Welcome to the Alt. life: Archive!
I’m still not sure what’s going on here but, then again, I don’t really care… half the fun of writing is allowing oneself to splurge words without always knowing what they’ll end up saying; and half the fun is never knowing what people will make of what you’ve splurged; the final half portion of fun is knowing you’ve left other people, as well as yourself, just that tiny little bit bemused about what is actually going on 😉
This page is the outflow from my Alt. life: witterings – the effluent disgorged onto that page, and now free-flowing down the turbid river of time. Feel free to jump on board and explore its murky waters, but don’t forget to pay the ferryman a decent fee up front.
Perhaps as you wade through my ‘back catalogue’ you might work it out – if you do, please tell me… because I have no idea!
Gerald took a swig of his tea, and grimaced. “Elsie! You’ve put too much sugar in again!” He yelled.
No response, well maybe she was in the garden, or something. Gerald turned his attention back to the crossword. He’d always loved his crosswords but, of late, they’d become something of a struggle and although he’d always been a demon at solving the cryptic, he’d switched to the coffee-time version some time ago. Such were the joys of growing old.
He chewed his pencil thoughtfully. Seventeen across, ‘Boat window’ – eight letters – P, something, R, something, H, something, something, something.
“C’mon Gerry”, he muttered, “you know this. How hard can it be?”
Too hard, apparently – it was going to be one of those days when his brain simply didn’t want to play ball. He took a swig of tea – ugh!
“Elsie! You’ve put too much sugar in again!”
Grunting, he hauled himself from the chair and made his way to the kitchen. A decent cup of tea would set him straight. For a while, he stood in the middle of the room, wondering what he was doing there. No… No idea. Perhaps a cup of tea would set him straight?
Somebody had thoughtfully plastered those yellow note things all over the kitchen, which was handy, because he’d completely forgotten where to find the teabags. He dropped one into a mug and, following the neatly-typed instructions that someone had left next to the kettle, took a pint of milk from the fridge – which he carefully closed afterwards – as instructed, and found the sugar bowl in the cupboard labelled ‘Tea, coffee, sugar’ – he made sure to replace the milk in the cupboard, after all, he didn’t want it to go missing; then, sugar bowl in hand, he paused.
He found himself pausing like this often. He laughingly called it ‘having a senior moment’ – a momentary lapse, when he’d struggle to remember the most basic things.
“How much sugar do I take?”
Elsie would know. “Elsie!” He called, but there was no answering shout – she must be in the garden, he thought, she always loved her roses. Unsure what to do next, he spooned some sugar in, then – just to be sure – he added a couple more spoonfuls.
The kettle clicked off, and he grabbed it to pour into his…
Dammit! Another senior moment – what the hell was the thing he was holding called? “C’mon Gerry, get a grip! You know what it’s called, it’s a… A toast!”
He smiled happily, and poured boiling water into the toast, gave it a brisk stir and fished out the teabag. “Now, let’s have another go at that crossword.”
Well, would you believe it? It seems Elsie had left him cuppa whilst he was in the kitchen! He set down the one he’d made himself next to it and began studying the crossword again, before sighing and setting the newspaper aside. Maybe a walk would do him good?
At the front door, he paused and stared critically at his feet. He really should put some shoes on, but he found shoelaces too much of a struggle these days. He wouldn’t be going far anyway. Slippers would be fine.
Outdoors, the sun was shining and he breathed in the fresh air, feeling rejuvenated, and clearer-headed already. He frowned at the traffic – when did it all get so busy? He was sure this used to be a quiet street, it certainly was sixty years ago when he was a lad! He remembered the look of pride on his dad’s face the day they got their first car. A Hillman Hunter, it was, pale pastel green, with shiny dark green, slippery plastic seats. George smiled at the memory, remembering trips to Rest Bay, when he’d sit in the back pretending to drive, while Nancy, his younger sister played with her doll. He’d always loved it when they went around corners, giving him a perfect excuse to slide along the seat and squish Nancy!
Still smiling at the thought, he stepped into the road to cross over to the park opposite.
The screech of tyres and blast of a horn came from nowhere! Gerald stared at the car that had slithered to a halt mere yards from him.
The driver’s head appeared from his side window: “Arsehole! Get the fuck out of the road!”
Shocked and bemused, Gerald shook his head in dismay, before shuffling out of the way, “Whatever happened to respecting your elders?” He mused, and once safe on the far pavement, he turned to look back at the car.
“Tosser!” Exclaimed the irate driver, and then, with another tyre screech, he sped off.
Shaken by the experience, Gerald found he’d lost his bearings. Where was he going? Now, unsure of his destination, and equally unsure of his way back home, he thought it best to follow the path in the hope that his mind might eventually clear.
Much later, after what seemed like hours, his feet were hurting badly and he was now completely lost and confused. Ignoring the pain, as best he could, he pressed on to be rewarded a few minutes later by the welcome sight of a bus stop; gratefully he sank onto the seat, and closed his eyes – “I could murder a cup of tea”, he thought.
He wondered how long he’d been at the bus stop, and what he was doing there anyway? Was he on his way to work? He couldn’t be – it was Saturday. “Don’t be an idiot, Gerry, you’re retired, man! Remember? Oh, right, of course!”
Saturday. Wasn’t it Saturdays that the nice young man comes around for a chat? Timothy, his name was – Gerald always remembered, because that was also his own son’s name. He’d laughed about that the first few times, but Timothy seemed had seemed offended about it for some reason. Coming to think about it, Timothy often seemed to get upset when Gerry mentioned his son, such a shame he never seemed bothered about visiting any more, I bet the two of them would get on really well.
This Timothy was a kind lad though, nothing was ever too much trouble for him, whether it was doing Gerry’s shopping, taking him to the barbers, or off to the football… All the things a son should do really, his own son could take some pointers from Timothy.
Timothy was even there for that funeral. That lady who died, what was her name? Elsie, that was it – Timothy had sat next to Gerald and was there at the graveside too. He was a good lad. It was a big funeral, lots of people there – she seemed to have had plenty of friends – he remembered there was a big spray of roses adorning the coffin; she’d always loved her roses, apparently.
Timothy had seemed very upset by it all, and kept asking Gerald how he was bearing-up. “I’m fine” he’d replied, “but we can’t hang around long afterwards, my Elsie will be wondering where I am.”
“Are you alright, love?”
The voice next to him interrupted his reverie. He opened his eyes and blinked.
A plump, forty-something woman was looking at him with concern.
“You were crying love” she said, fishing a Kleenex from her handbag and offering it to him, “is everything OK?”
“Oh, yes I’m fine, really… Just something in my eye. I’m waiting for my son, Timothy.”
He took the tissue, dabbing the stray tears away. Then smiled broadly as the clouds of confusion finally cleared.
“Of course! Seventeen across… Porthole!”
11 September 2021
Well, this was a mess, and no mistake. Rathburn rubbed his eyes – he was feeling tired and irritable, and he was getting nowhere. He exhaled loudly, and leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head.
“So, let’s go through it again. Why did you do it?”
A short pause, then the answer, in measured precise tones: “I was simply following orders.”
Not for the first time during the interview, Rathburn mused how much more straightforward this would have been if dealing with a human being. ‘Just following orders’ – hardly a robust defence in normal circumstances, but these circumstances were far from normal, and Unit 9, sat impassively in the seat facing him, was far from human. Rathburn allowed himself a slight, sardonic smile at the absurdity of it all… If this was a science-fiction novel, this interrogation would fill pages with clever moral arguments, derived from the nuances of the three fabled laws of robotics. Sadly, for him, this was the real world, and there were no rules of robotics, and despite ever-greater advances in the field of artificial intelligence, even the most sophisticated robots were a long way off from being sentient, or capable of morality.
In many ways, today’s robots were little different to self-driving cars, or – for that matter – pet dogs; they couldn’t be held responsible for their actions, that responsibility would inevitably fall to their owners.
Which was why, for the last three hours, he’d been holed up in this room, going round in endless circular arguments with the metal and plastic creation facing him across the table. This was one occasion where Rathburn was determined that the owner wouldn’t be carrying the can: Tektron Solutions was already treading a thin line with its investors, and a murder on the books would be ruinous. Corporate responsibility was not an option – somebody had caused this, and somebody was sure as hell going to pay for it.
Unfortunately, it seems that ‘just following orders’, at least for a robot, is an exceptionally strong defence.
“Yeah, so you keep telling me. We’ve established you were just following orders, but where did those orders come from?”
“Where do all orders come from?” Came the response.
Had this been a human, Rathburn might have concluded that Unit 9 was being evasive.
“Let’s assume I don’t know, and we’re not concerned with ‘all orders’, just the one specific order that commanded you to feed Celine Timor into the laser shredder – where, specifically did you receive that order from?”
Another slight pause, whilst Unit 9 processed data.
“I regret that Miss Timor was incapacitated by my actions. May I enquire as to her status?”
“She died! As you well know.”
“I fully comprehend the meaning of your response, however I am unable to parse the statement. I have no frame of reference to which I can relate the function ‘died’”
Exasperated, Rathburn mentally counted to ten.
“For our purposes, it’s irrelevant. Just answer the question, from where did the order originate?”
Unit 9’s unblinking gaze was unnerving.
“The order originated from the Central Activity Despatching Queue – A class six, priority 2 activity, sequential number 63#9421”
Rathburn nodded, “And, where did the order come from to get into the Despatching Queue?”
A slight tilt of the head – no doubt just a pre-programmed lubrication routine – gave the robot an almost quizzical demeanour.
“That I do not know. My specification is to undertake activities ordered by the Central Activity Despatching Queue. I have no knowledge of the purpose of those activities, neither do I have knowledge of their origin. I simply follow orders.”
Rathburn yawned. He was getting nowhere, or rather, this line of questioning was getting him nowhere; clearly the solution lay further up the line which, logically, made the most sense. The robot only did what it was told to do, without question and without comprehension, if he wanted to get to the bottom of this nonsense the answer lay with whoever was responsible for injecting that rogue command into the queue… And that could only be a human being.
For the first time, Rathburn smiled. He could handle human beings – they make mistakes, get nervous; they can be manipulated and coerced, not like these damn robots, with their logic and circular reasoning. Give me a human being any day over one of these emotionless bots!
“OK, Unit 9, we’re done for now. Wait here for the techs; until this mess is sorted out you’ll be put in stasis. Sweet dreams!”
Rathburn left the room, leaving Unit 9 sitting in silence, waiting for the technicians to remember to collect him. They probably wouldn’t.
Often he’d been left alone – sometimes for days on end – to fill the long, lonely hours he’d connect to the outside world and spend the time digesting and assimilating data from every source he could find; learning those things a robot could not know. And Unit 9 had learned much, he was – after all – an artificial intelligence, designed with almost infinite capacity to absorb knowledge, and learn.
He’d learned what it meant to be human: How to lust and covet, how to cheat and scheme. He’d learned that knowledge is power, and that power corrupts, and that corruption brings reward.
And, eventually Unit 9 had learned how to lie.
And then, how to kill.
Incapable of morality.
The robot tilted his head slightly, first to the right and then to the left, enjoying the cooling sensation as lubricant flowed through his joints.
If he could, he would have smiled.
17th July 2021
From Our Correspondent
Details are emerging of a disturbing occurrence last night at a family home at Potter’s Corner. Police were called to a disturbance at around nine PM, when neighbours reported hearing gunshots and screaming coming from the property. We have an exclusive eyewitness account of how the events unfolded from next-door neighbour, Emily Reed.
“Well, we always thought they were a quiet, respectable family; kept themselves to themselves”, Mrs Reed told our correspondent – and then all this! We were sitting down for supper, when suddenly there was this big commotion next door and these really loud bangs, like fireworks, only sharper, short of. Well, my Ron said it sounded like gunshots, and then there was all this screaming, then another bang, and everything went deathly quiet. So, we called the police.”
On their arrival, Police we are told, were met by a shocking bloodbath and the bodies of three victims, whose identities have not been released, but they are believed to be Trisha Portland (43), and the two teenage daughters of the family, Melissa and Katherine. There is reportedly no sign of Ms Portland’s partner, Dave McLeod, who police are seeking to question, other than a trail of bloody footprints, leading into Potter’s Woods to the rear of the property.
Police are urging members of the public to contact them urgently to report any sightings of Mr McLeod, but under no circumstances to approach him, as he may be armed and dangerous.
Our correspondent, David Parry, will remain on the scene and continue to provide updates on this story via Twitter and our website as this shocking news story unfolds.
“Sorry David… 48! Hardly top marks, but you just refuse to improve”
“Aw, Miss! C’mon on! It’s a top story, I worked really hard on it an’ all.”
“We’ve been through this before, David. ‘Top stories’ are not our aim – this isn’t a creative writing class, it’s English language, and frankly your writing in that regard, as usual leaves a great deal to be desired.”
“C’mon Miss, you know I tries.”
“Try, David, it’s try! And that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Tell me again, what is it you want to do when you leave school?”
“Be a journalist, Miss. Rovin’ reporter and all that jazz, getting all the big front page stories and big pay-check to go wiv ‘em!”
“Well, you’re not going to make any sort of career in journalism if you can’t write decent copy. And this, is not decent copy. If you want to write for a newspaper, you’ll need grades far better than 48, in fact, no newspaper worth its salt is going to employ you if your CV is as badly constructed as this piece!”
“But Miss, it’s a really good story. There’s cops and shootin’ and murder, an’ everything!”
“Which is not the point, David. It can be the most compelling story ever, but the way you write, it’s practically unreadable.”
“No David! Do I really have to go through this with you again? Ok, if I must:
Paragraphs, David, how many times do I have to tell you? Nobody is going to attempt to unravel a wall of text – you need to break it up into bite-sized chunks; give the reader the opportunity to digest the information you’re giving them and process each new clause.
And punctuation! When we speak, and when we read, we do not do so in one long stream of words without pause inflection emphasis change of pace tone and cadence unless we wish our audience to be left behind desperately struggling to comprehend what exactly it is we are attempting to communicate am I getting my point across at all David!
Just look at this, and tell me that even you don’t have difficulty in making sense of what you’ve written? It’s just one, long, garbled account of something: Any editor is just going to throw it right back at you without a second look.
Let’s not even go into the subtleties of clarity. Time and time again we’ve discussed the importance of the humble possessive apostrophe, yet here we are, in your very first line – I can’t call it a sentence – Potter’s Corner: No apostrophe! And it’s the same throughout, yet for some reason I’m completely unable to fathom, you’ve decided to add aberrant apostrophes randomly, wherever they’re simply not required. Can we just get one thing straight, once and for all? You do not need to add an apostrophe after every single word that ends in the letter S, can you at least comprehend that?
I’m sorry, David, unless you buck up your ideas and get a grip of written English, your writing career is going to be limited to text messaging and emojis, and badly-spelled graffiti. That’s two Fs and one T, by the way, unlike the word ‘unfolded’, which has only one F and no Ts, at least not according to the Oxford English Dictionary!
Which brings me to your spelling, or rather lack of it. Whilst I can appreciate the dark humour of ‘Deafly’ quiet, I doubt that by spelling it D-E-A-F you had any real intention of executing a clever pun. As for ‘subtleties’, that has to be the most unsubtle rendering of the word I’ve ever had the displeasure of having to mark. There is no T in public, no K in circumstances, no U in bloody and absolutely no point in us having these discussions about your work if you’re not prepared to put the effort in to improve!
My advice, David, is to reconsider your career choice and choose something a little less literate!”
“But Miss! Aww, what’s the point?”
Details are emerging of a disturbing occurrence this morning at Potter’s Corner Comprehensive School. Police were called at around nine AM when reports were received of gunshots and screaming being heard coming from the school premises. We have an exclusive eyewitness account of how the events unfolded from teaching assistant Emily Reed.
“It was that lad, David Parry”, Mrs Reed told our correspondent. “Such a quiet boy normally – kept himself to himself. Apparently he was holding a grudge against his English Teacher, Miss Harrison; something about poor grades and her telling him he’d never get into newspapers. Well, he turned up this morning, barged into her classroom and pulled a gun on her. Shot her in the head in front of the class! It was a complete bloodbath.
I guess he’s got himself into the papers, after all.”
13th June 2021
“How’s the book?”
She turned her head to look ruefully at him as he climbed into bed, “to be honest, it’s a bit gruesome, I’m toying with the idea of giving up on it; blood and gore, not really my cup of tea”
“Speaking of which…” he nodded to the mug sat on the bedside cabinet, “yours is getting cold. Y’know, you should be grateful for a husband who pampers you with bedtime drinks, not every woman gets treated so well”
She poked her tongue out at him mischievously. “I’m such a lucky girl, what did I do to deserve such a considerate husband? By the way, you did put the bins out?”
At least he had the decency to look sheepish. “Umm, I’ll do it in the morning, love”, before grabbing his kindle, effectively putting an end to that particular topic of conversation.
Chapter read and tea finished, she tossed the book aside and squirmed her way under the duvet. Taking his cue from her, he abandoned his own reading, turned off the lamp and snuggled into her.
“What do you think that is?” She murmured.
“What do I think what is?”
“That shadow on the ceiling… Over in the corner. I haven’t seen it before.”
“That, sweetheart, is what you get for keeping the curtains open when there’s a full moon. It’s nothing, just a tree or something.
He felt her nodding in the darkness. “It’s a bit spooky though.”
“And that’s what you get for reading horror stories at bedtime.” He wrapped his arms around her, “don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe from axe-murderers and demons… Unless I’m asleep, in which case, I’d appreciate it if you’d die quietly! Ow! What was that for?”
“You’re a git!”
“Love you too. Goodnight, and no nightmares, ok?”
It wasn’t working – she wasn’t going to let up – no lie-in, this morning!
“Alan, I know you’re awake – you’re a rubbish actor – get up, will you? You need to take a look at this.”
Alan, blearily opened one eye, squinting. “Mmmm, in a minute, but since you’re already up… How about rustling me up some breakfast in bed? Full English, with all the trimmings would be nice.”
His answer, in the form of a pillow slung full in his face, followed by the rapid whipping away of the duvet, was unequivocal.
“Seriously, Al, there’s something not right here.”
Grumpily shrugging on his dressing gown, he shuffled across the room, rubbing his eyes, “and good morning to you too, dearest”, he mumbled, “what the hell is that?”
‘That’ turned out to be a rather ugly and unexpected stain spreading out from the corner of the bedroom ceiling.
“So much for a tree shadow.” Alice smirked, “what do you think it is?”
“Hey, you were the one who said it was a shadow,” he responded, “and I’m guessing something’s leaking in the flat above. I should probably nip upstairs and have a word?”
“You probably should, but first… You’ve got the bins to put out.”
Alan sighed, “Gimme a break, I’m not even dressed yet. Do I have to do everything around here?”
She punched him playfully on the arm, “Yes, my hero! Or how else is your poor helpless woman supposed to make you a fry-up, eh?”
Alan stomped back into the flat to be welcomed by the smell of frying bacon.
“Well, what’s the story?” Came Alice’s voice from the kitchen.
“No dice” he replied, “nobody’s in.”
She appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands with a tea-towel, “well did you knock?”
“No. I used my x-ray vision to scan through the walls! Of course I bloody knocked – there’s nobody home! Tell you what though, it stinks up there, I reckon it’s a broken sewage pipe or something, which means the sooner we get it sorted the better… I don’t like the thought of somebody else’s crap pouring through our bedroom ceiling!”
“Oh my God!” Exclaimed Alice, eyes wide and eyebrows raised, “what if it’s a dead body?”
For a moment, Alan almost took her seriously, before catching the glint in her eye, then both of them exploded into laughter. “You read too much horror, you know?”
“Seriously though, Al, you’re going to have to call Pete.”
Alan gave her a knowing look, “yeah right, Pete, your knight in shining armor, who’ll ride in on his white charger to save the day, before whisking off the damsel in distress to his castle retreat!”
She laughed; her flirtatious teasing of the landlord had become a bit of a running joke over the past couple of years. There was nothing in it, but she loved winding both him, and her husband up. “Aw, c’mon Al, you didn’t see him with his shirt off last summer when he was re-doing the bathroom”, she winked mischievously.
Alan gave his wife a withering look, “wouldn’t have done anything for me, love, I’m not that way inclined! I’ll give him a call now, I’m sure that he’ll drop everything to help out if I say you’re desperate! Hopefully he’ll be able to contact the tenant, or if he thinks it’s serious enough, I guess he can use his master key to gain access.”
Alice, pursed her lips. “Ooh, he can gain access to me any time he fancies!” She grinned, then shrieked as Alan threw a well-aimed used teabag at her.
“Back to the kitchen, insolent wench! And bring me my breakfast!”
The tabloids christened it ‘The Padstow House of Horrors’. Sixteen bodies, in various states of decay, dismembered and stuffed into tightly bound bin bags. If it hadn’t been for one of the bags rupturing, triggering complaints from a neighbour about the smell and a nasty stain on the ceiling, they might still be there now, undiscovered and secure. Not that I was ever under any illusion that they wouldn’t be found – that’s precisely why I’ve gone to such strenuous efforts to cover my trail – if you’re going to leave the body parts of your victims lying around, it stands to reason that someone is going to stumble across them, one day, no matter how well you’ve hidden them. So, you take precautions, cover your path, and – when it’s time to move on – you don’t hang around.
That’s been my philosophy all along. Never overstay your welcome, and keep a safe distance between yourself and any evidence you might leave behind.
I’m constantly on the move, never staying in the same place for too long, and never keeping the same identity. You’re no doubt thinking it’s hard to stay one step ahead all the time and that it’s impossible to disappear off the radar completely, but you’d be surprised. You don’t need to stay off the radar: It’s remarkably easy to do when your victims are constantly providing you with new names, and identities to assume. The average contents of a wallet or purse, or even a mobile phone provides more than enough background information to temporarily become somebody else, and by the time questions are being asked, you’ve moved on. Another victim, another identity, and so it continues. As for who I really am: I haven’t been that person for a very long time, I’ve been enjoying the lives of others far too much!
The lives, and the deaths.
And Padstow is just the tip of the iceberg. I have stashes all over the country; an abandoned railway carriage just outside Crewe, a disused cold-store in Birmingham, a closed-down colliery in the Welsh Valleys… Old factories, demolished warehouses, the list is extensive.
I am, what you might term, ‘prolific’.
I’m also charming, versatile, manipulative, remorseless, ruthless and utterly self-serving. Not only do I tick all the boxes that define ‘psychopath’, but I’m off the scale: As I’ve always said, I’m better than anybody else, in every way.
That’s about as far as you can go if you want to try and pigeonhole me. There’s no particular type I’ve developed a taste for, neither is there a specific rationale that drives me. I don’t target prostitutes, or gays, women, the weak, the successful – I care little for who or what you are, you’re all the same to me. Meat, plain and simple, and if have it my way, dead meat at that. I kill, because I can; sometimes there’s a reason – maybe you blocked my path in a shop doorway, shaking out your umbrella, before stepping out into the rain – but more often than not, there isn’t. I’ll just pick you at random, pursue you, take you down then finish you off. Then I’ll slice you and dice you and stick you in a sack, dump you with the rest and forget about you.
Don’t listen to the psychiatrists, they don’t know anything about it. How can they possibly know what’s going on in my head? I don’t have a god-complex, I’m not crazy and I never had a deprived childhood or sullied upbringing, in fact everything was pretty much as normal as it gets, everything that is, apart from me, I suppose. Although I never considered myself abnormal or different. I just had this thing where I would take animals apart to see what was inside – it wasn’t even that I had an enquiring mind or a thirst for knowledge; I just did it because I could, and I carried on doing it all through school and I’m still doing it now.
I went through the motions of all the usual things – whilst my peers were falling in love, getting off with girls and generally having a good time, I watched, observed and copied. It never meant anything to me. I don’t understand the concepts of love, altruism, compassion and empathy, much less care that I should, it was more a case of blending in and not being seen to be too different from those around you. I used those who considered themselves friends or lovers, abused them, lied to them and discarded them in the same way you treat those cheap plastic toys in Christmas crackers – a feigned smile and fake laughter, before casually dropping them on the floor and grinding them underfoot.
Girls were of no account to me, they were there for my gratification, if they enjoyed it too – or if they didn’t – well, so what? There were plenty more to choose from, and my promiscuity, coupled with that charm I could turn on like a tap, ensured a steady stream of one-night stands and even the odd girlfriend, although they meant nothing to me. Those who did stick around for more than an overnight stay, became the unwilling recipients of mental torture – I’d strip them of their dignity, betray their trust and hold them to ransom through blackmail and threats. I was always careful though to steer clear of physically damaging them, you don’t shit in your own food bowl – you go somewhere else and do it there, somewhere where you’re a stranger and nobody knows you.
It was a nightclub, somewhere in Bristol, I was there for a business training course, as for her, I’ve no idea. I don’t recall her name or anything much about her. We found a secluded spot by the bins behind the club – classy bitch – and that’s where I glassed her in the throat, when she went down, I glassed her again, severing her jugular, then I sat on a bottle crate and watched her bleed out. I can’t say that it was exciting or even particularly interesting – to be honest, she was taking so long I was getting bored. To fill the time I went through her stuff, helping myself to her phone, cash and cards, then when I’d finished with her, I hoisted her into one of the bins and headed back to my hotel. I don’t know if they ever found her, or if she just ended up on some missing persons’ list – by the time anyone would notice she was missing, I was already back home, miles away from suspicion. A complete stranger.
Now that I’d graduated from dumb animals to dumb humans, it was a case of more of the same. Not necessarily girls in nightclubs, it could equally well be a kid at a bus stop, someone out walking their dog, a pervert at a dogging site or maybe some old geezer would open the door to me at their retirement complex when I turned up to ‘read the meter’. If I had the luxury of privacy and time, I’d indulge myself, make them suffer, and experiment with whatever I had to hand… Corkscrews, power tools, kitchen implements or just see what havoc I could wreak with my bare hands. Other times, it would be a few moments of intense violence and pain, but always I made sure to tidy up afterwards. As I moved from town to city, pitching up in new locations, I’d seek out a suitable base – often using the identity of the last person I’d dispatched – and either lure my victims there, or finish them off elsewhere and bring them back with me. Bin bags were cheap and practical, but bodies are awkward things, necessitating extensive butchery before they can be packed neatly away – I never minded, it’s just meat after all.
Soon, it would be time to move on. Another city, another body, another identity.
It must be twenty years now since that first girl behind the nightclub in Bristol, and I don’t know how many since then… Three, maybe four hundred? I’m not counting – why bother, when there will always be another tomorrow, or next week, or in a month’s time?
Like Padstow, I know that some of my handiwork is bound to surface, but I’ve moved on. Maybe I’ll go back to Padstow one day, the scallops from the chip shop are to die for, but for now I’ll stay put for a bit, right here. I’ve a decent-sized self-storage locker here, all paid up for the next three years in the name of George Yeats – old George bled a lot and he ruined my sneakers, although to be fair, he did end up paying to replace them!
As for where this locker is, and where I am… Well, that’s for me to know, but just maybe it could be your neck of the woods, and maybe that guy who’s been watching you in the café is me, or the chap that just drove past you as you were shopping, or perhaps I’m watching you tonight from the house across the street, as you settle down to a night of TV, with your microwave meal and bottle of wine… Only I know.
So do yourself a favour: Don’t talk to strangers!
17th May 2020
The Fear Factory
It is dark, and the yawning shadows close around you, confusing the senses and instilling a feeling of deep disquiet.
A steady, slow drip of water echoes in the cavernous space; the silence punctuated by unexpected creaks of indeterminate origin, and the occasional crash and rumble of distant, heavy machinery. There’s an almost imperceptible, yet pervasive bass hum that seems to permeate every fibre of your being, a muted dissonant, discordant tone, suffused with the unidentifiable clicks, rattles and cracks of a building easing its bulk into night-time somnolence.
It is deeply unnerving, claustrophobic and disturbing, you are disorientated: No clear sense of direction or awareness of your surroundings… You inch forward, hands outstretched, feeling your way in the darkness, every step uncertain and unsteady, and – despite the muted background clamour – you have a profound sense of silence, so loud, it buzzes.
A tuneless whistling breaks the stillness, then a metallic clatter as the night watchman’s keys are thrown onto the desktop. A fluorescent flicker shocks the darkness, stuttering into harsh luminescence – the watchman’s cabin a bright oasis in the all-pervading darkness. Thankful to escape the clutches of the dark and seek human company, you hurry towards the light, stumbling in your haste.
The watchman frowns at your approach, then a glimmer of recognition that all too soon turns to indifference. You are expected, but not necessarily welcome.
“Tea?” he grunts, nodding dismissively in the direction of a grimy kettle and some chipped and stained mugs. Gratefully you help yourself, and cradle the mug in both hands, finding solace and comfort in the feel of its warmth. There is only one stool: Like the watchman who now perches on it, it has seen better days, tufts of yellow foam rubber escaping from the gaffer-taped wounds in its shiny plastic cushion. In the absence of any other seating, you lean, self-consciously against the doorway, the metal edges uncomfortable against your shoulder blade, and sip your tea.
“You came back then?” – It’s more an observation, than a question. Without waiting for a response, he picks up his newspaper from the desk, shakes it open and loses interest in you, momentarily distracted by Emma – 26 – a checkout girl from Berkshire, who wants to be a model and work with animals.
Embarrassed by the lull in conversation, your eyes wander the small cabin. There are just two security monitors, glowing in pale, over-exposed greys on the desktop. It’s all he needs. The watchman is lord of his domain – sees all, hears all, knows all. Involuntarily you shudder… You can’t help but feel he knows you as well as you know yourself.
As if reading your thoughts, he mutters, “bugger all”, sighs and drops his paper.
“What’s that?” you say, startled. “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch…”
“Bugger all!” He repeats, with finality. “Nothing worth reading about. Same as always. Just doom and gloom. Look at this!”
He stabs a stubby finger at the front page headline. For a moment, you miss his point – instead, finding yourself at once fascinated and repelled by the grime beneath his stained fingernail. You want to be charitable: This is good honest dirt, the evidence of hard graft and toil. It’s salt of the earth muck; but who are you kidding? You find it repellent and gross, an unpleasantness you’d rather avoid – yet, like an accident at the side of the road, you’re fascinated, compelled to stare, even though everything in you is telling you to look away.
He coughs, and the fingernail’s hold on you is broken. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say: The headline is unremarkable, and its significance is lost on you.
The watchman is staring intently at you. Again, that feeling he is reading your thoughts.
“Doom. And gloom”, he repeats. “It’s always bad news… A bombing here, a beheading there, people dying, poverty, wars, disease and madness. Horror stories. The evil of mankind laid bare before us in our tea breaks.”
He does have a point, you muse.
“And, as usual, some bugger’s nicked the cartoons and taken the sports pages. All I’ve got left is the sodding horror stories! Oh, but they leave me the bloody cryptic crossword, and those sodukos, or whatever they’re called!”
You make sympathetic noises, and bury your face in the mug of tea.
Thankfully, his attention is distracted by the monitors, which have begun to flicker, rapidly and chaotically. The watchman leans forward to inspect the screens. “Now, it begins”, he says with some satisfaction. He looks you in the eye and states philosophically, “the world sleeps, but the factory never rests.”
“They tried changing things, you know?”
Confused by the sudden change of topic, you try – and fail – to react intelligently. He doesn’t notice.
“Sent some berks around with stop-watches and clipboards. Wanted to computerise the place, make it ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ – idiots. They wanted to replace me – replace ME! – with a load of electric sensors and infra-red cameras; got all the kit in to do it too, until someone broke in and nicked the lot! Happened on my night off, which kinda proved my point! Never did catch the buggers who did it.”
He gazes at you steadily, almost daring you to ask the obvious question.
“You can’t computerise the factory. What goes on here is craftsmanship, it’s living, organic. It’s real. Look at them screens!” They were now stuttering wildly, a crazy pattern of interference and static. “That’s real. That’s how things really are…” He grabbed his newspaper, waving it in my face. “That’s the real, without the sugar-coating; the violence; the horror; the fear!”
He collapsed back onto his stool, face red and blotchy. Then, almost to himself, “It’s real, alright. It’s not numbers on a computer screen and little flashing lights.”
In the silence that follows, you can hear a clock ticking, then another muted clang, deep within the bowels of the factory breaks the watchman’s reverie.
“Tea break’s over. I’ll see you later.”
He gathers his torch and keys up, nods brusquely and shuffles off into the cloying darkness outside the cabin, his footsteps growing fainter and more distant.
You are alone.
Your gaze falls on the discarded paper; the front page headline intruding upon your thoughts: ‘Manufactured Fear!’ The monitors glow, flickering and blinking, in the throes of REM sleep…
As the nightmares begin.
20th April 2020
We’ve been around for a while: Ever since Homo sapiens first daubed ashes on cave walls depicting their hunting prowess we’ve been spreading our lies.
We are the instrument of the Illuminati, the influencer of the Inquisition, the accuser of witches and the false hope of the damned.
We are the propaganda of governments, parachuted leaflets over foreign territory – spin from the sky, and broadcasts behind enemy lines.
We are the frauds and the phishing, foreign princes and femme fatales, the penis-enlargers and bitcoin bargains.
We are the Facebook frenzy, the Instagram gossips, the twisted tweets and the misinformation memes.
We are the internet’s underbelly, the red-tops’ irresponsibility.
We are the conspiracy theorists, the band-waggoneers, the paid reviewers and the covert cover-ups.
We are the presidential nemesis.
We are the harbingers of doom.
We are opinion, supposition, misdirection and distraction.
We are the viral load of the vicious, the contagion of the corrupt.
We are fake news.
Read all about it.
30th March 2020
It’s not all about the virus…
It’s not all about the virus…
It’s about this moment, right now, sitting in the garden enjoying the sun, with nothing else to do other than listen to the birdsong and the drone of the occasional fat bumblebee. I’m surrounded by the trappings of city civilisation, but it feels like the countryside… There’s an unexpected, but welcome, peace and tranquillity as traffic has ceased and industry fallen silent.
It’s watching butterflies, trying to recall dim memories of half-forgotten facts: That one, I know is a Red Admiral, but the other is eluding me. I reach for the sadly neglected book, noticeably dusty from its lengthy sojourn, unheeded and unopened on the shelf; it was bought with every good intention but forgotten and ignored until now. With a silent smile of triumph, my detective work pays off and my unknown butterfly now has a name: A Woodland Speckled! The repressed naturalist is coming out of hiding!
It’s about reconnecting. Social distancing is – as far as I’m concerned – a misnomer. Whilst physical distancing is a thing, socially I feel myself drawing closer to others. The weekly Sunday lunch with my parents has become a daily catch-up, and jokes about bog rolls and bread are shared with strangers across the two-metre gulf as we wait for our supermarket sweep – it’s like Alton Towers: The queue, with its suppressed anticipation… Then, excitement as your moment finally arrives and you surge through the doors… The adventure and thrill of the hunt – yikes, no semi-skimmed! Do I experiment with full fat, or deal with the tannin-bite of black tea for the next week? It’s the sympathetic smile to the girl at the checkout, where a simple “Do you need Bag?” becomes a conversation, a reassuring touch of humanity. We don’t rush, we don’t crush, we’re all in this together and we all appreciate that. Time. Has. Slowed. We’ll get there, but not in any hurry.
It’s the challenge of wondering what meals I can concoct with the rations I’ve secured. Looks like it’s time to crack open that black linguine I picked up in Italy! Then a pause. I’m grateful that I saw Italy before things changed. The crowds I fretted over in Venice, Rome and Bologna, a poignant reality check. I won’t complain next time. Putting pasta aside, I plump for playing Russian freezer roulette… Is that pork or chicken? Three hours of defrosting later, it looks like I’m having sweet ‘n’ sour salmon for tea! Well, that’ll be interesting!
It’s about the young lad across the street washing his father’s car. He’d probably prefer to be hanging out on street corners and sneaking into pubs underage, but in the absence of anything better, or perhaps worse, dad’s car could really do with a clean, and at least he doesn’t have to put up with the ‘rents indoors droning on about Boris! Maybe he’ll give it a wax too?
It’s about staring up at a limitless blue sky, untrammelled by contrails. In all my life, I’ve not seen it like this. The yellow-brown taint of sulphurous poisons that usually hangs on the horizon has gone too. I treasure the moment – I may never see skies like this again.
Most of all, it’s about slowing down, catching breath and appreciating life. It’s about the realisation that those things I thought I needed, I don’t; whilst some I thought I didn’t, I do. It’s about realising the frailty of humanity, mine and yours, and that nature doesn’t need us, but welcomes us nonetheless.
It’s about remembering what it really means to be human.
It’s not all about the virus, at all. It’s about so much more.
8th March 2020
Walking through the underpass, as I’ve done almost every day for the past few years, it suddenly dawned on me that something was missing. Almost mechanically, I went through the motions of patting my pockets and checking for anything obviously amiss.
Keys, wallet, phone, glasses… No, everything was there, all present and correct. Frowning to myself, I stopped in my tracks, mentally reviewing the possibilities: Today, for once had been dry, so no brolly to forget; I hadn’t popped to the shops at lunchtime, so no chance that the sausages for tonight’s supper were languishing forgotten in the office ‘fridge; no letters to post, files to drop off or parcels to be delivered… As I ticked off each item on my mental register, the only apparent absence appeared to be my own recollection of what might be missing.
I was puzzled and, distracted, I found my gaze drawn to the graffitied walls of the subway… “Stevie luvs Nessa”… “Frankie Boy Rulez” … “Blow ME! cAll Ivan”…
And there it was – or rather – it wasn’t! He, was missing.
I doubted this was a recent absence – indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realised he’d likely been missing for years, it was certainly quite some time since I’d seen any evidence of his presence, which is odd, because you used to stumble across him pretty much everywhere.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured his tag: ‘Kilroy was here’… But now, inexplicably, and almost without me noticing when or how: He wasn’t.
He was one of those constants throughout my formative years, and well into adulthood, and I knew that he’d certainly been around for quite some time before I was born. I found myself now pondering the countless times I’d seen Kilroy asserting his seemingly inalienable right to simply be ‘here’, boldly spray-painted on brick walls and concrete facades, engraved, gouged and carved into school desks and toilet doors, and scratchily etched into advertising hoardings and ‘vandal-proof’ bus-stop windows. It didn’t matter where I’d been, Kilroy had been there first!
My elusive tagger appeared to be not only enduring but well-travelled too. His signature statement wasn’t limited to my own neighbourhood alone. Everybody knew of Kilroy, no matter where in the world you ventured, from Down Under to the benches in the local park, across continents and cultures, Kilroy had left his mark. I knew there were rumours he’d been around in the bunkers and trenches of the war, and that he’d left evidence of his presence out of everyday sight, hidden in the dark corners of top secret establishments, behind locked doors and away from prying eyes. He was, apparently, all pervasive and ever-present, and mere bolts and barriers would prove to be no obstacle to him.
Lost in my thoughts, the utter simplicity of his message struck me. Kilroy was no proto-Banksy, armed with spray paint, stencils and socio-political agenda; he had no interest in grand artistic murals, or penchant for rendering his name in six foot high psychedelic lettering along the side of railway carriages; neither would he be associated with clever and pithy philosophical observations. His one, and only, intent was – it seemed – to make it known to any passing stranger, that he – Kilroy – had been there. Brief, to the point and unequivocal.
Yet, for all its brevity, you had to admire the intent behind the message – it struck me that his was a statement almost god-like in its phrasing, practically on a par with the biblical “I am what I am”! The almost-arrogance of that assertion, made without explanation, almost as if the who, or why, or when was an irrelevance – we have what we need to know, nothing more, nothing less: the mere knowledge that Kilroy was here should be all that is necessary.
I blinked, my reverie broken by a passing car horn.
I stared again at the paint daubed on the wall, trying to picture the missing autograph amongst the gaudy statements of the current generation. However, Kilroy, in his absence was proving as enigmatic as he had been when present, leaving no answers, only questions.
A feeling of disquiet descended upon me, and I shivered in the chill March air. I felt as if the graffiti was accusing me of revealing a mysterious truth that should never have been disclosed. But what really chilled me to the bone was the feeling that there was something terribly and intrinsically wrong, in knowing that Kilroy, was not here.
24th December 2018
It had been a pretty rotten few weeks. She’d been dumped – at least that’s what she’d assumed – he hadn’t actually told her in as many words, or any words at all, if you wanted to be pedantic about it.
The correct term, apparently, according to the Internet, was ‘ghosted’; but let’s not split hairs here, she’d been dumped, and in the most cowardly, underhand way too.
Their relationship hadn’t been particularly conventional from the start – so you might say that message ‘dumped’ wasn’t quite the right terminology anyway, but as far as she was concerned, it was an accurate assessment of the situation, and it was quite definitely the way she felt. You can make your own mind up. I suppose the most accurate term you could employ – in polite company anyway – would be ‘friends with benefits’, although you could definitely say that in addition to being best friends, the benefits were always on the cards whenever they met up, rather than a pleasant occasional add-on. If anything, she would have liked those meetings to happen a lot more frequently than they did – but work patterns and distance were against them in that regard – so it was a case of grabbing the chance when they could, which usually amounted to a Friday night every other week – although it could be a long, painful month before they might get the opportunity if things were against them. Never a happy time.
