Jasmine is considering

After a couple of weeks of idyllic holiday it is difficult to get back into routine, especially when there is so much to make one want to just curl up again – I won’t say what.  One thing did concern me. It was a report in the news over a week ago about the transwoman who committed suicide while in a male prison. I was concerned to read that she was only 19 and had been living as female since the age of 10.  But, and this is what got to me, she had little idea of what being transsexual means and had had no advice, medical or otherwise to help her transition. Despite all the publicity in recent years about various trans people, she still felt isolated and did not know where to go for help. She had not even begun to apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate, probably because she had not started any authorised medical treatment.

My understanding is that you do not need to go through surgery or even drug treatment to get a GRC but you do have to have a medical opinion that you are gender dysphoric. I have also heard that your mental state is taken into consideration. You can get to a sort of Catch 22 situation where if you are mad i.e. have mental health issues, you can’t get a GRC while a lot of people consider wanting to change gender a sign of madness.

This woman obviously had issues as she was convicted of crimes and sent to prison. What is appalling is that she received no care from the authorities that were responsible for her welfare while in custody. It also shows that there is still a lack of information about being trans available to the general public, despite the heap of material on the internet. We may be just 1% of the population but that just makes it that much more difficult for people who need help to make contact with those that can provide it. It also shows that the majority of people have a poor grasp of gender issues and do not understand how to help someone who is struggling to come to terms with their gender identity.

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IMGP5962I have a busy two or three weeks coming up so a new Jasmine novella will be on hold for a bit longer. In the meantime I’ll continue with other short stories I have stored away (there are lots).  This week I have a recent SF story I wrote (somewhat hurriedly) for a competition.  It didn’t get anywhere which I’m not surprised about.  I think it reads more like a synopsis than a short story.  It is also a familiar theme – colonisation of the Moon – but I hoped I had an original slant. Anyway, here it is.

Life on the Moon

The dark sky. That’s what surprised me most when I got here. I spent lots of time staring at the sky back home. There wasn’t much else to do lying in a cot. I watched the clouds move, that’s all. Then they gave me the neuro-interface. Here, on the Moon’s surface with my suit working at one hundred percent to keep me cool and my visor filter at maximum, the sun’s still too bright to look at directly and yet the sky is black. Yeah, that’s what tells me I’m on the Moon. It’s not the lower gravity, that’s just a pleasure. The weight on my chest is less and my useless muscles don’t have to work so hard.
The thing is they didn’t mention it during training. I suppose those career guys who’d been up to orbit lots of times didn’t think of it. Perhaps they weren’t allowed the time to just stare out of the windows of the space station. Me, well, when I’m turned away from the Sun and see all the stars on that black background it still takes my breath away. That’s probably not a good way of putting it. A break in my breathing would set off all sorts of warning alarms and have the monitor reprimand me for wasting time – time we haven’t got.
I’m outside for almost all my ten-hour shift, keeping an eye or more accurately a few brain cells, on the drills and the rock shifting kit, making small adjustments here and there, occasionally taking control of the waldos and really moving stuff. I love it. I feel useful for the first time in my life. Useful and important.  When I hand over to one of the others I feel as if I’m giving up a part of my body. In some ways, I am.
Yesterday, when I got back from my shift there was a celebration going on. Li told me all about it. We’re friends. She’s so like me; in abilities if not looks or personality. The fuss was over the completion of Cavern 1. Now they can start filling it with all the kit they’ve been hauling up from Earth. That gear will make this place self-sufficient in water, oxygen, metals, and lots of other stuff. The bosses were pleased because the hole was dug ahead of schedule and that was all down to our team.
Soon we’ll finish Cavern 2. It’ll be great to start filling it with the permanent living quarters. The temporary surface pods are cramped and there’s always the chance of a meteor puncturing the skin. The next bunch to come up from Earth will find their cosy apartments all ready for them.  By then the bio domes should be producing real food. I’m looking forward to having something to chew on instead of the concentrated, dried, pre-cooked mush we get from Earth. Once we’ve got our own food supply we can really start calling ourselves colonists.
Some of the guys talk about going home when we’ve finished the heavy work. Not me. Why should I go back to that gravity-well where I can’t move a muscle and I’m treated like a dependent waste of space? Here I’m free and a respected member of the gang. I’d happily see out my life working as a farmer or extending the caverns. Li feels the same. We may pair up and take a shared apartment in Cavern 2; maybe even have kids. I wonder if they would be like us?
Anyway, who really wants to go back to Earth now? It’s not exactly a pleasant place to be these days. The guys who want to go back have family down there so perhaps that gives them a reason. There’s no one down there who wants me back, not when getting food and staying alive is such a struggle, even for people who have the use of their own limbs.
I saw a meteor today. You don’t see them very often because there’s no atmosphere for them to streak through. It caught my eye, well, my camera lens, when it reflected the sunlight. A brief flicker, then it was gone. Thinking about it, perhaps it wasn’t a meteor after all. It wasn’t moving fast enough. Some of the states on Earth don’t like what we’re doing and have threatened to lob a bomb at us. One or two of them still have the capability. That’s why we’re on the “other side” facing away from Earth. Some of the guys are upset that we don’t have a view of Earth but I don’t care. I don’t want to see what we’ve done to that place, or let the bad guys down there have a good view of what we’re doing.
………………..
It was a missile. Li told me that someone she knows in admin said that our defences took it out before it got anywhere near. They’re not expecting many more as they’ve started lobbing nukes at each other down there. That should take their minds off us. Mind you the chances of us getting more supplies look pretty slim. Just like the chances of some of the guys going home.  I’ll just get on with my job managing the machines fitting out Cavern 2. I’m a builder now not a digger.
…………………
That’s it. We’re on our own. The multi-nationals who were behind us don’t exist anymore, like their customers, or most of them anyway. Admin have cut our rations to tide us over until the first crops are ready in a few weeks. It’ll be tough but I don’t need much to eat.
Chatting to Li, she thinks that the company bosses knew this was going to happen. That was why there was such a rush to get the colony set up. She says they used up all their capital to move as much stuff up here as possible in the time that was left. They had to do it without the governments noticing as otherwise their resources would have been commandeered for the patriotic wars.
……………………..
Li and I moved into our new home today. It’s on floor 6, two hundred meters below the surface but handy for the elevators. We’ve got more room than we expected because there’s no more people coming up from down below.  We celebrated with a special dinner – a tube of protein paste saved from yesterday’s ration, re-hydrated rice and a fresh lettuce from our first crop.  Food may be short still, but we’re nice and cosy down here and the solar energy collectors on the surface are 100% as it’s mid-moon day. We selected a view of the surface for our video-screen. Some of the others have selected scenes of Earth relayed by the satellite. I don’t know how they can look at that spoiled place now. It’s not the blue, white and green globe it used to be but a dirty brown ball.
………………….
We had boiled egg today. Okay, Li and I had to share it, but it was a real egg; shell and everything. We spent as much time looking at it as eating it. I had no idea that we’d brought chicken embryos up with us. Once we got the bio pods up the chicks were incubated. Now they’re hens and laying.  We had bread with the egg; real bread made from grain grown in the bio pods. Food is still rationed, probably always will be, but we’re self-sufficient.  Li and I talked about raising a kid. Of course, we can’t actually make a baby by ourselves, not us two, but we’re going to have a chat with the meds.
……………………
We’re going to be a mum and dad!  I supplied the sperm and Li the egg and the cybermeds did the rest. Nine months’ time we’ll have a daughter called Selene. We decided against gen-eng so she’ll be like Li and me. Admin agreed to it. In fact, they suggested it. They need our brains but being immobile we don’t need as much food as the ables. Selene won’t be the first child. Dmitri and Makena are having theirs the traditional way, a few weeks sooner. Admin were delighted. Without the extra people that were expected from Earth we’re a small number. Now that the food situation is easing, they want more mouths to feed, and hands and brains to do the work.
……………………..
I’ve got a new job.  Admin have patched me into the colony’s mainframe. I’m making sure that all the systems are running to plan. I look after the farmbots in the bio pods, energy generation, the foundries extracting metals and making plastics, the water and oxygen extractors, life support, everything really. It’s not just me of course. Li does a shift and there are others like us.  I wonder if the guys who designed the neuro-interface that give us a life, guessed that one day we’d be running the first colony on the Moon. Okay, it’s probably the last as well, but we have a future, which is more than those poor folks on Earth have got.
………………………..
It’s a good job that we can override the default settings. A few of the guys who couldn’t go home to Earth got a bit upset. I had to cut their oxygen. They won’t cause any more problems.
I love this job. It means that I’m on the surface any time I like, looking out through the cameras on the bio pods, the solar collectors and the communications towers. I can see the ragged ridge that surrounds our crater, the grey dust that’s now criss-crossed with the tracks of our machines and I can look up and see the stars in that black sky.
………………………………

