THE OWL WOMAN

Michael Bloor

(first published in Every Day Fiction, MAY 22, 2020)

That evening, we sat either side of my neighbour Goronwy’s kitchen range. He pronounced my latest batch of scrumpy cider — mysteriously cloudy, both sharp and sweet, with the smell of autumn — almost as good as the scrumpy his father used to make. I understood that there was no higher praise. As a young man, Goronwy’s father had worked in the quarry on Deri Mountain, leading the Clydesdale horses that powered the tramway that carried the quarry stone down to the little town of Abergavenny at the foot of the mountain. Old Goronwy had many of his father’s stories about the quarry and the quarrymen, but the story Goronwy told me that night, of his grandfather’s betrothal, has stayed with me down the years, like an old song.

“In the dim of a winter’s early morning in the 1850s my grandfather, then a young man in his prime, was walking up through the oakwood to his work in the quarry. He heard a sudden breaking of branches, and then a vague shape thudded to the ground directly in front of him. He started forward: it was a young woman, sprawled among the moss and the drifted leaves. Silent, he knelt beside her while she gasped and coughed, made breathless by the fall.

“Now, believe me: grandfather was a Welsh scholar who had competed in the 1852 Abergavenny Eisteddfod, but he struggled to understand her first words. She seemed to be speaking in Old Welsh. She was richly, but strangely, dressed. No Victorian lady, but someone from an antique painting. As she hugged her damaged elbow, he recognised her perfume — a strong, sweet smell of marshy places and hill-springs, the smell of meadowsweet.”

Goronwy paused in his tale and I poured some more scrumpy. He took a deep draught, wiped his moustache, and asked: “You’ll have read The Mabinogion, Alan?”

I stared at the old man and understood: he wanted to know if I recognised the significance of the smell of meadowsweet. In the ancient book of The Mabinogion, the wizard, Gwydyon, fashioned a living bride out of flowers for his nephew, Lleu. A witch had cursed Lleu that he should never have a wife born of woman. So Gwydyon used his powers to create a bride that was not born of woman, but was sprung from the flowers of the wood and the mountain — flowers of oak, of broom, and… of meadowsweet*. Goronwy gave me a significant nod and resumed his tale.

“My grandfather helped the injured woman to her feet and took her down the mountain to his mother’s care. As they stood in the scullery, while his mother bathed and bound the woman’s elbow and forearm, the woman stared wildly about her. My grandfather asked her if, by any chance, her name was Blodeuedd? She turned, smiled and nodded. Her smile, like her perfume, suffused the scullery.

“Blodeuedd, meaning flower-face as my grandfather well knew, was the name of Lleu’s bride of flowers. As he also knew, she had proved a wayward bride: her love for Lleu was itself like a flower that had bloomed, withered and died. So when then she chanced to meet Goronwy, the Lord of Penllyn, she found herself drawn to him. Goronwy in his turn yearned for Blodeuedd. They became lovers and plotted together to slay her husband. Lord Goronwy murdered Lleu, but Lleu’s uncle — the wizard Gwydyon — discovered Blodeuedd’s betrayal and she fled from him. He caught her and punished her, turning her into an owl, destined to rove always alone and mournful through the night skies, and to be shunned and hated by all other birds.

“My grandfather seated Blodeuedd before the warm hearth. Struggling to find the appropriate Old Welsh words, he questioned her about how she came to fall to earth on the Deri Mountain. She touched his arm and he felt the touch like a caress: “I think I know the answer to your question. Few wizards know the strongest spells of all, the binding spells. Merlin, alone, was said to know many binding spells, and they proved his undoing in the cave below Tintagel. I believe Gwydyon’s punishment of me was not binding for all eternity, but only for a span of a thousand years and a day. And now the long years are past, the spell has lapsed, and my owl-shape is cast off. I dwell now on the furniture of the Earth, not in the heavens, and I am again a free and mortal woman. Free, but fearful of this changed world.” She cried and my grandfather comforted her… And by midsummer they were betrothed. You can see their grave today in the chapel graveyard at Bettws.”

Goronwy and I were silent for a while. I took a last sip of the cloudy scrumpy. “The strangest and the greatest of all your tales, Goronwy. Tell me: what do you remember of your grandmother?”

“She died when I was quite young. I remember the smell of meadowsweet, and even as a small child I knew that she was a very wise old lady. My father said that no end of folk would come seeking her opinion, on this matter and that. Even Mr Owens, the minister. And she would always deal gently with even the most foolish enquiries.”

I smiled at Blodeuedd’s redemption. Old Goronwy rose to chuck another two lumps of oak onto the ashes in the range. He glanced out of the window. “The moon is up. I’ll accompany you down the lane.”

