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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (cicatrix sanguinis)

The Toby That Had No Jug

Early one morning Jake the Dog and I set out for our habitual amble around the district. Somewhat to our surprise, we found that there was water all over our driveway. Closer investigation showed that it was bubbling up through the council toby which appeared to have sprung a serious leak overnight. Jake, who is genetically programmed to investigate each and every puddle of water that he comes across, lowered his head and drank deep draughts of it. He rolled the water around his tongue with the air of a connoisseur, swallowed it and then delivered his verdict. "It has an earthy, sandy taste," he said, "with overtones of chlorine and a delicious after taste of E. Coli. It's authentic council water and it's really quite yummy."

It was far too early in the day to report the broken toby to the council so we decided to finish our walk before doing anything about the leak. When we got home, a couple of hours later, I rang the council...

"City council," said a voice. "You are speaking with Samantha. How may I help you?"

"My council toby has sprung a leak," I said.

"Oh, that's a shame," said Samantha, "I'll get someone from Water Care on to it right away. Now just let me confirm your details. Am I talking to Alan?"

"You are," I said, vastly impressed since I hadn't yet told her my name.

"And you are reporting a leak in the toby that controls the water supply to your house at..." she quoted my address.

"That's correct," I said, even more impressed, because I hadn't given her my address either. Clearly she had picked up my phone number from her caller ID and used it as a key to find my name and address in the council database. "That's a brilliant bit of information retrieval," I said. "Aren't computers wonderful?"

"Oh we don't use computers here," said Samantha airily. "We do it all by magic!"

"Even better," I said.

There are times when people accuse me of making up the dialogue and events in my stories just for comedic effect. So let me put that foul rumour to rest once and for all. My conversation with Samantha has been reported verbatim. I have not made anything up and I haven't exaggerated a single solitary thing. She really did tell me that she got all my information through the use of magic. And naturally I believed her! I was certain that she was doing nose wiggles. I could feel the vibrations...

"Right," said Samantha briskly, "I've put the job on the list for Water Care, but they are rather busy at the moment, so it might be two or three weeks before they get a round tuit. Just be patient."

We said our goodbyes and Jake and I settled down to wait.

Over the next couple of weeks many thousands of litres of water flowed out of the broken toby carrying topsoil and sand from my lawn onto the driveway and down into my neighbour's front yard where it eventually clogged the drain and started to form a small lake. A family of ducks came and made their home in its shallows and paddled happily in it. A grey heron stalked tetchily around looking like a bad tempered Victorian accountant in pursuit of a lost farthing. Eels slithered through the slimy depths lying in wait for tasty, tender ducklings. Jake drank as much of the water as he could on our daily walks, but he was no match at all for the toby which continued to pour out water as if its life depended on it. So much water flowed out at such high pressure that it even pushed the plastic top off the toby cover and floated it away. I found that very impressive because the toby cover was a very tight fit, and I'd been completely unable to lever it off when I first tried to investigate the leak.

I rang the council several times to tell them that the situation was getting worse and to complain about the huge waste of water. Unfortunately I never got the delightful Samantha again. I always got boringly mundane people who were using computers rather than magic and in every case I had to tell them my name and address explicitly. My admiration for Samantha's magical nose wiggling increased tenfold.

One and all, the council people told me that Water Care was very busy and they'd get to my leaking toby as soon as they could. I would just have to be patient...

Three weeks after I first reported the leak an alarmingly lopsided van splashed itself into my driveway. An enormous spherical man clambered out of it. The van heaved a huge sigh of relief and assumed a more even keel. The spherical man flexed his battleship biceps and strode over to examine the toby.

"That's some big leak you got there," he said to me. "You really should have told us just how bad it was. We'd have been here a lot sooner if we'd known." I didn't bother to enlighten him. By now it was all water under the toby.

