Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Archive for March 2014

Pinwheel 2: Sam Recognises Her Face

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February 2nd, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

‘This is Alice,’ Bert says. He puts his hand on the small of the woman’s back and John instantly understands their relationship. ‘She is going to help me decide what the best course of action would be with you.’

Alice is not pretty enough to interest John – that nose, he says to himself – and he’s a little put off when her eyes widen at the sight of him. By the time she is sat opposite him, her expression has turned to stone.

She turns to Bert, who is still standing by her side like a guard.

‘I don’t think this is a good idea,’ she says.

Her accent is strange – to John’s ear’s, it sounds not quite Irish, a little bit English, altogether unplaceable. Another point against her.

‘What’s is it?’ Bert asks.

Alice squeezes her lips together, but does not answer. Bert murmurs in her ear, but she is unmoved.

‘No. Forget I said that. You call him a “magnet”?’

‘That’s right,’ Bert says, still softly. ‘You know –’

‘I know,’ she says, eyebrows pinched even tighter. ‘I know what it is. I remember.’

She leans forward, elbows on the table, and glares into him. John looks away.

‘I know the rest. You have been surrounded by small-minded idiots your entire life,’ she says. It sounds even blunter with her posture, her voice. ‘You have attracted their bad luck and taken on their bad thoughts. Sam is your one…lucky break?’

She looks at Bert for confirmation, as if English is not her native tongue. He nods. She continues.

‘If you stay with kind people, you will attract more kindness and become kinder in turn. If you work with money, you will make more money. If I put you next to the president, soon you will be a king.’

John likes the sound of that, but Bert frowns and says ‘Don’t play games, Alice.’

She flicks her eyes down and smirks.

‘So, the question is: what do you want? And what does Bertram want from you?’

She meets his gaze with curiosity this time. Her eyelids seem to go on forever. Like Vilma Banky, he thinks, like a real film star. Yes, for a couple of seconds he understands what Bert sees in her, though damn if he can stand such attitude in a woman.

‘More money might be nice,’ Bert says.

‘I’ll say,’ John adds, fidgeting with his jacket sleeve. He remembers the message he was sent yesterday from Al’s “accountants.”

‘Is money all you want?’ Alice asks.

‘At the minute, ma’am. I can go on to power later.’

He means it as a joke, but she does not find this amusing, and neither does Bert, it seems.

‘You’re working under me, remember,’ Bert says. The same menace, the same quiet anger that John saw the other night with Sam, is in his warning tone. ‘You’ve got something powerful, but if you don’t use it right, there’ll be nothing but ruin on us all.’

‘Yes,’ Alice says. She looks at him as if she is probing him for an answer, an explanation of some kind. John folds his arms and leans back.

‘Look, I’ll do whatever it takes for you to pay me, alright? I was kidding ’bout the rest. What do you want me to do?’

Bert nods at Alice, and she leaves without a sound. Bert takes her place and begins to delineate John’s new job, working in the back office. John hopes he won’t have to see Bert’s girlfriend again.


September 19th, 1996

Surulere, Lagos

Onyeka hums to herself as they walk home from college.

‘Oh. My. God. Mum is going to be so mad at you,’ her sister Grace says with a laugh, bouncing along beside her. ‘I cannot wait to tell Helen and Nnenna what she says. I bet she will kill you!’

Onyeka merely gives her a calm smile in return.

‘I did my best,’ she says.

‘May God have mercy on your soul,’ Grace replies, in Igbo.

She weaves between the human traffic on the pavement, disappearing from Onyeka’s sight then reappearing, as if she is blinking in and out of life. Soon, they have turned away from the busy streets by Queen’s College, and the pristine colours of the buildings beside it. Here, shingles are grey, and dark streaks run down the yellow walls. ‘You have better things to do than care about painting the house,’ mum has always said when Onyeka mentions it.

Grace bangs open the door of their home.

‘Tadaima, mes cheries!’ she calls.

Onyeka waits for the inevitable complaint, betting with herself whether it will come from their father or granny first.

‘I told you,’ comes a voice from the living room. Male voice – she has guessed wrong. ‘No funny talk! We speak English in this house!’

‘Ehihie ọma, nna,’ Onyeka calls.

A grumble is the only response. Grace smiles at her. Father wouldn’t dare say a word against her greeting him in Igbo – it’s not “funny talk”, after all.

Her mother appears at the living room doorway.

‘Well?’ she demands. She looks as if she is preparing her anger.