I nodded. Goronwy’s liking for moonlit walking was well known to his neighbours. I pulled on my boots, went to the door, and turned: “May I ask you one thing? what was your grandfather’s Christian name?”

“He was named Goronwy. All the first-born males in our family have always been called Goronwy.”


Crossing the Border, Long Ago

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, March 30th 2020)

In the snaking queue for passport inspection at Heathrow, I watched the Asian family gathered around the neighbouring passport booth to my left: the tired, sullen children, the downcast mother, the desperate, gesticulating father. I knew how they felt. These days, I sail through passport control and customs without a care or hindrance. I recently retired as Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of West Yorkshire: I’m a respectable, even august figure — my colleagues used to refer to me behind my back as “Earth Leader”. But I wasn’t always so self-evidently respectable, and British Border Controls weren’t always so straightforward.

Fifty years ago, I was hitchhiking back from Venice and had just caught the Ostend-Dover ferry with minutes to spare. I’d stayed too long in Venice, mesmerised by the play of light on water and on old stones. I was out of money, dog-tired, and travel-worn. I carried a bedroll, wrapped around a canvas kitbag. I was called over by a customs officer, fresh-faced — no older than myself. Age was perhaps the only thing we had in common.

There were a number of questions about where I’d been, what my purpose was, and where I was going. All the time, he was eyeing my bedroll. Eventually, inevitably, he asked to see inside my bedroll. First, he shook out my sleeping bag: nothing. Then he opened up my kitbag, spreading my dirty underwear, socks and shirts across the bench. At the very bottom of the kitbag was a white enamel cup. And inside the cup was some crumpled brown paper.

The officer’s detached, professional persona peeled away. Was this to be his very first drugs bust? He eagerly ripped open the paper — nothing. He smelt it — nothing. He held it out to me, puzzled:

“What’s the paper for?”

I knew that only an honest answer would suffice: “It’s to wipe my arse.”

Maggot-Racing: the Sport of Kings

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 28, January 2020)

The reason maggot-racing was so exciting was because maggots have absolutely no sense of direction. Your maggot might be wiggling along strongly – well clear of the rest of the field, with a nice, clean, economical action, and plenty of fuel left in the tank – when, suddenly and inexplicably, s/he executes a 180-degree turn. And that was your chance of scooping the jackpot blown for another week.

The maggot-racing during the Thursday morning tea-breaks was the only good reason for working at King’s Wholesale Grocery. The wages were crap. The work was tough: no stacker trucks, no lifts. And there were just seven workers being ordered about by three (yes, three) bosses. There was old Mr King himself, gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable (or just plain terrifying), and his two grotesque sons – ‘Mr Geoff’ and ‘Mr Adrian.’ And that’s not counting Briggsy, the slippery and snide under-manager. Strangely, it was the maggot-racing that proved to be Briggsy’s nemesis.

Back then, in the Sixties, King’s was the only place in town that still smoked its own bacon – a product much loved, especially by the older generation. Our butcher, would prepare a side of bacon for the smokehouse on Thursday morning. The first step in his preparations was always that of laying-out the side of bacon on a sturdy wooden table and thumping it up and down its whole length with a heavy wooden mallet. The blows of the mallet would propel the maggots out of the meat as if they were jumping beans. And the dispirited workforce would be transformed into happy punters as they gathered round to select their potential champion maggots.

Each of us would contribute a sixpence to the pot, and the competing maggots would then be placed in the centre of a four-foot-wide chalk circle, drawn on the cement floor of King’s backyard, where we were accustomed to drink our mugs of tea and smoke our fags. The owner of the first wayward maggot to wiggle out of the circle would scoop the pool and have the bragging rights til the next Thursday.

My fellow-workers were a kindly crew: Roger, the butcher; Taffy, the van driver, for the afternoon deliveries; Ian, the gentle strongman ex-borstal boy, who was the foreman; Weird Willie; and Tank Thompson. The exception, of course, was under-manager Briggsy (Taffy: ‘That Briggsy’s from Planet Zog. He’s probably got completely different genitalia’). Briggsy wore a white ‘slop’, in contrast to our mucky brown slops, and – as conscious of his status as any army corporal – waged a constant verbal battle to assert his social, moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of us.

