Falstaff 37, England
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.
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.
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
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.
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 on 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!
My sisters and I call them ‘hagthorn’, ‘quickthorn’ or ‘whitehorn’. Here they are simply known as ‘hawthorn’. There is no romance in these people’s language. I use the berries and flowers for vinegar [tart and fruity], jellies [eat with oatcakes to help with digestion] and wines and liqueurs [you know what they lead to!] Today I am collecting for a poultice. I will pulp the cuckoo beads and place them on his skin. They will help remedy his soreness, his inflammation. I will drink a hawthorn tincture to help with the homesickness; then I will move with more ease in this place. This blighted, injured place.
Police beatings and arrests; union meetings suppressed; scabbing; evictions. People eat the thinnest soup I have ever seen and the strike goes on. Families sieve coal from the slag-heaps or hack down the trees for firewood. These hawthorns will soon go and I will have to walk much further afield for my medicines. These are not my people and I know in the next county my family still live among oaks, limes and rowans.
He has been let home. He sleeps in his chair or stands in silence in the yard. Come evening he will be called for and off he will go. I take the hot kettle and pour water into the tin bath. He strips and lets me bathe him. His toughened skin is gnarled and bark-like. Blue scars criss-cross his arms and legs, like skeletons of leaves. After I dry him I apply the poultice to where it hurts the most. He winces but holds a smile for my benefit. He places a strong hand on the back of my neck. Sorry for all this, he says. I should never have brought you here. I came gladly, I say. I am your wife.
Evening comes and he is gone. A meeting somewhere. I drink the tincture and go for a walk. Rows of terraced houses: Pretoria Road, Empire Street and Victoria Avenue. From somewhere beyond the backs I hear the banging on a door, dogs barking, angry voices and crying. Behind The Welfare there are tents. Women stand like statues in the mist, staring into nowhere. Some are holding babies or have children clinging to their sides.
The tonic begins to take effect. I am becoming so lightheaded I almost float out of the village. Darkness descends. The pit head fades to a silhouette but I know where I am. The musty, acrid aroma of hawthorn trees fill my senses. They stand like sentinels on either side. I hear animals creeping in the ferns; owls calling each other. I easily find the tree I feel the closest to; laden with berries, covered with the sharpest spears. Guided mostly by touch, I collect thorns from the tree and create a mini grove. Then I sit inside the protective circle, bringing forth incantations of passion and curses upon the foe.
Islander Court of Public Opinion
Two months icebound on the island, so ready for the spring melt and resumption of regular ferry service.
We count around 400 of us and exactly one public gathering place, the Wharfside. The pub is everyone’s second family room. Makes sense considering how many of us are inter-related. Non-drinkers end up passing the hours down there too. Cards and board games, cross-words. The couple who own the pub went to extraordinary measures to stock the place ahead so the island didn’t dry out during the seasonal supply drought.
Not to say we’re absolutely confined and cut off. Our mail carrier ventures to the mainland on a snowmobile twice a week. Government regulations bar him from letting anyone ride along, but if you have a solid reason, he’ll break the rule. Sixteen winters of this routine and he’s still perfect at steering around holes and open rifts. Most people won’t try it alone—too many previous mis-judgements. Even he won’t go at night though.
The Coast Guard lands their helicopter on Lookout Hill in the lot behind the post office if someone has a medical emergency. It happened three times so far this Winter. Heart attack, stroke, chain-saw accident. Those Coasties get ‘em up and out on the double-quick, true professionals.
I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has a betting pool on the season’s helicopter visits total at the pub. Okay, I mean there is indeed a pool and I wagered twenty bucks that we’ll see them two more times this winter.
You hear about the differences in our ways, but this place is the same modern world everyone else lives in. Mostly. It’s not like we don’t have TV here. And internet.
Our more minor medical patch-ups come from asking Dr. Google what to do. You know, if Mayo Clinic’s website says you probably have scurvy, start eating more fruit. So many fixes are rooted in common sense.
Last month our local controversy was that someone or someones consumed a large number of apples from a common cold storage area. Stop the presses. Right? Suddenly every laid up fisherman was an arm chair detective. Mend mackerel nets, consume spirits, find the diabolical apple thief. High drama.
So they put their heads together and pooled clues until one of them worked out that I was their suspect. I thought about pushing back against it, but the island is small. I ended up admitting it. Now nobody believes I’m sorry. They let me make restitution and then they didn’t wire the sheriff’s department about it.
I’ve tried to make it up to everybody, but only my friend Starla will speak to me when I’m in The Wharfside. She ate half the apples, but I didn’t rat her out. I know a lot about Starla and she knows more about me.
Why spread the misery? It’s simpler when everyone has a single common target for their disdain.
It seems like eating is such a small sin to be frozen out for. That’s island court.
Nobody is more eager than me to see that ice go out.
Grand Rapids and Antrim County, Michigan USA
“Get small,” someone whispered in Benny’s ear. “Time to get small.”
Benny woke the next morning and called an acquaintance he knew from the pub, a guy who works in real estate. This was before the morning coffee water boiled.
“I’m selling my worldly belongings. I want to get into one of those super-small houses. Me and Marla want to.”
“How did you convince her?”
“Well, I haven’t told her yet.”
The realtor acquaintance, rubbing sleepies from his eyes and heaping regret atop last night’s tequila detects dollars in it. He agrees to take Benny around to a few homes the size of food trucks, or smaller. One’s a U-haul trailer with skylights cut in.
At breakfast Marla makes Benny Bob Evans sausage and hash browns, exactly how he orders them at Waffle House: scattered, covered and smothered, topped and chunked. Benny thanked her as he tucked into his vein-damming death-wish. When he gets too scared to eat like this one day, that’s how he’ll know youth is over.
He says, “Thanks, baby.”
“You’ve got it good,” she counters. Because right off the top, here’s a woman who will spend an entire bag of shredded cheese on a man’s hash browns. If necessary. As long as he treats her right.
“Oh, yeah. I do. You’re right,” Benny said, not normally imaginative, in favor of the straightest words between two points. “But Marla, let me tell you, I, uh, decided to build one of those little bitty houses.”
“That’s the craziest thing a man ever said to me, Benny.”
“Yeah, okay. I’m doing that. And I want you to move in with me.”
“Maybe,” she said. “How small are we talking? I need my closets.”
