Literary, Historical and Comic Fiction Stories

Away

I feel like a tiny fifth-wheel listening into the phone call. Armitage is doing the talking, but it’s my words in his mouth, what if he gets muddled and asks the wrong things? I can’t step in save the interview, I’ll mess it up, I know I’ll mess it up. How does Army silver-tongue and stenograph at the same time? It’s magic, that is.

So you can confidently state, on record, that Mr Phaes has never attended any of your seminars?’ Army speaks up at the mobile on the coffee table, tapping away at his laptop.

Certainly! If he’s using my course for accreditation, I can say for sure the man’s a fraud,’ the voice trilling out the smartphone is slightly queenly. She’d sounded severely put-upon when the call started, but Army had moulded her into friendliness like he’d always managed. Magic, I tell you.

Thank you very kindly, Professor! And may I say what a pleasure it has been to talk shop with you? I’m sure you have a great many important responsibilities, so I won’t keep you…’ Army ceases typing and smiles at the phone.

Oh, no, it’s been wonderful! Thank you so much for calling!’ the regal professor seems to squeak a little.

Ta ra!’ Army pats the phone and clenches his fist, ‘got him!’

It worked. Thank Christ. I had a feeling those letters after Phaes’ name were made up, the way he flaunted them to justify evicting those Silvertown tenants. I puff what breath I’ve been holding.

Bastard won’t wiggle his way out of this one,’ I fish for the phone in my handbag and punch in that login for the police database we nicked some time ago. I never like staying in Armitage’s pad too long, he keeps it too vacuumed and Feng Shui’d to make me feel like a proper journalist. I keep myself busy hunting for the next story, ‘once we type up that interview and send it off, I think we can let justice do its thing.’

Right!’ Armitage slaps his hands a little too loudly, ‘give us some time to ourselves, eh, Pay?’

I stop browsing, ‘…huh?’

You know…like…a holiday,’ Army’s eyebrows are wiggling suggestively. I wish he wouldn’t do that, I never know what they’re suggesting. It must be some kind of detection mechanism, I’ve only ever seen him wiggle his eyebrows at guys. But why wiggle at me, then? I can’t reciprocate, he doesn’t want me to reciprocate…is he making fun of me? About what? Why? For what purpose?

A holiday,’ I repeat.

Christ alive, girlfriend, no need to make it sound like a night of Bernard Manning,’ Army snaps the laptop shut. I didn’t say it that stuffed with dread, did I? That’s why Armitage does the talking, I never know what’s coming out of my mouth. He’s resting his hands on the laptop case, it’s his serious pose, ‘we’ve done some good work, made a bit of bank…’

A bit.’

A teeny bit of bank, yes, but we don’t want to burn ourselves out, do we? We need to relax every once in a while, recharge our batteries…’

What’s your angle, Army?’

What angle?’

I don’t need to say anything. I just cross my arms. Sleeveless tank-tops are good for arm-crossing, you can really sharpen your elbows through the bare skin, I find. He’s giving me his innocent face. I never trust his innocent face. It’s the moustache, men can’t look innocent with a moustache, I don’t know why they bother growing them, it makes all their expressions look more conniving the harder they try to act honest. We wait to see which will waver first, my bad cop or Armitage’s good cop?

Army’s good cop puffs first, ‘ugh…my mum’s invited me to a family get-together and I was wondering if you’d like to come too. That’s all.’

I feel a knot coming on, ‘oh god, you want me to pretend to be your girlfriend, don’t you?’

What? No! I came out to them when I was, like, twelve, they don’t give a shit.’

So how come I’ve never seen them?’

You’ve…never…wanted…to?’

Oh yeah. So what’s the occasion?’

Army starts clearing away the mugs and rubbing off the coffee stains, his usual nervousness-displacement, ‘…my mum’s on one of her ‘projects’ again. It’s genealogy this time. She’s discovered a raft of strangers on our family tree and she wants us to rifle through their backstories.’

Us?’ I’m not un-crossing my arms, ‘how the hell did “us” sneak into this?’

You know she reads our articles, don’t you?’

The cross-arms turn into a self-hug. She does? I’m used to the big guns taking our scoops and running with them. Denise or Clive handle the interviews, depending on which of them we sold the story to. But people actually read our stuff? And they know it’s from us? Hearing about the shit we get up to in Army’s purple prose? I don’t know why that makes me feel so self-conscious, I mean…it’s what we want, isn’t it? But what if someone I don’t want to know about me reads it? I’ve got no control over that, I don’t know what they’ll do…

Aaanyway…’ Army ploughs on, ‘…she saw the “Patience & Armitage” byline and thought we’d be handy with the whole investigating thingy.’

Why both of us?’

Because…and I feel not one iota of shame in admitting this…you’re better at this than me. You’ve got a good nose, a finely honed journalist’s muzzle.’

Okay, sure…weird way of putting it, but what’s in it for me?’ there, I said it, it’s out there.

C’mon! You’re not a little curious what genes went into making me?’ he’s doing that eyebrow-wiggle again.

Not even slightly.’

Would it make any difference if I say I’m curious where you come from?’

If you’re asking whether it would make me less likely to go, then…’

Wait, unlocking arms here, what did he say?

‘…hold up, why am I in the frame now?’

Army breathes in, he’s steepling his fingers, he’s about to announce something, ‘mum wanted a nice neutral place in the middle of nowhere so we could really get to know each other. So I recommended this pokey little fishing town on the East Anglian coast.’

Raiche.

You didn’t…’ I know he did, it’s exactly the sort of thing he’d do.

We’re staying in Senmouth for a long weekend!’ he totally did, the arsehole, ‘…it was Senmouth you came from, wasn’t it? It’d be awkward if I picked some totally random fishing town on the East Anglian coast.’

No…no…that’s the one…’ I nod. What else can I say? All my brain’s doing right now is spinning cartwheels wondering why Rachel’s pretty constellation of birthmarks on her feeling, thinking, sensing supple back was the first thing that sprung to mind when Senmouth came up. Why not the long awkward steak suppers? The paint specks on my dad’s shirt, the most expressive thing about him? Jen ordering my tracksuit bottoms ripped? The revenge I took in the school paper? The bollicking I got from the Deputy Head because of it? The constant aroma of lobster and birdshit? Why Raiche? I feel a tug in the knot, I want to know…

You okay?’ Army pops into my field of view.

Yeah…yeah, I’m fine…’ I swat, ‘…I’ve…it’s just I’ve never been back there…’

An hour out from Liverpool Street and you’ve never returned?’

The M25 is my shield. It’s a shield for all us youngsters. We cross the moat, raise the drawbridge, and never have to think about where we came from ever again. But…

Okay, it was just an idea, you don’t have to…’

I’ll go.’

Wait, what’d I just say?

You sure?’

No. Definitely not. Not in a million years.

Sure! I mean…why not?’

Someone grab a stapler and stamp my mouth shut, for the love of god.

Fabulous! It’s the 10:30 to Skegness, if you want to book a ticket,’ he’s beaming. Can’t he tell what I’m feeling right now?

What am I feeling?

Why am I doing this?

I browse my phone for tickets. I’m doing this because I’m journalist and this is a story. It’s just this story’s about me, that’s all.

ExPerimental Community Of Tomorrow

Over there? No, no good. The dandelion needed to hang a liiitle bit to the left…perfect! A lunchtime well spent, Molly thought. The lane outside Mill #7 was in a brilliant state to greet the Midsummer’s Feast. Just in time, too, she was worried it wasn’t going to be ready. Now there was only one more thing to fix…

Messy-haired Molly descended the rungs and hitched up the ladder, wobbling a little under its weight. It was beautiful weather for the feast, she hoped it would hold for tomorrow. A lot of scones had been baked, a lot of ribbons tied, a lot of chairs requisitioned, it would be a damn shame if all that effort fell victim to the weather. It was out of her control, and Molly didn’t like that. She loved organising things, it gave her a buzz. She was definitely better at it than that stuttering boy of a supervisor, but she didn’t begrudge poor MacGleish, he just needed confidence, that’s all. That was the Beverstoun way, after all: every rude seedling, properly nurtured and cared for, could bloom into a beautiful flower. Everyone was proud of what they’d built here, and rightly so, but some wanted their loved ones to share in their pride. Hopefully, she might be able to arrange just that.

