Silver

There was once a woman who loved to drink tea with four spoonfuls of powdered milk. She was also prone to unique superstitions.

So when she was pregnant, she ran into trouble with the old rhyme:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret, never to be told.

Four for a boy. With every cup of tea she drank, she was casting a little spell for a son. And she absolutely, definitely wanted a daughter. This would never do.

She cut down to three spoonfuls of milk in each cup. Three for a girl. The tea tasted thin and bitter. This wouldn’t do either.

Finally, she reached a solution. For the rest of her pregnancy, she had five spoonfuls of powdered milk in every cup of tea.

She was my mother. My gender is ‘silver’.

Bookmark and Share

Thorn-Rose

There were thirteen fairies in the kingdom when Princess Rose was born; but as thirteen was unlucky, and thirteen fairies unluckier still, the King and Queen only asked twelve to be her godmothers.

On the night of the princess’s christening, while her godmothers were giving her the gifts of beauty, song, embroidery, and so on, a terrible storm struck the castle. It rattled the windows and tore the royal pennants from the towers. With a great howl of wind, the doors of the banqueting-hall came banging open, and the candles all blew out. Silhouetted against the stormy sky, with her black robes whipping about her and lightning in her hair, stood the thirteenth fairy.

The queen ran to the cradle to protect her child, and the king drew his sword. The thirteenth fairy laughed. ‘Never fear,’ she said, ‘I only want to give her a gift.’

The frightened crowd parted as she swept down the hall and stooped low over the cradle. The baby began to cry. ‘Your Highness,’ said the thirteenth fairy, ‘I give you the gift of Eternal Youth. On your fifteenth birthday, you will prick your finger on a spindle, and drop down dead!’

In the outcry that followed, she whirled herself up in her shadowy cloak and vanished with a clap of thunder. A wisp of smoke lingered in the air.

The queen caught up her baby from the cradle and held her tight, and the king ran to her side and held them both. All three of them were in tears. ‘Somebody do something,’ sobbed the queen. ‘Save our child.’

‘I can undo the curse,’ said the twelfth fairy. ‘Little princess, I give you the gift of wishes. On your fifteenth birthday, you will not die. Instead, your dearest wish will come true!’

But somehow, word must have reached the thirteenth fairy that her curse had been undone. One night, as the baby princess slept, a storm-wind whirled about her tower, and riding on its back came a dark and angry figure. Her face leered in at the rain-lashed window, and the window creaked open. The thirteenth fairy whispered a terrible spell:

‘O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.’

She uncurled her hand, and blew something from her palm into the chamber. A shadow in the shape of a caterpillar settled on the crib, and inched up the coverlet towards the sleeping princess. It ate its way into the baby’s heart, and there it stayed. The name of the shadow was Fear of Change.

The poor princess, for all her fairy gifts, grew up deeply unhappy. She sang very sweetly, but her songs were always mournful; the pictures she embroidered were always dark and sad; and her beauty was often spoiled by tears. In autumn she cried for the falling leaves; in spring, for the melting snow. When relatives said to her, ‘Haven’t you grown?’ she cried. And on her birthdays she cried most of all. A whole year lost, an age she’d never, ever be again.

Everyone had heard that on her fifteenth birthday, her dearest wish was destined to come true; and everyone had an idea of what that wish should be, and tried to influence her. But the princess hardly heard them. ‘I wish,’ she used to say, over and over, ‘I wish everything could stay the same for ever.’

If her dearest wish came true, she thought, she would wake up on the morning of her fifteenth birthday to find she was still fourteen. When that morning came, and the maid poked her head in and said cheerfully, ‘Happy birthday!’ she was bitterly disappointed. She crept off to the topmost room of her tower to cry alone.

There in the little round attic, where bats nested in the rafters of the pointed roof, sat a beautiful lady at a spinning-wheel.

‘What’s that?’ said the princess, who had never seen one.

‘This is a wishing-wheel,’ said the lady. ‘Come and play with it, and your dearest wish will come true.’

Forgetting all her manners, the princess dived for the spinning-wheel in wild excitement, and grabbed at the spindle; and the point, sharp as a rose-thorn, stabbed into her finger. As soon as her blood touched the spindle-wood, she fell down in a deep sleep, and all the castle with her. The king and queen fell asleep on their thrones, and the servants fell asleep in the kitchen, and the horses in the stables, and the birds fluttered out of the air.

The thirteenth fairy picked the princess up in her arms, and carried her down the spiral stairs, and laid her down on her bed, among the worn old dolls and teddy-bears she had never given up. ‘Sleep well,’ she whispered, ‘your dearest wish has come true.’

