If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 02 - 05…
A knock at the front door made them both turn. “Come in,” called Bert, even though it was Olive’s house. “It ain’t locked.”
"Are your dogs in there?"
Bert recognised Chief Inspector Dobbs voice calling through the letterbox. Everyone was frightened of his two Alsatians, even though they'd never tear anybody's throat out unless he commanded them to. "No, me Chums are out back."
The door opened straight into the snug lounge. Three people stepped inside, each stopping to wipe their shoes on the Welcome mat: Vicar Bitter in his two-piece black suit and dog collar; Chief Inspector Dobbs in his yellow pullover and baggy trousers with turn-ups; and his wife, Florence, plump and younger-looking than her fifty-something years.
Their faces looked grave, and Bert wondered what he’d done wrong now. The last time they ganged up on him was to accuse him of being a pickpocket. In his youth, he had been, but not these days. These days he worked at the Cloud Estate as a security guard, and despite his brutal appearance, was mostly a model law-abiding citizen.
Olive lifted a pile of blankets and overstuffed cushions from the settee and dumped them on the floor. “Take a seat.”
Florence nodded a greeting, bustled past her into the adjoining dining room, and sat at the table next to Bert. He shifted his bulk to give her room. The others followed and settled on the table's opposite side.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Olive, and headed for the kitchen. “I can’t guess why you’ve come, but from the look of you, it must be something juicy. Don’t start until I get back.”
With a pot of tea on the table and a plate piled with Bert’s favourite cream eclairs in the centre, Olive dropped into the only remaining seat. “I’m ready. Bert, you can pour the tea.”
The cups and saucers looked like doll’s toys in his oversized mitts, but before he got as far as pouring the tea, Florence smacked the back of his hand and took over.
Chief Inspector Dobbs drummed his fingers and then spoke up. “Your new neighbours are causing concern in the local community. I think they are criminals. Dealers in drugs or child smuggling. Perhaps both.”
“My concerns are far worse than yours,” said Vicar Bitter, his layers of chins wobbling as he spoke. “They have horns, and I fear they worship Satan. Strange lights come from their windows all night long, and a teenager listened through their letterbox and claimed they were talking backwards.”
Olive gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. Bert kept his eyes on the eclairs; he’d already selected the biggest.
“You’re both being silly,” said Florence. She lifted the teapot’s lid and gave the brew a stir. “I’m the only one who’s spoken to them and they’re charming people. See here, the lady gave me a badge.” She pointed to a disc on her hand-knitted cardigan, about the size of a coin. It glistened like a cat’s eye, glittering with all the colours of the rainbow as she wiggled it. “I met them on the street late at night and the lady told me she was homeless. She had twelve children with her, none over four or five years old. I went straight to Mr Styles and got the keys for number three.”
“Did you go in with her?” asked Olive.
“No, I didn’t. But she was grateful.”
“What did she look like?”
“It was dark. Difficult to see. She was small, a dwarf I would say.”
Chief Inspector Dobbs coughed behind a clenched fist and plucked the eclair Bert had his eye on. “You and Olive,” he said to Bert, “are their closest neighbour. You can do us all a favour, Bert, by keeping a watch on them. Go and visit, check them out, and report to me.”
“You want me to spy on her?” said Bert. He didn’t like the sound of that. If people wanted their privacy, that’s how it should be. What business was it of any other?
“Yes, as much for her own safety as anything else. Everybody in the hamlet has taken a disliking to her and her kids. Some of the older youths have thrown stones at her house, and adults are talking about setting fire to it.”
That changed matters for Bert. One goings-on he couldn’t stand was mobbing and bullying. If he caught anyone throwing stones at her house, he’d break their wrist. If anyone so much as lit a cigarette in front of her house, he’d ram the whole packet down their throat. “Why can’t you go?”
“The vicar and me went to her house before coming here, but she didn’t answer the door. I know she’s in there because she peeked at us from behind the curtain.”
“What about Florence? Seeing as she’s already spoken to them, why can’t she go?”
“Because,” said Florence, passing the cups of tea around and helping herself to the next biggest eclair, “the silly man thinks it’s too dangerous.” She blew her husband a kiss.
A flush crept across Chief Inspector Dobbs cheeks, and he made a rush job of blowing the kiss back. “I’ll not have her exposed to unnecessary risks.”
“Okay,” said Bert. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. How could a midget woman and a bunch of kids put such a fright into people? “I’ll go first thing in the morning. You lot must have scared the poor woman half to death. But what makes you think she’ll open her door to me? I scare the crap out of people.”
