Writing Sprint Short Story: Dogma(n)

Writing Sprint Short Story: Dogma(n)

The latest prompts for the two-hour writing sprint were:

Pole
Bodies
Slink
Pyramid
Inch

I did make a conscious effort to lighten the mood after the two darker pieces the early April writing prompts produced. Somehow that led me to a dog POV when all signs pointed to a lap dancing plot.

Dogma(n)

Before we start, let me get this out of the way – I’m a dog.

I don’t mean that as a turn of phrase, like: “That guy’s acted like a real dog.” I am a real dog. Literally a dog. And I mean literally in the very literal sense, not in the way people do nowadays when they say things like, “I literally died.” They literally didn’t.

But who’s going to take an English language class from a canine?

Another thing we’ll clear up from the start, I used to be a human. I know all about being up on two feet, talking, sitting on the loo instead of crouching by trees. Yeah, I’m familiar with the big people world. I’m also pretty certain not all dogs – if any – are reincarnated like me. It’s pretty hard to say for certain. Bark language hasn’t really got the range to ask such probing questions.

If I tried to put, “Hey, Oscar, did you used to be a human too?” into a series of barks, it would only result in one of my big people telling me to keep the noise down. I don’t actually know any dogs called Oscar. I’ve heard it in the park a few times. Seems to me that more and more dogs are being given proper human names. Check mine out, it’s Billy.

I’m not complaining, it’s a cool name. I imagine when I’m too old for walks, it’ll drift toward Bill. Old Bill on the rug by the fire. “Come on, kids. Leave Old Bill alone. He’s old and grumpy.”

To be fair, I’m pretty grumpy now. Probably wondering about my breed at this point. Is Billy a grumpy German Shepherd or a nippy Yorkshire Terrier. I find the question offensive. Labelling us like that. I’ve left all that labelling business to humans. Plus, I’m not completely sure. I’ve forgotten how mirrors work. There’s a niggling feeling that the dog upstairs on the inside of Karen’s wardrobe door might be my reflection. Whenever I see that big, handsome but rugged character, I can’t help but bark at him. It’s just instinct, see.

There’s a lot of that going on being a dog: instinct.

By the way – FYI, as I hear the younger ones say – Karen is the female big person who lives here. She’s great. At first, she wanted a dog about as much as I want ten cats lined up on the back fence when I’m locked inside, but she came around. Now it’s Karen that takes best care of me. The kids are growing up, I’m not as much fun as the little phones in their hands. The male big person – James – is cool, I just see less of him nowadays. He still gives the best walks and stays up late chatting to me.

Back to that instinct thing. It’s reasonable to wonder how a dog that remembers being a man can get on in life. Some things should disgust me, or I should apply knowledge gained as a person, or refrain from certain acts. I do chastise myself over many things but a lack of willpower isn’t just a human trait.

Also, some things are impossible to stop. Try opening a pack of Pringles or Jaffa Cakes and taking just one. A single Pringle. Let it sit on your tongue then refrain from having any more. Pretty much impossible. It’s like that being a dog. So much is like a scratch that needs to be itched. The top of the Pringle pot is always open.

We know we’re giving into temptation and instinct – often they are mutually exclusive – that’s how we know when to tuck our tails between our legs after chewing expensive shoes. Seriously, keep a nice set of Bottega Veneta’s away from these biters. Yummy. They’re not actually tasty in the conventional sense, I prefer a sausage, but it’s that Pringle moment times ten. Well worth a clip around the ear.

Being aware of the human world, another natural line of thought is the one humans are super obsessed with: sex. Well, there’s a thing I’ve done as a canine and a man – it isn’t doggy style, you perverts – it’s having the old balls chopped off. Literally, as in really happened, as a dog. Cut and binned. Had my tubes tied as a man. Having it done as a pup means I don’t have an eye for the ladies. Or the bitches as gangster rappers and us dogs get to say. Sure, I have a female friend. Her name’s Bella. A tall, golden, slinky thing. Trots around like she’s from higher breeding but the minute the big people are out of sight, she’s the one running off to roll around in fox faeces.

I hate to use a cliché but almost feel prompted to say that if you give her an inch, she’ll disappear for the next mile.

