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Ephemera

...writing as it happens

I
Realization

Only closer to midnight did David manage to solve the conundrum that had been confusing him all day. The funny realization brought him great relief, as well as anger with himself and still more confusion, this time about human psychology.

He was standing outside a bar, snow covering his hair and clothes as if to help him keep cool head. Nevertheless, he was sweating.
“What a fool! A complete, stupid, unbelievable fool!” He whispered to himself as his fingers were hastily dialing her number. “Hi... I missed you,” he said in a singing tone trying to cope with all the goosebumps that appeared out of nowhere the second he heard that sleepy voice on the other end of the line.

II
Introduction

Okay, it’s pretty cold. I should have put on that warm sweater, I admit. And still the weather these days is not quite what I expected. Anyway, that couple over there – David Richardson and Regina Greenwood. Been together for how many? About four months now. They try not to show their feelings in public. It’s almost funny how pathetically they fail. See the way he holds her hand sort of caressing it with his thumb? Pay attention to how she almost jumps every time he speaks to her. And then of course there are the radiant eyes and the – Just look at them! I guess now I should take back what I said about their not showing feelings in public and all. Damn it! It’s mid January! How long do I have to wait for snow?

III
Confusion

David woke up a bit later than usual. It was Sunday - no work, just rest, hanging out with friends, spending time with his girl-friend. All week he’d been planning to take Regina to some place nice on Sunday. He’d been so excited about it. He counted days. And now it was Sunday, but somehow the enthusiasm was gone. His phone rang. Regina. He thought for a while. For some reason he didn’t have the heart to talk to her right now. Decline.

David looked out of the window. For the first time that year it was snowing.

***

It was a little after 11 p. m. when David entered the bar in which he’d agreed to meet with his friend Neil who at the moment happened to be sitting at a small table aside, tete-a-tete with his beer.

“And where is your girl?” He asked almost immediately after they exchanged greetings. “I mean, you guys go everywhere together. You quarrelled or somethin’?”

“Oh no, it’s all okay,” was David’s response, although his voice and his mood pointed to the contrary.

“Come on. Be honest with me, man. Somethin’ happened?”

“Why do you think - Okay, maybe. Actually, it’s all pretty strange. Today something is just not the same. I can’t quite put a finger on it. But yesterday everything was fine. When we saw each other last time, everything was fine. We said good-bye until today, exchanged passionate kisses… Yeah, it all was pretty much amazing! Damn! I love this woman. I’m gonna call her. I have to call her.”

“Sure as hell, you gotta call her.”

“You know what?”

“What?”

“Maybe later.”

“As you wish,” said Neil shrugging his shoulders and drinking up his beer.

***

Just when David was about to split another beer with Neil, a tipsy man at the next table ruined this brilliant plan by approaching a group of ladies who sat nearby and shouting insulting obscenities in their address. Obviously, it was time for David to defend the honour of the womanhood. At once he ran up to the man, grabbed him and dragged him away.

“You don’t understand!” screamed the man making attempts to free himself and even, it seemed, put up a fight with David. “All women are like this. They cheat on us and we don’t even suspect!”

David’s fist stopped midway as his adversary pronounced the word “cheat”.

“Thank you, buddy,” he said, tapping the visibly puzzled man on the shoulder and headed towards the exit.

IV
Forgotten Night

It’s Saturday night. Regina decided to prepare some kind of surprise for me. And so I’m standing on top of a sky-scraper, watching the moon, or rather what is left of it. Astonished at first, now I seem to remember it’s lunar eclipse tonight.

I know she’s about to show up and sheer excitement is flowing through my body. Here she is. My girl. Grace and simplicity. She’s chose to wear a dress. This is totally not like her. She’s done it for me and I more than appreciate the effort. Oh, and of course here is the silly pink lipstick she never stops wearing. I hate it but on the other hand it’s often a reason for light banter, and flirting, and kissing…

I can’t take my eyes off of her. I find myself gazing in her captivating green eyes, tonight of some unnatural green tint, greener than usual if that’s possible. Why wouldn’t it be? Everything is possible. “Follow me,” I see her plump scarlet lips whisper as she steps off the roof. “Wait!” I cry out, not able to bear the thought of losing her. She’s hovering in the night sky,
her features illuminated by the enormous circle of the moon that has moved from the shadow although I don’t remember when. Thank God she’s alright. I sigh with relief, but not for long as her eyes encourage me to do the same. I’m scared of falling. It doesn’t suit a man to be scared. On her face appears a smile, alluring but with a hint of disdain. She flies away from me. Although I lose her sight, I know where to find her and seconds later I’m running down the corridor in a hotel. I know she’s cheating. I open one of the doors and have the proof before my eyes. The scene is too heartbreaking to watch and I fail to hold back the tears.

