Citizen Wyckam-Smith

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, 27/09/22)

Have you ever ordered a DVD of an old film that, once upon a time, you thought was wonderful (back when you were at an impressionable age, say, between the ages of 15 and 25)? And when you settled down to watch it, accompanied by a wee whisky and some cheese and onion crisps, did you then discover that it was utter crap?

Yep, me too. So you’ll know that fond remembrance can’t always be relied upon: judgements change; remembered facts turn out to be false memories… So I was cautious when I was asked to explain why an elderly MP, whom I’d known briefly when were both students fifty-odd years ago, would shave his head and join the Hare Krishna movement, aka ISKCON, The International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

The town allotments are a different sort of place to when I first used to come here with my grandad in the 1950s. Back then, they were the resort of the self-reliant poor: a means to put good food on the table for large families and active pensioners. Nowadays, all sorts have their allotments, dotted with elaborate polytunnels, fruit cages, and seasoned, wooden, raised beds. But they are still a sociable place and last month I’d been chatting to a fellow allotmenteer, Cressida Arbuthnot. Somehow, the conversation had shifted from Carrot Fly prevention measures to the picture in the previous week’s local paper of the town’s MP, making the headlines because he’d joined the Hare Krishna crowd. The picture had been taken on the steps of the local stately home, which ISKCON had recently bought as a retreat. Thinking I was making a wisecrack, I said it was convenient that the bloke was already bald as a coot (not much head shaving required, mainly around the ears), but I was disappointed that he hadn’t posed in the traditional Hare Krishna robes and sandals. Cressida didn’t smile or reply. I felt a bit awkward. So to fill the silence, I mentioned that, as a first year student at Uni, I’d had to share rooms with him and that he’d seemed a wee bit odd back then.

Cressida was suddenly animated. ‘Really, you knew him fifty years ago? He’s married to my sister-in-law and the family are terribly worried about him. He’s given away a large sum of money. He spends several HOURS a day chanting. He won’t eat meat, or fish, or eggs. The local party are going to  de-select him. And, err, he’s moved into a spare bedroom: apparently, sex is only for, you know, procreation … he’s 72, of course…’

She paused, probably embarrassed in turn, because she’d maybe ‘shared’ a bit too much info. I started to commiserate, but she cut me short. ‘If you knew him when he was student, that would’ve been the time when all that hippie stuff was going on. Was he, you know, a bit hippie-ish back then? Was he interested in those weird cults, and so on? My sister-in-law is twenty years younger than him. When she met him he was a barrister and looking for a Parliamentary Seat… She doesn’t know much about his earlier life. She’s going round and round in her head, looking for some sort of explanation. I don’t suppose… if you knew him back then… if there was anything that might help explain…’

Despite my disclaimers that I never really knew the guy all that well, that it was all such a long time ago, etc., etc., Cressida backed me into a corner, and I agreed to give the matter some thought and get back to her.

To explain the connection, back in the Sixties, the Cambridge college where we’d both been undergraduates had the daunting requirement that first-year students must share rooms in college. In other words, they must share rooms with a perfect stranger. My stranger/room-mate was Alwyn Smith (he didn’t become Alwyn Wyckham-Smith til some years later), a rather reserved, short-sighted, law student from a place I’d never heard of called ‘Sunningdale.’ I eventually discovered that it was one of those not-quite-real, mock-Tudor towns for London commuters. I wasn’t unkind enough to state it, but I kind-of pitied him for never having smelled a foundry on the wind, or felt the surge and press of a football crowd. Things were missing from his life and he didn’t even know they were missing. (Of course, remember this was in The Sixties when, for the first and last time in human history, it was fashionable to be working class).

So there was a connection: we had to share the same bedroom for a year. But there wasn’t a close connection: we only went to the pub together once – he ordered a gin-and-tonic.