For example, if the conversation turned to the fortunes of the town’s football team (then in its glory years), he would interrupt with a report on his own favourite sport of ten-pin bowling: ‘You’re not right in the head, you lot. Fancy shelling out good money to stand on the terraces in the rain, when you can spend a whole evening in the warm, bowling.’ If we sought to question the wisdom of human-chaining the hefty boxes of firelighters all the way to the warehouse’s top-storey, Briggsy would allude mysteriously to a new storage plan allegedly being hatched by Mr Geoff in the front office: ‘You lot, you’ve no more understanding of economics than my granny. Mr Geoff wants ‘em all upstairs for a reason.’

Nevertheless, Briggsy could never quite conceal his enthusiasm for the maggot-racing: he was just as enthralled by circuses as the rest of us slaves. On the day that was the start of the trouble, Briggsy was particularly wound up because he was going for a hat-trick, having owned the winning maggot on each of the previous two Thursdays. He’d already upset Weird Willie (not weird at all, just a bit out-of-step) by reminding us all of Willie’s previous misguided attempt to nurture a champion maggot, taking it home from work in a matchbox. You could sense the tension in the yard, as we all waited for Roger, the starter, to give the word to release our maggots into the circle.

Briggsy’s maggot had a definite early lead and was making brisk progress when, as so often happened, the maggot veered abruptly away from the circle’s edge and finish line. Taffy’s maggot then put on strong spurt to come in just ahead of Tank’s maggot, who seemed to be finding the going heavy. Briggsy, however, was furious, claiming foul play because Willie had been leaping excitedly about on the edge of the circle, shouting encouragement to his own maggot (named by him, as always, as ‘Curly’). Briggsy argued that his maggot had been put off by Willie’s antics (‘Fatally distracted. Totally irresponsible behaviour.’).

Briggsy wouldn’t let the matter rest and Willie was getting visibly upset. To calm and distract, Tank suggested holding a Stewards’ Enquiry. Tank’s dad and uncle regularly went to Uttoxeter Races, so we wrongly assumed that he knew how the Enquiry should be conducted. Tank appointed himself Chief Steward, with Roger as his Deputy and Clerk of the Course.

Tank and Roger set up their Enquiry on a couple of packing cases in the corner of the yard, with Tank wearing a broken mop as a wig. They called for witnesses to appear individually. Briggsy affected to regard the proceedings as tiresome and took the hump when Tank asked him to demonstrate for the Enquiry the alleged threatening nature of Willie’s hopping movements. But what really got Briggsy’s goat was Taffy’s evidence, where he expressed the view (silently held by the rest of us) that Briggsy habitually released his maggots off-centre, giving them all a potential head start. Briggsy (tall and thin) and Taffy (short and fat) were squaring up to each other and who knows what would have happened next, if Ian the foreman hadn’t then waved his watch and declared the tea-break over.

Briggsy stalked off with a face like raw bacon. Shortly afterwards, he was seen, panoplied in self-belief, entering Mr Geoff’s office (it was best to enter Mr Geoff’s office in the mornings, as he got pissed in the afternoons; it was best not to enter Mr Adrian’s office at all). Nothing more was said, but Briggsy didn’t join us in the yard for his tea-break that afternoon, or on the following days.

On the following Wednesday, I wondered out loud whether there would be the usual Thursday morning maggot-racing. Tank caught Ian’s eye and Ian nodded: everything would proceed as usual. Tank then changed the subject, asking me when I’d be starting back at college.

The arrival of the sugar lorry, first thing on Thursday, kept us busy: we’d only just finished unloading it when Ian called break-time. We trooped into the yard to gather our preferred maggots. Briggsy was once again absent, but Tank had brought a guest competitor into the yard. A few minutes later, we were all happily bent or squatting around the circle, shouting encouragement at the maggots and insults at the other owners.

Three men then burst abruptly into the yard – Briggsy, Mr Geoff and Mr Adrian. They looked like they meant business. A stocky figure in a suit then straightened up on the far side of the maggot circle. Old Mr King – still gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable – waved enthusiastically to the new arrivals:

‘Hello boys. Come to join the racing?’

Mistletoe

Michael Bloor

(first published in Moonpark Review, Issue 10, Dec 21st 2019)

We set off up the mountain on a clear, cold, crisp day, a week before Christmas. We needed to quiet our minds through the rhythmic rustle of the beechwood leaves under our marching feet. So many looming problems: the burnt-out clutch; the Christmas journey to her parents; my parents; her boss…

Our valley has two names: the lower, gentler part is St Mary’s Vale; the upper, wilder part is Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. As Owain — our neighbour — says, the Normans conquered the lowlands, but the Welsh hung onto the hills. Quite soon, we left the beechwood behind us and crossed the invisible border into Cwm Trosnant, with its scattered, bent oaks and scrubby thorns. We kept a look-out for mistletoe, the official excuse for the excursion. The woods and orchards of the Black Mountains of South Wales are favoured places for mistletoe. Every December, the farmers take cartloads of it over the border to the Christmas market in Hereford. It’s spread by thrushes that gorge on the berries, wiping their beaks free of the sticky seeds against the bark of neighbouring trees. The rough, cracked bark of oaks and old apple trees ensure that they are often peppered with mistletoe.

