Fractal Myth

Paperbag Stories 6-10.

Number 6

[Michelle Chapman, ©January 2002]

SETTING: 'a suburban backyard'
PROPS: 'a stuffed toy dog'
CHARACTERS: 'an old man, badly needing a bath'
QUOTE: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, English poet 1809-92, In Memoriam A.H.H. (1850) canto 23:
"And Thought leapt out to wed with Thought
Ere Thought could wed itself with Speech."

Dave had let himself go since his wife's death. It wasn't that he had consciously planned to stop shaving and showering and taking care of himself. It was just that he had always done things to please her and now she was gone there didn't seem to be much point. Besides, the dog didn't mind. In fact, Laddie seemed to prefer things this way, spending twenty-four hours a day at Dave's side, sleeping on the furniture and eating the same food as the boss. He'd never had it so good, or so Dave told him. Dave seemed to be spending a lot of time talking to Laddie lately.

"You don't mind if I smell a bit, do you, mate? Just makes me more interesting in your eyes, doesn't it? And at least it keeps those interfering old busybodies away. We don't need them, coming round here cackling like a lot of old hens, telling me how Judy would feel if she could see me now. What would they know? She'd understand, just like you do." His hand absentmindedly stroked the dog's long, soft ears, and a cold nose nuzzled at his knee. The pair were sitting on the cement steps leading from the laundry to the backyard of the house Dave and Judy had bought soon after their marriage. It was their favourite place to sit, cool but sunny. There they could hear all the sounds of the neighbourhood and feel they were still part of the community without having to interact with it, and there Dave could stare blankly at the clothesline, half imagining he heard Judy telling him to 'move his big butt and let her out, or did he think she was going to stand there holding a heavy basket of washing for the rest of the day while he daydreamed?'

"Excuse me, sir?"

Dave jumped at the intrusion of a real voice into his reverie. A tear-stained, freckled face was peering over the fence.

"Go away," Dave growled, in his best 'angry old man' voice. Laddie instantly stood, the hairs on his back rising. Then he recognised the young boy and went towards the interloper wagging his tail. "Traitor", Dave muttered, but in spite of himself he was curious. The boy had lived next door for his whole life, and he had never dared to make such a direct approach before. Even when Judy used to offer him freshly baked biscuits he would shyly shake his head and run away. Dave had seen him making friends with Laddie through a hole in the fence, but he had pretended not to notice. He had been a shy little boy himself, and as Judy always said, if she hadn't made all the moves he would have been content to admire her from a distance for the rest of his life. This memory softened him a little, and his voice was a touch kinder as he demanded to know what the boy wanted.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir," the boy whispered politely. "It's Jackie, you see?"

"No. I don't see. Who is Jackie?"

"Jackie is ... is my dog," the boy explained falteringly.

"I didn't know you had a dog." Dave said. The boy burst into tears.

"I don't. Not really. Mum's allergic, you see, so we can't have one. But at least I had Jackie, and even if he wasn't real, he was mine. My Grandad made him for me, a long time ago, but now he's gone, and Grandad's dead too, and I'm so lonely ..." The sobs which had punctuated his story became overwhelming and shook his small frame so he could hardly cling to the fence.

Dave smiled. "Stop perching up there like a parrot and come over here to talk to me. You'll give Laddie a crook neck if he's got to keep staring up at you like that. Come on over. But ask your mother first."

The boy swallowed nervously as he thought this over. "Mum's not home. She's working. She doesn't get home 'till six."

"Well, leave her a note telling her where you are, then come and keep us company while you wait for her."

"Umm, I guess that'll be OK." He didn't sound very sure, but the temptation of having someone to talk to was obviously greater than his trepidation. A few minutes later he was tapping softly at the side gate.

"Come in, come in," Dave said, holding out his hand. "I'm Dave."

"Adam", the boy replied, placing his small hand in Dave's. His nose wrinkled momentarily, but he gave no other sign of noticing his host's unpleasant odour. "Hallo, Laddie." The two greeted each other with enthusiastic exuberance, then Adam sat down on the grass with Laddie curled at his side.

"So, tell me about Jackie?" Dave asked, once they were comfortably settled. Adam looked up trustingly, and the whole story spilled out. Jackie was a cloth dog which Adam's grandad had made. He was Adam's pride and joy, the shy young boy's only friend and confidante.

"He used to go everywhere with me and we always had fun, but last week as I was walking home from school, some bigger boys were teasing me about him. It got so bad I couldn't stand it anymore, so I threw Jackie away. My best friend ~ and I threw him away." Adam broke down again.

"Why didn't you just go back and get him later when the others were gone?" Dave asked.

"I tried," Adam sobbed, "but it was no use. Those bullies have got him. They nailed him to the wall of their clubhouse by his ears. I don't know what to do. I can't leave him there, and I can't get him back by myself. Mum says you used to be a soldier, like my Grandad. He would know what to do. He always knew what to do. Not like me. I just get scared. 'Rabbit', the big boys call me. Well, I'm not going to be a rabbit anymore. I want you to teach me to be a soldier so I can get Jackie back."

Dave smiled, impressed by the boy's determination. He knew better than to ask about Adam's dad. He and Judy had often commented on the ever-changing stream of boyfriends who visited Adam's pretty young mother, both hoping she would 'find someone nice and settle down ~ for the boy's sake.' Dave and Judy had never been able to have children of their own. Judy had compensated by mothering every child in the neighbourhood, but Dave had always found children disconcerting and tended to hide from them behind a deliberately gruff exterior. Judy often teased him about it, saying that one day a child would smile and he would find himself unable to resist. Looking at Adam now, Dave mentally tipped his hat to her. He always knew he had married a smart woman.

"Right," Dave said. "It sounds like we have an emergency rescue mission, Laddie. Just like the old days, hey boy?" Laddie wagged his tail. With renewed vigour, the three marched into the house and began preparations. Fifteen minutes later they marched out the front door. Dave was clean and freshly shaven. His uniform, neatly ironed as Judy had left it, still fitted perfectly. She had always been so proud of him on Anzac Day. Adam wore Dave's slouch hat at a jaunty angle, and a row of service medals adorned his small chest. Across his back he had slung a hammer from Dave's toolbox, tied on a leather strap. Even Laddie wore his 'butch' collar, thick leather with metal spikes.

"Well," Dave asked as they strode down the street, stoically ignoring the curious glances which followed them, "do you think we look convincing enough?"

"We'll soon know," Adam answered nervously. "The clubhouse is just around the next corner, opposite that park."

No further words passed between them as they strode into the next street and stood facing the enemy. The bigger boys' clubhouse was a shack cobbled together from scraps of timber and corrugated iron. Dave could see several worried-looking teenagers peering out from behind the rags tacked over gaps in the construction. It looked like Adam had a full house! Dave and Adam glanced at each other, Dave immediately recognising by the set of Adam's shoulders that the boy needed to perform the actual rescue for himself.

With his new friends standing guard, Adam bravely crossed the road. No-one moved to stop him and no sound came from inside the rickety shack as he carefully moved a milk crate to the right position, climbed onto it, and gently levered out the nails pinning Jackie to the wall. With Jackie safely tucked under his arm he replaced the milk crate, turned his back on the clubhouse, marched back to Dave and saluted him smartly. Then, with Adam's small, sweaty hand clasped in Dave's, the pair casually strolled back home, Laddie and Jackie displaying matching, broad doggie grins.

