All posts by thefrankgarlandshow

The Snow Queen Comes!

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Jack Frost scrawled upon my sill
The Snow Queen comes!
The Snow Queen comes!
Wrap up warm against the chill
The Snow Queen comes this morn!

All the children out to play
The Snow Queen comes!
The Snow Queen comes!
Which one will she take today?
The Snow Queen comes this morn!

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The Old Witch Of Krasnodar

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Viktor was hopelessly lost. The wild unblemished contours of snow before his eyes held no beauty. For him it was no more than an endless graveyard where every tree was a black headstone to mark where nameless fools slept under a white sheet. He saw no delicate hint of mauve in a vista of sparkling diamonds. The sky had no fierce brushstrokes of lavender and violet, no vivid splashes of gold, amber and ruby. He saw only that it was getting late. He saw only the stark black and white of his clearly written fate. A sentence: Viktor of Krasnodar will die.

“You’re nothing but a spineless coward!” He recalled scorning his brother only last night. “Hiding behind your mother’s skirts and calling them robes of wisdom!” But here he was, dragging his lifeless toes through endless snow, thinking he would never chastise Pyotr again.

“But why not just leave her be, up there on the mountain?” Pyotr, with his unrealistic reasoning. He fails to see our responsibilities to our city, our need for complete respect and authority. And witches?! We can’t have some mad old crone holding sway over us! We are not free whilst a sword hangs over Krasnodar.

“But has she threatened to use it?” Pyotr’s endless questions! Always trying to avoid taking the necessary action. The notices had already been publicly posted in the province, and she had not complied. She had ignored the call for the immediate surrender of arms.

“Perhaps she has simply not seen them. I mean, who has ever seen the old woman?”

But he had heard enough. “Ignorance, Pyotr, is no excuse. My decision is made.” A cloud of fine dusty snow whipped around him as he staggered in the twilight.

“But our bravest men have climbed that mountain never to return.” Pyotr bleating on and on and on, when that was the very reason the old witch must be dealt with.

“The power to end all wars!” That was her legend. Whatever this weapon was, Viktor would have it.

But the sun was almost gone. It was too late to turn back now. Perhaps Viktor should have considered that when his horse fell from under him. His best mare! And then to come out here on foot! What madness drove him on? If he did not find shelter soon, the night would not be kind to him.

But then his heart jolted! Someone up ahead! A hooded figure, a strange hairy grey shape, making it’s way along the edge of the rise with a long wooden staff. It must be her! It must! And now he surely had her! His toil had paid off, as hard work always does! To Viktor, the spoils!

He quickened his pace, hoping the snow hushed his footsteps, desperately trying not to huff and puff loudly, as his clumsy, lifeless feet clambered after her. He was in luck! The deaf old hag was completely oblivious to him! He reached out to grab her hood and felt the sudden crack of the wooden staff at his temple.

His legs danced a schottische as snowflakes turned to stars. He staggered, slipped and tumbled. The world spun as he rolled into the blurred black trees below. The rugged body of a surly old pine came up hard against him, and the mountain steadied itself and was silent. Viktor tried to right himself. He flailed his arms clumsily at the bruised sky. And then he settled where he lay. He no longer felt cold. He felt a little sleepy. The sky was becoming quite dark at last, the land fell into muted shadows, and he could rest.

Viktor awoke to the cheery crackle of burning logs, the comforting smell of a stew cooking. He yawned and stretched, and opened his eyes to the primitively carved pine of a wall mere inches from his nose. He ran his fingers over the coarse woodgrain, then glanced up and saw a row of goat bells hanging along the wall.

He turned in the narrow bed to face the room, saw a black pot steaming over the fire, the golden glow warming the simple wooden furniture which sat in the dull blue light from a window of irregular pieces of glass. Just the one window, just the one door. A pair of wooden plates and bowls were set at the bare table. He saw his clothes hung to dry above the fire. He ran his hand under the blankets and down his naked body. Who undressed me?

He heard boots stamping off snow at the door, and a young woman, with coal black hair and skin so fair, entered with the sun, wrapped in a grey goathair cloak. Was that floating dust catching the light, or frost dancing around her?

She smiled warmly at him. “Ah, you’re awake.” She shook off her coarse, hairy cloak and let loose her raven hair. “Would you like something to eat?”

Viktor’s eyes wolfed her down greedily.

