Of The Earth

By Thomas Gilbert

Life’s fortunes take us down a trail
Through fog and wind and rain and hail
But sometimes sun and warmth and peace
come by to help us find release.

Tobogganing, by Thomas and Emma Gilbert

Jamie, do you want to go sledding at the toboggan run this afternoon? Her dad asks her.

 Oh, yes. I’d love to! Can Carli come, too?

 Of course, but first finish all of your lunch, so we can get ready. Jamie giggles with anticipation. Two of her front teeth, one top, one bottom, are missing, as new ones, barely visible, are coming in.

 Daddy, we got an assignment at school yesterday. I’m supposed to ask you about your job and tell everybody else at school on Monday.

 So, you want to interview me, eh?


 What would you like to know?

 Mommy, can I get the list that Mrs. Kelsey gave me from my book bag?

 Yes, dear. Jamie runs from the kitchen to the den and rummages through her backpack.

 She’s really excited about this. She was telling me about it on the way home from school yesterday.

 I can see that she is. Jamie re-enters the kitchen, carrying her book bag, paper, and a tape recorder.

 What have you got there?

 A tape recorder.

 Oh, I see, a real professional, eh?

 I need to remember what you say, so I can write down your answers.

 Great idea.

 Are you ready, Daddy? There’s a lot of questions.

 Let me put down my Saturday paper. Her father folds his arms across his chest, leans back in his chair, paper still in his hand, rolled up in a cylinder, and taps it against his knee, carelessly.

 Jamie sets her list down on the table, brushes the hair from in front of her face, and stares at her mom and then at her dad. She then reaches across to push the record button on the tape player, looks at her paper again, and then starts confidently:

Tell me where you work, please, and what do you do?

 O.K., I work at the Cleveland Salt Mine, just west of downtown Cleveland and beside Lake Erie. I’m a foreman and a manager of a team of 25 men and women gathering salt from the mines beneath Lake Erie.

 O.K. And how do you mine the salt?

 We use trucks and bulldozers and explosives, and we work about 2,000 feet below the surface of the ground.

Salt mining, painting by Thomas and Emma Gilbert


And what do you do with the salt when you bring it up out of the ground?

 We put it in huge piles on the ground, right outside of the mine shafts.

 Then what do you do with it?

 Big huge trucks from ODOT, that’s the Ohio Department of Transportation, County Cuyahoga, and various cities around Cleveland and the state, drive up to get their trucks filled. Then they take the salt to their cities where it’s stored for use in the wintertime. We even load salt onto train cars where it gets shipped to other parts of the country.

 Jaimie looked away from her list. Why do they do that?

 Well, in the wintertime, when it gets really cold and the roads get covered with snow and ice, trucks called salt trucks fill up with the salt that we mine at our company. Then they spread the salt onto the roads to help melt the snow and ice so people can drive more safely on the roads.

 How much salt do they use?

 In an average winter, here in Cleveland and around the county, they use somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 tons of salt on the roads to fight the snow and ice.

 She put her head on her hands, with her elbows propped on the table. How much is a ton?

 A ton is 2,000 pounds.



 Then what happens to all the salt on the roads?

 Well, as long as the temperature stays pretty much above 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the salt melts the ice and snow, and it gets all over the cars and trucks and buses that run over it.

 It does? She looked at her mother.

 Yes, said her mother. In the wintertime right now, if you go out to our car port and look at our car, it’s all splattered with salt residue from the spray of salt water from the roads that were covered with salt to melt the snow.

 Oh, like on the windshield! When we drive behind cars and trucks and it gets all over the windshield, and we can’t see, and you have to press the sprayer on the wipers to get the window clean?

 Exactly, said her dad.

She turned to face her Dad, What is the stuff that cleans the windshield?

 It’s the blue washer fluid that we get at the gas station. We have to put it into a special container under the front hood of the car and make sure we have enough to last us when the weather gets bad, because we have to be able to see when we’re driving in order to be safe.

Can you drink that stuff?

No, absolutely not. It’s very poisonous.

Is the salt poisonous?

Well, it’s not exactly clean. The salt is basically sodium chloride, like table salt, but because of the other things mixed in with it when it comes out of the ground, it’s not really safe to eat. Sodium is a mineral and chloride is just chlorine, which is a pale green gas. So road salt is a combination of these elements. Some elements are good for you; others are not so good. Our bodies can use various minerals and salts in small amounts. Too much, or the wrong combinations, can be dangerous or even poisonous. The salt we get from under Lake Erie is basically sodium chloride — table salt, and too much of that in our systems can be really bad, just like too much salt can be really bad for fresh water fish, land animals, and plants and trees. We all need salt to survive, but too much salt is harmful.

Windshield, by Thomas and Emma Gilbert

 What happens to all the salt and washer fluid on the cars and buses and trucks?

 Well, the rain rinses it off, or we go to the car wash and wash it  off, or we wash our cars in our own driveways at home.

 But where does it all go?

 Oh, you mean down the drains, into the sewers?


 Well, some of it can leach right down into the ground beside the roads, or into the surface groundwater, and some of it goes into the water treatment plants, and some of it goes into the drainage ditches beside the roads and highways, and then into small streams and eventually drains into rivers and ponds and lakes.

 But I thought you once told me that the water we get out of the sink comes from Lake Erie?

 Yes, I did.

 But you said that too much salt is dangerous and the washer fluid is poisonous?

 Uh, huh.

 But if we’re not supposed to drink that blue stuff, and the salt should only be taken in small amounts, why do we put them in places where they will end up in the water we drink?

 That’s a good reason for getting bottled water at the store.

 But doesn’t that come from the lake, too?

 Oh, no. Big water bottling companies go to places where they can get water from mountain streams, springs, and artesian wells where there’s really fresh water, or they process water to purify it before they bottle it.

Does this fresh water come from Ohio?

I don’t know. Some companies get their water from sources in the Appalachian Mountains, some from the Rocky Mountains, and some get their water from overseas.


Some big companies get their water from places like Brazil, and France, and Indonesia, and even India.

Where is India?

On the other side of this planet.

Why would they do that?

Well, some big companies make a deal with governments to drill huge wells to tap into deep underground rivers and lakes, and other water sources that have very pure water. They have these huge plants that collect the water, and they bottle it right there, and then ship it back over here for us to drink.

They take water from India and bring it all the way back here?

Uh huh.

Don’t the people in India need their water?

Well, unfortunately, some of the deep wells that our companies drill to get fresh water often take away the surface water from the farmers who have cultivated the land around these plants for hundreds of years. In some cases, it is so severe that they are left with empty wells and have no water for their crops or their animals, and they don’t even have drinking water for their families.

What happens to their farm land?

Over time it dries out so completely, it ends up producing a landscape covered with nothing but mineral deposits and salt.

Then the farmers in India could do what you do, Daddy?

Yes, I suppose they could, Jamie. I suppose they could.

Are you ready for tobogganing?

Yes, I’m ready.

Jamie put her papers into her book bag and pushes the stop button on the tape recorder, and her Mom and Dad stare at each other in silence across the table.

Drawing by Thomas and Emma Gilbert

So tell me students of the world
What lessons have the Fates now hurled
Upon the table with these dice
As sevens, snake eyes, cold as ice?

Can books remain where they’re not read,
Like stones upon the buried dead?
Or will we crack these useful pages,
And learn from thoughts of wondrous sages?

Thomas Gilbert has spent the better part of the last 52 years in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the last 30 years he has produced a program for teaching full literacy skills to those within this population with Aspergers, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, ADD and ADHD.

Thomas’s web site on literacy acquisition is www.literacyforanyone.com It is 100% free to use and share and download. Thomas also dabbles in writing poetry, short stories and novels He has composed simple musical compositions for piano. Thomas also has a deep curiosity about metaphysics and mysticism.

