BEWARE OF THE CAT

Here’s a story from John B. Stewart’s early days as a wielder of Dubious Magic.  He still has to learn to think before he speaks.

It was a crisp clear Sunday morning in the Canberra suburb of Waramanga. Minor public servant and unacknowledged wizard John B. Stewart strolled out into the back yard of his cottage. Holding a cup of coffee, he was simply basking in the sunlight.

He knew his recently-arrived housemate Darren had gone out into the yard a few minutes earlier, but was surprised to see the young man sitting on an upturned bin, busily trying to hose something odious from the sole of his gym boot.

After they’d exchanged genial “Good morning” greetings John B. gestured towards his friend’s foot.

“That doesn’t look like something Kat’s responsible for,” he observed.

Kat was a large white Persian – the other member of the little household.

Darren grinned ruefully. “You’d worry if it was. No, this was left by some big dog.”

Stewart wrinkled a lip in annoyance and said, “It’ll be that damned Alsation from two doors up. It wanders up and down the street looking for any yard it can use for a toilet except its own.”

“Well trained, then,” said Darren, rubbing his sole on the grass.

“I wish the bloody dog would learn to stay out of our place,” was John B.’s irritated response.

Darren looked at him quizzically for a moment. Before he could construct the cautious question he had in mind, the final member of the household sauntered out of the open back door.

Kat walked past both men, giving a little mmreh of apparent greeting as he went by. The Persian went off along the path at the side of the house in the general direction of the driveway where Stewart parked his battered old Hillman.

“Where’s he off to, I wonder?” mused the youth.

“Routine inspection of his domain?” suggested the man who’d been best friends with the cat for years.

Both men grinned.

Suddenly there was a loud, violent outburst of caterwauling and deep-throated barking and growling from the front of the cottage. Kat came bolting down the path at high speed. (That in itself was a shock – the big feline was rarely observed to move at anything above an amble.) Shortly behind lumbered a large German Shepherd, literally snapping at the cat’s tail.

Kat looked almost to run vertically up the trunk of a pine tree in the back corner of the yard and disappear into the thick foliage several feet up. The dog stood on its hind legs, front paws up scrabbling on the bark of the tree, barking loudly.

John B. was just about to run down toward the tree with a view to getting the dog away, possibly through the agency of a swift kick to its rear. He’d risk being bitten to save Kat.

But Kat didn’t need saving. The big cat suddenly plummeted from a substantial height, claws extended, dropping full weight onto the dog’s muzzle. Two razor sharp claws carved deep slices in the soft black nose

The sound the Alsation made was more like a scream than a yelp. It turned and ran full pelt back up the driveway, never to venture into this yard again!

Immediately after impact Kat had jumped from the dog’s face and now ambled back up the yard as his usual sedate pace, the only sign of emotion being his tail whipping from side to side a few times.

Both men stood looking more or less thunderstruck. Darren looked especially awed. John B. had told him about his ‘wishes-come-true’ magic, but this was the first time he’d seen it in unpredictable action. He was impressed – by both of his new housemates.

John B., for his part, knelt to pat the broad white head of the Persian who sat beside him, meticulously cleaning his claws.

“I’m very glad you’re on my side, old friend,” he said, and meant it.

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WHITE SPIRIT

Another early Dubious Magic story, set during the early events of Book 1: The Wizard of Waramanga – in which Wilko gets a little foretaste of the weirdness he’ll come to know around John B. Stewart.  With thanks to Dana and Julie for giving me some time to work on it, and to Meredith for giving me reasons.

It had been an unexpectedly successful weekend for both of them, right up until very recently.

John B. Stewart and Robert ‘Wilko’ Wilkes were a pair of fairly ordinary Canberra public servants.  Except for John B. having magical powers ever since he’d hit his head on a poker machine.

The Tasmanian Wilko didn’t believe a word of that story, no matter how earnestly John B. tried to convince him that his wishes now came true.  Not always predictably, he would admit, but results happened.

What they did agree on was a fondness for a game of golf.  When the chance arose to play in a social tournament in a little country club a few hours drive west of Canberra, they’d agreed it seemed a good way to spend a couple of days.

“It’s your turn to have a few drinks, mate,” John B. had said.  “We’ll take Kraven and I’ll drive us home.”

Kraven was Stewart’s battered but well-loved old Hillman Hunter.  Wilko had been slightly concerned – the old car had been the recipient of some of his friend’s rather dodgy ‘running repairs’, but the offer was generous and the Hunter did seem to be reliable at the moment.

The golf had gone remarkably well.  John B. had won a ‘nearest to the pin’ prize on Saturday, and Wilko had gone from a decent Saturday to a terrific Sunday, becoming the upset winner of the overall competition.

