Short Stories - Fiction

Tail Light

The car is enveloped in a dense blackness broken only by the headlamps reaching out to illuminate the route. The winters’ solid night, so rudely disturbed, closes and regroups behind me as I pass. There is a strong sense of isolation out here and I tune the radio to a local station. The DJ counts down the few remaining hours of Christmas Eve and Chris Rea sings ‘Driving Home for Christmas’. Apt.  Reinforcing my overwhelming desire to get home.
      I sing along, the familiar tune melding with the heat in the car and the scent of vanilla. The steady hum of the engine adds to the mesmerizing aura and I feel myself nodding towards sleep. I stir myself and drop the window half an inch. The shocking draught that races in is cold enough to burn. Miles of icy roads to go yet. It’s been the coldest winter for years. Down to minus twenty degrees. Outside exposed flesh stings in the frozen air. Ice crystals form in my hair. Inhaling the rawness with each breath.                              
Chris Rea has finished and a soft Scottish accent warns me not to travel tonight unless it is necessary. It is necessary. Dodgy though. There have been no gritters out for days. They’ve run out. When they do get out the roads ice up again within hours. I’m hoping that the driving conditions will improve as I head south to the major roads. Up here there’s nothing but woods and single track roads. The fringes of woodland dance and sway in the headlights.
         The clouds inch along the sky exposing the full moon and giving a different character to the landscape. The diamond ice glitters on the trees and the iron hard ground glistens in the moonlight. A stunning monochrome winter wonderland is revealed and from the dark velvet warmth of the car I can admire its beauty without feeling its savagery.
            Up ahead I catch a glimpse of a single red tail light making erratic progress. Surely it can’t be a cyclist out here at this time. So exposed. I must be mistaken. No, there it is again, right at the edge of my vision. I can’t make out any detail. My headlights keep catching movement but too distant to distinguish. I am focusing intently on the light when suddenly a ghostly white owl glides silently in front of my car. I react automatically, braking and yanking the steering wheel to avoid hitting it.  Slowly, the car slides into a nightmare skid and my heart lurches as I see the yawning great drainage ditch looming towards me. In graceful slow motion the car glides in and gently overturns and something heavy and wrapped in Christmas paper bounces forward and strikes a dull weighty blow to my head. Blackness.                                                   
            I am awake and standing near the upside down car. I can remember everything except getting out and reach to explore the injury on my head. There is nothing there. It doesn’t hurt. The red tail light is still visible. Coming closer. I can hear ringing in my ears and realise I have concussion. I experience a sense of other worldliness and the ringing is getting louder. Like the percussion bells we used in music lessons in primary school. The tail light is approaching.
            The car engine must have stalled although the lights are still penetrating the gloom. I feel strangely calm as the bells get louder and movement breaks the beam of the lights. Standing before me is a deer. I can see ice on his coat like glittering jewels. He is tall, bigger than our local roe. Much bigger. But not a red deer. He is flanked by more. His nose seems to be glowing red. In and out of the shadows they move. Continuous jingling of bells. I know I must be hallucinating. The cold is all consuming but I don’t feel it. Just a stirring of happiness deep inside and I am compelled to move toward the small herd of deer. I see that they are harnessed together. And beyond the light is a large bulky object. There is someone there. But I am not scared. The happy feeling intensifies and I am drawn to the figure in the shadows. Where I was going and what I was doing before no longer seems to matter.
      I am suffused with delight as a gloved hand reaches out from the darkness to take mine. White fur cuff on a red sleeve. My joy erupts and spills out in laughter. He responds; Ho!Ho!Ho!  And the bells jingle as we embark.

They find the car on Christmas morning. A tragedy they say. Hypothermia. 


The Cross on the Tree. 

