The Piper 44


Liam sat expecting the worst.

Today should have been the day when he had taken care of old business. It should have been easy with the city in so much disorder. But, things had not turned out that way. The Andrews boy was not the pushover that he had been led to believe; he had power.

Liam had walked home in the rain. He had not cared to cover himself against the elements, but had stripped to the waist. The cold night rain had lashed against his bare skin and had given him some relief. His anger was boiling over and he needed an outlet. For him, nothing arrived. He would have to wait.

When he got back to his flat, he was wearing the maniacal grin of a man returned from battle. Along the way, he had stopped to break a bottle, intending it for use on others yet had turned it on himself. His forearms bled and the rain diluted his life blood and added to its own flow.

He was terrible to behold.

The Leatherman was waiting in his favourite armchair. The replacement television was playing and the lights from it cast animated shadows across the darkened room. Liam was more than a little confused.

“Close the door on the way in. I do hate the cold.”

He recognised the undercurrent of the voice.

“Come in boy. Come in.”

Liam moved slowly into the room. He did not go for the but walked in the semi-darkness of the illumination of the flickering screen.

“This sack of bones spent a long time watching this. Four years of non-stop television and only one channel. It must have seemed like an eternity. He had the commercial side switched on.”

The voice snaked around him.

“So, you have tasted defeat, my boy. And what does that taste like I wonder?”

The leather torso turned around to look at him and he saw the space where the eyes ought to have been. Far from there being nothing there, he thought that he saw objects, like black diamonds glinting towards him.

“Ha, I see that it did not appeal to your palate.”

The corpse was directing itself towards the blood that was still freely pouring from Flowers’ penitent wounds.

“A form of stigmata,” the thing giggled again. “It will take more than that to atone for this miscalculation. I don’t wish for the blood of my chosen one, but for that of another. Have you any suggestions?”

Liam had a suggestion, but dared not utter it. He did not want to open the door to his thoughts.

“We could make an offering of anyone on a night such as this. If you want blood, then we could find it. The streets are ours and you know it.”

An explosion of frustration shattered the night.

“Have I taught you so little, you fool? Have I invested my kingdom to come in such a crass idiot? You do not understand the gravity of this night or you would not suggest such a thing. The family are not ours. We have nothing. Your incompetence is outstanding. Your underlings have left us stranded on the sands of fortune and you offer empty vessels for escape? I want your man, Liam, I want Podrall.”

Flowers was stunned.

He had never expected this.

Podrall had been with him from the start and there was something about him that was family. Now, he was being told that Podrall should die for the underestimations that had taken place. Was not he to blame as well?

“What about the middle brother? I think we could make an example of him. I remember what you told me about how you put fear into populations. We haven’t got all of the family, but if we showed what would happen to one of their prized members, then maybe we could tempt them out into the open. That would be a better use of resources.”

A snort of acceptance greeted this.

“You learn well boy. You learn well.”



The Piper 38



The last of the afternoon light was starting its retreat from the school.

“And let’s think about what we have learnt today,” concluded Mr Hunter from the front of the room.

“Hitler and his Nazis did fail. His regime finally buckled under the combined weight of the Allied Forces. Like similar regimes throughout history, there was initial internal resistance, however, that was dealt with through the tacit co-operation of many of its citizens. Hitler’s attempts to change the future through the establishment of the Hitler Youth and the Final Solution never achieved its objectives. Some Jewish people did survive and subsequently emigrated. Many of the youth got bored with the evening meetings until laws were passed to ensure their attendance. And what usually happens once you are forced to do something?”

Michael, who had carried the class, did not volunteer. Flowers put his hand up in the air in a manner that was vaguely familiar to the Nazi salute.

With a sigh of resignation, the teacher acknowledged the input.

“The answer to that is simple. If you are frightened enough, you will do anything. Brutality is what humans understand the most. Any true leader who has a choice between the carrot and the stick will always choose the stick because it works. Very few people like pain and fewer still enjoy watching pain being inflicted on those they love. You, as a teacher of history, know that the German authorities would never immediately punish the individual, at least not on their own. They had a policy of punishing the families and communities as this achieved two excellent outcomes: the perpetrators were dealt with and the chance of encountering revenge attacks was dramatically reduced. On top of that, one has to say, the fear factor kicked in big style. How can you fight something that has no acceptance of good and evil? That’s what it boils down to, not woolly-headed bleeding-heart liberalism.”

