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 05 - 08…
On a grey and drizzly day that kept most people snuggled between their sheets, Bert trundled to the stable with his two Alsatians, his Chums as he liked to call them, to tend his horse, Big Foot. The stable owner sold the horse 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'd 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 new neighbour’s front door. He reckoned they must be in, because he could see the curious light everyone talked about, throbbing 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 anything about the new neighbours having 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. Lawn covered all of number three’s garden, 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?”
The sound of whimpering greeted Bert, and when they still didn’t answer, he stepped inside. From the kitchen, he crept across the living room and into the front room. In a corner, huddled beneath the window, he found the group.
The minuscule woman stared at him as if the devil confronted her. Her eyes were placed far apart on each side of her head with a broad nose-bridge between them. The 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 him.
The only furniture in the room was a tatty three-piece suite and a budget sideboard. The object that emitted the curious light lay in the middle of the timeworn 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 race of fierce, egoistic beasts who kill animals for their meat.”
It occurred to Bert the woman might be a loony, escaped from an asylum somewhere. Time to phone Florence for help; she possessed almost as much gumption as his best friend, Alf. "When did you last eat?" he asked as he plucked his smartphone from his back pocket.
The woman flinched and drew her children to her breast. "Don't shoot," she whimpered. "We're so small, there’s hardly any meat on us."
Bert scratched his head. No doubt. Loony. "This is a phone," he explained, drawing the words out and holding it to his ear to demonstrate. "I'm going to call for help."
A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face, but only enough to give her the courage to speak calmer. "A phone. Can I see it?"
"Yeah. Take a look. It's harmless." He held it at arm's length and the woman snatched it from his hand. "Hey," he said, "Don't do that." But it was too late. She tore the back cover from the phone, ripped out the battery, prodded at its workings with what resembled a crochet hook until her palm contained a jumble of fragments.
"It weren't a gun," said Bert, dejectedly. "You didn't have to ruin it, and if you didn't want me to call for help, all you had to do was to say."
The woman didn't answer. Instead, she sifted through the bits as if hunting for lice. Then she pinched up one black piece, dumped the rest of his ruined phone on the carpet, and picked up the doodad. With the doodad in one hand and the part from his phone in the other, she slipped the part into the doodad. Immediately, the gadget's harsh light stopped throbbing.
All held their breath and stared at the doodad. Pricks of various coloured pinpoint lights danced and ticked. Then it peeped and the purple goo settled into a soft, faint, glow.
With a jubilant cheer, the woman bounced to her feet and clapped her hands. "It works," she said.
"Can't you see? The doodad. We can go home to our own world."
The children danced and pranced with as much boisterousness as a pack of excited Billy Goats.
"Wait and watch," said the woman. Bouncing from foot to foot, eyes gleaming, she placed the gadget back on the floor.
Without warning, the air above it warped, like a heat haze, even though the room was freezing. Looking into the haze was like peering into a fire while daydreaming. Only there were no flames, just the vague impression of a black hole.
Bert stared at the patch of distorted air. It grew larger and more distinct, and he spotted odd translucent shapes eddying within it. A dull pressure made his ears ache, and a drop of sweat slid down the hollow of his throat, leaving a cold track.
The hazy hole had no outer boundary; it simply hung in midair, the entrance to a tunnel leading to an unearthly distance. Every muscle in Bert's body seized, pressure built in his ears, and the hiss of piercing static made his teeth cringe. The tunnel's depth pulsed like a black gulping throat, and the static hiss grew louder, wavering in pitch.
"Come," said the woman, suddenly by his side and tugging on his hand. "Come with us."
"To our world."
Bert, still hypnotised by the tunnel and fascinated by the notion of other worlds, staggered along beside her. They stepped inside, its depths shrinking and widening like the gullet of a black snake.
Ahead of him, he saw the woman and her twelve children melt into clouds of powder and the tunnel inhale them. It was the weirdest sensation Bert had ever experienced. The front edge of his bulk crumbled into dust and vanished into the tunnel as if dragged along by a tornado. Instinctively, he held his head back, watching, but in the same instant his vision blurred and a wall of soft foam in his back drove him forward. There was a sharp sting of pain as if blunt needles stabbed every nerve in his body. Before he had time to cry out, his flesh and bones gained substance again, as if he'd just woken from a nightmare and realised all was right with the world.
Except he wasn't lying in bed, but wobbling on his feet on the top of a green hill.
Below the hilltop, a village of flimsy huts and cabins nestled beside a rushing river. In every direction, Bert noted forests and fields of bamboo. A warm breeze, laden with the scent of tobacco, chafed their feathery leaves, wavering between rest and motion.
"What's that?" asked Bert, pointing to a distant hill higher than the others. A black tower dominated its summit. It looked alien and out of place.
"Can you see the Citadel from here?"
Both the woman's eyes focused in that direction. "No, it is too far away."
"And what's that?" Bert pointed to another construction of grey stone on a ridge on the village's other side."
"That is the abbey where the terror-stricken monks live."
In this post: Bert enters a world of bamboo…
“Where are we?” asked Bert.
The woman’s two eyes swivelled in all directions, as if uneasy. “I think we’re safe for the moment.”
“Yeah, that’s good, but where are we?”
“I must take you to the Elder’s house. He’ll explain everything.” Without further word, the woman set off down the hill, heading for the village on her dumpy little legs.
Bert tagged along beside her, taking advantage of the sluggish pace to absorb his new surroundings. Temple bells chimed through the mystic, potent sunlight; frogs croaked in muddy ditches; dwarf-sized women came from the fields, with a song on their full red lips and wicker baskets laden with bamboo tips on their heads.
They glared at Bert as if he were a monster, taking a wide berth or darting into their hovels.
The villagers had built most of their huts from thick bamboo canes. There were no vehicles and only hard-packed dirt paths. It reminded him of pictures he’d seen of undiscovered tribes in South America’s rain forests, except here it looked as though they’d cleared most of the forest to cultivate fields of bamboo.
A handful of stone-built constructions, twice as large as the huts, were sprinkled haphazardly throughout the village. They headed for one of these.
Bert ducked inside and wiped his feet on a mat made of fibres. Doors and windows were simple open gaps with bamboo shutters in the windows that did little to keep the sun out and cloth hanging across the doors. After the sweltering heat outdoors, the cool cave-like room made Bert shove his hands in his pockets.
A little prune of a man sat cross-legged on the dirt floor. When he caught sight of Bert, squeezing through the door and standing with his head and shoulders bent beneath the low ceiling, he leapt effortlessly to his feet and backed into a corner.
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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