A Classic that Never gets Old

Book Lovers! Here is a book I recommend without a doubt. The Earthsea Quartet, by Ursula Le Guin, is a collection of four epic, beautifully-written tales in the archipelago isles of Earthsea. Set in a world of wise wizards, mile-wide fire-breathing dragons, and the ever-shifting balance of light and dark, the focus of this quartet is not the epic setting, nor the magic, but the brilliant development of people emerging into adulthood.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first novella, follows Ged as he discovers his innate magical powers and becomes a wizard, rumoured by many to be the greatest of all time. When training, dared to show his power and summon someone from the land of the dead, he is left running for his life from a shadow seeking to overcome him.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second, follows Tenar, a young girl destined to be lead the cult of a long-forgotten religion. Born into a world she does not understand, when the wisened wizard Ged infiltrates her domain in search of a forgotten relic, her perspective of her world and the world outside are forever changed.

In The Farthest Shore, rumours spread across Earthsea of magic losing its power. Songs no longer have meaning, crops no longer grow, and the dragons forget themselves. Ged and Arren, a Prince, journey across Earthsea to discover the root of the evil.

The first three are written in a very condensed, fable-like structure, and waste no words in painting a clear picture of Le Guin’s world. A fantastically confusing feeling is left at the end of each story, thanks to their suitably abrupt, and brain-twistingly bitter-sweet endings. At the end of the third, I just wanted to go back to the beginning again and relive it again. I didn’t want to believe how it had finished.

And Tehanu, the fourth and final of the quartet, is a slower-paced story that deals with the shattering aftermath of the third, and Ged’s story as he must learn to live with himself, when his magic, his crutch, is taken from him. Tenar, now all grown up, is a foreign woman in a foreign land, alienated because of her accent and skin-colour.

The final book takes a strikingly different style to the others, in that it sheds its archaic fable tone, and adopts a more modern, personal approach. The dragons and magic are still there, but are stripped back under a magnifying lens, and conversations over dinner take precedence over journeys over land and sea. The underlying issues of inequality between men and women are addressed forthright, and it deals with the day-to-day struggles of normal people getting by.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of this series is the lack of a main antagonist. Yes, there’s a bad guy or two, but the focus is not good guy defeats bad guy, more-so child becomes adult. No villain can be so one-dimensional. It is the journey Ursula Le Guin focuses on, the issues of her world that reflect our own.

This is an example of fantasy in its highest form, and I would recommend anyone reading this, turn over the first page: It’s a book impossible to put down. Please, give it a read.

My rating: 5/5

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Duma Key – A Book in a Misfit Genre

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I don’t know what it is with me and lengthy books. First Shantaram, an epic mammoth of a read, followed by Duma Key, written by Stephen King, an author well known for piling the pages. It was a healthy read, and an enjoyable one, with several thoughts brought to me along the way.

Firstly, I think it’s safe to say Stephen King’s works can be a bit hit and miss, especially of late. He has written some masterpieces in his time (my favourite being It, but Revival was pretty sound, too), but a couple of his pieces have started to feel a little saturated. It almost feels as if he has become his own protagonist from Misery, Paul Sheldon, who writes work for money, out of demand, when the passion runs dry. Considering he churns out books by the bucket load, it’s probable for some of them to not hit the mark. Indeed, I imagine many readers of celebrated authors will love anything they’re given, because of the name rather than the quality of what’s written.

Okay. To the book.

This one is certainly a step up from some of his previous stuff. The main character is clearly thought through, and it’s refreshing to live and breathe a person so heartfelt and true. His family is relatable, his friends are reliable, and the beginning premise is a sound one: A man goes to a remote island in search of a retreat after a life-threatening accident. He loses his arm, his marriage, and contemplates ending his life. He goes to Duma Key, a picturesque, isolated island in Florida, where he rediscovers his old love for painting. Except here, when he paints, sometimes he paints real life. And sometimes, he can make real life happen.

I particularly enjoyed the first two thirds of the book. The setup is fascinating, and the slow burn of information slowly fed to the reader kept me on my toes, and intrigued over what was on the next page.