Number 7

[Michelle Chapman, ©February 2002]

SETTING: 'a graveyard ringed with elaborate wrought-iron bars'
PROPS: 'a teacup painted with cherry blossom'
CHARACTERS: 'a young man with one leg shorter than the other'
QUOTE: Aristotle, Greek philosopher, 384-322 BC, Nicomachean Ethics, book 1, lines 1098a 16-20:
"We make war that we may live in peace."

Darcy flicked away the tiny ant exploring her ankle and began idly inspecting her ponytail for split ends. It was already quarter past five. She sighed. What was she doing here anyway? True, when Simon had suggested they meet at the old cemetery after school, the idea had seemed terribly romantic and exciting. Now, after two hours waiting for him to turn up, she was more than ready to change her mind. Fifteen minutes more, she decided. After all, he was the cutest guy in her year, and tomorrow she was bound to be beseiged by curious friends demanding to know the gory details. If he didn't turn up, her reputation was really going to suffer.

The grounds were largely deserted, and Darcy felt very peaceful lounging on the grass between the massive roots of a Moreton Bay fig. Further down the hill she could see regular rows of headstones in the modern section of the cemetery and on her left, the huge sprawl of historical graves with their lopsided tablets and broken angels. To her right was the war memorial section, filled with rank upon rank of neat white crosses. Darcy watched an old woman in a sky-blue dress carrying a posy of white daisies walking slowly between the lines. Now and then she paused by a cross, bending to read the name and touching the white-painted wood as though it were the shoulder of an old friend. Finally she stopped and knelt beside one of the crosses.

Hearing a noise behind her, Darcy turned to see a baby hare emerge from under a rosebush. The little creature froze when it saw her watching, its long black-tipped ears quivering nervously.

"Hello," Darcy said, and the hare twitched, so close Darcy could almost touch its soft agouti fur. The temptation was too great and she slowly stretched her fingers towards it. The baby hare leaped in fright and before Darcy could react, it was gone. She stared after it for a few moments, but, failing to find any trace of it, she lost interest and turned back to watch the old woman.

Something was wrong. Even from that distance, Darcy could see that the old woman was no longer kneeling by the cross. Instead, she seemed to be slumped awkwardly to one side. Darcy stood up and looked around. The only other living inhabitant of the cemetery was a teenage boy, about Darcy's age. For a moment she thought it was Simon, and her heart bounced madly. Then she realised that it couldn't possibly be him, because this boy was running from the graveyard, not towards it. As he reached the elaborate gate, the boy stopped and pulled back the hood of his jacket. Darcy gasped. It was Simon. No-one else could have the same crazy dyed-orange hair cut in uneven spikes.

Overcome with indignation, Darcy shouted out to him. Simon jumped and, without looking back, tore off down the street at top speed. Darcy began to follow him, but then she remembered the old woman. She was still slumped where Darcy had last seen her. There was no question about who needed her more. Darcy swore silently at Simon. If the old woman had had a heart attack or something, she could really have used his help. As she ran down the hill towards the old woman, Darcy hoped that maybe Simon had seen the problem and had been running to get assistance ~ but if that was the case, why had he been so startled when she yelled?

It took Darcy less than two minutes to reach the spot where the old woman lay. Struggling to remember the first-aid classes she had laughed her way through, Darcy carefully checked to see whether the old woman was breathing. She was, but only very faintly. There was a deep gash on her forehead and her thin grey hair was matted with blood. Darcy looked around desperately, but there was no-one else to be seen. Patting the old woman's hand reassuringly, Darcy explained that she was going to have to run to the public phone near the gate. She was pretty sure the woman was unconscious but it felt wrong to just leave her there alone again.

Sprinting towards the phone, Darcy prayed with all her might. "Please, Lord, please, let the phone be working." Most of her friends had mobile phones, but Darcy's mother firmly believed they caused cancer and had refused to consider the idea. As a result, Darcy knew only too well how few public telephones had escaped the attention of vandals. This time she was lucky, and within moments Darcy was panting out her report to the calm voice on the other end. The voice promised that an ambulance was on its way and suggested that she go back and wait beside the injured woman.

Sitting beside the old woman again, Darcy noticed several pieces of broken china scattered about. She picked up one piece, then another, slotting them gently together so she could see the pattern. It had been a delicate china tea-cup, finely painted with pink cherry blossom and rimmed with gold. As she gathered up all the pieces, Darcy noticed that the woman still held her fresh posy of daisies, while a withered bunch of the same flowers was crushed beneath her shoulder. There was no sign of the small shoulder bag the woman had been carrying when Darcy first noticed her. Opening her own bag, Darcy carefully wrapped the pieces of tea-cup in a tissue and packed them into her lunchbox.

"It was an engagement present from my fiance. That's why I use it for his daisies."

Darcy almost dropped the box in surprise. Looking down, she found that the old woman had regained consciousness and was looking dazedly at her.

"Don't try to move. You've been badly hurt. I've called an ambulance. It should be here soon." Then, belatedly realising what the woman had said, Darcy hurried to explain. "I wasn't going to keep it. I just thought it was so beautiful, it was a shame to see it get broken. I was going to mend it for you and put it back here. I think I've got all the pieces."

"Thank you, dear." The old woman's voice was weak, but Darcy tried to keep her talking, hoping she would stay conscious until the ambulance arrived. She didn't ask what had happened to cause the old woman's injury. Remembering Simon's rapid retreat, she was almost certain she could guess. His 'bad boy' status had been part of his attraction, but she had always thought he was just playing up to the crowd. Now she knew the truth and she felt lucky to have escaped. The old woman began speaking again, telling Darcy about her fiance. They had become engaged at the age of eighteen, two days after the outbreak of World War II. They had agreed to wait until hostilities ended before they got married, and the young man enlisted in the navy. Four months after he sailed, the tea-cup had arrived, carefully packed in straw, in a wooden box. The note with it said that he loved her and that one as lovely as she was deserved to sip nectar from fragrant blossoms. However, until he returned to carry her off to fairyland, this blossom-painted cup would have to do! Three weeks later a telegram arrived, coldly informing her that her dreams of happiness were over.

Darcy read the name on the cross. 'Jonathon Reed.'

"He used to call me Daisy." The old woman was almost whispering now, and Darcy had to lean close to hear what she was saying. "He said he had to go and fight to make the world safe for our children. I couldn't think of marrying anyone else once he was gone so I never had children. It's probably for the best. They'd only worry now."

Darcy blinked back tears. She couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound trite, so she simply covered the old woman's hand with her own and they waited in silence for the ambulance to arrive.

Later, after the woman had been safely bundled on a stretcher and carried away, Darcy stood alone by the ornate wrought-iron fence that surrounded the cemetery. She had been too worried to let herself think about the old woman's story, but now the full tragedy of it overcame her. She sagged against the entwined iron vines with their cold bunches of grapes and incongruous flowers.

"Are you OK?"