Jasmine at rest

IMGP5962I’ve been on holiday and had a thoroughly relaxing time. So relaxed in fact that I have not done any writing, which is unusual when I am holiday. There’s been lot’s to do like reading and walking and gazing at the glorious views and lying on the sand with my eyes closed listening to the waves and watching the sunset (not the sunrise – haven’t been up early enough). It has been lovely just being. We have kept up to date with the news and there have been plenty of emails to delete every day but for once we have just not felt like bothering. I know that getting home will change all that but perhaps this feeling of “let it be” will continue. We have decided one thing – that I must do more to market Jasmine but how remains to be seen.

To fill in the gap, here is another of my older short stories. This one is fairly recent. I wrote it as a test to see if I could write an SF story based on an article in a random edition of New Scientist. The trouble is I am not sure how fictional it is or how far into the future it is set..

Potential for Evil

The room I was shown into reflected the contradictions of the British Security Service. An antique comfy sofa and dark wood panelling denoting the history of the service while the holographic projector on the mahogany desk signalled that technologically it was up to date. The projection blinked off as I entered like a bubble bursting and the figure behind the desk rose to greet me.
‘Ah, Professor Isabella Boyle.’ He pronounced each syllable of my title and name as if making sure he wouldn’t forget it. He was tall and dark and, I suppose, handsome in a 2020s sort of way. It looked rather dated today, like the pale blue summer suit he was wearing. He indicated the sofa and invited me to sit.
I settled into the soft, low cushions, thankful that I had chosen to wear trousers rather than a skirt despite the continuing summer heatwave.
‘You know who I am but I do not know your name,’ I said, perhaps showing a bit of irritation in my voice.  I had been summoned by my comm implant which let it be known that I couldn’t really refuse but with no information whatsoever about why my presence was required.
‘We don’t go in for identities here,’ he said lowering himself onto the sofa beside me, ‘It’s an historical thing I suppose. You can call me N if you like.’
‘N?’
‘It comes after M. Now Professor I want you to watch this.’
He wiggled his fingers and the projection formed in the air in front of us. ‘Resume, rewind, start,’ he said.
I saw a planar view of some dusty middle-eastern town. There were lots of people, men, women, children going about what seemed to be their normal business. They were surrounded by a cloud of buzzing insects which seemed to hover over or near each person.  As the picture moved I realised we were following one particular character, a young man. He seemed to know where he was going as he strode through the awning-covered streets until he came to the steps of a white concrete building. It appeared to me to be a meeting place where people got out of the extreme heat to eat, drink, chat, play games and do business.  The man we were pursuing stopped, took the bag he had been carrying off his shoulder and drew out a compact automatic firearm, bigger than a pistol. He held it in one hand and started firing.  Immediately people fell to the ground, bleeding, dying. Some fled but he shot them in the back. He turned, shooting continuously, spraying fire into every corner of the building, the gun automatically selecting targets, aiming and firing without any likelihood of missing. The assassin stepped forward and our viewpoint moved with him deeper into the shadows. Many people had no escape because the exits were blocked by those who had the time to start to flee. He carried on shooting, mercilessly cutting down everyone in line of sight.
He reached the far end of the building and paused. Now as well as the cries of the dying and the incessant chatter of his gun there was another noise – answering fire from outside the building. He stopped shooting, held up his hands and exploded. The image disappeared.
‘So?’ I said looking at N, ‘an act of terrorism in some foreign town. I can see plenty of those on newsfeeds if I wish – many closer to home.’
‘Of course,’ N said, a thin smile playing across his lips. ‘Didn’t you notice anything unusual?’
I thought for a moment, ‘The point of view followed the killer. You had a surveillance drone on him. Why couldn’t he be stopped?’
N smiled. ‘It wasn’t one of ours. We hacked it after the incident. The state follows everyone over the age of twelve with flybots but while it stores the uploads it doesn’t have the AI power to analyse them in real time so they’re only good for reviewing events not influencing them. The incident happened three days ago but what was interesting was who committed the atrocity.’
I was surprised at his use of the word “atrocity”.  It reminded me of my childhood when events like we had watched were not daily events. What had happened to make an atrocity an everyday occurrence?
‘A member of a rival faction?’ I suggested.
‘Could have been. There are plenty of jihadi groups vying for the reputation of being the most barbarous. Not that this was any more deadly than many others – just a hundred dead. No he wasn’t with one of them. His home was one of our supposed allies.’  He seemed particularly gleeful by that revelation.
‘How do you know? Whichever country he originated from he could have been a radicalised member of one of these terrorist organisations.’
‘Ah, that’s where you are wrong. You see we have accessed his i.d. He worked for one of our “friends”.’
‘How did you find out?’
N smiled broadly. He was enjoying showing off. ‘We’re not as out of touch as the public sometime think. We have agents in the field. One of them managed to get hold of the bomber’s body, well, his head actually. It arrived here yesterday.’
‘So you were able to read his implant.’
‘Yes, we know exactly who he is, what he’s been doing, what porn he’s accessed, everything. Except we don’t know what this is.’  N reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small, clear plastic bag. He handed it to me.
The bag appeared empty until I held it up to examine closely. Inside was a bundle of fine wires, each much thinner than a human hair, almost too thin to see. Attached to the wires were slightly larger nodes.
‘Where was this found?’ I asked although I was beginning to get ideas.
‘I think it is called his prefrontal cortex – the PFC? Separate to his comm implant anyway.’
‘Why are you showing this to me?’ I asked although I was pretty sure of the answer now.
‘You’re a top neuroscientist, Professor,’ N said, beaming at me and taking care to look at my face and not my breasts. ‘We think you can explain what this was doing in the agent’s brain and what it has got to do with his actions on behalf of our “ally”.’
I took a deep breath. ‘I suppose you realise that it was connecting to the neurones in the part of the brain that you named. The PFC is responsible for our higher functions – rational thought, decision-making, that sort of thing.’ I dangled the packet in front of me. ‘This is a behaviour modification device.’
‘I guessed that. But what is it doing exactly?’
‘Ah. I would need to know exactly where it was situated.’
‘I can help you there,’ N said, and began waving his hands in the air again. A new image appeared in front of me, 3D this time, – a full colour scan of the brain. ‘You can manipulate it,’ N said.
I raised my hands and fingers to hold the image of the brain, turn it, expand it. I reached in to grasp the piece I wanted to examine more closely.  The silver neural modifier stood out from the grey brain cells.
It was as I thought. ‘It’s made him evil,’ I said.
‘Really?’ N said as if I had confirmed his own guesses.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A couple of decades ago it was discovered that a part of the PFC was involved in giving the person the potential for evil. That is the ability to perform violent acts frequently and without emotion and be willing to follow orders and adopt the belief system of the group which they have joined. It’s called Syndrome E.’
‘Your typical jihadi,’ N said nodding.
I pointed to the image that hung in the air. ‘This part of the PFC was found to be active in suppressing the moderate, altruistic, risk-averse instincts of other parts of the brain.  It seems that someone has engineered this implant to control the function – turn the evil on and perhaps off.’
‘So it seems. Thank you Professor. I suspected as much but needed your opinion as proof. You see N stands for Neurological Section Leader.’
I was confused. ‘But why would someone do that? Why put that thing in someone’s brain?’
N smiled again. ‘It seems that our ally has decided that trying to bomb our enemies into submission isn’t working. It isn’t. We’ve known that for decades but there hasn’t been any acceptable alternative. So they’ve decided to copy the enemy’s tactic of indiscriminate brutality.  Give them back the terror. But they needed a single minded, evil assassin happy to blow himself to bits if it killed enough innocent bystanders.’
‘Would they be able to find such a person?’ I asked realising immediately that I was being naïve.
‘Of course they could. Think of the Nazis, Irish IRA and protestant militia, Serbians in Bosnia, numerous American college boys.  Every nation has its reservoir of easily led, homicidal maniacs. The problem is controlling them.  With this device the guys in charge, like me, can turn anyone, or almost anyone, into a multi-murderer whenever we wish.’
I suddenly felt cold. ‘You said “we”.’
He gave me that broad grin again, like the cat that not only had the cream but a tasty dead bird as a side dish. ‘You don’t think we’re going to let our “friends” go on with this on their own do you? The Prime Minister wants our own Syndrome E Squad a.s.a.p. and as the leading authority on neural implants you are the person we are relying on to provide it, Professor.’
‘But how will releasing our own programmed killers end the war on terror?’ I asked.
‘It won’t,’ N replied.
‘Then, why?’
‘Because it will be a damn sight cheaper than operating the current fleet of drone bombers. Now, Professor, you’re not getting moralistic qualms about this are you? Not after developing the neural implant that has connected the whole population to the internet and allowed governments and corporations into everyone’s heads.
My uncertainty surfaced as an ‘Umm.’
‘I am sure I don’t have to remind you that under the state of emergency that has existed for the last twenty years your citizenship is dependent on you carrying out your government’s, that is my, wishes.’
I had no choice, unless I wanted to be deported from my own country. Any other that took me would make the same demands on my knowledge and skills. It appeared that from now on I would be harnessing the evil present in most, if not all minds, but perhaps I would also be able to insert an off switch.
‘When do I start?’

