Old Acquaintance Not Forgot

Reginald and Edgar met up once a year. Every year, at the same time, mere minutes before an old year went out, parting an hour after a new one came in. It was the custom in the world of the dead. Established long eons ago, to encourage friendships among those who would otherwise not cross paths. All dead received a companion, selected by the Deadland lottery, to spend an annual hour with.

Edgar enjoyed that hour, he was always happy to see Reginald. They would spend it at the window to the world of living and watch them welcome the new year. Reginald would grumble, he thought it a fool’s celebration. “They’ll be all dead soon enough,” he’d say.

“But that is why they celebrate,” Edgar answered. “They’re happy they get to see another year!”

Reginald sneered at that. But Edgar hoped there was a small part of him that found at least a little joy in their encounters.

Last year was their hundredth meeting. They fulfilled the ancient custom, there was no need for them to see each other again, here or anywhere. To be sure, many of the dead have formed friendships during these hours, friendships lasting for eternity, but then again, many did not. And last year, Reginald looked like was at the end of his tether.

“I’m so glad this is our last meeting,” he said. “I can’t stand watching these stupid humans any longer.”

“We can do something else if you don’t like watching the living,” Edgar suggested.

“What’s the point? It’s the last time.”

“I’m sorry to hear you say that, Reginald. I thought we have become friends.”

“Friends!” Reginald scoffed. “That is a loose definition.”

“Acquaintances then,” Edgar added quietly, but Reginald listened no more. Once the hour was up, he turned his back on him and marched away from Edgar, not even bothering with saying goodbye.

Edgar was sorry. Over the century, he grew to like his companion. He believed Reginald’s abrasiveness was just a façade, a remnant of his living days. Having survived the trenches of the First World War, only to have his life taken from him by the Spanish flu. And the girl he loved married another man within a year of his death…

But that was so long ago and the world of the dead was so different from the world of living. Sometimes Edgar wondered whether Reginald also hated the Deadland. But where else was there to go? There would not be another place, ever again.

Edgar, too, had departed the world of the living prematurely, finding his death during a cursed voyage, in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. It was hard to accept at first, he missed his loved ones from the world of living, his younger sister in particular. But being dead was not such a bad deal once one got used to it, and the loved ones would join too, for death was inevitable.

Reginald had had no one while he was alive. Except the girl he had once loved, but he didn’t want to see her again. Edgar tried to be his friend, but—

One hundred and one years after they were first brought together by the Deadland lottery, Edgar made his way to their usual spot by the window to the world of living. Reginald wouldn’t come, that he was sure about. Still, Edgar was here. He would see in the new year, reminisce about his former companion, and leave.

He settled himself into a comfortable position. He had a good view of London’s Big Ben, the lit up dial of the clock that would tick the old year away.

Why did he come here? What was he doing? He could have been anywhere else right now, with someone who appreciated his company. There were many who did. “I am an old fool,” he said to himself.

“You’re not that old,” a voice came from behind.

Reginald sat down opposite him.

Edgar could only stare. “What are you doing here?” he asked at last. “You’ve fulfilled the custom.”

“I thought it would be good to see an old friend again,” Reginald answered.

The clock struck twelve, the fireworks exploded, and over their table by the window to the world of living, the two dead men smiled at each other.

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A Date with Krampus

It’s the same every year. The last minute panic, the frantic rush to get the final items, the rising stress levels. Christmas is like that.

Gia was a rare one. She lived on her own and didn’t sweat much over Christmas. She bought the food, put up some decorations in her small apartment; she had everything ready on the twenty-third.

On Christmas Eve, she went for a walk. She stopped outside the railing of the local superstore’s car park. Two drivers were shouting at each other. Inside the superstore, an event best described as retail carnage was going on. Why is it like this, she thought.

“Sheer madness, isn’t it?” said a voice near her.

She turned with a start. A man was leaning against the railing next to her. He wore a dark overcoat and—a top hat. Gia hesitated. Should she run or… then she decided not to. After all, this was a busy area with a lot of people, unlikely that the stranger would want to assault her here.

“Indeed,” she said. “Worst is, it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“How should it be?”

She shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that the world won’t end if you forget one or two things. The pressure is only there because people put it on themselves.”

“Ah, but it is the presents they’re getting.”

“Surely something as positive as present should not cause this much headache?”

“Have you got all the presents, Miss?”

“No. I don’t buy Christmas presents. My family live far away and I have no one in this country. But when I used to buy presents, it gave me pleasure.”

“I suppose for many buying presents for terrible relatives is not a source of pleasure.”

“Yes, but then the problem is elsewhere, isn’t it? What’s with the obligation towards terrible relatives?”

“That’s people for you. Full of obligations.”

“As you say.”

“How do you say Christmas should be celebrated?”

“Anyhow you like. Prepare the food you like, watch the TV you like, do what you like. Spend it with your loved ones, or no one at all. With family, with the big dinner, turkey and all the trimmings, pull Christmas crackers, watch the queen’s—I mean, the king’s speech, Christmas telly… or be on your own, eat pizza and watch Studio Ghibli films. Both are valid.”

“Ah, but what is the meaning of Christmas?”

“The meaning is that winter sucks. It’s cold and it’s dark at four o’clock, so humans invented a holiday to cheer themselves up. Then the church decided to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, so that’s what it became.”

The stranger smiled. “You’re not a religious person, are you?”

“No, but honestly, what does it matter. I think everyone should be able to celebrate Christmas, but at the same time, nobody should feel like they have to.”

The stranger nodded. “I see your point. And how do you like your Christmas?”

“I just cook the food and chill out at home with my cat.”

“Sounds good. And the cat, how does she like the holidays? Or is it a he?”

“It’s a she. And she doesn’t care. Cats are too regal to bother about a human holiday.”

“Hmm, yes, they do think of themselves as gods, don’t they?”

“Aren’t they though?”

“But you just said you’re not religious.”

“That’s not religion, that’s a fact. Or at least it’s a fact that cats believe they’re gods, not that they are. But they are in a way. They do what they want, humans be damned.”

“Interesting.”

She looked at him, taking him in for the first time. He was tall and dark and handsome and—how she came to this conclusion she didn’t know herself—out of this world.

“What about you?” she asked. “How do you spend your Christmas?”

“I don’t have much time to, as you say, chill out. I have duties at Christmas.”

“You work?”

He nodded.

Well, if you want to be so mysterious about it, then be, she thought. She wouldn’t ask him about it.

“I get plenty of time to relax throughout the year,” he added.

Unsure how to react to that, she gave a nod. “You know,” he said, drawing closer to her, “I’m afraid I’ve been awfully rude. I haven’t introduced myself.”

Gia wasn’t bothered about that, she chatted with people in parks and shop on regular basis; this was a friendly neighbourhood. But she was intrigued. The stranger lifted his hat.

Among the mass of dark hair, two little blood red horns poked out. She gasped. “Are you–?”

He nodded. “But call me Nick.”

Nick. As in, short for Nicholas? That didn’t seem right.

“Isn’t Nick the other guy?”

“He’s the Young Nick. I’m the Old Nick. We’re two Nicks.”

“Two Nicks,” she repeated, not knowing what to say. “My name is Gia.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gia. Say, would you like to join me for dinner?”

“What—now?”

“Yes. Unless you have other plans.”

“No. I just… I just need to feed my cat.”

“Of course. By all means, go feed your cat. I’ll wait for you here.”

