Friday 21 January 2011

Friday Flash - The Castle

A draft blew cold kisses onto her neck. Lady Eleanor stirred from her sleep. Daylight flooded the room. She rubbed her eyes and sat up. She stretched her arms above her head, making her spine crack. She marvelled that the merciless ache no longer plagued her limbs, and no savage cough racked her body with violent fits. She examined her legs and found the peculiar rash had also gone. Lady Eleanor lay back against the pillow, satisfied that the little doctor's strange remedies had banished the mysterious fever. Such a shame the cure had not worked for her late husband.

After a few moments enjoying the peaceful morning, Lady Eleanor noticed the chill in the air. No fire blazed in the hearth. She couldn't even see any logs. She frowned. The servants knew of the illness, and knew the doctor’s orders that she must be kept warm. How unlike them to have forgotten, she thought.

Lady Eleanor threw back the covers and swung her legs out of bed. She fetched a robe from the armoire in the corner, and padded onto the landing outside her chamber. She winced when her bare feet met the cold stone floor.

“Elspeth? Violet? Mary?“

She called for her housemaids. Her voice echoed down the spiral staircase. Lady Eleanor listened intently, expecting to hear the clatter of the kitchen or the shouts of the stableboys in the yard. She heard nothing.

“Hello? Is there anyone around? I am much recovered now,“ called the Lady.

She ventured down the stairs, whistling for the castle hounds. No paws scampered across stone. No tails wagged, and no excited barking met her in the lower chamber.

This is a wretched awakening. Why is there no rejoicing that I am recovered? she thought.

Lady Eleanor wandered along the corridor to the entrance hall. The vast oak doors stood wide open. She rushed to the doorway and gazed out across the lawn. She expected to see the shepherd and his flock in the meadow across the ha-ha, though it lay empty.

Oh! Have brigands and thieves seized my castle as I slept? Are my servants slain? thought the Lady.

She hurried back inside and heaved the oak doors closed. The clang as she threw home the bolt echoed around the entrance hall. The sound brought no one running.

Lady Eleanor felt panic rise in her gut, and worry fluttered in her stomach like demonic moths. She broke into a run, bounding up the stairs leading up to the great hall. Again, the room was empty, the chairs and benches of her elders standing unoccupied.

A sound in the eaves caught her attention. The whirring of wings came from the corner of the room. Lady Eleanor peered up into the gloom, but saw only shadows. She shivered, noticing again the dead atmosphere of her castle. She crossed the room and crouched by the fireplace. Two logs sat in the hearth, and she contemplated how she might set them alight.

* * *

“What was that bang?“ asked Lucy.

“I expect the wind blew the door shut. Now look up. See those holes in the wall? They held floor joists. Do you know what floor joists do?“ asked Mrs Black.

Lucy shook her head, setting her ginger curls swinging. Mrs Black smiled.

“Floor joists are big beams that the floor sits on. Yes, there was once another floor above us. The great hall was up there.“

Mrs Black pointed upwards. Little Lucy leaned backwards, craning her neck to see the room above. There was a fireplace halfway up the wall, above the holes for the floor. Moss clung to the walls around the fireplace, and a small tree grew out of the brickwork at the back of the hearth.

“There was a room there?“ she asked. The fireplace was so high. It looked funny.

“Yes! The family would have received visitors there. A bit like a big version of our living room. Try to imagine it with a roof,“ replied Mrs Black.

Lucy screwed up her eyes to better see a roof over the whole space. Her brother stood in the corner, transfixed by the swifts. The birds had nests in the holes between the bricks. They heard the babies tweeting for their mothers when they came in to see the ruined castle. Theodore watched the swifts flutter near the top of the wall.

“Tell her how it’s haunted, Mum!“ shouted Theodore.

“Don’t scare your sister. Lucy, it’s not haunted,“ said Mrs Black.

Lucy stuck her tongue out at her brother and looked back at the fireplace. The harder Lucy stared, the more she thought she could see something beside it. A grey shadow, a smudge in the air. She felt sad when she looked at it.

“Mummy, mummy! What’s that?“ asked Lucy. She pointed at the shadow.

* * *

Lady Eleanor paused. She cocked her head on one side and listened. Voices. Indistinct, but voices nonetheless.

“Elspeth? Mary?“

She listened hard for the reply.

“Mum, why is the lady so sad?“

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Save Our Libraries

There has been a lot of talk on the Internet of late about plans in the UK to close many public libraries as their latest idea for saving money. Other people clearly feel the same way, if the #savelibraries hashtag on Twitter is anything to go by. Personally, I'm absolutely horrified at the idea - of all the things that the government pays for, libraries should be LAST on their list of things to cut.

But it's easy, isn't it? Snip a little here, snip a little there, and hope that all your small savings add up enough to take a chunk out of the overall deficit. Trouble is, in the end, it costs more money than it saves due to the losses incurred as a result of the cuts. As my dad says, it's like removing your doors to save on the cost of paint, while leaving your house wide open to burglars. Look at it any way you like, but the UK is a country with a colossal budget for foreign aid, yet we have children within its borders living below the poverty line - children who will lose their access to free information and the chance to expand their knowledge if the libraries are closed to save a few pounds.

In a country where education league tables are everything, where the Building Schools for the Future initiative has been halted and pupils are taught in crumbling relics of the 1960s, surely we should be preserving these last bastions of free knowledge. There was an outcry when the government proposed it would cut a service aimed at providing free books, and it relented, allowing the scheme to continue. Yet closing libraries denies access to free books on a much wider scale. Books aren't cheap to buy, but if you have access to a library, you have access to an entire world of literature, not to mention general knowledge. A library is warm, dry - and keeps a young person off the streets for the day.

In his foreword to Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury advocates the existence of libraries, since in the absence of a formal education, he taught himself the things he wanted to know in his local library. Who is to say that children all over the country aren't doing the exact same thing? Of course, they won't be able to, if there is nowhere for them to go. Libraries are often the only means some people have of accessing the Internet, and if the library goes, then you cut away the resources the Internet has to offer for those who cannot afford it in their own homes.

I'm lucky, I live in a London borough with six libraries, and only one is threatened with closure. The library in question is in a position where it may be saved, by being turned into a new community facility which would incorporate the Citizens Advice Bureau, family learning courses run by a local college, and even church youth work - hopefully, this proposal will meet with success. Mayor Boris Johnson has also announced plans to set up a trust to run those libraries unable to fund themselves - it's a pity the rest of his party cannot have the foresight to do the same on a national level.

I'm also lucky in that I can afford to buy books, and have the Internet at home. Many don't have this option, and it is on their behalf that I ask everyone to join in the campaign at their local library to ensure we keep these institutions going, for the good of everyone.

(Please read author Emma Newman's post on the same topic - she puts it across far better than me)

Monday 17 January 2011

Photo Prompt 16

Sixteenth prompt, ready and waiting.

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The sixteenth prompt is Window.

Reflected Stained Glass

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr.