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Ned Prevezer • Tala Martelli • Zina Bouzad Gabriel Rumney • Mohammed Shamal • JD Juan Joseph Dredge-Fenwick

Changing lives through writing 'First Story is a very exciting idea – writing can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.' PHILIP PULLMAN Author of His Dark Materials Illustration by Ellie Sutton Cover design by Lucy Dove Typesetting by Avon DataSet Ltd

F I R S T S T O RY

www.firststory.co.uk £10.00

A Collection of Extraordinary Tales

Featuring writing by:

Holland Park School

A Collection of Extraordinary Tales is an anthology of new writing by the First Story students at Holland Park School who took part in creative-writing workshops led by writerin-residence Leo Benedictus. First Story believes there is dignity and power in every person’s story, and here you’ll find young people expressing themselves in their own unique voices. We hope you enjoy this collection.

An Anthology by the First Story Group at

Holland Park School Edited and Introduced by Leo Benedictus


First Story changes lives through writing. We believe that writing can transform lives, and that there is dignity and power in every young person’s story. First Story brings talented, professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities to work with teachers and students to foster creativity and communication skills. By helping students find their voices through intensive, fun programmes, First Story raises aspirations and gives students the skills and confidence to achieve them. For more information and details of how to support First Story, see www.firststory.org.uk or contact us at info@firststory.org.uk.

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A Collection of Extraordinary Tales ISBN 978-0-85748-204-4 Published by First Story Limited www.firststory.org.uk Omnibus Business Centre, 39–41 North Road London N7 9DP Copyright Š First Story 2016 Typesetting: Avon DataSet Ltd Cover Designer: Lucy Dove Cover Illustrator: Ellie Sutton Printed in the UK by Intype Libra Ltd First Story is a registered charity number 1122939 and a private company limited by guarantee incorporated in England with number 06487410. First Story is a business name of First Story Limited.

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A Collection of Extraordinary Tales An Anthology By The First Story Group At Holland Park School Edited and introduced by Leo Benedictus | 2016

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As Patron of First Story I am delighted that it continues to foster and inspire the creativity and talent of young people in secondary schools serving low-income communities. I firmly believe that nurturing a passion for reading and writing is vital to the health of our country. I am therefore greatly encouraged to know that young people in this school – and across the country – have been meeting each week throughout the year in order to write together. I send my warmest congratulations to everybody who is published in this anthology.

HRH The The Duchess Duchess of of Cornwall Cornwall HRH

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Thank You Melanie Curtis at Avon DataSet for her overwhelming support for First Story and for giving her time in typesetting this anthology. Anna Wood for her copy-editing and enthusiastic support for the project. Ellie Sutton for illustrating the cover of this anthology and Lucy Dove for designing the jacket. Intype Libra for printing this anthology at a discounted rate; Tony Chapman and Moya Birchall at Intype Libra for their advice. The Wates Foundation who supported First Story in this school. HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Patron of First Story. The Trustees of First Story: Andrea Minton Beddoes, Anne Elizabeth Pryor Colocci, Robert John Waterloo Ind, Charlotte Mary Hogg, David Anthony Stuart Stephens, Sue Margaret Horner, Sophie Dalling, Mayowa Sofekun, Edward James Baden-Powell, Betsy Elizabeth Tobin, James Victor Waldegrave. The Advisory Board of First Story: Andrew Adonis, Julian Barnes, Jamie Byng, Alex Clark, Julia Cleverdon, Andrew Cowan, Jonathan Dimbleby, Mark Haddon, Simon Jenkins, Derek Johns, Andrew Kidd, Rona Kiley, Chris Patten, Kevin Prunty, Zadie Smith, William Waldegrave and Brett Wigdortz. Thanks to: Aldgate and Allhallows Foundation, Arts Council England, Jane and Peter Aitken, Tim Bevan and Amy Gadney, Big Lottery Fund, the Boutell Bequest, the Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation, Brunswick,

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Cheltenham Festivals, Clifford Chance Foundation, Beth and Michele Colocci, the Danego Charitable Trust, the D’Oyly Carte Charitable Trust, the Dulverton Trust, the Thomas Farr Charity, the Robert Gavron Charitable Trust, the First Story Events Committee, the First Story First Editions Club, the Girdlers’ Company Charitable Trust, Give A Book, Goldman Sachs Gives, Charlotte Hogg and Steve Sacks, Laura Kinsella Foundation, Kate Kunac-Tabinor, the Lake House Charitable Foundation, Letters Live, John Lyon’s Charity, Old Possum’s Practical Trust, Open Gate Trust, Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, Psycle Interactive, Laurel and John Rafter, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Royal Society of Literature, SAGE Publications, Santander Foundation, Alison and Neil Seaton, the Staples Trust, Teach First, Betsy Tobin and Peter Sands, Walker Books, the Wates Foundation, the Garfield Weston Foundation, and our group of regular donors. Most importantly we would like to thank the students, teachers and writers who have worked so hard to make First Story a success this year, as well as the many individuals and organisations (including those we may have omitted to name) who have given their generous time, support and advice.

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Contents Introduction

Leo Benedictus

Wonderful World (Extract) Mr Eldridge (Extract) A Constellation of Water Escaping Foxwood The Cult of Harold The Escapade of Conrad Krause Von Mandel and Adela Flau (Extract)

Ned Prevezer Tala Martelli Zina Bouzad Gabriel Rumney Mohammed Shamal JD Juan Joseph Dredge-Fenwick

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Introduction Leo Benedictus Writer-in-Residence

These seven students have had nowhere to hide. It’s been a more intense course this year, covering one term instead of two, so they’ve needed to find a foothold in their poem or story, then write and edit it, in just nine weeks. From the outset they knew they would be asking a lot of themselves. I did very little. Now and then I gave them my opinions, and hopefully some things to think about. More importantly, I gave them deadlines. Besides that, just about everything you read in this anthology is the product of these students’ skill, their imagination, their encouragement of one another, and a great deal of their spare time. If you ask me – and in truth I’ve told quite a few people who didn’t ask – the results are sensational. This is the highest standard of creative writing that I’ve seen from a school. In places it’s the kind of writing you’d be pleased to find in a forty-year-old’s master’s degree. There’s an emphasis in the anthology on the here and now, although this finds expression in different ways. With piercing honesty as in Mohammed’s story or in Zina’s poem, with fantastical twists, like Ned’s or JD’s, and with great wit from Gabriel and Tala. Meanwhile Joe very decidedly does his own thing, with a magnificent tale of intrigue among eccentric aristocrats in the Belle Epoque. In the case of two students, Ned and Joe, their finished stories ran to more than 11,000 words. That’s about a fifth of a novel each, or about double the length of an undergraduate dissertation. 9

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The tireless and tremendous Ms Hennah and I explored a number of ways to make the stories fit into the book, but in the end, for the first time ever in my time as a First Story writer, we had to cut each by about a third, which is a pity. That said, as I re-read all the pieces here, I think it’s obvious that the students’ real pleasure – like mine – lies not in publication but in the writing process itself. The only way to become as good as they are at expressing yourself is to enjoy trying. A Collection Of Extraordinary Tales, the group decided to call the book. It is indeed. Brighton February 2016

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Wonderful World (Extract) Ned Prevezer

1 Life, in terms of my existence in the town of Midton with my wife, was a concept I frequently had trouble understanding. Everything seemed so depressingly stable, as if I was watching it unfold in its predictable manner in some kind of soap opera on the television, with my misery, and indeed my small moments of genuine happiness (which were rare) being a spectacle for others to look at, and be thankful that their life wasn’t like mine. My wife, Julia, always told me that I needed to make the most of my days, knowing fully of my cynical views on our suburban life. ‘Carpe diem. Seize the day, George. That’s how you’ve got to live life,’ she would say. I suspect she had taken this from that film about poets with Robin Williams, but it was loving and caring advice anyway. I loved her, I really did. I am sure she really loved me also, though twenty years together had, unfortunately, not made our love for each other any stronger. We were so in love, Julia and I, but time had not been the greatest of aphrodisiacs for us. Over the years we became more and more impatient with each other. It was as if the more and more we knew each other, and gained knowledge about every single inch of each other’s minds and ways of thinking, and of each other’s traits, the less and less we knew what each other truly wanted, and what we truly thought of each other. Living in Midton was strange, to say the least. In fact it seemed 11

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to be the only thing about my life that was interesting. It was a small town. It was a mix of the old and dying, and the new, young people, who all seemed to be artists, who now littered the town with galleries and pretentious restaurants and bars. Most people were related to each other or knew each other in some way, which at times could be the worst thing in the world, as people ambled around the streets with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of your daily business and affairs. Every move I made, every single accident I had, every argument I had with Julia. It was all common knowledge to the fellow citizens of my town. This was what I loathed, and had always loathed, about the town in which I lived. This was not however, the most extraordinary thing about it. The peculiar thing was that Midton was sort of a microclimate, with rainfall occurring 340 days out of 365, and the temperature rarely rising above ten degrees, as was the usual weather in the North. Such a climate added to the miserable nature of the town. Flooding was not uncommon, but most of the time the daily forecast was grey clouds looming overhead, not the kind that created the anticipation of a storm, more the kind that made every person want to stay indoors. Such a wish could not be realised as, much like in every life, money had to be made. I worked in the only modern-looking building in the whole town. Fairman’s was a company dedicated to the health and sanitary needs of most of the country (or so their slogan said). The company created medicines and treatments that were distributed across much of the nation. Its headquarters were here, in a colossus of a building. The grey concrete slabs interlinked with each other to form a monstrous structure that stretched into the sky, and was built on top of the original chemist, which had been there on the high street for years. The chemist itself was small, old and stuck in the past. When I was a 12

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child, it had just opened, and was relatively new to the town. It was a miracle that it hadn’t crumbled into small shards of rock below the mass of metal and cement that made its home on the roof, a vast shadow of corporate greed. I worked on the sixth floor of the building, the one underneath the seventh, where the executives and owners of the company had their offices, and mostly spent their days counting their money or sitting in meetings, choosing who to ‘let go’ and who to continue feeding money to. These men had more money than they knew what to do with, and frequently took large breaks to take their families, or their numerous mistresses, to extravagant hotels in the tropics. I didn’t want to be one of them. I was perfectly happy in the background making a reasonable living. My main job was to deal with the money side of things. It was boring and laborious, but it made Julia and me a fair amount of money, which was probably the only incentive for me to stay in my position. Every morning, at 7 a.m. I climbed out of bed to begin another day of work. Opening the curtains revealed an image that never ceased to fill me with deep depression at the same time every day. As I gazed out upon the wonderful world that was Midton, I thought of others in the town, and whether they would feel the same as I did about living there. They probably didn’t. The usual attitude was a sickening glee that infected the minds of almost every inhabitant with the exception of me. I got myself dressed, and descended the stairs into the kitchen, where Julia was already cooking breakfast for us. Another day had begun, and I knew it would end in the same way as it always did, the same way it began: boredom and misery. As I entered the kitchen, our usual radio station was playing ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ by Jeff Buckley. I must’ve heard this song over a thousand times, since they played it on repeat at the same time every morning. Not again. 13

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I packed my bag and sent myself on my merry way. ‘Goodbye, darling,’ I said, as I leaned forward and kissed Julia’s cheek. She barely moved, and just gave me a gentle pat on the back as I walked towards the door. She no longer showed any loving interest in me. After we married, the relationship that we had, where we couldn’t take our eyes off of each other because of how much we loved one another, began to rapidly deteriorate to the point where sometimes we didn’t even notice each other’s absence anymore. Julia always wanted to have children. It had been her dream since we first met. It was mine too; anything that Julia wanted, however unlikely it was to happen, was possible when we first got together. As the time dawned on me however, I began to become more hesitant to start a family with her. I wanted everything to remain how it was, just Julia and me. It was a hard day when I had to tell her that I no longer wanted what she had been dreaming of, and it marked the beginning of the journey to what we would soon become. Setting foot outside the house, my newly polished brogues sunk into a perishingly cold puddle, my breath turning to deep white clouds of steam, floating upwards into the crisp morning air. I opened my umbrella and embraced the cold as I set off towards the high street. It seemed to be raining significantly more today. I struggled to hold the umbrella with a stable grip as I began to experience a rain shower of almost biblical proportions. The cobbled square outside my house was half submerged under large puddles which began to join together as more water hit the ground. The square itself was not very large. A row of terraced houses faced mine, which was part of a large row of semi-detached houses that joined perpendicular to the beginnings of the high street. The square had apparently been built fifty years before Julia and I moved here, though it looked extremely modern. 14

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I ambled along the edge, feeling the damp air condensing on my clothing as I edged closer to entering the building where I would spend the next nine hours of my day. I was in no rush whatsoever, so I took my time. I lived on the west side of the main street in the town which, in reality, was no different to any other area. Since nobody seemed to bother socialising in any other part of our fine town, or spend any time anywhere other than the central hub, nobody cared enough to decorate the outside of their houses or paint them any colour other than white or grey. My house was a dull grey colour, allowing it to blend perfectly into the tangled mass of concrete and brick that rose and fell on either side of the square. At the bottom of the high street, the end closest to my home, the road forked away suddenly to the right for half a kilometre or so until it twisted again to form the road leading away from Midton. I never ventured out of the town much, but I had been on that road before. The grey buildings fell away to form, first large expanses of grass and marshland, and then beautiful rolling hills that never ended. I hoped they never ended. I liked to think that those fields of rich yellows and greens continued on forever, and that however far along the road you went, you would always be surrounded by those hills. I hoped that there never existed another town like Midton anywhere along that road, and that it was a constant paradise as far as you could travel. All one had to do was just follow that road, and one would be free. I had never had such a chance, for I was born here, and had only ever strayed from the town once, when I was a small child. I remember being with my parents and sitting under a tree in one of the fields. That was the extent of my travels. I came to the corner of the square, where life suddenly seemed to become truly alive as the sound of vehicles and the cacophony 15

