Graffiti artist 'Bored' Hull, East Yorkshire
What time is it Jonny Bing?
‘What time is it Jonny Bing? What time is it?’
'It’s three twenty three.’
‘No, I mean, what time is it in your life? What’s the time in your life?’
'It’s mid afternoon.’
'How so Jonny Bing?’
'Because I’m a forty-three-year-old gun who drinks himself off the bar stool every night. I’ve done all the powders too. It’s mid afternoon because I’m on course to die before they pay me not to work. I’ll never see the reward.’
'That’s sad Jonny Bing, you need to find it and make it through. What has your life been like?’
'It’s been a lazy morning, I got up late, shat a wet one into the bowl and didn’t flush, just let it hang there. I then went to the fridge, poured one out and sat in the garden, let the sun molest me a little. That’s got me to the mid afternoon.’
‘So what’s the evening gonna be like Jonny Bing, what’s the evening got for you?’
'A sleep into the sunset and then a good piece of steak, a woman, good quality, then a lively bar, somewhere foreign, some coastal place where they all like to talk. I’ll just take the woman there, drink with her until I’m ready to insult her and then I’ll send her on her way.’
‘So how does it end Jonny Bing? How do you end it?’
'Eyes closed, absorbing the people’s energy, listening to the noises they make when they’re convincing and lying.’
‘And you’ll let it go like that? It’ll finish there Jonny Bing?’
‘Yeah, I want to go out like that. Relaxed. Happy to let them all fade into the back, just watch them and hear them, no longer with them and joining in.’
‘Do you think you’ll make it?’
‘Yeah, I’m Jonny Bing.’
In a mall, pressing against those glass exteriors fronting numerous interchangeable shops; it could be an emporium dedicated to exclusive provençale face cream- whatever, I stare inside like a piqued Martian. Part of the reason I’m outside involves exogenous factors: born into a small family flat, rented by unhappy parents, battling, blaming, adventurously polygamous, accusatory, uneducated, inarticulate, unconfident yet enthusiastically domestically violent, unskilled migrants, without faith, property, land, gold reserves, fine art collectables, off-shore bank accounts, cash savings, family assistance, or career prospects- showing little love, or interest, in my siblings or myself; separating before I graduated from primary school. In the fullness of time, unprepared, socially disconnected, & without any access to material resources, I set out to survive, &, as much as possible, avoid repeating the miseries experienced whilst resident with my progenitors. Sounds like a plan, but this leads to the endogenous factors i.e. being an average person, minus star qualities, & incapable of earning much beyond what is required just to keep a roof over my head (which technically means I am inside, but you likely understand my drift). I’ll add mention of my dandruff issues, & man-boobs, & we’ve pretty much covered everything.
Resident in Britain
There was a squat man in shorts shouting at his wife
There was a squat man in shorts shouting at his wife. She was attempting to park their car but couldn’t get it in between the lines. The man was infuriated. His bald head was greased with sweat, mirroring the sunlight. He had one of those staircase veins on his temple which made you think an aneurism wasn’t far off. I was watching from the queue outside the shop, chuckling to myself. She was on his fourth go and missed again. This pushed him somewhere further than disbelief. He threw his arms on the fence railings and started to shake at the iron. From the back it looked like he was unhappy about a rape and from the front I can only guess that he looked like a caged thumb. From somewhere, he found the strength to insult his wife further.
‘YOU ARE THE MOST STUPIDIST FUCKING WOMAN!... YOU KNOW THAT?! YOU ARE MENTALLY ILL! YOU MUST BE! YOU MUST BE FUCKED IN THE HEAD!’
‘LOOK! I CAN DO IT MARCUS! JUST GET IN THE QUEUE! GET THE BAGS OUT OF THE BOOT AND FUCK OFF!’
‘RIGHT, OKAY, OKAY! I’LL GO AND WATCH YOU WASTE MORE PETROL FROM OVER THERE! OR! OR! I COULD PARK THE CAR!’
‘IIIIII’MMMM PARRRKIINGGG THE FUCKING CAR!’
God, life is good if you just watch it. He walked over to the queue, two spaces behind me. He folded his arms and repressed his anger, feeling the proximity of normal people. She swung it in for a fifth and missed by a wider margin than the fourth. Lovely, just lovely. Her car now perfectly straddled the white line. I let out an audible groan of joy. He noticed it but was too consumed with his beloved’s ineptitude. Marcus walked back over to her.
‘FUUUUUUUCKKKKKIIIIINNNN’ HELL! SANDRA! JUST GET OUT OF THE CAR AND LET ME PARK IT!’
‘WILL. YOU. JUST. FUCK. OFF!’
He went for the door and she reacted late. It was open and he began shouting.
‘OUT! OUT! OUT!’
She reached for the inside handle. Missed. Shen then put her right foot out onto the tarmac and found the handle, pulling with all of her body and the rage. An insane tug of war then ensued. He had the outside handle and the door frame; she had the inside handle in both hands.
‘JUST FUCKING LET ME PARK MY CAR!’
‘HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU NEED?!’
He released the door without warning. She pulled it into her shin and screamed. The pain was too much. She limped out of the sacred seat and staggered a few paces, blowing into the sky. Blood came and tributaries formed from the dinted shin. He got in the car, parked it and got out to see how she was. I stopped laughing and others in the queue now looked concerned. The couple came over and an uneasy silence ensued. I got over it after a minute of contemplation. He probably beat her was the only conclusion that could be drawn. God, imagine. Love is venom if you let it go stale.
Ignoring the buzzing in his pocket, Glenn slid his eyes around the shabby felted table, fingered his chips and tossed in the ante. His watch said 4 o’clock in the morning and it showed on the faces of his opponents, the grim hangers-on in this - the Cincinnati regional poker tournament. A cocktail waitress heaved herself onto a barstool and allowed her head to lean heavy on her hand, no longer feigning interest or even offering to refresh anyone’s drinks. Only Glenn felt alive. It was all coming together! This was his night- at last! And didn’t he deserve it? This year of all years, didn’t he deserve to win? Ten years he’d been playing and watched the glory and the trophy go to others. But this year was different. Last year’s champion- the one to beat- had crashed out of the tournament at 2AM. Suddenly, winning was a real possibility and Glenn was sure that divine intervention was at stake. His luck had been so bad this year. Life had seemed so hopeless. It wasn’t just about the prize money. Now was his chance to get his name carved onto the brass champion’s plaque. He’d be immortal, then. And that’s gotta count for something, right?
Four thirty, another hand won, another player knocked out of the game. The dealer called for a comfort break and Glenn slipped out onto the balcony and checked his phone. Twenty-six messages - all the same. “CALL HOME!”
“Where the hell are you?”
“You know where I am.”
“You are unbelievable, you know that? UNBELIEVABLE! I told you yesterday morning, that the hospital has a match. They are flying it in now! You’ve got to be on the 6:40 plane back here so you can get prepped! The heart is only viable for 24 hours. You won’t get another chance.”
“Karen, I don’t expect you to understand how important this game is to me. I’m so close to winning, I can taste it. Please, try to see my point of view.”
“Glenn, you don’t seem to understand. You ARE a winner. Some poor unfortunate kid with a beautiful, working heart, got into a car accident and now you’ve won the jackpot. Get your ass back here and collect. I’ll be waiting at the airport. DON’T RUIN THIS!”
Feeling a tap on his shoulder, the cocktail waitress smiled and invited him back to the table. “We recommence in 2 minutes, gentleman.”
Glenn inhaled, deeply filling his lungs with fresh morning air. In that moment, dawn leapt onto the Cincinnati skyline, dazzling him with pure, golden shards of light. His feeble heart swelled with emotion and, for an instant, Glenn felt invincible. Life was so beautiful! So overwhelmingly beautiful and fleeting and fragile and precious! But wasn’t it the knife edge between living and dying, winning and losing that made it all worth it? This moment, of all moments, belonged to him.
Glenn switched his phone off and re-joined the game.
Chester, Cheshire UK
The city bus is due. It comes once a day and is never later than 9:10. It’s now 9:05. Through the window I can see Clara waiting at the street corner. It’s very hot and she’s wearing her new dress, hat and shades. Beside her is her case and mine. She’s stood with her hands on her hips, not looking down the main road, but back at the house. I’m no mind reader, but I can guess what’s she’s thinking right now – ‘C’mon Babe, stop wavering! Get your dumb ass out of that shithole before it’s too damn late!’
But Mom is looking at me from the wall. Her anguished face is pleading with me, ‘Don’t go, Babe. Before I went to be with the Lord you promised you’d help care for Pop and the boy!’ ‘Yes Mom,’ I say, ‘I don’t need no reminding.’
I’d mentioned my promise to Clara, only yesterday evening, in between listening to her escape plan. Clara told me I’d had no choice: ‘Who denies a dying mother her last wish, eh? Anyway, one of the promises she had me swear on was to take good care of you and that’s just what I’m doing, Babe. That’s why we’re catching the city bus tomorrow morning. Pop, Bruce, this house, damn them to hell!’
It’s now 9:07 and Clara’s still looking this way. Even from here I can see the outline of her stern face. She wore that face last night as she stuffed our belongings into the cases.
Yesterday had been one of those days. Pop and Bruce had started drinking about mid-day and we’re still at it by sun-down. Then they got to fighting each other before calling me and Clara everything from a pig to a sow. When we cooked up some food they christened it crap and junked it.
Sometime later, when Pop passed out, Bruce wouldn’t leave us be. Clara and I locked ourselves in our room and he banged on the door like it was going out of style. He was pleading, ‘I only want to do my usual thing, that’s all. Remember the promises you made to Mom. You swore on the Bible!’ Repeatedly, until he went to his room and passed out too.
Clara’s plan is to hit the city, catch another bus to somewhere else and then keep moving after that. ‘This is a big country, Babe,’ she told me. ‘They’ll never find us, even if they can be bothered to get off their fat butts and come looking, which I very much doubt! We can wait on tables or something. Rent an apartment. Make a fresh start. Have a life of our own, God help us!’
Well, Pop and Bruce haven’t risen yet and the door’s wide open. There’s no one to stop me walking out this minute - except for Mom, the crucifix around her neck, imploring me from the beside the clock, which is just about at 9:10.
‘Stay Babe, stay!’
When I make the bed, I always fold his pyjamas neatly and put them under his pillow. Likewise, I place his slippers next to the front door, so that he can step right into them when he arrives home. At tea time, I even grind the salt and pepper onto his food. I do many things like this for Michael. The devil’s in the details, as they say.
All this might make me seem like some docile, subservient housewife - a nineteen-fifties throwback, as it were. Well, maybe it does but it’s not because Michael demands it from me. No, in fact he often gets a little flummoxed by the way I mollycoddle him and says he can as easily do things for himself. ‘Just let it be’, he often chides.
But I can’t just let it be! You see, if Michael is ever going to feel truly wanted and cherished, as a husband should, I need to spread the love as thick as I do his butter. In many ways, I’m trying to provide all the care he had previously been denied. What the emotional welfare of my poor orphan boy demands, more than anything else, is my vigilant attention to his every need.
I must admit though, I sometimes wonder why I bother. I just don’t seem able to do right for doing wrong, as my mother would say. Let’s take the mug, for example.
Michael keeps his dad’s old enamel mug by his bedside. It’s been with him through all the children’s homes, fostering and the failed adoption. It’s very scratched, cracked and dented – quite ugly, to be honest. That’s why I went out and bought some proper paints to decorate it with. I made it look especially pretty, with flowers, birds and other nice things.
But, after going to so much bother, what do you think he did? Well, for a start, he didn’t crack as much as a smile, although his mouth fell open a bit. He just sat there, his face flushing, glaring at the mug. I said, ‘Have you noticed the butterflies? I hope you like them. They were the trickiest to paint.’ Yet all he could do was look from the mug to me and back again. I’ve never seen him cry, but I could see his eyes beginning to fill with tears. At first, I took this as a sign that he was happy and grateful for my efforts but that wasn’t it, at all. Suddenly, he stood up and firmly told me that I should have, yes, you’ve guessed, just let it be. Then he stormed out of the room and that was the last I saw of him on that day.
So, there you are. I try my best because he deserves and needs it, although sometimes he just throws it back in my face. I suppose it’s his upbringing - he doesn’t know any better, not yet, anyway. But I’ll see him right, just you see.
Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire
All was quiet in the western front where a raging war had been waging for over fifteen years. Today, there was a lull. No bullets were shot from any guns, and no bodies were zipped up in body bags. This war torn region hadn’t had a break like this in many years. The inhabitants of this place let out a sigh of relief. The war cries had stopped finally in a rare moment of munificence.
However, other kinds of activities were noted. These occurred internally within the human bodies. Vapid groans could be heard, but not from gunshots; sounds of morbid short breaths. They were unbeatable, foghorns sounding off tidings of grave unease. These could be termed as war also. In the throes of a different sort, where elements were engaged in a battle with an enemy within, they fought a fierce fight with the invisibles.
A war which could not be mapped out geographically, but defined only in scans and x-rays. The enemy here, chose to reside in throats and in the lungs, but mostly in the lungs. This was its post, where it lunged out an unscrupulous war. It choked its victims without a compunction, until they became incapacitated and breathless. Fortuitously some lived, but many died. Those who died, they perished in multitudes, like gathered flies of pestilence; this sinister battle, could not be pinned on any one nation or place, but littered through the globe. It didn’t discriminate between kings, princes, paupers, heathens or believers; it swept them all into the one crowded compartment of a boat, namely Elysium.
The crew of the Elysium knew the underworld well. The boat was anchored in an offing, as the war continued to scale up. It cleansed the world and this cleansing did not finish anytime soon. Fearful of the new enemy, people hid away wherever they could. They stayed indoors and did not see the light of day. For days on end, for weeks and for months, they feared this elusive enemy could drop in on their doorstep and get inside. People hoarded what they could. Shops were scarce of food, toilet papers and antiseptic wipes. Religious leaders sermoned to empty halls of churches and mosques. Gregorian Chants, sung in isolation reached a zenith; an empty space, tuned up with high notes of heavenly soprano. The forlorn street lamps lit up a ghost town, occupied only by bats and vultures. Now a mere shadow, billions of years of evolution seemed to have backtracked to singularity of primordial darkness.
The enemy reigned supreme. By far, this was the most enigmatic enemy which had far surpassed any mighty princes; this battle brought the human race to its knees, and broken its hubris, this passing phase of a fragile ephemera. A task, which no other could accomplish with this level of dexterity. And they marched full on. This black swan soldiered ruthlessly until the wake of a new dawn. A sun’s reflection ponded on the waves to issue a misty, crisp beginning. Swans and geese flapped their wings and were risen in the ray’s infancy. They didn’t get wiped out, neither did the bats, whose final flings ended this drama, a short while back.
Think of an occasion when you personally had to deal with either a challenging situation or a difficult person. What was the main concern, how did you tackle it and what were the consequences?
“I was supervising my twin albino Badgers whilst at play outside our cosy suburban home whereupon I noticed a silly argument boiling over between nine or ten adolescent lads nearby. Two pretty boys, well known to us, were apparently being bullied. My initial concern was that an unruly fight might endanger my babies. We prayed for a peaceful resolution, but a sudden escalation in aggression resulted in a nasty free for all. I gamely intervened in an effort to assist the nicer tykes- shouting aloud that they were our friends and that this violence did no one any credit. A craft blade was produced- stabbed into my thyroid- I lost consciousness. It transpired that the big ugly chaps had then carried me shoulder high at a canter before gleefully throwing me through my own kitchen window. Consequently, I underwent five full emergency blood transfusions in order to live with disabilities for the next three years, in therapy, relearning to think- move- speak- or even toilet unassisted."
Evan Hay exists in Britain and over the years he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined, considered and interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be able to offer him professional psychological assistance.
She We Us I
She is we and us are I and…
She dances around us. Her frayg says come quickly. We immediately follow her along the two-lane frayg trail. We get to where it’s all kicking off. Some sister-smalls have a lifter by its legs. It’s trying to be up but they want it down. The lifter is strong and begins to climb even as more sister-smalls join in. They frayg all pile on, all pile on! Now, despite its struggling, it’s deeply under and cannot move. They stretch its body taut but don’t have the means to finish it off. That’s where we come in, the sister-bigs. Grasping, biting, tearing and ripping the lifter. There go the wings, now the legs and let’s have the head off too, that’s it! Take it away, sisters. Now what’s next?
We are I and us is she and…
Frayg, frayg, follow the frayg. Further up the frayg trail is a flying-stinger. Black stripped, a real monster. Several sister-smalls fall from its back as it lifts towards the light-bright. But some hang on as it rises. Struggling to gain height it crashes from thing-high to thing-low. Collision to collision, then falls smack-bang into the trail. All pile on, all pile on! Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing and ripping - the usual. Cart it off, girls. Bigs, let’s go!
Us is I and she are we and…
Aha! A fat, juicy crawler fallen from a thing-high-light-bright-catcher. Plump pickings. Watch out for the spikers! Flipping from side to side, as if that’ll do any good. Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing and ripping. Ugh, its rear end has exploded! Sister-smalls drowning in the sticky jelly. Just another danger of the job. Good way to go, if you ask me. Forget ‘em, they knew what they’re signed up for. Sisters, lift what you can of that crawler and shift it. Onwards, forever onwards!
