The Qualar Games
This piece was inspired by The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke by R Dadd.
The Qualar Games come once every seven years – two weeks after midsummer’s day to help reduce cheating by way of sorcery. It takes great skill and dexterity to be able to split a qualar in two with one single blow of an axe. The prize is not of any intrinsic value but there is much prestige and kudos – and there is an unspoken tradition which means the competition is very fierce and many have tried to cheat. Eight times cheating has been discovered – four times by sorcery and four times by substituting an already split qualar. It may be that sorcery has succeeded and not been detected by my family – we oversee the fairness of the Games and we have done our very best. We are the Ogive family and are small so we cannot take part in the games. Horns grow from our ears in the shape of an ogive. We are totally impartial.
The games started many years ago in the time of my great-great-great grandfather. We have long lives and I did not start my job as Games Overseer until after we put my father to ground and I was over sixty-nine. I take my responsibility very keenly, watching all preparations in minute detail and of course the blow itself – it seems that brute force is not sufficient alone but rather speed plus the correct angle and to some small degree, luck in the resilience of each qualar. The shell has many angles like a dragon’s skin. The dryness of the growing period affects the hardness and thickness of the skin. There seem to be several factors that affect the size and density of the qualar.
To me they are beautiful, the way they grow, the way their skin is dark and glistens in different lights. They have the strangest smell, damp and musty, and a totally different flavour from the smell, like a sort of bright flower; of course, they need to be cooked carefully or otherwise they kill you. The strangest thing of all about them is you never see them move but if you put a few close and you leave them, when you come back they are nearly all touching or hard up against each other.
At long last the summer has arrived, late this year but we have a fine day for the Games. The sky is deep blue as the day wears on – there are a few folk dressed in bright clothes and others in smart court clothes – stiff taffeta in subtle shades. The seventh man of the games is taking his turn and I see the line of men still to take the blow are lined up. I sense rather than see the ladies’ interest in the men in the games – there are two by me, both bold, one with an assumed indifference but feet akimbo, the other with wings on her head eyeing up the contestant’s swing. Further away there are more discreetly eager women who have come to see the games.
I am weary with concentration and I feel the power of the sorcery strongly – some of the qualar have gone smooth. There are people and sprits of different sizes that I cannot turn to look at for fear of missing something in the next blow. As is the tradition the trumpets are sounded by a man and a giant grasshopper in an attempt to stem the flow of sorcery. I catch sight of movement through the rushes beyond the line of contestants. Something or someone is viewing the scene while remaining out of sight.
The axe comes down and cleaves the qualar in two even as it is turning smooth. I have never seen such a blow – I think never has a smooth qualar been cleaved in two before. There is silence – then I feel the sprits being released. I am not sure what has happened – indeed I am not sure if we will be able to continue the Qualar Games. It seems all the qualars are turning smooth. Our undeclared winner has vanished so it looks like he was sprit in a man’s form. Who else will be able to split a smooth qualar? Maybe next year they will grow with many angles once more but I am not sure.
What I Did on My Last Holiday
In the land of Troglodytes the ships sail straight in to caverns at the seashore mountains. In times gone by, a great many ships were built – mostly very successfully; but a long time ago there was a very feared King,Vasa, who commanded the biggest ship ever to be built.
There was a huge amount of money set aside and the boatbuilders rubbed their hands, rough from boatbuilding, as they bid to build the biggest boat in the biggest cavern.
The ship had so many decks that she failed her seaworthiness test. But no one told the King as they were worried they would not get paid and have their heads chopped off.
Instead, in 1616 the great ship Vasa sailed out of her cavern harbour and the breeze from the mountains rolled her over and she sank just 1616 meters from the shore. Her masts were visible from land but the king had them cut down on the first night so that his big blunder was soon forgotten. If you mentioned the big ship Vasa you could expect your head to be chopped off too, which helped everybody to forget his blunder.
