The Double Act, & the Crown

Hang on, said the unicorn, what're you guys doing with that there crown?

What’re you guys doing with that crown? asked the unicorn.

Some short fiction for you, while you’re waiting for the turkey to defrost

I didn’t ask for this, you know. Charging all around town, fighting a lion, for a crown. A crown, I ask you! What’s a self-respecting unicorn want with a bit of a jewellry for a hat?

I already had plenty of street cred: magical horn; hanging out with beautiful young women; promoted from the minors of rhinohood, and narwhalness, to a beautiful white equine, with a hipster beard, eternal life, and, of course, that wondrous horn. What more could any mythical beast want?

No, I am not a dog. Yes, my Spockin' nose itches. Now leave me alone.

The eternal opponent: York, Nr Yorkshire

Of course, I did get something from my long-standing disagreement with a puss who’s too big for his boots. My image is displayed on every law court in the land, as well as lots of other public buildings, including quite a few palaces. Mine is one of the best known faces, and bodies, in this United Kingdom.

Sure, I have to share my glory with a big, dumb feline, but hey, every one loves a double act: Morecambe and Wise; Laurel and Hardy, cheese and pickle: we outshine them all.

Despair? Indigestion? Forgot to put the Lottery numbers on? Chatsworth.

Cheese sarnies, again? Bring me a pastrami on rye with Russian dressing, & make it snappy

It’s me who writes all our scripts: have done, for centuries. His paws are too clumsy, but I have the perfect pen, right on my head. It took a bit of working out, at first: how to dip my horn into an inkwell. It was the lion’s suggestion that I use birch bark for my first drafts, and calf, or pig skin, for the final one. As a life-long vegetarian, I found this rather distasteful, but he can’t help being a carnivore. Besides, it’s just another form of recycling.

We didn’t prepare the skins ourselves, or the bark, for that matter. We entered into an agreement with a tanner, and a woodsman. It was a symbiotic relationship: they prepared out paper, and skins, and we promised not to gore them, or eat them.

Morning sun: late December, 2015

Are these the trees which launch a thousand scripts? Winter, 2015

In the beginning, it was a rough, knockabout sort of act. We’d chase around a bit, then, “Give me that crown!” I’d neigh, in a way which was nicely nuanced between the noble, and the supernatural. “It’s mine, you horny son of a mare!” he’d shout back. Then, we’d charge about the marketplace a bit; stop; catch our breath – or, rather, Percy would, he’s not built for distance running – and then go through our lines all over again.

It seemed to tickle the peasants who lived in the town near our magical glade, although Tom the Tanner said they weren’t amused, just terrified.

Percy? Oh, that’s the lion. His full name is Richard William Percival Coeur de Lion, but after over 400 years together, I just call him Percy. He’s not such a bad sort, when you get to know him.

Yes, it’s the same lion. Is he mythical? Hard to say, but if he’s not immortal, he’s certainly had a good innings, with no sign of leaving the pitch anytime soon.

Alternative feline career: Sheffield, 2016

Alternative magical feline career: Sheffield, 2016

These days, as well as our double act, we both do solo gigs. Percy’s a regular in films, usually about some chap called Aslan, or in musicals, chiefly, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Wicked”, and “The Lion King”. I tend to do life modelling for tapestries, and paintings, though I’ve branched out a bit more, over the years: fantasy novels, and films, plus some merchandising. It can get a bit twee: cuddly toys, snowstorm paperweights, that sort of thing. I’ve got a new line coming out soon, called “My Little Unicorn”.

Not another lion! cried the unicorn: London, 2016

Another flippin’ lion! cried the unicorn: London, 2016

Anyway, by the time a couple of centuries had gone by, our quick and crude comedies had become a bit boring: to us, and our audiences. Percy said we needed to up our game, become more of a brand, and appeal to a more cultured, sophisticated clientele. That last bit makes Percy out to be a bit more literate than he really is. He learned words like “sophisticated” and “clientele” from me.

Percy may be more brawn, than brains, but we both wanted to move with the times. By the time the late 19th century came along, I’d moved from using more horn like a quill, to being a one-horn typist. A century or so later, I was one of the first magical beings in the country to try out a ZX Spectrum, as well as the Commodore 64. Percy’s no comedy genius, but he helped in his own way. Over the decades, he’s terrorized more people into building and painting scenery, and making props, than I can shake a horn at.

