Albert the Engine

When I arrived, Arnold was already there, so was Jim.
‘Good morning gentlemen,’ I said.
‘Hi Jane,’ Arnold said.
Hello Jane,’ Jim said.
‘You’re late’ Arnold said.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Good old Scotrail does it again all this new technology and they can’t run the trains on time.’
‘It didn’t happen in my day.’ Said Jim. I took my coat off and sat down.
‘Have you had lunch?’ I asked.
‘No, you’re ok.’ Arnold said.
‘Did you get the latest TL?’ I asked.
‘I did,’ Arnold said.’
‘I see your pal got a panning in the letters page?’ I said.
‘Which pal was that?’ Arnold asked.
‘Albert the Engine.’ I said. I picked the menu up.
‘What has Alberto El Loco been up to now?’ Arnold asked. ‘Not another Blue duchess on the low level?’
‘Telling fibs again.’ I said. ‘What’s the Chef’s special.’
‘Albert? Telling porkies?’ Arnold replied with mock incredulity. ‘NEVER!’
‘His article about his days on the low level contains more fables than Aesop.’
‘I saw Sandy’s letter.’ Arnold said.
‘Albert’s harmless.’ Jim interrupted.
‘Albert’s a numpty.’ Arnold retorted. ‘It’s about time someone took him and his fabrications on. Look at Bredalbane.’
‘What about Bredalbane?’ I asked innocently.
‘A4’s and duchesses on a rural branch line?’
‘Not very ecologically friendly I’ll admit.’ I remarked.
‘ECOLOGY?’ Arnold exclaimed so loudly that the people at the next table jumped. ‘Albert is to ecology what Mr Blobby is to culture.’
‘Aye,’ I sighed. ‘It was a bad day when we lost Dave Shakespeare.’
‘Who’s Dave Shakespeare?’ They asked in unison.’

(Prompts: Shakespeare, ecology, technology)

by Jane Jones

To Be With Bill or Not to Be?

Bill Gates-Shakespeare, a secret admirer of the Bard, though better known to the populace as the founder of Microsoft and a leader for many years in maximisation of computer technology, walked into his virtual home in the cloud. He marched up to a console, waved his left hand over a sensor, an open fridge door appeared before him and he pulled out a bottle of water.

Ecology has now overtaken us and it is no longer normal to enjoy such experiences in person. Bill’s holographic avatar consumed the chilled liquid in proxy for the man. Bill, meanwhile, ignored his own thirst as he felt compelled to read for the fourth time that day in his “I love Wm Shakespeare Journal” …”If music be the food of love, play on …” Inspired, he projected a virtual stage and musicians on the blank walls of his room and began to jam with Clapton and Hendrix.

“Laylah”, he wailed to the music as their guitars soared in surround sound in the soundproofed room. Yes, all the ecology had finally achieved that which Bill never could… he’d frightened off his beloved wife. To paraphrase Orsino, “…her appetite had sickened and so died.”

(Prompts: Ecology, Shakespeare, Technology)

by Elizabeth Ann Woods

The Heart

I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.” (Macbeth I.vii)

The weight on my chest was no burden. It did not slow me down, in fact my stride was more indignant now than it had ever been. The crowd flowed around me, oblivious. Businessmen in their swollen, affluence-drenched pinstripe suits, the errant mothers with their wailing offspring traipsing beside, the adolescents whose every breath of smoke or snap of gum was only further assignation of their loose morals, even the elderly whose gnarled and bitter faces contorted from their lives misdeeds. My hands folded tentatively across my stomach as I weaved through the bustling myriad of people. I remember fondly the nativity of my latent prodigy. The bittersweet nights spent in toil. Poised and steady hands clasped around tools, fingers that caressed the smooth metal hide. I stepped slower as I reached the place. I stopped. I was the lone unmoving soul in the endless swarm. I tilted my head back, drinking in a few deep breaths, watching the dust waltz in the sunbeams. I swiftly drew off my oversized jacket, letting it drop resolutely to my feet. They stopped now. Some screamed, some dropped to their knees. I stood, with my chest puffed forward displaying to them all the source of my pride. A tangle of red and blue, like a protruding heart encasing my chest, enrapturing them all.

