Changed Polarity

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

They said nobody else could have done it. That was flattering I guess. It kept my mind off the reality.

He was a charming man, the President. People expect to hear that, but it shocks them nevertheless. They don’t want it to be true, but they believe it. They say Hitler was like that you know, charming. All sorts of people fell under his spell. The President was like that.

All leaders have to have that presence. I read somewhere they used to keep a mop and bucket outside Stalin’s office because so many people wet themselves when they were in there. He wasn’t so charming I guess.

He had that certain something you know, the President. Performers have it. I’ve met lots of celebs. It usually doesn’t get through to me. I couldn’t do my job properly if it did. I’m not one of those gooey eyed sycophants full of crap, just writing long captions for someone else’s photographs.

I take it seriously. That’s why they take me seriously. That’s why I got the job, both jobs. That’s why he let me in.

He was charming. I had to keep reminding myself. People don’t do that, ordinary people. They just let themselves get swept away. I couldn’t afford to get swept away. I never could.

Scared? Sure I was scared. I wasn’t scared to begin with. I was nervous. The sort of nervous you get when you’ve got to do the job properly, the usual job. You have to be focussed. You have to remember what you’re there for. I was trying to forget what I was there for too.

I always get that fluttering, a tightness in the stomach, not quite a pain. You try to ignore it, but it never entirely goes away. It’s part of doing the job well. It wasn’t any worse than usual, not to begin with. You get arrogant sometimes, start to tell yourself they’re not going to do anything to you; not to you! You’re too damned important. You’re a household name. Hey, even the security people greeted me like an old friend. One of them said he liked the show.

It was while I was waiting in the shower room I started to think about it for the first time. You’re sitting there in the buff you know. It wasn’t cold or anything. All very luxurious. They’d given me a robe to put on. I just felt vulnerable. Like when you strip off in front of a new woman. That’s when it hit me. I thought you’re a damned fool. What have you got yourself into now?

I could picture them going through my clothes, examining the seams. Looking for God knows what. I was thinking of them with the microphone. When I’d first gone in one of them was fooling with it, doing my voice. Don’t try to hang on to the microphone, they’d told me. If they want to take it, let it go. It doesn’t matter. Just do the interview anyway. You’ll get the scoop. That’s what they said, but I’m sitting there thinking, what if they take it apart?

Oh I know they weren’t supposed to be able to find anything even if they did. The scientists said it was state of the art, undetectable, cutting edge: Top Secret. But you just wonder. What if someone else had been working on it too? What if the President had his own men at the institute?

They wouldn’t let the camera crew in, nor the sound man. They said they’d got their own. I don’t like working with strangers any more. I guess I’m getting old. I was glad the guys were out of it though. I’d worried about them. Everything would be all right, they said, if we got the old bastard, but I kept wondering.

When it came to the microphone they insisted I keep it. They’d said they would. It was my trademark after all. Who’d want to watch a Larry Benoury interview without the microphone? What’d you do with your hands? They laughed. So I took it in with me.

The President was behind that big desk when I went in, but there were two chairs by the fire, and a camera on a tripod pointing at them, no crew. They must have been somewhere up in a control room out of harm’s way. He got up when I came in and nodded the aide out, and he came round the desk and offered me one of the chairs with an outstretched hand.

He had a smile. It was so genuine. I could feel the goodwill coming off him like aftershave. I can’t remember what he said. I was trying to picture the newshots of the camps. His eyes were like diamonds. They just cut through you. I opened my mouth to say something but it sounded like the noise you’d make stubbing your foot. Come on Larry I thought, you’re supposed to be the tops. You’re the professional. This is just another crummy dictator in a posh suit. But I couldn’t make it work.

There was a canary in a cage on a stand by the fireplace. There was no fire of course, just a big bouquet of flowers. I sat down. He joined me, nodded towards the camera. The side of his face was pock marked. I caught a glimpse of his profile. They never show you that. I didn’t recognise him for a moment. There was something cold, once his eyes were off you, and the smile. You could imagine this stranger in the torture rooms, watching, advising.

I told him the bird was very beautiful and asked if it sang. He smiled again but the charm didn’t work somehow. He said, only if there’s an assassin in the room, and the smile opened up into a laugh. The microphone felt clammy, top heavy. He leaned forwards, reached for it.

And this is your famous microphone, he said, and took it from me.

Suddenly everything was clear.

I think your security people must have dismantled it, I told him, see how they’ve changed the polarity on the switch. He looked closely at the black handgrip, and pushed his thumb against the plastic slider. I could hear the canary singing above our heads.

 

Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, I’m posting 100 BHD tales, one each day. Here’s number 8:

Earthquake

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Even at his funeral, when those he had taken care to keep apart found themselves side by side in the little church, the pennies were slow to drop. That is, until the vicar invited Bristow to deliver the eulogy.

Bristow had been friends with Parker, give or take a few misunderstandings, since they were young, but he was no fool. He understood just how hurtful Parker’s comments could be; how provocative his seemingly random assertion were; how close to various moral rocks and legal reefs Parker had sailed, though the man had always it safely to harbour by luck, bad judgements, and the kindness, ignorance or timidity of those who might have had him, as Parker would have said, by the short and curlies.

Bristow gazed out over the congregation and looked down at the uppermost of his prompt cards:

‘Our friend Parker was loved by all’

He looked up again. In the third row sat Myrtle Twomely, the woman of whom Parker said, she had the biggest tits in the village. Scattered around her were several of those he had said it to, and others to whom they had passed it on.

Further back was Doris Goodenough whose bras, on and off the washing line, had been the subject of Parker minute examination, sometimes with her present.

Not quite out of sight behind one of the fluted stone pillars sat James Conolly, whose wife still hadn’t told him, and whose daughter never would, just exactly what Parker had said to the girl when she turned sixteen, and next to him was Cecil Andrey on whose knuckles the bruising had finally faded, though the dent in the plasterboard where he had punched it was still there. Parker had been lucky that day.

Finally, there was Elaine: truly bereaved, innocent to the point of blind stupidity. She should have gone to the police, or at least threatened to.

