I have written a lot of genre short stories. I collected these all up in a collection called Strange Tales. But, in the end, I kept writing more, enough for another short booklet. That second one I could only name More Strange Tales.
All of these stories are odd. If they weren’t, then the title would be a bit of a misnomer, wouldn’t it? They were among some of the first short stories which I completed, in that naïve burst of energy when I began writing loads and loads of stuff. If I wrote the stories now they would probably be different. They would probably be more depressing, for one thing. But I am still proud of all of these tales.
The tales include stories based on my old Kult RPG campaign, androids, Mars, ogres and even stamp collecting.
Here follows a complete short story from the first collection.
From Strange Tales: Time In A Bottle
Paul had never noticed the street before. Which was odd, as he thought that he knew the West End of London quite well. Downton Street, it was called – and he had almost walked past its entrance, the way in being little more than an alleyway. He still needed to find a Christmas present for Anna, his girlfriend, so he thought that he would take a quick look in this street to see if there were any shops in there.
The street beyond was dark, and thin, the roofs of the houses almost meeting above the road. There was nobody else on the street, and weeds had begun to push their way up past the cobbled road surface, seeking what fragments of light filtered its way down towards them.
For some reason a line of nonsense poem came into Paul’s head – “The weeds were the slaves/ Of the Lord of Graves” – and he had no idea where the line had come from. Putting this matter aside, he continued on down the street.
There were houses on the street, old, Victorian-styled ones, most of them with their windows either boarded or bricked up. There was a disreputable looking pub, going by the name of the Red Lion, an old fashioned barbers (closed), with a red and white striped pole above the door. There was also an antique shop, and that appeared to be open.
The shop was called ‘Antiques and Curios’. The window was so dirty with grime and dust that Paul could hardly see through to what lay inside. But, as the sign on the door proclaimed the shop to be ‘Open’, he decided to go in, to see what he could find.
A bell jangled as he opened the door. Paul walked in, and saw that there was a man standing behind the counter, a man with a most unusual appearance. he looked to be around eighty years old, and, although he was still tall, he looked shrivelled – he was as thin as a cadaver, totally bald(not even eyebrows), with heavily lined, wrinkled skin. His skin had a yellowish tinge, and was mottled with liver spots. The man was wearing very threadbare evening dress – ancient Victorian tails, an off-white shirt with a brown stain running down the front, and a black bow tie that had seen better days.
“Yes?” the cadaver asked. “May I help you?”
“Er, just browsing at the moment.” Paul said.
“Let me know if there is anything that you want.” the cadaver said.
Paul looked around the shop. There was a thin film of dust over everything, and dead bluebottle flies littered the window.
The antiques, if that is what they were, were in a state of some disrepair. There was what had originally been a three-legged stool, sitting on its side, due to one of its legs being missing. There was a medical set, containing scalpels, and forceps, in a brown leather Victorian case, but the instruments were stained brown with old, dried blood.. There was an old, unremarkable walking stick, with a rusted metal head. There was an ancient “What The Butler Saw” machine, such as might have been found on Brighton pier once upon a time – but with a placard saying ‘Not In Working Order’ hanging from it.
Paul’s eyes settled on an old glass bottle, irregularly shaped, of approximately the same size as a milk bottle. The bottle was stoppered by a large cork. Inside, there was a glowing, swirling green mist, that never stopped still, and that never assumed the same shape twice. Paul was fascinated by it, in the same way that people can be entranced by the flames of a log fire.
“What’s that?” Paul asked, pointing at the bottle.
“Time.” the old man said.
“I beg your pardon?” Paul said.
“Time in a bottle.” the old man said.
“How can you have time in a bottle?” Paul asked.
“It is all the yesterdays that you never had.” the old man explained. “All those lost hours that you can’t remember. The childhood days of yester-year. All the happy moments that you want to see again, if you only could. They are all there, captured in the bottle.”
“Er, you can’t do that.” Paul said. “You can’t capture time like that.”
The old, cadaverous man simply shrugged, and spread his hands in a gesture to say ‘I’ve said my piece, believe it or not’.
Paul carried on looking at the bottle. He didn’t believe a word of what the old man had said.
“How much?” Paul asked.
“What value can you place on time?” the old man asked. “What value can you put on owning your own youth, all those odd hours that you seemed to lose along the way? It is priceless – and, as being without price, I shall charge you only the most nominal fee.”
“How much?” Paul asked.
“How much is it worth to you, all that I have said?” the emaciated old man asked. “I shall let you set the price.”
Paul, seeing a possible bargain, for whatever this strange bottle really was, decided to give a low estimate, just to see if the old man would accept it.
“Okay, how about a fiver?” Paul said.
The old man raised his eyebrows in mock astonishment, but said:
“Very well, five pounds it is, if that is all that you value it at. Take time if you please. But, beware, do not remove the cork, lest you get what you wish for.”
“Thanks.” Paul said, taking the bottle, and exiting the shop quickly, not looking back in case the old man changed his mind. Thus, Paul did not see the old man change the shop sign around to ‘Closed’ and lock the door.
Paul hurried off, imbued with a guilty feeling, as if he had done something illicit. He left Downton Street, back into more familiar territory, not bothering to look back behind him. He did not see that where he had just left Downton Street, between a pub and a boarded up tobacconists, there was no longer an alleyway called Downton Street, there was no longer any gap at all.
