Short Stories
by Joan & Stephen Ketteringham

None of the stories which follow have been published in any form before. If you would like to comment or publish any of them please email me. Please remember that the authors hold the copyright to each story.


CALAMITY JANE
by
Joan Ketteringham

***


I pushed open the door of G. Palmer Enterprises.

"I'm the new temp. Have I got the right office?"

The Receptionist didn’t seem to think an answer was necessary and picked up the telephone with her slim manicured hand.

"I'll call Mr Brown, the office manager, and let him know you’re here.”

I looked round at what was to be my ‘home’ for the next month or so. The room was large and uncluttered, brilliant white paintwork reflecting the morning sun, giving the office a clinical atmosphere. A slight shiver went through me. Well, it was too late now. I was like a cat that had almost run out of lives, this was my last chance to prove myself. I desperately needed this job, especially with Christmas approaching.

"Bella", said Miss Frosty Face, "show this person to Mr Brown's office, please".

A young girl jumped up. "What's your name, do you think you’ll like it here? I hope you won't be stuck-up like Marcia."

"Hang on a minute". I laughed, "one question at a time. My name is Jayne. I don't know and I hope not. OK?"

"Well, Marcia's all right I suppose", Bella admitted, "but she's always moaning at me. It's not much fun being an office junior".

"Well, I'll try to brighten the place up for you". I responded.

Bella stopped outside a door. "There's Mr Brown's office, watch how you go, he can be a bit of a stickler too".

I knocked tentatively.

"Come in", he barked.

***

I soon settled into my new surroundings. You have to when you're a temp. But my life was very different from the one my parents had mapped out for me; two years college, emerging with good secretarial skills and plunging straight into a ‘good job’. The trouble was that my self-confidence had taken a real hard knock as I tried to cope, and adjust to a different environment, living away from home. My parents had made so many sacrifices for me, their only child, I hadn't the heart to let them know I had let them down. So I resorted to doing temporary office work. I could manage new situations if they were for a short period of time, but jobs weren't as frequent as I had hoped, and time was running out. Before long I would have to confess to my parents, admit defeat and return home.


"Have you finished that report yet, Jayne?" Mr Brown brought me back from my reverie, "I've a meeting in five minutes".

I held out the papers which he snatched quickly as he went past my desk.

Mr Brown rushed back to me a few minutes later his face a mottled red.

"No, no, this isn't right, it's not Empire State Building, but Empress State Building. You really must be more careful".

"In the soup again", mocked Marcia.

I ignored her remark and over my tea I launched into an account of an unexpected meeting my cousin, Tim, had experienced the previous evening.

"He plays the piano and helps with the local youngsters. He got to the hall early and was tinkling on the piano when a group of senior citizens arrived. They stood chatting for a bit before realising that one of their members was missing. Well, to cut a long story short", Marcia sighed visibly, but Bella encouraged me, "the pianist took over the acting part and persuaded Tim to play the piano for them. What a scream it must have been. I'd have loved to have been there, 'Tiptoe through the Tulips' is hardly Tim's scene".

"What was it all in aid of", Bella asked. "Every Christmas these senior citizens put on a Revue for other pensioners", I explained, "on alternate Tuesdays they rehearse in the Church Hall. Tim had got the days mixed up".

***


Marcia was in first as usual next morning sorting through the post. "What’s that smell?" she said wrinkling her nose. Her remark made me aware of just how pungent my perfume must be.

"It must have cost a bomb". Bella sighed.

"Oh, I haven't bought it". I said, "I always pop into that super departmental store, the one by the bus stop, and have a quick splash from a tester bottle. I must have pressed the top too hard this morning. Never mind, the aroma soon fades".

"Jayne, I'm needed for some urgent dictation. Will you type this letter for me please, it must go by First Class post today".

"Leave it in my capable hands", I replied.

This was an opportunity to show Marcia just how efficient I could be.

Just as we finished picking them up Mr Brown bustled into the office waving a folder. "Rush job! Ah, Jayne, just type this list of names, even you should be able to manage this without making a mistake".

It only took a few minutes.

I pushed the typewriter away from me.

"Well I've checked and double-checked Mr Brown, see if you can find anything wrong with it", I thought on my way to his office.

***


Mr Brown was waiting by my desk when I got in the next morning. This seemed ominous, nevertheless I put on a jaunty air. "Morning Mr Brown".

“You got a telephone message wrong yesterday. You sent our architect to 2 Ford Bridge Road, instead of 24 Bridge Road. He wasted a lot of time looking for an address that didn't exist. You made this firm look incompetent. It won't do, any more mistakes and you're fired".

His office door slammed.

"What's eating him?" I looked round for support.

"He's having a difficult time at present Jayne". Marcia confided, "this firm has just been taken over by Wilford's Enterprises, and he fears his job is in jeopardy. Any mistakes he thinks will have a detrimental effect on his future position with the new company".

Marcia pointed to several boxes of envelopes. "We'll have to get these addressed today. I'll help you and Bella. If we get them finished quickly we'll have time to sort out the Christmas decorations".

***


"You are the tallest Jayne, you can hang the streamers".

"Bella, you decorate the tree, whilst I sort out the fairy lights", said Marcia reaching into a large cardboard box.

"I love Christmas", I enthused, "the lovely bright colours, street lights and the magic feeling in the air".

"We don't usually have many decorations at home, it makes dusting harder". Marcia remarked as she untangled the green flex from the miniature lanterns.

"Dusting", I retorted "takes a back seat at my place at Christmas. It comes but once a year you know".

"I doubt she even knows what a duster looks like", I overheard Marcia hiss to Bella.

Balanced precariously on a chair I attached the last streamer to the wall.

"Doing anything special at Christmas, Bella?"

Not really, my eldest brother always has his girl-friend round for tea, and my brat of a younger brother stuffs himself silly with sweets".

"What about you Jayne?" Marcia asked.

"I'm going home, I always do".

