Thursday 17 June 2021

500 Words a Day - Mr Bartleby

The other students hated him, of course - but not me. I didn’t love him either, he was impossible to love, I think. Mr Bartleby was by turns boring, strict, impulsive, cruel and lazy. But almost worse than any one trait in particular was his unpredictability.
For example, a couple of weeks into our second year, he had turned up to class ten minutes late, leaving us standing in the corridor to get into trouble with passing teachers. Obviously we weren’t just going to stand there in silence while we waited. The first we knew of his arrival was the sound of his low, rumbling voice rising in pitch and volume as he roared across the hallway: “Second Years!”
At once, we all scrambled to our feet and stood to attention, with all conversation dying away mid-sentence.
“What do you call this disaster?!”
Mr Bartleby strode towards us in huge, leaping steps, his trench coat billowing behind him like the sail on the Mary Rose.
“Well?!” he bellowed, his puffy face turning a bright red everywhere except his mustard moustache.
“Sorry sir,” we mumbled, looking dejectedly at our feet and expecting a detention to land like a hammer blow.
A pause.
“Ha ha ha!” he laughed, “never mind, never mind, it’s all fun and games in the end. Carpe diem and all that. In you go, in you go.”
And in we went.
Little Dave thought this was his chance to make a joke but Mr Bartleby was having none of it and in an instant was starting him in the eye, lip twitching and a ruler appearing out of nowhere in his hands.
“Not… one… word…” Mr Bartleby whispered, “or it will be the last word you ever utter.”
And so it went. From minute to minute you never knew where you stood with Bartleby. If you made a face he might burst into laughter or throw a chalk at you; if you got all the answers right in a test he might give you a commendation or accuse you of cheating; if you were late for class he might make you stand outside the remainder of the lesson or give you a copy of his notes so you wouldn’t have missed anything.
You can see why the other kids hated him.
But there was something about him that spoke to me, even as a young man just finding my own sense of self. He seemed out of place, out of time. I never saw him chatting with a colleague, never heard anything of his life beyond the school (the idea that teachers had a life beyond school was still quite new to me). There was a sadness I thought I could detect in his eyes, behind the rage, behind the smiles.
Mr Bartleby treated me differently as well. I like to think he recognised a kindred spirit. “Never mind, lad,” he would say when I invariably messed up again, and again, “you’ll get it next time, right?” And I would promise to try my best.
Then the day arrived when Mr Bartleby never arrived for class.
After twenty minutes, the head of history arrived to cover for him, looking very flustered and put out. He didn’t know where Mr. Bartleby was. He didn’t know when he would be back. He never did come back.
Sometimes I like to think he sold his house and went to tour the world, having adventures in his trench coat, waving a machete in the jungles of the Amazon or riding a sled pulled by huskies as he tries to reach the North Pole. I wonder if I’ll see him again.
But then sometimes I recognise the same pain I saw in his eyes when I take a long look at myself in the mirror. I must be close to the age he was. Behind my smiles I know I feel the same bitter sadness as poor old Mr Bartleby, and I know that he’s never coming back.

Monday 16 March 2020

500 Words a Day - Launching

This one went a little dark, I'm afraid, but I guess that's where we are right now. Stay safe!

I wake up at 06:00 like I do every day, even without any sunlight. The stars beyond the porthole look just the same, always the same. Just the cycle of the light-strips in the ceiling tell me that ‘dawn’ is on its way. Still, I can’t complain. Life on the ship is alright, you know?
I wake up the same, stretch the same and get out of bed. I put on my slippers, my bath-robe, and switch on the coffee machine. While the machine begins its morning hum, I turn on my tablet and scan through my messages. Six notifications, but most of them are from the rest of the crew. One catches my eye - it’s a video message from back home.
This one should be savoured.
I wait for the coffee to brew, add the creamer, and take a seat on my sofa. I start feeling a buzz of excitement - videos from back home were a rare treat, as normally we couldn’t spare the bandwidth. There was a strict rationing of one message a week, and only a few GB at a time. We’d been out of port for six months and I was beginning to feel it - a kind of weight pulling down at me, a black hole beginning to grow.
I took a sip, and pressed play.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

500 Words a Day - Whispers

Mother Superior was ancient. Or at least that was the impression she had given off for the twenty three years she had been in charge of the convent. As far as anyone knew, she had always been ancient, born with wrinkled skin, greying hair and knowing eyes. Only now did the years seem to weigh heavy on her shoulders, pressing down on her chest, making it hard for her to breathe. It had been two days since she had taken to bed - even agreeing to accept the luxury of a feather pillow - and the convent had been awash with whispered rumours. Mother Superior was about to meet her maker.
For those two days, Sister Maria had not left her side. She had barely slept at all, and eaten only some mouthfuls of soup. No, her own physical form was unimportant, all that mattered was tending to her teacher, and making sure she was comfortable and at peace.
Mother Superior had been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last day or so, with her moments of lucidity getting ever shorter and more spaced out. Sister Maria sat and prayed from her small book of psalms and hymns, hoping that the words were easing the old woman’s spirit, if not her body.
“Maria…” Mother Superior croaked hoarsely, as she rose back from oblivion. “Maria…”
“Easy Mother Superior,” soothed Maria, reaching for a cup of water and helping her teacher to sip. “Do not push yourself on my account, you have a long and wonderful journey ahead of you.”
“Maria, there are things you must know… must tell you… before it’s too late.” She closed her eyes once more and seemed to sleep.