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of people mechanically going about their daily business was all that was to be heard. Midton high street snaked its way through the entire town like a huge artery, supplying the town with people, and the people with life, allowing the 5,000 inhabitants to socialise with each other, and the breaking news of the town (whatever it was on any given day) to spread itself like wildfire through the minds of the citizens. The road was a grey, crumbling tarmac, skirted by dirty pavement. The trees dotted along the side of the road were almost always bare, probably as a result of the lack of sunlight and the relentless rainfall, which often turned Midton’s areas of greenery into a quagmire. There was a park, if one could even call it that (for it was merely a small, enclosed clump of trees) in the centre of the town. That was my favourite place in the whole of Midton. There was a tall, black, metal fence that enclosed the trees and shrubbery inside an area the size of a small house. Small though it was, it was entirely different from any other part of the town. The fencing had rusted, and the black paint peeled and flaked away with time. When one pushed open the metal gate, a sandy pathway stretched out for a couple of metres, ending in a clearing, at the centre of which stood a wooden bench. I often bought lunch from one of the shops along the high street, and took it to this bench to get away from the office. The park wasn’t large enough for any animals to make their home, but small birds nested in the four plane trees that grew there. There was one other visitor, other than the birds and me. A gardener. He couldn’t be called a park keeper, for this wasn’t a park. The gardener would come in around lunchtime, just as I had sat down at the bench. Sometimes I would enter through the black gate to find him sat, in my spot, feeding a small group of birds. I would have to wait for him to carry on weeding the bushes, or whatever it was he was doing, before I sat down 16

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again. He was a very pessimistic character, making cutting and sarcastic remarks. He didn’t know me well enough to feel comfortable doing so, but he did. Maybe he felt connected to me because I was the only person he saw in his workspace. In a way I did too. When he spoke to me for the first time, he asked, ‘Who are you anyway?’ ‘What?’ I said. ‘Who are you? Do you have anywhere else to go besides here?’ ‘Yes. I like it here.’ ‘Do you have a wife? Family?’ ‘I’m sorry?’ ‘You, do you have a wife?’ He snapped. ‘Yes I do actually. Why are you…’ ‘Where are they then?’ ‘At home. She is a writer.’ ‘I’ve never seen her here,’ he said as he brushed some leaves into the bushes. ‘I haven’t brought her here,’ I said. ‘Ah. I see.’ ‘What?’ ‘She isn’t happy, is she? Your wife.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ And the conversation droned on and on, until it was time for me to return to the office. The gardener was totally insane, yet he acted as the only norm in my life. Relationships with Julia soured, and then fixed themselves again, but the gardener neither hated me, nor loved me. He just sat and watched me, and I watched him. I wouldn’t go to the park this morning. Even if I had the time, it was too wet to actually enjoy any of it. I slowly walked up the street, kicking small rocks and stones along the pavement. I 17

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thought of what it would be like to be one of the partners of Fairman’s spending each day essentially doing nothing, entering and leaving the building as you so wished, and only turning up just so you could seem like you cared about the company and its employees just as much as money. My daydream was interrupted rather quickly by the sound of someone calling my name. ‘George? George? Oh, I thought it was you!’ It took me a second to recognise whose voice this was. I turned around to greet the man, then recognised him as Tom Stone. Tom worked in the town’s art gallery. I think he must’ve owned it as well. He seemed like the type. ‘Oh, hello Tom, didn’t see you there,’ I said. ‘That’s alright George. On your way to work, yes?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, almost feeling the depression sink in as I said this. ‘Mind if I walk up with you?’ Tom asked. I really wished he hadn’t but, being polite, I allowed him (as if I had any choice). Tom Stone was something of a nuisance to me. I often encountered him at moments when I wished I wouldn’t. Holding a conversation with a man who spent most of his day handling art (which I knew nothing about) was one of life’s hardest tasks. He would constantly say things like, ‘Don’t you just love Monet’s work?’ or, ‘An artist’s work was being exhibited today. He seemed to be mirroring Cézanne in every brushstroke…’ I would always reply with something like, ‘Sounds wonderful,’ or ‘How amazing, Tom,’ even though I did not even know who Cézanne or Monet were, or indeed any of the other artists mentioned to me at every encounter. I always seemed to find Tom round at my house for some bizarre reason, arriving home from work in the evening to find him sat at our kitchen table, helping himself to our biscuit tin, while Julia entertained him. They were good 18

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friends after all. They had grown up together and had known each other for a long time. We walked up the high street together, having the most banal conversation regarding a new experimental technique of painting that he was trying out. The man was incapable of moving away from the topic of himself, his own life. ‘See you soon, George!’ he said, as I left him to enter my building. I thanked God that was over. I embraced the warm air of the Fairman’s building’s central heating, which for a moment allowed me to forget about having to walk home again through such awful weather. I took the elevator up to the sixth floor and made my way to my desk, where the computer had been turned on and new paperwork had been placed neatly in a thick pile on the table. My life for the next nine hours had begun. 2 I left the building at the end of the day exhausted, as usual. It was winter, not that it mattered since the weather remained the same all year, but it grew dark extremely early, making everything seem a whole lot more grim. I descended the stairs, for the elevators were out of use at this time of the day. Leaving the building, the cold air seeped into my body as I stepped outside the automatic doors onto the street. It had stopped raining. Although the streets glistened with water underneath the street lights, it was dry, and also freezing. I walked down the high street and arrived at my square. I wiped my feet on the mat as I opened the door. ‘Is that you, George?’ Julia shouted from the kitchen. ‘Yes, it’s me. Who else would it be?’ ‘I don’t know, I was just asking,’ she said. 19

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‘I know. I’m sorry. How was everything today?’ ‘It was fine. Tom said he saw you this morning.’ ‘You spoke to Tom?’ ‘Yes he came round for a coffee this afternoon.’ I’m not usually a jealous man, but this angered me more than can be expressed in words, which probably explained my next reaction. ‘Why? Why was he round here? Why would you invite that man in here? Are you sleeping with him or something?’ I exploded. I shouldn’t have said this. It wasn’t fair on her. ‘George, stop it. Honestly, just control yourself—’ ‘Don’t tell me to control myself! What is your obsession with this man?’ ‘He’s my friend, George! Am I not allowed friends? Do you know what, I’m going to bed. I can’t do this right now. I don’t want to see you in the bedroom tonight. Goodnight.’ ‘Julia, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,’ I said. There was no reply as she marched up the stairs. I had done it again. We often had these kinds of arguments. They were usually over within a day. I made a makeshift bed on the sofa and went to brush my teeth, not daring to enter the bedroom to ask for my pyjamas, and as a result I was sleeping in my vest and underwear for the night. I watched some television before falling asleep. There was a documentary on TV about parents who constantly controlled their children, and spied on them using apps on their phones. Apparently adolescence was the most common time for depression to occur. My parents, and my upbringing, were completely different. For one thing they weren’t able to access modern technology to monitor me, but they never needed to. I believed I was a relatively easy child. My parents were some of the finest people I had ever had the pleasure of spending my days with. Not solely because they were 20

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the people who raised me, but because they were extremely loving and caring. My father was the most kind and generous man I had ever met. He was also the most lacking in any typically ‘male’ traits or characteristics. He spent most of his time writing music or singing, and he was in an orchestra. I often found him in the kitchen, cooking, while my mother perched herself on the kitchen table. She was brilliant in every way. Terrifying, but wonderful in everything she did. She would spend her time sat in an armchair reading novel after novel, never saying much while I climbed around the living room interrupting the tranquility that she needed to concentrate. She terrified me in that she could be extremely strict, but was rather patient with my father and me. When he died in a car accident, when I was thirteen, I wept, as any child would, and asked her why such a terrible thing could happen. ‘George, we mustn’t dwell on the past. It won’t do you any good,’ she said. This silenced me, as I always knew to listen to her, and that was that. I knew she was sad, for she loved my father and he loved her, but she never showed it. I turned the TV off and climbed onto the sofa. It creaked underneath me, too old and weak to be slept on let alone sat on, but it was my bed for the night. I would apologise to Julia in the morning. I hoped she would forgive me, for she was really needed in my life, just to keep me sane, otherwise there was nothing for me. Even though I sometimes acted like there wasn’t, but that was just general depression and misery because of my situation. I closed my eyes and tried to stop thinking about everything that had happened. The street light in the square seeped through a corner in the window, and that was the last thing I saw before everything changed.

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3 Night came and spread its darkness, soon giving way to the light of the day in what felt like a matter of minutes. I gained consciousness, stretched out, spreadeagled under a mound of blankets. I hadn’t felt this comfortable in years. I tried to open my eyes and break through the sleep, but soon decided that this was futile, and since it was a Saturday morning I allowed myself to drift back into my slumber. I soon woke up, quite awake at the thought that I should go and see how Julia was, and apologise to her. It was then that something quite odd hit me like a bullet through the brain. I felt the blanket on top of me. This was not the blanket I had found in the living room and placed on the sofa. This particular blanket was usually found on my own bed, where Julia was most likely having the most wonderful sleep without me. I rolled over, suddenly becoming aware of the amount of space I had, as I came to the realisation that I was in fact in my own bed, with Julia laid down beside me. She looked beautiful. Her long brown hair was a tangled mess on the pillow, and her arms were splayed out on either side of her head. She looked heavenly, and angelic, even in the early hours of the morning when the sleep was yet to leave her eyes. ‘Good morning, darling,’ she said, rolling over and kissing me. She didn’t seem the slightest bit angry with me. Usually, when these sorts of squabbles occurred I was a prisoner in my own house. But this made me question things. Had our argument happened? I wasn’t sure what to make of it. ‘I love you, you know,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about what I said last night.’ ‘It’s forgotten.’ She kissed me again. 22

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This was remarkable. Maybe this was going to be a good day. I became distracted by something that was even more bizarre than Julia’s sudden forgiveness of me. The windows by the bed that looked out onto the square were letting in the most magnificent amount of light I had ever seen. I sprung out of bed and pulled the curtains open. The sky was bright blue. Not a cloud was to be seen for miles, and rich sunlight flooded through every crevice in the house. I had never seen anything like it. I had seen what summer looked like in films and books but never in real life. ‘Have you seen this?’ I asked Julia. She smiled at me from the bed. ‘It’s wonderful, isn’t it? What a wonderful day.’ She got up and put on her dressing gown. ‘What a wonderful world we live in,’ she mumbled as she descended the staircase. How bizarre. I quickly put on some clothes. I needed to be outside to experience it first-hand. I pulled a T-shirt over my head and put on some jeans. ‘I’m going to go for a walk. Do you want to come?’ I asked Julia. ‘I’ll make breakfast for us. You go ahead!’ I quickly left the house. I had to squint my eyes as I opened the door. I had never seen a day like this in my life. Everyone was out in the square, though no one seemed to be admiring the sky like I was. I almost wandered into the trees accidentally, for my eyes were not on the path ahead but on the sky above. This truly was wonderful. I instantly felt as if I had been pulled out of my misery and plunged into something new. I wandered up the high street, filled with happiness that I had not felt in years. I saw all of the usual people I saw every miserable day on the 23

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way to work, though I did not feel the same loathing I usually felt towards them. I felt love, and I felt joy, and happiness for the first time I could remember. The trees were lush and green, people smiled as they strolled down the street. They no longer wandered aimlessly towards the lives that awaited them. Speaking to people as I encountered them, they no longer seemed to be their annoying, jovial selves. It was something more natural now. People had a purpose. I didn’t know what it was, but it was there, and it was suddenly within me. I never actually returned to my wife that morning, who had probably cooked up something delicious for breakfast, but I had just discovered that my world had been turned upside down (or maybe the right side up), so I had things to do. I spent the entire day walking around Midton. I marvelled at the sky endlessly, whilst also fully appreciating Midton for the first time, looking at the buildings, the trees, and the people I had seen countless times before, in a whole new way. In the evening I arrived back to Julia, who for the first time in years seemed pleased to see me. ‘I missed you,’ she said. She walked towards me as I entered the kitchen, and held me as if it were the first time we had met all those years ago. We talked through the night, like we did when we first fell in love, when we first felt that being with each other was the only thing that we needed in life. We spoke for so long that the sunshine of the most wonderful day of my life had begun to shine through the silk curtains once again. We fell asleep lying next to each other. I knew I wanted every day of my life to be like this one. I was surprised to find that I did indeed want every day from this moment on to be the same. The daily regularity that had become the very thing that I despised about life, now was my only wish, and was all that I wanted. In that moment, I was no longer looking inwards at my own life, but 24

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truly living it, and I wanted that moment to last me my entire life. 4 This day seemed to transform into weeks, and then months, as the warm sunshine of that morning came every day after it. At 4:06 a.m., same time every day, the yellow streams of light would shoot through small gaps in the curtains, acting as my alarm clock. I would feel the sunshine on my skin as I drifted in and out of sleep before work. I no longer woke up in complete darkness every morning, shivering as the damp air seeped like a disease through the glass into the room. The financial division of Fairman’s was prospering also. Some kind of new drug had been invented, and as a result, sales had rocketed. It was the highest profit the company had ever made, allowing my superiors to give me a pay rise for doing absolutely nothing different than what I usually did every day. I came into work one morning and was surprised to see the absence of the usual dense stack of paperwork on my desk. I sat down on the black leather swivel chair, not quite knowing what to do. I could sleep, I thought, though I wasn’t tired. Instead, I began, quite childishly, to spin circles in my chair. ‘George, come into my office would you please,’ boomed Mr Brewer from the opposite side of the office. I dizzily attempted to focus my blurred vision on Mr Brewer, filled with embarrassment. My reputation was most likely now tainted with incompetence and idiocy. ‘Of course, sir,’ I replied, quickly getting up from my reclined position at my desk. Mr Brewer was my boss, and was one of the main executives in the company. He was just what you would expect him to be. Short, chubby, with an endless fragrance of 25