He wanted it spartan, utilitarian. Marla countered with large enough to be charming. He envisioned a basic toilet, a stove, a bed. She almost later wished she hadn’t move in when she saw the shoebox he’d signed a mortgage on. Marla took a breath and plunged in.
It was a novel situation to them. At first. They’d lay on their backs in bed and touch all four walls at once. Benny was so happy. They paid two hundred a month. Golden.
Then it snowed for four months, nearly continuously. There was no more Alone Time. Pacing, when it occurred, was four or five steps. Five short strides in four natural paces—a lesser-known clave rhythm. By month three of that, they each dreamed of doing terrible things to the other one to double space and maximize quiet.
It was not a positive dealio at all by then.
Early in the month four they started saying their murder fantasies out loud. Some days Benny hoped she would catch him sleeping and just finish it. Either way is fine when you are in a little bitty house.
At snowmelt they sold the place to other idealists and bought a rambling Second Empire mansion. Six bedrooms, no more mention of the loose blizzard talk. Happy ever after, amen.
Grand Rapids and Antrim County, Michigan USA
Censorship in Beijing Suburbia
“Welcome home, Mr. Qin.” A female robotic voice blurted as a green beam of light scanned across Qin’s face.
The front door of a suburban tower in Beijing opened, revealing a small studio apartment.
As Qin sauntered in, the same robotic voice reemerged from the overhead speakers. “Mr. Qin, may I please remind you that relevant authorities have strict guidelines on correct coverage of labor protests? Should I recite the parts that are relevant for your next assignment?”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Qin, holding back his annoyance, looked up at the ceiling, “You don’t need to get so nosy about my work. I’ve been doing this for years. I know where the red line is.”
Qin knew that being an independent journalist in China would not be easy, but he wanted people to know that not everyone benefited from the country’s economic boom. But he would have never figured out that the government found a way to monitor his work with everyday conveniences.
“Great, Mr. Qin, you shouldn’t work so hard. I am going to reserve a taxi for you for 8 am tomorrow so that you can go directly to the factory for your interviews.” The female voice pipped, “Let me also fill the bathtub with hot water. Surely you’d like a hot bath today?”
“Thanks, sometimes I really wonder if you could read my mind,” Qin quipped as he nonchalantly scrolled through his phone.
Loads Of Places
Tell me again, what were the three of you doing at the lake?
Climbin trees and stuff.
Get any eggs?
Still got them?
No, broke in mi pocket. Chucked em.
And ratting. With what?
What did you do with them?
Just left em.
Shoot any ducks?
Not allowed to. Warned about it, big time.
By Big Ronnie.
Yeah. Big Ronnie.
And that’s where you both last saw Ricky, by the lake?
What was Ricky doing when you last saw him?
Like I said before, e went for a slash.
Just a slash?
Maybe a dump, dunno.
What did he say before he went in the wood?
E said e was guin for a slash.
Did he mention wanting a dump?
How come you didn’t try to find him when he didn’t return?
Thought e’d gone off ome or summat.
Why did you think that?
Well, e’s a mardy arse. Loses is temper over nowt. Dun’t e?
Yeah. Over nowt.
How come you’re friends, then?
So why knock about together?
Well, e likes our gun and we liked is dog.
Cos e’s ours now, aren’t you Gunner?
This is Ricky’s dog?
Was. Yeah, Gunner.
Good boy, good boy. That’s it, settle down.
Yeah, it’s like a joke name. Gunner catch some rabbits. Know what I mean?
How come it’s now your dog?
Er, Ricky said e was sick of it. Wanted a bigger ‘un.
An Alsatian, like coppers ave.
When did he give it to you?
Before e went for a slash.
Or a dump.
Did Gunner put up a struggle, when you tried to lead him home?
No, e was as appy as Larry. Weren’t you boy, ey?
Ricky used to beat im.
And kick im.
Why, is he viscous or something?
Ricky is, not Gunner.
Okay, can you explain why there’s a rope around his neck?
Oh, we were just gunner take Gunner for a walk.
When you showed up.
Why the rope, though?
Aven’t ad chance to buy a lead, yet.
It’s Sunday, anyhows. Shops r’shut round ere.
He’s doing a lot of whining.
Probably needs a slash.
Or a dump.
You do know Ricky hasn’t been home for more than twenty four hours? His mother is sick with worry.
Alright, but is there anywhere you think he might be, where he might have come to some harm?
Well, there’s slurry pit.
And old mine shaft near slurry pit.
And railway lines near mine shaft.
And tunnels near railway lines.
And brickyard near tunnels.
Loads o places.
I see. And Ricky knows them all?
Which is the most dangerous?
All of em are dangerous when yer on yer own.
Defo, if yer on y’tod.
Okay, okay. Think again. What else were you doing at the lake? Was Big Ronnie there?
Castleford, West Yorkshire
Even on a cold morning like this, Robyn rises before the alarm rings. In the near dark she is already flitting from room to room, softly humming as she goes. She places the kids’ clean shoes and clothes at the ends of their beds. Always busy, I hear her in the kitchen preparing packed lunches and pouring cereals into bowls. She brings a cup of tea to my bedroom. ‘Morning mother,’ she in says in her kind, tuneful way. ‘Did you sleep well?’ She wakes the kids with kisses, whispers and a nursery rhyme: ‘There’s no time for napping, no time to lose, you’ll never start if you don’t begin.’ When they leave for school she has them all in chorus. I hear them take their singing down the path and out into the street.
Robyn returns with stuff from the food bank and my medicines. We keep to the kitchen to stay warm. She helps me into my chair near the heater and we listen to my favourite radio station, the one with tunes on it. As she peels the vegetables for the casserole she duets with the singers. Always in tune, Robyn can harmonize with the vacuum cleaner and make it stick.
Come our ciggie time, we sit on the back door step and brave the cold. Although the sun is out there is little warmth in it. We listen to the birds singing across the yards. I think that’s a robin, probably calling for a mate, she says. Is there one answering? I ask. I can’t hear one, she says.
After lunch she leaves me to sleep and goes off to one of her cleaning jobs. When I wake up the house is very quiet. From the kitchen I can even hear the upstairs clock ticking, the one in her room.
Music only returns when everyone comes home. Grandchildren, excitable and emotional, fill the void of silence from tea time to bath time. Then when it’s time for bed, Robyn reads them stories; each character deserving their own particular voice. And then it’s time for lullabies. Babies no longer, but they can’t resist their mother’s lilt: ‘Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.’
