The East Side

There were some witches, on the East end of town. Only witches, mind. Nobody else lived there, because they simply weren’t allowed. Not that there was an outright statement saying so. It’s just that, somehow, there were never any houses for sale around there. Schools could be seen, but were never listed on national websites. Enquiries were made, but never replied to. Eventually people gave up, and realised that any regulars simply were not permitted on that side, and it was no use pursuing the matter.

If you walked down their streets, a distinct smell wafted into your nostrils.

The smell of burnt.. cake. Sharp, sweet, and slightly frustrating.

Their streets were spick and span. Neat as a pin. Not a blade of grass out of place. The flowers grew politely in their assigned beds and boxes and hanging baskets, and didn’t dare peep over the edges. The pavements were a neat, uniform colour, each tile placed evenly and with care. The cars were parked in order of colour, so a person standing at the very far end of one of the streets saw a rainbow of cars parked along the right hand side. Not the left, mind. That could get you killed.

When newcomers drove through town, they marvelled at the East side.

Be careful,’ the man who ran the newsagents would say, ‘thems the streets what those witches live on.’

Don’t go down the East end,’ mothers would caution their little ones on their way out to play, ‘that’s where the witches live.

Sometimes children would wander down to the East side. They would peep around hedges, which almost looked like they were paintings, drawn out to be mathematically correct in proportion. They would try, sometimes, to peer through windows. They never succeeded at seeing any of the goings on inside the quiet houses. A pitch blackness would greet their eager eyes.

A pitch blackness, I will assure you, which arose from some mysterious magical power, rather than a lack of electricity. The windows looked perfectly normal, and witches certainly don’t believe in blackout curtains, so only some kind of spell would allow nobody to see what went on in the drawing rooms of the witches.

Not many human children, however, got away with these nosy antics. Sometimes, if a witch became particularly irritated by bright eyes or the edge of a curious nose peeking around the corner, accompanied by the sound of terrified giggling and scuffling, a human child would rise to the sky with a look of wonder on his or her face, and be promptly and firmly set down right on the edge of the East side, next to the sign that read, in curly lettering,Welcome to the East Side of Pickletown. Please drive carefully. Do not pick any flowers or step on any lawns.’

Some of the children enjoyed being airlifted in such a fashion, and would conduct little expeditions with their other daring little friends into the East side, purposely poking their heads over hedges. They would scream with laughter whilst floating through the air, shouting that they were flying, and altogether feeling mighty smug and superior.

Then they would attempt to trawl back into the East side, for another ride.

They didn’t ever get one, however. They could never step beyond the sign. No matter how hard they tried to put their feet beyond the sign, they couldn’t It was as if some kind of invisible wall was blocking them. It was mighty frustrating for them, of course. They could plainly see the bit of pavement they couldn’t touch. Their brains were convinced they could walk there, because there was no visible obstruction. However they simply could not, so they attempted running at the wall at top speed (not a very wise idea, I assure you), only to be flung backward on to the pavement in a rather painful manner. That stopped them, alright. They would then give up and plod cheerfully back into their respective side, nattering on about who flew the highest and who was thrown back the hardest.

Not a bad day of earnest playing for the little ones, that’s for sure!

 

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Jasmine

I knew a girl once, at primary school, who told me one afternoon while we were having lunch that if I visited her one day, we could go to Japan for a day and visit her father.

She was insistent that you could do that, so easily.

‘Easy,’ she said. She was half Japanese, and her name was Jasmine.

‘I don’t think you can do that,’ I said, cautiously. ‘Don’t you think you would have to fly there on a plane? And it’s terribly far away.’

At that time, at the age of nine, Japan was far off and oriental to me. A land of mystery and romance. It was not mentioned in any of the books I devoured, which, at the time, were all 1940s-50s classics about Western children who dressed well and had adventures, and a charming Canadian girl with Titian red hair. Japan, to me, was unknown, therefore un-interesting.

