The Questing Knight by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories Stories, Sept 9th, 2021)

As a schoolboy, Sam Groat had played in the same boys teams as a previous captain of West Bromwich Albion; his teammates from back then had all agreed that Sam had been the better footballer. His mother was an anarchist refugee from the Spanish Civil War. His father was killed in his car by a drunken plastic surgeon attempting an emergency plane landing on the B5032 outside Kirk Ireton.

When he first started drinking in the King of Prussia, he always wore a fringed suede jacket, lacking only a coonskin cap for the full Davy Crockett Effect. One night, Anna Gilinsky laid him out stone cold with a blow to the back of the head with an empty Guinness bottle. She then pulled his trousers down and attempted to bite off his penis. No explanation was ever given, in court or afterwards, by either party. In my cups, I did once ask Sam about it. He just said, ‘Every chance encounter is an appointment, every humiliation is a penitence.’ But Sam never wore the fringed jacket again.

He took different jobs and would sometimes disappear for weeks at a time. In the spring and the autumn, he worked a lot for rich owners, crewing their luxury yachts and cabin cruisers in their passages between UK boatyards and the Mediterranean resorts where the owners would holiday. Sam sometimes talked fondly about a café on a small Greek island off Corfu with its own helicopter landing pad.

He was knowledgeable about some odd subjects. Geese, for instance, and their strange mating habits. He would recount his multiple failed attempts to adapt an automatic egg incubator to take goose eggs. Had he succeeded, he would’ve bought his own damn yacht.

Gerry, behind the bar, joked that he ought to pay Sam to come into the King of Prussia. Because, if Sam walked in, everyone would always stay on til closing time. He was never loud: he just radiated a kind of warmth that made you want to gather round him. Colin and Arthur, the two old guys at the corner table, with their halves of bitter and their packets of cheese-‘n-onion crisps, they liked him as much as anybody. Arthur said Sam had given him some really useful advice about his old dog’s flatulence; he reckoned Sam would always stop by their table to ask after Captain.

After the funeral, we all agreed that we hadn’t been too shocked to discover, during the service, that in all those years, Sam had been a loss adjuster for an international insurance company. It was just that we’d wanted to believe those stories about giant waves in the Bay of Biscay, and when Sam was a kid, his mother hatching plans in the kitchen to blow up General Franco in Spain. We’d wanted to believe them because we wanted to believe in Sam: we wanted to believe that, in the twenty-first century, someone could still travel through life as blameless as a holy fool, and as dauntless as a questing knight.

Nope, it wasn’t his fellow loss-adjusters that shocked us. It was his poor wife, so beaten-down and haggard: a damsel in distress shackled to a permanently questing knight.

SOUTH ATLANTIC CAREER CHANGE

BY MICHAEL BLOOR

(first published in Idle Ink, Sept 4th, 2021)

Really, I did feel bad about neglecting the alien, but I was terribly busy at work that week. I’m a delivery driver and Christmas is our busiest time of the year. And the company cancel your Christmas  bonus if you clock-in late more than once in a month.

So, I’d just stepped out the front door that morning and there s/he (gender indeterminate) was: standing beside the bird feeder – a six foot high Giant Crab, waving her/his front claws rhythmically like giant windscreen wipers.

I let out an involuntary yelp and s/he turned round to look at me. Immediately, s/he opened up her/his haversack and pulled out something like a toy xylophone. S/he tapped away on it with both claws, very fast. And, instead of a tune, it spoke in a deep, warm, throaty voice, reminiscent of Morgan Freeman: ‘Greetings Earthling. Fear not, I am a peaceful emissary from the Alpha Centauri System. Have you got anything to eat? Some dead fish would be nice.’

Well, obviously I was in shock, or I’m sure I would’ve acted completely differently. But I’m afraid I invited her/him in and opened a tin of tuna (with olive oil – no rubbish). There was also a tub of crab meat in the fridge – I hid that behind a pack of sausages.

And then I rushed off to work.

Helluva day at work, but I did try to call the UK Foreign Office three times. Each time, in order to speak to a human being, I had to wait in a queue. So I decided, finally, that I’d contact their website when I got home. To be honest, I was hoping (fervently) that the Giant Crab would be gone when I got back. But just in case, I stopped off at the Co-op and bought a nice piece of cod.

No luck. The Giant Crab was on the sofa watching that ‘You’ve Been Framed’ programme, where they show clips of strangers falling into water. As soon as s/he saw me come in, s/he started tapping away at the xylophone: ‘Welcome back, Earthling. At some point, you must tell me why falling into water is considered hilariously funny. But, first things first, that’s a nice looking piece of dead fish you have there… No, no, don’t trouble to cook it – you lose a lot of the flavour that way…’

I figured I’d let her/him have the whole of the cod and I’d mebbe have an omelette later. While s/he was tucking in, I explained about the Foreign Office website. I thought it might be useful for the Foreign Office guys to know how come an Alpha Centaurian Giant Crab arrived in York in the first place. York Minster and the medieval walls attract a lot of visitors, but I felt we could rule out tourism as the sole-purpose-of-visit.

It turned out that there had been a computer programming error: New York had been the intended objective, in order to address the UN General Assembly.

S/he suggested I ask the Foreign Office if they’d be kind enough to arrange transportation to New York and to contact the UN Secretary General on her/his behalf. As an after thought, s/he tapped that I could tell ’em that s/he was Rhor’thougrrrt, the Alpha Centaurian Deputy Foreign Minister. Conscious of the importance of avoiding any unfortunate diplomatic incidents, I read her/him the email back before sending it. As an aid to verisimilitude, I attached a selfie of my house guest and myself.

The next morning, I had an early start. I left the last tin of tuna, open, on the kitchen table for her/him before I set off. And that was that.