Tonight Robyn washes my hair as I sit in the bath. ‘South Pacific’ is one of our favourite musicals and so we sing together, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair’. Through the rinse we laugh and chirp, ‘Waste no time, weep no more, show him what the door is for. Rub him out of the roll call and drum him out of your dreams!’ She tweets happily but it won’t last.
First to rise and last to bed, that’s Robyn. When, at last, I’m tucked up in bed, I listen to her tip-toe along the landing. She closes down the day. Lights out and the big bedroom door is gently shut. Eventually it comes: a low murmur, quite tuneless; always her tearful prelude to silence.
Stinging Nettle Day
Sting or be stung. By the time I reach school I already have bumpy, white blisters all over my legs and arms. I was ambushed by the gang near the bridge and felt their keen nettles on my flesh. But I wasn’t unprepared; I had picked a lovely, big stinger from the dykeside and wielded it to great effect. Look at them now, with their throbbing faces and sore necks. However, they are smiling through their pain, for come playtime they expect revenge. You can tell some of children have already had enough, even though they have their weapons hidden in their desks. They are afraid and so they should be, for this is Stinging Nettle Day, hooray!
Out in the playground and it’s every boy and girl for themselves. I get cornered by my foes and am needled on my ears and nose but I roll out from my position, striking the backs of their calves . Praise be for short trousers! Some of the younger children are in tears and want to stop, but the melee continues even when the teacher blows his whistle and shouts at us. We will be punished; we were last year; but what could hurt more than a hundred nettle stings; oh glorious, sore delight!
Now the confiscation, the caning and the licking of wounds. A time for healing and an assembly to help us think about our behaviour. I think about hometime and the tall spikers outside the school gates; the resumption of hostilities; the settling of scores. But because I am considered the chief ringleader, I am kept back for ten minutes at the end of the afternoon.
Alas, the street is now empty, so I leave the nettles alone. Bad mistake, for as I pass Hangman’s Oak I see my greatest enemy charging at me with a fistful of barbed leaves. It is Gertie Schofield and she comes like a banshee from across the green. I run until my lungs are fit to burst but she is taller than me and is getting within striking distance.
We stop, pant and glare. She has me cornered. I can only escape through the bank of nettles by the common gate. I turn to look. I’m thinking, would their terrible stings be preferable to hers? You daren’t, she says. You daren’t, says I . Try me, she says. With that, I run straight into them, not expecting her to follow. But here she is at my heels. She has managed to grab hold of my collar and is pulling me down into the burning, acid ground. We are rolling over and over each other. Her skirt is up past her waist and I can feel her her hot, raw legs on mine. She finally pegs me down and her mad, victorious eyes are piercing. We are both on fire. Our poisoned skin should make us weep, but the agony only makes us laugh, for there is also great pleasure penetrating this pain!
A Winter’s Tale
Daya enjoys volunteering at the charity shop and spends as much time there as possible. She enjoys the work and the socialising; but most of all she likes being warm. It’s the same with the citizens advice and the job centre; they’re also quite toasty. Currys is her favourite shop. Daya likes to wander around the electrical appliances in the warmth and watch the silent TVs.
Daya’s friend is Alma with arthritis. Alma spends most days in the park hothouse with the palms and the parrots or else sits in the corner cafe until her coffee goes stone cold. She spends as much time away from her flat as possible. It’s not just the damp, but she fears the bailiff will turn up again with another warrant from the magistrate. Last time, he had a locksmith, a dog handler and a gas fitter with him and between them they stormed into the flat and fitted a pre-payment meter. Shocking, it really was.
The two friends’ favourite TV programme is ‘Neighbours’. Australia looks a nice, hot country even in winter. They usually watch the omnibus edition together on Sunday mornings when they both get back from church. Neither of them are believers but they go to All Saints because it has central heating and the service lasts a long time. They do lots of things together even though they’d rather do some things alone; it just saves on the energy bills, y’know.
Like now, for instance. Daya is at Alma’s. She checks the slow-cooker one more time. She has learnt that slow-cookers use less electricity than a hob. The pork, lentil and barley casserole is done. The discount meat is tender enough to be chewed. Together they share the hot food. ‘Eat or heat’ is something they fully understand.
But they do have their electric heated fleece, which cost them £40 from Aldi. They snuggle together, safe in the knowledge that it only uses 100 watts even at its highest setting, so they get ten hours of heat for one unit of electricity. On cold nights the friends have even slept together. Last Sunday it was so cold they stayed in Daya’s bed most of the day and listened to the radio. Alma doesn’t like pop music and Daya can’t stand classical so they listened to Radio 4. The wireless uses a lot less electricity than the TV, which is a shame, it really is.
As Alma carefully fills the kettle with just enough water for two cups of coffee, Daya switches on the TV. The ‘Neighbours’ theme tune is playing: ‘Neighbours, Need to get to know each other. Next door is only a footstep away!’ Then they hear the meter click. The emergency electric has activated itself. Daya knows neither Alma nor herself can afford the luxury of any TV today and so switches it off. Instead, they both direct a cold stare at the blank telly and imagine Australia; its hot weather and healthy, tanned bodies.
A Vintage Year
Next up, a 1947 Cheval Blanc. Slanee uncorks the bottle and pours us both a drink. A mug each. Mm, not bad, but a bit dry. Slanee adds a little cider to hers. Much better, she says. I drain my mug and then clean my palette with a can of lager. The baby is crying for its milk. Okay, okay it’s coming! Can’t get enough to drink, the greedy little sod.
We’ve inherited a case of vintage wine from Slenee’s Uncle Brian. Her mum’s teetotal, poor bitch, and so has passed it on to us. Who was Uncle Brian? I ask. A fat, rich perv with groping hands, she tells me. Let’s raise a toast to his health, I say. He’s dead, soft lad, she says. The baby is wailing again. Hey, greedy guts, I told you it’s coming, didn’t I?
Yesterday at the library we were reluctantly allowed a computer. We did some of that researching stuff and found out that we’re sitting on top of a small fortune. For example, a bottle of 2009 Chateau Latour is worth £9,900. We had three of those before the weekend and still have one unopened, I think. If we can manage to flog what’s left we’ll be well minted. We’ll be able to pay the rent, heat the house and even get the baby some powdered milk instead of the semi-skinned. Maybe get the social off our backs, at long last.
