Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Bandits

The Bandits chanted the register, each calling out their own line from the rhyme and hopping forward:

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, Three for a Girl, Four for a Boy, Five for Silver, Six for Gold, Seven for a Secret never to be told. (The last three words were always whispered).

On this bright, cold day, each one was present, but there was a time when their rhyme stopped at ten and not seven. Three verses took their leave as they wouldn't thieve.
The eighth, Wish, asked to part and it was granted; the ninth, Kiss, opened his own business as a matchmaker; and the tenth, Bliss, with help from Kiss, was arranging his nuptials to a parakeet. All three left the company amicably, but Wish's departure eighteen months ago was a mystery. Sorrow, Joy, Girl, Boy, Silver and Gold wondered exactly what he had wished for? And if it had been answered? Only Secret now knew what Wish was up to.
She found this out one Thursday when they had gathered to trade at Thieves Market: an Aladdin's cave of bargains to be made in an underground car park. Each bandit had their own stall, and was in charge of a separate division: Sorrow, cheap booze; Joy, low cost food; Girl, counterfeit handbags and shoes; Boy, replica Rolex watches; Silver, bendable cutlery and poor quality saucepans; Gold, brass plated rings and medallions; and Secret, fraudulent works of art from Van Gogh to Banksy. With their arrogant, almost rude, challenging attitudes, the punters never haggled or argued. They simply accepted the tall tales the bandits spun for, as everyone knows, magpies have been in this trade since time begun.
Mid-morning, Secret gave the usual signal: she wagged and flicked her tail at Gold, who was busy with a Eurasian male admiring a medallion on himself in the mirror. Gold, with pound signs in his eyes winked back, which was code for “Yes, go!” and “Watch me close this sale!”
With a wad of notes in her belt, Secret went to Crow's to fetch them all teas and thick slabs of fruit cake. Trading in fake art could be slow as punters were less impulsive with their cash, and often went away and didn't come back, but dealing in art allowed her to befriend other looters. As Secret's wares were not as competitive as her brothers and sisters, and her conduct was quieter, the tip-offs she extracted here were far more useful. Traders and punters sat at plastic white tables and chairs in front of the van, so Secret had to weave her way through to the open hatch, where Old Beady, with his one good eye and the other hidden by a tartan patch, stood behind the serving counter. As he handed her their order, he hunched down and put his beak to her ear, “The MCs are here.” He whispered. Secret glanced nervously about her. If the Magpie Coppers were here, someone was bound to get busted. She had to get back and warn Sorrow, Joy, Girl, Boy, Silver, and Gold!
Balancing a brown tray of teas and cling-filmed wrapped fruit cake, she retraced her hops, stopping here and there to browse at second-hand clothes and stolen antiques. Be normal, act normally, she thought to herself, but she knew she was being followed. She could feel it. From out of nowhere, a large wing clamped around her shoulders, which made Secret wobble and upset the teas slightly. She gulped and looked up, “Wish!” She exclaimed.
He shushed her as he manoeuvred her into an alcove, “Yes, it is I.” He confirmed.
But your feathers...” She muttered as indeed these gleamed more blue than black.
They're dyed. I switched sides, and now my probation's complete I'm being transferred up North tomorrow.” He explained hurriedly and planted a peck on Secret's cheek. “I got my wish and now you get to keep my secret forever.”
And this is why it's so rare to see a flock of eight bandits together.

Thursday, 24 October 2013


Johnny Gruelle's Rapunzel
A maiden called Gruelle once lived in the attic. Aged 13, her papa locked her in when she contracted diphtheria. She was unconcerned when she heard the key turn for this was her space; her favourite place to be alone, and when she was younger, where she had found her beloved rag doll. Ever since then, Raggedy Ann had been her constant companion, and now through her, she felt connected to her papa, as he had chosen her doll's name and drawn her face. Her papa built walls around the attic so high, nobody could climb them, but once a week he stood outside and bade Gruelle to open the window.
Gruelle, Gruelle, let down your rope, so I may tie the supplies.” He would call, and when he had done, she would hoist the rope up to find out what goods he had brought. There was usually a loaf of rye or pumpernickel bread, porridge, fruit, and a jar of jam, and sometimes he would include a new storybook or a copy of his latest drawing. These surprises she delighted in: she read the stories aloud with a husky throat and pinned the drawings to her cell walls. When she was well, her morning routine was to cook porridge on her stove, make her cot bed, sweep the floor, and wash the window, and in the afternoons she read from her collection of fairytales. Her favourite was Rapunzel, and often at night she dreamt that instead of the rope she let down long, golden hair. But this she knew would never come true for her hair was dirty blonde and as short as a boy's, and with her skin turning blue, she knew she would never have a beautiful hue, but she did have a prince: her papa.
In Silvermine, she was not known as The Maiden In The Tower, but as the contagious girl in the attic. Already her Christian name, Marcella, had been forgot; even her dear papa did not call for her by this. She was Gruelle: the poisoned one. Poisoned with disease: chills, fever, and fatigue, which she could spread just by breathing. And since she could now only comfortably eat gruel her surname as a first name was fitting. But being a spirited child, this new way of life did not defeat her, although she knew there would come a time when this disease eventually would. With her mind, she travelled all over. She visited friends and her papa in his hillside studio, as well as lands she had read about, but never seen. As the illness progressed, Gruelle grew ever more peaceful.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
She slept more in her cot with Raggedy Ann by her side or with her eyes wandered in her papa's pictures. The day came when she could no longer heed her papa's call, although it was painful to hear his distraught cries through the ajar window. That night, her heart beat its last and she slipped away, but to her astonishment, she did not die: she transformed into a graceful butterfly. A purple-black with a yellow border and iridescent blue spots. The next day when her papa stood and called outside the attic walls, she fluttered her new God-given wings and flew through the open window. In her cloaked form, she alighted on her papa's shoulder, and he being a wise man recognised this was his Marcella. He knew this was goodbye and that all dying souls depart as butterflies.

