A Skull In The Fridge, And Other Ideas

It’s been the best part of a month since I last posted anything here, but I’m back, and it’s been a productive week. This morning, having finished our short film analysis essays for Creating Short Screenplays, we used our seminar to begin focusing on ideas for our own scripts, which we will be developing until just before Christmas. More specifically, we looked at how we might create ideas using locations, objects and mise-en-scene – defined as “the setting and surroundings of an event.” We came up with lists for each as a group, before using these to formulate our own individual rough ideas. I and the others on my table placed emphasis on the objects available to us, which were random and included such things as a sack, a toy car, a duck feather, a book and a skull. We felt that they all came with numerous questions that could be asked about them, giving us the basis of a film in the process.

With the exception of the duck feather, I managed to think of at least one idea for each of these objects. In my opinion, the sack, the car and the skull provided the most interesting ones, and this was backed up by the people around me. I thought of a single, unopened letter that had been forgotten at the bottom of a sack of mail, and the story left undiscovered within it. I thought of a toy car kept even into old age by its owner because of some deeply entrenched sentimental value. And, last but not least, I thought of a human skull, discovered on a shelf in a fridge by a young man who then questions his housemates about its origins, only to be mysteriously denied an answer by all of them. It was pointed out to me that that idea resembles a scene from Sherlock in which Holmes stores a head in his Baker Street fridge for experiments, so whether I use it will depend on how original I can make a story of my own. In any case, it’s always interesting to see how so much can be drawn from so little, and this morning was no exception.

Tuesday afternoon also saw me work on something promising. This was in my Rewriting and Adapting class, where we are working on our own adaptations of famous Gothic texts. We can choose from The Tell-Tale Heart, Dracula, The Woman in Black or Frankenstein, and I have now opted for the latter, although my idea is not a straight interpretation of the original novel – it only retains certain elements. In it, a man paralysed from the waist down in the present day encounters Dr Frankenstein, who in this instance is a very dubious surgeon, and accepts his offer to have a pair of working legs crudely stitched on so he may walk again. Unfortunately, these legs not only look odd, but behave very erratically, alienating everyone he is closest to and leading him to lament both his loneliness and his loss of identity as a disabled person.

That’s the planned story arc, although the piece is still in the very earliest stages of its development. Before it is written and submitted in early January, I have to complete a rationale describing what I intend to do and achieve with it, but I’m sure you’ll get to see the finished story when it’s ready. Skulls and Frankenstein – very apt for Halloween, don’t you think?

Mason

Fade To Black

Towards the end of July, I wrote about a script for a short film that I was gradually developing from a short story I’d written last year, Warm Leather. Knowing how badly I procrastinate, I was doubtful that I’d manage to get it finished anytime soon, but I’m now pleased to report that I’ve broken the habit of a lifetime – I have a complete draft! I typed the words “fade to black” on Tuesday last week, and quickly shared what I’d done with a small group of friends. They may have been slightly biased, but the feedback they gave was largely favourable, so for now I will stick with the draft I have – my next objective is to send it elsewhere and see if I can find some more informed advice.

After so many years of only managing to write snippets of script, it means rather a lot to me to have committed to this one through to the end, even though it’s only 14 pages long (quarter of an hour in length, rather than the half an hour I had anticipated). It’s given me a solid starting point to develop and grow the story where necessary, and if nothing else, it’s been good practice for the “Creating Short Screenplays” module I’m starting in Winchester next semester. I couldn’t be happier with my progress so far, and if I can find the right place to send it next, then who knows? Maybe this won’t be the last update I give you…

Mason

 

Steak And Chips

Henry sprayed himself with his strongest aftershave once again. A thick cloud rose up and he coughed as it filled his throat. In the mirror, he saw that his fringe had already collapsed under the weight of his hair gel. Great! Producing a toothpick, he began prodding about in his mouth. “Lettuce. Ham sandwich. Pringle,” he thought. They couldn’t afford to stay there.

He was convinced that something was sabotaging his date with Emily before he’d even been on it, and he was insecure enough already.  He and Emily would be having a meal; he was pretty confident about eating. But he didn’t know how to greet her, how to say goodbye, or what to talk about in between. “Do we kiss? Do I hold her hand? What are her interests?” He felt pressure from some anonymous force to be someone he wasn’t, and he desperately wanted to impress this girl naturally.