Nevertheless, Cressida had got a commitment out of me. I felt I had to come up with something. And not just because she was the chair of the allotment committee. I did a bit of internet searching, but didn’t come up with much: he’d been a moderately successful barrister and a pretty ‘undistinguished’ MP. I did then wonder if there was a clue in the latter ‘undistinguished’ career. Aged 72, did he feel that he had to make his mark now, before it was too late? But apparently, he was doing his best to avoid publicity, refusing all interviews and keeping the curtains drawn.

Then I considered whether Alwyn might have been ‘recruited,’ drawn into the sect by the blandishments of specialist recruiting sergeants. I remembered that back in the the Seventies, there had been a sect called The Children of God, that used to recruit by ‘love bombing’ – sending their prettiest and handsomest members round the pubs and clubs to entice love-starved recruits. But, again, a 72 year-old seemed an unlikely target. And the Hare Krishna crowd at the local retreat didn’t mingle; they kept pretty much to themselves. 

Retired, with time on my hands, I contacted those few old university friends with whom I was still in touch. Maybe they would recall things that I’d forgotten or misremembered?

Andy, who I used to meet up with for occasional hillwalking weekends, said he remembered Alwyn as always being on the lonely edge of a crowd. He suggested that Alwyn’s embrace of Krishna Consciousness was unlikely to be a search for religious meaning and more likely to be a search for community, for the gratification of belonging. This chimed with my old adolescent aversion to not-quite-real Sunningdale, but I reflected that Parliament, with it’s many bars, dining areas, committee rooms, and caucuses, has the reputation of being the most exclusive club in country. So exclusive and clubable, in fact, that many elderly MPs hanker to stay on the premises in that excellent retirement home, the House of Lords.

Another old friend, David, a psychotherapist, emailed me that it was notable that Alwyn had a wife twenty years his junior. He’d got married without reading the terms and conditions. The Hare Krishna prohibition of sex, except for the purposes of procreation, thus allowed the MP to retire from the marriage bed, and its attendant obligations, without any damage to his sense of his masculinity. I’m a bit worried about David. He has been obsessing about the recent birth of a child in Downing Street, to father who cuts a rather louche figure, being alleged to have left several ‘love-children’ in his wake, as well as assorted children from previous marriages. David’s been writing this long, tortuous, libellous, unpublishable, academic paper about politics and the sex drive. Sent David a polite acknowledgement.

Jim’s email promised to be more helpful, because he had been a law student like Alwyn, although Jim’s subsequent career had been very different from the MP. Jim revealed some information that I didn’t know (that Alwyn’s mother had been the daughter of a High Court Judge), and some information that I’d forgotten (that, back then, Alwyn had been the only student in college to attend tutorials in a collar and tie). He suggested that the guy had spent seventy years in rigid conformity to some past parental model of career success, never giving any observer grounds for concern, only to finally crack-up with the finishing post in sight. ‘He fell at the last fence’, was how Jim put it. I could follow Jim’s reasoning, but in my experience conformity was much more likely to increase with age, rather than diminish. In any case, I felt Cressida and the rest of Alwyn’s family would hardly be cheered by Jim’s hypothesis.

It was the last reply I received, from Alan, that convinced me to be as guarded as possible in any message to Alwyn’s family. I hadn’t really expected to hear back from Alan: his was an old email address and I’d heard that he’d recently followed a contrasting, but oddly parallel, path to Alwyn’s: Alan had become a monk in the Orthodox Church. Alan wrote that my dogged search for an explanation for the MP’s conduct was understandable and well-meant, but doomed to fail.

To summarise Alan’s argument, he suggested that we are such complex, multi-faceted, muddled creatures that any clear-cut account of human motivation is bound to be partial at best, and subject to all sorts of fads and fashions. I imagine that he could’ve instanced the unlikelihood that, back in the nineteenth century, any of the most brilliant pre-Freudian minds of the day would have ever suggested that the relinquishment of a political career could be motivated by of fears of sexual impotency.

