You may recall a post I wrote earlier in the month called An Irritating Story That I need Help With. It was a post I wrote in frustration at having written a short story that just wasn’t sitting right on the page. The more I read and tinkered with it, the worse it got. I knew I was telling not showing and my minimal level of tolerance on that day would not let me see how to fix it.
Luckily, I reached out to you wonderful writerly people who made many helpful suggestions about changing the POV or adding characters. All of which made me rethink the story and iron out the things that were bothering me.
I have been rewriting it in short bursts over the last few weeks and have today given it one last push to get it out of my head.
If you’d like to read it, please feel free. You can compare it to the original post here. I still haven’t thought of a title though. It’ll come to me eventually.
Thank you for your help with this storytellers. You are the best mentors.
The Templar Bookstore was as good a place as any to spend the next decade or two. This green corner of South West London where Merlin once trailed youthful hands through meadow flowers had gradually withered beneath rising tower blocks and acres of joyless grey concrete. He always found his way back here no matter how desolate it became. It’s what Destiny required.
Merlin had never updated the store’s decor. The familiar, musty smell of old books was as comforting to him as the overworked moccasins hugging his aged feet. The brass bell above the door sounded its familiar tinkle as he pushed it open. Gwen was already in her usual position behind the shabby wooden counter reading a dog-eared copy of Bridget Jones’ Diary. She bit down on a cinnamon roll and showered both the book and counter with pastry flakes. Merlin frowned, Her manners had deteriorated over the centuries, she was no longer the beguiling Queen of England he had once known. Royal manners aside, this incarnation was at least four inches shorter. Her long waves of strawberry blond hair were replaced with a choppy auburn style and a faint smattering of freckles now stippled the flawless skin of legend. The bright green eyes never changed though, these spoke to him no matter what form her body took. In this cycle of fate they peered at him from behind the thick rimmed glasses Gwen wore despite having twenty twenty vision. Apparently, it was the fashion in this century.
“Good morning Gwen.” Merlin said, pulling his overlong scarf from around his neck.
“Morning.” Gwen returned, blowing more crumbs across the counter. She pushed a greasy brown bag and a takeaway cup of coffee towards him without looking up and took a hasty sip from her own, sloshing the milky liquid down her cream jumper. She dabbed ineffectually at the damp splodges with her paper napkin and returned her attention to Bridget’s escapades.
“Sorry I’m late, I overslept a little. Any customers been in?”
“It’s only nine thirty. No-one’s up round here yet are they? It ain’t social day.” She said, yawning widely.
“I suppose not, no.” Merlin said. The twenty first century was quickly moving down his list of favourites.
The electronic jangle of Gwen’s mobile snatched her attention and she grinned widely, turning the phone on its side and furiously dancing her thumbs across the screen. The instant she placed the phone on the counter, it buzzed again and she chuckled to herself before tapping out a response.
“Something important?” Merlin probed. “I’d prefer you not to have your phone on at work, I thought we’d discussed this.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Destiny just Whatsapped me. We had a wicked night, she’s just woke up. Says she’s got a mouth like Ghandi’s flip flop.”
Merlin’s own saliva dried on his tongue and he swallowed through a rapidly closing throat. “Destiny?” He asked, in a voice he hoped was steady.
“Yeah, I only met her on Saturday. She’s totally awesome. A right laugh. We’re BFFs from another life, honest. We got on so well.”
“Did you go out together last night?”
“Yeah, we went speed dating, can you believe that? Me? Speed dating.” She laughed at some private memory and an echo of the medieval Queen he’d once shared the happiest years of his life with at the side of King Arthur rang through.
“Speed dating eh? Sounds fun.” He said, searching his pockets for his own mobile phone. “This cannot be a coincidence.” He muttered walking away from Gwen to the small kitchenette at the back of the shop. He scrolled to the Lady Destiny’s number and dialled. The call connected and rang twice before cutting off. A text message immediately popped up on his screen.
Tut tut Merlin. I’ve told you at least a dozen times this decade to TEXT me, I’m not answering your calls. That’s so 1990.
