The chicken Hero died on Sunday
called so from Hero and Leander of
course (it's a girl's name but you
knew that), and it was not really
a good hero's death: a wound
unnoticed, infiltrated by maggots
e'en before the grave, and in fact
as it was a hot day I said burn her;
don't bring her back so fallen;
but importantly, remember (note
to self) this is not Anglo-Saxon poetry
not the Dream of the Rood, and her
demise was not a prefiguration nor
was meant to be.
I will kill my squirming
maggots and I will live.
Heroes can resist the
stench of the grave and
the false allure of heaven
if they believe.
John the Hero
If you have read the New Testament you know the stories of several important Johns…John the Baptist, John the Apostle and John of Patmos to name a few. Two thousand years later a story of another John has emerged in the Christian narrative. It is the story of John the Hero, an ordinary man doing God's work. Ironically it is also the story that ultimately caused me to question my Christian faith and eventually leave the church.
When I met John the Hero he was middle aged, pudgy and unattractive. His large, aviator framed glasses slid down a face that was too small for his large, rotund body. The smallish face was lubricated in a greasy sweat induced by the inferno of Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily his strong hairline and cropped brown locks rescued him from abject ugliness. Without them he would paved plunged fully into the abyss of nameless, faceless men cursed with fatness, baldness and homely looks.
But what John lacked in looks he more than made up for with his ego. He practically strode through life like he was a Greek god. He reminded anyone who would listen that he was once a jarhead; a United States Marine, a soldier forged like steel into an elite weapon. Marines are young, full of bravado and known for their muscular physiques. According to the legend, not only had John once been a jarhead, he had everyone believing he was only one diet away from reclaiming his boyish figure. But he was too busy doing God’s work to worry about his appearance. He was a pastor, a modern day hero, commissioned by the Almighty and always available to go where called. He had no time to count calories or go to the gym...his mission was too important.
John was a kingdom builder and used words like a mason uses bricks. He carefully crafted his messages to be accessible to the masses. He primarily used the language of the common man, occasionally punctuating it with a few elite words to let you know he was definitively learned. He loved alliteration and boisterously billowed in a bourgeois barrage of bullshit, captivating many adoring followers. He had an uncanny ability to weave his words into an irresistible narrative where he was always the hero.
According to John he had spent the 1980s fighting for the rights of unborn children in the greater Atlanta metropolis through his pro-life rhetoric. But by the mid-1990s God had expanded his vision. He and his flock graciously adopted the people of Bosnia Herzegovina and planned to plant evangelical churches and save souls in the war ravaged region.
In preparation for such a momentous task John fasted and prayed for forty days. As the weight fell off of his frame his understated blazers no longer groaned as they contained his massive torso. Instead they were able to relax and John, flush with a new confidence and a narrowed waistline expanded his empire. He crafted a clear and concise message and served up an endless buffet of impassioned pleas through a clever marketing campaign. When his fast ended he continued these pleas, each enhanced by a heavy heart and heavy breathing. Not the heavy breath of a pervert, but breath laden with urgency and purpose. A breath that incidentally always smelled of fried chicken. Apparently shortly after the fast ended his legendary appetite had returned and once again his blazers groaned in agony.
His pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Pledges were made, money poured in and missionaries (some who stayed for weeks and others who stayed for years) were soon boarding flights to the Baltics. Now, this is where the story takes an unexpected twist. Even though John was a heroic man of God, his leadership style was like that of a gluttonous university lad. Although he preached of leading an orderly life, he certainly did not model such virtues.
When reports from the mission field began to trickle in, usually in the form of massively distributed email messages, they were long and detailed. But instead of narrating the sacrificial, sacred life associated with missionary work the narratives were much more superficial. There was much talk of how the pimple-faced teenagers in our congregation now stood out like gods in this foreign land. The girls, in their Brittney Spears fashions, were instantly worshipped and each one left Sarajevo with multiple marriage proposals but sadly, no souls saved. The reports read more like the highlights of a summer camp than a serious religious crusade. However, there were occasional mentions of a few locals who had committed their lives to Jesus and we prayed like hell that these new converts would kindle a fire in the hearts of the Bosnian people. I should also point out that because none of our missionaries were fluent in the local language these new converts were instantly put into a position of great leverage. Some abused this situation, while others devoutly followed and worked under the guidance of the naïve Americans.
John’s flock of missionaries were created in his image, each with a similar narrative of doing God's work while always making themselves out to be the hero. They came back from the mission field with many extravagant stories and always just a few meager souls saved. The stories all ended with more impassioned pleas for monetary support. After all, this work was essential. It was also incredibly convenient because by devoting our resources to the Bosnians still trapped in their homeland we were off the hook to help the thousands of Bosnians who had resettled in greater Atlanta and were at our doorstep. There was no need to get mired in the thankless job of helping chain-smoking, smelly refugees find their way in America. Granted, the homeland Bosnians also chain smoked and did not always smell fresh, but in the foreign context, it was totally appropriate…but in American, not so much. Besides we had a much higher calling to reach those still in the motherland according to John, our fearless leader and chief hero in residence.
Years passed and the fervor for Bosnia still ran hot with the spindly veins of our church. But behind closed doors a new story was emerging from the mission field. This story was too confidential to be shared in mass emails and was discussed only among the church leadership. By the time the story found its way to the congregation it had been highly sanitized and was full of Christian euphemisms. At the center of the story was a series of “moral failures” among the missionaries. In our Christian circles a “moral failure” is code that good Christian people are inappropriately fucking each other. Usually the term is reserved for when a strong Christian man is having an extramarital affair. But it in this case it was clear that the moral failure was not limited to men and had spread to some of the unmarried people too.
Now John always boasted of how when sin was found in a church, it should be brought to light instead of sweeping it under the rug. Even in the early 2000s, members of our church occasionally confessed their sins publically. And since we were not Catholic, we did not confess our sins to a priest. Instead we confessed them to the entire congregation from the pulpit with hundreds of eyes watching each word fall from a trembling mouth as hands nervously gestured. To be clear, we did not confess every sin from the pulpit, only the big sins and the all of the fucking that occurred in the Balkans certainly fell into this category.
So on a sweltering July day in 2002 several missionaries, one by one, found their way to the pulpit. Each one confessed that they were involved in big, sultry, nasty, communal moral failure. Sullen faced, many shed tears and regretted their poor decisions. They were much more concerned about how they had disappointed the Almighty than how they had disappointed the people in their nascent Bosnian church. After all, if sex scandals can shake the pillars of the great American megachurches, how much more can they dismantle and possibly snuff out a small, emerging church. There was little regret about being a poor example for new Christians or wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars donated on their behalf. Instead, through choked tears they made sincere pledges to restore their marriages and friendships. Once relationships were restored they could then go back to their God ordained mission. In their many words they made almost no plans for asking forgiveness to the vulnerable Bosnian Christians who they had failed miserably.
After they confessed their sins and received special counsel many went back to the mission field. The entire situation left me speechless. I always questioned the makeshift mission and this sequence of events confirmed my suspicions. I grew even more suspicious when I observed John’s classic response to this debacle. As a fearless leader I expected to take responsibility on some level for what had transpired. After all, since 1995 he had traveled to Bosnia several times a year and supposedly kept a close tabs on everything. But instead of offering up an impassioned plea for forgiveness for his lack of leadership he offered up a mouth held agape and a puzzled facial expression. He spoke of how he had absolutely no idea that this was happening under his watch and credited the perpetrators for their craftiness in keeping things under wraps for so long. He magnified their sins referring to them as “something I have never seen before or ever heard of,” making it clear that he still swam in morally clean waters. And he carefully created a new set of alliterative clichés to encourage the missionaries and the whole congregation to ‘halt harmful hormones’ in their tracks. Most of the congregants quickly devoured his new rhetoric. Their senses were so blurred by this point that they could not see or smell the buffet of steaming bullshit for what it was. Instead they saw wise words from a wise man, a godly, modern day hero.
Secretly I wondering who was fucking who, because those details were never divulged and my inquiring mind wanted to know. But I never knew exactly what happened. I can only remember how it impacted one of my single girlfriends who was caught in the scandal. She was one of the few people involved who actually had a conscience that extended beyond the church walls and into the lives of her fellow man. On an emotional level she seemed to be hit the hardest and it took a long time before she could even look people in the eye. In her renewed vow to live a sexually pure life she also vowed that the passionate feelings in her life would be reserved solely for God. For her, even seemingly innocent passions could grow out of control and lead her astray. She declared that she would willingly lead a bland existence for the sake of her faith. Her words hit me like a note out of tune. How could God require a young vibrant woman to lead such a dull, passionless life?
Fifteen years later I see that her implicit tone deafness made my ears perk up and for the first time I began to question the church and its leader. Small questions led to bigger ones and eventually I left the church and disconnected myself from John and his misguided flock. Over the years I went through my own spiritual awakening in which I became the hero of my own life. I now realize that anyone can tell a story and cast themselves as the hero. But a true hero never has to parade around in a special suit, explicitly revealing their identity. If you are ever lucky enough to meet a true hero, it will be more than apparent who they are and no words or costumes will be needed.
NO MORE HEROES
He stood on his own next to the Dean who showed him the Polygalla Bursista in full flower.
"You see, Matthew, cross pollination can produce extraordinary blooms despite Fawcett's Theory of Genetic Isolation."
Was this the life he'd made for himself? Chatting to the college principal while she stood surrounded by a crowd in the middle of the Second Quad? The noise of their excited chatter echoed off the warm stone walls and penetrated the shadowy corners of the old building. A shaft of evening sunlight caught the bright sheen of her hair and her joyful laughter radiated happiness he longed to share. It filled him with envy and a strange, powerful impulse.
The day he won a scholarship to Jesus College had seemed the highlight of his young life. His Headmaster paraded him before the school like a prince.
"An outstanding scholar and worthy champion of our academic trophies...etc ..etc"
She had laughed with the others, tossing her beautiful dark hair as she clapped his success. Was it sincere or did she join in with the rest who labelled him 'Mister Dork?'
She never showed it, but there again, she seemed too busy with her own set to bother with him. His adoration was his problem not hers. She lived in a world of admiration. Like a pretty goldfish, she swam elegantly through life with a lazy flick of her tail.
There was a moment of surprise when she passed the university entrance exam, but it was not a scholarship or bursary.
"Congratulations," he said "We'll meet at college next year!"
"Yes," she said, and turned away as one of her girlfriends came rushing to hug her success; the two girls sharing the embrace that drove his imagination to a whirlwind of jealousy.
As the term approached, he worked at a local garden centre to earn enough to buy an old car and with some difficulty managed to pass his driving test. His father teased him.
"Now you'll fetch the girls, me lad!" He smiled and made no reply. He didn't want to 'fetch the girls' -he just wanted one girl to notice.
Then one afternoon, she stopped and chatted to him. She was on her way to some tennis game and passed his house. She glowed with health, her tanned legs set off by her white skirt and neat trainers; he thought she looked wonderful and she knew it.
"Going up in your new car?" She said.
He noticed how she had learnt the lingo already. He nodded mute with shyness.
"Maybe you can give me a lift and we can arrive together,"
She pushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes and gazed directly at him. His heart jumped and he wanted to say he would do anything she wanted, but all he could manage was "Ok." She grinned and waved. He wanted to say something, but she ran on and the moment was gone.
He got his gear together for the trip to Oxford. It was the first time he had ever been away from home for more than a few days and he loaded his car with books and clothes as if leaving for a year. He waited to see if she remembered her idea and to his surprise she came round the day before they were due 'to go up.'
"Will you keep your promise?" her head tilted back and her lips parted slightly showing the tips of her white teeth. She raised her eyebrows in mute enquiry as if she was unsure.
He managed a nod and then clearing his throat said. "I can always find a bit of room, if you want."
She grinned. "Great! Dad will be round this evening. Thanks a million!"
Late that night, her father arrived and brought three suitcases and a trunk to his front door. Matthew could hardly miss the fact that the car he drove was a Volvo estate car with twice the space of his little Renault.
"You'll manage I'm sure,"
He set the heavy cases down on the pavement.
Would she call? All evening he waited, but nothing came. Next morning among his farewells, he watched for her and met Sally her best friend at the street door.
"Jennie says hi, and see you at college."
"She's gone already?"
"Yes, Derek Fawkes gave her a lift in his Mini Cooper."
That first term was a confusion of new experiences. Sharing rooms with some public schoolboy; finding out the geography of this strange academic world; struggling with concepts and social behaviour; but she was never out of his mind. He saw her at a distance in the High street; she waved across the road but didn't stop. He tried to catch up with her but she turned into a college doorway before he could reach her. He fancied there was still the hint of a fragrance she used as he stopped at the big wooden door.
Another time he waited outside the gate of St Hilda's to catch her as she went out. He stood there for more than half an hour in the drizzle waiting for her,with a little speech to appear cool and confident, but she never appeared. As he walked back to his lecture, he passed a coffee shop and she was perched on a stool inside laughing with some toffee nosed undergraduate who smiled and teased her. She saw him and waved for him to come in. His damp tweed jacket clung to his body, and its woody wet smell steamed in the warmth of the café. The other young man examined him as he stood, bedraggled in front of her.
Brushing back a stray blond curl, the boy said "Been swimming this morning?"
Matthew shook his head, he tried to think of something to say but words never came.
"Oh don't tease him!" She said, "He's a friend from home! How are you Matt?"
"Ok, have started research on Plant Genetics." As soon as the words left his mouth he knew they were the stupidest thing he had ever said.
She pretended to pay attention but he knew her too well; her blue eyes soon flicked away from his and looked past him into the view beyond his head.
"Well, we'll see each other in vac won't we?"
He hated the stupid word. Why not say vacation? or holidays?
"Yes, maybe sooner!" He gritted his teeth. At last he had found a spark of determination.
Tomorrow, in the second Quad, while the summer party was in full swing, he'd leave the stuffy old Dean to his shrubs and tell her how he felt, whatever the consequences.
Who said there were no more heroes?
'I will be king' over the rock hall of fame,
A shape-shifting sylphlike goblin God,
A 'pretty thing', stranger and more beautiful than anyone, before or after,
Ziggy's alien presence accompanied by Ronson's riffs,
Led us along aural soundscapes of mellifluous tones razored with searing strokes,
The spiders took us to Mars & back,
As Bowie fell to Earth to become Emperor of rock existentialism,
Inimitable & irreplaceable particles drifted downwards to shine their luminosity upon us,
The Brixton born cut-up lyricist, pied piper of ethereal earthworms,
Escaped the treacherous vapidity of the suburban wasteland,
Ran away from the disease of provinciality,
'Major Tom' traveled at the speed of light to pose questions & provide the answers in a narrative of his own creation,
The thin white Yamamoto duke flirted with potentialities,
To triumphantly emerge from folkdom, a style & sound icon.
Here, there are no more heroes,
Watch the sky for the waiting Starman.
Gone Fishin' -
memories of an un-heroic lock keeper
He had remarkably blue eyes,
The lock-keeper of Godstow
And I see him clearly
Legs splayed concave,
Peaked captain's cap a-slant.
Hear his rustic voice
Pronouncing on river politics of the day -
His catch-phrase “What I carn't understand is...”
Was mimicked by colleagues and some
Fun was made of his Eternal Vexations.
No winner resulting from lock-side disputes,
He'd scoff at the end of the farce,
“'I carn't tell if that shit's from 'is mouth or 'is arse!”
In high 1980s summer with the Stranglers playing
And bikini bodies on the pleasure boats laying
He's puzzle to himself
“Now why ain't I got a woman like those?”
Shake his head and shrug -
“Not enough money I suppose.”
He'd lonely pace his exercise yard
Two fidgety jack russels in tow,
Until later two daughters and wife
Would return from work
And in neolithic fag-bonding ease
Send collective thoughts on daily matters
Smokily out on the river's breeze.
His lock-side sentence ran out a little early -
A brain tumour ending the stream of his life.
Many boats passed through his gates
But I do not think he knew them well,
(“It would be a good job if it weren't for the boats!”)
Those smug owners of fibre-glass shells.
I see him on days off
Not storming the barricades,
Nor challenging Thatcher,
Or striding out on CND parades
But clambering with rod into his little skiff
To see what the river god might give.
See him looking eternally down stream,
Bored to heaven by the boats
With those remarkably blue eyes.
(Part 1 in Ephemera from last week)
Sorry readers, a week flew by. So many stories came in last week on my blog about the NSD stone that I've had trouble keeping up. I was in the middle of writing a draft of the introduction for the book when life got in the way so I'm rereading to remember where I was when I left off.
Jane. That's right. Jane had just been given the rock, and I was sharing her e mail with you.
Here is the rest of it, and some more of my introduction. Hopefully I won't be interrupted this time...
One day, I was in a shop, the kids screaming, staring at a shirt I knew I wouldn't fit into. I'd had it. People were staring at me, I could feel it. And then this woman came up to me and gave me this rock. And as I held it, the world around me vanished. Gone were my two screaming children. Gone was the shop, gone was the shirt I was staring at. Best of all, the desperate feeling I had of 'I cannot do this' had vanished too. I was empty, peaceful, completely present in a calm white space. I was with myself. I could feel the cool of the rock against my fingers, I could see white around me, like clouds, I could feel nothing.
The clouds dispersed. I was in a park. I was sitting on a blanket, under a tree, sipping a cup of something herbal and healthy. And in front of me, playing with a bat and ball, were two children, aged about 11 or 12. 'Mum!' one of them yelled. 'Come on, your turn to bat!' They were my children, grown up, sun-kissed and tall, open smiles under happy eyes, buzzing with life.
I took the bat
and suddenly I was back in my house. The same house but oh so tidy and colourful, bookshelves along the wall instead of books in boxes, my carpet clean and hoovered, my husband dozing along the couch, my children sprawled on the floor reading books, giggling at things they read. It was a scene of utter bliss, the sort of bliss I imagined would be created by having a family instead of the mess and stress of my present life. I sat down and gazed at them all and the room and the house and felt the love
and then we were in the car driving somewhere, laughing at the radio, off on holiday, excited
and then I woke up in my bed knowing I'd slept the whole night, feeling rested and ready for the day. My children burst in and jumped on me and tickled me til I woke properly, and asked if they could make scrambled eggs for breakfast. My husband rolled over and pulled me into a hug and told me I'm a wonderful mum
and then we were having dinner and the kitchen was different, unrecognisable from the one we have now; surfaces still cluttered but with sort of arty clutter, not just piles of crap that I look at with increasing desperation and wonder how I'll ever get to the bottom of them.
All of this happened in seconds, Brian. Then the rock was pulled from my hands and I was back in the shop, my kids still yelling their heads off, the lumpy tiredness and black cloud back above me, and me feeling like the world had just shifted on its axis leaving me adrift, confused... but oddly happy. What had I just glimpsed? I did something then I hardly ever did: I laughed.
'That's right,' the woman said. 'It passes. And you're doing a good job, and whatever you saw, and felt, is where you're headed.' She put her head close to mine. 'I don't know how it works, but this stone shows you stuff. It shows you a possible future.'
'Possible?' I said, thinking, No, that is what I want. I don't want it to be possible; I want it to be definite.
'Possible, if you keep going,' she said. 'If you don't give up.'
I thought, she's a witch. She's seen into my head. She's from social services. They know I've thought about-
'It's okay,' the woman said. 'I am a friend. I saw you and I knew you were next. Don't ask me how; I don't know. This stone is now yours, and you've got to pass it on. When the time is right. You can use it one more time yourself, when you need to, but it won't work more than twice: trust me, I've tried.' She smiled a strange, sad little smile.
'Why did you have it?'
'I was diagnosed with cancer,' she said. 'This stone showed me what would happen.'
Her eyes brimmed, and she touched my shoulder. 'I didn't believe in fate, or destiny, or preordained life. But now...' She shook her head. 'You get one trip here. And when it's your time, it's your time. It's not yours, yet. And one day, sometime in the future, you'll find someone else who needs a glimpse. But here's the thing: we all die. We are all born. In between, what you make of it is up to you. My future isn't as long as I thought. But I go happy. The next bit is some of the best. And whatever you saw, that's coming to you. Just hang on. And the thing I've learned the most is there aren't any heroes who'll save you. You've got to be your own hero, every single time.'
She gave me a brief hug and was gone, disappearing into the shop and the rails of colours of clothes of mannequins grinning inanely at life, at me, at my children who were pulling shirts off the hangers, and giggling like little maniacs. I fought the urge to scream at them. I fought the urge to smack a tiny bum and drag them out of the shop. I looked at the shirt I'd wanted to try. 'Later,' I said to it. I bent down to pram level and my babies, my gorgeous cheeky toddlers, stared back, waiting for a telling off. 'Let's go for ice cream,' I said.
Their cheers as we left lifted me up high, pushed away the darkness just for a while and made me smile towards the future, at a future I had grasped, just for a second. A future that was mine, if I wanted it.
As we passed a card shop, I glanced at the sign in the window.
Mothers' Day is on the way! To mums everywhere, you are doing a good job. You are enough. You are often everything. You are amazing!
The stone heavy in one hand, the pram with my future in the other, I had nothing with which to wipe the tears that trickled down my face. I let them go and nodded at the window. 'Yes,' I said.
So Brian, you'll be wanting to know who I gave the stone to next. I carried it with me. I traced its engraving, NSD. Life was still a daily struggle but I went to the doctor, who didn't take my children away but said I needed a little help and gave me some antidepressants, and they filled the gaps in my mind and helped me cope better. Finally, I began enjoying motherhood the way I always wanted to and imagined I would. But the weeks and months passed and I didn't find anyone who I felt needed the stone. And what if I gave it to the wrong person?
Turns out I didn't need to worry. I was out with my husband one night. I'd not told him about the stone, as he is a very down to earth person who'd probably have me carted off to a nice soft room somewhere if I explained what had happened (or perhaps I doubted it myself, somewhere deep inside), and we'd just been out on a date night, which we tried to do once a month. The stone was heavy in my bag, pulling on my shoulder, in a way that I was used to, in a way that reminded me what was real, what I had coming my way. We were crossing the main bridge in town, Middlewood Bridge, when we saw a gathering of people up ahead. My husband tried to steer me across the road to avoid it but I strode on ahead, as if I was pulled.
As I approached, the people could be heard whispering and calling, phones beeping. I walked right into the middle of them. There was a space between the crowd and the railings. And there, on the other side of the railings, was a man, leaning out, hands behind him, staring at the water below. It wasn't a particularly high bridge, but the water below churned and frothed and rocks stuck up and I thought, he'll die. And the stone felt heavier in my bag and I took it out, knowing, all of a sudden. that this was the moment I'd been walking towards.
My husband tried to pull me back and yelled something at me but I ignored him, carried the stone to the railing and laid it against the man's hand. I'd no idea what would happen.
The stone was against the back of the man's hand. He was shaking all over and I was suddenly aware that if he moved the stone might fall and be lost forever. But he turned his hand over and grabbed it, so the stone was on the railings and I was holding the stone and he was holding the stone and there was some precarious balance going on between us; a small triangle poised between life and death and the future.
Nothing happened for a few seconds then he turned to me and his face smiled and I saw he was young, my age and good-looking, except for a long scar that ran the length of his face, from his temple to the corner of his mouth. He looked at me and we waited, caught in some magical moment where everything was somehow suspended with the water rushing and the crowd waiting and this silence around us, holding us in.
Then he laughed.
And without letting go of the stone he swung himself back over the railings, to the side that shouted LIFE. I put my mouth close to his ear and said, 'Be your own hero,' and he turned and looked a look that spoke of pain and love and loss for just a second, but it was enough. People cheered and there was a rush towards us and uniforms and the man was gone. And so was the stone.
Soon, we were alone, my husband and me. Between us there was this space, my half full of peace; his, half full of questions. We stepped into it and he pulled me into a hug.
'What the hell... was that?' he said.
I took a deep breath. 'Let's go for a sun downer, and I'll tell you a story,' I said.
That's my tale, Brian. Put it out on your blog and let's see if anyone else has been touched by this strange, unexpected magic. I hand it over to you.
Regards and love, from one part of this strange life to another,
So there you are, ladies and gentlemen. That's the end of my introduction and the beginning of my book. Let me know what you think - drop me a comment in the boxes below, share my blog to other sites and let's see how many comments I can get. I'm not a writer, but I seem to have a compulsion to write. I want this story to get out because it is one of hope. Let me know what you think of the intro.
Part 3 next week!
No More Heroes
Bishop Leadweather did not enjoy hangings. He thanked the powers that be that the church was no longer responsible for administering legal punishment, even if the crime was an ecclesiastical one. In the past, he’d read, a bishop or archdeacon would have been perfectly within his rights to order a criminal be flayed alive, where the skin was cut, preferably in one piece, from the criminal’s body while they still were conscious.
‘Everything all right, your Grace?’ said Soames. The Procurator Fiscal had a smug grin plastered over his greasy face. Here was someone who always seemed to relish a hanging.
‘Perfectly, thank you,’ he replied, staring at the gallows, the noose swinging in the early morning breeze.
‘If you’re cold, I can –’
‘I said I’m fine,’ snapped the bishop. ‘I appreciate your concern.’
A portly man wearing a vermillion cape over his expensive clothes leaned over. He was grinning. ‘If his Grace is anything like me, he’ll be wanting his breakfast. No criminal is worth missing the first meal of the day.’
‘As ever, Angus, you are correct,’ Leadweather said, suppressing a yawn.
He found his work a strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. After many years of oscillating between the two, he’d achieved a state of equilibrium: rarely fatigued or elated. Today, however, he was feeling the effects of a particularly late night.
A drum began its beat and a hush fell over the crowd. The criminal, a petty thief caught stealing from St Giles’ Cathedral, was brought out. He wasn’t gibbering and pissing himself like some others Leadweather had seen. The bishop naturally wondered how he’d cope in the man’s position. He supposed he would be far from tranquil, but…he was used to mastering his emotions. This would be the biggest test.
The thief’s face twitched incessantly as he approached the scaffold. He was a young man, not much more than a boy, really. A woman screamed in the crowd: most likely his mother. A light drizzle began to fall. The thief reached out his hands towards the hysterical woman, who promptly fainted. ‘Mother, I only did it for –’ he yelled, cut short when the hangman thumped him in the stomach and he doubled over. The crowd jeered and laughed, drowning out the hangman’s voice, who’d no doubt administered a verbal humiliation as well. After the thief recovered, the noose was placed around his neck and he slowly climbed the ladder.
Bishop Leadweather looked away.
Much later, he lost himself in the Cathedral’s accounts in order that he would forget the events of the morning. Hours passed. Some time in the afternoon, there was a soft knock on the door of his study.
‘Enter,’ he said, without looking up from his work.
‘Your Grace, I’ve brought that laddie you asked to see. The one who was torturing that wee cat the other day.’
The bishop sniffed and rose from his desk. A runty-looking boy with a tear stained, filthy face and flaming red hair tried to look defiantly back at him, which was difficult, as a burly priest had a firm hold of his ear. ‘Leave us, Edward.’
‘Your Grace, are you sure? He can be quite unmanageable at times –’
‘Leave us,’ said Bishop Leadweather, twitching aside a cloth to reveal a small loaf of freshly-baked bread. Its mouth-watering aroma filled the room. The boy’s eyes widened.
‘As you wish,’ Edward said, and left the study.
As soon as the door clicked shut, the boy darted forwards. Leadweather had anticipated this, however, and raised the plate far above his grasping hands.
‘You don’t to hang, do you boy?’
The urchin ceased his straining, becoming still and sullen. Leadweather retreated to safety.
The boy fixed him with an angry stare and spat on the floor. The bishop decided to let this pass. He jutted out his chin. ‘The cat you were tormenting,’ he said. ‘It died of its wounds. You tortured one of God’s creatures to death.’
He noted with interest that a smile formed on the boy’s dirty face. Leadweather looked at the poised, animal energy with which the boy held himself and realised the creature had to live on its wits to survive. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Your name,’ sighed the bishop.
‘Christ-ian,’ came the halting reply.
Now it was Leadweather’s turn to smile. He tore off a hunk of bread and chewed it slowly. The smell was delicious. He became serious again and leaned across the desk. ‘There is a special place in hell reserved for those who torment and kill God’s creatures, Christian.’ He studied the boy’s face for signs of fear. However, his eyes seemed fixated on the bread. ‘Your choice is simple. You don’t have parents, do you?’
‘They died,’ Christian mumbled, and for the first time Leadweather saw emotion other than anger or greed from the boy. He couldn’t have been any older than nine.
‘Your choice is simple,’ repeated the bishop, eating another piece. He was about to take a risk, and he knew it. However the boy did not seem especially bright. ‘You can either hang for murder, or you can do some little jobs for me. Now, which of those options do you prefer?’ The boy muttered something and dribbled down his chin. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’
‘Do jobs,’ came the terse reply. The boy’s jaw muscles were bunching and he stared at the floor as if he wanted to destroy it.
‘Excellent,’ said Leadweather, tossing him what remained of the loaf.
Angus Micklemore did not seem as happy as he had done at last week’s hanging. The councillor toyed with his food, started at each loud noise emanating from the tavern and clenched his fists, the knuckles white, on the table-top. The cut and thrust of the conversation was therefore between Leadweather and Murdo Fazackerley, the Chief Constable. The three of them had been in a private room at the Black Horse all evening. They had much to discuss. After several hours of feasting, drinking and conducting business, the noise from the front of the building gradually grew less frenetic, until there was a rap at the door.
Murdo Fazackerley, a positively mountainous human being, broke off from making a point about the current state of the prostitutes in Edinburgh. ‘Come in!’ he barked. He drained a tankard, grasped another one and finished that off too. As he belched, a ruddy-cheeked, buxom woman entered the room.
‘That’s the last of them gone, sirs,’ she said.
Angus pounded the table. ‘Molly, you daft bitch. You know we wait at least another fifteen minutes after the clear-out. You can’t be sure there aren’t vagrants still pissing up your outside walls.’
‘Sorry, sir,’ said Molly, and went to leave.
‘Molly! It wouldn’t do to forget,’ said Leadweather, reaching into his robes. ‘For services rendered,’ he said as he tossed a small leather bag. The landlady attempted to catch it but the bag landed, rather comically, between her breasts.
‘Oho!’ said Murdo. ‘Fifty for the bishop! Might I try next time? Extra points for the face? Thrown hard enough, it might improve it.’
Molly looked as if she was about to say something, then scurried away.
Leadweather levelled his gaze at Angus. He wouldn’t meet his eye. What was wrong with the man?
Angus stirred, went over to the door and checked outside. Then he shut it firmly and, making his way back to the table, spoke softly. ‘I have an announcement.’ Leadweather leaned forward in his chair. So this is it. ‘Next month, I will be made Lord Provost,’ said Angus, the pride of his advancement shining in his face. ‘My bid was successful.’
‘Congratulations,’ said Leadweather warmly, though he had a feeling where this was going. Murdo merely grunted, hand twitching for absent drinks.
‘Thank you, your Grace. This of course, will affect our…business.’
‘How so?’ said Murdo, struggling to focus his eyes.
Angus sighed, as if weary of explaining things patiently to a small child. ‘I will no longer be responsible for your direct management. My former position will likely go to George Coutts.’
Leadweather winced. Coutts was known for his idealism and piety.
‘So? You’re his boss! You’re the figurehead of the whole city, for Christ’s sake.’
‘It’s not that simple, Murdo. Also, Coutts’ son, Archie, is a lieutenant in your force. He’s…making things difficult for us already. This appointment would amplify matters.’
‘What are you saying, Angus?’ said Leadweather.
Angus took a deep breath, staring at the table-top. Then he looked up at the bishop. ‘You must cease your operations. Shut down the Vaults.’
After they’d sent Murdo staggering towards his home in the New Town, the bishop and the councillor halted in the middle of a narrow alleyway where the darkness pooled.
‘I urge you to reconsider. Coutts could be turned,’ said Leadweather.
Angus frowned. ‘There’s a slight possibility, yes, but with his son nosing around as well,’ he gestured helplessly, ‘it’s just too risky.’
‘Fazackerley is his superior! He’ll bring him to heel.’
‘Murdo won’t be in his post much longer. I…had to make some concessions.’
Leadweather’s expression hardened and he barked a grim laugh. ‘Now I know what this is about. It’s about you. You want to cut all ties with my operations, and the only way you can do that is by getting rid of Murdo and shutting me down. Well, it’s not going to happen.’
Angus exhaled slowly. ‘It will happen, either way, your Grace. You know what will come to pass, if you don’t do it yourself.’
‘You seem to have forgotten…what is at stake here! Tossing out threats like I’m the one who owes you! Where does your wealth come from?’
But Angus walked away.
‘Think on it, Lord Provost!’ hissed Leadweather at his retreating back.
The police headquarters was bustling with activity. The news was shocking: the home of Angus Micklemore, only installed as Lord Provost for two weeks, had burned to the ground last night with him and his entire family perishing within. There were rumours of foul play: somehow the entrances had been wedged shut, preventing their escape. Micklemore’s charred corpse had been found at the front door, his daughter’s body next to it.
Murdo looked around at his nearly-bare office, bitter thoughts clouding his mind. A few boxes still cluttered the place. He glanced up as a group of men strode into the room. The man at their head was George Coutts.
‘Murdo Fazackerley, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you do say–’ Coutts began.
‘Piss off,’ said Murdo. ‘You can’t do that.’
‘I can do precisely that. As of an hour ago, I’m acting Lord Provost. And my first act was to make my son here Chief Constable. Have you met Archie?’
He knew the beat of the drum should have been unnaturally loud, this close. But it seemed faded, removed. As if it was coming from far away. The past few months had been a blur for Leadweather. He simply hadn’t been quick enough. The raid on the Vaults had taken place before Angus had been sworn in as Provost – how had he engineered that? And then the skeletons had tumbled out, one testimony from Fazackerley after another. He’d been granted clemency if he gave up the ringleader. Leadweather just knew it.
Mere theft wasn’t the worst of the crimes laid at the Bishop’s door. Extortion, bribery, blackmail and…murder. Not the killing of Micklemore himself, that case hadn’t been solved. In fact – Leadweather’s eyes scanned the jeering, spitting crowd – yes, there was the red-haired boy, Christian, standing on the base of a statue, elevated above the throng. He’d been useful. They held each other’s gaze.
Leadweather stepped up to the platform. The crowd fell silent. The bishop felt warmth spread down his legs. He cursed under his breath.
‘Any last words?’ said the Procurator Fiscal.
‘Murdo Fazackerley,’ Leadweather said.
The red-haired boy stared back at him and nodded.
I don’t sleep when Jeanette is on call, so I sat in the dark as the TV flickered, and watched the tower burn. The picture showed firefighters heading towards the flames. They only showed a glimpse of them, and it was dark, but I watched intently. I didn’t see Jeanette. I had the sound down low so it wouldn’t wake Jason, but I could still hear the reporter’s voice: “heroes. Running towards danger, regardless of the threat to their own lives.”
The reason we called Jason Jason is because you can’t call a kid in 21st century London Achilles or Hercules or Perseus. But I knew I wanted my kid to have a hero’s name. I wanted to give him that much, at least.
“He went off in a ship to find a golden fleece. He was one of the Ancient Greeks,” I told Jason.
“Like Granny and Grandad are ancient Greeks?” he said.
“No. They’re just old Greeks. Well, they’re quite ancient,” I said, as Jeanette laughed.
Her laugh always reminded me of summer rain pattering on the roof of an airy conservatory.
Watching the smoking tower, I didn’t want to think about Jeanette’s laugh.
I told Jason all the stories: Odysseus and Theseus and all the heroes. He liked hearing about Theseus best – how he killed the minotaur. But he pretended to like Jason best.
“Daddy, why are there no heroes any more?” he asked.
On the TV screen there was a wide shot of the tower: a colossus against the night sky, oozing smoke from every floor, writhing with flames. A monster of mythic proportions.
They showed more firefighters. I could only see their backs, but they all seemed to be men. No Jeanette. I knew she was there though, somewhere.
The reporter was still blabbering. I heard that word again: “heroes.”
“No,” I muttered at the screen, “just doing their job.”
It should have been me there, doing my job. It should have been Jeanette here with Jason. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned or out-of-touch or sexist, but there it is. I know Jeanette’s an excellent firefighter. She’s also a wonderful mother. She takes care of Jason on the days I can’t drag myself out of bed, then goes off to work while I sit and marinate in my own shame.
“It’s very common,” my therapist said, “to feel shame. But mental illness is something that can affect anybody. It’s no reflection on you. You need to challenge those feelings of shame when they arise.”
I said, “when can I go back to work?”
He said, “you really need to think about whether such a highly stressful work environment is right for you at the moment.”
It was right for me. Being a firefighter made me whole. It made me worthwhile. It was where I met Jeanette. But I wasn’t right for it. Not good enough. Not strong enough.
“Jason, what are you doing up?”
He stood in the doorway in his Spiderman pyjamas, clutching Billy Rabbit by the ear.
Quickly, I switched off the TV, although I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of Jeanette.
“Come on, Jay-Jay, let’s get you back to bed.”
I sat on the floor by Jason’s bed. It’s a little, kid-sized bed, and I always feel like an awkward giant squeezed into a doll’s house when I sit next to it. I told him about Theseus again. He never gets bored of hearing it. When the story was over I watched his gentle breathing for a while. I thought he was asleep, but then he murmured, half-waking, “Daddy?”
“If the princess hadn’t given Theseus the string he wouldn’t have found a way out of the lab-rinth, ever!”
“So, she’s the hero too. As well as Theseus.”
I sat quiet until I was sure he was sleeping.
I went to the kitchen, got a glass of water. Then I went back to the living room. I switched on the TV. The tower was still burning.
If I had a piece of string, fireproof, steel string, attached to Jeanette, she would always find her way back to us.
“Please, God,” I whispered, “if there is such a being, if you care about puny humans at all, please save Jeanette.” And, then, realising how selfish that sounded, I added, “and the others in the tower too. All of them.”
I knew I was asking too much. I only had to look at the blazing tower on the screen to know that some people would not be saved that night.
"There may come a time," I was told, when I first joined the fire service, "when you will try to save somebody and it will not be possible. If you're going to do this job, you have to be prepared for that."
For me, it was a family. A Mum, a Dad and two kids. It was a few years ago. Jeanette was at home, bulging with unborn Jason. It was a house fire. They didn't have smoke alarms. By the time the neighbours spotted the blaze and dialled 999 it was too late. It wasn't anyone's fault. But that was when I stopped sleeping. That was when it all began.
Still the tower burned. The morning news came on. No reports of any firefighters killed or injured. Not yet. Some residents reported dead already, many more missing or fighting for their lives, number of deaths expected to rise significantly. They showed pictures. There was a little boy about Jason's age.
While Penelope was waiting for Odysseus to come home she worked on her weaving every day, and unpicked it every night, so that it would never be finished. If it was finished she'd have to marry some other guy, but she knew Odysseus was coming home. Even when everyone said he wouldn't.
I reckon, if she could, she would have gone and looked for Odysseus herself. But someone had to take care of the kid.
"Heroes." It was a different reporter now, but the same old refrain. "Without a thought for their own lives..."
That reporter didn't get it. When you're fighting a fire it's not about you, or the danger, or being a hero. There are no heroes. We do what we do. What we're good at. What we're trained for. Even during my worst times I could always get it together during an incident. It was the rest of the time I started to unravel. Like Theseus' ball of string. And I was groping in the dark, trying to find the end of it, knowing that without it I'd never find my way out.
This isn't about you, I told myself, people are dying and you're feeling sorry for yourself.
My therapist had given me strategies for dealing with these thoughts. Thoughts about being worthless. About being a burden. About how Jeanette and Jason would be better off without me. The only thing that worked when it got bad was the thought that it might be Jason who found me.
The moment I heard the front door I was on my feet and in the hallway. She threw her arms around my neck, and I held her tight. She smelled of smoke.
"Don't let go," she whispered. "Oh, God, I would never have got through tonight if it wasn't for you."
"I didn't do anything," I said.
"You didn't need to. You're here. That's enough. I love you."
So I didn't let go. I may not be a hero, but I'm a husband. I'm a Dad. And, one day, I will be a firefighter again.
“The time of heroes is past,”
Dace scowled at the line he`d just typed, that`s not right, he thought, and deleted the word past, replacing it with “passed.” “The time of heroes is passed,” he mused to himself; “No that`s not right either, the tenses are wrong.” He replaced “is,” with, “has,” “The time of heroes has passed,” he murmured, and made a face. It was grammatically correct but he didn’t like it, too definitive, too final, no wriggle room.
He typed out the three lines again one under the other, decided he really hated “The time of heroes is passed,” and deleted it for the second time, which left him with the lines,
“The time of heroes has passed,”
“The time of heroes is past,”
He clicked his tongue in frustration, he really liked “is past,” it had a portentous feel to it, but if he sent that to a publisher as the first line of a novel……
He sighed and slumped back in his chair, rapping the fourth and little finger of his right hand on the mousemat in frustration.
It was too hot for writing, he decided, yeah that was it, the sun was splitting the stones outside, he`d go for a walk, clear his head. That`s what he needed, an early evening walk in the park.
“I`m going for a walk!”
Jill looked up from her colouring book, pulled the left side of the headset off her ear and said, “huh?”
“I said, I`m going for a walk,” Dave repeated.
“Oh, okay,” she said, slipping the headset back on again before leaning back over the book; on the screen of the laptop to her right a woman looked like she was youtubing her way around a Walmart.
Dave shook his head as he pulled the front door closed behind him; adult colouring books, who`d have thought. It`d taken him eighteen months to write his first novel, and it had sold a whopping forty eight copies, but books of pictures you had to colour in yourself, those were selling by the millions; there truly was no justice in the world.
One of the things he liked most about where he lived was its proximity to the park, a fifty metre walk across the green and he was there, and best of all because it was `An Taisce protected` he`d never have to worry about anyone building anything across from him.
As he pulled the park gate shut behind him he was greeted by the sight of a toddler, couldn’t be more then eighteen months, running towards him, arms in the air, shrieking for all she was worth. A step behind her, a man, bent double, his arms outstretched, was chasing her saying, “I`m gonna getcha, I`m gonna getcha…”
“Gottcha,” he cried as he grabbed the girl around the waist and laughing, threw her into the air, the child’s shrieks of joy reaching piercing levels as she flew up. Behind them he saw a woman, almost certainly the mother, wince, as she saw her daughter being flung so casually skywards.
