Short story – The trouble with heaven

Every Saturday I have been posting an episode of ‘At first sight’, and last Saturday was episode 5. There are (probably) three more to go. I suddenly realised that I’m missing writing other stuff, and some of my readers might prefer more variety too. So here is a whimsical piece of flash fiction that I hope you’ll enjoy!

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“The trouble with heaven,” thought Edwin, “is the singing.” It was all very well if you had a wonderful voice like his best mate, Luciano. Or if you were a rock god (oops, sorry, he thought) like his other best mate, Brian. You could sing your heart out, as though you were headlining at Glastonbury. Very satisfying, no doubt, only he was tone-deaf with a sense of rhythm that stuttered like a car running out of fuel.

Other people told him how lucky he was to stand between Luciano and Brian. Edwin, though, felt it was probably a ruse by Saint Peter to ensure that he didn’t spoil the ensemble of the heavenly host.

Then he was handed the microphone for a solo.

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Some you win

One of the blessings of maturity is that you realise that winning is not the be-all and end-all of life. Sometimes trying too hard to win can cost you a high price. This short story tells how Damien and Gill, Sue and Tim, compete in the College tennis tournament. The prize for winning is a trophy. But what might you lose if you pursue it ruthlessly?

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“Did you manage those problems for our physics tutorial next Monday?”

Sue and Gill had brought folding chairs into the quad so they could enjoy the sunshine of a glorious early June morning while they studied. Gill nodded.

“Yes, I think so.”

“I suppose you couldn’t go through them with me? I’m struggling to do even one of them.”

Gill looked up from her book. “Do you mind if I just finish this section?”

“No, of course not. I’ll go and fetch the work I’ve done so far.” Sue jumped to her feet and bounded up three flights of stairs to her room, gathered an untidy armful of papers from her desk, and scuttled back down.

Gill looked through the assortment of pages until she found the first problem.

“Look!” she said. “You’ve almost finished this. You’re using the right equations, you’ve just made a mistake in the arithmetic.”

Sue scanned the paper.

“Oh, yes!” She took the paper from Gill and corrected the error. It didn’t take her many minutes to finish the problem. Meanwhile, Gill glanced through the others. ‘Sue seems to have completely misunderstood the concept’ she thought. Carefully she talked her friend through the work.

“Oh, wow! Thank you so much, Gill!” Sue hugged Gill warmly.

“Is this a private hugfest, or can anyone join in?” Gill jumped. Sue laughed.

“Hi, Tim!”

He leaned forward, and she kissed him tenderly. They’d been dating for a couple of months, and she could still hardly believe her luck. She gazed at him, eyes shining. Smiling he took both her hands in his, moving even closer. “Tim! Look out! You’ll have the chair over!”

“I’d better be off,” said Gill. “I must take this book back to the library.”

“Get off, Tim!” Sue pushed him away. “Gill, I’m really grateful for your help. Would you like to join a few of us punting on Saturday? We’re going up to Grantchester.”

“For a liquid lunch,” added Tim. “You’d be very welcome. Bring a friend if you like; there’s room for another one in the punt.”

“Yes, I’d love to join you.”

On her way to the library, Gill paused at the College notice board. The advertisement for the College tennis tournament was still there, and she looked to see whether Sue had signed it yet. She’d been talking about it for ages.

“How about teaming up for the tennis this afternoon?” Gill jumped. She hadn’t heard Damien approach.

“I’m not very good,” she said.

“No problem. I’m no good either. But I expect it will be fun!”

Gill smiled shyly at him. “As long as you’re sure you don’t mind if I’m useless.” Her blue eyes, with their long dark lashes, peered up at him from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde hair.

Damien fished a biro out of his pocket. “Damien and Gill”. His handwriting was neat, even on the vertical surface of the notice board. He grinned, teeth creamy against his short, curly beard. “Got a lecture now. See you at the tennis courts at a quarter to two!” Gill looked again at their two names, paired on the notice board. She stared at them for several long seconds.