The last third did admittedly become a little silly. Characters having skills that just happen to save them from certain death, though it was never established before; last minute realisations that bore no relation to the rest of the book… To me, it felt as if King just didn’t know how to conclude his story, which is a shame, because as I said, the first two thirds were fascinating.

My issue, I think, is not with the book itself, but with its genre.

Stephen King’s works are labelled “Horror”. So, naturally, when I read his work, I expect to be horrified. It was terrifying, the ending of Revival was spine-tingling, The Shining was chilling, but while Duma Key had its chilling moments, on occasion, it felt very misplaced. I just wasn’t scared enough. If anything, it was more of a fantasy book with a touch of creepy. And yet, his typical “horror” terminology, with the blood and the gore and the rest, was all there, simply to fit within the expectation of his readers. It brought my attention to Horror as a genre, and the question of whether it’s justifiable to define an author’s entire career by the books that started him off. Surely, it’s up to the publishers to tell him it doesn’t quite fit, or to market it differently? Perhaps if I had begun with a different preconception in mind, it may have changed my opinion of the sudden change in the latter section of the book.

But perhaps this is just me. A friend once said to me, “your book may have scary elements, but don’t label it horror because it suddenly makes appears a little trite, as if it’s trying to be scary.” And I may have to agree, to an extent. Unless the work is masterfully scary, labelling it as such is setting oneself up for a fall.

My rating: 3.5/5

An Excerpt of My Own

A bit of my own creative writing.

While I finish a book I’m currently reading, I thought I’d share my own most recent spout of creative writing.

I have struggled, recently, with my desire to try new things: Once we have trained in one route, through university or school or otherwise, there is a degree of expectation put upon our shoulders to follow that route for the rest of our lives. But ‘the rest of our lives’ is a long time. Why must we be so restricted? Why must the naivety of our young adulthood determine the rest of our days? The other paths are so unattractive to those who expect us to conform to a piece of paper we earned when we were teens, but sitting still just does not satisfy me. When the other options are off limits, the desire to reach them can consume us until the one we’re following appears ugly. Poisonous. I believe that only once we’re set loose to try new things, can we truly understand and appreciate the beauty of what we already had.

Today, I share two short excerpts from my developing novel, When it Rains. Please leave a comment and share your support. Any creative/constructive feedback is welcome.

HOW TO START AGAIN (1)

It begins with a choice: wash out the pan and start from scratch, or try saving it by adding on top. That would seem the safer option; it means security, and no bridges to burn. But it doesn’t guarantee removing the original taste, and always risks turning sour.

Starting from scratch entails cutting ties; A fresh new start with no strings to hold you down. But you’d be alone. Nothing to fall back on. Nobody to pick you up. When the past is tossed aside, and the bridge burned, it can be very hard to cross back over. So many dream of making the brave, giant leap into the unknown, but so few take the chance.

The risks are just far too great.

HOW TO START AGAIN (4)

What will we find in the great unknown? What will we hear? What will we taste?

Will it be what we expected? Will it hold everything we’ve dreamed of? Inspiring prospects? Brand new horizons? Blindingly beautiful colours and flavours? The possibilities seem endless, because they are. The way back is gone, shrouded by smoke, but the way forward could go on for an eternity, and splits into so many different directions, it’s often impossible to see which way is the right way. It’d be easier just to close our eyes and point: Eenie-meenie-miney-mo…

What if we don’t like what we find? What if it’s lesser than what we left? It’s possible that the great unknown isn’t so lovely after all, and once we reach the top of the mountain, the grass on the other side has dried and withered away, and only a barren wasteland lies in its wake.

But the worst prospect is finding nothing at all: When we take that first step, that giant leap into the unknown, our foot could fall into darkness, and we’d tumble, tumble into black until it closes its mouth and swallows the soul. There is no light, no return. But still we hope.

Hope… If we find a fast-flowing river, we look for a boat. If the tunnel hits a dead end, we search for a crack. If we find a locked door, we look for a latch. But the cracks are sealed. The wall is high. The door is shut. There is no boat. Searching for the light at the end of the tunnel is the only thing that keeps it from collapsing on our backs. Hope allows us to maintain our dignity in the face of all odds, and keeps us pressing through the darkness, regardless of whether or not anything is there.