Dave smiled at the memory of doing the same with his kids at that age, and how Jill had hated it, how she`d complained, “You put the heart crossways on me,” every time.
As he cleared the tree lined path and stepped out into the sunshine, the wide expanse of the soccer pitches to his left, he noticed knots of people watching a park bench fifty feet away to his right.
Raised voices greeted him as he approached.
“Leave my bag alone!”
“Gimme the fuckin bag, bitch!”
“Leave it…get away from it…I said fuck off!”
“D`you wanna puck, do ya? gimme the fuckin thing or else!
A man and a woman were seated on the bench, she was turned away from him, clutching something to her stomach, he was facing her, trying to pull it from her; another man was standing in front of them, the remnants of an eight pack of Budweiser dangling from one hand.
As Dave passed he heard the standing man say, “Ger, let it go will ya?”
The man on the bench ignored him.
Close up he could see the man on the bench was much the worse for drink, his face ruddy, maybe from booze, maybe from the effort of trying to part the woman from her bag, he couldn’t tell. He kept walking, but only for another eight feet, stopping by a gaggle of teenage girls who were watching open mouthed.
Dave turned back, unsure what, if anything he should do. The woman didn’t sound frightened, wasn’t asking anybody for help, it could just be a domestic. On the other hand what if it wasn’t, anger could make people insanely brave, maybe she was in more trouble than she realised; without deciding to, he walked back to the trio.
“Give it back to me,” the woman screamed; the drunk had finally wrestled the bag from her.
As much to his own surprise as anyone else`s Dave said, “Give her back her bag.”
The drunk looked up at him, frowned, then snarled, “Fuck off before I kick the shit outta ya.”
Dave cocked his head to one side and said, “I said give the girl back her bag.”
The drunk got unsteadily to his feet, the bag still clutched in his right hand. Dave saw it was small black leather shoulder bag, the long thin straps dangling by the other man`s knees.
Angrily he jabbed the bag at Dave “I said fuck off ya cunt, or I`ll fuck ya up,” the other man dropped the cans of beer on the grass and took a half sidestep, putting himself between Dave and the drunk.
Dave was astonished by his own behaviour, he had never considered himself brave, actually thought he was something of a coward, though he would never admit that to anyone else. His last fight had been forty years ago in secondary school, and that had been little more than a slap-fest. Yet here he was on this beautiful summers evening, facing down a man, taller, broader and at least twenty years younger than he was.
And, he realised, as he stood there coolly analysing the situation, weighing up his chances, not of survival but of beating the other man; that wasn’t the strangest part of it. No, the bizarrest thing was how calm he felt; right then his heart should be beating faster than a hummingbird’s wing, yet it seemed to be thumping away at its usual sedate pace.
He was actually thinking; okay he`s younger and stronger than me, but he`s also drunk, and I`ll bet he`s right-handed, the hand he`s holding the bag with, so he`s handicapped himself. And anyway it`s not like I`m a seven stone weakling, I`m a welder, I`m lifting steel all-day, I`m stronger than I look, yeah I think I could take him.
He thought all that, while at the same time wondering at himself for thinking it at all; then, enunciating each word he repeated, “Give...her..back...her..bag,”.
The drunk lunged towards him screaming, “I`m gonna fuckin kill ya.”
Dave didn’t even flinch, only tensed, readying for the assault.
The other man grabbed his friend as he lunged, pushing him back, the drunk shouting, “Lemme go, lemme go, I`m gonna fuck `im up.”
Dave ignored him, instead looking at the woman who was still sitting on the bench; time to find out what was going on.
“You know these two?”
She looked up, “Yeah.”
He paused, still ignoring the two wrestling men, “You going to be okay?” emphasising the word "going."
She shrugged, “yeah.”
Shit, he thought, a fucking domestic, brilliant.
“Okay then,” he said, turned, and continued on his walk as if nothing had happened, not once looking over his shoulder to see if the drunk was coming after him.
He took the right hand path to the river and stopped by the tree close to the weir, watching the kids as they padded along its concrete edge until they were close to the centre, there, in ones and twos they cartwheeled sideways into the water, shrieking as they hit the cold surface.
He was still puzzled by his behaviour, it had been so un-him, he couldn’t even say why he`d done it, much less why he wasn’t shaking like a leaf. He lifted his right hand, palm down, and studied it, not a tremor, how weird is that, he wondered.
He pushed away from the tree, wandering slowly along the path that paralleled the river; he passed five drunks in their late-teens, boisterously bothering nobody but themselves. He met cyclists and joggers, a couple walking their dog; he gave the animal a wide berth, he didn’t get on with dogs, now and then he swatted fruitlessly at the occasional cloud of midges he walked through, all the while trying to fathom why he`d done it.
By the time he reached the car-park he gave up, dismissing it as an aberration, and turned for home. He took another route back, going the long way around the soccer pitches, not because he was afraid, but because he saw no point in risking another confrontation with the drunk.
Jill was in the kitchen making a sandwich when he got back, “Hiya,” she said, “how was the park, crowded?”
He shrugged, “Oh you know,” he said non-committedly, realising he would never tell her about what had happened, knew she`d only call him a “Silly old fool,” if he did.
“I`m going back to the book,” he said as he mounted the stairs.
“Umm..Hmm,” she replied without looking up.
The hard drive whirred, the screen bursting into life when he touched the mouse, “Okay,” he said to himself as he deleted the first line, “My story, so I`m going to tell it my way and damn the begrudgers.” He took a breath, his fingers resting momentarily on the keys, and then he began to type.
“The time of heroes is past,” Anders said to the five year old sitting on his knee in answer to his question.
“What happened, where did they go?” his grandson asked, eyes wide with excitement.
Anders frowned as he considered the question, it was something he`d never thought about before, he took a long drag on his pipe before answering. “Go,” he said, “Well they never went anywhere. Heroes come when they are needed, they are ordinary men who do extraordinary things, and when they are no longer needed they go back to being just men. Farmers and fisher-folk; or tailors, like your father.”
Erik nodded as if all that made sense to him, then looking at the patch where his grandfather`s eye had been asked, “Were you a hero granddad?”
Anders looked from the child to his daughter-in-law in the chair opposite. Her mouth was a straight line, her brow furrowed, the knitting needles clicking busily as she worked them furiously; he was not unaware that they had gotten faster and louder with every question her son had asked.
He thought, how should I answer?
He thought about his fallen comrades, cut down in their youth. He thought about those who`d survived, now old men like himself, who met each day in the tavern, men who filled their days talking about everything but the things they`d seen and done. He thought about the man who`d taken his eye, and the one who`d taken his leg, and how he`d repaid them both by taking their lives. And finally he thought that he could never tell his grandchildren any of these things.
He smiled down at Erik and said, “Why bless your heart child, but me…. no, I was never a hero.”
Dave reread what he`d written, thought it was okay for a first draft and ploughed on.
He never stirred from his seat for the next five hours; just sat, hunched over his keyboard, watching in fascination as the unthought words boiled out of his fingertips and onto the screen.
They knocked on her door and called her 'Madam'. They told her that her son had died a hero. But she didn't want a hero. Heroes were everywhere in this city. Heaven must be crammed full of spotty, long-limbed boys, here one day and gone the next, suddenly saviours, crowned with death; their imperfections wiped and replaced with the hollow gleam of pride in their Mother's eyes.
And now her boy. Just yesterday filling space and moving air. Every second now a second more of nothing.
She didn't want a hero. She didn't want promises or respect or a statue or a flat photograph with a tight black caption. She wanted her son back.
The chickens in the back yard scratched in the ground where his feet used to stand. They could have set his footprints in gold and made them a shrine. But she didn't want that. She wanted him in three dimensions to come back through the door and to swing his little sister on his shoulders. She wanted to tell him off for smoking and for leaving his things on the table, she wanted to give him just one more spoon of stew before he left.
Somehow she dreamt of him. Saw blood on his lips and eyes so wide they couldn't see a thing. Saw dust in his fingerprints. His body rotting.Wrapped in a black flag made blacker by his blood
She awoke to thunder and sweaty heat. And the apartment only smelt like him.
She unravelled her feet from the damp sheet and whispered "Heroes have a choice". Her voice sounded like somebody else's.
They let her rage for a while. Grief is normal. Anger expected. And she was small and round-cheeked and a woman. She did not seem like a threat.
But weeks went by and she kept talking. Her eyes too wide, her voice too loud. Always holding her little daughter too close to her, gripping her so tightly that she cried.
"My son was not a hero" she took the neighbours by the shoulders " he was a victim. And so was yours and so will yours be".
Agitating others, that was the worst of it. Saying things out loud that shouldn't even be whispered. Nothing stopped her talking.
So there it was.
Another knock at the door. At first they called her 'Madam' again. Then nothing.
They told her daughter that she had died a traitor
Is it the beauty of the game,
the silky, fluid movements on
and off the ball that you practice
in the park, or the money they pull
and the partners they take?
Is it the songs they sing of broken
towns and faded communities,
the people that might be you,
or the possibility of untold wealth
unattainable to anyone who tries?
Is it the shape and sound of the words
that speak to you late at night,
the rhythms of the street, the dreams
they share, we share, or is the just
the words shared too many times?
Do we look up to individuality,
to being different, joining a tribe,
finding a unique voice to follow,
or is it bland amorphous social
norms to which we subscribe?
Who do we look up to now,
who fills our hearts and minds
with action? Who would show us
how to become a better person?
Would we even hear them?
Walk On By
Was that a knock on his door? If so it had been very gentle, quite unlike the hectoring rap of the courier firms. Norman couldn’t see a shadowy presence through the glass. He opened the door. There was no one there, not even at the end of his overgrown path. He looked down. A parcel.
Norman picked it up. It was light and warm to the touch although the doorstep was in shadow. He took it inside, checking the name on the label as he did so. Yes it was for him, Norman Cruikshank but the address was unrecognizable. The Dark Cottage, Valley of Despair, Hopeless Town, Divided Nation. Unrecognisable yet close enough to his view for this to have been sent by a friend. Close enough for the delivery person to have found him.
Curiously cheerful he put the kettle on, felt something like relish as he ripped into the box to reveal a pair of shoes. They were soft leather loafers, waltzing black, nothing like the scuffed trainers he tended to wear. He turned the box inside out but there was no note, no hint of who could have sent them.
He remembered he hadn’t bothered to shower that morning, hadn’t seemed much point. Get a grip on yourself! He went upstairs, found clean clothes, his best socks and went into the bathroom. It was so dirty he’d probably come out grubbier than he went in. Nice 'n' sleazy. He got the miracle clean-up spray out, nuked the toilet with bleach, scrubbed at the mirror until his image was no longer obscured. He found himself whistling and, for once, it seemed he could hold a Stranglers tune even if it was Hanging Around, his least favourite.
After his shower he got dressed and went to try the shoes on. He’d buried his doubts about whether they were for him even before he discovered they were a perfect fit. More than that they were sublimely comfortable. It felt like his feet were being cradled by warm, loving hands. He could see his mother holding his feet when he was a baby, cuddling them to her.
He had to go out in them. Did he need shopping? He opened the fridge, went ruthlessly through its contents, binning anything out of date or that he had no appetite for. How long had he lived like this? Grey leftovers in plastic containers, mean little mouthfuls of strained and drained food. The cupboards were full of cardboard too. Something better change. He wanted fresh vegetables, juicy meat, tempting treats. Peaches. Look how thin he’d got, how starved he suddenly felt.
He took the secateurs out with him and hacked the shrubs back so the light spilled up the path to his door. He threw the cuttings into his green bin, so long unused it puffed dust when he closed the lid. Norman looked down to see if any had landed on his shoes but they were pristine, gleaming, ready for anything. He walked into town, greeting everyone, neglected friends or perfect strangers. His smile was so broad it seemed to be contagious. Mrs. Ruddock next door even giggled at him.
He had no idea where he was going, hadn’t brought his bags for shopping, wasn’t heading for the supermarket. The shoes seemed to be taking him somewhere but he didn’t mind, he wanted to go there, to see what might happen. Somehow he sensed the people before he turned the corner, he heard the noise of air being consumed before he was in earshot. The precinct was on fire. There were so many people, huddled, shouting, some screaming, gesturing inside.
His feet kept walking forwards even as his mind urged him to go home, move away from this, some people were dangerous, not all of them would smile back at him. He was in the shopping centre entrance oblivious to the arms that clutched at him, pulling him back. He heard yet didn’t register the muttering about terrorists, guns, you never knew what you’d find in there. What he could hear was a single cry, like distilled loss.
His feet stopped at the first staircase and he looked up to locate the noise. A strange little girl holding hands with a prone woman. As he watched the woman’s hand dropped to the floor, bounced and lay completely still. The girl’s face crumpled further, her eyes screwed up. The heat was so intense it was painful to go further into it but Norman did. He climbed the stairs not touching the searing handrail, not breathing in the scorched air, not allowing himself to think, just moving fast, faster than he’d ever gone. His feet still felt cool.
There was no time to reason with the child. He picked her up and cradled her to him. She made a sound like she’d been punctured, a hiss, an escape of air. Norman turned and ran down the stairs. The entrance was now a wall of fire, a weaving, awful golden brown wall but his feet ran him straight through it and he was on the ground. People covered him and the girl with coats, putting the fire out instantly although the heat clung on, digging into his skin.
‘You’re a hero, mate.’ The ambulance-man put a hand on his shoulders. ‘There aren’t many who would do what you just done.’
Norman gestured at the little girl as the female paramedic fitted an oxygen mask and took the child onto her lap. ‘Will she be OK?’
‘Bound to be smoke damage. We’ll take you both in, get you checked over but looks like you got there in the nick of time. ‘
They watched as the firemen walked into the building using their hoses like weapons as ‘No More Heroes’ blared out and the crowd broke into applause. Norman almost told the ambulance-man about his shoes. How he hadn’t been brave, not really, he’d been led by a gift that made him think he could be better than he was.
The man probably wouldn’t understand, Norman wasn’t sure he could explain it properly. How, somebody giving you something, showing some care, could change your view of your prospects. Particularly if it was unexpected or came from a stranger. How much difference silly things like well-fitting shoes or bothering to shower made. He looked down to check how his shoes had fared in the fire and froze at the sight of his scuffed trainers.
Never Say "The End"
My little brother never cried
But the rest of us did
He was too determined
And beautifully stubborn
And gloriously unrelenting.
My brother never gave up
Even as a child he wouldn't
Cry "uncle" or surrender
His secret place in a game
My brother, the reader
Never like to say 'The End'
To a favorite book, or compelling
Story, nor see the credits
Roll on a provocative film.
My brother never uttered
"Farewell" or "bye" when
Leaving for school or camp
Or an overnight. But with a smile
Crooked and true, he'd promise "Later."
My brother never stopped
Making plans or marking
Calendars with holidays and special
Events. He woke each day steeled
With hope and will and believing.
My brother never worried
That he would be forgotten
Nor did he squander Precious
Time left worrying about wishes
He might never wish.
My brother was more
Than a man born in his time
He knew we would always
Know him and we would
Never say this is over.
My brother was brave
Seeking answers to questions
The rest of us would never ask
He knew the answer too
Which we couldn't believe.
My brother was brilliant
In all that he knew and trusted
Despite the prognoses damning
All promise and dashing
All of our hopes.
My brother was handsome
Like a movie start, stoic
Like young Brando, certain he
Would still be somebody
Even if Time would deny him.
My brother was funny
And warm with the wit
Of a writer and a man
Without a deadline, like
A soldier without a question.
My brother was certain
Self-assured he would outlive
All of us, becoming a great Uncle
With lustrous silver gray hair
And his blue eyes lovely with wrinkles.
My brother said never,
No way, not me, not in my
Lifetime. He whispered prayers
But bellowed with the spirit
Of a sports fan that never give-up.
My brother died before
He ever succumbed to death
He lived on and on, despite,
Defiantly outlasting his doctors'
Predictions and the ominous statistics.
My brother never said die
To me, or his mother, or his
Family, or students, or friends,
Or to Tuesdays, or ice cream, or
Weekends, or to summer vacations.
My brother still helps us today,
Say always to love, forgiveness,
Remembering, kindness, laughter,
Learning, living, believing, and he
Refused to say done, fine, or die to himself.
My head is pushed against the door, as your hands tighten around my throat,
The pressure builds in my head & I grip your hands to pull you away.
You stop. I breathe, until you punch, punch, punch the breath back out of me.
You stop. I breathe. Your fingers run through my hair to grip & pull,
You bang, bang, bang my head on the door.
My tears dry when I contemplate my mother's love for me.
Never say die.
I smoke a joint for a momentary escape from myself,
I snort white lines of euphoria & dance to thumping house beats,
Shiny happy people on the dance floor,
I shoot skag, until I feel a comfortable numbness,
The stab of a needle punctures my vein with opiates,
Travelling into still waters, I float along to a string harmony, enveloped in a womb-like warmth,
Two bodies intimately touch, tracing flesh & bone to close the distance.
Never say die.
I can smell beer on your breath when you grab me by my throat,
I squeal & wrench your hands free from me,
You thrust my head back on the wall, then hold my arms by my side,
Exploding & hitting me everywhere, but my stomach,
At least our baby is safe,
I hit back, push you away, then crouch in a corner,
Got to agree with you and wait, wait, wait for an escape.
Never say die.
I watch you run, play and hide with innocent exuberance,
Your smile lights up your big blue eyes,
Then you chatter, chatter, chatter like the birds in the trees,
Every moment brings a new experience of wonder,
You let go of my hand to run ahead and explore,
Though you soon return to tell me about your adventure,
Your sunshine stretches as long as the day.
Never say die.
In darkness, I feel someone move inside me,
His unclean smell suffocates me & his weight pushes me down,
'That feels good, doesn't it?'
Startled. My eyes open wide.
'What are you doing?'
I see the grease on his face & hair, his eyes peering at me through thick, dirty lenses,
'I never asked you to start'.
I curl up in my dress, my pants removed, and cry, cry, cry,
Then I wash, wash, wash you off my skin,
Rushing & retching, I violently throw you up.
Never say die.
With each light step my heart beats faster & freer,
My feet connect to the earth's energy radiating to my soul,
Feeding my spirit with hope for the future,
Soaring above the patchwork fields on the wings of a blackbird,
To far flung ancient lands connected by unseen forces,
I feel them reflect my heartfelt longings & reveal myself to me.
Never say die.
Little Billy sits alone
He sketches and he draws
He paints within, without the lines
This does not give him pause
His teachers mock and scold him so
they threaten and they rant
But Billy merely nods at them
It`s their world filled with can`t
And see he dances when he sings
A voice quite out of key
His parents fret and worry so
Whatever shall he be
They tell him that he cannot sing
They tell him that he shan`t
But he just nods and smiles at them
It`s their world filled with can`t
But little boys they grow, they change
And childhood dreams do pass
The adult scorn becomes too much
And crushed are they, alas
But I have kept my dreams alive
The words they could not slay
I kept them safe within my heart
Til they could have their day
So now my words they mock, they tease
The stories crowd my head
Some they fill with wonderment
Whilst others... awful dread
Yet still some people tell to me
You mustn`t, shouldn`t, shan`t
But I`ll keep on ignoring them
For it`s their world
Never. It’s a long road to infinity, the void stretching ahead, full of blissful nothingness.
Never die. Separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. A sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought. It’s a long road to infinity, the void stretching ahead, full of blissful nothingness, but also agonising solitude.
Never say die. Grit and determination will win the day. But separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. Desire for victory can only take one small personality so far. Bereavement is inevitable across the expanse of human experience. A sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought, blocking out the possibility of standing tall, pushing through. The path stretches ahead into the void, one foot trudging after the other, on and on. It’s a long road to infinity, seeking peace and blissful nothingness, but fearing the agonising solitude of being forever without you.
I’ll never say die. It’s important to cultivate a positive attitude. Grit and determination will win the day. It’s always worse for someone else, in another part of this world. But separation anxiety expands to fill all available space. Just because my problems are small compared to those of others, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still problematical to me, dammit. Desire for victory can only take one small personality so far. My strong front hides a cowering, snivelling back that shrinks from the world and just wants to crawl into a hole and never come out. Because bereavement is inevitable across the expanse of human existence. I will lose you one day. I know it, I see it coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. All I can do is anticipate a sense of loss so great it encompasses all conscious thought, blocking out the possibility of standing tall, pushing through, putting on a brave face, and all that crap. I will eventually have to walk on alone. I see the path before me, stretching ahead into the void, with my one poor foot trudging after the other, on and on in silence. I try to put it out of my mind, to live in the moment and appreciate what I have now, sparing no thought for how things might change in the future. But it’s a long road to infinity, wishing for peace and blissful nothingness, but consigned to the agonising solitude of being forever without you, my love.
NOTHING EVER HAPPENED
Oh you, oh you at fifteen.
Your little finger held mine
but nothing else touched.
Wish I’d swept us away
from the worst thing we could be -
a nothing ever happened.
So somehow we’re fifty
other old school friends nod
and say I’m wise to have
walked away, not knowing
you never asked and if you had
I would have been foolish.
Because who you are and what
I feel for you have stayed
teenaged and unbearable.
Because, back then,
was never say die.
Part 2 next week (doing another free writing experiment)
'NSD - The Conclusion'
Today's entry is a huge one. Thank you, followers, for sticking with me this far. I've done what I've promised, done some seeking and found what I was looking for, and it's from Earth, not Heaven, as many of you thought. I know, it seemed other-worldly; it seemed as if it came from some divine entity, but its origins are rooted in our good Earth. That's not to say it's not magic.
This is going to be my introduction for my new book. I'd be very grateful, regular readers and followers, if you'd send me suggestions and comments about this. If you're new here, does it make sense? Does it make you want to read on? If you're a regular, is this a true representation of what's happened here? Does it leave too many questions unanswered? Just leave comments in the boxes below, or drop me a PM. I'll be tweeting links to this so I expect a lot of traffic, but I promise to read every suggestion. After all, this blog would not exists without you all. B, xxx
As my regular readers will be aware, I'm completely open-minded, believe anything until proved otherwise, and I chase the unusual. I've been hoping to collect enough stories to write a book, and today I think I've finally reached that goal. I have the stories, now I just need to write the book.
This particular thread began back in 2008. I'll quickly outline it for those of you who are new to my blog, or who can't remember the origins of NSD. Nine years ago I was a student studying philosophy and psychology when I came across Susan (not her real name). 'Susan' was in the same halls of residence as I was and right from the word go I knew she wasn't quite 'right'. She was a loner, she was spiky in conversation, she didn't have any visitors, she stayed during the holidays, on her own, in her room. I'll talk to anyone and everyone and there's not been a person yet I can't get at least a few words out of, but not Susan. She kept entirely to herself and I thought that was fine, that was her and I'd better keep my nose out of her business.
And I would have, except for the crying. Her room was opposite mine and every single night I'd hear her cry. Muffled sobs, but lots of them and it went on for ages. Susan had some serious baggage. I went to the counsellors about her but they said unless she came herself they couldn't help, though they'd keep an eye. Anyway they didn't keep a very good eye because one Christmas break, when I came back early, Susan decided to jump off the roof. I was up there to smoke a joint and look at the stars when she stumbled up, crying, and made for the edge. I was about to step out and try to grab her when someone else appeared. I stopped in my tracks (I was pretty stoned by now and I thought that if someone else wanted to risk their life by grabbing her then let them do it - I was unsteady as hell on my feet and didn't trust myself not to try to fly, thinking I was a bird. It was damn strong grass) as this person seemed to have an aura of confidence (or perhaps that was the grass - it was pretty dark. Maybe I was just a coward). Sorry, I digress. regular readers, you'll be used to that. This person stepped out from behind the heating vent, grabbed Susan's arm as she got close to the edge, pulled her back and turned her to face them. Susan tried to fight a little; there were some cries and some scuffling noises, then it went quiet. I crept closer, to see.
The person who'd grabbed Susan gave her something. It was round, that was all I could see. Susan took it, and everything went quiet. Then, the weirdest thing: Susan laughed. I'd never heard her laugh. Never really heard her speak except in the refectory. She laughed this gorgeous, throaty laugh. It's still the best laugh I've ever heard, seeming to come from right down deep within her soul. I stayed right where I was, as Susan and the stranger sat for a while, got up, and went back to the door that would lead them back inside. I looked at the stars, then at my - now unlit, I'd stubbed it out in case they smelled it - joint, and wondered if I'd just seen a miracle.
In the weeks that followed, Susan stopped crying, began speaking to people and started smiling. I didn't dare ask her about it because it was such a private moment but my curiosity was piqued and I began to follow her about.
One Saturday, whilst Susan was out shopping and I was crouching behind a rail of dresses, watching her cross the street, I saw her approach a homeless man in a doorway. I peered out from between the skirts and saw her take out a round thing, and give it to the man. It was the same round thing she'd been given up on the roof, I was sure of it. I was suddenly completely certain this was the moment I'd been waiting for, even when I didn't know exactly why I was following her and ignoring my studies. Susan sat down next to the man, and they put their hands on the round thing - it looked like a rock - and put their heads close together. They sat like that for ages, long enough for me to garner several looks of annoyance from the shopkeeper, and then the man looked up, open his mouth and laughed. Just like Susan had. At that, Susan stood up, touched the man on his head, opened her purse and gave him some notes, and then walked away, leaving him with the rock.
I left the shop and wandered across to the doorway, looking in the window - an estate agent's - next to it. The man sat and held the thing - I could clearly see now it was a rock - and cradled it and smiled. What the hell was I seeing? I was desperate to ask him but again something stopped me - I'd spied on two intensely private moments and I felt bad. I didn't want to intrude and yet... something was strange, here, and I've always been attracted to the strange.
I leaned closer to the doorway, as if looking at the details of a house, posted right in the corner, and squinted at what was in the man's hands. It still looked like a rock, but there was some kind of engraving on it. I could make out the letters, NSD. The man laughed again, stood up, grabbed a plastic bag, stuffed the rock in it and was gone, shambling off up the street. I wanted to follow him but I'd got a exam looming the following day and I'd not done a jot of work. I'd find him again tomorrow, once the exam was over.
Except, I didn't. That man vanished, and I kicked myself over and over for letting him go, especially when I failed the exam anyway. I searched the town for him for days but he'd simply gone. I was too scared to ask Susan what was going on, in case I'd somehow misread the whole thing and looked crazy, or seemed like a stalker, as I'd have to admit I'd been following her. It was soon after that that I began this blog. Its reason for being is that having seen something so strange it felt like a lid had been lifted on life, and I was suddenly sure there were all these other layers to life I'd never seen. I wanted to know all about them and investigate them.
Fast forward five years. 2014, I'd got my degree, was working as a freelance journalist and a part time research assistant for Psychology Begins in Your Head, that nutty magazine. I was a bit lost to be honest, but the blog was doing well. I was collecting stories, was more curious than ever about life, and had never forgotten that stone, or Susan, or the homeless man.
And then, wham. One day, someone sent me a message about a rock that was engraved with the letters NSD, and in a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I was back on my search.
This is what the message said.
I am an avid reader of your blog. So when the weirdest ever thing happened to me, you were the first person I wanted to tell. I can't give you my real name because one day my kids might read this and then... you'll see. I'll call myself Jane.
I'm 39, a mum of two young children. They were born just a year apart. I'd planned it like that because of my age, because I thought I may as well carry on while I was a wreck if I could, instead of getting all fit and thin again and then starting over. When I got pregnant again just weeks after my first's birth, I was ecstatic. My kids are now 2 and 3. I've been married for ten years, to a man I'll call Harry.
I had two easy labours, and I managed, just about, with a baby and a bump. I was tired, yes, but excited and happy and full of the joys of being a mum, at long last. We'd waited too long, then couldn't get pregnant, then did, so my babies were so wanted.
But after the birth of my second child, I began to fall apart. I developed post natal depression. There was some family illness and my mother couldn't come to help. Harry's mother died long ago, and we'd not long been living in the SE of England, after moving for Harry's job all the way from Wales. My firstborn decided, just after I'd given birth to my second, that sleeping wasn't something he wanted to do anymore. Harry's job changed and he had to work away and suddenly I'd gone from being a happy mum, revelling in her babies, to this half-crazed, fat, demented person I didn't recognise. I didn't dare go to the doctor in case they took my children away and I didn't know what to do. I looked dreadful but make-up does wonders and I stuck a smile on my face whenever I went out, and 'appeared' good. But inside, I was crumbling. I began getting awful thoughts: some mornings I'd wake up having only got to sleep an hour before, after tending to first one, and then the other, so tired I'd punch myself around the head because I thought I just couldn't do it. Then I'd wonder - forgive me, oh god this is awful to admit, even now when I know it was the depression talking - that if one of them hadn't woken up, life would suddenly be easier. It was awful, awful awful awful. I'd be driving, having got out of the house god knows how, and my hands would twitch, taunting me to drive into an oncoming truck. I got more and more afraid, more and more down, more and more alone. There's more to it but this is all I'd admit for now.
One day, I was in a shop, the kids screaming, staring at a shirt I knew I wouldn't fit into. I'd had it. People were staring at me, I could feel it. And then this woman came up to me and gave me this rock. And as I held it...
See Ephemera next week for Part 2!
Friday 29 September 1978. Fermanagh/Cavan Border 03.15 hrs.
It had rained steadily for three days and it showed no sign of stopping. The walls of the hole wept and every now and then threatened to bury them alive. Both radios were dead and hypothermia was a fluttering heartbeat away. Four poly bags of shit and a gallon and a half of piss so far, and nothing.
When they were younger, both A and B had enjoyed it all. You could come from the biggest shithole and the worst family, you see. It didn't matter. It hardened you up and it channelled your aggression, they said. A and B were true brothers now in this hole, but when you hit thirty you just knew that your time was nearly up; but if you were brothers - you didn't have to talk about that at all.
Nevertheless, here they were doing what one Rupert in the other squadron had termed the 'Petite mort of bore': days and weeks of crushing introspection interspersed with moments of indiscriminate ferocity.
B slid down from the platform and shone the dull red pencil-light into the face that was wrapped in the sodden shemagh. Its pallid half moon convulsed as if there were tapeworms beneath the skin, but it was only the incessant rivulets of moisture slowly trickling through his stubble. Instantly alert, in a state of dynamic somnambulism, the sleeping man swapped places with his comrade - steadfastly ignoring the obscene hand gesture that signalled his turn on 'stag'.
He yearned to be back in the sand. There was something magical about the sloe-black nights over there. Such respite from the oven of the day. And the stars, dear Jesus, the stars! They had another week of this shit left. He didn't want to admit it, but this one had bitten hard. It was the building really. You couldn't imagine anything more fucking ridiculous, but it was true. Whatever it was about the configuration of that building, and those trees, produced a kind of utter revulsion in him that he had never experienced before. And he was a true connoisseur of revulsion. Wearily he hefted the long, and its cumbersome sight, and with absolute reluctance peered again at the target. A decrepit two-storied house with a buckled zinc roof oscillated in a circle of bile-green light: the empty windows and doorways a pirate flag amongst the sinuous foliage. Nothing moved.
Normally that would have been just tickety-boo - but not here. It was as if he was being observed rather than the other way round. Usually you'd see birds and small mammals. At night little bright orbs would dance somewhere in your narrow field of vision. Life would be present. Here, it was as if life was absent. That was the best way that he could put it. It was profoundly unnerving. Worst of all was the shadow high up on the mildewed whitewash of the gable wall. For some reason its shape reminded him of his Mother's frozen features when he had found her that day after school. It was not there during the daylight hours, but after dark it materialised unerringly and drew his focus like the stealthy approach of a spider.
Suddenly, and miraculously, the field piece crackled into life. Desperate hopes of an H-vac flooded through their chilled marrows. They had heard Belize called a green hell, but it was a paradise compared to this soaking hinterland. Slowly the static dispersed like a burst wave, and then the singing began. The troopers stared at each other in amazement, but it was unmistakeable - faint though it was. They strained to listen to the voices, a multitude it seemed; a throng. And then the screaming started. Frantically they fumbled with the controls, but to no avail. B reached for the AR15 and smashed the device to pieces with the butt. That horrific noise had been too much. They were compelled to act as if they were compromised now. It was over. Methodically, they filled both bergens with everything in the hide, and their robotic responses filled the void of the unspoken and the unsaid. Both knew the protocol now; they would head out for the rendezvous point and trigger the beacon.
'A' stood on the birch platform and used the stock of the long to lever the sod covered tarp to one side. The frigid air and lancing rain assaulted both, but it was as nothing compared to what they next encountered.
The field was littered with dead rabbits.
Dimly illuminated in the puce coronas of their light beams, hundreds lay slain in the rain. Some were arranged, quite artistically, in crude pyramids and a few twitched spasmodically at their feet. Many more hung impaled upon the branches of the trees that lined the lane. The troopers unlocked both weapons in unison as the house tore the eyes from their heads.
In the gashes of each black opening crooked light burned with a steady flame, unaffected by the pissing wet and the wind. And then the discordant little choir began again. Some things refuse to be forgotten you see, and the trouble with people is that we always forget.
All of our little victories are pyrrhic in this respect.
One could only describe the atmosphere as electric. Some unholy purpose was palpable and the cold drizzle sizzled like hot fat on a griddle. As the soldiers made a terror-stricken staccato retreat, the screaming they heard came from deep within themselves.
Why the fully laden troopers ran willingly into the dark depths of the adjacent lochan will never be known.
Their disappearances were never investigated or acknowledged.
They remained family right until the end; which was something - at least.
The house still lies in ambush in the trees, but no-one ever ventures there. The locals give it a wide berth. No-one farms the land because nothing will grow. No animals make their homes there. Only the rain dares to enter.
Some people say that these events really happened as described.
Some say that they are myths hopelessly entangled in the minds of a romantic people.
Yet others say that there is no such thing as pure evil.
I say they are the beasts of time.
I say that sometimes some things never say die - but they should.
I say these things as the lord is my witness.
And then I forget.
NEVER SAY DIE
I don’t know what He was thinking. I’ve lived in that garden for quite a while on my own but He thought it would be a good idea to make another creature similar to me, except I have a willy-ma-jig and “she” has none.
Surprising, because he said to me that I would have free will and all that stuff. I thought He meant I could decide things for myself. Instead he has landed me with a WOA-Man so that most of the things I want to do are made difficult.
For example, I like to do a bit of gardening so I built a nice little shed and put a few things in it like a comfy chair made out of sheeps’wool and a jug made out of a gourd so I could have a little drink on occasions.
Oh No! WOA-Man said,
“What do we need a shed for? We need a shelter when it rains and a store room for food,” .....forgetting that we have acres of fruit trees and dozens of farm animals roaming around, so we can get what we want with a snap of the fingers.
And another thing, who does she think she is, bringing that snake into my shed?
I had a word with HIM about that. I said:
“What is that slippery thing doing here in the first place? "
He gave me that patronising smile and said “The Lord knows best and I have made the earth and all things in it, and it is good”
Does He realize that she encourages it to sit with her under the big tree outside my shed? I caught them whispering the other day and when I asked what about, the reptile just slipped away without a word. She said it was just a joke but I felt they were plotting something to upset me.
Then that night she snuggled up to me and asked me what I wanted most?
I said “you know what I want but you’re never in the mood.”
She simpered and cuddled up to me so I couldn’t resist could I? But when it was over, she told me that I was too timid and I could get a lot more out of Him if I showed a bit of spirit.
“I like a man with a bit of spirit” she said in a meaningful way. I wondered what man she was talking about because I was the only man about in these parts as far as I could tell.
Two days later that damned snake was round again coiling about her neck and whispering in her ear. Worst of all, he had picked one of the apples off the big tree.
It was a beauty, large as a pomegranate and red as a ruby.
The serpent rubbed its surface with his slinky skin and it took on a shine like a mirror.
“Now you’ve done it “I said “You know it’s off limits to eat them.”
“No it’s not,” he simpered “He said we should not eat the fruit on the tree so I’ve picked one and that’s ok.”
“Of course it is,” chimed in WO-Man “Anyone can see that”
That did stop me in my tracks. I recall His warning that we should not eat the fruit, but was it “ON” the tree or “Of” the tree? I didn’t want to ask Him again in case He got stroppy but I saw the two of them nibbling, so I thought the harm was done and might as well take a bite. It was juicy and sweet and the best thing I had ever tasted. I’ve had mango and pineapples and strawberries and all sorts but nothing compared to this.
Her slimy friend gave a sinister grin “I told you so” he said “Let’s have another”
Before he could slink up and grab another---
Himself was down on us like a ton of compost.
“Gotcha” He bellowed “You won’t be told. Now you’ve done it."
“Just let me explain” I said “we weren’t sure if…” but He cut me off mid-stream. He was in a right strop and went on shouting:
“I am fed up with you and that hideous snake. I wish I’d never made you. This free will business has got out of hand.”
He waved his arms about and pushed us towards a big gate I hadn’t noticed before. He slammed it shut after us and we found ourselves here.
“This place is a bit bleak but Hell… we’ll survive. never say die.”
Never Say Die
The cell is on mute, but its buzzing wakes him. He rolls over, gropes through the change, keys, crumpled cigarette pack, lighter, mini-alarm clock, dog-eared paperback novel, and other personal detritus deposited and forgotten on the bedside table. Finds it. Punches a button, stares dully at the bright, tiny screen. Scowls into a focus. In the phone’s stark brilliance, his face looks deathly, furrowed, hollow. Momentarily, he can’t recall where he is. But only for a moment. A scan around the room’s semi-darkness, the clustered shadows in the gray-blue ambient light from the parking lot illumination beyond the blinds reminds him. He’s briefly ashamed. The phone buzzes again in his hand, startling, insistent. Years ago, he thinks, it would have been a jangling ring, loud enough to wake deep sleepers next door. Now, just an annoying buzz. Barely audible from a few feet away. Wouldn’t penetrate the paper-thin walls of this dump. Nobody has real telephones, anymore. He punches in two letters: “OK.”
He swings his legs off the bed, winces when his heel callouses hit the threadbare rug. He rolls his shoulders, head, then pulls a crooked smoke from the damaged pack, lights it as he rechecks the text, glances behind him at the girl in the bed. She’s a narrow hump of quilted flowers—petunias, he notes—soughing. Home-dyed hair, stiff from spray or mousse jabs the pillow. She radiates a sharp vapor of cheap perfume that penetrates the pungent blue tobacco cloud. Tattoo on her neck. Initials P. R., with a black rose. Patsy? Paula? He shakes his head. She looked better in the bar lights, more prepossessing, softer. Younger. Prettier. Her mouth is open and drooling slightly as she breathes. At least, he grants, she’s not snoring.
He examines the text, again, re-verifies. Sanchez. Caller ID is a nifty trick. Prevents doubt. Cell phones have their uses. Hides him, too. This is a burner. It’ll be in a dumpster before dawn.
He looks at the time. It’s late. Or early. Depends. Time, regardless. He grinds out the half-smoked butt in an overflowing ashtray, rises stiffly. His right knee grates. Bone on bone. Surgery there, he thinks. Need to have it scoped at the least. Standing, he stretches, feels his neck muscles straining for blood flow. The need to piss stands him semi-erect, and he glances at her again, considers, shakes his head, kills the phone. Still naked, he goes to the bathroom.
The light is too bright, room too pink, too yellow, too red, reeking of conflicting odors, aromatic, saccharine. Mildew, cleansers, a hint of bleach, of pine, too sour, too sweet. Mirror is cracked. Colored thongs and skimpy bras hang from the shower rod. Spiked heels kicked behind the commode. They don’t match. Toilet seat is loose, won’t stay up. He leans forward, holds it with one hand, holds himself with the other. An imitation chrome shelf laden with emollients, colognes, sprays, perfumes, other cosmetics straddles the toilet. Crusted residue coats their lids and tops, some covered with a fine powder or maybe dust, shoved in the back, forgotten or rejected. He looks down, studies his flow. Steady. Mold—maybe just filth—crowds the corners, black stains in the tub, rust in the bowl. A dump, he confirms.
He lights another smoke, turns on the hot tap and waits. A wadded washcloth is in the corner of the tub. It smells faintly sour, looks reasonably clean. He wets it, uses the scraps of soap left in the clotted tray next to the tub, scrubs his penis, testicles, rubs down inner thighs and lower abdomen, then his upper chest, expunging her scent. He wrings it out, splashes a rinse. Still dripping, considering, he opens the medicine chest. A few pill bottles—Celexa, Zoloft, Wellbutrin—telling but not alarming—Celebrix, Mydol, Ibuprophin—nothing significant. No birth control. No rubbers, either. They went bareback. Old school, he thinks again. The bottles are nearly empty, some out of date, neglected, labels washed away. He checks the name on one. P is the first initial. Polly? No. There are some creams, ointments. No lube. No dope. That’s good. No tolerance for junkies. She didn’t even offer him a joint. Just a drink. Whiskey. Scotch, at that. Who keeps scotch, anymore? Old school, he thinks once more. He finds a disposable razor on the cabinet’s shelf. Caked with scum, dull, but serviceable. He holds it under the tap, boils out space between the blades.
He wets his face with the steaming water, then pumps out a palmful of anti-bacterial gel from a throwaway dispenser, works it into something like lather and spreads it across his cheeks, chin, and neck. Waits a beat, allows the soap to soak, stares past the streaked, dirty surface of the broken mirror. He sees an old man’s face, sunken gray eyes beneath bushy brows, hairline in retreat, leaving a thin, ineffective rear guard of skinny strands. Stretching the skin with split fingers, he methodically scrapes away the thin film of slimy soap and dark whiskers, working in careful rows, around the cigarette, cautious in the places where, he notices, the skin is getting loose. An old man’s face, he repeats the thought. Creasing around the eyes, slight bulbing of the nose, ancient acne pockmarks barely visible in the glistening path of the razor. Some discoloring here and there. Need to watch that, he thinks, drops the butt into the toilet, presses the handle. Won’t flush. Doesn’t even try. He uses both hands to rinse.
