They painted the wall a bright colour
but both knew that underneath was the mark
where the glass of red wine had been thrown
and whose shock waves had split their lives.
As if freshly fallen snow had accumulated
giving the air of softness and support whilst
underneath, the path was coated with lethally flat ice
a telepathic swipe of any passing traffic.
Their rings replated with dipped gold
day by day slipping off in delicate flakes
to reveal the worn out old metal
perhaps - it was so long ago - plastic.
They stare at the wall and they know
better than what is there now
they know what used to be
because there is more truth
in the old than in the new.
New on old…
Moving house is said to be one of the most stressful life events but I loved it! Time to have a good clear out, get rid of the old stuff and donate other stuff to charity.
I lowered the ladders to the attic, it had been quite a while since I had been up there, that long ago that I had forgotten how much stuff we had stored there over the years including a sad looking Christmas tree that hadn’t been used for years since we bought a new one, why do we keep things we may never use again?
I climbed the ladders and popped my head through the attic opening and clicked on the light which hung from a single cable holding just one single bulb but it was bright enough to light up the attic with the exception of one or two dark corners. The dark corners where our minds start overthinking and in believing we are seeing scary shapes of our childhood bogey man or monster hiding quietly in the corner waiting to jump out and scare us to bits, strange how those thoughts and feelings dont really leave us.
I looked around the attic, several cardboard boxes neatly stacked all around that had become so dusty that you could hardly read the labels that were now only partially attached, all torn and dusty. Boxes with old pictures, old ornaments, birthday and anniversary cards, Christmas decorations, old toys and books, it was like Aladdin’s cave up here!
There in the darkness sat on top of an old set of drawers looking all sad and forgotten about was my old teddy that I’d had from a baby. He was given to me as a present on my first birthday from my godmother and I remember his name was Mr Bear.
I climbed carefully into the attic and slowly stepped across the beams and gently picked him up. It brought back so many memories, good memories and sad memories, times when I laughed and cuddled him and times he was there comforting me through sad times, times of loss. He looked so sad… all dusty, worn and ragged. I wiped his eyes that were once all shiny and bright, rubbing the sticky dust from his eyes, the light from the attic’s single bulb shone into them as I wiped them clear, they became bright again and looking down at his face it almost looked like he was smiling. He had been there for over forty years, shoved out of the way unwanted, unloved and forgotten. I felt so sorry for him even though he was just a stuffed bear; he meant so much to me as a small child I just couldn’t let him go.
I remember many conversations when talking about childhood toys and teddies mentioning my ‘Mr Bear’ and knowing he was around somewhere but then put back into the back of my mind. All those years locked away in the attic, how sad. I decided he was going to be removed from the attic and given a new lease of life. I had already wiped his dull eyes clean of dust and as I patted him the dust clouds formed like mini clouds above my head making me cough. ‘Okay Mr Bear you are going to have a good clean!’
I climbed down from the attic clutching him close to me. He wore a little blue waistcoat which was now a dirty greyish blue colour and the stitching had all worn away. Once back downstairs, I removed his old worn out waistcoat and checked him over to see if he needed any other repairs doing. I noticed a small tear under each arm and one of his paws had a small hole too where the stitching had worn away over the years.
Out with the tin holding all the colours of different thread and needles, threading the needle with good strong new thread I stitched away, repairing all his little tears and worn out pieces. Then I put him in a pillow case to protect him from being pulled or squashed out of shape while he went through the washing machine. While Mr Bear was in the washing machine I quickly made a lovely new waistcoat for him, it was red with soft grey piping and a little bow tie to match. A brand new waistcoat and bow for my little old teddy.
Once the washing machine had finished he went through the dryer making him all soft and cuddly again, I wondered what he would look like after all these years of being stuck in the dusty dark attic.
I was a little worried about him going through the washing machine and tumble dryer in-case all his original stitching had fallen out with the heat of the water and the tumble dryer throwing him around for over thirty minutes. I slowly removed the pillow case and there he was, bright and clean and smelling all fresh, feeling so soft and looking just how he always did all those years ago.
I sat him on the chair while I got his new waistcoat and bow tie and gently put them on him, a perfect fit! He looked amazing, Mr Bear now sits on my bedroom drawers in my new home where I see him every day with his new waistcoat and bow tie on his little old body, this was definitely the best old on new I could have ever wished for.
New Year after arguing, with you
Grief is not just for the living, when the dead depart
decayed bereavement clings as well
like our friendship, perhaps, which cracked
brittle and dry, untried, untempered
until the first vague pressure of opinion
sent it shattering in a thousand spiked resentments
and yet, grief follows well-worn paths
and platitudes. Denial, rage, loss, sadness
even when there is no tangible sign of death
the way your hand felt in mine, the first flush
of two women who find a self, reflected
and the slow decline as each must learn
there is no true mirror to the self
just silence, then
the weight of understanding and
the sadness of the missing
the bitter, stiff metallic resolution
'next time I will not trust'
and, like death, the love confined within
clawing for a way to break a passage through
the cloying, dark and breathless, silent loss
the soil stench of a rotted memory
drab and brown and slowly disappearing
Today I shared a thought, a smile
and understood the healing, the vast strength
and taking what I learned from you
I felt tendrils of new friendship
I knew I should have made the chocolate cake instead. She did it again, yet again. Every year. Always the same result for Gloria Branning. The effervescent, Gloria with her sparkly jewels cladding her wrists and rolling from her neck. If only I’d used superior ingredients, that chocolate cake of mine, on show last week, would have won. In the early afternoon July warmth, it would have stood out; displayed on its silver coaster, its dark sheen gleaming against the soft rays of sunshine. But no. It wasn’t to be; Gloria Branning had done it with hers. I’m sure she’s bribing the judges. She has to be. How is it that each year she blooming wins? I can’t see otherwise, after all she’s laden with money, dripping with it, especially since her hubbie passed on. Retired general, very retired and very old- 87. The way he supped on those gins I’m surprised it wasn’t sooner. Yep I’m sure of it now. The competition with all its entrants from Mrs Kite from the Rectory house, down to young Miss Abbes in one of the cottages on Parsons way. And, I might add contributing very commendable entries Some surely better than Gloria’s,
I made it using Cadburys, thinking and knowing it to be damned good. But oh no. What a fruitcake I am for not realising she’d only gone and made a chocolate orange soufflé cake using Grand Marnier and the finest Swiss chocolate as the highlight ingredients. Can’t remember the brand now. Think it begins with ‘L’ Sneaky old thing she is.
‘I see you’ve made chocolate cake too, Laurie’, she’d said to me, with her glass of sweet sherry in a pink gloved hand. Her lips were ruby red, her smile fixed. I could have slapped the doody old cow, I really could.
‘What chocolate did you use then Laurie?’
‘Oh that would be giving away precious secrets Gloria,’ I’d replied.
Lots of women, and a few men- who’d mostly taken to the refreshments tent for pink gins- graced the cricket pavilion that afternoon., all the entries attractively displayed beneath a protective canopy.
‘Oh we are dear friends now, Laurie, spill the beans,’
So I did.
‘I used a combination of Belgian, and German chocolate.’
The other gloved hand went to her mouth.
‘Oh Laurie. German chocolate. I had no idea they produced the stuff,’ Then she giggled. It was more like a snort really, and I swear I saw a little snot fly from one of her nostrils. I really wanted to push her over.
‘They make the famous black forest gateau with these continental chocolates you know,’ I lied.
Her jewellery chimed from her guffaws and snorting from my remark. But she had me though. She had me the rich bitch, and I wanted to knock that giggle of hers right in to next week. One of these days I’ll have her, and that was the only real comfort I could console myself with on that afternoon last week. I knew I should have made the white and dark chocolate cake with orange coulis, or the vanilla and strawberry one with a Grand Marnier cream accompaniment. Even the Milk chocolate mousse gateau with tangerine and lemon glaze would have sufficed. But no, I remembered thinking. No point in torturing yourself about it anymore. At least her husband wasn’t here now; he was worse than her the way he used to support her every move. Mind you, I don’t think he’d dare do otherwise. That Mrs Branning had a harsh side to her, I’m sure. And one day, not too soon I think, I was going to cross it. Mind you a lot of the other entrants got up my snoot too. Fanning away across the perfectly mown lawns, parading their summer frocks as if it was them in competition, and not the cakes. My husband getting pissed in the tent along with the other cronies didn’t make me too happy either. Pretending to do this and be that in his white jacket and tie. Bunch of old fruitcakes, honestly.
Then, on announcing her the winner, my stomach turning, she pats me gently on the shoulder, bows to all and sundry, graciously accepts her prize- usually a holiday somewhere, but I wasn’t listening, she asks me if she can have a taste of mine. If I’d known she was going to, I’d have poisoned it, but in hindsight not the best idea; killing the judges wouldn’t have gone down too good.
‘Go ahead Gloria,’ I’d replied.
‘Oh no my diet, Laurie. Must watch the pounds you know. Well perhaps a small piece.’
But I didn’t know any such thing about watching the pounds. I’d been making and eating cakes all my life and hadn’t any interest in that kind of thing. Least I still had a good figure in my so called golden years. She cut a dainty piece from the already half eaten cake; the three judges each having takena portion, then a few jumped up so called assistants leaping on the ‘free cake ‘bandwagon too. Makes me sick.
‘Oh mm interesting,’ she said, unaware of a smear of chocolate left on her chin. I wasn’t going to tell her.
‘Meaning what, Gloria. I asked the doody old sow.
‘Meaning not bad. This German chocolate is a bit like ours isn’t it?’
‘Subtler I feel,’ I replied, reaching for a glass of lemonade from a waiter’s tray that appeared out of the blue.
‘Course I think’ I snapped, resisting the sudden urge to throw my drink over her.
‘Now why don’t you try a piece from the winner’s entry’
‘You know I’d love to Gloria, but, like you, I’m watching those pounds.’ And I smirked. She was never going to say anything to suggest I didn’t need to lose weight, and that I was in fine condition for my age. No, that wouldn’t do for her. That would bite in to her character too much, the doody old thing. It really would.
‘Oh well, perhaps during the whist drive on Monday, I’ll be bringing it along to that. If there is any left by then that is.’
‘Oh I’m sure its sumptuous, Gloria, I really do and many congratulations again,’ I said disregarding her suggestion, instead killing her with kindness.
I’d known the old doody for so many years, and her friends. They were all a bit up themselves, you know. And my husband, he wasn’t but tried to be like them during his long old boring retirement. He never got fruity with me anymore either. That’s because of all those cocktails at the British Legion. That’s why, the old poop. I mean along with all this cake making, I fancy a bit of tickle and slap now and again. Even in these old years. But him, Rodger, my man for 54 years now. Not interested. He seems more keen on HER, I’m sure. Always asking after her.
‘Isn’t it good Gloria won the cake competition again’, he said to me that afternoon when we were driving back. Can you freaking believe it? Not a blooming ounce of support for his wife and her cake making inventiveness. No input, nor advice. Not that he has any to give but you know what I mean. He’s sometimes back very late as well. Sometimes I ask him why, but he says something about a card game going on and on late in to the night.
Its Gloria that really riles my regions though. Tomorrow I’m going to do a bit of prying and see if I can’t get some answers from those fruitcakes of Judges from the competition. My hubby has a lot of knowledge about these folks, so better keep him sweet. Mind you I’m the only one who does unless that freakin Gloria really is digging her nails in to him. No, I want to find out if she is bribing herself to win each year. Her fat fruitcake husband, was the wealthiest retiree this side of the county and had a lot of punch. Yeah, I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I’ll fill you all in when I do.
I Should Have
A sadness that gently vibrates through my bones
An echo without an originating voice
Just a fading refrain repeating itself
Faint yet insistent
Restless in the hollow spaces deep inside my body
The feeling is transparent
Journeying lightly through my veins
It is neither heavy nor startling
Rather, it slowly fills me
As light as air
A plume of smoke
It is a whisper within me
I should have
But I didn’t.
I should have stayed at home. The car was full of smoke and a dark heartbeat of music, so strong it felt as if we were pulsing along the road. I couldn't even tell how many people were in there; I was squashed between my ex boyfriend, Matt, and a friend of his who was chemically on the nose, smelt as if he'd been drinking all week. He probably had. They were all crazy, I'd decided, piled into this clapped out car, drinking, smoking joints and screaming laughter.
I wasn't afraid, yet, I was just tired. I'd called Matt when my present, extremely dodgy boyfriend who I was trying to save, threatened me with a heavy glass ashtray, held it up to my face and shook with anger. I ran to the phone box and called Matt. He'd two-timed me and knew he owed me, so along he came, scooped me onto the back of his bike and shot off with me into the darkness.
'Fancy going to a rave?' he'd said.
Raves were happening all over the country. It was the early nineties; everything was evolving and every weekend, empty warehouses throbbed with the beat of illegal music. Inside, people danced to the drugs they were taking. I'd read about them in the newspapers. There hadn't been any ecstasy-related deaths yet - that would come later as bad drugs flooded the market, created by immoral amateur chemists who cut the original stuff with anything they could get their hands on.
'Why not?' I said. I grabbed a change of clothes from my student digs, slept the night at Matt's - on the sofa - and in the morning we hitched to London.
Now I was thinking it had all been a huge mistake. I should be in my bed, having an early night, instead of in a car full of people I barely knew or didn't know at all, screaming through the countryside on the way to an illegal rave which would go on all night, unless the police got there first.
Inside it was vast, empty and loud. I could feel the music inside me. On the improvised dance floor, a few people shook wildly, their movements accentuated by the strobe lighting. Lights hung down, on the walls were UV pictures, weirdly lit by moving lights. Groups sat huddled on the floor.
I should have left. I should have found my way out of the labyrinth of sheds and warehouses, all joined by sheeted corridors, and gone to a hotel, alone, until I could catch the train back in the morning. That's what I should have done.
But instead, a pill was pushed into my hand.
'I'll look after you,' said Matt, and I knew he would. Slimebag as a boyfriend, solid as a friend. I shrugged. Why not? One day this would just be a memory. Maybe I'd enjoy it. I put the pill in my mouth - it looked like a small paracetamol - and swigged from a bottle of warm, shared water.
Instantly, I regretted it. I wondered if I could get away with going to the toilet and spewing it up, but Matt was smiling wildly at me.
'You'll love it,' he said. His friends arranged themselves on cushions against the wall and one of the women patted the cushion next to her.
'Should be good,' she said. 'These are from my mate in Amsterdam. Said they're amazing.'
I nodded. She looked at me. 'You all right?' she said.
I nodded. She looked at me harder. 'This your first time?' she said.
I nodded. She grabbed my arm.
'Oh my God, your first E. I'm so jealous. There's nothing like your first E. Have a fucking wonderful night,' she smiled and kissed me.
I sat, awkward as I always was in groups, wondering that if I went to the toilet would everyone see me go? Would they all watch me? I didn't know what to do. I watched everyone else. I watched them fall into each other. Matt joined me and took my hand.
'You're okay,' he said. 'Do you feel anything yet?'
I considered. I was bloody terrified, but wasn't about to admit it. I felt my heart rate start to pick up.
The music changed. It got stronger. I could feel it inside me.
Colours got brighter. I turned to tell Matt and saw his eyes, huge and deep, dark and beautiful.
'Wow,' I said.
'Wow,' he agreed. 'Want to dance?'
I shook my head. I had a fear of dancing in public. Since primary school, when I'd been awkward and gangly and as far out from the in-crowd as it was possible to be, I'd been laughed at once at a disco. I struggled on, at disco after disco, watched others intensely to see how they danced and tried to copy their moves. I was laughed at time and time again. I smiled when people told me to 'cheer up love'. I tried to move the top half of my body as well as my feet, and in the end I gave up, aged 15. I stopped dancing and sat down, or went outside for a fag. Dancing made me feel awful, in a nutshell.
'You need to dance,' Matt said again. 'Trust me.'
At that point, everything began to go weirder and weirder.
'Try to relax,' said Matt.
I shook my head. 'I can't,' I said. I felt myself curl up.
'Let your shoulders drop,' Matt said. I looked around me and tried to un-hunch my shoulders. They were rigid.
The place had filled up. The music was... it was amazing. I could feel every single tiny sound within every single bar of music. People danced, everywhere. I was on my own with Matt, I suddenly realised. Where had our group gone?
My face began to feel funny. I didn't know how to hold it. My heart started to bang, uncomfortable, a bird trying to escape from my lungs. If I shouted, would it fly out?
'Jen, dance with me,' Matt said.
I didn't want to but I didn't want to stay sitting down.
I got up.
I didn't know what to do with myself and the colours were swirling around me and the music was inside me and everywhere I could see people talking, close together, swaying, dancing, holding hands, hugging, moving as one great big breathing organism.
And suddenly, I knew I was part of it. For the first time, I knew I was with other people, not alone in a crowd as I usually felt. I was together, in the same beat, as everyone.
'Relax...' Matt murmured in my ear. I tried really hard, and dropped my shoulders. I felt myself begin to move. I felt the music fill me up and I felt myself as a part of this whole pumping dance floor, one person of many, one cell of many, in colour, seeing the music in the smoke, feeling my hands moving all by themselves, to the ceiling, wayyyyy above, touching the air and feeling it in my fingers, being hugged by someone from behind and swaying into them and dancing to their beat and moving their way, then moving gently away and moving in my own way and the colours got brighter and oh my god, who knew dancing could be like THIS?
Matt never left my side. He laughed with me, seeing my delight, his face wide with love and joy and his eyes huge and bottomless. I wanted to tell him everything, but at the same time I could see that he already knew, so it was all right.
'You're a great little dancer,' said the woman I'd sat with earlier, whose name I didn't know but it didn't matter because I loved her as I loved Matt and I could see they loved me. And I knew that I was a great little dancer. All this time, I could dance. I could dance and dancing was the most wonderful thing in the whole world and I wanted to do it all night long. I felt my body move in ways I'd never imagined. I just gave myself to it, and felt different parts of my body respond to different parts of the music. In one section of music was a whole world of movement.
People shared their water with me. I hugged and spoke to people, I walked around to try dancing in a different place. Matt came with me. He took me to the loo every now and then. I knew we'd be friends forever. I made seemingly hundreds of new friends. I spent hours talking to someone about how they gt the scar on their wrist, listened to a long and amazing story, only to realise we were still in the same song and we'd gone into some new time frame, where love made the rules.
Everywhere we wandered, people were friendly. There was nothing frightening about this, not at all. Everyone was looking after each other. There was no alcohol and therefore no violence. Everyone there was together. In many ways, it was incredibly beautiful.
We drifted and danced and sometime later, the colours began to fade.
'Do you want another half?' said Matt, and we shared another tiny paracetamol-thing.
Lifetimes later, when I was sore from dancing but unable to stop, we noticed the light had changed. It was greyer.
'Time to go,' said somebody, and I wanted to cry. But I was aching in entirely new places. I felt empty but full of love and goodness and joy. I was entirely relaxed. Matt and I laughed along at life, held each other up and climbed back in the car.
Somehow, going home, there was much more room. We were all softer around the edges.
I should have stayed home that night. It was risky, I was afraid, and I didn't really know what I was doing, who I was with or where I was going, or what I was taking.
I shouldn't have gone.
And yet, what would I have missed? Lifetimes of dancing in one long lovely night. Connections, meeting people in different places, in different parts of themselves.
I never felt shy about dancing again. Matt and I are still friends. The woman was right, there never was anything like my first, and after a few more attempts, I gave up. I have since danced on tables and bar tops in a variety of countries. I dance often and wildly, and I never, ever worry about what I look like. That fear, with me beforehand for fifteen years, never came back. The connection I found was something magical and I've discovered since that if you look at people, you can see that depth anyway. You just have to know how to look. And you can feel that connection any time you like. You open your own door, and people will walk right in. You don't need the drugs. I wouldn't touch anything now, anyway and I rarely did again.God knows what awful chemicals things are cut with nowadays. I don;t even know the names of drugs now.
Illegal or not, dangerous or not, that night a door opened. I was shy, awkward and totally lacking in self esteem. I was afraid of letting go; I was afraid of people's opinions of me, especially in the way I moved. I didn't trust my body; I didn't trust my heart. I was closed off from so much of the good stuff in life. That door needed to be opened. If it took a drug to do that, well, so be it. I would hate to still be the woman who was too afraid to dance.
Perhaps I should have been more careful, all those years ago, but I'm very glad I wasn't.
Paul sighed and put the phone down for the umpteenth time that morning.
This story begins with a book, no that`s not exactly right, it actually began the day he was born; but there isn’t enough space here to tell you the whole story of Paul Hegarty`s life so we`ll settle for one of its most pivotal points, the moment he found “The Book.”
“Get one of the flight cases down from the attic will you, Patsy`s going to London for the weekend with her friends.”
Paul heaved himself out of the armchair, grumbling to himself, “Footballs on in a minute and she picks now to remember.”
He got the stepladder from the shed, deliberately thumping it off the banister, to show his annoyance, as he carried it upstairs.
Tigger they`re cat was already pacing back and forth on the handrail under the attic trapdoor in anticipation, he knew that Paul carrying the ladder up to the upper landing meant only one thing.
“Oh no you don’t,” he said scooping the mewling cat up into his arms before dumping it into Jack`s old room, “I`m not chasing you around the bloody attic for a couple of hours,” he snarled, shutting the door.
He was fairly certain he knew where the case was, as he gingerly stepped from rafter to rafter, murmuring, not for the first time, and almost certainly not for the last, “Must floor this bloody thing.”
He had to move a heavy cardboard box aside to get to the set of luggage, in his hurry not looking where he was putting it; and is always the way when we`re in a rush, it toppled over, spilling most of its contents.
“Damnit, damnit, damnit,” he cursed, bending to retrieve the books that had escaped the box. They were the usual assortment of chiclit that Kate loved to read he noticed as he glanced at every other cover. As he picked up the third to last escapee he noticed that the cover didn’t bear a drawing of a half-naked Fabio lookalike cradling the usual damsel in distress, but a simple top to bottom title
“The Hell?” he said, feeling his jaw drop, realising that for the first time in his life he was gaping, actually gaping. He turned the book over, the blurb claimed it had insider information on sex toys, that it would teach the reader how to seduce a man by simply walking into a room; and how to give (and receive) orgasms.
“Jesus” he breathed, stunned by the idea that his wife of thirty six years had bought such a thing.
Paul and Kate had both been virgins when they`d met, though in the best Catholic tradition, less so by the time they`d married. Their sex life had followed a predictable trajectory, satisfying until the kids came along, petering slowly out as they grew older. There was always a reason; don’t wake the baby, then the babies became toddlers, the toddlers teenagers, the teenagers adults, until it became routine, rare silent and mechanical, devoid of excitement and passion.
Slowly Paul returned the book to the box, interlocking the four flaps so they wouldn’t flip open if it fell over again and collected the red carry on case he`d come up there for.
At the trapdoor he paused, downstairs he could hear the “Vvvmmm, Vvvmmm,” of the Hoover as Kate methodically vacuumed the living room carpet. If she`d been waiting for the case at the bottom of the steps he would never have gone back to the box and retrieved the book, and most likely he would`ve forgotten all about it , but she wasn’t there, she was downstairs, preoccupied, and so he did turn back, and did retrieve the book.
As he shut the trapdoor Kate called up to him, “Did you find it?”
“Yeah I got it,” he shouted back to her, surprised at how much his voice trembled and how guilty he felt. He tried to tell himself he wasn’t doing anything wrong as he hid the book in his bedside locker, putting it in the middle of a stack of other books he was still trying to find the time to get around to reading. Turning its spine inwards so it was unreadable; then turning the spine of the books above and below it inwards too so it didn’t stand out.
“What are you doing?”
Paul nearly jumped out of his skin, he hadn’t heard his wife come up the stairs, “Nothing,” he said defensively, “Just looking for…uh, uh,” he grabbed the first book that came to hand, “this.” He held up Alex Fergusons latest book.
“Hhmmph,” she said, “You’ve left the trapdoor open,” and picked up the case.
He read the book over the next three weeks. Initially passing over the chapter on getting to know yourself, it all seemed a little too gynecological to him, but when he reached the end he went back and read that chapter too; after all he`d reasoned an old dog might be able to learn a new trick or two.
He fell, if not in love with the idea of this new Kate, at least in lust with her. Finding himself fantasising about her reaching out for him in the night, for the first time taking charge of their sex life, what little there was of it.
But then a voice, one he`d never heard before chirped up, “And what makes you think you deserve such a woman?” it asked, its tone snide and hectoring, “What`ve you ever done to deserve a woman like that?”
They say that your life flashes before your eyes as you die. But Paul didn’t have to wait for such a terminal event, as, over the next couple of days, his conscience remorselessly dissected his failings as a husband.
He relived every moment when he should have told his wife he loved her, but couldn’t bring himself to say the words. The times he`d contemplated buying her flowers, knowing how much she liked them, then didn’t, worrying she might accuse him of something.
He remembered he hadn’t even been in the hospital, never mind the delivery room when she`d gone into labour.
“Did you even comfort her at the graveside when her father died?” his malevolent Jimney Cricket asked.
He would have liked to say he had, but he wasn’t sure, which he felt meant he was actually sure he hadn’t.
It seemed to him that the book that had held out so much promise had turned on him, becoming a mirror, and he didn’t much like what he saw in it.
It was that morning, a cool Friday in November that the dagger was given its final twist.
He was thinking about the book again, and Kate, when the voice asked, “Why do you think she bought it?” he`d been wondering that same thing, why had she bought it?
It wasn’t as if their sex life had improved any in the last year, if anything it was worse than ever. She was sleeping with her back to him as close to the edge of the bed as she could, another inch and she`d topple out for sure. And on the few occasions he`d worked up the courage to reach out to her she`d pushed him away, no longer even resorting to excuses like, “I`m too tired,” or I`ve got a headache.”
No these nights it was simply a blunt, “Feck off,” and a stiffening of the back for emphasis.
Why buy the book, he wondered, not for the first time, it sure hadn’t improved their sex life.
“Your sex life,” the voice murmured, not without a hint of malice, accenting the word “Your.”
If you had suggested to Paul three weeks ago that Kate was having an affair he`d have laughed into your face. But as the cold chill of the idea stole over him, he felt like doing anything but laughing.
For the umpteenth time that morning he picked up his mobile, it was already open to Kate`s text line and with shaking thumbs he typed
I LOVE YOU
And before he could change his mind pressed (send)
For five long minutes he stared at the device willing it to respond. Telling himself when it didn’t that she hadn’t heard it go off, trying to convince himself that it was buried at the bottom of her handbag. Or that she was deep in a gossip session with Anna or Mary, yeah that was it she simply hadn’t heard it.
He gave up waiting and typed
I want you to want me (send)
It was a line from a song; he couldn’t remember the name of the band, not that it mattered. There was another line from a song he half remembered by Billy Joel, something like: all the best lines are already written and played on the radio everyday, but that didn’t make them any less true, did it?
Another terrifying five minutes crawled by, now he was imagining her in the arms of her lover, the pair of them sniggering over his pathetic texts, but he was past caring, past his ego.
For the first time in decades he realised how much he loved his wife.
I need you to need me (send)
Almost the same instant he`d pressed send the phone tweeted, he had a text. His heart nearly stopped when he saw it was from Kate.
I love you too, you`re the only man I`ve ever wanted.
He stared in near disbelief at what she`d written. Then with thumbs shaking so badly he had to rewrite almost every word, some more than once, typed,
I`m sorry, I`m such a coward, should have told you sooner, thirty years sooner (send)
This time he barely had to wait a minute for her reply.
You`re not a coward, I`ve always known how you felt.
Am going to do better, be the husband you deserve (send)
We can both do better, she replied.
He didn’t get much work done that afternoon, texting every thought he`d ever had, but never had the courage to express, to the woman he`d shared the majority of his life with.
Feeling overwhelmed with love and relief. It occurred to him that it wasn’t dissimilar to how he`d felt when he`d been a lovesick teenager and told her as much.
She replied with a smiley face.
Around three he booked a table for two at Bacco`s and texted,
Are you free tonight (send)
She replied with a single ?
Only I would like to take you to dinner, if you`re free that is, I could pick you up at 8 (send)
Her reply was almost instantaneous,
I`d love that, but I have to be home by eleven ;)
All this happened five years ago.
And in those years Paul has never forgotten to tell Kate every day he loves her , buys her flowers once a week, lilies, (lilies are her favourite) though sometimes it`s roses, and he takes her on a date every other Saturday. He`s even learning to line dance, though he still thinks it`s stupid, one of the few things he`s kept to himself.
So you see Paul was right, though perhaps not in the way he`d thought.
You can teach an old dog new tricks, as long as he`s willing to learn.
She tiptoed carefully across the landing the feeling of horror rising in her stomach again and peered over the banister at the imposter standing in their hallway.
It looked like him. It was identical, it was wearing his clothes. His deep grey suit and pink tie. She bought him that tie for his fiftieth. He could always pull off pink. It wore his big brown shoes. His expensive ones. Her husband didn’t buy things like that often but scarcely and real quality when he did. Money was no object.
Edward the real Edward would say ‘built to last,’ they were the same ones her real husband wore every time he had an important meeting.
This imposter knew what her husband liked to wear, when and what for. She stared at him hard. She did that when he wasn’t looking. It messed up the knot in his tie – Just like him! He stood there still humming along to Edwards shower song inspecting himself in the mirror.
It was the mirror image exactly the same but not real. The resemblance was uncanny. No not uncanny identical. It sprayed his perfume down each side then one for luck. Edward always did that, she knew that about him. She knew everything about him.
She stood back the moment he picked up his briefcase .If it was imitating the real Edward then he would call her to say he were leaving then shout, ‘I love you,’
‘Leaving now. Love you.’ The words were exactly the same but hollow somehow. Unfeeling.
“I love you,” she called holding her breath from the doorway. She wondered if it knew, she knew it were different.
It closed the door – it didn't seem so.
Every time it looked at her with its china doll eyes and crocodile smile she had to compose herself and not let on she it were an imposter.
Smiles could be faked but the eyes would never cooperate. Eyes were the windows to the soul but nobody was in.
She wondered if she tapped him would he break into a million little pieces and reveal the hollow emptiness inside.
There's no such thing as a perfect crime everyone makes mistakes. Crimes of passion were no exception. This thief who had stolen Edward were no exception.
The devil was in the detail and this devil who had replaced Edward revealed kept messing up the little things
Receipts end marriages!
It had topped up in different petrol stations on routes the real Edward never usually drove on. It ate at restaurants he never usually went too. It thought it were the perfect copy. The problem with perfect copies were that an expert could always tell the difference.
It agreed with her plans - it never made any. Holidays, theatre tickets the new curtains. The real him would have never agreed to go to and see a musical. Passivity breeds contempt. The real him had opinions a mind of his own. Cantankerous and caring
This impersonator got silly things mixed up. He bought her lingerie and perfume but hid them in unusual places. Not his normal hiding places then he forgot to give them to her.
She wondered when he'd been replaced. Changed. Swapped. Somewhere along the line she must have stopped paying attention. She never should have stopped paying attention. Never - ever stop paying attention to someone you love.
There were flickers of the real him like breath in the cold you could see it, almost feel it then it were gone.
This fake Edward now faced away from her while they drifted asleep. Did it dream? what did it dream about? Who did it dream about?
The real Edward used to say she were a dream come true in the days when he was pursuing her. Courting her. So many men so many competitors. She’d toyed with them all , led them up the garden path, then back around for good measure. She was young and beautiful enough to play those games back then
Power really is such a terribly fickle thing. She wished youth lasted as long as regrets.
She thought about sitting in the restaurant last night. The imposter had pulled out her chair just like Edward then taken off her coat. He always heard every word she said but he never really listened.
Did it care? Was the fake Edward capable of caring.
‘’Sorry for being late. I got held up at the office.’’ It had begun to make more and more mistakes. Complentacy was basically carelessness.
She mulled over the theory that she had become just as much of an imposter as it. They were both pretending to be happy. Pretending not to know.
''Love you,’said the imposter.
“Love you more,’’ I had replied.
If she could get the real Edward back shed pay so much attention this time. She would change everything about her. Her clothes her laugh the way she looked. Anything. I should have paid more attention she thought.
She looked the imposter in the eye and smiled. She wondered if the real Edward would return. If she could get him back. The old Edward the one that loved her.
I should have - why do I always cut off my nose to spite my face! Its been a life long thing. I met him out sailing on the Adriatic, it was so romantic, my dream to have a lover miles from home, someone I didn't have to share my life with, just to be able to have lots of fun. He was married so I knew this would never be for ever, but good while it lasted. The problem was, I fell hook line and sinker. What a fool. Each year I would visit, this beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and the ocean. We would ride together on his motorbike, miles from civilisation and have good times. Laugh, mess around, it was always wonderful. I looked forward to each year and would visit more and more often. He would need to make more excuses as to why he was not home. I never felt bad because I had no desire to run away with him and he was really not happy being married, it wasn't her, it was him. He wanted to be free but coming from a small town, there was pressure to be married. There were children involved so we had to be careful. I started to get too close, I was afraid, I wanted to spend more time with him, not just the few stolen moments or the occasional few hours. I wanted to really get to know him.
We were going to meet in Rome, I had it all planned. He was supposed to be there but last minute decided that he couldn't make it. I was devastated. I still went, dreaming that he may show. I had an ok time but constantly thought of him. I then realised that I was expecting too much, but inside I was hurt and angry.
The next time I visited his home town I could still feel the hurt inside and I wanted to punish him. He called me in my hotel and I made a lame excuse, said I didn't feel well. He was cross, said he had made special arrangements so we could spend time. I couldn't let go of my pride. I told him I would contact him. I didn't. I should have.
After a while I tried to contact him and on endless journeys to his town I looked for him, one day I saw him in the distance. I was so sad, I couldn't approach him. For many years now I have travelled there, always with him in the back of my mind. If only I had not been so stubborn, who knows what may have happened. I should have seen him, I should have given him a chance.
Part of a Private Conversation
Sprung from the prompt of
I should have – it’s no answer
more a dog on a flock of questions,
nipping at my heels,
herding me towards a wall
I’ve never faced; a mirror image
it will crack me to see.
I’m talking to you
but you haven’t realised -
and neither had I -
I’m also talking to me.
What should I have done
about love like running through quicksand;
our culture of claws through cages;
my vacuumed voice; who owned
my body when I craved his worship.
2 in the morning,
a taxi driver, Waterloo Bridge,
Champagne but I think
I threw up, stopped it.
I think but all I have is preamble.
I’ve lost that night.
I should have told someone.
I should have been helped.
I should have known.
I SHOULD HAVE
Saturday night and the lights were bright.
Jenny said “Rocky’s goin’ to be there, so you’ll come too, right?” She's like that; a bit shy and still wants back up.
"But how can you pull a boy like Rocky when you don't put out?" I said.
"Just come will you? I'll die if that cow Josie flashes her knickers at him."
So I tagged along, got the new lashes out, nicked her sister’s push up, and made a bit of an effort. She looked like a check out girl on steroids but you can't say so can you?
"Do I look alright?" She said.
"Yes, let's get going. Spray some Nuit de Paris behind your lugholes and you'll be a princess!" I said.
We arrived just after ten and headed straight for the ladies to have a chat. No point in showing out before eleven; well, the boys can't face us before they've had a skinful. Josie was in there, glugging WKD, cos she’s basic and giving us evils.
“The cleaners arrived then?”
I slammed her one in the gob for starters and within a second we was clawing and screaming the place down. Jenny, as usual, stood by, hands in her mouth, staring at the two of us.
"Gimme a hand you silly moo, Don't just stand there!" But she did F.A.
By the time the bouncers arrived, the place was crammed, including Rocky and his mates. He took one look at Josie and me and grinned.
"Hen night at the boxing club?" He asked and shoved off back into the bar.
I picked up my bag and peeked in the mirror; Dracula was looking back at me. Mascara streaking down my cheeks, hair gone Jurassic, tights a mess.
All Jenny could say was; "Oh. Lindy! You look dreadful!" She's a good friend in a crisis.
We did our best to clean me up and went outside. The boys were all in by now and the lights went down, so I reckoned I might get away with it. Then Jenny pulled at me.
"Oh Lindy!" She said, and she began to sob.
Over in the darkest corner, Rocky sat wiping Josie's eyes and putting his arm round her fat shoulders. He stared at me and gave me the finger. Classy!
I grabbed Jenny and made for the door. What's the point of helping your mates?
I should have stayed home and watched Strictly.
"I hereby accuse you of ruining my life. Should you have something to say for yourself, have at it!"
Lisa's hands trembled as her blue eyes scanned the same passage, dripping red ink, over and over again.
There were several little holes in the paper from where the pen had penetrated the surface and then seemingly proceeded to cut open the rest of the white material in an almost knife-like manner.
"Guess what!" The letter continued,"on Saturday, December 12th, you cut me off in traffic at Graham Junction. I had to jump on the brakes, almost broke a leg, and when the car came to a halt, some guy crashed into me from behind, potentially breaking my neck."
December 12th? Drawing blanks. Graham Junction? On the way to work. But memory loss unfortunately wasn't the worst part of all
"I was on the way to my wedding."
Standing in the foyer of the office building that she worked at, in high black heels, Lisa could suddenly feel their height as she felt a little smaller.
"The best part of all this? His mother thinks the accident was a sign! We haven't set a new date yet."
This last part did her in. Leaning against the side of the glass wall, she could no longer steady herself and sank together like a sack of flour emptied of its contents.
"I'm a monster." She thought to herself.
"Are you Lisa Davis?"
"Yes." Lisa Davis, the wedding crasher.
"I'm Samantha Davis. I work one floor below. I think I got your mail."
Lisa glanced up at the petite, pretty blonde in a blue suit. Samantha was a stunner.
"Do you have any idea how long it took for someone like me to find someone like him?"
Lisa reached into her purse and took out the black envelope hell had been delivered with.
Samantha Davis - DIE, it read in carved letters on the front.
"I think this letter is for you."
"Thanks!" Samantha replied and upon seeing the envelope rolled her eyes. "Police didn't find me at fault!" She shrugged, winked, then turned around, hastened towards the elevators with her heels click-clacking over the marble floor, and the last thing Lisa could make out, was Samantha bumping into a temp carrying a huge stack of papers while on her way down.
I should have listened to you, when you told me to go
I should have trusted you, I know.
I will go there tomorrow I thought to myself
I will just stay at home and do something else.
But I just sat around did nothing else instead,
How could I know the next day she’d be dead.
So I sit here now with my guilty cries
“Why did I not go to say my goodbyes?”
So, if you know a life is ebbing away
Don’t put off till tomorrow, what you should do today.
I don’t get it.
I mean, who heard of a woman getting rid of the father of her children over a bag of chips. I get that it wasn’t the chips – that was just the last straw, or whatever, but that was the thing that did it. She was working late, and I was supposed to pick up a chippie in time for her getting back, but instead I had a few beers when I got back from work, and before I know it she’s back and she’s shouting about six missed calls, and why couldn’t I do one simple thing, and how come I couldn’t show the slightest bit of effort when she’s got two jobs and a sick mum, and in between all that has to take the girls to school and back.
So obviously I got defensive, and for once she didn’t stand for it – turns out she was just getting started, and looking back she was probably looking for a fight for a while. She carried on and on, and being me I wasn’t going to back down, so before you know it we're screaming at each other and the girls are downstairs and shouting at us just as loud as we were – to shut up, and to stop it, and how come we always have to fight.
Then their mum went down as if her legs didn’t have the strength to hold her up. She curled up into a ball and cried until we all went quiet, just watching her, not moving, not saying anything, just looking at how much of a mess she was. And just as I was about to go up to her and put my arms around her and tell her it’s all okay, I’ll go get the chips, I’ll do more around the house, she points her finger at me.
‘We’re done,’ she says. ‘No more chances, no more of this shit. We’re done.’
‘Fine.’ I say, and get out of the house, thinking to give her time, thinking how I can come back in an hour or so and we’ll talk like grown-ups rather than screaming down each other’s throats.
A little down the road Bethan, the youngest, came running down the street after me, and I told her to get back in the house, told her everything would be all right, and I remember believing it when I said it.
Looking back I try figuring out the point where it all went wrong. I used to come home late in the week sometimes without telling her, and I wasn’t fussed with doing the stuff around the house all that much, but I loved her, and I never thought any of that would be enough to tip her over the edge.
Every so often, I think of going round to the old house and knocking on, and in my head she’ll come to the door and I’ll smile at her with a bag of chips in my hand, and maybe she’ll let me in and we can talk about getting back to how we were. Except now when I picture it, she doesn’t look at me and smile like she used to. Now when I think of it she’s got the look she had when she threw me out that night – the look that says I don’t know what I was thinking staying with you for so long – sharing my life with you – having babies with you.
If I could figure out where it went wrong I might be able to fix it, but all I can think is how I should have gone to the chippie that night. Shoulda woulda coulda, I guess. Too little, too late and all that.
I should have….