She even has the audacity to snap me into silence on occasion. For some reason, she loves listening to Ken Bruce’s PopMaster Challenge. If I try to get her attention, she’ll make a little nipping motion to shut me up. Then she returns to the classic head cocked expression. Dogs looked so stupid when they try to concentrate, I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve  never done. The silly head movement, not concentrating, I still have to focus on the odd thing even with a plethora of human knowledge.

Bella making sense of the radio is a one off. The television plays a big role in human life, but it becomes something different as a dog. I’m aware it’s there, creating sound and images, but it’s like reading the control panel of a Klingon ship in Star Trek. I get what it is supposed to do but can’t translate it so it becomes a blur – a prop.

Language suffers from the television-Klingon-blur thing. I understand what it’s there for but it begins to drift out of understanding. I remember the key parts. A bit like a Brit on holiday, I know the words for food and drink and anything denoting fun. The rest of the time I let their babble become white noise.

You may be wondering how this situation enables a stream of canine consciousness to exist. To paraphrase and improve on Confucius: am I a dog dreaming of a human reading my diary or a human dreaming of being a literary dog?

Perhaps a direct quote of his will better suffice: Life is really simple, but men insist on making it complicated.

I say direct quote, it’s obviously translated so it probably means something else in Mandarin or Spanish or whatever tongue the wise man spoke.

One important thing you have to remember is, for all their collective wisdom, humans are a bit weird. Canines just have to play along. Take the whole giving a paw gig. When James invites his mates over, they don’t need to lay an open palm in his hand to get a beer. If Billy here wants a biscuit, I’ve got to smack a paw down on James. Thing is, most of the time, I haven’t even thought about a biscuit. You think he’d have bored with the performing monkey acts by now but it keeps him ticking over, so, whatevs.

I take some small comfort in knowing James is very particular about hygiene – he never handles the bottom of his trainers – but never thinks twice about putting my pads in his bare hand. And sometimes, Karen doesn’t wipe my feet after a walk. She can be a rascal.

There’s the whole thing about our noses I should clear up. Apparently my hooter has the potential to be a hundred-thousand times more sensitive than a human’s. This isn’t raw scent. It’s hard to make a direct comparison. It’s not like shifting from standard definition to Ultra HD. A lot of that scent gets converted into different perceptions. Sometimes it’ll be a feeling, a strong emotion, pure instinct. It’s an expansive sense but not overwhelming. Sure, if you gave me my human nose for an hour, then switched back, it’d be too much. But I don’t know any different now and this sense has served me well. I can literally smell your fear.

I may be using literally the way the kids do there – or am I?

But seriously, if you take a turd and try to hide it in Tupperware, I’ll be able to smell it. And if someone’s searching for a hidden treat, I’m in pole position for getting there first.

It’s why some dogs get careers. If you can smell out dead bodies or a stash of drugs, your days of looking forward to one walk a day are behind you. You get a uniform and join the fuzz. Little insider secret here: the dogs know they are searching for cadavers and crack. The humans believe they train the dog to think it’s all a game, that they’re looking for something to get a treat.

Yeah, okay. Think about it, you have a highly intelligent dog, you trick it into thinking it’s seeking out a favourite tennis ball. First day on the job, it finds a dead body. It would shit a brick, proper freak out. But they never do, they wag their tail and accept the treat so the human copper thinks the training worked.

Humans: weird and gullible. They’ll believe anything that makes them feel better, even if the evidence is so clear and obvious to the contrary.

The big people have rules that us pets have to follow. I hate using the term pets. Or anything that acknowledges ownership. It makes me feel like a slave, when for the most part, they treat me like family. I’m definitely more in the family clique than Uncle Cliff. We all think he’s an idiot. When I was still young enough to get away with it, I’d pee in his moccasins. The structure is a little like a pyramid Ponzi scheme. Karen’s at the top (no one’s told James yet), there’s a tier below her with a few people on it (her parents). Another below that which includes James and the kids. Then a wider bottom area where I sit with Uncle Cliff.

Uncles aside, they see me as a pet. There are key principles applied to my existence.