Alan ended his email thus: ‘This side of death, can we ever see into another’s soul?’ He entitled the email: ‘Rosebud.’


by Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No.95, Autumn 2022)

The minister, the Reverend Donald MacAlistair, left the Health Centre with a spring in his step. He’d attended for his annual check-up, a service the centre offered to all their over-65s. His blood pressure had reduced since last year and he’d lost half a stone in weight. The nurse, Alison Forbes, had been quite complimentary. She was one of his parishioners and they’d had a short chat afterwards about the Christmas services. He was smiling as he turned the corner into the Cowgate, heading for the hairdresser’s. But his good mood wasn’t set to last.

The minister still thought of the hairdresser’s as ‘Andrew Patterson’s, the barber’s’, but nowadays it was ‘Raymond’s Unisex Hairdresser’s’. Initially, Reverend MacAlistair had been rather thrown by the gaiety of the new female customers, heads festooned with what appeared to be tin foil streamers; the atmosphere had been rather more subdued in Old Andrew Patterson’s day. And why did proceedings always start with a teenage girl vigorously washing his hair, when he’d washed it himself the day before? But the minister had got used to it, just as he’d got used to dwindling congregations and news stories about Kim Kardashian. He settled into the chair and listened to Raymond’s chatter about Tenerife.

Then Raymond was called away to consult on a customer’s ‘highlights’. Without realising he was doing it, the minister found himself earwigging the conversation of a junior hairdresser and her customer in the chair between him and the shop window. They were laughing about a secondary school teacher called Kirsty who had developed a hopeless passion for a teenage boy, one of her pupils. Apparently, Kirsty was a rather dowdy character and her clumsy attempts to woo young Seb were the talk of the school. Her latest escapade was to hang about outside school gates and…

A thought struck Reverend MacAlistair like a meteorite hitting a swamp full of dinosaurs: Good grief! They were talking about his Kirsty, his daughter Kirsty at the Academy!

Raymond then returned with more would-be soothing talk about the different sizes of different hotel swimming pools. The minister muttered abstracted replies and almost departed without paying. His thoughts were only of his daughter, senior maths teacher at the Academy. Memories of her childhood had so often been a staff for him in times of trouble: as a toddler, her gurgling laughter as she discovered the trampoline properties of the settee; as a ten year-old, falling asleep with her arms around the family dog… Now that staff was torn away from him: his only child was in terrible trouble – her career smashed, herself a figure of scorn and ridicule – and he was helpless to protect her. His Presbyterian forbears had taught that this life was a Vale of Tears, from which the only release was The Everlasting Life to come. For the first time in his long life in the Kirk, he truly appreciated the grimness of that doctrine.

Without thought, his feet had taken him up the hill from the Cowgate, to the kirk and the new manse. Some years ago, economies had necessitating the demolition of the sprawling Victorian manse. The land been sold and a block of flats erected in its place; the new manse was a pleasant modern bungalow in a corner of the old manse grounds. The minister stood by his gate, staring at his wife, Alice, who was kneeling among the roses with gardening gloves and a trowel. Too late, he realised that he had failed to consider how he was to break his news to Alice.

She looked up, stood, and gasped in quick succession. ‘Donald, what on Earth’s the matter? You’re white as a sheet. What’s happened at the Health Centre?’

‘Let’s go inside, dear. The check-up was fine. It’s just…’

‘Donald MacAlistair! If you dinna tell me right away what’s goin’ on, I swear I’ll hit you wi’ this trowel!’

He told her all about the overheard conversation. She was silent for a moment, frowning at the trowel in her hand. ‘Tell me, this boy, is he called Sebastian?’

‘Er, yes… Seb, short for Sebastian.’

She smiled and threw her arms around him, dirty gloves, trowel and all. ‘You daft old git. Sebastian and Kirsty are two characters in Amberdale, that soap serial on the TV!’