Sue came panting up.

“Phew! Just as well the notice is still there. Tim would have killed me if we weren’t in the tourney. I said I’d sign us up last week!”

Hastily, she scrawled “Sue and Tim” onto the notice.

“Damien’s partnering you? Wow! Lucky you! What a hunk!”

“I just hope I don’t let him down.”

“Don’t worry. It won’t matter how badly you play. It’s not the tennis court where he hopes you’ll be brilliant!” Thus, the wisdom of a twenty-one year old to a nineteen year old. Gill blushed crimson.

As luck would have it, Damien and Gill were drawn against Sue and Tim in the first round. They were on Court 3, a pretty court a little distance from the pavilion. The grass was smooth, short, and scarcely worn. The lines were fresh and bright white. There were birch trees to shelter it from the prevailing wind.

Damien tossed the ball high and opened the match with a clean ace. Fifteen-love. Tim shook his head. He should at least have laid a racket on the service. Sue moved from the net to receive Damien’s next delivery.

“Go back a pace,” suggested Tim. “The ball came high off the ground.”

Sue retreated well behind the baseline. The service was fast. She poked at it, connected, and the ball plopped invitingly over the net, ideally placed for Gill to hit a winner. Gill swung hard, and despatched the ball heavily into the net. Fifteen all.

Tim was ready for the speed of Damien’s next service, but not for its direction. The ball swung fiercely and landed just the right side of the centre line. Tim’s attempt at a backhand return missed completely. Thirty-fifteen.

Sue stood well back again. Damien slightly mishit his serve, and Sue returned it straight down the line. Damien was left flat-footed. Thirty all.

Tim grinned. “Nice shot.”

A double-fault. Thirty-forty.

Damien’s next service was gentler, as he sought to recover his accuracy. Sue stepped in and hit the ball hard towards Gill, who squealed and dodged. Damien ran across court behind her and just retrieved the ball. Hit at full stretch, his shot rocketed down the line leaving Sue stranded. Deuce.

Damien’s next service was fast and accurate, but Tim returned it.

“Yours!” yelled Damien to Gill, inviting her to take the volley.

Gill turned. “What?” she asked. The ball bounced between them, neither of them touching it. Advantage Tim and Sue.

Trying to conceal his exasperation, Damien walked across to Gill.

“I’m sorry I distracted you,” he said. “When there’s a ball that either of us could hit, I’ll shout “Yours” if I want you to play the shot. And will you do the same for me, please?”

“Yes. Silly of me. Sorry.” She felt as though her blush extended right up to her hairline.

Damien double-faulted, and the game was lost.

After a while, Damien stopped trying to coach Gill. He tried to cover her, so that when she missed a shot he was able to keep the ball in play. For a while the strategy succeeded. They were ahead three games to two after Damien’s second service game.

Tim was next to serve. Damien won the first point with a blistering return. Tim served to Gill. The sun was in his eyes, and the ball went into the net. His second service was slightly mishit, and bounced well for Gill. She gritted her teeth, opened her shoulders, and swung with venom and frustration. The ball flew between Tim and Sue, bouncing just inside the baseline.

Tim put down his racket and applauded. “Good shot!” he called. Sue ran up to the net, beckoning to Gill to come close.

“Don’t let Damien get you down,” she whispered. “Play for yourself, not for him.”

Gill tried to take the advice, and she did, indeed, play a few more good shots. But all the time she felt that Damien was watching her, covering for her, trying to win the match for both of them by his own efforts. Her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth turned down. She trudged from place to place on the court, wondering what she was doing there, and longing for the ordeal to be over.

Slowly the first set slipped away from Damien and Gill.

Sue and Tim were starting to show their quality. Tim played hard. ‘The quicker we win, the less embarrassing it will be for Gill,’ he thought.

Sue became very cross at her friend’s humiliation. When one of her shots hit Damien in the face, she was hard pressed not to show her delight. Sue and Tim won the second set six-one, and with it the match.