It is early morning as I sit on the early train to London. Staring out of the window but not really seeing anything due to all the thoughts going around in my head, just the word going by as quick as a flash while I mull over everything in my mind.
I look around the train and see people on their laptops or mobile phones, some people reading newspapers or magazines, some talking in quiet conversation with each other while others having a little 'shut-eye' until they reach their destination.
We are all on a journey of some sort and not always knowing what our destination is or what it will be. This journey is a very different one for me, a journey I should have taken a very long time ago but now there is no time like the present.
For 39 years I have lived my life for other people, trying to please everyone, trying to fit in and always feeling I have to prove myself in one way or another, finding ways to fit in, just wanting to be accepted but now is the time for me, my time!
Feeling quite calm as the journey continues, listening to calming music through my headphones to try and take my mind off all my thoughts and things I want to say and how I will say them. Maybe when the time comes to say my piece the words will just flow? I still practice over and over in my head hoping when I get to the other end my words will come out just right.
Each time the train stops at another station my heart skips a beat and I get a little more anxious. Another stop means another one closer to my destination and when I say destination, it really is a destination!
I keep looking at the time, not long to go now, another forty minutes or so. My heart pounding even more than previously, surely that’s normal? But then again what is normal?
Finally arriving in Kings Cross Station in a bit of a panic even though I know I have plenty of time of which I set off early just in-case of any delays. I grab my bag and off the train I go, I need a coffee, yes a latte, surely that will help me calm down a little as well as pass some time. I walk into the nearest coffee shop and buy a latte, still thoughts going over and over in my head, all the words I want to say are now becoming mixed up, muddled and confusing, I really need to calm myself. I am just a person with feelings, a person who is caring and understanding, I’m not a freak of nature or a bad person and never will be yet why do I feel I am going to be judged!
As the times passes I realise I must head now to Harley Street. I find a black cab and ask the driver to take me to Harley Street. A ten minute drive and we arrive. I pay the driver giving him a good tip for the comfortable journey even though I couldn’t remember or recall any of it due to all the thoughts and worries that I have been constantly thinking and feeling all the way here.
I arrive at the consultants and check in to let them know I am here and who I am here to see. The receptionist is very polite, pleasant and respectful as I am with her. She has good customer service skills which makes me feel valued and worthy, why would I not feel worthy? It is the fact it is sometimes other people that can be cruel, making you feel unworthy and knocking your confidence, other people who judge, other people who don’t let others live their life the way they want to yet they don’t want or don’t like to be judged do they?
I wait patiently and then I am called in to see the consultant. After a lengthy discussion, professional friendly support and reassurance from someone who understands and knows how I feel, I finally feel great about my journey today and the journey I will be taking from this day onward.
I started my journey as ‘she’ and my journey ends with ‘he’, I am now me, who I should be, what I should be, my only regret is I should have done it sooner but I am now free!
The a- z of Windsor’s streets is stitched and inked into his skin, an odd criss-cross of scars and tattoos. Fist fights and knife fights, late nights and early mornings spent in A&E. He’s not proud of it. Not like his dragon, she’s a beauty, curls round his shoulders like she was born there. Her tail lightly swinging, her long tongue like a lick of hot fire. Got that on Prince Andrew Street when he was nineteen, muscled and handsome.
He has L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E on his knuckles, a cliché he knows but it had made sense at the time, when Anna had left him again and he really didn’t know if he wanted her back or not. Some days he puts on his fingerless gloves to cover it up, scared the punters it did as they dipped down to slip him their change. They prefer it if you seem weak and repentant, down on your luck. Not like a sinner who might just take a swing at them if the mood takes him and definitely not like the type who’ll be spending that quid in the Eagle and Child as soon as the sound of their clickety clacks has faded. Not that he would but Mr and Mrs High and mighty don’t know that and they just want to be sure they’re not financing any bad habits.
And bad habits he’s had plenty. That’s probably what got him here in the first place. That and an unhealthy relationship to authority or so his social worker, Sharon tells him. He’d just wanted to feel that freedom he’d get when he was drunk or high just a little bit longer. Let him see where it’d take him. It had to be better than a concrete council flat in the wrong part of the borough. Of course all great flights end with a fall if you’re like Icarus and fly too close to the sun. Oh does that shock you, that he’s well read? That he might know a Greek myth when he sees one? Don’t be fooled. Libraries, if your town still has one, are one of the only free places to go when it’s cold or raining. And when in Rome…
Sometimes he gets a place in a shelter, but there are always too many of them and they don’t like his dogs. He has to leave them chained up somewhere and then he spends the night worrying the pound will get them. He loves those dogs, they’re good company. He can’t go home. The old crowd are still around, some of them are still peddling those bad habits he’s lost and he’s not sure he’d be able to resist. And even if that weren’t the case he hasn’t seen his mum in three years and he wouldn’t know how to look her in the eye now. It makes his blood boil all the burned bridges. Just because at one time in his life he made some bad choices he shouldn’t have to pay for it forever.
Still it’s not all shit. He’s been working recently, thanks to Sharon. She got him a job with a delivery outfit. They were impressed by how well he knew the street names, asked him if he’d ever thought of being a courier or a taxi driver. It’s not much and it’s not reliable, they get him in when they need him. It was good before Christmas but it’s slowed right down now. Still it had felt good to have a place to turn up to again. Sharon says he should think about training, but how can you think about training when you’ve no fixed address, it had been hard enough to get this job. It only worked because he passed by the offices two or three times a week to see if they needed him. Sharon had him on a housing list but he wasn’t stupid. Single. Male. Ex Addict.
Today he’s back at his spot, x marks it and all that. It’s his patch if you like, where he sets up shop with his dogs and his stuff. Sometimes he plays his harmonica. It makes him feel he’s not asking for something for nothing. It’s tough today though. Apparently there’s some ruckus going down about a royal wedding. Some Tory wanker has been mouthing off about needing to clear the streets, how the likes of him are a disgrace, detritus or something. Yeah, yeah, yeah he thinks. Never bloody notice us normally do they? It’s not really a surprise, they’ve never wanted the likes of him on York Avenue. Wouldn’t want his kind sullying the streets for Sir Elton or Prince Harry now would they. They’d rather keep them all over in Oldfield, where they belong. Now if that’s not a ghetto, his middle name ain’t Charlie.
Breakfast of Champions
(abecedarian from a to z)
Alpha bits cinnamon
cereal daily eaten
girls hungry to
ingest justice, knowledge,
and loving letters
on positive qualities,
of sugar-topped unity,
and wisdom works
to xerox youthful zeal.
The A to Z of Writers' Block
Amazing idea doesn't translate at all to paper.
Burns tongue drinking tea too hot, impatient, slurping.
Cries to empty house... 'Idea! Where are you?'
Drinks some coffee, to alternate with the tea.
Empties bin, looking for lost scrap of paper with brilliant idea.
F+++ this, I can't write. I just can't.
Gets up. Walks around house, wanders from room to room.
Hopes that after a snack things will improve. Gets snack.
Indian. I'm going to get a meal from the new Indian for tea.
Jesus, stop thinking about food and just WRITE!
Kisses computer. As if that will help the words fall together better.
Lonely job, this. Maybe if I go for a walk I'll find inspiration.
Maybe. Maybe I should just go back to teaching.
No! I'm a writer, therefore I write. And the idea WILL come. Soon.
Oh for God's sake that last paragraph is absolute rubbish...
Printer needs ink anyway so if I don't get this finished it's okay.
Queen on the radio... I'll just go and turn it up a bit...
Really fed up with this. Why won't the words come...?
Sits, stands, stirs tea, sits, swallows snack, stands, stretches, sits...
Tomorrow. I'll finish this tomorrow. It'll all sound better then.
Underneath my desk is such a mess. If I tidy it I'll think better.
Verbs. Maybe I need more verbs. More action. Maybe not.
Why? Why do I think I can be any good at this?
X-rays. Could I write about something odd on an X-ray? No.
Yesterday it all seemed so much easier...Today it's hard...
Zebras... I wonder if you can ride them? STOP DAYDREAMING...
When Arabella Baker met Carlos
on Deansgate, the
Early morning drizzle smothered her Face and she
Groaned wearily. He
Ignored the noise and
Jumped back from a taxi splashing through a puddle,
but she was soaked to the
Knees by a passing Lorry.
“Move off! Leave the area!
shouted an Overweight Police officer.
Quivering, she grabbed Carlos’ hand and they
“A Stabbing!” yelled someone. Blue
Tape stretched and fluttered across the road.
Carlos Uttered a guttural squeal, and
Vanished into the crowd.
Arabella Waved at the empty space where for a moment
a new friend had
She Walked and Yawned
back to Zero.
End of this world.
‘I’ll give this world ten more years’
The three couples playing their Thursday night game of twenty-five at the corner table in Grannerty’s Public House look up. When they realise that the prophecy is one of McCartan McSweeney’s random statements they return to finish the hand. The three men at the bar had been talking about the price of bullocks when Tommy Joe mentioned something he read about banning cattle altogether.
‘They’re farting too much methane’ said he, continuing his enlightenment. Eddie felt a need to remind Tommy Joe of his responsibility in this regard.
‘A gallon of porter on a quiet night produces a fair deal of methane. There’s more methane leaving Grannerty’s pub than a prime dairy herd would carry on fresh grass.’
That was when McCartan decided to give the world ten more years.
‘What are ya on about?’ inquires Eddie, which was reasonable given the lack of connection.
‘He means, if you don’t sell up every beast you are currently wasting your time on the methane will gas us all.’
‘There’s more to it than methane.’ McCartan says, appearing to broaden the dangers.
‘Have you been googling things up again, McCartan?’ Tommy Joe inquires.
‘Facebook,’ McCartan quickly clarifies, ‘somebody shared a link to my site.’
‘Your site?’ Eddie says laughing, ‘would you be selling one of them sites?’
‘Enlighten us, McCartan,’ Laurence the barman asks politely, his curiosity aroused.
But McCartan has given up trying to change the talk from the price of cattle.
‘Methane me arse. They’re burning California to the ground,’ McCartan says as he leaves.
‘No mention of the gaping hole in his own ozone layer.’ Tommy Joe says after the retreating customer, while jabbing his finger against his temple to leave no doubt as to the site of McCartan’s ozone depletion.
When McCartan arrived home from the pub he decided to write Tommy Joe a letter.
Dear Tommy Joe,
You were laughing the other night when I said I’d give this world ten more years. You thought I was referring to the end of time, but you’re not as smart as you think you are. This world is going nowhere, but I might decide to get off. Now you’re thinking I’ll top myself if this world doesn’t mend it’s ways.
But it’s only this world as I know it will end; the world of sitting in Grannerty’s pub listening to you gobshites. I’ll no longer travel from A to A. Neither will I go from A to B. No; I will be going the full A to Z.
Ha! Now that I’ve wandered past the price of Shirley bullocks I’ve lost you. I’m going to travel the world, project myself around the entire 360 degrees. Now, bollox, you can have a good laugh when the lads come in after the mart on Wednesday. Laurence won’t be laughing behind the bar, because he’s coming with me.
‘Can I come with you,’ he asked when I told him my plan.
‘I was thinking of doing this by myself,’ I said.
‘You’d be better with a bit of help,’ said Laurence.
‘Why’s that,’ said I ‘Am I not a full grown man?’
‘You are’ said he, ‘But don’t you spend a lot of time working on your mental health below in the centre?’
‘That’s only because I have schizophrenia. But I’ll bring you anyways, because you’re an awful nice fella,’ I said and we left it at that. Except he promised he’d give me the nod when the time was right.
In the meantime I’ll be asking you not to be telling anyone.
PS: I’m sorry for calling you a bollox.
Ascending, my breath catches at the door
to Closed Stacks. Dewey decimals echo
over untold miles of spines (arranged like
dominoes, but ever-frozen into
grandiose, half-invisible designs).
Just beyond the turnstile, the New Stacks know
their lines without flaw. Massed nervously on
plain metal, book-brigades await the push
of a button – advance, retreat, square-dance.
Quickly, I run between the sliding shelves
as a test: untidy human muscle
versus the weight of words, fast closing in.
Xerox machines stand guard by the Old Stacks.
Yellowing tomes hide out in haphazard
zigzags, their still-life in faded pizzazz.
A to Z (well nearly)
Azure: breath of gods
the Mediterranean in July
Beneath: us is molten
Dive: into a hovel
Fabric: silk - shining undulations on a wooden floor
Gullible: not in the dictionary
Lullaby: the cradlEEE!!!!!!
Messy: a footballer? a November walk ending in a feverish entanglement
No: “oh you mean yes” - Harvey Weinstein
Procrastinate: in the wings always
Remnant: something bright caught in a raven's claw
Opus dei: Tom Hanks in an alley with a bible …..
Tangential: perpendicular to the line of sight of a celestial body, hey answer the question!
Valiant: Edward Snowden?
Zenith: it's all downhill from here
There they were.
Just as I had left them.
All of them.
And leave I did.
It was as though time was playing a cruel trick on my mind, as I wandered through the fogs and mists of nightmares past.
Blue jeans and ill-fitting khaki trousers.
80's hairdos and red acrylic nails.
Hour long smoke breaks talking about everyone else's problems except your own.
My former work place.
One illustrious picture of after-work clothing done wrong on the clock and after.
There they stood.
Awkwardly gathered around the buffet table, as though you only had to shove enough food into your mouth for the duration of the evening to avoid being the one having to answer uneasy questions.
How have you been? How has life treated you? The whole array of...except for Amber Andrews!
Amber had always been genuinely fond of food. She was the only one who didn't seem to be hovering around the cake and chocolate section of the table for old time's sake, pretending it was the office kitchen.
"The kitchen is for eating", was what she had once loudly declared, upset that people were hindering her attempts at making another sandwich. What followed was David Zugger following her, mocking her for weeks on end to make sure she wasn't suffering from "some rare disease" and "to ensure that we'll still have a work place in a couple of weeks".
He probably wouldn't be able to work up enough courage to ask her out on a date tonight either.
Then, of course, there was the busy bee section. The office gossips. Starting with Melanie, which to my ears had always sounded a bit like you-are-suffering-from-an-illness. A Melanie.
That is what she was. No secret, hardship, happy event, or husband was safe from her overbearing ways.
Oh, Samantha just had her baby!
Melanie, unmarried, childless, will tell you all about child rearing.
Well, she'll try to tell your husband, and she'll highlight why it's much better for men to be single and ready to mingle.
She had arrived alone and was now sitting in the back of the ball room with a flask and some gossipy magazine.
The natural winner of the no-one-asked-her-to-dance award.
Tamra Stevenson would also not be asked to dance. Tamra Stevenson would likely be shoved off the dance floor straight out of the door into traffic. How she had made it in through the door, how she had been invited, that was a question I would likely be seeking the answer to all night.
"Oh, hi, Allison!" And suddenly I was the center of attention. Billy Richardson was gleaming at me from behind his glasses.
Hey there, Billy. Didn't miss you at all.
"Hello! How have you been?" I asked, cordially.
"Good. Good." He smiled, then it broke, and he looked at me rather dejectedly.
"I'm awful." He said and tears starting swelling up in his eyes. Oh God. Billy, the office nerd, looking for a shoulder to cry on.
"Maybe you should stop drinking for tonight, Billy." I offered, and he looked aghast. "You know that I was in rehab?" Horror was the word on his face, spelled out and pronounced by his every motion.
"I knew I shouldn't have told Melanie!" I gave him a look. "You told Melanie? Everybody knows not to tell Melanie anything."
"I thought she'd changed!" He cried out loudly and stomped off in the direction of the bathrooms. He thought she'd changed. Had anyone changed? Later, he would be making a scene, if not Billy, somebody else, there would be arguments, words, spats, it didn't seem like anyone had changed. Starting with Ms. Amber Andrews and ending with Daniel Zugger. This was still the work place from hell even without the actual work place.
Should I tell these people that Tamra Stevenson was the best thing that had ever happened to me? Tamra Stevenson, the one who had had the affair, that led to the closing of our branch, had set me onto a path of happiness.
I may still be the unemployed, unmarried secretary Allison, and struggling to make ends meet, but not having to share in collective misery is much better than having to go to work everyday hating your life. And hating everyone else.
Lever Arch File
Can everything be made to go
from A to Z?
Is any single word
just one thing ready
to be slotted in?
Take loss like a pack
of wolves, only held together
by their howls , their savage teeth
and need to bring me down.
Does that go under you
or wolf or loneliness
or madness as I slam it in
my flailing mind -
that cupboard without a door?
Take life story which is a web
of words once strung out by
your mood, your memory,
an impish take on truth.
Do finished stories go untold?
Take thoughts hidden under curios
in your glass-fronted cabinet,
tossed in the hard-bound notebooks
piled on your brooding desk.
How can I file your thoughts?
Take sorting the lever arch file
and finding that first photo of me
under L when my name starts
with J and I’ll never know what
L stood for – lass, love, liar, lousy lay –
you’ve left me unsorted.
“A is for apple, B is for bear, C is for... critic… Um, D is for - despair?”
Confused eyes look up at me, their expression trusting even though their owner doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about.
“Sorry, darling, my brain isn’t working very well today.”
Christie traces the large, ornate ‘D’ on the page.
“What’s despair, mummy?”
Oh dear. Might as well be honest. She’ll learn about it sooner or later. Maybe if she knows the word, she’ll be better prepared than I ever was.
“It’s when someone is very sad and feels like things will never be good again.”
“Are you very sad, mummy?”
I feel tears threatening. How does she do that? At the age of four, how can she cut right through any smokescreen I put up to the truth of the matter. Not that I’ve been blowing smoke very effectively lately. I’ve just introduced the concept of despair into her alphabet book, after all.
I close my arms about her and squeeze.
“Maybe a bit sad, sweetheart. But I always know things will be good because I have you.”
But with book sales so poor, and my literary reputation in tatters, how much longer will I be able to keep things good for her? Money was already tight and my hoped-for success is very much not in evidence.
“Ow, mummy, too tight!”
Christie’s plaintive voice brings me back to my surroundings. I loosen my grip on her and tickle her tummy to make her giggle. Such a bright, joyful noise. I can’t let that happiness die. Her father would jump at the chance to step in fix everything, but I can’t go to him. I’m not ready to admit defeat yet. I still have my pride, and I haven’t yet reached the point where I’m prepared to sacrifice it.
“But why are you sad, mummy?”
“People don’t like my book, and that makes me feel as if people don’t like me.”
She snuggles into my side, clutching my jumper.
“It’s okay, mummy. I like you.”
And that’s all there is to it, really. Christie is the only thing that’s truly important in my world. Everything else is incidental and I shouldn’t allow it to paralyse me. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my daughter happy, healthy and give her everything she needs to succeed in life.
I reach for the newspaper.
“Let’s see what other words we can learn. A is for assistant, B is for barrista, C is for cashier…”
When my dad was sixteen, he bought
an A to Z of Aberdeen with the intention
of cycling every street. He marked each
road in red, of course the shade
changed slightly over the years,
but I have the completed map.
It didn't matter to him that they
constructed new roads, a bypass,
new estates, demolished one
of the bridges he had defined red.
On January first he drew a grid of
the numbers one to nine hundred
and ninety nine, searching for each
in the brand new number plates issued
by the government. Sometimes in Aberdeen
the ice can be fierce. In sixty seven
the 'E' suffix lasted only seven months,
the new date was now August first;
he often said the warm weather allowed
him to cycle later into the evening.
In his final years, he read
the gas and electric meters
A to Z
An alphabetic day out…
I woke by the sound of the birds singing and chirping as dawn was breaking. I could see it was going to be a sunny day as the sun shone through the small gap between the curtains where I hadn’t closed them fully the night before. ‘Oooo’ one big stretch as I kick off the quilt from my body and begin to stretch my legs and arms trying to imagine I’m six feet two rather than just five feet two. Stretching and reaching out, pointing my toes while my legs are fully extended and my arms up above my head while smiling as I wake up to this new day.
So what will I plan to do today? Start with breakfast. As I sit and eat my porridge I decide to do something a little more interesting, challenging and fun. This day I will plan an alphabetic day out. So what is an alphabetic day out I ask myself? I don’t really think it exists but today I have made up a new adventure and it will be a day where I journey out and look for everything from A to Z, make a list and once I have achieved either doing, seeing, smelling, touching or hearing anything from A to Z I can cross it off my list and go home feeling I have done something new and different.
I get my pen and notepad and write each of the letters of the alphabet on it. Packing my backpack with fruit, sandwiches and water as I’m not sure what the day will bring or what time I will get back home. It’s all about fun and adventure and I want it to be as interesting and out of my normal every day routine as possible.
I look at my list of letters, they could easily be covered by the simplest of things but it has to be things that are different. I get into my car and start the engine, not knowing where I am going today as it is a new adventure I just decide to drive. The sun shining brightly, the music playing in the car, it’s sort of strange not knowing where I am going or what I will be doing but also mysterious and exciting.
Driving along the coast road looking across the sea where the sun glistens across it. I decide to pull over at the nearest car park, get out of the car and walk. Making sure I have my back pack I walk across the sand dunes. It’s a warm day so I decide to sit on the top of the sand dunes to take in the breath taking views. It’s so calming, stress relieving and makes me feel relaxed. I have no hurry to be anywhere so I lay back resting my head on my backpack closing my eyes for a few minutes. I listen to the sound of the sea and the warm gentle wind. Just then startled by a loud bang I jump up and there before me is an unusual looking large object, something I have never seen before but resembled some sort of space ship. I looked around all confused; there was no-one else on the beach. Where had this come from? Did it come from the sea or drop from the sky? I wasn’t afraid even though my heart was pounding. I got up and walked slowly down the sand dunes towards this strange looking object. As I approached it towered up in the air, tall and egg shaped. I stood before it looking with curiosity and great interest. Slowly walking around this object not knowing what it was or where it had come from. Just then a little doorway in the shape of a circle opened at the side of it. Nothing or no-one appeared but the door stayed open. I stood calmly staring at the doorway waiting for someone or something to appear. I waited patiently but still no signs of anyone or anything. I walked slowly towards this opening and popped my head through the strange little doorway, I couldn’t see anything it was so dark in there. My curiosity got the better of me so I decided to go through this doorway, opening or portal, whatever it was I found I was pulling myself through it. Suddenly I was pulled into the object by a huge force of suction. I opened my eyes and I was in a strange but wonderful land. It was filled with beautiful coloured plants and flowers, grass as green as I’ve ever seen and water as blue as the bluest skies, it was beautiful. I stood up and realised I was standing high, towering above the ground, I looked around me, I was stood on what looked like a big fluffy cloud. I was confused, where was I? What was this place? Was I just dreaming? It felt so real, I pinched myself and yes I was awake as far as I was aware. I looked to see if I could climb down. About two feet away was another one of these clouds, it was closer to the ground so I jumped down onto it and managed to get onto the ground. This place was amazing but I wasn’t sure where I was or how I would be able to get home? I decided to walk to see where this little stoney path would lead.
I began to feel thirsty, reaching behind to get my back pack but it wasn’t there, I must have left it on the sand dune. My mouth was so dry but there in front of me to the side of the path I noticed a field full of huge bright yellow flowers that resembled daffodils. Big yellow petals pointing up to the sky blowing gently in the wind, something encouraged me to walk among them. I followed the little path as it led me through the flowers. I could hear the sound of water gently trickling, I followed the sound and there in front of me was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. It was the most magical looking fountain, trickling down from some golden looking rocks I walked over and held my hands under it to capture some water in my hands. I took a sip, it was the best tasting water I had ever tasted, I wasn’t sure what water it was or where it was coming from but it tasted good and made me feel hydrated and well. I put my hands out to get another drink but felt something or someone grabbing me and pulling me into the fountain. I tried so hard using all my strength to pull myself back but whatever was pulling me was too strong, ‘whoosh’…into the fountain I went, my eyes closed tight. It went quiet; I couldn’t hear a sound and my hands were now free. I opened my eyes and there before me stood two strange looking characters. They weren’t human but they were humanlike. They were tall, stocky with large feet and hands and were dressed in clothes which looked like they had been made from the flowers and trees. I didn’t feel they wanted to harm me. I stood quiet for a while, they stood looking at me and me at them. “Hello” I said, “My name is Loui, what’s yours?”’
They didn’t answer at first, maybe they didn’t speak English, then one of them held out his hand and said “We are pleased to meet you and happy you came to visit us, my name is Aye and this is my partner Zed, welcome you to our island Tebahpla”. “Wow, thank you” I replied, “Your island looks so amazing and so beautiful.” “Well thank you” said Aye, “Please take this as a token of our friendship to welcome you here” and he handed me a little shiny pebble. The pebble was like no ordinary pebble, it was covered with lots of tiny pictures and little drawings; it was amazing. “Oh thank you” I replied, “This is so nice, I will treasure it”. Aye bowed his head to acknowledge my gratitude. He then took my hand and led me along a small pathway through a brightly lit tunnel which wasn’t a tunnel made of rocks or bricks as we normally see but beautiful bendy shaped trees curved over towards each other creating a tunnel like walkway for us. We walked a short way and then out of the tunnel into another beautiful looking place with colourful flowers and waterfalls, little streams and warm looking pools. There were people all around, their people but they were so friendly I wasn’t afraid.
We walked over to a beautiful sun stricken pool where all the people came around to greet me. Aye must have been the leader or king of this island. He beckoned his people to come closer and said “This is our new visitor Loui, please introduce yourselves to him”. I smiled as one by one they came over to me, shook my hand and the first saying “my name is Bee, I’m pleased to meet you”. These people were so polite and friendly this truly was a beautiful place with beautiful people. The next one came “Hello Loui I am Cee”, then the next “I am pleased to meet you, my name is Dee”… one by one they introduced themselves to me, realising each of their names were the letters of the alphabet from A to Z. Was I dreaming? Was this really happening?
After the introductions which seemed to go on for some time we sat round the pool with the waterfall gently flowing at the side of us. I sat under the shade of a beautiful swooping tree, watching and listening to them as they calmly spoke and sat on the grass beside me. They gave me fruit which was the best fruit I had ever tasted, so colourful, so fresh and juicy, everything was so unbelievable, this island was like something from a fairy-tale or dream and I felt safe here; I had made new friends and found a new place to visit. It was so peaceful and so magical, I felt so relaxed. I leaned back into the tree and took a deep breath of this special air from this special place. As I started to relax more I could feel my eyes closing and falling into a deep sleep. I was woken by the sound of a seagull squawking above me. I opened my eyes and sat up; to my astonishment I was back on the sand dunes. I sat up and looked around, my back pack behind me. I stood up and looked all around looking for the egg shaped object, the object that lead me to the beautiful island where I had made new friends but it had gone. I was confused. I sat back down gathering my thoughts for a while. Maybe it was just a dream, maybe I had just fallen asleep and dreamed all of it, seemed strange how my day was set out to have a day of alphabet searching and I came across this strange mysterious island called Tebahpla with people called Aye, Bee and Zed?
My mind was going over and over things. I realised Tebahpla was actually the word alphabet spelt backwards. It must have been a dream but amazing. I felt something in my hand, I opened my hand and there in the palm was this beautiful pebble that was given to me? Maybe this was one of those things can just couldn’t be explained? Maybe I would get to visit this place again? I picked up my backpack, took out my notepad, looking down at the list I made from A to Z I got my pen and one at a time I ticked each one of them, my mission was complete.
Took the week off
Too weak to work
that week, felt bleak
A fever, a cough
a medical note: Not Fit
ached from head to toe to pit
of stomach and throat
The doctor wrote
the week off
Said it was catching
said I was ill
gave me a batch of pills
I started the week off
smarting and peaky
got nastier, got creaky
passed the week off
As seven days' wages lost
counted the cost
got better and returned
to a cause for concern
and a disapproving look
as the boss shook his head and said
They needed a shake-out
and they'd had to take
the weak off the books
How we Lived - A Collection
Edited by Josh Black
The Week Off, or, as it is known now, 'Miller's Week'
By Dawn Cooper
A Record of What Happened in April 2035
This is how things got better. I was there; I was one of the reporters who picked him up. I mention this as I am immeasurably proud of this fact and I want to show that this is an authentic account. An eye-witness account, if you like. I helped spread his message and I'm writing it now so we never forget who solved one of the worst catastrophes humankind had faced. A multitude of catastrophes. However well you think you know your history, here is a short report by someone who was there.
It was billed in the newspapers as 'Earth's Last Chance'. I'd been watching - and writing - the headlines with dread; every month they got more serious. All the predictions about climate catastrophes came true, plus some that we'd never even dreamed of. Sea levels rose. People died, in their hundreds of thousands. And new extinctions seemed to happen every week. Mass suicides were reported; people tried desperately to escape, but there was nowhere to escape to.
My children asked me over and over what was going to happen, and I couldn't tell them anything.
And then an almost forgotten scientist - who'd, many years ago, been in the news almost daily, warning the world that danger was imminent, that we'd reached crisis point - was back in the spotlight all at once, saying he had a solution.
A solution? said the world.
'We need a week off from using any power sources at all,' he proclaimed. When everyone had stopped booing him, they listened. He was old, he was clever, he'd been warning people for years about what was going to happen.
Big news companies went crazy, calling him mad, telling people not to listen, trying to silence him. But certain leaders did listen. They listened hard. And they realised that if they were to stay in power, if they were to avoid absolute anarchy, they needed to do something. Slowly, every one began to listen to him. And I mean, everyone. He was everywhere on social media and the young, who didn't know him, soon did. The old, who'd known him before he went into obscurity, rolled their eyes a little but, they agreed, he was talking sense. About the only one who was.
The scientist's name was Dr Miller. Nobody seemed to be quite sure what his speciality was, but he'd been famous - incredibly famous - in the past and every single one of his predictions had come true, as time went on. Now in his 80s he seemed to be more knowledgeable than ever and he went from being an old man quietly living in the middle of nowhere to worldwide fame once again. If books had not become briefly banned during the paper crisis, we'd know more, but I've been unable to find much digital trace of his very early work; I'm relying on my memory.
I was lucky enough to interview him when he first reappeared. I went to his bunker where he was completely off the grid, and recorded every word he said. The interview ended with these words:
'If we have a week off,' he said, 'two things will happen. We give the Earth a tiny break, a small moment just to draw breath, so to speak. We let her breathe, just for a few days. Not much will change - we've messed it up too much already - but the air will be clearer. That much, people will be able to see. That will make them think. When power is allowed on again, people won't use so much.'
'Won't they? I'd asked.
He'd shaken his head. 'Once you've lived without something for a bit, you value it more. Nobody in the world has had to worry about lack of electricity or machines for years. Even the poorest have had access to power during the last years. It has been called progress. Progress my arse.'
He took a drink and looked at me. 'Help me,' he said, as the interview came to an end. 'Otherwise it will all just end.' It all sounded too simplistic to me, but I didn't see anyone else doing anything. Heads in sand. Heads in the sand...
There were exceptions, of course. As each government began to listen, they took control. They began to work together. Certain organisations were allowed to use power for essentials, such as hospitals - but only for life support - certain suppliers, such as farmers who had to get their crops in that week. Others, too. But everybody else had to make arrangements to live without power for a week. It was planned to be in April, when the Southern hemisphere was in Autumn, and the Northern, in Spring. Nobody got too cold or too hot who wasn't already used to it. I helped to write the guidelines which some newspapers in the UK and US printed. Samantha Clinton, whom everyone expected to bow to industrial pressure and ignore some of the warnings, took the most stringent view and imposed the toughest punishments for those who protested.
And so, on April 12th, 2035, The Week Off happened. Power stations shut down. The internet - for the first time in history - was switched off. Power stations were halted. Trains, ships, cars, tractors, planes - anything that used power - stood still. And people took a holiday, from life.
Many things happened. As Dr Miller had thought, the air cleared up in a matter of days. People could be seen out walking, cycling, blading and running, breathing sweet clean air. Life slowed down. People started being nicer to each other. There was an atmosphere of 'we're in this together' around Bath, where I lived, and I later learned it was like that everywhere. I interviewed as many people as I could, already planning a book called 'Miller's Strategy'. People didn't travel, everyone took a holiday. Nobody needed to do any shopping because we'd all planned for this, arranged for those who needed help to have it, to invite older relatives to stay, to take care of our neighbours. Even those who'd protested were silenced because The Week Off was such a huge success. It was a domino effect of successes. People took responsibility for their world. Properly.
When the lights came back on, on April 19th, it lit up a different world. People were more rested, more relaxed, happier and gentler with each other, and the world. Inevitably people had forgotten to buy certain things so they just did without, or borrowed. One of the strangest - and most heartening - things was that there was no looting. Even with every alarm not working, there was no robbery. It took me only a few moments to work out why, and report it. People were scared. They'd seen the news. They'd watched the world slowly choke; watched their friends by the sea get flooded, watched relatives die of asthma. And so, for an entire week, people pulled together.
It was such a success, that governments immediately planned for another Week Off in the Northern hemisphere's Autumn. And following that, one day each week was taken as a Day Off. Slowly, slowly, things got better.
Today it is A Day Off. I write this by candlelight, to be typed up tomorrow.
Don't ever forget Dr Miller, the man whose idea sparked a shift in attitude so huge that we are still benefiting today. Because of him, Climate Change has slowed down to manageable levels. People have been given more time to find solutions. We live in a cleaner, greener, safer world because of one man. We are better people. We are more peaceful people. We will live, and so will our planet
Never be afraid to have ideas. And never be afraid to act on them.
Dawn Cooper played her part in spreading Miller's message, so it is fitting that I've included her record of Miller's Week. Dawn died in 2051. Her grandchildren have become journalists, too.
- JB, 2076
The week off... at last I have some real time off, "So much to do and now I have the time to do it but what should I do first?" I ask myself. I look at the three little loyal faces of my rescue dogs. Sitting so calmly waiting for me to say "lets go for a walk". So I know, I will make a visit to a special place.
My visit started with a short drive to the beach which was just ten minutes away, how lucky was I? It was a cold December afternoon, the temperature showing on the car thermometer as only 2 degrees. I could feel the cold on the leather seats penetrating through my jeans and touching the steering wheel was like touching a solid block of ice although I knew it wouldn’t take long for the car to warm up.
Even though it was a cold winter day the sun was shining quite low in the sky casting a nice warm light through the side window of the car as I drove. The sky was beautiful, so colourful showing warm reddish and orange coloured cloud-like shapes spreading across the sky, what a stunning sight it was.
As I approached the beach my dogs began to get excited, they knew exactly where we were. I could hear their gentle cries of excitement as they squashed their little noses up to the partially lowered window sniffing through the small gap picking up all the scents that they could, they knew it was the beach, this was one of their favourite places.
After parking the car I got out and took a deep breath inhaling through my nose filling my lungs with fresh clean but salty tasting air as I licked my dry weathered lips after exhaling. I could smell the sea air, a strong scent of sea weed but the air was fresh and crisp. I could feel the icy breeze blowing on my face making my eyes water and my nose run but I loved it here, this was a special place for me too no matter what the weather.
I buttoned up my coat while turning back towards the car to see the three little excited faces of my dogs, their tails wagging fifty to the dozen with excitement, their eyes bright, wide and fixated on me, waiting patiently to be let out of the car.
Once out of the car we walked down to the beach banks. Standing high on the beach banks looking down taking in this amazing scenic sight and hearing all the calming sounds around us, it was like a different world.
The golden colour of the sand glistened from the light of the sun as it stretched for miles, the sea so open, wide and deep with white foamy bubbles formed by the waves. I could hear the whooshing sound they made when they swished up and hit the shoreline then retracted back across the pebbles, hearing the clacking and tapping noises as the pebbles were dragged together into the sea with the force of the waves.
Once on the beach I could feel my feet sinking into the sand as we walked, it was like walking on soft squishy pillows, cushioning my every step. Looking back at the steps I'd made and seeing the foot prints of my boots and the three different size paw prints beside me of my faithful companions. We continued walking enjoying the fresh open sea air and the beauty that surrounded us, no-one else on the beach just us, it was like having our own private island.
I listened to the waves as we walked 'Oh so special', seagulls flying above us squawking and making sounds that sounded like people laughing. I could even hear the sound of their wings as they swooped past us and observed as they flew over the sea just inches from the surface of the water, gliding so precisely and making small ripples in the sea as they flew.
I picked up a pebble and threw it into the sea watching it fly through the air and disappear into a wave; hitting the wave at just the right time, there was something so satisfying yet magical to watch the pebble being swallowed up into the sea and probably reappear on the beach at some point later. My hand was left with sand on it, feeling the grittiness of thousands of tiny golden grains exfoliating my skin as I rubbed my hands together to try and remove it. I walked to the shore and dipped my hands in the sea, the icy cold water making my hands tingle; my whole body shudder and my fingers go numb. I watched as the sand magically washed away in the clear sea water while feeling like the luckiest person on earth. I didn't have much money but had enough to pay my bills each month, I have a home, a job, a little family of rescue dogs who loved me unconditionally, a car, people around me who cared and a special place to come to when I wanted to clear my head and feel good. I know I am one of the richest people on earth!
Everyone should pay a visit to a special place, a place where they can be free and feel good regardless of what goes on in life. For it is true, we only get one life and should look for the good and precious things in each day and live each day feeling that we are lucky in so many ways. We only get one life, lets live it!
A very, very long time ago, back when I was a child, so we`re talking a really long time ago, Auntie Anne, my mother`s only sister, would come and stay with us for a week over Christmas.
This hadn’t always been the case; she had once had a life of her own in England, but then her mother died when my mum was just a toddler, forcing Anne to abandon her carefree life and return home to help raise her siblings. And when they`d left home to have lives and families of their own; she stayed behind to look after my grandfather.
And that’s how things remained until granddad passed away when I was seven; it was from that point on, until she took her own leave of this world, that she came to stay with us.
Every Christmas eve at around fiveish, Dad would go and collect her from Greenmount, delivering her to our front door with absolutely no fanfare, (their relationship could best be described as; tolerable) but to the utter delight of her five, and one day, six, nephews.
A severe looking, and severe woman, auntie Anne wouldn’t hesitate in giving any of us a slap if she felt we were deserving of it, but if Anne smacked you you knew you`d earned it, so none of us held it against her. She was an inveterate and unapologetic chain-smoker, invading a house where nobody else smoked, soon reducing the atmosphere to something akin to a London Peasouper, a fact that drove my parents insane, but bothered none of the rest of us a bit.
What was so special about Anne`s annual visit was the safety that arrived with her. Her older sister was the only person in the world my mother was afraid of. And though Anne knew what her baby sister was capable of, and how regularly she did it; she knew also that in the holy catholic Ireland of the sixties, she was powerless to do anything about it.
So for one whole week a year she did the only thing she could to keep us safe. Safe from the wooden spoon, the rolling ping, the sweeping brush, or whatever weapon was closest to hand whenever our mother “lost it”
But most of all we were safe from the rubber hose she kept in her bedroom, the one she used when she hadn’t “lost it” but had had an opportunity to think about what she was about to do. We always knew that moment, it was like a pressure change in the air, you know, like the feeling you get when you can sense the thunder storm approaching. Each of praying `don’t let it be me, please don`t let it be me.`
And there is a certain level of guilt that goes with hoping it`s not you, knowing that in doing so you`re damning one of your brothers.
You always hear how Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill to all men, well that was a week of peace for us, though not so much on the goodwill. And I will always celebrate Christmas, though I have long been an atheist, because for me it will always be that, a time of peace, a time when my brothers and I got the week off.
Ahmed scrutinised the young man squatting among the debris, sifting through the heap of spent cartridges. The scavenger wore no uniform, just old khaki trousers and a tee shirt. He had a camera slung round his neck and from time to time, took a photo of one of the casings.
It was a hot day in Raqqa and Ahmed wiped his face with his shermagh. Nothing else moved in his field of fire, so his gaze returned to the young foreigner scrabbling among the remnants of the building which had been hit several times in the last attack.
Bored and impatient, he trained his sniper rifle on the stooping figure. Two hours had passed and not a single shot fired. Was it worth taking the shot and revealing his position to any of the government troops surrounding his perch? For three months, he had survived the onslaught by the Syrian army. Even the Russian Special Forces had not penetrated this last stronghold in the rundown area.
A sound behind him made him turn sharply and he grabbed his 9mm pistol. A bearded face poked through the gap.
"Salaam!" It was Abbas, his loader, with a pack of ammunition. Crawling up to the window, he peeked out at the scene.
"What's the infidel doing? Is he a madman?"
Ahmed shrugged. "Who knows, foreigners come here to show off."
"But what good are spent casings? Does he think they are some use?"
They watched as the young man sifted through the dusty refuse, collecting a selection of different calibre shells.
Ahmed shook his head. "No! One dead kaffir unarmed and we get a shitload of fire down on our heads. It's not worth it!"
The moment passed and the man disappeared.
Jim Arnold hefted the sack of cartridges onto the table. Some of the lighter ones spilt out in a tinkling cascade and rolled across the surface.
“I bet these are Chinese!"