It’s a strange sight in the desolate dead of winter, to come across a grove of oaks, and there among the bare branches is the green, thriving mistletoe. No wonder that many ancient peoples believed the mistletoe to have magical properties, the mysterious green bush with no roots in the earth. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ retells the story of Baldur, the Sun God, who could only be slain by a mistletoe spear. The Druids, who were masters of this land two thousand years ago, were said to harvest it with a golden sickle.

Near the head of the cwm, we reached the first of the three springs, issuing cold and clear from the roots of a solitary, stunted holly tree. We knew the place well enough and had picnicked there sometimes, dipping our hands in the cool waters. The mountain is dotted with these sudden springs. Over on the east side there is a spring with an ancient church beside it and pilgrims still visit the spring to leave tokens and to pray.

I never heard that the holly tree spring was also deemed holy, but we were witnesses that day to a secret wonder. The bark of the holly, like that of the beech, is a smooth, plain, regular grey: no cracks, irregularities, or rough patches. And yet, couched among the red holly berries were vivid, pearly-white berries of the mistletoe.

I gasped. And then I laughed and pulled out my pocket knife to cut it down. She stayed my hand. ‘No, we could search out every holly tree in Wales and never find another that’s home to the mistletoe. We’re witnesses here today, not thieves.’

She was right. We stood for a moment or two and then turned for home. I cut some mistletoe out of a thorn tree, suffering only minor scratches.

William Blake’s Question

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 26, Nov 2019)

First of all, it’s his voice I hear – holding forth in the next room. A shock (a nasty shock, if I’m honest) after fifty years, but instantly recognisable: if you’re going to adopt the received pronunciation of the British ruling class, you really need a deep voice to go with it – something Dr Braithwaite lacks. If it hadn’t been for the squeaky voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him after such a long absence: the ‘young fogey’ tweed-jacket and the brogues that had so marked him out as a posturing twit when an Oxford Don at thirty, now appear natural camouflage at eighty.

Friends and relatives, colleagues and neighbours, all have me down as easy-going, even a bit of a soft touch. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but it’s not the end of the story. The fact is that I maintain a warm regard for ninety nine percent of humanity by nurturing simultaneously a consuming hatred of a tiny minority. All the hated minority are bad apples, of course, but probably not as evil as I like to paint them. Sigmund Freud surely got a lot of stuff wrong, but he was right on the money when he wrote about ‘projection’. That’s what I’ve been doing: I’m able to forgive my acquaintances their trespasses with a gentle smile, because I’m projecting my anger, frustration and abhorrence onto a very small number of habitual offenders. I know I’m doing it, but they’re either persons I’ve never met (for example, a particularly pompous and disastrous politician), or persons from my distant past. So it has seemed to me a harmless foible, despite the murderous feelings that can sometimes take hold of me. And of all those dark eminences whose recall can provoke thoughts of blood and revenge, the darkest is my old Oxford tutor, Dr Braithwaite.

Dorothy and I have been once-a-week, volunteer guides at Castle Curdle ever since we’ve both retired. Most of the volunteers prefer the castle when it’s busy, but quiet days don’t bother me: I enjoy my solitary thoughts in the great dining room, among the portraits and the porcelain – the clutter of a futile aristocracy. When I heard Braithwaite’s voice through the open door to the library, I’d been musing over a little double-figurine in the china display cabinet: two arctic explorers, Nansen and Major Frederick Jackson, shaking hands in a million-to-one-chance meeting in the middle of the arctic wastes – the chance meeting that saved Nansen’s life.

Braithwaite is squeaking at length about the library’s eighteenth century long-case clock: he’s got the right period, but the wrong maker – a typical historian’s error. As he enters the dining room, among what I later learn to be a cluster of great-nephews and great-nieces, I turn from the display cabinet, prepared for my own arctic chance encounter. But he passes by me – a mere flunkey – without a glance.

He gestures towards the great dining table: ‘What sparkling conversations must this table have witnessed, eh? How many times must the porcelain and the cut-glass have been outshone by the wit of the diners? The subtleties of a local Jane Austin… The verities of a local Sir Robert Peel… Ah, if only I had lived in that age…’ His relatives, either dazzled or cowed, murmur their agreement. I silently recall the extracts from the butler’s account book, on display in the kitchen. They demonstrate beyond contradiction that the conversations that the table had witnessed must have routinely degenerated into the maunderings of a drunken rabble.

