Jack o’ Diamonds

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 27th, 2023)

Most British towns and villages are ancient foundations with Roman remains, ruined castles, and the like. Not so Daleforge. Before the 1840s, there was just the forge and the smith’s cottage. Butthen, in quick order, came the pit, the rows and rows of workers’ cottages, the ironworks, and the railway. With the houses, came the football. Not at first the codifed game of eleven versus eleven,but the rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, pitched battle held every Shrovetide between those in the houses on one side of the Red Brook versus those on the other. But soon enough after the English Football Association was formed in the 1860s, Daleforge United FC emerged and eventually became a founder member of the Football League. And that was what my dirty old town became famous for: the foundries and the football.

Lives can turn on a single event. In my case it was a dolorous meeting in 1988, an event as desolate as a snowflake dissolving in a muddy puddle. But there’s nearly always a back-story to those turnings in the road, and this back-story stretches away ten years, to 1978.

I was twenty-two back then, living at home, drifting from job to job. Dad and I argued furiously about almost every damn thing – jobs, music, drinking, politics, clothes… hair. Jeez, the arguments we had about hair… Difficult to credit that now. Our rows were interminable. My then girlfriend, Susie (who deserved better and eventually found it), said that Dad and I were like a pair of rutting stags in Mum’s scullery kitchen.

We even fell out about football. In fact, that was maybe part of the trouble. I was one of that fortunate minority, a natural left-footer. So I was always in demand as a player for local youth teams, even though my right foot was just for standing on. All Daleforge was football-daft and Dad was no exception. He’d been a notable teenage footballer himself, but the war had intervened. I understood why he loved to come and see me and play. And why he was so disappointed when I lost interest in the game. I think we both understood the other guy’s point of view, but understanding
just didn’t help.

Do you know that lightbulb joke? How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. I was that awkward light bulb. Dad had grown up in the Hungry Thirties, then he’d gone off to the war and ended up in the Middle East, stuck there til early 1946. And he’d come back to 1940s post-war austerity. He’d landed a clerking job in the Purchasing Office at Stark’s Foundry and counted himself lucky to get it.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot more to him than that: for example, somewhere along the line, he’d learned to play the banjo, and though he couldn’t read music, he could hear a tune just once or twice on the radio and pick it out afterwards on that battered banjo. Yeah, there was definitely a lot more to Dad. But he didn’t like to let it show.

I’m glad now I didn’t storm out of the house, back in ’78. I just took a summer job in the Channel Islands – a Guernsey beach café – and, somehow, I never came back home. In ’88 I was working in Canada: there was good money working the Athabaska Tar Sands, if you didn’t mind freezing half to death in the winter time. That was when my cousin Sheila got in touch to tell me Mum was ill with cancer.

I got the first flight back that I could find and landed at Prestwick in Scotland. The guy in the next seat to me said Prestwick Airport was the only place in Britain that Elvis had ever visited. I could see how it might’ve put him off, but at least the airport had a train station. Two connections later, it was late afternoon by the time my train arrived back home. As I walked out of the station, a smartly dressed busker was playing to the passing crowd. I was so tired I was almost hallucinating, but I recognised the tune: it was ‘Jack o’ Diamonds.’ I went over, put a quid in his hat, and said: ‘Hiya Dad.’

It turned out that Stark’s Foundry had computerised their stock control and made him redundant. After forty-odd years. He hadn’t wanted to worry Mum, so he’d just leave the house as usual every morning, with the banjo in the boot of his car. He wasn’t thinking straight: some busybody would’ve been bound to recognise him eventually. But there weren’t any jobs for 62 year-olds in Daleforge in the 1980s. He didn’t know what else to do.

We both had a damn good cry.

A Strange Stone with a Strange History. An Essay by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 12th 2023)

One of the most striking exhibits in the National Museum of Scotland is an eight foot, two ton, twelve hundred year-old, intricately carved slab of sandstone – the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, a Pictish standing stone originally from Easter Ross, in the north of Scotland. The Picts left many such standing stones dotted across Scotland and, despite generations of scholarship, they remain in many respects a mysterious people.

The Pictish script has never been more than very tentatively translated, a mixture of abstract ideograms and pictograms (an accidental pun – called them imojis, if that’s your preference). Their language has long since died out, though there are faint indications in some Scottish place-names; it has been conjectured that Pictish may have been similar to Old Welsh. MacBeth and his adopted son, Lulach, were the last Pictish kings.