They told me at the de-briefing (at a large Victorian country house in Kent) that it was a pity about the selfie attachment: several more people at the Foreign Office than those with a need-to-know had seen the picture. They also said I wasn’t to worry: they had it on Unimpeachable Authority that Rho’thougrrrt’s party had been ‘superseded’ in government, her/his Earth mission had been cancelled, and s/he had been replaced as Deputy Foreign Minister.

Frankly though, I wasn’t entirely happy. But the job they offered me, Driver to the Governor on St Helena, suits me down to the ground – very light duties.

Agnostic Preview by Michael Bloor

(first published in Potato Soup Journal, July 5th, 2021)

At first when I died, it was rather predictable. Beginning with that out-of-body-experience thing: I’m hovering, up near the ceiling, in the local Accident & Emergency Department, looking down on a rather battered and splattered me, plus an attendant nurse and junior doctor. Then it’s the dark-tunnel thingy, with a wee pin-prick of light that’s starting to get bigger and brighter, and bigger and brighter.

And then…. Pop! I’m in a largish, empty room with white walls. Now it starts to get different…

The white door opens and Leonard Cohen comes in. He consults his clipboard: ‘Hello, erm, Malcolm Barnstable? Welcome to the First Circle; I’m your guide. My name’s Cohen, Leonard Cohen. According to my records here, you were run over by a herd of dairy cows. We don’t get many of those.’

It took me a second or two to gather my wits. ‘Got you now: it’s Dante’s First Circle of Hell, for all those nice pagans. And you’re the stand-in guide for Virgil, as a fellow poet?’

‘That’s pretty much it, Malcolm. Call me Leonard, why dontcha? Virgil’s still knocking about. But, with the numbers coming in these days, he’s needing a helping hand. So Percy and I now do the English speakers.

‘Percy?’

‘Yeah, Percy Shelley. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,” and all that.’

‘I see. Er, you’re not wearing laurel leaves on your brow?’

‘Nope, no leaves. They were offered, but I prefer the fedora – it’s kind of a trademark. But Percy wears the old laurel leaves. He said it was either that or some seaweed. You’re stuck with me because you’re down in the records as “agnostic.” If you’d been signed up as “atheist,” you’d ‘ve got Percy. You want your tour just now? Or would you like a spot of nectar first?’

I settled for the nectar, which I could definitely develop a taste for. As tactfully as I could, I asked about Leonard’s co-habitation of the Agnostic First Circle.

‘Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s true that, strictly speaking, I’m a Jewish Zen Buddhist, but that’s a pretty small constituency. And you might say that agnosticism is a central tenet of Zen Buddhist practice. Though if you had the inclination, I could nit-pick that one with you. After all, you’ll find you have plenty of time here for long discussions of abstract…’

And then: Woah! Oooff! Ouch! Suddenly, I’m back in Accident & Emergency.

Stirring Ambition

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, June 26th 2021 – National Flash Fiction Day)

As they’d agreed that morning, the three old women met again at the crossroads on the heath, when the sun was sinking. They were beggars, clad in beggars’ rags. War was once more in the land and beggars’ pickings were thinner than their rags. One of them had held high hopes of a sea captain’s wife that she’d call on, offering to bless his ship, The Tiger. But her journey had been fruitless and her mood was bitter: they were facing another night in the open.
There was the sound of drums, and of hooves and harness on the stony road. Their mood changed from rancour to fright. They couldn’t out-run horses: their only salvation lay in fawning and flattery. Peering into the evening murk, they made out two horsemen, richly dressed. One of the women whispered: ‘See the leading horseman, surely that’s the laird of Glamis?’
‘Your eyesight’s getting worse, Elspeth. That’s the laird of Cawdor there, not Glamis.’
‘Cawdor, my arse, Jean! I was born and raised just half a mile from Glamis Castle and I’d know the laird anywhere…’
‘Pish, Elspeth. Only yesterday evening, you mistook that badger for a piglet. Hush now, here they come.’
Elspeth ignored her and moved to the middle of the road. ‘All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!’
Jean, tuttered, grabbed Elpeth’s arm and called out, at the top of her voice, ‘Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!’
Their companion, Annie, slow in wits but determined to play her part, stepped into the road. ‘All Hail Macbeth, er… that shalt be king hereafter!’
The rider seemed rather taken aback by Annie’s greeting (as indeed were Elspeth and Jean). He reined in his horse. His companion drew alongside. ‘To me you speak not. Speak then to me!’
All three women together: ‘Hail!’
Elspeth, giving it her best shot: ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.’
Jean, following her lead: ‘Not so happy, yet much happier.’
Annie, picking up the theme: ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.’
Knowing how to quit while they were ahead, the women stepped aside and faded into the dusk of the evening. Elspeth muttered to Jean, ‘I 
still reckon that was the laird of Glamis.’
‘Huh, I’m 
still sure you’re wrong. And you were maybe a mite too fulsome, Annie. Still… no harm done.’

Wee Willie Winkie and the Sma’ Glen

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No. 90, pp.67-72, Summer 2021)

A group of raucous, young, Edinburgh lawyers and bankers, with a collective misplaced sense of entitlement, were drowning out civilised pub conversation (‘Hey Charles, why did the woman cross the road?’ – ‘Search me Alistair, how the hell did she get out of the kitchen?’). So Jim McLeish and his old shipmate, Davie Donnelly, decided to drink-up and leave. It was then, just as he was going out the pub door, that Jim saw the face.

Jim opened the door and turned to check that Davie was right behind him. He was. But behind Davie, in the middle-distance, Jim saw Nonoy – the bosun from the tanker – staring at him from a table beside the Gents. Jim stopped dead and Davie cannoned into him. The tide of lawyers and bankers, mysteriously ebbing and flowing, then covered Nonoy from view.

‘Problem, Jim?’

‘I think I saw Nonoy, my Filipino bosun, over the far side of the bar.’

