Author Archives: Howard Gaukrodger

Phantasm

Phantasm, by Howard Gaukrodger

Nov 2023, 479 words.

Thanks for browsing to this post. I’ve entered this story into a competition, so can’t publish it here for the moment. But do call back in January. Hopefully, I’ll have some exciting news to tell you!

Cruel Punishment for Courage

Cruel Punishment for Courage

By Howard Gaukrodger 28 Oct, 2014  (284 words).

 

I opened the window to ventilate the stuffy room. A bee wandered in to review the space. And, like the bee, I wandered back to the garden. I would never see my husband again.

The first time I met Brent, he was just seven. His mother had given him a present: a wooden speedboat. Dropping it into the garden pond, he’d leant over too far and cracked his head on the edge of the pond.

“Come here, Darling,” his mother had said. “Let me put some butter on that bump”.

Twenty-three years later, the boat was the Firewire – a 7-metre jet engine of flaming red. He’d chosen the colour in my honour to complement the ruby in my engagement ring. And while his model had been just the size of a shoe, and its fuel a push from the hand, the boat of his dreams was a fibreglass arrow that ran on hi-octane jet-fuel.

Five miles long and wedged between the glaciated peaks of the Cumbrian mountains, Coniston Water was to become the focus of the impossible. Brent Peters was to attempt the world speed record on water by racing his Firewire across the unforgiving waters of one of England’s most picturesque lakes.

Like the alternating colours of a raccoon, the shimmering sunlight on the surface of the lake disorientated the pilot. His rocket-powered dart swerved off course and somersaulted – to the horror of thirty million TV viewers.

His family now entered the empty bedroom, their only son gone. In the shadows, the wooden model sat atop his mantelpiece, dust motes floating in peace, like his soul.

(Inspired by events relating to Donald Campbell, d1967.)

The Mind’s Eye

The Mind’s Eye

By Howard Gaukrodger 30.09.14  (Thriller, USA, hanging plot, pathos. 1,500 words)

 

“Come on, Samantha! If your dad were here, he’d be chasing you round the breakfast table by now!”

“OK, Mom. Coming!”

The sun glinted through half-open curtains. Sam loved to wake up to the sparkle of morning sunlight. She rose from the bed, naked but for her embroidered undergarment. Running her hands over her curves, she flushed at the memory of her encounter with her lover the night before.

“Sasha! Time for you to get up, too!” Sam wasn’t going to get up on her own.

“Leave me alone!” Sasha replied. But she did get up. They were inseparable.

Grant was from upstate New York; met his wife on a trip to Guangxing 23 years earlier. He’d tried to distance himself from the quicksand of love, told her his work involved long periods away. Yet, the more he’d fought his emotions, the more he’d wanted her. Their bond was tied two years later in a discreet civil service high in the hills of Penyang. Xinge’s exit visa was approved seven months later – thanks to Grant’s connections. Xinge was already pregnant with the twins when the Airbus touched down at JFK.

A ray of light glinted off the binoculars, then was gone, hidden in the trees. But the view through the gap in the curtains was captured. Oblivious, Sam stood before the full-length mirror, focusing on her appearance. Her breasts sat comfortably in the French silk bra, so different from the rough-edged synthetic items her mother put up with. On her sun-kissed skin, the marks of last night’s passion were darkening to ruby-grey. She held her stomach in, pouted, inspected her teeth. The bedroom door yawned open.

“Sasha! You could’ve knocked!” she teased, drawing her gown rather too fast over her shoulders.

“Ooh, what are you hiding, Passionfruit?”

“Nothing!”

“Sammy, you don’t know how to lie. Let me have a look…” Sasha peeled away the cloth, revealing the evidence of desire that her sister had wanted to show her all the time.

“Honeybabe! What have you been up to! Naughty girl! You told Mom?”

“Told her what, Sash? That I spent half the night with …”

“Ooh, juicy! Come on, out with it…”

The shadow in the trees put away the binoculars. The girls would be leaving the walled residence at 08:15. Sasha would take the subway to Penn Station, then walk to W 34th Street off 7th Avenue. Samantha would take a cab to Deutsche Bank, Wall Street, accessing the staff entrance from the pedestrian walkway in Pearl Street.

It always surprised him how stupid Western spies could be. Children, fancy having children. It just took a simple threat, and… He grinned and fondled the Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver. It was time to send the one-word text to the cabbie.

“Go”

His diamond-studded Rolex ticked over to 08:15 just as the cab arrived. Samantha rushed down the villa steps, through the two-metre iron gate, and climbed into the back seat.

“How’s it going?” she called through the glass partition as they drove off. The driver didn’t hear. She tapped on the glass. “How are you today?” she asked again.

The driver glanced into the rear-view mirror, shrugged.