A towel hangs loosely from a rack. He sniffs it and detects nothing but residue of detergent, fabric softener, maybe. Wipes his face, torso, groin, then steps back from the mirror. His lats, anterior deltoids are prominent, so are his biceps, long and wiry, like thick cords. Scars, a star just above his heart, a jagged trace on his right shoulder, a tiny white circle down lower. When he sees them he remembers the blows, the pain, nothing more. Now, they’re just there. Old friends. Reminders. She touched them, kissed them. Strange. Sexy, though.
A faint tattoo of a Porsche logo, faded to a shadow, is on his left arm. He barely remembers getting it—New Orleans, he recalls dimly, then suddenly and clearly sees the face of the artist—what a word, he thinks, for a small, ugly, dark man, covered with ink, smoking a cigar while he worked, intently getting every detail just so, incessantly talking Cajun nonsense. He often wonders, why Porsche? It appealed the moment, but he couldn’t say what made that so. Never owned one, never particularly wanted one. He preferred other indulgences.
He lifts his hands into fists, forms forty-five degree angles with both arms and flexes. His biceps and triceps stand out, as if suddenly summoned from some covert place to present themselves in brilliant boldness, bringing into relief the faded rampant horse in the crest. He holds the pose, studies himself, notes blue veins roping across his upper arms. There’s some softness around the middle, but not bad. No real fat. He holds the pose until it hurts, savors the pain of straining tissue, then relaxes, rinses his face once more, towels off again. There’s a hairbrush clogged with yellowish strands. He runs it over his skull. Again, he notices, the top is thinning.
He thinks of Sanchez. Shorter, thicker, older, looks younger, somehow. Bulldog built, right down to the jowls, tiny dark eyes. Full head of black hair, great smile, white and even. Goddamn Mexicans always have great dental-work, he thinks, squeezes some paste from a flattened tube onto his index finger and runs it over his teeth. Works it in, massages his gums. He sees no mouthwash, so he rinses with water, again using his palm, dries off, takes one more look, backing up now to show more. Legs are strong, quads stand out. That’s sure. But older by the day. Unavoidable.
He wipes the sink with the cloth, folds and drapes it and the towel on the rack. Neat. Rinses and replaces the razor.
When he returns, bathroom door left ajar for light, he checks her again. She still sleeps, ignorant, quiet in a dreamworld where good-looking girls always come out on top. Pam, he thinks. Not Pamela. Maybe Pammy. No. He looks at the quilt. Petunia? No. Silly. He can’t remember. She’s worked hard at it, he thinks. He spies her cell, lying on the bureau, charging amidst a hodgepodge of framed photographs. Couple of a dog, one of a young girl, not her. Two older adults. A portrait. Holding hands. Smiling. Benevolent. Parents? She’s in a larger one, as a cheerleader—or maybe not, he reconsiders. Pep squad, dance line, maybe. Hair blonder, eyes brighter, face more open. She smiles through a fortune in orthodontics. Uniform tight across the bust, short skirt, muscular legs. She’s deliberately in the middle of a trio of girls, arms stretched to pull the other two closer. Both prettier. No trepidation there, he thinks. Not then. Brazen, bold, fearless faces. Confident in youth and beauty. “Never Say Die,” is written in bold red sharpie across the bottom of the picture. He flashes on Ozzie Osbourne, Black Sabbath. How long ago was that? He tries to date the picture, but there’s no clue their pert coolness is emphasized by the upraised index fingers of the flanking two. “Number One.” But the other two are closer to the top. Behind her bright eyes, he sees that she knows it.
Not that she’s ugly. Anything but. Not too bright, though.
He looks at her again. One leg outside the quilt, coltish. Curved instep, fancy pedicure, red starfish tattoo on her ankle, bruise on her thigh. He didn’t do that. She’s coming to a terminus. A year, maybe two. Looks will coarsen. Truckload of makeup won’t hide lines on her face, already faint beneath the pancake. Tits will sag, hips turn to gelatin, thighs to cottage cheese. Heels will harden, teeth will yellow. No money for quality plastic. No education, no training, probably. No imagination, either. Paperback by the bed is a cheap romance. Harmless soft-core porn. Trash. No, not too bright. Fate is as indelible as her tattoos. How old? She said twenty-five. Closer to thirty. Maybe older. Girls that age are stingy with time. Stop the clock, but keep moving. Lying about it is easy after a while. Soon you start believing what you say, if you can remember what you said.
She gave him a good fuck, though. That she knew how to do. You don’t learn that in a hurry. She had years behind her.
He finds his shirt, pants, bends over at the waist to stretch out more kinks—harder to loosen up every morning. He pulls on his socks, shoes—oxfords, soft- soled, heavy—ties them tight, double knots. Puts on the shoulder rig. Mexican leather, soft and supple, a gift from Sanchez. It’s heavy with the .357. Old school, again, but reliable, viper deadly. Easy, ready with the flick of a thumb. She spotted it quick in the bar. Heat rose in her eyes, and two hours later, it was all over her. Guns are like dicks, he thought. It’s not the size. It’s what you do with it. He flips the cylinder in the beam of light, knows it’s full, checks it, anyway. Habit. Bright brass glances in the narrow slant. Hollow points. Sure thing.
Sanchez prefers autos. Big, shiny, nickel-plated, ivory-gripped. He wonders if Sanchez knows how to use them, then wonders, casually, about Sanchez’s dick. Might be a correspondence there. He grins, thinks of Sanchez’s wife. He closes the wheel, holsters the pistol. No clips, no slides. No flash. Just point and shoot. Plug and play. Reliable.
He checks himself in the bureau mirror. He looks even older in the shadow-streaked light, older than when he was naked in the brilliance of the bathroom bulbs. He knows he tends to slouch, maybe stoop a little. Bad habit. Need to fight that. He straightens his shoulders, rolls his head to loosen the stubborn tightness in his neck, shoulders, upper back.Should have
I realised the other day
that whatever my body
is doing or not doing
I will always be an
alcoholic in my mind.
It was a great comfort
somehow, to know that
that it's possible to forever
acknowledge, revel in and
even indulge the thought
of the relaxation, power
and ease permitted by
wine. It doesn't matter
to anyone else, but it
makes my life smoother
(an abecedarian starting with S)
Sudden, sharp, syncopated,
throbbing, thumping trials
unravel and undermine universally.
Virtual, and vexing virtues of
wellness are wantonly worried, when
Xanax offers experimental relief.
Excruciating yesterdays yield
zen only when zeroes and Zoloft
anesthetizes and attacks.
Burying the bashing, bruising,
banging in my brain brings a
beautiful bounty of comfort.
Consolation cures collecting
crowding cells and deliberately
digs out determined dings.
Exposing and eroding the familiar
faulty, and fading folds from
garbled garbage and gunk.
Hardwired holds heat headaches,
ignite impulses, insult and injure
jolts, jabs, jerks, and junk.
Kinetics key into kinesics
lingering, leading to lovely,
less loud leisurely moments.
Memories meld treasure mining,
muddling more macerated mindless
numbness and needed newness.
Obediently offensive, obtuse,
occasionally off-putting the
pink, pulsating prohibitive pain .
Quickly quarries raked
remembrances as reality retracts
and recesses. The new renaissance
Reawakens the mind, salvaging
soul, soothing body, as silent sadness
silkens my once soured cerebellum.
“I don't need anything!” Bellowed the old man. “I'm not coming back to this s**t hole!"
Mary couldn't help but smile how we’d all love to go on holiday and not come back.
“Don't be silly now dad,” she said in her forced chirpy voice. “Of course you will. Do you remember where you're going, dad?"
"Somewhere better than here. I hate it here I'm going home," he boomed.
"This is your home.”
"Fuck off. Your keeping prisoner, this fucking room, you want...you want my money. I'm not stupid."
"Now don't be silly now da-"
She tutted. I’m the prisoner she thought. Her life had been put on hold. You're my jailer. This room is my cell only there are no bars and I can walk out whenever I want.
Stealing his money? She wanted to scream! Between his care and her having to quit her job as a primary school teacher, there was no money left.
A bitter feud had broken out over the money from the sale of her parent's house when her mother had died, between her eldest two brothers. They got most of the money - she got dad.
It was unbelievable how quickly grief turned to greed!
She scolded herself immediately. The guilt always hit her like a gut punch when she found herself thinking this way.
She clenched the end of the bed frame and took a deep breath.
Think of the holiday she told herself. Think of the break. This was a happy day.
The holiday had been booked for nearly nine months and it still shocked her how much time had flown. It was bittersweet. What would she look forward to when the holiday was over?
Of course, it would be a struggle with dad, more than a struggle, but Robert was there to help her.
"Your mother is going to be there. I can't wait to see her."
I wish she thought. Her mum had passed away five years earlier just dropped dead from a brain aneurysm. Lucky her Mary thought. Quick and painless. No lingering. This she didn't feel guilty for thinking. That's the way her mum would have preferred and her dad also. Not this lingering hell.
She scanned the bedroom for a pile of shirts she had just ironed when her eyes caught sight of the photo frame on the window sill.
She did not know if it was the actual photo or the halo of sunlight that surrounded it, but it caught her attention.
Her dad was all muscular and strapping with his beautiful black thick mane of hair, flopped to one side, her mum's arms wrapped tightly around his waist, eyes sparkling.
They were together, they were happy, they were in love and they were alive.
That was her dado, her daddie, her dad and her father.
This man in the bed was a chore, and the chore had become the one thing it had feared, it would become, all its life.
When her mum had died he had been heartbroken. Not that he ever showed it much on the outside. Men never did.
"You carry on, be happy," she used to say. "Or I'll haunt you."
He had carried on to be fair. To waste the life he had left, not to revel and rejoice in life would be a discredit to the woman he had loved.
"That f**king David Jones still owes me a tuppence, he borrowed it down the club," he said. "Hurry up I want to see my mum, and wait until I see that David!"
When her dado's illness had started to take hold, he would demand to see his mother or his wife or his brothers. At first, she would explain the truth. Breaking someone news like that once in a life time was a scar you never healed from, but doing it over and over was excruciating, watching the pain etch in his face. It was practically self-harming. She didn't explain anymore. She just couldn't.
Half the time she couldn't keep up with his fluctuations in time and place, half the time she switched off.
He had regressed slowly from recent times to ancient times.
There were times he was himself again so lucid and normal and then in a flash he was talking jibberish. That's when she could have picked up a pillow. Was as cruel as waking up from a dream with someone you were never going to see again.
"I don't know how I'm going to fit all this in the case dad"
"I'll miss everyone," he rambled.
I miss you she thought.
It was like living with a stranger. Two if you counted the stranger her husband had become. Her dad's illness had put a strain on her and her marriage to Robert.
"We'll be there dad. Rob will be there and Anthony and Sarah and the grand kiddies! We're all going to the same you silly sausage. The plane then the beach warm sunshine. Heaven!"
Mary remembered the time the kids had convinced her mammy to go on that rollercoaster telling her it was a slow wildlife tour of the park."
Mary giggled to herself. She'd never seen her mum so white, half wobbling half walking, her hand held on her forehead. Little buggers.
She glanced up at her dad he'd fallen asleep. He could always fall asleep at a flick of a switch. His snoring could shatter windows.
I'll pop downstairs and make a cup of tea. She made her way downstairs picking up various things scattered on the stairs that had to be packed. She made herself tea then walked carefully up the stairs trying not spill any.
Putting down the tea on the windowsill she sat on the end of the bed and returned to her packing pile. She hummed away folding clothes when she realised she couldn't hear dad snoring. She turned to look at him.
'Dad?" She said softly.
He didn't stir.
"Dad?" She shouted now.
Her arm stretched slowly across the bed to where his arm lay stretched out. She felt for his pulse - nothing. Mary felt a year's worth of tears trickle down her cheek.
He really had been going somewhere else. He had been going home.
I fled to Margate, to the beach,
all pebbled, unsteady under foot.
Felt finished as a spent breath,
In crisis I crouched down,
let the sea magnify the stones,
focused my mind on what could be found.
The earthy brown jasper
rounded as old shoulders,
warm as grandparents’ hugs.
Absolute white of quartz matched
my bones, never been so exposed,
keeping my soul safe from him.
Brown beach agate conjured up
my parents’ cars, 1970s curtains,
colouring books from childhood, big hands
steadying me on bikes, boards, beaches.
Mind and body back in tune
I turned to face the place
where Dream Land had closed down.
I've only got an hour. I'll tell you what I know so you can make sure it doesn't happen again. Why you? Because I trust you to do the right thing. I lost track of what was right for a while, but I know, now and I'm throwing myself into making things right with as much energy as I've got left. All of it. But it might not be enough, and if I don't succeed, you'll know by tonight, and you'll know what to do about it.
Ready? You probably won't believe a word of it but just read it all, before you decide. I am telling the truth, and I'm telling you because I don't trust anyone else. I used to trust everyone - you called me naive, once - but that's gone now. I trust you and you alone. I've known you my whole life, since we were at playgroup together. I've never lied to you before, and I'm not going to now.
I don't know how to start.
Sarah, you've got to believe me, okay?
I went to get hypnotised. I told you I was going, remember, to that place you'd suggested, that you found on the internet? It was about biting my bloody nails - how trivial and self consuming this seems to me now, with everything else that's about to happen. I made the appointment and went in and sat down and got hypnotised. I didn't pay much attention to the therapist - she was young, efficient and not keen to get involved in small talk so I decided to just get on with it and get it done. I felt like a bit of an idiot actually, but having tried my entire life to stop biting my nails and with the job interview coming up I was out of options. I don;t blame you, by the way. You weren't to know what would happen.
So. One minute I was there, on her sofa, next minute I'm having all kinds of crazy dreams. One in particular - remember Zadie? From school? Yes. That Zadie. I can see your face - crinkling up in distaste as you remember her bullying us. How we used to plot our revenge.
Well, three months ago, she got run over. On the same day I was hypnotised. And the dream I had... This is where you're gonna have to trust me, Sarah. I didn't tell you I'd heard about her death. I didn't tell you because... I did it.
Stay with me. I know, I know what you're thinking but I have not lost it. Christ, 15 minutes gone already. And they may come early. I think I'll hit SEND and get each bit sent to you because I might not get to finish it...
Ok. Zadie. She died. At the same time I dreamt I had a car and I could see her about to cross a road, with the green man flashing, and the lights were red and in the dream all that anger I felt came rushing back and I floored it.
God, I feel sick just thinking about it.
When I came round the woman was smiling at me. A completely genuine, happy as hell, huge smile. Like she'd discovered something amazing. I sat there shaking - physically shaking - and she told me to take some time and recover and that I'd done well.
Then we heard the sirens.
Turned out Zadie was back to see her mum. They'd been out shopping. You didn't hear about her death because I'm the only one from school you're in touch with and with you so far away - well, there didn't seem a lot of point. The truth was worse - I was terrified to tell anyone, anything.
I paid the fee and left that office without even saying goodbye. I got home, no idea how, it's all a blur. But I avoided the high street where-
When I got home I went to bed and I slept. And when I woke up, I thought I'd dreamt the whole thing. But I hadn't. And the worst thing? The very worst, awful thing? I couldn't stop the thought coming 'she deserved it'.
I felt like the most evil person in the world. After that big sleep, I wasn't able to sleep properly again. I kept reliving it. I ended up drinking wine which got rid of the thoughts, and also helped me be more rational. It was a coincidence. I wasn't evil. I was going nuts and had imagined the whole thing.
After two weeks, I went back. This time I paid more attention to her. 'Amber Smith' - I'd not even got her name when I first went - smiled at me. She was younger than I even remembered. Beautiful, in a magaziney, perfect way, but cold. Cold eyes, cold hands. When she took mine she examined my nails. 'I see you've not stopped biting them,' she said.
I shook my head. 'You want to try again?' she said.
I nodded. And that, Sarah, was all it took. Because that voice, that evil voice, kept saying, 'she deserved it'. And I thought... maybe I could put other things right, too.
I can almost see your face. I don't blame you for being horrified. Writing this, it seems horrifying. And you know me, I am not a bad person. It was like that woman - Amber - changed something in me. I now know it was control - she slipped in and found I was lacking in confidence, strength, something that could stop her. And in she slipped, and left the door a tiny bit open, once she'd left. And that's how I ended up back there.
You know what happened next. Mr Randall had a heart attack and is now living his life out paralysed in an old folks' home. payback for all the times he put us in detention for not doing maths, you could say. Or payback for all the times he gave us the cane - remember how he knew it was about to be banned, so he used it as much as possible?
And then Ian Dudman. That boy who... he shouldn't have ridden so fast.
And Alex. That awful illness that now keeps him confined to his bed. You don't know Alex but I told you about him - he lives nearby and he's been a bastard to me. Calls me the eternal spinster, even though he's older than I am.
I'm dirty, Sarah. I've become something awful.
And I'm running out of time.
What happened next was this...
'Shall I read on?'
I shake my head. The policeman is trying not to smile. 'I'm guessing you know the rest of the contents of the e mail. I just wanted you to hear it aloud, again. Just so you know why...'
'I've read it several times. Poor, poor Jules. She's been my best friend for 37 years. I just can't believe she ended up like this. I had no idea.' I brush away some tears. Crying for Jules won't bring her back.
'Thank you for bringing this in. It doesn't change the murder charge, but it will, perhaps, allow Jules to receive a more lenient sentence.' The policeman looks at his computer. 'I'll need you to come in and make a formal statement,' he says.
'Of course,' I tell him. 'Can I ask you something though?'
'Fire away,' he says.
'If the guys she and Amber killed were radicalised and about to commit murder themselves, wasn't Jules doing us a favour? By setting up the meeting Amber drew them in, and then she and Jules killed them - isn't the overall end of that a good thing?'
'There's no evidence that they were radicalised,'
'Yes there is!' I cry, before remembering. 'I mean, according to the papers...'
'No formal evidence. I appreciate you want to give your friend hero status, but she - and Amber Smith - are murderers at this stage in time.'
I want to say more but I'm running out of time myself, now. I've got an appointment in 25 minutes in Stonehaven and it'll take me most of that to get there.
I make arrangements to go in and make my statement then I'm off. In the car I exhale, and cry properly. I'm gutted to lose Jules - all that trust I'd built up. It helped, knowing her for so long, but really the trust had really been created these last few years, when her depression and total lack of self esteem saw her fall down so badly.
I helped her. All the things I did were to help her. And me, a little. After all, she wasn't the only one in those detentions, up against that wall... and her neighbour, the one who was nasty to her, that was just my little gift. But all of it, all of it was just training, for all of us. Amber will be so hard to replace but not impossible, but for Jules to be so suggestive... I don't think anyone trusts me that much. I can build it though, it's not as if I've not done it before. And with men it's easier to get that trust. Get them to fall in love and bang...
Understand though, that this is all for the greater good. I'm training, myself as much as the others. Removing myself by two people from murder is the best way to ensure my innocence. People just do not believe in mind control. Not like this. No, I'll never get caught. But I do have work to do.
The election last night threw a few curve balls my way. Nothing I can't work with, though. The masterplan isn't derailed, it's just a little off course. And I'll have more time to prepare, and train up some people.
It's hard working alone. I'd love to meet someone else with my talents. Imagine what we could do!
I put on some mascara and check the directions again. The place I'm looking for is just north of Stonehaven. The therapist I'm going to see works from home, which is pretty perfect.
And in a few months, when I'm ready again, I'll move a bit faster. Stop arsing about settling old scores and practising. I'll just go for it, and get things put right. These politicians, the ones who've been making such a bloody mess of things, I'm going to teach them a little lesson. Get things back where they ought to be. Give the good guys a bit of a helping hand.
Just a nudge. A few absences, here and there, to pave the way for the right people to take control. And then I'll sit back and watch things get back to normal. I'll applaud myself, silently, from the back stalls. Just a part of the background, that's all I am. A helping hand.
I Spoke To A Woman In The Woods Today
I tread the wooded paths
Dimly aware of the drizzle
And the way to go
Not lost, but lost in thought
Reflecting on his life and
Who he was to me
Today we bury my Uncle.
Saline springs to my eyes early
Who was he, really?
What was he to me?
Cautious, reliable, ostensibly dull
But with a definite humour
A wit that sometimes said:
"Let me out! Open my pages.
I see yours, let's write life together."
I wipe my eyes; I see a dog
An owner of some sort must be near.
I un-don my headphones, furl my umbrella
There she is: dumpy, blonde, forgettable
(If I was being cruel)
But learned, conditioned, habitual kindness
Bids me say at least "hello."
And that sparse greeting morphs shamelessly
Into a platitude regarding the unseasonal weather.
Her face drops its guard
A smile accompanies a reply
Not eager, exactly, but cordial
I hear my voice expand upon
Its meteorological gambit
I was woken at five by the deluge,
I say. Biblical, it was.
As much as I want
The quirky response
Some wit re: Noah
Or the allusion it may have been
A dream, a memory, a myth
I am oddly relieved
When she makes some trivial remark
About her plants:
As forgettable as her face, her clothes.
That is how the script goes
As I resume my solitary path.
I imagine the blonde woman and I
Caught up in a terror attack
It's easy to believe we'd team up,
If it came to it.
Push aside the likely outcome:
That we'd cower,
waiting for one
To tell the other
What to do
Until the end.
Cerebrally I snap back
To thoughts of my Uncle
The tears return
And I cannot tell
If I'm crying
Or the woman
I spoke to in the woods today.
“What is faith, Tober?”
“It's life...one man had it.”
- Odd Man Out, F. L. Green (novel and film 1947)
Now that Faith has gone,
There is nothing to mediate
Deathly realms of Flesh
And the bare bones of Thought.
Skeleton is the hardest part of Body,
Not the organs within, those
Trembling blobs of liver glistening on the slab.
Mind also has its hard parts and soft.
Psychic rigidity in old men
Freezes faces to Faragean masks of self assurance,
The world now shrunk to property, fags and ale,
Bent-kneed pursuit of wooden thoughts on
Slow bowling green consciousness.
More brittle realms in sleep deep caverns
Trouble ageing generations
With long subway tunnels and empty waiting rooms,
Squinting at hieroglyph time-tables and
Waking to broken hips and
Helicopter rides from Saga ships
To surgery on foreign slabs.
Psyche has its skeletons too -
Guilts and griefs barnacling
Sunken hulks of relationship-wrecks,
A coral crust now mimicking the shapes
Of vessels long decayed.
Once in youth the Andalusian bull escaped its dusty arena,
Smashed through market stalls of bone china,
And in its innocent life-crazed way
Caused more harm than good.
And when they find one day its Minotaur bones
Will the Divine Archaeologist finally publish
The results of His great experiment?
Amelie gasped aloud when she regained her senses, the last strains of the music registering with her as she did, no, no, no, not again, she thought. Looking down, her dress, a pale blue silk nightgown billowed around her waist before settling in the water as the last of the air escaped; her shoulders sagged, not for the first time she resigned herself to her fate and slowly turned around.
Alexander was, as the girl expected, sitting cross-legged on a nearby boulder, his head cocked to one side as he studied her. The flute: which he claimed to have made himself from the horn of a unicorn he`d killed with an enchanted arrow given to him by the god Hephaestus, resting in his lap.
“Amelie, Amelie, Amelie, whatever am I going to do with you, you really must stop this foolishness. I am beginning to lose my patience, and you wouldn’t want that now would you?” there was no rancour in his voice; he spoke instead in the tone of a parent disappointed with an especially slow witted child.
She lowered her head and mumbled, “I`m sorry.”
And she was sorry too; sorry that once again he`d been able to stop her from killing herself. Her plan had been to swim out into the centre of the lake; it was well known that there were mermaids in the deeper parts just waiting for the unwary or the suicidal.
“Come on now, come out of there before you catch your death,” he was smiling as he unfolded his legs and slid off the rock; she shuddered as she watched his cloven hooves settle on the grass.
Alexander was unlike any Satyr Amelie`d ever seen before she`d arrived at his estate. The three that lived near her village had been grotesque stunted creatures, cursed with hunched backs and badly misshapen teeth. Alexander on the other hand was tall, more than six feet in height and more than passably handsome. True he had the massive hairy legs of a goat and his skin was sallow to the point of being permanently tanned, but his horns were barely more stumps, though some of the other girls swore he filed them down each night. His teeth were straight and white and when he wanted to, he could be quite charming.
He held out a hand to her and with no small amount of reluctance she struggled towards him, the mud at the lakes bottom making movement difficult as it worked its way between her toes sucking at her feet.
Amelie had been brought to Alexander’s estate when she was eleven years old. It had been a three day journey in their ox drawn cart, her parents sitting silently slump shouldered side by side up front as she and David rode in the back, sprawled out on a bed of straw. At night her brother would point out the constellations to her as they swayed and jerked their way in one long unbroken drive, their parents refusing to stop as if afraid that once they did they wouldn’t have the strength to continue. She only realised the truth of this years later when the true horror of what they had done to her became apparent.
At first she had been both elated and devastated when they had told her that she would be living on the estate until her twenty first birthday, it was then that whatever bargain they had made with the handsome Satyr would be fulfilled and she would be free to return home.
Even at eleven Amelie understood that their smallholding wasn’t growing enough to food to sell and feed the family. After the last unseasonably dry spring she had lain awake listening to long and furious whispered conversations coming from her parent`s room when they`d thought she and David were asleep. Now she watched as the Satyr handed her father a leather purse as large as his fist, lumpy from the coins within, no doubt payment for her ten years of servitude, she hoped it would prove to be enough.
As her mother knelt before her, wiping the girl’s tears from her cheeks with her thumbs she said, “He has promised to treat you as if you were his own daughter and that you will be returned to us unharmed.” There had been no trace of doubt in the woman’s eyes when she`d said it, but as Amelie had looked over her kneeling mother`s shoulder at her father, she noticed he was wringing his hands the way he always did when he was nervous. As the cart had lurched into motion, beginning its long trek home, David had stood solemn faced in the rear of the cart, gripping the side with one hand, waving at her with the other until they were out of sight.
Her parents never once looked back.
She had known of one other girl from her village that had come to live on the estate, and when she had returned home, she came laden down with jewels. The girl claimed she could remember nothing of her time there, becoming more and more agitated whenever anyone persisted with their questions.
For the next five years Amelie worked as a dress maid, she had nimble fingers and an uncontested ability to stitch a straight line. But as her sixteenth birthday approached she noticed the older girls, who had always been so friendly and helpful, become more distant towards her. The day before that awful event, Marcia, who until then had been her best friend, snapped at her for no obvious reason, calling her a half wit. Such was her fury, she raised her hand as if she were going to strike Amelie, then the older girl crumpled into a ball of tears and begged her forgiveness before running from the sewing room. Amelie didn’t see her for two more days and by then she understood Marcia`s behaviour. When the other girl tried to apologise she brushed it aside, after all what could she have said to prepare her for what was to come.
The day of her birthday was greeted by Alexander as a day of celebration, an announcement that was greeted by Amelie and the younger girls with joy; but with apprehension by the older ones. There were cakes and sweetmeats, some of the centaurs that tended the gardens played lutes and drums as she and the other girls danced in new dresses made especially for the occasion; Alexander all the while sitting on his throne of gilded gold, clapping along in time to the music, laughing as gaily as the girls. She was even allowed to have some wine, quite a lot of it actually, and here the older girls were suddenly full of encouragement.
As the night wore on and the moon climbed high in the sky a drunk Amelie made her way back to her chambers, dreamily tracing her fingers along one wall, humming a tune from the party, occasionally tripping over her own feet, then apologising to herself before falling into fits of giggles when she realised what she`d done.
Later; much later, she was roused from sleep by the sweetest music she had ever heard coming from the hallway, and when she went to investigate, found Alexander slouching against the far wall just outside her chamber door, a sly fox grin on his face. “Did I disturb you my dear?” he asked.
Unknowing of the danger she was in she smiled back at him and said “No, not at all, that was the most beautiful tune you were playing just now. I didn’t know you were a musician master?”
“Oh, you like how I play my instrument?” he said, his smirk widening.
She nodded, “Will you play some more?”
If only she had known the trap she was entering into.
“For you my dear anything,” and he raised the strange flute to his lips and started to play once more.
Amelie woke the next morning with no recollection of what had happened after the first few notes. Her bed sheets were streaked with blood; she had strange bruising between her legs and when she examined her back in the mirror, found it was covered with livid welts as if some animal had clawed her while she slept.
Before she had time to call for help two of the older girls, Dina and Saphyra, who she knew were soon to turn twenty one and be free to return to their homes, entered her room. Their hands were burdened with pots filled with salves to help ease the pain from the scratches, and oils for the bruises between her thighs.
Neither of them seemed surprised nor shocked by her injuries and it would be deep into the evening before she would begin to wonder how they knew to come to her aid at all.
As the weeks went by she came to dread the sound of the flute outside her door, always waking the next morning aching and scrawled. Innocent as she was, it did not take her long to work out what was happening, what he was doing to her.
It would be another year before she resolved to free herself from the torment, knowing she could not, would not, survive another four years of his abuse. And bound by the pact her father had made with the Satyr not to leave the estate until her twenty first birthday, made her first attempt at suicide.
She tried everything she could think of, first by blade, then hanging, after that various potions, and now the lake. But each time he seemed to sense her intentions and she would wake to find him nearby, the last notes of a tune dying in her ears and that cursed flute in his hands. He would be sitting or standing nearby, his head cocked to one side, a puzzled frown on his face as if he were trying to understand what was driving her to do these things to herself.
Eventually he tired of her attempts to thwart him. He told her that it would be necessary to punish her for her ingratitude if she continued in this way, and she soon discovered that that infernal instrument knew more than one tune. On those occasions he would use it to control her as before, but this time he kept her aware, forcing her do unspeakable things, things that would make her wake in the night to the sound of her own screams, knowing, feeling every sordid thing he made her do. Worse he would bring other girls to help him, get them to tie her down, make them do the unmentionable while he watched, his breathing becoming harsh and ragged as he did.
Alexander reached out a hand to her as she exited the water, the silk dress clinging tightly to her torso and legs, perfectly contouring her now adult body, and she shuddered as his eyes travelled downwards, she could almost feel them drinking her in, devouring her. As he moved closer, wrapping his cloak around her trembling shoulders, an act of almost genteel tenderness, she smelled his musky odour, reeling slightly as it swamped her senses, bringing on the longing for him deep in her belly, the furnace between her legs igniting once more.
And this was the worst of it, the thing that drove her; she wanted to die not because she didn’t want him inside her, but because she did.
Things people might think about as they pass the 8K timing station in the local 10K (with runners' numbers)
(3454) Forty five minutes, seventeen seconds, if I speed up a little I'll post a personal best.
(555) Just... keep... going...
(3222) Will Joe have got himself up without me? What has he had for breakfast? I wonder if he saw the danish pastry I left out for him. I should have texted him.
(3333) That garage - they ripped me off. I didn't need a new tyre.
(2121) How did the chorus go? I got you. No. You got me. No. We got each other. No, there were only three words. Dum, dum-dum, dum. I wish I could remember.
(999) It’s not as if it meant anything. Why would he want to see me again?
(8087) I can still see her. She said she would run with me, stuck with me for the first 5K, then started to move away. Didn’t even look back to see if I was keeping up.
(3998) He’s limping, probably shoelaces too tight. Nice bum though.
(777) Funny how the grass at the side of the road is worn away, dusty, can’t imagine why anyone would walk along here.
(4343) Guinness. No. Peroni. Hot today, lager better. Can almost taste it. My saliva tastes of Peroni.
(10232) Kid by the side of the road. Haircut. Looks the same as our Adam did at eight. Miss that.
(171) Birthday card. If I get a birthday card straight after the finish and send it first class he'll get it Tuesday. One day late is excusable. I mean it's better than last year. I wish I'd sent it yesterday. What if there's not the right design? I hate sending crap cards. Birthday card. Birthday card. Birthday card.
(8022) Why that beep? Who chose it?
(2921) Was I any good? Was she impressed or was that just sympathy?
(908) Maybe I could take up life modelling. Karen says it's easy money. Tasteful. I don't mind people looking at me. What if they make me ugly?
(1549) Stretch. You have to stretch at the end. You know you have to stretch. Come on, for once do your stretches.
(5110) He would be so proud of me. He would have been standing here. He'd know this is where I'd need the encouragement. Don't cry. Not in public. Don't cry. Think of something else. It's a beautiful day. Look at how the sun reflects off the clouds. Maybe it'll rain later. I can feel him running with me. Seven hundred and twenty five pounds. It'll make a difference. I have good friends. 'We'll be thinking of you' 'Go for it!' 'I know you can do it!' Sick. I feel so sick. Don't throw up. He looked so calm in the final days. I'm glad I told him I loved him right at the end. Kissed his head. Held him. Told him I loved him.
The fact is, I did go in here with a plan.
We don’t have to do bad business just to make money;
it would be easier and better to grow food and eat it
than to work for such bullshit merchants.
No number of bolloxy jargon words can turn
a bad business into a good business:
it either is or it isn’t, and that's down to
the people, their honesty and integrity.
I just know I’m right; it’s not the way I feel
But do I have to write a 1000 page book
To prove it?
It’s a good business, sleeping with men.
Oh, I don’t mean like that, I mean
for fun, because there’s likely a
double return: enjoyable at the time,
but then the unexpected lifelong
relationship of favours: all the men
I’ve ever slept with.
I have to submit...
Doing Good Business
When I wrote this, you weren’t even old enough to read, let alone understand. But now, hopefully, you are. If this gets to you, I hope you can forgive me once I’ve explained. I did everything in the hopes of building a better life for you and your mother. I’m guessing that’s not much consolation on its own, but there it is. Probably won’t matter much to you at this point, it just sounds like the most pathetic excuse ever. You’ve probably seen my face held up and demonised across the world. Just please, read on.
Before all this happened, I was a man working a normal retail job. Start at nine, wait for five thirty to tick past, and pray the customers had been shepherded out by that point. It should have been a simple role. But people happened. Every day, I was surrounded by cynicism. I don’t know if that word’s been outlawed by now, so sorry if you’re not allowed to even read it anymore. But anyway. People would come in every day, and scream at me for the smallest thing. ‘My toy broke when I trod on it,’ or ‘this takes five batteries and I only wanted a remote controlled car that takes four.’ They knew they were being unreasonable, but they didn’t really care. I thought cynicism would ruin me.
Turns out I right, but in a much worse way than I expected.
That’s how things started. I’d got home one evening a complete wreck. I was earning minimum wage, you were already on the way, and I didn’t think I could take much more. A full time job couldn’t provide properly for you, so I had to do something. My solution was meant to be a joke. I suppose in a way it was. Just the worst type, and I was the butt of it, eventually.
I remember sitting there, in front of my computer, gripping a can of beer. Yeah, I was drinking on a Tuesday evening, add that to my list of faults. I knew I had to earn more, somehow. I opened my search engine and typed out ‘how to start a business.’ Up popped a few results, and one caught my eye. Successex, Some American entrepreneur startup site, offering UK clients a package for one hundred pounds. Domain name, advertising, business development. Even product development, albeit for an additional fee.
Before I’d thought about it properly, I’d signed up. I figured it was one of those things where you made a profile to feel good about yourself, and then forgot about it. However, a chat window popped up, and there was a real guy typing on the other end. He thanked me for getting on board, and asked how I’d like to pay. I thought about just slamming the power off, but my Britishness stopped me. I was hooked now. I gave him my credit card details, knowing your Mum would be justified in introducing me to a meat cleaver when she found out.
Once that was done, the guy introduced himself as Jerry, and asked what I wanted to sell. My fingers hovered above the keyboard, while my mind froze. What the hell could I produce? I still don’t know what made me type it. Probably I just panicked. Maybe I thought he’d go away if he believed I was messing around. I typed one word.
I waited, while some dots appeared in the chat message as Jerry typed. He was going to berate me for wasting his time, and inform me my hundred quid was non refundable. But no. Instead, he asked for more details. Well, I was in by that point. So I just started making stuff up as I went. I pointed out there was plenty of cynicism out there, and no one was profiting from it. Not directly, anyway. What if we patented it as a measurable commodity? I joked that we could charge prices through the roof. That way, no one could afford to be cynical anymore, and they’d have to start being genuine. I made the situation as ridiculous as I could, and waited for Jerry to get bored, or for his supervisor to tell him to move onto a worthwhile customer.
But no. Of course not.
Jerry said he needed some time to research patents, and look into potential product development. He gave me his personal number and signed off. I reckoned it was a hoax, and I’d passed my card details to some overseas fraudster. I decided I’d phone the bank the next day, and have my card cancelled.
Instead, I woke up the following morning, and did nothing. Again, I’m British. I didn’t want to cause a fuss. If money disappeared, then I’d do something. And nothing did, except the fee I'd agreed to pay. I went back to work for a couple of days, and everything was a normal sort of horrific. Until Jerry got back in touch, desperate for my phone number. I’d hardly passed it across when he rang me, and I’ve not heard someone more excited.
Successex could patent cynicism.
I thought he was joking until he told me to check my bank account. Twenty thousand pounds had appeared. Well, that minus a fiver when you deduct the replacement cost of the mug I dropped, after seeing twenty thousand pounds appear in my account. Jerry said they ran a prize each year for the best startup idea. They’d given it straight to me this time, because there was no way anyone would get something better.
We were going to stop people being cynical. It was perfect, because it would be profitable, and good business practice. We’d make a killing, while improving peoples’ lives. Tolerance would have to go up, and maybe we could even incentivise honesty somehow, a bit further down the line.
Three weeks later, Successes had set up everything for me. I had an office in London, a team of assistants, and no idea what the hell I was doing. Journalists lined up to interview me, all of the financial magazines plastered my face on their front pages. Apparently, the US government had hurried in a tax on cynicism. And as part of that, a percentage of the tax revenue would be paid to me to administer the system. The UK got on board too, and Europe, Australia, I don’t know where else. Of course, the mechanics only got shared with me later, otherwise my fall would have come way earlier.
To this day, I don’t know how they measured how much cynicism everyone had. Body language, speech patterns maybe. What I do know is that it had all the longevity and sense of a playground toy craze. Money started flowing to me. After a month, I couldn’t tell the number of figures in my bank balance just by looking. Part of me pointed out that I was getting obscene amounts for doing absolutely nothing, but I ignored it. I was a figurehead for something I didn’t understand. That was what most people dreamed of.
But figureheads, as you can well guess, also make great scapegoats.
People didn’t stop being cynical. They just got more angry. Well, except the big companies. They didn’t get more angry. They got even more cynical. Luckily for them, they could afford to. They bought shares in my business, which someone at Successex had named ‘Uncynico.’ The common people saw this happening, and, yep, they got more cynical. Lawsuits started coming against our shareholders, who simply hired the best lawyers. To give you an idea how much money these companies had, the lawyers were paying over ten million pounds a month in cynicism tax, and they still made a healthy profit from winning cases.
So some smarter people stopped going after the shareholders. They went for me instead. It was about the same time as I started seeing what was happening for myself. My stomach churned, from the top of my five hundred and something floor office. I couldn’t believe how quickly my idea was being abused. And I was at the head of the ones reaping the rewards at the expense of the many.
I actually said out loud, ‘Well isn’t that typical? Of course people would take something good and turn it into something awful.’
Two hours later, I was all over the news, but for different reasons. ‘Head of Uncynico is the most cynical of all, and dodges his own taxes,’ the news bulletins blared. Someone discovered a loop hole in the law, somehow making me exempt. No matter that I had no idea about any of it. My disgusting amounts of wealth were broadcast, and someone found a clip of me arguing with an old neighbour who’d left their bins out for the seagulls way before refuse collection day. I’ve got no idea who filmed me, I wasn’t even famous then. ‘Uncynico boss hates the elderly.’
Jerry was very helpful about everything. When Successex declared my business in violation of their terms and seized all my assets in compensation, his e-mail of regret really seemed genuine. Although it quite was hard to tell, as I only skim read it. I was too busy planning how to avoid the hate mob who had turned up to watch me evicted from my office.
Three months after all this started, the cynicism tax was declared illegal, or unconstitutional or something. Successex and my company’s shareholders decided to hold onto their profits. But they agreed it would be doing good business to donate an entire fifth of my former personal wealth to help those affected by my heinous actions.
Sarah, we’ll probably never meet each other. I caught the most severe case of scapegoat syndrome. I was arrested and tried for all sorts of financial crimes. The stories of people who died in riots during the tax months were all blamed on me. I lost count of everything I was charged with. I think there was even a war crime in there somewhere.
I pleaded guilty on the advice of my lawyer, who assured me the judge wanted to be lenient. In a sense, I suppose she was. When I was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, she was kind enough to change my identity, and send me to serve my time in a secret location. You and your Mum also got new identities, as it was nowhere near safe for you to be related to me.
If I’m lucky, the prison guards won’t just bin this, and your Mum will actually receive it, along with the letter I’ve written her. If Mum does give it to you, I want you to know that I’m immensely proud of you. I only held you once, right after you were born. That was the day before my fall from grace happened. I saw a goodness in you, a sincerity unmarred by my own situation.
So in summary, your father is not the evil, greedy man portrayed on TV. I got in too deep to back out, and I did the best I could. I was simply trying to do good business. Hopefully you can understand that, and you’ll be part of the generation that changes the way we all interact. Be careful and kind, and try not to take shortcuts, especially late at night after a few beers. I love you, and maybe one day, we’ll be permitted to see each other. I reached for the wonders of corporations. I should have realised that you and your mother were what was important. Family is the best business to do.
With so much love and the very best wishes,
The Business of Life
I need more clients. Desperately. There's never a gap like this - somewhere my links have been broken. People are supposed to pass me on by word of mouth, it's part of the contract. That way I get enough clients to carry on and people who need me, find me.
Two of the staff are walking towards me. Dammit - I hate it when they come and I'm having a bad day.
'Good morning, Mr Gowan,' says one of them. She's new and I can't remember her name, though I'm sure she told me yesterday. A bad sign.
Lesley, who's with her, smiles and sits by me. 'Cat got your tongue this morning?' she touches my arm. 'BP time.'
I roll up my sleeve and proffer my arm. I know what they'll find.
'You're a little high, Mr G. You feeling okay?'
I shrug. Wish I could ask for her help but a) she'd never believe me and b) she'd probably have me carted off to see the psychiatrist.
The new nurse with the missing name takes my pulse, frowns and nudges Lesley who takes over.