‘Get in here and help us make lunch!’ granny calls.

The two girls enter the kitchen. Granny throws a tea towel at them and walks to the side door, taking a cigarette out of her pocket. Their mother remains by the hallway, eyes burning into Onyeka’s back.

‘My results were good, mum,’ Grace says, leaning against the counter as Onyeka starts chopping the onions.

‘Oh shut up, you didn’t have any results,’ her mother says.

‘Ja wiem!’ she replies. ‘Soy un genia linguistica. Y no –’

‘One of these days, you and your languages will drive us to murder,’ granny says, puffing smoke out of the open doorway – a habit she has picked up only at her granddaughters’ insistence.

‘Onyeka,’ mother says. Her tone makes her demand clear.

Onyeka does not turn. If she turns, she might lose her calm.

‘I passed,’ she says, quietly.

‘What was your result?’ mother says again.

Grace giggles.

Onyeka pauses.


‘One hundred percent,’ she replies.

Granny chokes, coughs, then joins Grace’s laughter.

Mother is not amused. She glares through their chuckles.


‘I’m sorry,’ Onyeka says.

‘One hundred, again? Did you not try to be normal this time? They will think you have cheated again!’

‘Then I will take the test again,’ Onyeka says. Her composure has been hard-won, and she will not give it up easily.

‘No, mum, they know now that she’s just that smart,’ Grace says, nudging her with her elbow. Onyeka nearly slices her finger. ‘Mr Onodugo said sorry to her. In person! He said no-one thought it was possible – but she’s done it twice!’

‘I never thought my complaint would be that my daughters are too clever,’ mother says, joining them at the counter. ‘”What a wonderful problem to have,” I would have said. But I can’t understand a word one says, and the other is smarter than her exams and examiners combined. God help us all.’

Granny comes in and pats Onyeka’s back.

‘Now this is out of the way, you can think about universities again.’

Onyeka says nothing. Unfortunately, Grace has never learnt to be silent.

‘She wants to go to America,’ she says. ‘Or Oxford. Then we will go to Switzerland together.’

Onyeka can feel mother’s expression without having to look at her. Her feeling of content threatens to crack.

‘Why Switzerland?’ granny asks.

‘Oh, she wants to go because they have a big laboratory underground, and some big complicated physics project. And I have to go with her because she needs a translator.’

‘They’ll speak English there,’ Onyeka says, trying to distract herself enough to ignore her mother. ‘And I know some French –’

‘No, you need a translator,’ Grace insists. ‘What if you go into a cafe and –’

‘Grace,’ mother says, passing her the bag of scent leaves to chop. Grace takes the hint and shuts up.

No-one speaks for a moment. Onyeka waits for the inevitable.

‘Being a doctor is worthwhile,’ her mother says at last. She frowns as she tips beef into the pot. ‘Being a lawyer, as well. Even translating, like your sister, is good work. But physics…’

Onyeka knows she will not win this argument, but she tries nevertheless.

‘They are going to learn how the universe began,’ she says. ‘I think that is worthwhile.’

‘God made the earth, and He gave you this gift so you could give back to your people,’ mother says. ‘He did not bless you so you could run away to America and study atoms.’

‘What if I run away to America, mum?’ Grace asks, in a valiant effort to redirect their mother’s disappointment.

‘You already speak English. What would be the point?’ granny says.

‘What if I work for the UN?’ Grace continues. ‘While Onyeka works on physics. We’ll be close to each other, and you’ll have one daughter to be proud of!’

Onyeka passes her mother the onions and turns to leave.

‘I’m thinking of what’s best for you,’ mum says after her. ‘I don’t want you to waste your talent!’

She does not reply as she walks through to the living room.

Father heard the whole thing, but as usual he knows better than to comment. Instead, he raises his eyebrows at her in sympathy, and turns back to his program. He is watching TV before his evening shift. She notes he is hiding a bottle of beer between the couch cushions.

There is a comforting moment of speechlessness.

‘Oh,’ he says, ruining it. ‘A letter came for you earlier.’

He nods towards the side table. As she gets up to fetch it, she hears him hastily take a swig from the bottle.

The letter has no stamp or address – delivered in person, she thinks. It has both her name and Grace’s on the front, but she opens it anyway.

She reads it with a frown, then stuffs it into her pocket. Father raises his eyebrows again, and says nothing, taking another swig from the bottle.

Mother attempts to resume their argument over lunch, but Onyeka refuses to speak. She finishes first, and she takes father’s bottle out of the couch and outside to the bin before they have left the table.