As soon as they’d all shaken hands, Sue grabbed Gill, and walked back to the pavilion with her. Damien watched them go. He’d begun to half-realise that Gill was upset. He watched as Sue passed Gill a tissue to wipe her eyes.

‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘You stupid so-and-so. You’ve totally blown it!’

He looked at Tim, who shrugged. “Not clever, Damien. Not clever at all.”

Damien looked towards the pavilion. Would it be worth trying to apologise? No. That would just make matters worse. He chucked his racket into his bag and slunk away to sit and sulk in his room.

Tim sauntered back to the pavilion. Perhaps tomorrow he would invite Damien to the punting party, give him a chance to recover his position with Gill. He’d better check that with Sue first, though. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he thought she’d deliberately tried to hurt Damien in that second set…

The man who hated his job

During my holiday in Japan, I saw both the little man and the hotel manager, and the story demanded to be written! Just in case you don’t know; bushido was the moral code by which samurai warriors lived and died; the Yakuza are Japan’s equivalent (very approximately) of the Mafia; members of the Yakuza wear elaborate whole-body tattoos declaring their clan affiliation. Note: This story is strictly fictional!

Tokyo cityscape hotels

The little man with the scowling face walked across the hotel lobby. His white shirt, worn under a dark-grey pinstripe suit, failed to conceal the elaborate tattoos surrounding his neck. By and large, the hotel guests paid him no attention; why should they? He was nothing to them, and they were less than nothing to him. They were there to holiday, to see the sights – to spend money. Yes, he approved of that, as it made his leader happy.

The guests mattered to the hotel manager, Akira Hisakawa, though. His position meant far more to him than merely a source of income. It was a source of pride. It was his purpose in life. He patrolled the restaurants, the lobby, housekeeping, the “in-house” convenience store, to make sure that everything was flawless. Nothing untoward or ugly should come between his guests and their enjoyment.

“In modern Japan,” he would say to his immediate subordinates, “We administrators are the new samurai. We must be meticulous. We must be as familiar with our procedures as warriors with their weapons, as if our lives depended upon it. We must live by bushido.” They would nod, and remember apprehensively where they had fallen short.

Not that the manager was a harsh man; he didn’t need to be. The disappointment on his face when something was less than perfect was all that was needed by way of admonition. And if he were to say quietly, “Bushido, Nobu-san, bushido,” why, Nobu would be so mortified that he would do anything, literally anything, to put right the deficiency.

Every day at eleven o’clock in the morning, seven days a week, Akira-san sat at the desk in his office to update his action plan to make the hotel even better. It was a beautiful desk made of glass. There was no clutter. Close to Akira-san’s right hand was a fruit bowl. If a subordinate distinguished himself, he might be rewarded with an invitation to spend five minutes sharing a piece of fruit with Akira-san.

It was cherry blossom time, all rooms were fully booked, and Akira-san was at his desk. He frowned at the report for breakfast in the restaurant. There had been a short period when saucers had not been available by the coffee service. Worse, at nine-thirty there had been three groups of people in the queue for a table. They had all been seated within ninety seconds, but that was not the point; they should not have had to wait at all. The restaurant manager’s plan to improve was not good enough.

His office door opened; but staff had strict instructions never to disturb him in his office.

The little man with the scowling face walked across to Akira-san’s desk, threw himself into the chair in front of it, and crossed his legs.

“Good morning, Hisao-san.”

The little man’s scowl became even more ferocious. How did this man know his name?

“Hironori Kurosawa is not happy.” The little man took out an extremely sharp knife and began to clean under his fingernails. Akira-san hid his distaste.

“I am grieved that Hironori-san is not happy. Perhaps if I could meet him we could arrive at an arrangement that would suit us both?”

“You can pay now, and he will overlook your insolent behaviour – this time.”

Hisao-san impaled a bright red, perfect apple with his blade. Akira-san’s hand strayed under his desk.

