The Talisman

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Jan 9th 2021)

The train pulled into Aberdeen station just after midnight; it was almost empty. As I walked along the carriage to the exit door, I noticed the bag lying on a seat: one of those re-usable bags that the supermarkets sell. Quite bulky – evidently something was inside. I took a look: there was something rigid, wrapped around with what I guessed to be linen cloths. The cloths were secured with gaffer tape, but I pulled open a corner…

Gold glinted in the carriage light.

I count myself an honest man, by normal standards. I do have one conviction, for criminal damage. But that happened when I was off my face with drink twenty years ago. And other customers agreed that the barman had been unnecessarily violent in ejecting me from the pub in question. Of course, on the present occasion, I should’ve turned the bag over to one of the station staff. And I’m sure that, under different circumstances, I would’ve done just that. But that night I was in a bad place.

I was coming home from a failed job interview with a shipping company in Glasgow. Seafaring is a fine job when you’re young and haven’t a family; I’m forty nine with a sick wife. Latterly, I’d been working as the mate on supply ships servicing the oil rigs in the North Sea, but as the oil was running out, so the jobs on the supply ships were running out. The job in Glasgow was an office job as a ships superintendent. Unemployed, with Dorothy sick and a mortgage to pay, I really wanted that job. Needless to say, I didn’t get it (wasn’t even close).

Needless also to say, I’d had a few consoling drinks in Glasgow before I caught the late train. You might say my judgement was impaired – an explanation, not an excuse.

So I picked up the bag and headed out the station. I’m not a native Aberdonian, but in my years working on the supply boats, I’ve developed a fondness for the city. Stepping out of the station, you’re only a hundred metres from the harbour, and straight away you get a lung-full of sea air. The last buses had gone and I couldn’t afford a taxi, so I was walking home. On Union Street, the main drag, I noticed that the gates to St. Nicholas’s kirkyard had been left open: they’re usually closed at night to deter underage drinkers and courting couples.

They’ve been burying folk in the kirkyard for 900 hundred years, so there’s a lot of distinguished old bones about the place. A particular favourite of mine is buried there: John Henry Anderson (1814-74), ‘The Great Wizard of the North,’ the first of the great showmen-magicians. Indeed, he was the first magician to produce a white rabbit from a hat, to the wonder of his audience. Houdini himself paid for the upkeep of the grave when it fell into disrepair. (No doubt you’ve guessed that I’m an enthusiastic amateur magician). I was burning with curiosity about the contents of the bag, so it seemed a natural thing to do: to slip into the kirkyard and, illuminated by the streetlights, examine my find beside the mortal remains of the Great Wizard.

The contents proved to be a small painting, incorporating quite a lot of gold leaf, on a rectangular wooden board. It was a very old painting, that was evident from the state of the wood. I guessed right away that it was an icon. Years ago, I served as a mate on some Greek-owned ships: each ship had a small icon on the bridge. My icon portrayed a saint in a tiny clinker-built ship, with a single sail and an expectant, bearded crew. I knew I was looking at St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, and, moreover, I was looking at him in St Nicholas’s kirkyard.

Now, I’m not religious, but I admit it: I’m superstitious. There’s good luck and there’s bad luck. Sitting there in the saint’s kirkyard, I figured my luck had turned at last. I walked on back to the flat with a very good feeling.

I let myself into the flat quietly, hoping not to disturb Dorothy: she was halfway through the chemo course, and needed her sleep. I was planning to sleep on the couch, but she heard me in the bathroom and called me through to the bedroom. Dot knew about the the job interview fiasco; I’d called her from Glasgow. I thought the icon story might cheer her up, so I carried St Nicholas through to the bedroom.

It certainly brought her fully awake. She touched it lightly as I told the story. When I finished, she asked: ‘Why didn’t you hand it in at the station?’

As soon as she asked the question, I realised I’d behaved like a drunken idiot. Again. What on earth was I planning to do with it anyway?

Dot smiled at me: ‘It’s a bit big for a good luck charm.’ I promised to hand it in at the station in the morning and got ready for bed.

* * *

The guy at the station was surprisingly friendly, taking down my details: ‘We’ve never had an icon handed in before. You came off the late train and maybe couldn’t find anyone to hand it over to, eh? Only a skeleton staff on then.’