So, we search. And search, and search, and search…

We keep searching. As long as we keep finding things to search for, we search.

It took a lifetime

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This one has proven tricky.

I have written and re-written this review several times, and have tried to put into words my feelings on the latest book I’ve read, but still I have not been able to give it the justice due. It is partly, I feel, because of the great length of the book, and I don’t really fancy crafting a review that matches the author’s writing stamina.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, is a healthy 940-odd read, but a mere page number does not put into words just how much of a process reading this was, as I am sure it was for Roberts to write.

Lin, the protagonist, jumps the wall of an Australian prison and flees to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he is exposed to the very richest, the poorest, and the wisest of India, and quite possibly the world. He joins the Bombay mafia, establishes a free medical clinic for the poorest in society, joins a war, falls in love, and all the while paints an almost inspirational painting of life in India. In a city where multiculturalism is embraced, and the mafia’s dominance is accepted as a part of life, it is a perfect doorway to questions about our own societies, about acceptance, and re-instates faith in humanity at a time when it’s difficult to believe in anything. It is most interesting, perhaps, because it was crafted around the author’s own life, which was almost destined to be retold in literary form.

About five years pass in the novel, yet it could very well have taken me that long to finish reading it. I put it down, tried something else, came back to it several times, and all the while had quite mixed feelings about the whole experience. Let me tell you pourquoi.

Shantaram is overwhelming. I think that is the point. It immerses you, with Lin, in a wonderful culture quite opposite to our own. There are many moments that are heart-warming, heart-breaking, stomach-churning, and tear-jerking. His depiction of the characters, of the unfathomably beautiful Karla, of the loyal and joyous Prabaker, and of the sage and father figure Khaderkhan, to name a few, are so fleshed out, I could almost smell their colognes and feel their breath against my neck. They all had something to say, a grand philosophical opinion, a proverb thought of on the spot. But though many of their thoughts were interesting to consider and worth writing down for my own reference, is it entirely necessary to read so much of it?

At least a third of the book consisted of questions about life, the origin of God, and catchy, wise quotes from friends so intelligent and impactful that he could very well have found them in a monastery. The first few thoughts are interesting, and enough to inspire debate, but enough rambling can become irritating. I caught myself eye-rolling on many occasions, for I don’t believe it truly plausible to know that many people so wizened to the world, who have that much of an impact on one’s life. The fact that there are so many characters in the novel (more than I can possible count), and each one of them have something profound to say, is what made many of the instances and people introduced as simply unbelievable. I enjoy a philosophical debate, but when it comes from so many mouths at once, all with a ten-page discussion, it is no longer the character’s view, but the author’s own opinions that he wishes to promote. It comes across as preachy, and a little pretentious, with a desperate need to start a debate.

Furthermore, Gregory depicts Lin as a character thought of so highly, and loved by so many, which is lovely, but I think humility is a virtue that the main character lacks. While it promotes him as the hero, it also makes the author come across as a little self-righteous, considering as it is based on his own life.

I also think many authors (myself included) have a habit of including too much information. I think his personal attachment to much of the source material may have dissuaded him from “cutting the fat”, which would have saved the reader a lot of time, the printing companies a lot of money, and may well have inspired many more to pick up the book: I know how daunting it is to see such a heavy tome. I have seen encyclopaedias with less information. Yes, it’s nice to know he understands what he’s talking about, and yes, somebody out there might enjoy what I did not, but there’s only so much talk about printing offices and currency exchanges that I can withstand before I start skipping paragraphs.

My thoughts above do not dissuade me from considering a second read-through. It is easier to criticise the bad than point out the good, because we have a tendency to point out our own flaws and react badly to praise. But pushing my critical opinions aside, I really do think it was expertly written. It took him thirteen years to write, six which were spent in prison, and it is evident that his blood, sweat and tears went into making it. It is incredibly descriptive, wonderfully informative, and makes me want to visit India. Over the last few months, reading Shantaram, I have laughed, I have grimaced, and I have even shed a tear or two. When the end came, despite my opinions on the content, I was terribly upset to realise the journey was over. I feel like I lived a lifetime reading his own, and have certainly picked up a few new words, too.

