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simon collis

musings of an omnivorous biped

It was near closing time in the castle. If they weren’t the last visitors, they at least weren’t far off. Penny was standing at the wall, looking out of one of the small cross-shaped windows. She’d had enough of imagining herself as a twelfth-century archer, and was now simply savouring the warm afterglow of Earl Grey, scones and jam and enjoying the view down the hill when Craig called over to her.

“Hey Penny, come look at this,” he said.

She turned reluctantly away from the view, adjusted her bag on her shoulder and turned around. He was pointing up towards the window on an upper deck of the castle and she didn’t see the open cover of the well. One foot went down into it, and as she turned to try and stabilise herself, Craig’s foot swept around and kicked her other ankle. She dropped into the well, almost silently, a sound resembling a mouse squeak escaping her and no more.

Fear kicked in immediately, and she flailed her arms, finding the cold wet stone of the side of the well, but unable to slow her rapid descent into the gloom. She looked up, terrified, seeing the light failing, and realising, as it clunked into place, that Craig had immediately replaced the cover of the well. With a thud, she landed in sheer darkness.

She sat there for a moment, unbelieving. Craig had tried to kill her.

“Oh come on Penny,” she said out loud. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

But of course he did. He replaced the lid back on the well. But why, that was the question. Maybe he was cheating on her with that girl from work – what was her name?

“Stop it,” she closed her eyes and pushed the thoughts away. There were more important things to worry about. Like surviving.

But how?

“Hello?” she shouted. “Help me! I fell down the well!”

There was no answer. Of course there wasn’t – Craig had replaced the lid. Assuming anyone was near the well,

She felt to the floor with one hand. It felt cold, metallic and a little damp. This must be one of the grates they install in old, unused wells, she thought, just for situations like this, when otherwise perfectly normal men turn psycho and try to kill their girlfriends. So that meant she wasn’t too far from the surface, and could probably climb out quite easily.

“And then I’m going to kill him,” she hissed.

Penny joined her hands together and cracked the knuckles on both. It was an old habit, and although her mother had hated it, her grandmother always commented one thing: “she means business.”

“How right you were, granny,” Penny whispered. “How right you were.”

She reached out in the blackness, and put her hands against the wall. It was cold, clammy, but not as damp and slippery as she had feared. She pulled herself to her feet, the bruising in her back and hips beginning to protest already.

Call the police she thought, and reached for her bag to get her mobile phone. It wasn’t on the right shoulder, as normal. Instinctively, she checked the left shoulder, hoping it would be there, but it wasn’t.

Taking a deep breath, she stooped down, and felt around on the metal floor. The metal appeared to be thick, maybe three or four fingers thick, while the holes were much smaller. Good. That meant that if her bag was here, it certainly would be on the metal floor and not –

“Ouch. Fucking ouch!” she shouted, and felt her finger. It was wet and sticky – possibly blood. What the hell was that on the floor? She stood still, listening hard. She heard something to her right: maybe a drop of water; maybe rats.

“Fuck you, rats,” she shouted, and stamped her feet. “Fuck off rats!”

Penny stamped on the floor, setting off clanging noises for a few more minutes, until she felt safe enough to reach down again. Bending down, she felt along the outside walls of the well. The well felt bigger than from outside; perhaps even two could comfortably stand up here. That was a little reassuring. Although she wasn’t claustrophobic, there was at least room to move – a little, anyway.

Her fingers suddenly encountered what could only be the leather strap of her bag. She sucked in breath sharply, and then eased out with a sigh. She gently picked it up and placed it over her head, strap on the other shoulder, like a messenger bag. The strap wasn’t quite long enough for that, but she didn’t want to lose it again.

Feeling at the clasp, she opened the bag, and felt around. A familiar button lit up the phone’s screen, revealing the contents of the bag. Relief flooded over her, like hot water flowing into a cool bath. She lifted the phone out of the bag, looked at the screen and froze.

No signal

Penny closed her eyes and sighed. “Up we go then,” she said.

She switched on the phone’s torch mode and looked at the wall. It wasn’t smooth – there were large pieces of plaster missing between the stones, and jagged edges. They might be dangerous if she started sliding, but the good news was that looking up, she didn’t seem to be too far down.

Penny turned off the torch and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply for a few moments, trying to get as much oxygen into her bloodstream as possible. Once her breathing was under control and she felt ready, she opened her eyes again.

There was some light after all, it seemed, as she could vaguely make out the wall in front of her. That was understandable – the wooden lid over the well probably wasn’t as light proof as it used to be when they originally made it, however many years ago. And it was possible that Craig hadn’t put it back properly in his hurry. That was a comforting thought, and she smiled a little.

She walked forward to the wall and started hunting for handholds. It was easy enough for the hands, but not for the feet.

“How are you supposed to do this?” she asked of nobody in particular. The fact that nobody replied was comforting.