All the faces were turned towards him, expectant, perhaps even a little apprehensive. You could have heard a pin drop, a scale even. Bristow cleared his throat, took a grip on the lectern, raised his head and spoke firmly:

Our friend Parker never meant to hurt anyone.

He gripped the lectern more tightly. A shudder ran through the congregation. The heavy stone pillars shivered. The stained glass windows flexed. The exposed beams of the arched roofs groaned. The long slender candles flickered. And the church bells, long disconnected from their ropes and pulleys, swung imperceptibly.

Bristow murmured under his breath:

But the old bugger didn’t give a flying fuck if he did.

 

 

Taking Steps

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Suddenly, one morning, as she came down the stairs she found that she couldn’t pass the third step in the top flight.

It was absurd, she knew. After all she could not spend the day in her room, nor in loitering on the landing. Yet for a moment she could not pass that step but stood awkwardly above it, one hand on the banister, the other at her throat, gripping almost as tightly as the image gripped her of the black and yellow ball that had waited there a week before.

Sunlight streamed in through the tall arched window that flooded the stairwell with early morning light. She forced herself to continue the descent, passing into the realm of light beneath her feet like someone entering deep water.

The shadows of the poplars at the field’s edge pointed towards her like spears, their tips passing either side of the window. The sun was climbing rapidly. Soon the spears would shorten and shadow would descend from the ceiling like a lowered blind.

If only her mother had been an early riser, she had told them, she might have seen the ball, bright in the early light. She would surely have managed to avoid it. But she had not been an early riser. She had been languid and unhurried, taking her own time, over everything, and doing nothing that did not suit her.

By the time her mother had risen the spear tips of the poplar shadows had slipped back beneath their foliage and the sun had completed the first leg of its vertical midsummer climb to noon, casting the interior of the house into gloom.

Wedges of brightness on the polished woodwork at her feet parodied the yellow panels of the ball. Such a stupid accident they seemed to say, but so believable.

 

She passed the step outfacing the frisson of regret that flowed through her as if from the bare wood beneath her slippered feet. George, poor innocent, was already in the kitchen. The smell of freshly made coffee filled the room. He looked up almost guiltily, as if his enjoyment of it might somehow compound her loss. She suppressed her own instinctive inhalation of delight.

Coffee? he asked softly, half rising.

Perhaps, a little, she said.

She let her eyes travel down the length of the room to where the old leather chair had squeezed itself in against the patio door during her mother’s life with them. She pictured the renovated room. Once everything is settled, she told herself.

She used to love sitting there, George said wistfully, misinterpreting her gaze.

Yes, didn’t she, she said.

He poured the coffee and they sat in silence sipping the hot liquid. George glanced at the clock.

We’ll have to get ready soon, he said. The car will be here in a couple of hours.

She let him make toast, and munched slowly, counting, in her mind’s eye, the cabinets that would line the wall between the patio door and the inside door.

You’ll get used to it you know, George said. Eventually.

She raised her eyebrows.

Her not being here.

Yes, I expect I will.

 

Curious, she thought, taking the second piece, how they had known that it was the third step. It had never crossed her mind that they would be able to come up with such details. Flushing the toilet, on the top landing, afterwards, had been the cleverest part, she thought with quiet satisfaction. You could hear the noise all over the house. She had not even needed to prompt George about it, when they talked to the doctor.

I heard her go, he’d said, and then the ball bouncing on the stairs, and then Marjorie flushed the upstairs loo. I didn’t know which of them it was at first, he confessed, embarrassed by the fact that he had not been disinterested. He was a dear, and he had heard everything.

Everything, that was, except her re-crossing the landing in her soft slippers to flush the toilet, after she had dropped the ball.

With this one, your guess is as good as mine; probably better!

Cormac in the Flickering Light Of the Old Empire

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

(To run properly this story requires a fake American accent, a shot glass of undiluted whisky

and Cuban Cigar of ring gauge no less than 42 –a JL Piedra Nacionales is recommended)

 

 

Pillars of light held the furled clouds above the town. Small sounds reached out towards him: the closing of a gate: a single word of command: a momentary silence, as if the world waited for a story to begin. Cold air scoured the plain, persistent, unrelenting, scuttering like rats’ feet over the rough surface, nipping the fetlocks of the horse. Cormac squeezed his legs together and urged the animal onwards. It plodded past the milestone to Equus Unum.

He had no love of horses. He had been an infantryman. He had served the Empire as one for twenty five years. They had made him Significer just before the end. Then they had given him the scroll that proclaimed him a Citizen of Rome, and Stilicho, who was a barbarian like he was, had granted him a plot of land, a shieling, at Parva Veteranorum.

“I’m gonna grow me apricots and peaches, and big red peppers.” Cormac said. “I’m gonna plant me vines and make the sweetest wine north of the Alps. I’m gonna plough that deep soil, and plant it, and watch the crops ripenin’ in the sun.”

That was why he had needed the horse.

It carried him to the Cantina with the unerring instinct of all old nags that carry paid off soldiers home to their final resting place. Two beasts were already tied to the hitching rail. The pale horse carried a galloper’s saddle and the broad purple stripe of the Imperial Messengers on its blanket. The other was a mule, loaded with bulging sacks, grain perhaps, or dried fruits from the south. A native boy, maybe four years old, an Angle from his hair, stood by them.

The horse came to a halt in front of the rail and Cormac leaned back, lifting his leg over the horns of the saddle. He slid awkwardly to the ground and began to unhook the saddle bags.

“Watch yore horse mister?” The boy asked.

Cormac looked down at him.

“I gotta sword.” The boy said.

He pulled out an old army sword, short, broad bladed, the sort the legions carried generations ago when Rome was still expanding, not like the long swords Cormac was used to.

“You fight people with that?” Cormac asked.

The boy made a grimace.

“I shore can holler if anyone messes with yore things.”

“Reckon that’ll have to do then.” Cormac said.

The boy took a pace forward and held out an open palm.

“That’ll be a copper dinari mister.” He said.

 

Cormac stepped inside. The air was heavy with smoke, noisy with chatter, not Latin, native tongue, one he would have spoken once without thinking. Oil lamp flames danced like arab girls in the scooped recesses of the walls.

