Sunday, 30 December 2012


So here we are on the verge of another year ending, and I find myself reluctant to let it go. Whatever happens in the future, 2012 will always be special. For those of you who are latecomers to this site, I thought that I'd recap my year, so that you'll understand why that is.

- March 16th: I received an email from the Lake Winnipeg Writers' Group (LWWG) informing me that my story, "Baggage", had taken 3rd place in the Flash Fiction category of their Write on the Lake contest. Included among the prizes would be publication in their journal, "Voices". Although my work has done rather well across the rest of the country, this would be my first ever publication in Manitoba. Just between you and me, my year could have ended right there and I wouldn't have complained.

- June 10th: While my ego and I were scrolling through the passages listed under my name on Google, we came across one that neither of us had seen before, from the Elora Writers' Festival. It appeared that my story, "A", had placed second in their competition. This was confirmed the next day when their cheque arrived in the mail. A strange way of finding out, I thought, but I was to discover that it wouldn't be the last.

-June 20th: Just ten days later, I found out that England's Global Short Story Competition had short listed two of my stories, "The Mathematics of Fate" and "The Icon", in the same way that I found out about "A". Neither story advanced, but it was definitely recognition, and the first time that two of my stories had gained that in a single competition.

- July 22nd: Amidst words like 'excellent!' and 'amazing!', I was enthusiastically informed that my story, "Heading Home", was accepted for the fall issue of LWWG's journal, "Voices". This would mark the first time in my career that I would have entries in back-to-back issues of a magazine.

- July 24th: TWO DAYS later, I received an email from the English publishing house, Wild Wolf (to whom I had sent sample chapters of my novel, The Adventures of Charlie Smithers, fourteen months previously) asking for the entire manuscript. Another first, and I'm here to tell you that invitations like that don't grow on trees!

- July 25th: THE VERY NEXT DAY, again, with no prior warning, I received a cheque in the mail, and a congratulatory letter informing me that my story, "Roll of Honour" had won in the Lest We Forget category of the Canadian Stories contest. Also included in the prize was publication in the next issue of the Canadian Stories Magazine. That made three stories published to date, and a first, second and third in competitions! Another first was, that after my work had finished second more times than I'd like to remember, one of my stories had finally won an award, justifying my putting 'award-winning' in front of 'author', which I will at the drop of a hat.

- August 3rd: A little more than a week later, I was informed that "The Mathematics of Fate" had been accepted for the fall issue of "Voices". The first time that I would have multiple entries published in the same issue of a magazine. Four stories published. After years of being deprived of making it into print in my home province, I was quickly catching up, and it wasn't over!

- August 11th: A little more than a week after that, Maurice, Voices editor, wrote to tell me that two more of my stories, "The Icon" (previously short-listed in both the 2010 Arts Hamilton Competition, and the April edition of 2012 Global Short Story Competition) and "Incomplete" (previously winning 2nd place in the 2010 Writers' Federation of New Brunswick Competition [with an "extremely impressed" from judge Steven Mayoff]) would be included in the Spring issue. All-in-all, that would make six stories published, or promised to be published in one year, by far and away a personal best. Note to self: I haven't heard back from Maurice on that, so I'd better send him a friendly reminder.

- August 30th: Sam at Wild Wolf Publications wrote, offering to publish "The Adventures of Charlie Smithers".

- September 4th: After days spent going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, and just generally behaving like a headless chicken, I finally bite the bullet, and sent away the signed contract. Six short stories and a novel!

- September 8th: Just four days later, I received an email from Jenny, at the John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award, saying that both my entries, "Angel" and "And Then It Rained", had been short-listed.  More recognition.

-September 9th: The very next day, I was informed that the newsletter, Flight Plan, wanted to publish "Roll of Honour", the first time that one of my stories had been published twice...and in the same year!

- November 12th: After weeks and weeks spent going over the manuscript, cover art, blurb, review, acknowledgements, the dedication and producing a new photograph of myself that didn't do permanent damage to the camera, "The Adventures of Charlie Smithers" is finally released.

- November 24th: With the release of the fall issue of "Voices", I gave my first reading at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, and lived to tell the tale.

- December 1st: The Lake Winnipeg Writers' Group highlighted me as their feature writer of the month. Check it out, it might not be there that much longer.

So now you might understand why I think that it's been a pretty terrific year - a novel and six other stories published (or are to be published - one of them twice!) and at least five others recognized by being short-listed, or in the case of "A", winning second place in a contest, without publication. To give you an idea, in 2011 I had one story published and two recognized. At the time I thought that was pretty good.

Now, for those of you who have just tuned in, welcome, and for those of you who have consistently followed these posts, thank you, and thank all of you who have offered their support and congratulations along the way. To all a very Happy New Year.

You will continue to stay tuned, won't you? I have a feeling that there'll be a lot more to come in the future.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

It's All About Family

I just wanted to share something, that in its own way, is the most special of everything that's happened this year, insofar as writing is concerned (and if you've been reading this blog, you'll know that this year has already been quite special).

Sister Barb and brother-in-law Chuck had invited all of us siblings over for dinner on Sunday. It was a no-brainer to attend. Barb puts on quite a spread, and Chuck loves his wine even more than I do. Not to mention that when we all get together it's a case of laughing until your sides ache. Seriously. So it promised to be an enjoyable evening. Consequently 4:30 PM on Sunday saw Amber and I at their front door (4:30, Barb informed me, was when cocktails would be served) only to find that everyone had arrived before us - sister Betty and brother-in-law Ken, and brother Joel and sister-in-law Pat (brother Lloyd and sister-in-law Linda, way out in Edmonton, could not attend). Whereupon I discovered that, no sooner had greetings been exchanged than I found a flute of Chuck's prized (and jealously hoarded) champagne thrust in my hand, and with all my family gathered 'round, Chuck proposed a toast to the success of Charlie Smithers, if you please. I was really quite shocked, and if memory serves, left totally speechless. As far as recognition goes, if any of you out there are the baby of your family, you'll know what I mean, even more than anyone else, when I say that I was deeply touched. The respect of your peers is one thing, but the respect of your older siblings is quite another, and trumps, virtually, anything else.

Later I did another reading (Chuck had called the night before, asking if I would do one, but the penny never dropped in what I jokingly refer to as my brain). Although it was well-received, I can't say that it was the same success as my first reading. Outside of the fact that I had, perhaps, fifteen minutes to prepare, several other toasts had been drunk along the way, so, no, it didn't go quite as smoothly as it did at McNally Robinson, but it was, I think, far more satisfactory.

In case you were wondering, I didn't drive home that night, and I read the first seven pages of 'Sean's Lament', a rather lengthy novella that you won't have heard of, being unpublished, but one which both Amber and I are quite partial to.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Another first: I'm thrilled to report that the Lake Winnipeg Writers' Group has chosen me as their feature writer for the month of December. Check it out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Charlie Smithers - Free Kindle App

Since Charlie Smithers was released I've received some emails from friends saying that they would like to buy the book, but they didn't have a Kindle. So I thought that I should post this in case there were any others out there with the same predicament.