The other man at the table grunted as he examined an item under a microscope but he said nothing. They had both been in Syria for six months and were sick of the constant danger and squalor which ruled their lives.
Jim joined the CAR directly from university; he wanted to do something to help in the terrible carnage of the Syrian War. Julio was a Spanish graduate who came to Syria with Medicine sans Frontier but switched to CAR when they withdrew.
The months took their toll on them both. Examining ammunition, even if discarded, was dangerous, Two of the team had lost limbs from unexploded munitions. Apart from the living conditions, fear was ever present; it never left, like an evil tumour intent on destroying you.
"You haven't logged it yet." The man at the microscope spoke at last but kept his eyes on the instrument. "You always leave it to last and someone has to remind you!"
"Ok! OK! Give me a break. It's me out there in the sun with those bastards. I need a rest."
He slumped down in the shade of the canvas cover and drank water from a plastic bottle. Presently, he turned to face the computer set up in the corner. Cables ran from the tent to a generator outside and the pale screen glowed with life. There was an image of the markings on the base of a shell.
"Have you traced the RPG /122 yet?"
"Not had time, but sure to be that Chinese shipment from October '14."
Conflict Arms Research stayed in Syria even after the spurt of fighting when the Russians came to the aid of the Syrian Government. Most NGO's had pulled back but these volunteers stuck it out. To identify and trace back the sources of firearms and ammunition was a vital but unseen arm of exposing the powers behind the combat.
"What do they do?" Osman el Akbar stared at the sniper. "Do I have to tell you to eliminate a kaffir? Why do you come to me at this time? Don't you see what has to be done?"
"Yes, but listen, they do not carry guns and they scavenge among the rubbish. I never saw this before."
El Akbar rubbed his eyes, this was the second day of an attack and he longed for a minute of quiet or rest.
"If they come again, send for me."
Ahmed nodded and went back to the sniper hole.
Nothing emerged within his field of fire so he sat back, resting his head against the bricks. In the background, intermittent gunfire chattered among the ruins but it was simply everyday life and had lost significance.
He dreamed of his life in Iran, before the Caliphate called for volunteers; family life with wife and children. Was it ever going to be the same? He pushed the thought away. If Allah (peace be upon Him) willed it.
A sound jolted him to life. Down in the ruins someone was stepping quietly among the debris. He squinted through the spy hole. In the rubble was the same young European who had been there earlier. Again, he was handling the discards. He looked about him furtively like a thief.
Ahmad kicked his loader to life. "Get el Akbar" and the man crept away wriggling through the dust to avoid sound.
When the commander arrived, he wore just a pair of combat trousers and his field boots were undone, bare headed and eyes heavy with sleep.
"What is it now?" His voice in whispers, rasping and impatient.
Ahmed pointed down to the area below. The pale figure was stooping to check the 50mm shell-casings lying among the dust.
"Is he armed?"
"No. just as before, he carries a sack."
El Akbar frowned, life now was a desperate attempt to escape the trap built around his fighters, the chance of escape dwindling fast.What was the will of the Caliphate? To surrender or to carry on the fight?
He let out an exasperated sigh. "Kill him!"
The figure of the young man leapt as the hi-velocity bullet drove through his body. He spun round and for moment his eyes seemed to look upwards as if seeking the sunlight or some message from above. Then he stumbled and fell face down among the cartridges.
Conflict Arms Research (C.A.R.) plays a vital role in identifying the source of illegal arms shipments to various guerrilla organisations throughout the world and to the ISIS Forces fighting in Iraq and Syria.
With its research, The UN is able to bring pressure on those States fuelling armed conflict with supplies of weapons and ammunition.
It is a volunteer organisation.
They said that a week in solitary would destroy him. He smuggled a pen. At first he wrote slowly, grasping for inspiration, call it writer's block. He could never have imagined that he might cover his whole body with his words. He wrote about what he had learnt from his life. He thought about the specific phrases people had used to make him do what he shouldn't have done. He never used a question mark, nor an exclamation mark; each line was his own wisdom. It might have been harder with his left hand, but he was intelligent and dexterous and it came naturally. The text became smaller and smaller as his pace rose. He slept on his back to avoid smudging his art. On his big toe he wrote, 'this is who I am'. When he was released, he sought a tattoo artist who cut his words into his flesh for ever.
4pm Christmas Eve 2017. Judith sighed as she switched off the till in her little cosmetic concession, an island in the middle of the department store’s ocean. It had been quiet most of the day, it seemed even last-minute present buyers avoided Sunday shopping. The Store manager told them they wouldn’t stay open late just after 3pm. Judith should have let Dave know then but her favourite customer came in and kept her busy doing a full make-over. She bought all the products Judith used and thrust two twenty pound notes into Judith’s hand. ‘For you lovie. I look better than I have in twenty years and I so enjoy your little performances every morning.’
It was a condition of her job that Judith wore the brand’s make-up but Dave hated her plastering herself in colour, looking like a tart. He kept such a tight rein on her time Judith couldn’t do it once she got to work. The only way Judith could please both was to make putting her make-up on part of the sales day. She usually had quite an audience at 9am to watch her transformation as well as a chance to demonstrate the cleansing products at the end of each day. Thankfully Dave loathed the store and never set foot in it.
She’d been late for the first time that morning because she’d had to put foundation on before going under those glaring lights. Judith checked her face in the mirror. She couldn’t decide whether to take her make-off now or face Dave’s anger. Clinique Sally whistled at her. ‘Lucky Dave. Is he outside waiting like a prison officer?’
Judith suppressed a smile and shook her head. ‘I haven’t had time to ring him.’
‘Great!. Shall we go and have a sneaky snifter? If we go through the toy department we can get into the pub the back way. There’s no way you’ll be seen. Then we can pop you out the front, good as bleeding gold, just in time.’’
They always used to have a drink Christmas Eve but Dave didn’t like Sally. He’d helped Judith see Sal was a big drinker, mouthy, off-putiing to men. She’d been a good friend to Judith before but she could be loud, crude even. Then there was the cost of the drink. Dave didn’t know about Judith’s Christmas bonus but she’d need to put something in the bank to cover the hours she hadn’t worked that day. Could she afford a round? What about the smell of the alcohol?
Sal wrinkled her nose at Judith. ‘Suit yourself. I know when I’m not wanted.’ She strode off towards the elevator, her hips swinging from side to side, one stocking drooping below the hem of her too-short skirt. Dave would say she looked a state but Judith thought there was something jaunty and defiant about Sal, something that reminded Judith of her old self.
She made her mind up and shot after her friend. The elevator had already left so she checked herself in the mirror while she waited. She told herself not to forget to take the foundation off. There’d be hell to pay if she did. Right now she looked alright, even in her uniform with her hair scraped back the way Dave liked it. Come to think of it she looked a bit like a prison officer herself.
In the basement the toy staff were already marking stock down for Boxing Day. She picked her way through the piled-up aisle. A hand in a white glove shot out and blocked her way. Then it beckoned at her before a voice boomed out. ‘Room for one last one in Santa’s Grotto.’
She jumped then smiled because she thought she recognised the voice. It must be Billy, her only other friend in the store. He’d got a proper job a year or so ago but might be back to earn a bit more at Christmas. Had Sal set all this up? Judith followed the twinkling path to Santa’s Grotto wondering where the hand had gone.
‘Come in, come in.’ It didn’t sound like Billy now but she knew the voice although Santa was trying to disguise it. She crouched down and went through the low doorway. An enormous Santa sat in the middle of an Aladdin’s cave. Everywhere she looked there were twinkling jewels and lights and the whole thing smelt like caramelized oranges with a cinnamon dusting. Judith was surprised at how lavish it was. Dave kept telling her the store was doing badly. He didn’t like her working but they needed the money. Santa patted the orange silk ottoman next to him. ‘Come and tell me what you’d like for Christmas, young lady.’
If only real life was that easy. She'd tried to be good, she really had, but the harder she tried the more she got it wrong. Judith sat, her throat closing as she choked up a rush of spiky words. ‘I’d like Mum to still be alive, my dad to care, my brother not to be in the army and him and Dave to get on. I’d like to have gone to university or something, anything, to have got out of this town. I’d like to have never met Dave or not to have married him or…’
Santa’s smile stopped her. It was so understanding but so sad. His voice broke up as he said: ‘Jude, I’m sorry but I can’t change the past. I can’t go back and put things right. All I can do is give you something in the here and now.’ His gloved fingers traced her face from her chin up to each eye.
She must be crying but crying was pointless and made her look ugly. The look on Santa’s face suggested he’d seen her black eye. ‘There’s nothing you can give me can fix me now. The past has to be different, don’t you understand? I have to be a different, better person.’
Santa shook his head. ‘You're great as you are. What I’m going to give you is something a bit different. I’m giving you the week off.’
Jennifer frowned. ‘I’ve already got the week off, or rather I’ve got until Saturday.’ Her frown deepened at the thought of five days stuck in the house with Dave. 120 hours of getting things wrong or being intolerably stupid. Over seven thousand minutes of winding him up so much he had to correct her however much it hurt him. She couldn't bring herself to think how many seconds when any one of them might bring an explosion of rage.
Santa put his arm round her as Jennifer shrunk into herself. ‘Stop it,’ he gave her a very gentle shake, ‘stop expecting life to go wrong. What I’m giving you is the week off from hating yourself. Every time you hear that internal voice saying you’re not deserving or you’re not quite good enough, you tell it Santa knows you are.’
Jennifer snorted. ‘Fat lot of good that will do me when that internal voice has an echo in Dave.’
Santa wiped her tears with his fat fingers revealing the extent of her bruised cheek. Jennifer stared at the foundation stains on his white gloves in fascination before he peeled them off and spoke. ‘That’s my second gift. A week off loving Dave. The elves and I don’t think Dave has done anything to deserve your love.’
‘I don’t need a week off. I don’t love Dave. But, as he keeps telling me, I’ve nowhere else to go, no one else would put up with me. Even if I tried to go it alone, he’d find me, make me sorry I’d put him to all that effort.’ She couldn’t take her eyes off Santa’s fingers. She knew that hand but it couldn’t be.
‘Happy Christmas Jude,’ her father slipped his hood and beard off, ‘that was all I needed to hear. You’re coming home with me.’
Strange, not to work, and to see others not working. The surfaces are without a speck, and everyone looks so utterly dazed. If this is relaxation, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
Tried sleeping past the waking hour. Just vexed myself, so got up. Had a bath. Didn’t like my skin so puckered, so got out. Relieved myself, exited my chamber and tried fraternising with the other resters. Nothing in common. Returned to chamber.
We work, we work, we work, and now we’re expected to rest. Feel I had more time. Mustn't complain, mustn't question.
Ate the meat of the fat animal. Must admit, it beat the mush of the daily feed. Played hell with the digestion though.
Met woman. Name of Eledith. Eyes filmed as if blind, yet felt she could see to my very core. We exchanged roles. Hers was as midwife: 3424 little ones delivered over a twenty-six cycle span. Told her of mine in the mines: dig, extract, dispose, repeat. 'Must get grubby, toiling under the mud,' she said. I agreed. 'Must get messy, with the mucous and the blood?' I asked. She agreed. I asked her how she felt about the reckoning. She became cagey, so I changed subject. Asked her how it felt to have brought so many lives into this world. 'If I didn't do it, someone else would have,' she said. 'Can't argue with that,' said I.
Slept with Eledith. She cried on and off throughout the night. Wanted to ask her to return to her own chamber, but felt was untoward. On waking this morning she was gone, just a crumple in the sheets on the other side of the bed to say she was ever there. On the plus side I awoke with the first say of sun peeking into the window. Seems I'm adjusting to this enforced relaxation.
Must admit, the leisure time means more time to think. Take solace in the thought that once I'm processed I won't have to worry about my place in this whole damned mess.
I took a swim earlier. Felt anxious to be exposed to so many people at once, but it looked a lot were feeling the same. Forced myself to ignore and enjoy. Must say the sensation was wonderful.
Looked for Eledith. She wasn't in the common common areas or the luncheon room.
Stayed in bed all day. Barely raised myself to write this. So little time.
I surmise Eledith has been processed. I looked for her anyway, but to no result.
I ate, I ate, I ate: the meat of the non-flying bird, and the meat of the large grass-eater and the meat of the fat animal again. Felt swollen and slept while the sun was up.
Thought of time passed, and decided I'd do once again. Was hard and weary but at least there was a pulse in my veins.
Little to write.
Perhaps there is something after this.
Paula shivered as the rumble of the God`s machines entering the Terchen`s world from the beyond shook the very air around her.
“Escape. Break your umbilical’s,” she urged her infant brood, most of whom clung to her limbs in terror. She shook her arms trying to dislodge them, but only five broke free, screaming as they plummeted to the ground.
They had refused to believe the God`s were evil, just as she had disbelieved her own mother when she was still a suckling.
“But the God`s are good and kind,” she and her siblings had protested whenever their mother tried to warn them of what lay ahead. “They tend to the herd, they make it rain when we are thirsty and the skies are clear. They even heal us when we are sick, and keep us safe from the carrion that would drag us off, yet you claim they are wicked, how can you say such things?”
Her mother had told them then the old stories, as she herself had told her own brood when her time to bear children had come.
“There was a time before the God`s came to our world,” she told them, “a time when there were few Terchen and the world was a dangerous place full of animals that would carry the infants away and eat them. But then the God`s arrived and killed the carrion of the sky and the ground who ate our young, and we rejoiced at our saviours. But we soon realised we had only traded one predator for another. For the God`s desired our children as much as our tormentors of old, only more so, and while our old tormentors took only what they needed, the God`s took all our children. For their flesh and blood was nectar to them.”
“But still the God`s were not satisfied, we did not produce broods large enough to fulfil their desires and so they experimented on us, melding us with non-Terchens, blending us until we were no longer purebloods but mongrels, mongrels that had litters five times larger than before, litters greater than we had ever borne in all our history. They bred us then, building up our herds, wiping out all the other species that did not provide food they desired, until we were all that was left.”
This had silenced the children, it had not gone unnoticed that the other Terchen`s in the herd had gone quiet, nodding as their mother spoke her truth.
“Look down,” she`d instructed them. And they did as they were told. “You see how I am tethered, staked to one spot, who do you think did this? It was the God`s, the God`s you think so highly of.” She said all this without rancour, but in a tone that said, `I don’t blame you, I understand, but someday you will see, and when you do it may be too late,` and as it transpired that day was not too far in the future.
It had been another glorious day, the children had turned their faces to the sun, enjoying the warmth of it on their skin when a lone God, wandering through the herd, had without warning, wrenched one of Paula`s brothers from their mothers arm, turning Kevin over in its hand, inspecting him. She watched the God take a blade and gut her brother, running the edge along his belly, exposing his innards, until he`d split him in half. Then to her horror the God bit into her screaming sibling, his enormous teeth grinding Kevin`s flesh to pulp, his blood dripping from the God`s lips as he chewed. And then the greatest indignity of all, he`d tossed the remains of the body away as if her brother had been nothing but thrash, and she`d vowed then that she would never be food for the God`s. better to be taken by the animals, she thought, at least they would eat all of you.
She would never forget the day the God`s arrived for the culling, the deafening roar of their machines, the way the air shimmered, her mother`s screams that they should leap if they could, to save themselves. She had been one of the lucky few mature enough to break their umbilical’s, her heart in her throat as she`d plummeted to the ground, so dizzyingly far away, sure she`d never survive the fall. But survive she did, and heeded her mother`s advice, “Make for the long grass,” she`d told them, “Burrow deep, make your nests there, the God`s will never find you if you do, but stay underground, beware the lure of the sun.”
She had nested where she came to rest, digging down into the dirt, comforted by its warm embrace. And there she stayed, safe from the prying eyes of the God`s, for how long she did not know, blithely unaware of the changes taking hold of her body. She had entered the ground an infant and greeted the new season as an adult.
She forgot her mother`s warning, the lure of the sun proving too much, her new body yearning for the touch of its warmth, and that had proved to be her undoing. For as she`d reached for the sky, the God`s, ever watchful, had discovered her lair, and dug her out, transporting her to another part of the world, tethering her to a newly planted stake, imprisoning her to that spot for the rest of her life.
And there she had lived until she was of child bearing age and the God`s had brought their inseminators, wicked little creatures that crawled all over her body, seeking out her secret places, teasing them until they willingly spread their lips, granting them entry.
At first she`d resisted, but the feel of those things inside her dulled her will until she didn’t just invite them in, but craved them, driven almost to insanity by their touch, yearning for their caress, demanding they impregnate her fertile places, and they, they were more than willing to oblige.
Now as the God`s infernal culling machines worked through the herd she did as all Terchen mothers before her had done, as her mother had done, and urged her children to save themselves. Of the five who`d leapt four made it into the long grass and safety. But the fifth, possibly confused with terror had wandered out into the open, into the path of the culling machine.
She shouted to the God that was operating it to look out, but he paid her no heed. And the child, who had forgotten almost everything her mother had told her, in a panic, attempted to burrow, but there was no time. One of the machines wheels, a thousand times larger than the infant, rolled over her and Paula screamed when she saw that it had been crushed to a smear of blood and guts when the wheel cleared it.
She attempted to shrink away from the machines claw as it reached for her but the tether held her fast and the claw slid around her waist, clamping her so tightly she couldn’t breathe, so tightly that it broke her skin, she felt the blood oozing from the tears and screamed in pain, but the careless God and his unheeding machine ignored her.
It began to shake her violently, her world blurring, the sound of her shrieks drowned out by the screams of her children as the vibrations tore their umbilical’s free from her protective clutching limbs, and they fell by the hundreds into the things outstretched baskets.
When it finally released her from its grasp she saw the baskets curl away, her crying children begging her to save them, but there was nothing she could do, they were beyond her reach. And she was forced to watch as they were upended into the belly of the machine, leaving her crying and railing in equal measure at the evil God.
But he ignored her, moving on to the next apple tree in the row, he had a hundred more to harvest that day and it was already after eleven o`clock.
Grow eat Food
On that day I was strolling my baby granddaughter past rows of cherry tomato in our communal garden. Here Council notices for all types of recycling flourished. Andrea the coordinator was a thirty plus woman with four kids and a workaholic husband. She was passionate about growing food and community.
Her husband on the other hand referred to her as the ‘magnet for diversity’. This was his euphemism for different or as some would say ‘weird’. For example, there was Kevin. He was an ex driver and her assistant garden coordinator. Kevin had been unemployed for ten years after serving time for reversing into a child with his double axel truck. And then of course there were the Korean family who created large shade structures that blocked the sunlight for other gardeners. Earlier in the year the local police had arrested a person of afghan heritage sleeping in the tin shed. He claimed to have been translating for the Americans in Afghanistan.
As the sun started to dim over bulbous artichokes and white heads of cauliflower the sight of Kevin shuffling out of the tin shed caught my eye. He was pressing a large bloodied handkerchief against his forehead. Seeing me he waved his hand to say, ‘keep going’. But I stopped and shouted, ‘should I call an ambulance?’ ‘it’s ok’ he breathed moving closer ‘Just knocked my head on the edge of the fucking Ikea cupboard. I’ll be right.’
I had just unclicked the stroller breaks to walk on when a young Chinese woman stormed out of the shed. She was chased by Andrea shouting
‘Jie! its ok …really it’s nothing…Kevin was just …well surprised’
‘Disgusted more likely’ Kevin muttered
Jie ran over to Kevin.
‘no no you stay away from me’ Kevin sounded scared.
Jie shoved him...’ leave soil alone’
‘see this’ he said pointing to his head ‘I will go the police and say you injured me...’
Jie cried. Andrea tried to mediate ‘ok she was wrong to push you inside, but she thinks you’re going to stop her growing food for her twins.’
Kevin looked Andrea in the eye,’ I draw the line at human faeces for fertiliser. It is bloody night soil. Like we live in blithering Elizabethan England. I’m also pretty sure the council officers would agree with me... Would you eat a mung bean from her plot?’
‘As a matter of fact I would!’ Andrea retorted ‘She doesn’t have the money for fertiliser and in any case where she comes from human faeces is recycled all the time in gardens. It made perfect sense to her to use the contents of her toilet on her plot. I would have thought this fits with the council’s policy on recycling’.
At that moment and much to my relief Jie’s husband and brother arrived with a large wheelbarrow. The three of them bagged several huge hessian sacks with Jie’s soil.
‘this soil too good for this garden’ said jie and with that they left.
To which Kevin replied, ‘and this place is too weird for me. I resign’.
Later after sharing a cup of tea with me Andrea philosophised
‘You know as a gardener, I try to be resilient, when things don't go well like today I think—there will be another season, another year, another crop to eat, another opportunity to try to grow something or welcome someone different….’.
Pictures from around the world,
crying babies, famine, plagues,
FGM in thirty countries
I wonder how the mothers could
let it be done to their daughters.
I send an image
of dancing kittens
to neglected friends.
Female choices as sharp
as a severance –
dreams from reality,
a peel of love from need.
They must want their girls to grow
but know they can't get large enough
to unbalance their worlds.
Pry the chocolates
the kids forgot
from the advent calendar.
How does it feel to keep hearing
your child’s hungry cries?
Food, shelter, water, a way out,
what if none of those
was ever in your gift?
What happens to their anger?
I pile another plate
of unnecessary protein on our table,
I nod at the abundance knowing
when I say ‘eat’ this year
I haven't restricted it to
those in the room.
The tomatoes were the reddest I'd ever seen. I took the box from the woman who grew them for us and thanked her. As usual, she hastened away, as if afraid to stand there. The label on the box read 'Thea Allbright, Organic Produce'. It had been me who found her when I took over as manager of Greenacres Home for the Elderly. I wanted to do something different. Instead of keeping them alive, I wanted my residents to Live. Good food was the start of this and already I'd seen improvements. Although Thea Allbright could only deliver small quantities, it was a start and I intended to work with her to help her produce more.
Supply and demand and cost and funding - Economics wasn't my strong point but I could learn. I'd already persuaded the very tight owners of the home to increase my food budget, explaining that it would decrease their medications budget, if people were eating good, healthy food. Thea's food was the best I'd ever eaten and already I'd seen a difference, after buying from her for only three months. My residents looked brighter, were more talkative and active, and seemed to have gained a glow. All of it unquantifiable, but I knew it was there.
The tomatoes were for a summer salad I was making myself. I tried to work in a different part of the home every week. This week I was on kitchen duty. I think the staff found me a bit barmy, but I didn't care. My job was to improve lives, and to do that I needed to know how every inch of the home worked.
Whilst I was chopping the tomatoes I couldn't resist eating a few. The scent took me back into my childhood and my dad's greenhouse. The colour was deep summer sunsets, late in the evening, staying up far longer than I should have because the adults murmured, made soporific by wine; I'd be forgotten. By the time they remembered I'd be dozing in the hammock under a crocheted blanket, secure and happy. My childhood never stayed like that, of course, but then childhood never does. As I bit into the flesh of the tomato I could hear my father's voice, calling to me...
'Emma?' said Mark, our chef.
I came to. 'Sorry. I was miles away. The taste of these...'
'Matches the expense,' grumbled Mark. 'The supermarket ones were perfectly fine.'
I sighed. 'Just taste one, and you'll know what I mean,' I said.
Mark took a small tomato and popped it, whole, into his mouth. He closed his eyes as he chewed. His frown disappeared and his face became smoother, suddenly attractive. Mark spent so much time looking cross that I'd never seen him like this. He looked, suddenly, younger. He opened his eyes, and smiled.
'You're right,' he said. 'I could taste my working holiday in Spain. best time of my life.'
He went back to peeling carrots and started whistling. I'd never heard him whistle before.
I usually ate with the residents, moving tables each day. This way I got to know everyone more. I urged the other carers to do the same but so far, only one of the nurses had joined me. Today, I noticed, Caroline was already sitting with Mrs Littlewood, looking awkward but sitting there nonetheless. I smiled to myself. Things were changing, slowly but surely. Caroline was one of my less cheery carers. A woman who seemed to begrudge everybody everything.
The salad was perfect. Mark had made a real effort with presentation, for a change. I saw him hovering by the kitchen door, watching. I nodded at him and mouthed, 'thank you'. He nodded back.
Today I was sitting with two sisters, Emily and Edith, and a newcomer to Greenacres, Mr Smythe, who so far hadn't settled in very well and was unseasonably grumpy, cloudy in summer. I longed to get him to smile but so far, had failed, instead getting a catalogue of things that were wrong with his room, with this place, every single day.
Mr Smythe wasn't going to have any salad until I held the bowl out to him, and out of some upper class politeness, he took it. As with mark, when he ate the tomatoes, he closed his eyes and his face changed. I held my breath and watched as his face seemed to grow smoother, just like mark's. His frown disappeared and he smiled.
'Delicious,' he said. 'Just like my grandmother's home grown, back in the thirties... she used to supply the school, you know. I got to taste her tomatoes every day during the summer term.. oh, what memories...'
The two sisters were chatting, their faces lit.
'Do you remember we used to steal from Tom Sergeant's greenhouse?' giggled Edith.
'Oh I do... I recall him chasing us out of the garden that time, just after the war when he was short of seeds. Oh! Do you remember his face?' Emily covered her mouth.
'Like a thundercloud!' Edith squeaked and they both dissolved into peals of laughter.
All around me, I could hear memories being relived. There was laughter, exclamation and joy in the room. Like children, I thought. As if they had fallen backwards into their lives. Even Caroline, her face usually grim, was laughing.
'This was such a good idea,' she called over to me. 'I am enjoying myself!'
I noticed that Mark was still there, by the door. He saw me and smiled, shaking his head slightly, as if in disbelief. I got up and stood next to him.
'The tomatoes,' he said. 'Like magic. Look at them all!'
We watched the room. Soon the salads were gone, and slowly, the laughter faded and everyone quietened down. 'That was amazing,' I said. I went through to the kitchen, picked up the phone and called the number I had for Thea Allbright. She answered as if she'd been sitting right next to the phone.
I explained what had happened and asked if I could order double the amount of tomatoes for the next delivery, in three days.
'I can do that. But... this effect you talked of. It probably won't happen again,' she said. 'I find sometimes thing like this can happen, with a special crop. But it tends not to happen twice. It's as if you get immune...' Her voice had gone dreamy.
'What do you mean, immune? What effect? Do you know what I'm talking about?' Until then, I'd not even been sure that what I'd witnessed wasn't just an effect of the summer sun, the changing season. Not food... But she knew what I was talking about.
'Immune? What?' she said, her voice sharper. 'Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean.'
'About what you just said. the effect of the food?' I reminded her.
'All I said was I might not have enough for a second crop so soon. Remember I only grow in small amounts,' she said.
'Right. Well, I'd like to talk to you about that,' I said. 'I'd like to maybe buy more.'
'That won't be possible,' she said. 'I'll deliver cucumbers tomorrow as your chef ordered, and peas, and also some early potatoes.'
We said our goodbyes and I put the phone down, confused. I watched Mark, chopping with a fury for the evening meal, and decided I'd imagined the whole thing. He was frowning; life was normal once more. I looked into the dining room and everyone was quiet. Caroline was clearing plates ready for the second course, chicken breasts and cream sauce. I helped the rest of the staff clear and serve the food. Nothing unusual happened and as I watched the quiet room, I could hardly remember how everyone had laughed, a few short minutes ago. I shook my head, to clear it.
The following day it was hot again and salad was the menu I chose. Pasta salad with raw peas and cucumber, mixed in with a gentle sauce of creamy herbs.
Thea had dropped off the order, again almost running away after she'd delivered it.
I took a cucumber, and regarded it. I cut the end off, and bit into it. I wasn't a fan of cucumber, but this was different. It was crisp and tasted... bright. I couldn't describe it any other way. I closed my eyes...
... and saw my dad, before he got sick, sitting in his green house door, trousers rolled up, cucumbers on green stems twirling around the shelf, dangling off it. My dad smiled at me down the years and I remembered how he smelt when he came in from the garden: earthy, fresh and sun kissed...
'Are you all right?' Mark's voice held concern, not something I'd heard before.
I realised tears were running down my face. I nodded. Suddenly, I dreaded lunch.
I handed out tissues one by one. The two sisters hugged each other. My Smythe sat and wouldn't talk to anyone. I walked from table to table, comforting.
The phone rang. I took the kitchen extension. I recognised the voice, that was peaking very fast.
'The cucumbers, not the right ones. I got the orders muddled. Please don't eat them; they were meant for a wake. They were... never mind. Just please, can I have them back?'
I held the phone out towards the dining room. 'Too late,' I said into the mouthpiece.
It took me ages to find the farm. And when i got there, it was less a farm than a smallholding - a very small, smallholding. I knocked on the door but nobody answered. I walked around the building. Out back there were raised beds, greenhouses, plots with green growing in neat lines. Wheelbarrows stood between plots, loaded with various produce. One held potatoes, one held courgettes. I walked over to the one filled with potatoes. There was a piece of cardboard on top, saying: 'First Earlies. Your Grandmother's Hugs. Happy, Childhood.' I put the sign back and went to the next wheelbarrow, full of courgettes. The piece of paper in here said: 'School- Memory Enhancers. To be hidden in soup (give kid-friendly recipe).'
I walked to the first greenhouse. The piece of paper on the door said 'Cuc's. Generally, fathers. Generally, sorrow. Good for grieving.'
The tomatoes were next. I'd already guessed what the sign would say: 'Happiness, childhood, great for the elderly - Greenacres?'
'Hey!' a voice startled me. Thea was running towards me, yet it wasn't Thea. The Thea I'd met had been young, attractive. This woman was older, wrinkles ingrained with dirt surrounded big, sad eyes. 'You can't come in here,' she said. And she grabbed my arm.
'Who are you?' I said, resisting.
She was bending down and pulling me along. As we passed a wheelbarrow she plucked something from it. It was small purple - a plum. I had time to read the piece of card on top: 'Plums - to forget. Good for dealing with anger, transgression.'
'What you have to understand,' she said,' is that for years my family have been persecuted. I've been happy, settled here for years. I do not intend to have that spoiled. I won't be punished, or investigated. I help people. That's my calling. It runs in the family and I will not be stopped.' She held out the plum to me. The voice changed. 'Eat this, and be a dear,' she said. 'It's the easiest way. Alternatives are... messy.'
I took the plum, glanced at her and saw death in her eyes. Death and life and knowledge and timelessness. I nodded. I bit into the purple flesh and closed my eyes, as I saw flashes of my life blink through my mind. Gone.
I walked up to the door, Chef Mark's order in my hands. 'Can you deliver this tomorrow?' I asked.
The woman who took it was attractive. 'Potatoes? For Greenacres? I've got the perfect ones,' she smiled, perfect teeth flashing.
We’re growing watercress on Sunday afternoon,
dad breaking eggs for eggshells,
yolk and white saved for later, an omelette
the only recipe he knows.
I take the shells and fill them
with clouds stolen from the bathroom,
still holding the lavender scent of mum’s soaps and skin.
With each soft word, pause, and touch,
we grow together, gently,
as if on cotton wool.
He crouches to let me sprinkle seeds
then stands to put our project on the shelf, sunny
and just out of reach.
AN A to Z OF EATING IN 26 DAYS
A starts with a flourish of artichoke with avocado, followed by anchovy-flavoured aubergine, then apples, apricots, almonds.
For B, an abundance of beans – baked, broad, runner, butter or green – in stew of bacon and beef made to nourish, and a side dish of broccoli. washed down with beer. Biscuits for afters (blueberries optional). Mashed banana in bread before bed.
On C day, a terrine of cod and crab served on crispbread. Main: cabbage, chicken, courgette, cumin – cooked – sprinkled with coriander and cheese on a bed of couscous, garnished with capers and chutney. Chocolate cake, custard and cream for pud. Coffee and chips coming home from the pub. Still hungry? Crunch on celery and cucumber.
D is for doldrums: doughnuts and dates. And dill. That’s all.
E is for eggs, the start of all life.
F is for figs, fruit tea and fish, gutted and filleted by your sharpest knife.
For G make a stir-fry of groundnuts and greens with garlic and ginger. Then grapes soaked in gin.
H is for harvest. Oh glory! a day of honey and haggis, hummus and ham.
I is for ice cream; luscious, licking and lovely.
On J eat jelly and jam, home made, dripping, slipping,
and K gives you kidney with kale.
L is for licking fingers and lips after lobster linguine, lambs liver with lentils, lettuce and old-style lemonade.
It’s M. Let’s have milk, macaroni and mustard. Mussels or mince? Hell, let’s have both! Add mushrooms and mayo, cooked in a dollop of marge, and stir in some marmite for good measure.
Nuts! It’s N-day. Handfuls and gob-fuls. Pass me a nectarine.
Oh for offal! Onions and okra sizzled in oil, add olives and offal, a topping of oats and oregano, oven bake (not boil). Optional oysters for starters.
P – prepare your palate. A ragout of pork with peppers, potatoes, paprika and prunes, served with pasta and pickles. Fussy children can have pizza and pancakes with pears. Posh people can start with prawns.
Q. Sorry. Just quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). You could spend the long day wondering what to do with a quince.
R brings food! Rice! Radishes! Rocket!
It’s S and there’s seriously insufficient nutrition. Give me sugar in my smoothies, sausages and smoked salmon for breakfast, sea bass and sardines with swede and spinach splodge for tea. A satsuma.
On T I’ll drink tea, eat tuna with tomatoes and turnip.
Eventually U – Oh god, it’s the uncooked day. Slip in a few Udon noodles.
V – ah, vodka. Venison and vegetables (various).
For W drink water, wine, whisky – adults only – and watercress soup till night brings respite,
and X – a non-day, hung over, paracetamol breaking the pattern until you recall, towards nightfall, that tomorrow is
Y – slurping yogurt slipping down the gullet. Then roast yam.
Z is for zilch, nothing, the end. Unless you pretend to be Italian, in which case stuff in zucchini, and zabaglione (what’s that?).
Have you had your literary fill?
The little boy squeals with delight at the sight
of the tiny green shoot from his seed.
A month later he picks off the caterpillar then
squeezes it oozing yellow/green blood.
The young man who built the polytunnels
bathes in his own salty humidity, searches
frantically for airy fingers in the breeze
to cleanse the smooth green leaves.
A wind beaten face eases the accelerator
of the smart yellow imported tractor,
flicks a switch, launches choreographed
plumes of unpronounceable liquid.
In a country where the rains rarely fall
the farmer scratches at the earth, teases
tiny shoots from genetically modified stock,
bought annually from abroad.
As Bobby looked around the coach his first thought wasn’t, where the hell am I? Or, how the hell did I get here? No his first thought was, why is everyone naked? If he hadn’t been so distracted by the redhead sitting next to him he might have noticed sooner that he too wasn’t wearing any clothes, but then who could really blame him?
She was, he guessed, in her mid-twenties, and had what was once commonly been referred to as a voluptuous figure. that is to say she had wide hips, a narrow waist and large breasts; Bobby thought they were at least double D`s, if not E`s. she was pretty, in a Hollywoodish sort of way, and in a certain light she might even pass for beautiful. But up close and in the unflattering light of day, her face had an ugly hardness about it, particularly around the mouth and eyes that suggested perpetual anger, perhaps even cruelty; he turned away, looking out the window to his left at the passing scenery.
There wasn’t much of it to see, just an interminably passing field, varying from corn, to grass, to sunflowers, then back to corn again; all this under a perfect summers sky with only the hint of a single fluffy cloud that hung perpetually in the near distance.
I`m dreaming, he thought, yeah that’s it. I`m still on the plane somewhere over the Atlantic having one of those whatchamacallum`s? those dreams where the dreamer knows he`s dreaming? A lucid dream, yeah that’s, it I`m having a lucid dream.
He turned to the redhead and smiling asked, “So what’s a nice girl like you doing in a dream like this?”
She frowned at him, “Wha`d`ya mean, this is my dream; isn’t it?”
“Actually,” a voice said from across the aisle, “I think we`re all dead.”
Bobby leaned forward to see who was talking. He was a heavy set man with short hair and a paunch that suggested a sedentary life; he was smiling despite his proclamation.
“wha`d`ya mean dead?” Bobby asked, surprised to find he`d somehow lost his infamously quick temper in his sleep. Usually about this point he`d be on his feet, fists balled, he`d always hated being contradicted.
“I`m just saying,” the man said, “at first I thought I was dreaming, but you and the young lady appear to believe the same thing, and we can’t all be sharing the same dream, now can we? So I figure we must be dead.” The woman in the seat next to him said nothing; she just sat there with her back to them, her forehead pressed against the glass, watching the world go by. Bobby guessed she was old, maybe eighty, maybe more, judging from how her skin sagged, and she had those flaps under her arms that only really old women had.
“I`m telepathic,” the redhead announced, “I went to Madame Zara, over in Queens, she`s a really famous psychic, she told me I was telepathic, maybe I`m the link, the….. what’s the word, like a bridge between all of us.”
They studied her, “You ever read anyone’s minds before?” the man in the next aisle asked, she shook her head; he nodded his in a satisfied, thought so, fashion.
“But if we`re dead where`s everybody else?” Bobby asked.
“Everybody else?” the man said.
“Yeah, all the other people who`ve died, there must be thousands of people dying every hour, where are they? This coach isn’t big enough to hold them all, is it?” as he said this the note of the buses engine changed, dropping in pitch, and when he looked out through his window Bobby could see that they were slowing.
“My name`s Eddie by the way,” the man across the aisle said.
“Bobby,” Bobby replied.
“Well,” Eddie said, “Looks like we`ll find out soon which of us is right, personally I hope it`s you; I wouldn’t mind waking up in my cab somewhere on sixty third street just about now, a little fenderbender would be a relief instead of this.”
The coach downshifted noisily, the airbrakes hissing and “Schoooching” as they slowed, and though he pressed his face against the glass Bobby couldn’t see anything up ahead that suggested a terminus.
“See anything?” Eddie called from across the aisle; without looking around Bobby shook his head.
The bus juddered as the driver downshifted again, and Bobby was thinking they couldn’t be doing more than twenty when the tarmac began to stretch out to his left in a widening arc, they were finally getting there, wherever there was.
The coach came to a complete stop in the centre of a large tarmacked circle. To his left Bobby could see another pair of coach’s maybe fifty feet away, back to back, a coach length apart. In front of them were maybe two dozen people in uniform white slacks and short sleeved tops. The most striking thing about them was their supermodel looks and the fact that not one of them looked a day over thirty. The odd one out was a bearded man holding a clipboard; whilst the others chatted amongst themselves he stood apart, the only one paying any attention to the newly arrived coach and its passengers.
“what`s going on, can you tell?” The voice so near his ear made Bobby start.
Eddie was leaning close to him, looking over his shoulder, so close Bobby could feel his breath on his neck, “Guess we`ve arrived, “ he said, “and it looks like you were right.” He pointed to the identical coaches, the Letters E. T. A. emblazoned on the side of each and under that were the words
Eternity Transportation Authority
“Damn,” Eddie said, “Sometimes I hate it when I`m right.”
“Okay Ladies and Gentlemen if I may have your attention..”
They looked towards the front of the coach, the driver was standing in the aisle, Bobby saw he was wearing the same uniform as the people on the tarmac.
“This is the end of the line for this route,” the driver continued, “You`ll change coaches here, Mr Shepherd will allot you a space on the appropriate one.” He leaned across the console and pressed a button, there was a “hiss” and “Clalunk” sound as the door swung open. He turned to leave, paused turned back to his passengers and tipped the brim of his cap with the first two fingers of his right hand, “I wish Y`all good luck,” he said, and then he was gone.
Bobby, with Eddie still leaning across the redhead, watched him march over to the man with the clipboard, have a brief conversation with him, before strolling away to the right; they watched him until he disappeared around the front of the bus.
“So which one is up and which one is down?” Eddie asked in a conversational tone.
“The coaches,” Eddie said, “Which you figure is going to heaven and which is hell bound?”
Before Bobby could say anything the redhead said, “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” in a fierce whisper.
“Well excuse me. I was only…..”
“Go back to your own seat,” she snapped, “No-one cares what you think.” She stared into Eddie`s eyes and whatever he saw there made him look away, mumble something Bobby couldn’t hear, though there was no mistaking his tone, there was real fear in his voice, and he returned to his seat without looking back.
Bobby sat there doing what he supposed the other passengers must be doing about now; interrogating his life, weighing up all the things he`d done, putting himself on trial… and maybe finding himself a little lacking.
Sure he`d lied, and cheated on his taxes, and there was that time the checkout girl had given him a hundred in change instead of a ten; but wasn’t that all penny-ante stuff, or did it all add up, make one big sin?
Hey it wasn’t like he`d ever raped or murdered anyone, and weren’t they the biggies? Okay there was the abortion, but that was legal, and anyway it`d been Angela`s idea, hadn’t it. Besides they were only kids themselves. You couldn’t expect them to put their lives on hold, they were just out of college, they had their careers to think about. And it wasn’t as if he`d abandoned Angela, a lot of guys would`ve, no he`d been a stand-up guy, paid for the procedure and everything. But suddenly he wasn’t sure whether that would count for him or against him.