And that was that. ‘Til three weeks later. Dot answered the phone: it was an orthodox priest in Dunblane. The wealthy old lady who’d previously donated the icon to the Dunblane church was offering a reward for it’s return. And the picture restorer in Montrose, who’d left the icon on the train, was offering a fortnight’s holiday in his holiday home in Sutherland. It had turned out to be a talisman after all: I’d pulled a white rabbit out of a supermarket bag.

Heroes

Michael Bloor

(first publication in The Drabble, DECEMBER 10, 2020)

Patrick, my friend and neighbour, and myself were arguing back and forth about our literary heroes: Is their influence always for the good? I spoke in their defense, citing Robert Burns fostering the belief of every Scot that ‘A Man’s a Man, for A’ That.’

Patrick denied that literary talent necessarily overlaps with moral courage, political acuity, or even a healthy quotum of commonsense. He instanced Conan Doyle, who believed in faeries and dodgy spiritualism, but clinched his case with Kafka’s diaries. The entry for August 2nd 1914 reads: “Germany has declared war on Russia. In the afternoon, swimming lessons.”

Witness Statement

Michael Bloor

(first published by Ink Sweat & Tears Nov 21, 2020)

Case No. 1991/203

Witness – Full Name: Ianthe Jane Frobisher-Forbes
Address: 1 Priory Lane, Old Basing, Basingstoke

I first met Jason on Johnny Antrobus’s yacht at St. Tropez  in July, 1990. I didn’t know at first that he was from the Alpha Centauri star system: he told me he was from St. Albans. Both I and my friend, Mandy, thought he was very good-looking. But I later learned that the authorities in Alpha Centauri had been monitoring Earth communications for many years and had modelled Jason’s looks on Elvis Presley, President Kennedy, and the guy that plays Indiana Jones.

On the last day of the holiday I discovered that he had very strange genitalia. When I told Mandy about it, she reckoned Jason was an alien. I thought she was jealous because Jason hadn’t got off with her. And, besides, Jason had told me that he loved me and would come and visit me in Basingstoke; he had a red MG convertible.

In the autumn, Jason gave up his job as an investment banker to work full-time for the Conservative Party. Then, in November, the party got rid of Mrs Thatcher. Jason seemed to take this very hard.

It was around this time that I noticed his addiction to wine gums, especially the black and red ones. One night he got absolutely sloshed on Esther our cook’s black currant cordial. That’s when he told me about Alpha Centauri. Apparently, they don’t have black currants there.

Anyway, it was that same night that he told me that Mrs Thatcher was also from Alpha Centauri. I didn’t take it too seriously then, as he wasn’t really making a lot of sense at the time. He spent most of the evening talking about the economics of an import business in Alpha Centauri, importing British wine gums.

Not long after that, the cook gave her notice and Jason dumped me for her. She’s 37, for Chrissakes. Something to do with her blackcurrant jam.

Mandy said I ought to come to the police station to tell you about Alpha Centauri. Mummy and Daddy won’t be very pleased. But Mandy said I should do it for England.

I believe the facts stated in this witness statement are true.
Signed: I.J. Frobisher-Forbes

Hubble, Bubble, Toilet Trouble

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, Nov 7th 2020)

The allotments are a sociable place, especially for me because my plot is right next to the entrance. So I get to greet, and chat to, everyone coming through the gates. The conversations are kindly and cheerful, except when the subject is pigeons or cabbage root fly. So, when I greeted Billy Epps on his return from his holidays (Morecombe – two weeks), I was utterly unprepared for his bitter response:

‘Eh? How am I? How am I?? I’ll tell you how I am: I haven’t had a crap for four days!’

I’m going to summarise Billy’s story for you, as the way Billy told it, there were far too many expletives. It seemed Morecombe itself had been OK and he’d even got through to the semi-final of the Morecombe open crown-green bowls competition. The problem had arisen on the journey home. Determined to get maximum value from his B&B, Billy had opted for the Full English Breakfast each morning (trading his black pudding for an extra sausage). By late morning, on the train home, the breakfast was starting to weigh a little heavily on Billy, so he headed for the lavatory. It was one of those carriages where the lavatory door is operated electronically: you open the sliding door by pressing an external button; once you’re inside, you close it by pressing the internal ‘close’ button and then lock it by pressing the internal ‘lock’ button.