It wasn’t a great financial windfall, but it was a nice trophy and a few extra dollars to put over the clubhouse bar.  So it was rather later than they’d originally intended when they finally waved their farewells and headed east.

John B. had been as good as his word and had very little to drink.  A couple of good single malts spread over the hours, interspersed with plenty of soda water.  He was tired, though.  Sharing a hotel room with Wilko was challenging.  The Tasmanian was a heavy sleeper, and completely oblivious to his own snoring.  John B. wasn’t so lucky.

The sun was well down as the Hillman trundled along the road.  It wasn’t a well-finished surface, and the ride was a bumpy one.

It was one particularly bad pothole that had been the cause of the sudden change in their fortunes.  Kraven’s front left wheel had hit hard, the car had bounced and landed heavily.  When it did, all the lights went out.

John B. rummaged under the bonnet by torchlight to no avail.  There was a small place a little way ahead.  Less than a town, it was barely a village, but it was a destination that could be reached by driving carefully with Wilko holding the torch out the window.

That plan worked well until it started to rain.  Torchlight through the wet front windscreen proved woefully inadequate to drive by.

They limped the car slowly into Bullangar and found the only hotel in the place.

“Sorry mate – we’ve only got two rooms and they’re both full tonight,” said the manager apologetically.  “I’m really sorry, I wish I could help.”

“Yeah, I wish you could too,” said John B. with a sigh.

He and Wilko turned to go back out into the rain.

“Looks like we’ll have to sleep in the car,” said Stewart.

“Bit cramped, but I guess you’re right,” agreed Wilko.

‘Noisy, too,’ was John B.’s unspoken thought.

The manager looked after them, genuinely concerned, then called out, “Wait – you reckon you can make it down the road a little further?”

“Not keen, but what have you got in mind?” asked the driver.

“There’s a farmhouse about five minutes away, on the left.  Belonged to my missus’ family.  Auntie Grace passed away a few months back.  Family’s still fightin’ about what to do with the property, and whatever money they can get for it.”

“You know what they say, where there’s a will there’s a relative,” John B. answered with a smile.

“Bloody right,” agreed the manager.  “Can’t say that in front of the missus, but.  Old Bert was a funny cove but Grace was a nice old stick.  I can let you have that for the night.  No lights or power, but a roof over your head and you can stretch out while you sleep.”

The two golfers looked at each other and shrugged.

“What’ll it cost?” asked Wilko.

The manager looked out into the rainy night and replied, “Nah, no charge – just don’t nick anything, eh? There’s a few things the family locusts haven’t cleaned out themselves yet.  Here’s the key.  Just leave it in the mailbox in the morning and I’ll pick it up later.”

“Mate, you’re a champion! Thanks!” said John B. warmly.

Continue reading WHITE SPIRIT

Tears

I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve cried more than I would have liked in the last couple of days.

I’ve lost a dear friend in John Bos, who I’d share a drink and a laugh with. We’d help each other out without question or pause. I had the pleasure of actually getting him to appear on stage, just once. He wouldn’t memorise lines, but he did dance, more than willingly, with the woman he loved.

And I’ve lost a mentor, inspiration and yes, even a friend in Sir Terry Pratchett. The privilege of adapting his books for stage was wonderful – even better was the joy of watching his genuine laugh-out-loud delight when I wrote something new for him and he saw it performed for the first time.

I’m not crying for John or Terry. They’re both out of their pain and suffering, gone on to whatever is next in their journeys. I’ve wept for me. Selfishly, for my loss – for the conversations not had, the laughs not shared.

That’s what grieving is. My life is a richer thing for having been touched by both men. Thank you, guys. Be seeing you.

Renoir, Terry Pratchett, Discworld, fantasy writers
Renoir (L) and Sir Terry Pratchett discussing characters

A TRAP FOR THE UNWARY

Another Dubious Magic story – one which takes place quite early during the events of Book 1: The Wizard of Waramanga.  John B. learns more about being careful what you wish for.

 

It was the definitive lazy afternoon in Waramanga. The leafy Canberra suburb was warm, but not unpleasantly so if you stayed out of the direct sun.

That was precisely what John B. Stewart had chosen to do. He was in the back yard of his cottage, reclining on a deckchair in the shade of a large tree. His housemate Darren was at work. There was no sport of interest on the radio, so he relaxed in comfortable quiet, enjoying the light breeze and the sounds of the garden.

John B. had recently accidentally discovered that he was a wizard. Ever since hitting his head on a poker machine he’d found his wishes coming true. Not always predictably, though, so he was learning to be cautious.

