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      At 10:30am, the air is buzzing with excitement. As the first race is going to start soon. There has been no signs of a dust storm and everyone seem to have forgotten about it. The participants are cheering and getting ready for the race while groups of tourists are wandering about, taking pictures of the teams and the folks in costume. People came from as far as Mexico, Italy and Macedonia.

      Because of the harsh conditions, miners were usually males back in the days. But there have always been teams at our little town’s festival ready to include women and children because they were usually lighter and it was easier to push the carts around on the tracks. Since a few years, there even have been full female teams, and they were pretty good too.

      Prune arrives with her new fancy reflex camera she got at her last birthday. She wants to take our picture in front of our cart. At Joe and Callum’s surprise, I try to talk her into joining our team and be part of the fun. I get out of the cart a spare hat and a wig I had prepared for her, but she says today she’s doing a reportage about the festival. I know she wants to be on the lookout for our father, and keep an eye on the Inn’s guests. She told me yesterday something was off with that Liana Parker who kept snooping around and asking questions to townsfolk about Howard and Fred. And, she heard the two other girls talking about Liana being a Finli and a nun.

      I frown. I haven’t told the boys anything about my father or suspicious guests with false names. Prune knows I’m not too keen about letting my little sister following people around on her own. I told her something could go wrong, but she brushed it aside explaining it was the perfect occasion because people wouldn’t pay attention to someone taking random pictures during a festival. She’s got a point, but I’m still her big brother. I had to try.

      She asks us to strike a pose in front of our cart and tells a few jokes. When we laugh she takes a picture of our all male team, I’m the one in the center, Callum’s on the left and Joe on the right. I’m glad despite all the concern, I look like I’m having fun.

      Checking her camera screen, Prune says: “You guys remind me of the Clockwork Orange with your hats, but more colourful and less creepy.”

      Callum and Joe look at each other, each having one eyebrow raised. I snort. I’m sure they don’t understand the reference.

      “You’re ok,” she tells them. “It means people will notice and remember you.”

      “Spread the word! We’ll crush them all!” Callum shouts.

      Prune looks at me. “You’re still frowning,” she says. “It’ll be fine.”

      “Ok,” I say. “But at least take the hat. You can’t dress as yourself during a Cart and Lager festival, or you’ll pop out of the crowd.”

      She raises her eyes to the sky and sighs. Then, she takes the orange hat from my hands and puts it on her head.

      “There, happy? Consider that an endorsement of your team,” she says with a wink.

      Joe and Callum hoot and whistle loudly. “Miss serious is running wild! Anything can happen today.”

      We all laugh. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

      “Hey! You’re mother is about to talk,” says Joe to Callum. “She’s hot.”

      “Don’t speak about my mother like that.”

      The mayor has climbed on the central stage and she’s talking with an all dressed up woman with a big hat that makes her look like the Queen of England. She sure seems out of place in our little town’s festival. Flanked by two bodyguards in black, I guess it’s Botty Banworth who’s provided that expensive sound system the mayor’s trying to use. “One, two, three… Is it working? Yes. Ok. All the participants are expected to bring their cart to the depart lane. We’re about to start. In the meantime let me introduce Miss Banworth who’s been very generous and allowed our festival to get to another level. She’s going to help us rehabilitate the abandoned mines and open a museum.”

      A roar from the crowd. The woman’s lips are so thin and red that the smile she puts on her face looks like it’s just been made with a razor blade. I shiver. She’s the Queen of England turned by a vampire.

      Someone bumps into my back and knocks the air out of my lungs. I almost fall on my sister.

      “Hey! Watch out!” says Callum.

      I catch my breath and look up. It’s Betsy, dressed as a miner too, with extra sequins and gummy stars on her dungarees. She looks confused and mutters some excuses but doesn’t stop. She walks as if she has had a few lagers already.

      “Hey, Betsy,” calls Prune. “You seem like you just saw a ghost.”

      “Someone… near the mines… It can’t be…” says Betsy.

      “Who did you see near the mines?” shouts my sister.

      With the noise around us, I almost didn’t hear Betsy’s answer.

      Fred… Howard… It can’t be. I need Idle’s cakes,” she says before disappearing in the crowd.

      I look at Prune. I see in her eyes we’re thinking the same thing. Dad’s really here. We nod at the same time and I move my lips: “Be careful.” She nods.

      “You three, win,” she tells us before leaving.

      “You heard her?” I asked Callum and Joe. “Let’s move our limo.”  As we approach the tracks with the other participants, a gush of wind almost knock my hat off my head. There is some commotion coming from the central stage. A guy climbed up and is shouting something  that I don’t understand, pointing at the sky behind us. When I look back like everyone, tourists and teams, I understand.

      “Dust! Dust’s coming!”

      And right from the direction of the abandoned mines. Dad what did you get yourself into?

      It’s 10:55am and I’m pretty sure we’ll have to put off the race.


        Aunt Idle:

        There’s nothing quite like the morning of the cart race, watching for the dust anouncing the arrival of another van or cart full of people on a partying mission, there’s something in the air, well dust mainly after awhile.  Yes I know there’s a lot to do with all the extra people but Finley can manage and nobody will expect much from overworked staff anywhere today anyway.  I just love catching the first sight of a decorated cart and people in costumes, you have no idea how monotonous the attire around here is.  People of all ages, too, that’s what I love about it.  Some people been coming for as long as anyone can remember, they came back when it started again, and some of them never took their masks off, nobody ever saw them without masks and you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be here later, they always turn up.  You won’t catch them with their mask off though.  Always see some new ones. Every year new ones turn up, and then we never see them again, like pop ins they are.   Some of them stick in your mind, oddly enough.   There’s one in particular I’m always keeping an eye out for, got a cart all decked out like a pirate galleon, and barrels of rum instead of lager.   Maybe I’ll get lucky this year and get a ride in the pirate galleon, you never know. Anything can happen in a dust storm after a lager and cart race.


        In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

        “Bossy, isn’t she?” muttered Yasmin, not quite out of earshot of Finly. “I haven’t even had a shower yet,” she added, picking up her phone and sandals.