Rule 1: I am not allowed to share the sofa with a human. If there’s no one around, it’s fine. But if a big person arrives it’s an unspoken rule (sometimes reaffirmed with hissy words) I must get off the sofa. I shan’t be crass and draw a comparison to human history but if there’s one thing it shows us is how humans can’t help segregation.

Rule 2: There is a restriction on where and when I can groom my nether regions.

There was one time James and Uncle Cliff were enjoying a late night beer after a barbecue. I thought the ambiance – lads together – lent itself to a clean of the gooch. Cliff said, “I wish I could do that.”

James replied, “Give him some of your beer, he might let you.”

He didn’t give me any beer, and I would never let Uncle Cliff down there.

Rule 3: Being house-trained is the primary rule. It’s also a bit of a pisser. I list it here third because once it’s nailed on, the big people never directly mention it again. It is just heavily implied when they acknowledge late night whining. Now, I remember using the toilet but the logistics of getting up, not to mention how it’d start a massive debate, just turns me cold on the idea. Plus, if I can’t share a comfy sofa, I ain’t making toilet breaks easier for them. I take comfort in watching James bend over to collect my shit. It’s another reminder that humans are weird.

Being locked up without a bog can be painful. Picture a two hundred mile car journey without a toilet break. If you make it all the way without a stop, you get a million bucks. The catch is, you need to drink four litres of water beforehand. Yeah, good luck with that. I have to endure that most days. If it’s a night Karen and James are out drinking, it’s like ten litres of water.

I make sure the morning after such occasions my bark is especially cutting.

Rule 4: The feeding rule. I can only eat when directed. Sometimes James fills my bowl up and makes me sit and look at it. He can be a right tit. I remind myself it’s a pathetic control thing. An offshoot of the food rule is how I can’t use human plates or drink from their taps or cups. Which seems especially strange when you consider the vigour used when applying Rule 2.

Rule 5: I’m not allowed to bite anyone. Even Uncle Cliff. Breaking this rule is likely to result in the death penalty. Did you know 1964 was the last time capital punishment was used in the UK? The last time they put a dog down for biting a person was about the time it took you to read this sentence.

Rule 6: Anything they throw, I have to catch. Unless it is dropped food (see Rule 4).

No sofas. No licking balls. No eating until told. Long sleep for trigger-happy teeth.

But aside from all that, it is a dog’s life.

I get an easy ride, unlike James. He came home late last night and you didn’t need a super-sensitive nose to smell the trouble he was in or the guilt he’d tried to drink away. Karen really let rip. She’s quite good at shouting. Even the kids got emotional and shouted some abuse. I let off a few barks, feeling that everyone in the family should get their two pennies’ worth in.

James spent last night on the sofa. Doesn’t feel so special now, does it, James?

I even drank from his cup of tea when he was sleeping. He’s got to be careful, it’s a quick descent from his current position. He only eats when Karen says he’s free to use the kitchen. I reckon he’s a few days from being made to poop in the garden. He’s practically on all fours begging Karen every day.

Karen’s officially declared James is in the Doghouse which must be a metaphorical place because I’ve never been given the keys to my own pad. It must have something to do with Rule 7: Act as a guard when big people are in bed, because he’s barely sleeping on that sofa.

He’s not barking at cats yet, so there’s a chance his stay in the Doghouse will be short-lived. Some people just aren’t cut out for the dog’s life.

Writing Sprint Short Story: Patient

Writing Sprint Short Story: Patient

Following this week’s prompts for the Aside from Writing Writing Sprint which were:

Sequestered
Pool
Lemon
Ablaze
Trot

The story below is what appeared after sticking to the two-hour time limit.

If you decide to have a go, put your story or a link to it in the comments here or on Aside from Writing.

A little warning before you start reading, it does depict drug use.

Patient

Aoife watches Donny wave the lighter below the scorched spoon.

He moves like a magician performing a trick. It will make things disappear: pain, isolation, emptiness, the other people in the room. There will be no great applause or the chance to take a bow. Aoife is the able assistant. She once would have considered herself an attractive sidekick. Now, she’s not so sure. It’s been a while since she contemplated her appearance. It fell from her mind when this daily ritual became ever more pressing.