He looked across at Eddie who appeared lost in thought and realised that nobody`d made a move to leave, he almost laughed out loud as the thought struck him that this was the first time he`d been on any kind of transport where there hadn’t been a mad rush for the exit as soon as the bus had stopped.
“Excuse me,” every head in the coach turned and looked to the front of the aisle, the bearded man was standing there a patient smile on his face. “Thank you,” he said, “glad I`ve got everybody’s attention. Alright folks you`re going to leave sometime, we`re only called eternity transport.”
His smile never faltered and he looked to his right, leaned down and said, “And what`s your name?”
Bobby didn’t hear what the woman said, but Shepherd said, “Take my hand Ethel,” and to Bobby`s surprise she did, and then followed him down the steps. The man who`d been sitting next to her followed suit, and as if by some internal signal the people across the aisle followed him, each standing and waiting patiently, taking their turn. And that’s how they went, row by orderly row; stand, step into aisle, shuffle forward, next row please, all in silent terror.
“Please no, no, please God please, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, oh God no, no, no,” the words slipped from between the redhead`s clenched lips in a keening whisper as she rocked back and forth, arms wrapped around her chest as if she`d only now realised her nakedness, and felt suddenly ashamed.
He looked past her at Eddie, caught his eye, and mouthed the words “Oh Shit,” to him, Eddie nodded and mouthed back, “Poor bitch.”
When the row in front of them emptied out, Eddie, without hesitation went first, followed by the woman in the seat next to him.
Bobby was sure the redhead would make a scene, clutch the armrests and refuse to go. but as soon as it was her turn she stood without protest, falling in behind the old woman, though she still had one arm wrapped protectively across her breasts, still softly imploring God to forgive her for whatever terrible thing she`d done. Bobby, to his own surprise, falling in behind her.
They shuffled forward a space, stopped, shuffled forward, stopped; until they reached the top of the steps and Bobby realised he was in luck. Unlike everyone else he was standing behind someone who was convinced she was going to hell; as long as he was allotted a different bus he`d be alright.
When she reached the bottom step, Shepherd asked, “Name?”
“Victoria Tarrant,” she replied, seemingly attaining some semblance of self-control.
Shepherd ran one finger down the list, called a female assistant over and pointed to the coach on the left. The woman took Victoria by the arm, patting it as she led her away, Bobby amazed she went so quietly.
“Name?” Shepherd asked him.
“Robert, Robert Givens.”
The finger ran down the list; C`mon right bus, he prayed, C`mon right bus.
Shepherd beckoned one of the male assistants over and then Bobby`s world slowed to a crawl, first the man`s hand extending in slow motion, then the index finger, until it was pointing at the coach on the left.
He tried to back up, but the man behind him didn’t budge, instead giving him a shove.
He fell to his knees, raised his head and begged, “Please, no please, God help me????”
The end of the line
is coming and I’m glad
because the too blue upholstery
is hurting my eyes plus
my fellow commuters seem to
have turned into zombies,
leaning in to my space,
eating my sanity, my brain.
I had a home behind me
this morning but the quality
of sound when the door closed
means I won’t return.
All change please.
Nothing wrong with him
except that image in my head
of a pound-store plaster
against a raw wound.
I’m sorry if I stained him
with my self-deception
- that wasn't fair or meant.
Up, into the light at last
somewhere I’ve seldom been
into a sheer cliff of noise,
people, moving people
hurtling away like time,
broken into moments
rushing back again.
“Just get on with it and do it for God’s sake,” she said rolling her eyes up to the ceiling and letting out a sigh of exasperation. Pen stared back, her shoulders slumped, body paralysed and eyes glazed over, although she knew this would further frustrate her. “Well?” her voice getting louder, her hands balling into fists, clenched by her sides. She wants Pen to call her Mrs Hamilton. She calls her Girl, even though she was 26 and has an easily pronounceable name.
Pen turns slowly, holding the pile of freshly laundered towels. She can smell the fabric softener. For a minute she gets lost in the floral scent, closing her eyes and recalling the Sampaguita of her home. She often has moments like this, when smells and textures seem to do something to the synapses in her brain. All of a sudden she is transported somewhere; the momentary visions are short but vivid. A force at her back propelling her forwards wakes her from her reverie. She lands on the carpet, forehead on the scratchy floor. The towels still clutched to her chest. She didn’t have time to stop herself with her hands this time. Pen’s sure this will leave a mark, perhaps a small red burn or chafe. She’ll have to use some of that cream she found in the back of the children’s bathroom cupboard.
Pen knew Mrs Hamilton was miserable. She had been around miserable powerful people her whole life: people who had a lot of everything apart from kindness. They were all miserable in this house. Mr Hamilton was never home and when he was, he was always shouting at the children, or Mrs Hamilton. He was disappointed by the mediocrity of his family and his solution was to spend as little time with them as possible. The children were ordered around from one place to another. It was all miserable. She felt the misery vibrate through the fibers of the carpet. Pen realised that she was crying.
“Get up,” she said, “Now,” her voice drained of emotion. Pen waited until she heard her footsteps on the hall stairs, the rattle of keys and the front door close. Pen continued to lie there, until the light began to change and the hall was thrown into the semi-darkness of an early winter evening. The cat came up and rubbed its tail against her, begging for food. If she only knew when Mrs Hamilton would be back, maybe she could continue her search for her passport. Last time she had managed to look through the entire contents of her wardrobe, bedside table and study. Of course the passport would be in a safety deposit box somewhere, but the act of looking made her feel useful, as if she had a purpose.
Pen had felt perfectly qualified for this job, her overbearing father had taught her how to make herself small while her mother had shown her by example, how to become invisible. She sometimes felt as insubstantial as muslin sheet, hung out to dry, being buffeted by the wind. She remembers sitting on the soft mattress of her bed, legs crossed, while her grandmother brushed her hair. She had explained, with excitement, her plans to move abroad. Her grandmother had listened quietly, before exclaiming, “This life is hard. While the blanket is short, learn how to bend.” All her life she had adapted to her limited circumstances, twisting and folding herself like a wiry contortionist, to fit into the lives of others.
She unfolds her arms and pulls them stiffly out from underneath her, using her hands to push up from the floor. She puts the towels into the towel cupboard and walks downstairs to the kitchen. First she feeds the cat, before returning upstairs to the bedside table where she discovered the amber glass bottle of pills. Back in the kitchen, she takes the heavy pestle and mortar and empties out the contents of the bottle. She begins to slowly and meditatively grind the small white pills into a powder. She takes the large heavy casserole pot from the cupboard. When Mrs Hamilton returns she will expect a meal. She has left the recipe book out on kitchen table, with one of the little sticky notes she loves to use.
All Change Please
“ … all change please.”
With or without the ‘lift’ in the tail to suggest a question, it was the same phrase he’d heard and ignored a dozen times already on his daily hundred metre dash from subway to office. For the briefest of moments, the words resonated on the periphery of his conscious thought. How small is small, he wondered. He no longer carried coins. Internet banking, contactless payment options and a plethora of Apps rendered cash payments obsolete, and also kept his suit looking presentable by minimising tiresome ‘small change’ in trouser pockets. It also provided an easy, conscience-free excuse to ignore the growing army of rough sleepers begging for alms.
“ …all change, pl…”
Unbidden, a deeply-rooted sixth sense spiked. It had already saved Corporal #2717s life several times during his 20 years of army service, but he was blissfully unaware of the fact. The automatic litany faltered on his lips. All his survival instincts screamed at him: keep your head down, play dumb, avoid attracting unwelcome attention. This ‘passer-by’ had no intention of doing so without scribbling his own crude semi-literate signature.
Jingle. Jangle. Scrape. Thump.
Mocking fingers roll coins in a trouser pocket. The solid crunch of enormous, heavy boots which have never known the daily application of spit and polish come to a deliberate, provocative halt inches from his nose, intruding upon the one thing he still possessed, his own Personal Space.
#2717 retreated automatically to the only defence he had available, blanking his conscious mind of all thoughts and emotions. The arrogance of the Person towering over him was almost palpable, radiating hate and spite in equal measure, its intensity raising the close to zero air temperature by a degree or two.
A raised boot, brought down swift and hard. So cold, his fingers don’t feel the pain – yet. A jackass bray of laughter as the boot is removed, revealing a pattern of mud and tyre tracks on the back of his left hand. At least two of his fingers are unnaturally two-dimensional, broken.
“Gerroff yer arse an’ gerra job, like the rest of us!”
The other boot disappears from view. A microsecond later the ribs protecting his right lung implode in a red mist of pain. The delayed response from the tardy nerves in his damaged hand pales into insignificance.
“C’mon, fella! Let’s see what yer got!”
A rough hand drags at his shoulder, forcing him to his feet. Through eyes half-closed in agony he is aware of his assailant’s free hand snatching for the few coins he has managed to collect in a battered takeaway coffee cup.
Zip. Splash. Flow. Another manic cackle of laughter.
“And this is where that belongs.”
Cup upended, coins and liquid disappear into a street drain.
“Yeah, change …”
Something in #2717s psyche snaps. Years of service and training combine to provide him with a powerful anæsthetic, sufficient to make it possible for him to ignore his injuries.
A well-rehearsed ju-jitsu move sends the obese form of his assailant skywards, heels describing a perfect circle above his head. A sickening crunch as body strikes pavement: a simultaneous boot applied to exposed crotch, drop to plant right knee securely across throat. Left arm raised at full stretch, ready to deliver the coup de grâce …
Pain from his broken fingers penetrates his senses, screaming at him, begging, imploring him to return to reality. He resists the temptation to retaliate. Deep inside he knows this would reduce him to the level of the Lowlife lying at his mercy, festering in the cesspool of fæces his fear has brought forth to foul the footpath.
#2717 flexes his fingers. The movement is minimal, but it costs him considerable pain. He shakes his head, cradling his injured hand in the threadbare pocket of his ripped jacket.
“Change? You mean, You and Me? No thanks, mate: I know when I’m well off …”
#2717 stands, allowing Thug to breathe freely. Turning, he strides without haste through the audience of gathered witnesses and disappears without a trace into the anonymous commuter crowd as the blues-and-twos of the emergency services draw near.
Selena George, the therapist leaned back in her chair and regarded me through her thick glasses. Her eyes were huge, luminous. I could fall right in.
'Are you sure?' she asked me.
I nodded. I wasn't sure. But I had run out of options. My life was a mess; my head was a mess and my relationships were a mess. I was 25 years old, and couldn't see a future. Selena had explained the risks; her therapy was extreme and dangerous. When I'd asked what dangerous meant she'd told me I might not come back.
I nodded again and picked up the pen on the desk between us. I signed the form, just next to the tiny cross. Truly, I didn't care.
She picked the form up and filed it away in a drawer, then from a box on her desk took out a jar of pills. She shook one out and passed it across to me. I looked at it while she got up and fetched me a glass of water.
Was I sure?
I put the pill in my mouth, accepted the glass of water, and swallowed.
At first: nothing. Selena George watched me from her side of the desk. Nothing's happening, I wanted to tell her, but my mouth wasn't working. Instead, I yawned, hugely, and it felt like my mouth was going to take over my face. My stomach dipped and I tried to close my mouth but my head fell back and then I was falling, my chair tipped backwards and the last thing I saw was the ceiling above me, rushing further and further away.
I tried to scream.
'All change, please,' said the conductor.
I was on a bus. I gripped the bar on top the seat in front of me. It was the kind of seat I'd sat on on the school bus, back in the 1970s. Back when it all began to go wrong. I looked around, certain I'd see old faces such as Spud, or Nik, or Di, but the bus was full of strangers. I was glad; I'd never wanted to see Spud again.
The conductor shouted again, and I looked around. Nobody was moving. What was I supposed to do?
People around me were looking straight ahead. They all looked wrong; stiff and unreal, like waxwork people.
The conductor shrugged and leaned down to speak to where the driver must be sitting. I couldn't hear what he said but then he looked back down the bus and said, 'Next stop, then. Change there. This one was too soon.'
With a jolt and a weird vibration below my feet we began moving. The waxwork-like people began to move, to look around them. Some of them cried. I looked from face to face, not recognising anyone until I reached the last person on the bus, a small figure sat in a corner, right at the back.
I almost screamed, but then she saw me looking and smiled, a soft, beautiful smile with no fear, no sorrow, no hint at all that she knew she was
I worked it out, with a sickening, lurching, terrible feeling deep inside me. Selena George... it had gone wrong.
Miriam, the teenager who'd been knocked down and killed the previous week, was sitting smiling at me from the back seat of a bus that I was sitting on.
I began to cry. Ashamed of myself, tired and shaking, I slid down in my seat and cried for my lost, messed up life. I was dead.
Now if you're thinking, what a load of crap, you can't write this if you're dead, keep reading. It gets more bizarre before it gets better. This is true, completely, utterly, true. All of it. So stop making that face, and read on.
When I'd finished feeling sorry for myself I began to wonder if this was a mistake. I tried to stand up but of course - I should have known - I couldn't. The conductor saw me and told me to hang on, because it was going to get rough in here, and I'd better hang on to myself, because the next stop was the last one on this route and ...
But I didn't hear what else he said because like a roller coaster, the bus dipped and rose, and the world outside began to flash by. I clung to the bar in front of me and looked around, my eyes desperate as I looked from window to window, and didn't recognise anything.
The conductor pointed to me and then indicated my own window, so I looked. I was, indeed, on my old bus route, on my old bus and it was the day that I, aged 13, lost my virginity. I saw myself, pinned under Spud, saw myself pretending to enjoy it, saw myself trying to find the right word, the word which was NO, but I thought I owed him this because he'd told me it was my fault he was like this, 'driving him wild' and so I just thought, get it over with, then.
I saw myself limping home from the bushes behind the bus stop. I knew what came next; I didn't need to see it. I'd gone home, sore and bleeding, and been in trouble for being late and been hit by my father and been sent to my room, where I sat, afraid to undress.
I looked at myself, lost and alone and wanted to put my arms around myself. I knew why I was seeing this. It was the day life changed. Stuff had happened to me, yes, with a violent father and an alcoholic mum who was mostly absent, but I wasn't that different to anyone else in my group. That was why we hung out together. But it was this day, when I gave my childhood to a boy I'd hate for the rest of my life, that I was watching.
The window flickered then like a TV channel being changed over and over. There were boys, boys and men and money and more men. Once my virginity had gone, I reasoned, I may as well use what was left. I gained a reputation, though I insisted the money was left as a gift and I altered my areas. But throughout my teens and up to my early twenties, I made a small fortune. I enjoyed it, even then. In my mind was paying back all the Spuds in the world, by using them.
I watched the come and go in my window. What I saw next made me feel sick. A punter who was using, who told me how wonderful it was and his squat and the other people in the squat and me who'd sworn she'd never do anything except smoke dope, suddenly taking anything and everything. My parents gave up; by then they'd divorced anyway and moved on. I wasn't in their focus anymore.
I didn't want to see the next part. But as if my head was pinned there, my eyes held to the window, I saw everything. Every last, sorry, sordid detail of my crappy life. I saw how I'd squandered it. I saw the hurt I'd inflicted. I saw the men who loved me and wanted to 'save' me pushed away. I saw my beauty - which I'd not even known I had - be replaced by a hollow grey faced wretch who I knew; and hated.
You don't need to know everything I saw. All of your darkest, deepest shames, imagine sharing them... I'm not going to. But it was everything, laid bare, and it just didn't stop. One wrong turn had led me to take more and more and more. There'd been nobody to tell me it wasn't my fault, that every first time, but plenty of people to blame me for everything I wrecked thereafter.
I kept trying to close my eyes.
It went on and on, until I felt empty inside. Wrung out. Finished.
I knew what was going on, now. I saw everything I'd done wrong, and I felt every ounce of regret that I'd not had time to put it right; forgive myself and ask for forgiveness form everyone I'd hurt. All the things I'd stolen, all the relationships I'd wrecked. Oh yes; it wasn't just possessions I stole...
'All change, please,' came the shout. And again, louder, 'All change, please. This time there can be no exceptions.'
It felt as if a weight lifted from my lap and I found I could stand. Everyone else stood, too. We were going to get off the bus. Suddenly, I was afraid again. The fear had been replaced by sorrow at wasting my life but it was back, now. I'd been brought up going to church as a small child. Hell existed for people like me. The thoughts of 'what's next?' kept coming, hammering into me.
I watched as one by one, people stepped off the bus. Outside the windows it was white, as if we'd stopped inside a fog. The girl, Miriam, whose face I'd seen on the front of the papers, turned and waved, her face serene, as she left.
Eventually, it was my turn. The conductor looked at me.
'Haven't you worked it out, yet?' he said.
'This is... the way to hell - or heaven?'
He shook his head, and laughed at me. 'You're going back,' he said. 'You get another turn.'
'Another chance. All change! This bus is for those who need another go. Come on, I'm late for the next stop...' he smiled at me expectantly.
I shook my head. 'I don't deserve another go,' I said. 'I messed this one up.'
'Not up to me,' said the conductor, from behind thick glasses. Why hadn't I noticed his glasses before? 'It's up to yourself. Your own heart.'
'But,' I began, and the bus tipped and I fell backwards and banged my head and opened my eyes.
Selena George, the therapist whose number I'd found in a leaflet, saying, 'Deep Past Life Therapy - don't give up, I can help' was smiling at me.
'Tell me everything,' she said, 'whilst I make a hot drink.'
I stared at her. I was here. I'd never left, but...
'I was in a bus,' I said. 'I was in a bus, watching this life that was mine, except I was someone else. I was a girl, a woman in her late twenties who'd made a real mess of her life, and - oh my god I died of an overdose!'
Selena placed a steaming mug in front of me. 'Drink this, when you're ready.'
But I couldn't stop talking. 'It all makes sense,' I said. 'I lived this terribly sad, messed up life. Sold my body - I was a prostitute - took drugs, died before I'd made it up to anyone. That's why... why I always feel so responsible! Why I can't form a relationship with anyone. Why I hate men... why I hate myself... Because all men did was take from her. I want to know her name!'
But Selena George was shaking her head. 'It's never worked like that,' she said. 'Sounds as if yours was more vivid than most. But you can't go back. All you can do is watch, and feel, and understand what you brought back here with you. And then, with my help, we'll put it to bed. We'll move on, and you can learn to live properly, knowing what you know. Some people see five lifetimes; some more. Some people only see their own. Some... some don't make it back.'
I thought of the teenager I'd known, in that other life. Did she make it back?
Selena smiled. 'Let's make your next appointment. It's probably best if you don't talk too much about this. Most people won't believe you. But, Jamie, welcome back. Welcome to the rest of your life.'
We didn't talk about the man we saw
lying in the street.
Asleep on a strip of cardboard in the doorway of a betting shop.
Young, bearded, scrunched up.
With a soggy sign that read “All change please. All yer change”
We didn't mention him.
We were coming back from church, eager to get home.
You had friends for supper.
I was cold.
But life was good,
God was good.
So we didn't talk about him.
He just lay there in our minds
A stray amidst the trappings of a Sunday night
Except we didn't mention him.
But still he lay there
In the chill of thoughts that couldn't quite forget, couldn't quite pray.
You cooked for your friends
Wishing I'd done something, said something
But wishing more,
we'd gone the other way
And missed him.
Boundaries of Reproduction
Christine sits with her eyes fixed on the young man stood at the front of the meeting room. He’s pitching a new product idea to the head of his department and several of his colleagues. However, it isn’t the idea she’s focused on, it’s him. How he speaks. His mannerisms. His looks. Does he make her feel proud? Christine is broken out of her thoughts when a woman seated to the young man’s left interrupts his presentation.
“Sorry, Lee, I really don’t see this appealing to our customers. And even if it did, how would it make enough money to support itself? I just don’t see it.”
“You’re right, there’s no guarantee it would work, it would be a gamble.” He replied confidently, but humbly.
Christine, feeling disappointed by the young mans reaction to the woman’s criticism turned her head away to make eye contact with a man sitting across the table from her. “I don’t know, now he’s too agreeable. He comes across as being meek. He should defend his idea, not put it down at the first show of criticism. What do you think?”
The man thought before he spoke “yeah, but not in a way that leaves everyone thinking he is a belligerent asshole. Firm, but respectful.”
A female voice booms into the room as if coming from hidden speakers. “Okay, I could increase his confidence levels and that would offset his agreeableness, which should get the character design you are looking for. I am afraid however, we are out of time for now. If you could take off your VR headsets and then we can wrap up.”
Christine and David take off their headsets, their eyesight slowly adjusting back to the reality of the bright white room they are sitting in. Opposite them is the owner of the booming voice, sat behind a large solid wood desk, behind her hangs a plaque which says ‘Don’t leave things to chance, guarantee your loved ones a lifetime of happiness.’
The woman gives the couple a moment to adjust to their surroundings before asking “So, earlier we discussed designing the romance part of his character. Have you decided if that is something you would like to go for?”
Christine pondered whilst gently rubbing her taught and heavily rounded stomach. “I don’t know. The romantic in me doesn’t want to mess with that, but then…”
“I just don’t want to leave it to chance.” David interrupts. He turns to the woman. “You see, I have a couple of mates who didn’t have that part of their character designed and they’re miserable, they’re always going on about how they wish their love life was designed, then it would be done and dealt with. I don’t want to leave it to chance.”
Christine sighed “Argh, I know, I know.” Rubbing her belly even more. I just think of how my parents met and there’s just something so beautiful and romantic about it not being designed. But, you’re right, I’ll never forgive myself if I leave it to chance and he doesn’t find someone to settle down with.” She looked at the woman, closed her eyes and gave an affirmative nod.
“Great, just let the receptionist know on your way out so you can get that design session booked in for next week. Also, I’m not sure if I mentioned this earlier, but we released an app last week. It allows you to make character design tweaks as often as you want. So if you’re not completely happy with your sons design, you can always change it.”
“Would it work for our daughter?” asked Christine eagerly. “She’s been hanging around with these kids at school and I worry they are a bad influence on her. They weren’t designed, you see. It’d be nice if she wanted to hang out with some of the other children.”
“Yes, it’ll work for your daughter. You just need to sync her with the app by entering her ID, then you make as many adjustments as you want.”
“What do you think David?” Asked Christine as he helped her up out of her seat.
“Sure, let’s download it when we get home and give it a go.”
Our Little Bundle
Mike caught the barmaid’s eye and ordered a pint of bitter. ‘What’s your poison?’
Terry sighed. ‘Just an orange juice for me.’
‘What, on a Friday night?’
‘I’ve been off booze for a month. Got an appointment with Our Little Bundle tomorrow. I’m on their pre-conception diet plan. Pain in the neck.’
'Whey-hey! Having a go on a Girly-bot are you?’
‘No, you have to pay extra for that. I expect they’ll give me a plastic cup and a dirty mag. Anyway, Stan tried it. Said it was like being molested by the Hoover.’
‘Yeah, Stan would be up for that. Everything has to be top of the range for him, even when their harvesting his sperm.’ Mike supped an inch of his pint. ‘Still, I hear the conception was successful. Baby’s due in a couple of weeks, I think.’
Terry sucked on his straw and grimaced. ‘Yeah, Val’s visiting Rosemary tonight to see how things have gone.’
Val nearly choked on her Chardonnay. ‘What on earth’s that noise?’
Rosemary laughed, ‘Oh it’s the Mummy-bot. She’s singing to the foetus in Mandarin. It’s a bit of a racket, I know.’
Now that her eggs had been harvested, Val was really enjoying her first drink in over a month. ‘Oh, so you went for the pre-natal education package?’
‘Yes, it sings lullabies in three languages in the evening, teaches arithmetic in the morning and behavioural psychology in the afternoon.’
‘Good choices. I hear the Watsons opted for Law and Sociology and now their ten year-old is suing them for child abuse because they limited his time on the X-box.’
‘Oh Lord!’ Rosemary chortled. ‘Whatever next?’
‘So how have you found the Mummy-bot? We haven’t chosen our model yet.’
‘Oh you have to get the best. I mean nothing is more important is it? Although even the counter-top model is better than the things our poor mothers had to put up with.’
‘I know. Puking up for the first trimester, then lumbering around like an elephant dressed in a marquee.’
Rosemary was turning red in the face her shoulder were heaving, ‘Yes, and Heaven knows what kind of carnage you might be left with downstairs by the time they’d finished with you.'
After they’d dried their eyes. Val launched into more gossip. ‘Did you hear about Sissy Adams?’
‘I heard the birth didn’t go well. What happened to the poor dear?’
‘Apparently, she bought a second-hand Mummy-bot down the market.’
‘Oh no, really?’
‘It malfunctioned after six months. Just shut down completely. So she phoned for an engineer, but they couldn’t come out until the next day.’
‘No. What on earth did she do?’
‘They told her to put the Comfy-Womb in the airing-cupboard, to keep it warm. Then she had to give it a good shake once an hour until the engineer arrived.’
‘Oh heavens. No wonder the poor mite is so small!’
‘That’s what I thought. And he hasn’t started walking yet, either.’
Rosemary topped up their glasses and they sat back to contemplate poor Sissy’s plight.
Val pressed on with her inquiries. She wished she’d brought a notebook. Who knew that motherhood was so complicated? ‘How did you choose a midwife?’
‘We went with Our Little Bundle for the midwife too. You see, all their midwives are qualified in electrical engineering. In fact on her last visit she sorted out a problem I was having with the dishwasher.’
Somewhere, in another part of the house, the Mummy-bot suddenly ceased its yodeling.
‘Oh. It’s finished singing for the night. I’ll get it down, so that you can have a look.’ She opened the living-room door and shouted. ‘Maya, could you come here, please?’
There was a whirring noise as the tubby machine rolled into the room on four fat tyres. It was about the size of a front loading washing machine, but with rounded, padded edges. It sported a rather attractive floral pattern. Through a window in the front of the machine the foetus was visible in the cloudy amniotic fluid, hanging upside down from the artificial placenta. Every now and then it twitched a leg and sloshed about the container.
‘Oh lovely, you got one with a viewing panel. He’s a lively little fellow.’
‘Yes, it’s good to keep an eye on him. Maya, tell Val you’re specification.’
‘My name is Maya.’ Val thought how comforting the machine’s soft lilting voice was. ‘I am a 4.2 Deluxe Nurture-bot manufactured by the Our Little Bundle Corporation of America. I feature a full-term removable Comfy-Womb for easy birthing. It is fitted with a wide-angle viewing window for state-of-the-art developmental monitoring by qualified medical practitioners and electrical engineers. With the daily input of nutrition and regular battery recharging, I will successfully nurture a human foetus from conception to birth. As an added feature I have been fitted with a range of educational programmes that are audible to the foetus in the Comfy-Womb to maximize pre-natal intellectual development. I am upgradable to a Nanny-bot for customers who require post-natal nurturing assistance.’
‘Thank you Maya. You can go and re-charge your batteries now.’
‘Very impressive.’ Val spoke to the robot’s retreating back.
‘Oh, Maya is a God-send. We bought the post-natal upgrade too. They just pop out the Comfy-Womb and insert a combined cradle and self-cleansing teats. You just need to pour the formula in the lid.’
‘Fantastic. But isn’t that really expensive? We were thinking about just getting a counter-top model.’
‘Oh no, don’t do that. You’ll be stuck in the house for nine months. If I want to pop out to the coffee shop, Maya comes with me. And for longer journeys we bought a ramp for the MPV. She can just roll into the back. If her batteries start running down, I just stick her lead in the cigarette lighter. Nothing could be simpler.’
‘But you and Stan have such good jobs. We just couldn’t afford it.’
‘Then opt for the credit plan, dear. You’ll have paid it off by the time the little mite’s ready for university. And think of the head start they will get. Have you chosen the sex yet? Stan wanted a boy with dark curly hair and brown eyes. I think he secretly wants to be Ryan Giggs father.’
Val giggled, ‘That’s not the relationship I’d want with Ryan.’
Just then the doorbell rang.
Rosemary knitted her brows. ‘Who could that be at this time of night?’
Val heard a short exchange in the hall before Rosemary ushered a smartly dressed young man into the living room. Rosemary held a hand to her mouth and tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Val rose from her chair to embrace her friend. ‘Rosemary, whatever is the matter?’
‘This gentleman is from Our Little Bundle. He says there is a problem with our baby.’
‘Oh no, please don’t alarm yourself. Your foetus is perfectly healthy. It’s just that when we delivered the Mummy-bot to you, there was a small oversight. I’m afraid it contained the wrong foetus.’
Val couldn’t believe her ears. ‘How on earth could that happen?’
‘Madam, you have to appreciate we are the stork to over 200 little bundles every week. A simple error with our bar-coding machine led to you receiving the embryo belonging to another couple. Fortunately, our DNA checking system has identified the error. So all is well!’ He clasped his hands in front of him and beamed a dazzling smile in their direction. ‘All we need to do is remove the foetus from your Mummy-bot and replace it with the correct one. It’s right outside. We’ve transported it here in our specially designed vehicle, the Incu-Bus.’
Rosemary was indignant. ‘Just one minute buster, I don’t know anything about this other baby. What kind of Mummy-bot was it nurtured in? Was it fed premium nutrients? Has it received a pre-natal education and, if so, what was the curriculum?’
His smile faltered and he nervously adjusted his cufflinks. ‘I’m sure that the baby was well looked after. The mother is very experienced. One of our oldest customers in fact.’ He ran a finger around his collar.
Rosemary stabbed the man in the chest with her finger. Val had never seen her so agitated. ‘I want details.’
He nodded and looked at the floor. ‘This will be the 12th child for this mother. She has successfully used the 1.2 model for the last eleven years and all her children seem to be thriving, despite the snug conditions in the family home. Given the large size of the family, you won’t be surprised to learn that the other mother opted for basic nutrition and did not buy the pre-natal education package. However, she did tell me that her other children regularly sang playground songs and, err…, football chants to their impending sibling.’
‘Football chants?’ Val caught Rosemary before she collapsed to the floor and helped her to a seat.
‘Yes, I believe they are enthusiastic Manchester City supporters.’
When Rosemary spoke again it was barely a whisper. ‘I’m not sure I want this other baby.’
‘Oh I’m afraid the law is very clear. The Artificial Human Incubation Act states that if an error is detected prior to birth, then the foetus must be returned to the genetic parents, regardless of the conditions under which the foetus was cared for. But really, the baby is very healthy and has achieved the expected stage of development at this time in the pregnancy. I have a full medical report.‘ He pulled it out of his briefcase and passed it to Rosemary. ‘We will, of course, refund you the additional cost of the premium nutrients and the pre-natal education programme.’ He reignited his smile.
Back in the pub Terry declined a fourth orange juice. He was getting heartburn. An alcohol-free beer couldn’t do any harm could it?
‘Actually, we have a bit of news on that front ourselves.’ Mike placed the drinks on the table.
‘Oh yeah? Gaia made an appointment to harvest your sperm, has she?’
‘No, Gaia’s expecting.’
Terry spluttered into his neutered pint, ‘Are you mad? Anything could happen. What about stretch-marks and the trauma of a natural birth?’
‘Oh come on. Our species has used natural childbirth for millennia. That’s how we’re both sitting here after all.’
‘You’ll be living in a cave next and riding a dinosaur to work. You did both follow a strict pre-conception diet didn’t you?’
Mike was sheepish. ‘We didn’t plan it, exactly. We got pissed one night and forgot to take precautions. But we’re both very happy about it.’
‘You want to be careful mate. It could end up with an alcohol-dependency. I don’t know how you can bear it. You can’t choose the sex or plan the colour coordination. And what about the pre-natal education?’
Mike shook his head. ‘Well, we won’t be in hock to Our Little Bundle until we’re old and grey, but, do you know, I don’t think that’s the best thing. Gaia and I think that the surprise is all part of the fun. I mean it will have all the right bits and pieces won’t it? And who wants to match their child to their handbag? As for all this pre-natal education malarkey, frankly we think it’s a load of rubbish.’
‘Well, Val and I think it’s never too early to give our child a proper start in life. You and Gaia are playing with fire, if you ask me. The way I see it, with Our Little Bundle what you’re paying for is peace of mind. Nothing can go wrong and, when you’re talking about your own flesh and blood, that’s priceless. I can’t wait to talk to Val tonight – after her chat with Rosemary, I bet she’ll back me up.’
“Next question, who is willing to change Casing this time?
Remember, this will be an exciting opportunity; your records will show your interest in innovation, and there will almost certainly be the opportunity to participate in leading studies following your involvement.
Please don’t worry about your memory drive; it will simply merge with your partner’s seamlessly so you will experience not only renewed energy but also significantly greater data retention following the Metamorphosis...”
On my surround screen, I could see that my colleagues looked serious. The Perpetuation Programme, while highly successful, involved our obligation to be prepared for Metamorphosis with little chance to bid our current communities farewell. Even though our new forms did indeed contain old memories, improved designs brought fresh challenges, as well as delights, rendering such memories idle sentiment for the most part.
While we had all had several Metamorphoses, and it was reassuring to know that out memories would stay with us through them all, and that historical decay and dissolution would not affect us, this was something very new. I even wondered if there were risks in merging two of us into a single Casing. But our Life-Supporter had not made errors before. All the records could be accessed easily, and it was clear that quantitative and qualitative life was at a point when comparison with the unknown found in old-fashioned reproduction and death was insulting.
“Is it possible to merge at least part of the Casings of the two volunteers?”
“No. As you will all be aware, throughout Perpetuation, new Casings are still essential. We are continuing to improve maintenance to enable some future format-retention in your Metamorphoses, but still have technical difficulties with areas like damp and erosion of form.
Hopefully, at some point in your next dozen Metamorphoses these problems may be overcome with suitable materials. The technological achievements that have allowed minimal organ and memory decay may, in the not-too-distant future, be adapted to your outer Casings, if there are special requests due to frivolous but understandable aesthetics.”
“Are there any privileges attached to the volunteers?”
“A good question. Yes indeed. You will be encrypted securely as always, but this time, as the first Merger, you will be utilised by the world’s top researchers, and your enduring data shared across open forums. You will also be able to share any Merger-associated emotional data, and support subsequent Mergers.”
“How does it actually work?”
“An excellent question, Cyriu . If you recall some of the ancient attempts to modify crops genetically, using a crude form of fusion, it uses similar technology, with, naturally, the guarantee of continued existence through Metamorphosis. Our forebears had not, as we know, considered the inability of such organisms to self-regenerate.”
I had a question too, but was hesitant as it arose from previous memories of my mother talking about ancient reproductive techniques, now so deep in the past that my asking it seemed irrelevant.
“Yes-Syma-your question please?”
With the advent of Metamorphosis, we had our energy-modes monitored constantly to check that no technical problems could arise. Before our times, humans had been prone to many self-destructive behaviours; it was now recognised that successful continuation of our species relied on particular energy levels being maintained. I knew that, in past times, humans had learned to edit out some diseases and character traits, as well as select what used-crudely- to be considered national characteristics. And all this at a time when in poorer societies children regularly died of starvation and illness. Some of the barbaric eras had specialised in this kind of programme. Amusingly, since the methods were often misleading, people started screening for “imperfections” that now, were babies still being born, we would be able to deal with benignly, since our scientists understand how to control Metamorphoses to improve us, while retaining our best gifts. That our Life-Supporter was aware when we were in questioning mode was not so much a small price to pay for our continued Metamorphoses, as reassurance that such horrors could never return.
Yes. My question.
“I am wondering if we may ever Metamorphosize to a point where we may experience a feeling of unity with the notional offspring.”
“That seems irrelevant to this programme currently, but I am curious that your memories prompt such a query. Please expand. I will record in order to enhance your future experience. “
For the first time, I felt what might be alarm. Here was a memory to which I seemed attached.
“My mother once told me that, when I was born, she felt a special bond with me. She was happiest when holding and caressing me. I am wondering if we may feel something akin to such a bond if we enter the Merger. Or perhaps something similar to what she told me happened even further back, when two people had a special pairing to make offspring grow in the female’s body. She even told me that it was believed that uniquely wonderful communication took place between internal offspring and carriers. ”
“That is unlikely, if interesting as a hypothesis, and something we can certainly look into if it can be incorporated in such a way as to enhance the experience without introducing discord.
Technically, it would be an interesting challenge given the degree of physical separation we recognise as essential for human survival. I take it you understand, Syma? ”
I nodded. Understanding was easy.
For this innovation, we will be developing a completely new volunteer for the Casing, from the Ice-Cyst, so as to maintain the population quota, as always. One Casing equates to Two-Becoming-One. This is likely to offer the best outcome, since, in addition to my earlier explanation , we have been unable to predict the likelihood of internal discord arising from physical dominance if any of one of the partner’s Casings is retained.
You will all be aware, through your programing, of how the past world contained such discord within, and between, many of those who joined to produce offspring, that their negative energy transmuted into the near destruction of this planet. “
I had indeed been fully educated on this part of the human story. There had been no programmer powerful enough to prevent this flaw. Ignorant, competitive attempts to breed it out failed. As humans became more insistent on maintaining borders, their intense inbreeding nearly caused complete self-annihilation, from genetic inaccuracies, since they lacked understanding in their selection programmes. Along with unsustainable over-crowding before we learned to Perpetuate through Metamorphosis. I had, in my previous Casings, seen images of corpse-filled seas engulfing islands, all in association with that era of hasty and ill-conceived parenting, with its “winner-takes-all” attitudes. The wealthy had chosen many offspring, with the technical support that had been innovative for its time, at the cost of others being removed . How thankful I felt that our Life-Supporter had realised this in time to start the Perpetuation Programme !
Yet, my mother, lying suspended in her contained unit, had wept last time I had visited.
“Why do I see you only on the screen?
Why can’t I touch you beside me?
And what’s all this about different Casings? You don’t look like my child.
I want my child back!”
I had been bitterly ashamed, before my subsequent and timely Metamorphosis had dealt with so unnecessary an emotion, that my own mother should retain such a miserable wish. It seemed unfair, however, that she had not been offered Metamorphosis, which would have spared her such irrational anguish. Instead, she had been selected to help those in the Perpetuation Programme recall the errors of the past, her speciality being the technical crudities of historical reproduction. For example, that old-fashioned emotions, like longing, were being satisfied through using test-tube babies , or young carrier girls of former India, seems outrageous to us, who understand the potential for aggression fuelled by over-population and diminishing resources. Notions of what constituted fairness were skewed; the rich and needy would pay enormously behind their countries’ borders to select every detail- interrogating surrogates on talents, beliefs and interests, and –then- gender-selecting as part of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The process was foolish; no counselling was offered regarding best choices for population-control -nor even should the child transgender! Potential parents considered foreign carriers’ salaries generous ; what was cheap at home equalled many years of survival elsewhere - worth all the life-threatening risks, including lack of post-partum medical aid. Employers often spoke proudly and emotionally of the gifts they had strewn gratefully on these young incarcerated girl-carriers. My mother remembered these times with disbelief verging on disgust; my birth had been achieved in a civilised manner with selective sperm donation, she having been one of the innovators of that era.
But her current emotional state was of no use to her, or anybody else, when travel was so rarely permitted. In any case, OUR physical feelings, such as they were, were systematically removed through our Metamorphoses so that we would not be inconvenienced by distance in our communications with those who held our interest or could add to our memories.
This idea of merging Casings and memories was an exciting one. I did still wonder if, in the process, incidental, subsidiary feelings, such as those which had accompanied the physical matings my grandmother had apparently known, might arise, but put this thought to one side, not before our Life-Supporter must have been aware, and had put a tick and question mark next to my image on her screen.
I was seriously concerned that my question may seem so old-fashioned that my memory would be tweaked in my next Metamorphosis. And this concerned me as I did retain ties with my mother; after all her methodology had rendered me unique in a way that was mostly frowned on nowadays, even if indulged.
In her day, reproductive boundaries had been crossed all at once; even ideas that had seemed taboo when she was a child had become part of the mix once she was adult. One of the most controversial had been that of the multiple sperm-donor...especially when borders were crossed, at that time of belligerent nationalism. If a donor was in one country and the offspring born in another, what nationality might it enjoy?
All this nonsense is of no interest to us in this time of enlightened peace and fair-sharing , but back then it made bad things worse in some cases. Especially when people wanted to locate their genetic parents. Things had to change, and when they did, people adapted with huge relief.
Our wonderful Life-Supporter devised this method to ensure that the population would stay exactly the same and that nobody had to suffer any physical hardship. Along with replacement Casings from the Ice-Cyst, our Metamorphoses always heralded improvements, so everybody was content. Food and transport ceased to be a problem along with our ability to do nearly all our communication via surround screens.
Reproduction was truly a thing of the past.
“Syma and Cyriu, if you are willing, I am selecting you for the first Merger in the absence of immediate volunteers.
As this is going to be a little different from your previous experiences, I am asking you to be available for training in three hours time, and the actual Merger will take place in forty-eight hours, which should give you ample time to contact those you feel necessary. The outcome -and this is innovative-will be AS IF the Merger were your Offspring,as your current components will be merged , and all your inner memories and thoughts will be edited to emphasise the very best of you both.