There was no triumph in his voice. What came through was a granite determination and conviction. Every face in the room was turned towards the man who had formally been the teacher. For a long while, he was trapped in silence.

Michael wanted to urge him on. Michael wanted him to respond with an argument that would raze Flowers to the level he should be at. Unfortunately, the bell sounded for the end of the class and the school day. Chairs moved quickly and bags were swung onto backs. Nobody spoke as feet quickly made for the exit. Within seconds the room was empty of everyone bar the trio.

“Interesting point there, Liam,” Mr Hunter spoke in hushed tones suggesting he had accepted the logic of his student. “You displayed some excellent skills of explanation and deduction. You would make a fine student of this subject and…”

“Cut the crap, Hunter. I didn’t say that for your benefit. The problem with your type is that you think the world is built on reason. No matter how many wars and atrocities continue to take place, you believe in your flimsy values and ethics. I feel sorry for you. Your time is dead and buried and you don’t even know it. Teacher of History, how apt.”

Turning towards Michael, Flowers smiled.

“You are a little more interesting,” he said getting up. “I’m rather looking forward to having a further talk.”

He walked slowly out of the room and Michael listened to him disappearing along the corridor.

“Michael, I think it’s better that you wait here for a while.”



It had been coming.

Michael knew that something had to happen and that he could no longer be protected by anyone other than himself. Flowers had laid down the gauntlet and Michael had no choice but to pick it up.

“Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll be getting the bus with Chris.”

“If you think that’s safe, then you go ahead. Just take care of yourself, young man. I’ve got a feeling that Mr Flowers doesn’t fight fairly.”

“Me, too.”

When Michael emerged from the classroom, the corridors were deserted. Not even the faintest echo of feet could be heard bouncing around the walls. Each classroom that he passed revealed itself to be vacant. He was struggling to believe that everyone could have left so quickly and so quietly. If fire drills went as smoothly as this then there would be no need for them.

A door behind him flapped shut and he turned to see who had come through it. The door swung to and fro free from assistance. There was nobody there. He heard a chair scratch itself across the floor and he moved on. He increased his pace a little to keep him ahead of the tiny sounds that were emerging from where he had come. A cold breeze ran past him and he broke into a jog. When he finally reached the exit and pushed, he discovered that it had been locked.

Michael stared at the door in disbelief and tried it again. He could not bring himself to believe that the caretaker had locked the main exit so early. He kicked at it in frustration and his slight rebellion made him smile.

He was turning back when he heard a storm of feet charging along the corridor above him. It sounded as if a tempest had conjured itself from the afternoon and was in the process of dashing the ground in cruel satisfaction. As suddenly as it had started, it stopped. No even a footfall fell beyond the others. Not a noise after that. Sweat formed on his skin ran in huge droplets along salty tracks down his face. Pinpricks of anxiety started tingling through his system and shook him out of any complacency he may still have harboured.

Think, think he thought to himself. Where’s the next exit?

He didn’t know the school that well and had been a creature of habit in the few months that he had been there. Now, he cursed himself for his lack of adventure. In that breath of time, it had also crossed his mind that Chris was not there.

Chris was not there waiting for his brother.

They had always been together, through everything. What Michael could not do, Chris could and that was reciprocated. Michael was on his own for the first time outside of his dreams and this was becoming more and more like one of his nightmares as even the flimsiest of the sun’s rays began to falter.

He pressed a light switch and nothing happened. A cacophony of doors slammed in a falling of dominoes and that was enough of a cue for him to launch into full flight. Laughter chased his every step.

He was doubling back upon himself knowing that that was what they would want him to do. He was thinking through his escape and he was trying to see his plight through the eyes of his tormentors. He was putting himself into the shoes of a boy he had only just met. He was using some innate intuition to allow himself an advantage.

The rush of feet came again and this time it was much closer. He listened to the noise until it fell into a distant silence. He moved forward and heard his own shoes signalling his whereabouts. Every step he was taking betrayed him – ringing through the empty school, a radar for his pursuers to follow. He was running in near darkness now and so would his pursuers. He stopped and hooked his thumb into the back of his right shoe and slid it off. He did the same with the other one and pushed them into his bag. He ran barefooted, in silence, until the rush of feet came again.

