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  More Short Stories

GARY’S GARDEN MAKE-OVER

 by

©Allan James Lammiman

 

 In the beginning it was simply an empty patch of ground. A few weeds poked their way through the clods of muddy grass and a number of broken house bricks littered the surface. But apart from that, the space set aside for the garden was bare. Not surprising as the house was new. Not the best situation, however when a gardening fanatic of a father-in-law was likely to descend on you at any time. Gary stood at the edge and wondered what he could  do about it.

 “Just looking at it won’t get it done!” grumbled a voice from inside the house. The voice belonged to his wife, Mary. “Dad will help, if you ask him.”

 “Help? He’d take over!” Gary muttered, under his breath.  He sighed. “If he sees this, I won’t have to ask!”

 Mary sidled up beside him and gave him a playful nudge. “Dad means well.” she said softly. “Anyway, mum’s taken him off to Scotland for three weeks. If you get started today, you could get most of it done before he gets back.”

 “True.” said Gary. “If we work like a gang of navvies!” Mary ignored the fact that he used the term `we’. "It'll cost a pretty penny to do it up, though." he added. "It's just as well we've both got good jobs."

 "We've still got a little left over from the mortgage." said his wife. "We could use that."

 "No that's for the house." he said. What we spend on this will have be on credit."

 Gary noticed she had a bundle of letters in her hand. “More competition entries?” he asked. Mary was always entering competitions.

Mary nodded. “Actually one of them’s from a gardening mag. I doubt if I’ll win first prize, but I might win a few flowers.” She smiled sweetly at him.

That’ll be a start.” he replied. Gary walked down the rubble strewn patch of earth to the bottom hedge.

 “I need a plan.” he said, surveying the site from the other view. “I’ll jot down a few ideas on paper. That’s what I’ll do.”

 He walked quickly back up to the house. “A pond would be nice.” he mused, as he caught sight of a rain filled paint tin. “And a rockery.”

 “And talking to yourself won’t help either!” said Mary, poking him in the small of the back. “Get down to that garden centre and buy some tools! You know, a spade and a fork?”

 Gary smiled weakly. He had forgotten that he did not have any garden tools. “I’ll get my coat and do it right now.”

 “You do that.” said Mary. “And while you’re at it, pick up a book. A gardening book. I doubt if you could tell a daisy from a pansy!”

  Although partly true, Gary was a little insulted by Mary’s remark. “I’ll show you.” he said. “I’ll have this garden looking like something out of a picture book by the time I’ve finished!”

 “Just as long as it’s not the closing scene from the War of the Worlds!” she grunted. “It looks too much like that already!”

 Gary set off for the local garden centre. It was not far. Just down the road in fact. Even so he took the car. “To carry the plants and tools.” he told his wife.

 Inside the centre was packed with plant laden shoppers, most of whom appeared to know what they were doing. To Gary’s’ untrained eye anyway. He made his way over to a stand advertising plant seeds.

 “Mmm. Parsley.” he mused. “And carrots. I’d could do with some of them.” He picked up a pack of each.

 “Tools.” he said aloud. “Where are the tools?”

 He saw them over by the far wall. When he inspected the display he found that they came in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Prices too. The dearest seemed to be the stainless steel ones. The cheapest looked as if they would bend at the first attempt at digging. “They’ve got to last,” he said to himself, as he looked at the tools from the top end of the range.  “but there’s no way I can afford those prices!”

 He choose a spade and fork from the middle range.

 “A gardening book!” he said, remembering what Mary had told him. “A good gardening book. One that even I can understand. With lots of pictures!”

 He found what he was looking for by the cafe. Feeling thirsty Gary decided to stop for a cup of coffee. He also selected a two buttered buns and a slice of chocolate cake. Mary had stopped him eating chocolate cake, due to Gary’s widening waistline.

 “What she doesn’t see, she won’t worry about.” he said, as the cake disappeared.

 Hunger at bay, Gary set off for the planting area. He was determined to buy some plants that day in spite of what his wife said. He chose a tray of pansies and one of something called, Creeping Jenny. The label said it was a good ground covering plant and bore little yellow flowers in summer. Also it was easy to propagate, whatever that meant.

 Satisfied that he had all that he needed, for now anyway, Gary set off for the checkouts and then to the car. After loading his purchases into the boot, he drove the short distance back home and parked.  Mary opened the front door and stood, arms folded in the gap. A cross frown creased her face.

 “You took your time!” she growled. “It’s nearly five o’clock!”

 “Sorry.” said Gary. “The centre was busier that I thought it would be.” He started to unload the car. Mary walk over to see what he had bought.

 “Mmm.” she said, looking at him. “If you must eat chocolate cake in public, you could at least wipe the cream from your mouth afterwards.”

 Gary grinned sheepishly. “Caught again!” he said.

