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“Do you mean to say that you’re going to sit quietly down and paint that ox while it’s destroying my morning-room?” Let’s start the new series of Gentle Readers with a story in which absurdity is tamed by embracing it.

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"Want to come up to the Wood? We could play Star Wars."

Martin considered. The Wood was the thin strip of uncultivated land at the top of the school field. The grassed and mowed part petered out in a mild incline before the trees began. It was perhaps a hundred feet long and fifteen feet wide before it met the wire fence that separated it from the gravel footpath, yet to the boys the space was a jungle, the wildest part of their suburban lives. The trees, mostly oaks and birches, alternately towered and stood invitingly climbable; the undergrowth provided hiding places; the worn earth tracks, so adaptable for games, ran the length of the Wood. There was an itching–berry tree, a holly bush whose hollow centre could shelter those brave enough to risk its scratches, and the Dragon, a great fallen log, by turns fortress, stage and spaceship.

"I don't want to," he said after some thought. He'd had the dreams again last night.

"Why not?"

"There's toadstools up there. I hate toadstools." The lie slipped out of him unexpectedly. He weighed it mentally, admiring its lines. "Let's stay here, play tag or something."

His brother shrugged. "I could kick 'em down with my boots. Come on."

Martin followed him: the events had played out like a familiar story. Richard was his younger brother, but Martin always found himself tagging along like a four-year-old. Sometimes at night Martin would keep himself awake pondering the difficult riddles of life; the question of why his brother always took the lead was prominent among these. Even now that he had agreed to play, he could tell before it was ever discussed who would be playing the good guys.

Recently, things had got worse. In the last few months Richard had got himself involved with a particular bunch of kids, too loosely organised to have a name, though Martin thought of them as "Paul's lot". Richard spent much of his free time playing with them, now, and less time with Martin. Martin might have been glad not to be bossed around so much, but in fact nothing appeared to fill the vacuum that Richard had left. Martin spent his breaktimes wandering alone around the school field, yearning for the bell. When Richard was around, things were no better: he seemed to have learned new and still more uncomfortable management techniques during his social climbing.

"We could go to the dragon," said Richard. "We could it for the Death Star."

"Yeah, we could do that..."

The sunlight flecked the earth before them, green under the trees. The birds sang on, unaware of plans to destroy planets. Martin stuck his hands into his pockets and tried not to look at the undergrowth. White blossoms caught the corner of his eye. His nightmares flowed back.

Suddenly, his brother asked, "What are Nastiers?"

"Um." The weight of his dream held onto his mind. "Why'd you ask?"

"Heard you talking about them in your sleep last night."

Richard picked up a stick and began slashing at nettles. Martin watched with mild dread. "Did I say much?"

"Just kept saying it, over and over again. 'The Nastiers... the Nastiers...' and something about the Wood."

Martin shuddered. The Nastiers had first started to grow in his imagination in the spring, when the small heart-shaped leaves appeared under the hedges. Gradually they filled his dreams with their menace, popping up underfoot, filling the rooms, choking the ground, daring him to touch them. By day he had given them wide berths, sometimes even crossing the road. However hard he tried to avoid them, still they filled his imagination.

One day in early summer he had been tortured by the thought of himself lying down to sleep, and waking up as a single great Nastier, four feet across its sickly shining leaf, nodding gently in the aircurrent. He had run out into his garden the next morning, and the plants had flowered, tall spires of tiny white petals topping their towers of leaves, staring him down, glorying in their plantish treason.

"It's just a plant, a kind of plant. I don't like them much," he said. "Those ones."

"You were having nightmares about a plant?" Richard went over and kicked at the nearby patch of Nastiers. He looked back quickly enough to catch Martin wincing. The plants shook and were still.

"It's nothing," said Martin. "Let's go to the dragon."

Soon after they entered the Wood, Martin cursed under his breath: Paul's lot were already there. A few seconds passed before Richard saw them too. He called out to them, and ran off to join them. Martin was alone. He sighed, and walked on towards the seclusion of the dragon.

He sat astride the fallen log, looking out over the school field. With his hands he gripped the bark, tracing patterns in the cracks while his thoughts flowed over him. The voices of Paul's lot were too far away to pick out words. They were as much a part of his peace as the song of the blackbirds. Both reminded him that it wasn't so bad being alone. Sometimes. Maybe. At least Richard wouldn't drag out old arguments with him now, and at least he had space to think.


He looked around for the voice, to both sides, and finally behind himself: Paul was standing at one end of the log, with a grin on his face. Like a long-stemmed rose given to a lover, he held a single Nastier in his hand.