This time it went on for longer and he could hear the distance between them being eaten up. He had decisions to make. He was being chased into a trap. The feet were the drum beaters that scared the prey. The prey would hear the noise and would flee towards apparent safety. Unfortunately, the beaters were not the most imminent threat. No, the main threat would be waiting around the corner or beyond the next doorway. Somehow, he had to find a way out before he got any further.

He took a chance and tried a classroom door.

He needed to be quick and quiet. It was locked. He moved on and across to try another and this time it opened. He eased himself in and closed it just as another rush of feet gathered speed and crashed along the area he had only recently departed.

He sat crouched with his breath held and waited.

He waited for a sweeper to come along. He had read about sweepers and how they would come along after the main chase. Their job was to ensure that the prey had not deviated from its intended path. He waited and sure enough he heard the stealth of footsteps making its way towards him. He heard the sweeper trying doors and pushed himself hard against his. He dug his shoes into the floor in a vain attempt to stem any surge from beyond. His body tensed against the wood and he was aware of his heartbeat transferring itself through his bones and muscles and further into the wood.

A hand grasped the handle and slowly pushed down.

Michael’s body absorbed the momentum from the other side. It came in a slow inquisitorial fashion. Another deeper examination followed with more weight being placed behind the intruder’s question. Michael again absorbed this and, even though his body was ringing with the sharp volts of adrenaline, he controlled his urge to overexert. The door handle returned to its original position, a few seconds passed like years and the footsteps moved away to another door.

Michael listened intently to the sound of other doors being tested. He had lost track of logical time, but he was sure that the sweeper was spending less on them than the others. Eventually, the sweeper reached the large doors at the end of that stretch of corridor and the sound of them being swung open should have allowed Michael some respite.

His instincts told him to stay where he was.

Minutes gathered like water from a dripping tap. Seconds nudged their way through the slightest of gaps and collected in the vastness of space. Infinitesimal amounts were now forming themselves into a sphere that clung to their source with the reason of irrationality. His enemies would not give up so easily. Michael counted to battle with the gravitas of a mystic. When he reached four, he resumed the count, placing imaginary defensive supports against his door. He was building for survival.

One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. One, two, three, four. One, two, three…!  

A huge force hit. The frame was shaken. Again, something massive hammered against it and this time it seemed to be knocked free of its surroundings. Whatever there was on the other side, it should have broken the defence by now. Michael sat lost in his mantra and was not alone. He pulled forth the faces of his family, each helping him to stack his ramparts.

They would not, they could not pass.

The creature on the other side let out a scream that was joined by a wailing chorus of squeals rising in unison with their combined frustration. After this had died away, a voice that was calmly modulated arose.

“You are quite impressive, Mr Andrews. You have surprised us all. Still, this little display of defiance will only stretch out the end. It will be of little consolation to you now that I tell you that your loving mother has been taken by us. Little Pete, oh so innocent little Pete, is under the watchful eye of a very attentive carer. Yes, she’s one of ours. She was one of the lost children now fully grown. She’ll look after Peter.

“Oh, and I’ve got a special request from another family member. Chris says it’s no use fighting. He’s a strong lad, much stronger than you and I think he’s thrown in the towel. Well, he’s not here to help you is he?

“Finally, one last little snippet of news is that my faithful follower, the venerable Mr Podrall has been given an early Christmas present. I gave him a Luger. It was a special keepsake from the last war. He’s using it now to rid the world of that parasite who you think will save you.

“Have your day,  little man. Enjoy the final moments before the end of days.”

A breeze arose and quickly turned into a wind that swept along the corridors and the classrooms. Everything that had been there was sucked into its vacuum, even the premature darkness.

Even the air that Michael breathed was different as he emerged from his stronghold.

One, two, three, four. 

They had gone.



Three in four Britons felt overwhelmed by stress, survey reveals

Extensive mental health study into the impact of stress also shows one in three felt suicidal and one in six self-harmed

man with hand to his forehead
The report shows young adults are the age group most vulnerable to stress. Photograph: Yuricazac/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Three in four Britons have been so stressed at least once over the last year that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to the biggest survey into the impact of stress.