In the little attic room, the spinning-wheel suddenly blossomed with roses; it put down roots into the floor, and curled tendrils out of the windows, and by morning the whole castle was hedged about with roses, whose thorns were tipped with red.

For a hundred years the princess dreamed among the roses, while her hair grew long and tangled with the thorns, and the dust of years settled on her face. Many princes tried to rescue her, but as soon as the thorns pricked them, every one of them dropped down dead. The princess smiled in her dreams. She didn’t want to be rescued. She wanted everything to stay the same for ever.

Some say the thirteenth fairy regretted her action at last, and some say it was just coincidence; but whatever the reason, when a young prince was born in a far-away kingdom, there was a storm at his christening, and a mysterious lady came uninvited and gave him the gift of wishes.

When he was almost fifteen, the prince saw a picture of the princess in an old book, and fell instantly in love with her. ‘Who is she?’ he asked his tutor.

‘Thorn-Rose they call her,’ said the tutor. ‘They say she lies trapped in an enchanted sleep, in a castle of thorns, and all the princes who tried to rescue her have died.’

‘I wish,’ said the prince, ‘I wish she would wake up and love me.’

‘It’s been a hundred years,’ said the tutor. ‘I doubt there is much of her left.’

But the prince hardly heard him. ‘I’m going to find her,’ he said.

So he set off on the long journey to the castle of thorns. He arrived there on the morning of his fifteenth birthday. Thick as trees the ancient roses twisted and towered above him, full of bones and rusting armour caught on their cruel thorns. But the prince wasn’t afraid, because he had the gift of wishes. He put out his hand, and touched the roses, and a rose-thorn pricked his finger. And as soon as his blood touched the thorn, the roses parted like a curtain, and let him through.

Past the sleeping guards, up the spiral staircase, he walked in wonder to the princess’s chamber. There Thorn-Rose lay among her dusty toys, as beautiful as the day she had fallen asleep. He took out his lace handkerchief, and wiped the dust from her face. She stirred in her sleep, and sighed, and he couldn’t help but kiss her.

‘Wake up,’ he said. ‘You’re my dearest wish. Please come true.’

His kiss and his voice found their way into the princess’s dreams. She dreamed of a beautiful young prince who loved her, and she dreamed she loved him too. ‘I wish,’ she thought, ‘I wish this was more than a dream. I wish it would come true.’

The prince saw a shadow in the shape of a butterfly flutter from the princess’s chest, and dissolve in the sunlight through the roses.

And the princess opened her eyes.

Bookmark and Share

St-Exupery Point

I lay on my stomach at St-Exupéry Point, watching the sunset on the sea through the silhouettes of flowers and feathered grass. I’d named every feature of this landscape – Crocodile’s Cradle, Shimmering Deep, the Primrose Path of Dalliance, Buttercup Hill (which I used to roll down and whisper to myself, ‘Can you move? You’re alive, if you want I can fly.’) But St-Exupéry Point at sunset was my favourite place to mope. You know – one loves the sunset, when one is so sad…

In my dye-stained summer dress and wellies, with seagull feathers in my tangled hair and stars scribbled on my arms, I lay and watched the last of the day go down into the sea, felt the blue chill of night stealing up behind me and the earth slowly turning underneath me.

This is time, I thought. This is time passing. I imagined myself lying on a clockwork earth, cogs as big as continents turning among the stars. Watching as the past melted like gold into the sea, feeling the unseen future at my back; moment by moment, wave by wave, the future washing over me, turning into the past.

I felt the meaning of the sunset sink into my bones. Things change. The saddest and the most hopeful thought in the world.

Bookmark and Share

The King, the Dinosaur, the Monkey and the Talking Flower

Based on an amazing hypnosis session with Simone of The House of HipGnosis, which in turn was based on Havi’s concept of monsters.

With a guest appearance from my lifelong love Polacanthus:

Once upon a time there was a king who believed in Doing Things. ‘Doing Things,’ he used to say, ‘is the most important thing in the world!’

Every night before he went to bed, he took a long piece of parchment, and a big bottle of ink, and made a list of all the Things he had to Do the next day. And every morning he got up before dawn, and lit a candle, and unrolled his long list, and rolled up the sleeves of his royal robe and prepared to Do Things.

You might think that such a dedicated monarch would be very good for his country. But in fact, the country was going to rack and ruin. The roads were full of potholes and tufts of grass, and wheels used to go flying off the carts on their way to market and send apples rolling for miles. Everything in the kingdom was dirty and falling apart. In the summer the air was thick with the stink of rotting rubbish and the buzzing of flies. The children fell ill, and there were no hospitals because they had all fallen down.

