All stories copyright xoggoth unless otherwise stated

 

An essay for Miss

What do dreams mean? The question has been asked countless times and forests of paper have been filled with attempted answers. Pointless. Itís a question for cranks, kids and love-struck teenagers. My interest in dreams was wholly more practical. Dreams were threatening my sanity and I had to find a solution.

I had had these dreams on and off for as long as I remember. There was always something terribly important I had to do but I was completely unable to do it. The details varied but the basic task set me was always something borrowed from the mundane waking world. I had an important exam in the morning and passing it would determine my entire future success but I did not even know what the subject was and could not find my course books anywhere. I had to make a presentation to a client in Zurich at 3 PM and the survival of the company I worked for depended on getting the contract but it was gone noon and I was still at home packing a suitcase that, no matter what I put in it, remained obstinately empty. I was competing in a race I had to win but was still sitting by a swimming pool drinking when I heard the starting pistol. Whatever the task set me, I always knew that the consequences of my inevitable failure would be dire.

Dreams like that are pretty common I believe and I had never given them a second thought. Then suddenly they began to come more frequently and the nature of them to change. The context did not alter and the Promethean tasks set me remained as commonplace as ever but the imagined penalty for failure in each doomed night time task no longer ended with each waking to be created again each night. Rather the perceived doom carried over to the next night, to be compounded, worse, to grow and multiply with that nightís. I had no grasp of what exactly this doom might be, but I knew that the punishment for my failures was growing to something incalculably beyond a mere damaged career. In my dreams, the immensity of the vengeance that would be visited on me seemed to grow to infinity. Yet though already infinite, every night it would grow larger with my latest failure.

With this escalation of terror it seemed that my sleeping state was no longer able to fully contain it. I started to wake in a panic and some of the horrors of my failure came into the waking world with me. Initially these feelings would remain with me for only minutes before the sunlight through the window and all the other tangibles of the real world chased them away. But soon I was never free of them. The dreams came almost every night and the fear stayed with me all day. I had not been to work for almost two weeks, pleading flu. It was hard to think straight. What should I do? Should I accept the fact that I had had some sort of breakdown and seek help? I was deterred by the fact that my job in defence was the sort where any hint of "mental trouble" could seriously jeopardise my future. Already the dreams were threatening to drag their failures into my waking world.

Then came that day when a ray of hope penetrated my tired and confused state. Had some way out been presented to me? Did it really mean anything at all? As I said at the beginning, do any dreams mean anything? Yet, like the fear of my terrible fate, this chance seemed real. In all my other dreams, in that interval of half sleep before full waking, it has seemed as though my waking self had watched the bumbling incompetence of my dream self, powerless to help. The dream me was an absurdity! It was always outraged at the cruel hand fate has played it, yet every failure was down to gross thoughtlessness. Who leaves revision for an important exam to the night before or starts packing just hours before an important meeting in Switzerland? If only I could intervene to stop the rush towards my doom, to halt it with a success but there was nothing the more competent and organised waking me could do to help. I could hardly revise for a non-existent exam, travel to meet an imaginary client or compete in a dream race.

Yet maybe this time I could help. There was a small difference in my dream that night. I was back in school, perched absurdly at a tiny school desk in an empty classroom, even though I did not seem to be a child. I knew the teacher was there in front of me but she was not visible, there was only the blackboard which, in that surreal style dreams often have, looked like an empty aquarium. Neither did I hear her voice but I knew that she was demanding something of me and as always it was a mundane demand and one that in my normal waking state I could readily deliver. I had to provide an essay, the title, "What I most love apart from myself" Teacherís final sentence was a shout. "You must hand it in to me tomorrow!" I woke up with a start.

I had my task and I knew that, like the others, it was a task I had to complete if the juggernaut of doom was not to continue. Unlike the other tasks, it was one that my dreaming self had not already failed in and it was one my waking self could help with. Could it help or would my ludicrous sleeping self lose or forget the essay? Oddly, it was my confused and fearful mental state that told me I had a chance; just as my dreams were spilling into my days, so too were my waking thoughts and hopes spilling into my dreams, my dream self was even aware of my scorn. If I wrote this essay I felt I could carry the contents with me on the following night, maybe for once I would not fail and could stay or even halt the escalating deluge of catastrophe.

Somehow, although no stipulations were voiced, I knew that honesty was an essential, when one is dealing with oneís own psyche there can be no secrets. "What I most love apart from myself" The only answer was Lorna. We had been together for three years and we shared everything. Except perhaps that breakdown, if that is what it is, that I was going through. That I did not fully share, in part because I could not understand it myself but mostly because I felt that to voice my fears would only make them more real. Even though I answered her questions with mute misery, she held me close and was there and it is perhaps that, more than any intellectual understanding or shared interests or common goals, that is the thing we all need most, that makes love what it is.

And so I wrote, although no writer. I told of the big things, our first meeting, the realisation of my feelings and our first lovemaking and I told of the small things, the time we missed the late train and got stranded in Eastbourne that was so much a part of bringing us together and the happiness of coming home to her from a long trip abroad, even though she had burnt the cottage pie. Later that night before bed I flicked through the essay although I remembered almost every word. It was just pile of paper but it was everything that mattered. I fell asleep weeping.

I knew it was a classroom, the same classroom 2b, although it seemed to be outdoors and I sat hunched and alone at an absurdly tiny desk in the middle of a plain. There was still what I knew to be a blackboard although it resembled a range of hills with towers upon it. The dream me and the waking me were both there in my shivering body, both of us too afraid to look down to see if we had the essay or to try and recollect the words the waking me had written lest there be nothing there. Some imposed change of perspective saved us from our cowardice although we did not move; the desktop was there in front of our faces. It had a pile of paper on it even though the paper looked like slices of meat and we knew what the writing contained even though there was none. The pile expanded, the pages spreading out and fanning across the landscape, becoming larger the further away they got until they filled the horizon. There were no words but we knew it had been accepted and approved.

When I awoke all my anxiety had lifted and curiously, although I could recall all that I had felt in the last few months, none of it seemed real, it was as though it was something I had read in a mildly interesting book. Was I cured or was this just a temporary relief? Strangely, I had no real anxiety about that at all. The following weeks went by and all was normal, I went back to work and picked up my social life again. "How do you feel now?" Lorna asked, snuggling up. Hmm? And for a brief moment I would think "What does she mean?" The way I thought then seems strange looking back on it. When you are young and live more of your life in the real world and less in your head, when there is so much more of the real world to live in, you do not stop to ask "Is this normal? Does it make sense?"

There was something else that only seemed strange in retrospect, when I looked at her after she asked the question I felt nothing. Everything I had felt for her, all the previous emotion and physical attraction had gone. She stayed with me for while, putting up with my complete indifference, my disinterest in the homely little tales I had previously found so endearing and the way I pushed her away when she got too close. I suppose she thought I was suffering from the aftermath of my breakdown and I would come out of it. Four months after my recovery I came home to find her gone as if she had never lived there.

There was no note, at least I donít think so; maybe it went to recycling along with the junk mail and other bits of paper one doesnít bother to look at. Later that year my oldest friend was hospitalised in a car accident and I never visited him. The once enjoyable weekly visits to my mother fell to twice a year, and that was only out of a vague sense of duty. That side of life was over for me but I did not miss it, I could not recall what it was I once had. I concentrated on my ambitions and threw myself into my work. So much a capable man can achieve without these pointless distractions and five years later my career was starting to be what I had dreamed of.

Then the dreams began again, about an important package that could not be delivered because my bicycle had no wheels, about standing on a rostrum in front of expectant thousands with no ideas about a speech in my head. The weeks of failures went by and just as before I stopped going to work. And as before there came those nights perched at a tiny desk, the essay set in a classroom that was a leisure centre in front of a blackboard that was a huge advertising hoarding, the essay accepted in a classroom that was desert fronted by a blackboard like a huge black cloud. "What I would like to be when I grow up"

As before the relief was immediate and as before, although I felt that I had lost nothing, all that I had previously thought to be most important to me had gone. I went back to work or rather I started turning up at the office again but I took no significant part in meetings and back at my desk did almost nothing. They were a decent company and, like Lorna, put up with it for a surprising number of months before they terminated my employment. I suppose they also suspected some depression that I might come out of despite my truthful assurances that I felt fine. And I did feel fine. All of this may sound like a personal disaster but it wasnít, not then, I was quite happy. I had no ambition and no need for love or close companionship but life was still pleasant. I used my savings to do some of the things I had always wanted to do, either alone or with the only friend I had left, a lonely sort for whom any company, even company of someone as cold to other humans as I was, was worth keeping. Art galleries, adventure holidays, extreme sports, travel in Europe, I even found time to take up painting again. I had the time and life was good.

I had absolute certainty in my head that the dreams would never recur, until, less than a year later, they did. Dreams of missed trains and deadlines, unopened letters, important news not passed on. This time the little desk was perched on an enormous glacier and then beneath the surface of a slimy canal, the blackboard was a dead lion then a huge clock. The topic was "What I like to do in my spare time."

I awoke with that same certainty of safety to a world that held nothing of interest. If that sounds like depression it wasnít, I was quite happy; I just had no interest in continuing. The razor was only a logical solution, a way out for someone who had no interest in eating or following the other pointless processes necessary to stay alive. The cutting was painful but the pain would be over soon enough.

Somewhere, in a classroom like an immense chessboard, in front of a blackboard like a mile high tree, on a school desk that was a million snail shells, an A+ awaited me.

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Looking for a will

"Is Will coming to see me today?"

Grace has only been there for ten minutes but it must have been the fifth time she had heard the question. She did not reply, just held her friendís hand a little tighter and stared down at the drab off-white blanket. She did not have any answer that would help. Assurances, excuses, the truth; they were all equally pointless. They were all met with the same incomprehension and would be followed in a few minutes by "Is Will coming to see me today?"

There had been no other Will in Wilhelminaís life for almost forty years, not since that day, shortly after her fiftieth birthday, that her great love William walked out on her for good and went off to live with his latest mistress. Grace did not get to know her until long after it happened and they were both elderly but she had heard the tales more than once. Wilhelmina had been a wealthy woman from a successful business in the fashion trade, William had been an idler. She had never said so in so many words but it seemed to her that Wilhelmina was better off without him.

The phone call came the next morning as she was getting ready for her visit. Wilhelmina was gone. Peacefully in her sleep, they said but she wondered how true that really was given her friendís agitation in recent weeks. At least she had had a good life judging from her accounts, spending her money on all the things she wanted to do. What fun the two of them had had together, even though they were both in their twilight years. She looked through the photos of their last Pacific cruise. There was Grace standing tall and thin with her rather masculine face in front of the plush opulence of one of the linerís bars. Just as well she had had no near relatives as she had probably spent most of the money she might have left them.

Wilhelmina still had her house and almost everyone has heirs even if they are not aware of them and a month after the funeral a lawyer contacted Grace. As Wilhelminaís only friend that they could discover, did she know if Wilhelmina might have made a will or could she otherwise help in tracing any relatives? She arranged to meet a Mr Mathews at Wilhelminaís house. Mr Mathews seemed a pleasant man but she regretted agreeing. In part because it upset her anew thinking about all the pleasant chats over a few whiskies that she and Wilhelmina had in that front room. In part it was because, now that she was being asked specific questions about Wilhelminaís life, she realised that there was so much she did not know about the woman she called her best friend. In the whole of that big house it was only that front room and the lavatory that she ever actually seen.

Mr Mathews had been in the tracking business a long time. Friends and relatives of the deceased could be much more useful than they first appeared to be and sometimes it just took something to jog their memory. A photo or a letter could sometimes bring back a recollection, a mention of a relative perhaps. They looked through several rooms which were musty and appeared unused and Graceís memory stayed firmly unjogged. What appeared to be Wilhelminaís bedroom also had little in the way of personal possessions and not for the first time Grace reflected how oddly unsentimental her friend had been.