Darcy started. The voice was warm and friendly, and she turned around to look into a pair of equally warm and friendly blue eyes under a shock of brown hair.

"I'm fine. I just want to be alone," she hiccupped.

"I don't think that's a good idea," the boy replied. "I saw what happened. You've had a pretty hard day!"

"What do you mean 'you saw what happened'?" Darcy was furious. "You saw that old woman lying there and me not knowing what to do, but you couldn't be bothered coming to help until now, when I guess you think you can get something out of it. You know what you can do with yourself, don't you?"

"I'm sorry you think that." The boy sounded hurt and, looking at the vulnerability in his face, Darcy wished she'd held her tongue. "I was up in the fig tree, you see? I wasn't spying on you. Honest I wasn't. I sit up there for hours and listen to the birds and watch ~ you can see the whole cemetery from up there. I would have come to help you straight away, but it takes me a long time to climb down again." The boy slapped his hand against his leg and Darcy suddenly noticed that it wasn't only his smile that was lopsided. One of his legs was much shorter than the other. "Then once I was down, you were already back from calling the ambulance, and I could see the old lady was conscious and talking to you. I figured if I came over then, I'd just ruin the good job you were doing of keeping her calm. You were magnificent."

Darcy smiled in spite of herself. She wasn't normally one to fall for flattery, but this boy sounded so sincere. She'd never met anyone who sounded so serious and looked so cheerful all at the same time. Thoughts of the near miss she'd had with Simon floated through her mind and she pushed them down again. This boy was nothing like Simon. She instantly felt there was no pretension about him. He was not trying to be anything other than exactly what he was.

"What's your name?" she asked, suddenly noticing the way tiny freckles danced across the bridge of his nose.

"Jim." He glanced up at the sky, where dark clouds were beginning to gather. "If you don't mind being seen with a crippled stranger, I'd really like to buy you a cup of tea."

Yesterday Darcy would have scoffed at the idea of going out for a cup of tea as a first date, but today it sounded perfect. They set off down the street together, Darcy slowing her normally long strides to match Jim's halting steps while she told him of her suspicions about Simon, of the old woman's romantic history and of the beautiful broken teacup, painted with pink cherry blossom, as delicate as love and as fragile as life.

Number 8

[Michelle Chapman, ©March 2002]

SETTING: 'a lobby with polished marble tiles and plastic potplants'
PROPS: 'a blue coat with tarnished silver buttons'
CHARACTERS: 'a woman whose face is red and puffy from crying'
QUOTE: William Shakespeare, English playwright, 1564-1616, Macbeth (1606), act 5, scene 1, line 74:
"What's done cannot be undone."

As I shouldered my way through the glass revolving door, I shuddered. Entering the cold, marble-tiled lobby always had this effect on me. I'd been working there for six months now, and while my cramped little cubicle on the fifth floor was beginning to feel like home, the lobby seemed as alien as ever. (My ideas for making it more welcome and less intimidating, surreptitiously slipped into the employees' suggestion box, had been conspicuously absent at the last staff meeting. When I mentioned this to one of my colleagues, he blinked in amazement. 'Do you know how much those Italian tiles cost? They spent almost as much on that lobby as they did on the rest of the building combined. I hope you didn't put your name on the paper.') I pulled my overcoat tighter and prepared to cross the lobby's arctic wastes.

Halfway to the elevator, I stopped. Strange. I didn't remember those benches huddled against the wall, or those plastic ferns propped up in hideous brass urns. They certainly hadn't been there on Friday afternoon. I shrugged and continued to the elevator.

I nearly made it, but I was unfortunately too well-trained not to freeze in my tracks the moment I heard that bullhorn voice behind me.

"SMITH!" he bellowed.

"Yes, sir. Jane Kelly, sir."

"Smith, I've got a job for you." He waited a nanosecond to make sure I was suitably impressed. "I've been told, Smith, that you're responsible for certain interior decorating suggestions. Is that true, Smith?"

I looked around. Sure enough, there was Dan Stevens, trying to blend inconspicuously into a potted plastic fern. I made a mental note: no more confidential conversations with workmates, no matter how good-looking they were.

"Yes, sir."

"Right." To my complete surprise, he put his arm around my shoulder and led me to his private office. I'd never heard of anyone going in there and still turning up to work the next day. I swallowed hard as the door closed behind me. "Smith," he said, once he was sure we were alone, "I need your help." Through the glass windows that overlooked the lobby I could see Dan nonchalantly pretending to polish a brass urn. He was obviously as confused as I was. I guessed he had counted on my getting into trouble with the boss, leaving him in the perfect position to claim my cubicle (which, coincidentally, commanded an intermittent view through the door of the ladies' lavatory.) A heavy odour of halitosis reminded me that the boss was still talking. "... my wife?"

"Sorry, sir?" I hadn't a clue what he'd been talking about, and there he was waiting for an answer.

"The rumours about my wife," he repeated. "I thought they were common knowledge in this place." Aah. Things began to click into place. I'd heard about his wife, of course. She had been a large cheerful woman, but her pet poodle's death in a yachting accident three weeks ago had left her inconsolable. The jokes making the rounds of the twelve-storey building were pretty cruel, and I suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for this overweight, red-faced man who called everyone Smith because that was how his father had run the company before him.

"I don't listen to gossip, sir" was what I started to say, until I realised how smarmy it sounded. "I... I'm sorry, sir. But how can I help?"

"I need to get her doing something again. Anything. I don't care what it is. I just can't stand to see her sitting there anymore." He was almost in tears, and I could feel my own eyes starting to fill.

"Is... was your wife keen on interior decorating, sir?" He smiled gratefully at me.

"Yes. Yes. That's the kind of thing. Something with lots of organising and choosing and shopping involved. She loves that stuff. At least, she used to. She hasn't been inside a shop since it happened. She won't talk to any of her friends. She won't even talk to me. I just... I think you might have something with these ideas here. She can't stand that lobby. Said pretty much the same things you said here." He looked down at the slip of paper on his desk. "'Cold, impersonal, inhuman.'" He looked sadly out the window. "Personally, I like it," he said. "It's easy to clean, it looks expensive, and it impresses foreign clients. What more do you want from a lobby? Still, if it will help Maggie break out of this funk she's in... I'm afraid we're going to have to set up a bit of a conspiracy here. If she thinks this is my idea she'll resist it all the way. No..." He scratched at his chin. "I'm going to tell her that the directors got hold of your suggestion and demanded the lobby be redecorated. She knows I hate this sort of fluff and flourish, and she'll expect me to want to save money, so she won't be at all surprised when I dump you in her lap and tell her she's got a job to do. Even if she gets up on her high-horse and refuses to be involved it will be an improvement, but I don't think she will. It's a challenge, and she's never turned a challenge down yet. There's only one thing left to be settled." He stopped and looked at me. "Miss Kelly," he asked, "will you help us?"

I didn't hesitate. "I've never been known to turn down a challenge before, either, Mr Groller. When do I start?"

