We peer out at the blank, barren landscape. Having landed, we’re not sure where we are. Or for that matter, ‘when’ we are. That’s the problem if you borrow the Professor’s Special Space Machine without asking.
But she’d shown it to us, tempted us. That’s the problem with having someone like the Professor coaching you for entry to the Space Academy.
But hold on, who’s that up ahead? Look, she’s waving.
We hurry forward into the bleak barrenness, but before we reach her, there is an ear-splitting sound. Everything goes black.
Later, when we come round, we are strapped into hard, upright seats facing a large spherical console. The Professor is standing opposite us.
We start to speak, but she holds up her hand for silence. “I’m sorry. I know you wanted to join the Space Academy, but I’m afraid the Great Zyborgatron has other plans.” She smiles weakly. “He did grant me one last request, however.”
Plates of burgers and chips materialize before us. We look at her; what did she say?
“Well go on,” she urges, indicating the food.
We eat. We devour the lot. It’s the best burger and chips we’ve ever had.
Sunlight wakes Albertina early and for a moment she can’t think where she is. Shaking off a bad dream, she smells salt and ozone on the air, and hears gulls keening. She sighs with relief; she’s not in the Location.
Albertina is staying in a little bolt-hole behind the old fish factory. The factory is clearly disused, but there’s a little shed with an unlocked door and an outside tap on the corner of one of the main buildings which still works.
After just two days in the little town by the sea Albertina’s running out of money; she needs to find a job. A proper place to stay would be nice, but the job’s more important just now.
Albertina washes at the tap; she doesn’t mind the cold water. In fact, she prefers it. She puts on a long purple skirt, a frilly white blouse and a little fringed jacket that someone gave her a few months ago. She takes out her little handbag mirror and rummages in her bag for make-up. She applies turquoise eye shadow and a thick smear of bright red lipstick, before donning her second best wig. She’s nowhere to admire the overall effect, but she’ll take a look in the first shop window she passes.
Next she takes out her big blue handbag with the shiny gold buckle and thrusts her most important possessions into its capacious depths. She stows the two holdalls which contain the remainder of her worldly goods under a pile of old pallets.
Ready for action, Albertina trots towards the main road where there are several shops, a hotel and the place where she’d really like to work; a hair salon. She’s worked in one before; she’d only been sweeping up, folding towels and tiding, but she loved the buzz of conversation, the music, bright lights and shiny mirrors. But after a few months they’d let her go, they never explained why. Albertina shrugs off that part of the memory and quickens her step.
She sees a group of shabby-looking people lounging against walls and staring empty-eyed at nothing much. Like everywhere in the country, unemployment is high, and hope is hard to come by. But Albertina is dressed in her best and can hold her head high. Confidence is her greatest asset today.
Albertina crosses the road to the salon, straightening her back and adjusting the handbag on her shoulder. She reaches for the door handle, then notices the sign. ‘Hair Affair’ doesn’t open for another half hour. She frowns and peers inside; there’s no sign of life. She turns on her heel and wanders along the row of shops. They’re all open, but she wants to start with the salon; it wouldn’t do to find another job before she’s even asked in there.
Her bright pink pumps take her down to the harbour. She’s still fascinated by the prettily painted boats and the way the sun sparkles on the blue water of the ocean beyond. An older man, sitting on a white plastic chair stroking the head of a scruffy little dog, looks up and nods a greeting to her. She smiles shyly and hurries on. It’s not the kind of attention she wants.
She skirts the harbour edge and after a few minutes finds herself by ‘Useful Things’, the shop where she bought her new oil lamp only the day before. A commotion at the front of the little house opposite catches her attention. The two little old aunties are marching up and down their stoep, noisily pulling the chairs from under the table, bending over and searching the floor. They both straighten up, as far as they can, one holds up her in the air, the other plants her hands on her hips and shakes her head.
She walks over and stands looking at them, her head on one side and a smile on her bright red lips.
‘Come,’ Auntie Rose beckons her onto the stoep. ‘She can help us look, can’t she, Auntie Grace?’
Auntie Grace nods and hurries over to open the little gate for Albertina. She takes hold of Albertina’s sleeve. ‘Come,’ she tugs at the sleeve, propelling Albertina towards the table. ‘Put your bag down here and help us look.’
‘She doesn’t know what we’re looking for,’ says Auntie Rose.