I are she and us is we and…
Oh, crap! This isn’t no ordinary nest. This belongs to them bigger-sister-smalls and bigger-sister-bigs. We’re trapped and here they come. Weapons at the ready and no falling back, sisters. Fight until the last girl standing – to the death!
Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing, ripping, tearing, biting, grasping, swarming.
I am under and she is top, then I am top and she is under.
Us are top and we are under, then us are under and we are top.
Ripping, tearing, biting, grasping, swarming, grasping, biting, tearing, ripping.
The queen’s knees, look at the snappers on this one! One of their biggest, snapping our sisters in half as easily as through air-take. All pile on, all pile on! That’s it, get between the soft bits behind the head. Take that and that and that…
Oh, again-crap. It’s got my back-end and is throwing me around in the air-take. Flipped onto my back, now it’s got my head firmly grasped between those great snappers. Aah, the pressure! Oh, the pressure! Argh!
And we is us and she is I and…
Cold. That’s all I felt.
Cold. Dark. Silent.
Ties around my wrist held me to a bed – not my bed. All I wanted to do was scream, but it was as someone had stolen my voice. I wrestled with the restraints cutting into my wrists. I passed out. Again.
Warm. Light. Birds singing.
Ties still around my wrist, still stuck to an unfamiliar bed. Footsteps. I slowed my breathing and pretended to be unconscious, when I heard the door creak open. Heavy footsteps, most likely male, approached me. “You’re so beautiful when you sleep”. I recognised this voice – my date two nights ago…
How long had I been out?
I felt this feeling building up in my chest, I knew what was coming; I tried to hold it in as long as I could, but I just couldn’t. I coughed. “Good afternoon beautiful,”
“Where am I?”
Funny word that.
“Please let me go, I don’t know you, and I wouldn’t tell anyone, I’ll just say I went away for a family emergency or something, no one will know,”
“Funny that” he laughed “I remember how you said your best friend was like a sister, she’d know.” I knew from this point that arguing was no good, I knew my only chance was to escape. He came and sat next to me on the bed and I winced, full of fear as to what he’d do next; part of me knew what to expect next, part of me didn’t accept it, but to my surprise, he simply stroked my hair and ran his hand down my face. “If you behave, I can untie you, but only if you promise to behave, and then we can finish our date.” I nodded, as again, my words, my voice failed me. I wanted this to be over and I didn’t care how anymore as I knew he wouldn’t want to let me go.
I sat at the table, looking down at the dish he made, knowing how little effort he put into this and I wanted to scoff, but I held back; how could he put such little effort into a meal he went to such lengths for? I started to eat, my eyes darting between the dish and him. “How’s the food sweetheart?”
“Good,” I choked.
He was smart enough to not give me a knife or even a fork, just a spoon, but he had a knife, and that’s what I needed, somehow. So I knocked over my water, apologising profusely, trying to bide my time. He took his knife with him but left his fork for me to grab. As he sat down to finish his meal, he noticed his fork was gone and as he went to grab me, I slammed the fork down, through his hand onto the table.
I kept running and running, I was free.
But then I stopped, and that’s when I heard food steps behind me.
The leader of our summer gang was Jonson, no doubt about it. He had great ideas for pranks and adventures; like building a polystyrene raft which, on its maiden voyage, met much the same fate as the Titanic. Jonson was a year below us at school and at least an inch shorter, but we looked up to him, so to speak, because of his innate ability to take us places beyond our own lesser imaginings.
Occasionally, Jonson wasn’t at home when we called, and after failing to find him in the usual places – the den, the school roof or his chair in the library – we were left to spend mundane afternoons as a threesome. When we questioned him about his absences, he often said he’d been with someone called Crow Boy. Jonson described, what seemed to be, a mythical child, who walked with a crow on his shoulder and could name every living thing that came into his sight – flowers, insects, birds and trees. Though fascinated, we didn’t really believe him, but daren’t say so to his face. We thought Crow Boy was probably another of Jonson’s imaginary friends.
Then one afternoon, we were up in the trees behind the colliery, attempting to cross the wood without falling to the ground. Atop what he called a ‘you tree’, Jonson pointed out Crow Boy’s cottage beyond the fields. He caught our silent smirks and immediately had us clamber down the tree and marched us through the briars and brambles. Sure enough, when we came to the cottage, there was Crow Boy, sitting on the doorstep with the said crow perched upon a shoulder.
Crow boy had gentle eyes and a constant half-smile, but the bird looked fierce. However, Jonson encouraged us to approach it carefully and feed it fish food, its favourite treat, from the palms of our hands.
Later, after quenching our thirst with some home-made lemonade, we returned to the woods, with the crow either balanced on Crow Boy’s shoulder or flying just above Jonson, cawing loudly. Though seemingly intimidated by our constant questions, Crow Boy named everything we pointed at, whether it be Shepherd’s Purse, Bird Cherry or a Grizzled Skipper. When probed about his knowledge he simply said, ‘Learnt it, in the Dad-days.’ Instinctively, we knew Crow Boy was bully-fodder, but the gang deferred to him, following Jonson’s example.
In the weeks that followed, Jonson’s own woodland mastery seemed to grow to Crow Boy proportions and so we nicknamed him ‘Doc’, as in ‘Dock Leaf’.
The gang called on Crow Boy several times, but on our last visit to the cottage, much to our dismay, it was empty. Crow Boy and his mother had mysteriously vanished. Finding the back door open, we searched the rooms and all we brought out was a jar, full of dark feathers.
Jonson was speechless, but his grimace turned to a broad smile when a friend of his swooped out of the trees and quietly settled itself upon his shoulder.
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Following your death, I came back, alone to the high moor. And not too near the wreck of the farm house, I fixed a small zinc plate, as high as I could manage, onto a solitary, bent-backed tree. A private monument. Embossed upon it were the six letters of your name and the five letters of hers.
Earlier, we had come together as newly-weds. We walked the hills from my mother’s house. The day was deceptively clear and warm; the moor in heather-soft disguise. Excited, you sat cross-legged and drew the famous ruins in your confident, thin line. Intense concentration: you brought the same precision to the image as you did to the written word. You sketched the empty window frames, the toppled walls and the slumped roof; and was delighted by all that moor-time dilapidation. Half-joking, you suggested we should buy and restore the house; you were so at home on that spot.
Standing near the house were two trees. I gave you a leg up into a crook and took one of your happiest looking photos. In your drawing, the trees look more like people than sycamores; a pair of deformed sisters, shaped by the same force that had gnarled and flattened the high heath. And if you were one sister then, surely, she was the other. Her spirit-presence, our reason for being there. Her mesmeric book had shaped us both, but with you it had, I later realised, sculptured the very sinews of your disposition.
The moors didn’t merely feed her terrible imagination, but were an extension of it, as if she herself had dreamed up that desolate, horror-locale. Removed from it for any amount of time, her phantom limbs would ache for bog, cotton grass and the rising wail of the curlew.
Only a bleak obsession with unchained, retributive and doomed love held any true beauty for her. What she saw through the windows of this world held no interest for her untamed eyes.
Likewise, you quested for the unattainable; something beyond mortal reach. If life was a promise, it could never deliver. And like her, you were defeated. Your testimony and hers, regarding the supreme power of love, was reduced to the same conclusion: death. Betrayal, violence, vengeance, death. It all boiled down to that, in the end. Your end and hers.
Now here I am again, many years later. The weather is altogether different to when you and I came on our pilgrimage. Today, the falling sky is hawk-winged and the wind stone-cries across the loosened moor. But the two twisted sycamores still stand together and here is the lone tree and the plate, though the bark has grown all around, reducing it to a thumb-sized disk. Only the ‘I’ is visible, a letter both your names shared.
‘I’ indeed; the ghost ‘eye’ of the tree or even the moor; admiring this waste, the Eden of your dark imaginings. Your eye and hers; joined, compounded; fix-focused on your story land come real.
Polly On The Shore
Oh, it’s a wild un tonight, mi puss-puss. You’ll ave your work cut out catchin them ratties down in the old, I bet. Just listen to that wind, straight from the north it is. N us with a great, big ole in the stern. That’s it, puss-puss, settle down on mi lappy. Now, where’s mi squeezebox? Ah, ere it is. N what shall I sing for yer, eh? Polly On The Shore yer say, then Polly it shall be!
‘Come all you wild young men and a warning take by me
Never lead your single life astray or into bad company…
By gads, these timbers are takin a-batterin! Creakin n groanin like a sailor’s arthritic leg. N worser still, the porthole’s all smashed to smithereens by the broadside wi suffered this afternoon. Ere, puss-puss, take cover from the rain inside mi coaty.
That’s it, purr away puss-puss. I’ll be joinin yer soon, I ope. We’ll need a good night’s kip if we’re to face the foe agin with any vigour. Oh, for sweet dreams of sendin that Ken straight darn to where e belongs. Where’s that, yer ask? Davy Jones’ Locker, that’s where, puss-puss. Evry Jackie Tar as is day and we’ll ave ars in the morrow!
…And our decks they were sputtered with blood and the cannons did loudly roar
And broadside and broadside a long time we lay till we could fight no more…
Now, Ken might be thinkin e’s got the upper and. Well, let im! Over-confidence can often be a worser enemy than the foe upon the tide. What e’s forgettin is that we’ve seized the missiles e sent forth today: the bricks, the ammer, the shovel n the paint pots. What do yer say about that, puss-puss? Come sun-up they’ll be eadin right back from whence they came!
…And a thousand times I wished myself alone, all alone with my Polly on the shore
She's a tall and a slender girl with a dark and a-rolling eye…
Now, some might say, why be off fightin Ken, whosa once counted as a dear friend and ally? Well, puss-puss, they don’t know the depth of is depravity, do they! Is dark and corrupted soul. Everyone knows that spit a land at the end of the gardens belongs to me. I claimed it first n e’s no right to go puttin a fence around it. No, the dirty blackheart, he!
…And here am I, a-bleeding on the deck and for a sweet saint must lie
Farewell, my family and my friends, likewise my barley too…
Ey, o, ere we go! This must be the missus on the mobile. Scuse me puss-puss. Hello love, yes, I’m just finishing in the shed. Yes, I know it’s half-ten. Five minutes and I’ll be in the house.
…I'd never have crossed the salt sea wide if I'd have been ruled by you
And a thousand times I saw myself again, all alone with my Polly on the shore.
Image supplied by Chanice Gardner-Middleton
After Hearing Bernie Krause
Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart
Woodwind, brass, strings, percussion
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
Bio-acoustician – from his note book.
Portable recording system. The first microphone at 200 feet from the forest’s edge, the second 100 feet closer, the third in the canopy. Hitting the record button. Birds flying through the headphones, left to right, through the stereo space. The slow cadenced edge-tones of their undulating wings. Raising the monitor levels. Hearing a foot adjusting on a branch, the opening of a beak, a heartbeat.
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart
Brass, strings, percussion
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
Bio-acoustics – from the handbook.
Basic sources of sound:
1. Giophony – The sound of natural forces: wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves on the ocean shore.
2.Biophany - All sounds generated by organisms in a given habitat.
3. Anthropophony – Human sounds. Sometimes coherent but often chaotic, incoherent noise: revved cars, jet fighters low in the sky, chainsaws ripping into trees.
Every living creature has its own signature. They have established their individual niche, their own acoustic territory. First in the frequency spectrum came the insects. Secondly, the reptiles and then the amphibians. Next it was the birds and finally the mammals.
Note: If one of these elements is missing, it changes the whole structure of that niche. Fragility. Any of these sounds can easily be disrupted by anything: the presence of a predator, rain, human footsteps.
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
The hearing – the evidence.
The company promised us selected logging would have no environmental impact. A tree taken here and a tree taken there would do no harm, they said. Well, this gentleman has clearly proved our suspicions correct. In the decade in which he has been doing his field recordings, no less than 80% of the birds have disappeared from the meadow’s soundscape. And this is just the birds! Where, I ask, are all the other critters that once belonged here?
The findings – summary.
Even after the logging ended the birds and other animals didn’t return in their former numbers. What does this tell us? What lessons need to be taught? What do we need to learn, do?
Unlike light, sound cannot be seen. Sound is hard to describe beyond its physical properties: frequency, amplitude, timbre and duration. Sound exists in an ethereal, amorphous realm. But it’s real, very real. And sound is talking to us. Indeed, it seems to be the case that every creature on this planet is trying to tell us something. Something simple but profound.
They are saying, ‘Be quieter, humans! Be humble. This planet needs to be shared. Preserve the spaces where we too can thrive!’
Also, think of this. Imagine deleting from the human repertoire all the works of the great composers. Envisage no Schubert, Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. Make that thought a mirror to the world’s disappearing soundscape.
Silence is descending upon our world.
So, act now. The clock’s ticking. The drum is beating!
Skowhegan, Maine USA
As Ruth processed item after item through the scanner at Tesco’s, she tried to pinpoint the cause of her self-pity, there were so many reasons it seemed. Her thoughts flicked between apples, soap, full-fat milk; to yet another period, to Steve’s temper since his release from prison, to the mounting debt they didn’t talk about. Sirloin steak, frozen peas, Nutella. As soon as she processed one item, another one came. In her current state of mind, each item was a problem, one after the other. They were queuing to put problems on her mind. They came so quickly she didn’t see the next one coming. Look at the queue she thought, queuing one behind the other with their trolleys as if they were revving their fucking car.
Miss Smith touches her neck expecting her glands to be crowbarred hinges. Then she checks her glasses are on, convinced she has misread the time again.
Surrounded by the flurry of caged flight, the classroom window might shatter. The door, reinforced with steel, flinches with each kick Becky blows.
‘Cunt. Open the fucking door.’
Once a foetus, Becky is now a grenade.
Miss stands on a patch of blue carpet where the graffiti of confinement is written in paper aeroplanes and broken pens. Her mind combs the walls for inspiration, it scales each one in turn, but she sees nothing in her search except walls.
Louise's debut novel, 'Distorted Days' is out now, published by Lulu Publishing.
Images supplied by Louise Worthington
The Hunger Artist
Anne stands in front of the floor length mirror in her bedroom and stares at her naked body, her face twisted with disgust.
Her room’s painfully neat and tidy; the furniture’s sparse, she only has a bed, a single wardrobe and a small chest of drawers beside the bed. The bed is hospital neat and doesn’t even have a crease in the covers. A few books sit on the chest of drawers in a neat pile. The objects in the room are arranged with precision. There isn’t a book or item of clothing out of place and there are no wrinkles or creases anywhere.
She’s tall and painfully thin; her ribs are clearly visible on both sides, her skin’s sallow and unhealthy, there are fine tufts of downy on the inside of both thighs and bone ridges stick out of both shoulders. She’s so thin she’s almost skeletal.
Her hair’s almost down to her waist. A lifetime ago, before food became the centre of her world it was a beautiful shade of blonde, a bright and vibrant yellow. Years of carefully, deliberately starving herself have left it a faded pale yellow. Her hair hangs about her thin face with no shape or form. Since she got really sick her hair’s started to fall out in clumps and there are bald patches all over the back of her head. She had a bath when she first woke up and the water was filled with limp hair follicles.
Her legs are thin little sticks that aren’t strong enough to keep her upright anymore and the dizzy spells have started to become more frequent. Her arms are thin, frail twigs. Her hands are as thin and small as a child’s. Her skin’s unhealthily transparent. Her lips are pale and cracked.
She feels enormous compared to the last time she weighed herself. She pulls her weight book and a measuring tape out from under her mattress. She measures the circumference of her waist with the measuring tape and consults the book. She measures the circumference of her thighs, upper arms, and shoulders. She’s horrified to discover she’s 3mm wider all over. Blinded by tears she records her new measurements in the books and stuffs it back under her mattress with the measuring tape.
She carefully makes her way to the bathroom at the end of the hall. She takes a bad dizzy turn on the way and need to lean against the wall for several minutes and take in deep breaths until her heart stops racing. When she finally stumbles through the bathroom door she steps onto the scales. She takes a deep breath and looks down at them. The needle stops halfway between 4 and 5 stones.
She steps off the scales and angrily shoves them away with her foot. She’s so weak the effort leaves her red-faced and breathless. She’s three pounds heavier than she was last week. She’ll need to eat smaller portions or she’ll get fat again. She cannot let the fat girl she used to be take control of her life again. She cannot let her win again.
She wraps a dressing gown around her body, steps into a pair of slippers and does downstairs, wheezing with the effort of moving her frail body. The pile of letters behind the front door’s becoming quite large. When she’s lost some weight she’ll look at them. If the letters contain bad news she’ll want to stuff her face and she can’t allow it to happen. She’s worked so hard to be thin and perfect.
She goes into the kitchen without putting any lights on because the brightness hurts her eyes. She prepares breakfast. She takes a bowl out of one of the cupboard’s and fills it with one and a half spoonfuls of cereal and a teaspoon of milk. She pours a few drops of fresh orange juice into a glass and takes a grape out of the bunch in the fridge. She crushes the cornflakes with her spoon until they’re soggy and slices the grape into tiny fragments.
Rainbowfloss and Earshort
Dad was working on his laptop in the kitchen. Mum and Tom were in the living room. She was on Facebook and he was on level four of Animal Crossing. The twins left them to it and headed outside.