"She'll be in my office in about half-an-hour. I'll set the scene, and then I'll have you paged. Thank you for your assistance." He shook my hand. "It will be made worth your while. ... and Miss Kelly?" I turned, my hand already reaching for the doorknob. He winked. "Tell Mr Stevens I entrusted you with delivering news of his promotion. He's to move to cubicle 42 on the sixth floor." I must have looked surprised, because with a conspiratorial grin he elaborated. "That particular cubicle has a magnificent view of a narrow alley and a prime collection of rubbish bins. He will be pleased, don't you think?"

"I can't wait to tell him. Thank you, sir."

"There's no need to keep your new job secret. The whole building's going to know soon enough anyway. Let's get in quick before they start making up their own versions of events. OK?"

"Of course, sir." Then I remembered. "Excuse me, sir? I noticed several new additions to the lobby as I came in this morning. Are they to become a permanent part of the new design?"

"My oath, no." He laughed. "I had the janitor pull them out of the basement this morning. I figured it couldn't hurt to make the place look as bad as possible. Now, you'd better get back to your cubicle. If my wife sees you here, she'll smell a rat."

Almost exactly 30 minutes later, the speaker on the wall sputtered into life. "Floor 5, cubicle 23, please report to Mr Groller. Floor 5, cubicle 23, please report to Mr Groller." It sputtered again, and died. As I picked up my coat and purse and moved towards the elevator I could feel several hundred eyes boring into my back.

"Remember," a voice quipped from the other side of the room, "fluorescent green lino and purple lounge chairs. We want it to look nice and homey." Actually, my new duties had aroused very little comment. I guess I wasn't the only one who secretly pitied Mrs Groller.

Face to face with the woman herself, I began to doubt my powers of persuasion. When the boss introduced me, she stopped sobbing long enough to extend a limp hand for me to shake, but immediately afterwards she buried her face back in a box of tissues. Mr Groller looked at me and hopelessly shook his head. I grinned as reassuringly as I knew how and set to work.

"Shall we go, Mrs Groller? We have a lot of ground to cover today. I believe we'll be taking your car? What a treat for me. I've never been driven by a chauffeur before." Chattering inanely, I somehow managed to coax her outside and into the car. The chauffeur had obviously been given his instructions in advance, because as soon as we were seated, the car pulled smoothly away and headed towards the strip where all the trendiest antique stores were located. Looking across at Mrs Groller, I noticed how the weeks of weeping had somehow managed to shrink her eyes until they were almost buried in her puffy red cheeks. She sniffed loudly.

"I'm sorry to disturb your work", she almost whimpered. "I'm sure you must do something very important."

"Nothing as important to your husband as getting you happy and well again," I said, deciding on the spur of the moment to dispense with the charade. "He's really worried about you, you know?"

"I know. He's a good man." She started crying again.

"Please, Mrs Groller, won't you tell me what's wrong?"

"Did he tell you to ask that?" she demanded suspiciously.

"Certainly not. Do you think he'd authorise his employees to intrude on your privacy? No. As far as he's concerned, my job is simply to help you redecorate the lobby, in the hope that the activity will rekindle your enjoyment of life. My questions are purely my own, and I'm asking because I can't believe all this grief is over a dog - no matter how special she was. It just doesn't make sense, if you'll excuse me saying so."

To my surprise she stopped crying and looked closely at me. I noticed for the first time that her eyes were an unusual blue-green. "Do you know, in three weeks, you are the only person who hasn't been scared to speak honestly to me? I'm glad Carl chose you for this job." To relive the tension and fill the empty gap in conversation I explained how I had 'volunteered' by complaining about the lobby. "It's awful, isn't it?" she agreed. "Don't worry my dear. For your sake I'll be sensible and we'll soon have that mausoleum shipshape." I didn't dare inquire further into the cause of her depression. I figured she would either tell me in her own time, or she wouldn't.

"STOP!" she yelled suddenly, and the car instantly screeched to a halt. I caught a glimpse of the driver's grin in the rear-view mirror and realised she must have done this before.

"What is it?" I asked, peering out through the tinted glass.

"There - there in the window. That painting. It's perfect!" I craned my neck to see what she was pointing at, but she was already out of the car, dragging me after her. The tears were long gone. I couldn't work it out. Then I saw the picture. It was a huge oil painting of an old ship's captain, a bushy white beard almost obscuring the tarnished silver buttons on his royal blue coat. His cocked hat was tucked under his arm, and around his feet curled a faithful poodle. "Yes," she enthused. "This is going to hang on the wall opposite the window to my husband's office. We'll choose the rest of the furnishings to compliment it. Carl will be pleased: we'll be able to keep his tiles. That green and white marble will fit nicely into a nautical theme."

I could contain my bewilderment no longer. "I don't understand!" I exclaimed, thinking that perhaps the entire lobby was to be made into a shrine commemorating the lost poodle. She was going to make it feel more like a mausoleum than ever, not to mention the fact that my fellow employees would never let me live it down.

"It's alright, dear. I haven't gone mad. Honestly I haven't. Come and have a cup of tea with me and I'll tell you my whole plan." Seated in the tiny cafe nursing my cup of peppermint tea, I noticed that the puffiness was already subsiding from her cheeks and she looked positively mischievous. "I know you're honest," she said, "but can I trust you?" She looked searchingly at me for a few moments before answering her own question in the affirmative. "I think I can. Well, dear, you've worked for my husband for long enough now to know how much time he spends in that office of his. In the twenty-three years we've been married, I think I've actually spent seven of them in his company - and that's overestimating it! I never see him, and when I do, he's so preoccupied he just pretends to admire what I've bought and then vanishes into his study to go over another interminable list of figures. So you see, you were right. I loved Gigi dearly, she was my best friend and I was devastated to lose her, but it seems that something good may yet come of her death. Carl thinks he was responsible. He feels guilty, and as a result, he is being more attentive to me than he has been since we were courting. If losing Gigi and three weeks of tears are all it takes to bring my husband home to me, I'm not going to complain. But nor am I going to leave anything to chance. You, my dear, are a godsend. I never thought I'd be allowed to get my hands on that lobby, and now I have, I'm going to make the most of it."

I applauded her initiative, but I was still confused. "Why that picture?" I asked. "Surely you could find something nicer?"

"I don't want anything nice," she explained. "Think about it. If I put this on the wall opposite Carl's window, every time he looks into the lobby - which he does often - it will be the first thing he sees, and it's going to make him think of me, and it's going to make him feel guilty. With any luck he'll start to hate it so much he won't want to come anywhere near it - which means he'll be spending a lot more time at home with me."

Once we were both on the same wavelength, things progressed relatively quickly. I found a series of throw rugs embroidered with lurid sea-shells, and a hamper full of flags; she unearthed a stash of discarded lifebuoys; and together we chose long lengths of rope in various weights. "Won't all this look a bit out of place in a business lobby?" I asked, somewhat torn between pleasing Mrs Groller and wondering what Mr Groller was going to say about it.

"What's the name of the building you work in?" I had to admit I didn't know. "If you look at the brass plate on the outside wall, you will discover that it is called the 'South Seas Trade Emporium.' For nearly eighty years they had their home in that building. Carl's father bought it from them when he needed to move to larger premises. I think it's time to revive a bit of history."

By the end of that afternoon we had finished making our purchases. We had something to eat, and waited for the building to clear. When everyone had left, including Mr Groller, we followed the cleaning crew inside. With their help, and that of the night-watchmen, Mrs Groller soon had the lobby strewn with rugs and coils of rope. Lifebouys and flags decorated the walls. Finally, long lengths of fishing net festooned the Captain's portrait, which was hung exactly where Mrs Groller had envisaged it. She checked the view from her husband's office and pronounced the effect to be devastating. "Now all I've got to do is wait for him to turn up at work tomorrow. He won't be able to get home to me fast enough." She giggled like a child, her blue-green eyes twinkling. "I really think I've got him this time. Now all I've got to do is keep up the act for one more night. If I suddenly come home cheerful now, he's going to know the whole thing was put on for his benefit. No. I'll spend tonight in tears, but when he gets home tomorrow he'll get the happiest, most exuberant welcome he's ever had." Listening to her schemes, I had a momentary vision of the pain that had been in Mr Groller's eyes when he had confided his problem to me.

"Wouldn't it be better to just tell him the truth?" I wondered. She laughed and accused me of being naive.

"Wait 'till you've been married for twenty-three years. Your husband will be so used to the sound of your voice he won't really be able to hear what you're saying anymore. No. I've tried talking to him. This time he really needs shaking up, and I think this is just how to do it." Despite my misgivings, I bowed to her superior knowledge of the man she had been married to for so long. By midnight, we were all finished, and the lobby looked pretty good - if I do say so myself. Of course, it still felt cold, but now instead of a mausoleum it felt like an abandoned fishing trawler. I wasn't sure it was an improvement, but Mrs Groller seemed very happy, and that, after all, had been the mission I was entrusted with. As a final piece de resistance she decided to leave the plastic potplants and rickety benches where they were. "OK. Thanks for your help, Jane. Now all I have to do is work up some more tears and wait to see the fireworks." Immensely pleased with herself, she slid into her chauffeur driven car and was gone. I felt pretty good myself, I must admit, as I walked home to my little flat. Serge, my cat, was most indignant at having had to wait until after midnight for his dinner, but after falling asleep on my lap in front of the tv, he decided to forgive me.

The next morning I woke late, and was out of the shower and dressed before I remembered this was a special day. Minutes later I joined the large crowd in front of the 'South Seas Trade Emporium'. At first I thought they were gathered there to admire our handiwork, but I soon began to realise something was very wrong. "What's happened?" I asked person after person, only to be met with stares as blank as my own. Then I found Dan Stevens, who drew me aside and took perverse pleasure in telling me how the janitor had arrived at 6:30 that morning to find Mr Groller hanging blue-faced on the wall with one of our carefully coiled ropes in a noose around his neck. The janitor had called the authorities, who had called Mrs Groller. The police were, so Dan informed me, interviewing Mrs Groller inside at the moment, and they had asked to see me as soon as I arrived. Overcome with shock, I shouldered my way through the crowd and gave my name to the officer guarding the door. He let me in, and directed me towards Mr Groller's office. Mr Groller's body still lay on the floor where they had taken him down, and someone had respectfully covered him with one of the flags we had strung around the walls. The old sea-captain and his poodle leered down at me, teeth glinting. As I entered Mr Groller's office for the second time in two days, I remembered my previous sense of foreboding. Hearing my step, Mrs Groller looked up, her lovely blue-green eyes almost invisible in her tear-swollen face.

"It's my fault," she said. "I killed him. I wanted to get him back and instead I drove him away forever. He thought I was accusing him of ruining my life. Why couldn't he understand?" I didn't know what to say. As I mechanically answered the questions put to me by the tall detective standing by the window, my eyes drifted over the calender on Mr Groller's desk. It was one of those with a different quote for every day. I had noticed it yesterday, but hadn't bothered to read it. Now I saw that it was still displaying yesterday's date. The quote underneath the date shrieked at me in bold italics: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Number 9

[Michelle Chapman, ©April 2002]

SETTING: 'a crowded street corner with a press of people waiting for the lights to change, like horses waiting for a race to start'
PROPS: 'a pair of scissors with mother-of-pearl handles'
CHARACTERS: 'a girl with straight brown hair, large brown eyes and a cheerful smile'
QUOTE: Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher, 1748-1832, referring to James Mill in Pym,H.N.(ed.), Memories of Old Friends, being Extracts from the Journals and Letters of Caroline Fox (1882), p.113, 7 August 1840:
"He rather hated the ruling few than loved the suffering many."

Shoulders hunched, cap pulled low, Joe slouched along a street shadowed on either side by massive high-rises. The job paid well, and was a necessary stage in his plan, but he viewed with profound indignation the accessories of his task. In one hand, a red suede leash dangled towards a jewel-studded collar and a fluffy white terrier. In the other hand an ungainly pooper-scooper threatened to trip him at every second step. If that wasn't enough, traffic and pedestrians milled everywhere in claustrophobic huddles.

Caught in a crush of people waiting for the lights to change at a busy crossroad, Joe looked contemptuously at those around him. Blank-faced, with hooded, expressionless eyes, each preoccupied with their own worries and concerns. Sheep. That's what they were. The stupid terrier on its stupid leash had more brains than the lot of them. Probably ate better, too. Joe snorted, expressing his disgust at these people's mindless acceptance of their lot. Why didn't they fight? he wondered. But then again, he guessed he preferred them this way. Apathetic and unimaginative, at least they didn't get in the way of his schemes. All he needed was motivated and aware competition alerting the wealthy to their danger. The bloody upper-class were paranoid enough already.

The crowd pushed and tensed against itself like a press of racehorses waiting at the starting gate. The moment the lights changed they surged forward, dragging Joe along with them. Just in time, he reached down and swept the dog into his arms.

"Can't have you getting trodden on, can we mate?" He tickled its alert ears. "You've got a job to do." The dog nuzzled his neck, pleased with the attention and anticipating the special treat he could smell in Joe's pocket. "Yes, you know what's in there. You're a smart dog, aren't you? Are you my friend?" The dog licked his fingers, eager to agree to anything that might lead to food.

Suddenly, Joe realised a number of passers-by were listening to his conversation with the dog. He snarled at their amused expressions and stalked off, angry at his momentary lapse of attention. Back on the ground, the terrier confidently led the way to an ornate door set in an intimidating concrete wall. Joe knocked, and the door was opened by a slim blonde wearing an old-fashioned dark dress and white apron.

"Oh, it's you," she said. "Don't forget to wipe your feet." She turned and vanished into the dark interior. Joe obediently wiped his feet on the thick mat, leaned the pooper-scooper against the lintel, and prepared to return the dog to its mistress. Almost immediately, the maid reappeared. "Don't you dare leave that there," she hissed. "It's not my job to get rid of it. Take it out the back and put it in the garden shed - and you'd better have emptied it at the garbage bin on the corner, like I told you last time." Joe grinned at her, and without saying a word, hefted the scoop. "You wouldn't dare," she squealed, and ducked out of harms way, just to make sure. Joe unnerved her, and she wasn't used to being unnerved, especially when she couldn't work out why. He seemed perfectly harmless. Maybe it was his refusal to speak to her in more than a grunt. That was unusual in itself. Men normally fell over themselves in their eagerness to impress her. Or maybe it was those good-looks, purposely hidden under that ugly cap and coat. It was really none of her business. He was there to walk the dog. The dog seemed to like him. Nothing more was required, but still... she shrugged and went back to her dusting.

