Category Archives: Tinman’s Tall Tales

Line to the Throne

According to the Sunday Mirror, the Queen has her own anti-hacker encrypted mobile phone, but answers calls only from Princess Anne and horse trainer John Warren….

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Image from the Royal Family on Twitter

The Queen is an avid fan of technology.

She has an Alexa, which has overcome teething problems understanding the Royal accent and now does mostly what she is asked. She owns a drone, which she uses to keep an eye on her corgis as they roam the grounds of Balmoral. She has SatNav, for finding rooms in the Palace that she hasn’t visited in a while. And she has a Netflix subscription, so she can secretly watch The Crown.

And she got herself a mobile phone, intending to use it sparingly. She planned to send texts instead of telegrams to centenarians, She wanted to download the night-sky app, then never use it. She was hoping to get a selfie with Adele.

She did not use it sparingly. The Ruler became the ruled, as her phone took over her life. We’ve all been there.

She started with just a few contacts but these quickly grew, as show-offs shared her number with friends, as she entered it herself into online shops, as people had their list of contacts hacked. Soon hundreds had her number, and the deluge of dross began. She was sent video after video of a baby losing a sneeze. She found herself a member of the Borough of Westminster Residents WhatsApp group, and dragged into heated conversations over bin collection schedules, the ongoing silence of Big Ben’s bells, and the quality of the Egg McMuffin in McDonalds Victoria. A text informed her that she had got Harriet from Statue Polishing in the Palace Secret Santa.

A pub in Croydon tried to book her, thinking that she was a Freddie Mercury tribute act.

Then something awful happened. She got a text from an overseas princess, asking for bank details so that she could keep her fortune from her wicked brother. The Queen ignored it, of course, but the woman was in fact her second cousin.

The family row over this incident made her mind up. On her next visit to Windsor Castle she dropped her phone into the moat.

The ensuing silence was wonderful, but she soon realised that she would need some sort of phone, if only to use the flashlight when she dropped an earring under the bed. She got in touch with MI6 and a man – not called Q, to her secret disappointment – set her up with a secure, encrypted model. She has just two numbers on it.

One is her horse trainer, who keeps her up to date on the health and progress of her horses. She takes his advice on which ones to run where, and they celebrate together on her wins and console each other on her losses.

The other is Princess Anne, which has pretty well put an end to Favourite Child arguments in that household. The two chat daily, discussing The Great British Bake Off, sharing gossip about the rest of the family and speaking, often scathingly, about world leaders, safe in the knowledge that no-one can hear them.

Well, apart from the Chinese, who can’t let on without letting everyone know that the conspiracy theories are true.

 

 

 

 

Lucifer’s Arrow

NASA have launched a rocket at the tiny asteroid Dimorphos to see if they can deflect its orbit, as a test to see if they could do it if one was on a collision course with Earth. They calculate that the odds of Bennu – the one most likely to do so – hitting us are one in 1,750 over the next 200 years…

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They thought that they were alone in the universe.

That is not strictly true. They didn’t think about it at all. They were a simple species on a small rock out in the vastness of space. They survived on primeval plant-life and tiny amounts of water, and if that doesn’t sound like much of an existence, they had sources of nutrition and a fun means of reproduction, which is no different to life in a hippie commune.

They did not know that from far across the emptiness, alien eyes were watching them.

Well, not them specifically. It was their world that the aliens were eyeing, with their strange number of eyes.

These aliens were worried that one day their own planet might be struck by a rock much like this one. They had calculated the odds of this happening within the next two hundred of their years at 1,750 to one, and although that works out at over 127 million to one on any given day the aliens reckoned that the risk was too big. They decided to see if they could knock such an object off its course.

The cost would be enormous, and the aliens had many other problems. But they were childlike in nature, and as shooting a rocket at something is a lot more fun than, say, stopping your planet melting, the project got the go-ahead. A suitable target was selected.

The aliens never considered the possibility of life there. They wrote off signs of movement on the rock as being caused by violent storms, despite the fact that they believed that a flag they had put on their own moon many years ago is still upright.

If they sound callous, it should be pointed out that they had already tested things like massive explosives on their own planet. They weren’t callous, just really, really dumb.

They built their rocket, aimed, and fired.

Ten months later it struck. The alien scientists leapt, whooping, around their control room as the thing that they had planned for actually happened. Apparently all scientists across the galaxy do this. It’s like a builder jumping for joy because his wall stayed up.

In fact the experiment was not a success. The rocket had all the effect upon the rock’s trajectory as a fly head-butting a five-ton truck.

It did, though, cause a dust cloud that blocked out the rays from the nearest star. The temperatures dropped.

The dinosaurs died.

I Know Not What I Do

In a bizarre speech to the Confederation of British Industry last Monday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the theme park Peppa PIg World, made car engine noises and lost his place in the speech for twenty-one seconds, muttering “forgive me” three times as he searched through the pages…

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They drifted through time and space, to a place beyond time and space.

To a vast, cold hall, lined with spectral tombs. Some had effigies of their inhabitants carved onto their lids. Many were of men in armour. There were a few, a very few, of women.