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cigarette smoke around him and his office every time you went near. He wasn’t unpleasant, but encounters with this man were dreaded by every person in the company, as the majority of those who entered his office usually exited and never worked at Fairman’s again. As an executive, Mr Brewer worked on the seventh floor, so I quickly followed him up the flight of stairs, where he proceeded to sit behind his desk, smiling hopefully up at me. ‘Sit down George,’ he said. He got up and walked over to a table on the other side of the room. ‘Do you want a drink? I have water, elderflower, or even something stronger if you would like?’ ‘No, I’m fine, thank you, sir,’ I replied. He got me a glass of some kind of cocktail anyway, which was heavily laden with alcohol, burning my throat as I took the first nervous sip. He sat down in front of me on the edge of his desk. He smiled at me, as if he knew something that I didn’t. ‘Why did you want to see me sir?’ I asked. He continued to smile. ‘George, it’s good news. You don’t have to worry.’ At least I wasn’t going to end up like the others, leaving the office today never to come back. ‘Your latest work has been outstanding. We have never seen figures like this before!’ My latest work? What latest work? All I had been doing up to this point was filling numbers into spreadsheets and making phone calls to people I had never met and never would meet. What could I have possibly done that would mean that I would be called into his office? I decided not to ask. I just grinned and went along with it. ‘The board have decided to make you a partner of the company,’ he said. 26

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I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. This was unheard of. This didn’t happen. I was to become one of the people that I truly loathed, but it didn’t matter. ‘Thank you so much, sir. Thank you, this is amazing,’ I blurted out through a large grin that I couldn’t seem to move from my face. ‘That’s fine, George,’ he laughed. ‘That will be all. I’m glad you’re happy, you deserve this.’ I left the building that day with the greatest feeling of accomplishment I had ever felt. The reason I was being rewarded was beyond me, but I accepted it nonetheless. This meant a large change in my life, and Julia’s life. In terms of money, I was part of the elite. How could it get any better? Everyone in the office cheered as I came running through the maze of desks. ‘Congratulations George!’ shouted one colleague. ‘Well done!’ cheered another. I got into the elevator, still smiling. Julia would be waiting at home, with dinner waiting for me. Or maybe I could take her out, I thought. There were a couple of nice restaurants on the high street. Some were very pricy, but I no longer had to worry about that. It was then, as I walked down the high street, that I began to think on the events of recent months. It was, in fact, strange that I had woken up one morning and begun to live life in a paradise of happiness and joy. It was wonderful, of course, but were these things really possible? I did think I was in a dream when I woke up, but I accepted the new world as a fresh start, a second chance at my life. What had changed? The entire town, every aspect of it, seemed to be a whole lot better since that morning. I tried not to think about it. I was not in a hurry to get home, for the weather was beautiful. I didn’t have to run through rain that blew in sideways. Even at 8 p.m. the sky was still a creamy 27

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blue colour. I strolled slowly down the hill that ran down to my square. I came to the park, which was just being locked up by the gardener. ‘Where’ve you been…’ He said as he jammed a key into a padlock on the gate. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I haven’t seen you here for ages,’ he said. ‘I’ve been busy,’ I said. ‘How’s the wife?’ he asked. ‘She’s fine, yes.’ ‘Still hates you?’ He grinned. ‘No actually. She’s fine. Why would you say something like that?’ ‘Ah.’ ‘Ah, what?’ I asked. ‘That’s why you haven’t been here. Your wife is happy, so you’re happy. So you don’t want to come here any more.’ He was right. I had no need to come and sit in the park any more, now everything was how it should have always been. ‘Look, I’d best be going now. Night, I’ll see you soon,’ I said, crossing the main road. ‘Probably not…’ he muttered. I could see the sun setting beyond the hills behind Midton, flowing into a haze of pinks and oranges that rested on the horizon. However much I distracted myself, I could not stop thinking about the past few months and how truly bizarre they were. I kept on going over the same events in my head. I asked myself questions. I began to experience fear for the first time in months. Could this all be real? It seemed too amazing to be reality. I quickened my pace down the street. I was about to turn into 28

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the square when I noticed something. The street was completely silent. There was nobody to be seen around. There were no people on their way back from work, no parents rushing back to see their children, or families on their way out to dinner. Nobody. My fear grew within me as I searched desperately for any sign of life. Even in houses there did not seem to be any visible person in sight. This was not however the thing that sparked true terror within me. As I wandered around at the edge of the square I stared out at the hills in the distance. I immediately thought that my eyes were playing tricks on my mind, but I came to believe that what I was witnessing was terrifyingly real. The trees and fields on the edge of the horizon seemed to be slowly getting smaller. One by one, the trees shrunk into nothingness, while the hills became distorted and moved until parts of them were no longer visible. I began to scream hysterically. ‘Anyone! Help! Is there anyone there? Do you see this?’ It was futile. I was entirely alone. Then, as I ran aimlessly into the street, my world truly began to fall apart. The trees along the high street began to sway, as if a wind was blowing them, while their leaves gradually blew away. Faster and faster, the trees became bare and lifeless. The trunks began to shrivel downwards toward the ground, as if some kind of debilitating disease was crippling it in fast motion. The houses, which I believed were the only solid permanent thing in Midton, began to do the same. Bricks flew off the houses into the sky, crumbling into smaller and smaller lumps of rubble. The road began to crack and rip upwards into the sky. I screamed louder and louder as if some higher power was going to hear me. This was no longer a paradise. This was a nightmare of biblical proportions. 29

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The blue sky discoloured to a blank slate of pure white, and, in an instant, there was nothing. No houses, no trees, no sky, no road, no distant hills and fields, just an endless expanse of white. I looked down, and realised that I was no longer even present. I could see, hear, and feel, but I did not exist any longer. The stillness was interrupted by a sudden booming sound. It was similar to the sound of a rocket or firework going off, though this was not purely auditory. A hideous crawling sensation burned down my neck and spine, suffocating me. I closed my eyes to shelter from the unknown force of chaos, but this did not accomplish anything. The sound built to a deafening crescendo, and as my eardrums burst the world turned black. I was at peace. 5 My eyes felt sealed shut as I tried my best to open them but physically couldn’t. The sound had stopped. All that I could hear was a steady, monotonous beeping sound to my left. Every two seconds an electronic pulse was emitted. I was warm. I knew I was in a bed, though I had no idea where. It felt like a small bed, as I could feel my feet pushed against the bottom end of it, and my shoulders slightly squeezed on both sides. I lay there, unable to move. What had happened to me? I did not understand any aspect of what had happened. I remembered everything, yet knew nothing of my situation. I started to hear small, indistinguishable noises alongside the pulsing sound. I thought they were footsteps, but I realised they were voices. They would come and go. They were small conversations, ebbing and flowing through my ears, with the only constant sound being the pulses next to me. I soon deciphered words and phrases as I listened intently. 30

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There was a man’s voice, and a younger woman. ‘What do we do… I mean, what do we tell him…’ said the woman. ‘I don’t know… This wasn’t expected…’ the man said, in a hushed, whispered tone. Maybe he knew I could hear them. I lay completely still. However hard I willed my body to wriggle or squirm inside what felt like a coffin, my body lay completely rigid in paralysis. The mechanical pulses continued both to fascinate me and terrify me, for there was something unknown and sinister about this repetitive sound that entered my brain every few seconds. Time moved on at an immeasurable pace, for I had no knowledge of how long I had been there since the disaster, or whatever it was, and no access to anything that could inform me of the rate at which the seconds passed by while I lay motionless in some unknown space. I wondered what the purpose of all of this was, what it all meant. Was I being examined or watched? For all I knew I could be sat in some sort of enclosure, being stared at like a wild animal. There were definitely people around, talking about me and what had happened to me, so there was surely something fascinating about me. Or was it some kind of bizarre hallucination? Where was Julia? I needed her. This was the most alone I had ever felt. Every second, I attempted to force some kind of movement through my body, pushing my brain to jolt my head forward or raise myself out of the bed. In front of me, darkness, while to my left, chiming away, was the noise, every few seconds reminding me that there was nothing I could do but wait. After what felt like years, I soon began to gain some small, but significant, control over my body. As I forced my eyelids open, allowing light to flow into my retinas, I was immediately 31

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blinded by a light that appeared to be brighter than the sun itself. Although squinting, I began to gain an image of what surrounded me. The lamp above me was circular, and was hanging from a stringy cable that looked as if it could snap at any moment and crush me. The ceiling from which it hung was of a dull grey colour, with small flecks of blue and silver. This was surely not a house, or any sort of room where people willingly spent time. This was a place without life, lacking any warm or welcoming characteristics whatsoever. An office, perhaps, though this was unlike any office I’d seen. My neck felt stiff, but movement felt possible. Millimetre by millimetre I tensed the aching muscles in my neck and swivelled it slowly toward the noise to my left. The walls were of the same colour, though there was no evidence as to what this place was, for there was no furniture, nor any evidence of human life on this side of the room. I continued to twist my neck until my line of vision lay parallel to my pillow. I was lying on a small, thin bed, lined with bars of cold metal. Looking past this, I located the noise. It was pulsing from a large object that sat by the side of the bed. It was the size of a large television, and had a screen surrounded by dozens of knobs and dials. Every two seconds, a light would flash on the side at the very moment of the chime of the machine. Next to the flashing light, I spotted a small paper label. I tried my best to make out what was written there. ‘PROPERTY OF ST DAVID’S HOSPITAL’ St David’s was the local hospital in the area. Hospital? What for? That explained the cold and unwelcoming interior design, but not my being laid in a hospital bed. Panic began to set in. Something terrible and confusing must have happened to me. I knew this much from the catastrophic 32

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and sudden collapse of my own town in front of my very eyes. Hysteria took hold, causing me to squirm and writhe in my bed, but I was soon interrupted by the sound of the man’s voice. ‘Good morning, George,’ said the man, who I now assumed was some kind of doctor or surgeon. My attempts to reply were indistinguishable and inaudible. I struggled to make any sounds that could be deciphered as language. ‘That’s okay George, take your time,’ he said. I began to form small words. Anything to gain an answer to the question of what had happened. ‘What…’ was all I managed to say. ‘Try again George.’ ‘What has happened,’ I said. ‘Where am I…’ ‘I can understand your confusion George. This is perfectly natural. Now, I want you to do something for me.’ ‘Tell me what’s happening. Please… please…’ I pleaded. ‘It’s okay George, calm down. We will get to that in a moment, but I need you to do something first. Is that all right?’ he said calmly. ‘Yes,’ I replied. My eyes followed the doctor around the room. He moved away from his position next to the machine, and wandered over to a desk in front of the bed. Wearing a white lab coat, with a white shirt and tie underneath, he looked about eighty years old, though he couldn’t have been more than fifty. He had a large white beard, which looked in dire need of some kind of care. He looked more like a hermit than a doctor. He picked up two cards from the desk and walked slowly toward the side of the bed. He held both up to my face. ‘Now George, I have two cards here, can you tell me the difference between them, and, if you can, what each card shows?’ he asked. 33

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One card was an image of a young boy playing football, while the other was a girl running through a field. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘There’s a boy in the first one playing football.’ ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘The second one is a girl running. Now can you tell me what’s happening?’ I was wide awake now. ‘It’s okay George.’ He kept saying this. It annoyed me terribly, for nothing about this situation was comfortable or okay. ‘George, I’m going to explain this to you very delicately and slowly. I am Doctor Cole, and I work here at the hospital. Now, this has never happened before, so this is the first time I have had to explain this in this manner.’ I was breathing heavily. ‘I can understand your anger. You are in St David’s Hospital, George, and you have just awoken from a long sleep. It has been around twenty-one hours and forty-two minutes since you were put under.’ ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I asked. A coma? Put under? That’s something they do to animals, and people in for surgery. ‘You have been in a coma for almost a day now George, and we put you in it. I will explain why. We received a call a few days ago from your wife, Julia, telling us that things were not going too well for you two at the moment. Is this true?’ It’s true, they weren’t, but it pained me to say it. ‘Yes, you could say that.’ ‘Well you see George, your wife told us that you had been having a hard time at home, and that you had been acting miserably for, well, quite a long time now.’ I was still totally confused as to what this meant. ‘The ward has created a new drug programme you see. It’s nothing bad or anything. It’s a new system we are experimenting 34

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with, and it has been totally successful so far.’ ‘Well what is it?’ I asked. ‘This is where it is delicate, George. Don’t be scared. It’s all okay, it’s all fine. We have developed a new drug called Somnius Admirabilus. Long name, I know. It sends people like you to sleep for a while, George, so you can be happy.’ ‘People like me?’ I said. ‘Unhappy people, George. The drug is designed to plunge your mind into a sort of dream world created by your own mind. It’s real life, but happier, more wonderful and more perfect. Your own little world, George.’ I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing. This was why everything was perfect. Not anything I had done or changed for the better. None of it was me. It was a drug. It was a lie. ‘Your wife contacted us saying that you were miserable. She wanted you to be happy. She wants you to be happy. That’s why we sent you into your head, George. It’s perfectly harmless.’ ‘You’re joking, aren’t you? I mean this is all a big joke, isn’t it?’ I stuttered. ‘I know this is hard to understand George, but you’ll have to bear with us. It really is wonderful…’ ‘If it’s so great then why am I awake talking to you now then?’ I shouted. I was becoming more hysterical with every word he spoke. ‘Well your subconscious began to reject it you see. Your body fought against it George. Don’t worry we will send you back under in…’ ‘No. No. No you won’t. I’ve had enough of this. It’s ridiculous I want to go. I want Julia,’ I screamed. I jolted upwards, but fell back again as if I had been hit by some kind of wall. It took me a second to realise what had just 35

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happened. There was nothing in front of me to stop me climbing out of bed. I reached my hands upwards, and then found something truly sinister. I was encased inside a glass tube. This was not a bed. It was an incubator. It was only now, as I fully regained consciousness that I realised that I was a prisoner, rather than a patient. ‘Get me out of here! This is wrong. Why am I here?’ ‘We’ve told you George! Stay calm. It’s all going to be okay.’ ‘Don’t tell me it’s okay! Don’t you dare… Please.’ I began to weep like a child inside the tube, while the faces of many other men and women gathered above me, examining me like some sort of creature. ‘George we can’t have you acting like this. You will hurt yourself. Now, listen to me carefully. We are going to send you back in soon. This will all be over soon, and it will go back to normal. You will be happy again. Isn’t that what you always wanted?’ he said, half smirking down at me. I stayed silent, mostly because my eyes had completely filled with tears by this point. I didn’t understand this. My life had been miserable and tiring, but was turned right side up, and now reduced to nothing more than a figment of my imagination. It’s true that I was dissatisfied with the way life had treated me, but this was not what I desired. This was alien, inhumane, and wrong, and I, of all people, had become its victim.