Mary helped him carry the tools into the back garden. Gary carried the plants. They stood together surveying the rubble strewn yard.

 “The first thing we need to do is to pick up the bricks.” said Gary, assertively.

 “Yes.” agreed Mary. “And put them in a tidy  pile.” She looked again at the garden and the at Gary.

 “You should have bought a wheelbarrow too.” she frowned.

 “Ah, yes.” said Gary. “A wheelbarrow. Perhaps I should back and get one.”

 “No, you make a start here.” said Mary. “I’ve some letters to post anyway.”

 “More competitions?” asked Gary. “I don’t know why you bother!”

 “You won’t complain if we win something!” retorted Mary, with a sniff. Turning on her heels, she headed for the front door. “Make sure you pick up all the bricks! Nothing half-hearted now!”

 “I will. You just get back with that barrow!” he replied.

 With a sigh he marched into the garden to commence work. As well as bricks littering the ground, there were also several pieces of timber that need to be picked up. Gary started with these. Soon there was a pile nearly a foot high in the corner by the gate. Next, armed with black plastic bag and the spade, he began gathering up the more messy items; the half rotten cardboard cartons and leaves. It took five bags in total to clear the garden of these items. Gary placed the bags by the pile of wood.

 He looked at his watch. Mary had been gone nearly an hour. “Where is she?” he asked himself.

 Just then he heard the sound of a car in the driveway. “At last!” he said and went out to meet her.

 “You took your time.” he grumbled. Mary got out of the car and glared at him.

 “Oh, stop moaning and help me get this thing out of the boot.” she said. “You’ll have to assemble it.” she added.

  “Oh.” said Gary. He opened the boot and looked at the packaged wheelbarrow.

 “Oh well, better get cracking!” he sighed.

 He carried the barrow into the back garden and placed it down by the back door. “I’ll get the tool box.” he said.

 “I see you’ve made a start.” commented Mary, as she came through the gate. “While you’re assembling the barrow, I’ll make us a cup of tea.”

 “That’ll be great.” said Gary. “I could do with a cup.”

 “Oh by the way.” said his wife. “I picked up a TV paper. There’s a gardening programme on tonight. It’s about...”

 “Gardening?” suggested Gary.

 “Garden planing.” Mary glared. “Anyway, I thought it might be an idea to watch it. It might give us some ideas.”

 Gary looked up from what he was doing. “Us? I see you’ve changed your tune.”

 Mary shrugged. “That garden centre was quite illuminating.” she said. “They had a sample garden, made up with a  shed , a few pots and a couple of trellis. It’s amazing what cane be done, with a little effort.”

 “I saw it.” said Gary. “Where’s that tea?”

 “Just coming.” came the reply.

 Fully refreshed Gary and Mary set to work clearing the garden of bricks and rubble. The rubble they put into thick plastic bags and some old cartons Gary found in the garage.

 Two hours later, when the light had begun to fade, Gary and Mary decided to call it a day.

 “I’ll get up early tomorrow and take the bags to the tip.” said Gary. “The more rubbish we get rid of the better.”

 “Good idea.” Mary said, as she closed the door. She glanced at the clock. “It’s nearly time for that gardening programme. Turn the telly on and I’ll make us both a sandwich. Cheese OK?”

 “Mmm. And some pickle.” said Gary.

 Gary turned on the TV and settled down in the settee. A few minutes later Mary sat down beside him. The programme, the first in a series as it happened,  was aimed at complete beginners to gardening. Just what Gary and Mary needed. When it finished an hour later Gary jotted down a few ideas on a notepad.

 “That idea of dividing the garden into sections was a good.” he said. “And that presenter was right about us needing a shed or something. The garage is barely big enough for the car, let alone a lawnmower as well.”

 “We need a lawn before we get a lawnmower.” said Mary. “But I know what you mean. Dad  has a shed.” She laughed. “Mum says he spends most of his time in it!”

 Mary peered across at what he was drawing. “Mmm, I think the pond should be nearer the house. Remember what they said about power cables.”

 “True.” Gary agreed. “But if we decide to extend the patio, then we’d better leave space to do it  now.

 Mary shrugged. “OK. But I want space for a bar-b-que. I fancy the idea of entertaining outside.”

 They talked and drew plan after plan for the rest of the evening. It was gone midnight before they climbed into bed. Tired from the days exertions, they soon fell fast asleep.

 Early next morning Gary leapt out of bed and pulled on his dressing gown. “I’ll put the kettle on.” he said.

 Mary rubbed the sleep from her eyes and blinked at him. “What time is it?” she asked, with a yawn.

 “Just gone six.” he replied. “Stay there. I’ll bring you a cup up.”

 “Six! Are you mad?” she exclaimed. “It’s Sunday!”