Martin's stomach jumped and twisted. Chills passed over his body. Richard had betrayed him. He scrambled half to his feet and backed away.

The other end of the log lay in a mass of nettles, beyond the edge of the Wood proper. Paul climbed onto the far end and began walking slowly towards him. Martin was trapped: Paul in front, and the nettles behind. Paul's friends appeared one by one, with quiet giggling, then open laughter. They clustered around the far end of the log. A few climbed up behind Paul. Most were carrying Nastiers.

A few weeks earlier, a kid in Martin's class had come in from break with nettle rash over most of his body. Martin's teacher had asked why, and the kid said that Paul told him to jump off the log into the nettles. The teacher asked whether Paul could have told him to jump off a cliff. Martin had been in the Wood that morning. He'd seen it all. The teacher never heard about the pointed sticks.

History seemed about to repeat itself. Martin took a step backwards, almost losing his footing. He caught his breath: Paul's eyes, the leaves of the plant, the plant's white flowers, were all picked out in feverish detail. He's got me, thought Martin. He's got me and I can't get away.

Then with the same strange dream-like clarity, it came to him. His fear was not Paul, but the unnamable terror of the Nastier. If Paul had trapped him, it was only in a prison of himself.

Martin bit the inside of his cheeks to give himself strength. He grabbed the plant from Paul's hand and crushed it. It smelled of herbs, and garlic. Paul took a step backwards in surprise, and slipped. Martin leapt forwards and to the right, landing on the grass ahead of the nettles, and ran as hard as he could towards the school. A few of Paul's lot gave chase in a disinterested sort of way, but soon gave up and returned to their leader.

Martin didn't stop running until he was inside the school, and didn't start crying until he was safely in the cloakroom, washing his hands over, and over, and over again.
marnanel: (Default)
There was the time Ed hired a camel for a week, so's he could learn to ride it ("just in case" he said). And the time he vanished for months on end and came back with Argentine stamps on his passport and a penguin's beak on a string around his neck. And then there was the time he opened a candy store just because he'd wished for it when he was a kid. That didn't last more than a couple of months, but it was just another Ed thing, and we all stood around and made admiring noises just the same. Helped him out, too, when it was needed: Rich and I painted the outside of that candy store, and we were well rewarded in gobstoppers, I can tell you.

Ed had a day job, or you'd probably better call it a "practice"; I don't well understand it, but it was something to do with intellectual property law. That was during the day. In the evenings he'd come home and work on improving his own intellectual real estate. Even when I knew him at school, Ed was one of those guys who can't stop learning during summer holidays, and he didn't lose the habit after school was finished. Somehow I think he was a little like that candy store, he wanted a mix of a little of everything. It was never just him, though; he needed to drag us into all his little projects. Not that we ever complained much.

You never got told much about what it was until you saw it. Some people, when they have news, they can't stop telling you about it, but not Ed; maybe it was the lawyer in him. You'd just be told that something new was up, and he'd like you to see it (he wouldn't mention lending a hand just yet), and could you be at his house at eleven, Saturday morning? Good? Okay then.

So there I was, driving up to his house, a large house, in one of the parts of town that call themselves "good". There was no sign of Ed himself around the house, but before I parked I'd seen the thing, whatever it was, standing on the lawn just away from the gravel drive. I took it for a car, probably an unusual kind considering its size. A regular car that size would be cheaper than Ed would get excited about. Maybe a racer.

Rich wandered up to me as I was getting out of the car. "What the hell has he got himself this time?" he asked. His tone was the usual one where Ed was concerned: a kind of amused frustration.

"I dunno, some kind of car?"

"I was thinking it was a rocket-ship," he grinned. I walked over and took a closer look. It certainly wasn't what I'd guessed from a quick glance: its body was the size and shape of a cheap car, but it had no wheels I could see, and the back ended with row upon row of conical pipe ends, maybe four rows of three. I could see where Rich's impression of a rocket-ship had come from. On the front there was what looked like the big brother of one of those fans you stick in your room when the weather gets warm. The rest of the thing was roughly a cube, a mass of pipes and valves and other things you'd probably have to be a mechanic to understand.

"Yup," I called over my shoulder to Rich, "we'll be seeing Ed in space yet... and here he comes."

Ed had appeared from the house and was walking towards us, grinning all over his face. "Isn't she lovely?"

"What is she? ... it?"

Ed reached us. "She's a siren. You know, when there's an air-raid or a nuclear attack or a meltdown or a big fire or... stuff, and they'd have one of these babies on the roof of a big public building, like a school, and they'd start her up, and... waaaw!", he wailed in imitation. "Isn't she gorgeous?"

