A Devil’s Pet

 

(Disclaimer: I think this is quite possbily the most chilling thing I have ever written. Proceed at your own risk. You have been warned.)

A Devil’s Pet

 

The fire crackled softly to itself and the sleeping baby in the Moses basket made a tiny sound and lapsed into deeper sleep, a minute bubble of milk at the corner of her mouth. Naomi relaxed again and tried to focus again on her book. One child had been demanding enough but the arrival of her second baby had put a serious crimp on her ability to concentrate on anything but the essentials. At least Joel had taken the arrival of a sibling better than most toddlers, doting on his new little sister and seeming very keen to play with her.

Mike was doing the dishes in the kitchen, humming away to himself and the sound was comforting. Apart from the sound of the fire, his was the only sound she could hear at all and she snuggled further into her shawl. The little house was warm and cosy and the scented candles filled the room with the fragrances of summer. Beyond the walls, a fine layer of snow had begun to settle and turn the mundane suburban garden into a wonderland of white icing.

A new sound caught her attention, one she couldn’t place, a faint scratching that seemed to be coming from the back door.

Mike, can you see what that noise is?” she called, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the baby.

Mike came through, drying his hands.

What noise?” he asked and as he said it, the noise died away.

I heard something at the back door,” Naomi said. “Go and look.”

He gave her a look that clearly said, why don’t you go and look, but with a sigh, he went out into the back hall and opened the door. Freezing air flooded into the house, and in its wake came a fluttering of snow flakes like feathers from a ripped pillow and a half grown black cat.

The cat hurtled in as if there were a dog pursuing it, fur standing on end and eyes wild and frenzied, and dodged past Mike’s legs and into the living room, skidding to a halt in front of the open fire and the baby basket.

What the-?” Mike shouted and Naomi shot off the sofa and out of the door to join him in the hall.

Get rid of it, Mike,” she hissed, clinging to him and shrinking away from the living room. “You know I hate cats. Get it away from the baby. Now.”

Mike raised his eyebrows in surprise but approached the cat cautiously. He quite liked cats but he’d never really handled one before and the cat backed away, spine arched and spitting at him, and he moved away. He snatched up the baby basket and fled to the hall.

Wuss,” Naomi said. “You’re scared of it!”

So are you,” he countered but she shrugged.

Mine’s a genuine phobia,” she said. “Kick it out.”

Mike decided that he wasn’t going to risk getting mauled and he faced his wife squarely.

The poor thing will freeze to death if I kick it out tonight,” he said. “Let it stay and it can go in the morning.”

Naomi looked as if she might argue but the sleeping baby’s eyes flickered, the rosebud face became crimson and the hungry whimpering started.

OK, OK,” she said. “Leave it there for tonight. I need to go to bed now anyway; this one needs a last feed and change. I don’t want that thing here tomorrow.”

Later, under the warm duvet, Naomi moved closer to Mike and cuddled up to him.

Why do you hate cats so much?” he asked sleepily.

My Gran said that cats were the devil’s pet,” she said. “They’re evil creatures. Noah only let cats on the Ark to keep the rats from eating everything.”

I see,” he said, sleepily and drifted off into uneasy dreams.

The next morning the cat was curled up on the hearth rug,not quite sleeping to judge by the half open eyes. When Mike came into the room, it yawned and stretched and came over to greet him, rubbing against his legs and purring. It was such a contrast to its demeanour the night before, he immediately began stroking it, and the purring increased to a rumbling that seemed incredibly loud from such a small creature. This morning, the fur smoothed down, it was clear that this was scarcely more than a kitten and when Naomi came down with the baby, the cat was lapping milk from a saucer in the kitchen.

It’s starving and homeless,” Mike said defensively when she let him get a word in edgeways. “It’s the worst weather I can ever remember and until I can find where it comes from, as far as I am concerned it can stay.”