She tried pulling up just with her arms they weren’t strong enough on their own. She looked for a toehold for one foot, just in the first stone above the gribut the hands weren’t strong enough. She found a break in the stones and jammed the toes of her left foot in, pushed with that foot, then pulled with the arms. This seemed to be working, so she found another hold with the right foot and did the same.

Penny nodded to herself and put her left foot up again. This time, it didn’t catch and slipped down, putting weight on her shoulders which screamed in agony. She held her breath, clinging tight to the wall, swung her leg back and tried again.

“Note to self,” she whispered. “Don’t be greedy.”

This time her foot caught into place, and she pulled herself up again. Change legs, one foot up slightly, and pull. She was now two full stones above the metal grid. Looking up she couldn’t see where the well ended.

Her throat drying, she tried her right leg again, going a single stone. Each stone was no more than a head’s height, but every one meant she got closer to freedom.

And then it happened: her right hand slipped part way through the left leg raising, and within moments she fell back down to the metal grid. She hit hard, her back and hips getting the worst of the bruise.

Penny screamed, in frustration and pain and rage all at once.

And then she noticed something. It was brighter down here than it was towards the top of the well. There was light, but it wasn’t coming from above.

She opened the clasp on her back again and pulled out her phone. Switching the torch on again she looked around the well.

Down below the grid was a long, long drop. There was no water at the bottom, just darkness. The well must have dried up years before.

She shone the light around, turning around to look at all the walls and then –

“Why didn’t I see that before?”

Behind her was not rock, but a door. A curved door. The grill was three or four stones below it, but the handle was less than head height. If she could open that door, then maybe…

“Why has a door suddenly appeared in this wall?” she asked.

It hasn’t, her subconscious replied. You just haven’t noticed it before.

“Fair enough,” she shrugged.

She shined the light on the door. Holding the phone in one hand, she grasped the ring on the door and turned it. It was stiff, as though unused in years (centuries?), but it swung easily in its socket. She began trying to twist it, and gasped as the pain from her shoulders coursed through her body like a hot knife.

She buttoned her (now ruined) beige jacket, put the phone into her bag, and pushed the bag so it hung in front of her stomach. Using both hands, she grabbed the metal ring on the door with both hands and turned, hard.

It moved.

Penny closed her eyes, swallowed, and felt the tears come into her eyes as the door opened.

Compared to the climb, it was an easy matter to enter the doorway. She sat down on the step, pulled up her legs, and then turned herself backwards to fact into the room.

She pulled the phone out of her bag, closed the door behind her, and looked around.

To her left was a wrought iron bench on which lay a woman dressed in rags.

“I remember you,” she said to the unmoving woman. “You’re the waxwork from the dungeons, aren’t you?”

She looked at her phone. Four fifteen. It wasn’t even last admissions yet.

She walked over to the door. It was, of course, locked. As dungeons should be.

Maybe it was time to turn off the torch on the phone? To save the battery. She opened the screen, turned off the light and saw one bar.

Penny smiled.

“You’re in real trouble now, Craig,” she said, and began to dial.

The post “Penny Drops” first appeared on simoncollis.com and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2018. All rights reserved.

I’ve wanted to bring back Munro ever since the story “Elkwood”. (I also want to take the story Elkwood and rewrite it a bit, but that’s another story.) I had the name first and then wondered what would be special about this ring, and what it would do.

Of course, it was evil, naturally. I wrote the thing in one hit, printed it for editing and my other half pointed out that there was a couple of problems. I fixed those, but she was still left wondering why he was OK in one scene and paralysed in the next. I thought that was obvious: he wished for money, the ring decided the only way to arrange that was compensation, and the only way to organise that was to cripple him. Hmm. So much for subtlety. Read more

“Don’t move, and you won’t get hurt.”

The sawn-off barrel of the shotgun waves an inch from the bald man’s face.

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” he says, smiling.

“Just give me the money,” the man shouts. “I just want the money.”

“How much money do you want?” the bald man asks. “And why?”

The man with the gun narrows his eyes a little. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because, as I say, I think we can come to some kind of arrangement. A quid pro quo, if you like.” Read more

The idea of a were-man – a wolf that turns into a human at the full moon – came to me some time on Monday, but I couldn’t work out exactly how to make it work. Rebeca suggested the answer one day while we were out walking the dogs, that I tell it from the point of view of the were-man. I couldn’t really work out what exactly this would entail, so eventually in desperation I started writing on Saturday night, going carefully to try and get it right.

I basically followed the narrative through in my head, at each stage trying to work out what was happening. OK, so first he escapes from the zoo before the other wolves see him as an intruder and kill him. Fine, but then where does he go? The keeper who raised him as an abandoned cub and now has retired. She’s got clothes out for him and is baking cookies because he’s almost a son to her (I’m assuming she’s a widow, separated or divorced, of course). Read more

The moon is full; I can feel it. I can feel the change in my legs, feel the skin ripping and tearing, the transformation beginning. The pain is almost unbearable for a few minutes as my legs change shape, my chest changes, the hair changes.