Donny fills the syringe and taps it, mimicking a doctor now. Aoife used to be a nurse until she started self-medicating. She never had a problem using needles on patients like some colleagues, now using needles is a real issue. The concoction just created is offered to Aoife, she shakes her head. The need is already gnawing away at her but there is some clarity beneath the murkiness of her usual thoughts.

If she takes this now, another day will drift. This cannot continue. Her thoughts are still as dim as the living room they’re festering in, but like the bit of sunlight that slides in over the top of the pulled curtains, there is the chance for something fresh to emerge. Today hasn’t appeared any different but it has already changed Aoife.

Donny slides the brown liquid into his veins and slips against the sofa, legs stretching across the floor. His heels kick up the rug, revealing fluff and debris. She can’t remember the last time they vacuumed. It never seems important.

She removes the syringe and places it on the fireplace. It is a gas fire they never use. The bills are starting to go unpaid and Aoife has a paranoia they will leave the gas running one night without lighting the flame. The thought of gas poisoning is more of a danger than an overdose. She offers the room a perverse smile at this thought. It isn’t logical, she can see this much.

Simon grunts. He is on the sofa behind her. She doesn’t want to look at The Trot. It is the nickname Donny has given his friend after he revealed his extreme left-wing views. Simon speaks of the virtues of communism too. When he is wired, his long rambling speeches about the evil of capitalism and the death of humanity as people become more insular can be quite touching. They make sense to Aoife.

People need to be more caring. It is with guilt she no longer tends to the sick. But she is sick, she knows this. She also knows The Trot is full of clever soundbites which act as cover for devious, immoral actions. It is Simon who continues to feed Donny’s habit, pulling her along at the same time. They don’t have the money to fund such a hunger but Simon knows this – is happy about this. He wants payment that makes Aoife feel dirty twice over. She always feels grimy when that syringe drains inside her arm, or between her toes, in her thighs.

When The Trot touches those places, and anywhere else that takes his fancy, he always leaves something worse than heroin inside Aoife. It never works its way out of her system. The shame, the feeling of being used, lingers heavier than the need. The drugs dull this sense into nothing but in these moments of clarity, she forces herself to grip onto the pain. If she loses this, she will be truly lost.

Donny has sequestered her hopes and dreams, the drugs set them ablaze. Whatever they were, there is no salvaging them from the ashes of her life.

She walks from the living room. She can’t help looking down at Simon on her way to the door. His chin rests on his collarbone. He looks innocent sleeping like this. A flash of guilt comes to be reacquainted with her emerging, swirling emotions. Simon may be selfish but this is a room of selfish people. She has never said no to Simon, or given any hint she’d like to deny his advances.

In the kitchen, she props herself against the sink. Thinking of Simon – of Donny – is making her headache worse. She cannot afford to add confusion to the growing restlessness.

It is too bright in here. They’ve never fitted blinds to the window. The backyard is unforgiving concrete, bouncing the sunlight back into the house. A dog barks a few houses over. A ball is bouncing in the alleyway. There is a sense of peace more akin to a detonator counting down than suburban bliss.

She turns on the cold tap, running her hand through the water in a way that reminds her of Donny and the lighter. The temperature goes from lukewarm to something colder. She picks up a glass from the draining board. Aoife rinses it a few times. It fills, it empties. She waits.

Her hands ease the tap shut. The final trickles of water overflow from the glass. It sits in the sink waiting for her attention. She takes a tentative sip. As she gulps, her ears exaggerate the noise. It drowns out the dog barking and the bouncing ball. It cannot silence the call from the living room. Simon and Donny remain motionless, lost in worlds where problems no longer exist.

The call is from the fireplace: the syringe.

She tips her head back until she’s admiring the cracks in the ceiling. Lowering her eyes back to the window, the shelf catches her attention. When she first moved here, it was full of spices and sauces. Aoife used to enjoy cooking on days away from the hospital. Now it has an empty bottle of extra virgin oil, some vinegar, and the box of lemon tree seeds.

The box has become an in-joke, left on display out of defiance. Her grandfather had raised Aoife and her two brothers when her mother ran out on them. She’d been a young mother – only sixteen when Aoife came along and she was the youngest sibling – and it reached a point where she wanted a second stab at life.