Molly!’ stick-thin Susie waved from the top floor, ‘Bevers is doon fuir an inspection. If ye wan tae talk tae him, now’s the time!’

Thanks!’ Molly waved back. The boss spent most of his time in the big house up on the hill, but he was always coming down into the valley to check up on his workforce. He was keen to find out if the machines were working properly and safe to use, if the patients in the village clinic were being treated well, how the children were doing in school, if any of the supervisors were up to any funny business…he held a firm belief that a happy, healthy, educated workforce was a productive workforce. Beverstoun was his idea of what the whole world should be like, a little corner of Eden on the River Forth.

This strap is looking a wee bit threadbare, is it not, MacLeish?’ Adam Bevers, the young clean-shaven spitting image of his kindly father, caressed the leather strap of a threading machine between his fingertips.

W-we were w-waiting fuir a n-new batch o’ straps t-tae arrive, s-sir!’ gangly MacGleish stood stiffly in the idle row of Mill #7.

I see. Well, till they get here, take this machine out of service,’ Bevers released his grip and sauntered up the machine row, ‘wouldnae want a wee lass losing her arms, would we?’

Naw, sir…’ MacGleish started unstrapping the machine sheepishly.

Molly slid the ladder back into its usual hidey-hole behind the machines and squeezed through the ranks of the other millworking girls, ‘oh, Mister Bevers! Mister Bevers, sir!’

Molly!’ Bevers paused, smiling, ‘how may I help you?’

I was wondering…sir…whit ye ken about the idea I had?’ Molly curtseyed, ‘fuir the Midsummer’s Feast, sir!’

Oh…’ Bevers stepped back, looking askance, ‘…eh…sorry, I dinnae know what you mean.’

Molly froze in her curtsey, squinting at the floor, ‘I sent ye a letter ‘boot it, sir.’

A letter, did ye? Ooh aye…’ said Bevers, ‘tell you what, why don’t you tell me all about it in the office? There’s a good lass. MacGleish, you come too.’

Aye, s-sir…’ MacGleish stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled, ‘all bonnie! B-back tae work!

The machines restarted their clacking, but Molly, flanked by Bevers and MacLeish, was herded elsewhere. The instant the office door went click, the rest of the factory felt a thousand miles away. Bevers requisitioned MacGleish’s deskchair and made himself comfortable.

Righty-ho, what can I do for ye?’ Bevers laid his feet on the plan-strewn desk.

It isna fuir me, sir, but some o’ the other lasses,’ Molly appreciated the boss taking the time out to talk to her during work hours, ‘we been told tae take oor husbands and bairns tae the Midsummer’s Feast, but some o’ their auld fogies are out really far. We just need sam time tae gather ‘em up!’

Bevers steepled his fingers, ‘everyone has the afternoon off for the Feast taemorrow. That isnae enough time?’

Naw, sir, some o’ these biddies live oot in Glasgow an’ Edinburgh…few in Perth, even,’ Molly was wondering if this tingling up her neck was a sense of unease or MacGleish heavy-breathing on her shoulder, ‘we need the whole day, everyone’s taking a train.’

And o’ course you will be going with them?’ Bevers swivelled his back to Molly.

‘…nnnooooo?’ Molly cringed. Something in his tone was making her nervous, ‘Susie has a grannie in Dundee, she and a few others’ll be tackling tha whos and wherefores. We pooled our wages t’gither tae buy tha tickets.’

Very commendable, aye, but not practical, regrettably,’ Bevers threw up a hand, ‘Wellerby’s of Leith needs twa thousand yards by the end of the month, I cannae spare any more indulgences. I hate penny-pinching much as you do, but it’s out o’ my hands, I’m afraid.’

It’s only a ha’dozen lasses need tae go, sir, I dinna ken t’would throw us off tha much,’ Molly was detecting a disturbing undercurrent with all this ‘indulgence’ talk, ‘an’ t’would mean so much tae the gels, sir!’

Really? That so?’ Bevers swivelled back, fixing his eyes on Molly, ‘if there were such a grand clamouring amongst your co-workers, why did ye only bring it this year? The day before on top of that?’

Well, it…it dinnae look possible afore…’ Molly’s eyes fell to the floor. What was she doing, giving up like this? A prideful swell in her chest lifted her eyes back up, ‘but with the new railway open, we ken-!’

‘”We”, “we”, I dinnae see anyone else in the office, do you?’ Bevers leant on the chair arms to push himself up, ‘I sympathise, I do, but Beverstoun is the place it is today because hard workers like you forwent self-indulgencies and worked together tae build a newer, better place to be. Now, is there anything else I can help you with?’

Molly saw what Bevers was playing at, hand on his hip and arching an eyebrow. He was trying to convince her that this was a flight of fancy, that no one cared about this little thing except her. Well she’d show him before the day was out! She curtseyed, ‘not fer niuw, sir. I’ll let ye ken if onything comes tae mind.’

Please do,’ Bevers waved at the supervisor, ‘MacGleish? The door?’

The factory sounds battered in as soon as the door swung open. MacGleish, with his hand on the knob, nodded semi-politely at her as she retreated. She’d show them both.

Molly went the long way back to her machine, passing by the clerk’s desk. The old master handed over a blank sheet of paper and a pencil just to make her stop bugging him. She jotted a header on the move: “We, the Workers of Beverstoun, make this petition to Mr Adam Bevers Esq. to grant Holiday to six volunteers on the morning of the Midsummer Feast for the purpose of gathering our distant relations, so that we may celebrate Beverstoun’s prosperity together”. Once back at the machine, clearing tufts from the rakes, Molly elbowed Susie once the two were close enough to each other.

Tha boss says naw,’ Molly hissed over the sound of the textile rack.

Whit?!’ rakish Susie stooped lower, ‘why?!’

He disnae think ye exist, Susie,’ Molly sneaked the petition out of her blouse, ‘want tae tell him ye do?’

Ah Jezo! O’course I will!’ Susie squiggled a mark on the page under Molly’s.

Molly kept an eye on the petition’s progress as it rounded Mill #7, right under MacGleish’s hapless nose. Some passed it on without looking at it, but most felt compelled to sign. They’d been talking about it for weeks, after all, since Molly first proposed the fund at the Beverstoun Easter Dance. It’d never occurred to anyone that Bevers would have a problem with it. She made any excuse to introduce it to the other mills…repairing spools, getting grease for the joints, checking to see what was holding up the wool runners even though they weren’t held up. For the rest of the afternoon, chunking and shuttling and lever-pulling, all she could think about was that slowly expanding list of names. When the whistle blew and the machines wound down, she was worried that someone had finally taken offence to the list and had either chucked it or given it to their supervisor. But as she walked out the mill amidst the other workers, one of the mousy new girls ran up, slapped the sheet in her hands, smiled and flew off.

Staring at the document in her fingers, the other girls swept around Molly like a river coursing around a rock. A few brushed her back as they passed, congratulating her, but she was too busy boggling in amazement at how her appeal had exceeded her wildest imaginings. Names were sketched across both sides of the page, so many that some had to be squeezed into the margins, the names at the bottom shrinking and shrinking until they formed a compacted layer of sediment. Tonight was poetry night in Beverstoun Hall, but Molly’s eyes soared skyward to the big house overlooking the valley: she had bigger plans.

Molly’s boots crunched through the driveway stones. The big house looked much like the sandstone tenements they all lived in, although obviously the two-storey pile was for one man and his family rather than a dozen workers. She patted her skirt and tried in vain to unrustle her hair before pulling the bell chord, feeling at once severely underdressed. She smiled at the stone-faced butler that answered the varnished door. He didn’t smile back.

Ah…hello! I’m Molly…one o’ tha mill-workers?’ Molly made a little wave.

The butler didn’t answer. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought his name was Souter.