He turns to one of the equestrian portraits: ‘The young laird on, no doubt, his favourite horse. See how the artist has captured the sheen on the horse’s flanks, the poise of the rider in easy command of the animal? What nobility!’(In point of fact, the ‘noble’ in question had gambled away a huge fortune and racketed his way to an early death.)

Braithwaite was hobbling and leaning heavily on an odd, large, walking stick, a typically mannered choice – I imagine it’s what is termed an alpenstock. I murmur to one of the young relatives that if the old fella can’t manage the grand staircase, I can take him up in the lift. She smiles her thanks: ‘I’ll tell Great-Uncle John.’ As they move out of the dining room, I take up the rear.

Braithwaite then proceeds to hold forth to the great-nephews and nieces about the portraits lining the lower part of the grand stairwell. Years ago, I thought I’d detected the source of the animus that Braithwaite had shown towards my teenage self: I had come to Oxford from the same undistinguished grammar school in the same northern industrial town as Braithwaite – plainly, I had unwittingly reminded him of a past he had wished to bury. And that was the source of his slights and petty cruelties, and why he’d tried to get me sent down from the university. But what on earth lies behind his insane worship of eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic life? Surely, he’s too knowledgeable a historian not to recognise that his temple is built on a cesspit?

I stand quietly aside, waiting to perform my menial duty as bell-hop. The tiny two-person lift (wood-panelled, early twentieth century) is rather temperamental – hence the house-rule that it is only to be operated by paid or volunteer staff, not by visitors. If the button to the basement is pressed accidentally, instead of the button to the upper floor, then the occupant will be trapped down there until an engineer can be summoned – a matter of hours. I speculate, happily, about the sturdiness of Dr Braithwaite’s bladder.

My projected victim is led, still squeaking and gesturing, towards the lift. As I usher him inside, I see him squinting at my name-badge. I hesitate for a moment. And then I follow him into the lift and press the button to the upper floor. We stand eyeball to eyeball, as the lift creaks and judders upward. I see no dawning recognition in his wizened face. As he shuffles past me out of the lift, I whisper: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The lift doors are then closing to return me to the ground floor, and I watch him turn back, slack-jawed, to look at me. Then he is gone from my life forever.

On the drive home, Dorothy turns to me and says, ‘Why the quiet smile?’

Incident Report

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Sea Letter, Issue 7, Nov 2019)

Darek was thinking about how his children slept, sprawled so peacefully in their bunkbed, back in Gdansk. It was a long time since he’d slept like that. Indeed, it was quite a long time since he’d slept. As the tanker’s first officer, cargo was his responsibility, and delays at the terminal had kept him on duty for sixteen hours. Yet, back in his cabin, he was too fidgety to sleep. He kept replaying the incompetency of the terminal staff. He kept scratching his psoriasis. He wondered about the contents of the unopened Head Office emails on his desktop. He struggled to remember which Personnel Reports he had still to write. He worried about whether his wife was being hoodwinked by the roofers repairing the February storm-damage.

Too soon, he was back on watch, as the tanker steamed through the Straits of Hormuz, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. He was frequently distracted by the smugglers’ launches, with their contraband cargoes of alcohol and pornography, bound for theocratic Iran. The launches manoeuvred perilously close to the tanker, so that they would be shielded from the Iranian coastguard radar. The tanker was much too ponderous to be able to avoid collisions with the launches – Darek was wholly dependent on the on the nimble skills of the smugglers – but his helplessness only served to concern him further. By the time the second officer arrived on the bridge to take over the watch, Darek was near to collapse.

Then he slept. He slept not like child, but like a drunk in a ditch. When his alarm went off, he awoke like a drunk – painfully, confusedly, wretchedly. The shower cleared his mind, but not his fatigue. Bolting some breakfast in the messroom, Cookie told him that the captain had asked him to drop by his cabin. Darek really needed to have a word with the bosun about slippage in the maintenance schedule, but it wasn’t smart to keep the captain waiting.

The captain was a mumbling mess: ‘Sorry, Darek. A return attack of the malaria… first time in years… taken my meds… should be fine after a few hours sleep. But you must take my watch. Sorry…’

The ship had three watch-keeping officers – the captain, the first officer, and the second officer – who manned the bridge sequentially, eight hours at a time. If one is sick, another must take an extra watch.