Bilge is here now. He tells us he knows a bloke down Slayton Street who can shift the gear for us if he’s allowed to choose a bottle for himself. No probs, says Slanee. Here, take one for yourself. Cheers, says Bilge, choosing an 1812 J.S. Madeira Terrantez. He goes into the kitchen, returns with an empty milk bottle, cracks open the wine and pours it in. He drinks half a pint straight off. A bit rich, he says. I offer him my lager. Here, I say, rinse it down with this. Much improved, he says, but why is the baby crying? It’s always crying, I tell him. Is it yours? he asks. How do I know? I say. Course it’s yours, laughs Slanee. Can you hear him, Bilge? What a knobhead! Bilge tries to pacify the baby with its dummy but it spits it out and turns up the volume. Spirited little bugger, aren’t you! says Bilge.
After a couple more bottles we tire of the wine and go looking for some other stuff but to our disbelief there’s nothing else in the house, not even any aftershave lotion. So we take the last three bottles out of the case. That’s one each, y’know. I get an 1855 Grand Cru Classe Paulliac. I think that’s what it says on the label. Oh, if I have to, I say, and start to neck it. I notice Slanee and Bilge are asleep and I begin drifting too, despite that noise coming from somewhere in the room.
Beryl From The Block
Thwing, East Yorkshire
Coming, Ready Or Not
Jimmy is hiding in the long grass in Mrs Ashman’s garden. He can hear Peter at the lampost, finishing his counting. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, nineteen, twenty. Coming, ready or not! The air is sticky and itchy fly things, which have dropped down with the air pressure, bother his face. He decides to cut across the lawn and hide behind the shed but Mrs Ashman spots him. She bangs on the window and Jimmy can tell her muffled voice is shouting something not nice. He sneaks out onto the street hoping Peter won’t see him but there he is. Ha! Tig, got you!
Billie chooses to hide behind the coal bunker at number eleven but changes her mind when she sees Mrs Hindmarsh coming the other way with a basket full of washing. Mrs Hindmarsh shouts to someone in the house about what a bleedin’ waste of her time that was. Billie doesn’t hear anyone reply and its only at that moment she realises it is spitting with rain. She backtracks a little, sees that both of her brothers are now seeking her out and bobs between the old garage and a skip. However, there’s two snoggers already there. He has a hand up her blouse and she is rubbing the thing in his trousers. Billie has seen her brothers’ things at bathtime and wonders why anyone would want to play with a boy’s disgusting bit. They do not see her and she nimbly moves on.
Jimmy and Peter both think their sister will be hiding behind a car, as usual. They hunt in pairs. Red car, no. Blue car, no. White car, no. In the black car they see Mr and Mrs Allport through a cloud of cigarette smoke. He is talking loudly and she has mascara running down her face. A sudden peal of thunder makes them look up and while they do Billie races past them. Can’t tig me, she laughs. They chase her as fast as they can and Jimmy tigs Billie just as she stretches out to touch the lamppost. Got you! No, you didn’t! Yes, I did, liar! You’re a liar, loser! I won, you know I did, so you’re a loser!
Another thunderclap, much nearer now, stops their argument. Then they hear their mother’s voice calling from the door. Billie, Jimmy, Peter! Come in now! You’ll get soaked if you don’t come in! Can you hear me? Billie, Jimmy, Peter!
It is no longer just drizzling. Bigger and bigger raindrops start to cover the street, until there are more dark places than light places. Their house is barely more than a hop, skip and jump away but the children know they won’t make it. Lightning flashes and the shower wave moves towards them faster than any car can. They remain where they are and become instantly drenched; clothes and hair clinging to their small, sodden frames. Their mother barely manages to see them, so hard is the rain that comes.
Hull, East Yorkshire
New To The Street
We arrived one washday Monday. Laundry danced on the lines along the back streets. Sheets, shirts, knickers and vests; all as white as the clouds racing across a sky scrubbed as clean as a front doorstep.
In the following weeks I also hung the washing out, while the baby slept in the pram in the yard. Women in headscarves came to inspect my cleanliness. They stood outside the gate, nodding and whispering. Three weeks in and one of them plucked up the courage to speak to me and was astonished to find I spoke the same language. She came back the next day with some baby clothes as a gift; worn but ironed and smelling fresh.
I told my husband about this when he arrived home from the factory. In the evening he read aloud a passage from Jeremiah: ‘And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.’
To make extra money I washed and ironed laundry for those who cared not to do it for themselves, mostly single men. Unlike the women I’d made acquaintance with, these men didn’t want to engage in any conversation beyond formalities. One of them liked to lock me into his stare; and couldn’t stop his pasty grin from becoming a mocking smile. He always laughed to himself as he turned to leave and spat at the gate before walking down the backs. My husband said he recognised him from the workplace; he was one of those who had started spitting on the shop floor whenever a newcomer passed by. On hearing this, I refused his laundry. He was obliged to turn and take his filthy grimace and clothes back home.
Despite this upset, I began to feel more comfortable in the neighbourhood. I was served courteously at the corner shop and people who had seen me before no longer stared in the street but nodded politely or said hello. I was even invited into a few kitchens for cups of their sugared, milky tea.
Unfortunately the day came when any neighbourliness on their part came to count for very little. One Monday morning, as I was scrubbing some collars at the sink, I heard the baby begin to cry. I stepped outside and noticed the gate was wide open. I quickly lifted her from the pram to check whether she was alright. She was, but dripping from her cheeks was an unmistakable, spumous, white liquid.
Oh how we wept, my husband and I. And as the pale day faded and evening drew on, his face began to shine with deep, black indignation. Through gritted teeth he read from the Psalms: ‘O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.'
Zane got up early, woke his mother and opened his cards and presents. Before leaving for school he asked, ‘Am I still having a birthday party?’ ‘Of course,’ she said, and kissed him.
Deansy dragged himself out of bed and walked to school rather than drive. By the time he arrived he was gasping for a drink. He drained a glass of cold water before making himself a strong, black coffee. The Head caught Deansy in the corridor and politely reminded him that his reports were overdue and that the progress data he had handed in didn’t correlate and would he do it again, thank you. Escaping to the classroom, Deansy hunted out the paracetamols in his desk drawer.
Zane was very happy to be seven years old. His over-excitement spilled over into uncharacteristic behaviour. His misdemeanours included squeaking his armpits, flicking counters in maths, whistling in assembly and hand wrestling a friend during prayers. Deansy scolded him several times.