Ignoring the ‘Keep Out’ sign, Jane and Peter crawled through the Scratting Hole beneath the wire fence and into their green world. Bordered on three sides by the chemical plant, the sewerage works and the river, they had named this land Keepindom.
With their arms held high, so as not to get attacked by the Skin Stingers, they carefully began their journey towards their den.
Through Open Thorn they entered the trees. Once inside, they stopped to listen to the birds singing and smiled to hear the Spotted Belly Watcher. They had so named the bird because it had brown tummy spots and its song sounded like, ‘I’m watching you two, I am!’
In the middle of the trees it became marshy and so they carefully made their way around the Suck-You-In-Pool. They never went too close to the Suck-You-In-Pool because it was the entrance to an underground sea, where the worst sort of monsters lived. It was an unspoken agreement between them that not all portals were safe.
To their delight, they found an old, gnarled branch on the floor. It was taller than they were and covered in all sorts of Rainbowfloss. The branch was light to carry and, because of its magical powers, they took it with them.
Near their den was the Spiny-Twig Tree. From it grew small apples which looked scrummy but tasty nasty. And just behind the tree was a bush on which, in Autumn, hung dark Vinegar-Spit Berries. They looked juicy enough, but the twins had also found these inedible. Within seconds, the berries dried up all the wetness in their mouths, causing them to spit, as though taking medicine.
Inside the den’s tunnel, they were amazed to discover a perfect but lifeless animal. It was even tinier than a mouse and looked like it was just sleeping, not dead. They decided that the furry creature must be an Earshort.
Leaving the den for the riverbank, they wove rushes together for a small raft and then carefully let it go upon the water. They waved as the Earshort made its way down the oily river to the Land of Deathforever.
With riverbank mud they smeared several Earshorts onto their arms and using the magic branch they transformed themselves into the same animal. Moving as low as their bodies would allow, they nimbly made their way back to the Scratting Hole; sniffing, scratching and squeaking, but alert to any predator.
When Jane and Peter arrived home everyone was in the same positions and still on their devices. On seeing his younger siblings, Tom became excited. ‘Come and look,’ he shouted. ’I’m now onto level five!’ But the twins just shrugged at each other and, for the first time that afternoon, were speechless.
Hull, East Yorkshire
The last thing mother said was, ‘And make sure this house looks the same when I get back. Don’t forget to feed the dog and water my flowers! If you don’t, there’ll be hell to pay, understand?’ Of course we understood, the last time she’d spent a week at grandma’s we fully screwed up and we really did pay hell on her return.
For four days a steady peace reigned. Neither Alex nor I did anything too bad. Okay, the kitchen was beginning to look a mess, there was Xbox stuff littered everywhere and the dog was miserable because he hadn’t been exercised, we’d just kicked him out into the garden. Alex and I had the odd wrestle, but that was normal.
Then on day five things turned nasty. We started arguing about what telly programme to watch. Alex said he should choose because he was a year older than me. I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t get to choose, but it made me really mad, it was so unfair. The argument went on for ages and then we started proper wrestling with punches and kicks. Then, just like that, he pulled out his wanger and started pissing against the telly. I screamed, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ He shouted, ‘I’m marking out my territory. This telly’s mine now, so keep off!’ I wasn’t standing for that, so I also pulled out my wanger and pissed on the Xbox.
And so it began. Next he pissed on the comfy armchair. So, when the dog popped into the room to see what all the fuss was about, I pissed on it. The dog pulled a sad, confused face, sniffed himself and went straight back into the garden.
We kept this going until we were empty of piss. Then we refilled our bladders with Dr Pepper and Pepsi Max and resumed the pissing, marking our territory and belongings.
This pattern of behaviour continued into day six. By supper time there was barely any furniture or household items left unmarked by our piss. We even competed for dominance on certain things. For example, Alex could piss higher than me so, when it came to the doors and wardrobes, I stood on a stool and did my thing.
On the telly, I’d once seen a panda stand upside down so its piss would spray at a greater height. I tried this on a kitchen unit but fell over and pissed myself in the process. This made Alex laugh really loudly, which really pissed me off.
Of course, by day seven, mother was due back home. So, Alex and I went around the house with bleachy water, trying to rid it of our stink. Whilst we scrubbed, we heard the garden gate swing open. Through the landing window we saw her bend down to greet the dog and sniff it. Glaring around at all her wilted flowers, she then turned her wild eyes towards the house.
The Baron Aargh!
Moment In Time
Captain Smothers, the military guard, marched with M-16 in hand, along the narrow, dirt road to Mammoth Air Station. Captain Smothers briefly stopped to observe the wood line on the other side of the path.
"Help me!” a faint male voice echoed.
Trained in sound localization, Captain Smothers calculated the direction of the voice. Through the wood line as he suspected.
He found an elderly man with leathery skin and a swollen ankle on the forest floor. The man’s musky scent almost made Captain Smothers vomit.
“Now, what is this about?” he asked.
The man attempted to stand, but the swollen ankle proved too much to bear.
Loss of patience provoked Captain Smothers to press the barrel against the man’s temple. “Don’t make me repeat it.”
The man looked him in the eye. “Your world is in danger. Just set the weapon down. I’m no threat to you.”
Captain Smothers acquiesced. He held the weapon so that the barrel pointed downward.
The man said, “I’m a time travelling planetologist from your far future. In fact, my people live within this solar system. This planet is attached to a moon that made a noticeable change in its axis over a period of eons.
“The problem, my people noticed, is that we couldn’t find this planet anywhere. When I investigated its moon - your people call it a “golden orb” - I only found a hollow shell. Only remnants of gold and silver. I suspected that’s what was drilled.
“With no planet in the way, it affected the axis of your moon. I only suspect this was to stop the moon’s ice age and make it more sustainable for drilling. But it’s only speculation.”
Smothers heard voices a short distance away.
“No time left,” the man said. “You need to blow up the drill in the glossy, black suitcase. The drill drives down to the planet’s core and blows it up from the inside.”
“How do you know?” Smothers asked.
“One of my great or great-great-grandfathers blew up this planet. His last name is ‘Beano,’ ‘Bongo’ or ‘Bravo’.” The man held his ankle. “I can’t remember.”
Three men appeared in camouflage. One carried the suitcase.
“Who’s there?” He pointed his weapon at the men.
“It’s Scientist Ben Bravo, sir.,” the man with the suitcase said. “I have a special mission to perform from General Ajax.”
Captain Smothers searched his mind for answers. Bravo. BRAVO. That’s right. I had a meeting with him and Ajax about drilling to this planet’s core. I need to stop him. Now.
Smothers shot the suitcase. A light consumed the entire forest.
Then… nothing. The forest seemed as empty as the many nights he walked the perimeter here.
Captain Smothers looked around. He felt the severe throbbing of a migraine headache. There’d been a light, hadn’t there? And he’s seen three men, hadn’t he? And a man injured?
The migraine made it almost impossible to piece together his memory. Maybe it was in his imagination.
Stevie, My Stevie
Well, this is nice. A birthday lunch with my children, all adults now, of course. Seated by the window on the round table, we’ve a lovely view of the river and the wispy clouds high in the sky. We’re a little bit squashed but, as usual, I feel the table should have been set for one more. I always do. Not for Stan, my dead husband, no, but for the child I never had.
Call me selfish, I understand. Two beautiful daughters and a handsome son - who could ask for more? But I just can’t help it, this ache, this hunger. Constantly, I yearn for the presence of a child who isn’t.
golden at dusk,
I call my child Stevie because I can’t decide on its sex. Sometimes, I imagine Stevie coming towards me with his strong eyes and thick shoulders. Other times, I envisage Stevie by my side, her odour rising and filling up my senses. Often, when I’m out in town, I’ll look at the back of many a young adult and think, ‘Oh, that must be Stevie.’
Certainly, Stevie shows both male and female family traits. She has her sisters’ dark stare and he has his brother’s big laugh. And when I look at old photos of Stan, I see Stevie’s posture too, feet at ninety degrees and the head ever so slightly leaning to one side.
passing the watchful shore,
Is it some kind of mania I am suffering? Maybe. Its’ encouraged me to do many strange things.
For instance, I’ve secretly kept for Stevie a memory box in the loft, just like I have for the other three. There you’ll find many things including Stevie’s baby shoes, first toothbrush and Terri the teddy.
I once bought Stevie school uniforms, one for a boy and one for a girl. I ironed them and neatly placed them into a bottom drawer. Unfortunately, Stan came across them and I had to concoct some ridiculous story about keeping them for the children next door.
You may find this incredible, but I even opened Stevie a savings account. I deposit just five pounds a year. Only a token, but it’s there nonetheless, gathering interest.
unresponsive to all cries, sails
Mostly though, I just ache. My own mother used to say she knew when it was going to rain because she could feel it in her bones. I’d disbelieve her, even though she was mostly right. This is how I feel now except, unlike the rain, Stevie never arrives and my bones continue to throb.
Now, as we sit waiting, we stare at the river, empty but for some flotsam. But here comes the waiter with the tea and the tiered stand with all the fancy what nots. We all tuck in. When no one’s looking, I sneak a bun into my handbag– just for Stevie.
‘Happy Birthday to you,’ they all sing.
‘And happy birthday to you, Stevie,’ I whisper. ‘My lovely child.’
The After World
Her fingers trailed across the cold, sleek, broken metal of the fence. Dismembered bodies sprinkled across the lonely, deserted ground like confetti. Faces torn apart by their own families. A grey, shadowy sky cast over the surface of the Earth; the apocalypse ruined the Earth as everyone knew it. All that was left was grieving, cold-blooded killers. Items of loved-one’s clothing desperately keeping the memory of them alive. Remains of buildings scattered throughout the broken town leaving tales of the old town in its wake. The crunching of her fatigued feet was the only noise to be heard for miles, but her mind still echoed the screams. Terror that sat on innocent people’s faces remained burned into her brain as the memories replayed like a broken record. Shattered screams. Panic-stricken parents and children. Blood-curdling bodies laying lifeless. Sucking in polluted air, she closed her bloodshot eyes. Fading into a state of unconsciousness, she saw him.
Verdant, substantial gardens rested underneath their relaxed bodies. She laid peacefully next to him; she felt content. Lengthy brunette hair sprawled across the grass framing her tanned face. Afternoon sun kissed her skin gently as she fluttered her feline eyes closed. His deep, sparkling eyes watched her in awe. Turning, she faced him. She raised her groomed eyebrows as she read his expression. His plump, curved lips sat comfortably in a soft smile. Smiling, she sat up and reached over sipping on her pineapple flavoured cocktail. Her doe eyes stared admiringly at the Northern Italian landscape. Peach trees were scattered around the garden accompanied by rose bushes. Mountains were on display in the distance and a lake was sat not far from them. Tearing her eyes away she focused on the soft, slovenly curls that were messily sat on his forehead. His loose button- up shirt hung on his muscular, toned body.
“You know this isn’t real right?” He asked quietly, scared to break the tranquil atmosphere.
“You’re the only getting me through this okay?”
She didn’t know how it was possible. How was she able to close her eyes and see a guy she had never met? How was she able to live a fantasy in her head that felt so palpable when the real world was falling apart at her fingertips? She let it happen though. She allowed herself to fall into this non-existent world for a moment away from the terror and pain of concrete truth.
Her worn-out eyes reluctantly peeled open. The severed town came back into view. Trudging tiredly, she cautiously stepped over the road of mangled inert bodies. The bleak streets were barely recognisable as she picked up a fragment of severed glass. She spun the sharp object around her grimy fingers. A severed sign caught her attention. A pub. She entered the abandoned building. Perpetual rows of alcohol that miraculously survived the attack stood out to her. Shifting uncomfortably in the leather bar stool, she drowned her sorrow in her third glass of rum.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t expect to see anyone,” A deep voice chimed from behind her. She slowly swirled around, locking eyes with deep, sparkling orbs.
The breaths caught in each of their throats.
The guy from her fantasies.
The girl from his fantasies.
They were real.
I remember the summer you turned up at our youth club and asked where I got the tiny tattoo on my fleshy ankle then showed me yours; a sleek blue dolphin riding the crest of your achingly sharp hip.
You shocked the Jesus Army youth workers who were hardened only to our petty swearing, smoking and pissing about. You asked them, if God was so great, why were we stuck in this shitty housing estate with three generations unemployed and no hope.
Oh Jamie! I wanted just half of your guts.
On the camping trip you made them organise, we sat by the campfire long after everyone else.
“I moved away from a small town like yours” you said, “it’s amazing, the world out there, even for girls like us”.
The flames burnished your eyes and I saw more clearly too. So good having a true friend to walk with, taller and stronger. To walk away from the sensible haircut, beige jumper brigade and away from the shallow, crowd-following losers I called my friends.
One later cool blue evening, the youth club manager emerged from her toughened-glass office to give me the letter.
The look on her face, I thought you’d died.
You weren’t coming back. We were just a summer job. You were at the university. The sociology department. Now you were writing up the results of your participant observation research. You couldn’t tell me because that would have affected the findings.
You were sorry. I wasn’t.
Because you were right. The world is amazing, even for girls like us. Now I’m back in this small town. I’m working at the youth club. With purple hair. A new girl.
Christchurch, New Zealand
The Red Sweater
I wait for the protests which never come. Fifteen miles today; maybe twenty tomorrow. ‘We’ll be there before sunset,’ I lie. Lies have become easy for me these days; they help me muster the will to keep going. Sometimes I even believe myself – a pseudo-schizophrenic born out of necessity.
Twilight. Cold tendrils curl around my body, gripping like a vice as I lay my red sweater over the children, trying to maintain a semblance of normality – whatever that is. But the vicious cold prevents sleep; our breaths freeze on every exhalation, fingers of frost claw their way over us, razor-sharp nails dig deep into our very bones.
‘Only one more day,’ I whisper wordlessly into their dreams, like an angel’s promise.
The morning sun heats our blood into action; we are reptiles ready for the day. Hunkering down we demolish the dwindling supply of stale cornbread and slurp the water which has condensed in our bottles overnight. Progress is slower today as the track challenges our feet with a gritty slick of stones and rocks. Maria’s outgrown shoes are making her limp like a wounded dog. Marco has no shoes at all. Am I being selfish, imposing on them all the fears and hopes of a destitute, ambitious father? I repeat my mantra, willing myself to believe: ‘Nearly there.’ We stumble slowly, sorely northwards, on a tidal wave of sorrow. ‘My feet hurt, Papa,’ whimpers Maria, while Marco simply sucks harder on his soother, too tired to enunciate his – as yet – limited vocabulary. He was falling behind again; I scoop him up with one arm. ‘Why won’t you carry ME, Papa, it’s not fair,’ Maria moans, dragging her feet along the track, scuffing the toes of her shoes for dramatic effect. ‘Oh, but you, you are so much stronger,’ I say. That should work for a while, though my heart hurts like an open wound as the words tumble out.
We travel throughout the night this time, despite the chill – there is less chance of being seen this way, especially here. ’Nearly there.’ I hear the words detach from me and float away on a silent trajectory towards the Colorado River. I inhale deeply, 1-2-3-4. It smells, all at once, of the prospect of freedom and a future.
The hardest part was yet to come.
Chichester, West Sussex
The customer asks, ‘May I have my steak between rare and medium rare, slightly towards the medium rare side?’ Dom looks a little bemused. He knows what the cook will say, but writes down the order anyway. Back in the kitchen the cook looks at the order and is equally bemused. ‘Is this for real?’ he asks Dom. ‘I’m a cook, not a fuckin’ scientist!’ Dom just shrugs and heads back into the restaurant.
As he goes from table to table, Dom notices that the silent couple by the window are watching his every move. When he asks if he can offer any further assistance they tell him they are fine, thank you.
One customer tries to catch his attention by clicking his fingers. Dom walks over to the table and the customer asks, ‘Have you any ketchup?’ Dom nods and goes to fetch some. When he returns the customer asks, ‘Is it Heinz? I only eat Heinz.’ Dom tells the customer he will check. He walks through one door and straight back out of the other. ‘Yes, the manager says it’s Heinz.’ ‘Happy to hear it, lad,’ says the customer. Dom watches as he scoops up a mouthful of grilled steak with red-wine Bordelaise sauce, dipped in ketchup.
After rearranging some tables for a group of people who only pre-booked for four but came as six, Dom is accosted by a customer who has finished his meal. ‘Was everything to your liking?’ Dom asks. Without any embarrassment, the customer informs Dom he will be writing about his dining experience on Trip Advisor and would the restaurant be willing to waver the wine bill for a positive review? Dom says he will asks the manager. He goes into the back, takes a piss and returns to say, ‘Sorry sir, but the house policy is not to engage with any such offers.’ The customer asks to see the manager. Dom nods, returns into the kitchen, throws a carrot at the back of his mate’s head, who’s scrubbing the dishes. Going back into the front of house, he tells the Trip Advisor customer that unfortunately the manager has had to go home, trouble with his gout again.
All of this time, the couple by the window continue to watch Dom’s evening.