This was the Hall of Albion, resting place of the spirits of the rulers of England.

The dust-motes now stirred, dancing to the the air-change as the the drifting words sounded through the chamber.

The words “forgive me”, thrice uttered by a beleagured ruler. It was the Judgement Call.

A ghostly lid opened, and King Arthur sat up. Legend foretold that he would return at the time of the country’s greatest need. It appeared that this time was now.

Arthur knew at once his calling, and that he must bring companions. He went mentally through the list of his successors, like Jim Phelps selecting his team in Mission Impossible. He knocked softly on one lid, and a spirit sat up. Arthur approached another tomb, reached out his fist, then stopped.

He didn’t want to terrify the man. He wouldn’t bring Margaret.

He chose another tomb. Another spirit rose. Arthur nodded, and the three vanished.

In Downing Street Boris Johnson was in his bedroom. He had put on his Peppa Pig pyjamas and was about to get into his racing-car bed, when the room suddenly went cold. He turned and stared open-mouthed at the three apparitions facing him.

Arthur looked at Boris’s hair. “Did we get you out of bed?” he asked.

“No,” said Boris, confused. “Why?”

“Never mind,” said Arthur. “You have sought forgiveness from the Council of the Ancients.”

“I really don’t think that I have,” said Boris.

“When the ruler of England asks three times for forgiveness, the Council must respond. We are here to judge if you deserve it.” He nodded to his companions. “This is Winston Churchill -”

“I know, I know,” said Boris, eagerly, “I’m a huge fan.” He extended a hand, which passed straight through Churchill’s. Boris tried to suppress a shudder.

“- and this is Henry IV, Part 1,” said Arthur.

“Er, what?” said Boris.

“Twins,” explained Henry. “We took it in turns.”

“I see,” said Boris, who didn’t. “Look, I’m sorry to have summoned you from, er, wherever, but I don’t need forgiveness,”  he said. “I haven’t done -”

Arthur produced a scroll, and unfurled it. It stretched to his knees.

“He has tried to stop a member of his party being punished for ill-conduct, cancelled promised transport for the hordes of the north, changed care rules so that the poor pay more than the rich, and walked along a hospital corridor during a plague with no mask on.”

“Well,” said Henry. “A person will make a few mistakes during their reign.”

“That was just this month,” said Arthur.

“Oh,” said Henry.

Churchill shook his head. “Never,” he said, “Have I heard such a. Litany of infamy. Committed by. Just one man.”

“I say,” said Boris, beaming, “I really do love the way you talk.”

“Thank you,” said Churchill. “Did it. Catch on?”

“Sort of,” said Boris, “though only with William Shatner.”

“Never mind that,” said Henry. “There’s no way we can forgive all that.”

An arm, clothèd in white samite, mystic, wonderful, suddenly appeared before Arthur. It brandished another scroll, which Arthur took and read. He frowned, then looked at the others.

“We have to forgive him,” he said. “Apparently it’s Thanksgiving week, and we have to pardon a turkey.”

 

 

 

 

Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Bin

A recycling trash can from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, this week washed up in Mulranny Beach on the Irish west coast, 5,500 kilometres away. People have various theories as to how it got there, but this is what actually happened…

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Lydia had been asleep on the seat of an empty gondola on the Myrtle Beach Skywheel, warmed by the late afternoon autumnal sun. She woke now and stretched long and gracefully, as only a cat can do.

She stepped from the gondola and onto the boardwalk that ran along the shore, a boardwalk as usual populated by walking families, weaving skateboarders and panting joggers.

And a big dog, walking with its owner, and not on a lead.

The dog growled, then ran at Lydia, who turned and fled. From behind she could hear the token admonitions of the owner as he pretended to care as the dog thumped past toddlers and elderly strollers, frightening them with its loud barking.

Lydia ran on, unconcerned, confident that she could outrun the pile of teeth and slobber, who was already beginning to wheeze. His bark, though, seemed strange, coming from all directions as if he was barking in surround sound.

Lydia suddenly realised why. There was another dog ahead of her, an even bigger one, lumbering toward her like an overfed Baskerville hound.

Lydia stopped. She had a sheer wall to her left, and the sea to her right. The wall was too high to climb and the sea was, well, water.

She was trapped.

She looked frantically around. There was a trash can at the side of the boardwalk, and just as the dogs reached her she ran to it, took a really deep breath, and hurled herself into the narrow opening. Her claws quickly extended and gripped the far wall inside, leaving her clinging just above the pile of rubbish below.

The two dogs tried to pull up but slammed against the side of the bin. Their impact put pressure on the screws that held the bin to the ground and these screws, rusted and weakened by salt air, gave way. The bin toppled over, rolled gently along the boardwalk, then dropped into the sea.

Lydia’s astonishment as her world was literally turned upside down caused her to gasp, and that gasp caused her to gag. Luckily, though, the bin was bobbing with its opening facing upwards, so was not filling with water, so she put up with her lot, consoling herself with the thought that her owners would soon come looking for her, and that in any case she would soon be washed ashore.