“You certainly look more lively! What big eyes you have,” said the girl. “How are your ears?” She came over to the bed and inspected them with her hands. “I thought the frost must have bitten them terribly.” She watched him study her breasts as she leaned over him. “They’re a bit hard nipped, but they’ll soon warm up.”

Viktor grinned carnivorously at her.

“My, what teeth you have! You look ravenous!” said the girl, her eyes as big as dinner plates. “Well you won’t have to wait long. I’m just about ready to eat!”

Viktor grabbed her wrist and she flinched. He held firm as she struggled to draw away, and he pulled her hand to his mouth. He looked into her silver blue eyes and kissed her palm tenderly. She stopped struggling, and he released his hold on her.

“You seem to have got your strength back,” she said, rubbing at her wrist. “After you’ve eaten, you need to leave my mountain. Do you understand me? Can you talk?”

Viktor licked his lips. “I understand you perfectly.” His eyes were galloping wildly across her meadowlands.

The girl leant over to take the pot from the hearth, and Viktor felt the mountain’s forests ablaze. Thrilled at his own nakedness, he threw aside the blankets and grasped at her hips, pulling her forcefully back onto him.

She did not resist as he clawed at her skirts. She fell limp, a stringless puppet. He rolled her onto her belly underneath him and flung up her skirts. And then he was on all fours above her. He breathed up close to her ear and whispered darkly, “Baaa!”

Viktor froze as the girl slowly turned to face him. He cleared his throat and looked down at the supine girl beneath him. “Baaa!” he cried. “Baaa!” Her wintry eyes were ablaze with scorn. He tried to push her away, but his little hooves were caught up in skirt and blanket.

She tucked her knees to her chest, pressed her goatskin boots into his woolly belly, and kicked him off the bed. He tumbled onto the floor, then sprang away from her onto the chair. Then he was up and trip-trapping around on the table, bleating madly and clattering about the wooden bowls and plates. “Baaa!” he said, “Baaa!” then sprang from the table and ran round the room three times. He headbutted the door, “Baaa!” then did it again.

The girl raised herself from the bed and straightened her skirts. She unhooked a bell from above her bed and hung it around his hairy neck. When she opened the door, he darted out, and there he saw a vast herd of goats stood facing him.

When Pyotr set out into the mountains he held little hope of finding Viktor, but two powerful motives compelled him. He wished for his mother to stop fretting and crying, and he wished to avoid inheriting any civic responsibilities that his brother would be far happier with. It was not that Pyotr shied from hard work. He just had no ambition to influence others, no appetite for conflict. He was considered unambitious but, to him, these were the habits of the workshy.

The weather was bitterly cold when he saddled his horse at first light. The low sun behind him, Pyotr followed his long shadow across the frozen plain, listening to the soft crunch of the frosty grass under his mare’s steady advance. The white capped mountain which claimed so many souls looked proud and majestic against the pale pink clouds. For much of the morning it kept aloof from Pyotr, and he was much relieved when he arrived at the cabin of a small farm in the foothills.

He offered the couple who lived there money for a warm meal and the hire of a mule. They gave Pyotr the meal freely, but would not part with the mule for any money. “You are unlikely to return from the mountain,” they said, “and we need the mule to work.” When Pyotr offered them his fine horse as a trade, they graciously conceded to his offer, and joyfully packed the mule with all the supplies he might need. They also hung various charms of twigs and bones around the mule’s neck.

“Do be careful,” his mother had begged him, “the old witch has taken generations of brave men. It seems all the constant wars were not enough for her. When the wars were over she had to keep claiming our menfolk. And now – oh, Pyotr, I can’t bear to lose you too!”

Pyotr mounted the hill which led into the forest and up onto the snowy mountain, struggling in the face of an angry whipping sleet, but the mule was the sturdiest beast he had ever known, and he drew great hope from it’s strength and resilience.

“Viktor was so headstrong and determined, just like all the rest. Never settled. I suppose he was as doomed as those before him on that cursed mountain,” and yet his mother could not help but blame herself.

In the high forest, the snow fattened up and engaged a merry dance as Pyotr and the mule pressed on. The tall trees, in their white coats, looked down on Pyotr as he wondered if there really were a witch at all, or if the mountain was just littered with the bones of blindly marching fools. Perhaps some uncharted ravine swallowed every one of them whole. This snow might settle smoothly over any hidden hazard. But the mule showed no fear, and from this Pyotr drew courage, and they pressed on along a rocky ridge. But the mountain seemed to hear Pyotr’s thoughts. The mule slipped in loose snow and the ground fell from under them.