 “The garden, remember?” Without a further word Gary disappeared out the door. Mary slumped back and pulled the covers over her head, muttering , `he must be mad getting up this early’.”

 She was still muttering when Gary brought her up a cup of tea.

 “It’s a pity you don’t do this work days.” she grumbled. “What time is it?”

 Gary looked at the clock. “Half past six. You stay there. I’ll get dressed and load up the car.”

 Gary!” exclaimed his wife. “The dump doesn’t open until ten!”

 Gary froze in his tracks. “Oh.”

 “Come back to bed.” Mary told him.

 “No, I’m up now.” said Gary. “I’ll load up the car anyway. Then I’ll make a start on the digging. See you later!” With that he went downstairs.

 Mary let out a groan. “If he wakes up the neighbours, I’ll kill him!”

Mary eventually came down at half past seven. She looked at Gary hard at work in the garden, called him a mad idiot and made herself another cup of tea. She had let the last one go cold. She also poured one out for Gary.

 “Tea’s up!” she called. “Do you want some breakfast?”

 “That’ll be great!” he called back.

 During breakfast, Gary explained what he had been doing. “I’ve starting the digging, as you’ve probably noticed. And I’ve laid out a rough plan of where the flower beds are going to be. You can come and look at it if you like.”

 “Mm, I will as soon as I’m dressed.” she said. “Go on.”

 “And I’ve chosen a place for the compost heap.” he added. “The man on the  programme said we’d need one.”

 Breakfast finished, Gary pulled on the boots he had taken off before Mary would let him in the kitchen, and marched back out to continue his digging.

 “I’ll just finish off in here and then I’ll join you.”  Mary told him.

 They worked on until lunch, Mary prepared a light one, just a bowl of soup and some rolls, and then they worked on until dusk. By the time they had gone in, Gary had dug about half of the bottom end of the garden. Mary had taken the rubbish to the dump in the end, leaving Gary to his digging. Both collapsed into bed and soon feel fast asleep.

 Being a Monday and the start of another working week, little was done in the garden until the weekend. When Saturday morning came, Mary had to nudge Gary in the ribs to get him up.

 “It’s Saturday.” she said, with a yawn.

 “I know.” came a muffled reply.

  Mary groaned. She somehow knew it would not last. “The garden. You’re doing it up, remember?”

 “Oww!” grumbled Gary. “Do I have to?”

 “Yes.” Mary insisted. “Get up. I’ll make the breakfast.”

 Mary eased herself out of bed and slipped on her dressing gown. “Don’t be long” she called as she went down stairs.

 Gary yawned and stretched. He lay there for a moment or two, thinking of what he was supposed to be doing. Most of the digging was done. At the bottom end anyway. And during the week he and Mary had managed to mark out the route of the path. They had decided upon red paving slabs for the path. With red rope effect stone for the edging. Gary had ordered the these from a local building supplier in the week, together with some sharp sand. They were due for delivery sometime this morning. Extra paving had been ordered for an enlarged patio. Gary groaned at the thought of all the humping and carrying that was ahead. It had to be done however. The garden plan they had  would not be finished until a path had been firmly laid  through it. An area to the side of the garden had been set aside for the lawn. This would be covered with turf at a later date.

 “Better get to it.” he sighed. Gary washed and dressed  and went downstairs. Mary was just dishing up the breakfast.

 “I thought a full breakfast would be the thing today.” she said. “We’ve a long day ahead of us.”

 “Don’t remind me.” frowned Gary. “Pass the toast.”

 After breakfast, Gary started clearing the route of the proposed path. He emptied the earth he removed into a pile by the side fence. This is where they had decided to have a rockery.

 “I’ll sieve it through later.” he told his wife.

 Hours went by, during which time the paving slabs arrived. It took them half an hour to unload them, even with the drivers help. Tired out, Gary and Mary had a cup of tea before carrying on. Refreshed they returned to the garden. The sand was spread out along the route of the path. Then the slabs were laid, including those in the patio area. It was late afternoon by the time they finished laying the paving and both Gary and Mary were exhausted.

 “Let’s call it a day.” suggested Mary, with a wipe of her brow.

 “I’ll agree to that.” said Gary. “Tell you what. Let’s get cleaned up and go down to the pub. We can have a late lunch...”

 “Or early tea.” said Mary, as her stomach grumbled.

 “...and go and see a film. `Titanic’ is on at the Odeon.”

 “OK.” agreed Mary. “But you’re paying.”

 “Then later we can...” winked Gary.

 His wife smiled back at him. “We’ll see. Come on! Race you to the bath!”

 Later, when they on the way back from the cinema, Gary asked if Mary had heard from her parents.

 “No.” she replied. “But that’s not surprising. They were going to move around a bit. Anyway mum promised she would give me call when they were on the way back. Why do you ask?”