‘Onyeka,’ father says, when he meets her in the hallway. He speaks quietly, under the rattle of the others cleaning up.

He says in Igbo:

‘I think you should do what makes you happy.’

‘Thank you, father,’ she says – more touched than she lets show.

‘You will be a great scientist,’ he adds, in English. Then he leaves.

She reads over the letter again, and she asks Grace to come outside with her as soon as they can peel away from the others.

‘Anteeksi,’ Grace says, as they sit on the warm concrete of the pavement. ‘That means “forgive me”.’

‘So I guessed,’ Onyeka says. ‘I forgive you.’

‘I shouldn’t have told her.’

‘I said I forgive you. And anyway, she might change her mind.’

‘What do you mean?’

She passes Grace the letter.

It is written in near-illegible cursive, so it takes her a few minutes to read it, then read it again.

‘A project at CERN?’ she says. A smile breaks across her face. At the start of summer she took out her school cornrows, and now her natural hair is like a halo when she beams like this. ‘They’ve sought you out!’

‘No,’ Onyeka says. ‘It is a fake. It has not even been posted – just put through the door. But they know who we are, they know our grades – and they know that I want to work at CERN.’

Grace’s smile fades.

‘You haven’t told anyone except me,’ she says.


Grace looks over the letter once more.

‘“John Kaminski,” it says.’

‘He must be American. He uses their spelling.’

‘He says he wants to meet us both,’ Grace says, frowning once more at the handwriting. ‘Do you think that would be safe?’

Onyeka sighs. She can still hear her mother and grandmother talking indoors – likely talking about her.

‘I want to say, we should forget it. But it could be dangerous to leave it, if he knows who were are, and where we live. And I don’t understand how he could know what he knows.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Grace says, grinning again. ‘I know how to shoot father’s gun.’

Onyeka laughs, despite herself. In truth, she is more intrigued by the letter than worried. She has been taught that God provides, and for all her logic, she believes there are stranger things in the universe than have been discovered, even beyond particles and quantum mechanics. If, by some chance, the offer of work is genuine, her mother must take it as a sign that her wishes are valid – and if not, then the writer of this letter has still acquired some method of learning the secrets of others.

And if there is one thing Onyeka loves above all else, it is learning more than she is meant to.


January 29th, 1931

Prince George Hotel, New York.

‘Shit, shit, shitty-shit-shit,’ Tessa says.

‘It’s okay,’ George says. ‘We’re a month early. That’s better than a month late.’

‘But I met Bert! He knows something’s up now! Shit, what if he tells this John guy that I was looking for him? What if – if he realises where the necklace came from? We never should’ve done this. Next thing you know, we’ll go back home and–and there’ll be talking trees, and robot maids, and half my friends’ll have never existed because us coming here has made this–this butterfly effect where none of their parents meet, and – stop it!’

He can’t help it; he’s smiling. Nothing puts her off more than having her worry eaten mid-sentence. Another inhalation, another gulp, and the lot of it is gone. She hangs her arms at her side and gives him one of her looks.

‘We’re fine,’ he says. ‘All that matters is that we stop John from taking the necklace. We’ve got the whole month to stop him now, that’s all – and anyway, didn’t you say you wanted to see old gangster New Yoik?’

She rolls her eyes.

‘It was meant to be simple. Get here, find out when he takes it, stop him, get back. Should’ve taken us a day. But I’ve already ruined it.’

‘We’re fine,’ he says again. He lets her have this worry – he’s full, and he doesn’t like the bitter dark chocolate taste of her anxiety anyway.

She reaches out and flicks the lock of hair that curls under his right ear. She reminds him of a cat playing with a ribbon when she does that.

‘New York exhausted you last time,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to see you like that again.’

He can’t deny it. A street with twenty people on it is exhausting for a man who can sense the emotions of everyone in sight. The streets of Broadway in 2004 were like being water-boarded while on a rollercoaster.

‘If we stay in the same few places, quiet places – then I’ll be fine. Either way, you’ll get a feast.’

She grins, and despite himself he takes a bite of her anticipating joy. It tastes like a cinnamon bun.

‘A city full of dreamers,’ she says. ‘I can’t wait. I won’t be sleeping at all tonight.’

He takes her hand, glad she is calm enough for him to continue with their plan.

‘It might be better this way, than appearing suddenly and doing it in one night,’ he says. ‘That would be too strange – it might make people talk, and who knows what that would lead to. This way, we get in naturally, become regulars at the club, become friends with them all – then we’ll find out what happens, and stop him.’

‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Okay.’

‘No matter what happens,’ we’ll be fine,’ he says again. ‘We can always go back home.’

When they first learnt that time travel was possible, she joked that it was never a problem to travel into the future, only the past, because then you could create all kinds of damage. And that was true…unless you found something so awful, you couldn’t help but try to stop it.

Tessa gives him another look. She knows he feels more obligation to do this favour than she does. After all, he was the one who had tasted Alice’s fear – a well more potent than any terror he had eaten before.

‘I don’t want to let her down,’ she whispers.

‘We won’t,’ he says, taking her hand. ‘I promise.’


February 3rd, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York

Bert recognises the blonde girl immediately. She is hanging off the arm of a tired-looking man who could be aged anywhere between twenty-five and forty, and she waves at Alice the second they come through the door.

Alice waves back. For the first time in days, she is smiling.

It fits together in his mind. The necklace left, and Alice left shortly after. He hadn’t wanted to consider that she was the thief, but here is the girl with the strange watch, and here Alice knows her, and the only way a girl from another time could get to here is through that spokewheel and chain. His timesplitter.

Bert says nothing as the couple approach them. The girl Tessa pulls Alice into a hug, and Alice does not flinch from it. Her Mona Lisa smile never wavers.

‘Hi, Bert,’ Tessa says, holding out her hand. ‘Nice to meet you again.’

Bert has no choice but to shake her hand.

‘This is my husband George,’ Tessa says. The man has an intense, yet displaced stare, as if he sees something else fascinating when he looks at you.

‘Husband?’ Alice says.

Tessa smiles and flashes the ring on her hand.

‘It seems we have much to tell one another,’ Alice says. ‘The corner seat is quiet – I’ll get drinks.’

She nods to the table by the stage, where Bert conducts all of his business. Normally he would take umbrage at anyone using it without his permission. Normally, he would forgive Alice for this misdemeanour, as he forgives her most everything. Tonight, he has bigger worries.

He follows her to the bar, and after Seamus has turned away to make her three glasses of gin and tonic, Bert leans close to her ear.

‘How do you know them?’

‘They’re friends,’ Alice says.

Bert knows all her friends. All the people she knows from 1928 until 1931, at least.

‘Where are they from?’

‘Britain. Tessa is from Fife, George is from Bath.’

Even softer, Bert asks:

When are they from?’

Alice does not answer for a moment. Seamus tells her he will take their drinks to the table, because he knows that making Alice happy makes an easy life for all the bar staff. She thanks him, and he walks away.

Bert waits for her response.

‘The year two-thousand and seven,’ she says.

Bert exhales. He had never considered that she would go so far forward. He never considered there was time that far forward.

‘Why have you brought them here?’

She turns to him.

When he first met her, he considered her a flower in need of saving, a child in the ways of the modern world, an ingénue with an incredible gift. But underneath her naivete lay an old soul, and ever since she disappeared last year, it is that soul which stares back at him every time he looks into her eyes.

‘To keep you safe,’ she whispers, before walking away.

Bert cannot keep his eyes off that table, as Alice sits with these future strangers, and smiles more easily than she has in months.

Tessa takes the necklace out of her pocket. Seamus walks in view. When he is gone, the necklace is in Alice’s hands.

The door opens and a familiar tap comes through. It is One-eyed Sam, and his cane.

Bert pulls himself away, forcing his mind to himself, and his present.

‘Sam,’ Bert says, walking up to greet him. ‘How are things?’

Sam shakes his left hand, as always.

‘As good as they ever go, for a cripple,’ Sam says, with a light laugh. They walk towards the bar. ‘I thought I’d come by and ask how John’s doing. I heard you saw him last night.’

‘He’s fine. I found out what to do with him, and gave him a handsome packet to take home. I reckon he’ll come back.’

‘Good,’ Sam says. ‘He’s a good kid, really. Hopefully this’ll be his lucky break.’

Bert can’t help but smile.

‘Alice said you were his lucky break.’

‘Your girl?’ Sam asks. ‘For all people say about her, I’ve not met her yet.’

Bert sees an opportunity to break up the soiree in the back.

‘She’s here tonight – just back there.’

He turns, and points to the three on the back table. Alice is at the side, the only one clearly visible from their position, while the other two are masked by the stage.

Bert hears a clatter behind him, and two hands grab his arm and pull him down.