The Wisdom of Work Placements

By Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction, 24th of August, 2022)

I read somewhere that cats live in the ‘eternal present,’ which is why they never express gratitude, only pleasure. This strikes me as a pretty good life-principle: okay, gratitude goes out the window, but we could also say goodbye to regret, disappointment, guilt, remorse, etc. – a lot of heart-ache.

I was reminded of the Eternal Present Principle when young Billy was telling me about his work-placement experiences at Grantchester Engineering (‘Supplying Solenoid Solutions’). The company not only had him spending time in the different engineering departments, but also in a few back offices, like the Accounts Department.

Billy had been placed in one of those back offices (which had better be nameless) just before Christmas. It was an open-plan design – a potentially annoying arrangement if a colleague has bad work habits. In this particular office, there was an elderly gentleman who used to mutter curses to himself as he worked. A recurrent curse apparently involved the primary school playing field that backed onto his garden: ‘All that fuckin’ money and never a fuckin’ foot set on it. Fuckin’ waste of fuckin’ council tax…’ You get the picture.

On the Monday of Billy’s last week of placement, the old guy seemed particularly agitated, continually muttering, ‘It’s a fuckin’ fiddle. What a fuckin’ nerve. A complete fuckin’ fiddle…’

Less accustomed, or less accommodated, to this near-constant stream of obscene complaints than his fellow office-workers, Billy eventually asked the gentleman what had upset him. It seemed that the guy had taken his grand-daughter to see Santa Claus at the local department store:

‘That fuckin’ Santa Claus Lucky Dip at fuckin’ Williams & MacIntosh – you pay a quid and only get fuckin’ ten pence worth of fuckin’ goods out of it.’

Billy tells me he’s decided against a future job working in offices.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Life Coach

by Michael Bloor

(first published Grey Sparrow Journal, Issue 40, July 31st, 2022)

I believe quite a lot of people chat, from time to time, with their deceased relatives. Myself, I’ve often chatted to my dad, especially when stuck in traffic. But I imagine that chatting to Samuel Taylor Coleridge is more unusual.

Unusual, but understandable in my case. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Coleridge for fifty-odd years, ever since I read that line, “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.”

What we mostly chat about these days is my mobility problem, namely that I can’t walk past my local pub. Previously, we’ve agreed on throwing out my home-brewing kit. I now drink water or squash with my meals. And I only buy-in booze if I’ve got guests. I’ve told Samuel that the mobility problem is now The Big One: crack that and the sunlit uplands await. I’m setting down the gist of the discussion we had, on the hard road home after closing time…

“Urrrggh. What a bloody waste of five hours and thirty quid. Why? WHY do I keep putting things off? And where’s the attraction in that bloody pub??”

“Indeed, sir. I did mark most particularly the ‘Person from Porlock’ who explained to you how to replace the sash in sash-and-case windows.”

“Jeez. Don’t remind me, Samuel. Why? WHY didn’t I just drink up and go??”

“Let us confabulate, Sir, and seek a satisfactory consonance.” Samuel paused and made a sound like that of drawing on a cigarette and exhaling the smoke. “If I may, I would like to offer a personal observation that may assist you. Oft times I have reached for the laudanum to soothe the toothache. And oft times to allay the rheumatics. But more often still, have I fled to the soporific poppy in despair and panic from the terrible specter of Work Undone. And worse still, from the looming, wrathful wraith of Work Only Half Done…”

“You mean…” [It’s difficult to interrupt Coleridge in full flow].

“I mean that, when you hear the old saw ‘the distance is nothing, the first step is the hardest,’ when you hear that blatant untruth, reach for your rapier. There is no thing more daunting to a man of good intentions than a distant finishing post. Speak not to me of completions!”

“No, no, I wouldn’t dream of…”

“Eighteen years, nigh on nineteen years, I struggled to find the occasion and the wit to finish ‘Kubla Khan.’ In the end, that beggar Byron persuaded me to publish it unfinished – an awful monument to, and reminder of, my incorrigible SLOTH.”