He might, for instance, as he rested there wish for something to eat.

‘Ah, no,’ he thought to himself. ‘At best, Darren might come home early from work bearing leftover pizza. Or at worst a plane flying overhead might explode and leave me showered with in-flight snacks – and other debris.’

Sometimes having a vivid imagination could be disconcerting, although it did, he reasoned, serve as a kind of warning device.

John B. opened one eye and smiled at the sight of his other housemate. Kat was a generously proportioned white Persian cat who was currently lying under a favourite shrub quite nearby. He too was enjoying the shade.

The cat’s posture reminded John B. of the Sphinx, but with the chin resting comfortably on the forelegs.

Kat and John B. were both comfortably relaxed. Neither had moved appreciably for well over an hour. If they weren’t both sound asleep the difference wouldn’t have been obvious to any casual observer.

The lilting chorus of birdsong that John B. had been enjoying took on a new strident note. A noisy mynah had flown into the garden, and as was the way of its type, was aggressively trying to hector other birds away from the territory it wanted to occupy.

“I wish you’d be bloody quiet,” the wizard muttered in mild irritation.

He watched the newcomer for a few moments. It seemed utterly oblivious to him, and unconcerned at his annoyance. John B. sighed and closed his eyes.

After a while the mynah’s voice grew louder as it came closer to the deckchair. John B. opened his eyes again without otherwise moving.

The bird had evidently taken note of the lassitude of the yard’s two occupants. It was hopping about on the ground quite close to them both, foraging for whatever it is that noisy mynahs forage for. Once, twice it hopped right by Kat. The big Persian didn’t so much as twitch his nose or open an eye.

But on the bird’s third pass the left paw shot out and back almost too quickly to be seen, and there was an audible crunch.

John B.’s eyes widened. Most of Kat hadn’t seemed to move at all, but under the left paw was the mynah’s body. Its head was missing.. Eyes still closed, the Persian was contentedly chewing his afternoon snack.

A small drop of blood on the white fur of his chin was the only clue of his culpability. Well, other than the headless corpse still idly held.

The wizard made a silent apology to the mynah’s ghost, shook his head and said to Kat, “I’m glad you’re on my side, mate.”

Kat swallowed, and purred.

Breaking Bone

A Dubious Magic story.  This takes place immediately after the events of The Wizard of Waramanga… Check out the Marketplace page to order the book!

They’d made it into Barandilla not long after sunset.

You couldn’t call Barandilla a town.  It didn’t even appear on a lot of maps.  On a lonely stretch of the highway running through the Central Australian desert, it had a pub, two petrol pumps – one of which had an ‘Out Of Order’ sign that had hung on it so long it had almost faded to illegibility – and a stray dog.

‘Bob’s Hotel’ served as a rest stop for passing trucks and the occasional drover, and a social hub for folks from the surrounding cattle stations.

It had been a long day.  Well, that was probably an understatement.  The four of them had been shot at and almost consumed by a gigantic demon from some dark Other Dimension before narrowly escaping the cataclysmic cave-in of an underground military complex.  No wonder Wilko, Darren and Scarlet had just wanted to have a quick meal then go crash in their respective rooms.

John B. Stewart was still too wound up to sleep, though.  Since hitting his head on a Canberra poker machine he’d found he had a strange wizardly power.  His wishes came true, although not necessarily in ways he anticipated.  It had been his unpredictable magic that had gotten them into danger, and admittedly out of it.  Bidding his friends goodnight he went to get as good a Scotch as he could find.

As well as the dining room, there were two bars in Bob’s Hotel.  John B. very deliberately chose to walk into the less well-lit option.

There was only one other customer.  Sitting near the end of the bar was a dusty Aboriginal wearing the checked shirt and jeans that were almost the local uniform.  He looked up at John B. then quickly looked back down at his beer, considerable surprise on his face.

Continue reading Breaking Bone

Grave Humour

It was a big old blue Vauxhall sedan. Real leather seats, real timber window frames. Not that I could appreciate the importance of such things back then.

 

I was small enough that perched on that real leather back seat, I could just barely see over the bottom of one of those real timber frames. If I craned my neck I could get a view of whatever we were driving past.

 

If I stood on the seat I knew I could get a better view, but I also knew that was a bad idea. I knew it wasn’t safe. Seatbelts hadn’t been invented yet, or if they had, they certainly hadn’t made it to our corner of suburban Brisbane, but I’d had it impressed on me that if I was standing up and the car stopped suddenly, I could expect to fly through the front windshield. I was told in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t enjoy that.

Continue reading Grave Humour