Joe deposited the empty scooper in the shed, noting the densely overgrown ivy that covered the garden's back wall. It wasn't really a garden, just a postage stamp of lawn edged with cement. He looked again at the overhanging buildings. On either side, tall apartment-blocks stared down blindly through the frosted glass windows of bathrooms and kitchens. The building behind was a busy restaurant, and all that could be seen over the fence was an expanse of asphalt and several industrial rubbish bins. Joe quickly checked nothing had changed since his last visit, then re-entered through the open back door, fingering the keys in his pocket. One of them was an exact match for the old-fashioned iron key hanging by a cord from the backdoor lock. The security system out the front was state-of-the-art, but for some reason they hadn't bothered much about the back. After all, it could only be accessed over the ivy-covered wall, and the terrier slept in the little yard at night. To make certain he couldn't be shut out, Joe had slightly bent the original key after copying it. It still worked perfectly, but it would no longer sit in the lock and hence would not prevent him using his duplicate key from the other side.

The terrier was waiting for him in the hall and happily led the way through a labyrinth of elaborately furnished rooms. A young woman with straight brown hair, large brown eyes and a cheerful smile lounged in an easy chair, an embroidery hoop on her lap and a pair of mother-of-pearl scissors in her hand. She looked up when she heard the terrier's claws click on the Italian tiles.

"Hallo darling," she gushed. "Did you have a lovely walkie? Did you?" The terrier darted at the chair in ecstatic welcome. "Careful," she screamed. "Bad dog. You know you're not allowed to put your dirty paws on Mummy's work. You stay on the floor where you belong." Chagrined, the terrier crept beneath her footstool and curled into a ball. "That's better," she said. "Be good, and you can go for another lovely walkie tomorrow." She looked up, as though she had only just remembered Joe was there. "Yes?" she inquired. "Was there something else?"

Joe knew she was making fun of him. She'd played the same game several times in the past, forcing him to ask for his money in order to watch him squirm. He kept his eyes fixed on the delicate scissors in her hand, imagining moving across the room, taking them gently from her hand, tilting her head forward and ramming them into her neck at the base of her skull. It was rapidly becoming his favourite daydream, and he was looking forward to the conclusion of this job so he could exorcise it from his mind. It wasn't good for him to become so emotionally involved in his work. He swallowed his hatred, adopting an accent more suited to a Dickens' character.

"If you please, miss. Fifty dollars, miss."

"Oh, of course. Your payment. It's on the sideboard there, under that bowl." Joe looked around. The polished sideboard stretched along the wall under the window. There were five peacock-painted bowls arranged on dainty lace doilies. As soon as she saw his hand reaching for one of the bowls, the girl loudly drew in her breath.

"Careful," she warned. "That's Faberge. It's priceless. You can get your money, but you better not touch any of those bowls. I don't want your grubby fingerprints all over them." Joe refused to let her ruffle him. Looking closely, he noticed the corner of his fifty-dollar note peeking out from beneath a doily. Using one finger, he deftly slid the note out from its hiding place and pocketed it.

"Good afternoon, miss." Without waiting for more, Joe touched his cap and left the room. She would pay. He was determined that when she came swanning down that spiral staircase the next morning she would find all her treasures gone, except for the smashed remains of her precious peacock bowls, and a twisted pair of mother-of-pearl handled scissors. The proceeds, as always, were destined for Joe's favourite charity - himself. He didn't actually need the money but he certainly wasn't going to give it away. That would be sharing, and Joe didn't share anything with anyone - especially not the pleasure of ripping off the rich.

Watching his back as he sauntered down the street, the girl in the frilly apron wondered, not for the first time, what he was thinking. He always seemed so sure of himself as he walked away. Nothing like the humble demeanour he exuded when he presented himself to pick up the dog each morning. She wished she'd said something friendly instead of trying to humiliate him. He might be shy and lonely. He was certainly the quiet type. As she tenderly lifted a blue-green peacock bowl and wiped a stray dust-mote from its surface, she smiled, lost in her thoughts.

"It's time for Timmy's dinner." Startled by the peremptory tone shattering her daydream, she nearly dropped the beautiful glass bowl. Placing it gently back on the sideboard, she apologised to her employer and led the terrier out to the kitchen. As she ran a can-opener around the tin of dog food, she realised she wasn't the only girl in the house who'd been dreaming about a mysteriously handsome young dog-walker. The thought filled her with confidence. Here was an area she could really compete. Her mistress might have all the advantages of wealth, but what she had, money couldn't buy. After locking the little white dog in the backyard with his food, she dropped the heavy iron key in the pocket of her apron. There was no chance of it encumbering the lock now. She wanted everything to go smoothly for Joe tonight. She had personal reasons for wanting him to be in a very good mood.

Listening to her sing as she washed the dishes, Juliana congratulated herself on having found such cheerful, reliable help. She picked up her embroidery hoop and began slowly trimming the long threads with her mother-of-pearl handled scissors. As she worked, she mentally reviewed her wardrobe, deciding which items would be suitable to hand down to the thinner blonde girl. Impressed by her own generosity, she suddenly decided that when Joe came tomorrow she would tell him she had decided to walk Timmy herself in future. She had never liked the way he looked at her and more importantly, she didn't like the way her maid was starting to look at him. After all, she'd only just got the girl properly trained. Her departure would be terribly inconvenient, and Juliana hated inconvenience. Glowing with self-satisfaction, Juliana rehearsed Joe's dismissal scene in her imagination. There was nothing she liked more than interfering in the servants' lives. It was more entertaining than any soap-opera. It was real.

Number 10

[Michelle Chapman, ©May 2002]

SETTING: 'a deserted beach at dawn'
PROPS: 'a squeaking fan'
CHARACTERS: 'an alien with a head like a squid, coloured yellow with purple stripes'
QUOTE: Bible (1611) Old Testament; II Samuel 22:30
"By my God have I leaped over a wall."

George groaned and pulled his pillow over his head. The lumpy foam threatened to smother him but did nothing to mask either the slow drone of his wife's snore or the tortured squeal from the oscillating ceiling fan.

He replaced the pillow beneath his head and lay staring up at the fan in the bright moonlight. At some stage one of the plastic blades had broken and been replaced with a bamboo substitute. Now it was unbalanced and wobbled alarmingly in its socket, threatening to tear itself loose from the plaster.

"Great," George thought. "A relaxing holiday will be good for you, they said. Take your wife on a romantic second honeymoon, they said. Everyone should visit a tropical island at least once, they said. What do they know? Here I am, I've been baked dry and steamed wet again, I've been poisoned with inedible food and" - he slapped vindictively at a mosquito on his wrist... missed - "been eaten by every-ruddy-thing that sucks blood. And now, as if that wasn't enough, now" - he stopped again, this time to ensure he felt the necessary degree of self-pity - "now I have to put up with sleep deprivation, and I get to make the enviable choice between sweltering suffocation or decapitation by a rogue cooling device. Just GREAT."