        Yasmin, Youssef and Zara left the maid to her cleaning and walked down towards Xaviers room.   “I’d go and get coffee from the kitchen, but…” Youssef said, turning pleading eyes towards Zara, “Idle might be in there.”

        Smiling, Zara told him not to risk it, she would go.

        “Come in,” Xavier called when Yasmin knocked on the door. “God, what a dream,” he said when they piled in to his room.  “It was awful. I was dreaming that Idle was threading an enormous long needle with baler twine saying she was going to sew us all together in a tailored story cut in a cloth of continuity.”  He rubbed his eyes and then shook his head, trying to erase the image in his mind.  “What are you two up so early for?”

        Zara’s gone to get the coffee,” Youssef told him, likewise trying to shake off the image of Idle that Xavier had conjured up. “We’re going to have a couple of hours on the game before the cart race ~ or the dust storm, whichever happens first I guess. There are some wierd looking vans and campers and oddballs milling around outside already.”

        Zara pushed the door open with her shoulder, four mugs in her hands.  “You should see the wierdos outside, going to be a great photo opportunity out there later.”

        “Come on then,” said Xavier, “The game will get that awful dream out of my head.  Let’s go!”

        “You’re supposed to be the leader, you start the game,” Yasmin said to Zara. Zara rolled her eyes good naturedly and opened the game. “Let’s ask for some clues first then. I still don’t know why I’m the so called leader when you,” she looked pointedly as Xavier and Youssef, “Know much more about games than I do. Ok here goes:”

        “The riddle “In the quietest place, the loudest secrets are kept” is a clue to help the group find the first missing page of the book “The Lost Pages of Creativity,” which is an integral part of the group quest. The riddle suggests that the missing page is hidden in a quiet place where secrets are kept, meaning that it’s likely to be somewhere in the hidden library underground the Flying Fish Inn where the group is currently situated.”

        “Is there a cellar here do you think?” Zara mused. “Imagine finding a real underground library!” The idea of a grand all encompassing library had first been suggested to Zara many years ago in a series of old books by a channeler, and many a time she had imagined visiting it. The idea of leaving paper records and books for future generations had always appealed to her. She often thought of the old sepia portrait photographs of her ancestors, still intact after a hundred years ~ and yet her own photos taken ten years ago had been lost in a computer hard drive incident. What would the current generation leave for future anthropologists? Piles of plastic unreadable gadgets, she suspected.

        Youssef can ask Idle later,” Xavier said with a cheeky grin. “Maybe she’ll take him down there.” Youssef snorted, and Yasmin said “Hey! Don’t you start snorting too! Right then, Zara, so we find the cellar in the game then and go down and find the library? Then what?”

        “The phrase “quietest place” can refer to a secluded spot or a place with minimal noise, which could be a hint at a specific location within the library. The phrase “loudest secrets” implies that there is something important to be discovered, but it’s hidden in plain sight.”

        Hidden in plain sight reminded Yasmin of the parcel under her mattress, but she thrust it from her mind and focused on the game. She made up her mind to discuss it with everyone later, including the whacky suppositions that Zara had come up with. They couldn’t possibly confront Idle with it, they had absolutely no proof. I mean, you can’t go round saying to people, hey, that’s your abandoned child over there maybe. But they could include Xavier and Youssef in the mystery.

        “The riddle is relevant to the game of quirks because it challenges the group to think creatively and work together to solve the puzzle. This requires them to communicate effectively and use their problem-solving skills to interpret the clues and find the missing page. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate their individual strengths and also learn from each other in the process.”

        “Work together, communicate effectively” Yasmin repeated, as if to underline her resolution to discuss the parcel and Sister Finli a.k.a. Liana with the boys and Zara later. “A problem shared is a problem hopelessly convoluted, probably.”

        The others looked up and said “What?” in unison, and Yasmin snorted nervously and said “Never mind, tell you later.”


        In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

        A loud knock made them jump. Youssef tensed.

        “Quick! Under the bed!” hissed Zara. Before he could move, the door flung open. It was Finly and she looked irritated.

        “I’ve come to service the room,” she said.

        “It’s so early!” said Yasmin. She smiled in what she hoped was a friendly manner. “It’s fine … really!”

        Finly’s nose twitched as she cast her eyes around the room. “I’ve got a ton of work today and I prefer to clean when the room is vacated … ”

        Yasmin thought of the package under her bed and wondered if she dared retrieve it. The cleaning lady scared her. She always seemed to be lurking somewhere nearby  … dusting and watching. She reminded Yasmin a little of Sister Finli, or Liani, as apparently she preferred to call herself now … maybe not so much in appearance but certainly in her surly manner. What a mad coincidence it was that there should be two of them! Apparently Finly was from New Zealand and Yasmin wondered what the enigmatic cleaning lady’s story was — a hidden talent for poetry? A tragic love affair that had left her heartbroken?  Yasmin daren’t ask.

        “Well if you could just give me a minute so I can get up …  ”

        “Sure,” said Finly, thumping her cleaning bucket on the ground and folding her arms. “I can wait.”

        “Come on, Guys!” said Zara leaping up from the bed. “Lets go wake up Xavier. Maybe we could play the game to fill in some time before the race. It’s such a shit day out there.”


        In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

        The morning of the lager and cart race dawned bright and clear.  The camping ground was full to overflowing with tents and camper vans, with several parked up outside the Flying Fish Inn. Zara overheard Finly complaining to Mater about all the extra work with all and sundry traipsing in and out using the toilets, and Bert muttering about where was all the extra water supposed to come from and what if the well ran dry, and was it all really worth it, and Zara saw him scowl when Idle told him to lighten up and enjoy it.  “Hah! Enjoy it? Nothing good ever happens when a dust storm comes for the cart race,” he said pointedly to Idle, ” And damn near everyone asking about the old mines, I tell you, nothing good’s gonna come from a cart race in a dust storm, the mayor shoulda cancelled it.”  Bert slammed the porch door as he stomped off outside, scowling at Zara on the way past.

