The Great Book of Angharad

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Occulum , summer 2017)

They keep asking me why I did it. Then, as soon as I start to explain, D C Grainger butts in with: ‘Was this on the morning of June 11th?’ I deal with that and then D C Singh chimes in with: ‘Did you tell anyone that was where you were going?’ I struggle past that, and then as soon as I get to the bit about the Holy Spring, I see ‘em exchanging those ‘Has he escaped from the funny farm?’ looks. A dispiriting business for a university professor accustomed to a respectful audience. So I’m setting it all down on paper. And then I’m not telling the police another bloody word.

I live in Scotland now, but most years I manage a visit to my mother’s country, the Welsh Borders. When I was a child, I used to spend every summer holiday in the Abergavenny house of my grandparents, Harry and Gladys Cecil. The little town is surrounded by seven hills, but for a child the hill that holds the greatest glamour is the Sugar Loaf (its Welsh name is Pen y Val), which looms over the north of the town. Every summer, I would pester Grandad Cecil to re-tell the story of how Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West Show to Abergavenny in the summer of 1903. Grandad had been one of the children in the audience when Buffalo Bill vowed to his audience that he would walk up the Sugar Loaf. And that’s just what he did the next morning, accompanied by half the adults and all the children of Abergavenny.

Bear with me. I’m trying to explain that the mountain exerts a strange pull – even a hard-bitten old-timer like Buffalo Bill could feel it. It remains a big draw today and the most popular routes have carparks at the foot of them. For sentimental reasons I take a less travelled route, setting out from Deriside (where my grandparents lived), crossing the ford by Harris’s farm, round the foot of Rholben, and up St Mary’s Vale. Just like the Sugar Loaf/Pen y Val, St Mary’s Vale has both an English and a Welsh name. Granny Cecil said that the Normans conquered the broad lowlands, but the Welsh always held the hills, and the head of the Vale is known by its Welsh name Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. St Mary’s Vale starts out as a gentle valley covered in beech woods. In June, the leaves are a dizzying, iridescent green, squirrels dart up the towering grey tree boles and scold you – ridiculously – from the upper branches, the stream splashes over sandstone pebbles. Again, I’m telling you this because you need to understand the pull of the place.

As you make your way up the Vale, it narrows and the great beeches give way to stunted oaks and thorn trees – you’ve crossed an invisible border into Cwm Trosnant. Near the head of the cwm, the path strikes off steeply to the right and the hidden summit of the mountain. Just a few metres onwards and upwards, the path passes by one of the three springs from which the cwm gets its name. It issues, cold as your fridge, from the roots of a thorn tree. As a child, sixty years ago, I often stopped to watch the mysterious welling of the waters out of the earth and into the light. I would dangle my hand in it, but I never drank from it, mindful of my mother’s frequent warnings of the dangers of polio – the great child killer of the 1950s. The springs of the Welsh hills were holy places, a source of wonder, even before the coming of Christianity. Hermit saints understood the mesmeric attraction of the springs and built their churches beside them. Even today, there’s an isolated, ancient church beside a spring a few miles from Abergavenny, where pilgrims still leave spring-side offerings. Sixty eight years old and no longer bound by my mother’s injunctions, on that June day I bent down and cupped my hands to drink.

Bending down to the clear, bubbling water, tasting it on my parched tongue, I had a sensation of the world behind me being progressively suffused with brilliant light. As I lifted my head, I was entranced to see the cwm transformed. It was still a narrow upland valley, but instead of the bracken, thorns and stunted oaks, there was a miraculous pleasance. I say ‘pleasance’ rather than garden, because I knew instinctively that this was no modern landscape. There were roses, lupins and hollyhocks; the thorn above the spring had been replaced by an apple tree suffused with blossoms. It was as if I was in Tennyson’s ‘island valley of Avilion… fair with orchard lawns and bowery hollows’ where King Arthur was carried by barge after the Last Battle. Enchanted, I turned to see a woman in the middle distance, walking towards me. Her beech-green dress, which swayed about her body as she walked, was long and trailed among the daisies at her feet. Her red-gold hair was coifed above her brow but fell about her shoulders. Her face was solemn and ageless.

She spoke to me in what I took to be Old Welsh (as a child, I learned Welsh from my mother), but I could make little of it. She switched to English, spoken clearly but with the punctilious correctness of a foreigner:

‘Well met, Michael, son of Mary, daughter of Henry. Long have I waited for you here beside the great spring of Taliesin Ben Beirdd. We are kin, you and I, because I am Angharad, wife of Sitsyllt ap Dyfnawl.’

I knew the name. The slaying of Sitsyllt is a well-known piece of Abergavenny local history. In 1177, William de Braose the new Norman Lord of Abergavenny, invited around seventy leading local Welshmen to a Christmas feast in his Great Hall. Among them was Sitsyllt of nearby Castell Arnallt, a formidable warrior. As was the custom of the time, the Welsh nobles, surrendered their weapons before entering the dining hall. Once the Welsh were all assembled, they were set upon by de Braose’s men-at-arms and slaughtered to a man. The men-at-arms were then dispatched to Sitsyllt’s Castell Arnallt, which they destroyed and took Sitsyllt’s wife, Angharad, back to Abergavenny as a prisoner. Sitsyllt’s kin eventually anglicised their name to Cecil, my mother’s maiden name.

‘Those of Sitsyllt’s kin who drink at Taliesin’s spring receive the gift of true sight, but they are also honour-bound to strive to remedy the dishonour done to Sitsyllt’s house and name. Do you accept the obligation I shall lay upon you?’

I nodded. I could scarce do otherwise.