Between turning people away who could have been seated at tables left empty by people who have not shown, Dom deals with a concerned family tucking into their starters. The mother asks, ‘Do these crackers have any traces of nuts in them? Nigel is allergic to nuts.’ Dom looks at the son and his half-devoured crackers. Back in the kitchen, the cook’s response is predictable. ‘Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me? Those stupid fuckers! No, thank God, they don’t have nuts in them! Jesus!’
On his way back to reassure the family, Dom passes the staring couple. He smiles back at their stony faces and calmly resists the urge to scream, ‘Just who the fuckin’ hell are you staring at?’
Hull, East Yorkshire
Running in the nude, a state in which innocence is indistinguishable from existence, the children roam the halls of the desecrated palace. Eteocles finds a camera in his father’s study. He tempts the other three to join him in the throne room for a naked shot. But what if the queen should wake and see them? She has taken to her bed and is not to be disturbed.
Holding the pocket instamatic high, Eteocles fingers the nipple. The flash blows a pocking pop he remembers from summer, when his parents were young.
Returning his father’s camera, Eteocles sees in the open bureau drawer a novel, Kinflicks. The woman on the jacket, back arched, front like the cockpits of a soft, twin-hulled bomber, points with her body at a sweet beside the book. Eteocles stuffs it in his mouth. It tastes like salty rubber goo. He coughs it out and leaves the room.
The print does not come back from the apothecary. Missing in the Kodak wallet, intercepted by the valet, or its development arrested. No one mentions it again.
When the king eventually returns from visiting the oracle he’s blind. Could Pythia have shown him the photograph?
2020 without question an annus horribilis for great British games shows; we’ve whispered tearful adieus to so many tragically departed troupers, the like of whom we’ll never see again. Impossible to replace, rough diamonds of music hall variety pedigree- now starring in that feted summertime seaside special in the heavens; there’ll be fresh faced pretenders, young talent queuing up to replenish supply lines of mirthful catchphrases laden with saucy double-entendres, but one fears an era’s shifted to a mournful resting place where spectacular eras end. Of gravest loss was everyone’s favoured underdog Russell Howard who histrionically passed onto that massive sealed tomb for completely talentless wankers in the sky when, according to eye-witness reports from the official ‘’we fucking hate Russell Howard’’ mob, he exuberantly stuffed a live rattle-snake up his own arse before quickly ramming two sticks of burning dynamite down his throat. Enthralled observers were united in maintaining that this final impression of Howard’s, of a man about to explode with a deadly reptile hanging-out behind his strides, was his best- most memorable, universally acclaimed- & indeed his life’s work only convincing performance & indubitably its grandest entertainment. Russell’s unoriginal career as an impressionist commenced focussing entirely on inventively copying selected thoughts & reactions attributable to ordinary folk one might meet in the street when he was still only a mere ADHD upstart from the provinces. Born last century to a family of no obvious abilities or community spirit it was all too predictable early doors that Russell would follow in his families mundane footsteps. Hyperactive, unlikeable, & untrustworthy, he sought attention through his gift. As every budding professional dissimulator does, Russell started by delivering exaggerated physical & oral copies of siblings, progressing steadily onto bearing absolutely no resemblance whatsoever re-enactments of school teachers in the evening. Throughout his career nothing-nor-no-one was safe from Howard’s satirical claws. He’ll be recalled by show biz pals for not a long time to come; by some as a comic, by few as an LP, by others as a cautionary novel by Franz Kafka. But outside the institution where he spent his final years he’ll be remembered as an utter toerag.
resident in Britain
Electroman is forever here to save our universe from unrelenting obliteration.
He’s travelled through valleys of death, survived chasms of fire, & scaled snowy mountains. Marked sigils engraved across his chest pay tribute to derring-do, unparalleled bravery, showing no concern for his personal safety. Only the majesty of Electroman can avert the inevitable. Flashing through skies, Electroman seeks evil & harbingers of calamity: creatures that must be nipped in the bud, lest they spread, spewing anarchy over countless innocent societal victims.
One such diabolical locust, Bernie Sanderson, a crooked pharmacy proprietor groomed confidence amongst local minors, & poisoning their susceptible brains with propaganda & mind altering narcotics. Sanderson, a known socialist, particularly distasteful, with an egg stained shirt collar & rampant facial acne; he appeared determined to undermine a healthy bulldog mentality dutifully bred into our happy native children.
Tin-tack & LSD were liberally force fed during drug orgies carried out in the bedroom of his grubby ground floor Hackney maisonette. Poor unfortunates bound with wire were usually submitted to bestial rape & associated sexual degradation after being induced with vicious intoxicants of all descriptions.
Bernie Sanderson’s web of terror was so strongly persuasive that none whom he reached alerted appropriate authorities of the obscenities taking place. But no amount of terror could place a shadow over Electroman’s kaleidoscopic micro-sensors: highly sensitive radar scanning devices picked one such debauched session & relayed its implications to a control panel implanted in the palm of Electorman’s left hand.
Searing down from on high, Electroman smashed through the roof, loft, & upstairs maisonette, startling millions of illegal immigrants who squatted there, & straight though Sanderson’s vulgar artexed ceiling. Electorman’s powerful fists righteously struck Sanderson on his crooked nose & rat-like physiognomy; unleashing a barrage of blows which snapped Sanderson’s spinal cord. Unfinished, Electroman’s angry wrath provoked, as Sandserson lay grounded, helpless, paralysed, Electronman knelt upon his puny body to continue punching Sanderson’s face until it was an unrecognisable quagmire of raw bleeding flesh.
Sanderson, by now dead, had paid the ultimate terrible price. Let this be known, a lesson to any who should push their luck, & double-dare Electroman’s unfathomable fortitude & aggression.
resident in Britain
I should have washed my hair; it feels horrible. My handbag drags sulkily on my shoulder. My feet plod along the overgrown path, not giving a shit how late I am.
A man strides towards me in torn tracksuit bottoms, toes angled outwards in well-worn construction boots. I keep my gaze down until he passes.
The cemetery gates come into view, crusty and bubbling from decades of paint jobs. I hear the hum of traffic from the main road – apparently one of the most polluted spots in London.
Then I hear the music.
I can’t name the song, but it’s a classic soul track from the seventies – a dancy one. A summery one. Right on cue, the sun comes out.
I realise someone is singing along. Whoever it is has a decent voice. And she’s going for it. Belting it out. No fucks given that it’s 8.58am and we’re in a residential area, surrounded by the dead.
She comes cycling into the left of my vision – along the pavement that runs outside the gates. She’s wearing vintage denim dungaree shorts, red Doc Marten boots and a bright, stripy crop-top. Her hair is wild. Her skin shines. She smiles as she sings, her head tossed back, as close to dancing as anyone can be on a bike.
I’m smiling with her. My chest has lifted and my hips want to shake. It’s funny how someone can just yank you out of it, without even trying. Even a total stranger.
On the front of her bike is a basket, which I quickly realise cradles the cutest little terrier, who I swear wants to dance too. My delight multiplies.
Beats and bass still going, the pair sail eastwards, towards the new tower blocks.
I exit the cemetery, tiptoeing round the almost permanent patch of mud under the gates. Then I hear a metallic din and a loud, high-pitched yelp. My head snatches to the right.
The bike is on its side, wheels spinning. The dog is a foot or so away, pacing and whimpering. On the ground, by the basket, is a blue plastic bag. Bottles of beer roll out – at least two of them now smashed. Murky, orange fizz swirls among the paving stones. It’s a cheap, strong brand – the type my dad used to buy.
The woman is on her hands and knees, head bowed, muttering something husky and incoherent. There’s dirt in her hair.
It’s 9AM. The music has stopped.
Friday night and the bus driver had that end-of-a-crap-day look.
'Evening girls,' he said. Margie smirked at him. He must have been at least thirty.
We flashed our passes and went upstairs as usual. Off we motored down Victoria
Road. We were in the front seat, hanging onto the rail and whooping as if we were
still at the fair. The streetlights came on. A tree branch scraped along the top of the
bus and we squealed.
A load of people got off at the first stop on the estate. A right jumble they were
on the pavement, all sorting out their buggies and shoving the squawking kids into
them. Me and Margie swore we'd never have boring lives with kids.
On into the estate proper and the bus emptied. Margie dared me to shout down
the stairs for some music and I did. He shouted back, 'Like the fun of the fair, do you?'
'Yeah,' we screamed.
No music, but the bus picked up speed. Margie tightened the band on her
ponytail - it was a nervous thing with her. The bus lurched and I ended up in Margie’s
lap and laughed 'til I almost wet myself. We braced for the next swing into Beech
Road and I rang the bell for our stop, but he carried straight on and headed out of
town. Margie said that we should shout kidnap out of one of the little slidey windows.
Why would anyone have taken notice? We often shouted daft stuff from the bus.
I staggered halfway down the stairs. 'Hey, where are we going?'
He laughed. 'Go back upstairs and hang on tight.'
And he did slow down a bit until I got back up.
Then, we swung right off the road and we recognised where we were: the old
airfield. We went careering round and round, the seats rattling fit to break loose.
Random things rushed out of the dark when the headlights lit on them, like a wrecked
shed or a scrap of wonky fence. The front rail was slick with our sweaty hands
grabbing onto it. I could smell toffee apple and cider on Margie’s breath we were
rammed so close together. All that empty bus behind us vibrated as if the glass might
crash out of the windows. We screamed and screamed.
The back end went into a skid. Our arms were out straight in front of us just like
on the roller coaster. He braked to a squealing stop and we ended up in a heap on the
floor. Silence from down below. We crept down the stairs. He was staring out into the
dark and then he let out a great sob.
'What's wrong?' I said.
'This bloody boring life!'
He wiped his eyes and gestured that we should go and sit down. 'We're heading
And so we were, back into town.
'He might stop at the chippy for us,' I said and pressed the bell.
It’s A Dog’s Life
When the rumour about Fat Bazza’s death reached the street, people were naturally sympathetic, if not altogether surprised.
They said things like,
‘Poor old Fat Bazza!’
‘Oh no, not Fat Bazza!’
‘What, Fat Bazza’s gone?’
Or things like,
‘Well, he was built for a heart attack, wasn’t he!’
‘What did he expect, a gut like that?’
‘Poor sod, but that’s what you get for being such a lard arse!’
People said lots of things when they heard about Fat Bazza’s death but, generally speaking, they were sad to hear of his demise. They began to miss him too, more than ever before. In fact, they’d hardly missed him at all, up to that point, but now they did.
However, it didn’t take long for Fat Bazza to fade in the collective memory. With the loss of Slow Eddie at number thirteen and Her Majesty Maureen at the corner house, Fat Bazza was relegated in their hearts and minds. But all that changed when Young Terry Junior, who’d moved into Bazza’s old house, began to turn over the soil in the back garden, after he’d watched a telly programme one Sunday about growing beetroot.
That’s when all the dogs were discovered. Big dogs and little dogs, but mostly dogs that didn’t look much like dogs anymore. Young Terry Junior spent a full afternoon digging up a load of semi-decomposed dogs and then laid their remains in a neat line by the back window. Then he told some of the neighbours all about it. Before long, there was a steady stream of people from all along the street coming to have look.
They said things like,
‘That’s Trixie. She used to pee up my gate every morning.’
‘Crapper, it must be Crapper!’
‘Oh, that’s Brian. Bless!’
They looked at the terrible head wounds and wondered whether the dogs had been killed with a hammer, spade or pitchfork. Mostly though, they thought about the monster Fat Bazza, and how had they missed this massacre? They said some terrible things then about Fat Bazza, not remembering how they’d once mourned and missed him.
A while later and Fat Bazza arrived back on the street. Someone on his new street had told him that everyone on his old street thought he was dead, so he thought he’d pay them a surprise visit. Just for a laugh!
But nobody laughed, especially Fat Bazza.
As he walked from one end of the street to the other, people turned their backs on him, pulled faces or even spat at his feet.
They said things like,
‘Scumbag, dog killer!’
‘Drop dead, Fat Bazza!’
When Fat Bazza found that no one was happy to seem him alive and not dead his heart began to race. By the time he’d reached the end of the street he was sweating heavily and had to reach for his mouth spray.
He said things like,
‘My dogs, anyway!’
‘Bazza is livin’! Screw you!’
Things like that.
Swillington, West Yorkshire
First You See Him . . .
My mother wasn't always merely my mother. Back in the day, she would tell us stories of her adventures as an unattached young northern lass.
By 'us' I mean me, the constantly fidgeting boy David, and the family's pet dog Brian who, unlike me, would sit stock still, ears pricked in anticipatory pleasure as his mistress started to speak.
One yarn concerned the chap who teenager Sally (my mum) spotted across the floor of a Manchester dance hall one autumn evening in the 1930s.
The slowly-revolving mirror ball suspended from the ballroom ceiling sent arrows of reflected light bouncing off the bloke's brilliantined bonce as he approached her.
Three foxtrots, two quicksteps and a last waltz later, the bloke said to Sally: 'May I escort you to your tram stop?'
Sally said: 'First, tell me about yourself.'
'I'm a science teacher.'
'Well, that sounds respectable enough but I must advise you that I'm a virtuous lady, so there'll be no experimental procedures, science-wise or otherwise, concerning canoodling.'
She explained: 'I am saving my first kiss for the man I go on to marry. He and I shall live happily ever after with a succession of cute dogs.'
'Do you not want children?' asked the science teacher.
'Eventually perhaps,' said Sally. 'But I do believe that pets are more attentive than human offspring.'
As they made their way along the darkly-lit streets towards the tram stop, Sally asked: 'Do you glide over to the palais often?'
But the science teacher gave no reaction. Sally shot her companion a sideways glance but the man had simply vanished.
'And I never saw him again,' my mother told her audience of two some 20 years later.
Fascinated by Mother's story, soon after I left school and entered journalism I searched the cuttings library of my local newspaper and found a yellowing article bearing the headline: SCIENCE MAN TAKES A POWDER.
The mystery of young Sally's disappearing 'beau' was explained in the story beneath.
Mother's dance partner had stepped out all right -- onto a manhole cover that was no longer in place.
He had plunged, heavy brown brogues first, through the opening in the pavement and into the coal cellar of a house.
The wretched man lay atop a pile of nutty slack until his faint cries for help were eventually heard. Apart from some bruises and a fine coating of coal dust on his pomaded hair, he was unhurt.
I dashed home and told Mother the news I had unearthed.
'Oh, him,' she said, waving a hand dismissively. 'Yeah, I read about it the day after it happened.'
'So why didn't you bother to reveal to me and our dog the end of the tale?' I asked.
'What?' said Mother. 'And rob the story of its romance?'
'Romance!' I gasped. 'The poor bloke plunged down a coal hole! He could have broken his neck!'
'I know that,' sighed Mother. 'But he was the first man ever to fall for me.'
Whitefield, Greater Manchester, England
Footsteps In The Sand
I remember one summer when I was small, my father made the unusually impulsive decision that we should all go to the beach. It was a particularly hot day so needless to say it was very busy. From one side to the other the yellow sands were made almost invisible by a blanket of people.
The day was in full swing and everyone was blissfully enjoying the seaside fun when suddenly without warning an array of clouds appeared and enveloped the sun creating a dark and grey dullness. Then the rain came, not heavy but enough to make the many beach dwellers run for cover mostly under large red and yellow striped umbrellas which had until recently been used for shade from the sun.
Only one person remained without cover, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around her. The girl, slim with blond hair that ran down to her hips, was at least fifteen but no older than twenty-three. She stood by the coast just staring out into the ocean.
I don’t remember who saw her first, it seemed to me that we all noticed her together, a host of people watching this single intriguing figure. She was short, no more than 4ft, wearing a pale cream T-shirt and shorts, the only other colour was in the light blue collar of her shirt.
She watched the ocean in silence for about a minute. Then she removed her pale chestnut coloured sandals. The sea water began to roll over her feet. Next, she removed both her T-shirt and shorts, she just tossed them aside like they were nothing. Then, off came her bra and underwear. She now stood naked before the sea, her skin a pale white colour. She seemed unaffected by the continuing rain and the audience she had behind her, all still fixed on the girl before them.
Slowly she began to head into the water and soon her lower part was completely submerged. She broke into a swim and continued out until all that could be seen was her head bobbing up and down with each passing wave. Then, just moments later she was gone.
No one reacted, not at first, then came the gasps as the girl did not return. Five minutes, ten minutes and still nothing. A number of life guards and civilians both, began to swim out to find her. Then the coast guards and police, but still there was no sign of her, she was completely gone.
Many people have surmised what happened to her. Some even deny she ever existed, there was after all no records of her anywhere, no proof of identity, no missing person’s report, nothing save for one thing, the strangest part of the story. I remember them to this day, the tiny footprints in the sand.
Neil K Spencer
currently residing in Macau, China
Run, Steve, run! Death is at the door! But Steve stayed put. He couldn’t move. Too frightened.
The science laboratory door creaked open and in sidled a pasty-faced individual with plastered-down hair and a hunched-over gait.
The strange individual was the school’s general office factotum. His name was Reg but to the teachers he was Igor and to the kids he was known as Death Warmed Up -- or just Death for short.
Death approached the chemistry teacher and handed him a folded piece of paper. He lisped a ‘Thank you, Master’ and retreated backwards, bowing twice, before the lab door squeaked shut behind him.