        Zara watched him go with a quizzical expression. What was going on here?  Idle had told her about her affair with Howard some forty years ago, and how she’d had to disappear as soon as it became obvious that she was pregnant.  Zara had sympathized and said what an ordeal it must have been, but Idle had laughed and said no not really, she’d had a lovely time in Fiji and had found a nice place to leave the baby.  Then Howard had disappeared down the mines, and what was the story about Idle’s brother leaving mysteriously? Idle had been vague about that part, preferring to change the topic to Youssef.  Was the Howard story why Bert was so reluctant for anyone to go down the mines? What on earth was going on?

        And how had Yasmin’s parcel ended up in Xavier’s room?  Xavi had soon noticed that he’d picked it up by mistake and returned it to Yasmin, but how had it ended up on the table on the verandah? It was perplexing, and made Yasmin disinclined to deliver it to Mater until she could fathom what had happened.  She had tucked in under her mattress until she was sure what to do.

        But that wasn’t the only thing that had piqued Zara’s curiosity.  When Idle had said she’d had the baby in Fiji, and found a nice place to leave it, Zara couldn’t help but think of the orphanage where Yasmin was working.  But no, surely that would be too much of a coincidence, and anyway, a 40 year old orphan wouldn’t still be there.   But what about that woman in the BMW that Yasmin felt sure she recognized?   No, surely it was all too pat. But then, what was that woman in the dark glasses doing in Betsy’s shop?  Betsy was Howards wife. Idle had mentioned her when she told her story over the second bottle of wine.

        Should she divulge Idle’s secrets to Yasmin and quiz her on the woman in dark glasses? Zara decided there would be no harm in it, after all, they would be leaving soon after the cart race, and what would it matter.  She fetched two cups of coffee from the kitchen and took them to Yasmin’s room and knocked gently on the door.

        “Are you awake?” she called softly.

        “Yeah, come in Zara, I’ve been awake for ages,” Yasmin replied.

        Zara put the coffee cups on the bedside table and sat on the side of Yasmins bed. “There’s something going on here, I have to tell you something. But first, have you worked out who that woman in the BMW is?”

        Yasmin looked startled and said “How did you know?  Yes I have. It’s Sister Finli from the orphanage, I’m sure of it.  But why has she followed me here? And in disguise! It’s just creepy!”

        “Aha!” Zara couldn’t suppress a rather triumphant smile. “I thought it was just a wacky idea, but listen to this, Idle told me something the other night when we sat up drinking wine.”  As she told Idle’s story, Yasmin’s eyes widened and she put a hand over her open mouth.

        “Could it be…?”

        “Yes but why in disguise? What is she up to? What should we do, should we warn Idle?”  Zara had warmed to Idle, and if there were any sides to be taken in the matter, she felt more for Idle than that unpleasant woman from the orphanage who was so disturbing to Yasmin.

        “Oh I don’t know, maybe we should keep out of it!” Yasmin said. “That parcel though!  What am I going to do about that parcel!”

        Zara frowned. “Well, you have three options, Yas.  Open it and read it… don’t look so horrified!  Or deliver it as promised..”

        “We’ll never know what it said though if we do that,” Yasmin was looking more relaxed now.

        “Exactly, and I’m just too curious now.”

        “And the third option?”

        Ignoring the question, Zara asked where the parcel was.  Yasmin grinned wickedly but a knock at the door interrupted her intention to retrieve the parcel from under the mattress.   It was Youssef, who asked if he could come in.

        “Shall we tell him?” Zara whispered, as Yasmin called out “Of course! Is Idle after you again? Quick, you can hide under my bed!”

        “Not yet” Yasmin whispered back. “I need to think.”


          I can’t believe the cart race is tomorrow. Joe, Callum and I have worked so hard this year to incorporate solar panels and wind propellers to our little bijou. The cart race rules are clear, apart from thermal engines and fossil fuels, your imagination is your limit. Our only worry was that dust storm. We feared the Mayor would cancelled the race, but I think she won’t. She desperately needs the money.

          Some folks thought to revive the festival as a prank fifteen years ago, but people had so much fun the council agreed to renew it the next year, and the year after that it was made official. It’s been a small town festival for ten years, and would have stayed like that if it hadn’t been for a bus full of Italian tourist on their way to Uluru. It broke down as they drove through main street – I remember it because I just started my job at the garage and couldn’t attend the race. Those Italians, a bunch of crazy people, posted videos of the race on the Internet and it went viral, propelling our ghost town to worldwide fame. We thought it would subside but some folks created a FishBone group and we’re almost as famous as Punxsutawney once a year. We even have a team of old ladies from Tikfijikoo Island.

          All that attention attracted sponsors, mostly booze brands. But this year we’ve got a special one from Sidney. Aunt Idle who’s got a special friend at the city council told us the council members couldn’t believe it when the tart called and offered money. Botty Banworth, head of a big news company made famous by her blog: Prudish Beauty.

          Aunt Idle, who heard it from one of her special friends at the town’s council, started a protest because she thought the Banworth tart would force the council to ban all recreational substances. But I have it from Callum, who’s the Mayor’s son, that the tart is not interested in making us an example of sobriety. She’s asked to lease the land where the old mines are and the Mayor haven’t told anybody about it.

          After Callum told me about the lease, it reminded me about the riddle.

          A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
          Together they rest, yet always outside.
          One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
          Into the depths, where danger lies all.

          Then something else happened. Another woman stopped at the gas station earlier today. I recognised one of the Inn’s guests, the one with the Mercedes. With her mirror sunglasses and her headscarf wrapped around her hair, she already looked suspicious. But as it happened, she asked me about the mines and how to go there. For abandoned mines, they sure attract a lot of attention.

          It reminded me of something. So after work, I went to the Inn and asked the twins permission to go up to their lair. When dad disappeared, Mater went mad, she threw everything to the garbage. The twins waited til she got back inside and moved everything back in the attic and called it their lair. It looks just like dad’s old office with the boxes full of papers, the mahogany desk and even his typewriter. For whatever reason, Mater just ignores it and if she needs something from the attic, she asks someone else to get it, pretexting she can’t climb all those stairs.

          I was right. Dad left the old manuscript he was working on at the time. A sci-fi novel about strange occurrences in an abandoned mine that looked just like the one outside of town. Prune said it’s badly written, and it doesn’t even have a title. But I remember having nightmares after reading some of the passages.

