A Little Fiction – Train of Thought (Dinah and Shaw part 5)

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

‘…Why do they even put backwards-facing seats into railway carriages?’ asked Shaw.  ‘Nobody likes them.’

‘Well, I don’t think they are backwards facing all the time, are they?  I mean, when they get to where they are going, they don’t turn around to come back, do they?  They just get pulled from the other end….’

‘No, of course not.  I know that,’ snapped Shaw, who felt that he had to say something, but really just wanted to concentrate on the fact that he was distinctly unhappy at having to watch where he had just been funnel silently away into the distance.  Knowing that his future was looming up, unseen, behind him made him anxious and, as everyone that knew him would testify, an anxious Shaw was a spiky Shaw.  For the moment, he occupied himself by staring malignantly into the distance, but Dinah recognised the signs, some kind of irrational outburst was just around the corner.

‘Would you like a coffee?’ she asked, all smoothing oil on troubled waters.

‘I would,’ said Shaw, ‘but that’s another thing: no buffet car.  A two hour journey and no buffet car.  What do they expect you to do, drink the sweat from your own brow?’ 

Dinah recognised the warning: a troubled sea fanned by a full-on anxiety storm.  ‘’I’ve brought a flask,’ she said.

‘A what?’

‘A flask.  I’ve brought a flask of coffee.’  She unscrewed the little metal cup and poured the black steaming liquid, watching as Shaw’s bottom lip began, petulantly to protrude.  He opened his mouth to speak, but Dinah was ready for him.  ‘Milk and sugar are in the bag, she said.  Shaw’s mouth made the slightest twitch towards complaint.  ‘And biscuits,’ added Dinah.

‘What kind?’

Dinah allowed herself the faintest of smiles.  ‘Bourbon, of course.’

Shaw looked into Dinah’s face as passed the cup towards him.  She smiled and he felt the tension leave him in an instant, tingling away from the nape of his neck.

‘Now, do you mind telling me where we are going – and why?’

‘There’s something we’ve got to see,’ said Shaw.

‘What?’

‘I’m not sure.’

‘Well, where then?’ persisted Dinah.

‘There’s the thing…’

Dinah sighed deeply.  ‘You don’t know do you?’

‘Not exactly, no, but I think I’ll know when we get there.’

‘How?  How will you know?’

‘The man in the tartan hat,’ Shaw nodded, indicating the man on the seat behind him.  ‘He’ll be getting off there.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, he has to get off somewhere, doesn’t he?’

‘I suppose so, but why him?  Why are we following him?’

‘To see where he gets off, of course.’  Shaw sipped his coffee, indicating that, as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed. 

Dinah, as ever, absorbed and understood the subliminal message, but ploughed on anyway.  ‘I mean, you must have some reason to want to know why he, in particular, is going to get off the train, wherever he might choose to do so.’

Shaw drank slowly, eeking out the silence as long as he could.  Finally, his cup empty, he sighed resignedly and said, ‘Do you think we should be following somebody else?’

‘Well, no,’ Dinah stuttered.  ‘That is…’

‘Good,’ said Shaw, settling back in his seat and revelling in his moment of triumph.  ‘That’s settled then.  We’ll stick with my original plan.’

Despite a billion reservations bouncing around in her head, like a zero-gravity hailstorm, she decided that the time had come to just go along with the flow and enjoy the day out.  She would have said ‘watching the world go by’, but she had to agree with Shaw, there was little fun in watching the world that had already gone by.

Slowly, imperceptibly, she surrendered to the steady sway of the train, and her head sagged steadily towards Shaw’s shoulder.  She drifted off into a soft, dreamless sleep, unaware of the gentle rhythmic snoring of Shaw in her ear…

…They both awoke in the otherwise empty carriage to the first lurch of the return journey.  Outside the carriage, all was dark.  ‘Typical,’ said Shaw.  ‘We’re facing the right way, and now there’s nothing to see…’

Previous snippets from the lives of Dinah Shaw are here. Part one, part two, part three and part four.

A Little Fiction – A Further Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part 3)

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I think you may well recognise these two people.  If you do not, you can find them here in part one and part two of their conversations…