Davie peered back into the bar: ‘Nae Filipinos in here, Jim. Surely, he’ll be on his way back to Manila by now wi’ the rest of the ratings?’

Jim shrugged and sighed: ‘Aye. Let’s away then, Davie.’ He didn’t speak his thought, that after four months of working 16-hour days, seven days a week, he was maybe starting to hallucinate. When the chemical tanker had docked at Grangemouth that afternoon, there’d been a complete crew change. A ships agent had been there to meet the tanker and take the Filipino ratings, Nonoy included, off on the first stage of their long journey back to the Philippines to await a new contract and a new ship. Jim hadn’t seen them leave: he’d been busy briefing his replacement as the ship’s mate, Nigel Walker, about the unfinished maintenance schedule. Nigel wasn’t best pleased that it was unfinished – he have to try and finish Jim’s schedule of work, as well as his own. Jim had the excuse of the filthy weather they’d been through, but he knew that the real reason was the continuing sullen uncooperativeness of the bosun: no ship can operate efficiently without a good bosun, who acts as a kind of foreman to the rest of the crew.

The next day, Jim awakened feeling sluggish. Seafaring is a young man’s job and Jim’s forty-two year-old body needed more than a single night’s sleep to recover. Nevertheless he was heartened by Mary’s porridge and Davie’s home-made loganberry jam, and he set off for his beloved cottage about half past ten.

The Sma’ Glen is a couple of hours drive north of Edinburgh. In 1745, two score of men had taken communion in Amulree Kirk, before marching south with Prince Charles Stuart and his Jacobite army. But now Jim’s cottage was the only surviving dwelling in the glen. As he came over the hill from Crieff and saw the cottage, and the glen winding away in front of him, he felt the relief of the returning exile.

It was only as he indicated to turn into the track to the cottage that he noticed a Ford Focus still behind him, one that had been in his rear-view mirror since Crieff. It now pulled out to overtake and, for an instant in his rear-view mirror, Jim saw (or thought he saw) Nonoy behind the wheel.

For a long minute, Jim sat stunned, watching the Ford dwindle into the distance as it progressed up the glen. He recalled the glimpse of Nonoy in the pub last night: two brief mystery sightings or two hallucinations? A practical man, he decided to postpone further consideration until he’d settled in.

Mrs Forsyth, his cleaner, had been in the day before. The cottage felt warm and welcoming: she must have put on the central heating. He dumped his case in the bedroom and his shopping in the kitchen. He filled a kettle, opened a bottle of milk, and stared sightlessly out the window while the kettle boiled. Waiting for the tea to brew, he lit the kindling that Mrs Forsyth had left in the grate. It was only after he’d cooked and eaten an omelette, opened a can of beer, and sat down before the fire, that he then returned to the subject of Nonoy.

Nonoy’s sullenness had made Jim’s last months a bit of a nightmare. It was all down to a stupid misunderstanding. Jim and Nonoy had got on well for the first month of the trip. Jim had noted and approved that Nonoy, who was tall and muscular for a Filipino, kept the crew working well. He and Nonoy had fallen into the kind of bantering, friendly relationship common in all-male societies. Nonoy had been particularly taken with an old British seafarer saying that Jim had quoted: ‘If you’re looking for sympathy on board ship, you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.’ Nonoy had then found occasion to repeat this wisdom pretty much every day, each time with accompanying it with a great gust of laughter. This might have become tedious, but Jim found Nonoy’s laughter infectious and he was too experienced an officer to wish to prejudice a good shipboard working relationship, just for the sake of quashing a stale joke.

Nevertheless, his and Nonoy’s working relationship was heading for the rocks. The wreck happened very early one morning. Jim had just come off his bridge-watch and had headed for the ship’s laundry, to collect some dry clean clothes before turning in for a few hours of precious sleep. The officers’ cabins had en-suite bathrooms, but not the crew cabins – their lavatories and showers were beside the laundry. As Jim emerged from the laundry, he saw Nonoy come out of his cabin heading for the showers. He was dressed only in a large, ragged t-shirt which failed to fully cover all his masculine bits and pieces. Jim smiled a greeting and sang out: ‘Wee Willie Winkie ran through the toon, upstairs, doonstairs, in his night-goon.’ Nonoy had looked at him in surprise and passed silently on into the showers. Jim had thought no more of it.

It was a couple of days later that he noticed a change in Nonoy’s behaviour: poor performance by the deck painters that Nonoy was leading, a failure to catch Jim’s eye, monosyllabic responses, and so on. But Jim had been too busy to give it much thought, until Gerry Malone, the Chief Engineer, remarked on it.

Gerry Malone, an elderly, over-weight, slovenly Liverpudlian, was in charge of a modern, automated engine-room and left all the routine maintenance to Darek, his hard-working, Polish, second engineer. This left Malone largely free to drink endless cups of tea up on the bridge and to distract Jim from his work with his rambling, irritating chatter: “What crap have you been talking to that big nutter, Nonoy? ‘E sez to me, ‘Why does the Mate call me Wee Willie Winkie? I know what a wee willie is, but what is a winkie?’ I told ‘im, a winkie is jus’ another word for a willie.”

Jim raised his eyes reluctantly from his chart corrections and gave Malone a long stare: ‘You said THAT?? Noo the man thinks I’ve been insulting his manhood. Damn it, that’s why he’s been sae broody. He’s gonna brood an’ brood on that, eh? Like as not, he’ll be comin’ after me wi’ a machete. Why did you nae tell him about the Wee Willie Winkie nursery rhyme? Jeez…’

‘You’re a big, strong fella, Jim, you don’ wanna take any crap from these Filipinos. You don’ wanna get too friendly with ‘em.’ Malone smiled stupidly and took a sip of his tea. Jim continued to stare at him. The tension was broken by the arrival on the bridge of the ship’s Master, Captain Sandy Morrison, with an urgent email from head office. One thing drives out another. While Morrison and Jim discussed the email, Malone quietly left the bridge.