Unfortunately, Henry overthought every possible worst-case scenario. Last night, the latest in a long line of nightmares manifested themselves. He tossed and turned in bed as hazy images of spilling a drink on her dress, and kissing her with garlic breath, swirled in his mind. But as scary as those more trivial things seemed, there were other aspects of a potential new relationship that terrified him even more. He looked around at the paper strewn across his desk, and his overflowing bin. “What a shithole,” he thought to himself. “She’d hate this, wouldn’t she? What would her parents think? How fast would things move? Would she get bored of me?” He’d tried to fix his wonky hairdo, but there was only so much a careful comb could do. Accepting that it would probably collapse again soon, he took his keys and wallet and left his flat.

The short walk to the restaurant where Henry would be meeting Emily seemed to go on forever. Even as the town filled up with pubgoers in the twilight, he studied himself intently. He rubbed furiously at a stubborn stain on his shoe. Something he couldn’t identify that he tried and failed to rub off of his jeans. “Toothpaste? Mayonnaise?” All of the possible suspects entered his head. His eyes widened at another. “Bird poo?!”

He felt his shirt collar. It was wonky, so he promptly straightened it. He’d noticed himself sweating more now, and his hands were trembling. He quietly clenched a fist, just to confirm that he did indeed have increasingly clammy hands. He’d sniff his armpits again later on, even though he had already applied deodorant five times. Was that a spot he could feel on his nose…? Whatever it was, he removed his hand quickly, to avoid aggravating it.

“Get a grip,” Henry muttered. His friends had all told him that nerves before a first date were only natural. “It’s good to be nervous, it means that you care,” they would say. But Henry thought that being this nervous was borderline ridiculous. Surely all he had to do was be himself, and he’d be fine? Breathing in, then out again, he tried to relax his shoulders. The more Henry considered it, being himself seemed awfully cliched. He was neither outstanding nor awful, just average, and these days it seemed as though that wouldn’t cut it with anyone. There was so much pressure on so many people to look good and achieve great things in their lives. Life was presented like a race, in which nobody could afford to finish last – and as things stood, Henry was definitely finishing last. His mind flashed back to his modest room. He couldn’t help thinking that the odds were stacked against him, and his mindset didn’t improve when the restaurant appeared in the distance, modestly lit by the lamppost outside.

Henry thought about his bank balance as he patted his back pocket, just to ensure his wallet was in there. He couldn’t afford to splash the cash too much – his parents had always been very clear about the value of money. What would happen if he ordered something small? He could practically see the look of disgust on Emily’s face as a modest bowl of soup and a crusty roll faced up to rump steak and chips. “If I see her nose curl up,” he thought, “the ground may as well open up and swallow me whole.” He needn’t have worried.

With considerable trepidation, Henry slipped quietly through the door, and Emily watched as he approached. She was sat at a table surrounded by older couples who’d left the kids at home with the babysitter, and the last remnants of refracted daylight through the window almost formed an orange halo around her date. It made his skin and hair shine together; he was the physical embodiment of a deity and a dream, and she was totally at ease. All of a sudden, she wasn’t so worried about split ends or getting something stuck in her teeth. Even so, she fumbled in her bag, just to make sure the toothpicks were there.

Minutes earlier, Emily had been wiping the sweat from her brow in the toilets, such were her nerves. She had to laugh, because she’d been sweating when she first laid eyes on him as well, sitting in that university taster session.  The next time she met Henry, six months had passed, but the chemistry had been as magnetic as the attraction. She remembered having a drink outside, as the September sun made them squint and giggle as they discussed their hopes and fears. Just as she had been then, she found herself looking deep into his hazel eyes, hanging on his every word as he hung on hers. They may have been relatively new to each other, but conversation flowed like they had known one another for years. Some of those other couples looked over at them, fondly recalling the way things used to be when they were young. Who said romance was dead?

Oh, and they both got steak and chips.