Thursday, 17 October 2013


There was once a young woman who hammered inside an old lady's chest. With pounding fists she yelled, “Let me out! Let me out!” which left the old lady short of breath. She went to the doctor who gave her pills for angina, but the young woman inside her continued to pound her chest. She returned to her doctor's surgery where he said she had borderline dementia and a fear of death, and prescribed more pills and rest. But still the young woman inside cried, “Let me out! Let me out!”
One night, the old lady replied to these cries, “How?”
The pounding stopped and the young woman replied, “Open your mouth wide and I'll slip out.”
The old lady laid down, removed her false teeth to slacken her jaw and let her mouth gape. A smoke-like wisp spiralled out of her parted lips and a young woman materialised in front of her. She was slim with paper-thin skin and fine threads of sliver hair, and was clothed in some kind of mesh dress. Her eyes were like droplets of dew and looked right into the old lady's, “Shut that door, I'm done.” She said in a airy, but nonetheless commanding tone, which suggested she felt at home.
Without her teeth, the old lady couldn't argue, so she obediently unlocked her jaw, closed her trapdoor, and drew herself up to a seated position. This can't really be happening she thought, but even after she rubbed her eyes, the wisplike woman remained by her side and silently handed her her glass of teeth.
You always were good at swallowing.” She said as the old lady gulped her teeth back in.
What?” The old lady exclaimed with gummy spits of water and saliva.
Don't you remember how you tried the nursery rhyme? How you swallowed a fly and then a spider to catch it? Thank god, you stopped there!” The young woman said accusingly as she jabbed a wraith finger at her. 
But that was over sixty years ago! Have you been inside me all this time?” The old lady wailed.
Why now?” She demanded.
The spider died and you ran out of space to house me. The spider's cobwebs which made me also narrowed your arteries. All these years, I've swept and dusted your four chambers, but the spider still spun and you continued to swallow delicacies. Do you think I wanted to leave my cobwebby heart and ribcage home? You and the spider were suffocating me!” The young woman explained vehemently.
The old lady shuddered and the loose flesh on her arms went goose-pimply. She found it hard to believe this gossamer woman had lived inside her. “But what will you do now I've let you out?” She nervously enquired.
I don't know.” She whispered mournfully. “I liked my walls and the spider for a time was good company, but now I'm outside I don't know how to save me and I will begin to age dreadfully.” The young woman's skin was already flaking and covering the polished wood floor in grey clumps.
The old lady stood to comfort her, but instead tottered forward through the young woman's suspended web. Her invisible threads were like a filmy nightdress and wouldn't be brushed off. To the visible eye, the young woman was gone, she'd wrapped herself around the old lady, but the last words she spoke hung in the air, “You'll remember this... You've always known about the other woman inside you pounding to be let out.”
The old lady awoke with a mighty thump to her chest.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Poor Man's Whippet