Stress can be so damaging to wellbeing that one in three people have been left feeling suicidal, and one in six have self-harmed as a direct result, the findings show.

Mental health experts said the huge number of people affected should prompt employers, NHS staff and ministers to do more to reduce stress’s debilitating effects and provide more help.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind, said: “This survey shows just how severe the impact of stress can be on our lives, whether we have a mental health diagnosis or not. That a third of people have felt suicidal as a result of stress in the last year is staggering. More must be done to support people at the earliest possible stage so that stress does not spiral into an overwhelming and damaging situation.”

The survey results are significant because of the large number of participants – 4,619 adults – and the fact they were representative of the UK population as a whole.

Isabella Goldie, director of the Mental Health Foundation thinktank, which commissioned the research, said: “Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time but it is not being taken as seriously as physical health concerns.”

Women emerged as the worst affected. While 74% of adults said they had felt so stressed at some point during the last year that they were left overwhelmed or unable to cope, 81% of women said so compared to 67% of men.

Similarly, while 32% overall said stress had triggered suicidal feelings, 35% women compared to 29% of men reported that reaction. And while 16% of the participants had harmed themselves due to stress, 18% of women were likely to say that compared to 13% of men.

Young adults are the age group most vulnerable to stress. Overall, 83% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they had been left overwhelmed or unable to cope, more than the 74% average and far more than the prevalence among those aged 55 or over (65%). Similarly, above average numbers of young adults had felt suicidal (39%), or self-harmed (29%), because of stress.

“For many of us there are times when exposure to stressors becomes too frequent or too intense to deal with. If the stress response is activated repeatedly, or if it persists over time without recovery periods, the physiological effects result in cumulative wear and tear on the body,” the new report concludes.

Chronic or long-term stress can affect sleep, memory and eating habits and increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, stomach ulcers and heart disease. Significant minorities respond by over-eating, drinking, taking drugs or smoking.

It can also lead to anxiety, depression and relapses of schizophrenia. People living in poverty, social isolation, in minority communities, or those with long-term health problems are most likely to experience serious stress, the report says.

Having one or more long-term health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes or heart issues, is the biggest risk factor for stress. More than a third of respondents (36%) identified those conditions as stressors.

Work issues, including working outside normal hours, and a poor work-life balance, is the next commonest cause. In 2016 NHS staff alone took 15m days off due to stress, anxiety or depression. Money problems, especially debt, is also a key potential trigger for stress, according to 22% of respondents.

“Stress isn’t a mental illness in itself. But all mental health nurses know that we are all vulnerable to it and that if left unmanaged, stress can be a precursor to more serious health conditions,” said Catherine Gamble, the Royal College of Nursing’s professional lead for mental health.

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Tackling stress through positive mental health support not only improves our lives as individuals, but makes good business sense. Failure to adequately support the workforce is costing our economy up to £99bn per year.

“In their roles as employers the civil service and the NHS are adopting new standards around mental health, as set out in the recent independent review into mental health in the workplace commissioned by the prime minister. This includes implementing mental health plans at work, developing awareness, and monitoring health and wellbeing.”

The Guardian 14th May 2018

The Piper 26


He had found solace in doing this work and had met people who were as forgotten as he was.

None of the men he worked with ever talked about their personal histories. The business of the supermarket, and the ordinary goings on, was the staple of all their conversations. This was a place that he could hide.

Most of them shared a house. He was comfortable with this situation which was not dissimilar to his time in the hospital. There had not been any talk on the ward, other than the occasional sleeper waking in the middle of a sentence, but there was the chatter that went on beyond consciousness. Nick had always been able to hear the chatter of the others.  Now, Nick knew more about his housemates than they knew about themselves.

Stuart was the eldest in the group and he was a short, stocky man who had been a sailor in a previous life. He had married and had had children. Their names had escaped Stuart over the years along with the very fact that he had even had a previous life. These days, he lived in the present and only the very recent past.

Long, long ago, a fire had destroyed his young family but had spared him. That was when he surrendered. Depression was followed by suicide attempts and then alcohol. He had been sleeping rough and heading for a squalid end when Nick found him under a viaduct. Since then, Stuart had clung to Nick.

Now, Stuart was missing. He had not returned to the house after his late shift and had not appeared at work the following day. There had been a little concern at his non-appearance at first but that soon faded. He was one of them and they did that sort of thing.  Nick thought otherwise.