The silence between them became deafening over the next few days until Naomi found mouse droppings behind the bread bin and decided to concede that a cat might actually have a use in her home. By the following morning, a row of mangled little corpses lay by the kitchen door and that was enough for her to agree that unless someone came forward to claim the black cat, it might be considered theirs, and a collar was bought, and bowls and all the usual equipment and toys followed.

I still don’t like cats,” she said one evening. “But this little chap seems to have his uses. Just make sure he doesn’t go and sit on the baby.”

The black cat seemed to understand his boundaries and was almost always to be found next to wherever the baby was put, in basket or pushchair or cot, but never too close for Naomi’s comfort. The mouse problem vanished and fed with tinned cat food and the raw steak mince Mike used to sneak to the cat, the cat grew rapidly from an underweight scrap of rather mangy fur into a handsome glossy coated beast with a purr like a chainsaw starting.

Joel, their three year old son seemed to have inherited his mother’s dislike of cats, and had been put on the Naughty Step innumerable times for kicking out at the cat or pulling its tail. The cat had not retaliated with claws or teeth until one day when Mike and Naomi were alerted by screaming and ran into the living room to be confronted with a sight that chilled them both.

The baby basket was tipped over on the floor, the baby flung across the hearth rug and was squalling red-faced and with flailing limbs while the cat stood, back arched in fury, his mouth gaping wide to show needles of yellow teeth and yowling fiercely at Joel who was himself screaming fit to burst their eardrums, clutching his hand that bore the unmistakeable lines of a cat’s claws.

Naomi screamed too and ran to snatch up the baby while Mike scooped up his wailing son and examined his hurt hand. The cat simply vanished, leaving the scene like a streak of black lightning. As Mike struggled to calm both wife and son, and the baby quietened down, Mike picked the basket up and set it back on its stand. To his surprise, he saw that the poker had been moved from its usual place on the rack by the fireplace and lay now partially under where the basket had fallen.

The cat remained absent for the rest of the day and came in at twilight to eat and go to sleep by the fire again. Mike convinced Naomi that in all likelihood Joel had finally grabbed at the cat and got what he deserved and that the baby basket had been tipped over in a scuffle. She eyed the cat with dislike as he ate but didn’t seem inclined to take action beyond banning the cat from the house during the daytime when she was around.

Joel needs to know he can’t just treat a live animal like a stuffed toy,” Mike said, reasonably. “He won’t try to hurt him again. He’ll have learned his lesson.”

The livid marks of the cat’s claws were covered with a small bandage but Joel said nothing about what had happened. He was not very advanced in his speech anyway and the health visitor had said that his speech might well be slowed by the arrival of a new baby. At night though, Mike could often hear him babbling away to his stuffed animals just as if he were a general ordering his army around. There weren’t many words that you’d recognise as English but he seemed quite fluent in whatever baby language he spoke.

The baby was a source of concern. From initially being a placid baby who only cried when hungry or wet, she had begun to howl like a banshee for hours on end and fretted at the breast and often when Naomi thought she’d settled her, minutes after she left the room, the baby would be screaming as if in pain. Joel played on with his toys, apparently oblivious of the noise. Tiny scratches and bruises showed up on the baby’s rose petal cheeks; she cut the baby’s tiny finger nails to stop her scratching at her face but still the marks appeared.

I don’t know what to do,” Naomi said, anxiously when the health visitor came. “Joel was never like this. He was such a good baby.”

She placed the baby back in the basket and gently rocked it a little. Stiffening slightly, as the cat sauntered in and took up his old place next to the basket, she gazed beseechingly at the health visitor.

What a handsome cat!” said the health visitor.

It’s Mike’s,” Naomi said, hastily. “I wouldn’t have one. Aren’t there legends about cats smothering babies?”

Myth, in all likelihood,” the woman replied. “A way of explaining sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Pets are good for children; gets their immune systems going properly for a start. See, Baby likes the pretty pussy cat; she’s gone to sleep now.”

Sure enough, with the arrival of the cat, the baby’s cries had ceased and she was now sleeping peacefully.