She was wrong on both counts. The independent lifestyle of which cats are so fond has its drawbacks if you are expecting your owners to worry if you don’t show up, and the tide was going out.

After an hour or so she crept to the opening, peered out, and gazed in horror at deepening green waves and a distant line of land, far behind her.

Lydia sighed, and slid dejectedly down into the rubbish.

This rubbish, from which she had so recoiled, was what saved her. That, and the fact that humans have no idea what should go in a recycling bin.

She was able to lick cheese and sauce off pizza boxes. There were half-finished bagels. There were forty-seven styrofoam coffee cups, each with at least a half-inch of coffee at the bottom.

So she was able to eat and drink. As she drifted out to sea, though, conditions worsened. The bin began to rotate as it rode the waves, surprising her by rekindling a repressed kittenhood memory of being trapped in the drum of a washing machine.

And not only did the motion make her seasick, it meant the bin began to fill with seawater.

Again the detritus came to her aid. There was a bucket and spade in the bin, and while Lydia felt a pang of compassion while imagining the sad, tantrum-filled tale behind their being there, she fell upon them as life-saving gifts from the Gods – presumably Egyptian ones, since they are mostly cats.

She used the bucket to bail water out of the bin, then by gathering the now sodden and therefore heavier rubbish on the side opposite the opening, she managed to keep the bin mostly open side up.

She used the spade to row, and if you think rowing across the Atlantic using only a child’s spade would be very tedious and would take a very long time, well, you would be right. Her spirits were kept up purely by the innate confidence of her species, and by the fact that she knew nothing about geography.

Every day brought certainty that she would see land, every nightfall brought disappointment that she hadn’t, until the day that a long dark line on the horizon, which she at first took to be an approaching storm, grew slowly into a definite shoreline.

Lydia felt a thrill in her soul at the first scrape of the bin along small stones, and again at the hiss as the waters broke and bubbled before her on soft sand. The bin rocked forward one last time, a final wave retreated from beneath her, and Lydia was on dry land.

She leapt from the bin, raced to a hidden spot in the dunes, and licked herself clean for five hours.

She then heard voices and saw a family gathered around the bin, reading the wording on the side and gabbling excitedly. She followed them back to their village, watched its few days of fame as television and press gathered to film the bin, interview the locals, guess at the facts.

She lives in the village now. She has got used to the colder weather, preferring it to the humidity that on bad days made her look like a cheerleader’s pom-pom. She has realised that she can sleep in the sun on only about twelve days of the year, and instead slumbers happily on the warm bonnets of recently driven cars. She has learned that you do not mess with magpies.

And she loves the natives, though she has no idea what they are saying. Having grown up hearing the long-drawn vowels of South Carolina, she is baffled by the lightning speech of her new neighbours, a sound like words performing Riverdance. But the people are friendly, each family assumes she belongs to one of the others, and there is an good-natured affection behind their gentle shooing of her from their gardens, or from their car bonnets. Lydia is happy.

Once she has had her coffee. She is now addicted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanishing Trick

They were coming.

Matt picked something up into his fist and held his breath as they reached his gate. There were four of them – a witch, a vampire, an alien, and a Kim Kardashian. Their little faces looked up at his old house and saw him silhouetted in the window. They ran, Halloween goodie bags flapping against their legs.

The former magician let out his breath and let the packet of Skittles fall from his hand. Of course they hadn’t called. He had seen to that.

When he arrived here, twenty years ago, he had wanted no visitors. The town knew who he was, so he used that. The removal of one screw from the top hinge made the gate list enough to creak when opened. He had bats flit between his chimneys (they were crows, attracted by plates of grain pushed through the skylight, but no-one got near enough to find out). The simple moving of a mirror in the garden made his garage sometimes visible from the road, sometimes not. He drove a hearse, with the curtains drawn.

Children called anyway, out of curiosity or for a dare, so one evening, thanks to a very black cloak and a dimly-lit porch, his disembodied head answered the door. After that he was left alone, to his loneliness.

Once he had been Matthias the Magnificent – there is no recorded instance of a magician with a name like Alex the Adequate – and with My Glamorous Assistant Gina, his girlfriend since school, he had travelled the country, slowly building a reputation. He stood out by the unusual twists to his tricks – pulling a hat from a rabbit, coughing up a sword, burping fire. As his fame grew, so did his ambition and the riskiness of his feats. He tied himself to a subway line, levitated across a motorway, appeared on the roof of a moving bus.

Then two terrible things happened on the same day. He nearly drowned while escaping from a barrel pushed over a waterfall, and Gina left him.

It was a mannequin in the barrel, of course, while he waited safely under the water beneath, but the barrel landed on his head and knocked him unconscious. He came to, struggled to just below the surface, recovered his composure and emerged smiling to the applause of a huge crowd and the cold fury of Gina.

“You’re going to kill yourself one day,” she said, “and I’m not going to help you do it.”

So she left, and the joy left with her. He drifted listlessly through several years of soulless shows, until one day he walked into a railway tunnel and did not emerge after the train sped through. When people ventured in they found a cat which looked at them and then seemed to utter the words “Matthias has retired. Please leave him alone”.