The mule skipped confidently onto firmer ground. Pyotr clung to it’s neck grimly. Below him, he saw a petrified tree root ball, turning slowly in the tumbling snow. He watched as it became the belly and legs of his brother’s horse.

Pyotr looked down at the horse’s twisted frozen limbs protruding from the broken snow and he said a prayer. If this is where Viktor fell, then he was surely dead, frozen in a shallow grave.

Pyotr cast his eyes around him for some sign of his brother. The way ahead was an unmade bed of snow on snow on snow, undisturbed by foot or hoof or claw. He considered turning back, but found he could not – there was still plenty of daylight to continue his search. And then Pyotr thought of his return journey home. Snowfall might again cover this hazard before he came back this way. He took out his knife to make a mark on the nearest tree, but already found one there. A large V recently cut into the bark, with big proud serifs, like a Roman numeral. Then Viktor might still be alive! Pyotr forged on with new hope.

As the two climbed higher, the weather danced itself out until, in the thick of the tall pines, there fell only a delicate dream of glittering frost. It was then that Pyotr saw, through the trees, his brother’s hand in the snow ahead.

He scrambled to the spot only to find it was not his brother’s hand at all. He looked down upon the figure of a beautiful young woman in a peasant dress, covered in a thin dusting of snow. She looked lifeless, but she could not have been lying there long.

Pyotr could see no blood, and no tracks of wolves. He knelt by the girl and studied her. Her raven hair in full flight across the snow. The long shadows her eyelashes drew upon her pale cheeks. Her blue lips awaiting a prince’s kiss to stir her into life.

He placed his hand on her belly but, if she was breathing, it was too shallow to detect through her clothes. He felt for a pulse at her neck, but his fingers were too numb to sense anything. Perhaps a kiss would awaken her.

He leaned in closer to her innocent face, until he could smell her skin, her hair – delicate hints of edelweiss and woodsmoke and goat. Her lips, pinched with cold, we’re still plump and welcoming. Lips parted, he fell towards her, then stopped short. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ he thought. ‘This isn’t a fairytale!’

Her eyes opened.

“Oh,” she gasped. “What are you doing?”

He recoiled. “Ah. I – I thought you were dead!”

“And you have a thing for making out with corpses?” She propped herself up on her elbows.

“Well – I’d not really -”

“- stopped to consider it before?” Her eyebrows arched at him. “Well, at least while I’m breathing I’m safe – pervert!” She shook the snow from her hair.

“No! Not at all!”

“I’m not safe?” She mocked him with a fearful sideways look.

“No, you’re not. In these mountains lives an old witch. She never lets anyone return home.”

“On this mountain?” She shivered. Her teeth chattered.

“You’re cold. We need to get you warm!” Pyotr wrapped her up in his coat.

“I live just over the rise.”

“Can you walk?” Pyotr offered her his hand and helped her to her feet.

“I think I’ll be okay,” she said, wiping her cold hands over her wet face.

They were soon in the shelter of her little rough hewn cabin. Pyotr sat the girl down on her bed. He poked the embers in the hearth to light a stick of straw, “I came looking for my brother,” and set a lamp aglow. “He came up the mountain in search of the old witch.”

“Did he find her?” the girl picked a little twig from her clothes.

“I don’t know. I came searching when he didn’t return. He’s probably back in Krasnodar right now, toasting his big feet.” Pyotr set about rekindling the fire in the hearth.

“Krasnodar? That’s a fair trek.”

“Apparently, she has a weapon. To end all wars, or so they say.”

“That sounds terrifying. What kind of a weapon?”

“Nobody seems to know.” A flame popped up from the embers, and Pyotr built a little kindling tent around it. “She was ordered to surrender it to the proper authorities. But nobody has ever seen her, and nobody knows what the weapon is. Have you ever seen her?” Pyotr watched the girl pick at the bark of the twig. “You’ve never seen men come by?”

“This is a big mountain.” The kindling took, and she threw the twig on the fire. She watched Pyotr build up the fire, then she started to sing…

“Take me in the meadow
Take me on the mountain
Take me for your true love
On the mountain
On the mountain”

Pyotr stepped over to the window of misshapen glass. The glass was too cloudy to see out of, and so it seemed the world was far away. Pyotr took up the second verse…

“I see you a wagtail
You see me a starling
How we sing together
Be my darling
Be my darling”

He turned his back on the world outside.