At the far end of the long neglected meadow the woods are insidiously reclaiming the pasture-land. Rusted barbed wire sags under the onslaught of brambles and tall, spiteful nettles. This place, with its still sense of forgotten-ness and array of wildlife draws me back time and again. I thought I was the only human to come here, armed with my camera and tripod, shooting the seasons from my camouflaged hide. But the winter before last I was trying to capture the menacing beauty of stark trees against snow heavy skies when I noticed something. Secured to the trunk of an old Scots-pine was a wooden cross. Aged and silvered it blended almost imperceptibly with the weathered bark. My imagination was stirred and I wondered about the cross and its provenance.
     Winter gradually warmed into spring and by late summer the cross was hidden by
 foliage once again. But I knew it was there, marking something. Meaning something. By October the leaves danced down in gusts of wind that promised harsher times. This was the best month for snapping the cackling jays as they gathered acorns and hazelnuts, stock-piling them for the winter. Halloween found me waiting patiently for that elusive prize-winning shot when the birds were disturbed by the approach of a man. The hide was well established having aged seamlessly into the wooded backdrop and he was unaware of my presence. I was about to make myself known when curiosity got the better of me and instead I turned the camera towards him and focused down the zoom lens until his features were clear. 
     He was old. His wrinkled leathery skin told of a life in the open air. A shepherd perhaps, or long retired farmer. Walking seemed an onerous task and he made frequent stops, leaning on the furred green fence-posts that wobbled under his weight like rotten teeth, loose in their sockets. At the Scots-pine he sat down and rested for a long while. I could see his lips moving but the distance was too great to hear his words. His hand rested against the bark of the tree, as if it was an old friend. Eventually he struggled to his feet, patted the tree and made his way back until I lost sight of him.
     It was a moving scene and I was left with a sense of shame at having intruded on something private. Where I might have made enquiries about the man, my voyeurism held me to a guilty silence.
     The seasons passed but the cross and the elderly man lingered, nudging at the edges of my mind. I waited in the hide, hoping he would return but for a year there was no sign of him. Halloween saw the red sun lying low and heavy on the horizon and I had almost abandoned my vigil when he appeared. His advance was erratic and even from a distance I could see that he was struggling, staggering a short way and then taking long rests. As he approached the tree he fell heavily and I raced to find him lying still in the wet grass.
     ‘Hello?’ I knelt down beside him and touched his shoulder. His eyes flicked open, pale blue irises with pupils that didn’t quite constrict enough.
     ‘No, it’s not Ally’ I answered, ‘you’ve had a fall but don’t worry we’ll get help’. I dialled the emergency services from my mobile phone.
     ‘Ally, I knew you’d come’ he seemed reassured and grasped my hand in his. But his words became incoherent and I was helpless as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Eventually I was able to guide the paramedics to where he lay. He died before they got him to hospital and for some reason I felt as if I had lost a dear friend.
    The police were satisfied with my explanation of the circumstances that led to me sitting in a cold wet field holding a dying man’s hand in the murky dusk of a Halloween evening. They told me that he was called Ernest McCabe and was indeed a retired farmer. His only relative was his much younger sister. They agreed to pass on my details to her with an invitation to call me if she wished. I waited but the call never came.
     Down at the end of the meadow, instead of sitting in the hide with my camera, I sat by the tree below the cross, my hand on the bark, and wondered about Ernest McCabe.
     By December I had given up hope of learning more when there was a knock at the door. I found myself facing an elderly lady with those same blue eyes. She wanted to see where I had found her brother. As we made our way there, I had the impression that she knew where she was going. I showed her the cross.
     ‘I knew it would be here,’ she said.
My confusion must have shown because she began to explain, telling me how Ernest had met Alistair during their National Service. Ernie and Ally. The shame of the Court Martial. The prison sentence. How they were rejected and publicly shunned. Only Elizabeth understood and refused to judge.
     ‘Love is love’ she said.
Later they worked on different farms and used to meet up in the meadow where no-one else went, even then. Eventually they rented a remote farm and were able to live and work together but they never publicly acknowledged their relationship. For forty years, they secretly celebrated their anniversary with a picnic under the tree. Ally died on Halloween, six years previously and Ernie buried his ashes there and secured the simple wooden cross high on the trunk. Despite his failing health, every Halloween he made the pilgrimage to that special place.
     We buried Ernie’s ashes at the base of the tree.
    ‘They’re together now’ smiled Elizabeth.
    ‘I think they always were’ I replied and we made our way back in the gathering gloom of the December afternoon.

About 'The Cross on the Tree'.

This story was written in response to discovering a mysterious cross on a tree in the middle of nowhere. The photo above is the actual cross that prompted much musing and wondering. The (now defunct) Brighton Community of Writers (Brighton Cow) were running an international competition for short stories with an autumn theme so I styled the story around autumn and loss and submitted it. Although it didn't win it was shortlisted from a pretty large entry so I was very pleased.
          Prior to writing the story I wrote about the discovery of the cross on my other blog here.