The voices fell silent. Faces turned towards him. A rattle of dice died against the wooden edge of the table. They could see he was a Legionary. Not just the Roman hair cut, incongruous on his Brigante head. It was the darker shade inside the pale margins of his faded red tunic where the armour used to sit.

“What yuh drinkin’?” The bartender asked.

“What yuh got?”

Poteen sharp as blown sand made him wince. The bartender watched him, spat in a glass and wiped it clean on the rag from his belt, set it down on the bar. Above the bartender’s head the Sabine women looked down, ravished, from a bas relief. Cormac nodded and the bartender poured him another shot.

They were talking about the end of the world. The legions were going, somebody said. Long columns of men had been seen on Ermine Street, heading south, carrying their banners furled. The garrisons of the Pictish Wall were being withdrawn.

Cormac listened. He’d heard the rumours. Alaric the Goth was threatening Rome. Out at sea sleek boats stood off from the forts of the Saxon Shore, slipped away over the horizon when the Britannias nosed out of Brancaster.

“Raiders!” Someone said, and the word held all that needed to be known about them, all that needed to be feared.

“They oughtta send the legions in.” Another voice said. “Burn ‘em outta their nests like vermin.”

“Greek Fire!” Someone said. “Fry the Germanic scum.”

Cormac could sense their eyes on his back. What did they want him to say? He’d been on the Gask Frontier. He knew what it was like. Standing watch in the towers, heat from the stoves frozen an arms length away, fur cloak heavy as a pack round your shoulders. Never could tell a good Germanic from a bad. Remember what happened up in the Teutoberger Wald. Lucky to have missed that. Trouble is we were fighting them with one arm behind our backs. He told himself. Remember that little black haired girl nearly talked her way into the camp, curved knife hidden up her skirts. He could tell them a thing or two. But it wasn’t his problem anymore. Was it?

“It aint the raiders we oughtta be worryin’ about.”

An amphitheatre of silence settled around the new voice.

“It’s them as comes lookin’ fer land.”

 

Sandalled feet on the stairway made them all turn. A young man, curls sweet as a statue, pleated toga white as Anatolian sand, was coming down the stairs, fastening his belt, laughing. His face was flushed, his eyes shining. The Imperial Messenger, Cormac guessed.

“You got women up there?” Cormac asked.

“Boys.” The bartender made a kissing shape with his mouth. “Saxon boys, skin like peaches, cool fingers.”

The Imperial Messenger grinned and nodded, threw a handful of bronze coins on the bar and swayed out of the Cantina. Cormac took another sip of Poteen.

“You lookin’ fer a woman?” The bartender said, spitting and wiping another glass

“I’m lookin’ for this.”

Cormac pulled out the small scroll, unrolled it, held it out to the bartender. A mincing voice at his elbow made him turn.

“Yore one of them legionary fellers ain’tcha?”

Cormac turned his head. A thin man, tall, but twisted and curled so that Cormac was looking down at him, was doing a crablike dance upon the sanded floor of the Cantina.

“Yore one of Stilicho’s boys ain’tcha?”

“You talking to me?”

“Yore the boys put down that big rebellion up north a few years back ain’tcha?”

Cormac leaned forwards.

“You gotta problem with that friend?”

“Hades no!” The man did a little turn, taking in the rest of the crowd who were all watching from their tables. “But my guess is yore lookin’ for that Parva Veteranorum place.”

“Go on.”

“Well I could jest take you there you know.” He stopped, half facing the Legionary, his head bowed, watching from quick eyes under the cover of his bony forehead. “Cost you mind.”

He reached out and took the scroll, turned it the right way up.

“Don’t mind him.” The bartender said. “He’s harmless.”

You got a room without boys?” Cormac asked.

 

He visited the bath house and let a fat Turk pummel him.

“You’re a long way from home.” He said, but the Turk just grinned showing blackened teeth.

The oil smelled heavy and sweet, reminded him of a campaign in the far south. There had been olive groves. Then a fat Nubian had oiled him. The strigel was the same, its curved blade leaving the skin smooth, clean.

Yet it was not the same. That bath-house had been full of Legionaries, men of his own Cohort, telling the same comfortable jokes, re-living the same battles. He was on his own now. As they had waved him off at the barracks gate he had felt a pang of regret, loss. For them it was he who went on, and they who were left behind. But for him it was as if they were the ones moving away, he the one being abandoned.

He sat in the hot room staring at the patterned tesserae between his feet, and reminded himself of Stilicho’s gift.

“I’m gonna grow me apricots and peaches, and big red peppers.” Cormac said. “I’m gonna plant me vines and make the sweetest wine north of the Alps. I’m gonna plough that deep soil, and plant it, and watch the crops ripenin’ in the sun.”

A toga-ed slave carrying a pile of fresh towels paused to look at him enquiringly, then hurried off through the steam.

 

When he was clean he had the Celtic girl sent in and stripped her naked to see that she had nothing to hurt him with. But the softness of her fingers and the sadness in her eyes cut him like a Frankish blade.  He wanted to master her, but she made him hold still like a child to have a thorn drawn out. When he touched her she drenched his fingers in a fine liquor. He never felt anything like it again. He tried to tell her about the Shieling but he could not remember what to say, and she left him sleeping with his money pouch untouched beside his clothes.

 

In the morning he set out, heading west.  The rising sun rolled in nets of cloud like a golden dish dredged up by fishermen from the ruins of Atlantis. Cormac sat uncomfortably astride the old horse and the twisted man walked ahead. The square grid of the vicus petered out a few buildings past the Cantina and the straight paved way led them on through scrub woodland where stunted oaks crept in under the blade of the wind. Birds sang at them out of the branches as if it didn’t matter what a tree achieved so long as you could perch it.

Finally the twisted man uncoiled himself where a Celtic trail slipped off the Roman Road and slithered between dark leaved trees into a valley backed with shadowed cliffs like a shield wall.

“There’s yore plot Legionary.” The twisted man said. “Mithras give you joy of it.”

Cormac pulled back on the reins and the horse stopped and lowered its head to the coarse grass, and then Cormac could hear it pissing beneath him on the stony ground.

