Friday, 19 December 2014

The Gift

It sat there, calling to her to unwrap it, then rewrap and feign delight on Christmas morning. 

She’d sworn she wouldn’t. 

She’d also sworn she’d cook the family meal - but that was before Mum took pity on her office party hangover.

The gift beckoned: ‘Just a little peek.’

She sipped her wine as she flipped through the channels, smiling as she pictured her parents’ Christmas Eve frenzy of activity.

The TV couldn’t distract her from the perfectly wrapped present. She picked at the cellotape to reveal a box. Inside - nothing. What?

Oh, a letter.

This year, we're giving you a special gift - your independence.
(Lily checked the envelope for a cheque.)

We know you’ll open it before you should. So, you’ll know you have to feed yourself on Christmas Day (there’s a turkey dinner in your freezer).

Lots of love – from Bali!

Mummy and Daddy.


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

[Note:
This story was written for the 6th SSFFS (Short Story & Flash Fiction Society) Project contest.
For more about the SSFFS Project go to www.shortstoryflashfictionsociety.com or follow Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Short-Stories-Flash-Fiction-Stories/692915047420207?fref=ts or Twitter @SSFFS_project]

Friday, 12 December 2014

Athens rains – and we all get wet

Rain doesn’t suit Athens.
It’s all the concrete that’s the problem, I think.

At least when it rains in London, the green gets even greener (and there’s probably more square metres of green space per capita in London than any other city in Europe), and there’s nothing to beat the smell of Regent’s Park after a shower. The thing is, London was built on the premise of its dampness. Just like Stockholm, which is built on a collection of islands in the Baltic Sea, it’s at peace with the liquid element, its natural habitat.

Athens’ natural habitat, however, is not damp. Its element comes from the Attica Sky all right, but not in the form of raindrops, rather in the form of heat from Apollo, the sun god.

So, when it rains in Athens, it is just not right. Everything looks soggy and grey and uninspired. It's almost as if the city is sulking.

This week has been an especially damp one, starting with some spectacular rainfall on Monday as I was making my way across the city to the office after a couple of weeks off. In the hour it took me to make my way by public transport from Holargos to Piraeus, I reckon it dumped the equivalent of the Aegean Sea on the city - the Attica Sky has been heavy with brooding, dark grey rain clouds. It didn’t take long for new rivers to form in the roads, raging torrents that seeped through the seams of your boots and soaked you from the ground-up, in spite of the brolly you’re gamely carrying.

Athens doesn't handle wet weather well – and nor do its residents. Just one good drenching and the number of cars on the road quadruples, dusty pavements become as slick as skating rinks, traffic grinds to a halt, public services change pace from slow to stop and debris-filled drains explode with gay abandon like geysers. 

Athenians feel cheated when it rains.

Unlike northern Europe, things are not designed for the rain here. Many homes have tile or mosaic flooring – great in the hot summers, but chilly in the wet autumn and winter months. Tumble driers are a rarity, and with more and more people avoiding turning on their radiators due to the past few years of crisis and enforced penny-pinching, there are times you think your washing will rot on the line long before it has the chance to dry.


It was against that sad, grey background that I was making my way to the office, when I suddenly spotted something that changed everything in an instant. Standing in the Metro station was a middle-aged man chatting on his phone – like thousands of other commuters that pass through every day. But in his hand he held a simple bunch of bright yellow roses.

It was the kind of sight that makes you wish your eyelid was a camera shutter, that you could capture that single fleeting image for all eternity.

That simple splash of yellow amid the rain-washed grey of Athens was the kind of image that reminds you that even the most overcast of days holds the potential for colour. It was a sight that… ...on the other hand, somebody better stop me before I start to sound like a bad greetings card.

Meanwhile, the rain goes on, and on, and on...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Glögg! Mandi lets her Swedish Chef out to play

Well, the nights have well and truly drawn in, the Christmas tree is up (and so far has not been attacked by Joker Da Kaat) and the festive season is well and truly upon us.

I've been a little lax of late on the blogging front, due to giving myself some time out to celebrate my birthday (one of the biggies) in style back in Blighty, so I thought now might the time to revisit an old post about a rather delicious (hic!) Scandinavian treat that's sure to warm your cockles, and more, in the run-up to Santa's big night.


Meet Lars.
You may not know his name, but I'm sure you all know him.

He's the Swedish Chef, usually seen burbling incomprehensively (but enthusiastically) around The Muppet Show kitchen, often with a chicken looking on in horror. 


I don't really know his name, but after more than two decades years of working for a company with Swedish management, he is definitely a Lars to me.
And he has a very special specality: Glögg.

I first came across it as an innocent 28-year-old, as I approached my first Christmas in my new job. Though based in Greece, many of the managers were Swedes - and they were keen as mustard to bring a little taste of the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean. I had already reluctantly sampled reindeer (I know, I know - but actually Rudolph and his ilk are surprisingly tasty) and had managed to avoid Rotten Herring (don't ask - it IS what it sounds like), but the smells coming from the lunchroom that December morning were infinitely more enticing. 

Curiosity got the better of me and I was soon to found hanging my head over a gently seething cauldron of ruby red liquor bubbling with almonds, orange peel and sultanas, with my boss stirring away merrily. It smelt orgasmic. (The booze, not my boss!).

Before I knew it, I had a little glass of the stuff in my hand and was taking my first tentative sip. Then a bolder slurp. Then another glass or two - or four.

I don't remember much after that... except a mental note that this Yuletide concoction was lethal enough to fell a whole longship of Vikings. And that I got the bus home that evening. I think.

So, if you're feeling bold, here is a recipe, including the extras my boss liked to throw into the mix. It will certainly keep the cold at bay - but you may not feel your nose after a glass or two.

You will need:
3 sticks cinnamon
2-3 pieces dried Seville orange peel (use fresh if dried not available
2-3 pieces dried or fresh ginger (not ground)
some 10 cardamom seeds (whole)
some 10 cloves (whole)
1 cup (2.5dl) water

and:
sugar
1 bottle of red wine 

(added extras: a few good slugs of vodka or brandy, or both!)
Blanched almonds and sultanas for serving

What to do:
- Put the spices and water in a small pan and bring to the boil. Then turn off heat and let it stand overnight
- Pass the mixture through a sieve to filter out the 'bits' from the spices 

- Pour in the wine and gently heat (don't boil!)
- Add sugar to taste (about half a cup) and stir til it dissolves
- Heat but do not bring it to the boil. Alcohol evaporates when boiled and that sort of defeats the object!

- If you're feeling naughty, spike the whole thing with a splash or three of vodka or brandy
- Serve hot with raisins and blanched almonds (dropped into the cups after serving).


Skål!

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Night Shift

A fox barks, and a distant owl hoots somewhere across the playing fields. I peek out from my shelter among the roots and watch as darkness rapidly covers what’s left of the dull, damp day like a shroud spread over a dearly departed. The glare of a street light pokes jagged fingers through the branches above me as I wait for dusk to give way to night.

Out there, humans are returning to their homes. Closing heavy curtains against the unknown night. Enfolding them in the comfort of their own homes, where they’ll grab a few hours with their loved ones – and maybe a take-away as they watch a TV movie – before seeking solace in the safety of their beds. At least, that’s where they think they’re safe.

There’s no home our kind hasn’t visited. No sleep we haven’t shattered with a spasm of fear and panic. No locked doors or barred windows that can keep us away.

Ironic really that they’ve started hanging up ineffective spiders’ webs of wool and trinkets bearing our own name to keep us away. 

Little do they know that we’re not the ones who conceive and give birth to the night terrors that haunt them – they manage that just fine all on their own in the depths of their buried hopes and fears.

We just gather them, take sustenance from them, and use them to build our dark subterranean kingdoms.

We are the Dreamcatchers.  



[Note:
This story was written for the 5th SSFFS (Short Story & Flash Fiction Society) Project contest - and it won!

For more about the SSFFS Project go to http://shortstoryflashficitonsociety.com/ or follow Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Short-Stories-Flash-Fiction-Stories/692915047420207?fref=ts or Twitter @SSFFS_project]

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Coming ashore

Jacob heaved his sailor’s sack onto his shoulder as the ‘Wind Rider’ bumped into her berth. He sniffed, unused to the singed caramel tinge to the smoggy air from the nearby Tate & Lyle sugar works at Silvertown. 

Stevedores’ shouts cut through the damp evening and light drizzle shimmered the cobbles. Ahead, the refinery’s twin chimneys rose up behind the dockface of warehouses, cranes and bustle – a dark terrestial reminder that he was leaving his old life behind.