'Strange,' she murmurs. 'Your BP is up and your pulse is... I think I'll call the doctor.'
I roll my eyes at their departing backs. Just get me some new clients, I think, and I'll be fine.
Old Fred Mac's missing from his table at lunchtime. There are whisperings amongst the staff through which I learn Fred had a heart attack in the night. There are a few eyes beamed on me and I know they think I'm next. They don't know I know, but I know they take bets on who's going to go next. It sounds awful, and I guess it is but they're a good bunch and humour is what keeps us going in life, isn't it? I don't mind them betting on me. They'll never get it right, anyway. I wonder what my odds are now? I've been here seven years, and I was expected to stay for two months. That was BT - Before Transex. Transex is a crappy term that sounds like something illegal and sexually iffy, but it's the only one I could come up with. Transexperiential Feelings - that's what I call what I can transmit, and feel.
But I need another client. The last one was a squirt of a lad called William. William was 17 and desperately depressed. He learned about me from his colleague at the factory Tim, who learned about me form his cousin, and so it goes on. There's a link in the chain connecting each person from me all the way back to Gracey, who was my first. Gracey was my nurse, back when they all thought I was going to die. I was sent to Meadowfields straight out of hospital when I was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I shouldn't really still be here but I still have cancer and I pay my bills and if I keep on living it's a win win. They think it's down to their care and use me as advertising fodder when showing people around, and I get a nice warm place to live. My flat was given to a young family when I was taken into hospital and I suppose I'm off the end of the list, now.
By teatime I'm feeling worse. The doctor's not been - some emergency at the hospital - but I know from worried looks shot between Lesley and the next shift at handover that they are concerned.
Just get me someone who needs help, I want to say.
By eight o'clock, my wish is fulfilled.
She's shown into my room on the usual pretext, once I've convinced them it's not too late and I feel strong enough. As far as the staff are concerned, I give advice on finances as that's what I did back in the real world. I made money for other people. Now I help them in other ways. We're always given privacy on the basis that clients need privacy when talking about their money.
'William sent me,' she says. 'I'm Helen.'
I run through all the usual stuff - how to continue the chain, the absolute need for discretion, the facts about Helen's slightly adjusted lifespan - more quickly than usual because I can feel myself failing, fast. My eyesight is odd - like looking through frosted glass; my hands are shaking and I feel weak as a kitten.
She nods and agrees to everything.
'Hold my hands,' I say.
She sits down and takes them. 'Will it hurt?' she says.
I shake my head, impatient to begin, impatient to get my energy back.
'Focus on what's wrong,' I say. I never want to know details; it's the energy that concerns me.
As hers begins to fill me, I let out a sigh of absolute bliss. She's young and strong and I don;t need much to fill me up - I wasn't as weak as I thought.
Helen lets out a whimper and I tighten my grip. She'll want to pull away and I mustn't let her - for both our sakes. She starts shaking her head and I know what she's feeling.
First comes denial.
Of course I'm not going to die, you want to protest. Of course it's not terminal.
Then: But I did look after myself, you want to yell. Why me?
After that it's the feeling of malaise and of your body letting you down. You grow weak, in body and spirit.
Anger might be next, or further denial. The desire to walk or run away from it - this is when I must hold really tight as it's important my clients get through this stage.
When their hands relax, I know I can relax too. They've stayed the distance, they've stayed with me and felt it all properly. Now comes the most important bit. That initial stage takes mere minutes but this last one, up to an hour, or maybe two in severe cases.
With me it was regrets. Mostly, it's regrets. But sometimes its forgiveness, or anger, or revenge, or anything at all. Everyone comes with a different story.
With Helen, it looks like forgiveness, or guilt. Her closed eyes are glistening at the corners and she's half-forming words. I hear 'sorr- but- I couldn't - I'm angry- No! -orry,' Ghost words, coming from who knows where in her life. I don't really care and I never want to know. They are nothing but my clients, and they give me nothing but my payment.
When the Transex is over, she lets go of my hands. She looks like they all do - born again. And I feel like a new man, which I am. It's cost her months of her life, and it's given me weeks. But she'll be able to live out the rest of her years without the burden that was stopping her living properly. Sometimes my clients are suicidal so in their case they pay me months, but they gain their lives back.
'Thank you,' she says. 'I told William I was okay but I wasn't. I'd got a plan, you see. A plan to end it. To stop all of it. All the blame...'
The last thing I want to hear is the reasons why so I hold up my hand. 'Less I know the better,' I say. The truth is their problems bore me. I don't help them out of any altruistic desire; I help them because I get to live longer. Simple.
Helen leaves and I lay back and let the life sink fully into me. I feel it from my brain to my toes, a tingling, a tickle, a teasing of life.
The night nurse comes in. It's Anne, one of the brisk, efficient people who takes no nonsense but has a heart full of care.
'Hear you've been a bit unwell today?' she says, brandishing a BP kit. I give her my arm, and smile.
'I feel better again,' I tell her.
She takes the reading, listens to my chest, takes my pulse and steps backwards. 'You're fine,' she says, sounding confused.
I know what they'll have told her. Early stages. Old age. High blood pressure. His time, coming.
'I'm a tough old bugger, you know that,' I say, giving her a wink.
'Heard you had one of your special visitors this evening?' she says. 'One of you money clients? What is it you do, exactly?'
'I give financial secrets. Sort of life tips, really. To those who really need them.'
'Must be a good business,' she says.
'Oh it is. It definitely is. A win-win, in fact. They leave richer and more sorted, I get job satisfaction. Kind of keeps me going, you could say.'
'Call me if you need anything,' says Anna, as she leaves.
I lay back and smile. I'll not be needing anything more tonight. It's been a successful day - and to think it started so badly. I wonder how much longer I've gained.
A client asked me once why I wanted to live so much. Why, when I was stuck in here, surrounded by old people, dying around me.
I look out of the window at the setting sun, at my stack of books - unread - on the table, at the cup of tea waiting to be drunk, at the phone, ready to call my family, at the TV, through which I can travel the world. I answered her simply: I'm just not ready to die. Not yet.
Am I afraid? Yes, I probably am. Have been since they told me I'd got mere months to live. All the things I've not seen, all the books I've not read. Does it matter why? I stick with the answer I know for sure.
I'm just not ready to go. And as long as I keep getting new clients, I won't have to.
Like I told Anna, a win-win.
If you need my services, ask about. I'm pretty well known, in certain circles. Just find the chain, and link on to the end of it, as if you're grabbing a lifebelt. And come to see me.
Ainsley craned her neck to see if she could discern the summit of the skyscraper. Negative: cloud the colour of a day-old bruise obscured it. Rain was imminent. She glanced once again at the slip of paper: Suite 7, 280 Fifth Avenue.
Was it suspicious, she thought, that her therapist was just a few blocks down? Was he in cahoots with this place? Fat drops began to spot the paper and she hurried inside.
Ainsley scanned the elevator legend. The word 'Avesa' was next to the information that Suite 7 was on the thirty-fifth floor. She pressed the call button and thought about the word. By the time the elevator arrived, her brain had served up what she expected: nothing. What the devil could it mean?
She was alone in the elevator. She found it maddening that she was unable to tell whether it was going up or down. Her own breathing seemed unnaturally loud. Why couldn't they play some of that goddamn muzak? Who wants to hear their own goddamn breathing when they're about to enter the unknown? She'd take anything now, even some Boney M or Celine Dion.
The elevator announced its arrival with a soft 'bing'. Ainsley emerged like a cautious woodland animal. At the end of the generic, plant-potted corridor, a window was darkened by the silent storm that lashed it; rivulets of water poured down the glass.
She checked the suite numbers as she walked, stopping at number seven with a low whistle. This door was different to the others: some kind of dark wood with shapes carved into it. They seemed to twist as she looked away; abstract versions of faces, howling, grinning, weeping, hooting with static laughter. There was a metal grille with a button underneath and the word 'Avesa' in runic script above.
Ainsley pressed the button, which made a faint buzz.
Within seconds, a smooth female British voice answered. 'Can I help you?' it said.
'Uh, hi,' said Ainsley, glancing up and down the deserted corridor. 'I've come on the recommendation of Cyril Glass?' She chewed around a painful hangnail. 'Also of Fifth Avenue?' she added, feeling foolish.
There was no response for ten seconds or so then the door swung open. Ainsley expected a creak; it was silent.
She entered a plush, modern foyer, completely at odds with the arcane door. Dull but competent paintings hung on the walls: seascapes, landscapes. Low-level lighting whose origin was unclear. The only furniture was a comfortable-looking leather sofa and a coffee table with a magazine on it. The door shut behind her with a click which made her jump.
From a door in the opposite wall, a sophisticated-looking woman emerged: immaculate business suit, hair fashionably piled up, probably in her forties. She smiled as she approached Ainsley and held out her hand.
'A pleasure, Miss Spellman. I'm Ms Chattingham,' she said. Her voice was smooth and confident: it was the same woman who'd answered the buzzer. Ainsley caught the scent of some alluring perfume.
'How do you know my name?' said Ainsley.
'Mr Glass, of course,' said the woman.
Ainsley nodded. 'I - I assume this is a shrink's office, but like - like a better one?' she said, looking around.
Ms Chattingham smiled. 'You'll see. As fortune would have it, Mr Prowse is available for a session now: would you like to proceed?'
'Um, I don't want to jump in without er, y'know,' said Ainsley. Ms Chattingham arched an exquisite eyebrow. Ainsley made a rueful face and rubbed her fingers together.
Ms Chattingham gave a reassuring smile. 'You needn't worry. The first consultation is free, with a suggested fee if you wish to go ahead. Shall we?' she said, indicating the door next to the one through which she'd emerged.
'Sure.' Ainsley swallowed and followed. Ms Chatthingham opened the door and indicated that Ainsley should enter.
She stepped into the room and simultaneously noticed the most amazing thing alongside the most normal, mundane aspect: the room had shelves of muliticoloured liquids from floor to ceiling, all the way around the walls, and there was a small, neat man sitting behind a very ordinary desk. He stood up and walked over to greet her.
'Ah, Miss Spellman,' he said in modulated, upper-class New York tones. He had a deep, reassuring voice, especially for such a small man. 'I'm Miles Prowse. Won't you sit down?' Ainsley smiled and took the only available seat: an expensive, huge Lay-Z-Boy type affair. Mr Prowse had resumed sitting behind his desk. He took out a file.
'Your case is very interesting indeed. I believe I can help you. Would you like to talk about it now?'
Ainsley found to her surprise that she did. It was something about his deep voice and kind eyes. She told him all about the months of incarceration, the abuse, the final dramatic escape from that basement room. 'The hazards of online dating,' Mr Prowse said with an expression of utter empathy juxtaposing the flippant words.
Ainsley continued to outline her problem, namely that she could not continue normal life since her release. Friends had left her, jobs were unable to be held down, and doctors' remedies were ineffective. She wanted it all to just fucking go away.
'I know this will provoke disbelief,' said Mr Prowse after a sensitive pause, 'but I can not only help you to get over it, I can remove the experience altogether. Would this be something you'd like?'
Ainsley looked round at Ms Chattingham, who gave her a soft smile. 'Um, okay? How much?'
'Seven hundred dollars. We operate a payment plan,' said Mr Prowse.
Ainsley must have nodded because a metal vice came up over the chair and held her head fast.
How do you know how ethical your products are? You're a small business - perhaps only one or two people at first - and you buy items from abroad. You can't afford to travel to the place where they're manufactured, but you're assured that they're ethically made. You've seen pictures, videos, maybe even talked to people over Skype.
Perhaps it's a little like the animal fat in five pound notes. You could argue that it's too small an amount to make any difference. You could say it's a small price to pay for innovation. But to many, it's a taint. The whole is spoilt.
How can you possibly know that your product has not been made using child labour? Or do you justify this by the fact that a hundred and fifty years ago we did the same in England, in the cotton mills, in the coal mines. Do we impose our progress on everyone else or do we convince ourselves that small transgressions are an inevitable part of industrialisation?
You accept that health and safety won't be the same in a developing country, but where exactly do you draw the line? If the factory that makes your product doesn't have the same standards, can you be specific about the rules that might be relaxed? Will you be comfortable that there is a greater chance of physical injury? Respiratory disease? Repetitive strain? Do you convince yourself that the increase in standard of living is worth the human cost, because we did for a long time. We don't now.
Do you know what is floating in the rivers next to the factories? Heavy metals? Banned pesticides? Microscopic fragments of metal and plastic? In the eddies of the river and the tiny tornados of the air, what unknown toxins are filtering into the fabric of your product?
How thick is the air that circulates around the factory? Air that twenty years ago was rural and is now urban. Air where oxygen has been displaced by carbon. Air that was once so free from colour it was hard to imagine anything actually being there, but is now so thick that it is the only thing you can see.
Can you find any water that is the blue of the sky forty years ago? That luminescent, forever blue that painted the landscape. Or is life lived in black and white, degrees of intensity of greyscale.
People walk their binary lives of home and work. They dream of cars. Perhaps they should dream of the purity of the land, the water and the air.
Ted stifled a weary grunt as he heaved himself into the high stool by the bar, his leather briefcase making a dull “twapp” as it landed on the lacquered countertop. Once seated he hunched forward, rested his elbows on the bar, supporting his head with his right hand, pinching the bridge of his nose with the thumb and middle finger of his left, the index finger making calming circle in the centre of his forehead. He exhaled slowly, letting his shoulders sag as he did.
Bob who was seated in the next barstool to his left called to the bartender, “Mark?”
Mark, who was leaning against the counter, and in the way of bartenders everywhere was busily polishing a glass, looked up, giving him an enquiring glance.
Bob tilted his head in Ted’s direction, “The usual if you please, he looks like he needs it.”
Mark pushed himself upright with a nudge of his hip, dropped the cloth, slipped the glass under one of the taps, and pulled on the handle, a golden stream foamed down the side of the tilted glass.
Ted remained in his slouched position until the pint was thumped down in front of him. He looked up; “Thanks,” he said. Mark only shrugged in reply and ambled back to the far end of the bar, plucking a fresh glass from one of the shelves as he went, before taking his station once more, and began to methodically polish the new glass.
It was a nice bar, low lit, mostly populated by the company’s sales crew. It was almost permanently half full; sales was a 24hr operation, they came here to unwind after a stressful eight hours, or lube up in anticipation of the eight before them. There was a permanent soft background murmur of hushed conversation drifting from the booths, and someone had put AC/DC`s “Back in black” on the juke, which was playing through the bars eight speakers; loud enough to be heard, but quiet enough not to be intrusive.
Bob waited until Ted set the now half pint back down before asking, “Rough day?”
Ted only snorted in reply.
Bob was sympathetic, he`d been in sales since he`d joined the company, which was more years now than he cared to remember. He was a born salesman, but Ted, Ted had been in admin before this, he was a draftee, a case of all hands on deck, poor guy wasn’t used to it, but that was what happened when business got too good, you got guys who just weren’t used to the rush, it overwhelmed them.
He waited until Ted had taken another slug of his drink before trying again, “You okay?”
This time Ted gave a high pitched nervous laugh, then said, “Sorry, sorry, it`s been a long day,” he ran one hand over his bald scalp, then ran the back of the same hand across his mouth as if sensing he had a beer moustache, he didn’t.
Bob gave his shoulder a sympathetic pat, “Relax kid,” he said, “You`re doing alright, the first couple of years are always the hardest.” He called Ted “kid” not because he was so much older, there were only a couple of years between them, no, he called him kid because he was, in sales anyway, a mere child.
Ted gave another worrying shrill laugh, “Couple of years?” he said, “couple of years; how long do you think I`ve been in sales Bob?”
Bob frowned, “I dunno,” he said, “Two, three years?”
Ted drained his glass, lifted it, waggled it in Mark`s direction, “Another please,” he said, then turned back to Bob. “I`ve been here six years, six bloody years,” there was real venom in his tone, “You tell me when this gets any easier, I`m run off my feet.”
Before Bob could say anything he continued, “I`m hitting my weekly targets every day, every---fucking---day.” “Thanks,” he said as Mark placed a fresh pint in front of him. “It`s not getting any easier, it`s getting worse. I just did twelve hours, twelve---fucking---hours; barely had time for a piss; so you tell me, when does it get easier, eh?” and he drank half the pint in a single swallow.
“Shit,” Bob said, “You kids don’t know how easy you`ve got it. I was here in 38 when it all kicked off, what we got now is yer proverbial storm in a whatsit, teapot, no, teacup, yeah teacup; we don’t call them the golden years for nothing. Hell, back then we were working eighteen hours, seven days a week. Made so much in overtime I got me a condo in the upper levels, nice and cool up there. Anyway, what`re you complaining about, you`re getting your bonuses aren’t you?”
Ted admitted he was.
“So there you are then, you`re sorted; flash a little of that cash around, the honeys`ll be all over you.”
“Yeah but what if management, y`know figure it out?” Ted said.
Bob frowned, “Figure what out?”
“Y`know, how easy it is to make sales, like the product is selling itself? They`re almost lining up to sign on the dotted line,” Ted persisted.
Bob stared at him a long moment, then burst into laughter, “You think they don’t already know?” he said, “You, you think they just came down with the last shower with you, Hah, hah , hah.”
Ted looked suitably offended.
When he`d pulled himself together Bob said, “Awww kid, these things is cyclical, we go through these all the time. This`ll blow over, and in a few years when you`re struggling to make a sale, you`ll be wishing for days like these.”
Then, because he was in a mischievous mood, and in the way of veterans everywhere who liked to make fools of apprentices, he added, “Besides I heard the old man is dusting off project ELliE.”
Ted gaped at him, wide eyed, “ELliE,” he gasped, “really?”
Bob grinned, “Cross my heart,” he said, tracing an index finger in an X across his breast bone. “Heard it from Andrea; you know she`s still tight with Dot right?”
Ted nodded to show he did, his eyes widening by the moment.
“Well,” continued Bob, lowering his voice, looking around as if making sure they couldn’t be overheard, all the while struggling to suppress a smile. “Andrea says she had lunch with Dot last Tuesday, and Dot let it slip that the Managing Director is thinking of junking the whole thing, starting from scratch.” He took a sip from his own drink, watching Ted`s reaction out of the corner of his eye; Ted`s normally ruddy complexion had paled significantly.
Everyone knew that Andrea and Dot had maintained their friendship after the heave, after Luci and a few of the board had attempted a hostile takeover. When the dust had settled and it was clear that the old man had prevailed, heads had rolled. Luci was spared termination because he`d been with the company almost from the beginning, but he`d been reprimanded, dumped in the new division. Put in charge of what was loosely called the basement, that wasn’t its official title, but nobody referred to it by its real name. Officially it wasn’t even part of the company; the line was because of legal issues, conflict of interest and all that. But everyone knew it was a P.R. thing. The old man couldn’t be seen to be associated with it, didn’t want the punters to know he was playing both sides of the fence. So officially “The Basement” was a rogue operation, set up in competition to the company, a dumping ground for the ne`er do wells and rejects, those who couldn’t cut it in the rarefied atmosphere with the big-boys.
Dot had been with the company from the start, she was the old man`s PA, his right hand gal, none of the other directors would dare cross her, not even Michael; which gave her a degree of latitude, allowed her to breach the no fraternising rule. There were even rumours that she and Andrea were an item, but Bob doubted that. The old man might ignore the occasional meal, but even Dot would get burnt if he thought she was getting Jiggy with one of the bottom feeders.
“Andrea really said that?” Ted asked, “She really said the old man is going all ELliE on us, shit, shit shit,” he began to chew on a nail.
“I just put down a deposit on a condo in the uppers, shit, shit.”
Bob started to feel sorry for him, “Relax,” he said, patting Ted`s shoulder once more, “he does this all the time, has a temper tantrum, threatens to wipe the slate clean, start over, but he never does; it`ll never happen.” But he could see his words were having no effect, Ted had the wide eyed stare of someone who`d just seen his future, and it was Armageddon.
Bob sighed and drained his own drink, “Well,” he said, “I`ve got to be getting on, my shift starts in…” he glanced at the clock behind the bar, “Fifteen minutes.”
Ted nodded morosely, still lost in visions of his world crashing to an end; then he glanced at Bob. “Where you working these days?” he asked.
“Syria,” Bob said, pulling his own briefcase off the countertop.
The demon slipped off the barstool, “easy pickings,” he said with a grin, “Offer one of those ISIS assholes a sniff of a few virgins and they`ll sign their souls away in a heartbeat.”
P.S. I took some poetic licence with the term ELliE. The key, in case you haven’t worked it out is in the capitalisation, E.L.E. or Extinction Level Event. Didn’t want to make it too easy :)
Colin makes that awful noise, a grasping inhalation, that precedes a long speech. I look up from my screen trying to work out if I could make a dash to the loo before he starts. ‘I need to talk to you about corporate social responsibility. We don’t operate in a vacuum. If we did we’d all die of oxygen starvation. We inhabit societies like busy parasites sucking out people and other resources.’
Julie and I roll our eyes at each other, quickly so Colin doesn’t notice. There’s a long pause pregnant with Colin’s expectation that one of us will return his conversational serve. I sigh. ‘So?’ I’m not going to waste more than one of my finite supply of words encouraging Colin.
‘So, in the eyes of the law, a company is regarded as a fictional person and that status gives it limited liability and unlimited longevity.’
‘Super.’ Julie’s tone undermines the word’s usual meaning. I suspect she has no idea what Colin just said.
‘I thought,’ Colin pins first Julie then me with one of his sharper looks, ‘it would be interesting to think of Freeman Limited as a person made up of elements of the three of us.’
I suppress the image of a new-born hybrid, it’s too horrible to entertain. Instead I don the defence of supreme stupidity because it usually works a treat. ‘You what?’
‘If Freeman Limited were a single person how environmentally conscious would you say that person was?’
I think of the enormous plastic drums round the back of the yard emblazoned by skulls and crossbones. Yet we leave them open to fill with rainwater. Every few weeks the warehouse manager pushes them over so their contents wash straight over the concrete yard to the banks of the nearby river. The council sold the land on the other bank and now it’s an enormous housing development, all US East Coast weather-boarded despite being in an industrial part of Kent. If I go out at lunchtime I can hear children playing there.
Julie is clearly thinking, her eyebrows are all knotted. She told me yesterday that she was about to ask for a raise so I wasn’t to muddy the waters by asking for one too. It was her idea, she said, perhaps I could ask next year. I suspect Julie would only join a union if she was the only member. Whatever she’s about to say will be meant to impress Colin so I try not to listen as it will only make me loathe her more. It’s already got to the point where I have to disinfect the toilet seat if I think she’s been in there. I bring cover spray in from home.
‘We, I mean Freemans, make products with lovely scents. Doesn’t that mean we improve people’s lives?’
It’s too late to cover my ears, I heard her. I widen my eyes at her before I remember it will make no difference, she doesn’t care for my opinions. I’m a Vegan and she reads the Daily Mail. We are never going to be bosom buddies. The only thing that unites us is our hatred of Colin and working at Freemans.
Colin nods at her, a smile trying but failing to take over his prissy mouth. ‘Yes our products make people’s homes smell better so that’s a bit of a giveback.’
The only thing we’re giving them is a cancer risk. We sprinkle a bit of lavender in the mix so we can print ‘made with natural ingredients’ on the label but the rest of the materials, the ‘fragance’ are sweated into existence in laboratories in countries that aren’t big on testing their effects. Take diethyl phthalate – we put it in everything but there are hardly any research studies into its impact on people. I’m trying to put that right by running one myself.
You didn’t really think I worked at Freemans for the pitiful salary or the job satisfaction, did you? I have a first-class chemical engineering degree and a conscience. I grew up in this town and I’ve always known the delightful smells of freshly washed cotton, vanilla pods and crushed strawberries that billow out of this factory day and night were made from poisons. I learnt it from all those nights listening to my parents cough and from the red blistering of my little brother’s skin.
‘So,’ Colin had worked himself into a frenzy and I hadn’t heard a word, ‘the long and the short of it is appearing to have a social conscience is good for business and I think Freeman Limited do need to embody that in one person, in the member of the management team that best expresses it. Congratulations, Polly, I’m promoting you to Corporate Social Responsibility Manager.’
My mouth is wide open. Julie gives me a slow hand-clap while she is clearly chewing a lemon. ‘Thanks Colin. Is there a job description? I mean, are you certain I’m the right person for the job?’
He laughs and the gleam of intelligence in his eyes makes me shiver. ‘Oh, Polly, I’m certain you are. I’m sorry we can’t give you a payrise but all you’ve really got to do is keep the press sweet, let them think we care about the community. Oh and keep those coyotes off our backs about the emissions. You know some of those guys, don’t you? I’m sure it won’t take too much of your time because you mustn’t neglect your old job.’
‘Shall we have a coffee?’ I get up from my desk and collect their mugs. I take them through to the kitchenette trying to work out what I should do. Colin has basically increased my workload and make me the interface with my environmental group. He must suspect I’m not what I seem. I boil the kettle and take the various syrups I’ve got Julie and Colin addicted to out of the cupboard.
I think of Colin’s plump children, his permanently breathless frightened wife. I’m sorry for them but they have to be seen as collateral damage in a more important war. This factory must be closed down. Even if it means Julie's Geoff, confined to the house with his asthma, will be more trapped still. I must do what’s right for the planet and this neighbourhood, I can’t let little moral issues stand in my way. I grab the vial of diethyl phthalate, measure it carefully and mix it into the vanilla syrup. Today is as good a day as any to establish the lethal dose.
Jackie swung her shiny white Audi into the space before the Punto could start reversing back. He blared his horn, and even got out, gesturing angrily. She smiled, not taking the phone from her ear. When he didn’t stop she gave him the finger. He made a show of writing down her number plate, which made her laugh. What was he going to do, report her for stealing a space? Twat. Rolfe picked up on the seventh ring.
“You have my money?”
“Christ, yes. Hello to you too. I’ve another job for you.”
“I need to get paid first.” He’d only been living here for three years, she’d no idea how he’d lost the German accent so fast.
“Well I’m going to be paying you for this one too, you want it in drips and drabs or all together?”
He agreed the latter would be better, and took details for the next property; location, security, neighbors.
She was about to hang up when he said “Jackie, I have to change strategy, the rats are getting suspicious.”
“What are they suspicious about? Rodent pyramid schemes?”
“Never mind. I don’t give a shit what you use, just make him fuck off like you’re supposed to, set fire to the place for all I care.”
There was silence, then the click when he hung up. Jackie got out and straightened her pencil skirt. It had started to drizzle by the time she reached the Town Hall, a pretentious name for the small single-room building where these culchies met to moan about their problems. She couldn’t understand why anyone would ever choose to live in this shit-hole town. Three deep breaths, and she pushed the door open with a smile.
Jackie sits on the bare mattress, watching the rat which perches on her chair. Evil little black eyes, sleek brown fur and a tail so long it hangs over the edge and points to the floor like a plumb line. It’s eating a cracker and staring her down.
The encroaching mould in one ceiling corner was here when she moved in, along with the rising damp that bubbled the wallpaper, the lack of furnishings, the smell of decay. But there were no rats.
Three weeks and no rats, then rats galore, rats in the cupboards and in the mattress and wriggling under her door-frames. Rats whose spines snap with a satisfying crack when she manages to get a heel to them, and who spew their evil little black guts all over the floor.
The one Louis Vuitton suit she’s retained, and her best travel case, are chewed at the corners and smeared in gooey shit.
She still has her phone though, and somehow the company hasn’t thought to cancel the mobile contract.
She unplugs it from the charger and dials Rolfe’s number from memory.
Jackie threw her keys into the bowl by the front door. Fuck this job, she thought. The meeting with the residents association had got well, the farmer Morris McCain was the only really vocal voice left among them, and his was the chicken farm she’d dispatched Rolfe to. They’d fold within the week, and once the legal battle against the acquisition order was dropped, the quarry could buy up their land at half market price.
She’d get a lovely sixty grand bonus, quit on the spot, and move somewhere sunny. This town had swallowed five years of her life but it was finally going to pay off.
It had been a long day, and different physiological needs pulled at her, each demanding attention. She took her jacket off and the waft from her underarms where she’d forgotten deodorant this morning decided it; shower first.
She took a long one, in the en-suite shower with the rainforest setting, rather than the smaller bath-shower in the main bathroom. Afterwards she ordered a Thai takeaway online and set the delivery time for 45 minutes. Perfect time to open an incognito browser in chrome and go to work with her vibrator until she was gasping.
It was only when she answered the door to the delivery guy that she noticed the envelope sticking out of the letterbox. She brought it into the kitchen and read it as she spooned red curry and noodles onto a plate.
Twenty minutes later the food was cold, untouched, as she read it over and over. This was bollocks. This was not on one bit. She rang the number at the bottom of the letter but the recorded message told her the place had been closed for four hours. “…office hours are nine to five, Monday to…”
She hung up in a rage, wishing furtively that it was a landline so that she could slam down the receiver.
The next morning she took extra care with her make-up, emphasizing the lips and choosing an outfit that swooped in a low V at the chest.
She rang the number again in the car at nine, but after holding for twenty minutes and spending another ten verifying details, the old woman at the other end told Jackie there was nothing she could do; the order came from above and Jackie could take it up with the Minster for Housing. Jackie called her a cunt and the woman slammed the phone down.
When she knocked on the door to his office, Daniel called out “What? I’m busy.”
He opened the door a few seconds later “Jackie, I’m glad you’re here, come in. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Oh, that’s funny, there’s something I want to talk to you about too…” she swayed across the room and folded herself into the chair across his desk, throwing her scarf back over her shoulder.
` “Jackie I’ll cut right to it. Morris McCain lost nearly two hundred chickens last night, more than ninety percent of his flock, to mink.”
“Oh? That’s unfortunate.”
“Straight up Jackie, did you have anything to do with that?”
“What? Of course not. They’re wild creatures aren’t they?”
“Yes, but twenty of them were purchased from a mink farm late last week, the guy claimed to be an animal rights activist, but apparently it seemed suspicious.”
“I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”
“Well, mister McCain thinks you’ve been trying to push him off his land. Now he’s lost his livelihood. It seems convenient for you.”
“Daniel, this is completely ridiculous! I love animals, I’d never let any get hurt and I’d certainly never cause any of them harm. Can we drop this? I have something I needed to talk about.”
He looked at her for a long moment, then sat back in his chair and put his arms behind his head. “Okay.”
“They’re trying to make me sell my house.”
“Fucking NAMA. I’ve got ten working days to produce bank statements showing I can make six months of payments on the mortgage or the compulsory sale order comes into effect.”
“…Well. I take it the irony of this isn’t lost on you?”
“It’s not funny. They’ll rip me off so badly. I’ll be in negative equity if they force a sale, I’ll be fucked.”
“So, what do you want from me?”
She took a deep breath “I need an advance on my target bonus. Twenty grand, by the end of the week, that way I can keep the place and sell it at a proper price.”
“Not a chance.”
“I’m sorry, but if it got out that we’d given you a bonus straight after this complaint, there’d be hell to pay, the company has a reputation to uphold.”
“Well, I understand, I’ve always respected you, you know?”
“Good to know.”
“More than respected really.” She got up and walked around the desk. “Daniel, I really need you to help me out, I’m sure we can work something out.”
“Jackie, stop, I can’t give way on this. I’m sorry.”
“Oh come now, I know you’ve been looking.” She reached down and cupped his crotch. He slapped her hand away.
She stiffened “What?”
“Out. Now. You’re fired, for sexual harassment.”
“Hang on, Daniel!”
“There’s cameras in here, in case you didn’t know. And though you know I’m engaged” he flashed the ring “you obviously never cared enough to ask my fiancé’s name. It’s Kevin. So next time you try to manipulate somebody, get your facts straight. Get out. Now.”
“Look who came calling.” Rolfe hides his triumph well.
“Did you put rats in my building.” She says.
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“Please stop, I’ve been killing them but they keep coming back. Please just stop bringing more.”
“You still owe me.”
“Rolfe, I got fired. I lost my house. I’m on the… the dole.”
“Not my problem.”
“I need that money for the rent.”
“But you owe it to me.”
“I’m sure we can work something out. If you come over-”
“To that shit-hole? I don’t think so. I’ll meet you at the car park out behind Supervalu. Wear something nice.”
He hangs up and she looks at the Louis Vuitton suit. It’s not too bad really. She can probably scrub the worst of it out.
Doing Good Business
“Mind the door,” said the shopkeeper as Jimmy pushed his way into the shop.The bag of clinking bottles banged against the counter.
“How many this time, you monkey?”
“Only a dozen, Mister Wright,” Jimmy smiled as he acknowledged the cheerful nickname.
“Now tell me how much you want.”
“That’s twelve at tuppence returns, so that’s two shillin’.”
Every few days the same exchange occurred. Jimmy collected the empty Corona lemonade bottles and claimed the “Return” from the shop.
Everyone in Barnsley knew Jimmy. When the war finished, the local authority had a problem finding a place for him. An orphan from the bombing, nine years old and small for his age, he was passed round the town several times. It was not deliberate cruelty, but the lack of resources; rationing and austerity made people turn away. He ended up in the children’s home, but they couldn’t keep track of his whereabouts and soon didn’t try. He became his own man and liked it that way.
He fingered the two silver coins lying heavily in his trouser pocket. It felt good. He went, into the fish bar and waited in line for his order of “penny crispings.” The warmth of the frying and the smell of fried fish gave a comfortable feel to the shop. He scooped the hot bits from the paper cone hungrily, as he sat on the kerb outside. He could hear the voices of people in the queue as they waited their turn.
“She’s a miserly old witch,” said one man, “I only asked her if she wanted her winders cleanin’ and she got huffy wi’me, the old hag!”
Jimmy guessed they were talking about the old lady at Number 24 – the house with the dirty windows and overgrown front garden.
Next day, he peered at number 24 as he went passed. It seemed as dark and blind as a mole. Ragged net curtains hung awry at the windows. He took a quick look down the side of the house to see if any bottles were there. It was dirty and smelled of cats.
“Get out of my garden!”
A shrill voice caught him by surprise and he ran back to the front of the house, tripping over himself as he reached the corner. On the step stood an old woman. She had a broom in her hand and held it like a weapon – two hands gripping the handle like a sword. She was thin and grey, dressed in a pinafore of the same colour. Her eyes were red-rimmed as if she cried a lot, but she gazed at him fiercely.
“I just wanted your empty bottles,” he realised this would not do. “I give ‘em to the shop regular.”
He could think of nothing better at short notice.
“What’s your name, boy?” she advanced towards him and he stepped back but she blocked his way to the street.
“Jimmy, Jimmy Fraser.”
“Where d’you live then?”
Jimmy guessed she wanted to report him or tell his parents and he quickly gained confidence since he knew nobody cared a jot about him.
“I live in the Home down Surrey Street.”
She stopped and put the broom down. He tried a grin to see if that would work but her expression hardly changed. Then she turned and climbed the front step. When she got to the top, she looked at him and said,
“Well? You better come in and look for yourself”
Jimmy looked past her through the open door. The hall was a dark cavern leading to a flight of stairs. There was a stale odour of old food and dust coming from the hallway.
“I’ll be going,” he said and began to make his way towards the street, not running but moving as quickly as he could. She called him back.
“Look! I got you some bottles anyway.” She held up three bottles of different sizes. He could see only one tupenny Corona bottle. He stepped up to her and took all three quickly as if she might snatch him with her withered hands like a witch in a storybook. She went back inside. As she closed the door she called out, “There’ll be more next week.”
He ran down Surrey Street towards the High Street and dumped two of the bottles in a bomb site. The Corona bottle he stashed in his secret hiding place where he collected his stock. He kept away from number 24 while doing his rounds for days, but something brought him back to the house the following week. Was it the mystery of the old house? Was it a dare he made with himself? Or something to do with the isolation which he shared with the old woman? He persuaded himself he might get more bottles to swap and pushed the question aside.
This time, he rang the bell. There was no answer. He rang again and heard the sound of shuffling feet approaching the door.
“Go away!” her voice was shrill but weak.
“I come for the bottles,” he said, “you told me to come back.”
The door opened and he could see the outline of her frail body against the gloom of the interior.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve got a few here and you can have them.”
She turned and he hesitated, then followed her inside. He did his best to ignore the stale smells. She went into the front room and sat down in a worn old chair and picked up a bag from beside the chair.
“Here you are,” and handed him the bag with four bottles in it.
“Them’s not all Corona,” he said, “I can’t swap ‘em if they’re not Corona.”
She smiled for the first time and nodded
“Well, that’s your job isn’t it? You’ve got to sort them yourself.” He agreed and then in a moment of silence, he looked round the room.
On a table beside the chair were two photos of a young man in Air Force uniform.
“Is that your family?” he said, filling the awkward silence.
“He was called Jimmy, like you, but he didn’t collect bottles!”
He picked up the bag and thanked her. She remained in the chair, as if the effort of getting up was too much, and he went out of the house and shut the door.
By the time Friday came round, the Warden discovered he’d only been to school that week on just two days.
“This has got to stop!”
The man bent down and stared at Jimmy but the boy looked away as if ignoring him.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy. You’ll stay in for the whole of the weekend – d’you hear? Now get out!”
Jimmy nodded and left the room.
Saturday came, the Warden went home and the staff slacked off. No one took the trouble to check on Jimmy, so by Sunday afternoon, he slipped out and took his collection to the shop.
“Well,” said Mister Wright, “you’re late this week. Has the town run dry?”
Jimmy smiled his best cheeky grin, and said, “I was a bit busy this week.” He counted the cash for the bottles and bought himself some biscuits from the Broken Biscuits Tin which were not on ration.
The next week was Wakes week and the town went mad. Parades and Union Rallies happened every day. Jimmy collected all sorts of bottles – beer bottles – cider bottles and, of course, plenty of Corona bottles. He collected his cash and forgot about number 24. It had been ten days since he last went there.
He ran up the steps and rang the bell. He rang again and heard the familiar slow steps approach the door. He called out: “It’s OK Missus, it’s Jimmy!”
She opened the door wide and he saw she had tears in her eyes.
“I thought you’d forgot me,” she said, “and I kept your bottles.”
She smiled and he realised he had never seen her smile before.
“Well it’s been Wakes week an’ I’ve been collecting all over,” he said.
“Tell me how many you got,” she said.
A strange feeling of pity for her came over him, as if he was her nurse or friend. He had never felt this before. He had found someone who needed him.
“Shall I come in then?” he asked, and she led the way into the back parlour where he had been before.
She sat in her old chair and he told her about the fair and the rallies that he’d seen that week. She gazed at him with close attention, her sad eyes wide with interest. When he finished, she pointed to the bag by her chair.
“I expect you don’t need these then,” she held out the bag to show three Corona bottles inside.
Jimmy grinned and said, “They’ll do! I can put them in the shop next week but not today, ‘cos he’s paid me already.”
She made a croaking sound and he realised she was laughing, it must have been something she’d not done for a long time.
“Well, will you be back next week?”
“Of course, this is my regular round now isn’t it?”
Again, he saw the glint of tear in her eye and he turned away embarrassed.
“Well, I’ll be off. See you next week.”
He skipped out of the room and down the steps.
The following week was wet and cold, a spiteful wind blew away the bunting and the flags left over from the carnival. People kept indoors and the town seemed to close down like a grey prison. Jimmy had money in his pocket and left his collecting alone for a while. He began again when the weather cleared and one of his first calls was at number 24. He rang the bell but there was no answer. He rang again and hammered on the door in case she was asleep, although it was late morning. Still no answer, so he went round the back, but the grimy windows and net curtains gave nothing away.
As he returned to the front, a postman was banging on the door.
“Do you know the woman?” he asked. “I’ve got a registered letter from the council. Has she gone away?”
Jimmy blurted out: “She never goes away – she never goes out.”
The man looked at him and muttered something Jimmy didn’t catch. Then he walked swiftly away.
“You stay here lad, we’ll be back in a minute.”
He reappeared with two other men, one a policeman. They peered through the letterbox and shouted, but there was just silence.
“Stand back, son,” said the policeman, and he ran at the door and gave a mighty kick. A panel of the door gave way with a splintering crack. He put his hand inside and released the lock. The hall floor was littered with circulars and a few papers but the house was silent. The door to the parlour was open and the three men stepped into the room. Jimmy followed knowing that something must be amiss.
“You stay outside,” said the postman, but Jimmy could see into the room and the figure of the woman lying on the floor. She was curled up as if asleep but he knew she was dead. Her face seemed younger than he recalled, as if she was at peace at last.
In her hand was a crumpled note.
“What’s all this?” said the policeman, and he pointed to the floor.
Twenty empty Corona bottled stood in a row around the old chair. In the neck of each bottle was a pound note neatly rolled.
He took the paper from her stiff fingers and read aloud, “For Jimmy.”
He turned to the others. “Who’s Jimmy?”
For the first time, Jimmy felt a strange, painful pricking in his eyes. He realised he was crying.
Wrath of Khan
(“The needs of the many outway that of the few or the one”
Spock's last words in Star Trek 2 as he saves the Enterprise in a battle against Khan (a genetically modified super human)).
Khan the Ahab of outer space
his own Moby-Dick
He genetically modified
doesn't get the bond of brothers
in deep deep space
the going where no man ……..
(“It's logical captain”)
radiating a love
beyond toughened glass
so others can
live long and prosper
For The Many
"It's ridiculous these days Laura. All these kids going off to university, thinking they know it all, getting into debt..."
I'm emptying her commode, cleaning it, checking my watch because they've been on at me about keeping to my time-sheet but Eunice does like to chat. Usually I'm all ears, nodding here and there, accepting that our views are bound to differ - she is 89 - but today she hits a nerve...
"... My grandchildren are just as bad. I always tell them money doesn't grow on trees you know..."
I put the brown plastic seat back on the commode.
"... And it doesn't matter who they are either. I mean, look at these families on benefits - single parents a lot of them - they all expect the same treatment as everyone else..."
I wash my hands. Grit my teeth.
"... And it's the likes of you and me that suffer, Laura. I mean, you've got kiddies to think of. You've got re-spon-sib-il-it-ies." She pronounces each syllable with steely resolve.
I consider telling her how difficult it's been for me on my own: that it's no joyride being a single parent these days, despite what Eunice may read in the 'Daily Malevolent.'