 Gary shrugged. “It’s just that they’ll be back in a week or so. I was hopping we’d have the garden done before they did.”

 “Dad.” nodded Mary. “You don’t want him to take over.” She slipped her arm around him. “Don’t worry. After all we’ve done today, I agree with you. Let’s make a real effort and get it finished by next Friday. That way we can invite them round on Saturday to show it off!”

 Gary frowned. “It’ll take some effort. We’ve all the planting to do yet. And we haven't even thought about the pond!”

 “We can do it.” said Mary and pulled him closer. “Come on. Let’s get home. To bed.” She winked. Gary quickened the pace.

 In spite of the previous days, and nights exhaustion's, both Gary and Mary were up early next morning. Mary cooked breakfast while Gary made a start on preparing the flower beds. Mary had picked up some bags of compost at the garden centre the previous week. Gary started spreading them out over the levelled beds. He was just emptying the last bag when Mary called him.

 “Breakfast’s up!” She stuck her head out of the door. “That looks better already.” she said.

 “Mm. The path really looks good.” said Gary. He brushed the dirt off his hands and headed for the door.

 “AH!” cried Mary. “Your boots! They're caked in mud!”

 Gary took them off and padded inside barefoot. “I’ve just got to rake that lot in and then we’ll be ready start planting.”

 “When we get some more plants.” said Mary, placing his breakfast down in front of him. “We’ll go down to the garden centre after I’ve cleaned up here.”

 She sat down. “You know, I’m quite getting used to this gardening lark.”

 Gary looked at her sitting there in her clean jeans and sweatshirt and raised an eyebrow. “So am I.” he said. Then got up to wash his dirty hands.

 The trip to the garden centre, when it came proved to be expensive. As well as a barrow full of plants of every description, Mary insisted on buying a wooden pergola.

 “It’ll look great at the bottom of the lawn.” she told him. “We can get one of those metal benches to go under it.”

 “I hope the bank balance holds out.” huffed Gary. “We’ve overspent as it is. Remember the turf has to be paid for yet.”

 “We’ll manage.” Mary assured him. “I’ll pay for the pergola out of my account. And the bench.”

 Gary looked unsure. “Alright.” he said. “But no more!”

 Back at the house Gary and Mary spent the remainder of the day planting. At least Mary did. Gary was put in charge of erecting the pergola. Two hours and several swearwords later, it was finished. As was the metal bench.

 Mary had almost finished too and was busy putting the final touches to a display of mixed pansies and snapdragons. Not a mix Gary himself would have chosen, but it looked alright. He went over to help.

 “No, you go and make some tea.” she told him. “I’m alright here.”

 Gary did as he was told and returned shortly after with two steaming mugs of tea on a tray. “I’ve brought some biscuits.” he said.

 Mary took a mug and two biscuits. “Mm. Chockies.” she said through a mouthful of crumbs.

 Tea break over, Gary and Mary finished off the planting and cleared away the rubbish. When they were satisfied that all was done, they sat on the bench beneath the pergola and surveyed their accomplishments, sipping cool white wine from crystal glasses.

 "Not bad." commented Gary. "Not bad at all."

 "I quite agree." echoed Mary. "It'll be even better when the grass is laid. When is it due to be delivered?"

 "Monday." answered Gary. "I should be able to lay it when I get home."

 "I'll help." promised Mary. She gazed dreamily at the bare patch of earth. "Even without the grass laid, it still looks quite good. I feel quite proud."

  She was justified to be pleased with their efforts, as was Gary, for what was once a wilderness of rubble, patchy grass and weeds, was now a pleasant oasis of colourful flowers, shrubs surrounding what was soon to be a lush green lawn, with a winding red path ending beneath an imposing pergola.

 "One week to go." said Mary, leaning her head against her husbands shoulder. "And you'll be able to show all this off to dad."

 "Ah! ah!" laughed Gary. "Yes, that'll surprise him!"

 Monday came and went and Gary, with Mary's help, laid the turf. . With the lawn at last in place, the garden finally looked complete. A compost bin, which Gary had made from a few old pallets was also now in place. During the next few days a few more plants were purchased and planted in tubs around the patio. The pond was forgoten, they decided that their bank balance could not stand it. A garden table and a set of chairs was also obtained, however. And stripped green and white umbrella, to complete the scene. It looked so good Gary could hardly wait for his father-in-law to come and see it.

 At last Saturday arrived. The day of Mary's parents return. Mary had recieved a phone call from them the night before saying that they would be arriving back home some time later this afternoon and could not wait to see their new house. Mary had immediately invited them round for dinner. Gary smiled at the thought. He felt proud that he would at last be able to show off his efforts, even if had cost him an arm and a leg.

