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Saturday, June 19, 2021

SHOWCASE: “Signs and Symptoms” • by Judith Field

 

Mark slid open the secret drawer of the desk in the spare bedroom that he and his wife Pat used for the Court & Anderson office, and removed the ash wood wand. The warmth from the power stored in it spread through his fingers and the wood throbbed like a heartbeat. He took a breath, gave a dry, hacking cough, and closed his eyes, trying to will his power into the wand. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end, flickered, and then went out. Sighing, he muttered an incantation and the wand folded in two. He put it in his pocket.

Pat was pottering around in the kitchen, back home from a morning sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists (“Don’t dignify them by calling them dragons,” she’d said to the customer) in Abercrombie Gardens in Liverpool the day before, while he had expelled a bunyip from The Aussie and Firkin pub in Macclesfield. This afternoon’s job would be to sort out a library infested with a ghost writer—the deceased had written many a story in the place, but she had died of old age while waiting for publication. That was what happened when you started writing post-retirement. Mark opened the kitchen door.

Pat sat at the table, paperwork scattered in front of her. “Want some lunch, or shall we leave it till we get back?” she asked. “I think there’s some of yesterday’s pasta bake left, and a bit of that salad.”

“I’m not hungry.” Mark said.

“Well, I’m having a cup of tea. You?” She raised the pot and her eyebrows. “It’s Lapsang Souchong.”

He joined her at the table, coughing into the crook of his elbow. “Yes, please.”

She poured him a cup. He took a sip. “Where did you get this—Krazy Kuts?”

She shook her head. “Tesco’s as usual. Why?”

“It doesn’t taste of anything. Hasn’t got the usual kippery smell.”

“Smokey bouquet, you mean.” Pat drank more of hers. “Seems okay to me.” She looked up at him. “You’d better have a shave before we go out. Unless you’re planning on growing the full Gandalf.”

Mark rubbed his hand round his cheeks and coughed again. And again. And again. “I must’ve forgotten. I felt like I was wading through treacle this morning—everything seemed to take me twice as long. Actually, I’m not feeling great now. I think you’ll have to do that library job on your own.”

Pat put her palm on Mark’s forehead, then snatched it back.

“Wow! You’re burning up. You’d better go upstairs and lie down. I’ll see you in a minute.”

¤     ¤     ¤

Pat stood in the bedroom doorway. “I’ve ordered a COVID test,” she said. “It should be here tomorrow, then we post it and wait for the results. It’s still quicker than testing by magic, all those chickens’ entrails and tea leaves.”

“If it’s positive, bang goes working for two weeks. No money coming in. Haven’t you got an enchantment for this?” Mark coughed. “Put what you like in it—I can’t taste or smell anything. I feel like someone smashed a bottle against my head and made me swallow the splinters. Even my hair hurts.”

“There is a potion to lower a fever,” Pat said, “but we’re out of the slips of yew it needs. Paracetamol’s just as good.” She walked to the bedside cabinet, picked up a bottle of sanitizer, and rubbed a drop into her hands. “Back in a minute.”

Mark’s eyelids felt cool as they slid shut.

¤     ¤     ¤

He stood alone in a bathroom, very different from his and Pat’s. No tasteful white tiles with matching towels embroidered with Mage and Mage’s mate in curlicue italics. A bulb glared, unshaded, from a fitting dangling from the ceiling. No window. He leaned against the wall, dislodging flakes of catarrh-coloured paint. He took a step forward. The floor bowed under his weight. Water seeped from the gap between the scuffed vinyl tiles the colour of cooked liver. His feet crunched against something granular that released a chemical scent. He coughed.

Water dripped from the cold tap in the avocado-coloured basin, leaving a trail of rust that cut across the caked-on toothpaste. The plughole was blocked with either hair or a dead mouse. A single row of chipped yellow tiles, the grout between them blackened, separated the basin from a shelf cluttered with bottles, each with about an inch of liquid in the bottom. At one end of the shelf a candle, covered in dust, that looked like it had been lit once and blown out straight afterwards. At the other, a can of air freshener, “Garden of Delight.”