She went home and fed her cat. Then she returned. He was there, waiting for her. He offered her his arm. “Let us go then.”

He snapped his fingers twice. The world around them faded. At first there was nothing, then little by little features became visible. A great hall, a big table. A black chandelier hung from the ceiling and in it burned hundreds of candles. Everything looked ornate and luxurious. Nick pulled out a chair for her, she sat down. He sat opposite her. He clapped his hands. Out of the darkness, his minions, dark elves, entered with dishes. Once everything was placed on the table, Nick said: “Tuck in!” And so she did.

It was a feast worthy of all the kings and queens that ever ruled on planet Earth. There were several courses and, despite the presence of so many carbohydrates, Gia didn’t feel full. But, of course, this was not the real world.

And they talked. About religion and philosophy, books and films. Gia had not had such stimulating conversation for a long time.

“Well I do hope you enjoyed yourself,” Nick said when the dessert dishes were cleared out.

“I did, thank you.”

He raised a glass towards her. “Happy holidays!”

They finished the wine and looked at each other across the table. What now, Gia thought, is he going to take me back? What if he doesn’t? What if I’m stuck here for eternity?

She hoped that should that be the case, he’d bring her cat too.

“Time to get back then.” He stood up.

The relief was mixed with a tiny bit of regret. She realised the foolishness of it. This was not her world.

He dropped her off at the same spot where they met. He bowed, lifted his hat and said: “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Gia.”

She said nothing, only nodded and smiled at him. He snapped his fingers twice and disappeared.

She made her way home. Her cat was sleeping on an arm of a sofa in blissful ignorance.

Gia settled herself on the sofa, grabbed the remote control and navigated to the relevant streaming service.

Krampus agreed with her. Die Hard was a Christmas classic.

Dance Macabre

Henrietta returned home by way of the old graveyard. The villagers could raise their eyebrows all they wanted at her choice of a shortcut, call it “morbid”, “perverse” even, but it was her favourite. She liked the old, moss-covered tombstones, the engravings of those gone almost a century ago. The new graveyard, on the other side of the church, couldn’t compete with charm of the old one, with its ancient beeches and oaks and the silence that settled over it, the silence so very specific to itself. The dead couldn’t hurt you anymore, unlike the living.

The villagers thought Henrietta a strange girl, with strange ideas. It suited her well, she was left alone to her books and her lone walks in nature and her daydreams. The few friends she had lived in the city.

The city was where she was coming back from, walking from the train station through the old graveyard. She was, as has become the case with her of late, immersed in a different world, a world of fancies. All her current daydreams revolved around the same vision: she was dancing, not to any rhythm but out of joy, her mind was free of worries, she twirled—and he was there. The one with dark eyes. She didn’t know who he was. He stretched his hand towards her and they danced together till the end of the days. She was smiling to herself, imagining he would have a deep voice. And be dressed in all black.

Henrietta’s mother might have worried about her daughter—had she been alive. But she wasn’t, she withered away in early spring, worn out by life marked by bad choices. There was nobody else left to worry about Henrietta. But there were plenty to call her strange and weird.

Yet, she was not so lost in her imaginary worlds that she didn’t see the beauty of the real one. The first leaves were turning, soon the world would bask in the golden glory of autumn. She was opening the small wrought iron gate, when a feeling seized her, a feeling of not being alone. She looked around the graveyard. A dark shapeless figure was walking by the church. It rounded the corner and disappeared from her view. The vicar or the curate? Henrietta didn’t go to church but she was sure neither of them ever wore a long black cloak. She shrugged, passed the gate and closed it behind her. Her eyes might have tricked her. But her pace gathered speed as she headed home.

Home, of sorts. She lived at Ferndene, because one had to live somewhere, and because her mother had married its owner. Mr John Rossiter, who came from the long line of Rossiters, a distinguished family, who owned this piece of land for centuries. By all accounts he had been a catch, and many had wondered how a middle class widow with a daughter had done it. A whirlwind romance, they called it. So whirlwind that teenage Henrietta had had little time to say goodbye to her modest childhood home before their move to this imposing mansion. Shortly after, her half-sister Susie was born.

Henrietta preferred getting in by the side entrance; the main one thought itself too serious. She hoped to get to her room unobserved, but alas, right at the foot of the stairs stood Jack, blocking her way. “Hi Henny! Had a nice date in town, eh?” He smirked.

She shoved him aside. “None of your business.”

He called after her but Henrietta, ignoring him, climbed the stairs and went to her room. Jack was her stepbrother. He had returned home to Ferndene six weeks ago to, in his own words, cheer up his grieving father. Henrietta rolled her eyes. As if she didn’t know the truth. He had to be bailed out again. For all her daydreaming, she was more than enough aware of what was going on.

“Dinner’s ready!” yelled a little voice outside her door. The handle turned but the door stayed shut. Henrietta took to bolting it ever since Jack’s return.

“I ate in town,” Henrietta answered.

Her little half-sister yelled some more, but Henrietta tuned her out. She thought of the conversation she had with her friend Marie in the restaurant in the city. They discussed Jack. “For him to move back home,” Henrietta said. “Are even his cronies fed up with him?”

“I think it might be something else,” Marie suggested. Henrietta looked up at her from her plate. “What’s on your mind?”

“He wants to marry you.”

Henrietta put the fork down. How had she not thought of it herself?

In six months’ time, Henrietta would turn twenty-one and finally be able to get her hands on her father’s legacy. She had suspected for some time that the Rossiters’ fortune was dwindling. Bad investments, taxes, mother’s illness, step-grandmother’s illness, add to it the prodigal son’s shenanigans…

The legacy was not that large, but Jack had no hope of a better match. He had to take what he could. And Henrietta was always the dependable one, the quiet one, the never-making-a-fuss one, the take-the-side-door-to-Ferndene one. The one to run and hide from the master of the house’s violent outbursts.

Henrietta went to the window. Dusk was falling. Jack’s advances would not prevent her from carrying out her plan, she determined. She had everything worked out. A room to rent in the city, a position at Marie’s fiancé’s estate agency. With a steady salary and income from her father’s estate, she should be able to get a decent apartment within a year and live independently. She was already contributing articles to the city’s Observer, if she worked hard on it, one day she might even get a permanent employment at the paper. Say goodbye to Ferndene forever.

From her window she had a good view of their next door neighbour’s cottage. Mrs Wellard, the next door neighbour, had bought the cottage only a couple of months ago. She was a very old lady, but she also looked, with her white hair and sky blue yes, like a good old lady from stories, who helped the unfortunate. A fairy godmother. A fortnight ago, Henrietta, seeing the old lady struggling with shopping bags and parcels on the street, offered to help. Mrs Wellard was most thankful. “Do you have anyone?” Henrietta asked. “Children, grandchildren, nephews or nieces?”

The old lady replied that she had a nephew, but he was very busy with his work. I bet he is, Henrietta thought. From then on, she dropped in on Mrs Wellard and ran small errands for her, with the inhabitants of Ferndene being none the wiser. She wished Mrs Wellard had been her step-grandmother instead of Suzanna Rossiter.

A figure walked out of Mrs Wellard’s cottage. The busy nephew found time to see his aunt, after all? But no, it was the vicar. Then Henrietta remembered she heard Suzanna say that the curate was away, visiting his ill father. The black-cloaked figure in the graveyard couldn’t have been either of the clergymen.