The sea rolled on and the days rolled on. The tanker shuttled back and forth between Grangemouth and a scattering of Baltic ports. To Jim’s mind, Nonoy’s sullenness seemed to pollute the whole ship, but Jim could never find both the time and the determination to have it out with Nonoy. Shipboard conversations can be pretty wide-ranging, but for one seafarer to explain to another that he had no intention to belittle the other’s penis would certainly be pushing the boundaries of permissible messroom discussions. Initially, Jim told himself that Nonoy would maybe get over it. When it was plain that Nonoy wasn’t getting over it, Jim weakly told himself that the trip would be over soon; he and Nonoy would be unlikely to ever crew together again, and so he’d never have to deal with the problem.

Still staring at the cottage fire, Jim now recognised that – if he hadn’t hallucinated Nonoy’s fleeting appearances in the pub and the glen – he would indeed have to deal with the problem after all. But everything could wait til morning.

September is often a wet month in the Highlands, but the next morning promised to be a fine day, and fine days in September should be taken advantage of. As Jim fried his bacon, he could see from the kitchen window that the sun was burning away the tatters of mist from the mountains that crowded up against the glen. Four months on a ship barely forty metres long had stoked an almost hysterical need to walk and walk and walk. He knew it would torture his wasted leg muscles, but he decided to climb Ben Chonzie, to the west of the glen. Ben Chonzie was a popular hill, not least because of the large population of hares and ptarmigan that lived on the plateau summit, but almost all walkers approached it from the other side, where there was a car park and an estate track that ran most of the way to the summit. The route Jim would take, especially on a weekday in September, pretty much guaranteed that he’d have the climb all to himself.

The first part of the route took Jim along the public road, which took the same line as the military road built by General Wade in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion (and gratefully followed by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his men in the 1745 rebellion). He passed the great rough-squared boulder (‘Ossian’s Stone’) and crossed the River Almond at Wade’s bridge. Typically, on Jim’s walks, for the first mile or so, his mind would be distracted by concerns of work or family. Recurrent themes were his divorce and the deaths of his parents, both of whom had died at times when he was away at sea. On this occasion, as he tramped, he recalled old stories he’d heard about brooding Filipinos: a simmering cook who had eventually snapped and chased his friend Kosta round the galley and the messroom with a knife; a vicious brawl that had erupted, seemingly out of nothing, outside a club in a Brazilian port. He understood the brooding: the white senior officers had permanent contracts, the Filipino ratings were casuals on short-term contracts; their future contracts depended on favourable reports from senior officers; the disparities in earnings were grotesque. And he understood the sudden violence: it was the explosive revolt of the slaves. He understood it, he deeply disliked it, but he couldn’t remake the world to his liking.

Eventually, the physical rhythm of the walk soothed away troubling thoughts. He breathed deeply the air of the North, noted the purpling of the heather and the deep green of the braken, and tried and failed to distinguish whether a distant circling bird was an eagle or a buzzard. He struck upward from the glen, passing through a large clump of ragged birch and scattered boulders. Almost at his feet, he noticed a large brown mushroom on a grey, stippled stalk. Years at sea had made Jim a careless and indiscriminate eater, but he dearly loved mushrooms. He recognised the brown mushroom as a boletus, one of his favourites, and noticed several more of them – deeper in the wood. He took a pork pie (his lunch) out of its plastic bag, put it in the side pocket of his rucksack, and – cutting through the mushroom stalks with his knife – quickly filled the plastic bag with half a dozen boletus mushrooms, which he promised himself would be the highlight of his evening meal. As he was tying the bag and sheathing his knife, he had a shock…

Passing at the edge of the birchwood, treading Jim’s former path, was Nonoy. Jim watched Nonoy move past the wood and start to pick his way up the steep side of the glen. Nonoy had gone onwards a hundred metres when Jim made his decision. He emerged from the wood and hailed Nonoy like a long-long friend:

‘Nonoy! Nonoy! What on earth are ye doin’ here? Fantastic!’

Nonoy turned and retraced his steps. Noticing the sheath-knife Jim was still holding, he smiled uncertainly.

‘Seein’ ye here, of all places, Nonoy! A walkin’ holiday in Scotland afore ye head fur hame?’

Nonoy nodded.

Jim gestured towards Nonoy’s trainers: ‘Hope you’re nae lookin’ fur sympathy fur your soakin’ trainers.’

Nonoy shook his head, paused, and then smiled broadly: ‘I find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, eh Chief?’

Jim smiled in return and showed Nonoy the contents of his plastic bag: ‘Been pickin’ mushrooms.’

Nonoy examined them carefully: ‘You sure you can eat these, Chief?’

‘Yep. Gonna cook ‘em for ma tea. These ‘re the most delicious mushrooms in the entire world. Want to come back to mine, for your tea?’

‘And eat mushrooms?’

‘Sure.’

‘OK Chief. We both die together.’ Nonoy thought this was funnier than Jim.

They sat down on a couple of rocks and shared Jim’s pork pie and flask of coffee. Nonoy thoughtfully compared Jim’s walking boots to his own dew-soaked trainers. Jim noticed their feet were about the same size. He said he had an old pair of leather walking boots at the cottage that would fit Nonoy: there was nothing wrong with them, they were just a bit old-fashioned – heavier than his current pair. Nonoy was impressed by the fact that they were made of leather. Jim pulled out his map and indicated a couple of walks that Nonoy could take on his fictional walking holiday, once he was properly shod.

The wind was now freshening from the north, funnelling down the glen. By silent agreement, they abandoned the Ben Chonzie objective and retraced their steps. They passed the tumbled remains of a couple of crofts. As Jim’s own cottage came into sight, Nonoy said: ‘I see several ruined houses, Chief. Yours is only one left. Why everybody go away?’