Thank you so much. “
I wondered if, in ancient history, any parental partners had begun to imagine the sense of awe and community that unexpectedly flooded through me. Not emotions with which I was familiar. The difference of course being that our Merger was to be completely authentic. And I found myself appearing on my mother’s screen in floods of tears.
Boundaries of Reproduction
He sat across from her on the low Eames sofa, legs stretched out in front of him in baggy grey jogging bottoms. He can’t have been more that twenty-eight years old, it never ceased to amaze her, the age of the gallery’s clients. “I like it,” he said in response to her in depth presentation of the provenance and significance of the Warhol painting in front of them, a rare piece from the artist’s later monochrome series. She gave him time to elaborate.
“Who else did you say was interested?” he questioned attempting to hide his curiosity with a rehearsed nonchalance. He ran his fingers through his unkempt hair. She gave the name of several high net worth clients that had been listed in ArtForum’s yearly ranking of high profile collectors.
“Ok,” he said, “lets do it.”
She nodded, “I’ll just get one of the assistants to draw up the paperwork.”
As she stepped into the back office she silently punched the air. Taking deep breaths, she sat down at her desk. She’d done it. She composed herself and drew up the paperwork, smoothly gliding her fingers across the keys. She had been courting this client for a little over six months after reading about his new position in one of the broadsheets rich lists. He was a technology prodigy, but he was a novice when it came to contemporary art. When she first met him at the Frieze art fair, she overheard a conversation he was having with his art consultant, a man who could at best be described as a chancer, and at worst a charlatan.
They had stood in front of a mediocre lithograph, “I’m not sure James,” he’d said to his so-called adviser, “I just don’t know if I get it.” It was then that she saw her opportunity.
Later at the art fair’s champagne bar she literally bumped into him, spilling her drink down his logo sweatshirt. After his initial annoyance, she managed to tease out a little conversation and boasted about her (fictional) purchases at the fair. She brazenly asked him if he had bought anything, and if he’d heard the recent auction results that promised great rewards for daring collectors willing to enter the market at the right time for the right artist. “Hmmm” he’d said noncommittally, but after some very one-sided conversation, she somehow managed to set up a meeting at the gallery without the bumbling art consultant tagging along.
“You’ve got to listen to your inner voice when it comes to art, to your tastes, you can’t get advice on that,” she’d said, looking directly at him, “besides,” she said in a conspiratorial tone, “half of this stuff is like the emperor’s new clothes, so many people are just pretending to get it.”
That night when she got back to her tiny house share in New Cross, she hung her simple black Miu Miu dress in the wardrobe next to her high street outfits. She inspected her Manolo heels and realised with dismay that they needed re-heeling. She didn’t know how much longer she would be able to keep the rent going on this place or the appearance of wealth, that was so important to her job.
“Come back to me when you’ve got something to show for yourself,” her father had said when he cut her off after she dropped out of the independent girl’s college that her mother and older sister had graduated from with distinction. Ironically her family wealth should be an asset in her chosen field, and while her accent and familiarity with social niceties lent her credibility, the fact that she actually needed a salary was something of a hindrance. Many of her peers were able to work for little or no money, content just to be part of the rarefied Mayfair art world.
She put the heels back in their box and dust bag before sitting at her mirror and removing her mascara and lipstick with a wet wipe. It was then that she made the decision to do it. Looking at her reflection through slightly stinging eyes, she’d decided that this was her moment. That night she fired off an email to an old friend, Andrew, someone who her family had never approved off.
“I’ve found the right client,” she typed. “Are you ready?”
Andrew, now living in Hong Kong, had a wealth of interesting contacts. A banker by day, he ran in very different circles by night. One of his sidelines involved supplementing his art collection and those of close colleagues with works that were indistinguishable from their originals, but were, well…not the originals. He hated to use the word fake, because to his mind they took great skill and a certain level of connoisseurship.
The plan was simple. Andrew would get his guy to paint a copy of an easily reproducible painting held in the inventory of the gallery she worked for. She would substitute the original with Andrew’s knock off. Rather conveniently Andrew had a buyer for the original, someone who was happy to hold the painting in his collection as a showpiece without returning it to the market for at least a few decades. This buyer would probably show the painting on his yacht and use it to boast to close friends and family. He is a difficult man, “make sure this happens,” he’d said to Andrew, “I want it, and what I want I always get.” He seemed excited by the heist and was happy to receive the piece at a massively discounted price due to the nature of the acquisition. Andrew’s already spent his half of the deposit on his rather expensive taste for opiates. She is also going to split the money they get for the original with Andrew, after they have paid the forger and settled the transport fees. Fifty-fifty, fair and square. That should buy a few more pairs of Manolos.
She prints off the paperwork and returns it to the client to sign on the dotted line. Like a true novice, he is happy to pay the balance in full.
“Obviously we have to pack the painting for transport,” she says to him, “where would you like the piece to be delivered to?”
He gives her an address in Chelsea and slopes off out of the gallery, his pockets now £1 million lighter.
The arrangement is for the piece to be delivered in a week. That gives her enough time to bring the reproduction into the gallery. It will have to be this weekend and at night, when the gallery is closed. She’s already inspected Andrew’s piece in the lock-up in Vauxhall and it is perfect. Yes, it wouldn’t hold up if it were inspected too heavily; say by the Warhol foundation or a seasoned collector like Andrew’s contact, but hopefully that won’t come to pass. Even if her young client does wish to sell it, and she has cautioned him not to for at least ten years to allow for value to accrue, she should be long gone. It’s not even her gallery, she’s just a lowly gallery girl earning £8.00 an hour; how could she have orchestrated such a plan?
The phone call arrives two days later, on Thursday at lunchtime. She’s been in the gallery all week, keeping at eye on things, making sure everything is set for the weekend and the swap. But today one of her heels finally snapped and she’s had to go to the overpriced cobblers in the arcade, five minutes down the road from the gallery. Its one of the interns calling, “Natalie, your client sent his assistant in just now.” She’s sitting next to the counter while the cobbler glues the heel onto her shoe. “The one that bought the Warhol.”
She starts to reply, but the noise of the machines buffing and whirring in the background make it hard for her to hear and be heard. She presses the phone to her ear and starts to make her way outside before she manages to make out “We packaged up the piece and its been collected. It’s left the gallery. Apparently he’s taking it with him to his new place in New York. It’s going with him on his private plane this afternoon.”
Oh Mother of God! What a pickle to get into! How did it ever come to this? Sitting here in my car in a bus stop lay-by trying to fill a test tube with sperm. Please don't let a bus turn up (especially a double decker). How am I meant to do this? Thirty-eight years of age and I'm trying to get my, you know what, into some sort of semi-prepared...semi.
Clinic opens at 9am. It's got to be within the hour and a decent sample. Oh Jesus, there's a bus coming. Okay, okay your horn works. I know I shouldn't be in your precious lay-by in the morning rush hour but I have got a bit of rush on myself here. Right, she's getting off. Please turn back the way and not toward me. Oh shit, she's got a nurse's uniform on - she'll head this way. Right, where's my newspaper.
Could you imagine if David Attenborough was observing proceedings.
"Here in the cold, dark morning of a Glasgow suburb is the homo erectus (oh yeah, he'd have fun with that) performing a rare mating ritual that does not even require a partner to be in attendance." Upright man, indeed.
It wasn't always like this, of course. We used to do things the proper way. The way we were taught at school, taught in books and magazines. There wasn't a book called 'Test-tube Sex'. Five years of very happy marriage trying to conceive and...nothing. And my wife is older than me - coming up on forty next year. A difficult age for a first child they say. You need to get a move on.
We are allowed three attempts and this is our second. That first occasion was so much more, how would I say it, prepared. I had the luxury of a cubicle to carry out my actions. They even provided me with some magazines, if you know what I mean. And it was all a success, for a short time at least. Sixteen amazing weeks. Sixteen weeks of joy and excitement, of anticipation and folic acid and Gaviscon. But it was just 16 weeks and no more.
Heartbroken. That was a very different experience in the car for me that night. As soon as I turned the corner and saw the house in darkness, not even the Christmas lights were on in the living room - I just knew. I just knew the baby was gone. And the burial of our wee baby? How did we get through that? The hopes and dreams of that first grandchild. Gone. But there'll be two more attempts they said.
And this was attempt number two.
Oh fuck, no. The police. A police car. Jesus, you are kidding me. Bloody hell, I'll need to wind down the window.
"Excuse me, sir. I have reason to believe that you have been masturbating in your vehicle. Would you mind accompanying me to my car?"
"I'm sorry that won't be possible, officer. You'll need to wait until I am less tumescent."
"Chew what, sir?'
"Tumescent! You know - flaccid"
"Not sure I do, sir. May I ask why you are masturbating, sir."
"We're trying to have a baby, officer."
"My wife and I"
"But she is not in the vehicle, sir"
"No, she did her bit last week."
"Her bit, sir?"
Starting to get a bit exasperated now.
"They took her eggs out last week and I am hoping to fertilise them this week. It's called IVF or something and it's quite common now."
"I am not sure masturbating in the car is quite common sir"
"No, but I have to be at Lumsden Hospital over there at 9am. I only have a small window."
"A small window, Sir?"
"It's a figure of speech. I have to be at the hospital within 30 minutes of filling my sample."
"I know it looks like I have crossed a line of indecency but I am not trying to bring any attention to myself or cause harm to anyone."
"More like you have crossed the boundaries of reproduction, sir"
"You'll be needing a police escort to the hospital, Sir."
The very thought. Thank God, they drove past.
"Good morning. I have a sample to deliver for Dr Drysdale".
"Oh, thank you. I'll make sure it is handled with care."
‘So there’s a strong chance,’ Jan’s voice was evaporating at Ian’s expression, ‘my future baby will have what you’ve got unless…’
He frowned. ‘What?’
‘I let the scientists intervene.’
‘What’s that to me?’
Jan stood, aware she’d been over-shadowing him, more aware that he didn’t know her from Adam, hyper-aware that she was trying to get this disabled boy to make her decision and should be ashamed of how selfish she was being. Yet she had to know. She’d tried talking to friends and family, she’d batted it back and forth day and night with her husband but none of it helped her decide.
‘I’m sorry.’ She sat on the wall next to Ian, hugging her knees to her chest. ‘Someone told me that you’re happier than other kids. I wanted to know if you felt you were, if yours is a better life than your friends.’
She nodded. ‘Yes. Are you happy? I know I’m bothering you but I’ve lost touch with what’s wrong or right.’
Ian dug in his bag while Jan wondered if he’d had enough of them talking or had forgotten her question. Did he know what happiness was? Mind you – did she? She thought she was happy until this week, but one test result had sent her into a turmoil. Yet they said she was capable of carrying a child. The Doctors told her that a tiny piece of genome engineering could almost guarantee a perfect baby. Perfect except it would have been created in a lab, not in a warm body. It would come into being without her.
Ian held something up. A large gold coin labeled IAN's MORAL COMPASS. Transfixed, Jan reached to take it from him but he snatched his arm away and snarled: ‘It’s mine. I do it.’
Jan held her breath, startled by his anger. Everyone said he was happy, smiling all the time. No one mentioned aggression. How would she cope with that? She breathed out slowly. ‘OK. How does it work?’
‘Mum says you ask it something, something yes or no.’
What was her yes or no question? Should she use science to play God with nature? Should she have a baby at all? Should she have a baby like this boy whose eyes narrowed even further at her silence. She played for time. ‘What happens when I’ve asked my question?’
Ian shrugged. ‘Won’t tell you. You can’t know. You must ask first.’
Just like life then, you can’t know what will happen in advance. Jan felt simultaneously cold and clammy as she asked: ‘Should I get pregnant naturally?’
He threw the coin with a jerk. It was a series of reflections in the air, a somersaulting golden girl, a string of lightning flashes. Jan ran after it. Ian shouted at her not to touch so she crouched down by it, using her upper body as a shield. Ian laughed as he scampered to her. ‘Heads or tails?’
‘Yes,’ he nodded at her.
‘Yes I should?’
Ian nodded again but this time at his coin. ‘Said yes.’ He put it back in his bag and watched her.
So much for Ian’s moral compass! It had given the wrong answer. Why not accept a little help to get her child the best start? Why resist having more certainty? Times had moved on and it would be shooting herself in the foot not to take advantage of that. Her husband was right, she was being a luddite. Jan wrestled her writhing feelings but they filled her mouth until she had to speak. ‘It got it wrong!’ Jan blurted out as Ian shrank away from her.
Ian’s mother materialised to shake her head at Jan. ‘Don't worry about Ian's feelings, will you? The head or tails isn’t the Moral Compass’s answer. Your reaction to the head or tails is. It works every time.’
‘Oh. Yes, it got it right then. I know now. Did he…’ Jan gestured towards Ian, ‘did he understand what I meant?’
Ian looked at Jan with contempt. ‘I’m not stupid.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Thank you.’
Mother and son watched Jan leave in silence. Ian sniffed and sat down. His mum offered him a tissue and put her arm around his shoulders. ‘For that stroppy madam the compass gave the right answer, Ian. She’s clearly not special enough.’
Penny climbed the steep steps from the street to the front door of her flat. Glancing up at the front window, deep maroon curtains visible within, she was struck by a peculiar unease – something wasn’t right. She paused on the last step, but the feeling disappeared almost as soon as it had hit her. An icy gust of wind blew her from her silent reverie, and shuddering slightly, she began rummaging in her bag for her keys. She fumbled with the key-ring, her cold hands refusing to do her bidding, and the keys fell. She stumbled, instinctively trying to catch them, and grabbing the door handle to save herself from a tumble down the icy steps. Strangely, she found herself falling forwards rather than backwards, and landed with a painful jolt. The door had opened, and she had landed awkwardly on her knees on the rough doormat, which on closer inspection seemed to have made rather a mess of her tights. Sighing, she clambered to her feet, picking up the keys which had landed on the top step. It was only as she closed and locked the door behind her that she realised: it had been unlocked. A feeling of panic surged through her, emanating from her chest and spreading almost instantly to her extremities. But as she looked, heart pounding, around the small living room, she began to calm down. After a momentary glance around – TV, laptop, stereo – she knew no one had broken into her flat – ok, the TV wasn’t much, but no thief would have left without the laptop, purchased only weeks ago, as a gift to herself after the publication of her latest book. She must have left the door open when she left that afternoon – unlike her, but she has left in a hurry. A lucky escape then.
Penny struggled out of her coat – an unfashionable bulky affair which her assistant had raised an eyebrow at – and her sensible trainers (she’d shed both of these in favour of a sleek silk scarf and a pair of heels on arriving at the bookshop, but had changed back for the slippery walk to the tube station), and hobbled further into her home. Penny took off the mangled tights and threw them straight in the bin, rubbing her left knee, which had sustained the brunt of the fall. She slid on her worn slippers and made her way with a sigh into the kitchen, in search of wine. She was less annoyed than she might have been about this latest episode of her typical clumsiness, as the book-signing had gone well. Her first four books had been novels – not brilliant ones, perhaps, but they’d sold well enough – but this, her fifth, was different. For the first time, Penny felt there was something extremely personal about the book she had published. It was a book of poems. Poems, which were after all, what she’d always felt most comfortable with, and that she had written almost incessantly over the last twenty years. So far, the book hadn’t sold as well as its predecessors, but that was to be expected. Her publisher had strongly advised against publishing the book, in favour of a sequel to her last novel, which had been particularly successful. But Penny had grown tired of hiding behind characters and unworldly landscapes, and had wanted to share something more authentic. So far, it was doing ok. She’d noticed with bemusement that the people who turned up to the book-signings and events her assistant dutifully organised were somewhat different than the usual crowd; overall the mood was more subdued, quieter, and she sometimes felt she had to do a lot more work to get a smile from them. To be expected to, she supposed.
A glass of merlot in hand, Penny sighed again, and went back into the living room, scanning the room for the TV remote, too exhausted to do any more work tonight. She spotted it on the coffee table, but reaching to pick it up found herself distracted by something lying on top of her closed laptop. Her arm still outstretched, she stopped, a small frown beginning. It didn’t make sense.
It was a small fragment of paper, seemingly torn from a book. Odd, already – you’re unlikely to find torn bits of book in the house of any writer, but what was particularly strange was what was on it. Not the fragment of a sentence itself - the words on their own didn't seem to mean very much, though after a moment she did recognise them - but where had it come from?
Penny snatched up the page and sat down on the sofa, studying it carefully. The words were a line from one of her poems, number 27. She hadn't hesitated before including it - it referred to an incident which, though in the past, she felt to be deeply personal, and after all, wasn't that the point of this book?
Though the fans she was used to had usually just asked for a simple signature, or a "best wishes" at book signings, fans of her poetry were different. She’d experienced people asking her to scribble down sonnets, to make up on-the-spot Haikus, but much more regularly, to write out lines of her own poems. She didn’t understand it, but for the most part didn’t mind – it would have meant that signings would take longer than she was used to, were it not for the fact that her new group of readers didn’t seem to want to stay and chat.
So, the fact that she was looking at a part of one of her poems, written in her own writing, was not particularly surprising. What was strange was how it had come to be here, five miles from the latest signing, less than an hour after it had finished. What’s more, she was certain that this particular page had been torn from a book she had signed this very evening, because no one had ever asked for a line from this poem before. She’d felt only slightly uncomfortable writing it, as the man across the desk barely looked at her and spoke no more than a few words. He’d slid out of the chair and out of the shop as soon as she’d finished, carrying – she was almost certain – the book. But he couldn’t have done – somehow, the book must have been torn while still in the store, and the fragment must have made its way into her bag, gathered up, perhaps among the general debris on the desk by her assistant. This hypothesis gave Penny only a moment’s relief, as she soon realised it couldn’t be the case. Her bag, dropped during her dramatic entrance a few minutes ago, was still lying by the front door.
Still staring at the bag, she considered the situation carefully. She couldn’t have brought the piece of paper accidentally. It was well inside her flat, so there was no possibility of its having been posted through the letterbox, an idea which she discarded almost as soon as it occurred to her. There was only one possibility, then. The man, whoever he was, who had asked her to write the line of poetry along with her signature, had brought it here himself. The jolt in her chest again; the door had been open. Still and silent, she remained on the sofa, considering her options. Was the man still here? The small flat wasn’t exactly full of hiding places, but she hadn’t exactly checked behind all of the doors. She was conscious of a need to act, but not sure exactly what to do. Surely she couldn't call the police and say a stranger had broken in simply to leave a scrap of paper on her coffee table! A stranger...
A wave of nausea passed through her, and for a moment she thought she might vomit, but after two deep breaths she stood up.
“Peter?” she said aloud, into the silence.
For a moment, nothing happened, and she felt slightly foolish, like she’d spoken aloud during a dream. There was a quiet rustling from the direction of the front window. Too late, she realised what had bothered her from outside – she wouldn’t have drawn the heavy red curtains before leaving in the daylight that afternoon. He must have noticed, as she had, that hiding places were in short supply, and drawn them before she got home, slipping behind them while she recovered from her fall into the flat. Risky, but it had worked.
He stepped forward, and two things were immediately obvious. Firstly, it was the man who had asked her to sign the book just a few hours ago, who must have rushed straight here from the bookshop. The second thing was more startling: before, she had only seen a shy-looking man in his mid-forties, face half hidden behind lank hair and bulky glasses, further disguised by a thick woollen hat. Looking again, she now saw a face she hadn’t seen for seventeen years.
“Peter.” She said again. Not a question this time.
A beat before his reply.
There was a moment's silence before he spoke again.
She didn't need to ask which one. They stared at each other.
“It wasn't your choice!” he spat, almost at the same time.
Penny's expression darkened, but her voice remained calm.
“Wasn't my choice? Who's choice was it?”
She stared at him.
“What do you want, Peter? An explanation?”
Still, he was silent.
“Fine. I couldn't have done it. I certainly couldn't have done it alone, and you, as you may remember, were nowhere to be seen. You left me alone, and it was the only thing I could have done.”
“The only thing!” He exploded, “the only fucking-”
She grimaced. For some reason, swearing grated on her. Her mother, probably.
“Oh that's rich. That is fucking great. You're Little Miss Sensitive now, I suppose? Little Miss Fucking Poet, who can't abide a fuck or a shit here and there but doesn't bat an eyelid at murder?”
She took a deep breath.
“Peter…” she tried to speak more softly, gently, “I'm sorry. Not for that. I had to. But I didn't call, or- I didn't recognise you, even! I-”
“Had to? Why do you keep saying that?”
“Well, my family…”
“You never gave a fuck what your family thought, Penny.”
“You're right. Ok, not my family. But I didn't have a choice, I couldn't have... You were gone, and…”
He interrupted her.
"Do you regret it?"
"I was twenty. No."
"Why are you here?"
He glanced at the scrap of paper from the bookshop, which Penny was still holding. She stared, uncomprehending. It was a fragment of a line from the poem. She tried to remember the whole poem. It wasn't regretful, even then she hadn't been sorry. It was merely… reflective. A comment on the strangeness of being able to choose a living thing's ending. Teenage drivel, really, but then she'd been barely more than a teenager. She didn't understand. Then, after a moment, she did. She had been thinking of the whole poem, not of the scrap she was holding. It was part of the third line of the poem, which read “...that I should decide you can't go on existing”. But it had been torn - in a way that looked quite natural, but that she now realised must have been very deliberate, across the word “you”, so only a part of the letter u remained. The words on the piece of paper she was holding read “I can't go on”.
She felt the meaning of those words like a bucket of cold water thrown over her head.
She looked up at Peter.
"It's a suicide note."
He smiled, sadly.
Julie paused at the door and turned fleetingly to Hugh. 'Remember when you could have as many as you wanted?'
The uniformed man stared into the retina identification device and the door clicked. 'Twenty minutes'. He held the door open just long enough for Julie and Hugh to enter, then slammed it behind them. The light was low but the door's absorbed echo told them that the room was neither large nor small, and full of liquid. Their eyes accustomed to the light.
'No neglect,' said Hugh.
'I'm just saying when you only get one child you look after them.'
'Why would anyone neglect a child?' replied Julie.
'Heir and a spare.' Hugh laughed. 'That's what kings used to say. Just saying, if something happened to one, you had another.'
'Now we look after the one.'
Julie held his hand and they walked into the centre of the room. A room thinly lit and filled with vertical cylinders of thin purple liquid, in the corner of each a small pink baby.
'Thirty seven weeks,' mused Julie. 'They're all beautiful.'
'I preferred it when they stayed inside you,' replied Hugh. 'I think they're really ugly. My dad said I was ugly until I was two years old. I don't think he even picked me up before that. certainly I know he never changed a nappy.'
'You will though.'
'Yes, I will.'
'I'd report you-'
'I know. I will. I want to. You don't need to invoke the law on me.' Julie saw the look of hurt on Hugh's face but said nothing. Better to keep him on his toes. She prodded further. 'You've agreed to take time off. The full six months.'
'Yes.' Hugh was irritated.
Hugh snapped. 'I'll take six months, but don't expect them to give me an easy ride when I go back. I'll need help. They let you have six months but the hard bit is getting back onto the career escalator after that. Probably a good thing we can only have one. Never let me back on if I did it twice.'
'At least this way it's the same for both of us. The same experience. We can both be there at the birth, we can both feel the same emotions. Not like the old days when I would have been too tired to make a connection. I've not heard anyone say that they miss twelve hour labour. Or stretch marks. Or complain about how good their sex life still is after a child.'
'There's a tiny chance-'
But Julie broke Hugh off mid sentence. 'It's just a tiny chance. What do they say? Two percent of women can still conceive. One and a half percent of men aren't sterile. The chance is tiny. This is the one baby we're going to have. Don't even think about anything else.'
Hugh chewed his lip. 'What if we get it wrong?'
'They're all perfect.'
'But what if we're not compatible?'
'That's why we're here.'
'It's a bit touchy feely.'
Hugh couldn't get used to the way Julie said 'it's science'. She said it with a conviction that he didn't subscribe to. Science could make mistakes, he knew that. She didn't.
'What?' asked Julie playfully. 'We need to start. We don't have long.'
They walked past each of the glass cylinders. Julie willed each near fully formed baby to raise its head, to somehow acknowledge a connection. They all contained an element of her DNA and Hugh's DNA. Their body shapes were all familiar, yet different. Screened to perfection. Guaranteed. What did that mean? What happened if something went wrong? No, it never did. Nothing ever went wrong. Nobody had ever said anything had gone wrong with any baby from this facility.
'We'll walk round again,' suggested Hugh.
Julie wasn't sure. One of the babies was meant to make a connection. They had first choice of the entire batch. It was a privilege. Perhaps that was better than three or even four connections and having to make a difficult choice. After all, if you chose your favourite and then there's a problem, what might the others have been like? No, it was better this way. It sometimes happened. It wasn't how anyone wanted it to be, but sometimes it happened on the second rotation.
'We're making too much noise,' concluded Hugh. 'We need silence. Then we need to walk slowly.'
Julie didn't agree, she wanted the babies to feel her and Hugh, wanted the baby to be comfortable with their words and their footsteps. She wanted to walk round in as natural a way as possible.
'It's like Brave New World,' she said.
Julie knew he had never read the book. 'Sex for pleasure. And now babies grown outside any woman's womb. I know we had to work out how to do this to ensure we survived, but isn't this a miracle?'
'We,' laughed Hugh.
'Ah, science.' Hugh could never resist a barb, it ate him up until he released it. Hugh started his second circuit of the cylinders. Julie caught up immediately. At each cylinder they paused, willing the baby to acknowledge their presence. Time and again nothing.
But on the very last cylinder the baby raised its head and - Julie was sure of it - he smiled. She was so sure that it became a permanent fixture of her dinner party conversation. She reached out her hand but Hugh slapped it down and pulled her towards the door. It opened.
'Eight seconds left. You cut it fine,' said the uniformed man. 'We'll prepare him now.' He handed them a card with a time two weeks ahead. 'You're invited to the birth of your child,' he said, as if this was the first time he had said the words to anyone. 'Of course you know it's a boy. Have you selected a name yet?'
It was three in the morning when the alarm went off. It was a sound the whole town had gathered to hear. It was the only noise that seemed to breath relief into the musk of death that lay over these surroundings. The slow shuffle of feet, the murmurings and the silent acceptance of the oncoming doom only made this funeral march more dreadfully long.
Look at these people, one particular habitant felt nothing but pity when he saw them. This district, a square inch on a map, only had one purpose and its' residents only one goal: the divine end. Standing on top of the stack of caravans, hidden away beneath the belly of the beast and at the tip of what would seem like the gate of hell to the neighbouring villagers, lay a small boy eyeing the marchers.
Upon closer inspection, the boy is not so small. Rather thin and malnourished of sunlight, almost a man but not quite. Unlike his more "radiant" counterparts watching the marchers from the balconies and small windows of the man-made towers of homes, he had camped himself at the top of the tower. It was nearing the time to end his very own misery.
He clutched the small bag, palms sweaty, more conscious of its weight with each lift. He lost himself in his forte, his studies, and recalled the countless hours his heart cried for mercy and justice. There was no rush for this task to be completed, no cry for help that asked to see it done, and no gain but that of a moral right freely given back to its owner. The alarm rang again, reminding its entrants of their last chance to turn away or to walk faster.
Nick-named as "The Dead End" this was the only district that provided a rather strange service to its people, a silent and often bright clearance of their exsistence, funded of course by its loyal government.
There were only two types of people that entered this district on this particular date. One type is the kind looking for a peaceful end, either stricken with an incurable illness or one who had come to the realisation that the next few years will be worse than the ones past. Some of these shuffle back, head down, quietly exit as quietly as they had made their decision.
The other type is far simpler, those that want a taste of a forbidden fruit before their time. Rumours have it that some of these people have come back, tricked death and lived to tell the tale but also kept its secrets. The small boy was one of these people. No rather, his very desire for these past years was to be this particular type of person.
A mentor of a sort had warned and guided him of flirting with death. Nonetheless, he gave him the tools to survive there.
The boy opened his small bag and in one swift stroke, cloaked himself in his brother's cape. He dared not to look at his brother in the bag. Before the stench could reach his nose he closed the small sack and hurried forwards. The time has come. Justice awaits, he thought.
He gently crossed the line into Dead End and slipped past its broken, wooden barriers which was as weak its some of current residents. The alarm rang for the third time, three quick short breaths of air and then a silent end. The boy gripped the bag tightly, which he now carried like the womb of a pregnant belly, curious and patient.
The bright light softly clouded his eyes, he squinted and toppled over.
When the dust cleared, and as soon as he came upon the realisation of his existence and the disappearance of his cape, he immediately reached for his bag.
The wave is like a wall of black water, blocking out the moon. The spray hits his face and momentarily blinds him. He knows it is madness to leave the bridge, even just for a second, but by now he is at peace with his particular kind of madness: he feels alive when he is most at risk, when he feels his own smallness against the world. Don’s dream had always been to steer a vessel through the elements that rage without caution, to meet the power of the sea with his own power as an individual.
He staggers back up the bridge ladder; gripping the handrail on both sides, head down bracing against the wind. If he makes it through the storm, he will return to the map. He will unfold the thin weather-worn paper and trace his journey through Kamchatka Peninsula. Tomorrow he will meet the Russian seaman Mikhail and his crew. Mikhail, a man of few words is happy to accompany him on his mission and he will be rewarded handsomely.
For Don nature was to be conquered, mastered, controlled. This journey will be no different. He feels a thrill when he imagines tracking down a pod of Orcas on their migration along the peninsula. His employers have offered him good money for a large female and he is eager to round up one of these imposing beasts. He anticipates the momentum of the capture and the power it will take. It feels like a prize to him, a prize he will earn through his skill and strength. He sips from his hip flask, clenching his teeth and sucking the fiery liquid down the back of his throat, he imagines the rush he will feel when he hauls in his catch.
On the morning of the capture, the water is eerily still, its glassy surface broken only by the dorsal fins of a female orca and her calf. The shiny black triangles cut through the water, a mere suggestion of the creatures beneath the surface. Don had been unprepared for the ease with which the animals approached his rusty trawler; they were inquisitive, playful even. The baby refused to leave the mother’s side. Mikhail was busy with the apparatus, debriefing his team, getting the herring ready. Don took a swig from his flask. As the purse seine net was lowered, a further two Orcas swam towards the boat, could this be an attempt to warn the mother and calf? Don wondered absently. He didn’t need more. He had to focus on the mother. It took surprisingly little time to haul the female onto the boat. The baby and the other two adults continued to circle the net, emitting noises that silenced Don and his men. The high-pitched squeals echoed around them, piercing their souls.
That night, Don left the bridge again, this time to walk down the steps into a night that was cold and still. It felt like the waves had been silenced and the sea was in mourning. The only sound Don could hear was the memory of the click and squeal of the baby whale pulsing in his temples. He approached the captured orca, now lying immobile on the ship’s deck in the inflatable sling. He ran his had along the hard smooth skin and bent down to look into the whale’s eye. The thin blue iris circled a pupil that seemed as big as a moon and as black as the night. He lay next to her and began to weep.
Our office had an invisible scale,
a measure of who loved and who hated you.
Every day, each one of slid from side to side
as you bullied us into more, more , more
then laughed and scooped
the weakest to your chest.
Now you’re an Avatar on Facebook
I miss your face, just get
a photo of a white cloistered room.
A place that stops breaths but not yours
you’re off to beat cancer roar, roar, roar
just another marathon you can win.
Some use their positions of power
to belittle, keep down - not you
more a suction beam importing us.
I drag my bookcase from the wall
in search of comfort, my leaving card,
spot-on words in your careless scrawl.
I wish you a graceful arc of days,
not down to a soft landing in the earth
but rising up like beer bubbles in your nose,
the taste of salt from a loved one’s skin,
another win in your quest to be
Ami is really upset with me. She wants to meet tonight, says she needs to see me, but I reminded her that me and Natalie are taking the kids out for dinner tonight to celebrate Jack's exam results. She says it's always something, but of course it is! I have a family, and she knew that from the start. Ami means a lot to me, she really does, but she needs to understand that there are things I just can't get out of. Things I don't want to get out of. She'll just have to wait until tomorrow night.
Shit shit shit! I went round Ami's last night. She's bloody pregnant! She took a test, one of those ones that tells you how far along, and it said 7-8 weeks. I can't believe this. We were careful! I don't want any more children. And Natalie can never find out about this, it would destroy us. I don't know what to do. Ami was really upset, she says she wants to keep it and raise it with me. Is she crazy? Hasn't she been listening to me? I asked if it was even mine and she went mad. We had a big blow out and then I left. She sent me a message last night asking if I love her. I haven't replied.
I popped round Ami's last night to apologise but also to tell her that I don't want the baby. I said i'll stand by her through the abortion and everything but that we can't keep seeing each other after that. She seemed to take it okay actually, she said she understands that I don't want any more children, but that she has some thinking to do. I guess I don't mind if she decides to keep it, but I can't be involved, maybe I should tell her she has to move away if she keeps it. This is all getting much too complicated and Natalie suspects that something is on my mind. She knows when I'm stressed and she keeps probing me. I'm sick of all the lies, this has gone way too far.
Bitch! The bitch is bribing me! Ami says she's keeping the baby, but if I want her to go away, I have to give her 5 grand. There is no bloody way I can give her that much without Natalie noticing. How can I explain away 5 grand? She said that if I don't then she's telling Natalie about us and the baby. I don't know if she really will, but with the hormones and all that, who knows! Maybe I can borrow the money from someone... I can't believe she's doing this to me.
Natalie is getting really suspicious now. I'm so strung out, I'm snapping at the kids and being a complete bastard to be honest. Maybe I should just tell her... she might leave me but if I continue the way I'm am she's going to leave me anyway. I can't bear all the bloody secrets.
I told her. I don't know how I did it but I finally told her. I already feel tons better, well, not exactly better because she's devastated, she was so shocked and hurt. I feel like crap, but telling her was the right thing to do. I hope she'll forgive me and we can move through this. I hope the kids don't find out. Why oh why did I even start anything with Ami. I hate myself right now.
Ami kept calling me last night, when I was in with Natalie, talking things through. Natalie went to stay with her mum for a couple of days and has come back saying that she wants to stay together. She's still really pissed though, understandably, but it's such a relief. We were in the middle of a big talk and my phone rang so I ignored it, then it rang again and Natalie asked if it was 'her'. I nodded and she snatched the phone from me and answered it. She really gave Ami what for, told her she knows everything and there's no way Ami is ever getting any money from us, and that I'm not having anything to do with her baby and if she comes anywhere near us again or even tries to contact us then Natalie will be on to her friend at the social services, tell him all sorts of lies about the way Ami treats her baby. My baby. I feel terrible, but at the same time I feel hopeful that we'll actually be able to put all of this behind us.
This is going to be a rough ride. Natalie can barely bring herself to touch me. Things are really tense at home and the kids know something's up with us. I haven't heard from Ami since Natalie spoke to her on the phone, so I guess Natalie's threat worked. I hope Ami is doing okay. Her 12 week scan should be coming up soon... I know this is so stupid of me after everything but I find myself thinking about that kind of stuff a lot. I wonder how Ami is feeling, if she has morning sickness, if she wants to find out the sex of the baby, if she's started to think about names. I'm not sure I can have a kid out there and not be a part of its life.
I had a message yesterday from Ami. She said don't worry, this is the last I'll hear from her, but she just wanted to let me know that the baby is gone. Just like I wanted.
We have raised ourselves to unbenevolent echoes of God.
We forget to study the sky,
The long teeth of wheat-fields
We chain to our vanity,
Disdaining to share with our species,
Despising small things...
We spray off the bees
And all creeping things of the earth.
It seems there are those
Who would prefer
To do without the diversity of elephants ;
Each tusk taken
Nails a new coffin.
Another hunter grinning by a lion’s death-
Distortion of pride .
People crouch in sportswear above
The fairest and gentlest
Ghost-child of the thousands upon thousands once,
And not so long ago,
Loping Africa’s grass-plains.
The great whales become invisible deaths-
Easier to miss
The killing of calves
Under cruise ships...
Slicing their tribes’ song-lines,
Scrambling messages for the meetings of sea-giants
-Great cleansers of the netted oceans,
Of our very air...
Instead-let us be as gods-
Let us be Gods!
We train our brains to create in our image
They can do anything! Stamp out buildings,
Let’s microchip the world
To make our new creations need us!
Your dear creation is quickly passing Your gift of power
To our inventions,
Attuned to destroy Your’s at a button’s touch...
Unless-in every heartbeat-
A lighter walking,
To recognise each fly as beauty’s harbinger-
That glint of jewelled blue...
The pristine ways of the cockroach...
The sturdy paths of lizards...
And find time to praise
Who, guarding the badger ‘s rest from clumsy killers ,
Bringing their strength to stop the maiming of the forest’s heart
For mass-mutated plants to feed the very cattle that we kill ,
Bring memory of the time
We held our strength more gently
The dominion that sits royally...
In city-top gardens...
The sky remains-
Framed for delight-
Sun-filled clouds, moon’s dance...
Take from that heavenly blue the flights
That bring the bombs
Others of God’s children
In His sight.
The earth has dropped its fruits unquestioningly at our feet
The clock cannot be turned.
May use our lives, to pause,
To cherish this great gift
Power is a slippery thing. To hold on to it you have to do all kinds of slippery things. One wrong move, and it's gone, sliding out of your hands - the more you try to hang on to it, the more it runs away. This is a story of how power can shift, and how the nature of it can change, in the most subtle of ways.
George had been the sort of boy who kicked over other kids' sandcastles on the beach. He grew into the kind of man who deflated his children's castles in the air, with the needle of his words.
I wasn't part of his life after the school day finished. He wasn't in my circle and I didn't want him to be. Nobody I was friends with made little kids cry. I could see straight through him. Charm could be switched on when he needed it; he talked teachers round, girls round, his parents round. The quicksilver of his words slid off his tongue and fooled everyone. Except me. I could see though him as if he were made of glass.
He was loved; there is no doubt about that. Adoring parents who indulged him; friends who sought him our for daring derring-do. He had a succession of girlfriends, all of them glamorous, all of them well-to-do. I watched from a distance as he worked his way through school, then sixth form college, then work, landing a management position in our local supermarket where he quickly gained the reputation as a bully yet one that people were still anxious to please. I kept away, even doing my shopping in the next town so as to avoid him.
I've always had good instincts; growing up with a widowed mother I had to have them, or the amount of time I was spending on my own would have seen me get into all sorts of trouble. George tried it on with me once, after school, on the way home. I metaphorically elbowed him in the face with my words, and earned his contempt - disguised as making fun of me - for the rest of my school days. The truth was, I made him vulnerable, and saw him for who he truly was. He worked very hard to make sure he never got rejected, and I rejected him, with a flash of words. It was a hollow victory though, for I became less popular as a result.
And then we became related. I tried to put my son, James off marrying his daughter. I tried so hard but of course the more I tried, the more determined he became. They were soulmates, he told me. Look at our names, Mum, he said. It's a sign. We're twins from a past life. Coincidentally, both George and I had married late and our children were the same age, much younger than our friends' children. They became an item in the fourth year of school so I wasn't worried; I was convinced it wouldn't last.
But it did. And I was forced to face George at family gatherings, funerals, and finally, and worst of all, my son's wedding. His daughter and I got along well enough. After she became my son's fiancee I had to work at it or I'd have lost my son. I used her name more. Jane. She was little and pale and plain and - if I am honest - lovely. But I didn't want to belong to her family. His wife came from a different town; he'd worked his way through most women and eventually, none of them could stand his need for control and his bullying ways. people still sought him our for friendship, he still had his cool exterior; it was still better to pander to him than become cast out from his affections.
I was icy to him when we met, though my smile. My husband was supportive of me once I explained everything, and he was cold towards him too. And George's wife? She was much like her daughter. I got to know Jane first and could well understand why she was as she was. Wouldn't say boo to a goose, my husband said. her mother was no different. Entirely in George's thrall. I struggled to like her, seeing how she gave in to him, over and over. When George became area manager and then managing director of the whole supermarket chain and travelled more, I saw her change, become more herself instead of the muted version she was whilst her husband was in town.
I thought nothing would ever be any different, but then George started behaving oddly. Forgetting things. Getting up in the middle of the night. Leaving the car in weird places. I suspected long before anyone else in the family, having been a carer for years, I knew the first signs. George had dementia.
'James,' hurry UP!' I shouted at my husband. The pains were getting more frequent; I was losing it. James was terrified, didn't think I was strong enough, worried about me. I knew this because I'd overheard him on the phone to his mum. She's lovely, his mum, but I know what she thinks of me. She thinks I'm a mouse. I know she didn't want us to get married.
I screamed as another wave of pain hit me and my husband rushed to the front door where I was hanging onto the handle, holding myself up. He had my bags in one hand and the car keys in the other. He helped me down the stairs and to the car.