          F LoveF Love

            Mater having a moan:

            It’s a funny old world.

            At my age, you’d think I’d be able to put my feet up and watch the world go by for a bit, wouldn’t you? God knows, don’t I deserve it? Truth is, I’m still holding things together here. With a bit of practical help from Finly of course, who we all agree is a trouper even if she is a Kiwi.

            Sometimes, it occurs to me I should just let go and see where the dice lands … what will be will be …  que sera sera … that sort of thing. Place will fall apart if I do though.

            The kids don’t really care. And why would they at their age? Idle’s all talk about how she does this and that but the evidence is sadly lacking … she’s making a fool of herself with one of the new fellas, all goggle-eyed and tarting herself up more than ever. It’s embarrassing but I’m done telling her.

            Since we got on that bnb site the bookings have tripled. Idle says I’ve got to be pleasant to people or we’ll get a bad review. Did my head in being pleasant to that toffee-nose one who won’t take her sunglasses off. That’s just plain bad manners! Another thing, she calls herself Liana but it sure takes her a while to answer to the name. Finly says she’s noticed the same. We’re keeping a close eye on that one.

            And now sounds like the cart race in a dust storm is going ahead. I tell you right now, Finly is not going to be pleased about that.


            In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

            Perhaps it was the approaching storm that was the cause of the annoying inability to fall asleep, and when Zara had had enough of the bizarre juxtapositions of the hypnagogic images flashing before her closed eyelids,  she gave up trying and switched the bedside light on.  Often she felt restless before a storm, not really a fear of danger but an alertness to the power and the agitation of it.  A bit like having one strong coffee too many and wishing you hadn’t.

            Zara padded over to the door barefoot, and opened it a crack.  Silence, and dark but for a night light in the hall and a distant light on the porch.  Quietly Zara made her way to the verandah. The night air washed over her face and made her smile and breathe deeply. She felt her self relaxing, and reminded herself that she was supposed to be relaxing, it was a holiday after all.  There was something in the air though, something she couldn’t nail down. A restlessness in the air.  It was as if something wanted to come to light, come out in the open, and yet an approaching dust storm threatened to obscure even the most obvious of things.

            “May as well sit up and have a glass of wine when it’s like this,” Aunt Idle said when Zara had finished her deep breathing relaxing mental turmoil exercises and had eventually turned to sit down at one of the tables.  “Fetch a glass over there and come and join me. Ever been in a dust storm in a lager and cart race?”

            Zara welcomed the distraction and smiled encouragingly and said that she had not.

            “Oh, I could tell you a tale or two about dust storms and cart races,”  Aunt Idle said, and then drifted off into silent reverie. Zara refilled their glasses with wine. “Do tell,” she said, “Tell me a tale about dust storms and cart races.”


              Aunt Idle


              Endless legal squabbling,
              Eventually it comes to blows.
              Zhang Ji has a speech defect,
              Hair loose, turning northward.

              I don’t know what the dickens that I Ching is supposed to mean, I was hoping it would give me a clue about that new guest.  There’s something about her but I can’t put my finger on it. I must remember to ask Bert about her, see if he’s noticed anything funny. Not that she’s acting funny, not unusual for a guest who’s travelled far to get here ~ and anyone getting here has travelled, let’s face it ~ to stay in their room catching up on sleep, but I don’t know, there is something niggling me about her. I barely caught a glimpse of her but she seemed familiar somehow.  I’ll ask Bert, but we’re all so busy now what with the lager and cart race coming up, and those four friends staying, and god only knows when that dust storm comes what we’re supposed to do to entertain them all when they can’t go outside, and they’ll be expecting poor old Finly to keep the place dusted and the windows cleaned.   I sometimes think I prefered it here when nobody hardly came.

              Hardly got a moment to myself and our Prune is up to something but god knows I don’t have time to follow her around, and there’s no weaseling anything out of her when she’s got one of her secret missions going on.  Mater’s pulled her finger out, it has to be said, she’s been as good as gold with the guests, she can turn the old dear charm on when she wants to, and she’s pulled out all the stops playing the gracious hostess, and I can’t say a word against good old Finly. She’s a cheeky minx when we’re not busy but she’s been a real trooper.  I think I’ll speak to Mater about a little bonus for her.   Yes, I think that might sweeten her up for when I ask her to do my roots tomorrow which reminds me to put pink dye on Berts list for when he goes to Alice in the morning.

              Honestly there’s too much to think about, I haven’t had a minute to get a costume ready for the cart race, maybe I’ll ask the twins.  Gotta say it, they’ve been brilliant organizing the cart decorating with the four friends. They’re a lovely group, I just wish I had more time to hang out with them, especially the big guy, oh my.  Maybe after the cart race, anything can happen after a cart race, lord knows ~ it was after a cart race in a dust storm that Howard and I had a fling and thank god Betsy never found out, she’s have had my guts for garters and nobody would have blamed her.  I still wonder what happened to Howard. We always had a soft spot for each other, but he felt so guilty he never strayed from Betsy again. I’d have been game, I’ll be honest, but I didn’t push it.  Betsy was a big girl back in those days, but nowhere near as big as she is now. Must be hard for her wondering what happened to her husband all these years, no wonder she got sucked into all that mumbo jumbo and stuffing her chops all day long.

              And not being able to claim the inheritance that would have been Howards, that must have been hard.  They could have lived in the lap of luxury for the rest of their lives when Howard’s father died, and he hasn’t died yet, must be pushing 90 by now.  I know she’s hoping Howard didn’t die in the mines ~ obviously ~ and that he’ll come back one day somehow, and you can bet your bottom dollar she’s hoping he comes back before the old man dies and it all gets left to someone else.

              That new guest went in Betsy’s before she even checked in here,  Corrie saw her, I guess she’s into mumbo jumbo in a big way if she had to get supplies of crystals or amulets or whatever they sell in there, before checking in to the hotel.


              In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

              It seemed like their journey was ominously pregnant with untold possibilities. Well that’s what Xavier had said the team to break the lazy pattern that had started to bring their sense of adventure to a lull.
              “Please, no snotty baby possibilities!” had moaned Zara, stretching from her morning session of yoga with Yasmin.