She insisted: “See the Giants on the weekend?”

This time, the driver put his index finger to his lips, raising an upturned hand.

“Can’t you speak English? A cab-driver, and you can’t talk to your passengers? How does that work?” She began to feel uncomfortable.

The traffic heading for Brooklyn Bridge was heavier than normal. He swivelled, looking for an alternative route. The seat-belt chafed an old bullet-wound. That had been a lucky escape, but he’d got the son-of-a-bitch Mountain Master, head of the Wo Shing Wo. He knew they’d come after him. Back in Langley, the black suits had valued his “work”, but had counted him out, retired him. He remembered hobbling to the Director’s office: ‘… and for performance of outstanding services, the results of which constitute a major contribution to the mission of the Agency, I hereby award you the Distinguished Intelligence Medal’. But protocol dictated that no one outside the CIA would ever know of his award.

Now, he was on the outside, unprotected, and the Vanguard was after him – and his family. As a former Operations Officer, he knew the Vanguard had unlimited resources, and he knew they didn’t forget. He was now one man against the largest triad in China. The life of his daughters was hanging by a thread.

The cab pulled up outside Deutsche Bank. As Samantha moved to take her purse, the driver leaned over his shoulder, opened the partition window and handed her a note:

“If you want to live: don’t scream. We have your sister.”

The blood drained from Samantha’s face; she felt faint. The driver handed her another note:

“Do exactly as I say and she will not be harmed. Nod, if you understand.”

Samantha nodded, head spinning, heart pounding.

A third note:

“Take this USB stick and insert it into your office computer. Boot up and wait 60 seconds, then remove it. Nod, if you understand.”

Samantha nodded again. “Then what?! How do I know you’re telling the truth – that you’ve got my sister?! Where is she?!”

The cab-driver pushed a wrinkled donut bag through the hatch. Her sweating hands delved inside: two pearl ear-rings, the gold clasps engraved with the initials SR on either side of a heart – a birthday gift from her father. Sasha was wearing them when Sam left the house. She screamed, silently.

The driver flicked a catch; her passenger door-lock clicked open. Numb, she found herself on the sidewalk, her hand clasping the USB stick. Seconds later, she was caught in the tube of pedestrians squeezing between tall office blocks. The cab disappeared. Everything was terrifyingly… normal.

“You’re good to go,” the IT guy said. “Nothing on it.” Samantha snatched at the USB stick, stumbled back to her desk. Following instructions, she went to plug it in, dropped it, tried again. Pulse racing, she counted to 60, then removed the stick. Nothing happened. Is this a sadistic trick? She waited. What do I do with the USB now? Can’t take it out the building. She removed an imaginary wad of chewing-gum from her mouth and wrapped a large bit of paper around it – with the USB stick – then threw it in the trash.

Outside, the cab-driver punched a number on his cell. “Hello?” Samantha answered.

“Is it done?” the voice growled through a cloth.

“Yes, but…”

“Stay. Work. Sister safe now.” The phone went dead.

The cab-driver punched in another number. An answer phone. He left the agreed message.

“Done,” he said.

Time stopped. The crowd became a fog, traffic inaudible. By the time the notification lit up his cell, his palms bled from gouging fingernails.

“Confirmed.” Vanguard didn’t waste words.

Sam had done well. He’d met their demands. But would they keep their side of the bargain? Would they release Sasha?

Picking up a shaving kit at the convenience store, he retreated to a shaded corner of the plaza. He shed his outer garments, cap and sunglasses. With shaking hands, he ran the blade through the stubble on his walnut-skin face. In the reflective office glass windows, he now saw not a stranger, but someone he knew, someone his family would know. Grant had been away so long, living his life in disguise, his surrogate had become more him than he was. But life was about to change, here, this minute.

It was essential he mastered his emotions. Breathe. Long and slow. His feet carried him forward. The atrium entrance towered over him.

“Good morning, sir. Can I be of service?” the polite voice at the service counter sounded genuine.

“Yes, good morning, I’d er… I’d… I’d like to see my daughter. She works here. I just…”

“Name, sir?”

“Oh, um, Samantha Jensen. Samantha Xinge Jensen”

“And your name, sir?”

“Grant Jensen. Here’s my ID.” He flashed his CIA-retired card.

“Thank you, sir. If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll notify her immediately.”

This was the moment. He’d risked his reputation and life to safeguard his family. But after so many years, would they want him back? Would they even recognize him?

Sam was shaking as she stepped out of the lift. Can you really be here, Dad? Do you know about Sasha? And the cabbie, the threats?

Sam threw her eyes around, hungry for the face of her father. He saw her first, and melted. “Samantha?” He willed himself to see into her mind. What would she see?

“Samantha!” he screamed, running towards her.