 It was another beautiful sunny day and for once Gary and Mary opted to have a late breakfast on the patio. Mary brought out the coffee pot and with it the letters the postman had delivered earlier.

 "Mostly bills, I'm afraid." she said, sorting through the bundle of brown envelopes.

 Here's one from the credit card company. And one from the bank. Oh and I've got a letter from that gardening magazine."

 She passed the bills over to Gary. He opened them one at a time and groaned.

 "The credit card bill is as I thought it would be." he sighed. "And the bank balance is just as bad. We're overdrawn again. This garden certainly has cost us! One thousand pounds to be exact! I'll have to work overtime for a year to pay off the bill."

 He tossed the bills onto the table and poured himself another coffee. "What was your letter about?"

 Mary looked stunned. "It's from that gardening magazine." she said. "I've won first prize in a competition."

 "Oh?" Gary inquired. "What is it? A set of gardening tools?"

 Mary shook her head, slowly. "No. I've won a complete garden make over by a team of experts. It's worth a thousand pounds."

 

The End.


 

 Terror Strokes
by
©Allan James Lammiman

 
 Night was falling and John shivered as he began to feel cold. It had been over an hour since Gary and Frank had left to get the spare tyre from Gary's garage and John, who was nervous of the dark to say the least, was sure an animal was stalking him. A shadow, caused he knew, by the moon's steady glow, was moving closer every minute. But then, to him every tree, every shadow and even the car itself, hid an attacker, waiting to leap out and slash his throat. John was not a happy man.

 Feeling in need of company, John tried the radio again. Static echoed inside the big Renault Espace and a faint rendition of a Beatles song could be heard in the background, but overall the reception was the same as before. He yawned. It had been a long journey and he was already tired.

 "Bloody transmission lines!" he spat. "Just my luck to get stuck beneath a pylon!"

 Gary, the owner, was more concerned about his precious Renault, his pride and joy. The puncture had been caused by a rusty nail, left lying the road and picked up somewhere between the city centre and where the car was now. Gary, annoyed at the needless damage, had cursed loudly, and vowed in future to check the car and road before setting off. Not that Gary's vow helped John now. He was stuck guarding the car until they got back.

 Steeling himself, John peered through the windscreen once more, searching the gloom for glimpse of his two friends.

 "Where are you?" he said aloud. "You should have been back half an hour ago!"

 Gary's house was good four miles down the lane, but only mile away by the footpath which led across the fields. Frank, Gary's brother, had gone with him to help wheel the tyre back. Why Gary did not carry the tyre with him in the car, John did not know. There was plenty of space. John begun to wish he gone with them.

 "There's too many crooks about." Gary had said as he had set off. "One of us should stay and guard the car. Have a snooze."

 John had not exactly volunteered to stay, it was more that Frank had decided for him. "You stay, John." he had said, "I need to make a phone call anyway. Might as well do from Gary's. We won't be long." Frank was like that. Never giving a thought for another persons feelings.

 And off they stroud, over the bank and across the meadow. The last John saw of them was when the two brothers had hopped across the stream at the bottom of the hill and disappeared into the wood on the other side.

 John looked at his watch. Five minutes passed nine. One hour and fifteen minutes since they had left.

 "What's keeping them?" John muttered. An owl hooted in a tree nearby and John jumped with fright. "I hate the countryside!" he said, checking that the door was locked for the tenth time.

 Twenty minutes later, the dusk had fallen completely, leaving John all alone in the dark. Unable to sleep and unwilling to get out and stretch his aching legs, John Looked around the car for something to read. He tried the door pocket and found a paperback book and a road atlas. Switching on the interior light, he read the book's title.

 "Oh great!" he exclaimed, "The Beast of Bodmin Moor, the true story! Just what I need!"

 Disgusted, he tossed the book aside and huddled deeper into the plush velour seat.

 "I hate cats!" he muttered miserably. "Always clawing at you and purring! It's just as well Gary has a dog."

 John had hated cats for as long as he could remember. His mother said it started when he was a little boy. A cat had leapt out on him, making John, an already nervous child, loose control of his bladder.

 "Eh!" he shuddered, "I hope there's none around here!"

 Thinking he heard a sound in the lane behind, and not daring to turn round, John fidgeted with the rear view mirror to get a better look.

 "Perhaps they came back the long way." he thought as the sound grew closer. A dark shaped loped into view and he immediately thought of the book title. "That's a cat!" he gulped. "A big one! It's the beast, coming to get me!"

 John took a deep breath and slowly turned round. The spectre, whatever it was, had gone. John breathed a sigh of relief.

 "Pull yourself together John." he told himself. "There's no beast out there. This is not even Bodmin!"

 Even so, John checked all the door locks again, just to be safe.

 Half an hour, and dozen more scares later, found John still in the car, waiting for his two friends. He was now very worried.