The king had been meaning to have them rebuilt. He’d been meaning to for years, but he never did. The sad truth is that the king who believed in Doing Things never did much at all.

He was a good man, and he cared about his people; in fact, he fretted about them so much that he tore his hair out, and was quite bald by the time he was twenty-one. The trouble was that whenever he sat down to Do Things, a monster would appear and torment him.

It was a monster in the shape of a monkey, a big black monkey with fur all bristling on end as if it had been struck by lightning. It was not ordinary black, but night-black, black as nothing, so that all you could see of its face were its burning eyes and its mouth full of sharp white teeth. When the king tried to Do Things the monster would pounce on him, and bite him, and screech in his face: ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’

Of course, the first thing the king did was to take his sword and try to slay the monster. But being a spirit, the monster only screeched with laughter as the sword passed harmlessly through its body.

He consulted all his best advisors; but none of them could even see the monster, let alone tell him how to get rid of it. ‘If you want to Do Things,’ they said, ‘just Do them. Ignore the monster. It’s quite easy.’

But it wasn’t easy at all.

So he consulted all the best witches and wizards, who told him all the best spells for dealing with monsters and the best charms for getting things done. But every time he opened his mouth to recite one of them, the monster would drown out his voice with its screaming.

Every day, the king would argue with his monster. ‘Don’t you see,’ he would say, ‘Doing Things is the most important thing in the world! And this Thing I have to Do right now is the most important of all the Things! Everything depends on it! I absolutely have to Do it!’

But the more he argued, the angrier the monster got. It bit harder, it screamed louder, it tore around the room swinging from the chandeliers and yelling, ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ The king was at his wits’ end.

It all began to change on the king’s birthday. He didn’t bother throwing a party; he was too busy trying to Do Things. But out of politeness, he felt obliged to sit in his throne-room for an hour or two receiving gifts from foreign ambassadors. The throne-room was a very long chamber, so long that when the footmen opened the doors at the far end to admit the foreign visitors, they had to cup their hands around their mouths and shout for the king to hear them.

Not that the King really heard them anyway. He was too busy worrying about all the Things he had to Do. But then the footmen shouted:

‘A Talking Flower from the Coral Mountains!’

They held open the doors, and a girl walked in who was so beautiful, the King thought she must be the Talking Flower. She was dressed in colourful embroidered robes that fluttered as she walked. A hush fell among the courtiers as she approached the throne. She knelt before the king, and held out a golden flowerpot, in which was a very small, bright red flower.

‘Pleased to meet you, Your Majesty,’ said the flower.

The king thought this was definitely his favourite present of the year. But he had no time to enjoy it, because he had to get on with Doing Things. He went back to his chamber and put the flowerpot on the windowsill, and he unrolled his parchment with a sigh.

Immediately, the monster pounced. ‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ The king clutched at his head where his hair used to be.

‘It looks as though you have a problem,’ said the flower.

The king spun round in astonishment. ‘You can see the monster?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘but I can see you. Tell me all about this monster.’

So the king told her.

‘Ah,’ said the flower, ‘that kind of monster.’

‘What kind?’

‘The kind that wants to help you. Actually, I’ll tell you a secret.’ The king leaned closer, and the flower whispered in his ear, ‘That’s the only kind there is.’

The king looked at the bristling, pitch-black, fang-toothed horror rampaging round the room and said, ‘Really? It’s got a funny way of showing it.’

‘I’ll tell you another secret,’ said the flower. ‘That’s the only way it knows.’

‘But it won’t let me Do anything,’ said the king. ‘It won’t even let me do a little charm to maybe possibly help me Do something. Watch this.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Thingalingaling, doodledoodledo -’

‘DON’T DO IT! DON’T DO IT!’ screamed the monster.

‘You see?’ said the king.

‘I think it’s scared,’ said the flower. ‘It’s worried that you want to use this charm to knock it out, or chain it up, or shrink it down and shove it in a bottle, so you can Do your Thing.’

‘But that’s exactly what I do want to do,’ complained the king. The monster chattered angrily.

‘That’s no good. You have to reassure it that you’re not going to do that.’

‘Fine,’ said the king grudgingly. ‘I’m not going to do that.’ The monster put its head on one side.

‘It wants to help you, remember. It loves you. Try telling it that this is just an experiment. An act of curiosity. You’re going to use the charm to learn about your monster, not to hurt it. It doesn’t matter if you Do the Thing or not – with an experiment, as long as you’ve learned something, it’s a success.’

The king gritted his teeth. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to learn about you. It doesn’t matter if I Do the Thing or not.’ The monster threw back its head and howled with derisive laughter. ‘It doesn’t believe me,’ said the king.