The girl was staring into the dancing flames. “You’re not like the others.”

“The others?” Pyotr stepped in front of the table and perched himself against it.

“Other men, I mean.” She played with the hem of her dress at her knee.

“Oh, I don’t know. Men are much the same all over, I expect. We’re all cut from the same wood. We are all diplomats these days!”

“Diplomats?”

“And carpenters. There’s been no war in my lifetime. We have an army, but it’s mostly conscripts. After parade drills and such, they mainly sit around carving toy soldiers for the orphanage.”

“But all I’ve met are brutes! My mother said the wars would never end! They just keep coming!”

“Who do?”

The girl sobbed and she shook, and glistening sleety tears fell upon her skirts. Poor Pyotr’s heart was broken. “Whatever is the matter?” He took her sad little face in his hands and kissed her forehead. And then he kissed her sparkling wet cheeks.

“Get off me!” she pushed at him violently. “Get away! Get away!”

Pyotr jumped back from the bed. “What have I done?!”

“You haven’t done anything!”

“Did I say something wrong?”

“That’s the problem – you haven’t done anything wrong!” she sobbed.

“Then why did you push me away?” For the first time in his life, Pyotr felt desperately alone.

“Because you’re sweet and kind and tender and I don’t want to hurt you!”

Pyotr’s eyes were so full of tears they swelled at the brim.

“Go,” she said. “Please go.”

Pyotr stepped towards her. “But – ”

“GO!” she roared, and the mountain rumbled.

Pyotr froze in his boots and still somehow found himself at the door.

“No, wait!” She dried her tears and smeared the sleet down her dress. “There is something you came for, and I mean for you to have it.” She took a length of rope from behind the door and led him outside to an enclosure where a very large herd of goats stood. She walked amongst them and picked the one that was headbutting a tree trunk. She tied the rope around the goat’s neck and handed it to Pyotr.

Pyotr looked down at the hairy animal. “But what is this?!”

“Your brother.”

“I don’t understand.” Pyotr took a closer look at the goat.

“I am your old witch of the mountain.” She studied Pyotr’s dumbstruck face. “Through countless wars the soldiers took our land, and the soldiers took our bodies, and the soldiers took our souls – my mother’s, my grandmother’s. I am not old. I am the clearly the same age as you. I am no witch! This is no weapon – I live with a curse! Handed down through generations of war! From my mother and hers.”

“And these goats are all -?”

“Your kinsmen. Proud warriors from your village, your town, your city. And you must go.”

“Won’t you come with me? Make an end to this curse?” Pyotr had no idea how to break a curse, but hope was speaking for him.

“And how do you propose that? I’m sure your townsfolk would accept me warmly!” she laughed scornfully.

“They would have to. You would be mine.”

She eyed him with suspicion.

“Or let me stay here with you,” said Pyotr. “We could build a home for two – with room for a couple of kids.”

“I don’t think I’d like you very much as a goat. You’re really not the goat type.” She looked away at the late afternoon sun. “You still have light. Please go.”

“I don’t know your name. Mine’s Pyotr.”

“Mine is Katerina.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Goodbye, Pyotr.”

Katerina slowly stepped back into her little house and closed the door. She ran to the bed and flung herself down and sorrow poured down her face.

When Pyotr arrived home, he made his brother comfortable in the stables. He did not tell his story to anyone. It was assumed that Pyotr had failed, that he had not gone up the mountain. His mother was relieved to have him back, but was also a little disappointed in him. Though they would not say it to his face, the townsfolk believed him to be a coward.

Pyotr was so broken-hearted that folk hardly ever saw him, and assumed he was hiding in shame.

Then, one bright blue morning, a dull roll of thunder was heard. People on their way to church stopped in the street and looked at the big open sky. There was not the ghost of a cloud. But the thunder did not cease. It kept grumbling louder and louder. Eyes asked questions of other eyes, but nobody spoke. Every ear was keened to the loudening rumble. And then a shiver of panic struck every heart. A stampede was almost upon them. But from where?! Everybody was on their way to church!

The people took refuge in shop, house, tavern and chapel as the roar brought a thousand goats hurtling into the city. The goats gathered in the town square and all the adjoining streets. They chewed at municipal lawns and window boxes and entertained themselves clambering on walls and window sills and headbutting trees. And then The Witch Of Krasnodar appeared in the square and announced herself. “I am come for Pyotr!”