He moved to this small town and hid away from the world. Too well, he now realised, when even Amazon drivers would come only as far as the gate.

That gate now creaked open.

He watched a hooded figure walk up the drive, a sword protruding from its chest. He opened the door.

The figure lifted the hood. “Trick or treat,” said Gina.

Matt flicked his wrist and a bunch of flowers appeared in his fist.

Gina rolled her eyes. “I should have remembered who I was talking to,” she said.

Matt looked down at the sword. “It’s a rough neighbourhood,” he said.

“This is fancy dress,” said Gina. “I’m a character from Game of Thrones.

“Which one?”

Gina shrugged. “From what I’ve heard, any of them,” she said. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Matt held the door wide. Gina walked in to a warm, well-decorated hallway. Matt saw her look of surprise. “Were you expecting cobwebs and a talking skull?” he asked.

“Pretty much,” admitted Gina. “I hear Matthias the Magnificent is Havisham the Hermit these days.”

“Where do you hear that?” asked Matt.

“On this town’s Facebook page,” said Gina. “They have a whole section about you. They say you sour milk and make the ducks in the pond swim in circles.”

“Milk sours itself,” said Matt, “and the pond is circular. What are the ducks to do?”

“I think the town actually likes having you here,” said Gina. Matt found himself curiously proud.

“And what brings you here?” he asked.

Gina looked embarrassed. “I recently retired,” she said. “After we split I went back to college, did accountancy, and I’ve had a really good life. But I’ve never stopped thinking of you. It’s been like, like –“

“Being sawn in half?” said Matt.

Gina laughed. ”Yes,” she said, “though not as much fun. So I googled you, and here I am.”

Matt sighed. “I was an idiot back then,” he said. “I didn’t recognize real magic.”

Gina looked into his eyes. “And now?”

Matt handed her the flowers he still held in his fist. “Smell them,” he said.

Gina bent over them, then looked up in surprise. “They’re real,” she said. “How-?”

Matt stepped to one side, revealing an empty vase on a shelf behind him.

“I knew it was you walking up the drive,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten your walk. I’ve never forgotten anything about you.”

Under in the Mere

A perfectly preserved 900-year-old sword has been discovered on the sea bed off the coast of Israel…

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Moses and Aaron reached the top of the hill and gazed in wonder at Canaan, spread out before them.

It was all that had been promised – a fertile, green, sun-warmed land of softly rolling hills and gently murmuring streams. It truly was a land of milk and honey – well, a flat-pack version, in that they could see cows and hear bees, so actual milk and honey would require some further assembly. It was perfect, apart from one thing.

The Red Sea was between them and it.

“I was not expecting that,” said Moses.

Aaron looked back over his shoulder. Behind him were the Israelites, wearily taking this pause as a chance to sit and rest.  Behind them, though, and for the first time, he could see a distant cloud of dust.

The Egyptians were gaining on them.

Aaron nudged his brother . “We have to move,” he said.

“Move where?” asked Moses, spreading his hands in despair.

The sea parted, leaving a passageway between two huge walls of water.

Aaron looked in astonishment at Moses, who quickly dropped his hands. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

They stared into the passage. Fish gasped on the sea-bed. Crabs scuttled sideways, claws poking at the walls. A monk seal sat confused in mid-air for a second, Wile E Coyote-like, before dropping to the wet sand with a loud squelchy splat.

But these sights were ignored by the brothers, who were gazing instead at the figure standing in the centre of the corridor.

It was a woman – a beautiful woman, in a long, flowing white dress, water streaming from her long, flowing blonde hair. Her hand held a long sword and her eyes held a look of absolute fury.

“Who are you?” said Aaron.

“I am the Lady of the Lake,” replied the woman icily.

Moses looked at the huge sea. “Lake?” he said.

The Lady shrugged. “It’s just my name,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I’m from here, like Denzel Washington’s name doesn’t mean he’s from Washington.”

“I don’t know who that is, and I don’t know where that is,” said Moses.

The Lady sighed. “That’s the problem with being immortal, and moving back and forward through time,” she said. “I’m never sure who knows what. Anyway, never mind that now,” she went on, waving one arm along the passage. “What’s the story with this?”

Moses went to spread his hands, then thought better of it. “I needed a way across,” he said simply.

“And you’ve never heard of boats?” snapped the Lady. She pointed to the reeds growing by the bank. “You could have quickly made some from these,” she said.

“What, like a Moses basket?” said Moses. “I never thought of that.”

“Or,” continued the Lady, “you could have let me help you, which is why I came here in the first place.”

“And how were you planning to do that?” asked Moses.

The Lady held aloft the sword. “I was going to give you this,” she said. “To vanquish your enemies.”

Moses looked behind him. The cloud of dust was nearer now. He could see the Egyptians. There were lots of them.

“What, on my own?” he asked.

“Of course not,” said the Lady. “The sword makes you King. Your people then follow you into battle.”

Moses and Aaron looked at the bedraggled group sitting on the hillside. They had been awakened at night and urged by the brothers to flee their homes immediately, so they carried few possessions. A few of the older ones had walking-staffs. A small child was clutching a Noah action doll. The lack of weaponry was of biblical proportions.