Cats can be very calming; did you know their purrs can help heal broken bones?” the health visitor put in and Naomi smiled politely.

Just as long as my baby is OK,” she said. She had no faith in the idea of cats being anything more useful than mouse killing nuisances.

Baby is fine,” said the health visitor soothingly. “But Joel does rather concern me though. He’s not talking as much as we’d expect for his age. Nothing to really worry about yet, but worth reviewing properly at his next developmental checks.”

Joel heard his name and looked over.

Nothing wrong with his hearing, anyway,” Naomi said.

That evening, she and Mike sat in front of the fire and watched the television without really taking anything in. Mike could sense she was worried and upset but knew better than to try and broach it before she was ready to talk. The cat lay curled on the hearth rug, purring softly and in the basket nearby, the baby slept peacefully.

He was about to suggest they go to bed when the living room door opened and Joel stumbled in, rubbing his eyes and grizzling as only a small child can. He toddled over to the baby basket and in an instant, the cat was awake and transformed from the purring bundle of shining black fur into a demonic shape, bristling and growling as if a dog had suddenly barged in. Spine arched, the cat lashed out with claws extended, and swiped at the child’s legs.

Naomi leapt to her feet and chased the cat out of the room, furious. When she came back, the baby was starting to cry and Joel was wailing while Mike inspected his legs for damage.

It’s OK, it didn’t hurt him,” he said hastily.

Naomi sat down heavily on the sofa cuddling the baby into sleep again, and Mike took Joel back upstairs. When he got back, she was crying.

It’s no good,” she said. “I’ve done my best but I can’t have that thing in my house any longer. Tomorrow, it goes. Either to the cat rescue people or the vet’s. I won’t have it attacking my children. I told you there was something evil about cats. Look what it tried to do to Joel. He didn’t even do anything that time.”

The poor animal is scared of him,” Mike said. “Which isn’t surprising. I caught him the other day with the poker, chasing the cat with it. He should be old enough to understand it’s wrong.”

He’s only a baby,” Naomi protested. “He doesn’t know any better.”

Then he’ll have to learn,” Mike said. “And so will you, darling. It’s just a cat, but we took it in and we can’t just get rid of it like that. Think how many mice he’s caught.”

Naomi just cried harder but Mike was determined not to be undermined on this issue as he had been on so many others. She knew him of old; confrontation on something he was set upon simply was pointless. There were of course other ways. Cats would not stay in a home where they were ill treated so over the next days, she ignored the cat when he mewed to come in out of the cold and left the feeding to Mike. If the cat approached her, she made a rush at it to chase it away.

But the cat seemed just as determined to get close, not to Naomi but the baby and try as she might, whenever she turned her back, the cat came back and was settled near wherever the baby way. It made her at first uneasy and then angry.

Leave my baby alone,” she would hiss, chasing the animal away. But it made no difference. As soon as she turned away, the cat returned.

It came to a head when the cat took to accompanying them on the short walk to the shop at the corner of the street, where their quiet residential avenue met a main road. People seemed to think it was cute that the cat would walk along with them but Naomi hated it. She paused outside the shop, hoping that the cat might actually just wander off if she left it out there alone long enough, and just as she was about to manoeuvre the buggy into the shop, Joel started to reach into the pushchair to pat his little sister’s face and the cat erupted into a spitting mass of fury, striking out at the toddler rapidly. Joel shrieked and to Naomi’s shock, he didn’t rush to her for protection but instead began kicking at the cat, driving it away from the pushchair and into the road. Naomi yelled and ran after her son, snatching at him and pulling him back out of the traffic.

There was a shrill sound of brakes being slammed on and a terrible soft wet thump as a car hit the fleeing cat, crushing the life out of it instantly. Naomi felt her knees go weak and pressed her son’s face into her legs, trying to shield him from the horrifying sight. The driver was as horrified as she was; the guy came tumbling out of his car, shaking and exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again.

The cat lay limp and bloody and unmoving and the driver stood over the body, almost weeping with the shock.