He scanned the room. Matching avocado-colour lavatory, closed lid. Avocado bath, grey plastic shower curtains stained with mould, pulled all around. The shadow on the curtain—just a stain? Something trapped behind it? A pile of soggy-looking towels in a pool of grey water, to one side. In the corner by the door, a cockroach trap, including cockroach. He tugged at the door handle. No movement. No visible means to unlock it. He pointed an index finger at the place where the lock would have been and recited a basic escape incantation. Nothing. Where was he? His sense of smell had returned. A scent of disappointment hung in the air like stale cigarette smoke, adding to the odour of mildew and mould. He turned back to the basin and picked up the can of air freshener. Empty.

With a crackle, the shower curtains opened. Pat, fully clothed including her mask, stepped out of the bath. She slipped on the slimy-looking bathmat as it scudded across the floor. One stiletto heel caught on a hole in the fabric.

Mark grabbed her arm. “How did you get here? And,” his voice croaked, “how did I?”

“You did it,” she said. “You brought us here.”

“What are you talking about? And where’s here? How do we get out? And to where?”

“I think I know,” she said, picking up one of the bottles and turning it upside down. The contents did not move. “I just need to check a few things.” She put it down and tried the door.

“Locked,” he said. “Magic proof.”

Pat flushed the toilet.

“I haven’t used it,” he said.

She shook her head. “Do you hear anything?”

“Only a trickle of water. So what?”

She frowned. “That’s the point. Empty bottles, no wet wipes, and a bog that takes an eternity to refill—don’t take the lid off the cistern to check. And, trust me, there is a spider in the bath. This is the bathroom from Hell.”

Magic seeped under the door. Pat grabbed two of the soggy towels, hunkered down, and stuffed the gap. She looked over her shoulder. “I told you not to look him in the eye!’

“Who?”

She stood and folded her arms. “You know.”

“I don’t. Look—don’t muck about. I’m not feeling well.” He sank down onto the toilet. The seat slid under his weight. The lid cracked.

“Look out,” Pat said. “Don’t fall in. I wouldn’t like to guess where you’d end up, or what might come out the other way.”

He jumped up. “I don’t know what you’re on about. I was asleep in bed.”

She sighed “Okay, you should have learned about this in the first book I ever gave you. We’re in the nether world. Which is full of nethers—remember? Things that can’t be imagined if all you know of is three dimensions.”

Something heavy and moist flap-floshed along the corridor outside, the sound growing louder as it came closer. Something thudded against the door, as if someone had thrown a bag of slugs at the door, and the bag had burst.

“Sounds like a big one. You summoned it,” Pat said. “Only you can send it back.”

Magic soaked through the towels and crawled across the floor. Jabbing his hand through the air, Mark stuttered out the repelling spell. The magic collapsed round Pat’s feet with the slap of a dropped pound of uncooked finnan haddock. “Not bad,” she said. “Now try something else. Only this time, with your trousers on.” He looked down.

He grabbed the last towel from the floor. Damp, and stained with streaks of what he hoped was hair dye. “This will have to do.” He wrapped it round his waist. “But that spell didn’t work. I don’t know what else to try. Got any ideas?”

“No.” Pat rolled her eyes. “Oh, hang on, I tell a lie. Well, some people say magical power is directly correlated to beard luxuriousness. Wizard retires, he shaves it off, makes it into wands. Do you think you can grow one in the next minute or so, clever lad?”

He shook his head.

“Then you’ll have to try another incantation.”

Mark felt his throat tighten. “Didn’t you hear me? That’s the only ward I can remember. Don’t you know any?”

“Yes, but you’ve got to do it. From memory—it won’t work if I prompt you. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”

Another thud against the door. This time, the door moved but stayed shut.

Rules. Mark remembered something he had seen in a grimoire shoved behind the other books in the library. “We’re in Hell, right? And Hell is all about statistics—every spell’s got many possible outcomes. So, I’ll try the same one again.”

A beam of bright light shot through the keyhole. Something grabbed at the handle. It turned. Pat stood behind Mark and peered round him. “He’s going to be slow at this, without hands. Wait till it opens, then give him the works.”

The door clicked open. The eldritch horror outside was made of squirming gelatinous green snakes congealed into the shape of an egg. Trunks like an elephant’s sprung from all sides, some with eyes at the end, some with snapping mouths lined with jagged yellow teeth, all writhing and twisting towards him. At the top, a head, the face half-covered with wisps of blue-green hair. It opened its smirking mouth and spoke in an ultra-bass, cracked voice “You should have had your vaccine.”

Mark screwed up his eyes and repeated the incantation.