“I have no quarrel with paying Hironori-san for what he provides, but he has not done enough to justify the very large monthly sum. Two of my guests were approached by a drug dealer last month.”

“No negotiation.”

“I am not an unreasonable man… ” began Akira-san.

The little man catapulted out of his chair, knife in hand, towards Akira-san. There was a soft “phut” as the taser, concealed under the desk, fired. Hisao-san shrieked, struggled, and finally dropped to the ground. Two members of the hotel staff burst into the room to find Akira-san standing on the little man’s wrist, removing the knife from his flaccid fingers.

“Check him for weapons,” he said. The baggage handler picked up Hisao and held him firmly, while the manager of reception frisked him carefully. Hisao was shaking and strengthless.

“I suggest a twenty percent discount this month to compensate for the poor performance in protecting us. I’m happy to meet Hironori-san to discuss this, if he wishes. Good day, Hisao-san. He bowed, in a perfunctory manner. Automatically, Hisao-san bowed in response, and left.

“Police?” queried the manager of reception.

“No, of course not.” The reception manager quailed.

Outside the office, Hisao-san tried unsuccessfully to recapture his swagger; his scowl had become a grimace that even a heedless tourist might spot. Sometimes he really hated his job…

If you enjoyed this story, I would be very grateful if you would share it with your friends!

 

 

Santa’s Problem – a Gwendolen story

Several readers enjoyed ‘The Wonky Wand’ which introduced Gwendolen the fairy. I felt like contributing to the festive mood, so here’s another story about her. After all, as Lynn Love commented, everybody loves a sweary fairy!
As a practising scientist I hadn’t believed in fairies – until I met Gwendolen. Eight inches tall, dumpy and pasty-faced, with lop-sided iridescent wings, she was undoubtedly real. Meeting her had been entertaining as well as an eye-opener. And, of course, I couldn’t forget that she had arranged the introduction to Paul, my husband.
I had never expected to hear from her again, but one December evening, when Paul was out, I heard a crash from the bedroom.
“Oh, bugger.” I heard a ripping sound. “Oh, BUGGER!”
There was Gwendolen, red-faced and with a comprehensively torn dress. “Misjudged the landing, and got caught up in your bedside lamp,” she explained. “I’m glad you can see me. I thought you might have lost the gift; you know, with Paul and all that. Physical satisfaction tends to make discernment less acute. I hope you are enjoying life with Paul?” She peered at me a little doubtfully.
The subject seemed to embarrass her, and I was tempted to tease her by asking her to explain what she meant. But she looked worried, so I just nodded, smiled and said, “Yes, thank you.”
She had plainly made an effort. Her hair was brushed. The star on her wand twinkled quite prettily. It was a shame about the torn dress.
“It’s Santa,” she said. “He has a big problem.” She looked hopefully at me.
“Santa. Um. Gwendolen, are you telling me that Santa is real?”
Gwendolen eyed me up. “I do sometimes forget that you’re not eight years old. Yes, Santa’s real and, yes, he does deliver presents.” She folded her arms, daring me to disbelieve.
“But Gwendolen, love, surely Santa couldn’t travel fast enough to deliver all those presents in a single twenty four hour period?”
“Well of course, he couldn’t. D’uh! How could you run a business like that? A factory geared up to producing for delivery on a single day of the year? Bonkers. What would you do with the elves the rest of the time? No, production takes place steadily throughout the year, and parcels are despatched every day on time-lapse delivery.”
“Elves, Gwendolen?”
“Yes, well let’s not say too much about them. Some of us are very concerned that Santa will lose control of them, and then where will we be? He claims that elfin safety is his top priority, but I’m not convinced.”
“And time-lapse delivery. It sounds neat, but how does it work?”
“You pop the package into the despatcher, the computer attaches space-time co-ordinates, and the delivery system then transfers the package to those co-ordinates. That’s where the problem lies. The despatcher uses a quantum computer and Santa’s wife, Mary,…”
“Not Mary Christmas?” I breathed.
“No, don’t be silly, she’s Mrs Mary Claus, anyway, she spilled coffee on the computer, and the qubits decohered and, well, there’s going to be some disappointed children this Christmas. Unless you can help.”
“If Santa’s really using a quantum computer, I doubt I can help. We humans only have experimental models, and I would never be allowed to use one.”
“Santa’s head of IT said it could be done by ordinary human computers if we could link enough together.” She screwed up her face in thought. “Massively parallel computing, I think he said it was.”
“How many would we need?”
“About a thousand.”
“Whoo! That’s a lot of computers. The only way we could do that would be with a botnet, and a big one at that.”
Now, I’m not a computer scientist, but I know one or two. There’s Chloe, who’s studying computing and there’s Amanda, who’s up for anything that looks like fun. They might have access to a big enough network.
“Where will the data come from, Gwendolen?”
She pointed at the floor. A DVD was lying there. “That’s why I hit the lamp,” she explained. “It’s a big thing to carry while you’re flying.”
“And how do we return the processed data to Santa?”
“Same way. One of those pretty, shiny discs.”
“It will take time, Gwendolen. I’ll have to ring my friends.”
“That’s alright. Paul’s never back from the Golf Club committee until eleven o’clock.” Her voice died away as I looked at her.
“How do you know about Paul and the Golf Club? Have you been…” I wondered how to ask her politely whether she’d been spying on us.
Have you ever seen a fairy looking shifty? Gwendolen looked at the floor, shuffled her feet, gave her wand a guilty twirl. “Well, you always feel interested in the people whose wishes you’ve granted. You want to know how they’re getting on. And I haven’t been here while you’ve been…you know.”
I didn’t altogether believe her. In fact, I didn’t believe her at all. “Oh, Gwendolen,” I sighed.
Amanda thought the whole thing was a great joke. I don’t know whose computers she hijacked, but the following day she rang me especially to tell me to watch the evening news. Apparently Russian computers had hacked the CIA. I didn’t want to know. All I needed was to download the data and burn it onto a DVD.
Gwendolen came back for it the following evening. I was sitting at the computer in the study when I heard a cough. There she was, sitting behind me. Wordlessly, I passed her the DVD.
“Christmas is saved,” she murmured. “Thank you so much. I won’t stay. I can feel Paul coming.” Her little face softened. “I’m really glad your marriage is working out so well,” she said. “You know, your wish was only the start; all the rest, you’ve managed for yourselves. Good-bye – must fly!” She vanished just as Paul came in.
“Is that a new perfume? Nice!” He nuzzled his face into my neck.
Gwendolen, don’t you dare!

