Oranges and Coastlines

A writing board for first thoughts and unpolished ideas.

Category: Fiction

The story of Alf

The little house stood at the edge of the world, reaching out into that strange no-place between universes. At times, vast winds would whoosh, whistle and wail around the little house, and it would wobble and creak and the ceiling would leak. At other times, when it was still, it felt like the wait of the silence might just crush the little house into the surrounding earth. And then there were other times, as the moons drifted lazily across a deep blue sky, when whispers, almost like siren song, echoed and rippled through the air.  From the unknown emptiness of the no-place, came voices from different worlds, spoken in corners of some distant universe, governed by some different understanding.

From where the little house reached out,  the rest of the world reached back, into a forest and beyond. The forest, like the air, rippled and bent at the edges, and was so impossibly vast it stretched out until there was no more earth on which for the roots to grow. The forest, at this point, simply fell off the edges of the earth, for the earth itself was flat, spinning through space in its own bubble-like atmosphere. Within this atmosphere, the sun rose each morning and burnt red across the southern end of the world, before making its way in an arch across the earth to set in the ‘Evening North’. The world was therefore lit by an interesting light, and so was the way of the world, and to everyone living upon it, they could scarcely imagine it existing in any other way.

                Now this story begins at this particular, forgotten edge, for it was quite unlike any other. As the little house stood, and the voices sang, a little old man would sit on the porch of his little old house, close his wrinkled, ancient eyes, and listen to the voices that echoed from the no-place. In these moments, the wizened old face, lined by years too numerous to count, lit up with a childlike wonder. It was as if the voices were meant only for him, as if drifting back from some past life.

As a boy, Alf had never had any dreams of adventure. Adventure, rather, had found him. He was born in a village on the edge of a forest. His parents were millers. They ground grain which grew from particular kinds of wild flower. With the grain they made soft, round boules of bread, and with the petals they made incense. As a child, his world was enclosed by the great wall of trees on one side, and two rivers that flowed out from the forest’s edge, running miles apart before winding together and becoming one. The forest loomed over the village, but not in the ominous way forests so often did. There was nothing dark or scary about those tall evergreens, at least not to those who lived in its shadow. From within, Owls hooted, mice hid, and nature went about its business in an entirely non-scary way.

It was said that the two rivers were lost lovers, and flowed from deep within the heart of the forest. Wandering one day, the two lovers had gotten lost and in the darkness they diverged. Alone, each river twisted and turned through the trees, their banks narrow and their flows rapid and desperate. As they broke the forest’s edge, they slowed and widened and each sensed its lover in the distance. They eased and waited, until eventually, at River’s Meet, fate brought these two lovers together once again. In joy, each river leapt into the banks of the other, and they flowed into one inseparable being. The villagers spoke of this story as if it were fact, and when two people fell in love it was tradition for each to sleep where the rivers escaped the trees, and at dawn begin walking the miles of the lost rivers’ flow. The rest of the village would gather excitedly at River’s Meet and line the last mile with torches and ribbons. Night had fallen by the time the tired and weary couple met once again. Before the onlookers, they exchanged ribbons, and like the two Rivers were taken in the arms of the other. The ceremony was short, for the meaning was in the walk and the arrival not the words or the ribbons. Yet in this way, the rivers helped forge the very character of the village they surrounded.

Between the forest and these two love-lorn rivers, the village – its houses, its fields, its farms, its mills – sat safely nestled in what the inhabitants called Nature’s Gate. Nature’s Gate was a strange place, and its inhabitants a strange, small-worldly kind of folk. Doors were seldom locked and children ran in and out of houses as if each were their natural home. When food, clothes and fuel were in abundance, families took their spares to the Townhouse as gift to neighbours who didn’t share their good fortune, knowing that one day the favour would be repaid. There was an easy flow to life and a kindness of heart that underpinned each passing day.

From time to time, the adults would have cause to leave Nature’s Gate to sell their bread and their incense in neighbouring market towns. They went in whirling flying machines called Whirligigs, which they dusted down and polished, and turning the propeller they sputtered and spun into life. It was quite a sight, seeing hundreds of these little machines rise into the air, and like bees slowly buzz out of sight. Alf and the other children excitedly chased after them to the River’s Meet, and when they could be seen no more, they ran around the river’s edge, playing games and making dens. In warm summer evenings, they would light fires and sit singing songs and telling spooky stories until grandparents and neighbours either called them in, or joined them to tell stories of their own. When his parents returned – sometimes days, sometimes weeks later – they brought sweet treats and strange new instruments, and flung their arms around him in a big crushing hug.

And so his childhood years passed like this, in gentle happiness. Each night the moons drifted across the sky, and when it was clear the little family would sit at the top of the mill tower and read to each other by moonlight. There was a haziness to these memories as they came back to him more in feeling that reflection.

The voices gradually faded and the sky went still. He wondered how long he had sat in his reverie; sometimes he found himself lost for hours at a time. He stood up and wandered back into the house, a great sadness falling over him.

The interior was sparse. There were no photos or objects to hint at any other life than this. No tokens of sentimentality. An old carriage clock on the mantelpiece was coated in a thick layer of dust and had long stopped ticking. The old man moved slowly around the place, drifting by memory rather than sight. The kettle boiled on the stove and he made himself a cup of sweet fruit tea. Darkness was falling outside and he could see one of the moons rising through the window. Through another window he could see only forest: tall, dark and uninviting. Sat at the table, the only noise was the rhythmic tapping of his fingers against the cup. Everything about the old man was detached somehow, content to exist his own little world: alone, forgotten, at this strange juttering edge of the real one.

Impossibly Old

Nanny appeared impossibly old. She belonged to the house, and drifted from corridor to corridor, room to room, as if she were part of its very life blood. She was a small woman, no taller than 5 foot, and she seemed to thin more and more with each passing year, as if one day she might simply vanish unnoticed into the wallpaper. Her features were sharp, accentuated in old age by wafer-thin skin which hung from high cheekbones, giving her a gaunt, almost emaciated appearance. In her youth she had possessed an astonishing and intimidating beauty, but the years had not been kind, and those cheekbones, coupled with a razor-sharp jaw line and narrow, puckered lips, created a look reminiscent of a desperate crow. She would have been terrifying, Ada often thought, were it not for a softness that had found home in those ancient green eyes. Even when her tone held nothing but reproach, as was often the case, those eyes radiated nothing but an honest, and unwavering love. If Ada had known more of life, of its potency and pain, she might have read that softness as sadness. There was a slowness and whispery flow to her movements that so often suggested she was somewhere else entirely, reliving a past moment in a past life. Ada’s voice would draw her back to the present, and she’d smile and stroke her hair, and look at the young girl as if seeing her for the first time. How wonderful, the old woman thought, to know so little of life, that she could not perceive the scars, etched, unhealed, on the windows of the soul.

Abel

From the Clouds

Sensible, perhaps, but Abel was not a popular man. He was too serious, too practical, too eager to get things done. In parliament sessions, he made long speeches about the state of the nation, and proposed courses of action which sounded all too much like hard work. Yet he nevertheless commanded a certain gravitas, and with that respect. He was taller than most, and neither as wide nor as self-aggrandising. He swept into rooms which seemed to shrink other men and turned leaders into docile sheep. He had a shrewd, calculating edge, and a sharpness of wit that cut through arguments like a knife through butter on a hot summer’s day. And on a moment’s notice, he could turn, with a gleam in his eye, and charm a camel out of its humps. Accompanied by a natural grace and tantalising smile, his charm came with such ease it left people both mesmerised and unnerved. As such, people both craved and dreaded his company, and he never left a room without leaving at least a few weak in the knees. He unsettled people, and this trait did not spark popularity. However, those who felt the world spin turned to him, and with a calm ferocity he led them across the Rubicon.

This is how the war started.

The clouds were how it ended.

Then the Clouds Came…

A Prologue

Fields of green had given way to a wasteland of mud and broken things. Where the wasteland ended, a city of worn red brick began. Vast factories and their chimneys stretched high into the sky, and on the ground people scurried like ants among black, soot covered buildings. They had a tired, ghost-like quality to them. Atop a hurriedly built wall, men paced nervously, carrying telescopes and battered tilley lamps.

They are waiting for news. News that a war has ended. A brass band plays a slow march outside a grand town hall, and posters litter the street, carrying repeated words of “Victory is ours”, “Freedom costs lives”, and “We speak for the many”. The occasional motor car whistles down the road, always taking someone important somewhere in a hurry, or otherwise carrying an urgent telegram to the war office. 

Everywhere, people stop in the street to greet each other. They shake hands with grim smiles and ask, “any news?”, and the reply comes – “not yet, but it won’t be long now.” And with that they hurry on, coats wrapped tightly around them to keep out the cold. News will come soon, but the cold bites, and they all have work to do until it does.

Among them, a couple hurry along the road, past the town hall and the marching band, their long coats flapping behind them. They turn corner after corner, not slowing down or stopping for breath. In his arms, huddled inside his coat, the man clutches a baby to his chest. It does not cry or stir. When at last they come to a halt, they are on the edge of the city, and they draw back behind the last standing wall of a bombed out house. Round the corner is a large iron gate that stands open onto the wasteland beyond.

Checking they are unseen, they lean back and catch their breath. The woman is tall, with long hair brown tied in a loose bun. She has an elegance and finery to her that he does not. The man is slightly shorter, with short, scruffy hair and an honest, unshaven face. He kisses the baby and places it in the mother’s arms. They have hurried, worried looks about them.

Everything around them seems to be moving in a blur. They draw close, holding on to everything they have in the world. The baby, snuggled warmly between them, is fast asleep. It hasn’t known any other world but this one, but in its parents arms it sleeps peacefully unaware.

They look at each other with love and fear – in these times there is little difference -, clinging to each other, knowing time is short.

“I have to go”, says the woman, “I have to warn them.” She pauses for a moment and adds, “Father will agree to the terms. He has no choice now. And anyway, he would sign anything if it would mean my return.” 

The man nods. He doesn’t like it but knows there is no arguing. Her mind is set and he trusts her implicitly. Resigned, he smiles. “When the peace is settled we will live in a whole new world. It won’t be long now. One final push.” His voice is accented and rough, contrasting her smooth, dulcet tones. “Then I’ll come to you. To you both”. He strokes the baby’s head with hardened fingers. “She’s spent too long in this place already.”

She grips his hand, wanting to say something profound, something meaningful, but nothing needed to be said.  

A motor car suddenly turns a corner and hurtles towards them, wobbling down an uprooted road. It is time to go.

As it screeches to a halt, she clambers into the carriage and he shuts the door behind her.

“Stay safe.”

With a glint in her eye that reminds him of happier times, she smiles and says “don’t worry. We’ve made it this far. It’s just the beginning”. 

*****