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Mr Eldridge (Extract) Tala Martelli

The children were ordered into lines according to register and class. Alex noted that his little sister Frankie and her friend Mila were sitting triumphantly grinning on either side of the colossal centrepiece of the assembly hall, the stereo, from which the assembly entrance and exit music is played by two lucky children for an entire term. These children are known as the ‘stereo monitors’. This term, it was Frankie and Mila that were on stereo duty. Frankie carefully put the CD into the disc slot after receiving Ms Bulwite’s signal (sharp nod of the head). There was an awkward silence as the other children entered the hall to the sound of Mila forgetting to press play. Upon realising this, Ms Bulwite, the scary old hag, shot such a pernicious stare at Mila that Alex was worried the witch might have actually poisoned her with some sort of peculiar twitch of the eyes or something. Mila had been staring at her twin sister Isabel with delight because Isabel was sitting on the cold, hard, polished concrete floor (as she wasn’t selected to be stereo monitor) but immediately after Ms Bulwite fixed her into sight, Mila’s face turned pale white, and without moving her head she raised her hand and pressed play on the stereo. Alex was busy staring at Ms Bulwite’s raggedy face, wondering if she eats children on a daily basis or just for special occasions, when he realised Charlie had been poking him in the ribs. ‘What?!’ Alex said, waving his hand with annoyance and accidentally smacking Charlie’s finger. 37

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Charlie and Alex were the tallest in their year. The only other boy close to their height is lanky Sam, but even he doesn’t quite reach. Both boys have dark hair, which is strange for Alex because the rest of his relatives, like his sister Frankie, have locks of golden hair. Charlie, on the other hand, has dark and curly hair. Charlie used to have long ringlets, but they once caught fire during a chemistry class; whilst trying to establish that the flame test for potassium is lilac, he leant over to write it down, and POOF, no more hair. Since then, he’s kept it short. ‘Check out Mr Eldridge… D’ya reckon he chose those badboys himself, or d’ya reckon it was his wife or something?’ ‘You nearly broke my ribs to tell me that, who the hell cares what he chooses to wear?’ Alex replied. ‘What d’ya mean who cares? I care. He’s got himself a dashing new pair of flipping… ankle bashers! Aha… Oh, whoops! Sorry…’ ‘For what?’ ‘Didn’t realise you bought them together. Didn’t mean any offence, I mean, you’re really pulling them off…’ ‘Oh sod off… Charles.’ ‘Right, we have been through this a gazillion times. It was a mistake on the birth certificate. They meant to call me Charlie, NOT Charles.’ ‘Is that why when your mum’s annoyed because you’ve been an idiot, she shouts, “Charles Morris King” to get your full attention?’ ‘I have never heard those words leave her mouth… hmm… mmmm… hmmm I…’ ‘What?!’ ‘I am getting there, if you let me finish. Arg, I was going to say, I wonder what Mr Eldridge’s name is? Marvin? Marvin Eldridge?’ 38

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‘His initials are AE… I think you might be onto something with Marvin though… nonce.’ ‘Alright, bloody hell. Andy… Andrew… No too modern, when was he born? 1800s?’ ‘He’s only like, sixty-two, Jeez.’ ‘So, the year is 2011 which means he was born in… eleven… fifty-one… 1949. He’s probably called Alexander, that’s an old man’s name, right?’ ‘Not as old as Charles.’ ‘C-H-A-R-L-I-E, it’s CHARLIE.’ ‘He looks like an Arnold.’ ‘Mmm, yeah Arnold or Aristocrat…’ ‘Aristocrat? You’re trying to tell me that his parents named him Aristocrat? You’re actually such an idiot. Do you even know what an Aristocrat is?’ ‘It’s a name, that’s what Frankie’s cat was called, wasn’t it?’ ‘Frankie’s cat was not called Aristocrat, it was called Alice-cat because we found it in an alleyway but she said because it was a girl, it was an ‘Alice-cat’ not an ‘alley-cat’. She was only like, eight, so the name just stuck.’ ‘Maybe his name is Alice…’ Charlie smirked. The boys started to giggle, the music slowly faded to a stop, the hall fell silent and the boys struggled to control their laughter until Ms Bulwite struck them with her fierce, poisonous face. Mr Eldridge strode into the hall. His back so straight it was as though he was as much a pencil as he was a human, he was also a very tall and pointy man with jagged edges, like a shard of glass. His thin, white hair struggled to appear on his head, yet it seemed to stroke the underneath of the lintel as he stepped through the door, because his hairline was brushed over slightly once he had successfully passed the door frame, casually distorting the outline of his head. 39

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His face was very aged, like an expensive wine or a matured cheese. One would assume he enjoyed both of those things too, he looked like that type of fellow; he had a stiff upper lip and large overhanging brows that, although they offered some sort of cordial charm to his icy, hard face (that would otherwise not be present), were long overdue a trim. He was a stern-looking man, born slightly after the war, however he seemed like a man that had lived through more than two world wars. To the children of Gothall Middle School he was a veteran not to be toyed with. A man of high intellectual capability, he wore a matching brown corduroy jacket and trouser combination, with a deep red pocket square (classic fold) and matching bow tie. His white, cotton shirt was hidden under a thin, darker brown waistcoat, with three medium-sized buttons. Mr Eldridge still wore an old, silver pocket watch, despite the fact that wristwatches were invented long before his time. He wore thick glasses with no rims on the edge of his nose. Occasionally he would push the glasses back, forcing the lenses to magnify his eyes and create a confused or over-friendly countenance which appeared highly comical and caused the observer to momentarily forget that Mr Eldridge was a perfectly bitter old man capable of crushing the dreams of children aged nine to thirteen. He lived locally to the school (and practically next door to Dixie). This would probably be an issue for any normal mean, old man that worked as a headmaster, but not Mr Eldridge. Rumour has it that on the 31st of October 1986, the children of Hawthorn class (eldest class in the school) decided to bombard his house with eggs and toilet roll. On the night of the deed, they followed Mr Eldridge home and waited for the darkness to arrive. Once the sun had set, a boy called Darren Fitzcuran suddenly dropped his egg into the grass surrounding 40

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Mr Eldridge’s house; he went to pick it up but was overcome by an urge to throw up, by the time the others caught onto Darren, they were all on the verge of sickness. They decided to abandon the mission. The next day, each one called in sick on account of throwing up egg yolks and toilet roll. Generally, Alex does not busy himself with ancient rumours passed down by generations of increasingly delusional children, but when it came to Mr Eldridge, he could not tell the fact from the fiction. However he does often wonder how one would throw up toilet roll, perhaps this was a mishap in the giant game of Chinese whispers played by the comperes at Gothal Middle School. ‘Good morning, everyone,’ Mr Eldridge bellowed in his deep, melted voice. ‘Good morning, Mr Eldridge.’ The children droned back in perfect unison. ‘Very good. Welcome to today’s assembly. The theme is overlooking one’s self…’ Mr Eldridge continued to voice his thoughts on themes and education but it sounded more like an annoying buzz or humming that paraded around, knocking out the more important thoughts that were on the minds of Alex and Charlie. What is Mr Eldridge’s name? BUZZ Buzz Does he have a first name? Buzz The cat that got rescued last week was called… Who is gonna get that ball Donnie kicked into the hedge last term? Why does Ms Bulwite have red eyes? BUZZ …Oswald! Can she cast spells too? Of course she can. Suddenly, they found themselves standing up to exit the assembly hall with the rest of their class. Assembly isn’t so bad if 41

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you have the ability to numb your mind and senses to your surroundings. (Every child at Gothal Middle School has this ability.) This school is like any school. In order to achieve greatness, one must first achieve blissful ignorance to any irrelevant noises such as assembly, because surely everyone knows that you only have so much brain space before you start replacing important information with irrelevant information. For example, thanks to assembly, the knowledge that Mr Arnold’s cat, Oswald, got rescued from a tree last week has now replaced the space where Charlie’s understanding of Pythagoras once harboured. When the bell rang for lunch, Alex sprang up from his desk almost knocking Emily (his English partner who was swinging on her chair at the time) to the floor. He used the fire exit because it was quickest method of exiting the classroom in order to get to the field, where he, Charlie and a small group of their friends sat down to have lunch. Luckily it was still sunny despite it being early September. When he got to their usual spot, he threw his bags down, looked around and noticed Charlie and Dixie sprinting down to the field where he was about to sit down. ‘Charles, Dixie,’ Alex said, casually biting into his chicken and salad sandwich. ‘Oi, it’s Charlie. C-H-A-R-L-I-E. You can either call me Charlie, or you can sod off.’ ‘All right, all right, don’t get your panties in a twist. How are you Dicko?’ ‘I’m alright thanks. I have been training for that match we’ve got next week.’ Dixie is particularly small for a twelve-year-old, he would be considered a ‘late bloomer’ because quite frankly, I don’t think he has hit puberty yet, or he is on the brink of it anyway because his voice is very wobbly. He has light brown, straight hair that 42

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hangs just above his shoulders, except when he ties it back in a low ponytail for football. He has dark brown eyes and big, dark eyebrows that shape his face. He just had braces fitted, so his lips seem moderately swollen. ‘Training, what, by yourself?’ Charlie nudged Alex, causing them to snigger. ‘Yeah, you know, like fitness.’ Dixie noted. ‘Oh right, yeah course. Cool,’ Alex mumbled, with the final mouthful of his sandwich crammed against his cheeks. The boys ate in comfortable silence. Eventually, Charlie asked, ‘Hey Dicko, what d’ya reckon Mr Eldridge’s first name is?’ ‘Er, what’re his initials? AE?’ ‘Yeah,’ Alex confirmed. ‘Er, Arnold maybe, he’s about a hundred years old, so Arnold probably suits him.’ ‘He’s only sixty-two, but yeah, we thought Arnold too,’ Charlie agreed. ‘Or Alice...’ Alex mocked. The boys chuckled together as Charlie caught sight of Donnie. ‘Did you get the ball back then?’ He yelled above the laughing. ‘Nah, Mr Eldridge said that if we can’t play responsibly, we can’t play at all.’ Donnie shouted back. ‘What a tightarse,’ Alex announced, once Donnie was close enough so he didn’t have to shout. ‘Yeah, I know. I didn’t intentionally kick the ball into the hedge. Sam was in goal, and he did a pretty good save, but he hit it out of goal and into the bush. Wasn’t even me.’ Donnie sighed. ‘Ah, didn’t know Sam was a goalie, as in Sam Carpenter? Tall and lanky?’ Alex asked. ‘That’s the one.’ Donnie opened the tinfoil wrap he had been holding for the duration of their conversation to reveal two large 43

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pieces of pepperoni pizza. They looked delicious and smelt even better. Luckily for him the others were captivated by tall and lanky’s goal-saving ability. ‘Did you guys hear that Mr Eldridge is leaving at the end of this year?’ Don said. ‘Took his time, he’s been here longer than Ms Bulwite, and they probably built this place around her,’ Charlie replied. ‘That doesn’t even make sense. Besides, who cares anyway? We’re leaving next September,’ Dixie added. ‘Leaving? Why? Where is he going? Leaving is different to retiring, he’s still got another three working years left, in society’s eyes. He’s only sixty-two. Why would he choose to leave now?’ Alex asked no one in particular. ‘Maybe he’s ill.’ ‘I heard my mum say he’s leaving in search of his daughter,’ Don mentioned. ‘How would your mum know?’ Charlie asked. ‘Because not only is she on the community committee, she was a close friend of Mrs Eldridge.’ ‘Yeah, but Mrs E died about a year ago, so why would she know what’s happening now?’ ‘Because they had a meeting to discuss the new headmaster of GMS, you tit.’ ‘Ah of course,’ Charlie accepted Don’s information as truth. ‘He has a daughter?’ Dicko asked. ‘I thought Mrs Eldridge couldn’t have children?’ ‘Yeah I heard that. Wait, how long were they married?’ Alex said. ‘Er, I think my mum met Mrs E before she became Mrs E, so about ten years,’ Don replied. ‘She was the village florist before she got married, then she became a nanny – me and the Ayston twins used to spend every Tuesday and Thursday after school at that house. She was a really sweet old woman. I think she died of 44

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pneumonia or something, but I can’t remember what my mum said.’ ‘That means it is possible for Mr E to have had another family,’ Alex exclaimed. ‘So he’s going to find his daughter? Do you know anything about that Don?’ ‘Er, not really, I think she lives in Canada with her family. I don’t know her name, I don’t think my mum does either, but she must be like thirty years old by now. I wonder why she didn’t come to live here, maybe he didn’t know he had a daughter until recently.’ ‘Sounds like it. That’s a shame I think,’ Charlie said. ‘So, d’ya think he had a Canadian wife, before Mrs E?’ ‘Well that’s what it looks like, eh? Maybe they just didn’t work out, or something? But surely, if that was the case, you would be aware of a potential daughter brewing. That’s why I’m thinking it wasn’t a proper relationship?’ The bell rang, provoking five minutes of chaos as the new children paraded around looking for their classes, knocking the older children that were reluctantly plodding along wishing they didn’t have to go to class at all. Alex split from the group and headed over to the boys toilets for a pre-lesson waz. On his way back, the corridors were milder, the only kids left hanging around were the late ones. He picked up his bag, which was hanging on a set of bag hooks attached to the wall adjacent to the staff toilets. ‘Hello?’ The muffled sound coming from the toilet door, which sounded uncannily familiar, startled Alex. He jumped in a full 360-degree circle. This was as impressive as it was pointless, as he finished in exactly the same position he had started, bringing him no closer to unravelling the owner of the mysterious toilet voice.