“Damn you Destiny.” Merlin growled at the phone and laboriously tapped out a message. Her insistence that they embrace the communication methods of the present irritated him no matter which century they happened to be in. A return to dragon messengers would be a welcome relief to his technologically inept fingers.
You took Gwen speed dating? Why are you meddling? We agreed to let them find each other this time, just like they always do unless you interfere.
He sent the message and stalked back through to the shop front.
“Don’t forget your coffee and bun.” Gwen said, glancing up at him. “You alright? You’re more frowny than usual.”
“Yes yes. Fine.” He said, picking up the offered refreshments. He would never get used to this disposable generation, he despised drinking from these plastic topped beakers. His beeping phone drew a raised eyebrow from Gwen. Destiny’s retort blinked onto the screen:
That’s rich. Remind me, which one of us is it that repeatedly employs Guinevere in their little book shop so he can mastermind her first meeting with Arthur? I thought I’d liven up her dull life a little. You never know, this lifetime might be the one where they don’t meet and fall in love. She might settle for the lovely Kevin who I believe is thinking of messaging her right now.
At that moment, Gwen’s phone jangled to signal the arrival of another message and she turned her back on Merlin to read it. Merlin tapped out his response at this reminder of Destiny’s kismet altering power:
Destiny, you are the Divine guardian of fate itself, isn’t this meddling beneath you? I’m surprised you even thought our little wager worthy of your time. Although, thinking about it, you must be worried, I’m close to winning after all. If I’m not mistaken, this will be the 50th time that Guinevere and Arthur’s souls will find each other. We did agree on first to 50 didn’t we? One more and you’ll be washing my gnarly old feet for the next 500 years. I find myself dreaming of a new hat for the occasion. I think purple is my colour, wouldn’t you agree?
He pressed send and wandered to the kitchenette to pour his takeaway coffee into a more acceptable china cup. He opened the eye level cupboard to find that his favourite fine bone china was no longer there but balanced precariously within the pile of unwashed tablewear cluttering the small aluminium sink. Incensed by his exchange with Destiny, he squirted more washing up liquid than was necessary on the crockery and turned the tap on to fill the sink. Nothing happened and he slammed the bottle down, cursing under his breath. Gwen was still at the counter, typing out a message to Kevin. He stepped out of her eye-line and whispered an almost inaudible incantation. A zephyr of wind rustled through his fine white hair and a low rumble began to build from under the sink. The ancient plumbing complained under the pressure of the spell, but no water emerged from the tap.
“Well that’s just great.”
“There’s no water boss.” Gwen called from the shop front. “I called the plumber yesterday, he might come by today if he’s got time.”
“He might come?” Merlin muttered. “We wouldn’t want to inconvenience him by making an actual appointment that he had to stick to would we?” He said, reluctantly sipping his coffee through the tiny hole in the plastic lid, cursing this century for the third time today.
“Bob next door said we can use his lav if we need to.” She added, jumping off her stool and pinching her underwear from the depths of her backside before climbing back up to resettle herself.
The bell above the door tinkled, signalling the arrival of a customer.
“Destiny! Whatcha doing here?” Gwen squeeked. “I thought you’d just woke up, I never expected to see you for hours.”
Merlin walked from the kitchenette to see Gwen fling herself into an excitable hug with the woman who had been both his nemesis and greatest opponent for almost 800 years. He cleared his throat and the two women turned to him in unison.
“This is Destiny who I was telling you about earlier Merlin.” Gwen said unwrapping herself from the Devine guardian of fate.
“The one with the mouth like Ghandi’s flip flop?” Merlin asked, unsmiling.
“Yeah. That one.” She said, beaming.
“And have you resolved that predicament?” He asked, talking directly to Destiny.
“Yes I have, thank you. It’s amazing what a can of fizzy sugar can do to wake you up.”
Gwen’s face lit up. “Yeah, some doctor at Creamfields told me a can of full fat coke and a bag of crisps is the best hangover cure ever. At least, he said he was a doctor. Offered me a check up the next morning and everything.”
Destiny’s over-enthusiastic squeal of laughter speared Merlin like a jousting lance. “So, to what do we owe the pleasure of your visit today?” He asked..