The interpretations of the rich carvings of the Hilton of Cadboll stone are likewise a matter of conjecture. The central carved figure, mounted side-saddle on a horse, has fine detailing on the hair, robes, and a large brooch. This is perhaps a representation of a poweful Pictish matriarch: some have suggested that Pictish society was matrilineal, not patrilineal, with inheritance passing through the female line. Alternatively, the central figure could be the Virgin Mary or Jesus himself, who was sometimes represented as riding side-saddle. The stone also shows two smaller mounted figures pursuing a deer with their hunting dogs. These could be members of a Pictish warrior elite at their leisure. Or the scene could also be an allegorical representation of Christian conversion and the salvation of the soul: some of these stones may have served to mark places of outdoor preaching, during the conversion of the Picts to Christianity.The carved borders of the stone are equally mysterious: contained within the intricate vine scrollwork are strange winged creatures.

Though the origins of the stone are uncertain, its more recent history is quite instructive. At some point, the stone had toppled, and the broken base is lost. But in 1676 the eight-foot upper portion was  was reused as a gravemarker. The Christian cross that formed one side of the stone was chipped away, and the cleared slab became the grave marker of a local man, Alexander Duff and his three wives (it is presumed that the wives were sequential, rather than contemporaneous). The side of the slab with the Pictish carvings was now laid facedown, in the earth of the graveyard. The stone remained there for nearly two hundred years, until the 1860s, when the local laird re-erected the stone as an ornament in the garden of his mansion.

Alexander Duff’s behaviour is understandable. In the seventeenth century, antiquarianism was in its infancy in the British Isles. And Scotland was a Presbyterian country, following the teachings of Calvin and John Knox, which grounded Christian worship and belief firmly in the Bible, as the Word of God. Duff would have had no truck with statuary, associating them with ‘Popery.’ Since this reuse of the stone also had the incidental benefit of preserving the carvings from two hundred years of weather, he and his executors may be excused.

Not so the behaviour of the laird. He and his gardener should have stuck to cherubs and gnomes. There’s perhaps some satisfaction to be had from the knowledge that his mansion house is long demolished and, while his garden ornament is splendidly preserved in Edinburgh, his garden ground has become part of yet another golf course.


by Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction, February 22nd 2023)

Did every 1960s British secondary school have a murderous gym teacher? Was there a special hush-hush government establishment for turning trained, wartime, SAS killers into post-war cricket umpires? I only ask because, over and again, in occasional conversations with strangers in bars and on trains, I’ve heard stories of young lives blighted by sadists with whistles dangling round their necks. My own tormentor was a laconic, vindictive Yorkshireman, called Dogsbreath Donovan. But I was blessed, because Fate eventually delivered him into my hands.

One example of Dogsbreath’s inhumanity must suffice: clearing the vaulting box. You needed a strong leap to get over those wooden vaulting boxes. The lift used to be supplied by a springboard – a flexible wooden board that you sprinted toward and jumped on with all your weight. But springboards were obsolete and ours was eventually replaced by a mini-trampoline. Had Dogsbreath been interested in children’s health and safety, he would have warned us that mini-trampolines required a rather different technique from springboards. But Dogsbreath evidently felt it would be more entertaining for the class to learn by trial and error…

As always, we lined up in alphabetical order: me first, Tank Yeomans last. The concussion I suffered meant that I have no memory of the event, but apparently, after thumping that trampoline at speed with all my might, I cleared the vaulting box by a good four feet, uttered an unmanly shriek, and clattered into the climbing bars at the back of the gym. Dogsbreath smiled as he ambled over to take me to the secretary’s office and the first-aid box.

My chance came in the last week of the summer term and of my school career. There was an equipment store beside the gym. It was a muddle of sagging shelves, mouldering ropes, rusting metal and broken bits of wood. As I left the gym changing room, I could see Dogsbreath, with his back to me, rummaging about in the store. I noticed that he had left the key in the lock of the half-open door.

I never hesitated: I moved quietly up to the door, grabbed the doorknob, and pulled it closed. But before I could turn the key, the doorknob was grabbed from the inside. Dogsbreath was bigger and heavier than me, but I had adrenaline as well as justice on my side. I jammed my foot against the doorpost and heaved for my life. A near-silent tussle ensued for several seconds. I could hear Dogsbreath’s heavy breathing on the other side of the door. I made one final huge effort and abruptly let go…

The door flew open and I sped away. As I sprinted down the corridor and round the corner, I heard a succession of dull thumps, grunts, metallic clangs and wooden clatters. I had a gratifying mental picture of Dogsbreath ricocheting off various pieces of sharp and heavy equipment.

I felt that, on the whole, it would be wiser to skip school for the rest of that last week.