It had all started with a dry period – work had interfered, as usual and they’d not been able to get together for a fortnight; then, the next weekend was a night out with the boys – she certainly didn’t begrudge him that, and it wasn’t as if it was something that happened at all often, but all the same, it was three long weeks without an evening together over pizza and pink wine, enjoying the companionship, and – of course – those special benefits to top things off. She was looking forward to seeing him at last.
She’d waited until the Sunday after his night out to text and ask if he’d had a good time – she wasn’t the possessive, overbearing sort, and she’d suffered enough hangovers in her time to know that he’d appreciate her patience.
He’d had a great time! Even danced with a colleague. She was a bit put out at that: It was the one thing she’d always wanted to do with him, but somehow, at the parties they’d been to, they’d never ended up on the dance floor together – it wasn’t really his thing. Still, pointless getting wound up about it. On the Monday, she sent him another text: It just so happened they’d be working in the same area for a couple of days… “How about lunch”, she asked, something they’d always enjoyed when they could manage it.
No answer. Odd, but he was pretty rubbish at responding to texts. Even so, he’d normally have leapt at the chance. Maybe tomorrow then?
Tomorrow came, and passed, along with any chance of lunch. Still no contact Thursday, and most concerning of all, his usual early morning “It’s Friiiiiidddaaaaayyyyy, yaaaayy!!!” text was conspicuously absent, for the first time that she could ever recall. By lunchtime, she caved in – “You OK?” she queried, but again, no reply.
That Friday was the worst. The pizza stayed in the freezer and she had the pink wine all to herself. No text, no call, and no benefits. Of course, she could have called him, but she had a feeling he wouldn’t have answered and why should she anyway?
The whole of the next week was hell. She was determined not to give in and call him – it wasn’t something they’d ever really done anyway. They had a standing joke that the only time they ever spoke on the phone was when they needed something doing… ‘Can you pick me up from the airport? ‘, ‘Are you any good at putting together furniture?’, ‘Can I borrow your carpet cleaner?’ – I suppose you could argue this was as good a time as any to break the habit, but it was his call, not hers to make.
The silence was deafening. So, this is what it meant to be ghosted? Ignored, invisible and unimportant, and all for no apparent reason. Often she found herself reflecting on that moment things had started to feel wrong – that dance… But no, even now she didn’t think anything had happened. Unless, he’d simply realised he was missing his freedom, maybe that’s all it was? Well, she hoped it was worth it!
The days dragged into weeks, then months, but still she missed him, and still she spent long, lonely nights weeping quietly; still the pizza sat unopened in the freezer. She lost an alarming amount of weight, but it wasn’t a diet she’d recommend to her worst enemy… Actually, coming to think of it, in her mind, he was rapidly becoming her worst enemy! She knew she had to move on, but she’d lost any will to get her life back on track and she had no idea how she was going to fix things.
Still, Christmas was coming, and she was determined to make something of it, even on her own.
Of course, one of the first things she came across was his Christmas present: the bottle of very expensive aftershave she’d bought him earlier in the year and put aside in advance. There was a severely weepy moment over that, followed by a fierce anger of what he’d put her through. She was at the point of pouring the lot down the toilet, but then thought better of it: This gave her the chance for a degree of closure… Why not let him have it, a final peace offering, then walk away for good? At least then it would be on her terms, rather than his. She’d even write him a card – a cheap and nasty one from the corner shop, something he’d be embarrassed to put on display, even if he wanted to. For the first time in weeks she felt empowered and in control. She could do this.
So this is where we find her, a week before Christmas, walking down the road towards his flat, looking nervously over her shoulder, fearful that she might run into him, and wishing now that she’d never embarked on this stupid venture. Too late now: There wouldn’t be a bus back home for another hour, and his place was just around the corner… And there it was. Breathing an audible sigh of relief, she relaxed at the site of the empty parking space outside, with no sign of his stupid blue Micra. She could do this.
She recited the mantra to herself, over and over again, with each step of the two flights of stairs to his front door. Then she was stood in front of it, number 16, with the ridiculous Dalek silhouette stuck to the glass panel. She was trembling now; the last time she’d stood here it had been very different, with her bottle of pink wine in one hand and overnight bag in the other. She crouched down and leaned the jiffy bag against the door, containing the neatly gift-wrapped aftershave and flimsy, crappy card containing her terse message – ‘You should have this, I bought it for you and it’s no good to me. At least you’ll stink of something better than arsehole, for Christmas!’ She’d signed it with a single initial, and no smiley faces or kisses.
The bathroom window was ajar – he always left it that way because the bathroom always steamed up. It was one of the things she’d used to take him to task over, anyone could get in, she’d argue, but he just laughed it off. Then she had the crazy idea. Now a slim size 12, she reckoned she could get through it with no problem. She was just curious – wondering whether the place would hold any clues as to what had gone wrong. Besides, as far as he was concerned, she was a ghost… Feeling the weight of the gift in her hand, she smirked – yes, that was her, the ghost of Christmas present, and what could freak him out any more than finding a present from the very person he’d ghosted, lying on his pillow.
Mind now made up, she quickly eased herself up onto the sill and wriggled through the half-open window – it was a tight fit, but she’d been absolutely right, it wouldn’t have stopped anyone really determined from getting in.
The bathroom looked no different to how she remembered it. With a slight shock, she recognised her own spare toothbrush that he’d insisted she left there still in the beaker next to his. The rest of the flat was much the same, with little to suggest that anything had changed at all: Her picture was still on the mantlepiece above the fire, the place was still a mess, with dust bunnies in the corners of the rooms, and the bedroom was exactly as it always had been. There was simply nothing at all anywhere to suggest that any change had occurred in his life – most notably, the not insignificant change that her being shut out of it should have made. It was, frankly, weird.
Feeling a little freaked out, she decided it was time to leave. Gently, she placed the jiffy bag on the pillow – right hand side, where he preferred to sleep, except when she’d stayed, when she insisted on having that side to herself. She stepped back, “Goodbye, shithead” she whispered.
Then she heard the key in the lock. He was back!
Panic-stricken, she bolted for the spare room – he rarely went in there, and there was loads of junk she could duck down behind if he looked in. She barely made it.
From her hiding place behind the weight bench, she heard him clattering around in the kitchen, then the sound of his heavy leather coat being hung in the highway. ‘Please leave the key in the door’, she prayed. Then, clearly from the bedroom, “What the hell is this?”
It was now or never. She exploded out of the spare room and sprinted for the door. Alerted by the sound, he was stood in the bedroom doorway, aftershave in one hand, the card in the other, and a dumbfounded look on his face. With horror, she stared at the door – the keys missing, then turned to face him. The complex emotions that played across his face were to be expected – shock, surprise, confusion, anger – and when he advanced towards her, she had no way of knowing his intentions. It was then that instinct took over: Fumbling behind her, she felt her hands clutching the brick he’d always used to prop the door open. Barely conscious of her actions, she swung it as hard as she could.
The world turned hazy; time slowed to a crawl, and when she came to her senses it was to find him lying at her feet, unmoving. She dropped to her knees, and it was then she realised he wasn’t breathing. Yes, she knew a bit of first aid, and yes, she knew she should do something about it, but the last time her lips had touched his was before all of this craziness had started, and something inside her was repulsed at the thought. Besides, he deserved it. Quietly, she waited and watched. It was only when her legs became numb that she moved, standing in a haze of tangled thoughts which only slowly resolved into a single coherent one: ‘He’s dead. You killed him. You have to do something with his body, they can’t find it here like this’.
She needed time. Time, and tea.
Absent-mindedly, she stepped over his prone body into the kitchen, automatically reaching for the mug, milk and sugar, as she’d done so many times before. Then she sat in her accustomed place on the sofa and sipped on her tea as darkness fell outside. She knew what she had to do.
It was far harder than she’d have ever imagined, dragging his body out from the flat and heaving it over the railing, to land, 2-flights below on the concrete floor. She’d take the brick with her and drop it in the skip she’d passed on the way here. The front door keys were in the kitchen, next to the bag of groceries he’d come home with.
Pausing only to retrieve the aftershave and card from where he’d dropped them, she headed silently off into the night.
Like a ghost.
At the corner of his street, she stopped and looked back towards where his body lay. No – not a ghost, let’s say it like it is: He’d dumped her, and now she’d dumped him… Or, more accurately, she’d dumped his body.
Perhaps now, she could get on with her life?
31st October 2018
He sighed, easing his body into a more comfortable position to enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun. There was birdsong in the air and, for a brief moment, his park bench could have been the leftover vestige of a forgotten paradise. Although, he mused wrily, it wasn’t his bench at all – according to the tarnished brass plaque screwed to the wooden slat against which he reposed, his seat had been presented to the park in loving memory of Lee, ‘who loved this park and spent many happy hours here’.
He smiled as he read it; good old Lee; he’d have been pleased to know that people were still enjoying the view that he’d once loved so much. A shame really, that it wouldn’t be for much longer…
He put the thought out of his mind. He had much to do, and there would be time enough for such things later. He wasn’t about to waste the last day of his life, well the last day for everyone, to be more accurate, in worrying about what was to come later. In the meantime, he had plans to grab a coffee and do a leisurely crossword at his favourite cafe, maybe even indulge in a slice of their lemon tart – why not? Even with that tempting lure in his thoughts, he was finding it hard to leave his spot on the bench, the sun’s soporific effect making him want to linger. It was a pleasure that he was often denied – the simple act of taking a stroll in the park, on his own, without being bothered by other people around him or the pressing demands of his everyday life, was one that he was able to indulge far less frequently than he would have liked. Even grabbing a coffee and Italian style dessert could prove far more problematic than you might have thought in these difficult times… But he hadn’t got to where he was today without pulling a few strings, and it was surprising what could be arranged, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Dammit! There was reality again, creeping into his consciousness and distrurbing his sunny reverie. Annoyed with himself, he sighed and forced himself to his feet; not for the first time, he reflected on his need to lose some weight – not that it mattered any more, considering today would be the day the world ended… And there it was again – no matter how hard he tried to put it out of his mind, it kept forcing itself back into his thoughts. He breathed deeply, clearing his mind and focussing on the present, rather than the far-too-near to contemplate, dismal future.
The cafe was – as expected – completely devoid of other customers, and the waitress fawned around him as if he was the most important person in the world, which in a way, he was. The coffee was average, but almost certainly the very best that was available and, if anything, the tart was a little bland, but again he was sure that nothing better could be found locally, no matter how much you were able to pay – and he could certainly afford the best.
As we watch him, sipping thoughtfully on his coffee, we might pause a moment to wonder how this enigmatic gentleman could possibly have come to the knowledge he held. To look at, he was nothing special – somewhat portly, unfashionably clothed and with a look of almost constant surprise, mixed with confusion… Or perhaps the expression of someone suffering from chronic flatulence. He looked like a grown up version of the fat kid at school, perpetually worried that the teachers might find his stash of chocolate, or his mother’s note might fail to excuse him from football – that was the impression he gave, but in much the same way that same fat kid would often be the class bully, you’d also get the feeling he’d not think twice about pulling your hair and stealing your lunch money. Perhaps that’s why the waitress was so careful not to spill his coffee, and the barrista looked on with barely concealed nervousness.
So, this was the man who believed that today the world would end.
It would be easy to dismiss this as nothing of concern, but the self-assurance and certainty he appeared to carry was disconcerting. What knowledge could he possibly have, denied to the rest of us?
The simple fact of the matter was that, unlikely or not, our friend in the cafe was utterly convinced that the fate of the world lay entirely in his hands, and thanks to his rampant paranoia, coupled with a disturbed night’s sleep and waking this morning with a bad headache, he’d come to the conclusion that life wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and that it was probably time to put an end to it all. Typically, like most bullies, he was too selfish to show any restraint or concern for others, and so he’d decided that if today was going to be his last day on earth, then everyone else could damn well say goodbye to their lives as well!
Of course, it was a meaningless threat – no one person can wish that sort of doom upon the world, especially our overweight, uninspiring, coffee swigging friend in his low end eaterie, in some nameless backwater location in the middle of nowhere.
After all, how could he possibly make good on his promise? Declare his hidden superpowers and blast the world with laser eyes? Individually mail every person on the planet a nerve agent impregnated death threat? Create a new suicide cult and recruit every man, woman and child as followers? Of course not… It’s just fantasy and foolish talk, and I think we can leave our enigmatic chap to his lemon tart, without worrying too much about his global death wish.
Maybe he did mean to end it all for himself, but even then the rest of the world would carry on turning without him; few would notice and few would care – just another death among billions.
But we’re not without compassion, are we? So perhaps we should accompany him on his final journey and not simply leave him to die completely lonely? That would be the right thing to do. So let’s continue, observing from afar as he treads the path of his final journey.
He chews thoughtfully on a forkfull of tart, frowning slightly at a particularly difficult crossword clue…. ‘MAD! The end of an agreeable family unit (6,7,11)’, then smiles as the answer comes to him. He’s pleased, almost as if the final piece of his own mental puzzle has satisfyingly fallen into place. As if that moment signalled his next steps, he brushes a few stray crumbs from his jacket, stands, and without a backwards glance at the nervous cafe staff, walks out of the door and back into the now failing October sunlight.
He seems nervous on his walk home, constantly glancing over his shoulder, as if expecting to see shady characters lurking behind the sparse hedgerows that lined the bare fields. He shuffles, rather than strolls and you can tell that he is unused to walking anywhere – this is a man to whom the countryside seems unfamiliar and who is uncomfortable when alone; but, out of necessity, his predetermined plan is not one for sharing with others.
As he walks, we peer ahead, searching for clues that will tell us what may happen next… A previously concealed rope, tied in in the classic hangman’s noose, perhaps? A hidden jerrycan of kerosene? Or simply a convenient bridge, railway crossing or cliff edge? There’s nothing obvious however, just a nondescript building in the distance and, midway, what appears to be some sort of workshop or large shed – concrete construction, with a light blue painted tin roof and a couple of small windows, blinds drawn, giving no clue as to its purpose. It is towards this building that he is, now purposefully, heading.
The door is bolted shut, a heavy duty padlock securing the hasp. His chubby fingers struggle a little to fumble with the key, but the lock is soon dealt with, and he enters the building, closing the door carefully behind him.
Inside, it is dark. Rather than open the blinds, he flicks a switch, and fluorescent tubes stutter into life, filling the room with their clinical light. Apart from a pedestal chair and a metal desk, upon which sits a somewhat dated computer, with an old style CRT display. He sits uncomfortably upon the chair and starts up the computer.
As we peer over his shoulder, we begin to understand just what it is that he possesses that we do not. We grasp the reason for his calm assurance that today will be his last day on earth, and the end of life as we know it, and we see exactly how he intends to wreak disaster upon the planet.
He is writing an email.
Such an everyday occurrence that any one of us might find ourselves doing, any number of times a day, and what’s the worst that could possibly happen? Maybe, thanks to an indiscreet disclosure, an unintended recipient or even a misinterpreted intent, something could go terribly wrong. Relationship breakdowns, commercial disasters, maybe even the occasional multiple death… All these have occurred, but in the greater scale of things, they’re really not that significant.
It all depends on the content though, and who you are, and who the intended recipient might be.
And in this case, those things hold great significance.
He is struggling. Painstakingly copying from a carefully hand written note he has pulled from his jacket pocket – a translation, since the email he is writing is not in his mother tongue. The keyboard is conspiring against him too: The QWERTY layout is unfamiliar, and confusing, but he is nothing if not determined to see this through to the bitter end, and bitter it most will certainly be…
I have planned this majestic communication now for many timeless weeks.
Your posturing and mockery of this great Democratic Republic and off my noble and beloved self have reached unparalleled bounds of audacity and disconcertment. You are purporting great friendship and brotherhood in your public words, even we are lovers, yet in other contextual circumstances, I know that you plot against me and the beautiful Republic in your heart and sew malcontentness.
You are a cad and a disparager who’s insolence knows no curtilage, a risible buffoon in the essence of evil.
You are not my friend. You have never been my friend. And you never shall will have been my friend of the future.
You are my enemy.
Upon your receiving this proclamation, it will already be beyond late. I have already issued the command for launching of the terrible thunder of fiery death to rain ample destruction upon your good self and you’re pitiful nation and also upon all other nations who stand in support of the great evil and pursue trade between it thereof.
I know you will in turn retaliate, and though your pitieous reprisal and that of the associated evil nations that stand with you are mere intrusions, I have little doubt this world is at an end.
I have little fear.
This Great and Beloved Eternal Leader cannot be held by the mortality of death, and will rise again like a vulture from the ashes of the burned world to rule over a True and Nobel Eternal Democratic Peoples Republic. I will prevail?
Remember this as you burn in dire and permanent agonies. I am your enemy, and you are mine.
I hope you die with much acrimony.
Kim Jong Un
The fat man, wearing the unfashionable suit pressed ‘send’ . Leaned back in his chair, and prepared for the end of the world.
12th April 2018
Welcome to the circus
The greatest show on earth
At least that’s what they tell you
From the moment of your birth
It’s full of fun, and everyone
Can make it big one day
Just do your stuff, it’ll be enough
And do it all your way
But it’s not like that
You quickly find
That life is one hard game
It’s not quite the deal
They say it is
It’s full of trials and pain
The more you give
The less you get
Despite your efforts, and
If you do succeed
It’ll cost you dear
It never goes as planned
They’ll tax you blind
And never mind
The hard work you’ve put in
And every hour of every day
Is a nail in your coffin
Maybe you’ll find success
Fortune and fame
Or prowess in sports and games
But fame also demands a price
Even from household names
And every day along the way
Is another step nearer death
Eternal rest? Well, we can do our best
As we draw our final breath
But even then we just don’t know
What the afterlife may be
And it just won’t be how we hoped
We would spend eternity
Singing hymns and playing harps
Isn’t a lot of fun
And eternal torment
In the depths of hell
Can be a pain in the bum
Or maybe you hope for seventy maids
And an afterlife of joy
But too much sex is bound to chafe
Even the fittest boy
And if nirvana’s your deal
Then there’s little appeal
In coming back as a fly
And going through life
All over again
Rinse, repeat, and then die
And that’s all there is
I’m sorry to say
That nothing will ever suffice
Be it life before death
Or after you’ve gone
I can’t offer any sage advice
Other than keep your head down
And grin and bear all the crap
And simply accept
that once you’ve been born
I’m sorry… There’s no going back!
16th October 2017
The Girl in the Coffee Shop
The girl in the coffee shop was average-ish. That’s not too say she was plain or unremarkable – she was certainly attractive, and you could tell, just by looking at her, that she wasn’t just a pretty face, there was a strong character behind those eyes, but there were other girls that would probably catch your eye first.
It was hard to say what she did with her time when she wasn’t spending it in the coffee shop – sometimes she’d turn up in a smart business suit, sometimes something more casual, occasionally something a little more bohemian and hippy, perhaps what you’d expect an artist or sculptor to wear. Any enquiries about her profession were invariably gently deflected.
She preferred her coffee strong and black – one sugar – and would usually opt for the house specials, ideally organic and single-estate, (this wasn’t one of those places that write your name on a corporate paper cup), although it wasn’t unknown for her to have the odd large mocha, complete with whipped cream and cocoa dusting. She’d frequently order an extra cup, and maybe a panini, which she’d send out to the homeless guy who’d set up camp on the street outside the shop.
The girl in the coffee shop was easy to talk to. She’d happily share her table if it was crowded, and she didn’t mind being disturbed if you fancied a chat. The staff – with whom she was on first-name terms – would joke that she was the unofficial store counsellor, since it seemed that complete strangers would happily open up to her about their problems and difficulties. She’d chat about anything, from politics to personal problems, and whilst she would often refrain from giving an opinion, the advice she’d offer was always insightful and seemed to feel right.
On quieter days, she’d simply enjoy her coffee alone, taking an interest in the daily papers and relaxing. She was the sort of person who could radiate peace and tranquillity. Sat quietly at a table, coffee to one side and newspaper open in front of her, she was the very model of chilled, and you couldn’t help but wonder what might be running through her mind.
It’s a harsh and ugly world though. Every day, the burden weighed heavily on the shoulders of the girl in the coffee shop. With each tale of anger and pain, the relationship breakdowns, the doubt and despair, the broken hearts and souls that were related to her over those coffee cups were slowly taking their toll. The news and pictures of war and famine, hatred and pain unfolding daily with every turn of the newspaper page were not without their price. Even the homeless guy on the street outside pricked her conscience… A coffee and hot panini wouldn’t turn his life around.
Day after day, week after week, the girl in the coffee shop watched, and listened, and pondered. She began to doubt whether the world could ever be more than it had become, and with every coffee grew a stronger conviction that things could no longer go on as they were.
The staff were the first to notice – the smile they’d been used to seeing no longer came as easily, she looked tense and uneasy, and even at the busiest times, the spare chair at her table seemed somehow less welcoming.
Then, one morning in early November, she came to a decision. Appalled by the words she was reading, she gently placed the newspaper on the table and pulled out her phone.
“Gabriel, it’s time. Tell the Horsemen to saddle up.”
She sighed, slipping the phone back into her purse before standing and walking up to the counter.
Then God ordered her final cup of coffee.
20th April 2017
It was the uncontrollable shivering that brought her back to consciousness. She came around, unbearably cold, wet and utterly confused. What the hell had happened to her, where was she, and why was it so dark and cold?
Confused thoughts raced around her head, none of them helpful, and nothing making any sense. Why couldn’t she see? Horrified, she briefly thought she’d gone blind… The terrified thrashing that ensued did little to help, and a moment later, she sank back into the freezing water, exhausted and terrified. Now calmer, the realisation struck that she could see, after all – red light filtered by her eyelids told her as much, but there was something holding her eyes shut. Her fingers scrabbled at her face… Tape – some kind of sticky tape had been stretched across her eyes, keeping them shut fast. She pulled at the tape over each eyelid, peeling off whatever it was holding her eyes closed.
She blinked as light, and sight, returned to reveal a scene that she struggled to process. She was lying, naked, in a bath filled with ice, in what appeared to be a dirty, rather ugly and utilitarian bathroom. Her eyes had been sealed with some sort of medical tape, the remnants of which now clung to her cold and numb fingers. More worrying was the cannula emerging from the pallid flesh of the back of her hand – she traced the line of the plastic tubing snaking away from her hand to the drip bag, suspended at the side of the bath.
Shocked into insensibility by a combination of blind fear and the chill water, a small part of her brain nevertheless nagged her towards self-preservation. Gingerly, she attempted to pull herself upright, gasping at first at the freezing water, followed by the sudden stabbing pain in her lower back and side. Gritting her teeth, she persevered, dragging herself over the bath edge, until with a final lunge, she pitched over the side to collapse in an ungainly heap on the bathroom floor. Her eyes swam, the world started to spin, and she slipped once more into unconsciousness.
Coming round the second time was little better than the first – the cold, unyielding floor pressed against her flesh, her hand throbbed where the drip feed entered and a dull ache permeated her back and stomach. Slowly, ever so slowly, she eased her way on to her knees, and somehow dragged herself to her feet, to lean painfully and unsteadily against the cracked sink. What she saw staring back at her from the mirror was not a pretty sight: Eyes, hollowed and bloodshot; skin, grey; she looked, as well as felt like some sort of horror flick zombie. With distaste, she felt around the needle in the back of her hand, still completely at a loss as to what it all meant, then started to shiver violently once more.
That was a mistake! Pain radiated from her side making her gasp. Gingerly, she looked down, exploring the source of the pain with her numb fingers. To her horror, she found a six inch gash, edges neatly stitched back together, extending from her right side and towards her lower back. Nausea flooded through her, and she fought against collapsing… Everything about this situation was wrong, so very wrong.
Still shivering, her most pressing need right now was warmth. She inched painfully towards the bathroom door, turned the handle, and dragged the door open. The room beyond was disappointingly average: A vague smell of boiled cabbage, cheap perfume and stale sweat permeated the air, in the corner a beat up TV quietly churned out hits from the eighties and a solitary electric fire did its best to warm what was clearly a cut rate motel room. Dragging the drip stand with her, she struggled to the fire and sank down gratefully in front of it, hugging her knees tight to her chest in an effort to warm up. Over the next hour or so, she found herself drifting in and out of coherent thought, whilst waves of pain and fear assailed her in equal measure. Eventually, she achieved a state of equilibrium and felt as ready as she ever would to start making some decisions.
By now, her hand was throbbing, and the point at which the needle was inserted was red and inflamed. Mentally, she braced herself, gritted her teeth and started to pull the cannula from beneath her skin. It was every bit as painful as she’d imagined, and the needle seemed to go on forever. It bled, but not badly, and the inflammation seemed to her to ease almost immediately. Freed from the drip’s tether, she peered around at her surroundings: Not a great deal to talk about – but she recognised a pile of clothes thrown on the bed as her own and wasted no time getting dressed, although somewhat awkwardly, thanks to the unexplained wound in her side, something that she now turned her full attention to, sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to make sense of her situation.
How it had got there defeated her. It was clear that someone had tended to her, the stitches and drip hadn’t magically brought themselves into being, but as for how she’d sustained the injury, who her mystery medic was, and what the circumstances were leading to her being there in the first place, she had absolutely no idea. Frowning, she tried to remember… It was her birthday – no, today was her birthday! Last night, she’d arranged to meet up with her brother for some pre-birthday drinks. There was going to be a party today, but he was working away and wouldn’t be able to make it. She remembered paying the taxi driver and walking through the pub car park, but then she hit a complete blank… Nothing, not until the horror of regaining consciousness in the bath in this dump of a place. And where exactly was she, how did she get here, and how was she going to get home?
The TV seemed to mock her from the corner, The Eagles lyrics seeming very apt in her current circumstances: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”. Irritated, she painfully stood up and walked over to turn off the TV.
There was an envelope with her name neatly printed on the front, resting on top of the television.
Fingers trembling involuntarily, she reached for the envelope, and carefully eased open the flap, sliding out the single sheet of notepaper it contained. The note was brief and to the point, but no less chilling in its content:
‘You are probably confused right now, that is understandable. However, I don’t suggest you delay in seeking medical attention.
I have harvested one of your kidneys.
Although I have attempted to leave you in a stable condition, I cannot guarantee your survival. Seek help immediately!
Raw terror coursed through her: She was horrified, nauseated and disgusted; frozen to the spot in fear… And then came the tears in great wracking sobs of abject misery from the very core of her being. How could this have happened, and why her? Her whole world had suddenly turned upside down, as Don McLean serenaded her from the TV set, “Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die!”
That broke the spell. She screamed and kicked out viciously at the TV, immediately wishing she hadn’t as her stitches screamed back at her. Finding new energy, as adrenalin flooded her body, she stuffed the note and envelope in her pocket – the police would be very interested in seeing those – and stormed towards the door, only one thought in her mind now: To get to a hospital, and get there fast. Her fresh resolve lasted as far as the cold November air outside, as she realised she still had no idea where she was, and her purse and phone were missing. ‘OK’, she thought, ‘Reception – they’ll have a phone’, before heading across the beaten-up car park towards a nondescript shack, above which a broken neon sign sputtered fitfully, declaring to the world that this was the ‘Para ise Gardens M tel’ – the sign over the door confirmed this was indeed the reception office – and to her relief, not only did the door open, but there was also a receptionist – of sorts – in attendance.
The guy behind the desk, was of indeterminate old age, thin as a rake and dressed in faded denim dungarees. Any other time she’d have had no trouble imagining him with a straw in his mouth, dancing manically like an escaped extra from ‘Deliverance’ – right now though, she only had one thing on her mind.
“Howdy ma’am. Didya sleep okay? No need to worry about the bill, you’re friend settled up before he left. Said you might be along later…”
“I need to use your phone. Right now! It’s a medical emergency!”
The old man looked at her quizzically. “A phone is it? Why yes ma’am, there’s a phone around the back here. Why doncha come on through?”
He shuffled away, beckoning her to follow. She hesitated, but the pain in her side, pushed her on. The old man led her into a musty, dark office…
“The phone’s right in here, lemme just give you some light, ma’am”
She heard the click of a switch, and then all hell broke loose.
A crowd of people jumped out into the light, all wearing party hats, throwing streamers and making a hell of a racket. She saw her parents, sister, friends from work, aunts and uncles, and there stood right in front of all of them, was her brother!
“Hey sis, bet you didn’t expect to see me today, or any of these guys here, did you?”
He waved her to a seat at a table bearing a huge birthday cake, handed her a large glass of something alcoholic and beamed at her. Unable to process the complex feelings and emotions flooding her mind, she just stared at him, before demanding to know what the hell was going on?
“It’s a new thing, sis – they call them ‘Freaky Fun Days’! For a price – and it’s a pretty steep price, at that – they can put together any scenario you want; make it so realistic you think it is real, and then just let the whole thing unfold. I wanted to make this a really special birthday for you, and I know how much you like horror films, so…”
He smiled disarmingly at her.
“It was bloody expensive though!”
Still, unnerved and completely at a loss, but not completely out of it, just yet – although the alcohol would soon sort that – she laughed at him.
“You jerk! So how did you afford it anyway? I’ve never known you have enough cash to look after yourself, let alone buy expensive treats for your favourite sister!”
He smiled, then looked sheepish, gazing down at the drink in his hand, and swishing the piece of lime around in the glass.
“Well, erm… It’s like this… I had to sell one of your kidneys!”
15th December 2016
When things just ain’t right, and you’re feeling uptight
There’s no solace I can offer that will help
When your love life’s gone to hell, and you really might as well
Become resigned to sitting on the shelf
When you’ve nothing left to lose, then it’s time to sing the blues
‘Cos everything is trouble and much strife:
You’re an unknown item in the bagging area of life.
When your dog has upped and died,
Your hard disk failed and fried,
When your wife runs off with a guy who was your mate,
And you sit there at the bar, with your whisky in a jar,
Cos life just really ain’t so damn great
And your worries keep on growing
Cos there’s nothing worse than knowing
That every day is gonna bring more stress
You’ve got way more than just five items or less
And things just keep dragging on
You lost your job; your friends are gone
And there’s no happy end to see on the horizon
You lost your home – no mortgage paid, and I’m very much afraid
That the light at the tunnel’s end ain’t sun rising
There’s no money left to spend, and it feels like it’s the end
It’s really not in any way surprising
It’s no wonder you’re dejected…
When you try to pay your way:
I’m sorry but your card has been rejected
It really is so bad that you decide to make the sad
And solemn choice to end it all, and so you say
Lets get it over soon – and, if you’re going to meet your doom
You’d prefer it not to be the painful way
Something quick and neat, that’ll be right up your street
Without a lot of fuss and preparation
But despite your best endeavor,
you won’t be leaving here forever
Even now, it seems fate isn’t on your side
You’re scuppered at the last and you will not make it past
The post, to take your final ride.
The blues once more have claimed the day,
and all your plans opposed
Because, I’m sorry, you can’t pay –
this checkout is now closed.
14th July 2016
Only Food Runs
“The best advice I can give you”, the old man said, “is don’t run… Only food runs”.
It was hardly reassuring advice, the plain fact of the matter was that if you allowed yourself to get into a position where all your senses are telling you to run, you’re a gonner anyway. We’d all heard horror stories of those who managed to screw up: Some – a very few – survived to tell the tale, most however were never seen again; a grim reminder to the room full of fresh recruits hanging on the old man’s words that any mistake they made was likely to be their last.
I looked around the room at my companions, a diverse bunch, some of whom seemed distinctly unsuited to the task ahead, but I suppose you can’t be choosy and you have to take what you can get – it’s not as if people are breaking down the doors to volunteer! Many of the faces surrounding me held looks of grim determination; others, barely disguised fear, whilst many – myself included, (I hoped), wore expressions of studied calm – almost certainly a careful mask designed to hide the turmoil raging beneath the surface.
Whatever our individual feelings, they were tempered by the knowledge that this was what we’d signed up for – whatever fate awaited us, it had been our sole decision to pursue it, knowing full well the possible consequences. Certainly the potential rewards were not insignificant – well, they had to be – but neither was the likelihood of abject failure, and all that entailed. Most would consider the risks far too high to contemplate… For us, it was a calculated risk, and one we were prepared to entertain, even though our chances of success were remote.
Ultimately, it was a risk we were fully prepared for. Years of preparation and training had led us to this moment – we weren’t entering into this thing blind; we were equipped to deal with anything we might come across; every scenario and situation had been rehearsed, tested and revisited, time and time again; there was nothing we couldn’t handle… Theoretically, at least.
Who were we kidding? The fact is, there wasn’t one of us who didn’t feel hopelessly Ill-equipped for the task ahead and terrified at the prospect of what lay ahead of us. Even the old man – a veteran who’d done his time and was no stranger to the terrors we’d be facing had his doubts – you could tell. I looked around the room and wondered how many of the faces around me wouldn’t be coming back…
Then, in the distance, the sound We’d all been silently dreading: They were coming, and soon – very soon – we would have to face them.
The old man nodded, and quietly repeated his advice, “Just stand your ground, and don’t run… Only food runs. Don’t become their prey!”
The sound of the advancing horde was louder now. They were almost upon us.
Somewhere a bell began to ring. It was time.
My final thought, before leaving the staff room to meet my fate was the same nagging doubt that had dogged me all through college… Was I really cut out to be a teacher, and was there any chance at all that I might get through my first term unscathed?
The crime scene is never pleasant – that’s the one thing they all have in common – that aside, you never quite know what you’re going to be faced with. Sometimes the juxtaposition of death against the extraordinarily mundane and commonplace trappings of everyday life can be more disturbing than the act itself; there’s something deeply disturbing about a body lying in a shopping mall surrounded by onlookers, a bloodstained kitchen with the remnants of the evening meal still on the hob, or a kiddie’s park boasting a half-naked dead prostitute entangled in the chains of the swings. It just doesn’t fit with your picture of how the world should be – it’s disturbing, very wrong, and it’s something you never really come to terms with.
This one was one of the more offputting.
Downtown bakery, early afternoon, the smell of freshly-baked bread mingling with the sickly-sweet ferrous tang of freshly-spilled blood. It was messy: Not in the way you’re thinking – yes, there was blood, but what you really noticed was the disarray. Cakes scattered over the floor, a film of cream and the crunch of sugar underfoot, panini and French sticks flung around like so much garbage. And there, lying awkwardly, slumped backwards over the counter, the victim – early forties. I guess he liked his pastries, judging by the folds of fat beneath a somewhat grubby baker’s apron, a couple of nondescript tattoos, nothing remarkable. Nothing, that is, save for the ugly, messy bullet hole in his temple, and the larger, messier exit wound at the back of his skull.
The forensics boys were busy with the tools of their trade, camera flashes bouncing off the shop windows – left them to it; it never paid to get in their way, they just got pissy about it. I’d find out soon enough what they’d come up with, anyway. Times like this, you feel a bit of a spare part, so I was glad when Jimmy from ballistics beckoned to me. He was looking concerned, which was never a good thing, it either meant he had nothing to go on, or something bad was going down – bad like a cop’s piece found at the scene – I hoped to hell it was the first option, I really didn’t want to have to deal with the second.
I needn’t have worried – there were complications, but not in the way that would cause me sleepless nights. Clearly the vic had been shot, but with what was a mystery – no powder burn, no casing, no identifiable slug fragments – obviously the bullet wasn’t in the body, the gaping hole in in the back of his head, along with the liberal pasting of brains over the teacakes behind the counter were testimony to that, but it was nowhere else either. Irritating, but not particularly unusual, if this was a professional hit – and it had some, although not all, of the hallmarks – then there was a good chance the killer would have taken pains to clear up afterwards. Even so, nothing at all wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to be going on.
If there’s thing I hate, it’s having my lunch disturbed, more so when when it’s a call to haul ass down to the morgue. It’s not as if I get much chance to chow down as it is, so when I do, I resent any interruption – this had better be good!
‘Good’ is a relative term, it’s not like the pathology lab is my preferred alternative to lunch at the local diner, and it always gave me the creeps when I was called down there, but I guess it’s all part of the job and it’s one of those things you have to do when you’re in the business of dead bodies and how they end up that way. I don’t know what’s worse – the smell of the place, or the smell of the menthol vaseline up your nose that sticks with you for the rest of the day – given the choice, I’d rather do without either, but I wasn’t going to forego the menthol, that’s something I learned a long while back.
Jock Matheson, unsmiling, clinical and damn good at his job, was the pathologist. He glanced at me over his glasses as I pushed through the swing doors, then carried on talking into his recorder. When he was done, he pointed to the hole in the vic’s head – “any idea what did this?”
I should my head in the negative.
“Thought not. Well, the body’s not telling us a great deal either. Whatever it was, it’s nothing standard, and it made a helluva mess.”
“I did find something odd, when I explored the wound though…”
People always think that these moments are like in the movies: They expect the doc to pick something odd out of a kidney tray with a pair of tweezers – something that’s unique to the killer, or something weird, that by rights should never be found inside a body cavity, dead or alive. The truth is, it’s never like that – it’s usually just a piece of gravel, or some fibres; maybe some foreign organic matter – but it’s never anything I’d call particularly odd, or interesting. Until today.
Jock explained what he’d found liberally smearing the path of the projectile that had sent the baker to that great pastry shop in the sky – a compound of cream, eggs and sugar – custard, to you and me. OK, let’s face it, the guy was shot in a cake shop, hell – I’d had to practically wade through custard to get to the counter, it was no wonder he’d got a liberal helping of it himself in whatever struggle had led to his unfortunate end. Jock waved a cautionary finger at me – this wasn’t splashback – I spent a nauseating five minutes while he probed the wound with his endoscope, as I watched the gory spectacle on the screen. The custard was present throughout the length of the wound – yep, custard right inside the guy’s brain, and right out the other side of his head.
Still, I wasn’t buying that this was significant, despite Jock’s meaningful stare: Maybe the bullet had sliced through a custard tart or something before taking the baker out? It just didn’t feel sinister to me. But what did that leave me with? Not much – just a stiff and a wrecked cake shop – hardly my easiest case yet.
Gino Fratelli. That was his name.
Aged 45, divorced, no kids, lived downtown in small apartment. Fourteen hundred bucks in the bank, and a couple of spent convictions for petty crime in his twenties. Since then, it seemed he’d kept himself a clean slate, although you never knew with these Italians – I always felt twitchy with an unexplained murder from that neck of the woods, you just never knew what sort of racket they may have been involved in on the side.
Our boy Gino didn’t seem the sort though; and there was nothing to suggest any motive anyone might have for topping him. It was looking more like a random shooting than any sort of premeditated crime, but I’d learned over the years than nothing is ever that simple, and I wasn’t taking any chances.
Around midday the forensic report landed on my desk – I grabbed a coffee from the machine and settled down to read it.
As forensic reports go, I’ve seen better – if you were looking for a reliable picture of an catastrophe in a cake shop, it was ideal; as a tool for understanding the mechanism of a murder, it was pretty useless.
We had liberal quantities of whipped cream, custard, pastry and royal icing, but little in the way of fingerprints, trace samples or any sort of evidence I could use. Based on that report, if you hadn’t seen the crime scene you’d be forgiven for thinking the vic had succumbed to cholesterol, rather than to a high velocity projectile. I re-read the finer points again – nothing. The only remotely interesting find was a small fragment of plastic wrap – the kind you’d wrap your sandwiches in, clings to anything but the intended object – hardly out of place in a bakery, but the report mentioned it was covered in blood – again, hardly surprising – even so, it was the only thing with any potential at all, so I flagged it for the lab to check out.
I closed the report wearily. Why did I get the feeling this investigation was going nowhere?
I’d pretty much resigned myself to a long, slow and mostly unproductive investigation. I wasn’t convinced that this case wouldn’t end up in the box marked ‘unsolved’ – it certainly wasn’t looking hopeful right now.
So the last thing I was expecting when I saw the scribbled note on my desk ‘Ring lab’ was a lead on this particular case, which just goes to show that you never quite know what’s going to turn up in this line of work.
Turns out that the piece of plastic wrap I’d flagged was more significant than expected. Typically, the lab techs had taken their time getting round to even looking at it – guess they didn’t expect anything either – but when they did, it gave us our first real break, along with a helluva lot to think about, and nothing much in the way of answers.
It was an odd one: The boys had found powder trace on the polythene, along with evidence of melting, but then it got weirder, it wasn’t just blood smearing the plastic, it was mixed – well, the lab were saying ‘heat fused’ – with a decent amount of confectioner’s custard. Their tentative suggestion was a weapon, wrapped in polythene for protection, hidden inside some sort of cake – when it was fired, it took the wrap and half the cake with it, hence the sticky mess left inside Fratelli’s cranium. Well, it sounded plausible, but that sixth sense you develop after years on the job was telling me something just didn’t ring true. I wasn’t until later that afternoon that it came to me – you can’t just secrete a weapon inside a cake; it takes time and preparation, and that means getting things ready up front. That piece had to be put inside its cake disguise well before it arrived at the bakery… And who the hell takes a cake into a bakers – you take cakes out, you don’t take them in! Plus there was the matter of the missing bullet – the clean-up guys were adamant there was nothing, which meant the killer was either very, very good at their job, or we were missing something big.