Back on the bridge, Darek counted himself fortunate that the tanker was now steaming on a south-east course towards Sri Lanka, in quiet waters with little traffic. The weather was balmy. Flying fish were playing with the tanker’s bow wave. The radar incorporated ARPA tracking: it showed no vessels on a converging course. He filled the bridge’s electric kettle, for the morning cup of coffee that he’d forgone in the messroom. While it boiled, he sat for a moment.

Twenty minutes later, the tanker smashed into the fishing outrigger-canoe that had sat too low in the water to be picked up on the radar. The Baluchi fishermen had only shrill whistles to sound the alarm. The bosun had heard the whistles only seconds before the collision. He raced to the bridge to find Darek still sprawled in the chair, sleeping peacefully at last.

Auntie Pam’s Postcard

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Oct 21, 2019) 

 Dear Kylie,

Saw this in the motorway services – I know you like pandas.

You’d be expecting a card from Scotland, but we’ve only got as far as Doncaster – it’s your Uncle Raymond’s erratic bowel movements again. He blames it on growing up in a house with an outside toilet. But he needs to lighten up a bit: since he’s retired, he’s taken to reading out loud to me bits from a book called ‘Constipation and Our Civilisation.’

It was very kind of you and Harrison to lend us the motorhome, but I’m afraid we’ve decided that The Freedom of the Open Road is not for us. Harrison’s gift, ‘A Hundred and One Sri Lankan Curries,’ was a nice thought, but perhaps not an ideal recipe book for a motorhome.

We’ll be returning the motorhome shortly to you and Harrison. Just as soon as we’ve replaced the chemical toilet, which is slightly damaged.

Love from Auntie Pam

The Servants of the People

Michael Bloor

(first published in Cabinet of Heed, Issue 25, Oct 19th 2019)

Some said that Alwyn Wyckham-Smith M.P. had suffered ‘a mid-life crisis.’ Some said it was ‘a secret sorrow.’ Some said it was Brexit. But no-one really knew what happened…

The M.P. held two constituency ‘surgeries’ in his West Barsetshire constituency every month, one in Barchester and one twenty miles away in Blister. He would have preferred to have held them all in Barchester, where his constituency office was, along with the constituency secretary. But at the selection meeting, six years ago, the officers of the constituency party had enquired closely whether Wyckham-Smith would keep on the Blister surgery, if he was selected. Naturally, he’d laid great stress, in his reply, on the importance of ensuring that the elderly and infirm of Blister should continue to have easy access to their elected representative. So, as he told himself, looking in vain for a parking space and cruising wearily round Blister market square for the third time, he’d once more succeeded in being the agent of his own suffering.

Eventually, he found a space by the device of motorised shadowing: driving slowly behind (and alarming) an old lady, tottering over to her battered Nissan Micra with her shopping. Running late, he jogged across the square to the Mason’s Arms Hotel, where the surgery was to be held in a rented back room. He handed the list of appointments to the hotel receptionist, apologised to the first appointee (a local builder), opened up the room, and got down to work.

It was dispiriting stuff. The builder was complaining about the local council turning down his planning application to build next to a famed beauty spot. A Sikh constituent was complaining about his brother-in-law’s niece being held in an immigration detention centre. The chair of the local civic society wanted to know why there was still no start-date for the anticipated Blister By-Pass. One local activist demanded to know why the government were shilly-shallying over Brexit. Another local activist demanded action to prevent the post-Brexit sale of Britain’s wonderful National Health Service to the Americans…

Two-and-a-half hours of hopeless cases and of impossible demands, and Wyckham-Smith’s polite smile was wearing thin. The last name on the appointments list was vaguely familiar, Mr A. Burton. In response to the knock on the door, Wyckham-Smith suppressed a yawn and gave out a faux-hearty ‘Come In!’ A thin, pale, hesitant person entered, smoothing down what little was left of his thin, pale hair.

‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Burton. Won’t you take a seat? What can I do for you?’

‘Actually, it’s Reverend Burton. Not an appellation I insist upon, but in this case it’s really rather reverend, I mean relevant…’ (spoken in a sibilant whisper).

‘Good grief, it’s “Gone” isn’t it? Old Gone-for-a-Burton?’

‘Mmm.’

‘Sorry. I’m being disrespectful: I’m afraid you took me by surprise. Er… Do you remember me perhaps?’

‘Indeed yes, you were Head of School. Although then, you were just “Alwyn Smith”.’

‘Ah, yes. Under the terms of grandfather’s will, I was required to add the “Wyckham” bit… Families, eh? So, you’re a churchman – jolly good. You know, although you took me by surprise just now, I’m not actually surprised that you joined the clergy. Haha.’