The Innocent Accomplice

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Grey Sparrow Journal, 31st January 2023)

Arthur Frankland was sick. In all his thirty-five years in the Home Office civil service, he’d never before been off work for more than a couple of days at a time. Now, he was suffering from psoriasis, chronic insomnia, acute anxiety, and high blood pressure. The doctor also offered a course of anti-depressants, but Arthur had shrunk from that.

He’d never had a strong sense of vocation. After graduating, his history tutor had suggested that he undertake a Ph.D. in Nineteenth Century Russian History. But after a year, he realized that he’d no wish to become an academic. Following the lead of a couple of friends, he applied to join the civil service.

Though he lacked a vocation, he was a conscientious worker and his abilities and achievements led to promotions to difficult and demanding posts. For example, Arthur had played a key role in the UK’s fast-track visa system for foreign nationals who brought with them funds of £2 million or more to invest in the UK. With hindsight, that system had the drawback of having attracted large numbers of Russian oligarchs to the country. Arthur’s spirits had not been lifted by a magazine article he’d read, stating that tourists could now sign up for London kleptocracy tours.

More recently, Arthur had been working on the processing of migrants’ asylum applications. The process was both long-winded and massively under-resourced, resulting in a backlog stretching out longer than regret. Like the rest of the British public, Arthur watched the TV horrors of the small boat crossings and the small boat drownings. Politicians thundered about queue-jumping and criminal gangs. But Arthur knew that processing delays inevitably led to queue-jumping, and that queue-jumping inevitably led to criminal involvement.

He continued to discharge his responsibilities as best he could. He phoned for a doctor’s appointment when he heard about Home Office plans to fly failed asylum-seekers to a small country in Central Africa. An unkind colleague remarked, inaccurately and unfairly, that Arthur had probably “taken a sickie” to avoid being asked to work on the Central African Scheme.

Casting around for distractions in his flat, Arthur started to re-read some of the materials he’d assembled for his abandoned Russian history PhD. Among them was a copy of the memoirs of the Russian anarchist revolutionary, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). After escaping imprisonment in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in 1876, Kropotkin fled to Scandinavia and onto the UK (he wrote his memoirs in suburban Bromley). Arriving at last at the harbor in Christiania (now Oslo), he saw the steamer that would carry him to safety: “… then I saw floating above the stern the Union Jack–the flag under which so many refugees, Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, and of all nations, have found asylum. I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.”

When he read that, Arthur Frankland phoned for another doctor’s appointment.

The Smoothing Stream

(first published in Literally Stories, 19th January 2023)

by Michael Bloor

After the cremation, I felt I had to get away. I found a Perthshire country house hotel on the internet, situated in one of those mysterious winding glens that end abruptly in a wall of rock. The hotel advertised itself as ‘a mecca for hill-walkers,’ but that clearly only applied outside the shooting season, as was evidenced by the stags’ heads in the hallway, bar and library. More like an abattoir than a country house hotel, it seemed on arrival. Nevertheless, the staff were friendly and the weather was surprisingly dry for April, so I decided to stay on for a second week: I didn’t relish returning home to an empty house – her clothes in the wardrobe, her flowers in their pots on the kitchen window. And it wasn’t really until that second week that I got to know Willie Anderson.

Of course, there was still quite a lot of snow lying on the high tops, but I hadn’t brought my crampons and, in my view, it’s daft for an old git in his sixties to go wandering off on his own over snowfields only half frozen, with possible hidden crevasses and overhangs above hidden rock faces. I was quite content, most of the time, pottering along the glen, on both sides of the river. And if I was feeling energetic, there was a path behind the hotel that led up to a saddle-ridge and then down into the next glen. From there, I could follow that glen south to where it met up with the main glen, giving me a circular route back to my evening meal and a drink in the hotel bar. All walkers prefer a circular route, but this one had the added attraction for me that the adjoining glen was completely unpopulated. There was one, unroofed shepherd’s house and, scattered among the bracken, a few ruckles of stones to mark the old ‘black houses’ of the native population, swept away from the only homes they’d ever known to North America in the Highland Clearances of two hundred-odd years ago, all in the name of the dismal science of Economics. I felt an atmosphere lingered over those old stones and to stride among the ghosts of these lost dwellings suited my mood.