The bus was just as buses always are on rainy winter evenings: hot and steamy, filled with the smell of impatience and anxiety, damp dogs and incubated dust, perspiration and yesterday’s kebab.  It was approaching full and I was, as usual, trying to look large enough to fill both halves of the seat without actually spreading myself over the entire thing – that would be rude.  I focussed briefly on each person as they walked down the aisle, beaming out my telepathic message, “Don’t sit here, sit elsewhere,”  vaguely aware of how uneasy I would be if I turned out to be the last person that anyone chose to sit next to: the last person with a seat to himself – the public transport pariah – the man with whom not even the unwashed neurotic would choose to sit. Behind me, a child was rhythmically kicking the seat, sending tremors through my backbone like juddering metrical tics.  I should have turned and asked his mother to make him stop, but she was in a deep and shouted mobile phone conversation with somebody called Tiff, about the lacklustre nature of her sex life and I had the feeling that any attempt to communicate would inexorably lead to accusations of a nature that would drive me, red-faced from the bus and out into the translucent sheets of freezing rain outside.  In front of me two teenage girls carried out a yelled conversation, each struggling to be heard above the tinny cacophony of the friend’s still-playing i-pod.  I thought of Ray Bradbury, his little ‘Seashells’ and decided that, were he not already dead, I would kill him for that one.  Somewhere, someone was eating cheese and onion crisps.

“Like research labs for observers of human perversity aren’t they?” said the man at my side.  I hadn’t noticed anyone sit beside me, but I knew that when I turned to reply, it would be to an elegant, lean and hirsute man, with whom I had spoken only twice before.  “Buses, I mean,” he said.  “All human life is here.  If alien life-forms really do visit this planet of ours, they could learn all they would ever need to know of human nature by beaming up the 5.30 North Circular.”

“I’m sorry,” I was trying hard not to splutter, “I didn’t know you were there.  I didn’t see you get on.  I didn’t feel you sit down…”

He held out a white paper bag.  “Pear drop?”

“Thanks.”  I took one, popped it in my mouth and sat back. 

“I have your petrol can,” I said.

“Do you?” he said, looking down at my feet.

“Well, not with me of course, but I still have it.”

“Right,” he said.  “Good.”

“I need to let you have it back.”

“Do you?” He looked out of the window.  “Well,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  You will.”

“When?”

“Oh, we’ll see…” 

We sat in silence for some time sucking mutely on the fossilized concoction of sugar and chemical something-or-other. 

“Always seem so full of lonely people, buses, don’t you think?”

“Well, yes, I suppose so,” I said.  “But, to be honest, most of them deserve to be lonely don’t they?”

“Do you think people are ever truly happy alone,” he asked.

“I thought I would be.”

“But you’re not?

“Not always.”

“When are you not?”

“When I’m alone…”  Odd, I’d never thought about it before.  I loved not having to worry about anyone else, pleasing just myself, being alone, but only while I was in company – at work, in the pub, watching the football – when I was alone I felt, well, alone.  I was quite happy to sit in silence when I was in company, but when I was alone I had to have the sound of music or the TV or often both.  Meals for one are so bloody boring.  Eating straight from the foil container is sad.  Drinking straight from the bottle is sad.  Waking up at three thirty in the morning with an empty wine bottle in your hand and your face in a half finished chicken vindaloo is sadder.  You can judge how long a person has been single, by the strength of the take-away curry they buy.  By the time they are eating phaal, they have given up on ever having friends again. 

And yes, I still thought of sad, lonely people as ‘they’ and never ‘me’.

“What about you?” I asked.

“Me?”

“Are you happy?  Are you alone?”

“It’s hard to be alone.  It’s easy to be happy.”

“So, are you?”

“Alone or happy?”

“Both.”

“Yes,” he paused as if trying to decide.  “Both,” he said.  “Sometimes both.  Sometimes neither.  When I’m alone it is because I choose to be alone, when I’m happy it is because I choose not to be alone.  Everyone deserves the everyone they get,” he said.  “But you, you need a friend, I think.”

“I’ve got friends.”

“Any that don’t see friendship as weakness?”  He smiled and held out the paper bag as he rose to his feet.  “Have another,” he said. “This is my stop.” 

He moved towards the aisle and as he did so he indicated the two teenagers in front who had fallen into silence, the music clearly audible from their earphones, a song I had known for years.

“‘Everybody Needs A Friend,’” I said.

“Exactly,” he said and was gone.

Everybody Needs a Friend’ – Wishbone Ash (Listen to the end of this ‘acoustic’ version for my favourite guitar outro of all time, by the great Andy Powell)

A Little Fiction – A Further Excerpt from a Different Unfinished Novel (Conversations with a Bearded Man part two)

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This is the second fragment from a far-away unfinished story that I played with for months before deciding that I didn’t know where to take it.  Recently Dinah and Shaw have appeared in my life and I suddenly understand where everyone is going.  Now all I have to do is to get them there…

…I was walking along some god-forsaken ‘B’ road, somewhere between the middle of nowhere and the middle of nowhere else.  The rain was falling so hard that it was bouncing back from the road surface and having another go at making me wet.  It cut through my clothes like icy spears and made its way down into my very heart and soul – and drowned them.  It had already made its way into the engine of my car which was residing, hopefully beneath several feet of extremely acid rain, in a lay-by somewhere short of the middle of nowhere, whilst I was trudging, huddled and freezing, along this unlit country road searching for somewhere which, for all I knew, quite possibly did not exist.  However low my previous lowest ebb, my present one was even lower and I was beginning to ponder the possibility of drowning by syphonic action.   It was then that I first became aware of the car that had stopped beside me.  I hadn’t heard its approach, nor had I seen its lights, yet there it was, stationary and alongside me; engine running, lights on.  I didn’t wait for an invitation to open the door.