My journey to the end of the world

By Phil Hall

For most of the journey I was slap up against a secretary from Mexico City. It was a cramped 36 hour drive.

When we got there Julie and I walked, slowly unfolding, heading towards the cheap hotel in the dark. It was 2 am. We could hear the leaves rustle, but couldn’t see trees.

There was a taco shop on the way. Three wide-awake people inside. The following evening, the secretary phoned me from her hotel room.

“Hello, remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.”

That first night they prepared our tacos Merida style with a filling of cochinita pibil.

Cochinita Pibil

First, fatty pork is marinated in achiote and the aciote is dissolved in orange juice. Achiote is a red ochre paste made from a type of berry native to the Yucatan. The pork is then baked slowly in banana leaves . The wrap is placed in a clay pot in the oven or in a pressure cooker. It’s ready in an hour and a half or so. When the pork is cool, practiced fingers shred the meat into its fibres and the fibres soak up the juice and oil. Then the cochinita is spooned onto hot tortillas.

“Some chili sauce, please.”

They look at me. “It’s very hot.”

I know.” They pass me the bowl.

Basic Salsa, Yucatan style

Habanero slices and chopped red onion rings soaking in sour orange – the same orange that grows on the trees along the Merida avenues.

The following morning we took a bus to Chichen Itza for the summer solstice. The journey was much shorter. We see the observatory, the Caracol. We wander around the site, admire the snake heads at the bottom of the flight of steps, climb to the top.

I stand at the top. Look down at the people below. A voice calls out over the loudhailer system.

“It is time. Will everyone please come off the monuments?”

I wait a minute. About fifty unfriendly, pale faces look up at me impatiently from the base of El Castillo. Most of them look like Americans. But, also staring at me, is a Mexican-American – at least I guess he is Mexican-American.

I am the last person on the pyramid, and I go down quickly before the solstice begins.

A few thousand people are at the base. Julie and I meet up and decide to stand at the fringe of the crowd. A hundred gueros start to circle the pyramid ceremoniously, setting up little eddies.

The glossy, steak fed Mexican-American takes off his coat and climbs up the pyramid as the equinox approaches. He is dressed like a Mayan.

He performs an ersatz dance on one of the ledges at the base. Voices in English call out, chanting. The dancing man moans and hums; it sounds rather like a Sioux Indian song.

A murmuring of irritation spreads through the Yucatan crowd and the loudspeaker makes another announcement:

“Will the tourists who are on and near the pyramid kindly show some respect for our culture and stop what they are doing, right now.”

The fraudulent Mayan does another little jig and then we are rid of him. He comes off the monument to the sound of boos from the Mexicans in the crowd.

We watch. The sun, when it arrives at midday, casts the shadow of the steps onto the side of the pyramid in the figure of a serpent. The shadow grows until the body of the serpent joins the Snake heads at the base.

The sun has hushed the crowd.

I watch carefully, and feel no uplift. All I see is stone, light, shade and people.

The next day Julie went on a side trip and I decided to go to on my own to the beach. I went to Progreso, a small fishing town by the sea, not far from Merida.

It was more nothing. The beach was broad. I walked along it. The waves were quite rough, so I decided not to swim. The sand was an oddly depressing grey, and heaped. There were a few battered fishing boats that had been hauled up out of the water and piles of rotting seaweed.

After an hour there I went back to Merida.

Later, in the library of the Anglo Mexican Cultural Institute I looked up Progreso and found that it shared a beach with another town; Chixulub, only a kilometer away. Progreso was the exact site of the K-T extinction. Progreso was the epicentre for the catastrophe that destroyed most of the species on the planet. My intuition had told me nothing about it.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

The Lottery Gates

a short story by Peter Cowlam

If Peter Cowlam were a painter he would be Gustave Moreau. His story is a treasure chest of sparkling symbols. His writing reads like the libretto of an opera. The Lottery Gates is a mystical quest full of unexpected encounters and luscious vistas. The protagonist would like to be worthy of travelling through the Lottery Gates. This is a Hermetic story, a story Hermann Hesse would have enjoyed and understood.

1 The Transmutation

Si came down from the fields, where he’d been working, for the day was nearly departed. The sun had sunk towards the mountains, while the mingling hues of evening had faded in a wash of summer twilight. It was a pleasant, tranquil hour. As was his habit at this time, Si went home through his hamlet’s tiny communal gardens.

He came to the old path he had often used as a child, and with it meandered down where there were miniature trees, and a stream. Here, on every other evening, he had paused reflectively, jumped across, and re-joined the path in its climb through the hillside shrubs towards home. But Si, so long had it been his wish, turned to the left and began to follow the stream, east to west.

‘In good time, I shall have you see the Lottery Gates.’

The words echoed. They had been spoken by a greying old man of the roadside, who had told him that dreams were realties, realities dreams. The rest was all riddle, for cannot the trickling stream also become a mighty river, and the river reach the sea?

‘Make sure your vessel isn’t ill-equipped.’

Si hesitated, and glanced over his shoulder. On a crest he could see the wooden gate that opened onto the road to home. He wondered. Then he looked in the direction of the stream, as it drifted to greater distances before him – and he wondered again. The old man’s words still echoed, quietly.

The sun sank down behind the great mountain. The last of the daylight fled. Si decided to venture no farther.

The landowner’s son had also been out walking, and was making his way home. He stopped at the wooden gate and gazed into the gardens. Presently, he saw Si coming towards him. They had been friends.

‘Months pass by,’ he said, ‘and I see nothing of you. You no longer call.’

‘I am just too tired,’ said Si. ‘When the work is done, all I want to do is rest.’ So saying, he walked on past.

His one-time friend called after him, but he did not break his step.

Presently, Si returned to his tiny abode, where he made a simple supper. His neighbour was out back, smoking a short cigar, and staring at the heavens. The stars had begun to appear – there was promise of brilliance – as now he thought there were signs of less troubled times ahead.

Si would have welcomed the news but did not believe in starry portents. He was too much burdened by the encumbrances nearer to home to commit his destiny to remote unknowns. His preference was the Lottery Gates and the bower he’d heard of there, reputed to have the power to change the course of anyone’s life. Although he knew no one who had been there, many were adamant the gates were the one dependable opening into a better world. Si hope that one day he would find out for himself.

At supper he gave up thanks for the land’s bounty, and afterwards went out back and talked to his neighbour. Throughout their conversation there were thoughtful silences, supposedly a sign of good omen, though to Si the atmosphere was gloomy. He was unhappy. His disillusion permeated everything.

‘The heavens are propitious. I think you will not have to wait long for a change in fortune. You will have a place in the world.’

‘I am encouraged,’ said Si. ‘But I am not so certain as you of the stars, and the heavens. They are so vast, and the stars are numerous. I cannot see how they govern the affairs of mere mortals. I’d prefer to try my luck at the Lottery Gates.’

The other shook his head, and on this night they spoke no more of the stars.

Si set off for work the following morning before the sun had risen. As was usual, on his way to the fields he stopped when he met the greying old man sitting peaceably at the roadside.

‘What news,’ asked Si, ‘before I start my work?’

There was a pause while the old man considered. ‘I hear strange stories,’ he said, ‘from the landowner’s son. You have been seen in the gardens, following the stream towards the forbidden west.’

‘That is true. But I stray no farther than the bounds of the gardens, for the sun falls away and darkness prevents me.’

‘The landowner’s son speaks also of fading friendship. Yet it wasn’t so many years ago you played so well together.’

‘The landowner’s son grows idle in his wealth. I work all day and have no time to share in his pleasures.’ So saying, Si made to pass the old man, for already he was late.