…………………….

Inspired by Roots of brutality, Laura Spinney, New Scientist p.40, no.3047, 14/11/15

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Jasmine is busy

Here is a comment on the UK General Election. I promise there won’t be many more between now and 8th June.

Strong & Stable

I have been an avid follower of general elections since 1966, or possibly 1964 (I recall Harold Wilson edging to victory).  Sometimes I have been dismayed at the result, a few times pleased, but this year I am dreading the result as it seems a victory for Theresa May is more than just likely but a certainty. Her repeated refrain of “strong and stable” I find sickening.  For her, strong seems to mean belligerent and the ability to ignore all doubt and concern at her actions. I’m not sure we want a strong leader like that. Someone who considers themselves strong can continue on a misguided course because they have bludgeoned the opposition into ineffectiveness. Stable government is another questionable entity. Portugal and Spain had stable government from the 1930s to the 1980s, Russia from the 1920s to 1990 and now again under Putin. Erdogan wants to give Turkey stable government – his own. A government that does not have to worry about the opposition can do what it likes. It is interesting how dictators soon want to change their country’s constitution to make their own power more “stable”. Putin did it in Russia, Erdogan is doing it in Turkey and Trump has already complained that the USA constitution should be changed to allow him to do what he wants.
It seems to me that May’s decision to seek re-election (or election in her case) with apparently little consultation with her colleagues is one sign of a megalomaniac.  It took Maggie Thatcher about 8 years to achieve the staring eyes of the power-crazed despot. Tony Blair took about 6. May has managed it in 9 months.
So, yes, I am scared, wary, despondent and for the first time in my life not particularly interested in the minutiae of this election.

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WP_20170505_15_05_43_ProRight onto the main business – writing.  Jasmine is busy with her case that will be recounted in Molly’s Boudoir (Jasmine Frame 4), so here is another of my short stories. This one is SF about Mars which I wrote before I saw The Martian or read the book it is based on.

Dust

Hello Houston, Marsbase, Sally Armstrong speaking.  We have a bit of a problem.
I don’t know why I’m sending this.  You can’t do anything to help and you probably can’t even hear me since the main antenna went down.  I’m patching this through the Yinghuo and hope the ground to orbit link can punch through the sandstorm.  That’s the problem you see, this effing dust cloud.  If we’d had warning of it blowing in then Mei and Svetlana, sorry, Commander Ying and Mission Specialist Leonova, wouldn’t have set off in the rover.  But without the geostationary satellite we’re blind whenever Yinghuo is over the horizon and only see a short distance when it’s up.  How many times have we regretted the failure of that satellite? But you’ve heard all that before.

Fact is Mei and Svetlana had no warning.  They got one message through when the storm hit.  They said the dust was getting into their motors and they’d lost power.   Damned dust.   Of course we knew it would be a nuisance.   A billion years of rubbing together has made the particles so small that they get through the finest filter.  The air’s thin and the force of the wind is puny, but it blows the dust into every nook and cranny.   Mei and Svetlana will have to sit still and hope that when the storm has passed they can get the motors running again.  I don’t hold out much hope though because they’re already on the spares after their first trip.   They’ll probably have to walk back.  I just hope the dust hasn’t got into their air supply.

I didn’t feel lonely on my own until the storm started.   I think we’ve proved those psych tests were correct, the ones that showed that an all-female crew would get on better than an all-male or mixed team.  Even when the time-lag got so that conversations with you guys back home became impossible, the three of us have chatted constantly.  Now the com is silent and I’m feeling that I’m on my own for the first time; on my own, with a whole barren planet beyond the airlock.

Unless it blows over soon the main antenna may not be our only problem.   If the dust gets into our power system I’m stuffed.  The dust cloud has cut our solar power generation to zero so I’m relying on the batteries but they can only keep the heaters and air supply going for two or three days and the storm could easily last that long.   If we’re without power the mission profile says we get back in the lander and blast off to rendezvous with the Yinghuo.  I can’t think of doing that and leaving Mei and Svetlana behind.

It’s all due to this dust.  Even when you go through the scrubber you still bring the stuff into the base with you.  It sticks to everything and that’s just the start of the problem.  Your eyes and throat are sore because it’s so abrasive and it eats away at plastics.  Thing is we knew all this before we arrived; the mission was designed with the dust in mind, but nothing the engineers thought of has solved the problems.  Just as well that we’re only supposed to be here a couple of weeks.   We always knew it was a political stunt really, a demonstration of Sino-Russo-American friendship. Ha!  Nine months in a steel can, 2 weeks on the surface and another nine months shut up inside again.  That’s the equivalent of two pregnancies – what they used to call a confinement.  Perhaps that’s what makes us women the most suited to long missions.

Mind you, I grabbed the chance to book a place on the mission.  I’ve wanted to come to Mars since I was a kid in the 20s.  Then it was all doom and gloom about global warming and no country was thinking about manned space missions.  Things have changed a bit since then haven’t they.  I discovered all the old reports of the moon landings in the 1970s and it’s been my ambition to go further ever since.  Svetlana and Mei were the same.