Sunday 8 March 2020

500 Words a Day - the Fantasy Pub

This one kind of ran away from me. Not sure how much sense it makes but here you are.

“You should have seen tonight’s catch, my man, it was a real shiner!” Timmy the tooth fairy gestured with his pint glass enthusiastically. “A real shiner!”
“Oh yeah?” nodded his colleague Kate absentmindedly, without much enthusiasm.
“Yeah, I tell you,” continued Timmy, warming to his theme, “don’t get them like that very often any more. Y’know,” he said taking a big swig of beer, “back in the old days kids used to respect us, right? Used to treat us nicely, right? A bit of kindness for the old tooth fairy, maybe a little note under the pillow thanking us kindly and so on and such like. Am I right?”
“Course you’re right Timmy,” mumbled Kate, putting her head on the table and staring at the rising bubbles inside her drink as her wings began to droop behind her.
“But now! None of that, and I mean none of it. Bloody hell, we’re lucky if they even put the tooth under the pillow at all! It’s almost like they don’t care what happens to their teeth any more. I don’t know, man, I don’t know.”
Kate’s eyes began to close. She had had some long nights searching kids’ bedrooms for their missing milk teeth but without much success, and lugging the coins around had given her wing-strain. She just needed a bit of a rest, and then she could get right back to it.
Dimly, Kate could sense some of the other patrons of the bar, and their gentle hum of conversation was downright soothing. There were some cupids in the back, waiting for Valentine’s Day and everyone to get off Grindr. A couple of bunnies downing shots of chocolate milk. At the back, Kate thought she could hear someone faintly singing “Ding dong merrily on high”, which meant the Elves were already wasted.
“Here, hold up a minute,” Timmy muttered under his breath, nudging Kate back to wakefulness. “Look who’s gone and bloody walked in through the door.”

Tuesday 3 March 2020

500 Words a Day - Ocean Dreams

Of course, the sea was barely salty.
It had a hint of salt, as otherwise no one would have recognised it as the ocean at all, but by and large the Ocean of Dreams tasted like liquorice or caramel, and the overriding impression on tasting it was sweetness.
Yet nevertheless, the dreamer hesitated on the shores. Her toes barely touched the sea foam as the waves ploughed their course up and down the golden sand. Not really sand - the dreamers toes were curled around the dust of ancient dreams, from long forgotten sleepers, who had fallen into the real and never returned. Each mote of sand called in a different voice, but she could barely hear them, so intent was she in scanning the horizon.
With a soft surge, another wave drifted up the beach, this time caressing her feet with lovers’ kisses before whispering away. The tide was coming in and her watch was nearly over for another day.
She couldn’t say for sure why she had started watching, nor what precisely she was watching for, but in between wakings this was where she always wanted to be - on the shore of the Ocean, with the living breeze in her hair, the sand brushing her skin. It reminded her of - something. Something she still could not grasp.
And so for eighteen years she had stood, and breathed the sea air, and watched, and waited. Occasionally she would see other dreamers - lovers, fighters, travellers. Knights and shamans, singers and fools, all had passed by in their time, but they never lingered. The sea which drew her so irresistibly seemed to repel all others, as if its voice was crying for her alone.
“Jasmine,” it whispered, as it rushed towards her.
“Jasmine…” it sighed as it retreated once more.
The familiar weariness was returning, her eyelids getting heavy. The world was calling her back. She prepared to surrender to the darkness.
When something changed, a mast of a ship penetrated the horizon, a crimson sail, purple pennants streaming. A huge boat was skimming the waves, heading directly for the shore with alarming speed.
The dreamer could not move - she found herself completely entranced by the oncoming vessel, as it approached, neared, and then drew itself up onto the sand.
“Jasmine, my darling, my love,” called a soft, familiar voice, bubbling up from inside the ship. “I am here at last!”
It took her a second to find her voice. “Who - who are you?”
A man dressed in swathes of blue and green leapt over the railings and landed in a cloud of sand. His eyes twinkled beneath a mass of hair.
“Jasmine! It is I, the Ocean itself. I have become human so I can love you just as you love me. Come, let me hold you close.”
“No, no, no” whispered the dreamer, covering her eyes.
“What is it, my love? Do you not love me? Is this not what your heart has desired for these eighteen long years?”
She uncovered her eyes, and faced him sombrely, afraid of somehow breaking him.
“I do love you,” she said, “but just the dream of you.”
And with that, Jasmine woke.