The warmth from within billowed out and enveloped me as I lowered myself into the passenger seat and closed the door behind me.  My glasses steamed up instantly so that, with or without them, I was practically blind.  The car began to move smoothly away as I tried to wipe away the condensation from my spectacle lenses on a sodden jacket that just made the problem worse.  The heat made me feel a little light-headed and the music from the stereo seemed to increase in volume as the car accelerated.

“Persephone,” I said.

“You really do know your Wishbone,” said a voice that I vaguely recollected.

Now, I’ve never been one for putting two and two together and coming up with five, but suddenly I was into double figures.  I went through my pockets, frantically trying to find something dry with which to restore my eyesight.  I felt an arm reach across me and I’m ashamed to admit that I flinched.  The glove compartment dropped open in front of me.  “There’s a box of tissues in there,” he said.  I fumbled around, expecting to come across a gun or a knife or… I don’t know what I expected to come across, but all I actually found was a box of tissues.  “I keep the gun under the seat,” he said.

I was suddenly profoundly uneasy.  I knew from the tone of his voice that what he had said was nothing more than a joke, a light-hearted remark, but it was as if he knew exactly what I had been thinking.  I needed to see him properly.  I pulled out a tissue and wiped the lenses unnecessarily hard.  It crossed my mind that if I continued it might alter the prescription.  I put the glasses back on.  It was him.  A slightly blurry him, but him none-the-less.  Tall, distinguished, white-grey hair, long, but immaculately neat, the beard full, but neatly trimmed.  He looked like an anorexic God, in jeans and a checked shirt. 

“Where are you heading?” he asked.

“To find someone who can mend my car.  It’s broken down, about two miles back I think, probably more by now.  I know it’s in a lay-by, near some trees…  That’s not going to help is it?” I looked through the windscreen at the rain-sodden trees hanging limply to either side of us as far as the eye could see.  “I’ll have to come back this way in the morning, in the light, when it’s stopped raining.  I’m sure I’ll find it then, as long as no-one’s set fire to it.”

“Don’t suppose it would burn in this,” he said.

“No, I guess not.  Well then, I suppose I’ll have to find somewhere to spend the night.  Can you drop me at the next town?”

“Of course,” he said and we lapsed into silence, both entranced by the swish of the wipers on the rain-spattered windscreen and the sound of the tyres on the road.  “I don’t suppose you know where the next town is, do you?” he asked.

“Don’t you?”

“No, I was just out for a drive really, when the rain started falling and I saw you walking.  I never really pay too much attention to where I’m going.  I just sort of know when I get there.  Where were you going?”

“I’m not sure, I just sort of drove.  I was in a temper, I suppose.  I needed to cool down.  It’s something I do; I just get in the car and go.  I think I was driving for quite a long time, I’m not sure, the car just sort of stopped really.  All the lights came on and it stopped.”

“Like you’d run out of petrol?”

“Exactly.”   Light dawned somewhere in the declining grey ooze behind my eyes. “I ran out of petrol.  Stupid, stupid.  Why didn’t I check the fuel?  I…”  The car began to slow.  “Why are you stopping?” I asked.

“I think we’ve arrived,” he said.

Puzzled, I looked around.  The rain had eased, but everything else was as it had been for miles.  Trees, trees and more trees.  And a lay-by.  And my car…

“Erm, thanks,” I said.  “I really… That is how…?”

“It’s good that you’ve cooled down,” he said.  “But I think your family might be wondering where you are.”

“I don’t have one,” I said, instantly aware that I sounded really pathetic, “but you’re right, I ought to be getting home.”

“There’s petrol in the boot,” he said.

I eased myself from the seat and went round to the back of the car.  I wasn’t surprised to see the petrol can, alone in the centre of an otherwise empty boot.  I carried it quickly to my car; the rain had eased, but it was still cold and wetting.   I heard his car begin to pull away behind me.  I wasn’t surprised.  I think I had expected it. 

“Hang on,” I yelled.  “Your petrol can.”