The bar quiets as they turn and see Sam – good ol’ One-eyed Sam – fallen on the floor, cane scattered on the tiles. His face is white as milk, freckles stand-out brown, and he grips Bert’s arm like a five-year-old on his mother’s skirts.

Bert crouches next to him.

‘Come on, Sam,’

‘Shit, Bert, it’s her,’ Sam hisses.

He is staring at Alice like she’s the devil.

She looks at him like he’s a puddle of blood, leaking under a doorway.

Alice stands from the table, says something to Tessa and George, and the three disappear backstage.

‘Shit,’ Sam says again. He’s shaking like an autumn leaf. ‘I remember now. I remember.’

‘Stand up, man,’ Bert says, tugging him, embarrassed under the sights of his patrons.

‘She took my eye,’ Sam says. ‘She’s the one took my eye, and did for my leg. It’s her.’

Bert freezes.

Slowly, mechanically, thinking all the time, he turns and grabs Sam’s cane, the cane he paid for himself.

He unhooks Sam’s fingers from his suit, and pushes the cane into them.

‘Stand up,’ he commands.

He rises, and he waits, and after a few moments, Sam does as told: he plants the cane on the ground, and he tries, and falls, and tries again, until he pushes himself to standing. Then he adjusts his eyepatch, with a hand that has ceased to tremble. When he straightens, he faces his Bert dead-on.

‘I swear I ain’t lying,’ he says.

‘Are you accusing my girl of attacking you?’ Bert says, quiet enough so the people listening in won’t hear.

The muscles work in Sam’s jaw, as he clenches and unclenches.

‘I see what I see,’ he says, at last.

‘I say your eyes can play tricks on you,’ Bert says. ‘Don’t ever talk to me about this again.’

It is only a small change in Sam’s face, but Bert catches it. The light leaves his eye as his trust in Bert drains away.


He turns and clicks out of the club.


Written by G.J.

26/03/2014 at 2:08 pm

Savage Writing: Faces from Different Places

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Theme for this week was “the indescribable man”. I went more for “indescribable”. It was last minute, and I was embarrassed after I’d read it out. Not proud of this one. But hey, the next chapter of Pinwheel is going up on Sunday…


As he walked away to the bar, I turned to her.

‘So, is he Polish?’

‘Polish? No.’



‘Nowhere Eastern Europe?’

‘No, he’s from Girvan.’

‘Girvan? Never would’ve guessed. I just thought he’d picked up the accent. He looks really Eastern European.’

‘Eastern European?’

‘Aye, he’s got an Eastern European looking face.’

She gave me that laugh that everyone’s heard, the laugh with the strong tide of annoyance underneath.

‘What the hell does that mean?’

‘Well, y’know, huge blue eyes, like dinner plates, in this soft baby face. Half of all Eastern European men look like that. The other half are all concave-cheeks and heavy brows.’

‘There’s no such thing as an “Eastern European face”.’

‘Aye there is. Most countries have their own kind of face, or couple of faces.’

‘Alright. Name me a couple.’

‘Well, like, American faces – North American USA faces – they are pure jawline. You walk down any street in the UK and you’ll see young people with jowls and a thousand receding double chins. But loads of people in the US, they work hard and exercise and starve all those weak-looking features right out of their faces. They’re golden-skinned and their jaws jut forward and their cheekbones stick out too, so their cheeks are just like a tarp pulled tight over two metal bars.’

She laughed again. The undercurrent had changed to “weirded out”.

‘I’ve no idea what you mean.’

‘Yeah you do. If you saw an American walk in right now, you’d see what I mean. That type of face, anyway. The other is pure blubber. Or Jewish. If ever you see an American who isn’t taut-tight or blubber, they’re generally of Jewish descent, and you can tell.’

‘Cause of the nose?’

‘No, not always,’ I say, deciding to bring up her stereotyping in a separate conversation. ‘It’s more of a…noticeable eyebrows over small eyes. Not thick, not bushy eyebrows, but generally dark and…noticeable.’

‘Oh my God, how much time do you spend thinking about this kind of thing?’ she said.

The criticism was clear. I shut my mouth. Her new man came back from the bar with our drinks.

‘Here, Sadie’s been telling me you look Polish,’ she said.

He looked up at me and I swear I’d seen his face a million times saying “curva.”

‘Aye? How come?’

‘She thinks different countries have different faces. Like, people from European countries and that.’

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘So I look Polish?’

‘Definitely Eastern European,’ I said.