‘Very well. I know you are a scholar; I give you a scholar’s task. Among the booty from the sacking of Castell Arnallt, the Normans took away my Great Book. The court of my brother, the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, was the greatest centre of learning in all Britain: bards and sages, harpists and holy men were all welcomed there and competed in the recitation of the laws, the lineages, the ancient wisdom and the holy truths. By the bidding of my brother, I wrote down all that was good and true, and I bore that book as a love-gift to my husband, Sitsyllt. The Great Book has passed through many foolish hands since the Norman theft. Finally, a drunken sot of a clergyman willed it to his old college, Dodson College, Oxford.’

She saw my look of surprise. ‘Yes, it lies in the library of your old college, unexamined and uncatalogued, stored as the bequest of the late Reverend Pugh. You must right the wrong and return the book to me, here on Midsummer’s Eve. Take this ring: when you come back with the book, throw the ring into Taliesin’s spring and I will return to you, with my thanks and the thanks of all our kin.’

The ring was of a curious, twisted, gold-filigree design. It was too small to fit on my finger. I slipped it into my pocket and went back to the pub where I was staying. I checked the Dodson College website on the internet. I was dismayed to find that the college librarian was an elderly, retired party who had been a don in the college when I was an undergraduate there fifty years ago. A colourless individual who had adopted a pipe in lieu of a personality, but nevertheless possessed a certain capacity for mischief and fussy cantankerousness: his nickname was Gollum (I know, I know: first a gold ring and now Gollum turns up – where have you read this before?). I realised then and there that there would be no sense in appealing to the college authorities to restore The Great Book to the Cecils: I would simply be alerting the college to the fact that they had overlooked a valuable asset which they could flog off. Instead, I’d have to steal it, albeit knowing that I had justice and history on my side. I checked out of the Black Bull pub that evening and before ten o’clock I’d checked into a bed-and-breakfast in a village outside Oxford.

I went for a reconnaissance the following morning. I was amazed to discover how little the college had changed. The library was still housed in the same cramped quarters and contained the same out-of-date texts, translations and bound periodicals. There was no space to store uncatalogued volumes. I guessed that they would have been dumped in the cellars. There were two different sets of cellars: the wine cellars beneath the dining hall appeared to have a formidable door and lock; the other cellars, in the same bloc as the library, had a neglected appearance and a simple clasp lock on a fragile-looking door – child’s play, I thought.

I bought a jemmy and a powerful torch and waited for dark. I confess that I was rather enjoying myself. The college gates were no longer locked in the late evening, but the porters’ lodge still housed a night porter, so I decided to climb in using the same route that I’d used fifty years ago, via the bike sheds. This proved more difficult than I’d anticipated: the spirit was willing, but the flesh had withered. I sustained a nasty graze, a sprained ankle and a ripped jacket, but I got over. In contrast, the hasp on the cellar door was a breeze and came away like cobwebs.

There was lighting in the cellar, but it wasn’t working: I hunted for a mains switch in vain. In the torchlight, the crowded cellar contents looked as a chaotic as an earthquake in Legoland: there were piles and piles of discarded furniture, tea chests filled with the abandoned possessions of past generations, some old lead piping, tied bundles of papers, ancient chemical apparatus, a battered croquet mallet… It seemed that, unless I was very lucky, the search would take more than one night. My dust allergy kicked in right away, but I stuck to the task. After an hour or so, I did come across an open tea chest full of books, but they proved to be the abandoned private library of past undergraduate, seemingly someone of my generation – I recognised ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and RD Laing’s ‘Divided Self’. Underneath it, was a closed tea chest, which I assumed contained more of the same, but when I jemmied it open I saw it contained hardback books from an older period. I flicked open the topmost book – a collection of sermons – and on the flyleaf I read ‘Ex Libris Reverend Augustus Pugh.’ Oh Joy.

The Great Book of Angharad was right at the bottom of the chest. It was a massive thing that looked to have been re-bound at some point, with metal-edged leather covers and a clasp. I heaved it out the chest and opened it up at random – a foolish thing to do, because the eight-hundred-year-old pages were very brittle. Part of a page broke off as it was opened. I shut the book and closed the clasp, but not before I’d satisfied myself that the writing seemed to be in Old Welsh.

‘Well, well, if it isn’t Guy Fawkes!’ Two torches snapped on. In surprise, I dropped The Great Book back in the tea chest. I then dodged behind some derelict desks, deeper in the cellars, but the two police patrolmen quickly picked me out again. It seemed I’d been betrayed by my dust allergy: the night porter on his rounds had heard the sneezes, found the broken lock on the cellar door, and called the cops.

The charges I was facing were ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘criminal damage’ – the college authorities claimed I’d destroyed the roof of the bike sheds. At first, I refused to say anything, beyond giving my name and address. But the duty solicitor at the station persuaded me to explain what I’d been doing in the cellar, saying it would look better in the magistrates’ court. So I told him. A few hours later, I told the same story to the two detective constables in the interview room. They plainly thought I’d lost a marble or two when I fell off the bike sheds, but they sent a constable round to the cellars to see whether there was indeed a big book in the bottom of the tea chest. He found Gollum, the librarian, there ‘checking whether there was anything missing or damaged.’ The tea chest was empty.

Well, maybe I have lost a marble or two, DC Grainger and DC Singh. But how would you explain Angharad’s celtic ring, safely hidden in my washbag at the B&B? And it’s plain to me who has snaffled The Great Book. I sense a second family connection here: Gollum’s surname is ‘Pugh.’ I suggest you get a search warrant.

Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, May 21st 1941

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, October 7th, 2017)

Mary MacLeod was busy restocking the shelves of the shop in the NCOs’ canteen. She liked the job well enough, though the walk to work through mean streets was hard to bear on a May day that put her in mind of happier times back home in Skye. Stacking the cigarettes, she was interrupted by a Very Important Person, Sergeant-Major Andrew Marshall:

‘Mary, lassie, drop wit you’re doin’ an’ come along wi’ me tae Major Drummond’s office.’ He quickly continued, ‘You’ve done nothin’ wrang, lassie. But we’re needin’ a translator to help wi’ a new recruit frae Skye. He makes oot that he only speaks Gaelic and, if so, he’s nae damn use in the Army. But the major an’ me, we think maybe he’s a damn liar.’