His window opened slightly. “Don’t worry,” he said “I’ll get it next time I see you…”

A Little Fiction – Another Return (Dinah and Shaw part 3)

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Typical!  It was one of those rare days when Dinah found herself with time to think and she could think of nothing at all with which to occupy her mind.  Since meeting Shaw she had become used to finding her head full of the kind of clutter that resembled his life, but today it was full of the kind of void that she always imagined lurked between his ears…  No, that wasn’t fair.  He had more going on in his head than anybody she had ever met.  It was just that none of it ever made any sense.  Every time she thought she had started to get the hang of him; thought that she might guess where he would go next, he would lithely side-step her, leaving her stranded, like a cataleptic jelly fish abandoned on the ebbing tide.  His quantum leaps of illogic were, at times, truly stunning.  His arrival at a point of resolution confounded all reason; even he only seemed to know he had reached it after he arrived there.  Right through his haphazard progress, whatever that might be, he proceeded in a manner that suggested total conviction of purpose.  He never showed doubt.  Even when people shouted at him, ‘But that’s not what I paid you to do!’ he would look them straight in the eye and say.  ‘But it is what you wanted me to do.’  Heated argument often ensued, bills were often ripped-up and tossed into the air, but Shaw simply smiled, took a step backwards and waited for the anger to subside.  ‘You have my number,’ he would say, ‘if you change your mind.’  That’s another thing that Dinah had never got used to; the way that cheques would turn up in the post, days, weeks or even months later, generally with no explanation, just, more often than not, a simple ‘Thank you’ paper-clipped to them.  Whatever Shaw had found for them, it obviously took them some time to discover it for themselves.

It wasn’t strange that she’d never met anybody else quite like him – she wasn’t certain that such a person actually existed.  Even physically he was perplexing.  He was thin to the point of an Estate Agent’s morals and, although barely taller than Dinah herself, he always appeared to tower above her; permanently bewildered.  He had a face that actively discouraged ageing – his features flitted between old man and schoolboy.  He was always heavy-eyed; giving the appearance of someone who most certainly could do with more sleep.  He had a small room behind the office that appeared to be his home, but she didn’t recall ever having seen a bed in it.  She wondered if he slept, like a bat, hanging from the light fitting.  More often than not, he actually slept in her chair, at the desk – most often with his head across her painstakingly sorted paperwork.  When he was awake, he was always on the move.  He always had something that had to be done, but he was never quite sure what.  His pace alternated between laid-back and languid.  She had only ever seen him agitated once, and that was when he was looking for a pencil because he had developed a buzzing in his ear – which he feared might be a bee.  He was terrified of bees.  She’d spent hours trying to educate him about them: their sociability, their vital importance in propagation; their reluctance to sting, when he eventually looked up at her from darkly hooded eyes and said, ‘Earwigs, I meant earwigs’ and terminated the conversation with an airy wave of his hand, before sensing her annoyance and announcing, ‘Cake.  Let me buy you cake…  Do you have any money?’

What most annoyed her about Shaw was that he did what he said: he helped people find things – even if they did not know they were missing.  Mostly, she had to reflect, what they found was themselves.  In Shaw, Dinah had found what was missing in herself, although even now, she was unable to quantify it.  She did not know what she had found, only that it was missing before she found it.  You know when you try so hard to be one of those girls at school that everybody likes, only to find out that that is exactly why nobody likes you?  Well, she’d stopped that now.  She’d realised it was no way to get friends.  She’d realised that might be why she didn’t have any.  For the moment she had Shaw and today, she had to admit, she had never been so pleased to see anyone in her life.  ‘Yes, yes,’ she had said in feigned annoyance when she first saw his lopsided quizzical smile.  ‘That’s fine.  Laugh now, but then go and find ladder to get me out of this tree…’

This is Dinah and Shaw’s third appearance, and probably their last for now.  In my head, I have started to develop some idea of where they are going.  Now I just have to work out how to get them there…

If you are interested in them, this is the link to their first appearance.

A Little Fiction – The Scam

The door pulled tight against its chain and a pair of dull, grey eyes peered out through the gap, squinting as they became accustomed to the bright sunlight.  “Yes,” said the tiny voice from within – a reedy uncertainty evident in its tone.  “Can I help you?”

Derek Fox smiled.  His hair was tousled and his faced was smudged with dirt.  He wore overalls bearing the name of a national house-building company.  He was very polite; so unusual these days.  “Sorry to bother you love,” he said, “But I’m working across the road at number seven and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve got a couple of slates loose.”

“You’re not the first person to suggest that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you already knew.”

“Joke,” she said.  “It was a joke.  Not a funny joke, but a joke.”

“Sorry?”

“You said that I had a couple of slates loose…”

The light of understanding dawned in his eyes.  “Oh, of course,” he said.  “A couple of slates loose.  You had me going there.”  He smiled.  “Do you want to have a look?”

“Sorry?”

“Your loose tiles.  Do you want to see them?”