That day in 1962, when Death cast his shadow over Form 5W, was about to get worse, as one anxious pupil, Steve Machin, well suspected.
The schoolkids paused over their test tubes and Bunsen burners as the chemistry teacher unfolded the proffered piece of paper and barked: ‘Machin! Headmaster’s study! Now!’
Ashen-faced, Steve turned to his best pal Eric and furtively handed him the roll of one-penny pieces he had hidden in his shirt sleeve.
In Steve’s absence it would be Eric’s mission to surreptitiously dunk the coins into the bottle of sodium zincate solution which Steve had earlier sneaked off the laboratory shelf.
The ensuing chemical action would transform bronze into silver and the kids could pass off the pennies as pre-decimalisation half-crowns (equivalent to 12.5p nowadays) when they visited the tuck shop during morning break.
Later, after counting up their fraudulently-acquired change, the pupils would reflect on how chemistry was perhaps the most rewarding of all school subjects.
But back to the awful business at hand. Why had the headmaster summoned Steve to his lair? What had Steve done? It had to be about the coins fraud.
‘Ah, Machin,’ the headmaster said as Steve hesitantly entered the study. ‘I have here your mid-term report and it makes for dismal reading.’
Steve sighed in instant relief. It wasn't about the coins racket. He hadn’t had to do a runner after all.
The headmaster intoned: ‘Maths -- bottom of the class. Biology -- bottom. Physics -- bottom.’
Steve considered what a brainteaser that would be in the annual school quiz. QUESTION: 'What has three bottoms and not a leg to stand on?' ANSWER: 'Me, mate.'
‘Right, Machin!’ said the head. ‘If I see no immediate improvement in your schoolwork I shall be forced to suspend you.’ (With or without a knotted rope? Steve wondered.)
‘So how was school today, our Steve?’ his mother called from the kitchen when he arrived home.
‘Er . . . the headmaster has singled me out for special treatment, Mam.’
‘That's wonderful,’ cooed Steve's mother, continuing to stir the pan of rhubarb on the stove but now with extra exuberance at the thought of her son's rare school accomplishment.
And then Steve did run off -- to play street soccer with his neighbourhood pals and maybe later treat them all at the sweet shop with a freshly-minted coin.
Whitefield, Greater Manchester, England
From the fourth floor Father sees all the way down the road to the end. He’s oblivious that the recent winds have cleared away the litter and the old leaves. The gardeners have a bonfire burning in the park and the smoke is lifting through the oaks. A small figure, wearing a white raincoat, hat and shoes, comes slowly peddling a bicycle towards the flats; straight up the clean path. Father doesn’t take the time to think whether it’s a man or a woman.
Closing the window, he looks into the dressing-table mirror. His complexion isn’t so pallid now and his eyes have regained some of their shine. Today, his hair appears more silver than grey. None of this perplexes him. He simply accepts it and opens the door to the corridor.
No one hears him as he steps lightly between each room. Though bare-footed, he has no sensation of the cool floor beneath him.
Through the open living-room door he sees the twins, huddled together on the sofa, watching TV. They are completely absorbed in a hospital drama. A woman is crying beside a bed while a nurse attempts to console her.
Next, he peers into the kitchen. His wife and daughters are sat around the table in a circle of joined hands, talking in low, tender tones. He has no idea why they are being so secretive and has no intention of asking them.
The front door-bell chimes but he doesn’t notice that everyone, apart from himself, is unaware of it.
Making his way towards the front door he passes his eldest son lying on the dining-room floor, smoking a cigarette. He has his eyes fixed on the ceiling and is blowing rings up into the air, one after another. The rings start small, become bigger and then dissipate, losing all form.
Beside the main door sits Grandfather, about to finish a jigsaw puzzle. Grandfather has the last piece in his hand but pauses as Father approaches. Grandfather watches as Father presses the button on the intercom and invites a visitor to come upstairs. Grandfather is baffled: what visitor?
Father takes himself out onto the landing and hears the soft, regular beat of unhurried footsteps coming ever closer. He leans over the bannister, sees the top of a white hat and then a not overly-serious face looking up towards him. He still doesn’t feel the need to work out the individual’s gender.
Suddenly, air begins to blow around his feet, ascend his body and ruffle his hair. He has no inclination, nor time, to contemplate whether it’s warm, cold or something in-between.
Sometime later, there is a commotion in the flat. Father has gone missing from his bedroom and can’t be found. Eventually, Grandfather looks up from his finished puzzle and tells the family that Father went out, yes out, to talk to a friend, or something. Don’t worry yourself, he says to them, he can’t have strayed far, he didn’t have anything on his feet.
Farewell, Winter Fair
We have just about walked out of town when the people-carrier pulls up beside us. It’s our ex-neighbours, Ryan and Kayleigh, and they have the twins and the girl in the rear.
Obviously, they want to know why we’re heading in the opposite direction to just about everyone else. They’re more than a little astonished to find that we’re giving the fair a miss this time and have decided on a walk instead. Why? Who would do such a thing? And at this time of year and isn’t it nearly dark already?
Ryan and Kayleigh entreat us to give up our foolish plan and squeeze into the back seats. We could all go to the fair together. Wouldn’t that be just the greatest fun?
Somehow, we politely manage to persuade them, with our awkward excuses, to let us be and they say okay, have it your way. But remember, Kayleigh says, the fair won’t be back round again until January next year, if ever. Remember that, you pair of fruitcakes.
When they drive away the children stare at us through the back window. The twins cast us confused looks and are whispering to each other. Presumably something to do with our apparent madness. However, the little girl just nods knowingly, as the carrier leaves us behind.
Sometime later we reach the top of Faxendale Heights. It has become much darker and from where we’ve rested we can see the fair in the distance, lit up like a small cluster of twinkling stars. Even from here we can hear the noise of the rides. Faster and louder every year, I say. Yes, Sarah says.
From the centre of the fair a great pair of rotating strobe lights reach high for the sky and then beam across the surrounding hills, illuminating trees, sheep, stone walls and then us. I think we’ve been spotted, Sarah says, and I smile.
But by the time we’ve made our long way down into the wold everything has become silent and stilled. Thoughts of Ryan, Kayleigh and the fair are already beginning to freeze in the icy vale. By now we need the torch to help guide us, and all of our concentration is on making it safely to the churchyard.
We spend time reading the gravestones. Some of the people are over two centuries dead. Eugenie Cooke born 1704, died 1798. A long life, I say, without a roller coaster. Or candy floss, Sarah says.
The monolith behind the church is still there, of course, and has been since the Late Neolithic. Almost one metre thick and nine metres high. Its lead-capped top points forever skyward. Following its example, our eyes also lift upwards. The cloudless sky is now without light pollution and the stars are displayed above us with pure clarity.
There’s Ursa Minor, I say. And there’s Ursa Major, says Sarah. And then we both point together, at the same time, at Polaris, the northern star. Bright, fixed and constant.
He fits the last of the fire alarms with a new battery and climbs down the step ladder. Deciding to make himself a cup of tea, the landlord walks along the corridor towards the kitchen and through the fire door. As it opens he hears it again: the sound of women moaning, singing even. As it closes he hears the same thing.
Curiosity gets the better of him. He holds the door by the handle and repeatedly swings it to and fro. Unmistakable in his ears is the faint but distinct melody of female voices, rising and falling. He presses his head closer so that his left ear touches the door and he listens again to the strange, drifting harmony emanating from within.
Mesmerized by its effect, he goes to his tool box to get the screwdriver. He returns and begins to prize open the thin, flat board that has been tacked on sometime in the past. Once removed, he is astonished to find a finely carved panel. The centre piece is of a man tied to the mast of a ship. The man has his eyes wide open. The men rowing the boat have something plugged in their ears. The landlord doesn’t know why but supposes it’s probably a biblical scene.
When he removes the opposite board he finds another ornately, chiselled scene. On this side is a group of open-mouthed, semi-naked women, swimming around a ship. It's probably the same ship as the one on the other panel, he thinks. But he can’t place the women either in the story of Noah and the flood or Jonah and the whale.
At first glance, each woman has an attractive appearance but on closer examination they are all deformed in some way. This one has a single, misshapen eye. This one has three legs instead of two. And this one has no arms at all but seems to be part fish, part human. As he glances from one to the other he realises that none of them are what they at first seemed to appear.
Though he’s no longer moving the door the music persists by itself. The veneer of melody begins to quickly dissipate, the music no longer having any semblance of tunefulness, but is increasingly rising to a shrill, discordant pitch. However, the landlord is now fully hypnotized by its cacophonous lure and his eyes are transfixed on the faces calling him into the water. Spindly, bony hands suddenly reach out for his.
In the instant it takes for the door to slam shut of its own accord, the landlord passes from the corridor into darkness and the permanent density of the oak panels.
New students move into their attic rooms a day later. One’s adamant that she hears the mournful voice of a man coming from the door in the corridor each time it moves. Another laughs and says it must be the hinges, rusty or something. She advises her flatmate to email the landlord.
Hull, East Yorkshire
She skulks underneath the bridge as the water drips down.
This isn’t the first time she’s escaped but this is the furthest she’s ever gotten.
After he captured her the first time she grew a wondrous tail with a pearly tip. It took a while to master tucking its bushiness between her legs, out of sight. Each night after he left she unfurled it and warmed herself in its fuzzy embrace. She never wondered why he didn’t comment on her new appendage. She knows he only sees what he wants to see.
The second time she got as far as the woods. The brambles scratched her and the blackberry juice made it look like her legs were leaking indigo blood. When he dragged her back and threw her down the basement stairs her ears slid to the top of her head. She found she could move them and hear him bimbling about above her, living his ordinary day life. To hide her new appearance she arranged some of her red hair in two buns.
"Why’d yer do that? It looks like two giant boils on yer ‘ead”, he’d said but he never touched them so that was good. She asked him to get her books about foxes from the library.
“Wot do yer want with all that? I’ll get yer that new ‘arry Potter book”. But she shook her head so he got her some nature books. They didn’t have a lot about foxes but she did learn they chose cunning over brute strength, which sounded perfect.
Now she was miles away. A sudden sound alerts her, her nose twitches and she can smell his scent: stale beer and salami. On pale paws she streaks across the ash grey field, her white underbelly flashing in the watery moonlight.
Wilton, Connecticut USA
The tiny room at the end of the corridor is hardly a room at all, more of an upgraded cupboard. The plaster on the walls has faded from white to yellow and it has no window. A small table sits in the middle with a plastic chair on either side. The ceiling is low and from it a lightbulb hangs on a black, twisted flex. It can be very intimidating for any employee unfortunate enough to be interviewed in here and that’s just how Human Resource likes it.
Here’s one now, summoned from the shop floor. Human Resource is shining a light on the employee’s lack of productivity and shoddy workmanship. Furthermore, his line manager has reported a failure in his punctuality.
Human Resource pauses to give the employee the chance to think and respond to these substantiated charges and when he has done so he will receive and inevitably sign the official reprimand. The employee will be left in no doubt that he needs to quickly pull his socks up, or else.
But the employee doesn’t say anything but sits silently, glowering with clear, unblinking eyes at Human Resource. His face has significantly reddened and his fists, which he has placed about twelve inches apart on the table, are clenched. And for the first time during the interview, Human Resource is aware that the lightbulb, hanging just above his own head, is not just illuminating the room, but giving off a significant amount of heat.
Human Resource loosens his tie and unbuttons the top of his shirt. He feels a bead of sweat run from behind his ear and down his neck. He urgently feels the need to diffuse the tense situation and again invites the employee to speak up for himself.
Instead, the employee stands up and his scowl steadily becomes more of a smile. His fists begin to open and close, open and close. Human Resource notices that the employee is a big man, very big. His large, orange overalls become the room’s dominant colour, making it feel even hotter.
The shadow of the employee, cast upon the wall by the lightbulb, takes a sinister form in Human Resource’s mind. He too feels the urge to stand up, but when he does the employee’s long, thick arm reaches above his head to push the lightbulb, so that it sways to and fro on the flex. This causes both their shadows to merge in a kind of macabre, flickering foxtrot.
The now laughing employee repeatedly pushes the lightbulb. The walls begin to spin faster. The lightbulb goes higher and higher and pings each time it touches the ceiling. But it doesn’t smash, only causes the room to spiral out of Human Resource’s control. He feels the lightbulb’s thermal force each time it passes overhead.
Human Resource steps towards the door but the employee’s large, dark frame blocks his path and the swinging lightbulb continues to burn the air with a fiery intensity.
The last sign at the junction warned her not to go any further. But she didn’t pay heed. She was here now, in the lashing wind and rain, at the heart of a storm raging outside the car. She placed her hands on the steering wheel, biting her lip so firmly she could feel her teeth start to draw blood, feel the metallic taste as it trickled out. The rain continued to pelt against the windscreen, obscuring her view again the second the wipers cleared it, so that it almost seemed like there were shadows and shapes moving outside the glass, unsettling figures beckoning and tormenting, calling her to join them in their oblivion. Miserable wraiths seeking company.
But, no. She blinked her eyes clear, shook her head adamantly, determined she would not give in to this night, to this storm, to these imagined shapes outside that her consciousness was dreaming up. What was done was done, and childish guilt or fear about some divine retribution wasn’t going to help now. She had to compose herself, pull herself together, ignore the screaming of the wind and the lashing of the rain. Take control, make things…not right, perhaps, but at least limit the damage as much as she could, before more lives and hopes were destroyed, before a ripple effect took hold, before a chain reaction went off at the centre of her world. This was all down to her, and since she had started it, she had to finish it- she couldn’t fall to pieces with so much still needing to be done.
She stared at the sign outside again as the wipers cleared her view for a single second over and over. Stared at its simplicity, its nondescript design, sitting there by the road at this junction here in the middle of nowhere. She blinked. What foolish instinct had made her believe it was ‘warning’ her not to go further? How could an inanimate road sign give warning? It was ludicrous. Sheer reversion to the superstitious mindset of a child, just because she had crossed a line that that child would have found unthinkable. She had to get a grip. She had to grow up.
At least she still had the choice.
Ballymena , Northern Ireland
Christopher’s Twitter is @Moore_27Chris
Christopher has had a number of plays performed around the UK and Ireland, including London ('The Other Side', for Off The Cliff theatre's 'Metamorphoses' festival), Newcastle (‘Banter’, for Coracle theatre company’s ‘Suffragette’ event), York ('An Hour From The End', for Off The Rock Productions' 'The End of the World' event), and Edinburgh (‘Hotel Eirene’, for Shift’s ‘The Pride Plays’ festival), and was longlisted for the 2019 Bruntwood Prize. In short fiction, he has had work published by Pendora, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Mark Literary Review, A New Ulster, and Clover & White.
I tried to lock the two security doors. But I couldn’t. I walked back and sat down on a sofa in the well-lit living-room. Just when I saw them, they stood outside the two doors. A coal tar of dark night, splattered across the space. The two men were standing here. At the entrance of one door was my father. He stood with his two suitcases. He smiled and waited for my invitation to enter. He put his two suitcases down by his side on the ground. Too excited to see him, I smiled back. I rose from the sofa, to greet him. Just when I saw the other. This one was a stranger. Perhaps my father’s companion, he also stood with his two suitcases at the door. His smiles were not as cordial as my father’s. They were playful and tentative, hovered on his lips. My father looked stalky and slender in his white long shirt and white trousers. His companion, short and chubby. He wore an off white shirt and long pants. My father looked full-blooded, tight and fit, a young man; the stranger, also in his youth. Had they come over to visit to me? Perhaps, he and his companions, were passing through; they dropped by. They wanted to come in. But I didn’t invite them in. I stood resolutely rooted to the ground in the middle of the bright room, waiting to see what happened next. They waited, out in the dark, if I offered them food and drink. They must have been knackered with exhaustion. They needed a rest. But I didn’t move from where I stood. Neither did they. They kept smiling and looking at me; their two suitcases by the side. Were they time travelling? Why? My father was a citizen of a parallel universe. He had to be. Same with the companion; they may have accidentally fallen through a netted time rip. I felt ashamed of my behaviour that I didn’t invite them. They teetered on the brink of a seamless space of fantasy and reality. Yes, my father was in my space. He looked exactly the same age as me. The doors were open, but they didn’t come. They couldn’t, because they had become outsiders.
Depression held me in its brawny grip. Dizzy spells and nausea, pinned me to bed like dried butterfly on collector’s board. Passing in and out of reverie, each time I found myself in a waking sleep. Not sure how much of it was dream and how much a reality.
Tommy stopped to look at himself in a shop window. It might be a discount suit, he thought, but it fitted him well, it really did. The suit also seemed to give new life to his old shoes. Yes, he had given them a good polish that morning, but the suit matched the shoes perfectly and enabled them to shine as new. He turned to the side, proudly examined the cut and then walked on down the street, more than a little satisfied.
Truth be told, the suit had gotten him through the interview, only thirty minutes previous. Had he not been wearing the suit, he might have lost all confidence and nervously mumbled his way through the questions, as he usually did. But no, the suit seemed to stiffen his resolve and he had spoken calmly, clearly and to his own astonishment, intelligently. He now recalled how he had used some big words and in the correct context. The manager who’d interviewed him had worn a smart blue suit with an immaculate shirt and tie. If he was given the job, Tommy promised himself, he would buy at least two new suits with immaculate shirts and ties with his first salary. Definitely.