(Prompts: Shakespeare, Technology)

By Hayley Rutherford

The Moon

“Miss. Miss! MISS!”
The teacher turned round to the boy who had called her, the tenth time in this period, suppressing a sigh. Thirty minutes to go for lunch time.
“What is it this time, Cameron?”
“See, why does the moon have to carry a lantern, sticks and a dog? Nobody is going to recognise it. That’s so stupid!”
She had to give him credit that at least this question slightly touched what they were doing at the moment which was discovering Bottom’s character traits. After having asked for a pencil, a rubber, the permission to go to the toilet (several times) and inquiring in a whiny voice why he was not allowed to go there, after having complained about being hit by the boy sitting next to him and after having thrown an empty bottle through the classroom, he had finally opened his copy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“People at Shakespeare’s time thought that there was a man like this in the moon.”
“That’s a really stupid thing to believe.”
“The moon was a mystery these days. People didn’t know what we know today.” For a moment she thought that she had caught his interest. He looked at her as if he wanted to ask another question. She was sure he would ask for further information about scientific knowledge in the 16th century. Maybe she could send him to the library to research a bit on his own. It would lead him away from the characterisations but that seemed to be a small sacrifice if it meant she managed to get Cameron Miller interested in a topic in English class.
“Miss, I don’t want to read this crap!” He stood up, threw his book against the wall, missing Orla Smith’s head only by half an inch, and sat down again. Grinning.
She shouted louder than she had ever shouted at a pupil before. She sent him off the classroom and gave him detention. What should she do with this boy? He refused to participate in class, fooled around and disturbed his classmates. When he was in, it was nearly impossible to have normal lesson because he demanded her whole attention. He was a pain in the neck for all of his teachers who agreed that nothing good would ever become of Cameron Miller.
She could not know that the boy, who had high fived his best friend while walking out of the room celebrating that he had driven her crazy again, spent every night on the telescope observing the moon. She could not know that twenty years from now he would be a leading engineer for NASA and that he would look down to the moon from space and mutter: “An old man and a dog… pathetic. But the play was not that bad at all.”

(Prompts: Shakespeare, Technology)

By Rut Neuschäfer

House For Sale

‘The empty vessel makes the loudest sound’ – Henry V.

She never read a thing that was not stapled and glossy and picked up from the table at her hair salon.  My Marigold™ mother, apron knotted neatly. She is in the basement, carefully packed in her gossamer curtains.

“They’re very in vogue dear, Elouise has them up in her dining room”

The back garden will do, underneath her village of gnomes, below their greedy fish hooks.

“Shoes by the door! Oh, look at how scuffed they are!”

Or maybe the quay behind the mall, shelved between the sinking shopping trolleys.

“Take down those posters, love! Your room ought to match the rest of the house!”

I strip her halls of floral wallpaper, go to the basement and leave.

House For Sale.
01386 773 926

(Prompts: Shakespeare)

By Louise Mccue

Embers

The charred woods pulse like bruised cheeks. Blackened husks limp into sight, standing in some barren parody of life, cracked and shriveled. The old giants are ashes, and all the leaves have burned away.

I stand amid the ruins, troubled by the smell of scorched flesh. Walking heedless of embers at my feet, I go in search of the dead creature. The thrill of morbid curiosity- And yet I worry that I am walking towards horror, that I rouse ghosts with each step. I tread trails left by others, other lives and other deaths.

And over there, huddled by the fallen trunk of a former oak, I find her. Crusted over with black silt, some ashen wreck- A deer, probably. The poor beast is hunched in agony visible even now, and what looks to be a fawn lies crumpled below its mother’s body. I don’t linger long.

As I’m leaving, my boot knocks a clump of splinters, and underneath are flowers, partly singed but holding on. Stupid, obnoxious flowers, shooting up from the wastes as if their only purpose was to jar with the carnage, arriving like sodden drunkards to a dwindling party. I think this may be the first time I’ve ever admired a plant.

I considered picking them, but decided against it. Better to let them grow in peace, cradled by smouldering soil.

(Prompts: Shakespeare, Ecology, Technology)

By Paul Inglis

The Shakespeare Garden

“Great work so far, everyone, but the Midsummer Night’s Dream forest needs something else…more vines and creepers maybe? It needs to be very mysterious and beautiful, perhaps a little bit creepy…at the moment it’s looking a bit sparse. And I think we need to get the lighting technicians back in. Maybe some purple and pink, very soft lighting, and more dry ice…”

The curator dismissed the workforce from their weekly progress meeting, and looked down at her iPad. Everything was on schedule so far.

She rode a caddy over to the Elsinore garden, and nodded with satisfaction at the moody castle façade, the moat (complete with dry ice mist effects), the ivy (carefully bred and cultivated), the Ophelia wildflower garden with its little stream, the graveyard with artfully planted ‘weeds’ bursting through cracks in stones…she placed a virtual tick on her planning app next to ‘Elsinore’.

She then took the caddy over to the Island, where the maritime botanists had created a beautiful underwater garden of corals, seaweeds, and other exotic ocean flora, visible through a glass panel. Then, there was Caliban’s Cave, with berry bushes and a pumpkin patch at the entrance, and a breath-taking collection of bioluminescent plants illuminating the inside of the little grotto. The jungle was a fairly middle-of-the-road assemblage of tropical trees and plants, made a little more interesting by the light and sound effects and the rain machine, which would simulate a wild storm at an entirely randomised time during each visiting period. She was happy enough with this garden so she gave a tick of approval.