By lunchtime Deansy’s head thumped. The little sods had run him ragged. They always do when you’re tender, he reflected. Back in the staffroom he absorbed more coffee and ignored his cheese sandwich. The Deputy gently warned him that she would be popping in tomorrow to observe his English lesson. Then he was called out to break up a fight between some his boys, one being Zane Williams; something to do with a rescinded invite to Zane’s birthday party. After this, Deansy went straight to the men’s room and hid in the lavvy, like he often did after a mid-week bender. Just before the bell, he was accosted in the hall by the Maths Lead, who quietly asked whether he’d remembered the moderation meeting after school. He hadn’t.
Once the afternoon session got started it didn’t take long for Zane to stop licking his wounds and resume annoying Deansy. Firstly, he glued pictures of animals onto his own cheeks instead of into his book and next cut a piece of his own hair. But the crunch came when he held his finger under the sink tap and wet several of his classmates and his teacher.
Deansy took Zane into the cloakroom and eye-balled him. Zane respectfully held his stare, but the tears came as he was reminded about all the crimes he had committed that day and how disappointed, how really disappointed, his teacher was. When Zane returned red-faced into the classroom, he was comforted by his friends, who put their arms around him.
Once the kids had left for home, Deansy immediately returned to the men’s room. He ran the tap and splashed his face several times before drying it with some paper towels. Looking into the mirror, he saw his strained eyes staring back at him. The water hadn’t washed anything away. His head still hurt and he heaved a sigh about all the endless, bloody endless, work crap. Worse though, was the feeling that he had made a little boy cry on his birthday. Shit.
‘Where next, fella?’ asked the companion. Marcus had no idea, and it quickly became apparent that both had mistaken each other for the local guide, who for some reason hadn’t shown. Way out on the flats, the ancient path had melted away and the tide had begun to turn. Some standing gulls watched the men from a close distance, displaying wide, fatalistic eyes. Marcus had the sinking feeling they were dead men walking. The panic that rose in his body threatened to drown all his senses in a single wave.
The two walkers had met each other at dawn on The Stairs and had strolled out together without barely a word, onto the hazy, tidal world of oozing mud and bubbling creeks. Both thought each other a backwater kind; the silent type who make you wait to be spoken to. But the guide had probably stayed in bed, accepting no one would be so rash as to traipse out onto the Old Way in such a mist. He had been wrong, of course, and here they were. Oh God, for a guide now!
Before Marcus could even begin to think straight, his companion was trudging back the way they’d come. Marcus was about to follow but stopped himself. A retreat was out of the question; the sea would cut them off long before they hit land. Stop! Stop! He called several times but to no avail. Abandoned, he would have to make it to the island alone.
Marcus spent five long minutes agonising about which direction to follow, before deciding on the one that seemed to point towards the lighthouse. He made a conscious decision not to run, but to pace patiently between the treacherous mud. To hold his nerve like this took all the discipline he could muster. Unfortunately, the further he walked the less sure he was of his passage; the crystalline light made everything indistinguishable. Morning’s mist had cleared but sunlight prismed the mirrored land. Fields of diamonds filled his disorientated vision. Sand became mud became water became sand. Marcus walked an inundated, illusionary route; his footprints disappeared beneath his tread as quickly as he made them.
Eventually, he came on something tangible, a copper-nailed fish kettle. To his horror, he noticed that its open mouth was gaping straight at him and that the island was therefore behind and not in front of him. In his hallucinatory state he had marched towards the sea rather than away from it. At the moment of his realisation, two gulls sailed low overhead, seemingly the size of gods and laughing as they passed.
Marcus threw all caution aside; adrenalin took over. He turned and ran into the Black Ground; but fifteen minutes later the tide, which runs faster than any man can, was already lapping at his mud-caked ankles.
On shore, the guide walked into his garden with a cup of tea; placidly staring out at the high birds and the returning sea, as he had countless times before.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Dancing Dog, Fighting Boy
Grandfather was master to us both; a stray dog and an orphan. He trained us together, in the same style.
He kept the dog outside, in all weathers, on a short leash. With a cane, he taught it to dance on its hind legs. Once, when the dog showed its teeth, Grandfather pulled its canines. On family occasions, the dog would dance for everyone as they clapped and clapped. Cousin Gristog was always enthralled. He had the dog on its feet, time and time again. Gristog had better teeth than the dog in those days.
I was taught to fight. Grandfather sparred with me on his knees and said this made it fair. I was pinched, poked and slapped into toughness. When I managed to catch him on the face he thumped me back much harder. A bail of straw was hung in the abattoir and I was encouraged to pummel it until my fists turned red. I was taken to Varkgoreg’s farm and Grandfather would laugh as I overpowered one of the sons, even if it meant losing a tooth.
If I lost he took me home and beat me some more.
When, thank God, he died of some well-earned terminal disease, I took steps to free myself and the dog from his influence.
I untied the dog and, with Grandmother’s permission, brought it inside. It tasted meat for the first time and it slept on the end my bed. I walked it by the lake and we swam together in the cool, clean water.
After school I would go to Varkgoreg’s farm and, instead of fighting, the boys and I would go into the woods to climb trees, build dens and light fires. The dog chased rabbits and sniffed a thousand smells. Laikailm taught me the bird names and Natoilan showed me where to find wild herbs, which I collected and put into Grandmother’s soups.
One night the boys came home with me and we took down the straw bail and set fire to it in the yard. We kept the blaze going for ages with any old wooden things we could find, like Grandfather’s collection of clubs and canes. The dog barked at the bonfire, as if it was some fiery beast, and we danced around it, laughing like boys do. That was in the summer before the holiday; before the family came to visit again.
I was up in the woods when they arrived but, as I strolled down the lane on my way home, the first thing I heard coming from the yard was clap, clap, clap. Then, as I clambered over the gate, there was the dog, dancing in the middle of their circle; taunted with a stick by cousin Gristog. Its tongue was lolling; stranded saliva was dripping from it chin; and all sense of sight was absent in its wild eyes.
At that instant, I too lost all vision, and began removing Gristog’s teeth with my well drilled knuckles.
The Baron Aargh!
The remains of a life. Mostly eaten by the sea, I was washed ashore at Danes Dyke. Apparently, I am a female in my forties, and the only distinguishable features remaining are my red hair and a wing, part of a bird tattoo that once spread across my back. The coroner confirmed my death was consistent with a fall from a great height; hence the loss of a wing, I suppose. No one has reported me missing. This means I have no name. So, I am both faceless and nameless. I am just another public health burial, one of thousands each year. Who will care to mourn for me; I who am unknown to the world?