‘I was coming to that.’
Auntie Rose rolls her eyes and squints up at Albertina. ‘She’s lost her glasses,’ she points to her sister, ‘and I’ve lost my teeth,’ she explains gurning at Albertina. ‘My false teeth,’ she adds, in case Albertina misunderstands.
Albertina places her bag on the table and looks from one little auntie to the other. Immediately she notices the pair of glasses perched on Grace’s head. She points to her own head. Auntie Grace reaches up with one hand, pulls her glasses off her tightly cropped grey hair and holds them out to her sister, her eyebrows raised.
It’s Auntie Rose’s turn to put her hands on her hips. ‘I wasn’t looking there,’ she said indignantly. ‘You said they must have fallen on the floor, and anyway,’ she continued, ‘that’s where I was looking for my teeth.’
Albertina bends down to look under the table. As she does so, she notices a crescent-shaped bulge halfway down Auntie Rose’s rather tightly stretched pants’ leg. She stands up and points at the bulge. Auntie Rose looks down. Her hand goes to her thigh feeling the trapped object. She starts to giggle. She sits on the nearest chair and eases the object down past her knee. Still giggling she scoops the object up as it drops out of her pants leg and brandishes a set of teeth aloft. Both aunties burst into peals of laughter; such is their merriment that Albertina joins in too, her eyes darting about the stoep.
As the laughter dies down, Albertina seizes the brush which is leaning by the wall and starts to sweep the stoep. Albertina is a demon sweeper. The aunties watch as she whisks up the dust and crumbs and bits of fabric and thread which have accumulated under the table. She makes a neat pile and looks around. She grabs the little shovel that stands in the corner and deftly sweeps the pile onto it. She spies the dirt bin the other side of the wall and swiftly deposits the rubbish inside, before replacing the brush and shovel. She goes to pick up her bag, but Auntie Grace puts her hand on hers and points towards a chair. ‘Sit a moment.’
The sisters look at each other and something unspoken passes between them.
‘We could do with some help,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘We can’t pay a lot mind. There’s not so much to do but, you know, some of the heavier work…’
Albertina smiles, she could help the two funny little aunties and still try for a job in the salon, she thinks.
‘Where do you stay?’ asks Auntie Rose.
Albertina gestures vaguely at the road behind them.
The two aunties nod at each other and stand up. ‘Come and see,’ Auntie Grace says to Albertina as she heads into the house. Albertina picks up her handbag and follows her through the little kitchen to the back yard. Auntie Rose follows, her left leg swings awkwardly as she walks.
Out in the yard is a little Wendy house. Auntie Grace pulls the door open. ‘It needs a good clean but would you like to…’
Albertina throws her arms around Auntie Grace, who totters, slightly off balance. Auntie Grace laughs, disentangling herself.
‘There’s a little bathroom too,’ says Auntie Rose, pointing to a small lean-to next to the kitchen. ‘It only has cold water though…’
‘Albertina only washes in cold water,’ she says proudly.
Johannes was sitting in his usual seat by the edge of the harbour. He reached out to pet a scruffy little dog as it trotted up to him. The little dog didn’t seem to have an owner or a home, but all the same it seemed to do all right. The dog sat down in front of Johannes and raised one paw, looking up at him. Johannes smiled, reaching into his pockets and turning them inside out to reveal nothing but holes. “Sorry for you, my little brother,” he said to the dog. “I have nothing for you today.” The dog put its head on one side, continuing to look up at Johannes, then it stood up, shook itself, and gave a little bark before trotting away. Johannes watched the little dog’s progress, snuffling here and there along the edge of the harbour buildings.
A door opened to reveal a slim, grey-haired man in a red shirt. Andreas nodded in Johannes’s direction and raised a hand in greeting before turning his attention to the little dog. Andreas muttered something, then disappeared back inside the building. The little dog sat patiently by the open door until Andreas returned with a small plate of scraps which he set down on the ground; he gave the little dog’s head an affectionate rub as it bent to devour the food.
Johannes chuckled to himself and returned his gaze to the waterfront. The fishing boats had already returned to sea, but there was a big old cargo boat which was still undergoing repairs in the dry dock. The sound of drilling and hammering rattled around the buildings.