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A Constellation of Water Zina Bouzad

A constellation of water, an ocean full of chaos and mess. It’s difficult to see what exactly you’re swimming through. Not everything is deep sea blue, More hints of green and cold grey. But you are a galaxy full of stars. No gravity, just the Milky Way and Mars. No limitations to explore every piece of your perfection. Maybe chaos will drive us to explode into something greater, a supernova, a cosmic blast. I let you float through my void, and my harmless shallow turquoise water. And you let me gaze at your sequin-silver stars like the scattered embers of a dying fire winking down at me, illuminating the atramentous curtain sky. One day you wanted to swim in deeper than before. The same night I wanted to hold the galaxies and stars, 46

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so you gave me the sky and I gave you the sea. You gave me you and I gave you me, the most known unknown for us both, so you understood my beauty and my danger, how my waves brutally crash against you, almost as painful as how your stars burn my eyes with beauty and light. With fascination I gaze longer and you swim further. You understood my depth and didn’t fear it. You jumped off a cliff head first into me. I, with every constellation I was getting to know you better, I found someone that could swim and you found someone that fell in love with the constellations not just the stars. Previous lovers would arrive unannounced and end explosively when you realised they were afraid of the dark, so they never really knew you could shine and scatter across the sky in a million pieces. And then I realised they couldn’t swim, so they never really found the missing parts of me at the bottom of the sea. So every night you swam further, and I watched the sky for longer.

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Escaping Gabriel Rumney

Division – clear the lobby. The words flashed up on-screen. This was the fourth time this week. It was some bill to do with housing or something. ‘Geoff.’ ‘What is it, Dan?’ ‘Division,’ I said. He looked up at the relayed message on the TV screen. It looked like a 1980s BBC News caption. ‘What, again?’ he protested. ‘I don’t even know what I’d be voting for!’ ‘Against,’ I pointed out. ‘You’ll be voting against.’ ‘Oh. Well, yes of course. We are the opposition.’ I had been so excited before I started the job. It had been a dream of mine forever to work in politics. It came true when Geoff Duncan, MP for Middlesbrough, offered me a job as a researcher. My first few weeks were exciting, yes. It was great to be an insider at last, but I thought there was going to be more to it than that. I thought I would be changing the world. And the job was hard. I had never anticipated the twelve-hour days, constant pressure and monitoring by ferocious party spin doctors. It was incredibly stressful, and I was finding it quite difficult to cope. It also felt a bit worthless. We were clearly going to be out of power for ages. Yet it was a hugely stressful and time-consuming occupation. If Geoff made a mistake, it would be my job to sort it out. If he were to appear in the media, it would be my responsibility to make sure he was ready and that

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he would come across well. I was four weeks into the job and I was feeling as though I simply could not deal with the pressure. Geoff returned and I asked him what the bill was actually for. ‘Haven’t a clue,’ he said. ‘Whatever it was, we lost.’ ‘Damn!’ I exclaimed insincerely. I checked my emails and found that another couple of messages had wandered in. The first was from Phil, our head of staff. Dear Daniel, I saw that Geoff has become rather unpopular on Twitter. Some very hostile abuse indeed. Sort it out please. Phil This was exactly what I hated. I was constantly being expected to ‘sort things out’. I mean, how was I supposed to sort out something like Twitter abuse? What could I do – track down these trolls and threaten them so they would like Geoff Duncan? The second email was from an angry constituent, complaining that people were doing indecent things. ‘Geoff, we’ve got an unhappy resident of Middlesbrough.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘Yep,’ I continued. ‘People are doing indecent things.’ ‘Such as what?’ ‘Men wearing earrings, people not being white.’ ‘Oh Christ. Just sort it out.’ There you go again! Geoff was a bit boring. He was in his fifties, greying and spoke with a soft northern accent. I mean, he was very principled and hard-working and he served the people of Middlesbrough well, but I didn’t exactly have fun working with him. I never actually had a non-work-related conversation with him. I never knew what he was thinking, and I was always worrying 49

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about what he thought about me. I had already learnt that politics was a rough game, and that what people thought of you was vital. Between periods of work, Geoff would always spin his pen around with his thumb and finger, and at these times I couldn’t relax. It was silly really – he was a very nice man. It’s just how it was. Despite my dreary and stressful day, I was in a fairly good mood when I left work. It was Friday and as far as I was aware I didn’t have much work to do over the weekend. For all the plentiful difficulties with the job, I did always feel very important and special entering and exiting the Houses of Parliament. Anyone could see me coming out of the place where the country’s laws were made! You needed a special card to certify that you worked in the Commons. I liked to think that as an adviser to a politician I belonged to the superior class of cardholders. Of course, by the time I got to Westminster station there was no real indication that I had just spent the day working in Parliament. I would try to adopt an expression that said I’ve just come from the House of Commons – where I work, but this was quite hard, and no passing commuters would stop and say, ‘Oh have you just been in Parliament? Aren’t you important!’ I had an easy tube journey, then a brisk walk to my flat. I put the kettle on and reclined in front of the television. I was tired, slightly exasperated, but thoroughly looking forward to a peaceful weekend. It turned out, however, that I was wrong to think that I didn’t have much work to do. I had only been home about ten minutes when I received a phonecall from Geoff. ‘Hello?’ I said, standing up. For some reason I was never able to talk on the phone without pacing around. ‘Hi, Dan, it’s Geoff.’ ‘Oh. Everything all right?’ 50

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‘Yeah. Listen, mate, do you think you could draft a speech for the debate on Monday? I mean, it would be great if you could email that over on Sunday.’ ‘Okay…’ ‘Oh, and I’m going to need you to do a constituency profile. Type up the data and stuff. Could you do that?’ ‘Um, yeah, I suppose.’ What the hell could I say? ‘Great. You’re a star.’ ‘Thanks.’ ‘Oh, and the press conference,’ he continued. ‘I need some sympathetic journalists on board. Guardian preferably. It was awful when you got all those guys from the Mail.’ ‘Okay… I’ll do my best.’ ‘Cheers. Oh, one other thing, Dan.’ Christ, there was more? ‘Phil wants you to do a media report. Just on how things have been going. You know.’ ‘That everything?’ I asked tentatively. ‘Yep. Bub-bye now.’ Jesus Christ! How was I supposed to do all that? I slumped back on the sofa. My peaceful weekend had been entirely obliterated in the last couple of minutes. I normally did not have time to shower in the morning, as I normally overslept. I would normally wake up, realise it was late, practically dive into my suit, get my tie stuck in the wardrobe door, free myself from the wardrobe door, grab a piece of toast and bolt out of the door. So I usually showered in the evening. My shower had problems. It was too small and made you feel as though you were being pelted with hailstones. It was also really hard to find the right temperature because there was about a millimetre on the tap between freezing cold and scalding. Once I had finally found a satisfactory medium I closed my eyes and prepared myself for the painful sensation of the ‘power 51

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shower’ firing hard little bullets of water into my back at top speed. I dropped the soap four times during my shower, upon which I would swear, each time at a slightly louder volume. As I lay in bed that night, I lost myself in uncontrollable anxiety about the work-packed weekend ahead. I was convinced that there wouldn’t be time to get it all done or that it wouldn’t be done to the standard that was expected. I tried to calm myself down. ‘Relax,’ I told myself. ‘You’ll get it done. There are much more important things to worry about.’ That didn’t help. For the rest of the night I worried that I would be fired, that Geoff hated me, that the party didn’t trust me. I was almost hysterical. I got up and poured myself a glass of water. Apparently unable to control my hands, I missed my mouth completely and poured the entire contents of the glass down my pyjamas. ‘Oh for crying out loud!’ I shouted, pounding my fist against the wall. I yelped with pain, clutched my fist and kicked the fridge with rage. ‘Ouch!’ I howled. ‘Will I never learn?’ This was enough. In a moment of madness and despair, I put some shoes on, marched out of the door, got into my car and lunged off on the quickest route out of London. I cannot explain why I did it – it was a moment when I simply wasn’t thinking straight. I realised about an hour later that I had travelled ten miles out of London wearing my green and purple plaid pyjamas. ‘Bugger.’ I muttered, and slammed my fist into the dashboard. * When the mathematician Pythagoras realised that the square root of two did not exist as a proper number, he was so angry that he burnt a hundred goats. Well, I had suddenly become so angry 52

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that I could quite happily have burnt the hundred goats on the field I was driving past. Well, sheep. But the point stands. Obviously, it was a different type of anger. I was angry with myself, disgusted by my cowardice, but also angry at work. Thousands of people every year left university and started a career, and stuck with it. Why couldn’t I? I was about to turn around, but it was as if the steering wheel was stuck. I simply could not do it. I might not have been able to turn around, but I was able to pull over at the next lay-by. I lit a cigarette. I did not want to think at this moment, so I concentrated on blowing smoke directly through the steering wheel. I didn’t know what to do. Obviously I couldn’t just keep ambling along on this random road trip, and just not turn up to work again. I was aware of this. Nevertheless, I couldn’t face the idea of going back. Not now anyway. I swerved back onto the motorway and kept driving. Some hours later I found myself arriving in Exeter. Exeter is actually a very beautiful city, and I was even tempted to get out and get something to eat until I realised that this was impossible since I was wearing pyjamas. I drove past a university campus and was intrigued to stop and watch the group of students milling about on the streets. These were essentially the days I had been pining to return to and I did feel a bit nostalgic as I watched them. When one pushed another down the street in a shopping trolley I realised that I was glad to have moved on. I sighed heavily, giving in to the truth that I was just suffering from initial shock at the pressures of working life. I sighed again and turned around, ready for the long trip back to London. I had a lot of work to do. *

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I worked all Sunday on the speech, the press conference, the media report, and the bloody constituent profiles or whatever the hell they were called. It was among the most intense speedworking ever known in Parliamentary history. I awoke early the next morning, in time to have a shower and print off the work. I arrived at the Commons and handed the papers to Geoff. ‘Good speech, Dan,’ he said as he read the fruits of my labour. ‘Thanks.’ And, as it happens, I did get shouted at by a spin doctor for the media report not being up to his standard. I must admit I was a bit thrown. ‘Welcome to the world of politics,’ said Geoff, having witnessed the angry words that Phil unleashed on me. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Welcome to the world of work, in fact.’ I chuckled. ‘Indeed!’

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Foxwood Mohammed Shamal

Raising a child can never be easy. You need an amount of being compassionate and an amount of being harsh. This is considered to be one of the best techniques to bring up a child with manners, while retaining their ability to feel comfortable enough to come to you about any issue, be it about sexual matters or simply them struggling to cope, especially in the teenage years. The difference between Foxwood Teenage Hospital patients and ‘normal’ teenagers is that, rather than being ravished with compassion, they had to fill the void in their souls as a result of not having a ‘normal’ life. What you learn while being a nurse in a paediatric ward of one of London’s signature medicinal practices, is that subtle compassion can actually be the best medicine for these children, who essentially spend their lives watching the hand pass around the periphery of a clock’s face within these whitewashed, hostile walls. Every minute of these children’s lives is spent receiving affection, attention and care for their needs, which only grows their hatred for the compassion that any child yearns to have from their parents. Having everyone around them tending to every detail of their life causes a phobia to emerge from the dusk of their persona, the fear of giving in to everything being done for them, virtually accepting that they cannot cope alone. The idea that ‘disabled’ could potentially apply to them causes this phobia to bloom. It strips them of even considering themselves to be like any other teenager. The belief in themselves slowly decreases and their aggravation towards life increases. While a nurse has many physical duties to attend to, there are also many aspects to attend to in the mental state of these patients. 55

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Take Roland for example, a sixteen-year-old girl with severe anorexia and a thirst for knowledge. A step into her hospital room, which now she calls home, and you are bombarded by the sight of endless books stacked on shelves and sheets of paper stuck on every space she could find. The problem with those who are not anorexic is that they are blinded by the idea that the solution to the problem is ultimately the patient’s mental ability to overcome their fears. Roland clearly learned this the hard way. After two weeks of being hospitalised her mother has not shown up, due to an utter lack of understanding, believing that the root of all Roland’s problems is Roland herself. Yet I remain aware, as a person without the disorder, that the experience of my own daughter allows me to feel the most interconnected to Roland. The heart and soul of Roland purely reminds me of my daughter who was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of just thirteen. Partially I am thankful that my daughter underwent such an experience and is continuing the struggle in the best possible way, since it has helped me approach Roland’s condition. Although Roland has a strong suit in knowledge, she lacks wisdom about her disorder. Every lunchtime at 1 p.m. you would find her sitting in front of a tray full of food with a ‘CalorieCount’ diary and as long as something is written for that specific period of the day she is content with what she calls progress. The only time she made clear progress was when she met another patient who she has since had a lot of history with, Shane. Shane being roughly the same age as Roland, seventeen, also knows what it feels like to be a Foxwood patient. About two to three years ago Shane was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma where soft tissue like fat, nerves or blood vessels develop in the bones or tendons, which subsequently caused Shane to have his leg surgically removed before the cancer was able to spread. Now in the process of physical therapy, Shane wanders around 56

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the hospital on crutches up to mischief that you’d think a teenager with one leg would not or even could not be able to get up to. One time he managed to leave the paediatric ward and enter the geriatrics, rolling out Martha, this old 1960s type who requires a sensational young soul who lives life to the fullest. Fireworks were attached to the bottom of her wheelchair and both were screaming, ‘We’re alive b*****s!’ So obviously judgments can be made on the extent of their shenanigans. However, the only person that could really settle him down is Roland. Being the longest established patients in the ward, Roland and Shane truly know what is best for each other. In a period when they used to ‘go out’ they truly brought the best out of each other, but just like any other relationship they also brought out the worst, and in their case the worst left them stranded alone and slightly distant from each other. People and patients come constantly in and out of the hospital, but what these two experienced in Foxwood is more than I have in my entire life. The events that go on within these whitewashed walls could create the majority of a drama series, and all you would have to do is sit at reception and observe. They have been through life and death situations that no biologically or mentally stable person could even comprehend. A clear case of the severity of Roland’s disorder was during the period that she and Shane claimed to be partners. Being committed in a relationship you find yourselves going everywhere with each other, and in Roland and Shane’s case this included Roland coming along to the cinema with Shane and his friends. During The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was ironic since the teenage patients in the ward almost form a society of wallflowers, Roland found herself forcing her throat through a sugary hell of popcorn in a blatant attempt to impress Shane, and to impress Shane’s friends for Shane. But her limit was not reached in the movie theatre. On the way back to 57

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the hospital she decided to carry on impressing Shane and, stumbling upon a doughnut cart, she continued to shove doughnut pieces down her delicate, small throat. Shane, walking ahead about a metre with his friends, believed that the reason for Roland’s fall behind was due to a call from her father checking when she would return to the hospital. Little did the man know that he would find his daughter being rushed through the emergency room on an ambulance bed. Shane turned to see Roland glued to the pavement curb and immediately grabbed tightly on his crutches and paced towards her, only to find that the massive amounts of sugar had caused a blood clot in a vein by her ankle that left her unconscious, after she’d had an almost empty stomach for several days. Screaming at his friends to call 999, they found me waiting in the ambulance eager to help in any way possible. Rushing through the corridors on a hospital bed, barging through the doors in order to get to the surgery room, the doctors attempted to remove the blood clot in order to help Roland regain consciousness. When she was able to return to us, everyone could not wait to ambush her with the hated compassion that in our human nature we are so willing to provide.

