Unexpected Friends.

 

It seemed to be glowing in the dark and Alexander Ethan Murray pulled the blanket over his head and trembled. He knew the toy Uncle Myles had brought from his travels in New York was trouble from the moment he unwrapped it.

“It’s a GI Joe.” Uncle Myles had declared. “They’re all the rage in New York.”

“It’s a doll.” Alexander Ethan Murray had said.

“It’s a soldier doll for boys.” His mother said. Her voice had that unspoken ‘don’t be ungrateful’ edge to it and Alexander Ethan Murray looked up at his uncle.

“Thank you Uncle Myles.” He said picking up the doll and holding it far away from his body. He put it down on the table in his bedroom. It didn’t seem fair to foist it onto his toys safely tucked up in the toy box. Who knows what they will make of the grimacing soldier with his Khaki outfit and combat rifle.

Alexander Ethan Murray ran down the stairs forgetting about the doll and played with Uncle Myles and Dad all afternoon. They teased him by holding a ball high above their heads and making him jump for it. He scampered about in circles and Mother said he was getting overexcited and to settle down. He was climbing into bed before he remembered Uncle Myles’s present. Mother came into his bedroom.

“Sleep tight darling.” She said kissing him on the cheek and drawing the blanket up to his chin. He felt silly asking her to take GI Joe out of the room. He couldn’t always put his feelings into words so Mother switched off the light and closed the door before he said anything. The moonlight thrust its way into the room flooding the table and illuminating GI Joe. Alexander Ethan Murray stared in horror as the soldier’s eyes glowed like embers. He was sure the rustling he heard was the toy struggling to climb out of the box that held him prisoner. Alexander Ethan Murray flung the blanket over his head with a squeak.

“Alexander Ethan Murray, get up boy! Hiding under the blankets won’t help us.” An unfamiliar voice said with a drawl. “We have an important mission to do.” Alexander Ethan Murray peeped over the blanket. GI Joe leapt off the table and marched to his bed. “We have no time to waste. Come with me.” He strode over to the door, stopped and waited for Alexander Ethan Murray who then followed him down the stairs.

“Where are we going? What do we need to do?” He said.

“Questions, questions! A soldier must follow commands my boy.” GI Joe said but his voice was kindly now. “The mission is to save the wooden train engine that fell from your window onto the grass below.” Alexander Ethan Murray gasped.

“When? How? My train engine?”

“Too many questions.” GI Joe sighed and the boy swallowed the others welling up in his throat. They tiptoed past Uncle Myles snoring softly on the sofa, his feet hanging over the side. The blanket had slipped onto the floor and Alexander Ethan Murray resisted the temptation to drape it back over his sleeping uncle. He scuttled after GI Joe who was tapping his foot in impatience at the closed front door. Alexander Ethan Murray stood on tiptoe and unlatched the door. It swung open and GI Joe strode out to the side of the house. The train engine was lying crumpled and forlorn on the grass. The soldier knelt down and patted the engine gently.

“Are you in one piece or do we have to find the bits of you?” He said.

“I think I’m altogether, sir.” The engine said shakily.

Alexander Ethan Murray bent to pick up his engine and cradled it in his arms as they walked back inside. He had to place it on the floor to close and latch the door. When they were back in his bedroom he examined the engine carefully. There did not seem to be any lasting damage but just in case Alexander Ethan Murray put it under the blanket. He climbed into bed next to the engine and yawned.

“Mission well done boy. You will make a fine soldier one day.”

“Thank you GI Joe,” Said Alexander Ethan Murray “But I want to be a Doctor just like my Dad.” GI Joe shrugged and went to stand next to the toy box.

“To each his own.” He said. “I will stand guard while you sleep. Good night Alexander Ethan Murray.”

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Mortal Enemies.

I saw the leopard making his way over the blood splattered ground and I knew he had seen me too. I froze mesmerised by his gaze. The remains of his last meal, a hollowed out warthog, lay in repose under a Mopani tree on a shroud of leaves. The cat settled gracefully onto the ground and closed his eyes. He was panting, tongue pink, teeth glistening. Warthog blood tainting his chin, his chest merged with his chequered pelt.