Mason

Doors Opening

Over the past three months, I’ve spent a lot of time travelling from floor to floor in a lift, and every time those gleaming steel doors slide apart, I never quite know who I’m going to find on the other side. I don’t always know where they’ve come from, where they might be going, or why. They just depart at the end of our journey and – in most cases – I never see them again. If I do, I certainly don’t recognise them. It was after a few weeks of such mystery had passed that I started to wonder if it could lend itself well to a story of some kind. I would picture myself waiting for the lift as usual, before the doors parted to reveal a sprawled corpse lying within. A lift could be good murder mystery territory, mainly because of the questions it instantly raises – especially if you’re travelling alone. Who could the culprit be? How could they commit their crime in a sealed and cramped space – and how could they do it in the mere seconds that pass between departure and arrival?

If I wanted to introduce more confusion, I could have the occupant vanish into thin air without explanation. It would be even harder for someone to do that in a lift, after all, and it would allow people to ask where they had actually gone as well as how. I love how there is the potential to do so much with so little, and I think that with the right characters and motives, the idea could work well. In any case, it was one I was eager to record here before I could forget it – so you could say that this post only consists of me thinking out loud. Then again, which one doesn’t? It could arguably have made good material for a podcast to follow my previous one, but I have swiftly concluded that my energies are much better suited to writing than to broadcasting! With that in mind, if I write something that I approve of as much as what I have already showcased here, it may well appear for you in due course…

Mason

My Life’s Mission

I am now home for Christmas, having successfully recorded my podcast (which you can listen to by clicking here, if you dare). The first semester is complete and I am free to relax, but university – particularly Publishing and Social Media – has left me with a rather pleasant parting gift, thanks to another magnificent writing prompt. In my seminar last week, we found the following question up on the board:

“You receive an email from an alien. What does it say?”

I started working on my answer there and then, but as I didn’t have the time to complete it immediately, I decided to save it for a blog post. Communication between the human race and extraterrestrial life is often depicted in fiction as being either blatantly hostile or somewhat ominous, so I wanted to try writing something that would be a little bit more heartwarming. It had to convince the recipient that this was an alien coming in absolute peace, as I felt that anything else wouldn’t quite be right at Christmas! I would like to show you my intergalactic email now. How do you think this message would make you feel?

“Hello,

You won’t know who I am, but I feel like we are meant to be. This email will take seconds to travel across the universe, but I have been searching for what seems like millennia. I told myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t rest until I found you. I don’t know what you’d call me, but I guess humans like to refer to us as “guardian angels”. We appear at birth knowing only love. It flows from every part of us and courses through our veins, dictating every action and emotion. From a young age, when our schooling begins, we are told that one day we will pick a face from a crowd – no matter how distant – and watch over them until the day they die without ever revealing ourselves. But when I saw you, I couldn’t resist. I had to reach out, so here I am, writing to you now.

I’ve seen you at your best, when you feel like you’re on top of the world, and at your worst, when you feel trapped, worthless and alone. I want you to know that you are none of those things, and you never will be. Yes, I know people have said the same one minute and been gone the next. Not me – you are my life’s mission. It pains me to admit that you and I may never see each other, and as things stand, this email is the closest I can get to showing you my true form. But, just like a lost loved one, I’ll never truly leave you. Anything out of the ordinary is me making myself known. That muffled banging you think you can hear from the pipes in the dead of night? That’s me. The figure you see for a second in the corner of your eye, before realising nobody is there? Me again. The funny coloured shapes that appear when you close your eye? Yep, you guessed it!

I know humans fear those things, because they can’t explain them, so I’m just letting you know that you needn’t be afraid of them. They’re not signs of danger or death, but a warming cup of tea when you desperately need one, or a hand that you know will be there to catch you when you fall. Look out for them – when you notice one, you’ll know hope, companionship and unwavering loyalty is nearby. You might think you can find us by looking up at the stars, but the truth is that we’re much closer than you could ever have imagined.

– Your Guardian Angel”.

Mason

 

 

 

Warm Leather

Before you start speculating, I feel like I should clarify that this is a work of fiction – it’s from a young woman’s perspective rather than mine, so don’t be fooled by the use of the first person!

I know his room much better than most people. I could walk into it blindfolded and still tell you exactly where everything is, down to the tiniest detail. Whenever I feel my chest tightening, or my head spinning, all I need to do is close my eyes and I’m there. I see the droopy pot plant on the shelf, fading more with every passing visit, and the feeble attempt at a motivational poster on the wall. It says “laugh like there’s no tomorrow”, but I always say that it’s not such a good thing to have in there – after all, it’s not so easy for everyone who comes in to do as it says. Whatever its shortcomings are, though, this is the only place I’ve felt safe in for some considerable time. To enter it is to be engulfed in an embrace, not just from the room but also from Noel, my counsellor.