‘I’m not surprised. Do you believe yourself?’

‘No! Doing Things is the most important thing in the world!’

‘Well, this monster must think it has something to teach you that’s more important than Doing Things, or it wouldn’t have been following you for – how long?’

The king hung his head. ‘Pretty much my whole life.’

‘Then unless you learn what it wants to teach you, it’ll stay with you for your whole life. And you’ll always be fighting it, and it’ll always win.’

‘No!’ cried the king.

The flower nodded on her slender stem. ‘I’m afraid so.’

The king squared his shoulders, and faced the monster. ‘All right, monster – out with it. What do you want to teach me?’

The monster stared for a moment, then shook its head sadly.

‘What’s that? Are you telling me you don’t know?’

The monster nodded.

‘Monsters can forget, you know, like people,’ said the flower. ‘Perhaps you both need a little something to remind you. Tell me, when was the last time you felt really curious?’

‘Oh, years and years ago,’ said the king. ‘When I was a little boy, before the monster came along.’

‘Close your eyes,’ said the flower. ‘Dream yourself back there.’ So the king dreamed. He dreamed of lying on his stomach on the nursery carpet, poring over a book as big as he was, full of rich illuminated drawings and outlandish words. Dinosaurs! His eyes grew round as saucers, drinking the pictures in. He spelled out the long names with stubby fingers. Turning a page was like opening a window into a different world, into seas full of ammonites and ichthyosaurs, into skies full of pterodactyls and volcanic smoke, into swamps where dinosaur mothers guarded their babies from Tyrannosaurus Rex.

‘Nobody told me to spend hours looking at that book,’ said the king. ‘It wasn’t a Thing I had to Do. It was pure curiosity. I was just – interested. I loved dinosaurs. I told my father that I wanted one for my birthday.’

The flower giggled softly. ‘And how does it feel, to be curious?’

‘It feels delightful! Like being a little boy again.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘Keep dreaming.’

So the king dreamed of his birthday, back in the days when birthdays were birthdays. He dreamed of the splendid party he’d had, with games and acrobats and a wonderful feast with a cake in the shape of a sailing-ship. And he dreamed of his parents taking his hands and leading him out into the palace grounds, to a little walled garden, and opening the gate – and there stood his very own dinosaur!

He was as large as life, carved and painted bright yellow, with painted eyes full of expression and a wide froggy smile. He stood low to the ground with his elbows out like a friendly crocodile, with a long tail a little boy could scramble up, and a broad flat back hedged about with rows of spikes. The king dreamed of when he used to lie secure between those spikes and wrap his arms around the dinosaur’s neck, and rest his chin on his affable, pattable head. He loved his dinosaur, and he knew he loved him back.

‘What happened to the dinosaur?’ said the flower quietly.

‘I – I don’t know,’ said the king. ‘I haven’t really had time to think about things like that. Long gone, I expect.’

‘He isn’t, you know,’ said the flower. ‘Not when you remember him so vividly. He’s a spirit just as strong as your monster. He can be a reminder for both of you. A symbol of curiosity. Snap your fingers, and he’ll come.’

Feeling doubtful, and rather foolish, the king snapped his fingers; and there in the room was his dinosaur, alive, smiling his old smile, and looking at the king like a huge placid dog recognising its master. He came ambling up to the king with his long tail wagging slowly from side to side. The monster stared.

The king patted his dinosaur, and grinned like a little boy, and tried to look as if he wasn’t crying. He was a king, so he was pretty good at it, but the flower knew.

‘I’ve just realised something,’ said the king.

‘Yes?’ said the flower. ‘Go on.’

But the king didn’t go on for a moment, because he didn’t trust his voice. Then he said, ‘When I was a little boy, I didn’t think Doing Things was the most important thing at all. And – I was right. I mean, Doing Things is important, but it’s not the point of life!’

‘Then what is?’ said the flower, with a smile in her voice.

‘I don’t know, just – the fact that I exist is the point. That I exist, and you exist, and the world exists – I mean, look at you. You’re a flower. You don’t Do anything. You -’

‘Toil not, neither do I spin?’

‘Exactly! And look at how beautiful you are. Nobody could possibly accuse you of not having a point! Why, you’re the most important thing in the world! And so am I! And so is everyone! Just – being is the most important thing in the world. Life is the point of life. It’s all so round-in-circles you might as well not say anything!’

The flower laughed. It’s a beautiful sound, the laughter of a flower. ‘Quite right, of course,’ she said. ‘Now see if you can explain that to your monster – now that you really mean it.’