Aoife’s grandfather raised them with a strictness he must have lacked with his own daughter. Aoife and her brothers paid the price for their mother’s failures. The lemon tree seeds were all her grandfather left in his will to Aoife. It was some kind of sick joke. Of all the children, she had been the most caring to the old man. Her mother received nothing, her brothers shared the house and the money.

Aoife got the lemon tree seeds.

She reaches to the shelf and ceremoniously opens the box. The seeds are sealed in separate bags. She thumbs the accompanying note before taking it out. The posthumous advice has always been a riddle:

Tend to them every day. One day at a time, until they bear fruit. If you do this, you’ll have all you need.

On the back of the card is a series of numbers. She’d considered the chance they were lotto numbers but there was no combination that worked. Perhaps they were coordinates or ratios of water to fertiliser? Or just another pointless riddle.

Aoife had looked into growing the seeds but read that it can take up to fifteen years before one bears fruit. She lacked the patience for such a long wait. A potentially fruitless wait. At this moment, she can’t imagine a year from now, let alone fifteen. What surprises her is how the idea of fifteen years from now sounds appealing.

Everything may have been dulled but there is a desire to see more than the inside of this house. She wants to escape, to see more light in the tunnel than the gaps in curtains will allow.

Instead of placing the box back on the shelf, she holds it close to her chest and leaves the kitchen. She walks back into the living room. Donny is in a pool of his own vomit. She doesn’t panic; this happens on a regular basis now. It’s the main reason she staggers their shooting up times. He is becoming greedier, needing more. Her hands delicately move his head into the recovery position, opening the airway.

She strokes his hair in a way that means farewell.

In the hallway, she grabs Donny’s thickest jacket and tucks the lemon seed box into a rucksack. She doesn’t waste time going upstairs for more clothes or a toothbrush. If she doesn’t do this now, she may never consider it again.

Aoife opens the front door and light pours into the hallway. She steps into it, thinking about fifteen years from now. Thinking of lemons. Realising her grandfather was right all along.

The Modern Nativity

The Modern Nativity

With no editing and little proofreading, here is a quick short story I threw together with the time of year in mind. All those that have participated in competitions know the panic of having days to compile a story with preordained prompts to a strict word count. Here, the prompts were the nativity, the setting was the modern day. You are the first Beta readers to see it.

If you are religious, please don’t be offended (although that is your right, should you wish), I’m not knocking religion nor bashing the Bible. I have unwavering belief in the Christian faith, from the nativity to the resurrection.

But I’m also aware religion, in all its forms, is now more a product of man than a greater universal force. Most of the Bible is metaphor or man’s interpretation, sometimes of a myth rather than personal experience. But it doesn’t mean the essence of God isn’t in there.

I’ve attempted to place one of the single most significant events from human history in a contemporary setting. It was done with a tongue in one cheek and a worrying eye on social disparities that are widening in this quickly altering world.

The Modern Nativity

Joseph supported Mary at her elbow as she negotiated the steps from the tram platform to the street below. They had been made to leave at Prestwich rather than their intended destination of Bury. The ticket inspectors couldn’t take pity on them, even with Mary in the latter stages of pregnancy, any more than they could ignore the dozens of other illegal travellers. At least they didn’t ask for their details; they couldn’t afford two tickets, let alone a large fine.

All public services were braced for a large influx of due to the government of the day declaring people had to return to their towns of birth and register for new benefits. Food banks were running low across the region and starting the following week, a person could only receive help from their birth council. For Joseph, this was Bury and had meant a long journey from Stockport.

A woman who enjoyed power miles away in London was draining the last ounce of resources from the most vulnerable in the north. The unnecessary travel was an expense many couldn’t afford. What she promised to build in services would come after the collapse of the needy. Some realised their own journeys were futile wanderings into regions were the food banks had already closed.

“What are we going to do, Joe?” Mary asked.

“There’s a Travelodge about half a mile away, we’ll head to that,” Joseph said, looking distracted.

“And then what? We don’t have enough money to stay in a Travelodge. We can’t even afford a bus.”

“There’s a Pret a Manger next door,” Joe said, “we’ll ask for tap water and see if anyone is driving to Bury.”