He does have a gift for sniffing out media opportunities. partly because he’s spent an awful lot of the late 20th and early 21st centuries going to the pictures, and watching the box. He’s a great cinema companion: he can empty a theatre really quickly. Percy loves action pictures, and horror, while I prefer rom-coms, and fantasy.

Did you know we were the first double act to appear on Channel 5? Or that we were extras in an upcoming production of “The Lion in Winter”? Unfortunately, we ended up on the cutting room floor. Which is a shame, as the location filming was nearly the death of poor Percy. He’s not really built for winter.

A field in winter: December 2014

A field in winter: December 2014

I didn’t ask for this crown business, but like a lot of things we don’t want, or go looking for, it’s turned out ok. We eat well, these days: no more black bread, or brown. It’s steak for him, and the finest vegetarian option, for me. At The Ivy, no less.

A unicorn, at last: drawing by Tom Brown, from “Koi Carpe Diem

Talk about the high life: we’re appearing at the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium next year. As Percy says, we’re bound to be a rip-roaring success.

Wishing everyone in America a happy, & peaceful, Thanksgiving Day.

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Struggling Up That Hill: Anger, Bipolar, & Me

Dawn near one of those hills: Nov 2016

Dawn near one of those hills: Nov 2016

Warnings for: the usual really – whinging, swearing, self pity

If I only could / I’d make a deal with God …” – Kate Bush

Today’s song is, of course, this one. Lately, I’ve been absent from this blog, due partly to depression, and partly because of other commitments. One of those commitments is National Short Story Week, which ended yesterdat. This is at least the third year that Sine FM and my show, Book It! has been involved. It’s hard work at times, but also good fun.

If you fancy hearing some cracking stories, you can listen to the podcast.

I’ve also been running up that work hill: night shifts, plus changes to work patterns, mean it’s been more of a struggle than usual, at times. I’ve written before about my tendency to feckin’ swear, sometimes at considerable length, and with additional blasphemy. This can upset listeners, and passersby. Which is fair enough, even if swearing helps relieve my stress.

Recently, I’ve been running up another hill, as well as the sort of thing which, given I’m fat, in my late 50s, and have a knackered left knee, might as well be hills:

Over the bridge, & far away: Doncaster, Nov 2016

Over the bridge, & far away: Doncaster, Nov 2016

Many fellow Doncastrians will recognise the bridge above: it’s at the non-shopping bit of Lakeside. The internet tells me that the artificial lake was created in the mid 90s, which helps explain why the small hills which were created in the process are looking more and more, well, natural.

A plethora of plants: Nov 2016

A plethora of plants: Nov 2016

I’ve started jogging for a variety of reasons: training for a race in March 2017; hopes of using that race to raise money for mental health charities; a desire to get fit, and – cross fingers – lose weight, plus, I know being out in Nature helps me.

In addition, I was inspired by a young man with bipolar, talking about how running helps him. He was one of several people, including Alistair Campbell, and Frank Bruno, who spoke frankly about their mental health, in a recent programme on Channel 5. While there were at least two who talked about bipolar, it was this (formerly) angry young man who I identified with the most. If running helps him with his anger, highs, and lows, why not me, too?

Thanks, mate. I wish I remembered your name. Because, so far, so good.

A clay snail I made in the ward around 10 years ago, and gave to a friend, and symbolizes my current running pace

A clay snail I made in the ward years ago, and gave to a friend, symbolizes my current running pace

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James and the Saucer of Vengeful Doom

James? Is that you?

James? Is that you?

This is a story I read last October at a horror night at the Doncaster Brewery & Tap, which was held by author Craig Hallam. It helps if you like “The Princess Bride”, as well as Halloween.

Warning: Swearing; also, do not read while eating, or if you have a weak stomach.

For Colin, who said he liked it.

James and the Saucer of Vengeful Doom

James Harrington celebrated his last Halloween alone: eating the fun-size Smarties his ex-girlfriend bought for the trick-or-treaters, drinking beer, and watching “The Princess Bride”. His ex was disgusted by the sweetie eating, and contemptuous of his film choice.

“The Princess Bride’ isn’t a Halloween film, and all those sweeties and beer will make you fat,” Nikki managed to say before James rang off, leaving the question of whether or not there was an “er” at the word end of “fat”. By then, disgust and contempt were Nikki’s factory settings: the ones she reverted to whenever she was speaking to James.