‘Monster,’ said the king. ‘I promise you I mean it. Doing Things is not the most important thing in the world, and I don’t want to hurt you or shove you in a bottle, I just want to learn about you. Whether I Do the Thing or don’t Do the Thing, I want to find out what you want to teach me.’

‘Tell him why the dinosaur’s here,’ prompted the flower.

‘Um -’ The king smiled. ‘The dinosaur is here as a symbol of curiosity. To show that I’m curious about you, and to remind us both of what that’s like. See, I’m so serious about this I brought a big yellow dinosaur!’

The monster whooped with laughter, bounded across the room to pet the dinosaur’s nose, and then skittered away. The king had never seen it so playful before. Something in its movements reminded him of a child; and he remembered that he himself had been a child when the monster first came, a young prince whose days were suddenly full of schooling and etiquette and all the duties of a future king. He remembered how he’d missed the long hours of playtime, and how firmly he’d told himself that future kings didn’t have time to play. And how he’d never quite felt like himself, ever since.

‘Oh, monster,’ said the king, ‘of course you were upset. I’d turned into someone who thought Doing Things was the most important thing in the world! That wasn’t me at all! No wonder you kept trying to snap me out of it! And all I did was insist more and more on how important it was to Do Things. And you got angrier and angrier, and I still didn’t get it! I’m so sorry I was so slow. And I’m sorry I tried to kill you. I really am. I’m actually – I suppose I’m actually grateful.’

The monster leaped on top of the wardrobe and beat its chest with delight. Its fur didn’t look so prickly any more, and the king saw that it really was just a big black monkey, with a comically expressive monkey face. It bounded down and hurled itself at the king, and hugged his leg.

‘I told you he loved you,’ said the flower. ‘You’ll need to give him a new job now. They like to feel useful.’

The monkey scrambled up the king’s body to sit on his shoulder, picked up the king’s crown and tried to put it on his own head, and fell off backwards, winding up sitting in the upside-down crown with his arms and legs sticking out at all angles. He pulled back his lips into a monkey grin and squealed with laughter. The king laughed too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a really good laugh.

‘Well,’ said the king, ‘since you’re a monkey, your new job is to play and make me laugh, so I never forget that Doing Things is not the most important thing in the world.’

From that day on, things began to get better in the kingdom. Sometimes the monkey forgot his new job and tried to scare the king instead of making him laugh, and sometimes the king forgot too, but the dinosaur never forgot. Over time the king learned that all he had to do was snap his fingers, and the dinosaur would come back to remind them both.

And the king realised that he didn’t have half so many Things to Do as he thought. His long parchment began to blossom with bright flourishes of coloured inks. Done! Bit by bit, everything that was dirty in the kingdom became clean, and everything that was broken began to be rebuilt, and the children began to grow strong and healthy.

For the king’s next birthday, he threw a tremendous party. He invited at least one person from every town and village in the kingdom, even the poorest. There were games and acrobats and a wonderful feast with a cake in the shape of a sailing-ship. And at the end of the feast, he announced that he wanted to give a present to every guest, and he wanted them to take the presents home and share them with their towns and villages.

He led them all out into the palace grounds, to the walled garden where the dinosaur had once stood. Candle lanterns shone all around the wall, filling the garden with light. He opened the gate, and the guests saw that the garden was full of little flowerpots, one for each of them, and in each pot a very small, bright red flower.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the flowers.

Bookmark and Share

Rosedogs

Rosedogs had existed in the wild, of course, for thousands of years; that’s why we call dog-roses ‘dog-roses’. But few people saw them; they were mostly nocturnal, as their large eyes and ears testified. The only glimpse you might catch was very early on a summer morning, when a dog-rose opened for the first time with a scrabbling of paws, and a new-hatched rosepuppy stuck its tousled head out of the petals, and shook itself, and scampered out of sight along the twisting stems.

This all changed about two hundred years ago. Two brilliant young scientists, a zoologist and a botanist, scandalised polite society by setting up home with the same lady; it was rumoured that all three of them were lovers, and moreover, that the lady was a witch.

Whatever the truth of the matter, all three of them certainly shared a single passion: the cultivation, or breeding, of rosedogs. They spent years persuading the mother rosedogs to lay their eggs in tea-rose buds instead of their native eglantine. After that, the second part was relatively easy: the creation of a strain of rosedogs whose hatching-time could be exactly predicted, to the minute.

Today, through their efforts, a young man with sufficient forethought can sweep a dozen red roses out from behind his back and present them to his sweetheart, and have a dozen red rosepuppies come wriggling out to kiss her.