The Sergeant-Major, very properly, held Major Drummond’s door open for Mary, and – small and dark, neat and timid – she tripped into the office. Very properly, Major Drummond rose from his desk to greet her. Nothing so far was setting Mary at her ease. The major indicated the private standing to attention on the other side of the desk:

‘This is Private MacKinnon, Mary. We need you to help with some questions we have for Private MacKinnon.’

And so the interrogation proceeded. Yes indeed, he told Mary, he had been taught English at school. But the school had been a long way from the croft in the winter time. And his mother had often needed his help in the croft in the summer time. Forbye, truth to tell, he wasn’t a great scholar. The private answered all her questions with a gentle smile. Mary felt a rush of homesickness and she warmed to the boy, an emissary from her own people.

The question-and-answer session took a while, and was periodically interrupted by the sergeant exclaiming, ‘My God! Wit’s that oot the windae?’and ‘Good Grief! Wit’s that thing crawling up your sleeve?’ To all of these interjections, Private MacKinnon would react with just a puzzled frown.

At length, the major leaned back in his seat: ‘What do you think, Sergeant-Major?’

‘Sir, a man that cannae follow orders is nae more use than a chocolate teapot in the Army.’

‘My view exactly. We’ll discharge him.’

The major shuffled some papers. The Sergeant-Major led Private MacKinnon away. In the doorway, the private turned back to Mary. He gave her a slow wink and walked away.

(In Memoriam, Johan MacLean 1914 – 2012)

A Cloud Forest Tale

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Fiction pool, sept 22nd 2017)

Not many holidaymakers know about La Gomera: it’s one of the smaller Canary Islands and doesn’t have an international airport. We go there to walk in the mysterious cloud forest and we only rarely bump into fellow-tourists, so we were quite shocked to bump into Mr and Mrs Angela Merkel (he’s called Joachim).

The cloud forest is a wonderful place: four thousand feet up, on the slopes of an extinct volcano, it’s an unlikely survivor from the Jurassic Era. Tall laurels and tree heathers (yes, heathers that are trees!) provide a thick forest canopy, so there is very little undergrowth to impede hikers and there are plenty of old donkey trails to follow. The wild flowers are striking (gigantic dandelions, wild geraniums), but what really attracts us is the feel of the cloud forest, or the ‘laurisilva’ to give it its proper name. There are gentle mists that deaden sound, carpets of moss, and hanging lichens. Bit by bit, the ancient forest enfolds you and, belief suspended, you half-seriously start to explore for… secret things. This is a forest kinder than a lover, wiser than a book.

Tucked comfortably into some mossy tree roots, Dorothy and I were just finishing our lunch, when we noticed a burly, bearded guy silently staring at us some twenty yards down the track. Out of the mist behind him emerged a middle-aged couple with walking poles. The three of them advanced towards us; the couple were smiling, Beardie was not.

‘Bloody Ell, it’s Angela Merkel!’ The words were out before I knew I’d said them. Dorothy and I simultaneously gabbled an apology. We both feared a diplomatic incident. But Joachim (as we later learned to call him) laughed and waved his hands:

‘Please, no apology is necessary. It happens quite a lot.’

Angela smiled and nodded, ‘How are you enjoying the laurisilva? So peaceful here, is it not? I think it’s the most peaceful place on Earth.’ We forgot our awkwardness as we joined in an international hymn of praise to La Gomera. And Dorothy eventually went so far as to offer to share the remains of our lunch:

‘We were just going to spread some Gomeran palm syrup on biscuits…’

She dived into the rucksack and Beardie’s hand darted into his gilet. Too late, Angela snapped: ‘Lass es, Helmut!’ Dorothy and Beardie stared at each other – Dorothy holding a glass jar of palm syrup, and Beardie holding an automatic pistol. It was now Angela and Joachim’s turn to apologise. Dorothy started to laugh, rather hysterically, and suddenly we all became friends (not Beardie/Helmut, he respectfully retreated into the middle distance). It turned out that Angela and Joachim shared our enthusiasm for the sweet-and-savoury palm syrup, miele de palme. Between the four of us, we got through most of Dorothy’s small jar. Angela told us that so many young Gomerans were leaving the island for jobs in Tenerife that there were fewer and fewer islanders agile enough to climb their palm trees to tap the syrup. It seemed to us a sad symptom of what was a truly international crisis: I mentioned the disappearance of Derbyshire black puddings and Dorothy was very eloquent on the subject of Ayrshire new potatoes, grown on seaweed.

In this maudlin mood, sated with palm syrup, Dorothy mentioned Brexit. This might have been thought tactless as Angela was on holiday, but she didn’t mind a bit. Lying flat-out on a mossy bank, hands behind her head, she stared up at a giant dandelion, and said dreamily: ‘I do not know Mrs May very well, but I feel so sorry for her. David Cameron has passed onto her a very poor poker hand and left her sitting in front of a very big mirror…’ She paused, ‘Tell me what has become of Mr Cameron?’

‘There was a story in the paper, the day we left the UK. He’s just spent twenty-five thousand pounds on a posh garden shed, where he’s going to write his memoirs.’

Joachim snorted with disbelief: ‘He is going to write a book about how he accidentally dumped the UK out of Europe?’

This seemed to me a rather quaint way of putting the matter, but I couldn’t disagree with it. We drifted off to other topics –the secretive forest, the Fred Olsen Line and Joachim’s lack of any grey hairs. But the Brexit discussion had unsettled me. When we parted, a little later, we shook hands and I muttered quietly, so that Beardie/Helmut couldn’t hear: ‘If the Brexit thing doesn’t work out for us, Angela. Will you please let us back in?’

She patted my hand, smiled and said, ‘Of course, that would be lovely.’