Jim ignored the fact that Nonoy already knew where he stayed. ‘It’s an auld story, Nonoy. See yon big boulder squeezed in the space between the river and the road?’

Nonoy nodded.

‘Well, nearly three hundred years ago, an army general was supervisin’ building a road through the glen. He also built this bridge.’ They leaned on the parapet.

‘The general decided that the boulder was in the way o’ the road. He had his soldiers move it aside, tae where it rests now.’

‘That’s some job, Chief. Very heavy.’

‘Aye, right – very heavy. And what they didnae realise was that the boulder was a gravestone. It marked the grave of a very great man, a poet called Ossian, who lived a thousand years ago. When they moved the stone they found some bones underneath. The folk that lived in the glen were afraid of the soldiers, but that night they cam up wi’ torches and gathered up Ossian’s bones, and took him away to a secret place for re-burial.’

‘Mm. That the right thing to do.’

‘It wis the right thing tae do, Nonoy. But it wis too late. The bones had been disturbed. An’ so a curse cam on the glen: freezing winters an’ wet, cold summers – crops failed an’ cattle died; young men went awa’ tae war an’ never returned; people starved.

The wind was rising at their backs and a few heavy drops of rain began to fall. Nonoy shivered: ‘This place is haunted, Chief?’

‘Aye, that’s right. Finally, there wis only a few folk left. Eventually, they all either died, or left the glen to the ghost, and moved away.’

‘But you’re still here, Chief?’

Jim nodded: ‘That’s right. But I’m sort-of-protected. Ye see, I’m the last man that kens where those bones wis re-buried.’

Both men had been looking away down the glen at Jim’s cottage. Nonoy now turned to look at Jim. It was a long look. ‘Forget the mushrooms and the boots, Chief. I go now.’

Nonoy walked back across the bridge, hunching his shoulders against the storm.

Ambition

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, April 10th, 2021)

Like many toddlers, John was asked what he wanted to be, when he grew up. Surprisingly, John answered that he wanted to be an Old Age Pensioner. He’d been spending time with his Grandad, who had his own shed.

In his mid-teens, John secretly decided that an ideal profession would be that of a professional sperm donor. At a student party, he told a woman that he wanted to be the person who chose the paintings for reproduction on the covers of the Penguin Modern Classics series (she was impressed).

Now he’s 66 and his world has come full circle.

The Long Shadow of the Coal Tip

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, March 30th, 2021)

There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.

Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.

A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.

The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.

The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.

I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits.


I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years.

Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.

Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’

Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.

I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’

Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’

He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’

Captain Carey’s Luck

Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 5th, 2021)

I came across the manuscript below in a second-hand shop in Simla, the former British hill-station in the foothills of the Himalayas, among some papers previously belonging to a Victorian military surgeon. The ms was seemingly written in Bombay (now Mumbai) and signed by Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey of the 98th Regiment of Foot (later to become the South Wales Borderers). It is dated the 23rd of February, 1883 (two days before his death, aged thirty six), and appears to be written as a kind of testament.

Carey had seen action in Honduras in 1867, where he was mentioned in dispatches, and he served with the British ambulance group in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. But he went on to achieve some notoriety in the Zulu War, by being implicated in the death in 1879 of the Prince Imperial, Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, the twenty-three year-old only son and heir of the deposed Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and godson of Pope Pius IX and of Queen Victoria. The Prince Imperial, who was accompanying the British forces in the Zulu War as an observer, was slain as part of a small reconnaissance patrol attacked by a large Zulu force. Carey (a Lieutenant in 1879) escaped from the slaying on horseback with four troopers and was subsequently found guilty at a court-martial of ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’ and sent back to the UK under arrest. The guilty finding was later withdrawn on a technicality by Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, head of the Army. Carey took the brave but quixotic action of returning to his regiment, later posted to India. However, he was shunned by many of his fellow officers. Field Marshall Wolseley’s comment may be typical: ‘he had… better… start in some line of life more congenial with his cowardly heart… the greengrocer or the undertaker calling might suit him.’

#

Some say that our war against the Zulus was blighted by devilish practices, and that the massacre the Zulus inflicted upon us at Isandlwana back in January 1879 was early evidence of a curse. It was certainly a terrible defeat of arms: it is said that more British officers perished at Isandlwana than in the entire Waterloo campaign. Indeed, our commanding officer, Colonel Glyn, has acted like one cursed ever since – like a dead man walking. At my court martial, he scarce uttered a word.

Am I also cursed? The Zulu people are said to both believe in, and practice, witchcraft. The troops, always a superstitious lot, were full of talk about Zulu witchcraft back in ’79. To my regret, I have recently spoken to the chaplain here about this. He merely snorted and twirled his moustaches. A stupid, complacent man, he has clearly been infected by the contempt and hostility directed towards me in the Officers’ Mess. How I miss the wise counsels of my dear father, no ordinary clergyman.

This pain and fever sows passing doubts in me, but I have always held hitherto that there is a clear distinction to be made between being cursed and being unlucky. And certainly I was unlucky in the Zulu campaign. Yet it did not seem so at first. I served under Colonel Harrisson, tasked with military intelligence. Harrisson, a Royal Engineer, interpreted this task as a largely that of map-making: he had little notion of reconnaissance and gave me a pretty free hand, once he found me to be a competent officer.