Is it your cat?” he asked her finally and she just nodded.

I am so sorry, so sorry,” he said and very gently he managed to lift the mangled remains onto the pavement. “Can I call somebody? Your partner? Your mum?”

Still dazed, Naomi said nothing but she relaxed her grip on Joel and he detached himself from her skirt and turned and looked with blank eyes on the dead cat.

Bad kitty,” he said very clearly and then stamped on its head.

The next few hours were a horrible mess of emotions, guilt and anger and most of all a powerful sense of revulsion. Mike came home from work in response to her incoherent phone call and her guilt was made all the greater when he wept as he buried the cat in their back garden.

Joel should be here too,” he said, blowing his nose as he patted down the last clods of earth. “He needs to know the cat is gone for good.”

I think he already does, Naomi thought but she was unable to tell her husband of that last action of violence towards the cat. It baffled and horrified her still and she had no way of explaining it adequately.

The next morning, breasts aching with milk, Naomi went through to the baby’s room to wake her for her morning feed and found the baby silent and cold and totally unresponsive. Neither her efforts nor Mikes nor that of the paramedics made the slightest difference and she was pronounced dead at the hospital, her tiny face slightly blue.

I don’t understand. How can she just die?” Naomi said from the haze of tranquillizers the doctor had administered to try and calm her.

She held the silent bundle, Mike standing weeping at her side. Joel was playing with some toys the nurses had found for him, oblivious of the tragedy that was around him.

Sadly it does happen,” said the doctor. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I’m afraid there will have to be a post mortem, but at least that means you can have some peace that there was nothing you could have done. I am so sorry for your loss.”

He left the grieving couple alone slipping unobtrusively from the room; as the door shut, Joel seemed to notice his parents crying steadily and came over, a large floppy teddy bear in his hands.

Naomi looked at him, her eyes swimming with tears.

Come here darling,” she said, her voice husky with crying. “Baby’s gone to be with Jesus and the angels now.”

Joel faced her with those blank eyes and leaning forward he peered at the still face of his baby sister cradled in his mother’s arms. A tiny frown appeared between his brows and Naomi thought he was going to start wailing himself. He took the teddy bear and laid it very solemnly over the baby’s face and patted it firmly down.

Bad baby,” he said, and smiled.

Writer’s Block- a short story

 

Writer’s Block

The blank page was as empty as a bank account the day before pay-day, and as depressingly familiar. Like a signpost pointing an accusing finger, the page indicated another day of failure, of emptiness and despair. Oh, words had been briefly typed upon this mocking sheet, and then erased before they had time to settle there. If this had been an old-fashioned typewriter, then a forest of paper would have been in the bin by now, and with crumpled islands of discarded starts surrounding the target. That was one small mercy of the computer revolution, no waste paper any more. Instead, the untitled page opened day after day, with all words wiped from it. Surely there was a Greek myth somewhere of someone who toiled all day writing words that faded from the page as night fell. If there was, he couldn’t remember how it ended

Well, the words didn’t fade: he deleted them, despising himself and those ill-chosen words that just sat on the page like awkward teenagers, jostling each other and looking out of place and untidy and defiant. It was the defiance that got him angry and made him hit delete over and over again.

I used to be so good at this, he thought, miserably, closing the file and shutting the computer down. A glass of wine to chase down the blues, and he’d call it a night, again, sleeping fitfully and being pursued by words that fled when he turned and tried to see their shapes. Tomorrow, just to be that little bit more hopeful, was another day and it held all sorts of joys, not least of which was an appointment with a hypnotist. He sighed, drank the wine too fast to enjoy it and went to bed.

I want you to visualise your block,” said the hypnotist.

Trying to oblige, he did so.

What form does it take?”

It’s like the Berlin Wall, but a hundred or so feet high,” he said.

Visualise a door.”

He did so. It was a very handsome door too, with brass fittings and a massive bolt and lock.

It’s locked,” he said.