“Oh, yes.  Just a minute.”  She closed the door while he stood uneasily on the step.  He shuffled his feet and glanced uncertainly over his shoulder.  He decided to give it to the count of five and then run.  You couldn’t be too careful these days…

He was just about to bail when the door opened and the old lady appeared, pulling on her coat.  Derek turned to walk back towards the gate when he felt her hand on his arm.  “A little bit unsteady on my feet,” she said.  “You don’t mind do you.”

He smiled.  “Here, let me show you these tiles, Mrs?…” he said, patting her hand as they walked.  

“Alice,” she said.  “My name is Alice.”  Together they walked along the path, through the gate and onto the street. 

“There, look.”  He pointed up to some uneven tiles on the roof.  This was one of Derek’s favourite scams, and it was always so easy, particularly when there really were a couple of dodgy tiles to point out.

“Oh dear, whatever should I do?” she asked.

“It’s cold out here,” he said.  “I’ll tell you what.  Let’s go inside where it’s warm, you make me a cup of tea and we’ll see what we can do.”  She nodded agreement and turned to walk back towards the house with Derek by her side.  “So easy,” he thought.

Inside the house Alice led him into a dark room.  The curtains were partly drawn and the ceiling pendant had no bulb in it.  As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Derek began to discern the nature of the furniture that surrounded him.  It was all of dark wood.  The dresser was tatty: one door hung from its hinges and a drawer front was missing.  The settee and armchair did not match, other than they were both equally threadbare.  There was no television, no radio and no coal in the fireplace.  It was cold.

Alice indicated the armchair.  “Sit down,” she said.  “I’ll make some tea.”  She left the room and Derek could hear the tap running as she filled the kettle.  Keeping one ear on her incessant conversation and the other on the bang and clatter of tea-making, Derek began to rifle through the dresser drawers, finding nothing but rubbish: cheap mementoes, old photographs and contorted cutlery.  No money, but that wasn’t unusual; old ladies often employed much more singular hiding places for their cash.  He would have to use his usual methods of extracting it.

He was seated, hands on knees, when Alice entered with the tea.  She placed the tray at his feet.  The metal teapot was badly stained, the two cups were chipped and did not match.  The sugar was in a dog-eared bag.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “But the milk’s gone off.  I hope you don’t mind.”  She poured the tea and handed a cup to Derek.  “Sugar?” she asked.

“No thanks love,” he said.  “Got to watch my weight you know.  Doesn’t do to be too heavy when you’re crawling about on roofs.”  She smiled and he pressed home his advantage.  “So, what are we going to do about your roof?”

“Thing is,” she said.  “I don’t have any money.”  He almost stood to leave then, before she continued.  “At least, not in the house.  I’ve got a few bob in the Post Office, but I’ll have to go and get it out.  How much is it going to cost?”

“Well, I’ll fit it in with my other work, so I can do it a lot cheaper than usual.  Let’s say five hundred quid shall we?”

“Five hundred pounds!  That sounds an awful lot for a couple of slates.  Perhaps I ought to get another quote…”

“Tell you what.  I’m already doing a job over the road, I’ll fit you in on their time.  What about if I say four hundred pounds?  It’d normally be a grand.”  Alice breathed deeply and nodded.  “O.K.”

Derek smiled smugly.  It always worked.  Now for the final coup de grace.  “Thing is, because I’m doing the job so cheaply, what I need to do is buy the materials for cash.  I can’t afford to pay the interest if I put it on my account, see.  So, I’m afraid I’ll need you to pay up front.  If you like, I can save you a bit of trouble.  Just give me your Post Office book and I’ll go and get the money while you put your feet up.  Then I can go straight round to the builder’s merchants and get things moving.  What do you say?”

Alice looked doubtful.  “Well,” said Derek, skilfully feigning hurt.  “If you don’t trust me…”  He put his cup down and rose to leave.

“No wait…” said Alice.  She lifted a small vase and retrieved the bank book from beneath it.  “There,” she said.

He took it and headed for the door.  “I’ll bring the book straight back,” he said.  “As soon as I’ve ordered the stuff.”

She took his arm.  “You’re a good lad,” she said and, for a moment, he almost felt guilty.  But only for a moment, and it soon passed.  They walked to the door.  Alice, somewhat unsteady, held on to Derek.  He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Lock the door when I’ve gone,” he said.  “Go and have a nap.  And don’t forget to put the chain on.”

She closed the door behind him and he turned to leave, carefully placing the bank book into his inside pocket.  This would be the last time he could pull this one around here, she was the sixth today and he didn’t want to outstay his welcome.  He drove his van away from the redbrick cul-de-sac and across the dual carriageway before stopping to open the savings book and check out what she had.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The account had been closed for years.  The stupid old trout!  He put the book back in his pocket.  He’d give her what for…  It was then that he realised that his wallet was missing.  At first he thought she must have… No, that just wasn’t possible.  It must have fallen from his pocket while he was helping her to the door.  She’d be keeping it safe until he went back with her bank book.  Of course.