 "Maybe the radio's cleared up." he said, more in an effort to make himself believe he was not alone. He turned it on. Static. Then, just as he was about switch it off, he heard the announcer say something about a hunt.

 "What's that he said?" he breathed.

 The announcer's voice, although faint and interrupted by bursts of crackling, was once clear enough for John to understand. `A spokesman Local police have sealed off the surrounding area to look for the animal.'

 John gulped.

 `The villagers have been advised to stay indoors and keep their doors locked.'

 John instinctively checked the door locks again.

 The announcer continued his report. `Edward Stone, the head keeper at Hot..n..oo...,' The report was interrupted by a burst of static.

 "Hotton Zoo?" thought John aloud, "I'm sure he said Hotton Zoo. Isn't there a zoo, or something, over by Gary's way?"

 `...where the animal escaped from earlier, has assured the public that the animal, a young black panther, is quite docile and was fed only...,' More static. `...before the escape.'

 "Docile?" sobbed John, who was sure now that the black shape he saw earlier was the big cat. "Panthers arn't docile! The're killers!"

 The report finished and the programme returned to playing music. The first tune was, `Strangers in the night,' which did not make John feel any better. He turned the radio off. Silence.

 In the distance, a church clock struck. John counted off the strikes. "One, two, three, four...," he counted slowly, "...seven eight, nine, ten. Ten o'clock. Over two hours since they left! Where are they?"

 A bush rustled and John's head shot round. A dark shape moved across a gap in the hedge.

 "Oh god!" preyed John. He closed his eyes, hoping it wasn't what feared. The beast. The owl hooted again.

 "Ow, sh..shut up!" said John, his teeth chattering with fright.

 He opened his eyes, slowly. The dark shape had gone.

 "Where are they?" he asked again. The interior light, which he had left on, was beginning fade.

 "Damn it!" he cursed. "I bet the batteries getting flat! I knew Gary should have had it changed when he bought it!"

 Gary was like that. If it worked. Leave it alone. John, or John the Quaker as his friends called him, for obvious reasons, liked to check and double check everything, in fear he would get stuck somewhere. Like he was now. In the dark. All alone. With a black beast stalking him.

 It started to rain. Not hard, but enough to make pitter-patter sounds on the windscreen. John tried the radio again. The mellow strings of an orchestra drifted out of the twin speakers, cutting through the poor reception and easing John into a pleasant mood. Soon he forgot about the news broadcast and started to doze. It had after all, been a long day and he was tired.

 He was awaken by a loud thump on the rear door. "Bloody hell!" he cried, "What was that?"

 Then he remembered the escaped panther. "It's trying to get in!" he sobbed.

 The back door slowly opened. John shook with fear and stayed as still as he could, fearing the worst. The door opened wider. John curled his hand round the road atlas, and quietly began rolling it up. With a final judder, the rear door swung fully open and with his heart beating ten to the dozen, he waited for the beast to strike.

 "Sorry we were so long John," said Gary, "But Frank offered to take the dog for a walk and it got off the lead. It should be around here somewhere. You haven't seen him by any chance? You remember Bruce. He's a big black labrador."

 "Oh, hi, Gary." said John, feeling very relieved and a little foolish. "Now that you mention it, I think I did see him." He got out of the car and walked round to the back. It was pitch black and he difficulty in seeing where he was going. A black shape looped out to him, giving him start.

 "God, Bruce!" he said, "There you are!"

 "Ah there you are." said Gary. "Hold onto him by the collar will you. I don't want him getting away again."

 John reached down and felt for the dog's collar. "I think he's lost it." he said. The animal's fur felt like silk and John began stroke it.

 "I've found him!" came a shout from the dark. Frank entered the lane, leading a big black labrador.

 John froze and looked down. The animal he was petting began to purr.

 It was the first time in years that John had wet himself.



LIFEPOD

 by

 ©Allan James Lammiman

 

 "Can anybody hear me? Is there anyone there?" The plaintive cry of the pilot echoed in the confine of the lifepod. Almost tearfully he listened for the slightest sound that his plea had been heard. There was nothing. Not even the static of space. He checked, again, that the transmitter was correctly tuned. It was. 7997.988 millicycles. Strength 10. He sighed. At the power, even the remote listening station on Hidra-Nine in the Galos belt should pick up his distress message. Why did they not answer?

 "This is Pilot 192, calling Central Command. Please respond." Again he listened. Again he heard nothing.

 He had been trying, unsuccessfully, to contact Central Command for hours. He had been trying ever since he had been forced to eject. Since then he had waited inside the tiny lifepod for a ship to pick him up. But no one appeared interested in his plight. At least that is what it seemed to him. Frustrated at his inability to do anything, he banged the panel in front of him.

 `Warning. Undue pressure exerted on the internal controls could result in a systems failure.'