Dorothy and I talked things over afterwards and we decided that the responsible thing to do would be to write a letter to Boris Johnson. A distinguished gentleman from the Foreign Office eventually came to record an interview with us. At the end of the interview, I said I’d like to tell the story to a wider audience, would that be OK? He paused at our front door, iPhone in hand.

He said: ‘You know, a poet wrote that a good story is a pearl spun around the grit of a truth.’

Twenty-First Century Mr Chips

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Fiction Pool, Sept 19th 2017)

Hello. You have eight messages. First message, received Friday, May 20th at 6.30 pm…’

‘You dirty nonce! Messin’ with kids’ lives. I know where you live, you shit! I’ll be round to see you wi’ a pair o’ garden shears. Guess what for?’

Second message, received Friday, May 20th at 7.10 pm…’

‘Hello love. Where are you? Don’t tell me you’ve forgot again. I think those sleeping pills are making you a bit dopey. The meat’s spoiling. Lucky we both like it well done! Hoping to see you soon. I mean VERY soon. Lots of love, Lucy.’

Third message, received Friday, May 20th at 8.45 pm…’

‘Andy, it’s me. Your meal’s in the bin. Again. We can’t go on like this. I mean it.’

Fourth message, received Friday, May 20th at 11.52 pm…’

‘Still not pickin’ up, you nonce? We wuz discussin’ you in the pub. Someone suggested some petrol through the letter box. But I say: why spoil a perfeckly good ‘ouse? So we’ll still be bringin’ the garden shears. Thought you’d like to know.’

Fifth message, received Saturday, May 21st at 9.30 am…’

‘Andy, it’s Jonathan here. So sorry to call you on the weekend. But I wanted you to know that we had a school governors’ meeting last night. You’ll understand that I had to make the governors aware of the allegations against you. They agreed with me that we have only one possible course of action. I’m afraid that, in view of the seriousness of the allegations, you’ll be on gardening leave for the present. So please don’t show up on Monday. If you need to get in touch, it’s best that you do it through the Foundation’s solicitors. Sorry about that, but I’m sure you understand that the school’s good name has to be my first concern.’

Sixth message, received Saturday, May 21st at 7.20 pm…’

‘Well, I did think you’d at least have the decency to ring and apologise. I think, under the circumstances, we should cancel that holiday in Crete: you’ll probably forget to come to the airport.’

Seventh message, received Sunday, May 22nd at 2.15 pm…’

‘Andy, it’s Lucy. Are you alright? Came past and saw the curtains drawn. When you get this, please call back to let me know you’re OK.’

Eighth message, received Monday, May 23rd at 10.00 am…’

‘Mr Robertson, this is Detective Constable Brailsford here. I’m ringing on behalf of Detective Chief Inspector Williams. We wanted you to know that, following investigation, we believe the allegations that have been made against you are unfounded. The child who made the allegations has withdrawn them – they appear to have been malicious in intent. Off the record, I’d like to say that both my boys were previously pupils at the school and hold you in high regard. I’m sorry for the trouble that has been caused, but you’ll understand that, in the present climate, every such allegation or complaint has to be thoroughly investigated. If you’d like any further information, please feel free to ring me back.

You have no further messages.’

The Divided Womb

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, Issue 73, Spring 2017 pp. 11-14)

I’m relieved that Jane has invited me to the funeral. The way things had been between us in recent years, I’d have felt uncomfortable being here without an invitation, even though it’s my twin brother that we’re cremating. As the curtains swish shut across the coffin and the automatic rollers noisily trundle Maurice towards the furnace, I realise with a shock that I’d had no inkling that he’d want to be cremated. At some deep level, I must have assumed that we’d be together again in death down at the cemetery, despite our separation in life. I begin to suspect that Maurice had expressed no wishes about his funeral arrangements before his accident, and that the cremation had been Jane’s idea.

As my fellow-mourners and I begin that slow, self-conscious shuffle down the central aisle that follows every funeral service, I start to panic that I must have voiced my thoughts about Jane out-loud: a number of people are covertly observing me, and a few are whispering. Then I realise that they’re staring because of my startling resemblance to the deceased. To those that didn’t realise that Maurice had a twin, it must seem that Maurice is attending his own funeral.

Jane is standing just outside the crematorium chapel, receiving condolences. When she sees me, her composure leaves her. Not catching my eye, she mutters: ‘Thanks for coming, Bill.’ Before I can reply, her brother Andy – standing by her side – has seized my hand: ‘Damn it, damn it, this is a terrible business.’ I’ve always liked Andy and I let him draw me aside:

‘Come away, Bill. These clowns are all staring at you, because you’re the spitting image of Maurice.’

I’m surprised Andy has noticed the surreptitious goggling, but that’s what he’s like: Andy notices things. Into my disordered thoughts there comes the memory of the time when Andy and I were playing for the same youth club football team. A cup game, the semi-final, I was on the left wing. All through the first half, the opposing right back had been working me over: muttering threats and contriving niggling blind-side fouls. As we trooped off at half-time, he was beside me, breathing his dog’s breath in my face and whispering that he’d cripple me if I tried to take the ball past him again. Suddenly, Andy, the captain, was there beside the two of us calmly telling that right back, ‘Any more crap out of you and I’ll rip your throat out.’ And then Maurice was there too: ‘Dead right, we’ll all rip your throat out.’

I catch myself thinking: ‘Good ol’ Andy! Good ol’ Maurice!’ My eyes are watering and I belatedly realise that Andy is asking me a question:

‘I was saying, Bill, that I’m sure Jane will want you with us on the family table at the meal, down at the pub. You’ll be coming along now for the refreshments, I hope?’ He paused: ‘Your thoughts were miles away just then, Bill. Understandably.’

I smile: ‘I was thinking back to the time when you, me and Maurice were playing in the Rykneld Road youth club team.’

Andy smiles too: ‘Yeah. Maurice was a useful mid-fielder. Left-half, as we used to say. A pity he could only play in the school holidays.’

