For the many smiles
you forced when you wanted
to punch and claw instead
The many lonely
syllables that passed
for conversation late, late, too late
For the many times I’ve wanted
to leave, tried to, and been whiplashed
back by your terror and despair
For the many days of comfort
and quiet love
and drowning in each other
If you put a frog in cold water
and slowly increase the heat,
it will never try to escape
For the many boiled frog days
of silent regret and resentment
the many wild dreams
and daring days of sexual Olympics
For the many messages that ended with a full stop.
For the many seconds that make
a minute, and minutes
an hour, and hours
half a decade of twitching
between alone and trapped
For the many skin flakes of mine,
that have had to rest
with yours on the windowsill,
even when you wouldn’t speak to me
Sure enough, the purveyors of industry are saying
that the next great revolution is around the corner:
the passing-on of human endeavor to A.I.
- to new hands that aren't tired of it yet -
the species subverting itself to an emotionless successor.
Listen for the second the tense changes so we can
thank whatever gods that haven't left yet for their time,
but to close the door on their way out.
Every story then told will be an altar to ourselves,
and a desperate ordering of the world will be over;
that particular obsession died of starvation
a few efforts back, and we can finally admit in
one long breath that we were unable to cope with the guilt.
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Heads bowed in submission to their masters
Their digital portals clutched reverentially in sweating hands
Thumbs poised, or flitting rapidly
Sending offerings of devotion or supplication to their Gods
The Gods, one and Zero;
The Lords of bits and bytes
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Faces uplit by screens reflected in glazed eyes
Eyes oblivious to the world about them
They stumble on, begging for admiration
Spirits soaring with each like,
Withering with every dislike
Remember how we mocked a tearful Sally fields?
“You like me, you really like me”
Are you still laughing?
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Praying to the omniscient Demigods Google, Facebook, Instagram
Begging them to intercede on their behalf,
“Make me popular; make complete strangers like me,
My life is nothing without their acceptance”
Do you sneer at them, think yourself better, immune?
Fool; deceive others, never yourself
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Sacrificing their lives to their Gods
Stumbling unheeding into traffic,
Such is their commitment to their Gods
Another life lost to digital slavery
Many more to go
We are incapable of learning
The modern day slaves enter bondage willingly
Not through choice, that illusion of free will
But through enticement, inducement
The digital Gods cannot be sated,
They`re coming for you too
They want us all
They know our buttons
They have studied us
Resistance is futile
Resistance is futile
Today’s nature hangs like claws,
in the shadow of the streetlamp.
I kiss the stale smoke on your scabbed lips,
and the TV blinks at me,
and the walls rot around our frail forms,
and we wait for nothing to happen
The darkness is heavy on my skin
which has become grey with neglect
and your bright eyes have been dimmed
by its power.
You loosen your mouth,
but decide not to make a sound.
City noise is pouring into our windows
and the TV blinks again,
and I wait for you to make a sound,
and I wait for nothing,
with you sitting beside me;
Drawn blinds bring in the shadows
upon objects that they touch,
and your face is not recognisable
in the intermittent dusk.
I breathe out a simple sigh:
it may startle you awake,
but it doesn’t, as I’d hoped for,
and I sit, and I wait.
‘If you’d known, twenty-five years ago, you were about to become a modern day slave, would you have accepted my job offer?’ Will said, waving me into his office.
‘What?’ I watch him sit and do that move where he stretches his arms above his head angling his groin forwards. It’s an alpha male gesture but I’m never quite sure if it’s a conscious one. I don't like to think he does it on purpose like a Peacock.
‘Linked-In are advertising your twenty-fifth work anniversary here.’
I walk round behind his desk and look at his screen. I groan. ‘Noooo! Who’s going to believe I’m only thirty-nine now?’
‘I can put it about that it was work experience while you were still at school. Infant school.’
I go and sit the other side of his desk as if he’s interviewing me again. ‘That would be kind. Thank you. If I’ve been here twenty-five years, however long have you been our beloved company’s wage slave?’
Will focuses on a distant point, far behind me. ‘Must be twenty-eight. Did we make the right decision, do you think?’
Why is he asking me pretty much the same thing again? He looks tired tonight, his face is unusually gaunt. I am afraid there’s something wrong, that he’s about to tell me something I don’t want to hear. ‘Look out there,’ I gesture at the glimpse of Central Park from his corner office windows, ‘you get to spend your days here, in the greatest city in the world. You have a fabulous serviced apartment. You go to all the top performances. You eat at the best restaurants every night. The company monitors your health and every skin cell is insured. What’s not to like?’
He holds his hands up. ‘Tell me, Sue, where am I in all this? I spend so much time at work the apartment might as well be a hotel room. I thought I’d cook something the other night and there was nothing in the cupboards. Literally nothing. I’ve lived there five years and I’ve never made a proper meal in that kitchen.’
I snort. ‘No one cooks in New York. There’s no point.’
‘Exactly! There's no point to what I do. When I retire from here in twelve years time, what will I have accomplished?’
I stare at him, trying to gauge if he’s serious. ‘You’ll be quite rich.’
‘Rich in what? I’ve broken up with Sian, by the way. I even managed to embarrass myself with that relationship.’
I grin at him, delighted that he’s come to his senses. Will’s love life has long been a source of office gossip. He seems incapable of forming a relationship with anyone who doesn’t work for the company but his own PA brought it a bit too close to home. I could see Sian sizing Will up, trying to work out how to play him, long before he fell for her. For a bright man he’s an idiot when it comes to women.
‘Good. She was ghastly. Have you given Sian her marching orders?’
He sighed. ‘Only personally. I can’t sack her, can I? She hasn’t done anything wrong.’
That was a matter of opinion. Perhaps this is what’s driving Will’s strange mood. I wouldn’t fancy being trapped in an office with Pterodactyl Sian for twelve years either. ‘Oh. I see.’
‘To be honest I doubt you do. You’ve always been so discreet about your relationships, you’ve certainly never messed on your own doorstep. Or have you? Why are you blushing, Sue?’
It wasn’t a blush more a flush of realization. Will believed I had been in relationships but kept them quiet. Why didn’t he realise the truth? Was he really that incurious about my life?’ ‘No, Will, I’ve never messed my own doorstep. I don't even have a doorstep.’ I raise my chin, challenging him to ask me what I mean.
His shoulders slump. ‘I’m the only idiot around here who does that. I really must get a grip on myself.’
I try to disguise my disappointment that his attention has turned inwards. He isn't usually so self-obsessed. ‘So what do you want – a family?’
He looks up. ‘I don’t honestly know. I just want to fill this gap in me, this sense that I’ve never chosen anything or made it happen. I’ve been pointed in a certain direction and off I trot like I’m on a chain-gang. I don’t question what’s asked of me. What will I have to show for all my work?’
He was annoying me now. There were an awful lot of people who would kill for Will's life. ‘You’ll have a lot of money. You can use it to do anything you want at weekends now and all the time once you retire.’ I had my dreams about that too. Both of us could afford to retire relatively early. There would still be time to build our lives.
‘I’ve lost the ability to work out what I want to do. I’m not convinced I ever had it. I strongly suspect I’ll be one of those people who retire and die almost immediately. I don’t have a single interest outside work.’
‘Of course you do. I mean there’s…’ I can’t finish my sentence because I actually can’t think of a thing. When Will and I go to let off steam in a nearby bar all we do is talk about work, old friends and family back in England.
‘Quite. I wanted to tell you in person because it might surprise you but you’re my closest friend here. I’ve put in for a transfer. I’m going home. I fly back next week.’
My mouth has dropped open. Home! He hasn’t lived there in twenty years. How is it home? Then I think of my own apartment here, of the long weekends when I can’t wait to be back in work again. How you can almost convince yourself you are still at work by answering emails. How some people, like Will, respond, even at the weekends. Who will answer my emails if Will's gone?
He looks confused by my expression but there’s little point in camouflaging my feelings now. When I sold myself into slavery all those years ago it wasn’t for the wages, for the company or any sense of duty. It was for love.
Face lit every night
out my high tower down
neck curved - engrossed
sitting in a big grey recliner
like everything else
amazon boxes filling every corner
A framed photograph beside
you a smiling highschool swimmer
now just floating inside
lines of ones & zeros
communicating only with a core
a modern day slave
not noticing me
or any others
But in restive dreams (unlike us)
you see the bigger picture
a mixing of men & machines
of new gods rising out
into a heavenly cybernetic reality
Tim Gurner, a property developer in Melbourne, Australia, says 'When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19' (just over £10) 'and four coffees at $4 each. We’re at a point now where the expectations of younger people are very, very high.' (15/5/17)
Abbie slices a generous corner from her sourdough toast and scoops a mix of the avocado and mushroom topping, stirring in a little of the thick egg yolk. She places it in her mouth and smiles at the luxurious taste, the balance of flavours, and at her date opposite. He pours his AeroPress coffee from the clear beaker into his cup, the liquid paler than the usual thick brown mass, slightly more bitter and eminently more satisfying. It is a Sunday morning and the Northern Quarter of Manchester is already buzzing with life. Other people's enjoyment is contagious and the brunch date is going well.
'I have friends,' he says, 'that never go out. They tell me that to save up for a house you should never buy coffee, always brew your own, never buy drinks, just get plastered on pre-drinks at home, and certainly never succumb to the temptation of brunch.'
'What do they do on a date?' asks Abbie, savouring the lingering flavours of her avocado.
Her date licks his lips subtly but seductively. 'Beats me. Why do you need to worry about buying at twenty eight?'
They laugh. Life is good. They are free.
The average cost of a home in London is more than 14 times average earnings – the highest level on record, according to figures from property consultancy Hometrack. (Guardian 25/11/16)
'I managed the entire month's shop for less than a hundred pounds,' proclaims Frank as he pushes value products into the depths of the dilapidated kitchen cupboards, 'including the vodka'. He wears a smile that although on the face of it self satisfied, belies a deep uneasiness at what he will eat over the next thirty days. His skin is becoming dry.
'The question is,' laughs Denise, 'did you manage to do it without resorting to baked beans?'
'No baked beans. Not even the cheap tins. No baked beans on toast.' Part of the reason for this is that he has walked the mile and a half back from their nearest superstore and there is a limit to the weight one man can carry; it was too expensive to run a car.
'I'm so relieved,' she replies, wondering what might be the alternative. Live cheaply they had agreed, but never buy baked beans. But in truth they had never come up with a better alternative, although they both played the illusion.
'How much did we save last month for our deposit?' she asks excitedly as the bank statement sits unopened on the table. They stare at it, neither reaching out as if a game of slapsies. Finally she grabs the envelope and rips it open, searching for the number at the bottom. They know the figures off by heart, they know exactly what they want this number to be.
She makes a fist pump. 'Yes! Twelve pounds over. Two hundred and thirty two pounds we saved this month.'
Frank unscrews the vodka bottle and pours two very small tumblers of the clear liquid. 'Here's to our deposit,' he toasts, knowing that it will still take a very, very long time to save enough for the flat they have in mind.
They laugh. Life will be good. They will be free.
Young people are bearing much of the burden: in the past 25 years the rate of home-ownership has fallen by 30 percentage points among 25- to 34-year-olds. Small wonder that Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, on February 7th boldly declared that the housing market was “broken”. (Economist 9/2/17)
A pregnant woman. Definitely pregnant? Yes, definitely pregnant. She’s certainly stepped onto the train in that way that pregnant women walk on TV. Shuffling around. Doubled over. You always thought that was exaggerated. Just a way to ensure the especially thick members of the audience knew she was pregnant. You never considered yourself one of the thick members of the audience but here you are. Trying to work it out.
Priority seat. You are in the priority seat. Not a crime in and of itself, of course but this is about to cause you an undue amount of stress. As the only occupant of the priority seats below the age of 60 things are expected of you. Ugh! She’s coming over. You had a chance. A brief second before she approached. You could have just vacated the seat. Left it to her. If someone else takes it, it can be their problem. Stupid. Stupid. Too hesitant.
She’s too close now. Maybe three metres. She’s already aware of you as a person. You’ve frozen. Ugh, she’s looking at you. You think. There’s not much to look at moving past the window but it’s demanding your full attention now. Still, you’re pretty sure she’s looking at you. Your headphones are in your pocket. Is it too late to reach for them? Just look half dazed and continue looking out the window. Put them on. It could look absent minded. You can feel your hand reach for your pocket. She clears her throat though. You keep going. That could be ignored. She clears it again. Your heart is pounding out of your chest. Why did you sit in the priority seats? Why did you not move the instant you saw her get on? What were you thinking?
She sounds very stern. Angry. Were you that obvious? Slowly you turn from the window. Terrified. She doesn’t say anything. Just spreads her arms and shakes her head slightly. Her eyebrows are raised to an intimidating height. Basically, she’s drawing the most attention to the situation that she possibly could. A few of the other heads have turned to you. It’s difficult to tell between disapproval and casual indifference but you definitely fear the worst. The old lady in the seat in front of you is surely trying to tell you something. You haven’t looked at her but surely it’s her glare that’s causing your face to heat up. To turn red.
‘Sorry.’ you mumble as you look back at the ground. You stand up and walk up the carriage. Everybody on the entire train is looking at you.
‘Ah, hate to do this to you, kid, but do you think you can get take that Rockwell account off my hands? I’m absolutely swamped.’
“Kid.” He’s two years older than you! It never takes him long. To undermine you. He just has a sense for these things.
He certainly doesn’t look “swamped”. You’ve been watching him from across the office. Three times today he’s left his desk for more than twenty minutes to talk to that new receptionist. She’s looked very unimpressed by him but you fear she’s just pretending. You cringe at the thought of him getting his way. For what? For being able to talk a bit more freely to people? What’s so great about that? How is it in any way fair.
You mumble and you cringe at the sound of your own voice. The weakness of it.
‘Uh, I dunno, Freddy. I…’
‘You're forgiven. But you call me Frederick.’
You’d caught part of a conversation he’d had with the receptionist the other day. You hadn’t heard much but you’d certainly made out ‘actually calls me Frederick now’ and then he’d laughed loudly. You weren’t far away but he seemed to either not notice or not care. Mercifully, she’d hidden her amusement. You really admired that politeness in her. It was a rare trait these days. Looking at a space two feet to the right of Freddy’s head you prepared to subject yourself to the sound of your own voice again.
‘I just don’t think I can. I’ve got…’
‘Call me Frederick, please.’
You cringe. You’re used to the humiliation but it doesn’t mean the same questions don’t race through your head. Why? Why you? The injustice of it. What sense did it serve?
‘I just don’t think I can Frederick. I…’
‘Nice one’ he said as he flashed a smug grin.
‘I just have a lot on at the moment.’
You tried to make that last part sound final. Like it was the end of the conversation but you may as well have ended the sentence with a question mark it sounded so unconvincing.
‘Oh, come on. I’ve been absolutely fucked by the Tillesden business. You know how many numbers are involved in that account?’
‘I know but…’
‘And you haven’t taken on a new account in weeks have you?’
‘Well, yeah but I’ve been doing the numbers for the HFI account. They have to be in for tomorrow.’
‘So you’re almost done then?’
‘No, that’s… no, I mean’
You felt yourself deflate. You've trudged around all day feeling like one thing is keeping you going. Tomorrow there will finally be some respite. A little more room to breathe. You’ve spent weeks reorganising and restructuring the accounts of your firms largest client. Tomorrow you will finally have a bit more time to yourself. Freddy, you defiantly call him in your mind, has just snatched that away from you in about two minutes worth of conversation.
Then you think about your plans for tomorrow evening and it's like looking into a grey fog. What? Watching TV? Bitterly rolling your eyes at the people who’d ‘actually watch this’ as the sun sets and the evening turns into night around you? Or maybe you’d have got out the console. Got online and start shooting up some kids from middle America. Then you’d have had to turn off your microphone once they all started calling you autistic. What’s the point? Is any of that worth fighting for?
You’re still mumbling as Freddy watches on amused. He spreads his arms and raises his eyebrows. That same stance you'd seen this morning. 'Are you seriously like this?' it seems to say. You ask yourself that a lot these days. Most days. Most days as far back as you can remember.
‘So can you do it then, yeah?’
The journey starts in a car park -
a beauty pageant for super cars,
who primp and preen and ignore
the car-washers who clean their scars.
At the traffic lights, I notice
a new hotel tickling the sky -
pushed up by brown-faced workers,
in never-ending supply.
We pass the world's biggest mall
where Zombie shoppers wander,
bitten by consumerism,
compelled to spend and squander.
A highway through the desert,
red sand smothered by concrete,
laid by sweaty labourers,
squashed by the stampeding heat.
The journey ends in a car park,
and the pageant ends there too.
The corporate slave shaken off
and the free man pushes through.
Foley returned from Mass determined, this time. The weather certainly helped. It was as if the whole world was in tears. Elephantine plumes scudded across the skies driven by a strengthening south-westerly that seemed to be increasing hourly. It was a fitting end, the old man thought.
He removed the blue suit and laid it reverently on the coverlet; he didn't want to give them any bother. The waistcoat he kept on. Now all that was required was the bottle, the blaster - and the certainty of solitude.
As he made his way into the kitchen his five strides measured the decades of his occupation. He had moved in here with Marie and the empty jam jars when he was twenty. The kids had been born in the bedroom he had just vacated, but everything was gone now. Marie four years ago, and Brian and Niamh had skedaddled as soon as they could; twenty years, or more, ago now - one to Boston and the other to Canberra.
Sure - he had been invited out to visit; sure - they had made a couple of return trips with newly acquired spouses and vaguely recognisable children, but that was it. Nothing since Marie had died. Nobody cared about him.
In a way, it made the whole thing easier.
Foley scrabbled underneath the sink and withdrew a biscuit tin and a green bottle, and pulled one of the heavy oak chairs out to begin the vigil. Seventy years was enough, he thought. His eyes misted slightly behind the thick lenses of the cheap glasses as he counted out the seven crimped cartridges and selected one which he pushed back into the Nagant's loading gate. He snapped the weapon shut and pushed it away from him in disgust.
No matter how you are prepared, you are never prepared. Like now. No glass and the fire needed more turf.
Wearily he made his way over to the corner and dragged the heavy wicker basket over to the hearth. Sod upon sod he piled it on and soon a conflagration was born that had seldom seen an equal. The wind tore at the gables of the little cottage and backdraughts of fragrant smoke blossomed in the cold emptiness of the room as he fetched a glass from the drainer. Now he could begin, or end - it was the same.
He had kept this bottle because it was the last one. Over the years his Father must have made well over a thousand gallons up here in the middle of the mountain. It had been a lucrative trade. It had been widely acknowledged that his father's stuff was the best one could buy, and Foley knew it was a sure-fire passport to oblivion. His Father, however, had never allowed a drop to pass his lips; he had been a wise and contemplative man.
Foley remembered the day that he had been given the magnificent Hunter that reposed in the fob pocket of his waistcoat. Solid gold it was. His dad had called him into the little room where he lay dying and said,
" It's yours now boy, I don't need it anymore."
He sighed, poured a good wallop into the glass, and downed it. His Father had called him a boy, but he had been over fifty. The rain was ladies fingernails against the panes, and with the heat and the moans of the breeze, a torpor began to swaddle him.
It was the noise that woke him; the noise in the chimney.
Blearily he regarded the bottle but could not see a damn thing in the darkness that was
now illuminated only by flickering light from the dying fire. Foley stared at the whiteness of his long-johns and slowly reached for the revolver. The thing in the chimneybreast dropped onto the embers and rolled out onto the flags covered in sparks.
" Blast you Foley". It said.
"No." Slurred the old man. "Blast you." And he cocked the weapon and levelled it at the intruder.
Foley stood up and knocked his chair over as he made his unsteady way over to the light switch beside the front door.
"Don't you move now you little hoor." He said to the fireplace.
Despite flicking the switch a dozen or more times nothing happened. In his befuddled mind he thought that it must be the storm that had caused the power to fail. Marie always kept candles in the cupboard next to the sink, so he retraced his steps - never once facing away from the shadowy figure.
"Stand in front of the fire there and put your hands above your head now boy."
With his back against the kitchen sink he reached behind and slid the drawer open. It wasn't easy - but he managed. His fumbling fingers caterpillared over a rolling mass and he was just about able to grab two when the intruder sneezed loudly.
"God bless you." He said.
At that the burglar roared in anger.
"Shut your stupid gob Foley and light your bastard candle."
The old man felt the hairs stand to attention all over his body. He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and extracted a box of matches one-handed. Transferring it to his teeth he scraped the match across the striker and applied it to the wick. Slowly a terrible sight swam into view.
The figure was filthy but quite unmistakable; Foley knew what it was alright. The brass buckles on its grotesquely elongated shoes gleamed dully in the combined light of the fire and the candle.
"What brings ye here?" He said.
"That little trinket in your pocket". The creature replied.
"By Jesus you'll never have it."
Said Foley, almost drowned out by the screams from the thing at the mention of the Lord's name.
"But I have you now boy, eh? What'll ye give to me if I unbolt that door and let ye go?"
The little creature pirouetted, bowed sarcastically, and began an obscene little jig.
"I'll give you quarter, Amadan, quarter to finish what you started. What about a drink now Foley?"
Weapon still levelled, the old man crossed to the table and with a quivering hand poured a shot into the glass.
"I'll not have it said that I'm lacking in hospitality. There's your drink, but no tricks - or what I started'll end with you and we'll see who the fool is then."
The old man looked on incredulously as the creature took obvious pleasure in downing the volatile spirits.
"Ah, your Father always made a good drop. I'll tell you what, for the drink, I'll tell ye the truth. That's what I'll do if ye unlock the door there and let me out. I'll tell ye that your father is a boy of nineteen now living in a suburb of Buenos Aires. I'll tell you that you're currently about 40,000 years of age and that if ye manage to shoot yourself you'll be born as a hermaphrodite baby in a shanty town outside Lagos. You're on a prison rock, and your soul is a slave. Time has no meaning for us Foley. 'Tis all a lie."
The creature's gnarled claw bunched into a fist before his eyes and
the old man's heart lurched in his chest as he sank slowly to his knees. Dimly he watched the horrid little figure reach for the bottle and tilt it to its lips.
As the fingers of a death tightened around his heart Foley managed to gasp,
"Theivin' little bollox..."
"Ah, sure don't take it so bad Foley, doesn't your own name mean nuthin' only a feckin' plunderer in the old tongue. Y'see I'm a slave too; to vice and larceny and fate. The truth always comes at a price man. That's why you're on the floor."
The creature threw the empty bottle down and it fragmented into a kaleidoscope of glittering shards. With a long black talon it hooked out the pocket watch and gazed into the old man's rapidly glazing eyes. With amazing strength it picked up the oak chair and hurled it through the kitchen window, and in the howling wind that screamed through the opening, hopped - sniggering - into the night.
"I hope ye like Cassava Foley." It screeched in jubilation.
And Foley's candle, Marie's candle - whatever; the light vanished in a barely discernible puff of smoke to reignite in a different clime, under a different yoke.
They say that life is like a box of chocolates
but all I see is pain.
The suffering in people's eyes
in National Geographic magazine.
It seems to go round and round,
the torment of the world.
When will it stop?
I myself, am guilty
of perpetuating the machine.
I like my Starbucks, soya, half caf,
no foam latte just the right way
and with a side of 21st century media rubbish,
I'll sip that up all day.
And not give my change
to the homeless man that sits outside.
What does it take or us to open up our eyes?
We are all a walking cause,
one way or another.
We live in a world of sin.
You think your hands are clean?
You throw away your trash
just like every other soulless soul.
Mindless zombies; buy, eat, dump, repeat.
Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Now this verse is just another
Generation Y girl asking why?
Trying to make sense of a senseless world.
Where the leader of the free world
epitomises the reason that the world is not free.
But you've probably heard it all before,
so why would you listen to me.
A woman gazes out of an upstairs window:
To escape or stay?
Risk everything or have a bed?
Dream to the skyline, tower blocks to hide among,
Ugly corners of this city will swallow her,
People march eyes down, thumbs twitch on phones:
no one will see her.
Another girl will fill her shoes, her saggy dent in the mattress,
Will do their bidding, will be beaten for her benefit,
To learn respect, to learn to comply:
no one will miss her.
Point the camera.
Hurriedly she steps back into dank darkness,
The tattered curtain flaps uncertainly
As an arm, thickset, reaches forward:
pulls the glass firmly shut.
‘‘You have to celebrate!”
“so far from……….”
‘ok just a few’
singing off key - 'the Fieelds of A-T-H-E-N-R-Y!’
hugging a stranger
in a strange land.
‘’home sick Sheila?”
‘‘let's have another scoop"
cocktails - blue lagoons/b52s
“we've only Scottish”
‘ah Celts like ourselves.'
‘’One more for the road."
along a highway
my hat - a wine box
a shop - must go in...
looking through the Sunday papers
this week's tv guide
stuffed up a thin t-shirt.
Out and home free!
Sirens, flashing lights
‘‘hey white wine hat”
‘‘what’s under your shirt mate?”
Sobering very rapid
caught a rebel thief (background blue lit)
in a convict land.
'Fly on the wall' is such a cliché, but there are times when the proverbial insect is the only living thing that could have witnessed an event.
The fly would have seen two men standing opposite each other, about six feet apart. One, the man on the left, about five eight, slim build, with a black balaclava covering his face. The other, closer to six feet, more heavily built, certainly older, would have been wearing pyjamas. Or more likely boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
The two men stare at each other without moving. If we look at their hands we see that one is holding a set of car keys. They are the keys to the large BMW on the drive that one might assume belongs to the man in the boxer shorts. He, on the right, holds a kitchen knife in his left hand. Perhaps he is left handed, or perhaps he will use his right hand for stability or to push the other man away.
Neither moves. We no longer want to be the fly on the wall, rather we want to be inside their heads. If we can be a fly on the wall, we can get into their heads. It's no more far fetched.
The man on the right believes he understands the law. He knows that a knife is a more dangerous weapon that a set of keys. He also knows that he might forget this in anger, if the red mist comes down as it has on a couple of occasions in his life. He also knows that once he feels it coming, he cannot prevent this. He is holding the knife tight but holding his thoughts even tighter still. He believes that the law will protect him, and that he can use the knife in self defence. He knows that he cannot stab the other man in the back as he is running away. In between, a scenario that includes many possibilities, he's not sure. As long as he remains rational, he feels confident he will make the right decision.
The man on the left - with the telltale balaclava and the keys that are not his - has seen the knife. He has measured in his mind the height, width, strength and mental agility of his opponent, and concluded that he would not win a physical contest even without the knife. He has only youth on his side. And perhaps, he has very little to lose. He can conceive a couple of ways that he could win. But he's never been in this position before. Every previous entry has been successful. Did he do something wrong? He puts it down to bad luck. Wrong place, wrong time. More specifically, he was in the kitchen as the man in boxer shorts came down for a glass of water. A random event in the scope of the world.
At this point it would be possible to return to how the world existed an hour earlier with a few well choreographed moves. The knife could be placed back in the drawer. The car keys could be replaced on the peg by the front door. One man could return to bed, having forgotten to draw himself a glass of water. The other could leave the house through one of the two recognised exits. Only the broken glass panel on the back door would suggest that this stand off had ever happened. That would be rectified by a call to a glazier in the morning.
But the fly is startled by a sudden movement and instinctively reacts by launching itself from the wall. It senses the rush of air in the room, and darts away from the turbulence. It scoots into the hall, hearing behind it the noise of two people coming together. The fly rests on the hall table and sits there until there is no longer any noise. Curious, the fly returns to the kitchen and finds its previous perch on the wall.
There is now only one body in the room, and that body lies on the floor, face down. There is a small amount of blood on the floor and the body is motionless. It is the man with the balaclava.
Twenty minutes later the siren of an ambulance will startle the fly. The man in boxer shorts will return, still wearing the same clothes, and explain how he acted in self defence.
At An Officer's Discretion
‘They look at me’, she shouts,
‘they sit in judgment’.
Her eyes are focused on pigeons courting
in the walls of the Castle ruins.
‘They're not bothered’, I say, ‘about you.
Let’s talk about getting you housed’.
‘You don’t get it’, she says, 'there's no justice,
there's no spirit of law’.
I know there is, that I see her blue feet
sticking out from pink plastic clogs,
her fag-butt hanging like
a burning sword on her thin, old lady lips.
‘I had to keep my strength up’, she laughs,
waves the White Lightning can like a wand
as I sigh at the thought of the paperwork,
how to justify using my discretion.
‘You’ve never been at the gate’,
she whispers, ‘never been through,
out of the neighbourhood,
somewhere worse than dreams’.
‘Look’, I say, ‘I’m here to try and help,
we can't have you being arrested again'.
She grins, shakes the can, sprays
the Controlled Drinking Zone sign.
I reach for her shoulder as she rears up:
‘If I'm not here I can't turn them back
with my body, with my being,
you're trying to trick me.'
She sucks on the can, shakes her head
at my blue uniform, my pointless presence,
my inability to restore
a world where she belonged.
You think it’s so romantic here,
with the dark and the sea and
the warm air, and the gentle
breeze and the walk along
the beach to the magical restaurant
on a fairy-tale island, amid the
But we get there and I’m
frustrated as usual and
they are playing Simply Red
not just there but everywhere
we go, but the funny thing is
that in the future, long after
we split up and go our separate
ways, when I hear the hackneyed Stars
it makes me think of romantic
evenings, and the waft of the sea.
‘stealing flowers is not a crime ‘ old Hungarian saying
In summer, I pinch fat blue hydrangea
adornments of double income couples and as
cicadas sing song the man’s blindness to red
turns my yearly push for Xmas bush sociopathic
So I finish the job off in an early morning snatch
And when I spy roses drop autumnal golden
over garden fences enjoyed only by their hired gardener
I redistribute fragrance to a woman in number 5
the thorny stalks immerse hot in cut glass water
So I set plans for a Gerbera slaughter.
The middle aged man in the grey three quarter length topcoat was huffing a little as he brought the large barrow cart to a halt midway between Doherty`s pub and the `Help the aged` charity shop on Middleton street. He extended the front legs to stabilise it, then carefully pulled the pale blue cloth that covered its cargo free, folding it neatly before storing it under the cart.
Aside from the goatee he was in every other respect quite ordinary looking. His hair was thinning and going to grey, though not as grey as his beard. His brow was creased with years of furrowing, and his neck was seeding to wattle. Under the great coat he wore a tan sport coat, but no tie; with nearly matching slacks and a pair of brown loafers.
The wagon`s main body was tiered and painted green. Each of the three tiers holding a single row of grey buckets, every bucket brimming with long stemmed roses; white in the lowest row, yellow in the middle one, red in the topmost. He inspected the flowers bucket by bucket, plucking the odd damaged one, and when he`d finished, dumped the castoffs into the nearest litter bin.
As he worked, four men, all in their early twenties took a table outside the café on the other side of the street, idly watching him as they waited to order.
Once he`d disposed of the rejects the flower man stripped off his coat, though not his fingerless mittens, retrieved a large whiteboard that was clipped to the front of the cart, and with a black marker printed the words;
In large letters on it.
Once he`d managed to get the sign to rest against the carts wheel; it had fallen over at the first two attempts, he retrieved a folding deck chair that was hanging from between the barrows handles. A chair so vividly striped it put you in mind of the gaily coloured (if you`ll pardon the pun) flag of LGBTQ community, snapped it open and sat down.
Then he did something you only ever see on T.V. He slapped both thighs in annoyance, stood back up, rummaged in a leather bag that was hanging from the barrows right handle, pulled out that mornings Examiner, sat back down, smoothed out the paper, and began to read.
At ten o clock on an early May Thursday morning the pedestrianized street had only a smattering of people on it, and it was a woman who looked to be in her forties, trailing a single axle shopping trolley, it`s canvas body a sickly pink, who was the first person to stop at the flower cart.
“Free Roses?” the four young men seated outside the café heard her ask, her puzzlement obvious in her tone.
The flower man looked up from his paper and said nothing, only smiled.
“What does it mean, free?” she asked, her tone switching from confusion to suspicion.
The man folded his newspaper carefully, stood, dropped the paper on the seat, and tilted his head to one side, giving her a confused look of his own. He gestured to the sign and shrugged.
The woman`s frown turned to a scowl, “What`s wrong with you, cat got your tongue?” her tone now edging towards hectoring.
The man held up his right index finger in the universal sign of, just a moment, reached into the left pocket of his jacket, removed a laminated white card and handed it to her.
“Oh,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment when she saw what was printed on it, “I didn’t know, I`m sorry.”
He gave her a `no problem` shrug, and smiled as she handed the card back.
“So is this for charity?” she asked, “Like a donation thing, for the deaf and dumb?”
He gave the barest of frowns, shook his head, gesturing once more to the sign, pointing at the word free.
“But why are they free?” she persisted, obviously confused.
He held up his index finger again, pulled a small white board that was lying flat on the first tier, wrote quickly on it, then turned it so she could read what he`d written.
The woman scratched at her chin, “I dunno,” she said, shaking her head as she opened her handbag, hunting out her purse. She snapped it open, studied its contents, scratched her chin again, thought a moment, then clicked it shut, dropping it back into her handbag. “I`m sorry,” she said, “I don’t have anything to spare.” And grabbing the handle of her trolley almost trotted away, head down as if afraid anyone she knew might see her.
The flower man raised a hand as if he meant to call her back, but no sound issued from his mouth. He watched her until she rounded the corner, shrugged and took his seat once more, realised he was sitting on his paper, leaned to one side so he could retrieve it without getting up and nearly spilled onto the pavement, which elicited much sniggering from the four outside the café.
By eleven thirty he had finished his paper and given away six flowers, four of which had been to a teenage girl, who`d asked for a yellow one; despite the dire warnings from her friend. “The thorns are probably poisoned,” she`d hissed.
When the girl had asked if she could have one for her mum as well, the flower man had picked out three red blooms, surrounding the yellow one with them, wrapping the stems carefully in waxed paper before handing them over.
When the girl thanked him he bowed to her, not a mere nod of the head but a full courtier bow, left leg stretched out in front, left arm across his waist, right arm thrown back, forehead almost touching his outstretched knee, all he`d needed was a cape.
“Wierdo,” the girls friend snapped as they walked away.
But the audience of four whistled and applauded, so he repeated his bow to them; and this drew a standing ovation.
Once he`d finished his paper he became more proactive, holding a selection of blooms in hand as he offered them to passers-by. Most veered out of his path, as you do a drunk or a madman. Others either didn’t see him or pretended not to; keeping their gazes fixed firmly on their phones. Once he trailed after a young woman, wordlessly imploring her to take the proffered flower until she cried, “Let me alone,” and burst into a run.
Another time a young man threatened, “I`ll kick the living shit out of you,” when he offered one to him, declaring to his sniggering friends and the world in general, “I aint no faggot.” When he feinted as if he were about to throw a punch the flower man flinched and retreated, hands held placatingly out in front of him.
By twelve thirty he had managed to give away only eighteen flowers. He stood by the cart scratching his head, looked at his watch, shrugged, retrieved the cloth, draping it once more over the flowers. He slid the sign under the cart, pulled his bag off the handle, slipping it over one shoulder, refolded the chair, hung it on the handles, and sauntered over to the café.
On the dot of one he drained his coffee cup, stood, wiped the crumbs of the sandwich he`d had for lunch from his jacket, and strolled back over to the waiting cart. Once he`d hung his bag on the handle and stowed the cover back under the barrow, he picked up the whiteboard sign, wiped it clean with his sleeve and wrote;
A man in a business suit stopped, tilted his head to one side; as if viewing the sign from another angle would make more sense of it, then declared in a disbelieving voice, “A hundred euros. For twelve roses?”
The flower man turned and smiled at him, “Ah, but these are no ordinary roses sir,” he said, “These are wild Rosa banksiae Lutea, very rare, very rare indeed. They are found in only one place, high in the Alps. Here sir,” he plucked one from a bucket, holding it out to the businessman, “Breathe deeply, doesn't the scent of the alpine air fairly take your breath away?”
The businessman took the flower, buried his nose in its petals, and took a deep breath. He nodded as he handed the rose back, “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “it does smell different to the bouquets I usually get my wife; but a hundred euros, can’t you do them any cheaper?”
The flower man shook his head sadly, “I`m sorry sir, but these arrived in from Switzerland this morning. I only get one shipment a year, and as the saying goes “When they`re gone, they`re gone.”
The businessman tutted to himself, took out his wallet, riffled through it, then shook his head, “I`m sorry, I don’t have enough on me.”
“Not a problem sir,” the flower man said, pulling out a wireless card terminal, “We take all major credit cards.”
And that was how the rest of the afternoon passed. Someone would stop, comment on the price, and sometimes the flower man would talk them into buying the flowers, sometimes not.
By four fifty all but two of the yellow roses had been sold. The flower man took the buckets in pairs to the nearest drain, emptying the water into it. He stacked the buckets one inside the other on the lowest tier, draped the blue cover over the shelving, fixing it carefully. He retrieved his bag and coat; then, bag slung over one shoulder, coat draped over the opposite forearm, strolled once more over to the café.
He dragged a vacant chair over to his audience of four, sat down and said, “I believe you owe me something Mr Sullivan?”
One of the young men, ginger haired, his face a mess of freckles, grudgingly handed over a fifty euro note, a lot of money for a college student from Kerry; especially one trying to get by on a grant.
The flower man smiled as he tucked it into an inside pocket of his jacket, and in a self-satisfied air said, “As I tried to explain to you last Tuesday gentlemen; you cannot overcharge someone, but you can undercharge them.”
“Yes professor,” they mumbled as he stood, pulling on his coat. It was only when it was fully on that he realised his bag was still slung from his shoulder, and he had to slip his hand out of the sleeve to release it.
“Oh and,” he said as he turned to leave, “Get the cart back to the drama society for me will you, I`m pretty sure they need it for tomorrow night’s performance.”
They mumbled their, “Yes professor`s” again as he picked up the last two roses that he`d set down on the table.
“Now if you`ll excuse me, I know just the lady who loves roses,” he said, saluting them with the two blooms as he turned away.
Flowers are Free
He was always one for the big gestures. At first they were exciting, the gifts, the bouquets on her desk, the big weekends away. She was surprised at how quickly she grew bored with them. Or maybe she was bored with him? There was little substance and all show. Somehow there was no depth, no understanding of how relationships really worked, far less idea of how she might work. Their love making was the same, all show, flourish and fall short.
None of this mattered too much at the beginning, he was one of many and she didn’t have a ‘forever’ sort of mentality. ‘One day at a time’ and ‘take what you can get’ was how she lived. She thought that was his plan too. The first time he began his ‘silly stuff’ she went along with it. She was used to Ann Summers and a bit more, so she wasn’t bothered. If it got her a decent meal she could put up with it. But soon she realised she wasn’t hungry any more. It stopped being a game and she didn’t like ‘serious’ one single bit. The day he decided that wrapping her in cling film was fun was the day she told him she was out of here. She was sick of his big gestures and his vacuous thoughts. But most of all she was sick of his inability to see her as a woman, not a toy to be played with.
He begged and pleaded, but she walked. She had no interest, she said, in his rubbish. The texts began straight away and she blocked him. The bouquets arrived daily. At first she felt bad putting them in the bin, but after a week she didn’t even look at them. The phone calls at work were hard, she was determined not to let the others see that he was rattling her. The emails were long and rambling, she forwarded them, unread, to an old, unused account.
Back from work one day she smelt that he had been in her flat; she got the locks changed that evening but found sleep hard to come by. She sensed him in the street and glimpsed him everywhere. The hot coffee on her desk when she got in just freaked her and the endless take aways delivered to her flat made her shiver. Even the delivery men had stopped knocking – they just left it and ran.
She told no one – she knew what they would say. She knew that some bright spark would suggest the police and she knew too that there was no way she was ever talking to them again. The pain she had held down threatened to come up again and again. How could she tell them yet again that she was being stalked? They didn’t believe her before. She knew that there were men out there who wanted to get her, why couldn’t they see that? The kindly desk sergeant would take her statement and the detective would very patiently listen and write in his lovely little black book. But nothing would happen, all gesture and no substance. She had told them so many times. At first they were kind, but there had been so many.
This time she was going to sort it out herself. The next time he came round she would be ready. As if flowers and food could buy her now, what did he think she was? The delivery man came for the last time, he was sneaking away when she called him and got out her purse to give him a tip – the look on his face when he saw the knife was priceless. Dragging him into the bathroom was hard, but she was strong. The pizzas stopped then. They asked about him but even the police said she was deluded and hopeless – it couldn’t be her. The flowers were harder, but in the end the florist went the same way. No one even came to find her that time – she wasn’t opening her door to anyone by the – anyway. You never knew who might turn up. She lay down and waited then. Her phone rang lots of times – work she expected.
One day they would find her, but until then she was just going to lie down. She had put all the flowers in the bath recently– she didn’t mind crushing them – they were free. She didn’t go out again, she knew he would get her if she did. She heard him try the door – but she had no energy to get up. The bath was comfy in its own way. He shouted but she didn’t get it. She just knew she had to teach them all a lesson – they would soon know what would happen if they ignored her, if they were quick the flowers would be fresh enough – that would please someone. She wasn’t just for show – there was real substance to her.
Finding in Favor of the Flowers
An arrest of an assemblage of
captured coy and
defenseless daffodils don't
elude extradition forces.
gather to garner gypsy
juries of judgmental
knotweed and kingly Kafir
lilies lead to labeling
misdemeanors. Miscreants muscle
nebbish nightshade as
ornery Officiant Oleander
paces the petaled path.
Querulous and quick
rebels rush to release
surly snap dragons
tussling with thistle
until ugly fruit and urchins
vanish. Violets vocalize
wishes to wanderlust while
zooms to Zinnia's defense.
Absolution and autonomy
bestowed on the brigade of blossoms.
Before the drone of wings begins
And dawn becomes a battleground
The Northern winds are tempered
With a sound within a sound.
Our star lounges in patches
Old song of youth is heard again
Threadbare trout escape the river's bowel
To lip the warming air
And taste the falling rain.
Greenery out-greens itself under the gamut of the sun
As we turn once more from darkness
And commence another run.