‘There is no work for you in the fields today,’ the old man declared. ‘A walk in the gardens is better for your peace of mind.’

‘I appreciate your concern. But today is the same as any other. I am expected to toil in the landowner’s fields.’ Again, he made to pass the old man.

‘No, Si, today is not the same as any other. It is different. You do not have to toil in the fields.’

‘But how can this be?’

‘Go down to the gardens – your day is come – and follow the stream. From there you are on your own. I cannot foretell your future after that.’

Astonished and silenced, Si did as the old man suggested.

He entered the gardens and again walked among the miniature trees. At the stream, he stopped, and took account of his situation. The sun was rising above the hills in the east, in a golden flush behind him. There was a sparkle in the rushing stream ahead.

There were moments when the gardens petered out, and there were thorns, wildness, a profusion. The hazards increased once the stream had narrowed to the merest trickle. But he did not panic. He beat his way through the bushes, and patiently sought the stream whenever it disappeared beneath ground.

He walked on nervously, and chanced to look away to the wooden gate, where there were two figures, waving – the old man and the landowner’s son – who continued to wish him brave farewells. In reply, he bowed solemnly, then hurried on, until he could see them no longer.

Soon he relaxed his pace and was careful to note how the gardens gradually altered. Sometimes, it became difficult to follow the stream. There were moments when the gardens petered out, and there were thorns, wildness, a profusion. The hazards increased once the stream had narrowed to the merest trickle. But he did not panic. He beat his way through the bushes, and patiently sought the stream whenever it disappeared beneath ground. He persisted.

In due course he grew tired, and his patience wore thin. The journey had left his limbs with bruises, and the flesh of his face and arms was scratched. So daunting seemed the terrain ahead that he wished he’d remained in the fields, where he knew his work, and the routine. That yearning for what he knew grew more acute when the way ahead was more arduous, with swamps and quarries, dark, inhospitable woodland, a dustbowl, and finally a wilderness.

He was lost, and exhausted, and had little hope of finding the stream, which had vanished. Unwilling to go farther, he sat down, and buried his head in his hands. On daring to look up once more, his troubles and anguish did not diminish. The dilemma only worsened. The sky was dark. It seemed as if night had descended. There was little he could see of the strange world around him. He hoped his neighbour might be missing him, or his fellow-workers in the fields. Thoughts of home reminded him of the smell of tobacco out back, and his neighbour prophesying, gazing at the stars. That simple recollection relieved his distress, but that was only momentary.

The beasts of the wilderness had sensed his presence. As he listened, it seemed their moans and cries grew louder. Their footfalls too. He reasoned he must light a fire, but had no means. The truth was he had come to the wilderness ill-prepared in every way. He wondered that the greying old man had not advised him so.

He glanced back on his past, and found his judgements milder than before. That the landowner was wealthy, with possessions, money and power no longer disturbed him as much. It was true that he paid his labourers little – just enough to live – yet his was a life of worry. There were his fears of flood or drought. There was an ever present threat of harvest failure. To top all else he had constantly to adapt himself to the market price of grain. How odd it seemed now that Si had chosen to lose himself in hostile country as a solution to the injustices of home. He thought too of the landowner’s son, and again was less harsh in his judgement. He was lazy undoubtedly, spending his days riding or shooting or swimming, but soon enough he would take his father’s place. Then he too would worry endlessly over floods, droughts, harvest failures, the fluctuating market price of grain.

‘Yes,’ Si concluded, ‘I am here because I rebel, but what is rebellion if not an unanswered cry in the wilderness?’

The beasts around him pressed closer on Si as he plunged deeper in meditation. Somewhere the stream curled away through the darkness and undergrowth. And far away, behind the famous Lottery Gates, the keeper there was strolling in the gardens, enjoying the summer sun.

Now there emerged from the woodland behind Si the weirdest-looking man, boyish in physique but reptilian in overall appearance, who was quick to apologise for himself—

‘Do not be alarmed. I am a friend, not foe.’

Si, mesmerised by the depth and mellowness in the tone of the voice he heard, turned in its direction, but could see nothing. Only the vague mysterious shapes of the landscape he was in.

‘I am here.’

Si turned again and in the light of the lantern the other man bore saw how little prepared he had been for the part-boy, part-man, part-reptile. Nevertheless, he repressed a gasp of horror. The creature sat down some way apart from him, and explained that since the hour of his transmutation he had never again experienced the warmth of human kindness. Strangers had laughed, jeered, resorted to finger-pointing, had spoken in derision, and in the end had made him feel to be the monster they said he was.

‘Well, be at ease. I am Si.’

‘I – I have no name.’

‘Well I shall call you Lanternman. Lanternman, who has lit my path.’

‘I have not always looked so hideous. Once I enjoyed healthy manhood, as you.’

There was a tale to be told. And since the man without a name – or as Si called him, Lanternman – seemed familiar with the wilderness, Si listened patiently, even as the moans of the wild beasts echoed around them. Indeed, he ignored them, not noticing that by now these animal utterances were more akin to laughter, and had grown ever more so since the arrival of the nameless man with the lantern.

Years ago, in his youth, the man without a name lived in a country advanced in its civilisation, and prosperous. When his schooling was over, he set out to work in one of its famous cities, finding an abundance of merchants and traders there, who were known the world over.

Our lantern-bearer soon understood that there were people cleverer, in a peasant sort of way, than he was. He had to acknowledge that, in matters of trade, they had superior abilities. He made little progress, and in the course of fifteen years won only two promotions.

Even then, he might have been nameless, for most people never remembered him.

He was approaching middle-life when he had reason no longer to accept but to examine his failings. He had expected, as an older man might, that the young men and women newly initiated into the business world would regard him with politeness and respect. But they did not. As with everybody else, to them he remained a nobody. He was mystified, of course, but understood for the first time exactly what this feeling of inferiority meant. He requested, and was granted, an interview with his immediate superior.

‘I can spare you,’ he said, ‘five minutes.’

The unhappy subordinate shifted uneasily, and in overwhelming embarrassment could not muster the courage to speak. He was ashamed.

‘I haven’t got all day,’ his boss snapped at him.

‘Well, you see, the problem is—’

‘The problem is what, man? Spit it out.’

‘It’s that I’m, I’m – inferior. Incompetent.’ His face turned to such a crimson hue, and he squirmed so uncomfortably that the other was bound to agree.

‘Well, glad you’ve got it off your chest. It’s the first step to redemption. Now, may I suggest, we both get back to work. Time, as we say, is money.’

This did not seem to the Lanternman – who felt only more inferior – a satisfactory response. Instead of receiving help in steps towards his rehabilitation, he slid further into feelings of insecurity, a situation that couldn’t be allowed to go on. Eventually, as things were explained, there were places abroad where programmes and institutions had been set up to offer training to inferior, incompetent men of trade. He would have to save, and pay for a course.

‘We can only make the recommendation. We do not have the authority to send you.’

‘By whose authority can I go?’

‘Whatever institution accepts you. You could make appeals yourself.’

‘Oh no, no. I am too inferior for that.’

That, really, was his need for help, but happily a suitable course was found and he paid his application fee. After a few days he received forms and questionnaires to fill in, and was shown the box where he was expected to make his personal statement, headed in block capitals. He took no exception. Indeed the method suited him, for he, lowly and of no account, unable to voice his problems in the presence of great and clever men, felt much better doing so in writing, on an official form designed for that purpose.

Months went by, and the forms continued to reach him – until, one day, he received a letter. He was free to go, it told him. Sufficient assessment had been made, the verdict being he was now ready for his training. For the sake of economy, he must make his own arrangements for the journey. The letter was signed by one of the very greatest traders. That could be seen by the haste with which the signature had been scrawled.