The Reverend Burton smiled and looked down at his hands. ‘Odd you should mention occupational choices Mr Wyckham-Smith. I was remembering…’

‘Call me Alwyn please, old chap. May I still call you “Gone”?’

‘If you wish, er, Alwyn. I was remembering a conversation we once had, waiting to go into the Chemistry Lab. You turned to me and said, rather out of the blue, “My father’s a Weights and Measures Inspector. He says that’s a good job. I don’t think that’s a good job, do you?’

‘Crickey. Did I really say that? And you remembered it after all these years, eh Gone? Well, well.’

‘Mmm. I suppose I remembered it because it was a rather odd conversation. And because you were confiding in me. After the incident in the school play, I’m afraid I was rather shunned by my fellow classmates.’

‘The school play?’

‘Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You played Caesar and I played The Soothsayer. It was when I had to repeat my warning about the Ides of March…’

‘Ah yeeesss, I remember! You were The Soothsayer… I’m sitting on my dais-thingy and Tank Thompson, the Roman Soldier, throws you at my feet. I say, “Well Soothsayer, the Ides of March are come.” And you’re supposed to answer…’

‘Yes, I was supposed to answer, ‘Aye Caesar, but not gone.’

‘Mmm. And we were all looking forward to it: to Gone saying “not gone.” Schoolboy humour eh?’

‘Yes, but I didn’t answer.’

‘That’s right, you didn’t.’

‘I didn’t answer because Tank Thompson threw me too hard. I tripped on my robe and cracked my head on the corner of your dais.’

‘Mmm. You were out cold, old chap. The English teacher kept whispering your line from the wings. But there wasn’t a cheep from you. Eventually, the English teacher and The Roman Soldier (aka Tank Thompson) carried you off into the wings. An unexpected humorous episode like that could’ve made you a school hero. What rather spoilt it for you was…’

‘What rather spoilt it for me was my mother erupting from the third row, and shouting “Let me through. That’s my son.”’

‘Well. Yes, it did rather. Schoolboys can be very cruel, eh?’

Both parties reflected for a moment or two on the terrifying mob-rule of schoolboy societies. Wyckham-Smith, weary as he was, made an effort to lift the mood. ‘Y’know Gone, it could’ve been worse. My cousin, Roderick Colin Stevens, had the initials “R.C.” So he was known throughout his schooldays as Arsie Stevens.’ The Reverend Burton merely nodded.

There was another pause and Wyckham-Smith asked what it was that had decided Gone to make an appointment for the constituency surgery.

‘It’s about my mother. She’s 92 and she’s being evicted from her flat by her new landlord.’

The story came out in dribs and drabs. His mother retired to Blister when Gone Burton was appointed the vicar of St Alkmund’s on Blister’s shambolic Summerleys Estate. She had a comfortable ground-floor flat in one of Blister’s last remaining Georgian terraces. But the whole block had been sold to a hotel chain for conversion to a boutique hotel. Planning permission had already been granted.

Wyckham-Smith knew about the hotel development. The exasperated owner of the Mason’s Arms (where they were currently seated) had been bending his ear about it for the last eighteen months. Sadly for Mrs Burton, it was a done deal.

‘Couldn’t your mother stay with you in the vicarage, Gone?’

‘On the Summerleys Estate?? I’ve had three break-ins in the last nine months. There was a stabbing in the bus queue last week. The only shop that’s not boarded up is the betting shop. My mother’s terrified of the place.’ Gone paused and muttered, ‘So am I.’

‘Well, technically, if the eviction was served, your mother would be classed as homeless and eligible for rented accommodation from the council…’

‘Yes, she’d be offered one of the hard-to-let flats on the Summerleys Estate.’

Wyckham-Smith had canvassed on the Estate during his first election campaign. He had experienced first-hand the discomfort of the genteel, forced by circumstances into proximity with the poor. How had it happened to his country, this apartheid of the poor? He wondered how the Reverend Burton coped on a daily basis – the empty church, the stares of the children, and the sniggers of the teenagers – each morning’s fragile hopes shattered in the dirt and the spittle of each evening.

His constituent seemed to intuit the M.P.s unspoken thought. ‘I have had two great consolations in my life: the power of prayer and the love of my mother. Cleaning the mess in the church porch last week, I found the local paper with your picture on the cover… So I thought, perhaps…’ His voice was cracking. ‘I fear I’m losing my soul-mate. And I fear I’m losing my soul. You’re my last hope… Alwyn?’