Doppelganger

Not even a fleeting micro-expression betrayed Bella’s irritation at Mark’s clumsy attempts to strengthen his sales pitch by his body language. As she responded to him, she was by turns animated, thoughtful, diffident, all without thinking as she observed and assessed his performance.

“My goodness you’re bad, Mark,” was all she said when he finished.

He blushed, the carmine flush an ugly contrast to his ginger hair. Bella read anger as well as humiliation in his eyes. The professional appraisal conveyed by her expression was a perfect mask for the secret pleasure of seeing him squirm, powerless despite his fury.

Bella looked down at the sheet in front of her and made a note.

“Hand your badge in at reception as you leave, please.”

She continued to write. There was a pause, and then she heard his chair scrape over the carpet as he pushed it back and stood up. She heard him hesitate, clear his throat, felt him change his mind, turn and trudge out of the room.

“Another loser, eh?” Ben stuck his head round the door.

Bella looked up, a little smile on her lips.

“Better for them to know sooner rather than later,” she observed. Ben was one of her successes. She’d spotted him three years earlier, nurtured him, showed him how to exploit his talent. It hadn’t been long before he was the company’s best salesman, topping the rankings for nine consecutive months.

Automatically she mirrored his gestures, not copying but echoing, so subtly that he was conscious only of her interest, concern and admiration. He preened himself.

“I’ve a report to finish, then how about a drink?”