Billy retired from Greaves Castings two years ago, so now he’s accustomed to taking his time about things. Once seated comfortably on the throne, he let his mind wander, back to his near-triumph in the bowls competition. In the semi, he’d been drawn against a well-known three-times past winner from Preston, but Billy had noticed that his opponent was starting to tire. Billy’s strategy was to win the jack and then send it repeatedly from corner-to-corner, hoping that having to send his bowls for such a long distance would trigger a recurrence of the hernia that his opponent had suffered from in last year’s competition. He was re-living the match’s crucial nineteenth ‘end’, or game, when the lavatory door started to slowly slide open…

I think we can all imagine Billy’s feelings at this juncture. With his trousers and Marks-n-Sparks underpants around his ankles, he stared upwards into the eyes of an elderly lady carrying a large handbag. They gazed upon each other in silence for a moment or two, then the handbag lady let out a gargling shriek. Billy became aware that, from his vantage-point on the throne, he was able to see past the elderly lady all the way down the entire, crowded railway carriage.

And the entire, crowded carriage was, in turn, able to look past the elderly lady and study Billy’s withered shanks and grey-ish Y-fronts. Indeed, alerted by the lady’s shriek, many of his fellow-passengers were already craning their necks to get a better view.

To their credit, both Billy and the handbag lady quickly realised that the key to alleviating the situation lay with the button controls for the electronic operation of the toilet door. They both began feverishly jabbing at the buttons. Where they were perhaps at fault was in not co-ordinating their efforts (I should stress here that The Co-Ordination Failure Theory is of my own devising, Billy had an altogether darker view of the handbag lady’s behaviour).

In any case, the result of the button-jabbing was unsatisfactory. True, the door did slowly slide closed. But, unfortunately, no sooner was it closed than it immediately slid open again. It then proceeded to open and close repeatedly for a couple of minutes. A long couple of minutes.

At length, Billy was able to spot a window of opportunity. He took advantage of a brief episode of door-closure to scramble to his feet, hoist up his trousers, and scream to the handbag lady to stop pressing buttons. He then jabbed the door-lock button. He held his breath. The door stayed closed.

Billy then showed great presence-of-mind. He considered that, under the circumstances, to return to his seat in the carriage would be to subject himself to a certain amount of unwanted attention. So he stayed put, until the train drew into the next station, whereupon he briskly left the toilet, grabbed his nearby suitcase, stepped out of the carriage, walked along the platform, and got into the next-carriage-but-one.

His onward journey proceeded without further incident. Except that he found he no longer had any desire to use the toilet. Ever.

Fell at the First Fence

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears, Sept 17th 2020)

Liam limped listlessly into the lift. It was empty. He pressed the button for the seventh floor (Safetyseal Export Sales). There was the usual hiatus, while the mechanism seemed to consider his request. Liam weighed LIFE in the balance. On the one hand, he had a steady job (Data-Processing for Safetyseal); on the other hand, the job was crap (no prospects, no interest, precious little money). Likewise, next weekend would be the Easter holiday; but today was only Monday. Again, he now had Sunday mornings free, having disgustedly given up playing for The Black Swan FC; but in the unlikely event of ever recovering from the injuries inflicted by the Centre-Back for Wilmington FC, he had no-one with whom to spend those Sunday mornings.

Then the bugle sounded. She tripped demurely into the lift, pressed the button for the sixth floor (Smellie & Thrawn, Solicitors) and turned away to face the lift door. It was HER. Small, deft, with long tumbling dark hair. He’d seen her four times before, in the lift or the offices’ entrance hall. Once he’d heard a colleague call her ‘Jenny’ or ‘Ginny’. Once also, he’d heard her laugh – a gentle, private, smoky chuckle. The lift door closed and the mechanism lurched into action.

He had seconds to act. He might never be alone with Jenny/Ginny ever again. He regretted that he wasn’t wearing his good grey suit. And he regretted that he wasn’t good at this kind of thing. He thought back to the advice his louche Uncle Dermot had given him over a drink at Cousin Mary’s wedding. Dermot was explaining that the secret of success at those dating websites was to have a profile with a good ‘hook’, a good opening line.

Writing, “Own hair and teeth” simply doesn’t cut it, Liam. Currently, my hook is: “I’m thinking of buying a horse” – not bad, eh?’ Liam had nodded slowly into his pint. He believed he saw Dermot’s point: ‘thinking of buying a horse’ was arresting and engagingly quirky, while hinting at financial resources and healthy outdoor pursuits.