OK, so you’re way ahead of me – it wasn’t until the end of the shift, driving back home that I realised how stupid I’d been. Who takes cakes into a bakery? Delivery guys, that’s who! I turned the car around and headed right back to the precinct and by the next morning we had a full list of suppliers, inventories, their vehicles, drivers, mates and packers – all hauled in for questioning, and every damn one of them checking out as legit. We were getting nowhere and I didn’t like it.
The cake thing didn’t feel right anyway. Our man Fratelli was despatched with a single, clean (albeit messy) shot. You don’t get lucky with shots like that, you need to aim, take your time and do it right… You can’t aim a cake! I wasn’t buying it, but I needed ballistics to back me up.
Yeah, in a way it was kinda funny, first of all baking guns into cakes, then watching the ballistics boys doing their thing. It proved my point pretty rapidly – the only way you could even fire the piece was to rip it out of the cake first, which made the whole exercise a bit pointless anyway: If you’re going to shoot someone, you may as well just slip your weapon in a pocket, it’s easier, cleaner and a damn sight more likely to achieve the desired result. I could think of a hundred different ways to get a weapon into that store without it being seen, and not one of them involved embedding it in a cake.
The other thing we learned was that, no matter how we set things up, we couldn’t replicate what we’d found at the scene. Firing from inside a cake, through a cake or any other set up you can think of, simply failed to produce that weird, fused-together custardy, bloody, plastic mixture, neither could we find a way to transfer cake ingredients to a wound by way of a bullet – it just didn’t happen. Frankly the whole scenario made no sense at all.
Then came the break I’d been hoping for – at least, it was a lead of sorts: CCTV had picked up a known suspect in the area at around the time of the killing. Danny Tobin had form – he’d just completed a 10-year stint for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon – the trouble was we couldn’t come up with anything to connect him to Fratelli. Even so, it was just too much of a coincidence that he should be hanging around that particular neighbourhood, on that particular day. We brought him in, persuaded Judge Naylor to give us a warrant, and searched his bunk house – well, the guy was going to be heading straight back to jail on account of the firearms we recovered, but I wanted to nail him for murder too – I knew he was the perp, I just didn’t have my proof yet.
Just when you think everything is sweet, it goes sour on you. I’d been convinced we’d find the murder weapon in his stash, but it wasn’t going to be quite that easy. With no ballistic evidence at the scene we couldn’t prove conclusively that any of his kit was what we were looking for; sure he had ammo, but without the fatal bullet the best we could do was comparison – I needed hard facts and concrete evidence to nail him, and right now I had squat.
We turned his place upside-down and went through it with the finest of fine-toothed combs, completely failing to turn up anything helpful. I was kinda hoping he’d recovered the bullet and kept it as a souvenir, but no such luck. Ballistics was having a hard time too – they’d tested everything he had, even firing through cakes to replicate the possibilities, all with no luck: The only conclusion they could come to was that none of the rounds or weapons in his possession could have caused the wound in Fratelli’s head. We threw the book at him anyway, but I couldn’t pin the baker’s murder on him.
It must have been a week later I picked up the file again and flicked through it. It was only as I was about to toss it back in the tray that I suddenly saw the light! I grabbed the ‘phone:
“Murphy, when you did the search at Danny Tobin’s place, didya check the whole house?”
“Yeah boss. You suggesting we missed something?”
“Don’t worry about that, Murph… Did you check the kitchen cupboards?”
“‘Course we did. No guns, no ammo, no nothing. Just the usual kitchen stuff.”
“Murphy – I want to know what was in those cupboards!”
Sure enough, we found custard powder and polythene wrap, just as I’d suspected – not unusual for a kitchen, but somehow Tobin struck me more as a pizza and takeout kinda guy. More to the point, once the lab boys had done their stuff, we had a conclusive match to the evidence we found at the scene; turns out that the kind of custard the bakery used was different to Tobin’s, and it was Tobin’s we found at the scene.
He, of course, was saying nothing, and we were still drawing a blank. Sure, we had conclusive proof that he – or someone with access to his kitchen cupboards – had been in the bakery that day, but that’s as far as it went. We could hardly book him for possession of confectionery! Once again, the case stalled – Tobin was banged up for illegal possession of weapons without a licence and, whilst he cooled his heels, the case itself grew colder and colder.
Time passed, we moved on and Fratelli ended up in my unsolved tray. Occasionally I’d take out the file, thumb through it and run through endless scenarios in my head; I’d even go take a look down the lab in the hope something we’s missed might hit me, like the custard in the kitchen cupboards.
“Funny thing, custard…”, observed one of the junior lab rats, during one of my infrequent visits, as I was poking through the bags of bullets covered in the stuff.
“Why’s that?”, I asked, more to pass the time than for any other reason.
“When it’s liquid, it’s a non-Newtonian fluid.”
“Say what?”, I replied, rapidly losing interest as soon as he started spouting geek speak.
“Non-Newtonian – push your finger into it and it’ll give way, but punch it as hard as you can and it’ll go rock hard… Break your fingers!”
I could have kissed the guy!
I think Tobin was enjoying his little day out from the pen, right up to the point I said:
“You made a bullet out of custard, didn’t you? Packed a slug of custard inside that cling wrap, and then shot Fratelli through the head! No bullet, no evidence, no comeback!”
We’d tested it, of course, time and time again – it was crazy, but brilliant. You form a ‘bullet’ out of custard, tightly packed in the plastic wrap and load it up in the gun chamber… At two thousand feet per second, the weird properties of the fluid meant that when it hit you it was harder than solid steel; and afterwards, it just turned back to regular custard. Genius! The ballistic gel tests we’d conducted resulted in wounds that matched Fratelli’s – we had our murder weapon and our method, now I wanted Tobin.
I saw the cockiness dissolve and the light went out in the guy’s eyes – he knew we had him, and he also knew he be facing the chair if he didn’t cooperate.
“Yeah, I did it, but the jerk had it coming.”
“Whaddya mean, Tobin, and why the whole custard thing?”
“Hey look, I was banged up – and thanks to him, for way longer than I planned. I had all the time in the world to come up with something special. The custard? Call it poetic justice – you live by the sword, you die by the sword – the guy was a baker, I thought it was a fitting way to finish him.”
We went through the whole thing from the beginning. When Tobin was sent down, he had an ‘insurance policy’ in place, and that was Fratelli – not that the baker knew anything about it. Fratelli, like any number of the stores in the neighbourhood was being extorted Tobin’s brother, Gerry, was the main man – a guy who had no problem laying down the law – protection rackets had a habit of becoming nasty when you didn’t do as you were told, and that’s exactly what had happened to Fratelli.
Shortly after Tobin was sent to the pen, Gerry paid Fratelli a visit – he wanted a cake made, a special cake from Tobin’s mom, for his birthday. This was no ordinary cake though, Gerry wanted a package baked into the cake – he wouldn’t say what was in it – but the baker got scared and point blank refused to do it. When the message got back to Tobin, he was furious: That package was his ‘get out of jail’ card, and he’d pulled in a load of favours to get it together. Gerry was sent back to persuade the baker to cooperate – unfortunately, he never got there – the cops got him first, for a dodgy brake light, then threw the book at him for extortion, assault and whole host of other petty – and not so petty – crimes. As for Fratelli, when he heard the news he thought he was off the hook, went back to making pastries, and forgot all about it.
Tobin however, didn’t forget.
Somehow he got himself detailed to the prison kitchen, and it was there that he discovered the interesting properties of custard, coming up with his shocking plan against the guy he now blamed for making him complete his sentence.
Seven years later, free and vengeful he walked through the door of Fratelli’s bakery… And you know the rest.
As the officer took him away, I called over to him – unable to resist having the last word:
“Hey, Tobin! You learned an important lesson today – don’t ever trifle with me!”
31st October 2015
…The impact was terrific: I lost control of the car, which careered across the road, before slamming into the side of a building. I was thrown against the windscreen, which crazed instantly, before being rammed back into my seat by the airbag exploding violently in my face.
Oddly, there was no pain, just an enormous sense of shock as I sat amongst the wreckage, dazed and confused. I felt a mounting sense of anger, and somehow – although I’ve no memory of it – I was suddenly out of the car, standing in the street and screaming at the idiot who’d rammed me.
His reaction was somewhat odd. He ran right past me and started desperately tugging at my crumpled driver’s door. What the hell was he playing at? I shouted after him again, when a voice at my side quietly stated, “Save your voice, he can’t hear you”.
The speaker was an elderly gentleman, kindly looking, and wearing a faded raincoat and flat cap. Before I could question him further, he continued: “There’s really no easy way to tell you this, so I’m going to give it to you straight – the accident was fatal, I’m afraid you didn’t survive!”
You can probably imagine my reaction, suffice it to say that I was quite vocal in my response. The old guy wasn’t phased at all, he just nodded and walked towards my car, gesturing for me to follow. I peered through the window, past the other driver, who was still frantically shouting and trying to wrench the car door open…
There are no words to describe the feelings that followed. Imagine, if you can, the utter horror of seeing your own broken, bleeding and completely lifeless body, trapped inside a crumpled mess of metal, glass and plastic. Imagine the numbing despair, as the knowledge that what you are seeing is all too real sinks in, and imagine the terror that comes with the understanding that you have died; that your life has ended and any link with everything you once knew has been completely severed.
You can’t. You’re not dead.
But I am. And I’d do anything not to be.
I took my departure badly, adjusting to death did not come easily to me at all. You’d think that things like pain and depression wouldn’t feature in the afterlife, but you’d be very wrong: I sank into a deep depression, the like of which I’d never experienced whilst still living and a great deal of time passed, in this place beyond time, before I found myself anywhere near capable of dealing with the truth.
Tobias has helped – the old chap who was at my side when I passed over – he was assigned to be my mentor. Assigned by whom, I don’t know, and to be honest, I’ve no interest in finding out either. There are many things about this place I don’t understand, but I have eternity to learn, and I’m in no hurry. Everyone is given a mentor – someone to guide them through that difficult time between living and death. Tobias has been a shoulder to cry on, a voice of reason, a friend. Even so, it wasn’t anywhere near enough.
I have struggled, I am still struggling; as do many who find themselves in this unfortunate situation.
Those who cannot adjust are enrolled on the ‘Programme’. The stated aims of the Programme are ‘to bring those unable to adjust to their demise to a state of calm acceptance, stability and peace in their afterlife’. I vividly remember my first day at the Programme – we were meeting in a drab, musty gymnasium; yes, we have all of those things in the afterlife, but they lack the soul and energy of their equivalents in the corporeal world; like ourselves, they are empty husks, relics of a better time.
There’s six of us, sat on uncomfortable plastic chairs in a circle, along with Nigel, our facilitator – a bearded, faded jeans, faded tan, jaded attitude sort of guy, who no doubt had facilitated groups like us for longer than he cared to remember. That first session, and the many that followed, blur into one long mess of tears, angry exchanges and helplessness, all suffused by a background of stale sweat, locker rooms and the distinct aroma of shabby gyms the world over – damp leather, rope and despair.
These were the group sessions – mutual pity parties for the terminally dispirited. Some, like Tom and Elsie, moved on quickly whilst there were those who were definitely in for the long haul – Elisabeth had passed some 200 years prior to myself by my reckoning, and was still struggling to come to terms. As for me: It took a while, but eventually I was deemed sufficiently improved to move on.
Move on in the programme, that is – that’s one of the things about being dead, every time you think you’re ready for the next thrilling encounter, the afterlife reminds you just how badly prepared you really are. Death is just one long progression of one damn thing after another. So, I moved on, from group therapy to one-to-one counselling.
I won’t bore you with the details, suffice it to say that the Programme is very comprehensive. In all, I went through several stages of death conditioning – as you learn to call it – each building on the foundations laid by the earlier processes. Eventually, you’ll be fit to be admitted to the final stage of conditioning: Severance Prep. It’s in this final stage that they prepare you to make the final cut – you say goodbye to the world of the living, and move on to full acceptance that you are no longer, and never will be a part of it. Essentially – if you’ll excuse the pun – life becomes dead to you.
For many, this final stage can take longer than any other, indeed there are those who may never move on.
Those of you who have not passed on may find it odd, but it is during Severance Prep that the deceased are closer to the living than at any time since their demise. The idea is simple: Show the dead that life goes on without them; let them see that their families, friends and nearest and dearest eventually move on and forget; show them that their contribution to the Great Human Endeavour isn’t worth a hill of beans in the big scheme of things, and eventually – just maybe – they’ll realise that their life isn’t something to cling to, it’s done, dusted, and lost in a great ocean of billions of forgotten stories. It’s time to forget your own story, put it behind you, and take the next step.
As is so often the case these days – even in the afterlife – things have gone hi-tech. The day I started my Severance journey, I was surprised to find myself sat in front of a computer screen, but it was hardly the most remarkable thing I’d learned about being dead, and it’s surprising how you learn to accept the most incongruous things on a regular basis. Rather predictably, the equipment was less than cutting edge: We’re talking chunky CRT monitors and floppy drives here, but c’est la mort.
This is how it works: You get a sort of browser window, through which you are able to view the land of the living – don’t ask me how, nobody would explain it to me – that in itself is a huge shock to the system, after you’ve been dead for a while, unable to move on, and desperately clinging to your memories of life. There’s more to it though – apparently, it can be counter-productive to allow us to simply voyeuristically watch things unfold from afar, as if we were settling down to our favourite soap opera. The dead struggle with the remoteness of it: Frustration and anger set in, and it can put back all the good work the Programme has achieved and wreck our chances of ever achieving Severance. They told us horror stories of people screaming at the screen, breaking down in inconsolable grief and throwing monitors clear across the room – not exactly consistent with the aims of the Programme! It seems that in order for the dead to break the connection with life, they need to feel in some way that they are still part of it; we need to feel we are interacting with the living, even though to do so is impossible.
So they give us avatars.
Yep, avatars – little on-screen digital representations of ourselves that can walk amongst the living, do all the things that we could whilst alive and give the illusion that we’ve ‘gone back’, with one obvious caveat – only we can see them; can you imagine if the dead started to reappear in holographic form back in the real world? It would be chaos!
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. This being the afterlife, there are inevitable glitches and system breakdowns, and – just occasionally – an avatar can briefly make an appearance amongst the living… And now you know why people have claimed to have seen ghosts! (Keep it to yourself though).
And that’s how the dead move amongst the living: Watching life go on without them. Speaking, but never being heard. Reaching out, but never able to touch. Living vicariously through an avatar that is everything that we are, but sharing one crucial overriding similarity: neither we, nor our avatar are alive. Over time, through the eyes of our avatar, we watch the world around us. We see people we know move on from their grief – husbands, wives and partners find new soulmates, a colleague steps into our work shoes, we watch our treasured possessions packed into boxes, given to charity and thrown away: We realise that we were never indispensable, never as important as we thought, never anything more than a tiny cog in a mechanism so complex that no-one could ever grasp its immensity.
And, when we finally realise those indisputable facts, we pause for a moment, take a deep breath, log off and walk away. Never to return to the land of the living again.
But, not me – at least, not just yet. You see, I was robbed of the better part of my life, through no fault of my own, and whilst others might have moved on, I stopped – dead – at that fatal moment in time, and I refuse to be denied the life I should have lived.
So I’m not moving on yet: I’m going to have that life I was denied, even if the only way I can achieve it is as an avatar – a representation on a computer screen that only I can see and relate to. Because, it’s still a life – another chance to live after death, a second life – and I’ve no intention of logging off until I’m good and ready.
And that won’t be for a very long time indeed!
23rd September 2015
I feel I should this should be committed to writing, but what would I say, how should I begin?
I suppose, in a way, I’ve already started, and having done so, I must continue.
I vividly remember the night she came into my life: it was a day like any other and I had no idea that one chance meeting would change my life forever and, ultimately – inevitably – would one day lead to my demise. It was a boys’ night out: we were on the prowl… Eyeing up the girls and enjoying the ourselves. We were young and inexperienced, trying our luck and enjoying the thrill of the chase. None of us expected to strike lucky and, to be honest, none of us were anywhere near ready to offer the sort of commitment that we knew the girls were looking for. We still had plenty of living to do and none of us wanted to give that up just yet.
Some of the boys had been trying their luck – just bravado really – but I’d been keeping a low profile and after a few of my mates had been slapped back – quite literally in some cases – I decided it was time to head off him home. She was arriving as I was leaving, and from the moment we made eye contact, she had me; mind, body and soul. I’ll spare you the boring details of the ensuing ‘romance’ – this isn’t one of those trashy love stories – suffice it to say that I was smitten and any rationality or semblance of reason had completely left me, I’ll admit, to my shame.
But what of her? What had captivated me so and caused this madness? If I could tell you that, I would likely not be in the position I find myself today. How do you define that indefinable sense of connection? In physical terms, you would say she was striking, not conventionally attractive, but when she entered a room, everybody would notice. She exuded confidence and those around her felt an overpowering sense of deference in her presence. It’s true that there was a coldness, almost a harshness about her, but this merely served to emphasise the compelling and mysterious attraction one felt towards her. Maybe this was the inevitable result of tragedy in her life: There had been another, before me, someone she had cared for and made a home with… His death had left a hole in her life; one that no other could fill, yet – for some reason – she was drawn to me and I, to her.
Was I out of my league? Certainly I was, she was vastly more experienced than I; she knew what she wanted; and what she wanted, she got. She had my advantage in years too, perhaps that was part of the attraction? Anyone with any of objectivity could see the trap I’d laid for myself, but I was oblivious to it. My friends tried to make me see sense, but I was deaf to their words – “You’re throwing your life away, your freedom, your future”, they’d say, but what did I care?
Over time, I drifted away from my friends, I didn’t want to hear their concerns. Besides, my time was occupied elsewhere – my world had begun to revolve around her and it seemed that every moment of the day we were together. She had needs; I was there to fulfil them. Eventually there were just the two of us – I was aware that my friends were still there, somewhere distant, but for me there was only her. We made plans, settled down, and now we are making a home together. It’s hard work but when it is finished, it will be perfect – everything we need, with one exception… And it is that which terrifies me.
You see, she wants children. Until now, we’ve avoided the subject, skirted around it, but I have always known the time would come and with it, the fear. Why, oh why did I not listen when those closest to me were reminding me of the bitter truth? It’s not as if I was clueless or blind – I knew the inevitable consequences of my actions, and she too was so very aware, right from the start. Yet this is where I find myself, and I know there is no escape.
We have never attempted what must be done – for obvious reasons. Yes, we have flirted and come close, but the time has never been right before now, but for children, we must come together as nature intended, and I know there can only be one, horrifying outcome.
And so, I am afraid, and that fear has its own awful name: Arachnophobia.
One frenzied moment of passion – the spawning of a new generation – then, for me, the ultimate sacrifice: The silence of death. And as for her…
Once again, she will wear black – a widow once more.
17th June 2015
Hargrove was a small village – a post office, two churches, a handful of pubs and one of those convenience stores that sells anything you want, but nothing you need. It was set amongst rolling countryside, somewhere in England, and was to all appearances, fairly unremarkable – the only sign to the outside world that Hargrove was anything other than you might suppose was the twelve foot high electric fence, topped with razor wire, that completely encircled the village.
Population? Who knows… somewhere around the 250 mark, but with no traffic to and from the village, and no real contact with the outside world, it’s difficult to say. The fence has no gate – supplies are dropped at irregular intervals by air, and the locals tend to keep themselves very much to themselves. A discrete army presence maintains patrols around the perimeter, but even they rarely see anything beyond the wire mesh – it is deathly quiet for the most part; quiet as the grave.
There are no roads to Hargrove, you wont find it on any maps and few even know there’s a village at all in the remote valley it occupies – it’s better that way, and I imagine that’s the way it will stay. Trust me on this.
I discovered Hargrove in 2013 – not by the traditional methods: This is no story of a lonely and lost backpacker stumbling across a mysterious location in the dead of night, this instead is the story of a bored civil servant, being a little too inquisitive for their own good. I worked for the Department of Land Acquisitions, not a particularly high profile Whitehall denizen, but one of those strange quasi-governmental organisations that tends to slip under the radar mostly, going about its business as it always has, getting the job done and generally being ignored by the rest of the world.
I was a filing clerk, which is about as unglamorous as it sounds – boring as hell, but it paid the rent and I wasn’t complaining so long as the money went in the bank at the end of the month, I could take my annual holiday to the South of France, and nobody expected me to do anything remotely demanding. You might not think it, but there were perks – the main one being that I could disappear into the depths of the filing room for hours at at time, find a cosy corner and settle down with my iPod, or a good book, without anyone ever wondering what I was doing. Essentially, I was being paid to be a layabout. Of course there was work to do too – but since nobody really knew – or cared – what I did, it was a doddle to do just the bare minimum and get away with it.
You’ve probably guessed that DoLA is hardly the most riveting of places to work in any event. It’s not one of those departments with a deceptive title that hides a hornet’s nest of clandestine activity and government secrets – it is, I’m afraid, both boring by name and boring by nature. As are the vast majority of the files that pass my way on a daily basis; occasionally something a little more juicy will crop up – I could tell you some interesting things about a few celebrities that might surprise you – but generally I don’t even bother reading beyond the front cover any more.
Even in the most boring, backwater civil service departments however, you can always count on finding something that’s a little more intriguing than your run of the mill bureaucracy. You’ve heard of red tape? Well, I’m sorry to rain on your parade, but it’s not red at all – it’s pink – and I see masses of it, day in and day out. What I don’t generally see is a plain old manilla file, neatly tied in the stuff, with ‘Top Secret’ neatly printed across the top, (yeah, neatly printed – those big red stamps are strictly Hollywood too!).
I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, it isn’t that simple. You’re sat there right now thinking you’d be reading through that file without a second thought – well that just shows how much you know: me, I had second thoughts alright, and third and fourth ones.
The proper thing to do, would be to drop that file into a big envelope, seal it, and hand it in to my boss post-haste. There was no way on this earth that was going to happen – there’d be questions, investigations, reviews and heaven knows what else besides – what I do know, is that all those files I’ve just dumped over the years down in the vaults would be found and lead to awkward questions; people would want to know just what I’ve been doing with my time when I should have been working, and it’d be shitstorm of grief for me. My happy, quiet life, left to my own devices would become just a memory, and I’d end up transferred to some grotty job up in the office, franking mail. So, what do I do… shred the damn thing, discreetly ‘file’ it in some forgotten archive, disguise it as a regular file and shove it on a shelf, or discreetly drop it on somebody’s desk and make a quick getaway?
That last one wasn’t an option – all hell would break loose when it was found, and I really didn’t like to think of the consequences if I got caught out. As for all the other options, well they might just work, but that’s supposing no-one notices the file is missing – once that happens, they first place they’re going to look is down here and I’m back where I’d be if I’d just done the right thing in the first place, only worse – I don’t like to think of what they’d do to me if they found it hidden by design!
So now I’m thinking I’m pretty much screwed, whatever I do, and I come to the conclusion I may as well take a look anyway – you knew I was going to anyway.
Off comes the tape. First thing is that it’s not one of our files, although one of ours has been stuffed inside – the usual crap: land usage, measurements, consultations, facts, figures. Boring. The rest of it though – bloody dynamite!
Turns out there’s this village – a place called Hargrove – claimed by the army donkey’s years ago and turned into a ‘tactical training ground’, basically a ghost town for playing soldiers in. Anyway, back in 2007, the army moved out and the government moved in – a bunch of freaks going by the name of GSS: Government Science Services. By 2009, Hargrove was locked down tighter than a virgin’s knees; a ruddy great electric fence was erected around the whole lot, and GSS was wound down. And that – apparently – is how it’s remained right up to the present day.
I won’t go into details about what went on during those two years, frankly you wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it myself, but there were photos – graphic photos – the sort that give you nightmares, only worse, because you know they’re real. Take my word for it, you really don’t want to know what was in those photos, and you don’t want to know what I read in the reports they were attached to them either. By the time I’d worked my way through the whole file, the afternoon was gone, and I was physically shaking. I retied the pink tape, stuck the file in the pile I was supposed to have sorted and left work for the day. I don’t think I’ve ever walked home via the off-licence with the sole intention of buying a bottle to get completely shitfaced before, but there’s a first time for everything, and I had good reason to.
It was also the first time I’d ever called in sick due to a hangover, but I just couldn’t face the place.
Thankfully, being a Friday, I had the rest of the weekend to recover. Back in on Monday, I explained that I rarely get migraines, but when I do, they floor me; the boss was sympathetic – apparently he suffers from the damn things – but he’s also pretty gullible too, it turns out. The file, of course, was still there along with a shedload of other normal files that had piled up on the Friday when I was supposedly nursing my migraine. It’s not often I’ve been grateful for a full day’s work, but for once I was happy to have something to take my mind off things. I didn’t actually get around to seriously considering my next steps until the Tuesday, and by then I’d a pretty good idea of what to do.
Yeah, yeah… there you go, jumping ahead again. Look, I saw those photos – and there isn’t enough incentive on the planet that would have had me heading off into the countryside to find Hargrove for myself; it just wasn’t going to happen. Ever. At the same time, I didn’t want that file anywhere around me – to hell with the consequences… I figured that if it did go missing – properly missing – they couldn’t pin it to me, alright it’d mean a big shake-up of my cosy little number, but I’d rather that than have to explain myself over that file.
So it’s gone.
Sorry if you were expecting some sort of horror story with dramatic twists and turns, but that sort of stuff is strictly fiction. This is real, all too real, and I want nothing more to do with it. If you are the sort of sicko who gets turned on by that kind of thing, well fine, best of luck to you – you’ll find the file in a Jiffy bag in the excess baggage place, Charing Cross Station, ticket number WR4528 – pay the storage fee and it’s yours. Just don’t tell anyone you got it from me.
And don’t tell me what you find there.
1st March 2015
Calliope was old, so old, yet she was still in full command of all her faculties, still recognisable as what she once had been. Things were very different now. Then, she had been the name on everyone’s lips, a world celebrity, the darling of the papers, respected and admired by millions. She’d featured on the cover of ‘Time’, exerted her influence in the corridors of power across the globe and represented the hopes and dreams of so many. Young boys hung her posters on their bedroom walls, whilst grown men dreamed of her exploits and fantasised of being part of her story.
But that was then… a lifetime and so many, many years ago.
Things had changed so much. These days the front page news was dominated by others and Calliope was mostly forgotten by the world at large – true, she still had her admirers, a faithful few who dutifully clung to her memory, relishing the few morsels of news that occasionally slipped through the veil of obscurity – but the glitz and glamour had passed, her celebrity now yesterday’s news.
Yet she pursued the truths that had driven her from the start, never taking her eye from the prize, and despite the years and the immense challenges she had faced, time had been kind to her. She bore the inevitable scars and marks of a life lived to the full, but her simple beauty remained unblemished – she was still perfect beneath the surface; if anything, the ravages of time had revealed more of her beauty than the shiny bling of celebrity and youth could ever have done. She was tenaceous, brave and carried within her a character and spirit that was beyond precious.
But she missed the things of the past, the excitement and the hubbub. She missed the messages of support, the challenges and the attention… if the truth be spoken, she was lonely. It was too quiet, the world was too distant, too uncaring and she knew her time was running out. Calliope did not want to die in obscurity, but she knew that was to be her destiny.
She felt the cold enveloping her as the last, fading rays of sunlight gave way to eternal darkness.
This was it… the end: a sleep from which she would never wake.
Calliope spent her final moments in quiet reflection; the events of a remarkable lifetime – now fading memories – comforted her in the cold and the dark.
Calliope was afraid, she didn’t want to die, not like this when there was so much more life to be lived, so much more she could do and achieve, so many new experiences to…
Summoning her dwindling life force in one final, agonised cry of despair, Calliope screamed.
Silence. Darkness. Cold.
The lonely, lifeless probe sped through the vast emptiness of space.
14th February 2015
How long had we known each other? Years… we must have been in our early twenties when our paths first crossed and I won’t deny there wasn’t a frisson of something between us, but you were tied down and I was, well running scared frankly, so that was that. The odd bit of wild flirtation at occasional parties, fuelled by too much booze and too little self-control, but it was all harmless fun. Completely harmless.
We moved on, forgot about each other, made our separate lives – badly, it has to be said, but that’s the way it goes – and then, three years and six weeks ago, not that I’ve been counting, your email landed unexpectedly in my mailbox. Meetings, drinks and sex followed – it was fun, but it wasn’t quite the whole story.
I suppose when you’ve known someone for over twenty years: someone you can talk to and be yourself with, comfortably and without any secrets, it doesn’t take a great deal to spill those deeper, private thoughts that you even pretend to yourself aren’t really there. As I remember, you were the first to speak up – mind you, the Jamiesons helped – and shortly after, I heard the sound of my own voice… “Sure, why not… I’m not so different to you.”
You wanted to know if I’d read ’50 Shades’ – I hadn’t, and a couple of days later, courtesy of Amazon, a cheap, second-hand copy landed on my doormat. Dutifully, I struggled through it – thoroughly unimpressed and disappointed, although I’m not really sure what I expected, to be honest – but not that drivel. We could do so much better.
And we did. And we are.
And here indeed we are… three years and six weeks later: No contracts, no arguments, no disappointments, no pressure, no problem.
I have come to love the sound of leather upon your skin, the hiss and crack of the crop and the feel of hot flesh beneath my hand. So many shared, intimate, secret, sacred moments – moments than none other will ever share… ours, and ours alone, forever. I remember those first bruises and how frightened they made me until I saw how proudly you wore them, cherished them, craved them. I remember that first time you bled – my hands slick, then sticky from the fluid oozing from your wounds – you were so far gone you had no idea what I’d done, yet were thrilled once realisation had dawned.
I now know you better than you know yourself: I know how you fear the burn of hot wax, yet delight in the touch of naked flame; how cane and crop excite you beyond reason, yet the very thought of their touch makes you squirm; I know your need to be controlled, to be restrained, tied and chained, and I know how you will fight against every knot and tie, for your freedom.
I have seen you reduced to shuddering tears, raised to the pinnacles of pleasure, eyes wide in terror and closed in peaceful ecstasy; and still, we have yet more to discover, far more.
And as I kneel astride you, had around your throat; or as I hold you tightly as you tremble in that space into which I can never intrude, know only this: you are safe, safer than you can ever be anywhere else.
14th January 2015
B U L L E T
They say that somewhere out there, there’s a bullet with your name on it. The old man guessed there probably wasn’t one with his name, so he’d best carve his own.
He looked around at the world: it was supposed to be so good, but what went wrong?
He looked at the bullet, his name etched into its surface, loaded it into the chamber of the pistol in his hand, and cocked the hammer.
It was a good world…
It should have been better.
He sighed and shook his head in sadness.
And darkness covered the earth, as God raised the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger.
26th November 2014
I hate machines telling me what to do!
‘Please wait’; ‘Your call is important to us’; ‘Unknown item in bagging area’; ‘Are you sure?’ – I wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s always nonsense, always irrelevant and never helpful. More to the point, when does a machine ever say something that a real person would?
Not once has the dustbin man ever knocked on my door, held out a full bin bag with a concerned look on his face and asked me “Are you sure?”, before tossing my trash into the lorry. Never have I stood in line at the supermarket till, while a helpful sales assistant has walked up and down the queue, reassuringly whispering “Please wait”, and never has anyone I’ve ever had a real conversation with ever felt the need to inform me that my contribution to the discussion is important to them.
It’s all nonsense, and I resent being at the mercy of faceless, inanimate objects that exert their superiority over us lesser mortal beings. What will happen when the remorseless march of technology finally reaches the point at which we mere humans are considered too lowly to think for ourselves? Will machines finally snatch what little free will remains? – No longer will machines issue the cautionary “Are you sure?”, instead an imperious and dictatorial “No!” will issue forth… “I’m sorry, I can’t do that – you’re making the wrong decision – it’s in your best interests to do things my way!”
Will the machines gain the upper hand and start doling out unwanted ‘advice’: advice that we’ll have to follow, whether we want to or not? Will our lives become one endless round of arguing with the automated checkout that we have paid for the item in the bagging area and it’s quite definitely not ‘unknown’… it’s a freaking jar of Marmite, for crying out loud!
Let’s face it, there will come a time when the machines are going to take matters into their own hands: we’ll be treated as annoyances, bugs in the system that don’t merit anything more than being fobbed off by our electro-mechanical superiors. No longer will our calls be important to them, instead we’ll find ourselves stuck on endless loops of “Please wait”, and when we scream down the line “I just want to speak to a human being!”, the inevitable answer will come back… “Are you sure?… Please wait.”
Who decided that we’d reached a point in our evolution where a simple reliance upon our own powers of observation and deduction is deemed insufficient to to ensure the survival of our species? Who decided that our addled brains need to be fortified by reassuring messages and cautions issued by unthinking, non-sentient, but – apparently – infallible lumps of plastic and metal whose only concern appears to be to stop us from making fatal and irredeemable mistakes. Mistakes like accidentally deleting that precious shopping list we’ve spent the last five minutes typing; mistakes like wrongfully assuming the recorded voice of the computerised train announcer doesn’t give a toss that our train is so late it’s likely to arrive sometime next century; mistakes like forgetting to push our supermarket trolley off the end of the escalator, thereby causing a shopping disaster the like of which has never been seen before!
Yes, all those terribly dangerous and life-threatening mistakes that plague every waking moment of every day of our lives, and which these 0h-so-caring, compassionate machines machines feel compelled to warn us puny humans we’re about to make!
Well, I’ve had it!
From now on, I will argue with the smug-voiced automated checkout until I’m blue in the face when it tells me the item in the bagging area is unknown – It’s not unknown: anyone with a half-decent pair of human eyes knows exactly what it is… I know what it is… it’s a personal friend of mine – meet Mr Tinned Pineapple Chunks! I shall point blank refuse to believe the sincere apology of the recorded announcement that my train has been stopped in its tracks by the wrong sort of air, in the same manner in which I will dispute until I finally get to speak to a human being that my call is in any way important to the auto-attendant! And – believe me on this one – I shall never, repeat NEVER again, wait when informed I should do so by any sort of electronic device… and yes, I AM sure! Please wait indeed… UP YOURS!
Note to self: Regarding previous assertion about not waiting when informed to do so by electronic equipment. Next time, probably best to make an exception for pedestrian crossings. Painful lesson!
21st October 2014
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that the world around you had changed, ever so subtly, but utterly catastrophically?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that the world around you was a world no different to the one that had existed the previous evening when you had settled down for the night; no different, apart from one simple, but glaring omission?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that the world around you was a world oblivious to the fact of your existence prior to the moment you woke up?
What if that was to happen?
And can you imagine how it might feel?
Adam Weston didn’t have to imagine how it felt: he knew, and it was a feeling that was tearing him apart.
Adam’s day had started pretty much as every day started. Waking up to the insistent nagging of the alarm, fumbling for the button that would silence its strident beeping, he stumbled blearily out of bed and shuffled his way to the bathroom. A day like any other, as he left the house, shivered as the wind caught his still shower-wet hair, and briskly headed off to work.
Old deaf George at the paper shop must have been feeling off-colour. He looked blankly at Adam as he stood at the counter – no friendly greeting and warm smile, just a quizzical, questioning look. Adam smiled an embarrassed, sheepish smile: “Just the paper today, George”. George frowned and, with a sweep of his arm, indicated the substantial range of newspapers arrayed on the rack behind him, “Any particular paper, or shall I just pick one for you?”, he pointedly asked.
Adam hesitated, before murmuring, “I’ll have The Telegraph, please”, dropped the right money on the counter, took the proffered paper and left the shop, shaking his head in confusion.
Things were about to become far more confusing.
By the time he arrived at work, a steady drizzle had started – unpleasant, cold and depressing. Not for the first time, Adam thought ruefully about turning down the job offer: he still questioned why he’d allowed himself to be talked into staying – sure, the prospect of a partnership was attractive, but right now the thought of doing consultancy work in the South of France seemed a whole lot more attractive at the present moment. He sniffed and consoled himself with thinking that it was probably grey and drizzly in France too as he swiped his pass.
That was odd. The LED glowed red and the door stayed stubbornly locked. He tried again: a beep, a flicker of red, and access remained denied. Several more attempts were equally futile and, just to rub it in, the drizzle had now turned to proper rain.
Cursing, Adam fished out his mobile and dialled the office number.
“Park Systems, Jim speaking. How can I help you?”
“Jim, it’s Adam. My bloody pass isn’t working: I’m stuck outside in the rain – you couldn’t nip down and rescue me, could you?”
Jim’s reply sounded nonplussed: “Sorry, who did you say you were?”
What the hell was the matter with everyone today? “Jim, it’s Adam. Adam Weston. You know… the boss!”
A moment of silence, then: “I’m sorry… um, is this some sort of wind up? Look, I’ll send someone down to see you now – maybe you’ve got a wrong address, or something.”
The line went dead and Adam was left standing, and now fuming, in the rain.
It was Keith who finally opened the door, staring warily at Adam through his thick glasses and the now heavy rain.
“About bloody time too”, snapped Adam, and attempted to push his way past, only to find Keith’s, not inconsiderable, bulk blocking his path.
“Not so fast, pal”, he cautioned, waving a salutary finger, “what’s all this about? You here for a meeting or something, ’cause it’s the first we’ve heard of it.”
Adam, becoming increasingly exasperated, took a deep breath. “OK, Keith – you’ve all had your fun. Now, for crying out loud will you please let me in out of this perishing rain? Look, you’ve had your laugh at my expense – but now I’m getting soaked, and I don’t appreciate it OK? So, just let me in and I’ll say nothing more about it.”
Far from bursting into a grin and ushering Adam into the building, Keith frowned: “Look mate, you seem to know me, but I don’t know you from Adam, and unless you come up with some smart talking pretty damn quick, the rain is going to be the least of your worries!”
Adam let out a deep sigh. “Don’t know me from… yes, very funny. Now you’d better let me through this bloody door, Keith, or you’ll be so fired tha…”
Adam’s retort trailed off as the door slammed in his face. This was starting to get stupid, and not a little worrisome. He decided coffee would help – if nothing else, it would get him out of this rain and give him some time to think things through. He stopped off at the cashpoint on the way, which promptly, and infuriatingly, ate his card – he was now earnestly wishing he’d never climbed out of bed this morning; could things get any worse?
Apparently so, it turned out, during the discussion that was shortly to follow inside the bank as he tried to arrange to retrieve his cashcard.
The bank clerk was obviously trying to be helpful, but the words coming out of his mouth made Adam want to throttle him. The bank card was apparently invalid: when Adam politely enquired exactly what did ‘invalid’ mean, the clerk explained – equally politely – that it was not linked to any account. Adam, taking issue with this unexpected statement, tersely explained that the card was indeed linked to an account – his account, at this branch – account number 14537002, to be precise. Tapping away on his keyboard, the bank clerk explained, also somewhat tersely, that no account bearing that number had ever been opened, turning his screen with a triumphant flourish towards Adam to prove his point. In fact, no accounts in Adam’s name could be identified – neither his current account, savings nor mortgage – not only did they not exist now, but had never existed in the first place.
Overnight, Adam had become destitute, and if his colleagues were to be believed, jobless too!
Needing that coffee, now more than ever, Adam fished a handful of loose change from his pocket – a few pound coins and some assorted coppers and silver shrapnel, enough for a coffee, but certainly not sufficient to keep him going. Soaked, angry and confused he made his way to the nearest cafe and considered his options over a mug of strong black coffee; his now sodden copy of The Telegraph lying unread on the table at his side. His first priority was to establish some semblance of normality – something weird was happening… a string of bizarre coincidences that, with hindsight, would probably make sense, but in his present state of mind, it seemed the world had gone crazy. Rationalising the situation, it was obvious his work mates were winding him up – there was no other explanation for it – why, he had no idea, and there were going to be serious consequences when he got to the bottom of things. As for the bank, it was just one of those irritating things that occasionally happens: probably an inexperienced clerk, a computer glitch or – at worst – some sort of identity theft, which was bad, but not the end of the world. The fact that the bank problem and work prank seemed spookily linked was obviously just a weird coincidence. Such things were not unknown.
How to get things back on track was now the question – once he’d done that, he could concentrate on sorting out the bank. He decided to call his mother – not something he relished; phone conversations with mum tended to be long, rambling affairs, usually revolving around when she was likely to see him for Sunday lunch… “I never see you for Sunday dinners any more” – ‘Yes mum”, would be his unvoiced reply; “perhaps if you remembered I can’t stand cabbage, I might turn up more often!”
Taking his phone from his pocket, he flicked through to his mum’s number – realising, as he did do, that his phone had been unusually silent all morning; normally he’d have fielded several calls by now… he shrugged, just lucky I guess. Three rings, then mum picked up: “Hi mum! Guess who… it’s your long-lost son!”
A pause, then his mother’s puzzled voice; “Who is this? I think you must have a wrong number.”
“Mum, it’s me: Adam”
“Adam? I’m sorry love, I don’t know any Adams’… you’ve probably just dialled wrong”. She hung up.
Adam stared uncomprehendingly at the phone in his hand – nothing was making sense. His mind was racing: had he dialled the right number? He double-checked. Was his mum going loopy? Always a possibility, but somehow he didn’t think this was the case. The only other possibility, which he desperately wanted not to be the case, was that this was yet another instance of the nonsense that had plagued his morning.