This day saw several more of his people not turning up for work. The numbers had started to increase over the last few weeks and the manager had put it down to a virus, a flu-like virus, that was sweeping the city. As he collected the trolleys which had been flung to all corners of the car park, he thought about how the number of shoppers had been declining too.

By seven o’clock, the car park was generally full with people who were hoping to avoid paying for a space. They would arrive in their cars, dressed in the business attire, make moves which suggested they would be shopping, walk towards the supermarket’s doors and then veer off towards their places of work. Nobody generally saw Nick nor noticed the others like him.

At night, kids would often congregate in the car park to smoke or drink. Sometimes, if a trolley had not been properly secured, they would use it for sport. In some cases, trolleys had been known to travel many miles during the hours of darkness, turning up in some of the unlikeliest places. On more than one occasion, they had been found at the central cemetery as if fulfilling one last shopping request. Leaving his mounting train of trolleys plumb against a fence, he walked around to collect the stray.

Nick moved hesitantly towards the only one not to have been hijacked. He placed his hand on its handle and was pulling it towards him when something attracted his attention. The waste bin had not been emptied. Its normal contents of McDonald’s packaging, cigarette packets and coke cans were in evidence, but beneath them was a thing that Nick recognised. He placed his hand inside the bin and pulled out the iPod that had been Stuart’s prized possession.

His first touch told him what he had suspected all along; Stuart was dead.

Nick would have cried if he knew how to. Instead, he pocketed the iPod and pushed the trolley back to its companions. He knew what this meant: The Piper was setting his trap of intimidation, attempting to lure his enemies out into the open, before dealing with them, one by one. The eyes and ears of the creature were not as accurate as they would be in the due course of time. He was rusty. Unfortunately, as time wore on, those attributes would become sharper and more focussed. If Nick was to survive this, he would have to move quickly. He scratched a scar on his forehead that was, to the uninitiated, no longer visible.

The memory of the ward folowed him wherever he went.

Each neuron was being tapped, charged and connected. Each tiny response was being measured and evaluated. He was running along the corridors, chased by the swarm of rats, whose hunger was insatiable. His bare feet rapped against the wet, stone floor and his skin ripped against the walls. Each turn offered false hope, each doorway an unreal escape. The probe ran deeper, its tip cold and unremitting.

That was when he cried for the first time in his life. He cried for the life that had been snatched away and for the future that he had been denied. He cried for the sins that he must have done to bring him to this and he cried because there was nobody to love him.

Nicholas was out of the open door and away. He could hear the panic running through the spine of the rat army and could sense that they too wished desperately to escape. Their rush of fear and cowardice meant that many were trampled underfoot, their screams mixing with the high-pitched hiss of the others. They did not see Nicholas as he mounted the steps. They did not see him as he reached for a brick coal chute and climbed up its tar-layered length. They could not stop him as he opened the door to freedom.

Then he ran. He ran into the night like a feral creature. He was naked, covered in bruises, scratches and blood. All of this was hidden by a thick layer of soot that made him almost invisible to anyone who cared to search the surrounding landscape. The night air bit deeply into his lungs and his muscles screamed. Eventually, he dropped and slept. He slept deeper than he had ever done before and when he woke, he woke to sunshine and dew.

From some way off, a voice of warning came.

Nicholas. Nicholas. Nick. Nick.

He woke again to the world of now.

Run Nicholas, run!

Nick should have fallen, a delayed delicacy for vermin, a triumph for the greater will, but he didn’t. The pain that radiated from the now reddening scar reminded him of twhere he had run from.

You need to pull yourself out of this and you need to do it now. Follow me.

Find the family and warn them of his coming.


The headache had lessened but would not leave. He was awake and conscious of having been away.

“Are you all right Nick? Are you feeling any better? We were very worried for a moment.”

Nick woke to find himself on the bed in the medical room. Two of the women who worked in personnel were looking over him, their faces etched with concern. Nick nodded and tried to say something.

“No, don’t talk. You had a nasty fall. You don’t seem to have broken anything, but we’ve called the doctor just in case. You haven’t been taking anything you shouldn’t have, have you?”

He shook his head.

“He doesn’t look well does he?”