 The pilot closed his eyes and breathed an oath. Trust the engineers to make the on-board systems unit female. "Thank you computer." he said, regaining his composure. "Stand by for a tri-circular deep space scan. Report any detection's."

 `Confirm.' replied the computer. The pilot waited. Minutes ticked by. Then the female sounding voice answered. "Scan complete. No ships, beacons or other lifepods detected within search perimeters."

 "Dam!" cursed the pilot. It meant he was alone in the sector, with little hope of rescue for days, even weeks. "All right. Search for any planets capable of sustaining human life."

 `Search perimeters required.' said the computer in its bland voice. The pilot closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. The air, what there was of it was getting dank. He checked the air gauge. The tanks were full. And as long as the life support systems continued to function there would be air for as long as he needed it. Food however was in limited supply. As was fresh water, in spite the fact that what he used would be passed through the recycling unit.

 "Search for anything within the range of the pod." he said, brusquely. "Anything at all. Just find me somewhere I can land."

 `Request confirmed.' the female voice replied.

 The pilot closed his eyes and he settled back. The search pattern would no doubt take some time. As he dozed he considered his position. Fuel was not a problem. The lifepod had a range of over five hundred million miles. Not that the food supplies would last that long. However if he placed himself in cryogenic mode, it could sustain him for years. He hoped it would not come to that. The thought of being alone in space for weeks, perhaps months depressed him.

 "How the hell did I get myself into this mess?" he sighed. He knew of course. He had made the mistake of attempting to navigate through a swarm of asteroids instead of around them, as the book said he should. But he wanted to get home, back to his wife and son, and so thought the risk involved worth it. Unfortunately the attempt had resulted in his small scout ship colliding with one of the smaller spinning rocks. They were always harder to avoid - dodging the big ones was a piece of cake. The whole underside of the little craft had been ripped away and with it the starlight engines and fuel cells. Only quick thinking and some fancy flying using the landing thrusters had enabled him to clear the field and eject before the scout ship exploded. As he lay there waiting for the computer to report, the memory of it all came flooding back. The warning alarms, the sound of ripping metal, heard only because the cabin was filled with air, and the violent, very violent shaking that came after. He had not experienced such a shaking since his days in training school. And that had only been in a simulator. He began to sweat. With the sweat came the memory of his last home leave. He thought of his wife and son. In his mind he heard their voices. And their laughter. The computer's female voice broke into his thoughts.

 `A class M5 planet has been detected within standard cruising range. Its vector bearing is, 1996.339.001. Estimated time to landfall from our present position is five standard Earth days.'

 The pilot frowned. Five days entombed inside a tiny lifepod was not what he had bargained for when he had decided to eject from his patrolcraft. "Any sign of life on it?" he asked. "Human life?"

 The computer voice paused before answering. It was obviously checking its database. Then it  said, `A number of humanoid lifeforms are in evidence. However...'

 The pilot interrupted the computer before it could finish Its female voice irritated him. "That's good enough for me! If there's life, there's hope. Which is more that I've got out here! Computer. Set a course for that class M5 planet. Max. speed!"

 In an almost toneless voice the computer gave its reply. `Order confirmed. Course set to vector 1996.339.001. Speed level 200,000 miltecs. Awaiting initiating command sequence.'

 The pilot gave it. "Gamma one-nine-nine-zero-one. Alpha one. Activate."

 Almost immediately the pilot felt thrusters fire as the lifepod altered its course. It would be some before would be needed, so he decided he might as well get some rest. He settled back and made himself as comfortable as he could. Another thought crossed his mind.

 "Computer, activate the cryogenic circuits. I might as well conserve what supplies I have. I might need them later."

 `Command confirmed.' replied the female voice. `Cryogenic sequence will commence in five minutes. Please prepare for deep sleep status.'

 "Fine." said the pilot. "Wake me when we get within a day of landfall."

 As he closed his eyes once more and prepared himself for the long sleep ahead, the pilot thoughts drifted back to the time of his last home leave, when he and his family had gone for a trip in a friend’s sailing boat. The empty expanse of the sea during that trip seemed almost appealing at the time. Even more so now. At least then he could feel the wind in his face.

 `Cryogenic status commencing.' With that statement the lifepod's computer began shutting down all non-essential systems. Moments later the pilot was in a deep induced sleep. Soon after only the slight hum, from the cryogenic unit and the regular bleep of the interstellar transmitter broke the silence of the lifepod. As he slept the pilot dreamed. He dreamed of cool water with a warm sun above. He dreamed of home.

 

..........

 

 

When he awoke he did so with a start. bleary eyed he looked about him, puzzled, not knowing at first where he was. Then he remembered. He then became aware of the dryness in his mouth and throat. Dehydration was unfortunately a side effect of cryogenic suspension. He reached for a drink.