As I posted earlier, just Google and click on books, then type in The Adventures of Charlie Smithers in the search window. When the book shows up just click on that, and a page will appear with the book on the left hand side, and advertisements on the right. At the bottom of these advertisements is a Kindle-friendly reading app that can be downloaded onto your computer for free. I copied and pasted it here so you'll know what to look for.

Read books on your computer or other mobile devices with ourFREE Kindle Reading Apps.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Story - Heading Home

Heading Home is (ostensibly) about a ten-year-old boy walking home from school in the dead of winter, in the early 1930’s. The time notwithstanding, perhaps those of you from the prairies can relate.

                              Heading Home

                                                                         by CW Lovatt

            All things considered, as far as the cold went, young Davy Patterson reckoned that although today might not be a record, the difference was pretty much negligible.
He was cutting across country, taking the short cut from school just outside of town. Davy never hesitated making tracks from that place of misery at the best of times, but today the steep dip in the thermometer demanded an even fresher pace before reaching his home, almost a mile away, on the far side of the snow-covered field.
As he tramped along, frost formed on his eyelashes, giving them an oddly beautiful, feminine grace of which - had he but known - he would have vigorously disapproved. But not knowing - instead he bowed his head into the wind, his breath frosting into a circle on the muffler covering his face.  The gusts were not overly heavy, and would scarcely be noticed at any other season, but when the mercury dropped to thirty below like it was today, it cut like a knife (“Like a Pure-D-Jeezer,” as Grandpa put it). Then every breath became a trial, and exposed skin froze in less than a minute.
The thought of his grandpa prompted a vision of his ancient face, which in turn, conjured a smile under the red scarf his mother had knit him for Christmas. The old man had a collection of cuss words for every occasion, all of which drew an exasperated frown from Davys mother, although that was usually the extent of her disapproval; she had long since given up any hope that there would ever be a reformation. Like hed heard her say more than once, “A body has only so much energy,” and would usually add with a sigh, “No point wasting it on something that cant be changed.”
Davy stopped, his smile slowly fading, to be replaced by a puzzled frown. Something about that image of his grandfather wasnt right close but not…what? He knit his brow, the frost accenting the arches while he considered.
However, a rogue gust of wind chose that moment to pierce through his overcoat and three sweaters like they were so much tissue paper, dragging him from his thoughts before he could reach a conclusion. Shivering, he dismissed the subject and pulled his toque well down over his ears before starting forward again.
 Christ-On-A-Hot-Plate, but it was cold! This was another one of Grandpas homilies, and if his mother ever heard him repeating it, she would tan his backside for him, good and proper. Davy figured that the energy put into tanning his backside was something his ma still believed worthwhile and, accordingly, took pains to be careful whenever he was within her reach.
Be that as it may, home was still a mile off, so hed best get to it. He hoped Ma would have a mug of cocoa waiting for him - that and some fresh biscuits, and there might even be some honey left in the crock, too. Fresh biscuits and honey - Jesus-Darling-Christ! - was there ever anything in the world that tasted half as good! He adjusted the shoulder strap of his book bag, feeling the weight cut through the layers of clothing, and continued on, his boots crunching, unnaturally loud, in the frozen stillness. Something warm inside would make all the difference before going out again to help Grandpa with the evening chores.
There it was again - the image of that wrinkled old face, smiling that same toothless way he had whenever spinning one of his yarns. Usually those were about the time hed gone off to South Africa to set folks (he called them Boers) straight, back at the turn of the century some thirty years earlier; but sometimes hed tell stories about a place called Batoche, too, and something that was known as the Northwest Rebellion - which was a site further back, when he was apparently - just a young man. Notwithstanding that those stories were as exciting as all the others, Davy usually took them with a grain of salt; not that he didnt believe what he was told at least some of it might be true - but mostly he could never bring himself to accept that his grandfather could ever have been anything other than old.
Yet all that aside, there was something…not wrong, exactly…not really, just something that wasnt right. That was the best Davy could put it. That image was his grandfather in every way, but…
His foot stubbed into a frozen clod, jerking him back to the present. Christly-Gabriel-The-Blue-Balled-Angel! So much time had been spent wool-gathering that he hadnt noticed the cold working its way into his feet even with three pairs of wool socks under his winter boots. Today was a Black-Hearted-Whore if ever there was, so it was best to keep his mind in the moment, else hed be frozen solid in no time flat.
Davy stomped his feet to warm them, but his stomach gave an uneasy lurch when he felt a sort of numb thrum in his toes. That wasnt good; he hadnt been paying attention, and could be headed for trouble. If he showed up at home with frostbit toes thered be hell to pay.
Well no, he allowed, not really hell, but his ma would make a fuss, and thatd prompt Grandpa to recollect that, “Jesus-Snot-Pickin-Christ! Think thats bad? Why, twas ten times worse lying out in the open that night at Paardeburg; what with those Mauser rounds buzzin by our ears! Lords-Stinkin-Arsehole! This aint nothin but a iddy-biddy flea bite compared to that!”
Davy was old enough to know that that epic moment had become the yardstick his grandfather used to take the measure of the world. Davy also suspected that the old man was purposely over-liberal with its employment sometimes, because his eyes would always twinkle so whenever he brought the subject up (and of course he brought it up often). It didnt seem to matter what it was: the cold, the heat, the noise, the quiet it just didnt matter that night at Paardeburg was always ten times worse than anything else that ever was, or could ever be.
Davy continued to stamp his feet as he made his way along, drumming his hands against his shoulders to get the blood pumping again. He ground his teeth against the pain as it circulated through his toes, chasing the numbness away, but he couldnt stop his eyes from tearing. Large droplets overflowed down both cheeks, freezing to icicles in seconds.
But it wasnt until he felt the tingle starting in his fingertips that he actually began to worry.
He flexed his hands inside his wool-lined leather mitts, stuffing his thumbs into the main pockets to share what little warmth there was with the rest of his fingers. Sure enough, the tingle gradually switched to that agonizing thrum as the blood brought traumatized nerve-endings back to life, and he began to cry in earnest.