Amongst these graves there lies a pauper's
Unadorned all year until this time
When yellow flowers weave a mesh to hold my eye
And whisper that my smile is not a mime.
Lisa listened to the familiar screams, chatter and raised voices that echoed round the half-lit corridor sounding more like a scene from a horror film than a hospital ward.
It was always the same. Could hardly get a sentence out of most them during the day then bang. Time for bed and they all come alive. Like werewolves and demons, she thought mischievously.
Before she even entered Vera’s room Lisa knew every word of the conversation that would take place. Was always the same with Vera. She repeated the same sentences a million times a day like a wind-up toy. Lisa had to stop herself from replying sometimes even before Vera had asked her first question.
“You know my sister love?” said Vera.
“No love,” Lisa winced at Vera’s Dalek like croak.
The other nurses were right never mind rubber gloves they should be supplied with earmuffs. When Corrie was on was always the worst. The whole ward would gather in the T.V room and Vera would rant her way through the whole show. Lisa swore she did it on purpose.
Lately just before the show was due to start the nurses would put Vera to sit in the dining room on her own.
“ Tried to kill me see love. Tried to poison me!”
“Never?” Lisa feigned surprise as she pulled open the small two door hospital wardrobe and took out Vera’s nightgown. Eighty years on this planet and all she’s got to show for it is two nightdresses, a dressing gown and a pair of worn out slippers.
She glanced around the tiny room. Prisoners have better surroundings she thought.
“Wicked cow she was.”
“Sounds it too Vera!”
“Couldn’t kill me though could she love?!”
“No take more than that to kill our Vera,” said Lisa squeezing her shoulders and waiting for her to finish the last part of her rant as usual.
“She’s paying for it now though love. In she?”
“Yes, Vera my sweetheart so she is”.
In a way it was true Lisa thought. Vera’s sister paid for anything she needed. Had looked after her until the paranoia and dementia had become too severe. She was all Vera had and vise versa. The visits had gradually gone down from one every day to two once every two weeks.
Lisa had been shocked to see Vera’s sister in the visiting room today, only two days after her last visit. Probably felt like the company.
The two sisters had lived together all their lives. Eighty years still in the same house they were born in. More of a mansion than a house. The family had been very well off apparently, although you wouldn’t think it to look at either of the sisters.
Their parents had left them tens of thousands of pounds. Neither of the sisters had ever married or had children.
What a lonely life, Lisa pondered, even lonelier now for Vera’s sister. At least Vera had insanity for company. Once Vera snuffed it, Esther probably wouldn’t be far behind, Lisa guessed. Always the same. Probably leave it all to cats.
Lisa caught sight of herself grinning in the mirror and shook her head. Sometimes she wondered if insanity was contagious.
“Love, who was that nice lady who brought me cake today, love?”
“Just a nice lady. How about you have a nice slice before bed hey?”
I know I will Lisa thought, thinking about where she could hide the cake before taking it home later.
Vera’s sister never came empty handed and today was no exception. That reminded her. Esther had brought in a stack of magazines all of which were Lisa’s favourites. I’ll get them later when she’s asleep, Lisa decided. It wasn’t as if Vera was going to read them.
Lisa picked up the plastic tub off the bedside table and took out a slice of cake. She hardly seemed to notice.
Chocolate fudge. Lisa felt the stirrings of hunger in her stomach. She put the rest of the cake in her pinafore pocket.
“Now you sit there and enjoy your cake and I’ll be back in a little while to help you get into your nightclothes and tuck you in.”
Lisa received no reply. She didn’t expect one. She left Vera sitting in her chair clutching the cake in one hand.
She made her way up the corridor only to hear Vera’s coarse voice and usual ramblings drift out of the room behind her.
“You know my sister love….”
She’s off again Lisa thought and laughed into the darkness. Bloody lights! The psychiatric ward was a separate block from the rest of the hospital and was behind the main buildings and they may have been on another planet when it came to waiting for any maintenance work to be done.
Lisa entered the staff room to the sound of the kettle clicking. Joan, one of the other nurses, shook her head then opened the cupboard and took out another cup.
“You’d hear this kettle from space you would,” said Joan chuckling.
“That Vera’s a case eh?”
Joan shook her head in agreement and passed Lisa her tea just as she sunk into one of the comfy chairs.
“Any biscuits?” Said Lisa
“Let me go and check on everyone and then I’ll crack open my secret stash.”
Joan chuckled again and she was gone.
Lisa sipped her tea and her thoughts returned to Vera and Esther. They were well known.
Most of it just rumours and speculation. They were virtual recluses by all accounts, hardly left the house.
The house itself was hidden behind high walls and two ivory gates at the entrance. A lot of security work had been done in recent years due to children playing havoc and vandalism.
The house itself had been grand in its day, with sweeping grounds. The two sisters had let it go in recent years mind. Looked derelict and deserted now. Probably too tight to shell out on repairs Lisa guessed. Lisa had to drive past the house every day on her way to work, it gave her the creeps.
Where’s bloody Joan and them biscuits? Always skiving that one. Lisa put her feet up on of the footstools and plucked one of the magazines off the coffee table. She loved working nights.
Lisa heard footsteps approaching and looked up to find Joan pale as chalk and quivering her eyes bloodshot
“What’s wrong?” Asked Lisa, pulling herself up, and spilling her tea onto the tile floor in the process.
“Oh it was awful…I’ve come over all funny,” said Joan her voice quivering as much as her body.
“Come on sit yourself down girl.” Lisa helped Joan to sit down and handed her the half drunk cup of tea, “Get that down ya girl.”
“I was…I was doing the checks….when...when I noticed Vera’s light on,” Joan broke down now. Big quivering sobs. Lisa took the cup out of her hands just as she was about to drop it. “There she was sitting in her chair…”
Joan could go on no more, Lisa didn’t need her to. She felt a cold shiver go down her spine.
“I was with her not more than twenty minutes ago.” said Lisa sitting down beside her friend.
“I called the doctor but it was to late, there’s two nurses in there now cleaning her up and getting her ready,” said Joan taking a scrumpled piece of tissue out of her pinafore and blowing her nose. “I know I should be used to it but…”
Lisa knew what she meant, death was always a shock however much it was expected. She was probably better off Lisa told herself. She hoped if she ever got to that stage someone one would have the decency to put her out of her misery.
“I’d better ring her sister,” said Joan reluctantly picking up the staff telephone.
Lisa’s mind wandered to Vera and her wasted life. Never been in love. Never known the joy of children.
She thought of her four children and how much of a pain in the backside they were but she wouldn’t have changed them for all the tea in China.
The sound of the telephone being replaced brought Lisa out of her daydream. Joan just stood there with a bemused expression.
“What’s the matter with you girl?” Asked Lisa.
“I can't believe it. Apparently, Esther doesn’t live there anymore. She’s sold up.” Joan said shaking her head. “She met a man and they’ve gone on a world cruise! They left tonight!”
“She never mentioned a word today! Well, I never! The two nurses sat in shocked silence for a few moments.
“Suppose you can't really blame her though, ” said Lisa, “Good luck to her I say.”
Lisa pulled herself up scooping up the tea mugs and taking them to the sink.
“Why don’t you get off home love, we’ve had a hell of a shock?” Said Lisa.
“I’ll be fine now,” said Joan “Nothing a nice sugary tea won’t sort out.”
“Well, in that case, do you mind if I get off home love? I don’t feel too well. Think only now it’s hitting me. The shock. I was just talking to her not twenty minutes ago.”
“Of course, you get off love.”
I might be able to make bingo with any luck. Night shift was bad enough without being stuck with Joan whimpering all night.
Lisa carried the cake under her arm. Chocolate always was her poison…
The squeezing of a person
like an accordion,
like a book:
words, music and
the silent thud of the
tree of thoughts
and words and
the sap oozes
the kindness of Spring
rousing my tears
soft and gentle
I must remember
flowers are free
and so is love, really
Not for the flowers the selfie
although they turn and face the sun
petals unfurled, illuminated faces
radiant, putting on their best show
they flicker in the late spring breeze
slender, perfect green stalks
flex without muscle
taut without airbrush.
It almost looks as if they call
'take my picture,
the sun is behind you,
the pose is perfect'.
Soon, their petals loosen,
the wind catches, strips
layers one by one until naked.
But there is no sadness, nor
fear of losing youth, just
papery seed pods posting
hope to the wider world,
perfect copies on the wind.
Flowers are free.
Saving Time On Love
Day One you say flowers are free,
I am stunned by your profundity,
fixated by your lovely face, so we must
be one person coming back together.
Day Two I find your detailed accounts
of past relationships heart-crunching until you show
photos of girls I know, then introduce me
to your weird uncles on day three.
We fight about how strange your family are,
you say some hurtful things about my mother,
but none of this matters because
we know every crevasse of the other’s mind.
Which goes horribly wrong on day four when
you think a kiss is birthday present enough.
Day 5 I take you through exactly
what I’d expected as you turn pale onscreen.
Day 6 you ask to try again, show me
cake and candles and we’re smiling,
the ring appears, the balloons rise up
this is what it’s all about, kids maybe.
Or is it? Day 7 I begin to wonder
if you’re the right one and I see
you mirror that feeling, we dwell on
each other’s long histories of failure.
Day 8 I let you grope me online
because it’s depressing thinking
what’s different this time?
Nothing - so we get carried away.
Day 9 virtual sex sorted everything,
got it sussed, don’t have to worry
about all that talking stuff, or how to make
each other feel better, we’re glowing.
Day 10 You say flowers are free, post pictures
of poppies; compare my cooking shots
to your mother’s; our love implodes
spectacularly before we even meet.
Flowers are free, but birds come with words....
The little bird
Who could not decide
Which color to wear
So she put on them all
And sailed into the sky
Like a prism
Wings in the buttery air
Met the mockingbirds at last
To sing with them
But when the matron mockingbird
Saw this fashion misfit
all the mockingbirds did too
of dark and confident laugher:
a trademark of the enthroned.
she began to pluck herself
As they watched with beaks open
at the delicious spectacle
And when finally at last
She was bare before them
with nothing left to fear
She began to sing
And as she sang
Her colors flew into the air
Unencumbered by form
And made even the mockingbirds
With the beauty of it.
Touching down on the tarmac
she almost wants, still
to kneel, kiss the ground.
It’s a homecoming
although she hasn’t traveled far
she feels blessed to be back.
Her exile is self-imposed
of sorts. She made her bed.
And what a glorious bed it was,
for a while. And now, she lies
in it with her mixed-blood children,
her foreign husband. Sometimes
she dreams the life she might have had
if she’d never left home. Close
your eyes, squint and you might see -
it could have been easier. But then
friends tell her she’s living the good life.
All they see is the holidays they take;
forgetting how even silver tarnishes with use.
She wonders could she come back, out
of exile to this promised land of green
fields, grey stone houses, salt and vinegar
crisps, warm beer? But then
there are all the things she would miss:
bread, wine, cheese, all such clichés
but they have become her currency.
This is not the worst of it. She thinks
of how her children’s voices would sound
strange here. They would be the ones
marked out as different. No. There is
no easy way back from exile in the end.
Too long gone, the land she knew, the land
she might return to, is a foreign one now.
The little girl made her escape, weaving in and out of the thick tall trees. She tip toed and treaded as carefully as she could on top of the thick frozen snow, her bloodied feet leaving a mark every place she trod. She looked like a bundle of matchsticks. Dainty unnourished and dehydrated. She couldn't feel her feet. But she could feel her heart bang against her bony chest.The blood pumping in her ears and - fear.
She couldn't do anything the day he’d taken her. Her mother had told her all the time, never talk to strangers, never! She never listened. She never listened to anything her mother ever said she was always getting in trouble. She wished every day she could say sorry to her mommy for not listening. Perhaps that’s why her mommy had never come to look for her. Perhaps ‘he,’ was right.
When he rolled off her today and started snoring she stared out at the little room, her cell. She gaze focused on the door as usual.
It must have been an age before she realized there was something different. In his hurry to get undressed he’d forgotten to bolt the door.
She had flung the door open and was halfway up the frozen stone steps that led into the woods before she even knew what she was doing.
She stopped at the top of the stairs she found herself frozen by terror. Going into the light and air was as hard as jumping off a cliff. She could turn back or jump. She jumped.
It felt like falling off a cliff.It still did.Fight or flight.She was ill, half naked frozen bleeding and terrified. Still on she moved.
She found it harder to breathe in the big great open then she did in her little room. The outdoors seemed to make her feel more claustrophobic than her little room did. The light and glare from the snow made her dizzy.
Time had stopped the day she'd stayed at the park to long and she realized she was an hour late home. She thought was real fear a row from her mommy.Now she kne different. Time had been absence and irrelevant since then.
She didn't know how long she'd been limping and sniffling. She wondered how long he would sleep for? If he had awoken immediately? If she had made any distance or none at all?
He could be looking for her, following her, watching her now. She stopped immediately and exhaled breath. Breath she didn't have. She looked around all the trees slowly. She didn't think she could see him. She didn't she could trust her own eyesight either. On she walked.
She thought about her little quilt on her handmade wooden bed in her room. She wished she had brought it with her. It was the only thing she'd had hugged since she'd been taken. She didn't really understand the concept of a hug was that it went to ways but to her, it felt good all the same.
She kept changing the direction she was going in, panicked and praying it would lead to a road. She didn't know anything about South, North, East, or West, directions or paths. In her room it was simple. South, North, East and West were the four walls in the dank cellar, and it was that simple. Everything was simple.
She heard a loud snap and stood stock still. She looked ahead. Their eyes met.
Neither of them moved. Both sets of eyes stared at each other unblinkingly. The word ‘Deer,’popped into her head. The longer she’d been a prisoner the harder it became to remember what things were. It looked like a baby deer. She felt the urine trickle down her leg. It was the first living thing she’d seen in years apart from ‘him’. She started trembling with fear, wondering what it would do. Would it attack her? Did they bite? She was completely unaware that for the first time since the day she disobeyed her mommy. She was the predator.
For the briefest of moments, the terrified piece of prey stood in front of her. Instantly the deer darted away, two living examples of fight or flight passing in the woods.
On she limped. She wasn't running anymore just moving aimlessly in the snow.The sun was dimming and there different animal noises starting to echo. Each squaq made her jump. There were no weird noises in her room. Just the hum of the generator that helped her sleep, a little drip from the tap again now and again. A different noise hit her now. It was the sound of thump of metal and screeching car brakes. She stood and listened to be sure. The ticking over of the engine. The car starting up driving again.
She stood stock still like she was playing statues. Then she heard the sound of tires sloshing through the snow the hum of another engine. She was near to a road.
She moved as quick as agony would allow. Stopping every now and then again until she heard another car on the road and made her way towards the noise.
She limped upwards a little embankment then she could see it the road a hundred meters away through the trees. A bright red camper van drove past. The color and sound and movement made her shake a little.She started back down the Otherside of the embankment. She didn't stop for a second. Bright red bloody footprint after bright red bloody footprint on the pristine white snow.
She could hear another car approaching before she could see it.She made it just in time to the side of the road and saw the SUV approaching. The speed, noise, fear hit her all at once. Instead of running into the road or waving her hands she just stood there letting the car pass. Rooted to the spot.
Her mommy was always so cross with her. What if ‘he,’were right? Her mommy didn't want her, nobody did. Perhaps that's why they had never come to find her. She felt tired and lost and alone. She felt like she wanted to be wrapped up in her quilt in the bunker.
Something flinched on the other side of the road. She tried to focus on what she was seeing. It was the deer. Bloodied and mangled. Alive if only by the definition. It was making terrible noises. Death was coming for it. She wondered if ‘he’ was coming for her.
She wasn't sure if she was afraid he was or hoping. She heard another car coming and took two steps back and fell backward onto the snow. She fell to her knees and started crawling back the way she came. She started sobbing as the snow started to fall again.
Crawling back through the snow looking at her bloodied footprints it occurred to her, the only word she could think of where she was trying to crawl back to was, ‘home.’
Out of exile comes
“Why, why, why, Delilah,”
Tom Jones is rattling around my brain
You set me free
Cut me loose
But I wasn’t ready
Did not want to go
I told you this
But would you listen?
Out of exile comes
The blades edge drips black
It should be crimson
That’s the moon`s fault
It`s cold and lifeless as your heart
“Why, why, why, Janice?”
I`ll not wait for them to break down the door…….
The dust sits thick everywhere Keith looks. Skeletal remains of a Christmas tree stand in a corner with two faded, forgotten presents underneath, presents he'd never been able to give.
He wishes he'd not come. But it had felt like something he ought to do; exorcise the place of any ghosts before the estate agents came around. Use a cleaning company, Mary had said, but it's something he wanted to do himself. Now he's not so sure: it looks like a task beyond him. The place seems smaller but fuller of stuff, of memories.
He begins with the skeleton tree and the presents, and a bonfire.
He hates the term 'closure' - so American, so therapy-driven - but he feels something, when all the windows have been opened and all the dust driven out. He feels cleaner inside, as if the crime he didn't commit had stained his soul regardless, and now he's rubbed it away.
He lights his one cigarette of the day and takes a beer from the back of his car and sits on the deck, overlooking the river. Whilst cleaning, he'd been able to forget; concentrate instead on the mechanics of dusting, wiping, hoovering, sweeping... but now, now he's stopped, thoughts come crashing down on him, heavy, unwanted, out of exile themselves, the exile of the back of his mind where he's pushed and pushed them all these years.
He looks at the river, and watches it slide past. He remembers how he'd nearly gone with it, until he realised that anything like that would confirm his guilt. Instead he'd slunk away in the night, insults and threats ringing in his ears, only Harry's pleas sparing him an arrest.
Harry. He sighs the name aloud, and shakes his head. He tilts back his head and finishes the beer easily, too easily.
He's surprised to wake because he'd not thought he could sleep but the cleaning must have worn him out. He stretches out a stiff leg, then the other and rolls his neck, grimacing at the clicking and crunching in his upper spine. Where do years go, so fast? When did he get old? He can answer that, but he doesn't want to, lonely as those years have been, as empty and cold as this house he's come back to.
He stiffens, as he hears a car engine, close by. This house is at the end of a track and the only other place, Harry's parents' old cottage, is unoccupied. He knows, because he checked on Booking.com. He can't meet anyone here. It'll be holiday makers, lost, looking for a picnic place. It'll be the estate agent, come early.
It's neither. The car is small, a sporty blue thing with an open roof. A young man is in the driving seat, a young man he'd have known anywhere, even if it hadn't been for the mass of thick, blond hair.
Keith stands, ready to disappear into the shadows of the deck but it's no good, the young man has seen him and he's getting out of the car. He's imagined this conversation a thousand times but now it's here he's forgotten the part he should play.
Harry shuts the door and raises a hand, then stands uncertain, hovering. He's as scared as me, thinks Keith, and it's this that gives him the courage to walk forwards and meet him on the overgrown drive. He opens his mouth and the words that come aren't the ones he's expecting. A lack of experience with people over the last few years has made him direct, completely lacking a filter, Mary tells him.
'Thank you for telling the truth,' Keith says.
Harry looks downwards. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'For all of it. For ruining everything.'
'You didn't ruin anything,' Keith says, his voice more gentle. 'The villagers managed to do that.'
'I'm sorry it took me so long,' says Harry.
Keith doesn't trust himself to speak.
'I ruined your life,' Harry says.
'I wouldn't go that far,' Keith says. 'I've lots left, I hope, and I'd already had some good years. I'm trying to look on this as a break. I've done some writing, read some books. Worked a little.' But not as a teacher, he doesn't add. I'm too afraid, he doesn't say.
'I'm sorry,' Harry says again. 'I was having a bad time and my parents, they... you know how they could be. I was unhappy and they were arguing and then they said they were going to split up and I thought... I thought I could stop it.'
By sacrificing me, thinks Keith.
'It didn't work.' Harry says.
'No,' says Keith. 'Why now? And how did you know I'd be here?'
'Mum said this is where you'd come, as soon as she told you.'
'Are you going to come back?'
'For holidays? No. I'm selling the place. It felt like the right time to wipe the slate clean, so to speak.'
'I wish...' Harry begins but Keith shakes his head. 'What's done is done. I appreciate you coming here and I appreciate what you've done. There's nothing more to say. I have to finish up here.'
'OK,' Harry says. 'Are you... is there anyone in your life?'
Keith shakes his head. 'Not at the moment. I tried the on line thing once but it was full of muscly young men looking for something that I didn't want.' He looks at his feet. Anything he says is wrong, here. He doesn't add: And anyone younger than me makes me feel I'm doing something wrong. Even though I never did anything in the first place. 'What about you?'
'I'm engaged. To a woman far too good for me called Helena.'
'Helena and Harry. That's sweet,' Keith tries a smile. 'You mum must be happy.'
'She is. She said you must go and see her, sometime. She wants to... you know... talk.'
'I don't think that's a very good idea.' The thought of the woman makes him feel sick. All the things she called him. All the things he said about him, in public. She never understood that things like that, they never go away. Words become scars on the outside that everyone can see.
'I'd better be getting back,' says Harry. 'Thank you... for listening to me, all those years ago. I felt you were the only person on my side. And if I could take all of it back, every last word, everything, I would.'
'I believe you,' says Keith.
He steps closer and holds out his hand to the boy he once knew. Harry hesitates for a second then clasps it, his man's hands strong and sure. He nods, looks down, steps backwards, lets go.
Keith watches the dust rise behind the car as it disappears down the drive. He should feel better. A door has closed, he's been exonerated, the future stretches before him and he'll be free.
But as he walks back inside all he can feel is the hollowness of the house pressing in on him from all sides, the rooms shrinking with frozen memories and the ghosts of all the laughter that should have burst out from house guests, come to see him for holidays. There are only echoes of a present that is forever out of his reach. Echoes and dust.
Someone Else’s Loss
I stand the other side
of the supermarket aisle,
pretend I don’t see you,
too obsessed by my own hurt
should I get this wrong.
But your face says you're barred
from your native country,
somewhere strange, unwanted.
I'd like to give you
that silly warming of skin
to skin, something disposable, myself,
I'd like to do that for him.
I saw his obituary
in the local paper,
recognised your name,
the girlfriend after me,
Now there are places
neither of us can return.
You pick up a box of cereal,
hug it to your body,
put it back on the shelf.
I look at the replaced packet,
his favourite brand,
cross to you, touch your arm,
say: ‘I’m so sorry, it was too sad.
I remember how special he was,
feel a little diluted loss myself,
your home, your days so changed.’
Your pupils dilate in cartoon shock,
you pull me in to a crying hug,
we are both sobbing as you say:
'this feels like coming out
of the exile of loss, when even
my closest friends avoided me.
We haven’t seen each other
in twenty years, all we had
in common was a man, I can’t
believe you bothered.'
OUT OF EXILE
A spanking breeze was enough to bring ‘The Renown’ into harbour with a dash of old navy spirit. As she settled to the wharf, all hands were busy making good and ‘showing the flag’ to the amazed audience on the quay. They were dressed in best rig and when the admiral stepped ashore, a flurry of officials hurriedly made their way down to the quay to pay respects to such a distinguished visitor.
Admiral Lord Cochrane, sixty-five years old and plump as a turkey cock wore his full uniform and every medal he'd received in fifty years’ service. A naval man might have wondered at some of the ribbons and insignia he wore; there were purple sashes and jeweled stars which never came from England. Upon his fore-and-aft cocked hat, sat a jewel glistening in the blazing sun.
“Our joy is as great as our surprise M’Lord.” The mayor bowed and doffed his hat. “Had we notice of your arrival, we would have shown our respect!”
“No need of ceremony,” was the reply, as if the ship’s crew always wore their best on landing at every port.
The large man heaved himself down the gangplank and waved a vague salute to the Union Jack at the flagpole on the dock. He doffed his hat and wiped his face with a cloth revealing his bright red hair undiminished by age and his greying mutton chop whiskers.
The island harbour was Jamestown, St Helena; the most isolated of His Majesties Dominions in the South Ocean. It had no claim to distinction save for the outstanding fact that the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was held there in exile. The garrison providing the guards and sentries were no more than two hundred man and officers and the total amounted to less than the crew of the warship which had moored so efficiently.
“I’d be obliged if you would make my arrival known to His Imperial Highness and, of course, to the Governor.”
Cochrane was tall and looked down on the official with a kindly patronage. “Is it possible to find some shade, I find this sun a little too much for an old man!” He waved his hat like a fan and followed a servant to the verandah of the Custom House to await a formal welcome.
The Admiral was a remarkable man. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he found himself ‘on the beach’, with no fleet to command and heavily in debt. He enlisted in the Navy of the New Republic of Chile, taking command of the hastily formed navy to fight the old Regime of Spain which still held power in South America. His panache and experience had achieved wonderful results and the strange medals and jewels were awarded by the grateful new Nations he helped to create.
Hurrying down from Longwood House, Sir Hudson Lowe presented himself.
“A very good welcome My Lord! May I ask what brings you to this godforsaken place?”
It took very little intuition to guess he hated the posting. Cochrane scrutinized the Governor with a shrewd eye and hesitated before replying.
“There is a matter of confidential nature I must put before the Emperor.”
“We do not address him with that title in this place.” Lowe replied, “but if you wish I can arrange a meeting. Of course, it will be my duty to attend.”
“Nonsense! This matter of personal and confidential nature and I have sworn to deal directly with,”-- he hesitated--“Napoleon, and in secrecy.”
The governor stiffened as he considered this suggestion. Clearly, such a confidence was out of line in the strictest sense, but what harm would be done? A friendly word in Whitehall might be valuable.
“Let me consider it with the prisoner’s advisors, if they agree it may be possible.”
A warm smile crinkled the corners of the admiral’s eyes. “Then do me the honour of dining this evening aboard! It is time I had some civilized company instead of rough seadogs.”
His laugh set a flock of parakeets in flight and Lowe bowed with just sufficient nod to express his consent.
The evening went well. The officers of the Renown, kitted out in their various dress uniforms were presented to The Governor. Among the group, he was surprised to find most of them were ex officers of the British Navy, cast aside at the end of the war and had found employment in the New States; Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. By the time he had been dined, Lowe had consented to permit the audience with his prisoner on the following day.
When Cochrane landed the following morning, he found a guard of honour formed around the ancient carriage which served as the Governor’s coach. An aide de camp waited on him and they set off at a snail’s pace up the long hill to Longwood. The house sat among trees at the top of the hill and apart from a verandah which stretched the width of the house, it was a gloomy brick building with little favour. A slight mist hung in the air and Cochrane began to see why Lowe described the place in the way he did.
A French officer stood ready to greet them and showed them into a drab drawing room to await the prisoner.
Knowing he would find it difficult to rise when the Emperor came in, the admiral stood leaning a little on his dress sword for support. He noticed a curtain covering the opening to an adjacent room, twitch very slightly and sensing he was observed, took up a pose to impress his observer.
Suddenly, the curtain was drawn and Napoleon stood before him.
“ Mon Cher Amiral, un grand merci pour votre visite.”
The man who stood before him seemed puny to Cochrane. He was smaller than he had imagined and was dressed in field grey with no decoration. His figure was familiar to every soldier and sailor in Europe. The contrast between the large corpulent Englishman and the Emperor of All France could not have been greater.
Cochrane bowed and spoke in English. “I have come round the Cape to present the respects of the Liberated Nations to you, your Highness.”
Napoleon shrugged and held out his hand. “What am I? A Emperor of this rugged island of --“he looked for the word --“Brumes?...fogs?”
He nodded to the aide de camp and the young man withdrew, leaving the two great men alone. Napoleon took a seat and motioned Cochrane to be seated.
“You may know,” Cochrane began,” I have commanded the fleets of the Liberated Nations to drive the Spanish from the new World.”
The Emperor nodded with a slight smile. Perhaps he was comparing such a feat with the victory at Austerlitz or Jena.
“I am authorized to seek your agreement to join with the Nations and forge another great Empire here in the southern Hemisphere.”
He leant forward as he spoke resting each large hand on his knees. “I bring the request of President Bolivar to offer you this golden crown which has been snatched from your head by Fate.”
Bonaparte sat motionless for a time and then cupped his face in his hand. His large domed head with the wisps of dark hair still plastered across his forehead bent to the floor. Cochrane gazed at him; wondering at the figure of the man who had held all Europe to ransom. When he lifted his head, Napoleon’s eyes had transformed his face. The light of ambition glowed with a startling intensity once more. The tired weary figure was banished and confidence lit up his countenance with new life.
“This is the Will of the Nations?”
“I have travelled a thousand miles to bring this message.”
“Then let God’s will be done!”
He rose and approached the Admiral as if to embrace him. Cochrane tried to rise but his weight defeated him and he struggled to get out of his seat.
“Stay as you are. I embrace your hands with joy and gratitude.”
He took Cochranes’s hand in his and held them for a moment. In his turn, the admiral blessed his luck he had avoided a Gallic embrace. They remained in conference for an hour. Cochrane explained that the plan was to return after the Council of Nations had ratified the plan.
“But how long will that be?” Bonaparte looked concerned,
“I intend to return within three months. I will send a courier before we arrive and we will follow at the date he will specify. Be sure Monsieur L’Empereur, we will bring you in triumph to Santiago.”
“But the troops?”
“I have no doubt we can complete this exercise without bloodshed. My men are, after all, Englishmen too.”
With due ceremony the Admiral withdrew and after attending on the Governor, set sail again for Chile.
Three months to the day, a frigate of the Chilean navy appeared in the offing outside
Jamestown harbour. The Captain came ashore with a sealed order for the Emperor’s eyes only. It was never delivered. The Emperor had died three weeks before of an unknown gastric illness.
FOOTNOTE; The basis of this story is true. Cochrane devised a scheme to create a new Empire in South America and offer it to Napoleon (who was just fifty one.) The officer bringing the plan arrived three weeks after Napoleon died. The cause of death has never been finally established.
It is humans who taught humans inhumanity.
Decisions made by a democratic dictatorship,
Chance has become a game of which
Fair is vaguely aware.
Loop holes of the system
Act as a noose,
Too tight to tightrope the spectrum of the living
That carries hypocrisy so lightly.
Try on the eyes of another,
Realise the realness of their reality.
Separateness is our greatest illusion;
Societies necessary secret.
Revenge breeds a well-adjusted creed,
A way to justify these pick ‘n’ mix beliefs.
The kaleidoscopic world craving black and white;
‘Almost’ comes alive at night.
Manmade things are not the maker of men.
The unknown measure of intentions
Haunts the hardest of them.
Exile buds a becoming of closeness to opened ground.
After all, a pixelated face cannot make a sound.
Out of Exile
Scrimping, saving, a life confined by debt,
walls closing in, nearer and nearer
until it looked like they'd disappear
and the sky would open up over a street
somewhere in the depths of the city.
And there on the floor a letter, misplaced
for weeks amongst the bills, whilst
not being red was never read.
Cowering in the corner, hands on head
to protect from the insistent knock,
surges of days hidden in cargos
in trucks, on boats, in cars, hunger
biting through the stench of oil.
And then the day when he understood
that regime change (his side won)
meant he could go home a leader.
Watching from the sky, tracing
along the thin dusty roads, magnetic
memories of a dangerous departure,
aware that now the enemy was leaving
along the same routes he had taken
And he would open wide the doors
dressed in the appropriate uniform
and greet those who had waited for him.
The timing was beautiful.
A lovely sunny day, the air warm, the road dry, visibility perfect, the roads clear of traffic, just the best conditions to have a turn out on your motorbike. The adrenalin kicks in; the scream of the motor coupled with the roar of the wind and the exhilaration of the countryside flying past in a blur is intoxicating.
The motorcyclist overtook the lorry on a right hand bend, wheels just inside the white line but bike, body and, most regrettably, head over the other, oncoming lane. The lorry coming the other direction got in the way of the biker’s head and the impact plucked the biker from his steed, spun him round a few times till he landed with a thud against the tarpaulin covering the first lorry’s soft part-load of plastic bubble wrap. He was found sitting up against it, his legs spread out in front of him, just sitting there as if he was enjoying the sun. Scarcely a mark there was on his body, scarcely a mark, but his head was missing.
Yvonne’s first coherent thought as she came round was the beeping of the monitor. A steady beep, beep, beep. Her heart. Well, not hers. Someone else’s. Her new heart, from someone who no longer needed it. Momentarily, she felt sad, greedy. Her life at the cost of someone else’s. She felt guilty, grieved at the other’s loss. But she knew that the other life could not have been saved; hers now was.
She recovered well from her operation, progress was unremarkable except for occasional spurts of activity from her new heart which we would find suddenly pounding, as if with excitement. She could not figure out why this should be and as it did not seem to cause any problems it was agreed she would just go with the flow and not worry about it.
Back home, she felt settled again, except strangely for the sudden heart-races. She started walking the short distance to the shops and found the heart-races would happen out in the street too. She quickly realised it was when the noise of a motorbike came flying past – she noticed she felt anxious, unsettled.
The third trip to the shops found her waiting at a zebra crossing with her little wheeled shopping basket. There was a pause in the traffic and she started across but a third of the way out there was the scream of a motor and she turned to find the black silhouette of a biker hurtling towards her. With a screech of brakes and tyres he skidded to a stop, the bike throbbing and rumbling between his legs like a live animal.
She was transfixed. Slowly, without noticing that she had abandoned her shopping, she circled the machine, staring at it, taking in its shining chromium, its deeply coloured shiny fuel tank, the strong black frame, the wide fat tyres, the throbbing exhaust. Without knowing, her hand felt the coolness of the headlamp, the sensual curve of the tank, then as she bent down, her skirt flapping in the breeze, she could feel the heat from the v-twin cylinders and the exhausts taking away the spent gases to make way for the clean spray of petrol vapour to flash the pistons up and down within the darkness of the engine’s interior.
Without being aware, she looked up at the pillion seat behind the rider, who remained still, watching her as she drank in the aroma, the atmosphere, the being of his machine. Her hand caressed the soft leather.
“You want a ride?” he asked her, with a crooked smile.
Yvonne looked at him silently. Would she like a ride. Without hesitation, without replying, she lifted her skirt and slid herself over the pillion behind him, snuggled herself in close to his leathers, her thighs gripping the leather of the seat. Her feet found the pegs and immediately the engine screamed, the machine bucked beneath her and they shot forward like a horse from its starting gate. The acceleration was too much, she was sliding off the seat, she hung on tighter, conscious of nothing behind her to stop her falling off. The thumping between her legs from the motor had turned into a blur of vibration, rising and falling as they screamed up through the gears and the wind blew her spectacles away. She couldn’t breathe. She didn’t want to breathe. Then, the acceleration slackened and she was left just with the scream of the motor and the roar of the wind. She took a gulp of air and she, in turn, screamed, with the joy and exhilaration. She screamed, and laughed and screamed again. The biker grinned to himself. Couldn’t believe the bizarreness of the situation. Just randomly picking up an old maid out for the shopping and taking her for a spin down the coast road. It was long and straight, with a sharp right angle bend inland at the end.
He tapped the woman’s leg, squeezed tight against his, turned his head towards her, pointed at the end of the road half a mile ahead. He could see her look far ahead, see the black and white arrows and the sea beyond. He grinned. Opened the throttle wide. The engine roared, the bike bucked again, the woman screamed again. They were hurtling towards the black and white boards. She had a fleeting moment of coherent thought: all this trouble the doctors had gone to, giving her life, was about to be wasted. And still the bike accelerated. This time she screamed with fear. Then suddenly she was thrown forward as the brakes slammed on, the same way they had slammed on seconds before she met this nemesis and they were slowing, slowing, but not fast enough. The black and white signs were large, larger, filling the sky and abruptly the bike was turning beneath her, turning a sharp circle to return the way it had come. The experience repeated – acceleration, wind in hair, screaming noise and throbbing heat.
Before she knew it, they were back at the zebra crossing, the traffic carefully manoeuvring past her abandoned wheeled shopping basket.
Then, she was standing by it, the motorcyclist zooming away, a black silhouette receding rapidly into the distance, the noise of the exhaust left hanging in the air.
A car tooted as she stood there, transfixed. Had she imagined it?
She pulled her trolley out the road and stood there. She’d never had a dream like that before, in the middle of the day. Going for a ride on a motorbike? Her? She didn’t even have a driving licence, let along any interest in motorbikes. This was new. How could she have imagined something so strongly? Her new heart was racing fit to burst. This simply would not do. She took deep breaths, calmed herself.
Back home she was dismayed to find exhaust smuts and oil stains over her dress. She gasped.
At the hospital for her follow up appointment she reluctantly spoke about her imagined experience and the marks on her skirt. She explained how whenever a motorbike was near, her heart would race and if she was not careful she would find herself going over to admire any bike she could get near to. To ride it. She had received many strange looks from the riders. Some she almost felt she had recognised, she could say hello to.
Her consultant smiled. “This sometimes happens. Were you not told about this?” Apparently a new heart will want to impose the character of its former owner on its new user. “You just have to be firm”, the consultant advised. “Show your new heart who’s boss. It will soon understand. Break it in, like a horse, gently but firmly.”
So, she did. She would let her heart take her over to a motorbike, feel the pulse race as she checked out the machine, but resist the urge to ride it. Then, she forced herself away, then stood at a distance, then finally the heart relented, accepted that this lady just was never going to ride a motorbike. Boring.
Yvonne admitted secretly that she had rather enjoyed her fantasy trip on the motorbike along the coast road. But she was glad she had an understanding heart.
I eventually accepted
the common usage of the heart
as the organ that feels emotion
even though it plainly does not.
It does not ache or break
or desire or sink or flutter
or harden or burst or be still
unless you have died.
But it does beat faster if you are excited
and pound if you are afraid
so I have reluctantly conceded
to this anthropomorphism of the cardiac organ.
But 'the understanding heart'?
That is going too far by far.
It does not comprehend a thing.
It is a muscle, a four-chambered, valved pump
Not a processor, thinker or philosopher
It does not reason, it beats.
Please give the brain credit
where credit is due.
When you slept
I made love to the night air that warmed you.
As you slept I became part of the night air that wrapped around you.
The ragged edge of mountains
Visible from the window
Heralded the dawn and your awakening.
And like the raw outline against the morning grey
You stirred into life, a presence filling absence
And the dawn air that cooled you.
But your dreams were torn, divided
And your heart wandered between lovers
And your mind shaped small deceits that would save you from decision.
And as you stirred into wakefulness
I made love to the night air that warmed you,
Fearful of reaching once more into the secret unwinding of your heart.
I know myself. I know my sole function. I beat, therefore I am. I pump blood to every organ, nerve and follicle, sustaining this body every second of every day.
I feel the thrill of lifegiving oxygen reviving me as the blood passes through the lungs: from there I surge onwards, rejuvenating each individual cell, repairing, replacing, creating life.
On reaching the brain I feel the stimulus, the surge of electronic energy as thoughts and emotions are created and dispersed. I am lifted above my purely physical functions, drifting on gossamer thread wings of wonder and amazement generated by the consciousness and thoughts of the brain.
I float on a current the short distance to the eyes, wide open, gateway to the environment which exists beyond what I now realise are the relatively cramped confines of a single human frame.
The eyes gaze upon a second human form. My tenuous contact with the cerebral centre receives a relay from its memory banks. The form I see before me is feminine: my feelings are fervent, fundamental, feverish. Will she understand how I feel? Why I offer myself humbly at her feet: a willing slave, ready to respond to her merest whim?
I reach out, longing to touch this vision, embrace her, yet in awe of my own audacity. Will this goddess, this idyll of perfection deign to acknowledge my existence?
Cold. Ice cold. Frigid. No return, no reward, no feelings. No emotion that I can sense. She smiles, and turns to leave.
A glacial chill cools my ardour in an instant. I am alone, in a place so unimaginably dark it should not be allowed to exist. This aching heart, this breaking heart, this heart so full of selfless unequivocal devotion does not understand …
An hour to live and I dreamt of Myrna.
That evaporated as a priest entered and sat in the solitary chair holding his Bible with as much reverence as I once held Myrna. Pulling out a pack of Camels he handed me one and lit it.
“What’s your story, son? Where you from?”
“You get paid for this Father? The small talk…the smokes?” He didn’t reply. I took a long pull and lay back on my bunk. “Small Plains, Wyoming. Picket fences and apple pie.”
“Could’ve been, should’ve been.”
“How’d you find yourself here?”
I blew a smoke ring and watched it hit the ceiling.
“A devil called Myrna. I was sixteen first time I saw her. The heat of that summer made ovens out of parking lots but Myrna looked as if she’d stepped out of a cool box. In High school, she never noticed me. No-one did until it became evident that I could strike a baseball. In my first season, I hit nine home runs, my second, sixteen. Big fish. Little pond. A year later I had a summer job at a local ranch. The rancher’s son Mitch was my buddy. Detroit Tigers were sending scouts and people began to look at me different. One of them was Myrna. Mitch had feelings for Myrna too but we were all friends, you know. When the Tigers finally decided to give me a trial, Myrna and I’d dated a couple of times. Mitch seemed okay with it but then one day he gave me a new horse to ride. Said it was broke in except it wasn’t. Damn horse threw me and broke my arm. I could never swing a bat again.”
“You think? Mitch swore it was an accident but…” I winced. “Tigers flew me out to Detroit. I had three operations. They gave me time to heal, put me up in a hotel but I couldn’t swat a damn fly. When I got back home, Mitch and Myrna were an item. I was just a hired hand. College didn’t want a guy who couldn’t win the Pennant but the Army took me. I could still shoot straight. Did six years, mostly Korea. Left there and served time in two bit bars with just a bottle for company. Whisky and barkeeps are good listeners, Father.”
“They’re probably old priests.”
“Got word my mother died and wind blew me back.”
“God works in mysterious ways, my son.”,
“God or the devil? Town seemed bigger or maybe the people had gotten smaller. It was Mitch’s town now. Had his finger in almost everything. I kept a low profile, got myself a job fixing cars. Then one day, Myrna walks in. I had my head stuck in the hood but I knew she was there. She wore a perfume call sex. You’d never forget it. Auburn hair ran over her shoulders like Niagara with a tan. She seemed glad I was back, said they’d both missed me and invited me over for dinner. It’s not easy acting out the part of a prodigal when you’ve feelings of love and hate Father, but I did it. I did it for Myrna. For the next few weeks Myrna kept stopping by, making coy excuses about her car, but I knew she wanted more than an oil change. It happened fast and I ain’t apologising for it, to you or God.”