It hasn’t been a disappointment.  How could I live without seeing the Martian dawn.  First there is the bright red haze on the horizon while the sky overhead is still black and the stars are shining. Then this small but fiercely intense Sun climbs above the crimson crags.  I’ve discovered so many shades of red since I’ve been here.  I think our eyes have adjusted to the monochromatic scenery and found variations which we didn’t see when we arrived.

Damn.  It’s got quieter all of a sudden.  The white noise of the dust hitting the dome is still there but something is missing. The air pumps have shut down.  It’s a closed system with no interface with the Martian atmosphere but, as I say, this dust gets everywhere. Time to strip the pumps down, again.  The bearings last for no time once the dust gets into them.  There’s enough air in the dome and the lander for a couple of days, especially with just me breathing, but if I don’t get the pumps working again it’s another reason for aborting the mission.  Damn this dust.

I thought Mei and Svetlana were the lucky ones as they get to do the expeditions, but leaving the base for more than an hour or so is really uncomfortable.  You’ve guessed it – the dust.  It gets inside the pressure suits and collects in the creases and seams.  It irritates like, well, a speck of dust in an oyster. After their first trip they couldn’t wait to strip the suits off.  Their skin was blotchy with allergic reaction and they were covered in tiny scratches where the creases had been.  They’re like tattoos because the dust gets beneath the skin.   Mei looked like an old Ming vase with tiny cracks in her porcelain skin.  They weren’t happy about going on this second trip but you guys insisted.  You had to have some scientific data didn’t you, to make this trip more than just a propaganda exercise, and we have to feed the Net’s demand for pictures and sensational discoveries.
Life.  That’s the big one isn’t it, what everyone back on Earth is hoping for.  Well I think people’s hopes have been built out of nothing. Even if Mei and Svetlana do make it to that strange outcrop of not-so-red rock, I don’t think it will be the hiding place of Martian life.   You weren’t really convinced either, were you, but it keeps interest in the mission alive. Now we’ve secured our future on Earth there is less interest in escaping to other worlds.  Only people like us want to get out, spread our wings, see places no-one has seen before; with our own eyes not robot cameras.  Who knows Yinghuo 11 may be the first and last mission to bring real people to Mars.  We’ve certainly proved that it will be pretty impossible to live here.

I’d better go and look over those air pumps. Want them working for when Mei and Svetlana get back.   If anyone is listening, Sally Armstrong signing off.

Hi Houston, Sally Armstrong here.   I’m in the lander, setting up the launch countdown.  That’s if the dust hasn’t buggered up the systems like it did in the dome.  Still no sign of Mei and Svetlana.  The storm blew over yesterday after two whole days. They had to make it back by now because they only had air for three days.   I’m trying to save power and air so that I can wait till the last moment before blasting off but it’s getting cold and my chest is starting to hurt.  If only I’d been able to get those pumps going again, or the solar cells.

I went outside after the storm.  It was against protocol with the other two still away, but I had to try.  The effing dust had etched the panels so that they were opaque and corroded the connectors.  No hope of getting any power.   While I was wasting time trying to fix the main antenna a seam went on the dome.  Dust particles burnt through the seal.  The internal pressure just ripped the skin open. If I’d been inside I wouldn’t have had a hope of getting my helmet on.   So I cheated death and have been sitting here since.
It’s strange the other two seats being empty.  I keep on looking to my right and left and expecting Mei and Svetlana to be there.   I reckon I’ve got another three or four of hours of air which means I have to fire the engines in the next two to rendezvous with the Yinghuo.

Half of me knows they’re dead but the other half is still waiting and hoping they’ll appear over the ridge and we’ll all be together again.  I don’t want to leave.  It’s not having to sit in that can for another nine months – I really wanted to explore this place.  It’s barren and lifeless and, yes, the dust is a bugger, but it’s new.  When I pick up a pebble in my hand, okay, I can’t actually touch it, but I can turn it over, feel its texture, its weight, and know that no one has picked up a piece of Martian rock before but us three. We have that in common.
I don’t want to go home on my own.  Not sure if I can.
The launch sequence has started.  At least the screen is telling me it has.  Come on Mei, Svetlana, I don’t want to go without you.

We’re into the final minute.  Houston, if you receive this and something happens to me I want you to know it’s been worth it.  I know I speak for Mei and Svetlana, too.  They’re dead now, I’m certain.  The dust got them, the bloody dust.  Now I’m relying on the launch systems working.
Twenty seconds.
We wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything.  Now Mei Ying and Svetlana Leonova, you will be out there forever, Mars is yours now.   I love you.
10…
Here goes.
7…
6…
5…
4…
3…
2…
1…
Oh f…

……………………………………..

Jasmine is resting

I don’t believe in miracles but I think we’re going to need one to get out of this mess – the landslide Tory victory, that mess. We’ve had them before of course – during the 80s when Maggie was at her regal peak and Labour was examining its navel, like now. But this could be even worse than then because now the press seem more virulently right wing than they were thirty years ago and many people only see the opinions they want to see on social media. I’d like to close my eyes and ears to the fascist claptrap and just get on with enjoying life, but it can’t be done. The fears about where we are headed keep bubbling up and it seems too few people are aware of the course we seem to be on. Why do so many ordinary, good, people go on believing the false promises of the rich and powerful? It happened in the USA and it has happened here. OK, May is not quite as mad and offensive as Trump (nor as rich) but in the space of ten months since she came to power she has shown herself to be a deluded, two-faced, megalomaniac who will only speak to those who agree with her and views all who oppose her as enemies of the state – her state.

WP_20170421_15_16_17_ProPlease excuse this rant and now let me entertain you.  The fourth Jasmine Frame novel has been using up my creative juices so the next novella is still somewhere in the future. Here though is a short story I wrote some time ago for an assignment on ghost stories.  I was quite pleased with it and even entered it in a competition – it didn’t win.

 

 

 

 