The townsfolk opened their doors and windows. Some tentatively stepped out of their homes, and more people nervously followed them. Then Pyotr stepped into the square, and all eyes turned to him.

He saw before him not the tearful peasant girl who fled into her little house. Here was the Imperial Commander of a great goat army, regal in her goathair cloak, her black hair adorned with birch twigs and winter berries, her face radiant as snow. In one hand, her wooden staff of office, in the other a little wooden cage.

He pushed his way through endless woolly bodies towards her, and his heart braced and kicked and pulled at the bridle. Every step settled on uncertain ground towards his unknown fate. He stopped three goat lengths from her.

“Katerina,” he breathed.

“Pyotr,” her eyes of frozen lake, her smile of rowan berry, her voice of frozen teardrops falling on stone.

She stepped close to him. She handed him the staff and placed the little cage on the ground. She took his face warmly in her soft white cashmere mittens. She studied the constellations of freckles on his nose, the aurora of his green eyes, the autumnal russet of his hair. Pyotr watched her eyes once again glitter with watery pearls afloat with tiny frozen shards. She nodded at him and smiled her rowan smile. He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed the breath from her. Her feet left the ground and she gasped and laughed and struggled playfully in his arms. Then she stopped, and looked him in the eyes. “I have something for you,” she whispered.

Pyotr nodded and set her back down. She picked up the little cage and held it before Pyotr and said, “Open it.”

Pyotr undid the tiny catch and out flew a little wagtail and a starling. Pyotr and Katerina watched as the little birds twirled about in the air, gaily singing, and disappeared into the blue sky. Pyotr took Katerina’s hand in his, their fingers entwined, and he raised them aloft. “There will be a wedding!” announced Pyotr to all assembled.

Katerina smiled at him, then spoke to the crowd. “Fire up your ovens! I bring you a feast!”

Pyotr turned to Katerina and spoke low.
“But, Katerina! These are my kinsmen!”

“And one of them is my father,” said Katerina. “But my lands were taken. I have no dowry. I have nothing else to bring!”

“Could you not change them back into men?”

“Pyotr, could they undo all the harm they have done?” There was only the slightest breeze of frostiness in her reply.

“No. But you could – couldn’t you?”

“Shhh, Pyotr,” she smiled, and she kissed him.

Heptonstall

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Atop a pudding bowl hill in the South Pennines of West Yorkshire sits a quiet little medieval village, the home of three notable churches and the resting place of the poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath. The rather more familiar town of Hebden Bridge is cradled below, in a convergence of several steeply wooded valleys and cloughs.

Connecting the village above to the town below is the notorious cycling challenge of The Buttress, a steeply cobbled lane which was once the scene of a Royalist rout during the English Civil War, when the Parliamentarians hurled rocks down upon the Cavaliers and chased them back over Hebden Bridge (merely a bridge, not yet a town) to Halifax. If you are approaching Heptonstall on foot or by cycle, then you should at least appraise this packhorse trail before considering the gentler route.

During the attack by the Royalists, it is said that Heptonstall’s Church of St Thomas a Becket had it’s roof covered in sheepskins to protect it from cannonfire. There now remains no roof on the medieval ruin which presents the most striking scene in the village.

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The ruin shares a graveyard with the Victorian Gothic Church of Thomas The Apostle, with it’s rooftop bestiary of winged stone animals, and it’s aviary of gravestones featuring carved stone birds.

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In the hallowed ground rots the infamous criminal, David Hartley, of the murderous coin clipping gang whose days were numbered only after their crimes caused a national currency devaluation.

From the ruin, walk beyond the Victorian Church to find the graveyard where Sylvia rests. From the gates you will see a well worn pilgrimage path through the grass in a one o’clock direction.

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The third church is a beautiful little octagonal chapel set in a steeply terraced yard on the hillside. The oldest Methodist church in continuous use in the world, it’s foundation stone was laid by John Wesley himself. Within, you will find a grand central pulpit and organ, and an upper gallery of terraced box pews. Sadly, many of the box pews below were recently destroyed in a renovation, changing the whole character of the interior. Nevertheless, it remains a wonderful space to sit and listen to nothing more than your own breathing, the bleating of lambs, the singing of birds.