I wuir just wanting tae talk tae Mister Bevers?’ Molly leant aside to peek into the door crack, ‘…’boot a…proposition…earlier…?’

Souter, scowling a belittling scowl, was staring to close the door again.

Souter?’ Bevers’ young voice trilled from within the pile, ‘who is at the door?’

Sorry, sir,’ Souter turned away, ‘one o’ tha workers isna using tha servant’s way.’

Och, that’s quite all right! Let her in, let her in!’ Bevers waved cheerfully from inside, ‘come through tae the study, Molly! We can talk there.’

Souter opened the door begrudgingly. Molly stepped into the warm interior, bathed in candlelight, and immediately felt self-conscious that her mere presence was staining the place. Oak panelling, thick crimson carpets, miniature portraits battling for wall-space with dead animal heads…the light and roomy tenements of Beverstoun had felt palatial compared to the grimy square-foot cupboards she’d grown up in back in Edinburgh’s Old Town, but the big house was another universe completely. It was strange, Mister Bevers had always felt like one of them, but seeing the size of this place…

Dawdle as much as you like, lass, the wife’s up in Stirling,’ Bevers held the study door open for her. He was smiling and indulgent, but Molly felt her feet skip a little quicker anyway. He bowed as she entered, ‘I take it something has come to mind after all?’

Aye, sir…’ Molly curtseyed once they were both inside. The door closed with a quiet clack, and the fireplace crackled in the silence that followed. She was gawking at the all-surrounding library that vastly outclassed the collection in the village school until she pinched herself and remembered why she was here, ‘ah…being honest, sir, it’s tha same thing that came tae mind as last time. I think ye were saying, sir, that ye didnae ken there wuir a clamouring fuir bringing relations here fuir Midsummer?’

Aye…that I did…’ Bevers walked to the fireplace, not looking once at Molly. His smile was gone, and his hands were clasped behind his back.

Well…ah…I made a wee whip round and it seems there is a “clamouring”, right enough!’ Molly pulled the petition from her blouse and handed it over. Seeing so many names of so many of his workers backing the plan, it just had to melt his prickly heart. She grinned excitedly, ‘hundreds of workers hae signed this ‘ere petition! And no just those wi relations, neither, everyone wants their friends’ grandparents and uncles and cousins tae come and celebra-!’

The petition was snatched out of her hand. She’d been holding it pretty tightly, she was still gripping a corner shred between thumb and forefinger. Bevers held the sheet of paper fiercely, scrunching the top and staring at it in firelight upside-down.

I told ye this was out of the question,’ Bevers snorted, ‘I told ye, and you deliberately ignore me. You’ve put me in a very difficult position, lass.’

Molly’s chest tightened. Her eyes grew smudgy. Why was he acting like this? What did she do to anger him? No…she breathed in, stiffened, kept her pride in her lungs. She was in the right, indisputably in the right, he couldn’t treat her like this, ‘everyone wants it and it’s such a wee thang…whit’s so bad ‘boot the idea, sir?’

I couldna give two hoots about the idea, lass, I might even take it up someday,’ Bevers crushed the sheet of names between his palms, ‘what’s so bad is that ye went behind my back and undermined me in cahoots with other workers. The effrontery, the ingratitude of it. That’s unforgiveable, lass, and if ye don’t want tae risk slinking back to the slums without a penny to your name, you’ll give up this silly idea.’

The scrunched up wad fell into the flames and erupted. Molly clutched her breast, feeling every pencil mark of every squiggle as they were consumed by the fire. As if each signature was a part of the souls of every worker in Beverstoun, and these souls were linked through her. Every name that went up felt like a part of someone’s soul dying. Soon there was nothing left but a blackened rosebud, twinkling in Bevers’ stooped eyes.

When I said workers like you made Beverstoun what it is, I meant every word,’ Bevers’ young scalp was nestled in his arm, resting against the wall, ‘but remember its name, lass. When my father laid the first brick of Beverstoun, he was laying the first brick of himself, and myself through him. You are a part of Beverstoun, and that makes you a part of me. And like an ear…or a big toe…or a right kidney…you do only what I tell you to do. A non-functioning limb is grounds for amputation, so that the whole body may stay healthy and content. Is this getting through tae you, lass?’

Molly stiffened her shaking arms against her sides, trying her damnedest not to snarl, ‘aye, sir.’

Good,’ Bevers turned and rang a bell on the pristine desk. He was all smiles again when the study door reopened, ‘Souter! Please escort my guest to the kitchens and have the cook rustle up a fine meal for her! Only the best for my favourite worker!’

Souter scowled, bowed, and lingered for Molly to exit. Her insides were still broiling. She kept her hands pressed into her sides and locked gazes with Bevers’ extremely slappable face as she left the study.

This wasn’t over, Molly promised, not by a long way.

When Adam delved and Eve span…

Thomas never thought he’d see the day. It’d felt like a childish fancy, a game for souls half as young as he. And yet the instant his calloused hands wrapped themselves around the pike it had all come flooding back to him, the heft and swing unchanged despite the tired muscles that wielded them. The pike felt all the lighter for the cause it had been lifted for. To fight for himself and his friends, this was what God had kept him so long on this earth for. Now here they were, on the cusp of victory and justice, overturning by their own sweat and blood what the devil had convinced them was God’s order. He waited long, in that cold damp field, with water hanging from his nose. But he’d been waiting decades for this moment, and right now a host of his fellow man waited with him. He could wait a few hours more.

Most of his life had been spent waiting, for the harvest, for release from toil, for salvation. He carved the hoes as his father had carved hoes, and dug the fields with them because that was what was expected of him. The day his lord called him from the fields to man the young earl’s armies, he’d leapt at any chance to escape the misery and squalor. But all Thomas had met on the clogged fields of France was more misery and squalor. He carved pikes, and marched out into the field with them because that was what was expected of him. He’d fought and skewered men he couldn’t understand, saw then writhing in agony in the mud, marched here, marched there, and then it was over. He went back to his fields and toiled away there, none the wiser as to what his purpose was other than to live and die at his lord’s petty whims. It was the hierarchy God had laid down for all men to obey, his lord on the top, himself on the bottom, to challenge it was to invite damnation and he couldn’t countenance that.

The Black Death turned his world upside down. His brothers, his sisters, his friends and loved ones, all succumbed. Even his lord was not immune, his whole line up and dying overnight. The righteous perished, the wicked survived, and one day Thomas found himself the last man standing. The great chain he’d been told since birth was immutable and determined by God suddenly vanished overnight. Fields went barren with no one to till them, and for the first time in his life he realised there was nothing to tie him to his land. No solemn duty, no heavenly commandment. It was God’s will, the ‘hierarchy’ that had been raised in his name had been a phantom and an abomination, and he had torn it down with a terrible and indiscriminate wrath.

Thomas wandered for a while, but the villages that still farmed charged a hefty price for their wares, and they had little need of farmers with so few to farm for. With nothing to offer but his carving hands, he took to calling himself Carver. After years of hardship he eventually found a sort of comfort, in a village near a riverbend, where he grew old alongside a man called Potter, and a man called Weaver, and a man called Baker. His life reached an equilibrium again, God seemed satisfied with their efforts, and all was right with the world.

But the lordships hadn’t gone away. They still lived, behind their castle walls, jealous of rich lands beyond the sea, jealous of the power they had once had wielded to send their peons forward and claim them. They sent burghers to ride forth, to tax the people of the riverbend, as if the old world was still around and the great chain was still in place. This was more than greed and stupid avarice, this was defying the will of God. The people of riverbend could not allow this blasphemy to stand.

A man called Tyler raised the banner of the little folk. They killed the burghers, and scattered to spread the word that the giants could be felled. It was a lesson the Black Death had already taught Thomas many years before, that no matter how high your walls and how pure your breeding, no one was immortal. The man called Tyler led them to achieve things Thomas had scarcely dared to dream of. They scaled the castles, breached the Tower, burnt the pernicious words the lords scribbled to squeeze the small people. They knew if they could reach the ear of the young king, tell him how his lords had robbed and butchered, then things would change. Everything would be better.