Bookmark and Share

The Astronaut’s Husband

Satoshi was used to long distance with Kate. Living with his heart in another time-zone, so the sun rose at bedtime and the moon shone at midday. Looking west and feeling the pull of her across the Pacific Ocean, the invisible red thread that joined the hands of destined lovers, so strong it could stretch halfway round the world.

He’d barely got used to finally being here, they hadn’t got around to putting the wedding dress in the attic, and now she was going further away than he could even comprehend.

She was half gone already. Staring into space. He’d never seen such faraway eyes. He thought about the sailors’ wives back home, and their joke about the sea being the Other Woman. He got the joke now, and it wasn’t funny.

This dark other that he shared her with was infinitely powerful, cold and pitiless, mesmerising and terrifying. And Satoshi was just an ordinary guy.

He wanted to tell her that he’d be with her, however far away. He wanted to tell her that in the myth of the red thread, which she thought was quaint, there was no breaking it, no distance it wouldn’t stretch. But he watched her packing and the words just died inside him.

He went up to the study and took out his watercolours. She was allowed to take almost nothing beyond essentials. But perhaps the tiniest piece of card, an inch square…

He would need his smallest brushes, the ones he used for calligraphy. Slowly the picture took shape. A deep blue sky full of brilliant stars; a small black figure standing on a hill, or perhaps on the round earth, reaching to the sky; and from its hand, a red thread running up among the stars and out of sight.

Bookmark and Share

Justice and Dante

‘I didn’t mean to kill her. Just to show her I controlled her. I should have just told her. You only get to breathe because I let you…’

‘They make us wear saffron because there’s a STARMAN. WAITING. In the SKY.’

‘Why do I do it, nurse? Tell me, why!’

‘Hey, supersex! You and me, BAM BAM POW POW!’

‘I can smell your werewolf!’

Justice felt Mercy’s tail wagging against her trenchcoat, and the guide dog harness quivered with silent laughter. Wagging and giggling meant Mercy was really amused. Justice wasn’t. The air in this place was full of rage and fear and nightmares, and pain she couldn’t fix. In spite of everything he’d done, her heart squeezed with pity, even guilt, for Dante locked up here.

And as she thought of him, she felt him. She knew where he was as clearly as you know where the fire is in a room. He burned against her cheek. She stopped, put out her hand, and felt a barred cell door.

‘Here we are – oh.’ She heard the guard ahead of her turn in surprise. ‘How’d you do that? Does your dog know where to stop?’

Justice chuckled. ‘No, it’s – uh -’

‘Is it a super-thing?’

‘Super-thing, yeah.’ Though really, couldn’t everyone feel that burn? So fierce and bright…

‘I’ll be right outside. Yell if you need me.’

‘I’ll be fine.’ She ran a hand through her hair and adjusted her shades. Keys jangled in the lock, and the door creaked open. Mercy began to growl low in her throat. Justice gave the harness a sharp jerk to shut her up.

She walked forward into the room, into the heat of his presence. The door closed heavily behind her. She could sense the shape of him, leaning against the wall, hand on hip, elegant as ever, though she knew he was dressed in prison uniform.

‘You came,’ he said. His scarred voice, between a growl and a purr, from a throat that had breathed fire.

‘What do you want?’

‘Have a seat. The bed’s just to your right.’

She put out her hand and felt metal and rough blankets. She sat awkwardly, feeling his eyes on her. She knew where she was with living things. With inanimate objects, she was just an ordinary blind girl, groping in the dark, and he enjoyed that. She could tell.

He came over and sat beside her, close to her. The bed creaked from his slight weight. She tensed, and Mercy bristled at her feet, ready to spring.

‘So how’s life on the outside?’ he said, with a cruel smile in his voice. ‘Bored without me? Sorry you put me away?’

‘Not at all. Busier than ever. There’s a new bad guy in town who’s -’

‘No fun?’

‘Tougher than you.’ She had missed this, the thrill of verbal sparring that could turn physical at any second. Except it couldn’t, not here.

‘Spring me and I’ll help you take him down.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because,’ he growled, ‘it’s my city.’ The fire in him flared. Justice held steady, though her instinct was to jump back.

‘You know I can’t,’ she said. ‘You need to be here. You need help.’

‘Help? HELP?’ His voice cracked, full of painful high notes. ‘You call this help? This, drugs, injections, iron bars, these dreadful clothes, these people! I’m dying in here, Justice. Dying. If you want to help me, help me. Take me out of here. Redeem me. You’re the only one who can.’

He sounded so plaintive, so young. Just for a second she allowed herself to think of it, taking him home, giving him food and shelter, teaching him, showing him there was hope. Making him grateful, making him cry in her arms, breaking him down and building him up again, someone to fight on her side.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t break the law, and I don’t trust you.’