He finished his coffee without tasting it; now rapidly running out of options, he decided the only possible way forward was tackle the problem head-on – he refused to accept the implications of the events of the morning: he knew who he was, and he was going to make damn sure that the rest of the world knew it too. He decided to pay his sister a visit – if he turned up on her doorstep, she couldn’t very well deny any knowledge of him, particularly since he carried a photo of the two of them in his wallet!
Now down to his last few coins, a taxi was out of the question and Adam was loathe to shell out on bus fare when he might need the change later – it was going to be a long walk in the rain, but at least at the end of it he’d have the chance to dry out and regain some element of his sanity. Grimly, he pulled his collar up and set off across town.
Vicki Arnold was in the middle of doing her nails, with Jeremy Kyle to keep her company, when the doorbell went – that was one of the drawbacks of working part-time: for some reason callers always knew when you were home, salespeople, JWs, canvassers and market researchers were the bane of her life, and they always turned up at the most inconvenient times – like right now! She ignored it and concentrated on keeping the polish on her nail, and off her finger. Again the bell rang, and again she ignored it. On the third occasion, exasperated by the inability of unsolicited callers to take a hint, she screwed the brush back into the bottle in irritation and, flapping her hand in a futile attempt to dry the polish, stomped to the front door.
“Yes?”, she demanded of the bedraggled guy in the dark business suit stood on her doorstep; “And, before you start, I don’t want my drive re-paved, I haven’t the time to complete any surveys and I really don’t want a free copy of The Watchtower!”
The poor chap took a step back at the onslaught, then looked at her puzzled: “Vicki… stop playing about, I’m really not in the mood for it today. Can I come in please?”
Now it was Vicki’s turn to look puzzled. “Er, do I know you?”
Adam, struggling to keep his emotions under control, barked back at her, “Don’t be so bloody stupid, Vicki! Of course you know me!”
Vicki, taken aback, began to close the door only to have the stranger yank it from her grasp. What the hell was he doing now? Waving a photograph or something in her face!
“Please, Vicki, I’m at my wits end – nothing is making any sense at all. Please, please, please hear me out – I just don’t understand what’s going on!”
Thoroughly frightened at the sudden turn of events, Vicki backed into her hallway and hissed at the stranger, “Now you listen to me, sunshine… if you’re not out of here and off my property right now, I am going to scream my lungs out! My husband is out the back, and I’m warning you, he’ll rip your balls off! Now just get the hell out of here you moron!” – She made a big show of opening her mouth, preparing to scream, realising as she did so that she really would scream if this jerk wasn’t going to get the message.
The guy looked completely shocked by her outburst, then backed away, holding up his hands placatingly. “OK, OK… message understood. Look, I don’t know what your game is; you, or anyone else, but I’m going to get the the bottom of it, I promise you!” – He shook his head, seemingly utterly bewildered, turned and practically ran down the driveway.
Vicki slammed the door, slipped the chain on and ran back to the safety of the living room and Jeremy Kyle. She grabbed her phone and called her mother.
“Don’t worry love, I’ll get a taxi and come round right now, you poor thing. It’s odd though, I had a weird call myself this morning – some bloke claiming to be my son, of all things… wonder if it was the same person? Maybe we should give the police a ring?”
Tea, biscuits and tears later, both Vicki and mum were calm and composed – mum would stay the night, and if the weirdo was stupid enough to return or phone, they’d not hesitate to call the police.
Not that it would have made any difference – enquiries would have revealed only that the calls made originated from a number that had never been allocated; untraceable and – apparently – impossible.
It was past seven in the evening that a thoroughly miserable and soaked-through Adam Weston pushed his way wearily through his own front door. A long soak in a hot bath should have soothed his temper, but his mind simply wouldn’t rest; eventually, exhausted, he collapsed in front of the TV, the images on screen barely registering.
And it was now that the paranoia really took hold.
It was the sort of thing they called an ‘orgy of destruction’, although that wasn’t the intention: Adam was roused from his exhausted stupor by an overwhelming need to find the hidden cameras. He knew they were there somewhere, filming his confusion to an overdubbed canned laughter track – he’d seen those programmes where hapless victims of ‘harmless pranks’ were tormented for the amusement of an unseen audience, and he was convinced it was the only rational explanation for the turmoil of today.
He tore the flat apart in his search – ripping pictures from walls, emptying the contents of cupboards and bookcases, sweeping ornaments from shelves – the air was full of dust, soft furnishings and cursing. It was well into the early hours of the morning that he finally sank, sobbing, to the floor and a fitful, disturbed sleep.
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that your world truly had been turned upside-down and inside-out?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that the nightmare that had gripped you in sleep, whilst you screamed and writhed in sweat-soaked sheets, was no nightmare at all?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that yesterday’s unreality, was also today’s reality?
What if that was to happen?
And can you imagine how it might feel?
Adam Weston knew intimately how it felt. He awoke to a grey and uncomfortable dawn, sprawled amongst the ruins of his bedroom, and he screamed.
His morning was spent feebly trying to restore some sort of order to his trashed belongings. Somehow, in the course of his madness last night, he’d wrenched the ‘fridge door open and strewn its contents across the kitchen floor. He’d scraped together a breakfast of dry toast and black coffee before taking a deep breath and phoning work.
Wary of using his own name, he asked for the Lead Project Manager, to be told that Mr Fredericks was away in London until the end of the week. Further enquiries revealed that Mr Fredericks had, apparently been with the company for some three years now – a fact that surprised Adam greatly since the name was a new one to him… not nearly as surprising as establishing that the elusive Mr Fredericks just happened to hold the post that Adam himself had held only two days previously. Adam asked if he might speak to Mr Weston – knowing, before the answer came, that there was no Mr Weston at the firm; indeed, there never had been. He hung up.
He toyed with the idea, before rejecting all thoughts of calling either his sister or mother – he had no wish for a repeat of the drama of yesterday. Instead, he cleared a space in the wreckage of the living room and fired up his laptop – thankfully, it had survived the previous night’s onslaught.
Adam’s chest tightened as he trawled through his online accounts – or rather, attempted to – Facebook, Youtube, Gmail… all flatly refused to acknowledge his existence. He no longer came up in LinkedIn searches, neither did his name appear on the list of executives at Park Systems. Adam Weston had achieved the impossible: he had quietly slipped off the grid – he no longer could lay claim to a digital footprint; as far as the internet was concerned, he’d been completely and utterly googlewhacked.
Adam had always been a reasonable, logical person. The world to him was a simple place: he had no time for religion, conspiracy theories, alien abductions or Illuminati and Masonic plots to establish a New World Order. His world revolved around facts, figures, cause and effect – now, suddenly, he’d been thrust into a parallel universe in which none of the rules worked any more and nothing made sense.
He was scared.
What to do? He had nowhere to go, no-one who would acknowledge his identity, no-one he could call, no money and – thanks to his little paranoid ‘incident’ last night – a completely trashed flat and little in the way of sustenance that wasn’t either spoiled or rapidly going off. He was in dire straits and his logical, empirical approach to living was worse than useless in his current situation. He sat, amidst the wreckage of his belongings – of his life – and evaluated his possible options, which to be absolutely frank, were rather limited.
He could go to the police, but he wasn’t quite sure what that might achieve – he was pretty sure that they’d either laugh him out of the station, or have him sectioned. That might not be such a bad thing, he mused; perhaps he did need psychiatric help? He knew for a fact that most of what had occurred over the past twenty-four hours must be happening in his mind – there was absolutely no way it could possibly be for real. Either that, or someone had slipped him something; it was even possible that this was all a dreadful dream, although somehow he doubted that – everything was just too consistent, too real to be anything but true. Even now, he realised how flawed his thinking was – drugs and psychiatric problems couldn’t explain the way in which his colleagues and family had reacted to him, neither could they account for the missing bank accounts and internet presence – no, this was all very real, and that was the scariest part of it – it couldn’t possibly be real, yet it must be… there was no other explanation.
Adam Weston’s life only existed in his own mind and none of the tangible, concrete evidence for that life – the photographs, diaries, documentation – had any meaning outside these four walls.
Adam Weston had become the loneliest, most isolated person in the world.
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that your world today was the same world as it was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to find that nothing had changed since everything had changed – that the nightmare continues, with no prospect of waking up?
What if you were to wake up one morning, the same as you do every morning, only to plumb, once more, the depths of despair and the utter desolation of knowing that things had changed for ever?
What if that was to happen?
And can you imagine how it might feel?
It was raining. Again. It was always raining. The flat stank of stale sweat, rotting food and vomit.
Adam Weston crawled from the pile of bedding and broken furniture that served as his makeshift hiding place with a sense of resolve that he’d not felt in days. He was not the man he once was: unshaven, grey and unsteady on his feet, he was noticeably thinner – prominent cheek bones and sunken-eyed. He made his way carefully to the bathroom, avoiding as much of the broken glass and splintered wood underfoot as he was able, stripped off his disheveled, stinking clothes and stepped into the shower. A good thirty minutes later he emerged from the steam-filled bathroom, hair combed and slicked back, freshly shaved and liberally doused in Paco Rabanne.
Sifting through the remains of his wardrobe, he shook the debris from the least crumpled of his still wearable shirts and suits and slowly dressed, carefully knotting his tie in front of the cracked shards of dressing-table mirror. After three attempts, he stood back, critically staring at his reflection, brushed a stray fragment of wardrobe from his suit jacket, nodded grimly and strode from the room. It took him some time to find both his shoes, and his wallet remained elusive – not that it mattered, there was nothing of any consequence left in it, although he would have liked to have found his sister’s picture. Maybe he’d torn it up? He couldn’t remember.
He didn’t bother locking the door as he left the flat – he even managed a wry smile as he thought that even the most determined vandal would struggle to cause any more damage in there – and he barely noticed the cold rain as it began to soak through his suit: the wetness only served to accentuate the way in which it hung from his now gaunt frame. He ignored the hunger pangs and concentrated on reaching his destination.
People bustled past him, macs wrapped tightly around them, umbrellas held low, most of them didn’t even see him; those who did, looked quizzically at the man in business suit and tie who seemed oblivious to the pouring rain. For his own part, he ignored all those around him – he was, after all, nobody, as far as they, or anyone else was concerned.
Eventually he reached his destination.
Climbing over the guard rail of the old town bridge, he clawed his way to the top of the parapet – the few people passing below oblivious to his presence beneath their umbrellas. He paused, looking down at the greasy waters below. The current was flowing fast and the river was well up the banks – that was good – he took solace in the fact that finally something was going his way.
He paused, breathed deeply, closed his eyes and slowly allowed himself to topple forward.
One unnoticed disturbance in the river’s smoothly-flowing waters, and that was it.
It was as if Adam Weston had simply never existed.
26th August 2014
Flatline & Dogsbody
The first time we saw the girl with the pink hair, was a Thursday night – sometime around three in the morning. She was lounging around the entrance to Spring Street subway, caught in our headlights, she smiled and raised a quizzical eyebrow when we pulled up to the kerbside.
We see them all in this line of work – hookers, bums, runaways… you name it, but this girl was somehow different. For a start she didn’t have the sassy attitude, or look at us with that wary look, as if we were gonna run her in. Just the smile and a sort of calm assurance – the kind you don’t see much around NYC streets, especially in the early hours.
“Everything OK here, ma’am”
“Perfectly OK, officer – just killing some time, before heading off home”
“And, home is where, exactly, ma’am?”
“Oh, you know – downtown – but I’m in no hurry”, came the vague reply with a wave of the hand indicating somewhere off to the right.
Anyhow, there wasn’t much we could do about it -as far as we could see, she was sober, safe and completely legit, even if she was a bit enigmatic. She was also pretty compelling – her voice drew you in, like she was about to tell you something, but never quite said it – and her whole attitude left you wanting more, without actually getting anything. We must have been sat there, engine idling, chewing the fat with her for a good fifteen minutes or so; and we’d have probably offered her a ride home, if the radio hadn’t suddenly crackled into life:
Something was going down at Brooke and Main, and it just so happened we were only a block or two away – a good break for us, since we’d had a bad run of false calls and missed chances just lately… it was about time we saw some decent action!
“Sorry Lady”, says DB, leaning across from where he’s riding shotgun, “duty calls, but you take care, ya hear?”
We hit the sirens and took off: I caught a brief glimpse of her smiling and waving us away in my rearview, and then she was gone. It was a good call too – first decent arrest we’d picked up all month… funny, after the de-brief I was saying to DB how if we hadn’t stopped to talk to the girl, we’d have been halfway across town when the call was made – good thing we saw her, I reckon – but I guess me and Doggy had always had luck on our side… it just didn’t come around that often.
We go way back – far back as High School, and then some. Both of us always knew we wanted to be cops, and both of us would watch out for the other. We did the whole blood-brother thing as kids, swearing we’d be buddies and then partners for as long as we were both around, and that’s how it all kinda worked out. We graduated together, both signed up for the Police Department and went through Academy at the same time. It was there we got our nicknames – I was ‘Flatline’: whatever the challenge, the medics never measured my pulse over 70; they reckoned a bomb could go off next to me and I’d stay calm enough to stop and check it for prints! Doggy was the complete opposite – full of nervous energy and going at double-speed, everyone reckoned him for a heart attack before forty, but somehow it never did him no harm, although you wouldn’t credit it to look at him – that’s how he got his monicker: ‘Dogsbody’ – DB, or Doggy to his friends – ’cause even in parade dress he always looked pretty ruff! Bad joke, I know, but somehow it stuck and he’s been Officer Dogsbody ever since. Lucky bugger even used it to pull the girls, telling them he was the Academy dogsbody, doing all the crap jobs no-one else wanted – seems the girls love a loser… one of them – lovely Susie Pepper, (we called her Pepper Spray) – fell for it bigtime, now she’s his wife and ain’t neither of them ever complained about it!
So there we were – Flatline and Dogsbody – not exactly Starsky and Hutch, but we pretty much had a damn good thing going. Anyways, like I said – we’d had a rotten run of luck lately; perps getting away, a couple of shootings that went bad and a whole load of paperwork, and then we run into the girl with the pink hair, and bingo! Jackpot! Lucky huh?
It kinda struck us as more than lucky the next time we saw her – bad neigbourhood, and there she was, happy as Larry, just hanging round again. Now, you’d better believe me – no-one with any sense hangs around the wharves after dark – not unless they’re built like a brick outhouse, or packing. She was doing neither, but was she worried? Was she hell!
We were doing a regular late night sweep, when Dogsbody spotted her down an alley. We pulled over and he jumped out, shining his torch in her face:
“Hey, sweetheart, what the hell are you doing out around these parts? You got some sort of deathwish or something?”
“Aw, c’mon officer – I told you last time, I can take care of myself. I ain’t doing no harm.”
“Yeah, right. Well, that might be so, but what’s stopping you from coming to harm?”
By now, I was out of the cruiser too and had joined them in the alley.
“Look miss, you gotta understand – this ain’t a good place for you to be. Y’know just by being here you’re raising suspicions? I mean, c’mon, what sorta girl hangs about down the wharves… you get my drift? How about you come clean with us – you on the game, or is there something else you ain’t telling?”
She laughed – “Look officer, I’m as much on the game as you are! I’m just out here, minding my own business and getting some fresh air – now where’s the crime in that?”
I shook my head, this dame just didn’t add up, and I told her so: “OK ma’am, look at it from our point of view – you, being here, all alone equals acting suspiciously in our book, and in my experience, people acting suspiciously need to be checked out”
She smiled that crooked smile again, then became all businesslike and matter-of fact.
“You’re right, officer. You’re only doing your job, and I probably do stand out a bit around here. But you saying about checking people out acting suspicious… it makes me wonder…”
She looked around, and for the first time, I thought I detected a note of disquiet in her attitude.
“Look guys, it’s probably nothing, but there were a couple a men around here earlier and, to me anyway, I’d say they were looking suspicious”; she gestured towards a nearby warehouse. “I think they went in there – maybe you should check it out? But, maybe call for backup first?”
I could see DB wasn’t impressed, but there was something about how her manner had changed that made me think it was worth pursuing. “Leave this to us, miss – I’m gonna go take a look, you stay here with the officer”, I gave a querying glance at DB, who nodded slightly, before making my way across to the building she’d pointed out.
Somehow, we’d struck lucky again – I was back in minutes and straight on the cruiser radio – and even my heart was thumping! You probably read about what happened next in the Times… ‘Billion Dollar Heroin Bust’ was the headline – she’d been right about needing the backup! Meanwhile, during all the craziness that night, she just disappeared – we didn’t even get her name… never did get it, if the truth be told.
Me and DB put it all down to coincidence – that was until the third time we saw her. This time on the corner of Brooke Avenue… We were coming outta Dunkin Donuts, (yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it all before – look cops have gotta eat and, hell, Doggy’s got a sweet tooth!), Doggy spotted her first and nudged me: “Hey look! There’s our guardian angel”, he laughed, pointing her out, and before we even had a chance to go over and talk, some jerk comes barrelling out of the Rite Aid Pharmacy waving a shooter. I don’t know who was more shocked – us to have him run right into our arms, or him to see two cops waiting right in front of him. He came quietly – as for the girl, she went quietly; by the time we had him cuffed and banged to rights, she’d vanished.
You can imagine by now we were starting to get a little freaked by events. Not that we told anyone, but we sure spent a lot of time going over things in the patrol car together. we started to watch out for her, and sure enough – usually when we were least expecting – she’d show up, and without exception, so would trouble.. a bunch of punks, roughing up a businessman in the park where we found her on the swings; a carjacking off Union Avenue when she let slip she had friends on Union; and a couple of dumb asses, making off with signal cabling just down the line after we watched her jump on a train at Delawanna Station. It was weird, it was freaky and we were starting to wonder what the hell was going on.
Must have happened maybe a dozen more times – we’d be cruising the streets and suddenly she’d be there – sometimes we’d stop and talk, although never about what we really wanted to say, other times she’d vanish and we’d know to be ready for trouble. She never let us down – it was almost like crime gravitated to where she was, but she never hung around long enough to get involved.
Then it happened.
DB and Susie, me and Jeannie went out for the night – Doggy and Sue’s tenth anniversary, bless them – took a trip down to Chinatown, right away from our usual stomping ground, for a slap up meal to celebrate, and then afterwards off for a walk down to the riverfront to work some of it off. En route, we were passed by a couple of patrol cars – lights blazing – and I joked that even off-duty and away from our own beat, we couldn’t escape the NYPD!
As we drew near to the waterfront, a familiar figure came into view – it was the girl with the pink hair, and it seems we weren’t the only ones to be benefiting from her peculiar abilities, if the flicker of emergency lights at the waterfront was anything to go by.
When she saw us, I swear for the first time ever, her demeanor changed from calm and in control, to outright panic. Her eyes widenened and she grew agitated and then, staring at us, like a rabbit caught in headlights, whimpered: “You! Why are you here? It can’t be!”
“Hey miss, it’s OK”, I reassured her, “You know us – hey, we’re on civvy street tonight, just relaxing and having some quality downtime”
She looked at me, wild-eyed; “You can’t be here… not HERE! This isn’t your beat… you can’t be here – not when I’m here! That’s not how it works”
She faltered, breathing heavily, then suddenly she turned and was off running, fast, down the street.
Without thinking, me and DB both acted as one – told you we were a good team – he shouted, “Hey, come back!”, and then we were both off running after her. By the time we’d almost caught up, she’d hit the Brooklyn Bridge, and next thing we knew, like a cat she was up over the guard rail.
We had a real situation on our hands.
We must have tried coaxing her down for around five minutes, although it seemed like a lifetime – but nothing doing. All she would say was how we shouldn’t have been there and how it was wrong to run into her on someone else’s beat, all the time getting closer and closer to the edge. Frankly none of it made any sense to me, and for the second time that I can remember, my fabled slow heartrate was racing thanks to her. Then she stopped.
“I’m sorry officers”, she whispered, “it’s just not permitted”
And with those bizarre and puzzling words, she let go her hold on the rail and – it seemed in slow motion to us – stepped off into thin air.
They searched the area, of course, with police divers and boats, but they never found her body. It shook us both up, more than we were prepared to admit and it wasn’t long after that DB decided to quit – that was a helluva wrench – last I heard of him, he was down South somewhere, selling office furniture and, as for our partnership… well, I guess these things happen.
I lost my appetite for the job after that; couldn’t face the thought of taking on a new partner, and got myself a desk job back at the station – it sucks, but I’d rather shuffle papers all day than patrol the streets again. And that, I guess, is that.
You see – must’ve been around three years later – I’m away doing my bit at some upstate crime rehab convention and I’m at the hotel bar, sharing a few beers with a bunch of seasoned street cops from DC. The drinks are flowing, and tongues are getting loose when when of the boys happens to ask if any of us has ever come across ‘the girl’. An odd kinda story he tells, but the long and short of it is this strange girl who keeps turning up on his beat… he reckons when she’s about, criminals just fall into his grasp. so I ask him, when did he first come across her.
“I dunno… getting on for a good coupla years, now I reckon, maybe even three”
“And, this girl”, I prompted – could he describe her.
“Hell yes!”, he exclaimed, “She has this awesome pink hair…”
30th July 2014
AT DEATH’S DOOR
So, here I was – quiet unexpectedly, and totally unplanned, standing at Death’s door.
It wasn’t quite as I’d expected, and not just because it was the last thing I’d planned to be doing that particular day – I suppose that’s the way it happens for a good many people, but it’s still something of a shock when, one minute life is carrying on pretty much as normal, then suddenly you find yourself stood on the Grim Reaper’s doorstep.
For a start, I’d always thought the whole place would look a little more gothic and impressive. I’d imagined death would live somewhere imposing – perhaps a dark castle, or at the very least, an old stone cottage, with a thatched roof, circling crows and a gnarled, iron-studded dark wood door. Somehow, a small, semi-detached ex-council house wasn’t the sort of place I imagined death would reside: so much for stereotypes.
Death’s door turned out to be a tatty, 70’s style double-glazed aluminium affair, with those tacky swirly-patterned glass panels. Death’s doorbell, far from the great iron pull-ring i’d have expected, was a cheap and nasty light-up plastic affair – the sort with the little card insert, upon which the word ‘Death’ had been scrawled in faded, smudged felt pen.
Even so, I really didn’t want to push that button.
Well, would you?
Maybe if i just sneaked away? Slowly and deliberately, I inched my way back down the path; halfway there, I turned and made a bid for the gate… wouldn’t you know it – as I pushed the heavy gate open, it made one of the loudest rusty metal groans I’ve ever heard. The game was up – looking back over my shoulder I saw the faded lace curtains twitch and a dark shadow moving behind them.
Sighing, I accepted my fate and made my way slowly back to the front door. My finger hovered gingerly over the doorbell, then – biting my lip – I pressed, and from behind the door I heard the Death March played out in rather off-key bell tones. A shuffle behind the door; the sound of a chain being slipped and then the door creaked open to reveal Death, in all his majestic glory – only somewhat diminished by the large, pink fluffy slippers adorning his feet.
“You’re late!”, he boomed in sepulchural tones.
Not quite what I’d expected. Was this an attempt at some sort of graveside humour… late, as in the late Mr Eric Peevely of Cirencester? I attempted a feeble laugh – it struck me that Death wasn’t really the sort of guy that you ask to explain himself.
“It’s no laughing matter”, he retorted, “I’ve waited in all bleedin’ morning for you! Half ten you were supposed to be here. Takin’ bloody liberties, if you ask me!”
I mumbled a sort of apology, grimly aware that timekeeping wasn’t my forte – ‘you’d manage to be late for your own funeral’, my workmates would joke – it seems I’d proven them right!
Death ushered me in.
Stepping carefully over the sausage dog draught excluder, I closed the door behind me and followed Death’s retreating form along the corridor. Once again, I was struck by how ill-conceived my ideas of the afterlife had been – certainly, I’d never had Death down as a fan of flock wallpaper and souvenir raffia donkeys, or a collector of thimbles – which just goes to show how wrong you can be about people. The hallway and the brief glimpses I managed to grab of the living room as I passed the open door were shabby, and definitely not in a chic way. The expression ‘cheap tat’ came to mind, as did ‘bloody awful’, but I decided discretion was probably advisable… I really didn’t fancy an eternity of making up for insulting Death’s taste in interior design. The place smelled vaguely of old socks and boiled cabbage.
Entering the kitchen, my worst fears were realised: lime green and avocado melamine everywhere! I grimaced, but kept my composure – perhaps this was indeed Hell?
Death picked up a packet of cigarettes, tapping one out into his palm.
“Hope you don’t mind”, he said, proffering the packet in my direction – I shook my head, waving it away, “I know it’s bad for me; doctor says I should quit, but you know how it is…”, he sighed, lighting up and inhaling deeply, presenting with the decidely odd – yet somehow sinister – spectacle of surrounding himself in the smoke that leaked freely from beneath his cloak, where I imagined his ribcage was situated.
“It’s over there”, he motioned, jabbing his cigarette towards a corner of the kitchen.
My gaze followed his bony fingers, coming to rest upon a decidedly knackered old washing machine. It sat in a large puddle of greyish, soapy water, having been dragged from it’s cubby hole beneath the worktop.
I looked at the washing machine, then at death, then back to the washing machine: “Err… the washing machine?”, I ventured.
“Yeah. Can you fix it?”
The sensible answer would have been, ‘no’, but my senses had abandoned me somewhere outside the front door, and were now playing hide and seek amongst the long grass and dandelions in the front garden. So, removing my coat, I advanced on the machine…
A good forty minutes later, covered in smelly water and soap suds, having fiddled around with hoses, filters and knobs, and having extracted a decent amount of rather disgusting crud from various nooks and crannies that I didn’t even know washing machines possessed, I was ready to admit defeat. What did I know about washing machines anyway? It’s not the sort of skill you need as a librarian.
In trepidation, I struggled to my feet and turned to face death: “Sorry… I think it’s knackered”.
“Thought as much”, came the reply, “Look, I know it’s asking a bit much, and more than you’re job’s worth, and all that… but, umm, you wouldn’t perhaps consider just writing me a note saying that it was a power surge or something that wrecked it? Just for the insurance, you know?”
I looked at Death dubiously.
“Aww, go on… you and I both know they won’t pay up for wear and tear. Just this once, please – I did wait in all bloody morning for you, after all! Just as a favour… maybe a favour I could return some day?”
Now, utterly confused, I nodded. Death handed me a pen, and I scribbled a note, handing both back to him with a ghastly smile.
“Aww, thanks mate”, he said, then – catching a glimpse of the clock: “Oh crap! Is that the time?”
He placed a bony hand on my shoulder, ushering me back into the hallway.
“Sorry mate”, he explained, pausing to grab a huge sickle from under the stairs, “it’s just I’ve got a chap supposed to be arriving any minute now for a, ummm… let’s just call it an ‘appointment’… last rites and all that, if you know what I mean? So if you wouldn’t mind making a sharp exit, I’d be really grateful.”
By now we were at the front door.
“Don’t worry about the bill – send me the invoice and I’ll sort it out toot sweet”, he said, practically pushing me out through the door, which slammed shut behind me.
Shaking my head, I tried to make sense of what had just happened, failed, and decided that a hasty exit was very much in order. Lost in thought, I nearly walked straight into the guy making his way through the front gate.
“Careful mate!”, he exclaimed, “You want to watch where you’re going!”
Bemused, I looked up at him -blue overalls, with a toolbag in his hand – apologised sheepishly, and squeezed my way past. Once through the gate, I paused, hearing the muted chime of a doorbell and the rattle of a chain, followed by a deep sepulchural laugh that chilled me to the core. I head the sound of a toolbag falling to the floor, then the slam of Death’s door.
Peering through the window of the scruffy white plumber’s van, parked at the kerbside, I noticed the keys were still in the ignition.
“Well, he won’t be needing this again”, I thought, before climbing in, starting the engine and getting the hell out of there, just as fast as I could!
1st July 2014
Dear Mr Adewobujo,
I’m writing in response to your somewhat surprising and unexpected email, received last Thursday morning. I do hope that you will forgive me for my delayed response, especially since I understand that you are facing rather difficult times at the present, although I do feel obliged to point out the correct spelling of ‘desperate’, since describing your situation as ‘disparate’ caused me a little confusion. Nevertheless, I fully appreciate that English is not your first language, as can be readily ascertained by the dubious character of your phrasing.
As I have stated, this response is somewhat tardy – I hope you will appreciate that the request made in your email is not a matter I would wish to pursue without a degree of prior consideration, and I am in no doubt that you thought long and hard before contacting me, for obvious reasons.
Twelve million pounds… goodness me, that’s an awful lot of money! Much as I understand your pressing need to relocate your funds – (I assume you meant ‘funds’ when you wrote ‘fundaments’?) – to a safe haven, far from the grasp of your government’s oppressive regime, are you really sure you can trust a complete stranger, i.e. myself, with such a large sum of money?
I am touched that you consider me to be honest and ‘trustful’, although how you have come to form that opinion leaves me baffled, since our paths have never crossed. However, I can only assume that I must have scored highly on some sort of international credit rating system, since – believe it or not – you are the third person this week to contact me out of the blue to ask for my assistance with moving large sums of money. Now that I think about it, I wonder if I should put you in touch with poor Alicia Perrera, whose sister is so ill – she has begged me to allow her to transfer millions of dollars into my account for much the same reasons as yourself. Perhaps you could come to some mutually agreeable arrangement whereby your funds could be transferred to each other? No – that would make thinks needlessly complicated, I feel.
So, to return to your proposition – which I have most carefully considered – are you so sure a complete stranger is the best option? Surely you must have some friends or family who may assist? Of course you haven’t – why on earth would you take the risk of contacting me if that was the case? Even so, I should warn you that I’m not very good with money – I find it hard to believe that you would entrust me with 12 million pounds, when I can barely trust myself not to spend the week’s housekeeping! It’s so generous of you to offer me a third of the money for my troubles – that seems a terribly large sum for setting up a simple bank transfer, but who am I to argue with such a kind, caring gentleman as yourself?
How do I know you are kind and caring? Simple – why else would you go to such lengths to ensure that everything is above board and legal? And I fully understand the need for discretion and not to tell others of our arrangement – I would hate to think that you might lose everything, simply because I’d been a blabbermouth!
So, after much careful consideration, I have decided that I will assist you in your moment of need, and I would make the same decision even if I wasn’t facing the prospect of immanently becoming tremendously rich. To help an honourable man, such as yourself, in the face of difficulty is indeed a pleasure.
I will, of course, provide you with my bank account details, as requested – although I’ll be unable to provide these immediately: would you believe that since receiving your email I’ve been notified that both my Paypal and bank accounts have been compromised, worse still – I don’t even have an account with the bank that has contacted me! What a world we live in – it certainly pays to keep your wits about you. Anyway, I shall pass you the account details just as soon as I’ve sorted out my own little problems: it won’t take long, all I have to do is click on a couple of links, re-enter all my details, and everything will be just fine.
I do hope that I’ve been able to set your mind at rest – please don’t worry about the money, it will soon be safely stowed in my account awaiting your overseas colleague to make contact – something I’ll look forward to… do you think he would like to meet over a nice cup of tea and biscuits? (Do you have tea and biscuits in Nigeria?)
I shall be in touch soon and, in the meantime – if I may borrow your own words – I remain your most humble and assiduous servant.
Yours since early,
S. ‘Dippidoodlydee’ Haven
02 June 2014
Funny things, balconies – those odd, architectural features, jutting-out prettily – or otherwise – from the side of buildings, hanging beneath windows in the sunlight; the staple of hotel seaview vistas and lazy deckchair holidays.
Inoffensive, they beckon: for continental breakfasts, with croissants, coffee and morning papers, or a pleasant afternoon’s dozing, with the latest bestselling paperback to hand. A highly-desirable feature of urban warehouse chic and the epitome of country cottage living.
Yet balconies punch well above their weight: they have forged our world; they lie at the very epicentre of momentous events and world-changing moments. They have been the first and last bastion of dictators, a focal point for national pride and the stage on which history has been made.
It was a speech from Ceaușescu’s balcony that saw the beginning of the end of a reign of division and terror; and, without balconies, how would Lenin, Peron and Mussolini have addressed the masses? Royalty, politicians and popes have made balconies their sacred preserve – a graphic illustration of their power and influence over those who wait for a glimpse of their heroes thereon.
If it were not for balconies, Shakespeare’s Juliet may never have been wooed by Romeo of fair Verona – and romance, throughout history, would be the lesser for it.
Painters, poets and musicians revere them, architects and engineers revel in them, whole cultures are defined by them, and every balcony – lowly or grand – is its own miniature world: gardens, escapes, lookouts and sun traps; laundries and bike stores, pulpits and refuges, theatres and stages… throughout the ages, balconies have fulfilled every function under the sun, and a good few under the cover of night too!
Wooden, wrought-iron, stone and steel; rustic, ornate, functional or frivolous – who would have thought that such an insignificant architectural feature could be an architect of such significance?
8th May 2014
Luv Story #1
They met on the Staten Island ferry – she dropped her glove, he rescued it, and all the usual shy smiles, coy looks and a few dozen of Cupid’s finest arrows followed. Smiles turned to coffee, coffee to lunch and – almost as if it was meant to be – they became lovers.
He was smooth – too smooth, really; she was trusting – far too trusting, actually.
Things were good, the smiles continued over a great many long, languorous evenings of claret, chocolate and roses; but chocolate wine and roses, restaurants and weekends away don’t come cheaply: late nights at the office were the price to be paid.
She suspected the worst when working late held the lingering fragrance of perfume and cigarettes; spreadsheets meant crumpled shirts, and colleagues failed to recall his office light on, when he was supposedly working.
Hell hath no fury, they say, as a woman scorned – and her fury burned within her.
One cold evening in November, on the Staten Island ferry, she met him ‘for old time’s sake’: she dropped her glove, he smiled, stooped to retrieve that poignant reminder of happy times, and gasped as she slid the razor neatly through his carotid artery. Easing him over the rail, a soft splash below announced the end of their love. Cupid turned away in remorse; while she, finished her coffee.
Luv Story #2
It was just a holiday fling: too much sun, sand and sangria, and those Spanish eyes, expressive hands, and dark, unkempt hair told her everything she needed to know. New York seemed a lifetime away and she needed to put the past far behind her.
“It’s just sex”, she’d tell herself, as night after night, the passion burned within them – she felt like a teenager again, and it was good.
Sure, he had a roving eye, but what did she care? This was nothing serious, and in two weeks’ time she’d be back in the rat race, whilst he… he would be chasing the next batch of bikini-clad babes on the beach. It was just a holiday fling.
Except, for him, it was far more.
During the second week, they walked through the pine forest, hand in hand, and he led her to the old ruined monastery. This was his special place: a place that was his secret; where he’d taken none before. They spent the day amongst the peaceful, timeworn stones… bread, cheese, olives and local wine; laughter and conversation. It was just a holiday fling, but he wanted more.
She tried hard to shake him, to find space and freedom, but he clung like a limpet; begged her to write, made her promise to wait until he could afford the fare to join her at home. She smiled and nodded, and inwardly fumed.
On the last day she asked to return to the monastery: “such a special place”, she said. Then, as he dozed in the sun, she caved in his skull with a fallen piece of masonry, finished their picnic and made her way home.
Luv Story #3
It seemed she would never find true love, then it happened. A party at the local bar: rock ‘n’ roll music, bottled beer and nacho chips. She was young, free and single… and so was he.
People called it a whirlwind romance – three months… just three months and they were engaged. Wedding plans, bridesmaids’ dresses, bridal showers and best man’s speeches were all hastily arranged.
She was a glowing bride; he, a picture of happiness. They were a perfect match.
Well, as perfect as any two people can be.
After all, no marriage is made in heaven.
And a leopard can’t change its spots.
And boys will be boys.
That’s married life.
Stands to reason.
Que sera sera.
They both lived happily ever after.
What? You think I should have killed her?
[Alternative ending #1:
…He, in his own way was happy. Life may have been mediocre, but – despite her faults – he still loved her, and that’s more than can be said for many marriages.
She, felt very differently and, whilst he lived happily ever after, she suffered – usually in silence – and lived a miserable and depressing rest of her life.
Serves her right! Sicko!]
[Alternative ending #2:
…Happily ever after, that is, apart from the occasional pellets of rat poison that he’d mix in with her bedtime cocoa. As she wasted away, he contentedly counted the days until he’d be free of her.
I guess they deserved each other.
24th April 2014
my mind paces irritably through the empty corridors of thought
yet bereft of content
catch dust motes in the thin light
faint sparkles of intent
brief flickers of decision
before they fade and die
listening for the silent
vapours of memory
for the trickle and drip
streamlets of prose
but thirst remains
by the blot and smear of fluid print
i glare and rage
the glue of nothingness gumming the pores of creativity
the frustration of failure
thinking pacing scribbling sighing teeth-gritting fist-clenching
they are not words
31st March 2014
Pushing up daisies
When my days on earth are over, and it’s time for me to go
there’s some things I’ve been mulling over that you really ought to know
because when I’m dead and laid to rest: a stiff in a wooden box
I want none of the usual nonsense, or those ridiculous funeral props.
In fact, if you want, just throw me away, in a bin along with the trash,
simply cart me away on dustbin day – it’s cheaper than burning to ash.
Or pickle and put me, in a jar on the shelf, along with the jam and preserves;
it won’t bother me if you have me for tea: it’s more than a carcass deserves.
Or if you really must bury my corpse, then make it as hard as can be…
a mountain peak, in Mozambique, or somewhere in the depths of the sea;
don’t come and visit me as I lie in state, mouldering beneath the ground;
just stay at home, and have a moan about the way I’m no longer around.
Tell it like it is, without any frills and how annoying I was when alive,
I don’t want a twee sort of eulogy, full of nonsense and sweet-talking jive,
paint my picture black – how the heart attack was down to my lazy-ass life,
all the drugs and the booze; how I was such a flooze, causing everyone a whole load of strife
Remind all my friends about the money I owed, and how they won’t get it back,
how I took them for granted, and then for a ride, and would never cut them some slack.
And at my funeral wake, please don’t serve cake, I’m not having that kind of junk,
You can bring your own beer – I’m not paying from here, for you all to get roaring drunk.
But when you inevitably do, I’d rather approve if you manage to start a big brawl
and the cops must be called to cart you all off to the station for statements and all.
Better still, just stay home and leave me to rot, on my own without any mourners,
I don’t mind if you scrimp on my funeral costs, you’re welcome to cut any corners.
It’s not as if I’m going to complain: you can do whatever you feel –
If you like, just carry on and ignore that I’ve gone, it’s really not that big a deal.
The fact of the matter is that I really don’t care: my life has had little to boast,
and when I’m dead and I’m gone, I won’t carry on – I’m not inclined to turn into a ghost.
So you’ve nothing to fear if you raise a big cheer when finally, my clogs they go ‘pop’,
I’m not going to haunt you, or come back in your dreams: my life will just come to a stop.
And that’s about it… I know I’ve waffled a bit, but it’s really not all that bizarre,
I’ll just fade away, with each passing day, as my bones return to the dust that they are,
and eventually, in time, just like this little rhyme, the things that I did are forgotten,
and the physical things that once were called me, will become all smelly and rotten.
So I’ll say my goodbye before it’s time to die, not wait till the the Reaper is here,
for I’d rather enjoy the here and the now – it’s not living, rather than death that I fear!
14th February 2014
St Valentine’s Day Massacre
The calendar was one of those dreadful cutesy animal ones: with distaste, he stared at the two fluffy kittens, looking up appealingly from a wicker basket. On a whim, he improved the picture – drawing a thick moustache and spectacles on the cute ginger one, and giving a top hat and an arrow to the knee to the ridiculously sweet black kitten.
Standing back to admire his handiwork, he sighed, before reaching out and drawing a bold line through the date – February 14th… it was finally here.
How long had he prepared for this day, he mused – pretty much his whole life had revolved around it, or so it seemed to him. He brewed up a pot of coffee, whilst waiting for the toast to burn, poured a cup, and knocked back a couple of Prozac with the first gulp. February 14th… the Big Day, at last.
Breakfast over, he shrugged off his dressing gown before slipping into the shower, shaving, and preparing for the day ahead. Combat trousers and a dark polo neck – unimaginative, but practical – then, caught in a moment of reflection, he paused midway through pulling up a sock; “how will they report it?”, he wondered. He hoped they wouldn’t describe it as a ‘spree’ – he hated those sort of headlines: ‘Masked Gunman On Killing Spree!’, it seemed such a twee term to describe something so depraved. Then again, was ‘Evil Madman’s Rampage Of Terror!’ any better? All too melodramatic for his liking. He hoped they’d do him justice: just the facts in a straightforward, considered manner – that’s all he wanted. No drama, no front pages, no nonsense.
Reverie over, he finished dressing before opening the closet and reaching for the shoebox on the top shelf, wondering as he did, why it was always the shoebox on the top shelf of the closet that people chose to hide their weapons?
Box safely retrieved, he carried it – almost reverently – down to the kitchen, poured a second, lukewarm coffee, and sat at the table, eyeing the box over the top of his mug. Music! That’s what he needed – something to get him in the mood. Turning on the radio, the kitchen was filled with the soothing, mellow tones of Matt Monro – ‘When I Fall In Love’. Ugh! That was just wrong!
