dahlia by Mister GC via freedigitalphotos.net

The Danger of Dahlias – Part II

dahlia by Mister GC via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Mister GC via freedigitalphotos.net

The hippopotamus barely stirred when it saw Lomax approaching. It cocked its head and shifted its feet but didn’t stop munching upon the dahlias or demonstrate any sign of alarm. Indeed, its eyes glittered with almost open disdain.

“Shoo!” Lomax waved a hand at the animal. “Git!” The hippopotamus, had it been capable of it, would have shrugged its shoulders. Its indifference, its complete lack of concern, was unnerving. “Go on!” Lomax waved his arms, assumed the most menacing expression he could summon. “Take a hike!” The hippopotamus bit off the head of a dahlia, as if to demonstrate its complete contempt.

“Grab his tail, Hank! Pull him by the tail!” Brenda stood by the back door, clearly furious. Lomax started to sidestep around the hippopotamus to comply and the beast moved with him, thwarting the stratagem. Lomax could smell the hippopotamus now, a stale, musty odor made up of several scents, none of which did anything to encourage him to approach closer. The animal’s blunt, chisel-shaped teeth looked powerful enough to bite clear through a man’s legs. The hot, malodorous tide of its breath engulfed Lomax, caused him to gag. Plainly he was no match for the hippopotamus. Any attempt to drive it away could only end in humiliation and disgrace.

That was when Brenda came charging down the steps, loaded for bear. Her eyes blazed. Her lips had pulled away from her teeth in a maniacal grimace. The hippopotamus stopped chewing, a look of apprehension in its eyes. It took a step back from the garden, as if to dissociate itself from the carnage wrought therein.

“Hah!” Brenda snorted. “Nice try, buster. Don’t think for a minute that you’re fooling anybody.” Brenda gathered a handful of chestnuts which lay scattered on the ground, the shells bristling with thorns. She began to pelt the hippopotamus, targeting its face and snout with deadly accuracy.

The hippopotamus gave a roar of protest, a cry of such volume and depth that the windowpanes of the house rattled. Brenda wasn’t discouraged or put off in the least. She picked up a broken branch and brandished it like a club.

“Didn’t care for that, eh? Well, you’re going to like this even less.” She stormed forward. The hippopotamus held its ground for a moment, ears laid back flat against its skull. Then it reassessed the situation and decided to execute a strategic retreat. It dare not move toward Brenda. So it turned and contemplated the only other line of retreat: straight at Lomax. Its eyes burned with cold fury and it seemed almost to smile at the prospect. It snorted air through its nostrils, pawed the earth with one hoof. Then it charged.

“Don’t let him get away!” Brenda cried. Lomax sought for a place of refuge, somewhere he might escape the onslaught. But he was caught between the house, the fence and the hippopotamus. There was nowhere to hide. He stared at the great grey bulk bearing down on him with the speed and impetus of a locomotive and knew that he was about to die.

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Hippo Photo by anankkml via freedigitalphotos.net

The Danger of Dahlias – Part I

Hippo Photo by anankkml via freedigitalphotos.net

Photo by anankkml via freedigitalphotos.net

Lomax knew it was going to be a bad day when he woke up, looked out the window and saw a hippopotamus grazing in the back yard. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head, certain that he must still be asleep. But when he looked again the hippopotamus was still there. Lomax was no judge of such things but the hippopotamus seemed an uncommonly large one, broad and bulky and stout, not an animal one would wish to antagonize or approach without permission. Lomax watched for a couple of minutes to be certain the hippopotamus was really there then turned and woke his wife.

“Brenda? Bren, honey?” Lomax shook her shoulder.

Brenda crawled out from under the covers, bleary-eyed and frowning. Her hair was a complete horror show. “What? What is it?”

“There’s a hippopotamus in the back yard.”

“There’s what? What are you trying to tell me?”

“A hippopotamus. In our back yard. A big one, too. Come and take a look.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Go back to sleep. It’s Saturday, remember? There’s no need to get up.”

“I’m serious. A hippopotamus, right outside the window. You’re going to want to see this.”

Brenda flung back the covers. She was scowling and looked seriously bent out of shape. Lomax was going to jolly her a bit, see if he couldn’t lighten her mood, but decided that maybe now wasn’t the best of times. Brenda stalked across the room.