Well nearly always, except last Christmas when I was out of work. I pretended to my parents that I had been invited to stay with an office friend. In reality I had spent a very miserable time on my own in my bedsit, but I didn't want that stuck-up Marcia to know just how low I had sunk. With the money from this job Christmas would be celebrated in style.

***


Marcia came storming into the rest-room, "Well that’s the limit - we've had the Press on now, somehow our associates Christmas Scotch has been sent to some OAP's by mistake. I don't know how it could have happened".

"You seem to have gone rather red, Jayne, are you too hot?" Bella stared at me curiously.

"Noo-o, it's just that I typed out a list for Mr Brown on the same day that I typed out a list for my cousin, the invites to the Revue. Could I have given the wrong list to Mr. Brown?"

"I'd hate to be in your shoes when he finds out", said Marcia, "you’d better tell him now before his temper really gets out of hand".

"Well you've really burnt your boats this time, my girl", I thought on my way to Mr B's office "no happy Christmas for you this year either".

A dishevelled young man just beat me to Mr Brown's office door.

"Ladies first", he bent down in a mock bow.

"Yes?" Mr Brown glared at me.

"I'm s-sorry, it was my fault about the list, I must have mixed it up with another one", I stuttered

Mr Brown shouted, "Out, out, you're fired".

He stopped short at the sight of the young man lounging against the desk. "What do you want?" he barked.

"I'm from the Gazette, I hear that..."

Mr Brown grabbed my arm, "You got us into this mess, you can sort it out".

As I took a deep breath I thought of how Christmas might have been.

"So you want the story?"

The reporter nodded and ‘clicked’ his pen into action.

"Well, our Mr Brown decided this year not to reward his associates in the usual way but to surprise a random number of pensioners with a present instead.

“My boss", I heard myself say "felt sure his associates would agree as this is the time of goodwill".

"What a remarkable man", exclaimed the reporter, "I can see the headlines, ‘Local Man shares Christmas Spirit’ thanks a lot, I must rush to get my copy in".

The reporter did me proud, held up Mr Brown as a generous, public spirited man. The firm enjoyed unexpected free publicity, and the pensioners had a marvellous turn-out at their Christmas Revue.

"It was a sell-out", I told Bella, Tim's already planning next years production".

"I wish you weren't leaving", Bella sighed, "that mean Mr. B. he did all right out of it".

"Never mind we can still be friends, Bella. I've just got this last drawer to clear out, I seem to have collected so much rubbish since I've been here".

Marcia, pencil and pad in hand, en route for Mr Brown's office paused, "I don't suppose we'll be seeing you again?"

I bit my lip and picking up my various bags I elbowed my way out of the office. I just heard the end of a letter Mr Brown was dictating ‘as she does not quite meet with out requirements’ and I thought of Marcia's jubilant smile.

***


The letter lay forlornly on the hall carpet. "Another bill", I sighed as I bent to pick it up.

I opened the envelope and I read the letter and then reread it, slowly, my eyes resting on the last paragraph.

"...from our knowledge of Mr Brown we felt that you handled both him and the Press extremely well. We, therefore, have no hesitation in offering you a position in our Public Relations Office.

Yours etc.

Wilford's Enterprises".

 


MICK'S CASTLE
by
Joan Ketteringham

***



"Mavis, thank heaven I've got you at last. I just had to ring and tell you what my crazy husband is up to. I can't keep it bottled up any longer Mick's going to open our house to the public. It all started yesterday morning when the doctor told him he'd failed his X-ray. Mick was shocked. You know how long he's worked on the buses. Anyway he went to see his boss about it. He can't drive until he's had another X-ray. Yes sometime next week."

"He was going to take this Sunday's coach out. You know how he likes a bit of grandeur and that crowd are good tippers too. He's now got a bee in his bonnet about people in Stately Homes, living the good life. Opening their houses, sitting back watching the money roll in."

"Showing off love, that's all it is I said. Then he came out with this ridiculous idea and I was speechless."

"You what. Yes I know you'd have had plenty to say. Anyway Mick said he'd got it all worked out. A couple of stone lions either side of the gate. The lounge would become the Drawing Room. The hall would be renamed the Long Gallery. Richard's room would be turned into a library. Teas on the lawn. We'll have to clean out the shed in case it rains. What did you say? - the kids. The weren't too keen at first but Mick won them round."

"How long is it since you've seen the kids Mavis. You'll have to come round and see us when you're down this way. Come and see our Stately Home."

Mavis was still laughing when I put the 'phone down.

After the kids had gone to bed I decided to have an early night. I left Mick in the Lounge, sorry I mean Drawing Room, trying to invent a family motto. I could think of several I thought as I climbed the stairs.

The children's voices arguing over the breakfast cereal woke me up. I had to get a move on. Mrs Mills liked her cleaning ladies to be punctual. The children grumbled their way down the road for the school bus.

"Morning Mrs Mills"

"Has that husband of yours changed his mind about this Stately Home idea?"

"No, he hasn't. He's put away his uniform. Hung up his St Christopher medallion. Says he won't be needing it now he's not driving."

"Never mind Rose I expect your husband will run out of ideas soon."

"I'm not sure about that. he's asked the kids to think up new names for their pets. Whoever heard of a mongrel called Brutus?"

"Well at least that won't leave a permanent reminder, not like that Tudor wall you were telling me about. Is he due to get the results of his X-ray soon?"

"Yes, on Thursday."

"I expect you'll find he'll be back at work next week."

"I do hope you're right Mrs Mills."

"When you've finished work Rose let yourself out. Don't forget to help yourself to those flowers from the side garden. We've more than enough."

The flowers looked lovely on my hall table. A scrawled note from Mick told me that he'd gone down to the builders yard and asked if I'd sort out some spare curtains. Before I could work that one out the telephone rang.

"Oh, hello Mavis. How's the Stately Home coming along?