“An affair? I can’t condone it.”
“Give me three Hail Marys. Myrna talked about the past, about me and how unhappy she was. Mitch didn’t love her; never had. Only married her to rub my nose in the dirt. She convinced me that we could start someplace else but there was one problem. Mitch might let her go but he wouldn’t give her a damn penny. I couldn’t see Myrna taking to life in a one roomed apartment.”
“It was about money then?”
“She played coy and chewed on her hair. No man with blood in his veins could refuse her anything. Said she hoped he’d die but she couldn’t wait till he was eighty. That’s when I suggested we kill him. She got me to say it, but I think she wanted him dead from the moment she married him. I was her chance and I fell for it.”
“You killed Mitch.”
“I was as responsible for killing him as she was. I hated him. That trick with the horse screwed up everything. Trouble was, when it came to pulling the trigger, I couldn’t do it. I tried reasoning with him. He laughed and said I was welcome to her but that she wouldn’t get a penny. That’s when Myrna grabbed the gun and shot him. Wisconsin police are stupid but they got a tip off. I always wondered about that. Found the gun in the garage with my prints on. Don’t know how but at some point she’d put the gun back in my hand. I confessed but she played the grieving widow. Looked good in black. She said I wanted revenge and denied ever loving me. I was the spurned lover who’d lost the chance to go big time. She does crying real good.”
“The jury thought so. She planned this from the day she walked into the garage. I was a means to an end.”
“God help you, my son.”
“Save God for the next guy she gets her claws into. Women like Myrna are never satisfied. If I’d made Major League, she’d have chosen me. Without that Myrna was always going to choose Mitch, but she was a possession to him. A woman like Myrna always needs a guy like me for the grittier things in life.”
A bell rang and the cell door slid open. The priest crossed himself as the warden approached.
“Was she worth it?”
I turned towards him.
“Fairy tales don’t always have a happy ending, Father but someone like Myrna will always be worth it.”
I thought of us as doors
in and out of each other,
windows that framed revelations -
insights and world views.
Just recently we were enclosed
together, snuggled within ourselves
not wanting to lose any warmth,
to let the cold air in.
Now I’m running through opened doors
racing wind, searching
for where you call home,
not finding you anywhere I know.
Dear hands fisted,
contact clenched, your beautiful mouth
makes mean words that slap me
My understanding heart arrests
on the sight of your hungry eyes
looking out of our window
for someone new to rescue you.
“Empathy is the flail that makes ruin of open hearts” FS.
Patricks hand darted for the phone on the first ring, then paused it over the handset. Calm down, take it easy, he chided himself; his heart was racing, his first solo call. He let it ring two more times before picking it up. His attempt at a casual, “Hello?” was greeted with silence, he waited, then tried again, “Hello?” the line went dead. His shoulders slumped as he replaced the receiver, his first call and he`d blown it, he looked at the clock, just after 11:01 a.m.
He was just starting to give out to himself when the phone rang again, this time he reached out more slowly, “Hello,” he said, “I`m listening?”
No-one answered, was that breathing he could hear? He looked at the clock, watched the second hand tick away fifteen seconds, which felt like an eternity, before he tried again, “Hello, I`m listening?” three more seconds ticked past, the line went dead once more.
Was it kids he wondered, as he replaced the handset, or worse a drunk who thought it would be funny to ring the Samaritans and wind someone up; it was a Freephone number after all. They`d warned him about that during training, how to handle it, he hoped it wasn’t; Emily`d told him some of them could be quite abusive.
The phone rang again, he let it ring four times before answering, “Hello, I`m listening?” he waited for laughter or abuse.
Instead a small quiet voice, it sounded like a young girls said, “Um… I… um,” and lapsed into silence, he thought she sounded scared.
“It`s okay,” he told her, “I`m listening.”
“Um, um, it`s Bethany`s… last year my sister, today, last year she found.. no, my mum`s… my mum`s not well and she can`t sleep and Bethany….last year today, Bethany….” She lapsed back into silence, her breathing, quick and ragged, was louder now.
“It`s called active listening,” Mary their supervisor told them during training, she explained it to them and he said he understood, she told him he didn’t and explained it again and then a third time.
“People don’t listen,” she said, looking directly at him. “People think they do, but they only half do. They listen to what the other person is saying until they think of a rebuttal and then they stop listening, waiting for the other person to stop talking, waiting for their chance to jump in.”
“Active listening means you don’t have an opinion, it`s not a conversation, they talk, you listen. You do not interrupt, you do not offer advice or opinion, you sit and you listen, nothing more;” Patrick thought it sounded more like passive listening, but he never said that.
“I`m listening,” he prompted again, worried that she might have given up.
For a while she said nothing, but he could still hear her breathing, then in a rush she said, “Bethany died a year ago… today; a year ago today. She took too many of mum`s pills, the ones she needs to get too sleep. She told me she would, but I didn’t believe her. She said, she said she couldn’t do it anymore, she said…” abruptly she stopped talking.
“My dad he, my dad he…. My dad…he,” it was as if she couldn’t get past those three words.
“When I was eight, when I was, when I was eight, my dad he, he….” She sobbed, just once, a terrible lonely sound and went quiet. Jesus not that, he thought, not on my first night, not a sex abuse call, instantly hating himself for being so selfish.
“One night, when I was eight,” her voice was trembly and weak, “One night after my eight birthday; after my mum had taken her pills, my dad, he,” there were those three words again, but this time she got past them.
She told him about the first time; it came in fits and starts. She`d get so far, stop, sob a little, go back, tell some more, stop altogether, restart, cry, apologise for crying, apologise for telling him all this, then start again, sometimes from the beginning.
She told him about the first time, five times, every time telling him a little more, filling in more detail. He could feel his grip on the handset tightening all the while, heard the plastic creak in complaint under his grip.
She told him about the second time, about her older sister Bethany lying perfectly still in the next bed her eyes wide watching the whole time. She told him about the time after that and the next time and the next and the next, until they blurred into one wretched event.
She told him what he did to her, the things he used, the bruises and the bleeding, how Bethany would clean her up, wipe her tears away and rock her to sleep after…… and she told him about all the things he made her do to him, things that made Patrick`s skin crawl.
It was when she told him about her lying there, still as could be, watching him doing all the same awful things to Bethany, that he heard how shallow and raspy his own breathing had become and he lifted the mouthpiece away from his lips, afraid she would hear.
He listened and learned to hate a man he`d never met. Listened, alternating between white rage and all-consuming pity. The cubicle and the desk disappearing; his world compressing down to the chair, the phone and her voice, there was nothing beyond that.
Whenever he sensed she might be on the verge of hanging up he`d say, “Go on, I`m listening.” The words sounding more tinny and false with every retelling, like worthless platitudes, and him feeling as useless.
Then in a wretched voice she said, “Audrey was eight last week,” and began to weep, weep like she might never stop, drawing tears from a well far too deep for one so young. He heard the cluck clunk of the receiver being put down. She hadn’t hung up, he could hear her crying and had a vision of a girl, who couldn’t be more than thirteen, standing alone in a phone box in the depths of a miserable winters night, her face in both hands crying her heart out, not for herself, not for her own lost childhood, but for her little sisters.
His throat ached from the effort of holding back his own tears as he heard her weeping turn to sobs, then to gasping, catching, hiccupping breaths, and finally to silence.
He listened, pressing the receiver so hard to his ear the side of his head hurt, despising himself for even noticing.
There was a rattling metallic sound as she picked up the phone again, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse and tired, but chillingly firm, “I can`t do this anymore,” she said, and the line went dead.
Patrick pulled the phone from his ear and looked at it, in a moment of panic he thought it might have stopped working, but when he put the handset to his ear again he heard the dial tone`s soft purr.
Can`t do this anymore, he thought, what this? This what? This phone call, this, this; he didn’t want to think what other this she could have been talking about. He wanted her to call back and then stupidly realised she couldn’t with the phone off the hook and slammed it down on its cradle, his hand hovering over it ready to snatch it up as soon as it rang.
He glanced at the clock 11:32, had it really been thirty minutes? It felt as if less than five had passed since he`d first answered the phone; “Please ring,” he pleaded softly, “Please.”
What this? What this? Those two words battered themselves against the cage of his imagination, giving breath to every possible ending.
He began to second guess himself, was it something he said, something he didn’t say? He ran through what she`d said back and forth, all the time trying to unpick the words, “can`t do this anymore,” from his mind.
At 11:34 the ache in his shoulder became unbearable and he was forced to drop his hand, resting it on the handset, his fingers curling around it, still ready. He dug the fingers of his free hand into the muscle, revelling in the sharp pain.
At 11:35 he started to worry that the phone might be broken, what if he`d damaged it when he slammed it down like that? He should check and see if he had a dial tone. What if she was trying to get through, but couldn’t? But what if he picked it up and she rang in that moment? Indecision paralysed him.
By 11:36 he`d almost convinced himself that she had rung back and had gotten through to one of the other volunteers. Maybe right now she was talking to Emily or Joan. Yeah that’s right; she was talking to one of the women, she hadn’t wanted to talk to him at all; he was a man. Hadn’t she hung up the first two times he`d answered because he was a man, he almost talked himself into believing it…. almost.
At 11:37 he took his hand off the phone, stood up, opened the door of his small windowless cubicle, and stepped out into the hall.
At the end of the short corridor light glowed through an opaque glass door; it took him four steps to reach it, he rapped softly on the door and without waiting for an answer pushed it open.
Mary looked up, saw his face and gestured to a chair, “Sit down,” she said, and though he never heard a word, did so anyway.
He sat, slumped forward, legs splayed, forearms resting on his thighs, hands, palms up, hanging limp. He stared at his hands, they were shaking, why were they shaking so much? He wanted them to stop, ordered them to; stop shaking, he thought, but they ignored him.
What this? What.. this? What….this?
He curled them into fists and they went on shaking, why won`t they stop shaking, he thought, I want them to stop but they won’t, why won’t they stop? It was an effort of will not to pound his knuckles into his forehead; the idea that pain would drive those two words from his mind beginning to become more and more enticing.
His head jerked up, he`d never heard his name spoken as gently before. Mary was leaning forward, elbows resting on her desk, fingers interlaced, head tilted ever so slightly to one side as she studied him, real concern in her eyes.
“What this?” he begged in a hollow lost voice, made hoarse from the effort of withholding the tears that were finally coursing down his cheeks; his shaking hands going to his face, to hide his shame, his sense of failure.
She leaned a little closer, and said…… “I`m listening?”
Here I sprawl
Stare at the plant on the windowsill
Dusty sunlight cupped in its white petals.
In my stomach the morning's excesses of caffeine mix with something else
Something unwanted and shameful and just past understanding
Something like lust
Something like love
For someone who is
Too much of a friend
To be shrunk to a snapshot of desire.
The awful realisation of it curdles with the coffee
Sends tendrils of electricity groaning dangerously to each edge of me.
It turns the feeble flower to an angel's wings.
In her new chair my grandmother slumbers in and out of the day.
Once, with a twinkle in her eye, she talked about heartbreak
Assured me with glee that one day soon I would "fall terribly in love"
(politely laughing and curling my toes)
Hated the word and the way she said it
Hated the time that trapped me in the room with her
Hated the heat and the twirling wreath of memories and her smug prediction of my own future weakness.
I remained quiet and swore that I would stay forever upright.
Now, in this time, I think I would quite like to open my heart to hers
but it is too late
Her mind has eroded
Flashes of rain on an unpaved path
The beginnings of sentences
and in other places
I would like to hear her stories one more time
To know that what is raging inside me
May be ugly like a lightning-scorched tree stump
And crude like sharp-edged etchings on cave walls
But at least it was felt too by neat, sensible-shoed girls with 1940's hair
Who lived to laugh and to tell the tale.
Her heart is still understanding as it always was
But my words would roll like water from the duck's back of her mind
Before they even reached it
So I simply squeeze her fingers
(whilst inside me that timeless song screams and aches)
And ask her if she would like another sip of soup
"It's cream of asparagus. Quite nice, I think. Just one more sip before it gets cold?"
Does absence make the heart grow fonder?
Time passes with no fleeting remembrance or even a
stare in your direction.
The seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and now years stumble and blend like a montage of
Gone. Can you hear the whisper of goodbyes?
Waves of liquid ice meander through
tunnels that touch and render the epidermis warm.
But the struggle of heat elsewhere falls short,
And in that same failed place, there is a vacancy to abort.
A perplexed iamb, now of steel, strikes at the core not once but twice,
It waits. Lub dub. Isolated.
Except the fractures never heal, not completely.
What’s left is a magnitude of chips, battle scars, lowering their gaze in shame.
Still, life peeps through obscurity;
Steps on each shadow like puddles in December.
The path for that desire is axiomatically unfamiliar each time you try and take it.
But that never stops us.
Who is proud of being alone?
Break ups now are so virtual. There was a time when I would have sat in my bedroom, around me a scatter of torn photographs, the white pulpy interior fleshy like the weight in my heart. The glossy image wafer thin as the lies he, whichever one he was, had told. The 'printed on Kodak paper' backing all turned upwards as I bound together the broken memories.
But today I sit in a cafe, prodding angrily at pixellated images, on Facebook, on Instagram, in my photo album. Delete. Delete. Delete. Secure delete trash. And yet somewhere in the operating system there will be backups, at some point the images will have been shared. In a year, there will be a 'memory' on my social network and you, yes, you, will reappear.
I pick up the uneven scraps of chemical paper from my bedroom floor, gathering them into a bundle held together with tightly cupped hands as if carrying my own blood. I flick my elbow on the door handle to open it, looking down to the floor to make sure I had dropped nothing. In the garden I carefully place the paper into the brazier, making sure nothing slips between the gaps, the white bright against the rusted brown and black metal.
I slam the phone down on the thick wooden table, as if the sudden motion might permanently delete all of the memories. The man behind the counter looks up and smiles, as if he knows exactly what I am doing. He turns away but flicks the back of his hair with a finger or two to draw my attention to him.
The boy next door watches from the window as I symbolically run a match along the length of the strip of sandpaper on the side of the matchbox. I hold it in front of me, burning tip down and diagonal to the ground, to make sure the length of the wooden shaft catches. I like to feel the heat of the flame against my fingers, and then when I can bear it no longer, I drop the match into the paper pyre and watch it catch. The boy in the window has seen me do this before and knows what it means.
The man behind the counter still has his back to me. His arms work methodically, with gentle hisses and clatters, the sounds of hot coffee and cold china. I pick up the warm phone and watch the bar work its way across the screen until the message 'All Photos Deleted' appears. For a moment I want to find any that have been shared, for one more look, but I don't. I turn off the phone and watch as the glowing screen darkens.
All that is left of the photographs is a mound of burnt, charcoal black, curled chemical paper, the ghostly images floating in the smoke into the sky. I smell the fire on my skin and on my clothes; it will take days to wash off. Where will the particles land? What becomes of the memories we lose? As I turn back to the house, I see a single torn photograph on the grass and I pick it up.
I am miles away. A loud noise in front of me, on the table, reawakens my attention. I open my eyes. The man smiles and nods down to the fresh cup of coffee he has just placed in from of me. 'On the house'. He walks away but turns once to look back and smile. He knows my order. I warm my hands on the cup, and feel the extreme heat burn my skin.
That afternoon, the boy next door rings my bell and presents me with a small bouquet of flowers. I've seen over his fence and I know he has picked them from his own garden. They are loose, without string or paper to bind them. I carefully carry them to the kitchen, place them on the worktop, reach into the lower cupboard for the small vase, fill it with water and tease the flowers into the narrow stem. Then I place it in my window. He does this every time I burn my photographs.
We have so much to learn about love,
there is so much they could teach us -
if we could only hear their speak,
understand the clicking of their tongues.
There is so much they could teach us,
there’s a map written into their wings
stitched in with care - all those hours
spent grooming each other for fleas.
There’s a map written into their wings -
always showing the way back home.
Even as they’re soaring over oceans,
tundra, a landscape of snow -
always showing the way back home.
Even when they’ve strayed so far,
they know the value of faithfulness,
they know the comfort of a warm hearth.
Even when they’ve strayed so far,
lost in the crowd of babbling,
gaggling geese and swans,
only death could keep them apart.
BETTER THAN A COFFEE MOJITO
It was 4.23am – I was born at 5.45am so you can imagine my shocked response; I mean, too much of a coincidence, right? Eighty-two minutes to go. I was convinced it was going to happen. Right on the button. How neat would that be? I don’t mean in that ridiculous American way – I mean neat and tidy. Oh, the irony if it were to happen.
Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Yes … 4.23am. My toes began to swell. Not my whole foot … just my toes. So bloated, in fact that they seemed to be fusing together. And then, through the glorious fog of delirium, I realised they really were fusing. Into pinched bony intersections between flattened skin – webbed. I could hear and feel the twisting and turning of tiny bones, though thankfully no pain. Even so, the overall sensation made me nauseous. After all, to experience one’s own transmogrification is a unique and, on the whole, unpleasant experience.
Mopoko told me it would be like this last night. She appeared shortly after the night nurse gave me my routine cocktail – better than a coffee Mojito: morphine – she appeared and told me. Watch for the feet. Watch those first. Her warnings needed to be heeded; I just knew. I’d never heard of her until she appeared … shortly before dawn. Mongolian spirit apparently – not quite a deity, more a guide. She was just at the side of my sightline and was ethereal, beautiful; but when I looked straight on she wasn’t there. But I listened. An angelic non-presence going nowhere except into my future moments. I only had moments.
And so it began – thank god for the morphine. I could feel the changes stretching every sinew. My head was swimming. I was back in church, some years ago, on Good Friday listening to the Stainer Crucifixion. David and Michael were there – David: wayward, wanton but beautiful. Those long delicate muscles in the back of his neck. Like a swan! Now there’s a coincidence. And Michael: long-suffering, supportive, paternal even. The old “friend” – nobody would contemplate that they were lovers. Well I did. I knew. The whole congregation knew but they didn’t frighten the horses or upset the vicar’s wife so that was that. Far from being a topic of contention, their age difference simply underlined what a nice chap Michael was, taking an avuncular role to irascible, charming David. Mother Goose!
Mopoko said I’d been chosen – it was largely random. I’d always been a wanderer in life, more feminine than masculine in spirit, quietly tenacious … and a loner. I’d heard of the Ohito Declaration and that was a key factor too – a bringing together of spirituality and ecology and trying to influence world religious leaders to adopt this as a philosophical stance on which to develop their extant beliefs … am I being boring?! So some souls got chosen to spread, not the word, but the spirit. And wanderers transmogrified into geese or swans. Why, I asked. Mythology, she said. Both are legends in numerous civilisations from the Celts to the Egyptians, from the Greeks to the Chinese. Geese do the work of God. Swans are the personification of God.
“Which shall I be?” I asked.
“Luck of the draw!” she answered.
Back in that church on Good Friday, the choir master – actually a woman, so does that make her a choir mistress? It’s confusing. Ok … the choir director had an impossibly high forehead, which would have looked odd on a man. And on a woman it was downright weird. Is that body fascism? Is it discriminatory? Am I simply shallow? Pathetic? Rude? Surely such distractions in church on a Good Friday prove that I am hardly qualified for the choice of … spiritual guardian?! Mopoko has the wrong person. More of that coffee mojito would be good around now. My god, its 5.05am. My feet again. The bones have elongated, the skin has stretched and split, become leathery and webbed. And the knees have reversed! My god, the pain along my arms and my shoulder blades … like knives piercing from the inside out.
“Wings,” she said quietly. You are developing wings. Those needles are the feathers pushing out. Feathers aren’t just those nice fluffy things, you know. Look at the sharp end!”
Mopoko reminded me at this point that article 7 of the Ohito Declaration says “All faiths should fully recognise and promote the role of women in environmental sustainability”. And article 10 emphasises the need, not only for individual action but for community involvement. Why then not take the obvious next step: all genders! Why think of two when clearly that’s a bit iffy, at best. And sexualities. Mopoko simply sighed. “Get focused on women. It’s going to be part of your brief!” And all communities? She sighed. I wept with pain. Do geese and swans get briefs? Don’t they just simply exist and fly? In mythology geese were sex and swans were love. Is that what she means when she says think about women? Is that just vulgarity masquerading as false insight?
I screamed. Quickly and painlessly my fingers had dropped off. They were gone.
That evening back then – Good Friday – listening to Stainer. It dawned on me. God hadn’t sent Jesus to die. He’d sent him to persuade people to change, to perform the occasional miracle to impress and, if necessary, scare the living shit out of them to get them to recognise the terror they’re capable of. Well, I could see that myself, living in the 21st. century. Look at what dominance could do to people. Look what it had done over the previous hundred years. Genocide had become a habit. I thought the problem was power … absolute power. But I realised that afternoon that it wasn’t. It was vanity.
And I realised at the same time that Jesus took it upon himself to get crucified. His own stupid idea.
Oh my god! The pain is in my back now … it’s changing shape to accommodate the wings. My legs are shifting too: shortening and setting further apart in relation to my body. Every muscle in my groin is being torn and Mopoko is simply smiling benignly. Does she think it’s helping? More coffee mojito please. 5.26am. Why am I convinced it’s going to coincide with the moment of my birth?
Power. Vanity. And Jesus making his own decisions about crucifixion - so God was angry. Truly angry. So whenever Jesus’ light and love shine through – in vain, I might add, because some little shit somewhere decides that mass rape, murder, destruction and pollution are going to make him a few extra millions or a hero and – what the hell, the sheer bloody power of it, the casual ability to be able to say “Do it!” – well, all that screws up the light and love, doesn’t it? The ultimate vanity: I replicate Armageddon because I can.
And so God sends another terrible tribulation to test his son and the weakness of his followers. Don’t you see? And when the helpless cower together for comfort, every significant touch that they share encompasses joy, relief, comfort … and pain. To remind them. He was very pissed off by that crucifixion. For He is a vengeful God.
And he’s certainly taking his vengeance out on my cracking bones!
“Not God,” whispered Mopoko. “This is just the process … a series of steps.”
“And I’ll become a goose or a swan?!” I asked.
“Yes … each has a role to play in spreading the divine work of spirituality and ecology.”
“Why can’t I just die, like everyone else? It bloody hurts!”
“Your visions singled you out. These visions now…in your final moments. These are a sign of your connection with earth spirits and universal divinities.”
“Bugger that! It’s too painful. Where’s the coffee mojito? Oh yes … and how does God fit into all that then? And Jesus? Myths about swans and geese … hardly the stuff of Christianity, is it?!”
“They all fit together and you’ll find out the whole truth in the afterlife.”
“This is insane! How can I learn the secrets of eternity and fly around here doing god knows what as a….goose or a swan?! And, while we are on the subject, I’d prefer to be a swan!”
“You get what you’re given … just like in this life.”
It’s 5.44am. Just forty seven seconds to the exact time I was born. My face is distorting, elongating. I fix on my final thought. It links back to that evening listening to Stainer. God. Jesus. My final thought: where does that leave the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit who is always depicted as a dove. I am a swan. Or a goose. All is vanity, in the end.
There`s a lough a stroll away from my house, at least it was before the accident. Now with my left leg two inches shorter than my right it is more of a hobbling trek. “The accident” as the police insist on calling it, happened last May. I`m a runner, or I used to be. Not for a living you understand, I was an architect; nobody you`d have heard of, I never designed anything famous, one off houses mostly, but it was a good living. I say all that in the past tense, because since “the accident” I`m getting by on a disability pension, but back to running.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, cool, only a slight breeze, and I was on the last mile of an eighteen miler when a car coming towards me accelerated, swerved hard left onto the footpath and hit me head on. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so tired I might have been able to leap out of the way, who knows. What I can tell you with absolute certainty was the look on the drivers face just before the car hit me, what I saw was rage; rage and intent.
The police say that there is no way a seventy two year old retired accountant would have deliberately driven into me like that, that he`d told them he`d blacked out momentarily, that he didn’t even remember “the accident,” but I know better.
I remember everything right up to the point I landed on the concrete face first. I remember the pain, so suddenly awful, the sound of my bones snapping, first my left leg, then my right, in such rapid succession that it sounded like a god had stepped on a patch of dried twigs. The sensation of being flung backwards, my arms flailing as I spun, the ground rushing up to meet me….. then blissful nothingness.
I won’t bore you with recounting the many surgeries, or the long hours of physiotherapy; people who think dentists are sadists should spend an hour or two with Mercy, (he laughingly swore it was his given name) my physio. A six foot two Nigerian, who`d move here in the noughties, and discovered he`d an aptitude for hurting people…..legally.
I`m too ashamed to recount the names I called him, as he stretched and bent muscles and limbs that had no intention of co-operating. If you`d asked me before we`d met, I would have insisted I was no racist, but excruciating pain it seems, brings out our basest natures.
He`d laugh at each curse I flung at him. “Go on,” he`d say, in that distinct lyrical accent of his, as he flexed my left leg until the calf touched the thigh, “Call me a black bastard again Jack,” grinning as he said it.
Through all the surgeries and the rehab, Susan was there, holding my hand, encouraging me, pushing me to get well. And when I did, when I could finally walk from one end of the hall to the other unaided, she left me, said she`d only stuck around long enough to see me on my feet, but that she hadn’t signed up for a life with a cripple.
So now I hobble to the lough each day around twelve, ease myself slowly onto what I like to call, “my bench” and watch the world go by.
The lough is man-made, the path that circumnavigates it a full mile, and at its centre a small island, maybe thirty feet across, overgrown with small bushes, the nesting place of the swans.
There are eighteen in total, they swim serenely to and fro, all perfect white poise and majesty; overfed by the kids that chuck bread at them as they sail by.
The day the geese arrived, announcing their presence with loud honks as they touched down, was the day I first met Eileen, and the day of the battle royale.
The swans, most of whom had been on the lough`s small slipway, incensed by these invaders charged into the water, braying and flapping their wings. A woman I didn’t recognise, stopping in front of me to watch, blocking my view.
“Excuse me,” I had to shout to be heard over the noise of the birds. She turned, “Do you mind,” I said, waving at her to move aside, then realising how rude I was being said, “you can sit here if you like?” patting the empty seat beside me, and was surprised when she took me up on my offer.
I have always sat alone, not out of choice, but because other people avoid me. When you look like one of doctor Frankenstein’s rejects, people tend to steer clear. When I connected with the footpath face first, most of the skin on the right side of my face was torn away. They reconstructed what they could, grafting skin from my nether regions; which in one way is quite handy, I haven’t had to shave that side of my face since. However after seven o`clock in the evening, when one side of my face is smooth and the other stubbled, I tend to look a bit like a before and after picture in a shaving commercial.
The battle lasted for maybe fifteen minutes, the geese winning by dint of superior numbers, the swans retiring to their island to lick their very real wounds.
“I`m Eileen,” she said, thrusting out a hand, I shook it in surprise, “Jack,” I managed.
It turned out she was a nurse, home from Australia, her mother was in Marymount, where she`d been for the last five weeks.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, “Cancer?”
She nodded, “Started in the lung, but now it`s everywhere.”
There are questions you simply cannot ask, “How long has your mother got?” is very high on the list. She solved my dilemma by saying, “She probably won`t last the week.”
Eileen was staying in her mother`s house, one of the row that faced onto the lough, “I grew up there,” she said, pointing it out to me, “Dad used to love the garden…” she faltered into silence.
“My parents died in the old Marymount,” I said, desperate to fill the void, “I hear the new place is very high tech?”
“Oh yeah, they have everything,” she glanced at her watch, “I`d better get back, she`ll be awake soon,” and stood abruptly.
“Well,” I said, “I`m here every day, if you want to talk?” she nodded, thanked me and walked away. I thought, well I`ll never see her again, but I was wrong.
She was already there the next day, sitting on my bench as I hobbled up at twelve thirty. Turned out, most days her mother slept between eleven and two, giving Eileen a break from her vigil.
“How`s your mother?” I asked, as I eased myself onto the bench beside her.
She shrugged, “A little worse.”
“They got her on the box yet?”
“Box?” she asked, her brows knitting into a puzzled frown.
“Sorry; local slang for the morphine pump,” I grinned in spite of the seriousness of the conversation.
“No,” she said, “Just on the drip; and liquid Oxy for the breakthrough pain.”
I was more than familiar with Oxycontin, or hillbilly heroin as they call it in the states. “That shits pretty powerful,” I said.
She shrugged, “keeps the pain at bay, though she`s having these weird hallucinations. She swore that dad had visited her last night, that they`d had one hell of a…….” she trailed off, realising she was perhaps saying too much.
I grinned, “I used to have some pretty wild fantasies myself,” I said.
And that’s how it went, for the next three days we`d sit on the bench and trade life stories. I told her about my accident and how Susan left me, which elicited a “Bitch,” from Eileen.
She told me about her family in Brisbane, her kids Josh and Katy, and of course her husband Nick. She`d talk him up, what a good father he was, how hard working he was, but everytime he cropped up she`d worry her wedding ring, twisting it round and round on her finger, I don’t think he was aware she was doing it.
On an impulse, or maybe it was a premonition, I don’t know, I don’t believe in that stuff, I gave her my mobile number, “In case you need……” I couldn’t think what on earth she`d need from a cripple like me, so I left the sentence unfinished.
In the early hours of the following morning my phone burred into life. Still half asleep I groped for it, glanced at the unfamiliar number and swiped to answer, “Hello?” I croaked, the clock read 5:03.
I snapped awake, “Eileen, is everything alright?”
“It`s mum…. She…..I….”
“I`ll be right there,” I said, rolling out of bed, stifling the groan that threatened to erupt from my throat as pain flared from my left hip.
“Oh Jack I…..”
“It`s okay,” I assured her, “I`m on my way.”
Whilst I waited for the taxi I made a cappuccino, I don’t drink them myself, there were some sachets left over from when Susan used to live here. I threw the concoction into a travel mug, added three spoons of sugar, and made it to the front door just as the taxi drew up.
The new hospice was a steel and glass wonder, with none of the charm and warmth of its predecessor. “Hegarty?” I asked the receptionist, and was directed to the first floor.
The room was low lit and had the familiar smell of death, if you`ve ever been there you know what it is; like mothballs, only sharper, with an underlying musky smell.
The woman in the bed was a cadaverous mirror of Eileen, who was bedside, holding her mother`s hand, she looked like she had been crying recently, she ignored the proffered mug so I pulled up a chair and sat beside her.
It`s strange how easily you fall into the familiar rituals, counting the seconds between breaths. Five seconds becomes eight, eight becomes twelve, twelve becomes fifteen. At twenty five I stopped counting, surprised to find my face wet with tears, rubbing Eileen`s back as she sobbed.
I desperately wanted to blow my nose, but a memory of my father’s death; the shriek my mother let out when he`d taken his last breath, startling him, if only briefly, back to life, stayed me.
The rosary and removal were the following night and a blur; the funeral on Friday, a perfectly miserable overcast day, and with no-one to hoist the coffin, that chore fell to the undertakers.
Afterwards, back at her mother`s house, what few friends she had bid their goodbyes before seven, and we were alone.
“Take me home Jack,” she said.
Confused, I said, “But you are home.”
“Your home,” she said.
She led me to my own bedroom, helped me undress and climbed into bed beside me. I`d like to tell you it was a mad passionate night, but in truth we were more like fumbling virginal teenagers. After it was done, she rested her head on my chest and wept, and I was too much a coward to ask her why.
The following morning I awoke alone, the clock read 7:18.
By the time I reached her mother`s house she was gone, gone back to her family and Nick. I limped over to my bench and slumped there, and realised the geese had likewise flown.
That was five days ago. I would have done this sooner, but I was nearly out of pills, sorry about that. I posted a letter to my G.P. but you already know that; I hope I`m not too ripe.
Tell Susan I`m sorry, tell her to forgive herself, I already have. Tell her there simply isn’t enough sunshine in my world anymore.
De regibus et Septentrionalis
At dark of Moon they fell from the sky
and sailed the lough,
starched gondolas amongst the reeds.
Lords of slush under the iron stars of winter.
A fusillade of atonal beseechings and
mist thrummed like phlegm in a throat as
prehistory whitened the black water.
An escape and return to court.
A re-establishment of majesty.
No robes of ermine nor chains of office;
nothing to maim this legitimacy of feather.
Born of sleet,
here in the hills,
these diamonds in the night;
these Kings of the North.
I glance out the window, wiping a bead of perspiration off my forehead. I only have a few minutes to finish the painting, before all hell breaks loose. Okay, that might be an overstatement, considering that I adore my five-year-old daughter more than anything in the world. It's just that I have almost forgotten how nice it is to paint in peace and quiet. So, I need to cherish every single moment of this exquisite pleasure, while it lasts.
One more gentle stroke of the brush, and I nod appreciatively. It is gorgeous and unique, just like anything else I've created throughout the years. I know I probably should be modest about it, but I can't be. You see, I have always been the odd-one-out, never fitting in. While other girls painted their nails red and hooked up with guys for some weekend fun, I would just stay home and read one of my books about how to become a famous artist.
Okay, I might not be that well-known. In fact, I hardly ever sell a piece. But still, every single one of them is close to my heart, so I would never in a million years would even consider getting rid of them. They are a part of my soul, and how do you let something like that be taken away by someone else?
Like this painting I've been working on for the past five weeks. With it's striking and bold colors, it's the total opposite of me, the grey mouse. Maybe that's why I have such an appreciation for anything beautiful, because I don't find myself fit for that category. With my freckles and ivory skin I look like some kind of apparition. My blue eyes are dull, and my dark hair always falls flat on my scalp.
I look exactly like the ugly duckling, and I certainly feel the part, too. I shake my head bitterly, but my thoughts brighten up instantly as I hear tiny feet tapping impatiently outside the door. I smile to myself, throwing the brush to the side. Whatever is left to do, can wait. My daughter comes first, and she always will. Luckily she didn't inherit my freckles, nor my ghostly complexion.
"Mummy, look what I found! This could help you with the painting, yes?"
Her bright little eyes sparkle with eagerness, and I nod, my heart filled with pride. She hands me the grey feather, and rushes up to the painting, shouting over her shoulder, her blond curls bouncing around her tiny features:
"Is it ready? Is it ready?"
"Yes, honey, why don't you have a look?"
Her lips curl up into the sweetest little grin, and she looks at the composition for the first time. I must admit I was selfish, because I let her wait the whole five weeks before she could get a glimpse. Just so that I could see her priceless reaction.
"Mummy, this goose is so beautiful."
I raise an eyebrow, correcting her gently:
"Darling, the plural of goose is geese. And you must be referring to the swans, sweetie. You know, those lovely birds with the exquisitely long necks and snow-white feathers..."
But she chimes in, shaking her head vehemently:
"No, mummy, I don't like those. They are all the same. But look at that beautiful goose standing in between them! She is so perfect and unique. She isn't like the rest of them."
This makes me think, but she adds, before I could draw a conclusion:
"And mummy? You know what else I like about that goose?"
I shake my head, waiting for her reply eagerly. Here I am with my five-year-old daughter, who is giving me a lecture. And I'm loving every minute of it.
She sticks out her tongue, mimicking the movement of a fictional brush, reaching out with her delicate hands, almost touching the painting. But she changes her mind the last minute, turning back to me, her eyes filled with five years of wisdom:
"That the goose has a good heart. I know it does, you painted it that way. You also painted the swans mean, but that's okay, as they are ugly from the outside as well anyway."
The next thing I know is that she runs up to me, and I hold her in my arms for a moment, contemplating what she said. I think she is right. Beauty comes from within, and the geese are truly beautiful, and so am I. Lead by a sudden idea, I ask Lily in a hushed voice:
"So, what do you say we call our newest treasure?"
She thinks for a moment, puffing up her cute little face, her rosy cheeks revealing perfect dimples.
"Geese and Swans. Yes, mummy, I think that's it. Oh, can I have it in my room? Please? Then it will always remind me of you, even when you are at work."
I brush a loose strand of hair out of her pleading face, then letting out a small chuckle I reply:
"Of course, darling, of course. Okay, 'Geese and Swans' it is then."
And with that, we walk out and I close the door behind us, turning a new page in our life's chapter. Suddenly everything seems so magical...
'What’s that?' I say.
Your lips rearrange as if preparing
to spout your knowledge.
'Ducks, Geese and Swans
a biological family
with a cosmopolitan distribution.'
My heart sinks. I'm being
talked at again. 'Right.
Don’t swans mate for life?'
some threatened with extinction
like your marriages.'
Where did that barb spike from?
'Dad! A funny family –
the ducks and geese such different shapes.'
'Broad and elongated body plan.
All soft keratin with a thin
and sensitive layer on top.'
Crane over your shoulder to see
you’re on Wikipedia again.
Say, too loudly: 'You’re just reading it out!'
You look so fiercely at me.
'Vocal birds that quack, honk,
squeak and trumpet.'
I thought a walk by the lake
might help, give some perspective.
I try to smooth your shoulders out.
You point at something. The tablet or you?
'One of the few birds
to possess a penis.'
Your muscles a mass of twisted iron bars.
I look at the screen, snatch a phrase
'Popular for pillows.'
'Just like our lot', you say,
'the relationships of the different tribes
and subfamilies are poorly understood.'
Laugher overpowers us
pulls the common thread tight.
GEESE AND SWANS
Wild geese, wild geese
Come home let ye
My heart aches to awaken
And find you’ve flown the nest
Tis, but a wee island, I know
Best little land in this world,
They say. But, I beg only
Baltimore’s bounty return
Tomorrow, let the dawn find
The wild swans of Coole here
Brilliant creatures returned
Time to grace these still waters
Once again. Grow old wild bird
Under my careful gaze and
Drift, drift away, some more
Their fierce necks peck silently at
sparse ground cover grass, feathers
grey and brown as the city. Canals wind
through postindustrial landscapes.
Arriving in V formation, migrating
or naturalised, they land softly. Silently
the worn cobbles develop the green
slime sheen of excrement.
In spring, their wingspan is sufficient
to span a towpath or an iron bridge,
shrieking, hissing against those who
might threaten their babies.
Serenely slipping through gently
rippling water, they know they are
protected by the Queen. Hidden
orange feet make graceful turns.
There is a permanence to the swan,
as if history itself cannot change
the idyll of playfully reflected summer
sun and freshly manicured grass.
And watch now as the wings open,
as wide as a child, silhouetted by the
sun, wings whistling wou wou
wou, closer and closer.
I look out
Waiting, listening, seeing.
Time waits for no girl. All experience this.
And it’s now my time to step away from the ashes of doubt.
I look down
At the lifeless limp limbs.
Shades of rose fragments shed and plummet
Transforming into rough microscopic coals like dominos
Cascading all over my figure, and I cry.
It’s too soon.
Please, not now.
Tomorr- already the grey enflames and stirs.
Ruby and crimson sting, and bursts through the murky grey tufts.
I must let go; let it happen; let it envelop me.
Snow lace curves and
Bends and wraps around each dark crevice,
Ivory plumes usurp,
Gold glimmers, shields against the shadows,
protecting the smooth, silky ice from ruptures.
I look up with two pricks of amber and allow
My majestic wings like feathery sails to broaden and engulf the stars.
Slowly, I swoop and plunge deep
In search for what I need to keep
Close to my breast to be what I must be.
Have I finally turned into the swan?
The television that was unfashionably late
My girlfriend Trudy thought it would be tremendously funny if she bought one of those old cathode ray tube televisions off Ebay. The ones that are nearly square. And that was fine, as a stop-gap, but it wasn’t long before we noticed something wrong with it. It was broadcasting things slightly out of sync. This happened back in the tenties, before the last of the analogue TV transmitters was switched off, but we’d get transmissions from years before. We’d turn on the box and a newsreader would say, “Good evening, the headlines at six o’clock. Two homosexuals were spotted in Banbury, Oxfordshire today. Police beat them up and arrested them.” We’d change channel and Jimmy Savile would be assaulting a teenager live on Top of the Pops. We’d kick the TV and sometimes that would work but more often than not, rather than showing us broadcasts from our past or present it would show us our future.
A weather girl would be telling us it was going to be 32 degrees in Scotland in April, but not just that, she was an ample and curvly size 18. Or we’d see a holiday programme with men on the beach wearing ball-kinis, strange swimming trunks with holes in the lower-groin area.
I suppose someone really should have taken it to a repair shop, but money was tight, so we just put up with it. After a while it seemed not to matter that the news was out of date. One terrorist attack or breakdown in peace talks was similar to another, whatever decade it was happening in.
Then one day things really took an unusual turn. Trudy was chewing some gum and making a daisy chain when she looked up at the screen suspiciously.
“That is some haircut.”
“Ah yes,” I said, confidently. “Probably from the 1990s.”
“No, I think you’ll find it’s 1990s.”
“What does it say in the TV guide?”
I was about to answer when I noticed a large comet streak through the sky behind the news reporter. It was hard to say how far away it was, but there was an explosion, a mad panic and within seconds the transmission was lost.
“I think that was mankind getting wiped out, live on television,” I said, offering Trudy some of my cheese and onion. “Thankfully it’s not ‘live’ live.”
“What channel is this?” Trudy asked, pressing the sixth and last button.
“That just takes you back to BBC 1,” I said. But there was only static.
“Shall I whack it?” Trudy asked.
Trudy smacked the television.
Sure enough, it tuned back in, this time to something fairly contemporary, albeit several hours ahead of schedule. We caught the tail end of Match of The Day. Southampton had beaten Manchester United 1-0 and we saw the goal scored by their new signing in extra time.
“Well done Trudy. Looks like it’s on time. Well, near enough.”
We switched off and on again to test it. It was showing a black and white wildlife documentary. Trudy thumped it again and the transmission jumped back to the sports round up.
“Hey, this hasn’t happened yet, has it?” Trudy said. “Supposing we put a bet on Southampton. It should win, right?”
“That would be against my principles. Can you do it?” I replied.
We went to the local betting shop, heaving seven carriers of spare coppers into a room smelling of disappointment and screwed up betting slips. I’m sure the teller would have okayed the transaction, but the manager tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let me have a go, Wayne?” he said, like an older brother showing his sibling how to jump over a puddle on his BMX.