He knocked on the door until his knuckles ached.  He looked through the letterbox and the windows.  Not a sign.  She must have gone out.  He hoped the silly old bat hadn’t dropped down dead.

The woman next-door opened her door just an inch.  Derek used his best smile.  “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said.  “But I’m a bit worried about the lady next door at number five.”

She looked him over.  “Me too,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the house has been empty for six months now, no sign of anybody even slightly interested in it, and then this morning the old lady came along and asked if she could have the keys for half an hour, said she used to live there as a child.  Well I saw no harm, there’s nothing in there anyway.  But, well to tell the truth, I saw you going in a little bit later and I thought, you know, that’s a bit funny.  Then you left and she followed just a few seconds behind you and made no effort to bring the keys back, jumped straight into her car and shot off, so that’s when I called the police.  Have you met detective constable Hargreaves?”

A Little Fiction – Excerpt from Another Unfinished Novel (Dinah and Shaw part 1)

blur book stack books bookshelves
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‘Are you absolutely certain you know what you are doing?’ said Dinah, aware, for the first time, that she was gripping the seat rather more firmly than was strictly necessary. Shaw thought for a moment. He raised his eyes to the sky, without moving his head and breathed in sharply.
‘Certain is a very strong word,’ he said. ‘Can we ever truly be certain? I’m not sure…’
‘But you have a pretty good idea, right?’
‘I have a good idea of what I’m doing,’ he said after a pause that was just a beat too long for Dinah’s liking. ‘Only by dint of the fact that I am doing it. Whatever it is that I am doing, I know that I am doing it. Whether I’m doing it correctly, well, that’s a whole different bucket of frogs. Besides,’ he ploughed on, having gained the kind of momentum that, like the Queen Mary at full steam, meant that stopping was both protracted and cumbersome. ‘There are no prizes for doing things right.’
‘I think you’ll find there are,’ said Dinah.
‘Well, yes,’ agreed Shaw after a pause for reflection, ‘but not necessarily the kind of prize that we would like…’
Dinah pushed hard on a brake that did not exist on her side of the footwell. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she squawked, aware that any prize, however fanciful, would be preferable to an untimely death. ‘Do you think we could possibly stick to the right side of the road?’
Shaw peered exaggeratedly into the distance. ‘Well yes,’ he replied when, eventually, he was happy that his point had been made. ‘Which side would that be?’
‘Just choose one that doesn’t have vehicles hurtling towards us,’ she shrieked, attempting to fold herself into the glove compartment.
‘I mean,’ continued Shaw, ‘it’s all subjective, isn’t it? There is no right or wrong is there? Only opinion…’
Dinah swallowed hard. ‘I would really rather like it if you went along with the majority view. At least,’ she said, ‘until you manage to drop below a hundred miles an hour.’
Shaw glanced down at the dashboard dials. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s what that is… What’s that flashing?’
‘I think it is a tiny piece of the car’s AI that has managed to retain its sanity and is questioning why you are still in third gear.’
Shaw gazed questioningly at the gearstick. ‘It’s not automatic?’ he asked. Dinah shook her head in answer, as a rigor-like grimace fused itself to her face. Shaw, uncertain of how to approach the gear change, lifted his foot slightly from the accelerator and the car began to slow a little. Dinah peered out from between her knees. ‘Where are we going anyway?’ she asked, hampered only by the fact that her tongue had become welded to the roof of her mouth.
‘I’m, not certain,’ said Shaw. ‘I normally decide that when I get there.’
‘So, how do you know when you’ve arrived?’ She persisted.
‘Well, if I wasn’t there, I’d be somewhere else, wouldn’t I?’ Shaw looked at her as if it was, just possibly, the most stupid question he had ever been asked.
Dinah blushed slightly; embarrassed but affronted and, therefore defiant. ‘So, what if you arrive somewhere that you’re not meant to be?’ she asked.
‘Not meant to be?’ Shaw, again, looked confused. ‘Where you are,’ he said, ‘is where you are meant to be – although not,’ he paused for effect, ‘not necessarily where you had aimed to be.’
‘But how then,’ Dinah groped on, ‘do you know that you will find what you’re looking for?’
‘Looking for?’ Shaw, himself, looked alarmed now. ‘Who actually ever knows what they’re looking for?’
‘But your advert,’ said Dinah, hunting through her pockets for the scrap of paper. ‘It says that you specialise in finding things: missing people, missing pets…’
‘I do,’ he protested. ‘Although what I find is not always what I thought I was looking for.’
‘But how do you know what’s lost?’
‘We’re all lost,’ he answered. ‘Somehow…’
Dinah eased herself back into her seat, happy, for the first time, that the car was travelling at a reasonable speed and roughly in the same direction as all the other vehicles. This was without question the weirdest job interview she had ever been on and, having assumed some kind of self-control, she decided that it was time to get a grip on the conversation. ‘So,’ she began, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there, why do you even need an assistant?’
‘To assist me,’ he replied, deliberately trying to inflect an unsaid ‘Doh!’ into the words.
‘To do what?’ she persisted.
‘Whatever I’m doing.’
Dinah realised that she was on a road to nowhere and tried a new tack. ‘What’s the rate of pay?’ she asked.
‘Pay?’ Shaw was shocked. ‘What for?’
‘You advertised for an assistant.’
‘I know,’ he said, ‘but not an employee.’
‘You expect somebody to assist you for free?’
‘Only for as long as they want to.’ He passed her a mint which she unwrapped and placed in her mouth, deep in thought.
‘Erm, I thought,’ he said, only a little petulantly, ‘that you would unwrap that for me.’
‘Oh,’ she mumbled, fishing the sweet out of her mouth. ‘Do you want it?’
He looked at it in her hand, glistening with saliva, and was tempted, but, ‘No,’ he replied. ‘It’s fine.’
Dinah, meanwhile, had made a decision. She realised that somehow, via a process she did not fully understand, she had, herself, found something for which she did not realise she was searching. ‘Alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll be your assistant.’
‘Good,’ said Shaw, now taking the half-sucked sweet from her and popping it into his own mouth. ‘But, in future, you’ll have to be a bit more careful with the mints…’