It turned out that there were perhaps more ghosts in that empty glen than I’d reckoned on. Andy, the hotel owner and part-time barman, told me the story one quiet evening in the bar over a dram. The shepherd’s house was last occupied in the late 1940s, by a young family – the shepherd, his wife, and two young children (a five year-old girl and a boy toddler). It was a winter’s day and the snow lay thick and drifted. Just at dusk, the shepherd appeared at the hotel (in those days it was a shooting lodge with only a caretaker in residence). The man was agitated, and near-exhausted from pushing through the drifts lying on the saddle. He had come to phone the doctor in the village: his daughter was very ill – her parents suspected appendicitis. The doctor was an elderly man and to reach the shepherd’s house would be quite beyond his capabilities. He said he would get a local farmer to drive him on a tractor through the drifts to the shooting lodge. Meanwhile, the shepherd must return to his own house and somehow carry his daughter back to the lodge.

The shooting lodge kept ponies – Highland Garrons – for carrying shot game back to the lodge. The shepherd begged the loan of a pony from the caretaker. The caretaker demurred, but the shepherd prevailed upon him to phone the lodge owner, in London, to give his permission. The ponies were unused to being ridden, but were docile, and would carry a child, if roped or strapped securely to their backs.

 The caretaker watched the shepherd lead the pony away. He was the last person to see them alive. A north-west wind had sprung up, ensuring there would be fresh drifting on the exposed saddle ridge. The doctor arrived just before midnight, too stiff with cold to dismount from the tractor unaided. But there was no patient for him. The wind died with the dawn and half a dozen local men and the village constable struggled up the saddle to search for those missing. They found them all, a mile short of the shepherd’s house. It seemed the mother had come out with her husband to hold the patient steady on the pony, being led by her husband. They must have judged that the storm was too fierce to allow them over the saddle and turned back for home, only for cold and exhaustion to then overcome them all – adults, child and pony died together.

Andy poured me another dram: ‘This was all before my time, you understand. I heard it all from Willie Anderson. He was the gamekeeper here before he retired, but he still helps out when we have shooting parties up here. He stays in the cottage across the bridge. According to Willie, no-one would stay in the shepherd’s house after that tragic business, although there was a terrible housing shortage at the time. Sometime in the Sixties, the roof fell in. It’s called Dookeran Cottage, a garbled version of the old Perthshire Gaelic – Gleann an Dubh Choirein, the Glen of the Black Corries.’

The following day was warm, bright and still, and I lingered on the bridge at the bottom of the hotel drive. I was watching the sand martins. Just upstream from the bridge, the river had cut deeply into a large hummock of glacial spoil (‘drumlins,’ the hummocks are called in the geography textbooks, I don’t know if there’s a Highland name for them), resulting in a near-vertical sandy bank rising some thirty feet above the river. Generations of sand martins had excavated tiny holes in the bank to raise their young, and here were the latest generation to complete the cycle – newly returned from their winter quarters to repair and refurbish, to breed and rear, and to continue the work of their forbears. It’s difficult to say why watching this swooping, twittering, aerobatic community should be so restful.

Yet restful it was; I don’t know how long I stayed there leaning on the bridge wall. At length, an old Series I Land Rover drew up alongside me and a head emerged from the window – a brown, wrinkled, outdoor face, almost hairless, with gleaming false teeth: ‘Aye, you’re watching the martins. They arrived back on Wednesday – a week earlier this year.’ I realised that I was being addressed by an expert, Willie Anderson.

Willie didn’t intrude his expertise: it was a natural part of him, like his toothy chuckle. And he had that pedagogic trick of capturing your interest with an intriguing story: that morning, I was tickled by his tale of how, three years previously, an albino martin had returned to the glen and seemed to act as a sort of leader to the others. Willie was a mine of information about the history of the glen, too. I had already noticed the neolithic cup-marked boulder on the far side of the bridge, but he offered to show me a strange, carved, standing stone, hidden in a small forestry plantation at the head of the glen.

We walked up there together that afternoon. We agreed that it was probably a Pictish stone, possibly erected to mark a boundary between Pictland and the (Scottish) kingdom of Dalriada. Together, we stared at the carved Pictish symbols, more mysterious than Egyptian hieroglyphics: we were enriched, rather than diminished, by the puzzle of the past. On the way back, I stumbled on one surprising piece of Willie’s past: this warm and outgoing man was a widower like myself.

Willie had been born and raised among those hills and in the next few days he showed me many hidden places and told me many old tales: the great cleft in the rocks where the whisky-still had been erected; the cave where one of the Drummond chiefs had fled after the ’45 Rebellion; the ford where the minister’s wife had drowned in a flash flood. Places where jagged tragedies had been worn smooth by the stream of time. On my last evening, we stood together in the kirkyard beside his wife’s grave. Willie told me that it was her birthday. The wild primroses growing among the turf seemed luminescent in the evening light. I noticed that the adjoining gravestone marked another Anderson grave, a husband, wife and young daughter. Willie nodded, ‘Aye, my faither and mither, an’ my big sister.’