“Hello, I’m Mark.”
“Hello, I’m Trudy and this is trouble.”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “Come to my office for a sec?”
We were shown to an office some might call a broom cupboard.
“I see you want to place a bet.”
“That’s right. Is there a problem?” Trudy said, slightly anxious. Mark smiled, non-committal.
“It’s always amusing seeing punters liven things up a bit by paying for bets in loose change-and in fairness many find themselves reduced to such extremities- but when there’s that much shrapnel it does cramp our style a bit.”
“Sorry, we just thought we’d bet some money we found around the house. Won’t happen again.”
Mark looked at his watch and frowned. “This is more than than my job’s worth...Alright, just this once, okay? By the way. Have you seen our offer in the window? 10-1 on Man City and Liverpool winning by 2 goals.”
“Well, actually we need odds for something specific. Agoala to score with a header in the last minute of extra time, with an assist from James Dribbly, who volleys a corner kick, and Saints to win 1-0.”
Looking askance at us, Mark emptied his drink into a plant pot.
“At Old Trafford?”
I nodded, Mark blew out a stagey breath of I-wouldn’t-chance-it-if-I-were-you.
“I need to ring my boss.” Mark’s colleague walked by, a smirk spreading across his face like a snake chasing a mouse. Mark made the call, put the receiver down, nodded.
“So what’s your favourite style of South American dance?” Trudy asked. There was a copy of The Rough Guide to Latin Dance on Mark’s desk, and a half-eaten digestive.
“That’s like choosing between children.”
Anyway we got our odds, a rather stingy 10,000-1. But in fairness, it took an hour to count the money. We were just in time to place our bet before the match. Someone approached as we were doing the necessaries. A man in shades and suit, carrying a white stick.
“How about hedging your bets? 1000-1 on Agoala scoring, or 1000-1 on your goalkeeper to score at anytime? Score 1-0 to Southampton,” the stranger suggested. Mark kept his poker-faced counsel.
“You just never know,” said the man, tapping his nose. Always best to hedge your bets.”
“Er, yeah. Go on then, who’s counting,” I said, flustered because the match was starting.
“You won’t regret it.”
Trudy elbowed me afterwards. “You’ve just lost us thousands.”
“I’m sorry, I’d no time to think. He just sprung it on me, that man,” I replied.
“Well, at least it looks less suspicious.”
Then we went and killed time in Smiths and the library. In the country’s favourite newsagent all was unique yet normal. A man took a sneaky snap of a picture in Shotgun Magazine with his smartphone. A phone rang on its default ringtone. A pensioner bought a scratchcard and complained that he never won anything anyway. Trudy and I wandered around surmising what we’d do with our winnings.
“What are you spending yours on?”
“I’d like to have a plaster-cast of my vulva made and have it mass-produced as a sex toy.”
“My vulva. Your ears need cleaning out.”
“Well you do have a Volvo.”
“Well I’d like to open a Jeremy Clarkson museum. This town is crying out for one.”
“Good idea. Which Jeremy? Not the television presenter, I hope.”
Back at the betting shop Mark looked liked he’d seen a ghost.
“So. Did we win?”
“Did you win? Don’t tell me you haven’t been watching.”
“Our television’s playing up and it gets a bit lively in the Fox and Hounds.”
“You won alright. My office?”
We followed him to his closet.
“We can’t give you the money here. Meet us in the car park round the back of Frankie’s Nightclub?”
“It’s fine, trust me.”
So we went to the car park. It was quite stony, with plenty of room. Our cane carrying tipster from earlier was there with Mark. Strangely, he was holding a baby. We walked to the centre of the car park, looking around nervously.
“I’m Terry. Can you wait a minute.”
Terry looked at his watch and was silent so we had a quiet word with Mark.
“You must be pissed with us,” I said.
“No, I’m pleased for you. Not pleased for myself, though. I’ve lost my job. No idea what I’ll do now.”
“Don’t worry, Mark,” Trudy said. “This could be a new beginning. There you were in some dismal town trying to earn enough to pay your ex maintenance cheques when you could have been dancing merengue in some seedy South American bar, running your hands over the ample body of some sexy conchita,” she supposed.
“I know where I’d rather be,” I added, tapping my nose.
The moment a woman pulled up in a hatchback with a skid. She took a briefcase out the back and handed it to Terry, who gave her the baby. Then Terry gave us the briefcase.
“Scram,” he said to us. We cleared off.
“What do you want for dinner?,” I asked, my voice fighting the sound of police sirens.
We stopped off at Burger King and went home and had a TV dinner. Jimmy Savile was on again. The wonderful harmonic shifts of the theme tune giving one the sense that all was right in 1980s Britain.
The television was really playing up now. A late 80s programme about HIV somehow blended with a 1990s show discussing different music formats.
“Heterosexuals listen to compact discs, whereas gay men and lesbians listen to records,” a woman with a large perm and red lipstick advised.
“What about bisexuals?” her male co-presenter asked, in received pronunciation.
“Research shows that bisexuals listen to minidisc,” she replied, with a faint touch of East Midlands.
“Digital compact cassette. But remember,” she said, turning to the camera and assuming a serious countenance. “Whatever format you listen to, AIDS is a danger to us all.”
Then I turned on Points of View. It was a Czech pay-per-view teaser, showing a model doing a softcore striptease. But as the woman slowly divested herself of clothes she read out letters from disgruntled television viewers in a Slovak accent. Some were complaining about the Aids programme. It was on too early. It was inappropriate. It ignored sapiosexuals.
I switched to something political.
“This is a historic day that wouldn’t have happened had we not had cross-party support for at least one MP with Down’s Syndrome. I think we have that support because, let’s face it, they’re nicer than people with only one 21st chromosome. Also, 1 in 600 babies has Down’s Syndrome and there are 600 MPs,” a woman on a sofa said. Then someone rang the doorbell.
It was Terry. “Mind if we have a look round?” he asked.
It’s a surreal fact of life that even when a gun is being pointed at you you notice things like what’s on television. It was one of those budget early 80s adverts in which a 45 year old man in a brown suit stood in front of a car hectoring the viewer.
“Three years anti-corrosion, three years break down recovery and a five speed gearbox. You won’t find a better deal,” he said. Then he opened the boot, which was full of cocaine. “And that’s a promise.”
“The Austen Allegro Party. Talk to your dealer about a test drive,” went the voice-over.
The woman came back downstairs. “Got it. It was under the mattress.”
“And I want the Ipod and the hair curlers.”
“What about the television?”
“Are we free to go?” Trudy asked. The man smiled.
“When someone unties you, yeah. You’re free to go. And free from all this lovely money.”
Our friends disappeared, I changed back to striptease Points of View with my chin.
“I’d like to apologize on behalf of the BBC. Sapiosexuals listen to cassettes,” the dancer said, one breast al fresco. And if anybody’s interested, those bi-curious listen to digital audio tape. And non-binary are rather partial to streaming services. Don’t have nightmares,” she said, and winked. Then a man came on wearing a ball-kini, and showed us his balls. Trudy tutted. “What about asexuals?”
“8-track, I would think.”
So, what to write?
I did consider doing a story, maybe something about a man living in the lap of luxury, a gigolo perhaps? Or a kept man/woman, who had tired of the gilded cage, seeing it for the prison it was. But then I got to thinking about the title “Freedom from Money” and thought, nahhh. So here instead, for your delectation is a barely coherent stream of consciousness :)
Freedom from money;
Just what does that mean? Two thoughts occur: first, the literal. Freedom from money, a-la “The Good Life.”
I know I`m showing my age here (and just to prove it, I`m prepared to admit to a massive teenage crush on Felicity Kendal; thank God for Pseudonyms) but even in this show about self-sufficiency, dropping out of societies norms, they couldn’t escape the need for money. Richard Briers character having to go back to work in one episode to pay the council tax, apparently they wouldn’t recognise the barter system. So trying to opt out simply isn’t possible, money like all evils is a necessity. At least until we mature as a species; try paying for your groceries down at the local Aldi with a short story and see where it gets you?
Okay, option B:
Free-dom from money; i.e. having such a surfeit of money that you are no longer plagued by the day-to-day worries of the mortgage, or having to schlep your sorry carcass into a soul destroying job, day after God-awful day; sounds great, right? Except……
Except; I`ve known quite a few wealthy men in my life, worked for some, befriended others, and to a man they are obsessed with their money. They worry about it, fuss over it, are terrified that someone is going to steal it, or that it will somehow evaporate into the electronic ether, I have a daughter I worry less about (does that make me seem like an uncaring father? What do you mean yes? Cheek)
I worked for a guy who literally gave me his shoes….. You don’t want to know the details; oh okay you twisted my arm. We were going to Chicago; well actually we were going to Indianapolis for a Formula1 Grand Prix, but via Chicago. We, and by that I mean I, had booked us flights on Etihad out of Shannon. So we get to the airport and the check-in girl leans over the counter, looks down at my feet and asks, “Don’t you have any shoes?”
For context, I wasn’t barefoot, I was wearing runners. I always wear them, and yeah I run, Christ yer a judgemental fecker. Where was I, oh yeah; so I`m thinking, Jaysus this is a fancy airline, when she says, “Only I was going to upgrade you to first class, but…. and that’s how I ended up wearing Mick`s size fourteens on my size eleven feet. I swear, I was like a kid in his da`s shoes as I clopped onto that plane, but it was well worth it.
How did I get here? Oh yeah. The thing is, while he`d happily give me his shoes; ask him for a raise…. I have heard this song many times in my life, perhaps you have too, it`s like I`d asked for his first born to sacrifice. Don’t I know how lucky I am to have a job, don’t I know how much he`d sacrificed to start the company, yada-yada-yada, oh the humanity…..
See; money is a prison, a bit like love, what`s the line form that song, “Love is like oxygen, you get too much it gets you high, not enough and you`re gonna die,” or more appropriately, “can`t live with it, can`t live without it,”
And there`s the rub, there is no such thing as, Freedom from Money, it`s a pipedream (now there`s an interesting word. Note to self, look up pipedream)
There is one other possibility; the lottery. All that lovely money and no effort, except….. damn there`s that word again.
Except, well, how much is enough, or too much? The annals of lottery winners are littered with bankrupts and suicides, and if you win enough you can never make another friend again; why exactly is this person trying to befriend me?
Plus, just for fits and giggles, the friends you do have will probably never speak to you again after you don’t share your winnings equally with them, and let`s not forget that girl who`s currently suing the British lottery company (I don’t remember the name, and frankly I`m too lazy to google it) for giving her more money than she could handle; so now she wants more money from them?
Freedom from Money, don’t make me laugh. Who was it said, “The only difference between being poor and being rich is that you`re miserable in nicer places.” Well I`ve tried poverty, and quite frankly I’ve found it`s not to my taste, so I`m prepared to risk being wealthy, after all what do I have to lose?
Freedom from money
By the time I reach the park it is early afternoon. The sun, high in the sky now, pours across my shoulders, down the ridge of my nose; it drips through the trees, rolling off the pointed ends of their leaves. My shadow crouches, shrunken, by my feet, clinging to my legs like an embarrassed child, afraid to be splashed by the light. She crawls along the path below me as I approach my usual bench and sit, squashing her out. Sat now, I take a closer look at the disk in my hand. I had pressed it so firmly into my palm as I was walking that it left a little circular mark. I bring the coin close to my face, examining its dull golden colour and the script embossed in an arch across it in thick, demanding letters. The edge is ridged; it feels satisfying to the tip of my finger which traces it the whole way round. Facing upwards is a lady’s profile, scratched into the silver centre. I say lady, though she is a woman, and quite old, with tight wrinkles at the corner of the eye that peers out and the thin lips that give way to her plump, round cheeks. She is no doubt a lady, nonetheless, her posture straight and rigid. I wonder where she was a lady of, how it was that her face became plastered on this coin. I straighten myself to match her, suddenly aware of my slouch. She doesn’t notice though, her stern gaze passes me by, fixed on something to my left of evidently far greater concern. I turn her over. On the other side is a man, wearing a tall hat and a sombre expression. Was everyone in those days so miserable, so stern? I don’t remember being, though they insist we were. My memories are more like pictures, still shots of scenes, people. It is hard to compare a feeling gone with the feeling that takes its place though, so maybe they’re right, maybe we are happier now. I flip the coin. The man’s face is replaced by the lady’s, then she disappears and morphs into him, before he becomes her again. They take turns like this until the coin lands back in my palm. I cover it quickly and guess which face will be on top. I am right, it was the man’s. His face, the coin’s face. Faces on faces, four in total, five if you count mine. That was something they didn’t like about the old time, all of the faces. They said we were corrupted. Faces of makeup, such a focus on appearance, but everyone was. Two-faced we’d say when someone betrayed us, spoke about us behind our backs. But we were all the same in this duplicity. I look back at the coin, now at the woman’s face. She will have been duplicated too, there will have been millions of people with her face zipped away in their bags, or tucked in their pockets: another face to use. Above her head is a curve of numbers, like a halo, a wreath of wealth. A 1 stands there proudly next to three zeros, three ‘oh’s. Oh, I had said in surprise, as my fingers brushed against the coin at the end of the drawer earlier in the day as I was reaching back for a pair of socks. It is still fairly common to find coins around, though there is no use for them anymore. Most people toss them away though there are some collectors, who will exchange things in return for a trinket to add to their collection. This one is so common though, there is no point taking it to one of them. It is not completely useless though: it still brings me delight to find coins like this, or a bank note, scrunched up in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. There is nothing to do with them, but examine them. And I like to examine them, these coins and notes. They really are notes, little pieces of paper, with scrawls all over them, a message from another time. Little, worthless souvenirs.
I close my eyes and tilt my head back to face the sun, feel it warming my skin. My eyelids are pinkish, then a deeper red, bright. Yellow sun spots speckle them. I try to focus on these spots, these freckles, but every time I do they jump to the side; I am never able to catch up. As I concentrate they fade to green, first mossy then more blue. Most are not perfectly round, and many are clumped together; they appear like waterlilies on a shallow pond. The pond. Across the pond we would say. America. I had never been, but I watched their movies, saw their shows on the TV until they were cut off. The americans were the worst they said, so bound up in their materialism, slaves to their lust for money. The tiny figures inside my television seemed content to me, as did their audiences, who I rarely saw but sensed were there, out of frame somewhere, by the sound of their laughter. We were being freed, we were told, as the government seized our money, drained our bank accounts. They would trade on our behalf, so that we could focus on regaining an honest life, so that we could see what really mattered. We were free from money. This freedom isn’t as easy as they said it would be. It’s hard not to miss the things we used to have, simple things even, chewing gum. Now we trade in favours, and the meagre rest is provided for us. I re-open my eyes, and look down again at the coin in my hand. Getting up finally I walk towards the fountain at the centre of the grass rectangle. Jets of water shoot up, out of its core, falling continuously in bubbling streams. You used to throw coins into fountains like this, make a wish as they sunk. The blue tiled bottom before me is empty however, someone has stripped it bare. They should know that that’s unlucky. I take my coin, and get ready to throw it, preparing my silent wish. What, it occurs to me, should I wish for? My family are healthy, we are all safe, at least so it seems. With everything else stripped away, what else is there that I really want? I have everything, I believe, as I am told to believe. Yet there is something gone, not an object but a feeling, a sense, of the time before. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there is something missing, I feel its hole beneath everything else, I feel its loss. It’s not just money that they took from us, it is our power. They said they were freeing us from money, from our money, but that our is important. Money was a freedom, when it was ours. We had the ability to choose, who or what we wanted to spend it on, where we wanted to go and how we could use it to take us there. When they freed us from money, they took away that freedom.
They say the only things in life you can’t avoid are death and taxes.
As I lie here now, I think back over the events that have brought me to this point. Might things have been different if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to shirk my responsibilities and stage off the inevitable?
I imagine a contented life of fiscal caution, with a solid partner by my side, nuclear family all present and correct. A steady job, ironed shirts, brunch at the weekends. Is that how the other half lives?
But I just can’t put myself in that picture somehow. There’s a space right there, waiting for me, but I don’t fit, not even in my imagination. Let’s face it. I’m not a jigsaw piece that slots satisfyingly into the final hole to complete the expected picture from the box lid. I never have been. My edges are rough, asymmetrical. I’ve always pushed against fitting in.
My mum used to wring her hands and despair over whatever would become of me, and I couldn’t blame her. I was always in trouble. Picking fights in the playground, shoplifting with my mates, puking my guts up after a Friday night binge. I was never going to be a pillar of the community, was I?
But I did alright for myself, in my own way. The get-rich-quick schemes never quite panned out, but I made enough to get by. I made some questionable choices, hung out with the wrong crowd. But I always managed to escape the worst scrapes relatively unscathed, generally more through luck than good planning.
And now, here I am, at the end of it all. Death and taxes have finally tracked me down and come to collect. But I’ve got one last trick up my sleeve to cheat the universe out of one of its supposedly unavoidable evils. I suppose that’s the one benefit to being all alone in the world as I prepare to meet my maker. The state won’t be able to claim what I owe from what I leave behind, because there isn’t anything to leave. I’ve had my fun, and now it’s all gone. And my dependents won’t inherit my debts because there aren’t any dependents to inherit. I had my fun in that area, too, don’t get me wrong. But I was always careful to avoid unfortunate consequences.
When it comes right down to it, nobody can beat death. Not yet, anyway. But you can use death to beat taxes, if you play your cards right. And one thing I excel at is playing cards. It’s an achievement of a sort, if you view it from the right angle. And, at this point, I’ll take what I can get.
Max checked his watch again, and tapped the café floor anxiously with his heel. It read two minutes to three. He couldn’t afford for them to be late.
He didn’t know who ‘they’ were exactly, not even a name, but Nubs told him they’d take it off his hands for a great price, and he didn’t have time to look around for a better deal. He had to get out the country.
Nubs is Max’s oldest friend. They’d done jobs together back when they were younger, but had drifted in the later years as Max tried to settle on the straight and narrow. In all honesty being a criminal never really suited Max, he wasn’t cut out for the shady depths of the underworld (which was a shame because he was marvellous on the job). As he got older his conscience started catching up with him, and he couldn’t stomach the fear of getting caught. Nubs eventually went away for four years in ’95 taking the fall for him on a job that went wrong, and after that Max got himself out of the game.
He had always trodden carefully with Nubs after that. He thanked him for taking the rap, but he didn’t want to be in someone’s pocket, there’s not a hellhole on earth that’s worse than another man’s pocket. Anyway, Nubs wasn’t the same guy when he came out, there was a storm cloud twitching behind his eyes, charged with furious energy and darkened by the anger it soaked within. He became a little crazy, he wanted to get back at the system, always saying how he wanted to ‘blow their brains out like minestrone soup’. But Max let him know early on that he didn’t want to be involved. Nubs didn’t call much after that, but Max was sure he respected his decision.
Yet there he was getting bailed out again, desperate, sat at a table with Nubs’s crumpled note in his hands, re-reading it for the seventh time to make sure he’d come to the right café, waiting for ‘them’ who would give him a way out.
‘What can I get for you, Sir?’ A gentle voice spoke from behind his shoulder that made him jump, and he scrunched the note up tightly in his fist before stashing it in his pocket.
‘Oh…erm…just water for now, I’m waiting for someone.’ He turned to face the waitress who stood with her notepad and pen in front of her. A lock of blonde hair fell from her right shoulder and came to rest perfectly on her breast next to a name badge that read: AMY. Her sweet vanilla perfume over-powered the lingering smell of roasted coffee beans and her lips protruded just slightly from her oiled skin, oozing with lust. Max instantly wished he could take Amy with him on his escape, and imagined himself asking her as he watched her seemingly float back to the counter.
At that moment, the little bell rung as the front door swung open and a man dressed in a dark trench coat and fedora hat entered through its frame. Max’s heartrate shot up instantly, and thoughts of his tropical getaway with Amy quickly dissipated. The man’s eyes wandered around the room, measuring its every inch like a trained killer, before turning to caress the door shut again with slick leather gloves.
Max checked his watch - bang on three.
The man’s gaze was prowling once more, scurrying past families and couples without a flicker of emotion, until it finally reached Max sat alone by the window, and he let out a wry smile. Max pulled the collar of his shirt away from his neck to let it breathe and kept his eye on the man as he placed his hat on the wooden stand. His heel was tapping even faster than before, and he let his hand creep beneath the table onto the seat next to him, grabbing the package and pulling it closer towards him.
The man strode through the sound of muttered conversations as if he were slicing them dead with a knife. Max didn’t break eye contact, but grew more flustered with every slow, calculated step the man took. "Does he not understand I need to be quick?" He thought… "Surely Nubs has told him..." But when the man finally did reach the table, Max was glad he hadn’t rushed him, as he was introduced quite horrifically to the raw, blood-freckled scar that was slashed across his face. It ran from the centre of his forehead straight to the corner of his mouth, just missing his right eye, and its fleshy, juicing texture told Max this has only happened a couple of days, maybe even hours, before.
Max pretended not to notice, trying to look as if he wasn’t unhinged; this game is all about power, and first impressions were the most powerful of the lot. However, the fact was that Max was desperate, this man could smell it, and from the moment he took his seat opposite and ran his hand across his waxed, black hair, Max knew it was unlikely this man had ever found himself in a situation where he didn’t have the upper hand.
‘You must be Nubs’ friend,’ Max said, firmer than his normal voice.
The man didn’t say anything, only looked at him with a steely glare that if he had been Medusa would have turned Max to stone. Max tried to mirror him, like a standoff between charmer and snake, unwilling to let him get inside his head. "He’s gonna try and squeeze me, I know he is, I won’t -"
‘Here you go, Sirs.’ That soft voice jumped in once more, as if it were snapping him out of a dream, and a delicate arm with a jug of water extended between the pair, bringing the noise of conversations inside the café suddenly back to life.
Max looked up at Amy and smiled gratefully. ‘Thanks.’
‘Sure. Are you ready to order?’ She had her notepad and pen ready again.
Max couldn’t think about food, but he reached for the menu anyway until his arm was frozen mid-action by a cold voice.
He turned to see the man still looking at him, and he let the menu slide back down his fingers onto the table. The waitress turned to Max and raised her eyebrows to say: ‘And you?’
‘The same, please.’
‘So two black coffees...no problem. Food?’ She wrote on her pad then turned her head to both men, raising her eyebrows again with a smile.
‘Not at the minute, thanks.’ Max politely replied and Amy left. He withered back to his seat, waiting for the man to make his move.
‘So where is it you plan to go, Max, with your hard earned money?’ The man said the last three words slowly, grinning as he did.
‘To Cuba. I have a friend out there, figured I could set up with him for a while until I get myself sorted.’ Max hoped for some sort of approval this was the correct move, but he didn’t get it.
The man nodded, ‘Cuba…nice place,’ then tapped his finger at a steady beat on the table, looking Max up and down. ‘The package?’
Max slipped his hand beside him once more and lifted the package slightly above the table’s edge so the man could see.
‘And the driver? The money?’ Max asked.
The man scowled at Max like an old woman scowls at a car jumping a red light, as if it was an offence to even ask. ‘Across the road.’ The man’s eyes pointed Max in the right direction. There was a car with blacked out windows parked on the kerb, and a man wearing sunglasses sat on its bonnet, smoking a cigarette. ‘Slide the package onto my seat, the moneys waiting for you in the boot of the car, Anton will take you to the airport.’
Max looked over to check the car once more, he wondered it was going too smoothly, but the sound of the airport was music to his ears.
‘You don’t want to check the package?’
The man pulled a box of cigarettes from his pocket and laid them on the table. ‘You’re not in the position to be messing around. I know it’s there.’
Max’s shoulders shook with a soft a chuckle, what could he say? He passed the package under the table, resting it on the opposite seat, and then checked his watch.
Five minutes past three, he couldn’t believe it.
‘That’s it?’ Max asked.
‘That’s it.’ The man replied, in a patronising tone.
‘I’m getting out? I can’t believe it.’ He tried to contain his happiness. ‘Well, thanks a lot.’ He held his hand out. ‘Mr…?’
The man reached for a cigarette, put it in his mouth and lit it. ‘King.’ He shook Max’s hand, not once looking him in the eye, and puffed on his cigarette.
Max grabbed his rucksack from beneath the table and made off towards the door. Amy was coming at him with a tray of coffees in her hand, looking even more beautiful than when he’d first laid eyes on her - just ten minutes before. He sucked in his stomach and tiptoed round the side of her to avoid hitting her tray, and kissed her on the head as he passed. Before she could even react the little bell above the door was ringing once more, and Max had flown out.
The man didn’t move from his cloud of smoke, didn’t even turn his head to watch, as Max galloped across the road, got in the back seat of the car, and Nubs, waiting for him, splattered his brains against the window like minestrone soup.
Freedom From Money
Money, whether it's fair or not, broadly shapes who we become. Our wealth determines our standard of health, education, relationships, ability to travel, and the technology we can use. You don't have to be an economist to know the importance of money - in fact it probably helps if you're not. We all know firsthand the importance of money: try going into the supermarket without a wallet, try being faced with homelessness! Money does not just provide us with our needs and luxuries, money determines how we see ourselves and others. Who doesn't want to win the lotto and do the things we only dream about on our lunchhour? Apart from a few frugal monks who have embraced minimalism, the majority of us are bound to material wealth. We fantasize of the opportunity it affords in Western culture.
The question is: do we even know ourselves outside of money? Or could we? Could we ever imagine who we'd be without the constraints of financial pressure? We'd probably be a lot happier, a lot less stressed. The question is if money weren't a obstacle where would you be? What would you do? Who would you help? Would freedom from money make you a better person? Put your riches in a safe, lock it up and relax.
First let's look how not free we are from money:
From the dusty coins in the attic, from the beep, beep scanning sound of products, the plastic debit/credit card with expiry dates, bank letters, the payday loans, the status symbols like the watch or the car, the manicured nails, the perfume, the what –is-she-wearing-next? We all secretly, and not so secretly, crave freedom from the vortex of the supermarket: neon advertisements both online and off, the endless aisles of offers and buy-one-get-one frees, the would-you-like-to-try-the-new-latest-brands?
We are no longer human beings, we are human spendings. We are the commodities, and the Madmen are laughing at us all the way to the bank. Most of them surely must think we are nothing but pawns on their monopoly board.
Constantly surrounded by jargon, jingles - the message is that shopping is our only saviour: You NEED to buy this in fact you are WORTHLESS, ugly and, inept if you're not shopping and keeping up with your neighbours!
The hourly news bulletin reports on the stock exchange. We are told we need expert economists to translate this news. Is this move really that far off, say, religion telling the congregation that only scholarly priests could interpret the bible?
And after a hard week of work, the reward for so many is meaningless Saturdays full of handbags, designer jeans and coffee breaks; this eventually gets old and vacuous. T.S Eliot said in his poem "The Love Song of J.A Prufrock":
I have measured out my life with coffees spoons.
Is this the fate of the first world:? A coffee-spooned life? A life of blind consumerism?
After all, who really knows just how fairtrade their coffee is? Apathy is rampant and big coffeehouses don’t want you to comprehend the extensive corruption that goes into that one cup of black gold. Fairtrade is better than nothing but trust me it's not that fair, not really. The gap between rich and poor is the axis on which western society pivots.
And who has the time to be ethical when they are so overworked themselves and brainwashed? There are real problems to be faced: the tax man and the audits. And then the various bills, of which there are countless: the TV license, the electric, the gas bill or the oil bill, the internet bill, the monthly phone bill. Not to mention clothes and schoolbooks for your three children. Oh and all the children want a brand new iPhone.
If you’re not exhausted already there's more: the budget cuts. Then there's the private health insurance because we all know that the health system is completely two-tiered. The richer you are the quicker you get to see a consultant. That's the truth, and how bleak and immoral is that little pill?
Throw in the car tax, the life insurance, the dentist's bill, the optometry bill, the oncological bill, the exam fees, the university fees, the mortgage or the rent, the boots on your feet which are wearing thin, the mold on the bathroom ceiling, the sagging walls, the chipped paint, and if you feel like escapism - the alcohol bill, the cigarettes bill.
But don't smoke like the sexy women do in films. Note the squeaky clean teeth, the bleached celebrity grinning at you from every glossy magazine.
You’re eternally too fat!
So PAY to get liposuction or breast augmentation, or a toupee. The nip tuck, the promise of a better you, the gym memberships, the hairdresser for the stubborn greys...
The birthday presents, the anniversary presents, the graduation presents, the funeral costs, the mid range or top range casket, the pizza delivery ads, the fizzy drinks, the lunch hour sushi, the fumbling of change in a greasy till...
The rent arrears, and I guarantee you, the social housing list is endless. The ghettoized landscape: poor here, rich lives here, and the bourgeois are in the middle.
Freedom from money, the returns and the gains: money equals freedom of movement, equals better healthcare, equals social status.
What happens when we are stripped of our bills, stripped of our status symbols, stripped of our insurance?
Vanity fair might end. The family feuds over the will and compos mentis might end? Solicitor is consulted but only for a hefty fee. Youtube videos becoming more about product placement might end. Do whatever the TV tells us might end. Aspire, and indoctrinate your children to do the same might end.
Cosmetics and the food industry might end. Placated into believing a corporation is ethical when in 90 percent of the time corporations are greedy ruthless machines that do not care about human spendings might end. We get fat as a way of medicating ourselves, not to mention the brightly coloured chocolate wrappers and the rememberable slogan. We don't buy chocolate we buy a concept might end.
Ever watchful of the celebrity, both envious and admiring, the rich list is a must-read, though for some it's torture! We aspire to be better, freer, more beautiful. The meritocracy that equates money with might and success has taken over. We compare the house next door, ever watchful and insecure about our own little lot. Money is conflated with personality and success, money allows us to say "I am attractive, together, even eternally young". Frightenly the message is that aging, death, and imperfection are to be eradicated with the purchase of this latest product. Money promises eternal youth and dangerously denies death. Imperfection is seen as a fatal flaw.
No wonder we flock to the lotto: something we’re likely never going to win. But we live in hope as each week passes. Lotto tickets crumpled up, the winning formula ever evasive, the bookmakers profit and the hungry smokers with the next horse racing tip repeat the same pointless behviour. Slot machines in pubs, and online gambling rife.
And yet there is some hope. Granted it's bleak but things aren't black and white. Free information online, government grants and scholarships, social reform at government level: these things are to be encouraged. The hope to be someone outside the money trap is possible. Growing of your own vegetables, spending wisely, and enjoying what we have instead of constantly looking for the next purchase that we don’t need.
Shuffling for change:
The danger is when we tie money to our self esteem; it's an endless pit the void cannot be filled with things. Hoarders might disagree... and there are countless marketers who are only too happy to sell you a false promise. They sell a promise that if you buy this or that you will feel better, safer, people will like you; even this or that will help numb the void you feel inside. Whether you acknowledge it or not we all have a void inside. Think about that the next time you drive up to McDonalds.
Who are we without money?
What do we value? What do we spend our time thinking about what are we when we switch off from the trappings of money? Can we ever be free in this culture? Can we see ourselves and others not as commodities but of people of value? Can we love the person who doesn't wear designer labels ,who hasn't got the flashy car? Yes of course we can if we reflect and take a step back from the fray!
Society is always changing and the more educated we become the more we are able to invest value in more meaningful pursuits. The problem isn’t money it's ignorance and mass-manipulation. The charity shops could be visited more, the plea of the homeless could be listened to more, the cold apathy of the mega-rich could be challenged more, the status obsession could be assuaged.
The days away from our children could be tackled, the jingles the advertisement-tricksters could be replaced with meaningful lyrics, the fast paced meals could be discouraged. We do not have to be doomed to measure out our lives with coffee spoons. We could go slower, to appreciate the garden, to let the mind be free from strain for awhile. Pollution reduced, local community encouraged, freedom from suits and cars and traffic jams, freedom for lazy days and productive days, freedom to join projects that are meaningful, a future free from planned obsolescence.
Money is both an emancipator and a captor. If you ever had the misfortune of being unemployed then surely a frugal life is something you have experienced. It's about getting the balance right, doing something meaningful and getting fair wages. Money not as self expression: rather we express ourselves for free?
Don’t worry there's always the January sales.
The smell that rose from the vats was acrid in Claire’s nostrils. In three weeks this would be another batch of beer ready to be transferred into kegs, loaded onto the back of the rusty red pickup and driven to the town over the ridge.
There the barrels would be exchanged for things they needed but couldn’t attain elsewhere; engine parts, replacement solar panels, a new pump filter for the well. Of course other things –fertilizer, kitchen utensils, chocolate, ammunition- would be bartered for too, but for those they would trade boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, trays of eggs, wedges of cheese and smoked fish. The beer they kept for big transactions; everyone liked Claire’s beer.
They had all the necessary licences to brew and distil, purchased at the commune’s founding for thirty years ahead, but not to sell the final products. Yao, who had been a barrister in Madrid before giving it for a life free from money, had warned them that barter of the alcohol didn’t circumvent the need for the licence. If it hadn’t been so expensive they’d probably have bought one.
Done for the day, Claire dragged the copper-banded wooden lid back over the vat, grunting with the effort until it thunked into place. She pumped out some gritty yellow soap from the industrial dispenser on the shed wall and scrubbed her hands as she crossed over the compound to the longhouse.
Yao was emerging from one of the greenhouses, still looking less natural in his overalls and green wellies than he had in the three piece suit he’d arrived in three months ago, little girl in tow. She greeted him and he hurried over. “Did you hear that Morrissey wants another gathering tonight?”
She clicked her tongue. “Jesus. Does he really believe all that stuff he spouts? I still think we should just kick him out.” She noticed that they were walking in step even though she was half a head taller. He almost bounced as he walked.
Yao’s face creased with worry “It’s supposed to be a safe place for anyone Claire. If we start getting rid of people where will that lead?”
“I promise, the road he wants to take us down has far worse than exclusion at its end. I still don’t see why we even need one rifle, never mind –what was it he suggested? One per adult?”
“Well, there are bears around.”
“One bear. There was one bear. Once. And it got scared off with a shovel and a fire extinguisher. I was there. People die when there are guns about.”
They reached the sturdy but mismatched solidity of the longhouse. The long, low design with the sloping earth walls and grass roof had been Mark’s idea, along with the jetty made up of three entire tree trunks jutting out into the lake. He’d been into archaeology n a big way: she half suspected that he’d only joined the commune to play Viking for a few years. Maybe that was why he’d left without telling her. Maybe he was afraid of her reaction when he let her down. She realised she was scowling and forced a smile, holding the door open for Yao.
The poncho around Claire’s shoulders was thick and well made, but her bare arms were getting chilly in the autumn air. She got up to thrown fuel on the fire and sat again. Minutes passed. No sign of Morrissey, Jane or Alberto. She flicked on her green laser pointer and shone it through the smoke, catching eerie patterns in its eddies and making Yao’s daughter Heng point and laugh. She was yet to turn two and tottered around the Commune with a state of constant surprise and wonder on her cherubic face. The laser distracted her from where she’d been rubbing Maria’s swollen belly, hoping to feel a kick.
Gravel crunched beneath three sets of boots as Morrissey came up the path into the clearing, flanked by Jane and Alberto. Unlike the others –thirty three who lounged around in whatever they’d been working in during the day with the addition of a blanket or shawl- they had changed into dark brown coats; long and waxed, used for fishing on the lake in rainy weather. Alberto was the tallest, and stuck out in people’s minds because of the missing chunk out of his left ear. Jane walked so lightly her footfalls were barely audible next to the other’s; it was the main quality that made her their only skilled tracker and trapper. She kept her features blank always, and betrayed no emotion. Morrissey himself was short, and squat. He had wide shoulders, tree-trunk legs and little neck. When he spoke, his voice was deep, rich, controlled and demanding all at once. Combined with his physical presence it demanded attention and held it until he was finished with you.
He strode to a high point of packed dirt near the fire. There was no preamble; after a slow look at the faces around the fire he began “We have a way of life here. We have a dream of freedom. None here need to be convinced of the vices of the modern world, or of the dangers that it presents to us here.” He gestured with his hands as he spoke; not frantically, but like his voice, controlled and steady. “The government collectors have been harassing us once again, and using the police as their trained bullies. Yesterday I saw a sergeant intimidating our dear Maria.” Maria shrank back from his gesture, arms wrapped about herself, her face flushing from the attention of people’s gazes. “Yes. A pregnant woman. He stood before her, hand on his weapon no less, and demanded information from her that I for one know she did not have. Of course, I intervened on her behalf, but had he drawn his firearm even I would have been helpless before him. These are not the noble guardians we learned about as children. This is a mob, a gang, with the full might of the law behind them and no morals. It is past time we stood up to them. I say we…”
Claire wasn’t sure at what point in the monologue she stood up and left. Morrissey barely glanced in her direction but she felt Jane’s eyes on her all the way down the path. She wandered without a direction in mind, but found herself heading towards the lake. This place, this wonderful place. She could feel it all coming apart at the seams. She was scared for it. That was the problem really- fear. It was why people were listening to Morrissey at all. The commune, which had no other name, had been her home for three years; she wasn’t ready to let it go.
Walking the beach, which was lined with pebbles, sand and small pieces of driftwood from the huge expanse of the lake, she thought back on her time here and found her eyes filling with tears. Would she still make beer if the commune fell apart?
She approached the jetty, feet crunching the pebbles, and caught a glimpse of the corpse of a deer, banging gently up against one of the uprights. It happened sometimes; they fell into the lake where the banks were steep and couldn’t get out, and the currents brought their bodies here, bloated and rotting. Claire sighed. The last one upset the children badly, she could probably fish this out and bury it before they could see.
The jetty was slippery, and when she bent down to grab at it she couldn’t get a grip of its fur, nor see a handy antler to grab in the patchy moonlight. But wait… the fur felt strange. And even half submerged the shape was wrong.
She grabbed again and it listed to one side, rolling over the shoulder. Mark’s wide eyes stared up at her as his body flipped with a splash.
She reared back, hands clapped to her mouth to stifle a scream. Mark. Mark was dead. It was easy to see the ragged wound across the neck where his throat had been slit.
She turned away and vomited. Leaning on one of the uprights, she heaved and heaved ‘till she was dry-wretching and there was nothing left to come. Mark. Jesus Christ.
The beam of an electric torch danced across the trees. She was going to call out but some instinct stopped her and made her crouch low on the jetty, behind the upright. Her breath came quick and deep, and she was shaking from having thrown-up so violently.
The figures came out onto the beach, two of them, one tall, one short, though she could only hear one set of footsteps. Alberto and Jane.
He carried the torch, but from what Claire could see she was diverting her gaze from its light. Preserving her night vision. It struck her at once that, of course, it was her they were looking for. She didn’t need to see them to know that their knives would be strapped to their belts, and her shuddering intensified.
They were coming up the beach now, shining their torch into every nook and cranny that might hide a person. There was no way they wouldn’t see her once they shone it up the jetty.
Grabbing a pair of freezing, rust-flecked bolts, she scrambled down the upright, grabbing onto its sides with her feet to take some of the weight. She hung there beneath the jetty for thirty seconds. A minute. Longer. Her arms were straining with the effort. Finally the torch beam swung overhead and a set of footsteps moved off.
She clambered back up. They were nowhere in sight.
Quick. Quick. Back to the longhouse. If she could get there she could warn Yao, warn everyone, they could call the police and…
A stick snapped loudly beneath her and she stopped stock still. Nothing. Running again, quiet and low. She could see the lights ahead and-
The impact from the side drove all the breath from her. She scrambled up and there was Jane, knife in hand, diving for her again.
Claire managed to get out one scream and flail wildly, knocking the knife aside before a hand was on her mouth and a knee in her gut and she was on her back. She groped up, gouging fingers into Jane’s eyes, mouth, anything. But the grip on her mouth was implacable, and with the other hand Jane was feeling around for the knife.
She found it.
Claire grabbed her wrist with one arm, and tried to tear the other hand away from her mouth. If she could only scream again!
But Jane drove a knee into her chest, again and again. Claire felt a rib crack. It must have shown on her face, and Jane, knowing she wouldn’t be screaming, withdrew her hand. She took a firm grasp of the knife and prepared to plunge it past Claire’s arms and into her heart.
There was no time to react. No time to fight down the pain and scream. Jane’s face was illuminated with the light from the camp. There was no glee or rage or victory; it was as expressionless as always.
She brought the knife down.
The crack of the rifle shattered the night. Jane showed the first expression Claire had ever seen her wear; shock. She keeled forwards and Claire had to twist aside to avoid the knife that still had her weight behind it.
Then Yao was pulling Jane aside, pulling Claire to her feet, the rifle trembling in his little hands. “You’re safe. The police are coming. You’re safe, it’s okay.”
“I think I’ve broken some ribs.”
“It’s okay; we’ll get you a doctor.”
She laughed, though it hurt to do so.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“What will we pay the doctor with?”
a cashless society
just swipe swipe swipe
touching no fifties
no more visiting the hole in the wall
oh how light your wallet!
pockets empty of cheap nickel
and other base metals
just a transfer of information
and large faceless corporations/governments
what could go wrong?
tap tap tap into the benign sounding cloud
but you have left a trail
of every single financial transaction
held hostage forever
inside vast industrial fields of processors
kept so cool
so they can perform for their masters
churning out 24/7
your credit ratings
all the minutiae
counting those cokes
the 3 takeaways last week:-
tut tut tut - up goes your health premiums
gambling on the grand national - a problemo?
your sexual preferences
technology stripping all economic autonomy
naked under big brother's constant gaze
if they want
no longer a free agent
even the beggars will have to accept cards
welcome welcome welcome everybody!
to the end game
the next great leap forward:-
It is naïve to think that erasing a monetary exchange would make the world a better place. Humans by nature are selfish beings, our culture built on reciprocation. I scratch your back while you scratch mine. With no currency, there is always barter. My milk for your eggs. Money simply makes it easier for us to sell our talents rather than prostitute our cows or chickens. They say money doesn’t buy love but how many billionaires remain single? They marry other rich people and double their assets. They could divorce once a year if they wished yet they rarely do. On average, they have a couple or maybe three long-term romantic partnerships but that’s not that different to the rest of the populace, is that? Money does not stand in the way of love. It is us, the poor 99% that like to delude ourselves that it’s either love or money. The rich know how to marry the two.