That Halloween, when evening had not yet given the nod to night, he had happiness: crunchy, rainbow-coloured joy, with beery, carb-filled bliss, and Inigo Montoya on top.

A rainbow of light: a window display at Lord Hurst's, a fab Doncaster teashop

A rainbow of light: a window display at Lord Hurst’s, a fab Doncaster teashop

“’You murdered my father: prepare to die’!” James bellowed at the telly. There was only him, and the goldfish, to hear it, now Nikki was gone. That speech was his favourite, and the brave swordsman Inigo by far his favourite character.

In truth, he loved them all. Even the princess: who, although bossy, at least loved the hero. Unlike a certain, recent ex, James thought, as he took a final swig of “Town Fields” ale, and reached for another bottle of beer.

He wiped his mouth, and observed the smear of red, green and blue Smarties on his right hand, and wrist. Observed, but did nothing about it. Who was to know? The trick or treaters who weren’t likely to arrive at half nine at night, and whose treats he had eaten? Bob the goldfish? The film’s princess, who had other things on her mind?

Not another goldfish: art by Tom Brown, from "Koi Carpe Diem"

Not another goldfish: art by Tom Brown, from “Koi Carpe Diem”

James could do whatever he wanted, now: eat all the sweets, drink all the beer, sit around in his pants with the central heating up full blast. So what if Nikki said he was “damaging the environment”? He paid all the bills. Well, most of them.

He’d taken his shirt off awhile ago. Now, as he stood up to remove his jeans, and reveal his Spider-man pants in all their red and blue glory, he caught a foot in a leg of his trousers, and stumbled, knocking over his beer in the process.

“Tragedy!” James sang, not caring whether Abba and the film’s background music went together well. “Trag – Oh, – !”

James broke off the song, and swore, as realisation hit him like a sword blow from Inigo Montoya himself. The bottle of Hobgoblin which was spilling its liquid guts all over the hardwood floor was his last beer.

James swore for England, France, Scotland: all five of the rugby nations, plus some football teams, too. He couldn’t go for more beer: not at this hour, not in his Spidey pants. Nikki might not have been a lot of help with the bills – well, except for food, and heating, and lighting – but she did do most of the cooking, and all of the washing up, gardening, and laundry. Plus, the washer was hers, and it was gone: removed by her brothers several days before Nikki left. Perhaps, James thought, as he watched his last pair of clean trousers turn into a pub towel, he should have seen their break-up coming, after all.

Of course, James’s thought process was not actually that coherent. It was more like this: “Washer! Fuck! Beer! Offie? Asda? … pants! Pants, pants, pants!”

Then, oozing out of his mouth like drool, “Beer … sponge. Beer … saucer.”

Even when pissed, Nikki had certain. .. standards, she called them. James’s usual response was to blow a raspberry or three. Yet, he’d fallen, mostly, into line, and hadn’t had a single cold, and only one case of food poisoning, during their two year relationship.

“Saucer!” James yelped, as he tripped over his own, wet trousers.

This is not going to end well, the garden gnome thought, with a smile

This is not going to end well, the garden gnome thought, with a smile

For Nikki, the garden meant time alone with her thoughts, and the local sparrow, blackbird, and robin populations. For James, the small, grassy area behind their house was some place he visited twice a year: on summer Bank Holidays, when he poked meaty, smoky objects with a long fork, whilst holding a cold one in the other hand, and wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sandals. Hobbling out there with no shoes, and no clothing except for a pair of beer-soaked Spiderman pants, on a cold, dark night at the end of October, was a new experience. Some might even call it –

“A quest!” James slurred. “I’m goin onna quest!

He crashed into a bush. If Nikki had been there, she could have told him it was a hydrangea. To James, whose eyes couldn’t have differentiated between a dustbin, and a Dalek, that was no hydrangea, that was a Triffid: an exceptionally hungry, angry one.

“Bollocsh!”James screamed, whilst leaping into the air as a firework exploded into noisy colour, high over his neighbour’s garden, then landed in what one of the nurses at A & E later told him was a holly bush. A keen gardener, she recognised the leaves she and her colleagues removed from his pants.

He’d all but forgotten what he was after, why he was even outside. Then, he saw it.

“Beer!”

He tipped the contents of the first saucer down his throat.

“Sausher!” James cried, as he guzzled the contents of the next, deeper one.

It was a bit lumpy. James put that down to a stray berry, or three. Yes, that was it: brambles, maybe a stone. No harm in a pebble, was there?