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The church looks out across a broad view of the valley to Old Town, and down on the signature tall houses of these deep valleys, which are commonly three storeys on one side and five on the other – one house piggybacking another. Take a walk in any direction from Heptonstall and you will find yourself teetering on the edge of similar magnificent views of canals, railways, mills, churches and woodland. Step down into the surrounding valleys and cloughs to find old mill ruins and tiny, cobbled packhorse bridges, streams cascading over rocks and weirs, tall chimneys standing loftily alone and redundant in the trees.

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On the Southwest side of the hill is the popular climbing face of Hell Hole Quarry, where the woods are a maze of winding paths and higgledy-piggledy steps around rocks and knolls and bowls. From here you can see the railway, road and canal squeeze through the narrow valley towards Todmorden – a fine, glittering sight at dusk.

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If you are arriving by train, allow time to visit the Coffee Station, voted the best independent railway station cafe in the country. From it’s windows you can see the bus stop, from where a little hopper bus, No596, can take you to Heptonstall at quarter to and quarter past each hour. The quarter past bus can also take you along the narrow winding road all the way to Blackshaw Head, where you can see another magnificent Methodist church (if you are lucky enough to find it open), or call in the New Delight Inn at Jack Bridge for a little refreshment before visiting the lovely little stone bridge at Lower Strines Farm or taking the popular walk down Colden Clough back into the town.

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When you arrive in Heptonstall, nip into the Post Office to buy a quality village guidebook. If you walk through Hebden Bridge, consider picking up a Yellow Publications waterproof, pocket-size map of the area from the Tourist Information or the independent bookshop, Bookcase, to exploit all the opportunities for exploration.

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Heptonstall also boasts two pubs, a tea room and a social club with a bowling green. There are no souvenir shops here. There is no tourism hustle. This is not Blackpool. It isn’t even Haworth. Don’t come here looking for excitement. Come here for some of the most beautiful and interesting, steep, narrow valleys full of historic relics of the industrial era these waters powered. Come here for the medieval irregularity of an unspoilt hilltop village, to search out extraordinary stone carved birds, to find a quiet refuge to reflect and lay flowers on Sylvia’s grave.

Cider Lolly

The first frost of the season bit him in a way he could not anticipate. It suddenly struck him he had only ever seen her skin aglow in the summer sun. He had never seen the winter nip pink bruises into her cheeks, never known her nose cold when she kissed him. He recalled her golden face laughing in the long grass as the sun blazed over the cathedral, the cold sharp bite of cider lolly dropped from her warm mouth into his in a sugar rush lingering kiss. Then he remembered her last bitter words to him as though they were lies told him by another. He reread them, but somehow they did not match his memory of her, polished smooth and faultless by time. He could only think he would never kiss snowflakes from her eyelashes, or wrap her in the folds of his coat to keep her from chill winds, for her coldness would harden, and long outlast the grey winter.

The Photographer

She reached by the bed for her camera as he lit a cigarette.

“Please,” he said, “I can’t go again straight away. Let me get my strength back.”

“No, I just want a picture of us, together.”

He drew hard on the cigarette. “I swore I would never fuck you in this bed.” He looked away to let out the breath, then tucked his head beside hers so she could take the photo. She put on her best face. He didn’t have one. He just tried not to look too awkward.

She showed him the picture on the LCD screen and smiled at him proudly. “This is the only picture we have of the two of us.” She rested her head on his chest, looked into the lens and took another snap. He tried to look relaxed, though he wasn’t sure he was in the shot. He drew again on his cigarette and looked down at her bed mussed hair, feeling like he wasn’t really there.

He blew the smoke at the ceiling. “I wrote you a song.”

“I love your songs,” she said absently, looking at her face on the screen. “I’m fascinated by your mind.” She reached away from him, to place the camera on the dressing table.

He studied the finely toned muscles of her back. “When are you going to leave him?”

She stiffened. “I’m not sure I can.” She sat up on the edge of the bed.” She noticed the royal colours of the sky, cast her eyes over her clothes strewn on the floor. Her hand touched the pillow. “He needs me.”

“Like he needs her?” He placed his hand on her hip.

“That’s all over.” She looked over her shoulder at him.

“And that makes everything alright?” He turned to her, propped himself up on an elbow. “What about us?”

“You know it’s not that simple.” She picked up her bra and hooked it around her waist. “I guess ‘us’ is up to you.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“I’ve never said that.”

“You said you needed me.” He watched her turn the bra around and pull it up to her breasts.

She pulled the straps over her shoulders and turned to face him. “Well, I did.”

