The Fire-Diver's Assistant

James Ellis

The fire-diver himself was called Gregory, and I assisted him by chalking arrows on the walls of seaside towns; and writing things like This Way To See The Great Fire-Diver - Three O’Clock, or, It’s The Greatest Show On Earth - Don’t Miss It. The arrows and notices always led to the pier and if children followed me, which they sometimes did, I’d tell them to keep an eye out for the police, and to shout if they saw any.

After I’d chalked on the walls, my job was to collect Gregory from the bar and take him to the pier. Depending on how boozy he was, he would either climb or stumble up the stepladder and then stand at the top, swaying in the wind, waiting for me to pour petrol on the water below and add a flaming rag and set the sea alight. 

Then, he’d raise his arms and throw himself into the flames.

The most important thing I had to do then was to pass the purse around. While Gregory waded ashore I’d collect what money I could from what on-lookers there were, and then he’d take the purse and squelch back to the pub leaving me to pack up the ladder and retrace my steps, and wipe away each fading notice of our passing.

I had met Gregory when I tripped over him under a pier. I was a runaway, and I had run and run until there was no more land to run on. I was fifteen and he could have been any age between forty and eighty because he looked mummified, like all the moisture had been sucked from his face. I assumed he was dead when I fell over him, and I was all right with that, but then he woke up and saw me and scrambled away. 

Fair enough, I had an aggressive haircut and a pierced, frowny face but Gregory, when he woke up, he thought I was a demon of death come to take him. I told him I wasn’t a demon of death come to take him, I’d never even heard of a demon of death, and then he told me that he was a fire-diver; a great fire-diver; the Greatest Fire-Diver That Had Ever Lived. He said if I had any money I could be his assistant.

I said I’d pay him back when I did.

We travelled from one seaside town to another, in season and out, bumming lifts from anyone who would take us. I was in charge of the ladder and the chalk; Gregory was in charge of the money and the drinking. He used to be in charge of the petrol but he drank it one night while I was asleep, so I took that job too. I got the petrol by syphoning it out of old cars or begging from garages. The chalk I stole from toy shops which was mean so I always left an IOU with Gregory’s name on it.

We slept under piers. I liked hostels but Gregory thought they’d steal our ladder and anyway, he said he preferred the outdoor life. I didn’t mind. Lots of people sleep under piers and I usually tied the ladder to me just in case.

One day we arrived at a seaside town whose pier was just a piece of wood jutting into the waves. We had enough money for one bottle of beer. Gregory found an empty bar down a side-street and I left the ladder and the petrol on the floor beside him and went out with my chalk. It wasn’t much of a town and no-one was around so it wasn’t long before I was back. We sat in silence and I’d almost fallen asleep when the barman came over. 

He shook me and said, “This is not a refuge.”

“I’m with him,” I said.

He shook his head. “Not in here you’re not.”

He held my arm and pulled me up but I stumbled against the ladder and fell over. Something stirred in the corner: it was Gregory, surfacing, rising from the deep. I think he was coming to my rescue but he wasn’t very steady and he was getting his words mixed up and even I couldn't understand what he was saying, and the barman probably thought he was about to be sick, so he said to him,

“You can get out too.”

At this Gregory reared up like Winston Churchill taking on the world and said, “Never!” and then he sat down and missed his chair and landed on the floor beside me. I got up and helped him up too, and draped him over my shoulder, and together we left. The barman threw the ladder and the bottle of petrol onto the road, and we sat on the pavement and huddled together like two monkeys who’d had a fright.

“Here you are,” I said. I’d smuggled out his bottle of beer. He drank it and then I said, 

“Come on, it’s time.”

He looked at me and whispered, 

“What time?”

“Time for the show,” I said.

At the pier an old lady with a little dog was waiting for us. I set up the ladder but before I’d finished Gregory ran up it and raised his arms to the wind.

“Not yet,” I said. “I haven’t put the petrol down.”