May, 1967

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Potato Soup Journal, 6th December, 2022)

I’m 75 years old and, at the time of writing (October 2022), President Putin is threatening a nuclear war, my boiler is misbehaving, and governmental fiscal foolishness is knocking a big hole in my pension pot. So why am I so bloody cheerful? 

That’s a tough one. Can’t say for sure, but I reckon the answer may lie in the fortunate circumstances of my early adulthood. I’m not claiming this as a Universal Law of Human Development, but my outlook on life was probably formed in my late teens and early twenties. This is an essay, not an autobiography, so I will confine myself to a 55 year-old snapshot….

I was coming to the end of my first academic year at Cambridge. A working class, grammar school boy, from an industrial town in the Midlands, I felt no sense of inferiority, no necessity to modify my accent: for the first (and probably the last) time in history, it was fashionable to be working class. I’d joined the University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Group and I demonstrated against the Vietnam War. My girlfriend wore mini-dresses from Biba and suede boots; we went to wild dances, innocent parties, and arty films.

Mid-afternoon, Friday, May 12th, 1967. I was in the college room of a new acquaintance (and now life-long friend) listening with him to his transistor radio. A pirate radio station, Radio London, broadcasting from a former US Navy minesweeper, moored three and a half miles offshore, had secured a pre-release copy of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was to be heard on the airwaves for the very first time at three o’clock. 

The sound from the transistor was a bit tinny but the music was astonishing. As if in tribute, a thunderstorm broke outside. It felt as if the world had turned.

Soon afterwards, the university term finished. I headed back home and got a summer job labouring in a wholesale warehouse (pay: £11 per week). Once I’d saved enough money, I hitch-hiked to Venice, shimmering city in the summer sea. That same May, a young man named Brian Clough became manager of my local football team. He was to take them on a twenty-two run of unbeaten games to win promotion to the old First Division, and the town would go football crazy. And, to top it all, everywhere you went that summer, you seemed to hear Sergeant Pepper playing through open windows. 

Do you wonder I am an optimist?

An Historical Footnote

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 28/11/22)

A while back, I was reading an account, by the poet and journalist James Fenton, of the fall of Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975*. In the middle of the despairing mob outside the US Embassy, begging to be evacuated, as the last of the helicopters departed, Fenton came across one man simply shouting over again, ‘I’m a professor, I’m professor.’ Poor guy, he was well behind the times, we university professors get dumped on nowadays just like any other employee. The trick is to spot when the shit-shower is imminent.

Me, I knew quite quickly after Hopkins was appointed the new Head of the Welsh Department that my days at the university would be numbered. He seemed harmless enough, with his bow tie and his squeaky voice, but I could tell he harboured a vaunting ambition and was itching to make a name for himself by making a few heads roll. That was when I started writing my secret memoir: ‘Eating Your Own Vomit – life in the modern university.’

Anyway, I decided to jump before I was pushed and applied for voluntary redundancy. I knew I could always make a bit of money by coaching monoglot English-speakers who wanted to get ahead in the newly bilingual Welsh Government machine. But, as it happened, I heard that there was a job coming up in the National Library of Wales that would suit me down to the ground. The same chap (an ex-postgraduate student of mine) who’d tipped me off about the National Library job, was able to recommend me for a cushy temporary job while I waited for his librarian colleague to retire. An old landed family with a ramshackle stately home outside Llanelli were looking for someone to catalogue and organise their library, including a number of old manuscripts. As I was a specialist in Old Welsh and had even written (some thirty years ago) the go-to-text on the Book of Aneirin, the oldest poem in the Welsh language, the family were delighted to offer me the job.

The son, who interviewed me, was very clear that they needed to know if any of their books and manuscripts were valuable. For insurance purposes, he said. But it was pretty obvious to me that they were hoping I’d turn up a few tasty items that they could send to auction to replenish the family coffers.

In fact, very few of the manuscripts were of any interest to anyone. A few letters in Welsh from the estate’s tenant farmers might be of passing interest to an agricultural historian, but the rest were everyday estate legal documents, all written in English.

Likewise, the books were an almost total disappointment. Books of sermons predominated. A few dated back to the end of the seventeenth century, but almost all showed signs of bookworm infestation. I made the family aware of the problem and they offered the use of their large chest freezer for any books I thought might be of some value. The freezer would kill both the insects and their eggs, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea because I understood that freezing could damage the leather bindings. However, the employer always knows best, and I reckoned there would be very few volumes worth preserving.