She stopped, transfixed. Wanted to run. Wanted to stay. Her feet were lead weights. She saw an old man, rugged, scabby, his hair long and tangled. Yet, her heart saw something else; it saw love.

He was upon her.

“Sammy! It’s me, Dad!!”

“Dad? Dad!” She collapsed into his arms.

Two days later, Deutsche Bank issued a public statement. They wished to report that a branch of their investment business had been compromised. Following a detailed investigation by the FBI, a former member of the CIA had been arrested. The man had close links with the Chinese triads and was accused of having infiltrated the system, redirecting approximately $750 million to an unspecified account overseas. Further details would be announced in due course.

Complicit

Complicit

By Howard Gaukrodger, 24.09.14

Practice: YA. Alternating POVs, chronology-mixing, character-building. 1,500 words.

Jimmy heard me scream: “The cops are coming!”

The word “cops” was a taser shot. How did the police know where to find us? What’ve we done? The four of us reached the grassy hillside of London’s Greenwich Park.  Wasn’t Jimmy meant to protect us? He was the gang leader, wasn’t he?

“Chuck it! Get rid of it all!” I heard Jimmy shout.

I tried to fling off the paper money that Colin was crushing into my hand. But I had chocolate brownie all over my fingers and the money stuck to my skin. Behind us, the uniformed hunters charged after us. Eyes watered. Heart pounded. My legs couldn’t keep up with the need to flee. I stumbled. The freshly-cut grass rushed towards my head. The world span, fingers stubbed the ground. I screamed in pain – and fear.

But that’s how the story ended. It began at school a year earlier. I was being bullied day after day, week after week. Then, I heard about gangs. At the age of nine, I didn’t know what a gang was, but I thought it meant friends sticking up for each other. I’d be protected. That’s what I liked.

During the school holidays, I got my wish. I was part of a gang, Jimmy’s gang. To be admitted, I had to prove myself. This meant completing two dares. One: go into my neighbour’s garden, pull down my pants, and pee on their roses. Two: find an earthworm, wrench it into two parts and eat the larger part.

At the time, these dares seemed cool, even though I emptied my guts right after I gulped down the worm. But this initiation was nothing. Jimmy had much bigger things in mind for us. And that’s when my life really went down the pan…

#

“Yeah, I guess you’ll ‘ave to bring ‘im along. ‘e’s all right. Jus’ keep ‘im busy, OK Col?”

Where the ‘ell do these toddlers come from, eh? I can’t run no gang wiv kids wearin’ nappies. What’s this new kid called? Roger? Posh crap. We’ll ‘ave to give ‘im a proper name when we done this nex’ job.

“You told me you didn’t want no young’uns,” Paul said.

“He ain’t bin wiv us long enough to know,” I replied. “Could be useful as watch. We’ll try ‘im out later, eh?”

“OK, Jimmy, but…”

“Shut it, Paul. I told yuh, e’s comin’ wiv us.”

Now, I just ‘ave to ‘elp that little squirt, Roger. ‘e needs some excuse to bunk off from his folks. Bloody parents. Never give us no freedom. ‘old on. I got it…

“Tell your old man we’re gonna go train-spotting, Rog,” I said.

“OK, Jimmy.”

Yeah, that’s right. “OK, Jimmy”. That’s ‘ow we do it. No ‘but’s.

#

Jimmy’s crazy. You can’t run a gang with a toddler. I tried to tell him, but he’s got a short fuse – I know all about that. We’ve been a good team, though. No one makes fun of me for being teacher’s pet, now. I can’t help liking books. They take me away. When I’m at home, I can hide under the stairs and read something like ‘The Book Thief’, so when my dad comes home drunk and beats up my mum, I can imagine the yelling and banging is part of the story.

“You got it sorted then, Jimmy?” I asked.

“‘Course. No sweat. Meet you at 2, at the back entrance, yeah? They’ll ‘ve closed ‘n gone ‘ome by then.”

“What about you, Colin? Are you coming?” I asked.

“Course ‘e’s comin, dumbfart,” Jimmy said. “‘Ow else are we gonna carry the stuff out?”

“Yeah, guess so,” Colin said.

It was a real pain talking to Colin. Took him ages to answer the simplest question. But, Jeez, the stuff he came out with. Wasn’t a day in his life he couldn’t describe in detail. He was a walking diary. Wasn’t till much later I found out he had a condition called hyperthymesia. Poor kid. His brain was on ‘Record’ 24/7.

So now, we were gonna do a job at the Crossroads Cafe. They only opened till lunch. Small place, few staff, you know the kind of place. Nice for families. I didn’t really want to do it, but Jimmy talked me into it. And I needed a bit of extra cash – my girlfriend likes clothes, make-up, and all that, so I was savin’ up to get her one of those fancy gift sets from John Lewis. Pricey, but she’s really gonna like it. Yeah, she won’t run off with that dickhead from 7A now.