“Seems to me that animal ain’t as dumb as it looks.” The twisted man said, and he gave a lopsided smile, and ducked down under the branches and vanished.

“I’m gonna grow me apricots and peaches, and big red peppers.” Cormac said. “I’m gonna plant me vines and make the sweetest wine north of the Alps. I’m gonna plough that deep soil, and plant it, and watch the crops  ripenin’ in the sun.”

But the cold air toppled like an Empire off the high mountain skyline and crushed him beneath it.

non dolo ficum

 

Now this was written in the aftermath of the foot and mouth epidemic two decades ago, one of several stories from that time, which makes it, perhaps, appropriate in the circumstances……

The Infestation

A Cock and Bull Story

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

The Assistant Librarian held out a small piece of white card. A curved shape lay upon it, brittle, crushed, oozing a berry-juice liquid. It looked almost like a husk of barley Doctor Porter thought, but he knew that it was not.

“Kell-ifer Can-crow-eedees,” she said.

Dr. Porter knew what it was, even though he had never seen a live one before, nor one so recently killed.

Chelifer cancroides: the Book Scorpion. The urge to snatch it away took him: to hide it, tell her to forget she had seen it. But his conscience had the better of him even before logic told him that if there was one, there must be others, millions of others.

They would be everywhere: between the gatherings, behind the decorated spines of the leather bindings, among the deckle edges, gnawing, chewing, shredding. His library, his beautiful library, polluted, contaminated, infested.

And it would not stop there. Already there were parcels of loan books, on their way to other Departments, to respected academics and researchers, to other Libraries. They would blame him. He had been the source.

For one brief moment he wished that he might stay, frozen like this, waiting for a miracle: for the crushed corpse to disappear, for the white card to change into the yellow flimsy of a book withdrawal request. But he knew that it would not happen, and he knew what he must do.

“We’d better inform the Ministry,” he said. He would need another sort of Ministry, he told himself, by the time this was sorted out. “And seal off the room you found it in.”

“I’ve already done that sir.”

 

He was put through to a minor Civil Servant.

“I’m afraid the Minister is not available at the moment Dr. Porter.” The calm voice at the other end of the phone line told him.

“It’s very urgent!”

“Perhaps if you would care to explain. I might be able to help.”

I doubt it, Dr. Porter said under his breath. He hissed the Latin name, reminding himself that it was Greek really, over the phone.

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re infested damn it! Do you understand? The Library is infested.”

Charles Cawdyte-Wreke covered the mouthpiece.

“Bring me the file on the F&M Library will you Carmel. Bit of a flap on there.”

These academics, he told himself. They panic at the first hint of a problem. Pour some oil on his troubled waters for him.

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about Dr. Porter. Probably just a harmless worm. If you pop the little blighter in a match box and send him over we’ll get one of our vetinarians to take a look at him.” The word anobium wriggled out of his subconscious, but its relevance eluded him. Let him cool down for a day or two, then we’ll see what he’s bleating about, he thought.

Charles Cawdyte-Wreke was a good man to have by you in a crisis.

 

Peter Smuggit smiled knowingly and turned the page, savouring the soft rigidity of the paper. He held the book up to the light. Chain lines proclaimed its authenticity. The chair adjusted itself beneath his slightly moved bulk. It could not possibly be the same experience to read this in paperback, he reassured himself. The intercom on the desk buzzed discreetly. Not now Brenda, he said to himself. Nevertheless he leaned forward, laying down the First Edition and slipping one of his business cards between the pages to mark his place. Smuggit & Sloane Book Valuers and Auctioneers, it told the world beneath a filigree of leaves executed in black, and trimmed with gold.

“Yes, what is it?” His brow furrowed as he listened. “Put him on then.”

The gilt edges of the book flashed briefly as he moved, snug between their grained leather covers.

 

Ernest Smith felt something like a trickle of icy water down his back. Never in three generations of bookbinding had anything like this happened before. He pictured his father and grandfather turning in their graves. When he closed his eyes their shrouded forms menaced him with the sharp edged tools of their trade: gouges, knives, cruel hooked implements of dark metal. Not as cruel as the teeth of Chelifer cancroides though.

All these years in the trade and he had never seen a live one. He had never seen the devastation that one could cause. There had been corpses occasionally, dried remnants like little black prawns, caught in the tight folds hard against the spines of old tomes, or slipped between the gatherings, as if sewn into the stitching.

The fact that it had come via the F&M Library was no consolation. Really these people should know better though. He had a brief mental image of Dr. Porter, glasses precarious on the end of his nose, one bent tortoiseshell arm missing his ear as if he had paused in the act of putting them on, and had forgotten to complete the action.

There was no excuse. He should have spotted the infestation when he unpacked the box of rebinds. Which had it been? He wondered. One of the eighteenth century folios from overseas probably. He surveyed the litter of detached pages on the workbench and felt a pang of regret, of guilt. A 6th Edition of Ulysses, the graceful curves of its’ gilt bow bright in their new coat of gold leaf, smiled at him from the clamp. It would all have to go.

And how many of the rebinds that he had sent out since then would have to go with it? He asked himself.

 

Perhaps, Moira thought, it was time to give up, to get a proper job. She looked out of the window. Rain slanted down the glass. Passers by passed by, distorted by the droplets, obscured by the dark oblongs of books. The folded cover of the novel she had been reading slipped out from under the book and closed itself, as if it sensed that she was not giving it due attention.

Why don’t you come in? she asked them silently, and then thought about the ones who did. The time wasters who wanted to talk about books, who could talk about books all day long, especially if they’d managed to get out of the office and were doing it on their employer’s time. The chisellers, who wanted ten per cent off everything. Ten percent off the price is fifty percent off my wages, Moira wanted to tell them. Do you give fifty per cent off your wages? Then there were the ones who moved the goalposts. It was a game they played, she thought. Asking for a particular book, and then finding a reason why your copy would not do. Sometimes they could get through several copies, each one meeting the criteria revealed to date, but falling at a final, unheralded hurdle produced with a flourish.

“Ah! But that’s the one with the blue dust jacket!”

Moira went into the little kitchen to make a coffee. If only something would happen, she wished fervently.