She mentioned William to Mr Mathews but he confirmed what Grace had told her, there was no record of marriage. William Morrisey, wherever he was, had no claims on her estate. The last room they tried was at the back of the house. Here there were no photos or mementos, the skeletal remains on the bed, the knife still partially embedded in the ribs, made such things redundant.

The detective inspector interviewed her very gently but she could be of little more help to him than she had been to the solicitor. It was a fortnight later and Grace knew she had to accept the probability that her friend was a murderess. That in a fit of jealousy she had killed a lover and invented a story of his departure. And yet such a thing seemed so out of character, Wilhelmina had been a lively and fun-loving woman but scarcely an over passionate one.

The interview was over. The inspector leaned back and seemed to be casting around for words. Thereís something you need to know Mrs Baillis as it is all going to come out anyway. The report on the remains you saw in the houseÖ well the fact is, it was a woman. "What? "Why would Wilhelmina conceal a womanís body in her house for decades?" Before the inspector could reply, her memories, the recollections of odd references she had put down to her friendís quirky sense of humour, her lack of sentiment and her strangely masculine face provided an answer. An unsentimental woman might not kill out of passion but an unsentimental man might in order to live a life of ease. An unsentimental man prepared to go to a very long way, even sacrifice his own gender. After murder, what does deception matter?

She began "Then it was William?" and trailed off. The inspector knew what she meant. "We will have to wait for an exhumation and autopsy of course but our suspicion is that you went to his funeral the other week"

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Watchers

The Okapi swerved suddenly between two of the less experienced hunters and they nearly lost it when it dived into a cluster of Oak trees. It was Brian Who Stands Tall who saved the day again and cornered it before it could reach the dense pine forest beyond. The corpse was skinned and gutted in the centre of the gathering place and the haunches were parcelled out among the tribeís families according to their size and status. They put the rest in the Zanussi freezer.

It was a good kill and deserved to be celebrated with the sacred food ceremony of their tribe. Paracetomol, their high priest and senior director, wore an identical plastic loin cloth to the other huntsmen but donned the holy top hat as he ascended the metal rostrum. He turned and spread out his arms towards the closest place of The Watchers in the cliffs that surrounded their little valley and chanted the holy theme that had been passed down through generations "Youíll be a little lovelier each day with fabulous Pink Camay". None of the tribe knew exactly what Pink Camay was except that it had a deep spiritual meaning lost in the mists of time. Following their leader, they all opened their arms in a gesture of submission towards the blank windows of The Watchers.

The next day was a joyous one. Births were rare in their tiny valley of some 30 families but some seven months previously a young women had become pregnant. For several weeks the men of the village had been searching the forests in the valley to find the happy coupleís new home and just two days ago there had been a forbidding in a small part of it. In the usual way, nobody had been able to enter or see into this section of the forest and strange sounds has emanated from it. Now the forbidding had gone and most of the tribe escorted the couple to the new home that The Watchers had provided for them. It was of identical construction to that of every family, with an external mock mud coating over block walls and a moulded plastic roof with the external appearance of straw. It was clean and beautiful and the young couple were happy. The tribe opened their arms and gave thanks to The Watchers.

When they needed more shelter for young families, a house appeared. When they needed meat, although the pine forest was normally silent and devoid of any life, a creature would appear for them to hunt. Clean water poured from an aperture in the cliff at a constant rate that did not vary with the rain. Their crops flourished as if given nutrients and pesticides they did not have themselves. Areas of the valley would be claimed by the forbidding and when it lifted they would be restored to a landscaped beauty, free of any debris or mud.

When someone was sick or injured the forbidding would claim the patient and spirit them away and most would later walk from the forest cured with no recollection of what had happened. They knew nothing of death but there was the vanishing when a seriously sick or injured individual taken by the forbidding would not return. The forbidding took the old too but, until it was their time, it was an idyllic if unexciting life that they led in that valley cared for by The Watchers.

Once again it was the main topic of their discussions at that eveningís council meeting of the elders. What was happening to The Watchers? None of them had ever properly seen a Watcher but their presence had once been abundantly clear in the continual movements that were just discernable through the reflective surfaces of the windows that were evenly placed all around the cliffs that surrounded their valley. Of recent years though, far fewer of these movements could be seen. Were The Watchers deserting them? If so, who would provide for the tribe? As always, their discussions reached no conclusions.

The conclusions began to be drawn for them a few months later. There was a rock fall from the surrounding cliff that crushed a part of the forest and brought down with it one of the windows of The Watchers. The forbidding did not come and the broken window, dark and empty, looked down at a valley that became increasingly unkempt over the next few years. Their crops became smaller and the weeds grew more freely and only the increasing efforts by the tribe enabled them to continue feeding their numbers. The animals for the hunt came less frequently and it was during the hunt that the tribe first saw death when a youth fell and struck his head. After an hour they took him to the gathering place and waited for the complete recovery that was certain for those not taken by the forbidding. They could not understand what was happening to him over the next several days as he lay there in the hot sun for they had never seen that transformation. Human burial was discovered out of unpleasant necessity.

It was Hugh Who Finds Tracks who first muted the suggestion. He had second thoughts when the other elders all agreed that he was the man for the job but summoned all his courage and managed the 30 foot climb up the pine trunk to the broken open window of The Watchers. He found himself in a huge circular tunnel that, from the small segment he explored, appeared to circumscribe their whole valley. It was lit only by the windows of The Watchers. Looking down he could see the gathering place and the figures of his tribe staring up. Of The Watchers there was no sign. On the other side of the tunnel were doors with strange inscriptions but none would open.

He had walked almost to the other side of the valley when one such door was opened for him. The Watcher was huge and strange indeed, but curiously Hugh had no real fear, there was no menace in it and it seemed familiar, like a friend he has long forgotten but could not recall. He died instantly at the touch of the rod. The Watcher felt only regret. Many experts argued that the site was a historically inaccurate depiction of human life before the occupation but these humans were interesting animals and he had devoted much of his life to studying them. Ah well, you had to be practical. The reserve was no longer of much interest to the paying public and had ceased to be a commercial proposition some years ago. A good location made it far more valuable for housing the many settlers who were pouring into the Earth.

It could not be helped. The Watcher walked back into the control room and finalised the connections. Then he pressed the button. Down in the valley a faint mist began to emanate from the tiny vents and roll towards the last tribe of humans.

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Could do better

"Me and Linda are going down to see the two bs this weekend. Why donít you come with us? They are getting on you know. Do you really want all this hostility to be your last memory of them?" I knew I was wasting my time. I must have said the same thing a dozen times and my brother didnít even bother to reply, just raised his eyebrows at me over his pint and carried on drinking.

I had been at all of the family dos before that real dingdong when my brother stormed out and I couldnít honestly blame him. He was probably brighter than me but while I was getting stressed out in a well paid city IT job he worked in a garden centre and enjoyed doing it. Brian was one of lifeís drifters and he was happy but they wouldnít leave him alone, badgering him to get some qualifications, to look for a job more suited to his ability while there was still time. They embarrassed us all by nagging him at the family dinner table; perhaps they hoped for our support. He snapped on hearing "You could so much better for yourself" for the umpteenth time and flung his dinner plate at the wall. It wasnít until a lot later that it dawned on me just how deep his resentment went and how little chance there was of a reconciliation.

My sister and I loved them simply because they were our parents but to be frank, they were not the most loveable characters. Quite why they were so ambitious for us all I am not sure as neither had been failures who would want to realise their ambitions through us nor enjoyed such great success as to make them feel we should follow in their footsteps. Much of their wealth, including their big house and smallholding, was an inheritance from my grandfather. My father was a medium ranking accountant in an insolvency firm and I donít think my mother ever had a real job or business, unless you count the bit of money she made from keeping bees and selling the honey. It was Brian who bitterly coined the derogatory term "two bs", the bookkeeper and the beekeeper.

That weekend I had something to tell them. I had been interviewed for a promotion and one of two of us should get the job; the managers would make their final decision at a meeting on Friday. The two bs were very pleased. We were saying our goodbyes when they looked at each other and dad said "hang on a minute". He went into the house and came back with something in his hand. As soon as he began "I know you donít believe in this stuff butÖ" I mentally groaned. The silver disc he gave me had meaningless patterns and symbols on it. I rather switched off and did not pay too much attention to the details of its origin but it supposedly held great power. On the morning of the promotion meeting I should cup it in my hand and think of success. Then I was to score a line on both sides with a sharp object to release the psychic energy and whatever I most wanted that day would come true.

We had a good laugh about it when me and Linda and Brian met up for a drink on Wednesday evening. We had all grown used to the two bsí wierd new age Wiccan stuff, my sister always joked that if we went to dinner and they brought out a goat she was off, but the idea of a magic talisman that guaranteed success was crazy even by their standards. Brian looked at it before tossing it contemptuously onto the pub table. "Probably brought at that shop in the high street where they sell the healing crystals, the only difference between that and the joke shop the other side is the price"

Brian had some great news too, he was getting married to his long standing girl friend and they were hoping to buy a place although it was going to be a real struggle on their wages. He had applied to a mortgage broker to see what they might lend him but was not very hopeful. "Perhaps I should have been a bit more ambitious" he mused. "You could do so much better for yourself!" Me and Linda chorused and fell about laughing. Then we all got drunk.

When I emptied my pockets the next day I could not find the talisman; I must have left it on the pub table. I meant to go to the bar and ask that weekend but events put it out of my head. After lunch on Friday I was called into the managerís office and told I had the promotion. The phone call came just after I arrived home from work. My parents had both been killed in a pile up on the M4.

The three of us met up a few days later and it was a sombre occasion with talk filled with reminiscences, mainly of earlier times, of happy childhood. When it reached the later times when our parents had become so strange and demanding the conversation dried up and I told them of my good news. Brianís news was not so good, the amount the mortgage company were prepared to lend would not pay for even a small flat in our area.

A few weeks after the funeral the solicitors arranged a meeting with us all about my parentsí will. The estate was split three ways and there were no major complications, everything should be sorted within six months. I was happy for Brian, at least now he and his wife could afford somewhere, his share was probably enough to buy a small house outright. Afterwards we went for a drink at the place I had lost the talisman. It seemed important to get it back now; daft as it had seemed at the time it was part of the last memory of my dad. "Iíll just nip up to the bar and ask if anyone found it" "No need" said Brian "I picked it up after you left. Meant to say but what with everything I forgot. What complete and utter nonsense that all was". He tossed the talisman onto the table and raised his pint to his lips, gazing at me over the top.

I picked it up, and turned it over, feeling its weight in my hand and looking at the strange markings, the runic symbols and at the heavily scored lines on each side.

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Ghouliz and Ghostiz

Friday 18th
Most Britains, if you ask them their opinion on topics like spiritualism, Tarot cards, witchcraft or faith healing, will quickly dismiss all of these as nonsense. But dress these same things up in a pseudo-scientific veneer and a significant number of these will buy into them. I suppose people just really want to believe there is something beyond the mundane.

So I wasn't that surprised, in a small town near the North Wales border, to find a software shop, 'Karmasoft' that specialised in that sort of thing. It was fascinating. Along with stuff you can buy anywhere, PC games with an occult theme, CDs on yoga and astrology etc., there was some very niche stuff indeed, even a software version of a ouja board that the box proclaimed to be internet enabled. For those dear departed who could manage to cross the great divide but could not stray far from the site of their fatal car crash perhaps. Nice to know that ex-uncle Dick could pop into an internet cafe in Frankfurt and let you know his lost will was behind that loose brick in the attic.

Very interesting but totally nonsensical in my view and I suspect it was all pretty dire stuff, probably cobbled together in VB 3 by wierd bearded blokes in bedsits. I left with 'Ghouliz and Ghostiz - Spooky Screen Utilities', £15 from the bargain shelf.

Saturday 19th
Neat the way the desktop picture changes at random from time to time - graveyards, haunted houses, crypts, wierd alien scenes, Bosch-like landscapes I assume are supposed to be hell and so on. Apart from that, it seems to be a B horror movie version of 'Dogz' that was popular some few years back in the Win 3.1 era. every so often little ghosts, ghouls, demons, vampires, zombies and so on mooch around your applications.