Ghost Image

I didn’t go to the funeral.  Presenters and editors were there, and his old celebrity mates, most of them looking like it should have been their funerals.  It wasn’t really my scene.  I saw it on the evening news though.  Ron would have loved that – to be “on the box” one more time.  It caused a stir when Graham turned up leading the mourners.  How Ron managed to keep it quiet that he had a partner, I don’t know.  All those years when he was the housewives’ pin-up; what would they have thought if they’d known he was having it off with a younger man?  But I suppose that was the thing about Ron “the Box” Boxall; there was a lot going on behind the scenes.
I got to see quite a lot of him these last couple of years since he got shunted into regional breakfast TV.  I’m the night duty engineer.  I get into the studio first thing, check over all the kit, switch on the lights, cameras, monitors, intercom and so on.  I’m in an hour or so before the editorial staff and usually the presenters come in later, but not Ron.  He was there soon after me, making himself comfortable in his seat on the set, practising his expressions for the camera, sombre for bad news, a smile for good, a sardonic leer for the wannabe celebs.  I suppose he just couldn’t get enough of it – being “on the box”.  While I worked, he talked.  I got his life story – well the life in broadcasting anyway.
He’d been in it from the start, the re-start that is, after the war.  He was a runner on the broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.  Probably keeping Dimbleby fed and watered.  He got his big chance in the sixties doing light items for the Tonight programme and national news.  The seventies were his heyday, Nationwide, It’s a Knockout, That’s Life, a day-time chat show and his very own prime-time slot, “You’re on the box”.   I remember it from when I was a kid – one of those hidden camera progs. They’d film someone conned into doing something daft then Ron would leap out and shout “You’re on the box”.   That’s when he got his nickname.   It was on for years but once it was axed it was a slow drift to obscurity for Ron – occasional pieces on the news, a stint on regional evening programming.  He should have retired gracefully, years ago, but he wouldn’t.  He had to be “on the box”.    Who says broadcasting bosses have no heart; they could have let his contract run out, but no, they offered him the regional slot on the early morning news bulletins.  Perhaps they thought it would be beneath him and he’d give up at last, but Ron took it as if it was a major step in his career.
There wasn’t much to do of course.  Most of the input was pre-recorded reports.  All Ron had to do was simply put in the links.  That’s why the studio wasn’t up to much.  One chair and desk, one camera, producer, editor, assistant editor, engineer (me) and a runner.  Still, Ron treated it as if it was his big show and he was the star.  Every morning he appeared dressed immaculately in suit and tie – a different one every day I think.  Grey hair slicked back and make-up in place – he had to do that himself as our budget didn’t run to a make-up assistant.
So, each morning I’d fuss around getting things ready while he talked.  He didn’t like the way TV was going – of course he didn’t, when they didn’t really need him anymore.  He didn’t like these new flat screen TVs either, not the same as having a big box in the corner.  He couldn’t see himself as Ron “on the wall” Boxall.  If it was obvious I wasn’t listening he’d hum his old theme tune.  “You’re on the box, on the box, da di da, Ron the Box, de dum.”  It got pretty irritating after about the sixth time through.  When everyone else arrived he’d do his stuff and as the closing credits ran he’d be up and gone.  No hanging around chatting when his time on the box was finished.   That was until about a month ago, a Thursday, it was.
The producer stopped him as he was about to leave and there and then, casually, in front of the rest of us told him that his bit of the show was being axed.  The next day would be his last day on the box.  He didn’t argue, just left, and next morning there he was as usual.  He did his links, perfectly timed and phrased as always, but as the theme tune played he sort of slumped.  When he left he wasn’t just an old man, he looked as though he had already died.  I wasn’t surprised to hear a fortnight later that he was dead.  Nothing suspicious about it, a heart attack, the news bulletins said, but I knew that he had just given up.
The next morning I was in the studio.  No presenter now of course, so just the monitors and computers to warm up for the editor and his assistant to programme in the recorded bits.  But as I was sitting in the editor’s chair watching the computer going through its boot sequence, I noticed that the spotlight on the set had come on.  I looked through the window at the empty chair and desk in their pool of light and scratched my head.  Then I saw that the studio camera “on” light was, well, on.  I glanced at the monitor and had a shock.  There was Ron.  On the box.  A sort of faint, transparent image of him sitting in the chair, hair as slick and suit as smart as ever.  His eyes looking straight at the camera.  I checked the video tape decks; no, there wasn’t an old tape of Ron playing.  I went through the computer files, but there wasn’t any old footage of Ron running.  He was just there, live, well, not alive as such.  I flicked the microphone on and there amongst the white noise was that damned theme tune.  “You’re on the box, on the box, da di da.”  I switched it off and sat staring at the screen.  Ron didn’t move; just stared back at me.
A few minutes later the assistant editor arrived and the monitor went blank.  The spot went off.   I didn’t say anything to her. What could I say – we’ve got a ghost in the studio.  She’s a young switched on, going places, girl.  She’d have laughed.
The next morning it was the same.  When I switched the gear on, there was Ron, on the box.  A bit firmer, more defined.  This time he sort of smiled at me from the screen.  And so it went on day after day, Ron’s image becoming more and more kind of real, and each day it would disappear as soon as anyone else showed up.  That is until yesterday, the day of his funeral.
He was there when I switched on and this time he had that sideways half grin on his face which he reserved for people he had no time for.  He was there on the screen for over half an hour before disappearing when the assistant arrived.  Not surprisingly the running order for the bulletin had a brief piece about Ron’s funeral , a few words one of his old comrades had recorded.  The time came, the editor cued the piece and the assistant pressed the play button on the keyboard.  At the same moment the spotlight came on.  The producer said something like “what the f—“, and reached for the switch.
The electric shock sent the producer backwards across the studio.  His head thudded against the brick wall and he folded up in a heap on the floor.  The others rushed to him but as I turned to join them my eye caught the camera monitor.  There was the pale, faint image of Ron, smiling broadly.
The paramedics came and took the producer away and the others got back to work muttering to me about health and safety and wasn’t I supposed to check those things.  I didn’t say that it was electrics that were my responsibility not poltergeists, but I decided that something had to be done.   It would have been okay having Ron himself in the studio but the ghost wasn’t Ron.  Ron didn’t know how to send an electric current back down the line to a switch or put a spotlight on remotely, he barely knew how to operate a radio mike.  So that thing that sat in the monitor had to be got rid of.
This morning, I got in a little earlier than usual.   Nevertheless, as soon as I switched the lights on, the studio spot lit up, the camera monitor flickered into life and there was Ron chuckling like I’d never seen him chuckle before.   I tried switching things off but that didn’t work – he was still there grinning at me from the screen.  I got a stepladder and set it up under the spotlight, then collected my heat resistant glove from my tool kit.  It was needed now and again when bulbs blew and they had to be replaced immediately.  I climbed the steps and unscrewed the bulb.  Even with the glove it was bloody hot but I twisted it until the circuit broke and the studio went dark. There was a cackle of laughter and that infuriating song, “You’re on the box, da di da”. The bulb slipped out of my gloved hand and exploded as it hit the floor.  My heart was racing and my temples were pounding.
I was careful getting down off the ladder now it was a complete blackout, and felt my way back to the control room.  Ron was still there, on the monitor, and somehow still bathed in white light.  I flicked the on/off switch on the monitor, still no response, and I couldn’t shut the sound off either so I had Ron singing his tune over and over again.  It carried on even when I pulled the plug.  Somehow Ron was drawing electricity to the monitor from another source.  I took a few deep breaths. There was only one thing I could do.  I pulled on a pair of latex gloves.
It was a heavy old monitor, a cathode ray tube, housed in a square metal box.  I tugged it out of its supporting framework and set to work on the screws holding the housing together with my insulated screw driver.  The back cover came away and Ron paused in his monotonous singing to bawl with laughter.  I began to unscrew wires and circuit boards and pulled them out of the box.  Still Ron went on giggling and singing. At last I could see the back of the tube.  There was no way it should still be running but the phosphor screen flickered and the cathode glowed.  I glanced at the front of the screen.  Ron was there in the chair, not a hair out of place, still quite clearly “on the box”.  For a moment his eyes seemed to catch mine and the grin slipped away.  I froze.   His lips moved but no sound came. Then his eyes moved away and he resumed his laughter and another chorus of “You’re on the box”.  I breathed again.
There’s a big hammer in my tool box, kept there for real emergencies when subtlety no longer works.   I picked it up now, raised it above my right shoulder while shielding my face with my left hand.  I swung it down on the back of the CRT.  There was an almighty implosion as the glass cracked and the vacuum was breached.  The tube shattered, sucked in the air, and just then there was a puff of white.  My first thought was that it was the phosphor powder escaping but perhaps not.  The light in the tube went out and the singing and laughing stopped.
I was still clearing up the debris when the others arrived.  They looked at the bits of the old monitor , the casing ,the circuit boards and the broken glass and wondered what I was up to.  I told them some story about obsolete equipment, worn wiring, health and safety and anyway since we weren’t live anymore the old kit wasn’t needed.  They bought that, and without further comment sat down at their keyboards and stared at their flat screen monitors.  There were no more boxes for Ron to appear on.
……………………..