That was until 1919, when someone noticed the huge ship lying on the seabed. King Vasa was long since dead so by about 1961 it was safe to start a recovery mission to bring the perfectly preserved ship with missing masts back into a cavern and start the slow painstaking process of rehabilitating the ship, above water.
* * *
So when I took my holiday I decided to visit the great Vasa. I had a theory I wanted to test to see if I could make her sail at sea. The voyage of the Vasa and me. Something my grandchildren could talk about, and their grandchildren too.
When I was a young man I had the touch on the shoulder, and after several long nights drinking to excess decided to join MI6. They were really the dirty tricks outfit working with KGB, Mossad and the CIA. It was meant to be an exciting career choice but it was mostly deadly dull and dangerous. It was also really bad for my social life. Several wives later I realised I was on my own. You weren’t meant to tell wives anything, which I may have taken a bit too far; some of them didn’t even know they were married to me. As the years went by I tried to compensate for the dullness of the job and loneliness by planning my final holiday. This time I would not be travelling incognito.
With precision planning which would leave the SAS speechless I used all the contacts I had – no one knew who was behind all my requests, but this was my one last chance to use all those favours up in one go.
Jerry from the CIA said, ‘Hey buddy – this is big, really big, who is behind it?’
Vladdy from the KGB said, ‘Hey, sonny – this is cool, very cool, who is behind it?’
Chas from MI5 said, ‘Oh, I say spiffing – does the old man know who is behind it?’
I replied with the oldest phrase in the book, ‘That is for me to know and you to spy out.’
They had been spraying the great Vasa with water to control the drying out at a very slow rate, for about 10 years and my retirement was looming. This was perfect for my plan.
I had all the major powers and secret services turn up on the planned night. Most of it was for show, but also to ensure that afterwards it would take weeks of recrimination to sort out who was at the bottom of it. There was smoke and lights and people dropping in to the cavern from high-up walkways. All while the machine I’d got from the KGB went unnoticed. This machine took all the power available plus the hottest gas known to man to heat the contents of four tanker loads of a mixture of lead and mercury. I would never have got it past the HS&E people – fortunately I didn’t tell them. The hose nozzles were attached to the scupper holes, the very ones that had sunk the Vasa in 1616, the lead and mercury formed an amalgam and poured into the bottom of the boat hissing as it met the wet wood. This was the tricky bit – would the wood be wet enough? The lower gun ports of the two bottom decks were closed and before my very eyes the magnificent ship sank to a reasonable water level. Still towering out of the water, not too deep to ground, scupper holes sealed, it was time to go. Two huge motors were standing by – no one had questioned when I had got them delivered courtesy of the CIA. Jerry had done his stuff, the Americans are good at big things – I don’t care what people say.
I suppose I should admit that boats are not really my thing, so it was a bit tricky getting the Vasa safely to sea. One or two smaller boats and piers did suffer a crushing but the Vasa just carried right on. The last part of my plot was a bit risky. I steered the Vasa to the high cranes in the bay to have the three big masts slotted into the ship. I did expect a bit of resistance, so my ploy was for them to believe I was a mad extremist and the Vasa was full of TNT. They seem convinced. They put the masts in very, very gently.
* * *
The sun is beginning to set and the motors have stopped as I could not take much fuel and we are sailing out west. The sun is red and my pyre on the deck is just starting to crackle. There are a few helicopters following. Code machines no longer chatter in this day and age – but if they did they would be silent as my last message goes unencrypted.
“I am an anarchist who has for too long been silent about what I believe in. Before it is too late, while I still have my faculties, I have decided to use all my skills, all my contacts; to sail King Vasa’s vision to the bottom of the sea – where it is meant to be.
My message to you is to do what you believe in and don’t live past that date.
There is no secret any more that I am this man.
The fifth man of the fifth column,
I salute you.”
We are a coterie mostly of seven. We have lived together since – well forever. We cannot remember before we were together. We can remember eight and losing two but we gained one, so now we are seven. We are the strongest seven in the whole wide universe.