“The Hopbinders in half an hour?”

“Sounds good.”

Bella arrived at the pub a few minutes late. There was no sign of Ben, and the bar was almost empty. Was Ben becoming complacent, perhaps? That thought was so unpleasant that she immediately substituted the more palatable explanation that Ben had received an urgent phone call from their transatlantic partners. Still, she would punish him anyway, just to make sure that he knew that he mustn’t take her for granted. She swung her feet irritably while sipping a tonic water. Under the circumstances there was no risk in revealing her true feelings.

Bella never watched the entrance when she was waiting for someone. Let them seek me out, she reasoned, and they will value me more. As a consequence, the first she knew of the new arrival was the sound of a handbag being placed on the bar.

“Assertive. Proprietorial almost,” Bella summarised to herself.

The voice ordering a drink was musical, clear and pleasant to hear. Bella admired the control. There were subtle undercurrents of persuasion and dominance, so discreet that the unwary listener would hear only a candid warmth. The voice sounded somehow familiar; but all great voices have similarities, reasoned Bella.

Where on earth was Ben? Could he have had an accident? The thought prompted a spasm of aggravation. It would be bloody irritating if he’d laid himself up at this crucial moment. The company needed his skills for the North American deal.

The door swung open cheerily. Bella knew without needing to look that Ben had entered.

“Hi, Bella!”

Bella stayed still and silent, waiting for him to join her. He didn’t. What was he playing at?

“Great dress! Who are we meeting?”

“What the hell’s going on?” thought Bella. “I’m in my suit, just as I was when he last saw me. And why is he standing at the bar, rather than joining me?”

She rose, and without glancing towards the bar walked towards the ladies’ toilet. She was damned if she would do more than that to attract his attention. Anyway, he was probably already past his peak as a salesman – and as a sexual partner.

As she pushed at the door, she heard a woman’s laugh. It was warm, indulgent, calculated to engulf the male ego with a numbing sweetness. Despite herself, Bella turned.

Ben stood at the bar, grinning broadly at a blonde woman in her early thirties. Her hair was shingled, accentuating the fine bone structure of her face. Her lips were exquisite, seeming to shimmer between bee-sting fullness and the merriness of a schoolgirl. Her dress was indeed great, simple but masterful. For all her money, Bella had rarely indulged herself with such an extravagant piece of couture.

Bella’s hand stole to her mouth. It was uncanny. The woman looked exactly like her.

But Bella’s complexion, though still excellent, lacked the freshness of the stranger’s. Her fine bone structure was becoming full of character. Not all the hairdresser’s art could quite capture the vibrant sheen of the stranger’s blonde hair. And how long was it since Bella had laughed with anything other than contempt?

Ben looked across at her.

“My God,” he said.

The Wonky Wand

It’s been a difficult week with Donald Trump becoming President-Elect of the USA. So here’s a piece of total whimsy to lighten the mood!

The wonky wand

The fairy’s name was Gwendolen, and she was dumpy and pasty-faced. Her wings, although iridescent, were lop-sided and looked clumsy despite their delicacy. And, yes, she carried a wand; the star on the end not so much twinkling as flickering like a faulty fluorescent tube. I wanted to hug her, then brush her hair, straighten her wings and fix her wand; but as she was only eight inches tall and a supernatural being, I settled for smiling in a friendly fashion.