There was a tiny sigh from the hypnotist, and through the filters of his downcast eyelashes, he saw her glance at her watch. She’s bored with me already, he thought, and sighed himself.

Look in your pockets, you’ll find the key,” she said and he could hear the boredom and irritation.

In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a massive bunch of keys, and after rifling through them, he said,

Nope, it’s not there.”

You must try harder,” she said and he snapped open his eyes, and glared at her.

Do you not think I’m already trying as hard as I can,” he snapped.

I think you’re deliberately sabotaging yourself because you don’t really want to get through this block,” she said. “Don’t bother to make another appointment until you make your mind up to really embrace this.”

Well, that was a waste of time and money, he thought as he drove home to the empty screen awaiting him. Now I know my block is a hundred feet high and crosses a whole country, and I don’t appear to have the key. Really helpful. Not.

Before he opened that taunting file again, he checked through his emails and found one from an old friend.

I’ve sent something for your little problem; should be with you tomorrow,” she’d written.

The block had become so much a part of his life that he often felt he ought to introduce his friends to it at parties. The block had lasted longer now than many relationships and like a failing marriage that has ceased to even invite interest, let alone the kind of slightly voyeuristic attention it did at the start of the downward slope, it had become a subject to avoid among his friends. They were bored with it and with him; a writer who can’t write any more ceases to have a place in the world unless he reinvents himself, perhaps as an editor or a critic. For him that would be when mercy killing might be in order.

His friends scarcely ever mentioned his block, as though it were an embarrassing disorder the discussion of which might somehow infect them, so it intrigued him what she might be sending. At the start of it, people had been full of helpful suggestions and ideas, all of which he’d tried, with a steadily decreasing amount of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure what else might be possible; hypnosis had been his last idea.

The following afternoon, the parcel carrier van pulled up outside his house and offloaded a large and heavy box. Signing for it, he barely managed to get it inside and dumped it on the kitchen table with a resounding thud. Taped up and mysterious, it sat there, inviting him to open it. He stared at it, wine glass in hand unable to make a start on it. Somehow the prospect of another disappointment was almost too much to bear. By the second glass of wine, curiosity was getting the better of him and he began ripping away the tape and slashing at the cardboard with the vegetable knife in a frantic effort to get it open.

Peeling the flaps back, now ragged from his frenzy, he peered inside. He blinked. Amid the polystyrene chips, there sat a large rough hewn block of wood, which was tied up with a bright red satin ribbon.

What the f-?” he said, biting back the obscenity.

He emptied the box, tipping the chips out on the floor and feeling through every corner of the box. Nothing. Not even a note, nothing.

The bitch…” he breathed, awed that someone he thought he knew so well could surprise him like this with such a vicious piece of mockery. He’d really not have thought her capable of such extraordinary nastiness.

Anger boiled over, and he hefted the block in his arms and marched outside into the fading light of the garden. The wood shed was mostly full, with the arrival of a new load for the coming winter and he at first intended to just chuck the block in there but as he flung open the door, something caught the light and glinted. The big axe he used to split logs was embedded in his chopping block and the polished head gleamed with oil.

I’ll show you what I think of your block,” he said, and seized the axe, tugging it from the block and as his long-repressed fury took control of his hands and his heart and he placed his gift on the block and began to attack it with the axe.

Halfway, he stopped and sharpened the axe very carefully. It was only the coming of darkness that halted his focussed efforts. By then the block had been reduced to splinters suitable for kindling only.

Sweating and breathless he threw all the pieces he could find into the log basket and carried them back into the house. Well, tonight seemed to be getting colder; time to light the fire for the first time this autumn, then. The hearth needed sweeping before he could lay the fire, and by the time the flames had begun to warm the room, he felt only a sense of emptiness again. He’d lost a friend today, truly, because he’d obviously never really known her at all.

Sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, he gazed at the fire and felt tears streaming down his face, distorting his vision and making the flames seem softer somehow, reminding him of his grandmother’s house when he was small. She’d make him crumpets by toasting them on the fire and slathering them with butter from their own cows. He remembered her with some surprise; she’d been gone more than twenty years and he’d scarcely given her a thought in all that time. Strange, really, when she’d been the one who’d enthralled him with tales of her own childhood and of things her grandmother told her. He probably owed his whole love of stories to her.

Watching the dancing flames, he saw images in them, pictures of things long ago and far away and rather marvellous and magical, and he found himself reaching for his laptop and beginning to type, filling that blank sheet with words that danced like the flames and made patterns of surpassing wonder.

And he didn’t delete a single word.

The Uninvited Guest 2

 Part one of The Uninvited Guest

The Uninvited Guest 2

The room seemed so quiet after the noise of before and it made me feel a little uneasy. I was tempted to go and turn the music back on but he wouldn’t talk if I did that, and I really needed to hear what he said. He picked up one of the empty glasses and twirled it experimentally, making the crystal catch the light and twinkle brightly.

“You need me,” he said. “No, don’t speak. The more you push me away the more I will keep pushing back. I don’t mean you can’t survive without me. That’d just be stupid. Most people survive without guys like me. Two thirds in fact.”

“You’ve nearly killed me God knows how many times,” I said.

He simply shook his head.

“No,” he said. “That’s not down to me. That’s down to you trying to get away from me.”

He had a point. He’d never touched me and never would, not in violence anyway.

“You know I love you, right?” he said, suddenly unsure.

“Yes,” I said slowly. “You’ve been the one constant my whole life. I just don’t understand why you come and stay for months, years even and then just vanish.”

“We all need a break,” he said and I knew he didn’t mean me. It made me wonder how hard it must be for him; I’d never looked at it like that before.

“OK,” I said. “So tell me what you do for me other than make my life shit when you’re around.”

“That’s not me,” he said. “Again, that’s you. You ignore me, you push me away and you dive into anything that blocks me from you and wonder why it all collapses on you and you end up hiding in bed crying for days. I’m not the enemy, you know. I’m here to protect you against the enemy; that’s all I’ve ever been here to do.”

“I don’t have any enemies but you,” I said bitterly and he sighed, and rubbed his head, ruffling the dark hair that was just starting to show strands of silver. It seemed he was going grey just as I was.

“I’ve said I am not your enemy. I’ve said I love you,” he said, clearly exasperated. “What more can I do?”

“Tell me then who my enemy is that you claim to be protecting me from. Tell me why you hang around for months making me miserable. Tell me what earthly bloody use you are in my life.”

I almost screamed the last sentence.

He put his head in his hands for a second and then raised it to look directly into my eyes. His eyes seemed so full of sorrow I had to turn away.

“Your enemy wears many faces and many names,” he said. “But perhaps complacency might be a starting point. You’re like most humans; you like to get comfortable in a rut and call it finding your place. You have so much more to you than that. You never wanted the semi in suburbia with 2.4 kids, but you let yourself be convinced that it’s something that would have made you happy. You never felt normal and like everyone else, but you convince yourself that if you could just conform a bit more and hide your true self, you’d be happier and you’d get greater acceptance from the world around you. Shall I go on?”

“I don’t understand why you make me so miserable. Do you like doing it, coming along when everything is going well and casting your horrible shadow over it all. Do you like it? Does it make you happy?”

I was crying by now. I always end up crying before long when he’s there.

“No,” he said. “I hate it. I don’t want to do it. But better that than you going to sleep and becoming a robot, becoming a mindless clone watching EastEnders every night.”

He rummaged in a pocket and passed me a handkerchief, still warm from his body heat and smelling of cedar-wood.

“We should have talked before,” he said, as I blew my nose. “Years ago.”

“I wouldn’t have listened,” I said. “I’m going to listen now. Just, tell me something.”

“Anything,” he said, and took my hand. His was warm and the skin was as soft as mine.

“Just tell me you won’t ever leave me now I know why you’re here,” I said.

“I promise I will be here for as long as you need me,” he said.