“I need the toilet. I think I am going to be sick,” he managed before rising to his feet and making a dash across the room. The two women could only watch as he left the room, their shared looks showing a sympathy reserved for children.

Nick didn’t feel sick any longer and he didn’t rush to the toilet. What he did was hasten his way out of the supermarket and into the grey morning.


The Piper was not coming any longer, he was here, and Nick had to warn the family.


The Piper 25


It had been at the hospital, Fairfields. Fairfields was where it had all begun.

Laura could remember, she could remember it as if it had happened moments ago. There had been the panicked search for Michael who had disappeared from the car and could not be found. She remembered the deathly chill that had rushed upon her and the fear that it brought. For an instant, she believed that he would be lost… forever and that increased her efforts.

The wind had been picking up around her, chasing her and mocking her. There had been something about Michael, always something that was not quite right. She had been catching the reflection of his face in the rear-view mirror and his eyes had stared back, empty of care, void of recognition. At that time, for those long seconds, she harboured an inexplicable trepidation, then it had passed. Michael was there again smiling at her. When he then went missing, physically this time, there had been the worrying moment when something close to relief had flooded her senses. The echoes of that time, she heard even now.

Yes, I see you do,the thing that spoke with her son’s voice uttered.

Laura brought her eyes up to his, fought to control her gaze, and saw the dark intensity that she had seen in the rear-view mirror. Its outline, the unruly black hair, the line of his cheeks and chin, the nose, slightly upturned, all were those of her child. Beyond that, however, the similarity did not exist.

Michael’s face was a pastiche of his features, slung together with the indifference of a child. If there had been a Picasso for this world, then he would have produced this. This thing in front of her wore leather for skin and it stood many feet higher than Michael. The voice was his, the memories were his, but the rest belonged to some other creature. She was being tricked.

Mother, don’t abandon me like you abandoned my father.

Stung, Laura discovered her anger.

“I didn’t abandon your father. He abandoned me.”

Father loved you as I love you. Please don’t let history repeat itself. I need your arms around me.

And it moved towards her in a pathetic parody of an infant approaching its mother, arms outstretched, pleading, demanding affection. And for a long, long while, its mother contemplated embracing it. That was until the stench of decay summoned her attention. This thing, this thing of another world, had covered the few yards between them and was within touching distance. Laura was shocked to discover that her own arms were outstretched, an invitation she now rescinded.

To her left, across the water, a warning was being sounded. It was the male swan, who had returned, and now it was crying its shrill alarm in an attempt to reach her. Its call surmounted the barriers between species and urged her to run towards the lake. Only the waters would save her from the beast that was crafted from leather and the confused memories of a mother beginning to fall into their own dark places.

Headlong she ran and headlong she dived into the waters. The breath of the beast returned to that rattle which had announced its arrival. Its claws, for she knew that was what it would have, raked the air behind her. They would tear through her skin like blades through paper, but she reached the lake and dived, dived deep. Before she surfaced, she knew that it would be standing there upon the shore, watching her through the eyes of her son.

Only traces of her dream remained as she woke the next morning. As usual, Pete had climbed into her bed throughout the night and was sleeping soundly. Nothing moved in the house but, beyond it, she could hear the sounds of the morning emerging. There was the distant rumble of a train, a car’s engine being ignited and a smattering of birdsong. She stilled herself and listened for any other sounds that might be detected; there were none.

Laura slid her body out of bed feeling aches that had not been there the night before. Perhaps she was coming down with something, perhaps a cold or the dreaded flu. Her neck was stiff suggesting recent exercise and her legs housed a dull throb that reminded her of the running she had once done. The obligatory moan was stifled as she raised herself to her feet. Pete turned slightly but remained asleep.

Putting on her dressing gown, his mother left the room ignoring her usual detour to the bathroom. Instead, she headed for the area beneath the attic steps. She stood beneath the opening, gazed beyond and was caught in a moment’s indecision. Listening again to confirm that nobody else was awake, she climbed the steps.

The attic waited in a miasma of light and dark. Laura was drawn towards the box she had found the flute thing in. She bent over and peered into its contents finding that which she was looking for without knowing what it would be. It was a diary, Michael’s diary, and it was hiding beneath everything else.