Henrietta abandoned the window, threw herself on her bed and surrendered to her daydreams. This time, her dark-eyed hero wore a long black cloak…

“Is everything alright, dear?” asked Mrs Wellard the next day. “You look like something is weighing on your mind.”

Henrietta sighed. “Got an earful from the old hag about going to the city to see a play. I’m to write a review for the Observer.”

“And pray what is mighty Suzanna’s objection to that?”

“Who knows anymore? The fact that it’s in the city, the fact that it’s something I want to do, the fact that it’s a play… she has a problem with everything.”

“What is the play?”

Salome by Oscar Wilde.”

The old lady chuckled. “Oh yes, that’s a fun one.”

Henrietta smiled. The wicked step-(grand)mother versus the fairy godmother indeed. “You know, I have such wicked thoughts. Every time we sit down to eat, I wish she choked on her food and died. I’m a bad person, what can I say.”

Mrs Wellard had a strange smile on her face. “And how do you deal with these wicked thoughts?”

“I write them out. I have a journal. Sometimes I go to the old graveyard and write there. You know people here think I’m crazy for favouring that place?”

“Do they think you dance with the dead?”

“Dance with the—no. At least… I’m not sure if they do. I’ve never heard of anyone dancing with the dead. I mean, I know you can’t really dance with the dead but—“

Mrs Wellard laughed out loud. “I see this tale has not reached this part of world.” She leaned forward. “In winter, when the nights are long and the moon is full, the dead rise from their graves and dance around the graveyard.”

“Do they dance to music?”

Mrs Wellard nodded. “It’s a divine one. It plays on its own.”

“Interesting.”

Later that day, Henrietta went to the graveyard with her notepad and pen and wrote a short piece on the dance of the dead. She even doodled a bunch of skeletons dancing among the graves. For the first time since her mother’s death, something brought her a genuine joy.

The day after the Salome performance, the family at Ferndene were sitting at their dinner table, when Suzanna Rossiter choked on her food and died. Coronary thrombosis, the doctor concluded.

Henrietta went shopping to the main square, it was a market day. The villagers kept stopping her to offer their condolences. She understood why they did so, but wished they didn’t. She contemplated getting the next train out to the city, shopping be damned.

Then she saw him. Not the whole of him, just the eyes. The dark eyes. They looked at her, locked in gaze, and disappeared in the next aisle. She couldn’t tell what the rest of his face looked like, let alone his whole figure, but she had a vague vision of a black hood over his head. Afterwards she had moments when she doubted it was real, but the intense feeling of those dark eyes looking into hers stayed with her.

After Suzanna’s funeral, she started avoiding her family. She kept to her room, eating her meals by herself. She ignored every single one of Jack’s daily knocks on her door. She went to the city as often as she could. The editor of Observer, happy with her review of Salome, was keen to read more from her. She reviewed films, plays. Yet they could not offer her a permanent position.

It got too cold to spend much time in the graveyard. She daydreamed in her room and went to the café to write. At first, she couldn’t face Mrs Wellard again. Then she called herself a coward and paid her a visit. “I’m afraid,” she admitted. “I feel like I brought her death upon her.”

“It was a blood clot, not food that killed her. She just happened to be eating.”

“I know, but still, it went exactly how I said it.”

“Nobody can bring anyone’s death upon anyone, but Death itself.”

“My rational mind knows that, but sometimes…” she sighed. She changed the subject. “Another one of our maids resigned, you know.”

“Because of your stepfather?”

“Probably, at least that’s why they usually go. He shouts at them, calls them names. Although it could be Jack too. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he groped her.”

Soon she found out she was right in this assumption. Rita, the departed maid, got a job as a waitress in the café and confided in Henrietta. “I’m sorry that happened to you,” Henrietta said. “I’m glad you got a new job.”

One morning, Jack was waiting outside her room. “Why are you shunning me? I want us to be friends.”

“Since when?” she asked with amusement. He had never displayed any affection towards her during all the years he had lived away from home. Or before, for that matter.

“We have more in common than you think,” he said.

“How would you know what I think?”

“I know that you think we don’t have much in common. Otherwise you wouldn’t avoid me.”

He got her there.

He followed her downstairs to the kitchen. “We have both lost a mother,” he said. That was true. “And,” he drew closer to her as she was pouring herself coffee, “I, too, hated old Suzanna.”

”What makes you think I hated her?”

He grinned. “Please.”

“She was your grandmother,” Henrietta reminded him.

“So? She was still a hateful hag.”

That was true too.

She took her cup of coffee and sat down to a plate of toast and boiled eggs. Jack took a seat opposite her. “Are you going to see another show in the city?”

“Maybe,” she answered cautiously. “What’s it to you?”

“See this is what I mean, why are you so hostile to me?”

She looked at him. His hurt appeared sincere. “Why do you care if I go to see a show in the city?”

“Well, you know, I was thinking that maybe I could go with you.”

“I only get one ticket.”

“I can buy my own.”

“Are you interested in the theatre?”

“A bit. I prefer films. Why don’t you come to the cinema with me someday? We can get something to eat afterwards.”

If I say yes, will you leave me alone? But if she said yes, she’d have to go with him. She decided on the non-committal “I’ll think about it.”

“Right.” He tapped his fingers on the table top. “Don’t think too hard.” He stood up, winked at her and exited the kitchen.

“He’s actually quite handsome,” she told Mrs Wellard. “And, obviously, incredibly charming.”

“Yes, I have seen him around. So you have a date then?”

“I didn’t promise anything.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Not really. But I’m afraid he’ll keep pestering me.”

“Ah, but you’ll have to decide one day. Sitting on the fence is not comfortable.”

“No, I suppose it isn’t. I could consent and ask my friend and her fiancé to join us.” That would be bearable.

Mrs Wellard said her nephew had come to see her the day before. She didn’t say how they had spent their time together and Henrietta, for reasons unfathomable to her, was unable to ask anything about him. Mrs Wellard had no photographs of him, or any other relatives or friends, or herself for that matter. Henrietta knew only the nephew’s name: Tristan.

Tristan, she liked that name. Though it sounded a bit like sadness, she liked it. Maybe she liked it because it sounded like sadness.

One October evening, she took a walk alongside the canal. The setting sun reflected in the water. She stopped to admire this beautiful sight.

“So, here you are, Miss Too-Good-For-Me, eh?”

She gave a start. Jack was standing next to her, scowl on his face.

“What are you talking about?”

“You don’t wanna go out with me. You don’t like any of us. You never did. And what are you, really, what were you when my father married your mother?”

“You’re drunk.”

“So what if I am? What will you do, eh?”

She turned to go.

“Where’re you going?” He grabbed her arm.

“Let go off me!”

“What if I won’t? What arya gonna do, missy?”

She tried to free herself, but he was too strong for her. “Let me go.” His grasp tightened. “Help!” she shouted.

“You think someone’ll come and rescue you?” Jack laughed.

Someone did. “Hey, you there!” a voice called from the road. “Leave her alone!” It was the vicar.

Jack let go of her. He spat into the canal and walked away.

The vicar accompanied Henrietta home. He inquired whether she had anywhere else to live, her mother’s relatives perhaps, but Henrietta said there weren’t any. At least, none that she talked to, but she didn’t tell the vicar that. She thanked him as they parted outside Ferndene’s side door.

She felt shaken for the rest of the night. Unable to sleep, she awaited her step-brother’s return. But he never made it home. Two days later, his body was fished out of the canal.