If you have enjoyed Dinah and Shaw, their little story now has a part two and a part three

A Little Fiction – The Gold Coin

pawnbroker.jpg
Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

The old man placed the single gold coin onto the scales and peered myopically at the needle in the centre of the balance. ‘Doesn’t weigh enough,’ he said, glancing down over the rim of his glasses. ‘It’s not heavy enough for a sovereign.’
‘It’s not a sovereign,’ replied the man on the other side of the meshed metal grille.
‘I know that,’ said the old man. ‘I told you, it doesn’t weigh enough… and it weighs too much for a half sovereign.’
‘It’s not one of those either.’
‘I know that,’ sighed the old man, pushing the wire frame of his glasses back along the bridge of his nose. ‘I told you, it weighs too much.’ The old man shifted slightly in his seat and studied the man who had presented him with the unfamiliar gold coin. He was small. He was fidgety, nervous thought the old man. Better watch him.
The small man removed his hat and scratched his head. He was even smaller without the head gear. ‘Well,’ he asked, staring up, his eye line below the height of the counter. ‘Will you buy it?’
‘I don’t know. What is it?’
‘It’s a punt Éireannach.’
‘A what? A punt? They never made gold punts.’
The little man stared down at the floor, grappling with his thoughts. After a few moments he looked straight up at the man with the scales. He sighed deeply. ‘Leprechaun gold,’ he said. ‘It’s Leprechaun gold. From the end of a rainbow.’
The pawn broker readjusted his glasses and carefully studied the elvin man on the other side of the screen. He was even smaller than a more casual glance had led him to believe. Child sized. But he had a beard and long grey hair. He looked like an ageing cherub in a green twill suit. The uncle spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Leprechaun gold you say? From the end of a rainbow, you say?’
‘You musta seen it,’ said the little fellow. ‘The rainbow. You musta seen it yesterday.’
‘I saw the rainbow,’ replied the shopkeeper. ‘You’re saying that this gold coin came from the end of it?’
The dwarf nodded so violently that his hat flew from his head. He picked it up, dusted it and wedged it back in place, pulling it down firmly to his ears.
‘So, it is actually yours?’ asked the pawn broker.
‘I told you, it’s Leprechaun gold.’
‘And?’
‘And I’m a Leprechaun, hence it is mine.’
‘Is it not,’ enquired the dealer, leaning forward slightly in order to more closely observe the lovat Lillipution on the other side of the counter. ‘Is it not the property of whomever finds the end of the rainbow. Is that not what it is there for?’
‘Human myth,’ said the homoncule. ‘Leprechaun gold belongs to Leprechauns.’
‘So how come you’ve only got one coin? If it’s gold from the rainbow’s end, it comes in pots, doesn’t it?’
‘It was a small rainbow. I’m a lone worker. Don’t have the resources to deal with the big jobs. Have to leave those to the big boys – as it were…’
‘So you’re telling me that Leprechauns don’t put the gold at the end of the rainbows?’
The Leprechaun answered with nothing more than a derisive snort.
‘So who does put the gold there then?’
‘Ah,’ said the Leprechaun. ‘That’s the mystery, isn’t it?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Well of course not. Nobody knows.’
‘So you can’t possibly know who it actually belongs to.’
‘Well I found it.’
‘I went to London,’ said the old man in the chair. ‘And I found Buckingham Palace. Doesn’t mean I own it.’
The Leprechaun looked at him long and hard. Tension pulled so tight on the muscles of his forehead that his hat fell down over his eyes. ‘Ah feckit,’ he said. ‘D’youse want to buy it or not?’
‘I’ll give you fifty Euro,’ said the man.
‘Fifty Euro,’ spluttered the pygmy. ‘Fifty feckin’ Euro? It’s worth twice that.’
‘Take it or leave it.’
‘Fifty Euros? You’d rob a feckin’ Leprechaun.’
‘But you’re not actually a Leprechaun at all, are you?’
The little man pulled himself up to his full height, which allowed him to see just over the counter top. He seethed with impotent rage. ‘I want cash mind,’ he said at last.
The man counted out the notes and slid them under the grille, from where the emerald-hued elf snatched them and stashed them under his hat. ‘Not a feckin’ Leprechaun,’ he said, turning to leave. ‘I wish you good day sir.’ And with a ‘Pop!’ he disappeared. As did the coin in the pawnbroker’s scales…