Close to panic now, he started to jog, tucking his hands protectively under his arms. The extra exertion made his heart beat faster, and soon he was sobbing aloud when his extremities really started to throb. The agony shooting up his limbs was so bad it felt like his whole world was one giant toothache.
Lord-Love-A-Pox-Ridden-Doxy! If he could just hold on and keep the blood pumping for another minute, hed start to thaw and be right as rain in no time. But Holy-Jeezly-Crow, by now both hands and feet felt like theyd been set on an anvil, and smashed to a pulp with a sledgehammer. All he wanted was to curl up in a ball and nurse his hurt like their dog, Trixie, nursed the litter of newborn pups she kept tucked away in the barn.
Regardless of that desire, however, Davy forced himself to keep running, even when the pain reached the pit of his stomach and settled in like it was fixing to stake out a homestead. His eyes teared until the world became one great big frozen blur, making it a foregone conclusion that he should trip over another furrow and go sprawling.
 When he hit the ground, the sudden jar brought the pain surging up from his stomach until he thought his head would explode. The force of the impact shoved the sleeves of his overcoat halfway up his forearms, driving snow deep into the cuffs, and more down his chest. The iron-hard earth scoured exposed wrists like a rasp, scraping one forearm to the elbow, and he lay there bawling his lungs out like the biggest suck ever born.
He lay there for the better part of a minute, but it wasnt so much an instinct for survival, nor was it the humiliation of knowing he was lying there like an overgrown bawl-baby that eventually got him back to his feet. It was the sudden rush of gratitude when he realized that, somewhere in the interim, the pain had reached its climax and, as foreseen, had miraculously begun to recede. In fact, in as little time as it took to marvel at the change, it had disappeared altogether.
He gave his hands a cautious flex but felt nothing that was in any way disagreeable. To tell the truth, with the easing of tension, it was just the opposite. The world around him had suddenly become a much better place, as if he was looking at it through a pane of rose-coloured glass. Hed had an almighty scare, maybe the greatest in his young life, but as was the way with the young, once recuperation set in, his gratitude began to wane, and he was already shrugging the episode off as of little consequence. Feeling much better now, his mind was free to concentrate on other things.
He stopped to consider; roughly figuring, he should be close to halfway home by now. He dashed the tears from his eyes, and peered out across the prairie, squinting into the glare from the sun-reflected snow. Pretty soon he should be coming to that boulder he and Grandpa had pried out of the ground last fall.
Christ-On-A-Candlestick, but that mother had been huge! It had taken the better part of a day, prying with crowbars and hauling with the team, and using every trick in the book just to bring it to the surface. But once theyd hauled it out, even those powerful draft horses, Babe and Rudy, hadnt been able to drag that bastard any sort of distance worth mentioning. So after all that effort, in the end theyd had to leave it sitting in the middle of the field like the worlds biggest milestone, marking the halfway point between the school and his own front door.
Yet when Davy searched that frigid landscape he began to sense new threads of tension. He recognized the spot where the giant rock should have been, all right, but as much as his willpower was trying to make it otherwise, it just wasnt there.
That was when he started to get nervous as hell.
 “Course its not there,” he heard a reassuring old voice chiding inside his head and, at the same time imagined that wizened face smiling as he spoke. “Dont you recollect dragging that Christly thing off with the Minneapolis-Moline back in 66? Broke two logging chains before making it to that bluff yonder.”
Davy stared as if the old man was actually beside him, pointing to a clump of skeletal willows off in the distance. He could make out a large snow-covered mound verging on the edge that just might possibly be hiding a very large boulder.
Of course! The memory came with a surge of relief. It had been an unseasonably warm spring day - near the end of March it was; he remembered towing it off with the tractor, and how hed ducked each time those chains had snapped on account of hed been scared stiff of getting caught in the whiplash!
Still, as welcome as that recollection was, the suspicion that something wasnt right about that face remained anchored in his mind and could not be shaken.
Then he was standing very still, his confusion blocking out the cold, chasing away his relief so suddenly it was like it had never been. What replaced it were steely fingers creeping up his spine, pulling the skin taught to his scalp. If anything, this new chill was far, far worse than anything winter was currently dishing out.
Slowly too slowly he began to come back to himself.
He spoke aloud, “But Grandpa, you died in the winter of 42.”
The silence that followed was broken only by the moan of the ground-hugging wind creeping across the prairie, unchecked for as far as the mind could imagine.
He remembered now. He remembered his grandfather, lying there looking so peaceful in his old fashioned suit, before theyd closed the lid on the casket and taken him out to the cemetery. He remembered standing bareheaded by the grave while the minister led them in prayer, thinking that it was somehow wrong to be putting him into such cold ground. Later, hed discovered that his ears were so badly frozen theyd peeled for weeks afterward.
He remembered all of it.
His brow tried to knit, but his forehead had become stiff like cardboard and would no longer oblige. Maybe if his mind hadnt been so completely at sea, he would have noticed.
But it was at sea. It was so completely foundered on shoals outside of logic that there seemed no way of returning.
Notwithstanding that this was the month of January, in the year of nineteen hundred and thirty-two (over two years after what folks were still calling Black Tuesday of the great stock market crash of 29), he had two vivid memories: of his grandfathers funeral, and of dragging that boulder off the field both of which took place in an impossibly distant future! These events on their own would have been enough to be the foremost challenge to reason, but they werent - not even close. In fact, they were impatiently pushed to the back of his mind while he cogitated on what had to be recognized as the real stumbling block to his sanity.
He could see his grandfather lying in that coffin, that great handlebar moustache looking unnaturally dark across the paleness of his face. It had been his one and only vanity for all the years that Davy knew him.
Although it was the same in every other aspect, the face hed been imagining did not have a moustache.
Davys mind reeled with confusion, rending great tears in the fabric of the rational world. He shivered, trying to piece it all together, but this was far beyond anything he was capable of dealing with. With the absence of answers, worms of panic crept in to fill the void. He had to get home! He had to…
