Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Downward Slide - Sample.

Adventures By Moonlight by Stephen Walker, short story collection
The Downward Slide is in my short story collection Adventures By Moonlight. In it, a stranger arrives by night in a declining seaside town.

But is he saviour or destroyer?



THE DOWNWARD SLIDE
by Stephen Walker

Early morning, Heldersly Pier stands gaunt and outdated like the skeleton of some long-dead beast. Its back not yet broken, it reaches out to the sea as though trying to find brave new lands out there that can offer more hope than the old ones ever have.
At its very end, stands a helter skelter, tall and stark, silhouetted against a slate grey sky.
Near to that is Theodosius Cripps's Odditorium, a flat-roofed single story building that, no matter how long it might stand there, can never escape a sense of the temporary. Among other magical items on display in its windows, a giant tap seems to float in mid-air as water pours from it.
Louise Jones sits in a wooden kiosk directly by the doorway to the helter skelter. To pass the time between customers, she reads a paperback that closer attention reveals to be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As she reads, her teeth chew agitatedly on her thumbnail.
She glances across at the Odditorium, where its proprietor Theodosius Cripps stands in that window, showing the floating tap off to a small man who goes by the name of Tik Tok. As Tik Tok watches, Cripps turns the tap off to demonstrate that no concealed tube holds it aloft, and then turns it back on again.
Louise Jones lowers her sights and buries her attention once more in her book.
*
A Bentley stands in a night-time street, gleaming as though polished within an inch of its life, windows tinted to hide all signs of inhabitants.
One of its rear doors swings open and a man climbs out.
His name is Cotton Spawley. He's tall and wide, briefcase in hand and dressed for business.
Looking like a man for whom self-doubt is an abstract concept that need not concern him, he closes the door behind him then takes in his surroundings.
He looks up at the nearest building, a large pseudo-Gothic edifice of the type the Victorians loved to throw up a variation of in every town. A clock face occupies the higher reaches of its tower and a Union Jack flutters proudly from its summit.
He climbs the building's granite steps and enters through its huge, arched doorway.
*
'A planetarium,' says one. 'That's what we need.'
'And who's going to pay for that?' says another.
'The European Union will. I've heard a whisper that, in the next financial year, they'll be making funding available for just such projects.'
Five people are in a room. Four men and one woman. They're sat around a hefty walnut table.
'It's a stupid idea,' says the fifth of them. 'Who's going to visit a town for a planetarium?'
'I would,' says the first.
'Then there's something up with you.'
'What?' says the third. 'You've never looked up at the stars and wondered?'
'I've never looked up at the stars and wondered if they'd look better projected on a ceiling instead of being real, no.'
Thud! There's a noise from behind one of them.
Startled, they look round.
And see a man stood there.
It's Cotton Spawley. Standing only half in shadow, he says, 'Ah the Inner Cabinet of Heldersly town council. The five most powerful people in town discussing, I believe, its very future.'
'Who are you?' says one, 'And how did you get past Security?'
'Security?' Spawley says, 'Security is for those who are afraid. And you're not afraid, are you? No no no, be not afraid of Cotton Spawley, fine councillors, for I am here to make you an offer.'
'What offer?'
The side of his index finger eases aside a net curtain and the interloper gazes out at the seaside resort whose maze-like streets surround the building. His gaze casually passes over a moonlit pier with a helter skelter at its end. Elsewhere within his gaze is a funfair, a roller coaster ringing its entire perimeter. 'This town,' he says. 'I wish to buy its life from you.'
*
'I'm sorry?' says one of the Inner Cabinet.
Now at the table, Spawley plants his briefcase on it. He unclips its twin locks and yanks its lid open.
He turns the case towards them so they can better see its contents.
He says, 'In this case is five million pounds. Oh, don't worry, the money's genuine. Cotton Spawley does not defraud. I believe each of you is a businessman – the good lady excepted, of course.' And he tells her, 'My dear, I believe you run the local waxworks. What a thing that is. Has anyone ever yet managed to guess who that figure stood by the doorway is meant to be?' He tells them all. 'I assume that, as... … ...entrepreneurs, each of you appreciates the value of the British Pound. This money is available to be shared between the five of you. And all you have to do is sell me the life of this town.'
*