He was nearing the pub now and was really in need of a drink. He knew his mates would be in there, probably onto their third by this time. But instead of going in he kept on walking. He couldn’t take his suit in there, could he? No, it deserved better. Much better. It was the same at the bookies. He had a tip for the 2.30 at Doncaster – Town Tramp - but he passed by. It was no place for a suit such as his. No.
Instead, he took himself to the book shop café, Mother’s favourite haunt. He felt happy to help a pensioner called Irene take her heavy tray to her table. He introduced himself as Thomas and they sat together. She remarked how nice it was to see such a handsome young man wearing a suit. Her husband had always worn a Sunday suit, she said. He became a politer person then, more civilized somehow. Stopped spitting and swearing, that sort of thing. Tommy gave an understanding nod.
Before leaving he scanned some of the shelves and spotted a biography of Churchill sporting an impressive chalked stripped suit on the cover. Cool, thought Tommy, very cool. He was thinking of buying it when his phone rang. It was the manager telling him he’d got the job.
Tommy decided to go tell Mother. After all, she was the one who’d lent him the cash for the suit. Once there he walked straight into the house and gave her the good news. Oh Thomas, she said, I knew you’d get it. No wonder in that suit. You look like a new man, you really do! He smiled and caught his reflection in the hall mirror. Yes, I do, he said. I really do!
Bentley, South Yorkshire
I always come to the market on Friday’s. I love the colours, the flowers, the fruit and the hawkers when they shout: ‘Two for a pound!’
Robert runs the fruit and veg stall. He smiles and then turns away. I used to do my weekly shop with Robert. Not anymore, well ,not for the last six months anyway: that’s when the factory closed, six months ago. They said it was restructuring the business: whatever that means.
I went to two interviews last week. They smiled a lot and told me to take my time when trying to answer the questions. They would get back to me they said
.I blow into my woollen gloves . My glasses steam up.
I’ve got my shopping trolley and walk down Foregate street. St Mungo’s is at the end of the street...it’s not far from the market. I get to St. Mungo’s and go in. Doreen is there. I smile at Doreen and she smiles back. Doreen runs the food bank. You don’t mess with Doreen. I’m fourth in the queue. I rummage in my anorak for my shopping list. I pass the list to Doreen.
‘What’s this Rita?’
‘Cereal.’ My writing’s a bit spidery.
I’ve got another interview next week and the Social say my money should be coming through soon. I walk back up Foregate street and see Robert again. I wave to Robert. I don’t think he saw me.
My Nan said, ‘Hope springs eternal.’
I hope Nan’s right.
I miss my Nan.
Scrubbing, dusting, wiping floors, removing spider webs from the ceiling, removing spiders from my hair, cleaning built-in closets. Just scanning the whole house makes me want to live here again. All those memories. It’s so much harder to say good bye to it all.
Friday, June 28, 2019, the house is sold. Everything’s moved. Furniture gone. Hardly anything left behind. So empty. Cleaning it all. From the attic to the basement. Passing by that corner where my dad used to sit, next to the biggest window of the house. What a view: the garden, cows in the meadow, cornfields, the road and as far as one can see, the mill of Tielt on the highest hill in the area, called ‘De Poelberg’. My dad, in his comfy seat, always on the phone, calling his colleagues, his friends and family all the time. That was a big part of his social life, his life...
Hot today. Summer. I am taking a break, writing in my notebook, sitting in the grass, ants crawling all over me. Life-in-farmland, flies everywhere. My mother, somewhere, smoking a cigarette and feeling pleased, because she found some of her old canvases back of the attic, in the dust. One has a painting with me on it. Sculpting gear was found as well. Nice for me! spending some time in the grass reminds me of parties going on here. Very hippie spontaneous garden parties. Friends, also from my mom’s art school and family coming over on a sunny Sunday: BBQ lit. Sunbathing in the garden, naked. For us, kids, it was a natural thing to be part of that, except for the naked sunbathing.
Later today, we will put our initials on the beam. This house, that used to be my home for over 50 years. Back to cleaning now. Vacuuming the two old bedrooms, one small and the other even smaller. Sharing those with my two brothers.
17h10 Yeah! Done cleaning and it is very hot now. The breeze is gone. Having a small Jupiler in the garden and I am alone. My mother left. Rik dropped by to pick up all what’s left for the container park. Haven’t seen Kris yet. He still has to tag on the beam, in the attic. Quite nice actually. Who gave me that idea :) It says: 1968-2019 Tavernier Eva, Rik and Kris , something like that.
17h31. Still here and daydreaming, so quiet. Only birds and thoughts. Nice thoughts, nice feelings, my youth. I guess I am the only one of our family who has a hard time leaving this place behind. I am also the only one- except for my mom, but that’s another story - that left West-Vlaanderen to live in Mechelen. My visits here were always coming home. Spending time here with the kids.
Home was home, safe place, philosophizing with my dad for hours, drinking Mateus Rosé. Lots of bottles have passed over the years. I wonder if it still exists?
17.50 pm. Bye bye...leaving - but never forgotten.
Difficult To Talk
A locked door. Heavy and cold.
That’s how it feels. I can’t break through it and I can’t find the key.
Sitting alone in semi darkness, I can’t find the words, so instead I stare. Burdened by colourful images of joy and laughter which permeate my own black and grey. I’m restless with self-doubt; sat in silence, shoulders slumped with the pictures bouncing off my despair.
My phone beeps beside me, so I glance down.
‘You okay hun?’
Okay? I’m good, fine, just getting by, hanging on by a thread, struggling, desperate, desolate.
‘I’m okay… you?’ My fingers type with ease.
Restlessly, I close the laptop and swing my feet to the floor. I should probably eat. My skin has been showing the extent of my skeletal form for some time now. Pallid and tired. I’m not fit for ‘Insta’ sharing. Who would want to ‘like’ this? I don’t even like it.
I drag myself to the kitchen and steady my breathing, as I fumble to open the biscuits. The scars on my arm are itching. I pull the sleeve down to cover them. Who am I hiding them from? There’s no-one here? There’s never been anyone here.
My friends invited me out, thinking it would help, but I was in a room full of people, feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt. So I shut myself away, becoming alone as well as lonely.
My phone buzzed.
‘I’m coming over. No arguments.’
No! I’m not ready. I’m not worthy. I can’t do this. Not now. Not ever.
My hands tremble as I rummage in the cupboard. Small, white labelled cylinders stacked neatly, like soldiers, waiting to be brought into battle. Waiting for the order to attack, ready to charge. Each one a silent assassin.
I ready myself for battle, taking a look around at the emptiness, embracing the final moments of calm. I take a deep breath and give the order to ‘charge’.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Keep repeating the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome. Something like that: madness or stupidity? Something like that. Not sure who said it. Why not tell people straight if what they are doing- or proposing- is downright dick stupid? You say nothing they keep doing the same dumb thing. How many items of clothing do you really need? New fashion!-jeez , must buy. Then the old ones sit on the shelf for the next three years doing jack.
Maybe it’s a collective mania? Trouble overseas?... let’s go help those guys...then the liberatorcum-helper becomes the occupier and the colonial or imperial she devil. We keep doing it. We need to civilise them, get ‘em to think western, wear suits and have a democracy-cum-tribal war- you gotta be tribal... that’s civilised democracy... western tribal beats your ‘tribal tribal.’ You get a whole new democratic tribal skill set: half-truths, lies, talk shit, ignore the obscenities your equivalent tribes in their countries are up to and hit the others hard. That’s civilisation man. You gotta buy in-don’t be a dumb ass.
They say I should eat less meat as this contributes to global warming. Does me not eating a pork chop keep the temperature rise below 1,5C? Politicians tell us to eat less meat then they go to The Mayor’s Banquet and feast on foie gras and steak before jumping into the limo and flying back to wherever they came from.
Three years ago, nearly four years ago, you thought this was a good idea and now you know a shed load more about what will happen that you knew nothing about when we first talked bout it. All those experts telling you things will get worse and all those politicians telling you there’s a brave new world out there-no details, no specifics but it-whatever it might be-will be gloriousso come on! Let’s march towards the new Jerusalem: it’s not built yet-Jerusalem- but the builder that we’ve never met said it will be no problem and glorious. Millions loved the idea. Millions thought the idea crazy. But the first millions were more millions than the Doom Sayers so the not Doom Sayers won and the other millions lost. It’s a win lose game. Is that a zerosum game? Or does everyone lose?... just some lose more than others. Some you win some you lose ain’t that the truth. As long as I’m ok who cares about anyone else. Not my fault. Someone else’s fault.
East Coast West Coast
I’m sorry so many of the photos are terrible. Did you know that every time you alter a JPEG, it corrupts slightly? It’s a lossy format. It degrades over time, with no recovery.
This is the sandy beach I lived near as a baby. Right on the Tay. The bobble hat tells you it was freezing that day. Mum and Dad took me there to walk because sand is a cushion when you land. It’s also wet and cold. Getting it out from under your fingernails is a little bit like torture when you’re that age.
Look how strong I thought I was at five. Half naked on the West coast of Scotland and flexing my biceps. The sandcastle in the background built by my Dad but I took the credit.
Now I’m eight. Christmas, but Dad is absent. A bracing morning walk. It’s boring, I think I said, we’re here all the time. I told Mum I wanted to go to the West coast, like we did once before. I thought about Dad and castles and started to cry. Mum said it would be okay.
Fast forward one year to Syke. Mum drove all the way, just for me. On the left is the best Harry Potter book. On the right is my Gameboy. Coke or an Irn Bru in every café. Traybakes.
That blur in the bottom-left corner is my puppy. Soaking wet. Was this the day he first tried to swim? I don’t remember…I don’t know why I’m mentioning that.
Chin stubble. Sweat. The puppy is a dog now. Almost every day we went to the stony beach. Threw rocks. I kept thinking about girls at school and I went a little mad. I remembered a girl I’d met on Skye. She’d be fourteen now too. Was she also going mad?
When I took this, I wanted to die. Re-establishing contact with my Dad had led to a falling out. I remember walking the estuary at night. Alone.
A picture with a girl by the river. Her name was Mandy. I never told Mandy she reminded me of that little girl I met on Skye: the degrading ghost I still carry in my head.
A close up of a raindrop. Mum decided to take us back to Skye. We visited all the old places. Half the time it was pure nostalgia. The other half it rained and I felt hollow.
The wayward traveller returns. I’m twenty four in this photo, feeling ancient, standing there on the doorstep with a shaky smile. Asking myself what I live for. Scattered memories edited in my favour? No. I’d like to claim the changing sky, plains lit from afar, the rolling of the river from the estuary’s mouth to Loch Tay, but in that picture I’m cold and wet and alone on the beach, and it’s a little bit like torture.
Not So Sweet Shop
Although Jude has come into the shop with no notion of stealing anything, the situation suddenly seems to demand that he does.
Mr Scotter isn’t behind the counter as usual, but in the rear caring for his wife who, according to Jude’s mother, has recently had something called a stroke. Jude can hear her moaning softly. It sounds like Mr Scotter is trying to alter her position.
Jude instinctively feels that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and all thoughts of right or wrong barely cross his excited mind. He quickly races behind the counter, past the tobacco and onto the sweets, reaching for the nearly full jar of chocolate raisins; not the cherry lips, sherbet lemons or rainbow mixture, but chocolate raisins.
The choice is a no-brainer. As far as Jude is concerned, chocolate raisins are the taste of paradise on Earth. He can ill afford them with his Saturday shilling, but his mother will occasionally offer him a small handful of her own. The delicious, creamy outside mixed with the juicy pleasure of the inside always feels perfect on his tongue. The bliss of a mouthful is the closest he has yet come to any sort of over-indulgence. Also, they are a safer option, unlike some of the boiled sweets that mostly makes up his sugary diet. Like sour apples for instance, just a couple of which can tear open the roof of your mouth.
Quickly filling the two main pockets of his parker, Jude places the half-filled jar carefully back on the shelf and, making sure he is in the all-clear, quietly tip-toes out of the shop and, as casually as he can, steps out onto the street.
Within a minute or so, he is sitting on the wall behind the Methodist chapel, his usual sweet spot. Undisturbed, he quickly begins to devour his hoard. One or two at a time at first but then mouthful after mouthful. Initially, Jude is lost in some sort of reverie, a kind of confectionery-induced ecstasy, and it isn’t until he has finished the first pocketful that he begins to think about the implications of his actions.
Slowly, he begins to feel remorse for the theft. What bad has Mr Scotter ever done to him? Come to think of it, he is the most generous of all the shopkeepers in the village. When reading the scales, he always gives you some extra which takes the needle over the two ounces. By the time Jude has eaten the last raisin all his joy has gone. How would he ever be able to innocently enter the shop again? His mother had once said Mr Scotter had made a lot of money by helping to ruin people’s lungs and teeth, but what use were those words to him now? Poor Mr Scotter with his ill wife.
Even a go on the park swings can’t alleviate his guilt and nearing home he pukes up his swag into a gutter.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Her Doll, Mary
A hammering terror. Getting closer, the clatter of metal on metal. Throbbing, steel-throated voices pounding through the trees. Up the hill they come until they have the house of the Witnesses surrounded.
The family are hiding beneath the kitchen table. Mother holds her daughter tight in her arms. In turn, Little Jes grips her doll. She whispers, ‘Shush, Mary, shush. The bad men will hear you. You don’t want the bad men to hear you.’
The bad men begin to chant in unison, ‘Blasphemers! Blasphemers!’ Each syllable is accompanied by their tools, pummelling the outer walls. Windows are smashed. The decapitated head of a goat is thrown into the room.
Little Jes turns Mary’s face the other way. She remembers when the doll once lost its head. Two of the yard dogs had fought over it and between them had ripped the head right off. Lots of the cotton insides had been torn loose. Mother had re-stuffed Mary with straw and had sown her head back on, but the wrong way round. This hadn’t bothered Little Jes. Even with a back to front head, Mary was still precious in her sight.
Father has locked all the doors but the bad men don’t force them anyway. Instead, they begin barricading the doors and windows with planks of wood, clobbering them to the house with thick, iron nails.
Mother begins to cry. She sobs into Father’s chest. Little Jes bends the doll’s knees and holds her hands together. She tells her, ‘Pray for us, Mary. Pray for us in our need. Pray that the bad men will go away.’ Little Jes closes her own eyes so that Mary will do the same with her one remaining button-eye. Little Jes used to suck the eyes for comfort and had once swallowed one. Lost inside her, it was never found.
And now the reek of petrol and the whoosh of flames. Almost instantaneously, tongues of fire start licking the inside of the room. Smoke starts to breathe from between every crack and crevice. The bad men’s voices recede into the distance as the inferno takes hold and increases.
The family races from room to room looking for an escape but every access has been blocked. Father goes back into the kitchen and returns with the slaughtering cleaver. He begins to hack at the makeshift larder which was recently replaced after the latest winds. But the flames, furious in their intensity, force him back.
The only place left is the storm cellar. They clamber in and Father closes the wooden flap behind him. They huddle in total darkness. Little Jes still has Mary in her firm grasp. She runs her hands up and down the doll’s body and settles at her shoes. Little Jes had once accidentally dropped Mary into the hearth when they were toasting marshmallows together. When she had rescued the doll, her boots had melted and become blistered. The once shiny, pretty boots were completely blackened; incinerated beyond repair.
The Girl In The White Bikini
He had been watching her for hours. Her white bikini scantily covered her modesty. The sweat on his forehead glistened in the sun causing drops to create rivulets of moisture that cascaded down his face. He shifted his weight on the bench and looked down as he felt pins and needles spread from his toes to his ankle.
He felt a sense of physical pain and panic when he couldn’t immediately see her.
She had gone. Slowly he got up to his feet and stumbled forwards.
“Are you ok?” A cool hand clutched his bare arm, “You need to sit back down.”
To his delight the bikini-clad girl sat down next to him.
He put his hand on top of hers and she showed no impulse to pull away. She smiled, “I really fancy a moonlight sail later… if you can handle a boat?”
He could not believe his luck. He usually had to spend quite a lot of time and money getting to know them first.
“I’ve got a boat. A sail out at sea in the moonlight is very... stimulating...If you know what I mean,” she winked suggestively and ran her tongue slowly over her lips. He could not swim and the thought of being out in a boat terrified him, but it would be worth it. He pulled himself together. He needed a bath, a shave and to wipe all fingerprints off the blade and handle of the knife. She would be his fifth victim.
She met him on time and quickly grabbed his hand, “Come on big boy!”
“Look, we don’t have to go out on the water. Let’s go under the pier,” he said.
“No way,” She said firmly. “If you want me, you have to get in the inflatable. The waves do things to me.” She smiled seductively, “You’ll be ok with me.”
After a few minutes in the boat, he changed positions with her and took the oars. After a few strokes he soon began to get into a rhythm. It was a good ten minutes until he looked up away from her breasts to realise that the lights on the pier and the town were twinkling a long way off. He could feel a panic rising in his chest as he abruptly stopped rowing.
She smiled broadly at him; “Yes this is a good a place as any.”
In a flurry of movement, and seemingly from nowhere, she produced a Stanley knife blade and with a graceful sweeping motion, slashed the rubber sides and bottom of the boat as he looked on in silent horror.