"... I mean, the likes of you and me never needed to swan off to university or wanted to..."
There was that nerve again. I was becoming rattled, against my better judgement but then I'd only just waved goodbye to my eldest - the first in my family to go to uni.
"... You just get out there and get yourself a job, don't you?..."
I'm in the kitchen, wiping up, muttering to myself, 'Not job, Eunice, jobs...' because I've got 3 of them.
"... because you have to..."
I'm still muttering, '... because this one doesn't pay enough to live on...'
"... You just get on with it, don't you?"
I pluck a smile from somewhere and appear at the bathroom door where Eunice is brushing her hair. "Yes, Eunice. You just get on with it."
I sit at her little kitchen table and begin to fill out the morning report. It's a beautiful day and the sun spilling through the window falls on my navy blue uniform and warms me. I begin to feel reassured, recharged.
I write that I have washed, wiped and put away.
"All these subjects they study that are no use to anyone..."
I write that I have put the clothes on the airer.
" ... when what we actually need in this country is people who aren't afraid of work..."
I write that I have emptied and cleaned the commode.
"... Real graft. Grafters, that's what we need..."
I write that Eunice seems bright this morning.
"... not these scroungers. No wonder this country's in the state it's in..."
I write that we had a lovely chat and make a note of the time.
"... Anyway. I must let you get off, my dear. Will it be you tomorrow or will it be that Kerry-Anne again?"
"It won't be me, Eunice. Not tomorrow. I've got a few days off. I'm going to visit my eldest at university because I'm missing her loads and I've got so much to ask her. I'm interested, you see. I'm interested in it all and I wish I'd had the chance, Eunice, because when I wake up and draw the curtains each morning my horizon stretches from next door's shed to the flaking guttering on the old co-op and I'd like my kids to see further than their own backyard."
Eunice has been cleaning her dentures and is putting them back in. I don't think she's heard a word.
"See you tomorrow then, dear," she says as I lock the door and leave her safe inside.
After Manchester my mind baulks
can't dejunk my thoughts of fear,
lost all belief in this age,
with too many people hating.
I think of airmen whose self-belief
flung them into the conflict,
those few who childishly felt sure
they would win for the many
against such odds; and yet they did.
How, as children we kept getting
back on bikes we’d fallen from
it never occurred to us
we wouldn’t learn, couldn’t
master the machines.
In this age we’ve let
differences obscure our kin,
glass in windows smear, the weeds
cover all order, the common roots of truth.
If I straddle my bike again,
my mind falls straight
into the shock of contact,
the harsh grasp of hate,
I expect to be run over.
Yet we are still upright,
a push could get us rolling
downhill but forwards,
could push us upwards
into cleaner air.
For the many smiles
you forced when you wanted
to punch and claw instead
The many lonely
syllables that passed
for conversation late, late, too late
For the many times I’ve wanted
to leave, tried to, and been whiplashed
back by your terror and despair
For the many days of comfort
and quiet love
and drowning in each other
If you put a frog in cold water
and slowly increase the heat,
it will never try to escape
For the many boiled frog days
of silent regret and resentment
the many wild dreams
and daring days of sexual Olympics
For the many messages that ended with a full stop.
For the many seconds that make
a minute, and minutes
an hour, and hours
half a decade of twitching
between alone and trapped
For the many skin flakes of mine,
that have had to rest
with yours on the windowsill,
even when you wouldn’t speak to me
Sure enough, the purveyors of industry are saying
that the next great revolution is around the corner:
the passing-on of human endeavor to A.I.
- to new hands that aren't tired of it yet -
the species subverting itself to an emotionless successor.
Listen for the second the tense changes so we can
thank whatever gods that haven't left yet for their time,
but to close the door on their way out.
Every story then told will be an altar to ourselves,
and a desperate ordering of the world will be over;
that particular obsession died of starvation
a few efforts back, and we can finally admit in
one long breath that we were unable to cope with the guilt.
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Heads bowed in submission to their masters
Their digital portals clutched reverentially in sweating hands
Thumbs poised, or flitting rapidly
Sending offerings of devotion or supplication to their Gods
The Gods, one and Zero;
The Lords of bits and bytes
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Faces uplit by screens reflected in glazed eyes
Eyes oblivious to the world about them
They stumble on, begging for admiration
Spirits soaring with each like,
Withering with every dislike
Remember how we mocked a tearful Sally fields?
“You like me, you really like me”
Are you still laughing?
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Praying to the omniscient Demigods Google, Facebook, Instagram
Begging them to intercede on their behalf,
“Make me popular; make complete strangers like me,
My life is nothing without their acceptance”
Do you sneer at them, think yourself better, immune?
Fool; deceive others, never yourself
The modern day slaves shuffle about the streets
Sacrificing their lives to their Gods
Stumbling unheeding into traffic,
Such is their commitment to their Gods
Another life lost to digital slavery
Many more to go
We are incapable of learning
The modern day slaves enter bondage willingly
Not through choice, that illusion of free will
But through enticement, inducement
The digital Gods cannot be sated,
They`re coming for you too
They want us all
They know our buttons
They have studied us
Resistance is futile
Resistance is futile
Today’s nature hangs like claws,
in the shadow of the streetlamp.
I kiss the stale smoke on your scabbed lips,
and the TV blinks at me,
and the walls rot around our frail forms,
and we wait for nothing to happen
The darkness is heavy on my skin
which has become grey with neglect
and your bright eyes have been dimmed
by its power.
You loosen your mouth,
but decide not to make a sound.
City noise is pouring into our windows
and the TV blinks again,
and I wait for you to make a sound,
and I wait for nothing,
with you sitting beside me;
Drawn blinds bring in the shadows
upon objects that they touch,
and your face is not recognisable
in the intermittent dusk.
I breathe out a simple sigh:
it may startle you awake,
but it doesn’t, as I’d hoped for,
and I sit, and I wait.
‘If you’d known, twenty-five years ago, you were about to become a modern day slave, would you have accepted my job offer?’ Will said, waving me into his office.
‘What?’ I watch him sit and do that move where he stretches his arms above his head angling his groin forwards. It’s an alpha male gesture but I’m never quite sure if it’s a conscious one. I don't like to think he does it on purpose like a Peacock.
‘Linked-In are advertising your twenty-fifth work anniversary here.’
I walk round behind his desk and look at his screen. I groan. ‘Noooo! Who’s going to believe I’m only thirty-nine now?’
‘I can put it about that it was work experience while you were still at school. Infant school.’
I go and sit the other side of his desk as if he’s interviewing me again. ‘That would be kind. Thank you. If I’ve been here twenty-five years, however long have you been our beloved company’s wage slave?’
Will focuses on a distant point, far behind me. ‘Must be twenty-eight. Did we make the right decision, do you think?’
Why is he asking me pretty much the same thing again? He looks tired tonight, his face is unusually gaunt. I am afraid there’s something wrong, that he’s about to tell me something I don’t want to hear. ‘Look out there,’ I gesture at the glimpse of Central Park from his corner office windows, ‘you get to spend your days here, in the greatest city in the world. You have a fabulous serviced apartment. You go to all the top performances. You eat at the best restaurants every night. The company monitors your health and every skin cell is insured. What’s not to like?’
He holds his hands up. ‘Tell me, Sue, where am I in all this? I spend so much time at work the apartment might as well be a hotel room. I thought I’d cook something the other night and there was nothing in the cupboards. Literally nothing. I’ve lived there five years and I’ve never made a proper meal in that kitchen.’
I snort. ‘No one cooks in New York. There’s no point.’
‘Exactly! There's no point to what I do. When I retire from here in twelve years time, what will I have accomplished?’
I stare at him, trying to gauge if he’s serious. ‘You’ll be quite rich.’
‘Rich in what? I’ve broken up with Sian, by the way. I even managed to embarrass myself with that relationship.’
I grin at him, delighted that he’s come to his senses. Will’s love life has long been a source of office gossip. He seems incapable of forming a relationship with anyone who doesn’t work for the company but his own PA brought it a bit too close to home. I could see Sian sizing Will up, trying to work out how to play him, long before he fell for her. For a bright man he’s an idiot when it comes to women.
‘Good. She was ghastly. Have you given Sian her marching orders?’
He sighed. ‘Only personally. I can’t sack her, can I? She hasn’t done anything wrong.’
That was a matter of opinion. Perhaps this is what’s driving Will’s strange mood. I wouldn’t fancy being trapped in an office with Pterodactyl Sian for twelve years either. ‘Oh. I see.’
‘To be honest I doubt you do. You’ve always been so discreet about your relationships, you’ve certainly never messed on your own doorstep. Or have you? Why are you blushing, Sue?’
It wasn’t a blush more a flush of realization. Will believed I had been in relationships but kept them quiet. Why didn’t he realise the truth? Was he really that incurious about my life?’ ‘No, Will, I’ve never messed my own doorstep. I don't even have a doorstep.’ I raise my chin, challenging him to ask me what I mean.
His shoulders slump. ‘I’m the only idiot around here who does that. I really must get a grip on myself.’
I try to disguise my disappointment that his attention has turned inwards. He isn't usually so self-obsessed. ‘So what do you want – a family?’
He looks up. ‘I don’t honestly know. I just want to fill this gap in me, this sense that I’ve never chosen anything or made it happen. I’ve been pointed in a certain direction and off I trot like I’m on a chain-gang. I don’t question what’s asked of me. What will I have to show for all my work?’
He was annoying me now. There were an awful lot of people who would kill for Will's life. ‘You’ll have a lot of money. You can use it to do anything you want at weekends now and all the time once you retire.’ I had my dreams about that too. Both of us could afford to retire relatively early. There would still be time to build our lives.
‘I’ve lost the ability to work out what I want to do. I’m not convinced I ever had it. I strongly suspect I’ll be one of those people who retire and die almost immediately. I don’t have a single interest outside work.’
‘Of course you do. I mean there’s…’ I can’t finish my sentence because I actually can’t think of a thing. When Will and I go to let off steam in a nearby bar all we do is talk about work, old friends and family back in England.
‘Quite. I wanted to tell you in person because it might surprise you but you’re my closest friend here. I’ve put in for a transfer. I’m going home. I fly back next week.’
My mouth has dropped open. Home! He hasn’t lived there in twenty years. How is it home? Then I think of my own apartment here, of the long weekends when I can’t wait to be back in work again. How you can almost convince yourself you are still at work by answering emails. How some people, like Will, respond, even at the weekends. Who will answer my emails if Will's gone?
He looks confused by my expression but there’s little point in camouflaging my feelings now. When I sold myself into slavery all those years ago it wasn’t for the wages, for the company or any sense of duty. It was for love.
Tim Gurner, a property developer in Melbourne, Australia, says 'When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19' (just over £10) 'and four coffees at $4 each. We’re at a point now where the expectations of younger people are very, very high.' (15/5/17)
Abbie slices a generous corner from her sourdough toast and scoops a mix of the avocado and mushroom topping, stirring in a little of the thick egg yolk. She places it in her mouth and smiles at the luxurious taste, the balance of flavours, and at her date opposite. He pours his AeroPress coffee from the clear beaker into his cup, the liquid paler than the usual thick brown mass, slightly more bitter and eminently more satisfying. It is a Sunday morning and the Northern Quarter of Manchester is already buzzing with life. Other people's enjoyment is contagious and the brunch date is going well.
'I have friends,' he says, 'that never go out. They tell me that to save up for a house you should never buy coffee, always brew your own, never buy drinks, just get plastered on pre-drinks at home, and certainly never succumb to the temptation of brunch.'
'What do they do on a date?' asks Abbie, savouring the lingering flavours of her avocado.
Her date licks his lips subtly but seductively. 'Beats me. Why do you need to worry about buying at twenty eight?'
They laugh. Life is good. They are free.
The average cost of a home in London is more than 14 times average earnings – the highest level on record, according to figures from property consultancy Hometrack. (Guardian 25/11/16)
'I managed the entire month's shop for less than a hundred pounds,' proclaims Frank as he pushes value products into the depths of the dilapidated kitchen cupboards, 'including the vodka'. He wears a smile that although on the face of it self satisfied, belies a deep uneasiness at what he will eat over the next thirty days. His skin is becoming dry.
'The question is,' laughs Denise, 'did you manage to do it without resorting to baked beans?'
'No baked beans. Not even the cheap tins. No baked beans on toast.' Part of the reason for this is that he has walked the mile and a half back from their nearest superstore and there is a limit to the weight one man can carry; it was too expensive to run a car.
'I'm so relieved,' she replies, wondering what might be the alternative. Live cheaply they had agreed, but never buy baked beans. But in truth they had never come up with a better alternative, although they both played the illusion.
'How much did we save last month for our deposit?' she asks excitedly as the bank statement sits unopened on the table. They stare at it, neither reaching out as if a game of slapsies. Finally she grabs the envelope and rips it open, searching for the number at the bottom. They know the figures off by heart, they know exactly what they want this number to be.
She makes a fist pump. 'Yes! Twelve pounds over. Two hundred and thirty two pounds we saved this month.'
Frank unscrews the vodka bottle and pours two very small tumblers of the clear liquid. 'Here's to our deposit,' he toasts, knowing that it will still take a very, very long time to save enough for the flat they have in mind.
They laugh. Life will be good. They will be free.
Young people are bearing much of the burden: in the past 25 years the rate of home-ownership has fallen by 30 percentage points among 25- to 34-year-olds. Small wonder that Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, on February 7th boldly declared that the housing market was “broken”. (Economist 9/2/17)
A pregnant woman. Definitely pregnant? Yes, definitely pregnant. She’s certainly stepped onto the train in that way that pregnant women walk on TV. Shuffling around. Doubled over. You always thought that was exaggerated. Just a way to ensure the especially thick members of the audience knew she was pregnant. You never considered yourself one of the thick members of the audience but here you are. Trying to work it out.
Priority seat. You are in the priority seat. Not a crime in and of itself, of course but this is about to cause you an undue amount of stress. As the only occupant of the priority seats below the age of 60 things are expected of you. Ugh! She’s coming over. You had a chance. A brief second before she approached. You could have just vacated the seat. Left it to her. If someone else takes it, it can be their problem. Stupid. Stupid. Too hesitant.
She’s too close now. Maybe three metres. She’s already aware of you as a person. You’ve frozen. Ugh, she’s looking at you. You think. There’s not much to look at moving past the window but it’s demanding your full attention now. Still, you’re pretty sure she’s looking at you. Your headphones are in your pocket. Is it too late to reach for them? Just look half dazed and continue looking out the window. Put them on. It could look absent minded. You can feel your hand reach for your pocket. She clears her throat though. You keep going. That could be ignored. She clears it again. Your heart is pounding out of your chest. Why did you sit in the priority seats? Why did you not move the instant you saw her get on? What were you thinking?
She sounds very stern. Angry. Were you that obvious? Slowly you turn from the window. Terrified. She doesn’t say anything. Just spreads her arms and shakes her head slightly. Her eyebrows are raised to an intimidating height. Basically, she’s drawing the most attention to the situation that she possibly could. A few of the other heads have turned to you. It’s difficult to tell between disapproval and casual indifference but you definitely fear the worst. The old lady in the seat in front of you is surely trying to tell you something. You haven’t looked at her but surely it’s her glare that’s causing your face to heat up. To turn red.
‘Sorry.’ you mumble as you look back at the ground. You stand up and walk up the carriage. Everybody on the entire train is looking at you.
‘Ah, hate to do this to you, kid, but do you think you can get take that Rockwell account off my hands? I’m absolutely swamped.’
“Kid.” He’s two years older than you! It never takes him long. To undermine you. He just has a sense for these things.
He certainly doesn’t look “swamped”. You’ve been watching him from across the office. Three times today he’s left his desk for more than twenty minutes to talk to that new receptionist. She’s looked very unimpressed by him but you fear she’s just pretending. You cringe at the thought of him getting his way. For what? For being able to talk a bit more freely to people? What’s so great about that? How is it in any way fair.
You mumble and you cringe at the sound of your own voice. The weakness of it.
‘Uh, I dunno, Freddy. I…’
‘You're forgiven. But you call me Frederick.’
You’d caught part of a conversation he’d had with the receptionist the other day. You hadn’t heard much but you’d certainly made out ‘actually calls me Frederick now’ and then he’d laughed loudly. You weren’t far away but he seemed to either not notice or not care. Mercifully, she’d hidden her amusement. You really admired that politeness in her. It was a rare trait these days. Looking at a space two feet to the right of Freddy’s head you prepared to subject yourself to the sound of your own voice again.
‘I just don’t think I can. I’ve got…’
‘Call me Frederick, please.’
You cringe. You’re used to the humiliation but it doesn’t mean the same questions don’t race through your head. Why? Why you? The injustice of it. What sense did it serve?
‘I just don’t think I can Frederick. I…’
‘Nice one’ he said as he flashed a smug grin.
‘I just have a lot on at the moment.’
You tried to make that last part sound final. Like it was the end of the conversation but you may as well have ended the sentence with a question mark it sounded so unconvincing.
‘Oh, come on. I’ve been absolutely fucked by the Tillesden business. You know how many numbers are involved in that account?’
‘I know but…’
‘And you haven’t taken on a new account in weeks have you?’
‘Well, yeah but I’ve been doing the numbers for the HFI account. They have to be in for tomorrow.’
‘So you’re almost done then?’
‘No, that’s… no, I mean’
You felt yourself deflate. You've trudged around all day feeling like one thing is keeping you going. Tomorrow there will finally be some respite. A little more room to breathe. You’ve spent weeks reorganising and restructuring the accounts of your firms largest client. Tomorrow you will finally have a bit more time to yourself. Freddy, you defiantly call him in your mind, has just snatched that away from you in about two minutes worth of conversation.
Then you think about your plans for tomorrow evening and it's like looking into a grey fog. What? Watching TV? Bitterly rolling your eyes at the people who’d ‘actually watch this’ as the sun sets and the evening turns into night around you? Or maybe you’d have got out the console. Got online and start shooting up some kids from middle America. Then you’d have had to turn off your microphone once they all started calling you autistic. What’s the point? Is any of that worth fighting for?
You’re still mumbling as Freddy watches on amused. He spreads his arms and raises his eyebrows. That same stance you'd seen this morning. 'Are you seriously like this?' it seems to say. You ask yourself that a lot these days. Most days. Most days as far back as you can remember.
‘So can you do it then, yeah?’
The journey starts in a car park -
a beauty pageant for super cars,
who primp and preen and ignore
the car-washers who clean their scars.
At the traffic lights, I notice
a new hotel tickling the sky -
pushed up by brown-faced workers,
in never-ending supply.
We pass the world's biggest mall
where Zombie shoppers wander,
bitten by consumerism,
compelled to spend and squander.
A highway through the desert,
red sand smothered by concrete,
laid by sweaty labourers,
squashed by the stampeding heat.
The journey ends in a car park,
and the pageant ends there too.
The corporate slave shaken off
and the free man pushes through.
Foley returned from Mass determined, this time. The weather certainly helped. It was as if the whole world was in tears. Elephantine plumes scudded across the skies driven by a strengthening south-westerly that seemed to be increasing hourly. It was a fitting end, the old man thought.
He removed the blue suit and laid it reverently on the coverlet; he didn't want to give them any bother. The waistcoat he kept on. Now all that was required was the bottle, the blaster - and the certainty of solitude.
As he made his way into the kitchen his five strides measured the decades of his occupation. He had moved in here with Marie and the empty jam jars when he was twenty. The kids had been born in the bedroom he had just vacated, but everything was gone now. Marie four years ago, and Brian and Niamh had skedaddled as soon as they could; twenty years, or more, ago now - one to Boston and the other to Canberra.
Sure - he had been invited out to visit; sure - they had made a couple of return trips with newly acquired spouses and vaguely recognisable children, but that was it. Nothing since Marie had died. Nobody cared about him.
In a way, it made the whole thing easier.
Foley scrabbled underneath the sink and withdrew a biscuit tin and a green bottle, and pulled one of the heavy oak chairs out to begin the vigil. Seventy years was enough, he thought. His eyes misted slightly behind the thick lenses of the cheap glasses as he counted out the seven crimped cartridges and selected one which he pushed back into the Nagant's loading gate. He snapped the weapon shut and pushed it away from him in disgust.
No matter how you are prepared, you are never prepared. Like now. No glass and the fire needed more turf.
Wearily he made his way over to the corner and dragged the heavy wicker basket over to the hearth. Sod upon sod he piled it on and soon a conflagration was born that had seldom seen an equal. The wind tore at the gables of the little cottage and backdraughts of fragrant smoke blossomed in the cold emptiness of the room as he fetched a glass from the drainer. Now he could begin, or end - it was the same.
He had kept this bottle because it was the last one. Over the years his Father must have made well over a thousand gallons up here in the middle of the mountain. It had been a lucrative trade. It had been widely acknowledged that his father's stuff was the best one could buy, and Foley knew it was a sure-fire passport to oblivion. His Father, however, had never allowed a drop to pass his lips; he had been a wise and contemplative man.
Foley remembered the day that he had been given the magnificent Hunter that reposed in the fob pocket of his waistcoat. Solid gold it was. His dad had called him into the little room where he lay dying and said,
" It's yours now boy, I don't need it anymore."
He sighed, poured a good wallop into the glass, and downed it. His Father had called him a boy, but he had been over fifty. The rain was ladies fingernails against the panes, and with the heat and the moans of the breeze, a torpor began to swaddle him.
It was the noise that woke him; the noise in the chimney.
Blearily he regarded the bottle but could not see a damn thing in the darkness that was
now illuminated only by flickering light from the dying fire. Foley stared at the whiteness of his long-johns and slowly reached for the revolver. The thing in the chimneybreast dropped onto the embers and rolled out onto the flags covered in sparks.
" Blast you Foley". It said.
"No." Slurred the old man. "Blast you." And he cocked the weapon and levelled it at the intruder.
Foley stood up and knocked his chair over as he made his unsteady way over to the light switch beside the front door.
"Don't you move now you little hoor." He said to the fireplace.
Despite flicking the switch a dozen or more times nothing happened. In his befuddled mind he thought that it must be the storm that had caused the power to fail. Marie always kept candles in the cupboard next to the sink, so he retraced his steps - never once facing away from the shadowy figure.
"Stand in front of the fire there and put your hands above your head now boy."
With his back against the kitchen sink he reached behind and slid the drawer open. It wasn't easy - but he managed. His fumbling fingers caterpillared over a rolling mass and he was just about able to grab two when the intruder sneezed loudly.
"God bless you." He said.
At that the burglar roared in anger.
"Shut your stupid gob Foley and light your bastard candle."
The old man felt the hairs stand to attention all over his body. He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat and extracted a box of matches one-handed. Transferring it to his teeth he scraped the match across the striker and applied it to the wick. Slowly a terrible sight swam into view.
The figure was filthy but quite unmistakable; Foley knew what it was alright. The brass buckles on its grotesquely elongated shoes gleamed dully in the combined light of the fire and the candle.
"What brings ye here?" He said.
"That little trinket in your pocket". The creature replied.
"By Jesus you'll never have it."
Said Foley, almost drowned out by the screams from the thing at the mention of the Lord's name.
"But I have you now boy, eh? What'll ye give to me if I unbolt that door and let ye go?"
The little creature pirouetted, bowed sarcastically, and began an obscene little jig.
"I'll give you quarter, Amadan, quarter to finish what you started. What about a drink now Foley?"
Weapon still levelled, the old man crossed to the table and with a quivering hand poured a shot into the glass.
"I'll not have it said that I'm lacking in hospitality. There's your drink, but no tricks - or what I started'll end with you and we'll see who the fool is then."
The old man looked on incredulously as the creature took obvious pleasure in downing the volatile spirits.
"Ah, your Father always made a good drop. I'll tell you what, for the drink, I'll tell ye the truth. That's what I'll do if ye unlock the door there and let me out. I'll tell ye that your father is a boy of nineteen now living in a suburb of Buenos Aires. I'll tell you that you're currently about 40,000 years of age and that if ye manage to shoot yourself you'll be born as a hermaphrodite baby in a shanty town outside Lagos. You're on a prison rock, and your soul is a slave. Time has no meaning for us Foley. 'Tis all a lie."
The creature's gnarled claw bunched into a fist before his eyes and
the old man's heart lurched in his chest as he sank slowly to his knees. Dimly he watched the horrid little figure reach for the bottle and tilt it to its lips.
As the fingers of a death tightened around his heart Foley managed to gasp,
"Theivin' little bollox..."
"Ah, sure don't take it so bad Foley, doesn't your own name mean nuthin' only a feckin' plunderer in the old tongue. Y'see I'm a slave too; to vice and larceny and fate. The truth always comes at a price man. That's why you're on the floor."
The creature threw the empty bottle down and it fragmented into a kaleidoscope of glittering shards. With a long black talon it hooked out the pocket watch and gazed into the old man's rapidly glazing eyes. With amazing strength it picked up the oak chair and hurled it through the kitchen window, and in the howling wind that screamed through the opening, hopped - sniggering - into the night.
"I hope ye like Cassava Foley." It screeched in jubilation.
And Foley's candle, Marie's candle - whatever; the light vanished in a barely discernible puff of smoke to reignite in a different clime, under a different yoke.
They say that life is like a box of chocolates
but all I see is pain.
The suffering in people's eyes
in National Geographic magazine.
It seems to go round and round,
the torment of the world.
When will it stop?
I myself, am guilty
of perpetuating the machine.
I like my Starbucks, soya, half caf,
no foam latte just the right way
and with a side of 21st century media rubbish,
I'll sip that up all day.
And not give my change
to the homeless man that sits outside.
What does it take or us to open up our eyes?
We are all a walking cause,
one way or another.
We live in a world of sin.
You think your hands are clean?
You throw away your trash
just like every other soulless soul.
Mindless zombies; buy, eat, dump, repeat.
Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Now this verse is just another
Generation Y girl asking why?
Trying to make sense of a senseless world.
Where the leader of the free world
epitomises the reason that the world is not free.
But you've probably heard it all before,
so why would you listen to me.
A woman gazes out of an upstairs window:
To escape or stay?
Risk everything or have a bed?
Dream to the skyline, tower blocks to hide among,
Ugly corners of this city will swallow her,
People march eyes down, thumbs twitch on phones:
no one will see her.
Another girl will fill her shoes, her saggy dent in the mattress,
Will do their bidding, will be beaten for her benefit,
To learn respect, to learn to comply:
no one will miss her.
Point the camera.
Hurriedly she steps back into dank darkness,
The tattered curtain flaps uncertainly
As an arm, thickset, reaches forward:
pulls the glass firmly shut.
'Fly on the wall' is such a cliché, but there are times when the proverbial insect is the only living thing that could have witnessed an event.
The fly would have seen two men standing opposite each other, about six feet apart. One, the man on the left, about five eight, slim build, with a black balaclava covering his face. The other, closer to six feet, more heavily built, certainly older, would have been wearing pyjamas. Or more likely boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
The two men stare at each other without moving. If we look at their hands we see that one is holding a set of car keys. They are the keys to the large BMW on the drive that one might assume belongs to the man in the boxer shorts. He, on the right, holds a kitchen knife in his left hand. Perhaps he is left handed, or perhaps he will use his right hand for stability or to push the other man away.
Neither moves. We no longer want to be the fly on the wall, rather we want to be inside their heads. If we can be a fly on the wall, we can get into their heads. It's no more far fetched.
The man on the right believes he understands the law. He knows that a knife is a more dangerous weapon that a set of keys. He also knows that he might forget this in anger, if the red mist comes down as it has on a couple of occasions in his life. He also knows that once he feels it coming, he cannot prevent this. He is holding the knife tight but holding his thoughts even tighter still. He believes that the law will protect him, and that he can use the knife in self defence. He knows that he cannot stab the other man in the back as he is running away. In between, a scenario that includes many possibilities, he's not sure. As long as he remains rational, he feels confident he will make the right decision.
The man on the left - with the telltale balaclava and the keys that are not his - has seen the knife. He has measured in his mind the height, width, strength and mental agility of his opponent, and concluded that he would not win a physical contest even without the knife. He has only youth on his side. And perhaps, he has very little to lose. He can conceive a couple of ways that he could win. But he's never been in this position before. Every previous entry has been successful. Did he do something wrong? He puts it down to bad luck. Wrong place, wrong time. More specifically, he was in the kitchen as the man in boxer shorts came down for a glass of water. A random event in the scope of the world.
At this point it would be possible to return to how the world existed an hour earlier with a few well choreographed moves. The knife could be placed back in the drawer. The car keys could be replaced on the peg by the front door. One man could return to bed, having forgotten to draw himself a glass of water. The other could leave the house through one of the two recognised exits. Only the broken glass panel on the back door would suggest that this stand off had ever happened. That would be rectified by a call to a glazier in the morning.
But the fly is startled by a sudden movement and instinctively reacts by launching itself from the wall. It senses the rush of air in the room, and darts away from the turbulence. It scoots into the hall, hearing behind it the noise of two people coming together. The fly rests on the hall table and sits there until there is no longer any noise. Curious, the fly returns to the kitchen and finds its previous perch on the wall.
There is now only one body in the room, and that body lies on the floor, face down. There is a small amount of blood on the floor and the body is motionless. It is the man with the balaclava.
Twenty minutes later the siren of an ambulance will startle the fly. The man in boxer shorts will return, still wearing the same clothes, and explain how he acted in self defence.
At An Officer's Discretion
‘They look at me’, she shouts,
‘they sit in judgment’.
Her eyes are focused on pigeons courting
in the walls of the Castle ruins.
‘They're not bothered’, I say, ‘about you.
Let’s talk about getting you housed’.
‘You don’t get it’, she says, 'there's no justice,
there's no spirit of law’.
I know there is, that I see her blue feet
sticking out from pink plastic clogs,
her fag-butt hanging like
a burning sword on her thin, old lady lips.
‘I had to keep my strength up’, she laughs,
waves the White Lightning can like a wand
as I sigh at the thought of the paperwork,
how to justify using my discretion.
‘You’ve never been at the gate’,
she whispers, ‘never been through,
out of the neighbourhood,
somewhere worse than dreams’.
‘Look’, I say, ‘I’m here to try and help,
we can't have you being arrested again'.
She grins, shakes the can, sprays
the Controlled Drinking Zone sign.
I reach for her shoulder as she rears up:
‘If I'm not here I can't turn them back
with my body, with my being,
you're trying to trick me.'
She sucks on the can, shakes her head
at my blue uniform, my pointless presence,
my inability to restore
a world where she belonged.
You think it’s so romantic here,
with the dark and the sea and
the warm air, and the gentle
breeze and the walk along
the beach to the magical restaurant
on a fairy-tale island, amid the
But we get there and I’m
frustrated as usual and
they are playing Simply Red
not just there but everywhere
we go, but the funny thing is
that in the future, long after
we split up and go our separate
ways, when I hear the hackneyed Stars
it makes me think of romantic
evenings, and the waft of the sea.
‘stealing flowers is not a crime ‘ old Hungarian saying
In summer, I pinch fat blue hydrangea
adornments of double income couples and as
cicadas sing song the man’s blindness to red
turns my yearly push for Xmas bush sociopathic
So I finish the job off in an early morning snatch
And when I spy roses drop autumnal golden
over garden fences enjoyed only by their hired gardener
I redistribute fragrance to a woman in number 5
the thorny stalks immerse hot in cut glass water
So I set plans for a Gerbera slaughter.
The middle aged man in the grey three quarter length topcoat was huffing a little as he brought the large barrow cart to a halt midway between Doherty`s pub and the `Help the aged` charity shop on Middleton street. He extended the front legs to stabilise it, then carefully pulled the pale blue cloth that covered its cargo free, folding it neatly before storing it under the cart.
Aside from the goatee he was in every other respect quite ordinary looking. His hair was thinning and going to grey, though not as grey as his beard. His brow was creased with years of furrowing, and his neck was seeding to wattle. Under the great coat he wore a tan sport coat, but no tie; with nearly matching slacks and a pair of brown loafers.
The wagon`s main body was tiered and painted green. Each of the three tiers holding a single row of grey buckets, every bucket brimming with long stemmed roses; white in the lowest row, yellow in the middle one, red in the topmost. He inspected the flowers bucket by bucket, plucking the odd damaged one, and when he`d finished, dumped the castoffs into the nearest litter bin.
As he worked, four men, all in their early twenties took a table outside the café on the other side of the street, idly watching him as they waited to order.
Once he`d disposed of the rejects the flower man stripped off his coat, though not his fingerless mittens, retrieved a large whiteboard that was clipped to the front of the cart, and with a black marker printed the words;
In large letters on it.
Once he`d managed to get the sign to rest against the carts wheel; it had fallen over at the first two attempts, he retrieved a folding deck chair that was hanging from between the barrows handles. A chair so vividly striped it put you in mind of the gaily coloured (if you`ll pardon the pun) flag of LGBTQ community, snapped it open and sat down.
Then he did something you only ever see on T.V. He slapped both thighs in annoyance, stood back up, rummaged in a leather bag that was hanging from the barrows right handle, pulled out that mornings Examiner, sat back down, smoothed out the paper, and began to read.
At ten o clock on an early May Thursday morning the pedestrianized street had only a smattering of people on it, and it was a woman who looked to be in her forties, trailing a single axle shopping trolley, it`s canvas body a sickly pink, who was the first person to stop at the flower cart.
“Free Roses?” the four young men seated outside the café heard her ask, her puzzlement obvious in her tone.
The flower man looked up from his paper and said nothing, only smiled.
“What does it mean, free?” she asked, her tone switching from confusion to suspicion.
The man folded his newspaper carefully, stood, dropped the paper on the seat, and tilted his head to one side, giving her a confused look of his own. He gestured to the sign and shrugged.
The woman`s frown turned to a scowl, “What`s wrong with you, cat got your tongue?” her tone now edging towards hectoring.
The man held up his right index finger in the universal sign of, just a moment, reached into the left pocket of his jacket, removed a laminated white card and handed it to her.
“Oh,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment when she saw what was printed on it, “I didn’t know, I`m sorry.”
He gave her a `no problem` shrug, and smiled as she handed the card back.
“So is this for charity?” she asked, “Like a donation thing, for the deaf and dumb?”
He gave the barest of frowns, shook his head, gesturing once more to the sign, pointing at the word free.
“But why are they free?” she persisted, obviously confused.
He held up his index finger again, pulled a small white board that was lying flat on the first tier, wrote quickly on it, then turned it so she could read what he`d written.
The woman scratched at her chin, “I dunno,” she said, shaking her head as she opened her handbag, hunting out her purse. She snapped it open, studied its contents, scratched her chin again, thought a moment, then clicked it shut, dropping it back into her handbag. “I`m sorry,” she said, “I don’t have anything to spare.” And grabbing the handle of her trolley almost trotted away, head down as if afraid anyone she knew might see her.
The flower man raised a hand as if he meant to call her back, but no sound issued from his mouth. He watched her until she rounded the corner, shrugged and took his seat once more, realised he was sitting on his paper, leaned to one side so he could retrieve it without getting up and nearly spilled onto the pavement, which elicited much sniggering from the four outside the café.
By eleven thirty he had finished his paper and given away six flowers, four of which had been to a teenage girl, who`d asked for a yellow one; despite the dire warnings from her friend. “The thorns are probably poisoned,” she`d hissed.
When the girl had asked if she could have one for her mum as well, the flower man had picked out three red blooms, surrounding the yellow one with them, wrapping the stems carefully in waxed paper before handing them over.
When the girl thanked him he bowed to her, not a mere nod of the head but a full courtier bow, left leg stretched out in front, left arm across his waist, right arm thrown back, forehead almost touching his outstretched knee, all he`d needed was a cape.
“Wierdo,” the girls friend snapped as they walked away.
But the audience of four whistled and applauded, so he repeated his bow to them; and this drew a standing ovation.
Once he`d finished his paper he became more proactive, holding a selection of blooms in hand as he offered them to passers-by. Most veered out of his path, as you do a drunk or a madman. Others either didn’t see him or pretended not to; keeping their gazes fixed firmly on their phones. Once he trailed after a young woman, wordlessly imploring her to take the proffered flower until she cried, “Let me alone,” and burst into a run.
Another time a young man threatened, “I`ll kick the living shit out of you,” when he offered one to him, declaring to his sniggering friends and the world in general, “I aint no faggot.” When he feinted as if he were about to throw a punch the flower man flinched and retreated, hands held placatingly out in front of him.
By twelve thirty he had managed to give away only eighteen flowers. He stood by the cart scratching his head, looked at his watch, shrugged, retrieved the cloth, draping it once more over the flowers. He slid the sign under the cart, pulled his bag off the handle, slipping it over one shoulder, refolded the chair, hung it on the handles, and sauntered over to the café.
On the dot of one he drained his coffee cup, stood, wiped the crumbs of the sandwich he`d had for lunch from his jacket, and strolled back over to the waiting cart. Once he`d hung his bag on the handle and stowed the cover back under the barrow, he picked up the whiteboard sign, wiped it clean with his sleeve and wrote;
A man in a business suit stopped, tilted his head to one side; as if viewing the sign from another angle would make more sense of it, then declared in a disbelieving voice, “A hundred euros. For twelve roses?”
The flower man turned and smiled at him, “Ah, but these are no ordinary roses sir,” he said, “These are wild Rosa banksiae Lutea, very rare, very rare indeed. They are found in only one place, high in the Alps. Here sir,” he plucked one from a bucket, holding it out to the businessman, “Breathe deeply, doesn't the scent of the alpine air fairly take your breath away?”
The businessman took the flower, buried his nose in its petals, and took a deep breath. He nodded as he handed the rose back, “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “it does smell different to the bouquets I usually get my wife; but a hundred euros, can’t you do them any cheaper?”
The flower man shook his head sadly, “I`m sorry sir, but these arrived in from Switzerland this morning. I only get one shipment a year, and as the saying goes “When they`re gone, they`re gone.”
The businessman tutted to himself, took out his wallet, riffled through it, then shook his head, “I`m sorry, I don’t have enough on me.”
“Not a problem sir,” the flower man said, pulling out a wireless card terminal, “We take all major credit cards.”
And that was how the rest of the afternoon passed. Someone would stop, comment on the price, and sometimes the flower man would talk them into buying the flowers, sometimes not.
By four fifty all but two of the yellow roses had been sold. The flower man took the buckets in pairs to the nearest drain, emptying the water into it. He stacked the buckets one inside the other on the lowest tier, draped the blue cover over the shelving, fixing it carefully. He retrieved his bag and coat; then, bag slung over one shoulder, coat draped over the opposite forearm, strolled once more over to the café.
He dragged a vacant chair over to his audience of four, sat down and said, “I believe you owe me something Mr Sullivan?”
One of the young men, ginger haired, his face a mess of freckles, grudgingly handed over a fifty euro note, a lot of money for a college student from Kerry; especially one trying to get by on a grant.
The flower man smiled as he tucked it into an inside pocket of his jacket, and in a self-satisfied air said, “As I tried to explain to you last Tuesday gentlemen; you cannot overcharge someone, but you can undercharge them.”
“Yes professor,” they mumbled as he stood, pulling on his coat. It was only when it was fully on that he realised his bag was still slung from his shoulder, and he had to slip his hand out of the sleeve to release it.
“Oh and,” he said as he turned to leave, “Get the cart back to the drama society for me will you, I`m pretty sure they need it for tomorrow night’s performance.”
They mumbled their, “Yes professor`s” again as he picked up the last two roses that he`d set down on the table.
“Now if you`ll excuse me, I know just the lady who loves roses,” he said, saluting them with the two blooms as he turned away.
Flowers are Free
He was always one for the big gestures. At first they were exciting, the gifts, the bouquets on her desk, the big weekends away. She was surprised at how quickly she grew bored with them. Or maybe she was bored with him? There was little substance and all show. Somehow there was no depth, no understanding of how relationships really worked, far less idea of how she might work. Their love making was the same, all show, flourish and fall short.
None of this mattered too much at the beginning, he was one of many and she didn’t have a ‘forever’ sort of mentality. ‘One day at a time’ and ‘take what you can get’ was how she lived. She thought that was his plan too. The first time he began his ‘silly stuff’ she went along with it. She was used to Ann Summers and a bit more, so she wasn’t bothered. If it got her a decent meal she could put up with it. But soon she realised she wasn’t hungry any more. It stopped being a game and she didn’t like ‘serious’ one single bit. The day he decided that wrapping her in cling film was fun was the day she told him she was out of here. She was sick of his big gestures and his vacuous thoughts. But most of all she was sick of his inability to see her as a woman, not a toy to be played with.
He begged and pleaded, but she walked. She had no interest, she said, in his rubbish. The texts began straight away and she blocked him. The bouquets arrived daily. At first she felt bad putting them in the bin, but after a week she didn’t even look at them. The phone calls at work were hard, she was determined not to let the others see that he was rattling her. The emails were long and rambling, she forwarded them, unread, to an old, unused account.
Back from work one day she smelt that he had been in her flat; she got the locks changed that evening but found sleep hard to come by. She sensed him in the street and glimpsed him everywhere. The hot coffee on her desk when she got in just freaked her and the endless take aways delivered to her flat made her shiver. Even the delivery men had stopped knocking – they just left it and ran.
She told no one – she knew what they would say. She knew that some bright spark would suggest the police and she knew too that there was no way she was ever talking to them again. The pain she had held down threatened to come up again and again. How could she tell them yet again that she was being stalked? They didn’t believe her before. She knew that there were men out there who wanted to get her, why couldn’t they see that? The kindly desk sergeant would take her statement and the detective would very patiently listen and write in his lovely little black book. But nothing would happen, all gesture and no substance. She had told them so many times. At first they were kind, but there had been so many.
This time she was going to sort it out herself. The next time he came round she would be ready. As if flowers and food could buy her now, what did he think she was? The delivery man came for the last time, he was sneaking away when she called him and got out her purse to give him a tip – the look on his face when he saw the knife was priceless. Dragging him into the bathroom was hard, but she was strong. The pizzas stopped then. They asked about him but even the police said she was deluded and hopeless – it couldn’t be her. The flowers were harder, but in the end the florist went the same way. No one even came to find her that time – she wasn’t opening her door to anyone by the – anyway. You never knew who might turn up. She lay down and waited then. Her phone rang lots of times – work she expected.