Yes, that was the start of it, really: Maurice could only play in the school holidays. I’d passed the eleven-plus exam and gone on to the grammar school. Maurice had inexplicably failed. Our parents were determined to ‘do the best’ for him and had scraped together the money to send him to that awful boarding school, where the school made him play rugby. So he could only play footie for the youth club in the school holidays. That was the start of it, alright: that bloody eleven-plus…

‘Mmm. We always stood a better chance of winning when Maurice was playing for us. He covered twice as much ground as anyone else: it was like having an extra man, remember?’ And before Andy can answer, I continue: ‘Sorry. I shan’t be coming on with you for the meal, Andy. I’m afraid I have to be getting back. Do apologise to Jane for me.’ I move away to the carpark. As I open the car door, I chance to see Andy and Jane in the middle-distance, both silently looking on. I give an awkward wave, climb in the car and drive off, back to Derby.

I’d baulked at the suffocating family table, with the salmon sandwiches. But once in the car, I’ve a sudden wish to be home without delay, to be back where I’m loved. On the motorway, I switch the radio on: it’s Woman’s Hour, an interview with a feminist conceptual artist. I press the CD button – choral music, Thomas Tallis, which matches my mood…

He always hated it there – at that school. He couldn’t tell Mum and Dad that though: they’d sacrificed a lot to send him there. And the way he saw it, that school was his punishment for failing his eleven-plus: he felt guilty – he thought it was all his own fault. That’s not what he said, but I knew that’s what he felt. I always knew what he felt, at least I always knew what he felt til he and Jane got together. And that boarding school was useless: he failed most of his exams, which made him feel even more guilty. While I went on to read Law at Nottingham, he joined the army. That was where he learned to drink…

A huge, two-story car-carrier swings out of the slow lane in front of me, I swerve out of the way, into the fast lane, causing a Mercedes behind me to brake, flash his lights and sound his horn. I realise I’d missed responding to the car-carrier’s previous indicator signal: I’m inattentive and tired. I wonder if that’s how it was with Maurice’s accident? or was he drinking again? I pull into a motorway services, have a pee, and buy a can of Red Bull. I don’t drink coffee, so all caffeine drinks work for me like a slap in the face. Back to the tarmac tedium; I’m alert but still inattentive, if you get my meaning.

He liked it in the army. It gave him some self-respect and he was popular with his mates. When he came home on leave, he’d say he wanted Britain to join the war in Vietnam: he and his mates would soon show the Yanks how to kill commies. But I knew that was just a wind-up: Maurice was a gentle soul. I was proud of him. When I married Jane, Maurice wore his dress uniform as the Best Man – he was the star of the show. In his speech at the wedding, Maurice told everyone that it was only fitting that I’d got married first, as I was the oldest – by twenty minutes. But they shouldn’t expect him to be marrying any time soon, because his brother had already married the best girl in the world. Odd that he should have said that, the way things turned out…

Now I’m off the motorway and on the Derby ring-road. I’m keen to get back home. I know Dorothy will be worried about how I’ve got on at the funeral. She’d been determined to come with me, but she has a nasty fluey cold and I finally convinced her to stay home. The traffic slows to a crawl: the Royce’s day-shift is heading home. Rolls-Royce is always called ‘Royce’s’ in Derby; don’t ask me why.

After he came out the army, it was me that persuaded him to come back to Derby. He’d talked about going to New Zealand, where he had an old army buddy. But I was worried about his drinking – the real reason he’d left the army – and I reckoned I could help him find his feet back in civvy street. ‘OK, big brother’, he’d said and gave me a hug. I was a partner in Molyneux & Sowter by this time: we managed several old-established local trusts with property interests in the town. So I got him a job as our Estate Manager. Mum and Dad had both died while Maurice was in the army. So it was natural that Maurice should stay with Jane and I while he looked for something permanent. I wasn’t worried about that: he and Jane had always got on well. And Jane’s heart always went out to a bird with a broken wing…

Dorothy comes to the window and waves when she hears the car in the drive. As I come in the door, she gives me a broad smile, a hug and then a steady look: ‘You’re tired. Not surprising: you’ve had a tough day and a long drive. Come and sit down, while I get your tea. It’s a salad and the rest of the Bird’s pork pie’.

Everyone in Derby swears that Bird’s make much better pork pies than anything found in Melton Mowbray. I take my black tie off first, a signal to myself that the solemnities are over. Like a small child emerging from a dark wood, my heart lifts to be back on familiar territory, to feel the proximity of one who loves me. I help Dorothy open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and admire her deft movements as she lays the table. All those barren years after Jane and Maurice left – they count for nothing now. I answer her gentle questions about the funeral, but my thoughts are running on my late good fortune – Dorothy is my Indian Summer. As I finish off the pork pie, Dorothy starts another coughing and sneezing fit. Eventually, she is forced off to the bathroom and to bed.

I make her some hot milk and then clean-up after my meal. As I stand over the sink, I catch sight through the window of the tree peony that Maurice had bought and planted for Jane all those years ago: its tumbled mass of fragile, creamy flowers are blushing tonight in the evening sunlight.

Maurice’s transition back to civvy street proved more difficult than he or I had expected. He didn’t like the Estate Manager post; out of my hearing, he was calling himself a ‘rent collector’. Old Mr Sowter told me that his nephew had seen Maurice playing snooker in the backroom of The Bell in Sadlergate in the afternoons, sometimes ‘the worst for drink.’ Against Jane’s advice, I tackled Maurice about it. We shouted and swore half the night. And we both ended up crying. Maurice agreed to seek help with his drinking…

I’m tired, but too restless to go to bed. And I can hear Dorothy still coughing. I watch TV for a bit: I have a weakness for a programme called ‘You’ve Been Framed,’ home-movie clips of members of the public falling into water, being hit in the genitalia by golf balls, and felling trees which then fall on top of their neighbour’s car. Tonight though, I switch it off after a few minutes. I pick up my current book. Years ago, I began reading the Icelandic sagas. I’ve read a load of them and recently I started re-reading some of my favourites. I’m drawn to the quiet heroism of those men, real individuals struggling stoically against ill-luck and hard times, a thousand years ago. They believed in fate, but their sense of honour demanded that, while they had breath in their bodies, they should struggle against their fate. They sensed their lives were imperfect, but they accepted the consequences. They would ‘do the deed and abide it.’