‘Oh, but you can!’ she was nodding wildly, her mane of thick black glossy hair falling over her smooth caramel skin.

‘My father is from there. He always says I should go and see him for a day, and we can have so many adventures. And they put up red dragon flags everywhere and we can eat dumplings. And I can give you a red silk gown so you won’t feel out of place. Tell your mom, she will drop you off at my place and we will be back in no time.’

I half believed her, because she was so earnest. After all, why shouldn’t it be true? There was nothing to suggest its implausibility. And Jasmine was so adamant that she had done this several times. The idea appealed to me; I stared up at the copy of leaves above the school playground and dreamed I could go with her. How exciting. And her father sounded so child friendly and accommodating.

When I told my mother about it later, I heard my voice sound just as adamant as Jasmine’s; it was my dream just as much as hers now, and I would not let my mother dampen it for me by telling me it wasn’t real.

‘But you can go and visit her, of course. I shall certainly want to see her mother again.’

We never did go. I don’t know why. I heard on the grapevine, and by grapevine I mean the chatter of adults unaware of childish ears eavesdropping, that her parents were divorced and her father had deserted his children.

As an adult, that explained Jasmine’s sad eagerness to visit him in Japan for an afternoon.

But you know, I will never forget that magic in her black eyes, dancing and alive, truly believing in what she was saying. So strong I believed it too, and hoped so hard for her. We all need coping mechanisms.

 

The Summer of the Rooks

Can you ever tell when the Rooks come into town?

flock of rooks

They swarm in on the sunrise, that’s what. From far away they look like any old birds. A flock of geese, perhaps, flying home after a long winter away.
But rooks are more sinister than that. They squawk and caw along with the crows, in graveyards.
I heard they were carnivorous birds too. Which is especially morbid, when you think about it. What are these awful carnivorous birds doing loitering about graveyards? Lots of meat in graveyards, if you ask me.
The summer of the Rooks is different, though. Every four years there is a Summer of the Rooks. It occurs when all the Rooks from all over Urigal fly to the capital city of that land, and there is much merrymaking as the days grow longer, and the minstrels walk about in long beautiful gowns, their long tresses bleached golden by the sun, their voices trilling in sad beauty; the markets are groaning with produce, the people were at peace and rest. All is right with the world. Once every four years.
This year, of course, was no different. Twig was alive, as Twiggy as ever. His shock of white blond hair was positively silver that summer, the sun had been out so much. His cousin Delilah was as delightfully moody as ever, and as protective of her cousin Twig as she always was. His best friend George, the Pie-Boy, as the Phenomenal Girl liked to call him, was ever present. And yet there was a look in his eye which suggested that he possibly had a past which was finally catching up to him. His violet eyes no longer twinkled with merriment. He had started to talk about an Alex, a Lem, and a Tristan. He had started the twitchings one always knew were Home-sick Twitchings, and yet nobody acknowledged them because it was a Summer of the Rooks, and everybody was meant to be content.
Rooks by day, folks. Rooks by night. Why was the Summer of the Rooks always so splendid, when rooks themselves were such morbid birds?
Well, quite simply, the people of those lands believed them to be good omens. Omens of happy tidings, of lush fields and great yield, of fat cows that gave full, rich, creamy milk, of hens that laid half a dozen eggs a day; each, of snails that ignored lettuces, of worms that happily wriggled through soils, of fish that flashed silver in a river that was a sea of bounty, of days filled with warmth and laughter and food, of people who did not know hunger or sadness or irritability because they had all they could ever want in one season.
I wore a woolly hat, that summer.
Twig commented on it. He said, “Cor, Pegs, that’s a beautiful hat you have on”
George told me his sister Lem had the exact same hat. It was just a normal hat. Blue, with zig zag stripes, and patterns in white wool. It had a little pom bobble on top, and two strings hanging by my ears. I wore it everywhere. I wore it in the forest when I went looking for blackberries. I wore it in the strawberry fields, I wore it everywhere, I tell you, everywhere.
It was never cold on the Summer of the Rooks, so I really cannot say I had a solid reason for wearing my hat. Nobody asked me, however, so I didn’t say anything. Nobody stared at me, or told me I was a tad odd. They didn’t even think it, I don’t think. I don’t know why nobody questioned it. Not even Rob. I don’t know why Rob didn’t question it.
We were walking over the bridge, me and Rob. When this huge cloud rolled up, cracking like some huge angry beast had slammed a stone fist into it. Lightning tore a great rift in this black cloud, and Rob and I shrank back from the monstrous beauty of it all, as the thunder clapped around us, a deafening sound, reverberating around our skulls.
Then the rain began. Soft at first, then huge, like ten penny pieces, slamming on our heads and shoulders.
I looked at Rob, and he was smiling at me through the rain, his eyes were golden because he was Rob and he had golden eyes, and his eyelashes, which I have always admired because of their supreme length, had beads of water dangling on their pretty tips, and his hair hung over his face as rivulets slid down it, and he was smiling through the deluge, down at me, and he said,