I knelt down about five metres away to observe him. My cameras hung heavy around my neck and I removed one slowly. Keeping my movements fluid I brought the camera to my eye. I had waited many months for this. I focused on his face. The artificial click of the camera caused his eyes to open, intent once more. It was a perfect shot. I took a few more but tired of me, he closed his eyes again.

Suddenly he was up, mouth open, threatening and feral, tossing dust into the air. He seemed to look past me. A low growl reverberated and I turned, insubstantial and unprepared. A male Lion stood huge and terrifyingly close. His black mane trembled as he swung his head from side to side. He looked from me to the leopard. I was still crouched, helpless, one camera clutched in clammy hands, another around my neck. A fly buzzed, attracted by the sweat trickling from my brow. My mind was vacant and my body no longer solid but water, structure melted away. The cats stared at each other warily. I was forgotten in their enmity.

The leopard behind me screamed and lunged and his rival retreated briefly with a snarl. The lion charged, the ground rumbling under his weight and power. With a flick of his head the leopard feinted sideways. Instinctive as a primate I leaped towards the Mopani tree seeking sanctuary among its lofty limbs. My camera clattered to the ground and the lion swung around jaws snapping but I was not his focus. By the time he turned for his enemy the leopard was already padding for the undergrowth and disappeared.

The lion shook his body vigorously, glanced up at me clinging to the tree and ambled over to the warthog. I still had a camera around my neck and tried to distract my trembling body by taking copious photographs. I resigned myself to a long wait in my now favourite tree. It was dusk before with a shake of his immense head he left his feast under the tree. I clambered down aching but alive with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Dreaming.

 

 

 

Finding a shaded spot under a tree I begin to dream. Leaves tumble like confetti over me. My life dissolves leaving me behind and smells that are lacking usually begin to permeate my dream world. Jasmine and lavender mingle with summer showers on freshly cut grass. I am happy and safe. Uncle Fred is far away and Mom puts aside the brown paper bag that hides the bottle from the world. I conjure up a table laden with fragrant dishes surrounded by people laughing without derision. Cheerful songs blare from the radio and we all sing along. I never sing in the real world.

The school siren signals the end of lunch break. I keep my eyes closed willing time to expand but the spell is broken and I am once more – me, myself, I.

“Hey, freak wake up!” I open my eyes and glower at Matt as he kicks my shoe on his way back to the classroom. Gathering my bag I stand and flick the leaves from my uniform and follow Matt’s retreating figure. If I could I would walk backwards but I am already the last one outside.

Figures and facts swirl like whirlpools inside my head as the day inches forward. I doodle in the margins of my book slouching in my chair as one teacher merges into another. The final siren of the day brings the class to their feet. I stay sitting until everyone has left. The empty classroom smells of pencil shavings and chalk and echoes with fading footsteps. I could stay here forever cocooned in the quiet. I finally heave myself from behind my desk and walk down the echoing corridor and out of the school gates. A woman with thinning grey hair sits on the concrete step clutching her bag to her concave chest and her eyes flicker nervously. I sit on the curb playing Candy Crush on my phone until the bus arrives.

The bus judders to a stop. I step onto the verge and stare at the gaping front door. Mom must be home. She is early. My stomach lurches. Early is bad. Late is bad. The words repeat like a crazy mantra inside my head.

“Mom?” I say walking inside. The house greets me without enthusiasm. Limp furniture litters the lounge. I drop my bag onto the wine stained carpet. “Mom?” I say again.

“Lily! You’re home.” Uncle Fred comes out of the kitchen munching a sandwich.

“Where’s Mom?” I say, backing away.

“Sis has gone away for a few days. Asked me to check in on you. Aren’t you happy to see me? Hey honeybun come give your Uncle a hug.” He strides towards me his arms wide open and I stare as his sandwich bleeds mayonnaise onto the floor. I reverse into the dark wood dresser, which holds me out to him like a gift.

Early is bad, late is bad, my brain screams silently.