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The Cult of Harold JD Juan

It wasn’t long before Harold determined the rules of his newfound predicament. He could float a meagre six inches off the ground, and only at walking speed. With concentration and practice he could move a little faster or higher, but even at his best, he looked more like a man suspended in a low jump than anything. The action itself took little effort, he later described it as being akin to a twitch of the ear or of the nostril, it was simply instinct rather than skill. Despite this, when the reporters started to arrive and ask about how he had come to develop his abilities, Harold claimed it was through determination and a superhuman command over his mind and body that he had first thrust himself into the air. Harold himself was a rotund man of middling years. He was of average height, slightly below average intelligence, and his wardrobe was restricted to the beiges and greys of a Walmart business-wear collection. He would often go several days without shaving, and his social interaction was limited to small talk with a few co-workers and a monthly call to his mother. He had not faltered from his regular schedule for several years. He worked seven days a week at a nationwide grocery chain, coming in at night to restock shelves for several of their branches around the city. He did not particularly enjoy his job, yet it did offer him hours of free time during the day and a 25% employee discount on his favourite food, cans of EL TIGRE! tomato soup, an internationally produced ‘bachelor pad’ staple. They came in eight-ounce cans, each one graced with an image of a friendlylooking and slightly effeminate tiger. The tiger wore a small pink 59

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cowboy hat. Harold would buy just under three dozen cans of tomato soup a week, although this had increased to just over four dozen in recent weeks since the launching of an annual contest in which someone could win a year’s supply of free tomato soup. It was a Wednesday afternoon when he first started to fly, although he didn’t notice for several hours. It was only when he finally stood up from his armchair to go to work that he realised he was hovering ever so slightly above the ground. Any attempts he made to move proved futile, and it was only in wildly paddling with his arms and legs that he managed to push himself slowly forward. Harold stayed home from work for the next several days, still unable to touch the ground, managing to get around the house by pushing off walls and furniture. It was only after a few more days that he found himself able to levitate at will. Harold theorised that by the end of the week he would be able to fly at great speed. He began to spend much of his time thinking about what he could accomplish with his ability, imagining himself as some kind of hero. Harold made no attempt to keep his ability secret, he began levitating everywhere he went, hardly even noticing when his feet touched the ground. It was in fact because of the inordinate amount of tomato soup that Harold had eaten that his abilities began to manifest. EL TIGRE! was owned and distributed by a company that mainly dealt with the waste from radioactive power plants, and due to a radium deposit mishap at the now defunct tomato farm, each can of EL TIGRE! tomato soup that had been produced within the last few weeks was contaminated with a small amount of radioactivity. This was ignored by the company due to the weakness of the sample. It was later determined that most of the people who buy cans of tomato soup (including Harold himself ) ate nothing but cans of tomato soup, and they were later met with a class action suit by the families of those who had been strangled to death by 60

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their own newly-grown extra limbs. They all won a year’s supply of tomato soup. Harold first gained fame from a video a few pedestrians had taken of him. It wasn’t long before reporters began to call for interviews.

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The Escapade of Conrad Krause Von Mandel and Adela Flau (Extract) Joseph Dredge-Fenwick

1 Conrad Krause Von Mandel of House Zebsineberg was the young heir to the Grand Dukedom of Zebsineberg, a seat held by his family since 739, unfettered by the Great War of Boddon in 1345, yet in a region ruled by them since before man can remember. His family’s lands stretched from the peak of Feldberg to the dense Armin Forests by the Badenberg River. A small country, in the hills and mountains dwarfed by its imperious neighbours, who were mostly plagued by war. Conrad would have been described by most as a vain dandy, rather doltish, not the wise and benevolent leader his ageing father was, yet he did possess these qualities to some extent, and another – the distinction of right and wrong. Justice was always held in high regard by him, and although no scholar, he was an expert in his interests. His interests being stories of adventurousness and daring in days long past. Skiing, fencing, dancing, fashion, hunting and music – the loves of an ideal 62

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gentleman, or so he believed. He was most embroiled in the stories of the gallantry of his great ancestors, warring knights, famed hunters and great poets. He tried to shape his very being to these great men. Conrad sported an immaculate and rather small moustache, turned at the ends, and black loose curly hair all in a flurry on top. He had a long pale face with rigid jaw and large nose, and was tall and thin. He possessed an understated handsomeness and great charm. Conrad’s only other passion was Adela Flau, angelic yet mischievous, an unnatural beauty, grey-blue staring eyes with flickers of her playfulness, blonde with flecks of brown to her shoulders, her eyes wide apart, her nose flat with light freckles across it to her soft cheeks. She had healthy large lips always with a slight smile, the true picture of beauty, and Conrad was infatuated with her. She had a joyous character and unmatched wit. The daughter of a clockmaker, the Duke’s clockmaker in fact, a humble man, skilled, and possessing acute attention to detail. Conrad and Adela were quite clearly in love yet they did not know it, or rather could not categorise their relationship. They spent near every hour with each other, neither cared or perhaps gave thought to their incompatibility by rank. They would meet and cavort around the town, causing roguery and always getting away with it. 2 The events of this story stem from a singular calamitous event. Conrad’s father, one of Zebsineberg’s greatest rulers, Alfred Coeus Von Mandel, 48th Duke of Zebsineberg, was known for his mercy, intelligence, calm and kindness. He had ruled since he was a young man, following his father’s unexpected death. Alfred 63

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was one of two sons. Gerlach, his younger brother, was always disgruntled by his brother’s success and the love he had from the people. He had rank and title still, Protector of the Armin, outranked only by his brother and nephew, Conrad. He also held other important responsibilities, yet it was never enough for him. He too had a son, Gunther. Conrad had never got along with him, finding him a bore, too serious and unadventurous. Despite all this, loyalties were never doubted, making the series of events to follow unthinkable and unexpected. A night of blizzards and pitch darkness. In the towns only small candles lit the otherwise bleak night, and oil lamps in the wealthier residences. The Mandel’s castle, built by another great Zebsineberg ruler, Alfred the Mighty (after whom Alfred Coeus was probably named, as many Mandels were) stood firm against the strong winds, its walls unflinching and its towers tall on the high rigid peak over its lands. Its red tiled roofs and white stone held the mastery of those days since past, a gilded palace more then a defendable castle, yet both if needed. Within its thick walls Alfred Coeus was sat over his papers in his chamber dealing, as always, with the affairs of his state. An unsettling air breathed within the castle. There was near complete silence except for the gentle scratch of Alfred Coeus’s quill on paper and the blizzard’s futile battle against the castle’s windows. The silence was undisrupted by the feline footsteps of a hooded man, clad in tight grey fur and thick cloth. Under his large hood he bore the visage of a golden-faced man, bearded, with hollow eyes like the ancient depiction of a menacing god. The man moved with a controlled swift pace through the castle’s long and winding corridors, avoiding the tired view of weary guards accustomed to inaction. After navigating the labyrinth he came to a long, grand corridor, lit on either side, his pace now a more determined march until he came to two magnificently dressed 64

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guards bearing the furs of the elite White Guardsmen. The guards simultaneously lowered their lances but before they could utter a grunt, two daggers flew and found their targets in the guards’ necks. Both immediately collapsed to the marble floor. The hooded man retrieved his tools and two large keys from their lifeless bodies, opened the nearest long window and effortlessly pushed the bodies out into the cruel blizzard. The man then carefully placed both keys into their locks, turned both with two small clicks, and the door opened slightly ajar. He pushed it further and silently slipped in, putting his palms against it to muffle the sound. Quietly he locked the door from the inside, arose, and marched forward without any attempt to conceal his presence. Alfred Coeus raised his head from his papers. First his green calculating eyes were in shock, then moved to acceptance, then to his normal calm. With a soft, kindly voice he said, ‘So this is to be my time?’ The hooded man, slightly taken aback by the question, stopped and looked at Alfred’s calm green eyes. The stare possessed him. ‘It be not my will, sssir.’ His hiss had a serpent-like quality. ‘Then whose?’ ‘This dagger be sssent by your brother,’ replied the hooded man producing a beautiful long knife, gold inlay on its smooth steel blade. ‘Give the dear man my love. Too busy to pay me a visit?’ The hooded man became angry. ‘Enough of this foolishnesss!’ Alfred looked into the dark hood, right into the hooded man’s eyes. As if asked, the hooded man removed his hood to reveal the golden mask. Alfred rose from his seat and slowly drew his sword. The hooded man with respect and ease made a slight crouch ready to pounce into the assault. Alfred smiled and mimicked him. In a sudden jolt, the hooded man thrust forward with a quick slash of his blade. They clashed. The man 65

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then launched an attack punctuated with flourishes and swift changes in direction, his blade constantly twisting as if turned by a maddened conductor. Yet Alfred masterfully blocked each attack. The man then made a swift controlled swing at Alfred, who quickly ducked and darted away from his desk. He began to tire however. His breathing laboured and fluidity lessened, no surprise in a man so advanced in age as Alfred. It was already a near miracle how he had performed thus far, with the agility and skill of a young Russian acrobat. Surprised, the man began to get angry. Alfred, acutely aware of this, chuckled, exclaiming, ‘You oaf! Are you not tasked with my demise? Yet you play?’ The hooded man, enraged, ran at Alfred with arm and blade extended. Alfred stood and with a fencing master’s skill, tapped the blade away from himself. Nearly past Alfred, the man used his chance and slashed the back of his left leg from behind. Alfred fell to one knee in great pain. The hooded man, pleased, walked slowly around to face him and smoothly knelt to his level. ‘Bested by an oaf!’ Alfred laughed with sadness and indignation. The man smiled from behind his mask. Alfred’s face became shadowed by fear and vexation. ‘My son? He is spared?’ The man replied with a hiss, ‘From my blade he is, but perhapsss not so by your brothersss or by the axeman’s.’ ‘The boy has wit. I pray he prospers. Make it quick!’ Alfred commanded with defiance. There was understanding in his eye. He looked into death itself but was untroubled, ready to meet his beloved again. The blade penetrated the lower abdomen. With a choke, life left the Duke. He fell with the grace he had possessed all his life, his lifeless eyes showed still his wise calmness. The hooded man gave a bow of respect to the departed Duke. He carefully covered the blade in a white cloth and dipped the Duke’s finger in the 66

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wound and began to write, ‘CONRAD’ faintly, and with a slight shaking. The hooded man reopened the door and shouted, ‘Help! Traitor!’ in the voice of Alfred, or so similar as to be impossible to tell apart. He waited until the sound of footsteps approached, then turned and ran nimbly to the window behind the great desk, opened it and dropped to the balcony on the floor below. The balcony belonged to Conrad. Then a chorus of cries sounded, ‘Murder!’, ‘Traitor!’, ‘Lock the gates!’ Conrad, roused by knocking and the shouts, put on his warmest silk dressing gown and tied a white silk cravat, combed his black thick curls, which immediately fell back, unlocked his door and was escorted by guards, to his father’s room. The hooded man slipped into the now empty room. He looked for a chest and, once found, picked the lock. Among the items of interest and papers, the man deposited the wrapped dagger, closed the chest and pushed it under Conrad’s bed in plain sight to be found later. The man turned to the balcony and ran, he jumped on to its low wall and looked into the still-raging blizzard. Its icy winds pierced through him, he cared not. He jumped down a significant drop to the jagged rock face and began the descent to the town below. Into the night he was gone. His grey furs consumed him. Gone without a trace. 3 Surrounded by guards, Conrad entered his father’s chamber. In the room already stood Alfred’s servant, Ivan Aldis, his dear friend and unofficial advisor, a short, white-haired man, slightly plump and loyal to a fault. He wept by his old master’s body. Gerlach, too was present, standing rigidly as if bored by the 67

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events. The faces in the room turned to Conrad, all but Ivan Aldis who kept weeping. Conrad ran to his father’s body. ‘It can’t be true! No, no, no!’ He knelt, laid a hand on his father’s back and began to weep too. Ivan looked up to Conrad as if in recognition. He leant in closer and whispered, ‘They are after you, my boy. There are factions. Your uncle wants you dead.’ Conrad looked up at Ivan, still weeping but now even more perplexed. His mourning however was abruptly cut short. ‘Seize the traitor,’ beckoned his uncle. The White Guardsmen looked to their leader Captain Hugo Lindemann, the Honourable, a dashing, tall, middle-aged captain with an appearance similar to Conrad except his black hair was slicked and his moustache larger. With loyalty to Alfred and the realm a great conviction, and favoured by his men, he was a true leader. ‘It must be proven. It is a bold accusation, Your Grace. He is by right now Duke.’ Gerlach with no sign of anger turned to the captain, ‘My dearest brother has professed it, the boy’s name written with his own blood. Why else?’ Never before had the captain been so torn. He made a small nod. ‘Ample evidence must be gathered, if there is any to be found. Search his apartments, then this matter must go before the Great Council.’ Conrad, shocked and in a state of bafflement, was shaken and repulsed. ‘It is true lunacy to think me responsible! I had no reason!’ Gerlach swiftly replied, ‘What greater reason than to seize your father’s position?’ As the words were uttered the guards re-entered, one producing the bloody cloth and dagger. ‘Sir, the weapon. The blood still warm, from beneath the boy’s bed.’ The captain, taking the knife with a grave look, turned to Conrad. ‘Is this not your knife, Your Grace?’ 68