A loch ness monster poked its head up from the sullen depths and examined the spherical man carefully. Clearly it didn't like what it saw because it submerged again quickly. The spherical man hauled a cell phone out of his pocket and had a long conversation with somebody back at the office. Then he climbed back into his van and sat there waiting. The van sagged in the sunshine.

About half an hour later a flat bed truck with a huge tank on the back of it turned up. The spherical man and the driver of the truck set a pump going and sucked all the water up into the tank. The ducks and the heron flew away, the eels slithered down the drain and the loch ness monster howled pathetically as it got sucked into the tank.  "Don't worry," said the spherical man, "we'll see that it goes to a good home. I'll take it to Lake Taupo with me over the weekend."

The toby kept trying to fight them, but the pump was stronger and the toby proved unequal to the task. Once it sullenly accepted that no matter how much water it spat out the pump would simply suck it up,  it gave up trying and just sat and sulked in its hole. The spherical man enlarged the hole so as to make it easier for him to get at the broken toby. He quickly disassembled it and started bending brass pipes into shape with his bare hands. Soon the toby was as dry as a bone. The spherical man put a new toby cover by the hole and carefully positioned two witches hat cones by the side of it to stop people falling into the hole. "There you are," he said, rubbing his hands. "All fixed. There'll be someone coming round next week to fix the new cover in place and fill the hole in. We don't do that – it's a different department."

Of course it was. Everyone knows that the men who dig holes are quite different men from the men who fill them in again.

One morning, almost exactly a week later, Jake and I went on our customary morning walk. As we left the house we each saluted the witches hats in our own particular way. An hour or so later we got back from our walk and we discovered that in our absence we'd been visited by the hole fairies. The witches hats had gone. The new toby cover was in place and the hole was filled in. The nice fairies had even scattered grass seed over the new topsoil and every bird for miles around had come to stuff their faces with free food. The sound of their squabbling filled the street.

The new novel from Mira Grant (who is Seanan McGuire in a skin) is utterly superb. It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It is called Into the Drowning Deep and it is a kind of a sequel to her 2015 novella Rolling in the Deep. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the novella is best considered as a prologue to the novel. It is not necessary to read the novella first – all the salient details are presented quite painlessly as background material in the novel itself – but if you do read it first, it definitely adds a little to the atmosphere of the novel.

Anyway, let's start with the prologue novella.

A TV network has hired the cruise ship Atargatis to travel to the Mariana Trench and film a pseudo-documentary about mermaids. They expect to get back vague footage and ambiguous eyewitness reports which they can turn into a ratings spectacular about the imaginary creatures. The last thing they expected was what they actually got – real mermaids that came up from the depths of the sea and attacked the Atargatis. The ship was found weeks later, deserted and drifting. The surviving footage left behind on the ship told a disturbing story of mayhem and carnage. Whatever they are, mermaids are definitely not the sexy sirens of legend. They are vicious carnivores.

Because the cruise was commissioned by a TV network, conspiracy theorists are convinced that the whole thing has to be a hoax. But the evidence supporting the existence of the mermaids does remain very convincing...

There are no spoilers in this plot summary. Right from the very beginning of the story, we know that the Atargatis was found drifting and deserted and that none of the passengers or crew survived. The genius of the story comes not from the punchline, but from the gradual fleshing out of the details about the mermaids and the inexorable approach of the tragedy that concludes the story. The novella by itself is a tour de force. But remember, it's only the prologue to something even better...

Into the Drowning Deep is set seven years later. A scientific expedition sets sail to find out once and for all exactly what happened to the Atargatis and to put the study of mermaids on to a firm scientific footing. Naturally enough the mermaids attack again, though they don't have everything their own way this time.

The novel is a fascinating examination of the biological basis of mermaid life which is, of course, meat and drink to the hard SF fanatics among us. It is also a cleverly constructed story about real people coping with real difficulties for those of us who like our novels to be more than one dimensional. Mira Grant has an absolute genius for constructing believable characters who are so easy to identify with that you feel genuine pangs of grief when they come to their inevitable sticky end! The combination of scientific speculation and nail-biting tension makes this a perfect SF novel. It pushes all the right buttons in all the right ways, and if it doesn't win every award going, there ain't no justice in the world!