Would I recommend this to someone? Yes. Yes, I would. It is educational, real, and so brilliantly shocking. To anyone considering climbing this mountain, I would say: Persevere. The climb is difficult, and you will often want to turn around, but I promise that the view from the top will take your breath away.

MY RATING: 4/5

 

A Book Everybody Should Read

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In March, while rehearsing in Miami, a friend lent me a copy of a book, Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman. I had not heard of it, nor could I discern much from its title or blurb, and that made me all the more intrigued.
Reading it took a matter of days. Alan Lightman lays out Einstein’s theory of relativity in three-page chapters, from where he provides a different scenario, each of which centres on the same question: ‘What if time existed like this?’
What if everyone lived forever? What if we only had one day to live? What if time acted differently from town to town? What happens after universe ends? All of these and more are questions myself and many others have asked ourselves, in bath, or in bed, but are too shy to ask the questions aloud. Here, in this 150-page novella, questions are met with more questions, with tantalising, simple, and effective imagery.
It’s fiction, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘story’. I would call it an experience. I went through such a metaphysical journey, from one thought-provoking chapter to another, and it was so wonderful to see the possibilities already conceptualised in my head fleshed out and expanded upon. It was heavy to read but very short in length, and impossible to put down. I promise that if you turn past the front page, you will not find a way back.
This is the best book I have read to date, and I have already recommended it to many. Please, if you have a moment, delve into this book, and experience a concept you will never forget.

Everything Starts with a Beginning

The Next Stop

Well, here it is: My blog.

From here, I post my thoughts on books I have come across in my travels – first a few recent, then the ones at present – and, occasionally, I will publish a short story or two that I have written down the line. I have quite a few, so watch this space!

For now, check out a short story I wrote last year, for which I was awarded Highly Commended in the Writers Forum Magazine, February 2016.

I tailored it towards a young audience, to gently educate the importance of coming to terms with death.

The Next Stop

From where Ruben was standing, the sea of people stretched in every direction forever. He squeezed through the gaps in the crowd, reaching for the hips that met his eye level. ‘Jess!’ he called, ‘Jess!’ He looked down, staring at the white floor rushing beneath and up at the foggy white sky refusing to move. Fearing he’d been running in the wrong direction all this time, he doubled back. ‘Jess!’ he shouted, ‘where are you?’ It didn’t matter how much his little voice called: everyone above him was doing the same. A multitude of names cluttered the air and battled, smacking each other down and falling short of reaching anyone. All but Ruben remained still. ‘Help!’ he cried, ‘somebody!’ He stopped, panting, and leaned his hands on his thighs, his forehead creased and glistening with sweat. He was lost. No way forward, no way back. He looked up and tugged on someone’s pastel pink blouse. The lady stopped shouting and looked down. He stared at her through tearful eyes. Don’t be a baby, the red devil growled from his shoulder. Crying’s for kids. ‘Please, miss?’ he said, ‘d’you know where my sister is?’

Ruben thought she hadn’t heard him for she stared at him silently, her massive magnified eyes blinking blankly behind thick round spectacles, but eventually she replied. ‘No,’ she said, ‘sorry.’

‘Could you help find her?’

She smiled. Her pale lips gained colour. ‘Of course,’ she nodded, ‘as soon as I’ve found my daughter.’

‘No! Wait!’ Ruben tugged on her blouse but she was shouting again. He tried again with a young suited man, then a woman looking for the Chihuahua that’d jumped from her bag, but everyone gave the same response: I’ll help you, but not right now. Tears pushed from his eyes and salty snot trickled into his mouth. He could feel his cheeks warming, his sweaty palms scrunched in fists. ‘Jess…’

Ahead, between hundreds of legs, Ruben spotted movement. ‘Hello?’ A spark of relief ignited in his chest. He pushed fervently past person after person and tripped over someone’s foot, landing on his hands and knees with a smack! The floor was cold, hard, like porcelain. I always help Jess brush her teeth. She stands on a step ’cause she’s too little to reach the sink, but I can do it on my own. She sang Frere Jacques and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star difficultly through her toothpaste and he laughed when it dribbled down her face and pyjama top.