“I swear,” she said, “sometimes you’re no better than a little boy. You’ll do anything for a laugh. Not a thought for the inconvenience it inflicts upon the rest of us. Did it ever occur to you, given that it’s a weekend, that I might have liked to sleep in?” Brenda glanced out the window. She stood stock still, staring at the spectacle as Lomax had done, but quickly regained her self-possession.

“What’s he doing, Hank, can you see? He’s in the middle of the garden. God damn him, he’s eating the dahlias. Go out and drive him away, Hank!”

“Do what?” Lomax stared at Brenda then looked out at the hippopotamus. The animal actually appeared to have gotten larger.

“Drive him away! Hurry, before the brute does any further damage. All my lovely dahlias, just look at them!”

Lomax wasn’t so much concerned about the dahlias. He was worried about the two plus tons of sinew, gristle and gaping jaws that comprised the hippopotamus. But he knew he would have to make a show of doing something. The dahlias meant the world to Brenda. She lavished endless care and attention upon them, was as fierce and protective in her devotion as a mother hen over its chicks. So Lomax blundered down the stairs and out the back door, thinking he could reason with the hippopotamus. One look at the beast up close was sufficient to drive this notion out of his head.

surgery tools - part 5 - image by David Castillo Dominici via freedigitalphotos.net

The Wedding Bond – Part V

surgery tools - part 5 - image by David Castillo Dominici via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by David Castillo Dominici via freedigitalphotos.net

“It’s not advisable to move too quickly till the stitches are fully healed,” warned the vicar. Her husband nodded in agreement. I followed their gazes down to where the side of my trousers and the side of Mari’s wedding dress had been sliced open. The mattress was stained with dark blood. There were splatters of it on the white lace of the dress. Between us sat a swollen pink mass, bruised and purple – held together by narrow black sutures. I pulled away and watched in horror as the fleshy mass became grotesquely taut.

We had been joined at the hip.

And I saw then what I had not noticed previously. What should have been staring me in the face from the very moment I set foot on Skera. I knew at last why the couples always stood so close to each other. They were all likewise physically conjoined – the husbands, the wives and the partners.

“Don’t worry,” said Uncle Hector. “The skin has enough elasticity built in to it to allow for your more intimate of moments.”

He turned and winked slyly at Uncle Dougal.

From the corner of my eye I saw Mari lift her veil and blush.

“Don’t you just love our wedding band?” she asked, reaching down to stroke the bruised hunk of flesh that bound us. I couldn’t believe that the wedding she had so longed for was some sort of monstrous surgical ceremony.

Love might blossom slowly but it sure as hell withers at a pace. I suddenly felt a hatred for her that was so palpable it was like a lump of something foul that had gotten stuck in my throat. “This crazy!” I yelled. “How could you want this?”

She seemed taken aback by my outrage.

“I love you,” she said and patted the swollen lump of sutured flesh. “This is a physical representation of the emotional bond between us.”

“You’re all crazy,” I yelled at the assembled guests. “Give me one of those scalpels!”

“That would not be advisable,” warned the vicar. “It is not just the flesh that has been united but also the muscle tissue and the main arteries. Any attempt at separation would be both murder and suicide.”

“Your hearts truly beat as one,” gushed Mari’s mother.

“Till death do us part, my darling,” said Mari and leaned across to kiss me on the cheek. “I knew you were the one – as soon as I found that our blood types were compatible.”

All around me champagne flutes were being charged.

“To the happy couple,” said Mari’s father.

“And let no man put asunder,” added the vicar.

The chinking of the glasses easily drowned my stifled cry of terror.

drunk image by Naypong via freedigitalphotos.net

The Wedding Bond – Part IV

drunk image by Naypong via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Naypong via freedigitalphotos.net

On the day of the wedding Mari’s parents came hand in hand into my room.

“A wee tot of whisky before the ceremony?” asked Mari’s father.

“Steady the nerves,” said Mari’s mother, holding out a little tumbler filled with a dark amber liquid.

Feeling it would be rude to decline I took the tumbler from Mari’s mother and downed its contents in one. It burned at the back of my throat, and then in my chest, and then in the pit of my belly. I felt a potent rush to my head. The room seemed to tilt under my feet. I fell forward into the waiting arms of Mari’s parents.

My next recollection was coming slowly awake. I was laid flat out on a double bed, fully dressed in my wedding attire. I thought that perhaps I’d fainted from the effects of the whisky. There was a dull throbbing in my upper right leg. Had I fallen awkwardly onto it? I turned to see Mari lying beside me, seemingly asleep, resplendent in her white wedding dress and veil.