"Well it might interest you to know that you are going to be on view. Mick said that posh people have their family photos on show, not in albums like us. I came across that one of you and me. You must remember, summer before I met Mick. Dresses half-way up our thighs. Looking through those photos made Mick realize we hadn't got a family one. Well we didn't have time, or money, for a shop photo, so Mick, who else, came up with the idea of us having one done in a photo booth. You would have died laughing. Four of us squeezed into a space the size of your down-stairs loo. Mick raised the stool for Linda and Richard to perch on, with Mick and me standing behind them, knees bent to get out faces in camera range. Richard wriggled, the stool suddenly lowered itself just as the camera flashed. We ended up with a close-up of two open mouths - Mick's and mine."

I heard the back door bang. "I'll have to go now. Mick left me a cryptic note this morning and I think I'm just about to find out what it's about."

The planks of wood blocked my way into the kitchen.

"What on earth are you doing this time Mick?"

"Turning our bed into a four-poster love."

"Don't tell me,” I shrieked, "every Stately Home has one."

The day before Opening Day Mick insisted we had a 'Run Through'

The dustbins were moved from the side of the shed, which is now to be the Tea Room. I had to check that our best china was displayed in the dining-room. Mick made me Chief Guide. I did feel a fool walking around my own home describing the rooms. Linda will be in charge of Teas, Mick on the door taking the money, with Richard acting as general dogsbody.

The next morning Mick was up early bustling about. He was anxious to get to the doctors to get the results of his second X-ray and I was glad to have a bit of a lie in. Terry Wogan's Irish charm was interrupted by the strident ring of the 'phone. I don't quite know how I felt when I put the phone down but I knew I had to tell someone.

I hurriedly dialled her number. "Mavis, it's me Rose. My nightmare's over. Mick's just rung. The second X-ray was OK. It seems that mark on his lung was his St Christopher medallion. The nurse had asked him if he was wearing anything metal but he didn't think it counted because he was wearing it to bring him good luck! Where's Mick now? Dashed down to the garage to see about his job. Seems to have forgotten all about his Stately Home. What will I do with all the cucumber sandwiches? Linda will be so disappointed she spent hours yesterday decorating the fairy cakes. What's that Mavis, you thought things would work for the best in the end."

"Oh heavens. Oh no"

"What's happening? You might well ask"

"A coach has just pulled up outside. A crowd of people, must be forty or more - are making their way to my front door!".

 


THE BANK STATEMENT
by
Stephen R. Ketteringham

***

A million pounds. Rob read the bank statement again.

'Statement of Account. East of England Bank plc.'

'04 September. Cheque 082. £400.'

That would be his rent.


'05 September. CP. £40.'

And that Friday night.

'07 September. S/O. £127.43.'

Car loan.

'07 September. Credit. £84.98.'

August's mileage from work.

Nothing unusual. Nothing different. Nothing suspicious. Not even his balance - £300 or so on the 21st. A week short of pay-day. But then - it was the line below. That was the one.

'Your agreed overdraft limit is £ 1,000,000. Borrowing up to this amount will be interest free. Additional borrowing will be charged at our un-authorised overdraft rate, currently 17.9 % APR.'
A million pounds ! A million. Well !

Rob could have stood there for hours. As it was, he left the statement face down and went to work. When he returned - after a very slow day - he checked it. To be sure.
He had heard of 'bank errors.' Read about them, in the Sunday papers. Where they were always a bad thing. But this ! One million pounds. Interest-free. Rob scarcely knew how he should look at it - and he tried every way he could.

He took a sheet of paper, and wrote 'One million' in the middle. But that didn't look very impressive. So he took another and - with very large figures - wrote '1-0-0-0-0-0-0.' Which seemed little better. So he took a third sheet, and, starting at the top, wrote '1-0-0-0' again and again and again. Making each thousand minuscule. It took him a good hour - well, the best part of - but he filled the sheet. That meant something - a thousand pounds - a months' pay, before tax. Rob counted them - the tiny thousands - he didn't think there'd be quite enough, but was surprised to find that he'd written only five hundred and forty-seven thousands. Or five hundred and forty-seven pounds. Now that did impress. To think that he could borrow - interest-free - at any time - on any whim - almost two sheets' worth of thousands. And minute thousands at that. So much money !

Of course - Rob realised, at his desk again, next day - it wasn't his money at all. He couldn't just spend it whenever - however - he saw fit. It was, simply, an opportunity - an invitation - to borrow, and an invitation issued in error, at that. He could no more actually withdraw and spend a million than he could conquer Everest, or claim the crown of France. No - he surrendered to common sense with a sigh - he may as well forget the matter.

And so Rob sat at his desk, Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. 'till 5 p.m. ( 4.30 p.m. on Fridays), for first one week, then a second, then a third, then a fourth. Leaving his home at a quarter to nine every day. Walking briskly for very nearly a mile, to arrive between two and three minutes before the hour. Then returning - after the same walk reversed - at around twenty-five minutes past five. Every day, until his next bank statement arrived.

Again, the transactions shown and balance stated were reasonable enough. But, below, the same, now less surprising, sentence appeared.

'Your agreed overdraft limit is £ 1,000,000. Borrowing up to this amount will be interest free. Additional borrowing will be charged at our un-authorised overdraft rate, currently 17.9 % APR.'
So - it wasn't just some simple slip, or printing error. No - something more had affected the system. Someone, somewhere - some clerk much like himself - had actually set his overdraft limit at one million pounds. Perhaps through pressing the wrong key, or perhaps through disillusionment with the institution in which he worked, and sympathy for an unknown fellow.

It wasn't quite the dilemma Rob had discussed time and time again - the mysterious receipt, the 'bank error in your favour' of Monopoly. But on a greater scale - a seven, or eight, digit number. Neither was it so very different. It was (in his excitement, Rob forgot his month-old doubts) there to be taken. His de facto if not de jure. But the question - the dilemma, as discussed - was: should he take it ? And, he assumed, flee ? Spend what was there to be spent ? Was it, for that matter, enough ?