Something told her that she had always known about Michael and his documenting of things, the difficult times, the times of pain. When she had been lost in grief and anger, the eldest son had been watching and writing; everything. She now understood that there was something about her son that was not what it would appear and the thought carried with it a cold hand of repulsion.

Laura Andrews, mother of three loving boys, groped deeply into the box that would reveal the extent of Michael’s disloyalty. Michael, her most sensible of sons, who had hidden his true thoughts and feelings. Michael, the rotten apple, rotten to the core. And she sat there, in the dissipating gloom, reading the words that appeared before her.

Below her, Michael was waking and wondering what his mother was doing in the attic.

Pete lay still, his eyes wide open.

He was listening to the thoughts of his mother whilst Christopher continued what appeared to be a peaceful sleep.


The Piper 24


In the first moments of consciousness, Mr Hunter stared blindly into the pitch black. He reached for the bedside lamp and his fingers fumbled for the switch. Finally, its harsh light swept across the bedroom and completed the brutality of his awakening.

He had been lifted from waters whose dark undertow had threatened to take him away.

As he listened to the fearful screaming, the images he had viewed stormed back across his memory. Then the cacophony turned to the familiar ring of his telephone. He raised his body, still coated in the dampness of fear, and climbed out of bed. His legs felt like they had run a hundred marathons. And the thought occured to his irony that soemtimes  delivering messages can be fatal.

The phone continued to ring, sounding impatient.

Whoever the caller was, they were determined to get through. He looked at the clock in the hallway and it told him that it was three in the morning. A pattern was beginning to develop. His head was banging from a deeply rooted pain that resounded like a metronomic explosions.

“Hello,” his annoyance was evident, but there was no reply.

“Hello, who is it?”

Eventually, a faint voice emerged as if it was arriving from a great distance.


A bolt of pain shot out of the darkness; nausea and anger were its companions.

“Whoever you are, this is not funny. You bastard, how dare you?”

“I haven’t got long,” the voice crackled with static. It was a voice he remembered, its timbre instantly recognisable. “It is The Piper you are searching for. It is The Piper.”

The volley of static returned as the teacher continued to listen. Tears had formed in the corners of his eyes and were welling up, ready to roll. His throat was hard, his Adam’s apple the size of a cricket ball, choked his windpipe. He could not speak. He tried, but all that came was an ineffectual squeak.

The static continued yet within it there were more voices, much weaker than the one who had addressed him. They were calling out, a multitude of names. Some were moaning in agony, their pitiful cries now evident, whilst some were cursing those who had led them there. Many were pleading for help, an animalistic yearning for the agony to be ended.

“It was not your fault. It was The Piper. He knows what you are and he will find you. Promise me that you will not be found. Promise…”

The static increased to open the flood of anguish; and then it snapped shut.

Cradling the handset next to his ear, Graham Hunter listened to the dead connection.

Tears washed his face, lightening exploded in his temples, and his bones housed the arthritic aches of a very, very old man.



Changed utterly, the words sang their way through the air like swans in flight.

However, waking from the depths of sleep, Laura knew that these were not the birds of the poem, linked for life, these were fleeing. Their wings beat the night air in urgent escape. Something had disturbed their sleep, some dark thing that slunk along, some rough beast intent on their destruction. The swans were of the lake and were now rising higher into the night, their reflections fading like hope.

Laura lay tightly in a foetal position. The noise of the beast, its footsteps circling in an ever-widening search, was getting louder and closer. She held her breath, straining not to make a sound. Even nearer, she could hear the breathing of the thing that was tumbling through the undergrowth towards her. Its savage rattle, so much like that of a snake, swept along the ground.

If she were to stay, it would find her and she dreaded to even think of the consequences. If she moved, it would hear her and race towards its prey. She had no wings to help her flee. She was caught in the soft molars of indecision, each moment counting towards its own consequence. She tightened the position as if its imaginary womb could protect her. If she were to die, then it would be with her eyes closed.

Mum,it was the voice of Michael and her spirits soared.

She lifted her face from the crook of her arm and let her eyes follow her son’s tones back to its source. Dismay fell upon her like carrion when she realised that it was emanating from the area in which the beast had previously been cutting its noisy advance. Now, the thing was quiet. There was no breathing, no deathly rattle, and Laura knew why. It had heard her son.