#

I’m n… not a criminal. I… I… I’m not going in. It’s d… d… dangerous, and… and it could ruin my ch… my ch… my chance of getting to university. Three weeks ago, at ten past six, I was walking p… p… past the library when two dudes from school stopped me. They wanted to… to… to sell me something. I tried to… to… to walk away, but they kept getting in front of me. No, I’m n… not a criminal. With Jimmy I feel safe. I like to st… st… stick around him. But this job, Jeez, him and Paul can do it. They… they… they can break into the Cafe. I’ll just be round the front, keepin’ an eye out.

#

“Paul, pass me the bloody screwdriver! No, the other one, dick’ead!”

“Sorry.”

“They must’ve changed the lock, the bastards. Looked like a piece o’ cake last week.”

“Can we go now, Jimmy?”

“Shut it, will yuh?! We ain’t done nuffing yet.”

“Sorry.”

“Got it! I love that crack of splitting wood. And the smell o’ the dust – awesome, eh, Paul?

“Look, Jimmy! They got booze! And fags! They must ‘av real money to buy all this stuff.”

“What did I tell yuh? Come on. Let’s get the till.”

“Can I take this, Jimmy?

“What’s that?”

“This tablet. Looks pretty flash. Must have…”

“Fuck it, Paul, take whatever you want. Now, ‘elp me find the bloody till. Ah, there it is. ‘old on…”

“It’s the latest Mac. I think I’ll go outside and check it out.”

#

With my little legs, I found it difficult getting high enough to peer through the windows. I kept running from the back of the Cafe to the front. I was scared, excited. I wanted to know what was going on, but knew I shouldn’t be there. Through the smashed door, I could hear Jimmy swearing.

“What’s this?” he screamed. “It’s fuckin’ empty! Bastards! Must have hidden it. They don’t do the bankin’ ‘til Friday. Must be round ‘ere somewhere. Oy, Col, come back ‘ere. Come ‘n find the bloody till.”

I heard more swearing. China, glasses, crashed to the ground. Chairs got kicked around. Vases and menu-holders flew across the room. Then…

“Bingo! Got it!”

Jimmy found the cash box in a recess behind the mirror. He levered it open with a carving knife.

“What?! Just 25 quid?! Who are they kiddin’?”

“Jimmy!” I screamed. “The cops are coming!”

“What? No burglar alarm?”

There was a plate of chocolate brownies on the counter. I could see them from the doorway. I haven’t the foggiest idea what made me do it, but I ran inside the Cafe – just as Jimmy ran past in the other direction – and grabbed the biggest brownie on the plate.

Panic. No one here. What to do?

“Roger! Move your arse!”

“Coming, Jimmy!”

Together, we ran towards Greenwich Park. I’d never seen our gang leader so rattled, so terrified.

“Col, take this!” he shouted. “Hide it in your clothes. “Paul, stick this in your pockets! Get to the Park! I’ll see you at the bandstand!”

Colin grabbed my hand. I thought at first he wanted to help me, but he was forcing me to take the money they’d stolen from the Cafe. The police were right there. I had to run faster, faster, but then I stumbled. As my face hit the turf, my child-like eyes glimpsed the chocolate brownie in my hand. At least that was safe.

A lot of water had passed under the bridge since then, but I remember to this day how one of the police officers picked me up like a doll, her breath in my face, glossy hair tied behind her ears. They soon caught Jimmy – he wasn’t as tough as he made out. Started crying when they got him. He was sent to a youth detention centre in Norwich. Never saw him again. His friend, Roger, did well – ended up a policeman himself. There was a picture of him in the Morning Chronicle just last week. And my brother, Paul? Well, what do real brothers do? He made sure we always picked the right mates after that. The brush with the law brought us together like no amount of parental guidance could ever do.

I’m a Dog

I’m a Dog

Howard Gaukrodger, 21.09.14

Practice: timed exercise: ‘You’re an animal. 5 mins.’

I was just having a poop on a pristine bit of  footpath when my owner barked at me and pushed my hindquarters into the bushes. What’s all that about? I’ve spent days sniffing out a clean bit of path. I felt like turning round and pissing on her Levis. That would have shown her who wears the trousers.

You know, owners are all the same these days, leash on, leash off, shouting: sit, kennel, come… and those are just the polite ones. Don’t humans have brains? We know when there’s food around. We know how to act cute to get it. For Dog’s sake! And then there’s “Shake hands, Pooch!” Makes me whine. Next time anyone asks me to shake hands, I’m going to put my paw in a patch of poo and see if they want to shake hands then. Ugh! All that stinking nail varnish and hand cream. Why can’t people just smell like me. Dollop the doberman loves my smell. He’s always sniffing around my hindquarters.

