Friday, 15 July 2016

Marsha and the Mage

I've been in desperate need of a new short story (as opposed to vignette) for a while. Today is a day off for me. I picked a card from my Oblique Strategies deck, "give way to your worst impulses," then went out for a walk. I've come back with a short story only it's not short. If it's finished it will involve using up a excerpts from other attempted novel AND I'm writing a proper full novel as well. Hmm. The picture is a word cloud of this story/chapter.

Sat down: she looked around. This was not what Marsha was used to, not your usual job. She could get used to it she thought. For starters it was good money. Two-fifty now, upfront and in cash 'the rest' on delivery. Very good.

At the door: "don't stand around like a lost girl, please come in, come in..." Marsha was happy enough to be patronised by a client for that amount, but she was a nice old lady, inviting Marsha into her home like that. Once inside, in the front room it was, "sit down, please, make yourself comfortable... Would you like a cup of tea?"

Marsha declined, she'd heard about these types, but the Woman persisted.

"Water...? Juice...?"

She was about to decline again but Marsha's professional instinct kicked in. "Actually, yes" she smiled, "a glass of water would be lovely, thank you." Humour her.

"Certainly" said the Woman, already padding off toward the doorway to what must have been the kitchen. Marsha sat down on a sofa, soft, large and very comfortable. Sitting down felt like being gathered up in a giant hand. Marsha was alone. She looked all around. Such a beautful house it was, a pleasant daydream of suburban comfort, spacious yet filled with so many wonderful things that she could barely describe; all the furniture, the decor, the extended mirror on the wall behind her, the full bookshelf in front of her, to the left a white sliding door that led to a dining room; inside, the carved table, the antique wooden globe; beyond that, the wide patio windows showing a garden, green and lush and, at the bottom, a tree, she didn't know what kind, but it was in full bloom. She did have the words after all. But what did these things mean to a bicycle courier? They meant arrival, they meant safety, they meant rest. She wondered. How did someone who lived like this end up as a radical?

"Here you go" said the Woman returning from the kitchen with a glass of water. She handed it to Marsha who said:

"Thank you, uh...?"

The Woman hovered over Marsha. She seemed puzzled for a moment then said: "Oh... you may call me Cynthia" and she started to sit down in a chair opposite.

"Thank you, Cynthia..." said Marsha, clutching the glass. "Is, uh, is that your real name?"

"Real enough, Dear" said Cynthia. She sat down slowly.

A moment's silence, then Marsha drank the water... with satisfaction, all in one go. She had been thirstier than she realised. "That's very kind of you" she said and started to get up again.

"Oh, no, no..." said Cynthia, leaping up, suddenly quite spry. "Not while you're my guest." She took the glass back and smiled. "Besides..." But she thought better of it and made once more for the kitchen.

"Besides what?" asked Marsha.

"Well" said Cynthia, stopping in the doorway. She turned to look at Marsha. "We'll get to 'besides' in a moment... I'll, uh, bring you the package."

The Old Woman was away a little longer this time. Marsha sat and she wondered what it was she'd be carrying. The description she'd been given was vague: "important package... small... not fragile but handle with care..." Vague but it was often the way with moonlighting, off-the-books stuff; you kept your head down, don't ask too many questions, just do the job. That was the idea. That was how you got on in the world, or in Marsha's case got by. Rules were meant to be broken, yes, until you got caught, but that didn't bear thinking about. Marsha needed the money. Keep your head down, no questions, do the job... that was the idea. But curiosity is an ineffable force. What could a well-to-do elderly lady possibly want shipped across London in secret?

"Here's your motivation..." Cynthia was standing over Marsha now, holding an A5 envelope in her left hand, unmarked. Marsha came to with a snap:


"That's OK" said Cynthia, now wearing a purple robe with golden symbols for some reason. Marsha ignored this, took the envelope from her gingerly, prised it open and peered inside. "It's all there" said Cynthia, smiling again. "You can count it if you like..." But Marsha just fanned the stack open for a second, then said:

"Thank you, um..." She put the money away. Before Marsha could ask though, Cynthia gave a theatrical, creaky but deft swish of the robe. There in her right hand was a small, sealed cardboard box:

"Your commission" she said, holding it out. "You are to take this to the Mage of Herne Hill."

"The what?" Martha blurted but Cynthia now looked serious. "Sorry, sorry, I, um..." Cynthia did not respond. "I'm sorry, the Mage of Herne Hill?"

"That's right" said Cynthia, still holding the box.

"OK" said Marsha. She had a rough idea who she was dealing with beforehand. No secrets can be complete secrets. But 'mage...' really? She took the box from the Old Woman's grip, again tentatively. "What's his..."

"Or hers..." said Cynthia smartly. She folded her arms.

"What's his or her..." Marsha stopped and shook her head. "Is he or she a he or a she...?" But Cynthia did not answer. There was an awkward silence before Marsha asked: "What's the address then, where am I taking it to?"

"Herne Hill" said Cynthia, almost severe. "More I cannot say."

"What, am I supposed to just..." Marsha shrugged, "go there and ask?"

"You can" said Cynthia, softening a little, "but ask the right people, and be discrete... I cannot move this myself. Too many people would know..."

"Know what?"

But Cynthia continued, "you are being offered a considerable reward for the difficulty involved and the risks..."

"What risks?"

Cynthia stepped forward and tapped the box. She lowered her voice. "Lots of people would like to get their hands on what's in this box."