The doorbell tingled.

“Parcel for you Moira.” She heard the postie’s voice call. “Just leaving it inside the door.”

Ernest Smith, Craft Bookbinder, it said over her address on the label.

 

Charles Cawdyte-Wreke could smell the acrid odour of disaster, and thanked his lucky stars that he was not the Elected Member. The Minister brushed past him with that wonderful swirl of fabric that always accompanied her. He would regret her passing.

“Now then Charles,” she said, giving him the benefit of her eyes, “What’s going on.”

“A local infestation Minister,” he said, slipping the buff coloured file onto her desk. “I’m afraid old Porter at the F&M has been a bit slow off the mark.”

She looked up and smiled. She liked the flush of pink on his pink cheeks. Was it she who brought the blood rushing to his skin? She wondered.

“We’re advising an isolation policy, Minister.” he told her. “We must stop the spread of the infestation.”

He passed a laminated map across the green leather of the desk top.

“We need to stop the movement of affected, possibly infested, items out of the area.”

“A sort of cordon-sanitaire,” she said with an accentual flourish.

“Exactly so Minister. We will also need to take steps to eradicate existing infestees.”

He smiled, and slipped a document past her arm, indicating a dotted line.

“This will give authority for such eradication, and of course for some measure of compensation under the terms of the protocol.”

His white teeth gleamed like ivory bookends.

“Have we carried out an operation like this before?” she asked.

Charles Cawdyte-Wreke gave a little sigh.

“We have hm, colleagues, who have done something similar, in the past,” he said. “We will be able to draw on their expertise.”

 

Brigadier Burleigh-Brawne clasped his hands behind his back and waited impatiently.

“See if you can find out what’s keeping them Camilla.” He said.

He resisted the temptation to turn too soon, waited, and then spun on one foot in time to see the plump calf, muscle tensed, the sheen of nylon on thigh, as his adjutant mounted the command vehicle. Timing, he told himself. The essence of all military operations.

He turned back to the mountainous bonfire.

“They’re at the main gate Sir!” Camilla’s voice rang out across the old airfield. Strong lungs, firm mouth, he told himself.

The noise of the Land Rover’s engine preceded it across the runway, and then Charles Cawdyte-Wreke was with him, handing out copies of a spiral bound document printed on plastic pages.

“Had a bit of a problem with the translation,” he said.

Just like his father, the Brigadier thought.

Smoke and flame began to funnel up from the edges of the pile. Heat smote them. The Brigadier took a pace back. Squaddies in brown drill shirts laboured at the edge of the bonfire, prodding with long sticks. White pages peeped like petticoats from under the dark covers of the books. The flames grew higher, the smoke thicker, the heat more intense. Paper thin flakes floated into the air, edged with red. The Brigadier stepped back a little further.

“Hot work Sir!” Charles said.

The smoke gathered itself like a tornado and spiralled upwards, fed into the slipstream of the wind and spread like a storm front over the land. Like funeral pyres, the Brigadier thought. Out in the fields cattle paused in their grazing and watched contemplatively.

 

Peter Smuggit suppressed a giggle and rubbed his hands together to keep it in, but the giggle wanted to come like an approaching orgasm that you’ve taken your mind off for just two seconds too long.

“Hee, hee, hee-hee!” he let it out, and fell back, deflated into his chair. “Fifteen per-cent!” he said out loud. “Fifteen per-cent of whatever we tell them! We’re going to be rich. We’re all going to be rich.”

He suppressed an urge to smack Brenda’s wonderful behind, dismissed the brief inclination to give her a rise. Already the giggle was building up steam again.

 

“They’ll all have to go,” Dr. Porter said.

The Assistant Librarian nodded.

“Stable doors and horses you know,” he added. “But they’ll all have to go.”

“You’d have thought the Ministry would have been a bit quicker off the mark,” she said. “It was days before they confirmed.”

Dr. Porter said nothing. Red tape, he was thinking. They’ll strangle us all in their bloody red tape one of these days. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d let him close the place, but no, that would have been a knee-jerk reaction wouldn’t it! If only they’d let him hold back the consignments that were due to go out.

“If only they ‘d let us hold back the consignments that were due to go out,” she said.

“Now John,” The Minister had said patiently, reaching out to touch his arm with a sympathetic hand. “We don’t want to go round upsetting people until we’re sure. Do we?”

Well, we were sure now.

The Government Chief scientist rapped the conference table, and they all looked towards him.

“There are three types of paper,” he said, authoritatively.

He held up an off white sheet, and proceeded to tear it into two neat halves.

“Firstly there is old paper.”

A ripple of laughter went round the table.

“This is predominantly rag paper, hand made effectively, and highly vulnerable to attack. Unfortunately the items constructed using this material are often the most precious, but if we are to save the majority of such items we must act ruthlessly now, and destroy the minority.”

He held up a second sheet and tore again, this time not so neatly.

“This is not so old paper.” He smiled, waiting for the titter of approval, but it didn’t materialise. “This is pulp paper, made by industrial processes. If they can’t get anything better, they’ll be only too glad to have this.”

He reached for a final, fine white sheet, which he did not tear.

“This is new paper. Acid free. Modern. Perfectly safe.” He looked from face to face, as if expecting an argument, or at least an expression of surprise. “Too hard for their little teeth you see.”

A grudging round of polite noises rewarded him.

“However, due to the cost of separating them, we have decided that there must be a total cull of all items, incorporating these materials, within the exclusion zones.”

“Do we know if the bug can travel sir? Apart from when it’s carried in the books?”

The Government Chief Scientist peered over the top of his spectacles and made a grimace of disapproval.

“Items,” he corrected. “As to the perambulations of the ah, bugs, as you call them.” He lavished a broad smile on the other members of the committee. “I hardly think that the pinnacle of a crisis is the point at which to make a study of their private lives!” he allowed himself a laugh at this idea, and the other members of the committee joined in, wholeheartedly.

 

“But these are my personal books,” Ernest Smith said.

“I know sir.” The policeman looked sympathetic. “It is terribly sad I know, but they will have to go.”

“But I’ve checked them. They’re all OK.”