“I know,” said Florence. She tore the glittering badge from her cardigan and passed it to Bert. “Take this and say I vouch for you. Once people get to know you, you're the sweetest creature on Earth.”
Next morning, on a grey and drizzly day that kept most people snuggled between their sheets, Bert trundled to the stable with his two Alsatians to tend his horse, Big Foot. The stable owner gave it to Bert at a favourable price because it was so cantankerous it wouldn’t let anybody near it, let alone ride it.
Big Foot was one of the stable owner’s experiments. He crossed a cold-blooded carthorse with a hot-blooded Arabian. He hoped the result would be a warm-blooded workhorse, but ended with a hot-blooded stallion that weighed just over a ton and towered two metres tall.
Despite Bert’s fierce appearance, children and animals adored him, and Bert was so big and heavy that Big Foot was the only horse strong enough to carry him. To everyone’s astonishment, the two unredeemable souls bonded at first meeting.
After tethering Big Foot outside number three Flintstone Terrace, and commanding his Chums to stay put and wait for him, Bert tapped on his neighbour’s front door. They must be in, because he could see a curious light behind the curtains. The stark light, like the full moon on a frosty night, faded and grew in the same rhythm as a person in deep sleep.
Florence hadn’t mentioned they had luggage or bags with them. Did they have food? If not, Bert had plenty he could share. After one more unresponsive knock, he trundled around to the rear of Flintstone Terrace and entered the back lane. The lane ran parallel to the houses, their gardens on the lane's other side. Number three’s garden comprised of lawn, making it easy for the tenant to keep tidy.
The three houses' backyards were also similar: a row of bunkers for coal and coke along one side, an outside toilet and an entrance to the kitchen on the other. Like his own house at number one, this kitchen door only had a latch and a bolt on the inside to hold it locked. Tentatively, Bert tried the latch. It lifted, and the bolt was clear, so he pushed the door open and called. “Cooey, it’s only me, Bert, your friendly neighbour. Can I come in?”
In this post: Bert visits his neighbours. They resemble goats…
The sound of whimpering greeted Bert, and when they still didn’t answer, he stepped inside. From the kitchen, he crept into the living room. Nobody. From there into the front room. In a corner, huddled beneath the window, he found the group.
The minuscule woman stared at him with eyes placed far apart on each side of her head and a broad nose-bridge between them. Her eyes moved in different directions, and the pupils weren’t round, but oval, like a goat’s. A curly mop of grey hair partially covered two bony nubs on her prominent forehead. Her mouth and jaws were more or less normal.
Bert counted twelve children. The woman clutched her arms around two of them, their faces buried in her chest. The others hid behind her back, crying, not daring to look at Bert.
The only furniture in the room was a three-piece suite and a sideboard. The object that emitted the curious light lay in the middle of the carpeted floor. About the size of a shoebox, it reminded Bert of the inside workings of an old-fashioned wind-up clock. Instead of springs, cogs and spindles trapped between two metal plates, microchips floated, as if suspended in a purple gooey liquid that throbbed with a million points of light.
Bert raised his palms to show he meant no harm, but the woman screeched at him in a language he’d never heard before, Arabic maybe, spoken backwards.
Worried the poor woman might blow a fuse, Bert found the badge Florence had given him and slapped it on his breast. The badge had no pin, but its backside was rough like Velcro, and it stuck tight to his T-shirt.
A jumble of noises rattled through his brain, like listening to a party political debate played too fast and cymbals crashing every so often. Then, behind the noise, he realised the woman spoke English to him. He shook his head to clear it and listened.
“Don’t kill us. We mean no Harm. I broke my doodad, or we’d leave.”
“I’m here to help,” said Bert. “I ain’t going to hurt you.” He pointed to the flashing contraption on the carpet. “Is that the doodad you mean?”
“Yes. We’re marooned in this hellhole world forever.”
Bert stopped breathing. “This world?”
“Haven’t you savages heard of other worlds?”
“You mean like a home for dwarfs with Down’s syndrome?”
“No, I mean like other inhabited planets out in the universe.”
“Some people believe, but most don’t.” Bert shuffled his feet and scratched his backside. “I’m one of those who believe.”
The woman cried again. “Worse and worse. Oh, if only we hadn’t come.”
“Well, why did you?”
“To escape the Guardian. But this world is no safer. You are a fierce, egoistic race who kill animals for their meat.”
To be continued…
The real world:
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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At long last I got around to reading about Ove, pronounced Oover. Brilliant story: amusing, heartbreaking, and so true to life. My main problem with the book is that I think they modelled Ove on me! When my wife read it, I heard repeatedly, "That's just like you."
Minus half a star for shoddy translation in places (from Swedish).
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