Samuel choked on the last word. I would have said something in consolation, but I too was struggling with a sudden emotion. My boyhood hero had supplied the diagnosis for my condition, and “sloth” is an ugly word. I walked on in silence.


Kind reader, you are no doubt wondering how it was I turned from sloth long enough to complete this fragment. Providence smiled on me: the pandemic came along and the government closed the pub.

The Next Morning by Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, June 28th, 2022)

He woke abruptly in the lonely bed. It was still dark. The dolorous memories of yesterday’s events knotted his guts and sent him to the bathroom. Downstairs, he fed the clamorous cat and chucked more fuel on the stove – autopiloting.

A pause and a deep breath to consider matters. He switched on the outside light and glanced out the window: as the forecast had predicted, it had snowed overnight, but it was that wet, sticky stuff. No danger of serious drifts on the roads. Last night, just to be on the safe side, he’d driven the van up the track and parked it in the lay-by on the main road. So he would be able to get into town alright. But he wouldn’t go into work, he’d just go into the hospital for the afternoon visiting hours. He’d missed too much work already, but he knew he couldn’t cope with colleagues’ kind and concerned enquiries.

He put some bacon in a pan on the stove and cut a couple of slices of her bread, taken out of the freezer the previous night. After breakfast, he had the strongest craving for a cigarette that he’d experienced since giving up some months ago. He had to get out for a walk. He pulled on his wellies in the porch, fed the hens and the geese, and headed down to the river.

There was pale gold among the clouds in the eastern sky. From the bottom field, he watched the snowplough go past on the road, followed a minute later by the school bus. It stopped beside the lay-by for young Alistair Forbes from Auchenerno Farm. He was fond of little Alistair, but that morning he couldn’t bear to watch him climb aboard. He turned quickly away into the trees.

His were the only footprints in the snow on the path down to the footbridge. He took pleasure in this – putting his imprint on the Earth. The trees were mainly beeches, with a scattering of rowans and scots pine: the smooth boles of the great beeches stretched upwards like a prayer. He was breathing more easily. He reached the footbridge, rested his elbows on the handrail and gazed downstream.

Her smiling post-operative murmurs came back to him. And the kind but empty words of the staff. He tried to concentrate on what he would say when he phoned his and her parents.

Downstream, where the river turned east, the early morning sun now flashed on the white foamed rapids. He looked below to the deep water beneath the bridge, to the inky complexity of the fluid swirls, upwellings, and the little stretches of tranquillity.  He treasured those patches of  tranquil water.

To his left was the spot where he would sometimes fish for trout, as a treat for her. Or as a peace offering. He realised that he needed to buy some flowers. On his walk back through the trees he would find and cut some rowan twigs still bearing berries, to mix in with the flowers. She had once told him with a smile that rowans were said to ward against evil.

Yesterday, he had only been afforded a brief time beside his daughter’s incubator in the Low Birthweight Baby Unit – his daughter still unnamed and weighing less than a bag of sugar. He was hoping he’d be allowed longer today. A foolish thought repeatedly snagged him: because she was so small that he hadn’t been able to tell whether she had fingernails. He’d be able to take a proper look today.

The Trip to St Andrews by Michael Bloor

(first published in Free Flash Fiction, 17/6/2022)

Dr. Ernest Mathewson was eating an early breakfast. He was about to head off to the University of St Andrews to examine a postgraduate dissertation. It was a longish drive from Glasgow and the external examiner’s fee was a joke. But, as he’d patiently explained to Mrs Mathewson, he’d accepted the invitation more than six months ago. And it wouldn’t be fair to the examinee to postpone it at the last minute.