Thomas could still barely believe what his tired eyes were seeing. There the young king was, his bright robes with hardly a speck on them, riding before their host of little folk and saying what they had always wanted him to say, that the lords had been pernicious and evil, that the peasants would no longer be tied to their lands, that no more taxes will crush their spirits. As the youngsters cheered, Thomas managed a smile on his cracked face. Everything really would be better.

But there was a dimming of the murmur. A ripple of stunned silence that spread from one end of their host as men whispered in each other’s ears. The cheers died as others craned to listen, and in the silence’s wake their rose a great and terrible howl of anguish. Thomas’s creased fingers tightened around his pike when the wave washed over him. The man called Tyler had been slain, set upon by that young king still strutting on his horse. The sweet-sounding promises of justice had ceased, replaced by a mocking sneer. The mortal man in all his finery sneered at God and at the host of small folk arrayed before him.

Another wave rippled from the army’s edges, faster and wilder than the first. Crying and screaming panic, the crowd scattered and surrendered and died in the face of a black metal line. The young king had revealed himself to be like all the other lords, venal and jealous and stupid. The youngsters around Thomas had fallen to their knees, begging for mercy, but Thomas didn’t care for a few more frightened years as a slave. For the first time in his long and hard life he had lived as a free man, and he felt satisfied to meet St Peter as one.

Thomas, the man called Carver, gave as good as he got, piercing one enforcer and braining another with the pike carved from his own hands. But the younger, stronger, stone-faced men in metal powered through and overcame him, as he knew they would. He would go to God with no regrets, having looked the great and the mighty in the eye and knowing he was the better man, for having lived free.

A Drink of Brown Beans

Many centuries ago, on the Red Sea coast of the unassuming country of Yemen there grew a small but ambitious port, famous far beyond its size thanks to a certain unique trade. The elder inhabitants that chewed qat by the dockside of the proud town of al-Moka remembered its ragged fishing origins as a time of halcyon simplicity. Amongst these elders was a man who brought back something they’d never seen before: a brown bean. If ground and mixed with hot water it served to clear the mind and accelerate the senses. Tradesmen from across Arabia descended to taste the bittersweet substance, and a people that once chewed teeth-blackening leaves to keep their minds off the arduous struggle to survive were suddenly liberated by wealth. Gifted with this strange new stimulant, they felt obligated to do something with their newfound free time besides laze in the sun. And so an enterprising fellow named Imran opened a house next to the main market, where this drink could be served and friends could congregate to talk about the issues of the day and discuss the answers to life’s problems…

‘Don’t you think there has to be something in-between a dolphin and a “school” of dolphins?’ Samir faffed about on his stool, a short and sprightly young man incapable of sitting still, ‘I mean, what do you call two dolphins? Maybe a “class” of dolphins, or a “study group” of dolphins…a “truancy pact” of dolphins, what would you say?’

‘Who knows?’ Alim had his quill on a parchment, and despite having written nothing for the last fifteen minutes was still studying it with great interest. Having learnt scholars traditionally sported great beards and great bellies, the tall, spindly skeleton of a man wore loose clothing and kept the fluff clung to his chin exceptionally tufty, ‘more importantly…who cares?’

‘Well I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to a school with just two students in it,’ Samir pointed a finger up for another round of drinks while Beena collected the empty cups.

The mischievous imp Beena was an evil genius. Somehow, the boyishly-pretty headscarf-wearer had roped both her friends into taking turns pretending they were her husband. She achieved this through selective bouts of wanton cruelty, ‘you’ve never been to school at all, Samir.’

‘True, but I like to learn and sometimes I have a partner,’ Samir patted his fingertips together, while a server plied them with freshly-filled cups, ‘that doesn’t make us “a school”.’

‘Correct, schools require teachers, and you’ve never had one, which is why you’re a petulant blot on the face of humanity,’ Alim clasped the cup before him.

The three cradled their cups carefully, seductively, needling the black-tinged scent through their sinuses and soaking their brains like crumbs in soup. The sugared lava lathered their lips and seeped down the contours of their tongues, electrifying the tissue around their throats. This rich, luscious, gritty and invigorating drink…”coffee”…transformed the people who drank it and elevated al-Moka from a near-worthless patch of mud inhabited by the destitute at the edge of subsistence into something valuable…something coveted.

The coffeehouse’s interior was dark and musky. Imran found the patrons liked it that way, since light airiness dispersed the fumes that were part of the place’s charm. It had grown so lucrative that Imran had his pick of underlings happy to tend bar, grind beans and keep the kettles boiling in exchange for entertaining conversation, leaving the elder wisp-haired statesman to wipe cups behind the counter in a perpetually smug state of zen.

Traditionally, the purpose of a gathering hole was to get drunk or high, depending on local religious restrictions. No one had ever locked up people in a dark place and made them hyper before, and no one knew how it would all end.

The shutters rattled in their hinges as hooves thundered along the dusty street outside. Imran’s patrons found this behaviour a little obnoxious.

‘Sounds like daddy’s boy got his first horse and brought all his friends,’ Samir wiped up the spill, ‘can someone tell them they don’t own the place?’

‘Actually, they do. Now, anyway,’ a large figure snuck into the coffeehouse amidst the brouhaha. Rahman had the facial hair and dimensions Alim aspired to, but his smarts were of the keeping-ears-open practical sort Alim had always despised. This made Rahman their go-to source for current events. Rahman held a finger aloft as he took the fourth cushion at the circular table, ‘the usual, please!’

‘Where have you been all day?’ Alim confronted the giant as he sat down.

‘I have been in the main square listening to heralds proclaiming Yemen’s eternal loyalty to the Mamluk Sultanate, who’ve been invited to annex us by kind permission of our exalted Vizier,’ Rahman graciously took the cup the server had been preparing since he stepped through the door, ‘don’t you listen to the news?’

‘Never. It’s all lies peddled by money-men, can’t trust a word of it,’ Adbul feinted smugness, ‘so…why are we being taken over by Egyptians?’

Rahman took a deep sip from his gritty cup, ‘you might have heard the Vizier’s son got into bed with the Ottomans. I think he jumped before he was pushed.’

Beena turned her cup round and round on the table, ‘wait, should we be worried our country’s been invaded?’

‘What, us?’ Alim scribbled compulsively, ‘doubt it. Haggling over territory is a parlour game of the rich. It means nothing to people like us.’

Rahman leant an elbow on the table, ‘and if they turn out to be tyrants?’

‘Then we overthrow them!’ Samir raised his cup in salute.

Alim squinted across the table, ‘…just like that?’

‘We Zaidis have a moral duty to overthrow tyrants. You Shafiis can stay home if it conflicts with your valuable reading time,’ Samir grinned, ‘for God’s sake, I’m joking. Just knuckle down, pay your taxes and you’ll be fine, like my cousin Ahmed when the Turks captured Damascus. What can they arrest us for anyway?’

The coffeehouse contingent giggled to themselves, but their doubts remained.

The annexation went mostly as predicted for the first few months. The Mamluks kept the old apparatus in place and didn’t care what anyone got up to so long as they knew who was in charge. The coffee shipments continue, and if anything al-Moka was wealthier than ever before, as they gained direct access to Mecca, Medina and Cairo. They still had the same Vizier, even if he was a puppet, and no one could honestly tell the difference from when he wasn’t one. There were no murmurs of dissent.

Idle thought experiments, however, were considered fair game.

‘So I’ve heard the Mamluks are in a spot of bother,’ Rahman stirred his fresh cup, ‘that army Selim was forming to take a swipe at Persia has done a 180 and marched into the Sinai.’

‘Oh, you’re joking!’ Samir thumped his cup on the table, ‘my cousin Mahmoud was coming down that way!’

‘It means more than that, friend,’ Rahman took a sip before continuing, ‘unless Moses feels like heading back across the Red Sea, our guests are trapped on the wrong side with no one to help them.’

‘We lasted a thousand years on our own. They can lump it,’ Alim was busy copying extracts from a loaned Qur’an so he could scribble over them with a clear conscience.