We’ve been talking for a couple of months now. When I’m in with him, I feel like he and I are the last two living souls on Earth. In only one hour, he’ll give me more undivided attention than I can expect in twenty four at home, and he endures meltdown after meltdown without even batting an eyelid. This place only knows love, care and respect within its walls. I don’t blame Noel for choosing to follow this path, because who wouldn’t want to work in a place like this?

I’m walking along the street now, towards the office where I meet him. With every step, the anticipation builds and I struggle to stop myself from beaming like a lunatic. I try my best to keep a stiff upper lip, but it proves to be easier said than done and I find myself fidgeting with my hands as I wait for his door to open. After what seems like an eternity, it swings aside and I am warmly met with a gesture inviting me in.

“Would you like to come through?”

I see Noel standing there, stereotypically dark and handsome, and as is often the case I find myself lost in the empathy within his hazel eyes. At this point I lose control, and stepping over the threshold into the sanctuary of the office is almost like an out of body experience. It’s the safest hour of my week – and it begins now…

In front of Noel’s desk there are two black leather armchairs, directly facing each other. This is the arena in which all of my emotional battles manifest themselves before his very eyes. As always, I take a deep breath before sinking into the right-hand seat, and I exhale calmly as I feel the chair caress my body. Noel sits down opposite me, and he fixes me with his gaze. It isn’t that he’s being cold or distant, it’s just that as of now, he means business and he wants to listen.

“How have you been since I saw you last?” he asks.

I can already feel a rising lump in my throat. This is the truth frantically scrabbling for the surface, reaching for a release.

“I only wish I had good news,” I reply, “but the atmosphere at home is still pretty toxic. Even when it seems like the day is going well, there’s still things that are left unsaid. We just can’t seem to ever clear the air.”

As I say this, I notice that Noel’s hands – which had been clasped together – are now separated and open, and his palms are facing upwards. I glance at them for a second, but am quickly interrupted by his line of questioning.

“Is there no trust left at all?”

I think to myself that after so many sessions, he must know the answer to that by now. The only trust I can really rely on is between me and him, and as I see his hands before me I have to fight the instinctive urge to hold them. This is a strictly professional relationship, and I need to respect the boundaries within.

“No”, I say. “That’s why I’m so grateful for these sessions, as you well know.”

Noel allows a slight smile to cross his lips, the kind that is probably much smaller than what he reserves for his wife and his kids. I am hit with a hot flush of envy. “All part of the service.”

“The service”. Another reminder that he just sees me as a means to an end. Someone who puts food on the table and clothes on his back. Not unlike Charles, my boyfriend. He’s the one I come here to talk about, because I can’t communicate with him at home anymore. The dinner table used to be a hive of animated discussion, but now we sit slumped over our food in silence. We used to snuggle together on the sofa watching television, but now we choose separate chairs on either side of the room. I don’t know what started it, but it’s the elephant in the room and if he won’t talk to me about it, at least I know Noel will.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” I tell him. “Charles doesn’t trust me, I don’t trust him, and because of that, we can’t talk about whatever it is that’s ruining our relationship. It’s like a pressure cooker. The more things we leave unsaid, the more the stress builds, and in the end it all boils over and leads to a blazing row. There’s blame on both sides, I wouldn’t want you to think the worst of him.”

“Of course not,” Noel replies. “You don’t need to worry about that. It isn’t my job to judge.”

No, Noel. No, it isn’t. And I love you for it. We talk more that day, and I emerge from the office feeling once again like the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders. Later that night, as Charles and I lie in bed with our backs to one another, I manage to find Noel on Facebook. His account is private – evidently his professionalism has a much further reach than I had expected. I might not be able to see his photos, but my imagination runs wild when I think about what they must be like. I can see him beaming away with the family during summer barbecues in the garden, walks with the dog, or idyllic holidays abroad. And then I imagine myself in his wife’s place. Someone like Noel could bring me so much happiness. In a different world, maybe he has. But I need to pull myself together.