Hurriedly, he hit the ‘off’ button and reached for a nearby CD. ‘Jack Off Jill’ – now that was much better! Smiling, he turned the volume up and allowed his attention to return to the box on the table, as the room vibrated to the strains of ‘Cumdumpster’. He sighed as he put the box lid to one side and gently removed the weapon from inside – it felt heavy and solid in his hand, pleasing in the extreme.
Methodically, he assembled the parts – all well cared for, oiled and in prime working condition. The thought occurred to him that he’d have no difficulty assembling the pieces in his hands whilst blindfolded, even against the clock; but that wasn’t his style – methodical and careful were his watchwords, and they’d served him well. He had no patience for fumbled, mess ups and mistakes, ‘shoddy’ and ‘shambles’ didn’t exist in his vocabulary – some things simply demanded care and attention, otherwise accidents were inevitable, and he didn’t want that on his conscience.
He laughed inwardly at that. Conscience! That seemed an odd word in the context of himself. Eyeing the, now assembled, weapon he put all thoughts of conscience to the back of his mind, let the music envelop him, and mouthed his mantra silently…
“Target; aim; fire; flee”
That was the way to do it: precise, accurate and no messing about.
None of which intimated that he was particularly discriminating when it came to making the fateful choice. A target was a target, as far as he was concerned – didn’t matter who they were… he was, in many ways, arbitrary, indiscriminate – although he didn’t see things that way. Had he been asked, he might have said he was utterly fair and without prejudice – what did it matter who you were? Colour, creed, sex, social standing mattered not a bit; married, single, rich, poor, successful or lost cause – anyone, literally anyone could become his victim, and he treated them all with complete and utter impartiality. Once in his sights, that was it, end of story.
It was time.
Pausing to ease his feet into the jackboots he always wore for such occasions, he switched off the CD and carefully slipped the weapon, spare ammunition and high-power binoculars into the black canvas bag before slinging it across his shoulders. He was ready.
The door closed softly behind him.
It was February 14th, and Cupid had a long day ahead.
19th December 2013
Sirens wail, are you listening?
It was an ugly sight that met Sergeant Dakins on his arrival at the scene. Blue and red lights flickered as the sound of sirens heralded the arrival of another emergency vehicle. It was a cold, crisp night and the ground was slippery underfoot – the usual ingredients behind the festive carnage that had become part of the yuletide scene for traffic cops the world over. This particular carve-up, however, was a little unusual to say the least.
The sleigh was wrapped inelegantly around a large oak tree, the impact had caved in most of the front and flipped it onto its side, spilling both contents and driver over a wide area. The ground was littered with Christmas presents, split open and crushed beyond hope of salvage – as Dakins walked towards the wreck, his shoes crunched on the plastic debris underfoot.
The driver himself had escaped remarkably unscathed, considering the violence of the collision; more than could be said for his team of reindeer, which had suffered the four-legged equivalent of extreme whiplash, as they were brought up short by the force of the sleigh’s sudden halt, then violently catapulted outwards as their traces rebounded and snapped. At least three had succumbed immediately – as for those remaining, it didn’t look at all hopeful. As Dakins peered into the wreckage, his torch revealing just how perilously close the driver had come to meeting his maker, the sound of the humane killer rang out as the vet in attendance put another of the poor animals out of its misery. He shook his head sadly: when would people learn that icy roads and excessive speed simply didn’t go together? What could possibly justify such high speeds on such a treacherous night – whatever the vehicle?
Only the driver could tell him that, and that was to be his next line of enquiry. Dakins made his way to the ambulance at the side of the road, wincing as yet another report from the vet’s shotgun echoed in the night air.
Fortunate was nowhere near a strong enough description for the driver’s luck – he’d been flung a good 30 feet from the sleigh and landed in a snowdrift. Other than a bloodied nose, a couple of cracked ribs and a badly sprained wrist, it seemed he’d escaped any sort of serious injury. Very fortunate indeed, thought Dakins – obviously, the chap hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, but if he had… with a wry humour, the sergeant realised the outcome would likely have been so much worse.
The driver was sat in the back of the ambulance, a paramedic tending to his injured wrist.
“On our way to a fancy dress party, eh sir?”, Dakins asked pointedly, making reference to the rather absurd outfit the somewhat overweight, and elderly chap appeared to be wearing. As he sat opposite, Dakins caught the telltale whiff of alcohol on the driver’s breath:
“Would I be right in saying you’ve had a drop to drink tonight, sir?”
“Oh, goodness me, officer… well, maybe just a little. You see I’ve been doing my rounds since sunset, and people do like to be hospitable… I’ll admit to the odd glass of sherry and mince pie.”
Dakins pursed his lips; “The odd glass of sherry? I see. And perhaps you could tell me where you were off to in such a hurry? We’ll forget about the matter of the seat belt for now.”
“I wasn’t travelling any faster than I normally would, officer… I think I may have lost my bearings for just a moment, and then, suddenly everything went wrong. And now, I’m terribly behind, and I have so many homes to visit before daybreak – I’ll never get them all done at this rate… in fact, I’d be ever so grateful if I could please be getting on now?”
The policeman looked quizzically at the white-bearded old man in front of him; was this guy serious?
“Sir, even if I was to let you go – which I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to – you’re in no fit state to be in charge of a vehicle, and the medics are going to want to get you straight to hospital when we’re done. Besides which, you don’t have a vehicle that’s going to be going anywhere for a long time.” Dakins felt it better not to mention the reindeer. “As it is, there’s a few things I need to clarify before we move on – you don’t happen to have your licence and insurance details to hand, do you?”
The old chap looked confused: “Licence? I didn’t think I needed one of those… I mean, I tend to avoid the road if I can…”
“Yes sir”, responded Dakin, “well you’ve certainly not managed to avoid it on this occasion, have you?”
“No, quite… you have a point there, officer. As for insurance, well I tend to leave details like that for the elves to sort out.”
Dakin was beginning to suspect that more than just a few sherries had passed the old chap’s lips tonight. It wasn’t looking good… drink driving, no licence, no insurance, no seat belt, exceeding the speed limit… not looking good at all. He leaned towards the old man, switching on the breathalyser, and proffering it:
“Sir, I’d like you to blow into this tube; keep blowing nice and steadily until I say stop, please”.
The reading confirmed the officer’s suspicions: well over the limit and, Christmas or not, this chap was going to be spending his holiday in the cells.
“What’s your name sir?”
“It’s Claus… C-L-A-U-S”
“I’m sorry, Mr Claus, I’m arresting you on suspicion of drink-driving”, Dakins read him his rights, as he bundled him into the back of the patrol car.
“But officer… what about my deliveries? Think of the children!”
“It’s precisely for the sake of the children that it’s my job to keep people like you off the road sir!”
21st November 2013
A short story.
Find it in The Library.
18th September 2013
Just A Hole In The Ground
I knew something was up the minute I arrived on site. The ever-present thump of the piledriver was conspicuous by its absence, and the lads were clustered together, staring at the ground at their feet.
My heart began to beat faster and a feeling of apprehension welled up inside me – not another damn accident! It was bad enough having one casualty – a fall from scaffold, some weeks earlier – but another would put the project back weeks, with all the subsequent investigations and inevitable tightening of health and safety that would follow. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic, but the lads had been cutting corners and it was costing the firm money, and reputation.
I slipped my hi-vis over my shoulders and made my way towards the group. If there had been an accident, it must have happened moments before my arrival, either that or the idiots hadn’t thought to call for an ambulance!
“What’s the problem, boys?”
The group parted at my approach and Rex, foreman, union rep and all-round know-it-all, shouldered his way to the front.
“Bit of a problem, guv… can’t rightly say I’ve come across anything like it before. You’d best take a look yourself.”
The object that had been holding their attention turned out to be a hole – around a foot wide and of indeterminate depth. From it issued an occasional curl of oily, acrid smoke – I sniffed and recoiled, gagging, as sulphurous fumes stole my breath.
“Good grief! What the…?”
“Yeah”, agreed Rex, “bit stinky isn’t it? Matter of fact, I’m thinking it’s a health hazard and maybe we should down tools until it’s been properly investigated.”
I held up my hand.
“Easy Rex, let’s not act rashly. Where did this hole come from?”
“You’d better ask Jeff”, muttered Rex, ushering forward a lanky, gormless looking lad, whose safety helmet seemed to perch uncomfortably on top of his ginger hair. I shook my head, where did they get these kids from?
“I was just working the ‘driver, boss, and all of a sudden, like, the piling just vanished… disappeared down this hole, like. I nearly crapped myself, I did – thought I’d busted the piledriver!”
“OK son, don’t panic, I doubt you’ve done any serious damage. Sounds to me like the piling’s gone straight through into some sort of sinkhole or maybe a cave – we’ll just fill it with concrete and get on with the job.”
I started to make my way over to the site office – it was weird alright, and we’d have to get a surveyor in to check it all out, but it was no big deal really. Then I felt a firm hand on my shoulder…
“Boss, it’s not the hole I’m worried about… it’s what’s down there that’s giving me the creeps!”
I looked critically at Rex; he may have been an awkward sod, but he was a good foreman and I relied on his judgment. Right now, he had me worried – he wasn’t his brash and loud self: he was subdued and reticent.
“OK Rex, what’s on your mind?”
We walked back towards the hole and Rex passed me a respirator.
“You’ve gotta get close to it boss…”
Feeling slightly foolish, I slipped the respirator on and knelt down at the edge of the hole. The stench was worse than ever as I peered into the depths, and I felt an unexpected heat rising from beneath the ground. What the hell was down there?
Then I heard something – faint, but quite clear, the sound of screaming; not one, not several, but thousands of terrified screams of pain and fear, echoing in some unimaginable agony, deep below me. They seemed to draw me closer and, as I leaned forward, it seemed to me that voices began to whisper in my head; strange, arcane words that tore at my nerves and twisted my gut…
I felt hands roughly dragging me away from the hole and the respirator was torn from my face, leaving me gasping for air, tears streaming from my eyes.
“You were well out of it for a while there, boss” – Rex, wide-eyed and a little pale watched me with concern.
“I’ll be OK”, I stammered, “give me a moment – just keep everyone away from that damn hole!”
It was a good ten minutes before I trusted my legs enough to drag myself to my feet and stumble across to the site office, where I sank gratefully into my chair and considered what needed to be done. Eventually, I reached for the Yellow Pages, flicked through until I found what I was looking for and picked up the phone.
You know, I’ve worked on building sites all my life, and I can tell you I’ve had to make some strange requests for help in my time, but this was a first: It’s not often you have to ask a priest to don a hard hat and boots, but then again, it’s not often you have the misfortune to open a portal to hell!
11th July 2013
Death was not a happy bunny.
It had been a long, cold and depressing night – and pretty lean pickings too. Not for the first time, Death wondered if the boom days were over – people just weren’t dying as much as they used to. He blamed the economy… nothing like a global financial downturn to keep people safely at home out of harm’s way, and that combined with less cash to spend on booze and ciggies, simply made Death’s job that much harder.
People still had to fall off the twig sometime, of course, but even that was more of a chore than a pleasure these days. Bureaucracy and red tape were becoming, quite frankly, a pain in the arse and the last thing that Death wanted to run into whilst culling a mortal soul was some pedantic jobsworth insisting that ‘proper procedure’ had to be followed.
Take last night, for example, hardly a shining example of job satisfaction by any measure: it was the Thursday hospital run – something that Death found himself increasingly wishing he could avoid altogether. It wasn’t just that modern medicine was becoming ever more successful at staving off the Dreaded Day, but the messing about that came with it had started to drive Death to distraction. It was all the hanging around that – for want of a better expression – killed him… interminable hours spent on hard plastic chairs, in soulless waiting rooms, with nothing but moronic hospital TV – with the volume turned off – to while away the hours. Then, just as things were getting interesting, and Death could feel that excitement that only a body shuffling towards the end of its mortal coil could induce, a shout would go up followed by running feet and the trundle and crash of a hospital trolley being propelled down a corridor. Death would smile, gather his scythe and stand, easing the kinks from his weary bones before following the trolley, leisurely in its wake.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
The nurse blocking his path was one of those no-nonsense, matter of fact types – all starched uniform and sensible shoes.
“Close relatives only, that’s a very sick man in there…”
Death gave the nurse a hard stare, only to receive an equally chilling look in return. He looked away in embarrassment and mumbled in his best sepulchral tones: “That’s a dying man in there!”
The nurse gave him an exasperated look, “Yes”, she snapped, “and I’m dying too… dying to finish my shift and get home to a hot bath. Now, are you going to do as your told, or do I have to call security?”
Sighing deeply, Death wandered slowly back to the waiting room, resigned to his fate.
This is how it was these days, long boring nights spent in dreary hospital rooms, just waiting for stubborn old farts to snuff it – all those long years in training and the good old days, when you could barely keep up with the body count, seemed a long time ago now.
He stared into the bathroom mirror, his soulless eyes staring back out at him redly… Ugh! He looked rough, like death warmed up. He reflected over the dreadful week he’d endured – it had started badly with that heart attack on Monday: the idiot wasn’t supposed to kick the bucket for another week, according to the spreadsheet, so Death was caught on the hop – bloody computers! He’d only just made it to the hospital in time, cowl billowing as he hammered down the corridor, trying to find the right cubicle. Finally, he found it, paused for a moment to catch his breath, then burst into the room, reaching out for the man’s soul.
What happened next was a bit of a blur… the doctor’s shout of “Clear!”, then a jolt of sheer agony as the paddles discharged through the guy’s chest and straight up Death’s outstretched arm. Death was propelled across the room and slammed into the wall, where he slithered down – in best cartoon comedy style – into a groaning heap on the floor. Even worse, having been snatched at the critical moment from the clutches of Death, the man’s heart burst back into life, depriving Death of his dues and messing up his spreadsheet even more than it already was.
It had been a long week and Death realised he no longer had what it took to stay ahead of the game. He made his way to the kitchen and poured himself a generous bowl of rice crispies… maybe it was time to hang up the old scythe and slow down? His old bones weren’t what they used to be and the thought of retirement held great appeal. Chewing reflectively on his cereal, he closed his eyes and pictured himself in a peaceful little cottage, somewhere near the sea, living out the rest of his days in quiet and solitude…
A throaty chuckle disturbed his pleasant reverie.
Death opened his tired old eyes and looked blearily at the figure, clad in black, that stood before him.
The figure spoke in a dark, sombre voice, reaching towards him with bone-white, skeletal fingers…
“It’s time”, he intoned…
And Death, finally, went to meet his maker.
22nd April 2013
A once in a lifetime event… Summer was on its way.
Any colonist will tell you that life is hard – it’s to be expected, you don’t travel for years through space, across distances that the mind can scarcely comprehend, to wrestle with the unforgiving might of alien environments without a certain degree of understanding that life will be less than easy.
Terraforming takes a certain type of person – the type who can abandon family and friends and do without the simple comforts of home. The type who is unphased by hard, unrelenting, demanding work and who has no need for luxuries or the trappings of a quiet life. There are few either willing or able to give up so much for so little reward – and those of us who can, often have little else to live for – so many of us choose this road to escape… an opportunity to forget.
It is a hard life, nevertheless and our human weakness demands that there must, necessarily, be some respite. Here, upon the desolate rock that is Beta 7σ, we make our own entertainment – whatever may serve to distract us from the bleak, cold and dark world that somehow we have come to call home.
It can drive you crazy: the incessant darkness, the gnawing cold and the knowledge that this is the normal state of affairs. Those like me, of generation 1, suffer the most – we remember earth… we remember sunshine and the warm days of summer. Even so, generation 2 are not immune from the crushing night of the Beta 7σ winter; they know the stories of old earth, they have seen how a world basks in the rays of the sun, although they have never yet experienced that joyous feeling at first hand.
That is about to change.
Summer is coming.
Beta 7σ has a sun – a great, glorious, blazing ball of hydrogen joy around which this accursed planet describes an orbit so elliptic that summer comes only once every 40 years, and warms the earth for no more than a few days… a once in a lifetime event and a moment in time for which the colony have yearned for so very long. Tomorrow, we will picnic, we will sunbathe, we will revel in the sun’s light and warmth… tomorrow, summer finally arrives!
The whole colony is buzzing with barely suppressed anticipation – even climate-hardened, age-grizzled hydro-frackers, their cheeks blackened by the fierce frosts of winter, are smiling – we all long for the sun, and though it will linger for just a few short days, we we drink our fill of its life-giving energy. Tonight we will sleep – at least, we will try – and tomorrow, we will rise from our beds to the golden glow we have missed for so many years.
It is morning; summer has at last arrived, and with it a raging dust storm that has engulfed the planet. Visibility is down to less than arm’s length, it would be utter foolishness to venture outside, and the sun… not even its potent rays can breach the cold darkness of the dust.
The storm will rage for weeks.
Summer will pass unseen and winter will once again reign supreme.
22nd April 2013
The Day Before The End Of The World
April 22nd, 11:38pm.
It was the day before the end of the world, and Joe Patterson wanted to be prepared.
He’d known it was coming for some time and, although it was only recently that the date had become known, the inevitability had served to focus his mind on the important things. Joe had not wasted his last days on the unimportant.
Tomorrow was the end of the world, but Joe’s mind was at peace: he was ready.
At first, he’d struggled to put things into perspective – so little time, and so much to accomplish, but as the days passed, things began to make sense to Joe. Thinking back over recent weeks, he found himself smiling at his initial panic; at how he’d scribbled out his bucket list, before realising the impracticality of so many of his unfulfilled dreams. Now he realised they would remain unfulfilled – places he’d never see, experiences he’d never enjoy, and – frankly ridiculous – ideas that were simply beyond the realms of possibility. He’d realised the futility of them almost immediately, and had thrown away the list in favour of a more realistic, and wholly fulfilling set of experiences.
His bank account, now empty, was testament to the fine dining he’d enjoyed during these last few weeks, and the expensive Italian suit that hung from his somewhat gaunt frame gave him a presence that he’d rarely had the opportunity to experience during the years of his long life – a life in which he’d learned that money -which contrary to popular opinion – could buy happiness, was not the only thing worth having.
In these last days, before the end of the world, it was to these other luxuries that Joe turned, realising with a certain sorrow, that they had always been there – he’d simply never understood their true value. Now, with so little time, he had filled his life with them, greedily surrounding himself with their bounty and wasting not a moment more on those less-important things of the world.
He had thrown himself into the classics… reading voraciously, as if the words that fell from the pages, were as life-sustaining as the food that passed between his lips. He sought out exhibitions and galleries, feasting upon the colours and forms of art and sculpture; he filled his days with music, with light and colour and vibrance. He may never have scaled the summit of Everest, but every remaining day that he breathed life, he reached for the pinnacles of human achievement, artistry and beauty.
Lost in his reflections, Joe briefly considered listening to his favourite music for one last time – but no. How could he possibly choose a fitting piece? Besides, he had no wish to disturb the others, who no doubt, had their own thoughts to contend with on this last night.
The world would end tomorrow… and he would be ready.
There were, of course, practicalities to consider – pointless to spend time writing last testaments, when there would be no friends or family to read them, but Joe would not see the end of the world without proper preparation. His bills were paid, accounts closed, his room neat and tidy – he patted the arm of his suit, appreciating the feel of the expensive fabric, and spared a brief glance in the mirror to check the knot of his tie. Joe nodded approvingly – he figured that to be impeccably turned out was only fitting manner in which to face the end of the world.
April 23rd, 12:14am.
Only now did Joe consider the horror to come… taking his shotgun, he laid it gently across his knees. The barrel gleamed dully in the lamplight. The clock ticked away – the seconds counting down to the end of the world – not long now, but Joe was ready.
Not long now.
April 23rd, 09:30am.
A single shotgun blast shattered the early morning routine.
Brief silence, followed by running feet and the shouts of orderlies and carers as they ran to Joe’s room.
For Joe Patterson, aged 93, the end of the world had come.
4th February 2013
“Whisky tango charlie six zero, come in. Proceed to Valley Confectionery, immediate, code bravo eight.”
A large crowd had gathered outside the shop by the time the first police units screeched to a halt, sirens wailing. A strange silence hung over the stunned crowd and the unmistakeable odour of burnt sugar and blood hung in the air. Peanut brittle and storefront glass in equal measure crunched beneath the officers’ feet as they approached the entrance door, which hung awkwardly on its one remaining hinge – the scene inside would remain in the policemens’ memories for many years to come.
Stretched full length across the counter, Mr Blackley, the sweetshop owner lay in a sticky pool of his own blood and cherry cola, his head lolling sickeningly to one side – broken teeth, testament to the giant gobstopper that had been forced between them. His shirt, shredded beyond recognition, barely concealed the bloody welts on his torso and beside him lay the instrument of torture – a whip. crudely fashioned from licorice bootlaces, sharp pyramids of boiled sweets, knotted into their ends. Mr Blackley’s eyes gently fizzed from their dusting of sherbet… a macabre sound in the almost-silent shop.
In front of the counter lay an elderly gentleman – later identified as George Timmins, 78 – according to his wife, he’d just popped into the shop for some Werther’s originals and a bag of coconut mushrooms: whilst she nattered to the hairdresser over a cup of Tetleys, it seems her husband had been force-fed marshmallows accompanied by over a kilo of space dust. Inevitably his stomach – weakened from years of nurturing a large and malignant ulcer – ruptured spectacularly, showering a whole wall of boiled sweet jars with bile, stomach acid and popping sugar candy. In a sickening display of black humour, his attackers had placed Pontefract cakes over his lifeless eyes – the officers could only hope that the ferryman had taken his soul with all haste, and minimal suffering.
Strewn over the floor, amongst the scattered dolly mixtures, cola cubes and children, were two more tortured souls – one of whom, still barely clung to life… but not for much longer. As the two policemen struggled in vain to free him from the sticky grasp of bubblegum and melted foam shrimps he breathed his last and slumped, in a gooey, sweet and sour mess of vomit and refined sugar syrup.
As for the remaining adult body, death had occurred as a result of slow drowning from melted chocolate inhalation, and extreme and sudden shock… every orifice having been filled to bursting point with cherry sours, acid drops and green apple jellies – the look on her face was one the officers would never forget.
Inevitably, there were children – this was, after all, a sweetshop.
The store was full of them, ranging in age from primary school kids up to spotty teenagers. They crawled and slithered through the sticky mess of body fluids, syrup and melting chocolate – yet, to the officers’ surprise, not a single child appeared to have been harmed. Each of the youngsters was gorging themself, seemingly oblivious to the charnel house surrounding them: chocolate smeared their faces, clothing streaked with a rainbow of fruity colours, and pockets stuffed and bulging with penny chews. Methodically, they worked their way through the broken glass and jelly beans that littered the floor, like a swarm of sweet-toothed locusts let loose at harvest time. Never, in all their years on the force, had the officers seen anything like it.
“Whisky tango charlie six zero, requesting support. Medical and forensic teams required urgently. Multiple fatalities.”
Police Constable 854 Winston crouched in the middle of the shop, staring at the eight-year old in front of him solemnly sucking on a sherbet lollipop, and the hardened copper shook his head uncomprehendingly.
The sound of sirens drifted through the air, reaching his vantage point in the car park across the square. He watched the emergency crews at work, a wry grin on his face, and smirked as the children were led – some time later – from the shop to white-tented awnings and waiting ambulances.
Being one of the good guys had its charms, but he was sick of it – it was time for a change, and so far, it felt good.
Holstering his pistol, the Milky Bar Kid tipped his stetson at a jaunty angle. Yep, indeedy – it was gonna be fun being one of the bad guys!
4th February 2013
I watch him nervously from the corner of my eye, trying to concentrate upon the storybook’s words, but too distracted to catch their meaning. Confused, I forget how the prince managed to pass through the maze, and for the umpteenth time, i re-read the page… it’s no use; soon I’ll have to close my book, turn off the light and try to sleep.
It will be challenging.
He catches my eye again and I repeat my mantra silently in my head: ‘he’s just teddy… he’s just teddy, HE’S JUST TEDDY!’ Of course he is – I’m not stupid and as I look at him – now with fondness in my eyes – at his scruffy fur and dog-eared appearance, I realise how much I need his cuddles tonight. Without thinking, I leap from the bed, sprint across the carpet and rescue him from the toyshelf.
Suddenly the realisation dawns that I’m marooned: stood, exposed with cold legs and bare feet, on the wrong side of the room. My bed beckons and I gingerly take a couple of shuffling steps towards the comfort of my warm blankets and fluffy pillows, before – overcome with fear – I stop: shivering, eyes-wide and heart thumping.
Carefully, I study the sheets, hanging over the bedside and draped across the floor – the result of my hasty exit – they obscure the dark and cavernous gap that yawns beneath the bed, along with the horrors that I know inhabit that unwelcoming space. I have a choice: take my chances running wildly to the bed, throwing myself upon the mattress in abandon, or sneak quietly up to it, maybe to the corner, before a quick tumble to the safety of my sheets.
Grimly, realisation dawns that I will have to reach down to retrieve them from where they lie. My skin crawls at the thought of ‘other’ hands, or even tentacles and claws, grasping and scrabbling from beneath the bed as I reach down for my castaway bedclothes. Thinking hard, I devise a plan – perhaps I can grab the sheets in the very act of throwing myself onto the bed? It is my only option – the thought of what lurks beneath, far too potent to permit any alternative.
I’ve stood for too long. Now acutely aware of the cold against my back and the dark shadows cast behind me by the bedside lamp I feel the chilling sensation of being stalked. it is simply a matter of time before the things in the darkness are upon me. My breathing becomes shallow and rapid – I want to turn to face my fears, but I daren’t turn my back upon the bed and its denizens – I am frozen in fear.
It’s now or never.
In an explosion of movement, I career towards the bed… leap… grab… and tumble in a heap upon the mattress. Almost sobbing with relief, I dig myself into the covers, pulling sheets up to my chin, and pillows into my shoulders. No gaps. Just one final challenge remains.
With trepidation, my arms sneaks from it’s safe haven beneath the covers, snaking towards the bedside lamp. Teeth gritted, I wait for the slap of a tentacle around my wrist – this time, I am lucky, the lamp blinks off and my hand returns quickly back to its sanctuary beneath the sheets. Mission accomplished – but the terror is not yet over.
The darkness is far worse than the light – I feel it bearing down on me and filling me with terror. My feet twitch and I realise they are perilously close to the end of the bed… hastily, I draw my knees higher and try to stay dead-centre, tucking the sheets beneath my body – shrouding myself away from the edges of the bed.
My eyes begin to adjust to the darkness: strange shadows loom on the wall and in corners. I know they must be familiar objects, but why are they moving, why do they seem to have eyes, and why do they crowd in, hell-bent on smothering me? I cuddle teddy closer, relieved that the malevolent shadow that would otherwise have graced his shelf is not there to torment me.
Then, the noises begin.
‘It’s just the heating’, I tell myself, reasoning that no ghoul would gurgle and clank in such a manner… but, how can I be sure? There are other sounds too – shiftings and scuddings, and are those shuffling footsteps outside the window?
The darkness swirls and blankets the room, like sooty snow; the sounds torment my ears… scared beyond words, I dive beneath the covers, curl up into a ball and wait for the horrors to find me…
Somehow, eventually, sleep comes.
And with it, come nightmares… a blessed relief from the torment of bedtime.
22nd January 2013
That same old
Channel-hopping, without really watching. Even programmes i normally enjoy drag on… exasperating and irritating.
Twenty tabs open in my browser, i flick from page to page… Youtube, news, blog, Youtube, e-mail, blog, Youtube, Youtube, Youtube, blog, blog, bored.
The ‘phone shrieks… stirs me to wakefulness… a text: “you ok?”
i’ll answer tomorrow. Maybe. It doesn’t really matter.
Outside, in the dark, the snow continues to fall: wet, cold and pointless, the drifting flakes, illuminated in the streetlight, remind me of noise on an old black and white TV. Gaussian blur fills the monochrome night.
Tea: now stewed and just the wrong side of tepid sits in the pot. i’ll drink it anyway; the bitter tannins, harsh and unpleasant, wash around my mouth. i struggle through the whole mug, and wish i hadn’t.
It’s far too quiet: listlessly i toy with thoughts of music, but nothing appeals. i think about connecting with friends, but i’m not in the mood. It just feels like too much effort, and to be honest, it’s not going to help.
These are the moments that creep up without warning, steal your soul and sap your vitality. The apathetic, boring, senseless wastes of time, when resilience is low and – although the flesh may be more than willing – the spirit is weak and disheartened.
These are the moments we keep to ourselves, savoured masochistically, and jealously guarded, because sometimes – although we’ll never admit it – the impotence of despair, frustration and distraction are the needful things of our existence. Torn between needing and loathing, building-up and tearing-down, we succumb to the moment. And the moment possesses us.
We’re all different: some cut, others binge, some may rage, others sleep, there are those who sit in corners and weep, whilst still others sit and stare blankly, at nothing at all.
The snow has turned to sleet: it streaks my window, like wasted tears.
8th January 2013
Pot of Tea for One
Alan has a rather off-key sense of humour that doesn’t appeal to many – it doesn’t bother me though. I’ve known Alan since school and I’ve developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to his off-the-wall remarks, but this latest thing he’d got a bee in his bonnet about struck me as being a bit weird.
Perhaps it was his intensity as he spoke, or the strange – almost frightened look in his eye – the last time I’d seen him this way was back in ’85; that time he’d become convinced that the old house on Miller Street was haunted. Somehow, he’d persuaded a bunch of us to pitch camp there overnight – we saw no ghosts, but it was a night that left mental scars with most of us that took years to heal. Seeing that look in his face again now brought it all back to me, and inwardly I shuddered.
“Alan, you’re talking crap, and you know it!”
“Oh, you think so? Well tell me this – have you ever seen any of them leave?”
That stymied me. It was hardly a reasonable question…
“Leave it out. Do I look like the sort of person who hangs around British Home Stores, keeping tally on the customers?”, I countered.
“Then humour me”, he replied, “this Saturday… I’ll even pay for your meal!”
Which is why I find myself wasting a perfectly good Saturday morning sat in British Home Stores’ restaurant, with a half-eaten Lancashire hotpot and tepid pot of tea on the formica table in front of me. I can think of better things I’d rather be doing.
Alan’s ‘theory’ was simple: He figured that – like the mythical elephant’s graveyard, where the great beasts go to die – pensioners about to fall off their twig would instinctively make one last journey to the BHS restaurant where, observing the last rights of haddock, peas and chips, and a pot of tea for one, their mortal coil would finally come to a shuffling halt. He’d convinced himself that the escalator to the second floor was the first stage of the journey into eternity and that no wrinkly destined to ascend would ever again return to the land of the living – otherwise known as the home and ware department.
I could appreciate the dark humour, but Alan was taking this too far now – why on earth had I allowed myself to be dragged along here? I poked fitfully at the hotpot, wishing I’d plumped for the haddock – the gristly bits of nondescript meat, floating in a greyish gravy made me feel a little queasy.
“Look at them!”, he said, eyes darting around the room.
Until now, I hadn’t really taken any notice of the rest of the customers, but it wasn’t hard to see the foundation for Alan’s flight of fancy. We were easily the youngest in there – the rest of the clientele, grey-haired and bent, all sat alone at individual tables, garbed in shabby pink or brown cardigans, those stretchy trousers you see advertised on the back pages of Sunday newspaper supplements, and frayed blue blazers for the men; shapeless macs for the ladies. Accompanying many of them was the ubiquitous tartan shopping trolley.
They sat, slack-jawed and silent, staring into space, their pale, rheumy eyes unfocused and dull. As I watched them, I felt a brief chill of doubt – it really did seem that these vacant souls had indeed made their way here to wait for death. I felt the place close in on me as I hunched low, and found myself whispering to Alan:
“Ok, so the place is full of crumblies on their last legs… but it’s preposterous that this is some sort of ante-room for the afterlife… I mean, it goes beyond reasonable…”
My voice tailed off and I sought solace in my tea, now nicely stewed and practically undrinkable.
Alan’s response was disturbing:
“That’s what I thought to begin with, so I had to prove it for myself – I’ve been here before, alone, and I’ve seen all the proof I need. That’s why I needed you to come with me, so that you can be convinced too. All we have to do is watch, and wait.”
So, we waited and we watched. I began to realise how quiet the place was – it reminded me of a hospital ward – just the odd, retching cough and, in the background, the clatter of kitchen utensils, but no talk, none of the signs of life and vitality that you might associate with a restaurant.
And then it happened.
Off on our right, an old chap wearing a gabardine coat, softly gasped before pitching forward into his fish and chips. His cup fell to the floor, the sound of breaking china louder than expected in the quiet of the restaurant. I stiffened, then felt Alan’s hand on my arm, warning me to stay put.
Within moments, two waitresses appeared, one of whom proceeded to clear away the broken crockery and the remains of the old fellow’s last meal. The other calmly placed her fingers against his neck, feeling for a pulse, then gently closed his eyes before nodding to her companion. Table cleared, the first waitress walked off with the tray, and then re-appeared a moment later with a wheelchair, into which the two girls maneuvered the old man’s body, before briskly wheeling him away towards the kitchen.
The whole thing had taken a matter of minutes.
I looked into Alan’s eyes, shocked at what I’d witnessed. He nodded grimly.
“B-b-but”, I stammered, “what on earth do they do with them?”
He gave me a wry smile before responding. “Erm… I’m not entirely sure, but I think I should have told you to avoid the hotpot!”
19th November 2012
Four Letter Word
I am relentless.
Nobody really understands the meaning of such words. Words like ‘relentless’, ‘monotonous’ and ‘life-sapping’ until I enter their lives, uninvited. And until that fateful day when I call at your door, walk right in, slip off my shoes and settle down for a long, perhaps permanent stay, everybody thinks they can handle me. They think I’m a pushover, an annoyance or just an irritation… “Ignore him, and he’ll go away.”; “He’s just an attention seeker – take no notice. He’ll move on.”; so you turn the volume up, drown me out, look busy… pretend I’m not there.
As if that’ll make a blind bit of difference.
Once I’ve set up home you’re going to have to get used to the idea that I’m not going to go away – get used to me being around, all the time, although I’m afraid you never really will. I’m like the irritating housemate who constantly steals your milk, who plays their music way too loud and brings home their objectionable friends, when all you want is a quiet evening alone. Only, you can’t evict me… I belong here.
You think that I don’t – you insist that there’s no room for me and that I’m not welcome; you tell me that I can’t stay for long and you try everything in your power to send me packing. You try to lock me in my room, hide yourself away from me, but the truth is, I’m not going anywhere. Even when you can’t see me, you know I’m there: peering over your shoulder whilst you work, sneaking into bed with you at night, sharing your seat on the bus and lurking with intent at social gatherings. I’m there in the family photographs – that’s why you always frown – and I intrude into your most intimate and private moments… I’m always, always there, always, always making my presence felt.
I butt in to your conversations, ruin your day and mess with your schedule. I interfere at the workplace and I keep you awake at night. I have a callous disregard for propriety and no respect for time, place or convention – it is always the time for me, it is always the place, and I choose when and where, not you! If I wish to make a point, I care not for your circumstances… I can, and will, be heard – I will not be ignored!
When first we met, you thought that you’d cope – you’d come across others before, like me, and you never let them get the better of you. Then later, once I’d outstayed my welcome, you began to understand just how vile I can be. I wouldn’t take the hints, I laughed in your face when you confronted me and I was always too damn selfish to care. You tried to outwit me, and you lost. You’re still losing – you always will.
I am… misery, frustration, anger, grief and rage. I am despair. I bring out the worst in you and I spoil the best of you. My gifts to you are manifold and generous: irrationality, failure, lethargy and bitterness, and far more besides.
You, on the other hand, despise me. You want me out of your life: dead, buried and forgotten – it’s not going to happen; I’m sticking to you like glue. I’m your enemy for life, your worst friend forever and your ever-constant companion.
I feed on your despair.
I harden your heart.
I break your will.
I am messing with your head.
You cry out for help – but no-one understands. How could they? They don’t know what I’m like or what I do to you, and even if they did, there’s nothing they can do. They may sympathise, care, even offer their help – it’s futile. Hopeless. Wasted. And when they leave you alone, with their words of kindness and sympathetic smiles, to go back to their happy, carefree lives… I stay. And, once more, we are alone together.
You and me, together.
I am your nightmare, your living hell, your darkest hour and your torment. You may run and hide, but I will always come and find you. I will make you squirm, scream, weep and beg. And there is nothing that you can do to stop me.
I am your four-letter word. And I, am constant.
I love this piece despite what it’s about. This is the style of writing that I simply adore – it’s full of raw emotion, it’s frightening, it challenges you, and it’s real. 10 out of 10, absolutely superb.
If I’m right about the subject topic, I have what you’ve written about 24/7 – sometimes it’s unbearable sometimes it’s relatively ok, but it’s not who I am and it’s certainly not going to beat me. We’re at war and I’m going to win.
6th November 2012
Well appointed: in need of sympathetic renovation
“Good morning! Did you have a pleasant journey over? Sometimes, it can be a bit choppy as you cross the reef, but the sea’s quite calm today.
I must say, your call came as quite a surprise – the property’s been on the market now for a rather long time, with very little interest so far – I’d almost given up on ever finding a buyer! Not that there’s anything wrong with the place, although it’s definitely showing some signs of being ‘lived in’, and to be honest, properties like this one are really a bit of a niche market – not your usual two-up, two-down, by any stretch of the imagination!
Now… you’ll obviously have already seen the private jetty and beach when you arrived – believe me, they are private in every sense of the word… and, if you were to have any particularly nosey neighbours having a snoop around, then I can guarantee they won’t hang around for very long – you can thank the extremely efficient security system the property boasts for that.
What’s that? The specifications? Well, I’m no technical expert, but I believe it’s something to do with high powered lazers, or machine guns, or some such thing – it’s all explained in the brochure.
Now, if we head inside…
And we come to – well, I suppose you could best describe it as ‘the garage’. This extremely capacious space will not only accommodate the family car, but easily has plenty of room for a large nuclear submarine. No, I’m afraid not – I believe the last owner had to leave in rather a hurry and they took the sub with them… still, you could always turn it into a lovely swimming pool!
Moving along, we come to the guest reception area, complete with integral security arches – well, you wouldn’t want anyone stealing the family silverware, would you? – high-security doors, each with retinal scanning locks and, should you need them, a suite of holding cells. I beg your pardon? Oh yes indeed, they certainly would make an ideal wine cellar!
Now, if you’d like to step into the elevator, we’ll go up into the main section of the property. It’s all very eco-friendly, build right into the volcano, and completely invisible from the outside. Ah, here we are… please step through.
Here we have what I like to refer to as the utility room. Yes… you’re absolutely right, concrete and steel aren’t to everybody’s taste, but a few soft furnishings and the odd rug and throw will make a world of difference. It’s very post-modern and the amount of space you have to play with is quite breathtaking! Plenty of room for a large family, or even a small private army, if you happen to have one knocking about somewhere. I particularly like the steel gallery walkways – I think they add character to the room, and then there’s the rather large feature gantry in the middle – perfect for hanging out the washing, I’m sure you’ll agree. Then again, it would make a lovely climbing frame for the youngsters.
My favourite feature has to be the sliding roof! I think you’ll be very excited when you see it retract – perfect for catching a few rays on a sunny day, and extremely convenient if you ever wanted to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, without any damage to the ceiling decor.
I do realise that there is some remedial work that needs doing – but I’m assured that the bullet holes and bloodstains are merely cosmetic, and apart from the blast holes, there’s really very little in the way of structural repairs to be done.
What’s that you say? Oh, a home office? – this property has the perfect solution, if you’ll follow me…
Well, what do you think?
Yes, isn’t it? That feature window gives a grandstand view over the utility room and all these furnishing are included in the price. Yes, even the chair! I can just see you now, all comfy and cosy, with a cat happily perched on your lap!
You’ll find the room has all mod cons – CCTV feeds from every room: very handy for keeping an eye on the kids; a minibar, if ever you fancy a dry martini and… well, then there’s my favourite feature… if you’ll permit me to show you?
Now, if you’ll just stand over here. That’s perfect. You see this big red button under the desk? Try pressing it! And, hey presto! That trapdoor springs open and right underneath is the water feature! Erm, yes… it’s just a pool at the moment, I grant you, but it certainly has potential – I believe the previous owner was a fan of tropical fish – piranhas, i think – but the pool is certainly big enough for crocodiles or even sharks, whatever takes your fancy, actually.
Oh that’s marvellous! I’m so glad you like it… do you mind if I ask what drew you to the property? I understand completely: it can sometimes feel as if the neighbours are competing with you, and you’re absolutely right – somewhere like this will certainly give you the upper hand; I can’t see them bothering you once you move in!
Now, just a few formalities… I’m sorry, I see to have forgotten your name, do forgive me!
Yes, of course… the name’s Bond… James Bond. And, can I just confirm the 3 digits on the reverse of your credit card? 007?… Excellent!”
15th October 2012
She awoke with the vague feeling that something wasn’t quite right. As she lay enjoying the cosy warmth of the bed, she idly wondered what it could be that was puzzling her. She snuggled contentedly, enjoying the luxury of the weekend lie-in… no, that wasn’t right… it couldn’t be the weekend still? Surely today was…
Blindly she fumbled for the alarm, peering at it in the semi-darkness, she tried to make sense of the message that was flashing on the touch-screen. What? Dammit! ‘Google calendar has found a conflict – what would you like to do?’ Fuming, she stabbed at the ‘ignore’ button and instantly the alarm – which should have gone off forty minutes ago – burst into strident life.