Ruben found a chip in the porcelain. Beneath, it was crumbly like the tiles in his bathroom: daddy always said they’d re-do the bathroom. What a state... But where was dad? Where was Mum? Ruben looked up and saw movement again. He clambered to his feet. His light footsteps echoed and squeaked on the porcelain. He was catching up. He gathered pace but so did the other. ‘Wait!’

The figure stopped, but when he finally reached it, no-one was there.

Ruben tugged on someone’s clothes. ‘Mister?’ A man looked down: He reminded Ruben of his granddad. He wore a cap over a balding head with round specs and a pipe in his mouth. A tweed waistcoat hung over a dark green shirt and the sleeves were rolled up like he’d just been gardening. He took the pipe from his mouth and raised one eyebrow to show he was listening. ‘Have you seen my sister?’

The man frowned and shook his head. ‘I don’t know that I ‘ave.’ His accent was familiar. To Ruben, who lived in the countryside, he sounded like a farmer.

‘Could you help me look?’

The old man nodded. ‘Just as soon as I’ve found my Mary. She’s out there, too.’ He turned away.

The horrid feeling of worry in Ruben’s stomach and hot flush in his face became too much and, in desperation, he burst into tears. He fell to the floor, crying loudly and openly, tears streaming down his face. ‘Please!’ he cried, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do…’

Ohhh…’ The man crouched and hushed him. ‘Don’t cry, son. Everythin’s gonna be alright.’ He wrapped his arms round him. Ruben hugged back tightly. They stayed there for a while: he was warm and kind and made Ruben feel better, but when they released, the horrid unsettled feeling returned to his stomach. ‘What’s ‘er name?’

‘J-Jess,’ Ruben sniffed, wiping his nose with his wrist. ‘Her name’s Jess.’

‘Ok, and what’s your name, son?’

‘Ruben.’

‘Ruben, eh? Well, isn’t that a nice name?’ the old man chuckled, ‘I’m Alfie.’ Ruben nodded and tried to smile. ‘What does Jess look like?’

Ruben spoke between sobs: ‘She has long hair, brown eyes, and wears a pink ribbon in her hair. Or blue. She likes both.’

‘Both?’ Alfie frowned. ‘Which was she wearin’ when you saw ‘er last?’

Ruben’s sniffles stopped. ‘I… I can’t remember…’ A wall of smoke stood between him and his memories. He didn’t even know why he was in this endless white-walled foggy-skied landscape to begin with. The rusty cogs in Ruben’s brain clanged and scraped for information.

Alfie ruffled Ruben’s hair. ‘Let’s look together, then, shall we?’

Alfie’s optimism gave Ruben hope. He picked him up so he was sitting on his shoulders, making Ruben laugh as he was lifted so high. In every direction, people stood still beyond his field of vision. The floors and beyond were porcelain-white, making this endless void feel like an incredibly large hall. Alfie turned around so Ruben could see the other side. ‘Oh…’

‘What is it, son? What d’you see?’

‘A… a train! I see a train! It’s a train station!’ It was quite a distance, but definitely reachable now one of them could see where to go. It was white, like the space around them, and only discernable from the backdrop by its black outlines like it’d been drawn onto the space with a thick marker pen. Ruben saw ten carriages behind it and as Alfie turned again, he saw a corridor of space made by the crowd where the tracks had been lain, extending into a blinding white spot far off in the distance.

‘If there’s a train, why isn’t anyone movin’? People should be pilin’ on.’

Even those closest to the train stood still, calling for their loved ones. They don’t even know the train is there, Ruben shuddered. He pointed and Alfie walked forward.

‘Maybe your sister’s on there,’ Alfie hoped. ‘And my Mary.’

‘Is Mary your daughter?’

‘My wife,’ said Alfie.

‘Are you the same? Can you not remember where you last saw her?’

Ruben saw the top of Alfie’s cap bob as he nodded his head. ‘The last thing I remember is lyin’ down. I was starin’ at a white ceilin’.’