That vow doesn’t last long, and I soon find myself crossing the biggest line yet, peeking out from behind a brick wall as he picks them up from school. I know this is bad, but it gives me the hit I’m looking for, however brief it may be. Instead of Noel the counsellor, I see Noel the family man – the man I want him to be. I notice that he exudes an even greater level of warmth that he could simply never show in our meetings. He embraces his children as they run out to meet him, and he absorbs everything going on around him with clear interest and optimism. I might be watching Noel from afar, ducking further behind the wall whenever he turns in my direction, but I feel I know him just a little bit better. I’ll get through to him, sooner or later. I can’t wait to make him squirm in his seat.

Sure enough, next time I see him, there he is, shuffling awkwardly like a schoolboy as I sit opposite him. I say nothing – I just can’t believe it’s worked. It can only mean one thing.

“Look, I saw you at the school yesterday, and it looked to me like you were watching us. I need to know that you won’t do anything like that again. You scared us,” he stutters.

I nod, and I tell him what he wants to hear. When we next talk about Charles, I see another opening and I go for it.

“It’s escalated now,” I say. “I could just about cope with the silence between us, but now he’s on his phone at all hours of the day. When I try to ask who he’s talking to, he makes excuses and puts it away. Silence is one thing, feeling like you’re talking to a brick wall is another. Do you ever get that?”

Noel bristles. He tries his best to gloss over my question with a smile. “I’m supposed to ask you the questions.”

“Just humour me.”

He evidently wasn’t expecting me to come back like that – there is a silence unlike any other. You could hear a pin drop. I imagine the cogs whirring in his head.

He begins to respond. “I…” Then he stops, reconsiders. “We all do, sometimes.”

Clever Noel – answering and avoiding the question at the same time. Note to self: must try harder.

Over the next few weeks, I make a mental list. I think about every time I see his cheeks go pink, and every time he clasps his hands together in his lap, twiddling his thumbs. These are signs of chinks in his armour and I train myself to spot them, just as he would spot a client’s cries for help. As the weeks go by, he latches on to this – but by now there is no escape, and human nature is beginning to get the better of him. One day I decide to catch him off-guard. He comes in, flustered, absent-mindedly apologising for his lateness. He hurriedly slams a pile of papers on a table and sits down opposite me, as usual. We begin, and I notice there is an oily sheen on his skin today – and then, like a coiled viper, I decide to strike while the prey is ripe for the killing. I’m going to make him sweat a little bit more.

“Tough day?” I ask, as innocently as I can.

Noel chuckles. “It’s a counsellor’s life. If I’m not seeing clients, I’m seeing paper – lots of it.”

He won’t suspect a thing now. I spring forward in my seat, and fix him with my widest smile as I softly rest my hand on his knee. “Never mind. You can get off after this.” I could withdraw at this moment, but I’m intrigued to see how long I can keep it there. Only a few seconds pass, but it seems like an eternity, and in that time he does to little to resist. Without looking, I wonder if the blood’s rushed down from his head yet. I’d like to see him try to hide that.

After this, Noel makes a point of asking me about Charles, so as to draw attention away from himself. When I tell him we’re looking at a fresh start – finding a new place, starting with a clean slate – he jumps at the chance to know more. He seems even more interested in my life than before. He wants to know how many bedrooms there’ll be, how much garden we’re going to have, thinking it’s going to take my mind off him. But it’s only a temporary distraction for me. As long as Noel is sat in front of me, I can only restrain myself for so long.

I spend so long fantasising about it coming to a head, but even I don’t expect it when it does. I’ve spent so many weeks sneaking in whenever I can. A touch here, a fond brush there. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve seen emotion in his eyes. Appreciation, acceptance, expectation, and what is surely lust. He tries his best to maintain the counsellor façade, but it is no use. He knows he is at my mercy, and I will soon be at his.

He is perfecting his well-honed routine, feigning interest in Charles and me. Our move has been put on hold; I think we knew in our heart of hearts that neither of us really think it will solve anything. I tell Noel that, obviously, but he is clutching at straws, trying desperately not to show me he is faltering. When he breaks off, and there is silence, I make it last. Then I mutter something.

“Never mind. I can focus on what I really want now.”