Strange Weather is a collection of four short novels by Joe Hill. A strangely tattooed man has a polaroid camera that erases the memories of the people he photographs, snapshot by snapshot. A security guard in a shopping mall stops a mass shooting and becomes a temporary hero until his story unravels and exposes a dark secret. A young man parachuting from a plane lands on a strangely solid cloud. A strange rain falls from the sky and shreds the skin of anyone who doesn't take cover.

The stories are all intelligent and disturbing and very well written. Trust me, you'll definitely get your money's worth from this book. But it's the second story, the one about the security guard and the mass shooting, that will probably give you nightmares. The story is called Loaded and in an Afterword to the collection, Joe Hill has this to say about it:

Loaded is the oldest story in the book, although I only got around to writing it in the fall of 2016. I've had that one in my
head ever since the massacre of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut. Loaded was my attempt to make sense out
of our national hard-on for The Gun.

Joe Hill is the son of novelist Stephen King and in 1977 King himself published a novel called Rage which is about a school shooting and which is also probably best described as "...[an] attempt to make sense out of our national hard-on for The Gun." Like father, like son?

Both stories try very hard to get inside the mind of a mass murderer. They certainly don't present the shooters in a sympathetic light, but they do make a genuine attempt to understand the motives that might lie behind the foul deeds they commit. In 2013 King put the trappings of fiction to one side and published an essay (called, quite simply, Guns) which strongly condemns the mind set that allows such incidents to proliferate. And it is quite clear from this story that Joe Hill shares his father's views.

Strange Weather is worth the cover price for that one single, superbly powerful story. It will leave you chilled and sad and thoughtful and probably very angry.

Joe Lansdale's novella  Bubba and the Cosmic Blood Suckers is an utterly delightful bit of nonsense in which Elvis Presley and a few friends save the world from an invasion of hive-minded, shape-shifting vampire-like creatures from the dark dimensions who have taken up residence in a New Orleans junk yard.

Clearly this is not the most serious story ever written. Lansdale has enormous fun with his daft premise and along the way he explains a lot that may have puzzled you about the mysteries and the contradictions of Elvis' life. And it's got a great recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. What more needs to be said?

Although I'm a huge fan of Philip Jose Farmer's stories I somehow managed to miss Stations of the Nightmare when it first came out in 1982. It's clearly a fix-up novel stitched together from a series of novelettes, so it's shaped a little like a sine wave with a crisis, a resolution and then rinse, lather and repeat. Farmer hasn't made any attempt to smooth the story out. But it's a fascinating read for all of that.

Paul Eyre is walking in the woods, shotgun in his hand. Perhaps he'll kill something for his dinner. Something golden flies by overhead and reflexively Paul brings the shotgun to his shoulder and shoots it. Perhaps it's a quail... Actually, it's a flying saucer.

The saucer is injured and it scatters a golden cloud of something from its wound. Paul is covered in it and he inhales and swallows whatever it was. Over the next few days he begins to change. Eventually he can metamorphose at will into a flying saucer and accompany his strange parent on voyages of exploration. He also gains the ability to heal the sick and to kill the enemies who are trying to kill him. All this is quite unconscious. He has no idea how he does these things and he has no control over them. The novelettes explore the ramifications of his ever-maturing powers.

Possibly only Farmer could make such a silly story work as well as it does. I'm glad I've finally caught up with it.

The Sookie Stackhouse novels made Charlaine Harris a household name among those of us who read books about vampires and werewolves and suchlike creatures living out their lives in urban fantasy stories. The novels formed the basis of the TV series True Blood which was also enormously popular and which, of course, only added to Charlaine Harris' fame and fortune.

