Phil Robinson

Phil Robinson lives with his wife in East London. In his current project, The Starship Omnibus, he is experimenting with rhyme and rhythmic structure in prose to create an unusual ‘bedtime’ story to be read aloud at any age. His reading interests encompass many different genres and forms, and his writing also attempts to tackle varied conventions and themes. Young children feature as protagonists in much of his work.  

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The Starship Omnibus


When the small boy Teddy awoke that morning, that his Mother was gone was true. For yesterday it had been a lie the empty house had told him, but now the house was silent, and still he could not hear her.

When he realised this, Teddy began to cry. His sobs were so big that the sound and water slipped his hands, and speckles, like small black petals, scattered the dusty floorboards around his knees.

Outside the boarded-up windows, the Amber-Eyes prowled. The sun-stung barrowhumps into their hollows slunk, but the black cat was uncowed. The sexton-grasses growing up against the house swished like its tail with its passes, and through the gaps in the wood on the windows it peeked and it growled.

But in the house Teddy’s sobs were the only sound. No more Mother now: no more silking of her breath as she slept on the other sofa; no more shooing of her watch hands as they urged the day closer. Teddy cried for a morning.

Outside the boarded-up windows the Amber-Eyes waited. The sexton-grasses stood sedately. The fog-or-smog of night lingered late, but near noon sagged down at last to let the sun scratch at the paint.

And in the house Teddy’s sobs died down. What he had to do, he had to decide now.

‘Small boys mustn’t go outside,’ his Mother had said, ‘that’s where other things are living that don’t know sharing, or forgiving insults, losing or lies,’

And then there was the cat…

‘The way we survive,’ she had said, ‘is that you stay right here, and I’ll go out and come back for you, Teddy –’

But what she said should happen, hadn’t. Yes, he was still small, but without a parent what could he do? If he waited and stayed he’d fade away, for his Mother brought the food. And her promises had gone with her, and so had all that he knew.

Outside the boarded-up windows the Amber-Eyes pricked up its ears. The sexton-grasses shivered as Teddy dried up his tears. The back gate crooned in a lullaby breeze as he picked himself up from the floor. And the black cat’s muscles stretched and squeezed as it polished its powerful paws.

Teddy marched to the hallway door; nicked under his nose was his name. And there was the nick of his Mother’s, way up on the frame. He reached up on his tiptoes and pressed his finger to the mark. He could feel the gouge under his skin now as he could feel it under his heart. He left a shallow nail-groove beneath his Mother’s line as proof that he was the small boy no longer: because to see Her again he must be strong – as strong as what was living outside; what had lived on when the rest had died….the barrowhumps, the werewickets…and the Amber-Eyes.

 He walked into the hall, all red. There was the front door in black, lurking at the end.

‘There’s no food left at all, Teddy dear. And you’re a gaunt little boy,’ she’d said. Then she’d stared through him for a moment, pulled open the door and left.

Outside the door was the garden; in the garden was the beast. Beyond the gate who knew what else would find him in the street? His Mother waiting, maybe, but there would be no way to say for sure; not without overcoming the black cat and the door.

Teddy had then, a sudden thought: a cowardly idea by which the door could be ignored. He turned away from the threshold to run upstairs and through the bedless room to the window and the wooden chair. Mother told her stories there, with his feet between her thighs and his elbows on the sill. Now he clambered up the side of the perch and willed her silhouette to warm into shape through the fog-or-smog that smothered the road. It spooled like breath through the mouths of the slack-jawed houses, cooling them like death.

But the fog-or-smog was not so kind as to appear his Mother to the boy left behind.

Teddy sat himself down on the chair. Above him through the square of the window he could still see the dull sky mood. He paddled his feet over the lip of his seat of creaking wood and, trying not to weep, as only small boys should, he thought of the stories Mother told before sleep.

When the sun fell, the fog-or-smog would swell. It sank all the streets below blind-eyed-white, so she would turn their sights west to the glows in the night.

‘Those, Teddy dear, are the stars,’ she’d say, and point to the lights twined like plants far away. They grew up from the city in glittering stacks: all that was left shining when the dark had dressed the day in blacks.

‘Who lives there, in the stars?’ he’d ask. And she would smile, but she would not laugh.

‘It’s a very special place,’ she’d say, but she’d never say why, ‘Where Mothers and Fathers and boys and girls all used to fly to.’