A Little Fiction – No Matter

blue and red galaxy artwork
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

The ectoplasmic cloud swirled gently around the room. At its centre pulsed two indistinct orbs, one of pink and one of blue, both of which were quite unlike anything you could find in the Dulux catalogue. As the cloud drifted around it coalesced slightly, resolving itself into two separate nebula that swirled lazily around the pastel orbs. Between them was a world of silence – not because they were unable to communicate verbally, not even because communication between them took place on a plane that transcended the verbal realm (the language they used was actually, to the human ear, slightly reminiscent of somebody inhaling a jelly fish) – they were silent because the blue globe had just returned home from his works ‘do’ some two hundred years after it had finished. (Perhaps I should explain here that the lifespan of the blobs was something approaching fifty thousand Earth years. Furthermore, the planet upon which they currently bobbed, circled its sun five hundred times every Earth year. Time passed very differently – especially if you were waiting for the pizza delivery.)
“Look,” said the cyan sphere at length, desperate to break the silence. With an audible grunt the pink nucleus pulled her aurora around her so tightly that it almost became solid. If she had a back, she would have turned it.
“Look,” continued Blue. “It was two hundred years, not millennia. I just got lost on the way back. You know what it’s like – can’t tell one constellation from another after a while. They all look the same, bleedin’ planets: round, brown, spinning… mostly. Before you know where you are, you don’t know where you are.”
“Particularly when you’ve hung a few large ones on,” spat out Pink, with a vengeance that made her drizzle slightly. “Who were you with between leaving the party and fetching up here two centuries behind schedule?”
“With?” Queried blue. “With? I’m a wosname… amorphous cloud, barely visible at my core and I trail away God knows how far into the ether at my perimeter. I don’t know. I could have been with anyone. That is part of the nature of being vast.”
“Doesn’t stop you getting home on time,” said Pink.
“Look, O.K. I’ll level with you. I needed some space. You know what it’s like, trying to squeeze yourself into a physical void of finite volume.”
“Of course I bloody do. I was stuck in here for two thousand years last night on my own whilst you were out partying. I’ve got the kind of omni-directional cramp that only an ectomorph can know.”
“Why don’t you go out and get some fresh air?”
“Fresh air?” cried Pink as ice crystals instantly formed throughout her being. “Fresh air? Have you forgotten where we are? Space is a vacuum. There is no air, fresh or otherwise around here… Mind you, if you were any kind of a blob, you’d find me some. In the past you’d have popped across to that little blue and green planet… what’s it called? Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You’d have gone there and brought me some back.”
“It’s two billion light years away…”
“And in the opposite direction to the pub.”
“Right then,” said Blue. “Right then. If that’s what you want, I’ll go. You want fresh air, I’ll bring you fresh air. Don’t wait up, I may be some time.”
“Particularly if you get lost again,” said Pink.
Blue snorted derisively, sending out a pulsar that engulfed a neighbouring solar system (the third planet of which was, ironically, in an Earth-like orbit and brimming with fresh air). “Right!” And, slamming the door behind him he sped off into the vast emptiness, leaving behind him a trail of vapour that would, one day, give birth to life on a million planets. All was quiet.
“Blimey,” said the room, at last. “That was close. I thought he’d never go…”

A Little Fiction – The Custodian of Time

A Little Fiction – You’ve Got A Geriatric Friend In Me