The East of England Bank would, sooner or later, realise their error. And demand repayment - as was their right. An overdraft is, by its very nature, a temporary thing. So - could he survive ? On the interest alone. Which would be, what, seventy thousand a year ? If he could obtain so much as 7 % from whichever small bank he might have to use, in whatever small place he might find himself, beyond the reach of the East of England Bank. But suppose he did receive seventy thousand. That would be plenty now - more than he could ever imagine earning - but what of the future ? What of inflation, or devaluation ? What would a seventy thousand be, thirty years hence ? Rob tried to think of the details, not just the big numbers. It was, he thought, sensible to plan.

Though he was aware that any planning was premature. Nothing more than conjecture - would he actually be able to withdraw his millions ? Catch 22 came to mind. The money was there, so long as he did not try to spend it. There, on paper, in black and white. But the moment he attempted to take out even a single penny beyond his bona fide balance, the million would, surely, vanish. Not ever having really been there. A falsehood, or a figment, or some such thing.

So - next morning - as before - Rob stowed the bank statement away. He had a drawer, for that sort of thing. Bank statements and Visa bills. Used cheque-books and cash-point receipts. Purely financial things - gas and electric bills he kept separate. In the next drawer, along with 'phone and water bills. He was quite organised - though they weren't in any order, within the drawers. He used the top two drawers - which were smaller, but not too small. The others were for clothes.

It was with the arrival of his next statement that Rob first really - seriously - considered putting the promised facility to the test.

He had never been a rich man. Neither had he been truly poor - he counted pounds, not pence. It being, after all, only, he thought, the poor who are motivated enough to make themselves properly rich. If you're sitting comfortably, why bother to stand ? But Rob was curious, still.
He would need a house. Abroad. Which would take some of his capital. £200,000, maybe. No more - not just for him. Which would leave £45 or £50 a year. Not the £70 he'd first thought. Still - there would be no need for extravagance. He had felt no need for such, before. £45 or £50 thousand ! More than twice his salary. 45 or 50 would certainly suffice.

So - Rob sent for brochures. He would secure his property first. There would be little point in going, with money or without, until he had a waiting home. With a danger of being stranded, and forced to return, at his own expense. Eating into his meagre supply of real money.

The places on offer seemed cheap enough. His £200,000 would buy him a detached house with grounds and a pool in South America. South America being, Rob knew, the region to run to, if you were running. His favourite property had six bedrooms - three en suite - and a library. Rob was impressed. The full colour picture was certainly full and colourful. Inside and out were shown. Gardens with plants and flowers - Rob knew not what - in reds and greens and yellows. Rooms carefully decorated - each in keeping with the general scheme. Like some miniature mansion. Which was what it was.

But, having selected his home to be, Rob put his plans on hold. Just for one more month. A few short weeks. To be sure. To be certain. He had things to tie up. Work to do - he could hardly go - and go suddenly - without clearing his desk. And so he wouldn't yet go.

The weeks went by. The month passed. His next statement came.
It arrived early - giving Rob time to read it, before he left for work.
Later, he realised what had happened. Timing - that was all.
He'd filled in a form, at work, for his expenses. And been given a cheque. So far, so good. But - his mistake - he'd forgotten to take it to the bank. So, when he'd paid his Visa bill, he'd become overdrawn. As his statement said.

His balance was - he read - £ 12 overdrawn. And -
'Your agreed overdraft limit is nil. Any borrowing will be charged at our un-authorised overdraft rate, currently 17.9 % APR.'

That, then, was that.


THE TAVERN
by
Stephen R. Ketteringham

***


The man pouring the beer knew his trade well. As he poured, he angled his head, so as to keep one eye on the barrel, and the beer, and one ear on the conversation.

Not that there was ever much conversation. Gossip, yes - the exchange of rumour and suggestion. Which lord or burgess might soon have plans for a new villa - that would need materiels and labour. Which good-for-nothing apprentice-boy would be locked into the stocks, next morning. But conversation, discussion, reasoned argument - no. The Sign of the Star was a well-run tavern, and rightly popular. But that was all it was.

The barman finished pouring, and turned. Tommaso playfully prodded his host's belly. Gianni and Cosimo laughed. Filipo, as ever, steadied the tray, but wasn't surprised to find the tavern-keeper laughing, too.

'So - tell me about this madman that Lorenzo di Lucera found outside St. Sophia's, speaking Greek.'

'I saw Lorenzo only a few hours ago,' said Cosimo. 'He told me that he had been on his way to the market at Pozzuoli - there was talk of a ship coming in with spices from the Orient.

'Lorenzo was passing St. Sophia's, shortly after sunrise. He noticed the stranger, but would have walked past, had the man not approached.

'The Greek is true. Lorenzo knows a few words - nothing more, but enough to recognise the language. He replied in Italian, of course. Fortunately, the stranger can speak our tongue, also. He asked if he was in Athens. Athens ! How could any man think that ?'

The barman ran his fingers carefully through long black hair.
'What does this stranger look like ? Could he be an agent of the Sultan, feigning feeble-mindedness as a ploy ?'

'That is what the Sergeant said to Lorenzo, but - I will come to that soon enough.

'Lorenzo corrected him. The man apologised, and said that he had not intended any insult by his question. Then asked Lorenzo the year - without suggesting an answer. He explained that he had travelled a very great distance, and was not certain exactly how long his journey had taken.'

'What journey would take so long as to make even the year uncertain ? The month, perhaps, if a man had somehow travelled from the furthest corner of the Levant. But the year ?'

'Exactly, Filipo. That was when Lorenzo took him to the Sergeant's house. He told the stranger that all travellers have to report to the Sergeant - who Lorenzo described as an official concerned only with immigration.

'The Sergeant took the visitor to his kitchen, and left him under the eye of his cook, who, as you may know, is not only a very able cook, but a lady of considerable strength, well suited to the supervision of such a mischief-maker.

'Lorenzo repeated to the Sergeant word-for-word the conversation he had held with the stranger. He expressed his opinion - that the man was simple-minded, and presented no threat to the people of Naples. He even offered, as the man appeared to be in fair health, to employ him, as he had several sacks of cloth to collect from his shop, on his way to Pozzuoli, and the seventh hour had already passed.