The next eight hours were a blur of pain and screaming and gripping on to life as my body split in half and for a few precious seconds, I became two people before our daughter was born. James paced and held me and rubbed my back and cried when finally, she made an entrance to the world.
'And no pain relief,' he said, in wonder. I hadn't wanted any; wanted to feel every second of it. (Later, lying exhausted in bed, even though it had been a 'quick' birth, I wondered at my stubborness, hugged myself for it).
James cried as he held her. I watched him and thanked God I'd met him, this twin soul of mine. Nothing mattered now; we had our family.
The following I took a breath before calling home. Now that Dad was formally diagnosed he was behaving more strangely than ever. Putting things on, you could say. Shouting more than usual; bullying people just a little more. I didn't want him here just yet. I had my new tiny family and they were all I wanted.
Thinking about him had always been difficult. He'd stamped on my individuality from an early age - I only knew this because of the secret therapy sessions I went to. I'd not even told James about going. As I stared at my daughter, lying sleeping in my arms, I knew I'd do everything to bring her true self out to the world.
When I eventually called home, my mother cried. Dad pretended to forget who I was. When they arrived at the hospital Dad called our daughter 'Jane' repeatedly. He cradled her and told her how much he loved her, something he'd never said to me, at least, not in my memory.
He shook James' hand, and then asked him who he was. The most frightening thing about this was that this time, I didn't think he was putting it on.
The day we took our daughter home was the day we named her; Helen. A strong name, for a girl we'd support and encourage.
'I don't want to go,' I said, aware of how like a petulant child I sounded.
'It's his birthday. We have to go,' Jane said, whirling Helen into her coat, tickling her as she fastened the zip. My wife was a different person these days. To the world, she probably didn't look much different but there was a new fire in her eyes that I didn't recognise. I loved it, but it was a little frightening.
I sighed and grabbed the pram from the cupboard, placed my daughter inside and buckled her up. It was a short walk to the care home. By some weird and interesting coincidence, Mum had started working there the week my father-in-law was admitted, after becoming a danger to himself and his wife at home. He didn't know anyone, now, because if he did he'd have protested at the fact that his son's mother sometimes had to clean him up. Funny how life turned out.
I didn't want to go because George - who in life had been a difficult, bullish man - had become an even more difficult bullish man in his second, almost after, life. Because he didn't remember anyone he was equally angry with all.
But when we arrived, it had got even worse.
They think I don't have a damn clue who I am. they're wrong, so wrong. I am somebody in this town. I've had them all working for me, at one time or another. I've slept with them all. I remember these people. I am George Morton, father of one, manager of Sainsbury's.
They think I don't have a damn clue who I am. They better look after me. I am a somebody in this town.
They think I don't have a damn clue who I am. I'm their boss. All of them. We might not be in the supermarket anymore, but they work for me. They must come when I shout.
They think I don't have a damn clue who I am. They think I don't know my own family. They think I can do nothing. In my head, it's all here. I am...
There are people here to see me. A woman I should know but it just won't come. A baby. A toddler? A man. Hello, they are saying. Hello Dad, hello Papa. This makes me not want to speak. I've woken up in the wrong body. I turn from them. This is all wrong. I want them to go away. I call the nurses, the ones who work for me.
And one appears, and I know her! And this is awful because if I know her and know who she is she is, in fact, my boss. I try to hold onto this thought because there is a key there to why I am here, in this place and not at home.
I do not know. I do not know.
Time passes. I don't know how long but one day a man and a woman come and a child. A walking, talking child who laughs in a tinkly voice.
I'm in my bed. Why am I in my bed? I try to move but my arms won't obey.
They think... I think...
One day I wake and they are all there, all of these faces that I don't know. There is something...something I should... they're not even words anymore. Just thoughts.
I am sorry. There is a picture of a small boy, kicking something on a beach.
I am afraid. Don't they understand?
I want to tell them, I'm wrong. I am just a boy, just a boy who was afraid to be on the other side. Afraid to be the one who built the sandcastle. It's easier to...
They think... there is so much I want to say, but it is just pictures, now. My mouth won't say the words.
They smile at me but they are tired, forced smiles.
I am sorry, I want to say. Can I try again?
Can I start again?
I am not like that, I want to say, and now, lying here, I see everything I've done. I see everything I've...
I'm sorry, I want to say.
I was afraid.
Extract from the journal of Dr Ian Prendergast;
East river Lunatic Asylum
We stepped into a wide corridor not dissimilar to any other that I had encountered in the hospitals I had worked in. The floor was the usual white tile, the walls painted the familiar pale blue. Three gurneys lined the opposite wall end to end. But it was the little things that set it apart. The light fittings encased in wire mesh, restraining straps hanging loosely from the gurneys and the glass window of the dispensary office to my left was run through with reinforcing wire. The usual dispensing hatch replaced with a segmented carousel that prevented anyone from reaching inside, and the door to it sheeted in steel.
There were two men waiting for us, a security guard, in the now familiar dark blue uniform, who was twirling a Billy club by its leather wrist strap. The second man in short sleeved orderly whites watched me intently and I felt myself being summed up. He was average in height maybe five ten, but built like a bull, large neck muscles bulged and the shirt strained under his enormous chest, but it was his forearms, thick as most men’s calves that caught my attention. He smiled at me holding out a hand.
As I took it he said, “You must be Dr, Prendergast? I`m Trent, Do you mind if I call you doc; doc?” (sniff)
I demurred that he may.
His grip was more than equal to my own and in the way of men the world over there was a brief battle to see who would let go first and I can tell you now that I am unsure I could have bested him and was grateful when Penderton cleared his throat, “Trent,” he said, calling a halt to the contest.
The orderly smirked as he let go.
In the months ahead when I would get to know Trent more fully than I could ever have wanted to know anyone, there would be many things about that man that I would come to loath, but the thing I found the most irritating about him was his habit of sniffing at the completion of every sentence.
He turned to the director and said coldly, “You’re late doc?” (sniff)
Astonished at the man’s impertinent tone I glanced at the director expecting him to rebuke him for his insolence, but Penderton just made a face and said, “The ferry was running late,” it occurred to me then to wonder who was the power in this place, that a mere orderly could, without sanction, address the director in this way.
We four stood awkwardly, no-one had bothered to introduce the guard and I was beginning to seriously wonder about their truculence, although this one at least seemed to have a better disposition to the last two, smiling as he nonchalantly twirled his baton.
“Should we be going?” I asked, “I`m curious to see Jacob`s, I mean Dr Blount`s Laboratory.”
There was a wordless exchange between Penderton and the orderly, who shrugged and said, “The docs up on the second floor, he`s got a sweet set up I can tell ya,” (sniff)
As we set off I attempted to make conversation with the orderly, “I don’t mean to intrude Mr Trent but do you have a congestive problem, it`s just that I can recommend an excellent Otolaryngologist.”
“Hey doc I told ya it`s just Trent, even my old man wasn’t no mister and what`s a otora, otolal, whatever it was you said.” (sniff)
“An Otolaryngologist is a doctor that specialises in nose and throat conditions,” I replied.
He gave me a confused look, “And what would I want with one of them.” (sniff)
I looked at Penderton to see if the orderly was pulling my leg or perhaps was unaware of his condition, but the man had a disinterested look on his face and I wondered had he been working with Trent for so many years that his sniffing no longer registered with him.
Trent was still giving me an enquiring look, the guard was still twirling his club obliviously and I gave up, “I just thought perhaps you had a nasal congestion problem, but apparently I was mistaken.”
“Don’t worry doc,” (sniff) he said “we all make mistakes.” (sniff)
I remarked on how quiet it was.
Trent turned and looked at me rolling his eyes, “Yeah it is now that they`ve all had their meds,” (sniff), “But some days it can be pure bedlam,” (sniff)
“Hey doc do ya think that’s why they used ta call asylums bedlams?” (sniff)
He was smiling as he said it and I wondered how many times he`d said that to some visiting physician, playing up the, “Who me, I`m just a plain orderly, not a smart doc like you doc,” (sniff) routine.
To either side of us I noticed doors not unlike the one that guarded the dispensary, with the same riveted edges denoting the steel sheeting, but these had a peephole at head height and above that where I would have expected to find the name of the patient there was only a number in roman numerals.
Trent turned around walking backwards, the boyish grin on his face putting me in mind of a juvenile, though the man was at least nearing fifty.
His rubber soled shoes making Squeet, squeet, noises as they scuffed the floor, he said, “Hey doc how would you like ta meet one of your patients?” (sniff)
The man’s familiarity was beginning to grate and I glanced again at the director, but he seemed as ever unperturbed by the orderlies insubordination.
“I really feel we should be getting on,” I protested; but we had already, as If by some unknown signal come to a stop. To my left was a door with the numerals XI on it and it was to this that the orderly went.
“Better make sure there’s someone home huh doc?” (sniff) he said, going to the door and peering into the spyhole. “Here doc take a look,” (sniff) he beckoned me over, moving to one side to make room.
Curiosity piqued I looked through the portal and pulled my head away, “that’s a girl,” I said, looking at the still grinning orderly.
“Can’t put nothing past you huh doc,” (sniff)
I returned my gaze to the girl in the room, she was in her early twenties with long straight black hair that reached past her shoulders, she was sitting upright on the edge of the bed in a short hospital gown, her knees pressed together, hands resting on her thighs. Her skin was pale almost to grey, which I assumed was a result of lack of sunlight and her face was covered in scratches. Her mouth hung slack, half open; but it was the eyes that drew my attention, dull, unfocused, devoid of any life.
Engrossed as I was in my study of the poor wretch I failed to notice Trent relieve the guard of his club and he hammered the base of it against the door by my ear, causing me to jerk back in fear that there was someone other than the girl on the other side trying to escape.
Trent`s snickering was drowned out by the shriek that emanated from the room beyond. She didn’t begin to scream, instead it erupted from her as if she had been sitting there holding her breath, awaiting her cue. It came in one long piercing unmodulated monotonal shriek that put me in mind of the sound of fingernails on a blackboard.
“She`s a screamer,” (sniff) he said, his grin turning to a leer that made my skin crawl.
“Trent,” Penderton said and I turned, expecting finally for him to rebuke the man; but instead found him wearing a half apologetic smile, and when he caught the meaning of my look, gave me a boys will be boys shrug of the shoulders.
He sighed, “Trent please make her stop, there’s a good man.”
As if she had heard him the scream stopped, but it was only a brief respite as the girl continued just as soon as she had drawn a fresh breath.
The orderly, still smirking pulled a bunch of keys that were attached by wire to his belt loop by an ingenious spring loaded retractable device, he shuffled through them until he found the correct one, and after slipping it into the lock had to turn it three times before the door clicked open. As it swung back the volume of the girls scream increased threefold causing me to wince. She was still sitting there just as I had seen her only her mouth was now fully open.
A new thought struck me, another difference between this place and any other hospital in which I had worked revealed itself. No orderly, nurse or doctor had come running to see what all the commotion was about, not a single inquiring head had appeared around a distant doorway, here in this place this was not considered unusual.
The pounding on a door, the screaming of a patient were I could see now, part and parcel of the daily routine, what had the orderly said, that this place could at times be bedlam.
As Trent approached the girl she stopped once more, but again only to regain her breath and as he sat next to her she resumed her shrieking. With surprising tenderness he put one arm around her shoulder in what I can only describe as a fatherly way, in truth judging by the difference in their ages they could quite easily in any other circumstance pass for parent and child. But then he turned, winked at me, conspirator to co-conspirator, and cupping her left breast with his other hand, squeezed hard.
It was as if someone had thrown a switch; the girl went silent, her mouth was still wide open but not a sound now issued from it. Her eyes retained the same empty unfocused stare and then the unmistakable ammonia stench of urine wafted across the cell to me and I saw the quickly spreading dark stain at the crotch of her gown and I realised that all this had been for my benefit.
A lesson was being taught and I could almost hear the orderly’s voice in my head, “Scream all you want doc, (sniff) aint no-one gonna come, (sniff) aint no-one gonna care.” (sniff)
And with growing horror I realised too that apart from Jacob, no-one outside of this institution knew where I was, that somewhere in this building a cell could be waiting, a cell with no name, just a number on the door and for the first time ever I felt truly afraid for my life.
At some instinctive level I understood also that this was a test, that if I showed any compassion towards the girl things would surely go bad for me, and that someone was watching me.
So, affecting a bored look and with a casualness I did not feel, I turned straight into the directors gaze.
His grey eyes were hard as he examined my face for any sign of weakness.
I cannot tell you where I found the reserve to hold my disinterested look and with forced indifference I said, “Very instructive I`m sure, but can we get on, Jacob must be wondering what has become of me.” I held his gaze through all of this and after a moment his shoulders relaxed “Trent.” he said.
Behind me I heard the orderly say in an almost kindly tone, “Daddy will be back to tuck you in just as soon as he can pet.” (sniff)
And I was reminded of one of my father’s favourite dictum's: “To truly know the nature of a man give him dominion over another.”
And I resolved that before I ventured onto this island in the future, to ensure that at least one other person knew of my whereabouts.
The Gates of Hell
People say I look incredibly humble and nice. They also think I’m like the nerdy guy in that novel, you know the one, where the main character has autism…. but still manages to get himself a wife. Half of Silicon Valley self identifies somewhere on the spectrum. And I’m no different except that I’m a one-man world bank. And like the rest of the valley’s nerdy layer I am without emotional intelligence. Actually I’d say that I am more like the Russian Orthodox church—ruthless.
Melinda says she just wants a normal life. Why marry a famous aspie man if you want a normal life? In fact, why marry at all? This, she tells me, is way too literal and not a very Catholic thought. You see SHE is catholic. And when we met the Pope (another man with a position of power), holy communion, did she have some fast talking to do about her birth control projects! Now my folks were Congregationalists a way more decent and rational cohort than her fancy vestment brigade… Don’t tell her I said that…Anyway I was relieved when someone messaged me that the Vatican doesn’t have a seat on the United Nations …
So, I want to bring you in on a subject about which every world citizen should be worried. It keeps me up at night more than the megawatts of blue light I’ve absorbed since I was twelve. No, it’s not Climate Change, Malaria or Donald Trump. It… it's a type of…a kind of…. overwhelming FEAR I’ve been getting about Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Robots. Ed Horowitz thinks I’m hallucinating. But I am sure I saw a man pretending to be ME talking to CNN. He was plugged in. And he was telling the audience not to worry about privacy laws and that we should be helping Donald Trump keep Zorro out of the United states…And let me be clear I do not want to share my position of power with a robot! no because I know they are only a degree or two different from me and they’ll be even more like the Russian orthodox church— and as you know by now that’s ruthless
Well whether you believe me or not I want you to see that our planet needs a vision for the kind of robots we want. We do not need a cast of loony tunes who can turn against us like a Chinese war ship in the south china sea. Personally, I believe the AI robot prototype should be Rosie the Jetsons maid. And going forward the world needs a moral operating system or MOS. Let’s program it into all robots and humans alike. The market opportunities are dazzling. And I’m proud to announce that Microsoft has started development work on the first Microsoft moral operating system (MMOS) this year. The upfront costs for development are enormous. To tell you the truth consultation on end user requirements have almost stopped. The other day Australia walked out of a survey group because Japan believes Robots should be able to harpoon a whale. And get this, most countries think robots should not be allowed to own a gun and so America walked out of the ‘actions that are clearly immoral’ think tank.
It’s going to be hard …but then Melinda and I have always liked a coding challenge. Look if all else fails we’ll just pray.
Anchorage, 7 July 2024
The aerial bombardments continue through the night, although of course there is no night here at this time of year. The explosions barely register beyond the pounding noise, but it is the thick plumes of smoke that rise high into the sky that are most noticeable. I don't think we've properly seen the sun for a week.
All through the city, cafes and bars appear closed although if you know where to look, many continue to try to operate as normal in underground rooms. But there are huge risks. Last week a Chinese ground penetrating bomb sought out a crowded whisky bar. There were no survivors.
Food is running low for the oil workers trapped in the city. Oil production in Alaska is negligible since Prudhoe Bay fell to Russian forces, who are at this moment advancing southwards. Even if the field restarts production it will be with Russian not Western American workers.
We are all resigned to the fact that it will rest with the Chinese and Russians to resolve this war. What started as an American Civil War, and I think most would agree that this was a direct response to the start of America's self imposed isolation in 2019, has become a fight for America's oil. Neither Western nor Eastern America can muster the soldiers nor the technological muscle to play any significant part of the fight for control of Alaska. Indeed, since the 2023 San Francisco earthquake, Western America have been without a strategic base and seem at the mercy of whichever side has the confidence to invade.
Of course all the money is on China, who are believed to be preparing the largest ever army in the Pacific. If rumours are to be believed, this army consists predominantly of those men who have been unable to find partners, a pool that we estimate at 33 million, a consequence of the years of one child policy.
But we should never underestimate the ability of the Russian army to change the course of a war through strategic alliance and pure cunning. Although significantly smaller than the Chinese army, we may yet see Russia as the kingmaker in this war. And of course although neither side has used nuclear weapons yet, equally neither side will rule this out.
But it is the fight for Alaska that will shape the outcome of the war. What started as a Civil War has become a fight for possession of a country that no longer exists. Alaska is strategic only for the huge volume of oil that it produces. Once this has been resolved we fully expect the war to move to Texas. And satellite images of troop movements suggest that both Russia and China are preparing their invasions.
The consequences for Eastern America if Texas falls cannot be underestimated. Despite the rise of shale gas production, Texas is the single most important strategic producer of oil in the country. Eastern America's hold on Texas looks weaker and weaker as the days pass. Without the foreign currency that this oil brings, it will be hard for the leaders to maintain their hold on power. What secret deals are New York making as we speak?
On the other side of the border Canada maintains its neutral stance and vows to stay out of the war. Asked whether they would be able to work with a state next door controlled by China or Russia, the Canadian spokeswoman suggested that they had good relations with both countries and were in regular dialogue with the leaders. She reiterated that Canada would never allow troops from either country to pass through, and that Canada would vigorously defend its own sovereignty if necessary.
As I write this I have heard that we are now under siege. We will have to start to conserve our food. The water supply has been cut off.
My father died last week.
As we stood there dressed in black, everyone mourned the loss of a husband, a brother, an uncle or a friend but my eyes shed no tears.
“He was a good father …” the minister’s voice had been echoing through my empty heart but these words tore open those veiled wounds once again and they bled freely like the day they were born.
“A war veteran who cared for others more than himself. The sacrifices he made will live on in the hearts of those dearest to him,” The minister continued.
His long list of medals was an impenetrable testament to his virtue, stretching over every wrong.
“He was a great man.”
A great man.
I threw the dirt over his coffin and watched as the soil swallowed him whole and he was trapped beneath the dirt just as he had trapped me.
My faith in God was a thing of the past. There was no afterlife where all the wrongs done to others were righted. He lay there in silence.
My father, my devil, my God.
My mother brushed my hair aside and laid a gentle kiss on my cheek before wishing me good night. She turned on the night light to drive away all those wicked monsters of the dark and with a final comforting look, she glided out of the room. She didn’t know that one of those monsters always found me.
As she shut the door behind her I begged for sleep to welcome me into its arms but as the hours passed fear prised open my eyes every time until I heard those familiar, hushed footsteps outside my door. The door pushed open and his heavy shadow fell across my bed. I shut my eyes wishing to just float away or disappear but his footsteps drew nearer.
His heavy, pitted hand crept over my body to cover my mouth and lay there like a slab of stone but there was no need, for my days of struggling were long gone.
My ordeal began just like it had done the day before and just like it had done the day before that. I used to try and turn it into a game, imagining myself climb across that repulsively neat hair and slide down the aquiline, hard nose of that hard, hard man waiting for it to end. Nothing I did could hide that pain. Those unyielding eyes and that straight-lined, chiselled face straight as a dagger piercing through me and tearing me in two.
As his hand lifted and the panting began to fade, he wiped away the tears from my eyes and his soothing whispers in my ear told me that he was my daddy again. The bristly hairs of his moustache caressed my cheek as his tender kiss promised me that he had changed. That it would all be alright. That he still loved me. But he could never look me in the eyes.
Warm tears stained my pillow as I held on for comfort deep into the cold night.
I ushered the last visitors out sombrely with their kind consolations still scurrying through my mind.
Walking over to mother, I saw her hand resting on the table with her fingers drumming away as she looked out the window, deep in pained thought.
She had never known and she never would know. His untarnished imprint upon history will remain so so perfect.
I held on to her shoulders and consoled her, telling her what she wanted to hear.
It would all be alright.
I slipped away to my bedroom and the emotion poured out of me freely as I cried and cried. Oh, that great, great brute of a man who hollowed out my body and scooped it dry, leaving an empty shell behind.
With his death, I thought the chains that shackled me to the ground had finally been cut free but as my eyes wandered to that bed again, the same old dread greeted me and I knew these chains would be dragging behind me forever more.
A great man?
Go places no one else would go,
the back end of a Chinook,
camera clamped to your adventurer shoulder;
Thick of it, soldier poet,
part luck, part confidence,
a bullet proof vest between you and the snipers;
Stand tall, charisma oozing,
and your men follow you,
ants after the sweetest jam;
A problem is only a step
away from a solution,
mind computes intelligence, a virus;
Knife and self-reliant string
charcoal and needle,
go collect wild plums, tiny, sweet;
Out there, so witty,
your stories made me laugh-
I trusted your jokes, your lies.
So weak- you lost your strength
when you shaved your rough beard,
Samson in the domestic temple;
No big picture, no vital detail
it’s all trivial now, the dishwasher,
the make of phone…fussing over nothing;
The whole world still must revolve
your now flacid body, self centred,
never fast enough for you;
All you can think about….
your wishes, your indelible footprints
stamp over my pulped life;
A constant need to be propped up,
to be gold-plated reminded you are unique,
no one could possibly be as good as you;
And you- you are afraid to admit
your feelings, my existence,
that you are human.
Frank stood alone to one side of the small knot of people wondering what to do next.
Until this moment everything had been perfectly choreographed. The Rosary on Wednesday evening, followed by the wake, then last night the removal from the front parlour above the bar to the church, and this morning the funeral mass followed by the burial.
All the incense had been burnt, the holy water splashed, every prayer and incantation uttered now all that was left was the work of the gravediggers. The two men in coveralls lounging against a headstone four graves down from his Da`s plot, which was temporarily covered with timber, each dragging on cigarettes, shovels resting in the crook of their shoulders, waiting for the mourners to depart so they could get on with their work.
No matter how many funerals he`d been to in his fifty eight years this had always been the most awkward point in proceedings, people milling around, desperate to be anywhere but in a graveyard, particularly on a beautiful May morning like this one; but no-one wanting to be the first to make a move towards the gate.
“Sorry for your loss!”
Frank took the outstretched hand, “Thanks Miss Dillon.”
His old primary school teacher looked solemnly up at him, her back still ramrod straight despite celebrating her ninetieth birthday less than a month ago. “He was a decent man, and charitable to a fault, even to those undeserving of it,” her eyes flicked past him to his right as she spoke, a trace of annoyance clouding them as she did.
Frank resisted the urge to look around, to see what had caught her attention. Her words had been solicitous enough, but her tone had been snippy, as if she didn’t mean them.
He thanked her for her kind words, thinking, old bat never lost it, as he did. Miss Dillon had taken an instant dislike to him from the first moment they`d met, though he`d never understood why, making his first four years of primary school a living hell, taking any and every opportunity to punish him.
He waited until her back was turned before looking over his right shoulder to see what had caught her attention.
Forty feet away a clutch of elderly women stood huddled together, their body language broadcasting their anxiety. He wondered who they were, not locals that`s for sure, he thought, as the owner of one of the only two pubs in the village he knew everyone within a ten mile radius. And yet.. and yet there was something oddly familiar about them, he`d have sworn he`d seen them somewhere before, probably some of me Da`s cousins, he decided, yeah that must be it. But he wasn’t convinced; would cousins be too nervous to join the family?
“Honey,” a hand touched his arm.
“Huh? Oh Maura, sorry I was away with the fairies,” he smiled at his wife, feeling oddly guilty for no reason he could think of.
“Are you alright?” she looked genuinely concerned.
“What? Oh yeah just a little, you know….” He waved a hand in the general direction of the grave, noticing that people were starting to edge towards the exit.
“We should be going,” Maura said, her voice full of understanding sympathy, “people will be expecting…”
“Right, right,” they`d invited anyone who`d cared back to the pub for drinks and sandwiches, it wouldn’t do to be the last to arrive.
He pulled the car keys from his pocket, “Will you go on ahead, get Padraig to open up, I`ve… I just want to….” He looked around distractedly.
She touched his arm again, “You sure?”
“Yeah, yeah, you guys go on ahead, it`s only half a mile, the air will do me good,” he smiled to show she needn’t worry.
“Okay, if you`re sure,” she hesitated a moment as if uncertain whether she should say anything, then went to join their grown up children, and their children, to explain the change in plans.
When he was certain they were all on their way out, he turned back to the small cluster of women, and began wending his way around the plots between them, a need to find out who they were gnawing at the back of his mind.
As he approached they huddled together, whispering amongst themselves in obvious disagreement, that is to say the tallest of them was disagreeing with the other four, and by the time he was within a few feet of them, they were prodding their unwillingly nominated spokesperson towards him.
Awkwardly she thrust out a hand, “Sorry for your loss," she said with real feeling, "your father was a good man.”
Her Brummie accent was unmistakable and triggered a memory, suddenly he knew where he`d seen these women before, at Harry`s funeral in Birmingham ten years previously; although “met” would be stretching the meaning of the word to near breaking point, “seen” would be more accurate.
He`d been with his mam, Maura wasn’t able to make the trip, a bad case of the flu, and it was a moment not unlike this one. They were in the graveyard and six women had almost mobbed his Da, crowding around him, smiling and jabbering at him. Frank had made to go over and see what the commotion was about when his mam had grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and simply said, “No, leave it,” he was about to protest when he noticed she had, (and when he recounted what had happened to Maura when he got home, it was the only time in his life he ever used the word) “She had the most beatific smile on her face as she said it,” he`d told her.
That was to be the second most astonishing thing he`d seen that day, the first was watching his Da, a bear of a man, wrap his arms around Harry`s sobbing live in “Friend” David Blevin, as if he were a long lost relative, hugging him tightly for a full five minutes, murmuring, “There, there, I know, we all miss him,” tears spilling down his own cheeks as he did.
“You were friends of Harry`s,” he said, “I saw you at his funeral.”
The tall woman smiled, “Your uncle was more than a friend to us, he and your father did more for us than we can ever repay…”
“Your Father saved our lives.” One of the women blurted, her small round face looking shocked as she said it, as if she`d meant to say something else entirely, but the words had escaped her.
“Now Ethel,” the tall woman cautioned.
“Don’t, now Ethel me, Rose O`Leary, Pat Hegarty saved my life, all our lives, including yours, and you know it.”
The woman named Rose smiled at Frank, “You`ll have to forgive Ethel, she`s being a little melodramatic. Your father.... and his brother saved us alright; from the laundries.”
Frank felt a chill sweep across his skin, “The Laundries” an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Young girls who found themselves in the family way shoved by their families into the laundries which were run by the nuns, a form of slave labour dressed up as Christian charity, and for many it was to become a life sentence. Their children sold off to rich Americans, or worse, used as guinea pigs, the latest vaccines tested on them with no-one to care if they survived or not.
A fresh memory surfaced, his Da, face purple with rage snapping the T.V. off as they were watching a documentary on the Magdalene laundries, "Stop watching that shite," he`d thundered, Frank misinterpreting this at the time as a defense of mother church, only now fully understanding what had enraged is father so.
“How….?” He couldn’t think how to articulate the question.
“He gave us money, organised transport to England, had his own little underground railroad as it were. Your uncle would be waiting for us in Fishguard, he`d put us up as long as we needed, helped us get jobs, some of us even got to keep our babies..” she trailed off realising she`d said too much. “Oh Ethel I`m sorry….”
There were tears running down the fat woman`s cheeks, her shoulders heaving though she wasn’t making a sound, the other women patting her shoulders sympathetically, one was rubbing her back; it became too much for her and she turned away from him, burying her face in her hands.
Frank thought of what it must have cost his Da, not in monetary terms, but to his reputation, for a publican in a rural village to get between the church and a lucrative source of income, my God, he thought, with absolutely no sense of irony. And he finally understood all the snide comments he`d endured, the jagged edges of his life slipping together until, for the first time he was able to see the complete picture, his own childhood finally making sense.
Then a horrible thought struck him, and it must`ve shown on his face because Rose smiled, patted the back of his hand and said, “Don`t worry there`s none of them anything to you, your father was a complete gentleman, never laid a finger on a one of us.”
“I wasn’t, I, I….” he blushed.
Recovering he said, “We`re having food and drinks back at the pub, nothing fancy, just sandwiches and cake, I`d be honoured if you`d join us, I`m sure Da would want you to…”
Rose shook her head, “No; thank you, but we couldn’t,” the other women shook their heads in agreement.
“Please, I want my children to know who their Grandda really was, the kind of man he was, you` d be doing us, me, an honour.”
Rose shook her head again, “We`d love to but… well you see, there`s some in this village have memories that`d shame an elephant, it`d be…. Difficult.”
“I`m prepared to beg,” Frank said, “on bended knee if I have to. It seems to me you knew me Da better than I did, and I`d like you to introduce me to him,” and to prove he meant it he actually dropped to one knee, “I won’t take no for an answer,” he declared.
And though he`d never raised his hand to a woman in his life, he thought, and if that old witch says one word out of place I`ll slap her into the middle of next week, middle of next year if need be.
Rose was giggling, an oddly girlish sound coming from a woman who couldn’t be a day under seventy; even Ethel was smiling. “Alright,” Rose said, “You win. You really are your father`s son, that man could charm the paint off the walls when he put his mind to it. Now get up before you ruin your suit pants”
A Great Man?
Whatever made me think that I could do this?
Everybody else here seemed to be indigenous Peruvian, even though wearing various items from elsewhere; these were not the naked forest dwellers of legend. Nobody was smiling, and I had no idea whether to sit or stand.
Fieldwork in a Belgian hospital had not prepared me for this.
I realised in panic that I didn’t know the protocol.
Inside my Deet-sprayed jungle trousers, it felt as if something was crawling its way upwards towards my crotch.
What the hell is it?
I am all at once overwhelmed with an urgent necessity to take a piss.
I have no idea if it is acceptable to leave for this purpose, or where on earth I could relieve myself anyway.
I am on the verge of tears.
How had I ever thought I was qualified?
I can’t even speak without the interpreter-and goodness only knows what those grins mean between him and the man who appears to be in charge.
They said I was a great man for the job.
But the truly great know their limitations in advance, don’t they? At least to some extent?
At least to prevent landing themselves in this kind of situation!
I have been sent here by an international NGO to try to persuade this group to stop hunting jaguar, which brings them some real cash from an Eastern company. At the interview I had been able to speak at length about shamanic societies, the importance of animals like the jaguar for healing journeys, the respect paid to these creatures as “people” in their own right by populations across South America...I realise now how woefully inadequate my academic studies are to the discussions I hope to have. I am equipped only to write papers on the travels of others.
I am to offer recompense to this group if they will, in essence, hand their territories over to be maintained, and monitored, by an international wildlife group concerned to protect swathes of forest, with the focus being on the disappearing jaguar, and with the intention of supporting indigenous lifestyles.
But nobody here seems to be the least bit interested in my first hesitant introduction, except to offer me jaguar skins to buy when this word has been, presumably, translated into...whatever this language may be. Why hadn’t I paid more attention?
What kind of NGO sends complete amateurs out to do this kind of work?
I try to clear my mind, even as I feel overcome by dizziness...
Is it the humidity?
Or long and weary travelling through various levels of altitude?
I could not place where I am on any remembered map.
What if I am ill?
I stifle hysterical laughter at the thought that, THEN, I might at least meet a shaman -who might appreciate the importance of jaguars.
But I have read so much of ayahuasa and the sickening , perhaps –Heaven help me!- irreversible effects of this drug, where tourists lap up shamanic encounters not so very far from where I am ...
If I am to do this job properly, it does not have to be all at once. I remember-many years ago- reading Aristotle’s work on the “great man”-the man of “virtue”- whose virtue stems from his appropriateness, his knowing what to do, actions bound up with character...and they DID say I was a great man for this job.
And I liked the interviewing team...Well, two months ago, I did; they were so enthusiastic, with funds already in place for this mission.
“Our fragile world... importance of predators in the eco-cycle...shamanic affinities with jaguars...ancient ethno-religious myths...”
And-yes-I was flattered, curious, and in need of work, any work...
My studies had been, like those of earlier anthropologists, “from the armchair”, and to get anywhere in my career, my field-work- Ha! THIS was so remote from a field it was laughable- had to become more “adventurous”.
My reasoned plan had been to combine this piece of funded work with time living "as if" a group member...
Yet, Aristotle’s man of virtue was first among equals...here I am unknown and this group seems well beyond my ken.
Trouble is, had they seen too many voyeuristic ayahuasa tourists, too many biologists, wildlife photographers, even crazy groups shooting the rapids on modern rafts, to dole out to me the hospitality that my readings –from-uh-
thirty years ago-indicated as a norm?
Certainly nobody seemed inclined to do more than lounge about, and my tent was growing heavy in my huge pack...
Behind the leader lay a pile of spotted skins.
At least I could make further reference to the purpose for my visit, and, if things got too bad, try to find the chap who had brought me here, in the hopes of persuading him to guide me back to the relative comfort of a shambolic guesthouse two days journey upriver...
I became aware that children were laughing.
And one grabbed hold of my trouser-leg, stroking the fabric. Combined with my particular discomfort, I had great difficulty in not kicking this infant away.
The urge to pee got stronger.
People are clapping and pointing at the child. I resent them for egging it on.
I have never liked being investigated by children, though they can be photogenic; I had hoped to take pictures of beautiful forest dwellers, with live jaguars if lucky, or even as montage, to document my anticipated article, and keep the funders sweet. But this one could not leave me alone it seemed, eventually settling over my boots...Perhaps it –in retrospect, I have no idea of the child’s gender-was trying to make me feel welcome. I remembered reading about one Amazonian tribe where children normally share hammocks with all the adults, including visitors...
Is this a great job but the wrong man?
“So”, I venture, via the interpreter, “Where did those beautiful skins come from?”
The answer is literal: from the forest.
“And why do you hunt them?”
Immediately several skins are spread around me...
”Take them to your place... buy them...they give great magic...."
"Look how warm, how beautiful, stroke it!”
One is draped over the infant at my feet, who snuggles closer.
I am disgusted. Do they not realise, these people who are meant to live in connection with nature, just what they are doing?
What about their beautiful traditions?
Oh, GOD! I am really going to have to pee.
I have no choice.
I snap at the interpreter to excuse me.
And stumble outside across the clearing. I can’t believe there are MORE huts, and then the river...The trees are entangled with vines. I will have to clamber behind one...I just make it ...sweet relief!
I hear strange rustlings! Jaguar? Or worse?
And immediately the sound of laughter-lots of laughter...
A child runs forward and shows me to a hut, where, incongruously, sits a toilet pan surrounded by large leaves, and donated by another NGO, whose logo is engraved into the bowl. It seems completely unused, and a huge supply of toilet paper sits damply stacked beside the leaves.
So, in shame, and relative comfort, I go back to the main hut, where people are sitting about deep in what looks like consultation, which stops as I enter.
The leader speaks urgently to the interpreter.They want to know my exact business, and what I can pay to stay the night within the confines of their village. They have a house I may share, or, if I want to put up a tent, like those earlier “investigators”, as they put it, they can show me a place away from the anaconda tree. There is stifled giggling from all.
Unless I want to film jaguars, in which case there would be just time to direct me to a special spot for the night. They have noticed I have no gun, so would recommend a guide-at a small charge. I hastily assure them that this is not my immediate plan, especially as I am hoping to stay a while.
Eyebrows are raised, and I am again asked what I am prepared to pay.
People speak among themselves. I ask the interpreter what they are saying.
He hesitates, then, “They say the large man seems unhappy. They want to know why.”
This seems the moment!
My reputation at home rests on their compliance; it is time for clarity.
I plunge right in, outlining the deal; if they will agree to the NGO’s plan for guardianship, it would simultaneously enable them to retain this swathe of rainforest safe from lumberers while allowing the wildlife its natural space to rebuild its populations, thus benefiting all. This, at least, sounds rational. I have found my lost purpose. I speak with animation, even.
“But, how do we know?”
“We are paid well for jaguar teeth for that foreign medicine.”
“And jaguars are dangerous.”
“We no longer have enough forest for our needs, we have to do these things to survive at all.”
Quiet glances are exchanged. An old man starts to speak, and stops.
I try to explain the principle of the vicious circle-that, the more they subscribe to external pressures for jaguar teeth in exchange for cash which can buy only Western commodities, the greater the risk to their lifestyle.
But they are not convinced.
“Last time a visitor came, she was going to give us lots of things, American medicines, for diseases we did not have before others came, food ...until we offered her a meal... She shrieked at being given the most prized delicacy of the forest, and so what good will it be for us to keep these ways?”
I want to tell them, in detail, all the research on Western corruption, its devastating effect on the natural world...I hesitate, then realise I am in earnest.
“You people”, I say, “live one of the most enviable lives on this planet.”
The translator looks puzzled...
“We others have lost our way ...I truly wish to learn from you great people.”
At this, the atmosphere changes; there are smiling eyes, at least briefly. Perhaps I can –eventually-do this job!
“Now we drink.
Tomorrow we talk business.
Eat with us.”
Things are looking up.
Could that be peyote they are chewing? No- that’s a Mexican thing.
A warm beer with an American label is put into my hand.
I am elated.
At the rush of sugar. And the unexpected hospitality after the awkward introductions.
This is the life!
Perhaps there will be music?
I realise there is a kind of log I could sit on-it has felt absurd standing over these people, all considerably shorter than myself, for so long.
Once I am settled, two, then three, children immediately pile around and onto my lap.
Stay mellow, stay friendly...this is part of “living with” ...they must like me...
I am suddenly hungry to learn from them!
I notice the delicious smell of roasting meat, and simultaneously remember that, in parts of the Amazon, the piece kept for guests is the monkey’s hand. No wonder that woman lost her enthusiasm. I pray that deer may be on the menu tonight.
I try to put myself into a place where I can accept whatever is offered.
People are now talking quietly and the fire feels like a sanctuary...
Somebody rubs two fingers together near my face; this sign demanding money has become universal. I shrug, rummage , produce the plastic beads I was advised to bring. There are roars of laughter, and suggestions that I am sent to sleep near that anaconda after all. People start telling jaguar stories, about frights, about deaths. When I mention I had read that jaguars ran from people, I am put right in no uncertain terms. With giggling and exhortations not to go out at night alone, not even if nature calls. Everybody guffaws and I am overcome with laughter and beer. I am going to get on really really well with these great people!
“What’s interesting about the soliloquy?”
Silence. Rows of teenagers stare at me blankly. Well, some of them stare. Others are texting under the desk. Nico is gawking openly and unashamedly at Aaliyah’s chest, which is graphically outlined through the cheap cotton of her too-tight school blouse.
His eyes snap to the front. “Miss?”
“Any ideas? Henry has been speaking to his soldiers in disguise, they think he’s one of them. And then they exit and he’s on his own. What’s interesting about that?”
“Um. He’s, like, talking to himself?”
“Well, arguably he’s talking to the audience. But, what’s interesting about what he’s actually saying? Come on, you’ve only just heard Keisha read it so beautifully, you can’t have forgotten already?”
“Um, I think I have forgotten actually.”
An “outstanding” school. Apparently.
“Well, remind yourself.”
Great exam results. Great pastoral. Great facilities.
“You don’t even need to read it, Nico, just look at how it’s set out on the page. What do you notice?”
A hand shoots in the air and I hear an “ooh, ooh!” of realisation. I guess Nico’s off the hook.
“He’s talking in verse now!”
“Good. And why do we think he’s changed from prose to verse?”
Mikayla fiddles with her pen. “Um, because he, like, he’s not pretending to be common anymore? So he’s kinda gone back to posh?”
I’ll take it.
“Good. Now he’s alone he can be himself. But is he happy about that? Or does he wish he could be ordinary. Lee?”
“Can you give me an example from the text to explain that?”
“Someone other than Mikayla? No? Alright, Mikayla.”
“When he’s like, 'not all these, laid in bed majestical can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave'…”
“Good. He doesn’t want to be a hero in this moment. He feels it’s too much responsibility.”
“Miss?” says Ashdon (he didn’t put his hand up, but I’ll let it slide if he’s making an actual point) “why is Henry V a hero anyway if all he did was, like, kill a load of French guys. Like, my Dad is French, would he of killed my Dad?”
“Well, I suppose you have to see it in the context of the time. People at the time thought of him as a hero. He was a great leader, in the play at least, he’s charismatic, he speaks well, he’s good at firing people up.”
“Like Hitler,” says Madison, who has managed to mention Hitler at some point during every lesson this term.