“That’ll be forever, I think,” I said and smiled through my tears.

The Uninvited Guest

  The Uninvited Guest 

I felt him come in; through the noise and colour and lights of the party, I felt him come into the room and stand quietly to one side, not mingling,  just waiting and watching. We have such a deep connection he didn’t need to tell me he was there; I knew. Maybe there was a change in the air, maybe I smelled him, his scent distinct as the ozone smell before a storm breaks. Whatever it was, I knew he’d arrived and I felt a brief flare of rage that he should just turn up here, uninvited and unwanted, when I was trying to enjoy my party.

The heat of the room was pleasant still and I was passing from guest to guest, making conversation and laughing, but all the time I could feel his eyes follow me round the room. He wouldn’t do or say anything yet; from experience I knew he could be trusted to behave for a while longer. He might even be decent company for some guests but if that were the case, as I shut the door on the last few to leave, there’d be hell to pay for ignoring him all evening. I had to act.

I sidled up to him; he’s an expert sidler so he appreciated that, and grinned at me as I took his elbow and guided him into the kitchen. With my foot wedged against the door, to stop anyone else coming in, I looked at him sternly and felt furious that he just laughed.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded. “I didn’t invite you.”

“You never do,” he said, his mouth turned down in a quirky mock frown. “You never do.”

“Well, what do you expect? You’re a right royal pain when you’re with me. You make my friends hate me,” I said.

“No,” he said and I saw that the joking was over. “They don’t hate you. Honestly. They don’t even know about me, most of them. Or care. I know I make you different when I’m with you, but is that such a bad thing?”

“Yes,” I said.

Someone rattled at the door.

“Just a minute,” I called.

“Look,” I said. “You can stay, all right, but please don’t upset anyone.”

“Deal,” he said and held out a hand.

Reluctantly I took it and he squeezed it.

“We do need to talk,” he said gently and I could see he meant it.

“Later, when everyone’s gone,” I said.

“You always say that,” he said.

“Maybe this time I mean it,” I said.

He kept his word and behaved like a perfect gentleman. I’m not sure anyone really noticed him among the guests; he certainly didn’t stand out as anything out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, I was glad when I shut the door behind my last guest and knew there was nothing more he could do to spoil my party.

I was collecting glasses and he came up behind me, making me jump and drop glasses. I scrabbled to retrieve them and set them down on a coffee table.

“We need to talk,” he said again.

“Then talk,” I said. “I have all night now. What do you need to tell me?”

Seminar

I decide to ease my mind by writing a short story and it kind of took a life of its own….

Seminar

 

The blue blinds billow silently as the breeze catches them, and a snatch of giggling emerges from the room within.

 

I sigh. I had a feeling already that this was going to be one of those hours of my life, stolen away by goblins and lost forever. Giggling goblins at that, the worst sort.

 

Most of those at the gathering are human, or enough so to qualify for the title, though an experienced goblin hunter knows enough to realise looks aren’t everything.

 

I mean, the chief goblin actually looks far more like an elf with a problem with self-esteem and personal hygiene. Take away the  facial piercings and the mantis-like figure and she’d almost pass for human. In the dim light of a nightclub, with your beer goggles on, she’d pass for all right for an off-night.

 

They don’t know who I am, of course. They think they do, but they’ve gotten careless in recent years and while it’s taken me a few years to track down this nest, I’m here now and they trust me. They think I’m a nice doormat of a teacher who is painfully eager to please and a pushover for other staff to manipulate. They can’t deny I’m a good teacher, but I still never get my dues and I get passed over for more popular newcomers for the plum jobs.

 

It’s a good cover and no one in the chief goblin’s coterie has the faintest idea of what’s coming. Actually, nor have I. I haven’t finalised my plan yet, but I’ve got my little bottle of Holy water in my pocket, just in case. I’ve been biding my time for the last two or so years, sometimes forgetting myself just who I am and what I am doing here.