Never having earned much money, he couldn’t afford any form of passage. He would either have to walk, or give up the idea. It was a question he debated with himself for an unexpectedly long time, and which he did not resolve entirely alone. He noticed his employers beginning to frown, and that the severity of those frowns increased the longer he remained. The situation became more and more uncomfortable, and reached the point where he felt compelled to throw over his old life. Even at the expense of a long walk.

On his journeys into foreign countries he followed the laws and customs every traveller must. He showed his papers at frontiers. He offered no resistance when uniformed officials searched his clothes and baggage. He explained to a thousand suspicious inquirers the object of his journey. Once he spent a night in jail while confirmation of his identity was sought.

…he stumbled on a much more exquisite garden than the one that had lured him in the first place. It had extensive lawns, terraces, a folly, lofty cypresses, little clear pools, and a bank of white, blue and purple agapanthus.

The whole venture tired him greatly, and to top all his flight was hampered by his limited grasp of geography. He had only the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of the country he was aiming for. Maps he had never learned to read, and so those that he carried were an enigma. It was therefore more by luck than judgement that he reached the town where his retraining was due. He rejoiced, but later despaired. The institution he’d applied to was nowhere to be found. None that he asked could direct him there. He was helpless.

He cheered a little when he chanced to find a small but delicately tended garden, open to the public. His heart swelled with simple pleasure when he strolled among its miniature trees, with summer sunlight dancing on the leaves. In a valley was a glittering stream. He put aside his cares for the moment, and happily sauntered in the sunshine, and followed the stream. But gradually, and too late to do anything about it, these carefree distractions melted into anguish. He was lost. Perhaps his journey would never end.

At length he came to a wilderness, where he wandered uncertainly. Then his fortunes changed again, when he stumbled on a much more exquisite garden than the one that had lured him in the first place. It had extensive lawns, terraces, a folly, lofty cypresses, little clear pools, and a bank of white, blue and purple agapanthus.

But, at the garden’s Lottery Gates, the keeper there did not share in the lightness of his mood. She had the burden of responsibility, and the strain told. She was feeling unwell, she said, and her patience wasn’t endless. It was unlikely that the mere troubles of a man should concern her in any way, for despite the levity in his step she saw that he was troubled. She asked rather off-handed why he had come. He approached nearer, but on reaching the gates, and peering through, could not see her. He must, he thought, have imagined the voice, but he did not turn away. He had hope in his heart, and he spoke—

‘I have come,’ he said, ‘to acquire competence and superiority.’

This the keeper already knew, for it was the aspiration of all men who consulted her. She asked him to say how he would use these acquisitions.

The traveller thought for a moment. Then it occurred to him that perhaps he had reached his destination after all, and that this was his training, and that to gain access he must answer preliminary questions. He hoped his answers were right.

‘Well,’ he began, ‘I would like to be skilled in matters of trade and commerce, able to make money for my employers, and have plenty of people beneath me I can order around. And of course, I must make money for myself, so that I don’t have to walk everywhere.’

The keeper was enraged. How could a man of such miserable ambition be so rash as to solicit her guidance? There and then she transmuted him, by what powers none could say, turning him into a man-child of reptilian aspect. Immediately he experienced twinges, but it was not until he peered into a pool in the gardens that he saw the full extent of the terrible changes that had taken place.

Now there was so much more to be lamented. Not only was he psychologically damaged, but now physically altered too. Why he had been punished in this way he could not fathom. In hopeless self-pity, he sat and wept and moaned at what tragedy had been wreaked on his weak inferior life. A more grotesque and graver lot could not have befallen any other man. But at least he still had his reason. If there was a power on earth able to inflict such morbid disfiguration, then the same power must be capable of unbinding that spell. He thought to visit the Lottery Gates again.

His inferiority was now at its most pronounced, but the desire to have his natural appearance restored was great. Trembling, he came to stand at the Lottery Gates a second time, hardly noticing that nearby and within easy reach was a lantern. It seemed unimportant. The all-knowing keeper had been waiting for his return. Her anger had subsided, and she prompted him, gently, to speak.

He said he had never wanted much: a little respect from others; reasonable subsistence in exchange for reasonable labour; an occasional sign from his superiors, whom he wished only to serve faithfully. His severest handicap, he explained, had always been his acute inferiority. In an attempt to overcome the problem, he had embarked on a long journey, in search of the kind of training that would help him overcome the worst of his life obstacles. Only by mistake had he come this way. He did not wish to be a nuisance, he added, but would be eternally grateful if his usual features were restored.

In her omniscience, of course, the keeper did not require these explanations. But she was touched.

‘What you are asking for,’ she said, ‘requires effort, determination.’

‘What must I do?’

She drew attention to the lantern, and told him to take it up. ‘The wilderness is dark. Travellers are infrequent. However few they might be I do not deny them a light and guide. Go into the wilderness, and seek out all those roaming in spirit. And bring them to me, safely. But before that, you must find the first gardener and return him to me.’

Si had listened to the tale in some consternation. The keeper, he now understood, was far from certain to dispense favours. He looked strangely at the lantern-bearer, and now wondered if it might be wiser to return home and resume his work in the fields, and forget about the Lottery Gates. The other seemed to know his thoughts. Speaking almost apologetically, he told Si that he had been at work for so long in the wilderness that he had forgotten the pathways out to the world. If Si wished to leave, he must find his own way. Worse than that, the wilderness itself was changing all the time, and he was unsure if he could even find the Lottery Gates again.

Si pondered greatly, for the decision was not easy. ‘It must all have something to do with this first gardener,’ he said. ‘I will help you find him.’ It was his intuition that that was the best first step in reaching the Lottery Gates and their keeper.

2 The Golden Rod

Si had been sleeping heavily when he at last stirred, his eyes heavy with slumber. His thoughts were clouded with passing dreams. The man of the lantern was raking the fire, who on seeing Si wake bent down and blew on the embers, and raised a flame. The air was cold and damp, and despite the fact that it was dawn, darkness prevailed.

‘We must set off and find the stream,’ the Lanternman said. ‘It will help in our search for the gardener.’

The wild beasts were uneasy. The air shuddered with their squeals, and the earth quivered under their groans. There was a rushing of undergrowth. But just as the Lanternman feared the wild beasts, the wild beasts feared him, and stood off, their eyes a smoulder in the undergrowth. It eased their journey once the two had damped their fire and set off into the darkness, under the pale light of the Lanternman’s lamp. At every turn they asked themselves which way should they go, until finally a tinkle and a little silver trickle showed them they had found the stream, whose course they followed. That, by its mysterious attraction, after what seemed days, brought them to the first completion in their quest. For here blocking their path was a wild, uncultivated man in blue overalls, to his right hand a wooden staff, in his pockets tools for the garden. He spoke, and was not so fearsome as he looked, a man who lived on locusts and wild honey.

‘You would be lost,’ he said. ‘In search, I would guess, of the Lottery Gates.’ For everyone who had come this way had only that in mind.

The Lanternman took the light from his lamp off his face, so that in the gloom of the wilderness his features wouldn’t be seen. ‘You are the first gardener,’ he said.

‘That I am. You are going to ask of me which way to go.’

‘That is correct,’ said Si.

‘Sometimes,’ said the gardener, ‘I think that only this is reliable as a guide,’ and he held up his staff before plunging it into a tight bundle of undergrowth. Behold, the staff lit up – a golden rod. The green of the bush he had speared burnt as a light in the darkness.

‘A miracle,’ said the Lanternman. ‘Surely this will light our way to the Lottery Gates.’