 

 

 

 

If one door slams…

 

I gripped the letter with such force it split down the middle. The paper fluttered autumnally to the ground. I was as discarded as the carpet of leaves outside.

Watching the raindrops roll down the glass I allowed the heavens to do my crying for me. I was too angry to acknowledge the sadness pulsing behind my eyes. The years felt brittle as yesterday. When did I start pinning my dreams on Richard? I had always been fiercely independent. My Father had predicted that I would be an old maid if I kept it up. Men wanted to feel needed. Nothing good could come from an independent woman. And I thought I could cheat destiny even if I had to contort myself to avoid it.

Richard hypnotised me with his azure eyes and his toothpaste commercial smile. He was everything I had avoided for years. Popular, beautiful and irreverent, he radiated confidence and had a following reminiscent of a messiah. I prided myself a loner, following anyone or anything except a story, was not a possibility.

The night we met I was sipping a cocktail surrounded by the journalists of the newspaper I served but immersed in my own thoughts. My colleagues had learnt to give me a wide berth. The war had made it starkly evident that all was not equal and I was still bristling from the meeting with Doug.

“Too dangerous!” Douglas, our editor had bellowed, his handlebar moustache trembling with indignation. “God, woman, look around. Men are getting blown to bits and you want to join them? Bring me the fashion piece I asked you for days ago. Women will never make war correspondent on my paper.” And he dismissed me with a flick of his wrist.

I was peevish with disappointment and observed this man in uniform strut like a pigeon. My face must have been as dark as my thoughts because he broke from his adoring disciples and marched over to me.

“Hello beautiful lady, why so serious?” His face crinkled into a lopsided smile. I struggled to maintain my scowl. “Point out the rascal and I will sort him out.” He said smacking his fist into his palm.

His gaze never wavered that night. It was a light shining onto my face. I felt seen for the first time. We spent stolen moments from his military engagements intertwined like vines. I resented his easy comings and goings. I felt rooted, earth bound by him. No man had ever entered my soul as he did. I was trapped as surely as a gazelle in the jaws of a lion.

Years of screaming sirens and distant explosions muffled the waiting, nights of passion amongst the bleeding and the pain. I never realised how much I waited. How could I put my life on hold for something so prosaic?

“Colette, God sake, woman where are you? Dreaming into space. That’s why women would make God awful soldiers.” I had been miles away dreaming of languishing in Richard’s arms. I resolved to put him from my mind until his jaunty rat-a-tat on my door but he remained on the periphery of my thoughts always.

Now he has put me outside his life. The letter informing me of his impending marriage was sour with memories of his kisses. I turned back to the window. The rain had stopped and a shaft of sunlight lit up my desk. I shifted my chair and sought the heat on my face.

I read once ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to never to have loved at all.’ One day I may feel that way but for now I needed to erase the smell of him. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly as if breathing in the rays of the sun.

“Colette!” I opened my eyes with a start. “You still want to be a war correspondent?” Douglas’s protuberant eyes bored into me.

“Ye…Yes.” I stammered.

“Stupidest idea ever but the board want a woman on the front. Woman’s perspective my arse…! Apologies, Colette but you want the job, it’s yours.”

Abruptly the gloom of moments before was bleached by sunlight. This was my destiny. The one I had always longed for. One door closed as another opened. The invitation was to step through this open door.

I didn’t hesitate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All that glitters…

 

The cave was partly hidden but unmistakable from Cutter’s elaborate description. The steep slope, at least fifty meters down, was daunting but if what he said was true, well worth it. Cutter was a strange one; I still question his motives for telling me about the coins. But I have always been a sucker for an adventure. So here I was standing on this precipice looking for a way down that would not splatter my brains onto the rocks.

I approached it like the Climbing Wall in my gym. Without the harness any misstep would be fatal so I took my time testing my footing before putting my weight on the rock. It was arduous and exhausting work. The cliff-face was too jagged to abseil but I still took the precaution of tying a rope around the bull bar of my Hilux parked as close to the edge as possible.