‘Fly?’ he’d exclaim, and she’d tighten her thighs on his feet to stop him falling. ‘Like in a plane?’

‘No,’ she’d say, and that was the cruel thing, that that was all. She wouldn’t say that she felt the stars calling.

The day was coming around now. The sun was this side of the house, bending down. The coils of the vapours were lit like dust. Teddy would have to leave soon, if he must – and he did. He mustered up everything that he had and jumped down from the chair, ran through the bedless room, downstairs, through the hall and into the room where they had lived.

He began to gather his things: his bright blue bag with the red and blue strings; a can of drink his Mother had found and saved; the robot he could play with if he behaved; a warm navy jumper and extra socks, and the book with the drawings of things long lost.

There was one more thing: his Mother’s treasure, she had told him: a heart-shaped pin her grandmother had bestowed her. When she was smiling it would go in her hair – now it was lying there on the mantle. Teddy tucked it into the puckered lips of his bag, then plucked the whole thing up and swung it over his shoulders. He held the red and blue strings like reins in his hands, thinking for when he could hold Hers again. Then he steered himself to the door, his eyes locked onto the frame.

The light through the little window cast a gloam on his face. His and once Hers home was quiet, and smelled not quite right. The aroma coming in under the door skirt conspired to turn him around, but he thought against the empty belly-air-fear churning and took one step forward, his shoe without a sound.

Outside there was a snicker of claw on stone. A click, a stir and a weight upon the step that Teddy had been waiting for. A shape that flickered shadows under the door into the hall, then settled into blackness breathing, a footprint with no paw.

Teddy took another step, keeping his toes past the edge of the shadow on the floor. Courage was like salt to swallow.

He leant forward like the bowing hands of a clock and with one hand rapped – knock, knock – underneath the letterbox. And when from outside came no reply, he poked aside the aluminium tongue and looked through, into the Amber-Eyes.

Together they stared through the mouth of His and since Hers house. Teddy did not shiver, quiver, or cry. How little those eyes looked like his Mother’s. How afraid he was to die. How death wasn’t inside those colours, but had snuck into the cupboards, the cushions and the chairs while he slept. How ill the house was without her. How he did what he did next.

‘I’m lifting up the latch,’ he said, and something huge shifted and writhed. And the shadow lapping at his feet withdrew, withdrew to rise.

He had to do it, then. He turned the handle, pulled back the door, and the Amber-Eyes came through it.

The claws and teeth of such a beast are much bigger than a boy’s. Its fur like night-rain bled the light and drowned the little noise. Teddy did not breathe as it touched a sharpness to his cheek. The strings of his bag were by his small fists being throttled, and he shut his eyes tight. Its hot tell-tale breath condensated on his neck as it paced a tattoo into the laminate.

‘I’m scared,’ Teddy said, and he felt strong jaws begin to embrace him. White teeth took hold of his arms without hastening. Teddy found himself waiting for a thing he didn’t want, but the wait alone was far too long.

For any predator that has cornered its prey, there comes a time to eat it as they should do. But before that there is time enough for play – and frightened boys make toys just as good as they do food. The Amber-Eyes liked to enjoy the bouquet of fearful sweat, and so, though it inched its teeth slowly tighter, it would not close them yet.

If it growled, if it purred, then Teddy couldn’t tell. But his bones rumbled as it salivated and he felt the beast’s impatience swell.

He wanted to open his eyes, before. He did, and when he did, he remembered that the door was open. He saw through the portal the garden, and the gate, skewed to one side, and the tarmac gliding under the fog-or-smog out to grey vaguery six houses down.

And now the leaden air was sneaking in over the step, greying the space the door had kept. It touched a cool finger to his lip, and it dried his eyes where he had wept.

And Teddy, who was still afraid, decided that even if he couldn’t be brave he could still do something. Something that might let him see her again.

And all of a sudden he was racing: skinning stitches and ribs as he slid from between the teeth of the Amber-Eyes, not looking behind him as he ran into the emptying frame of the door. A terrible noise came after, with a more terrible thing following faster – but then he was out! and he pulled slam-shut the door with him and the wood gave a shout that muffled the scream of the thing unforgiving now trapped in the house.

