Friday, 31 January 2014

Schrödinger’s Steeplejack, a short story by Maureen Bowden

Throughout my childhood my mother refused to tell me my father’s identity. She would put on her hippy-drippy voice, and say, ‘You’re a speck of stardust, my treasure. Nothing else matters.’ But it did.

By the time I was seventeen my patience had slammed the door and bolted. ‘Why won’t you tell me?’ I said.

‘Trust me, sweetheart. You don’t want to know.’

‘Trust me, Mother. I do.’

‘You’re a woman, now, Faye. Don’t call me mother. You can call me Maisie. Let’s be friends.’ She gave me what she, no doubt, considered to be an enigmatic smile. It made her look more like Shrek’s donkey than Mona Lisa. I wanted to punch her.

Desperate to trace my dad, I decided to interrogate my relatives. There weren’t many of them. Uncle Leo owned a damp-riddled, woodworm-infested bookshop that housed as many cobwebs as books. He lived above the shop. Maisie’s brother, Uncle Zak, the steeplejack, made his living scampering around the tops of cathedrals, factory chimneys and the like, fixing bricks, replacing slates and generally larking about. His ex-wife, batty Bronwen the psychic, had scuttled back to her native Wales after they divorced. She set up business with a crystal ball in a kiosk at the back of the amusement arcade on Rhyl promenade.

I explained my dilemma to Uncle Leo, as I followed him up a staircase that Shelob could have called home. ‘It’s not as if I’d get puritanical with her, Uncle. It’s her business who she sleeps with, but I think I have a right to know.’

‘You do, indeed, my dear, but I’m afraid I haven’t a clue. Why don’t you try Auntie Bron? She might read a chicken’s giblets for you.’

Is she really clairvoyant?’

‘Well, she saw right through Zak. That’s why she gave him the elbow and headed for the Land of Her Fathers.’

I took a train to Rhyl, and called on Auntie Bron in her curtain-draped kiosk. She wore a sixties’ kaftan and enough jewellery to stock a craft stall at Glastonbury. A fringed, purple scarf held back her waist-length, Satsuma-coloured hair. She sat, sipping from a hip flask, at a gate-legged table covered in mothball-scented black velvet. A crystal ball and a pack of tarot cards rested upon it. The table wobbled. So did she.

‘Faye,’ she said. ‘What you doin’ by yur?’

My mouth felt dry and a trickle of sweat ran down my back. She has that effect on people. ‘I came for a day at the seaside and thought I’d call and say hello. How’s business?’

‘I won’t lie to you, cariad. It’s not what it was. People gets their future read on the net these days. I’m thinkin’ of going that way myself, isn’t it? Arfon Garage from Rhyd-y-Foel says he’ll set up a website for me, see? Tidy.’

I nodded. ‘Tidy.’

‘Oi, Faye. You doesn’t fool me. You isn’t here for the sea air. What’s occurrin’?’

‘Okay, Auntie Bron. I need a favour. Before you go technological can you help me find out who my dad is, please? My mother won’t tell me. Could you read her mind?

She laughed. ‘Maisie’s a cover without a book, Faye. There’s nothing in it to
read. Any thought that pops in there gets lost in the wilderness, like.’ She took another swig from the hipflask. ‘Your dad’s name is probably wandering around looking for an oasis.’

‘You knew her back then. Have you any idea who might be able to help me?’

‘What about Zak? I’d put money on it the old termite knows more than he’s telling.’ She burped, and stashed the flask under her kaftan. ‘Uncle Leo’s nettle wine,’ she said. ‘Keeps the icy blasts from the Irish sea off my chest.’

‘You, were saying, about Uncle Zak?’

 ‘Oh, yes. Used to trail around after Maisie, back in the day, he did. She had a lot of crackin’ looking pals, see? He was always sniffin’ for some nocturnal action.’

‘Do you think he’d tell me?’

‘Get over yourself, Faye, He doesn’t has to. I reads his mind, isn’t it? Let’s go get him.’  

‘Tidy,’ I said.

Auntie Bron insisted on calling to see Maisie before we tackled Uncle Zak. We found her snivelling into a curry-stained tea towel that served as a handkerchief in times of emergency. Auntie Bron said, ‘What’s occurring’ Mais?’