              It was the morning of the third day since he’d arrived, and as they were enjoying the breakfast, the external elements seemed to have put a brake on the planned activities.


              On the previous evening, Mater, the dame of the Inn, had come in with a dramatic racing driver costume complete with burgundy red jacket and goggles to match. She’d seemed quite excited at the thought of racing at the Carts and Lager, but the younger child, Prune, had come in with weather forecast.

              “It’s on the local channel news. We have to brace for a chance of dust storm. It’s recommended to stay indoors during the next two days.”

              “WHAT?!” Zara couldn’t believe it. The thought of being cooped up in holidays! Then she lightened up a little when Yasmin mentioned the possibility of sand ghost pictures. She knew Zara well enough, that a good distraction was the remedy to most of her moods.

              Youssef had shrugged and told them of the time they were with the BLOG team at a snowy pass in Ladakh, and had to wait for the weather to clear the only pass back to the valley. He’s enjoyed learning how to make chapatis with the family on the small gas stove of the local place, and visited the local yurts. Zara’s eyes were suddenly full of wonders at the mere mention of yurts.

              Prune had then mentioned with a smirk. “If you guys want an adventure, I was planning to do some spring cleaning in the basement. There are tons of old books…. and some said maybe some secret entrance to the mines.”

              Zara’s spider sense was tingling almost orgasmically.

              Youssef said. “Well, I suppose that’s the best entertainment we’ll get for now…”


              At the morning breakfast table, they did a quick check of the news.

              “The situation isn’t getting any better. AL has confirmed it’s an unusual weather late in this season, but it’s also saying we should remain indoors.” Xavier was looking at his phone slouched on the table.

              “And they will cancel the first days of the Carts and Lager…” Zara was downcast.

              “Well, here’s a thought… the quest is still open in the game…”


                “Think, Finnley, think,” Liz grabbed her arm as the bad tempered cleaning lady tried to make her escape.

                “Ouch! You’ll pull my arm off, then who will clean the windows? And anyway you said I didn’t have time to think”, Finnley retorted.

                “You don’t have time to waste on your own thoughts, frittering them away on stuff and nonsense. I need you to think about the new story characters. If we don’t get a move on they’ll get disgruntled and start turning up on other stories, and it’s bad enough as it is.”

                “Not my problem,” Finnley muttered, trying in vain to twist her arm out of Liz’s  vicelike grip.

                “It’ll be your problem if I write lots of big new windows into the bedrooms and you have to clean them all,” Liz snapped.  “I’ve half a mind to write a dust storm into the story.”

                “Half witted mind more like,” Finnley snorted rudely. “Why, so you can hide all the loose ends in dust?”

                “So Finly can find out all the secrets when she dusts.  I can picture it now: All was eventually revealed about the secrets of the mines, when Finly had a jolly good spring clean after the sand storm.  And then you’ll have to think of something.”


                  “It’s amazing, all the material we gathered over the years, it makes one’s head spin…” Godfrey was poring over quantities of papers, mostly early drafts stuck haphazardly in a pile of donations boxes that Elizabeth had generously contributed to the National Library’s archives of great works and renowned authors, but mostly as way of spring cleaning.

                  He had materialized some of the links from the pages with webs of purple yarn tied to the wall of the dining hall. It had soon become a tangled mess of interwoven threads that he had to protect from the cleaning frenzied assaults of energetic feather duster of Finnley.

                  She’d softened her stance a little when she’s realised how often her namesake has popped in the various storylines, almost making her emotional about Liz’ incorporating her in her works of fictions —only to remember that most of the time, she’d been the working hand behind the continuity, the Finnleys appearances being an offshoot of this endeavour.

                  Godfrey had almost forgotten he was actually a publisher to start with, before he became more of a useful side-kick, if not a useful idiot.

                  The phone rang in the empty hall. Soon after, Finnley arrived with the heavy bakelite telephone, handing it over to Godfrey unceremoniously. “You might want to take this, it’s Felicity…” she mouthed the last word like it was the name of the Devil himself.

                  “Dear Flove protect us, don’t tell me Liz’ mother is in town…”

                  “Well, at least she has comic relief value” snorted Finnley on her way back to her duties.


                  In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

                  Two young women, identical to the purple lock of hair hiding their left eye, entered the room. They moved as one person to the table, balancing their arms and bouncing on the floor like little girls. Youssef couldn’t help a shiver as he remembered The Shining.

                  “We are the twins,” they said, looking at him from behind their purple lock of hair. “Don’t mind us.”

                  One spoke a few milliseconds after the other, giving their combined voice an otherworldly touch that wasn’t reassuring. One took the sheets of paper from under the obsidian stone and the other the notebooks. After an hesitation they left the stone on the table and went back to the door.

                  “Wait,” said Youssef as they were about to leave, “What was on that paper? It looked like a map.”

                  “We leave you the stone,” they said without looking at him. “You might need it.”

                  As they shut the door, Youssef jumped out of his bed and tried to catch up with them. People couldn’t just enter his room like that. But when he flung the door open, the corridor was empty. He had the impression echoes of a combined laugh remained in the air and, tired as he was, decided not to look for them. Better not break the veil between dream and reality.

                  Intrigued by what the girls said, he took the black stone from the table and the last snicker bar from his backpack. He noted he would have to go to the grocery store tomorrow to buy some. Once he was back on his bed, he engulfed the snack and, while chewing, turned the stone around, trying to figure out what the girls meant by “You might need it”. The stone was cold to the touch and his reflection kept changing but nothing particular happened. Disappointed, he put the stone on his pillow and resumed the game on his phone.

                  Youssef finds himself in a small ghost town in what looks like the middle of the Australian outback. He’s standing in the town square, surrounded by an old post office, a saloon, and a few other ramshackle buildings.

                  He had a hard time focusing on the game. He started to feel the fatigue from the day. He yawned and started to doze off.


                  Youssef is standing in the town square, surrounded by an old post office, a saloon, and a few other ramshackle buildings. Scraps of mist are floating towards him. A ghostly laugh resounds from behind. He turns swiftly only to see a flash of purple disappear in a dark alleyway. He starts to run to catch them but a man, thrown out of the saloon, stumbles in front of him and they roll together on the dust.