'The Sergeant viewed the matter more seriously. As our host so rightly realised, a man behaving as an idiot but whilst speaking Greek must be regarded as suspicious. The Sergeant insisted that Lorenzo wait whilst he interview the stranger himself, promising that Lorenzo would be compenated, from the public purse.

'The man could provide no answers. He did not know where he had come from. He did not know where he was going to. When asked who were his friends or associates, he merely quoted the ancient philosophers and historians - from Plato to Plutarch. He could not name a single honest citizen of Naples, rich or poor. He claimed even to have forgotten his own identity.

'Of course, the Sergeant made his suspicions known. The stranger seemed unaware even that Greece lay under the rule of the heathen Turk, much less that an anonymous visitor whose only trait was an unusual interest in that land, may justly be regarded as a threat by the officials of our town.

The tavern-keeper rose, silently, to refill his friends' tankards, with the same measured care as before.

'But the stranger did understand that to be perceived as a threat would lead to his detention,' Cosimo continued.

'He expanded the unlikely explanation he had given to Lorenzo. He had, he said, been travelling, from a very distant place. This place he was unable to describe. His journey he was also unable to describe. But the journey had been lengthy, and arduous. Hence his uncertainty as to his exact location, and the precise point he had reached in time.'

'His exact location ! Naples and Athens are hardly near neighbours,' said Tommaso.

'No,' Gianni agreed.
'The Sergeant, Lorenzo told me, was not satisfied. Who would be, with so weak an account ?

'The stranger then said that there was something more to his tale - more, even, than the Sergeant believed. He had travelled not only from a distant place, but from a distant time.

'He had, he told the Sergeant, and Lorenzo, whom the Sergeant had had enter, as a witness, receded from a point more than 200 years in the future, to our present time.

'England was, he said, the land of his birth. A scientist by profession, he had made a study of the unique phenonemum of time.'

'A scientist ? Time ? Surely that is a question for the philosophers ?'

'Tommaso ! Do not interrupt. Continue, Cosimo,' said their host.

'Eventually, after many years, he had, he thought, perfected a device which would propel backwards or forwards, through both time and place, as he so desired.

'He intended to use the machine, at first, to meet the mathematicians and other scholars of ancient Athens, whom he thought superior in ability to any before his own age.

'Unfortunately, his machine did not function as intended. He arrived - and this, at least, is true - in Naples, this very morning.'

'I have never heard,' Tommaso would not be silent,' greater nonsense.'

'Nor I,' Cosimo agreed,' nor, indeed, has the Sergeant. The madman has been taken to the monastry of St. Ignatius, whose abbot has vowed always to care for the infirm. It is sad - we may never learn who the man really is - but it seems likely that he will remain under the abbot's care for many, many years.'

'And so,' Gianni said,' your story - or rather, Lorenzo's story - it was Lorenzo who found the man, was it not ? - is a story without end ?'

'I am afraid so. And a sombre story, at that.'

'A sombre story should be followed by a cheer. And none can cheer greater than our host. Come - sing to us.'

'Yes,' the others agreed,' sing to us.' The tavern-keeper was famous for his voice.

'Well - '

'Sing.'

'Well - '

'Sing.'

'Well - it's one for the money....' sang Elvis.

 


THE CASTLE
by
Stephen R. Ketteringham

***


In the castle lived the tyrant Apotheles. Outside lived his people - his slaves. They worked the land - their land - his land. They lived, they toiled, they died. All under the auspices of the tyrant Apotheles. Who did not work, or toil.

To most - if not to all - the castle was Apotheles. The walls and turrets which loomed above their huts and plots were his walls and turrets - his limbs. Supporting his presence. To the castle, the people took their tribute. Their gold and silver, grain and meat. From the castle, they received instructions - which fields to sow and which to reap. Which cities they might trade with, and which they were to fight. Apotheles' rule was absolute. The castle was supreme.

Yet the man - the person named Apotheles - was unseen. Unknown. Unreal.

Tributes were collected by the castle guards - proud men clad in bronze and iron mail. Men who never spoke, men who would not - could not - mix with those dwelling outside the tyrant's walls. Orders were relayed by the same. No other contact occurred between the castle and the people. The castle was Apotheles - it had to be Apotheles - for, otherwise, he would not be.

Even the guards knew nothing of their master, for they were confined - small sacrifice for their rank and prestige - to the outer ward of the castle. Items - food and wine, commands and other missives - to be transferred in or out were placed in a small stone hut adjacent to the castle proper, and connecting with it by an inner door. Through custom - the origin of which may have preceded the reign of Apotheles - the guards visited the hut only during daylight hours. The tyrant did so after dark. After dark, when the guards were within their quarters, and his - the tyrant's - wolves had been released into the ward. And so, for thirty, forty, fifty years, not a single soul had set eyes upon the tyrant. The castle was Apotheles. It had been Apotheles, and would always be Apotheles.
He thought himself clever.

The people - his people - his slaves - were not of the type to submit to tyranny. Their age was one of rebellion and, if not of democracy, of tentative experiments in that direction. But the leaders amongst them were, foremost, thinkers, willing only to act after prolonged and thorough consideration. So when the tyrant they so resented was unseen, unknown, unreal - how, then, could they act ? They could not think. Could not plan. Could not focus their resentment.

And so they submitted. To tyranny. Never quite accepting it, but not seeing any other way. Any other reasonable, respectable way. Reason being their guiding principle, and respect their goal.

Phelon, though, was without principle. At least, he did not respect his elders, and had - it seemed to them - little reason. Whilst they toiled, and trembled, and pondered better things, but did not think it proper to act, he neither thought nor pondered, simply acted, as and when he could. In small measure, at first, but later - well. That will wait.

Unlike Apotheles, Phelon was seen, and known, and real. He was anarchic, and fun - his friends thought - but a little dangerous.