That was until I came to study an early biography of the great itinerant Methodist preacher, Howel Harris. The book had been printed in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in the 1770s, but some accident had subsequently detached the book from it’s original spine and it had been rebound, re-using a sheet of old vellum. The outer surface of the binding was blank, but the inner surface was a revelation…

The original use of the vellum was clear from that inner surface: on it, a scribe had written a fragment of a poem. The language was a bit of a puzzle. It was not Old Welsh (my specialism), but yet there were similarities with Old Welsh. I made a careful transcript and took it home to study more closely. Many of the individual words were familiar, including the word ‘Arthur’ that occurred three times. I was sure that the poem wasn’t written in any of the existing near-relatives of Welsh, like Breton. It occurred to me that it might be an extinct near-relative of Welsh, perhaps the ancient Pictish language of North-East Scotland.

Then, as I was brushing my teeth before retiring, it suddenly struck me. It was not a contemporary of Old Welsh at all: it was the progenitor. It was the ancient language of Britain – the language from which Old Welsh evolved.

Too excited to go to bed, I washed the toothpaste taste away and opened the bottle of Highland Park that Dorothy had bought me for Christmas. Not only had I stumbled on the only surviving written fragment of British, but I had proved, against all the doubters and nay-sayers, the truth of the legend of Arthur. Back there, outside Llanelli, was the only contemporary account of Arthur, the war duke who rallied the Britons against the Saxon invaders, beat them in twelve battles and secured a hundred-year peace, before the tide turned once more and the British princes retreated to the mountains of Wales, Scotland and Cumberland…

And what’s more, I had secured for myself a footnote in the historical record. So screw you, Hopkins.

*James Fenton,’ The Fall of Saigon,’ Granta, Spring 1985, p.82.

Double Dating

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction 26/11/22)

My walk took me into the old quarry by the east bank of the Allanwater, a pleasant, sheltered place on a windy autumn day – my usual stopping place to eat my lunch (on this occasion, a small pork pie and a banana). I was absorbed in my own thoughts, unwrapping the pork pie, when I sensed the presence of another person. I looked up and was astonished to see myself, a few feet away, wearing a worried expression and a spacesuit.

I dropped the pork pie.

The Other Me shook his head and waved his hands. ‘Jeez, what a waste! I’d give worlds for a pork pie. Okay, listen: we may not have much time. I’m you, from the future, from March 30th, 2030.’


Yeah, yeah, you won that competition prize – a trip on the Inaugural Virgin Starship Voyage to the Alpha Centauri system.’


Sure, you dope. You won the prize for your breakfast cereal slogan: “Wake Up to a Bowl Full of Sun.” And now, you don’t remember? Oh yeah, hang on, that’s not til 2029. OK, just listen good. You’re going to win a prize, right? The prize is a trip on the starship. Now, believe me, the trip is a real roller-coaster. Right now we’re stuck in this black hole, a vortex, a spiral of nothingness. Well, a helix of nothingness, to be exact. OK, did you know that in a really huge vortex, there’s a time loop? Mm. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to travel back in time to warn me. I mean to warn you, the earlier me. ‘

Warn me?’

Yep. You’re up to speed now? Frankly, I’m taking a bit of a risk for us: time travel needs to be carefully calibrated, both for period and location. Did you know that the South American Giant Ground Sloth weighed four tons and only became extinct ten thousand years ago? Meeting that’d certainly be reason enough to drop a pork pie.

Anyway, I’m here to warn me – to warn us – about Relief Captain Louise Lolly. She’s two-timing me – us – with that Vinny Visconti, the Communications Officer – the smooth-talking creep. The best thing would be if we gave Louise the go-by altogether. I’ve a sort-of a feeling that Anna, the Polish space cadet, might be quite interested in us, given a bit of encouragement. So… Hey, if you’re not going to eat that banana, may I…? Oops, starting to fade, I think we’re about to emerge from the spiral, I mean the helix. Thanks for the ba…’

Midhowe Chambered Cairn

(first published in The Drabble, November 16th, 2022)

By Michael Bloor

On the small Isle of Rousay in the Orkneys, there lies a great chambered tomb. Five thousand and four hundred years ago, the farmers and the fisherfolk of the island laboured over many years building the tomb, the better to house and honour their dead. It sits in a field corner, alongside the farmer’s pile of black plastic sacks, storing the cut grass that will become the silage for the animals’ winter feed. That black plastic might seem unsightly, but it is surely also a reminder that humankind are still working this field after more than five-thousand years.