‘What about Caroline?’

Caroline had wet blue eyes, a soft chin and jawline, and porcelain skin. She would never be out of place in a period drama.


‘Not Welsh?’ she asked. Her smile was pure cheek.

‘I dunno what a Welsh face looks like. I’ve not met enough Welsh folk.’

‘I’ve totally got no English in me. This is so stupid.’

‘How about you, then?’ he – her new man, Paul – asked.

I stopped for a second.

‘I have a Weegie face.’

The words were sour in my mouth.

‘Oh,’ Paul said. ‘Weegie, not Scottish?’

‘Specifically Weegie.’

‘What’s a Glaswegian face look like, then?’

I hesitated again. It was a realisation I had only come to recently, looking at old photographs of my family. My mother, her Norse fairness and strong warrior features. My brothers and father, their Celtic blue eyes and dark hair, with genial Edinburgh faces. And me.

‘I…dunno. It’s hard to describe.’

‘Come on, you’ve just been describing all these other ones, though I’ve no clue what you actually mean,’ Caroline said.

‘It’s pretty hard to describe faces,’ Paul added.

‘No, I don’t mean…I dunno. It’s like, I can say what some of the features are – like a strong pointed nose, a big forehead, pasty skin…but I guess what makes it Weegie more than anything else is…’

‘…is what?’

Looking out from me at age five, ten, thirteen.

‘Is the stare.’


‘Aye,’ I say. ‘Weegie faces are really…starey. Like, even when they’re smiling they look kind of…’

I grunted as I failed to find the words again.

‘I dunno. Unfriendly.’

‘Sounds Weegie alright,’ Caroline said. ‘Like they’re on heroin and about to chib ye?’

‘I know that one,’ Paul said.

I let them talk and move on to others things, because of all things, I could not describe the face I had ascribed as “Glaswegian” – no, not Glaswegian, because there were well-to-do folk with catered faces in Glasgow too. No, it was “Weegie,” because there was one thing you could say about that face that was not pinnable to any feature: it looked poor. A Weegie face was a face of poverty. Fat or thin, they looked like they hadn’t had any nutrition, and their skin never seemed clear even if, like me, they rarely got spots. And yes, their stare was like they might turn and hurt you any second, but more than that was exhaustion, an exhaustion even deeper than bags under the eyes, an exhaustion in the pupils themselves. A Weegie face was like an internal cesspit leaking out through the pores – not describable, but fuck, you knew to stay away from it. A face that, on TV, was only on criminals. Face of my city. Written in my genes.

Look at me and you’ll know what I mean.

Written by G.J.

20/03/2014 at 10:14 pm

Enemy Classes (Stranger Tales No. 5)

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When I was newly-wed, my soul-brother Agnin came home to my wife one night and pretended to be me. She laughed him away, saying that she knew well enough how to tell between us. Two days later, her cousin came to visit. When I came home from the tavern that night, I saw what I thought was my wife in my home, and I kissed her neck as I always do, when my Elspa walked in from the pantry and saw me. Never lived that down, not being able to tell my own wife apart from her kin, when she so easily saw through mine. But we learn to live with these japes and mistakes, and we learn to have better eyes, even when drunk.

In any city, in any country, across both the continents, you will always find a face like mine. Men with my square jaw, proud nose, broad warrior’s physique – men cut from the same cloth as I. They say the gods grew tired, when making the host of man. For the kings and lords and ladies, they carved smooth faces of beauty and character, and gave them clothes of intricate patterns and hair all colours of the rainbow. When they came to make the common folk, they said twelve faces was enough. So from the start, there came the two types of people: the rulers, and followers. The commanders, and the killers.

When Elspa gave birth to our son, she stared into his face and said, blue eyes bright, ‘He’s a warrior like his father!’ And though it took a few years for Brodin’s features to grow closer to mine, soon it was unmistakeable: my son, my face, my path. I didn’t understand my reluctance to smile on him, or the sadness which came over me when he took my axe in hand, and said ‘One day, I’ll wield this in battle just like you, papa!’

Agnin, though, he understood. When the King ordered us across the sea, we met at the tavern and, sunk into our tankards, he said he was afraid.

‘They want Tara to come as well,’ he said. ‘Both of us, across the sea. She wants to fight with the Valkyries again, and she won’t hear me when I say how dangerous it is. She doesn’t know it’s different fighting lordlings and high-soldiers. They never miss. They use magic to heal every gash we give ’em. They say this prince has never left an enemy soldier alive, and gods, they say his archers strike down Valkyries like flies. His tactician is a heartless monster with an all-seeing eye, they say.’