Mrs Mathewson’s response was delivered quietly but with feeling: ‘No, I’m the one who’s being told at the last minute. Well, if you’re intent on clearing off to St Andrews for the day, when my parents are holidaying with us, then the least you can do is to give them a lift. They can have a day-trip, have a look round the harbour, the abbey, the links and so on, while you’re messing about at the university.’


He found it was no hardship. Apart from one rather inconvenient toilet stop for his mother-in-law, he quite enjoyed the car journey.

The examination itself was routine: the dissertation was workman-like rather than brilliant, but there was no doubt that it deserved to pass. The obligatory pre-examination lunch in the university’s staff dining room was a bit too Spartan for Ernest’s taste. But he enjoyed the post-examination chat afterwards over coffee in the internal examiner’s office.

They hadn’t met previously, though each knew the other’s work. They found that they bonded over a near-homicidal common dislike of the recent post-modern turn in historical scholarship, whereby scholars chose to focus, not on the analysis of historical events, but rather on analysing how previous scholars had chosen to report them. The afternoon flew by and Ernest, glancing at his watch, realised it was high time for him to depart. A job well done.

The journey home was uneventful. As Ernest pulled into his driveway, and stepped out of the car, he was surprised to see his wife fling open the front door. ‘What the hell have you done with my parents?’

An International Incident

By Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, 15/6/2022)

In 1934, Derby County FC toured Germany, invited by the German Football Association. A year previously, Hitler swept to power, banning all other political parties. The manager told the players that the British Ambassador had insisted that, prior to kick-off, the Derby team must line-up with their opponents and give the Hitler salute.

Inside the packed stadium, the team lined up and duly raised their right arms in salute. All except the goalkeeper, Jack Kirby: Hands on hips, he turned and faced in the opposite direction.

To defy everyone, alone, in full view, far from home – that’s true courage.

Role Call

by Michael Bloor

(first published in the Potato Soup Journal, 15/5/22)

Working at Larchwood House suited Ben very well. Ben had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But four years after graduating from RADA, the only acting job he’d been offered was in a Christmas panto at the Wirksworth Empire: he played an Indian Chief who would appear at various junctures in the play, raise his right arm and say ‘How.’ A markedly wooden performance was required and duly delivered. 

Larchwood House is a residential care home run by a charity along the lines that residents with different disabilities can assist in each other’s care, on the mutual aid principle. As a member of staff, Ben now found himself performing multiple roles in every single shift: to Joy (disturbed adolescent) he was The Favourite Uncle; to Tony (learning disabled music-lover) he was The D-J; to Arthur (Down’s Syndrome) he was The Father Figure; etc., etc. Though his audiences were small, their reactions gave him a good deal of job satisfaction. However, he gave his very greatest performance, improvised and unscripted, on the night shift the Thursday before Christmas.

The staff member on the night shift was not required to remain wakeful: Larchwood House was supposed to function as closely as possible to the routine of a normal home. After doing a round of the house about ten o’clock, Ben would lock-up, retire to the tiny staff flat and take a book to bed with him. That evening, he found Arthur, as usual, in Annie’s room. Annie, a very elderly, aristocratic Irish lady with wandered wits but a kindly disposition, was already in bed, with Arthur (small enough to be mistaken for a child) squatting on the carpet beside her. He told Arthur it was time for him to get ready for bed, and not to forget to brush his teeth. And then he lingered for a minute or two chatting to Old Annie (The Interested Grandson Role). The House Warden had recently mentioned that, as a young woman, Annie had know W.B. Yeats. But that night she was too sleepy to tell Ben much about the poet: only that he was ‘a very silly man.’ 