Ruben looked up at the sky. ‘Smoke,’ he said. ‘The last thing I remember is smoke.’ The clouds grew darker: a storm was brewing within.

‘Wha’ about your family, lad? Where d’you live? D’you enjoy school?’

The fog slowly withdrew from the centre of Ruben’s memory, revealing one small figment at a time. ‘I remember my bedroom,’ he said. As they drew closer to the station, the floor changed. It was no longer porcelain but carpeted grey and covered in dirt. Alfie hesitated before stepping onto the carpet, but Ruben egged him on: it helped remind him of his story. ‘My bedtime’s eight, but I don’t want to sleep then ‘cause I’m eleven!’

‘You’re quite small for your age,’ Alfie said, his eyes fixed on the carpet.

Ruben continued on his own thought track. ‘I share with Jess so we have to go to bed at the same time.’

‘Why don’t you have your own room?’

The fog retreated. ‘We have a small house. No,’ he remembered, ‘a flat.’

Alfie’s pace slowed as the amount of people increased, the space between them getting smaller. Ahead, Ruben spotted a small clearing. He led his friend in that direction and, when they reached it, was lowered to the ground. A clear open corridor of space stretched acres beyond to the train ahead. The train was massive, far greater than any he remembered, but it stood silent and calm. As they drew closer, the crowd’s shouts dimmed to a chatter, so Ruben and Alfie could chat a little more calmly.

‘My Mary’s a charming lady,’ Alfie beamed. ‘We own a little tea shop on the Dorset coast. Well,’ he laughed, ‘she owns it. I just do the gard’nin’ and make it look nice.’

‘Where’s Dorset?’ said Ruben.

‘South, boy! Don’t you do Geography at school?’ he coughed a little, then a lot into his hand. His throat rattled loudly and Ruben winced.

My granddad smokes… the fog retreated again… smoked a lot. He died when I was nine.

‘Damn,’ Alfie huffed, ‘where’re my cigars? Maybe there’s a shop somewhere…’

Somehow, Ruben didn’t think so. ‘Where’s the train going?’

Alfie didn’t answer. ‘Tell me more about your sister.’

‘Uhhh…’ There was a flash of something, then it was gone. Come meet your new sister, Rube! Then another. Look at that! Jessica’s riding her bike all by herself! But then he saw the floor again: the dust and dirt covering the carpet. ‘We didn’t go to bed yet,’ he said. ‘I threw a pillow at her and she threw it back.’

Pillow fight! Her giggle flew through the air and out to the grey clouds above. They both heard it and looked up, though to Alfie it didn’t sound like Jess. ‘Mary?’ he whispered.

Ow! Ruben hit Jess over the head with his pillow and she fell over. He bent over to see if she was alright, but she swung back and sent him flying. They laughed hysterically and jumped about until someone banged the wall. “Go to sleep, kids! I don’t want to tell you again!” They jumped back into bed, giggling under the covers restlessly, but within minutes, they were back out and playing again, dancing under the flickering light of ‘…fire.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Jess threw her pillow and it hit the gas lamp.’

Alfie halted. ‘Gas lamp?’

‘Mmhmm.’ Ruben nodded and bit his top lip. ‘The pillow fell and hit the curtains. The fire spread fast.

‘Who has a gas lamp?’ Alfie shook his head and continued walking.

Suddenly, Ruben gasped as something lurched into his back and threw him to the floor. His body screamed in agony. It felt as if someone had stabbed him with a hot iron poker, like the ones on his granddad’s farm. He wailed and tensed, hunching over and grinding his teeth together with a deafening scream.

‘What?’ Alfie panicked, ‘what’s wrong?’

But Ruben couldn’t speak. He tried to stand, but the pain kept attacking him, bite after vicious bite. His screams echoed above all the chatter and distant rumble of thunder beyond the clouds, filling this endless space with Ruben’s burning, searing pain.

Alfie gasped. ‘Blood!’ he said, and pulled Ruben’s top off as he saw it darken and stick to his back. What he saw could never be unseen. It wasn’t just a burn that had left Ruben in such agony: The skin on Ruben’s back had completely burned away, leaving sticky steamy red and white flesh peeling from his clothes. ‘But that wasn’t there before!’ Alfie insisted, his grip involuntarily tightening over the blood-stained shirt.