The policeman looked embarrassed. He shook his head sadly, made a shrug. Not my fault old man, he seemed to be saying. Rules is rules.

“It is a voluntary cull sir,” the officer said after a moment. “We could of course seal off your premises and await the visit of an approved Vetinarian. However, I should point out that in the event of an infestation being discovered at that time, subsequent and concurrent, and indeed prequelent costs and expenses may well be laid to your goodself.”

Ernest Smith thought better of it. The policeman smiled and nodded, and the boy in the apron carried the box out to the waiting van.

“At least you’ve got the compensation coming sir,” the policeman said.

That was true, and Smuggit & Sloane’s valuations were on the ridiculous side of high.

 

Canav Shin Ari’isht held the microphone out and put on her most sympathetic expression.

“And how long have you been newsagents here?”

“We go back to my father’s time miss.”

His wife gripped his arm as he spoke, and looked into the camera’s myopic eye with her big brown ones.

“Never a day closed, save for Christmas Day, and the day the Queen of Hearts was buried. We watched that on the TV, not being able to get to London on account of running the shop you see.” He nodded, a little bob of a bow, to the lens.

“And this present crisis is costing you money?”

“Costing us a lot of money it is!”

“People aren’t buying their papers you see!” his wife said, looking from Canav to the camera and back again. “If they don’t come in for their papers we can’t sell them anything else.”

“We’re sorry for the booksellers though.” He drew himself up to full height. “We know it’s not their fault.”

“But it will mean hard times for you.”

“Oh yes! Very hard times. Hard times for us all. And we’ve no compensation coming. Not from anyone!”

“This is Canav Shin Ari’isht from the heart of Infestation country, handing you back to the studio.”

“Was that all right miss?”

 

The TV news showed pictures of a stout soldier. A conflagration raged behind him. Burleigh-Brawne Burns the Books, the internet news proclaimed. Minister Quizzed on Real Dangers of the Little C, the subheadings revealed. Dust Jacket Millionaires, Have Your Say, they invited.

It was ten o’clock before Moira went downstairs. There didn’t seem to be any point in going earlier. She couldn’t open the shop. A small pile of cards and thin parcels had been pushed through the letterbox.

“Sorry to hear of your bad news,” they said, or variations on the theme.

There were three quiches, one more than the day before, and two fruit tarts. Moira wondered if she could face another for lunch, or if she should put them all in the freezer. People meant well, but quiche and fruit tarts were the only things that would go through the letterbox. She wished there were a pizzeria in the village.

Somebody had tried to push flowers through. Not all the heads had made it.

When the phone rang it was Peter Smuggit again.

“Hallo Moira,” he said in that velvety voice of his. She could picture him stroking the bow tie he wore as he spoke.

“Hallo Peter,” she said, resignedly.

 

Brigadier Burleigh-Brawne and Charles Cawdyte-Wreke stood shoulder to shoulder by the unburnt remains of the bonfire. Small columns of smoke curled up, the way they do from a leaf pile you’ve set fire to on an autumn day and forgotten about. There was a curious smell in the air, like burnt toast extinguished under the cold tap. The Brigadier leaned forwards and pulled a volume from the heap.

“Look!” he said sharply. “You can still read the bloody title.”

Charles flinched, and thought fondly of his little office back at the Ministry.

“No wonder he didn’t win the bloody war if this is the best he could do.”

He threw the book back onto the pile sending up a cloud of dust and cinders.

“I’m sure they didn’t have this trouble with the Salman Rushdies.”

“Perhaps it depends whether God is on your side,” Charles said. Or the other fellow, he added to himself.

The Brigadier snorted.

“Books are terribly difficult to burn Sir,” Charles ventured, “in large numbers.”

“We’ll see about that!”

 

“I don’t know why the woman doesn’t just let me help her,” Peter snapped. Brenda wriggled on her bar stool and sipped at the drink, but the movement didn’t seem to have its usual effect. She wondered if her bum looked too small in this skirt. “Doesn’t she realise I can get her three times what her stock’s worth? I mean, who in their right mind says no to that?”

He finished the whisky and pushed the glass across the bar, nodded to the barman who took it and held it to the optic’s nipple.

“I mean, if a customer came in, and said I’ll buy everything dear, oh and by the way, make it three times the price, she wouldn’t turn that down would she?”

Brenda uncrossed and re-crossed her legs.

“Of course she wouldn’t. Nobody would. So what’s the difference?”

“Perhaps she doesn’t like the idea of the books being burned.” Brenda said, tugging at her hem, and turning away.

“Burned?” He looked at her with slightly bloodshot eyes. Her face had an odd, blotchy texture to it, he thought. Why hadn’t he noticed that before? He finished the whisky and pushed the glass across the bar. “Hitler should have stuck to burning people,” he said snappily. “No-one would have got so upset about that. Not the English anyway!”

He put his hand into his jacket pocket and fingered the little pot that nestled there, felt the indentations where the air holes had been drilled into the top. Re-assured he smiled again and lowered his eyes a little. Brenda didn’t look too bad. He nodded to the barman to refill her glass too.

“It isn’t as if her shop’s got anything worth saving.”

 

The Minister closed the book and sat back in her chair. Charles Cawdyte-Wreke’s flushed face did not look as pretty as she had once thought it.

“Harmless?” She said again. “Harmless!”

Charles remembered a line from a twentieth century comedy programme, and tried not to giggle.

“Mostly harmless,” he said, in a high pitched squeak.

“This must never get out,” she said with a voice that could have cut paper.

“No Minister.”

“Not now, not ever.”

“No Minister.”

She looked down at the green surface of the desk and located the small curled shape lying on it, reached out a vindictive thumb and squashed it flat. Dark berry juice squirted out to one side.

“If it does Charles,” she said, “that will be you.”

Charles swallowed a lump of thick air, and nodded, sincerely.

 

Peter Smuggit reclined gingerly on the beach chair and regarded Brenda’s shapely bum. It looked well in the bikini, and the Caribbean sky added a certain something. Politics, he thought. Politics and money. What wonderful things they were.

Moira looked through the rain bespattered window of the shop. There were still not many customers coming in, but there were enough to pay the rent, and where else could she go to spend all day reading, and there was still more than half a shop full to get through.