The Laird of Balwearie

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 20th October 2022)

I was visiting Fraser, an old friend, in Fife. It was one of those fine, dry, crisp, cold days that you often find in Scotland in February and we took a walk out into the countryside. Fraser pointed out a ruined tower in the middle distance, Balwearie Tower. The name was familiar, like a fragment of an old song: ‘Balwearie Tower? The home of Michael Scott, the Mage?’

‘The very same: medieval astrologer, mathematician and alchemist, wandering Scottish scholar and philosopher-in-residence at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. How have you, a mere English settler, come across him?’

‘I don’t know much about him, though I once read a short story about him. I remember the countryside were in awe of him and believed that he had no need of servants, because he had a satanic familiar that he could summon to do his bidding. Bits of the story are still quite vivid, though I read it thirty years ago.’

The story was vivid because of the strange circumstances under which I read it. I told Fraser about those circumstances as we continued our walk. It’s always been my habit to carry a book to appointments, to read while I wait. In this case, it was an old Victorian collection of Scottish short stories that I’d taken to an out-patient appointment at a hospital Oncology Department…

Fraser interrupted me: ‘Oncology?’

‘Yeah, that’s a story in itself…’


I was lying in bed one Sunday morning, idly rubbing my upper body, when I felt fatty lumps on my chest. I knew they’d been there for a while, and I knew my dad had fatty lumps on his chest too. But I thought that the responsible thing was to get them checked out, so I made an appointment with the GP. He was pretty sure that they were just fatty lumps – “lipoma.” But he said that the sensible thing to do would be to get ’em checked out by an oncologist. He’d refer me to the hospital – I’d get an appointment in six weeks or so…

Those six weeks passed, with just an occasional feeling of anxiety. No appointment. Seven weeks, eight weeks. I phoned the GP surgery: my GP said he’d chase  it up. When he called back, he said the hospital had no record of the referral. He’d now made a new referral, but of course I’d have to wait a further six weeks…

I told myself it was just a routine check-up and the lumps were just that – fatty lumps. I knew a little bit about male breast cancer. I had just enough knowledge to be rather unsettled about the prospect of a fourteen-week wait for a hospital appointment: male breast cancer, although rarer than female breast cancer, spreads more rapidly to other parts of the body – early diagnosis is critical. Over the following weeks, I repeated my mantra about the routine check-up, I confided in no-one, I busied myself at work and at home. But the long watches of the night stretched out longer than regret, the calendar became my enemy, and fumbling self-examinations were a shameful daily occurrence. When, at last, the morning of the out-patient appointment came around, I had no appetite for breakfast.

It was in one of the old Scottish Emergency Wartime Hospitals left over from World War II, replaced now. Back then, it was a collection of time-worn wooden huts set down in the Scottish countryside, away from the once-threatened Luftwaffe bombings. The waiting room was crowded as a lifeboat: all seats taken and a couple of latecomers standing. Everyone was wet from the driving rain and there was a crapulous, miserable, fuggy atmosphere. It was soon plain that we’d all been given the same nine o’clock appointment.

Nevertheless, I had my book, a consolation and a distraction…


November 21st, 1289. Four Dunure fishermen, Andra Bain, Davie Laing and Davie’s two hulking sons, stood uncomfortably in a corner of the great kitchen in Culzean Castle, trying and failing to keep out of the way of the exasperated cook and kitchen maid. They had received a summons from Sir Thomas Kennedy the previous evening to attend his pleasure on the morrow. They were to convey his visitor from the cliff-top castle northwards, along the coast to Dunure. They had duly arrived six hours ago, but still Sir Thomas’s guest was not ready to depart. Sailing down to Culzean that morning, Andra and Davie had previously read the signs: a storm was on the way and the wind was from the north – thanks to the delay, their sail would be useless. Left to themselves, they would never have put to sea under such circumstances, but they dared not refuse a command from their laird.

Andra could hear the wind whooping in the kitchen chimney. An independent-minded man and a skilled and respected fisherman, this waiting on the whim of a stranger chafed his pride. As he shuffled aside to allow the cook to open the great bread oven, Andra enquired, ‘Mistress, wit way is the laird’s guest sae tardy? Is he an auld body?’

Humph. He’s nay seen sae mony years that thou hast, I judge. But he’s a man o’ strange powers and accustomed tae ca’ his time his own tae spend.’

Strange powers, Mistress?’

Aye, strange powers. Have thee nae heard o’ Michael Scott o’ Balwearie Tower?’ Andra and Davie exchanged startled looks. The cook continued: ‘Aye, it’s him, the warlock.’ She shuddered, ‘They say he has a devilish familiar that he keeps busy by commanding it to weave a rope out of sea sand.’