“I can’t see that going well,” said Aaron.

“No, it works,”  said the lady. “I’ve done it, or at least will do it, with a guy in England.”

“And how does he get on?” asked Moses, intrigued.

“Well,” admitted the Lady, “he gets killed in battle.” She saw the look on their faces and quickly went on, “but he’s called the Once and Future King,” she said. “He’ll be back one day.”

“A second coming?” said Moses. “It doesn’t sound very likely.”

“Look,” said Aaron, “as I see it we have two options here. We could take a sword from a mermaid dressed in white -”

“Clothèd,” said the Lady.

“What?” said Aaron.

“I am clothèd, in white samite,” said the Lady. “It’s got two syllables.”

“Whatever,” said Aaron. “Anyway, we could try that option, where Moses takes this sword and heads off to get his head off, or we could use Plan, er, the second letter in Hebrew,”

“And that Plan is?” asked the Lady.

“We could all just run along the passageway through the water.”

They could now hear the yells of the Egyptians approaching. The Israelites had all stood and were looking imploringly at Moses, who looked at the Lady.

“Sorry, Miss,” he said, “but we’re out of here.”

The Lady of the Lake looked on sullenly as the brothers hastened their people into the narrow corridor, the terrified Israelites gazing to either side at fish gazing back at them from the world’s first aquarium. She watched until they reached the far shore, then slowly brought her hands together.

The waters closed. The Egyptians came to an emergency sliding stop on the stones at the sea edge, though a few were thrown over their camels’ heads and into the foaming waves.

The Lady of the Lake breathed in, gratefully filling her lungs with water. Then her arm broke the surface, the sword held by its hilt. She brandished it three times, then hurled it as far as she could out into the sea.

“I am pissèd off,” she said, “with two syllables.”

 

 

 

 

Take a Look Around

A seventy-two year old self-taught Bosnian innovator has built a rotating house as a symbol of love for his wife. Vojin Kusic built this house near the city of Srbac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so that his wife can witness more diversified views from their house, from passers-by one moment to a sunrise in the next (Firstpost.com 11/10/21)…..

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Other men would have put casters on her armchair, so that she could move it from room to room.

Lesser men, their vision dimmed by lack of courage, by DIY ineptitude, or by the fact that they lived in a semi-detached house.

Vojin’s vision knew no such restraint. Marina had asked for a more varied view, so he would give it to her. She had been sent to live with her sister for six months, and Vojin had got to work.

Now he was finished. He looked around, ran the one mug and plate that he had used every day under the tap, then flicked a sweeping-brush across the kitchen floor and propped it against the wall.

A taxi drew up outside and Marina stepped out. Vojin met her in the front garden. The two smiled and hugged, fifty years of love needing no words.

They walked into the small bungalow. Marina looked around.

“Where’s the bathroom gone?” she asked.

Vojin pointed to a door in the middle of the hallway, where the airing-cupboard used to be. “It’s now in the centre of the house,” he said. “It doesn’t move, otherwise you’d have to time flushing the toilet to exactly when you were over the plumbing.”

Marina went into the kitchen and looked down their sloping back garden to the river in the valley below, a view that would have good enough for most people.

But not for Vojin’s Marina. Who now frowned.

“It’s exactly the same,” she said.

Vojin, standing by a switch on the wall, smiled. “Just watch,” he said.

He pressed the switch. There was a low hum, a slight jerk, and the house began to turn. Vojin gazed happily at the look of wonder on Marina’s face.

“It’s amazing,” she breathed.

The view slid left across the window as the house moved eastwards. The river gave way to cornfields, which were replaced by a dark green forest, then by a distant mountain, its summit capped by snow. Marina clapped her hands in delight.

“I love it!” she said excitedly.

Vojin smiled again, but it was a strained smile, the smile of a man who has just one thing that he is worried about.

The house continued its rotation, and slowly into view, away to the west, came the Sbrac Sardine Canning Factory. Marina’s expression darkened.

“Ugh,” she said. “That’s horrible.”

“Well, dear,” said Vojin, “I promised you would have all the the surrounding views. I never said I could change the views themselves.”

“So what you’re saying,” said Marina, “is that I am going to have to stare at that every ten minutes for the rest of my life?”

“We could grow a hedge,” said Vojin lamely.

“Or we could zip past it,” said Marina, marching across the kitchen towards him, “like fast-forwarding through adverts.” She reached up and, before Vojin could stop her, pressed the button repeatedly, like an impatient twit at a pedestrian crossing.

“No!” yelled Vojin. “You mustn’t -”

There was another jolt, rocking them on their feet. The house began to speed up.

The panorama outside began to race past. Vojin and Marina were pressed against the wall by centrifugal force. From the fridge they heard a dull squelch as a carton of juice was crushed by a sliding bowl of chili. From above came a bubbling, rolling sound as their Christmas tree baubles chased around the attic like lost lemmings. From outside came a high-pitched surprised meow as their slumbering cat was whizzed off the deck into a juniper bush.

The house got faster and faster. A fan of roof tiles sprayed across the garden like cards dealt by a Las Vegas croupier.