They buried him in the new graveyard, next to his mother and grandmother. Henrietta pretended no display of grief. Her face remained neutral all throughout the ceremony. Several of the guests lamented the loss of life so young, only weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday, but many had no illusions. “I’m only surprised he didn’t die in a pub brawl,” said the owner of the café.

After the funeral, Henrietta walked on her own past the church to the old graveyard. It was a grey day, but not gloomy, breezy but not cold. She leant against the trunk of her favourite beech tree. Was she supposed to feel guilty? Her stepfather glared at her, if he even acknowledged her these days, finding ways to blame her for his son’s death. But she returned home that day before dark, the vicar confirmed it, and Jack’s drinking buddies were able to establish seeing him alive till at least half past eleven. Coroner’s verdict would most likely be accidental fall into the canal while intoxicated.

Nobody but the vicar knew of Jack’s assault on his stepsister. And he, understanding Henrietta’s silent plea, kept quiet.

Church bells were tolling. Henrietta wondered if the dead would dance tonight, since it was a full moon, and whether Jack would be among them. She looked up into the tree’s branches. Half of the leaves had fallen, the other half following leaf by leaf. She saw him again. The man of the dark eyes. She didn’t remember where and when, but it must have been on the way to the funeral, for the memory was so fresh. She saw the eyes distinctly. They were black. Not dark brown, black. Nobody else seemed to have noticed, at least nobody said anything. Surely in a village like this one, a stranger would be noticed. Was she the only one who saw him? Was she going crazy?

A leaf fell on her head. It was so bronze and beautiful, she kept it and put it between the pages of her journal.

Marie’s fiancé Peter, who ran the estate agency, called and ask if she could start working in December. The woman Henrietta was to replace decided to leave for Australia four months early. “Yes, oh yes!” Henrietta cried into the telephone. She’d have to commute, she hadn’t enough money to rent a place in the city, but that was a small price to pay.

“I might be able to get out of here sooner than I thought,” she confided to Mrs Wellard.

“Yes, I think you will.”

But Henrietta was not destined for the estate agency job. Before the first week of November was out, the village was hit by a flu epidemic and had to go into a quarantine.

To be so close to one’s dream, only for it to be snatched away so cruelly was worse than not being any close to it at all. Nobody was allowed in or out of the village. Peter had to employ someone else. The Observer wasn’t interested in any pieces from Henrietta but the reviews, which she couldn’t write if she couldn’t go to the city to watch the shows. She tried to distract herself by teaching Susie at home, as the school closed. But she found no joy in that activity.

Had her little half-sister always been such a brat? Her screeching wails hurt Henrietta’s ears, and boy, did she screech a lot. At any hint of “no”, she broke into endless “waaaaaaaah!”’s. And she was so rude. “Stupid, you’re stupid, stupid!” she sang at Henrietta.

“Don’t call me stupid, Susie.”

“I will, I will,” she kept singing. “Stupid, Henrietta is stupid.”

Henrietta stood up and went out into the garden. How she wanted to slap that little shit! But she’d never get away with it—it would make things even worse. She’d have to endure.

How long would an epidemic last?

She couldn’t go visit Mrs Wellard again. A lady of that age was more vulnerable to the flu. At least they could still talk. Henrietta would stand at the fence of the cottage, while Mrs Wellard came to the little pantry window. After pouring her heart out, Henrietta added: “I feel guilty. People around us are dying and my problems are so trivial.”

“Nothing is trivial, my dear. Rita from the café is sad that she can’t go dancing anymore.”

“She does like dancing,” Henrietta said with a smile. “How is that nephew of yours?”

How come she asked that?

“He came to see me yesterday, you know.”

“He came? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Oh no, he didn’t come in, he stood by the fence like you do now.”

Strange that Henrietta didn’t see him. She had spent the afternoon of the previous day at her window, writing.

She returned to the topic of her half-sister. “I just hope I can muster enough patience to get me through this without wringing that kid’s neck.”

Mrs Wellard laughed. “Some children can make you feel so.”

“Do you think it’s wrong of me? She’s my sister… at least we share a mother.”

“We don’t choose our families. A sister can be a best friend as equally as she can be the worst enemy. Take that story about the girl who burned her older sister’s manuscript because she didn’t take her to a party.”

“Oh that.” Henrietta felt rage coming, as she always did at any mention of that story. “And that hateful little brat never gets punished for it, the narrative even rewards her. Where’s the justice?”

“The justice is in writing your own story,” Mrs Wellard replied in a mysterious tone. But Henrietta suddenly remembered she left a notepad filled with her ideas on the dining room table. “I need to go check something.”

She raced to the dining room. Susie was sitting at the table, scrawling in Henrietta’s notepad with a pencil. Henrietta snatched it from her. “What’re you doing with my notepad?”

The notepad was opened on the page where she’d doodled a bunch of skeletons dancing in a graveyard. Susie scrawled Henrietta is stupid all over the drawing and drew moustaches on some of the skeletons.

Henrietta lightly tapped the kid’s hand with the notepad and said: “Ask your daddy to teach you. I’m done with you.”

But nobody taught Susie anything ever again. Within a week, she succumbed to the flu.

Nobody else at Ferndene got ill. Henrietta, John Rossiter, and the maid were healthy, symptom-less.

“Who did she get it from?!” John Rossiter roared all over the house. “Where did she get it?!”

The most likely explanation was the she caught it from the boy next door. Susie was in a habit of climbing the fence to play with him in their garden. How she managed it during the quarantine, nobody knew. The boy got seriously ill, but recovered.

Henrietta went out. It was a windy, rainy day but she didn’t care that she’d get wet. She knew that she alone would now face her stepfather’s wrath. She walked to the old graveyard, the only place to be untouched by the epidemic. Majority of the trees were now bare, the leaves dancing in the wind. Dancing. Like the dead. Would old Suzanna, Jack and Susie be among the dancers, come full moon?

She doubted it. Something in her, on some subconscious level knew that the horrible trio would not be dancing to any music in the graveyard. The fact amused her and she gained new strength. She would not be afraid of her stepfather. She turned to go home.

It was almost dark but she saw him clearly. He passed her on the little path that led to Ferndene and to Mrs Wellard’s cottage. He was dressed in all black—long black cloak with a hood over his head and black boots. His face, pale with dark eyes, shone from under the hood. She slowed down. Their eyes met. “Awful weather, isn’t it?” he said cheerfully. She mumbled something in agreement. He smiled at her and continued on his way.

She was real to him. He knew her, as she knew him.

And it was this knowledge that helped her get through the last days of John Rossiter. Every day, her stepfather shouted and raged and broke everything that could be broken. Henrietta had to stash some dishes away in her room so that she’d have something to eat from. But for the first time in her life, she found a certain element of entertainment in her stepfather’s wrath.

“You know it’s actually quite comical,” she said to Mrs Wellard from the fence. “Oscar Wilde would have had fun with him.”

“Sometimes it needs a change of perspective,” Mrs Wellard answered.

“It’s the poor maid I feel sorry for. I’m trying to be a support to her but I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“I’m sure she appreciates that.”

The epidemic eased in time to bring a little of Christmas cheer to the village. Henrietta helped with decorating the tree in the middle of the main square. The lights were lit. “At least we’ll have some Christmas,” said Rita in the reopened café.

Ferndene would see no Christmas. At least the maid would get to spend the holidays with her family. Henrietta expected her to give notice after the New Year.