                  “It’s not that I don’t like you,” said the man, “but you’re heavy.”

                  Youssef rolls on the side, mumbling some excuses and looks at where the twins had disappeared but the alleyway was gone. 

                  “I think you broke one of my rib with your stone,” says the man, feeling his chest.

                  He looks as old as the town itself and quite harmless in his clothes, too big for him.

                  “What stone?” asks Youssef

                  The old man points at a fragment of black obsidian between them on the ground. 

                  “Don’t show them,” he says, “or they’ll take it from you.”

                  “What did you do?”

                  “They don’t like it when you ask questions about the old mines.”


                  In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

                  Bert dropped Zara off after breakfast at the start of the Yeperenye trail.  He suggested that she phone him when she wanted him to pick her up, and asked if she was sure she had enough water and reminded her, not for the first time, not to wander off the trail.   Of course not, she replied blithely, as if she’d never wandered off before.

                  “It’s a beautiful gorge, you’ll like it,” he called through the open window, “You’ll need the bug spray when you get to the water holes.”  Zara smiled and waved as the car roared off in a cloud of dust.

                  On the short drive to the start of the trail, Bert had told her that the trail was named after the Yeperenye dreamtime, also known as ‘Caterpillar Dreaming’  and that it was a significant dreamtime story in Aboriginal mythology. Be sure to look at the aboriginal rock art, he’d said.   He mentioned several varieties of birds but Zara quickly forgot the names of them.

                  It felt good to be outside, completely alone in the vast landscape with the bone warming sun. To her surprise, she hadn’t seen the parrot again after the encounter at the bedroom window, although she had heard a squalky laugh coming from a room upstairs as she passed the staircase on her way to the dining room.

                  But it was nice to be on her own. She walked slowly, appreciating the silence and the scenery. Acacia and eucalyptus trees were dotted about and long grasses whispered in the occasional gentle breezes.  Birds twittered and screeched and she heard a few rustlings in the undergrowth from time to time as she strolled along.

                  After a while the rocky outcrops towered above her on each side of the path and the gorge narrowed, the trail winding through stands of trees and open grassland. Zara was glad of the shade as the sun rose higher.

                  Zara water hole


                  The first water hole she came to took Zara by surprise. She expected it to be pretty and scenic, like the photos she’d seen, but the spectacular beauty of the setting and shimmering light somehow seemed timeless and otherwordly.  It was a moment or two before she realized she wasn’t alone.

                  It was time to stop for a drink and the sandwich that one of the twins had made for her, and this was the perfect spot, but she wondered if the man would find it intrusive of her to plonk herself down and picnic at the same place as him.  Had he come here for the solitude and would he resent her appearance?

                  It is a public trail, she reminded herself not to be silly, but still, she felt uneasy.  The man hadn’t even glanced up as far as Zara could tell. Had he noticed her?

                  She found a smooth rock to sit on under a tree and unwrapped her lunch, glancing up from time to time ready to give a cheery wave and shout hi, if he looked up from what he was doing.  But he didn’t look up, and what exactly was he doing? It was hard to say, he was pacing around on the opposite side of the pool, looking intently at the ground.

                  When Zara finished her drink, she went behind a bush for a pee, making sure she would not be seen if the man glanced up. When she emerged, the man was gone.  Zara walked slowly around the water hole, taking photos, and keeping an eye out for the man, but he was nowhere to be seen.  When she reached the place where he’d been pacing looking at the ground, she paused and retraced his steps.  Something small and shiny glinted in the sun catching her eye. It was a compass, a gold compass, and quite an unusual one.

                  Zara didn’t know what to do, had the man been looking for it?  Should she return it to him?  But who was he and where did he go?  She decided there was no point in leaving it here, so she put it in her pocket. Perhaps she could ask at the inn if there was a lost and found place or something.

                  Refreshed from the break, Zara continued her walk. She took the compass out and looked at it, wondering not for the first time how on earth anyone used one to find their way.  She fiddled with it, and the needle kept pointing in the same direction.   What good is it knowing which way north is, if you don’t know where you are anyway? she wondered.

                  With a squalk and a beating of wings, Pretty Girl appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  “It’s not that kind of compass. You’re supposed to follow the pointer.”

                  “Am I?  But it’s pointing off the trail, and Bert said don’t go off the trail.”

                  “That’s because Bert doesn’t want you to find it,” replied the parrot.

                  Intrigued, Zara set off in the direction the compass was pointing towards.


                    I told Devan in no ambiguous terms to solve his own funny riddle.

                    I did try to make an effort, but that seemed a rather desperate way to catch our attention after not really caring about the family for so long.
                    It was good to see him though.

                    With all the activity around the coming guests at the Inn, it’s easy getting lost in the wind of activities, like the motes of dust hiding in Dido’s hair.
                    The twins did a good effort though, with all the decorating and stuff. I was sincerely impressed. Been a long time since I’ve been impressed by them. Seems they may actually grow up fine. Who would have known really.

                    Hormonal growth be damned, I’m feeling all sort of contradictory feelings about this.

                    Like, what about hearing about our funny father after all this time.

                    And Devan, who’d shut us all off, now back for a little make-over time… Or something else maybe. He doesn’t seem to realize the emotional landscape and baggage here. He’s a nice brother though.

                    It’s horrible. So much contradiction – I feel some rage on the surface, lots of… and underneath so much caring it’s painful.

                    So what happened to our father? Still alive? Quite possibly. I’ve had my suspicious when this strange guy posed as a friend to the twins on the social network some years back.
                    I was young when he left without a note; hadn’t started to write my journals yet, so my memories of him are very little. But I remember the chaos left after him; Mater wasn’t really the same after. I think she’s burned all pictures of him, and somehow pretends they never existed.
                    Idle plays it as if she doesn’t care, but I’m sure she does. She doesn’t want to let it be known, but she probably doesn’t want to hurt Mater more with this.

                    God, what a family drama. Why would Devan want to unearth all of this now, at a moment we were all quiet and settled like a decent respectable family.