As the stark reality dropped its bombshell, she rose to her feet screaming.

“Michael run! Run, it’s waiting for you, it’s hiding, it’s…” and then the words she had so desperately ripped from the depth of her maternal courage – stopped, trapped in a throat that had dried with an outrage of disbelief. The thing standing in the footprint of her son’s voice was smiling at her.

It was her son, Michael.

Mother, you always knew I was a little, let’s say, different didn’t you?




Tripping Over Milestones…


Milestones. Coming back from mental illness has its milestones. I have met many of these along the way and have touched them as I have gone past. Most say that I’m pointing in the right direction. They pat me on the back as reassurance that I am on the right road and, indeed, I am on that right road.

I am becoming more and more normal everyday, in many ways.

And…I am scared.


I liked being ‘unnormal’. Although it was a desperate situation for a time, it freed me from false gods.

I stopped praying at their temples and took to wandering through the days on a quest to find the grails that I had left behind. I realised that I was not normal. My brain worked differently. My outlooks were different. My goals were not the same. And there I found myself, after a year-long odyssey, thinking that I had made it back, thinking that I had regained my sanity.

I was becoming normal once again.

One thing about having a breakdown is that you throw away the old. Not so much that you throw it away, rather that the old has been thrown for you. You wake up one morning and the world has turned without you onboard. You are floating somewhere in a drug-filled space; keeping quiet, watching, writing.

The writing keeps a record, the watching keeps one’s distance, the quiet gives you time to think. The thinking feeds one’s belief that the world is not a sane place and that everyone in it is normal; and the norm is madness.    

The problem with welcoming back normality is similar to the problem of welcoming displaced people into the security of western democracies. I am a liberal do-gooder and would welcome all and sundry, but I am now aware that amongst the sundries are unwanted agents. These agents have returned, not to ask for forgiveness but to help to create mayhem and chaos. My problem is that I am aware that some of the norms that are creeping back over the borders are non-friendlies. I want to keep myself safe and I can’t have radical agents sabotaging the infrastructure that I have built; or terrifying the crap out of those areas that I have only recently regained.

The other thing is that I cannot, simply cannot, give into the fear of ‘what might’, censor thoughts for the potentially harmful. Or build a bloody Great Wall.

It is the norm that is doing this to me. It is the acceptable face of everyday madness that almost all of us are being coaxed into accepting in exchange for normal life expectations. Most of us stop every now and again and see the madness for what it is. It’s a fairground wheel that everyone is queuing up to climb aboard. It takes its passengers above the ground level of life and shows them what they may be missing. It’s a huge panorama of the possible and it costs an arm and a leg, and a soul, to pay for the ride.


So, we go on the ride. We hold hands with the one that we love and we marvel at the world that suddenly becomes smaller and less threatening. We are above it, like gods, and we can see it for what it is, a canvas of earth that is there for our conquest. 

Then there is a crunching noise. Metal on metal, in a squeal of dismay. The circle that we were travelling on screams to a stop. The Wheel of Fortune halts in its sky-stride and rattles its deception. The cold wind arises and worries the hands that are holding now more tightly. The earth is still below, but it is no longer smaller. It leers up at you and reasserts its dominance.

After an eternity, the ride begins again. This is the downward part of the cycle and it is welcome. Soon the ground will be there to greet you and you feel comforted. It will sit as sure as gravity and make a dull promise that this is it, no more fear, no more false fancies, no more madness.

“I will shackle your dreams to the earth and they will never tempt you again just as long as you follow me.”

And, for a while the reassurance of this promise is wonderful. No more dreams. No more seeing the world from different perspectives. No more rides towards heaven. The Wheel of Fortune has turned full circle and has brought you back to where you were, at the beginning of all that, before it happened.

No more will you venture out into places that belong to others. You will keep close to the ground and closer to the coastline. You will keep even closer to the little world that existed before the dawn of understanding. You will live a life more ordinary and die a normal death, having pledged yourself to the God of Norm.

Life will begin at the sound of the alarm clock. It will continue on its journey through a brief breakfast, the pinching of time over tea, and the goodbyes and the ‘have a good day’ until the blankness of the business day is bankrupt and the home waits for a few hours of respite.




Then, the next day, in all its lack of hope, will suffuse into the world and pretend it is new.