But he didn’t wait and dived over the side of the pier, diagonally, almost missing the sea completely and landing in shallow water.

“You silly idiot,” I shouted.

I ran down to where he was lying in the sand. He looked like a heap of discarded clothes. He was quite still. I lifted his head and pushed my cheek against his. His face was like a cold slab of stone. 

“What have you done?” I said. “What have you done?”

We lay together in the freezing water while the waves washed around us. The old lady’s little dog ran across the beach and licked our heads and waited for us to move.

We didn’t.

And then a wet muffled voice said to me, “Have you passed that purse around yet?

McGigglesworth and the Happy Return

Jack Houston

"Melissa," McGigglesworth said, taking his plastic monocle from his eye and waving it in the air for effect. “I want you to make sure none of the Sylvanian Families go getting too familiar, if you know what I mean."
“And that’s how we're doing this, is it?” replied the stuffed toy tiger. “With you having a toy broom up your ass?"
McGigglesworth ignored her. "I have been put in charge," he said. "And, as such, it is my responsibility to make sure everything is in order for when Molly comes home."
McGigglesworth hadn’t seen Molly since she’d left two years ago. None of the other toys had seen her since they’d been unceremoniously shoved under the bed years earlier. McGigglesworth had been the only one who had avoided the cull. He’d been given, what felt like to him, an important place at the foot of Molly’s bed. From there, he’d watched Molly’s first experiments with the joys of make-up and the pains of exfoliation, seen her grow from a gangly awkward tweenager into something more like a woman. Only he really knew who she was, knew exactly what she would be expecting now that she was finally coming home.

He thought back to the day it had all started, the day she had pointed at him in the toyshop with the determination that only a five-year old can truly muster; he would be hers and no one else’s. McGigglesworth intended to remain faithful to that first, true love. 
He remembered the time he’d been left out in the rain all night. Molly’s screams at her father’s suggestion that he might have to be thrown away. How could he forget the violence of the washing machine? The long, slow afternoon on the clothes line? He reached up and touched his half-torn ear: the one he’d almost lost during those tumultuous events. This was a once in a bear-time opportunity to show Molly just how much he had missed her, and he hadn't been this excited since, since... well gosh, he hadn't ever been this excited. He came across some farm animals that were strewn across the bedroom floor.
"What is the meaning of this?” he cried. “Pick yourselves up this minute!”
The cows and chickens huddled together, more than a little confused. They had only a minute ago been thrown out of their box by a frantic McGigglesworth, and had not quite come to terms with the fact they now appeared to be alive, or at least animate.

He left them to their confusion, bounding over to a dust-covered doll’s house to see how the preparations were coming along there.
"Good, good, good," he said, rubbing his paws together. "This is wonderful work, ladies."
A Barbie Doll moving around inside one of the rooms stopped what she was doing and came to the widow. "Why, thank you McGigglesworth."
McGigglesworth puffed up his chest and said, “That’s quite OK, Barbara my dear. We all just have to work together to make sure this goes smoothly. And I, for one, think it will." He thought for a moment. “No, pardon me," he said. "I know it will."

The temperature in the room dropped suddenly. A large spectre-ish looking thing appeared and hovered in the air over McGiggleworth's head. It had a long black hood and appeared to be carrying an old-fashioned farming implement.
"How's it going McGiggleworth?" asked The Spectre of Death.
"Oh," said McGigglesworth, leaning back and almost falling over to look at the faint figure above him. "Hey, how's it going?"
"I just asked you that.”
“Oh yes… you did... er, I’m good. Things are coming along great, I think. I'm really looking forward to Molly coming home. I can't wait for her to hug me."
"She hasn't hugged you in a while has she?"
"No. No, she hasn't." McGigglesworth looked down and wiggled his furry feet. "I dare say she’s a touch too old to hug a teddy bear now."
"Well don't worry," said The Spectre of Death. "Now that I've animated you she won't be able to ignore you any more, will she?"
"I suppose not.” McGigglesworth scratched his ear where it had been sewn back together. "Are you sure she won't be, you know, a touch upset?"
"Upset? Why?"
"Well, I'm her favourite teddy bear from when she was a young girl and, I don't know, it might freak her out somewhat me coming to life like this."
"Don't you go worrying about what's going to freak her out or not. You just concentrate on putting on a good show.” With that the spectre of death began floating up through the ceiling. 
"Remember," it said. "Put on a go-o-od sho-o-ow."