I looked up and found Mari’s friends and relations hemmed in tightly around the bed. They too were dressed in their wedding finery, flowery dresses, tailored suits and top hats, corsages pinned to buttonholes. Bizarrely every single one of them wore a surgical mask over their mouth and nose. Had there been some sort of accident?

“Lovely ceremony,” said one of the guests.

“The joining always makes me cry,” said another.

My pulse quickened. Was this where the weirdness set in? Was this something sordid? Did they expect a public consummation in full view of the entire family? Had I been drugged to make me more compliant? I couldn’t believe that Mari would go along with such a thing.

But then again she had grown up on the island.

Still groggy and light-headed I attempted to swing my legs around in order to scramble to my feet. Something yanked me back and held me in place. The pain in my upper leg intensified. I groaned in agony. Beside me Mari stirred and let out a small quivering sigh.

“Is it done?” she whispered.

“Yes,” said a voice.

“Is what done?” I yelled.

“You are both joined in holy matrimony.”

I looked for the owner of the voice and found the vicar, identifiable from her dog collar, face tightly wrapped in a surgical mask. She was cleaning silvery instruments with an antiseptic wipe – scissors and clamps and scalpels and such, and handing them to her husband, who was setting them out on a little tray.

I felt like the driver of a vehicle seconds away from an unavoidable head on collision. Only I had still had no real inkling of the horror that was hurtling in my direction.

Heart knots - part 3 - image by Witthaya Phonsawat via freedigitalphotos.net

The Wedding Bond – Part III

Heart knots - part 3 - image by Witthaya Phonsawat via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat via freedigitalphotos.net

As the big day approached I began to find out more about the manner in which things were run on Skera. Their take on society was certainly not built around anything close to the cult of personality. Once the surgeon who had founded the community passed away the ownership of the island was transferred to a communal trust deed.

There was no chosen successor. Instead, an island Council made major decisions collectively. The Council was non-elected. Three sets of couples held office for a fixed term of two years and then were succeeded by another three sets of couples. Terms of office rotated, so a couple might serve a number of terms of office. Mari’s parents had been council members on four occasions and were due, a few years down the line, for a firth term.

“Do you mind if I go off and explore on my own?” I asked Mari one morning after breakfast.

“Making the most of your freedom before they tie the knot?” she quipped.

Perhaps her use of the term they instead of we should have concerned me more. But at the time I just put it down to a slip of the tongue. “It would be good to get to know the place better,” I said.

Mari smiled.

“There’s loads of things I still have to do with Mum and Dad before the wedding. Off you go and satisfy your wanderlust while you still can.”

Again, maybe I should have read something more into that last remark.

It was around lunchtime when I came across the village cemetery. The first headstone I encountered was that of the surgeon, the founding father, Hamish Grayling. He’d died on the 23rd of October 2001. A second name was also chiselled into the headstone – Annabel Grayling (Loving Wife). She had died on the exact same day as her husband.

There were only six other headstones in the cemetery. That was hardly surprising. It was a small community and it had been established for less than forty years. What was surprising was that each headstone bore the names of both the husband and wife and in each and every case the date of the death was the same for both of them.

“Was it suicide?” I asked Mari when I returned to her parent’s cottage. “Could they not carry on with their partner gone?”

“More of a physical synchronicity,” replied Mari.

When she saw my brow crease, she gave my earlobe a playful pinch.

“Thing will become clear soon enough, Luke.”

Over her shoulder I watched her parents waltzing eerily side-by-side around the kitchen. The familiar shiver turned to a cold sweat that prickled at every pore.

Island Image by Salvatore Vuono via freedigitalphotos.net

The Wedding Bond – Part II

Island Image by Salvatore Vuono via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Salvatore Vuono via freedigitalphotos.net

My first view of Skera was of a single, verdantly green hill, streaked purple with blooming heather, rolling down to an almost perfect horseshoe cove. Nestling neatly at the foot of the hill, sat a picture postcard village, consisting of neat rows of redbrick cottages.

As the little boat that ferried us across from the mainland pulled in to the jetty I could make out whitewashed doorsteps and cleanly swept cobblestone streets. Gingham curtains hung in windows with brightly painted shutters. Window boxes were filled to the brim with flowering blooms. It seemed a bit fabricated – but at the same time contrastingly welcoming.