We are your mourners. We read of your arrival in the Bridlington Echo. A Facebook events page was set up to ask for donations and to invite people to the funeral; and so here we are. I am Petra, who has lived alone these past ten years; it is I who gave over my house for your wake. You are most welcome. I am Terrance, the stone mason, who has provided you with a headstone. I carved it in my own time, in the usual solitary hours. It has been a pleasure. And I am Francine, who has created the spray of flowers for your coffin. I love flowers. I made the bouquet for my own wedding, all those years ago. It has been a delight.
Simon the civil celebrant leads us through poetry, prayer and song. The chapel organ plays and our voices raise you up in unison. And here comes Stella, the eulogist from the souvenir shop -not much of a job, but better than climbing the four walls in the home.
‘You may think we never noticed you, but we did. Forgive us, but we often averted our eyes when we passed the benches you sat on. We ignored you in cafes, libraries and when you were at your lowest, in the town doorways. Passing you on the street a hundred times and not even stopping to say, ‘Are you okay. Can we help in anyway?’ Your shock of red hair enflamed our sensibilities and we caged your tattooed bird in our small minds. And so, whether we are with or without a religion, we repent and mourn not just your passing, but your pain.’
We are the brothers from Hargreaves: Signs and Engraving. We come to give you your name. From this day onward you will be remembered as Lorraine. Everyone thinks that’s a good choice and it is agreed.
I thank you for my name. Lorraine, I am called Lorraine. Carve it on my headstone if you get the time, Terrance. And thank you everyone for the wake, the flowers, verse and song. Stella, you were right; everyone passed me by; everyone. But at least you are here today; that’s better than nothing. Now I sing like a bird; mourned at last and known to the world.
Beryl From The Block
Thwing, East Yorkshire
Returning from the café bar during the interval, Bedad took her seat near the back of the auditorium. The hall was more empty than full. People were dispersed here and there, mostly in couples or alone. There was little conversation, except from the crowd of students belonging to the university’s music department seated somewhere behind her.
Bedad took out the programme again and began to read. Next up was the Kreutzer Sonata by Janáček. She read that Janáček was motivated to write the piece by Tolstoy’s story of the same name. As he wrote the four movements, the composer tried to imagine the despairing, tormented and tragically murdered woman of the novella. Sit back and wait for the laughs, she thought.
In the lull before the musicians returned she spotted three familiar, solitary faces. There was Mrs Newbury, the receptionist from the surgery. Bedad had belonged to the practice for years but had not, in all that time, spoken to her other than on medical matters, usually to beg an appointment. A woman, she presumed, who had many acquaintances but no friends. And there was Mr Dulor, her old French teacher, a widower now. Bedad had re-introduced herself at the last event, but he obviously had no idea who she was. Situated on the front row, she saw the pink lady from the home on the avenue, ignored by the people on either side of her. She got everywhere that one, but was always alone; quite alone.
Bedad returned to the programme and discovered that not only was Janáček stirred by Tolstoy, but that the great writer was inspired in his own time by Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.9, also known as the Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven’s piece derived its name from its dedicatee, a French violin virtuoso called Rudolphe Kreutzer. Kreutzer never performed the piece as he thought it unplayable. Not much of a virtuoso then, she supposed.
There was little to hush as the quartet came back onto the stage. Polite clapping ensued as they seated themselves. Bedad re-examined them one at a time. Foppish violin, fidgety violin, haughty viola and the handsome young cellist with big, strong hands. There had been little chemistry between them in the first half and she wondered if any of them were friends or merely had a professional relationship. She would befriend the cellist, anytime. Who wouldn’t?
Just before the music began, Bedad suddenly had a thought about Janáček, Tolstoy and Beethoven. Did they ever meet or at least correspond? With a little effort, she answered her own question. Tolstoy and Beethoven, impossible. Tolstoy and Janáček, probably not. No, not a chance; Czech, Russian, politics etcetera. And then, for some reason, she thought of her husband, at home watching football on the telly. Mr Conversation himself. Like talking to a brick wall.
At that moment she became conscious of the empty seats beside her. But, as the music began, Bedad and the scattered audience turned in their quietude to face The Kreutzer.
Magaret Sprauge de Camp
Conisbrough, South Yorkshire
Gilbert And Sullivan
He played the Mikado, fondled the three little maids behind the sign for Titipu.
Yum Yum bore him twins, never told.
Now he lies bedridden, the attendants deaf to his buzzing.
Twin one eventually appears, then twin two.
Querulous like Katisha, he is on their Koko list.
On the radio Nanki Poo outlines his vocal repertoire.
They castigate him for soiling the bed and his useless member hangs limp in shame.
They do not know he is their father, nor he they are his daughters.
Cruelty has come full circle.
His object sublime.
And truly the punishment fits the crime.
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
The White Balls
I was thrown out of The Crown on Sunday. The landlord marched me out into the street, but not before he’d wrestled the white ball out of my hands. He shouted some expletives and mentioned something about never wanting to see my stupid, moronic face in the pub ever again. What he didn’t realise was that I already had another white ball in my pocket. Another successful rescue mission, though it hurts me to think of the white ball I had to leave behind.
So many pubs and so many souls to save. It’s become my main focus in life. As soon as I see a white ball getting picked on, punished again, my blood rushes and I’m forced to act. I just grab and go.
Last week I rescued ten white balls without much danger involved. In The Gardener’s Arms two toughies in work clothes chased me into the toilets and one of them bit my fingers. Ouch! In the Blue Bell a forty a day bloke had my neck pinned against the fruit machine with his pool cue. That’s why I had to kick him in the balls, although I am a pacifist at heart. In the Marquis of Granby a big lass called Sheryl tripped me up and then sat on me. I knew she was called Sheryl because that’s what all her lady friends were shouting. Go on Sheryl this and go on Sheryl that. These were the same ladies who poured their drinks on my head.
I’m now barred from entering most drinking establishments in town. I’ve become quite famous. Infamous, even. In fact, bit of a legend. I get called many names but one has stuck: White Ball Wanker. As the barman at the St.John’s yelled at me on Wednesday afternoon, ‘Not today, White Ball Wanker. Out you go, shit head!’ I was called many names by the big lads at school, like ‘Puker Pat, ‘Slick Skin’ or ‘Sperminator Stephens’ but that was them just being cruel as usual. ‘White Ball Wanker’ actually means something. It recognizes the service I am doing for the oppressed, the constantly beaten white balls. ‘Shit head’ isn’t very pleasant though, I must say.