‘It is not that simple.’ The gardener demonstrated, by pulling up the golden rod from the clump it had lit. Immediately the light in the bush went out, and the rod returned to its original form, a wooden staff.

‘How can this be?’ asked Si.

‘The staff was given me when I was set to work in the public gardens, which were by no means extensive. In fact they were so small my work was soon done and I got bored with little to do.’

He went on to say that he looked to the wilderness, and the possibility of extending the garden into it. He set out not too far in that direction, such that the beasts, birds, raptors, and the creeping things did not intimidate. His intention was to make of the wilderness a garden more exquisite than the one he had worked on to date: lawns cut to regular shapes, little stone pathways running between the flowerbeds, water features, follies and statuettes, a shady grotto. When on first discovering the magical properties of the staff he had been given, he felt sure he would meet his aims. But as both Si and the Lanternman saw, the golden rod was only fleeting in its gift, and so soon as he pulled it from the ground all the work he had done was undone. Scrub he had turned to earth returned to scrub. Seeds he had planted choked. Turf he had laid regrew as wild grass. The golden rod became a wooden staff.

‘However hard I worked, I could not make the smallest patch of wilderness into a garden.’

He went further into that wasteland, and now had to overcome his fear of the beasts and the creeping things. He lit his way at intervals by thrusting his staff into the undergrowth, sending out a golden light in all directions. Wherever he stopped to work, it was always the same – nothing he did had permanence. Then one day he saw in the distance the pale gold of what he took to be the Lottery Gates, for a greying old man at the roadside he had talked to on his way to and from work had mentioned them, and spoke of what was behind them, recounting his thoughts as one recounts a fable.

Said Si: ‘I have talked to that man myself.’

‘Not all his news was good,’ the gardener replied. ‘On other days he spoke of wars and terrible times ahead.’

‘I heard nothing of that,’ said Si.

In time the gardener was able to beat a path very near to the Lottery Gates, and in a sense of wonder surveyed all that lay behind them – trees tall and serene, turfs, terraces, water features he had hoped to build himself, a blaze of agapanthus, blue, purple, white, and sunshine pouring down on this spot alone. The whole place was filled with golden light, not unlike that of an autumn afternoon. How could this be, when everywhere in the surrounding wilderness was darkness?

‘I see how little I understand the world.’

He edged forward, hoping for an even closer look at what lay behind the gates. Was there someone there he could talk to? He thought so, on hearing a voice. Someone seemed to be asking why he had come, what it was he wanted.

‘The voice was so quiet, and so unlike any I had heard, that I imagined my senses deceived me, and that really there was no voice.’

The Lanternman thought of his own experience, and how the voice had treated him, but chose to say nothing to the gardener. He was sorry for his errors, for he did not know that he had found and lost his Paradise. He had seen serenity in the trees and wealth in abundance in the gardens, but still thought of those qualities – serenity and wealth – as the preserve of men of business: serenity in their pride, and wealth in the riches they amassed.

‘In my joy,’ said the gardener, ‘is also my frustration. For it is not possible for me to enter. The wall and the gates are too high. I was left gazing wistfully into the fountains.’

There the figurines depicted guardians of the water, the spring of all life, with one of the figures surmounting all others, blowing into a trumpet. So lifelike, the gardener said, he thought he could hear its fanfare. At this the Lanternman fell silent again, knowing how the gardener in the work he did had been granted the greater insight. The only things in his past life that had lifted his eyes were two white peacocks, strutting with such authority, and a goose – a lost goose – a forlorn creature their very opposite. Now, he had grown so tired of the wilderness, and bewildered in having so angered the keeper of the gates. It seemed there was nothing in the world for him, though he still had hopes that the power that had altered his looks so outlandishly would alter them back. He was acutely aware of his life as having passed in a procession of chaos and disaster, and of the futility of all humankind, and how lacking he was in rectifying all such waywardness. He was haunted by his errors and mistakes. And had forgotten that he alone of the three here – Si, the gardener, himself – had been chosen to carry the lantern.

‘Is it possible,’ asked Si, ‘that with the help of your staff we can beat a path through the nettles and thorns and reach the Lottery Gates?’

‘The wilderness is ever-changing,’ the gardener replied. ‘I doubt if I could find my way again. Unless, of course, by the light of your friend’s lantern….’

And lo! Another miracle occurred. Where the gardener struck his staff into stony soil, the golden rod lit up again, and pointed a path west. The Lanternman took up his light, and led the way, with the beasts and creeping things of the wilderness in sudden retreat, for all that was seen were their frightened, flashing eyes, as they backed away.

Still these were hard times for the Lanternman. With his light he toiled feverishly, leading the way. The gardener followed up immediately behind, and with his staff drove aside the undergrowth for Si, who brought up the rear. Much time they spent in this, but by slow, steady degrees the path they made through the densest waste brought them in hearing of the stream – a gentle tinkle. By now the Lanternman had torn his flesh in many places. The wounds had begun to bleed. But he rejoiced with what appeared to him sights and sounds of a clear spring morning, with its great crash of early light, a radiant flood bathing his being, and a chirrup of birds in the trees. Old fables had purveyed the groundless rumour that the stream flowed beneath the Lottery Gates. It was popular romance that in following its course lone souls of a melancholy nature had found their dreams. In folklore, there were tales of young heroes, who had battled on alone and found the elusive Lottery Gates. But to the Lanternman the truth was otherwise. Zealously as he strove, under the harshest conditions, the one lesson he had learned was the need for other people, of a like mind and different talents. Steadily, with the gardener’s staff and his own lamp, and with the friendship and sympathy Si had shown him, he had battled on, and in uncovering the stream had brought them in sight of the gates. They and their keeper were just to the north of west. The three of them turned in that direction.

In the darkness they began to hear music, vaguely so. Then a shaft of light poured through a tangle of branches ahead. The Lanternman held his lamp higher aloft, while the gardener struck with his staff with vigour. Then added to the music was a voice, and a song whose words were indistinct. Then suddenly there was light, a melodious light.

3 The Lottery Gates

Si, when he woke, admonished himself for sleeping, but could not have known just how tired he’d become. There were the embers of a fire, which the Lanternman had lit the night before, but the only signs of him and the gardener were the lamp and the staff, left on the ground. For no reason, Si recalled a dream, if imperfectly so, where an orchard hung with fruit was bathed in autumn sunshine. Stark in contrast, as he looked out, the wilderness pressed on him more oppressively than ever, with the distant Lottery Gates a pale reflection of the sight greeting him just hours before. He reproached himself again—

‘I have slept too long,’ he said. His goal was tantalisingly close, but fading from view, and that was not a good omen. He was filled with perplexity.

He damped down the fire the Lanternman had left, until only ashes remained. The beasts of the wilderness drew near, as now their eyes flashed with laughter, and not the predatory instinct Si was accustomed to. He glanced up in the direction of the Lottery Gates, where in a sudden blaze of gold a tall, stately man in a blue tunic passed through and approached. His hair was dark and glossy, his eyes bright, and his complexion clear. Where he stood in the glow of the gates, Si could make out, stitched into the lapel of his tunic, an ornamental torch, with an orange flame. His features were open, friendly, and his presence commanding. One gesture only saw the laughing beasts of the wilderness disperse and disappear.

‘Ashes gone cold,’ he said, looking down at the remains of last night’s fire. The stranger sat himself next to Si, and paused for thought. ‘I know how it is,’ he said. ‘Lost. Living not as you should. In a search, but of what?’

‘You read my thoughts.’

‘Not difficult. Affliction colours everything you do. Its debilitating effects can be crippling.’

‘How to become whole, that is the problem.’

‘Your wanderings have led you here, to the Lottery Gates.’

‘I have heard much about them. Entry cannot be easy.’