But then he experienced something new that, in its way, was so strange as to supplant everything else. It was as though hed dived deep into the dark waters of a lake, and having reached the bottom, was gradually returning to the light as he approached the surface. Everything was beginning to move toward clarity.
He heard another voice a womans this time, unnaturally loud, like in the way folks had when speaking to the very old.
“Mr. Patterson! It’s time for your shave!”
And this too was strange; he could actually feel the lotion being applied feel the scrape of the razor rasping down his cheeks, and later, even the soft buffing of the towel on his face. Then there was a pretty young blond in a nurses uniform smiling at him and saying, “Now doesnt that look nice! I swear youre as handsome as you were at twenty! Here, Ill let you see for yourself!”
Then the mirror! Oh-Christly-Pimply-Assed-Jesus! The mirror!
He could sense some part of himself trying desperately to block that moment from his mind, but it was coming on in waves, overwhelming him in a deluge of memory that would no longer be denied. He couldnt help but see.
There it was, that wrinkled old face - the face hed imagined - grinning at her ridiculous compliment, wobbling ever so slightly when she adjusted the glass.
His own face!
Goose bumps broke out over his body; his hair prickled like static on his scalp, and he thought he was going to be sick to his stomach, right then and there.
This couldnt be! Why, he was only ten years old, on his way home from school, with nothing more on his mind than hot cocoa and maybe some fresh biscuits and honey! How was any of this possible?
He held up his hands, maybe to ward the insanity away. Yet, when they caught his eye, a low groan escaped from deep inside his chest.
There were his gnarled old fingers sticking out of the sleeves of his blue cotton robe, knuckles badly swollen with arthritis, thin veins tracing spider webs under parchment skin. So shocking was this in itself that it took quite a bit longer to notice they were frozen, a horrible fish-belly white.
Then there was the nurses voice again - part of an unrelenting sequence on his way to the surface - its very realness an inescapable torment. This time she was speaking in a normal tone to someone else, apparently forgetting that his ears worked just fine. “Well have to watch him. Poor old thing might get confused and wander off.”
The nausea reasserted itself, and this time he was sick spewing up everything in his stomach without warning. He heaved and heaved for an eternity until nothing but green bile was left to join the steaming mess on the ground a multi-coloured splatter that stood out in stark contrast to the virgin white of the snow. But when he finished, as dire and immediate as that reaction had been, his only acknowledgement was to wipe his mouth on his sleeve before turning around, ever so slowly, like in a nightmare, when he knew that a monster was lurking behind him, poised to strike.
And there it was.
The nursing home stood an impossible distance away, smoke wafting down from the chimney, unable to rise in the bitter cold. A single set of footprints emerged from its grounds, meandering to and fro, in a nonsensical pattern, until they finally arrived at the spot where he was standing.
As the present came ever closer to the surface, yet another memory reappeared. This Home had been built on the same land where the old school had been, before it was torn down sometime in the late fifties.
As snow crystals hissed along the ground in a hush of ghost-whisper, the truth settled into his mind, bringing with it an inevitable transformation. He likened it to frost settling onto a corpse, and even managed a grim smile. Bitter though it was, his levity was a remarkable reaction, yet in a way he understood. The truth had given him freedom; what few choices were available would now be made by him and no one else, least of all by a ten year old boy. This was a nightmare, to be sure, but he was old maybe too old to be frightened by monsters anymore. Maybe it wasnt such a surprise to find he could stare this one in the eye…and in the end, accept.
The pain had long since gone from his hands and feet; in fact, there was no longer any sensation in them at all. While his mind had been struggling to resolve his confusion, he hadnt noticed how increasingly wooden his movements had become.
He cast one last look (scarcely more than a disinterested glance) at the Home, and suddenly felt very tired. In fact he yearned for sleep like nothing else in this world.
Bending awkwardly on stiff-jointed knees, he managed to lie down without being too clumsy; this was the final grace left him, and it seemed important to get it right. He pillowed his head on his hands, then drawing his legs up to his stomach, closed his eyes, aware that he could no longer feel the frozen ground beneath his body - in fact, could feel very little of anything at all.
Composed at last, he waited…
…and waited…
 “Why you Christly-Buck-Toothed-Little-Fart! What in the Devils-Unholy-Hell dyou think youre playin at!”
His eyes popped open like a fluttering blind when the voice reached him, thin over the frozen air, as though from a distance.
“Well, I’ll be a Jeezly-Motherfarking-Donkeys-Uncle!”
Sitting up now, he could make out a lean figure maybe fifty yards away, standing in silhouette of the lowering sun. But even in the failing light, he couldnt help but see the ends of a magnificent moustache spiking out either side of the shadowed face.
Davy wiped his streaming nose, the leather from his mitt feeling hard as a plank against his cheek.
“C’mon boy, quit your lolly-gaggin.” The old voice was gruff with humour - the anger mere pretence.
“Jesus-Mary-And-Cuckholded-Joseph! This ain’t no time for play!” Yet the tone suggested otherwise.
Davy struggled to his feet, feeling as if hed just woken from a dream. “I wasnt playin, I…”
“Now don’t you give me no horse puck about the cold!” The abrupt interruption refused any excuse, the words laughing their way to his ears. “Why this aint nothin but a few degrees short of balmy!” Then, without pause, “I ever tell you bout that night in South Africa out front othe trenches?”
And Davy realized that he was starting to feel warm again - that it was, in fact, “a few degrees short of balmy” - and wasnt the least surprised. He managed a sleep-tousled grin, “Uh huh, must be a million times, maybe more.” He still couldnt see very much, with the sun in his face, but he could well imagine those old eyes all atwinkle.
“Ten times worse than this!”
Now Davy laughed outright. “At least ten,” he agreed.
Then he experienced something so strong that it threatened to defy description. Yet if he had to give it a stab, hed guess that maybe it was a sense of being where he ought to be of being where he belonged. He realized that, at that moment, he wouldnt trade places with anyone else in the whole wide world, not even for all the tea in China.
“Come along lad,” now cajoling, the voice was fading to a low whisper, “let’s head for home,” and finished with what might have been, “your mas waitin.”
Then, having said his piece, the figure turned and started across the field, his strides long and confident, as though aware that the biting cold could never touch him.
Joyful, without hesitation, Davy followed.