Tue 5th
Those utilities are the sort of thing you get bored with and uninstall after a week or two. Except this one does not get boring, the scenes and the creatures never seem to repeat exactly. How? I know what space even a compressed full screen image needs and this application only requires 140Mb of hard disc space according to the box blurb. Is it somehow recombining sub-images in different ways? No amateurish application anyway.

Weds 21st
Imagination perhaps but both scenes and creatures seem to be getting gradually more sinister.

The desktop pictures are becoming darker, more detailed, more disquieting. You could look at these background scenes, and I find myself doing that more and more, and imagine all sorts of things hidden under the surface. Hidden leering things behind the twisted trees or lying half rotted just below the surface of the black soil with open staring eyes. Waiting.

And the little animations too, it seems scarcely credible that so much menace can be packed into a maximum of 100 pixels each way. The increasingly realistic way they creep or flap or ooze about the screen. Even the pixels shift somehow in the tiny faces, they gnash and mumble and grimace as they move, dribbling and mouthing things that I know must be horrible but cannot hear as the application has no sound effects.

Fri 23rd
It seems to me as though these creatures are somehow aware of me watching them. I swear on more than one occasion their behaviour pattern changed when I sat in front of the screen. They become more guarded. I catch them peering at me from behind the application borders. This must be my imagination surely, I had not even touched the mouse or the keyboard.

Another strange thing too, and I never saw this in any demo of Dogz. These things actually seem to get INTO the applications. Doing my monthly invoice in Excel and there were moving distortions in the sheet, mole-like tunnellings causing the words to shift disconcertingly. Deathly thin and tattered little appendages clawing momentarily from the menu bars. Sections of text that bulge suddenly with veinous lines and then collapse into fretted darkness like crumbling graves. Entertaining but a damn nuisance, can't make out some parts of the sheet for a minute or two until the dark area fades out. It has to go.

Tue 27th
No sound? There wasn't. But there seems to be now. I sat down this evening and was aware of tiny noises as the creatures moved, scarcely audible above the CPU fan.

The audio volume control had no effect so I had to strain to hear. It sounded like, at different times, the click of barely covered bones, hissing and crackling like the feeding frenzy of tiny maggots and beetles and scavenging filth on putrid flesh, shrieking and wailing and weeping and a roar of flames. Whispering and mumbling, the words indecipherable, but full of menace

Imagination. The sounds were so small I could hardly make them out or even be sure they were there at all. When you listen for a tiny sound, like a mosquito in your bedroom, your mind seems to make the noise so you don't know if it's real or not. This thing is plainly getting on my nerves anyhow. I tried to uninstall it but there is no uninstall program and nothing in add/remove. Must be an old Win95 program. I will have a proper look tomorrow.

Wed 28th
They're starting to get into my dreams now. Got up to go to the loo last night, half asleep, but in the office I could have sworn I saw faint shapes moving on the dark VDU screen, was it still on? Checked and it wasn't. Nothing visible with the light on but when I turned it off I had the odd feeling there were little creeping things hidden there behind the screen surround, waiting in the dark for the phosphor glow to fade before emerging. I did not wait to see.

Later
The audio volume control still has no effect but I just can't turn it down now. The sounds the things make are horrible, they must have really worked on the effects. Unplugged the speakers. Still seem to hear them faintly in the buzz of the VDU.

Thu 29th
Managed to finish that update for Chris so have at least the afternoon free until the next lot comes in. This is ridiculous. I have searched everywhere in program files and in the root for these awful screen utilities. There are no shortcuts, nothing in start up, nothing in the run section of the registry. No obvious programs or processes. Filemon does not even show any non-standard files opening but these damn things are still creeping about. How? Clearly I know even less about Win 2000 than I thought. Could reformat and reinstall everything I suppose but it's always such a fag. I never seem to quite get my PC back to just the way I like it.

Had a look on the Internet. Whatever problem you get, there's always someone who's had it before but "Ghouliz", "Ghostiz" and "Spooky Screen Utilities" all drew a blank. Did get one link for the name of what I assumed to be the name of the company, Necrosoft, in tiny letters on the back of the packaging. As minimalist as a site could be, nothing except a dark whirlpool of blackish purple fading to black in the centre where I could just make out 'Contact us'. Clicked on it but just got a 'not found' error. No support phone number anywhere. Not sure I really want to spend ten minutes listening to the "Four Seasons" at £1.50 a minute anyhow.

Hey the site seems to be working now! Those little horrors are crowding around the edge of the screen like bluebottles round a corpse. Looking inwards. The dead droning and shrieks are worse than ever. The speakers are still unplugged. How can they they be getting noises like that from the tiny internal PC speaker?? God, this site's slow to load, there's a wierd pulsing and swirling. Hello? How about just providing a useful support page? Bloody Flash.

The cacophany is quieter now and seems rhythmic. Chanting. Underneath, a faint sound like immense footsteps far far away. Far away but nearing. There's an odd light spreading from the centre, a strange hellish colour I've never seen on a monitor, R, G, B and... something else. That odd sloshing tread, still far far away, yet near and deafening and all around. The light is spreading, growing, to the edge of the screen, beyond it. Something...

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A bumper crop

The early morning sun shone down through the glass onto the orange beauties. The tomatoes this year were big and there were plenty of them too. Just another few days and many would be ripe enough to eat.

There was much excitement among the people, these plump and tasty fruits promised so much more than their usual drab fair of lichen, hard seeds and the insects that were small enough for them to hunt. Had there been any among them with any significant long term memory it might have been the best crop that any of them could have remembered. As it was, they sniffed the aromatic air and gazed in hungry awe at the ripest fruit, way up at the top of the big plants.

Out came the ladders and the ropes from the hiding places in the crevices of the nearby walls and under the leaf litter. The damp winter had not been kind and the repairing this year took longer than usual. They worked quickly with grass and twigs, passing the items and materials from man to man in coordinated precision, each man performing his task according to instinct and age old learned behaviour, spinning, weaving and wrapping as they always did until the damp and rotted equipment was once more neat and serviceable.

Then came the fixing. The sun has risen and set three times before most of the ladders were lashed to the stem, spiralling almost to the top leaves. His extended family had inherited responsibility for one of the most difficult tasks in the chain; that of lashing the ladders to the highest stems. It was not unknown for one of them to loose grip and fall from the leaves high above to land in a heap on the hard ground. These events were always cause for great hilarity among all the families and the unfortunate would grin sheepishly before beginning the long climb back up.

So it was that he and his were the last to finish, the others had all returned to their holes and crevices. They turned for a last look at the fruit silhouetted against the evening sun. The boy was jumping up and down, pointing at the largest fruits in turn and making sounds of glee. The boy turned and ran to his mother babbling his excitement. As the head man of the last fixers it was his job to make the final inspection and it all looked good. It was getting dark when the fallen fruit among the leaves caught his eye. It was almost as ripe as those near the top of the plants and far too good to waste. It tasted as good as it looked and biting into it he felt tired and content. He dozed off on the soft patch of leaf litter.

When he awoke the next day the sun was already high. He and his had no crucial part in the actual harvesting but he hurried towards the place where it would be going on. Why was it so strangely quiet, where was the usual shouting and laughter? As he approached the place designated for the placing of the fruit he saw them lying, singly or in small groups but all of them inert and doubled up by the pain that had taken them. The naked bodies of his woman and his boy, befouled with their own emissions, were among them. He pulled them this way and that, expecting them to get up but they did not and after a few minutes he lost concentration. The morning sun was gleaming on the ripe fruit above and he was hungry again. He walked to the nearest plant, his feet crunching on the blue pellets that scattered the ground and began to climb. He was almost at the ripest fruit when he was plucked from the stem by a great black slimy appendage.

There was always one that escaped the pellets! It held the curious little creature up to the pale red light from the sun that covered a quarter of the sky and gazed in disgust at the four short flailing legs, feeling the unnatural warm dry feel of its skin, listening to the high pitched noise it made. It squeezed and felt the crunch of the strange internal hard structure it had inside. It couldnít believe for a moment that these things had been the dominant species a billion years ago as the scientists said; that it had once been its species that had been the insignificant unintelligent creatures.

Well they werenít getting the tomatoes this year and it would put more pellets down to make sure. It turned and slid towards the shed as fast as the slime on its belly would carry it.

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A lighted candle

The first I saw of Linda, she was sitting in the restaurant of the Swan, a plain and mousy woman with a bald and burly man who I now know was her husband. Jake waved at them and raised his glass, receiving in response only an imperceptible nod. "Not the friendliest of characters" I remarked "who is that?" "Theyíve just moved into our road" was the reply and "No, they don't seem to be, either of them"

Ours was a small village and in the succeeding months what little was known about the couple soon got around. Neither of them had shown any interest in getting involved in the village activities. They had moved from London, he was the owner/director of some specialist employment agency and was away a lot; a rather brusque individual was the general consensus. As for her, nothing was known at all. One of our WI stalwarts had invited her to come along to their gatherings but she had only been to one, while her husband was away, and was exceptionally quiet, downcast according to one description. She had had a bruise on one cheek and that triggered the obvious speculation but then, uninteresting though it may be, domestic accidents really do happen.

Their house was on the very edge of Crostin St Marks and on the side facing the hill where my small cottage stood. When I went to the village on foot I would follow the footpath that took me right behind their garden and I often saw Linda there, tending one of the vegetable patches. My good mornings often went unanswered but after a while, just sometimes, they were. I soon learned that these friendlier occasions were when he was away. If I emerged into the road after an ignored good morning his car would be in the drive. If I emerged after a returned greeting the drive would be empty. Was the man really so jealous that she was afraid to return a neighbourly greeting?

It didnít really bother me. She was, as I say, a plain and mousy woman and I only felt sorry for her apparent unhappiness. Her life had been transplanted to a little village where she knew nobody and perhaps where she was discouraged from trying to get to know anybody assuming our impressions of a possessive husband, a violent one according to the gossips, were correct. I suppose her isolation became too much because after a while, on those empty drive days, she began to chat a little, at first just about her garden. Itís always supposed to be us men who drive these things but I donít think I played the lead in the way things developed over those first months. Our progress from broccoli to her bed were mostly driven by her loneliness.

From the little she told me all that the village had suspected about her husband was correct, he was a possessive and violent man and after that first time she was terrified that somebody had seen me going into her house, that he would find out. For a couple of weeks we went back to the good mornings and the broccoli.

The candle was her idea. From the attic of my cottage half a mile away up the hill I could just make out her bedroom window through the trees below. I should only come to her on dark nights, climbing over the wall in the corner of the back garden where nobody would see and go straight upstairs. She would signal when it was safe for me to come by placing a candle in the window. So began ten months that I will never forget. It was a strange relationship, not love exactly, our encounters solely confined to that one room were too cut off from the real world for that, but it was far more to both of us than just a physical thing.

I had imagined I had a happy life but I suppose I must have been as lonely as she was, there had been nobody special since my divorce and our liaison became almost an obsession for me. I would get back from work and be unable to concentrate, would watch TV and then be unable to recall much of anything I had seen. All I wanted was for darkness to fall so I could go up to the attic and look for that tiny glimmer of light through the trees in the valley below.

That night seemed just like the others. The candle was there in the window. It was only as I started to climb over the wall that a reflection of the street light from the wing mirror caught my eye. The big saloon was there in the front drive. As I froze there, one leg on each side, the back door flew open. "Whoís there?" he bellowed, then "I know what youíve been doing with my wife, Iíll kill you, you bastard"

I had the advantage of knowing the countryside behind while he had almost certainly never set foot outside the path from the drive to the front door. She had said he was not a man to appreciate the beauty of nature, that he had no idea my place overlooked his as he had never once stopped to really look at the hills. I watched him running about cursing and flailing at the bushes and then I watched him storm back to the house. I was afraid for her but to my shame I was more afraid for myself. I heard the banging and I heard her screams. I saw the glass break in her bedroom window and she looked out at me, a bloodstained face lit on one side by the candle that had somehow remained untouched. She screamed for help and I ran. When I got back to the cottage the gleam of the candle was still there. Was it her flame? Had he come back unexpectedly? Or was it his flame, lit to lure a man who had made him a cuckold?