We have three of the most beautiful females and four of the most handsome males. We are known as a most industrious coterie. We build boats. Of all kinds and sorts. We live between the sea and the river in one glorious dwelling.
But we need to tell you we have names – although to be honest we do not use them that much, just so long as everyone is included. Our males are Aye, Rye, Tye and Hye. Our females are Fru, Tru and Cru.
Like our boats, our house is wood. It is set in an enclosure with plants and trees. We have our living room and our bedrooms. Soon we will need to build another room but we are fine for now. We wash in the river that runs through the enclosure, and we cook at the back under cover just in case it rains – which of course it does but it is usually quite warm.
Of course Fru, Tru and Cru are stronger and do the lifting and saw through the big trees. But Aye, Rye, Tye and Hye are very nimble and walk up the trees and along the branches to cut the wood for spars, braces and wood rope. When we start on a new job we sit in a circle in the early morning sun and begin to chant – which chant we use depends on the sort of boat. Long thin fishing boat, short broad ferry boat, deep bottomed boat – they each take different chants. We use the chants to determine how we will work together that day. When we finish the chant we are ready to go in to our store and out to the woods to collect together wood and tools.
We all get up together and fan out, in twos and a three in different directions. It’s great to be building together – we can finish a small boat in a couple of days. On spare days we are busy too, making glue, cloth or collecting hemp. We do well, sometimes we are paid with a year or two’s supply of fish.
At the end of the day we tidy everything away – do all the jobs around the house before we go into the village. Tonight we are going to celebrate and get out our brightest clothes. We walk into the village. When we get there we skip down the street, feathers and balloons trailing from our coat tails.
The villagers clap and cheer – we have happy news to tell them all. Fru is going to have our first baby. We all are happy and excited – we all wonder if we will know who the father is but it does not make any difference – we are happy to be building that new room on the house.
Hole in Two
Remit: Choose a genre and write a piece split into two parts set in two different times but the same place.
The grey-green leaves of the ivy struggled out from around the top of the well. The well had dried up, and not been used for years. The lady of the house, who, rather like the house, had seen better days, used to walk up to the well in the evenings and stand to the east of the well as the sun set. From mid September onwards, she would note the time she needed to be there, then, she would try and stick to the routine, unless the weather was too inclement.
Often she would stand as if waiting for something, a sign of some sort. Usually she returned as the dusk settled in. Sometimes, Mrs Hudson, the housekeeper would elect to visit the Dairy at this time and stray to the well on her way back, having inspected the churning of butter and the squeezing of cheese. Mrs Hudson, who was outwardly very respectful, would approach discreetly and stand to the north.
Mostly they would stand in stony silence looking at the broken wall round the well. However sometimes, as was the case tonight, as etiquette dictated, the lady spoke first.
‘The ivy is taking a hold on the wall of the well. Gradually with the help of the wind, rain and frost the wall will split like a frayed sleeve. Leaving it pillaged.’
‘Yes Ma’am – time ravages all,’ intoned Mrs Hudson.
The lady looked sharply at Mrs Hudson but let the comment pass. It was a warm September so she had not put on a coat but the wind was getting stronger, ruffling the skirts of her dress. They both turned to look west where the sun was setting and from where the strong wind was blowing. Bushes and saplings bent under the onslaught and now the lady’s skirts blew around her legs. There was a curious whistling that turned to a screech and a roar. Both women looked at the well in front of them, which seemed to being blown in a very strange way, as the noise reached a crescendo the ivy and other plants and bushes were blown outwards.
In the aftermath there was an eerie lull, the noise died away. Even the wind paused for a few moments. Mrs Hudson, not usually prone to nerves, fainted away, unexpectedly, causing a noise like a small pile of books falling to the ground.