"Ass. Hole," said Barbara, from the window of the doll's house.
"Really?" 
"I wouldn't trust him, McGigglesworth. Why, I'd say he was up to something. And if I didn't just have all the nous of a ridiculously over-gender-stereotyped plaything, I’d be able to hazard a guess at what, too.”
"Hmmm," said McGigglesworth.

*

In the loft space above Molly's room, The Spectre of Death heard a muffled noise coming from one of the cases stored up there. Inside it, The Spectre of Death took out one of the photo albums and flicked through it. Within one of the pages was A Photo of Molly's Dead Father, Richard. “I know,” said A Photo of Molly’s Dead Father, Richard.
“Know what?” said The Spectre, inspecting the nails on one of its skeletal hands in a show of guiltlessness.
“What you’re up to.”
The Spectre of Death sighed. He knew that animating inanimate objects was rarely an exact science, but he didn’t need this. "Don’t start."
"What do you mean? Don't Start? How can I not start?" said A Photo of Molly's Dead Father, Richard.
"Listen Dick, I gotta keep my numbers up. This ain't personal."
"Not personal?!" cried A Photo. "First, you kill me in some crummy car-accident. And now you're trying to tip my daughter's already precarious mental health over the edge in a vague attempt to make her kill herself. Dammit, if I wasn't a photo of a dead man, I'd bop you right on the nose!"
"Calm down," said The Spectre. "Someone in your position, of all people, should be able to appreciate that everyone has their time. That, like the seasons, everything comes and goes, is born, blossoms and then dies."
A Photo would have put his hands in the air were he able to; instead he waved them around inside the plastic sheet. "Have you heard yourself lately?" 
"Listen, it's just the way it is."
"If it's the way it is, as you claim, then why have you had to animate all her childhood toys?"
"I have my reasons," said The Spectre.
A Photo Molly’s Dead Father, Richard, narrowed his eyes. "Which are?" though he was now just a graphic representation of a real person, he was gratified to find he was still as dogged as he'd ever been in life.
"I dunno. I guess I'm bored." The Spectre of Death got up and floated up to the rafters. "You never wish you could be more creative? Like, sure, life's OK, there's nothing wrong with it, only..."
"Only what?" A Photo would have leant forward, if an animate two-dimensional representation of a person could show their interest in a thing in such a way.
"I dunno, maybe I wish I'd done something different with my existence, you know, something more."
"Something more? That's pretty ironic." 
"What is?" 
"You. One of the original abstract representations of existentialism having an existential crisis. Hoo-wee." A Photo raised an eyebrow. 
The Spectre ignored him, and continued, "I just wanted to do something. Make something. Something real. Something amazing and beautiful that would wow people."
"Who's it gonna wow? My daughter's the only one who's going to see it."
"That's not the point. The point is I'll have done it. And what's more, because of your untimely and horrific demise, everyone will believe she's lost it, and I’ll have the chance of getting my numbers up by one. Art plus achievement. You have any idea how many of us can say they’ve done that?"
A Photo and The Spectre glared at each other.
“Well, I still think it’s pretty mean. Hasn’t she been through enough?” said A Photo of Molly’s Dead Father, Richard.
“It never rains, my friend,” said The Spectre of Death, who then closed the album, put it away, and shut and locked the case.