Teddy checked his fingers. Teddy checked his toes, his bag, his earlobes and his nose. He was in one piece, if he could believe it. And the crooked garden path was beneath his feet, waiting for him to leave it.

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The Starship Omnibus


A small fist gripped the black curls of the gate that cawed as it opened and cooed as it closed. Small feet in small black shoes met the kerb outside at the corner of the pavement. Teddy looked around as the gate sung shut behind him. It was dimming already into evening, and the street was shading grey. And it was…

…oh, it was quiet.

He headed on his way.

The fog-or-smog was thick as glass. Things bent into view as he passed them: a streetlamp grew up from between two slabs, the colour of lightning-struck. A lonely fence post bristled amongst water-filled holes in the muck. Lurched flat on its belly across the kerb a deflated wheelie bin, its mouth snapped open and the road absurd with its abandons and leaves. Teddy tip-toed through the debris.

And several somethings watched him go, hidden underneath the eaves.

The neighbour houses that flanked the road sat there like shrunken heads, long since discarded like withered maids all in a row. Their gardens were grey and brittle.

Teddy listened. None of them spoke through their hollow hallways framed in ‘O’s’ of surprise. The shadows of the slanting day had long since closed their eyes. There was nothing left behind them; there was no Mother waiting for her boy to find her. It wasn’t for lack of hoping that he could hear nothing move.

He couldn’t hear the several somethings loping underneath the rooves.

‘Where is everyone else?’ he had asked her once.

‘They went away,’ she’d said, ‘when the time had come.’

‘Where did they go?’

She had paused.

‘They went back to the stars, I suppose.’

‘So everyone else just went and left?’ he’d said.

‘No, Teddy dear, we’re the ones left. But everyone leaves in the end.’

The somethings watched from the gables the boy on his way down the street.

He was so much a speck in a pond.

Fleck in the iris.

Peck and a swallow.

He kept on quite alone, and they followed.

The sun was falling fast, releasing twilight-inks as it fled beneath the edge of things. The horizon bruised blackberry-red as the darkness came on overhead. Teddy took out the warm jumper from inside his bag to pull on. The night was bringing a chill along. A noise tickled the tiles of a roof nearby the moment the collar covered his eyes. He thrust his head through, but there was no one there.

‘Mother?’ he called.

Nothing but echoing air.

He had to carry on. He stuck his fingers through the chewed cuffs of his jumper and he kept on walking until, quite soon, he came to the junction.

The houses on either side seemed to stop in the burgeoning fog-or-smog. His path did not: the road was turning both ways, left sloping up and right flattening down, both vanishing into the haze. And straight ahead over the road was a park: as dark as a mouth behind iron railings.

Which way to go? This way, that, or the other? No way of knowing the route his Mother took when she went out to look for food. Was there something he should have remembered? Something he’d been told about the world outside that he had descended into?

‘Stay here, Teddy dear,’ she’d always said.

It wasn’t something he’d meant to do.

Through the murk and mulling dark at the top of the hill to his left, a streetlamp quivered into glow. The single orange stud was alone in the fast-held blacks of the night and the fog-or-smog like cataracts. Teddy hesitated with a half-raised foot. He was thinking of traps – but really there was no going back, and no knowing right or forward. So leftways he ran, towards and towards the light of the lamp.

The slope was steep and the fog-or-smog was deep, but Teddy did not pause. The railings on his right gave way to a solid lump of tower two-dozen floors tall, and the houses left shrank back from the hundreds of eyes in its walls.

Teddy wondered what or who might be waiting there above the white, and he wondered what stories they might lead each other through at night. But no pale faces appeared in place of pupils in those hundreds-eyes, and no shapes indescribable were crawling up the sides. For better and worse it was just himself (he thought), and the lamplight like a will-o’-wisp leading him upward through the mist.

But the fog-or-smog was not a mist. It did not hold ogres, or will-o’-wisps, or dragons or ghouls or manticores. It held a boy.

And the other things that prowled around within, it wasted no caresses on.

At the top of the slope was a road; the biggest road Teddy had come across yet. It stretched leftways and rightways straight as a parade. To the left the fog-or-smog seemed to densely crowd in, denying sight, while to the right in two endless rows rose tall buildings going on into the night.

And right there on the corner, over a crossing watched over by dead traffic lights, was the streetlamp lonely aglow. And beside it, on a wide, flat post, was a map.

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