                                             -the end

Monday, 26 November 2012

Story - The Mathematics of Fate

The idea for The Mathematics of Fate came to me the same way ideas often come to me, when my mind should be otherwise occupied – which is to say, when I’m at work. I was driving on Highway 250, north of Souris, and was just coming to the intersection at the Trans Canada. When checking for oncoming traffic, I saw a car approaching with BC plates, and had to stop to allow him to get by. I found myself wondering how far he’d driven for us to meet in this exact place and time...

                                    The Mathematics of Fate
                                                                                                CW Lovatt 02/08/11 04/08/11
              “I love you,” Abby told me, and I almost believed her, but I had to ask myself, what are the odds? Then she checked her watch, and in a tired voice, half-pleading (but only half), promised, “Well talk later, okay?” Then she was out the door…and out of my life, without even a wave goodbye.
Im not a huge fan of numbers: artists prefer colours. But lately Ive been wondering a lot about the progressions involved when your wife is late for work, driving too fast, with her radio too loud because shes too preoccupied with that mornings argument to keep her in the moment. Then insert a train into the equation, racing down the tracks all the way from Calgary, destined to meet her at an exact place and time.
See what I mean? What are the odds of that happening? But lets take it one step further.
Why was my wife late that morning? Well, you see, she was having an affair, Im pretty sure. She had all the signs: the preoccupation, the secrecy, coming home late - all of it. That was just part of the big picture, but I didnt know that then. At the time I thought that it was the big picture; thats why I chose that morning to have it out with her.
I keep wondering: why did it have to be that morning? How many nights lying awake, nursing those suspicions, would it take for you to get to that point? With me it was exactly the wrong number, baby. I mean, that morning I rolled snake eyes.
         Abby hadnt come home until well past midnight, yet again, and had stumbled down the stairs five hours later, dressed for work, looking like death warmed over. Id been up for hours, waiting, and had finally decided that enough was enough.
She made straight for the coffeepot, without even a glance in my direction.
 I said, “We have to talk.”
 Body language can tell you a lot. Like the way her shoulders abruptly sagged while she stood there at the counter with her back to me. I didn’t need to be told that her defences were up. You couldn’t batter down those walls. If you wanted in, you had to come in peace…or you had to be prepared to lay siege.
  “Don’t do this,” she warned, like she was tired and a little cross - like she considered that quarrelling at such an ungodly hour was in the worst possible taste - but I couldn’t take this lying down.
   If I had a strategy it was pretty simple. I wasn’t in the mood for a siege. I didn’t even want in anymore. I just wanted to drag up my heavy guns and do some damage of my own, get some payback for all those sleepless nights she’d caused.
    “Don’t do this?” I had to fight to control myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
    “Josh, I -”
     I cut her short and posed the age-old poser of all cuckolded husbands everywhere, “Where were you last night?”
      Oh we were ‘doing this’, all right. It was time to man-up, to start kicking ass and taking names. We were doing this, even if it took all day, and our world came crashing down around our ears! We were doing this because I was finally taking the bull by the horns. Oh yeah, baby, we were doing this ‘til the cows came home, and then some!
       If only it had turned out that way.
       She sighed, “You’re just looking for an argument.”
        Rules were never a big part of Abby’s life. Not so long ago that had been an attraction for me: it was like being with a beautiful spirit, soaring high above the world, redefining the meaning of freedom. Yeah, it had its attractions; I’d always thought of her as someone special, but now that she was taking things to a whole new level, I didn’t think that anymore. Well you don’t, not when the parameters she’s changing are your own.
         I grated, “Don’t give me that! I know when I’m being played!”
         She repeated the sigh, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
         That was Abby to the core: a stone wall around every turn. It would take days to break through, but like I said, I didn’t care about that anymore, and there’s no defence against not caring. I just wanted to get it all off my chest before washing my hands of her.
          Maybe she sensed as much from my tone, because her tactics suddenly changed. She frowned at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh god, I’m late!” before gathering her things and heading for the door. But I guess I got through to her after all, at least a little anyway. I was close to exploding when she stopped at the threshold, just prior to launching herself into oblivion.
           Our eyes met when she said, “Look Josh, I love you, okay?” I think she wanted to say more, but instead she took another frown at her watch - changed her mind -and half-pleaded, “We’ll talk later,” and that was all.
           So much for taking the bull by the horns.
           That ‘I love you’ had to be a lie, but it caught me off-guard, so I hesitated and let her get away. God, if only I’d said something – anything - to hold her back just a few minutes longer.
           The Mounties came by later that morning. I was trying to work, but it was impossible to concentrate. So I was caught off-guard a second time when I answered the doorbell and saw them standing there, with that uncomfortable commiseration written all over their faces.
           The Souris River was in a record flood this spring, and roads were being closed on a daily basis. She’d taken a detour onto the gravel where the CPR crossed near Melita - an uncontrolled intersection without any crossing lights, passing through a thicket of poplars, with the train coming full bore. It had struck her broadside, dragging her for a mile. They assured me that she hadn’t suffered. I wonder, how could they possibly know such a thing?
           Somehow I got through the next few days. I don’t remember much – just more of the same commiseration I’d got from the police. There was a moment at the funeral, when they were putting her in the ground...I think I made a spectacle of myself, but no one said anything. People cut you some slack during times like that.
           I was grieving, but not the way you might think. I was angry more than anything – angry at her for cheating, angry at myself for letting it happen, angry about what was left unspoken. I was in the worst possible place: robbed of my memories, forced to accept that the woman that I was mourning had become a stranger, and of course, constantly tormented with thoughts of her having been with someone else. Every day took more of me away from myself, until I felt like I didn’t exist anymore; and maybe that’s what I wanted – to disappear. I didn’t want to be me, but I was trapped inside my skin, like a prisoner in a cage. Sooner or later I would have to come to terms with it all. Trouble was, I didn’t know how.
           Then came this morning when I saw Abby’s friend, Jane, coming down my lane in her old beat-up VW, the exhaust popping out the occasional smoke-ring along the way. The Beetle managed to make it to the driveway before shuddering to a stop a few yards from the door. Jane got out: a moth-eaten spinster, somewhere in her sixties, wearing a paint-spattered smock, with long tendrils of grey shooting just any-old-how from underneath a crumpled beret. A half-consumed cigarette jutted from her mouth, with most of the ash still attached. Even as I watched, it gave up the ghost and let go, falling, to mingle unnoticed with the varicoloured stains on her smock.
           Without a word, she ducked back inside the car, rummaging around in the bedlam that most people would have called a back seat. Finally she re-emerged with a canvas, covered in plain brown paper wrapping, and carried it over to where I was waiting on the step, wondering why she had come.
            There was little love lost between us. Call it professional differences, call it a case of Order versus Chaos, whatever works for you, but while my wife had still been alive there’d been an unspoken agreement to stay out of one another’s way. Now, under the circumstances, Jane was the last person I expected to come calling.
            Frowning, I acknowledged her presence with a curious, “Hello?”
            Her own frown remained as constant as ever. Instead of replying, she shoved the canvas under my nose, and with her mouth working furiously around the butt of her cigarette, rasped out a throaty, “Here!”
            Astonished, I accepted it in silence. She had her car door open before I finally managed to ask, “What’s this?” uncomfortably aware of how foolish that sounded, even with my mind dulled by grief.
            That’s when I noticed the pain etched on her own face. She wouldn’t look at me, but she didn’t quite look away, either. Instead she scowled at a point somewhere above my shoulder, and explained with laconic defiance, “She was working on it…a surprise…not finished.”  Then she got behind the wheel, the engine erupting in a cloud of foul blue smoke, before she ended with an angry, “Goddam thing’s taking up too much space in my studio!” and with that she was gone, the Beetle chattering discontentedly down my lane, leaving me in a quandary of thoughts, none of which seemed to fit anywhere.
           Mystified, I took the canvas inside, and set it on a kitchen chair.
           Abby and I had met in art school. Since then I’d gone on to some success in the commercial sector, painting ads for magazines, mostly, until a contract with a major brewery had shot me up to the big time. My work kept me busy, maybe too busy to notice just when she’d put her brushes and easel aside. Now, standing in my kitchen, contemplating what lay under that wrapping, I felt a cold chill rush up my spine as the first block of logic slid home.
            Abby had shown promise as an artist. I admired her work – no, that wasn’t right: I was jealous of it. She’d expressed herself in a way that I could never hope to - that beautiful spirit soaring across the sky, leaving a trail of envy in her wake like the fiery tail of a comet. But it had never been in her nature to compromise, and that had cost her plenty. How long had it been after we were married before she’d stopped painting ? A year? Maybe two? Now, staring, mesmerized, at that brown paper mask, I realized that something had inspired her to take it up again…and a second block clicked into place.
           All the progressions were coming too fast, but there was one that stood out well above the others.
           What were the odds?
            Somehow I summoned the courage to reach out a trembling hand to tear the wrapping aside.
            I recognized it at a glance. She’d taken the photo on our honeymoon: of me, with much longer hair, sitting on my old Harley, with a huge prairie sunset glowing in the background. She must have enhanced the colours – I couldn’t believe that anything could be quite as spectacular as that sunset, or that I’d ever been that god-like handsome, but it was obvious that she’d used that photograph as her inspiration.
            Bending closer, I noticed letters intermingled with the charcoals and browns of the unfinished road. Even though my eyes were already tearing, I picked them out without any trouble at all:
            Beautiful Spirit.”



Sunday, 25 November 2012

Reading - What a Blast

The reading at McNally Robinson went without any flaws that I'm aware of. Granted, I don't remember much of it as a serious case of the nerves kept my brain more or less frozen throughout, but Amber said that I did okay.

This is me with my good friend, Bob Jaques, who was kind enough to show up for the occasion with his wife, Bonnie. Bob and I go way back, to our days working in Romania together, back in the early '90's. Construction workers are forever saying goodbye to one another (if they're lucky enough to get the chance) but Bob and I manage to keep in touch. 

Here's me giving my reading. LWWG president, Debra Dusome (far left, facing the camera) is grinning, so I imagine that this is one of the times that I heard the audience sniggering at one of the risqué funny bits...which was quite a relief!

Not a huge crowd, but it felt like a sold out stadium!

 These are the assembled writers who gave readings. Front row (left to right): Jeanne Gougeon, Doreen Millichamp and Debra Dusome. Back row: Elizabeth McGill, yours truly, Maurice Guimond, and Helma RogueRaiders.
This fine young man is my nephew, Tim Morrison. One of the coolest guys you'd ever want to meet. I think he takes after me, a little. You can just see his mom (my sister, Betty) in the background on the right (she's also very cool, but I still say Tim takes after me [just joking Betty]!)