The murder was a huge event in our tiny village. Everyone said they werenít surprised, a man like that, although the only evidence the gossips had was a brusque manner and a quiet timid wife with a bruised cheek. Only one of us knew the truth, only one of us, perhaps, had had the chance to stop it happening. I sleep little now, my mind going over and over what happened. And on the darkest nights I go the attic and look out and sometimes it seems as if I see the flicker of that candle in the valley below. And at times it seems so real that I walk down the long footpath to stand behind the wall of that little vegetable garden. I stare at the boarded window and I can picture her face lit on one side by the candle as it was that night and the reproach and contempt within it grows with every imagining.

They say you never really know if you are a hero or a coward until you are put to the test. For most the test never comes. The test came for me and I know which one I am.

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Pass it on

The main road was empty as she drew up to the give way sign but she came to a complete stop anyway, looking this way and that, unsure if she was still on the right route. She hated using these tiny roads but the traffic alert had warned of long delays on her normal route. The man was standing there in the lay-by just past the junction. He was tall, middle aged and very scruffy and held a sign with one scrawled word, Ashcombe. "Not a chance" she thought, she never risked picking up a hitcher on her own, let alone one as odd looking as that.

Just as she passed him the engine cut out and she had to pull over to clear the way for a four by four coming up fast behind. The moment she rolled to a stop the door opened and the man got in. "Thanks for stopping miss, very kind" "Oh no IÖ" she began and the words trailed off, lost in her fright. What should she do? Insisting he get out might trigger the unpleasantness she dreaded. The engine started instantly at the first turn of the key. Twenty miles on was as far as she went in his direction and she pulled over to let him out. He had seemed normal enough but she was relieved when he opened the passenger door, panicking anew when he turned back and grasped her hand. "Let me give you something for your trouble miss" and what felt like a coin was pressed into her hand. She stammered "Oh no, really IÖ" but he was gone. She started the car and roared out of the lay-by, tyres spinning.

Ten minutes later at home she picked up the gift lying on the passenger side floor where she had flung it. If it was a coin, it didnít look like any modern currency; it looked old, was over an inch in diameter and had a slightly irregular edge. One side had two small symbols and there was a third on the other side. It was only a worn bronze disc but just holding it made her feel ill at ease, it must be the association with that frightening journey, and she hurriedly tossed it into the glove compartment. Where had he been going? Ashcombe, wasnít it? About thirty miles further on than Jennyís place. She and her once best friend Jenny had drifted apart and hadnít seen each other for about 5 years but over the next few days she couldnít seem to stop thinking about her. Why was her mind playing these tricks on her since that day? In the end she phoned Jenny and they arranged that she would go and see her the next weekend.

The reunion went ok; there was plenty to reminisce about. Towards the end she told Jenny about the hitchhiker and gave her the coin saying that as Jennyís husband Pete was an amateur archaeologist perhaps he could identify it. It was strange but as soon as she passed over the coin all the anxiety she had felt since that trip with the hitchhiker was gone. As she drove home she found she could scarcely remember what he had looked like. When Pete came back from work he inspected the coin Jenny had given him. It was certainly old and the single symbol on each side looked Saxon although he had never seen a coin on which the symbols were so small relative to the size of the disc. He meant to check it out in his books but for some reason he felt curiously disinterested. He didnít quite know why he put the coin in the rucksack that he would take hiking on the moors with Simon and the other guys that Saturday.

As he drove to the job in Ashcombe on the following Monday Simon was furious. First he had had a major row with his suppliers who had delivered the wrong tiles and then he had got stuck in traffic fetching the right ones. All this on top of a Sunday spent arguing with his wife over money. He breathed deeply and tried to calm down before he met the new client. He didnít usually let things get to him like this, what the hell was wrong with him today? As he lifted the small toolbox off the front seat the lid came open and tipped all the tools on the floor. Thatís all he bloody well needed! As he picked the tools up he found the coin that Pete was going on about, he must have dropped it when they took the van to the moors. What a bore the guy was getting to be. Valuable my foot, what valuable coin is completely blank on one side? He flung it on the ground in exasperation.

The job was at a swanky mansion and the new kitchen was top of the range. Ok for these rich bastards, he fumed. It was at the end of a day when nothing had gone right when he was packing the van that the owner came swanning out. The tile colour didnít look as the sample and the edging wasnít lined up. "And another thing" he began. Simon, normally such a placid and even tempered man snapped and it was unfortunate that he had a heavy hammer in his hand when it happened. It was a clear case of murder, the other builders and the victimís wife were witnesses, and the only question was why a normally even tempered man like Simon would lose it like that. The forensic scientists had wrapped up at the scene and one picked up the coin where it lay in the mud. It was a bronze disc, completely blank on both sides.

435 miles North, a tall man checked out an identical disc, just as he did every day, and smiled in satisfaction when he saw it was blank. It had taken 20 people and over 5 months but another of his business rivals was gone and in a way nobody could ever link to him. He went to a desk and took out a box of identical bronze coins. He picked one out and inspected the ten small symbols crowded onto each side.

That night after a drink in a small pub out of town he dropped the coin in the collection box and another chain had started.

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Bringers of War

Ok, thatís settled then, weíll see you here for the next big game and you can take over from Rizthaq but I must stress again how important it is that you keep this to yourself, if they find out weíll all be in trouble and the games, on this planet anyway, will be finished. Itís quite ridiculous really, this fuss about creatures that are hardly different from the dirt they grow up in. Using things like that for a bit of fun is perfectly reasonable in my view. Yes, I know scientists say they use some chemical means to think in a similar manner to ourselves but really, how the hell can creatures of matter like that be compared to us? Their limitations are almost laughable! Itís daft enough that they are locked in time so they can only go in one direction but they canít even go from A to B without passing through every point in between!

The scientists reckon from their studies on planets where this physically bound life has evolved without our interference that the evolution of their so-called intelligence usually brings cooperation and harmony to a world. In unintelligent creatures the survival of each species is guaranteed by inbuilt rules based on aggression but once intelligence evolves and provides better means of ensuring survival all those instincts tend to disappear. I suppose they know what they are talking about but really, whereís the fun in that? For the likes of you and me who enjoy a game anyway. These creatures are just perfect for our war games because we can control them so easily. The skill is in picking your characters and making your moves at the right time. World War 2, as the creatures called it, was a classic game. We really thought Llixfo was going to win that game, his Hitler character was brilliant, but he overstretched himself and Gagexís great Pearl Harbour ruse to bring in the Americans sunk him. Now things are looking promising for Llixfo again, heís controlling this new character in Iran developing Nuclear weapons and manoeuvred over a billion people into sympathising with him. If he plays his hand properly he may get him to use them in the next game and that will really stir a lot of things up. It will be a good game; the rest of us will have to be at our best to stop him winning.

Do they know about us and how we use them in our games? Well, not exactly, not the truth anyway, although in some way we havenít quite figured out they do seem to sense us. In the wars we push them into, many of them do see themselves as doing the bidding of things greater than themselves, things they call gods. That can sometimes be very useful to us in motivating them. At one time though, they seemed to have rather too good an idea of the way we make use of them and that was dangerous. If they had realised the full truth they might have resisted us and that would have spoiled the game. It was necessary to misdirect a few of those individuals they call prophets and now most have a much vaguer idea of a single god who does not directly interfere in the real world. Do you know, they got so close to twigging us at one point that they were even referring to some of us with names that, in their own curious language, approximate our own? They have even named things after us.

See you at the game. With that, Mars winked out of existence in that part of the galaxy to reappear in his own.

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Decoding Revelations

The Book of Revelations is interesting to believers and non believers alike. Many of a religious nature have claimed to find messages in it and a whole religion has been based upon it. For non believers of a somewhat geeky nature itís a rich source of material to support dark Lovecraftian tales of ancient and mysterious forces. It is like an ancient version of The Matrix which makes even less sense and is therefore so much more mysterious. For centuries the men of faith have been applying their own interpretations to the text and the men of none have been ridiculing them. Was it ever meant to mean anything at all? One mistake we always make is to imagine that men in the ancient past thought entirely differently to those of our own time. Maybe whoever wrote it was just indulging a love of writing weird tales, perhaps he was man who would have loved watching The Matrix has it been around at the time. Who knows? Maybe he even started writing it because he belonged to a writer's club and couldn't think of anything more sensible.

I never read Revelations until I retired and had time on my hands to do things simply because they interested me and I was interested in hidden messages because of my time with the anti Terrorist squad checking emails and phone messages looking for exactly that. The thought occurred to me that perhaps there were really were messages hidden in the Book of Revelations, the only error was to assume that they were messages from god foretelling the fate of the world. Maybe the texts contained messages meant to be read by real people. The authorship of the text is the subject of debate but one theory is that it was written by a man called John of Patmos who was exiled to that island. There is no information on who had exiled him and why. Was he a a political threat to some leader of the time? Whatever the reason, exile suggests that whoever it was would not have wanted him communicating with others, plotting with fellow conspirators perhaps or telling friends and family of his treatment at the hands of his guards. Normal communications would have been censored but if every parchment had contained apparent nonsense, stuff about death sat on a pale horse and the like, maybe they would just have scratched their heads and laughed and let the messengers take them.

My years with the security services decoding hidden messages and the years on internet security projects before that trying to ensure confidential data was not read had given me a pretty good knowledge of the techniques for encryption and decryption. Drawing on all my experience, I began to look at the patterns and the many repetitions in Revelations and at how a 1st century man of high intelligence might have been able to devise a code to contain meaningful messages among so much nonsense. The text has an almost poetic cadre in places and many obvious repetitions, like the use of the number seven, phrases like "come see" and the many allusions to angels and horses. The more I looked at it the more I became convinced that there really was a crude code within it. I don't mean it all had a secret meaning in the way that some religious believe; on the contrary, most of it meant nothing at all and was, to use the technical term, obfuscation, meaningless material added simply to hide the much smaller volume of meaningful text. Anyone reading it without seeing the clues as to which words and sentences were important could simply have no idea that short messages were contained within it. John had very simply encrypted his real message with some coded allusions and then just used his imagination to come up with volumes of religious allegories to hide them in.

The encryption was simple, in keeping with the knowledge you would expect of a 1st century man but that did not mean that translating it would be easy. I had a pretty good idea what rules had been used but not all were certain and there was all that mass of obfuscating text. In addition, errors had been introduced into the text by the translation process and the rules would not be consistently applied. In such cases we use what we term brute force methods, program in what you believe to be the basic rules and let the power of a computer run through all the combinations. Depending on how accurate your assumptions are, the output could be as much gibberish as you fed in, the correct message or something in between.

It took me many months, checking the output, improving on my ideas, reprogramming, running the program overnight again but eventually I found the right methods. The PC had decoded the passages in 12.1 to 12.3. The input text was at the top of the screen:

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.

I scrolled down to the decoded message beneath it:

Hi Mary. Sorry I haven't written for a while but there haven't been any ships going your way. Things are ok here considering but my piles have really been giving me gyp again.

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Looking for meaning

It had seemed amazing at the time how quickly a life could fall apart although, looking back on it, he realised that it had been falling apart for some time.

Just a few months before, life had been hectic and work filled but if anyone had asked he would have said he was happy. Ok, he drank a little too much and smoked a bit of weed to ease lifeís tensions but who doesnít? Then a major client went broke owing a lot of money and he was running around trying to deal with that when the letter came from HMRC kicking off a major tax investigation. Suddenly his life went from mainly satisfying to hugely worrying and it did nothing for his temper or his drinking. Then Janet left. It was clear from their increasingly acrimonious exchanges that their marriage had been going wrong a lot longer for her.