Some days, he simply scoffed at the castle. At the walls - the limbs of Apotheles. Who - he would ask - is this tyrant, whose tyranny can only be maintained in its author's absence ? The walls aren't castle walls - they're prison walls. Aren't they ? They are, they are - his friends would answer.

He questioned the guards. Assuming the respect absent from encounters with his elders. How is our noble tyrant, today ? Is he in good health ? Is he well ? Is he happy ? Do our humble works please him ? Does he hear our pleas to the gods, to grant him his pleasures ? What wonders will he furnish us with, today ? An appearance ? Or not ? Surely not not ? Not not again ? Thoughtless questions, it seemed - of which some approved, but most disapproved.

Only Phelon, of course, knew how heart-felt his questions were. He was filled with curiosity, with fascination, with admiration. Who was this tyrant, whose tyranny could be maintained - so perfectly maintained - in its author's absence ? Phelon envied not so much the position of the tyrant - he was not sure that the pleasures it brought were those he sought - but the sheer ability and strength of will which enabled Apotheles to absent himself, and remain tyrant absolute.

Which brings us to the start. Or the finish. The start of Phelon's final action. His adventure.

Tired of offering taunts which were never understood, of small misdemeanours just sufficient to cause the castle guards a moment's irritation, but not so severe as to risk reprisals, he chose to confront the tyrant himself. To unmask Apotheles and, in doing so, unmask his own true self.

Which should have served as warning. That the petty pilfering of objects without worth or value but of at least minor moment - written orders and communiqués - ceased. That the walls and doors of the castle were no longer daubed with strange letters and symbols. That the weekly tribute no longer contained rotten foodstuffs and left-over scraps.

Phelon even announced his intentions, to all who would listen. Rounded on his friends and fellows, with words of revolution. Must we suffer, when others are shattering the shackles of their slavery ? We are, surely, as deserving as any. We are noble, and intelligent, and brave. Apotheles - the tyrant - the slave-driver - is not noble. His stone walls are not noble. His armed guards are not noble. Neither is he intelligent. What intelligence is there - I ask - in driving those who provide his bread and his wine into insurrection ? And he is not brave. He hides - he cowers - in his fear. Let us languish beneath him no longer. Let us strike down the tyrant, and take from him the freedom which is our.
The elders heard. They shook their heads, and turned back towards their ridges and their furrows. The guards heard, too. They stood still, and bit their lips, so as not to smile.

Phelon walked to the woods at the far side of the castle, that night. The woods weren't really wild - more the half-hearted Sherwood of modern England than the midnight forest of medieval Caledonia. He slept, a little, on ground softened by autumn leaves and grass and flowers. He ate fruit and drank from slow, silent streams.

The sun was high - almost directly overhead - when news of Phelon's disappearance reached the castle guards. They searched the wood - but Phelon had not left a single trace of his visit. Even so, he panted, as he lay inside the castle wall, listening to their anxious speculation. A slave - no, no, not a slave - a person - a subject - of their tyrant, stolen from them by stealth. Gone. (Despite Phelon's words the day before, they assumed him to have gone.) Escaped.

In the shadow of the wall, Phelon was able to rest, as the guards' voices slowly faded. He was also well-nigh invisible, against the midday glare of the Mediterranean sun.

As the guards abandoned the wood, reinforcements arrived, each leading an extra horse. Mounted, they searched further and further afield. Still assuming that he had fled. Not until they had travelled between the nearest villages in each direction did they doubt their assumption. Villages free from tyranny. Villages which, no longer naïve, looked with yearning towards the tyrant's castle. Seeking strong leadership, but unable to decide upon - or elect - a leader. Villages towards which Phelon had not fled.

As the sun moved through the sky, so Phelon moved beneath the castle wall, ever keeping within the safety of its shadow. Until he had reached the point nearest the hut which eavesdropping earlier in the day had revealed as being the sole means of communication between guards and castle proper. Outer ward and inner. And then ran to the door of the hut, entered, and carefully hid.

The search had been postponed by then. The guards had to return before dark - after which they were obliged to keep to their quarters. The village elders were concerned - there was nowhere for Phelon to have gone. He could not, in any case, have reached another settlement so soon. And why would he wish to do so ? He who did not think, did not reason, knew nothing of the truth of his - and their - slavery.

The sun descended until only a deep crimson glow remained, upon the castle tower. That, too, faded, displaced by the spreading darkness, until all was black. And the tyrant's wolves were released.

This Phelon knew to be his moment of greatest danger. Though he was within the small stone hut, they would scent him, and the door could not be locked. He had, as the evening passed by, piled what shabby furniture and discarded junk he found in the hut against its door, hoping that would prove barrier enough to keep the wolves at bay. In the event, he need not have worried.

Almost immediately the wolves had been released, Apotheles himself - it could be no other - unlocked the inner door and retrieved the day's sparse bundle of parchment sheets. Knowing that he must return to collect the week's provisions, he left the door ajar. Phelon walked through, and hid, hand clasped to mouth, in a shady alcove, not daring to look at Apotheles as, presently, he passed by.

The tyrant - not a young man - was slow in lifting his load. Phelon had ample time to progress further into the building, at nothing more than a swift walking pace. The nearest rooms were unadorned, being stores, except for the simple kitchen in which Apotheles evidently prepared and ate his meals.

A finely carved arch, depicting Zeus in the robes of an Athenian judge, separated this purely functional arm of the castle from the luxury of Apotheles' living quarters. His home. Beyond this arch, the rooms were of a splendour quite unknown to Phelon. Intricate tapestries hung from the walls. Which were themselves plastered and painted in pastel shades. Mosaic patterns brightened the floors. There were even tapestries lain across the floors - rugs or carpets, in effect - by Apotheles' favourite chairs and couches.

The furniture was equally extravagant. Extravagant by the standards of the 20th century A.D., or the 15th, or 10th, or 5th; or the 10th B.C. For so long has a table been a table, and an extravagant, expensive table extravagant and expensive.