“What makes you think they’ll let us just sit there without buying anything?” Mary asked.

“Have a little faith, Mare,” Joe said, using the nickname he knew she hated. “If I can believe you’re pregnant without having sex, you can entertain the idea we might be okay heading to the Travelodge for a free cup of water.”

She replied with a sad smile. The baby wasn’t due for weeks but it suddenly felt heavy, as if reminding her they needed a place to stay.

“We’ll be okay,” Joseph said, brushing her dark hair away from eyes he could see were filling up with tears. “We’re not the only ones struggling at the moment.”

“I know,” Mary said.

They both knew. They also knew it would mean all spare rooms would be taken by those with a little bit of wealth left and she was in no condition to be sleeping rough. With dejected spirits, the young couple made their way to the Travelodge.

*           *           *

Jessie and Joel Shepherd were unlike most teenage siblings. Firstly, they were twins, a rare occurrence that accounts for three percent of births. Secondly, despite being seventeen-years-old, an age many expected them to find separate social groups and friends, they were as tight as ever.

The Shepherd twins kept their close bond by sharing mutual interests. To outsiders, it was always unclear if these interests were borne from compromise. Was Jessie really that into football or was it a way to drag Joel to pop concerts that a lad his age should detest? For every hour of Manchester City she watched with Joel, he spent four soaking up reality TV shows.

This naturally spawned another mutual pastime: social media.

Each show had multiple hashtags, these were like challenges to the Shepherds. To get on a trending hashtag, get a few retweets, was gold. They had a shared Twitter profile (naturally) and an Instagram feed. These now expanded beyond Big Brother, I’m a Celeb, The X Factor, Ex on the Beach, and a whole host of others. Hashtags were good for real life, too. Tonight was proving to be an eventful one.

Social discord proved more entertaining than the telly but the Shepherds were kind souls. They took little pleasure in the images they saw but found them gripping nonetheless. Fights had broken out in Manchester city centre, a few miles from where they lived. There was a general impression that people were being treated heavy handed.

Overcrowding, under policed, surprisingly unexpected: trouble was brewing.

Jessie was more taken by the human stories within these pictures. Men throwing bottles was a senseless act of frustration. But hidden beneath the headline grabber were the real stories.

The tag that was starting to do the rounds was: #TreatedLikeAnimals. One from a Metrolink stop in Prestwich showed a group herded off a tram. Apparently, none of them able to afford tickets.

The comments and replies were drawing parallels to Nazi Germany, to the irony of people without money being made to travel to get some but lacking the funds to do so.

Jessie noticed one person in the crowd that shone to her. A pregnant dark-haired woman clutching her belly protectively. She had a shawl over her head, no doubt a vain attempt to protect from the harsh cold, but it didn’t hide her pretty features or the fear spread across them.

#TreatedLikeAnimals

It hung there in Jessie’s mind. This was wrong. A woman in need would be out on the street tonight.

“Look at this, Joel,” Jessie said to her brother.

“I know, mad innit,” he said.

“No, not the crowd, this,” she tapped on the screen. “That poor pregnant lady.”

“It’s terrible, Jess,” he said. “But what can we do?”

“Make sure she’s okay,” Jessie replied.

“How can we do that?”

“Get this trending first,” she said. “Someone will see it and be near that station. Google Maps the nearest hotels and guest houses.”

“I’m on it,” Joel said.

The Shepherds started their hunt for the woman in need.

*           *           *

Maurice, Casper and Baz were known as the Three Wise Guys. It came from a playful but meaningful connection to mobsters. On film, it was term for Mafia members. These Wise Guys weren’t in any crew but they dabbled in affairs concerning local gangs when required.

They were all highly educated individuals that could have been at the head of big business. That hadn’t been their preferred choice. Using their combined intellect, they predicted the safest place to store money would be out of the system. To do this, they needed cooperation from the local crime lords.

The biggest of those was the self-proclaimed “King Harry.” He was a paranoid man that spent more of his time sniffing up his profits than actively enforcing his rule on the streets. The Three Wise Guys couldn’t stand Harry but they had to humour him, for now.