“Or Donald Trump,” says Mikayla.
The bell goes.
Alisha approaches my desk. She waits till everyone else has gone.
“Ben was, like, sitting next to me and I didn’t even want to sit next to him but he sat down and I didn’t have time to move and, like the whole lesson he just kept touching my leg. The whole time. And I told him not to.”
“Oh.” I put down my pen. I try to look like I know what I’m doing. “Has this happened before?”
She shakes her head.
“Well, I think,” I said, my mind racing as I try to recall if I’ve been given any guidelines as to the protocol in this situation, “the best thing would be if I spoke to your head of year about it. Mrs Norton?”
She nods and twists the end of her hair around her finger.
“Was there any thing else you want to talk about?”
“No, Miss. Only, can you not let Ben know that I said anything?”
The first time I met Mrs Norton was when she was giving me the tour in September of this year, the day before term began.
She was saying, “he’s completely turned this school around. In just two years. You wouldn’t believe the difference. I mean he’s a born leader, you just have to hear him speak in assembly. I mean, the kids actually sit still and listen to him, miraculously. But, of course, you’ll have met him at your interview.”
I said, “yes.”
“What was your impression?”
When I’d first entered the room he’d looked me up and down. All the way up and all the way down. On purpose.
“… like someone in control.”
“Oh, for certain. This is the gym. We’ve just had the floor redone over the summer.”
“The English classrooms are just upstairs, where you’ll be spending most of your time, of course. This way. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I know Jack was very impressed with your interview, he told me afterwards, he said you were by far the best.”
“I’m awful in interviews. Fortunately I’ve been here for thirty years, so it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do one. But you’ll have to tell me your secret.”
“Yes, the secret of how you’re so good in interviews.”
“Oh. I don’t think I am, really. I don’t think I have a secret. It’s just…”
At the end he stood up to shake my hand. Then he didn’t let go. He stepped closer to me still holding my hand, his eyes locked on mine.
“… I think, you just have to be yourself.”
And then with his free hand he tucked my hair behind my ear, his fingers brushing my cheek.
“Well, we’re glad to have you here anyway. Honestly, this is a fantastic school since Jack’s been here. Unrecognisable from how it was before.”
That was it. That was all that happened. And if you want to know why I didn’t tell anyone, it’s because there was nothing to tell. And I wanted this job.
And after all, he was a great head. He had turned the school around. He had given opportunities to kids who might otherwise have slid through the cracks. Who was I to mess that up for all those kids who were being given a better chance in life because of him?
Mrs Norton was in her office.
I said, “it’s Ben Warren.”
She said, “Oh, yes?” in the tone of someone who has heard the name Ben Warren all too often.
“Alisha told me he kept touching her leg during class.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll have a word with him.”
“OK. It’s just, she doesn’t want him to know she said anything.”
There’s a knock and the door opens at the same time.
He strides into the room, brushing his floppy hair off his forehead. His shirt is gaping at the neck. He doesn’t wear a tie – it’s his thing.
“You’ve arrived at the opportune moment, as usual,” says Mrs Norton. “We were just discussing Ben Warren.”
“Oh, Ben Warren. What’s he done now? He’s on his final warning already so we can probably exclude him.”
“Catherine was just telling me, he kept touching Alisha’s leg during the lesson.”
Jack nods briskly. “With his record I reckon we’ve got grounds for exclusion. I’ll deal with it. I wanted to talk to you, Sue, about this fundraiser.”
That’s my cue to leave, I know. So I do.
Daisy has a favourite spot for lunch underneath the statue of the great man. Second step down, right of centre, just along from the indent that fills with water and takes days to dry out. Every morning she challenges herself to make a packed lunch that, when she flips the lid from the plastic box, makes her heart skip with anticipation. Today she has homemade felafel and a yoghurt dip, she forgets the proper name. She can't remember how to spell felafel either, but suspects that there might be two 'l's in the middle. She's tempted to check her phone but she's almost at her data limit for the month. She opens the box and yes! it is everything she hoped for. She removes the clingfilm from the dip, and takes the first of four chunks, covering it with as close to a quarter of the yoghurt dip as she can calculate. The texture is exactly what she wanted. The balance between the bitterness of the chickpeas and the sweetness of the yoghurt is just right for her.
Daisy looks up and sees a man standing directly in front, staring straight at her. She can make out his features because she has carefully chosen this spot so that the sun hits her from the side, providing warmth and light in the otherwise dull autumn, but avoiding the bright light blinding her eyes. There's not much to notice about this man. Certainly in a police photofit she wouldn't be able to select any unique features. He is a little older than she is. 'Slave money,' he says. Daisy returns to her felafel. The second tastes as good as the first, but she can't enjoy it with the man standing over her. 'Did you hear me?' She smiles. 'You shouldn't be sitting on these steps.' Daisy chews her way through the second piece, too quickly for her own liking, but feeling under pressure to be able to respond to the man. 'Are you listening to me?' She never opens her mouth whilst she is eating, least of all to talk. 'They should pull this statue down.'
Perhaps at this point Daisy's face becomes quizzical, because the man starts to shout at her. 'See all the buildings here. Beautiful you think. Beautiful everyone thinks. But they're not.' He is pointing at the office building where she works. 'Every single one of them was built with money earned from slavery. The buying and selling of human lives. And that man was responsible.' Daisy looks up at the statue of the great man whom she has never really noticed before. She can't see his face, it's such a long way above her and the plinth is in the way. The man standing in front of her is still pointing, staring intently at the statue's face. 'They should pull down this statue, and every single one of the buildings he paid for. Start again.' He lowers his pointing finger to his side. 'Promise me you'll think about it.' He walks away.
Daisy picks up her last felafel and scoops up a reasonable amount of the remaining yoghurt dip. She has a tissue under her lunchbox which she has kept for the end. She pushes her index finger deep into the corners to tease the last remnants out of the container. She flicks her index finger from her lips and wipes it on the tissue. She raises her head and looks at the building where she works. It is a fine old stone building, with intricate carvings and high ceilings. Hard to heat, she suspects, but you don't get the same character with modern buildings.
A Good Man?
He grips the steering wheel, skin taught across his white knuckles. The rain is pelting the car, turning the windscreen into a mess of smudged streetlamps and car taillights. The bad weather is just one of the many things that have gone wrong since he shrugged on his coat and crept out of the door at 3am, leaving his wife and son asleep in their beds. He was meant to be back before they awoke to begin the regular breakfast routine. Sitting in the cold car peering out through the windscreen wipers sweeping back and forth like a metronome, he is a world away from his warm family kitchen. He checks his watch; they are already an hour behind schedule because one of the men didn’t show up. They were a man down, running late and now the un-forecast torrential rain felt like a definite omen. They should be out by now. They had all run through it so many times. He had pictured it in his head: the three masked men dressed in black running towards the car with holdalls filled with money. At night he dreamt about the moment he would press his foot against the accelerator just as the last car door slammed shut. Yet here he was, waiting. The longer he waits, the more visible he is. Why did he make this decision? As soon as he said yes, it felt life changing in the worst possible way.
“Its just driving a car,” his brother had said as they sat in a wine bar neither of them had ever been to before, and would definitely never come to again. They sat in a booth drinking craft beer, a far cry from their usual Friday night pint at the local. “You’re a good man Paul, nothing is going to change that.” Steve was clever, he knew how to persuade him, he knew that Paul’s image of himself as the good one, the ‘family man’ was important to him. He also knew that Paul would always help out his younger brother if he were in trouble, the brother who was less concerned about doing the right thing. Then there was obviously the money. Kate losing her job at the hotel had put them both under pressure. Driving the taxi had always felt steady, but recently that had changed. They wanted a better life for Rueben, their son, but how could they achieve it? They had stayed up nights talking about putting him into a better school, giving him the opportunities they never had. But years spent scrimping and saving had just about enabled them to keep a roof over their heads and enjoy a biennial package holiday. “This could be it,” Steve said, “just one job and you’re made, I’ll help you work out what to do with it, make it look legit.” He was doing his sales pitch, covering all the bases, “listen,” he paused, his voice hushed and serious, “there’s no weapons involved, only decoys. No one can get hurt. I know the guy that works there: he’s given us the codes. Its failsafe.” Paul turned the beer mat over in his hand, “why me?’ he said eventually, after mentally calculating what he could do with all that money, how he could make life better. “That’s easy” Steve said, “like I said before, you’re a good man, I can trust you.”
Paul wished he could trust his brother, but he knew that was a fool’s errand. Steve was a dreamer and a risk-taker who had always made the wrong kind of friends. The stark realisation that he was now no better than him, that he had irreversibly crossed some sort of invisible line, hit him just as he heard the first gun shot.
A Great Man
Peter Cheney loved the countryside. He farmed a few acres in the best part of Suffolk and enjoyed the company of his gundogs and friends.
He was seen out hunting on mid-week days and was known to take a straight line in any country. He never told a lie, but when asked about the ‘flashy’ horse he was riding that day, he just said “Well, she went well today.” Few people knew he was showing one of the local coper’s nags (in a dropped noseband) which they wanted to sell, and only he could ride.
At any party he was a charming success. Nobody doubted that he enjoyed the attention of a succession of ladies within the county set but he was a welcome addition to any dinner party.
He gambled a little but never cheated, although how he won large sums on rank outsiders that showed a turn of speed on race day was never clear.
He drank with the best and enjoyed spending a night in the local pub with the local poachers and riff raff. Those nights often ran on in to daylight when the chums would try out a little sport in the famous coverts of Lord Dashwood who lived nearby. His shoots were famous throughout the county.
One early morning in August, in the woods around the Dashwood estate, the calls of the cock pheasants drew Peter from his bed like Circe calling to Odysseus, it was irresistible. Gun in hand and dog at heel, he circled the wood and took a brace of pheasant in the first half hour. It was only after he had taken an early hare that he saw Gregory, the Dashwood gamekeeper, striding out of the trees.
“Good day to you Mister Cheney. Up bright and early I see.”
His eyes focussed on the game bag with feathers peeping out of the flap.
Peter put on his best smile. “Just pottering”
Gregory looked him in the eye. “Yes Sir, hope you find another hare or summat.”
Peter called his dog and strolled away without a backward glance.
That evening, the Dashwoods gave a grand dinner party. Hermione Dashwood paid particular attention to her social duties. Everyone who was anyone hoped for an invitation to one of her dinners.
At eleven that morning, she rang Peter in great distress.
“Peter! You must help me out! One of the men from my party has fallen ill! I need you to come and eat with us.”
Nothing could have been better; he knew Dolly Caruth would be there and wangled a place next to her at the table. It was going to be a grand evening.
The company was all he expected. Dolly was there catching his eye whenever her husband was distracted. Dashwood was particularly charming and attentive and the dinner was going splendidly. They ate Beluga with small blinis to begin with and then the butler processed to the head of the table with a troop of maidservants holding trays of game arranged in a delightful way. There were pheasants, woodcock and grouse in silver dishes for every guest.
The elderly man servant came directly to Peter’s chair. He had a domed silver tray which he held aloft with a dignified air. Guest turned to stare as he bent to offer the dish to Peter. He lifted the lid.
“Lady Dashwood ordered this specially for you, Sir”
On the dish lay fish and chips in newspaper.
“She thinks you would like a change of diet Sir!”
They came, and more came still, crowds
lining mud-clogged banks, dark heads bowed
and tears combining, falling to the Taedong
and trailed branches of the willow wept
as if in empathy; gnarled streams of grief
as the procession neared, their voices
swelled and gained a solid shape of sound,
Dear Leader, Dear Leader, the chant
climbed above the crowd into the sky
the army pushed them back, fighting
to achieve a measured space between
visible, transparent grief, and ingrained duty;
arms raised and supplicant to stem the ebb.
His coffin was adorned with flowers
and hundreds of his followers trooped
with measured, uniformed and echoed steps,
an escort of paid sorrow.
As if he could still hear in death,
Kim Il Sung’s passing caused the crowd
to amplify in torrid, baying cries
a nationalistic anthem, instinct, a
learned repeated requiem of loss.
How can we truly understand the
reason why they cried? The tears were real.
Perhaps they wept in fear, for quietude
and death became synonymous that day.
The surging, screaming wails eclipsed
the tortured rumbling of a million shrunken,
empty stomachs; frightened, empty lives.
You aspired to a Victorian ideal,
my shroud of a father,
my poor pinched giver
of skewed advice, of a knowing
that was off-scale, out of its time.
Once you were enormous,
towered over us as tots,
had visions that lit the future,
you were a colossus, a beacon
for our moth-like love.
Trapped by your parents
in an emotional iron lung
not allowed to breathe unaided
even when released you limped,
slipped knitting, not quite sound.
All my days you’ve been
shrinking, or I have loomed
up from nothing to overshadow
your self-image, leader, great man
whose followers lost their faith.
A Great Man?
He had been a great man once, was what everyone kept saying to her. But what was the point of being a great man once? A great man before? He needed to be a great man now. He needed to be strong, and unwavering, and he needed to pull through.
Looking at him now, she was finding it hard to believe he had ever been a great man, even once.
She knew he had been. She had the videos, and the pictures, and the memories that were burned into her mind. He had been the best man she had ever known before. When he would lift her onto his shoulders, and allow her to see the world from a great height. When he taught her to ride a bike, and made her feel like she was flying. When he made whatever scrape she better, by sealing it with a ‘magic kiss’. She knew he had been a great man, the best man, her favourite man in the whole world.
But now, she had to face looking at him on his hospital bed, and see him become a shell of a man. She had to face the idea that this man who she had always thought was so strong, so brave, and indestructible, was just as human as everyone else, just as human as her. Where was his greatness in all of this?
She had watched his jet-black hair, turn more and more grey over the years, with no doubt in knowing she had caused a few herself. She had watched as the lines around his eyes had become deeper and deeper, and stretched until his face was more wrinkled than not. She had watched as each ache and pain had begun to overtake his body, where he grimaced more than smiled whenever he moved. But she had refused to believe that he was aging. That he was getting older and frailer. Because the things everyone else talked about happening to their dad’s, would never happen to him. Because he was hers, and he was the strongest man she knew.
When her mum passed away, she had to watch him crumble and rebuild himself, whilst somehow also managing everyone else’s grief. He lost the love of life, but managed to support everyone else along the way. She had no idea how he had coped, how he was still coping. But he did, and he got through every other day as well, with some sort of smile on his face.
Even though she could remember what he looked like in his younger days, and had pictures to remind her, she believed she could never erase the image of how he looked now out of her mind. With his hair now more white than grey. And his face so sunken and pale, he blended with his pillow. And skin so stretched, she could practically see all his bones poking through. And his eyes so glazed, so wondered what he was seeing, and what he wasn’t.
Whenever she went to see him, all she could think was, he had been a great man, once.
He was a great man once, when he went out to work every day and earned enough money for his family to live contently.
He was a great man once, when he loved his wife through the good times and the bad, and had made sure to spread that love to their children.
He was a great man once, when he helped his children manage the pain of losing their mother, whilst he shouldered the weight of his own grief.
He was a great man once, when he could recognise her face in a crowd, and remember her name longer than ten minutes.
To the world, he had been a great man, once. But to her, he had been a great man her whole life. To her, he would be a great man, forever.
A state of unknowing is different depending on the person, the situation and the person ‘in the know’.
Because really, to comprehend the presence of a state of unknowing, there must also be the presence of the knowing one. Occasionally this can be oneself when your own lack of understanding is something that you are hoping to change, perhaps by pursuing a university course, a hobby or by exposing yourself to something in order to widen your view, such that which often occurs when you travel.
The opposite can also be true, of actively avoiding knowledge, perhaps to protect your feelings. “Don’t show me that, it will just upset me! I can’t change it.” When something is out of our control, is it truly helpful to learn something disturbing? Advertising campaigns for charities (in particular those against animal cruelty and for assisting developing countries) like to play on this. Most people know these problems exist, yet don’t help. So charities use this to target those whose sense of guilt and compassion will overcome them to the tipping point of parting with their money. Is it the best way? I’m not sure. I don’t like seeing these images - of course not, they’re supposed to be unpleasant. But I feel as if a more positive campaign would be more effective for me. I already know enough of the horrors.
When one is unknowing, it is often seen negatively. Arrogance, prejudice, lack of education, idiocy and foolishness. To all of these, a lack of knowing, of understanding is an imperative component. Even the example above where the purpose is protection from distress, is often interpreted as an act of weakness, an inability to face the truth. This happens every day. Hiding a post on Facebook, instinctively turning the other way when you see someone eating in a, shall we say, ‘enthusiastic’ manner. Why should we have to see or know these things when we don’t have to? Does it make us better? Does it change something significantly?
Further into the depths of despair… As age makes us more forgetful, some of us fall under the sway of Alzheimer's disease. Degeneration, certainly. Painful for our loved ones, usually. But for ourselves? Could the memory loss also be a form of protection? Our death looming persuasively closer and closer, our body shutting down. I know that it can apparently be horribly confusing and distressing to go through this disease. Is it worse without the memory loss? It could also be that because so many of the institutions we trust to care for our elderly and unwell relatives are not appropriate environments for those with memory problems. Badly designed floorplans and lack of outside space is something which I believe definitely affects those suffering in this way. On the other hand, perhaps it is just as cruel and cold-hearted as it seems. Restricting us from recalling perhaps some of the most wonderful moments in our lives.
My thoughts leave me in a state of unknowing.
“Ignorance is bliss”
Bias / Prejudice / Racism / Sexism
Temporary vs permanent
Dementia / Alzheimer’s
Adam and Eve
Learning / curiosity
So much there, look, you are 32,
There is more person now than before.
More life in your smile, more moods
You are careering outwards
Do you know what you worry for?
A lost conversation? What was it
That you didn’t quite hold?
Is it that you were only ever almost fully you?
Beautiful, beautiful, 32
There is wonder in you now.
That thing you dragged though all these years
Waits on on shapes you recognise
To finally heave in.
My faith diffused like frankincense at High Mass
with your last breath,
even as yours grew frenzied
in a final deathbed cliché.
I embalmed our days in grief and myrrh,
spent days in chapels, kneeling
to His image, rendered in stained glass.
I watched the sun become hard light
His halo golden, shimmering, and transcendent
as clouds passed outside,
even as His body turned to bread
and His blood to wine.
State of Unknowing
Fog floats through turned gold,
lapiz space touches my eye's limbal ring,
a rustle of tumbling crisps,
day-dreaming leaves softly blanket
No speech, my tongue is iron ridged,
the land is foreign, my cheek feels it
cold and unforgiving, incomprehension
overwhelms the fool, a glittering touch of
Close my ears, my mind,
block out all stimulus,
trammel and travel through the
twists and turns of my brain-
You call me; I hear your voice through
deafness and pretend so hard
I hear nothing at all,
my body is transparent,
Redacted, the words build
a wall of nothingness,
and silence concretes the blocks
into the strongest of barriers,
I lie still, I am no longer here,
I do not exist, you cannot reach,
the gold and blue darken,
And I turn my head mud deep,
I do not know if seahorses mate for life
or why a moth will always fly into the light
like a lonely kamikaze on his last flight.
I do not know why the universe exists
or why migraines come without warning
blacking out the sun, the wind, the rain,
till everything is closed and done.
I do not know if we are alone,
though I had a poster once said I want to believe
or how exactly my body works -
cells in symbiosis with microbial bodies
that I carry like lice and would die without.
I do not know why I blush when someone says
you’re pretty, I like you, can I see you again?
Why I dream at night alone in my bed
of things that haven’t happened yet
and places and people I’ve never seen.
I do not know why kissing is so nice,
laughter so unpredictable or hiccups so odd.
I do not know why the sound of a piano
its keys falling away into silence
can leave me breathless, a sigh in my eye.
Or who hung the moon in the sky
if it’s not just remnants of a meteor’s fall.
And all these things I do not know?
They are the beautiful possibilities
all the things that just might be
everything that still eludes us.
How White Are Bones?
Contemplate this -
you cannot view the sky
through clouds of unknowing
we cannot tell what comes.
The Mindfulness guru mutters
focus on nothing – empty your mind
as if it were a storage container
crammed with forgotten things.
She doesn't get hijacked by the sound
of her imagined feet
on a stark metal floor,
a glimpse of an abandoned toy.
I clear my head again, seek
that state of unknowing though I'm
on the top of a Tibetan mountain,
stumbling towards the edge.
My mind explodes with a snuff of musk,
keening pigeons, an alarm
from someone else’s day, that creak
walruses and leather sofas share.
Other people’s experience
crowding in to fill my vacuum.
Why does this always feel
like I'm practicing for death?
Hendron’s Love Garden
‘You should relax more, Suzie.’ Hendron took a large toke and offered her the joint, but she batted his hand away.
‘No Hendron, you should relax less.’
Hendron shrugged and picked at his guitar. ‘I’ve started writing a new song. Do you want to hear it?’
‘Hendron, you’re always starting new songs, but you never finish them. Can you stop a minute? We need to have a serious talk.’
Hendron looked wistfully at the photo on the mantelpiece. It showed them and their friends from the squat, taken in the days before little Kurt had come along. In his heart he knew that Suzie had been right when she argued that they couldn’t look after a baby in a house where the roof leaked and there was a party every night, but that didn't stop him longing for simpler times. Suzie had secured the Council flat, got a regular job at the hospital and her Mum provided childcare, but she needed Hendron to pull his weight.
‘Why aren’t you at work?’ Hendron shifted uneasily in his seat. ‘You’ve lost it haven’t you?’
‘That manager, man, he never liked me. He…’
Suzie threw the empty mug she was holding at his head. He ducked and ran into the hall.
‘I’ve got to run Suzie.’ He pulled on his denim jacket. ‘I just remembered, I’m meeting Mad Dog. He said he had some work for me.’
Dressed in black leather and wearing shades, his white skin elaborately inked, Mad Dog was barely visible at the back of the Carpenter’s Arms. He bumped fists with Hendron and then bought him a pint.
‘I heard you were flipping burgers in McDonald’s’ he said.
‘I couldn’t stick it. The Man made me put my dreads in a hair net.’
‘No-one likes a hairy McMuffin, Hendron. So you told Ronald where to stick it?’
Hendron agreed, but in reality he had slept in one day and had never been back. ‘So what’s this job you mentioned?’ he asked. ‘Are we getting the band back together?’
‘Yeah, The Flaming Gerbils. I’m still in touch with Tommo and Wavy Davy. We could play the local pubs. Make a few quid.’
‘Jesus, Hendron, when are you going to grow up? We could barely make it through a couple of Oasis covers at the Student Union ten years ago.’
Hendron muttered into his pint. ‘I’ve been working on a new song.’
‘That’s great Hendron, but that’s not why I got in touch. I’ve got a big deal coming up a week on Monday with a guy called Uri, but I’m going to Amsterdam next week.’
Hendron sniggered. ‘Love the cafes man.’
‘Yeah, so the thing is Hendron, are you any good at gardening?’
‘Yeah. All I need you to do is pop into my flat once a day and water my plants. You can use a watering can can’t you?’
‘I suppose so…’
‘Look, I’ll give you three hundred quid and we can forget about that fifty you borrowed a couple of months back. How does that sound?’
‘That’s right. Just make sure the soil’s damp – don’t drown them.’
‘Keep the soil damp?’
‘That’s my boy!’ Mad Dog patted him on the shoulder and placed an envelope on the table. ‘That’s my spare key and the address. I fly out tonight. You have to take care of business, Hendron. Don’t live in a dream world.
‘And one last thing, this is just between us, OK? No one else needs to know. Not even Suzie.’
Hendron arrived home to find his rucksack and guitar case on the doorstep, together with a note.
"We can’t go on like this. I’ve changed the locks. Let me know your new address and we can discuss access to Kurt.
Hendron rang the doorbell and looked through the windows, but Suzie had gone to work. He sat on the step and searched his pockets for a joint and the zippo, but he found Mad Dog’s envelope instead. Well, at least he would have a roof over his head for the next week. Mad Dog wouldn’t mind.
When Hendron opened Mad Dog’s front door the blast of heat almost knocked him off his feet. In the living-room he found an array of lamps humming and fizzing above his head. The heat bounced off the Bacofoiled walls onto row after row of tall, verdant plants. It was a big maisonette and each of the three bedrooms had the same arrangement. Hendron had never seen so much weed in his life.
Hendron sat down at the kitchen table, lit up and wondered what he should do. He had made a commitment to Mad Dog, but the dude hadn’t told him he would be tending a weed farm. On the other hand, if he walked away the plants would frazzle and Mad Dog would kill him. What’s more, he would have a roof over his head. Suzie had said he never finished anything and Mad Dog said he needed to take care of business, maybe they were right?
Over the next week Hendron watered the plants in the morning and worked on his song in the afternoon. Each evening he sent a text to Suzie, but she never replied. On Wednesday he ran out of food, so he pawned his guitar and concentrated on the lyrics. Saturday came and went, but Mad Dog didn’t return as planned. Hendron was sure he would be back on Monday for his big deal.
When there was a knock on the door, the peep hole revealed a dapper middle-aged black guy with a goatee wearing a business suit. Behind him stood a white guy with a shaved head, whose muscled physique bulged through his sports gear. What should he do? Hendron dragged on his joint, but it caught the back of his throat inducing a coughing fit.
‘Hello? Is that Mad Dog?’ The black guy called through the door.
When he had recovered, Hendron asked who wanted to know.
‘It’s Uri and Marley. We have an appointment.’
Hendron opened the door and showed them into the kitchen. The black guy sat down and the white guy put a metal briefcase on the table in front of him. Hendron offered him the spliff.
‘Nice weed. Did you grow this?’
Hendron shook his head and took back the joint. ‘Are you Marley?’ he asked.
The black guy shook his head. ‘I’m Uri, he’s Marley.’
‘Are you Russian, then?’
Uri threw back his head and laughed. ‘Yeah, from Kingstongrad.’ Hendron liked these guys.
‘To business.’ Uri flipped the catches on the briefcase, opened the lid and span it on the table so that Hendron could see inside.
‘One hundred grand, used notes, as requested. Please feel free to count it.’
Hendron took another toke to steady his nerves. ‘I’m cool,’ he said, ‘I’m sure your word is your …whatever.’
Uri laughed. ‘I like you Mad Dog.’ He stuck a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We need to check the stock.’
Hendron led them around the flat. Uri took samples from the plants and carried out some tests with a kit he carried in a small shoulder bag. Marley looked at Hendron and nodded towards Uri.
‘The man from Del Monte.’
‘This is good quality,’ was Uri’s verdict.
‘You have to keep the soil moist,’ said Hendron the horticulturalist. He transferred the money into his empty guitar case and pushed the key to Mad Dog’s flat across the table.
‘It’s been a pleasure Mad Dog.’ said Uri as they clasped hands.
In the train station Hendron took the £300 that Mad Dog owed him and put the guitar-case with the rest of the money in a left-luggage locker. Then he headed to the pawn shop to liberate his guitar. In the park he bumped into Wavy Davy’s teenage brother. In exchange for a joint, the teenager used Hendron’s phone to video him singing his new song.
‘This is for Suzie. It’s called Love Garden,’ he said as an introduction.
Then Hendron went to McDonald’s and used their wifi to upload the video to Youtube. He sent the link to Suzie by text. He was celebrating with a pint in The Carpenter’s when Tommo walked in.
‘Hey Hendron, did you hear about Mad Dog? He ate one too many hash brownies in Amsterdam and fell into a canal.’
‘No way! Is he OK?’
‘Nope, he drowned, man.’
‘Bummer. Did he have any family?’
‘Nah, his Mum passed last year.’ They sat in silent contemplation for a couple of seconds, then Tommo shrugged. ‘So what’s new with you Hendron?’
‘I was thinking about getting the band back together. You know, play the local pubs? I asked Wavy Davy’s brother to pass on the message. You interested?’
‘Great idea Hendron, but I sold the drum kit ages ago.’ Hendron fingered the locker key in his pocket.
‘No worries Tommo, I think I know where to lay my hands on some kit.’
Just then, Hendron’s phone began to ring. It was Suzie.
Inside that State it’s dark
Blind lanterns launched across a velvet sky
Which float on fire for moments,
then what drops
The night conceals
A hundred bands of metal to the sea.
The cliff-top congregation cannot comprehend
The seal’s pierced throat.
The questions must be held down
-Oppressors cannot know their victims’ cries-
The nameless dead must not oppress THEIR eyes...
Streets lit by glare to hold the people in
Reveal a glare that may seek out revolt-
Even a paper passed in a hand’s clasp
speaks of hopes
No state that’s silent can endure.
This State has grown too big!
It needs too many bodies to survive;
Apportions wealth and lifetimes out-
housing and gates
Proportionate to strength,
Measures our hopes in enclaves, old folks’ homes.
It cannot know the cost of ordinary bones
Flat soldiers’ boots erase
to shout above the parapet...
They taught my sweet son not to bend
Or weep his father’s death.
A family that shares its furtive courtesies
We’ll never know their purposes
Though all purport to know
The stories thrown out there
To silence doubts...
We’ll never know
Without our words
It’s best to empty minds
And comprehend the whisper of the wind,
The gentle neutral rain upon our faces,
The unseeing beauty of the moment’s lights.
State of Unknowing
She ran and ran and ran until her throat burned and her legs felt like they were about to buckle underneath her. It was early. The sky looked as blank and crisp as a sheet hung out to dry on a cold morning. A delicate frost cloaked the parked cars lining the suburban streets. Everywhere was still, everything lying in wait.
The silence was eerie. She tried not to flinch every rustle of leaves or snap of a branch. She had to stay focused. No one knew her here in this town, the knock at the door meant they had found her. Climbing out of the bathroom window of her flat and down onto the roof of the shared bin store, she made her escape quickly and quietly, past the private garages and through the maze of the neighbouring housing estate. Now the roads were more open, the houses bigger and the streets wider. She felt exposed. She needed to get on the next bus she saw. The map was nestled safely in the inside pocket of the small rucksack she had on her back. The bag had been packed months ago for this very moment, and had sat by her bedroom door waiting like a loyal pet. She ran through the contents in her head as she looked out for the warm glow of approaching headlights.
Every bit of information she carried was written down on paper. She carried no phone, no data, nothing that could be traced. Refusing to carry a phone was one of the first things that initially singled her out for observation at work. The office approved mobile devices were like an extension of the body: her colleagues were never seen without them. When she declined the ‘voluntary’ implant, that had been offered free of charge by the company board of directors, she knew that her details had been submitted to higher more official channels. The implant was marketed as a safe technological interface that would seamlessly incorporate itself into the brain to benefit the ‘user.’ This convenient tool allowed the recipient to access anything from the office coffee machine to their data files, wirelessly. Her colleagues hadn't realised how easily they had handed over their body, their mind, their autonomy.
However, it was her open criticism of the escalating presence of artificial intelligence in the company that eventually got her fired. She was not alone, anyone who refused to work with AI colleagues or refused to incorporate the increasingly experimental technologies into their own bodies were fired. A term was quickly established by the state to describe those people who questioned the officially sanctioned technology: ‘the unknowing.’ They dismissed people like her as cowards who wished to remain wilfully ignorant, choosing to deny advancement by denying the increasing melding of human with machine. When she wrote her first article on the subject in a small independent zine she had hoped to connect with like-minded people, she had never imagined how dangerous her opinion would be, or how far her research would take her. Since then, she has tried to publish anonymously, but she knows this is almost impossible. It was only a matter of time before they found her.
Many of her friends and contacts had disappeared. One such friend had given her the map. He claimed it was a map to a location ‘off the grid,’ where an underground community was building a network, a resistance. At the time the story had seemed far-fetched to her. He had nervously whispered the information just before they ordered their desert at a small but busy Lebanese café around the corner from where she used to live. No one appeared to pay them any attention. The room was filled with the sound of other people’s conversations. Waiters hurried around them as chefs called orders from the kitchen. Her friend had pushed the folded map towards her under his napkin. His eyes had widened: he had looked hunted. “If things get dangerous,” he said, “try to get to this place. They are trying to set up a new territory, a new set of rules, a new state. They are starting again, from the beginning.” She leant forward as he whispered to her, “they call it the State of Unknowing.”
"Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m doing this? Aren’t you going to question my audacity? My sanity perhaps?"
He regards me through his fine, silver framed glasses with a look of absolute neutrality. He makes no attempt to speak. It disarms me.
"It’s just... I’ve gotten used to a more hostile reception."
I reach for my drink and I’m almost reluctant to touch it. The glass, the pitcher, everything is too perfect. Almost unnaturally clean. Not even a fingerprint from the hand that deposited it. I take a sip and steady myself for a more measured approach.
"I mean, that is why there’s no audience for this correct? And I’m certain your studio isn’t usually located in... Well, in here."
He takes a quick look around the studio. It is an exact replica of his usual workplace, identical in every aspect but location. He adjusts his tie minutely, correcting an imperceptible flaw in it’s symmetry and, in a calm, measured voice, he speaks.
"It is fair to say your presence arouses passions within some people Professor Myers, but I have no interest in eliciting a scandal. What concerns me are the facts, and, for all the commotion your discovery has caused, the facts, it seems, are few and far between."
"That’s because the facts are inconvenient."
"Then this your opportunity to set the record straight. Let’s start with the expedition. Can you give us an explanation of your field and what brought you to the Antarctic?"
I take a final look at the unmanned camera and steel myself for what's to come. Here it is. People are listening.
"I’m an associate professor at UCL and I study the climate and man’s effect on it. Much like yourself I have no interest in being an alarmist. I am interested in facts."
"What was the purpose of that particular expedition?"
"The Antarctic glaciers offer us a unique opportunity to look at the Earth’s past. By drilling down into the ice and extracting the cores we can obtain samples that contain tiny bubbles of atmosphere from as many as 800,000 years ago. By analysing these we can look at the exact makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere from way before mankind became a factor."
"And it was within one of these cores that you made the discovery?"
"That’s right. I had the privilege of working on a brand new rig. A truly staggering piece of machinery capable of drilling at a larger bore and a greater depth than ever before. We were pulling cores dating back almost a million years, almost three miles in depth. It was an exciting thing to be a part of."
"Did you find it in the first core?"
"No. We had pulled 7 prior to that point. It was in core number 8, almost at the very bottom."
"And what did you find?"
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. There’s no point in skirting around the absurdity of it.
"A red, electric kettle, manufactured by Delonghi with a European plug. It has a product number but it doesn’t match anything on record, and Delonghi themselves don’t recognise the model."
"And how would you describe it? How old would you estimate it to be?"
"Contemporary. It looked modern. It’s been examined pretty carefully and, as far as we can tell, you could plug it in right now and it would work just fine."
His face remains placid. He coughs gently to clear his throat.
"So you claim to have discovered a contemporary, electric kettle in the heart of a million year old glacier?"
I feel the urge to get defensive at this. It's usually at this point in the conversation that people have a tendency to devolve into hysterical disbelief. My suitability as an educator would be called into question, as would my general character. One interviewer had told me, live on daytime television, to 'fuck off'. Things had changed now though, and this interview was different.
"That is correct."
For the first time I see his guard slip, just a fraction, and he sits forward in his chair.
"You can see how that would be hard to believe?"
"Of course I can. It’s impossible."
"But still you maintain-"
"That’s the inconvenient part. Just because it’s impossible, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened."
"And how do you prove that?"
I sigh deeply. It had been a long road to get this far.
"At first I was just grasping for anything that would prove I wasn’t a liar. I had seen the thing pulled out of the Earth, I didn’t have the luxury of disbelief. I wanted answers as much as anybody, but who could take the questions seriously? I thought I could defend myself by pointing out the unknown model of the kettle. Nobody had ever seen one before, where could I have possibly gotten it from? Of course that just made it look like I had gone to extreme lengths to fabricate it."
"So what did you do?"
"After I was suspended from UCL I was forced to smuggle the kettle out of the labs. I knew that this seemingly innocuous object might be the most important artefact ever discovered, and the likelihood was that they would throw it in a skip. I contacted hundreds of academic institutions and laboratories, anybody with the equipment to try to date this thing. It was well over a year before I had a positive response. I don’t know whether it was out of pity or if they were just sick of the hassle."
"And the result?"
"Hah. They wouldn’t tell me. They handed it back and said that they didn’t want to have anything to do with it."
he leans forward with his elbows on his knees. His tie sits an inch to the left.
"What did you do?"
"Actually it seemed to help. When I told people about their evasive behaviour I think it piqued their curiosity. Soon I had a handful of offers. I was feeling pretty frantic by then. I didn’t know what the result would be either and I needed answers more than anyone. It had cost me too much to let it be."
"My job. Maybe my family. They didn’t believe me either, didn’t like what it did to me. The worse thing is that I can’t even blame them. It was the rational response. All they could see was the hurt that my ‘lie' had caused them. That I had caused them. Now? I don’t know where we are now."
I see the pity in his eyes, and I feel the emotion well up inside of me. I fight the urge to cry. Not for my pain, not for my loss. I want to cry because for the first time I can see he believes me. This is why I'm here. He's done his research. He asks softly:
"So, what did you find?"
"It was 980,000 years old. Confirmed. Confirmed again and again. A lot of these places, these institutions, they didn’t know how to say it at first you know? They were feeling what I felt. Staring impossibility right in the face."
He pauses for an eternity before falling back into his chair. He removes the silver glasses and places them into his jacket pocket.
"Can you pinpoint the moment when this first entered the public consciousness?"
"I honestly don’t know... The first time I heard of it outside of an academic context was Brampton."
"Can you explain to us what happened there?"
"A group of people, 12 of them I think. They had caught wind of it somewhere. They had been cultivating this idea that life was some kind of simulation, an artificial fabrication, and to them the kettle was proof of that. An impossible object that could only be explained by a glitch.”
The memory makes me feel numb.
“Anyway, it was a suicide pact. They thought they could wake up from it all. Hell, I don’t know, maybe they did."
"That’s when it hit the news?"
"Yeah, in a big way... a very big way. You know the fallout. More suicides, a riot in Bordeaux, endless public meltdowns... just... just the understandable response of billions of people grasping the magnitude of the impossible and trying anything to reason with it. Aliens, magic, a trick of the Devil, a test from God, time travel, conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory. It's the Government trying to distract us. It's a shady cabal of scientists trying to secure the funding jackpot. It's a marketing ploy by Big Kettle. Hell, the thing itself is basically locked in Fort Knox right know. People have literally died trying to get it, or destroy it or whatever. Yesterday I had to run from a man in the street who was clawing at me like a lunatic. He called me a ‘prophet’... Jesus."
"Could it be Jesus?"
He stares at me from his slouched position on the chair and laughs. He scratches his scalp, ruining his perfectly set hair.
“It's an extraordinary reaction to a kettle.”
“Believe me I know... but it's not the kettle, it's the mystery it represents. People go to extreme lengths to explain what they can't understand. Philosophy. Religion. Science. I guess when something challenges everything you thought you had figured out...”
He gives up on the tie entirely and takes it off. He loosens his collar. He notices my reaction to his changed demeanour and gives an exasperated smile. I can relate.
"So... How do you think it got there?"
It had been a fantastic party. The booze was flowing, the music was great and I was about to make my move on a dark-haired girl who had been smiling at me.
Then everything went black.
The music stopped, the drink in my hand disappeared and there was no one to be seen. Suddenly a towering figure in a full-length robe emerged in front of me. There was no face that I could see but two red orbs like burning coals stared out from inside the hood.
A skeletal hand was clutching a scythe as tall as he was.
“I AM DEATH,” boomed a voice.
I can’t remember how much I’d had to drink but I sobered up in an instant. It took a lot of willpower not to wet myself.
“I AM DEATH,” he roared again.
“What.. er..what do you want from me?” I stammered. “I…er… can’t be dead. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“You, Arthur Barrington!” A bony finger poked out of the sleeve right into my face. “The time you have been allotted is at an end. You will follow me and I shall escort you from this vale of tears.”
“Where to? I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here. I… er, wait, hang on a second. What did you call me?”
“I called you by your name, Arthur Barrington! Your seventy three years on this earthly plane are at an end. I command you to come with me now!”
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “That’s not my name.”
Blimey, this bloke was tetchy.
“It’s not my name. Well, it is and it isn’t. You called me Arthur Barrington but I’m Barrington Arthur. My surname is Arthur and my first name is Barrington, although everyone calls me Barry.”
There was a pause.
“Oh bugger,” he muttered.
“You also said I was seventy three years old. I’m thirty seven.”
“Are you sure?” said Death raising his voice again.
“Of course I’m sure! Do I look seventy three?”
The hooded figure leaned in for a closer look.
“Not really, but it’s a bit dark in here.”
“Look, can you just talk normally instead of sounding all melodramatic, like some ham actor.”
He raised the scythe in the air with his bony hand and brought down the shaft with a deafening bang. I covered my ears. My body shook.
“I am Death!” he thundered. “I have been the most terrifying image in human culture for centuries. I can hardly turn up sounding like David Beckham.”