* * *

Trudging through the rain to his BMW, afterwards, Wyckham-Smith, reflected back on his schooldays alongside Gone Burton and the others. He remembered the morning school assemblies when he’d thought the words of the hymns they sang were meant for him. ‘Onward Christian soldiers,’ and the rest of them. What was left of the idealism he’d felt when he was elected to Parliament? He paused, squinted up at the louring sky and muttered, ‘I fear I’m losing my soul too.’

The electronic car-lock clicked.

Bishop Shock at Inverallan Games

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears, Feb 25, 2018)

Sandy Brodie pushed open the door of the Inverallan Barber’s. Lachie Brown was in the chair, with Jim MacBeth, the barber, in attendance and Willie Bain next in line for a haircut.

Aye boys, helluva storm oot there.’ There was a ragged, muttered chorus of ‘Aye Sandy’ from all present.

Shouldna’ be too long, Sandy, if ye just tak’ a seat. How’s business up at the hotel? Many guests?’

Aye, aye. A family o’ six folk frae Holland came in today. An’ the lady bishop decided to stay anither week.’

And wit’s the lady bishop doin’ wi’ herself? Willie here wis saying that she wis goin’ in for The Peat Throwing Contest.’

(Lachie Brown: ‘Peat throwin’ – load o’ bloody nonsense’).

Aye, that’s richt. They held it this morning, afore the rain started. An’ she competed in the ladies section.’

An’ how did she get on, the bishop lady? She wouldna’ be any match for Lady Gayle from the Big Hoose: she’s won it every year since it started.’

Well now, she was makin’ an awfy hash o’ it, at first. One peat hit Andy, the gardener, on the back o’ his heid. He wasna’ pleased.’

Willie: ‘Nothin’ pleases Andy Morrison. If Nicola Sturgeon ran off tae Las Vegas wi’ Donald Trump, he wouldna’ crack a smile. So did she improve, the bishop lady?’

Didn’t she just? I reckon she wis getting some tips off Donnie MacKinnon at the half-time break. Because she really began to rack up some style points from the judges after the break.’

She wis turnin’ a tight spade?’

Aye, aye, a very tight spade. You could tell Lady Gayle wasna’ best pleased. So Donnie won the men’s section. And the bishop won the ladies’.’

(pause).

Willie and Jim together: ‘You mean…?’

Aye, that’s richt: Her Grace at first just ghastly, turned a tighter spade than Gayle…

Willie and Jim gently hummed the Procol Harum organ break.

(Lachie Brown: ‘Load o’ bloody nonsense’)

Memory, the Fickle Jade

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, Oct 7th 2019)

Anthony Morgan, Professor Emeritus, came away from the staff seminar (on Malory’s story of the Death of Merlin) feeling ruffled and bruised. Anthony hadn’t expected his comments on the paper to be treated with murmurs of respect and gratitude. But the junior staff member delivering the paper had, after some prevarication, actually confessed that she believed that Anthony had misremembered the circumstances of Merlin’s death (in his earliest incarnation as the pagan sage, Myrrdin). Moreover, the young woman, Dr Tamsin Ajebo, had been backed up by Anthony’s successor as Head of the English Department, Jim Lawton. And what’s more, Prof Lawton had referred to Anthony as “Tony.”

Anthony sighed heavily as he headed for home. He hadn’t really wanted to go to the seminar in the first place: the paper had been on the links between Malory’s Merlin and later literary incarnations, like Tolkien’s Gandalf and JK Rowling’s Dumbledore. Anthony had previously made a study of William Morris’s prose romances which, as precursors of The Lord of the Rings, had made him rather snobbish about Tolkien. He’d attended out of a sense of duty, only to be told he was now “Tony,” and losing his marbles.

There was a queue of traffic at the lights on Newport Road. Gazing out the window, he caught sight of a newspaper billboard: “University Cuts — Staff Redundancies.” So, he nipped out to buy the evening paper from the vendor. As he pocketed his change, he caught sight of his bus starting to pull away, and he stepped nimbly aboard.

***

Hearing him open the front door, Dorothy called out: “How did the seminar go?”

He called out in return, “Young Tamsin Ajebo told me I’d misremembered the death of Merlin.”

Dorothy didn’t reply immediately. As they sat down to the evening meal she said, “Surely, Malory wrote that Merlin, in his dotage, fell for a young woman at Arthur’s court and taught her the binding spells that cannot be broken, remember? She eventually tired of the old fool, and cast a spell to imprison him forever in a cave, below Tintagel.”

Before Anthony could reply, there was a ring at the door. “I’ll go,” he said.

Dorothy heard the continuing murmur of voices in the front hall and went to investigate. “It’s the police, dear,” Anthony said. “Apparently, I left my BMW ticking over at the traffic lights on Newport Road.”