“I knew you were watching me on the beach. I don’t like dirty old men who only want one thing! You remind me of my step-father before I sorted him out as well!”
He sank like a stone before he could scream.
She leisurely began swimming towards the lights. Back to hunt for the next one.
Whitby, North Yorkshire
Lambs’ Tail Stew
Hard times, especially for a casual hand like myself. Walking in all weathers from one isolated farm to another. Sleeping beneath the stars or, if I’m lucky, in a sheep shelter or a gravedigger’s tool shed. A hand to mouth existence. Woodcutting, picking stones off fields, building dry stone walls or pulling tatties and turnips.
Then come spring I find work with a recently widowed farmer’s wife. A tenant farm in the back of beyond. A house full of kids and the lambing season coming on, so she needs an extra hand. I’m fed well enough and sleep in the byre with all the dry comfort that corn straw brings.
The season starts badly. A week of late snow buries many of the pregnant ewes. The widow and I trail the fields together to rescue them. The sheep are dumb with cold and hardly make a sound. We dig with spades until we see an exposed nose or a wagging tail and then use crooks to drag them out by their necks. Often white icicles hang from the wool. The ones frozen stiff are taken back to the farmhouse and provide good meat for everyone.
The weather eventually clears and we are out at all hours keeping an eye on the flock and helping to deliver some of the lambs. The widow teaches me to turn any distressed ewe onto her back, how to put my hand up inside her and to get the front feet forward and gradually ease the lamb out. Any orphaned lamb is taken back to the farmhouse and is bottle-fed by the kids. The widow instructs me how to skin any dead lamb and put the skin on another lamb so that it will be adopted by the deprived mother.
At lamb docking time we cut off the lambs’ tails in order to reduce the risk of fly strike. I have done this before by means of a block, chisel and mallet, but the widow prefers that we use a jack knife. She collects all the tails in a bucket and takes them home to be cooked over the peat fire. After skinning the tails, she adds herbs, onions, barley, peas and a handful of rice. The kids are very excited by the prospect of this once in a year treat. After they have all gone to bed she rewards me with another helping of the stew and a glass or two of damsel wine she made in the autumn. We sit outside together on a pair of stools, listening to the soft bleating and stare at the reddest sky I can ever remember.
Now this summer morning she has me busy in the top field mending the broken gate. I just about have it fixed when she appears. She has four older kids ready for the school bus. A smaller child is holding her hand. Another is in her arms and there, becoming easier to see, is another one inside her.
County Durham, England
Spirit Of Truth
Jensen, may the Spirit of Truth always be on him, takes me aside and reminds me that I haven’t fed Stockton. With respect, I say, the Beholden is finding it difficult to eat anything. Then place some food on his tongue when he’s sleeping, he says, and pray that he swallows it. Remember, food is Thing. There is no actuality in Thing. Thing is Lapse. Find Lapse in your mind and fight it. Yes, I say, I will. Thank you Jensen, may the Spirit of Truth always be on you. He nods and, with his perfect teeth, flashes me his charismatic smile. There are no wrinkles beside his eyes.
Later, Stockton wakes up coughing. There is foodstuff down his chin and on the bedclothes. I suggest he raise up his head so that he can take some water. He asks, what’s in the water? Only water, I say. Then I shall take a drink, he says. The water obviously brings some relief but he only takes a couple of mouthfuls. Lean in, he says, so I do. He croaks into my ear, a choice must be made between the Spirit of Truth and the Idol in Babylon, do you understand? Yes I do, I tell him. Thank you for your wisdom, Stockton
Jensen, may the Spirit of Truth always be on him, comes on his round in the evening; his face as tanned as his new shoes. He suggests to Stockton that he make a list of all the times he has successfully fought Lapse and has thus been healed. This will help strengthen you now, he says, in The Conflict. Stockton agrees: I am a Beholden and a Beholden must do so. Stockton makes a terse, breathless effort to dictate to me his past victories. It includes how a teenage face rash had ultimately been defeated before his marriage; how persistent summer coughs had finally left him; and how he had fought off malaria many times when bitten by horse flies.
Eventually Stockton exhausts himself, closes his eyes, returns to the foetal position and places both hands upon his stomach. He is in The Conflict. He flinches and groans but he is a strong Beholden of many years so will feel no pain. Pain is Thing and there is no actuality in Thing.
As I sit in silence beside Stockton’s bed I bring to mind the Great Hanson. How, before his Leaving, eighteen and a half years ago, he had a vision of his eternal self, forever defeating Lapse and casting Thing into oblivion. I pray to the Great Hanson: Oh, return to us from your Leaving, Great Hanson. Help us to exterminate the Idol in Babylon and live forever in the Spirit of Truth. Amen.
Stockton dies during the night. Jensen, may the Spirit of Truth always be on him, is called for. He kisses Stockton on the forehead and whispers go, fly to Hanson. He closes Stockton’s eyes with his long, manicured fingers.
Smith Granger Smith
My dead grandmother hovers in the air like an unsettled Buddha balloon. Did you point at Devil’s Island? You were told never to point at it. I kick at the sand and shove my hands behind my bum. Well, there’s no point hiding your fingers now. She deflates and swirls into the horizon behind the island. It’s tooo laaate noooow. Waaaarn theee otheeeeers. At first the Devil floats like a logging barge. Then brimstone splits its surface. A lone gnarled tree claws its way up through the smoke and spitting fog, pulls the island towards our shore. Over-sized gulls squawk and waddle until their shit speckles the damp rock. I scramble up the hill to our house. Dad stands there on the step, no worry lines crowding his forehead. The churning water, displaced by the Devil, climbs my pant legs and weighs me down in place. Dad smiles. What’s the matter with you? My words won’t come and I don’t dare point behind me.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
John, Oscar And Me
Sunday league football. The forward and I both jumped together for the ball. I managed to get to it first but his forehead crashed at full force into my left temple. Next thing I knew I was in A&E with the room spinning round. After the x-ray the doctor told me there was no real damage, but there was going to be some swelling. She wasn’t kidding.
By Tuesday I seemed to have grown another head on the side of my own; a bulbous protuberance which displayed all the many hues of purple. In days past I might have found employment in a carnival and earned my meagre keep as part of the freak show. Well, come Wednesday, I did it for free.
There was a union meeting at the welfare. The strike was off. Too much scabbing and hardship. And anyway, the management were willing to do a deal on some of our lesser demands. A show of hands and it was agreed: we’d cut our losses and fight another day. Then, for some light relief, they turned on me.
A pointer shouted, ‘Hey, who invited John Merrick?’ I was encircled by a gang of mockers. ‘Oy, Tom, when did you get the part of Elephant Man?’ Hilarity and then another joker took it further by acting out dialogue from the movie: ’I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!’ The more he repeated it the louder the laughter came at my expense.
When I thought about it later I began to feel great empathy for poor John. Oscar Wilde also came to mind; how hell for him was the humiliation he suffered as a prisoner at Clapham Junction and how for a year afterwards he wept every day at the same hour and for the same amount of time.
I didn’t weep but I did spend a lot of the evening staring into the mirror examining my distorted face. At first I was as fascinated by my hideousness as my workmates were, but then I slowly became locked into my own eyes. Windows of the soul, and all that. What was it again? ‘I am not an animal, I am a man!’
The return to work brought trouble. The scabs were given much grief. Spitting, jeering, curses and so on. Working near my machine was a young married man previously known as Whacker but now renamed Bastard. Near the end of the shift, when the line manager disappeared to the toilet, a group of men gathered around him and were really going for it. Unsurprisingly, he began to cry, which only made them go at him harder.
It was at this point that I stepped in. ‘Enough!’ I shouted. ‘For fuck’s sake, that’s enough! Have a heart!’ That stopped them but late on Saturday night in The Social I received another blow to match the one on the other side of my head.
In January, Maybe
Through the Mersey Tunnel and onto Port Sunlight. In the Lady Lever Art Gallery we spot Waterhouse’s ‘The Enchanted Garden’. We have a framed print of it in our bedroom, back home in Doncaster. We learn from the panel that it is based on a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Pursued by Ansora, Dianora agrees to become his mistress if he can produce in January a garden with all the flowers and fruits of summer. With the help of a magician, he succeeds, much to her astonishment.
Once outside the three of us walk to the war memorial and rest. My husband lies on the bench and says he doesn’t care what we actually think. A sprightly old lady plants herself down and begins to talk at us. She tells us about her late husband, a fantastically clever English teacher and about her saintly father who once promised her that one day she would be reunited with her beloved dead cat atop a rainbow bridge. She talks about the young Wilfred Owen and how he lived only a short drive away in Birkenhead. Then it’s onto Adolf Hitler and how he once escaped conscription from the Austrian army by sailing to Liverpool to be with his brother Alois.
After our own escape, we head back to my daughter’s digs in Liverpool and my husband crashes on the sofa. So tired from all the driving and cultural overload. While he dozes we check out the Hitler story on our iPhones. Sure enough there are references to it in The Echo. He may have been a bell-boy at The Adelphi where Alois played the violin. He might have enrolled at the art college. He could even have attended Everton’s home games.
To our surprise there is also mention of a rumour that Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah and Emperor of Ethiopia, spent the years of the Second World War in exile in Liverpool, in Alexandra Drive, which is the very street we’re in. According to local legend, two golden-coloured lion statues marked the house as recently as the 1970s. This thrilling discovery encourages my daughter and me to go on an adventure. We leave my husband to his snoring and go outside for a look.
We stroll up and down the street and eventually stop outside a derelict property. To our excitement we notice there are two identical concrete bases at either side of the rusted gate, certainly large enough to support lion statues. Emboldened by our discovery, we make our way up the cracked path towards the house. There is nothing to see through the broken windows except fallen plaster and fractured floorboards. But what is that, coming from behind the house? It is the sound of music. Stringed music.
Holding hands, we furtively turn the corner. To our amazement there is a small, mustachioed man leaning beside a fountain playing a lute. And all around him are roses, peonies, lilies and a whole array of un-seasonal flowers.
Beryl From The Block
Thwing, East Yorkshire
Sugar and Spice
Don’t take this personally, but I really don’t like little boys. Never did, never will. Some of them grow up to be okay in the end, I suppose, though I’ve only met a few myself. Most of the blokes I’ve had have turned out bad. Like your dad, he wasn’t up to much, truth be told. Had his bit of fun and then was off like a shot when he heard you were coming along. Good luck finding him, that’s all I can say.
Y’see, when I was growing up I had three brothers and they ruined everything. Any peace in the house was completely wrecked. I just wanted to grow up as a little girl but they wouldn’t leave me and my things alone. Did my head in. And when they got to be teenagers things just got wilder and wilder. Feral, they were. No wonder my mother didn’t last until fifty, poor bugger. So when it came to having my own kids I knew I was only having girls. No ifs or buts. That’s why I gave you up for adoption. Brenda and Graham, you say. Well, I hope they’ve been good parents. It seems like you’ve been well looked after, that’s clear enough.
Like I said before, you’re not the only one. I gave up two other boys. They came after you, if I remember rightly. That left me with our Kayleigh, our Kirsty, our Kristen and our Kacey. It’s been lovely, just the five of us. All girls together. Don’t get me wrong, they have their moments and don’t always get on, but things mostly tick along nicely. Most of them have got different dads who they sometimes see, but not very often. I don’t encourage it. No, best to forget about them, really. Bad lot, in general. Although Craig, that’s our Kirsty’s and our Kristen’s dad, he’s not so bad. He came round at the weekend and gave our Kirsty a tenner for her birthday. Said he’d take them both to McDonald’s next time he’s working in town. Fair do’s.
Anyway, as you can see, I’m eating for two again. Six months now, or thereabouts. Belongs to some fella I got seeing in Benidorm last June. From Newcastle or Glasgow, somewhere northern. I got fined for taking the girls out of school during term time but that’s another story. They’re hoping for another sister but I reckon they’re going to be disappointed. Everything’s telling me it’s going to be a boy. I’ve had terrible morning sickness and look at this acne and how thick my hair is. Sure signs. And I’ve cravings for pickles and crisps, just like I did for you and the other boys. I’ve been gently letting the girls know that the baby might have to go and live with a sad and lonely mam and dad and I think they’re coming round to the idea. But at least it’s another little brother for you. That’s something, isn’t it?
Castleford, West Yorkshire
Bless ‘Em All
Next up is the one about my old man who said follow the van but don’t dilly-dally on the way. My wife has passed the tambourine onto me and I’m trying my best to keep a regular rhythm. A lady across the circle is shaking a maraca and she’s got her eagle eyes on my technique, so I’d better not fail.
My wife is holding Vera’s hand and is encouraging her to sing along. We don’t think Vera knows who we are anymore but she seems happy enough with our company and the entertainment. The singer moves onto the one about doing the Lambeth Walk where everything’s free and easy and you can do as you darn well pleasy. One inmate is being very free and easy, happily dancing by herself in a very revealing way.
Arthur has been given an inflatable guitar which he is wielding with much enthusiasm. C’mon Arthur, implores the singer, give it a shake! That’s it Arthur, that’s it! Reggie was tapping his toes but all the excitement has caused him to fall back to sleep. And Brian is wearing the wrong specs. Well, that’s what Phyllis thinks.
Those aren’t Brian’s glasses, she says. Who’s given Brian the wrong glasses? She asks my wife whether she’s given Brian the wrong glasses. Then she turns on me. Do you know why Brian is wearing the wrong glasses? But I am too busy keeping tempo with the one about saying goodbye to Piccadilly and farewell to Leicester Square. When Phyllis gets out of her seat to ask me the same question I begin to think it might be a good thing to leave for Tipperary despite it being a long, long way.
At this point Millie stands up and intervenes. She tells us Brian is not wearing her glasses because she herself is wearing them. Look, varifocals, she says, and each lens cost me fifty pounds which is a hundred pounds altogether. Yes, but Brian is wearing the wrong glasses, says Phyllis. Someone has given Brian the wrong glasses. Why is Brian wearing the wrong glasses?
Eventually Brian is unceremoniously stripped of the glasses which doesn’t seem to bother him very much. My wife examines them and discovers Vera’s name is engraved on one of the inside arms. Problem solved, or so it seemed. Phyllis asks, but whose glasses is Vera wearing? And so the great spectacle mystery resumes. She’s definitely not wearing mine, says Millie. Mine are varifocals and each lens cost me fifty pounds. I say that’s a hundred pounds altogether. She nods and smiles at my understanding.
Vera is re-united with her horn-rimmed glasses and Brian is fitted with the ones Vera was wearing. They are obviously women’s spectacles but Brian doesn’t make any fuss, even though they are a tight fit.
I’m quite enjoying myself today, says my wife. You can stay if you want, I say. But we leave together during the one about meeting again some sunny day.
Through the crack in the door, I could see him squirm; he was terrified.
He was trapped, tied firmly to the chair. His face and mouth were a mass of sores, he struggled against the restraints.
A hand moved toward his face.
“N-nnn-ooo.” A barely audible whisper.
She gently pushed his hair back from his forehead and softly cupped his face in her hands. She was crying as well.
“I’ve tried everything lovey,” she told him. “Now, promise again.”
“I-I-I p-p-promise,” he said
She started to untie the tea towels. She had tied his hands to the back of the chair to stop him from wriggling while she cleaned his face and lips. He’d cried.
His face and lips were covered in sores and blisters because of the lighter fuel. There had been a circus on the TV, there was a man in tights, blowing flames out of his mouth. We tried it with lighter fuel, he had sucked it in from a red and yellow tin, he blew it out of his mouth as the match was struck, it had gone like a dragon. He didn’t blow hard enough.
She let him stand up.
“Let’s see your tongue,” she said. “Okay, my lovey, no more blisters.”
He put his tongue back in. She let go of his hands, but he didn’t go anywhere.
I went over to where they were.
She gently wiped tears from his eyes, she looked at me and shook her head.
“I still can’t believe it, you stupid boys. One of you could have died.” She said.
I flash my phone, the ticket hovers, fruit of a days labor. The black and white mosaic tile paves my way. At the bar I ask for some tap water and I’m told snittily, “We don’t have any. You can buy a bottle of LifeWtr though”. It cost what I get paid an hour but it does have a bottle designed by an artist and a promise to rebalance my pH so it must be worth it! As I turn around I smell the piquant stench of skunk and hope it won’t perfume my hair. I won’t have time to wash it before I’m back on shift.
Tunneling into the sparse crowd I secure a seat with a view of The Empire State under a raspberry ripple sky. It’s a scene from a 1990’s rom-com; we just need Meg Ryan or Tom Hanks and a nostalgic soundtrack to complete the illusion. Unfortunately a thrash boy-band is on stage at the moment and a heavily tattooed singer is screaming, “I love you coz you’re ugly like me”. I hear my Mum snigger in my ear “At least he has some self knowledge”.