He was an independent man, one who hated to ask for help from anyone. What can an independent rational man do to cope with a life suddenly gone wrong except drink? He thought back to the days of his childhood when he still had the faith the parents had filled him with and recalled how comforting prayer had been in those anxious childhood moments but that faith had long drained away. It was while idly watching a program on Buddhism that he decided to try meditation again. He had done a bit in his youth and it wasnít so daft; it was the mental techniques of concentrating that mattered, not the spiritual significance.

It wasnít worth joining up to some weird group again. What did that "majoram savaram" stuff mean to an English speaker anyway? Anything should do, the important thing was to concentrate on saying the words to clear your mind of other worries. He cast around for something he could chant and the first thing that came to hand was the Tesco shopping receipt on the kitchen worktop. He soon found that saying the prices gave it a repetitive rhyming cadence that did not fit the Vajrayana style so he left those out and it worked. He wasnít sure if it was the effect of meditating in this manner or the childish silliness of it that lifted his spirits but soon he was meditating several times a day while chanting from a grocery bill that had become a lifeline.

FIG FRUIT ROLL
CHOPPED HAZELNUTS
FARMLEA COND MILK
WHITE TIGER BREAD
DOM BLEACH SUNFRESH
FRESHBAY PRAWN COCKTAIL ...

It wasnít always the same receipt since each weekly shop handed him small changes to inspire him anew. As with the Buddhist texts, there were many variations but they all had the same core message of enlightenment. He found ways to make meaning in the shopping list that he could meditate upon while chanting and began to order his items on the belt accordingly, putting things in cadences of number, one of these, two of these, three of those and then back down to one perhaps. He felt that was symbolic of the way we must strive and never give up. He always had two Freshbay Prawn Cocktails and would ensure that they gave a pleasing rounding to his chant, making sure that one always reached the cashier first and one reached her last.

Slowly it became more than just a way of meditating to relieve his anxiety; these small things began to have a meaning to him, at first dimly observed, but growing to be his inspiration. It was inevitable that his respect for this inspiring text would spill over into a reverence for the source of it and so it was that he began to indulge in tiny rituals during his weekly shop when he thought nobody was looking and concentrating on those things gave him peace. His path through the store mattered too. At first it was simply important that he concentrated to relax but increasingly it became to have a significance that went beyond that as did the way he chose the shopping trolley or held the shopping basket or selected which checkout to go to.

As his real life fell apart his spiritual life, his Tesco life, grew within him. Was it so daft? If the religious are right, is there any real difference between the life of a man and that of a can of Heinz beans? Both are created by some means unknown to them, both spend a short period in the light before they are taken away and judged. The man is judged by the sins in his soul, the beans by the barcode on its label. There is no salvation for the beans which are always destined to be consumed but maybe our own fate isnít so different for all we know.

And it came to pass that, on a wet Friday afternoon in the sugar and jams aisle as he somehow always knew it would, he received the revelation. And the truth of the oatmeal bread and the "Two for One" sun dried fruit and the cornflakes and the "Buy One Get One Free" kitchen cleaners and all the other Tesco sundries came together with all the other truths of the universe, with all of the things of existence which they simultaneously both represented and were. And rejoicing he walked into the light.

Jack turned up for the late shift just as the police car and the ambulance were leaving. Rob, the day shift security guard, was just inside the doors talking to the store manager. "What was all that about?" asked Jack when the manager had gone. "That was our nutter, you know, the chap that kept walking around muttering and gesturing and shifting stuff about. He went really loopy this time, chanting loudly, waving his arms in the air and bowing, then he just froze; he was completely oblivious to us. Not sure what he was chanting but I could swear there was stuff about cornflakes and condensed milk and Cillit Bang in there somewhere. They took him away for evaluation, and about time too. I told Mr Fairfield we should have banned him a long time ago, he was giving the other customers the willies"

"They left his trolley here so somebody needs to put all this stuff back" He picked up a pot of Freshbay Prawn Cocktail from the curiously ordered purchases and the overhead light glinted in the plastic. Must be another migraine coming on but for a brief moment he felt giddy and full of vertigo, as if poised over an immense pit.

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Memento from a holiday

Money was tight that year so their holiday was a staycation. They had never been to the Grampians or Ben Nevis and, as both were enthusiastic walkers, touring round that area of Scotland seemed an ideal choice. They were lucky with the weather and the week had more than lived up to their expectations. Just one day left before they headed home but tomorrow was Ben Nevis and it was with a sense of anticipation that they drove into the car park of the last hotel they had booked. It turned out to be a room over a very old country inn.

After dinner they went for a stroll around the nearby village and it was as they walked back towards the pub that June said "Doesnít this place look familiar?, Isnít it that pub they did on Haunted Britain a couple of months back?" They stopped and looked, that slightly newer but still ancient extension to the left certainly looked like it. Wasnít that a Black Swan? And surely, yes, KiIlkenmore, now they thought about it, this was the village.

"Do you think weíll see the ghosts?" she said as they undressed for bed. "Doubt it" said Roger "they probably charge extra for blood stained ladies walking through walls". The spirits came soon after. They couldnít sleep so they got up and raided the drinks cabinet. Neither of them were great believers in things that go bump in the night; they occasionally watched the TV program but they watched it from a mostly sceptical and often sneering viewpoint. Yet now they were here in a house where entire royalist families had been massacred, where the haunting was supposed to be of a particularly harrowing nature, they suddenly felt a lot less sceptical.

It was all nonsense of course and a few drinks helped to calm their nerves. They would just have one more each and then they really must get to sleep; Ben Nevis would not be an easy walk. As Roger opened the drinks cabinet again he felt its chill through his pyjamas. He was just thinking that there seemed to be a lot of cold air from a rather small box when June screamed behind him. The woman came from the left hand wall, through the fog of the rapidly dropping temperature, a bloodstained 17th century woman with a long gash on her face. The wound was nothing compared to that on the child she clutched to her bosom. They felt a horror that went beyond that created by the vision, as if the evil that made these things happen had returned.

They never walked on Ben Nevis. They spent the night in the car, settled the bill the next morning without mentioning their experience and drove home the next day. They didnít feel able to speak of it to each other for a week until some of the horror had faded in their minds and it was another week before they felt able to check out the details on the internet. It wasnít the same place. It was a Black Swan but the haunted inn was near Kilkenny, not Killkenmore. They had taken a photo of their inn on the afternoon of their arrival and, while it looked similar to the picture of the haunted inn on the net, they were plainly different buildings. On the other hand, the description of the haunting on the net exactly fitted the one that they had experienced. How could that be? Surely there were not identical hauntings in two different places and, if there were, why were there no reports about the inn they had stayed at? Had their nervous expectation in that place created the haunting in their minds, had they simply seen what they had feared to see? But that didnít make sense either, how could two minds act in precisely the same way at the same instant to conjure up the same illusion in both of them.

They sat at the kitchen table, glasses in their hands, mulling it over. June said "Maybe imagination doesnít work quite like we think, perhaps our minds can interact in some way, each reinforcing the illusions of the other. If you think about it, there are lots of reports of mass hallucinations where hundreds claim to have seen the same vision at the same time, The Angel of Mons for example. Maybe we somehow created the things we saw. Ghosts, imagination, whatís the difference really? Perhaps they are the same thing." Another drink would help; they seemed to be drinking rather a lot since that night. As he was opening the freezer door to get some more ice, Roger paused "Maybe, but in that case why would there be any need to be in some particular location like a haunted house? If imagination is going to conjure up something like that from nothing whatís to stop it doing it anywhere, at any time?" He was thinking about it while vaguely wondering with another corner of his mind why there was such an enormous wall of cold air from the freezer.

Behind him June screamed.

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Divine copyright

Johan found himself before the light and the light was beautiful beyond mortal understanding and he walked towards it.

He had tried to be a devout and good man but like all truly good and devout men he had grave doubts about his worth, unlike so many who were not. Now here he was, yet was he puzzled, for he had no recollection of dying. He recalled only being in his greenhouse potting Geraniums, looking up at the Sunís light and finding himself in front of THE LIGHT. He did not recall pain or struggling to breathe, nor hitting a hard floor, nor lying and watching the normal light of the world slowly dim. Perhaps he had suffered some massive heart attack or stroke that had taken him instantly. He hoped his wife would not be too distraught when she found him. This concern puzzled him in turn. In paradise, should not such earthly worries be left behind? Are those not the illusions of the limited human intellect?

They say that only those who are received and prepared by HIM can behold the almighty. The light in front of him was made manifest and he was prepared by means that no man can know and he saw. He saw three almighties in front of him and, with senses far beyond his earthly ones, he saw also behind and around him, some thirty or forty almighties. Almost almighties anyway, for absolute supremacy allows of only one. All of these not quite supreme beings were looking at him. The almighty in front and to the centre adjusted his spectacles and peered harder at this being of infinitesimally small importance before him. Almost infinitesimally small anyway, for only if the absolutely supreme exists can there truly be an infinitesimal.

With senses that were not those of mortal man and that would have been incomprehensible to him minutes before Johan was aware of another mortal being by his side and it was alien although with the familiar sense he called visual it was a man like himself. The words were not conveyed by any norm of physics and yet he understood. "My lords, I present to you this last piece of evidence, a randomly selected creature of the type called human from the planet Earth which, as you can see from the submissions so far and which are summarised in front of you, is entirely typical of its species in form. You can also plainly see how very closely it resembles the specimen of the creature from my clientís planet and I put it to you that such closeness cannot be accidental, that my client has had his design and his copyright deliberately infringed. I ask that you find in favour of my client and enforce his rights in this matter. The three almighties conferred and made notes. Suddenly he was in the greenhouse holding a pot of geraniums and the only thing on his mind was that he was running out of potting compost.

Later that day, he and his wife were sitting in the conservatory with a glass of wine. What a lovely sunny day, she remarked. He looked up towards the light and some strange memory was in his head, he struggled to recall it. At the same time, in a place where time and place have no meaning, the verdict was in. "We find in favour of the plaintiff and the damages claimed will be awarded in full. The defendant will cease and desist from using the plaintiffís design with immediate effect".

Johan and his wife raised their wine glasses to their lips but they were journeys their arms never completed. Like every other human on Earth they had suddenly ceased to exist.

Before you wake up

In the space of just six months life had come full circle for both of them. Liz had suffered the death of her husband and her brother Mike had been through an acrimonious and expensive divorce. They had always got on well together and both were miserable so it seemed a logical step, after the tenants left, to move back into the old house they had inherited from their parents, the one they had grown up in. It seemed comforting and natural too, so natural that they did not even discuss it, for each to move back into the same bedrooms they had occupied almost thirty years earlier. Drawing comfort from each other′s company and shared memories of happier times, they began to repair themselves. Sharing a bottle of whisky and the comforting warmth of the log fire in those first few weeks together they retreated from their recent painful memories and the reminiscences came frequently.

"Do you remember that strange dream you kept having?" asked Liz. He nodded. It had never recurred after he left the house for University in the West Country but he had never forgotten it because it had always been so vivid, so real and unvarying. It wasn′t a complete dream in itself, just a scene that would be tacked onto the end of other dreams just before he awoke. Whatever he had been dreaming of, impossible exams, pirates, huge holes in the ground or any of the other nonsense that fills all our heads in our sleeping hours, would stop abruptly and he would find himself on an immense white plain. All around there were people converging on him, beautiful, smiling, welcoming people. In front of them all was a tall man whose white robes marked him out as a leader. He would raise both hands to his face as if about to make some strange gesture of greeting and open his mouth as if about to speak. Then Mike would awake, feeling good.

Maybe it was her mention of it or the familiarity of the old bedroom with its plain white emulsioned walls looking much as they used to but the dream, or rather the dream fragment, began recurring. It did not bother him any more than it ever had, rather the reverse, as he had always seemed to awake feeling happier and more alert when it did happen. It was strange but then maybe it was inevitable that being back in that old house that had changed so little, being back with his sister, would reawaken thoughts and memories at all levels of his consciousness.