As Mari and I passed through the village it became very apparent that the inhabitants had indeed formed extremely close relationships. Couples walking hand in hand along the narrow streets would smile in harmonious unison as they stepped side by side to the pavement to allow us to pass. On one of the doorsteps a couple not much older than Mari and myself sat together sipping wine and enjoying the afternoon sun. Through the windows of a little café I saw more couples, all seated side by side, arms enfolding each other. I found myself beginning to believe that everything Mari had told me might be true.

Mari’s parents turned out to be as close as any of the islanders.

That evening I marvelled as they worked in complete concord, preparing a light meal in the kitchen of their little cottage. They glided around the worktop and the stove in such sensual synchronicity that they appeared akin to a pair of seasoned ballroom dancers, each anticipating and mirroring the other’s moves.

Mari introduced me to her uncles, Hector and Dougal. They stood grinning before me – Hector with his arm around Dougal’s shoulder, Dougal with his arm around Hector’s waist. They were as rotund and red faced as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a dash of gregarious Cheshire cat thrown in for good measure.

“Gay marriage was accepted by the community from the outset,” said Mari, as I shook their proffered hands.

Later, as I strolled down to the seafront with Mari, I found my fears being slowly laid to rest. We watched the young couples seated side by side on the benches that bounded the perimeter of a beachside playground where their kids were racing around from seesaw to swing to roundabout.

“That could be us in a few years time,” said Mari.

As the gulls wheeled in the blue sky above I realised I had been warming to idea settling on Skera. The pace of life was slow and unhurried. Everyone seemed so happy and contented. There was so much unashamed intimacy all around.

I turned to Mari.

“Maybe I could actually see myself laying down roots here,” I said.

Mari smiled and stroked my hair.

“I love you, Luke,” she said. “You won’t regret it.”

And again that unexpected shiver of warning washed over me.

The bond of marriage. Image by nuttakit via freedigitalphotos.net

The Wedding Bond – Part I

The bond of marriage. Image by nuttakit via freedigitalphotos.net

The bond of marriage. Image by nuttakit via freedigitalphotos.net

I write this lying on my back, careful to remain as still as I can in order not to wake Mari. I find it cathartic to write down what happened. But I’ll hide what I’ve written beneath the mattress. I’ve no idea what might happen to me if Mari ever read it.

“If you truly love me,” she said, “you’ll marry me on Skera.”

Of course I loved her. I loved the way her nose wrinkled when she smiled. I loved the sound of her laughter and the feel of her caress. I wanted more than anything to spend every single day of my life by her side.

But it was the notion of Skera that somehow unsettled me.

A wealthy surgeon had bought the two-mile wide island from the Ministry of Defence back in the early seventies. The tight knit community he had established there was apparently intended to be antithesis of the type of free love communes set up by new age hippies in the previous decade, a quiet revolt against the permissive age, a place where both marriage and the sanctity of marriage were intended to be the unfaltering foundations of a new society.

Mari’s grandparents had been amongst the first half a dozen couples to settle there. Both her parents were born there, as was she. After almost forty years the community was apparently still holding fast to its principles. “Couples on the island are inseparable,” she told me. “Divorce is unheard of. Everyone works so hard to ensure that the bond between two people who have chosen to be with each other is genuinely unbreakable.”

It all sounded so conservative, so inflexible. I worried about finding myself exposed to some sort of indoctrination.

“We’re not weird,” Mari assured me. “We just enjoy a lifestyle based on a sincere lifelong commitment between partners.”

I had known Mari for almost eighteen months. Despite her unconventional upbringing there honestly wasn’t a single thing about her that raised any alarm bells. She was as clever as she was beautiful, level headed and tolerant of other people’s views.

“You promised to marry me on the island, Luke,” she reminded me. “I told you I simply couldn’t have my wedding anywhere else.”

She was right, I had promised that.

But from the moment I’d agreed to the idea it seemed to me that Mari wanted a lot more than just a ceremony amongst friends and family. It was clear that her dream was for us to settle on Skera. She said it was the best place in the world for couples to bond.

“Plenty of Skerans come back with outsiders as future spouses. They all settle in fine,” she pointed out.

But still something nagged endlessly at the back of my mind.

Mari’s pale blue eyes searched mine.

“You do love me, Luke?”

“Of course I love you.”

“Then you’ll love Skera,” she said.

I smiled, despite the cold shiver that washed over me.