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‘Well it is but I… I…’ Conrad was unable to coax out his words. Captain Lindemann gave another nod. ‘I am sorry, Your Grace, but I am bound to do this. Seize him, and bar him in his quarters!’ Ivan stood to attention. ‘I request I be allowed to attend to the Duke, for it is my duty.’ Gerlach interjected, ‘He cannot be professed Duke if he hath slain the last, my dearest brother.’ ‘I will allow it,’ Captain Lindemann replied with a tone of sadness and despair. Gerlach gave a look of alarm and loathing for the captain. His defiance would be remembered. The guards thrust their obedient hands towards Conrad. ‘Captain! You know I’m not capable! Get your hands off me you scoundrels! On the name of my father and of Zebsineberg you are mistaken!’ Conrad struggled furiously against the sea of guards. He kept cursing all the way to his darkened chambers. The doors were barred from the outside and manned by equally perplexed guards, now without a master, with loyalties askew. Conrad looked morosely at his door, now his prison gate, and then to Ivan who stood by the dresser already armed with garments for Conrad. Without a word Conrad was helped into his marvellous grey suit, cut to his figure, the jacket long, lapel pointed, double-breasted, six buttons in a straight line parallel. The trouser high and straight, clearly from the finest tailor on the continent. Each stitch better then the last, such a fine magnificent garment did not match the sombre mood. His starched winged collar high with an artisan-style black bow. He put on a pair of slim black boots with pure white spats on top. The image of a refined gentlemen. 69

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When Ivan began to help Conrad into a large brown fur coat he came back to reality, ‘What need of the coat, dear Ivan?’ ‘You need something to keep you warm in the blizzard, my boy.’ Conrad plunged ever deeper into confusion. ‘Dear Ivan, you know my innocence?’ ‘Indeed. Krause, there is a plot, there are ears. I cannot speak of it now, no time. You must go.’ ‘What? Ivan…’ ‘There is no time you must leave.’ Ivan finished helping Conrad into his fur coat. It hung so near to the ground that it made him seem like a bear with a human head. Conrad picked up his tweed baker-boy cap and put on a pair of white leather gloves. Ivan handed him a small package, its contents being chocolate, bread and honey and some liquor, a small note and an ornate silver spoon. Conrad deposited it in one of the large inner pockets of his great coat. Ivan last gave Conrad a small tin, ‘Joie des Dieux’. At its sight Conrad lit up and embraced Ivan, ‘You dear man! Thank you, truly.’ This was the last tin of Conrad’s imported French moustache wax. Ivan looked at Conrad with admiration, but mostly sadness. ‘Through the tunnels to the cabin. Hide there until I come for you. If found, make haste. Luck be with you, my boy. I will gather loyal men to prove your innocence.’ ‘To quote my great ancestor, “It was not the…”’ ‘You must go now! They will be coming for you soon. God speed!’ Conrad gave a nod with a weak smile. They shook hands then hugged. Behind a large painting of himself, he opened a small door, put three keys in, each smaller than the next, and turned them. It opened and he went through. He looked behind once 70

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more as he left. Ivan gave a sad smile then closed the door and locked it. Full of melancholy, piercing sadness and a thirst for adventure, Conrad descended the ancient stone stairs into the darkness, only a meagre lamp to guide his way. The air hung thick and damp, oozing the smell of fungus, which Conrad embraced as the first scent of adventure. 4 Once at the bottom of the deep, coiling stairway Conrad came to a long corridor. He marched down it to its end, where an old wooden ladder led to a hatch. He climbed up through it, and into a small cold cabin filled with tattered goat hide, boxes and barrels. The cabin was old and abandoned, having once belonged to a hunter. Conrad had often made the journey to it, as each time it was like the beginning of a new quest, and a nice way to escape the castle undetected. Conrad liked its untidy tatteredness, as it reminded him of stories of brave vikings or rogue huntsmen. He emerged and closed the hatch and blew out the lamp and put it aside. Conrad breathed out heavily and sat down on the bed covered in furs. He dared not light the fire to alert his pursuers to his location. He took off his hat and lay back in the bed, covered in his great flowing coat. He opened a small silver case and produced a small purple cigarette and tapped it against the box, lit it with a match and began to smoke. He did this for a while then waited. Nothing occurred and he wondered how long Ivan had planned him to stay. After only half an hour he began to tire. His eyes drifted to his pair of skis propped in the corner of the room and a marvellous thought came to him. Conrad jumped to his feet and leaped across the room. He 71

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gathered the skis and put them under his arm, picked his cap up and went outside. Silence in the cabin returned. Outside Conrad put on the skis and picked up the poles. The sun was rising and the light returning once more to the near silent forest. He stood by the cabin taking in the fresh frigid air. A late owl gave a hoot and there was a small rustling in the forest. He looked over the surroundings then pushed off and slid down the gentle hill. He now pushed with more power. He darted in and out between trees, a show of his skill to a nonexistent crowd. The land then became dramatically steeper. Conrad’s speed quickened and he pushed even faster, as if chased by a pack of wild dogs. His great fur coat billowed behind him and snow flew up from his skis. He was going so fast now his cap came clean off and landed in the snow. He looked back in slight disappointment. The forest became denser and harder to navigate, increasing the twists and turns. Out of nowhere came a large pine to Conrad’s left, narrowly avoided with a quick change of direction. Conrad gave a laugh of relief looking back at his near undoing. Then a second pine appeared. Conrad could not stop this time. He made an arrow shape with his skis and slammed right into the tree, turning to his left side. He slid down the tree slowly in raging pain. He felt as if he had been dropped from the heavens to the hardest rock, he was sure his arm and possibly his shoulder were broken. He rubbed his arm over the left side as if this possessed some sort of healing power. No effect. He looked around the forest. From the pine trees to the snow-covered forest floor. A small slender pine marten peered from a warren to spy for its prey. A scent? Nothing to be found. It stood still waiting, looked down on Conrad with curiosity, its head to one side, then grew quickly bored and ran off. 72

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The sun was now almost risen. Conrad looked to it. Using one of his poles he attempted to stand. Eventually he managed to get upright. Beyond his tree he could see the main road to the town by a farmer’s field, the town not too far off. Down the road he could hear the sound of a horse and cart coming slowly. Conrad was filled with vigour once more. At a hurried pace he hobbled through the thick snow. The road was slowly getting closer and so too the cart. He stumbled and fell, used the pole to get up again and now more determined went into a hobbled walk and gave a shout, ‘Wait! Good fellow!’ He made a large painful stride and once again fell into the snow. ‘Wait!’ The driver, clearly hard of hearing, was oblivious to the struggling Conrad. On the ground, in sporadic movements, Conrad assembled a misshapen snowball. He threw the ball at the driver in hopes of rousing his attention. It made target on the driver’s arm. He stopped the cart with a small tug on the reins. Slowly he brushed off the snow from his heavy sleeve and looked in the direction the ball had come from, only to lay eyes on the slumped Conrad. ‘Hmm. Yes?’ said the driver slowly, as if deprived of sleep for days. His eyelids hung heavy over his grey murky eyes. His whole face was drooped, a large muddy ginger moustache sleepily clung to his face along with a large bulbous nose. Conrad got to his feet once more and hobbled over to the cart. He leant on his pole casually as if it were a magnificent cane. ‘Good morning. I am terribly sorry for the projectile.’ He gave a small chuckle brushing off some of the remaining snow. ‘Could you give me passage to the town?’ The driver looked blankly at Conrad. ‘Hmm. I have a beautifully crafted set of skis from Huddle’s.’ He pointed to the pole to model the set. He gave a questioning smile. 73

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‘Hmm. Suppose.’ The driver slowly jumped down from the cart and trudged to retrieve the set. He came back after a while and placed it in the hay in the back of his cart. Conrad watched with no sense of urgency. The driver was a short man, round and clothed in a compact fur cap, a heavy, loose-fitting ragged sheepskin coat, puffy navy blue trousers tucked into traditional folk boots, red with yellow and blue thread and tassels. ‘Do you mind being a good fellow and helping me up?’ asked Conrad. The driver looked at him, grabbed Conrad by the arms and lifted him into the cart. Conrad looked at the strange man in awe. Clearly a man of great strength, he showed no strain, no effort. He walked round to the front of the cart and climbed back onto his platform. Gently he pulled the reins and the cart jolted forwards. Conrad, looking at the back of the driver’s head, fell back with the sudden movement. He pushed himself into the hay. ‘Thank you. You have done me a great service. I am Conrad, heir to…’ He cut it short. ‘Heir to my father’s lumber mill. Yes, a marvellous lumber mill. Your name is?’ ‘Almos.’ He replied without interest. ‘Well, Almos it is a pleasure to meet you. Are you a local farmer?’ ‘Hmm,’ Almos replied. ‘I see. Tell me when we get to town, good Almos.’ Conrad looked at Almos for a reply and knew he would not get one. He turned and sat back into his new bed of hay, looked at the early morning sky and closed his eyes. 5 Conrad awoke at a jolt of the cart. He raised his head and peered over the right side and saw around him the town of Linzburg. An ancient town as old as the Mandel family, and the duchy’s capital, 74

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the Mandels’ castle stood high above it on a peak. The town was by far the wealthiest in the whole of Zebsineburg, boasting three universities, two grand opera houses, many inns and taverns, artist institutes, bookshops and – by far the most abundant – the town’s famous hot chocolate shops, the Piccola Cafe being the oldest and most famous of all. Hot chocolate was a drink most favoured by the people of Zebsineberg. It was found in every establishment and crafted to a master’s degree. Many suffered greatly from the cocoa trade embargo with South America in the 1540s, and bland substitutes such as coffee were introduced to take its place. Not one coffee shop could be found in the country, though they were not banned. Rather it was a frowned upon, so none dared to touch the foul drink. Conrad sleepily caught the smell of hot chocolate in the cool air. It filled him with joy. The cart then came to a sudden stop. Conrad peered over the edge and looked at the disruption. The local police stood straight in their dark grey uniforms with short layered capes and black shako hats. They questioned Almos. Conrad could hear little of their conversation. He was filled with piercing fear. They were surely there for him. Almos stepped down from the cart slowly and, in an uncharacteristically swift swing, hit both police officers’ jaws, dazing them. Each grabbed his face in pain. ‘Run Duke!’ shouted Almos at the cart in a low voice. Conrad leapt out the cart, his pain near gone; the rest had done him good. He strode into a side street shouting, ‘Thank you dear Almos! I will not forget this kindness!’ He heard the sound of boots on cobble behind him and thought, ‘How did he know who I am? Oh, he was a dear man indeed.’ His pace quickened. He turned one corner after the another until he came to a dead end. The police cries grew louder. ‘Stop! Traitor!’ 75

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Conrad looked frantically around him for possible escape. He saw it. A small ledge over the wall. He jumped for it, fell short. Again, fell short. The police had now joined Conrad in the dead end. Conrad made another jump, caught the ledge and pulled himself up and vaulted over the wall. ‘Stop! By Duke Gerlach’s order, you are under arrest!’ ‘Damn,’ thought Conrad to himself, his name already sullied and his uncle proclaimed Duke. Hopefully only the police knew of it. But it would only be a little time before everyone knew of the murder and the falsity of Conrad’s part in it. Conrad realised he had landed in the alley of a hot chocolate establishment. He ran forward to the back door and into the storeroom, walked briskly through the back rooms then into a kitchen filled with plumes of steam, under cover of which he evaded detection. The kitchen was filled with men in white uniforms and their matching toques blanches. He went through swinging doors into the front of the establishment. A fresh hot chocolate lay waiting on a silver platter on the wooden counter. He seized it and brought it to his lips and took a sip. From behind his cup he looked around the room, lamps hung on cream coloured walls and red drapes surrounded large mirrors. He realised it to be The Piccola Cafe, his favourite hot chocolate shop. Conrad placed the cup back on its saucer, dabbed his moustache with a small silk handkerchief from his pocket and looked around to see the cafe filled mostly with policemen. A shot of dread coursed through his body. He stared at the turned faces of the police officers, and they at him. Everything was still until an officer from before rushed in. ‘It’s Conrad Mandel. He murdered his father the Duke!’ he shouted, out of breath, pointing at Conrad. In dread, Conrad threw his cup at the nearest police officer 76

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smashing it into the lout’s large chest. He hurdled over the counter to land amongst the tables, and kicked one over into the officers. One took a swing at Conrad, who ducked and tripped him over. He ran to the door, which was blocked by the officers from before. He made himself small, tucking his head into his coat and flew straight into the two officers’ stomachs. All three of them fell out of Piccola into the cobbled streets, the officers cushioning Conrad’s fall. He got up and ran through square, Linzburg’s main square, passing the Grand Fountain, frozen. He looked behind at the police emerging from Piccola. He came out of the square and headed down a small side street, then into an even smaller alley, hid behind a large empty crate and waited until he heard the troop of boots pass. He gave a small sigh of relief, emerged from behind the crate, brushed himself down and walked back to the small side street, looked left, then right, then headed right back to the square. He popped his lapel to cover his face a little more, looked around the square, then down at his shoes to see them scuffed beyond polishing and his once white spats blackened with dirt. He gave a grunt and raised his head again to look around. The square was lonely. Only a small carriage and some gentlemen on business in their glossy top hats and great coats passed by. He then saw the street where the Barnabas Flau Clock Emporium was, so there also would be Adela Flau. Conrad gave a great smile, his heart leapt and he thought now only of seeing his love. He ran toward the shop and rapped on the door. Not yet open. He continued until Adela came to the door, unlocked several locks and a small chain then quickly opened it. ‘Darling Adela, how are you?’ said Conrad with a wide smile. ‘Oh Krause, no time for pleasantries, come in quick!’ She replied, grabbing his arm and pulling him in. 77