One day they would find her, but until then she was just going to lie down. She had put all the flowers in the bath recently– she didn’t mind crushing them – they were free. She didn’t go out again, she knew he would get her if she did. She heard him try the door – but she had no energy to get up. The bath was comfy in its own way. He shouted but she didn’t get it. She just knew she had to teach them all a lesson – they would soon know what would happen if they ignored her, if they were quick the flowers would be fresh enough – that would please someone. She wasn’t just for show – there was real substance to her.
Finding in Favor of the Flowers
An arrest of an assemblage of
captured coy and
defenseless daffodils don't
elude extradition forces.
gather to garner gypsy
juries of judgmental
knotweed and kingly Kafir
lilies lead to labeling
misdemeanors. Miscreants muscle
nebbish nightshade as
ornery Officiant Oleander
paces the petaled path.
Querulous and quick
rebels rush to release
surly snap dragons
tussling with thistle
until ugly fruit and urchins
vanish. Violets vocalize
wishes to wanderlust while
zooms to Zinnia's defense.
Absolution and autonomy
bestowed on the brigade of blossoms.
Before the drone of wings begins
And dawn becomes a battleground
The Northern winds are tempered
With a sound within a sound.
Our star lounges in patches
Old song of youth is heard again
Threadbare trout escape the river's bowel
To lip the warming air
And taste the falling rain.
Greenery out-greens itself under the gamut of the sun
As we turn once more from darkness
And commence another run.
Amongst these graves there lies a pauper's
Unadorned all year until this time
When yellow flowers weave a mesh to hold my eye
And whisper that my smile is not a mime.
Lisa listened to the familiar screams, chatter and raised voices that echoed round the half-lit corridor sounding more like a scene from a horror film than a hospital ward.
It was always the same. Could hardly get a sentence out of most them during the day then bang. Time for bed and they all come alive. Like werewolves and demons, she thought mischievously.
Before she even entered Vera’s room Lisa knew every word of the conversation that would take place. Was always the same with Vera. She repeated the same sentences a million times a day like a wind-up toy. Lisa had to stop herself from replying sometimes even before Vera had asked her first question.
“You know my sister love?” said Vera.
“No love,” Lisa winced at Vera’s Dalek like croak.
The other nurses were right never mind rubber gloves they should be supplied with earmuffs. When Corrie was on was always the worst. The whole ward would gather in the T.V room and Vera would rant her way through the whole show. Lisa swore she did it on purpose.
Lately just before the show was due to start the nurses would put Vera to sit in the dining room on her own.
“ Tried to kill me see love. Tried to poison me!”
“Never?” Lisa feigned surprise as she pulled open the small two door hospital wardrobe and took out Vera’s nightgown. Eighty years on this planet and all she’s got to show for it is two nightdresses, a dressing gown and a pair of worn out slippers.
She glanced around the tiny room. Prisoners have better surroundings she thought.
“Wicked cow she was.”
“Sounds it too Vera!”
“Couldn’t kill me though could she love?!”
“No take more than that to kill our Vera,” said Lisa squeezing her shoulders and waiting for her to finish the last part of her rant as usual.
“She’s paying for it now though love. In she?”
“Yes, Vera my sweetheart so she is”.
In a way it was true Lisa thought. Vera’s sister paid for anything she needed. Had looked after her until the paranoia and dementia had become too severe. She was all Vera had and vise versa. The visits had gradually gone down from one every day to two once every two weeks.
Lisa had been shocked to see Vera’s sister in the visiting room today, only two days after her last visit. Probably felt like the company.
The two sisters had lived together all their lives. Eighty years still in the same house they were born in. More of a mansion than a house. The family had been very well off apparently, although you wouldn’t think it to look at either of the sisters.
Their parents had left them tens of thousands of pounds. Neither of the sisters had ever married or had children.
What a lonely life, Lisa pondered, even lonelier now for Vera’s sister. At least Vera had insanity for company. Once Vera snuffed it, Esther probably wouldn’t be far behind, Lisa guessed. Always the same. Probably leave it all to cats.
Lisa caught sight of herself grinning in the mirror and shook her head. Sometimes she wondered if insanity was contagious.
“Love, who was that nice lady who brought me cake today, love?”
“Just a nice lady. How about you have a nice slice before bed hey?”
I know I will Lisa thought, thinking about where she could hide the cake before taking it home later.
Vera’s sister never came empty handed and today was no exception. That reminded her. Esther had brought in a stack of magazines all of which were Lisa’s favourites. I’ll get them later when she’s asleep, Lisa decided. It wasn’t as if Vera was going to read them.
Lisa picked up the plastic tub off the bedside table and took out a slice of cake. She hardly seemed to notice.
Chocolate fudge. Lisa felt the stirrings of hunger in her stomach. She put the rest of the cake in her pinafore pocket.
“Now you sit there and enjoy your cake and I’ll be back in a little while to help you get into your nightclothes and tuck you in.”
Lisa received no reply. She didn’t expect one. She left Vera sitting in her chair clutching the cake in one hand.
She made her way up the corridor only to hear Vera’s coarse voice and usual ramblings drift out of the room behind her.
“You know my sister love….”
She’s off again Lisa thought and laughed into the darkness. Bloody lights! The psychiatric ward was a separate block from the rest of the hospital and was behind the main buildings and they may have been on another planet when it came to waiting for any maintenance work to be done.
Lisa entered the staff room to the sound of the kettle clicking. Joan, one of the other nurses, shook her head then opened the cupboard and took out another cup.
“You’d hear this kettle from space you would,” said Joan chuckling.
“That Vera’s a case eh?”
Joan shook her head in agreement and passed Lisa her tea just as she sunk into one of the comfy chairs.
“Any biscuits?” Said Lisa
“Let me go and check on everyone and then I’ll crack open my secret stash.”
Joan chuckled again and she was gone.
Lisa sipped her tea and her thoughts returned to Vera and Esther. They were well known.
Most of it just rumours and speculation. They were virtual recluses by all accounts, hardly left the house.
The house itself was hidden behind high walls and two ivory gates at the entrance. A lot of security work had been done in recent years due to children playing havoc and vandalism.
The house itself had been grand in its day, with sweeping grounds. The two sisters had let it go in recent years mind. Looked derelict and deserted now. Probably too tight to shell out on repairs Lisa guessed. Lisa had to drive past the house every day on her way to work, it gave her the creeps.
Where’s bloody Joan and them biscuits? Always skiving that one. Lisa put her feet up on of the footstools and plucked one of the magazines off the coffee table. She loved working nights.
Lisa heard footsteps approaching and looked up to find Joan pale as chalk and quivering her eyes bloodshot
“What’s wrong?” Asked Lisa, pulling herself up, and spilling her tea onto the tile floor in the process.
“Oh it was awful…I’ve come over all funny,” said Joan her voice quivering as much as her body.
“Come on sit yourself down girl.” Lisa helped Joan to sit down and handed her the half drunk cup of tea, “Get that down ya girl.”
“I was…I was doing the checks….when...when I noticed Vera’s light on,” Joan broke down now. Big quivering sobs. Lisa took the cup out of her hands just as she was about to drop it. “There she was sitting in her chair…”
Joan could go on no more, Lisa didn’t need her to. She felt a cold shiver go down her spine.
“I was with her not more than twenty minutes ago.” said Lisa sitting down beside her friend.
“I called the doctor but it was to late, there’s two nurses in there now cleaning her up and getting her ready,” said Joan taking a scrumpled piece of tissue out of her pinafore and blowing her nose. “I know I should be used to it but…”
Lisa knew what she meant, death was always a shock however much it was expected. She was probably better off Lisa told herself. She hoped if she ever got to that stage someone one would have the decency to put her out of her misery.
“I’d better ring her sister,” said Joan reluctantly picking up the staff telephone.
Lisa’s mind wandered to Vera and her wasted life. Never been in love. Never known the joy of children.
She thought of her four children and how much of a pain in the backside they were but she wouldn’t have changed them for all the tea in China.
The sound of the telephone being replaced brought Lisa out of her daydream. Joan just stood there with a bemused expression.
“What’s the matter with you girl?” Asked Lisa.
“I can't believe it. Apparently, Esther doesn’t live there anymore. She’s sold up.” Joan said shaking her head. “She met a man and they’ve gone on a world cruise! They left tonight!”
“She never mentioned a word today! Well, I never! The two nurses sat in shocked silence for a few moments.
“Suppose you can't really blame her though, ” said Lisa, “Good luck to her I say.”
Lisa pulled herself up scooping up the tea mugs and taking them to the sink.
“Why don’t you get off home love, we’ve had a hell of a shock?” Said Lisa.
“I’ll be fine now,” said Joan “Nothing a nice sugary tea won’t sort out.”
“Well, in that case, do you mind if I get off home love? I don’t feel too well. Think only now it’s hitting me. The shock. I was just talking to her not twenty minutes ago.”
“Of course, you get off love.”
I might be able to make bingo with any luck. Night shift was bad enough without being stuck with Joan whimpering all night.
Lisa carried the cake under her arm. Chocolate always was her poison…
The squeezing of a person
like an accordion,
like a book:
words, music and
the silent thud of the
tree of thoughts
and words and
the sap oozes
the kindness of Spring
rousing my tears
soft and gentle
I must remember
flowers are free
and so is love, really
Not for the flowers the selfie
although they turn and face the sun
petals unfurled, illuminated faces
radiant, putting on their best show
they flicker in the late spring breeze
slender, perfect green stalks
flex without muscle
taut without airbrush.
It almost looks as if they call
'take my picture,
the sun is behind you,
the pose is perfect'.
Soon, their petals loosen,
the wind catches, strips
layers one by one until naked.
But there is no sadness, nor
fear of losing youth, just
papery seed pods posting
hope to the wider world,
perfect copies on the wind.
Flowers are free.
Saving Time On Love
Day One you say flowers are free,
I am stunned by your profundity,
fixated by your lovely face, so we must
be one person coming back together.
Day Two I find your detailed accounts
of past relationships heart-crunching until you show
photos of girls I know, then introduce me
to your weird uncles on day three.
We fight about how strange your family are,
you say some hurtful things about my mother,
but none of this matters because
we know every crevasse of the other’s mind.
Which goes horribly wrong on day four when
you think a kiss is birthday present enough.
Day 5 I take you through exactly
what I’d expected as you turn pale onscreen.
Day 6 you ask to try again, show me
cake and candles and we’re smiling,
the ring appears, the balloons rise up
this is what it’s all about, kids maybe.
Or is it? Day 7 I begin to wonder
if you’re the right one and I see
you mirror that feeling, we dwell on
each other’s long histories of failure.
Day 8 I let you grope me online
because it’s depressing thinking
what’s different this time?
Nothing - so we get carried away.
Day 9 virtual sex sorted everything,
got it sussed, don’t have to worry
about all that talking stuff, or how to make
each other feel better, we’re glowing.
Day 10 You say flowers are free, post pictures
of poppies; compare my cooking shots
to your mother’s; our love implodes
spectacularly before we even meet.
Flowers are free, but birds come with words....
The little bird
Who could not decide
Which color to wear
So she put on them all
And sailed into the sky
Like a prism
Wings in the buttery air
Met the mockingbirds at last
To sing with them
But when the matron mockingbird
Saw this fashion misfit
all the mockingbirds did too
of dark and confident laugher:
a trademark of the enthroned.
she began to pluck herself
As they watched with beaks open
at the delicious spectacle
And when finally at last
She was bare before them
with nothing left to fear
She began to sing
And as she sang
Her colors flew into the air
Unencumbered by form
And made even the mockingbirds
With the beauty of it.
Touching down on the tarmac
she almost wants, still
to kneel, kiss the ground.
It’s a homecoming
although she hasn’t traveled far
she feels blessed to be back.
Her exile is self-imposed
of sorts. She made her bed.
And what a glorious bed it was,
for a while. And now, she lies
in it with her mixed-blood children,
her foreign husband. Sometimes
she dreams the life she might have had
if she’d never left home. Close
your eyes, squint and you might see -
it could have been easier. But then
friends tell her she’s living the good life.
All they see is the holidays they take;
forgetting how even silver tarnishes with use.
She wonders could she come back, out
of exile to this promised land of green
fields, grey stone houses, salt and vinegar
crisps, warm beer? But then
there are all the things she would miss:
bread, wine, cheese, all such clichés
but they have become her currency.
This is not the worst of it. She thinks
of how her children’s voices would sound
strange here. They would be the ones
marked out as different. No. There is
no easy way back from exile in the end.
Too long gone, the land she knew, the land
she might return to, is a foreign one now.
The little girl made her escape, weaving in and out of the thick tall trees. She tip toed and treaded as carefully as she could on top of the thick frozen snow, her bloodied feet leaving a mark every place she trod. She looked like a bundle of matchsticks. Dainty unnourished and dehydrated. She couldn't feel her feet. But she could feel her heart bang against her bony chest.The blood pumping in her ears and - fear.
She couldn't do anything the day he’d taken her. Her mother had told her all the time, never talk to strangers, never! She never listened. She never listened to anything her mother ever said she was always getting in trouble. She wished every day she could say sorry to her mommy for not listening. Perhaps that’s why her mommy had never come to look for her. Perhaps ‘he,’ was right.
When he rolled off her today and started snoring she stared out at the little room, her cell. She gaze focused on the door as usual.
It must have been an age before she realized there was something different. In his hurry to get undressed he’d forgotten to bolt the door.
She had flung the door open and was halfway up the frozen stone steps that led into the woods before she even knew what she was doing.
She stopped at the top of the stairs she found herself frozen by terror. Going into the light and air was as hard as jumping off a cliff. She could turn back or jump. She jumped.
It felt like falling off a cliff.It still did.Fight or flight.She was ill, half naked frozen bleeding and terrified. Still on she moved.
She found it harder to breathe in the big great open then she did in her little room. The outdoors seemed to make her feel more claustrophobic than her little room did. The light and glare from the snow made her dizzy.
Time had stopped the day she'd stayed at the park to long and she realized she was an hour late home. She thought was real fear a row from her mommy.Now she kne different. Time had been absence and irrelevant since then.
She didn't know how long she'd been limping and sniffling. She wondered how long he would sleep for? If he had awoken immediately? If she had made any distance or none at all?
He could be looking for her, following her, watching her now. She stopped immediately and exhaled breath. Breath she didn't have. She looked around all the trees slowly. She didn't think she could see him. She didn't she could trust her own eyesight either. On she walked.
She thought about her little quilt on her handmade wooden bed in her room. She wished she had brought it with her. It was the only thing she'd had hugged since she'd been taken. She didn't really understand the concept of a hug was that it went to ways but to her, it felt good all the same.
She kept changing the direction she was going in, panicked and praying it would lead to a road. She didn't know anything about South, North, East, or West, directions or paths. In her room it was simple. South, North, East and West were the four walls in the dank cellar, and it was that simple. Everything was simple.
She heard a loud snap and stood stock still. She looked ahead. Their eyes met.
Neither of them moved. Both sets of eyes stared at each other unblinkingly. The word ‘Deer,’popped into her head. The longer she’d been a prisoner the harder it became to remember what things were. It looked like a baby deer. She felt the urine trickle down her leg. It was the first living thing she’d seen in years apart from ‘him’. She started trembling with fear, wondering what it would do. Would it attack her? Did they bite? She was completely unaware that for the first time since the day she disobeyed her mommy. She was the predator.
For the briefest of moments, the terrified piece of prey stood in front of her. Instantly the deer darted away, two living examples of fight or flight passing in the woods.
On she limped. She wasn't running anymore just moving aimlessly in the snow.The sun was dimming and there different animal noises starting to echo. Each squaq made her jump. There were no weird noises in her room. Just the hum of the generator that helped her sleep, a little drip from the tap again now and again. A different noise hit her now. It was the sound of thump of metal and screeching car brakes. She stood and listened to be sure. The ticking over of the engine. The car starting up driving again.
She stood stock still like she was playing statues. Then she heard the sound of tires sloshing through the snow the hum of another engine. She was near to a road.
She moved as quick as agony would allow. Stopping every now and then again until she heard another car on the road and made her way towards the noise.
She limped upwards a little embankment then she could see it the road a hundred meters away through the trees. A bright red camper van drove past. The color and sound and movement made her shake a little.She started back down the Otherside of the embankment. She didn't stop for a second. Bright red bloody footprint after bright red bloody footprint on the pristine white snow.
She could hear another car approaching before she could see it.She made it just in time to the side of the road and saw the SUV approaching. The speed, noise, fear hit her all at once. Instead of running into the road or waving her hands she just stood there letting the car pass. Rooted to the spot.
Her mommy was always so cross with her. What if ‘he,’were right? Her mommy didn't want her, nobody did. Perhaps that's why they had never come to find her. She felt tired and lost and alone. She felt like she wanted to be wrapped up in her quilt in the bunker.
Something flinched on the other side of the road. She tried to focus on what she was seeing. It was the deer. Bloodied and mangled. Alive if only by the definition. It was making terrible noises. Death was coming for it. She wondered if ‘he’ was coming for her.
She wasn't sure if she was afraid he was or hoping. She heard another car coming and took two steps back and fell backward onto the snow. She fell to her knees and started crawling back the way she came. She started sobbing as the snow started to fall again.
Crawling back through the snow looking at her bloodied footprints it occurred to her, the only word she could think of where she was trying to crawl back to was, ‘home.’
Out of exile comes
“Why, why, why, Delilah,”
Tom Jones is rattling around my brain
You set me free
Cut me loose
But I wasn’t ready
Did not want to go
I told you this
But would you listen?
Out of exile comes
The blades edge drips black
It should be crimson
That’s the moon`s fault
It`s cold and lifeless as your heart
“Why, why, why, Janice?”
I`ll not wait for them to break down the door…….
The dust sits thick everywhere Keith looks. Skeletal remains of a Christmas tree stand in a corner with two faded, forgotten presents underneath, presents he'd never been able to give.
He wishes he'd not come. But it had felt like something he ought to do; exorcise the place of any ghosts before the estate agents came around. Use a cleaning company, Mary had said, but it's something he wanted to do himself. Now he's not so sure: it looks like a task beyond him. The place seems smaller but fuller of stuff, of memories.
He begins with the skeleton tree and the presents, and a bonfire.
He hates the term 'closure' - so American, so therapy-driven - but he feels something, when all the windows have been opened and all the dust driven out. He feels cleaner inside, as if the crime he didn't commit had stained his soul regardless, and now he's rubbed it away.
He lights his one cigarette of the day and takes a beer from the back of his car and sits on the deck, overlooking the river. Whilst cleaning, he'd been able to forget; concentrate instead on the mechanics of dusting, wiping, hoovering, sweeping... but now, now he's stopped, thoughts come crashing down on him, heavy, unwanted, out of exile themselves, the exile of the back of his mind where he's pushed and pushed them all these years.
He looks at the river, and watches it slide past. He remembers how he'd nearly gone with it, until he realised that anything like that would confirm his guilt. Instead he'd slunk away in the night, insults and threats ringing in his ears, only Harry's pleas sparing him an arrest.
Harry. He sighs the name aloud, and shakes his head. He tilts back his head and finishes the beer easily, too easily.
He's surprised to wake because he'd not thought he could sleep but the cleaning must have worn him out. He stretches out a stiff leg, then the other and rolls his neck, grimacing at the clicking and crunching in his upper spine. Where do years go, so fast? When did he get old? He can answer that, but he doesn't want to, lonely as those years have been, as empty and cold as this house he's come back to.
He stiffens, as he hears a car engine, close by. This house is at the end of a track and the only other place, Harry's parents' old cottage, is unoccupied. He knows, because he checked on Booking.com. He can't meet anyone here. It'll be holiday makers, lost, looking for a picnic place. It'll be the estate agent, come early.
It's neither. The car is small, a sporty blue thing with an open roof. A young man is in the driving seat, a young man he'd have known anywhere, even if it hadn't been for the mass of thick, blond hair.
Keith stands, ready to disappear into the shadows of the deck but it's no good, the young man has seen him and he's getting out of the car. He's imagined this conversation a thousand times but now it's here he's forgotten the part he should play.
Harry shuts the door and raises a hand, then stands uncertain, hovering. He's as scared as me, thinks Keith, and it's this that gives him the courage to walk forwards and meet him on the overgrown drive. He opens his mouth and the words that come aren't the ones he's expecting. A lack of experience with people over the last few years has made him direct, completely lacking a filter, Mary tells him.
'Thank you for telling the truth,' Keith says.
Harry looks downwards. 'I'm sorry,' he says. 'For all of it. For ruining everything.'
'You didn't ruin anything,' Keith says, his voice more gentle. 'The villagers managed to do that.'
'I'm sorry it took me so long,' says Harry.
Keith doesn't trust himself to speak.
'I ruined your life,' Harry says.
'I wouldn't go that far,' Keith says. 'I've lots left, I hope, and I'd already had some good years. I'm trying to look on this as a break. I've done some writing, read some books. Worked a little.' But not as a teacher, he doesn't add. I'm too afraid, he doesn't say.
'I'm sorry,' Harry says again. 'I was having a bad time and my parents, they... you know how they could be. I was unhappy and they were arguing and then they said they were going to split up and I thought... I thought I could stop it.'
By sacrificing me, thinks Keith.
'It didn't work.' Harry says.
'No,' says Keith. 'Why now? And how did you know I'd be here?'
'Mum said this is where you'd come, as soon as she told you.'
'Are you going to come back?'
'For holidays? No. I'm selling the place. It felt like the right time to wipe the slate clean, so to speak.'
'I wish...' Harry begins but Keith shakes his head. 'What's done is done. I appreciate you coming here and I appreciate what you've done. There's nothing more to say. I have to finish up here.'
'OK,' Harry says. 'Are you... is there anyone in your life?'
Keith shakes his head. 'Not at the moment. I tried the on line thing once but it was full of muscly young men looking for something that I didn't want.' He looks at his feet. Anything he says is wrong, here. He doesn't add: And anyone younger than me makes me feel I'm doing something wrong. Even though I never did anything in the first place. 'What about you?'
'I'm engaged. To a woman far too good for me called Helena.'
'Helena and Harry. That's sweet,' Keith tries a smile. 'You mum must be happy.'
'She is. She said you must go and see her, sometime. She wants to... you know... talk.'
'I don't think that's a very good idea.' The thought of the woman makes him feel sick. All the things she called him. All the things he said about him, in public. She never understood that things like that, they never go away. Words become scars on the outside that everyone can see.
'I'd better be getting back,' says Harry. 'Thank you... for listening to me, all those years ago. I felt you were the only person on my side. And if I could take all of it back, every last word, everything, I would.'
'I believe you,' says Keith.
He steps closer and holds out his hand to the boy he once knew. Harry hesitates for a second then clasps it, his man's hands strong and sure. He nods, looks down, steps backwards, lets go.
Keith watches the dust rise behind the car as it disappears down the drive. He should feel better. A door has closed, he's been exonerated, the future stretches before him and he'll be free.
But as he walks back inside all he can feel is the hollowness of the house pressing in on him from all sides, the rooms shrinking with frozen memories and the ghosts of all the laughter that should have burst out from house guests, come to see him for holidays. There are only echoes of a present that is forever out of his reach. Echoes and dust.
Someone Else’s Loss
I stand the other side
of the supermarket aisle,
pretend I don’t see you,
too obsessed by my own hurt
should I get this wrong.
But your face says you're barred
from your native country,
somewhere strange, unwanted.
I'd like to give you
that silly warming of skin
to skin, something disposable, myself,
I'd like to do that for him.
I saw his obituary
in the local paper,
recognised your name,
the girlfriend after me,
Now there are places
neither of us can return.
You pick up a box of cereal,
hug it to your body,
put it back on the shelf.
I look at the replaced packet,
his favourite brand,
cross to you, touch your arm,
say: ‘I’m so sorry, it was too sad.
I remember how special he was,
feel a little diluted loss myself,
your home, your days so changed.’
Your pupils dilate in cartoon shock,
you pull me in to a crying hug,
we are both sobbing as you say:
'this feels like coming out
of the exile of loss, when even
my closest friends avoided me.
We haven’t seen each other
in twenty years, all we had
in common was a man, I can’t
believe you bothered.'
OUT OF EXILE
A spanking breeze was enough to bring ‘The Renown’ into harbour with a dash of old navy spirit. As she settled to the wharf, all hands were busy making good and ‘showing the flag’ to the amazed audience on the quay. They were dressed in best rig and when the admiral stepped ashore, a flurry of officials hurriedly made their way down to the quay to pay respects to such a distinguished visitor.
Admiral Lord Cochrane, sixty-five years old and plump as a turkey cock wore his full uniform and every medal he'd received in fifty years’ service. A naval man might have wondered at some of the ribbons and insignia he wore; there were purple sashes and jeweled stars which never came from England. Upon his fore-and-aft cocked hat, sat a jewel glistening in the blazing sun.
“Our joy is as great as our surprise M’Lord.” The mayor bowed and doffed his hat. “Had we notice of your arrival, we would have shown our respect!”
“No need of ceremony,” was the reply, as if the ship’s crew always wore their best on landing at every port.
The large man heaved himself down the gangplank and waved a vague salute to the Union Jack at the flagpole on the dock. He doffed his hat and wiped his face with a cloth revealing his bright red hair undiminished by age and his greying mutton chop whiskers.
The island harbour was Jamestown, St Helena; the most isolated of His Majesties Dominions in the South Ocean. It had no claim to distinction save for the outstanding fact that the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was held there in exile. The garrison providing the guards and sentries were no more than two hundred man and officers and the total amounted to less than the crew of the warship which had moored so efficiently.
“I’d be obliged if you would make my arrival known to His Imperial Highness and, of course, to the Governor.”
Cochrane was tall and looked down on the official with a kindly patronage. “Is it possible to find some shade, I find this sun a little too much for an old man!” He waved his hat like a fan and followed a servant to the verandah of the Custom House to await a formal welcome.
The Admiral was a remarkable man. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he found himself ‘on the beach’, with no fleet to command and heavily in debt. He enlisted in the Navy of the New Republic of Chile, taking command of the hastily formed navy to fight the old Regime of Spain which still held power in South America. His panache and experience had achieved wonderful results and the strange medals and jewels were awarded by the grateful new Nations he helped to create.
Hurrying down from Longwood House, Sir Hudson Lowe presented himself.
“A very good welcome My Lord! May I ask what brings you to this godforsaken place?”
It took very little intuition to guess he hated the posting. Cochrane scrutinized the Governor with a shrewd eye and hesitated before replying.
“There is a matter of confidential nature I must put before the Emperor.”
“We do not address him with that title in this place.” Lowe replied, “but if you wish I can arrange a meeting. Of course, it will be my duty to attend.”
“Nonsense! This matter of personal and confidential nature and I have sworn to deal directly with,”-- he hesitated--“Napoleon, and in secrecy.”
The governor stiffened as he considered this suggestion. Clearly, such a confidence was out of line in the strictest sense, but what harm would be done? A friendly word in Whitehall might be valuable.
“Let me consider it with the prisoner’s advisors, if they agree it may be possible.”
A warm smile crinkled the corners of the admiral’s eyes. “Then do me the honour of dining this evening aboard! It is time I had some civilized company instead of rough seadogs.”
His laugh set a flock of parakeets in flight and Lowe bowed with just sufficient nod to express his consent.
The evening went well. The officers of the Renown, kitted out in their various dress uniforms were presented to The Governor. Among the group, he was surprised to find most of them were ex officers of the British Navy, cast aside at the end of the war and had found employment in the New States; Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. By the time he had been dined, Lowe had consented to permit the audience with his prisoner on the following day.
When Cochrane landed the following morning, he found a guard of honour formed around the ancient carriage which served as the Governor’s coach. An aide de camp waited on him and they set off at a snail’s pace up the long hill to Longwood. The house sat among trees at the top of the hill and apart from a verandah which stretched the width of the house, it was a gloomy brick building with little favour. A slight mist hung in the air and Cochrane began to see why Lowe described the place in the way he did.
A French officer stood ready to greet them and showed them into a drab drawing room to await the prisoner.
Knowing he would find it difficult to rise when the Emperor came in, the admiral stood leaning a little on his dress sword for support. He noticed a curtain covering the opening to an adjacent room, twitch very slightly and sensing he was observed, took up a pose to impress his observer.
Suddenly, the curtain was drawn and Napoleon stood before him.
“ Mon Cher Amiral, un grand merci pour votre visite.”
The man who stood before him seemed puny to Cochrane. He was smaller than he had imagined and was dressed in field grey with no decoration. His figure was familiar to every soldier and sailor in Europe. The contrast between the large corpulent Englishman and the Emperor of All France could not have been greater.
Cochrane bowed and spoke in English. “I have come round the Cape to present the respects of the Liberated Nations to you, your Highness.”
Napoleon shrugged and held out his hand. “What am I? A Emperor of this rugged island of --“he looked for the word --“Brumes?...fogs?”
He nodded to the aide de camp and the young man withdrew, leaving the two great men alone. Napoleon took a seat and motioned Cochrane to be seated.
“You may know,” Cochrane began,” I have commanded the fleets of the Liberated Nations to drive the Spanish from the new World.”
The Emperor nodded with a slight smile. Perhaps he was comparing such a feat with the victory at Austerlitz or Jena.
“I am authorized to seek your agreement to join with the Nations and forge another great Empire here in the southern Hemisphere.”
He leant forward as he spoke resting each large hand on his knees. “I bring the request of President Bolivar to offer you this golden crown which has been snatched from your head by Fate.”
Bonaparte sat motionless for a time and then cupped his face in his hand. His large domed head with the wisps of dark hair still plastered across his forehead bent to the floor. Cochrane gazed at him; wondering at the figure of the man who had held all Europe to ransom. When he lifted his head, Napoleon’s eyes had transformed his face. The light of ambition glowed with a startling intensity once more. The tired weary figure was banished and confidence lit up his countenance with new life.
“This is the Will of the Nations?”
“I have travelled a thousand miles to bring this message.”
“Then let God’s will be done!”
He rose and approached the Admiral as if to embrace him. Cochrane tried to rise but his weight defeated him and he struggled to get out of his seat.
“Stay as you are. I embrace your hands with joy and gratitude.”
He took Cochranes’s hand in his and held them for a moment. In his turn, the admiral blessed his luck he had avoided a Gallic embrace. They remained in conference for an hour. Cochrane explained that the plan was to return after the Council of Nations had ratified the plan.
“But how long will that be?” Bonaparte looked concerned,
“I intend to return within three months. I will send a courier before we arrive and we will follow at the date he will specify. Be sure Monsieur L’Empereur, we will bring you in triumph to Santiago.”
“But the troops?”
“I have no doubt we can complete this exercise without bloodshed. My men are, after all, Englishmen too.”
With due ceremony the Admiral withdrew and after attending on the Governor, set sail again for Chile.
Three months to the day, a frigate of the Chilean navy appeared in the offing outside
Jamestown harbour. The Captain came ashore with a sealed order for the Emperor’s eyes only. It was never delivered. The Emperor had died three weeks before of an unknown gastric illness.
FOOTNOTE; The basis of this story is true. Cochrane devised a scheme to create a new Empire in South America and offer it to Napoleon (who was just fifty one.) The officer bringing the plan arrived three weeks after Napoleon died. The cause of death has never been finally established.
It is humans who taught humans inhumanity.
Decisions made by a democratic dictatorship,
Chance has become a game of which
Fair is vaguely aware.
Loop holes of the system
Act as a noose,
Too tight to tightrope the spectrum of the living
That carries hypocrisy so lightly.
Try on the eyes of another,
Realise the realness of their reality.
Separateness is our greatest illusion;
Societies necessary secret.
Revenge breeds a well-adjusted creed,
A way to justify these pick ‘n’ mix beliefs.
The kaleidoscopic world craving black and white;
‘Almost’ comes alive at night.
Manmade things are not the maker of men.
The unknown measure of intentions
Haunts the hardest of them.
Exile buds a becoming of closeness to opened ground.
After all, a pixelated face cannot make a sound.
Out of Exile
Scrimping, saving, a life confined by debt,
walls closing in, nearer and nearer
until it looked like they'd disappear
and the sky would open up over a street
somewhere in the depths of the city.
And there on the floor a letter, misplaced
for weeks amongst the bills, whilst
not being red was never read.
Cowering in the corner, hands on head
to protect from the insistent knock,
surges of days hidden in cargos
in trucks, on boats, in cars, hunger
biting through the stench of oil.
And then the day when he understood
that regime change (his side won)
meant he could go home a leader.
Watching from the sky, tracing
along the thin dusty roads, magnetic
memories of a dangerous departure,
aware that now the enemy was leaving
along the same routes he had taken
And he would open wide the doors
dressed in the appropriate uniform
and greet those who had waited for him.
The timing was beautiful.
A lovely sunny day, the air warm, the road dry, visibility perfect, the roads clear of traffic, just the best conditions to have a turn out on your motorbike. The adrenalin kicks in; the scream of the motor coupled with the roar of the wind and the exhilaration of the countryside flying past in a blur is intoxicating.
The motorcyclist overtook the lorry on a right hand bend, wheels just inside the white line but bike, body and, most regrettably, head over the other, oncoming lane. The lorry coming the other direction got in the way of the biker’s head and the impact plucked the biker from his steed, spun him round a few times till he landed with a thud against the tarpaulin covering the first lorry’s soft part-load of plastic bubble wrap. He was found sitting up against it, his legs spread out in front of him, just sitting there as if he was enjoying the sun. Scarcely a mark there was on his body, scarcely a mark, but his head was missing.
Yvonne’s first coherent thought as she came round was the beeping of the monitor. A steady beep, beep, beep. Her heart. Well, not hers. Someone else’s. Her new heart, from someone who no longer needed it. Momentarily, she felt sad, greedy. Her life at the cost of someone else’s. She felt guilty, grieved at the other’s loss. But she knew that the other life could not have been saved; hers now was.
She recovered well from her operation, progress was unremarkable except for occasional spurts of activity from her new heart which we would find suddenly pounding, as if with excitement. She could not figure out why this should be and as it did not seem to cause any problems it was agreed she would just go with the flow and not worry about it.
Back home, she felt settled again, except strangely for the sudden heart-races. She started walking the short distance to the shops and found the heart-races would happen out in the street too. She quickly realised it was when the noise of a motorbike came flying past – she noticed she felt anxious, unsettled.
The third trip to the shops found her waiting at a zebra crossing with her little wheeled shopping basket. There was a pause in the traffic and she started across but a third of the way out there was the scream of a motor and she turned to find the black silhouette of a biker hurtling towards her. With a screech of brakes and tyres he skidded to a stop, the bike throbbing and rumbling between his legs like a live animal.
She was transfixed. Slowly, without noticing that she had abandoned her shopping, she circled the machine, staring at it, taking in its shining chromium, its deeply coloured shiny fuel tank, the strong black frame, the wide fat tyres, the throbbing exhaust. Without knowing, her hand felt the coolness of the headlamp, the sensual curve of the tank, then as she bent down, her skirt flapping in the breeze, she could feel the heat from the v-twin cylinders and the exhausts taking away the spent gases to make way for the clean spray of petrol vapour to flash the pistons up and down within the darkness of the engine’s interior.
Without being aware, she looked up at the pillion seat behind the rider, who remained still, watching her as she drank in the aroma, the atmosphere, the being of his machine. Her hand caressed the soft leather.
“You want a ride?” he asked her, with a crooked smile.
Yvonne looked at him silently. Would she like a ride. Without hesitation, without replying, she lifted her skirt and slid herself over the pillion behind him, snuggled herself in close to his leathers, her thighs gripping the leather of the seat. Her feet found the pegs and immediately the engine screamed, the machine bucked beneath her and they shot forward like a horse from its starting gate. The acceleration was too much, she was sliding off the seat, she hung on tighter, conscious of nothing behind her to stop her falling off. The thumping between her legs from the motor had turned into a blur of vibration, rising and falling as they screamed up through the gears and the wind blew her spectacles away. She couldn’t breathe. She didn’t want to breathe. Then, the acceleration slackened and she was left just with the scream of the motor and the roar of the wind. She took a gulp of air and she, in turn, screamed, with the joy and exhilaration. She screamed, and laughed and screamed again. The biker grinned to himself. Couldn’t believe the bizarreness of the situation. Just randomly picking up an old maid out for the shopping and taking her for a spin down the coast road. It was long and straight, with a sharp right angle bend inland at the end.
He tapped the woman’s leg, squeezed tight against his, turned his head towards her, pointed at the end of the road half a mile ahead. He could see her look far ahead, see the black and white arrows and the sea beyond. He grinned. Opened the throttle wide. The engine roared, the bike bucked again, the woman screamed again. They were hurtling towards the black and white boards. She had a fleeting moment of coherent thought: all this trouble the doctors had gone to, giving her life, was about to be wasted. And still the bike accelerated. This time she screamed with fear. Then suddenly she was thrown forward as the brakes slammed on, the same way they had slammed on seconds before she met this nemesis and they were slowing, slowing, but not fast enough. The black and white signs were large, larger, filling the sky and abruptly the bike was turning beneath her, turning a sharp circle to return the way it had come. The experience repeated – acceleration, wind in hair, screaming noise and throbbing heat.
Before she knew it, they were back at the zebra crossing, the traffic carefully manoeuvring past her abandoned wheeled shopping basket.
Then, she was standing by it, the motorcyclist zooming away, a black silhouette receding rapidly into the distance, the noise of the exhaust left hanging in the air.
A car tooted as she stood there, transfixed. Had she imagined it?
She pulled her trolley out the road and stood there. She’d never had a dream like that before, in the middle of the day. Going for a ride on a motorbike? Her? She didn’t even have a driving licence, let along any interest in motorbikes. This was new. How could she have imagined something so strongly? Her new heart was racing fit to burst. This simply would not do. She took deep breaths, calmed herself.
Back home she was dismayed to find exhaust smuts and oil stains over her dress. She gasped.
At the hospital for her follow up appointment she reluctantly spoke about her imagined experience and the marks on her skirt. She explained how whenever a motorbike was near, her heart would race and if she was not careful she would find herself going over to admire any bike she could get near to. To ride it. She had received many strange looks from the riders. Some she almost felt she had recognised, she could say hello to.
Her consultant smiled. “This sometimes happens. Were you not told about this?” Apparently a new heart will want to impose the character of its former owner on its new user. “You just have to be firm”, the consultant advised. “Show your new heart who’s boss. It will soon understand. Break it in, like a horse, gently but firmly.”
So, she did. She would let her heart take her over to a motorbike, feel the pulse race as she checked out the machine, but resist the urge to ride it. Then, she forced herself away, then stood at a distance, then finally the heart relented, accepted that this lady just was never going to ride a motorbike. Boring.
Yvonne admitted secretly that she had rather enjoyed her fantasy trip on the motorbike along the coast road. But she was glad she had an understanding heart.
I eventually accepted
the common usage of the heart
as the organ that feels emotion
even though it plainly does not.
It does not ache or break
or desire or sink or flutter
or harden or burst or be still
unless you have died.
But it does beat faster if you are excited
and pound if you are afraid
so I have reluctantly conceded
to this anthropomorphism of the cardiac organ.
But 'the understanding heart'?
That is going too far by far.
It does not comprehend a thing.
It is a muscle, a four-chambered, valved pump
Not a processor, thinker or philosopher
It does not reason, it beats.
Please give the brain credit
where credit is due.
When you slept
I made love to the night air that warmed you.
As you slept I became part of the night air that wrapped around you.
The ragged edge of mountains
Visible from the window
Heralded the dawn and your awakening.
And like the raw outline against the morning grey
You stirred into life, a presence filling absence
And the dawn air that cooled you.
But your dreams were torn, divided
And your heart wandered between lovers
And your mind shaped small deceits that would save you from decision.
And as you stirred into wakefulness
I made love to the night air that warmed you,
Fearful of reaching once more into the secret unwinding of your heart.
I know myself. I know my sole function. I beat, therefore I am. I pump blood to every organ, nerve and follicle, sustaining this body every second of every day.
I feel the thrill of lifegiving oxygen reviving me as the blood passes through the lungs: from there I surge onwards, rejuvenating each individual cell, repairing, replacing, creating life.
On reaching the brain I feel the stimulus, the surge of electronic energy as thoughts and emotions are created and dispersed. I am lifted above my purely physical functions, drifting on gossamer thread wings of wonder and amazement generated by the consciousness and thoughts of the brain.
I float on a current the short distance to the eyes, wide open, gateway to the environment which exists beyond what I now realise are the relatively cramped confines of a single human frame.
The eyes gaze upon a second human form. My tenuous contact with the cerebral centre receives a relay from its memory banks. The form I see before me is feminine: my feelings are fervent, fundamental, feverish. Will she understand how I feel? Why I offer myself humbly at her feet: a willing slave, ready to respond to her merest whim?
I reach out, longing to touch this vision, embrace her, yet in awe of my own audacity. Will this goddess, this idyll of perfection deign to acknowledge my existence?
Cold. Ice cold. Frigid. No return, no reward, no feelings. No emotion that I can sense. She smiles, and turns to leave.
A glacial chill cools my ardour in an instant. I am alone, in a place so unimaginably dark it should not be allowed to exist. This aching heart, this breaking heart, this heart so full of selfless unequivocal devotion does not understand …
An hour to live and I dreamt of Myrna.
That evaporated as a priest entered and sat in the solitary chair holding his Bible with as much reverence as I once held Myrna. Pulling out a pack of Camels he handed me one and lit it.
“What’s your story, son? Where you from?”
“You get paid for this Father? The small talk…the smokes?” He didn’t reply. I took a long pull and lay back on my bunk. “Small Plains, Wyoming. Picket fences and apple pie.”
“Could’ve been, should’ve been.”
“How’d you find yourself here?”
I blew a smoke ring and watched it hit the ceiling.
“A devil called Myrna. I was sixteen first time I saw her. The heat of that summer made ovens out of parking lots but Myrna looked as if she’d stepped out of a cool box. In High school, she never noticed me. No-one did until it became evident that I could strike a baseball. In my first season, I hit nine home runs, my second, sixteen. Big fish. Little pond. A year later I had a summer job at a local ranch. The rancher’s son Mitch was my buddy. Detroit Tigers were sending scouts and people began to look at me different. One of them was Myrna. Mitch had feelings for Myrna too but we were all friends, you know. When the Tigers finally decided to give me a trial, Myrna and I’d dated a couple of times. Mitch seemed okay with it but then one day he gave me a new horse to ride. Said it was broke in except it wasn’t. Damn horse threw me and broke my arm. I could never swing a bat again.”