In fact, she gave it sooner, before her Christmas leave. Henrietta came home from the markets to find her stepfather in such a rage as she had never seen before. He screamed expletives at her, blamed her for all the deaths and the maid’s departure.

“You want to pin the epidemic on me too?” she asked, smiling, but she was afraid.

“You think you got it all worked out?” he said. “You think you wait till you turn twenty-one and get your father’s money? Well let me tell you something, there is nothing left in your father’s estate. It’s all gone, gone!”

“You’re lying,” she whispered.

“Who do you think was the trustee?”

“Mother was.” But she was dead and when she died— “You have spent it all.”

“That’s right, I have, I have spent all your precious money. You have nothing left.”

And he started laughing. It was an ugly, vile laugh. He was an ugly, vile man.

Chill entered Henrietta. She spoke in a calm voice. “Drop dead.”

She turned and left the house.

She walked around aimlessly, along the canal and back, past the pub, the shops. She would find a way, there had to be a way. She could get an office job in the city, or at worst a retail one. Even a shop in the village would be something. They’d need people now, with so many dead.

Her head clearer, she headed back home. She won’t let her stepfather see her upset. She would be calm and collected. Look at me, look at how calm and collected I am.

Mr John Rossiter would not see Henrietta calm and collected, or in any other state again. He had dropped dead. The maid found him on the dining room floor when she came to get her things.

“So that is that,” Henrietta said aloud to the empty house.

John’s nearest relative, a cousin, arrived the next day, together with a solicitor. “Apparently he had a weak heart,” the cousin informed Henrietta, “the doctor cautioned him to take it easy, but… well, losing your whole family, and in such a short time at that, will take a toll on the strongest of us.”

“So much tragedy,” Henrietta sighed, marvelling at how easy it was to play along. “And the money problems too.”

“Ye-es,” the cousin agreed carefully. “An insurance policy will cover the funeral costs. After that–” He left the sentence unfinished. 

The cousin arranged everything as swiftly as possible, he was only too glad to wash his hands of the affair. One thing was never having got along with John, another the amount of debt the estate was in. 

Had Henrietta known how bad the situation was, she’d have made steps to get out much sooner. Coulda woulda shoulda, at least she knew where she was now.

When she walked down the street, people looked at her with pity. She thought they could stick their pity somewhere, she didn’t need it. She knew where she was now.

The vicar was the only one who offered her any honest help.

“Thank you, but my friend Marie said I can stay with her.” Marie was getting married in the spring, but, hopefully, by then, Henrietta would establish herself. She had registered at every work agency she found in the city.

Mrs Wellard vanished. Her cottage was empty, with no trace left of the old lady.

“I’ve not seen nothing,” said the woman in the cottage next door. “I thought her an odd old bat, living by herself, like a witch.”

Indeed.

Fairy godmothers were supposed to appear when you needed them most, but clearly it wasn’t that way. Well, she’d have to make do herself.

Winter solstice dawned. The morning post brought a few bills; she’d forward these to the solicitor later. They were not for her to deal with.

And there was the note.

Delivered by hand, a thick yellowish ancient paper, folded in half, with her name Henrietta written with an elaborate capital H. Jet black ink, beautiful old fashioned calligraphy. Meet me at midnight, at the old graveyard.

She turned the note over and over, held the paper against the light. I’m a regular Sherlock Holmes, she laughed to herself. She caressed the note in her hands, then placed it between the pages of her journal.

She spent the day throwing out all the personal items of her stepfather, stepbrother and half-sister. Wouldn’t it be funny if Ferndene burned down? But she pushed that notion out of her mind. Fingers would in all likelihood be pointed at her, and she didn’t need an accusation of arson to follow her around. She finished the last remains of food in the house.

There was nothing more to be done. It was too dark to take a walk. She stayed in her room, her safe haven of years. She read and napped and daydreamed, read and napped and daydreamed. The day was drawing to a close.

At five minutes to midnight, she left Ferndene for the graveyard. It wouldn’t take longer than four minutes for her to reach it. It was full moon. Of course, she should have known. Everything made sense now.

The graveyard bathed in the moonlight. He stood in the centre. The figure was familiar to all men, women and children. A long cloak with a hood, a scythe. She entered the graveyard. As she walked towards him, the church bell rang twelve times.

“Henrietta,” said a deep voice. “You’re right on time.”

He pinned the scythe to the ground and threw back his hood. It was him, the dark-eyed hero of her dreams. She knew him as he knew her. “Tristan,” she said.

He laughed. “Pleased to meet you at last. Thanks for looking after my auntie Loretta.”

It occurred to her only now that she had never learned Mrs Wellard’s first name. “Is she alright? I mean, she left so suddenly.”

“She’s well. It’s what she does, you know, goes from place to place. She never stays anywhere long.”

Henrietta nodded. She had, after all, appeared when Henrietta needed her most. Now she was a fairy godmother to another. And after that to another again, and on and on for the rest of the days.

“She’s my favourite aunt,” Tristan said. “I know you’re not supposed to have favourites, but I can’t help it, out of all my aunts I love her the best.”

“Everyone has favourites.”

“Quite so.” He smiled at her.

The graves were opening, the skeletons were emerging. From up above them, divine music started playing.

Tristan stretched a hand towards Henrietta. “Shall we dance?”

*

Ferndene was bought at an auction by an up-and-coming property developer, who converted the formerly imposing mansion into apartments. Marie and Peter got married and ran the estate agency together, until they sold it and retired to Spain. Rita met and married a good man from the city, whom she met at a dance. The vicar continued serving until retirement and lived to the grand old age of ninety-seven. The village, powerless to escape the progress of time, grew and was integrated as the suburb of the city.

But the old graveyard remains the same. And sometimes, on winter nights, when the moon is full, Henrietta and Tristan are still seen dancing among the graves.

October

It’s chilly now in the mornings; you wake up and run into the kitchen to prepare your coffee and breakfast, the smell of bacon filling your nostrils. You log on to your work laptop, make it through another tedious meeting, seriously, they’re so obsessed with meetings, but then you open the window wide and into your living room enters a scent, that same scent that returns every year, the unmistakable scent of autumn.

It’s the weekend and you get out of the house, off to the little piece of wilderness in the city. It is a paradise. Leaves crunch under your feet, wind rustles in the trees. Crows caw overhead. Sunrays pierce through the tree branches, creating patches of light in the grass. The smell of wet earth. The sound of dog paws on leaf-covered ground. Squirrels hop from tree to tree, their tails wagging. Leaves fall. Some drop into a little brook, carried away to a place unknown. Yellow and orange and red, and all shades of brown. Some of the trees here are old, having witnessed generations of humans come and go. Their barks are gnarly and hard with years. Mushrooms grow among the foliage, inconspicuous little dwellings of fairies. Here and there, you find an acorn or a conker, half hidden in its spiky green shell. Shadows lengthen, it’s time to leave before it gets dark.

The pavements are covered with leaves, elderly residents taking care while walking not to slip on them. Golden and bronze leaves, big leaves and small leaves. The red of rose hips and berries. The pale purple of asters, occasionally the pink of roses that haven’t faded yet.

You’re home again. It’s started to rain, so you close the window. You light your pumpkin and cider scented candle and settle on the sofa with blankets and a nice cup of tea. The cat is purring next to you on the arm of the sofa, a happy animal. You switch the TV on and, from your streaming service’s menu, select a film.

It’s got to be a horror, of course, because now, kids, it’s spooky time!

What If It Works

This is your space.