The lady did not notice the fall of her faithful servant. She looked at the dying sun, the colour in her face changing. Like some Victorian Boadicea her body swelled as her face went white then shades of pink to finally crimson. She glowed in the twilight.
* * *
George and Nicholas both hated leaving London to come down to Kent to avoid the war. At that age they were oblivious to the dangers of the falling bombs, they were twins, nearly ten, full of curiosity and mischief, often changing places. The good natured farmer’s wife, Mrs Meg, took to calling them Neorge and assumed that if she told one of them off she was telling them both off.
It did not take them many days to explore the farm, the disused buildings and the overgrown well. They would often spend an evening playing, making camp, or sometimes with the other children playing hide and seek, kick the bucket and games that they had played at the rec. a few streets away from their now bombed out home.
They would gravitate back to the well. Usually on their own, after tea in the evening before bedtime they would play. They had made a DH Mosquito to sit in, partly from planks and buckets, but mainly a lot of imagination. They were south of the well flying through the sky, westward, with German bombers not far away flying out of the low sun.
The wind was getting up and one of the German bombers was in difficulty, on its way to London, they could hear one of the engines cutting out then starting again. It was far above them when it released three bombs in a tight cluster.
The bombs stayed in a tight formation one just behind each other. The whistling grew to a roar, punctuated by changes of note as they entered the well.
The well was very deep but it took just a couple of seconds for the bombs to reach the bottom. Precious, life saving seconds. The ground round the well rippled like a stone in a lake as the bombs went off. The waves reached the boys but their energy was spent.
You could call them Neorge or anything you like, they could hear very little for a few days. They walked from the Mosquito, otherwise unharmed. They decided not to fly the Mosquito again – it stayed in its hanger in one of the disused buildings.
A dark beach sloping sinister, anthracite grains ground to a standstill. The lake is completely undisturbed, mostly dark, an hour before dawn. Very little vegetation grows round the shores so nothing disturbs the surface. The low moon is mainly obscured by clouds, moving slowly across the sky. Patterns of light and dark play on the surface of the large expanse of the lake. Hard to discern, like shadows, the hills are reflected weakly in the water.
The lake is nearly a mile wide and twice as long. Towards the bank of the north side is an island cradled in the darkness of the hills. The island is formed from a single rock which has been eroded over time. It has a flat spire that rears up deceptively shapely to point at the sky, like a hand with circled thumb and index finger. In certain winds a curious eerie noise, a cross between sounds – a resonant note that plays up and down your spine, is created by the hand-spire.
As dawn breaks just such a wind starts. The lake which is generally silent starts to drone, chord like, gently from the island. The sun is starting to climb and the water begins to shimmer as sun and wind bring a mechanical life to the surface. Very little real life is visible. Should any make its way up here, it would die in the heat of the day or the cold of the night.
The wind shifts slightly and the intonation of the sound changes, part of a tone. There is a crack so loud the shock waves are visible above the water. The surface of the water erupts and there is a noise that numbs the mind and deranges the senses. The hum stops as the island is blown away in an ashen geyser. Bubbling lava shoots with liquid fire of the Earth’s core.
The day has only just begun and the lake has boiled away.
Wilhelm Tkoscz is
‘Wilhelm Tkoscz?’ asked the man at the door.
Only a trained eye would have spotted the slight hesitation before the answer, ‘No. No one of that name lives around here.’
There was a pause as the man at the door, dressed in a smart suit, just the hint of grey about him to add to the air of experience, looked questioningly. The other man who had opened the door looked well worn but as if no trick would get past him, not that he had the air of a razor about him but rather he kept it under wraps.
‘You are not from the authorities: tax, health, social welfare or insurance are you?’
‘Oh no,’ said the smart suit, ‘From commercial TV.’
There was another pause as razor under wraps considered the risks involved.
‘Well “Whiz Smelt-Lock” lives here,’ he looked searchingly at smart suit and finally came to the conclusion that this remark may need some explanation, ‘That is an anagram of “Wilhelm Tkoscz” do you see,’ said razor under wraps as if explaining to a thick TV executive.