“You think? Mitch swore it was an accident but…” I winced. “Tigers flew me out to Detroit. I had three operations. They gave me time to heal, put me up in a hotel but I couldn’t swat a damn fly. When I got back home, Mitch and Myrna were an item. I was just a hired hand. College didn’t want a guy who couldn’t win the Pennant but the Army took me. I could still shoot straight. Did six years, mostly Korea. Left there and served time in two bit bars with just a bottle for company. Whisky and barkeeps are good listeners, Father.”
“They’re probably old priests.”
“Got word my mother died and wind blew me back.”
“God works in mysterious ways, my son.”,
“God or the devil? Town seemed bigger or maybe the people had gotten smaller. It was Mitch’s town now. Had his finger in almost everything. I kept a low profile, got myself a job fixing cars. Then one day, Myrna walks in. I had my head stuck in the hood but I knew she was there. She wore a perfume call sex. You’d never forget it. Auburn hair ran over her shoulders like Niagara with a tan. She seemed glad I was back, said they’d both missed me and invited me over for dinner. It’s not easy acting out the part of a prodigal when you’ve feelings of love and hate Father, but I did it. I did it for Myrna. For the next few weeks Myrna kept stopping by, making coy excuses about her car, but I knew she wanted more than an oil change. It happened fast and I ain’t apologising for it, to you or God.”
“An affair? I can’t condone it.”
“Give me three Hail Marys. Myrna talked about the past, about me and how unhappy she was. Mitch didn’t love her; never had. Only married her to rub my nose in the dirt. She convinced me that we could start someplace else but there was one problem. Mitch might let her go but he wouldn’t give her a damn penny. I couldn’t see Myrna taking to life in a one roomed apartment.”
“It was about money then?”
“She played coy and chewed on her hair. No man with blood in his veins could refuse her anything. Said she hoped he’d die but she couldn’t wait till he was eighty. That’s when I suggested we kill him. She got me to say it, but I think she wanted him dead from the moment she married him. I was her chance and I fell for it.”
“You killed Mitch.”
“I was as responsible for killing him as she was. I hated him. That trick with the horse screwed up everything. Trouble was, when it came to pulling the trigger, I couldn’t do it. I tried reasoning with him. He laughed and said I was welcome to her but that she wouldn’t get a penny. That’s when Myrna grabbed the gun and shot him. Wisconsin police are stupid but they got a tip off. I always wondered about that. Found the gun in the garage with my prints on. Don’t know how but at some point she’d put the gun back in my hand. I confessed but she played the grieving widow. Looked good in black. She said I wanted revenge and denied ever loving me. I was the spurned lover who’d lost the chance to go big time. She does crying real good.”
“The jury thought so. She planned this from the day she walked into the garage. I was a means to an end.”
“God help you, my son.”
“Save God for the next guy she gets her claws into. Women like Myrna are never satisfied. If I’d made Major League, she’d have chosen me. Without that Myrna was always going to choose Mitch, but she was a possession to him. A woman like Myrna always needs a guy like me for the grittier things in life.”
A bell rang and the cell door slid open. The priest crossed himself as the warden approached.
“Was she worth it?”
I turned towards him.
“Fairy tales don’t always have a happy ending, Father but someone like Myrna will always be worth it.”
I thought of us as doors
in and out of each other,
windows that framed revelations -
insights and world views.
Just recently we were enclosed
together, snuggled within ourselves
not wanting to lose any warmth,
to let the cold air in.
Now I’m running through opened doors
racing wind, searching
for where you call home,
not finding you anywhere I know.
Dear hands fisted,
contact clenched, your beautiful mouth
makes mean words that slap me
My understanding heart arrests
on the sight of your hungry eyes
looking out of our window
for someone new to rescue you.
“Empathy is the flail that makes ruin of open hearts” FS.
Patricks hand darted for the phone on the first ring, then paused it over the handset. Calm down, take it easy, he chided himself; his heart was racing, his first solo call. He let it ring two more times before picking it up. His attempt at a casual, “Hello?” was greeted with silence, he waited, then tried again, “Hello?” the line went dead. His shoulders slumped as he replaced the receiver, his first call and he`d blown it, he looked at the clock, just after 11:01 a.m.
He was just starting to give out to himself when the phone rang again, this time he reached out more slowly, “Hello,” he said, “I`m listening?”
No-one answered, was that breathing he could hear? He looked at the clock, watched the second hand tick away fifteen seconds, which felt like an eternity, before he tried again, “Hello, I`m listening?” three more seconds ticked past, the line went dead once more.
Was it kids he wondered, as he replaced the handset, or worse a drunk who thought it would be funny to ring the Samaritans and wind someone up; it was a Freephone number after all. They`d warned him about that during training, how to handle it, he hoped it wasn’t; Emily`d told him some of them could be quite abusive.
The phone rang again, he let it ring four times before answering, “Hello, I`m listening?” he waited for laughter or abuse.
Instead a small quiet voice, it sounded like a young girls said, “Um… I… um,” and lapsed into silence, he thought she sounded scared.
“It`s okay,” he told her, “I`m listening.”
“Um, um, it`s Bethany`s… last year my sister, today, last year she found.. no, my mum`s… my mum`s not well and she can`t sleep and Bethany….last year today, Bethany….” She lapsed back into silence, her breathing, quick and ragged, was louder now.
“It`s called active listening,” Mary their supervisor told them during training, she explained it to them and he said he understood, she told him he didn’t and explained it again and then a third time.
“People don’t listen,” she said, looking directly at him. “People think they do, but they only half do. They listen to what the other person is saying until they think of a rebuttal and then they stop listening, waiting for the other person to stop talking, waiting for their chance to jump in.”
“Active listening means you don’t have an opinion, it`s not a conversation, they talk, you listen. You do not interrupt, you do not offer advice or opinion, you sit and you listen, nothing more;” Patrick thought it sounded more like passive listening, but he never said that.
“I`m listening,” he prompted again, worried that she might have given up.
For a while she said nothing, but he could still hear her breathing, then in a rush she said, “Bethany died a year ago… today; a year ago today. She took too many of mum`s pills, the ones she needs to get too sleep. She told me she would, but I didn’t believe her. She said, she said she couldn’t do it anymore, she said…” abruptly she stopped talking.
“My dad he, my dad he…. My dad…he,” it was as if she couldn’t get past those three words.
“When I was eight, when I was, when I was eight, my dad he, he….” She sobbed, just once, a terrible lonely sound and went quiet. Jesus not that, he thought, not on my first night, not a sex abuse call, instantly hating himself for being so selfish.
“One night, when I was eight,” her voice was trembly and weak, “One night after my eight birthday; after my mum had taken her pills, my dad, he,” there were those three words again, but this time she got past them.
She told him about the first time; it came in fits and starts. She`d get so far, stop, sob a little, go back, tell some more, stop altogether, restart, cry, apologise for crying, apologise for telling him all this, then start again, sometimes from the beginning.
She told him about the first time, five times, every time telling him a little more, filling in more detail. He could feel his grip on the handset tightening all the while, heard the plastic creak in complaint under his grip.
She told him about the second time, about her older sister Bethany lying perfectly still in the next bed her eyes wide watching the whole time. She told him about the time after that and the next time and the next and the next, until they blurred into one wretched event.
She told him what he did to her, the things he used, the bruises and the bleeding, how Bethany would clean her up, wipe her tears away and rock her to sleep after…… and she told him about all the things he made her do to him, things that made Patrick`s skin crawl.
It was when she told him about her lying there, still as could be, watching him doing all the same awful things to Bethany, that he heard how shallow and raspy his own breathing had become and he lifted the mouthpiece away from his lips, afraid she would hear.
He listened and learned to hate a man he`d never met. Listened, alternating between white rage and all-consuming pity. The cubicle and the desk disappearing; his world compressing down to the chair, the phone and her voice, there was nothing beyond that.
Whenever he sensed she might be on the verge of hanging up he`d say, “Go on, I`m listening.” The words sounding more tinny and false with every retelling, like worthless platitudes, and him feeling as useless.
Then in a wretched voice she said, “Audrey was eight last week,” and began to weep, weep like she might never stop, drawing tears from a well far too deep for one so young. He heard the cluck clunk of the receiver being put down. She hadn’t hung up, he could hear her crying and had a vision of a girl, who couldn’t be more than thirteen, standing alone in a phone box in the depths of a miserable winters night, her face in both hands crying her heart out, not for herself, not for her own lost childhood, but for her little sisters.
His throat ached from the effort of holding back his own tears as he heard her weeping turn to sobs, then to gasping, catching, hiccupping breaths, and finally to silence.
He listened, pressing the receiver so hard to his ear the side of his head hurt, despising himself for even noticing.
There was a rattling metallic sound as she picked up the phone again, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse and tired, but chillingly firm, “I can`t do this anymore,” she said, and the line went dead.
Patrick pulled the phone from his ear and looked at it, in a moment of panic he thought it might have stopped working, but when he put the handset to his ear again he heard the dial tone`s soft purr.
Can`t do this anymore, he thought, what this? This what? This phone call, this, this; he didn’t want to think what other this she could have been talking about. He wanted her to call back and then stupidly realised she couldn’t with the phone off the hook and slammed it down on its cradle, his hand hovering over it ready to snatch it up as soon as it rang.
He glanced at the clock 11:32, had it really been thirty minutes? It felt as if less than five had passed since he`d first answered the phone; “Please ring,” he pleaded softly, “Please.”
What this? What this? Those two words battered themselves against the cage of his imagination, giving breath to every possible ending.
He began to second guess himself, was it something he said, something he didn’t say? He ran through what she`d said back and forth, all the time trying to unpick the words, “can`t do this anymore,” from his mind.
At 11:34 the ache in his shoulder became unbearable and he was forced to drop his hand, resting it on the handset, his fingers curling around it, still ready. He dug the fingers of his free hand into the muscle, revelling in the sharp pain.
At 11:35 he started to worry that the phone might be broken, what if he`d damaged it when he slammed it down like that? He should check and see if he had a dial tone. What if she was trying to get through, but couldn’t? But what if he picked it up and she rang in that moment? Indecision paralysed him.
By 11:36 he`d almost convinced himself that she had rung back and had gotten through to one of the other volunteers. Maybe right now she was talking to Emily or Joan. Yeah that’s right; she was talking to one of the women, she hadn’t wanted to talk to him at all; he was a man. Hadn’t she hung up the first two times he`d answered because he was a man, he almost talked himself into believing it…. almost.
At 11:37 he took his hand off the phone, stood up, opened the door of his small windowless cubicle, and stepped out into the hall.
At the end of the short corridor light glowed through an opaque glass door; it took him four steps to reach it, he rapped softly on the door and without waiting for an answer pushed it open.
Mary looked up, saw his face and gestured to a chair, “Sit down,” she said, and though he never heard a word, did so anyway.
He sat, slumped forward, legs splayed, forearms resting on his thighs, hands, palms up, hanging limp. He stared at his hands, they were shaking, why were they shaking so much? He wanted them to stop, ordered them to; stop shaking, he thought, but they ignored him.
What this? What.. this? What….this?
He curled them into fists and they went on shaking, why won`t they stop shaking, he thought, I want them to stop but they won’t, why won’t they stop? It was an effort of will not to pound his knuckles into his forehead; the idea that pain would drive those two words from his mind beginning to become more and more enticing.
His head jerked up, he`d never heard his name spoken as gently before. Mary was leaning forward, elbows resting on her desk, fingers interlaced, head tilted ever so slightly to one side as she studied him, real concern in her eyes.
“What this?” he begged in a hollow lost voice, made hoarse from the effort of withholding the tears that were finally coursing down his cheeks; his shaking hands going to his face, to hide his shame, his sense of failure.
She leaned a little closer, and said…… “I`m listening?”
Here I sprawl
Stare at the plant on the windowsill
Dusty sunlight cupped in its white petals.
In my stomach the morning's excesses of caffeine mix with something else
Something unwanted and shameful and just past understanding
Something like lust
Something like love
For someone who is
Too much of a friend
To be shrunk to a snapshot of desire.
The awful realisation of it curdles with the coffee
Sends tendrils of electricity groaning dangerously to each edge of me.
It turns the feeble flower to an angel's wings.
In her new chair my grandmother slumbers in and out of the day.
Once, with a twinkle in her eye, she talked about heartbreak
Assured me with glee that one day soon I would "fall terribly in love"
(politely laughing and curling my toes)
Hated the word and the way she said it
Hated the time that trapped me in the room with her
Hated the heat and the twirling wreath of memories and her smug prediction of my own future weakness.
I remained quiet and swore that I would stay forever upright.
Now, in this time, I think I would quite like to open my heart to hers
but it is too late
Her mind has eroded
Flashes of rain on an unpaved path
The beginnings of sentences
and in other places
I would like to hear her stories one more time
To know that what is raging inside me
May be ugly like a lightning-scorched tree stump
And crude like sharp-edged etchings on cave walls
But at least it was felt too by neat, sensible-shoed girls with 1940's hair
Who lived to laugh and to tell the tale.
Her heart is still understanding as it always was
But my words would roll like water from the duck's back of her mind
Before they even reached it
So I simply squeeze her fingers
(whilst inside me that timeless song screams and aches)
And ask her if she would like another sip of soup
"It's cream of asparagus. Quite nice, I think. Just one more sip before it gets cold?"
Does absence make the heart grow fonder?
Time passes with no fleeting remembrance or even a
stare in your direction.
The seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and now years stumble and blend like a montage of
Gone. Can you hear the whisper of goodbyes?
Waves of liquid ice meander through
tunnels that touch and render the epidermis warm.
But the struggle of heat elsewhere falls short,
And in that same failed place, there is a vacancy to abort.
A perplexed iamb, now of steel, strikes at the core not once but twice,
It waits. Lub dub. Isolated.
Except the fractures never heal, not completely.
What’s left is a magnitude of chips, battle scars, lowering their gaze in shame.
Still, life peeps through obscurity;
Steps on each shadow like puddles in December.
The path for that desire is axiomatically unfamiliar each time you try and take it.
But that never stops us.
Who is proud of being alone?
Break ups now are so virtual. There was a time when I would have sat in my bedroom, around me a scatter of torn photographs, the white pulpy interior fleshy like the weight in my heart. The glossy image wafer thin as the lies he, whichever one he was, had told. The 'printed on Kodak paper' backing all turned upwards as I bound together the broken memories.
But today I sit in a cafe, prodding angrily at pixellated images, on Facebook, on Instagram, in my photo album. Delete. Delete. Delete. Secure delete trash. And yet somewhere in the operating system there will be backups, at some point the images will have been shared. In a year, there will be a 'memory' on my social network and you, yes, you, will reappear.
I pick up the uneven scraps of chemical paper from my bedroom floor, gathering them into a bundle held together with tightly cupped hands as if carrying my own blood. I flick my elbow on the door handle to open it, looking down to the floor to make sure I had dropped nothing. In the garden I carefully place the paper into the brazier, making sure nothing slips between the gaps, the white bright against the rusted brown and black metal.
I slam the phone down on the thick wooden table, as if the sudden motion might permanently delete all of the memories. The man behind the counter looks up and smiles, as if he knows exactly what I am doing. He turns away but flicks the back of his hair with a finger or two to draw my attention to him.
The boy next door watches from the window as I symbolically run a match along the length of the strip of sandpaper on the side of the matchbox. I hold it in front of me, burning tip down and diagonal to the ground, to make sure the length of the wooden shaft catches. I like to feel the heat of the flame against my fingers, and then when I can bear it no longer, I drop the match into the paper pyre and watch it catch. The boy in the window has seen me do this before and knows what it means.
The man behind the counter still has his back to me. His arms work methodically, with gentle hisses and clatters, the sounds of hot coffee and cold china. I pick up the warm phone and watch the bar work its way across the screen until the message 'All Photos Deleted' appears. For a moment I want to find any that have been shared, for one more look, but I don't. I turn off the phone and watch as the glowing screen darkens.
All that is left of the photographs is a mound of burnt, charcoal black, curled chemical paper, the ghostly images floating in the smoke into the sky. I smell the fire on my skin and on my clothes; it will take days to wash off. Where will the particles land? What becomes of the memories we lose? As I turn back to the house, I see a single torn photograph on the grass and I pick it up.
I am miles away. A loud noise in front of me, on the table, reawakens my attention. I open my eyes. The man smiles and nods down to the fresh cup of coffee he has just placed in from of me. 'On the house'. He walks away but turns once to look back and smile. He knows my order. I warm my hands on the cup, and feel the extreme heat burn my skin.
That afternoon, the boy next door rings my bell and presents me with a small bouquet of flowers. I've seen over his fence and I know he has picked them from his own garden. They are loose, without string or paper to bind them. I carefully carry them to the kitchen, place them on the worktop, reach into the lower cupboard for the small vase, fill it with water and tease the flowers into the narrow stem. Then I place it in my window. He does this every time I burn my photographs.
We have so much to learn about love,
there is so much they could teach us -
if we could only hear their speak,
understand the clicking of their tongues.
There is so much they could teach us,
there’s a map written into their wings
stitched in with care - all those hours
spent grooming each other for fleas.
There’s a map written into their wings -
always showing the way back home.
Even as they’re soaring over oceans,
tundra, a landscape of snow -
always showing the way back home.
Even when they’ve strayed so far,
they know the value of faithfulness,
they know the comfort of a warm hearth.
Even when they’ve strayed so far,
lost in the crowd of babbling,
gaggling geese and swans,
only death could keep them apart.
BETTER THAN A COFFEE MOJITO
It was 4.23am – I was born at 5.45am so you can imagine my shocked response; I mean, too much of a coincidence, right? Eighty-two minutes to go. I was convinced it was going to happen. Right on the button. How neat would that be? I don’t mean in that ridiculous American way – I mean neat and tidy. Oh, the irony if it were to happen.
Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Yes … 4.23am. My toes began to swell. Not my whole foot … just my toes. So bloated, in fact that they seemed to be fusing together. And then, through the glorious fog of delirium, I realised they really were fusing. Into pinched bony intersections between flattened skin – webbed. I could hear and feel the twisting and turning of tiny bones, though thankfully no pain. Even so, the overall sensation made me nauseous. After all, to experience one’s own transmogrification is a unique and, on the whole, unpleasant experience.
Mopoko told me it would be like this last night. She appeared shortly after the night nurse gave me my routine cocktail – better than a coffee Mojito: morphine – she appeared and told me. Watch for the feet. Watch those first. Her warnings needed to be heeded; I just knew. I’d never heard of her until she appeared … shortly before dawn. Mongolian spirit apparently – not quite a deity, more a guide. She was just at the side of my sightline and was ethereal, beautiful; but when I looked straight on she wasn’t there. But I listened. An angelic non-presence going nowhere except into my future moments. I only had moments.
And so it began – thank god for the morphine. I could feel the changes stretching every sinew. My head was swimming. I was back in church, some years ago, on Good Friday listening to the Stainer Crucifixion. David and Michael were there – David: wayward, wanton but beautiful. Those long delicate muscles in the back of his neck. Like a swan! Now there’s a coincidence. And Michael: long-suffering, supportive, paternal even. The old “friend” – nobody would contemplate that they were lovers. Well I did. I knew. The whole congregation knew but they didn’t frighten the horses or upset the vicar’s wife so that was that. Far from being a topic of contention, their age difference simply underlined what a nice chap Michael was, taking an avuncular role to irascible, charming David. Mother Goose!
Mopoko said I’d been chosen – it was largely random. I’d always been a wanderer in life, more feminine than masculine in spirit, quietly tenacious … and a loner. I’d heard of the Ohito Declaration and that was a key factor too – a bringing together of spirituality and ecology and trying to influence world religious leaders to adopt this as a philosophical stance on which to develop their extant beliefs … am I being boring?! So some souls got chosen to spread, not the word, but the spirit. And wanderers transmogrified into geese or swans. Why, I asked. Mythology, she said. Both are legends in numerous civilisations from the Celts to the Egyptians, from the Greeks to the Chinese. Geese do the work of God. Swans are the personification of God.
“Which shall I be?” I asked.
“Luck of the draw!” she answered.
Back in that church on Good Friday, the choir master – actually a woman, so does that make her a choir mistress? It’s confusing. Ok … the choir director had an impossibly high forehead, which would have looked odd on a man. And on a woman it was downright weird. Is that body fascism? Is it discriminatory? Am I simply shallow? Pathetic? Rude? Surely such distractions in church on a Good Friday prove that I am hardly qualified for the choice of … spiritual guardian?! Mopoko has the wrong person. More of that coffee mojito would be good around now. My god, its 5.05am. My feet again. The bones have elongated, the skin has stretched and split, become leathery and webbed. And the knees have reversed! My god, the pain along my arms and my shoulder blades … like knives piercing from the inside out.
“Wings,” she said quietly. You are developing wings. Those needles are the feathers pushing out. Feathers aren’t just those nice fluffy things, you know. Look at the sharp end!”
Mopoko reminded me at this point that article 7 of the Ohito Declaration says “All faiths should fully recognise and promote the role of women in environmental sustainability”. And article 10 emphasises the need, not only for individual action but for community involvement. Why then not take the obvious next step: all genders! Why think of two when clearly that’s a bit iffy, at best. And sexualities. Mopoko simply sighed. “Get focused on women. It’s going to be part of your brief!” And all communities? She sighed. I wept with pain. Do geese and swans get briefs? Don’t they just simply exist and fly? In mythology geese were sex and swans were love. Is that what she means when she says think about women? Is that just vulgarity masquerading as false insight?
I screamed. Quickly and painlessly my fingers had dropped off. They were gone.
That evening back then – Good Friday – listening to Stainer. It dawned on me. God hadn’t sent Jesus to die. He’d sent him to persuade people to change, to perform the occasional miracle to impress and, if necessary, scare the living shit out of them to get them to recognise the terror they’re capable of. Well, I could see that myself, living in the 21st. century. Look at what dominance could do to people. Look what it had done over the previous hundred years. Genocide had become a habit. I thought the problem was power … absolute power. But I realised that afternoon that it wasn’t. It was vanity.
And I realised at the same time that Jesus took it upon himself to get crucified. His own stupid idea.
Oh my god! The pain is in my back now … it’s changing shape to accommodate the wings. My legs are shifting too: shortening and setting further apart in relation to my body. Every muscle in my groin is being torn and Mopoko is simply smiling benignly. Does she think it’s helping? More coffee mojito please. 5.26am. Why am I convinced it’s going to coincide with the moment of my birth?
Power. Vanity. And Jesus making his own decisions about crucifixion - so God was angry. Truly angry. So whenever Jesus’ light and love shine through – in vain, I might add, because some little shit somewhere decides that mass rape, murder, destruction and pollution are going to make him a few extra millions or a hero and – what the hell, the sheer bloody power of it, the casual ability to be able to say “Do it!” – well, all that screws up the light and love, doesn’t it? The ultimate vanity: I replicate Armageddon because I can.
And so God sends another terrible tribulation to test his son and the weakness of his followers. Don’t you see? And when the helpless cower together for comfort, every significant touch that they share encompasses joy, relief, comfort … and pain. To remind them. He was very pissed off by that crucifixion. For He is a vengeful God.
And he’s certainly taking his vengeance out on my cracking bones!
“Not God,” whispered Mopoko. “This is just the process … a series of steps.”
“And I’ll become a goose or a swan?!” I asked.
“Yes … each has a role to play in spreading the divine work of spirituality and ecology.”
“Why can’t I just die, like everyone else? It bloody hurts!”
“Your visions singled you out. These visions now…in your final moments. These are a sign of your connection with earth spirits and universal divinities.”
“Bugger that! It’s too painful. Where’s the coffee mojito? Oh yes … and how does God fit into all that then? And Jesus? Myths about swans and geese … hardly the stuff of Christianity, is it?!”
“They all fit together and you’ll find out the whole truth in the afterlife.”
“This is insane! How can I learn the secrets of eternity and fly around here doing god knows what as a….goose or a swan?! And, while we are on the subject, I’d prefer to be a swan!”
“You get what you’re given … just like in this life.”
It’s 5.44am. Just forty seven seconds to the exact time I was born. My face is distorting, elongating. I fix on my final thought. It links back to that evening listening to Stainer. God. Jesus. My final thought: where does that leave the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit who is always depicted as a dove. I am a swan. Or a goose. All is vanity, in the end.
There`s a lough a stroll away from my house, at least it was before the accident. Now with my left leg two inches shorter than my right it is more of a hobbling trek. “The accident” as the police insist on calling it, happened last May. I`m a runner, or I used to be. Not for a living you understand, I was an architect; nobody you`d have heard of, I never designed anything famous, one off houses mostly, but it was a good living. I say all that in the past tense, because since “the accident” I`m getting by on a disability pension, but back to running.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, cool, only a slight breeze, and I was on the last mile of an eighteen miler when a car coming towards me accelerated, swerved hard left onto the footpath and hit me head on. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so tired I might have been able to leap out of the way, who knows. What I can tell you with absolute certainty was the look on the drivers face just before the car hit me, what I saw was rage; rage and intent.
The police say that there is no way a seventy two year old retired accountant would have deliberately driven into me like that, that he`d told them he`d blacked out momentarily, that he didn’t even remember “the accident,” but I know better.
I remember everything right up to the point I landed on the concrete face first. I remember the pain, so suddenly awful, the sound of my bones snapping, first my left leg, then my right, in such rapid succession that it sounded like a god had stepped on a patch of dried twigs. The sensation of being flung backwards, my arms flailing as I spun, the ground rushing up to meet me….. then blissful nothingness.
I won’t bore you with recounting the many surgeries, or the long hours of physiotherapy; people who think dentists are sadists should spend an hour or two with Mercy, (he laughingly swore it was his given name) my physio. A six foot two Nigerian, who`d move here in the noughties, and discovered he`d an aptitude for hurting people…..legally.
I`m too ashamed to recount the names I called him, as he stretched and bent muscles and limbs that had no intention of co-operating. If you`d asked me before we`d met, I would have insisted I was no racist, but excruciating pain it seems, brings out our basest natures.
He`d laugh at each curse I flung at him. “Go on,” he`d say, in that distinct lyrical accent of his, as he flexed my left leg until the calf touched the thigh, “Call me a black bastard again Jack,” grinning as he said it.
Through all the surgeries and the rehab, Susan was there, holding my hand, encouraging me, pushing me to get well. And when I did, when I could finally walk from one end of the hall to the other unaided, she left me, said she`d only stuck around long enough to see me on my feet, but that she hadn’t signed up for a life with a cripple.
So now I hobble to the lough each day around twelve, ease myself slowly onto what I like to call, “my bench” and watch the world go by.
The lough is man-made, the path that circumnavigates it a full mile, and at its centre a small island, maybe thirty feet across, overgrown with small bushes, the nesting place of the swans.
There are eighteen in total, they swim serenely to and fro, all perfect white poise and majesty; overfed by the kids that chuck bread at them as they sail by.
The day the geese arrived, announcing their presence with loud honks as they touched down, was the day I first met Eileen, and the day of the battle royale.
The swans, most of whom had been on the lough`s small slipway, incensed by these invaders charged into the water, braying and flapping their wings. A woman I didn’t recognise, stopping in front of me to watch, blocking my view.
“Excuse me,” I had to shout to be heard over the noise of the birds. She turned, “Do you mind,” I said, waving at her to move aside, then realising how rude I was being said, “you can sit here if you like?” patting the empty seat beside me, and was surprised when she took me up on my offer.
I have always sat alone, not out of choice, but because other people avoid me. When you look like one of doctor Frankenstein’s rejects, people tend to steer clear. When I connected with the footpath face first, most of the skin on the right side of my face was torn away. They reconstructed what they could, grafting skin from my nether regions; which in one way is quite handy, I haven’t had to shave that side of my face since. However after seven o`clock in the evening, when one side of my face is smooth and the other stubbled, I tend to look a bit like a before and after picture in a shaving commercial.
The battle lasted for maybe fifteen minutes, the geese winning by dint of superior numbers, the swans retiring to their island to lick their very real wounds.
“I`m Eileen,” she said, thrusting out a hand, I shook it in surprise, “Jack,” I managed.
It turned out she was a nurse, home from Australia, her mother was in Marymount, where she`d been for the last five weeks.
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, “Cancer?”
She nodded, “Started in the lung, but now it`s everywhere.”
There are questions you simply cannot ask, “How long has your mother got?” is very high on the list. She solved my dilemma by saying, “She probably won`t last the week.”
Eileen was staying in her mother`s house, one of the row that faced onto the lough, “I grew up there,” she said, pointing it out to me, “Dad used to love the garden…” she faltered into silence.
“My parents died in the old Marymount,” I said, desperate to fill the void, “I hear the new place is very high tech?”
“Oh yeah, they have everything,” she glanced at her watch, “I`d better get back, she`ll be awake soon,” and stood abruptly.
“Well,” I said, “I`m here every day, if you want to talk?” she nodded, thanked me and walked away. I thought, well I`ll never see her again, but I was wrong.
She was already there the next day, sitting on my bench as I hobbled up at twelve thirty. Turned out, most days her mother slept between eleven and two, giving Eileen a break from her vigil.
“How`s your mother?” I asked, as I eased myself onto the bench beside her.
She shrugged, “A little worse.”
“They got her on the box yet?”
“Box?” she asked, her brows knitting into a puzzled frown.
“Sorry; local slang for the morphine pump,” I grinned in spite of the seriousness of the conversation.
“No,” she said, “Just on the drip; and liquid Oxy for the breakthrough pain.”
I was more than familiar with Oxycontin, or hillbilly heroin as they call it in the states. “That shits pretty powerful,” I said.
She shrugged, “keeps the pain at bay, though she`s having these weird hallucinations. She swore that dad had visited her last night, that they`d had one hell of a…….” she trailed off, realising she was perhaps saying too much.
I grinned, “I used to have some pretty wild fantasies myself,” I said.
And that’s how it went, for the next three days we`d sit on the bench and trade life stories. I told her about my accident and how Susan left me, which elicited a “Bitch,” from Eileen.
She told me about her family in Brisbane, her kids Josh and Katy, and of course her husband Nick. She`d talk him up, what a good father he was, how hard working he was, but everytime he cropped up she`d worry her wedding ring, twisting it round and round on her finger, I don’t think he was aware she was doing it.
On an impulse, or maybe it was a premonition, I don’t know, I don’t believe in that stuff, I gave her my mobile number, “In case you need……” I couldn’t think what on earth she`d need from a cripple like me, so I left the sentence unfinished.
In the early hours of the following morning my phone burred into life. Still half asleep I groped for it, glanced at the unfamiliar number and swiped to answer, “Hello?” I croaked, the clock read 5:03.
I snapped awake, “Eileen, is everything alright?”
“It`s mum…. She…..I….”
“I`ll be right there,” I said, rolling out of bed, stifling the groan that threatened to erupt from my throat as pain flared from my left hip.
“Oh Jack I…..”
“It`s okay,” I assured her, “I`m on my way.”
Whilst I waited for the taxi I made a cappuccino, I don’t drink them myself, there were some sachets left over from when Susan used to live here. I threw the concoction into a travel mug, added three spoons of sugar, and made it to the front door just as the taxi drew up.
The new hospice was a steel and glass wonder, with none of the charm and warmth of its predecessor. “Hegarty?” I asked the receptionist, and was directed to the first floor.
The room was low lit and had the familiar smell of death, if you`ve ever been there you know what it is; like mothballs, only sharper, with an underlying musky smell.
The woman in the bed was a cadaverous mirror of Eileen, who was bedside, holding her mother`s hand, she looked like she had been crying recently, she ignored the proffered mug so I pulled up a chair and sat beside her.
It`s strange how easily you fall into the familiar rituals, counting the seconds between breaths. Five seconds becomes eight, eight becomes twelve, twelve becomes fifteen. At twenty five I stopped counting, surprised to find my face wet with tears, rubbing Eileen`s back as she sobbed.
I desperately wanted to blow my nose, but a memory of my father’s death; the shriek my mother let out when he`d taken his last breath, startling him, if only briefly, back to life, stayed me.
The rosary and removal were the following night and a blur; the funeral on Friday, a perfectly miserable overcast day, and with no-one to hoist the coffin, that chore fell to the undertakers.
Afterwards, back at her mother`s house, what few friends she had bid their goodbyes before seven, and we were alone.
“Take me home Jack,” she said.
Confused, I said, “But you are home.”
“Your home,” she said.
She led me to my own bedroom, helped me undress and climbed into bed beside me. I`d like to tell you it was a mad passionate night, but in truth we were more like fumbling virginal teenagers. After it was done, she rested her head on my chest and wept, and I was too much a coward to ask her why.
The following morning I awoke alone, the clock read 7:18.
By the time I reached her mother`s house she was gone, gone back to her family and Nick. I limped over to my bench and slumped there, and realised the geese had likewise flown.
That was five days ago. I would have done this sooner, but I was nearly out of pills, sorry about that. I posted a letter to my G.P. but you already know that; I hope I`m not too ripe.
Tell Susan I`m sorry, tell her to forgive herself, I already have. Tell her there simply isn’t enough sunshine in my world anymore.
De regibus et Septentrionalis
At dark of Moon they fell from the sky
and sailed the lough,
starched gondolas amongst the reeds.
Lords of slush under the iron stars of winter.
A fusillade of atonal beseechings and
mist thrummed like phlegm in a throat as
prehistory whitened the black water.
An escape and return to court.
A re-establishment of majesty.
No robes of ermine nor chains of office;
nothing to maim this legitimacy of feather.
Born of sleet,
here in the hills,
these diamonds in the night;
these Kings of the North.
I glance out the window, wiping a bead of perspiration off my forehead. I only have a few minutes to finish the painting, before all hell breaks loose. Okay, that might be an overstatement, considering that I adore my five-year-old daughter more than anything in the world. It's just that I have almost forgotten how nice it is to paint in peace and quiet. So, I need to cherish every single moment of this exquisite pleasure, while it lasts.
One more gentle stroke of the brush, and I nod appreciatively. It is gorgeous and unique, just like anything else I've created throughout the years. I know I probably should be modest about it, but I can't be. You see, I have always been the odd-one-out, never fitting in. While other girls painted their nails red and hooked up with guys for some weekend fun, I would just stay home and read one of my books about how to become a famous artist.
Okay, I might not be that well-known. In fact, I hardly ever sell a piece. But still, every single one of them is close to my heart, so I would never in a million years would even consider getting rid of them. They are a part of my soul, and how do you let something like that be taken away by someone else?
Like this painting I've been working on for the past five weeks. With it's striking and bold colors, it's the total opposite of me, the grey mouse. Maybe that's why I have such an appreciation for anything beautiful, because I don't find myself fit for that category. With my freckles and ivory skin I look like some kind of apparition. My blue eyes are dull, and my dark hair always falls flat on my scalp.
I look exactly like the ugly duckling, and I certainly feel the part, too. I shake my head bitterly, but my thoughts brighten up instantly as I hear tiny feet tapping impatiently outside the door. I smile to myself, throwing the brush to the side. Whatever is left to do, can wait. My daughter comes first, and she always will. Luckily she didn't inherit my freckles, nor my ghostly complexion.
"Mummy, look what I found! This could help you with the painting, yes?"
Her bright little eyes sparkle with eagerness, and I nod, my heart filled with pride. She hands me the grey feather, and rushes up to the painting, shouting over her shoulder, her blond curls bouncing around her tiny features:
"Is it ready? Is it ready?"
"Yes, honey, why don't you have a look?"
Her lips curl up into the sweetest little grin, and she looks at the composition for the first time. I must admit I was selfish, because I let her wait the whole five weeks before she could get a glimpse. Just so that I could see her priceless reaction.
"Mummy, this goose is so beautiful."
I raise an eyebrow, correcting her gently:
"Darling, the plural of goose is geese. And you must be referring to the swans, sweetie. You know, those lovely birds with the exquisitely long necks and snow-white feathers..."
But she chimes in, shaking her head vehemently:
"No, mummy, I don't like those. They are all the same. But look at that beautiful goose standing in between them! She is so perfect and unique. She isn't like the rest of them."
This makes me think, but she adds, before I could draw a conclusion:
"And mummy? You know what else I like about that goose?"
I shake my head, waiting for her reply eagerly. Here I am with my five-year-old daughter, who is giving me a lecture. And I'm loving every minute of it.
She sticks out her tongue, mimicking the movement of a fictional brush, reaching out with her delicate hands, almost touching the painting. But she changes her mind the last minute, turning back to me, her eyes filled with five years of wisdom:
"That the goose has a good heart. I know it does, you painted it that way. You also painted the swans mean, but that's okay, as they are ugly from the outside as well anyway."
The next thing I know is that she runs up to me, and I hold her in my arms for a moment, contemplating what she said. I think she is right. Beauty comes from within, and the geese are truly beautiful, and so am I. Lead by a sudden idea, I ask Lily in a hushed voice:
"So, what do you say we call our newest treasure?"
She thinks for a moment, puffing up her cute little face, her rosy cheeks revealing perfect dimples.
"Geese and Swans. Yes, mummy, I think that's it. Oh, can I have it in my room? Please? Then it will always remind me of you, even when you are at work."
I brush a loose strand of hair out of her pleading face, then letting out a small chuckle I reply:
"Of course, darling, of course. Okay, 'Geese and Swans' it is then."
And with that, we walk out and I close the door behind us, turning a new page in our life's chapter. Suddenly everything seems so magical...
'What’s that?' I say.
Your lips rearrange as if preparing
to spout your knowledge.
'Ducks, Geese and Swans
a biological family
with a cosmopolitan distribution.'
My heart sinks. I'm being
talked at again. 'Right.
Don’t swans mate for life?'
some threatened with extinction
like your marriages.'
Where did that barb spike from?
'Dad! A funny family –
the ducks and geese such different shapes.'
'Broad and elongated body plan.
All soft keratin with a thin
and sensitive layer on top.'
Crane over your shoulder to see
you’re on Wikipedia again.
Say, too loudly: 'You’re just reading it out!'
You look so fiercely at me.
'Vocal birds that quack, honk,
squeak and trumpet.'
I thought a walk by the lake
might help, give some perspective.
I try to smooth your shoulders out.
You point at something. The tablet or you?
'One of the few birds
to possess a penis.'
Your muscles a mass of twisted iron bars.
I look at the screen, snatch a phrase
'Popular for pillows.'
'Just like our lot', you say,
'the relationships of the different tribes
and subfamilies are poorly understood.'
Laugher overpowers us
pulls the common thread tight.
GEESE AND SWANS
Wild geese, wild geese
Come home let ye
My heart aches to awaken
And find you’ve flown the nest
Tis, but a wee island, I know
Best little land in this world,
They say. But, I beg only
Baltimore’s bounty return
Tomorrow, let the dawn find
The wild swans of Coole here
Brilliant creatures returned
Time to grace these still waters
Once again. Grow old wild bird
Under my careful gaze and
Drift, drift away, some more
Their fierce necks peck silently at
sparse ground cover grass, feathers
grey and brown as the city. Canals wind
through postindustrial landscapes.
Arriving in V formation, migrating
or naturalised, they land softly. Silently
the worn cobbles develop the green
slime sheen of excrement.
In spring, their wingspan is sufficient
to span a towpath or an iron bridge,
shrieking, hissing against those who
might threaten their babies.
Serenely slipping through gently
rippling water, they know they are
protected by the Queen. Hidden
orange feet make graceful turns.
There is a permanence to the swan,
as if history itself cannot change
the idyll of playfully reflected summer
sun and freshly manicured grass.
And watch now as the wings open,
as wide as a child, silhouetted by the
sun, wings whistling wou wou
wou, closer and closer.
I look out
Waiting, listening, seeing.
Time waits for no girl. All experience this.
And it’s now my time to step away from the ashes of doubt.
I look down
At the lifeless limp limbs.
Shades of rose fragments shed and plummet
Transforming into rough microscopic coals like dominos
Cascading all over my figure, and I cry.
It’s too soon.
Please, not now.
Tomorr- already the grey enflames and stirs.
Ruby and crimson sting, and bursts through the murky grey tufts.
I must let go; let it happen; let it envelop me.
Snow lace curves and
Bends and wraps around each dark crevice,
Ivory plumes usurp,
Gold glimmers, shields against the shadows,
protecting the smooth, silky ice from ruptures.
I look up with two pricks of amber and allow
My majestic wings like feathery sails to broaden and engulf the stars.
Slowly, I swoop and plunge deep
In search for what I need to keep
Close to my breast to be what I must be.
Have I finally turned into the swan?
The television that was unfashionably late
My girlfriend Trudy thought it would be tremendously funny if she bought one of those old cathode ray tube televisions off Ebay. The ones that are nearly square. And that was fine, as a stop-gap, but it wasn’t long before we noticed something wrong with it. It was broadcasting things slightly out of sync. This happened back in the tenties, before the last of the analogue TV transmitters was switched off, but we’d get transmissions from years before. We’d turn on the box and a newsreader would say, “Good evening, the headlines at six o’clock. Two homosexuals were spotted in Banbury, Oxfordshire today. Police beat them up and arrested them.” We’d change channel and Jimmy Savile would be assaulting a teenager live on Top of the Pops. We’d kick the TV and sometimes that would work but more often than not, rather than showing us broadcasts from our past or present it would show us our future.
A weather girl would be telling us it was going to be 32 degrees in Scotland in April, but not just that, she was an ample and curvly size 18. Or we’d see a holiday programme with men on the beach wearing ball-kinis, strange swimming trunks with holes in the lower-groin area.
I suppose someone really should have taken it to a repair shop, but money was tight, so we just put up with it. After a while it seemed not to matter that the news was out of date. One terrorist attack or breakdown in peace talks was similar to another, whatever decade it was happening in.
Then one day things really took an unusual turn. Trudy was chewing some gum and making a daisy chain when she looked up at the screen suspiciously.
“That is some haircut.”
“Ah yes,” I said, confidently. “Probably from the 1990s.”
“No, I think you’ll find it’s 1990s.”