"A regular banshee," said Rich. "So what's it doing here?"

"I read that some guy died who owned this one. There's only ten of these in private hands in the world, you know. Most of them were scrapped when they weren't needed, or they're still up there rusting on the tops of buildings. Anyway, so I wrote to his executors, and they agreed to sell her to me!" He rubbed his hands together gleefully. "So, wanna be here for her maiden voyage?"

Rich was dispatched for a couple of gallons of petrol. Ed spent the twenty minutes pointing out all the features of the siren, most of which I forgot immediately, or at least haven't stayed in my mind between now and then. What I do remember was that the siren was built around an ordinary petrol engine, like in a large ride-on lawnmower, and that this engine's job was partly to run the fan which pushed the air through the pipes at the back to make the wailing noise, and partly to make the whole damn thing revolve. The revolving part seemed to fill Ed with the most glee. He gave the siren's side a gentle push to demonstrate, and the whole machine gently turned and continued turning for a surprisingly long while.

"You really gonna use this thing?" asked Rich, when he'd returned with the petrol can and had the whole thing explained to him all over again.

"What would be the point in buying it otherwise?" Ed unscrewed a cap on the side of the siren and poured in the contents of the can. "Now, ready? Cover your ears." He took hold of a cord and gave it a tug. The engine rumbled and turned over. For a quiet moment we stood there as he wrestled with the cord; then the engine roared and the silence was over.

The machine stood still for a moment with its engine running, then began to turn smoothly on its axis. The pipes at the back sighed gently, and the note held a moment as the back passed me; then, as the front came around, the note grew and filled the air until the engine could no longer be heard. The air seemed full of the sound, growing fuller and louder with every moment. Rich and I stumbled backwards from the machine, hands over ears. Birds rose, startled, from the trees around the drive, and the walls of the house bounced back the note and intensified it. And still the noise grew.

"Wonderful, isn't she?" shouted Ed. At least, it was something like that; if he'd screamed at the top of his lungs, I wouldn't have heard him.

"So how about turning it off?" I bawled back at him. Ed shook his head: he couldn't hear. I pointed at the spinning siren, now coming around again and blaring another load into our ears, and drew my finger across my throat. For a second, Ed's face showed he understood me; then he looked puzzled. I could read him as though he'd spoken the words: the damn fool didn't know how to turn the thing off.
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A long day it had been without James, longer with the weather as bad as it was. Vicky stared into the unending droplets running down the windowpane and hoped that he would be home soon. In the empty kitchen behind her, the radio blared its mix of classic rock, predictable as the raindrops, keeping her mind steady, keeping it from worrying about what might happen to James on a night like this. It was closer for him to commute now that they had moved, but he had only travelled from work to the new house only twice now, and something deep inside her brain nagged at her that he might get lost, might take a wrong turn somewhere, might get into an accident on an unfamiliar road. Once more, she tried to hush the small voice; she walked back into the kitchen and turned up the stereo. The rock music was helping.

Their black cat, Storm, stalked into the room and glowered at Vicky. Storm, who had grown into a fair-sized moggy since they had found him as an abandoned kitten at an animal rescue centre, was the colour of a great thundercloud with a temperament to match. Still, he had been happy at their old house-- or if not happy, at least content with the run of the neighbourhood and the society of the cats around. He had clearly resented being uprooted and transplanted into the new house, however much more convenient it might be for his humans. Vicky reached over to pet him, but he leapt from her grasp into the darkening window, his green eyes reflected dimly against the rainy glass. His tail lay still but for the twitching end.

"I can't let you out, you know," said Vicky. "You'll only get drenched. Five minutes and you'll be clawing on the door wanting back in-- then you'll just be angrier than you started, and it'll be all my fault again."

Storm sneezed, as if in contemptuous answer. Vicky looked at him, and then out of the window at the downpour, and tried not to imagine James in their car aquaplaning across the road. A song on the radio faded out, and the news came on. It seemed full of transport bulletins: crashes and diversions and flooded roads. Vicky sighed.

"Storm, puss, puss," she said. "You want some cheese?" Cheddar had been Storm's favourite delicacy since kittenhood. She opened the fridge and he leapt down from the windowsill, all anger dissolved, twisting around her legs and mewing. Strange how easily cats' attention can be diverted, thought Vicky. I wish I knew how to divert my own.

She cut a sliver of cheese and fed it to the cat, who ate it delicately, then nuzzled her in thanks. For the first time since they had brought him to the new house, she heard him purring. Vicky closed the fridge and walked back to the window: the rain had stopped, and the clouds had already begun to clear.


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