“Oh shit!” she said. “That just about wraps up the perfect day. Wrong time of the month, wand goes wonky, lost the rest of the troop and now, stone me, an adult human spots me. Shit. And bugger!” She glared at me. “You can see me, can’t you?” she said. “If I’m hallucinating as well, I might as well top myself.”
“Yes, I’m rather afraid I can. And I wish you hadn’t said that about hallucinating, because I don’t bel….”
“Stop!” Her exclamation was so unexpectedly loud that I jumped. “That Peter Pan stuff about a fairy dying every time someone says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ is bollocks, of course, but we don’t like it. How would you like it if I said ‘I don’t believe in humans’?”
“You just did,” I pointed out. “At least, you implied that I was a hallucination.”
“Hmmph.” She glowered morosely at me. “You’ve given me a right problem. Really I should cast a spell on you to make you forget me. Or turn you into a frog. Or something. But the wand’s bust. It could turn you into a forget-me-not, or make you lost in a fog. Or nothing.”
“Really? I mean, can you really turn people into frogs?”
“Well, we don’t unless we have to, you know.”
I wondered under what circumstances it could ever be imperative to turn someone into a frog, but the look on Gwendolen’s face discouraged me from asking the question. For all I knew a fairy might consider mild curiosity by a mortal to be ample grounds for amphibian metamorphosis.

“I’m really glad to have seen you,” I ventured. “I never saw fairies when I was a little girl.”
“Well surprise, surprise! What sort of little girl sees fairies, do you suppose?”
“Some of my friends said they did.”
“Some people will say anything. Look, are you going to keep me here all night?”
“What do you mean?”
“As long as you’re aware of me, I can’t leave. Your attention keeps me here.”
“So if I stop looking at you, you’ll vanish?”
“Like a shot.”

I looked her over carefully, the golden hair streaked and in rats’ tails, the slight pot belly, the silky blue dress with a hem that had come down at one side. I wanted to remember her clearly; after all, this was a unique experience. Then I courteously turned my back.

I was just considering turning round again when I heard an embarrassed cough.
“Shit.”
“And bugger?”
“Definitely ‘And bugger’. I seem to be stuck.”
“How d’you mean, stuck?”
She looked pityingly at me. “Have I vanished or am I still here? I am temporally and spatially stuck, and it doesn’t appear to be your attention that’s holding me here. I really can think of better places to be stuck than the bedroom of a cheap hotel.”

“I’m staying here,” I pointed out. “By the way, your wand seems to have died completely.”
Gwendolen looked at the star. Even though it had guttered like a wind-blown candle, the glow had given it a crystalline beauty; with no light at all it looked like a particularly tawdry piece of plastic.
“Ah,” she said.
“Might that have anything to do with your inability to leave?”
Gwendolen tightened her lips and remained silent.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then. So how do you recharge a wand?”
Her eyes flicked right then left. “It’s no good,” she sighed. “If you were eight you might be able to help, but you’re old.”
“I’m forty two, you cheeky so-and-so. How old are you?”
“Oh, er, older than that.”
“Yes?”
“I was eight hundred and thirty last birthday. Look, what I need to recharge my wand is someone who wants something really badly, really single-mindedly. Human girls are especially good at that. We offer to grant a wish. They think ‘Oh, I wish I had so-and-so!’, there’s a great surge of energy into the wand, and we use a little bit of that to grant the wish. The rest of the charge will last a month with careful use. If you humans understood properly how to harness the power of your dreams you’d be unstoppable. I don’t suppose you know any eight year old girls locally, do you?”
“You didn’t expect me to be able to see you, did you?”
“Well, no….”
“Could that mean that I might be able to wish hard enough?”
“They’re different.”
But I could see hesitation and a dawning hope on her face. She looked almost pretty as her frown receded. “We could try,” she admitted.

“Do I have to tell you what I wish for?”
“Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. What small girl would do that? You oldies are so crass; you think too much.”
I closed my eyes. I wished. I felt a surge of energy cascade through me, sparkling and crackling, tingling like intense pins and needles.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, and opened my eyes.
The room was empty. There may or may not have been just the faintest hint of fading sparkle by the television, and the memory of a sweet scent. I smiled, feeling more cheerful than I had for weeks. I strolled down to the bar and ordered a G and T.
“Hi! Are you Fiona? Fiona Last?”
He was tall, dark, well-dressed. His voice was resonant, melodious.
“I shall be working with you on your assignment. I’m Paul. I thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.” His smile was warm and open.
Like an echo in my inner ear, I heard a fairy voice. “Not a very original wish, but good enough. Thanks – and good luck!”