‘We never got conquered because we never had anything worth conquering before,’ Beena blew some heat off her cup, ‘so what happens next? Egypt falls and al-Ghawri has to hold court in my father’s cellar?’

‘Nothing that dramatic. A territory swap then back to business as usual, probably,’ Samir leant back over his cushion, ‘it’d be a shame if they hand us to the Ottomans. My cousins have horror stories about the Mamluks, but they don’t seem so bad.’

‘You haven’t seen them when they get insecure. Right now they think they’re safe as houses,’ Beena set her cup back down to lean over the table, pursing her lips to look serious, ‘as soon as things turn against them, that’s when they start taking it out on the natives.’

‘They haven’t done anything yet, have they?’ Alim took a sip while he contemplated the next sura, ‘yes, the Mamluks requisitioned your father’s olive groves. An army needs to eat. You shouldn’t take it so personally.’

‘Just you wait…’ Beena raised her cup with both hands, guardedly.

Imran froze in the middle of his zen cup-cleaning when a hulking man concealed in flowing robes with a hefty scimitar on his belt squeezed through the entrance, followed by an identical soldier who had similar difficulty fitting inside. They held the curtain open for a third, lither figure who wore a utilitarian tunic and a tidy turban, sporting a close-cropped beard and a permanent squint.

Some didn’t quite get this was when they needed to stop talking.

‘What do soldiers need with olives, anyway?’ Samir held his cup high, oblivious, ‘I can’t imagine they’re very filling.’

‘You’ll be surprised, they can keep a man moving on very little,’ Rahman grinned as the soldiers surrounded him from behind, ‘stuffed with energy, you see-‘

Rahman al-Muzya?‘ the captain’s voice boomed.

Rahman paused, slowly put his cup down and turned haltingly, slightly concussed, ‘…speaking?’

‘Captain Tamur, I’m al-Moka’s new Military Guardian,’ the Egyptian planted a hand firmly on the hilt of his scimitar, ‘by the authority of His Excellency, I’m placing you under arrest.’

‘My crime?’ Rahman asked without a hint of snark.

‘You have been accused of spreading malicious rumours about the Mamluks,’ Tamur remained the consummate professional.

Rahman glanced at his small circle of friends and the four walls of the tiny coffeehouse, ‘…who to?’

‘Please treat this matter with a little more gravity,’ Tamur flicked a finger and the two soldiers hooked Rahman by the arms, dragging him limply to his feet, ‘perpetuating lies undermines the serenity of the Sultanate. You don’t want to undermine serenity, do you?’

‘Ah…sorry, if I could interrupt?’ Samir leant across the table cautiously, ‘the thing is…nothing we say here ever leaves the door. We’re not secretive, it’s just…no one really cares what we talk about-‘

‘And who are you?’ Tamur channelled his undiluted attention at the runt of the group.

Samir shrank, ‘eheh…Samir al-Houthi… no one, really…’

‘Houthi?’ a twitch trembled across Tamur’s eye, ‘you are Shi’ite?’

‘I know, it’s a terrible habit, I’ve tried talking him out of it but he just won’t budge!’ Alim cradled his notes, fearing something bad might happen to them, ‘I’ve given him fair warning as God commanded in verse 89 of the Al-Hijr, it’s up to him if he wants to be ’smote’…’

‘You are Sunni,’ Tamur’s left eye twitched a little more at Alim.

‘Alim ibn Kalid…’ Alim raised his neck in a trembling show of importance, ‘…scholar.’

‘And you dine with heretics,’ Tamur mentioned matter-of-factly.

‘Dine?’ Beena puffed herself up, ‘we’re not “dining”, we’re having a coffee-‘

‘I’m sorry, my ears appear to be faulty, did I hear a woman speak?’ Tamur cut Beena off sharply.

Beena looked back at him, realised she was staring and darted her eyes at the table, sipping shakily. Tamur inspected all three of the coffee-drinkers. He looked very disappointed.

‘We’ve allowed this den of immorality to fester far too long at the foot of the holy land,’ Tamur jabbed at the entrance and turned to leave, snapping a finger at Imran, ‘this won’t be the last you see of me…’

Imran’s cup-cleaning hand was locked in place. Rahman still couldn’t quite recognise something was happening to him. The others wondered if they should be “doing something” about this. Samir was a professional loafer, Alim was a scholastic wuss, and Beena was…well…a girl. What could they do?

The soldiers had to slide out sideways to fit themselves and Rahman through the portal, leaving the patrons to ponder what just happened. It was the principle that weirded them out. They’d never seen anyone being arrested for talking before…

Rahman’s arrest was just the beginning. As the Mamluks’ position faltered, they lashed out at their hosts, cannibalizing Yemen’s wealth. Every night saw more smashed walls, more torn fabrics, more blood on the streets. They found their exile’s odd customs a convenient excuse for requisition and slaughter in the name of moral purity. The Imams and Mullahs were either spectators or victims themselves in this paroxysm of moral umbrage. The Mamluks were a morality unto themselves.

The clientele of Imran’s coffeehouse dwindled, until Imran had to serve coffee himself to his last three regular customers. The trio were engaged in behaviour unknown to them until a few months before: they were huddling close and whispering to each other…

‘Got word from my cousin Ali! Cairo has fallen!’ Samir held his warm cup tight with a vicious grin.

‘What, one army and that’s it?’ Alim kept his cup close to his lips as if someone was about to steal it, ‘the Mamluks have the finest horsemen in the ummah, are you sure?

‘No horseman can stand against cannon,’ Samir bit his lip in excitement, ‘the Mamluks will have to set up court in Beena’s cellar after all, until the Ottomans get here.’

‘And this helps us how?’ Beena glowered at the others in the coffee-scented huddle, ‘what makes Turks any better than Egyptians?’

‘You mean besides being a model of prosperity, progress and power with connections all the way to Constantinople?’ Samir giggled.

Alim scowled, ‘I thought it was Istanbul?’

‘Istanbul, Constantinople, it’s nobody’s business but the Turks,’ Samir shrugged, ‘so long as we don’t make waves for another month, we could be in for a windfall-‘

Blades sliced the curtain-entrance into strips. A half-dozen identically-heavy soldiers stormed into the coffeehouse, kicking aside tables and cushions to make room for Captain Tamur.

Everyone out! This establishment is closed!‘ Tamur commanded.

A cup fell from Imran’s hands and clattered against the counter, ‘whu…why!?’

Tamur marched to the bar and fixed a dead, twitching eye on Imran, ‘this is a drinking house, yes? You know God explicitly forbids alcohol?’

‘B-but coffee isn’t alcohol! It’s…the anti-alcohol!’ Imran slid over one of the drinks he was saving for the next round and offered it to Tamur, ‘see? Served hot, brown beans and sugar, very invigorating…’

Tamur took one look at the cup, clasped it hard and took an assertive sip. The sweet, bitter lava burnt his tongue and shrivelled his taste buds. He snarled in disgust and shattered the cup against the nearest wall, coffee-scented spittle flecking from his mouth, ‘Iblis’ drink! Men, tear this place apart!

The soldiers complied, ripping boilers from the wall and scattering coffee beans across the floor. The last three patrons shrunk into a corner to escape the carnage.

‘Sir! Please!’ Alim raised his palms, ‘this goes against God’s word!’

Tamur noticed the scared trio and approached them with mock cheerfulness, ‘ah yes, the “scholar”! Tell me, do you know why Mamluks are a breed apart from people like you?’

The three hurriedly shook their heads.

‘You need to “study”, to learn God’s word through rote and intellect, to acquire the right to determine your destiny as if it were a skill like camel-salesmanship. Every Mamluk is born with God’s word in their mouth! Purity runs through their veins! Their duty is to rule, to guide their lessers towards the true way!’ Tamur stretched his arms to present the destruction as evidence, ‘this is God’s word because our word is God!

Samir trembled, ‘…that’s…blasphemy…’

Tamur became stony-faced professional again, glancing curiously at Beena huddled between the two men, ‘…which one of you is her husband?’

I am!‘ both men asserted, looking at each other in panic before slumping in unison, ‘damn it!