Deep in my drink, I asked him if he thought we would ever get out of fighting.

‘The gods made us warriors,’ he said. ‘We cannot rail against our lot.’

I want to rail, though. When we are set on opposing armies, it is like killing my reflection, and my wife’s, and my mage cousin’s, and every other acquaintance I’ve known. You learn differences of expression, posture, freckles, eyes shade, how they wear the same clothes and hair, so by the time you’re ten you can tell each of your friends apart – but you still, when you face an enemy of the same kind as your friend, you think there is a moment of recognition before you slam your axe into their skull. I know what it would look like to see my wife gurgle blood from a cut throat. I know what it would look like to see her fried to death. I know what it will look like if I, or Agnin, or my son are ever cut down. That is horror. That is my lot.

But when we were sent across the sea, we knew we were not to fight our own kind. We knew we were to fight the prince’s army. We knew that if we ever faced him, we would not live.

I kissed Elspa goodbye. I held Brodin tight, and told him I would be a proud warrior. We travelled across the sea, and we set upon unknown land, filled with enemies who look like us. A man with a distinctive face ordered us to stand, and fight, for the glory of the superior kind, for this petty battle between those with rich cloth and unique features. I did not rail, for it is my lot to die for their squabble.

Today, we stand, Agnin and I, at the mountain pass, with our brothers and sisters-in-arms. Ten faces to cover the lot of us. Cavalry twins talk of horses together, thin-bearded mages make sparks at each other across the crowd, young and stern swordsmen adjust their greaves in unison.

The commander shouts. They are here.

I see them at the foot of the slope, and gods help me, I gasp, for I have never seen such variety, never seen so many high-bloods in one place. Red hair, blue hair, yellow hair and brown. Robes of black, of silver, and amour painted navy and copper. Some are astride brown horses, some black, while their Valkyries ride white pegasi. If I begged and pleaded all my life, if I won all my battles single-handed, I would still never be deigned with a look of attention from any man or woman of them.

‘That is the favour of the gods,’ Agnin says. He sounds like he is about to cry. ‘They will never lose, even if we kill half of them.’

The horns blast. The Valkyries ride ahead, Tara among them. We charge.

The pegasi are dead by the time the prince’s first wave reaches us.

The prince, handsome beyond reckoning, comes upon us, cloak billowing behind him. He walks as if his determination alone will win him this battle.

Behind him, in a hooded robe, walks the tactician. Her eyes glow red under the shadow of her cowl. All-seeing eyes.

Agnin screams, for Tara’s body is somewhere he can’t see, and there is nothing else he can do. His axe makes barely a scratch on the prince’s armour. One cut with the sword, an Agnin has fallen to his knees. Another swing, and his head is on the grass.

I have seen this, many times before, but it has not prepared me for the pain I feel.

My duty is the tactician. She looks at me with those glowing eyes, and I see no empathy. Only calculation. I am a hillock on her road, and – she thinks – I see she thinks – there are a million more like me.

She raises her hand and flames burst from her palm.

It is my lot.

I heard a tale, once. From a wizened old man, cracked over the years. He told me that the gods, were the lordlings to ever lose, would remake the world once more, and try again, and again, until they succeeded.

I wish I had been born with the gods’ favour.

I drop my axe, and I face the tactician as proudly as my shaking body will let me.

‘Go on,’ I say.

Her moment of confusion is my triumph, before her flames engulf me.

Written by G.J.

13/03/2014 at 9:21 pm

Savage Writing: By the Book

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Missed last time due to holiday. This week’s task was “Burlesque.” I went for the old-fashioned use of the word, meaning a parody/satire.


‘Shit,’ swore esteemed detective Jack Manson, as he thumped quiet his alarm. Beside him, the girl he picked up last night turned her tousled head.

‘Wha-?’ she said.

‘Let yourself out,’ he said, tossing the duvet aside and setting his feet on the cold laminate floor. ‘I’ve got work to do.’

Kirsty, or Lauren – whatever her name was, he’d forgot – pouted as he left the room.

One cold shower later, he had thrown on his rumpled shirt and slacks, under his beloved trench coat. The June air was hot outside, and the girl at the McDonald’s drive-thru raised her eyebrows as she passed his morning muffin into his sweltering car.

‘I’m a very busy man,’ he growled. ‘I have work to do.’