She squeezed Gwen’s shoulder protectively. “Gwen said you were going to do a stocktake this week and you usually bring in a student to help because you hate it so much. I said I love doing that sort of thing and she was sure you wouldn’t mind me helping out. Isn’t that right Gwen?” She asked to Gwen’s enthusiastic nodding. “I’m at a loose end today so I thought I’d pop in. Might as well get cracking. Well, if that’s alright with you?”
Gwen’s large brown eyes beamed at Merlin like she’d delivered him a precious gift and was waiting for gushing thanks.
“I don’t think I…” He began.
“I don’t want paying, I just love organising stuff, it makes me happy. I’ll be your unpaid intern.” Destiny said, her smile vanishing in favour of a deadpan expression inviting no further discussion.
“Fine.” Merlin said. “We start at letter A and carry on until we’ve finished. Gwen will show you where the stock book is.”
The two women walked away in a rush of giggles and chatter as if they’d been best friends for years, as opposed to the Architect of Fate and her Pawn which they really were. As Gwen showed Destiny around the tightly ordered bookcases in a caffeine fuelled outpouring, Merlin busied himself with inconsequential tasks at the counter to keep them within his sight. Destiny’s chirpy demeanour was a thin veneer for what he knew to be the volatile and vengeful nature of a demi-God. Trusting her to be alone with his charge would be foolish.
After less than fifteen minutes, Gwen skipped across the shop, heading for the door.
“Just popping to Bob’s. That coffee’s gone right through me.”
Destiny stalked over to Merlin and dropped the stock book on the counter. “Well, this one’s certainly a handful isn’t she? They’re getting much flightier as time goes by don’t you think? Much harder for you to control I imagine.”
“I don’t control her as you well know. I’m merely her guardian.”
“Self appointed guardian.” Destiny corrected.
“Which wouldn’t be necessary if you didn’t cheat and try to tip the balance of our wager in your favour.”
“Merlin, you do exactly the same every time you chase off one of her suitors. The poor girl could be passing up the man of her dreams while you persist in saving her for Arthur.”
“I don’t know why we’re playing this ridiculous game, you see everything – past, present and future. You know they’re destined to be together, I don’t know why we’ve repeated this cycle for eight hundred years. I think we’ve proven beyond doubt that she isn’t going to defy fate and settle for any random Kevin, her soul knows Arthur is out there even if she doesn’t. Why don’t you just admit defeat and we can be done with it? Shall I dictate a surrender note for you? You can write it in the stock book:
You were right. Two souls destined to be together will always find each other, no matter what circumstances stand in their way. No other will come between them…”
Destiny held up a hand to silence him.
“You’re wrong my wizarding friend. It’s true, I see the destiny that’s been dealt, I deal it for them. But I also see how many forego their fate in favour of all the meaningless material things this modern world offers. Do you know how many people will live miserably as long as they’ve got a huge house and a shiny sports car? A lot, that’s how many.”
“I can’t believe that’s true. Surely at some point they will have an epiphany and realise what they’ve sacrificed?”
“Oh they will, but not many will trade in their rich spouses for their heart’s desire. It’s very depressing to watch it day in day out. It’s enough to make me change my own destiny.” Her forlorn look was wiped away and replaced with a bright smile. “That’s why I’ve come here to see you, to cheer myself up.”
“Well, you’ve done that now. Perhaps you had better trot off back to where you came from.” Merlin said.
Destiny elbowed Merlin playfully. “You always were a joker, that’s why I agreed to our bet. I thought it would be fun. Are you having fun Merlin?”
“Oodles. Gwen will be back in a minute, perhaps you should get back to stock taking, since that’s your new favourite hobby.”
Destiny drew circles on the shabby counter with her finger, giving no indication she heard Merlin’s suggestion. “Tell me, Arthur hasn’t appeared yet has he?”
“Not yet, no.”
“So you don’t know what he looks like yet?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“So he could be this rather handsome looking fellow heading for the shop now?”
Merlin looked to the window where Destiny was pointing to see a well groomed, besuited man heading purposely towards the shop.
“Could be, you never know just by looking.”
The bell above the door tinkled gently as the man entered, ducking slightly to avoid hitting his head on the low frame.
