May. 3rd, 2011 11:27 am
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"I think you have me confused with someone else, madam," I said as politely as I could.

She took off her orange-framed sunglasses and looked at me critically from under her sun hat. Someone splashed noisily into the pool and spattered us with water. There were shrieks and laughter from people sitting closer. She was middle-aged, good-looking but starting to show signs of sagging, with something of the look of Katherine Hepburn.

"No, I'm sure of it," she said. "You're the guy who travels around with that other one, the funny one, detective or whatever. Captain...Eastbourne?...Ramsgate?...Trowbridge? of those names."

I glanced involuntarily at "the funny one," apparently asleep in a deckchair with his hat over his face, and positioned well back from the splash zone.

"I need your help," the woman continued. "My pearls--"

"I'm frightfully sorry and all that, madam," I said, "but I'm afraid we can't help you. Have you tried the hotel detective?"

She snorted. "Horrid little man," she said. "Tried to tell me I'd just misplaced them. I tell you I put them back in their case last night after the party, and now they're gone. I may be a little hung over, but I know what I did and what I didn't do."

"Well, then, the police--"

She threw up her hands. "Impossible! I can't even make them understand. Those pearls were a gift admirer. They're of great sentimental value to me, quite apart from their financial worth."

I bit my tongue. "Well, madam," I said, "I can't promise anything, but I will tell my friend and see what he says."

"Oh, thank you, thank you," the woman gushed. "I tell you, I don't know why I even came here. This country is really shockingly poorly run. There was some kind of a phone box outside the hotel, and it even said POLICE on it, in English, but you know it was locked! I couldn't even get in."

I soothed her and sent her on her way looking vaguely reassured. As she walked away I saw a loop of pale, nacreous spheres protruding from the hem of her swimsuit at the back. Presumably she'd discover them as soon as she sat down. No need to disturb my "friend" after all, enveloped in his ridiculous coat and scarf on what must have been the hottest day of the year, and doubtless only pretending to sleep.

A shout from the pool made me turn my head, and there she was, at the top of the diving board, waving at me. I took a moment to drink in the sight; the sun striking coppery highlights from her dripping hair, that smile lighting up her whole face, brightening the day. I smiled and waved back, and she blew me a kiss before going into a perfect swan dive.

I knew I would always remember her that way.
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The sun was setting over the marshes as the lead rider reined in her steed. A little way off, a raven called hoarsely from a single alder tree.

A low murmur from behind her. The men were discontented, the horses probably even more so. They had been riding for several hours, and the grazing in this rank, boggy land was poor. It had been time to turn back long ago.

"A problem, captain?" Gove's manner was all obsequiousness, but his voice held an edge she knew only too well. Her appointment, so recent, so unprecedented, had disappointed him. Surely he must know, she thought, that he was not officer material; too stolid, too slow and above all too cruel. But then, was she?

"I--" The raven croaked again, cutting off her thought. She started again. "It seems the trail is cold. We will return to the city and mount a better-equipped pursuit in the morning."

More murmuring. She caught the words "...over the border by then..." and turned sharply in the saddle to fix the man who had spoken with a cold stare.

"In that case," she said, "I am sure the Proarch will be communicating with his royal brother in the West, who will doubtless be inclined to assist us in the apprehension of this thief...or be suspected of complicity. Now, let us by all means go home. I will see to it that you are rewarded for your efforts."

"Our reward is service," Gove pointed out sanctimoniously, "to the Proarch and to your good self, captain."

"Of course," she agreed, managing a thin smile, "but an extra barrel or two of old ale does no harm." This raised a ragged cheer from the men, and Gove looked disgusted. You may pout, she thought, but you'll take your turn at the bung with the rest, that I'm sure of. "Five minutes to empty your bladders."

With some eagerness, the men dismounted, their worn boots sinking into the soft ground, hands already fumbling at groins. Nobody watched as she made her way towards the tree; she had taken pains to establish her need for privacy at these times, to the satisfaction even of Gove. The raven eyed her beadily as she circled round behind the trunk.

She reached into her jerkin and pulled out a cloth-wrapped bundle tied with string, holding it up at shoulder height, casting a glance back at the men, now surrounded in a cloud of steam. "Take it," she hissed. "Quickly."

The raven stretched down and took the string in its beak.

"And next time tell him I want definite arrangements made for pickup," she snapped. "This was a complete shambles. I do have professional standards, you know."

The raven wisely chose not to reply. It took to the air and flapped off, heading into the sun, which was now almost on the horizon and red as an apple.

With a sigh of regret for her own bursting bladder, she refastened her jerkin and strolled casually back to the men. The ride home would be torture, but the payment would be worth it.