Just as Johannes was wondering what had happened to his young friend Sam for the second morning running, he heard the unmistakable putt-putt sound of Porcupine’s engine as Sam’s little fishing boat rounded the harbour wall. He rose from his seat and strolled over to meet the little boat. Porcupine slowed, then gently nudged the harbour wall. Sam cut the engine and threw the stern rope to Johannes who slipped it through the mooring ring before tossing it back to him. Sam jumped onto the quayside holding the other rope which he quickly tied off.
Johannes noticed the troubled look on Sam’s face. “What’s the matter with you, Sam?”
Sam raised his eyebrows and gestured for Johannes to follow him back onto Porcupine. Once on board, Sam opened the door to the little cabin. “Come,” he said flapping his hand over his shoulder to his friend. The two men crowded inside the tiny room. Sam shut the cabin door and crouched down to pull a large plastic bucket from under his narrow bunk-bed. He took the edge of the old blanket which was covering the bucket and pulled it back theatrically, revealing what was inside.
Johannes’s brown eyes widened and his mouth formed a big round ‘O’. After a moment’s silence, he let out a long, low whistle. “What have we here?” He squatted down in front of the bucket. “A pot of gold,” he said, admiring the mountain of gold coins which glowed in the dim light of the cabin. He reached out to take one. Sam grabbed his hand, snatching it away from the bucket and almost knocking Johannes over. Johannes stared up at him. “Wha…”
“Careful!” Sam held his right hand out to Johannes. “Look.” Johannes saw the imprint of a coin which marked Sam’s thumb and first two fingers like an angry burn. Gingerly Johannes reached towards the edge of one of the coins touching it lightly with his forefinger. As soon as he made contact with the coin, he jumped up, pulling his hand away. A blister was already beginning to form on his calloused digit.
Sam put his head on one side. “It’s a fortune, but you can’t touch it with your bare hands.” He shook his head and reached up to the shelf above his bunk, taking down a folded rag. He laid it on the blanket and opened carefully, revealing one of the coins. “So what can we do, my friend? I’ll gladly share all of this with you, if we can find a way to spend the treasure you can’t touch.”
Johannes leant on the cabin wall and rubbed his chin. “There must be a way, my brother.” He stared down at the coins. “But where did you find all of this? It didn’t just appear in your fishing bucket did it?”
“Would you believe me if I said it did?”
Johannes shrugged. “I didn’t believe something I saw with my very own eyes yesterday morning,” he said. “I tell you Sam, there are some strange things happening in this town, and no mistake.” He put his hands on his hips. “We’ll find a way, Sam.” He nodded slowly. “Yes, we’ll find a way.”
Johannes stretched out his legs and breathed in the warm sea air which mingled with the smell of freshly-landed fish and diesel. He smiled to himself. This is the life, he thought, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It had been a stroke of luck that Robert, his brother, who had landed a two month contract working up-country, had asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lived alone now that his family had grown up and moved to Cape Town, and he didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People were for the most part honest, but with such high unemployment and poverty, no-one’s property was safe for long.
Johannes had his own problems back home. Much as he loved his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces who were constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change. He’d even gone to the extent of switching his cell phone off.
He cast his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Johannes liked to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there was no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’d gone further up the coast for a while. There were other harbours on the West Coast where Sam might turn a better profit for his catch.
Johannes chuckled to himself and closed his eyes, remembering the past. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Johannes recalled standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…
Shouts and running feet jolted Johannes back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushed past Johannes towards the southern end of the harbour where a small group of people had gathered. Johannes stood up and shook himself, then hurried after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what had caught their interest.
A tall, slender woman in long skirts was standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms were held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales were breaking the surface of the waves before her. She lifted her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose which reminded Johannes of the statue of he’d so admired long ago in Rio de Janeiro.
The woman opened her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonated across the ocean. Suddenly the whales took to the air; wave upon wave of them. Johannes blinked and shook his head. What was going on? The woman’s song grew louder. The whales were flying! Johannes pinched himself.
The sky darkened, filled with the huge creatures. Then the song stopped.
A close up of the woman’s face appeared before Johannes’s eyes. She smiled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d seen one before when his ship had been in far northern waters. Johannes felt the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.
Her face disappeared and back on the headland he watched her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flapped once above the waves, and then she was gone.