A large portion of their business was monitoring the movements of the rich and famous. Stars brought two things: money and demands. The Three Wise Guys happily took their share of the former and were happy to meet the latter. The problem was providing too much assistance on Harry’s turf. The King didn’t make money by allowing external product to be shifted in his yard.

Maurice, the heavyset Wise Guy but with a gentle nature, had been watching the movements of rich and famous in recent weeks for any patterns that would indicate some would return to their local councils during these testing times. It’s not that he expected them to need the facility of new benefits and food banks but it was good PR to be seen mixing with the masses.

Weeks of labouring over GPS charts and tabloid media revealed a likely arrival in the Northern town of Prestwich. It was sandwiched between Bury and Manchester, a mix of religions and wealth.

“Casper, get Baz,” Maurice said. “We need to see Harry in the next hour and get on our way.”

“Why? Why the sudden rush?” Casper asked.

“The biggest star this area has ever seen is hours away from arriving in Prestwich—” Maurice started to explain.

“Yeah, and we normally give it a while and play it cool,” Casper said.

“If you let me finish,” Maurice said. “We won’t have the luxury of a slow introduction. Social media is trending about Prestwich.”

“What? How could people know about a superstar’s arrival? It took you weeks of digging.”

“It’s not the star they are trending about,” Maurice said. “There’s an overflow of people there and a pregnant woman is getting a lot of sympathy.”

“People are going to be filling that place up long before our star gets there,” Baz said from the corner of the room. “Let’s get rolling.”

*           *           *

The man at the Travelodge reception desk tapped his pen in annoyance. “I’ve told you,” he said with a glare, “no rooms are available now.”

“We just need something,” Joseph pleaded. “A place to sit down, get warm again.”

“Joe,” Mary whispered. “Joe, it’s happening.”

“What is?” he asked.

“The baby,” she replied, her eyes widening to confirm the point.

“When? How?”

“My waters broke when I went to the toilet.”

Joseph was dumbfounded, while he’d been out here arguing in the lobby, his beloved was experiencing the onset of labour.

“Look, mate,” Joseph pleaded to the receptionist, “she’s having a baby, right now! I don’t think you want that to happen at the front desk.”

“Seriously,” the man said with equal enthusiasm, “if I had a spare bed, she’d be on it. I don’t care that you can’t afford it. But I don’t. There’s no room here. I’ve got entire families in twin rooms already.”

“There must be somewhere she can lie down.”

“Just the utility room,” the receptionist said. “It’s where we keep the ironing boards and stuff like that.”

“That’ll do,” Joseph said.

They hurried to the small thin room, Mary was placed on a mattress that had been discarded because of a series of unnerving stains. Old CRT televisions acted as a headboard, burnt ironing boards framed the walls.

“You’ll have to leave the door open,” the receptionist said.

“What?” Joseph said dismayed.

“For some reason the alarms go off if it’s closed for too long,” the receptionist said apologetically.

“I’m going to need an ambulance,” Joseph said.

“That’s a joke, right?”

“No, I don’t have a clue how to assist in a birth.”

“Sir, there aren’t enough ambulances to cover this area.”

“Surely this is an emergency.”

“I’ll try but, well, they haven’t come out for people on death’s door lately.”

“Oh, please, God,” Joseph said.

“I’ll ring around the rooms for a nurse or doctor,” the receptionist said. “You never know, right?”

“Thanks,” Joseph said. “And ask in the café next door, the Pret a Manger.”

“Will do.”

A small crowd gathered at the door. They all enquired how she was doing, some took pictures of the pregnant lady expected to give birth in a utility room. With the door open, the pictures on social media started to trend with #BornInABarn attached.

 *           *           *

King Harry saw this and also noticed the expectant father in the picture. He was Joseph from a rival family. They had a good heritage but had fallen on hard times. This sort of attention could be bad for Harry. He wanted to brush the problem under the carpet.

A solution appeared, as if his wishes were being heard, in the form of the Three Wise Guys.

“So, let me get this straight,” Harry said. “You want permission to visit the area of Prestwich, a particular Travelodge, and service the delights of the aforementioned superstar?”

“Yeah, Harry,” Baz said, he was the best for negotiating with tough customers. His abrasive style and street look was a language they all understood.