I’m here because of my Mum. The band ‘James’ will be on next. Their song ‘Sit Down’ was her favorite. It was this song she made me promise to have played at her funeral. After she got her lung cancer diagnosis she started planning how she wanted to say good-bye, choosing things that had meant a lot to her. The flowers were to be the ones she had in her bridal bouquet, readings would be poems she loved and the music would be favorite songs. She told me, “I want my coffin to be carried out to ‘Sit Down’. I’ve always loved the idea that anyone can find acceptance, the sad, the mad, even the ridiculous. And let’s face it love we’re all ridiculous. We live with no thought of tomorrow. Promise me you won’t let anyone tread on your dreams, don’t put off the things you want to do. Go to America, see the world, grasp every chance”. Of course I promised.
Surprisingly the band appears on time. The singer, bald as a basin, wobbling like a mirage from 1989, commands the stage demanding of the crowd “What’d yer wanna hear?” and then ignores all requests. They play songs from their yet to be released album. The crowd nods along obligingly, clapping to give the impression that’s what they’ve come to hear. But we all know it’s not. Eventually they play ‘Laid’, the crowd heaves a collective cheer, it’s a song we all know. I start to sing along but I don’t stand yet. I hold my anticipation on my lap, an excited toddler trying to escape and run towards the bright lights of the stage. And then they’re gone. We wait for the inevitable encore but unbelievably the band does not reappear. As I leave I think I hear Mum whisper, “Arrogant twats”.
Wilton, Connecticut USA
Caught In The Headlights
Insects in the headlights. Moths exploding against the windscreen. Chains and tools rattling in the back of the van as it makes its way down the empty roads, heading in the opposite direction to which he’d promised to take her.
She pretends to have not noticed this detour. In fact, she expected him to take one. That’s why she’s in the van.
He strikes up some talk of these parts being very dangerous for lone girls, especially at this time of night. Yes, she lies, I was starting to panic. I’d missed the last bus. I’m so lucky you came along when you did. Of course, she doesn’t mention that she’d waited exactly where he would find her, at the edge of the village, when he left the pub at the usual time.
The van reeks of oil and his sweat, and not least of all his beery farts. His breathe is strong like petrol. He is over the limit. Well over. This is what her sister must have had up her nose.
She asks him his name. He says Malc, which she knows to be a lie. He asks her name. She says Karen, which is also a lie, but he doesn’t know that. Local are you? No, she says, from town actually. Another lie.
She notices they are gaining speed and she is increasingly thrown from side to side as he pitches the van around sharp corners. He advises her to buckle-up her seat belt. Okay, she says, but only pretends to. He has one eye on the road and the other on her bared thighs. She casually hitches up her skirt so he can see more. He accelerates even faster.
She looks through the side window for any house lights but there are none. Suddenly they take a bend and a fox comes into view with a rabbit dangling from its mouth. He turns and looks at her and she smiles back. Good night for hunting, he says. Seems so, she says. Another mile further on and he narrowly misses a white-tailed deer with luminous green eyes, as it bounces across the road.
Then he’s onto a track heading into blackness. A dyke to one side, a cropped field to the other. Only dirt in front. Gets a bit rough here, he says. She thinks, I bet it does. And then up from her stomach comes the fear. Nothing new, though. Life with her father has taught her how to swallow and digest it. She forces it back down and feels its energising effect as it spreads into her legs, arms, hands and fingers.
He halts the van. Oh dear, I think we’ve come to a dead end, he says.
He twists in his seat, about to make his decisive move, but hardly has time to be astonished by the flashing blade coming his way. His eyes are as bright as any stunned creature’s, caught in the headlights of a fast approaching vehicle.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Drip, drip, drip. Many years ago a tortured Reggie had pleaded with Father to mend the water tank but naturally he hadn’t. Reggie now measured the time lapse between each drip. To his surprise it was the same as when he was a boy and this had been his bedroom. Back then he could say, ‘Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx and Gnasher too’ eleven times between drips and he could still say that now. Reggie found this remarkable but at the same time he wasn’t sure if it disturbed or reassured him. What was clear to him though, as he lay on his old bed staring up at the familiar cracks on the ceiling, was that time had been marching along at a regular and irreversible tempo, even in his long absence.
This was Mary’s house now. His sister had seen them all go at some point: Father to his drink, Mother to her grave and Reggie to his women. Only Reggie had now returned, for a while anyway, because Jean had kicked him out again. He couldn’t very well go to his daughter in Barnsley; she always took Jean’s side anyway.
When they were kids, Mary would often come to Reggie for comfort on the nights Father returned in a mood from The Duke of York and things would get heated downstairs. They’d huddle tight and watch the shadows moving across the walls, cast by the lights of growling vehicles taking the hill in low gear. The street lamppost always gave Reggie great comfort in those days. He thought it would be impossible to sleep without its soft, protecting glow and he held the idea that the world would end if the light ever went out during the night. Thankfully the world didn’t end, even after Father had been given his marching orders and wasn’t seen again.
Feeling a great thirst, Reggie sat up and reached out for his mug of tea which was sitting on one side of the dressing table. The table once belonged in his parent’s bedroom but was relegated to here with the onset of Formica. Still inside the drawers were some of his old comics: The Beezer, Whizzer and Chips and The Beano, of course. For no reason he could really think of, Desperate Dan of The Dandy suddenly came to mind.
After draining the tea, Reggie examined the young queen’s face on the coronation mug and considered how differently she looked now; how she had inevitably aged. Then he lifted his head and looked into the mirror to inspect himself. It was no shock to see Father staring back, almost straight through him. The familiar glare, but with all the shine gone from the once clear eyes.
Reggie heeded the drip again. Then began his repetitive murmur: ‘Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx and Gnasher too.’ Over and over again, as the lamppost came back on and shadows began to flicker across the room.
Who’s this they’re playing? I ask my husband. Is it Canteloube?
Yes, Baïlèro, he says. Victoria de Los Angeles.
Not Kiri Te Kanawa?
No, definitely not.
Geoffrey knows his music inside out. Just like he knows the MacDonald’s menu. Tonight he’s having ‘The Garlic Mayo Chicken One - Grilled’ with a ‘Millionaire’s Iced Frappé’. I’m sticking to a ‘Happy Meal Veggie Wrap’ and an ‘Oreo McFlurry’. Actually, we’re more of a KFC couple, but since MacDonald’s have started playing classical music in the evenings, we’ve swapped allegiance. Apparently, Mozart and company supposedly calm the atmosphere and counteract any rowdy shenanigans from the customers. Well, we don’t know about that, but we do love the playlist. Ah, I think this next one is Beethoven.
Moonlight Sonata, Geoffrey?
We come here most evenings. It was last Wednesday, around midnight I think, and we were really enjoying the Goldberg Variations: Aria. I was just finishing ‘The Spicy Veggie One’ when a young couple sitting nearby started arguing. Something to do with the choice of venue.
We always end up at Mackis having a cheeseburger, she said.
Well, I can’t afford much else, he said.
But I’d rather have a pizza, she said.
You would, he said and so on.
Geoffrey was brave enough to lean over and ask them to lower their voices as we could no longer hear the music. Unfortunately, the young man took umbrage and told Geoffrey he could take his effin Beethoven and stick it up his you know what.
It’s Bach actually, said Geoffrey. Glenn Gould on piano.
And he was right, of course.
And last Thursday some football youths, fresh from a home match, embarked on a round of singing at the top of their not very well-trained voices; a chant deriding the size of the restaurant.
‘My garden shed Is bigger than this!
Is bigger than this!
It’s got a door and a window.
My garden shed is bigger than this!’
Again Geoffrey intervened and asked them whether it was really appropriate to uncouthly disturb such a wonder as Haydn’s La Grande Sarabande?
This stopped them momentarily until they started shouting and pointing at him,
‘Who ate all the pies?
You fat bastard! You fat bastard!
You at all the pies!’
They should have sang, ‘The Sweet Chilli Chicken One’, but nevermind.
However, nothing really compares to what happened one recent Friday night. When two groups of inebriated women started fighting during Ride Of The Valkyries, poor Geoffrey decided to make his displeasure known. He was immediately thrown back towards our table by a rather large, tattooed lady. He banged his head, lost consciousness and my ‘Quaker Oats So Simple Apple and Cherry Porridge’ went flying into my lap. By the time he came around he was surrounded by customers and management alike. A newly arrived police officer asked him if he would be able to identify the perpetrators.
Of course, he said,
Wagner, conductor Hans Knappertsbusch and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Magaret Sprauge de Camp
Conisbrough, South Yorkshire
Not Strictly Dancing
Saturday, fight night. My parents are home from dancing and I wake to hear them doing battle below. I try to ignore it by sticking my head under the pillow. No use, the din is going up and up. Every no-no word you can imagine bouncing around my bedroom walls and into my ears.
The dog will be in the living room. I’m worried about Dash, so I go downstairs and find him hiding behind Dad’s chair. I huddle next to him and stroke his head. We hear the cutlery drawer open with enough force to make the knives and forks lift and crash. Dash’s ears leap up and his eyes look up at mine. Dad shouts something about not being so no-no stupid. Then she screams get off me you no-no no-no.
I leave Dash and dare to stick my head around the kitchen door. It stinks like petrol or whatever it is they like to drink. I can see him on top of her. He has her arms firmly pinned against the lino. She is spitting into his eyes. As he turns his face away he sees me. He tells me to go back upstairs. Please don’t hurt her, I say. Get out, he shouts.
I run into the hall and phone my sister. I hear her telling her husband to turn the no-no telly down and then she helps me to stop crying. That’s it, talk slowly, she says. I tell her Dad has Mum on the floor. He probably has no choice, she says. She’ll have grabbed something, she always does. Go and have a look then come and tell me what.
On my return to the kitchen the dog passes me going the other way. He sits beneath the coat hanger in the hall and sticks his head under Dad’s parker so his face can’t be seen.
By now they have become separated and there’s a stand-off. He is in one corner and she is in the other. Her eyes are wet and bright, like Dash when he’s out walking. She yells you just can’t keep your no-no hands to yourself, can you? And it’s always her! Her, whose no-no you squeeze every no-no Saturday night. You lousy, no-no no-no no-no!
Dad is saying nothing now but has his eyes fixed on what she has in her hand, a fork from the Avengers set Gran gave me for Christmas.
She moves closer and he moves sideways. They begin to circle each other, step for step. He turns on his heels as she moves within striking range. As she brings the fork forwards his chest goes back and his legs spring into action. Quick as a flash he has her hand in his. The fork drops to the floor and they grip each other. Her left hand clasps his right and he has her firmly by the waist. Their eyes lock and I hold my breath, waiting for the no-no dance to continue.
Lost To Me
It was January, maybe February. My wife had taken the kids to her mother’s for a long weekend. I had to work on Saturday and so was home alone on Sunday. Yes, it happened one Sunday during the winter. And it was raining, definitely raining.
Rather than stay in the house I caught the bus into town. It was still early, before most of the shops had opened. I went into the small cafe in the market square and had a drink of tea and some toast, or it could have been a teacake. Not a scone though, I only ever eat those in the afternoon.
There were very few shoppers out that morning, probably because it was so cold and wet. The streets were full of puddles which I had to step over or between. If I remember rightly, the sky was grey, nearly black, but the pavements were shiny and in the gloom the shops all looked brighter than normal.
Near the end of the arcade was one of those surplus book shops which also sells games, toys, stationery, art materials and so on. I went in. I think it was ten o’clock or thereabouts. I was the only customer and there was only one shop assistant in the place. She was wearing one of those name badges. For some weeks later I remembered her name but I can’t recall it now.
While I was looking at some of the special offers near the window she came over and we began a polite conversation. I really can’t recollect a single word that was said between us, but what I do remember, or rather feel, was that when she spoke a light came on inside of me; something like that. She talked so calmly, without a hint of gossip or cynicism. Pure kindness; a simple, clear intelligence. She politely held my gaze with a smile and patiently listened to whatever it was I had to say. Absolutely delightful. Truth be told, she was more plain than pretty, but I knew at that instant she was the most perfect person I would ever meet. It had taken forty-one years for this to happen.
At some point in our conversation the wind got up and the rain began lashing against the window. We both turned our heads and watched in silence as the shower blurred the view. Perhaps the lights in the shop began to flicker. Whatever, this is where the memory begins to drain away.
Weeks or months later she still loomed large in my imagination. Happily married, but I daydreamed of a different, ideal life, spent together with this modest, younger woman.
I kept my distance though, only returning to the shop after a while; two years perhaps, or even more. If she still worked there I couldn’t tell. Not only had her name escaped me but her face too. She was completely lost to me.
The shop has now changed hands and sells other things.
Odysseus At Scarborough
Shattered oars and crew; Poseidon rolled us around the great headland west of Doggerland and to our great relief we put ashore at Scarborough. A safe harbour, or so we thought.
Bank Holiday Monday. The herd out in force from Leeds, Sheffield and Barnsley with their pitbulls and offspring. Pubs and bars showing the Prem on BT and Sky and rammed with thick-accented Tykes with beer-guts and shorn heads, sporting replica football shirts and tattoos, the English rash.
I advised my boys to keep well away, but did they? Course not. Once we’d requisitioned some cricket bats, deck chairs and beach huts for timber to patch up the ship, they went straight off into town. Soft lads. I told ‘em though: be back before the next tide or I’m leaving yer.
I kept watch on the sand and lit the barbeque. My first mate soon returned with burgers and chicken wings from Farmfoods and a Carling twelve-pack. I scolded him. Carling, is that all you can manage? Sorry Oddy, he explained, the place has nearly been drunk dry. It was that or Tennents!
Hours later the crew started slurring back with bruised faces and sick down their fronts. I asked, how come you’ve all been spewing? It’s me that’s had to endure the Carling. It was the Cyclops, they said. Cyclops? I said. I thought we’d seen-off old Eyegone way back when. It’s the big ride on the seafront, they said. It throws you this way and that way until yer balls are nearly in yer mouth. Mental, it is.
Half of ‘em were sore from sunburn or new tattoos. I said, why didn’t you use sunblock? Look, I’ve got factor 30 on. And by Calypso’s calves, what’s with the sirens you’ve had stamped across your thighs and necks? If I remember rightly, the last time we saw ‘em you all had yer headphones on, listening to Slayer and Metallica. It was me who grabbed an earful. Like Kate Bush, Nico and Clare Torry all mixed into one. Lovely, it was!
Worst of all though, was what they’d taken from Sports Soccer. New trainers, tracky bottoms and so on. Some of ‘em had Man Utd and Liverpool shirts on their backs. I got so angry. Are you for real? I shouted. This is the east coast, the North Sea. We’ll soon be back in Yorkshire waters. Zeus won’t have any of us displaying Lancashire colours. Lightning and thunderbolts! I screamed.
Anyway, the tide was rising and suddenly we had more pressing concerns. Some of the boys’ raw chat-up lines had failed them miserably in the Lord Nelson and as a result they were now being pursued across the beach by an infuriated hen party from Doncaster. Flanked on all sides by handbags and cellulite, we managed to get the vessel back into the water and avoided being speared by a volley of stiletto heels.
We rowed hard and we rowed fast, back into the broiling sea.
Trip Advisor Review: New Model Village
As model village enthusiasts, my wife and I were really looking forward to visiting this contemporary, ‘Modern World’ attraction but how disappointed we were!
Let’s start with the basics. Firstly we had to pay for the privilege of parking and the admission fee was exorbitant: no reductions for OAPs! Next we were told by an unenthusiastic teenage member of staff that the cafe was closed. No cup of tea, then. As for the toilets, the smell therein reminded me very much of a Moroccan tannery.
However, this was only the start of things! Onto the village itself...
Let’s take the consistency of scale, or rather the lack of it. For example, the zombie spice addicts, depicted in the wild throws of addiction, were nearly as tall as McDonald’s, giving them an unreal, Godzilla-like presence. And when have mobile booze buses ever been smaller than the drunks they cater for? The food bank [shoebox, actually] was the largest building in the village. Crazy!
As for authenticity, let’s consider the prison. This parody of a maximum security unit was a joke, but not a funny one. A beer crate sprayed with red and black zigzags and surrounded by barbed wire does not represent the real thing. The guards too were suspect. Do they really wear evening suits with dickie bow ties? We think not! Clearly they were a generic set of figures from a stock source with no thought of customization. They were not even stuck on carefully; some looked like they were about to hurl themselves from the towers, no doubt in suicidal despair at being forced to stand guard over such an edifice in perpetuity!
The attention to detail was no better. Dare I mention the dyke that ran between the sewerage works and the recycling plant? Yes, it displays certain aspects of human flotsam and jetsam [dumped supermarket trollies, for example] but not enough. Where, for instance, was the industrial effluent, toxic blooms of algae and the profusion of discarded plastic products endemic in our ecosystem?
Might I suggest that an audio soundtrack would have improved the exhibits? Certainly, such technology now exists. For example, the street brawl outside the JD Wetherspoons pub would have been much better realised had it included the vile screaming and cursing so commonly witnessed amongst present-day violent types. The far-right political rally would have been a lot more enriching if we could have heard what poison the populist demagogue was shouting from the podium outside Primark. And as for the manual car wash worked by modern day slave labourers: it would have been a lot more realistic if we could have listened to actual overseas accents, such as Albanian, Nigerian or Vietnamese.
All told, when we came to the end of this measly fifteen minute experience and exited through the high-surveillance gate, we did feel a tad foolish, deflated and somewhat short-changed. My advice to anyone thinking of visiting the ‘Modern World’ is avoid, avoid, avoid!
Falstaff 37, England