‘There are obstacles, yes. But transformations are possible – even from what it is that hurts us most.’

‘I hope you are right,’ said Si.

The stranger left him and returned through the gates, and strode in the greatest self-possession across the lawns, where he stopped to gaze into a clear, unruffled pool, and Narcissus-like beheld his new reflection.

Si, humbled, asked about his own passage through the gates. The stranger looked to the two objects Si’s departed friends had left him with – the staff and the lamp. ‘Which of these two would you choose?’

Si didn’t know.

‘Perhaps,’ said the other, ‘you bear gifts of your own.’

He approached the gates, where the keeper immediately wished to know of Si who had summoned him. He heard her voice only, and could not see to whom he was talking.

‘I had the help of two companions,’ he said.

‘That is not unusual.’

Si looked through the gates and saw the gardener, dressed in a blue tunic, at not too great a distance, vigorously turning clods of earth. Stitched into his lapel was an ornamental rose.

‘I know that man,’ said Si. ‘He was one of my companions, for the arduous journey.’

‘Is that so?’ said the keeper. ‘You know him by name?’

‘I do not.’

The gates parted, but when Si tried to pass through he found that he could not enter. There was too much resistance, of he knew not what. He walked back to the fire, which was now only ash and charred remains, and looked to the staff and the lamp. ‘Which must I choose?’ He picked up the staff, but immediately cast it down, which on striking the ground took the form of a serpent, which slithered away and uncoiled itself under the Lottery Gates. Next he picked up the lantern, and turned to the wilds and the darkness of the wilderness.

‘You have chosen,’ said the keeper.

Si understood. On a last look back through the gates he made out a goose and two white peacocks, but the gardener and the strange

The gardener had gone. He turned his lantern in such a way as to guide him through the wilderness, and knew he must return to the place he had come from, and walk among his people again. On whom, he’d be asked, should he shine that light? Si thought for a moment. He’d begin with the greying old man at the roadside, then turn to the landowner and his son, then to his neighbour, for whom all things were written in the stars, for quite possibly that was an error of judgement.

Peter Cowlam

Peter Cowlam is a poet and novelist. As a novelist, he has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. The Quagga Prize is awarded for independently published works of fiction. Other work has appeared in En Bloc, The Battersea Review, The San Francisco Review of Books, The Blue Nib, The Galway Review, Easy Street, Literary Matters, Eunoia Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others.

Turtle in Stöhrstraße

By Philip Hall


It was the Albanian maid, Meera who discovered it.

‘There is an animal in the water butt.’ she said, agitatedly. ‘It’s black and big like this.’ She held out her pudgy hands. Her smile, which at first she offered, now drooped like a cut flower.

‘Show me.’ said Rose.

Meera opened the lid and Rose peered in. At the bottom a turtle waded in five centimetres of water, its shell was a mossy green.

It felt Rose’s stare and pulled itself up to the side. It craned to see who was there

‘How did a turtle climb into the water butt?’ said Rose, distressed. ‘It really shouldn’t be here. Take it out please, Meera?’

Meera fetched a chair from the living room, put it next to the barrel, stood on it and leaned over inside on tip-toes, reaching down.

‘Be very careful Meera, please.’ said Rose.

Meera murmured something. Her voice boomed softly, against the plastic so that Rose couldn’t make out what she was saying.

Meera straightened up. In her hands was a turtle, dripping with the rainwater from the water butt. Its feet waved slowly, tensely, its neck stretching out of the shell.

‘But what do we do with it?’ Asked Rose. ‘What do you do with a turtle?’

Meera was still and waited for Rose to tell her what to do:

‘Not that cupboard the other one, Meera. Did you buy the asparagus? Real coffee for our guest, not instant coffee. Meera.’

Rose said nothing for a while. Then murmured to herself: ‘What are turtles for?’


I could have told her to phone Auntie Li. Li’s turtle was her close companion. It loved Li and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Every time Li took a shower the turtle would pull himself over the edge of the low ceramic basin and positioned himself so that the soap from Li’s body would miss him, but not the stream of warm water.

I could have told her about the turtles we lost in Guadalajara; playthings that were bought at a fair, that instead of dying escaped into the garden one day and hid in the bamboo thicket at the back of the with the rats and black widow spiders and stayed there.

One day, when the dry lightning had coughed enough and finally sputtered into a storm, the turtle crept out into the rain. We saw it from the big window. It was as large as a tortoise.


Rose took the turtle onto the patio. It did eat the bananas; mush leaking from its beak. It ate the costly pepper ham Meera had bought (which was bound to go to waste, anyway. Meera had bought too much). But the turtle didn’t eat any cabbage and only half the leaf of lettuce – perhaps it didn’t like the dill dressing.

When Rose went to the shop to buy the paper and find out what was happening to the Greek deficit and the Euro, she walked past a poster. There was a big picture of a turtle and the poster said:

‘Please, please.’

If you have any news of our beloved turtle, Putzi, let us know.

Telephone 5834939

Number 3 Stohr Strasse

The Hahn family

Of course Rose went round immediately with Meera, the Turtle like a present, in a pretty little basket lined with plastic. Inside, it was munching on the pepper ham.

Mrs. Hahn was overjoyed.

‘Our Putzi.’

She took Putzi out, stroked the turtle under the chin. The turtle jerked, biting her affectionately on her thumb, but without drawing blood. Rose watched, surprised. Those were tears on Mrs. Hahn’s cheeks.

‘Turtles are very sociable. They get very” lonely Mrs. Hahn said. We were so worried. Thank you so much Mrs. Freidrich. Putzi has her partner out at the back in the garden, Mutzi.

‘Please wait for me. I’ll be back in a moment, as soon as I have reunited them.’

It turned out that the whole street had been informed except for Rose. Everyone had been looking for that turtle. In Germany turtles are very expensive.

It was a small street. Taxi drivers could never find it. On each side the gardens adjoined and the turtle had obviously managed to crawl through into Rose’s garden.

How had it climbed up into the water butt? Over coffee and a very good Kuglehupf – light, dry and not too sweet – Mrs. Hahn and Rose sat in silence and thought for a while.

It didn’t take long. ‘Those boys’, said Rose. ‘Last week they built a little bridge from their garden into mine. It must be them.’ The 11 year old and the 8 year old were the children of the neighbours on the other side of the Hahns.

Mrs. Hahn’s eyes sparked with fury: ‘You’re right’, she said. ‘Who else could it be?’ The boys had been seen trespassing in several Stohr street gardens.

After Rose had left, and after she had thanked her again, Mrs. Hahn, marched over to the boys’ house and pressed the bell five times. A forty year old woman, wiping crumbs from her mouth, appeared at the door.


Mrs. Hahn demanded that the mother bring the boys out and that they explain why they had put the turtle into the water butt.

‘What turtle? What water butt? What are you talking about? We’re in the middle of afternoon coffee. said the mother.

Your boys will know perfectly well that I am referring to the turtle they dropped into the water tank and left to die! said Mrs. Hahn.

‘Kindly leave.’ Said the woman. ‘I am sure our boys would never do such a thing to a turtle … if they ever found one. They like animals.’

She closed the door with a bang in Mrs. Hahn’s face.

Mrs. Hahn went round from door to door to thank the whole street for helping her and to explain what had happened.

‘Those boys!’ said one of the neighbours. ‘How could they be so cruel? They are liars, too.’

“I saw one of them come into my garden, too said another neighbour sympathetically.’ ‘You are right.’

He had just had his house rebuilt from a catalogue. It looked beautiful. From the outside it was like a country cabin, but inside it was spacious and tasteful. It was a prefab, so he had had it built in only a few months. But, unfortunately, before it was ready his wife was dead. She had died of a cancer that first started clawing at her breast and then at her liver.