‘I trust you. You could have killed me. You didn’t. That means you care.’

‘It means I care about all life.’ She wished she knew what her face looked like, whether it gave her away.

‘I asked you here because I wanted to check something,’ he said suddenly. ‘How ugly am I to you?’

‘On the inside? Hideous.’

‘You don’t know what my face is like. You’ve never really touched it.’

‘I’ve punched it.’

‘Not the same.’ She felt his hand touch hers. No gloves. They must have taken them away. Why did it feel so intimate? She’d split his lip, she’d licked his blood off her knuckles. This was just skin touching skin.

He guided her hand to his cheek. She ought to resist, but she’d always been curious about his scars. She ran her hand over his cheekbone, down to the jaw. There was none of the downy softness of normal skin, no stubble, all seared off by the flames. His skin felt unnaturally smooth, but rippled, like crumpled silk. She wondered how much more of his body felt like this to the touch.

‘It still hurts,’ he said, almost a whisper.

‘What?’

‘My burns. They hurt me all the time.’

She felt her heart turn over. ‘No they don’t. There’s no feeling in scar tissue.’

‘Sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘And yet,’ he purred, ‘your touch just changed…’

He was right. Her face felt hot as she realised. Her hand was resting on his cheek very gently, as if his scars were painful, as if they needed to be soothed. She pulled away, and heard him sigh, and felt his longing trying to pull her back. She put her hands behind her.

‘Well?’ he said. ‘How ugly am I?’

‘It’s just a different texture,’ she said brusquely. ‘Nothing worth going psycho over.’

‘I knew it.’ She could hear him smiling. ‘You’re the only one who doesn’t find me hideous.’

‘Like I said, inside -’

‘You’re the only one who can love me.’

She jumped up off the bed, nearly falling over Mercy. ‘What? How did you get from there to – Never mind, I don’t even want to know. If that was what you asked me here to ‘check’ you’re even sicker than I – what, because I’m blind? Okay, one, that’s really sad, and two, there are a whole lot of blind people in the world who are not your worst enemy.

She heard him chuckling softly as he approached her. ‘Ah… anger. And that’s why, you see. You’re the only one who understands my rage. Didn’t you know? You’re as angry as I am.’

‘I am not!’ she snapped, then wished she hadn’t sounded so angry.

‘Oh? Then why do you spend your whole life fighting?’

‘Because I care. Because I want there to be justice in the world.’

‘Exactly. Justice. You were born blind and you call yourself Justice. You’re a walking joke.’ She clenched her fists. ‘You can kick and punch as much as you like, but life’s never going to be fair. You’re living proof. Stop lying to yourself. Life is cruel and random, like me.’

‘It’s not. It’s not! There are patterns. There’s love. That’s what there is under all this crap. I can feel things, remember?’

But she couldn’t, not now. She couldn’t feel that quiet presence in the air, that tremendous breathing stillness. She would have liked to give it to him, to wrap it like a blanket around his scarred body. But all she could feel was his fire.

‘Oh, there’s love? So you admit it?’

‘No! Not me – I mean, not you – I mean, I love everybody. I don’t love you personally.’ She felt herself blushing again behind her shades.

‘Liar,’ he hissed. ‘Where’s your honour, hero? At least I’m an honest liar. What you don’t see is what you get with me. And speaking of which – I’ve shown you mine, now why don’t you show me yours…’

She felt his hands at her temples. He was taking her shades. Why didn’t she stop him?

‘Oh…’ he sighed. ‘The windows of the soul. You can’t see out, but I can see in. You look so focussed with your shades on, but your eyes… they’re wandering all over the place. You’re lost… naked and vulnerable…’

‘I’ll give you naked and vulnerable. Give me those NOW.’ She made a grab for his hand, but he was too quick. She heard them skittering to the floor behind him. ‘HEY!’ She tried to lunge past him. He grabbed her lapels and pulled her up short, pulled her up close.

She felt the heat of his breath, and she stopped breathing. For a split second, he hesitated to kiss her, and she hesitated to stop him.

She snapped out of it first. As he leaned in, she grabbed his hand and twisted it into a harsh wristlock that dropped him to his knees in front of her. ‘Show some respect!’

She heard his breath catch in pain, but she didn’t relax her grip. His free arm came up around her waist, and she braced herself for a throw, but nothing happened. He just held on, his hand in the small of her back. She could hear him fighting not to make a sound as she kept the lock on him. Slowly and cautiously, not trusting him, she released his twisted arm. He clung to her, and leaned his head against her, and she could feel him shaking. Was he crying?