Ernest Smith cranked the lever of the clamp and squeezed the folded pages tight, gave it one more turn for luck, just to be on the safe side.

Out on the abandoned airfield Brigadier Burleigh-Brawne gave the signal and a spume of flame arched across the old runway to splash against the pile of books. This time, he told himself, this time.

Dr. Porter pictured empty shelves. They would never replace them all, he told himself sadly. He felt a pang of jealousy for the bookdealers who had taken the money and run. They were not like Librarians. They only had the books to get rid of them again. It was different for Librarians. The books were theirs to keep. They got to know them. They became like old friends.

“Time for your medicine,” the nurse said in his ear.

Here’s another BHD story on .Cent magazine.

 You can tell that this is an old story by the fact that it has speech marks, which BHD gave up using years ago!

The Ferryman

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Marge was asleep, and the road atlas was on the back seat, tucked in between the boys. They were asleep too. Phil would have to wake her to get it. She would have to wake them to get at it.

It had been a long drive. It had been a long day. They were a long way from home: a very long way. The last town was already an hour or more down the road behind them. It was all taking longer than he had expected. The sun was beginning to set. Another hour and it would be shining in his eyes. Already the white lines on the road were beginning to diverge, and that was nothing to do with the way they’d been painted.

“New Ferry, 100 yards on left. Save 22 miles.” The sign had said in bold if somewhat wobbly black lettering.

Then he was on top of it. A small white oblong of wood, bearing the single word Ferry and below it a black arrow, pointed to a rutted track.

Phil swung the big car off the road.

Marge woke as they jolted over the stones.

“Jesus!” She said. “What’s going on?”

“Ferry.” Phil said.

The boys woke up and started to complain.

“What ferry?”

“New ferry. It’ll save us the best part of an hour on these roads.”

 

At the bottom of the lane a small vessel that looked very much like a section out of a pontoon bridge was standing close in against the shore. A rusting metal plate about the size of a garage door was set at right angles across it, and from this two metal ramps angled down onto the shingle. It all had a vaguely military look about it. The ferry rocked slightly in the current.

“This can’t be it.” Marge said.

The boys were hitting each other.

“Stop it you two.” Phil said, not taking his eyes off the ferry.

“It’s not in the Rough Guide.” Marge said.

“It’s new. I told you.” Phil gave her an irritated look. “Some of these inlets run for miles before you get over.”

What was it supposed to cross anyway? Marge asked herself. Didn’t the road go inland for a bit up here?

 

A tall upright man, in his mid fifties and wearing a moustache, approached the driver’s door. Phil wound down the window.

“Afternoon.” The man smiled, and peered into the car. “Boys are fractious what?” He enquired.

“Is this the ferry?” Marge said, leaning across.

“Yes. This is it. Not much to look at. Does the job.”

He looked expectant. Nobody said anything. The boys stopped fighting and looked at him.

“Two pounds each trip.” The man said. “Only get one of you on at a time.”

A gentle purring announced the arrival of a silver BMW behind them.

“Pop it on then old chap.”

The ferryman turned away and walked down to the water’s edge.

“I didn’t know there was a ferry.” Marge said.

Phil edged the people-mover across the shingle and mounted the ramps. They gave disconcertingly beneath it. The boys squealed.

“Quiet!” Marge said, gripping her arm rest.

“Jolly good!” The ferryman said.

From the car deck, if that was the right word, Phil could see into the stern. A youngish woman sat in a small pit with a wheel and what looked like a gear box beside her.

“That’s my younger daughter.” The ferryman said, scrambling up onto the metal plate and looking in through the window. “Have to get you out now I’m afraid. Health and Safety. Brussels red tape you know. And the boys.”

They all piled out of the car, and stood nervously on the narrow margins of the deck.

“Onto the bank in fact.” The ferryman said. He looked apologetic. “We have to do the people and the cars separately. Of course, when we’re a bit more established we’ll get something better. Be able to run you over together then.” He gave a laugh. “Bit of a Fred Karno’s I know.”

“You want to take the car on it’s own?” Phil asked.

The boys had jumped down onto the shingle. Marge was looking anxious. The BMW driver nosed up to the foot of the ramps behind them. The ferryman looked down at him.

“Be with you in a tick.” He shouted.

Marge edged down the ramp and made a grab for the boys.

“Too many damned regulations these days.” The ferryman confided to Phil. “I’d let you sit in the vehicle, but you never know when one of their blasted snoopers is going to show up, and that would really put the cat among the pigeons.”

Phil hesitated.

“We can take you off again old chap. Bit awkward backing. Have to shift the other chap. Nothing lost. Only saves you a half hour or so if you know the road.”

Phil didn’t know the road. All he really wanted was a cup of tea and to get the boys off to bed, and then to rest. Marge nodded at him from the shore.

“Be back for you in a couple of minutes.”

“Of course.” Phil stepped gingerly down the ramp and onto the beach. The ferryman smiled.            The girl started the engine and a spume of water burst out from beneath the stern. The ferryman lifted the ramps one by one and slid them up under the deck plate. He turned to Phil.

“Keys old chap.” He said. “We need to get her off at the other side.”

“Oh yes.” Phil fumbled for the keys and handed them over.

“Great stuff.” The ferryman said. “Get your money when we come back for you.”

He leapt up onto the deck with surprising agility and hung onto the car as the girl backed the ferry, and turned it out into the stream. The afternoon light turned the distant hills orange and purple, and the dark waters of the loch glistened. The ferry cleaved them with a feather of spray.

The BMW driver had got out and was standing beside them.

“Going a bit wide isn’t she?” He said.

“It’ll be the current.” Marge said. They’d been over from Glenelg to Skye the year before, and she could remember the way that boat veered to one side to beat the current.

The ferry, slightly stern deep in the water was moving almost parallel to the shoreline.

“But he’s going downstream.” The BMW driver observed.

“Hope the handbrake’s on!” the ferryman shouted cheerfully from the car deck.

“She’ll turn soon.” Phil said.

But the ferry carried on, angling slightly off the shore, and heading downstream.

“Gets quite a lick on doesn’t she?” The BMW driver said.