“Bit of roughash,” James said, as he felt his way round the damp garden. “Good for you … hair on chesh.” Unlike some of his mates, James thought waxing was for girls, and moustaches.

“Housh,” he murmured, as he began making his way back toward the path. “Warm housh.” The effects of crawling around on wet earth, and grass, in just his Spidie pants, was starting to dawn on James. He pulled over one gnome, two small, defunct lights, and several thorny branches in his way back to the path, earning a couple of bramble battle scars along the way, as well as a stain on his Spidie’s which looked, and smelt, suspiciously like a pooh from Scruffy, his neighbour’s cat.

You can call me what you like, it doesn't mean I'll show up.

Scruffy? Who you calling scruffy?

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” he muttered, as he pulled himself up to a Neanderthal version of a standing position, and felt the shock of cold cement on bare feet. No film character, however heroic, could have moved faster than James, as he sprinted into the kitchen.

Having pillaged a cupboard for a can of shandy, and a packet of peanuts, he collapsed on the sofa, where he surveyed his bramble-scratched legs, and arms, and the shit stain on his pants.

“No pain, no gain,” James said, as he pulled the ring on the shandy, and glugged it down. “Better than nothing,” he told the characters on the film.

They had reached James’s favourite part of the film: the scene where Inigo confronts his father’s killer.

“’You murdered my father, prepare to die!’,” James recited along with the actor, although in James’s case, it was said with half a packet of peanuts in his mouth.

Sweeties!

Sweeties!

Peanuts which went the wrong way, as James realised that a third person was saying Inigo’s lines.

“Wha – cough! – the – cough! cough,” James wheezed, as he clutched his throat with a grass and Smartie coloured hand,

“Prepare to die!” cried a tiny voice.

This time there was no mistake: the only sounds from the telly was dramatic music, and the clash of blades; from James himself, that of a bloke choking on salted peanuts.

There was someone else in the room: someone small, and very, very angry.

“Back – ackk! – door,” James managed to say.

“You murdered my father, prepare to die!” the little voice insisted.

Half-doubled over, James focused streaming eyes on something the size and shape of a small, glistening, beige-coloured turd.

“You’re a – acck! Wheeze! – slug!”

“And you’re a murderer!” it replied, fixing him with its stalked eyes.

“I’m an – acckk! – accountant!” James wheezed.

“You’re a murderer!”

“I’m a – hack! Splutter! – wimp! Ask – ack! – anyone! I tell people I don’t wax my chesh because it’s for girls, but it’s because it hurtsh! I’ve never killed anyone.”

A glint of silver flashed before James’s streaming, pain-filled eyes. Was that … a needle? Or a tooth-pick sized sword the slug held in his … okay, it wasn’t a hand .. tail?

James gulped, and swallowed, hard.

Acckkk!” James said. “Your father? I didn’t know slugs had – cough! – fathers.”

“Of course, we have fathers. I had a father, ’til you murdered him.”

James looked at the slimy thing which was standing – did slugs stand? James wondered – on the floor, lit by the flickering of the television screen. The small, sharp object glittered like the larger sword held by the now victorious Inigo, in the film.

“Murdered? I told you, I’m a wimp. I don’t kill slugs. You’re thinking of Nikki. She – “

James’s eyes, still wet from his chocking incident, widened. “That … in the beer. That was no pebble. That – “

“ – was my father,” the slug finished James’s sentence. “He was already dead, but …” the slug trailed off, and flourished his miniature sword, “I want his body.”

Had the circumstances been slightly different, James would’ve been proud of the volume, and depth of colour, which he spewed onto the carpet. As it was, he could only heave, as he watched the slug pick through the vomit with the point of his sword.

“Peanut … Smartie … pizza!” it said, as James gipped, and whimpered.

“See,” James said, “I didn’t kill your dad. I didn’t even swallow him.”

James wretched again.

The slug turned his stalk-eyes back onto the young man who cowered on the leather sofa.

“Oh, you swallowed him, all right,” the slug said. His stalks swivelled, one looking upwards, the other further down James’s body. “The question is … where to start?”

By the time he’d recovered enough to ring for an ambulance, the slug was gone. All James could tell the staff at A & E was that he didn’t know what the chap who made the small, precise cuts to his stomach did for a living, but he was reasonably certain he wasn’t a surgeon.

Slug eyes? Don't think so, but they sure look angry.