Paul had put the bottle in his shopping bag. He had originally been looking for something for his girlfriend, Anna, but he realised that he did not want to give her this curious bottle, with its glowing green mist, after all. Eventually, he found a department store, and he bought her a name brand perfume and a card, absentmindedly not handing over enough money to the girl behind the till.
When Paul got home, he studied the bottle. The mist was still moving about, forming shapes inside the glass. First the mist would take the form of an animal, a cat or a dog, then flow into a house shape, then a cloud shape, then something else. Paul thought that he almost recognised these scenes, these images – it was the feeling that you get when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it. Paul wondered where he could hide the bottle where his girlfriend would be unable to find it.
Paul hid the bottle away, and tried to forget about it. But he could not. he had hidden it in the little cubby-hole under the stairs, and he had to keep going to check that it was safely there. He eve got up during the middle of the night to check.
After a restless night, of little sleep, Paul realised that he had to put the bottle in a safer place. Somewhere where no one else would be able to get at it, apart from him. Somewhere where his girlfriend would never look. She would not get it. It was his. No one else would ever get their hands on it, ever again.
The question was, though, where to hide it? The house was out of the question – his girlfriend was too conscientious a cleaner, and she would be bound to discover it, sooner or later. Then it struck him. The garden shed. Anna hated gardening. She would never look in there. Or would she? And there were thieves about…
Paul ended up buying a heavy duty steel chain and padlock for the shed. It was only when the bottle was safely secured inside that he began to relax a little. But he still ended up checking on the bottle several times a day, gazing at the shapes within the glowing green mist. But he was careful to only go in the shed when he was sure that no one else was about.
His girlfriend, Anna, noticed the new, heavy duty chain around the shed, of course, and was naturally curious. Paul’s refusal to answer any questions as to what he was keeping in the shed only piqued her curiosity even more. Paul started to become resentful of the questions, and, after a few harsh words, ended up going out, by himself, down to the local pub for a drink.
Anna did not know why, but she really had to know what Paul was keeping in the garden shed. She had to find out, some way or the other. So, as Paul had just gone off to the pub, she felt that this was her chance.
She knew Paul’s mind, and where he hid things, you see. She knew where he had hidden the key to the padlock on the shed. How she knew so clearly, she did not understand, nor question. Nor did she question why Paul had not taken the key with him, if he valued the object in the shed so. Neither did she comprehend whatever force was driving her to find out what mysterious object must lie within the garden shed.
The key had been hidden by Paul in the bottom of his sock drawer. Armed with it, Anna soon had the padlock open, and the chains off the garden shed. She was initially disappointed to find that the only new thing inside was a dirty glass bottle, stoppered with an old cork, a bottle of the sort that you might dig up in somebody’s back garden. Then Anna noticed that the bottle was not still. There was some sort of pulsing light from within. the bottle began to glow with a sickly green light, and images began to form below the surface of the glass. It was hers. Paul must have bought it as a present for her, as a surprise. So, she reasoned, since it would be hers one day, it did not matter if she had it now.
Paul, now in a foul mood, had gone to the pub intending to have a fair few pints, but he found that he could not take his mind off the bottle in his garden shed. He became convinced that something had happened to it, although he had no evidence to go on, apart from his instincts. He left the pub after only his first pint, and started walking home. By the time that he entered his road he was in a run. He didn’t enter his house, but made his way to the gate leading to the back garden, out of breath from a stitch. As soon as he came through the man-high wooden gate he saw that his worst fears had been realised – the chains were off the garden shed, the padlock gone, and the shed door was open. Someone was after his bottle!
Praying that he was not too late, Paul rushed into the shed, to find his girlfriend holding his glowing green bottle in her hands.
“Mine!” he shouted, making a snatch for the bottle.
“Mine!” she shouted, trying to pull the bottle away from his lunging fingers.
Their four hands clutched and grasped at the bottle, its surface suddenly slippery with some ancient rime. Somehow, the bottle slipped out of their grasp, squeezed upwards into the air, like a bar of soap in a bath, turning a full three hundred and sixty degree circle before impacting on the wooden floor of the garden shed. The bottle did not immediately break, but, instead, a fine, hairline crack appeared down one side. As both Paul and Anna looked on aghast, the crack began to widen, green light pouring out from within. Then, suddenly, the bottle shattered, showering both of them with countless shards, not of glass, but of time.
All their yesterdays returned. The time when Paul had been three, and he had fallen over when playing on his new trike, and had scraped his knees. The time when Anna had cheated at school, copying out another girl’s homework. the time when Paul had had his first kiss, behind the bike sheds at school. The time when Anna had got drunk at her first all night party. Every lost moment, every forgotten memory, were relived by them, not just remembered. They were as real as they had been at the time, for they were. A kiss, a scraped knee, an illness, a friends death, a party, they relived these disordered shards of time over and over again. For ever.
Sometime later, an old emaciated man, his lined skin discoloured by liver spots, walked into an empty garden shed. He picked up an old glass bottle, its cork still safely in, no cracks to be seen, with a glowing mist below the surface of the glass, new shapes ever forming within. He left the empty shed, slowly trudging back in the direction of Downton Street.
Strange Tales and More Strange Tales are available as e-books on the Amazon Kindle Store.