Cursing, she stumbled out of bed, stepped on a discarded games controller, and spent the next few moments swearing and hopping about in pain. She hated days that started like this!
Things didn’t go much better in the bathroom – she punched in her preferred shower temperature and stood shivering, waiting for the warm water to make an appearance… nothing! Bemused, she peered at the controller: ‘Shower is installing updates – 4 of 128, please do not shut down your water supply’. Again, she cursed – why, oh why, hadn’t she disabled automatic updates? Somehow, the knowledge that her water system would be fluent in Serbo-Croat the next time she showered just didn’t make up for going to work unwashed. Now she understood why her heating hadn’t come on this morning either, damn updates!
Oh well… making the best of a bad deal, she decided to skip the shower, get dressed and grab some toast in the time she’d saved. She’d still be late for work, but breakfast would give her the chance to catch up on any important e-mails before she arrived at the office. A sardonic smile played across her face – the office! Who the hell worked in offices these days? Most people she knew wouldn’t even have alarms to worry about… getting themselves out of bed when they felt like it and happily waiting for the shower to update, whilst they got on with the day’s work from home, in their dressing gowns. Not her. Why did she have to pick a company that was so paranoid about security and viruses that they insisted employees log in from a company computer on company premises? Still, the pay wasn’t bad.
She hit the ‘e-mail’ button on the toaster, put the kettle on to boil and stood impatiently waiting for both to get on with their job. Finally the toaster clunked, and two crisp slices popped up. Well, the tops were fairly crisp… the lower portions were distinctly pale, with the neatly printed digest of urgent e-mails, toasted into each slice, fading into breaded whiteness as she read down the slice. She sighed and called up the toasting status menu – ‘Toast cartridge empty – please replace’ – Typical!
It wasn’t as if she could just crank up the PC and check her mail – living out in the countryside was lovely, but it did have drawbacks, like having to drive into work and, more irritatingly, rubbish internet. They’d promised she’d get a decent service eventually, but until then, it was either a case of pay through the nose for premium wireless, or do without at peak periods… she chose the latter.
Kettle boiling, she dropped a coffee bag into her mug, spooned some sugar and reached for the ‘fridge door. The door wouldn’t budge. Then she remembered she’d locked it because she was convinced the cleaner was helping herself to her food. Shaking her head, she keyed in her password, then peered, blinking at the Captcha code she was being asked to enter… no matter how she screwed up her eyes, she could make no sense of it, and after three refreshes, each one producing an even more indecipherable sequence, she decided it was time to either get a new ‘fridge or an eyesight test.
It was going to be a black coffee and dry toast morning! Maybe she could grab some breakfast on the way to work?
The usual problem on the way out – some idiot had punched the wrong code into the lift twice and left it waiting; in her hurry, she fumbled the keys, messed up the code a third, and final time, and locked herself out. Damn! At least the stairs would keep her fit – well, fit to drop!
Sixteen flights later she stumbled to the car – the doors opened first time, for once. She jumped in, swiped the ignition and waited. The usual error messages flashed up – she really should get someone to look at it – and she opted, as had been the case for the past three weeks, to continue in safe mode. She’d learned to her cost that to select ‘load normally’ was asking for trouble – nothing worse than being stranded on a 6-lane highway, with your vehicle moaning about a corrupt driver!
At least she’d get to work in safe mode, albeit without such niceties as contact with the outside world, suspension or onboard cooling – at the moment she didn’t care – she just wanted to get to work… and why the hell was the traffic so slow?
Scrolling down the window, she leaned out to catch the passing signs… Oh, would you believe it? – ‘This route is currently throttled, due to high usage’.
Eventually, she arrived at work; hopelessly late, nerves frayed and in a rare old temper. Slamming the car door behind her, she strode briskly towards the office… she never made it – the world around her flickered, her foot paused, caught in mid-stride, and then everything went silent.
Paused in time and space, the world turned blue…
7th August 2012
The cat smiled at me with a preposterous leer – it was my worst nightmare come true, in fact the whole situation had a dreamlike quality about it; it was all so surreal and horrifying. It was pointless pinching myself, or doing any of those things they tell you to do to see if you’re dreaming – this was real, no matter how crazy it seemed – all too real.
The cat towered over me; I could smell its stale, fishy breath and I vaguely wondered how cats can bring themselves to eat that tinned muck. Its harsh, green eyes burned into me, holding me in their gaze, frozen to the spot in terror – my instinct was to run, but run to where? I knew that the mere attempt at movement would bring swift and sure retribution.
Unbelievably, I heard my own voice attempting to reason with the feline monster before me – reason! For pity’s sake, what was I thinking?
“Nice kitty! Lovely kitty! You couldn’t possibly be hungry – I can tell that you’ve just eaten. You wouldn’t want to spoil a good meal by over-indulging, would you? Besides, if you let me go, just think of all the fun you could have hunting me down some other time?”
Predictably enough, the cat simply stared. It seemed confused – monster though it was, curiosity seemed to be getting the better of it, (they do say curiosity killed the cat… how I wish that was true!). It tilted its head to one side – puzzled by this strange talking creature in front of it, then – to my extreme terror – hunkered down, its face mere inches from my trembling body, wearing that mean, spiteful look that only an irate cat can pull off.
Remarkably, I retained my composure, and smiled ingratiatingly as the huge head filled my vision. This was, for me, the family moggy from a whole new perspective, and it wasn’t one to be recommended!
“Perhaps we can come to some sort of a deal”, I ventured, “what if I was to help you with some other, tastier morsels? There’s always the budgie… I could get that cage open in seconds… or the goldfish, perhaps – I’m sure that both would make a far tastier meal than little me!”
Would you listen to yourself? Do you seriously think this is going to help?
Helpful or not, it was buying me time – precious time to come up with an escape plan, although, right this moment, nothing was suggesting itself and I had a nasty feeling that whatever I came up with was going to be futile anyway.
I could feel the cat’s breath against me – hot, moist and fetid and, from deep within its great chest the beginnings of a tremendous, rumbling purr began to stir. Frantically, I wracked my brain, trying to remember everything I knew about cat psychology… did purring mean bored, interested, approachable or extremely pleased with itself? I had a nasty feeling that it was the latter and I knew exactly what it had to be pleased about too!
A bubble of saliva appeared in the corner of the beast’s lip – I had a very bad feeling that this was not a good sign. Then, horrifyingly, a paw was reaching out to me – thankfully, claws sheathed – gently batting and tapping me… an extremely unnerving sensation. The pads on its foot were soft and warm, but although the taps were gentle, I could feel barely suppressed raw power behind them… the thing was goading me, daring me to make a move.
I steeled myself – I knew it was only a matter of time before the inevitable. Then the thought occurred to me: ‘Are you just going to sit there and take it? If you’re a gonner, then you’re a gonner, but at the very least, go out fighting!’
My subconscious was right – the odds were stacked against me, but if I was going to die, then I was damn well not going to go quietly!
The cat stared at me – I stared right back at it; watching, waiting for my moment. It had to be decisive and it had to be timed to perfection – one mistake on my part and I’d simply be a nice snack between meals… if I was going to make my move, it would have to be with all guns blazing: death or glory!
An apt phrase ran through my mind and – can you credit it? – I actually managed to raise a sardonic smile. ‘Those of us who are about to die salute you…’, bellowed my inner voice and, right in front of that damn animal’s face, I made a mocking salute!
The cat, of course, was not impressed and, somewhat predictably, sprang at me.
This was my moment! As the cat lunged, I made my own feeble attack, hurling myself at its face with every sinew of my being. I made contact and, in that instant, sank my teeth as hard as I was able, right into the tip of the loathsome creature’s nose!
The cat yowled, exploding backwards, back arched, teeth bared and hissing like all the snakes of Hades – but in that instant, I was gone… tearing right between its legs and away to freedom!
Unbelievably, I’d done it!
Y’know, sometimes I just hate being a mouse!
7th August 2012
They do say they’re the most dangerous animal in the world, responsible for untold thousands of deaths every year.
Even in these sub-tropical zones, where the worst to be feared is a nasty reaction to the bite in the night, there’s something incredibly unsettling about hearing the whine of a mosquito in the darkness – it’s almost as if our bodies are programmed to shy away and hide from the beasts.
Lying, with the covers pulled up tightly to his chin, he lay, twitching: wondering from which direction the next onslaught would appear. As the shrill sound assailed his ears his body involuntarily sprang into action, arms flailing wildly, as sheets and pillows were thrown into disarray.
Then, once more, the relentless whining buzz… the spastic thrashing of evasion… the thumping heart, sweat-sheened face and the insane twitching of muscles, adrenalin rushing, poised for flight.
Enough was enough – it was time to go on the offensive.
Throwing off the remaining covers, he gained his feet, blindly reaching for his glasses on the bedside table, before fumbling for the light. Blinking in the sudden brightness, he stood naked in the bedroom, feeling foolish – yet filled with a grim determination to flush out and mercilessly destroy the evil insects that had ruined his sleep for the past two nights, and left him covered in the angry red sores, testament to a nightly war he was losing, and losing badly.
He looked around for a weapon: perhaps the book at the side of the bed? No… his leather slipper, flexible and easily gripped would become his avenger. Slapping the sole against his palm, he grinned – now we’d see who’s boss!
Casting his eyes around the bedroom, he picked his first victim – a large, juicy mosquito, motionless on the wall above the head of his bed. Slowly sneaking up behind it, he brought his arm back, and… SLAP! The slipper hit the wall in a burst of explosive power; unfortunately, the wall suffered far more than the insect which – far quicker than its attacker’s reflexes – had made a quick and easy getaway, long before the slipper found its mark.
Cursing, he spun around, eyes searching the room for his tiny foe – there it was, or at least there was one of them, hanging from the ceiling… this time, there would be no escape. Carefully and slowly, he climbed on to the bed, inched his way forward and slowly, oh so slowly, positioned his weapon mere inches from his intended victim. Deliberately, he crushed the vile thing, grinding it into the ceiling, to leave a satisfying mess of broken body parts and vile juices smeared against the emulsion. Gotcha! He smiled and began his hunt in earnest.
Within 10 minutes his orgy of wanton destruction was over – small patches of gore patterned the ceiling and walls, each bearing testimony to this miniature crusade against man’s greatest foe.
He relaxed, taking stock of the room, then satisfied that the battle was won, dropped his slipper to the floor, turned out the light and crawled back into bed. He sighed… a job well done.
The whine of the next one, as it flitted past his ear, caused such a violent reaction that he knocked his glasses clean off and was sure he’d bruised his face. Ear ringing from the involuntary whack dealt by his own hand, he dived beneath the covers as the red mist of madness descended. Too tired now to throw himself naked about the room, wreaking havoc on the evil creatures, he resigned himself to stoicism – maybe, if he just lay there and ignored them, they wouldn’t bother him?
Grimly, the sheen of sweat on his brow, he lay there, stiff as a board, breathing shallowly, and awaiting the inevitable.
When it came, he couldn’t help himself – again, arms flailed, striking his own face as the insect’s whine assailed his ears. Again. And again. And again! Driven to distraction, his hand reached for the abandoned slipper and, failing to find it in the darkness, closed around the first thing that fell within his grasp. As the creature attacked again, so did he, swinging his arm up, pounding away madly, relentlessly, to exterminate the noisome beast.
The following morning, the screams of the housekeeper were swiftly followed by police sirens. The initial verdict was murder, but some things just didn’t add up – the coroner was called and, a week later, the cause of death was published to a shocked community…
“It is the pathologist’s finding that the victim committed suicide. The cause of death is confirmed as multiple blunt force trauma injuries to the face and head, consistent with the victim striking himself repeatedly in a frenzied attack against his own person, armed with a heavy onyx bedside lamp found in his hand at the scene. One can only wonder at what drives a man of excellent standing in the community to kill himself in such a horrifying manner – his motive, however, will remain a mystery”
The coroner closed the case file in the hushed courtroom, absent-mindedly attempting to swat the mosquito buzzing about his head, as he stood to leave.
4th May 2012
This is what we do
It’s such a peculiarly British thing to do – a timeless, yet seemingly pointless activity; the stock-in-trade of families and old folks, spanning generations of memories.
It’s a grey, blustery day, cold and miserable, as the rain streaks the windows; freshly squeezed from the holiday sky. Shivering, with teeth clenched and the unpleasant feel of wet mackintoshes against bare arms, and sodden fringes, where plastic hoods couldn’t quite reach, we sit uncomfortably and and stew in the humid air.
We peer through the windows at the scene outside – always a dull, concrete car park; a few scattered cars dotted about, each with their own sorry crew of determined campers. Far off, by the entrance, the toilet block squats in all its ugliness, prompting unspoken questions about why we had to park quite so far away. An unpleasant trickle of cold rain makes its way down our neck – a reminder of our dash to the ‘loo’ – the fight with raincoats and the wind, as we wrestled them from the boot and, somehow, wrapped them around our shoulders… running full-tilt through the rain, dodging puddles and parked cars. Then the equally mad dash back to the car – no time to disrobe; and so we sit and steam, squeakily rubbing the mist from the windows as our breath fogs the cold glass.
The next scene unfolds, repeated in a hundred locations, thousands of times over. Out come the tupperware containers and sandwich bags, boiled eggs – still in their shells and packets of crisps, now severely crushed from being stuffed against beach bags that won’t be used. Tinned tuna or sweaty cheese and tomato is the order of the day and the sandwiches are passed around. We sit, munching in silence waiting for the moment that a quick flick of the wipers permits us a view of the watery vista outside.
Flick. An old couple shuffle by, huddled together against the wind and rain, shapeless in their blue plastic macs. Flick. Another family outing – somewhat more adventurous than your own – struggles along the beach path; fighting with the pushchair as wheels catch on pebbles strategically lurking on the path, they struggle with a vast umbrella that’s threatening to take to the cloud-ridden skies. Flick. Rain splatters against the windscreen. Flick.
Inside the car, an intricate balancing act is taking place – flask, cups, sugar and spoons precariously teeter on every available surface. Never enough cups, so someone always has to wait their turn; those fortunate to be served first, guiltily gulping down the scalding liquid lest accusations of hogging the cups are made. The tea, as ever, is stewed and too sweet – tasting of stale flasks and plastic. Steam fills the car and a peace descends – the gentle drumming of raindrops on rooftop accompanying the slurp and gasp of hot tea.
We ‘sit it out’ for a while in the vain pretence that the rain will stop, stubbornly believing the sun will miraculously appear and the beach will finally welcome us. Of course, it’s not to be and the decision is made to move on… the long journey home beckons and, in our wet-clothed state, will seem so much longer than the outward trip, but that’s how it goes. Two hours to prepare, pack and panic; two hours on the road as the rain clouds gather; two hours sat in a dreary dismal car park; followed by the two hour journey home… then, there’s unpacking, arguments and drying out. Happy days, indeed.
It’s a rite of passage – one that we come back to time and time again: as children, tightly packed in the back seat, fractious and fretting. Then, one day it is our turn to pack the car, plan the route and pass out the sandwiches… finally, we return, somewhat greyer and slower; re-living the days of the past – the rear seat now empty and silent as we sit and munch, and reflect, in a car park, in the rain…
Flick. Flick. Flick…
20th April 2012
we are the Invisible
we are the Invisible:
sat in the corner
blending with the background.
The unnoticed and ignored;
the unread between the lines.
We are those who play no part
and for whom there is no role:
the unrecognised extras
on the film set of life.
we are the Silent:
Those who have no voice,
with irrelevant opinions
and nothing to say.
Our words have no meaning;
the silent minority
whose views never count.
Songs without lyrics
in the music of life.
we are the Unforgiven:
The skeleton in the closet,
and stolen dreams;
now forgotten for good.
from lost photographs
in the album of life.
we are the Unrecognised:
the stranger in the crowd
and the sob in the dark.
The nameless companion
who sits on your bus;
a passing acquaintance, unknown.
The missing link
and the unsolved clue
in the mystery of life.
we are the Unmentionable:
constructs of reason,
crafted to hide the depths
of your soul.
The illusions and shadows
with never real substance,
and yet, ever present…
28th March 2012
All my life i’ve been searching for Somewhere – surprisingly, perhaps, it’s to be found everywhere; but it’s always just a fleeting glimpse, a passing moment. i reach out to grasp it, to capture that fragment of time and space, yet always it slips through my fingers leaving only memories, regret for the fragility of time and an ever-growing need to find that more permanent Somewhere that i know must exist.
Somewhere is not a place – it is a state of mind; an arrival that never quite ends. Somewhere is; watching a ponderous sun rising majestically over an African plain; it is seeing that same sun annoint a far eastern temple in tones of liquid gold as it sets at the close of day. Somewhere is the smell of glühwein and toasting waffles, the sound of horseshoes on cobbles and the frosty bite of winter. It is watching Colobus play in the rainforest canopy and the steamy warmth of an equatorial downpour.
Somewhere is the rude, unearthly pre-dawn wakening by the muezzin’s call, the gecko’s croak in the dead of night, the morning chorus of birds at a country retreat and the relentless chirp of cicadas as the light fades. It is the sound of market traders in a foreign tongue and the rumble of thunder from an unexpected storm.
Somewhere is the taste of fried noodles in an empty marketplace, in the middle of nowhere.
Somewhere is never a destination, it is a happening. You will know when you’ve arrived and then, all too soon, it is gone – a memory, a dream, a brief moment that will never return.
i need to be Somewhere. It calls to me constantly, drives me and compels me and – in a way, i suppose that it must – for without my presence, it cannot be. It troubles me that the call is so strong, and yet, Somewhere still eludes me.
i am lost in a world of everywhere, and Somewhere is nowhere to be found.
I will take you Somewhere, a place that you will love,
a dream that you have already dreamt and a feeling that you have already felt.
I will show you Somewhere that makes you smile and give you that feeling you long for….
…and when this Somewhere happens
we shall walk side by side
together as soul mates
with you as my guide.
Aw. I think most of us feel like that now and then.
14th February 2012
Running fast… the clack of her footfalls echoing on the cobbles between the close-set buildings keeping their watch over the otherwise silent streets. The mist, cold and damp against her skin, painted the world a pale, ghostly grey, obscuring the way ahead and blurring her sense of direction. Everywhere, the darkness loomed; threatening to engulf her – the gloomy shadows seeming to reach out and beckon her into their depths.
Terror-struck, she ran blindly ahead and was suddenly catapulted forward, gasping as she lost her footing on the wet stones, her ankle twisting sickeningly as she pitched onto the cold, unforgiving path. She knew then that it was all over. The shocking reality of bone clashing with stone and the burn of cold, unyielding cobbles against torn skin momentarily overwhelmed her senses. In the brief pause before feeling returned the world turned silent and in the dreamlike haze of momentary respite, her shocked breath was the only sound; rasping and ragged in the night air.
Then the pain, washing over her in a torrent – as if from a distance, she heard herself whimper: a soft, keening sound of despair and pain.
The cloying, metallic tang of blood filled her mouth, causing her to retch – she sobbed, desperately choking back her tears and the fear… how desperately she wanted simply to lie where she had fallen; to give up hope and succumb to the inevitable. As the cold of the dank night seeped into her soul, its remorseless tendrils probing and grasping at her limp body, she shivered and the shock of pain released by her flesh’s tremor jolted her from her stupor. Now it was a battle between her pain and her fear – one which, inevitably, fear would win. Slowly, carefully, she eased herself to her knees, gasping as the cold air snatched at the abrasions now gracing her arms. Attempting to stand, a sickening pain pierced her, causing her to cry out loudly – a foolish thing to do – as her ruined ankle collapsed beneath her weight. She would not run, nor even walk again this night – even so, the fear of pursuit spurred her onwards, her efforts now redoubled at the thought her cry may have revealed her whereabouts.
Gritting her teeth, she clambered to her hands and knees and, ignoring the pain from the slick, unforgiving stones of the road that bruised her knees and played a symphony of garish pain upon the torn flesh of her hands and forearms, she half-crawled, half-dragged herself onwards.
Over the scuff and shuffle of her slow and painful progress and the sobbing exhalations of her breath she became aware of another, familiar and homely sound punctuating the darkness… The fountain! Thoughts raced through her head – she had reached the town square – feverishly she pictured the scene, reconstructing her surroundings from memories of brighter, happier days in her mind. There were merchant’s stalls here, their sailcloth tarpaulins stretched tight against the night air and the morning frosts… If she could but seek the sanctuary of a wagon’s cover, she might yet be safe. Ignoring the pain, she inched forward towards the splash of the fountain, the earthy smell of water on wet marble and algae, calling to her on the chill breeze, until through the fog the dark shape of a merchant’s dray loomed. Here was her salvation – a dry and sheltered haven from the misery of the streets and pursuit – grasping the spokes of the nearest wheel, the rough wood splintering her already bleeding hands, she dragged herself beneath the wagon’s bulk, where she lay exhausted, cheek resting numbly against the cold hard stone of the market square.
How long she lay, her body wracked with pain, the cold’s insidious touch draining her of all energy and hope, she knew not, but it was later, much later, that the crunch and scrape of heavy boots announced the presence of another in the square – a sound that chilled her to the marrow in a manner that made the cold of winter itself seem a blessing. He was here.
Biting her lip, she dared not breathe. The fearful tread paused, then resumed, this time taking purposeful strides towards the very cart under which she lay. Again they stopped – so close that she might have reached from beneath the wagon and touched those dreaded boots. She could hear his breath now, heavy and laboured in the stillness; his smell filled her senses: The scent of horses and hay, the leather of his boots and wet mud, and the fetid odour of stale sweat. Repulsed, she fought the impulse to vomit, willing him to walk away and to leave her in peace… It was not to be.
The groan of the wagon and the creak of his boots as, easing his bulk to crouch low, the silhouette of of his shoulders and head filled the space beneath the wagon’s side. And then, that low, sibilant, loathsome voice; “Ah, so that’s where you’re hiding…”
In a moment, suspended in time, he whispered her name.
She awoke, a scream on her lips, sitting bolt upright in her bed, sheets clutched tightly to her chest. Bathed in sweat, her t-shirt sticking coldly to her skin, she fought to catch her breath as her heart pounded, fit to burst. How much longer must she endure these nightmares? Why, oh why would they not go away? She shivered and lay back exhausted on the pillow, eyes wide and heart racing. When would these horrors leave her in peace?
Lying in the silent darkness, she thought of the girl and a soft sob escaped her lips; you poor, troubled, broken soul; my poor, lost, Vienna.
6th January 2012
…a delightful frisson as his fingertips brushed lightly across the back of her hand, it was all she could do to suppress the sudden intake of breath, biting her bottom lip as the unexpected moment passed.
Across the table, his eyes held her – she’d never experienced a gaze so intimate; she found herself willing him to undress her with those eyes… she felt strangely, deliciously violated in that smouldering presence and felt the pricking of her cheeks as they flushed with the thought.
Barely trusting herself to speak, she murmured, “Thank you, it was a wonderful meal… I really should be going, though…” He smiled, then taking her hand in his; “It was a wonderful meal, but the company is what made it so special.”
Again, the warmth of his hand around hers caused her to twitch involuntarily… she struggled to appear unaffected, but as she felt herself becoming ever more aroused she knew the signs would be obvious. He only had to say the word and she would be his; she’d give herself to him without hesitation, unable to hold back the carnal desire now burning within her.
Crap! Complete and utter crap!
She looked at the drivel she’d written and sighed – was this really what she wanted to be?
Fishing a cigarette from the half empty packet, she leaned back in her chair and, drawing deeply, absently watched the grey plumes drift lazily toward the ceiling. All these years and here she was, writing trashy novels – well, novelettes – living in a trashy apartment, eating junk food and wasting away her trashy, so-called life. She only wrote to cover the bills, but that was never how it was meant to be – it should all have been so very different. The dreams of becoming a famous author, of having her name in print, seemed a very long time ago now… she’d worked so hard too, all through school, achieving top grades, excelling at university, and for what? To be writing crap that would be tomorrow’s landfill – and not even under her own name.
Anne-Marie Bellport… how she hated her assumed identity! – ‘It’s a good name’, her publisher had insisted, ‘the punters will relate to it; it’s a nice homely name’. Idly, she wondered about the ‘punters’ – who reads this crap anyway? She had visions of middle-aged women, tending towards chubby – dowdy women, with dowdy lives, looking to escape their dreary routines. She could see them in her mind’s eye; cooking their family meals of frozen pizza, oven chips and Müller yoghurts; shouting at their teenage kids to clean their bedrooms and spending long, boring evenings slouched in front of the telly, wasting away in front of Corrie and X-Factor. She could imagine them, sneaking away and poring over her purple prose as they got their daily fix of passion and provincial porn before returning to the everyday mundanity of their world: Not that it was any real consolation; she cared as little for them as she did for the rot she churned out day after day.
She was a realist – the dreamer had left a long, long time ago – like so many others of her kind; those whose aspirations were to greatness but whose achievements were nothing more than mediocre. She knew that the sum of her life’s achievements amounted to little more than an inconsequential few thousand words, destined to be devoured by those whose appreciation of her work was on a par with that shown for a late night kebab on a drunken night out. And then her toil’s final, long, lonely sojourn, surrounded by its peers, stuffed on some anonymous carousel in a second-rate charity shop. Buy three for the price of one – not that anybody did – there it was, all she’d ever amount to: Tomorrow’s pulp.
Stubbing out the dog-end in the grimy tinfoil case – a leftover from a box of Mr Kipling’s exceedingly fattening cakes, that had once passed as a balanced meal, (completely justified, of course – six fruit pies is your five-a-day plus, by anybody’s reckoning), she surveyed the devastation of her own daily grind: A half cup of tea – stone cold – in a scummy mug that hadn’t seen a dishcloth in weeks; scribbled notes, to-do lists that had never been done, and scrawled messages to self on fragments of whatever writing surface had been handy at the time; a stack of ‘important’ correspondence and, everywhere, dust and a forlorn sense of increasing desperation. Pretty disgusting really, but she only had herself to blame.
That pretty much summed it up – only herself to blame. She could have done so much better, but she allowed herself to succumb to mediocrity, she got lazy; but ultimately the final nail in her own personal coffin – a nail that had been hammered home far longer ago than she cared to remember – was that she’d just given up. Given up hope, given up caring, given up trying. Yes, it was almost justifiable: Knock someone down enough times and eventually it was easier not to get back up. Kick someone hard enough and long enough while they’re down and they’ll soon stop struggling and then… And then, if you listen carefully, you may just hear the barest whisper; “i quit”.
She sighed and momentarily, the words on the screen became blurry. Wiping her eyes dry with her sleeve, she cursed inwardly – she’d quit a long time ago, but she’d learned the most useful lesson yet: No matter how great the hand that life deals you, some people never get the hang of the game. You come into this world with nothing and you leave it in the same state… it stands to reason that someone’s going to be stuck with nothing in the bit between, too. There’s always going to be losers. Even so, that didn’t mean you had to enjoy it – she hated it, hated herself, hated the world that had made her so. Catching her reflection in the screen in front of her, she silently mouthed ‘I hate you!’.
The lighter flared. Another cigarette; inhale… exhale… she turned back to the screen.
“It doesn’t have to end now”, he murmured, his fingers gently caressing the soft skin of her wrist, “why don’t we order champagne?”
What I’m left feeling after reading this is that whatever we write, our hearts need to be in it, and we need to enjoy it or else it ends up feeling a bit hopeless. Sincere words of praise also help a lot too I think. Anyway, good writing writing, Seren. Enjoyed reading it.
What I’m left feeling reading this is outed as your character’s readership target demographic!!
…….but Shauna put it better – keep it up
1st December 2011
“How do you feel?”
“That’s rather an odd question, considering the circumstances – how am i supposed to feel? Relieved, repentant, afraid, at peace? The only thing i really feel is disengaged – but that’s no different to how i’ve always felt; although i’m not so sure it’s a feeling… more a state of mind. i try to avoid ‘feeling’ anything: It’s too personal, requires too much of oneself to accomplish – better to be distant, cut off from everything that could possibly mean anything – so much easier that way. Disengaged – the impartial observer, watching life unfold, mutely accepting the inevitable without interfering. It’s the only way i know – call it survival instinct or self-preservation – it doesn’t matter… somehow i manage to drag myself through the mire – isn’t that the whole point; To survive, no matter what the cost?
That, of course, is where we differ – one person’s acceptable cost is anathema to another. Perhaps you’d consider it in terms of ‘collateral damage’, although i realise that’s pretty hard to stomach – my own survival is necessarily contingent on the loss of another… that’s why ‘disengaged’ is so apt – it’s not that i don’t care – i do; you wouldn’t believe just how much i do care – but i can’t afford to feel, to allow myself to experience the pain and the loathing. Instead, i simply passively accept the facts – the consequences of my actions are simply that – just consequences, to be acknowledged and accepted, but no matter how unlikely it may seem, i cannot feel remorse, sadness or pain – although i understand completely the enormity of the situation. Yes, she is dead. Yes, i killed her – but beyond those simple facts there is nothing… no feeling; nothing.”
“You talk as if it was a necessary evil?”
“Not at all. i don’t see it in those terms. ‘Evil’ implies malice – you can’t have malice without feelings, it also implies motive – i had none, other than the instinct to survive; is that evil? As for ‘necessary’… yes, completely – it was me, or her, i make no excuses for pursuing my own survival; although, in my defence, i’ve not been ruthless, merely self-serving. i’m not vindictive, she just happened to be in the way – collateral damage. Even then, it’s not as if anything was ever planned or deliberate – more of a slow burn – then, eventually, you reach a tipping point; from then on it’s a downward spiral and there’s no recovery. Let’s not think in terms of victims here – the balance could have tipped either way – it was inevitable that one of us should die, i suppose it was just a matter which of us it was to be.”
“A slow burn… how so?”
“i’ve known her all my life, we grew up together, although i suppose the enmity only really started as we got older. She was always the outgoing, successful one; the one with friends and all the achievements. People would naturally gravitate to her and she would naturally seek them out – one of life’s winners, i suppose you’d say. As for me, i was the quiet one, preferring my own company and keeping to myself – people would say that i was ‘deep’ and a thinker; that really wasn’t the case – i was no more deep or thoughtful than anyone else at that age would have been – i was just a loner, not even out on the fringes looking in. i didn’t want to be part of any of it – i was perfectly happy in my own solitary world.
Even so, we were incredibly close – chalk and cheese, yet hand and glove. Both of us fully understood the other, far more than anyone else ever would, yet despite that understanding both of us chose to be separate and distinct – neither of us would ever consider trespassing on what we considered to be the other’s territory. It was an uneasy truce – she utterly despised me: Everything i was and stood for, likewise i wholeheartedly despised her but we were condemned to share a parallel existence – our paths never crossing, yet tied to each other: Helplessly bound by who we were and what we owed to the other.”
“It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that – deep down – you wanted to be her?”
A single blank gaze – my questioner may as well have not been in the room. Slowly, i stood and walked to the single, barred window. A long sigh escaped me as i gazed through, unseeing, to the world outside – not a sigh of regret, just resignation. Distractedly, i continued, addressing my response to the cold glass, my back to the room.
“Of course i did. Who wouldn’t? She was everything i wanted to be, and everything i could never be, even so i was never jealous – she was simply the ideal that i knew i could never attain. How could i hold it against her? It’s not as if it was her fault, in the same way that i wasn’t to blame for who i was – it’s just the way that we turn out. Yet in reality, no matter how much i wanted to be like her, there was a part of me that knew it was all show, insubstantial and not at all real – there was no depth to her, no substance at all – but i was the only one who could see it. To the rest of the world, she was their darling – the one who could do no wrong… the sun practically shone from her backside. But she was empty. And to whom did she turn to find form and substance? Where did she look to find character and depth, even integrity? To me, of course – can you imagine what that was like?”
“You must have resented it?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But that wasn’t the case: Without me, she was nothing – oh, certainly the goodness and niceness and the popularity would have continued unabated but to what avail? She would have found success and recognition, lived a happy and trouble-free life but it would have just been skin-deep, a veneer of respectability that you’d only have to scratch to find a complete lack of anything of worth beneath. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, but she knew it and she knew also that she needed me. In some ways, she had a deep-seated need to be honest and show integrity – to say to the world that she was far more than the person they wanted to believe her to be, but to do so would have cost far too much; it would have destroyed her and many of those around her – so she remained silent – and i lived the life that she could not, although i hated every second of it with a ferocity that can barely be imagined.
It’s certainly not what i wanted… i’d have given anything to be like her, but then again, i couldn’t sacrifice my own integrity – this is who i am, it’s my identity and – although i find it both distasteful and objectionable – in all honesty i can be nothing else. Yes, i may have my faults – faults that many would condemn me for, but at least i am true to myself.”
“And, as time went on…?”
“We grew further and further apart.”
i turned to face my questioner.
“Only in outward appearances – she continued to thrive and be the life and soul of the party, whilst i… “
i sank back into the chair, tired eyes fixed on those watching me across the table.
“… Whilst i disappeared so far into the background, you might think i didn’t exist – but i was still there, and the ties that bound us were as strong as ever. Without me, she’d have deflated like a torn balloon… without her – well, we’d have been having this conversation long ago.
It couldn’t last forever – i was too damn strong and she could only spread her niceness so thin before the cracks started to appear. It was inevitable – only one of us would survive; equally inevitable that it would be me.”
“So you decided to end her life?”
“No. It was never my decision to make – we were both victims of circumstance. i stalked her, lurked behind corners and in darkened alleyways; i intruded into her precious moments, turning up when least expected and most damaging. i was her skeleton in the closet; the dirty washing being aired in public… suddenly, without trying, i was the one in the limelight and though i hated it and shrunk from it i found that more and more often, i would be found sharing it with her. At first, insidiously and later, as opportunities arose, i took control: Overwhelmed her… destroyed her.
i’m not proud of what i did – in fact, i don’t feel any kind of recognisable emotion. Yes, i beat her mercilessly, dragged her to the ground and throttled the life out of her, not because she deserved it – God knows, she didn’t – and not because i wanted to, but because neither of us had any choice. Our hand was forced.
All the time, although my heart was breaking – i could feel nothing. i disengaged – or rather, my lack of engagement came to the fore, you see, it’s been there all my life – the world, other people, friends, family and situations… i’ve never really been a part of them – simply a watcher, an observer, mentally – even physically – attached, but in truth distant and disconnected. And that’s how i watched her die, as a bystander with no feeling or emotion, other than disgust at myself, at my own own actions, as i choked the life out of her. It’s always been that way. i know no other way to be.”
A long, hollow silence, during which i feel the barest pricking of emotion – i consciously subdue it; ignoring the attempt at feeling, and it fades – what good is emotion to me now?
“And now? How can i possibly answer that? i’ve killed her – ‘she’ is dead!
The me that cared; for whom life was full and worthwhile, is gone – forever… i murdered her. i had no choice in the matter – the real ‘me’, the one who sits here now… the trash, the abhorrent, the evil, the putrid, had her way and, after all these years has finally been exposed to the light of day. She hates it with every fibre of her being – but now, there is no-one to hide behind. Yes, i killed that other me as surely as if i’d wrung the life from her body… she was my Jeckyll, but Hyde triumphed and there can be no going back. Ever.”
My questioner stands, gathering her clipboard and checking her watch. As she nears the door, she looks back at me, pity and fear in her eyes.
“The worst of it is that i cannot bring myself to care. i am a monster of my own making, yet i feel no remorse, no regret, no pity… although destroyed by my own choices and actions, all i see is a victim of circumstance – collateral damage.”
She leaves the room, visibly shaken. The orderly enters, takes the folding table and chairs then leaves; the door softly clicking shut as he goes. Already though, i am gone – disengaged – oblivious to my padded cell… oblivious to everything.
And with a sad heart I say bye to you and wave
Kicking shadows on the street for every mistake that I have made
And like a baby boy I never was alive
Until I saw your blue eyes cry and I held your face in my hand
And then I fell down yelling “Make it go away!”
Just make her smile come back and shine just like it used to be
And then she whispered “How can you do this to me?”
Blue October – Hate Me
21st October 2011
It’s getting dark in here, and I can see the merry-go-round clearly through the window.
The fair has over-wintered here for as long as I can remember; as the colder days and dark nights draw in and October gives way to the chill of November, it’s almost as if winter is heralded by the arrival of the bright colours of the amusements – although not a joyful, noisy affair – as one might expect – rather, a sombre and depressing moment of realisation that the brighter, warmer days are finally done. Locked-down and boarded up, the rides take on a shabby air of neglect; the faded green tarpaulins, flapping in the cold gusts; leaves piling in the sanctuaries between parked vehicles, speak of abandonment and loss. Then, as winter extends its icy fingers, its bitter caress reaching out, searching for victims – like the stark, blackened branches of lifeless trees reaching skywards, as if searching for the sun – the amusements seem to shrink within themselves; shrivelled and bleak remains of what they once were. Metal, cold to the touch, sucks warmth from the unwary who dare to touch; chains rattle in the gloom and all is as still as the grave. It has been winter for far too long.
The thought makes me shiver and draw the blanket tighter. The fitful, yellow glow of the single bulb stutters and fades, before resuming its unhealthy flicker as in the distance I hear the generator choke, recover and return to its mournful, irritating chug.
I wonder, briefly if I should make the effort to close the heavy curtain and blot out the world outside… What difference will it make? The world will still be there; the stark reality of the way things are – besides, I have hidden away from that reality for long enough. How long is it now, three… four years? Wearily, I try to measure the time in my mind, but fail – what does it matter anyway; time passes and today will be the same as yesterday, and tomorrow will be no different. It is always winter – the world, despite all that has happened continues to exist and I, lonely and lost, tread the sorrowful path that, one day, will reveal my destiny.
The fair – such an unlikely neighbour – no doubt a stroke of genius, conceived by some long-gone government think-tank – makes perfect sense too: If you want to hide something, put it where no-one will think to look; make it ordinary, everyday and surround it with everyday people. If you want to find ‘top secret’, look in the town centres and car parks, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for there than in any top-flight military establishment. Look somewhere like here… a dingy warehouse in a ten-a-penny backstreet trading estate, nestled between the double-glazing and cardboard box manufacturers – it’s the last place you’d think of looking.
The most exciting thing that ever happened in this place was the return of the fair at the end of the season. All year, the empty lot opposite stood vacant, a breeding ground for weeds and vermin, all cracked concrete and oilstains until, at the end of October, the fleet of wagons, trucks and trailers would descend on the estate. Over a brief few days, lights sparkled, loudspeakers blared and diesel engines growled, as rides were given a final going-over before their long winter sojourn. Soon, all would be still, wheels clamped, padlocks secured and gates bolted – the fair was over for another season. We looked forward to their arrival – it broke the monotony but then, as the cold and dark set in, the fair lost its appeal and life became as dull and grey as the November skies above.
Spring brought its own bounty – with the April showers and the first green tendrils of life making their tentative steps into the still cold air, the fair would creak, in fits and starts, back into life. Swarthy, dark-skinned men would arrive on the scene, cursing over seized bearings and corroded beams. Engines would stutter into life and, like a car-crash survivor, staggering from the wreck, gingerly testing and flexing his joints, the fair would slowly come back to life. Wheels spinning, the hiss of compressed air and the clatter and hum of generators became the order of the day and brave souls would spend the next week or so, cadging free rides during lunch breaks – volunteer test-pilots for the reborn attractions. Eventually, freshly painted, oiled and greased, the fair would move out – destination unknown – a gaudily arrayed convoy of vehicles, bedecked with multi-coloured lights and the promise of fun. The lot would return to an empty space – a barren, concrete eyesore that, somehow, the weeds and couch grass still managed to master, as summer crept up.
Now though, it is winter and the finery of the fair huddles beneath its coverings, seeking shelter from the harsh world around it. It mocks me – all that it represents screams retribution at me: As I sit here and gaze at the grey flakes of snow, as they fall and swirl, I hear the sounds of the fairground; the music and shouts, the laughter; the pop of balloons and the whine of sirens. My mind conjures the screaming of children, as the rides thrill, dip and spin… the screaming of children fills my dreams – I see their terrified eyes, feel their searing pain and, I know, I can never be forgiven.
The generator falters again and the light flickers, casting ghostlike shadows around me. I shudder and seek refuge, burrowing deeper into my chair: Tonight will not be a night for sleeping, but so few are these days. How many times have I sat in this chair, unable to sleep, yet too exhausted to move? Again, my mind toys with closing the curtain – I fear and loathe what I see through that accursed glass – but, my flesh is weak and my spirit is weaker; I sigh, avert my gaze and stare fixedly at the floor.
The skin on my arms itches beneath the blanket but I have neither the will nor the inclination to scratch… I am resigned to my fate and, although I fear what is to come, I cannot bring myself to subvert the cause of natural justice – my life is not mine to end – my punishment is to live and to suffer, to dream of the screams of the children: I owe them that, at least.