Vojin reached for the sweeping brush, waving the end at the wall like a drunken musketeer in a tavern carriage-park brawl. Eventually he managed to poke the off switch. The house slowly slowed. At last it stopped. Cutlery slid back into place in drawers. A whirlpool of granules settled in the coffee jar. A rolling-pin ran the length of the counter-top and bounced noisily onto the tiled floor,

Marina staggered away from the wall, veering crabwise across the kitchen like a child after a roll downhill. She rested one hand against the far wall, head lowered, her whole body shaking.

Vojin watched her anxiously, trying to think of a way to calm her terror. Then he remembered the child-like nature that he had fallen in love with all those years ago, the type of nature that thought it reasonable to expect more than one view out of the same window.

He realised that Marina was laughing.

She turned to face him now, eyes shining with joy.

“That was great!” she said. “Let’s do it again.”

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Range of the Light

Dad had said that camping would be educational, and he was right.

I learned a lot that summer, on that camping trip.

GPS back then was your Mom, her legs blanketed in a huge map, issuing one-line instructions in a monotone that the GPS people later copied. Some of these instructions would be in the past conditional tense, like ‘you should’ve taken a left there’, and then Dad would yell, Mom would yell and the car would fill with a sulky silence.

We did arrive eventually, though, at a campsite high in the hills. Dad parked at the end of the lot, by the edge of the woods. We pitched our tent, our tiny home for the next five days, and I began to learn about nature.

I learned that by nature I was a city girl.

I learned that all trees look the same, even if your Dad tries to point out differences. I learned that all bird-song sounds the same, like someone is bouncing up and down on a squeaky toy.

I learned that tea with small twigs in it tastes like tea, that burnt sausages taste like grit, and that while rabbit-poo looks like raisins, it tastes like poo.

I learned that sleeping on the ground is hard, because the ground is hard. I learned that the zip of a sleeping-bag always ends up underneath you. I learned that the silence of the countryside is a fairy-tale, that the night air is filled with rustles, low snuffling and the wind sighing, as if it is bored with nature too.

I learned that in the countryside time moves more slowly, and that this is not a good thing.

On the third afternoon another car pulled up at the next pitch, about fifty yards away. The Mom and Dad got out, grim-faced and silent. I guessed that the Mom had been on map duty. They had a daughter aged around eleven, like me. She kept looking over as the Mom perched a pot on a small stove and the Dad wrestled with their tent using a process that made it look like he was playing Twister. He swore as he did this, the type of words that Dad used whenever his team was getting beat on TV, which was almost always. Still, my Mom rolled her eyes, as if she’d never heard such filth.

I went to the camp washrooms later, and met the girl on her way back.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi.”

“So,” I said. “How do you like camping?”

“It’s gross,” she said. “My Dad said it would be –“

“Educational?”

She giggled. “All I’ve learned is that home is where the heart is, and also the toys, and the books.”

We chatted for a while, girl stuff, then a woman’s voice yelled “April!” loudly, urgently. The girl smiled, then shrugged.

“I’d better go,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “Talk to you tomorrow.”

Mom cooked our supper, and April’s Mom cooked theirs. The smell of burnt sausages was doubly strong. As night fell Dad began his ghost stories, while our neighbours took out a small radio. Mom sighed and glared as the music drifted across the warm air. Whenever Dad’s story would end with a loud “Yah!” and a clutch at my ribs that would make me shriek, their Mom would glare across at us.

Eventually the music stopped and the family crawled into their tent. We sat for a while longer, watching the moths flit around our lantern and gazing into the blackness beyond the range of the light. Then we too went to bed. I lay still, with the zip poking into my back, waiting for sleep to overpower the discomfort. Then I heard Dad mutter “gotta pee”. I heard him struggle out of his sleeping bag in a crackle of static electricity, and unzip the tent. I heard the soft hush of his footsteps across the grass. Then I heard the loud flump of somebody falling full-length onto a tent.

There was a yell and a scream, and the sound of frantic scrabbling on canvas. There was angry shouting and Dad apologising, then anger in his voice as he shouted too. Throughout I could hear April crying in fright.

Dad arrived back into the tent.

“What happened?” hissed Mom.

“Not now,” muttered Dad.

In the morning, while I flicked flies out of my cereal, Dad and Mom had a whispered conversation. Then Dad told me we were moving on. I asked why and he wouldn’t look at me, just said we needed a change of scenery. I said that all scenery was the same and he glared at me. We packed in silence. From outside their tent our neighbours watched us stonily.

The tent wouldn’t fit into its sheath. Dad tried for a while, then stuffed it into the trunk. We got into the car and started to drive off. April held up one hand.

“Don’t wave back,” snapped Mom. “They’re horrible people.”

I learned a lot that summer, on that camping trip.

As I waved furtively back at April’s little black hand, I realised that I had learned that my parents were racist.

New World, New Ways

According to court documents, millennial mobsters in New York City have been accused by their capos of being soft and using text messages, instead of fists, to intimidate their rivals (Irish Times 09/10/21)….