I rested on a huge boulder jutting straight out about thirty meters from the bottom and peered over the edge. The ledge was a long drop into the foamy waves crashing against sharp rocks. I had no way of knowing whether the water was deep enough to dive and the rope fell depressingly short. I had chosen to do this during low tide but still there was only a thin line of white sand separating the cave from the churning ocean. I wouldn’t have much time before the cave flooded.

I grabbed the rope once more and heaved myself over the edge. I didn’t anticipate the serrated rock obscured by the ledge and it sliced into my shin. I gasped in pain sliding down the rope until I hung about three meters from the water. Drenched by the spray I leapt feet first. The water tossed me like a salad but I was able to navigate the rocks and flung myself towards the sliver of beach.

It was wider than I thought and I lay gasping for breath. I sat up mesmerised by the blood soaking into the sand. A flash of white told me the cut opened to the bone. I removed my t-shirt and tearing a strip off the bottom I tied it around the wound. I haven’t got time for this, I told myself sternly and stood. My shin hurt like hell and the makeshift bandage was crimson in seconds. I hobbled to the mouth of the cave.

It was dark and smelt of bat urine and rotting seaweed. I removed the headlamp from my waist pouch and put it on. The outer cave led to a smaller one, which I had to bend to enter.   An odd whooshing noise made me feel as though I had my ear to a conch shell. I turned my head, the light leached into the corners and shadows danced off the oily walls. I saw the small bag tucked into a ledge cut out of the rock. It was heavy in my hand. I pulled it open and the coins shimmered under the gaze of my headlamp. I tucked it into the pouch, which slumped heavily against my stomach and limped out of the cave.

Getting back up was going to be a challenge especially with my throbbing shin. Blood pooled in my shoe and my foot was sticky. I gazed up at the rope out of my reach and my stomach lurched. The tide was surging in and time was running out. The rocks were uneven and slippery and I heaved myself up, climbing on my hands and knees, ignoring my screaming shin. I steadied myself and leaned over to clasp the rope but it swung away from my fingers. The waves crashed against the rocks almost knocking me over. I bent again and finally grabbed the rope with one hand. Years of weight lifting and bench pressing had finally paid off as my muscles strained under my weight. I kicked myself away from the sheer wall of stone careful to watch out for jutting rocks and pulled myself up the rope. I was breathing heavily from the effort but made headway achingly slowly. I reached the ledge and climbed the rest of the way up. I staggered over the edge with a yell of triumph.

There grinning malevolently was Cutter, a pistol glittering in the afternoon sun pointed at my head…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kisses from strangers.

She had forgotten what it felt like to breathe. This man had unleashed something in her. She didn’t even know his name but he had laid bare all her secrets and freed her from them. She turned over to look at his beautiful face as he slept. His dark lashes emphasised his ivory skin and his mouth was parted. She recalled that mouth exploring her body and the unusual stillness of her mind.

They had seen each other across the crowded club and she had gravitated towards him as if being pushed by an invisible force. She had indulged in a couple of tequila shots only moments before with Carla and the girls but it would normally take much more than that to throw herself at someone. But she could not resist the lure of his gaze. Was it his smoky eyes that drew her or the amused incline of his mouth? She flushed when she remembering standing in front of him.

“Hello.” She had said as though it held hidden meaning.

“Hello.” He said and his smile splintered into a grin. His teeth were white and straight and she longed to kiss his generous mouth. “Drink?” He said and she nodded. He laughed and it was strong and masculine and unbelievably captivating. She remembers having to sit down on a barstool. Her knees were wobbling. I am absolutely friggin’ weak at the knees, she thought, wondering whether Carla was watching her make a fool of herself. “What can I get you? Beer?” He said, his eyes like the ashes of fires. She nodded again not trusting herself to speak although she hated beer.

They took the beers with them and stood outside leaning up against a car and he kissed her. The beer dropped from her hands splashing up against their jeans but they barely noticed. His tongue teased and probed her mouth until she felt all of her disappearing.