Ruben sobbed and wailed, but now his back was burning in the open – breathing deeply through gritted teeth – he was thankful that the pain was beginning to subside. The torturous burns on his back were from the fire. ‘We screamed and screamed,’ he cried, ‘“Help! Help!” but no-one came. We couldn’t get out.’

‘And?’

Ruben paused and his face creased. ‘I… can’t remember. Just smoke.’

They walked in silence for a while. Ruben whimpered quietly to himself as the pain simmered, though one thing still troubled Alfie. ‘You said you knocked a gas lamp.’

‘Jess knocked it.’

‘Sure, but I don’t know anyone who uses gas lamps anymore.’

‘What do you use, then?’

‘Electric ones.’ Alfie shrugged.

‘Woah!’ Ruben gasped up at the old man. ‘You must be really rich!’

Alfie shook his head. ‘Not really. When you went to school last,’ he said, ‘what date did you write on your school books?’

That memory came easily. ‘1923.’

Alfie began to sweat. ‘1923?’ He scrunched his eyes shut and shook his head frantically as if to rid himself of moths and spiders. ‘I remember when Mary and I got married. We ‘ave a cushion on our bed that marks the occasion. I can see it now,’ he said, looking up at the sky that didn’t look like a sky to him, ‘sewn into a silver silk cushion with violet thread. Wednesday 16th May 1962.’ Ruben didn’t understand the connection. He remained silent, wanting to know more about this grandfatherly figure holding his blood-stained shirt, but he didn’t get the chance, for as Alfie opened his mouth to speak, he stopped, pointing out to both of them that the white marker-drawn train was now towering over their heads. ‘This is it,’ he said. ‘The station.’

‘Where d’you think it goes?’ asked Ruben.

‘Only one way to find out.’

‘D’you have a ticket?’

‘I don’t think we need one, son.’ Alfie ruffled Ruben’s hair again and walked to the closest carriage. The door was open. The people surrounding the train looked straight through it and spoke quietly, almost to themselves, and didn’t seem to notice the train was there. They walked past them wearily, afraid they might all suddenly spring into action, but they didn’t, and when Ruben and Alfie reached the carriage door, they were met by a tall man in a white suit and cap.

All aboooaaard!’ The man looked around, calling through cupped hands, though Alfie and Ruben were the only ones there. ‘Leaving in five!’

The young man turned to climb back on the train when he spotted Ruben. ‘Hey, kid,’ he winked. ‘You getting on?’ Ruben nodded. ‘This train’s one way so make sure you’re ready.’ He disappeared, leaving Ruben and Alfie alone again. Smoke began to rise from the funnels of the train and Ruben heard a low rrummmm as the engine sprung into life far to his left at the front of the train.

Looking into the dark beyond of the carriage, Ruben’s hands began to tremble. ‘Alfie,’ he said, looking up, ‘I’m scared.’

Alfie stared ahead. ‘Don’t be.’ A tear rolled down his cheek.

‘She was wearing a pink ribbon.’

‘Really?’ Alfie looked away and sniffed.

‘I picked her up and jumped through the fire.’ Ruben stared into the carriage and saw his bedroom door. ‘I didn’t make the jump. I slipped and hit my head on something.’ He looked up at Alfie. ‘D’you think she’s alright?’

‘Kids are made of strong stuff,’ Alfie smiled. ‘My Mary is, too.’ He took Ruben’s hand. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Your mummy and daddy, Jess, my Mary, they’ll find us at the next stop.’

‘They will?’

‘Sure!’ He lifted Ruben onto the train and got on too. When Ruben turned around, Alfie pointed out that Ruben’s burns had vanished. ‘Oh yeah!’ Ruben smiled, not really pondering over it, ‘you’re right!’

A thought lingered through the air and they both looked up. The clouds whispered solemnly. Everyone comes by this train eventually.

‘We’ll wait for them there.’

‘Okay!’ Ruben disappeared into the darkness of the carriage.

‘Who knows?’ Alfie chuckled. ‘Maybe they’ll have a store where I can buy cigars.’