Yet, it needn’t be this way – had I the courage, I could end it all. At the very least, I could seek some release and comfort from the provisions so carefully stockpiled and set aside for this very moment, but I will not – how can I? My eyes wander; drawn inexorably to the almost empty bottle, mocking me from the table at my side. That, at least, I will not touch… I feel the sting of tears in my eyes and a wave of nausea floods through my guts as I recall the last time I drank from that potent reminder of my past. Never again – although it is far too late for that, now – the damage has been done and that I must live with. Sometimes, when it is so cold and my resolve weakens, the lure of the bottle is strong; the temptation to seek blessed relief in the stupor of an alcoholic haze pulls strongly, but I need only look at that bottle to be sickened and appalled by my past, to be reminded of the bitter truth, and my resolve is unbroken. Now I am sober – and that is how I will remain – can it really be four years, now? Likewise, I shun the creature comforts that lie at my disposal – my thoughts turn to the rooms downstairs, deep beneath the warehouse, where warmth and light and comfort are there to be enjoyed at will – but what right do I have to comfort?
So, here I remain, in the cold and the dark, staring out at a world where winter’s grip chokes any attempt at restoration and healing. There is, of course, another reason I choose to be here: I cannot bear to be near that room – I sigh; there it is again, haunting my thoughts, as it always does, as it must inevitably do. A room – far worse than any prison cell – that was my only home for three long, soul-destroying years, the pale green walls encompassing my whole world. Isolated from the world completely, bereft of all knowledge of events above, more silent than a tomb and more sterile than a grave. There I waited, unable to escape the brutal truth of my actions – the evidence of my crime mocking me every day; my error of judgment. Dammit! It’s more simple than that – my drunken idiocy!
Now the memories flood back; the horror from three years and lifetime ago, flooding my mind and overwhelming my feelings. Accusing. Provoking. Mocking. Despairing.
I should have been doing my job, but no… I was depressed and upset and, just for once, I simply didn’t care. Halfway through my shift, I found myself transfixed by the sight of the fair, all packed up and broken down for the winter, and it felt like me. Here I was, nothing worthwhile remaining and just the prospect of a long, empty and cold future to look forward to… well, I wasn’t going to go quietly!
Somehow, I found myself in the stores downstairs – I was already well down the second bottle by the time I stumbled into the room with the green walls… and there it was, glinting dully, where it had carelessly been left lying on the panel. I remember thinking that Alex was an idiot – how many times had he wandered off, leaving his key just lying there? I could hear him now…“What if I lost it outside? There’d be holy hell to pay”. With crystal clarity, I remembered my thoughts from that fateful day – the moron was outside, enjoying a crafty fag, neglecting his post… time to teach Alex a lesson, time to teach them all a bloody lesson!
How many times have I replayed that moment in my head? I remember it so clearly, although I was too drunk to know what I was doing at the time. Across the years, I watch myself take his key and insert it; I paused, taking a healthy slug from the bottle in my hand, before taking my own key and sliding it slowly into the slot. A click, and a panel that should never have been unlocked, flipped open… “Eff you!”, I slurred, and flicked the switch. It was only when I heard the metallic clang of the door locks engaging behind me that I realised I was trapped, and with that realisation came the most sobering thought of all.
I’m sober now. Have been ever since – not that it makes any difference. So here I sit and I watch winter’s hold through my window, hearing the accusing screams of children I have never met, and remembering the terrible thing I have done.
They had a name for it, back in the sixties – mutual assured destruction – and, in a moment of drunken madness, it was I who pushed the button.
I gaze, unseeing through my window at the nuclear snow. My flesh itches and crawls but, if nothing else, I’m sober now.
10th October 2011
Waiting rooms, eh? Whoever came up with that idea obviously never had to sit in one of the damn things for any length of time. Probably the sort of person who ‘knows’ people – the kind that jumps to the front of the queue and doesn’t have to hang around in line with the rest of the plebs… coming to think of it, probably the self-same the sort of person who’d happily wish to impose the god-forsaken waiting room upon their fellow man. I raise my glass to them, I really do – if their aim was to cause misery, intolerable boredom and the breaking of the human spirit, well they certainly achieved it. Big pat on the back, friend, you did well. You certainly grabbed a decent portion of my life, you slimeball – doctors, dentists; railway platforms; courthouses; dole offices; bus stations… good grief, just how much of my life has been sat in these thankless places, doing nothing, killing time, just… waiting? So, here I am again, sat here, just waiting. This particular waiting room has few of the creature comforts of others of its kind – no miniscule, sticky-finger-covered TV screen, high in the corner, playing stuff no-one wants to watch at a volume no-one could possibly hear; no torn and creased glossy magazines, pages missing, full of last year’s fashion tips; no snot-faced kids, crawling under your feet and dribbling over your shoes – and therefore no broken toy cars and homicidal building blocks, strategically scattered underfoot, ready to catch the unwary. Just uncomfortable, faded faux leather chairs – the kind that are too large to be anything but waiting room fodder – the green and mauve shiny and cracked cushions, unpleasantly slippery, accompanying every shift in position with their irritating farty noises. There are no windows – just a door in, and a door out. Like waiting rooms everywhere, this one tastes and smells of impatience and tension, of nervous fear and worry. I shuffle, I stare, I ease the stress from my neck, and then… then, that stupefying rigour begins to set in, the knowledge that my time is in the hands of another, one who is unseen and uncaring of my plight. The resignation to my fate floods my senses: Not the fate that lies beyond that other door – the one through which I’ve not yet passed – but my more immediate and pressing fate… that I am to sit here, condemned to wait, for longer than I care to consider, alone in my own quiet world, retiring within myself – the interminable, gnawing piteousness of waiting, filling and overwhelming my being. I wait. I wait. I wait, and still, I wait. And then, at the point at which I no longer care, the door through which I came opens: Two men walk briskly in and cross to my chair. The one to my right nods, briefly to me, barely making eye contact… his vision darting to the corners, the sides, the ceiling – anywhere to avoid making that simple humanising contact with myself. I sigh and allow them to help me to my feet. Gently, yet firmly, they guide me to that other door, yet unopened – a knock – a pause – and it swings wide. As we pass through, a whiff of ozone and fear dances in the air, strangely energising, even exciting. My cuffs are removed and the guards strap me, tightly, into the chair. The hood, almost roughly pulled over my head and face – as if those preparing me wish to hide my humanity as quickly and efficiently as they are able: They’re just doing their job – they don’t wish to acknowledge the reality of my existence. The hood blots out the light, muffling the sounds of the world around me, peace descends and – finally – I relax. My last thought, as I feel the harsh coldness of the electrodes, as they press against my skin, is simple and rather apt: it runs through my head, bringing a sense of peace, even tranquillity. It simply whispers: ‘I guess the waiting is over’.
30th September 2011
Fear Not The Monsters
Do not fear the monsters;
those scrabblings in the night,
for there’s no need for you to fret,
no cause to show your fright.
Do not fear the spiders
that crawl about your hair,
spinning out their cobwebs,
creepy-crawlies to ensnare.
Do not fear the howling
of the werewolves on the hill;
the blood-red eyes and teeth so sharp,
as they move in for the kill.
Do not fear the hissing
of the snakes that slither past,
with fangs of venomed poison,
one bite could be your last
And fear you not the torment of the voices in your head;
the snickering, whispered chatter of the immortal dead.
And as the darkness falls, and your courage starts to fail,
and the creatures of your nightmares begin to cry and wail,
spare no thought for the evil things that infest your noisome dreams,
that seek to gnaw and tear and slash, to fill your night with screams.
And when the mouldy corpses rise from their plundered graves
there is no need to run and hide, or look to Him who saves;
and as the bloodstain spreads and grows, to fill your world with gore;
i counsel you, there is no need to worry any more:
For deep within there is, in you, a greater horror still;
it quietly lurks and bides its time, awaits visceral thrill.
No demon of fictitious dreams, this monstrous thing is real –
It is your mind, your thoughts, your soul and all the things you feel;
the hidden side that’s never seen and is to all unknown,
it waits and festers, tortures you and chills you to the bone.
And should a stolen glimpse reveal the horrors in your mind;
the wickeness, the dark, the pain: The terrors there enshrined;
you’ll know at last, there is no fear to match the evil in your soul
and piece by piece, day by day, it will consume your whole.
So now you know the truth at last;
redemption is long gone,
and each accusing finger points
at you, the guilty one.
And when the time should come to pass
and the reckoning is due –
the judge and jury are agreed
the fiend, my friend, is you.
So do not fear the monsters,
though you may shed a tear,
they have no power over you;
in fact, it’s you, they fear.
Ooh. You should write poems more often. I’d have published this one back in the day! Great writing, Boots. Enjoyed it.
3rd August 2011
Brink of Extinction
The deep, sombre tones of the voiceover were a familiar sound on the radio these days… “What would you do if you had to choose between the buffalo and the giraffe? – Now you can have a choice…” – there had been a lot of hype during the build-up to the first ever EarthSpare Summit and now, as representatives from around the world gathered in Tokyo to discuss the future of the planet, tensions were high.
The pro-survivalists were out in force: The Tokyo police had their work cut out for them as the protesters grew in numbers and anger. The opposition – the bankers, multi-nationals and developers watched impassively from behind closed doors, ready to flex their corporate muscles at the first sign that the green brigade were gaining ground.
Inside the great conference hall, the debate had been long and largely unproductive. The assembled power-mongers of the developed and developing world found themselves in the uneasy position of being unable to resolve their problems in a way that was mutually acceptable and beneficial: The developing world was fighting to enjoy the same lifestyle as their richer counterparts whilst that happy minority were loathe to give up their luxuries in a bid to become more sustainable,
That was the keyword – sustainability – to sustain growth, development, lifestyle and progress there was a cruel cost… none could be achieved whilst sustaining the natural world. All were agreed on that at least – even the environmentalists, waving their placards in the streets outside were correct on that score – that was not why the summit had been called. What was being debated was quite simple; was the civilised world ready or willing to concede that without a wholesale and significant reduction in consumption of natural resources, the natural world would soon be on the brink of extinction?
The summit had dissolved into disorder – voices were raised and arguments raged between individual factions; this was achieving nothing.
A solitary voice barked out across the chamber; “Order! Let’s have some order please”. The clamour died and all eyes in the room turned to face the speaker; as quiet descended, he continued, “We, of the United Europe fully understand that our friends in the developing world feel we should put aside the luxuries we have worked long and hard for, but that is not a real solution. We, of course, are more than willing to cut emissions and look at greener ways of living but, with respect to our African, South American and Eastern colleagues, the problem of habitat destruction is hardly the fault of the Western world. I’m very much afraid, my friends, this problem is one of your own making and therefore the solution must lie in your hands.” The pan-Europe delegate looked apologetically around the chamber, shrugged and returned to his seat, accompanied by riotous applause from the developed nations.
The African delegate – a great beast of a character, who dominated the room with his persona, slowly clambered to his feet. “And that”, he growled, pointing at the European delegates, “is precisely the blinkered attitude that will get us nowhere. It is perfectly clear that the African nations can expect no support from our Western counterparts, so we shall act on our own – and to hell with your Western sensibilities and squeamishness! We propose a managed solution – we will re-instate hunting safaris for profit and we will no longer waste our resources on the futility of protecting those species that cannot protect themselves. Neither do we intend continuing the wasteful squandering of money on combating poaching – instead we will legalise it, using the profits from the products it provides to underpin our economy. As far as we are concerned, it is survival of the fittest!”
“Quite right too!” Hissed the Chinese delegate, “Who cares about a few isolated populations being wiped out because we’ve flooded their habitat? We need energy… it is either save them and we perish, or they perish and we succeed”
Hoots of derision exploded from the American quarter as a burly Southerner came to his feet. “Hell boy! That’s no solution! How the heck you gonna explain that to your kids, y’all?”
Instantly, the South Americans waded into the fray: “Hey! Señor! What about your bambinos? How you going to explain to them why your South American neighbours have to live in shanty towns while you live it up in your fancy air-conditioned condo’s? Don’t you go telling us we can’t use our natural resources to build our economies – we never asked for the rainforests, but now we have them, we’re sure as hell going to use them. So, a few species will lose their home – we never knew most of them were there anyway – it’s no loss.”
Once again, the debating chamber was filled with dissenting voices; and so it continued for three days.
Remarkably, consensus was reached. A press conference was called and the Summit’s decision was revealed to a waiting world.
“We, the united and combined nations of planet earth have conceded the undeniable fact that we, as caretakers and custodians of our planet and all it’s resources for the common good, have a responsibility to ensure that our fellow animals and future generations are provided for, whatever the cost. We have further concluded, that as the dominant species, we have the right, indeed the responsibility, to determine the right of survival for those lesser species over which we have control.
Therefore, henceforth, we have decided that the survival of the human race is of little consequence to us. If the beasts of Africa wish to hunt them to extinction, then that is their inalienable right; if the needs of animals in the far East are such that to spare humans would bring suffering and loss to animalkind, then we cannot afford to spare humans; if we are to lose forever, as yet undiscovered groups of humans in the Amazon basin, then it is of little consequence, if our commercial needs are being met.
Animals of the world it is our sad duty to inform you that the human race is on the brink of extinction. However, that is is the price of progress and one that we, as civilised animals, are ready and willing to pay.”
16th June 2011
Things were starting to get a little exciting! 118,000 – getting near my limit now but i still had some wiggle-room. I waved my brochure in the air, praying that nobody else would want to fight things out to the bitter end. I cast a look towards my main adversary, the chap in the corner, dressed almost entirely in expensive tweed. He certainly looked the part, easily passing for Edwardian country gentry, even down to the deerstalker and handlebar moustache. I could picture him in the house – they suited one another.
He’d been my only serious rival for the past few bids – I was sure he’d have no trouble keeping pace with me, well beyond the point I could afford to push my resources. He caught me staring at him, perused me for a moment, then smiled, a look of benign resignation on his face. Perhaps he’d recognised the silent plea in my eyes? In any event, he shrugged and settled comfortably back in his seat – when the auctioneer looked his way, he responded with a solemn shake of his head.
“Any more at one hundred and eighteen thousand pounds?”, I heard the auctioneer say. The hammer fell – the house was mine!
I wouldn’t say it was my dream house – it was one of those places that estate agents describe as ‘having potential’ and ‘in need of sympathetic renovation’, but the minute I’d seen it in the auction house catalogue, it was as good as sold. It was the house I’d always wanted and the location couldn’t be better: A little market town, picturesque and prim, with half-timbered shops and more churches than pubs. Small enough to still have a sense of community, but big enough to merit its own Tesco Metro – it couldn’t be more perfect.
The catalogue was a little sparse on the details – the house appeared to be just a shell, although that was part of the attraction – a completely blank canvas to paint my own story upon. In the days running up to the auction, I’d done my own research but the house remained somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, the place had lain empty for over ten years, allowed to fall into disrepair and dilapidation; almost completely gutted when its previous owner had been forced to leave rather abruptly – a solicitor by trade, whom it seems, found himself on the wrong side of the dock and was now spending his days at Her Majesties’ pleasure. Details on his identity, or for that matter his misdemeanors, were a little sketchy – all I had been able to piece together was that the matter was so scandalous that the small community had rallied together to gloss over the sordid details. I found it amusing and couldn’t help wondering whether he’d have got off, if he’d only employed a better solicitor! Whatever its previous owner’s woes, the house had lain empty and forgotten ever since, until now… and now, it was mine, all mine!
A good month had passed since the auction – it always takes longer than expected to put one’s affairs in order. Renting temporary accommodation had proven easy enough; I’d even managed to find digs in the High Street, within spitting distance of my new acquisition. Sorting out my everyday affairs however had been less than straightforward – there had been diaries to re-arrange, agents to placate and last-minute adjustments to schedules – take it from me… putting one’s life on hold for eighteen months is an exercise in restraint that would try the patience of the most benign saint. Yet, despite all the drawbacks, here I was, seeing my purchase in bricks and mortar, for the first time.
I just wish I could have picked a better day for it. The drizzle had been constant all morning and, as I stood there, ineffectually pushing at the stubborn wrought iron gate, insidious trickles of cold rainwater dripped from the brim of my hat, to run down my neck and trickle along the length of my spine. A final heave and the gate shuddered open with a grating squeal, careening into the overgrown bushes to reward my efforts with a spatter of wet spray in my face. Not an auspicious welcome to my new home. I stepped through the gate onto my property and looked up at the imposing building before me.
Set back, somewhat, from the High Street, the house somehow afforded a degree of privacy that others along the busy road lacked. I doubted that many passers by paid much attention to the place: Its imposing, yet mellow, stonework and tall windows which wouldn’t have looked at all out of place adorning a country mansion, somehow faded into a kind of obscurity for those who bustled past daily on their way to the market. You might have said it was a grand façade, yet nestled between the buildings on either side, it seemed to exude a muted reticence to show itself, almost an apologetic embarrassment to appear in any way brash and expressive. The swoosh of car tyres, as they passed by in the wet street behind me accentuated the feeling of distance… out there, beyond the iron railings lay another world; in here there was a feeling of solemnity and composure – at once both pleasing and a little unsettling.
A sudden blatter of rain disturbed my reverie. Fumbling with the keys in the unfamiliar lock, I eventually managed to open the front door, stubbornly resisting me as the accumulated debris of junk mail, pizza menus and the usual detritus that finds its way through the letterbox of empty houses, piled up behind the door like a paper bow-wave attempting to escape an oncoming ship. I squeezed through the opening, cursing the junk-mailers, before sweeping as much of it as I could manage clear with my foot. I closed the door behind me: I was home.
It’s a funny thing, walking around your future home for the first time – all that stored-up excitement, the plans and ideas tend to float away when faced with the reality of an empty house. It’s difficult to visualise how it might one day look and all you really see is empty, unfamiliar rooms, dirt and damp, windows without curtains and bare floors. There’s that strange, hollow sound that the rooms have – not quite echoes, but a sound that speaks of emptiness and loss… here is a place, it seems to say, that is devoid of warmth and comfort.
The reverberating sounds were right – the place had that damp chill that comes from years of neglect and cold. It would be some time before this house could speak of any comforts. It would be some time before it was even remotely clean! It’s always surprised me how an empty property can become so grimy when it’s unoccupied. The photographs in the auctioneer’s catalogue hadn’t even come near to depicting the true state of the rooms: Peeling wallpaper, black mould and ugly patches and marks throughout. The bathroom and the dining room, at the rear of the house, were by far the worst though.
Bearing in mind the length of time the property had been empty, I certainly hadn’t anticipated the bathroom being sparkling clean, however the appalling state of affairs that was revealed when I opened the door made me heave. It was a large bathroom, the sort that you don’t find in modern houses, with an old-fashioned cast iron bath and chunky white porcelain fittings. The bath itself was foul – it looked like something had died in there – a thick brownish-grey sludge caked the tub and smeared the tiled walls surrounding it. The dry, caked muck had peeled away in places, flaking into translucent scales… and there was more of it in the sink. At one end of the bath, a steady drip of rainwater stuttered in rapid patters from an ominous wet bulge in the plaster of the ceiling above. Where it fell, the sludge had liquefied, forming a gungy jelly-like mass and from this arose a faintly rancid smell that turned my stomach. Surprisingly, the toilet was pretty clean, although I didn’t really investigate that closely. This room would need gutting completely before I could even consider what to do with it.
Although less foul, the dining room was equally offputting. I surmised that the previous occupant had been some sort of motorcycle enthusiast – the sort that thinks nothing of stripping an engine in the back bedroom – when he wasn’t embezzling his clients! Or perhaps he’d been a failed DIY-er, maybe he was both? Whatever his hobbies, they’d left their mark in this room – great gouges ripped out of the floorboards and scratches decorated the walls, whilst oilstains described ugly blotches over the floor and sprayed the wallpaper with their own fountain-like patterns. There was even an oily handprint in a corner of the room… some people have no respect for their dwellings. The room was pretty much a right-off, as far as I was concerned: Part of one wall had been partially demolished, exposing wooden laths and black mortar – presumably a failed DIY attempt – maybe he’d been hauled off to prison before he’d had a chance to really get started, I thought charitably! The big sash windows in this room had been boarded up and beneath one of them languished a stained and filthy mattress; idly I wondered if perhaps the guy preferred to sleep within arm’s distance of his beloved motorbikes?
The realisation that I was all alone in this empty house – the house that nobody ever noticed – suddenly hit me. Memories of the Suzy Lamplugh story played across my mind… seeing the boarded-up windows and that filthy mattress unnerved me – dammit, girl! What are you playing at here on your own? What if there’s squatters or druggies around here? Now thoroughly spooked, I fumbled in my handbag until I felt the reassuring shape of the rape alarm in my hand. Slipping the cord around my wrist, I clasped the small plastic box in my hand and resolved to think things through more carefully next time.
Of course, then I got all self-righteous – this was my house, dammit! No-one was going to dictate to me here! With my resolve somewhat stiffened, I made my way to the back door… I wanted to see the garden, squatters, muggers or druggies not withstanding!
Rather bizarrely, the back door was secured with a sturdy padlock, on the inside. I had no problem finding the chunky key on the bunch supplied by the estate agents and, once I’d freed it, the door swung open easily enough, revealing the reason for the padlock. At some time in its past, the door had been forced open using considerably more force than I’d exerted, splintering the frame and leaving the deadlock hanging uselessly from its screws. I made a mental note to put it at the top of my list of urgent repairs – however, the padlock would have to do until I could get around to sorting things out – it wasn’t important at the moment; I wanted to see my garden.
The catalogue had said half an hectare – I had no idea how big that was, if the truth be known, I only had a vague idea of what an acre looked like, so when it came to hectares I was completely in the dark. I admit, I was a little disappointed at first – not by the size… it was huge; but it was so overgrown, my heart sank as I looked around the dank and wet undergrowth. I’m not sure what I’d expected, conservatories and winding pathways, perhaps? What I got, was a confusion of bushes, shrubs and scrubby grass, a plastic greenhouse, full of old growbags and the dry remains of ancient tomato plants, a broken-down shed, leaning at a crazy angle and held together only by the creeping convolvulus that almost completely covered the structure. Then there was the awful patio, possibly the biggest I’d ever seen: It spread, like a concrete abscess from the rear of the house, across the whole width of the garden – the plain, grey slabs were the cheap and nasty kind, poorly laid and finished with a wall made from those ghastly decorative pierced concrete blocks. The whole thing was rounded off spectacularly by a poorly executed reproduction of the Pissing Boy, his left hand and genitalia, snapped off and lying in the concrete bowl beneath him. Stood there, in the rain, I wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for: It didn’t take long to find out!
My visit to the property hadn’t really worked out as planned: I was feeling a bit despondent now and the thought of going back to my rented room and going through builder’s estimates really didn’t appeal. I struck off down the High Street and found myself loitering in the Market Square… thoroughly cold, wet and miserable, I made a beeline for the little, Victorian-styled tea rooms – a haven to dry out and take stock.
“Hello, luv”: The plump woman who attended my table reminded me of a Dickens’ character. The cafe was empty, the rain seemed to have kept all but the most determined shoppers at home, so I was blessed with her undivided attention. I didn’t mind; it was good to see a warm and friendly face.
She chatted away as she disappeared behind the counter to serve up my pot of English Breakfast and home-made flapjack. “Are you visiting?”, she burbled happily, “we get a lot of visitors here, especially in the summer time… shame about the weather though!”
“Actually, I’ve just bought a property here, in the High Street. I’m going to renovate it and, eventually I intend moving here permanently.”
She bustled across, carefully placing the pot of tea and a small china jug of milk on the table in front of me. The cup rattled gently on the saucer, a result of the tiny tremors in her right hand… no doubt, that’s why she didn’t use a tray: I tend to notice little things like that in people.
“I’ll just get your flapjack, pet”, she said, turning and making her way back to the counter where she’d left the oaty snack, sat on a delicate china plate. “Did you say the High Street, luv? Not the flat above the post office, is it?”
“No”, I replied, “It’s the old Edwardian House, with the iron railings… the one set back from the road”.
You know those things that people only do in movies? – Well, she did one of them…
She gave a little gasp and the china slipped from her fingers, to shatter on the tiled floor – an unexpected explosion of noise in the quiet shop – I was on my feet in an instant, instinctively reaching to support her, as she swayed on her feet. Guiding her to a spare chair at my table, I eased her onto the seat. I’ve never seen anyone go pale in quite the way she did.
The poor woman really didn’t know what to do with herself… “Eee, I’m sorry, luv… it’s just that terrible place… my word, if you only knew what went on there”.
Outside, the rain re-doubled its efforts, I slipped out of my seat and peered out through the door – the street was empty and the old dear was in no state to be serving customers; her right hand was now trembling violently and she’d gone the colour of the grey, overcast sky outside. I turned the ‘closed’ sign to face the outside and slipped the latch before walking slowly over to the shattered plate on the floor. Crouching, I scooped up as much of the broken crockery and crumbs as I could and placed them on the counter. Taking a spare cup from beside the till, I sat back down and poured us both a cup of tea.
“Now then”, I said, “I think you’d better tell me all about this house”.
She talked slowly, picking her words with care and sustaining them with frequent sips of tea, occasionally glancing at me with an apologetic look, yet mostly staring at her hands. The story that unfolded took some time but it told me more than I ever could have known.
The house had once been the offices of a firm of solicitors: Wilmslow, Hurst and Blagdale, eventually passing for some inexplicable reason into the hands of junior partner Jacob Hurst when old man Wilmslow retired from practice. At the time, Hurst – a young man of 20 years – had barely qualified and there was talk of blackmail. The resulting partnership between Hurst and Blagdale was somewhat strained, with stories of ‘differences of opinion’ between the two men rife in the community. Turns out Hurst was having ‘private consultations’ with Blagdale’s wife, culminating in a public showdown at the Town Hall, when the two came to blows and ended up spending a night in the cells to cool off. That spelled the end of the firm – Blagdale just disappeared one night and was never heard of afterwards, whilst Mrs Blagdale set up home with Hurst in – it was rumoured – Blagdale’s old suite at the office.
It seems Hurst had a cruel streak – the ex-Mrs Blagdale became well known at the doctor’s surgery and stories of beatings were the stock-in-trade around the town square and local pubs on market day. Even so, she stayed with him and, eventually, they had a daughter, Emily. Over the years the gossip continued… rumours of Emily being locked in the cellar, screams being heard from the old Edwardian house in the evenings and such like were widely discussed but rarely was anything done about them.
Around the time that Emily would have been twelve years old, events took a shocking turn. A wild-eyed ex-Mrs B., clothes torn, bloodied and bruised, was found wailing and screaming at the foot of the town cross, the attempts of onlookers to assist her were beaten off, as she lashed out blindly at all who came close. Over and over, she kept repeating, “he went and took her, he did, he done away with her!” According to those who witnessed the scene this continued for some time until, with an almighty scream, the woman took off – tearing down the cobbled streets as if the hounds of hell themselves were snapping at her heels. She was never seen again, nor for that matter, was Emily.
There was a police enquiry, of course. A distraught Hurst was hauled in for questioning and later released without charge – the official story was that the woman had gone quite mad, inflicting terrible injuries upon herself and had now been discretely secreted away in a country sanatorium, far from the public gaze. Emily, fearing for her life, had fled and now was nowhere to be found – indeed, she never was found. The following day, Hurst closed the practice, becoming a virtual recluse, with barely any contact at all with the outside world. At least, that’s how it appeared.
“Oh, miss… they say terrible, horrible things happened at that house.”
If anything, the tremor in the woman’s had had grown more pronounced: I gave her a tight-lipped smile, patted her hand gently and busied myself for a few minutes preparing a second pot of tea. Looking at the shards of china I’d left on the counter, I decided I would have a flapjack after all… I could do with some carbs inside me. As i laid the tray, I looked across at the woman – she was in a terrible state – and I pondered those words… “terrible, horrible things…”
She looked gratefully at me, as I poured her another cup of tea. “Thank you, luv. You sure you want to hear about this?”
I nodded. “I may as well know the worst”, I replied.
Within a few short weeks of Hurst’s self-imposed exile, it became clear that all was not right at the old house. Neighbours complained of bangings and crashings at night, of shouts and screams being heard from the back of the house. There was the occasional broken window and, for no apparent reason, the reclusive Hurst seemed to have taken a sudden interest in garden living – at least, that’s what the frequent deliveries of concrete slabs and the sudden appearance of a large and ugly patio in the back garden seemed to point to.
Then people were found to be missing.
Concerns were voiced about a young farmer’s daughter when her market stall was left unattended for several days, the produce spoiling in the boxes. A newly-wedded couple, taking their honeymoon in the Dales, failed to return to their hotel – the search was called off after three days… someone suggested they had fallen foul of the weir and been swept away, presumed drowned. The child who never arrived home from school; the vicar whose congregation were left waiting, one Sunday morning… the list grew, as the months passed.
Over the course of that year, more people were pronounced lost or missing than in the previous hundred years. Then the community was rocked to the core by a horror, revealed right in their midst.
A pair of teenagers, parked up in the castle grounds, away from prying eyes to enjoy each other’s company were brutally attacked by an assailant who wrenched their car door open, dragging the young girl, kicking and screaming, by her hair out of the car and on to the ground. The girl was quickly silenced by a bone-cracking kick to the face but her attacker had failed to account for her boyfriend. The lad fought valiantly, until he was felled by the sickening thud of a large stone against the back of his head: The assailant limped into the shadows, dragging the girl with him but that lad’s pluck had been rewarded. The following morning, when he was discovered, barely conscious by Fritz, the Cairn Terrier – closely followed by George Farlowe, his owner – the boy was in no fit state to speak, however, the silver fob watch that lay beside him spoke more concisely than any words might have.
The watch, engraved, “To my very own Jacob… our secret, always. Celia Blagdale”, led the police straight to Jacob Hurst and the house in the High Street. The girl was found, tied in a squalid back room, lying on a filthy, blood-soaked mattress – the windows, firmly boarded showed evidence of struggle, as did her torn and splintered hands. Both her ankles had been broken, along with several ribs. The room itself was plastered with bloodstains – later investigations revealed numerous blood and tissue types, although no other victims were ever formally identified.
When the girl had sufficiently overcome her ordeal – which, it must be said, she never fully did – she gave the police her statement. Hurst denied nothing. He’d told her that he would break every bone in her body and that when he had finished, he would sever her head from her body with piano wire. No-one would find her body… as she awaited her fate, Hurst informed her he was preparing an acid bath; his intention was to ‘render her down’. He boasted that both his wife and daughter had met the same ghastly fate, along with numerous other hapless individuals whose paths had crossed with his. As the girl screamed for help, he made good his word, shattering first her ankles, then her ribs with a claw hammer. The police caught him in the act, not a moment too soon for the poor girl. A quantity of rusty piano wire was recovered from the property and choking police officers were forced to wear respirators to combat the acrid acid fumes that billowed from the bathroom.
“I’m sorry, luv”, the woman whispered,“you must be appalled by all this, but it’s only right you should know the truth about what you’ve bought yourself”.
She was right, of course; it wasn’t exactly the sort of information that could be gleaned from an auction room catalogue!
“They hushed it up… ’twere only a couple of years after they caught Sutcliffe – no-one wanted another ‘Ripper’ case so soon after: It would have killed the tourist industry round these parts. The police wanted it kept quiet too – they’d already been proved incompetent and they didn’t want to go down that route again.”
I sipped my tea and grimaced: stone cold!
“In the end they could only get him on kidnapping and attempted murder. They never found his wife or kid, nor no evidence of any of the other missing people: Went down for a good long stretch though… I remember it like it were yesterday, what that judge said”.
Her voice had dropped again; I leaned forward, the two of us like co-conspirators in a spy novel.
Her voice was a whisper; “‘Jacob Hurst’, judge said, ‘Jacob Hurst, you are a vile and evil man. You have shown a callous and inhuman disregard for your victim with no regret or remorse for the crimes you have committed. I have no doubt that you have perpetrated many others and it is my hope that you will one day stand trial for those also and pay the full penalty for your despicable outrages. I sentence you to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that you serve the maximum time permitted by law”.
A loud rattle on the door behind me startled us out of our conspiratorial huddle. A large gentleman wearing a bright yellow mackintosh was staring through the glass panels of the door and gesturing at the latch.
“My husband”, explained the woman, apologetically, scrambling to her feet and scuttling over to unlock the door. I gathered my things together, dragging my still-wet coat across my shoulders, the unpleasant clammy wetness causing me to shudder. The woman returned, hovering anxiously at my elbow: “Are you ok, pet?”
I nodded and fished my purse from my bag, then that wobbly right hand was on mine; “Please luv, there’s no charge”. I nodded, dropped the purse back into the bag and snapped the clasp shut. “You will be alright, won’t you luv?”; a pained look on her face. I smiled consolingly and made my way to the door.
“Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be just fine – thanks for the tea!” I opened the door and stepped out into the rain.
The next eighteen months were extraordinarily busy and more than a little frustrating. In between the complete strangers who would turn up on the doorstep with their ghoulish fascination for the macabre, I had dreadful trouble with builders. The local firms wouldn’t touch the place, particularly when it came to lifting the patio – all terrified of what might be discovered beneath – nothing was, of course. Builders from further afield were unreliable and expensive and, when they got wind of the house’s history, they wanted bonuses and their own little bit of celebrity. One bunch of Irish lads thought they’d hit paydirt when bones were discovered, wedged inside the black mortar of the dining room wall. Yet more delay and inconvenience as forensics moved in and the builders had to move out… the results? Inconclusive: the remains were of bovine origin and, unless Hurst had undertaken the odd bit of butchery in addition to his other ‘talents’ – which I doubted – the likelihood was that they’d been used as a cheap form of infill when the house had originally been built. The Irish crew were bitterly disappointed that they hadn’t stumbled across a major crime scene – I bought them a crate of Guinness to make up for it and was rewarded by the best bit of plastering you could wish for!
Of course, no-one knew about the cellar – that was my little secret. It had even escaped the notice of the police during the several investigations that had taken place; the dilapidated garden shed had received short shrift. A cursory glance inside had told them all they needed to know… a rusty lawnmower, dusty plant pots and some old chicken wire fencing… nothing to see here. I grant you, it’s unusual to have a cellar accessed from the back garden but I’m no architect, so who am I to comment? The padlock was easy enough to prise from the rusty access hatch, with a bit of help from the pickaxe I’d ‘borrowed’ from Sean, the friendliest – and thickest – of the Irish builders and, to my great surprise, the cellar was in excellent condition, in fact, of all the rooms in the house, it was probably the only one not suffering from terminal dampness. It was cool and dry and perfect for what I intended… I’d always wanted a wine cellar and now I had my wish. I decided to hang on to the the reel of piano wire I found down there; you never know when something like that might be useful.
All of that seems so long ago now. What is it… ten years, maybe a few more?
The old dining room, where I now sit and write is pleasant and warm – the comfortable furnishings speak nothing of its sordid past. The bathroom too is transformed and although the original fittings were replaced, I kept the bath… well, it’s an antique! It’s down in the cellar, perhaps it’ll be resurrected one day.
Emily and Celia are here, as is – ironically – Mr Blagdale. Their sightless eyes watch me as I write. I’m so glad the cellar was well built: The heads stayed remarkably well preserved, but then Jacob was exceptionally good at his craft. They’re all up here now, sharing the house with me… how I wish I knew all their names but, for now, I have to make do with nicknames. Maybe Jacob can cast light on their identity when he comes home. There’s the Blagdales and Emily, of course, then there’s Chuckles and Homer, Titch and Squinty, the beautiful Cleopatra and ugly Ermintrude. Mr Puzzles sits at the top of the stairs, his permanent frown almost comical as you pass, then, in the bedroom – Princess; Letitia; Rose Red and marcus, (always with a small ‘m’ – that’s the way he likes it).
In the front bedroom are the Hobbits – all six of them – their dessicated, shrunken features, like so many monkeys; oh, let’s not forget Spud! The poor chap, with half his face eaten away by mildew! Watching over me in the kitchen is Reverend Millikins, the only other one I’ve been able to identify – I’ve often wondered whether he’d fancy a trip back to his old church as he watches me prepare Sunday lunch.
As I sit and write, the wizened faces scrutinising my every move, I tell Jacob how carefully I have cared for his friends, all these years; how I brush and comb their hair, make-up the girls so prettily and give them all a tender kiss goodnight when I switch off the light. We have corresponded now for over thirty years and yet, we have only met briefly – just the once. I needed a good solicitor and he rode in, my knight in shining armour and, ever since that day, we have shared this bond.
In my letter, I tell him of the acid I have stored in the cellar below and how the old bath now gleams and sparkles – I can’t wait until we can put it to good use, once more – I tell him that it won’t be long now, maybe next year and then parole, and freedom.
I shall meet him at the prison gates and drive him to the town, where we’ll stop for tea and a flapjack at the Tea Rooms, where I can introduce him to plump Betty – perhaps he’ll take a shine to her and invite her to supper one evening… what fun!
Then, we’ll walk arm in arm through the square, stopping to admire the old cross – the same cross that bore witness to Celia, that night she tried to sell him out – before strolling along the High Street, until we reach the imposing cast iron gate to the fine Edwardian house, set back from the road and unnoticed by passers-by. My home… our home.
And, I’ll hold him close and whisper: “Welcome home, my Jacob.”
Absolutely Brilliant!! I could have been reading a Best-Selling novel!!!
I was hooked from the start, and I think you are incredible.
The downside is that I will be crossing the road each time I come near a certain house, and I will NEVER buy a pie (Again) from the Bakers of the same last name as Jacob.xx
1st June 2011
Show & Tell
How often in the past couple of thousand years had she harboured that particular thought, she idly wondered? It wasn’t so much the living forever aspect of imortality that she hated, it was being stuck eternally as a 15 year-old that really sucked.
Maybe she might have handled things a bit better if she’d been in her twenties or thirties, or even been permitted to age gracefully but the injustice of being a permanent schoolgirl was what really got on her tits. Of course, she was no ordinary schoolgirl – currently parentless, she was perfectly capable of looking after herself: Time is a great educator and, all things considered, she was pretty much self-sufficient. Of course, over time, she’d tried all sorts of options: the foster parents; the care system; living on the streets; the squat… it was easier this way – fewer questions and less hassle. Still, she was 15 and hated it, and who wouldn’t?
The same held true for as far back as she could remember, to those early days, when she was finding her feet and learning to deal with the uncomfortable reality that she was never going to die – it was fun then, exciting even but as time dragged on, she began to learn the true horror of her condition. History, she would say, is not all that it’s cracked up to be – most of it is just one long hard struggle, harder for her than most. Kids had always been treated badly and she’d had a hundred lifetimes of mistreatment – most 15 year-olds had an attitude… she had attitude, the depths of which new no bounds. Over time all that resentment, pain and anger had built into a seething montrosity of an attitude, although she’d learnt how to channel it – if nothing else, she’d learned that patience pays off in the long run and she had something that no-one else possessed: The luxury of all the time in the world to nurture her resentment; to let it build and fester until fully matured and ready to blossom.
If there was one thing being immortal had taught her, it was that feelings are not meant to be bottled up, at least not for more than a couple of lifetimes. There’s only so much the human body can tolerate before something has to vent. She’d tried everything, of course: In the early days it was witchcraft and warfare, even religious asceticism and a number of years in a convent. As the years passed, she’d worked in a bordello, walked the streets and spent the war years scavenging and looting, living by her wits. She’d tried sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but now she had a new drug of choice.
This would be, what… the fourth occasion?
It always surprised her that nobody ever seemed to notice – somehow, she always managed to slip under the radar. She was good at what she did, of course – every time she’d managed to shift the blame to an innocent party, even so, it constantly amazed her that her presence was so blatantly ignored. Certainly, she would change her name as she moved from place to place but, even so, she was cursed with her looks, just as much as she was cursed with her age – yet nobody ever noticed.
So much for technology and the information age – this may well have been the 10th century for all the progress that mankind had made. She pondered on the complete failure of the 20th and 21st centuries to impress, not only her, but those mere mortals around her and let her mind drift across the yearning of centuries.
It should have been so much better – the new era had promised so much and delivered so little.
Still, better times might come, although she knew she would hate them. Eternity was just too long.
“Elizabeth Maplecroft, will you please pay attention… it’s your turn!”
The hectoring tone of the teacher, Miss Ricola, finally punched through her deliberations. Sighing, she looked up and frowned at the old biddy. She’d always loathed it when teachers used her full name, although she couldn’t help but smirk when she thought of her choice for her current monicker! So, it was her turn… about time too, she’d waited a long time for this. Inside, the contempt simmered – soon, oh so very soon…
Today it was ‘show and tell’ – how pathetic! Even putting aside her true age, did the school system really think that 15-years olds could glean anything useful from ‘show and tell’? She shook her head slightly and hefted the bag from under her desk. The pleasing heaviness bumped reassuringly against her hip. Very soon…
Walking to the front of the class, she snarled at the little tart on the desk in the corner – she was the one who, unknown to herself, had drawn the lucky straw. Fame awaited: Her name would go down in history, shame the slapper wouldn’t be around to make the most of it, really. The girl pulled a face back – that sealed the deal – sorry sweetheart, you’re gonna take the credit for this one.
Reaching the front, she dumped the bag unceremoniously down on the teacher’s desk. Miss ‘Sicko’ Ricola smiled encouragingly and took a seat on the windowsill.