I keep the balls under my bed. All cleaned and polished in old shoe boxes with soft tissue. You might think they all look the same but no, they come in many different sizes and shades of white. They are all individuals. I have eleven boxes but there is room for more. Some I have given names to like Justin, Fabian and Blandina.
When PC Lyons came round to warn me about my behaviour and that it was getting out of hand and that it might land me in court again, I promised to stop going around the town pubs. And I will. But there is out of town, of course. Look out The Plough, The Fox and Hounds and The Harvesters’ Arms! Here come I, the White Ball Wanker!
Castleford, West Yorkshire
The Shining Kids
Okay, I’m obsessed. I’ve seen The Shining one hundred and thirty-seven times and a half. Mother once screamed, just as Jack was turning, so I put the movie on pause and went upstairs to calm her, but when I got back down I realised it had been over an hour, so I watched the movie again from the start. Marv invented the one hour rule. Marv is my best friend. We’ve met each other five times at the clinic and text each other all the time but not on Fridays, that’s another one of his rules. That was on July 24th this year, which is only four days before Kubrick’s birthdate. He directed The Shining but is actually dead now. He died of Myocardial infarction which is a heart attack. I checked that out on Wikipedia which is on the Internet and can tell you most anything you’ll ever need to know.
Marv has watched The Shining even more times than me. Two hundred and sixteen and three-quarter viewings. It upsets Marv a lot that he hasn’t got a rounded number. It happened on Halloween last year when some idiots were banging on his window and shouting, ‘Come out freak! Come out freak!’ Marv chased them around the block and then had an asthma attack. That took over an hour so he had to begin the movie again. In the movie, Jack chases Danny around the maze in the snow with the intention of murdering him, but Danny escapes and Jack dies, probably of hypothermia, not hyperthermia, which is sort of the opposite. Check it out on Wikipedia.
Marv has this theory about the maze. He says it represents the labyrinth in the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and that Jack clearly looks just like a Minotaur should. And all this is somehow linked to Stanley filming the faked moon landings. Stanley was Kubrick’s first name and mother says Marv talks utter, total crap.
Marv says he got these ideas from a documentary called Room 237 which is all about The Shining and what it really means. He has watched the documentary fifty-six times without interruptions. I have only watched it nineteen times because I don’t care for it too much. I mean, Jack looks like the Minotaur in all his movies and, more importantly, the moon landings really did take place. For instance, in Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey [161 minutes premier, 142 minutes theatrical] the monolith is actually discovered on the moon by humans and it hurts their ears. Even though the last part of the movie is so weird, I have watched 2001: A Space Odyssey eighty-nine times all the way through, but I prefer The Shining because it has Shelley Duvall in it, who is my favorite woman. Her other name is Wendy Torrance and she is married to Jack Torrance and is Danny’s mother. She really cares for Danny. She is not like my mother who is more like Jack.
Pawtucket, Rhode Island, USA
Lord Of The Dogflies
The dog has been a faithful hound but is a barker, especially at night. It will not shut up even when beaten. Yap, yap, yap! So, one morning in June, Redever takes the dog into the woods just behind the farmhouse and shoots it. With his boots, he rolls the dog over into a patch of nettles and goes home for his bacon. When his wife asks him where the dog is, he simply mutters, ‘Got shut!’
In the weeks that follow, the dog begins to rot quite rapidly. Bluebottles soon arrive and lay their eggs. In not many weeks the maggots have eaten the inside of the carcass clean. Retiring to pupate, they soon emerge on the wing.
Some fly skyward, only to be eaten by swallows and swifts. Others, attracted by the pungency of the pond, feed the frogs and newts. More than a few find themselves decapitated by devouring wasps. The body count is high but many survive to mate and lay eggs in decomposing flesh and vegetable matter. July is hot, nectar abundant and the flies go forth and multiply and multiply.
Legions of bluebottles follow the pheromone trails to the farmyard. A neglected barn provides them with rich pickings: remnants of animal droppings, debris in the corners of feeding troughs, wet bedding and damp hay beneath mangers. Manure piled high near the side of the farmhouse bring them closer to the kitchen. As do the corpses of poisoned rats putrefying in the gutters.
Once inside the house the flies take advantage of the uncovered food. They lay eggs on joints of cooked hams and chicken fillets. Contaminating half-eaten sandwiches with pathogens from the oesophagus, the flies transmit bacteria living inside their digestive systems onto the remnants of cheese. Bluebottle eggs and faeces are the coating to the human diet. But what bothers Redever and his wife the most is the threat posed to their peace.
How can any farmer take his afternoon nap or watch ‘Countryfile’ on the telly with flies dive-bombing here, there and everywhere? And how can a farmer’s wife expect to enjoy her morning cocktails and evening gins with those bloody things taking off and landing like its bleedin’ Humberside airport?
They decide to get shut. Reverting to tried and trusted methods, they make vinegar traps using old whiskey bottles and scatter camphor and orange peel around the house, but the flies keep coming. Sometimes Redever drags himself off his armchair and begins swatting them with yellowed editions of ‘Farmers Weekly’ or ‘The Smallholder’. This is exhausting work and he quickly has to lie down.
Even in the bedroom there is no escape. At night they close the door and windows, clobber any unwelcomed visitors and try to sleep, but it is now August and mafting. Even when Redever manages to drift off, he sweats profusely, thrashes about and is constantly woken by nightmares of flies with dogs’ heads, barking and buzzing, barking and buzzing. ‘Get shut!’ he wakes to cry.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Into The Desert
She unties the rope from around the cloth bag and out spills the desert onto the classroom floor. Shaping the sand with her hands, she becomes the architect of a dry, barren landscape. They are told it is a shifting, dangerous place where death can easily follow thirst. The circle of sitting children lean in. Fix their searching eyes on a million grains of sand. Her voice is a soft breeze and they are the still desert rocks its solitary breath blows around.
Out come her props. The cities of Ur and Haran are unpolished wooden cubes. Two pieces of yarn, one blue and one white, make The Euphrates. Sarai and Abram are small, faceless figures, carved as though from the sand-blasted oaks of Mamre. Three pebbles each mark the altars made by Abram at Shechem and Bethel. The presence of God is her two hands held together directly over Sarai and Abram. He comes nearer than they might have imagined. He does this in several places and she makes it clear to the seven year olds, that wherever Sarai and Abram are in the desert, God is there also. Some children look up at the ceiling, noticing for the first time its white tiles.