Janine, George's wife, was roused to semi-consciousness by his restless movements.

"What's up, love?" she inquired, with sleepy self-interest.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep, since you can." He instantly regretted the note of bitterness and hoped she was too tired to notice. No such luck.

"Why don't you take a walk on the beach if you can't sleep? It's nearly dawn anyway." George thought about that for a while.

"Alright," he agreed. "It's got to be better than here. Want to come?" No answer. Looking across at the damp hair sticking to Janine's sleeping face, George remembered how hard she had tried to make the day pleasant for him, and how determined he had been not to be pleased. A holiday, they called it. That was suspicious in itself. The firm rarely let you take holidays and they certainly never insisted on you taking one. So why was he here? It was all very strange. But none of it was Janine's fault and it was entirely unfair to take it out on her. For twenty years she had wholeheartedly encouraged him in the belief that his work was extremely important. She had moved thirty-seven times at the firm's request without complaint, cheerfully making the best of each new house, making sure he always felt like he had a home. Funny. Not once in twenty years had he stopped to wonder what she'd be doing if she hadn't married him.

Leaning over, he gently kissed her bare shoulder before drawing the light sheet up to protect her from the mosquitos. Maybe this was the firm's plan. Maybe they had finally realised how much of his work they owed to her. Maybe this was her reward? The partners of his colleagues had each received recognition: a home entertainment system here, a new car there, expensive jewellery... George had always assumed Janine missed out because she didn't like to socialise with the others. She was always exquisitely polite of course, but they sensed her distaste for their gossip and had long ago stopped sending her invitations to their parties. Both sides found it more convenient to assume she would be too ill or too busy to attend. In the past George had argued about it with her, urging her to consider the benefits she was throwing away, but to no avail. "You give me everything I want" she would smile, and George would be flattered enough to drop the subject.

The icon of Madonna and Child on Janine's bedside table caught George's eye. It had been a wedding present from his grandmother and Janine carried it wherever she went. Intrigued as ever by the pudgy elbows and knees of the Christ child, George stared at the little painting. There was something... something he couldn't remember. Something important Janine had told him, long ago, before they were married. ... He couldn't remember. It was there - he could feel the edges of it - edges sharp enough to cut. He glanced in frustration at the fan's chaotic orbit. "How'm I s'posed to think with you making all that noise?" he asked under his breath. The fan seemed to lift its whine a decibel or two. "Stop that," he muttered. "You'll wake Janine again. It's no use trying to torture me anymore. I'm going outside. There may be mossies and all sorts of nasties out there, but at least there aren't any fans."

George pulled on the brightly flowered shorts and shirt Janine had bought earlier that day. "If you look like you're on holiday, maybe you'll start feeling like you're on holiday" she had said. He had just grunted and refused to show any interest, a rudeness he sincerely regretted now. He made up his mind that for the rest of their weekend on the island he would be especially nice to her by way of apology. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror he realised the outfit was nowhere near as garish as it had seemed on first viewing. It actually suited him rather well. Janine always had possessed excellent taste.

Closing the door to their little hut gently behind him, George stood on the balcony and gazed out over the deserted beach. A spectacular sunrise was just beginning to tinge the dark sea with colour. George walked out from under the tall palms, taking a perverse pleasure in marking the pristine sand with his footprints. As he wandered along the curling edge of the surf he willed himself back in time, desperately searching for that memory he had felt the edges of earlier.

It was easy to remember Janine back then, wispy auburn hair framing blue eyes and a rosebud mouth. It was that mouth that had first attracted him to her. He had been buried up to his ears in books at the library, researching the latest theories on the existence of extraterrestrials. It had only been an interest, then. A hobby. It had never occurred to him that it would lead to a career. He had been so engrossed in his reading that he hadn't noticed everyone else filing out as the library closed. The assistant librarian spoke three times before he heard her and looked up. "Excuse me, sir. The library is closing. Would you like to borrow any of these books?" For the first time ever George was at a loss for words. He stared vacantly at two soft pink lips that seemed to hold the answer to every question he'd ever asked. "Sir?" George grabbed several books at random from the pile in front of him. "I'll take these" he said, thinking only that the borrowing process would give him a few more moments with her.

The next morning found him waiting on the library steps, sipping breakfast coffee from a foam cup. She arrived promptly at 8:30.

"Good morning" he said, as she ran up the steps to the entrance. She stopped and looked at him blankly. He held up one of the books he had borrowed and the penny dropped.

"Oh, good morning," she replied. "Have you come to look for more aliens?" He was used to people poking fun at his hobby, but he didn't feel at all defensive with her. There was curiosity, not incredulity in her tone.

"Are you interested in extraterrestrials?" he asked, wishing he could control the disbelief in his tone as well as she had. In the past, mentioning his hobby to a female had been a signal for her to move as far away from his as possible. By contrast, this librarian with the mouth shaped like cupid's bow moved closer.

"Happy are those who have not seen, yet still believe!" she whispered, before turning and vanishing into the building. He hardly managed to read anything that day. Superimposed between the page and his eyes was an image of her face, and every so often he found himself dreamily watching her return books to the shelves. By the end of the week she had given up pretending to work and was seated across the table from him, eagerly discussing his latest conclusions.

Two months later he had proposed and been happily accepted. Janine was an orphan so it was a quiet wedding, just George's family, then a quick camping honeymoon before George took up his new job with the firm. The firm. Technically they were logistics consultants for a large supermarket chain, but George had never had any connection with the transport of consumer goods. He worked in the immense research department, continuing his quest to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. Janine had found the job for him on a bulletin board in the library. George was astounded to be getting paid well for research that had only ever earned him laughter before. At first he was worried they weren't getting value for money. He wasn't making any huge breakthroughs, and he couldn't see how his research could benefit the company's ostensible purpose. He mentioned his concerns to a colleague in his department and was startled when she laughed at him.

"You're worrying about how looking for aliens can help a trucking company?" she exclaimed. "Forget about it, hon. We're a tax dodge. Look at me - I'm here to research astrological prediction! How do you think that's going to help them? 'Sorry, sir, there's going to be a coffee shortage. It's written in the stars!' Don't get me wrong. I'm serious about my research. As serious as you are. I'm just being realistic about our place in the world. It's simple. The firm is too successful. It's making too much money. The only way it can avoid paying a large percentage of that money to the government is to find a way of wasting it so that it doesn't look like it's being wasted. You've seen the government inspectors taking their tours. Do you honestly think they've got any idea about what we're working on? Take another look at this place. We've got a whole building full of labs and libraries, and nobody knows what anyone else is doing. We just write our private little monthly reports, post them upstairs, and everyone's happy. The government sees a whole pile of people being employed, we get to work on our pet projects to our heart's content, and we're well paid for it, and the firm? The firm gets to avoid paying tax, and don't forget, there's still a possibility, however remote, that one of us might actually come up with something useful. You read the fine print before signing your contract. We all did. 'Any discovery, whether physical or intellectual, made by an employee of the firm's research department, which is deemed to have commercial, scientific or other significance, becomes immediately and remains at all times the property of said firm.' That's why this department calls them 'the firm'. Did you know that? In every other department, they're just plain old 'Lightning Logistics'. You wait. You'll get used to it. It's a bit like working for some secret intelligence agency - I guess they think a clandestine image helps us believe what we're doing is important! I wonder what your wife will think when they start moving you around! That's the other theory, of course - that there actually is someone in here working on something top-secret and extremely important, and all the rest of are just here for cover and camouflage. Pick whichever explanation suits you best. It doesn't really matter. By the time you've been here a few years you'll forget there was ever anything you were worried about." She had been right.

