of us really understood exactly what the ins-and-outs of the operation were, and we knew it was a risky procedure but we talked about it and decided we’d give it a go. And in about a week we’d sorted some stuff out and got on a plane to America and then we were in New York and knocking on the door of this doctor and sitting down, hand in hand, in his office.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Through Different Eyes:Part One

Hey guys! So, this is another short story; there'll be three parts, and as you've probably worked out from the title, this is part one. It's much darker than the last one (ie not pure comedy, more drama), so I hope you like it; let me know what you think! 

This is a story about seeing. Or, more precisely, it’s a story about seeing again, from a different perspective. It’s about how the pictures inside your head aren’t always the same as the pictures on the outside, and how seeing things through another’s eyes doesn’t always make the world a better place. And it’s about loss, and gain, and loss again. I don’t expect you to understand why I did what I did but I feel like I should try and explain it, because it needs explaining, and it needs not to happen again.

I was 18 when I lost my eyes. I was a soldier, keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, my first taste of duty. It was my second ever patrol, just me and a group of mates walking through the streets and making sure everything was running smoothly. I guess that wasn’t really in our power to ensure, though.

I don’t really remember much of it; just a big flash, and screaming, and noise. A nail-bomb in a car parked on the street, just a shabby old car like any others; there’s no way we could have known, no way the people who lay groaning and screaming on the streets could have known. We weren’t far from the car when it exploded, sending shards of metal flying in all directions, through the air and through flesh. People say that things slow down in situations like that, but I didn’t notice that; everything seemed to speed up, so fast that nobody could react, nobody could get out of the way. One second, normal street, the next second, pain.

I remember the pain. They tell me a nail went straight through the side of my head, through both of my eyes; I suppose there’s some irony in me not seeing that coming. I remember the impact on the side of my head; I remember the flash of red and then the blackness and the sharp, unbearable agony, the unbidden scream, and the whimper for my mum. I don’t remember much after that; I guess I must have passed out. Next thing I remember is waking up with cotton sheets wrapped around me and rough material on my face, and the cool hand of a nurse on my arm and that horrible hospital smell.

I don’t want you to think I’m looking for sympathy, or anything like that. What happened, happened, and I dealt with that; wouldn’t be telling you all this if I hadn’t. But you need to know what happened, how it felt, why I did what I did, because otherwise you couldn’t understand what happened next.

Obviously I couldn’t carry on in the army, or get another job, really; most things require you to be able to see. I mean, I got enough money to cope, and they gave me a dog so I could walk about, and I got a pair of dark glasses so people wouldn’t have to see the black holes where my eyes used to be. The rest of my face wasn’t marked at all; I just didn’t have any eyeballs left, and my eyelids were always half-open so that I had two craters carved into the surface of my face. It didn’t bother me all that much; I found it hard to imagine what I looked like, really, and it wasn’t as if I could get caught out by my reflection.

I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t hard. God, the first time my mum saw me, in the hospital, and I heard her crying; I wouldn’t go through that again for anything. But I didn’t have a girlfriend or anything like that, my friends were in the army and they did everything they could to make me feel better, even smuggled in some beers when they visited me in my bed. Yeah, it was hard, but like I say, I dealt with it. I learnt to cope without sight; let my dog be my eyes, learnt to use my ears and my nose, noticed stuff I could never notice before. And I couldn’t see new things but I could remember what things used to look like, could remember colours and scenes and the way the sun used to hurt when you looked at it and how the water in the lake used to sparkle and all that stuff. I missed being able to see things, don’t get me wrong, missed it so much it used to hurt, that crushing, stifling pain you get in your chest when you lose something you’ve taken for granted. Yeah, I missed it. But, there was nothing I could do about it, so I got on with life, got on with living however I could.

I spent ten years like that, blind, but coping. I coped, adapted to how life was, got used to it even; there was a lot of pain and regret but I always had my mum and a couple of good mates and the radio to keep me occupied. I learnt to not walk too fast, to let my dog lead me, to listen to the world around. It’s amazing how people who can see don’t listen, don’t listen to how a car sounds when it’s just about to speed up or slow down, how footsteps sound different when people are moving aside for you on the pavement, how people’s breathing changes when they stiffen up ‘cos a blind man’s walking past them. But I learned to listen. It was hard, that last one. It happened a lot. People treat you differently when they think you’re different to them, when they don’t know what they can say to you, when they think if they mention the eyes or seeing stuff it’ll make you miss what you once had. I mean, I did miss seeing things, of course I did, but I missed being able to talk to people more.

But like I say, I learnt to listen, and to smell and taste and touch. And that was okay; it’s amazing the pictures you can build up in your head when you just brush something with your fingertips, how you can see the toughness of rope through feeling its roughness or see the shape of a tree through the scrape of its bark. I could see the stillness of coffee from its smell and the ripples in a river from the sound of it splashing on the banks and rocks. I even learnt to see letters through my fingers, running them over bumps and lines and seeing each letter take shape in the dark behind where my eyes used to be in spidery blue flame against the blackness. It wasn’t the same as viewing things with my eyes had been, never quite so crisp and sharp, but I thought it wasn’t all so bad, because I got to see things no other person could see while they only got to see what everyone else could see as well. So yeah, it was hard, but I coped; kept going on walks, tried to ignore the bad sounds, seeing the silhouettes of shapes in the shadows of my head, kept putting one foot in front of the other and resigned myself to doing that forever.

And then I met her. Inauspicious beginnings, I guess; my dog, usually pretty well-behaved, got spooked by something, no idea what, jumped up, pulled me over. I felt her hand on my arm and she pulled me up, asked me if I was Ok, pressed my dog’s lead back into my hand so I could feel the soft leather on the roughness of my palm. I told her thanks; I mean, what else do you say? I was-not helpless, I could have managed, would have, in the end, found the end of the lead from the pictures in my head as it scraped over the hard tarmac, and let’s face it most people would have helped and she was just the closest, but still. And I made a joke about how I didn’t see it coming; I’ve always had that streak of self-deprecation in me, I guess, and anyway, things don’t seem quite so real, quite so close, if you can make a joke out of them. And I heard her laugh and it sounded like birdsong, like the sound that makes you happy when it gets you out of bed in the morning, and I realised I wanted to hear that laugh again and again, and so I asked if there was any way I could make it up to her and- get this, to a blind man she’d just seen fallen down by the side of the road, to a guy she must have seen as helpless- she said I could buy her a drink, if I wasn’t too busy. You could hear she was kind in her voice, and I wanted to hear it again, so I said yes, and I told her my name, and she told me hers was Heather.