V
Psychology of Dreams

– So, what are you trying to tell us, doctor, dreams reflect reality?

– Well, not exactly. And not always. You see, dreams are the place where there practically isn’t anything impossible. In dreams our suppressed fears, hopes, desires etc. come to life. But as I once told in one of my lectures and as you may have already noticed yourself, dreams are an exceedingly subtle matter. Even professionals in this field frequently fail to figure them out completely. Some say they are the natural outcome of our daily experiences and obviously one could hardly disagree with that. Others, however, argue that dreams have more to do with what’s to come, rather than with the past. They are confident that dreams are given to us from above and for a reason. You probably heard of the so called prophetic dreams?

– Yeah, sure. I think I even had one myself. So dreams are a way of giving us a warning?

– Or they can simply mean nothing. Sometimes you’ll never find out. But there definitely is some sort of connection, no matter how little, between dreams and reality. You couldn’t just cut them off from real life. I mean they inevitably draw pictures from the everyday experience. And on the subconscious level they may remotely influence our mood and thoughts as well.

– Wow. That’s interesting to know. Thank you again for agreeing to talk to us on such, I dare say, universally important issue.

VI
Conclusion

“Hi…I missed you”

“Oh yeah? Then why have you been ignoring my calls?”

“Actually, it’s a long story.”

“Well, since I’m already awake and you say you missed me –”

“I guess my reality is too good to believe in. I guess my brain can’t manage my happiness and tries to block it by inventing non-existent problems and presenting me with unlucky possibilities in relationships. But don’t worry, I’ll never listen to it again.”

“I haven’t understood a word you just said, but that was the most original excuse I’ve ever heard. And since you refuse to listen to your brain, how about meeting? Right now! I’ve missed you too, you know.”

Could you trace the path of that pulse in your heart
in your brain that makes you fall in love
as we track muons and beta particles in cloud chambers
their trails fizz with energy, passion,

desire

seek attraction as close to magnetism as the human body allows.

Or is this matter and antimatter, elusive and evasive
opposites attract with power to destroy each other,
like love, the effect is too complex to understand
yet theory tells us that it must, beyond doubt, exist.

Will we ever understand? Will we be able to reduce

love

to a number of pathways, in the same way
that science mapped the human genome,
to say to ourselves, there is so little difference
between how animals and humans feel love.

The Loss


Sister

I think of you gone just for a while
light engulfing you on the train to Dublin
or sitting in the Imperial, drinking cocktails
waiting for your room
your eyes consuming every moment
you're laughing
you've decided to extend your stay
you've got a great deal
but you'll be back soon

As I lay my life out bare
in the gloom of your absence



Wife

You lay your head
your last breath felt
an end to pain
they take you away
for public display
I’m numb for months
no appetite - heart irregular

My doctor says, sorry for your loss
but the stress, you know
can mess your brain, you know
your body, (my soul she doesn't mention)
adrenaline eating through the oxytocin
& you're self medicating John
you've really got to look after what's left of yourself



Mother

Cold it is in spots
cold like old ice
dark teeth protruding on one side
through you & me dissecting
in this bunker we called home
sweet sweats building into a tsunami

Look now it's ten feet tall
it wanting everything to be invisible
but (defying gravity)
a conjuror on his rope high (umbilical)
looks down on me
pacing endlessly underneath
without your oxygen

Neurobiology of Love


Do not suggest that one cannot feel the longing
For another individual.
Do not imply that neurons simply navigate and transmit
signals to modestly control our ability to move, breathe, see, think.
Do not offer me that rash rhetoric of equivocation
Defending the notion that love is not ingrained in the very depths of our being.

No. The winding, twisting, interlacing tubes of intensity
Trap the very core of what it is to love.
Inside is like a spring, crystalline pool heated by the tender rays of sun.
Coiling all around and leaving no area unmarked.
The intensity runs boundless like water plummeting south
Against a creased face of a mountain edge.

Nerves, carving out their path, staining all around
Without hesitation chooses for you.
No democracy in sight but a struggle for power that you will surely lose.
No choice in who, nor when, nor how long, nor how much, nor how little.
Relinquish all thoughts of conscious control and leave
It to the dictator.

So phenomenal it is to love.
So phenomenal it is to be loved.

Yet, how preternatural it is when the desired equilibrium is not present.
When red, bloody flesh is torn away, revealing those woven tubes. You see.
There it is.
Trapped.
Harassing your every moment of clarity.
Screaming at you.
Forcing you to listen.
Usurping your composure.
It stabs.
Stabs you with jolts of intense burning.
Stabs you with piercing sensations.
Stabs you with eventual numbness.
The pain clings to you tenaciously like poison ivy.
Its grip tighter and tighter.