In fact the TV executive, who was nearly as smart as his suit, nodded patiently and said,
‘You have quite a lot of people living here with strange names, like “Elisa Slalom” haven’t you?’
‘Oh yes, I am not sure if she knows if her own name is “Elisa Slalom”, “Lola Melissa”, “Salle Somali” or none of the above.’
‘Then there is “Serene Condescension” which could be any number of obscure anagrams but just sounds like a joke name. Is she very grand by the way?’
‘In a sort of tongue in cheek sort of way – yes she is.’
‘How come you never get any obscene names like “Bigus Dickus” from Monty Python or the Carry On films?’
‘Well we used to, but the residents formed a house committee which has to approve all names that a resident wishes to use. To avoid getting a bad name if you see what I mean. Just recently we have seen a few post-anagram ironic names like “John Smith” and “ffredric ffarquart”. We even had a “Tony Flair” recently but I think that was a little too obscure and dated for most of the residents. All residents have to change their names by deed poll of course. I do apologise for keeping you standing on the door step, would you like to come in and have a cup of tea?’
‘Well that is kind – this sort of research can be very disappointing but it really looks like this time I have struck lucky. So yes, I would love to come in.’
Razor under wraps took smart suit downstairs in to a basement kitchen with a homely fire in the grate and people walking past on the pavement above, visible through bars and windows that were below ground level.
They sat at ease and carried on their conversation.
‘So what is your interest in a bunch of misnamed misfits?’ asked razor.
‘Well we have got two possible interests, one is a “reality TV” show where all the contestants have to use assumed names – maybe having a few “professional” name changers on the show would add an extra dimension. The other is possibly for the BBC, and looks at a series of British eccentricities – one of which would be people with amazing assumed names.’
‘Some of them would have a field day – especially the ones that take anonymity to extremes, they would want to have assumed names for any programme. I suspect some would only appear in profile or chequered out with those blocks, with disguised voices too.’
‘Do you think many of them would want to take part?’ asked the smart suit looking cautious at the enthusiasm of the other.
‘Oh yes, I expect that you will need some way of selecting the best for each type of show.’
‘Where do they all come from?’
‘Well there are a few ex-convicts but by no means a significant proportion. I suppose that there might be one or two with identity crises of their very own, with or without paranoia. A few who have won the lottery and want to avoid attention. One or two forgers and fakes plus a few fantasists I suppose,’ he paused for a moment then added, ‘It might be a bit difficult sorting one group from another.’
‘Yes – I suppose it would.’ Smart suit finished his tea and asked, ‘What is the next step? How should we ask if any one is interested?’
‘Well you are unlikely to get any names if you ask individually, or put a notice up. I think that the best way would be to let me go to the residents house committee and see what names come out that way.’
Scarlet To Dark Red
She applied her scarlet lipstick carefully and smiled slightly at herself in the mirror, testing. The colour clashed with the red of her hair. She met the men in bars and the women in coffee shops – always choosing different meeting places. Tonight it was the third time she was to meet Erick; he was big and blond as a Viking. As on the previous occasions she took aspirin with her, already dissolved in water, it was totally clear.
He was very keen and had wanted to see her as frequently as she would agree, which suited her very well. As usual he talked about himself and she nodded encouragingly as if she was listening. As early as possible in the evening she poured the clear liquid into his beer. She lent forward and kissed him on the cheek, he was such a gentleman he could not tear his eyes away from her face to look down at her cleavage. Her pulse increased, she thought in either case he would not see her other hand by his beer glass. And he did not.
Men were much easier than women really, that is why she found women more of a challenge, more exciting. Still never mind, this man was by far the largest man to date. He was well over six feet and built broad to match. She held his arm and looked adoringly up at him, her small smile playing over her bright lips.