Jasmine is still away

Not much to say this week as I want to get on with the fiction.  However. . . as I accidentally opened a A….. Prime account last week we decided to watch the much-praised Transparent before I cancel it – the Prime account, that is.  I’d really wanted to see Transparent for its representation of an ageing, transitioning MtF transsexual.  Having seen 6 episodes I am disappointed. The trans bits are fine and in fact Mora seems to be the only normal person there.  It’s just that her kids are dysfunctional – the son is a sex addict, the elder daughter is (re-)discovering that she is a lesbian married to a bigoted husband, and the younger daughter (apparently the brightest) is a drug addicted weirdo (that is not being prejudiced because I haven’t quite worked out what her angle is). The programme has a lot of gratuitous sex while lacking laugh-out-loud humour.  Also I didn’t know that American college professors were so well off. Although retired, Mora is apparently able to hand over her amazing house to her kids while going to live in a small apartment.  So, not the enjoyable, thought-provoking exercise I was hoping for.

……………….

IMGP5764Here is another of my writers’ group efforts from a few years ago. The task was to follow the first paragraph that was given to us. As you can see it turned into a sort of parody or pastiche of a type of detective story (not Jasmine Frame). I’m not sure whether it counts as a complete story or an incomplete novel(la) but it is a bit longer than my usual blog offerings. Enjoy it, if you can.

 

 

The Necessity of a Raincoat

It was 3 a.m. I’d missed the last bus. I hadn’t enough money for a taxi and it had started to rain.  My raincoat was hanging in the hall cupboard at home.
My mother always said, ‘don’t forget your raincoat, you never know when you might need it’.  She was right.  It was one of the essential tools of my trade.  Mine was not the stereotypical trench coat.  Pale beige with concealed buttons, it had two diagonal outside pockets.  It just reached my knees, a compromise between the possibility of wet trouser legs and being able to run, and it had a thin collar just wide enough to put up and stop raindrops dripping off the brim of my hat.  I can’t say I was that attached to it as I had a habit of going through raincoats rather rapidly.  Keeping rain off was just one of its assets but it was not much use in the cupboard when I was stranded five miles away.
     I hadn’t intended leaving home without it of course but I didn’t get much choice in the matter. It was nine o’clock; the theme tune to Softly, Softly, Taskforce had faded out and I was thinking of bed – you have to make up for the night work sometime – when there was a sharp tap on my front door.  I opened it and found myself lifted off my feet by two goons, 6 foot and 18 stone, the pair of them.  They carried me kicking and squealing to a car, a big one, a Wolseley I think.  They shoved me in the back seat and got in, one on each side of me.  The driver drove us off with no hesitation.
“Hiya boys,” I said trying to appear relaxed about being dragged out of my own home.
“Shurrup,” Gus, on my left, said, or it may have been George; with identical crew-cuts and black suits, they were easy to get confused.
“Where are we going?” I tried again.
“Shurrup,” said George, or it may have been Gus, and for added emphasis showed me his fist complete with brass knuckle duster.  I had a fair idea where we were headed unless this was my last trip in which case I was bound for a shallow hole in a remote field.  I was somewhat relieved when we headed into town and not at all surprised when we drew up at the “Golden Chip”; not a fish restaurant but the town’s brand new casino.
The two burly boys marched me down an alleyway, through a side entrance and pushed me into a dark space.  The lock clunked and I groped around finding that I was in a small store room.   I tried out my locksmithing skills, such as they are, but was defeated.  In fact, it was rather a secure door for a simple store room but the smell suggested it was used for holding animate or previously animate stock rather than mere paper goods.  I sat down on the concrete floor to wait, knowing that my kidnapper was intending me to stew for a few hours.
It was gone 2 a.m. by the luminous dial of my watch when the door was flung open and my two friends dragged me out blinking into the dim electric light.  They escorted me up a couple flights of scruffy stairs to their boss’ office and stood me in front of them facing his large oak desk.
“Hi, Boyd,” I said cheerily, not adding the ‘Big’ that usually went with the occupant of the leather chair behind the desk.  He tended to get a bit sensitive about his nickname.  5 ft 4 in his built-up shoes, big in stature he certainly wasn’t, but he was big in the business of fraud, extortion, and any other illegal activity you care to mention.  Big Boyd was the biggest big man in town.  He’d even bribed the council planning officers to turn the town’s third best cinema into a casino.  He wanted to bring 1970s Las Vegas to a part of middle England that hadn’t yet discovered the 60s.
He glared at me from the tiny dark eyes under his thick bushy brows and Brylcreamed black hair.
“Henley, isn’t it; private dick,” he sneered.
“Joe Henley,” I nodded, almost adding ‘at your service’ but there was no way I wanted to be in his service.
“You’ve been snooping,” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“I don’t like people nosing around my property, particularly good for nothing losers like you.”
I was a bit offended by his assessment of my skills but still I said nothing.
“What’s your story?” he went on, his neck beginning to turn pink as his level of frustration grew.  I didn’t speak while I tried to think of a suitable answer.
“Look, you may think you’re tough,” he went on, “but my lads can soon have you chatting away as if your life depended on it.”  He didn’t add ‘which it may’.  Actually, I’m your original ten stone weakling, so being tough is not one of my attributes.
I felt hot breath on the back of my neck as Gus or George panted with anticipation of a bit of violent recreation.
“I’m on a case,” I said at last.
“Aren’t you the lucky one.  I’m surprised anyone would choose you to pack a case let alone solve one,” he laughed at his little joke and Gus and George chuckled.
“It’s a missing girl,” I went on ignoring his banter.  I thought I might as well tell him as I was damn sure he knew the story anyway.
“So why have you been snooping around my business?”
“She was last seen coming into this place.”
“Hundreds of people come here every night.  The Golden Chip is a popular recreational establishment.”
“But most come out again.  This girl apparently didn’t.”
“Oh, come now,” Boyd smiled and shrugged, “Everyone leaves sometime.  She probably went off with some new friends.”
“Perhaps,” I conceded.  It was exactly those new friends that I was concerned about.
“I’d certainly know if someone was hanging round when we closed up, so you’ve no reason to be concerned on that score.”  He gave me his widest smile, the one that reminded me of a crocodile just about to snap.
“None at all, as you say.”
“Well, I’m glad that’s settled.  Gus and George will see you out with a little reminder of what we think about snoopers.” He nodded to my companions and dropped his head to read some papers.  I was lifted by strong hands under my armpits and carried out.  We returned to the side entrance.  I suppose I hoped to be just thrown out but Gus and George were keen to carry out Boyd’s final order.  How do you brace yourself for a beating?  I’ve never found an answer.  Gus or George held me up and George or Gus hit me in the stomach, first with his right and then his left.  Then they threw me out.
I lay winded for a few minutes before I summoned the energy to haul myself to my feet then staggered to the main road.  It was quiet.  The lucky and not so lucky punters had all left.  The last bus was long gone.  I had no money for a taxi, and it was starting to rain.
       It was gone five when I made it home, wet, exhausted and sick.  My front door was still open and the lights were on but speculative thieves had not made use of the opportunity, which was one cause for celebration.  I crawled up the stairs, pulled off my soaking clothes and fell on the bed.
The alarm clock woke me a couple of hours later.  I flung it off the bedside table feeling like death but forced myself to sit up.  My abdomen ached and I was cold but a long hot shower helped me feel something like human.  I couldn’t face food but a hot, sweet cup of tea brightened up my morning and I felt ready to contemplate the case.
Why was Big Boyd so concerned to warn me off the Lucy Miller case?  Lucy was a nineteen-year-old student who considered university an opportunity to party. To Mr and Mrs Miller, nevertheless, she was still their little princess, as pure and spotless as a fairytale heroine. When Lucy didn’t ‘phone them for a day or two they got worried.  Of course, the police weren’t interested –  how many students ring their parents every other day.  So, the Millers came to me convinced that Lucy was missing. It didn’t take me long to find out that she was.  None of her student friends or lecturers had seen her for days but, as I told Boyd, I had traced her as far as the Golden Chip.  She’d told a girlfriend that she was going there but who she went with I had yet to discover.
Perhaps Boyd thought that his warning would be enough to deter me, in which case he knew me less well than I knew him, especially as I now knew that my investigations had set his alarm bells ringing.   I dressed, took my raincoat out of the cupboard and got the Austin 1100 out of the garage.
I parked a few streets from the casino and wandered down the High Street with my raincoat over my arm. It was a fine, early spring morning.  The overnight rain had cleaned the place up and given it a fresh odour. There were more people around than at 3 a.m., quite a lot in fact, in and out of the butchers, bakers, grocers and hardware stores.  I went into a little cafe opposite the Golden Chip and sat in the window sipping a hot, sweet tea.   Nobody went into or came out of the old cinema building and there was no sign of the big Wolseley or Boyd’s own Roller.  I decided this was probably as good a time as any to do some real snooping.
I crossed the road and looked carefully left and right.  At the end of the alleyway beside the casino I noticed some rubbish bins.  It’s always worth looking at what people have thrown out and my luck was in.  Among the potato peelings and empty whisky bottles was a black and white mini dress.  It was creased and dirty but there no stains that were obviously blood which was heartening. It was Lucy’s.  How did I know?  Well the name tag obviously sewed on by her loving mother gave it away.  If her dress hadn’t left then there was a chance she hadn’t either.  I had to give the casino itself a good going over notwithstanding Boyd’s warnings.
I drew my pistol from the pocket and wrapped the raincoat around my hand.  A raincoat makes a satisfactory silencer and conceals the weapon from casual inspection.  Then I tried the side entrance.   It wasn’t as strong as the door to the storeroom where I was locked up and gave with a good shove of my shoulder. I slipped inside, pulled the door closed and listened.  There were no sounds of movement.  I was hoping that the nocturnal crooks were safely tucked up in bed.   I moved along the narrow corridor trying all the doors.  Most were unlocked and opened to reveal nothing of interest.  I climbed the stairs and searched the upper floors.  I was getting a bit nervous of the time I was taking when I climbed the final flight to the attic rooms.  The first door opened to reveal piles of old film cases and rolled up posters; a treasure trove for movie buffs but not what I was after.
I got to the last low door cut to fit the roof line.  I tried the handle.  It was locked.  I thought I heard a noise and placed my ear against the wood.  There were sounds muffled by more than the thickness of the door.  I stepped back and charged.  The door jamb splintered and I fell through.  Something sharp hit my forehead and I struggled to regain my balance.  I lifted the pistol ready to fire.  The small room, a cupboard really, was lit by a hurricane lamp that had hung from the roof just inside the door and was now on the floor, fuel spilling out, catching alight.  I grabbed my raincoat in my spare hand and beat at the fire, smothering the blue flickers before they became roaring orange flames.   Panting, but reassured that I had not set off an inferno I looked around.  It was pretty dark now but what I could see was pretty significant.  On the floor with ankles and wrists tied, dressed in just knickers and a bra was a young woman.  A pair of tights, hers I presumed, was tied around her mouth.  She was wriggling and mumbling.  Her eyes stared at me, wide open and scared.
“It’s OK, Lucy,” I said, “I’m a friend.  I’ve come to get you.”   I bent down feeling in my jacket pocket for my Swiss army knife.  It took quite a few moments to cut through the ropes around her wrists then I set to releasing her ankles while she tugged at the gag.  At last after much effort she was freed and struggled unsteadily to her feet, shivering.
“Are you the police?” she asked, quite understandably.
“No, and we need to get out of here quick before someone comes back for you.  Put my coat on.”  I offered my raincoat, now a little singed and covered in soot.  She put her arms in the sleeves and wrapped it around her torso.  I grabbed her arm with my left hand and dragged her from her cupboard, leading with my pistol.
There wasn’t opportunity for conversation as we went down the flights of stairs, pausing on each landing to listen for sounds of other occupants of the building.  My heart was thudding in my chest as I anticipated Boyd, Gus and George or any of his other bully boys appearing, but we reached the ground floor without incident and exited through the shattered side door.
The alleyway, enclosed on both sides by tall buildings seemed to stretch to infinity but it was our only route back to the civilised world of the High Street.  I kept Lucy behind me trying to hide or shield her just in case one or more of Boyd’s employees appeared.  I could hear behind me her miserable sniffles and stifled squeals as her bare feet stepped on the sharp gravel.   I dragged her along as fast as I could, waving the pistol in front of me, my trigger finger tensed.  I wasn’t afraid to fire in order to make our escape and thoughts of innocent bystanders barely passed through my head.  I suppose it took us ten seconds to get to the road but it felt like ten years.  We burst out into the hustle and bustle of a daytime shopping neighbourhood.  I pocketed my pistol, drew Lucy to my side and hurried down the pavement, zigging and zagging around shoppers and tradesmen.   No doubt people looked at us and wondered, but we had passed them before it occurred to them to question us.
We reached my parked 1100 and I bundled Lucy into the passenger seat.  I ran around to get into the driving position and had the key in the ignition, engine running and in gear in one smooth movement.  I pulled into the traffic and glanced at my passenger.  She had folded in on herself with my raincoat wrapped tightly around her.
“I want to hear your story,” I said as calmly and kindly as I could manage, “but we must get you somewhere safe.”  The question was where that might be.    My house was the first place Boyd would think of looking when he discovered his loss, and Lucy’s digs would be the second.   A police station would be the normal, respectable answer, but in this town, Big Boyd’s fiefdom, I wasn’t certain of where the loyalties of the boys in blue lay.  I’d rescued Lucy, at the expense of one raincoat but I wasn’t certain I could keep her safe. This story had some life in it yet.
……………………