*

Back down in Molly’s room preparations were coming along well. The toys were all lined up in rows ready to greet Molly as she came in. The farmyard animals were formed into orderly ranks, the Barbies had got the doll’s house looking brand new. The train set had outdone itself, even managing to add some extra track to itself by getting the two my-little-ponies to act as a temporary bridge. Even the Sylvanian Families were behaving themselves.
But McGigglesworth wasn’t happy. 
He was sitting on one of the old toy boxes he’d dragged from under the bed. Barbara came over and put one of her plastic arms around him, while Melissa came and curled herself around his furry feet “What’s up McGigglesworth?” asked Barbara.
“I don’t know. I’m not so sure this is such a great idea.”
“What isn’t?” said Melissa.
“This whole coming to life thing. What’s Molly going to think when she comes in and we’re all running around like this?”
The toys thought about this.  
But then McGigglesworth leapt to his pads of his feet. “No time!” he cried. “She’s here!”
Downstairs the toys could hear Molly come in and call out. No one but the toys were in to welcome her. Only The Spectre of Death had known she would be coming home today. 
“OK. Everybody hold position and wait for my signal,” whispered McGigglesworth.   
Molly came up into her room. McGigglesworth looked up to see a young woman. He thought for a moment that his very stuffing might escape him. She was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. The other toys stood in silence, waiting for the signal.
McGigglesworth stared and said nothing.
“What’s all this stuff doing out?” said Molly

The Settlement

Matthew Allcock

The boy and the father stepped on to the wooden suspension bridge across the bay. Their first steps were not the ones you’d expect, surprisingly confident and calm. The car they’d left behind disappeared out of sight, forgotten by their eyes as much as their minds. The bridge was brown but flaking with paint. This wasn’t noticeable to the boy and the father. What was noticeable was that the bridge was made up of wooden slats. The bridge took on a blue tinge as the bright sun overhead reflected off the turquoise blue sea. Beside the bridge was a steep cliff that looked the perfect match for the sploshing waves. The waves disappeared into the sound of the ripping air that tore at the bridge. The boy and the father walked on, seemingly unconcerned by what was ensuing around them.

The picture was one of continuous, connected flow. The waves lashed and the cliffs pushed. The bridge swayed and the boy and the father moved. Never once could one stop to take a photograph or contemplate things as they were in that very moment. If things were ever to come to a stop, it would take the end of the bridge to do it.

The boy and the father walked indistinguishably, save for the stimulating visual effect of size. For when the boy who trod in front took one step, he appeared shorter for a fraction of a second while the father appeared taller. When the father took his step, the boy assumed an unpronounceable height that dwarfed the father, but only temporarily. The creaking of the bridge sounded like someone’s screams from several kilometres away, the same situation transferred in space, at a contrary stage of development.

The sun looked ready to dip under the horizon, or maybe it was rising. The shimmer from the sea made it almost impossible to tell. Neither the boy nor the father seemed willing to give anything away. I thought I asked them to make this clear before they got out the car, but I guess I didn’t.

The boy was a reflection of the man in everything but appearance. They walked the same and wore identical expressions. Neither of them carried anything yet. The baggage that wasn’t stowed in the car was locked up inside them.

It must be mentioned that there were two rope hand rails on either side of the suspension bridge. But these were not used right now. Perhaps this is why they haven’t been mentioned already. The rope rails were there but their presence was not noticeable above the noise of the creaking bridge. Later on the boy would cling to the rails for reassurance, to make sure they really were there. The father might have gone somewhere else by this point, but he too would need them even if no one was there to see it.

The boy and the father descended the suspension bridge towards a row of stacked shacks to the right, away from the precipitous cliff. They’d been approaching the settlement for a long time. The bridge kept dropping towards the water but it never got there. The bay, even if it was a one, had disappeared so no sand could be sought as refuge. The outlying shacks were stacked three by three. There appeared a single line of rope connecting them to the vertical of the bridge, a drop ladder connecting the rope to the bridge itself. The shacks were light blue as well. It was hard to tell how far they lifted off the water.