After three drinks she gently led him out of the bar to the bench by the river. She had taken him to different places each time so he said nothing as they sat down at the top of the bank. She nuzzled up to his neck kissing him repeatedly ensuring a large area of his neck was wet from the kisses. She encouraged him to lean down and kiss her so far neglected breasts. As he did so she bent her head and her sharp teeth sank into his neck. He did not feel her teeth cutting through skin and artery; her earlier kisses had a very special effect of deadening pain. Slowly his blood flowed from his neck into her. He gradually seemed to deflate and sink further down her lap. Finally he slipped from her and from the bench on to the ground, his head facing down the bank. She got up and lay next to him her mouth clamped to his neck draining every possible drop of blood from his body. The aspirin worked well keeping his blood flowing through the incisions in his neck. She thought it was cheating really. There are so few of us left nowadays we need all the help we can get. I will need to find a mate to keep the bloodline going, she grinned wickedly. It was far too risky to live together but meeting up now and again would be good. Just so difficult to meet a suitable mate these days.
Never had it taken so long, over an hour, to drain a person’s blood before. She had a really lovely feeling of warmth and satisfaction, difficult to describe in human terms, the closest would be a huge helping of porridge laced with the best brandy. She unclamped her jaw from his neck and let go of him. Like a crumpled, deflated straw man he rolled down the bank. He gathered momentum and hit the river with a quiet splash.
She waddled home in a euphoric daze. She looked in the mirror at her flushed face as she slipped her wig off. Her lipstick all gone now but her lips were engorged and a deeper shade of red. She expected it would take a little longer than usual for her craving to return, maybe next time she would go for a large succulent woman.
The lake was completely still in the darkest hour before dawn. Very little vegetation grew around the shores so nothing disturbed the surface. The low moon was mainly obscured by clouds moving slowly across the sky. Patterns of light and dark played on the surface of the large expanse of the lake.
Joe looked out over the lake. It was at least a mile wide and several miles long. The surface of the water erupted and there was a horrendous noise. A huge beast lifted up out of the water – it was as if Joe was watching in slow motion with the volume turned right up. Great sheets of water seethed and bubbled where there had been complete peace and tranquillity before.
The noise was of screeching and tearing and the beating of huge wings in air and on the water. The huge beast made its way to the shore with two enormous necks coming from a barrel of a body. Each head was weaving about each with one eye, it seemed that the heads were more in conflict than harmony. They each seemed to be struggling to make the most noise and gain the best advantage.
Joe lifted up his hand and stilled the writhing heads and heaving body. He tried to fix the beast with his eyes and willed it to lay its heads down. He shouted loudly:-
‘Be still, beast, so that I may ride on you.’
Joe tried to approach the beast but the foul stench drove him back. The heads moved restlessly each eye looking defiantly at Joe from different directions. Joe tried once more to concentrate and focus his mind within the beast. This time he decided not to yell but to throw his will at the beast.
The creature lowered its body, bending its six powerful haunches and laying its two necks and heads stretched out towards Joe. The ugly creature seemed to be under control, both mouths closed and the smell more bearable. Joe wondered for how long and if it would be a good idea to test the beast. Joe decided against it as time was ticking on; instead he walked closer to the two heads and walked slowly up the necks, his boots unsteady on the creature’s thick hide.
Joe got to the creature’s shoulders and fastened a harness round its two necks and first pair of legs. In the harness were two loops for Joe’s feet and reins to hang on to, as he stood on the shoulders of the now compliant beast.
With a cacophonous roar of rocks and wings they were airborne, climbing up out of the lake’s valley as the sun was rising. Fast they flew until Joe could see the city in the distance, tower blocks rising in the morning mist.
They landed on top of the tallest of them all, the Global bank building. The beast settled down for its long wait, chewing on a couple of seagulls.
Joe brushed his jacket and straightened his tie. What a way to get to work thought Joe as he entered the building using his security card, still it beats all that messing about with helicopters.