Just before it vanished round the headland the ferryman waved an arm, and Marge thought she heard a distant voice calling out.

“Bye folks!” it said.

 

Up on the main road the ferryman’s other daughter collected the two signs and put them in the boot of her car before driving off to the rendezvous. Once she got out of the dip, where the mobiles were dead, she gave her father a call.

“Hi dad! Got the signs. You didn’t get the BMW did you? Oh. That’s a pity.”

 

Here’s a story from about fifteen years ago.

Key Moves

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

He was in the bar. He didn’t belong there. You could see that. Just from the way he was sitting. Trying to avoid everyone’s eyes. You can’t do that in the bar. There’s too many in the bar. It wasn’t just that. There was no need that morning. There was no one in. No-one whose eyes you needed to avoid. He would have known that if he’d belonged.

 

He wasn’t dressed right either. Neither was the bloke he met. I sat down behind them the other side of the partition. People forget that. Just because they can’t see you.

 

He wasn’t having a good day. I thought, I can help you out mate.

 

It was a good day for a funeral. Blue skies. Little white fluffy clouds. I didn’t have a black suit of course. Last funeral I’d been to was when I was a kid. That’s what gave me the idea. Grandad’s funeral that was. Wild do we had that day I can tell you. The whole family came over. They did the full bit. Drinks over the coffin, you know the way.

 

That wasn’t the bit I’d remembered mind you. It was the bit with the parked cars had stuck in my mind. That and the narrowness of the church lane.

It’ll never work. He said. Course it will, I said.

I said it again, out loud, looking in the window of that big silver BMW. The wind blew my words away, but I could see my lips moving in the reflection. I’d got myself a new black suit, well not new, Oxfam you know, and the black tie.

When I’d got the tie right I turned back towards the church. I could have been one of the undertaker’s boys. Could have been, but I wasn’t.

I’d let them all get in, and given them a few minutes. I waited till they were into the first hymn. Then I went in. The ushers were at the back, just where I expected. I went up and whispered to them, very hushed, reverent almost.

Tractor in the lane I said, just like the bloke had said at my Grandad’s funeral, and showed him the registration number written on my hand. Silver BMW I said.

That’s the gentleman in the brown suit I think, he said. No need to call him out, I said, just get the keys. I’ll pull it back up onto the green. Don’t want to disturb the service. The usher nodded and tiptoed down the aisle.

I could see the brown coat a few pews down, heads turning to see. A ripple of movement passed along the row. The keys glinted in a shaft of light through the stained glass windows.

 

He was in the bar. He didn’t belong there, but he was covering it well. The clothes were still wrong, but he was nodding to the other regulars, was keeping his glance away from Bolter at the end of the bar. We sat at the round table in the centre of the room. Everyone can see you there, but no one can hear what you’re saying.

He passed over the money as agreed. First time I’d ever stolen someone’s own car for him. He was laughing about it. Would have done the same myself, the policeman had told him, at a funeral.

 

A Lucky Escape

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

It was a wonder, Jo thought, but no less welcome for that, that her husband, who was a headstrong and stubborn man, had finally taken notice of what she had been saying for years.

That was that he ate too much, and of the entirely wrong things; that he drank too much (all of which was, obviously of the wrong type); and that he did too little of what we might call exercise. What’s more, have recognised this, apparently, even at such a late stage in the game, he had resolved to take action. Jo took some comfort from this, for when her husband to do something, he generally did it, never mind what inconvenience or even mayhem, it cause for those around him.

You mustn’t overdo it, she told him. You’ve been reckless for so long, you can’t simply switch it off, stop eating, give up the booze, throw yourself into body building or anything like that! You need gentle exercise, but you must keep it up.

I know, he said, and she wondered if he did, really? It would be just like him to go at it like a bull at a gate – which she’d never seen – and then back-slide after a week or two.

Guy wasn’t stupid. I’m not stupid, he said. Far from it. He cut out the sugar entirely. He reduced the dairy products – cheese, full fat milk, butter – to ordinary sized portions. He cut down on the beer. He took the wine more sedately. He watered the whisky, a bit. As for exercise, he started walking up to the post box at the end of the drive instead of using the quad bike. He bought himself a mountain bike. He didn’t go up any mountains with it, obviously. But he did use it to pedal up the slight rise of the lane to the farm for eggs and other stuff from the farm shop, and he let the gentle slope carry him home again with a little help from gravity. It was good exercise for him, as long as he kept it up, Jo thought.

Jo and her girlfriends would walk up that way and on past the farm, climbing to the summit of the ridge which they would then traverse back along towards the house to which they would drop down for tea and cakes. It was a good walk of just over five miles and they’d do it several times a week. It was good walking too, for the ridge was a limestone scarp, and the going was good on the top where the turf was well drained, short and springy.

The only problem was that a few hundred yards from the entrance to Jo’s drive you had to pass Dolly’s cottage. Dolly could talk for the county. She could talk for England, for the UK! Had there been a suitable competition, she could have talked for Europe, and for Planet Earth. The only hope was that she was deep inside, and not looking out of the windows as they passed.

On the day in question she was in the garden. They had decided to walk the route in reverse direction for a change, so when they got to Dolly’s cottage they were in sore need of tea and cake, and it was less than half a mile away. But Dolly had spotted them.

With people like Dolly the trick, if there is one, is to get in a question that requires the sort of definitive, and finite answer that will intrude a moment of silence into the conversation, or, in the case of Dolly, the monologue. Into that rare and brief pause, someone must jump with a ‘time we were going’ or something similar.

Which was probably what Jo was trying to do when she asked Dolly, have you seen Guy come up the lane today?

Yes, about half an hour ago, Dolly said. He was on that his bike of his, going hell for leather up to the farm.

Wearing his helmet, I hope, Jo said, beginning to pivot on one foot.

Of course, Dolly said.

Not too puffed, I hope, Jo said, pausing in her turn.

Dolly frowned. No? And silence flowed between them.

The girls took the chance and walked on, leaving Dolly behind, looking perplexed.

Another piece on The Blue Nib, this time from Me on the subjects of Davids Copperield, Dickensian and Iannuccian!