It takes the locking of our lips to find out that isn’t what I had expected. I anticipate Noel recoiling in disgust; instead, his tongue coils its way around mine, invading and violating me in a way I never thought possible. Counsellors aren’t supposed to do that.

At that moment, I realise I’ve been wrong all along. Noel is first and foremost my confidant, and thinking about that suddenly puts me in his shoes. I feel uncomfortable. Nervous. Used. So I do what I’d expected him to do all along. I pull away, get up and leave without another word. I don’t look at him; I don’t want to see his reaction. I want him to see my disappointment. The one thing I need is a warm listening ear. Noel is anything but.

Mason

The Man In The Melee

Another Thursday means another Publishing and Social Media class, and that means another short story! Anyone who read my last post will know that I shared three examples of Twitter fiction I was particularly proud of, and after a favourable response to those – particularly in this post from Penstricken – I have decided to show you something else that I wrote this morning. Its genesis was the photo you can see above, which I took when we were asked to take a picture that we could use as the basis for a story. We could do whatever we liked with it, provided that it did not exceed 2,200 characters, the maximum number permitted in an Instagram caption. When I returned from the university library to start my piece, I did so intending to write more fiction, but I quickly found myself drawing more and more from my experience, so what you are about to read is closer to a true account. That might have something to do with the fact that I have actually been trapped in that very same aisle once or twice before! As always, I hope you enjoy what is below, and do feel free to get back to me with feedback. You are also more than welcome to formulate your own endings if you wish – I intentionally left it open for you…

The library is very busy today, and that means congestion. It’s like Black Friday for bookworms. Everyone needs this for their essay, or that for their assignment, and they all want the same thing at the same time. I have what I need – now I just want to get out of the aisle. I see a girl at the other end, avoiding the melee at a computer, and I envy her. If she finds herself having a Clint Eastwood-esque face off with a fellow student, all she needs is a gap the size of a cigarette paper to slip on by. Letting me past, on the other hand, is like meeting an articulated lorry in a narrow country lane. If you and I are facing each other in an aisle, we cannot go any further – one of us will have no choice but to retreat. Occasionally, this means that I instantly become both highly conspicuous and highly embarrassed. All I want is to go through life without being too much of an inconvenience, and here I am exactly that. I am the road block in this aisle, and people are getting impatient on either side. I am gripped by panic and my heart beats like a machine gun in my chest. I find myself unable to take action – the world becomes a blur and I have no idea what my next step will be. I shut my eyes. If I ever doubted the world was still inaccessible to the disabled, I know it is now. I am a square peg stuck in a round hole, and I have to find some way to wriggle free.

Mason

Fast Fiction

Allow me to share this with you. This morning, during one of my Publishing and Social Media classes, we were challenged to write a short story that was a maximum of 280 characters long (as that is the maximum length allowed on Twitter, where they would be published). I duly tweeted three after pondering them for a while, but just in case you don’t follow me on Twitter (where I’m @HawkerMason), I thought I’d publish them here – this is a hub of creativity, after all! I hope you like them – if you do, why not leave a comment below and let me know?

  1. “I don’t know where else to turn. I haven’t heard from him in weeks,” she sobbed. She didn’t see his face as he sat beside her – he knew full well that his consoling hand was a guilty one.
  2. He felt the sweat on his brow and the trembling in his hands as the crowds gathered, waiting for his next move. They gazed at him like he was a zoo animal. He wondered how he would get to his lecture now the lift was broken.
  3. He’d been stuck upstairs during fire drills plenty of times before – but he hadn’t ever expected it to happen when his life was at risk. He’d told his friend to save herself. Now he would have to get out alone, by any means necessary.

The lift I needed to take before that class was actually broken – it made getting there mildly inconvenient, but it provided some useful inspiration, so I can forgive it on this occasion!

Mason

Emerald Swathes, Part 2

Christopher crashed through the long grass and low branches, determined to look at this mysterious new cap more closely. They were unlikely to find anything in it aside from a label bearing a first name, but it would nevertheless be a useful clue as to the whereabouts of its owner. They reached it and froze, extending a somewhat hesitant arm towards it as though it were a venomous snake. Their fingers curled around its discoloured edge and they slowly plucked it from the ground. Bringing it nearer to their face, they shook it to ensure it was straightened. They narrowed their right eye while expanding their left like a fleshy magnifying glass – and just as they had suspected, the cap did bear a label on its inner stitching. The writing was very faint, but scribbled in what Christopher believed to be permanent marker was undoubtedly a name: “JIM”.