“Welcome to Templar Bookstore.” Destiny said breezily. “How may we help you?”
The man pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and flicked his gaze quickly around the bookstore before settling his eyes on Destiny.
“Does Gwen work here? I’m not sure if I have the right shop or not.” He said, glancing down at his shoes.
Merlin opened his mouth to answer just as Gwen returned from Bob’s Emporium next door. He signalled to the visitor that she was about to enter behind him. Destiny rubbed her hands together with undisguised glee.
“What have you done now?” Merlin hissed beneath his breath.
“Oh.” Said Gwen when her visitor turned around. “Jake?”
“Er, it’s Josh actually.”
“Sorry.” Gwen said. “I met loads of men last night, I’m not great with names. What you doing here?”
Josh scratched his head. “Well, I was passing..I think..and I remembered you saying you worked here so I popped in…I think.” His face wore a mask of confusion.
Merlin looked sideways at Destiny, expectation shining from her eyes with cobalt intensity.
“Oh.” Said Gwen again. “Are you looking for a book?”
“I don’t think so.” He replied. “I do like to read though.”
“Well that’s one thing you have in common.” Destiny said. “Why don’t you find Josh a good book to read Gwen. I’m sure you will find something just perfect.”
“Good idea.” Said Gwen, taking an increasing confused looking Josh by the elbow and leading him to the fiction section.
“Destiny! You cannot keep interfering like this. That poor man looked like he’d been drugged and brought here against his will.”
Destiny shrugged. “You know I don’t have to resort to those inferior methods Merlin. It’s nice that she attracted some admirers last night though isn’t it? Great confidence booster. In fact, I think one might be calling her now too.”
Gwen’s phone rang on cue. She pulled it from her pocket, looked at the screen and silenced the ringer before sliding it back into her jeans muttering apologies to her dazed companion.
“Just proving a point.” Destiny said, picking up her stock book and wandering back over to the A’s.
Merlin needed no reminder of her ability to direct fate, this was her modus operandi after all. Why she chose now to meddle was another matter altogether. This fiftieth fated meeting between Guinevere and Arthur would end this torturous wager, this endless cycle of strangers becoming lovers, becoming spouses, becoming old, before fate separates them at the end of their lives and it all begins again. He often dreamed of returning to medieval England when it was all over, to the sprawling meadows and abundant clean air. He longed to leave the digital age behind him and had cheerfully planned a mobile phone smashing ceremony to mark his departure. If he had to wait another fifty years for the next cycle of fate to be over, he might be tempted to forfeit the wager and agree to being Destiny’s personal foot cleanser for the next five centuries.
Gwen interrupted Merlin’s thoughts as she led a pale looking Josh over to the door and held it open as he left.
“We couldn’t find a book he wanted to read. Not sure he could read actually. Christ, you meet some weirdos at that speed dating don’t cha?” She said, wandering back to her position behind the counter and reaching for her book.
Just then, the bell above the door tinkled before clattering in a metallic cacophony to the flagstoned floor of the shop. Merlin, Gwen and Destiny all turned to see a wide-eyed man, weighed down by an oversized tool box, tripping through the door and landing in a twisted heap. Before they could react, he jumped up, smiling sheepishly.
“Er, sorry ’bout that. Did someone call a plumber?”
Merlin looked out the window to the haphazardly parked and rust peppered van in the street outside the bookstore. The once white van was emblazoned with the words ‘Wagon & Horses – Plumbing and Heating Engineers’
“Strange name for a plumbing company.” Merlin said, indicating the van outside as the plumber handed him the dismounted bell.
“You’ll remember it though won’t ya, because you think it’s a boozer and it ain’t. It’s me and me partner innit? I’m Wagon and he’s ‘Orses.”
Gwen giggled from behind the counter and Merlin caught the flash of interest pass over Wagon’s face as he strode over to her and offered his hand.
“You can call me Wag.”
“Gwen.” She said, shaking his offered hand.
Destiny rushed from her bookshelf and leaned across the counter, breasts resting on her forearms. “And you can call me any time.” She purred.
“I’m Merlin.” Interjected the wizard.