Now it was just a question of finding a safe way to quit her job.
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"Now I marvel, Mr Dashet," said his wife, "that you can sit there reading, when you know very well that we have no less than five daughters, all of marriageable age, and not on the whole ill-favoured."

"The fact, madam," said Mr Dashet peaceably, "while affording me no small measure of gratification, does not impinge unduly upon my inner tranquility."

"But do you not feel that it is time for them to chuse the men they shall marry?"

"Indeed, they are very much underfoot, in the library and the garden and any where a man may seek an hour or two of repose; but for my part, I rejoice in their presence. Only consider, my dear Mrs Dashet, how different our lives might have been. If, for instance, the government had chosen to finance the late war by borrowing, at ruinous interest, some thirty or forty millions from private banks; and if it had then foolishly sought to repay that debt by increasing taxes, removing vast amounts of money from circulation, compelling millions of people and hundreds of businesses to contract private debt in their turn, and reducing all but the very wealthiest to virtual penury. Why, we might have been forced to counsel our dear girls to seek for husbands, not on the basis of the heart's affections, but purely--if I may so misuse the word--for financial security and to lessen the drain on our own resources; a course which would have gone to my heart most sorely. How fortunate we are that, instead, the leaders of our nation elected to reflect the growing material prosperity of these islands by placing our economy on a firm footing of solid credit, thus ensuring its stability for the foreseeable future and enabling us all to continue to enjoy the fruits of our labours and to plan with assurance for whatever may come, and incidentally freeing our daughters to pursue whatever course of life seems most good to them, whether it include marriage or no."

"I confess, my dear," rejoined his wife, "I have not the least idea what you are talking about; for certainly nothing could stand in the way of Mary's ambition to be a great scientist, nor Lizzy's destined fame as a novelist, Jane's desire to travel and explore all sorts of benighted foreign countries, Lydia's yearning to go on the stage, nor yet Kitty's determination to become an astronaut, whatever that may be; nothing, I say, unless their husbands' wishes be set in opposition: which is why I repeat, Mr Dashet, that we must bestir ourselves and find them husbands, and that as soon as may be. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman of wayward inclinations and in possession of sufficient fortune to indulge them must be in want of a husband to keep her in check."

To this Mr Dashet contented himself with a faint, responsive murmur, and retired behind his book once again; and Mrs Dashet set about her plans with a will.

[Strictly speaking a snippet, not a story, but it was what came; will it do?]
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Somewhere out there is a city with no name, where there are no signs on the streets, no numbers on the houses, and no names on the shops. They do say it was created by a madman who was tired of apologising and explaining, which proves he was a madman, for what man ever gets tired of doing that? They say he built a huge machine that could take him anywhere he told it, and if the place didn't exist, why, it would make it up for him, so it would, and he told it to take him somewhere quiet.

The buildings in that city are big and black, and black is the river that rolls sluggishly through it, and black is the wear of the people who walk its streets, never speaking a word. They see what needs to be done and they do it. When they're hungry, they go into a cafe and are fed. They never fight, never hurt, because fights come from misunderstanding, and misunderstanding, unlike understanding, needs words. And at the end of the day, the men, if they want to, go down to the river bank, and then, if she wants to, a woman will take a man on board her boat, and pole out to the middle of the river, and then there are sounds in the night, but never a word.

They sent some people in to fetch this madman out, and it took them a while, it did. And they found a curious thing. At first they found the silence oppressive, the unspeaking stares of the people unnerving, and when they spoke to each other it sounded too loud. And then little by little, one by one, they began to understand, and they began to see that no matter how skilful you are at stringing words together, all they ever do in the end is trap you in unintended meanings and betray you with false friends. And one by one they started to wander off, and to think maybe they knew what they needed to do, and to fancy themselves in black.

But their leader called them to order, and they went and found the madman, which was a good thing for him, because--and this is the sad part--he wasn't happy. He couldn't belong. He'd made this place from his own soul to hide in, but he couldn't be of it. He could imagine a wordless understanding, but he couldn't share it. So they brought him back to a world where people talk to him, if it's only to ask are the straps too tight, and there he apologises and explains all day long to the walls of his room, because they're easier to talk to than the people of his city.

But the city's still out there, with no signs on the streets and no numbers on the houses and no names over the shops, and the people still live their lives, doing what needs to be done, sharing an understanding deeper than words. And I'm thinking sometimes, it might be a nice place to visit. But I wouldn't want to live there.

[Edited for consensuality]
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Debbie Ohi linked to this on FB. I may try it, though not officially with the signing up and everything...I learned that lesson with NaNoWriMo.


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