Eventually the classroom disappears. There is no world outside the circle of bottoms on the floor. All eyes and ears are in Hebron, tuned to the laughter of Abraham and Sarah, who have had their names changed. God has told them they will have a great family, the members of which will be as many as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand in the desert. They laugh disbelievingly at having children so late in life but then a son is born whom they call Isaac and Isaac means laughter. But then Sarah dies and is buried near trees, in a cave outside Hebron. Abraham dies too, after helping Isaac find a wife. He is buried with Sarah. He was full of years, she explains, then pauses the story. She allows death the time to drift slowly across the endless horizon. Some children stare at the floor. Most avoid eye contact with each other. Several gaze into the desert, wondering what God will make happen next.
She tells the children that Isaac married someone called Rebekah. They had children and their children had children, and this went on for thousands of years until their mothers and fathers had them. She scoops up a handful of sand and gently lets it trickle through her fingers back down onto the desert floor. In the quietest voice possible, she tells them that they are all part of that great family which has become as many as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert; just as God had promised Abraham and Sarah all those years ago.
When she stops speaking, speechlessness reigns. Not a murmur. Thousands of years of silence, deafening in the ears of the young.
Pardoo, Western Australia
House Of The Brothers
The alarm rings at five o’clock. Before breakfast they wash because cleanliness is next to Godliness. They do not shave this morning. Today is Tuesday and they do not shave on a Tuesday. The brothers dress identically: black shoes, trousers and tie; white underpants, vest and shirt; grey socks and pullover. Bernard has one slice of bread and butter and tea without milk or sugar. Anthony has the same. Anthony washes the plates and knives and Bernard dries them with the tea towel. Bernard opens the cupboard and Anthony puts everything away.
This morning they have several tasks to complete. Firstly, they check all the mail that has arrived in the previous seven days. They take turns in reading the details of a bank statement, a gas bill, a leaflet from Oxfam and a notice about a change in bin collection days. Secondly, they assess the weekly grocery list: white bread, butter, tea, eggs, salt, cheese, potatoes, carrots and a turnip. They have a surplus of fifteen tea bags and so tea is crossed off the list. There is also a sock to mend. Anthony threads the needle and spreads the sock which Bernard sows.
When this is complete they sit in silence in the front room. Above the fireplace is mother’s sampler, which reads, ‘The Greatest Foe To Any Army Is Indiscipline.’ Father’s photograph watches them from the mantelpiece. Together with his medals and drill cane, these artefacts help the brothers to focus their minds in their hour of meditation
For lunch Bernard has a boiled egg with salt. Anthony has the same and they share one slice of toast with butter. The only time they speak is to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. They always use manners because manners maketh the man.
In the afternoon they continue their labours. Today is Tuesday and this is the day when they dust and polish their parents’ bedroom. The bedding is changed. Bernard strips the pillows and Anthony the sheets. Together they remake the bed in the reverse order. Another of father’s photographs on the bedside table is turned inwards, as if to inspect their efforts.
After re-setting the mouse traps, ironing towels, polishing shoes and preparing the soup, they retire to continue their daily study. Father’s collection of Oxford World’s Classics fill an entire bookcase in the back room. They each put on their spectacles and pull out ‘Great Expectations’. Bernard reads a page and then its Anthony’s turn. The appearance of Abel Magwitch brings knowing glances from the brothers.
At supper they allow themselves a rare treat. They have pepper with the soup. So as not to over indulge, Bernard sprinkles the pepper sparingly onto Anthony’s soup and visa-versa.
After washing again they prepare themselves for bed. In identical pyjamas they kneel by their beds and say in unison the family prayer. The alarm clock is set for five o’clock. It is still light behind the curtains but early to bed is early to rise.
The quiet of an empty house. The ticking of a clock from another room. Fine grains of dust suspended in a single shaft of sunlight. A photograph on the mantelpiece. A man, wife and three daughters. Moustache, petticoats and brooches. Captured in their Sunday best. Scrubbed to an inch of their lives.
The youngest daughter leaps out of the photograph and onto the mantelpiece. Jumps down onto the hearth, bounces across the room and heads out of the house through the scullery door. Outside the yard are other children. There’s Walt and Gertie, Rosie and Beryl. And also Peter, sitting atop the wall. You took your time, he says. I’m here now, though, she says. What shall we play? They play leapfrog, hopscotch and marbles. And after skipping its hide and seek. Peter hides himself well. She looks and looks, even when the others give up, but cannot find him.
The middle daughter squeezes past her mother and elder sister. Steps wearily into the parlour. Sits herself on father’s armchair. It’s not allowed, but he’s not around to scold her. How should she occupy her time? Maybe the needlework; a sampler with a garland of roses, carnations and violets. Reading perhaps: ‘Three Weeks’ by Elinor Glyn. Or a diary entry, but about what? Waiting? If only he would come, and soon. Hoping against hope that all that talk of signing up on Station Road is bluff. When the rat-a-tat-tat comes she leaps expectantly to the door, but it is only boys playing Knocking Down Ginger. She stands on the step, staring up the street empty of men.
Mother and eldest daughter slowly make their way out of the photograph. They turn to look forlornly at father; closely examining the only image of him left to them. Never did he look more handsome than on that day in August when they visited the studio in town and later went for a last picnic by The Nidd. Immaculate in that uniformed pride. They brew up some tea and, when Celia makes herself scarce, they open the bureau and bring out his letters. Re-read them once more. His hand having become increasingly less steady. The last one over a month ago. Gallipoli, where was that? Could have been on the moon, for all they knew. They had taken down the encyclopaedias to find out. Now they hold hands across the table. What shall we pray for, mother? Another letter from your father, she says.
Father refuses to move from his position in the photograph. Is more than happy to remain in the past. The last man standing on that last beautiful afternoon. Unblinking, his camera eyes focus straight ahead into the future: bayonet charges, hopping bullets, heavy shrapnel, Bert and Frank identifiable only by their name discs, makeshift crosses and leave cancelled indefinitely. And then he widens his eyes still further, for somewhere, beyond the blur of cordite, flying earth and smoke is a Turkish sniper framing another kind of shot.
Falstaff 37, England