Why can’t we see things from others’ perspective?

Society Expects

Society Expects

By Howard Gaukrodger, 22.08.14

Practice: POV, writing as a woman, romance, racism, unrequited love. 1,000 words.

“Could all remaining passengers for NZ9 to Cape Town, Perth and Auckland please make their way immediately to Gate 56.” She was leaving him again, but this time she knew the whole story – the story that neither had read, but which both had written.

#

“Hi, do you mind if I sit here?” The shuffling of hand-luggage and duty-frees testified to consent.

Caroline was on her way back to South Africa. Awake for nearly 24 hours, she was hungry and weary. Fast food was a godsend, but oh, the crowds, the noise. It was like living in a spin-dryer.

Assieds-toi, Michel!

“… last call for BA109 to Athens …”

“… so, I’ll be home by about 6 o’clock on Tuesday, Darling. Just …”

That voice! I know that voice. My brain clicked back through the years.

“… put the slow-cooker on. Yeah, yeah, we’ll have dinner together, OK?”

It was Aaron!

#

We’d been students at Bristol University – same groups for all three years. But there were only a few boys in the language courses in the ’80s. They could pick and choose. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, I was always playing volleyball and doing other stuff, and he was always studying.

I craned my neck to see over the sea of bobbing heads. There! He cut a stunning figure, despite the advancing years. Maturity and calmness oozed from his form. I was always struck by his aura of control.

“Aaron,” I murmured, heart racing as I approached.

His sixth sense urged him to look up. “Caroline?” His eyes shone bright, penetrating her core.

“Aaron! What a lovely surprise!” Am I allowed to be gushing?

“Caroline! Wow, so nice to see you! What are you…”

“Must be 30 years!”

“Oh, at least. Would you like to join…”

“Yes, of course, if you’re not waiting for your… I mean, if I’m not disturbing.”

“Caroline, don’t be silly! Come and join me. Now, how are you? Where are you off to… a thousand questions.”

He hadn’t changed. Still that cocky confidence and adorable smile. But maybe she’d changed? Wrinkles, a bit of sag here and there. Was that a bad thing? Life forces change, doesn’t it? Conversation flowed. I could feel my face flushing, My hands wouldn’t keep still. I felt a drop of sweat trickle down between my breasts. How could it be? Decades had passed and still this… this… chemistry, this bond of, yes, I had to admit it, this bond of desire.

The time of our flights approached. I thought he might tell me what I had never heard him say. Every fibre of my heart twisted in agony, wanting him to tell me what I’d always hoped to hear. Should I ask? But why? What purpose would it serve? Surely, if I told him how I felt, how I’d always felt, it would just bring heartache for both of us. With thumping temples, and nervous laughter, I made up my mind and…

“Why didn’t you tell me, Caroline?”

“What?”

“That you were in love with me.”

The adrenaline rush made me swoon. He was one step ahead. Always was.

“I… I… well, what good would it have done?”

No, no, no, that’s not what I wanted to say!

“Your father would have…” I continued.

“Yes, he probably would have… But, you do know, don’t you?

“What are you saying, Aaron? ‘You do know what’?”

The PA system came close to snapping the strand of harmony, but she held on.

“You must have noticed I never had a serious girlfriend in Bristol?” Aaron said. “I was always hoping…”

“But, Aaron, I thought you and Serena were…”

“No, no, don’t be silly. You were the one. Every time we bumped into each other, I wanted to tell you how much I…” His eyes fell to the wedding ring on his finger and his voice trailed off.

He was married. Society wouldn’t allow him to love another woman. My God! I wouldn’t allow him to love another woman. He wasn’t going to tell me. He couldn’t.

“Any children?” I asked.

“Four. Two from my first marriage, and …”

“Oh, married twice.”

“Yes. I was a bit restless after uni. You know, parental pressure, wanting to get out, do my own thing. I met someone when I was in Marseille. She stood for everything I didn’t have in my family cocoon in London – got married six months later. Biggest mistake of my life.”

“Must have been upsetting.”

“Well, the divorce, no, but it was tough on the kids. Anyway, what about you?”

I looked down at my own gold ring. “I’ve done well. Great family, you know… Married in ’98, two kids, both doing well at school. I’m in South Africa now.”

“South Africa? Never made it over there. What’s it like?”

The conversation wandered like a lost soul from platitudes to surges of relentless emotions. My eyes flitted up to the departures screen.

“Do you have to go?” he asked, almost whispering.

“Two minutes,” I said, but I knew that was cutting it fine. “This was very special, Aaron. Maybe next time, we can…”

“Yes, next time, we really should.”

“One thing, Aaron. Why didn’t you tell me that…?”