OK,’ thought Liam, staring at the back of Jenny/Ginny’s head, ‘Just say something arresting and engagingly quirky.’ They were passing the third floor…

Mmm. Maybe something about a lift breakdown?? Jesus, no, that’d sound scary-creepy. What about: “Do you find elevators give you elevated thoughts?” Gotta be joking: would she want to go out to the pictures with Stephen Fry??? Mmm. Err. “I was once in a lift with Freddie Truman, the Yorkshire fast bowler” No, No, No.’ They were passing the fifth floor…

Liam knew that he must act NOW: ‘Harrumph. Harrumph. I’m thinking of buying a horse…’

The lift doors opened onto the sixth floor. She stepped out of the lift and turned to face him. He could see the brass plate of Smellie & Thrawn behind her. She gave him a considering look: ‘Well, you’ll need to take it up the stairs then.’

The lift doors closed.

Making Chutney

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Sept 18 2020)

I’ve been making green tomato chutney. Outside in the street, I see a woman and a small boy. He’s walking unevenly, avoiding cracks in the pavement. His mum gives his hand a mighty tug: mother and son, out-of-step.

Then, I can’t remember what weight of sultanas to add. When I find the yellowed recipe, I see it’s in my mum’s handwriting. She’d spelt ‘tomato’ with an ‘e’ at the end, which upset me a little.

I used to say my mum was a difficult woman, but perhaps she wasn’t all that difficult. Maybe it was just that we were out-of-step?

Timing

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Aug 29th, 2020)

Prime Minister Chamberlain was told that German troops were invading Austria while attending a farewell dinner for von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador in London. Chamberlain stayed on for after-dinner drinks and conversation.

George W. Bush was visiting a Florida elementary school when an aide whispered: “A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” The President continued to listen to a reading of a children’s story, ‘The Pet Goat,’ for a further seven minutes.

When you stepped into the lift and gave me a small smile, my silence wasn’t so bad. From an historical perspective, that is.

Taproom Memories

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Aug 5th 2020)

Let me recall the names, ringing down the fifty years – The Sherwood Forester, The Dolphin, The Old Bell Hotel, The Seven Stars, The Noah’s Ark, The Fountain (aka The Squirt), The Dutch Mill, The Kirkgate Bar, The Prince of Wales, The Perth Arms, Hastie’s Hotel, The Blue Lamp, The Drumtochty Arms, The Marine Hotel, The Ramsay Arms, The Hen and Chicks, The Crown, The Pen and Wig, The King of Prussia, The Queen’s Head, No.2 Baker Street, The Tappit Hen … A young man’s litany; an old man’s folly.

How many still stand? How many will the virus sweep away?

The Cloud Forest

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 36,July 2020, and not to be confused with A Cloud Forest Tale, also archived here and first published in The Fiction Pool Sept 22nd 2017)

Two days after our landing party left the ship, we entered the clouds that we had seen from the shore. It was a relief at first: we mariners are generally ill-shod and not great walkers. We had grumbled as we’d sweated up that barren, rocky valley under the blazing sun, so it was sweet to step at last under trees and walk on the soft moss that lay over everything. But the relief did not last. The trees of the cloud forest seemed strange-looking, not like the oaks and pines of home: more than anything, they looked like giant heathers. The thick mist that hung everywhere in the forest was confusing: we could not navigate by the stars or the sun, and had to cut marks on the tree trunks or the mossy boulders in order to know our return route to the ship. Every hour of our march, the lieutenant called a halt and commanded Hando, the trumpeter, to blow a blast, whereupon the lieutenant would read a paper proclaiming that the island was now the property of the Emperor and the islanders were now his subjects. A futile procedure since the mist and the trees deadened all sound, and the natives who had first gathered on the shore, when our ship sailed into the bay, had quickly dispersed and had not been seen since. Still, we were glad of the brief rests.

There was discontent over the water supplies. The lieutenant insisted that we retain what was left of the drinking water that we had brought with us, saying we would need it for the return journey to the ship. There was no running water in the forest, but water could be squeezed from the dripping moss. Men grumbled that the moss tainted the water. Some men secretly continued to drink from their leather water bottles. The lieutenant noticed my brother, Odd, drinking from his water bottle: he hit him with the flat of his sword and then deliberately pierced Odd’s bottle.