 

I slip in, trying to be unobtrusive but a colleague accosts me for a hug. I’m not sure exactly what he is but I smile warmly but distractedly before seeking a seat at the very back. These briefings, so pretentiously designated as “Staff seminars” are utterly tedious but I can feel the tension coming off the newcomers like sweat in a Turkish bath. Some of them even clutch pens to take notes.

 

The usual format of introductions trickles by, glacially slow, and then the real meat begins.

I switch off. I’ve heard it all before. I filter it all out and just watch as the chief goblin cavorts manically, her face twisting into grotesque imitation of smiles. She can’t resist mangling language, turning innocuous words into parodies of themselves by adding extra letters. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s painful, or it would be if she were actually human. If she were human she’d be ashamed of the crimes she’s committed tonight against the English language. As it is, I can see the rough line of her spine emerging from her tunic, and the typical goblin scales and knobs are almost fully visible tonight. To a human she just looks mildly anorexic, and without any sense of sartorial style.

 

I’ve not been certain before tonight but it seems now that the boss is not a goblin at all but a human enchanted, enthralled by this creature and manipulated to her bidding. Well, that’s good. There are two more goblins, young ones, present, as far as I can see, and a few others I’m not certain of. With the chief goblin dealt with, the two youngsters will flee, and any others will retreat, I think. That is, if I do anything. But I don’t think I will. Not tonight.

 

The young one is speaking now and I feel a rush of sudden anger. A whole host of options fill my mind. I want to shout and protest at this gross imposition of extra, unpaid work, all because a few individuals want to put on a show. The humans have no idea how much work they’re imposing, but the goblins have calculated it to the nth degree. They go so far as the next-to-last straw that breaks the camel’s back, and then stop. It’s a form of torture they’re very good at. There’s no fun if people realise what’s going on and say no. But like frogs in hot water we just accept and accept and accept until our flesh falls away and we become soup for goblins. Of course, this is all a metaphor. Goblins haven’t eaten humans in millennia, except for a few rare cases that have been poorly documented.

 

The humans are sitting there smiling and I can see the magic dust twinkling in the evening sunlight. Every time the chief goblin moves clouds of it stream off her like dandruff and it pacifies everyone. I can hear a few dissenting thoughts but no one voices any concerns.

 

The hour is up and a minion, who is probably a goblin goes off to get drinks ready and like the good little slave I am I go through to help. Enough is enough. While her back is turned I add Holy Water to the bowl of fruity punch and to the wine. It won’t harm the humans but it’s going to be interesting what it does to the goblins. It’s been a long time since I did this and I’ll be glad to get it over with. I’ve had to breathe through an inhaler daily to survive the dust, though everyone thinks it’s Ventolin, and I’d like to breathe properly again.

 

“Here’s to the new term!” says the chief goblin, raising her glass of punch and clinking it with that of the goblin minion next to her. I can see her skin throwing off yet more dust and an artificial joviality fills the room like the office Christmas party, fuelled by cheap wine and white lines. Goblin magic is more subtle these days than it used to be but it IS effective.

 

She slings the whole glass down her throat and as I watch, she starts to shrink, her loud voice crying out shrill but diminishing rapidly as she dwindles from almost six feet tall to a speck on the carpet.

The curious thing is that no one notices her vanish; I guess it must be the magic. Minds simply edit her out of the story and restore it to where it might have been if she’d not been there

 

The two young goblins stare at where she was, their eyes full of horror and their mouths still full of juice. There’s a dilemma going on here: spit or swallow?

 

In the end, they spit, but discreetly into a pot plant. When they come back I can see their magic has faded almost to nothing just from having it in their mouths and know they are no danger to me, or anyone for many years. You can’t kill a goblin but you can make their lives very unpleasant.

 

“Why don’t you two go and wash the glasses?” I suggest with a smile.

 

“Yes, Boss,” they chorus and as they walk away, trying not to abase themselves and as they creep past me, a faint mosquito whine rises from the carpet.

 

It’s going to be decades before she comes back from that one.