Jasmine takes a break

It’s Easter – time for the first big rush of the year to the holiday resorts.  Last week there was a storm in a chocolate teacup about the use of the term “Easter” followed by the words bunny, egg, treasure hunt etc. Apparently leaving out the “Easter” was a denial of our Christian heritage and of being a sop to people of other religions. I didn’t follow the convoluted arguments closely but I did not notice any reference to what Christians actually celebrate at Easter. Not that there many that do.  The cars clogging the roads are filled with people just looking forward to a good time over the extended weekend; the religious significance means little.  Similarly I find little religious significance in the Easter bunny or chocolate eggs although of course any priest worth his/her cassock can find significance in anything. Rabbits and eggs recall the spring fertility festivals that predate the Christian era. Early Christians struggled to replace these joyous occasions with the sacred Easter celebrations but ended up adopting many of their symbols and traditions. Now it is largely just an early spring break.

Does it matter to our national identity what we call this weekend? I don’t think it so.  It is some years since the late spring bank holiday replaced Whitsun/Pentecost in the national consciousness and that doesn’t seem to have caused the world to end.  Let those who want to mark the religious occasion do so, and let the rest enjoy a few days of holiday, but don’t persist in attaching religiously charged words like Easter to secular money-spinning products and activities.

…………………………

IMGP5761Talking of breaks. Jasmine is still having one while I get on with Molly’s Boudoir but don’t forget that all three Jasmine Frame novels are available in paperback and e-book.

Instead of a Jasmine episode here is something else “what I wrote”.  This short piece was knocked off for a writing group meeting.  Although it was apparently not that long ago I cannot remember the task we set ourselves. It could have just been the start, “There was a boat. . .”. I am sure you will recognise the setting and the theme as incorporating both environmental and political issues. I hope you like it.

 

There was a boat . . .