Strangely, it was the group therapy that Maurice undertook that was the indirect cause of the trouble. At first, it seemed as if all was going well. Mr Sowter agreed to keep Maurice’s job open while he sought treatment. The GP referred Maurice right away to the psychiatric day hospital for group therapy. Maurice said it was tough and upsetting, but he kept attending day after day after day. And he stayed sober. Jane and I were delighted.

I gathered that part of the group treatment was for the patients to learn how to establish more ‘honest’ relationships with people, first of all with fellow members of the group, and then with their nearest and dearest outside the day hospital. So I realise now that it was inevitable that one day Maurice should tell my Jane how much he loved her…

Eventually, I set the Laxdale Saga aside, brush my teeth, and move quietly into the bedroom. It’s still not quite dark, even with the curtains drawn. Dorothy’s breathing is more laboured than usual because of her fluey cold. As I climb into bed, she wakens briefly, smiles, murmurs and falls back to sleep. I feel a sudden, engulfing, warm rush of affection towards her. I lie awake, reflecting that acceptance of fate is not just the end of a story – it can sometimes be the beginning. There are times when you can ‘do the deed’ by doing nothing.

When Maurice and Jane left together, something stayed my hand and I didn’t cut down the tree peony. Tonight, I feel very fortunate that it still stands there: Maurice’s legacy.

Commuting in Warsaw

(first published in The Flash Fiction Press May 5, 2017)

by Michael Bloor

Jenny Birkett was sitting in the bar with five fellow psychiatrists at an academic conference. A quiet middle-aged woman with quiet clothes and a gentle manner, it wasn’t unusual for her to take little part in professional chitchat. The discussion was about some remarks that the opening conference speaker had made in his plenary address. He had referred to a famous paper that the great Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung, delivered to the annual meeting of the British Medical Association in the summer of 1914, “The Importance of the Unconscious in Psychopathology”. At the time, Jung secretly feared that he himself was suffering from schizophrenia. Two days after he delivered his paper, the First World War broke out. In the middle of that collective European madness, Jung’s recovery was slow and painful: he later interpreted his initial disturbance as a precognition of the European slaughter.

The conference speaker had suggested that personal experience of mental illness could be valuable to psychiatrists in caring for their patients. The suggestion had sharply divided the group in the bar. Old Danny McCafferty, who knew Jenny better than most, noticed not just her quietness, but a clouded, troubled expression. Hesitantly, he asked her if she had an opinion. Jenny spoke so gently that they had to strain to hear her above the hubbub of the bar: “I don’t say that personal experience of psychiatric illness is going to be helpful to us in diagnosis or treatment. But there was an occasion when I felt sure that I was going mad and I’ll never forget the sheer anguish that I felt then. It’s got to be valuable for us to understand—to know from our own experience—the awfulness that our patients are living through. I hope it’s helped me to bring more compassion to my patients.”

There was a pause. Jenny reached for, and swigged, her dry white wine. She ran her finger over the wet ring her glass had left on the table. “I suppose, after a declaration like that, I owe it to you all to tell you what happened…

“Nearly twenty years ago, I went to Poland on an EU exchange scheme. I learnt the language at my mother’s knee: she had fled Poland during the war. I spent six months in an academic psychiatric department in Warsaw and a Polish colleague, Darek, came to my unit in Edinburgh. I had his flat in Warsaw and he stayed in my cottage in Roslyn. You probably know that the ancient centre of Warsaw was painstakingly recreated after the destruction of the war. But most of the city’s population don’t stay in the chocolate-box city centre: they live in the countless high-rise flats in the suburbs. Like everyone else, I used to travel in and out to work on the bus, down long, long avenues of these post-war workers’ flats. A dreary journey.

“One autumn evening of murk and rain, I was absorbed in an article I was reading and almost missed my stop. I scurried into the downstairs lobby of the flats and into the battered lift. Darek’s flat was on the eighth floor. There was no light on the landing and it was always a titanic struggle to locate and operate Darek’s battered door-lock. So it was a relief when, finally, the lock yielded. But once inside the flat, it always used to feel homely. The living room used to be lined with books in Polish and English—literature and philosophy, as well as medicine. Darek was evidently a polymath whose learning put me to shame.

“But that night, when I switched on the light, I got a stupefying shock. The books and the book shelves were gone. So were the warm Afghan rugs and the rich red curtains.

“I dropped my briefcase and almost collapsed myself. I sat down abruptly on a battered dining room chair (never previously seen) and, not daring to lift my eyes, stared at the unfamiliar scuffed lino at my feet. The lino was patterned with entwined pink roses on a green background: the thorns on the roses seemed unnaturally large. I struggled against the panic, tried to control my rasping breathing, and sought desperately for some rational explanation of the changes. Sought and failed: how could somebody (a relative of Dareks? a housing official?? the security police???) have entered the flat and, in a few short hours, completely refurnished it with this old tatt—this scuffed lino? In truth, I knew that nothing could explain the transformation of the flat. There had to be something wrong with my perception: I, a psychiatrist, was delusional. My eyes filled with tears; I have never known such pain.

“I thought back to patients I had known, trying and failing to recall similar cases. And then I was mistrusting my recall, as I had already mistrusted my perceptions. Inexpressible wretchedness. My breathing was now quite out of control, my heart was banging like a gong. I felt faint and I got up to open the living room window, to breathe some cold air. As I stood at the window, struggling with the catch, I glanced out to the evening street below…

“It was a different street.