¤     ¤     ¤

Pat placed a glass of water on the bedside table. She held out an open hand and nodded towards the two white tablets in her palm. She tipped them onto the table and took a step backwards. “Go on, take them.”

He sat up, did as he was told, flipped his pillow over and sank back.

“Did you have your second vaccine dose?” Pat said.

He felt his face grow even hotter. “I meant to arrange an appointment, but we were so busy…”

“Oh Mark, why didn’t you book both at the same time? I give up. Probably a good idea for you to get some sleep.”

“Not if I have any more dreams, I’d rather stay awake. We were in this bathroom—”

Pat shook her head. “That was no dream. I’ve heard of people whose magical powers are amplified by body heat, so that if they get a fever it boils over and you can’t tell what’ll happen. I thought it was nonsense. Now I know better.”

“But I’ve had a temperature before, and this never happened.”

Pat sat on the end of the bed. “That was when your power lay dormant. Before you met me. Also, before COVID. It’s something they haven’t included in the list of signs and symptoms. I hope other mages aren’t as forgetful as you. We don’t need a pandemic of magic as well.”

Mark closed his eyes again.

¤     ¤     ¤

He lay alone on a beach of white sand. His skin tingled under the sun. He sat up and looked down. Naked again.  A scattering of tumbled rocks separated the sand from the rippling sea, shaded blue and green. Behind him, banana trees sagged under the weight of the fruit. Below them ferns sprouted. The scent of pineapple rose from the bushes.

Pat appeared to his right. What could be more natural than his wife popping out of nowhere, wearing nothing but a giant sombrero, fluffy baubles dangling round the brim?  

“This is better than last time,” she said, pointing to the striped parasol that had manifested to his left. “And I see you’re sticking to the dress code.”

A sign hanging on the pole of the parasol read, Welcome to the over sixty-fives’ naturist beach.  She stood up and removed her hat. Pearls of sweat rimmed her upper lip. Her white hair shone silver in the sunlight.

Mark gazed out to sea. Streamers of seaweed rolled in the surf. On the horizon, three humps protruded from the water, heading towards them.

“Paracetamol takes about twenty minutes to work,” Pat said. “And that sea-serpent’s got to take at least twenty-five to get here. So we should be okay.”

“You think?”

She shrugged. “Tide’s coming in. But, yes.”

“Isn’t there anything I can do?”

“Not about the serpent. We need something to take our minds off it. Shame we don’t have a pack of cards.”

Mark took her hand and pulled her onto the sand. His throat didn’t hurt any more, he didn’t need to cough, and he found that magic sand stayed on the beach, where it was meant to. The parasol flapped and billowed in the breeze.

_______________________


Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonise over fiction submissions at her parents’ knees. She’s a pharmacist working in emergency medicine, a medical writer, an editor, and an indexer. She mainly writes speculative fiction, a welcome antidote to the world in which she lives. Her work has appeared in the USA, UK, and Australia. When she’s not working or writing, she knits, sings, and swims, not always at the same time.  


If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read another of Judith’s Court & Anderson stories, “Glamour for Two,” which can be found in Stupefying Stories 22. Alternatively, if you really liked this story, check out The Book of Judith: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic, as it’s just full of Court & Anderson stories—and more as well!


 

 

Amazon reader reviews:

“Judith Field celebrates the extraordinary. It lives in every line of her stories alongside magic, friendly ghosts, and paranormal entities. Each tale also contains human beings who are warm, full of sentience, and often conflicting emotions. Allow yourself to be whisked away to ordinary suburbs where incredible things happen all the time.”

“Judith Field’s talent, or rather one of her talents, for she has many, is the ability to come up with an idea that’s almost laughably simple, then plonk that idea in the most prosaic of settings, and somehow end up with a tale so unique and so eldritch that it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.”

“A collection of tales of the fantastic that manage to be sweet, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny all at the same time.”

“These stories present a refreshing fusion of styles. Life, wonder, and magic sums it up—often the fantastic and magical meets the reality of everyday life in a way that I’d imagine fans of Pratchett and Gaiman might appreciate. There are also hints of magic realism and a depth of characterisation that makes the writing truly engaging and a pleasure to read. The fact that some characters make repeated appearances across the stories is very welcome because they are so well-drawn that they stay with you. This collection is by turns funny, absurd, and poignant, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Highly recommended.”


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