There was a boat that rested, listing, on a shore that had not experienced the kiss of waves for a generation. Yuri entered through the jagged hole made to remove the diesel engine and all the metal fittings. He stretched his young legs to clamber up the lopsided wooden ladder. Sunlight made jagged stripes on his face and body as it streamed through the gaps in the wind-shrunken timbers. The boat would no longer float if the sea returned, not that that was likely to occur. Yuri reached the narrow bridge, held himself upright by hanging on to the wheel and looked out of the dirt-covered, cracked window. The barren sea-bed stretched to meet the brown sky at the distant horizon. Yuri was alone with his boat.  Alone with his thoughts and memories.
Yuri’s father had seen the approaching vehicles shrouded in their clouds of dust and exhaust fumes. He had sent Yuri to his hiding place above the ceiling of their shack. There Yuri peered through the gaps in the boards. He saw the battered four-by-four pickups draw up around their little house and the bearded men with the guns and blades get out. They crowded into the one room and demanded things of his father. Things he did not have. Yuri didn’t recognise the men but they had been before. Last time they had taken his mother in exchange for his father’s life, taken her Yuri did not know where. Now he lay on the boards listening to his father argue and plead. The men shouted and then his father had made one last sound; a brief shriek that cut off abruptly.
There was more noise as the men smashed up the hut with the butts of their guns, then they left, laughing and hailing a god Yuri did not know. Their vehicle engines spluttered into life and they were gone.  Yuri waited just in case the men returned but after many minutes of silence except for the whispering wind, he crept from his hiding place.
Yuri’s father was sprawled on the floor, the blood from his almost severed neck soaking into the earth. His guts spread across floor, stinking, already attracting buzzing flies. Yuri took a single glance and left the home he had shared with his father, mother, baby sister and grandfather. They were all gone now. He was alone. He went to the only other place he knew – the boat.
The sun turned red and bloated and sank below the featureless horizon. Yuri remained standing watching. The sky darkened and the stars came out, so many stars that Yuri couldn’t comprehend their number. Though the long-dried out, wind-scoured bed of the former sea was as dark as dark could be, the sky was bright with the stars.
Yuri gripped the wheel and turned it to port and starboard. He was sailing, not the fish-filled waters that the boat had navigated with his grandfather at the wheel, but the heavens, like the cosmonaut who he was named for who had died decades before he was born. In his boat of dreams Yuri soared among the stars and planets, visiting places where there were foods and drinks he had heard about but never tasted, seeing animals and plants that he was told existed away from the poisoned shores of the dried-up sea, and meeting his father and mother and sister and relatives and friends that once had inhabited the shore which was home. Upon the starry main, he found peace and happiness.
The boat remained at its mooring. Its keel broken as it slumped into the dust. Its timbers crumbled and the atoms of the wood and of Yuri mingled and were sucked into the air. At last, Yuri sailed away on the wind that blew across the waterless sea.

Jasmine is away

I recently read a book called Prisoners of Geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics (by Tim Marshall, pub. Elliott&Thompson) and, boy, was it depressing. It gives an outline of the history and present day situation in ten trouble-spots, or rather areas, around the world. Most of them are pretty familiar to anyone who follows the news – the Middle East, Korea and Japan, Russia, etc. and the newest one to watch for the future, the Arctic. The principal message is, nothing changes. No conflict is ever resolved, it’s just put on hold for a while until one or other party feels tempted to open up again. They are all concerned with security (i.e. a sense of being safe from invasion) and/or securing access to resources.  What they all display is a complete lack of trust between members of the human species or any appreciation that we’re all inhabitants of one finite world.

I read the book because I thought it would be useful to discover the background to the various conflicts we hear about but really it just added to my despair at the current world situation exacerbated by Brexit, Trump, and other political nonsense.  I wish I could be like most of the population and close my eyes and ears and brain to what is happening and just live a relatively comfortable and enjoyable life.  Unfortunately, I can’t ignore it all or forget what is happening or going to happen around the world, and, almost certainly, close to home. But what to do? What, indeed, are the solutions? Are marches a way of raising awareness, or what about standing on street corners with a sandwich board saying “Doom!”? Does this blog do any good? Probably not.  Suggestions will be gratefully received but I fear we are all doomed, but I hope it’s later rather than sooner.

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IMGP5546And now for something completely different, as they used to say. I haven’t begun a new Jasmine Frame prequel yet as I have started writing the fourth novel and I can’t really cope with developing two plots, sets of characters, scenes; at least not yet. So while Jasmine is taking a rest for a short while I thought I’d dig out some of my other fictional pieces.  These have largely been written for the writing groups that I have attended over the years. As such they are often rushed and incomplete, sometimes lacking even an ending, but perhaps it is worth bringing some of them out into the glare of online publication to be picked over by readers.  The first one dates from about seven years ago and I think was a general assignment about meeting for coffee, hence the title . . .

Latte tales

I hadn’t planned to kill Catherine.  Why should I, she was my best friend, so everyone said.  She was always coming round to my house to drink my coffee and we would laugh at her new acquisitions – a new dress, dining suite, loo brush or a new man.  It had always been the same.
In school, Catherine invariably came to sit next to me and look over my shoulder as I wrote in my exercise books.  Working together, was her name for it.  At break times, if I was chatting to a boy, who would come wandering up but Catherine, flicking her blonde hair out of her eyes and smiling sweetly.  What the boys saw in her, I didn’t understand when we were young, but they always went after her. Still, she was good for a laugh and a drink in the pub – her parents were loaded.
Later when other friends had taken jobs in other parts of the country, we were the only two of the old crowd left.  Geoff and I always said we would move when he got his promotion but it never happened, and Catherine inherited her parents pile after they were killed in a car crash.   Somehow along the way she got married to Will.  Why she married, I don’t know because monogamy wasn’t a word in her dictionary.  She always said that Will was quiet and a bit dull; I think she saw him as a live-in handyman; he’s certainly transformed their old house.
Anyway, she took to calling round for that coffee whenever she wasn’t off on some shopping expedition or enticing some sexy fellow or other.  To be truthful I often looked forward to her visits as they lightened the boredom of being at home looking after the kids;  and we did laugh about the antics she got up to.
On that morning we had got onto our second cup.  The first had been taken up with the tale of the new sofa.  Taking a sip of the second she launched into the tale of her latest assignation. She described the most intimate details, humorously as always, of their bedroom frolics. Then, I think it was because she was so used to stealing my boyfriends when we were at school, that she forgot herself completely – she revealed her lover’s name.
‘Geoffrey,’ she said.
‘Geoffrey,’ I replied, ‘what a coincidence.’
She suddenly stopped laughing and I noticed that for the first time in her life she was blushing.  She stared into her cup.  A horror gripped my chest.
‘You don’t mean, my Geoffrey?’ I asked, slowly, deliberately, in a hoarse whisper forced between my gritted teeth.
She didn’t reply.
‘You do, don’t you,’ the pitch and volume of my voice rose.  She started to get up from her stool.
‘I think I had better go now,’ she said in an unfamiliar mousey tone. I tugged at her arms and forced her back down.
‘No you don’t.  You are going to tell me that it’s my Geoffrey you’re shagging.’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…’
‘…to let it out that it’s my husband that’s your latest conquest.’
For some reason the red Le Creuset frying pan was on the table close to hand.  I think I had been drying it when Catherine arrived and just put it down to let her in.  I didn’t really think about it, just sort of picked it up and swung my arm.  It made a very satisfying thud when it hit her head.  She fell backwards off the stool and hit her head again on the floor.   I knew she was dead as soon as I looked at her.
Will and I buried Catherine alongside Geoffrey in the back garden.  Will has laid a lovely thick concrete foundation for the new patio that Geoffrey always wanted but did nothing about. All our neighbours are sympathetic about how Catherine and Geoff have run off and left us, and actually it turns out that Will isn’t as boring as Catherine suggested.
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