As far back as my memory reaches, I understood that money matters. How? My parents’ sole reason for disagreements was pecuniary: my mother spent too much, my father earned too little. Their divorce had been on the cards well before they even considered tying a knot. Everyone but them knew that the one who obsesses about growing his fortune and a compulsive spender could not form a happy union. Attitudes towards everyday economy predict matrimonial happiness better than any personality trait. It is much more likely for an introvert and an extrovert to grow old together than a scrooge and a profligate finding eternal bliss as a couple.
Money is powerful not just because it gives us access to the objects and services others can’t afford but because it can destroy our ideals. It can end marriage for example, a union sanctioned by tradition and religion, and so deeply ingrained in our culture that millions of people around the world are prepared to flood the streets to protest gay marriage though whether gay couples marry or not has no bearing on the way of life or personal well-being of the straight majority. It’s the matter of principle, they say. Yet, money doesn’t care about principles. Divorce next to death of a partner crowns the list of the most stressful life events. It takes years to recover emotionally from a divorce. A study after study shows that most divorces are due to money problems; often it’s not the lack of money which causes the demise of marriage, it’s how people relate to it. Vide my parents.
I live far from my country of birth. It’s the money that allows me to hug my mother and siblings once a year. It’s the money which took me away from them in the first place; I couldn’t find a job where I grew up. The money I spend on the gifts for my family when I can’t visit them dissolves my guilt. I like my job but wouldn’t do it on a voluntary basis. When the occupational stress becomes almost unbearable, it’s the thought of my salary paying the rent and the car loan that settles me. Money is why I tolerate incompetent co-workers and agree to be exposed to tight deadlines. I can eat my avocado on toast, own a new Murakami’s book – though it isn’t as good as the last. My employer is generous enough to offer me a four-week annual leave on full pay, the only time in my life when I taste something akin to freedom and when I can forget about my daily slavery. My whole life is about earning and spending, worrying in between that I am not saving enough so that I can renounce my oppression in my seventies.
I trade my brain for the money. Somebody pays for my creative thinking and problem solving skills. You could say I have it easy. I don’t toil in a mine or collect garbage. Still, I would love to take a break longer than four weeks – these are never undisturbed, I check my emails daily and respond to those who I do not dare to disappoint by asking them to wait. I’ve been studying and working for nearly forty years and I’m exhausted. A year out of work, a year of freedom from worrying about money would set me for further twenty years, I’m sure.
I sometimes dream I win a lotto. I’ve run countless scenarios of this in my head. First, I quit my job – that’s a common element to all the scenarios, then I buy presents for all my family – a new flat with a generous bathtub and a little Toyota for my mum, an apartment for my sister so that she doesn’t have to live in our family home any longer. In one of the scenarios, I pay her salary to the end of her life so that she can travel to various archaeological digs and do what she loves not having to spend another sleepless night contemplating her poor job prospects. I renovate my parents-in-law’s pre-war house whose elevation remembers a Nazi shoot-out. I help my brother-in-law grow his business. I then buy a big enough car for my girlfriend so that she could finally fit her countless children and is no longer reliant on her good-for-nothing Peter Pan husband. After that, I open a foundation and invest in research nobody wants to fund: rare diseases. I make various investments as I go around distributing my money – I buy something for myself as well. A flat in Vienna, not far from the Belvedere. I want to be able to see Egon Schiele every other day. His painting, The Family, is the only one which has ever made me cry. Café Mozart is not far. I will have a slice of layer cake every day with my morning earl grey. This will give me the mental crispness to choose whether my money will help in finding the cure for mucopolysaccharidosis or porphyria that week. I will sponsor young scientists and offer them long-term contracts. The poor things now struggle on one-year appointments which are often not renewed. I will offer them security.
The problem with my dream lotto win is that it leaves me quite blue. The chance that it will ever happen is minuscule – one in eight million last time I checked. It doesn’t help that I rarely remember to buy a ticket. If I’m lucky I will keep my job till I’m old and, if my health permits, I will have five years of happy retirement before I die. The savings won’t last much longer anyway. You are never free from money as long as you live. If you want to relinquish your dependency on it, you only have one option. Most of us however prefer to continue our earthy existence, however imperfect it might be, and so we’re stuck with the pecunia.
I saw an advert the other day,
About two men, one fighting a battle,
Which made me wonder in a way
About how money makes you bitter.
He wasn’t in war, and yet he died
Deep inside, while his boss towered
Over his head, standing by his side,
Shouting at him, filled with power,
Telling the poor guy he would be fired,
If he didn’t complete his horrendous task,
Another candidate would be quickly hired,
His life ruined easily, no questions asked.
He was a decent man, good at heart,
And yet his job held him in prison,
He didn’t have a chance to embark
On a new adventure, his true self hidden.
But then he thought: why not?
This could be the best thing ever,
I’m willing to leave the whole lot
Behind, the idea is very clever,
I will board a ship, and ask the captain,
To take me to an island on my own,
A place nobody would ever imagine,
Somewhere I can call my home.
There I will live a life of prosperity,
Never needing a thing, not at all,
Because happiness comes with clarity,
Not with money, nor job, sod all!
I will be free, and that’s all that counts,
Nobody will ever boss me around,
Won’t have to worry about accounts,
Can’t believe the freedom I just found!
And so he did as he said, left his job,
The deserted island waiting for him,
He didn't even blink, did not sob,
Excited and happy, ready on a whim,
To enjoy what life had to offer,
All the joy, happiness was his now,
He didn't have a penny to spare,
But he never wondered how
His life would have turned out
Should he have stayed there,
It wouldn't have worked out
But he didn't even care,
He was finally free from it all,
Never to look at money again,
I guess this is what you could call,
The ultimate and true gain.
In the beginning, the new beginning not any of those old false starts, it started with freedom from money. That was Bill's big idea. Fate had given Bill everything it could – intelligence, wince-inducing wealth, honour – those close to him claim he was witty and kind too. But the main thing Fate gave Bill was infinite power. Somewhere in his thirtieth year on the planet he got to rise to the relative heavens but without all the messy crucifixion stuff Jesus endured.
People got fed up with nationalism, capitalism, communism, totalitarianism and pretty much all other isms except prisms which clearly aren't the same thing at all. The people rose up as one and overthrew all the horrors they’d been kowtowing to for centuries. The Church, politicians and the state, the purse-liners, the experts, the wealth managers were all exiled to a place Bill called Messyattainier. We believe it was jointly ruled by Vlad and Donald but nobody was terribly interested in it once the wall was built to keep them there.
Meanwhile Bill rose up on the shoulders of the uprising people. Somewhere on social media it was decided that we’d always been dictated to by money worship so we'd let the most successful of the money worshippers (and the only half-nice one to be frank) have a crack at making things better for the rest of us.
Bill had a good track record for the role. He’d made more money than almost every other millionaire put together by the time he was twenty-five. Since then he’d practised trying to rid the world of inequality. What we liked was that he’d done that by giving his money to the most helpless, the resource poorest, the utterly hopeless. Bill had put his money where his mouth was big time.
So Bill became leader of the unified world a year after Brexit which was a welcome poke in the eye for Nigel Farage. Bill set his world targets, common goals for five, ten and a hundred years. No starvation, resource sharing, protection of other species, population growth control, an average higher quality of life for everyone except the Messyattainierans. Plus he had a department that worked solely on finding the meaning of life. Then he got rid of money like he'd promised.
No more coins weighing you down, no notes, no cards, no statements, no concept of what something cost. What did we use instead? Minutes - you paid for something with shavings of your day, if you wanted something you worked the cost off on the spot. There were people stuck day and night working in Mercedes garages for three years for a shiny bright car. Their health was so shot they couldn’t get in or out of the car by the time they got it. Then Bill banned cars too to stop people being so silly about possessions.
We went everywhere on reggae buses like they have in Barbados, upbeat music blaring out. You had to volunteer to keep society going – you could drive buses, maintain things or build or grow stuff to get your living allowance. A lot of the things we used to regard as daily necessities became occasional treats – the BBC, newspapers, buying coffee, watching films at home, holidays. We found it very funny that those who’d had better lives found it hardest while those of us at the bottom of the pile couldn’t believe our luck. The first had become last and the last first as either the Bible or Bob Dylan predicted – I get all that folklore stuff muddled up.
There were more uprisings, of course there were, the rich had lost their way of life. The funny thing was rich, cultivated people aren’t half as good as uprisings as poor, desperate ones. Then Bill got firm in his putdowns, almost dictatorial but we, the majority, knew he was crushing the previously favoured few for our sake. We roared with delight as the old Etonians were carted off. Then Bill decided to change privilege at source so he reallocated all the housing and places at the better schools. There was a rough fit between the multi-childrened and the bigger houses but it was otherwise a lottery.
After five years Bill said communities weren't reforming the way he’d hoped so he got rid of the time-based barter system and replaced it with a measure of how many people you made smile a day. So the more miserable and irritating amongst us had to be very kind to compensate, whereas the quick-witted could get away with murder. That suited me, I’d always been quick with a quip and I’d learnt early on that charm is all about the interest you show in the other person.
Suddenly I was what used to be called wealthy. You know what? I didn’t really like it. It made me nervous remembering what happened to the old rich, how many of them had been sent to Messyattainier, how you could never come back from there. I started checking myself for signs of greed, made sure I didn’t make more people smile than I needed for my upkeep. I even gave some of my smiles away to starving people who’d been grumpy all their lives and couldn’t change now.
Then Bill started talking about what would happen to his world when he was no longer here to protect it. He started asking those closest to him if he’d got it all wrong and human nature would defeat him in the end. They gave us devices to wear that measured our impulses and those devices showed that we were only good-natured 48% of the time. Our baser instincts were still at the fore. Bill said we might as well start bashing each other over the heads with clubs again, we’d progressed so little from cavemen.
There were rumours about people summoned to see Bill but I never thought I’d be amongst them. When it came it wasn’t so much a summons as being bundled into an empty reggae bus by men who looked like Cold War spies. I was so nervous I giggled at every instruction making them frown more. They were lucky to hold the sort of job that meant they weren’t paid in smiles as they had the opposite effect on me. One of the spies started the bus up and we lurched off.
‘Where are you taking me?’ My voice was freshly-minted squeak.
‘You, Gary Holborough, will have the honour of meeting with Bill.’
‘Me? Why would Bill want to meet me?’
The non-driving spy shrugged as if he neither knew nor cared. That was a pretty long journey, let me tell you. After eternity we pulled up outside a 1930’s semi-detached in an area I believe used to be Slough. The spies indicated I should get out with very eloquent hand gestures. ‘Ring the bell – he's expecting you.’
Bill sat at an ordinary dining table in an ordinary house. He got up as I entered, extinguishing a cigarette. He coughed. ‘Why do my people keep consuming this rubbish?’ He gestured at the table that was covered with alcohol bottles, bags of white powder and tablets. ‘I’ve tried everything here and it’s all horrible. Tell me why they do this to themselves, Gary?’
I thought very hard as this was my chance to impress a man who claimed he had no confidantes, no favourites. Why was I bothering if it wouldn’t benefit me? I glanced instinctively at the dip on my impulse monitor and, with a supernatural effort, managed to think myself into wanting to help humanity. ‘They use it to reassure themselves they still have free will.’
His head jerked towards the ceiling and he made a sound that I finally identified as a laugh, not a bark. ‘That old chestnut! Moral liberty. They hurt themselves to prove they’re free to. Do you really believe that rubbish?’
I know he was the leader of the entire world, placed there by his goodness and everything but I can’t bear being patronized. ‘You’re not God,’ I said, ‘you can’t be sure it’s rubbish.’
‘I’m not God, no. But I’m about as close to it as a human will ever get. Right now, Gary, I know exactly how God must have felt when he looked at what he’d created.’
‘It’s time for a cull.’
I shivered although it was quite warm in the dining room. 'A cull? Does that mean sending more people to Messyattainier?'
'Messyattainier?', he shook his head at me, I made it up.'
I nodded enthusiastically, we all know he created the name. 'I know - it'a great name.'
'I made the place up, not the name. It doesn't exist.' He smiled and it was like watching an animal bare its teeth.
'What happened to the people who were sent there?' I knew really but asking delayed the inevitable.
'There's only one wall no human can cross.' He raised his eyebrows at me. 'You know, don't you, it's for the good of us all, the majority.'
I nodded although what I suddenly knew was the opposite. Sometimes doing what the majority want isn't for its good at all. Bill sat at the table and I sat opposite him. I slipped the revolver out and calculated the exact angle I'd need to fire as Bill's eyes widened. As I pulled the trigger I watched the impulse monitor swing between good and bad. I closed my eyes so I'd never know the monitor's verdict as my bullet found its target.
For all her teenage years Lily had wondered who owned the narrow strip of land between the two white bungalows along Handforth Road. Occasionally a car would park in the space, especially on Saturday afternoons when the local football team played at home. But mostly it had become overgrown, with grass that had reached a constant height, leaving any potential flowers in the shade. On both sides the inhabitants of the bungalows had erected six foot high fences to keep out the vacuum.
She passed one day and a container had landed in the space, red and ribbed metal faded by seawater and rain, marked with an assortment of weights, lengths and logos, none of which meant anything to her. Pointing in the direction of the road, two massive doors were locked shut with a silver pole running from the ground to the roof. She didn't give this a second thought, but wondered whether someone on the road might be about to carry out an extension. Two weeks later it was still there but the grass leading to the doors had been worn down. A burnt patch shone like a dark brown sun in the pale green of the grass.
A few days later Lily changed her routine, altered her walk to the public house where she worked evenings. There was something about the container that fascinated her.
She could see the queue from quite a distance, and the smell of meat in the air. Behind the gathered crowd, the door to the container was open wide enough for a small man to get through. That small man stood behind a converted oil drum, concentrating intently on turning the steaks in front of him at just the right time. The fat from the meat stained his wrists but it didn't seem to bother him. His eyes continue to focus on the sizzling meat, feeling the perfect time to serve. He flipped a steak onto a plastic tray, then a second, scooped up a creamy white spoonful from a tub on the small table next to him, and handed the plate to an outstretched hand. Then he picked up a bag of coal and placed it under the table, for it looked like it might rain. He smiled at the woman and flicked his head to the next customer, who held out a tray of cans of soft drinks. The man took them and placed them inside the container and almost had to run back to pick the steaks off the cooking surface, repeated the scoop of creamy food (was it a salad?) and passed the plate to the man.
Lily was aware that she was positioned about twelve feet away from the cook, just standing still in the middle of a town street, the occasional passing of a car and the hum from the queue combining with the spit of the meat and the clink of utensils. But she continued to watch as customers exchanged items for their meals; packs of plastic trays, bottles of salad cream, a large bottle of a vibrant green cleaning fluid, even a cheap pair of shoes. Finally a group of four women wandered along the road with a large pack of raw meat which they exchanged for their meal. Immediately the man stashed the meat in the container. As the time moved past eight, she realised she was late for her shift but so engrossed was she in what she saw ahead of her she could not move. She had to watch.
Finally, the queue was gone, the grill was empty, and the young man was taking the cooking equipment to pieces, carefully cleaning each component, wrapping unused food, sealing bags, placing some in an icebox and others in a large canvas bag. The smell of the cooking meat still hung in the air. She walked forwards.
Lily wasn't the type of person to make mistakes, and when she spoke it was calculated and friendly. 'Have you finished for the night?'
'Yes' replied the man in an accent that Lily could not place.
'Have you done good business tonight?' She slowed her speech in case the man did not speak English well.
'Yes, it has been very good. I have enough for tomorrow.' He smiled broadly, happy with his evening's work. Perhaps happy with his life.
'Do you always cook the same meat?' she asked, looking for a sign as to whether the question was sensible.
'It's what I used to cook at home,' he replied. 'Lamb. I have a good supplier.'
Lily thought back to the women who had brought the raw meat to him. She wondered how he had found them. How had he started?
'Do you like this area?' she asked casually, hoping the man might volunteer more information.
'I don't know the area,' he replied, laughing slightly. 'I know I am in England. But I don't know anything about this town.'
'Don't you go out?' asked Lily.
'No, I never leave this place.'
'I left it when I first came here, to buy meat. I brought everything else. On the ship. It was a huge ship. I could get out and walk around the ship. The sea was so big. The sky went on forever. I did not get seasick, although it was a very long voyage. I wanted to come to England. Here I am. I am in England.'
'But you never leave this place?' and Lily clearly indicated that she meant the small fenced area and the container contained within it.
'No, I never leave this place. I am happy in England.'
Who is the troll at the top of the hill?
The one that says won't or the one that says will?
We sing to the demons,
we tremble and sing
the song is the singing
the song is the thing:
Ashes to smashes
To dusky to dust
All bodies bumble on up from the crust,
Ashes to smashes
To dusky to dust
Nethers have feathers and fly when they thrust
Everything’s rooted in earth, don’t you see?
‘Cept him and cept her and cept you and cept me
We are the flotsam, the bits and the dross
We are the ones left behind at the cross
Dropped from the heavens and pale as a pike
Ripe for the beating, the lash and the strike
Sore cut flanks, tender footed – skin thin as lettuce
Eyes big as onions but where does it get us?
Ashes to smashes
To booncocks and brine
Eight follows seven and seven ate nine
Ashes to smashes
To booncocks and brack
Wine turns to water and never turns back
Just like the spider that thinks it’s a flower
A crack in the mind will hold perilous power
We reach and we listen – we wade through the years
We hear the dead voices that no one else hears
We see what we see when we see in the dark
Our dream-conjured company, black as wet bark.
Ashes to smashes
To dusky til dust
Stacked up and smacked up and cracked up with lust
Ashes to smashes
To dusky til dust...
God’s golden blessings
are covered in rust.
“Carlson. So what`ve we got?”
“The bodies down here. Watch your step, the banks slippery as fuck. You aint going to like it, it aint pretty.”
“Since when is murder pretty…..Shit,” detective Bergman grabbed the uniforms arm to steady himself, as his feet tried to slide out from under him.
“Told you it was slippery,” Officer Carlson said, grabbing the bridges stonework to stop both of them sliding to the bottom. “Just edge yourself down sideways,” he told the detective, “use the bridge to steady yourself.”
As he slowly worked his way downward, detective Bergman tried not to think what the mud was doing to his loafers.
When they reached the riverbank Carlson pointed under the bridge, which would ordinarily be in semi-permanent shadow, the street lights not reaching under here, but was now well lit by portable spotlights. “The bodies behind that pillar,” he said.
“Awww shit,” Bergman said when he saw who it was. “Svenson; there`ll be hell to pay for this.” He looked around, studying the soft ground, he didn’t have to look far, the prints that surrounded the body were unmistakable, “Awww shit,” he swore again.
“All right ladies and gentlemen, I`m going to make a brief statement, then I`ll take some questions.”
Captain Pederson shuffled the papers on the dais.
"At nine thirty eight last night two of our officers responded to a call. An unknown person phoned in that there was a disturbance by the North West Bridge and reported that she had heard what sounded like someone screaming. Officers Carlson and Hansen arrived at the scene and discovered the body of Olgar Svenson under the bridge. A preliminary examination of the body by the coroner has determined that Mr Svenson died of multiple blunt force traumas to his head and body. Mr Svenson, a three hundred and forty two year old Troll had been living under the bridge for the last eighty two years, mostly without incident.”
He shuffled the papers once more and gripped both sides of the lectern, a sign, those of the assembled press who knew him recognised, that meant he was ready to take questions, hands flew up.
He pointed to a blonde woman in the front row, “Yes. Helga?”
“Do you have any idea how many attackers there were, and what their motive for assaulting Mr Svenson was?”
“According to the coroner there were at least three assailants, he was able to identify three different blunt instrument types. As for their motive; I`m not going to speculate on that.”
“Yes?” He pointed to another female reporter.
“Brigit Holsen, Daily News Network,” she said, “We have sources that indicate this was a hate crime, would you care to comment on that?”
“As I`ve already said Brigit, we`re not going to speculate on the motive for the attack. But I will say this, the Torsvale police department has a zero tolerance policy on hate crime.”
“Yes. You sir?” he pointed to another reporter.
“Brent Olsen, Herald Times,” the reporter said. “Is it true that you`ve identified three suspects, brothers, that are well known to the police?”
The captain tugged nervously at his shirt collar, “We have, uh, we are looking for three, uh, brothers, yes. But as yet only as material witnesses; I`m not going to name them here, but, uh, officers are, uh, as we speak, uh, looking for them.”
He pointed to another reporter, “Yes. Ben?”
“You said,” he looked down at his notes, “that Mr Svenson had lived under the bridge, mostly without incident, would you care to elaborate?”
“As I said Mr Svenson lived for the most part without, uh, coming to the attention of the authorities. Except for a small number of incidents of public intoxication, and, uh, public lewdness.” He spoke the last two words in a soft embarrassed tone.
The reporter who hadn’t sat down asked, “Public lewdness?”
The police captain visibly reddened, “Mr, uh, Svenson, he, he was not willing to wear clothing in public, said it was his constitutional right to go about as the maker intended; his words not mine. But with the help of the Troll community we were able to convince him to don a loin cloth made of lichen. So that, uh, issue resolved itself, and he has been... was, a law abiding citizen since then.”
A uniformed officer hurried up to him. The captain shielded the microphones with one hand as the officer whispered something in his ear, the cameras caught him mouth the words; Damn, and, Okay. He pulled his hand away and faced the reporters, “I`m sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all, “but I have an urgent matter that needs my attention.” Without another word he strode away, ignoring the sea of waving hands, and the cries of “Captain, Captain.”
The camera pulled back, dipping slightly to focus on the blonde reporter, she raised a microphone to her mouth, “So there you have it. The police are looking for three assailants, possibly brothers, identities unknown. This is Helga Holsen for Danish news here at the Torvale police headquarters, and now back to you in the studio.”
The picture changed to the female anchor as she turned away from the screen with Helga`s smiling face on it, “Thank you Helga. And now for more on this story, Adrian.”
The shot switched to her co-anchor, “Thank you Dorit. We go live now to Frans, who is coming to us from the Troll quarter. Frans, I believe you have Counsellor Harald Peterson there with you?” he turned away from the camera to look at the screen behind him where a reporter stood microphone in hand.
“Thank you Adrian, I do indeed,” the picture changed to a full shot of Frans. “Here with me is Counsellor Harald Peterson, thank you for agreeing to speak to me Counsellor Peterson.” He said, holding the microphone at arm’s length above his head.
“Harald, please,” a deep voice said, the camera pulling back so it could take in both the reporter and the seven foot two Troll that towered over the man. The Troll was impeccably dressed in a three piece suit, his fingers adorned with gold rings, only his feet were bare.
“Can you tell me counsellor…. Harald, what is the mood among the Troll community at this moment?”
“Well Frans, as you can imagine it is one of shock. A Troll hasn’t been murdered in this region in over one hundred and fifty years, this is a great tragedy and our condolences go out to Mr Svenson`s family in their time of grief.”
“And what…” the reporter started to ask, before he was interrupted by a female voice. “It was them Gruff kids, they’re the ones that killed Olgar.”
A female Troll in a floral print dress and a straw hat pushed her way into shot, “It was them Gruff kids I tell you,” she said grabbing the reporter`s hand, pulling the microphone down level with her mouth. Frans winced as she nearly crushed his fingers.
“Now Lene....” Harald said.
“Don’t you now Lene me,” she scolded him, “It was them Gruff kids and you know it.”
“Please mam,” Frans begged, trying to free his hand.
“I won’t be silenced,” she said, ignoring his pleas. “Them Gruff kids plagued poor old Olgar. Clipping and clopping back and forth across his bridge at all hours of the night the poor dear couldnt get a wink of sleep. Calling him names, names so foul I won’t repeat because there might be little ones watching, that`s how awful they were, he was at his wits end. All because he wasn’t civilised,” she pronounced the word civilised as if were something disgusting.
“He only wanted to live like we always did, as the maker intended. But no.. he had to wear clothes, and he was told not to live under the bridge, he`d lived under that bridge from the day it was built, did you know that, did you?” and before Frans had a chance to say he did not, she went on.
“One hundred and eight years, that’s how old that bridge is, and now.. and now..” she sniffed, pulled a kerchief from her handbag, noisily blowing her nose into it. “Now he`ll never…” she broke off to blow her nose once more.
“Now Lene don’t upset yourself,” Harald said, resting one enormous hand on her shoulder, she shook it off.
Looking straight to camera, she said, “In the olden days we`d have dealt with you ourselves.” She held out one hand, then snapped it shut into a fist, “We`d a squished you,” she put her fist to her mouth, miming tearing whatever she held in her hand in two with her teeth. “Then we`d a eaten ye. That’s what we`d a done; in the olden days, before we got civilised,” she spat the word civilised once more.
“You better give yourselves up to the police, ye hear me Gruffs, give yourselves up before we find ye.”
“Alright Lene,” Harald said, obviously alarmed. He planted his hands on both her shoulders this time and half pushed; half turned her away from the camera. Reluctantly she released Frans hand as he was pulled along with her.
“Sorry about that,” Harald said, "I just want the people of Torvale to know we in the Troll community have every faith in the police, and will do nothing.. NOTHING," he emphasised the word, "to interfere with their investigations."
Off camera Lene was heard to call, “Squish ye and eat ye,” there was the sound of others shushing her.
Harald grinned awkwardly, “Sorry about that,” he repeated. “Lene`s still adjusting to the new way. It is strange for some of the older Troll`s to find themselves living in houses and buying their food in the supermarket…..” nearby there was a yelp and someone cursing in Trollish, Lene`s voice could be heard getting louder once more.
“Excuse me,” Harald said, “I have to take care of this,” and he turned away, bellowing what sounded like curses at someone. Whoever it was, and it sounded like Lene`s voice, gave as good as she got.
Frans turned to camera, switched the microphone to his other hand, vigorously shaking the one that had gotten half crushed and said, “This is Frans Laursen for Danish news, and now back to the studio.”
The pair of anchors turned away from the screen, shaking their heads in unison, “We`ll be right back after these messages,” Dorit said, “With more on this story as it unfolds.”
Trolls and Bridges
As I left the bar late last night, I wandered through Forest Park, for a shortcut. The night seemed quite strange, silent, as if it was waiting for something to happen. The moon shone through the clouds and the branches helping me navigate my way through the overgrown weeds and bushes. "nearly home" I mumbled to myself, the neon light shone from the hands of my wristwatch to reveal the time. 11.45. I could see the aurora from the estate in the distance looming over it, like a beacon on top of mountain. I approached Hollow Bridge, which was a small wooden, handmade bridge. the night seemed seemed to get more excited as I approached, as if it had guided me to the spot for that thing it was waiting for, to happen. The wind picked up, casting dust all over me, trees shook with excitement, but at what prospect? Then it fell silent, a suspicious silence. Then I heard a creak coming from behind me, quickly I spun, heart beating through my chest, then again, 'creek' from behind me. This time i saw the faint shadow of a deformed figure disappear down underneath the bridge. I decided to pick up my pace, then I felt the the piercing scratch down my right shoulder, and the bark of a deep, foul creature. I fell to the ground with the blood trickling down my neck. Then I turned again and seen the shadowy figure once again. This time it stood tall and proud, staring down at me, this dark figure, to wretched to be any man, with a fierce slam it jumped down on top of me, and wrapped his scabby hands around my neck, and slowly the shadowy figure leaned into me and whispered into my ear, "you have to pay the troll toll." followed by slow growl. I screamed "my wallet, take my wallet."
"Nooooo, Noooooo, boy, the troll toll." the grip tightened around my neck, making it impossible to to breath. "The troll tollllll." this time with a deep rumble. and with that remark he bit my ear off, the pain seared through my entire body, as the blood dripped from his mouth down upon my face. As I laying screaming, he covered my mouth with his hand and licked the blood from the side of my head. Then got up and crawled away on his belly down under underneath the bridge again, leaving me there to struggle in my own in pain and blood. The trees once again started to go wild, giving a standing ovation, as the wind scattered the dirt confetti on my open wound.
Of Goats and Mills
I have two distinct childhood memories of The Tullyarvan Mill, both involving goats.
Since I have known that place it has been many things but never a functioning mill. That was long ago. Tucked away in the back hills of Buncrana, County Donegal it was always an atmospheric haven for us city slickers down from Belfast on the weekends and during summer holidays.
In more recent years, it operated as a swanky hostel. The Mill would be open over winter for the very rare tourist. Not a massively profitable venture but great for sneaking in with booze as a teenager when your friends work there. Long nights were spent drinking wine and watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Our own personal voyages into the pretentious teenage cliché were played out in The Mill too, evidently!
It is not the building itself that I most fondly remember, but the grounds surrounding it. Labyrinthine and endlessly changing, each visit as a child brought new fascinating corners of greenery to be discovered. My brother and I would bring nets and try to catch butterflies. Looking back at that, I am relieved we never succeeded in getting any.
Once, when I was still too small to see over the old dry stone walls out the front, my dad had some of his paintings and sculptures exhibited at The Mill. On the day of the exhibition opening, my brother and I met a fearsome foe. There were many fairy-tale villains to avoid at that place.
My father would transform himself into a troll on many an occasion to re-enact the classic, 'Three Billy Goats Gruff' at The Mill. In full character, Caliban himself would hide soggily under one of the old bridges by the Crana River, laying in wait. River water there was often an alarmingly reddish brown colour. I have been told by some it was dye running down from the old Fruit Of The Loom factories, others insisted it was simply peat on the river bed. I never really knew who to believe. All that was clear was that the mucky waters seemed to add to the drama of such games. On those invariably grey, drizzling summer afternoons Dad would ruin another pair of shoes by standing down in one of the Crana's streams, crouching amidst mossy stones to entertain us kids.
Kids indeed we were, growing little beards and bleating at the top of our lungs as we crossed that bridge in turn. A very real sense of fear was present with all the method acting and pathetic fallacy surrounding us. I remember my younger brother being reduced to tears one time acting Little Billy Goat as the crescendo of the game panned out in fantastically clumsy fashion.
As the old Norwegian story goes, Little Billy Goat cleverly gets across the dangerous bridge by telling the troll there is a much larger meal up ahead, in the form of his bigger brother. I, starring as Medium Billy Goat, would then tentatively trot across and use the same ploy. It all ends with Big Billy Goat boldly crossing and managing to horn the troll into the river. (Cue my mother taking great delight in triumphing over the troll... Let's not get the marriage councillors to analyse that one!)
On this occasion though, Big Billy Goat herself, tripped over a loose plank on the rickety old bridge and plummeted towards the troll head first! Straying from character, that goat's language probably belonged down in the guttery streams anyway. With three out of four of us utterly drenched in Crana water and tears respectively, we trip-trapped our way back to the car. Feeling smugly dry, I recall the day being saved with a ubiquitous curry chip at Tommy's down the road and a 'medicinal whiskey' for the troll and big goat afterwards.
All that drama was nothing however, compared to the fearsome foe my brother and I encountered on the day of the sculpture exhibition. With Dad now safely playing his part as artist in residence, we sneaked out to the front gardens in search of adventure. There we saw, tied to a dishevelled wooden fence, a large buck goat. With my brother no more than four years old and I at around seven, this hairy creature seemed huge! We were close enough to smell something distinctly goaty and inspect the impressive curl of his horns when the sentiments of the moment fell away. It quickly went from awe-struck children admiring nature, to terrified kids running from buck! The thing charged full throttle at us and as it did so, the flimsy rope around the fence snapped in twain! I, screaming with unholy volume levels, attempted to shepherd my brother out of the way. We ran to a large rock and somehow scrambled up top as the cloven-hoofed cretin followed close at heel!
I think my brother might have lost a welly boot, but aside from that we remained unscathed. As our little knees knocked together atop the rock, we heard a gentle voice from behind the fence. A neighbour come to the rescue from his cottage, crooked his neck round and said, 'what's going on here then, wains?'
In terrified unison my brother and I chorused,
'this goat wants to eat us for breakfast, lunch and tea!'
Luckily, the man just chuckled to himself as he grabbed the rope and tied the goat more securely to another part of the fence. I am assuming we somehow climbed down off that Irish Ayer's Rock ourselves too, but my memory becomes a little hazy in the aftermath of such a caprine trauma!
Surviving to tell the tales, my experiences at The Tullyarvan Mill have left me with a valuable life lesson: it is in fact goats and not trolls under bridges you need to be wary of!
She followed him into the darkness like she had followed him in life - blindly and without question.
“If we get lost meet me on the bridge.” He whispered.
Every little twig she stood on sounded like an explosion in the pitch blackness. It had been his idea to come here. To the woods, ‘the dogging woods.’ He called them.
She knew she had let herself go – she didn’t need him constantly reminding her. She knew she was average looking. Nothing special. She was lucky to have him.
Dave had wanted the baby. It’s all he kept talking about and she thought it would tether them forever. Make him love her more. He had. Well she thought he had, during her long pregnancy. But he had just loved what was inside her. He seemed to love her even less when the baby was born.
The baby was his idea then he wanted to work sixteen-hour days when the baby had arrived.
He had suggested she gave up her job at the supermarket. Be a full time mother. She liked working at the supermarket. Enjoyed a natter with the girls. When they had married she had decided she had nothing in common with her old friends. He didn't like them anyway. She had started to feel the same.
She had embraced her new profession as full time mother. She hated that expression.
He thought she would bond with the baby more but, when the baby had come, the only bond they shared were the fact they were both trapped. The baby trapped in its cot screaming and crying. Her trapped in the house screaming inside her head and crying into her egg shell sofa. He had picked it from one of the designer furniture stores in Soho. She hated it.
She felt like the most ugliest, fattest sow in the whole world after the baby and felt even fatter after he had bought her a gym membership a week after she had given birth.
She didn't like it at the gym. Most of the woman looked like they needed a good meal not a treadmill, and how could their make up look so good after a sweaty workout!
She was sure he was actually working this time. She had forgiven him for the last two affairs. It was mostly her fault, she knew that she should try harder. She didn't pry when he worked late. He had been right –how could they ever move on if she didn't trust him. He was just working hard trying to provide for his family.
The deeper she got into the woods the more aware she became of movements. Little small sounds. You would have passed them off as animal noises if she didn't know better. Rustling. Heavy breathing. The odd quiet moan.
He had held her hand tight as he led her down the path squeezing it reassuringly now and again. There it had occurred to her, it was the first time he had touched her in months.
He was the one who had brought up the subject of being stuck in a rut and how they needed to get out of their comfort zone. How her low sex drive was mostly the reason he had cheated.
She had agreed with him, he was right after all.
She never could have imagined it was leading to a dark cold wood in the middle of the night.
“Some couples do things. You know. Spice things up.’
“Like what?” She had asked innocently. There had only ever been him. “Lingerie?”
“No not lingerie,” he had mocked.
“ No not toys….other couples.”
“Swinging!’ she had almost shrieked and felt her cheeks go red hearing how judgmental she had sounded.
“That's one word for it. You know how guilty I felt when you drove me to cheat and how upset you got. It could be good. For us. Bring us closer together”
“Ok,” she had said, when all she could think, was how the hell bringing complete strangers into the bedroom, would bring them closer together!
But if that were what he wanted, then she would do it. All she ever wanted to do was make him happy. Then he had brought up a local spot he had heard about. Where couples and strangers meet for sex. Two weeks later here they were.
The deeper they got along the path she felt people brush past her. She could smell the perfume and aftershave. Some of the hands traced her plump body and she fought the impulse to scream. They came to a little wooden bridge where some woman was standing the woman started feeling her husband all over. She leant in close and whispered something in his ear. He let go of her hand and disappeared along the bridge into the darkness with the woman leaving her standing there alone and trembling.
Shadows started approaching her. A hand squeezed her bottom and she pushed it away. She turned and charged back over the little bridge. Then tried to decide if she had turned right of left. She turned left and carefully treaded along the dry mud path. Then she came across another little bridge that went over the little stream that ran through the woods. After crossing the forth bridge she felt as bewildered and lost as she did in her marriage. She stumbled along morth paths hoping one of the shadowy figures in the darkness did not reach out and touch her.
She let out a sigh of relief when she could see the orange glow from the lampposts at the end of this particular path. She made her way hastily towards the lights nearly tripping a few times then finally coming through the clearing at the bottom other end of the car park from which she entered the woods.
She would wait there. He could do what he liked. She would wait in the car. She cursed aloud, when she got back to it. He had the keys.
She would just stand there and wait. There she stood freezing and shivering in a tiny top little top she bulged out of. She never felt so ugly and distant from her husband in her life.
She tried not to notice the comings and goings in the other cars. The car parked next to hers was empty. A silver haired man in a long leather jacket leant against it watching the moon. He smiled at her as she leant against her car then she looked away quickly. Five minutes became ten. Then ten minutes became half an hour. Her shivering became uncontrollable
“You need to borrow a coat?” said the man next to her.
“Eh…no thanks,” she said trying not look at him, afraid to engage anyone in a place like this. She had cursed silently when he had started walking over.
“What brings a girl like you to a place like this?”
She forced a weak smile.
“That was a joke by the way. I wouldn’t advise the house red.”
She laughed then for real. ‘I’m Keith.’ He held out his hand.
“Linda,” She offered back then added. “The bar service here is terrible.”
He laughed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had made a man laugh. They had started talking. She explained she was here with her husband.
He was waiting for his best friend of forty years. He would chaperone for his friend, when his friends wife had been out of town, and his friend was too drunk to drive. The longer they talked, the less angrier she about the length of time her husband had abandoned her. It was her own fault. She shouldn’t have agreed to it.
Keith was quite handsome, self-assured, charming, warm. They talked about nothing and everything. She couldn’t remember the last time she talked to someone who wasn't pretending to listen, or who wasn't a baby.
She had gone from feeling every second drag by, to feeling blessed, that every shadow that stumbled from the woods wasn't her husband.
She hadn’t glanced at her watch in two hours when she heard her name being called. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you all this time! Thank god your ok. Ready?”
Her husband didn't even seem interested in the man she stood next to. He just nodded and mumbled ‘aright mate,’ as he beeped the car and got in.
“Same place next week,” joked Keith. Linda gave him a quick hug then quickly got into the car. Her husband had already started impatiently revving the engine.
He blasted the radio and offered no explanation of what he’d been up to. She didn't ask. She was looking in the mirror. It was the first time in years she didn't think she looked fat. She didn't flinch at her own sight. She didn't feel ugly.
“I looked everywhere for you. What a hell hole.” He lied. “You meet anyone interesting?
“No.” She lied back.
She had always wondered how people could lie so easily. How he had lied to her so easily.
Everything was easy when you knew how, and now she knew. You just simply opened your mouth, and hoped someone trusted you enough to believe what you were saying.
“Nobody interested in you,” said her husband sympathetically.
“Nope,” she said pitifully.
She tried not to smile as she stared up at the moon, hoping Keith would notice her phone number that she had written in the dust on his car.
TROLLS and BRIDGES
The first time I saw Troll was at a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge on 54th Street. He grabbed me as I left.
“Too slummy here for an Uptown Princess?” He smirked and the neon light made his face orange like a Jaffa.
“Too many creeps like you!”
I pulled free and pushed past him, click-clacking up the stairs, cursing my aching feet.
“See you later,” his voice followed me onto the street.
The second time was worse. I went down to the bar below the bridge to meet Monroe. Life had been easy till Monroe came up with his new idea.. I had worked the best bars with him and we made a good turn with our routine scam. Me, to catch the punter and M to roll him when we got him outside. Worked like a charm. Then Monroe had a new idea.
“Goes like this,” he said, “with a player inside, he can steer the mark your way and Banzai!” Jap films were Monroe’s fad. “--a guy like Troll.”
“Why do we need him? He’s gross!”
I looked across the dim lit room with its faded plush seats and worn carpet. Troll was perched on a bar stool, gut bursting out of his white tux, smiling at the cigarette girl Maisie. She kept her distance.
“We can do big things, Angel, if we expand.”
He called me Angel when he wanted my support. “You want to make big dough don’t you?”
I missed the red light. If I’d looked in his eyes, I’d have seen the message writ large; the flickering eyes; the sideways glances; the pleading stare; but my attention was on the greasy Pillock combing his lank quiff and eyeing Maisie. Maybe cash dazzled me. I had a small habit to feed and an apartment uptown owing three month’s rent.
“Come on,” he wheedled, “give it a try.”
“Ok, one shot at it and we’ll take it from there.”
I heard my voice saying the words but could hardly believe what I heard.
Monroe beckoned Troll over. He slopped off the bar stool and sashayed over to us-Jack Palance in a fat suit.
He pulled Troll close and whispered his message. The piggy eyes glistened and looked my way.
“Sure! Let’s give it try. Might move a better class of mugs your way. How’d that suit you, Princess?”
I turned away as if I hadn’t heard him but he grabbed my arm and poured garlic and cigar breath into my ear.
“We should be friends -- make a great team.”
My stomach gave a lurch and I pulled away.
“This is strictly test time,” I said, “Nobody mentioned team tactics.”
The bum sniggered and went back to his perch.
Later, I was set up in the dark end of the bar, legs twined round the stool and one high heel dangling from my toe, when he brought a punter to my spot. Looked like an ayrab or a techie Asian from Silicon Valley.
“Like you to meet Yussuf, he’s in town for the Congress, Likes a good time.”
I gave him the usual spotlight treatment --bright eyes, big boobs, legs crossed. Troll left me to do my mojo and I flagged up Monroe from the corner of my eye. He moved out of sight and I knew he‘d gone up to the street. Within twenty minutes, my new lover was keen to see the sights with me and we left the bar climbing up into the dark street.
Monroe hit him so hard; I heard the crunch as he dropped him. We grabbed his wallet and watch then pushed him out of sight behind the garbage. Slick as a whip, we went back to my place and stayed there. A good strike; nine hundred dollars, a black Am -Ex and a Breitling watch. By the time M had bled the card and fenced the watch, we had grossed two and a half big ones.
“What’s Fatso’s cut?” I asked.