You’ve lived your whole life here, never knowing anything different. The space is narrow in places, gets cramped from time to time, but it’s good enough. It is your home. It’s comfortable. And safe. You like it.

There is no reason not to. You’ve got everything you need.

Those other spaces, beyond yours, are all broad and wide. You glance at them, from a distance, sometimes, without much longing. They’re not for you. Even if you wanted to, you wouldn’t; the journey is long and treacherous.

That doesn’t mean you never think about them. It comes to you sometimes. One cannot help it, those spaces are enticing. It’s not impossible to get to them. You just never attempted it. But what if…what if you try?

An idea comes.

And with it the thoughts.

What if something goes wrong, what if you get lost? What if everything goes wrong? What if you can’t find your way back? They’re swirling around you now, the thoughts, you can’t stop them. What if you stumble, or worse, fall? And injure yourself? What if they see you fall? What if you walk through the wrong door? What if you find the right door, but can’t open it, and then the person behind you opens it without difficulty, and it will turn out you were turning the handle the opposite way? What if you don’t have the right documentation, and the entry official is one with a loud voice, and everyone hears, and thinks you’re stupid?

You break into a sweat. No, no-no-no. You retreat deeper into your space, hide under the blankets until your pulse slows down again. That was close!

You get on with your life. It’s the same thing every day, a familiar routine. Nothing unexpected happens. On and on it goes.

Yet the ideas still come. Some you flick away, some stay for a while before fizzling out. Some are more persistent. What if—

But no. Too many things to go wrong.

One day, you go about your usual business, when you spot him.

Out of the corner of your eye, while walking your everyday route. How he got there, you don’t know. He’s an old man, wizened and grey. Dressed in grey clothes, grey hat on his head, a bit pointed—the hat not the head—it looks almost… yes, like a wizard’s hat. He’s sitting on a lawn chair (where did it come from?), smoking a pipe. Your eyes meet.

“What if it works?” he says.

You stare at him. He says no more and carries on smoking his pipe. You continue on your way, do the things you usually do. But this thought is new. What if it works?

The next day you take the same route again. No trace remains of the old man. Or his lawn chair. But his words linger on. What if it works?

What if it does?

So you do it. You go to the other spaces. You get up one morning and cross the pass. You stumble once, nobody even notices. You take the wrong turn before you realise your mistake, nobody even notices. At the entry point, you mix up some of the paperwork, but the entry official sorts it out without much difficulty in minimal time—and nobody knows. And you’re in.

This space is beautiful, it is the most beautiful space you have ever seen. The colours are vivid and rich. So many pretty things, and interesting things, and exciting things. What you want most, though, is the sea. It tempts you with its waves, all deep grey and green and blue. You dip your toe in it. Then the whole foot. Then the other foot. Then you get in.

You float in that beautiful sea and it is the best feeling in the world. With blue sky and white clouds high up above you. The sun is shining. It worked… it did.

Soon, you have to return to your own space. But now you know that you can leave anytime, and go anywhere you want. It’s still narrow, the bad thoughts still come, but so do the good ones. Because, what if it works?

And that old wizard in a lawn chair? That was you all along.

Where Were You When

I was eating a burger with chips and watching Golden Girls on Disney+ when the news came of the queen’s death. Dammit, was my first thought, just when I, for the one and only time in my life, am booked to go to London next weekend, as if I was not anxious enough about that. What the capital city will look like, I cannot imagine. And I have a wild imagination.

Gods are having fun. Grim reaper collecting the monarch literal three days into the new Prime Minister’s premiership. Can’t have two Lizzies at the same time, he said, no sirs. Wonder who has it worse—Liz Truss having to deal with the death of the longest reigning monarch in history in her first week of work, or Boris Johnson missing the chance of making himself the centre of attention during the national mourning?

Imagine coming to UK in 2003 and seeing it go from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown to David Cameron to Theresa May to Boris Johnson to Liz Truss. Rise and fall of a once great nation? Charles Darwin resurrects himself from the dead to scream: “evolution does not work in reverse!”

What is an anti-monarchist supposed to say? Welp, RIP, or whatever. Give me Queen the band instead, anytime. Dum-dum-dum, another one bites the dust.

I avoid BBC already and luckily it happens to be my time off work. I might just be able to escape the whole circus.

They say all will change. Money will have to be different, of course. But also stamps. And the national anthem changes from God Save The Queen to God Save The King. I don’t know the lyrics to that anyway, I’m not British. There’s less snail mail now and cash payments are being replaced by card payments.

Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952. The same year Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap was first performed on stage. Now, here was a real queen! The play is still running and they’re doing a tour for the 70th anniversary. I went to see it for the 60th anniversary tour in 2012, and I will be seeing it again later this year.

What was I talking about?

I feel like that meme of tired Ben Affleck smoking. And I don’t smoke.

All hail King Charles, I guess. I wish all the anti-monarchist a very…

Get through this with sanity.

Focus

Focus.

Focus, dammit!

I shout at my own self.

You’d think it was simple. Start a task, focus on the task, finish the task. A common sense, logical approach, you don’t need a college education to understand that. A college education. I never achieved it because I couldn’t focus. I tried. Not once, not twice, but three times. But I could never make past the first semester. I couldn’t focus.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, I’m here to talk about focus. The never ending, ever present struggle. What is a focus?

The centre of interest or activity. The state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition. Says the Google dictionary. That’s the noun. The verb is adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. What even is that? Also: pay particular attention to. That I know what means. I pay attention to some things, less to other things, none to those that don’t interest me. Or those that bore me. To pay attention has two meanings, doesn’t it? Pay attention as in, focus. And pay attention as in, pay no attention to the haters. The latter’s not always easy, haters can be cruel. And they tend to make themselves known before you get a chance to find the supporters. What I excel at, though, is not paying any attention to people who are desperate for attention. And paying attention to things no one notices or cares about.

Focus!

Okay, so I focus. Or try to. Until my mind starts to wander. The places I wander to are rich and colourful, real and imagined. They are past and they are future. What happened and will happen and what could have happened. Scenarios I could write down, if only I could focus.

In the past, I had team managers at work ask me with concern why I’m not performing as I should, but how do I tell them I just can’t focus? I’m a good worker, actually. Maybe that’s why they wanted to know, because they expected better. It took a lot of determination to beat that.

I should read more books. I come across a book I think I would like, add it to my To Read list and promptly forget about it. Audiobooks are good, of course. But with me you never know when I lose the focus, no matter how pleasant the narrator’s voice is. I’m a sucker for good voices.

I can’t do poetry, I read the first line of the poem and lose interest. Loreena McKennitt has a song titled The Lady of Shalott, where she sings the lines of the Tennyson poem to music. That is manageable, at least I can listen to the song. I known of this poem thanks to Anne of Green Gables. (We didn’t do Tennyson at school, I’m not from an English speaking country, we have our own poets.) Poor Anne almost drowned in the pond playing the role of Elaine when she and her friends turned the poem into a real life play. Agatha Christie used a line from the poem as a title for her book The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Both my favourite writers were fans of the same poem. I wonder if I could write a retelling where Elaine gets a happy endin—

Focus, stupid!

What was I saying? Oh yes, I like taking pictures. Photographs, you know. I have a camera, but I also use my smartphone. The camera lens is better than me, it can focus.

Focus. I give you bloody focus.

I’ve heard of focus groups, but I don’t know what it means. I google “what is a focus group”, but the results make my eyes glaze so I close the page.