“Did?” His face hardened.

She did not reply.

“Is that all it was ever about, these last few weeks? Did you bring me here to defile your marital bed, just to settle a score with him – wipe the slate clean and start again?”

“It’s not like that – ”

“Then what is it like?!” His cigarette pointed at her from his fist.

“I thought we were friends.”

“Haven’t we gone a little too far for that?”

“And whose fault is that?” she accused.

“Fuck. I shouldn’t even be here.” He clenched the cigarette in his mouth, got out of bed and pulled on his pants.

“Where are you going?” Her words panicked, confused.

He turned his face from her as he stepped into his boots.

“What’s going on?” she pleaded. She clawed the bedsheet across her hips.

He pulled on his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned, picked up his jacket.

Through tears she watched his angry eyes burn at her before he walked out the door.

The Ghost Of Father Christmas

“It’s not fair!” cried Emily. “You always get more than me!”

“Well, I’m older!” said Peter. “And everybody in my class gets them. If you don’t have what everybody else has, you get picked on.”

“Stop squabbling, you two!” said their mother. “Now get to bed, or you’ll get nothing for Christmas!”

The two children resentfully climbed the stairs to their bedroom, put on their pyjamas, and got into their beds. But they were too excited to sleep.

“Can you hear? Is it him? It sounds like sleigh bells!” Emily sat up in bed and lifted the curtain to search the night sky for Santa Claus.

“Oh, give over!” Peter sat up and frowned at her silly behaviour.

“It is him! It is!” Emily insisted.

“Knock it off! There is no Santa. You already know what you’re getting for Christmas.” But Peter joined Emily at the window. “Anyway, it sounds more like chains to me! And they’re not out there, they sound more like they’re in…the…wardrobe…”

They shivered as they heard the old wardrobe door creak open and they both looked round to see an old, bearded man in green robes stepping out, rattling chains and grinning at them.

“Aargh!” The children shrieked. “Who are you?!”

The old man’s face dropped. “Don’t you recognise me? I’m Father Christmas?”

“Father Christmas isn’t skinny and scary – he’s fat and jolly!” said Emily.

“And he wears a red suit – yours is green!”

“Well, this is how I used to look, not so long ago. It used to suit me.”

“Did you always rattle chains back then?” asked Peter.

“Well, no. That’s a more recent thing. It’s what ghosts do.”

“Aargh! A ghost!” The children screamed.

“Please don’t be afraid!” implored the old man. “I’m a very kindly ghost. I’m very good with children.”

“You’re not doing very well right now,” contested Peter, bravely. “You’ve really put a fright through Emily.”

“No he didn’t!” stormed Emily. “It was you doing all the screaming!”

The old man put his hands to his ears. “Will you two kindly stop bickering?”

“Oh, shut up, you silly old goat!” scoffed Peter.

“Oh, really?!” Father Christmas scowled. “Maybe you’d like me better like this!” Father Christmas pulled back his hood and revealed two great curling horns on his head. He curled his lips back in a cruel grimace, revealing a mouthful of hungry fangs. He whipped his chain hard on the floor and the room shook.

The children froze in their beds.

Father Christmas raised his eyebrows and smiled to himself and tucked his horns back under his hood. “That’s better. Now, for some reason, you two have been crossed out of my book, and now I think I see why.”

“Are you really a ghost?” asked Emily tentatively. “You’re not a monster?”

“Well, that all depends,” Father Christmas brushed down his beard. “I am very much what children bring out in me. If they don’t believe in me, I can hardly be anything more than a ghost, can I?”

“Isn’t that a bit sad?” asked Peter.

“I don’t think so. I see a lot of sadness on my travels. Scenes that would break your heart. But do you see me looking glum? I have a job to do, and that means keeping jolly.” He gave Emily a gentle smile. “I think you ought to see how other children live. Children just the same age as you, in the same town as you. Here, take my hands.”

Then he paused and looked them over. “Oh no, this just won’t do. Here, put these on.” And he gave them both a pair of reindeer antlers and a red nose to wear. “That’s better! Dasher and Dancer! You look like real children now!”

Emily squeezed her red nose to see if it made a noise. It didn’t, so she made a noise herself. Peter felt a bit silly, but wore them for Emily’s sake. Then Father Christmas pointed his finger to the ceiling. “Hark! Christmas is almost upon us! We must fly!” They each took a hand and Father Christmas led them to the window. Then he stopped and looked puzzled.