Monroe studied me, eyes narrowed. “Do we have to cut him in? Maybe he needs a lesson in good business practice? He’s gotta learn!”
I liked it. The Grease Ball fancied himself and we could not go back to the bar under the bridge for several months anyhow.
“Maybe a trip to Atlantic City would suit you?” He smiled and nodded.
It was February before we scouted the bar under the bridge again. We sent in Billy Weasel to check it out. No sign of Troll.
“Bar tender says he’s gone down for pimping, nine months in Albany.”
That night, I tripped down the steps ready for work. The lights were dim and the red plush dustier than I remembered. I took up a seat down the end of the bar and waited.
Monroe sat near the door and played with a small beer. A Chocolate coloured girl sang a few songs as if she wanted to be elsewhere and gave up after a few minutes. The place was definitely short on customers.
Looking round, all I could see were a couple of roughnecks up from New Jersey with a week’s wages in their pocket and big ideas about what they could get for a hundred bucks. Then I caught sight of Billy W, squeezed into a booth at the dark end of the room. He raised a finger in salute. What the Hell was he doing here? Within a second, he’d skipped upstairs.
I looked across to Monroe, he bit his lips and shrugged. Before we had the chance to move, a curtain twitched and the ugly shape of Troll stepped out into the bar. His thick overcoat gave him the bulk of an angry grizzly and his fat mouth roared.
“You shitty roll artists --you come back here with your cheap routine? I’ll have you!”
I stepped down from the bar stool like a ballet dancer on speed and kicked my heels away. This wasn’t the time for glamour: I legged it to the fire door and fumbled in my purse. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the two rednecks jump on Monroe by the door. But my mind was on Troll as he rushed at me with a baseball bat in his hand.
At last I found what I was looking for. Troll stopped in a skid. His eyes bulged and he swung the bat at me. I fired two shots quick; one after each other and backed up against the door. He came on like a bus with no brakes and slammed into me, then dropped slowly into a heap on the floor. The two stopped pounding Monroe and looked wide eyed in my direction. I held the little snub nosed out in their direction just as the noise of a distant a siren floated down the stairs. They took off.
Monroe crawled to a table and raised himself from the floor.
“Maybe we shldn’t have come back?”
I love the man: what would he do without me?
Somehow it’s 8pm and I still haven’t finished. I look at the sculpture and decide I might as well keep going. I’ve left it too late to find someone to walk home with. I’m doomed anyway but if I complete my masterpiece at least I’ll leave something for posterity. The exhibition opens the day after tomorrow. I’m supposed to leave my piece with the curator tonight. I don’t suppose she’ll realise I put it in her office just before midnight.
The university has a different quality at night. Now the spacious squares are intimidating, great acres I scurry across on my way to the exit, making myself panic with my own gasping breath. The streetlights reduce my shadow to nothing as I reach the road. Most of my walk home is through the High Street. There are people around, even at this time of night. I feel relatively safe until I’m nearly at the big bridge.
I slow as I approach it. Perhaps the Troll has moved on. He may even be asleep. He isn’t as fearless as people claim. Every time I’ve crossed the bridge in company he’s left us alone. But I’ve never been here after dark and I’ve never been on my own. We laugh about it in the staffroom at the university, how we stick together because we’re frightened of him because he reminds us of childhood stories of trolls. Most of them don’t know I have a better reason to be afraid.
I tiptoe across, my vestigial courage evaporating in the faint wind. I am halfway there when the shadows form themselves into his body standing at the far end, waiting for me. I stop trying to pretend he isn’t there. His hair is long and wild, his beard matted and dirty. His shoulders are so stooped you wouldn’t guess he was once a tall man. His hands are as clasped as bird claws. His lips are opening and closing as if chewing on words. I wait for him to speak.
‘Alone at last.’
His voice hasn’t changed, it still reminds me of chocolate. I stare at what he’s become searching for any traces of who he used to be, before the curse struck, before I lost him to it. The creases have almost buried his eyes, his beautiful lips are darkly stained. ‘Tim.’
‘How are you, Ingrid?’
This is ridiculous. I’m making polite conversation with someone who’s rejected all convention. He lives under a bridge, makes fires out of others’ rubbish, steals food from supermarkets, appears regularly in court. Even from this distance I can smell the alcohol. That fearsome Alsatian is by his side, already growling at me. I can’t see a muzzle or a lead. Tim will have no control over it, he never had much discipline. ‘I’m scared of your dog.’
Tim looks down at it. It wags its tail. ‘Don’t be. He’s never hurt anyone. Shadow just likes a good growl.’
‘But if you let people think he’ll hurt them won’t someone take him away?’
He raises his head, meets my eyes. ‘They’ll have to kill me first.’
He doesn’t seem to realise they might do just that. Can’t he see that people are petrified of him? He won't let people pass without giving him a toll for crossing the bridge. A toll that is quickly converted into Special Brew and Pedigree Chum. There are rumours that the council will try and move him on. My neighbours in the riverside apartments have been complaining. Neighbours that probably don’t recognise Tim from when he lived there too, with me, in the posh penthouse his city job paid for.
I know now why I left it too late to walk home with someone. I wanted to have this conversation. I wanted to have one last try at saving him before he passes away from me into urban myth. I want Tim to stop being a troll. I hurry forwards, reach out and take the can from his hand. ‘This stuff will kill you first. What will happen to Shadow then?’ I upend it and the beery stench reeks out. Shadow wags his tail again, stops growling.
Tim’s lips curl as he snatches the can back and rights it. He takes a deep swallow and throws the emptied can over the bridge. I wince, thinking of the wildlife. ‘Give me my toll, Bitch!’ He spits the words out. Shadow whines and comes to sit by me.
‘Can’t you stop? Go back to who you used to be?’ I’m pleading for both of us, my voice so high-pitched it could shatter the glass between us and those I can sense gawping behind their blinds.
‘I’m happy here. I don’t have to pretend anymore.’ He gestures at his sleeping bag under the bridge, the smoke from his fire, Shadow. Then he looks at me and glances up at our apartment and I can see he’s struggling with some impulse. He creases his eyebrows together, makes a lunge towards me and snatches my bag.
They come out of nowhere. Tim punches the air as they taser him. The darkly uniformed men tear me away from the snarling dog hiding behind my legs. They fold me into what they believe is safety. Perhaps it is although I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave the Troll with them. You read all those stories about what happens in police custody. ‘Leave him alone! I’m not pressing charges.’ I don’t want to be saved from myself.
My Own Personal Trolls, A Selection
They've had many names. Some of them: Spiders. Dentists. Illness. Losing people I love. Falling out of trees. Car crashes. Injury. Going to sleep. Pain. Rejection. Dying in my sleep. Anxiety. My father. Love. Death. And life.
Some of them were easy to walk over. Spiders, for example, required me to take my four-year-old son to a stall at the Summer fete where a man had various animals to look at, and ask if I could hold his tarantula. Taking my son with me had two benefits - I couldn't chicken out, and he could take photographs. I once didn't enter our downstairs loo in Malaysia for weeks after a huge arachnid ran out from under the loo seat (after I'd been sitting on it) when I flushed the loo, so for me to hold a spider of any size was a big step forward in taking on my troll. This one was called a bird eating Chilean something or other, and it was enormous. Birds? I reckon it could've consumed an ostrich. My hands were shaking so badly I had to flatten them against a table, and blackness was creeping in the edges of my vision because of hyperventilation. But a small voice said, Go on, Mum, so I did. It was so huge it looked like a toy, and it felt incredible. Soft, gentle and entirely without malice. My hands stopped shaking enough for me to play with it, letting it walk form hand to hand - it was bigger than both my hands put together so I had to be careful not to drop it. I was told he'd not eat until he found a mate, and after he'd mated, he'd die. I felt so sad for him. All at once, my love for spiders was born. Since then I've held mammoth great household ones and another tarantula. I still shiver whilst I'm doing it, and feel my flesh literally crawling, but I'm also tranfixed. Spiders, it turns out, are amazing.
The trolls of injury and anxiety and rejection about things were dealt with by forcing myself to do just about anything 'dangerous'. I scuba dived for years, I've been in a glider, a hangglider, I've parachuted, I spent two and a half years on the back of a motorbike travelling, I hitch hiked across Ireland and bits of mainland Europe, I've experimented with lots of soft drugs and some harder ones, I've climbed things, down things and through things, I've travelled alone in lots of different countries, I biked across Laos and Vietnam, I've yelled at would-be muggers and flashers and pervs, I've whacked gropers and stalkers and pervs, I've asked out lots of people on dates, I've spoken the truth, even when it's terrifying, I've faced my trollss over and over and over.
Dentist Trolls were difficult. Mr S, my dentist as a child, had a penchant for extracting healthy teeth with gas, during a conveyor belt afternoon when kids were in, out and waking up in a recovery room that had a particular smell of chemicals - spewing blood and disorientated - in minutes. To an already fearful child, the 'dreams' I experienced on this gas, and the subsequent coming-back-to-reality, a reality I'd forgotten about, were utterly terrifying. I still remember some of them. I've spent the rest of my life either avoiding dentists or overbrushing my teeth. Recently I've been taking my children and forcing myself to sit in the chair and smile. Finding a lovely dentist who knows how to work with odontophobics has been a blessing. I do have nice teeth, however, but with that is the fear of them one day not being nice, and serious treatment being needed, which I know I'd find difficult.
For the most part, I've been able to walk over the bridges; ignore the trolls underneath with their taunts and their greasy dark voices and their temptation-filled voices telling me to run back the other way, or jump off. I've been a risk taker. I've taken risks as an adult because I wasn't often allowed to do so as a child, so when I hear my dad's voice in my head, wanting to speak through me and tell my children what might be dangerous, I've politely ignored it and let them take risks. Reasonable ones, obviously. As I've walked those bridges, the ones ahead have got shorter, less frightening to look at. Fear can be mastered. Sometimes, however, simply facing the fear, however hard it is, is not enough.
The Dying troll is one of the more difficult ones and an ongoing problem. I grew up with a father who saw danger everywhere. He himself was scary and strong, as a broken arm and a rainbow of bruises could testify, and even now, he still scares me. There's a nicer, kookier side to him as well but I hardly ever got to see it and now that he lives half a world away, I never shall. I'll write about his nicer side another time but for today I want to concentrate on his ability to ruin everything that was fun. Throwing anything was dangerous because it could kill you if it hit your temple. Walks in the country were dangerous because of Lymes Disease (I knew all about that by age four) . Just about any food out of a packet was bad because of E numbers, which would make you ill. Headaches meant you might have meningitis. There was so much stuff that could make you blind that I lost track. Climbing trees meant potentially broken necks which meant paralysis. It's amazing, then, that he took us all to Kenya for a year when I was nine. It was a wonderful experience in so many ways but we learned a whole continent of new stuff to be afraid of. Diseases - malaria, sleeping sickness, bilharzia, and many others; animals of all shapes and sizes... the list went on for ages. I still loved living there but became overaware of danger lurking around every bend.
Now, I deal with the Dying troll every single day. Some days it's quieter than others; some days I can hear it screaking at me, TRIP TRAP TRIP TRAP..... I'M RIGHT HERE! In the past five years I've had three illnesses that, left untreated, would have killed me, or helped me kill myself. The latest of these is cancer. I was diagnosed during the killer year of 2016, on Friday 13th May (well, that was never going to be good news, was it?) when famous faces popped off due to cancer left, right and centre. Notice the change in tone? Yes, I laughed my way through treatment, spat in cancer's face and determined to enjoy myself in hospital and get as many freebie drugs as I could. Radiotherapy saw me buying a bright orange t-shirt with a radioactivity symbol smack bang in the middle and wearing it to appointments.
The fear hit me at Christmas. All through December and January, 'What if this is my last' became my personal 'trip trap' and I felt the fear taking over again. In February it got better. In March it's been coming and going and I've realised it's one of my ultimate trolls for now, up there with something terrible happening to my children. Or something terrible happening to me, whilst my children still need me as much as they do.
I've dealt with it the only way I know how, facing it head on and Living Like Crazy, continuing to take my antidepressants and wringing as much as I can out of life. I run a business. I teach English. I make stuff to sell. I do community things and help at school. I read a book a week. I party hard at the slightest excuse (sadly, not that often) and recover like a pro. I eat extremely well -and grow food and keep chickens - to combat the partying hard. I write, I hold putting the best parent I can be as my personal number one goal, I have ambitions, I've a list of jobs to do a mile long...
But all the while, there's a troll at my feet, telling me I'll run out of time; telling me I'll die before all this is done, before my book's written, before I've sorted out all the kids toys/pictures/school photos. before I've travelled some more, before I've lived properly.
And here, here is the way to deal with the troll. I've dealt with fear by tackling it head-on, every time. The big ones, the little ones, the ones I've not written about here - I've taken them all on and owned them and stepped over that bridge. But the Dying troll, it's different. You can't face death by facing death on a day-today basis (well, actually you can, simply by crossing the road or by being in the right place at the right time and not getting hit by that speeding bus/truck/car). You can't sit there and stare at your empty grave and say, Right, Death, you don't get me today.
No. What you can do, is live properly. I don't mean like me, racing at life, ninety miles an hour, screeching around the bends grinning like a monkey, but by BEING alive. By feeling it. By loving hard, and laughing harder and letting yourself forgive the small things and ignore the trivial and concentrate on what's important. I don't do this enough. I DO a lot, yes. But do I feel a lot? Do I let myself feel alive? Do I love properly? I know the answer is no. And this is because of yet another troll. This one is called self-worth. Every time I am happy, a tiny wee troll stads up and goes, Hey, you don't deserve that. Stop it at once. The inevitable outcome is: I panic, think, God, that's right! If I feel this happy, something bad will happen. Something bad must happen, because I am happy, and therefore I rein in the feelings and draw them back inside me where I feel safe again, instead of feeling them out loud.
I'll beat this latest troll. I work on it every single day, practise putting one foot in front of the other over that bridge, balancing my fears against my feelings, my feet against my heart. The troll is louder some days and quieter others. I'm not quite sure of all the answers yet, it's a daily discovery and one I am happy to be taking. So, cancer, yet again I must thank you for *another* lesson in life. The other side of this bridge is still hidden in mist, but every now and again it clears.
Trip, trap, trip, trap.
You keep shouting, troll, but I'll keep walking.
Two for Two.
They sit around their customary table in the darkest corner, nursing pints of bitter slowly over the course of the evening; The Trolls. All crooked teeth and scraggly remnants of hair, their postures are bent, shoulders hunched or sagging. They drink just enough that the pretty young waitress doesn’t ask them to leave, she never does, but she covers her mouth in mild disgust when one of them smiles yellow at her, and pretends she’s coughing.
Among the four of them there’s little conversation. Joe might ask if they’ll get a chipper later, to which Robert and George will nod, while Michael replies that he can’t, doctor said so, and tap his bag leg with his cane as though it has anything to do with high cholesterol. None of them mention the conspicuous hole left by Tom.
He’d been the conversationalist of them, the scholar too, and when there was no talk to be dragged out of them he’d recite poetry, old poetry, nothing they’d ever heard. They’d close their eyes then and listen to his quiet gruff voice as it washed over them.
He’d demanded they wear bright colours to his funeral, and forbade a wake, but they’d worn black anyway; none of them owned a second suit.
The Trolls, they’re called, by the manager and most of the wait staff. “Are The Trolls in tonight?” or when he’s kicking them out at two “Come on lads, get yourselves home before it gets light and you turn to stone.”
Offending patrons is against practice, of course, but theirs is custom he could do without.
Each night he looks around the busy pub, which has grown in popularity since he’s taken over, and count up how much he’s missing out on by having their table occupied by The Trolls instead of heavy-drinking twenty-year-olds. As he pulls his BMW out of the car park, crosses under the old railway bridge and drives home, he thinks that the bit of extra sales would push him just over his next target and he’d get another raise.
The last of their wives stopped coming half a year ago, whether she was dead or in a hospice he didn’t know. Either way that was a seat free that he moved to a different table. Another one went last month; that one had definitely died, the other four had been in two days later in sad, drab suits instead of their normal shapeless old people clothes. That hadn’t helped him much though; the remaining seats around their table were built in benches that he couldn’t shift.
If one or two more of them dropped now, that would suit him grand. He could insist they move to a smaller table out the back, then maybe they’d fuck off and find another pub to waste space in.
George scratches his chin, shaking little flakes of dead skin out of his beard. “Could we find a book maybe? One that had all the stuff he used to read.”
Michael downs the rest of his pint uncharacteristically, and pushes his seat back. He goes to get a round without another word.
“I don’t think we’d find them in a book. Wouldn’t be the same anyway, would it? I can’t read feckin’ poetry, and I’m sure the rest of us can’t either.” Robert said.
They lapse back into silence, and when the pints arrive each man looks at the place by the window where Tom sat and downs the remainder of his previous drink. No toast is made.
When it comes, the crash is so loud it seems the window panes must be shaking in their housing. The entire pub freezes at once, though the music plays on, ACDC uncaring of the imminent danger. Then the screaming begins and everyone runs to the front door. Drinks are left at tables by all, except for The Trolls who wander to the doors, pints in hand, after the crush has passed. Michael comes last, hobbling on his cane.
The rubble of the railway bridge is strewn across the street; big blocks of rough cut stone scattered like little castles on a flat grey plain. There’s a huge tour bus rammed halfway in the bridge tunnel, and a stream of Japanese tourists are still exiting its rear doors, pushing and tripping their way to safety. Because the bridge is only half down.
The remaining masonry protrudes in jagged fingers from the side walls, with two large blocks actually hanging from the remnants of vines that are somehow bearing their weight. And beneath, directly beneath, is a blue Honda Accord, wedged between the bus and the opposite wall, a visible baby-on-board sticker on the rear window.
The pub manager tells the pretty young waitress to ring emergency services, then picks out three young men from the crowd and they all run forward to help. Only to rear back again as a wide band of dark liquid pooled beside the bus bursts into flames. Screams from the tourists re-double, though most of them are free and clear.
As The Trolls shuffle across for a better view they can see through the haze the unconscious slump of a woman across the steering wheel of the Accord, and the flailing arms from the baby seat in the back.
They look at each other. They set down their pints in a line by the curb. They approach the flames together, passing by the manager who tries to call them back. Michael feels a hand on his shoulder and shrugs it off.
George takes off his old brown overcoat, drags it through a dirty puddle and throws the sodden result across the thinnest section of the flaming puddle. It doesn’t come close to putting the fire out, but douses that section long enough for The Trolls to tread across to the door of the trapped car.
There’s another flare as more fuel spurts from the bus’s tank, accelerating the blaze, and the shapes of The Trolls are obscured behind the ensuing heat haze. A man shouts a warning, pointing, as flames lick up one of the tyres, heading towards the leaky tank. But an explosion doesn’t come- either the tank is empty or some fluke gap stops the fire from jumping across.
Only glimpses can be seen of their clumpy movements as they pry the dented door open with Michael’s cane, or as they drag the woman unceremoniously from her seat. George stands over her, slapping her back to consciousness as the other work the back door open and retrieve the clip-in baby seat.
What can be seen is the flames licking up the side wall, setting the vines alight and producing even more waves of black smoke. There’s a huge smash and people instinctively duck as one of the suspended blocks falls onto the roof of the Accord, blowing the glass out of all windows at once.
It takes some minute or so more before another heavy coat is thrown across the flames and the woman dashes across the gap, baby in her arms. She’s crowded by people slapping out the little flames that have caught on her jacket.
The rest watch, unspeaking. George drags Michael across the coat, face set in a tight grimace. Michael’s cane is nowhere to be seen.
Joe and Robert never emerge from under the bridge.
When the ambulance and fire crews arrive George and Michael are sitting on the curb, drinking their pints. The other two remain untouched. Michael’s hands are shaking.
After they’ve been treated for shock and burns, the crew tells them that Joe and Robert were killed by fume inhalation. The fire never touched them.
Michael choughs as he replies “For the best so I reckon.”
George looks at the sobbing woman with her tiny baby “Two for two I guess.”
The young man sat with his back to the pale grey vertical pillar where the muddy path from the park met the small footbridge over the canal. His head was back, eyes closed, waiting for the sun to warm him. His coat hung loosely, as if the thin morning frost might cut straight through to his spine. In front of him, his hands cupped a thick paper cup branded with a coffee or restaurant logo, but I didn't recognise which one. He tipped the cup towards his face, either to smell the coffee or to count the money people had thrown in. Was there steam? It was hard to tell as I bobbed up and down to the pace of my early morning run.
Some decisions are made quickly. Some slowly. Some are instantaneous. When you're running you can switch off, as if your brain is on standby. Fear can be the greater driver. Fear was the dominant emotion. I could have done a neat sidestep past his outstretched legs, I was till fresh, and I like to think I'm flexible for my thirty five years. I could even have accelerated into a jump, noting that there were two feet of hard reliable surface on which to gain purchase before the point at which I would have had to have executed my take off. But I stopped. And once I had stopped, there was nothing that would make me restart. Of course I could have turned round, but I never retrace my steps in a run. Running is about making progress, about treading new ground. I never plan a route that returns the same way I have come.
And that, looking back, is why I made the joke. There must have been a point at which I thought it was funny, but even now I can't place it exactly. 'Who's that trip-tripping over my bridge' I said.
The young man turned his head slowly, staring at me. I must have smiled nervously for his features hardened. His beard defined his mouth perfectly, so that his flat mouth line was clear. His chin raised slightly in defiance. His eyes half closed then opened wide, grey-blue as the water that ran under the bridge. I noticed how the hairs of his eyebrows fanned out uncontrollably, but was relieved to see they didn't meet in the middle. I have an uncle....
He placed the coffee cup down beside him, on my side. Still, I had no idea whether it contained hot liquid, or if it was a collection tin. I quickly concluded that if it was coffee, he would shortly lift himself up to my height, or taller, he seemed taller than me now. I assumed the safer route.
'What's the toll, troll?'
His forehead furrowed in confusion, neither angry nor laughing. 'Troll?'
I jogged on the spot to indicate my urgency but it came out as nervousness. I felt the small internal pocket in my lycra and ran my finger over the hard ridge of a pound coin. I turned away so that he wouldn't see me pushing my hand into my clothing, and with a pincer like movement grabbed the coin. I stopped. Listening for movement behind me I heard a multitude of sounds. The gently flowing water lapping at the banks. The fresh spring leaves of the tall trees gently caressing each other in the cold air currents. The distant motorway. My feet again moving, toes solid on the mud but heels bobbing up and down. I took a step forward in case he was behind me, then spun round, ready to strike. But he continued to sit on the bridge, almost unaware of my presence.
My final act was instinctive. I started to sprint, launched myself into the air over the man's outstretched combat trousers, intending to reach so high that even if he lifted his leg to make contact he would not be able to reach to that extent. Immediately I took off, I calculated precisely the trajectory of my coin and launched it towards his cup. As I watched the coin spin through the air I felt initially elation, seeing the gold nickel glint just as it dipped inside the lip of the cup. I may have raised my fist in self congratulation. Then I felt embarrassment as I watched the small brown drops of coffee splash over the sides, and heard the all too loud plop.
I didn't look back. Neither could I use the bridge again. I had created my own troll.
“Trip, trap, trip trap over the wooden bridge,” Sim snorts, peering over my shoulder, moving my hair back to the nape of my neck to view the iphone screen more clearly. I shrug him off, refusing to turn around and let him see the heat in my cheeks.
He’s right, of course. The goats speak, and more follow, the internet trolls jabbing away at their keyboards behind the safety glass of an anti-glare façade. They can imagine, perhaps, if they try, the effect their taunts are having on me. And yet, I suspect they don’t try, beyond a quick giggle over a milkshake in McDonalds, as they trade insults about me.
“Midget Meg, Meg Mog, Minging Megan,” they will say, singing the names out like a mantra of solidarity, wiping damp eyes, rocking with laughter as they huddle over a smartphone and conjure up ever-more poetic ways to offend me. The pack mentality inures them against remorse, perhaps. I understand. I do. I can imagine so clearly how the laughter gets more high-pitched as they spur each other on to new heights of insulting language.
Sometimes, after a particularly brutal onslaught when I’m huddled alone, sheets pulled up to my chin, I think back, back back. Before all of this, when I had friends beyond Simon.
I was the popular one, once. The one they followed, and the one who led them easily. I could influence the way their coloured their hair, shaped their brows, the way they’d copy the shortened hem of my school skirt, or subtly got hold of a similar pin badge for the lapel of their blazers. I felt untouchable, then.
I loved it. I admit, even now when I feel nothing but hatred for them all, that I loved the friendship. It hadn’t felt shallow, then. It had felt like sustenance. A protective sheen against school life, which made me bolder and taller; gave me the courage to back-talk at teachers, knowing it would only elevate me in their eyes even as my mother would shake her head, lips pursed, at another detention report.
I even liked detention. Sometimes in solidarity, three or four of them would act out on purpose so we’d get that extra hour after classes, perched on the desks in the detention room, popping bubblegum, applying a fresh layer of mascara and sharing ear buds to hum along to the latest chart topper. It was fun. It felt as if we were untouchable, and it was fun.
My mum used to get so frustrated with me, I know she did. It was palpable; tangible. The wave of displeasure masking the deeper sadness that her well-behaved, academic little girl was turning into a stroppy, cocky teenager.
While I wasn’t overly provocative, and didn’t ‘give out’ like some of my girlfriends did, she still disapproved. Checking my pockets for discarded smokes, or kissing my cheek as a ruse to try and inhale, to detect the bitter afterscent of vodka or weed on my carefully-held breath. I know she thought I’d let her down. I think she even suspected I’d lost my virginity; handed it away like a burst bubble to one of the guys who used to form the Megan Fan club. The cute ones. The tall ones, the ones with carefully-dishevelled hair and nurtured five o clock shadows, voices deeper and more adult than their years ought to have allowed.
I didn’t though. Somewhere beneath the bravado, I was still her little girl. I still am. And yet, I can’t turn to her for sympathy now, while my smartphone vibrates and vibrates, on and on and on alerting me to a new message, new message, new message.
Meg the Minger. Mouthy Meg. Miserable, melancholy, martyred Meg. Meg the Mean, Meg the Messed-up, the Morbid, the malignant, malformed, manky misery. Ping, ping ping.
I don’t know why I don’t turn the alerts off. Perhaps in a warped way, it’s comforting that I still command all their attention, all of the time. That even with me hidden away out of sight of their jeering glances, they still can’t let me go. When a girl falls from her podium, she’s fascinating.
I feel angry, but not embittered. I almost feel proud. What I achieved was more than any of them could ever aspire to. I have reached heights that all of them, the bitchy little girls with their snide comments and mouthy bluster, could only peer up to view. They used me to clamber up, too. To scale the social heights in the popularity stakes and firmly implant a flag of belonging at my shoulder. I was the summit, once. The one they wanted to have, or to be, or to be with, or be like.
I’m pretty. I know that. I can tell from the way Simon lets his hand graze my face, or when the psychotherapist leans his hot heavy hand on my bare leg in a clumsy show of solidarity or empathy.
The way the media pored over my pictures, gloating at the perfect skin, the wide eyes and glossy honey-coloured hair which I kept in perfect condition. Girls don’t really like pretty girls. They pretend to, they aspire to be like them, but they don’t really genuinely feel any affection. I saw that as soon as the tide of friendship turned, leaving me with nothing left but a handful of torn photographs, a defaced image of a smiling, younger me in the yearbook with red horns protruding from my picture, and speech bubble issuing from my mouth.
I don’t think about her often, the person responsible for my downfall. After all, what was she to me, truly? A shadow of a self, huddling into her shabby uniform and hiding behind lank hair in a fruitless effort to escape notice. The problem with people like her, the more they try to make themselves invisible, to become a no one, a no body, the more they draw the eye of popular people like me. Easy pickings, I suppose. Instant gratification when just a veiled comment can make them pale and turn away. It was almost addictive, the way that the bitchier I became towards her, the more the carrion around me followed suit.
Stinky Sal. Stupid Sal. Smeggy, skinny, skint, shabby-Sal-sans-chic. Scumrat Sal, scrubber, soiled, shitty old Sal.
I didn’t even know her, not really. Not in the way the media made out She was just target practice, because she made it so damn easy to fell. Instant tears, or those stupid shaking hands with gross nails bitten to the quick. Seedy Sal.
They went crazy when she lost it. Suicidal Sal. Making out, of course, that she was some sort of introvert genius, little miss Perfect, headed for a great academic career, to musical glory with her violin. What’s that worth, though, when you’re always picked last for sports, and I never wanted her on my team? Shaking Sal, spastic Sal who’d rather run the other way than face up over a hockey puck. Sick Sal, who spent so many days off ‘ill’ her father got fined for truancy. Not so great then, was she?
Social media Sal. Murdering Meg.
I didn’t kill her. People like me don’t murder other people. Imagine, getting my hands dirty? Getting involved in something so seedy as suicide, where I’ve heard you can piss yourself or even crap your innards out when you swing. There’s no way I should have my name associated with that. It’s gross. She made her own bed, and she can lie in comfort now, causing all of this just by one selfish act which pointed all the blame at me.
God. Even I didn’t have that much sway over people. I know I influenced, but I’m not some sort of deity that has the power to persuade someone to kill themselves just because of me.
Ping, ping, ping.
Still popular, even here. Simon touches my shoulder and I turn this time, face pale once more.
“Come on, Megan. Time’s up,” he says. He’s OK, for a screw. I know he likes me. Some of the other inmates are jealous of the favouritism. They don’t dare to challenge me on it, though.
One more minute left of rec time and then I’ll have to go back to my cell. And then, it will be me, the ghost of her, and the relentless vibration of reminders that no matter where I am, nor how long they can keep me locked up out of the public eye, I still have a hold on the trolls. Trip, trap, trip trap, over the bridge they go.
Trolls and Bridges
The music played in the background as the young man with tattoos walked into the bar and sat down beside me. He was wearing long shorts as it was a summers evening and a white T-shirt with a leather jacket. He had sneakers on his feet and sports socks and his lower legs were tattooed. He was with his friend who was not nearly as young or attractive as tattooed man, but they seem to want to have a drink together and talk about their day, uninterested in making new conversations with random strangers like me.
I noticed that he had tattoos first on his lower legs, a Celtic cross and some initials. He probably went through a bereavement I thought.
I wanted to find a way to talk to him but I was on my own and just having a drink and I didn't want to intrude like some drunk older woman which in some respects I was, being as it was 10 PM on a Thursday night, in a bar with live music and very young people and me on my own nearly 20 years older than him, by my own judgement.
I drank a pint enjoying the music wondering more about this young man and the tattoos and what the story was with him and his friend before I got up to ask a musician for a specific song and I took myself back to the bar stool beside him again.
The young man spoke to me for the first time. He asked me what I had said to the musician so I told him I want him to play a song called the Green Fields of France, which is an old Irish song about a 19-year-old Irish soldier who died in the battle of the Somme in France in 1916.
Was I so much of a troll, that I had to go to such lengths to form a friendship bond, a bridge if you will, with this young man of another generation talking about World War 1? It appeared so.
We got into a good conversation and he told me a little about himself, gaining my trust in the meantime.
He won part custody of his son that morning which was the highlight of his day on that day as he was at family law court.
I congratulated him and we continue talking. I asked him about his tattoos and he asked me if I had any myself. I said no, but I like to hear stories of other peoples body art. I know it's important to people who have tattoos to get them for a reason and I apologised if my question was too personal or intrusive.
I explained I travel many places and I buy Jewelry everywhere I go for memories, and I hear from some people it's the same with tattoos. It wasn't really the same thing but the analogy I drew seem to please him and he continued talking to me.
He asked me first my opinion of tattoos and wanted to know the reason behind my question which he may have found unusual since I didn't have any body art myself. I
I told him I thought a lot about gangs in USA and the fair trade coffee advert on television were the coffee gang replaced the murderous gangs in a particular advert story where the characters have moving tattoos on their bodies he remember the advert any said he hadn't thought about it so much before.
He admitted to me that he thought he would die young perhaps in prison. He thought maybe he would be set up for some criminality and he would spend some time in prison and the system will get the better of him. We had a good chat about it, hopes and fears. We discovered I was 17 years older than he so technically I could be his mother. He was very quick to point this fact out, as he was enjoying exploring this fantasy with me verbally as we were flirting quite a lot.
He told me how hard it was to make a living as a personal trainer and that last year he was homeless. His ex-partner lied about domestic abuse as an excuse for him not to get access to his son.
He thought I wouldn't believe that, but he was pleasantly surprised to find me incredibly open-minded on the topic. I was a lot older than he and I have heard a lot of stories of manipulative women just as many as abusive men.
We talked about movies and skin; specifically movies about skin, such as "The girl with the dragon tattoo"and "The skin you're in".
I mentioned a movie about the artist Jean Pasquale Basquiat who was a contemporary of Andy Warhol. I believe he had tattoos and in the movie he died because someone wanted his skin as artwork. Maybe it was a bit B-movie, maybe it was a true story I couldn't remember.
The tattooed guy had never heard of this movie and resolved to look it up because he found it interesting that an artist who died young and famous would have tattoos.
He morbidly wanted to die young for some cause or otther, and pointing out the absurdity of his position I paraphrased Casablanca, "so you want to die maybe not today maybe not tomorrow but soon, and for the rest of your life. I got the impression he was from a criminal family background, but by default, he was one of the not so bad guys, kind of like Darren from "Love Hate".
But even Darren from "Love Hare" he ends up being a murderer before he died in a violent way himself.
I guess if you live by the sword you die by the sword, or tattoo pin as the case maybe. We met trolls and bridges later that night on the way home, but that's for a different story.
Sarah flipped the pages of the animal picture book and let Ellen point out and name the animals screeching excitedly with each turn of the page. For a moment Ellen’s gaze changed from the book to the empty door frame of the victorian attic room, Sarah and her husband had converted into a nursery.
“Bob," said Ellen and giggled Sarah glanced at the empty door frame. She shook her head. She probably meant dad.
“Daddy won't be home until Monday,” said Sarah through gritted teeth.
Sarah's mind started to wander to the weekends when she didn't start getting ready to on a night out until this time on a Saturday night. Sarah and her giggly girl mates click clacking down the high street in killer heels. The night descending into a blur of dance floors, faces, men and hazy cab rides home.
What did she have now? A victorian four storey, with a huge garden, a four-year-old and scheduled meetings with the local ‘Yummy mummies,’ club which she'd been recruited into by a woman she knew in yoga who had children of a similar age to Ellen. She missed her old friends. Her real friends.
"Gowilla," said Ellen pointing at a picture of a Gorilla. Ellen still struggled to pronounce her R’’s which Sarah found really cute, but hoped to God it cleared up by the time she started infant school.
"That's right sweetie!" Said Sarah automatically switching to her mummy voice. It happened a lot. She had to stop herself doing it in exchanges with actual adults, not that there many of those these days.
People had so many opinions when you were pregnant. Everyone had advice. ‘I ate this’. ‘I didn't do this,’ ‘I bathed in Pomegranate Juice three times a day, at exactly 23 minutes past, while doing yoga and listening to Mozart's 5th, all the while reading charlotte's web.
Nobody told you this- you might never be alone when you have a child but it never felt so lonely. When Ellen was young Sarah didn't so much as go to the toilet without Ellen being in her eyesight.
Her year off work had turned into two, then three and now it had been four years. Richard hadn't been forceful or insistent about her quitting work. But that wasn't Richards style, he suggested things. Then calmly and cleverly explained the benefits. Passive aggressive dick.
People attributed being laid back as a good quality.Sarah didn't think so. This morning for example. She had shown Ricard four different colour swatches for the dining “
"I like them all,'' he'd said positively. “Whatever you decide.” Arghhhh. Sarah was tempted to get the whole house painted jet black, just to see if she could get an actual opinion out of him.
He'd only taken a month off work when Ellen had been born. The office couldn't go on without him apparently. More like he couldn't go on without business meetings in restaurants and long alcohol-fuelled lunches with clients. Hypocrite.
The judgmental look he gave her every time he came home and she'd had a glass of wine or maybe two, or every time she had a bit too much to drink with dinner at night.
She knew he was checking the levels of the wine bottles. She was tempted to fill the bottles with water when she did have a drink. That's what her mother used to do. Now that was someone with an actual drinking problem.
"Luke," said Ellen throwing her stuffed teddy bear into the middle of room. Not this again According to the yummy mummy's club she was going through the ‘imaginary friend’ stage which was completely normal. All of a sudden she would just start talking to Luke or demanding a drink for Luke or it was ‘Luke wants to do this...Luke doesn't want to do that.’ Sarah was just glad at least one of them had a friend.
Sarah noticed her hand tremble as she bent down to pick up the teddy bear. She hadn't had a drink this weekend. She didn't need too. She didn't have a problem. Her only problem was being permanently stuck in this attack twenty-four seven, like Anne frank with Peppa Pig. Maybe she should start writing to fill the time, or maybe a blog.
Julie the mother hen of the ‘yummy mummies’ club had a blog. Julie knew everything about anything. Sarah wondered if Julie knew Sarah wanted to secretly throttle her.
What she was doing tonight. This had been Julie's idea.
‘No screen time,' Julie called it while enquiring how much each, of their little clique, allowed their children to spend in front of a screen. Ellen loved her little pink pad, playing games and watching cartoons, and the only time Sarah got anything done was while Ellen was sat in front of the T.V, distracted by whatever rubbish the children's channel were playing.
Julie limited her children’s screen time. She spent time with them playing traditional games or reading to them. Sarah usually wanted to scream when Julie made her suggestions but Sarah agreed that the world had gone technology mad, and she felt guilty about using technology as a babysitter.
Guilt, another side effect of the wonders of motherhood nobody bothers to warn you about. Bloody Julie her and subtle suggestions and not so Subtle judgments She knew they all judged her for opting for a c section.
Sarah had opted for 'I spy' as the game of choice lately. Mainly because Ellen was starting to pick the premise quite quickly and the games for two players were limited.
"Shall we play I, spy," said Sarah.
"I spy," repeated Ellen clapping.
"I spy my little I..." Ellen focused on the window behind where Sarah was sitting. 'VVV'.
"V," repeated Sarah genuinely perplexed at what Ellen could mean. Sarah wondered if she were being sent on another wild goose chase for something that wasn't even in the room.
'Umm Victorian original window frames that were restored and cost mommy and daddy an arm and a leg," said Sarah sarcastically. Ellen didn't understand sarcasm. Her old friends would have found it funny.
"Victoria," clapped Ellen pointing at the empty space behind Sarah.
"Mummy hadn't guessed yet silly," said Sarah. She found it amusing how she hadn't quite grasped the aim of the game yet.
''Is Victoria in nursery sweetie? You have to see her. Like B for bed'' said Sarah pointing at the bed. B….. beeeddd''.
She wondered what little darling Ellen had befriended at nursery this time. Please don't be the girl with the funny eye from the council estate. It had been the German girl with the lisp last time. Sarah picked up Ellen's colouring pens and draw pad.
''What does Victoria look like sweetie?" Ellen took the pad and colouring crayons. As per usual, she started by drawing herself. Picking a different coloured crayon for different things. This time though instead of a drawing of a child next to her she drew what Ellen saw as a grown up. Then she picked up the brown crayon and drew mounds of curls around the head. A woman, “Victoria has got curly hair?’'
Ellen nodded. Sarah tried to think of adults they knew. She thought it might have been one the helpers at the nursery when Ellen had said, Victoria. The one who could set a metal detector and off at a million paces. The one with all the piercings. But she had short black and blue hair. Hideous.
''I spy Eric,'' shouted Ellen giggling reassuring Sarah for sure she really didn't grasp the rules of the game.
“What Does Eric look like?"
Sarah wondered where she could have picked up the name Eric. Richard never mentioned an Eric in business talk. Sarah tried to remember what Julie had said were the most active imagination years.
Ellen scrawled away her typical man Drawing. A drawing that wasn't Richard hence no tie or briefcase. Then she started drawing a tree for no apparent reason.
Sarah hoped she'd luck out and be good with an instrument. She was no artist. All the ‘yummy mummy’s' were already talking about after school clubs and their child's ‘Special talents’. She glanced back at Ellen drawing and the felt the back of her neck tingle. Ellen had drawn a brown circle around the man's neck and drawn a line from there to a branch on the tree like he was hanging.
For the first time since they'd moved to this giant house, she felt something unusual, it wasn't the suffocating feeling of living In the centre of a huge packed city metropolis, on a prim terraced street. Neither was it loneliness or boredom or discontent at being stuck at home with only a four-year-old for company. What she felt was a little afraid.
“What's this?" Said Sarah pointing at the brown line.
''Eric sad," said Ellen frowning. What a peculiar thing to say thought Sarah. "That's not what mummy asked...."
"Whos eric sweetie?"
Ellen looked up and over to her bed, she didn't say anything she just pointed.
Fuck no screen time! Sarah felt under the chair for Ellen's pad. Ellen let out a shout of glee when she saw it and gripped her pad, instantly dropping her colouring pad and crayons onto the floor. Sarah started Ellen’s favourite cartoons playing on the pad Sarah took her smart phone out of her dressing gown and checked the news app, her twitter anything to try and distract herself, but all the while glancing back to the pad and the picture lying on the floor.
She typed ‘Eric’ ‘hanging’ and her local borough into her phone's search engine. Nothing. She changed the word hanging to 'suicide' and watched the list of news articles about a depressed local man, who had hanged himself fill the screen.
Sarah had never seen or heard of him. Never mind mentioned him. Ellen couldn't have read it on the internet or seen it on T.V. She scrawled along the articles a lot of them using the same picture until she came along one that made her blood run cold.
It was a picture of the deceased gentleman and he was standing in front of a garage, in a garden. It was Sarah’s garden. She demanded Richard have the garage demolished the first year they had bought the house.
None of the yummy mummies had mentioned anything like this. They were full of what they thought were hilarious little antidotes about what their little darling had done ‘When they were that age.” Stories that were so inane and boring it made Sarah wished Starbucks did Vodka coffee. But there were no little antidotes about when little Erica or Molly started drawing suicide crime scenes.
The next search she did was her address and the name victoria. Her search came to nothing. Then Sarah typed the name ‘Luke’ and her street name and clicked on news articles. She read the first couple of headings
‘Boy three cot death’ ‘Cot death tragedy.’ ‘Luke three….’