One of her favourite gardens was ‘Fair Verona’. The main area was a courtyard, simulating the scene with Juliet at her balcony, where the star floral displays were a selection of meticulously-arranged window boxes holding all manner of exquisitely colourful Mediterranean flowers – oleander, lavender, bougainvillea, jasmine, cyclamen, geranium, lunaria, and of course, sweet-smelling roses of every colour, shape and size – and of any other name. There was also a wall of red ivy, entangled with passion flowers, clematis and grapevines, and some small, potted orange, lemon and olive trees adorning the courtyard several balconies. The scents of this garden were magnificent – heady, sweet, spiced, warm…if the feeling of falling in love had aroma of its own, this would be it, the curator thought.

Of course, behind the courtyard and the balcony façade, there was a garden dedicated to the darker side of this immortal love story. The Apothecary’s Glasshouse – a circular, glass building, with a dusty path surrounded by a tangle of thorny rosebushes and bindweed – held an enormous selection of poisonous plants: hemlock, aconitum, hellebore, belladonna…naturally, the plants were sealed off from the walkway through the glasshouse by glass panels.

Satisfied with the arrangements, the curator ticked off ‘Fair Verona’, and scanned through the list for the next garden that she needed to examine. ‘Dunsinane’.

She frowned. This was the garden she’d had the most trouble with. It was very difficult to simulate the feel of the moody, rolling hills and vast, sweeping heathland in such a relatively small space. She was happy with the selection of plants: heathers, bracken, thistles, Scottish primrose – everything wild and unmaintained, having been allowed to grow with minimum interference from the horticultural workforce. The various props were well-made – they had imported large slabs of basalt and sandstone to create a craggy feel to the heavily landscaped garden, and they used a large amount of this to build the Witches’ Cavern, and also the foundations of the castle, though the rest was a façade as with the other buildings in the Shakespeare Garden, with a scaffolded frame covered with plywood and then carefully painted faux stone panels. Of course, the curator’s primary annoyance was the impossibility of recreating Burnam Wood with real oak trees. There was neither time nor space, and so they had been forced to use synthetic prop-trees and painted backgrounds, and though much time, skilled craft and planning had gone into the building of the non-botanic elements of the display, the curator couldn’t help but feel that these elements encroached on the natural wilderness feel of the Dunsinane garden.

The light was fading outside the huge Dome, and the curator knew it was time to go home. The Shakespeare Garden would only have a six-week run at the Dome – the world’s largest indoor, fully-climate-managed display garden – after which the next contender for the winner of the World Horticultural Show would have their run. The short time seemed especially fleeting considering the fact that these dream landscapes, themselves so transient, were based on such immortal works of literature.

(prompts: Shakespeare, ecology, technology)

by Rachel Norris

Dreams in Cerise

He awoke from cerise dreams of her blushing cheeks to find the water had taken him at last. The sun bore down upon his bare chest, warming him with the sadness of a knowing mortality. He had been told that there were five days left, just as the trees in Arden had five leaves left, but the fact that he had been tricked by prophecy was of no consequence to him now. The forest was far away from him and so was she; with her voice becoming the wind itself, blistering his cheeks as they sank into the sea.

He remembers this moment with vague precision; as a string of words might assemble into a glitchy mass of pixels. He has written it down many times and tried to understand it. The tide of wireless has brought him streams of emails; emails from the time to come; messages that he might make sense of. In the small hours of the morning he types her letters about what has happened to him. He dreads being sucked into the past again; for the future is certainly a strange place, but he is only just starting to get used to it. He sees himself in flux and knows that she will be much older now. Dead, perhaps. He imagines all the particles of her earthly body slowly dissolving into the soil, mingling with the insects that take their homes from the filth and the litter left by humans. And all the time, the stars in the sullen sky echo a warning.

He lives in a world of barren land and beaten trees, of snowfalls that soften God into the molten endlessness of his oceans. The survivors who live on their tiny islands, connected only by their computers. In his heart he returns, frequently, to the wormhole which brought him to this future. In its memory he sees himself brilliant and glimmering. He cannot bear it: the pain of atoms tearing shreds from the world’s membrane, the layers of his skin. But he knows about the Sun: she too hurts, fading as she falls closer towards him in the whitening sky. Somehow, in his loneliness, he finds this presence comforting. For in the mist of her rays, and the bleeping dust, the signals are always reverberating.

(Prompts: ecology, technology, Shakespeare)

by Maria Rose Sledmere