The rest of the residents were still downstairs in the TV room. Ben stuck his head round the door, shouted ‘Bedtime,’ ignored the chorus of dissent, and crossed the hall to the front door. He opened it and stood outside for a moment or two, star-gazing. Like everyone else he knew, he could only recognise Orion, and regretted it. He backed into the hall, locked the front door, crossed over to the kitchen, noted what a good job Joy and Derek (epileptic with OCD) had made of cleaning up after cooking the evening meal, and checked that the back door was still locked. He then crossed back to the TV room and turned the TV off (more dissent). He told Joy to put out her cigarette (smoking was allowed downstairs, on the principle that overt smoking was less of a fire risk than covert smoking), and held the door open while everyone filed out. Last out was Tony who wanted to tell Ben all about the latest developments on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.’ This took a while and was the probable reason why Ben forgot to turn off the Christmas Tree Fairy Lights, over by the window.

Twenty minutes later, Ben settled into bed with Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night.’ Then the fire alarm went off. Ben jumped out of bed, pulled on his jeans, congratulated himself on remembering to grab the house keys, and shot out the staff flat and downstairs into the hall, which was already quite smoky. He unlocked the front door and he and the residents tumbled out onto the front lawn. It was only then that he noticed that he wasn’t wearing shoes. He started to take a roll call and noticed that Old Annie was missing. He rushed back into the house and found Annie wandering in her nightie at the top of the stairs. He guided her, both coughing, down the stairs and out the door. 

As they exited the house, the lights failed. Ben could see the flames licking the window of the TV room: ‘Shit – the Fairy Lights.’ At that moment, Joy threw her arms round him sobbing that it was all her fault (she thought that the cause was her inadequately extinguished cigarette). ‘No, it’s not your fault, Joy: it’s the Christmas Tree lights. Have you got your phone? Good, call the Fire Service. Where’s Arthur? WHERE’S ARTHUR?’

Ben headed back to the house, turned round, ran across the lawn to the tool shed, grabbed a torch, and ran back to the house again. The hall was now full of thick smoke, he groped his way upstairs, and checked Arthur’s bedroom. Empty. 

He stood there in the smoke for a couple of seconds, resolute but utterly non-plussed. 

Then, a sudden inspiration struck him, he groped his way along the landing to the upstairs toilet, opened the door and shone the torch inside. Arthur was sitting on the toilet seat, legs in the air, toothbrush in his mouth. It was time for Ben’s final role of the evening: he performed The Fireman’s Lift.

Last Journey

(first published in The Drabble, 24th April, 2022) 

By Michael Bloor

The stream gushed out of a tumble of rocks on the mountain-side, half-hidden by bracken and gorse. Down from the source, the stream threaded a shallow valley among the hills, swirling around alder roots. Lesser tributaries joined and mingled. Trout hid in holes in the banks.

A dam lies at the valley mouth. As the waters tumbled onto the plain, they crashed and churned to power the village and the surrounding farms.

Then the slow meander through fields of green and gold. Willow leaves danced and kingfishers flashed overhead.

Finally, the salt taste, as the ashes joined the moon-driven ocean.

The Otherworld Hiding Place

by Michael Bloor

First published in Literally Stories, March 30th 2022

Schiehallion, aka The Faery Hill of the Caledonians, is a magnificent, isolated, rugged, limestone ridge in Highland Perthshire, in the plumb-centre of Scotland. I’ve climbed it many times in the past, but now my arthritic knees deny me that pleasure: the jarring of the knees taken all the enjoyment out of hill-walking. So what the hell am I doing now, struggling along Glen Mór, on the south side of Schiehallion, in the November sleet, with a giant ship-in-a-bottle in my rucksack?

I’m here because of that ship’s bottle. I bought it at an auction, after I’d retired from the sea. We’d moved to a smaller house and decided, regretfully, to sell a couple of larger pieces of furniture. Included in the auction was my great-grandfather’s chest of drawers that had stood in my bedroom as a child. It had a secret drawer that used to fascinate me back then and I pestered my mother til she showed me how to open it. On impulse, I ‘d decided to attend the auction and maybe demonstrate the drawer mechanism to the new owners.