“You may go there and keep the star in good spirits,” Harry said with a smile that revealed gold teeth. “Take some of my product and return with a contribution of your profits.”

“Yeah, standard innit, Harry,” Baz said.

“And one other thing,” Harry said.

All three Wise Guys visibly tensed.

“What, Harry?”

“It’s caught my eye that a large crowd is already there, have you seen this?”

“No,” Maurice said, his voice wavering with the lie.

“Okay,” Harry smiled. “Well, there is. And in particular, a young woman is in the motherly way but she won’t be for long, if you catch my meaning.”

“She’s about to drop,” Baz said.

“Oh, so you have seen?”

“No, we haven’t,” Casper said.

“Anyway,” Harry continued. “I would like you to give the new parents a gift from me. The young man, Joseph, will know what to do with it.”

 *           *           *

In the final seconds of labour, before her Baby entered the world, Mary thought of her cousin Elizabeth. She had held her hand tightly when her baby, John, had appeared. Now a few months later she was in the same position, with Joseph, against all the odds, holding hers. Understanding Joseph. A kind man, fit to raise her little King.

“Almost there,” said the former midwife. The social media activity had alerted her to Mary’s predicament. Her thirty years of experience couldn’t have prepared her for what she found in the cramped broom cupboard. She wouldn’t refer to it as the “utility room” as it lacked both parts of the name.

“One more push, Mary,” the midwife said in her Irish accent. “Almost there.”

A flash of lights from the cameras of the paparazzi filled the area as a world-famous, much sought-after star entered the Travelodge lobby. The clicks were met with a chorus of wails from the fresh set of lungs in the utility room.

Mary cried with relief.

#MiracleBaby

 *           *           *

The Shepherds arrived at Pret a Manger and politely asked Joseph if they could see the baby.

“Let them in,” Mary said. “He is a special baby, we shouldn’t deny the world.”

“Thank you,” Jessie said, already getting her phone ready for the Instagram snaps.

“How did you find us?” Mary asked. “We’ve only been in here a few minutes.”

“Hashtag, Away in a Manger,” Joel said. “Started out longer, Pret a Manger, but you know, one-hundred-and-forty-word count. Something had to go.”

Mary smiled, at their warmth and how they both had lots of white curly hair. Brother and sister, she thought, probably twins.

“He’s known as the Miracle Baby online,” Jessie said.

“He is,” Mary said and nodded to Joseph. “He really is.”

“May we enter too,” a man’s voice asked from behind the Shepherds. It was Maurice of the Three Wise Guys.

“Who are you?” Joseph asked with an air of distrust.

“We mean you no harm,” Casper said.

“We are well travelled to see you,” Maurice said. “We bring gifts for the Miracle Baby.”

“And a warning, innit,” Baz said.

“A warning?” Joseph asked.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Maurice said. “You are aware of the man that runs these streets? King Harry.”

“Yes,” Joseph said.

“He sends this gift,” Maurice said as Casper laid out a brown brick-shaped block wrapped in Clingfilm.

“Is that what I think it is?” Joseph asked.

“Yeah, an H-bomb,” Baz said. “Some pure horse. Street value, five-K.”

“And a trap,” Maurice said. “We believe he intends to let the services know you have it so you lose the baby, have it taken into care. We are supposed to report back to him but we are cancelling our plans here and returning down south.”

“Why would you risk that for us?” Joseph asked.

“We want the best for the baby,” Maurice said. “As such, take our gifts. Credit cards that will keep you in money for the foreseeable future, clothes for the baby and some more money in the way of gold.”

“Thank you,” Mary said.

“Have you named the baby?” Jessie asked.

“Yes,” Mary smiled. “Tell them, Joe.”

“Well, any Man City fans here?” Joseph asked.

All five guests nodded.

“Then we’ve all had the messages from Gabriel so it seems fitting we call him Jesus.”

They all smiled in appreciation.

“Make sure you keep baby Jesus safe,” Maurice said. “Many will attempt to cause you harm.”

“Where should we go? For how long?” Joseph asked.

“Across the border to Wales perhaps? Or Scotland. And leave it for a number of decades,” Maurice said.

“Yeah, nobody needs to hear about this boy until he’s into his thirties,” Baz said.

#TrueKing