My Master was four-legged and I was three, so I answered to the name of Stumpy, but Master often called me “Whippet!” Master wasn't his only name as folk when they crossed our path said “Poor Man. Poor Man...”, especially in rain or winter. But it was rare that anyone approached us: folks glanced and scurried past as Master was far from endearing. His manner was gruff and at times insulting. He verbally abused folk, and walked crookedly in front of traffic waving his stick and ranting as I limbed alongside him, but this abrasive attitude was the only language he knew and a play for attention.
Being homeless and drunk on wealthy Epsom streets was frowned upon. Folks didn't like to see hardship and poverty: an unwashed man with a matted beard in worn-out clothes begging on pavements and sheltering in shop doorways. Being vagabonds in this town was tough, and some I heard say, “At least Stumpy, Poor Man's Whippet is quiet and dignified.” This was true: my coat was remarkably easy to keep clean and my breed is not prone to barking. In temperament, Master and I were exact opposites, and therefore good companions. My docile nature atoned for his misunderstood hostility; an ill will he never used towards me as his argument was with society and not with his faithful companion.
Together, we rested in many different places where we were either fleetingly acknowledged or moved on. One day, just before a a storm, we found shelter in an open porch squeezed in-between a pub and a charity shop, which led to offices above. The polished step was just wide enough for Master to sit and for me to curl up beside him. Light drops of rain were beginning to fall and the sky was turning dark and thundery. Master was thinking and so I tried to doze, but before I could slip into the land of chasing squirrels, a young girl carefully stepped over me. She seemed unperturbed to see us there and apologized for having to gain access to the building. As she disappeared behind the door, I dropped my head once more, but was disturbed again ten minutes later when she returned with a flask of tea and a whole pack of digestives, which she handed to Master with “I thought the two of you could share these.”
Master taken aback by this gesture wordlessly accepted and I gave thanks from my eyes, which I saw she recognised, and although this exchange only lasted seconds, it told me she had a whippet's heart: large and slow beating. I sensed she fled because she was embarrassed and didn't wish to alert others to our unwarranted presence. I was relieved she'd not given us money for Master would have used it to drown his sorrows; for a man like him tea and biscuits were safer. As the rain begun to beat more forcefully down, we had to move and so took the remaining biscuits with us.
Over the next few months, we continued to traipse Epsom town, stopping for shelter here, there and everywhere in all weathers, until we took up residence in the derelict grounds of a mental hospital. For a while we called these ruins home. I don't recall the fog of smoke the night we laid down and so I think the two of us must have died sleeping. But a week later, our ghosts saw the same young girl weeping when the fire was reported in the local paper. Her fellow feeling for us was the last we were shown.

*based on a true account, but some characters have been altered and some details embellished.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Silhouette

Mrs. Winifred Banks was the suffragette who became known as 'The Silhouette': a cut-out figure from the movement. After her latest nanny, Mary Poppins, left, she got more involved with her sister suffragettes, and in June 1913 began to dress all in black as a living monument to the deceased Emily Wilding Davison. Since the latter's untimely death, every day was a day of mourning, so every inch of her was corseted in black, even her hat had a black veil. In the winter, she attended rallies wearing a black shawl for extra warmth, whereas in the summer she marched under a black parasol. The only colours allowed to brighten her ensemble were those that symbolised Votes For Women: green, white and purple, and her rule was only one colourful matching accessory, as if too much colour would dilute Emily's bravery. A three-striped scarf might be tied around her throat, or her hat adorned with three dyed feathers, or, as if she were a bride, she might hold a nosegay of white and purple irises, but this aside, she was one solid colour.
Mrs. Banks was not the frivolous Mrs. Banks as she was in the days of Mary Poppins. Her exuberance still shone, but it had been sobered. She still lived at No.17 Cherry Tree Lane as the wife of George Banks and mother of Jane and Michael, but the blue and orange dress, the blue and white sash, and the elegant white gloves had gone. She was no longer as sensitive to the needs of her family and the household was starved of her attention; delicate possessions were not saved from Admiral Boom's twice-daily destruction, and her husband, now a family-man, but still dismissive of the women's cause, had not taken over.
Jane and Michael, although slightly older, had reverted to form and were as rebellious as ever, because despite being indulged by their father, neither of them could understand their devoted suffragette mother. They confided in Bert who still cleaned their chimney and watched his one-man band accompany their mother's solitary, black figure as it paraded up and down the main street. Even Jane's hair and Michael's kite were tied with black ribbons in dedication to this militant suffragette's memory. It was as if with Emily's death their mother outwardly expressed what Mary Poppins had once told them, “I shall stay until the wind changes.” Except their mother had overstayed the wind and changed direction.
The Banks children never forgot that fateful date when their mother had become an ever-present shadow; how she appeared on June 9th shrouded in black at the breakfast table. Ellen, the maid, had to be dismissed due to shock, and their father stayed behind his newspaper. Even after the funeral, their mother could not be reasoned with: she would wear black for Emily and for the movement.
With Mary Poppins and her magical umbrella gone, it was Bert's mission to once again save the Banks family. He befriended Mrs. Banks but when this didn't lessen her depression, he recruited Jane and Michael to bring their mother to the park to see his drawings. Bert was still working in chalk, but now also did paper cutting; sometimes using a model to draw the crowds in. He persuaded Mrs. Banks that dressed all in black she epitomised the perfect silhouette, and it just so happened that day that she had decorated her dark coat with an imitation 1912 hunger strike medal. In capturing her blackness, Bert unlocked a gateway which restored Mrs. Banks to animated colour. She gave up portraying the figure in black and donated her silhouette to the suffragette movement.
These days, it is often displayed as a museum exhibit, where people assume it's the infamous Emily; very few would be able to prove it's Winifred Banks.