Slug eyes? Don’t think so, but they sure look angry.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out my short story collections, “What! No Pudding?” and “Koi Carpe Diem“. If you fancy a signed print copy of “Koi Carpe” with art by Tom Brown, please contact me. For something a bit more sinister, please check out my dark fantasy, “The Woodcutter’s Son“.

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Mindfulness, Samhain, and Loss

Twilight angel: Hyde Park Cemetery, 2015

Twilight angel: Hyde Park Cemetery, 2015

Samhain is the Pagan name for Hallow’een. Like most holidays, it’s a bit of a mix: feasting, remembrance of the dead, and the turning of the year. I love a good midnight feast, as well as having two New Years. As for loss, well, it’s been a rough Celtic year, featuring the death of two friends, as well as other losses.

So much for grief, but where does Mindfulness fit in? It comes down, at least in part, to my often shaky mental health. I had what I now call an “emotional Adriana” last weekend. The phrase comes from a scene in the Sopranos, in which one of the characters becomes so distressed that, well … whatever you do, don’t watch this whilst eating, or if you have a weak stomach.

Things can build up, and overwhelm me, resulting in a loss of confidence, motivation, and faith. Faith in myself, belief in possibilities, and, inevitably, loss. Overwhelmed with distress, everything I love can feel both pointless, and threatened. Last weekend, this resulted in a mercifully brief – though it didn’t feel like it at the time – “emotional Adriana”.

"Stay with me": lovely Al

“Stay with me”: lovely Al

You name it, I was crying about it: work, guilt, the fear of being ill over Samhain, even this chap (see photo, right), who is in fine, rat catching fettle. At times like this, assuming I’m not hiding in bed, or sobbing on the sofa, I flee to Youtube, and weep over clips like this, or this, or, of course, this.

Inevitably, those choices reflect the fact that I’m getting older, and my awareness of mortality – even worse, that of those I love – is increasing with the passing years.

"Hello from the other side"

“Hello from the other side”

Is it strange to seek out a cemetery where no one you know is buried, at times like this? If I wanted to, I could go into the myth about real life witches visiting cemeteries for goulish reasons. Suffice it to say it is a myth, and one full of bullshit.

My visits to Hyde Park Cemetery do have a connection to my own, rather ecclectic Paganism. That connection is nature.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time than usual indoors, and away from the fresh air, bird song, and greenery which my body and soul crave. The local cemetery is only a short walk away, and is a quiet space in which to collect my thoughts, take photos, and appreciate the life which is all around me in this land dedicated to the dead.

Shelter: Hyde Park Cemetery,October 2016

Oriental Plane Tree: Hyde Park Cemetery,October 2016

There, I can practice Mindfulness at its most basic: being in the present moment. Observing the trees, and the headstones, and listening to the birds.

The cemetery has also been a source of inspiration for my writing. The first, unpublished novel I ever wrote provided me with a name for one of my characters. More recently, it’s the setting for one of my favourite stories in “Koi Carpe Diem“, titled “The Unseemly Disappearance of Bunty Jennings, Tree Whisperer”. It was a pleasure bringing Bunty back in “The Peculiar Profession of Bill Morris: Tree Whisperer”, one of the stories in my upcoming collection, “A Yorkshireman in Ohio”.

As you can tell from the titles above, Bunty has moved on since his first story. Some things, however, haven’t changed. His best friend is still a tree:

Oriental Plane: Hyde Park Cemetery, 2016

Oriental Plane: Hyde Park Cemetery, 2016

I wish you and yours a happy Halloween, and a blessed Samhain.

Headstone, Hyde Park Cemetery, 2016

Headstone, Hyde Park Cemetery, 2016

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Thanks!

Missing the light: Chatsworth, Autumn 2015

Autumn light: Chatsworth

If you are one of the 60 or so people who took advantage of the free offer of my e-book, “Koi Carpe Diem“, thank you! 

Brief plug which may sound arrogant but isn’t: if you like Terry Pratchett, and Jasper Fforde, you may like my stuff. I am *not* claiming to have anything approaching their talent, or wit. If however you prefer your fantasy served up with more surrealism and humour, than shiny swords, and unicorns, I may be your woman.

Although, so there is a unicorn.

Lance the unicorn, from "The St Jude Care Home for Mythical Creatures". Art by the fabulous Tom Brown

Lance the unicorn, from “The St Jude Care Home for Mythical Creatures”. Art by the fabulous Tom Brown

 

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