After her death people had started to look up to him. He pronounced.

‘That’s just wrong what the boys have done. That’s not what you do with turtles.’

Later on, when we were drinking our coffee, Rose explained: ‘The whole street is in uproar now. They are demanding those two boys admit they are liars.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

The Balloonist

The Goodyear Blimp – close, but no cigar

By Phil Hall

On the 22nd of April 1992. There were 10 petrol-gas explosions in northern Guadalajara, killing at least 242 people, injuring up to 600 and destroying 8 kilometres of city streets making 15,000 people homeless. But the southern-central part of the city, where the branch of the institute was located, was unaffected.

The CEO of the Institute at its headquarters in Mexico City had an MBA from a Texas University and that made me nervous.

‘Guadalajara is a mess. We need you to fix it.’

‘I’m not qualified.’

‘Are you refusing?’

‘Of course not. By the way, what happened to the previous director?’

‘She resigned’ he said, ‘in the end.’


Around the Minerva fountain there are wide boulevards with big flat roofed houses on either side. They are lined with sour orange trees. The Institute was situated in a long avenue set back from the road. The Union Jack flew from one of its flag poles and the Mexican flag from the other. The building was from the 50s, curvaceous, white faced. A flight of steps lead up to its clean glass doors.

The young Mexican administrator, the protégé of the former director, found it hard to look at me. Tight lipped, he said:

‘I’ll be here for a few days, then they’ll send a replacement from Mexico City. This will be your desk.’

‘I’d prefer to move it downstairs. 

‘Suit yourself.’ he said, and left.

I looked through the filing cabinet. Among the other documents, were old cuttings from 40 years before: the people of Guadalajara, Tapatios of the old families, famous for their reserve and snobbishness, warmly welcomed the first British director. He had become a local public figure and raised half the money for the construction of the Institute’s building from donations. In the pictures he looked like Terry Thomas. He wore a dark suit and a pencil moustache. Like the characters Terry Thomas played, the first director had been a notorious masher.

My new office downstairs overlooked the foyer. I could see what was going on.

A thin man with rough dark brown skin often came in to chat with the staff at midday. One morning he walked into my office without knocking. Clearly he had also been a friend of the previous director, a woman. He said:

‘If there were one thing you could change about this place what would it be?’

‘II wish it were located on a busier road.’ I answered.

‘Alright’ He walked out again. 


The following morning cars blocked the whole road. I had to park three blocks away.

He walked into my office again, this time with a little strut: ‘I rerouted the traffic for you. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?’

Outside people honked their car horns.

He had temporarily closed down one of the city’s main arteries and rerouted most of the traffic through my street – Tomas V. Gomez

Raul was a fixer. This was his proof.


A soft-faced man dressed in white with a white beard and the bulk of Orson Wells sat in the foyer pretending to read the newspaper. He was waiting for me to say hello.

When I did. He introduced himself:

‘My mother is French and my father English. My father owned a textile factory in the north of England When he died I inherited it. I didn’t much care for it. I kept it going out of a vague sense of family responsibility. But the workers were always striking and frankly, they were quite rude to me. “To hell with them” I thought, and I closed the factory. I invested half my money in the City and the other half I spent on buying a chateau in the Loire Valley. I decided to organize champagne ballooning holidays for American tourists. I flew the balloons. I would take them up and then open bottles of champagne which we drank while watching the French countryside roll by. It was wonderful. Sadly, my wife and I divorced and I decided to make a clean break, so I came to Mexico where I started a restaurant serving French and English food: Churchill’s.

‘Did you ever go there?’


‘That’s a shame. Well, I had to close it. People here seem to prefer their own food.

 ‘Do you like Cuitlacoche?’ I asked him. Thinking of the grey black fungus. When you heat it it turns into a black slick which people combine with melted Oaxaca cheese and herbs in a taco.

‘Oh, yes. It’s wonderful!’ He said. ‘As good as truffles. I used to go into the kitchen to cook it as a mid-morning snack.’

He paused and looked at me for a moment, just like a poker player about to play a hand.

 ‘After I my restaurant closed, I did have another project that would have made money.

 ‘What was it?’

His project was to build and run an airship service. He told me that it would take a million dollars to make his airship. The fabric was Tedlar and it was very strong. Helium was expensive; less gas would escape. The airship would be based in Acapulco and travel up and down the coast giving joy rides to tourists. He would charge big companies to advertise on the sides of the airship and would make a profit of a million dollars a year, breaking even in one year. Everything was ready to go.

‘Actually, I’ve even got an airship pilot’s license.’

He was making a pitch. I didn’t think I could help him. Obviously he was a chancer. He was some kind of conman. But I loved the idea of balloon travel. I should have ignored him, but then I remembered Raul the fixer, another chancer, and remembered his road closure. What if I brought them both together. Perhaps Raul could make it work. After all, he had closed down one of Guadalajara’s main roads just to make a point.


Raul asked the balloonist: ‘If I find you a backer, what will you give me?’


‘OK’ said Raul, ‘I’ll get to work.’

A tall, elegant, man in a suit walked into the building a week later.

‘I hear you have a business proposal,’ he said. ‘Raul told me. Why don’t we meet on Sunday at my flat? You can tell me about it.’

Raul told me about him later on: ‘He is a wealthy property magnate recovering from a heart attack. See what you can do.’

At the weekend I visited the property magnate. The elevator in the block of flats needed a special code. The door opened out onto the top flat which overlooked landscaped gardens and 4 tennis courts.

‘I love tennis.’ He said.

We talked about tennis.

Then he poured me tea and offered me a biscuit.

‘What do you think of the biscuit?’ he asked.

I bit into it; thin and sweet, it cracked in my mouth and I munched it as he watched.

 ‘It’s from my factory.’ He said eagerly. What’s your opinion?’

‘It’s quite nice.‘

There was a pause. He looked disappointed.

‘Do you want to hear about this project?’

He stopped smiling, looked at me and said: ‘Go ahead.’

And then after a while: ‘No. That doesn’t sound like something I can do. Thanks anyway’

I finished my tea and left.


‘The next potential investor was the head of the Grupo Alpha. He owned a big rubber factory.

The balloonist was there to explain his project:

 ‘I could easily make that in my factory! The businessman from Grupo Alpha said. ‘It’s a good idea. Let me see what I can do.’

The balloonist and the investor shook hands and left together.

Raul looked at me, smiling:

‘We’ll have a ballooning company, my friend. One of us will fly in the balloon and the other will look up from the ground and we’ll toast each other with champagne.


Raul came into my office five days later:

‘The head of the Grupo Alpha is going to New York to buy a Goodyear Blimp. He says it will be cheaper to buy it than make it himself.’

Have you heard from the balloonist?

‘That’s just it, I haven’t.’

‘I’m sure he’ll get in touch.’

Raul frowned ‘Allow me to tell you something about myself. In the 1980s there was a lot of corruption in the states. Some of the governors and their officials were behaving badly. Party headquarters set up a group of 400 federal agents to monitor their actions and keep them in line. I am one of them. A few years ago I was in Nayarit where I found out that the governor was allowing large Japanese trawlers to come close to the coast and fish out Mexican waters. I put a stop to this. But the governor guessed it was me and sent people to kill me. I escaped, but they did manage to shoot me in the leg. Look.’ He rolled up the trouser leg and showed me the bullet wound.

‘I see.’

‘If this man is thinking about cutting me out of the deal he had better be careful. And if you have anything to do with his behaviour you had better watch out.’

I called and the balloonist came.

‘Look, I strongly advise you to contact Raul.’

The balloonist waved his hands, sneering.

‘In any deal like this there are always parasites. Hangers on. He’ll get nothing from me.