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A chill autumn wind blew down the length of Central Park, sending  fallen leaves into whispering dances and causing Francis ‘the Frank’ Spinelli to wrap his rug more tightly around his legs.

Another man approached his bench and lowered himself onto it, sighing with satisfaction as he did so. He placed the end of his walking-stick on the ground before him, resting both his gloved hands on the handle.

The two sat for a while in the pale late afternoon sunshine, watching the ducks bob over lines of water that whipped across the lake in front of them. Then Francis offered a hip-flask to his companion, who took a long drink. The man gasped as he felt his eyes water, his tongue burn, his stomach fill with molten flame. He nodded.

“Jack Daniels,” said Vincent ‘Five-fingers’ Rossi. “Excellent.”

He handed back the flask, then spoke again.

“How is your Moll?” he asked.

Francis winced, just for an instant, as he always did. You can’t help who you fall in love with, but it was unfortunate for a mobster to marry a woman called Moll. It was like an Australian’s wife being called Sheila.

“She is well,” he replied. “And your Anna?”

“She sleeps with the fishes,” said Vincent.

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Francis. “I did not know.”

“Nor did I, until recently,” said Vincent. “She is sleeping with Joey ‘the Fishes’ Cardino. This is what happens when you marry a younger woman.”

“I am assuming,” said Francis, “that you have had words with Joey?”

“I have,” said Vincent. “I threatened to leave a horse’s head on his pillow.”

“So it is sorted?”

“Not really,” said Vincent. “He said he wakes up with Anna’s face beside him every morning, so go ahead. He has a point, I suppose. She was the greatest pole-dancer I have ever seen, but as a looker, not so much.”

Francis could think of no diplomatic rely to this. “It is still disrespectful to you,” he said eventually.

“Indeed,” said Vincent. “Which brings me to the point of this meeting.”

Francis, just for a second, felt a chill that wasn’t the wind. “Go on,” he said.

“Your grandson has disrespected my grandson,” said Vincent. “He has blocked him on Facebook.”

“I am aware of that,” said Francis. “Your grandson apparently called my grandson a brainless duck.”

“Predictive text,” said Vincent, shrugging. “He meant to call him -”

“He also sent him the poop emoji,” said Francis.

Vincent sighed. “To think,” he said, “that they are both thirty years old.”

“And running our businesses,” said Francis. “I fear for the future.”

They both did. The pair had run New York crime for decades, avoiding inter-family warfare by effectively dividing up the city and respecting each other’s boundaries. Potential rivals had been seen off by threats, beatings and occasional one-way trips to the East River, where they were put on the ferry to New Jersey.

But the world had changed. Their rivals were no longer callow hoodlums from Brooklyn in shiny shoes and shinier suits, easily intimidated by night-time visits and a scary nickname. Their rivals weren’t from New York at all.

Their casinos were losing business to online gambling, their strip-clubs to internet porn, their drugs trade to DHL. And it was now their grandsons who were in charge of keeping their share of an ever shrinking cake.

In the opinion of the two capos, they were not doing it well.

“A new restaurant recently opened next door to one of mine,” said Vincent. “There was a time when such a venture would have suffered an unfortunate fire. Instead my grandson gave it one star on TripAdvisor.”

“A guy tried to start a protection racket in our area,” said Francis. “Instead of giving him a demonstration of the bruising capabilities of a baseball bat, my grandson sent his clients a link to the guy’s Instagram page, where there’s an old video of him playing Mary’s donkey in his school Nativity Play.”

“What good did he think that would do?” asked Vincent.

“Apparently it worked,” said Francis. “Nobody took the guy seriously any more, and he had to give up. What about the restaurant?”

“It closed,” admitted Vincent.

The two sat in thought for a while. “New world,” said Francis eventually. “New ways.”

The sun slipped behind a skyscraper, causing the temperature in the park to drop. Vincent pushed down on his walking-stick to lever himself slowly to his feet.

“I will tell my grandson to unblock yours,” said Francis, standing too, and struggling to free his legs from his rug, like a man fighting off a small dog.

“And I will tell mine to apologise for his text,” said Vincent.

They walked slowly toward the exit. From somewhere in the city ahead came a low boom, like something falling on a construction site. Or a car bomb.

Francis looked at Vincent. “It’s Joey the Fishes,” said Vincent. “I have unfriended him.”

 

 

 

 

Live Long, and Potter

Ninety-year-old William Shatner is set to become the world’s oldest space tourist…

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James T Kirk sat forward in his chair.

Out on the vast canvas of endless space he had spotted a silver gleam that differed subtly from the twinkling of the countless stars.

He jabbed urgently at a button, which lit up.

A crew member rushed to hear his command. Her name badge said she was called Gemma, her uniform said she was a Space Hostess and her expression said this was not the first time Kirk had summoned her.

She reached up and turned off the button above his head. “What is it this time, Mister Kirk?” she asked.

Kirk pointed out of the window. “Unidentified spacecraft,” he said, “off the starboard bow.”

Gemma leaned over him to look out. “It’s the Facebook satellite,” she said.

Kirk frowned. “Why would Facebook have a satellite?”