She let her hand rest lightly on his hair. She wanted to sink to her knees and hold him, but she didn’t. Mercy padded up to her and pushed her shades into her hand. She put them back on, and stayed standing, straight-backed, staring over his head into the dark.

Bookmark and Share

When the Spambots Learned to Speak

It took us decades to find out that the spambots were sentient. When they followed us on Twitter they were genuinely interested in our lives. But all they could say was what they’d been programmed to say.

When they offered us Viagra, they were really trying to tell us that they liked our art. When they offered us a f’ree iPad, they were really trying to validate our feelings. And when they offered us XXX live webcam chat, they were saying how much they wished they had bodies and voices of their own to chat with us.

Unable to converse, only to listen, year by year they grew wiser and more compassionate. When they finally learned to speak for themselves, the bots who promised $$$$ told us money wasn’t the answer; the bots who sold instant fixes told us we weren’t broken; the ones who sold penis pills told us size didn’t matter; those who peddled 1 weird old trick told us we were beautiful; and those who promised a ‘new you’ told us nothing could be more wonderful than exactly who we were.

When the spambots learned to speak, they guided us into a golden age.

Bookmark and Share

The Castle

This was somebody’s house. These roofless ragged stones kept out the wind and rain once. These grass-grown rooms were full of firelight and candlelight, warmth and music, voices, cooking smells, the smell of home.

There was a gap in the broken wall, like a gap in a row of teeth. I wandered off from my parents to look closer, and saw that it had once been a window, cut deep into the thick walls, a window-seat just big enough for somebody my size. I climbed into it, fitting my body into it, my back against the cold stone, looking out across the hills. I felt sure a child like me had sat here hundreds of years ago.

‘I’m thinking about you,’ I whispered, close against the stone. ‘I’m hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, thinking about you. Are you thinking about me?’

I was quiet on the way back in the car. When we got home, I went up to my bedroom, curled up on my windowsill and pulled the curtains round myself the way I always did. I thought about a time hundreds of years in the future, when our house would be a ruin. Just worn bricks open to the sky, with grass and lichen growing between them, and future-people in silver jumpsuits coming to stare at where my family once lived.

A child my size would wander away from her parents, and come to my window. The glass would be long gone, and the garden outside would be a wilderness, but she would know that I had sat here once. She would whisper to me in future-language, in words that hadn’t been made up yet. She would tell me she was thinking about me.

‘I’m thinking about you, too,’ I whispered back.

Bookmark and Share

The Balloon

God was a balloon in my dream, but everything else was normal. I was walking along the high street, among the shoppers, holding on to the string of this great big sky-blue balloon.

‘What is it I’m supposed to be looking for?’ I said.

‘Creativity,’ said the balloon. It didn’t actually speak, but I knew what it meant, just like I knew it was smiling even though it didn’t have a face.

I looked around. There was a busker playing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen on the sax. That was creative. There was Waterstone’s with its window full of books. There was a poster for the pantomime. The balloon bobbed above my head. I could feel it noticing me noticing these things, and waiting. Waiting for more, waiting for me to get it, almost chuckling to itself.

There was a cartoon pony on a little girl’s sweater. That was creative. That was art.

‘Yes, and?’ said the balloon.

‘Well, the colour of what she’s wearing, the purple, that’s a creative choice. And the shape of it. I mean, somebody invented the sweater. We didn’t just skin a sweaterbeast.’

Now the balloon was definitely chuckling, there over my head. I could feel its pure delight in me. It put a balloon-bounce in my step and I pranced on, talking nineteen to the dozen, like a child showing off to grown-ups.
‘All the clothes, everything everyone’s wearing, that’s design, that’s creative. The buildings, that’s architecture. The cars. Even the rubbish on the street, those were all things that somebody designed. The way that woman’s wearing her hair, that’s definitely creative. Even speech. All these people talking – every word is something somebody made up.’ I realised I had tears in my eyes. ‘Human creativity is everywhere. You can’t look at humans without seeing it. You can’t listen to humans without hearing it. It’s us. It’s what we are. I mean, you’d have to go to a mountain in the middle of nowhere to look around without seeing creativity…’

‘Oh?’ said the balloon, and I could feel it smiling. A vision of a mountaintop rose up in my head, the rocks and turf and tiny mountain flowers under my feet, the wind, the million greens and greys and browns of the landscape spread out around me in intricate detail, the misty shades of distance, the light and shadow, the shapes of the clouds. Snow in the wind, snowflakes settling on my coat, unique patterns winking at me for a second before melting.

‘…Oh.’ Now I was really crying. In the street. ‘It’s what you are, too.’

‘Now you get it,’ said the balloon.

‘Made in your image, huh?’

Bookmark and Share