George strolled along the beach towards the rocky headland, completely preoccupied with the problem of remembering. What was it Janine had said so long ago? He remembered the scene, the pair of them perched on the library step sipping too-hot coffee from styrofoam cups. He had asked her to marry him. She had promised she would. Then she had asked him ... something, and he had promised ... what? Why couldn't he remember? This was ridiculous. George began to discern a figure out in the surf, signposted by a pale garment fluttering on the dark outcrop of rocks ahead. His first sensation was annoyance. He and Janine were supposed to have this beach to themselves. How was he ever going to work anything out with all these interruptions? Then he laughed at himself. The biggest interruption so far had been his own stubborness, and here he was complaining again over what was at most a minor inconvenience. He kept walking, his eyes fixed on the sand as though he were looking for shells, anxious to avoid any contact with the intruder. He was almost past the rocks when a gust of wind caught the swimmer's robe and whipped it into the air. Reflexively, George's arm reached out and halted its flight. As his fingers touched the flimsy pink garment he found it felt different to any fabric he had ever ... no ... not fabric. Skin. It felt like skin. Forgetting the owner of the garment, who was now catching a small wave towards the shore, George tried to shake the garment into its proper shape. "It must be some kind of bodysuit," he figured, suddenly realising it was designed to cover the wearer entirely, including hands and feet. The whole suit was as thin and light as Janine's lycra pantihose. The thought of Janine made George feel strangely perturbed. It was twenty years since he'd handled another woman's underwear. He guiltily bent to anchor the suit with a handful of pebbles when something hidden between two rocks caught his eye. Fur? No. Hair. George's first instinct was to assume whoever wore the bodysuit also required a wig. Maybe someone recovering from a horrific accident? That would explain their presence on the firm's private island. It could even be someone from the research department. He had almost convinced himself and was about to continue walking when he realised why the hair was disturbing him so much. It was exactly the same shade of burnished red as Janine's. It even had a few strands of silver shot through it, just like Janine's. He reached forward tentatively, fingers outstretched, half expecting the pile of hair to turn and bite him.

"George?" Janine's voice unexpectedly behind him gave him a massive shock.

"You made me jump out of my skin!" he exclaimed as he turned, only to receive an even greater shock.

"It's alright, George. It is me. Sit down. Breathe. You'll be ok in a moment. It's just the surprise."

George obeyed Janine's voice automatically, never taking his eyes from the creature in front of him. His mind was racing, incapable of coherent thought. He tried to bring himself to a state of calm by forcing himself to notice exact details. Bipedal. Upright. More or less humanoid in shape, though more elongated and angular. The body was just what he had always imagined an alien's body would be, but the head? Where was the huge bulbous skull with its look of innocent naivete, softly glowing luminous green? This creature was completely different. Its head was pointed, conical like a squid, a ring of soft tentacles forming a lacy collar where its head met its body. It was coloured garish yellow with thin jagged stripes of purple forked across its body in lightning rays. Lidless blue eyes protruded from either side of its head and, most disturbing of all, a pink rosebud mouth, lips shaped like cupid's bow, appeared incongruously in the centre of the alien's squid-like face.

"Feeling better?" The voice was Janine's, though George instinctively tried to deny it. The creature fluffed its neckring of tentacles as it spoke. George began to relax in spite of himself. A sweet odour reminiscent of heliotrope filtered across to him. Janine's favourite flower. He shuddered and turned to face the sea, waves of conflicting emotion washing over him in quick succession. A hand touched him on the shoulder, an undeniably human hand, warm, pink, a gold wedding ring nestled in its accustomed place. He instinctively covered it with his own, matching ring to ring.

"I'm sorry if I scared you," Janine apologised. "I hadn't planned on you finding out like this. I was going to tell you properly tonight after dinner."

"Twenty years of being my wife, of helping me search for extraterrestrials, and you were going to tell me after dinner? Tell me what? 'Honey, you married an alien'???!!" George knew he was being ridiculous, but he couldn't help feeling angry and betrayed. Janine drooped, a classic gesture of defeat. While his back had been turned to the rocks, she had somehow resumed her normal skin and hair. George spun to face her and was taken aback by the pain in her eyes. All the good intentions he had formed on his walk earlier came flooding back, along with all his memories of their happiness together. He laughed at the irony of it. Twenty years spent searching for something that was right by his side the whole time. Janine wilted further under his laughter, and George noticed the tiny wrinkles around her lovely mouth showed flickers of yellow and purple as her lips trembled. She turned sadly and began to walk away from him.

At first, George remained standing by the rocks, paralysed by his racing thoughts as all the missing jigsaw pieces slotted into place. Finally, only one was left. He still couldn't remember what Janine had asked him to promise on the day he proposed to her. He sat on the damp sand watching Janine's retreating back. She looked vulnerable, alone. He suddenly realised how truly alone she was, and at the same moment he found the memory that had been eluding him. Janine had said that she knew his work was important. She had said that she would support him and love him no matter what happened. Finally, and George found it hard to believe he had blanked it out until now, she had said that one day, when the time was right, she wanted to have children.

Children? For half-a-second the thought turned George's knees to jelly and made his stomach churn. Sure he loved children, but... an image of a pointed squid-shaped head swam before his vision. Then George realised. It was all a question of faith! For twenty years Janine had kept faith with him. She had never given him the slightest cause to doubt her affection and belief in him. She had nurtured his dreams - come to think of it - on that very day she had made his most cherished dream come true! (George was still having some difficulty coming to terms with that.)

He sighed, wondering what to do next. The thought scared him much more than the sight of his wife's empty skin had. Without Janine, without the firm, what else was there? Sure, he could drag Janine in front of the media, expose her and vindicate theories so many had ridiculed for so long, but what then? He imagined himself winning fame and fortune, but a passing thought of Janine's body on a dissecting table popped that bubble before it was half-blown. Ugggh. George stood, throwing the pebble he had been playing with out across the water. He was disgusted with himself. As if he could ignore Janine's revelation, or exploit it for his personal gain. It was unthinkable. How many times had he pledged himself to her, returning gratitude and love for her support? Now, here he was, balking at the first hurdle when she asked for his support in return.

Janine was more than half-way back to cabin by now. George watched her for a second, buoyed up by his good intentions. He had no idea what Janine would require of him, but he was determined. Whether it was as easy as stepping over a crack in the pavement, or as difficult as leaping the great wall of China, he would be there for her. His moment of paralysis over, George began to jog after his wife. Hearing a noise Janine glanced back, then stopped to wait for him, smiling.

As he ran, George found himself wondering which planet she came from, and whether it really was possible to see the great wall of China from space.

Paper Bag Stories: 1-5
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Paper Bag Stories: 11-12

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