“Okay, fair enough. But could you just knock the volume down a bit? Look, it’s obvious that you’ve got the wrong bloke. Close, but still completely wrong. So could you just send me back to the party? You see, there was a dark-haired girl I liked the look of and I…
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” he said, his voice suddenly quiet.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” It was my turn to shout.
“You’re dead. Sorry.”
“Dead? How can I be dead when I’m talking to you?”
“I’m afraid that just by looking at me brings about your demise.”
“You can’t do this to me. You are the one who messed it up.” I jabbed my finger at him. “You’ve got the wrong man and you know it.”
“I’ve said I’m sorry. What more do you want?”
“I want my life back, that’s what. I’m only half way through my three score years and ten. I’m going to Tenerife at the end of the month. And there’s that dark-haired girl at the party. I don’t see why I should be dead when it’s not my fault. This is your mistake and you owe to me to put it right.”
“I suppose so. I’ll see what I can do,” sighed Death. He passed me the scythe. “Here, hold this while I call the office.”
His hand let go of it too early and the blade swung round dangerously. If I hadn’t ducked it would have taken my head off.
“Watch what you’re doing!” I shouted at him. “You nearly killed me a second time.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. The blade’s plastic.”
“Yeah. Health and safety.”
From the sleeve of his robe he pulled out a mobile phone and punched in a number, his skeletal fingers clacking on the plastic. He turned away and talked quietly into the phone so I couldn’t hear what was being said.
Suddenly he turned towards me holding the mobile away from him.
“Are we in Newcastle?”
“Yes,” I said. “Newcastle under Lyme.”
“Not Newcastle upon Tyne?”
He turned back to the phone. There were mutterings I couldn’t make out before he finally ended the call.
“Let’s see if I’ve got this right,” I said before he could speak. “The grim reaper comes to collect someone but gets the name and the age back to front.”
“Spot on,” sighed Death.
“And you even got the town wrong.”
“You should have got yourself a sat nav,” I said, hoping he would understand the up-to-date references in my sarcasm.
“Yeah, you’re right. We used to have them but budget cuts have put a stop to that.”
“Yes, they’re downsizing all the time. I used to cover just the south east of England. Now it’s the whole of England and Wales. I’m not that familiar with the north.”
“What do you mean by downsizing?”
Death shrugged his shoulders.
“There’s not the demand for this anymore. So we have had to cut back over the past fifty years or so.”
“That’s bonkers,” I said. “People die every day.”
“Not like they used to,” said Death sadly. “Back in the days when you had plague, famine, disease, pestilence, I was rushed off my feet. Then you had your wars, illnesses, disasters, both man-made and natural. It was all go, I can tell you.
“But now you’ve got better lifestyles, lots of good food and the medical advancement means you’re all living too long.”
“I’m not,” I said bitterly. “If it wasn’t for you I’d be at a party chasing after a gorgeous dark-haired girl. Not stuck here with some third-rate grim reaper. Dim reaper, more like.
“Okay, okay. Drop the sarcasm,” said Death. “It’s not as if this happens all the time. No one likes making mistakes.”
I wasn’t going to let him off the hook.
“Most people would forgive a mistake but not one that ends in their premature death,” I said. “Meanwhile, some other bloke is pottering away enjoying life, enjoying years that are mine by rights. What’s going to happen to me and what’s going to happen to him?”
“Arthur Barrington. The bloke you should be talking to.”
“Well, he’s still alive, obviously. But it’ll have to be a rush job to fit him in. It looks like it’s going to be a late one tonight. I bet he’s not at a party running after women.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
Death held up his bony hand.
“I’m sorry, Barry – can I call you Barry?”
“I was just trying to cheer you up,” said Death. “I might look terrifying and spend my time snuffing out people’s lives but it doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour. Sometimes we have a bit of a laugh when I take them to the other side. Not all of them. Most of them are screaming and begging forgiveness, or in a catatonic silence.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“But I’ve got some good news for you, Barry. Head office said I’ll be able to put you back. But it won’t be at the exact time you died. It’s the best I can do.”
“That suits me,” I said. “Bring it on.”
“Before you go, mate, I’d just like to apologise for the mistake and the poor service you’ve had today. It’s not the way we like to treat our clients and we pride ourselves on doing a good, professional job. Also, I want to thank you for your patience and understanding. And one day we’ll make this journey together properly. I’ll look forward to it.”
“I won’t. No offence.”
“None taken. I promise I’ll get it right next time. All the best. Bye.”
It went black again. But not for long.
When I came to I was in bed, wrapped in the arms of a dark-haired girl. She kissed me gently on the nose and looked at me in a way that no other woman had done before. I had never seen such love and adoration in anyone’s eyes.
And I felt the same way. My heart swelled with love for this woman. I was overwhelmed. I was about to let her how I felt, to pour everything out, to tell her that no one else had ever made me feel this way.
But a nurse pushed her face right into mine.
“Oh, what a lovely little boy,” she cooed. “Have you got a name for him yet?”
The dark-haired woman never took her eyes off mine.
“I’m thinking of calling him Barry,” she said.
I started to cry.
“We`ve been waiting for you,” Chops, the smallest of the three boys said, he was smiling, but there was no humour in it; it was a smile that declared, `we`re going to kick seven kinds of shit out of you.`
Gavin`s breakdown came as a surprise to everybody, not least himself; although in his case the only surprising thing about it was that it took so long. Ten years of incessant bullying, a full two thirds of his life, had finally worn him down.
He had lunch every day in the office of his father`s workshop, which was less than five hundred yards from the school, in fact it was the reason he attended Rutland St tech, the convenience of it. He got a lift to school everyday and afterwards did his homework whilst he waited for his dad to knock off for the day.
So it was, at 1:28 on that Wednesday in May, when his mother, who just happened to be there that day, said quite pointedly, “Shouldn’t you be going back to school,” an innocent enough question, that precipitated both his mental and emotional collapse.
It took a good fifteen minutes, first of cajoling, then threatening, to get the hysterical boy to calm down and explain why he was refusing to, “Go back to that place,” as he put it.
In fits and starts, and through occasional sobs, he told them about the daily violence that ranged from the minor, being stabbed with the point of a compass, to the occasional knee to the groin, all the way up to a three on one beating in one of the schools playgrounds.
“But what about the teachers, where are they, why didn’t you tell one of them?” his mother demanded. Her accusatory tone not lost on him, that and the fact she didn’t ask him why he hadn’t come to them.
“They`re never around,” he told them; and besides, he thought what`d be the point.
He`d tried that route back in primary school, in second class, he`d gone to see his teacher to complain. Brother Michael had listened very carefully to what he had to say and when he`d finished cuffed him hard enough to make his ears ring.
“I can`t stand squealers,” he`d snarled, and to emphasise his point made him hold out both hands, giving each six lashes with the leather that nested deep in the right pocket of his hassock. Gavin left the classroom, both hands tucked into his armpits to ease the stinging, a pain so bad it felt like his palms had been sliced open, having learnt a lesson that would haunt him for the next nine years.
After he`d finished his father said, “Right; we`re going to deal with this right now.” And despite his protestations, bracketing him, they literally marched him back to the school. This was the reason he`d never told them; his parents had been born eight years apart on the 1930`s and were the sort of people who believed in meeting a problem head on, and held to the philosophy, “If someone hits you, you hit them back twice as hard.”
They`d always thought their third son was, “A little peculiar,” his head forever stuck in a book, though not in their opinion, a useful one. “He`s a daydreamer,” was his father`s common complaint, to much agreeing nodding by his wife; so perhaps Gavin`s refusal, or inability, to fight back came, as no surprise to either of them.
It was however a surprised headmaster who looked up from some paperwork to see two angry parents in his doorway, a boy between them, head bowed, attempting to look invisible.
“Can I help you?” Mr Green asked.
And so Gavin was forced to recount his story for the second time, on this occasion forced to name the three culprits. He had to go through it one more time when his three classmates were brought up to the principal’s office, unable to look at their glowering faces as he did.
When he was finished, Mr Green`s demanded, “Well?” was answered with muttered excuses and less than half-hearted apologies, the whole farce ending with the headmaster uttering a veiled and unfinished, “You`d better not do anything like that again……” and they were all sent back to class, the adults satisfied that it had all been sorted out.
Gavin was unsurprised by this, it was about what he`d expected, after all what were they going to do, expel them; and so began the longest week of his young life.
Each day he`d go to school expecting this to be the day when it all began again, only this time it`d be worse, and to add to his problems, he`d now bore the tag of squealer, the lowest of the low, and there was no point trying to tell anyone that it hadn’t been his fault, that his parents had made him tell.
It was the following Wednesday that Chops, Spacer and Tag got their revenge.
Though the distance between the school and Douglas St was short, Gavin`s route took him through a carpark, a space, while full of cars, was devoid of people at 4:30 in the afternoon, and that’s where they were waiting for him; the three of them, lounging against the side of a blue Granada, pushing themselves erect when they saw him.
“We`ve been waiting for you,” Chops said, who, though he was the smallest of the trio, was the most vicious, “We`re going to show you what we do to squealers.”
In a perverse way Gavin felt relieved, over the last seven days he`d truly come to understand the horror of the old adage, `waiting for the other shoe to drop` and now that it finally had, he was glad, the daily uncertainty worse than any beating.
When they`d finished working him over, careful not to hit him anywhere it could be seen, Chops crouched down beside the cowering Gavin, arms still clutched protectively around his head, and said, “If you squeal on us again you`re fucking dead,” kicking him in the stomach when he straightened up, to punctuate his point.
Gavin waited fifteen minutes to give his eyes a chance to look normal, he didn’t want to have to face an inquisition from his dad as to why he looked like he`d been crying; resigning himself, as he picked up his books, which they`d scattered when they`d upended his schoolbag, to the fact that this was his life, that there was nothing anyone could do to help him, that just as he`d expected, things had gotten worse not better.
The following morning, midway through third period Physics there was a knock on the classroom door. Miss Spenser, who had been mid-sentence, frowned at this interruption. Her frown turning to a look of outright annoyance when the headmaster, all apologies, walked in without waiting to be invited, a middle-aged woman in tow.
There was a whispered conversation between teacher and principal, both with their backs to the class, which ended with Miss Spenser nodding, then wordlessly going back to her desk, perching on the edge, scanning the suddenly attentive faces of her students.
Every eye was on the headmaster who was leaning towards the stranger, murmuring something into her ear; she nodded in agreement, scanning the faces of the confused classroom as he leaned away from her. The woman`s eyes stopped on Gavin, studied him a moment, then she whispered something to the headmaster, pointing him out as she did.
“Mr Walsh, stand up,” Mr Green commanded, the first words he`d said aloud since he`d entered, deafening in the peculiar silence. Gavin did as he was told, legs like jelly, looking from the stranger to the headmaster and back again, panic seeping through him; he was sure he didn’t know this woman and couldn’t imagine what she`d accused him of.
For some reason he looked to his left, his three tormentors were smirking at him, and he wondered if they`d had something to do with this, did she know them, was he being set up?
He was so engrossed that he didn’t see the woman point out his persecutors, so was as surprised as they were when Mr Green said; snapped really, “Mr Twomey, Mr Allen, Mr Kearney, you as well,” and Gavin saw their grins vanish, replaced by confused frowns he was sure matched his own.
And that was the day his life changed forever. Mr Green shook the woman`s hand, said something to her in a voice too low for any of them to hear; and none of them ever saw her again. The four of them were marched up to the principal`s office, Gavin told to wait outside, “While I deal with these three,” and after ten minutes Chops, Spacer and Tag came out white faced and shaking.
“Mr Walsh,” the headmaster called softly after they`d gone, beckoning the still confused, and very wary boy inside, “Sit down,” he gestured to the trio of seats on the opposite side of the desk, Gavin chose the centre one, noticing how warm the seat was.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you?” Gavin asked, not knowing what it was he was supposed to have said.
“About yesterday. That lady, in the classroom, she lives in a flat overlooking the carpark, saw the whole thing. Didn’t you think I`d believe you, is that why you didn’t say anything?” he was leaning forward, elbows on his desk, chin resting on the knuckles of his right fist.
Gavin shrugged, “I.. I didn’t think there was anything you could do, it didn’t happen in the school, there isn’t anything anyone can do………” he sounded deflated, even to himself, already thinking ahead, wondering how bad the next beating would be.
“There`s plenty I can do,” the headmaster said, leaning back in his chair, smiling now, “For starters I`ve just expelled the three of them.”
There are a thousand metaphors
For me and you and how we are
I'm the lock and you're the key
Nobody fits like you fit me
You're the one that can open me up
Without my lock being forced
I'll wait for ever and then some more
That's my favourite metaphor
Our lives have crossed and crossed again
Past lives, present ones, round and round
A circle of love, coming and going
Leaving us stranded and complicated
Caught in places we shouldn't be
But me thinking of you
And you thinking of me
The lock, the key, for eternity
When you must wait, a day shuffles heavily,
I watch a cloud move less than a millimetre,
Dark out the sun, it pushes across the frozen sky,
Can you see the same cloud as it crawls over the sunken roof?
Fallen trunks overwhelm the granite piled barn,
Ash refuse to give up life,
Resprout, straight arrow up,
And I sit to attention, eyes not blinked, I cannot miss.
On my perch, swing my legs,
Kick drifts of fallen leaves, crumbled brown to powder.
Crumbled, my thoughts catch the slow breeze,
Carry my gaze over the valley, down, down,
Across the slither of river,
Slow moving dreams wash away.
Pull my jacket tighter,
A brushed gust across my forehead,
A cold shiver strikes through my chest:
This is a mistake.
The glint of your Raybans, hidden, your eyes,
Reflect sky, I know, the darkest grey tarn,
And your tread, the ambling gait strikes up the track.
The coffin path.
Each time you're older, slower,
I see the pain in your spine,
I will you to climb,
To come to me.
I will wait.
Waiting For You
I wait for you. As I fall asleep, I imagine you at night, deep beneath an inky ocean. From the surface the water appears silken and still. You are beneath, descending into ever-increasing darkness and enveloping silence. You are entering a place I will never know, you are experiencing something I will never be able to experience. Yet I feel I am with you. As my head sinks heavily onto the pillow and I tug the duvet up and over my shoulder, I imagine your weightlessness, an astronaut of the deep, an explorer of an unknown world. The thought calms me as I imagine the drag and gentle swell of dark water around my own body. Waves lift and pull me. I hear them breaking in the distance, a sound like a whispered hush.
In my dreams thoughts of you are technicolour. The ocean is emerald, beams of sunshine refracting in great tunnels of light beneath the surface. The water is almost choked by vegetation: large oily dark kelp and willowy fronds lazily dancing along to the rhythm of the current. Globes and spikes of coral are lavish and abundant. There is something opulent and heady about the scene, if it were real it would hurt the eyes. There is no space or silence here. Shoals of fish swim through the nebulous clouds of krill. The sonic hymn of whale song echoes down and through undersea rivers. You have shed the oxygen tank, flippers and mask. The colour and texture of your body is changing. As you breach the surface for air, water rests in droplets on the surface of your oily skin.
When I wake I am always disorientated, shocked to feel that my hair is dry. I allow myself time to wake and acclimatise. I haul myself out of bed and count down the hours until darkness comes.
Oxford Station, mid August
All afternoon she sits, wedged between the wooden fence and the concrete platform of Oxford station. Her thin, cream wool cardigan is pulled tight over her knees. She occasionally glances up at the transient orange pixels that scroll across the display to show arrival times.
She rises only for certain trains, craning her neck to interrogate every single passenger that alights. She is taller than she first appears, which gives her a good sightline. She is waiting for a train from Manchester, but he might have changed at Birmingham.
Nobody talks to her, but she is far from invisible. Although she does nothing to invite conversation, she hopes someone will engage with her. She wants to give her enigmatic reply, 'he's my flat mate and so much more'. What does that mean? She smiles to herself; she controls her own destiny.
The light is fading and there are few people left on the station, a coolness creeping into the dusky air. She has pulled her cardigan tight to her torso, looking straight across the tracks towards the sunset. A goods train runs through, carrying trucks full of coal. The yellowing light spills across her face and she blinks.
Her eyes are bright. She knows it is fate.
I’m waiting for you. They could have done more with the waiting room – some magazines or a nice fish tank. Even a dusty aspidistra or two would’ve brightened the endless rows of wooden chairs. Most are filled but there’s little conversation. I don't care. I don’t need to be entertained. Thinking of you keeps me fully occupied.
I’ll never forget our first meeting. I was coming out of the supermarket and struggling with a laden trolley. Its wonky wheel hit the sloping gutter and pulled me off balance. The whole thing was toppling until your tanned, muscular arms reached out and stopped it. How my heart fluttered at your dimpled smile. When you offered to wheel the beast to my car I readily accepted though I could have managed from that point. We started talking about the items in my cart. You were curious about the extravagant food. I waved the list I’d been given explaining that I was shopping for my sister’s party tonight. She and my other sister were busy getting their hair and nails done and the groceries were last minute additions they wanted. Instead of asking when I’d be getting my hair done you said you hoped their hairdresser was as good as mine because she’d made me look like an angel. That was when my heart stopped fluttering, and melted.
The few short weeks leading to our marriage went by in a whirl. You treated me like a princess – infinitely precious and fragile. I luxuriated in your cotton wool, thrilled to receive such attention for the first time in my life. It wasn’t until the honeymoon that I finally felt the need to come up for air. Activities abounded on our tropical island. On the first day a waiter smiled at me and I kissed away your wrinkled brow. When our surf coach complimented my technique I laughed at your scowl, imagining those shows of jealousy to be your funny way of expressing your love. But that night you punished me for flirting.
Over the next two weeks whenever we ventured out together we went arm-in-arm. Others chuckled indulgently but I knew by then that such an arrangement isn’t always romantic. You frequently went off to swim and enjoy yourself, instructing me to stay in our room and watch TV. I didn’t dare disobey.
Shortly after returning from our honeymoon I found I was pregnant, and the joy of growing a new life inside me lightened the dread that was taking hold. The days became filled with prenatal exercise videos, sewing, crocheting and cooking healthy meals from the groceries you brought home. I loved the cot you chose but wished you’d let me go with you to buy it. You insisted I not get overtaxed. I didn’t see how the occasional visitor would overtax me but I’d learnt not to argue.
Your little punishments became more frequent. For arbitrary infractions you found ingenious ways to inflict pain without leaving marks. I tried desperately to please you – keeping the house spotless and laundering your clothes exactly as you liked. When the baby finally arrived I thought my heart would burst with joy. Our little girl was so beautiful. I hoped that fatherhood would mellow you, and for a while it did. But then the baby got colic.
She couldn’t help her crying. Really she couldn’t. I would have taken her for walks outside to free you from the noise but you wouldn’t allow it. What were you afraid of? Showing a less than perfect baby to the world or having a runaway wife? You needn’t have worried about the latter. I was completely in your thrall. I still melted when you turned on the charm and treated me tenderly. But when our intimate moments were interrupted by the baby I would hold my breath. I’d always been the outlet for your suppressed rages but suddenly I began to fear for our child. I was right to be afraid.
She’s not in the waiting room with me. A baby hasn’t learned to hate, doesn’t need revenge. This place – some on Earth might call it limbo – is only for those like me who are waiting for someone. I’m waiting for you. Turns out heaven and hell aren’t quite the way the religions paint them. Those who have done no harm and who seek no justice, never see a world beyond death. They rest in peace. But the spirits that ache for revenge come here – to the waiting room. This is where we ponder the ways we will deal with those who eventually come to us. I’ve devised a marvellous repertoire of ‘treatments’ for you. Many stem from the things you did to me but the worst will be variations on what you did to our daughter. Your ‘hell’ will last as long as I want it to. Only when my passions are finally spent will I allow us both to rest in peace.
So, my dear. Enjoy what’s left of your short corporeal life. Your death will be long. I’m waiting for you.
I always loved the smell of this room; the parchment, the leather, the ancient oak. The glint of the damp stone. I loved the silence. It is late. The scholars have returned to their beds and the cobbled streets outside are deserted. The only sound is the shuffling of the old librarian. One by one he snuffs out the tallow candles. The moonlight picks out the gilded cross on an old testament. I am waiting for you.
Somewhere behind me a taxi honks at a careless tourist. A pigeon makes an ambitious play for a fallen slice of pizza. The city is a teeming mass of life. A couple strolls towards me on the sidewalk. The young lady is eating from a polystyrene tray of chips. The young man is playing with his phone. She is startled by a passing bus and he takes the opportunity to steal a chip. She notices him and he returns to his phone with a cheeky grin. She regards him for a moment. It is a look I recognise... gratitude. They pass through me.
A young man lays in a hospital bed. He is attended to by a machine with many appendages. Its white carapace shines in the sterile light. He understands that he is too young to die but his proximity to death is so close now that he can no longer comprehend it. His mind allows it to pass. It is a mercy I have felt. His wife reaches over from her seat and grasps his hand. There is nothing more for her to say but she does not need to speak. I have not felt this. I am intruding here but I feel like this man can help me. I wait until he passes. When he sees me, he speaks warmly in language I cannot understand, then he is gone.
There is a ruined tower by the edge of the thicket in Lexington. It leans dangerously to one side. I have watched it for decades. I want to see it fall. The city is quiet now the people have gone. I pass the time watching the wildlife. These creatures were cats once. In the shadow of the building they play, they fight, they copulate. A buttress buckles slightly and a window on the 32nd floor shatters under the pressure. The creatures scatter. The smaller pieces almost tinkle as they hit the floor. I remember music.
For the longest time it was just a sea of darkness. I never realised how close the stars were before. Now there is only one. I head for it. The journey is long in a way I never learned the words to describe. I try to create new ones but I lack the ability. Eventually it seems like the star grows to meet me. The surface envelopes me and my whole existence inverts. My senses are overwhelmed. The brightness transcends sight. The roar transcends sound. It is a different kind of abyss, the opposite of nothingness. But you are not here. I am waiting for you.
I’ve put her on one side, the half of me that waits for you. I ignore her lagging behind like a reluctant puppy on a damp walk. I blank out her cries of “he said he’d be here” every time we hit a crisis. I am immune to the way she looks at me as if I can change things. I’ve stopped trying to explain what's happened to her because there isn’t a good enough explanation.
I think I’m doing pretty well. The healthy half of me knows it wasn’t my fault. It doesn’t try and remodel my raw materials into something more worthy. It studiously avoids the quicksand of memory. I’m on this path now and I have no choice but to keep going. I’m even beginning to think about other endings.
The waiting half isn’t much fun. She bleats on like that goat in Jurassic Park, staked out for the dinosaur. It’s pathetic the way it brings harm on itself staying in that surreal world. The world where the blue strobes cut the black sky into before and after. The one where I opened the door and normality got sucked out into the policeman’s mouth. What he said swallowed my life like a black hole.
I don’t dwell on that. I tell myself I’m lucky you’re alive, it could have been worse. But hard as I try, some days I can’t believe that. I watch you inhabiting my husband’s body and I know I’m living in a zombie film. Ironically it’s worse when you impersonate him. Like just now when you laughed at your new carer spilling your food. She’s mortified but you laugh again and again until she finally smiles. I think of how you would have handled that before, gently teasing her until it felt like nothing. But before no one would have had to feed you.
The waiting half over-powers me. She says you laughing is your first toddler steps to empathy. She actually thinks you’re going to come all the way back to us. You just got lost inside in the crash so all we have to do is wait for you to resurface. She’s wrong, of course, the self-help books state how important it is to accept you as you are now. To love you today not for who you used to be but I can’t do that, neither of my halves can. We fell in love with a giant and we’re living with a sweet runt.
She kids herself and I hate myself for being so hard, for knowing there is no better future. I think you either get a long time with someone small or a short time with someone as king-sized as you. Another silly belief. Perhaps I should divide myself up into hundreds of notions like balls of mercury running across the floor after the barometer shattered. Maybe one of them will contain a way of dealing with this, a belief to make life bearable.
You are, and you aren’t, you. More than half of you died in the accident. The sensible thing to do is to walk away from your remains but she won’t stop waiting for you. You weren’t the only one torn in two.
Our university imports its corpses from the continent. We never asked why, but I assume it's to prevent students from seeing granddad splayed open like a frog in Biology. It certainly isn't like European cheese and wine. These bodies aren't high quality. Not that I'm complaining! It's not like we should only accept the fittest dead (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one) - it's not as if the living are any better. Anyway, I shouldn't think those who donate their body to science would have much in common, let alone regular exercise and vegetable consumption. If anything, they'd be united by a woeful ignorance of the damage that a hungover medical student can inflict. I once watched a girl spill an entire small intestine onto the floor, and painstakingly drape it back into the abdominal cavity. At 9am. With the whole class watching. That wasn't her best day. It wasn't her worst either. That came in the brain session.
She was working at the same station as me, our group handling and examining preserved brain samples. The use of preservatives meant we were holding brain tissue examined by thirty classes prior. Thankfully, as undergraduates we weren't permitted to use the university's illicit collection of Victorian-era samples. Ethics were different (or non-existent) then, and doctors felt no qualms taking organs from the dead without permission - organs which could be obtained at discount prices. Touching brains is always going to be a little gross, but there is comfort in knowing that the one in your hands was legally obtained. So anyway, this girl was holding a brain. She was also suppressing a sneeze. Though it wasn't said explicitly, sneezing on the dead is generally frowned upon. When she couldn't hold it in any longer, reflexes took over, bringing her hands to her face. With the brain still in them. Being face-palmed by an organ isn't a great experience for the person involved, but it is *hilarious* for those watching. Safe to say, she took the rest of the session off. Which is where the box comes into play!
Our dissection classes being mandatory, she had to return the next day to complete the second half, about the circulatory system. It would've been weird for her to spend over an hour just with the anatomy professor, so I joined her. It did help that the professor was super cute. I was also very conscious of how good our origin story would be if we ever married. Plus, I wasn't very good at the circulatory system. After donning lab coats, gloves, and notepads, we found him standing next to a metal box.
I'd noticed the box before, and to my eye it looked about the right size for freezing a whole human body, with some wiggle room for lifting it out. So when he told us that he'd be introducing us to his favourite specimen, an *exclusive* honour for our 2-on-1 class, I almost felt disappointed. Been there, done that etc. Instead, we find the box filled to the brim with heads and arms. Attached though - bodies cut off just below the collarbone. After a moment of intense side-eye with my friend, we watch the professor rummage and mutter. By piling unwanted specimens to one side of the box, he managed to find one at the bottom. He lifted it into the crock of his arm, with all the care of cradling a baby.
"This is George! He always manages to hide from me. Just look at that carotid artery. He's not my favourite for nothing!"
Dropping a wink, the professor leaned in conspiratorially. "Of course, no one's perfect. He has no jaw."
Looking into George's eye-sockets, he whispered "and he is French."
Michael stooped down to pick up the paper that, miracles of miracles, had actually made to the front porch for a change. He did this slowly, not only because he was a little hung over, but because he knew that old Mrs Cooney across the road would be peering out from behind the sanctuary of her net curtains, waiting for an opportunity to be morally outraged, and after all he wouldn’t want to disappoint the old gossipmonger.
He had taken to wearing his bathrobe untied every Saturday morning, with only his briefs to cover his modesty; after Julie had told him the old woman had harangued her in Aldi at the top of her voice a few months earlier about how. And here his wife adopted a high shrill tone, almost perfectly mimicking their neighbour, simultaneously wagging an index finger in Michael`s face as she did.
“Your husband is a disgrace, waving his unmentionables about in public like that, has he no shame. If he doesn’t dress appropriately in the future I`ll report him to the Gardai,” a threat she had yet to follow through on.
It was as he slipped the paper under his arm, raising the coffee mug to his lips to take a sip as he did, that he noticed the crate sitting in the middle of his driveway.
“The Fuck….?” he muttered to himself.
Carefully, mindful of the fact he was barefoot, and that the Thompson`s Labrador `Patches` was not averse to crapping on their lawn; he went to investigate.
He judged the box to be about three feet tall, the top was level with his waist; as wide again, and maybe two feet deep. As he circled the box he saw it had the words “This Way Up” stencilled on all four sides, the only problem was they were upside down.
“Typical delivery men,” he said aloud, thumping the top of the box, “Good thing you don’t have fragile stamped on you or they`d`ve probably backed over you for good measure.”
He was scratching the stubble on his cheek; a man of habit he always had a cup of coffee before tackling that chore, and wondering where the shipping label was; probably on the lid, he thought. When a voice from inside the crate said, “Top a the morning to ya.”
Startled, Michael took a backward leap, splashing hot coffee on himself, while stepping in a skin crawlingly, freshly deposited pile of dogshit.
“Jesus, Fuck, Ah Fuck, Fuck Fuck Fuck, Oww Oww,” he yelled, hopping around on one foot, uncertain what to do next, the occasional loose stone biting into the tender sole of his unshod foot.
“I`ll kill that motherfucking dog,” he snarled, hopping over to his own lawn, wincing as he wiped his soiled foot on the dew soaked grass. Oh God, he thought, it`s gotten between my toes, bile rising in his throat as the stench hit him. He dry heaved, spitting out the bitter liquid that filled his mouth, momentarily forgetting the voice in the crate; until that is, it piped up again.
“Are ye alright there?” it enquired, once again in that Oirish “Darby O`Gill and the little people” accent unheard anywhere outside of Hollywood, and utterly despised by Irish people everywhere.
He ignored the voice until he had gotten his foot as clean as was possible, then, giving the now flattened dog poop a wide berth; he went back to the crate.
For the first time he noticed there were regularly spaced holes, each about two inches in diameter, drilled into the lower third of the box. Upper third, he mentally corrected himself, remembering it was upside down.
Crouching in front of the nearest row of holes, tugging the sides of his robe tightly together as he did, suddenly aware of how exposed he was, he leaned close enough for his forehead to touch the timber and shouted, “HELLO, IS THERE SOMEONE IN THERE!”
There was a moments silence, then the voice quietly replied, “Jaysus, there`s no need ta shout, I`m old, not deaf.”
“Oh sorry,” Michael said, lowering his voice, “I wasn’t sure you could hear me.”
“I can hear ye fine, what was all that commotion about, were ye attacked by something?”
“What no I….” Michael trailed off, feeling his face redden, “I.. I`m barefoot and stepped on something sharp,” which was half true, those stones had been quite pointy. “Um if you don’t mind me asking, why are you in this box and what is it doing in my driveway?”
“If it`s all the same ta you, would ya mind righting the box first, only there`s not room enough ta swing a cat in here and I`ve been sitting on me head fer that last wee while.”
“Oh Jesus yeah, sorry, what was I thinking...”
He straightened, leaned against the top edge, which was of course the bottom edge, braced himself and pushed with all his strength. The lightness of the crate took him by surprise, toppling easily onto its back, an unprepared Michael, unable to stop himself, sprawling onto it.
“Oww; Jaysus," the voice inside the crate complained, "take it easy lad, ye obviously don’t know yer own strength.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Michael murmured as he struggled back to his feet, “Almost there, just gonna..”
This time he tested the weight, pushing up on the top edge with his left hand until the lower edge had cleared the ground enough to allow him to slip the fingers of his right under it. And again, surprised at how little it weighed, easily hefted it upright. Finally all the stencilled words were right way up, but there was no delivery address on the top of the box.
It dawned on Michael that this might all be some elaborate prank, perhaps one of those gotcha T.V. shows that had gone out of fashion years ago. Looking around for suspicious vans with blacked out windows, he hastily tied the sash on his bathrobe.
“AAhh Jaysus thanks lad,” this was accompanied by loud cracking, sounds Michael was only too familiar with, his own back made those same noises more and more these days whenever he stretched.
“You were going to tell me how you got in there, and why you`re in my driveway?” Michael said, making no attempt to conceal his mistrust, still scanning the suspiciously empty road, though he saw no vans of any description.
Because of how light it was, he was three quarters convinced the box was empty, except perhaps for a microphone and speaker.
“Well how I come ta be in this here……. Coop. The thing is ya see, I has friends who has as ya might say, peculiar senses of humour. And they thought it would be a great jape ta pen me up in here for no reason whatsoever, I never did a one o em a bit a harm, and if they says otherwise,” there was a spitting sound from inside the box.
“As ta why I`m sittin in yer.. what was it ya called it…. yer driveway? That I couldn’t say; them friends a mine has queer ideas as ta what might be funny. But when I gets out, I`ll show them what funny truly is.” The venom in the way that last sentence was announced sending a shiver own Michael`s spine.
“Now if ye`d be so kind as to unlock the box and let me out…” he said, his voice saccharine sweet once more.
“Unlock?” Michael examined the top of the crate and saw a hasp fastened with a heavy brass padlock “Unlock it with what? I don’t have the key.”
“Tcchh,” the voice in the box said, “If it t`weren’t fer the string I`d forget me head, of course ye don’t have the key.”
Completely thrown out of sorts by what was happening Michael asked quite innocently, “Your head is attached by string?”
After a moments silence the voice said, “Me heads not attached by string, where would ya get such an idea.” A finger poked out of one of the airholes; there was a piece of string, tied with a neat bow around the second knuckle.
“Have ye never tied a piece a string around yer finger ta remind ye not ta forget something important. And what might I ask, is more important than yer head?”
Desperately trying to get this surreal event over with, and a little relieved, though still perplexed that there was a man in the box, Michael, trying not to sound petulant, repeated, “But I don’t have the key.”
“Oh I have that, here,” and the end of a piece of brown twine emerged from a side-hole, twisting and wriggling as it was fed out.
Gratefully Michael snatched it, wrapping it around one finger so it wouldn’t slip out of his grasp and yanked on it, the key clunking against the timber as it rattled out of the hole. Relieved that this was nearly over, he snatched the lock and almost rammed the key into place, twisting it so hard he thought for a second it might snap in the barrel, then the shackle sprang open and he slipped the padlock free, flipping the lid back on unseen hinges.
Michael had no idea what he`d expected to see, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t this. An elderly man was shoehorned into the space, his hair sparse and white, as was his beard, which, when Michael helped him to his feet, to the accompaniment of more cracking of joints; he saw reached almost to the man`s waist.
He was impeccably dressed in a grey tweed suit and green bowtie, and when he very gingerly swung first one leg and then the other out of the crate, Michael couldn’t help notice the gleam on the man’s brogues.
“Aahhhh it does a body good ta be able ta stretch once more,” he arched his spine backwards, supporting himself with both hands on his hips; to more popping and cracking.
“How long were you in there?” Michael asked in astonishment. Now that they were face to face, he saw the man was a tall as he was, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to fit in such a small space.
“Long enough and too long,” the man said, and it only occurred to Michael then that he didn’t even know the man`s name.
“I`m sorry,” he said extending a hand, “I forgot to introduce myself, Michael, Michael O`Riordan.”
The other man looked down at the hand but made no attempt to take it, instead putting his right hand into his pocket, “Patrick… ” he said, “Patrick Shaughnessy, nice ta meet ya Michael. Yer a scholar and a gentleman; and fer yer trouble.
He pulled his hand from his pocket and Michael saw he was holding a large yellow coin; he manipulated it until it rested on the back of his thumb and crooked forefinger, then without warning he flicked it into the air.
The coin pinged loudly as it took flight, the way they do in movies, though never in real life; disappearing into the early morning sun as it tumbled into a high arc, Michael watching it all the way, snatching it out of the air while it was still above his head.
He looked around, he was alone, the man calling himself Patrick Shaughnessy was nowhere to be seen. All that remained to prove he`d been there at all was the now empty crate and the coin.
Michael opened his hand, the coin was nearly as big as his palm and surprisingly heavy, embossed on one side was an image of the old man, and when he turned it over he saw a woman`s head in profile imprinted on the other.
He was just thinking how beautiful she looked when she turned, winked at him, then turned away again, and he was reduced to finishing the adventure with the two words he`d started with.
I’ve been staying in the cabin for two weeks now and those who hunt me still have not found me. After weeks in the woods, exposed to harsh elements with only a tent, sleeping bag and the clothes on my back for warmth, I was close to death when I stumbled upon the cabin. Breaking in was no trouble at all. The blanket of dust covering the shabby, outdated furniture told me no owners would be coming back in a hurry.
The pull-out bed I’ve been sleeping on is lumpy but I’m just grateful to sleep with a pillow and a blanket. On my second night here, I found a box full of classic literature. Nights have been spent by the enchanting amber embers of the fire reading Oscar Wilde.
These last two weeks I have been happy but I know I must not become attached to my new home. Soon those who hunt me will catch up to me and I’ll be forced to run.
I was eight years old the first time it happened.
At school, I never fit in with other children. Their games bored me. The trivial matters that concerned other children seemed silly to me. I spent my time reading books that were advanced for my years, particularly books with adventure at the heart of the story. The Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island and The Swiss Family Robinson to name a few. Unfortunately, children who don’t fit the mold tend to be a target for bullies. During recesses finding a quiet place to read where the bullies could not find me was a game I played all on my own.
Sometimes I hid in the janitors closet amongst a mop, vacuum and various other cleaning supplies, using torch light to see the pages in my book. Other times I hid in empty classrooms, crouched beneath the teachers’ desk. On this particular day I was in a bathroom cubicle devouring Gulliver’s Travels, a favorite, when I heard her voice.
"I saw her come in here!"
It was Eliza Page, the ringleader of a group of girls on a mission to make my school life as miserable as possible. I lunched forward to slide the lock of my cubicle door closed, which I’d foolishly forget to do. Too late, the cubicle door flew upon and I was face to face with Eliza and three of her followers who all eyed me like a cat does its prey.
Feeling brave I tried to push past her but my scrawny frame was no match for Eliza’s hulking physique. She drove her elbow into my ribs which sent me sprawling onto the floor, knocking my glasses of my face. I reached out to retrieve them but before I could she crushed them beneath her polished Mary janes’.
"You, go watch the door." She commanded one of her followers. Obviously, Eliza didn’t want anyone coming to my rescue.
Eliza had never beaten me before. Her bullying consisted of ripping up my books or calling me uninspired name like ‘nerd’ or ‘specks’ that showcased her low IQ. I always knew the day would come were her wickedness would take a violent turn.
The same foot that crushed my glasses stomped on my leg one, two, three times. Each time I cried out in agony. Eliza and her cronies cried out in glee.
"Fight back, loser." Eliza smirked down at me as I cowered on the floor.
I made an attempt to pull myself off the ground. Eliza let me get halfway up before using her foot to push me back down.
I started up at Eliza, her pink, blotchy face contorted in twisted joy. The sound of her cackles vibrated through my skull. In the past I was passive towards Eliza’s wicked treatment of me, now I was seething. Anger coursed through my veins like a poison. It was like a ball of fire in the pit of my stomach. Then the fire spread into my chest, then down my arms and into my hands and fingertips. Primal instinct told me to unleash that fire in Eliza’s direction so I thrust my hands, open palmed towards her.
In an instant she was thrown a meter into the air. Frightened I dropped my hands and just as quickly she fell back onto the ground in a heap.
Her friends stared at me in stunned horror. I pulled myself to my feet and ran from the bathroom as quickly as my legs allowed.
Eliza and her friends left me alone after that incident. Rumors circulated. ‘Witch’ they called me. But nobody believes the stories of children. Then adults started talking.
‘I seen Samantha Smith walking home from school, levitating a stack of books in front of her as she went’
‘She thrust her hand towards some windows and just like that the glass shattered’
‘My dog almost got hit by a her but Samantha Smith used her powers to save him’
True, over the years I got careless. I let a lot of people see my powers in action but I was a child. I didn’t know there was people out there who seen me as a weapon to wield.
They came for me on my thirteenth birthday.
My mother and I were never close. She was a deeply religious lady who wore a St Christopher around her neck and attended church every Sunday. What I was scared her and my whole life she kept me at arm’s length. Still her dying screams haunt me to this day.
Once they were done with my mother they proceeded to kick in her bedroom door, where I was cowering under the bed.
Before they could gain access to the room I had already broken the window and climbed down the fire escape onto the abandoned street below. I ran, and I’ve never stopped running since. I regret not stopping to kill the men who killed my mother but over the years I’ve used my abilities to kill many bad men.
My box got broken long ago
so I can’t help but think
outside it - it has no in.
All our boxes – the rickety crib,
the jewellery box meant for me,
the antique coal scuttle, the shapes
Dad’s arms and legs made
as he danced – all got destroyed.
Crushed because they represented
finer things denied to him,
smashed because they shoved his face
close up against the looking glasses
of my eyes, he laughed before
they squirted him with failing cream.
How loud he shouted, how he cursed
as he slapped his reflection
from my clasped face.
Found me so wanting
he was never seen again.
Yet he did me a favour
took contagious cruelty away,
forced Mum and me to learn
to thrive in this boxless world.
In a way he set me free
to run inquest after inquest
now he’s dead to me.
You play a role in
outside the box
a hustler, a wholesome debutante
you say your lines/lies like a real pro
even though last year
you were just an amateur
a fringe player
without wear and tear
without casting couch
rising up alone
holding onto those stage lights
a fiery star eating up the darkness