Monday 2 March 2020

500 words a day - Message for the Future

“We just want you to know that we did our best.
“I know it’s not much really, not in the great scheme of things, but that’s all we can say. We did our best, we tried our hardest - we’re sorry that it wasn’t good enough for you, for any of you. You deserved better than we could deliver, and we’re sorry.
“Sounds pathetic, I know. I want you to forgive us, if you can, we didn’t know, or if we knew, we never really understood. There was so much going on all the time, such a constant hum of words and news, our phones demanding attention, our glowing screens calling to us, that we didn’t notice before it was too late. Some of us did, but how were we supposed to know? How could we have understood what was fact and what was fake?
“We did our best, that’s what I’m trying to say.
“I don’t know how I know that that’s true, to be honest. Could we have tried harder? Let’s put it more precisely - could I have tried harder?
“Of course. Of course I could. There were so many days when I let it all wash over me, while I watched the latest super-hero movie, or youtube clips of cute goats falling over, or eating takeout. Why wasn’t I frantic? Why wasn’t I running around screaming that the house was burning down? I don’t know really. It seemed like a marathon and not a sprint, even when the finish line was hurtling towards us.
“We did our best, I say, because I need you to forgive me. And not just me, I need you to forgive everything my generation took from you, stole from you. I want to be able to look you in the eye, and see that you understand why we did what we did, why we stayed silent when the world was falling apart. I need it. It’s the only way that I can find peace - imagining the look in your eyes, nodding and understanding. Forgiving us. Forgiving me.
“I don’t think we deserve it. I don’t think I’ll live to see it, either, but across the years I hope that these words will reach you. Somehow, drifting on the tides of eternity, my little message in a bottle may wash up on your distant shore as you scavenge to survive. You’ll wonder what words of wisdom your ancestors left for you, what seemed so important that it had to be recorded forever.
“I’m sorry. This is it.
“No wisdom - turned out we were sorely lacking any wisdom that really mattered. No message of hope or love - there is precious little of either, and in the end each person must find their own. Just an apology and a request.
“We’re sorry for what we did, and what we failed to do.
“But now we need you to admit, that if you were in our shoes, if you were faced with the same choices, you’d do exactly what we did. The flaw was not in us, it was in our species, in our nature. Right?
“You have to admit… that you forgive us. Right?
“Because then it can’t be our fault.”

Wednesday 26 February 2020

500 Words a Day - Happily Ever After

I recently took up the challenge of writing 500 words every day, using writing prompts as a way to get the creative juices flowing. While most of what I've written so far has been too personal to post, I thought I'd post today's effort. Please be kind!

PROMPT: Happily Ever After
And they all lived happily ever after.
That was the idea, anyway, thought King Thasareus, downing his third glass of whisky for the night and waited for one of his servants to whisk it away to the kitchen. This wasn’t the way it had been supposed to go.
Back in the day, he had been simple Thass, youngest son of a poor farmer, with dreams of knights and swords. While his six older siblings had learnt how to work the farm, he had been out in the words swinging sticks at imaginary monsters, pretending to climb towers and rescue princesses. Dreaming of having servants to wait on him, and all the food and drink he could wish for.
Then the dragon really came, and it didn’t seem so fun anymore.
Thass had been sixteen years old when the dragon burnt down the village, carried off the princess, and demanded tribute. The old king had promised that whoever slew the beast would be the heir to the throne, and… well, you know the rest.
But it turns out that getting what you want is not the same as wanting what you get.
Princess Katara had been grateful, for sure, and he couldn’t deny there had been a certain animal magnetism between them at first, but that had quickly turned into disdain, which morphed over a few years into disgust. She had grown up in a royal palace with the best tutors that money could afford. She spoke seven different languages, and could compose love poetry in them all. After ten years of living in the palace, Thasareus was still struggling with his letters. The chasm was just too large to be bridged.
Two years after the rescue, the old king passed away. He’d never been the same after the dragon’s attack - it was nerves, really, and he slowly wasted away. Somewhat reluctantly, the other nobles had crowned Thass king in his place, renamed his King Thasareus I. They saw his incompetency, his ill-suited nature, but they couldn’t go against the clear commands of the beloved king, not when all the common folk were cheering on ‘their man’. Besides, the noblemen of the court new better, Thasareus had realised after a couple of months, they knew that they had time on their side.
The memory of the small-folk was short, and their gratitude fleeting. All the other nobles had to do was bide their time and soon enough the mood would turn against the new-crowned king, once it was clear that he was in way over his head.
Now, Thasareus was king in name only, a figure head for the Royal Council to make the decisions, and sign them in his name. He had stopped going to their meetings a year ago.
Soon, they would tire of being the puppet masters and seek the public glory that came with the crown - only their fear of each other was holding them back. One day, Thasareus would wake up to see a paid assassin looming over him with a knife in his hand, wondering which of his ‘advisors’ was behind it. Perhaps it would be Queen Katara herself.
“More drink!” Thasareus called down the hall.
No one answered. The servants had vanished. One by one the hallway torches went out.
Maybe this was it, Thass wondered absently. He put his head on the cold, marble table, and closed his eyes.