‘I thought you were a bloody mind reader,’ Maisie said, before lunging at me and clasping me to her silicone-enhanced bosom until I gasped for air, ‘There’s been a terrible accident, Faye,’ she said, between sobs. ’Your Uncle Zak was repairing a dent in one of the domes on the Liver Buildings and he fell off.’

‘Is he dead?’ I asked,

‘Dead and spread,’ Uncle Leo said, emerging from the kitchen with a bottle of his home-brewed nettle wine and four glasses. ‘Not a pretty sight. He was apparently feeling over-confident and decided to forego the use of his safety harness. Bad decision.’ 

We drank a toast or six to Uncle Zak’s memory and after we’d sunk into the cosy euphoria of semi-drunkenness Uncle Leo said, ‘I’ll be going, now. If you’re staying around until after the funeral, Bron, can I offer you a bed?’

‘I’ll be right with you, Leo.’ She groped her way to the door and grasped his arm to steady herself.

‘You will make the funeral arrangements, won’t you, Uncle?’ Maisie said. ‘I couldn’t face it, myself.’

‘Don’t worry, my dear. It’s all in hand.’


The only family members at the funeral were Maisie, Uncle Leo, Auntie Bron and me. We were joined by a bevy of middle-aged ladies wearing false eyelashes longer than their skirts. They kept away from Auntie Bron and handed the funeral director a floral arrangement shaped like a factory chimney, complete with billows of white smoke. He must have thought it was the first time a corpse had provided its own crematorium.   

We followed the hearse into the chapel. Boz Scaggs sang us in with ‘Fly Like a Bird.’ After a brief service we put our small change in a collection box for the families of steeplejacks killed in action, and Geri Halliwell sang us out with ‘It’s Raining Men.’

Maisie lingered behind, chatting to the eyelash ladies. Auntie Bron, Uncle Leo and I reviewed the situation. ‘He’ll not tell us anything about my dad now,’ I said.

‘Not by yur,’ Auntie Bron said, ‘but has you ever heard of Schrödinger’s   cat?’

‘Yes, we did that in physics. If it’s dead when the box is opened it’s alive in a parallel universe.’

‘Clever girl. Now, all we has to do is get to the universe where Zak decides to be cautious and put his safety harness on. Tidy.’

‘Scientists don’t think that’s possible do they?’

Uncle Leo grunted. ‘Scientists, huh. What do they know? Let’s go back to my place, have a glass or three of nettle wine and do some research.’

Auntie Bron said, ‘Crackin’.’ 

He guided us through Shelob’s lair, brought out the bottles and glasses, said ‘I’ll be back,’ and disappeared into the bookshop’s dungeon dimensions. We were on our second glass when he returned with an armful of books. ‘From the occult section,’ he said. We blew off the cobwebs, sneezed and set to work. Two hours and two bottles later our eyes had stopped focussing, so Uncle Leo hid the remaining bottle and brewed black coffee. When we’d regained our sight and the power of speech, we set-to again.

It was midnight when Auntie Bron said, ‘Got it. We needs a spot where two ley lines cross. You knows any place like that, Leo?’

‘The gates to Calderstones Park. There was a stone circle there until some wassock dug it up and put it in a greenhouse.’

‘Crackin’. First thing tomorrow. Now, let’s get some sleep.’ They trotted off together and I curled up on the couch.

It was mid-morning when we reached the park gates. ‘Okay,’ Aunty Bron said. ‘Concentrate on getting the right universe. We pictures Zak pratting about on top of the Liver Buildings and putting his safety harness on.’ It worked. A veil of mist appeared where the paths crossed. ‘Crackin’. I’ll go first.’

We followed her through the veil. The mist evaporated and the world looked the same. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s find Zak.’ I felt like Dorothy, skipping down the yellow brick road with her retinue, in search of the wizard.

We were approaching Uncle Zak’s house when we met ourselves coming from the other direction. Schrödinger’s Auntie Bron said, ‘Oi, What’s occurrin’?’

Our Auntie Bron said, ‘Parallel universe.’

‘Who’s the dead cat?’


‘Condolences, but what you doing by yur?’

‘Same as you, I thinks.’

‘Come to find out who’s Faye’s dad, right?’


‘Tidy. Let’s go.’

We turned up mob-handed to confront Schrödinger’s Uncle Zak. A middle-aged lady in false eyelashes and a dressing gown opened the door to us. I thought I recognised her from the funeral.