Focus focus FOCUS!!!

I should visit Haworth again. The Bronte sisters place. And go look for the farmhouse that was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. I struggle with Wuthering Heights, like I struggle with a lot of classics. The long sentences kill me. By the time I get to end of the sentence, I forget the beginning. I admire all you classics enthusiast, I marvel at your ability to focus!

Stop lying. You have no problem focusing when you want to.

Yeah but you know, that’s hard to explain. I can spend hours tidying up the tags on my blogs, here and on Tumblr, or organising my photos into albums. I like tidying up and cleaning. Once I start.

You can’t get through a work meeting without doodling on a piece of paper but you had no problem watching the three-hour Avengers Endgame in the cinema.

Well yeah, that’s the point that I was at the cinema. And it was a highly anticipated film. And I prepared for it, mentally, before I went, because I knew it would be three hours long. Also it features many characters. Also work meetings are tedious. Also shut up.

I’ve never rewatched Avengers Endgame but if I did it at home, I’d probably take breaks. And I don’t binge-watch. I can’t do it. Unless it’s sitcoms, but I’m very picky with my sitcoms. A few months ago I watched about fifteen episodes of Golden Girls while I was cleaning my living room. I cannot explain.

Focus. Bloody focus.

Part of me feels actual sympathy with George RR Martin for never finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This is the first time I’ve admitted to it.

Seriously. I’m worried that I’ll never finish anything in my life. That’s why I stick to short stories. No epic fantasy from me. No, sirs.

Someone’s talking to me, but I’m not paying attention. I’m googling the population of London in late Victorian times.

The voice gets louder. It is a wise one, an ancient one. It says: “maybe you should get checked for ADHD.”


Written for the Weekly Prompts Weekend Challenge – Focus. I’m so pleased I got a chance to respond to the challenge in writing, first time I’ve done so. (I normally use photography.)

Bedtime Story Time

“And so the little brother and sister lived happily with their father in their little cottage.” Melina closed the book. 

Little Katie’s eyelids were already dropping. Melina straightened the blanket. “I hope you enjoyed the story,” she said.

“Yes,” said Katie. “You make it so much fun!”

Melina smiled. She got a real kick out of trying out different voices while reading the story. Sure, Hansel and Gretel was stupid and nonsensical, but hey, it was Katie’s own choice and she wouldn’t argue with a child over what story they wanted to hear. Let people enjoy things was her mantra.

Katie’s eyes opened wide. “Do witches really exist, Auntie?”

“Oh no!” Melina laughed. “Only in stories. You know, like dragons and mermaids and all that stuff.”

“Will you read me a story about mermaids next time?”

“Of course I will.”

The little girl’s eyelids dropped again and soon, she was asleep. Melina stood up, put the book back on the shelf and left Katie’s bedroom, switching the light off. She settled on the sofa in the living room and turned the TV on. Nothing of interest was on and Theresa didn’t subscribe to any streaming services, but Melina didn’t feel like watching anything anyway. She was thinking.

She was thinking of the stories she could tell little Katie. All the tales of yore, the true tales, not the Brothers Grimm mess. And then, there were other types of stories. Of deadbeat dads and alcoholic grandparents. Of struggling single mums, who couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt when they indulged in going out for only one night a year. For god’s sake, go out with your friends. I can look after Katie, I have nothing to do in the evenings

One day she would.

She hoped Theresa was having a good time.

She did. Theresa came home, her face shining. She was barefooted. “It’s been so long I’ve worn these,” she said, dangling her high heels in her hand. She hugged Melina. “Thank you so much.”

“Oh it’s a pleasure, you know.”

“Were there any problems?”

“Not at all, she ate her supper like a champ and then I read her a story.”

“You want anything to eat or drink?”

“No thanks, I’m good. I need to head home now.”

“Of course. You want me to get you a cab? You got an Uber?”

“No, no need for that.”

They said goodnight to each other and Melina left.

She walked down the street, then down the next street, until she reached the park gate. She entered.

The park was a deserted, quiet place at this hour. There were only a few street lights, helpless against the darkness. She kept on a steady pace towards the bushes. That was where she hid it.

It was the best spot, really. She always used this park when going to Theresa’s house.

She crouched and, from under the bushes, she retrieved the long thin object. It was a broom.

She perched on the broom, bounced on her feet and flew away.

A Little Fairy Mischief

Blythe yawned. She had long ceased to listen. Why did The Big Fairy Assembly always have to be so boring? Speech after speech, followed by another speech, every one of them tedious. The importance of the Fairy Order. The mishaps with the land of humans from the times before Fairy Order. It was the same every time. The story of how the first fairies—born eons ago from dew and mist—established the Fairy Order used to be interesting. But countless repetitions turned it into a snooze fest. Yes, Blythe understood. Following the Fairy Order was vital for every fairy. Following the Fairy Order was vital for the whole existence of the Fairyland. Without the Fairy Order there would be chaos and nobody wanted chaos in Fairyland. It would not do to have fairies wander about willy-nilly.

Fairies went to fairy school to learn the Fairy Order, and other useful knowledge. Once they passed the exams, they became of age and could get employment. They could be good luck fairies or bad luck fairies, casting good and bad fortunes in the land of humans. Or they could take up positions in the Fairyland.

Blythe understood it all.

She was but a young fairy, in her first year of fairy school. She had only glimpsed the land of humans twice. The first time through a magic window, the second time on a fairy school trip with her year, under the supervision of their wise matron. Under aged fairies weren’t permitted to enter the land of humans unaccompanied. Heavens know what mischief they’d get up to.

Blythe liked what she saw of the land of humans, but what fascinated her was the humans themselves. “They are so big!” she cried out. “And they have no wings! How do they get around?”

The wise matron patiently explained that humans developed for themselves inventions to help them get from place to place. Coaches driven by horses and donkeys, then trains and cars, ships to sail the waters and aeroplanes to fly the skies, later even spaceships. “Humans operate on a different space-time continuum,” the wise matron added. Blythe had no idea what a space-time continuum was, but she thought humans must have been very clever to come up with all those inventions.

She wished she could see the land of humans again. But the next outing wasn’t to take place for some time, and for now she had to sit through the dullness of the Big Fairy Assembly.

“Hey, Blythe!” A whisper came from somewhere on her left. It was Lori from her year, Blythe’s dearest sister fairy. “Do you want to come with me to the rainbow meadow?”

“But we can’t,” Blythe whispered back.

“I know how we can sneak out.”

Lori was true to her word. During the shuffle between different speakers, the two young fairies slipped out. They made their way to the rainbow meadow, their favourite spot, where flowers of all the colours of the rainbow grew, arranged in a colour spectrum. They played and frolicked between the flowers.

Soon, they were arguing.

Young fairies argue. Much like human children, they fall out one day and make up the next. One wants to play hide and seek, the other one wants a dance-off, you know how it goes. Lori, who was prone to sulking, turned her back on Blythe. In a dramatic fashion she stuck her little fairy nose up and flew to hide among the lilacs.

“Do what you please!” Blythe called after her. Who needed Lori anyway? Blythe could well amuse herself. Landing on a head of a daisy, she stood with one foot on tiptoe and did a pirouette.

That was when she saw it.

To be sure, the magic window to the land of humans had no business being open. Not without a guarding fairy to watch over it, at least. But even in a world as rigid as Fairyland, mistakes can still happen. Perhaps the guarding fairy on duty was rushing to the Assembly and forgot to close it. What did it matter to Blythe? An open window to the land of humans it was, and Blythe passed straight through it.