‘Whateverrrrrr,’ she said, drawling out in the way that only impudent teen girls could.

It was all a lie, though. Jack was a consummate liar. One of the reasons no-one could ever get close to him. The truth was, it was Saturday, and the office had been quiet all week – no new case, no intrigue. So Jack had been left to do the only interesting thing he ever did on his days off.

Jack was going to visit his daughter.

He swung his 1978 Ford Cortina – his pride and joy – into the parking spot outside Shelley’s apartment. He sprang up the steps like a man half his age. Shelley answered within minutes.

Jack’s daughter, Shelley, was in her early twenties, and had the same gamine look as her mother had done, thirty years ago, before ageing got to her. They had only been in contact for the past couple of years. Shelley’s apartment was small but richly furnished – many presents from her businessman stepfather, Jack was sure.

‘How’s your mother?’ Jack asked, after kissing her on the cheek.

‘Fine,’ Shelley said.

Jack sighed. As uncaring as always. It had been years since Jack had seen his ex-wife, yet she never wanted to meet him, despite everything they had been to each other for so long. Judy had never liked Jack’s commitment to the job. After the fourth time the gang kidnapped her and he had to make another thrilling rescue, she said it was enough. She had gone for one of those Financial 100 guys, and lived like a queen ever since. Something Jack could never do for her.

When Jack had seen Shelley again three years ago, she had been frosty as well. Then Nikolai Smirnov’s gang kidnapped her, too, and they had finally had a heartwarming reconciliation.

Shelley looked tired. The kind of tired eyes her mother had had, at the end.

‘Are you narrating our backstory in your head again? You do this every time.’

Shelley didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how hard it was to be tied to the job. Even on your days off.

Jack took a bite of his Egg McMuffin and didn’t answer.

‘Do you want to hear about college? Can you promise you’ll actually listen this time?’

‘Shelley,’ Jack said gruffly, ‘when did we get all this space between us?’

Shelley sighed, aggravated. Just like her mother.

‘Dad, are you interested in my life or not? Every time I talk to you, you just want to know if I’m staying safe. Well, I dunno, dad! Depends if you’ve pissed off the Russians again and they want to kidnap me. Again.’

‘He’s out of jail again,’ Jack said. The words were like a thorn in his side. Bitter. He always failed those he loved.

‘Of course he is, dad! They only got him for minor fraud. You didn’t get any evidence or anything – and come on, dad, after so long you should have something damning on him by now!’

‘Can’t believe he got away,’ Jack muttered to himself. ‘I won’t rest until he’s behind bars for good.’

Nikolai Smirnov. Head of the city’s enclave of Russian mafia. Prostitution, drugs, trafficking – you name it, Smirnov was behind it, even if it sometimes seemed like he wasn’t. Jack had been chasing him for near on thirty years, and still –

‘Dad,’ Shelley said, rudely interrupting his thoughts, ‘I think mom’s right. I think it’s best if we don’t see each other.’

He looked at her, dumbstruck. How could she do this to him?’

‘How can you do this to me?’ he said, sadly.

‘I’m sorry, dad,’ Shelley said, equally sadly. ‘But I wanna backpack round Europe this summer, and if I’m associated with you in any way, I’ll end up getting kidnapped again – maybe even killed, like your brother did that one shocking time. And I just…I can’t handle this any more. You’re nothing but a drama queen.’

‘Fine,’ Jack said, one manly tear threatening his eyeball. ‘I understand if you don’t want to be near me anymore. I don’t want to hurt you. It’s for the best.’

Shelley only sighed in return.

‘Take care,’ Jack said. ‘And tell your mother…tell Judy, I’m sorry.’

Shelley folded her arms and watched him leave. God, she looked just like Judy used to, before time ravaged her. He turned, trenchcoat tail flapping behind him. Then he was gone.

Jack went to his car. From the glove compartment, he took out his fancy glass which he always kept hidden there, that had survived numerous car chases. He brought out his hipflask, and poured it into the glass. The overpowering smell of whisky threatened to overcome him.

‘Looks like I only have one off-duty pastime now, Cortina,’ he said to his car, before taking a swig.

The next morning, still stung by Shelley’s proclamation, and pushing another random blonde out of his bed, his phone rang.

‘Jack, good to talk to you again,’ came Nikolai’s butter-smooth Russian accent. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news concerning your daughter…’

Jack, despite himself, grinned. Another case, another chase, and another heartwarming conclusion. Nice and by the book.

Written by G.J.

06/03/2014 at 12:28 am