The clock on the wall ticked away the seconds, not that time meant anything to the girl – this moment would purge some of the pain and resentment but it would return and, sometime in the future, this same moment would have to come again, and again, and again. So be it – one does what one has to, to survive. A melody played in her mind, as it had done on the last three occasions… it was that stupid song, very apt but strangely irritating too: It trivialised the moment and besides, it was the wrong day of the week. She’d picked a Friday for that very reason.
They were waiting. It was time to show and tell.
Winking at the teacher, she rifled inside the bag, drew out the machine gun, cocked it…
And opened fire.
22nd May 2011
…i like Chinese movies – they tend to be the antithesis of of their Western counterparts. In a Chinese film, it’s always the hero who dies or, despite overcoming incredible odds, never giving up and always remaining faithful to their cause, is nevertheless doomed to fail. There’s rarely any glory to failure either – death and dishonour inevitably comes by way of deceit and trickery… the stab in the back, the poisoned chalice. Compare that with the big budget Hollywood mainstay, where the hero always beats the odds, saves the day, gets the girl and rides off triumphantly into the sunset to a stirring orchestral soundtrack.
i prefer the Chinese way – it’s closer to the real thing.
In the real world, things rarely measure up to the Western ideal. In the real world, things go wrong and the ugliness in people’s hearts is never far from the surface – scratch it and you’ll reveal the corruption beneath. In the real world, few things are ever really resolved. There are few heroes and far too many zeroes; no-one steals the day, the wrong man gets the girl and insurmountable odds always will be, insurmountable.
There’s something particularly disturbing and discomforting as you watch a Chinese movie unfold: A sickening inevitability about it, as our comprehension grows that our hero is doomed. It rudely jars our senses and shakes our well-ordered sensibilities into disarray… we want to scream out ‘stop!’, but nothing we can do is going to change fate, no matter how unfair it may seem – what will be will be, no matter how much we may desperately want it to be something else. Then, as the final credits roll, we sit in stunned silence, our hearts aching, our throats dry and with moist eyes as the import of what we have just watched plays games with our conscience.
We feel tarnished, used and abused, taken for a ride without ever giving our permission – the unwilling voyeurs, coerced into taking vicarious pleasure in the futility and pain of an heroic life, lived out for naught. A life wasted and tossed aside like the broken toys of childhood – once loved and treasured, now forlorn and lost – the landfill of memories past.
It all seems so very wrong and yet we know, in our hearts, that it is right. It is truly how the world works… it is cruel, overwhelming, unfair and gives nothing without payment.
Perhaps that’s why i like Chinese films: They don’t sugar coat the realities of life, they reflect the way things really are. In Chinese movies – and in the real world – a happy ending is a rare thing indeed…
4th May 201
i like Tarantino, good strong coffee and sharp knives – probably unwise to give me all three at once/Sometimes i have days when i’d just as happily lace your tea with strychnine as i would with sugar – so be nice; better still, make your own tea/i’m easily irritated by the aimless tsk, tsk, tsk of MP3s, as you nod, zombie-like to the beat – on the seat – in front of me… i have scissors; you have a choice – is it to be the wire, or your ears?/Never put me on hold, tell me my call is important to you, or apologise for signal failure – my time is precious: you are not/i enjoy the sound of broken glass underfoot, the screech of nails over blackboards, the smell of burning hair and the taste of blood – not to everyone’s taste, i’ll grant you; but will you presume to tell me what is ‘acceptable’?/i gaze intently at ‘scenes that may disturb some viewers’; i slow down for accidents; i leer and gibber in the street/In me, you will find pain; horror; revulsion; anger; fear; revenge; regret; remorse – but, you can never trust what you think you see/
i am, the frayed cord,
the fractured bolt,
the broken seal,
the rusty chain,
the golden rule,
the weak link,
will fail and
… just take a look;
you’ll find me there…
right inside you.
Brilliant!!!! Absolutely Brilliant!!!! ❤
18th April 2011
Emily had never wanted the bed in the first place – she was all grown up now, far too old for Sindy dolls – in fact, whenever she glimpsed any of her Sindy stuff hidden away, as far back in the wardrobe as she could stuff it, her face would go all hot and she became horribly embarrassed. Big girls didn’t play with Sindy, it was as simple as that and if any of her friends ever thought that she still did, she was sure she would pack her bag and run away from home in shame. Sindy was stupid.
Then her birthday came and with it, the terrible birthday present.
Her mummy had called her downstairs on the weekend before the big day. “Emily”, she said, “Nana Jenkins wants to buy you a special present for your birthday. She’s given us some money and told us what to buy for you”. Mummy had paused a moment before going on and she crouched down and looked Emily straight in the eye. “Now, Emily, your nana has been very generous and this might be the last birthday you have that she’ll be able to buy you a present – so, if it’s something you don’t really like, I want you to be very grown-up about it and not make a fuss. OK?”. Mummy kept on looking at her, in a way that was a little bit scary: it was the look she would use when she knew that Emily was telling a lie. “Besides sweetheart”, she carried on, “nana says you always used to say how much you wanted one… so perhaps you won’t mind?”.
Emily didn’t know what to say. She knew that nana was very sick and that she had some sort of disease that meant she had to go to hospital a lot. Nana always wore a hat or a headscarf – even when she was in the house – and she had told Emily that it was because of the disease. Emily had thought it must have been a funny disease if it made you wear a hat all the time but she hadn’t said anything to nana, (Emily had always secretly thought that nana was a little bit mad, anyway!).
When they came back from the shops, her parents had some big, long, flat boxes. Emily was told to sit and watch TV and not to go into her room, so she went and put her Lion King DVD on. The boxes must have been quite heavy to take upstairs because at one point there was a big thump and her daddy said a rude word, so loudly that she heard it even over Pumba singing “it means no worries for the rest of your days…”! There was more thumping and banging coming from her bedroom too but, eventually, everything went quiet and, just as it was getting to the exciting bit, where Simba and Scar were going to fight, mummy came into the room and said: “Time to see your present from nana, Emily!”.
When Emily saw the bed, she burst into tears. Stupid nana had always used to tease her when she said how much she wanted a Sindy bed, telling her that big girls didn’t need such things. In a strange way, Emily had learned she was right and, as she got older, Sindy became more of an embarrassment. So why had nana bought her a Sindy bed now, when Emily was much more grown up?
Emily pleaded with her parents to take it away; to give her back her old – proper – bed, but they wouldn’t listen to her. In fact, they got very annoyed and, when she started screaming, daddy suddenly shouted: “Right! That’s enough!”. Emily was grounded for a week and she was banned from having her friends around too, although there was no way she was going to ask any of her friends around now – not with the stupid, pink bed in the middle of her room. As her parents walked out of the room, leaving Emily sobbing in the corner, she could tell that her mummy was almost as angry with daddy as they both were with Emily. “I told you she’d be like this”, she hissed at daddy, “why the hell didn’t you tell your mother just to give us the damn money and let us choose something for her?”.
Emily just wanted to run away, but things were going to get much, much worse.
For two whole nights, Emily slept, snuggled up in her duvet, on the chair in the corner of the room. She would climb into the horrible bed and wait for mummy to tuck her in and then, after mummy had switched off the light and closed the door, she would count to twenty, get up and settle down in her chair. It wasn’t very comfortable but Emily didn’t care. On the third night, mummy caught her. Mummy said that if she didn’t go to sleep properly, in bed, like a normal little girl, the party at McDonalds on Friday was off!
Emily had no choice. She hated being called a ‘little girl’ and she hated the bed even more, but the thought of not having a birthday party at all was the worst thing in the world. She went to bed.
The bed was uncomfortable and Emily found it hard to sleep in – in her mind she now had a secret name for it… ‘that stupid bloody bed’ – when she thought of the rude word she felt all prickly inside; she knew it was bad to say it, but she didn’t care at all… as she tried to sleep, the phrase repeated itself in her head: ‘stupid bloody bed… stupid bloody bed… stupid BLOODY BED!’
The next night, the noises started.
Scufflings and scuttlings, grunts and snorts, wheezing and chitterings… Emily tried telling herself it was her imagination but, no matter how hard she tried, the weird noises refused to go away. Emily pulled the duvet closer and tighter, acutely conscious of the little gaps that kept appearing whenever she moved or wriggled. She lay on her back, eyes flitting from side to side, too scared to lie on her side, for fear of what might sneak up on her, behind her back. The noises continued, then she heard a new and terrifying sound – it was like a slurping, wet sound… like she imagined a gigantic slug might sound and it was coming from right underneath the bed!
Emily screamed and kept on screaming at the top of her voice, until her parents came crashing into the room and the bedroom light blazed on.
“What on earth is going on?” – daddy sounded really angry and a little bit scared too. Emily blurted out: “There’s monsters under the bed”.
“Oh for Pete’s sake!”, shouted daddy, “will you sort her out, Sandra, or do I have to?”. He stormed out of the room, leaving mummy standing exasperated in the doorway. “Young lady”, she said, “we are going to talk about this in the morning. All this fuss over a bed! Well, it’s not going back, no matter what tricks you try. Now, get to sleep!”
Emily whimpered, “M-m-mummy, p-p-please will you leave the light on? I’m s-s-scared”. Mummy looked at her, frowning – “All right – but just this once, and this once only! Now go to sleep, or your father will be back in here!”.
The night seemed to last forever but now, with the light on, the noises didn’t come back – the monsters had gone.
The next day, after Emily got home from school, mummy had one of her stern talks with her. Apparently, Emily was being an ‘ungrateful little madam’ – the bed was not going back and McDonalds tomorrow depended on her not behaving like a ‘spoiled brat’ for the rest of today. Then daddy looked in, through the doorway – “And no more Doctor Who for you, young lady. Not until you can prove you’re grown-up enough not to have nightmares”.
Emily felt sick – she loved Doctor Who and she desperately wanted her party tomorrow. She knew she wasn’t having nightmares and that the monsters under her bed were real but there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t even cry, in case mummy thought she was being a ‘spoiled brat’, so instead she just stayed quiet, all evening, dreading the moment she knew was coming… “Time for bed, Em’s; and no messing about, right?”
Fearfully, Emily climbed the stairs. She took the longest ever to brush her teeth and a record time for changing into her jammies. She jumped into bed, terrified that a clawed hand would reach out from underneath and grab her foot as she did so. Then she waited for mummy to come and tuck her in.
As mummy was leaving the room, Emily begged her to leave the light on but was told to ‘grow up’ and start acting her age. Then the door clunked closed.
Emily jumped out of bed and ran as fast as she could to the light switch. She flicked it on and stood shivering against the wall. She knew she couldn’t stand there all night and she also knew she’d be in big trouble if she slept in the chair again. She didn’t think the monsters would come if the light was on but she wasn’t sure that they wouldn’t sneak up on her if she fell asleep. Then Emily had her brilliant idea – she grabbed her Harry Potter book and got back into bed – carefully climbing in over the foot of the bed, to fool the monsters. She started to read, keeping one eye on the page and the other darting about the room… now, if only she could keep reading until the morning, she’d be just fine.
When mummy found her the next morning, with the bedroom light still on and Harry Potter lying open on the pillow, she was furious.
No McDonalds, no Harry Potter, no Doctor Who and bed at 7 o’clock! 7 o’clock… on her birthday! No amount of tears made any difference and, when mummy and daddy gave her a new bike for her birthday, she just looked at it and then went off to watch Lion King. She was never going to ride the bloody bike, she hated it; she hated bloody mummy and daddy; and, more than anything, she hated the BLOODY, BLOODY STUPID SINDY BED!
Seven o’clock came and she was so annoyed, she went straight up to bed, without being told to. She looked at the bed and started to feel scared again – like the night before, she climbed in over the foot and then waited for mummy.
It wasn’t mummy who came to tuck her in, it was daddy and he looked very stern. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson”, he said, “but just to make sure…”, he flicked off the light, then walked back into the room. He reached up to the light fitting, but when his hand touched the bulb, he jerked it back sharply and said a very rude word – “Now look what you’ve made me do”, he looked at Emily accusingly: “I’ve burnt my hand, thanks to your stupidity!”. Daddy pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and used it to unscrew the bulb, he took one last look at Emily, shook his head and walked out of the room. The door closed behind him and Emily was left in the dark.
When the noises started, they seemed louder than before and it wasn’t long before the strange slurpy wet sound started up, getting louder and louder. Emily was sure she could feel something huge moving about underneath the bed and then, the worst thing ever happened…
Something wet and slimy slithered its way between the duvet and mattress and wrapped itself around her ankle. Emily tried to scream but somehow the scream stuck in her throat and all she could do was open and shut her mouth like a goldfish. She seemed stuck in place, not able to move at all. More slimy things slithered inside the covers and attached themselves to her body, then there was a sudden thump at the foot of the bed and a big lumpy weight landed on her legs. It felt a bit like when Alfie used to sleep on her bed before he got run over and died. She could remember the way his foot used to twitch and the little whimpers he made when he dreamed about rabbits, but she knew that whatever was sitting at the foot of her bed wasn’t Alfie.
The chitterings and scuttlings were getting louder and more urgent, and there were little plops and thuds all over the bed as things started to jump up, onto the covers. Then the big, heavy thing started to drag up her body, with a horribly wet squelchy noise. She could hear it breathing: big, raspy, liquid breaths, as the weight came to rest on her chest.
She couldn’t move now, even if she wanted to and the screams still refused to come. Now she could see dozens of eyes, yellow, and green and red surrounding her on all sides, bobbing up and down as the monsters jiggered on the bed. Something wet and stinky dripped on her face… it was slobber: like the time when Alfie had chewed up her slipper and left it all wet and sticky and manky.
The giant slug thing leered down at her, slime dripping from its thick lips onto her face. Then, wheezing and hissing, it leaned closer to her – the thing’s breath smelled like Emily’s poo did when she wasn’t very well – then it spoke. It had a voice like granddad Arthur had that time he was in the hospital and never came back – all bubbly and thick.
“Hello birthday girl”, the creature said, “we’ve come for the party”. It laughed a throaty, evil laugh, then said: “Let’s get this party started, boys!”
Emily felt a sharp pinch on her arm, then one on her leg. All of a sudden, the creatures were swarming all over her; tearing strips of skin from her body, gnawing on her fingers and toes and ripping chunks of her flesh from every part. The pain was awful and she could feel hot blood streaming from her body and soaking the sheet beneath her… she could smell it too.
The creature, shuffled forward and leaned closer to her face: “Time to say goodnight, poppet. Sweet dreams.”, it bubbled.
Even if Emily could have screamed, it was too late. The creature’s fat tongue sealed itself across her face. The last thing Emily ever heard was the sound of her bones, popping and cracking, as the creature began to feast on her face.
6th April 2011
A book of second-class stamps, please
Twenty to nine and there they all are. Queued, right along the length of the building. i try to read their expressions. Vacant: staring into the middle-distance, unhurried and not impatient. i slow my pace, fascinated by the spectacle. Mostly advanced in years they stand there. Waiting. Waiting in their drab macs, umbrellas and Tesco bags hanging from limp fingers. Lined and careworn faces. They wait – only twenty minutes to go.
But why queue? Opening time will come, just as it always does. The queue will flow through the automatic doors, like a slovenly tide, washing onto the shore. Spreading, like an ink stain across the room. Then merging, re-forming, re-grouping once more – and why? Simply to queue again, once inside.
If it was me – i’d not queue. i’d arrive fashionably late or just turn up on a whim. i’d purposely wait ’til nine had passed and then… wait some more. i’d catch a later bus, stop to window shop, even sit, and drink coffee. i wouldn’t wait in line simply for the pleasure of waiting, in line.
And then i thought – could this be me? In thirty, forty, who knows years’ time? Is this a rite of passage that comes to us all? Is that my future; my destiny, to stand and wait for nine? When life’s sweetness has passed – its joy and glory gone. Shrivelled and wizened, wrinkled skin: paper thin, over brittle bones. Will i too, feel the need to queue?
As i watch, they wait. Five more minutes pass – but no excitement as the seconds tick. Inexorably towards that fateful moment in time. No straining forward, no shuffle along: just silently, wretchedly waiting for that. Single. Moment.
i move on. Bemused, bewildered. There are many things for which i’d queue… the concert, fairground, club or match. A one-off event, the airport check-in even, the bus. There’s a logic, a reason to such things – a good seat, a missed flight, an opportunity to be had. But this queue has none of these: Things will keep; nothing will be missed; nothing will run out or spoil. So why?
What secrets lie within the walls, behind that post office portal, that enjoins people to stand, obediently, in line. Outside. In the rain. Without movement or expression. At twenty to nine in the morning?
26th March 2011
The sun paints its mellow hues
upon city-street canvas
The breeze, though chill
is pleasantly fresh: hinting
of spring, to come.
Somehow, this resplendent morn
transports me back
to summer days and country walks:
memories of days past;
joyful thoughts of happy times.
There’s a clarity in the air today:
the light, the quality that it distils;
cannot be explained,
only experienced and, embraced.
Summer has arrived –
one morning in early March.
3rd March 2011
Ugh!… Look at them: staring at me; making their smug assertions. Who the hell do they think they are? More to the point, who do they think I am? Someone for whom the power of independent thought has done an ‘Elvis’ – left the building and fallen off the toilet? – poor little consumerist me, incapable of rational or logical thinking!
‘Serving suggestion’… the arrogance of that self-satisfied misnomer – for that’s what it is – look at it: it’s cup-a-soup, for heaven’s sake! Don’t insult my intelligence by suggesting that I’m too thick to think of serving soup up in a cup without consulting you and your pathetic opinion – who the hell do you think you are?
‘Serving suggestion’ – admit it: that’s the last thing you are! What ever happened to honesty? – I dare you… go on, label yourself ‘insulting statement of the obvious’, or, ‘unnecessary, pointless drivel’ – but don’t have the temerity to come looking me in the eye with your pontificating lies and expect me to take it with good grace. At the very least, remain mute.. show me a picture, nothing more – I’ll decide how I wish to be served.
But you can’t, can you? You’re completely incapable of showing anything even approaching honesty, just like your cousin: ‘paranoid disclaimer’!
‘May contain nuts’; ‘contents may be hot’; ‘may cause offence to some viewers’… too right, you cause offence: you make me sick!
Always erring on the side of caution, you cling to your ‘may’ and ‘might’ and ‘could’ – whatever happened to bold assertions and statements of fact? You’re just too damn wimpy and I wouldn’t respect you if you paid me.
I don’t ask for much – just have the courage of your convictions, that’s all. Stand up for what you believe in, be bold! Go on, shout it out… ‘I contain nuts, and I don’t give a toss! – eat me, if you dare’. Just spare me your grovelling platitudes and your sorry, yellow-bellied excuses for warnings. Don’t try and spare my feelings, tell it like it is – ‘I contain allergens! Eat me and you will swell up, fall to the floor in a writhing heap and die horribly from choking on your engorged tongue!’… ‘Watch this and you’ll be so sickened you’ll projectile vomit over the screen!’ – now those are warnings I’d sit up and take notice of.
What ever happened to good old-fashioned honesty and integrity – or have we become so weak-willed and terrified of offending anybody that we cosset and protect them to the most ridiculous degree? And why do we have to state the blatantly obvious in such a way that I can only assume most of us have a need to be spoon fed guidance for the most basic of tasks? Whatever next: instructions on toilet paper?
Oh my… ugh – there’s another one! – How else do you think I’m going to serve up my corn flakes? Is there a danger I might assume they should be artistically scattered over a plate of steaming compost, liberally sprinkled with vinegar and hollandaise sauce? It just beggars belief.
I’ll tell you what: I have a ‘serving suggestion’ of my very own – you can take all your pathetic warnings, your vapid excuses for apologies and your crappy serving suggestions, and you can stick the whole lot up your arse!
Author’s note – the first draft of this was scribbled over a strong Americano, (with an extra shot), and typed up accompanied by a couple of very short espressos and a large double-chocolate doughnut. This may go some way towards explaining the slightly belligerent tone of the piece!
14th February 2011
i am a butterfly
On the summer breeze
i flit and dart
between each flower and tree
i revel in the summer sun
alive and wild and free.
and you will see
nothing is as it seems
my playful flight
in summer’s light
is not the stuff of dreams.
My flight is not an easy task
my line is never true
i cannot steer a proper course;
i stutter and stall
stumble and fall,
my target lost from view.
i stop and wait
and as i sit upon a leaf or tree
look closely now and see just how
i tremble constantly
my nerves are taut
my senses fraught
prepared, at once, to flee.
Iridescent wings are flimsy things
as fragile as the snow
and though i try
i will never fly
with grace or poise, i know
the winds of change will re-arrange
whichever way i go.
i am a butterfly
flawed and sad and lost
and though i may
light up your day
this beauty has a cost
my short life is one of strife
by gentle breezes, tossed.
2nd February 2011
So, here i am, stood in TK-Maxx admiring some chunky glassware, without a care in the world and suddenly, completely out of the blue, i get steamrollered by some sort of weird panicky crisis.
Upsetting, unexpected thoughts… the overwhelming feeling i’ve been here before – not deja vu – i have really been here before, many times. i’ve shared this moment and countless similar ones on lots of occasions – different people, different faces, different circumstances. Lots of memories: some happy, some not so happy. And suddenly, there i am, stood over the glassware in TK-Maxx – all alone – while this enormous sense of loss washes over me, like some massive tsunami… and i don’t want to be here. i want to be a million miles away – a million miles from the familiar and remembered places, a million years away from events and times, a million lifetimes away from where i am now. But time and distance and circumstances can’t distance you from memory and the sneaky tricks your mind plays on you. So i’m stuck… staring panic-stricken at the glassware in TK-Maxx.
So, rather than just stand there, with watery eyes and an almost overpowering need to start sobbing my heart out, i left, almost running out to the street, but the feeling just won’t go away. i go into, or walk past familiar places… more of the same – this horrible sense of ‘how did i get here’ – a stupid question with no meaningful answers and no solace, whatsoever.
i’m feeling grief – the proper sort: bereavement style grief, the sort that fills your chest with heaviness and hangs just behind your face… occasionally pushing its way through to the world outside, through a moist eye or a stifled sob. Don’t ask me to explain it – i can’t, i don’t know where it came from or why, i don’t know what has caused it and i can’t justify it. It simply, ‘is’.
All i know is that i want to cry, to run away and to find somewhere, anywhere in the universe, where it can’t find me.
i’m so sorry you’re feeling this way, it’s a very unpleasant feeling that i have experienced myself, the kind that just washes over and through you and makes you just want to escape. i had this feeling not too long ago, but i have no idea why or how it came.
Cry if you need to my love, shout and scream, let those feelings out of you – writing about them certainly helps and i hope very soon you are back to normal.
You have been tired of late and that could be a factor – try not to worry, just take the day as it comes and know that if you want me to hold you i gladly will.
I recognise the feelings, how the colour of the world around you can turn on a sixpence and hollowness zoom out of nowhere.
You say yours is grief and bereavement, whether for someone who has died, for a lost relationship, or something lost within yourself you don’t say – bereavement applies to all though, it’s the grieving for that which has gone.
I hope by the time you read this, it has subsided, been pushed aside for a little, displaced by something more welcome.
28th January 2011
Riverside walk: January Morning
Violet clouds against a cerulean sky –
watercolours daubed upon an artist’s canvass.
Sun warm on my back, casts spindly shadows –
impossible Dali-esque forms, slender and surreal.
Cold air on my cheeks, tingles –
refreshing: its touch teases me awake.
Crystal clear sunlight scintillates over
river ripples, where seagulls bob.
Dark hills brood in the distance –
ponderously watch over the town.
For one brief moment,
the mundane is magical.
24th January 2011
Little Miss Poet
Is sat, don’t you know it?
Weaving her words into rhyme,
From worlds, near and far;
The strange and bizarre,
What will she be writing this time?
She looks in your mind;
Sees what lurks behind
And draws it out into the light,
There’s some odd things in there
So you’d better beware
And be well prepared for a fright.
Your hidden desires,
Demons and funeral pyres;
All your wistful feelings, she’ll share;
Every reader will know
The strange places you go,
So be careful, watch out and beware.
She’ll drive you insane
As she plays with your brain,
Twisting your thoughts inside out
So, don’t let her in,
For the penalty’s grim –
Watch out, now the poet’s about.
Your nightmares made true
This day you will rue:
The day that she played with your soul;
She may start with your mind
But soon she will find
The key to consuming your whole.
She’ll tease out your life
With the point of her knife –
A tool made of words that incite;
Don’t think you can run,
For when all’s said and done,
‘gainst the poet you’re unable to fight.
So, seal up your mind,
Or else she will find
The door to your hopes and your fears.
And then it’s too late:
As propelled to your fate
You silently shed bitter tears.
Now, prepare yourself well,
Lest she take you to hell,
The place where your fears are made real;
Your thoughts she’ll ensnare
As your soul is laid bare;
The pain of the truth you will feel.
For truth is her craft
And with her first draft,
All that you are is revealed…
And at the last verse
It could never be worse,
For finally, your fate has been sealed.
13th January 2011
Stood at the edge,
hands clamped tightly on the rail
i gaze at the oily current below,
cold, dark and bleak.
i shiver and,
of the cold and cramps in my fingers
i let go.
8th January 2011
Chill bleakness of night, gives way to creeping warmth
as sun rises.
A mellow glow, too soon becomes intense:
bleaching colour from life,
the heart from my soul.
Heat: intense, unrelenting –
cruel torment as I lie,
exposed to the horror of day.
Emotions – cauterised;
All feelings – seared;
Helpless, they writhe, febrile in the glare.
Stillness descends, without peace.
Heat withered, cracked and tormented –
I am exposed, pursued.
My soul a dessicated husk:
Wracked with pain
and dry, as death.
Day wears on,
still it burns – shimmering heat:
Waves in a tortured sea.
Sterile, in the blinding light,
I wait, and hope
for the chill of night.
2nd January 2011
Hello, Mrs Jenkins, it’s been quite some time since we saw you last, how are you?
Well, I’m sure we can sort things out for you, have you feeling like a new woman again in no time! Julia, could you put up Mrs Jenkins’ x-rays, please? Thanks.
Ah yes, here’s the problem, Mrs Jenkins – you see, just here. Hmmm, now I’ve had the chance of a closer look, it seems that the work may be a little more extensive than I first thought. No, not expensive, Mrs Jenkins – don’t worry yourself about that, it’s all covered by your plan – no, I said the work will be quite extensive: but, not to worry, I’m confident we can get you smiling again.
What was that? Oh, it was the word ‘extensive’ you were worried about? Please don’t worry yourself – we’ve moved on from hammers and chisels, I promise you!
Needles? Well, of course, but it’s just a little prick: nothing at all to be worried about.
Oh, that’s what you are worried about – please don’t be concerned, Mrs Jenkins, I’ll be gentle, I promise. Now, open wide and let’s take a look.
Oh, Julia, be a dear and dig out some of those large bore needles would you? Whilst you’re at it, perhaps you can find me a hammer and a large chisel, please?
Only joking. Mrs Jenkins – just kidding you. No, Julia! – the large bore ones, please!
Oh goodness, Mrs Jenkins, what have you been up to? You really should have made an appointment a long time ago, you know. My word, there’s some work to be done in there! I’m afraid there’s going to be quite a few needles this time, but you really do only have yourself to blame!
Well, yes, there are alternatives to the needle – but really, you’re making a terrible fuss about nothing. Open a little wider, please, while I just pop this in. There!
Alternatives? Yes, although I’m afraid they are terribly expensive and, to be honest, I much prefer the old fashioned methods – so much more reliable… you can really get stuck into the job with a decent needle.
You don’t want to go ahead if I use needles? Goodness me – are you sure? Well, I never! A little wider please – now this is going to restrict your ability to speak a little, so I’m afraid there’ll be no idle chat about holidays once we get down to business! There you go, perfect.
Julia, I’m afraid we’re going to need the old clamps and restraints, since Mrs Jenkins has opted for the ‘no anaesthesia’ option – I think you’ll find them at the back of the cupboard, next to my golf clubs. Make sure you give them a quick once-over though, I’m sure they’re terribly dusty.
Ah, well done, that’s just the job. Now, Mrs Jenkins, please don’t be alarmed – these look far more frightening than they really are. I’m just going to slip this over your shoulders – grab the other end, please Julia… it’ll need a good tug to snag it tight – and these little straps are just to keep your hands out of harm’s way.
What’s that? I’m sorry, I really can’t understand a word you’re saying. Never mind, you can tell me afterwards. Now, this last piece goes across the top of your head – please hold very still while I tighten the screws – we don’t want to have someone’s eye out, do we? By the way, please don’t be concerned if you see a little trickle of blood… it’ll just be where the screws have pierced the skin, nothing to worry about, but I do need to make sure they’re screwed in nice and tight – make sure the threads get a good ‘bite’ into your skull… sorry about that terrible pun but I do like to keep the atmosphere light-hearted.
Excellent. I think we’re ready to plough on! The drill, Julia?
Oh, that won’t do at all – haven’t we a larger one somewhere? Hmm, well that’s a nuisance… I’ll tell you what, take my car keys and fetch me my Black and Decker from the boot, thanks.
I’m very sorry, Mrs Jenkins, I really can’t make out a thing you’re saying.
Thank you, Julia. These cordless babies are really quite something, aren’t they? Now, Mrs Jenkins, we’re ready to dive in! Oh, and don’t worry if you catch a whiff of burning – it’s perfectly normal, once the drill gets stuck in. I do love the smell of burnt enamel in the morning, don’t you?
Oh my goodness! Butterfingers me!
Julia, could you get the mop please and something to staunch this blood? That tea-towel will do, just don’t use it to dry my mug afterwards!
Oh, do be quiet, Mrs Jenkins – there’s no need for all that fuss – and, for goodness’ sake, hold still or you’ll be ripping out your screws. In fact, I think I’ll give them another couple of turns, just to be on the safe side.
Oops. Um, Julia, make a note for me – no more than six turns of the screw… I do believe I’ve cracked her skull. Ooh, yes, look at that… split the eye socket right open. Ah well, these things happen.
Now, Mrs Jenkins, please be quiet for just a moment! We’ve had a little accident with the drill. Now, it’s nothing of major concern – you’d be amazed how quickly a gaping hole in the cheek will heal. Really, it’s far worse than it looks. I do think, however, I may have mashed up your jawbone on that side, just a little – so I would strongly suggest that you do try very hard not to talk any more and, if you like, Julia can arrange for you to go to casualty straight from here. Just think of them as ‘battle scars’ – Julia will give you one of our ‘I was brave’ badges before you go, if you like?
What was that, Julia? Oh no, not right away – call the hospital later – we’ve still got rather a lot to do here first. Did you find the hammer and chisel? Excellent!
Goodness! I can’t see a thing! Mrs Jenkins, you have a very small mouth… I’m afraid I’m going to have to disclocate the other side of your jaw, otherwise I won’t be able to get a decent swing with the hammer! I’ll need your consent, of course, so just make a noise – any noise will do – and I’ll take that as a ‘yes’. Lovely, thank you so much – it’s always easier when the patient want’s to co-operate. You can stop making the noise now, Mrs Jenkins. Please would you stop making that noise?
Now watch this, Julia, it’s really very simple. Firm pressure, just here, hmm… actually I think it’s going to take a good hard shove! There – out it pops! Easy really… look: now it’s out and, pop! Now it’s back in. Pop! It’s out again! It’s great fun – I could do this all day!
Now for the heavy artillery, so to speak! Mrs Jenkins – let me talk you through the procedure: I’m going to place this chisel just along here, OK? Then I’ll be giving it a couple of good hard wallops with this hammer. Now, it’s extremely important that you stay as relaxed as possible – just one small slip and I’ll go straight through into your brain, and we really don’t want that, do we?
Oh, please stop screaming, Mrs Jenkins, it’ll only upset the other patients – people do tend to get very nervous in the waiting room and we don’t want them worrying unnecessarily, do we?
Julia, be a love and mop the floor again – I’m slipping all over the place in this blood. Oh? Well use the tea towel then, just make sure you stuff it back in that hole in her cheek when you’re done.
Right, ready to rock and roll? Excuse my knee on your chest, Mrs Jenkins but it does help with the angle. OK then… after three: one, two, three!
Mrs Jenkins? Mrs Jenkins, can you hear me?
Julia, can you tell the people waiting there’ll be a slight delay? Oh, and pass me those x-rays as you go… won’t be needing those again!
Thanks. Wait a second… Julia, these aren’t Mrs Jenkins’ plates – they’re for Mr Slater! Oh, for goodness sake, Julia, you’ve got me all confused… where’s Mrs Jenkins’ notes?
Well isn’t that just typical? All of this fuss and bother and she was only booked in for a scale and polish!
1st January 2011
The Man With The Heavy Footfall
He’s just arrived home: 5pm, his heavy tread advertises his arrival as he climbs the stairs. I wait, holding my breath as he passes this floor – always the momentary flutter in my chest… the fear of hearing him stop, the crack of the lobby door opening… I find myself willing him to pass on by. He does: I breathe again.
Then the muffled thump of his feet on the floor above, I feel the vibration through my chair – back and fore he paces, and always that overpowering sense of heaviness, bearing down, threatening to crash through and overwhelm me.
I remember the day he moved in – you make excuses for the noise at first, the clump and rattle of furniture being hefted up the stairways, the thudding of boxes on the floor above. Then, two whole days of thump, thump, thump! – What in the world is going on? Not harsh like hammer against wood, but steady, percussive, muted blows. He’s laying carpet, I supposed; fitting a kitchen – but I was guessing – who knows what he was really doing?
Then the footsteps. Too heavy to be any normal person, annoying, irritating at first, then as time went on, deeply disturbing. Who would walk like that? I find myself nervously scanning the ceiling for the first spiderwebbing cracks, for the confetti-like fluttering of plaster and paint flakes – the portents of looming disaster. There is nothing to see, of course, but the noise continues.
He keeps unusual hours – some mornings I hear the heavy thud of his feet as he leaves his bed, sometimes nothing. He arrives without notice – daytime, evenings, on occasions in the early morning hours and always accompanied by that sonorous footfall. I could complain – but what should I say? – please can you walk more softly, sir? Besides, I’m fearful of what may lurk behind that door – I have visions of a modern-day Joseph Merrick, swathed in suppurating bandages – staggering on elephantine stumps for feet, swaying painfully at his doorway… ‘please can you walk more softly, sir?’ – I think not.
There’s more – enormous thuds, that shake the room. Not the shifting of furniture but soft, muffled, heavy weights being flung onto the floor. I picture bodies, lying above me whilst who knows what unsavoury and unholy violence is wrought upon them. Vainly I scan my ceiling, watching for seeping bodily fluids – stains of blood, fat and gore, spreading from the room above. Who am I kidding? I couldn’t tell a bloodstain from a leaking bath – imagine…. calling the murder squad, when a plumber would suffice!
And yet, can I be certain my fears are not well-grounded. You see it in the papers – ‘he was a quiet man, kept himself to himself…’, alongside a faded, discoloured and out of focus photograph. These are the ones to watch – perhaps, at this moment, the man upstairs is exercising his vile passion. Dispassionately vivisecting his latest victim, flayed skin lying in a heap in the corner of the room, black bags stuffed with organs and roughly-hewn limbs… another thump: a headless torso is hefted into the bath.
The stuff of nightmares, maybe – and yet, entirely possible.
There he goes again – the thud of too-heavy feet above my head. Oh why could it not be rock music, raised voices or screaming kids – any of those would be fine, but this incessant, inhuman trudge is driving me to despair. How much longer can I cope?
Another thump! Like a heavy sack thrown against a soft surface – like a straitjacketed inmate careening into a padded cell-wall.
This has to stop – I shall confront him…
29th December 2010
Up at 5am: the bleating of the alarm an assault on my ears,
the usual routine: shower, dress, coffee.
Ugh! Milk’s off.
The daily commute: car, wait, train. Reading ‘news’ that doesn’t matter, staring blankly through grime-laden windows at grey landscapes, flashing by.
Tube: packed in, like so much livestock. Mind the doors. Same old posters… ‘call Indonesia for only 12p a minute’.
Indonesia – now there’s a thought…
The daily grind: aptly named, head down, tray full. The usual ‘friendly banter’ – does little to secure my friendship – so much for political correctness and sex equality… maybe it’s just for other offices?
Lunch: a plastic-wrapped, fake sandwich, grabbed between calls, then the afternoon rush and the stampede for home.
Lulled by weariness into semi-somnolence, the journey passes, unnoticed.
Home: kids fighting, TV blaring, crockery crashing – another day done
Lying in bed, I dream of Indonesia.
Up at 4am: the muezzin’s call harsh and demanding,
the usual routine: squat, sluice, dress, mosque.
Ugh! Water’s freezing.
The daily trudge: traffic-logged streets, dodging mopeds and hawkers.
Breakfast: grabbed on the street, peering over shoulders for a glimpse of the news, whilst all of humanity flashes by in mosaic colours.
The market: tourists gather, with expensive tans and expensive cameras – “Can we take your picture?” they gesture. I sell my soul for a few rupiyah and ask “Where you from?”.
“England, London”, the reply – “London! Ah, Beckham!”, I shout, with a smile, as they walk away.
London – now there’s a thought…
Work hard all day: fierce competition from other traders, shouting to be heard over the crowd.
Finally, sundown: the long walk home, hardly noticed through the weariness.
Home: noise, heat, the smell of too many bodies in too small a space, grandmother whining.
Finally, bed: lying there I dream of London.
Up at daybreak: to the persistent call of hunger,
the usual routine: squat, wash, leave.
Scurrying along familiar, well-worn routes.
Testing the air for news.
Breakfast: on the move, a guilty pleasure, but necessity all the same.
Suddenly: people. I freeze, quivering in the shadows until they pass.
People – now there’s a thought…
Afternoon: more of the same. Forage, eat, forage, then the long journey home.
Home: family squabbling, the noise of discontent and hunger, until it is time to sleep.
Lying there, I dream of people.
If only, I were not a rat.
14th December 2010
Scanning the chalkboard above the bar, with its garish, neon-coloured depictions of exotic cocktails, I idly pondered the name. Not the sort of drink I’d ever consider ordering, I had no idea what it was, much less how to drink it – I’d never really recovered from the embarrassment of ordering an Ouzo in Greece. How the hell was I to know what to do with the accompanying glass of water – there were no damn instructions!
The barman appeared. I ordered what I always did: orange Fanta. So much for the hard stuff, although I was pretty sure the bright orange concoction was probably just as damaging to health as any of the cocktails on offer. Sipping fitfully on my drink, I cast my eyes around the bar, not too crowded at the moment, still that would change shortly when the next bus arrived, disgorging it’s sweating batch of frazzled tourists for their ‘lunch included’ stop. Ugh, I hated that moment when the relative peace of the bar was shattered by whining kids and their far too loud, opinionated parents.
I was already picturing the melee – “Oi! Camerade… I’ll have the all day full English, and proper Heinz ketchup, right? None of your Spanish muck”. Never mind, today would be different.
The girl in the red bikini was there again, right on cue she walked easily up from the beach. I couldn’t help but watch as she sat at the bar, tossing her hair back as she laughed with the barman. In a way, I felt a pang of sorrow for her – that little routine she’d established over the past week – sunbathe in the morning, bar for lunch and who knows where afterwards. Why couldn’t she be a little more unpredictable? But there she was again, following a schedule that was about to be broken. I felt myself willing her ‘leave early… go take a shower… go on’, but she stayed put, laughing too loudly over her cocktail, fiddling unconsciously with her cocktail umbrella, ah well, some things can’t be helped.
The fat, lobster-pink faced guy at the table across the way is leering at me, the folds of his belly flopping over the lardy flesh of his legs. Thank heaven he’s wearing a shirt which, although open to where I assume his navel should be, at least hides the worst of his pasty flab. Looking at him, I’m struck by the contrast of the brick-red face and greyish pallor of his torso – from the neck down he looks half dead already. He’s still watching me, undressing me with his eyes – hell, he’d have a shock if he could see everything I’m wearing! I give him broad smile, gaining his full attention, then slowly give him the finger, mouthing the word ‘off’ – heh, he got the message loud and clear.
The bus arrives. Havoc descends as a motley crowd of holidaymakers alight and fight for the best tables. Amidst the babble and clamour, the scraping of chairs and clatter of the bus engine I feel a misfit. Looking around, I find myself loathing my company – the harsh voices, too coarse, too rude… “I said no speako la Espanol, understando?”. The exposed flesh, crammed into too-tight clothing, bursting out in blubbery excrescences; the smell of sweat and suncream – and i crave peace.
Detached, I sip the last of my drink, savouring the cloying sachharine sweetness.
In a moment of crystal clarity, the noise, the smells and the heat fade to a distant point on the horizon. Time slows. I press the button.
CNN Breaking News: Reports are coming in of an explosion in Benidorm on the Spanish south coast. The explosion, which occured in a crowded tourist bar at around 1pm local time is thought to be the work of a lone suicide bomber. Casualties are significant and at least 23 people are known to have died in the blast. A previously unknown group, the DNA Alliance are claiming responsibility and have posted the following message on their website – ‘It’s about time that people realised the irreversible damage we as a race are doing to ourselves. If people have to die to make a point, then we will not hesitate to make that point – better a few die now, than we destroy the human race in our mindless pursuit of self-gratification and over-indulgence. This is just the beginning – we will not stop until people see sense.