“What does it say in the TV guide?”
I was about to answer when I noticed a large comet streak through the sky behind the news reporter. It was hard to say how far away it was, but there was an explosion, a mad panic and within seconds the transmission was lost.
“I think that was mankind getting wiped out, live on television,” I said, offering Trudy some of my cheese and onion. “Thankfully it’s not ‘live’ live.”
“What channel is this?” Trudy asked, pressing the sixth and last button.
“That just takes you back to BBC 1,” I said. But there was only static.
“Shall I whack it?” Trudy asked.
Trudy smacked the television.
Sure enough, it tuned back in, this time to something fairly contemporary, albeit several hours ahead of schedule. We caught the tail end of Match of The Day. Southampton had beaten Manchester United 1-0 and we saw the goal scored by their new signing in extra time.
“Well done Trudy. Looks like it’s on time. Well, near enough.”
We switched off and on again to test it. It was showing a black and white wildlife documentary. Trudy thumped it again and the transmission jumped back to the sports round up.
“Hey, this hasn’t happened yet, has it?” Trudy said. “Supposing we put a bet on Southampton. It should win, right?”
“That would be against my principles. Can you do it?” I replied.
We went to the local betting shop, heaving seven carriers of spare coppers into a room smelling of disappointment and screwed up betting slips. I’m sure the teller would have okayed the transaction, but the manager tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let me have a go, Wayne?” he said, like an older brother showing his sibling how to jump over a puddle on his BMX.
“Hello, I’m Mark.”
“Hello, I’m Trudy and this is trouble.”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “Come to my office for a sec?”
We were shown to an office some might call a broom cupboard.
“I see you want to place a bet.”
“That’s right. Is there a problem?” Trudy said, slightly anxious. Mark smiled, non-committal.
“It’s always amusing seeing punters liven things up a bit by paying for bets in loose change-and in fairness many find themselves reduced to such extremities- but when there’s that much shrapnel it does cramp our style a bit.”
“Sorry, we just thought we’d bet some money we found around the house. Won’t happen again.”
Mark looked at his watch and frowned. “This is more than than my job’s worth...Alright, just this once, okay? By the way. Have you seen our offer in the window? 10-1 on Man City and Liverpool winning by 2 goals.”
“Well, actually we need odds for something specific. Agoala to score with a header in the last minute of extra time, with an assist from James Dribbly, who volleys a corner kick, and Saints to win 1-0.”
Looking askance at us, Mark emptied his drink into a plant pot.
“At Old Trafford?”
I nodded, Mark blew out a stagey breath of I-wouldn’t-chance-it-if-I-were-you.
“I need to ring my boss.” Mark’s colleague walked by, a smirk spreading across his face like a snake chasing a mouse. Mark made the call, put the receiver down, nodded.
“So what’s your favourite style of South American dance?” Trudy asked. There was a copy of The Rough Guide to Latin Dance on Mark’s desk, and a half-eaten digestive.
“That’s like choosing between children.”
Anyway we got our odds, a rather stingy 10,000-1. But in fairness, it took an hour to count the money. We were just in time to place our bet before the match. Someone approached as we were doing the necessaries. A man in shades and suit, carrying a white stick.
“How about hedging your bets? 1000-1 on Agoala scoring, or 1000-1 on your goalkeeper to score at anytime? Score 1-0 to Southampton,” the stranger suggested. Mark kept his poker-faced counsel.
“You just never know,” said the man, tapping his nose. Always best to hedge your bets.”
“Er, yeah. Go on then, who’s counting,” I said, flustered because the match was starting.
“You won’t regret it.”
Trudy elbowed me afterwards. “You’ve just lost us thousands.”
“I’m sorry, I’d no time to think. He just sprung it on me, that man,” I replied.
“Well, at least it looks less suspicious.”
Then we went and killed time in Smiths and the library. In the country’s favourite newsagent all was unique yet normal. A man took a sneaky snap of a picture in Shotgun Magazine with his smartphone. A phone rang on its default ringtone. A pensioner bought a scratchcard and complained that he never won anything anyway. Trudy and I wandered around surmising what we’d do with our winnings.
“What are you spending yours on?”
“I’d like to have a plaster-cast of my vulva made and have it mass-produced as a sex toy.”
“My vulva. Your ears need cleaning out.”
“Well you do have a Volvo.”
“Well I’d like to open a Jeremy Clarkson museum. This town is crying out for one.”
“Good idea. Which Jeremy? Not the television presenter, I hope.”
Back at the betting shop Mark looked liked he’d seen a ghost.
“So. Did we win?”
“Did you win? Don’t tell me you haven’t been watching.”
“Our television’s playing up and it gets a bit lively in the Fox and Hounds.”
“You won alright. My office?”
We followed him to his closet.
“We can’t give you the money here. Meet us in the car park round the back of Frankie’s Nightclub?”
“It’s fine, trust me.”
So we went to the car park. It was quite stony, with plenty of room. Our cane carrying tipster from earlier was there with Mark. Strangely, he was holding a baby. We walked to the centre of the car park, looking around nervously.
“I’m Terry. Can you wait a minute.”
Terry looked at his watch and was silent so we had a quiet word with Mark.
“You must be pissed with us,” I said.
“No, I’m pleased for you. Not pleased for myself, though. I’ve lost my job. No idea what I’ll do now.”
“Don’t worry, Mark,” Trudy said. “This could be a new beginning. There you were in some dismal town trying to earn enough to pay your ex maintenance cheques when you could have been dancing merengue in some seedy South American bar, running your hands over the ample body of some sexy conchita,” she supposed.
“I know where I’d rather be,” I added, tapping my nose.
The moment a woman pulled up in a hatchback with a skid. She took a briefcase out the back and handed it to Terry, who gave her the baby. Then Terry gave us the briefcase.
“Scram,” he said to us. We cleared off.
“What do you want for dinner?,” I asked, my voice fighting the sound of police sirens.
We stopped off at Burger King and went home and had a TV dinner. Jimmy Savile was on again. The wonderful harmonic shifts of the theme tune giving one the sense that all was right in 1980s Britain.
The television was really playing up now. A late 80s programme about HIV somehow blended with a 1990s show discussing different music formats.
“Heterosexuals listen to compact discs, whereas gay men and lesbians listen to records,” a woman with a large perm and red lipstick advised.
“What about bisexuals?” her male co-presenter asked, in received pronunciation.
“Research shows that bisexuals listen to minidisc,” she replied, with a faint touch of East Midlands.
“Digital compact cassette. But remember,” she said, turning to the camera and assuming a serious countenance. “Whatever format you listen to, AIDS is a danger to us all.”
Then I turned on Points of View. It was a Czech pay-per-view teaser, showing a model doing a softcore striptease. But as the woman slowly divested herself of clothes she read out letters from disgruntled television viewers in a Slovak accent. Some were complaining about the Aids programme. It was on too early. It was inappropriate. It ignored sapiosexuals.
I switched to something political.
“This is a historic day that wouldn’t have happened had we not had cross-party support for at least one MP with Down’s Syndrome. I think we have that support because, let’s face it, they’re nicer than people with only one 21st chromosome. Also, 1 in 600 babies has Down’s Syndrome and there are 600 MPs,” a woman on a sofa said. Then someone rang the doorbell.
It was Terry. “Mind if we have a look round?” he asked.
It’s a surreal fact of life that even when a gun is being pointed at you you notice things like what’s on television. It was one of those budget early 80s adverts in which a 45 year old man in a brown suit stood in front of a car hectoring the viewer.
“Three years anti-corrosion, three years break down recovery and a five speed gearbox. You won’t find a better deal,” he said. Then he opened the boot, which was full of cocaine. “And that’s a promise.”
“The Austen Allegro Party. Talk to your dealer about a test drive,” went the voice-over.
The woman came back downstairs. “Got it. It was under the mattress.”
“And I want the Ipod and the hair curlers.”
“What about the television?”
“Are we free to go?” Trudy asked. The man smiled.
“When someone unties you, yeah. You’re free to go. And free from all this lovely money.”
Our friends disappeared, I changed back to striptease Points of View with my chin.
“I’d like to apologize on behalf of the BBC. Sapiosexuals listen to cassettes,” the dancer said, one breast al fresco. And if anybody’s interested, those bi-curious listen to digital audio tape. And non-binary are rather partial to streaming services. Don’t have nightmares,” she said, and winked. Then a man came on wearing a ball-kini, and showed us his balls. Trudy tutted. “What about asexuals?”
“8-track, I would think.”
So, what to write?
I did consider doing a story, maybe something about a man living in the lap of luxury, a gigolo perhaps? Or a kept man/woman, who had tired of the gilded cage, seeing it for the prison it was. But then I got to thinking about the title “Freedom from Money” and thought, nahhh. So here instead, for your delectation is a barely coherent stream of consciousness :)
Freedom from money;
Just what does that mean? Two thoughts occur: first, the literal. Freedom from money, a-la “The Good Life.”
I know I`m showing my age here (and just to prove it, I`m prepared to admit to a massive teenage crush on Felicity Kendal; thank God for Pseudonyms) but even in this show about self-sufficiency, dropping out of societies norms, they couldn’t escape the need for money. Richard Briers character having to go back to work in one episode to pay the council tax, apparently they wouldn’t recognise the barter system. So trying to opt out simply isn’t possible, money like all evils is a necessity. At least until we mature as a species; try paying for your groceries down at the local Aldi with a short story and see where it gets you?
Okay, option B:
Free-dom from money; i.e. having such a surfeit of money that you are no longer plagued by the day-to-day worries of the mortgage, or having to schlep your sorry carcass into a soul destroying job, day after God-awful day; sounds great, right? Except……
Except; I`ve known quite a few wealthy men in my life, worked for some, befriended others, and to a man they are obsessed with their money. They worry about it, fuss over it, are terrified that someone is going to steal it, or that it will somehow evaporate into the electronic ether, I have a daughter I worry less about (does that make me seem like an uncaring father? What do you mean yes? Cheek)
I worked for a guy who literally gave me his shoes….. You don’t want to know the details; oh okay you twisted my arm. We were going to Chicago; well actually we were going to Indianapolis for a Formula1 Grand Prix, but via Chicago. We, and by that I mean I, had booked us flights on Etihad out of Shannon. So we get to the airport and the check-in girl leans over the counter, looks down at my feet and asks, “Don’t you have any shoes?”
For context, I wasn’t barefoot, I was wearing runners. I always wear them, and yeah I run, Christ yer a judgemental fecker. Where was I, oh yeah; so I`m thinking, Jaysus this is a fancy airline, when she says, “Only I was going to upgrade you to first class, but…. and that’s how I ended up wearing Mick`s size fourteens on my size eleven feet. I swear, I was like a kid in his da`s shoes as I clopped onto that plane, but it was well worth it.
How did I get here? Oh yeah. The thing is, while he`d happily give me his shoes; ask him for a raise…. I have heard this song many times in my life, perhaps you have too, it`s like I`d asked for his first born to sacrifice. Don’t I know how lucky I am to have a job, don’t I know how much he`d sacrificed to start the company, yada-yada-yada, oh the humanity…..
See; money is a prison, a bit like love, what`s the line form that song, “Love is like oxygen, you get too much it gets you high, not enough and you`re gonna die,” or more appropriately, “can`t live with it, can`t live without it,”
And there`s the rub, there is no such thing as, Freedom from Money, it`s a pipedream (now there`s an interesting word. Note to self, look up pipedream)
There is one other possibility; the lottery. All that lovely money and no effort, except….. damn there`s that word again.
Except, well, how much is enough, or too much? The annals of lottery winners are littered with bankrupts and suicides, and if you win enough you can never make another friend again; why exactly is this person trying to befriend me?
Plus, just for fits and giggles, the friends you do have will probably never speak to you again after you don’t share your winnings equally with them, and let`s not forget that girl who`s currently suing the British lottery company (I don’t remember the name, and frankly I`m too lazy to google it) for giving her more money than she could handle; so now she wants more money from them?
Freedom from Money, don’t make me laugh. Who was it said, “The only difference between being poor and being rich is that you`re miserable in nicer places.” Well I`ve tried poverty, and quite frankly I’ve found it`s not to my taste, so I`m prepared to risk being wealthy, after all what do I have to lose?
Freedom from money
By the time I reach the park it is early afternoon. The sun, high in the sky now, pours across my shoulders, down the ridge of my nose; it drips through the trees, rolling off the pointed ends of their leaves. My shadow crouches, shrunken, by my feet, clinging to my legs like an embarrassed child, afraid to be splashed by the light. She crawls along the path below me as I approach my usual bench and sit, squashing her out. Sat now, I take a closer look at the disk in my hand. I had pressed it so firmly into my palm as I was walking that it left a little circular mark. I bring the coin close to my face, examining its dull golden colour and the script embossed in an arch across it in thick, demanding letters. The edge is ridged; it feels satisfying to the tip of my finger which traces it the whole way round. Facing upwards is a lady’s profile, scratched into the silver centre. I say lady, though she is a woman, and quite old, with tight wrinkles at the corner of the eye that peers out and the thin lips that give way to her plump, round cheeks. She is no doubt a lady, nonetheless, her posture straight and rigid. I wonder where she was a lady of, how it was that her face became plastered on this coin. I straighten myself to match her, suddenly aware of my slouch. She doesn’t notice though, her stern gaze passes me by, fixed on something to my left of evidently far greater concern. I turn her over. On the other side is a man, wearing a tall hat and a sombre expression. Was everyone in those days so miserable, so stern? I don’t remember being, though they insist we were. My memories are more like pictures, still shots of scenes, people. It is hard to compare a feeling gone with the feeling that takes its place though, so maybe they’re right, maybe we are happier now. I flip the coin. The man’s face is replaced by the lady’s, then she disappears and morphs into him, before he becomes her again. They take turns like this until the coin lands back in my palm. I cover it quickly and guess which face will be on top. I am right, it was the man’s. His face, the coin’s face. Faces on faces, four in total, five if you count mine. That was something they didn’t like about the old time, all of the faces. They said we were corrupted. Faces of makeup, such a focus on appearance, but everyone was. Two-faced we’d say when someone betrayed us, spoke about us behind our backs. But we were all the same in this duplicity. I look back at the coin, now at the woman’s face. She will have been duplicated too, there will have been millions of people with her face zipped away in their bags, or tucked in their pockets: another face to use. Above her head is a curve of numbers, like a halo, a wreath of wealth. A 1 stands there proudly next to three zeros, three ‘oh’s. Oh, I had said in surprise, as my fingers brushed against the coin at the end of the drawer earlier in the day as I was reaching back for a pair of socks. It is still fairly common to find coins around, though there is no use for them anymore. Most people toss them away though there are some collectors, who will exchange things in return for a trinket to add to their collection. This one is so common though, there is no point taking it to one of them. It is not completely useless though: it still brings me delight to find coins like this, or a bank note, scrunched up in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. There is nothing to do with them, but examine them. And I like to examine them, these coins and notes. They really are notes, little pieces of paper, with scrawls all over them, a message from another time. Little, worthless souvenirs.
I close my eyes and tilt my head back to face the sun, feel it warming my skin. My eyelids are pinkish, then a deeper red, bright. Yellow sun spots speckle them. I try to focus on these spots, these freckles, but every time I do they jump to the side; I am never able to catch up. As I concentrate they fade to green, first mossy then more blue. Most are not perfectly round, and many are clumped together; they appear like waterlilies on a shallow pond. The pond. Across the pond we would say. America. I had never been, but I watched their movies, saw their shows on the TV until they were cut off. The americans were the worst they said, so bound up in their materialism, slaves to their lust for money. The tiny figures inside my television seemed content to me, as did their audiences, who I rarely saw but sensed were there, out of frame somewhere, by the sound of their laughter. We were being freed, we were told, as the government seized our money, drained our bank accounts. They would trade on our behalf, so that we could focus on regaining an honest life, so that we could see what really mattered. We were free from money. This freedom isn’t as easy as they said it would be. It’s hard not to miss the things we used to have, simple things even, chewing gum. Now we trade in favours, and the meagre rest is provided for us. I re-open my eyes, and look down again at the coin in my hand. Getting up finally I walk towards the fountain at the centre of the grass rectangle. Jets of water shoot up, out of its core, falling continuously in bubbling streams. You used to throw coins into fountains like this, make a wish as they sunk. The blue tiled bottom before me is empty however, someone has stripped it bare. They should know that that’s unlucky. I take my coin, and get ready to throw it, preparing my silent wish. What, it occurs to me, should I wish for? My family are healthy, we are all safe, at least so it seems. With everything else stripped away, what else is there that I really want? I have everything, I believe, as I am told to believe. Yet there is something gone, not an object but a feeling, a sense, of the time before. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but there is something missing, I feel its hole beneath everything else, I feel its loss. It’s not just money that they took from us, it is our power. They said they were freeing us from money, from our money, but that our is important. Money was a freedom, when it was ours. We had the ability to choose, who or what we wanted to spend it on, where we wanted to go and how we could use it to take us there. When they freed us from money, they took away that freedom.
They say the only things in life you can’t avoid are death and taxes.
As I lie here now, I think back over the events that have brought me to this point. Might things have been different if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to shirk my responsibilities and stage off the inevitable?
I imagine a contented life of fiscal caution, with a solid partner by my side, nuclear family all present and correct. A steady job, ironed shirts, brunch at the weekends. Is that how the other half lives?
But I just can’t put myself in that picture somehow. There’s a space right there, waiting for me, but I don’t fit, not even in my imagination. Let’s face it. I’m not a jigsaw piece that slots satisfyingly into the final hole to complete the expected picture from the box lid. I never have been. My edges are rough, asymmetrical. I’ve always pushed against fitting in.
My mum used to wring her hands and despair over whatever would become of me, and I couldn’t blame her. I was always in trouble. Picking fights in the playground, shoplifting with my mates, puking my guts up after a Friday night binge. I was never going to be a pillar of the community, was I?
But I did alright for myself, in my own way. The get-rich-quick schemes never quite panned out, but I made enough to get by. I made some questionable choices, hung out with the wrong crowd. But I always managed to escape the worst scrapes relatively unscathed, generally more through luck than good planning.
And now, here I am, at the end of it all. Death and taxes have finally tracked me down and come to collect. But I’ve got one last trick up my sleeve to cheat the universe out of one of its supposedly unavoidable evils. I suppose that’s the one benefit to being all alone in the world as I prepare to meet my maker. The state won’t be able to claim what I owe from what I leave behind, because there isn’t anything to leave. I’ve had my fun, and now it’s all gone. And my dependents won’t inherit my debts because there aren’t any dependents to inherit. I had my fun in that area, too, don’t get me wrong. But I was always careful to avoid unfortunate consequences.
When it comes right down to it, nobody can beat death. Not yet, anyway. But you can use death to beat taxes, if you play your cards right. And one thing I excel at is playing cards. It’s an achievement of a sort, if you view it from the right angle. And, at this point, I’ll take what I can get.
Max checked his watch again, and tapped the café floor anxiously with his heel. It read two minutes to three. He couldn’t afford for them to be late.
He didn’t know who ‘they’ were exactly, not even a name, but Nubs told him they’d take it off his hands for a great price, and he didn’t have time to look around for a better deal. He had to get out the country.
Nubs is Max’s oldest friend. They’d done jobs together back when they were younger, but had drifted in the later years as Max tried to settle on the straight and narrow. In all honesty being a criminal never really suited Max, he wasn’t cut out for the shady depths of the underworld (which was a shame because he was marvellous on the job). As he got older his conscience started catching up with him, and he couldn’t stomach the fear of getting caught. Nubs eventually went away for four years in ’95 taking the fall for him on a job that went wrong, and after that Max got himself out of the game.
He had always trodden carefully with Nubs after that. He thanked him for taking the rap, but he didn’t want to be in someone’s pocket, there’s not a hellhole on earth that’s worse than another man’s pocket. Anyway, Nubs wasn’t the same guy when he came out, there was a storm cloud twitching behind his eyes, charged with furious energy and darkened by the anger it soaked within. He became a little crazy, he wanted to get back at the system, always saying how he wanted to ‘blow their brains out like minestrone soup’. But Max let him know early on that he didn’t want to be involved. Nubs didn’t call much after that, but Max was sure he respected his decision.
Yet there he was getting bailed out again, desperate, sat at a table with Nubs’s crumpled note in his hands, re-reading it for the seventh time to make sure he’d come to the right café, waiting for ‘them’ who would give him a way out.
‘What can I get for you, Sir?’ A gentle voice spoke from behind his shoulder that made him jump, and he scrunched the note up tightly in his fist before stashing it in his pocket.
‘Oh…erm…just water for now, I’m waiting for someone.’ He turned to face the waitress who stood with her notepad and pen in front of her. A lock of blonde hair fell from her right shoulder and came to rest perfectly on her breast next to a name badge that read: AMY. Her sweet vanilla perfume over-powered the lingering smell of roasted coffee beans and her lips protruded just slightly from her oiled skin, oozing with lust. Max instantly wished he could take Amy with him on his escape, and imagined himself asking her as he watched her seemingly float back to the counter.
At that moment, the little bell rung as the front door swung open and a man dressed in a dark trench coat and fedora hat entered through its frame. Max’s heartrate shot up instantly, and thoughts of his tropical getaway with Amy quickly dissipated. The man’s eyes wandered around the room, measuring its every inch like a trained killer, before turning to caress the door shut again with slick leather gloves.
Max checked his watch - bang on three.
The man’s gaze was prowling once more, scurrying past families and couples without a flicker of emotion, until it finally reached Max sat alone by the window, and he let out a wry smile. Max pulled the collar of his shirt away from his neck to let it breathe and kept his eye on the man as he placed his hat on the wooden stand. His heel was tapping even faster than before, and he let his hand creep beneath the table onto the seat next to him, grabbing the package and pulling it closer towards him.
The man strode through the sound of muttered conversations as if he were slicing them dead with a knife. Max didn’t break eye contact, but grew more flustered with every slow, calculated step the man took. "Does he not understand I need to be quick?" He thought… "Surely Nubs has told him..." But when the man finally did reach the table, Max was glad he hadn’t rushed him, as he was introduced quite horrifically to the raw, blood-freckled scar that was slashed across his face. It ran from the centre of his forehead straight to the corner of his mouth, just missing his right eye, and its fleshy, juicing texture told Max this has only happened a couple of days, maybe even hours, before.
Max pretended not to notice, trying to look as if he wasn’t unhinged; this game is all about power, and first impressions were the most powerful of the lot. However, the fact was that Max was desperate, this man could smell it, and from the moment he took his seat opposite and ran his hand across his waxed, black hair, Max knew it was unlikely this man had ever found himself in a situation where he didn’t have the upper hand.
‘You must be Nubs’ friend,’ Max said, firmer than his normal voice.
The man didn’t say anything, only looked at him with a steely glare that if he had been Medusa would have turned Max to stone. Max tried to mirror him, like a standoff between charmer and snake, unwilling to let him get inside his head. "He’s gonna try and squeeze me, I know he is, I won’t -"
‘Here you go, Sirs.’ That soft voice jumped in once more, as if it were snapping him out of a dream, and a delicate arm with a jug of water extended between the pair, bringing the noise of conversations inside the café suddenly back to life.
Max looked up at Amy and smiled gratefully. ‘Thanks.’
‘Sure. Are you ready to order?’ She had her notepad and pen ready again.
Max couldn’t think about food, but he reached for the menu anyway until his arm was frozen mid-action by a cold voice.
He turned to see the man still looking at him, and he let the menu slide back down his fingers onto the table. The waitress turned to Max and raised her eyebrows to say: ‘And you?’
‘The same, please.’
‘So two black coffees...no problem. Food?’ She wrote on her pad then turned her head to both men, raising her eyebrows again with a smile.
‘Not at the minute, thanks.’ Max politely replied and Amy left. He withered back to his seat, waiting for the man to make his move.
‘So where is it you plan to go, Max, with your hard earned money?’ The man said the last three words slowly, grinning as he did.
‘To Cuba. I have a friend out there, figured I could set up with him for a while until I get myself sorted.’ Max hoped for some sort of approval this was the correct move, but he didn’t get it.
The man nodded, ‘Cuba…nice place,’ then tapped his finger at a steady beat on the table, looking Max up and down. ‘The package?’
Max slipped his hand beside him once more and lifted the package slightly above the table’s edge so the man could see.
‘And the driver? The money?’ Max asked.
The man scowled at Max like an old woman scowls at a car jumping a red light, as if it was an offence to even ask. ‘Across the road.’ The man’s eyes pointed Max in the right direction. There was a car with blacked out windows parked on the kerb, and a man wearing sunglasses sat on its bonnet, smoking a cigarette. ‘Slide the package onto my seat, the moneys waiting for you in the boot of the car, Anton will take you to the airport.’
Max looked over to check the car once more, he wondered it was going too smoothly, but the sound of the airport was music to his ears.
‘You don’t want to check the package?’
The man pulled a box of cigarettes from his pocket and laid them on the table. ‘You’re not in the position to be messing around. I know it’s there.’
Max’s shoulders shook with a soft a chuckle, what could he say? He passed the package under the table, resting it on the opposite seat, and then checked his watch.
Five minutes past three, he couldn’t believe it.
‘That’s it?’ Max asked.
‘That’s it.’ The man replied, in a patronising tone.
‘I’m getting out? I can’t believe it.’ He tried to contain his happiness. ‘Well, thanks a lot.’ He held his hand out. ‘Mr…?’
The man reached for a cigarette, put it in his mouth and lit it. ‘King.’ He shook Max’s hand, not once looking him in the eye, and puffed on his cigarette.
Max grabbed his rucksack from beneath the table and made off towards the door. Amy was coming at him with a tray of coffees in her hand, looking even more beautiful than when he’d first laid eyes on her - just ten minutes before. He sucked in his stomach and tiptoed round the side of her to avoid hitting her tray, and kissed her on the head as he passed. Before she could even react the little bell above the door was ringing once more, and Max had flown out.
The man didn’t move from his cloud of smoke, didn’t even turn his head to watch, as Max galloped across the road, got in the back seat of the car, and Nubs, waiting for him, splattered his brains against the window like minestrone soup.
Freedom From Money
Money, whether it's fair or not, broadly shapes who we become. Our wealth determines our standard of health, education, relationships, ability to travel, and the technology we can use. You don't have to be an economist to know the importance of money - in fact it probably helps if you're not. We all know firsthand the importance of money: try going into the supermarket without a wallet, try being faced with homelessness! Money does not just provide us with our needs and luxuries, money determines how we see ourselves and others. Who doesn't want to win the lotto and do the things we only dream about on our lunchhour? Apart from a few frugal monks who have embraced minimalism, the majority of us are bound to material wealth. We fantasize of the opportunity it affords in Western culture.
The question is: do we even know ourselves outside of money? Or could we? Could we ever imagine who we'd be without the constraints of financial pressure? We'd probably be a lot happier, a lot less stressed. The question is if money weren't a obstacle where would you be? What would you do? Who would you help? Would freedom from money make you a better person? Put your riches in a safe, lock it up and relax.
First let's look how not free we are from money:
From the dusty coins in the attic, from the beep, beep scanning sound of products, the plastic debit/credit card with expiry dates, bank letters, the payday loans, the status symbols like the watch or the car, the manicured nails, the perfume, the what –is-she-wearing-next? We all secretly, and not so secretly, crave freedom from the vortex of the supermarket: neon advertisements both online and off, the endless aisles of offers and buy-one-get-one frees, the would-you-like-to-try-the-new-latest-brands?
We are no longer human beings, we are human spendings. We are the commodities, and the Madmen are laughing at us all the way to the bank. Most of them surely must think we are nothing but pawns on their monopoly board.
Constantly surrounded by jargon, jingles - the message is that shopping is our only saviour: You NEED to buy this in fact you are WORTHLESS, ugly and, inept if you're not shopping and keeping up with your neighbours!
The hourly news bulletin reports on the stock exchange. We are told we need expert economists to translate this news. Is this move really that far off, say, religion telling the congregation that only scholarly priests could interpret the bible?
And after a hard week of work, the reward for so many is meaningless Saturdays full of handbags, designer jeans and coffee breaks; this eventually gets old and vacuous. T.S Eliot said in his poem "The Love Song of J.A Prufrock":
I have measured out my life with coffees spoons.
Is this the fate of the first world:? A coffee-spooned life? A life of blind consumerism?
After all, who really knows just how fairtrade their coffee is? Apathy is rampant and big coffeehouses don’t want you to comprehend the extensive corruption that goes into that one cup of black gold. Fairtrade is better than nothing but trust me it's not that fair, not really. The gap between rich and poor is the axis on which western society pivots.
And who has the time to be ethical when they are so overworked themselves and brainwashed? There are real problems to be faced: the tax man and the audits. And then the various bills, of which there are countless: the TV license, the electric, the gas bill or the oil bill, the internet bill, the monthly phone bill. Not to mention clothes and schoolbooks for your three children. Oh and all the children want a brand new iPhone.
If you’re not exhausted already there's more: the budget cuts. Then there's the private health insurance because we all know that the health system is completely two-tiered. The richer you are the quicker you get to see a consultant. That's the truth, and how bleak and immoral is that little pill?
Throw in the car tax, the life insurance, the dentist's bill, the optometry bill, the oncological bill, the exam fees, the university fees, the mortgage or the rent, the boots on your feet which are wearing thin, the mold on the bathroom ceiling, the sagging walls, the chipped paint, and if you feel like escapism - the alcohol bill, the cigarettes bill.
But don't smoke like the sexy women do in films. Note the squeaky clean teeth, the bleached celebrity grinning at you from every glossy magazine.
You’re eternally too fat!
So PAY to get liposuction or breast augmentation, or a toupee. The nip tuck, the promise of a better you, the gym memberships, the hairdresser for the stubborn greys...
The birthday presents, the anniversary presents, the graduation presents, the funeral costs, the mid range or top range casket, the pizza delivery ads, the fizzy drinks, the lunch hour sushi, the fumbling of change in a greasy till...
The rent arrears, and I guarantee you, the social housing list is endless. The ghettoized landscape: poor here, rich lives here, and the bourgeois are in the middle.
Freedom from money, the returns and the gains: money equals freedom of movement, equals better healthcare, equals social status.
What happens when we are stripped of our bills, stripped of our status symbols, stripped of our insurance?
Vanity fair might end. The family feuds over the will and compos mentis might end? Solicitor is consulted but only for a hefty fee. Youtube videos becoming more about product placement might end. Do whatever the TV tells us might end. Aspire, and indoctrinate your children to do the same might end.
Cosmetics and the food industry might end. Placated into believing a corporation is ethical when in 90 percent of the time corporations are greedy ruthless machines that do not care about human spendings might end. We get fat as a way of medicating ourselves, not to mention the brightly coloured chocolate wrappers and the rememberable slogan. We don't buy chocolate we buy a concept might end.
Ever watchful of the celebrity, both envious and admiring, the rich list is a must-read, though for some it's torture! We aspire to be better, freer, more beautiful. The meritocracy that equates money with might and success has taken over. We compare the house next door, ever watchful and insecure about our own little lot. Money is conflated with personality and success, money allows us to say "I am attractive, together, even eternally young". Frightenly the message is that aging, death, and imperfection are to be eradicated with the purchase of this latest product. Money promises eternal youth and dangerously denies death. Imperfection is seen as a fatal flaw.
No wonder we flock to the lotto: something we’re likely never going to win. But we live in hope as each week passes. Lotto tickets crumpled up, the winning formula ever evasive, the bookmakers profit and the hungry smokers with the next horse racing tip repeat the same pointless behviour. Slot machines in pubs, and online gambling rife.
And yet there is some hope. Granted it's bleak but things aren't black and white. Free information online, government grants and scholarships, social reform at government level: these things are to be encouraged. The hope to be someone outside the money trap is possible. Growing of your own vegetables, spending wisely, and enjoying what we have instead of constantly looking for the next purchase that we don’t need.
Shuffling for change:
The danger is when we tie money to our self esteem; it's an endless pit the void cannot be filled with things. Hoarders might disagree... and there are countless marketers who are only too happy to sell you a false promise. They sell a promise that if you buy this or that you will feel better, safer, people will like you; even this or that will help numb the void you feel inside. Whether you acknowledge it or not we all have a void inside. Think about that the next time you drive up to McDonalds.
Who are we without money?
What do we value? What do we spend our time thinking about what are we when we switch off from the trappings of money? Can we ever be free in this culture? Can we see ourselves and others not as commodities but of people of value? Can we love the person who doesn't wear designer labels ,who hasn't got the flashy car? Yes of course we can if we reflect and take a step back from the fray!
Society is always changing and the more educated we become the more we are able to invest value in more meaningful pursuits. The problem isn’t money it's ignorance and mass-manipulation. The charity shops could be visited more, the plea of the homeless could be listened to more, the cold apathy of the mega-rich could be challenged more, the status obsession could be assuaged.
The days away from our children could be tackled, the jingles the advertisement-tricksters could be replaced with meaningful lyrics, the fast paced meals could be discouraged. We do not have to be doomed to measure out our lives with coffee spoons. We could go slower, to appreciate the garden, to let the mind be free from strain for awhile. Pollution reduced, local community encouraged, freedom from suits and cars and traffic jams, freedom for lazy days and productive days, freedom to join projects that are meaningful, a future free from planned obsolescence.
Money is both an emancipator and a captor. If you ever had the misfortune of being unemployed then surely a frugal life is something you have experienced. It's about getting the balance right, doing something meaningful and getting fair wages. Money not as self expression: rather we express ourselves for free?
Don’t worry there's always the January sales.
The smell that rose from the vats was acrid in Claire’s nostrils. In three weeks this would be another batch of beer ready to be transferred into kegs, loaded onto the back of the rusty red pickup and driven to the town over the ridge.
There the barrels would be exchanged for things they needed but couldn’t attain elsewhere; engine parts, replacement solar panels, a new pump filter for the well. Of course other things –fertilizer, kitchen utensils, chocolate, ammunition- would be bartered for too, but for those they would trade boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables, trays of eggs, wedges of cheese and smoked fish. The beer they kept for big transactions; everyone liked Claire’s beer.
They had all the necessary licences to brew and distil, purchased at the commune’s founding for thirty years ahead, but not to sell the final products. Yao, who had been a barrister in Madrid before giving it for a life free from money, had warned them that barter of the alcohol didn’t circumvent the need for the licence. If it hadn’t been so expensive they’d probably have bought one.
Done for the day, Claire dragged the copper-banded wooden lid back over the vat, grunting with the effort until it thunked into place. She pumped out some gritty yellow soap from the industrial dispenser on the shed wall and scrubbed her hands as she crossed over the compound to the longhouse.
Yao was emerging from one of the greenhouses, still looking less natural in his overalls and green wellies than he had in the three piece suit he’d arrived in three months ago, little girl in tow. She greeted him and he hurried over. “Did you hear that Morrissey wants another gathering tonight?”
She clicked her tongue. “Jesus. Does he really believe all that stuff he spouts? I still think we should just kick him out.” She noticed that they were walking in step even though she was half a head taller. He almost bounced as he walked.
Yao’s face creased with worry “It’s supposed to be a safe place for anyone Claire. If we start getting rid of people where will that lead?”
“I promise, the road he wants to take us down has far worse than exclusion at its end. I still don’t see why we even need one rifle, never mind –what was it he suggested? One per adult?”
“Well, there are bears around.”
“One bear. There was one bear. Once. And it got scared off with a shovel and a fire extinguisher. I was there. People die when there are guns about.”
They reached the sturdy but mismatched solidity of the longhouse. The long, low design with the sloping earth walls and grass roof had been Mark’s idea, along with the jetty made up of three entire tree trunks jutting out into the lake. He’d been into archaeology n a big way: she half suspected that he’d only joined the commune to play Viking for a few years. Maybe that was why he’d left without telling her. Maybe he was afraid of her reaction when he let her down. She realised she was scowling and forced a smile, holding the door open for Yao.
The poncho around Claire’s shoulders was thick and well made, but her bare arms were getting chilly in the autumn air. She got up to thrown fuel on the fire and sat again. Minutes passed. No sign of Morrissey, Jane or Alberto. She flicked on her green laser pointer and shone it through the smoke, catching eerie patterns in its eddies and making Yao’s daughter Heng point and laugh. She was yet to turn two and tottered around the Commune with a state of constant surprise and wonder on her cherubic face. The laser distracted her from where she’d been rubbing Maria’s swollen belly, hoping to feel a kick.
Gravel crunched beneath three sets of boots as Morrissey came up the path into the clearing, flanked by Jane and Alberto. Unlike the others –thirty three who lounged around in whatever they’d been working in during the day with the addition of a blanket or shawl- they had changed into dark brown coats; long and waxed, used for fishing on the lake in rainy weather. Alberto was the tallest, and stuck out in people’s minds because of the missing chunk out of his left ear. Jane walked so lightly her footfalls were barely audible next to the other’s; it was the main quality that made her their only skilled tracker and trapper. She kept her features blank always, and betrayed no emotion. Morrissey himself was short, and squat. He had wide shoulders, tree-trunk legs and little neck. When he spoke, his voice was deep, rich, controlled and demanding all at once. Combined with his physical presence it demanded attention and held it until he was finished with you.
He strode to a high point of packed dirt near the fire. There was no preamble; after a slow look at the faces around the fire he began “We have a way of life here. We have a dream of freedom. None here need to be convinced of the vices of the modern world, or of the dangers that it presents to us here.” He gestured with his hands as he spoke; not frantically, but like his voice, controlled and steady. “The government collectors have been harassing us once again, and using the police as their trained bullies. Yesterday I saw a sergeant intimidating our dear Maria.” Maria shrank back from his gesture, arms wrapped about herself, her face flushing from the attention of people’s gazes. “Yes. A pregnant woman. He stood before her, hand on his weapon no less, and demanded information from her that I for one know she did not have. Of course, I intervened on her behalf, but had he drawn his firearm even I would have been helpless before him. These are not the noble guardians we learned about as children. This is a mob, a gang, with the full might of the law behind them and no morals. It is past time we stood up to them. I say we…”
Claire wasn’t sure at what point in the monologue she stood up and left. Morrissey barely glanced in her direction but she felt Jane’s eyes on her all the way down the path. She wandered without a direction in mind, but found herself heading towards the lake. This place, this wonderful place. She could feel it all coming apart at the seams. She was scared for it. That was the problem really- fear. It was why people were listening to Morrissey at all. The commune, which had no other name, had been her home for three years; she wasn’t ready to let it go.
Walking the beach, which was lined with pebbles, sand and small pieces of driftwood from the huge expanse of the lake, she thought back on her time here and found her eyes filling with tears. Would she still make beer if the commune fell apart?
She approached the jetty, feet crunching the pebbles, and caught a glimpse of the corpse of a deer, banging gently up against one of the uprights. It happened sometimes; they fell into the lake where the banks were steep and couldn’t get out, and the currents brought their bodies here, bloated and rotting. Claire sighed. The last one upset the children badly, she could probably fish this out and bury it before they could see.
The jetty was slippery, and when she bent down to grab at it she couldn’t get a grip of its fur, nor see a handy antler to grab in the patchy moonlight. But wait… the fur felt strange. And even half submerged the shape was wrong.
She grabbed again and it listed to one side, rolling over the shoulder. Mark’s wide eyes stared up at her as his body flipped with a splash.
She reared back, hands clapped to her mouth to stifle a scream. Mark. Mark was dead. It was easy to see the ragged wound across the neck where his throat had been slit.
She turned away and vomited. Leaning on one of the uprights, she heaved and heaved ‘till she was dry-wretching and there was nothing left to come. Mark. Jesus Christ.
The beam of an electric torch danced across the trees. She was going to call out but some instinct stopped her and made her crouch low on the jetty, behind the upright. Her breath came quick and deep, and she was shaking from having thrown-up so violently.
The figures came out onto the beach, two of them, one tall, one short, though she could only hear one set of footsteps. Alberto and Jane.
He carried the torch, but from what Claire could see she was diverting her gaze from its light. Preserving her night vision. It struck her at once that, of course, it was her they were looking for. She didn’t need to see them to know that their knives would be strapped to their belts, and her shuddering intensified.
They were coming up the beach now, shining their torch into every nook and cranny that might hide a person. There was no way they wouldn’t see her once they shone it up the jetty.
Grabbing a pair of freezing, rust-flecked bolts, she scrambled down the upright, grabbing onto its sides with her feet to take some of the weight. She hung there beneath the jetty for thirty seconds. A minute. Longer. Her arms were straining with the effort. Finally the torch beam swung overhead and a set of footsteps moved off.
She clambered back up. They were nowhere in sight.
Quick. Quick. Back to the longhouse. If she could get there she could warn Yao, warn everyone, they could call the police and…
A stick snapped loudly beneath her and she stopped stock still. Nothing. Running again, quiet and low. She could see the lights ahead and-
The impact from the side drove all the breath from her. She scrambled up and there was Jane, knife in hand, diving for her again.
Claire managed to get out one scream and flail wildly, knocking the knife aside before a hand was on her mouth and a knee in her gut and she was on her back. She groped up, gouging fingers into Jane’s eyes, mouth, anything. But the grip on her mouth was implacable, and with the other hand Jane was feeling around for the knife.
She found it.
Claire grabbed her wrist with one arm, and tried to tear the other hand away from her mouth. If she could only scream again!
But Jane drove a knee into her chest, again and again. Claire felt a rib crack. It must have shown on her face, and Jane, knowing she wouldn’t be screaming, withdrew her hand. She took a firm grasp of the knife and prepared to plunge it past Claire’s arms and into her heart.
There was no time to react. No time to fight down the pain and scream. Jane’s face was illuminated with the light from the camp. There was no glee or rage or victory; it was as expressionless as always.
She brought the knife down.
The crack of the rifle shattered the night. Jane showed the first expression Claire had ever seen her wear; shock. She keeled forwards and Claire had to twist aside to avoid the knife that still had her weight behind it.
Then Yao was pulling Jane aside, pulling Claire to her feet, the rifle trembling in his little hands. “You’re safe. The police are coming. You’re safe, it’s okay.”
“I think I’ve broken some ribs.”
“It’s okay; we’ll get you a doctor.”
She laughed, though it hurt to do so.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“What will we pay the doctor with?”