“And then, in a flash, I knew. This was a different street: it wasn’t Darek’s street and this was not Darek’s flat. Unknowingly, I had got off the bus at the wrong stop. Unknowingly, I had run through the rain into the wrong block of flats. Unknowingly, I had contrived with Darek’s key to open the shoddy lock to the wrong flat.

“Such relief. But my understanding of my patients was changed utterly.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Fermain Bay

Michael Bloor

(first published in Flash Fiction Press January 5th 2017

A routine visit to the town library with my daughter. My pedagogic overtures rejected, I drift over to a display of new books. A shock: the photo on the dust-jacket of a book about the Channel Islands. It’s Fermain Bay, Guernsey. For years, I carried in my wallet just such a photo, taken from among the headland pines on a day of luminous light, looking down into the narrow sandy bay. On the dust-jacket, I can just make out tiny, scattered deck-chairs, once my summer-long responsibility.

The things you forget. The great Martello Tower, built to dominate the beach and deter Napoleon – forgotten. A mere stone obstacle to be skirted on journeys between my deck-chair store and Ginny’s beach café. An historic monument rubbed out and Ginny’s brown eyes and deft movements given Conservation Area status. The things you remember: our first kiss, when I couldn’t stop my knees trembling; how the smell of the pines gradually gave way to the smell of the sea on morning walks to work; the taste of fresh Guernsey milk. And there’s the bad stuff too: the café break-in when all the fags were stolen and the owner blamed me; my night at the police station – a brief episode, but a lasting after-taste of how it is to be the bewildered outsider, the stranger deemed suddenly to be the enemy. That summer was my passage into adulthood, backlit by the ‘vision splendid’ of childhood, but treading step-by-step into Man’s Estate.

Twenty-odd years have passed since that library visit, just as twenty-odd years had stretched between my Guernsey days and my discovery of the dust-jacket. A strange exercise, to sit and recall the time when the memory of Fermain Bay engulfed me like an incoming tide— the memory of a memory.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Rogue Spruce

(First published by Flash Fiction Magazine January 4, 2017)

By Michael Bloor

The trees should never have been planted in that place: the slope was too steep for a mechanical harvester. Alan’s father reckoned they had been planted in the 80s, as a tax-dodge, with no thought of selling the timber. Now the Estate was wanting the conifers cleared from the slope so that hardwoods could be planted in their place—there were grants for planting hardwoods. So the Estate Factor had called in Alan and his father to do the felling. They didn’t fancy the job, but they didn’t dare turn down a contract from the Estate—the biggest employer on the island.

His father’s chain-saw was out of fuel, so the old man had shuffled down the slope to get a couple of full jerrycans from the pick-up. Alan had watched him go, silently noting that the old man’s arthritis was getting worse. Alan then breathed a deep breath and stepped up to the largest tree left on the ridge. It had grown slightly apart from the others, with plenty of room to grow side-branches. The side-branches sloped downward—so when Alan stepped up to the trunk with his saw, it was as if he was in a green tent.

It was a minute’s work to fell the tree: He took a wedge out on the side where the tree was to fall and then made a cut towards the wedge. Alan withdrew the saw and waited for the tree to topple. But it didn’t topple. To his amazement, the upper trunk slid neatly down the wedge and buried itself in the earth and rocks, just a couple of feet away from him. The felled tree continued perilously upright, shivering on its new base—a one-in-ten-thousand occurrence.

Alan had heard stories about such fellings, but he had never witnessed them. Until now. He knew what he had to do, but it was the hardest thing imaginable. He had to wait.

The tree was quivering on its buried point, it could fall in any direction, crushing a fleeing man: he had to wait until it was clear which way the tree was falling and then, only then, leap out of its way. He glanced upward: the curtain of side-branches cut-off any view of the top of the tree – there would be no early warning of the tree’s movement. Two or three seconds passed and, incredibly, the tree was still upright and shuddering, as if in its death-throes.

The fall, when it came, was astonishingly sudden. It fell away from him, but he leapt aside anyway—both his mind and body needed the motion.

The tree slewed into a companion spruce, toppled off it, and bounced down the slope. Alan cut the motor on the saw and watched its downward progress. Finally, it was stopped by the more recent plantings near the road. It was then he saw his father emerge beside it, a jerrycan in each hand, screaming in rage. Ashamed, relieved and exultant, Alan could only laugh.

The Carpet Circular Affair

(first published in Platform for Prose, Nov 1st, 2016)

Michael Bloor

For want of reading matter (other than the label on the sauce bottle), I was reading the story in my gran’s magazine. It seemed that Madeleine, a nurse with a mass of dark curls and a pretty retroussé nose, had been initially drawn to Jimmy, the gynaecologist, who was a lot of fun. She’d thought Andrew, the surgeon (blue eyes, strong jaw), a bit stand-offish. But eventually she’d found herself respecting his calm, commanding manner in the operating theatre. At the end of a particularly tricky, but successful, procedure, he turned to her with smiling eyes and said, ‘We seem to make a pretty good team, don’t we?’

I was impressed: ‘We seem to make a pretty good team, don’t we?’ struck me as a first-class chat-up line. I reckoned I’d try it out on Sandra at the carpet shop tomorrow. Every Saturday morning I went into Saunders’ carpet shop on St Peter’s Street to collect 750 carpet circulars that I’d deliver over the weekend for thirty shillings. Sandra Saunders, the owner’s daughter, would hand me the circulars, but first she’d get me to show her on the street map where I’d delivered the circulars last weekend. This was partly because her dad didn’t entirely trust me not to stuff ‘em down the loo, and partly because he had a theory that it was a waste of money delivering carpet circulars round the posh end of town. Sandra was a lot nicer than the old man. And prettier. Neither Sandra nor I was a particularly good map-reader and we’d sometimes have to put our heads together (blissfully, in my case) for a few minutes to work out exactly where I’d been the previous week.