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She turned away from him, locking all the locks again, then turned back and looked at Conrad’s pale face. They hugged, Conrad picking her up slightly from the floor. A light rose on her smooth cheeks appeared. She lowered her head a little, looking at Conrad and putting a stray hair back behind her ear. ‘Krause, are you alright? They say you killed your father. How did you get here? You didn’t do it. What are you going to do? You…’ ‘Sssh. I’m quite alright, little bump earlier, part skiing, then a lift from a lovely chap and rather a lot of running. I didn’t kill my father and I don’t know what I am to do.’ ‘Golly, well I’ll get you some food and a cup of chocolate.’ She hugged Conrad once more, then got up and went into the kitchen. Conrad fell back into the chair and gave a sigh with a small smile. 6 Adela re-entered the living room with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and in the other a small bowl containing a slice of apple pie with some cream as white as snow surrounding it. She tried to place the assortment on the small table in front of Conrad, but was stopped when he sprang up, grabbing the bowl and taking a large spoonful of pie, then a gulp of hot chocolate which slightly scalded his mouth, making him put down the cup in some pain. Adela sat down. Her hair was in a wavy cluster on her head with small stray strands as if placed there on purpose, up at the back, the style of a truly fashionable woman. She wore a light blue outfit, a long blue dress with large black felt piping on large pleats and a small, matching jacket. She wore a white shirt with a stiff penny collar and an amber cameo pendant on top of a fluffy 78

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necktie. A corset made her already small waist smaller, a ridiculous fashion popular in her days. A silken pair of burgundy stockings and a small pair of black low-heeled shoes. Conrad admired her. He saw her beauty and thought how much he adored her, his only friend. He only now realised his love for her. ‘What are we to do?’ asked Adela. ‘I haven’t the slightest idea. My only thought was to come here and I’ve done that, so I’m at a loss.’ ‘Oh Krause, what a royal mess!’ She said, lightly hitting her leg with a clenched fist. ‘Your poor father.’ Her mourning was interrupted by a heavy knock on the door. Both looked to the downstairs, to the large thuds, then at each other. They both rushed to the window above the doorway, opening it. At the door were three smartly dressed White Guardsmen. The officer leading the group had his left hand on his sabre, which he thrust forward, proudly leaning on it. There was also the old lady from across the street, who had always bitterly hated the Flaus for no godly reason. The leading officer continued to knock. They came in from the window, both locked in thought. Adela ran up stairs and swiftly emerged in a large coat and scarf, with a delicate pair of mustard gloves which she was still putting on. Conrad stood dumbly, watching her ready herself. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. Adela merely pointed up, then again grabbed him by the arm and ran upstairs through the bedroom which she had just been in. There was a small circular window in the slanting roof, Adela opened it and nimbly climbed through. Conrad looked at the window in disbelief. ‘I can’t fit through that!’ he remarked. 79

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‘Come on. Give me your coat.’ He did so, frantically. He climbed through, shutting the window behind him, slightly losing his balance then regaining it. This was not the first visit up here, they did so often, usually on a summer day looking over Linzburg on the hot red tiles, leaning against the steep roof. Cautiously they looked over the ledge at the officers, who were growing restless. The lead officer broke down the door and all went in, except the old lady. ‘We’d better get a move on,’ remarked Conrad. They shuffled along the ledge with Adela leading. In their path was an undetected side of a stone slab. They edged ever closer to it. Now nearly on it, Adela’s left foot, unknowing, stepped over the lifted stone. However the right foot caught the slab in mid-stride, causing Adela to lose her balance. Conrad quickly grabbed on to her arm and clung with all his might. A tile fell from the roof and broke loudly on the cobbles below. The officers all ran out and the bitter old lady pointed at the scene. Adela desperately held on to Conrad, who was pulling her up. The lead officer shouted up, ‘Stop right there!’ Conrad lifted her up and placed her on the ledge. She was panting in fear. ‘Thank you, Krause. Come on.’ Conrad looked at her greyblue eyes and kissed her trembling lips. She was surprised but did not flinch away. The small window they had emerged from then opened and the lead officer came out. ‘Stop!’ he said, drawing his sabre and pointing it at the two of them. Conrad and Adela parted, and without hesitation quickly resumed their shuffling at a much faster pace along the ledge. By now all three of the officers had assembled on the ledge and were in pursuit. ‘Stop! You hear me!’ 80

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Conrad stopped, picked up a small chipped slab and threw it in the officer’s direction. The first officer dodged it, the slab hitting the second. ‘You git! Stop!’ shouted the second officer. At the end of the ledge was a small circular tower with a high tiled roof. After a thought Adela kicked in a pane of a window and put her hand in, undid the latch and opened it. She climbed through. ‘Quick. In Conrad!’ Conrad looked behind him at the advancing officers and climbed in the window. In the small room was a small leather armchair with books sprawled everywhere, and a large wooden bookcase. Hearing the officers advance, Conrad closed the window and moved the bookcase to block it. Adela then went into the room that led to the tower. They looked around the comfortable pleasant space. ‘We’re in the Beckers’,’ remarked Adela. They descended the stairs, almost falling down them. At the bottom, they ran down the corridor. The elderly Mr Becker rose from his large armchair, taking off his pince-nez at the sound of the stomping. The Beckers owned one of the finest book shops in Linzburg, if not all of Zebsineberg. Adela and Conrad ran out the house into the street, ‘Goodbye, Mr Becker!’ shouted Conrad, with the door slamming behind him. Mr Becker just looked into the corridor at the closed door, slightly confused. Conrad and Adela ran down the street, the officers were still in the Flaus’ house. They came to one of Linzburg’s main high streets that led to the main square. There was some traffic, but it was quieter than usual. There was a horsedrawn cab with a black carriage waiting for a fare. Conrad opened the door and gestured to Adela to get in, which she did. Conrad shouted, ‘Cabbie, to the station if you please, and fast!’ He woke the dozing driver. Conrad got in and the carriage went forward. The officers 81

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emerged from the street and looked around. The lead officer realised who was in carriage and shouted after it. He got a gilded pistol out and shot at the carriage. One shot after another into the wheels and the sides until all his ammunition was spent. The bullets thankfully did no harm to Conrad or Adela. The officers commandeered a passing carriage and tailed Conrad and Adela. Conrad looked through the little back window, another shot whistled past. He leant forward, opening the little doors to talk with the driver. ‘Faster! We’ve got friends who want to see us and we’re really just not up to it, are we darling?’ ‘Truly not up to it,’ said Adela with a smile. The driver said nothing but drove his horses harder. The station was fast approaching. Nearing it, the driver came to a quick stop. Conrad and Adela leapt out. Conrad threw and clump of notes a the driver, which he received with gratitude, seeing the hundreds of Jógeld notes, enough for three new horses, or great feasts for the coming holiday. They ran into the station where a train was just pulling out. Conrad opened one of the nearest doors of the last carriage. Adela hopped in, and then Conrad with a last look back, got on too. Once on the train they calmly but with speed went through the carriages, pleasantly smiling at other passengers, who were slightly interested at the couple’s arrival. They kept going until they reached an empty cabin. They went into it, closing then locking the door behind them. Both looked at each other and began to laugh, then sat down on the edge of the slim bed and fell with their back to the wall, exhausted and laughing. 7 The cabin was small but beautiful, a slim bed to the right of the door. Directly opposite the door was a window with dark 82

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burgundy curtains with gold piping around them. Under the window was a small table big enough for a two large books. To the left of the door was a small thin wardrobe and next to that was a small door leading to a lavatory with a small toilet and smaller white sink with brass taps. The room was covered in dark wood veneer, polished a great deal, giving it a marvellous shine. There was one lamp with two heads on the wall above the bed, giving a dim yellow light under a small storage cupboard. There was also a small crystal ceiling light emitting a similar dim glow. Conrad and Adela sat as the train worked its way into a smooth rhythm. Adela after a while got up and said to Conrad, ‘We’d best make ourselves at home.’ She took off her coat and mustard gloves, opened the thin wardrobe, put her coat on a hanger then put it away. She gestured to Conrad who sprang up, taking the great fur coat off clumsily. From the inner pocket he took out the package which Ivan had given to him and the last tin of ‘Joie des Dieux’, which he pocketed. ‘What’s that?’ Adela asked, looking at the small package in Conrad’s hand. ‘A gift from Ivan. I haven’t had time to open it yet.’ With excitement and vigour, Conrad ripped open the small package. He laid out the contents on the bed next to him, the small note remained hidden in the packaging, undiscovered. ‘Wonderful, we have here our dinner!’ Conrad said with genuine glee. He placed the small bottle of liqueur on the table, the slices of bread followed by a small jar of honey, then the chocolate wrapped in paper and the small silver spoon. Conrad fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for his watch, took it out and looked at the time. ‘Ah! Teatime,’ he said with joy. Adela smiled and sat next to him on the bed. Conrad took off his gloves, now more grey then white, darted into the small 83

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lavatory to wash his hands and face, dried both with a small towel, and ran his fingers through his loose black curls, which sprang back as soon as he had finished. He looked into the small mirror above the sink, dismayed. He pulled out the tin of ‘Joie des Dieux’, opened it, and with swift skill applied it to his slightly drooping moustache, twisting it into shape. ‘Ah, perfect,’ he thought to himself, and smiled. He came with a large stride and resumed his place next to Adela. He pulled his shirt cuff out from his jacket to the end of the wrist so that a little could be seen. He opened the jar of honey, burrowed the spoon into it and pulled out a small mound, which he spread on a piece of bread with the skill of a saucier adding the final touch to a dish. He passed the slice to Adela, who ate it with delight. Conrad made a piece for himself which he consumed with great speed. Adela grabbed the chocolate, unwrapped it and broke two large chunks for them, which they ate just as quickly as the bread. Adela lay her head on Conrad’s shoulder and he rested his head on hers. Despite everything, he felt more content than he ever had, and wanted to stay with Adela in that moment. Again they laid their backs against the wall and listened to the steel wheels against the smooth rail. By now it was dark. The snow covered the mountains and hills, only frosted forest breaking through. There were small villages and homesteads, with small plumes of smoke seeping from their chimneys and dim light from their window. There was a gentle snowfall and a calm wind. Adela raised her head a little and then slowly picked up the torn packaging. She uncovered the note from Ivan and said, ‘Seems Ivan left a note for you.’ Slightly puzzled, Conrad took it and opened it. It was not from Ivan, but from Conrad’s father, Alfred. 84

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To my dear son Conrad, I have instructed good Ivan to give you this letter in the event of my death if the cause is unnatural. I believe your uncle Gerlach to be the orchestrator of any attempt against me, yet I write not for this reason. My son, as I depart this world, do not mourn, I have lived a long life and have been long without your mother. I believe you capable of proving your innocence if need be. You inherit our forefathers’ lands, and a great responsibility to the people of Zebsineberg. You have been a good son, and I hope for your greatest joy and happiness. Your loving father, Alfred Coeus von Mandle, 48th Duke of Zebsineberg Remember the stories, remember our ancestors. Conrad’s face turned from bemusement to sorrow as he read the letter from his departed father. After reading it he dejectedly looked out into the darkness. Adela took the letter from his hand and read it. She wept a little, wiping away her tears. ‘Are you all right, Conrad?’ she said, choking a little. ‘The darling man, astute as always,’ said Conrad, avoiding the question. He then answered: ‘Quite all right. You seem to be in a worse state than me.’ She leapt forward and embraced him, to shut him up and to console him. After a while Conrad said, ‘I wonder what he meant by “Remember the stories, remember our ancestors.”’ Adela released him from her embrace. ‘Maybe not to forget your family history?’ ‘No no, I think it has some other meaning,’ replied Conrad. He went to the wardrobe and took out two small crystal glasses from a high shelf and poured out some of the liqueur. He gave a glass to Adela. He drank his quickly, making himself cough. Adela drank hers smoothly, putting down the glass on the table without any trouble. 85

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Conrad stood by the wardrobe in thought, revisiting all the stories of his ancestors he so enjoyed. There was Hans Walter von Mandel, the famed hunter said to have killed the Beast of the Armin in 1659, the legendary Karl Edward ‘Ned’ von Mandel, the great writer who wrote many of the greatest works of the age. But then Conrad thought on to another story he remembered of an extraordinary ancestor, a curious tale that took place in 1226. A claimant to the duchy from a neighbouring kingdom, Ingomar Ludwig von Kleist-Mandel (a sub-branch of the Mandel family), seized the throne of Zebsineberg from its rightful heir Kasper Béraud von Mandel. After Ingomar took the throne, Kasper challenged him to a duel to decide the fate of the Dukedom, invoking the ancient law of Duel of Succession. The duel took place and Kasper triumphed, reclaiming his rightful inheritance. A sudden thought came to Conrad and he began to smile. Adela looked up. ‘What is it? You’ve had an idea!’ ‘Quite. Flawed, but an idea…’ ‘Don’t leave me in suspense. What is it?’ Conrad retold the story to Adela, who was enthralled. ‘So your intention is to challenge Gerlach to a duel?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, with a hint of apprehension. ‘To your home we must go then,’ said Adela with certainty. ‘I suppose. Gosh! I hope I can best my uncle.’ ‘You can, you fool,’ she said, pushing his shoulder. ‘Thank you, darling Adela. We shall see.’ Conrad took off his jacket, bow-tie and starched collar, removed his braces so they hung by his knees. Adela emulated with her jacket and so forth. Conrad lay on top of the sheets and Adela followed him. They lay together in embrace. Conrad got his great coat and put it over the both of them to keep warm. 86

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Before this journey they had never shown such loving affection for each other, but something had changed. Conrad looked through the window into the warm purple and black melded sky. Some stars shone through the thin mist. His eyes became heavy and so too Adela’s, and both slept soundly through the calm night. The snowfall became even fainter, and the train stayed course to Hochstadt.

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A Collection of Extraordinary Tales: An anthology by the First Story Group at Holland Park School