That didn’t work out: the new owner was an internet bidder. But I came home with a previously unintended purchase, the ship-in-a-bottle. It was, and is, a giant bottle – a jeroboam, containing a model of an early iron steamship. It had a screw-propeller and there was no Plimsoll Line marked on the hull. So I guessed it dated from the 1850s or 1860s. Its provenance was that it had previously been stored in the offices of one of the last UK-owned shipping companies, which had gone bust in the 1980s. There was no record of the name of the vessel. Strangely, there was just one tiny figure on the deck, with raised arms, dressed in a black frock-coat and a top hat; I guessed the figure represented the original owner of the vessel.

I was pleased with my purchase, but Dorothy wasn’t. She peered at it for a minute or two, shook her head, reckoned there was something creepy about it, and banished it to the spare bedroom.

A few weeks later, our niece, Ellie, came for a short stay. She’s the mate on a chemical tanker operating out of Grangemouth, and so she was naturally interested in the ship-in-a-bottle on her bedroom window ledge. She mentioned casually that the vessel was fully loaded, lying low in the water. She was dead right, of course: as a ship’s mate, the safe loading and stowing of cargo is her responsibility. But I was quite surprised: I hadn’t previously noticed that the blue-painted clay that represented the bottled sea was so high up the ship’s hull.

That led to a lunchtime discussion of the load lines marked on the hull of every contemporary ship, showing the safe level of loading of the vessel. I mentioned that one of the factors that had led me to date the model as pre-1870, was that it didn’t have a ‘Plimsoll Line,’ named after Samuel Plimsoll M.P. who had campaigned for a law to introduce safe loading lines, back in 1875. Dorothy listened, horrified, as Ellie and I discussed the elderly ‘coffin ships’ that unscrupulous owners had previously carelessly overloaded, knowing that if the vessels foundered and the crew perished, the insurers would still reimburse the owners.

That’ll be why I hate the damn thing,’ said Dorothy, ‘it’s a coffin ship.’

Ellie smiled. ‘Maybe that’s why the wee man in the top hat is waving? The owner knows he’s about to drown.’

I snorted my disbelief.

But, secretly, I kept a close eye on the model after that. And by the autumn, I knew that something inexplicable was happening to that ship: week by week, I could tell that the hard clay sea was very slowly creeping higher and higher up the ship’s hull. I could hardly credit it, but there could be no doubt: in a few weeks at most, the clay sea would be over the gunwale and the ship would founder.

And then what would happen? I made enquiries about the circumstances in which the shipping company that had owned the model had gone bust. The information I received was disconcerting.

Dorothy knew something was bothering me: one night, we lay in bed talking it over. We got up at one point and went to the spare bedroom to stare at the damn thing. It was more than creepy. We stared at the clay sea splayed against the hull and we stared at the top-hatted figure waving his despairing arms. Dorothy grabbed me. ‘That wee man, I’m sure he’s changed position!’

She was right: the top-hatted owner had shifted two or three centimetres closer to the bows. I had a sudden feeling of sick revulsion. Turning away, I muttered that I’d put it back in the auction.

Dorothy vetoed that: ‘No way, Alan. It could be bringing disaster on whoever buys it.’

‘OK. I’ll destroy it.’

‘No, no, no. That could bring disaster on us.’ She had a point. We threw an old duvet cover over it and went back to bed.

Eventually, we settled on a plan to get it right out of the house and into it a safe place where it couldn’t harm anybody. At the head of Glen Mór, south-west of Schiehallion, there’s a large cave, ‘Tom a Mhoir-fhir,’ the cave of the giant. I ventured into it several times as a young man. Some say it stretches a great distance underground, right under Schiehallion. It was said to be a faery dwelling place. And it was said that three Knights Templar once took refuge there from persecution. And it was also said that it’s the entrance to the Otherworld. The cave is marked on the Ordinance Survey map, but fools and the foolhardy can search the cave all day and all night, and search in vain – there’s a secret place I know in that cave where it’ll stay hidden til Hell freezes.