Phelon sat, instinctively, on the grandest seat, a softly-padded, tall-backed piece. Idly, he picked up a scroll which lay on the floor, nearby. He knew his letters, but found reading laborious and slow.

The scroll related a saga best described as Homeric - Homer being the only author of that era to have survived. Not the best, or most famous, in his day - the most fortunate, if the good-will of posterity is to be equated with good fortune. Still - the story was of that sort. Of an adventurer who overcame great perils in order to claim his birth-right. A man who - though favoured by the gods - had to fight the mis-guided, the mis-informed, and the malignant.

Phelon was absorbed when Apotheles entered. The tyrant's footsteps did not disturb him. Only when Apotheles stopped and - unsure what to say or, indeed, if he could remember how to speak - stamped his foot, did Phelon look up, dropping the scroll. Which rolled a short way across the mosaic tiles, before stopping. And lying still.
He had wanted to meet the tyrant. To discover who he really was. To discover his secrets - or his lack of secrets. He had not though to find secrets of his own. To learn that he was not really whom he had thought.

The man he saw was familiar. More than familiar. He was himself - Phelon - aged fifty more years. Beneath the effects of time, the same essential features remained. And Phelon knew that this was why - fifty years before - Apotheles had confined - condemned - himself to the castle, forever. Confronted with such an anomaly - such an impossibility - he had had no choice. In realising that it was himself who had kept his friends - his fellows - even the elders he had so often resented - in servitude for five decades, Phelon took the same decision.

Apotheles - not in shock, not in surprise - it had happened to him, too, fifty years before - but simply because it was time, expired. Phelon - or Apotheles - felt a quiver. A tremor. A part of him had gone. A part of his past - a part of his future, five decades hence. And, again, he was tyrant absolute. He had arrived, and would remain. Imprisoned. Incognito.

 


A DAY ON THE ROAD
by
Stephen R. Ketteringham

***


There was no traffic - or nearly none. A Sainsbury's lorry, on the far side, heading south. Something sporty - a Porsche ? - passing by, at speed. Nothing, to speak of. Nothing to slow Sam down.

The concrete strip almost looked abandoned. It was the colour of yesterday's news. It would - Sam thought - take a year, or five, or ten, of neglect, for the road to become overgrown. Ten, at most, for the first strands to sprout. Sam remembered walking the West Highland Way. For a while, it had followed the old A82. Which hadn't been closed for more than ten years. Surely. Daisies had split the tarmac. Daisies ! He'd known a Daisy, once, but, still. He didn't any more. So - the motorway looked abandoned. Almost abandoned. But it wasn't. Not quite yet.

He kept to 85. He'd read in the paper that they wouldn't stop you, at that speed. Not unless you were drunk or dangerous. Drunk and dangerous, even - with the first, the second must follow. Or just dangerous. It didn't work the other way around. Sam was, so far as he knew, neither. At least, he tried to stay safe, and it was fourteen - fifteen ? - hours since his last pint.

So 85 it was. It didn't take long to acclimatize. Sam had acclimatized to many things, over the years. To altitude - he'd been up to 23,000 feet, in the Andes. That had taken time. Two weeks, nearly. Climbing for two days, then resting for one. People climbed the hill - Aconcagua, the highest in the Americas - in less, but they suffered. Some died. Several died. Sam didn't. He took his time, and some good photos. And came down safe and sound.

Time, too, itself. He'd worked nights, and early shifts, and long hours. That also took about two weeks. To become really comfortable with the life-style it brought. The contrast with the natural hours of daylight. He'd acclimatized, but he'd not liked it. He'd never liked it. Too much is centred around the 9 to 5 of the office, or 8 to 4 or 5 or 6 of the factory. Much beyond or outside, cannot be accommodated. Shops open from 8 'till 6 or 8 or suchlike. Not 8 p.m. 'till 8 a.m. Not many. Not then. No - Sam hadn't liked working shifts.

But speed. 85 miles per hour - that so soon seemed little more than a steady pace. The road was repetitive, and Sam would never look away, at his surroundings. He may as well have been the skipper of an ocean liner, for all the sense of progress he felt. His tangible movement was dependant on the presence of other cars - slower and faster. When there were none - well, when there were none, there were none. He knew he was moving - or at least knew that it must be so - but could not quite believe it. 85, or 65, or 125 - it made no difference. Whatever, he would soon be home. And when he was home, he would be still. And safe. And sound.

Sam worried. There were so many things. Not that he was unduly timid. Timidity would have been of little use on Aconcagua. Or working shifts, for that matter. But when he had the time - and the luxury - to think, a little - when, indeed, he had no real worries - he worried. Had he checked his tyres ? Had he had the car serviced ? What if a wheel came off ? What if a tyre burst ? Or the steering went ? What if ? What then ? What next ? What, and how ?


In his mirror, Sam saw a small hatchback. It was perhaps a hundred, or two, yards behind. Yards - not metres. Sam knew they were much the same, but found metric units confusing. It wasn't that he was old, or stuck in his ways. He was young. But miles and metres - they didn't match. Neither did stones and kilos. No - he preferred yards and pounds and ounces. They were best.

He'd passed it a few seconds before. He was sure he had. It was the same colour - dark red - burgundy - or maroon - and contained the same - two - number of silhouettes. It had to be the same car. But - now it was no more than fifty yards from him. And nearing - slowly, but. Even though his needle - as he'd day-dreamed - had edged beyond his mental limit, to not much less than 90. Well - there was little point in having a GTi if any battered - and it was, he could see now - Fiesta could play such games. 95 - no, 100 - would do. One eye searching for police, the other trained on the mirror.


It wasn't a Fiesta. It was a Fiat. And it was burgundy. Not maroon. Burgundy. Sam saw as it moved ahead. And pulled in sharply, forcing him to tap his brakes.

He'd not expected any antics. Not today. Though he'd thought about it often enough. When some car or other caught his eye. For no real reason. Or for the strangest - or simplest - of reasons. Such as its shape or size or speed. Thought, and feared. These things could lead anywhere. Onto the hard shoulder, or into a ditch.