Weeks went by. But there was nothing in the papers so I forgot about the Balloonist and got on with things.


Raul came into my office a bout a month later: ‘The blimp deal has fallen through.’

‘Goodyear was never going to sell, they just wanted to know who this man was who wanted one of their blimps. They had a meeting, listened to him and the next day they tripled the price to three million.

‘They were toying with him.’

‘And have you heard from the balloonist.’

‘It’s just as well for him that the deal wasn’t successful.’ said Raul.’


A few months later the balloonist invited me to his house. It was set on a hill. A dry wind blew through the pines.

‘Why exactly did you leave France?’ I asked.

‘‘It was a family situation. I thought it better to leave. He looked pained.

‘Did you sell the chateau before you came? You could have financed your project with the money from the sale.’

There was a mix up, about that. Technically, the chateau was in my wife’s name.

His much younger Mexican girlfriend came down the little path from the house and served us both thick creamy lemon syllabubs without a smile.

Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.

Superhero Status Anxiety

K, a superhero, finds working as an ESL teacher tough…

By James Royce Mcguire

It’s wacked. Here he is living the life of a superhero, not angry at anyone, simply living his life and there she is. A half-cat creature with a feline purr that would drive any superhero wild.  

“It really isn’t fair,” he thinks.  

He’s fighting for justice everyday – todos los dias – as his students might say in his English-as-a-Second-Language classes, and he’s still getting a bum rap.  

What about karma?  

Surely all of his good deeds and high morals would count for something. Surely, someone in the sky is keeping score, eh? But it doesn’t seem that way. He teaches his class during the day and at night his other self comes out – his super self. He dons the cape, sports the mask, and has actually lowered crime in Los Angeles County by thirty-three percent.  

Still she doesn’t like him. Well, she did at first. He knows if he had a better day job, she’d probably fall in love with him non-stop. But that doesn’t seem to happen. He can only keep up his “front” for so long.  

So, he teaches his students not just English, but English as a Second language, even though they are driving him insane.  

Amanda Sing approaches him. She has an Asian-based last name, but she’s clearly Hispanic. With bleached blond hair and orange hot pants that are a size too tight she comes at him like a linebacker might a helpless quarterback.  

“Teacher,” she blurts out.  

K. sighs. “Amanda, my name isn’t ‘teacher.’ It’s K.” 

She smiles and for a second a small amount of rose-colored blush enters her cheeks and shows a tiny gap between her teeth.  

“I… sorry. I ask you about the class?” 

“Of course. What is it?” 

Who is he fooling? What is he thinking? An ESL teacher? No wonder Cat Woman or whatever her superhero name is at the moment doesn’t like him anymore. She’s all into that Bruce Wayne, a millionaire, and a business owner. Wasn’t he gay? How can he possibly compete? An ESL teacher?  

“What is it, I said?” He repeats.  

He wants to scream, “Spit it out, spit it out you doofus!”  

But, of course, he keeps his mouth shut.  

Amanda looks at the homework and clearly doesn’t understand how to make a question using simple ‘be’ verbs.  

“I’m gonna be fired,” K. thinks. Then, just as quickly, “which is a good thing!” 

“It’s very simple, Amanda you just…” 

Cat Woman sits in her trendy loft overlooking her courtyard. She’s having tea with Wonder Woman, like good little women should. Frankly Wonder Woman is getting on that last nerve of Cat Woman. She has just won some stupid award from some stupid mayor and is going on (and on) about it.  

Wonder Woman, takes a sip of the fine black tea, brushes back her thick, chestnut hair and wipes the deep red lipstick from the edge of her teacup.  

“So, what awards have you won?” Wonder Woman asks.  

She knows Cat Woman is the bad girl of the crime fighting world and hasn’t won any.  

“Oh, I never win awards. People just don’t like cats…” 

“Oh, that’s not true…” 

“What I mean is that you either love cats or you hate ‘em. Most hate me. It doesn’t matter. I don’t fight to win awards.” 

Cat Woman had sensed there was going to be a confrontation before there was any. She always knows, always gets code words in her mental imagining.  

A slight droop enters Wonder Woman’s face. Cat Woman really doesn’t mean to rain on her parade. But… 

“But my God,” thinks the feline beauty, “how long can W.W. talk about this award? It’s getting ridiculous.”  

“Well, I don’t fight crime to win awards either,” Wonder Woman says, “but it’s always nice to be recognized. Are you still dating that English teacher?” 

“You mean the English as a Second Language teacher?” Cat says with a sneer.  


“I told you we broke up.” 

“I didn’t think you were serious.” 

“He’s good in the sack, but come on. You’ve seen that hovel he lives in. In Long Beach!” 

“Well. I like a simple man.” 

“Wonder Woman. You drive an invisible jet, for crying out loud! How could you like a simple man?” 

“You know what I mean. Some men just don’t try so hard to compensate.” 

“What about Batman…?” 

Cat Woman knows she’s getting into sketchy territory and secretly starts sharpening her claws. Wonder Woman and Batman were an item at one point. But doesn’t Wonder Woman deserve it just a tad? And now Cat Woman might be entering the territory. She might have to show her claws, protect herself.  

“Please. He’s gay.” 

“He is not. Just ‘cause he didn’t like you?” 

“Trust me. There’s something there. If he’s not gay, then… something. He likes children or something.” 

“What? Now, that’s ridiculous!” 

“Oh honey. Let’s just face it. It’s tough to find a super hero who meets all the requirements. It’s just not what it used to be.” 

Wonder Woman looks at her gold wristband even though it isn’t a timepiece. “I should be going. I need to get to work. The science lab will be wondering where I’m at.”  

She stands up and walks into the bathroom to change into her day clothes.  

Cat Woman looks out the window.  

Super English-as-a-Second-Language Man, aka K., finishes his classes and is grateful for it. He finds teaching high pressure. At least when he’s fighting crime, he doesn’t have to worry about people watching him all the time. Sometimes it happens, it’s inevitable, but for the most part he can do his fighting in the relative quiet of the night. If he messes up, no one’s around to see it. But teaching. Shazam!  

Teaching is, as his friend described it, like jumping through hoops and juggling fireballs in front of a crowd of sixty. If you mess up, the entire class is watching, and you can lose respect in an instant. He’s thinking about fighting crime full time. But there’s simply no money in it. He has to fight crime simply for the love of it.  

He gathers his things in his briefcase and walks outside onto the community college campus. Several students wave to him. He’s a popular teacher after all. He can please them, but he can’t please the one he truly loves. Cat Woman. He knows he shouldn’t feel this way, but still. He can’t get her out of his head. The more he tries to stop thinking about her, the more she enters it.  

“Well,” he thinks, “that’s that.” 

James Royce McGuire

James Royce McGuire’s plays have been performed at Circle Rep, The Drama Book Shop and Cornelia Street Café in New York among many others. His first full length play, “Daddy Kathryn”, was originally produced at HERE, was filmed for the BBC and featured in several national papers including, “The Sun”. It received readings at Ensemble Studio Theatre, a staged reading at The Abingdon Theater Company, and a production at The New York International Fringe Festival. His one-act, “The Dating Cyclone”, was produced by LoveCreek Productions at The John Houseman Theater and his play “A Texas Funeral” was performed at The Actor’s Studio New Play Festival and The Last Frontier Theater Conference. His play, “The Seventh Chakra” was a PlayLab Selection at GPTC. His fiction has been published in HGMLQ, Ellipsis, The Story Shack, The Legendary, Ars Notoria and his work is archived in the permanent collection of plays in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Literary readings include the 92Y and KGB. He is an alumnus of BMI Musical Theater Workshop and a Hawthorden Fellow. He now lives in Palm Springs, CA.

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