The soldiers wasted no time grabbing the young coffee drinkers and raising the blunt hilts of three heavy scimitars above their heads. Beena rolled her eyes, ‘good going boys-‘

The dark, dusty dungeon cordoned off by iron bars had been cleared of criminals with proper credentials to make room for Shi’ites, shopkeepers on Fridays, qat-chewers, women of ill-repute (i.e. “women”), and anyone who didn’t say ‘bless you’ when a Mamluk sneezed. They were tossed in together and left to sort themselves out while the occupiers engaged in higher pursuits, such as locking up more people. Least rowdy of this less-than-rowdy bunch were the three who built a redoubt in the corner with straw to recreate their world in miniature.

‘So…two dolphins make a school…’ Samir blinked heavily, ‘…does that mean…one of them’s a teacher and the other’s a pupil?’

Alim snorted awake, ‘…sorry, could you say that again? I’m flagging here…’

‘Wow…’ Beena rocked from side to side with her eyes shut, ‘… these conversations are a lot duller than I remember them being…’

‘Bear with me…’ Samir smacked his lips, ‘…so you got a dolphin…and maybe a slightly younger dolphin…’

‘No, Samir, I’m done with this…’ Alim laid his head on some straw, ‘…it was a nice idea, but I just don’t have the energy…’

The ground thundered from something slamming into it, knocking dust from the ceiling. It was a sign of something that would change their lives, but without an invigorating drink to clear their heads the implications were lost on them.

‘Should that be important…?’ Samir talked to himself. The other two were snoring soundly through the bombardment. Samir sighed as he patted his straw bed and let tiredness descend upon him, ‘ahh…it was a stupid question anyway.’

The subconscious of the three sleepers was buffeted by mortar balls and gunpowder, but their brains refused to respond to stimuli. They dreamed slow dreams, and mostly slept with blank minds.

The next morning, Samir was stirred by a beam of sunlight. This was odd, as they were supposed to be at least twenty feet underground. Samir was finally awoken by prodding from a big, fat finger.

Rahman filled Samir’s blurred vision, ‘good night’s rest?’

Samir groaned, spending the next minute locking his aching bones back together on a hard stone floor. The two others were waking up too, stretching their backs and arms.

Alim coughed up a mouth of sand and noticed they were the only prisoners left in an open cell with a hole in the ceiling, ‘…where is everybody?’

‘Outside, I guess,’ Rahman shrugged, ‘someone opened all the cells and ran off. I thought I’d find you down here.’

‘Why didn’t they wake us!?’ Beena kicked a dislodged brick incredulously.

‘Why would they?’ Samir tried to prop himself up, failed, and extended a hand instead, ‘I’m surprised they didn’t set the place on fire just to spite us.’

Rahman grabbed Samir’s arm and dragged the youngster up. Once Samir was on his feet, Rahman winced and hissed, twisting around to scratch his shoulder-blades with his fingernails. Samir noticed red lines seeping through the fabric on the back of Rahman’s tunic.

‘You all right?’ Samir cringed.

‘I’m a big boy, I can manage,’ Rahman waved off the concern and slapped his hands, ‘so who wants to get out of here!?’

Beena took one step up the pile of rubble beneath the hole and huffed, ‘you know what I really want right now?’

The four emerged from the prison rubble into a changed world. Craters had appeared in the street where buildings were supposed to be, and kindling poked up from the surface of the harbour, and the din of port activity had been replaced by a thoughtful stillness. And yet shopkeepers were busy piling bricks, merchants were gathering their splintered wares into something sellable, and a makeshift tarpaulin covered new shipments of food. As long as al-Moka had people to live in it, its spirit would survive.

The Mamluks were conspicuous by their absence. In fact, there was an absence of soldiers in general, which struck the four as a bit odd after an intense battle. As they approached the market square, however, they discovered exactly where their new overlords were holed up.

Imran’s new clientele had so enthusiastically sponsored the flaked and haphazardly rebuilt place they’d spilled out of the building, chatting over cups of steaming drinks while lounging in the sun. These soldiers were a world away from the hulks that had smashed it the previous week. They were stockier, compact, lighter-skinned, encased in chain-mail and babbling an incomprehensible dialect.

Imran emerged from the dark inside and dispersed fresh cups to the grateful soldiers. Noticing the jilted-looking gang of four loitering outside, Imran grinned ecstatically, sprinting to share the news with his former best customers.

‘Isn’t it fantastic!?’ Imran jostled Rahman by the shoulder, failing to notice his discomfort, ‘the Mamluks fled in the night like thieves! The Turks came this morning they fixed the coffeehouse up good as new within an hour! They love the stuff! Enthralled by it!’

‘Fantastic, Imran…’ Samir tried to gently interrupt.

‘That’s not even the best part!’ Imran slapped Samir in the chest, ‘their general, Hoca, he’s friends with the Levantine governor! He might set me up with important officials in the area! I’ll be building a franchise in Damascus and Aleppo, maybe even Istanbul!’

‘Not Constantinople?’ Alim asked sheepishly.

‘It’s a long-time gone, Constantinople!’ Imran was hopping at this stage, ‘I’d have never got this far without you four-‘

‘Great! Marvellous! Simply wonderful!’ Beena forced an aggravated smile, ‘now, we’ve just climbed out of a dungeon, you couldn’t fix us up a drink, could you?’

Imran’s smile lingered uncertainly, ‘ah. Um…yes. Well…I’m afraid…you see the franchise does have certain…’conditions’.’

The four scowled together. Rahman crowded over the wispy old man, ‘like…?

‘Well…like…they heard what happened last time, and General Hoca thinks it would be better to market the coffeehouse as a “safe” environment…’ Imran gestured frantically, ‘having dangerous figures like you …j-just in their opinion…well…it might “damage the brand”, so to speak…so…you couldn’t just…stay away for a while? Until everything settles down…’

‘When will that be?’ Beena crossed her arms.

‘Oh…quite a long time, I’m afraid…’ Imran took a couple of tentative steps back toward the safety of the coffeehouse, ‘…lots of things to sort out! It’s going to be very busy around here! Haha. So…uh…don’t check up I’ll let you know it’s been very nice seeing you wishing you best of luck thanks for all your help see you soon bye!

Imran fled inside surprisingly quickly for his age. Samir glared at the back of Imran’s disappearing wisp, but all he could do next was slump his shoulders and retreat through the others.

‘We’re giving up!?’ Beena confronted the others as they began to walk away as well, ‘that isn’t like us!’

‘It’s exactly like us, in case you haven’t noticed,’ Alim threw his hands at the sky and slunked off, ‘we think about how to change the world and wait for people to do it for us. It’s why everyone wants to beat us up, and why we’re so easily beatable.’

‘I just want a coffee!’ Rahman flailed at the sun, suffering pangs across his back for his trouble, ‘I can’t help talking about important stuff! It’s what I do to relax!’

Samir kicked a blast-shadowed rock up the street. Purely by accident, they’d created an ideas chamber that terrified the Egyptians and the Turks to the point of madness. Giving the powers-that-be an address to find them all was their first mistake. But if they could gather someplace anonymous where they could drink coffee and talk nonsense without recrimination…

Samir felt something crunch beneath his sandal. He’d stepped into a pile of coffee beans spilled from a ripped sack dropped by the dockside. There was a whole untended pile of them, waiting for someone to grind them, stir them in hot water and serve them as a refreshing beverage.

Samir grinned. Turning back to the others, he anticipated his next sip of warm caffeine, ‘hey, Beena, does your father still have that cellar down the road?’

End

It was the management, the management moved your stupid cheese

Derek and Basil and Roger and Clive had all grown up knowing nothing but the maze. Their whole world was an interlocking set of canals connected by smell, bathed in either blazing orange light or cool blue darkness with nothing in-between. They would wake up every morning to find the maze had shifted in the night, but that only made each day new and exciting. They’d sniff the ground with their fluffy little snouts, and scuttle hither and thither through the reconstituted maze, striving to be first to the centre and to their ultimate prize. The winner of the rat race would consume their goal greedily, leaving scraps for the others to lick up, but every day saw a new winner emerge, so no one thought it unfair.