It was a good two years for both of them and the hurts they had suffered were in the past. All his years ended for him when, on his usual commute home on a stormy evening, his car was hit by a lorry on the M6 and ran off an embankment. Liz was already at home when the call came and she rushed to the hospital. He was in a coma and not expected to recover. Distraught, she stayed the night, unsleeping, in a small unoccupied private ward the hospital provided and was at his bedside the next morning just before 7. This was the time he would usually awake to the sound of the alarm and, ever the thoughtful brother, bring her a coffee in bed soon after. She gazed down at his motionless figure, the tears pouring from her eyes.

Somewhere deep inside his still head a dream abruptly ended and he was back on the immense white plain. Those beautiful, welcoming people were converging on him and the tall smiling chief raised his hands and opened his mouth as if about to speak. Back in the old house the alarm clock ticked over to seven and its shrill beeps sounded through the empty room but, even had he been there to hear it, he would not have not awoken because he could not. The chief′s hands touched his face and moved back down. The face went with them and beneath was an aspect of evil and corruption. All around those beautiful people became shambling, creeping monsters and with the transformation the ugliness spread out and permeated everything. "This time" came the bubbling hiss from the growing monstrosity in front of him "This time, you shall not escape from us, this time you will stay to see us as we really are"

The figure on the bed began to twitch and writhe. Liz called out and the doctor came and began to prepare an injection while the nurse hurried her away. The doctor came to her soon afterwards. He was very sorry but there was nothing anyone could have done, the injuries were too severe. She went to say goodbye to him a little later. She told the nurse about his strange dream. "Maybe it was heaven he dreamed of, perhaps he is there now on the bright plain with all those beautiful people" The nurse did not know what to reply, she only said, as she had said so many times in similar circumstances, "At least he is not suffering"

You cannot expect honesty from evil, only deceit until it gets its way. Mike's time for waking had come and gone and he had not awoken. On a dark, dismal plain of tormented and tormenting creatures, assailed by an evil that permeated all, he would suffer for ever.

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Don't beep for me when I am gone

The shrill beeping of the alarm clock woke him from a sleep that, despite the sleeping pills, had been all too brief. He had no rational reason to set it any more now his job and everything else in a once full life was in the past but he had to try and cling to something. Routine was all he had.

Still groggy, he gazed out of the window drinking his coffee and remembering what had been. It would be again, he told himself; if he had nothing else he had his logic and his will. Cracking up, one of his friends has said; those friends who had been so sympathetic but hadn't called for weeks. He would show them. The loud beeping from the microwave interrupted his thoughts with the mundane signal that his instant porridge was hot.

Tomorrow he would start to get out of it, phone one of those friends, join something, go for a walk if it was sunny, just get out of the dark house and try and get out of the dark inside him. Today, just today, he would rest. He turned on the TV which started with its signature chime and he started flicking through the channels, a small beep sounding on every press of his finger, that repetitive theme playing on every access of the index. He really should look at the setting and see if he could turn that off.

He was still there flicking through an hour later, unable to concentrate on any of it when the beeping from the kitchen, exactly like the beeping from the microwave as they were of the same make, signalled that the dishwasher had finished. What the hell. Why did these bloody things have to tell you they had completed whatever mundane task they were built to do? Surely it would make more sense if they beeped to signal failure, if they had not done what they were supposed to do?

He took the pills they had given him at the hospital although they seemed to do no good, just like the ones before. Outside the clouds had broken so perhaps he would sit in the sun for a while, surely that should lift his spirits a little. Maybe he could catch up on some sleep. He was just opening the door when the washing machine signalled, with a shrill beeping exactly like the microwave and the dishwasher before it, that its cycle had finished. He wrenched open the door to silence it. The answering machine beeped to say the store was full. He ignored it.

Outside it looked peaceful but there was little peace to be had. It was the busy season for the builderís merchants just behind the housing estate. The chugging of engines overlaid the sound of the aircraft overhead and over them all was the irregular loud beeping of the reversing lorries and forklifts, performing their dances to the sound of their pointless health and safety music. He went out again after the work had finished for the day and for a little while it was quiet before the alarm went off on the van over the road. It would sound shrilly for a minute then was quiet for a while before starting up again. What the hell was wrong with that thing? He knew there would be no peace until its owner got back and went inside. He flicked through the TV channels, beep, tune, beep, tune, beep... Later the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen although there was no obvious reason.

He would get an early night although he knew he would not sleep. Just maybe, perhaps, tomorrow he would feel better and be able to begin to make his new start. Against all expectations he had actually dozed off before being woken by a beeping. Not the alarm. What the hell? The culprit was in the corner at the top of his wifeís handbag, her mobile phone was signalling that it needed charging. Had it really taken all these weeks to run out of charge? It brought back everything he had been trying to keep out of his mind, the accident, the hospital, the sound of the police sirens and the ambulance. Most of all he remembered the beeping of the life support machine.

As her mobile beeped his mobile and all the houseís alarm clocks joined in. He picked up the bottle of pills and walked out of the house as the TV, the dishwasher, the microwave, the washing machine, the computers, the Sky box, his wrist watch, the answering machine, the smoke alarms, the intruder alarms and every other appliance in the house joined in and it made no difference if they were turned off. He walked into a silent garden full of the beeping of reversing lorries, house alarms, car alarms and emergency sirens, sat on the patio and washed the pills down with a can of lager.

A neighbour saw him the next day. She was almost in time and the life support machine was beeping for a while before turning into an uninterrupted signal. The nurse turned it off and opened the window. Outside it was abnormally quiet, nothing but the murmur of the wind in the trees.

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What you see may be what you get

It was not an upmarket neighbourhood but the residents of the tiny crescent were largely content with their lot. Quietness, friendly neighbours and the large and beautiful park behind their small gardens made up for the shabby terraced houses. There were occasional downsides to the park in the form of litter thrown over the fences and the odd football-retrieving boy but a bushy area screened them from most of the public traffic.

They had never had any major problems until early that summer when one of the owners came home from work to find broken fences and garden ornaments. This was followed by similar vandalism to other properties within a space of a month. The police were informed but it was clear that their problems were not a priority. James suggested they should get CCTV and, being the crescent′s most technical resident, he arranged it all. A couple of weeks later all the houses were equipped with Chinese-made cameras showing the bottom of each garden and the park beyond.

Maybe the bored youths got bored with their new pastime or the cameras visible beneath the eves deterred them but either way there were no more incidents. None of the residents regretted their £150 outlay; it gave them peace of mind but more than that, there was something fascinating about flicking through the day′s recorded clips on their TVs. Each clip was 20 seconds long and had been triggered by motion sensing. The movement could be a man walking a dog, a child running, a bird hopping around or a fly on the camera; it was very mundane stuff and yet there was an exciting power in this innocent voyeurism, a feeling of control. They could be miles away at work yet their own little domain was still under their gaze, it could be pitch black and the infrared cameras were still monitoring the park′s activity.

It was James′s son, even geekier than his dad, who took it a step further using their broadband WIFI routers and cheap video transmitters. Soon the residents could all sit at their TVs or PCs and flick through each other′s video shots or see live views of the park from their neighbours′ cameras. They had little competitions like whose camera could catch the most after-dark furtive entrances into the bushes. Some of the neighbours, mainly the wives, expressed half-hearted reservations about some of this. Wasn′t it rather voyeuristic? Verging on illegal? They let themselves be reassured, it wasn′t as though the cameras had great resolution or could provide close ups and the night vision was just black and white. It was just innocent fun and anyway the previous vandalism had justified their use.

James′s next innovation was computer generated imagery. Using powerful simulation software hosted on his expensive machines they could now alter the images in real time and superimpose virtual reality onto the park scenes. Some of the neighbours competed to see who could make the best juxtaposition of reality and fiction. Children would run happily across the park pursued by ferocious dinosaurs. The magnificent Maples transformed into strange alien predatory shapes and lashed out at couples strolling beneath.

It was quickly clear that Harry had the most talent at their new found games. Superimposing a moving monster onto the park was quite easy but only Harry managed to master the complex rules that allowed recognition of real objects and triggering of effects accordingly, to allow virtual objects to move behind real ones or to make real ones disappear. His dislike of football inspired his first script "Vanishing footballers". When a game started on the park′s football pitch a click would start erasing it. Whenever one footballer passed sufficient close in front of another there would be a virtual explosion and the images of both would disappear, masked out of the picture by a piece of the stored background pattern. Soon, although the players continued to run around the pitch accompanied by their ritual shouts in real life, on the crescent′s screens the football pitch was empty.

Harry got so fond of providing his brief virtual versions of park life for his neighbours′ entertainment over many months that the distinction between reality and fiction began to be blurred. There was a sense of disappointment in looking out of the window and seeing a woman wearing a scarf on her head when your screen showed it to be covered with large spiders. Sometimes there was a momentary feeling of disbelief. Were park users really that small? Did they really have so few legs?

Harry had been watching "Land of the Dead" on DVD and what better tribute to George Romero than "Park of the Dead". There were very few dog walkers braving the freezing cold that evening but when a neighbour clicked the link each was horribly assailed onscreen and dragged into the bushes by rabid zombies. It was horrible, more realistic than anything he had done before and it was the unanimous opinion that Harry had overstepped the mark. None of them could watch more than one such incident.

It was Saturday and most of the neighbours were woken early by the police sirens and watched from the windows as the park was cordoned off. Few details of the murders were available in the first reports but a jogger had found bodies in the bushes and the condition of every one was unpleasant. In the years that followed nobody was ever apprehended for the infamous Stark Park murders and no motives were ever established. The circumstances were unusual in that the mutilations indicated lunacy but more than one person was involved. This was the work of monsters.

The neighbours of Park Crescent could not help. Afraid of explaining their motives they had waited until evening and quietly removed the CCTVs before they could be noticed and before the police started house to house enquiries. Their videos showed nothing that could help anyway, just a fictional horror film imposed on a real scene. The timing of the real life murders and the fictional murders by fantasy horror characters created by digital technology was a bizarre coincidence.

Fiction is fiction and reality is reality; one cannot create the other no matter how real the fiction may seem or how many people have started to believe in it.

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Images of a lady

"Gordon bloody Bennet, theyíre at it again!" The loud hurrumphing of her husband drew Audrey in to look at what he was reading. This time the article in The Sun was about an image of the Virgin Mary at the entrance to a cave in Devon.

"For crying out loud! what is wrong with these people?" he ranted. "Itís just shadows on the rocks! There seems to be some crap like this in the press every week, an image of Christ in the bark of a tree, a ghost at the window of a castle, shadows of figures moving in a house and some idiots really think there is something in it. Maybe we should send them pictures of that knothole in our bedroom wardrobe that looks like Lenny Henry or a video of the weird shadows that track across our bedroom wall when Joe over the road drives off to his night shift"

She could have pointed out that perhaps he shouldnít read The Sun if the articles annoyed him so much but she refrained, it wasnít worth a row. Since his recent retirement he seemed so on edge, so ready to blow up at every little thing. She sighed inaudibly and hoped that in time he would adjust, find other ways to fill his time.