In May 1879 (I forget the exact date), the Prince Imperial was also assigned to our section. I discovered later that this was because on two previous occasions he had been attached to patrolling troops and, without waiting for orders, he had galloped off pursuing possible Zulu sightings. His exasperated superiors, in effect, confined him to camp, drawing maps. At the time, I thought his arrival to be a fortunate occurrence: we got on well, and I reflected that the friendship of the godson of the Queen would hardly disadvantage me in future army preferment. What’s more, I liked him: determination to distinguish one’s self on the battlefield is an attractive quality in a young officer. And I fancy he liked me: the Careys are an old Channel Islands family and, by tradition, we are educated in France rather than England; so it must have been attractive to the Prince to be able to converse freely with someone in his native tongue. Who knows what direction my career might have taken, if it had not been for the events of June 1st, 1879?

The Prince was clearly not enamoured with map-making as an occupation. He carried with him the sword that his great-uncle, Napoleon I, had carried at the Battle of Austerlitz: he saw military glory as a path to political advancement, like his great-uncle. The Bonapartist exiles in England already styled him, Napoleon IV, hoping for a triumphal return to power in France. Chafing for a chance of action, the Prince asked Colonel Harrisson if he might go out on patrol to verify some map details and select a suitable spot for a new camp. Harrisson knew that the Prince had been confined to camp for his earlier reckless behaviour and should certainly have referred the request to his own superiors. But he didn’t do so. Perhaps Harrisson too was hoping that the good opinion of the Prince would further Harrisson’s own career? Or perhaps Harrisson was simply over-awed by the Prince? If so, I can sympathise: I was over-awed myself.

I was also to take part in the reconnaissance patrol. The Prince and I were both lieutenants, but I was the senior and so the natural choice to lead the patrol. At my court-martial, Harrisson stated that I should have been in command. However, my recollection is that Harrisson told me that the patrol was at the Prince’s initiative, to select a suitable future campsite for the advancing troops, and I was not to interfere. Certainly, the Prince took charge from the outset: I only felt able to offer suggestions.

The patrol consisted of the Prince, myself, two non-commissioned officers, four troopers, and a native guide. A further six troopers were also assigned to the patrol, but mistakenly reported to the wrong tent. Eager to be away, the Prince declined to wait for the missing troopers. In fairness to the Prince, I should state that much of the ground that the patrol was to cover had previously been subject to earlier patrols. I had no misgivings at that point.

My misgivings came later: in the mid-afternoon we came upon a Zulu kraal. The huts were deserted, but showed signs of recent occupation. The Prince ordered the men to dismount, unsaddle the horses and allow them to graze. The guide was dispatched to fetch water for coffee. No guard was set, although the tall tambootie grass and a nearby deep gully might offer concealment to an enemy. But, initially uneasy, I was soon lulled by the Prince’s affable conversation. He was a young man enjoying himself, and I – only a few years his senior – was infected by his mood. I recall that we chatted amiably over coffee and tobacco about Napoleon I’s Italian campaign in 1796.

After half an hour or so, I suggested that perhaps we should saddle up. The Prince replied, ‘Just another ten minutes.’ Thereupon the guide reported that he had seen a lone Zulu on the higher ground above the kraal. The order was then immediately given to saddle up, but it took several minutes to round up the strayed horses. I had already mounted when the Prince gave the other ranks the order, ‘Prepare to mount.’

Yet before mounting could be completed, there was a fusillade of shots. The enemy were using carbines seized in their victory at Isandlwana, but not to great effect – only one of our troopers was shot. More than forty Zulus emerged from the bush, shouting their war-cry and sprinting for the patrol, whose only chance lay in flight. The Prince was a good horseman, but his was a new and nervous mount: his horse bolted, with the Prince clinging to the saddle holster. The leather of the holster tore and the Prince fell. Because of the uneven ground and tall grass, only one of the fleeing party, Corporal Grubb, saw the Prince Imperial’s last moments: seven warriors closed on the Prince, who could only fire twice before falling to the Zulu assegais – slain by an ambition which out-stripped all circumspection.

I rallied what remained of the troop some distance away. Two troopers and the guide, beside the Prince, had been slain. It was evident that the five of us would achieve nothing by turning and charging the large enemy force. I gave the order to return to camp.

We were not well received. The next day, a large column set out to recover the Prince’s body. As they departed, an enraged French journalist shouted, ‘Yesterday, the Prince left this camp with but seven companions. Today a thousand men will search for his body.’ It was plain that the deaths at the kraal would not be seen as an obscure skirmish. I was told later that the Prince’s body bore seventeen spear wounds. No one troubled to count the wounds on the bodies of our guide, or Trooper Rogers, or Trooper Abel.

It seems very possible that I will not survive this fever: I have attended the funerals of others with similar symptoms. My passing will not be mourned by my fellow-officers. When I first returned to the regiment, after the court-martial verdict was over-turned, a sarcastic Captain Llewellyn gave me a translation of the ancient Book of Aneirin, telling of how a small band of heroic Welsh horsemen rode out against the great invading Saxon horde, and charged and perished at the battle of Catraeth. I returned the translation with the comment that it may be great literature, but it was poor strategy. That was three years ago and I have found that such verbal jousts soon lost their savour. To be condemned but impenitent, disgraced but innocent, are not states that most men endure indefinitely: my life has become a burden to me. Let my stone bear this memorial: Here Lies An Unlucky Friend.

Sir Francis Bacon’s Belated Vindication

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Feb 7th 2021)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Lord Chancellor to James I, was a pioneer of experimental science. Yet his report of one of his most famous experiments, showing that boiling water freezes faster than cold water, was scoffed at by fellow scientists for three hundred-odd years. Bacon’s experiment was unwittingly repeated by Erasto Mpemba, a Tanzanian high school student in 1963. Publication of the ‘Mpemba Effect’ led to further controlled experiments replicating Bacon’s finding.

Sadly, I can’t wait three-hundred years for Margaret to recognise the scientific fact that twigs and small branches won’t decompose any time soon in the garden composter.