That was, until one day Derek triumphantly broke through to the centre. A blank square was his reward.

Who moved my cheese!?‘ Derek squeaked impertinently.

‘Someone moved the cheese?’ Basil puffed, the second rat to reach the core, ‘what kind of sadistic weirdo would move the cheese?’

‘Wasn’t me!’ Roger pipped in at third place, ‘my route went halfway round the bloody maze, I only just got here!’

‘What’s everyone standing around for…?’ sleepy Clive slumped in from the fourth direction, ‘…you ate all the cheese already!? You got no grounds for complaining I eat too much this time.’

‘There was no cheese!’ Derek reiterated for the newcomers, bashing the floor with his paw, ‘it was my cheese! What happened to it!?’

‘Well, it couldn’t have been one of us, there’d be bits left if it was,’ Basil reasoned calmly now he got his breath back.

‘Why couldn’t it be one of us?’ Roger peered suspiciously at the others, ‘any of you could’ve dragged it elsewhere and had it all to yourself!’

‘Are you kidding!? You seen the size of those things!?’ despite his heft, Clive wasn’t especially large, ‘you’d have trouble picking it up, let alone fitting it through the door!’

‘So who could’ve done it!?’ Derek was angry, and lateral thought took a back-seat when he was angry, ‘that was my cheese! Mine!’

‘I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal over it being ‘yours’, it could’ve just as easily been mine!’ Clive puffed his chest.

The other rats stared down the diminutive wee porky.

Clive’s chest deflated, ‘…alright, maybe it would’ve been a bit harder for me, but the point stands, this is a problem for all of us, not just you.’

‘Well then,’ Basil decided firmly, ‘if it isn’t us, then it can only be…Them.’

The rats looked up together into the orange light. For their entire existences, the universe beyond the maze had been nothing but that light.

Roger scoffed, ‘don’t be stupid, Basil, you might as well say it was stolen by elves.’

‘Well when you eliminate the impossible…’ Basil shrugged.

‘But why!?’ Derek shook Basil by the shoulders, ‘why would They do such a thing!?’

‘I don’t know,’ Basil kept on shrugging, ‘I’m sure there must be a perfectly logical explanation why They moved the cheese. Ours not to reason why and all that.’

‘Maybe it doesn’t matter who moved the cheese?’ Clive threw the idea out there, and immediately regretted it when daggers were stared at him.

‘It matters to me who moved the cheese!’ Derek shoved Basil to one side, ‘if They moved it then They can bloody well put it back!’

‘I’m just saying…I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere just blaming people for moving the cheese,’ Clive sucked in his chest and made a cheerful positive-face, ‘I say we put our heads together and go find more cheese!’

‘I agree…’ Roger nodded assertively before jabbing a claw at the others, ‘…and the first place I’m going to check is your nests. If I catch cheese crumbs in any of your hidey-holes, you’ll be hearing from me!’

‘Which is different from normal how, exactly?’ Basil rolled his eyes.

‘Oh I’m sorry, did I say ‘hearing’? I meant ‘receiving wounds’,’ Roger bared his chompers, ‘I’m keeping an eye on you…’

Roger and Clive scuttled off on their hunt. They wouldn’t find anything, of course, they would’ve smelt it if there was any cheese still around. Basil turned to leave as well, looking rather sanguine about the matter.

‘Now I, for one, intend to return to my nest and enter a hibernatory state until such a time as They grace us with a block of cheese!’ Basil smiled.

Derek refused to smile back, ‘and what if they don’t?’

‘Then…one of us…staaarrrves…?’ Basil winced at the logical implications, ‘we have to trust that They know what They’re doing.’

‘You can trust Them, I’m going to stick around to see what They’re up to!’ Derek settled down to watch the empty centre like a hawk, ‘nobody moves my cheese…’

Basil huffed and left him to it, ‘suit yourself, but don’t blame me if you get us all into trouble.’

The great light beat down on the maze for the rest of the day, until regular as clockwork it shut down for the night. Derek pinched himself to stay awake throughout the darkness, but the oppressive black haze conspired to weigh down his eyelids. He persevered, but in the end the only thing that kept him from nodding off was the wall next to him suddenly disappearing. He skittered in fright as the slab rose high into the black gloom and came crashing down a few corridors away, slotted into place by an unspeakably massive pink hand.

The hand lingered atop the wall for second, and a mighty voice quaked the earth, ‘…what are you doing all the way in there?’

Derek dug his claws in as the fingers swooped over him. Clasped by an incredible force, his awe was quashed by a bottomless sense of outrage that someone really was messing about with his maze. The great finger that wrapped around his chin felt soft and fleshy. So he chomped, and chomped hard. Delicious warm liquid welled beneath his molars, the ear-splitting shriek and sudden onset of gravity offset by the immense satisfaction in discovering that the gods were mortal after all.

Where’s my cheese!?‘ Derek cried before he hit the ground.

‘Mwuh…wut? Where’s what cheese!?’ Basil blinked awake, shaking off the shock of something thumping on his hibernation spot.

‘Derek, is that you!?’ Roger bounded into Basil’s nest, wild-eyed and manic from the fruitless cheese hunt, ‘I knew it was you, Derek! I knew it was you!’

‘Please, Roger, can’t we go back to the search?’ Clive tottered after Roger, weak and bleary from withdrawal, ‘I’m huuungryyy…’

Derek huffed and puffed to get himself upright, elated from being proven right, ‘you want to know!? You want to know who moved the cheese!? There’s the cheese-mover! Right there!’

The orange light blared into being far too early, blinding the four of them. Their screams were drowned out by the giant’s minor whinge.

‘Owww…why’d you do that!? That really hurt!’ the titan hissed and sucked her finger, ‘god, I hope it isn’t infected…’

Roger’s fur went white, ‘it…can’t be!’

‘Derek…’ now-fully-awake Basil side-spoke irritably, ‘…what did you do?’

The light cast aside, illuminating more of the universe besides their maze. Towering in the darkness was a hundred-storey two-limbed creature in a white coat wearing a tag that said “Susan”. The blonde-haired huuu-man’s emotions were ineffable to rat-kind, but they got the impression that she was a bit cross.

‘Now that was very rude!’ “Susan” waggled a finger, ‘what do you have to say for yourselves?’

‘The rumours were true!’ Roger threw himself prostrate before the godhead, ‘forgive me, lord, for my doubts…’

‘Knock it off, Roger, you’re embarrassing us…’ Basil planted his hands together to address the hew-man, ‘apologies for the disruption, Miss Deity, I’ve already explained to them that you must have had an excellent reason for moving the cheese, but they just won’t listen…’

‘Is that what this is about?’ Susan cringed, ‘not giving you cheese?’

Clive’s stomach rumbled angrily, ‘you mean to tell me I spent all day scrounging about this maze for nothing!?’

‘Not ‘nothing’, we wanted to see how you reacted,’ Susan was distracted by the bitemark on her finger, ‘catering budget got cut, you see.’

Basil perked up, ‘wait…that’s the reason? That’s a stupid reason!’

‘Sorry, you weren’t considered a proper allocation of resources,’ Susan smiled weakly.

‘But it’s absurd! You couldn’t afford some cheese!?’ Basil flailed at the obvious argumentative shortcomings, ‘there’s a KitKat in your pocket!’

‘Yes, well…’ Susan hid the chocolate bar in a futile attempt to deflect the blame, ‘…Craig had the idea that…um…instead of chopping lunch, maybe we’d see what happens if you…don’t…get…cheese…’

Roger, his world falling apart before his eyes, thrust his paws to the heavens in impotent anguish, ‘…but…whhhhhyyyyy!?’

‘’mIdunno…’ Susan shrugged, ‘…science…I guess.’

‘But that was my cheese!’ Derek fumed peevishly, ‘mine! I laboured for that cheese! Sweated over it with these four paws! You can’t string a rat along with the promise of cheese and not give him cheese!?’