The same story was reported on Ceefax the next morning and he blew up afresh. "For Peteís sake! Doesnít it occur to the idiots who believe in these apparitions that when umpteen million people are carrying cameras every day, when they are seeing umpteen things from different directions, superimposed in different ways and in different lights, it would be very bloody surprising if sometimes there was not an uncanny resemblance to someone or something familiar? When the resemblance isnít perfect they paper over the cracks with wishful thinking. How can it be the virgin Mary when we actually have no idea what she looked like? Assuming she existed at all that is, looks more like Florence Nightingale to me"

There was a brief pause while he summoned up breath for a fresh rant. "And do you know what the stupidest thing about this is?" He glared at her until she shook her head "No dear, what? "Iíll tell you what, last night I found some photos on the net of this cave that had other details, like people on the beach below and the footbridge above that could be used to estimate the scale" He paused "This virgin was about 12 feet tall! Maybe Iíll start a blog and point that out, I think that some of us should at least some attempt to get people thinking rationally"

He couldnít seem to leave the issue alone and Audrey was in two minds as to whether that was good or bad. On the one hand, he seemed rather obsessed with it and it did not seem to stop him drinking. On the other, he had some purpose to his life for the first time in months. He would scour the world news online, looking for any reports of visions or sightings of ghosts, angels or anything else from the beyond and debunk them. It didnít matter how many people has seen something or what sort of people they were, these were the inventions of frauds, the imaginings of the delusional, the chance conjunctions of objects and shadows or the product of physical effects like reflections or mist. His blog gained quite a following, especially among the more unbalanced rationalists, those whose belief that only logic should rule has become a faith and those whose opposition to religion has become a religion.

He began a section for people to send in photos and started it off with his uncannily lifelike picture of Lenny Henry in the cupboard knothole next to a photo of the man. The idea was to show just how common such appearances were if you looked for them. That took off quite well too. He got photos of Osama Bin Laden on a piece of toast, President Obama on some tree bark, Gordon Brown on a steaming cow pat. The last was very popular. On weeks when he got few contributions he tried to fill in the gaps and looking for these resemblances became an obsession.

It was all about how the mind processed what the eyes gave it, he told Audrey. In real life we tend to focus on one thing and do not see the patterns in the whole scene. It is often only when we look at a photo with its flattened perspective that they become apparent. On their regular walks he would sit on the park bench squinting, swinging his head from side to side or getting up and walking back and forth, ducking down or stretching up to try and get a different viewpoint. "Look at that, if you come and stand just here and see the top of that old tree against that big cloud you can see Mrs Perkins. That dead branch there is even exactly where the big furrow in her forehead should be"

It may be that you can always make resemblances out of random patterns if you look hard enough. On the other hand, it may be that when we fail to focus on what matters everything is lost against the background. Was it early onset of Alzheimierís or was it truly the case that we see whatever we train ourselves to see? Whichever it was it happened that spring morning at the kitchen table. Audrey sat opposite and passed him his coffee, something that usually invoked a grunt of acknowledgement but none came. He sat and stared across the table, seeing the juxtaposition of the patterns on the kitchen tiles, the utensils hanging on the wall, the edge of the cabinet, the doorknob, the shadows from the window and all of these came together to create an image that resembled his wife. He found he could not remember her name.

The swift moving clouds outside darkened the window and the shadows disappeared. He sat at the table, blinked and stared across. There was nobody there at all.

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Taking a short cut

She loved spending the day with her sister but had never been a confident driver and the 80 minute road journey to and from her place out in the sticks was always arduous. It wasn′t so much the South London traffic congestion or the Motorway hold ups, she was used to those in her every day commute, it was those miles of narrow country lanes that she hated. The worst part was coming back in the winter in the dark when the tiny B roads were made worse by the dazzle of oncoming traffic that made it hard for her bespectacled, 51 year old eyes to make out what was ahead.

It was late in January and snow has just started to fall as she got into the car to go home. Her sister suggested she stayed the night but there was an important meeting at work tomorrow that she couldn′t miss and she feared getting snowed in for days. She set out on the return journey with more than her usual trepidation. With each mile the snow got thicker and it began to settle on the near freezing roads. The car skidded as she slowed a little too abruptly when another came in the opposite direction and her trepidation began to turn to panic. She was half way to the motorway and it was too late to turn back, all she could do was press on, although the car, responding to her inexperience and ineptness in such conditions, was beginning to slide on every corner.

The lights from the houses as she drove into the tiny village of Ravendale provided only the briefest of respites from the darkness. There was just enough brightness for the road sign to be readable, London Road, and, not for the first time, but far more fervently than ever before, she wished that somehow it would keep its promise, that London could be just at the end if this road. The road turned sharply left past the old pub at the end of the village and the car slid again, bumping its tyres on the kerb. She stopped the car and closed her eyes, sitting there shaking, her panic rising out of all proportion to the incident. At that moment she vowed she would give anything, pay any price, for this London Road to take her straight to London. It was the unexpected brightness through her lids that made her open her eyes again. She was stopped in an urban street under the garish orange glow of its street lights where the snow fell futilely to perish on the capital′s warm tarmac. She was so confused she scarcely knew how she got home, she remembered finding a familiar route by chance and from there it just a short drive. She remembered also the name of the street, Ravendale Road.

What had happened′ Was she losing her mind? Over the next few weeks, as life went on as usual and her project at work kept going well she realised she had no long term problem and it could only be that her uncharacteristic panic had somehow caused her to excise her memory of driving to London. Or could it? There was another explanation but, ridiculous as it was, she couldn′t stop wondering. She was feeling foolish as, on her next trip to her sister′s, she drove into Ravendale Road. She felt numb as she passed the street light and found herself outside the old pub in Ravendale, just 15 miles from her sister′s place. "I left early today" she told her.

Could it work with other street names? If so, why drive even 15 miles along dark country roads to her sister′s? There was the small town of Rutting much nearer that had a London road and a minute′s perusal of the London A-Z turned up a Rutting Crescent less than 25 minutes from her own home along well lit urban streets, the sort she was used to. Somehow she knew it would work and had no real surprise as she passed the midpoint of Rutting Crescent and found herself in London Road, Rutting, on the right side of the road, just a part of the rush hour traffic flow, with nobody around her apparently aware that anything strange had happened. She told no one, they would think her insane, but as the months went on she grew to accept this strange gift and to take advantage of it.

It was an amazing ten years and her life had been transformed. She had been on the point of turning down a promotion because it involved a lot of travel and she so disliked driving but now there was scarcely a place in the UK she could not get to in under an hour. Nobody was better placed to use such a gift as a Londoner as few areas did not have a city, town or village with a London Road and London has so many streets that a corresponding street, road, avenue, way or crescent can usually be found. Twenty minutes at most spent checking online maps could save her hours that she would spend at home or sightseeing at her destination.

She found herself far better off too, she saved petrol money on personal and business trips and even got paid for the latter. It seemed dishonest to claim mileage for petrol she didn′t use but on the other hand what could she do? She could hardly tell them, for example, that her trip to Edinburgh involved driving to Edinburgh Road in London and then from London Road in Edinburgh to the client′s office, she would be dismissed for insanity. She placated her conscience by knowing that she did a better job by not being as tired and stressed out as she would be if she really did have to cope with hours of travel. She became adept at hiding her gift from others. Her clients, friends and relatives got used to her unfailing punctuality and the lucky way she always seemed to just miss those 5 hour motorway pileups. Hardly surprising, as amazing luck was so much more believable than the truth.

It was ten years to the day since that Sunday in Ravendale and, recently retired, she was driving the short distance to an old friend′s house in Cornwall. The route took her to St Stephen′s road in London via the village of St Stephen in Cornwall just a few miles from Polgoth where her friend lived. She was somewhere in Enfield and that area of London was an unfamiliar one, so he would have to stop to check the A-Z. Where was she now? She kept a look out for a street sign as she neared a large junction. What did that sign up there above the department store say? It was hard to make out while keeping her eye on the road. Fortunately, the lights turned red and she had to stop right next to it. She looked up. She read World′s End and then the lights changed. Only the traffic lights changed for the other motorists including the one who had been behind her and was now waiting at the white line unaware that her black Astra had ever existed. For her the light of the entire world changed from that of a dull spring day to a hellish red glow in front of her lighting up the pitch blackness.

No matter how desperate or scared we may, we should be careful what we wish for and what we promise in return. Strangely, she had never dwelt on why this gift was given her and who or what it was who gave it. She realised too late that it was not a gift but a purchase and now it was time to pay.

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Out of it

When they look back on their lives, those who live in the normal world think about the things that happened, the triumphs and failures, the happy and the sad times, the loves and the losses.

James had slipped out of the normal world and his memories were more introspective. How did he get to be the lonely and isolated man he now was, what errors had he made in his thinking, what could he do to get back? The death of his wife had not been the start of his journey into isolation; her company had only insulated him from its consequences. The friends he had once had had long gone, the pub acquaintances he used to share a boozy evening with now barely nodded when they saw him, turned off by the awkward silences. He had become one of those isolated old men that every English pub seems to have, the one that sits at the table in the corner over his pint before walking home alone. He had tried to get back, to talk to those he had once known but could think of little to say, had gone backwards to become a grizzled version of the shy and friendless boy he had once been. Maybe it was inevitable, the events of a varied life can lift us above our own natures but, like any flying thing, we always come back down.

In the end he had given up, concentrating on his solitary interests, particularly his bird watching. Their fluttering activities through his binoculars took him away from his loneliness. He was well placed for such a hobby, not only did his village adjoin an area of outstanding natural beauty but his house overlooked a long abandoned stone quarry where nature had grown back in abundance on the steep slopes and a small lake attracted a variety of water fowl.

It was the first sunny day after a period of torrential rain when he sat in his bedroom window to inspect a newly arrived pair of Herons. The fissure in the rocky slopes above the lake would not have been obvious to anyone who did not regularly gaze at the quarry through binoculars but he noticed it immediately. It had been exposed by a minor rockslide although the debris seemed to have disappeared without obvious trace into the lake. This could be an opportunity. His window was not close to the lake and parts of it were obscured by trees; perhaps he could use this small place as a hide.

He crept under the mesh fence and clambered up to the place and it was better than he had imagined. Not only was there just enough space for his small frame to lie in and inconspicuously train his binoculars or camera over or between the rocks in front onto the lake below but the lie of those rocks and the trees around the lakeís fringes made it possible to enter it without being seen from any of the houses adjoining his. The slopes faced North and were in shadow on sunny days so the tiny cave was invisible to the naked eye unless someone knew exactly where to look. He did not want his twitching activities to be misconstrued by his neighbours.

And so it was that his bird watching hobby took a step up. There were no rare birds but that didnít matter, he loved watching the common ones too, like the Canada Geese, Herring Gulls or Moorhens and he got some great pictures. From his high vantage point he could also see his neighbourís houses, the kids playing in their gardens, the barbecues and the people just sitting in their lounges watching TV but those activities did not really interest him.

Not initially anyway. At first it was probably the occasional similarity to avian behaviour that amused him. The way that lone male swan kept bullying the smaller and more numerous geese - was that so different to that kid who kept picking on his younger brothers at number 31? Was that pair of ducks building their nest so unlike that newly-arrived young couple at number 37 who spent their weekends decorating and furnishing their new house? Gradually he spent more time looking at the houses than at the lake or the trees. Birds, men. If you are outside either society, what difference is there except that the latter are less predictable and sometimes more interesting?

There were the odd intimate happenings in the backrooms and bedrooms but there was nothing sexual about his interest. Even if a distant glimpse through binoculars could be seen as titillating, his libido had long vanished. His voyeurism was just a way of connecting with a normal life he had left behind and to which he did not know how to return. He started to live through these people, imagining their conversations and their arguments and joining in from his little hideaway over 200 feet away. It became his society and he would spend hours every day in all weathers except fog, just gazing and muttering his imagined conversations from both sides. Whatís for tea tonight mum? Isnít it time we decorated this kitchen? Why are you so late again? Is there something I should know about? Are you having an affair?

A letter from his daughter in Australia brought a rare chance for normality. She and her family were coming to the UK and would be staying with him for two months. The day of their arrival came and he had hope again. Maybe just being with them would bring him back from his isolation. Maybe? No, he would do it; he would build a normal life again! He made his way to the little cave, picking his way through the deep mud from last nightís heavy rain. This was a farewell visit; just one more time he would spend a couple of hours in his binocular world and then he would drive to the airport, pick up his daughter and her family and be back in the real one.

They had waited at the airport for over an hour before, having had no answer to their phone calls, taking a taxi to the house and finding it locked. When the police broke in the house was empty. Now after two months the police enquiries had provided no answers, none of the neighbours had seen him and none knew him well enough anymore to provide any clue to where he may have gone.