My family won’t recognise me any more. Even my thoughts are different, somehow changed along with my body. I’m cold. No clothes, of course. I must run but I can’t. Be careful, I tell myself – this is the danger time. Give them no sign. Slip away, quietly. It’s for the best.

There’s a wall around the side. I walk around there, climb it easily. So easy when I’m like this. I couldn’t normally. I’ve done this so many times. Read more

First off, I have no real idea what inspired me to call this one “The March Society”. The idea that a music journalist wouldn’t see the name and immediately think of John Philip Souza and other purveyors of vaguely military-style pieces in two-four time is nonsense. Second, the idea that someone who was opera mad wouldn’t question that either is a bit silly. I can only hope that people will assume the character is either changing the name of it and it originally had nothing to do with the word “March”, or that the narrator has chosen to skip over that no doubt hilarious misunderstanding.

I actually started writing this one on the Monday, which is early for me. It’s a story idea I’d had years ago, at least the first part: the idea of something hideous, so sinister looking you can imagine it haunting Lovecraft’s nightmares, and yet all it wants to do is to sing, and you listen to its amazing, pure, delicious voice and suddenly all the other singers you’ve ever known and loved sound like ashes in your mouth and you can’t stand them any more is like catnip to me. But the question I didn’t have resolved in my mind was how to end it? I’d thought about having the society break up, be exposed… in the end, something so pure just wasn’t made for this world. (Did I really write that? Maybe I’ve got a career writing Mills and Boon beckoning…) Read more

The March Society

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/03/31
Posted in Year of Short Stories  | Tagged With: , , | No Comments yet, please leave one

I’m writing this at Graham’s request, although not necessarily just for his consumption. Unlike him, I’m not a journalist so I don’t really know how this should work. After all, I only worked in the copy department.

Graham started as the music critic some ten years ago, when I was working there in the IT department – repairing PCs, fixing things, that kind of thing. Of course, working with my headphones on, and him being a music critic, the first thing he said to me was obvious: “what are you listening to?”

I don’t really remember what I was doing, of course – probably some printer driver issue or other. We had some very expensive printers around that time that used to give us endless trouble. I have no idea why we had them, except that some bright spark in accounting decided that they were the thing to have because they were some three or four pounds cheaper than something built like a tank that would last forever. That’s the trouble when you put the bean counters in charge, I reckon.

Where was I? Oh yes. I think it was Berlioz; probably “Symphony Fantastique”. Which surprised him, as he was expecting I’d be listening to nu metal or some such. We ended up talking about music while I attempted to make the infernal printer work. He enjoyed all sorts, from metal to Mozart, while my tastes where a bit more avant garde. But opera? Ah, that’s where the common ground really lay. Read more

The clichéd question that every writer gets asked is “where do you get your ideas from?” Well, I’m not sure, but for the last few weeks the ideas haven’t really been flowing freely. In fact, this was the third attempt to write this story. I started off thinking I’d bring back Mr Munro of the antique shop, but re-reading Elkwood just made me want to fix the problems I saw in that story. Besides which, I couldn’t then think of a decent scenario to use them in. So that was enough of that one.

The next attempt to write it was actually a resurrection of the very first idea that I came up with. I won’t expound on that one as yet, for the simple reason that I probably will end up writing it before the year is out and I don’t want to give any spoilers out. But suffice to say that this time I didn’t even get as far as the first time, and that was particuarly galling.

In a bad mood, I ended up some time on Friday evening trying to come up with something. Finally, I came up with the title, and the rest – as often seems to happen with me – flowed naturally. Read more

The old man scratched at his beard as he walked. He looked through the bars of the cage, past the old lion, watching the sun going down on the horizon.

“Hey there, Leo old lad,” he said, softly. He billed himself as the gipsy lion tamer, of vaguely eastern European extraction, from a town no longer in the same country as his birth, no longer able to remember the language he spoke as a child yet still retaining a vague accent. The reality of an old man from west Yorkshire who decided one day to join a circus based on a Monty Python sketch wouldn’t, he’d decided, sell many tickets.

He sat down next to the cage, cross legged, and pulled the tobacco pouch out from his pocket. The lion shifted across the cage, and rubbed his ears against the bars. Rolling a cigarette with one hand, he idly scratched behind the lion’s ear with the other. Read more

When I first wrote If, Never three weeks ago, I didn’t think it would have a sequel. Even in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into a trilogy (and some of those dreams and pretty funky, thank you for asking.)

The initial premise of the first story was expanded on, and I enjoyed writing the second and coming up with another twist. But the next question was whether that was the last twist, or whether there was another twist somewhere to be had. I realised from some of the comments I’d had in person that some people were a little confused what had happened, and even thought that the carrier bag had been hidden outside. That made me realise that there was still some scope in these events, and that maybe that second twist should be resolved. Read more