Johannes looked around. He was alone on the harbour wall. Behind him, people were going about their business as usual. He sat down and rubbed his eyes. The headland was deserted. Far out in the ocean he saw a solitary whale breaching.
This little story was inspired partly by many conversations I’ve had over the years with my friend Johannes, and partly by the photo of the artwork above posted earlier this week byJason H Abbott, the Aetheral Engineer. It also linksanother storyof mine from a couple of weeks ago. I hope you enjoy!
Sam cast off from the jetty in his little fishing boat, Porcupine. The last orange and gold sunset slivers disappeared behind the blue-grey hills on the far horizon as his pushed the throttle forward and eased little Porcupine out into the broad Breede river.
Gulls wheeled noisily overhead, their keening cries eerie in the twilight. The twin lighthouses blinked on either side of the bay. Sam pushed the throttle forward another notch against the growing sea swell. He ran his work-roughened hands around the little boat’s steering wheel and set his course along the coast, inhaling the sharp sea air.
Sam had grown up in Manenberg on the Cape Flats. Life had been hard there; it still was. But he’d escaped. He’d had to. On the run from members of an opposing gang, he’d got on the road and hitched up the West Coast. He’d slept rough; got work, casual stuff; then things started to look up. He’d found a broken-down little boat one day when he was exploring the shoreline for salvage. Slowly he’d fixed it up with the help of a retired engineer called Johannes, who spent his days giving advice and watching the activity in Laaiplek harbour.
Sam and Porcupine made a great team. He’d brought the little boat back to life and now she gave him safe shelter and a means to make a living from the bounty of the ocean. Tonight he was fishing for octopus, which is best done at night with a lamp and a little can of vegetable oil to make a window in the waves. He rounded the coast to his favourite cove and dropped anchor.
Night came quickly, and within half an hour Sam had two good-sized octopuses in his bucket. He shifted a little on the makeshift perch of his old sleeping blanket, propping his back against the wheelhouse. Sam had been busy helping out in the harbour all day and he was tired. Lulled by the bobbing boat, he slipped away into a glorious slumber.
Sam was startled by the sound of voices. Someone was on the boat.
‘Concentrate,’ said the first.
‘I am concentrating,’ said the second.
Sam held up the lamp. ‘Who’s there?’ He turned around sharply. He walked around the deck, peering out into the inky ocean. He heard them again.
‘Over he-re,’ the voice said in a sing-song voice.
‘Over he-re,’ joined in the second voice in a deeper tone.
Sam spun around. Where were the voices coming from?
‘Coo-e,” the first voice called out.
Suddenly a jet of water spurted out of the bucket wetting Sam’s feet. A tentacle waved at him. ‘Coo-e.’ It waved again.
Sam crouched down by the bucket. The two octopus heads bobbed up, their eyes fastened upon his. ‘What the…?’ Each of them winked at him. ‘No!” Sam stood up and took a step backwards. More tentacles appeared, waving at him. Sam shook his head.
‘Let us go!’
‘Please, mister fisherman!’
Sam approached the bucket again. He squatted down. ‘No man. Fish don’t talk.’
‘We’re not fish,’ said the first voice indignantly.
Sam rubbed his eyes; he pinched himself.
‘You’re not dreaming, you know.’ A tentacle extended towards Sam’s arm and prodded him gently.
‘Tip us out and let us go,’ sang the first voice.
‘And lots of treasure you will know,’ sang the second.
Very slowly Sam picked up the bucket and stepped over to the side of the boat. As the two octopuses slid into the sea, a huge wave broke over the boat, knocking Sam flat on the deck. The bucket landed next to him with a clatter. Porcupine bobbed about like a cork, and suddenly dozens of octopuses appeared above the waves. As Sam tried to find his feet, a vast tentacle reached onto the deck and grabbed the bucket, swiping Sam across the head and knocking him out cold.
When Sam awoke the sun was shining. His head ached. Gingerly he felt the back of his skull. He’d obviously had a nasty knock, but what had happened? He sat up slowly, trying to remember. He’d heard voices; someone on the boat? Sam’s brow furrowed. Something glinting in the sunlight caught his eye.
His fishing bucket was full of shiny objects. He reached out and dragged it over towards him. The bucket was brimming over with gold coins like a hoard of pirate treasure.