Under the Gooseberry Bush

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, FEBRUARY 6, 2021)

April 8th, 1974. I’m setting this down on paper and placing it in a tin that I’ll be burying under one of the gooseberry bushes. If things don’t work out, I’d like there to be a proper record of what happened…

Strangely, the root cause of the fatality can be traced back to the fact that, back in the 1950s, there were two Rodger Ackroyds in Chapel Street Primary School. There was me, generally known as ‘Rodge.’ And there was him, generally known as ‘Big Ackie,’ a nasty piece of work, even when he was an eight year-old. Ackroyd isn’t an uncommon a name in the town – I remember another Rodger Ackroyd used to be the Clydesdale Bank manager in Sadlergate. But the teachers used to make lame, irritating jokes about us, and I expect that’s why Big Ackie took a particular dislike to me. All kids hate being singled (doubled in this case) out for attention, and Ackie mysteriously decided it was all my fault.

His dislike continued even after I’d passed the exams to go on to the Academy and he’d begun his irregular attendance at the High School. But things got a lot worse when we were seventeen and both going out with Fiona MacTaggart. Him and his cousin, Shuggie, beat the crap out of me in the Gents toilet at the Mecca Ballroom. But I dare say I’d have lost out in the Fiona stakes, even without the broken nose: I was still at school with only the proceedings from a paper-round to pay my way in the world, whereas Big Ackie was working in his dad’s scrap metal business and driving around in a clapped-out Ford Cortina. Just before I went away to Uni, I heard he’d got Fiona pregnant and they’d got married. Apparently, Fiona’s mum sobbed through the whole celebration.

Anyway, ten years passed by. I was back and teaching at the Academy, living in my parents’ house (both my mum and my dad having died in the interim). I’d see Ackie around the town occasionally – it’s not that big a place – but we never spoke. Then, one Sunday night there he was, at my front door:

‘Hiya Rodge. Can I come in?’ A rhetorical question.

Moments later, we were both sitting at my kitchen table with a couple of cans. Ackie didn’t look too good: still big, but flabby; grey pallor; thinning red hair. I learned later that he’d damaged his back pushing wrecked cars around the scrapyard, and that there was a court case coming up about a load of copper wire. Ackie finished pouring his can into a pint glass:

‘Got a proposition for ye, Rodge. Strange: us having the same name. It’s a sort of bond between us, d’ye no’ think?’

The stress he put on the word ‘bond,’ not a word in Ackie’s normal vocabulary except in relation to bail procedures, made me realise that this was a rehearsed speech. He gave me his good news first: he’d won the pools – eight draws when there were only nine on the whole coupon – an estimated £300,000. I tried to look pleased for him, but Ackie shook his head and wiped the beer-foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘The thing is: me and Fiona are separated. She and little Kelly-Anne are back at her mum’s. We’ll be divorced eventually. An’ I wanna fresh start. I’ve met a lady in Glasgow who thinks like I do: I’m sick of the scrapyard and she’s sick of hostessing in that club. We both fancy Spain. I’ve got my eye on a bar-restaurant business there.’

‘Spain eh? Sounds good to me, Ackie. What’s the problem?’

‘The problem, Rodge, is Fiona. I need that £300,000. I don’t need Fiona taking a huge chunk of it in the divorce settlement.’

Outwardly smiling, my guts were starting to churn. Surely Ackie hadn’t forgotten that I used to be sweet on Fiona (truth to tell, I was still sweet on her)? But, like a Panzer tank in a war movie, Ackie moved relentlessly onwards, oblivious of any collateral damage. ‘So here’s the plan, Rodge. I collect the cheque from the pools company. An’ then…’ Ackie treated me to a dramatic pause. ‘An’ then, I pass it onto YOU.’

‘Eh?’

‘The cheque’s made out to “Rodger Ackroyd”. Ye deposit it in yerr “Rodger Ackroyd” bank account. An’ once the divorce is definitely settled, ye pay me back. Less a ten percent commission. Geddit?’

A tricky business. I didn’t know too much about the criminal law, but I was pretty certain that he was proposing that I be a partner in some kind of fraud – something that would certainly end my so-called career in teaching if it came to court. What’s more (and this really stuck in my craw) Ackie was proposing that we defraud Fiona – my Fiona, my teenage sweetheart. But I also knew that it was most unwise to cross Big Ackie, a man of uncertain temper… and also Shuggie’s cousin.

Weakly, I temporised: ‘Isn’t it going to look a bit suspicious? I deposit a cheque for £300,000 into an account with current assets of seventeen quid. Then a few weeks later, I write another cheque to pay Rodger Ackroyd £270,000…’

‘Nah. Keep it simple, Rodge. Tell ‘em ye won the football pools, but ye ticked the ‘no publicity’ box – ye’ll be very upset if any news leaks out via the bank. And once my divorce is settled, ye tell ‘em ye’re buying a holiday home in Spain and ye’re transferring some of yerr assets to yerr new ‘Rodger Ackroyd’ account in yerr new Spanish bank.’

It was a simpler world in those days – no money-laundering regulations for a start – and, despite myself, I was impressed: ‘You’ve certainly planned this one, Ackie.’

‘Nae me, Sunshine – Sean Bryce, the scrapyard accountant.’

I knew Sean Bryce, a weasel-faced old drunk, who could always be found in the bar of the Fife Arms Hotel. He wasn’t a qualified accountant, but he was reputed to know a lot about creative book-keeping.

By the time we’d each drained a second can, I’d capitulated. About to leave, Ackie lingered at the front door, leant towards me, and I felt his dog’s breath on my face: ‘Didna mess wi’ me Rodge. Ye’ll no’ be the winner. An’ it’s no’ easy, picking up yerr broken teeth wi’ a broken arm.’