A small black paw gently batted his sea-roughened cheek. It came from a cat perched parrot-like on the old salt’s other shoulder, nestling in the bush of hair that hadn’t seen a barber for nigh on forty years.

“Don’t fret, Shaitan,” rasped the sailor. “Tis land, nothing more. You’ll come to know it soon enough.”

Nodding farewells to the deckhands, he walked down the gangplank and left a lifetime afloat behind him. It was time to reacquaint himself with the London land he had left as a boy.

The tavern had no draw on him, buoyed as he was against the cold by the tot of rum in his last mug of ship’s tea. A faded beauty threw a weary “Fancy a good time, darlin’?” in his direction, but he just trudged on. He’d had every kind of portside whore the world could offer, and had probably fathered more street urchins that he’d had hot dinners.

He stopped at a fishmonger’s stall. Shaitan purred into the sailor’s beard at the smell of poor man’s fish. Jacob pulled out a few coins for a pint of winkles and couple of pieces of the jellied eel.

Two streets down, he reached a door unopened for many a year and pulled a key on a grimy string from around his neck. It slotted into the lock, and turned rustily to open to a small room, piled high with the cluttered order of poverty. An embroidered tablecloth beneath the dust of neglect revealed the woman’s touch that had once held sway. But no more. Sarah was gone. Taken away by the diphtheria whilst her brother was sailing the world.

Shaitan leapt to the ground, sniffing at her new surroundings. Jacob dropped his sack, took a saucer from the shelf above the sink in the corner and placed on it a piece of gelatinous fish. He put in on the floor and settled into a tired red armchair, taking a long pin from his pocket to ease the winkles out of their shells.

Empty shells rustled as he fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of the sea. The mistress – sometimes harsh – that he had served, man and boy, and who he had now left behind.

A sudden weight on his chest jolted him awake. Luminous eyes stared into his watery blue ones. Claws, ever-so slightly extended, experimentally dabbed his lips, and a pink tongue voiced a demand for more food.


Jacob had a new mistress now.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Half century mumblings

As I hurtle through the past few weeks of my 40s, it occurs to me that I’m supposed to have grown up and found myself by now.

In some ways, I have – I’m in a settled, long-term relationship, I’ve raised my contribution to the next generation, I’ve achieved a few things in my career, I’ve made some fabulous friends, and I’m probably more comfortable in my own skin than I ever was.

In other ways… not at all!
As I've got older, I've become more of a rebel now than I ever was growing up in provincial middle class England (at this rate, I’ll have a half-shaved head and green eyebrows by the time I hit 70).

Anyway, just for the sheer hell of it, I decided to draw up some lists to remind myself of 50 of the things that have got me this far (and a few of those that I still want to tick off before surrendering to  middle age, the menopause, or whatever else is lurking around the corner).

Things I’m glad I’ve become before I slamming into my 50s:
1)      A redhead
2)      Bilingual
3)      A Humanist
4)      More open-minded
5)      Fit(ter than I was)
6)      Owl-obsessive
7)      An unapologetic man-loving feminist

Things I reckon I’ve always been:
8)      Loud
9)      Clumsy
10)   Passionate
11)   Opinionated
12)   Unexpectedly introvert
13)   In a hurry
14)   An unashamed idealist
15)   The butt of people’s jokes
16)   Slightly nerdy

Things that make my life better:
17)   Tea
18)   Friends
19)   Loud music
20)   Laughter
21)   Books
22)   The Internet
23)   Cheese
24)   Eyeliner
25)   The Mr
26)   The ManChild
27)   Red lipstick
28)   Red wine
29)   A mother who’s also a great friend and inspiration

Things I’ve never regretted:
30)   Speaking my mind
31)   Believing most people are fundamentally good, kind and decent.
32)   Falling in love, head first.
33)   Every book I’ve ever read - even the bad ones, the ones that make me say "If this crap can get published, why the hell can't I?".
34)   Marrying my best friend.
35)   Moving to Greece and making my life here.
36)   Becoming a mother….   once.

Quotes
37)   “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” – me.
38)   “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker.
39)   “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly past.” – Douglas Adams.
40)   “I can resist anything but temptation.” – Oscar Wilde.
41)   “Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
42)   “Laughter is an enema for the soul.” – Robin Williams

Things I promise to keep doing:
43)   Being me
44)   Loving life
45)   Exercising regularly
46)   Seeking out interesting people – even if I have little or nothing in common with them

Things still left to do:
47)   Swim with dolphins
48)   Watch the Aurora Borealis
49)   Hug a koala
50)   Write that damn book I know is inside me

Have I missed anything out?