Over the years, several short stories about Sookie and her friends have appeared in this or that anthology, some obscure, some less so, and tracking them all down has really been quite a struggle. Well now the task is easy. The Complete Sookie Stackhouse Stories contains all the Sookie Stackhouse short stories. What a surprise.

Completists will buy it immediately, of course (pun unintended). But even if you aren't a fan of Sookie's, there is still much here to enjoy. Charlaine Harris is also a skilful writer of mystery stories and she cleverly uses Sookie's urban fantasies as the basis of sometimes quite traditional mystery stories. The collection is lightweight, but enormous fun if you like that kind of thing.

That evening Jake and I celebrated our new toby by going for a walk with Jake's best friend Booki and Booki's mum, Melissa. We walked down to the river and ambled along the bank. Jake and Booki exchanged gossip, as did Melissa and I. The riverbank is a nature reserve, so the dogs have to stay on the lead. They didn't seem to mind the restriction – they had a lot to say to each other.

Eventually we reached a bridge and we crossed over it intending to walk home along the opposite bank of the river. A steeply sloping ramp led down from the bridge to the riverbank and at the bottom of the slope was a black labrador about to make its way up towards the bridge.

"I hate black labradors," declared Booki, launching himself at the dog, intent upon mayhem.

"I'll help you," said Jake, racing after Booki. Dogs always support their friends.

I lost control of him. Jake pulled me off my feet and I fell into the fence that bordered the slope. He dragged me down the fence and I reached out and wrapped my arm around one of the posts in an effort to stop my headlong plunge. Eventually Melissa, who was ahead of me near the bottom of the ramp, got the dogs calmed down and I was able to scramble to my feet. That was when I found that something on the fence had ripped a huge gash in my hand. The wound was about four centimetres long and it gaped wide open. I could see right down inside my palm. Blood gushed like the water from my broken toby, and it formed red pools on the ground. Strangely I felt no pain whatsoever. Until I actually saw the blood streaming out of my hand, I hadn't realised that anything at all had happened to me. I shook my hand experimentally. Droplets of blood flew everywhere. A young boy who was skateboarding down the slope looked a bit sick and quickly made himself scarce.

Melissa, who is a nurse, took charge. She held both Booki and Jake on their leads. The dogs looked puzzled. What was going on? "Have you got tissues?" Melissa asked.

I nodded and used my other hand to pull a bunch of clean tissues from my pocket. I pressed them into the wound and elevated my injured hand. "Keep pressure on the wound," said Melissa, and I did. The white tissues turned red in seconds. "Don't worry about saturating them," said Melissa. "Just keep pressure on the wound. How do you feel."

"A bit faint and dizzy," I said. "I think I'm in shock. That wound needs stitches. Sticking plaster isn't going to do anything for it."

"Lean against the fence," said Melissa. "I'll phone my husband to meet us with the car. He can take you to a doctor. I'll take Jake home and wait for you there.

It wasn't long before Melissa's husband Karl arrived. He took me to the health centre which was only a few minutes drive up the road. Soon I was surrounded by nurses who sat me down on a chair and supported my bleeding hand on an absorbent surface.

"Oooh, that looks pretty," said one of them as she cleaned the wound. "Nice and wide and deep. How did you do it?"

I explained.

"Well, we'll just put a few stitches in it to close the wound up," she said, "and you'll be right as ninepence in no time at all. When did you last have a tetanus injection?"

"About eighteen months ago," I said.

"That's all right then," she said. "You won't need another one. But I think we'd better give you a course of antibiotics. Who knows what nasty bacteria might be lurking on a dirty old fence?"

She sewed up the wound and put a dressing on it. "Come back on Monday," she said, "and we'll change the dressing." I was feeling a bit less faint now as the shock wore off. I filled the prescription for antibiotics and Karl drove me home where Melissa and Jake were waiting for me.