 "What is our status?" he croaked, between sucks.

 `The lifepod is about to enter the designated system.' the computer reported. `Planet fall is expected in 20.5 Earth standard hours. You should allow your body five hours to re-adjust to its normal life cycle. You are advised to eat a little, but to drink at least one litre of water.'

 "Yes I know." grumbled the pilot. "I've done the training." He checked the stock of drinking water and sighed. There was just under five litres left. "Thank God the recycler is still working." he grunted.

 "What sort of air can I expect on this planet?" he asked. "Breathable I trust?"

 `Initial readings indicate a thinner atmosphere that of Earth's,' said the computer in its toneless voice. `but it is within acceptable limits. However a slower rate of activity is recommend until full acclimatisation is achieved.'

 "Noted." croaked the pilot, frowning. He suddenly realised that he had come to hate the sound of that toneless computerised female voice.

 "Continue standard scans." he instructed the machine. "Inform if there is anything new, otherwise keep quiet."

 `Command accepted.' said the computer. `Until future notice I will only report new information.'

 Over the following hours the pilot drank copious amounts of water and nibbled at a ration pack. And as he would not need to be awake until the lifepod came within the M5 planets gravitational field, he also took a short nap. He instructed the computer to wake him when the time came.

 Two hours later, the pilot was fastening himself into the safety harness in preparation for the lifepod's entry into the M5 planets atmosphere.

 "What sort of landing can I expect?" he inquired of the computer. "Soft or hard? Keep the answer short. I'm not in the mood for long drawn out explanations."

 `The landing is expected to be soft.' replied the female voice, obeying the instruction. `Are you ready to begin the pre-entry check?'

 "Might as well." he said. One by one the pilot and the computer went through the list of equipment checks. He particularly made sure that the inflatable life raft and ration packs were close to hand, as well as the EIT, the emergency interstellar transmitter. He would need the unit if he was to continue to signal Central Command. Which of course he would. After all, if there was no distress signal, there would be no rescue.

 `Warning. The lifepod is about to enter the planets outer atmosphere.'

 With this warning, the computer automatically activated the thrusters to slow the pod's speed and adjust its angle of approach. The pilot felt their reassuring power through the back of his seat. He closed his eyes, said a silent prey and waited for the landing proper to begin. Suddenly the lifepod began to shudder and the tiny cabin started to grow warmer. Atmosphere entry had begun.

 `Hull temperature, 1000 degrees and rising.' warned the computer. `Adjusting cooling circuits to compensate. Speed, 1200 miles per hour. Firing thrusters to reduce.’

 Again the pilot felt the power, only this time he had the impression he was being pushed forward.

  Again the computer spoke. `Landfall estimated in twenty minutes. Atmospheric turbulence detected ahead.'

 The pilot felt the small craft buck as it hit the stormy weather. Ten or twelve minutes later it was over and he could see the planets clear blue sky shine through his viewport. Then the view disappeared as a bank of clouds closed in around the small craft.

 `Impact in five minutes.' said the computer, tonelessly. `Deploying air chutes, now.'

 The pilot felt the tug of the five big parachutes as they billowed out above the lifepod, slowing it to a fraction of its previous velocity..

 `Landing in one minute. Prepare for impact.'

 The pilot closed his eyes and waited for the impact, not knowing for certain if it would be hard or soft as the computer promised. Went it came it was soft. But not as soft as he would have wished. Through the viewport he saw a mass of bubbles flowing past. It was then he realised the lifepod had hit water. Down and down went the pod. He feared that it would sink altogether and that he would be drowned in the murky depths. But then at last the pod stopped its decent and began to rise. It bobbed up onto the surface and the pilot breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. To his horror water began to drip onto his head and the panel in front of him. The drips turned into a stream.

 `Hull integrity has been compromised.' the computer warned. `Immediate evacuation is recommended.'

 "Too right!" exclaimed the pilot, as he scrabbled his way out of his seat. "Blow the escape hatch! Activate homing beacon! Start unloading the emergency equipment!"

 Within moments the pilot was out of the lifepod and in the inflatable life raft. He had only just managed to drag out the transmitter and the ration pack went a gurgling sound came from inside the pod as it started to fill with water. A few moments later it was gone. Taking deep gulps of air into his lungs, the pilot slumped back into the raft and gazed up at the planets darkening sky.

Exhausted and weakened by his efforts in the thin air he slept.

 

..........

 

 Five days later the prostrate form of a pilot lay in the bottom of a small inflatable life raft floating in the middle of an empty ocean. He was calling repeatedly into the microphone of a transmitter wrapped in his arms. The despondent tone of his voice betrayed his state of mind. "This is Pilot 192, calling Central Command. Is there anyone out there? can anyone hear me?...."

 

 

 

The End



 

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