He stayed behind - more concerned, now, with safety than with scoring points. And, again, his mind wandered. Now that he had a real worry to worry about, Sam didn't - instead, he considered small things. How, although - when he'd been alone - he'd not seemed to make much progress, he'd had, really, ample indication of such. Ample sign, indeed - not simply indication. Every few miles - 'Bristol 87, Taunton 42' - 'Bristol 83, Taunton 38, (London 161)' - and more often, even - small posts directing the stranded to a 'phone. Also, inside the car, the mileage thing - what was the word ? - the odometer. Odo - wasn't he the man who made the Tapestry of Bayeux - or had it made ? Anyway, even without an odometer, he could see that his fuel level was slowly falling. Certainly ample indication that he was moving. Which was as well - he'd never liked standing still.


They'd slowed to 60. Sam could only be so patient. Pressing his pedal to the floor, he passed ahead. Looking, as he did, to see who - or whom - his adversary, or protagonist, might be. But he could see nothing. Or very nearly nothing. Only two outlines. One male, the other - it seemed - female. The man was driving. He was, well, pretty featureless. He had a beard. And wore dark clothes. The woman, beside him, had long, flowing hair. Sam assumed it to be a woman. He wasn't sure. Still - he might not have much of a description, but he'd memorised the car's number. Having more or less decided to call the police. There'd been times before when Sam had intended to do so, but had forgotten, minutes later. This was different - he'd felt threatened. Still felt threatened. Though his mirror showed that he was now some way ahead. The strangest thing - again, Sam's thoughts turned - was that the road was so empty. He'd not noticed a single car heading south, since he'd first seen the Fiat. Though there may have been cars - he'd been concentrating on his side of the road, after all. And there were other vehicles, on that side. Some a long way in front - but he could see them. Two or three specks. And others, equally far behind. He was reassured, slightly - to know that he wasn't quite so isolated as he'd first thought. Isolated, with his pursuer.

How long - Sam wondered - had it been since he'd first saw the small car ? Not many minutes. Five, or maybe ten. Nearer five, most likely. He hadn't really noticed the time. Or the distance he'd covered. Not whilst he'd been pre-occupied. Five minutes - or ten - before, he'd been looking forward to an early arrival home. And an afternoon of relaxation. Sam always liked to have an afternoon to himself, when he'd been away. To do nothing - nothing at all - in preparation for Monday morning. To recover - assuming he had something to recover from. A whole weekend of nothingness - that he didn't like. It was a waste. But an afternoon - yes.

Now, being home soon wasn't an issue. Sam wanted to stop. To leave the road. But he couldn't. Not just like that. Not simply pull over. Here, alone. What would the other driver do ? There were cars behind - cars which would pass by. No - Sam couldn't simply stop. But, still, he had to, somehow.

He'd seen television programmes, about police pursuits. About the tactics and techniques they used. To force their quarry to stay on, or stay off, a certain road. Sam didn't have a police driver to contend with. Not so far as he knew, at least. And he certainly had the more powerful of the two cars - though the Fiat seemed surprisingly swift. So - at the next exit, or junction, whichever, whatever, it was, he would leave. But only at the last moment. So that his pursuer could not even try to follow. That must be Sam's method of escape. There would be an opportunity soon enough. There must be, surely. Any such opportunity would, for Sam, suffice.

And, soon enough, sure enough, a slip-road approached. The signs were there for all and any to see. First, a mile's warning. Then half a mile. 'Services - Take a Break - Tiredness can Kill.'


Sam didn't slow. The Fiat was still close behind. Too close. Ten feet or so. Ten feet ! At 90 miles per hour. What was the stopping distance ? 3 yards for each m.p.h. ? And another, for the thinking ? So - three hundred and sixty yards. At least - it was always further than you thought. A quarter of a mile, say. And there was a car only ten feet behind. Three yards. One five-hundredth of a mile.

'III' the next sign read. 3, 2, 1, go - or stop. Sam kept to a steady speed. 'II' passed by, then 'I.'

It was strange, that the couple behind remained, even from so close, mere silhouettes. The sky was overcast, the light dull, but, still. Other objects outside Sam's car seemed sharp and clear. Trees. Animals. Road signs and markings. Perhaps - he thought - they had slightly tinted windows. Not so much so as to be obvious, but enough to obscure his view - and others. Perhaps the bearded man often acted like this. Perhaps he felt a need for anonymity. Number plate notwithstanding.

Sam sped past the short, stubby lines that separated the slip road from the motorway proper. Past the hatching - that was the word - which warned that the exit route was about to split away. Then swerved, cutting across the edge of the grass verge. The car skidded, churning damp clods of mud and grass into the air. Sam tried to hold the wheel straight. He knew better than to turn against the skid, but turning with it might send him back into the verge. Into the crash barrier which started inches beyond the point at which he had cut across.

Eventually, he regained control. He daren't stop, but he slowed to a crawl. He could see the Fiat, ahead, but slowing, on the main carriageway. Sam sped, a little, to reach safety.

He never - when travelling alone - liked to sit in motorway cafés. Feeling self-conscious, as he knew he would. He bought sandwiches, or chocolate, or a bottle of still orange, and sat in his car. Or, sometimes, on the grass. This time, though, he bought himself a cafetière of coffee, and sat inside. With a newspaper.


It was that day's local paper. Sunday the 17th. He checked the date, after reading the headline. A verdict had been reached at the trial of John Sebastian Morris. On the 17th of April, '98, he had not, it seemed, through his aggressive and dangerous driving, deliberately forced Alan Andrew McInnes and Marie Kennedy off the M5, in their burgundy Fiat Panda. He was not to be held responsible for their early deaths. Which were an accident. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Sam didn't read any further. He would have learnt where the tragedy had occurred. But, after all, he already knew. And was never likely to forget.

 

***

Last updated: 18/11/2011