Those in fishing communities were a people apart. Fishing was an occupation of shared rewards and shared hazards: their small open boats would work in pairs, hauling in a common net; once beached on the shore, a fifth part of the catch would go to the sick and the widowed. But the hazards bred many superstitions, beliefs in charms and curses, good luck and ill luck. A warlock would be a chancy passenger in an open boat.

Before Andra could reply to the cook, the kitchen door burst open, the maid shrieked in alarm, and Sir Thomas’s chamberlain entered the room along with the north wind. He announced that the laird of Balwearie was now ready to depart.

Down at the shore, Davie’s two sons helped the passenger aboard. He was wrapped in a plaid and carried a bag of books. Andra glanced up at the louring sky and felt the first splatter of rain upon his face. He’d often seen worse weather in the Firth, but he’d never before had to row six sea-miles through it, against the wind and the tide. He spat on his hands and took up his oar beside Davie: troubles that couldn’t be avoided had to be bravely borne…


Shortly after ten o’clock, a smartly dressed middle-aged man entered the waiting-room hut, spoke briefly to the receptionist, and glanced at a paper on a clipboard. His bow-tie and his mannered drawl marked him out as the oncologist – I took an immediate dislike to him. Two minutes later, the first name was called by the nurse. Now that the consultation was imminent, further waiting became less bearable and I found myself resenting the patients called forth before me. With an effort of will, I returned to my book…


Once they’d left the comparative shelter of the castle bay, the wind and the waves grew much in strength. Indeed, so high were the waves that Andra noticed that when the boat pitched into the trough of a wave, they were fleetingly sheltered from the driving north rain by the height of the wave above the bows. And, facing westward, he could see the spume from the nearby waves caught in the beams of the sinking sun and creating dozens of transitory, truncated rainbows. A day of wonders, if he had only the leisure to ponder them, rather than his likely drowning. He took courage to shout an appeal to the passenger:

Master Mage, I prithee, may we return to Culzean, lest we founder?’

The passenger merely shook his head.

Two hours later, dead beat, freezing cold and nearing their destination at last, Andra peered landward in vain. He had hoped to glimpse a fairway guide – the white mark of waves breaking on the rocks of the Mulrhu headland, immediately to the north of their goal, namely the shingle beach at Dunure. But the dusk and the storm had obliterated the looked-for guide. Navigating the boat past the rocks and beaching it safely on Dunure beach would now depend on his kinfolk lighting a beacon-fire on the home shore. He said as much to his fellow oarsman, Davie Kennedy. Davie shook his head:

Andra, thou maun pray to thy name-sanct, forbye Sanct Nicholas and Sanct Christopher, that the storm slackens. As things stand, if we mak the shore, this storm’ll hurl us ’gainst the shingle and the boat’ll shatter and coup us o’er. We’ll be droonit in the under-tow. Had we a rope, that might save us: our kinfolk could haul the boat to safety through the breaking waves.’

Andra nodded and glared at their plaid-wrapped passenger seated beyond the other two rowers, Davie’s sons. Andra’s resentment of the man’s aloofness overcame his fear. He shouted above the blast: ‘Master Mage, grab the bailing bucket, lest we all droon!’

The old man spoke slowly in a resonant voice, ‘I am Michael Scott of Balwearie. I know the hour of my death and it is not now… Forbye, thy seamark is now restored.’

The rowers turned and peered through the spume to see the flare of the beacon-fire. Andra cheered: ‘My brother has lit it. He kenned the storm would likely delay our return.’

But they still lacked a rope. Andra shouted a last appeal to the Mage. The passenger sighed, muttered, and raised one arm aloft. Instantly, a coiled rope thudded into the bows. There was no time to ponder the rope’s arrival: Andra grabbed it and lashed the rope-end to the bows. The rowers, by luck or judgement, caught a strong in-rolling wave and Andra, with the last of his strength, hurled the coil shorewards; the waiting men on the shingle hauled them in. Three times, enormous waves broke over the boat before it was hauled clear. Davie’s two sons had each grabbed a rowlock with one hand and their passenger with the other, else he would surely have been swept away.

Safe on the shore with the others, Andra noticed that, strangely, the beacon-fire had dwindled away as fast as it must have flared up. He remembered the Mage’s rope; yet when he looked, it wasn’t there.


A few minutes after twelve, the nurse called my name. Truculent, as a defence against my mounting anxieties, I entered the over-heated consulting room. After a short history, including a family history of cancer, I was asked to remove my shirt. The doctor examined my chest for a long half-minute…

‘Well, nothing to worry about there. Lipoma: just fatty lumps.’

To my complete surprise, I found I wanted to hug him – my magician.