“Your woolly hat is all wet”

And beyond him, I saw the rooks, crowing through the rain in mockery, not seeming in the least ruffled by the downpour.
rooks in rain

So what was it about Ocean Bream?

In the winter of 2010, I read a beautiful story called The Spellbook of Listen Taylor. It was enchanting. I say this now, although my memory of the plot and characters have severely diminished, because even after three years have passed, the magic and intrigue I felt whilst reading it still lingers in the wake of its memory.

So how does ocean bream relate to it, I hear you ask? Well, you see, it came as a frequent phrase in the book, one that caught me in it’s glittery snares and has not let me go since. One of the characters (I think it might have been a Cassie of some sort, now that I fling my memory back) was obsessed with the yearning for somebody to ask her the following question, “How is your ocean bream, my love?”

Now, given that she yearned for somebody (somebody decidedly of the male gender) to ask her such a thing, it was reasonable to expect that an ocean bream must have been something edible, because Cassie (I think) always said that her somebody would ask her this question at dinner.

I, however, chose to ignore the fact that it could be edible, because Ocean Bream is such a beautiful word, and gave way to a wide variety of surging possibilities, each pulsing with the excitable glow of blissful oblivion. So I put off looking the word up for as long as I could, even weeks after I had finished that fascinating, beautiful, delumptious book.

Finally I could bear it no longer, I prepared myself for disappointment, because throughout my literary life, I had found that nothing was quite as magical as writings made them seem. Cassie (or so I reckon) was always vague about what category of life ocean bream fit into, and all I knew was that it was something to be asked over dinner. So, I pushed my notebook aside (full of musings on the fascinating and elusive ocean bream; e.g. ‘How is your ocean bream, my love? Oh, it’s simply divine today, thank you. It’s got a strawberry trail behind it, amid gloops of shining somethings. The sunlight beams on it and it flits away leaving behind a euphoric glamour. My ocean bream is simply magical today. Or, ‘How is your ocean bream, my love?’ Not so vibrant today, actually. It’s a tad dim, but as blue as ever, shimmering with streaks of silver. Actually I think it’s yellow, sailing past my window, leaving behind a blue sky and sunshine! Why, the magic never fails, does it!’ Because, to me, ocean bream was magic in itself. The beautiful, haunting magic of fairies and pixies and delumptious godmothers who smelled of frosting and bread), switched on my computer and typed “Ocean Bream” into the search engine. Google, to be precise.

I used to think ocean bream was a magic that sailed by. I used to think it was the way sunlight dappled a mossy forest floor, or the way it twinkled between the nodding leaves of a woodland canopy, or the way it shimmered on an ocean bed, refracted and swirled by the ever moving surface of the water.

So when I discovered that it was just a fish, my mind started to work some magic of its own. And now, I reckon my favourite fish is the ocean bream. Not to eat, though. Never to eat. Ocean bream is too sacred for that.