Work commitments meant the family had to get back to Australia and Jenny was sad. This was something she had never expected, was her father still alive or was he dead? Tomorrow they would have to leave without knowing and that was something she found hard to cope with. She stood at her fatherís bedroom window and gazed out at the quarry. He had told her many times in his letters how much he loved watching this place. She picked up some binoculars and scanned the muddy slopes. It was obvious from the fresh colour of the mud and rocks and the lack of the vegetation that there had been a minor collapse directly opposite the house. Her husband put his arm around her to comfort her. "Donít worry love, they might still find him. And if the worst has happened, well, heís in a better place"

She longed to believe it. She gazed up at the steep slopes of the quarry and told herself he was out there somewhere.

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Feng Shui

They say opposites attract. Observation suggests that to be one of the more idiotic sayings in general although it certainly seemed to be the case with me and June.

We had met at a course on meditation, one of those grey areas where science meets the spiritual. For me it was the science, the techniques for relaxing and focusing the mind. I was the practical, sceptical, down to earth one who never believed in anything I couldn't see for myself or learn about from some supposedly reliable source. She was the spiritual; for her the Hindu concepts behind the techniques had meaning. She was always into some strange wacky thing, Yoga, crystal healing, Tai Chai, Holistic health and other stuff I entirely forget the names of. I didn't really follow what some of her enthusiasms for mystical or oriental beliefs were about and used to pull her leg about being a witch. It really didn't matter to me if she had been, given her lovely nature, she would have been one of the white sort.

She got less into these things as time went on and as both of us got more into building successful careers. In 99 our salaries were sufficient for us to move out of rented property into our own home. It would take a lot of work and quite a bit more money to restore it but we were young and successful and the big old rambling house with its large unkempt garden was everything we had dreamed of. Between the mortgage, the renovations and the furniture it was a tough five years financially but at the end of them we were almost there, our dream house was nearly complete.

Then Charlotte came to stay for the weekend. Charlotte had been one of June's old college friends and they had been reunited through the college alumni website. I had never met her but June told me they had shared the same enthusiasm for things "beyond" She arrived on the Friday evening and she and Charlotte were upstairs when I came back from work. My first experience of her was hearing a posh strident voice. "My god, you don't want to do that". I went upstairs and was introduced. 'That' was the position and layout of the larger second bathroom that we were having installed next to our bedroom. Apparently having a bathroom parallel to a bedroom was bad Khama since bathrooms has a negative energy about them. If we couldn't change the rooms, and she graciously conceded here that one could not always shuffle a house around, we should at least move the bed or the bath so that they weren't parallel.

In my line of work I get very used to spending time with all sorts and being diplomatic so I kept it polite and friendly but just an hour into the evening I had decided that I couldn't stand the woman. There was something wrong with everything; we had too much furniture, the colours were not in harmony, the dresser was too tall and having it directly opposite the door like that would invite fierce Chi. There was a lot more but after a few minutes I just switched into polite mode and largely stopped listening. I avoided her as much as possible for the rest of the weekend, finding other things I had to do when she was around. Monday was a relief. I was more relieved that evening when I found that June rather shared my opinion, both of Charlotte and her ideas. She had changed a lot since her college days, she has been more fun loving and not the obsessive we had seen. As for Feng Shui, June was pragmatic. She did think there something in the principles, that man should be in harmony with his surroundings but after all, if you liked something, and we did both like the decor we had chosen together, what was that but being in harmony?

Maybe I should have known, given her enthusiasm for new age beliefs, that that would not be the end of it. The things Charlotte had said, the few I had been obliged to listen to, had been water off a duck's back to me but in June's case some of the water had soaked in. I brought a coffee up to her office and she was looking at some article on Feng Shui. "Christ, love, I'm not going to come home and find all the rooms rearranged am I ?" Her "Don't be silly, just curious" did not quite have complete conviction about it and it did not surprise me when ornaments and the smaller items of furniture started moving around or disappearing into the spare room. A few weeks later that dresser opposite the door, the expensive one we had brought from the antique shop, made the room look cluttered. We shifted it into the garage pending resale back to the antique shop at a much lower price if we were lucky or a trip to the Charity shop if we weren't. No, it was nothing to do with fierce Chi, she insisted, it was just too big.

As I said, I had always put up with her strange beliefs because I loved her. In the succeeding months I realised that a more important reason was because her strange beliefs had never really impacted me in any way. Weird books filling her shelves, a bit of incense burning and chanting, strange herbs bubbling in the saucepan, seeing her stretched out on the floor with a large lump of quartz on her Adam's apple, what did those things really matter? This Feng Shui was something else. We had stretched ourselves and gone without holidays to pay for the home we had both wanted and now everything about it was suddenly wrong. It was a steady drip, maybe we should get rid of that to give us more space, perhaps we should redecorate in here in a lighter colour to make the place look a bit more airy.

They were the first real disagreements we had had in our marriage and to me they were not trivial. We had scrimped and saved to buy expensive furniture, pictures and ornaments that we were now throwing out and spending more money to replace it with minimalist but at least as expensive items. We were redecorating rooms that had cost a small fortune to decorate only months ago. This was all at a time when I was hoping that, our major outlays complete, we would have a bit more money to spare for the other good things in life, like dining out a bit more often or going on that holiday we had not been able to afford for two years. The friction increased over the coming months and, as with all conflicts, it grew to absorb other issues. They say most marriages fall apart over one of two things, sex or money, and it was true for us. Money began our break up and sex completed it. The last straw for me, the final row, happened when she accused me of being rather less interested and capable in the bedroom than I had once been. Perhaps if we turned the existing bathroom into a bedroom and the spare bedroom into a bathroom that would not be parallel to our bedroom, it would no longer influence us with its negative energy. I exploded and for the first time ever I really wanted to hurt her. "Spend another £15,000 so we can shag more often? I could buy ten high class whores with that and they would be a big improvement as they wouldn't care which way the fucking wardrobe faced or be fussing about what colour the fucking wallpaper was!"

It was the end. I moved out a week later but not before another blazing row revealed one thing. I had been wondering what some cheque payments from our joint account had been and now I knew. These ludicrous Feng Shui ideas were not June's own, she had been seeing Charlotte and paying the cow for her advice. I had disliked Charlotte almost from our first encounter and now I hated her. As the months passed in my lonely rented flat, especially at those times when the evening and any socialising it contained had finished, when the front door shut on just me and my bottle of vodka, my hatred grew.

I should have found out her surname when I had the chance but there were other ways to find Charlotte. June and I were to saw little of each other for six months but I saw a bit more of her than she did of me. Parked in one of my employer's cars at the end of the road I occasionally kept watch on what was still my own home. It seems June had found solace in her old interests, much as I had found solace in Vodka, and I recognised some of the weird but harmless friends she had seen little of in the last few years. It was about the twelfth occasion in as many weeks when I saw the woman I had been waiting for. When she left I followed Charlotte to her house about 15 miles away.

Her maisonette was on edge of a fashionable leafy area with large gardens. I had done my own research on Feng Shui when I was still trying to figure out what June was going on about, when I had hoped there might be alternatives that could satisfy both her and our bank balance, and Charlotte's place was much as I expected. The carefully spaced layout, the excessively neat flower beds with herbs to promote health and longevity, the low trees, the Bagua Mirror over the porch, the continual tinkle of the moving or Yang water in the artificial waterfall and the lights all around the boundaries to create good luck all told me a Feng Shui nut live there. Countering the Shar Ch'i must have hiked up her energy bills.

It wasn't exactly a garden one could hide in but that of one of her neighbours, normal rational people probably, was quite overgrown, with tall trees and dense bushes and it was higher up the hill, so it wasn't too hard to find a hiding place in a hedge overlooking Charlotte's minimalist front room. Why was I there? I wasn't really sure. No, I couldn't murder her. Like all of us I had indulged in acts of great violence but, like most of us, it was a violence that was only meted out in my fantasies. But this woman had wrecked my life and, if I couldn't take or wreck hers I would at least get back at her in a way that would express my contempt for her life-afflicting superstitions.

Friday week, early evening, and I was parked opposite her house. I waited until she went out a little later. From her immaculate evening attire in all its carefully matching subdued colours, she would not be back soon. The spare key was under a plant pot near the back door, maybe being too original about security exuded negative energy. I had a few hours and I made good use of them to put everything where it shouldn't be. I put a large mirror facing the front door and another in line with her bed and moved other beds to be parallel to the bath or in line with the sharp corners of alcoves. I moved the larger items of furniture so they were directly opposite other doors. I swapped all the carefully arranged coloured lights so they would clash with the walls, as much as tasteful pastels could clash anyway. I would have liked to do much more, fill the house with masses of old and ugly furniture, splash the walls with paint in garish colours, replace the pot plants with ones that drooped, get the builders in and move the toilet to the middle of the house but none of those were practical given the time and the need for secrecy. I would have loved to seed her home with the negative energies of all the things that reminded her of the bad times in her life but I did not know here well enough to know what they were.

Later that evening, once my anger has cooled down, I started to regret what I had done. Not out of any sympathy with Charlotte but because it seemed likely that I might be caught. She knew what had happened to my marriage and June must have told her how I felt, surely she would guess it was me as the nature of my vandalism indicated that it was not just the random destruction of some thieving drug addict. I began to wish I had simply smashed the place up in some manner that did not betray even a superficial knowledge of her Feng Shui nonsense, stolen the DVD and other saleable things and shat on the carpet like normal thieves and vandals do. Every day that week at work I was waiting for a phone call from the police and in the evening I waited for their ring on the bell but it never happened. After a few weeks it was clear that it was not going to happen. Maybe Charlotte was dumber than I thought or perhaps she did not think that the police would be interested in pursuing somebody who had simply moved things around, however much negative energy it might have released.

Three weeks June phoned, suggesting that we should try again. I wasn't going to blame her but right at the start of that first tentative evening together she blamed herself. She admitted that perhaps he had let the whole thing get out of hand and not properly considered the impact on our finances, practical Feng Shui was also about coping with realities, finding affordable ways to oppose the negative aspects of the real lives of ordinary people. She had let herself fall under the spell of Charlotte and taken the whole thing far too seriously. The woman had been a money grabbing fraud, one of the many in today's materialistic society who exploit the yearning for something beyond. She realised now that she had been one of those fools but she had learned a lesson.

"So you won't be seeing here again" I asked. "Didn't you know? No, I suppose you wouldn't. Charlotte had a fatal heart attack three weeks ago, I was with her when it happened. We'd been to a party of some of her posh friends on the Friday and then gone back to her place for a nightcap. As soon as she turned on the lights she started panicking and hyperventilating and then just keeled over. I called the ambulance but they couldn't save her" Was that my doing? Given the timing it seemed probable. I hadn't intended it but in a way I had murdered her. Unlike June, I had always thought Charlotte to be a charlatan, just one of many who push the new age nonsense because it was fashionable and made money, how could I have known that the whole thing of the negative energy was actually so real to her that it would throw her into a fatal, heart-stopping panic?

Now it was June the willing believer who thought her the charlatan while I, the cynic, knew she had not been. "How do you know what she was?" I murmured. "Because I saw for myself that night. I am really rather surprised she invited me back in the circumstances; a bit too much to drink or something worse I reckon, they were a Bohemian lot, her friends. Do you know, after all that stuff she told me, all the expensive things she said we had to do to create the positive energy in our house? She obviously didn't take any of it seriously enough to practice it herself, almost everything in her house was wrong. The woman was a fraud! Actually, I'm not sure I believe in any of it anymore, you were probably right all along" I did not reply, just reached over and took her hand. What a strange reversal of attitudes the circumstances of Charlotte's demise had brought about. Now it was June who was the sceptic.

On the other hand, I had just come to realise how positive a change a few simple rearrangements of furniture could make to a life.

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All stories copyright xoggoth unless otherwise stated