What Christopher initially failed to notice as they turned the cap over to look at this was a single playing card – the queen of hearts, to be precise – fluttering gently out of it, all the way down to their feet. They eventually caught sight of it just as it settled on the edge of one of their battered shoes, and it was the card – not the cap – that convinced them they’d definitely stumbled upon something fishy. Finding a piece of headgear on its own in a forest was feasible, but someone practising their magic tricks there, in total solitude, seemed much less likely. Christopher peered down their nose at the card in a way that was almost cautious, as though they expected it to come to life like a mysterious new species of insect. They bent down to retrieve it, and made sure to examine both sides for any further clues. Finding none, they pocketed it, and feeling more than a little disturbed by their initially soothing location they moved out – only to be confronted by yet another surprise.

Christopher was taking one gradual step after another, travelling deeper and deeper into the forest that lay on the other side of the idyllic opening. Just as before, very little light was let in by the tree canopies, but Christopher’s eyes had adjusted to such an extent that they could identify certain small details on the path ahead – if you could even call it a path. Christopher was the one forging a trail here, as twigs snapped and dry leaves rustled beneath their feet. Every so often they would kick away a discarded sweet wrapper or crisp packet, perhaps left by the last poor soul to find themselves lost here, with no clear view of any sort of horizon. These would roll away, carried gently by a soft Spring breeze of which Christopher could never quite trace the source. They would watch each piece of debris vanish into the shadows – everything really was deserting them, and seeing this happen reminded Christopher of exactly how isolated they were around here. They kept trying not to think about it, but seeing all of these things dance gracefully in mid-air proved to be more captivating than they had expected. For what seemed like mile after mile, they saw the same twig-leaf-wrapper cycle of objects, and the pattern became predictable and monotonous. Christopher was glazing over, and came to the point of switching off entirely before another playing card floated in front of their eyes – much to their sudden, spontaneous bewilderment.

If Christopher had been in any kind of doubt that the first card in the cap was a random countryside find, this definitely proved it wasn’t. Neither, when Christopher came across it, was the third. Or the fourth. Or the fifth. By the time the sixth appeared, it occurred to them that there was a trail – and not a lazy, wildly scattered one either. This was unmistakably neat, and it followed the exact path of Christopher’s journey, one that whoever left these cards could not possibly have known was going to be made. As the trail went by, it occurred to Christopher that there were far more than 52 cards here, and that this person must have had a rather large deck. Or just several industrial decks. Whatever the case, they were definitely leading to somewhere, and sure enough, the last card soon hoved into view, marking the end of the trail.

Christopher couldn’t believe what they were seeing. In a much darker opening was another tree stump, but here it was being used almost as a makeshift poker table. Next to it sat a wheelchair-bound boy of around seventeen, with a mass of dishevelled curly hair on his head and yet another pack of cards in his hands. As Christopher looked on – open-mouthed in disbelief – the boy tried frantically to shuffle them, cursing to himself whenever he lost his grip and they tumbled into his lap. He kept on trying again, completely oblivious to Christopher’s presence, and he dropped and gathered his cards several times before noticing he was no longer alone. At last, his eyes darted up to meet Christopher’s. He froze, loosening his grip on his cards slightly as he surveyed his new companion from head to toe suspiciously. There was silence as he did so, since Christopher knew they were far too baffled to speak. It was down to the boy to break the ice, which he did after a few minutes, when he had completed his checks and a smile was gradually appearing on his face:

“My name is Jim,” he said calmly, before fanning the cards out with his fingers and leaning forward in Christopher’s direction. “Pick a card. Any card…”

To be continued…

Mason

Emerald Swathes

The following is the full first part of the story I began in my Winchester taster session, detailed in “The Pull, Part 4”

The protests gradually faded away as Christopher ran further and further into the forest, and all sound disappeared along with the daylight. There was only silence, darkness and accompanying danger within these trees, and the only reassurance came when rays of distant sunshine leaked through the web of branches for a split second every few metres. Not that Christopher cared much at this moment. What coursed through his veins as his feet pounded along the rough terrain was not fear – he’d had more than his fair share of that in recent years – but determination and strength that overrode the burning in his lungs as he gasped for air, or the fatigue rapidly spreading through his limbs. He was on autopilot, with his eyes firmly on the ultimate prize that lay ahead – his freedom.