“My car is around the corner.” She said and he nodded. Her keys were in her pocket but Carla still had her bag. She thrust it from her mind and concentrated on driving. His hand was on her thigh, which felt feverish. All thought was driven away by sensation. She parked the car outside the apartment building and they were quiet for moments. She stared out of the windscreen acutely aware of his gaze on her. His hand was still on her thigh and he flickered his fingers further up her leg. She gasped and flung her arms around his neck and they kissed once more. He broke away and looked intently into her eyes.

“Should we go in?” He said.

“Yes.” She said and it came out strident as though she was trying to convince herself but she needed no convincing. This felt more right that the three year relationship with Drew.

She was gratified that she and Carla had tidied up before they left and the flat looked attractive and inviting. Her sketches were on the pegboard and Carla’s photographs fanned out over the walls.

“Do you want something to drink?” she asked although she couldn’t remember if they had anything. He shook his head and she opened her bedroom door. She had left her nightlight on that she’d had since she was a kid. Complete darkness still made her uneasy. It gave the room a pink hue. He sat on the bed and pulled her down next to him. He was unhurried, his fingers leaving a trail of warmth on her skin as he peeled the clothes from her body…

She slept better than she had in years.

“Morning.” He said smiling up at her. He smelt of dew and sunshine. She leant over and kissed him.

Second chances

 

There wasn’t much going on, but there was a sense of expectancy today as Maggie McCloud padded to the front door in her slippers. Foster her sleek black cat was meowing piteously on the other side. She opened the door. Foster gazed at her for a second, juddered his tail in greeting and strode into the house.

“Good Morning Foster have you been out all night then?” Said Maggie filling his bowl with cat food from the tin on the sideboard. She turned on the kettle. It was still early and the sky, framed by her kitchen window, was flushed.

Maggie made it a rule not to rise before six. She did not want to become like Mrs Gillis next door who wore her carpets thin pacing the floors all hours of the day and night. Time is a strange one, to be sure, she thought with a smile. When she had the children living at home there were never enough hours in the day. Now she struggled to fill them. She was not one for the telly. David, her husband of forty–two years had loved the football and the game shows.

“Come now love, leave the cleaning and sit here next to me. Lets watch ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’ together.” He would say and pat the worn sofa. She’d sit for a few seconds but it was torture doing nothing. Maggie wished now she had sat, held his hand and watched the programmes he had loved so much. There are no second chances in life she brooded, pouring hot water over the teabag. She shook her head and scolded herself. She was one of the lucky ones. She had enjoyed forty-two years with David. She still had two beautiful children and three adorable grandchildren who visited her on the last Sunday of every month.

She took her tea out into the garden and welcomed the sun’s salute to the start of the day. The garden called out for her attention and before long she was happily weeding with Foster weaving in and out of the flowerbeds.

Her doorbell chimed and she looked down at her wristwatch. Goodness me, she thought, it is almost lunchtime and I haven’t even thought about breakfast. I wonder who that could be? Visitors were rare these days. She shook the soil from her clothes, removed her gloves and walked back inside. The doorbell chimed again.

“I’m coming!” She called hurrying to open the door.

“Maggie?” A craggy face with a shock of white hair said.

“Yes…may I help you?” She peered up at him. He looked vaguely familiar but she could not place him.

“It’s Donny…er…Donald Masters.” He said shuffling. He looked embarrassed that she had not recognised him.

“Oh my word, Donny!” She flushed now. He had been her boyfriend before she met David. How had he found her? “Come in, come in.” She said standing back for him.

He walked inside the house and stood stiffly in the hallway.

“I’m sorry, I should have called. I have moved into the area and someone mentioned that you lived here. I should have called.” He said again.

“I’m happy to see you. My goodness, Donny it’s been years.” Maggie said. His face was lined but his blue eyes were unmistakable.

“Forty –six years this September.” He said and smiled.

“You remember?” Maggie smiled up at him.

“How could I forget? It was my greatest regret letting you go. You still look exactly the same Maggie.”

“Oh now that’s not true.” Maggie said and laughed. She blushed and turned to switch on the kettle. She made tea and brought out the biscuits she reserved for family visits. She felt an unusual fluttering of excitement. You never could be sure what life had in store for you from one moment to the next.