Friday, 31 October 2014

Around The Cauldron: Evil Eye

She breathed a sigh of exhausted relief as she laid her baby girl gently in the cot. Big blue eyes blinked sleepily up at her, then closed as the child finally surrendered to the deep rhythms of sleep. Georgia fingered the gaudy blue bead at her throat and said a prayer to the god she didn’t believe it that her daughter would never know humiliation she had growing up.

The necklace had been a gift from her superstitious Greek grandmother, Yiayia Gogo, on her 12th birthday. It was, she had said, to protect her from the evil eye but also carried a special charm that would protect others too.

“I know you think is all Greek stupidity, my darling,” she had said. “But I KNOW. You have your aunt Voula’s eyes – powerful eyes – and there lies the danger.”

Georgia had laughed as she thought of her sweet great aunt in the Gogo’s home village halfway up a Greek mountain. Her benevolent gaze through watery, saucer-like blue eyes looked anything but powerful or dangerous to her.

“Go on, you laugh,” her grandmother had said. “But even if you don’t believe, wear it always – please – as a favour to your Yiayia.”
So she had promised.

Every day, she wore the pea-sized stone the colour of a blue Lego brick, with a creepy eyeball crudely painted on it. Even when the mean girls at school who never missed the chance to mock her for her weight, her lack of grace, her love of books and lack of boyfriends spotted the bauble. Then one day, in a fit of teen rebellion, she slipped it off and hid it at the bottom of her pencil case.

Lucy and her gang of long limbed, expensively groomed thugs were waiting for her at the school gates that afternoon. Faster and stronger than her, it was nothing for them to take her bag and empty the contents onto the muddy verge in a fit of cackling glee, trampling her drawings underfoot. They found the necklace, drawing it out of the pencil case like it was a piece of snot on a string and screeching with laughter at its primitive gaze. Hot shame and anger flushed Georgia’s cheeks and she felt a shock, like a bolt of unseen lightning, as she glared at Lucy strutting along the side of the road pretending to model the eye pendant like it was the crown jewels.

Something shifted and cracked inside Georgia. A faint smell of singed hair tinged the air. Lucy tripped and fell back – right into the path of a speeding lorry. A scream, the screech of brakes, a sickening thud and a faint tinkle on the pavement as Georgia’s necklace landed next to her. A slick stream of red trickled into the gutter.

It was the last time that Georgia had ever taken her necklace off.

She shook herself away from her childhood memory, again burying the horror of what she knew she had done – though everyone else insisted it was an awful freak accident. It had been years since she’s allowed herself to think of that day. The exhaustion that came with being a new mother must have let her defences down.

Tonight had been particularly tough. Sam was working a double shift, and her mum refused to come anywhere near the baby until she had shaken her latest bout of flu. So, of course, the baby had screamed the house down for five solid hours. Nothing Georgia did calmed her. Not hugs, not milk, not bouncing up and down or singing every lullaby in the bilingual book. She felt like an utter failure as a mother until suddenly, without warning, the scarlet-faced infant stopped her senseless, wordless bawling and flopped like a rag doll against her mother’s shoulder.

Finally, a chance to breathe, and to wipe the baby sick off her blouse. She stripped to her bra in front of the bathroom mirror and wet a flannel to wipe herself clean. A blob of semi-congealed milk was caught on her pendant, clogging up the link connecting the bead to the chain. Carefully, she pulled it over her matted hair and held it below the tap to rinse it clean. 

A piercing squeal rang out from the baby’s room. Despair gripped Georgia. She dropped everything, curling in a ball, banging her head repeatedly against the wall behind her and slapping her hands over her ears. The ear-shattering cries continued.

“WHAT? What now?” screamed the young woman. “What the hell is wrong now? Can’t you PLEASE – for the love of God – please just stop?”

A shock of static snapped the air as she spied the blue bead dangling over the edge of the bathroom sink. She scrambled to her feet, reaching for the talisman, like a drowning woman clutching at a buoyancy aid. But too late.

The baby’s crying stopped abruptly. Horror ran through Georgia’s veins like ice.

She knew, with absolute certainty, that her prayer had been answered. Her daughter never would suffer the humiliation she had known as a teenager.


She would never do anything at all.