                    It was maybe just keeping up with appearances, and the veneer was thin to start with.

                    That’s in the middle of all this angst mixed with puberty that it hit me.

                    Acrostic. Or ἀκροστιχίς in Greek. First verse, or first letter.

                    My dad was a writer, so he liked word riddles. And the little sign was a pointer.

                    >A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
                    Together they rest, yet always outside.
                    One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
                    Into the depths, where danger lies all.

                    ATOI didn’t seem to make much sense, but I remembered how small “l” sometimes looked like a capital “I”.
                    Atoll was the clue I’m sure of it. Where to disappear if not to islands.
                    The letters at the end of the verses are spelling HELL. So it’s opposite.

                    Basically, Atoll Paradise.

                    A little Gugu search with AI, and that was it. That was our father here, with a number to call.

                    Atoll Paradise
                    Boat rentals – Island tours
                    Copywriter, biographer
                    Call FRED @ (+679) 215-7644

                    Now it’ll be fair if Devan is calling me crazy. We’ll have to call and check before saying anything to Idle or even Mater for now.


                      I’ve always felt like the odd one out in my family. Growing up at the Flying Fish Inn, I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in. My mother left when I was young, and my father disappeared not long after. I’ve always felt like I was the only one who didn’t fit in with the craziness of my family.

                      I’ve always tried to keep my distance with the others. I didn’t want to get too involved, take sides about petty things, like growing weed in the backyard, making psychedelic termite honey, or trying to influence the twins to buy proper clothes. But truth is, you can’t get too far away. Town’s too small. Family always get back to you, and manage to get you involved in their shit, one way or another, even if you don’t say anything. That’s how it works. They don’t need my participation to use me as an argument.

                      So I stopped paying attention, almost stopped caring. I lived my life working at the gas station, and drinking beers with my buddies Joe and Jasper, living in a semi-comatose state. I learned that word today when I came bringing little honey buns to mater. I know she secretly likes them, even if she pretend she doesn’t in front of Idle. But I can see the breadcrumbs on her cardigan when I come say hi at the end of the day. This morning, Idle was rocking in her favourite chair on the porch, looking at the clouds behind her mirrored sunglasses. Prune was talking to her, I saw she was angry because of the contraction of the muscles of her jaw and her eyes were darker than usual. She was saying to Idle that she was always in a semi-comatose state and doing nothing useful for the Inn when we had a bunch of tourists arriving. And something about the twins redecorating the rooms without proper design knowledge. Idle did what she usually does. She ignored the comment and kept on looking at the clouds. I’m not even sure she heard or understood that word that Prune said. Semi-comatose. It sounds like glucose. That’s how I’m spending my life between the Inn, the gas station and my buddies.

                      But things changed today when I got back to my apartment for lunch. You can call it a hunch or a coincidence. But as we talked with Joe about that time when my dad left, making me think we were doing hide and seek, and he left me a note saying he would be back someday. I don’t know why I felt the need to go search that note afterwards. So I went back to the apartment and opened the mailbox. Among the bills and ads, I found a postcard with a few words written on the image and nothing except my address on the back. I knew it was from my dad.

                      It was not signed or anything, but still I was sure it was his handwriting. I would recognise it anywhere. I went and took the shoebox I keep hidden on top of the kitchen closet, because I saw people do that in movies. That’s not very original, I know, but I’m not too bright either. I opened the box and took the note my dad left me when he disappeared.

                      I put the card on the desk near the note. The handwritings matched. I felt so excited, and confused.

                      A few words at the bottom of the card said : “Memories from the coldest place on Earth…”

                      Why would dad go to such a place to send me a postcard after all those years ? Just to say that.

                      That’s when I recalled what Prune had told me once as we were watching a detective movie : “Read everything with care and always double check your information.”

                      On the back, it said that the image was from a scientific station in Antartica, but the stamp indicated it had been posted from a floating post office in the North Pole. I turned the card and looked at the text again. Above the station, a few words were written that sounded like a riddle.

                      > A mine, a tile, dust piled high,
                      Together they rest, yet always outside.
                      One misstep, and you’ll surely fall,
                      Into the depths, where danger lies all.

                      It sure sounds like a warning. But I’m not too good with riddles. No need to worry Mater about that, in case of false hope and all that. Idle ? Don’t even think about it. She won’t believe me when I say it’s from dad. She never does believe me. And she’ll keep playing with the words trying to find her answer in the shape of smoke. The twins, they are a riddle on their own.

                      No. It’s Prune’s help I need.


                      In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

                      “One of them’s arriving early!” Aunt Idle told Mater who had just come swanning into the kitchen with her long grey hair neatly plaited and tied with a red velvet bow.   Ridiculous being so particular about her hair at her age, Idle thought, whose own hair was an untidy and non too clean looking tangle of long dreadlocks with faded multicolour dyes growing out from her grey scalp.  “Bert’s going to pick her up at seven.”

                      “You better get a move on then, the verandah needs sweeping and the dining room needs dusting. Are the bedrooms ready yet?” Mater replied, patting her hair and pulling her cardigan down neatly.

                      “Plenty of time, no need to worry!” Idle said, looking worried.  “What on earth was that?”  Something bright caught her eye through the kitchen window.

                      “Never mind that, make a start on the cleaning!” Mater said with a loud tut and an eye roll. Always getting distracted, that one, never finishes a job before she’s off sidetracking.  Mater gave her hair another satisfied pat, and put two slices of bread in the toaster.

                      But Aunt Idle had gone outside to investigate.  A minute or two later she returned, saying “You’ll never guess what, there’s a tame red parrot sitting on the porch table. And it talks!”

                      “So you’re planning to spend the day talking to a parrot, and leave me to do all the dusting, is that it?” Mater said, spreading honey on her toast.

                      Pretty Girl at Flying Fish Inn


                      In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

                      The door opened and Youssef saw Natalie, still waiting for him. Indeed, he needed help. He decided to accept  sands_of_time contact request, hopping it was not another Thi Gang trick.