Early next morning, Heldersly Pier stands gaunt and outdated like the skeleton of some long-dead beast. Its back not yet broken, it reaches out to sea as though trying to find brave new lands that could offer more hope than the old ones ever have.
At its very end, stands a helter skelter, tall and stark, silhouetted against a grey sky.
Near to that stands Theodosius Cripps's Odditorium, a flat-roofed single story building that, no matter how long it might stand, can never escape a sense of the temporary. Among other magical items on display in its windows, a giant tap seems to float in mid-air as water pours from it.
Louise Jones sits in her wooden kiosk directly by the entrance to the helter skelter. To pass the time between customers, she reads a paperback that closer attention reveals to be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. She bites her nails as she reads, agitated by something that exists beyond the book.
She glances across at the Odditorium, where its proprietor Theodosius Cripps stands in that window, showing the floating tap off to a small man who goes by the name of Tik Tok. As Tik Tok watches, Cripps turns the tap off to demonstrate that no concealed tube holds it aloft, and then turns it back on again.
Louise Jones lowers her sights and buries her attention once more in her book.
A hand slaps some money down on the table.
She looks up, to see a man stood there.
He says, 'I bet I'm the oldest customer you've ever had on here, aren't I?'
She says, 'We once had a woman ride on it to celebrate her hundredth birthday. Are you over a hundred?'
'I'm glad to say that privilege still lies ahead of me.'
She tears a ticket from the roll beside her, hands him it and he enter the helter skelter.
Her thumb keeping the paperback open at the page she was reading, she watches the helter skelter.
And she waits.
Still she waits.
When the man doesn't emerge from the top of the ride, she checks her watch.
And she waits.
Still no sign of him emerging.
So, she picks up a marker pen, removes its lid, leans back in her seat and adds another mark to the tally on the kiosk's wooden wall beside her. The kiosk's walls are almost completely covered in such marks, every four marks sealed off with a diagonal slash to keep things tidy.
That done, she puts the lid back on the pen, drops it onto the table, re-finds her place in the paperback and, once more biting her thumbnail, continues reading from where she left off.
But now, she hears a commotion.
She looks up, and sees people being hustled out of Theodosius Cripps's Odditorium.
Once the baffled hustlees are out, they're followed by Cripps himself because it's he who was doing the hustling. Tik Tok is with him. Tik Tok is also hustling but seemingly more in imitation of his employer than out of genuine intent.
With the building cleared, Cripps shuts the Odditorium's glass front doors and locks them. A sign on the doors says Closed for good.
Curiosity piqued, Louise Jones gets up and goes across to join him.
When she gets there, Cripps is pulling down the shutters.
'Mr Cripps,' she says, 'What're you doing?'
'I would have thought that was obvious. I am closing for business.'
'But why? Only yesterday you were telling me about all the money you were making.'
'And so I am. Like the deadly cobra, the power of mystery will always hold a magnetic attraction for the masses. It's not I that is the problem.'
'Then what is?'
'Last night a man arrived in town.'
'Lots of men do.'
'Miss Jones, what is this structure?'
'An odditorium.'
'And in what does it specialise?'
'Things that're odd.'
'The giant, gravity-defying tap, the shrunken heads. Those who are too tall. Those who are too short. The wide. The thin. The shapeless. That of which there is too much. That of which there is too little. This place provides a final resting place for them all, collecting whatever oddities and strangenesses the world may be willing to sell to it. Among the things collected are myths, legends, rumours. Oh, you won't know about those. Those are hidden away in a secret room, at the back, locked, that only I can access. Now, among those myths, legends and rumours is the tale of a man called Cotton Spawley. Rumour has it he travels the world buying people's lives from them. Where he came from, no one knows. What he does with those lives, no one knows. How he came about the wealth that allows him his pastime, no one knows. What is known, from whisper and insinuation, is that, last night, a car pulled up outside the town hall steps. Those few souls who paid heed say that, behind its wheel, no driver could be seen. While a man who sounded exactly like Spawley climbed from the rear of it and, case in hand, entered the building. Cotton Spawley only lives for one thing. And there's only one thing the council could have that they could offer him.'
'Which is what?'
'The life of this town.'

You can download the rest of The Downward Slide and Adventures By Moonlight from:

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