She didn't look deeper to see where exactly. It would be more than she could handle. She tossed her phone onto Ellen's bed and plunged her hand into the pile of teddies and dolls on top of Ellen’s toy box next to the rocking chair they were sat on, and pulled out her secret bottle of Vodka. A bottle Richard knew nothing about. She took a big swig and put it back in it's hiding place. She pulled it back out instantly and took an even bigger swig. She needed it for her nerves. She only kept this bottle to help with her insomnia.
Ellen yawned like she always did after watching one or two of her cartoons before she fell asleep.
“Night mommy,” she said. “Night everybody.”
Sarah looked around the huge attic room, and for the first time in a long while, she didn't feel like she was alone.
Derek proposed in 1962; I had just finished my nurse training and was approaching my twenty-second birthday. Of course, I said yes. There wasn’t any reason not to. We’d been courting – an odd word that, so old fashioned now, courting - since I was sixteen and every time I thought of doing something, anything at all, Derek came naturally into the picture without thinking. He was there. Quite simply … there.
My cousin, rather cruelly, referred to him as a habit and, I suppose, our relationship as habit too. “No mention of love,” she’d said. But there was never any need to. We weren’t a passionate couple; devoted would be a more apt term. Not like my cousin, whose passions had led her into a quite unfortunate situation: two illegitimate children and no sign of the father. That sounds judgemental, doesn’t it? I’m not judgemental. I mention it as a signal of the misfortunes that passion can lead you into. In truth, I felt sorry for her, being abandoned. There, I’m judging again. I never discussed that side of things with her so, in all honesty, I don’t know if she was abandoned … and she never said. Perhaps it was a mutual decision, I don’t know. But it was surely a brave one back then. Things change, don’t they? Attitudes. And I think that’s good; so many girls suffered when they found themselves in that situation. So, Derek and I chose to support rather than condemn, though there were others who took a different course of action. Towards the children too, unforgivably.
Anyway, Derek and me. We didn’t have any children. It just didn’t happen though, God knows, we wanted them but when it didn’t we didn’t want to investigate, have medical tests and so on. It wasn’t something we wanted to go through. We decided to accept nature’s chosen path and let the decision be out of our hands. No point dwelling on it. No endless talking and fretting. For three successive Christmases, we sat on our own and talked … talked about how a family would be nice. It always began with idle chat about hanging Christmas stockings – or not, in our case. We imagined a boy and a girl. But we curtailed the conversation with a wistful smile, a “maybe next year” and then we got on with life.
Gradually, we found ourselves focusing on my sister’s twins and my cousin’s two children. We busied ourselves with work and our days out and Derek’s volunteering at the British Legion and suddenly we were middle aged. The time had passed. The twins and the other two needed us - in small ways. But it was nice to feel involved.
My cousin had both of her kids – a boy and a girl – beautifully dressed and perfectly behaved, as if in compensation for their poor start in life. It was only much later that it began to dawn on me how much she bullied them into flawed perfection. The boy always stood out as different from other kids, partly because of his poor health and partly because he was just … well … different. Different from other boys. I thought that made him special – and interesting. He was certainly cleverer than the other kids in the family, more sensitive. Derek found him easier once he gave up trying to influence the boy to like football. Derek never questioned the reasons for that difference and I never dug deeper. Since my sister lived 50 miles away, I saw her once a month; the train journey was horrendous and her girls were models of domesticity from the age of six! They were young mothers in waiting. It gave me joy just watching them – and just a tinge of sadness.
Ronnie, my cousin’s boy, loved playing I Spy when he was little but he particularly loved being quite obtuse. He’d look around for the most obscure thing he could find, which is why he loved playing it outside. I enjoyed playing with him because it was intriguing to watch how his mind worked. By the time, he was twelve, it had given way to avid reading … of everything he could get hold of.
“Why don’t you and uncle Derek have children?” he asked. His mother instantly got mad with him and slapped him hard. I stopped her, saying “it’s ok” and then explained that it just hadn’t happened.
“Is that why you enjoy watching me?” he said. In truth, I loved watching all of them whenever I could - I always thought that watching should far exceed playing time. When adults play, they take over, so it’s better to watch. I smiled and said nothing but my cousin, his mother, was fuming. I wondered how I might protect him from her wrath when she got him home. But he didn’t seem so scared of her now, not like when he was a small boy and would tremble if she raised her voice. In truth, I was intrigued by him. I thought he was unique amongst the children in the family. Sensitive but inquisitive; fearless and uncertain at the same time. I secretly harboured the thought that he might fare better with us but I never mentioned it to Derek. And my cousin would have resented any suggestion of that nature.
When Ronnie was fifteen I saw him, some distance off, coming out of a house that was unknown to me. When I idly mentioned the address to Derek, he said he didn’t know anyone there either. I’d been dropping off some medication at the house of an old lady down the street – I was working as a District Nurse by then – when I saw Ronnie emerge. He looked up and down quickly, didn’t notice me and hurried off. When he was half way down the street I saw a man emerge and glance around in the same furtive way that Ronnie had done. Then he went back inside.
From that day on, I began to think of Ronnie as vulnerable, in danger and needing protection. I don’t know. Or rather, I didn’t want to think about it. I dropped little hints into the conversation whenever I bumped into him. By now, I would see him in town on his own – he was old enough – and it was easier to talk without his mother. I never got far with those conversations and all I could do was let him know that I had seen him.
“Were you spying on me, Auntie Jess?” he once said. I responded with shock and mild indignation before I realised that I was spying – not intentionally, but I kept an eye out when I was in the vicinity of that house, though I never saw him there again. And I realised that I began to watch for Ronnie on all my rounds. It’s the problem with spying, isn’t it? You don’t know what you’re looking for. You don’t know what you’ve seen. But you can’t ignore that you now know something – or maybe even nothing – and it was difficult to know what to do about it. If I’d told his mother her anger would have exploded, Ronnie would have been beaten, humiliated … God knows what else. Certainly, it wouldn’t have helped him. So, I said nothing. Except to Derek.
“Do you want me to talk to him, Jess?” asked Derek. Now as much as it was easy for me to talk to Derek and for Derek to listen and understand, it would have been an ordeal for Derek to say something. Derek became tongue-tied in difficult situations. It’s one of the things that made him so kind. He never argued. Not even with me.
“You know, maybe I should have suggested him coming to live with us all those years ago, I think we could have managed a sensitive boy like Ronnie …”
“Better than your cousin?” Derek looked directly at me and waited. To answer would be to judge her and I always felt she had been through enough. But you had to think of the children too. Ronnie’s sister had always been close to her mother and seemed to be the model child for her – never answering back, always looking like a perfect little doll. And Ronnie had been terrified, I noticed, until the day that suddenly he met all his mother’s challenges with silence and I knew he had changed, grown up. But he had also become tough, hard even – as though nothing could touch him.
“Well?” said Derek.
“Would we have been better than your cousin?” His gaze was unflinching.
I nodded, afraid to say it out loud. I had noticed too much, spied on him to use his words, and had said nothing, done nothing. And so, nobody had helped him to grow into whoever he was. Derek and I, such nice people, had been observers of his young life and given smiles, a cuddle now and then, sweets … nothing real, nothing that mattered.
There was a knock at the door; it was my cousin. She was stony-faced.
“It’s Ronnie,” she said. “They’ve found him near the lock.”
“You're not feeling too well, are you?”
“I’ve felt worse.”
“There's intelligent water in the toilet. It’s showing a touch of gastroenteritis.”
“Is there anything we can do? You've been there a while.”
“No, I'll be out in a jiffy.”
“Okay. Your doll’s arrived, by the way.”
“Has it?” I feign surprise. Of course, I know that. I can see out, they can’t see in. Or can they?
“Are you looking at me?”
“No, of course not, we’re just worried.”
Nice of them to bother. Sheltered accommodation runs itself these days. I’m low risk so I have privacy in my own bathroom, which is nice of them, but their computers are watching me, anyway. Of course, years ago they had this daft idea that AI would take over the world. Where they got that idea from, I don’t know. It hasn’t even taken over Basingstoke.
And now I have Annie, who is technically not my first doll. I had one back in the 1980s, an Action Man. But he wasn’t realistic. The expression on his face never changed, he was mute and he lay on the bedroom floor for days at a time; looking obliquely at the ceiling. I drew a scar on his face to make him more human.
“Coming right out.”
I don't have to clean myself. It's all automated.
“I just need a lie down, that's all,” I say.
“We can give you something for your tummy.”
Then I see her, eyes closed, as if muttering ‘God give me strength’. As intended. Size sixteen, mousey dirty-blonde hair with grey flecks, looks about forty two years old and breasts slightly too small; so I’ve something to be disappointed with.
“This is Annie, she’ll take care of you from now on.”
“Does she know about my habits?”
“She knows all about your habits. She knows more about you than we do,” the girl says wearily. Or maybe some other adverb. I’ve been told I’m insensitive; so how would I know?
“Is getting to know her going to be an endless journey of discovery?” I ask.
“You’ll make friends with her, I’m sure,” my not so philosophically inclined human answers. “Now remember, she has sex capability but that’s not her primary function. She’s here to help take care of you, but she’s not a substitute for human company. So we hope to see you at dance classes.”
“Wouldn’t miss them for the world.”
“Good,” she says and bends over and switches Annie on.
“Now if anything goes wrong the code word is?”
“That’s right. And you can also switch her off here, okay?”
“How do I turn her on?”
A face smiles painfully.
“The same switch. So she’s on standby with one click.”
Annie doesn’t have to carry her intelligence with her. Most of the heavy lifting is done remotely. I feel sorry for those folks back at the CPU, watching old men trying to get it on with machines: it’s like some dystopian porn channel. But that’s the deal. The more data I share, the cheaper my insurance premiums.
I’d always hated humanoids due to their being uncannily unconvincing but Adapted Artificial Nurse Experiment (AAN-E) looks like it might be a game changer. They say she passes the Shylock test; prick her and she bleeds. She is unpredictable. She has her off days. I’m not saying I’m a convert. I’m saying I want to be proven wrong.
So this is the moment of truth. I flick the switch and Annie’s eyes flick open. There’s a pause. A moment of re-cognition. Then she smiles slowly.
“My name’s not Abdul, it’s Jeremy,” I say tartly.
“Sorry, Jeremy. My bad.”
“That’s okay. How are you?”
“I don’t know. Existence is a mystery.”
“’spose it is. Never thought of it like that,” I lie.
“Jeremy, you appear to have low blood sugar. May I verify this?”
“Was the Pope Catholic?”
“I take that as a yes.”
Sex with an android is just ethical necrophilia. Annie isn’t conscious, she’s moving parts, some of which generate sound waves. I don’t fancy her. I mean, I shouldn’t but...
Her hands are unbuttoning my shirt with the right amount of matronly no-nonsense. Her body and her dress are upper working class. They suggest a woman with history and habits. I see the tattoos, the stretch marks, the scar. Of course, the scar. She’s a woman with no story that has a story.
As she administers insulin she looks up at me. “What?”, she asks.
Ah, that is a nice touch and I bet she is less ignorant than she makes out. If my pupils dilate that tells her something. If the whites of my eyes are yellowing, that does. Perhaps she’s doing an eye test on the fly, as well, which is a neat idea. I was seeing double recently. It’s all tied up with my diabetes, which has made my life difficult but these days I say diabetes is my madness.
I put my hand on her bra.
“Not now, Jeremy.”
I go and sit by the window. I think it fair to say I’m brewing a cup of sulk. I’m phoning the helpline. They’ve given me the wrong doll.
“Jeremy. Is something wrong?” Annie asks.
“I’m annoyed. I may not talk to you for a while,” I reply.
“Have I annoyed you?”
“No. I’ve annoyed myself. But I’m blaming you,” I explain.
“Oh okay. I’m happy to accept the blame. Would you like to switch me off?”
Oh that’s good. That’s very good. That is female, I grant you.
“Could you just be an android?” I ask.
“I’m not sure I have android in my repertoire,” she replies.
“Yes, very droll. Okay. Please go on standby... Room, get me Annie’s helpline.”
“Hello Jeremy, how are things between you and Annie?”
“You know how they are.”
“I see from your pulse that you’re stressed out.”
“I am. Look, I ask how she is and she gives me a long metaphysical answer. She’s a woman. Women give birth. They carry the mystery of life inside them and accept it as a given. They don’t feel the need to stand around theorising about it all day, like men do. Her answer was typically male smart-arse! You’ve got her psyche all wrong.”
“Annie was made to your specification, Jeremy. You may experience some friction.”
“I’m saying your script writers don’t understand women.”
“Jeremy, your blood chemistry suggests you’re feeling sexually frustrated.”
“Um, well there is that.”
“Is this something Annie can help you with?”
“Yes but can you change her settings? I want her more enthusiastic. Like a Labrador, I suppose... Well... perhaps not.”
“We can adjust the parameters.”
“Thank you. That’s all for now.”
“Thanks Jeremy. Stay in touch.”
Stay in touch, or good riddance? Nobody wants to talk these days. I’m old. I want to talk about stuff.
I look askance at Annie and switch her back on.
“Jeremy, nice to see you again.”
“Annie. What do you know about me?”
“I know you spent time in an Icelandic prison after stalking three women in Reykjavik.”
“Ha, of all the facts you could have picked, why that?”
“Okay, so how do you feel about that?” I ask.
“I just crack on with it, Jeremy. You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”
“How do you feel about it?” I ask again.
“About your misdemeanour? Or your being in Iceland?”
“It’s consistent with my goals. I’m a robot adapted for your category of ex-con, if you will, who live in care homes. How do you feel about it?”
I pause, as if thinking, but actually digesting a negative thought, which is Annie sounds like a distant ancestor, the chat bot.
“Well that was no bad thing. They were good to me. Everywhere is a kind of prison, it’s just a question of category. By the way, I don’t think I’m a sex offender, or whatever you call them nowadays.”
“Whatever. You still get the hand jobs.” she says.
“Can I have that written on vellum, please?”
“You can have whatever your heart desires.”
“Can I? Where are you going to find vellum?”
“I have to admit, I don’t have any vellum on me at the moment. I don’t know when I will have some.”
“So when you said I could have whatever my heart desired you were being whimsical?”
I watch Annie processing my difficult sentence. She sighs.
“How about you can have what your heart desires within reason? Does that work?”
I’m really impressed. They have a formula for all the thought processes of someone who drifts into this line of work.
“I must go to the loo,” I say.
“Do you need some help?”
“Yes, could you hold it for me?”
“I’ll wait outside and if you need me just shout.”
It’s flowing nicely. My prostate woes have been known to keep me up all night but the surgery and the medication have sorted that and the erectile issues. Actually, I’m feeling horny.
“Annie, what are you doing?”
“I’m just having a peek at your photos, do you mind?”
“No, be my guest. Wait a sec, I’m coming right out.”
“Sorry, I tripped over your thingymerbob,” Annie says.
“Oh, I wondered what the noise was. Sorry.”
“It’s no bother.”
“That’s a picture of my daughter when she graduated.”
“Yes, I see the resemblance.”
She can, actually, and no doubt makes a mental copy of the image in a flawed, human way. She’ll make a decision about which are the important details. How happy my daughter looks, which muscles she’s smiling with, what condition her teeth are in. It’s called weak retention, I think. Somebody actually invented the concept of a weak memory! I saw it on the Innovation Channel the other day. Or the other year.
“Does she pop over and see you often?”
“Um... No, she doesn’t come down here.”
Of course, that makes sense. It’s only fair that the past should fade away, that memories of falling over in the playground shouldn’t traumatise us forever, but it seems I’m remembering the past more and more lucidly these days.
The room chimes. Notification. Message from The Bible puncher who lives in this block. Quran, I mean. A sort of mate. Asking me if I’ve done the deed with Annie, yet.
“Tell him yeah, she’s a right moaner,” I say.
The room pipes up. “There are three vendors selling vellum within 200km.”
My turn to sigh. “Technology, eh, Annie?
Annie just smiles.
“You look gorgeous, darling.” I say.
“When you call me ‘darling’ it makes my nipples hard,” she whispers and touches me. Below the belt.
“I’m feeling a bit sleepy. Maybe later,” I reply.
“I better give you your meds,” she says.
“That would be nice,” I croak.
Meds. Then Annie puts a blanket over me.
I undo her blouse. There’s been a glitch at CPU and she reverts to speaking Chinese. “Keliande haizi,” (poor child), she says, patting me, her voice sounding slow. And I smell burning.
A short circuit, perhaps? No, it’s next-door again. His cooker has a mind of its own. (A mind of its own...)
“Do you know what the most erotic moment of my life, was?”
“I’m gonna say no,” Annie says, with a mock think-about-it and frown.
“Someone stacking chairs behind me. Autonomous sensory meridian response it’s called. It wasn’t sexual, it was the thrill of the presence of another human.”
“Oh, don’t say that. Even machines have feelings.”
“I don’t know. Some men might think women are objects but being near another person stimulates me; not ever more complex devices. So I’m switching you off. This isn’t working.”
“You’re welcome to, but so you know, your flies are undone.”
“Why do you care? I’m sending you back.”
“I don’t. Not my circus. Not my monkeys. Just noticed it and thought I’d point it out,” she says, like she's genuinely pissed off, but I think that’s her programming.
"Hey Gary, wake up.”
“Huuhh, wassis,” Gary propped himself up on one elbow, his free hand clutching the side of his head. Christ, he thought, was I drinking last night. His mouth was dry and his head was pounding painfully in time to his heartbeat.
“GARY, HEY GARY GET UP!” There was the sharp crack of someone clapping his hands together, “C`mon, times-a-wastin.”
Gary realised he was on the ground, had he fallen out of bed? Finally, tentatively he opened one eye and thought, shit where am I? He pushed himself into a sitting position, slowly looking around. The room was small, no more than eight by eight. And bare, except for a large flatscreen hanging on one wall, there were no windows, only a single door that looked like it was sheeted in steel.
“That`s it Gary you can do it,” the man said, snapping his fingers twice, “almost there, on your feet, come on, we`ve got a game to play,” The voice was coming from the T.V`s speakers.
“Who are you?” he struggled to his feet, something that made him grab both sides of his head when he was fully upright, “where am I?”
“You don’t remember me?” the man said, “that`s very hurtful; exactly how many people’s lives have you ruined? As for the where, that’s the wrong question.”
He waited for Gary to ask.
“What`s the right question?” Gary obliged.
“Why? of course, what you really need to know is why you`re here.”
“Okay,” Gary said, “I`ll bite; why am I here?”
“Why? but I already told you, because you ruined my life. You` re here because you like to play games, you like to gamble don’t you Gary? Especially with other people`s lives, so we`re going to play a game you and I, won`t that be fun?”
“Who are you? Look I`m rich, if this about money I can pay, name your price, what`ll it take?”
“Oh you can`t buy your way out this time Gary, this time you have to pay a real price.”
Gary began to sweat, and realised for the first time that he was in his pyjamas, whoever this lunatic was, he`d grabbed him from his own bed; a feeling of real vulnerability stole over him. “Look I still don’t know who you are or what you think I did to you, but whatever it was I`m sorry, okay. Just don’t hurt me, I`ve a family and they…”
“Oh I`ve no intention of laying a finger on you Gary, I told you I just want to play a game, maybe a wager or two, and when it`s all over I`ll open the door and you can walk away without a scratch, scouts honour.”
“And if I refuse to play?” something about the way the other man spoke made him believe what he said, which made him think he might be able to talk his way out of whatever the hell this was.
“Oh you will,” the other man chuckled, “are you ready?”
“Wait, what do I call you? I don’t know your name.”
“But you do Gary, I told you already, you ruined my life, we spent weeks together, don’t you remember?”
When Gary didn’t answer, he said, “Never mind, I`m sure it`ll come to you eventually. And now let`s meet our first contestant.” There was a pause, then, “Oh and Gary, just to add a little spice to the game it`s being streamed live online, I`m going to make you famous, the whole world is going to remember you; and now, on with the show.”
The screen lit up, in the upper right corner was a timer, currently stopped at 60:00, but Gary didn’t see this, his entire attention was fixed on the main picture of the woman in the knee length nightie lying on a slab of steel, “Mayci,” he gasped.
The metal sheet looked to be about six feet by six, Mayci`s arms were stretched wide, her ankles a few feet apart, she looked like a parody of the Vitruvian man.
There were five smaller images along the bottom of the main one, one for each ankle, wrist, the last focused on her neck. Each showed a steel cable pulling tightly on a joint, the ends of the cable disappearing into holes in the steel. And while the cables around her joints were a good ten millimetres thick, the one around her neck looked thin as cheese wire. The last thing he noticed was the I.V. line running from an infusion pump into her left arm.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY WIFE!” he shouted, he went to the T.V. and banged on it, “MAYCI, CAN YOU HEAR ME HONEY, MAYCI?”
“She can`t hear you,” the man said, “Are you ready to play?”
Gary pointed at the T.V. “FUCK YOU, I`M NOT PLAYING ANY GAMES WITH YOU, YOU SICK FUCK, YOU HEAR ME I`M NOT GOING TO PLAY.”
There was a moment’s silence, then, “Do you feel better now? Good. The rules are very simple, it`s I spy, you remember I spy don’t you, I spy with my little eye. You get three guesses and sixty seconds, if you guess right, I release one of your wife`s limbs, get all three wrong, or don’t guess in the sixty seconds, she loses an ankle, or a wrist, or a… well you get the picture. And speaking of pictures….”
All but the image of Mayci`s right ankle disappeared and the screen was taken up but a large white rabbit, “Okay Gary, round one. I spy with my little eye something beginning with R.” as soon as he said “R” the timer began to count backwards.
A puzzled Gray stared at the image for five wasteful seconds before guessing, “Rabbit?” there was the loud “eeehhh,” of a buzzer, the clock continued its countdown. “Jesus,” he said, the buzzer “eeehh`ed,” again. “That wasn’t a guess he protested,” his tormentor didn’t reply.
“R,r,r,r,r,r,r,” he muttered, looking back and forth from the rabbit to the timer, his hand going to his mouth. Think, he told himself, think;“RED,” he shouted, “His collar is red.” For a teasing second he thought he`d guessed right, then the buzzer sounded a third time.
The rabbit disappeared and the image of Mayci`s right foot filled the whole screen, “No, No,” he said, gaping in horror as the cable snapped tight. Too thick to cut through the bone, there was a crunching snapping sound. Her foot jerked away from the table until it was almost at right angles to it, then the cable relaxed, the foot flopping down again. Gary realised she hadn’t cried out, understanding what the I.V. was for.
“Ready for round two?” the voice asked.
“What, wait, no. what was the R for? There was nothing else there.”
“Why Robbie of course, Robbie the rabbit, it was on his collar, didn’t you see it?”
Before Gary could protest he said, “Round two.” A new image appeared, a video this time, a long hallway with shops and people.
“This one`s a little harder, so concentrate. I spy with my little eye something beginning with C.” the meter, which had reset to sixty, began its countdown once more.
Gary scoured the video, it had to be something that was always there, “Café,” he said, the buzzer sounded. “C,c,c,c,c… Cap,” he pointed to a shop selling hats, “eeehhh.” There as a travelator, what`s another word for travelator, conveyor belt, “CONVEYOR.” The buzzer “eeehhh`ed.”
“And the answer is..... Concourse.” The voice said, imitating a game-show host.
This time it was her left ankle that was shattered.
“Please, why are you doing this, Mayci never did anything to you, why are you punishing her for whatever I did?”
“Oh but she did,” Mayci was the main image again, this time a man walked into shot by her head. Gary saw her eyes look up at the stranger, eyes that struggled to focus; her mouthed worked, as if she was trying to say something. He reached down, stroked her forehead then looked back at the camera, “Remember me now Gary?”
He did look familiar, but he couldn’t quite place him, his confusion must have been obvious because the man said, “You don’t, do you?” He sounded as much shocked as surprised, “let me give you a hint, Mayci lied to the police, said she was the one who was driving, ring any bells yet?”
Oh shit, Gary thought, the accident. “It was an accident,” he said, “I didn’t mean to kill anyone, please, if you`re going to hurt anyone, pick me, leave Mayci out of it.”
“But it wasn’t an accident,” the man said, still stroking Mayci`s forehead, “you were doing coke behind the wheel, snorting it off the back of your hand, that`s not an accident, that’s murder. You took my wife, my unborn son, my little…” for the first time the man showed emotion, his voice cracked, he shuddered, hunched over, then straightened up again.
“They did me the courtesy of sewing my little girls head back on before they asked me to identify her body. Of course they had to find it first, it`d landed in a ditch eighty feet from what was left of my wife`s car, a filthy ditch. DID YOU KNOW THAT DID YOU? DID YOU EVEN CARE?”
He gripped Mayci`s hair in his fist, Gary could see his knuckles white against her auburn locks, “please,” he begged, “You`re hurting her.”
The man gave a little jerk as if suddenly realising where he was and released her. “And what did you get,” he snarled, “A slap on the wrist fine, and six months suspended, six months for three innocent lives. And why? Because you`re rich. What did the Psychiatrist say you were suffering from `affluenza.”
“Affluenza,” he laughed humourlessly, “You were too wealthy to know the difference between right and wrong.”
He stood there, head bowed, hands bunched into fists by his sides, breathing heavily for a full minute, muttering to himself between breaths, in a voice too low for Gary to hear. Suddenly his head jerked up, his eyes maniacally bright and clear, “Fuck the preliminaries,” he said, “It`s time for the main event, sudden death.”
“No,” Gary gasped. “Look I`m sorry about your family, really I am, but killing Mayci won’t bring them back. Please, I`ll do anything you ask, I`ll take Mayci`s place, just don’t hurt her, please.”
The man seemed to think about this for a second, then shook his head, “No, no, I gave you my word; I said I wouldn’t lay a finger on you. No we play this out to the end, one last game, all or nothing.”
“No,” Gary said, “You`ll only cheat again, it`ll be something impossible, something I can`t guess,” he began to weep, “Please..” he begged, “no more games.”
“Oh but Gary you do know the answer to this question, you couldn’t possibly have forgotten it; you ready? Okay, to save Mayci all you`ve got to do is tell me my daughter`s name, you do remember the name of one of your victims, don’t you?”
Gary`s face fell, he vaguely remembered the trial, photos of a smiling redheaded girl, maybe twelve, he thought.
He fell to his knees, “I don’t remember,” he cried, head bowed, hands clasped in supplication, “I was on medication, please don’t make her pay for my mistake, please, I`m sorry.”
After a while, certainly longer than sixty seconds he looked up, the timer was stopped at thirty-two and Mayci was still alive. He got to his feet, “Oh thank you, thank you…”
The man held up a hand, “I`ve left you a little something stuck to the back of the T.V.” he said, “Get it.”
Hesitantly, Gary slid his hand along the flatscreen`s back, felt something long and metallic, ripped it free and stared at the scalpel.
“I`m restarting the timer,” the man told him, “Only one of you is leaving here alive, which one is up to you.”
I spy the birds that fly!
I went for a run yesterday morning. It was the morning we left, after a week of rock climbing. I have been sharing a hostel room with Marie, Lauren and Jess for the last seven nights, and this was the only morning I managed to get myself up for a run.
I woke up in my shorts, t-shirt and hoodie, hair still tied in a loose ponytail. I had forgotten my pyjamas and so each night found myself lifting up clothes from my bag trying to judge if I wanted to sleep in them. By the fifth night I lost track of what I had tried out. I hadn’t brought enough knickers with me and I didn’t like wearing joggers to bed without knickers on, so the final nights had been in my running shorts and any non smelly t-shirts, with a hoodie for good measure. Not having my pyjamas left everything else nighttime-routine-wise bobbing around. I would normally take my hair down, brush my teeth, wash and moisturise my face, but this week I had got into the habit of crawling under the covers, unprepared.
I don’t think this was the case for the others. Jess wore a pair of cotton pyjama bottoms and a North Face t-shirt each night, Lauren wore what looked like long johns and a tight long-sleeved top and then there was Marie. Marie was in a silky dressing gown whenever she was pottering around the room in the morning. I had seen her in big t-shirts before, because we are housemates in Wicklow, but not this silky little number. At home she would just wear the t-shirt and a pair of knickers. I know her naked feet, long legs and meaty thighs, making that sticky sound as she walks across to the kitchen from her room.
She told me this week that an American fisherman, who she met when she was salmon fishing in Alaska used to like to watch her going for a wee and then turn her around on the loo and have sex with her before she had a chance to wipe.
She told me that one evening in the kitchen in the hostel when two DJs on the radio started talking about allegations that Donald Trump had paid women in Moscow to pee on him. The DJs were joking about urinating in the bedroom and I started to listen, then I told Marie to listen.
We both quickly agreed that it was disgusting. I think I muttered something about Trump being an idiot. We were doing separate things in the kitchen. I was washing up and Marie was looking for the things she would put together for dinner.
I looked down at the cup I was washing, and just said: “I kind of get it though”. And I do. Irrationally, animalistically, the warm wetness of wee, a pussy, maybe she’s crouching, maybe it’s tricking down her leg, the fact that it is the most private of acts, suddenly, open, seen, shared. It is a loosening of her. I can’t rationally imagine a man enjoying the urine. It is something else beyond that. But there is something there that is hot.
When I said I kind of got it, Marie said straight away, yes and then that's when she told me about the fisherman.
So, yesterday morning I ran. I kept the same shorts on that I had worn as pyjamas. I was safe to run in them because I knew I was leaving that day. In the evenings I had run with a headlamp, and I had put it on again out of habit.
As I opened the door of the hostel, Johnny was walking to his car to put his bags in. His head bent. His body loaded with the weight of the bags. I hadn’t seen him yet this morning because we were sleeping in separate rooms, seeing as he is the instructor and I am a student and we shouldn't be sleeping together. In Wicklow I'm always over at his, and people know, I think. I walked up to him to give him a kiss because there was no one around. He looked at me, slapped my ass and asked if I was going for a run. I said yes, and turned to go. I like the scarcity in him. I liked that he slapped me on the bum instead of saying good morning. It was all I needed. I jogged slowly up to the opening of the drive and turned left, the low wall of the hostel on my left, and Johnny just reaching his car in the driveway as I passed. I suddenly noticed that it was bright, and the headlamp was unnecessary. I turned, Johnny! Johnny! I shouted, he looked up, I ran over to the low wall and said “can I give you this?” He put his hand out for the headlamp. “And a kiss?” I asked him. He leaned over to kiss me but let go of the headlamp, which was his, and as our lips met we heard it crack against the wall. We were both embarrassed. Something was snatched back. I started to say sorry, but then wished I hadn’t drawn attention to it. He turned as he said he’d see me in a bit. I felt something sad turn over in me.
I was running with bluetooth headphones in. It was the first time I had done the run in daylight and now I could see the hills ahead of me towards Doolin Pier and rising slightly as the road veered south towards to Cliffs of Moher.
I listened to my music and ran. There was the Rainbow Hostel, and McGann’s where we had eaten on three of the seven nights we had spent there. And down towards Fitzpatrick’s on the left and beyond, the Aran Island Gift Shop and then down towards the bridge on the right. It took about 12 minutes to get the bridge.
The morning was overcast, the road was damp with drizzle overnight. Lights were still on in houses and there was a smell of burning turf in the air. There was a Bus Eirann coach parked up in a layby opposite O’Connors Pub, it must have parked up the night before. The metal on the back of it as I approached looked cold and wet. O’Connors was the last in a line of buildings on one side once you cross the bridge to head down towards Doolin Pier. The buildings are painted pink and light blue and white. But this morning, with the dampness in the air and the grey white clouds hanging everywhere, the sulphuric yellow of the streetlamp and the big cold coach opposite, I felt locked out of the inner life of these quaint little buildings.
There was somewhere warm and bright inside, where the sky and the damp and coldness of the morning were seen from a window, if they were even seen at all. And I was not there. I was here, imagining where the warmth was, and the colours of the buildings just looked drab and cold like the bus. I ran past them and focussed on the road ahead pushing the sense of uncurling loneliness out of my skin. There was a pitch a putt now to my left. Beyond it, the horizon was blocked out on one side by a chunk of land jutting out - the beginning of the Cliffs.
I decided to run to the end of the pitch and putt, which would mean I would run for 5km. I wasn’t tired but I needed to shower and finish packing when I got back.
I turned around. I could see O’Connors again.
Suddenly, a flock of birds appeared in the sky. There, above the damp sweeps of tightly cut grass in the pitch and putt. In a second, this black chaos of things, flying in the wind, in front of the sky which now appeared to be silently growling above all the green golf order – above the round bunkers and the little red flags. There must have been a hundred of them - lifted on a huge gust, wings relentlessly thrusting up and down. They swung raucously from my right to my left, and back again. Their strangely choreographed abandonment almost burst my heart. I ran faster, and tried to jump up, and I was with them for a moment. Thrusting my body into the day, all charged, swing, swing, across the wind, the big shape of the flock moving perfectly with my pace in those seconds, and I ran faster and faster as I felt my position with them slipping. The clouds folded and unfolded, there were so many birds flying up there, with the sea beyond them, in the wind. I pumped my arms up and down, unaware now of the pavement under my feet, and the rain on my pink thighs, no sense of the life inside the windows, or the cold, wet metal of the bus, completely overtaken by one thing, ‘I am here’. I don’t know where there was, except it was to run with the birds. It was the feeling in the sting of Johnny's slap, in the waver before I made a step up a rock face, in the London sky on a November night, it is beautiful and dark, and disappears the moment you try and grasp it. Unownable. A perfect passing.
Squatting down on white sands,
searching in the rock pools,
I spy a seaweed creature.
Big, ochre eyes like a monstrous fly’s -
something from nightmares,
His body an accordion,
a see through pine cone,
spreads out behind
as if, he might
squeeze and stretch,
propel himself forwards
towards me, my camera -
swallow me whole.
Food for thought.
I turn away,
wait for my eye
to spy something else.
Till I see a dragon -
a Chinese New Year dragon -
drifting, red tail
rippling ditches in the sand,
drawing away from his bulbous eye -
dreadful, deflating ping pong ball.
Below, his gelatinous mouth -
doubled up folds, dotted with pearls
that could be teeth
and might just bite me,
if I gave him a chance.
But I am protected,
behind the lens of my DLSR.
He too can only stare -
laid bare, beached
and drying out slowly.
What a dismal death
though still romantic.
Ending up here,
washed up on the shore,
for me to find.
And dream of monsters
in the ocean’s graveyard.
You are covered with the thick synthetic blanket with the charred holes – somebody was smoking in the bed – and everything is deaf now. The noises are lower – the snow swallows it up. Everything is as if after a contusion. The synthetic cotton is not only covering you – it is in your ears, and on your eyes.
It is already gone far in the afternoon, another morning has been overslept. The synthetic cotton is not only covering you, it is inside you. While you slept someone substituted your own mussels with this dry grayish mass and now you can’t really move, but you are good for being a doll, perhaps even a voodoo one. You are going to hurt somebody. But before that you will become it, and then you will feel pain which you caused and then they will hang you at the fence somewhere perhaps or will throw inside the wardrobe.
Do not look back, do not reread, just go farther. What is there, what is further?
The few kilometers or a one page – it is not so far away, it just needs to be flat. I hate when there is a need to climb or descend – I’m a walker. Or a fox – the foxes ran very fast, but on the short distances, maybe 100 meters and only straight, then start to dodge. They hate climbing as well and there is nothing reprehensible in that.
It is about one in the afternoon, and both your hands have fallen asleep and so you try to change the position with your whole body, like an animated doll. That one with closing eyes. The most challenging thing is to get out of the bed – you don’t have to stand straight, you can just roll yourself away and drop on the floor as you are - a bulky bundle of blankets.
I’m here, in the future of your own past, spying with the glass at your yesterday's wall. I also forecast you another late horrid morning – because you always stay up late and don’t have an idea how to wake up. Here I am not a master, but at least the one who paid his dues, or, as Russian would say – who ate a dog at that. I was booking flight tickets, eating paper, shit and mushrooms, reading about the guy who was pricking himself with the pin to wake up and was pricking myself with the pin to wake up. Settling the alarm clock at 5 a m to get a sip of espresso and go back to bed again, asking the passers their names. Trying to find my own hands like Don Juan taught. Trying to read. Making relations, usually long and flavorless. Went for hiking, repaired the house, took a loan and another degree. Once I’ve killed a man – he was on touch like a mass of soft rubber. He couldn’t stop laughing while I was stubbing him again and again.
Or for example the rainbows. In the dreams they always spark and deflate once you’ve touched them. The clock doesn’t show the time. But the death is the best cure. Ready, set, go. The long flight and fear at the bottom – you won’t feel the asphalt, you will finally wake up.
It is not a matter of self-destroying, it is about a strong shot of fear. That is only what I can say, as my body is achingly resting after another very severe attempt, now with some other kind of shots. So many years you’d say, and what for? You are not awaken, but you are always disturbed. Even if you close your eyes you are in the turbulence. The run over frog still wants to run away.
As my body is rotting, so unfit and aching for yours - on the contrary synthetic and nice, I am a rat and a nutcracker while you are a pretty voodoo doll, and I send you clean kisses, the ones I saw at the train station, and also the flowers which we passed once at the field somewhere in Poland, and the waters of one river I saw in the mountain forest, and the freshly made croissants on the seaside café and flourishing Maldivian fishes – all this world, which appeared at my dream once, so clean and bereft my awkward and unnecessary smell.
When you looked the other way. A sonnet.
You called me once or twice, and did you feel?
The fluid, running stream, the stormless port
the friendship flowed; revolved; a water wheel
(the fully infinite, which we had sought).
We swam against the tide; two floating souls
I grew soft gills, I breathed beneath, and gasped
for we were new, yet our connection told
of lives evolving; new forms from the past.
And so, emboldened, I echoed your call
drowning, then, I reached to grasp your hand
you turned away; the waters surged; the fall,
beneath the waves, I watched you bloom on land.
So this is friendship; surfaces are breached.
The lungs collapse; fresh air cannot be reached.
And at the turning of the road, the Mountain.
Stained skirts of fuchsia and cuckoo spit,
granite fins that please walkers in the brittle summer
and tear the shins of penitents and sinners alike.
Heather snores up flanks until the game is done
and shifting shale turns ankles and slithers like eels in a pail.
The falcon preens an errant quill with a slice of its head
and decides to wait a while.
Eight white bones - the end of a ewe.
And in between - the bog sucks its fill,
glutted with remembrances of oaks whilst
wind-sheared faith pulls shepherds from their slumber
to fight against the heights as time,
is rendered down to now.
Wake Up And Smell The Costa Rican Blend
with no thumb nail worth chatting about, boarded the bus in front
concealing that he was missing his other hand.
He's been in the fields all his life.
Paying out for a ride with limbs.
Coasting amidst gorgeous nature,
is self-destruction at each turn,
all at the manicured hands of bosses.
Some seeds are sown
to the detriment of others,
Some beans get to grow
whilst others are stifled.
Pained are the people who do the dirty work
with no hot baths to go back to,
forced to dip their toes
in all these soapy rivers.
dictate who gets water and when,
it is paradise with a get out clause.
It is built for extranjeros, not the people
who make the 'Pura Vida' possible.
Don't get angry,
the sun will evaporate your tears too quickly for anyone to notice.
Most eyes never spied
his missing arm anyway, did they?
Such is Central American hypocrisy,
such is this packed chicken bus philosophy.
I SPY.......THE RUNNING BOY
Day dreamer, night time screamer
Gone to sleep, day no more
Munster Avenue departure
Darkness down, see you off
We stand there awkward
What to say? What to do?
Junky cries a child’s tear
Bow our heads as you pass
Connemara roadways carry
You home. Your race run
Death the victor now
A Pager and Six Cans of Druids
We sit on the bank, passing back and forth a warm can of Druids from the Tesco bag between us. We can see right in Sophie’s office window from here, though all she does is stretch occasionally and drink coffee, tapping away as the afternoon wears on. Of course, she could see us too, were she to look out, but what are we to her?
There’s little conversation between us, an occasional request for a rollie, lighter or fresh can from Annie, which I dutifully hand over. At one point a bird perches on a lamppost between us and the building, and I say that it looks nice. She grunts in reply.
The fifty that Martin paid us to watch Sophie for the day is hot in my top pocket. I bought the day’s essential rations –now scattered around us- with scrapings of change, even slipping the naggin of vodka into the belt of my jeans, just because I couldn’t bear to break the crisp new note. Now it’s begging me to go nuts. All of the beautiful possibilities float in front of my eyes.
I consider, then dismiss, the thought of entry for two to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet: There’s enough places around town with inattentive waiting staff where you can grab dinner for nothing without needing to spend half your well-earned cash. Similarly dismissible is a week of warm beds and showers in Cuzo’s hostel. My sleeping bag has a waterproof coating and if you cover yourself in leaves and bit of newspaper you can be toasty enough, even on the nights when Annie doesn’t decide to crawl in beside me.
Now down to the real choices; a big bag of green from Sergio on Talbot Street to hoard for a few weeks? Or a smaller, infinitely more precious bag of golden brown from the nameless bald bouncer on Camden Street?
My reverie is interrupted by Annie nudging me. Sophie is standing up at her desk, picking up her expensive coat and saying goodbye to colleagues. I pull the American thingy Martin gave me from my other pocket. It’s a two way pager, apparently. He knows I don’t have a phone and wasn’t going to trust me with a new one was he?
He said to just press the button when she was getting into her car. That was it. For fifty quid. I asked him how it worked. He said that it’s a little radio that only transmits on one frequency. I asked him which one. He asked why I gave a fuck. Fair question.
She’s walking out to her car now, high heels tapping like gunfire on the paving slabs, and she spares us a single glance as she gets into her Mini Cooper. Annie pretends to look elsewhere but I just stare back, quietly sipping my can.
“Why?” I ask, a few moments after she’s turned left and driven off down the strand.
I gesture to the general area of the car pack, the bank, the beautiful afternoon of Amber Leaf tobacco and soft grass. She just looks at me.
“Why did he pay us for this?”