The Immigrants

The wind hurried through the trees to pummel the walls and moan down the chimney. Outside it chivvied the shed roof which initially parried with a narrow strip of bitumen but swiftly succumbed to the attack. The felt flailed gently, fatally creased, until finally torn away it fell to the ground and lay still. It reminded him of those who had been mortally wounded. Lucek stood alone and watched as the heavy clouds migrated purposefully to the south carrying their load in their deep grey bellies. His sense of loss was echoed in the discordant calls of the flocks of barnacle geese that teemed in to graze the fields between the house and the mudflats.  As the icy darts of sleet began to prickle his face, he scattered the birdseed in his hand and turned to retreat from the desolate world, to his equally desolate home
                   He heard a distant Boom! Boom! Boom! and for a split second was transported back to his youth and the barrage that had infected his dreams for seventy years. Instantly the memory was dismissed as a mud spattered jeep roared passed, music so loud that the two occupants must be deafened. Lucek caught a glimpse of a khaki camouflage jacket and again experienced an unwanted flashback. It was happening so often these days. Since Bessie had gone his thoughts settled so easily on the death and destruction of the past. So many things jolted him back. He sighed and made his way unsteadily to the house.
                   The silence flooded the jeep as Aaron turned the radio off. ‘Can’t beat a bit of thrash metal  to get you in the mood mate’ he laughed. ‘Well, that and a bit o’ dutch courage.’ He opened the glove compartment and withdrew a bottle of amber liquid, unscrewed the top and took a greedy swig, dribbling the contents into his unkempt beard. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand he belched and passed the bottle to Jason. 
                   ‘Too right mate, Cheers,’ Jason’s anticipation was  palpable. He loved this. The fact that they were doing it illegally was even better. They drank as the grainy vapour of the spirit competed with the odour of their unwashed bodies in the warm vehicle. The alcohol was having the desired effect as they began to unload their gear and made their way towards the secluded site that Aaron had selected previously.
                  ‘You done it here before then?’ Jason’s question was half enquiry half statement and Aaron nodded in reply.  
                  ‘Couple of times. You just have to watch out for the old geezer if he’s still there. Thinks he’s one o’ them eco-warriors. Goes ballistic. Fuckin’ hilarious. I thought he was gonna have a heart attack last year. Nearly pissed meself.’ 
Jason’s heavy features contorted. 'He won’t phone the law or anything will he?’ 
                   ‘Nah. He‘s bloody ancient. I reckon he’ll have snuffed it by now. Even if he hasn’t by the time he gets within quarter of a mile we can be long gone.’  Aaron hawked and spat a green glob into the reeds as they walked. Minutes later they were hidden from view and only the tall whispering rushes knew they were there.  
                   Sitting in his chair by the fire Lucek had drifted off and was once more lost in the nightmare of 1942. A conscript, yet barely out of childhood himself. The horror of having a young man in his rifle sights. Begging him not to shoot. Eyes beseeching. The noise and the shouting. Exhorted to shoot by his peers. The terror. The panic. The tightening of his finger against the trigger. The ear shattering explosion and the appalling destruction of a fellow human being like himself. Blood on his hands. Falling to his knees and vomiting violently. After that he swore he would never shoot again. Capture by the Allies ensured that he was able to honour his vow and transportation to Britain facilitated a new life. Bessie.  A love of peace and tranqulity. The beauty of the wildlife. Live and let live. But the past was indelibly dyed into his core and each year found him making the increasingly difficult journey to pay his respects. Today a lift had been arranged by a local charity and his overcoat was waiting by the door with the paper flower tucked into the lapel. 
He jerked awake with the report of guns resounding in his head. It took him a few minutes to realise that he was no longer dreaming and the anger flared in his chest. For years he and Bessie had loved the wild open space around their remote coastal home. Each November the flocks of clamouring geese returned from Svalbard to spend the winter alongside them. He felt a kinship with them, knowing that they lived both here and in his homeland, and an affinity because they chose a mate for life. They too had made the arduous journey from the hostile north to be here. He would not stand by and see them harmed. Forgetting the day’s plans he pulled himself from the chair. Slowly, painfully, he made haste, gathering his coat and not noticing that the flower had fallen from his lapel. He made for the sound of gun fire.
Boom! Boom! Boom! 'Got it!’ screamed  Jason from his hiding place. The bird’s  flight was abruptly halted and it careened to the ground, landing heavily. It struggled towards the cover of the reeds dragging its shattered wing. 
'Ah shit we’ve lost that one,’ muttered Aaron ‘it's alright for the pro's we need a dog,’ but his attention was diverted by more shots from Jason.
 ‘Number two,’  he crowed as the bird tumbled from the sky. Aaron had yet to hit one and he consoled himself with another swig from the bottle. Truculent, he neglected to offer any to Jason but the snub was lost with the thrill of the kill. Aaron aimed again, this time fixing his sights on a small group of large white birds, lower and slower than the geese. The swan bucked into the air as the shot exploded into its breast and it seemed to pause for an instant before crashing to the ground, its neck broken on impact. A heavy silence settled around them. He looked up and found Jason staring at him. 
'Jesus mate, you’ve done a swan.’  