“What? That being black, my parents wouldn’t allow me to see you? That they think black and white still don’t mix, that society ostracises couples like that?!”

A tear fell from his deep, brown eyes – a tear of such potent chemistry, she couldn’t hold back her own repressed love, her agony of being ignored, then dismissed so many years ago.

“But we could have made it, Aaron. We could have…”

“Gone back to Eritrea? Is that what you think? You have no idea what it’s like for a woman there. The mines, the fear, the lack of independence that I know you can’t do without!”

“Oh, Aaron, Aaron, I love you so much.”

“Last call for flight NZ9 to Cape Town, Perth and Auckland. Your flight is boarding.”

In wretched confusion, I rose from my seat and took the ebony face in my hands. The tears streamed down my face as I kissed the black curly hair of the only man I have ever truly loved.

“Perhaps you’re right, Aaron, but I will never forget you.”

“Nor I, you. Wada’an, Caroline. Be well.”

 

Never Forgotten – a Tribute.

Never Forgotten – A Tribute.

By Howard Gaukrodger, 10.08.2014.

Practice: 3rd p.s. narrative, pathos, character-building. 700 words.

The wicker chair creaked as she rocked forward and back, forward and back, listening to the croak and warble of the tui in the unspoilt New Zealand countryside. She was home now, free. It had been five years – should have been nine. They’d released her early on compassionate grounds: “extenuating circumstances of war”, they said.

Disfigured by ill-health and torment, Abigail Green was “the ugly spinster in the haunted bach”, a recluse, glimpsed but fleetingly when she brushed through the weeds of her garden.

#

They’d shared a love that only Cupid could measure. On fine weekends, Jamie would drive them to Cannibal Bay. A discreet cave was accessible at low tide. Nobody observed them during their flirting with rapture. The summer of ’38 was hot. It would not be subdued by the cloud of fear sweeping across Europe. They’d be safe here, she thought, the other side of the world, but nobody predicted Pearl Harbour.

Overruling parental concerns, their conscience pushed them to enlist in ’42. The Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force stamped their dog-tags and added their souls to 104,000 compatriots already in action. She recalled the CO’s announcement, “We’re deploying to New Guinea.” But she’d got her wish – she’d be going with Jamie.

#

The last time she’d seen him, his face was swollen from infected insect bites, his twitching eyes were fiery red, and a gaping wound throbbed in his flank. For fifteen days, he’d been with the Australians, repulsing the Japanese at Kokoda. He’d found his own way back to the field hospital. Reunited in Hell, but in the care of the most doting nurse in Heaven, they’d talked in staccato bursts between his amputations and blood transfusions. The last thing he’d said was etched in her mind: “Never forget, Abi. Nobody must forget what the Kiwis and Aussies have done… to defend… our country, the free world.” When she returned from treating another patient, Jamie’s bed was empty.

#

Abi was demobbed in New Zealand in 1945. Despite indelible images of war, her mind was clear. While nursing in New Guinea, she’d heard the ceaseless ramblings of delirious officers revealing details of Japanese adversaries. Abi had memorised the names, and in her breaks would write them down, hiding the list in her undergarments.

Now, in the aftermath of war, purpose prevailed. ‘Never forget, Abi. Never forget…’ She would make sure that nobody would. By March 1946, her plan was laid. Using her military connections, she flew to Japan. It was understood she would be helping the bomb victims in Nagasaki. She contacted the American media in the shattered country and gleaned information from disillusioned Japanese soldiers she found in brothels and roofless beer houses. Despite the chaos, it proved easy completing her list – a list of the families of the enemy. And who should come first? It would be those who’d lost their men – the Japanese soldiers who’d fought at Kokoda – the men responsible for the death of her Jamie.

#

Abi was proud of her scheme: the wives agreed to pay her anything when she promised to locate their loved ones. Their desire to believe was a tidal wave that swept aside the telegram of “Missing in action”.

Her earnings grew, and with it the confidence of her calculating mind. It would have been easy to kill these women: her nursing skills convinced her of that. But this was not Jamie’s message. ‘Never forget’, he’d said.

#

Abi returned to New Zealand, the culmination of her plan in sight. The nearest sculptor of repute was in Invercargill. Agreement was reached, and the work completed.

“I’ve done it, Jamie!” she would say as she wandered around the bach. It wasn’t until the following year that the police took her in: “Abigail Green, you’re under arrest for extortion and…” She smiled, at peace with herself.

#

“Pro Patria”, shone the inscribed plaque on the five-foot-seven memorial in the heart of the town. James G Brown, one of 11,900 New Zealanders lost in the conflagration, was home. He and his brothers-in-arms would never be forgotten.

Childhood Tree

Childhood Tree
Howard Gaukrodger, 17.03.14

Practice: Five-minute speed test. Write about a tree.