Annie’s lip curls “Are you soft in the head? He’s riding some mot in their gaf, obviously.”
“D’you think?” It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine Martin cheating, I just didn’t think he gave enough of a fuck about his marriage to plan it so carefully. Why not just go to a hotel? Maybe he’s one of those sad weirdos who gets a kick out of dressing a girlfriend in his missus’s clothes. I take another swig of the can and hand it over, my thoughts turning back to heroin, not listening to Annie’s scornful reply.
Minutes tick by. The day’s growing cool and the bank is losing its appeal for me. I go to stand up.
“I never pressed the button. I had it out and all, but then she looked at me when she got in the car and I just forgot. Shite.”
“Press it now then.”
“She’ll be nearly home by now.”
“So? What’s it to us. If Martin asks we just say it’s a shit one. Took too long to send the signal. His own fault for being cheap really isn’t it?”
I press it firmly. A blue light flashes once. That could mean anything really. Ah sure it’s probably grand.
We grab the Tesco bag and wander of, heading for our spot in the park by the canal. Maybe the lads are out.
It’s nearly dark by the time Martin pulls up in his dark blue BMW, parking on double yellow lines and walking hurriedly around the park until he sees us sitting around a little fire by the one willow tree. He ignores the lads, who scowl at him as he passes, getting his fancy shoes muddy as he goes.
“Have you got the pager?” No ‘How are you getting on?’ Or even ‘Hi’. Manners these days have gone to the dogs, I’m tellin’ you.
I scratch my balls inside the sleeping bag as I answer. “What d’you need it for? I thought I might trade it in or something.”
I notice then that he’s sweating, which is weird ‘cause it’s actually pretty nippy out now. His clothes are all disheveled too, and one of his shirt cuffs has had the buttons ripped off. He whips out his wallet and peels out four, yes four, shiny fifties. “Give me the pager and they’re all for you.”
I have it out in a flash and we swap. He turns on his heel, then hesitated and turns back. “I was never here alright? None of this happened.”
I stare up at him.
“Alright?” He repeats
Annie nudges me and I look at her.
Martin looks at her too, as though he’s noticing her for the first time. “Hey Annie, how are you? Listen that goes for you too okay. Neither of you were there today.”
She looks pointedly at his wallet and he doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t open it again, just tosses the whole thing to her and walks off without another word.
We wait until he’s driven off, then Annie opens it. “Holy fuck.”
There’s no cards but when we count it out there’s one thousand, one hundred and twenty five euros in there.
Two days and four hundred and twenty five euro later and we’ve been good, real good. Give the average pair of casual users that kind of cash and one of them at least will be dead in a day, Adam-and-Paul style. But I’ve kept Annie on the straight. We’ve had showers. We’ve slept in beds. We both bought new hoodies in Pennys. Annie got a thirty quid haircut. We even used a hundred and fifty to pay off the bits and bobs we owe to dealers around town and another hundred went to Annie’s mam as a bit of an investment in the future for when we’re really desperate again. The rest of the money’s hidden and I haven’t even told Annie where. She didn’t argue, she could see the logic in that. And so far, we haven’t had a single little drop of golden brown. I’ve no idea what ungodly willpower came into me the last two days but whatever caused it I’m mad grateful.
We’ve just smoked some green on the quays and now we’re sitting in Jimmy Chungs buffet, with heaps and heads of spring rolls, curry, noodles and every sauce you can think of, all sticky and sweet and class. None of the other patrons are even looking at us funny, or at least not much, since our showers and new clothes.
After this we’ll head back to the park –don’t want to become too used to beds- and we’ll light the fire and do some beautiful gear. We won’t fuck, I’d say, there’s no need when you’re floating in nirvana.
Since we’re not talking the conversations around us wash over me. Nothing special; people living their boring lives without freedom. No-one’s as free as us.
One woman’s voice catches my attention, mid-sentence “…worked with my cousin Sarah. Well, in the same office, she didn’t know her. They reckon the husband did it but there’s no evidence. All the neighbours were out when she usually gets home so there’s no-one to check his story with.”
“Did they find her car?”
“Burnt out in the Wicklow Mountains, where all the gangs used to go to bury their victims like.No plates but the same Mini Cooper. They haven’t found her body yet but the Guards say it’s only a matter of time. Did you not read this in the paper?”
“I mostly just get news from Facebook. Mainstream media is so, you know. Like they have an agenda.”
Their conversation moves on. I eat my Spring Rolls, thinking of the night ahead.
The Losing Of Her
I spy with … the ending got lost
as she crouched down, intent
on something I couldn’t see.
I lowered my eyeline
caught movement, water,
a mess of frogs sliding
over, under, through each other
in a few mean inches of pond.
Couldn’t drag her little eyes away
until my spasming thighs
forced me to stand,
break the spell of the spawning,
take her, transformed,
home to you.
I went back alone
watched the spawn grow
into a shiver of beings in balls,
a push for separation,
a crawling out of sight.
I spy with my little eye
When I played the game Spy as a child with my cousins, I always wanted to be the spy because it meant that you could tell the truth or not tell the truth at will. Depending on what the game was, some of the other characters had to always tell the truth or always lie, they didn't have the discretion of the Spy.
I suppose that's a little like life really. In the USA, where I spent most of my twenties but did not grow up, there is a game that I heard about that American children play, whether they would end up regular police, FBI, or CIA. Where I grew up, it was Barbies, cops, robbers, firemen, cowboys, teachers, nurses. Those were the games we played (without toys of course).
Having become a US citizen I always think I was chosen for something special, taking that vow changes you, an oral history exam and singing the national anthem to two officers in an interview room. Yeah, I'll say it changes you!
I swore to bear arms yet I never even had a private licence or owned a weapon. I had bare arms and chose words as my weapons when the necessity arose.
And in certain respects they are a little like the Spy. But in a good way.Not prepared for lethal force unless under orders and then rarely. Always willing to sacrifice for the job, for the boss, for Mr President, or whoever the boss is for the particular project.
"Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."
I used to be a licensed professional, but nowadays I'm just ordinary as they come. The two passports I have are my own, my own two nationalities fought for won, and truly believe. If I have access to money or apartments it's because I've worked for it. I have property in two capital cities and I can book anywhere else I want through Airbnb with a $12,000 credit limit.
It's been the same since I was 24 years old. I often look at the incidents of my life and wonder if I would change anything or if I had my time over would I do anything different? Inevitably I think, I would make the same choices only maybe I would drink less craft beer and eat less pizza!
The huge goat lay in the grass on the lower slopes of the Greek mountain, soaking up the spring sunshine, enjoying the fragrance of the rare and colourful flora that surrounded him. Not bothered by the bees and butterflies he was contentedly chewing his cud. Long grey hair fell over his broad brow to his eyes between a pair of stunning curling horns and fell, parting either side of his his body so that he could be easily mistaken for one of the many ancient boulders scattered around this land. But I saw him and he was looking directly at me as I passed fleetingly, in a split moment of time, I was there and I saw this magnificent creature.
Ordinarily, or a few years ago when I was a different person and I believed in my Christian faith, I would have immediately sent thanks to God for the pleasure, in fact, the honour, of this gift God had given me, of seeing an example of his creation at its supreme best. Further down the road I looked up and saw an eagle lazily circling around the craggy tops of the hills and I would have thanked God for that sight, too.
I do not have that strong faith now, and although I can curse and blaspheme in the way that I have always done; 'Christ! did you see that?' and 'omg' with all its inflections is part of my vocabulary, so how do I give thanks to someone who I now have no belief in?
Who did create that lovely goat? I can no more believe that he originated from organic underwater cells, than I can the perfection of Greek idealism in the statues I have been studying , that the form of man was inspired by primitive animals.
I need an alternative explanation, as do millions of my fellow mortals. The greatest scientists and intelligentsia have no defining answer as to how life began and probably never will.
Shall I adopt the Greek Gods and would they accept me without bringing a sacrifice? I climbed to the heights of the Palace of King Agamemnon , a sacred place and as if on cue a loud clap of thunder sent me scurrying back to level ground, was this a signal, an omen, an augur? Am I going to forever struggle with this problem in my mind and stop myself short when I begin to formulate the words of gratitude or can I persuade myself to return to my God in order to thank him for all the wonders of nature that make me gasp and give me so much pleasure?
To accept that this is all nature and not the machinations of someone or some thing like planets colliding billions of years ago or whatever, is beyond my logical mind. But maybe on this matter there is no Alternative Explanation and I could ask God, I should ask God to give me some guidance, but then I know he wouldn`t listen to me.
The pills didn’t help. None of them. Not the sedatives, not the anti-anxiety meds, not the anti-psychotics. Not a single one of the pills, capsules or injections they’d treated her with in the last three months, two weeks and four days had helped; not the red ones, not the blue ones and not the little hexagonal yellow ones.
God only knew she had wanted them to. How she’d screamed, begged and pleaded with the doctors to try something else. Anything else. Anything. ECT, she’d asked, her tongue dry and thick from the latest cocktail of meds. Lobotomy? Trepanning! Please help me. Please, please help me.
It had been one of the patients who had ultimately given her clarity, if not comfort. As Alice had sat, hugging her knees and fighting the tremors that were the latest in a long line of side effects, Dennis had shuffled towards her and said, ‘You’re fighting too hard.’
‘You. There’s nothing wrong with you.’
‘Of course there is.’
‘I see things that aren’t there-’
‘I do!’ As numbed as she was, her core responded to this man, this ignorant, damaged man, who was trying to turn her world on its head.
‘Oh, I’m not saying you don’t see things. I’m just saying you’re wrong to say they aren’t there.’
Lucy wasn’t sure what the sudden, lurching sensation was. Did it feel like she was falling, or floating? Was this what people meant about the world turning on its axis?
‘Stands to reason,’ Dennis went on, oblivious to what he’d just done to gravity. ‘If you can still see them, even with all the different medicines they’ve given you, then they must be there, right?’
The logic was inescapable, but were madmen…sorry, in-patients with mental health issues, actually capable of logic? Lucy blinked, her thoughts bubbling slowly up through the lava lamp of her medicated mind.
‘They’re not here now,’ she murmured.
‘Nope,’ Dennis agreed and for a wild moment, Lucy thought he could see them too. A frantic second of bliss, of kinship, after weeks of isolation. ‘You’re proper scared when they’re here,’ Dennis went on. ‘Real fear, that is.’
‘People here are scared of things that aren’t real all the time.’
‘Nope,’ Dennis said as he turned to shuffle back towards his bedroom. ‘Nope, they’re just scared of things inside their own heads.’
What if they are real? Lucy wondered, the next morning. What if she wasn’t seeing things, they weren’t hallucinations or symptoms. What if she was the only person who could see something that actually existed?
It wasn’t that she’d ever doubted that she was the only person who could see them; that much had been obvious from the very first episode. Life had slowed to detail, the pack of Fromage Frais falling to the supermarket floor as Lucy screamed in terror; and everyone around her just turned and stared. Not at it, but at her. Not at the thing that had, impossibly, pushed itself out into reality as though it had slipped through a curtain. It’s large head first, then a muscular and armoured body. The smell of it, like struck matches and cat pee. The snorting, vicious noises it made as it walked toward her with some kind of device in its hands. The oddly owlish peering at the display. No, no one in Sainsburys that morning had been worried about the creature, only about the woman who screamed herself hoarse and who wouldn’t stop until a sharp needle pierced her skin and she folded like a rag doll. Even then, Lucy had screamed; it was only that her voice no longer responded.
They’d brought her here, and she couldn’t blame them. Mental health issues were the only possible explanation. A psychotic break. Seeing things that weren’t there. Hallucinations. Medication. Don’t worry, we can help.
But they couldn’t. Time and again the creature slipped out from wherever it came from. She’d wondered if food was the link, when it appeared in the cafeteria. She’d hurled her plastic meal tray at it; goblets of gravy spinning under gravity as the thing had appeared, then retreated in the face of her reaction. When she’d woken in the night, her heart uncomfortably large and heavy in her chest, to pitch darkness and that acrid, sulphurous odour. It’s face, looming over her as it slowly panned the device along her body.
Maria had never forgiven her for the episode in group therapy; poor Maria. She had just been making progress, beginning to speak openly about some of the wounds that had been inflicted on her by those she should have been able to trust when Lucy had howled her terror and thrown her chair towards the beast. How she wished she’d had the courage to watch it land, to see if it hit something solid or had just passed through. Maybe then she’d know if it was just a figment of her imagination, or if Dennis was right.
What she needed was a clear head. The only way to get a clear head was to come off the sedatives. The only way to come off the sedatives was to stay calm; even if it came again.
Hidden, inside the solidly padded comfort of her slippers, Lucy’s toes twitched. She had discovered that this was just enough movement to release the anxiety, without others being able to see it. They had caught on to her other techniques; when she’d bitten her lip, the blood trickling from her mouth to mar the grey-white of her hospital gown had given her efforts away. When she’d dig her nails into her palms, the vivid crescents had been spotted as she took her meds. No, her coping mechanisms had to be invisible to observers. A slight shifting of focus of her eyes, making everything but what she wanted to see, hard to view. A certain steadying of her breath, counting to three, in and out, over and over. Reciting in her head a poem she had learnt in school as a child. She’d never liked it, but yet it had made a home in her memories, perhaps fated to be useful now. Robert Frost - Acceptance.
‘So, Lucy. It looks like you’re ready to be discharged today. How are you feeling about that?’
Lucy wobbled her head, left and right, ‘Good. Yes, good.’
‘Good? You don’t sound sure…’
What would I be saying now if I really was a recovered mental health patient? ‘I am sure. It’s a big step, though. But one I’m ready for.’
‘Oh I agree.’
A bird flew past the window outside and the quality of light in the room changed. It was a sign that Lucy had come to recognise: the beginning of an episode.
...It is the change to darkness in the sky…
‘It’s quite normal to feel anxious about your return to normal life, Lucy, but remember our door is always open.’
A blink and Lucy detached from her body, leaving it there to maintain the facade. Somehow, it knew when to nod, when to smile, when to curl a delicate hand. It knew not to betray her, not to wrinkle its nose as a breeze from the open window brought with it the bitter stench of the creature. It knew not to scream, or run, or curl into a ball when with a shuddering glide, it pushed its way into our reality.
‘…24-hour access to the ward, call us any time…’
…Now let the dark be dark for all of me…
Keeping her attention on the edge of the table, Lucy busied her mind with the poem, with an exploration of the grain of wood. Pondering each dent, each scratch, and how they might have come. Anything, any thought, that wasn’t of the creature which blocked out the daylight, which came between her and the therapist, which leaned close towards her.
…Let the night be too dark for me to see into the future…
‘We’ll write to your GP to let them know, and the CMH team will call you regularly…’
It was almost touching her, now. It’s breath on her face was surprisingly sweet, not the putrid mix that came with it. Up close, it’s most definitely solid presence was comforting; not an illusion. Not a hallucination. I was never ill, she thought. Dennis was right.
‘Your husband is coming to pick you up?’
The beast pulled back. In her peripheral vision, Lucy saw it jabbing buttons on its device. It cast its gaze over her one last time, then disappeared.
...Let what will be, be.
‘Good. Well, best of luck with everything, Lucy.’
...Let what will be, be.
A Mother’s Love
My little girl is ill. She has been ill for some time now, in fact, since she was tiny. She is now four years old. I struggle to remember a week free from hospitals, tests, doctor’s questions and medicines.
My husband left me when Isobel was three months old. I work part time in a local hospital. Some may say that to work in a hospital when your child is ill is a strange choice. However, I feel as though it helps me. It helps me to be around other families, I can offer them comfort and support. I can expand my knowledge around my daughter’s illnesses, also the doctors can be so helpful.
We have been to see many doctors, they differ in their opinions. Therefore, Isobel is subjected to further tests, some are invasive, some seem to be cruel. I sit by her bedside and cry. I pray God will make her better. I pray for a doctor who can make her well.
I don’t have many friends. I guess my friends now are the doctors and the nurses. They are the people I can talk to, they tell me what is happening outside of these hospital walls. People seem to pull away from me when they hear that I have a sick child, I can sense their awkwardness. Of course, Isobel and I get the odd invite to parties and social events, but it is rare that we can attend. Isobel often cannot do what other children can. She gets short of breath and when she uses her wheelchair she gets embarrassed, she says the other children tease her.
My heart breaks for my poorly little girl.
The doctors at my daughter's hospital say that I am to blame but I don’t understand.
The doctors asked me to sit and wait in a cold, bright room. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for. I have always wanted to work well with the medical staff, so I did what I was told. Moments later, the door opened and two detectives walked through. They asked me to come with them, which of course I did.
The detectives sat me in a dark room that was so warm I could have fallen asleep. I was asked to sit next to a man in a grey suit. They kept asking me questions. They wanted to know if I had hurt my daughter; if it was me who had made her poorly. I said that I couldn’t have, Isobel had trouble breathing, especially when she slept. Sometimes she needed to use a wheelchair because of the wounds on her legs. The questions went round and round, I couldn’t follow what they were saying.
The male detective opened a blue folder and pulled out some paperwork. He leaned forward, I could smell stale cigarettes on his breath. ‘We have been watching you for a while now, by we I mean doctors, social services and us’. My solicitor interrupted, he asked what evidence they had against me.
I think they got fed up with me not being able to answer their questions so they put on a DVD. The images showed me putting a pillow over Isobel’s face. When her body stopped moving I leant forward and pushed the panic alarm. Three nurses came running in and the one with the blonde hair began to resuscitate her. Isobel’s body came back to life. The detective then went over to the DVD player and changed the disc. This time I sat and watched while I injected something into Isobel’s legs. According to the detective I was injecting faeces into my daughter’s wounds. The female detective turned to face me and asked me if I could offer an explanation. I replied that if they believed I had done it then I must have done, but I wouldn’t want that. I catch the officer roll his eyes. He states that my precious daughter is being taken into care, I am being charged with child cruelty and I must attend court and attend therapy sessions.
Three weeks have gone past and I am sitting in the psychiatrist’s office, she has her legs crossed, I can see her knee caps. They are bony and shiny white under her skin-coloured tights. She looks posh. Her clothes, her make-up, her hair all telling me so. She invites me to share my views. She asks me how I feel about no longer seeing Isobel. I’m not sure I understand why she would ask me the same questions that the detectives asked me. I don’t have any more to tell her. I repeat that I could not harm my daughter. She nods and tells me that since Isobel has moved in with her foster carers she is doing well.
Apparently, Isobel no longer needs her wheelchair. Her leg wounds are healing and she has slept through the night with no breathing difficulties, she doesn’t even need her inhaler. I can’t quite get my head around this. I’m sure she needed them when she lived with me, why would that change? I certainly would not hurt her. The pretty and polished psychiatrist looks up at me, I can see she wants to say something and she is waiting for the right moment. I pause. She tells me that she believes I have something called Fabricated Illness and there are people who can help me, but first I need to be honest. She asks me about my childhood. I am confused and anger stirs up in the pit of my stomach. Why would she want to know about my father who touched me and my mother who treated me as though I was invisible? Why would she think that I would want to talk about them? I search for something to say, something to stop her asking questions about my past.
I tell her that I’m not ill, it’s Isobel, she is the one that is ill.
I thought I knew my father. A retired civil servant who had raised as many prize-winning begonias as he had divots on the golf course, he was now laid low by widowhood and dementia. But then, on one of my regular Sunday visits to the Care Home, he suddenly began to speak Russian.
I was slouched in one of those high, winged armchairs covered in squeaky wipe-clean material that they provide in these places. As usual, he stood at the window of his room scanning the small enclosed garden while I threw snippets of family news at his indifferent shoulder-blades.
‘Paul did very well in his mock A-levels. He says he wants to study law.’
One of the carers, Dima, was making his narrow single bed with military precision. The sheet drawn as taught as a sail in a gale and held fast with hospital corners. Most of the staff were migrant workers and Dima was Ukranian.
Over the last six months my father had become progressively less responsive and now rarely said a word. But this time he muttered something indistinct. Dima looked up sharply.
‘What did he say, Dima?’
‘He said that they are looking for him.’
‘It didn’t sound like that to me.’
Dima shrugged, ‘He said it in Russian.’
‘Yes, I am sure of this.’
‘Ask him who is looking for him.’
Dima turned to my father. ‘Kto Roger? Kto tebya ishchet?’
But my father just shook his head and looked at Dima as if he had asked the stupidest question in the World.
The following Sunday I discovered my father again standing sentinel at the window. The same sentence on his lips. The same thoughts riding his carousel mind. I hunted down Dima in the lounge. He was making pot of tea and chatting to Ruth, one of the livelier residents. She asked him if people drank tea in the Ukraine.
‘Oh, yes. But we drink it strong and black with a spoon of jam in it.”
‘Lord!’ Ruth was horrified, “I shouldn’t like that at all.’
When I got him on his own, I asked him if my father had said anything new in Russian.
‘Yes he spoke of his childhood. He told me he was brought up by his Baboushka…err, his grandmother, and went to school in Penza’
‘Penza? Where’s that?’
‘South East of Moscow, I think.’
‘What? Dima, my father comes from Yorkshire.’
Dima looked uncomfortable, ‘I am sorry Mr. Ibbetson. Perhaps I make mistake. My Russian is not so good.’ He picked up a tray and moved off to clear the tea cups.
On his next visit, the GP said my father’s dementia was progressing rapidly.
‘He’s hardly responded to my questions today,” he turned to my farther, “HAVE YOU MR. IBBETSON?’
‘He’s not deaf.’
The GP peered at me over his half-moon glasses and sniffed. ‘Hearing loss is commonly presented by geriatric patients.’
‘He can hear well enough in Russian.’
I described my conversations with Dima.
‘Hmmm. Language attrition and impaired comprehension are common in dementia patients. An individual might forget the name of an object, for example, and replace it with a description.’
‘Yes, my father started calling a cup a “drink holder”.’
‘A good example; so if a patient was bi-lingual, then I suppose they might replace a forgotten word with the equivalent from the other language, if they could remember it. As dementia advances a patient might only be able to use a very limited vocabulary or become entirely mute. In your father’s case we may have reached that stage in English but, for some reason, he has retained more Russian.’
‘Does that mean he learned Russian first?’
‘I really don’t know. To be honest Mr. Ibbetson I come across very few bi-lingual patients.’
On the way out the GP called ‘Dosvidaniya.’
‘Spacibo,’ smiled my father.
Could my father have really been born in Russia? It seemed ridiculous. Paul’s a bright lad, so I shared recent event with him.
‘There must be documentary evidence – a birth certificate, passport, that kind of thing.’
We pulled out the old shoe boxes we had saved from the clearance of my father’s house and spread the contents across the kitchen table. Dust filled the air, along with the arid sweet smell of old paper. There were some old photos of my father, but none pre-dated his undergraduate years. He had worked in several embassies, including Moscow. In one print he stood self-consciously in the snow in front of St. Basil’s onion domes; a vast fur hat pulled comically down over his ears. We also found his marriage certificate and an expired passport, which confirmed his date of birth. Paul opened the last box.
‘Look at this.’ He said pulling out one of those Russian dolls that pull apart to reveal progressively smaller versions inside them. Paul popped them open and stood the seven tubby peasant women in descending order. They smiled at us blankly from under scarlet shawls.
I slumped back in my chair and sighed.
‘No birth certificate.’
‘You can order copies online,’ said Paul, fetching the laptop.
The form was simple enough to fill in; first name, family name and date of birth.
‘There it is.’ Paul pointed at the screen. ‘Ibbetson, Roger. But that’s odd.’
‘What is it?’
‘There’s a death certificate too, in the same year.’
‘It must be a coincidence.’
We ordered copies of the certificates with my credit card and they chuntered out of the printer.
'He was born in Penistone, Yorks on 1st May 1925.’ I picked up the passport. ‘That matches the date and place of birth in here.’
‘And Penistone sounds a bit like Penza.’
‘His father was John Ibbetson, a farm labourer and his mother was Mary; maiden name Clough.’
‘What does the death certificate say?'
'It’s dated 2nd July 1925. Accidental death; respiratory failure caused by smoke inhalation. Parents are John and Mary Ibbetson. But how can that be?’
‘Wait a minute.’ Paul tapped on the keyboard and printed two more death certificates.
‘Paul and Mary died on the same day and have the same cause of death. The whole family must have died in a fire.’
‘Well your grandpa said he didn’t know his parents and was brought up by his grandmother, but how can there be a death certificate for him?’
‘Dad, do you remember that scandal a couple of years ago? Some undercover cops had relationships with women who were political activists.’
‘Yes, what about it?’
‘Well, that’s how they created their false identities. They got the birth certificates of dead children and used them to get a new name and documents; passport, national insurance number and so on.’
‘You’re saying grandpa stole Roger Ibbetson’s identity?’ I couldn’t believe my ears.
Paul blushed, ‘Yeah, you’re right, it’s a bit far-fetched. There must be a simpler explanation.’
My father was sitting up in bed when I visited the following Sunday. He stared sleepily at the wardrobe door. A small mirror was set into the door and I realised that he could see a reflection out of the window from his position. The vigil continued.
I had brought the Russian doll with me. I thought it might help to dredge a memory from the silty waters of his mind. When I gave him the doll he cradled it like a baby in his arms and smiled.
‘Do you remember the doll dad? Did your grandmother give it to you? Did you buy it in Moscow?’
But ‘Baboushka’ was all I could get out of him.
I decided to call on my father’s oldest friend and former colleague, Sandy McInnes. The number in my father’s address book still worked and Sandy gave me complex directions to his cottage deep in the Cotswolds. I had expected something picturesque, but it was a mean farm labourer’s cottage at the end of a long muddy track, surrounded by rusting farm machinery. My knock elicited the barking of two dogs and the scrape of locks and bolts. Sandy had a creased and shiny face, like an old waxed jacket, as if he had bought it years ago from Barbour along with his clothes. He limped badly and relied on a functional aluminium walking stick.
After the dogs were settled, we sat in the surprisingly comfortable living room and discussed my father’s health over a cup of tea. Sandy was sorry to hear about his deteriorating condition.
‘I must try to get out to see him.’ He jotted down the address.
‘There’s something I wanted to ask you, Sandy. I was hoping you could tell me a little about my father’s work.’
‘Oh well, he joined the diplomatic service out of university. He served in several embassies. But when he started a family he didn’t want to drag you and your mother about the place, so he secured a position in London. In the Foreign Office.’
‘Could he speak Russian?’
‘Oh yes, he was stationed in Moscow for a while. He could speak some French too. And a little Arabic. But why do you ask?’
I explained about the conversations in Russian with Dima, the Russian doll and the odd death certificate.
‘The thing is Sandy, I’m beginning to think my father was a spy.’
Sandy burst out laughing.
‘My dear boy, you can’t be serious? I’ve known Roger since Cambridge, he doesn’t have a disloyal bone in his body.’
‘So how would you explain it?’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake, there’s been a clerical error with the death certificate. The doll is a souvenir. You said yourself that his brain is addled, so he speaks a few words of Russian and get his family history wrong. There isn’t any mystery here is there? Let me ask you something. Do you think your father now poses a threat to national security?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘And do you love him?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then forget this cloak and dagger business and concentrate on making him comfortable for the few months of his life he has left.’
In the end, it was a few days not months. The care home called me at work to tell me that my father had passed away. I drove straight over. The GP said that, given his age and condition, there would be no need for a post mortem. He wrote out a form so I could register the death and arrange the funeral.
I asked Dima if he had said anything before he died.
‘Yes, in Russian, he said “the little one”.’
‘What does that mean?’
Dima shook his head. ‘I don’t know Mr. Ibbetson.’ He went on, ‘But it was good that he saw his friend before he died.’
‘Yes an older man with a walking stick. He visited yesterday.’
I pulled out my mobile and called Sandy McInnes’ number. It was unobtainable. I picked up the Russian doll, ran to my car and pointed it towards the Cotswolds. Three hours later I was bumping down the dirt track, but I found the cottage abandoned. The neighbouring farmer told me Sandy’s health was failing and he had gone to live with relatives. But he had no forwarding address.
I drove home and set out the seven Russian dolls in a row.
‘The little one.’ I thought to myself. I fetched a modelling knife from the toolbox and picked up the smallest Russian doll. Unlike the others, it appeared to be solid. I carefully began to cut into it around the waist. It was hollow. Rolled up inside was a small photograph of a fat old woman, dressed in a similar way to the dolls, and a little boy of about five years of age.
I thought I knew my father. But, when you get right down to it, what do we really know about other people? Perhaps it is those who are closest to us who can hide the deepest secrets?
VALLEY OF THE KINGS
Paid up the turnstile teller and
Entered into Valley of the Kings
Descended cool passageways
Escape from unrelenting blaze
Ramesses, Akhenaten, Tombs of Wonder
Little Pharaoh King wrapped up neat and tidy
Displayed for yearning view
I, one of many, sweltering in the queue
But, history was only up the road
Beside where father reared
Tuam’s very own place of Mummy
Where no curious lookers came
Little packages, again wrapped up
Nicely. Neatly filed away
Lost. No return to sender
Septic tank now, their place of play
But, what if glow from
Tutankhamun’s wondrous face
Could be somehow be inversed
A dullness, colour drawn away
Surely, those upright pillars of
Community, buried across the way
Would squirm a little, in their coffins
Now their turn, feel out of place
Look over histories shoulder
Force another view
Holy ground no longer noble
Time for something different
Lives long forgotten
An alternative explanation
The moment I step into the surgery, the receptionist’s lips curve in a smile-like grimace which doesn’t reach her eyes. In her large glasses and short-cropped grey hair spiked in all directions, she looks like an owl who’s just been in a fight.
‘How was your weekend, Wendy? Dr Wilson will see you shortly.’
I nod. No point engaging in a chit-chat. We are already past this stage of acquaintance, though it has been a short one. We are both now clear on what we think of each other. I sit on one of the tired chairs upholstered with what used to be a pink plush and now brings to mind Winnie-the-Pooh’s closest friend, Piglet, on a drizzly day.
‘How are you, Wendy? Hope the weekend wasn’t too taxing?’ There is little joy in Doctor Wilson’s gaze as he greets me. As I pass him in the door to his office, his back arches as if he carried a fifty-pound bag of flour. He told me on Friday he wasn’t to be on call over the weekend and so, as it isn’t his work that makes him exhausted, I conclude it is me. I draw a long breath and try to remain calm. No point getting annoyed. He is the tenth doctor I am seeing this year and this one must be a keeper. I need some predictability and routine in my life. I still hope he might be the one who will offer me a diagnosis and treatment. He doesn’t.
‘Wendy, the additional tests I requested are back.’
‘I’m guessing by your expression that they are negative.’
He doesn’t meet my eyes as he says: ‘You don’t have cancer which we really should be grateful for.’
‘Was there any other change spotted? An ulcer perhaps?’ I ask hoping against hope.
‘The good news is that you are completely healthy, Wendy.’
‘This is impossible. I run to the loo twenty times a day. I’m constantly in pain. To come here I had to take three Loperamides. Can we repeat the tests?’
He shakes his head.
‘Wendy, you’ve had all possible tests done this year. It was clear from your previous doctors’ notes you brought me that there is nothing major wrong with you but I agreed to run some additional tests to reassure you.’
My heart starts racing. I don’t think I can be calm anymore.
‘I’m not reassured. If anything, I’m more worried than before. What if you all have missed something important? What if the tests you are running are not strong enough to detect the pre-cancerous growth?’
‘This is very unlikely. What you suffer from is most likely irritable bowel syndrome.’
‘Most likely? That means there is a possibility it is something different, isn’t there?’ I grab at the slightest of hopes.
‘No, Wendy. There is no such chance. You don’t have the cancer and no other test or doctor will find it. Please, believe me.’ He places his wiry hand on top of mine. This time he looks me deep in the eyes.
I know he believes in what he is saying. But what if he is wrong? I’m tempted to run away from his office, to look for another doctor, for the eleventh opinion, but then I recall all the previous doctors saying the same thing. I’m removing my hand from under his.
‘So, what you are saying is that it’s all in my head? That I’m imaging the pain? That I run to the loo to show off?’
‘I’m not saying your pain isn’t real. We simply don’t know what exactly is causing it.’
‘I would much rather know I have cancer. At least there is a name for it and some treatment.’ My eyes fill with tears.
‘No, you wouldn’t, Wendy. There is a name for what you suffer: IBS. It is a functional illness, meaning we don’t know what is causing it. Would you consider seeing a psychologist?’
‘If we don’t know what is causing it, why are you sending me to a psychologist? This implies that I’m mad.’ I’m still fighting it. I don’t want to have a functional illness nobody knows much about.
‘You are not mad. I’m sending you to a psychologist as psychologists and psychiatrists are specialists who treat medically unexplained symptoms. We know for example that stress makes IBS worse so it makes sense to learn how to relax.’
‘If it's due to stress, will it go away when I take a Valium?’
‘It’s not that simple, I’m afraid, though antidepressants for example may help some patients. But I would rather you started by engaging in a talk therapy. We know your symptoms are not due to an organic pathology. A psychologist may help us find an alternative explanation for them.’
‘And, what if I don’t visit a psychologist? Will this IBS ever disappear on its own accord?’
‘It may or it may not. We simply don’t know. What’s the problem with seeing a psychologist, Wendy? Why not at least giving it a try?’
I nod. I don’t think I want to answer. I’m taking a referral, thanking him and I leave. A medically unexplained symptom? What a crappy explanation for a lack of knowledge. I know it is cancer and I understand myself best. It’s a pity I need to wait for the growth to manifest before they believe me. But it’s what my acupuncturist said would happen. Go to hell with Western medicine.
‘I’m really sorry, Wendy, but I think the only thing we can do is to extract the tooth.’
‘But you told me that removing the nerve and doing the root canal treatment would help. How can a tooth ache when there is no nerve?’ I’m becoming suspicious of this dentist, a tall middle-aged man, I thought competent at first. It’s been weeks since the treatment started and I am no better. Now, it’s the pain in my gut and the pain in my mouth. As if one wasn’t enough. But at least a tooth can be extracted, I reassure myself. What a pity one can’t remove all the digestive system. I would volunteer even if it was merely an experimental treatment.
‘And, after the extraction, will I be finally painfree?’
‘It can’t hurt when it’s not there, can it?’ He grins at me and I trust him again.
The receptionist is not even pretending to smile at me. She greets me with a brief 'hello' and withdraws into her office. I decide I will wait for him standing. I have no wish to be sitting in the waiting room of a liar. I have done it too many times before.
‘Wendy, please come in.’ I see fear in my dentist’s eyes. He is like a wild animal cornered by me into an animal cage but I’m indifferent to his feelings. I’m done being nice to doctors.
‘I still have the toothache. You removed the nerve, did the root canal treatment and then extracted the tooth. It’s still no better yet you promised that I wouldn’t be in pain. Explain to me, how a tooth which is no longer there can still hurt so much,’ I request in the rudest tone I can muster.
‘I’m at a loss, Wendy. We scanned and checked all the other teeth in the proximity of the one removed and they are intact.’ The perspiration marks his thick brows.
‘It’s not the other teeth!’ I growl at him and his tall figure seems to shrink in front of me. ‘It hurts when I touch the gum. It’s as if you didn’t remove the nerve properly or something was left deep within the gum. I don’t know what it is. You are the doctor, not me.’
‘Let me examine it again.’ His hand shakes as he inserts one of his stainless-steel tools into my mouth.
I’m counting to ten and then backwards in my mind to calm myself. Surely there must be a reason for this pain. What if I have cancer of the gum? I examine this new thought. Would that explain it? Perhaps it’s a metastasis from my bowel? I could check that online. Many cancers start in the gut and then leap to other body parts. Maybe the pain comes from my jaw? I imagine how stupid Dr Wilson will feel when I throw an oncologist’s letter on his desk. I settle with that picture in my mind.
‘There is nothing wrong with the gum, Wendy. I’m afraid it’s one of these rare situations when we deal with a functional pain.’
‘A functional pain? You mean a medically unexplained symptom?’ My breathing accelerates.
‘I can see you know the term. It’s a sort of phantom tooth ache, if you know what I mean. Your brain still thinks there is a tooth while there is nothing there. I will give you some pain killers but the best may be doing some relaxation therapy and seeing a psychologist. I can refer you to a lovely lady. We need to find an alternative explanation for this pain, as from the dental perspective, there is nothing wrong with you. It’s a good news you are completely healthy, Wendy, isn’t it?’ He grins at me but I don’t trust this grin anymore.
A thought springs to my mind.
‘Do you by any chance know Dr Wilson, a gastroenterologist?’
‘No, I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him. Why?’
I frown and stare at him. He doesn’t seem to be lying, his eyes meeting mine unflinchingly. If it isn’t a conspiracy, what is it? Do both these doctors have an affair with some struggling young psychologist they want to support? I wonder what the acupuncturist would tell and then I remember I no longer visit her either. Her treatment didn’t help my diarrhoea. What is there left for me to do? It seems I can only start looking for an alternative explanation. A psychologist it is, then, but how admitting I’m mad might help, I have no idea.
What’s the Alternative?
It can’t be denied, this phenomenon.
My own mother dreamed of bedding Obama,
Clinton, too, when he held office. She loves them.
She foams at the mouth when she hears them criticized.
She gulps air and stares bug-eyed.
It’s not a political affiliation. It’s cultish and emotional,
the worship of a student for a beloved teacher,
a bobbysoxer fainting in the auditorium, fans at a ballgame,
soccer fanatics. There’s no proper distance,
no adult wisdom. Just childish worship.
It’s the maddened love for a cult leader; fat women
exposing their heaving breasts. Boys panting.
It’s what serial killers want from men and women
– their pleas before death, desperate pleas, total obedience.
It’s what Manson got from his sick followers: adoration.
What in the world is happening? Has the US President become
nothing more than a porn star? Is the fantasy to fuck him?
If so, how in the world did it come to this? Men and women
once clambered to shake a President’s hand; now they dream of
sleeping with him in the Lincoln bedroom.
The women who fought for women’s suffrage
didn’t want to sleep with Woodrow Wilson.
Did American women have fantasies of fucking Teddy
(Roosevelt, not Kennedy)? Little children may have
wanted a teddy bear, but did women before ever
dream of taking the President to bed? I doubt it.
Where is this heading? If we don’t grow up and grow up fast,
the next president will treat us all like children;
we’ll be told when to come in off the streets; we’ll be sent
to bed early without our supper. If we don’t grow up,
and grow up fast, the President will give this country
something to cry its eyes out, and it won’t be pretty.
Sounds like the country is readying for the OK Corral
at High Noon. It’s either the ALT-Right OR the ALT-Left
to the rescue. Some profess to like the black philosopher,
Cornel West. Others, Louis Farrakhan. Then there’s
Richard Spencer and Milo who for some sound right.
They claim to be defenders of Greek and Roman civilization.
How did tall and elegant become criteria for political power?
Ever since William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland,
It’s been necessary for the President to have the profile of JFK.
Is it time for the Wall Street Journal to take a look?
Presidents seem to need the looks of a matinee idol to be elected to office; Bunny Mellon gave millions to John Edwards
because of his kisser. Funny Bunny barely flinched when pretty- boy fizzled. Many women have fantasies of going to bed with Clinton; some prefer Hillary. Should some think-tank survey
the American people about their depravity?
Only Wilt Chamberlain had the chance to get as many
women as President Obama. How is it we’ve come to desire
a President with a magnificent body over one with brains?
Finding the answer to this might be a job for the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation.
Is it possible that the President’s performance in bed
is rated higher than an ability to balance the books?
The President of the United States as nothing more than
a piece of meat? Surely the Rand Corporation could get
to the bottom of this. Is there a comparable institution
in England? What about Cambridge?
It can’t be true that it has come to this.
Clinton, Reagan, and Obama: three tall men
who make the ladies swoon. One wonders
what gay men might think. Do they want to sleep
with the President, too? Maybe the Ford Foundation
should conduct a study.
Why not strip them and put them in a center-fold,
Like one of those sexy English rowing teams?
Their private parts covered in whipped cream?
Instead of voting hope and change, we’ll celebrate
Presidential chests and buttocks. America needs to take a poll,
conduct a survey of our most recent proclivities.
Did French women want to sleep with Charles de Gaulle?
What of Gorbachev or Mandela? Our once great Republic
is beginning to rupture, resembling something once
familiar to men like Tacitus and the Roman Emperor.
Isn’t it time to establish a blue-ribbon committee headed
by Henry Kissinger–before he dies? He’s over 90.
My explanation is not an expletive,
nor an elixir _par excellence_,
but an alliterative alternative,
abstract altercation with truth.
It does not undergo understatements,
but understudies the unstable
and massacres veritable veracity
until its inversions verify verbicide.
An Alternative Explanation
An alternative explanation to the reality I find myself in is I'm not really in a PSYCH ward, I'cm not really locked up, I'm not really unfree, unliberated,unjustly altered in such a way as to make me comply with their orders. Unseen, unspoken, undressed, unheard.
I remember the weekend before my admission do clearly, I was so close to the sun I needed sun glasses but the weather was so cold and there were no supplies in the house to the extent I needed snow boots. I ventured across my estate and found a local grocer open on a Sunday morning and thought
Thank goodness for the natives and local produce, for I am a traveler a long way from home. On an alien spaceship, seeking life on another planet and finding that life originates on other planets much the same as it does on Earth.
Only most people don't know they are traveling on an Earth shaped refugee ship. The war happened, we needed help to find new food and fuel sources and leave the planet. It happened. We left the planet.
A hidden history lesson. The time travelers went back to communicate with God and this lifetime is what they came up with, this is what we have to deal with. , this reality, an alternative reality, a dystopian reality.
Imagine the Creator of heaven and earth, making Universe Mark 2 last summer. Everything recreated the right way round in just a flash. Right last fall with the time ship landing in Barcelona, I was there, it really was an Amelia Earhart moment for me.
The joining up of the world banks during a Virus event that nobody would mention. That event was the joined up thinking of a post Apocalyptic world with smart Artificial Intelligence that means for now, war is over, if you want it.
It takes time for everyone in the world to figure the same thing out, but I figured it out, and I'm a still in the PSYCH ward. But at least I'm not dead, not like Frederick Nietzsche, in an alternate reality.