‘Very sorry, but it’s out of my hands, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles,’ Susan planted a hand on her hip and waggled a finger at the rats with a sing-songy voice, ‘now what you fellows have to think about is how are you going to adapt to this new paradigm? It’s no use repeating old patterns when the conditions have changed, you must move ‘beyond’ the cheese, conceptualise a post-cheese maze and formulate new strategies so that you may thrive in this challenging new environment!’

Roger clawed at his brains and wept uncontrollably, ‘what does that even meeeaaan!?

‘You can’t do this to us!’ Derek raised a paw at the gods, ‘we’ve got rights!’

‘You ungrateful little scroungers, count yourself lucky we didn’t euthanize you!’ Susan hectored, grabbing the lamp, ‘you’re going to get no cheese, and you’re going to like it!’

‘Don’t you put that light on us…I’m not finished with you yet-!’ Derek’s eyeballs frazzled as the light shone directly on the maze again, obliterating the world beyond. The ground shook from the hewww-man’s pounding footsteps, and the maze was buffeted by the thunderclap of the door snapping shut. Derek decided to get the last word in anyway, ‘you’re gonna regret this!

‘Good going, Derek, you’ve only gone and made Them mad,’ Basil bunched up his straw bedding and laid his head down, ‘we had a pretty good case till you got all Militant on us.’

‘No cheese…?’ Clive had gone catatonic since the bombshell, fiddling his paws absently, ‘…how can there be no cheese? What do I do with myself if there’s no cheese!?’

‘You can do whatever you like, I’m returning to Plan A,’ Basil closed his eyes and imagine whalesong playing in his ears to enter a hibernation zen, ‘I’m sure They’ll eventually realise Their mistake and reinstate our former cheese-related privileges, we just have to be patient.’

‘But you heard what They said…no cheese…no cheese…’ Clive giggled nervously, his brain breaking from this inside, ‘of course! The post-cheese paradigm! It all makes sense! I must transcend the cheese…no longer think of the cheese…yes! If we all work together, we can find the post-cheese and make Them happy with us again!’

‘It’s all your fault!’ Roger was spraying snot all over the place, having been zealously converted to the Church of Them, ‘our greed and disloyalty have angered Them! They will bring Their terrible wrath upon us! The End Times are Coming!’

‘Oh something’s coming all right…my claws in Their stupid faces is what’s coming…’ Derek had spent the few minutes getting his eyesight back to seethe over his inglorious defeat and plot diabolical vengeance, ‘…got to think for a bit.’

‘Don’t do anything rash…’ Basil smacked his lips, ‘…just keep your heads down, I’m sure it’ll all blow over.’

It didn’t all blow over. Day wore interminably on until it snapped off into night, yet no cheese dropped into the centre. Basil’s halting attempts at hibernation were frequently interrupted by his own rumbling stomach. When the pitter-patter of twelve paws approached him in the darkness, he was still wide awake.

‘Psst!’ Derek whispered.

What!?‘ Basil groaned out of his slumber.

‘Oh good, you’re awake!’ Derek was uncharacteristically eager, ‘the lads and I had a chat about the cheese situation, and I think we’ve come up with a solution!’

‘Yes, but first of all, I just wanted to say I’ve realised something…’ Roger butted in less-than-assertively, ‘…I’ve been an idiot.’

‘You only figured this out now?’ Basil rubbed his eyes.

‘Oh hardy-har,’ Roger huffed, ‘what I meant is that I’m seeing the big picture for the first time. All day, every day, I was running around the same maze, never thinking there was anything outside it, getting at each other’s throats to stay ahead…but now I know there’s a whole world out there! That’s…like..incredible, you know!? And compared to all that biiig wide space, the things we snap at each other about in here…well, when you think about it, they don’t matter all that much. I mean, you take a big step back and look at us, all in the same maze, we’re all the same, really. You know what I mean?’

Basil woke up enough to look Roger straight in the eye, ‘…we are absolutely nothing alike, Roger.’

‘Bloody good thing too!’ Derek slapped Basil on the shoulder, ‘I ain’t been listening to half what he’s going on about, but he did give me an idea. What if we just…got out?’

‘What…you mean…leave the maze?’ Basil wanted to make doubly sure if Derek really had gone and lost it.

‘Yeah, why not!?’ Derek nodded enthusiastically.

‘Well, for one, the walls are at least a foot tall,’ Basil pointed out, ‘none of us can reach that high.’

‘Not one of us, certainly,’ Derek cast his paw at the rest of them, ‘but all of us together, it’ll be easy! We just need to climb on each other’s shoulders and one of us can let the others out!’

Basil mulled it over. It made theoretical sense, but… ‘okay, then what?’

‘Haven’t decided, actually,’ Derek didn’t seem to treat this as a serious setback, ‘of course, I say we go up to Their office, poke Their eyes out and make Them give us our cheese back. Roger thinks we should just scarper…’

‘Their vengeance will be cruel and unyielding!’ Roger shivered.

Derek moved on, ‘aaand we haven’t got anything cogent out of Clive all evening.’

‘Perhaps the cheese was inside us all along…’ Clive muttered darkly, ‘…to achieve peace, we must find the cheese within ourselves…’

‘So we were hoping you could be the deciding vote!’ Derek finished on a high note.

‘Well, we’re not doing the eye-poking thing cuz that’s just asking for euthanasia,’ Basil entertained the possibilities, ‘as for your idea, Roger, I fail to see how abandoning the maze completely gets us any more cheese.’

‘But that’s the beauty of it! Try to think beyooond the maze, Basil!’ Roger snaked an arm around Basil’s shoulders and cast a paw at the wider universe, ‘out there, in the new world, there could be infinite possibilities! Mazes of such complexity that the rat brain cannot fathom! Things to eat that aren’t cheese!’

‘Aren’t cheese!?’ Clive snapped suddenly out of his catatonia, ‘but…what can you eat besides cheese!?’

Derek licked his buck-tooth thoughtfully, ‘…human flesh?’

‘Be serious, Derek, this is a flight of fancy…’ Basil nudged Roger’s arm off his back, but his resolve wasn’t particularly strong, ‘…I’m not convinced.’

‘Come on, Basil, give it serious thought,’ Derek had a mischievous light in his eyes, ‘do you want to spend the rest of your life waiting hand on foot for our hewww-man overlords to grant us kind permission to eat the cheese we worked for…or do you want to seize the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something a Little Bit Crazy?’

Basil glowered at Derek for a good long while as he wiggled his eyebrows at the prospect of capturing their own destinies. This was the maddest thing he’d ever do, but, ‘all right! We’ll leave! Just please stop doing that thing with your face!’

‘Excellent! That’s two votes to one with one abstention!’ Derek clapped, ‘pack your things and we’ll meet back here in ten minutes!’

For such a momentous rift in their lives, the workmanlike banality of its mechanics was somewhat reassuring. It made all of them wonder why they’d never done this before, it seemed so obvious in retrospect. They piled up against a wall, rising on each other’s shoulders until Clive was able to climb up and plummet over the maze’s outer wall.

Derek grunted under the crushing weight of the others, and was the first to hear the ‘oof’ from outside, ‘you okay out there!?’

‘Yes! I’m fine,’ Clive shook off the impact and gasped, ‘it’s incredible! A shiny marble desert ending at a sheer cliff face! …don’t see any cheese yet, mind.’

‘We’ll worry about that later!’ Basil focused from his vertigo-inducing perch, ‘can you see any kind of hook or tie keeping the wall in place!?’

‘Uhh…yes. Yes! I think I see a wire!’ Clive twiddled with something attached to the wall, ‘give me a sec…it’s not very tight…just need to loop this around that and…’

The wall abruptly gave way under the rats’ weight. They tumbled awkwardly into the vast, empty, open outside, nursing their aching backs.

‘S’pose that’s one way of getting out…’ Roger sighed philosophically.

The maze wall was the major obstacle between the rats and the world beyond. Everything else was easily overcome past that, with enough intelligence, solidarity and sheer will. Derek and Basil and Roger and Clive sauntered out into the unknown outside the maze, unsure whether it may offer any more cheese, but excited to find out.