My escape lay at the bottom of the garden. A concrete path, narrow as the wheels of my trike, led through the vegetable patch to this Eden. Here, I would pedal whenever I was sad, or lonely.

In spring, the gnarly apple tree beckoned with blossom of white and pink. They were daylight stars fluttering in the sun. I would stare and stare and stare some more, until the tree had sucked out all unwanted emotion.

The years went by, and like the tree, I grew. Old enough now to climb, I would shin up the trunk and perch on its silvery limbs. There’s my house. Dad’s in his workshop. I could see everything from here. I was on top of the world. At the right time of year, when the blossoms had turned to fruit, I would pick an apple, or two, and savour the still-bitter taste.

Into adolescence and my tree had shrunk. Why would I want to climb that little thing? But I still sat against its trunk. I was grateful for its protection from the sun. And I always loved its whispering leaves. I think of this tree even now when I’m stressed, and even now I find peace in its memory.

Escape from the Regime

Escape from the Regime

Howard Gaukrodger 20.04.14.

Practice: Fiction. Thriller, dramatic present. 1,500 words.

 

Stop breathing! Too loud! Shreds of a soiled shirt stick like wax to my blistered skin. Jungle clings to my bloodied legs and blackened face, sucking energy. I drink the thick, hot air. It’s dark. Foliage drips. Dehydration is killing me. I don’t know if I’ll make it. It’s been hours. But the soldiers must quit their post before I drop to the river.

#

The British-held Falkland Islands were due south, 1,700 km away. For Argentina and its allies, they were known as the Malvinas, a South Atlantic island group with oil reserves worth billions. MI6 knew that General Galtieri, leader of the military regime, was planning an invasion. But when? And where would they attack? I was the sleeper agent activated by London to infiltrate the Junta’s strategy meeting in northern Argentina. I was tasked to find out. My name: Kim Jensen.

#

The military is everywhere. My face is in the papers. Someone’s spilt the beans. The Russians? Eight years in disguise, and I get 35 minutes on mission. Better than nothing. Got something for White-bloody-hall. They better like it. Can’t come back. Might not get out. I send my last message to London. The handler’s reply: “Get to grid-point -26.993056, -54.486944, San Vicente Aeroclub. Fence cut, north-west end of runway. 05:30. A node, Juan, will fly you to an airstrip south of Iguazu. Walk due west, 3500 m to ferry. Cross Río Paraná to Paraguay. Rendezvous with extraction team at grid-point -25.662240, -54.692706, Los Cedrales. End.” Sounded easy.

#

I dump the hire car. Stage 1 complete. Juan, where the hell are you? The field’s empty. It’s 05:30. No one flies so early. I wait. I hate waiting. 05:35, 05:40. A whirring throb grabs my attention. Light flashes in the sky. From the east, a tiny, STOL bush aircraft escapes the rising sun and touches down on the club’s runway. Hurry! Come on! The door swings open, engine running. Pulse at 160, I belt up. We’re taxiing, turning. Full throttle now. Juan pulls on the joy stick. We rise over the fence and away from the clutches of La SIDE, the secret police.

The noise is deafening. Communication is by gesture. The whining engine, vibration, a scything crosswind and icy fear rattle my thoughts and bones in the doll’s house seat. We roll and yaw, drop and rise; we’re a feather in a gathering storm. My hands are sweating. Why?

“Nearly there?” I shout, pointing to my watch.

Juan looks at the massing clouds and shrugs.

Can’t be more than 15 minutes to the drop-off. I sigh, but relief is short-lived. We don’t see it coming. Invisible, lethal. Juan is flying low. Maybe too low. Thirty kilometres from our drop-off point, the hydro reservoir, Lago Uruguayí, appears over the dash. It grins a treacherous blue. We’re crossing the dam at the eastern end when…

“Ahh!!”

The storm front is rushing west. A pocket of turbulent air hurtles up the wall of the dam, compresses and punches into the space above, blasting everything within 500 metres. Our midget aircraft has no chance. The starboard wing flips up. Chaos erupts in the cockpit. We’re out of control. Upside-down, I’m hanging in my belt, straps cutting my neck. Juan’s yelling. He’s fighting the controls. Memories flash before me, family, loved ones. Somebody’s swearing. Oil. Engine oil. It smothers the windscreen. Can’t see. Seconds last forever. We’re going down. I remember the clenched teeth, the eyes of terror. But Juan’s getting there. He’s getting control! The plane’s about to level off. Another 30 seconds and we…

“Agh!!!”

Trees smash into the fuselage. Wings break off. Glass shatters. Propeller’s gone. The body of the plane cartwheels, oil, fuel everywhere. I’m thrown to the forest floor and life goes black.