Maintaining eye contact he straightened up, pulled out the bottle and raised it to Jason before swallowing deeply. Triumphant, he threw the bottle over to his friend. Jason raised it in salute before draining the dregs and discarding the empty bottle into the reeds.  
‘We won’t get anymore here today, let’s go and get some grub’ instructed Aaron and without question Jason deferred to his order. Collecting the goose and the swan they made their way back to the jeep, leaving the injured goose to its fate. They threw the guns and birds onto the back seat and high on the alcohol and the illicit excitement, they relived the shoot as they sped back towards civilisation. Thrash metal turned up high.
James rapped the rusty iron knocker on the door and noted the dilapidated state of the place. These old folk were made of hardy stuff. He waited a while in the bitter cold, knowing that Mr Lisiecki was slow and unsteady, before  reluctantly knocking a second time. After the third knock he stepped back and surveyed the place. The old house stood still and impassive, keeping its secrets.  
James felt something uneasy slide over him and made his way rapidly round the house, looking into each window with mounting alarm and fearing what he might find. Nothing. Through the refection of his own face he saw only empty tidiness on the ground floor. There was an ominous stillness about the place. He’d have to break in to check upstairs. He could vividly picture the old man’s last hours, falling, lying alone and injured .He shouted the name, sounding strange on his tongue, even as he knew there would be no answer. He shouted again, pounding on the door. Oh God why had this happened to him? He was only a driver. But he couldn’t just walk away. Was it best to break a window? He got out his mobile to call the police and cursed as it confirmed what he already knew. There was no signal here. Surely there must be a phone in the house? No question, he’d have to break in. God knows what he would find.
He cast around and his eye settled on a large moss covered rock. James raised the rock, smashed the glass and forced his way into the house. Slowly climbing the stairs he tried to delay the inevitable discovery. But again, nothing. From the bedroom window he thought he could see a distant figure out on the lane but even as he watched the figure disappeared from sight.
The narrow road was slick with ice and mud and the going was slow for Lucek. He rested momentarily, leaning against an old stone gatepost. He knew his action was pointless but the principles of a lifetime persisted. He was relieved that Bessie was no longer here to witness his inability to protect their birds. Their combined efforts of decades had resulted in a haven for the wild creatures around them. No poaching on their watch.
 Lost again in memories, happier this time, Lucek relived how they had met at her first small exhibition. How their shared love and respect for the geese had reflected their feelings for each other. How the geese had always been the talisman of their life. Bessie’s oils of waterfowl had won critical acclaim but Lucek’s quiet pride had been more important to her than anything else. And now she was lying cold in the icy ground. He had let her down. Just as he was now letting the geese down. Too late he remembered the lift that he would now miss. He’d let them down as well.  He had failed everyone. He could almost hear Bessie gently chiding him for his black thoughts and the need to join her threatened to engulf him. The howl of the speeding vehicle jolted him from his reverie and in a sparkling moment of clarity he recognised the chance of escape. He could see Bessie reaching for him and he acted almost instinctively. Although not  yet eleven o’clock he would pay his respects regardless. As the jeep approached the bend he hobbled into its path. He tried to stand to attention as it hurtled down on him, his right arm curved in a final salute.
They were unprepared and incapable as they rounded the corner and found Lucek facing them on the single track road. Aaron hit the brakes hard and the jeep skidded violently into the gateway, its frenzied spin arrested by the ancient gatepost. Jason, drunk and without a seatbelt, shot forward face first into the windscreen which shattered into a fractured web. In the eternal seconds that followed, Aaron sat rigid and shocked, staring in wordless horror at Jason’s crumpled body.   
Boom! Boom! Boom! The incongruous clamour of thrash metal in the silence emphasised the stillness of the wetlands. Even the birds were hushed. Waiting. He was vaguely aware of the back door of the jeep opening and an old man peering in.
   ‘Oh thank God. Go and get help’ he whispered. No reply. ‘Go and get help’ he repeated louder. Was the man an imbecile? ‘Get help you fucking moron’ he spat into the sad lined face of his rescuer.
Lucek looked at the birds lying broken on the back seat. He saw that there were only two although he had definitely seen a third one hit. No doubt it was lying dying somewhere. Sport.  Boom! Boom! Boom! in his head. He felt a great sadness for the birds and their lifelong mates. Confined now to a life of loneliness like himself. Sport for these vile creatures. His anger settled cold on him and he noted with satisfaction the  silent passenger and how the angle of his neck mirrored that of the swan on the back seat. The driver was shouting obscenities at him now, telling him to get help, calling him stupid.
Since the jeep had skidded past him, almost brushing his clothes, Lucek had been enveloped in a feeling of calm acceptance. Now he smiled as he lifted the gun from the seat and methodically checked it. He saw that it was loaded. Vile creatures with no thought for safety. No consideration for anything or anyone in their lives. This is what so many had died for. He saw the flush of red that sat like a poppy on the swan’s snowy breast and Lucek absently raised his hand to his own empty lapel. He inclined his head in a nod towards the swan and levelled the gun at the now silent driver. 1942. A young man in his sights. A fellow human being. Begging him not to shoot. Eyes beseeching.  Lucek’s finger on the trigger. Boom! Boom! Boom! in his head.


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