She looked at the two Auntie Brons, blinked, whimpered, ‘I’m just leaving,’ and fled upstairs. Uncle Zak was chomping and slurping his way through a full English breakfast. He paused mid-sausage. ‘What the f…?’

‘Parallel universes,’ one of the Uncle Leos said. ‘Bron can explain.’

‘We come by yur to asks you a question,’ our Auntie Bron said.

‘Why couldn’t you ask me in your own universe?’

‘You’re dead.’

‘Oh, right. Did I fall off the Liver?’

‘You did. Don’t worry about it. Here’s the question. Who’s Faye’s dad?’

‘Trust me, Bronwen, you don’t want to know.’

‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

‘Don’t be disgusting, woman. Maisie’s my sister.’

Schrödinger’s Auntie Bron tapped our Auntie Bron on the shoulder. ‘We hits him with both barrels, I reckon.’


The front door slammed, marking the departure of the eyelash lady, as two pair of psychic eyeballs bore into Uncle Zak’s mental apparatus.

Meanwhile, Schrödinger’s Faye’s eyeballs were boring into me. ‘Your hair looks awesome,’ she said.

‘So does yours. Where d’ya have your hi-lights done?

‘Heidi’s. Opposite Vision Express.’

‘Me too. Good, isn’t she?’

‘It’s Leo,’ the two Auntie Brons shouted.

‘What? It’s not,’ the two Uncle Leos shouted back.

‘Shut up,’ Uncle Zak shouted. ‘I feel like I’ve got an echo in my head. It’s worse than tinnitus.’ 

‘Start explaining, Zak,’ one or other of the Auntie Brons said. I’d lost track of who was who by this time.

‘You’d better sit down,’ Uncle Zak said to the two Uncle Leos. ’It was that night you took Maisie and me back to the shop to sample your latest decantation of nettle gut-rot. I went easy on the stuff because I had a steeple to climb next day, but you and she were blotto.’

‘I remember the night in question,’ the two Uncle Leos said, ‘but I have no recollection of a seduction taking place.’

‘Neither did Maisie. I hauled her out of your bed next morning while you were still snoring. She couldn’t even remember what her feet were for, and I’m not sure which of you did the seducing, if it’s any consolation.’

‘It’s not.’

‘No wonder she wouldn’t tell me,’ I and I said. ‘She doesn’t know.’ We confronted the Uncle Leos, ‘That’s incestuous. You’re my uncle. Or are you Maisie’s Uncle? I’ve never been sure.’

‘I’m not really anyone’s uncle. I’m just an old family retainer who’s always been around dispensing nettle wine.’

‘For why is you looking so guilty, then, Leo?’ the Auntie Brons said. ‘What is you not telling us?’

The two Leos looked at each other, shrugged, and said, ’Okay, it’s like this. A similar thing happened twenty years earlier, only I was a younger man then and I could hold my wine better. I remember doing the deed.’ They turned to me and me. ’The lady in question was your grandmother.’

‘You mean you’re my grandfather as well as my father?’

They nodded. ‘I’m afraid so, but don’t worry, I come from an excellent gene stock.’ 

‘Right,’ our Aunty Bron said. ‘We got our answer. Let’s get lover boy home. Two of them in one universe in pushing the luck of the cosmos, like.’ She winked at Schrödinger’s Auntie Bron. ‘I reckon he needs taking in hand, isn’t it?’

‘Oi,’ I and I said. ‘What’s occurrin’?’


After we passed back through the veil, into our own universe, Uncle Leo said, ‘Fancy cracking open a bottle of nettle wine, Bron?’

‘Crackin’, let’s get crackin’,’ she said.

I didn’t reckon she’d be heading back to Rhyl anytime soon and, with a warm feeling inside, I left them to it. I’d not only found my dad, but I’d acquired something akin to a stepmother. I was rich.

When I arrived home, Maisie said, ‘What you looking so smug about, Faye?’

‘Trust me,’ I said. ‘You don’t want to know.’ 

Maureen Bowden is an ex-patriate Liverpudlian living with her musician husband on the island of Anglesey, off the coast of North Wales, where they try in vain to evade the onslaught of their children and grandchildren. She writes for fun and she has had several poems and short stories published. She loves Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare and cats.

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