Last month, I’d failed disastrously with my only previous chat-up line: ‘I’m thinking of buying a horse.’ Sandra had snorted with derision and I realised that spontaneous boasting would not suffice to bring home the bacon. Subsequent enquiries with my dad about the price of horses had deepened my shame, but hardened my resolve: I would have to plan a Sandra Saunders Campaign. I had been emboldened by my success at the youth club disco, where I’d found that in order to walk a girl home you had to first ask her to dance – a discovery that seemed quite beyond the likes of Slug Gardiner and Tank Thompson, nursing their glasses of lemonade as they palely loitered on the edge of the dancefloor. However, Sandra was a good year older than the girls at the youth club, with (seemingly) real breasts and a (seemingly) real smoker’s cough. The Sandra Saunders Campaign would need to be a step-change from youth club disco night.

I practised Andrew the Surgeon’s line in front of the wardrobe mirror in gran’s room. I liked the concept, but the execution seemed a little too cucumber-sandwiches-and-croquet-on-the-lawn. Eventually, I came up with, ‘I reckon you and me make a pretty good team, Sandra.’ Perfect.

The next Saturday morning, the campaign started well enough. Sandra seemed mildly interested when I pointed out to her that the Browning Circles and Coleridge Streets of the Normanton Estate (saturation carpet-leafleted last weekend) were all named after poets. Sandra’s long auburn hair fell over her face as she bent over the street map and carefully coloured in red the streets of the Normanton Estate; I longed to gently tuck her hair back behind her neck. I marshalled my forces and made my surprise strike: ‘I reckon you an’ me make a pretty good team, Sandra.’

‘Eh?’ She stood up straight, still holding the red crayon.

‘A good team. Y’know. Like Laurel & Hardy, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Roy Rogers & Trigger.’ I see now that this last comparison was a mistake.

‘Trigger?? I suppose you’re Roy Rogers and I’m the horse?’ She snorted with a new thought: ‘Or is Trigger the horse you’re thinkin’ of buyin’ with this week’s thirty shillings?’

When Sandra stood up straight, she was a couple of inches taller than me. When she laughed, she was a couple of feet taller than me. So that was the end of that.

I’d hear bits and pieces of news over the years. When I was away at Uni, I heard she’d married Nigel Butler, who’d been head boy at my school when I was in the third form. He was working in his dad’s solicitors firm. A few years later, back home for gran’s funeral, I was surprised to see Saunders’ Carpets had disappeared, correct apostrophe and all, from St Peter’s Street – a chain selling ‘Chunkie Whoppa’s’ was there in its place. Dad said Old Man Saunders had dropped dead in a bunker at the golf club. My brother and I would still make the journey to the footie once or twice a year, and one time we bumped into Tank Thompson and his wife, Sally. Sally and Sandra were old friends and she mentioned that Sandra was now divorced. Sally reckoned that Sandra had been screwed in the divorce settlement, but she didn’t know the details.

I don’t remember hearing anything else for maybe twenty years, til she found me through the wonders of the internet. Her email was headed: ‘Bought that horse yet?’ She said that she’d been going through some old papers of her father’s and she’d come across a packet of old carpet circulars: would I like one for old time’s sake? After that, we kept in touch and, when I was on a walking holiday in Derbyshire, we met up for a pub lunch in Wirksworth, where she was living. I recognised her right away, though she was no longer a couple of inches taller than me. It turned out that we had a lot more than carpet circulars in common, and the day before I headed home she walked out with me in Wolfcote Dale and we had a long and cheery meal in the pub at Hartington.

Things have just progressed from there, really.

Happy Birthday, Dear Madame Blavatsky

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears Oct 15, 2016)

She didn’t think things could get much better. Madame Blavatsky blew out all the candles on the cake, closed her eyes and wished. Each of the encircling adepts then extinguished their own single candles. A cloud crossed the lambent Sicilian moon, she breathed in a mixture of incense and mountain thyme. The ceremony had reached its climax. Aleister Crowley rose up from his oaken throne, cast his eyes upward and uttered a short prayer to Horus. The entire assembly stood in reverent silence. Apart from the goat.

Crowley then took a step nearer to the Unicursal Hexagram that had been incised on the flat-topped limestone boulder. Unluckily, in the shadows, he collided with L. Ron Hubbard, crushing Hubbard’s toes beneath his glass-beaded sandal. Hubbard groaned and inadvertently released his hold on the goat. The goat should perhaps have escaped at this point, but leaping away in alarm from Hubbard’s groans and curses, it only succeeded in thumping into the massive posterior of Lord Tankerville, who was shaken but not stirred. The stunned goat was then instantly recaptured by W.B. Yeats. However, a great glob of hot wax from Lord Tankerville’s extinguished candle spilled onto Madame Blavatsky.  Naked as she was, the hot wax caused her to send up an animal howl of shock and rage, which would have surprised her old Tibetan Lama-Instructor. Crowley made a mental note concerning Blavatsky’s probable unsuitability for sado-masochistic rituals.

The shredding cloud tore away from the moon’s face and ghastly light returned to the pagan grove. In a compelling voice, Crowley called for the ceremonial blade. Gerald Brousseau Gardner stepped forward into the circle, wearing his newly-designed Wiccan robes (golden sickles, sprigs of mistletoe, and wreaths of oak-leaves, all on a pink background).

‘Hast thou the blade, O Scire?’

Gardner, bowed his head and produced a long-bladed knife from the folds of his robe.

A ragged chorus murmured: ‘He has the blade! He has the blade!’

‘A terrible beauty is born!’ (this last was from Yeats).

Crowley received the knife and, with a bow, passed it to Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky began to utter a long, hissing incantation in a strange tongue. The adepts listened in awed silence. The strangely passive goat gazed upward at the long, glittering knife. Dennis Wheatley averted his eyes.

In one flashing movement, the knife plunged downward. And sliced the cake – icing, marzipan and all.