And finally, here's your humble obedient, looking totally exhausted after the tension has drained out of my boots.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Giving a Reading

The Lake Winnipeg Writers' Group will be launching the Fall issue of their magazine, "Voices", this weekend. Therefore, weather permitting, Amber and I will be heading off to Winnipeg on Saturday, to McNally Robinson on Grant Park to attend. You may recall from earlier posts over the summer, that two of my stories are coming out in this issue - "The Mathematics of Fate" and "Heading Home". In what I now consider to be a fit of madness, I agreed to give a reading - my first ever (another first for 2012). Kind of exciting/awfully terrifying, I'm sure that it's not that big a deal...and yet I'm equally sure that it is. Public speaking was never part of why I got into this gig in the first place, rather the opposite. I find it appealing to have a means of expression that I can exercise in the privacy of my own home...and never EVER have to worry about moving my lips! Anyway, provided I survive the ordeal, I'll let you know how it all turned out.

Both The Mathematics of Fate, and Heading Home will be posted on this blog some time next week.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Charlie Smithers - Sample Chapter

Chapter One

“Gun, Smithers!”
Lord Brampton held his hand out expectantly; arm rigid, fingertips twiddling with impatience; all the while never taking his eyes off the fearsome black rhino grazing placidly in the distance.
I carefully handed him the heavy elephant gun, making sure the muzzle was pointing well away from either his lordship or myself. Two great bullets were loaded in those chambers. The hammers were at half-cock, but I’d learned the hard way it was always best to be safe…insofar as that was possible. I regret to say, however, that when in the company of my master, when he was in the company of his guns, that possibility didn’t always exist.
But, so far so good; Lord Brampton’s fingers curled around the polished walnut of the stock. There was a momentary unease when one digit slid unerringly past the trigger guard, but then it was out again without any harm being done.
That part of my duty successfully completed, I pulled the small brass telescope from my belt and leveled it at the beast. A moment later the head of the bull wobbled into view. He was big to the naked eye at a hundred yards, but massive in the lens, his great horns jutting up and down while he grazed. We were downwind of him and, so far, unsighted.
Lord Brampton leveled the great rifle at the brute and sited down the shiny blue steel of the twin barrels.
“Head will look good in the gunroom, what?” His lordship rumbled confidently in a voice too loud to be a whisper. The rhino’s ears twitched, and I felt my grip on the telescope tighten, but he was only flicking away some flies.
My own voice was a hoarse whistle as I cautioned His Grace to silence.
“Nonsense,” he scoffed, “Trouble with you, Smithers, you worry too much.”
I knew better, of course, but I also knew better than to remonstrate further. My master was in one of his more quarrelsome moods. It was always this way when his old wound was bothering him.
To accent the point, an angry growl erupted from his abdomen – the medical legacy of having so much of his intestines removed at Balaclava.
The rhino’s ears twitched again, then centered; his great head rising while he peered short-sightedly in our direction. I found myself softly keening, willing Lord Brampton to pull the trigger.
At last there was a deafening report as the gun discharged. A few yards beyond and to the left of the beast a large spurt of dust heralded the usual complete miss. With a sinking heart, I focused back on him. When I did so, I saw that he, in turn, was now focusing on me, his eyes wide with surprise.
Then angrily, they narrowed.
Oh dear.
The elephant gun roared a second time. The top two inches of the rhino’s front horn disappeared as if by magic, but that was all. When you stopped to consider that the tip of that horn was in a direct line between the gun’s muzzle and the lethal spot between the beast’s eyes, such a lack of result was really quite remarkable.
The bull took a few belligerent steps in our direction to get a better look at us, his ears fanned out and alert. I think the sun must have glinted off the lens of my telescope, for it was a mere instant before he lowered his head and charged, bellowing with rage.
“Missed, by God!” Lord Brampton roared, affronted.
“Oh hell!” quoth I, to no one but myself.
The rhinoceros had increased speed at an alarming rate. In fact, the way he was eating up the distance between us was quite impressive.
Here we bloody go again.
We’d been camped out on the great plain of the Serengeti for a week now. As usual, His Grace had failed to hit a thing, not even a wildebeest, and this, you’ll note, after having worked our way to within fifty yards of a herd so vast that it stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see!
So it was with some trepidation in my heart that, when we happened upon the small herd of rhinos, Lord Brampton had decided to stop and have a go at them. When I hopefully ventured to point out an inoffensive herd of zebra a short distance away instead, he had dismissed the idea with a derisive snort. For all evidence to the contrary, my lord had a supreme confidence in his own abilities as a deadeye marksman and, misguided or not, it was his towering ambition to be accepted as such by his peers.
Now, true to form, his appalling lack of skill, or luck, or whatever else you might care to call it, had remained steadfast and not forsaken him.
So it was with a sinking feeling that I passed the other gun to his lordship. That feeling was confirmed scant seconds later when, with the bull growing larger every second, he calmly levelled the piece and let go with both barrels at once.
Those great slugs should have stopped the beast in his tracks, but he never even slowed down. Where they had got off to no one could tell, but one thing was sure, they never registered in any of the rhino’s sensory apparatus. Not to worry though, he seemed quite infuriated enough already.
There was only one thing left to do.
 “Get out of it, m’lord!” I cried and nudged him firmly toward where the horses were tethered some distance to the rear. Already, they were whinnying with fright and rearing back, pulling hard on their reins.
Now he turned that indignant glare upon myself. As God’s my witness, I thought he was going to stand there and argue.
“There’s no time, sir! You must save yourself!”
His face worked furiously for a precious moment, and then – praise be! – seemed to recognize the urgency at last; but true to his sense of dignity, there was no hurry in his step as he turned away. The very square set to his shoulders proclaimed with immense pride that a Brampton never ran.
It would have to do.
Now to assure his lordship’s safety, my duty was to bring the brute’s attention fully upon myself. Indeed, the time was so short as to be virtually nil. Already, his great bellowing form was nigh upon me, filling the very horizon with clouds of the churned up plain in his wake.
I roared my own pathetic challenge and feinted a half-step toward him; then spinning away, darted off at a right angle to my master’s line of escape.
It wasn’t necessary to look back to know that the bull had taken the bait, and was now hard on my heels. The very ground was trembling as though I were running through an earthquake – so far, so good. Now if I could but stay ahead of him for the next twenty yards or so, to where a cliff plummeted down to the Mara River, everything was going to be jake.
Accordingly, I lowered my head, and ran for dear life.
Now, with things in hand, and all my other duties temporarily suspended, so to speak, perhaps this is as good a time as any to introduce myself.
Charlie Smithers is the name and personal attendant to John Houghton, Lord of Brampton (with five lines in Debrett) is my occupation – has been for the past thirty odd years, back to when we were just wee lads, and him and I was playmates together.
Ah, but those were the days – both of us roaming the wild Yorkshire hills with the roan deer in the sights of our wooden guns and joyful murder in our hearts! And if that didn’t serve, there was always charging in amongst his mother’s flower gardens (or in our eyes, obliging lines of French infantry), hacking and slashing at those prize geraniums until they were so much bloody offal. That was the life, I tell you! Plenty of mischief for a couple of mean-spirited lads, and no end of it in sight, neither!
Hold on, I think the brute’s catching me up. Not to worry, I’ve enough left in me for a bit more speed. Ah, that’s better! Now, where was I?