The boy and the father were part of a relocation scheme undertaken while maintenance work was carried out on the existing settlement. This was the first time the boy and the father had seen the new settlement and it came as a shock to see it like this. For this reason the boy found it difficult to make a firm judgement on what he saw. The boy knew he had questions but didn’t know how to phrase them or even if he’d ask the right ones. He also wondered which shack was his and if this made a difference. Despite himself, the boy began imagining the benefit of being close to the edge, of seeing the sea each morning.

The father would help the boy ask the questions. He would do this by asking one himself or making an observation that led to one. The boy would have to accept this question to get anywhere. He could propose another one but this was unlikely to help. This thought made the boy sad.

While the boy considered how he might successfully reach the outer edge of the shacks without falling in, the father spoke.

‘There is a brown plume in the water. This is human excrement and is not safe.’

The boy began smelling shit. The smell made him immediately anxious of the whole situation and he kept looking back at the father for reassurance. The boy was stunned to think they could house anyone here and he thought there must be an explanation. The father was riled as well he might. The place was not safe but there was no choice but to try and access the shacks. The father seemed quicker to acknowledge this. The boy and the father had no comeback. For if their current settlements were not habitable, that could hardly be used as a reason for not settling here. There would be a written contract somewhere. 

The plume kept chuffing out the brown effluent. The boy considered the distance between the settlement and the outlet sizeable enough. Was it really that bad when all this would be temporary?

At the end of the bridge was a wooden gate. The gate was locked. To the right of the edge was a drop rope and to the left a single rope that swung round. The boy feared descending the drop rope which was only accessible through a small, square opening beneath the hand rail. He wondered how he would ever transport luggage to the shacks. The boy considered and considered again but he just didn’t know. 

The father walked back up the bridge to fetch the luggage, disappearing in the distance. The boy would wait, joined presently by other people. The others all wore blank expressions, indicative of uncertainty and hopeless detachment. The boy saw reason to sit down for a surer footing, but doubted this would incur favourable looks. He was increasingly tempted to try his balance on the rope as this was only what was coming. If he just let himself go he might get somewhere. But the boy was just as likely to fall into the sea, into the fathomless, blue deep.

While the father wasn’t there, the boy considered it a dangerous mission. Before long the father appeared with a rucksack and several other items of luggage, walking along the suspension bridge with the kind of ease either were unlikely to experience again. The sun was still up and the waves were still sploshing. The wind had grown by now and it threatened to spill the people over the edge. 

The boy thought it only right that he try the rope first before the father had room to do so. But the boy would not try the drop rope on the side of the bridge facing the shacks. He insisted that he navigate the rope which swung under the bridge from the other side. This was potentially more hazardous but the father knew the boy was in this alone. Against the force of the wind the boy dropped his thin legs over the edge and caught a glimpse of the cliff in his eyeshot, a glimpse he’d seen before? The boy was not to focus his attention on the cliff face for too long for he had other things on his mind. He thought for a minute he’d like to return to the beginning when all this might stop. He couldn’t make sense of how the rope might reach the shacks. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind.

The boy was making his way along the rope, each step a small victory. He was mindful of moving too quickly. The faces of the people still on the bridge focused on him and looked on the face of it like they experienced the self-same thoughts. The shacks had disappeared from view and the boy wondered if he’d ever see them again, that he had seen them before but was blind to them now. The boy feared he may get lost and kept thinking of how to get back on the bridge. The only way to reach the shacks now was along the rope and it was the only way for the boy. The drop rope was the other side and too far to reach at this stage. The boy had to keep on his chosen path and perhaps ask the question differently next time. This would set him free.

A seagull landed on a spot on the gate and abseiled along it. The gull seemed unruffled by a big gust of wind which shook the bridge and the rope with it perilously. The boy lost a footing. The last image to flash before the boy’s sight was of the father staring blankly