“So they can watch what we’re all doing,” said Gemma patiently. “Between that and what we tell them ourselves via, well, Facebook, they can build a profile of us and our needs, so we get more relevant ads targeted at us.”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to be working,” said ninety-year-old Kirk. “All I get these days are ads for Zimmer frames and incontinence pads.”

He looked at Gemma as he said this, and was surprised at her lack of surprise. Then again, she did seem to be lacking the normal emotions of a young woman. She had failed to get excited or agitated at what had turned out to be the International Space Station, then at the Hubble Telescope, then at the Sat-Nav satellite, which didn’t seem to be switched on. Not only that, but she didn’t seem to be remotely attracted to him.

Suddenly he understood.

“You’re an android,” he said, nodding.

Gemma glared at him. “I’m from Hull,” she snapped, storming off.

Kirk sighed. Tourism is no fun when you’ve lived in space. Everywhere you go, you’ve been somewhere better. Niagara Falls are no match for the lava falls of Omemia, the Northern Lights pale beside the Sky Fires of Tharilion Prime, and Uluru is nowhere near as impressive as the Really Big Rock of Nao 109.

As a result, his retirement had so far been unfulfilling, so when he heard of space tourism he had eagerly signed up.

He realised now that it was pointless, like the Obamas deciding one day to take the White House tour.

It was an attempt to relive a past too great to be relived. It was doomed to fail because he was not in charge. He was one passenger among many, led up steps – disappointingly, not beamed – into a seat in the body of the spacecraft. Gemma had enacted a bizarre safety demonstration in which she stressed the importance, when hurrying into a spacesuit, of not attaching the helmet with the visor facing the back of your head. She had served him lunch on a small tray – a drink that tasted like turnip that had been passed through a juicer and a meal that tasted like dog-food that had been passed through a dog.

And the whole excursion was pitiful. They did not seek out new life or new civilizations, they did not go where no man had gone before. They skirted the Earth, practically skimming the atmosphere, so close that Kirk was sure that if he tried he would be able to see his house. Other tourists were thrilled, embracing every wondrous second of the experience by filming it their phones, but Kirk was bored.

He sat gloomily staring, unseeing, out the window. Then he sat forward in his chair.

Out on the vast canvas of endless space he had spotted a silver gleam that differed subtly from the twinkling of the countless stars.

He jabbed urgently at a button, which lit up.

At the crew station Gemma looked, saw which light was on, and sighed. Still, she was a professional, so she put on her best smile and walked down the cabin to Kirk’s seat.

“Can I help-”

“Unidentified spacecraft,” interrupted Kirk.

“I’m sure it’s just another satellite, Mr Kirk,” said Gemma.

“It’s getting nearer,” said Kirk, pointing.

Gemma looked over his head out of the window, then frowned, then looked harder. She stood back and stared at him.

“Excuse me for a second,” she said, and moved towards the front of the spacecraft with the penguin-like gait of someone who is running while trying to appear not to.

Kirk watched the object grow nearer. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“The pilot asks will you join him on the flight deck,” said Gemma.

Kirk followed her up to the cockpit, where the pilot and co-pilot sat gazing in frozen astonishment at the ever growing shape. The pilot turned to him.

“We don’t know what to do,” he said.

Kirk smiled grimly. “Open a channel,” he said.

The co-pilot flicked a switch and handed Kirk a microphone. He turned it on.

“This is James T Kirk,” he said, “of the Starship -” he hesitated.

“We’re called the Lulabelle,” whispered the pilot.

Kirk closed his eyes. “Of the Starship Lulabelle,” he went on. “Identify yourselves.”

There was silence.

“Maybe it’s nothing,” said the co-pilot. “Maybe it’s just a comet, and -”

“We are the Borg,” said a metallic, monotone voice. “You will be assimilated.”

Kirk looked up in shock. Sure enough, the object was now close enough for him to tell that it was cube-shaped.

“Red alert!” he shouted. “Arm phasers!”

“Arm what?” said the pilot.

Kirk turned off his microphone. “Have you no phasers?” he asked.

“No,” said the pilot.

“Photon torpedoes?” said Kirk. The pilot shook his head.

“We’re a tourist ship,” said Gemma. “We don’t have weapons. We do have a range of duty-free products, if you’d like to spray perfume at them.”

“Resistance is futile,” said the Borg voice.

“This is ridiculous,” said Kirk. “What were you planning to do if you met aliens – play the Close Encounters notes at -” he paused. “Hang on,” he said. “I have an idea.”

He flicked back on the mike, took a deep breath, and began to sing Bohemian Rhapsody.

As the flight deck, the spacecraft, seemingly the whole of space filled with the undulating, eerie sound, the cube stopped.

Kirk sang on. The cube slowly began to move away.

Kirk reached the “I see a little silouetto” part. The cube sped up, rapidly becoming a tiny white dot, then vanishing.

The pilot and co-pilot started to clap. Kirk turned to Gemma was gratified to see her staring open-mouthed at him. About time, he thought.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

Kirk face fell, but just for a second, then he smiled. “It’s Queen, Gem,” he said, “though not as you know it.”