We’d heard rumours of strange reptilian creatures stalking the lands beyond our borders. We’d not paid much attention. Similarly, we’d dismissed the reports which were sent back from the Palace Guard’s intelligence team who patrolled the perimeter of our kingdom. Men, far away from home are prone to flights of fancy and over-exaggeration. However, when the creatures did appear they were quite beyond imagination.
One spring morning they came, floating down from the fluffy white clouds under little canopies of sky-blue silk. We watched from our roof tops and our high city walls as they landed, then marched upon us, fanning out around the entire circumference of the city. We’d closed the heavy outer gates, pulled up the drawbridge and manned the battlements. But it was not enough. They were too large, too strong, too determined. And there were so many of them.
Our archers fired on them, but the arrows bounced off their patterned breast plates and scaly bodies. Within the hour they had peeled back our gates and smashed down our ramparts with their huge taloned paws. Our swords and spears were no match for them either. Once they had entered the city, they unslung their weapons and fired beams of sound and light which turned men to dust.
People scattered before them. Those who were too old or too slow were scooped up in their great scaly arms and flung aside with a force that snapped necks and broke bones. One of the creatures pulled a bleating goat from its tether and bit the poor animal’s head off. Then it split the body in two and tossed each half to its comrades who marched on either side.
What was left of the Palace Guard formed a ring around the entrance to the Sanctum where our queen and her council were gathered. The creatures filled the main square; row upon row of them. They stood in their ranks, facing our guards. Silence fell, punctuated only by the groans of the injured and the laments of the bereaved.
Then one of the creatures stepped forward; the symbols on its breastplate finer and more intricate than the rest. It advanced up the steps to face the Commander of the Palace Guard. Bringing a huge, scaly paw down on the Commander’s left shoulder it leant forward, forked tongue flickering.
At that moment, there was a strange roaring noise and suddenly, out of thin air a mysterious object appeared. A huge, great storage vessel, rather like the ones we use to store oil or wine, but much larger and made of a dull, grey metal. A door in the side of the object slid open and a tall, willowy figure dressed in a flowing silver gown appeared. The creatures in the square turned towards her, low whistling sounds emanating from their nostrils. They cowed their heads. She raised a shiny black staff and pointed it at their leader. She spoke and although her words were incomprehensible to us, we knew they were full of power. The lizard leader muttered something. She said a single, potent word and it vanished in a puff of smoke. Then she turned her shiny black staff on the massed ranks of creatures. Pop, pop, pop. They all disappeared. Then without a word, she returned to the vessel and the door closed behind her. The roaring noise sounded and the vessel was gone.
The old man finished his story and stared into the distance. Someone asked him a question.
“True? You ask me if my story’s true? Evidence?” He paused. “Well, if you look carefully there are some scorch marks near the entrance to the Sanctum.” The old man held up his finger. “And, I believe, fine sky-blue silk underwear is still worn here by women of a certain age.”
‘No more rides,’ said Humphrey the Unicorn, ‘especially not for that fat fairy.’ He was talking to himself, deep in the enchanted forest. His back ached and his horn was sore where the young fairies, pixies and elves had been touching it for luck. Much will that do them, he thought.
Humphrey sighed, ‘a noble beast like me, scratching a living as a side-show attraction at Friday’s Fantastical Fair. He wandered over to a patch of four-leaved clover and started munching.
‘Hey, Unicorn!’ said a voice. Humphrey looked up to see a strange little man leaning against a tree with a notebook in his hand and a pencil behind his ear.
‘Your good at story-telling aren’t you?’ the little man said.
Humphrey nodded. He’d always been fond of telling stories, but the magical kids of today weren’t interested.
‘And you’re looking for a new career?’
Humphrey nodded again.
‘Okay, here’s the thing,’ the little man pulled the pencil from behind his ear and waved it with a flourish. ‘I’ll pay you double what you get from the Friday Fantastical Fair, if every week, without fail, you provide me with a 250 word story for my Friday Flash Fiction spot.’
Humphrey jumped at the chance. He and The Writer, for that was who the strange little man was, made a pact for life. But one year later, when Humphrey couldn’t squeeze his brain for even one more story, he found to his cost that he’d made a pact with the devil.
Inspired byThe Haunted Wordsmith’s Three Things Challenge– fairy, unicorn, devil These little prompts are coming to an end, but with Halloween approaching Teresa promises us new inspiration for tales of ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties.
Sounds like fun!