On the evening of the third day, we came across one of our mossy marks on a large boulder: proof, it seemed, that we had walked in a circle. The lieutenant claimed it was a natural mark, made by a falling branch or a bird (we had seen no animals). Then Odd found a mark on a nearby tree and swore that he had made the mark himself yesterday. The lieutenant swore in return and drew his sword. Odd turned to run, and the lieutenant hacked him down. As the lieutenant stood over Odd, I ran the slayer through with my pike. The bosun carried an arquebus, but by the time it was loaded I had fled into the mist and the quiet trees.

* * *

I had escaped naval justice, but my case was not a happy one: I couldn’t return to the ship and so had to stay in this strange heathen place. Food was my immediate difficulty: none of the plants and shrubs in the cloud forest were familiar to me, so I had to proceed by trial and error. I made many errors and grew weak with hunger. Some berries I found had tasted sweet but proved poisonous. With my pike and knife, I had previously cut branches as a makeshift shelter from the constant dripping moisture. I lay there retching, and moving in and out of consciousness.

How long I lay there I do not know. Perhaps I would have died there, but I wakened to find myself bound and carried in a kind of litter. I was a prisoner of the elusive natives. When they saw that I was conscious, they fed me on a nutritious paste (made from the roots of sapling trees, I later discovered). Afterwards I slept, until we came to a halt among some huts on the edge of the cloud forest. My new life had begun.

The natives call themselves the Ku (which simply means ‘the people’ in their language). They are not unkind, though I am subject to some teasing. The teasing has its roots in what they see as my clumsiness and my ignorance: for example, I have no skill in constructing the marvellous nets they use for both trapping birds and for fishing, and I have only slowly learnt to recognise the edible leaves, roots and berries which form an important part of their diet. Initially, I had hoped that some prestige might attach to my ownership of the pike and my sailor’s knife, but the Ku have no concept of private property. None of their women have welcomed me to their bed. When I was younger, I used to help with the fishing and with maintaining the two cisterns where they store the rainwater that falls in their brief wet season. Nowadays, I’m only fit for gathering firewood.

Whenever I stepped beyond the cloud forest, I used to scan the horizon for a sail – another thing I was teased about. Now, after thirty seven years, a ship lies again at anchor in the bay. They tell me the Emperor is overthrown and the Sun Palace is a ruin used for storing dung. They offer me free passage, but I find I am content here with the Ku in the gentle cloud forest.

Working Title

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No. 86, June 2020)

White walls, white floor, white light… Fully awake now, I realise I’m wearing a white suit and white shoes. Just like John Lennon in the ‘Imagine’ video, except there’s no white piano. Baffling.

It’s been two years now since I washed up on the empty shore of Authorship Down – two daunting, but exhilarating, years. I joined in the Great Literary Agent Hunt (indeed, I found one, but she was dead – smothered under a pile of stamped, addressed envelopes). I went on no less than Five Post-Colonial Guilt Trips. I was vaccinated against all Mother-And-Daughter Stories and I took The Authorship Down Solemn Oath never to end a story with the suicide of the narrator. I’ve grown a beard and shaved my head, I’m a hardened veteran. And now, finally, I think I’m starting to get it: this is A Blank Space – the toughest authorship test yet!

I relish the challenge. I sit cross-legged on the floor, close my eyes, cross my arms, take a deep breath and wait for the creative juices to flow.

The floor is hard: better to pace up and down.

After five minutes pacing, I reckon I’ll escape instead: do the test another time. When I’m wearing my walking boots and my thick socks.

I scan the ceiling for a trapdoor and then set about tapping the walls, listening for that tell-tale hollow sound. Alas, nothing.

I try a few magic words, starting with the Authorship Down Chant: ‘Ooo Aahh Derrida, Ooo Aahh Derrida.’ No joy there either. Shamefacedly, though I know old jokes carry a one-month Writers’ Workshop fixed penalty, I even try the magic words from the Popeye cartoons: ‘Open Sez Me!’

I remember a tip from the 2018 Authorship Down Magic Realism Festival, and try gliding through the wall, sustaining facial bruising and a bent finger.

If only I’d got my Swiss Army knife. Or a lathe, to manufacture a Swiss Army knife. I rifle through my pockets, but all I can find is a half a block of chocolate, white of course. On the white wrapper is the embossed legend, Writers’ Block. I bite off more than I can chew.

As I choke, I find myself wondering why stories never end with the accidental death (as opposed to suicide) of the narrator – a possible plot-line there?? Working Title: Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death. Now I’m getting somewhere…