The box felt largely empty to Marsha but, she thought, no matter.

Cynthia stepped back again, resuming her arms-folded pose. "You are talented and you are motivated. You will find a way, Ms McDuffus."

"How'd you know my name?" Marsha shifted in the sofa.

"Research, my dear." Cynthia tapped her forehead. "I know what I'm doing. You are the right woman for the job."

"And what is my motivation?" asked Marsha.

"What is your debt?" Marsha wasn't sure:

"I think it's twenty-five, thirty grand... something like that."

"Yes, that's your monetary debt. What about other kinds of debt?”

“I don't get... I don't get what you mean...?”

“Oh you do...” said Cynthia. “Remember, I've researched you. Yes... your debt... That's your motivation. You will get to the end. You will recognise the Mage. Do all this and you will be relieved of your debts... Do we have a deal?" Cynthia held out her hand, a little odd but Marsha stood poised to shake.

"We have a deal" she said, “but...”


“Show me, at least, show me how you could do that...”

“OK” said Cynthia. “That I can do” and she smiled once more.


Stepping outside the front door Marsha felt so light.

"I'll show you" the Old Woman had said, "yes, but not too much."

Too much? Too much relief, too much release, too much liberty, was there really such a thing? Oh, she'd shown Marsha alright, a vision, somehow. She'd shown her freedom, the end of modern peonage, no more working for the cash machine, the credit card or the Student Loans Company. And the other debts too... Yes, she could almost see the future in front of her, at the end of her journey. Now that was motivation.

Everything was light as she stepped outside. Yes, everything felt right. The Sun shone down a kind of fatherly smile, through dappled leaves that were dancing in the wind, the maternal caress of the breeze sauntering along the peaceful, suburban street. Marsha picked up her bike, from where she left it in the alcove, untethered, and wheeled it along the path to the garden gate.

"Not too much."

Too much? Marsha could have stayed like, feeling like this forever. Her bag, slung over her shoulder, held the prize, the box, the key to her future within her grasp. She put it away, safe. Too much? Marsha opened the gate, went through and shut it after her, checked for traffic, here was none, and got back in the saddle.

She felt it instantly. Back to work, back in the saddle. Now she knew what Cynthia had meant by 'too much.' Marsha looked back at the house. Cynthia was watching her from the living room. She smiled and waved once more and Marsha felt a pang. The perfect future was still future conditional. She would be free if she delivered the package, and she hadn't been given the clearest of instructions. But, yes, any more of the vision and it would have been practically addictive. She had wanted to stay like that forever. Now it was back to work, the blackmail of survival, back to work, pedalling her bike, gently to begin with. Marsha began to feel normal again back in the saddle.

As she rode alone she thought. It was one of the pleasures of cycling. The function of movement, self-propulsion was so basic it cleared her mind. She did not have to think about where to go or what to do. Marsha did not even really navigate by streets. Roads were roads. Instead her world was marked out by things, junctions, signs, railway arches, shops, offices, monuments, parks, venues, even crime scenes. They were all part of her instinctive map of the city. She crossed the junction at North Circular.

Marsha rode along, she thought and felt and she remembered. That feeling, the sense of possibility and openness that Cynthia showed her, somehow, she thought back and she realised that she hadn't felt anything like that since her college days. Of course that was the time when she discovered her two vocations, her desired future and her actual one. Oh my, it wasn't even ten years ago that she graduated. So much had changed since then it felt like an age... or an eon... one of the two... She passed Bounds Green, down the A109 she rode.

She had come to London as a student. Marsha studied English Literature. She wanted to be a writer and she still was, when she found the time to nurture her small flock of short stories, occasional poems and the novel, stalled about five thousand words in, spread out across two laptops and about half a dozen USB sticks. She gone for literature because she wanted to learn how to write. The course was actually about how to read. Yes, that was it, she had a degree in reading. Her parents, promised that they would put her through university, and they kept their promise, even after they... well... Marsha was never able to save enough for an MA in Creative Writing. She reached the junction at St Michael's.

Marsha loved riding from an early age. On her eighth birthday she had a mountain bike. At eighteen she got a racing bike, a present for getting her grades. She loved that bike, cared for it, took it to university and she still had it today. When she wasn't going out Marsha cycled almost everywhere at uni, before it became the hippest thing. It kept her fit, saved her money and cleared her mind. Now it was her living. Marsha stayed on in London after university, getting a job with a courier firm. The work suited her, especially back then, when there were fewer obligations, when the money was good. How times change, she thought, while free-wheeling down the hill toward Wood Green Tube.


Something shoved her, hard from the left, into the side of a stationary car. For a slow moment she could see right inside, shocked faces casting around.


No, not something, it was someone, a human blur, tearing at her. Despite the initial shock survival kicked in, literally. With an adrenalised roar Marsha threw that someone, the Human Blur off her, kicked it nimbly in the chest. It grunted. She got back on her bike and started pedalling. Still surging. Hop on the pavement! Fuck the lights! Get away!


What was that? Marsha glanced over her shoulder. There were yells and screams. The Human Blur was up and chasing after and:


Shooting at her. SHIT! PEDAL! She almost ploughed into a railing, not looking where she was going. GET AWAY! She scorched across the junction. Pedal! GET AWAY! Marsha kept peddling, hard as she could... There looked back then ahead. GET AWAY! The road was clear except. There was a figure in front of her in the... BANG!


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