“Alright Bruv, nice to meet you.” Wag said, averting his eyes from Destiny’s bosom, slapping Merlin on the back and picking up his toolbox. “Where’s this plumbing emergency then?”
Gwen jumped down from her stool as if she’d been bitten. “This way.” She sang as she skipped to the tiny kitchenette. Destiny grinned widely at Merlin before following the pair, sabotage dancing in her stride. Merlin balled his fists and counted to five before following them, not daring to leave Destiny unsupervised in the presence of this unexpected patsy.
Destiny spun on her heels meeting Merlin head on, mischief sparkling in her eyes. “May the best matchmaker win eh?”
The challenge was clear. Destiny had every intention of tempting Guinevere from her soul mate with any male that cared to cross her path. History was littered with suitors throwing themselves at Guinevere’s feet, reeking of her influence. Merlin was tired, Destiny was right, it was getting harder to ensure Arthur and Guinevere lived happily ever after. The twenty first century had leapt further into a polygamous den in the last fifty years than it had crawled towards it in the previous seven hundred and fifty. It was no longer the norm that you meet your intended and grow old together. Moral guardianship was not an occupation for the faint-hearted these days. In the short time it took Merlin to slump into the kitchenette, he had decided to end this wager today one way or another.
As Merlin squeezed passed Destiny’s intentionally widened shoulders into the tiny kitchenette, Gwen was sat on the kitchen counter chatting enthusiastically to Wagon’s boxer-brief covered backside. His belted jeans were inexplicably anchored below his buttocks, apparently on purpose. Wagon crawled backwards from under the sink, opened his toolbox and extracted a travel mug. He hopped onto the work surface beside Gwen and taking a glug of his drink, spilled most of the mouthful down his grease splattered t-shirt.
“Well?” Asked Merlin. “What appears to be the problem?”
“Oh, yer water tap’s been turned off. Nothing serious.”
“Turned off? Who could have turned the water tap off? He asked, looking at Gwen, the only other person employed at the shop.
“Beats me.” She shrugged.
His gaze drifted to Destiny who winked in return.
“So, Gwen.” Wagon said. “My mate Horse is in a band. They’re playing at the Bricklayers Arms tonight. Fancy going? It’ll be a right laugh.”
Merlin stiffened, “Why do they call him Horse?” He asked before Gwen could answer.
“Cos he looks like an ‘Orse of course. Weird long face and huge nostrils. Been called that since we were kids.” He laughed and shook his head.
Gwen hung on his every word and laughed at his description of Horse’s features. Merlin turned to leave the room, preparing to incant a repulsion spell and instead met with a wall of Destiny, quite effectively blocking the door.
“Oh no you don’t.” She whispered. “Let’s see this one play out shall we.”
The heat rose in Merlin’s cheeks and at that moment, as he glared squarely into Destiny’s eyes, he wished he could incant assassination curses with the power of his mind.
“Well?” Prompted Wagon. “Fancy it Gwen?
“I’d love to go, I love a good dance.” Said Gwen.
“Well, in that case my fair maiden, you shall dance.”
Merlin almost stopped breathing and turned to the scruffy plumber who had jumped from the counter and was in the middle of an overly dramatic bow.
“What did you say?”
“I said that if this lovely maiden wants to dance, then she should.”
“Haha!” Merlin clapped. “I quite agree young man.” Realisation creeping over him. “Tell me Wagon, you don’t look like a horse drawn cart, is that your surname?”
“Nah, me name is Pendragon. Arthur Pendragon. It’s a bit poncy though innit so me mates have always called me Wagon, cos it rhymes. Suits me better, don’t ya think?”
Merlin allowed his anger to recede. “Oh, I don’t know. I think I prefer Arthur. Don’t you agree Destiny?”
A gargled choke from Destiny distracted neither Arthur nor Gwen who noticed nothing but each other.
Merlin turned to Destiny, rubbing his hands gleefully.
“Well, I believe that’s what they call a wrap my dear. I think you owe me five hundred years of beautifully clean feet.”
Destiny’s defeated face looked down at her own feet and then snapped up.
“One nil to you. Best of three?” She asked airily.