The more Christopher thought about this, the faster he went. He sprinted and sprinted, trying to ignore the searing pain from the gash on his knee as each new bramble and thorn pricked at him. He knew that he had to focus only on escape, and that meant running and never looking back. Christopher would never have a better chance than this, and he was actually quite glad to have realised that – he’d forgotten what true hope felt like, and to feel it again reminded him of the man he used to be. Five years ago, at 16, he’d had the ambition and the confidence of someone twice his age. As a matter of fact, what he demonstrated was borderline arrogance, always swaggering around like he had to be seen and heard. When he was lost in his own importance, he thought nothing of it. He saw himself as a character, someone fun whose energy would be irresistible to those around him. He eventually gained the benefit of hindsight; in odd moments he would remember all the times people rolled their eyes or moved away, always when they thought he wasn’t looking. He believed that he was loved by all, but he had only succeeded in alienating every potential new friend.

Following this, Christopher realised that his life was meaningless without real companionship from others. He had plenty of money and affluence, and assumed they would set him up for the rest of his days, but he was mistaken. When he realised this, he turned to rebellion, making the wrong choices and falling into the wrong crowds. They all seemed like groups of kind strangers at first, people who related to what he was feeling and were quick to offer a shoulder to cry on. They did, initially. There was warmth and understanding aplenty, and the more Christopher was shown, the more ensnared he was by his new friends. They had him under their spell – he just didn’t know it yet. He was so blinded by a façade of concern that it was all too easy for them to introduce the drink and drugs. He was led to believe that they would block things out, or make his constant state of misery more bearable. The moment he was under the influence, though, he was a marionette, completely controlled by his new puppet masters. It made him a highly dependable modern-day slave.

At this point, Christopher temporarily removed himself from his train of thought, and was awakened once more to his dingy and unforgiving surroundings. There was little point in trying to recall anything more about the past few years, since they all passed – quite literally – in a hazy blur. Christopher knew that his captors preferred it that way, and that the only time he ever spoke a word was when he was begging them for his next dose. When lucidity finally did come, it only did so in a fleeting moment, when he decided that enough was enough and that he had to get away. He was kept in such isolation that he didn’t know how many other slaves, if any, he might have left behind – but he had chosen to cast any guilt about who he could have saved aside for the time being. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

Christopher was definitely getting somewhere in the dense woodland. A new spot of sunlight, which had appeared at the size of the eye of a needle at first, was gradually enlarging and welcoming him into its embrace ahead. It was brighter and warmer in colour than any of the light he’d already seen on his travels, and he took this as a welcome sign of positivity and encouragement, even though he didn’t know how long it would last or what it actually signified. He just knew that whatever lay ahead couldn’t possibly be any worse than what he had already endured. He was more than ready to persevere through some minor sunburn if it meant he’d be out in the open and free from claustrophobia. The patch of light was now big enough to hurt his eyes, causing him to squint, and he tentatively raised a hand to his forehead to shield them from it. The brightness continued to increase until there were no more trees to block it out, and Christopher was faced with a near-whiteout, unable to see a thing…

When it faded, and shapes began to form once again all around him, he found that he was in the midst of a breathtaking and lush green opening, with space aplenty. The undergrowth was thick, but rather than appearing dilapidated it was full of vitality, with small flowers blossoming on various bushes. Only a lone tree stump and faraway bursts of birdsong interrupted the swathes of soothing emerald vegetation. It would have taken a man more hardened than Christopher not to be overcome with calmness, and he duly stopped to savour this new pocket utopia while he could, exploring its perimeter and crouching down to examine some of the plant life. He was distracted by the beauty and serenity of this hidden gem for some time, but his focus on every one of its details was suddenly broken when he spotted a faded blue denim cap lying inside out and unclaimed in the undergrowth. Whilst he was surprised by its presence, he thought little of the object itself – people tended to lose things in the countryside all the time, after all – but could it mean that he wasn’t the first escapee to find this spot?

To be continued…

Mason