                      Sands_of_time is trying to make contact : ✅ACCEPT ➡️DENY ❓

                      A princess on horse back emerged from the sand. The veil on her hair floated in a wind that soon cleared all the dust from her garment and her mount, revealing a princess with a delicate face and some prominent attributes that didn’t leave Youssef indifferent. She was smiling at him, and her horse, who had six legs and looked a bit like a camel, snorted at the bear.

                      “I love doing that, said the princess. At least I don’t get to spit sand afterward like when my sister’s grand-kids want to bury me in the sand at the beach…”

                      It broke the charm. It reminded Youssef it was all a game. That princess was an avatar. Was it even a girl on the other side ? And how old ? Youssef, despite his stature, felt as vulnerable as when his mother left him for the afternoon with an old aunt in Sudan when he was five and she kept wanting to dress him with colourful girl outfits. He shivered and the bear growled at the camel-horse, reminding Youssef how hungry he was.

                      sands_of_time?” he asked.

                      “Yes. I like this AI game. Makes me feel like I’m twenty again. Not as fun as a mushroom trip though, but… with less secondary effects. Anyway, I saw you needed help with that girl. A ‘reel’ nuisance if you ask me, sticky like a sea cucumber.”

                      “How do you know ? Did you plant bugs on my phone ? Are you with the Thi Gang ?” 

                      The bear moved toward them and roared and the camel-horse did a strange sound. The princess appeased her mount with a touch of her hand.

                      “Oh! Boy, calm down your heat. Nothing so prosaic. I have other means, she said with a grin. Call me Sweet Sophie, I’m a real life reporter. Was just laying down on my dream couch looking for clues about a Dr Patelonus, the man’s mixed up in some monkey trafficking business, when I saw that strange llama dressed like a tibetan monk, except it was a bit too mayonnaise for a tibetan monk. Anyway, he led me to you and told me to contact you through this Quirk Quest Game, suggesting you might have some intel for me about that monkey business of mine. So I put on my VR helmet, which actually reminds me of a time at the hair salon, and a gorgeous beehive… but anyway you wouldn’t understand. So I had to accept one of those quests and find you in the game. Which was a lot less easier than RV I can tell you. The only thing, I couldn’t interact with you unless you accepted contact. So here I am, ready for you to tell me about Dr Patelonus. But I can see that first we need to get you out of here.”

                      Youssef had no idea about what she was talking about. VR; RV ? one and the same ? He decided not to tell her he knew nothing about monkeys or doctors until he was out of Natalie’s reach. If indeed sands_of_timecould help.

                      “So what do I do ?” asked Youssef.

                      “Let me first show you my real self. I’ve always wanted to try that. Wait a moment. I need to focus.”

                      The princess avatar looked in the distance, her eyes lost beyond this world. Suddenly, Youssef felt a presence creeping into his mind. He heard a laugh and saw an old lady in yoga pants on a couch! He roared and almost let go of his phone again.

                      The princess smiled.

                      “Now, wouldn’t be fair if only I knew what you looked like in real life. Although you’re pretty close to your avatar… Don’t you seem a tad afraid of experimenting with new things. :yahoo_smug:

                      She laughed again, and this time Youssef saw her “real” face superimposed on the princess avatar. It gave him goosebumps.

                      “Now’s your opening, she said. The girl’s busy giving directions to someone else. Get out of the bathroom! Now!”

                      Youssef had the strangest feeling that the voice had come at the same time from the phone speakers and from inside his head. His body acted on its own as if he was a puppet. He pushed the bathroom door open and rushed outside.


                        Aunt Idle:

                        You won’t beleive this, I said to Mater, and she said I probably won’t before giving me a chance to finish.  I ignored her as usual and told her about the bookings.   Bookings, she screeched like a demented parrot, bookings? Since when did we have bookings.   She even had the cheek to tell me I was living in the past, imagining we had bookings.  I told her she was the one living in the past, the past when we had no bookings, and that I was living in the present because we had four people booked to stay at the inn, and we did indeed have bookings and that she should take off that old red pantsuit and put something practical on because we had a great deal of cleaning to do.  Then she did her screeching parrot routine with the word cleaning, and I left her to it and went to tell Bert.

                        I don’t know what I’d have done without good old Bert over the years. I started to get a bit screechy myself with the panic when I was telling him, but he calmed me right down and started to make a list of the things that needed doing in order of importance.  Start with preparing a bedroom each, he said, and get Mater to go down to the kitchen and make a shopping list.  I said Bert are you sure that’s wise, Mater in charge of supplies, and he said no it aint wise but who else is going to do it?

                        I left Bert clanging away with the boiler trying to get some hot water out of it, and went to get some dusters and a broom and had to dust them off a bit, been a long time since anyone looked in the broom cupboard, and lo and behold Mater appears dressed as a 17th century serving wench.  I let that pass without comment, but I did tell her to try and be sensible with the shopping list.


                        In reply to: Orbs of Madjourneys

                        The team had to stop when a sandstorm hit them in the middle of the desert. They only had an hour drive left to reach the oasis where Lama Yoneze had been seen last and Miss Tartiflate insisted, like she always did, against the guides advice that they kept on going. She feared the last shaman would be lost in the storm, maybe croak stuffed with that damn dust. But when they lost the satellite dish and a jeep almost rolled down a sand dune, she finally listened to the guides. They had them park the cars close to each other, then checked the straps and urged everyone to stay in their cars until the storm was over.

                        Youssef at first thought he was lucky. He managed to get into the same car as Tiff, the young intern he had discussed with the other day. But despite all their precautions, they couldn’t stop the dust to come in. It was everywhere and you had to kept your mouth and eyes shut if you didn’t want to grind your teeth with fine sand. So instead he enjoyed this unexpected respite from his trying to save THE BLOG from the evil Thi Gang, and from Miss Tartiflate’s continuous flow of criticism.

                        The storm blew off the dish just after Xavier had sent him AL’s answer to the strange glyphs he had received on his phone. When Youssef read the message, he sighed. He had forgotten hope was an illusion. AL was in its infancy and was not a dead language expert. He gave them something fitting Youssef’s current location and the questions about famous alien dishes they asked him last week. It was just an old pot luck recipe from when the Silk Road was passing through the Gobi desert. He just hoped Xavier would have some luck until Youssef found a way to restore the connexion.

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