#

The nibbling doesn’t hurt at first. It’ll go away. I just want to sleep. My head hurts. Grey shapes swim before me. Consciousness returns, and I feel the ants, hundreds of them, marching up towards my bleeding thigh. “Shite!” I brush off the insects and struggle to my feet.

The Paraná pines and trumpet trees fight with laurels and cedars to hide the shattered skeleton that was once a plane. An arm hangs from the cockpit. It’s not attached. Juan has bled to death.

#

I grab the military-issue, MOLLE pouch that my erstwhile companion had prepared. Inside: a GPS, spare batteries, water, purification tablets, dried food, tin mug, torch, first-aid kit, money – and a suicide pill. “Sorry,” he’d said. “I can’t take you over the border. No permit.” The flight, my escape, had cost him his life.

Alone, my senses shriek with new impressions, the smell of humus, the squawks and whooping of birds, shimmering sunlight and the pressing fog of humidity. Think! Think! I have to leave Juan. It was an accident. I don’t need to be here. Where’s here, anyway?

The GPS device is almost useless under the canopy, but a fleeting signal reveals I’m 35 kilometres from the Paraná crossing, 32 kilometres further away than planned.

#

I’m into the second day, fighting, slithering through the undergrowth. Bearing: north-west. Illegal logging tracks offer occasional respite. Pine plantations hasten my progress. Then it’s back to primordial bush. Stop, start, stop, start, every fifty metres I check the GPS, only to swear at the mass of overhanging trees. Connect, you bastard! Connect! My food’s gone. I’m surviving on water.

What’s that? There’s a whisper, a hiss. I can’t tell how far away it is. A wasps’ nest? Mosquitoes?  But it gets louder, more consistent. My spirits rise. Is it the river?! Blood trickles down the shaft of my forest baton – the blisters of my palms long broken and leaking life. I wade through ponds of fetid water, slashing at vines. Once a shirt, the khaki cloth is now torn into strips and bandaging my legs. My chest is raw, scratched, red, black. Burnt skin stings. And that noise? It is the river.

#

Waiting. I’m waiting again – waiting for the for the pencil-thin riverboat to arrive, waiting for the gun-toting soldiers to leave. They’re young and bored. Nothing ever happens out here, they’ll be saying. And still I wait, 70-100 metres away. I’m going to dash aboard at the last instant, darkness my friend, dirt my disguise.

Lucky they don’t have dogs. My body smells foul: unwashed skin and the uncontrolled shit of terror. I stare down the incline in the buzzing, clacking, moonlit night, mesmerised by the roiling torrent of the Paraná. The lights of safety wink from the distant bank: Paraguay.

Here it comes! Out of the night looms a 20-metre narrow-boat, no glass in the windows, no paint on the wood. To cross the river, the ferry points upstream. A hint of rudder, and the unforgiving current does the rest. It’s my only route of escape. The soldiers mumble, then roar with laughter. They watch with apathy, as the ferryman ties up at the jetty.

Soon now. Very soon. I check my once-proud passport, count the American dollars and hyper-inflation notes of the local currency – smallest denomination: 10,000 pesos. I watch the firefly- cigarette buts shoot to the ground and count: 1, 2, 3, 4… Must stay calm. No rush. The soldiers check the ID cards of incoming passengers, see there are no outgoing passengers, and wander off like tumbleweed towards their post. I count again. Easy boy. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…

The ferry engine kicks into life. Is it my imagination or did the ferryman just lift his head and nod? He unties the boat. It’s now or never! I crash through the vines, slap at umbrella-sized leaves, and run to where danger had stood just a moment before. 25 strides long, the rickety jetty groans as I stomp onto its spiny frame. The soldiers pause. Will they turn? They laugh again, then dissolve into the unctuous humidity.

Espere!” [Wait!] I cry, afraid the boatman will leave,

The barnacled face looks up, jaundiced by the single tungsten bulb swaying over the wheelhouse at the stern. He puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette, then waves me aboard.
Kicking the shoeless feet of cross-river labourers and reed-baskets of chickens, I apologise, “Disculpe”, “Disculpe”, and stumble to a vacant seat. Let’s go! Please!

The ferryman retrieves the mooring rope. I catch his eye, his stark features silhouetted against the moon. With the concern of a grazing cow, he flicks his cigarette into the muddy river, and winks at me. He’s one of ours.

The moment

The moment
Howard Gaukrodger, 01.04.14

Never have I seen such eyes, blue as naked sapphire,
deep as the virgin pools of hallowed forests.

Her bewitching smile disarmed frustration,
pacifying my tortured mind.

Into the mist of the morning she vanished,
my heart now empty like a lake with no water.

As footprints receded and proved her existence,
I stared into nothing, with everything before me.

The opportunity was gone, though hope still abounded;
this lightning illuminated my life but once.