It was a warm night in the land of humans. Had this been a fairy school trip, the wise matron would have informed her pupils of the time and the place, but of course, it was not school trip, the wise matron was not here and Blythe couldn’t have known where and when she was. Only that it was a summer. She saw rows of human houses, and roads, and cars outside human houses. Some houses had lights in the windows, but majority of them were in the dark. Blythe descended to look through a window of one house. The window was ajar. Suppose she took a peek inside—only a little peek?

She did.

The room was quiet. Next to the wall opposite the window was a piece of furniture she knew from her lessons was a baby cot, and a human baby was in it. She landed on the side of the cot.

The human baby was asleep. How peaceful he looked! For Blythe had had by now enough of a fairy instinct to know it was a boy. Blythe bounced off the cot’s side and flew close to his face. She wondered what the baby’s eyes were like. If only he would open them for a few short seconds. What would happen if he woke up? Would he cry? The wise matron said human babies always cried. She didn’t want him to cry. What if she woke him up very gently, as not to scare him? She stretched her arms and touched his cheeks with her hands. “Hello, little human baby,” she whispered. With her index fingers, she gave the baby’s cheeks a little poke.

The human baby boy stirred but did not wake up. Blythe withdrew her hands from his face. She had to try something different. Maybe tickle him a bit? The wise matron said that humans laughed when you tickled them. Yes, she would do that. She landed on the baby’s belly.

She froze. There was a noise in the quiet house!

It was in truth nothing more than a rustle—one of the human family turning over in their bed, probably—but it was enough to frighten Blythe like nothing else had in her short fairy life. They got her! They would take her away and put her in fairy jail and she would never be able to graduate the fairy school!

She spread her wings and escaped out of the window back into the night.

Only when she reached the magic window did she realise nobody was chasing her. But her clandestine outing to the land of humans was over. She returned to Fairyland like a good little fairy.

“Blythe!” Lori’s voice called to her. “Oh Blythe, how I was afraid that you were angry and abandoned me!”

Blythe embraced her sister fairy. “Of course I haven’t, you are my best friend, Lori!” they held hands and fly-danced in a circle.

“Lori, we should go back to the Assembly,” Blythe said, her conscience troubling her.

Lori’s smile faded. “Yes, we should. Let’s go then.”

And so the two young mischievous fairies snuck back into the Assembly. Speeches were still going on and nobody seemed to have noticed their absence. How lucky I’ve been, Blythe thought. She thought of the little human baby boy asleep in his baby cot. No harm would come to him, unless she became a bad luck fairy. But being a bad luck fairy was never Blythe’s ambition.

From that moment on, she resolved to be a good little fairy who followed the Fairy Order to the dot. And she did. In time, she graduated the fairy school with flying colours and has, since then, cast many a good fortune in the land of humans.

Meanwhile, in the house in the land of humans, on the morning after Blythe’s nocturnal visit, the little baby boy awakened. His mother approached the cot. “Good morning.”

At the sight of his mum, the baby boy waved his little baby fists. “You had a good sleep, little darling?” As she lifted him out of the cot, his little legs were kicking.

She could only wonder what made him such a happy baby that morning!

*

From time to time, she indulged in a little human watching after finishing her work. This was allowed—she was by now an experienced fairy, and an efficient one. Though opportunities were scarce. Fairyland was as busy as ever, and in addition to her good luck fairy duties, she also helped out Lori at the fairy school.

She never forgot the little sleeping baby boy from that summer night. Thirty five years had passed in the land of humans. The little boy had grown into a handsome man and had become an actor.

She slipped into a room where two friends were watching a film in which he starred.

“Oh my god, look at that smile,” said one.

“Can you believe those dimples?” said the other.

Blythe smiled.

Yes, she could believe those dimples.

Patient

They start leaving, in twos and threes at first, then in larger groups, every day, later even twice a day, until there is only a few hundred of you left. Compared to the previous population of a million—yours was a big compound—it is a mere handful.

You don’t mind. In fact, you volunteered to stay behind. I can remain here and take care of things, you told them. An obligatory “are you sure”, followed by your subsequent confirmation, and your fate is sealed.

And so you watch them go. The rollout is successful.

You like the quiet and the solitude, you’ve always worked better on your own. And you don’t miss out on anything. The newsfeed is pretty efficient and you can still access the stuff you like, albeit on a smaller screen. You work and rest, work and rest. And wait. You are patient.

The food gets blander, as the best chefs are gone. The compound gets quieter and quieter with each coming day. Majority of the people you care about have left. You don’t remember when you last saw the ones that went first, the ones in the high risk category. One dull afternoon, your last friend leaves. Any contact you have with anyone is now only virtual.

You discover the sound of silence. Not the silence of a summer day in a meadow, how it would have been, on the outside world, all those years ago. Not the silence of a cosy room on a winter night either. It is a silence of nothing.

The silence of nothing fills your life. Sure, you can play music and watch films, but it’s still there, waiting for you, a pause button away. You don’t attempt to make friends with the ones who are still here. They seem like people of no substance to you. Perhaps they are. Nothing is of any substance in this place. Everything is grey here. Not even different shades of grey. Just—grey.

Will you go insane?

Nobody is this patient.

Well, you are. Patience is a virtue, they say. Shame they never specified what exactly you were supposed to do with that virtue.

At last, you are called in.

It’s not long after five o’clock in the afternoon when you enter the small room. The nurse looks worn out, but her eyes are hopeful. “We’re almost through,” she says.

“It’s been miserable, hasn’t it?” you finally admit.

She agrees.

You roll up your sleeve.

You receive the vaccine and return to your room. It doesn’t take you long to pack. You’ve been ready for a while.

When you leave the compound, the sun is shining, almost blinding you. Real sunshine! Not on a screen, or filtered through the glass dome, but real. With a real sky. You bath yourself in it. And then they come, your nearest and dearest, they’re here, they’ve been waiting for you. They envelope you in a hug. Real humans, with real limbs, the warmth of their bodies. They take your bags, accompany you to your temporary quarters. The city is bright and full of life. And colourful, oh so colourful. Green and red and purple and yellow. And it’s loud. Everything is open. Tomorrow you’ll hit the shops.

For tonight, there is a different plan.

They take you to the best restaurant in town. The food is divine; you don’t think you’ve ever tasted anything as divine as this. But there is still something on your mind, and when the dessert is served, you voice it out loud.

“What if there’s another one?”

“Another what?”

“Another virus. What if—what if it’s worse than the last one?”

“Well, there’s bound to be another one again,” says your most rational and scientifically minded friend. “But when it comes to that, we’ll deal with it. We’ve dealt with this one.”

“Let’s enjoy what we have now,” says another friend. So you do.

After dinner—the cinema.

Because it’s finally here.

Countless delays later, it’s finally here. The hottest, the most anticipated film of the decade. The first two days of screening are sold out, but have no fear—your friends have secured the tickets in advance.

How lucky are you, coming out on the day the movie opens!

Crowds flood into the cinema complex. You settle in your seats (and good seats they are), patiently sit through the adverts. The lights go out. The big screen lights up with the logo of the movie franchise. It’s the popcorniest of all popcorn franchises, hell yeah! Excitement rises in you. This is it.

The friend sitting on your left, the one who was the last to leave the compound, leans close to you and says: “We’re back, baby!”

The film starts.

You love it.