Right, his nibs and me was mates – well not mates, exactly, but as close as a peer could be to his servant, and vice-versa. I suppose that was just as well because there was never any question I was raised to be anything other than his man, just as my dear old dad was raised to be his dad’s before us as convention demanded; and in accordance with such convention, it was through my father that I first understood what it was to be a gentleman’s gentleman.
It must have been one of those times after having laid waste to the flowers, because it was one of those rare instances when we were immediately taken to task. Lord Brampton was hustled into the depths of Brampton Manor by his father, the earl, while my own father grabbed me by the scruff and dragged me off behind the stables. A gentle man was my dad, but duty was duty.
“Now then, Charlie,” he said, and boxed my ear repeatedly ‘til it rang. Then his eyes narrowed while he studied my face, searching for any sign of weakness. But I had learned at an early age that giving in to such unmanly emotions was something my guv’nor never tolerated, so I remained stolid, eyes front like a guardsman. Satisfied, he relented somewhat, and laid a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Now my lad, I do allow that killing Frenchmen is only right and proper. After all, we’re British, and that’s why God put us here on this earth; but,” and his voice was the rich source of reason, “destroying her ladyship’s flowers is just not on, don’t you see?”
“But Father,” I piped, doing my best to sound man-to-man, “I was simply following orders.” Which was the unvarnished truth, and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
They were simple words from a simple lad, but the effect they had on my dear old dad was remarkable, and one I shall never forget. He flung himself back like he’d just taken a musket ball square in the chest. Then raising himself to his full height, eyes bulging like a surprised owl, I thought I was going to get another cuff across the head, but after a moment, his expression changed to one of paternal pride. This time more tenderly, he replaced his hand on my shoulder.
“My son,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, “the day will come when you will have my position, the day, in fact, when young Master John succeeds his father, and all this carefree time of youth will be but a distant memory. There will be little ease in your life, and even less recognition.” Then he grew even more solemn, “but though difficult, always remember there is no higher calling than to be of service to your gentleman. They are a fickle race, and lack that instinct of self preservation infused in we lesser folk. So you must see to their well-being in a thousand different ways, because they cannot see to it for themselves. Often you must place yourself in danger’s path to protect them from harm. Many’s the day when you must work from dawn’s first light to beyond the setting of the sun, always with their comfort foremost in your mind. You must do all these things with a cheerful heart, and a Christian forbearance for their many strange foibles; but above all,” and his eyes were flashes of stern duty, “you must always obey.”
“Yes father,” my own eyes were glued to his.
“Even when there is a certainty of punishment, you must obey – nay – even if there is a certainty of death, never forget your duty!”
“No, Father,” I felt entranced. Like I said, a great one for duty was my dad.
“This is a sacred trust, one which has served our island race well, until it has made of us the foremost amongst all nations!” This was a favourite topic of my old man, the part about being British and all, and I thought he was just getting started, but this time he exercised some self-discipline, and contented himself by admonishing me with, “Never forget that, son!”
“I won’t.”
“Good lad!” he cried. Then nodding affectionately, he weighed in on the other ear.
And I never did forget, neither. Hang on – almost there!
Air rasping like hot coals in my lungs, I leapt for the precipice just as I felt the lethal end of that great horn graze my backside. I chanced to glance over my shoulder, and could have laughed aloud. The bull had pulled up just short of the brink, bellowing with rage at being frustrated in his desire to smash me to a pulp. For a brief moment I was elated to be free of that charging black nemesis…until I chanced to look down.
With some horror I realized my escape route hadn’t quite been thought through in its entirety. For now I found myself poised over thin air a hundred feet above the Mara River – except, at this time of year, it was more like the Mara Trickle. Indeed, from this height, it seemed virtually non-existent – no more than a silver thread cutting through the parched yellow of the vast grasslands below.
Down I plummeted.
Oh well, as the saying goes: it’s not the fall that will hurt you….
Now, my old man certainly knew what he was talking about. Gentlemen had foibles, and by the cartload, too! And being gentlemen, their foibles were of an altogether grander nature than yours or mine. Take my master, for instance. He was always the great one for the hunt, but the problem was, no matter how hard he tried, he could never hit the broad side of a barn door. But then, neither could any of his forebears, so perhaps there may have been something inherited to it all. Yet even when marksmanship wasn’t the issue – as in riding to the hounds – although he sat a horse very well, and could ride like a Red Indian, there was always the most appalling bad luck attending him. Many’s the time I can recall, while the far-off belling of the hounds led the other toffs over hill and through dale, my master would invariably blunder into a wood, wild with enthusiasm, and stay hopelessly lost, until I – having witnessed, with sinking heart, the trees crashing and swaying for hours on end while he careened about in frenetic peregrination – ventured in to bring him back for tiffin.
Consequently, as the years passed, the walls of the gunroom at Brampton Manor remained bare and unadorned – had done so since time immemorial – and are so to this very day.
That came as no surprise to the common folk, for word had long since spread that, in this regard at least, the family was cursed. That in itself might not have been the end of the world (peers, after all, seldom paid much notice to the common herd) except for the fact that the subject was dear to the hearts of that ancient, blue-blooded line. For it had long been a family notion, handed down from father to son over many generations, that they were country nobility. Not for them was the society of London. Rather, they perceived themselves to be made of sterner stuff than those stylish fops, and fancied that the harsh nature of their northern estates fit them as naturally as a well tailored coat. While there may have been some truth to this, try as they might, they could never shake those dark whispers, and as the local superstitions eventually became accepted by some of the nobility itself, they considered it a personal disgrace.
Now all that talk of being cursed was just so much bullocks, if you ask me. However, I do have to admit there seemed to be a distressingly long list of unfortunate episodes that might appear to give credence to those whispers.
Like there was the time at the hunt when his steed accidentally trod on young Lady Wynngate’s foot – poor girl, she was in plaster up to her hip for ages – and though it was never confirmed, may well have been the cause for the breaking off of their engagement.
Then there was that time when he – perhaps rashly – in an attempt to throw off the shackles of superstition, had promised his father a brace of quail for the table that evening; but the only blood to be spilled was when his gun caught on a bramble and the discharge filled a beater’s backside with bird shot.
Or the time when we were hunting deer on the eastern fell…but then that was long ago, and best not spoken of. Besides, that ghillie’s widow was endowed with a pension for life, so all’s well that ends well.
I suppose, given the Brampton’s inborn sense of bloodlust and perhaps – if my impertinence may be forgiven – a certain lack of reason rendering them unfit for much else, it was only natural that the family should have a time-honoured tradition of purchasing commissions in the military. Hence, you shall generally find that at least one of that noble family was present at some of our nation’s more notable defeats. Why, milord’s grandfather lost a leg at Saratoga when, at a critical moment, while bravely attempting to lead a bayonet charge into the thickest part of the frey with the last of our dwindling reserves, tripped over his sword, severing the tendons behind the knee. Many years later, in the peninsula, his father, the present earl, led a charge at Corunna – in the wrong direction – and was subsequently shot out of the saddle by some annoyed Highlanders. As the story goes, the ball caught him squarely in the forehead, but by great good fortune, was already spent. Sadly however, the blow rendered him severely cross-eyed, and looked to do so for the remainder of his days.