Melissa examined the dressing critically. Blood was already leaking into it. "That's probably going to need changing again before Monday," she said. "Give me a call if it gets too bad and I'll come round and change it for you."

"I will," I promised. And I did.

Melissa changed my dressing a couple of times over the weekend, and eventually the bleeding died down. I went back to see the nurses on Monday. "That's not one of our dressings," said the nurse suspiciously. "What's been going on?"

I explained about Melissa.

"That's a really expensive dressing," said the nurse, sounding slightly shocked at the obvious waste. "I'm tempted to leave it in place so that we get our money's worth out of it."

"No," I said, "I really think it needs changing. The wound is still leaking a bit."

Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg is the story of Harvey Mapes. Harvey is a twenty-six year old security guard. In practice that means that Harvey sits in a booth checking people in and out of a gated community. There are long stretches between arrivals and departures when Harvey has nothing to do. But that's OK – he can read paperback novels about private detectives. He has an encyclopedic knowledge about fictional private eyes and he's sure this knowledge will stand him in good stead when Cyril Parkus, one of the wealthy residents, asks Harvey to follow his wife Lauren and find out exactly what she's been up to...

The plot soon thickens. Nothing is what it seems to be and it isn't long before Harvey is quite out of his depth. Fictional detectives have it much easier than Harvey does.

The plot is pleasingly complex and Goldberg's writing style is sufficiently smooth that the story slips down easily. I enjoyed the book and I will happily search out more Goldberg stories.

The Hope is a historical novel by Herman Wouk which was first published in 1993. It is the story of the founding of the state of Israel from 1948 up until the Six Day War nearly twenty years later. This subject has been covered in fiction before, most notably by Leon Uris, but in my opinion Wouk does a much better job than Uris ever did. The politics seem more real and the fragility of the early days of the Israeli state is strongly emphasised. Not only did Israel have to deal with formidable Arab armies that were attacking it on every border, it also had to contend with internal strife and dissension as political groups with radically opposed opinions struggled for power.

Wouk brings all this to life with enormous skill – I particularly enjoyed seeing famous historical figures acting out their parts. Moshe Dayan is very dashing and romantic and Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, is particularly menacing. It's hard to believe that this terrorist and convicted murderer was eventually elected prime minister of his country and won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it happened. These contradictions are very much part of the history of Israel and any novel that dramatises the history has to come to terms with it. Wouk does it brilliantly.

By the end of the week both the official nurses and Melissa, my unofficial nurse, had changed my dressing half a dozen times. But, on the bright side, the wound was starting to close up and heal nicely. Therefore Melissa and I decided to take Jake and Booki for a walk again. The dogs both had a lot of catching up to do. We retraced the steps of our original expedition and when we reached the fence, Melissa examined it closely. Suddenly she let out a squeal of delight. "Look," she said, "I've found what caused the gash in your hand!"

Jake and I walked over to have a look at what she'd discovered. There was a nail standing up proud from the handrail. "That's the guilty party," said Melissa triumphantly.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"Look closely at it," said Melissa. "It's still got some lumps of you stuck to it..."

"Cor!" said Jake, getting all excited. "Can I have a nibble?"

Mira Grant Rolling in the Deep Subterranean Press
Mira Grant Into the Drowning Deep Orbit
Joe Hill Strange Weather William Morrow
Joe Lansdale Bubba and the Cosmic Blood Suckers Subterranean Press
Philip Jose Farmer Stations of the Nightmare Tor
Charlaine Harris The Complete Sookie Stackhouse Stories Ace
Lee Goldberg Watch Me Die Adventures in Television
Herman Wouk The Hope Little, Brown


About four weeks after the accident I revisited the bridge with a friend who, quite by chance, had a hammer in his backpack. When we got to the bridge he examined the nail carefully. "It's still got bits of you sticking to it," he announced. "Clearly the local birds and insects don't like the taste of Alan." He took the hammer out of his backpack and slammed the nail flat. "There," he said, "It won't injure anybody ever again!"

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