Peter watched Father Christmas look at the tiny opening. “You came in through the wardrobe. ”

“Ah, yes. Thank you, Dasher,” said Father Christmas. He opened the wardrobe door. “There isn’t anything in here I should be afraid of, is there?”

The children looked at each other.

“No spiders? No monsters?” asked Father Christmas.

“It’s just a wardrobe.” said Emily.

Father Christmas despaired. “Don’t you children have any imagination?” Then he called, “Come, Dasher! Come, Dancer!” and all three of them clambered into the wardrobe. When Father Christmas closed the door, they were in complete darkness.

“Ouch! You’re stood on my toe!” cried Peter.

“Ouch! You’re squashing me!” cried Emily.

“Sorry,” muttered Father Christmas, and he creaked open the wardrobe door. They were no longer in their bedroom.

“Where are we?” cried Emily.

“Shhh…We are in someone else’s house,” whispered Father Christmas.

The children saw a young boy sat up in bed, playing on his computer, and then marvelled at the tower of colourfully wrapped presents at the foot of his bed.

“This child has everything he ever dreamed of,” said Father Christmas, “except his parent’s attention! His parents work hard to give him everything, but they don’t have any time to give him. He has become so withdrawn, he does not even notice us!”

“What can you do?” asked Emily.

“I’m afraid there’s precious little I can do,” said Father Christmas. This family doesn’t believe in me.”

Father Christmas closed the door, returning them to darkness. He squeezed Peter’s hand, “Come, Dasher!” and Emily’s, “Come Dancer!” then opened the door again, to look out on another strange room. A little girl asleep in a room with very few possessions.

“This child has nothing. Her parents both work very hard but still cannot afford a simple Christmas tree.” Father Christmas stepped out of the wardrobe and tucked something under her pillow.

“What did she get?” asked Peter.

“Never you mind,” whispered Father Christmas. “It isn’t what we receive that matters – it’s what we are able to give.”

“Then what did you give her?” Peter corrected himself.

“Oh, nothing really. A little token of appreciation for her patience and understanding. Her parents wish they could do more for her, and the little girl understands and asks for nothing. She has so much to give, and I hold high hopes for her.” Father Christmas climbed back inside the wardrobe and closed the door. “It’s time we went home.”

When they stepped out of the darkness of the wardrobe into their own bedroom, the children gasped to see Father Christmas stood before them a much bolder figure in red robes and white trim, with a frosty sparkle in his beard.

“Cor.” Emily was starstruck.

Peter was too, but was trying to make sense of things. “I think I’ve been a bit spoilt, haven’t I?”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Dasher,” Father Christmas reassured him. “Other people’s expectations are a hard thing to live up to.

“You know, in the ancient days, I would simply take ungrateful children away, never to be seen again. It all seemed perfectly reasonable. That was what people expected of me back then – so who am I to judge you? In time I’ve changed. I’ve learned to believe in the best in people. Call me a silly, sentimental old fool, but I like to think of myself these days as the spirit of goodwill. I really do think kindness is the most precious gift you can give.”

“Not a bicycle?” said Emily.

“Not new trainers?” said Peter.

Father Christmas bared his horns and roared. “GET TO BED!”
The children shrieked with glee and leaped into their beds. Father Christmas chuckled. “If there’s a mince pie or two downstairs, I won’t have to eat you.” He went to the window and looked through the curtains. “It looks like it just might snow.”

Father Christmas drew from his pocket a handful of sparkling snowflakes and sprinkled them on the children’s noses. Silence fell upon them in fluffy white flakes.

“I better be off,” Father Christmas whispered. “You’re not the only children in the world, you know. You’ll listen out for me, won’t you?” But the children were fast asleep.

Their mother thought she heard her children roughhousing, and stormed up the stairs. With a face like thunder, she swung the door open, but her heart softened at the sight of their sweet little faces fast asleep. She noticed the curtains were open and went to close them, but she stopped when she thought she heard something. Was it the soft jingle of bells? She looked out into the darkness, but all she saw was the first flakes of snow falling.

A Delicate Stain

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Her smell had finally worn from the pillows and he undressed the bed. He found a hair, guessed it’s length at perhaps eighteen inches long. He wound it round his fingers and almost put it in his pocket. Instead he tasted it, then let it go out the window. In his soapy hands, he kissed a delicate stain on the bedsheet, kissed it again, and began to scrub.