Of course I followed my master to the colours in our own time as well, and with thoughts firmly set on bloodshed and glory, sailed with him to the Crimea. Well, I saw enough bloodshed to last me a lifetime, and no error. And while I’m not saying there wasn’t any glory, if there was I never saw it.
By now it must be a rarity to find anyone who hasn’t heard of the charge of our Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, and how it’s fame was helped along by a certain romantic poem – which was so much poppycock, if you ask me. It was a bloody shambles, that’s what it was, and a disgrace to British arms…and my own personal disgrace foremost amongst it all.
You see, it had been pure and simple hell riding up that valley; both shot and shell screaming through our ranks, sweeping away our fellows in giant handfulls, but so far, by the grace of God, my master and I had managed to pull through unscathed. Yet even as we drew nigh the guns, I saw the Ivans wheeling that piece around to catch us in flank, and saw that bearded blighter touch his match to it, too. But the worst of it was that I saw the discharge was set to scythe directly across Lord Brampton’s path, and when that happened, it would almost certainly blow him to smithereens. So, with my dad’s words ringing in my ears even o’er the roar of the cannon, I’d urged my mount forward, but, lamentably, was not in time to shield him completely. The round lifted us both from the saddle, for the best I could do was to only partially absorb the charge, shredding the muscle from my shoulder, and taking a few balls of the canister in my leg. But at length, when I came to my senses amidst all the blood-curdling thunder of hooves and cannon, and the hair-raising screams of the wounded and dying, I was able to crawl my way over to my poor master, and was horrified to see that great gaping wound in his abdomen.
That was a bad time, I can tell you. I’d thought he was a goner at first and that my failure was absolute, but then I noticed that, somehow, he was still breathing. Where there was breath there was life, as the saying goes, and where there was life there was still hope, no matter how slender. I don’t rightly recollect how I was able to get him back, and with only one arm to do it with too, but I must have managed it. I remember grabbing at the reins of a horse with an empty saddle, but the rest is just so much blank confusion of coming back through all that hell, until we’d finally reached our lines and I’d summoned the surgeon.
That worthy had shaken his head with deep gravity when he saw my lord’s wounds, but when he took note of the fretful state I was in, had set about them regardless of his misgivings. It had been a long and painstaking affair, with him pulling out sundered entrails by the yard, and me hovering anxiously, helping as best I could; which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t much. When at last he was finished stitching him up, there was such a pile of gory intestines on the ground beside him that I wondered if he’d left any inside my poor master. But at last, he rose to his feet and put his bloodied hand on my good shoulder.
“It’s in the hands of God now, Charlie,” he said, although I could see he didn’t hold much hope. Then clucking his tongue in that disapproving way he always had, added, “Now let’s see about saving that arm of yours.”
For weeks I felt the very picture of misery while my master hovered between life and death. Many’s the time I thought the fever was going to carry him away, but whatever they lack in other areas, Bramptons have the constitutions of bulls. Even so, it was a close run thing – as the old duke used to say – and when he finally did open his eyes, I was so relieved that I hobbled over with my arm in a sling, threw myself to the ground, and begged his forgiveness for having failed him so completely. He had every right to sack me, of course, or at the very least have me shot for cowardice, but believe it or not, all he murmured was, “Better luck next time,” or something else along that line, before drifting back to a laudanum-induced sleep.
Now I ask you, is that, or is that not, a true gentleman?
After such a horrible experience, you’d have thought it would be nothing but Easy Street for him from then on, wouldn’t you? If it were any other man I dare say you would be right, too, but my master would have none of it. Weak and wane though he was, when invalided out of the army, and having returned to England, Lord Brampton soon found that he was no longer suited to the quiet country life. For once having tasted it, beneath that noble breast there burned an unquenchable thirst for adventure. So it was with little surprise when, one evening some months after our return to Brampton Manor, I was summoned to his side.
I found my lord in his rooms, pacing back and forth in evident excitement. His face was set in the way he had of showing the decision he’d come to was, as usual, the one he’d desired.
“Smithers,” he cried, already showing signs of coming into the bloom of health, like a man reborn, “pack my bags! We’re off to see the world!”
“Certainly, Your Grace,” I bowed carefully, and somewhat awkwardly from my crutch. My arm was also still in its sling, but healing famously. “May I be so bold as to enquire where we are going?”
“Why, haven’t you ears? I said ‘the world’ didn’t I?”
“Yes, of course, milord, but…..”
His brows knit together.
“But what? Come on, man, out with it!”
“But what part of the world, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?” I needed this information so as to reckon on which of milord’s togs it was best to stash away into his travelling chests.
“Why the world, Smithers! The whole lot! Every last nook and cranny, every last jungle and sand dune, every last tepee and igloo, every last square inch, in fact, or,” he amended slightly, “at least as much of it that’s British.”
“Oh,” I couldn’t hide my surprise, for this was doing it up handsomely, and no error. In fact, this was such a grand affair that more luggage would have to be purchased in order to transport so much of my lord’s wardrobe…and his guns, too, of course.
And so, to make a long story short, seven months later – with both our wounds healing in the process – having taken a mail packet to Cairo, then overland by camel caravan to the Gulf of Suez, before taking an East Indiaman to Mombasa, here we were, with milord trundling back to camp unattended, and me plummeting to almost certain death.
Speaking of which, legs straight, arms tight to my side!
There was a tremendous splash and water engulfed me. The shock struck most of the air from my lungs and I was still sinking like a stone.
What great luck! Apparently, I had fallen into a deep eddie or a pool. I was saved!
But before I could exalt too much, my descent was suddenly arrested by a bone-jarring crunch on the gravely riverbed. A pair of sharp ‘snaps’ was quickly interpreted into the knowledge I had broken both my ankles.
What little air remained in my lungs was now expelled by a sub-aquatic scream of agony. Water flowed into my nostrils and into my mouth. My confused mind was so disoriented from the fall and the searing pain I didn’t know which way was up. I thrashed about, but without evident effect, for with both ankles broken my legs were now useless. Yet, just as I was about to black out and give into the the river’s insistence it should take me, my head miraculously broke the surface, and I found myself spluttering water from my lungs. I coughed and coughed until my stomach cramped, and I was spewing muck all over the place; but once I had retched up most of that disgusting filth, I looked up at the clear blue sky and the world all around me, and knew that I had somehow survived.
Treading water with my arms, I fairly crowed with triumph.
“They haven’t got you yet, Charlie!” I cried, my voice echoing off the canyon walls. “The world’s tried and tried, but you ain’t bloody dead yet! Bloody marvelous! Bloody indestructible, that’s what you are!”
I was so loud in my rejoicing that I almost didn’t hear the splash, or the sound very like boulders rumbling together; but not quite like that….no, not quite. This sound was…hungrier, somehow.
Subdued now, I peered over my shoulder to the far shore, and was able to catch sight of the last of the leathery forms as it took to the water.
It was enormous.
“Oh crumbs,” I said.