The following day, I did something I’d never done before: I bunked off work – called in and claimed a sickie. I had to think, but I couldn’t stay in the house. At the back of my street is a patch of ground owned by the Allotment Society; my dad had been a member and I’d inherited his plot, right by the gate. That morning I had the allotments all to myself. I’ve always found the allotments a peaceful place, ever since I was a child, helping my dad and my grandad. It was a warm day of early April. A robin perched on the loganberry wires, watching me intently as I dug out the pea trench, turning over the lovely, friable loam that only a fortnight ago had been a viscous, inert slab of dirt –the annual miracle of Spring. As I turned the soil, I pondered Ackie’s proposition.

The robin suddenly darted down to my feet, hopped briskly a few inches, and seized a worm. I knew I couldn’t let Ackie cheat Fiona. By the time I’d manured and limed the pea trench, I’d got the makings of a plan. I shouldered the spade, nipped home, and phoned Fiona’s mum’s house.

When Fiona came to the phone I could hear the surprise in her voice. I dispensed with the embarrassing small talk and told her that there was something important I needed to tell her, but it was complicated – could I come round and see her that night? She hesitated but then she answered quietly: ‘Come round after nine – I’ll have got Kelly-Anne off to bed by then. My mum’ll be pleased to see you: she always liked you.’

When I rang the bell that evening, Mrs MacTaggart was indeed pleased to see me, transparently impressed that I was now an English teacher at the Academy. ‘With his own home,’ as she pointed out to Fiona as an after-thought. I could see Fiona was rather embarrassed. And her situation was made worse when Kelly-Anne (apparently awakened by my knock) came back downstairs in her pyjamas and wanted to know why her mother was wearing make-up. Fiona’s mum, surprisingly, saved the situation by saying that she’d see to Kelly-Anne, and why didn’t Fiona and I go out for a drink? Kelly-Anne was still shouting questions as we shut the front door. We looked at each other and started to laugh; it seemed natural to take Fiona’s hand as we sauntered down the road.

However, once I’d carried our drinks over to a window-seat in the King of Prussia, we had serious stuff to discuss. I had to admire the level-headed way that Fiona took the news of Ackie’s pools win and his forthcoming flight to Spain. Her plan was just to tell all to the divorce court. But I convinced her that retribution would certainly be exacted by Ackie and his friends and relations, most notably cousin Shuggie, just back from a stretch in Barlinnie after fire-bombing a rival scrapyard. She and I both remembered my Mecca-ballroom broken nose. My suggestion was that she could simply be at the marital home to intercept the post and ‘discover’ the pools cheque, as if by accident. Then it could indeed be a matter for her lawyer and the divorce court. I explained that Ackie was expecting it to arrive by registered post tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.

Fiona stared into her gin and tonic: ‘That could work, Rodge. I need to go round to the house anyway to collect the new child benefit book. The postie would let me sign for the registered letter.’

‘Yep. Best to take your mum with you – that way Ackie’s less likely to make a scene. And I’ll trail the postie, so that I can let you know when he’s nearing your house.’

‘Good idea. Me and Mum’ll be in the newsagent’s on Alma Terrace.’

‘Fine. Once I’ve alerted you that the postie’s on his way, I’ll loiter in the newsagent’s too.’

Fiona smiled a warm smile, her brown eyes shining. There was a long pause, then she touched my hand: ‘You’ll be the poorer by £30,000.’

I shrugged and smiled in return: ‘Is your mum up to playing her part, do you think?’ Fiona was sure that her mum (no fan of Ackie) would be fine. But Mrs MacTaggart did indeed prove to be the weak link in the conspiracy…

On the Tuesday morning, a day of wind and intermittent rain, I picked up the postie’s trail at the end of Balaclava Road. I hurried into the newsagent’s to inform Fiona and her mum – the cue for them to walk around the corner to the new bungalows in Reapers Rise and linger naturalistically in Ackie’s neglected front garden for the interception.

Fiona said that the postie duly arrived and of course recognised her as Mrs Ackroyd. She then signed for the registered letter, while an unsuspecting Ackie sat in the back kitchen waiting in vain for the postie to ring the bell.

So far so good, but the next scene called for some dramatic talent from Fiona and her mum. Fiona let herself and her mum in the front door with her key. She chucked the registered letter on the hall table while she put the door key back in her bag. Hearing the noise, Ackie emerged from the kitchen in time to see the precious pools envelope dropped onto the hall-table with the old letters, circulars and free newspapers.

Fiona glanced at him: ‘Oh it’s you. I thought you’d be at the scrapyard. I’m here for the child benefit book.’ She quickly picked up the pile from the hall-table and began to sort out the letters from the dross. Having done so, she started to slit open the envelopes with the paper knife on the hall-table. Ackie was momentarily non-plussed, but as Fiona started to slit open the pools envelope, he took a quick step forward: ‘Here, that’s mine!’

Nervous and disconcerted by Ackie’s sudden movement, Mrs MacTaggart stepped in front of him and blurted out, ‘No it isnae, ye dirty bugger!’ (Fiona had unwisely told her mum the unexpurgated version, including the bit about the Glasgow club hostess).

Ackie’s suspicions were definitely aroused. He brushed Fiona’s mum aside and made a lunge for the pools letter. There was a tussle between Ackie and Fiona, gamely joined by Fiona’s mum. All three over-balanced, crashed into the hall-table and fell to the floor. Fiona was up first and immediately saw the paper knife sticking out of Ackie’s twitching chest. She showed great coolness: she picked up her hyper-ventilating mum and parked her in the kitchen. She then walked swiftly down Reapers Rise and summoned me from the newsagent’s, without stepping inside (she had blood on her mac). We sped back to Ackie’s.

After that it was plain sailing – gruesome, but quite straightforward. We never considered for a moment calling the police: we couldn’t risk a court-trial, or Shuggie’s revenge. We disposed of Ackie that same evening – the allotment came in handy – and cleaned up the hallway.

All in all, Ackie’s plan seemed the best available. I deposited the cheque in my account and three days later we headed off to Spain.