Love is mellifluous music on repeat.
Love is a somnambulist in which you never escape.
Love is beyond limerence.
Love is lachesism.
Love is ethereal, almost ineffable.

How does love provoke such a plethora of endless definitions?
None right. None wrong.
And still. Why is humanity bound in an endless stream, condemned to follow
The stains and paths set out for us by those interlacing tubes?
Because, to put it plainly, that’s what it is to be human.
So, be scared; be terrified, if those nerves merely control your ability to move, breathe, see, and think.

True Love


If, as
you claim, you’re just
a stain on my nervous
tissue, what colours do you make
in me?

The words
I use talking
about you are blooming,
fresh, exaggerated orange
plumes, springs.

Distance
between us shows
black, I suck, it implodes
in a crimson tide, dissolves us
both pink.

All my
so critical
social assessment dulled
networks detached, sulking grey voids,
blankness.

Reward
circuitry lights
up yellow bulbs, zingers
of unbearable happiness,
true love.

Neurobiology of Love

I want to wade back into the moment
Paddle up to my knees in the feeling
of contentment
Experience the sensation in waves
lapping at my body
Close my eyes
Lift my face
to the sun that shines in celebration

I remember why

You were happy
And so
it follows
was I

Jeeten, his bloated blimp of an uncle, always said he'd never make anything of himself. Maybe he was right. What is a bus driver, after all? In the day, an enabler for the elderly to reach their fix of bingo or afternoon tea. Like driving a giant mobility scooter, innit? At night: a chauffeur of chavs. Like tonight. Davs looked in the rear view at the assortment of punters strewn throughout his ride. Either lobotomised silent scum, absorbed into the obviously more compelling world of their phones, or deviants with the vocal chords turned up to eleven. There is one figure on its own, nearer the front, he thinks it's a girl, but you just can't tell these days, with the huge variety of haircuts and similar clothes. Not like when he was a boy.

Bad business, a bad business, what happened on the X34 the other night. Being threatened is one thing, but assaulted? That new driver, Billy something, hadn't even been out of his seat ten seconds before the evil buggers stomped him good and proper.

Suddenly uncomfortable, Davs sticks a finger inside his collar and loosens his shirt away from his hot skin. It's drenched in sweat. He's not feeling great; it must be the unusually warm evening. He wipes his face and tries to concentrate on the road.



Marsha shifts uneasily and tries to concentrate on the small writing nestled in her lap. She knows the book is the answer, the key, the portal out of this shrieking nightmare. But it's not an easily digestible fantasy or an absorbing detective story. It's Dostoevsky, The Brothers bloody Karmazov. She reads the same tiny sentence five times, while wondering if Fyodor had to put up with this level of noise while he was writing the thing.

On the sixth time, the words begin to crawl across the page like minute spiders, leaving glistening trails of spider-blood which somehow make as much sense as what she's tried to read so far. She used to be able to read in the midst of a worse din than this. She smiles as she recalls a distinct memory.

The lounge of her youth, on a winter night, her bedroom far too cold to sit in. Her brothers are throwing toys and cushions at each other, telly blaring away like a unstoppable public service announcement, ma and pa arguing over god knows what. And yet she rests, curled up in a corner of the sofa, surrounded by this unholy racket. She's in the world of Cooper, or Garner, or Le Guin, she can't remember the exact book. The point is, it's not actually their world any more, it's hers. So utterly, completely hers, that she's climbed into this psychic equivalent of a hazmat suit and is able to block out all extraneous threats.

Back on the bus, she shakes her head, smiles. The smile fades as she considers who she's going to see and what she might say to him. If her boyfriend knew about this...but she was going to end it with Ivor, she was determined.


Jayden loved to touch women. Well, girls, in practice, but in theory, he'd poke any female form, clothed or unclothed. Again, in practice, to be fair, it was mostly clothed. But occasionally, like now, he can see expanses of bare smooth midriff around him as the girls jump in and out of each other's seats, swing round the orange poles with the ding-y buttons on ("I'M FACKIN POLE DANCIN, INNEYE?" shrieks Denise as she wildly pitches around). He manages to smack his hand on her exposed haunch, a lovely swell of tanned flesh above what, he imagines, are the two perfect globes of her arse.

"Hey gerroff you perv!" yells Denise, but he can tell she likes it really. He scans around for another girl he can poke, prod, or - even better - cop a feel with. Nothing. So he slams his elbow hard into Danny, who's been morosely looking at his phone for like, ever. Danny drops his phone on the floor of the bus and shouts that he, Jayden, is a daft cunt. He alleges that the elbowing is more like assault, but Jayden just laughs, getting his mate in a choke hold and pulling him back so he can't get his phone. Danny splutters and thrashes, making strangulated noises loud enough to get the attention of Denise and all them.

Jayden shrugs off their protests and all the yelling for him to stop. He looks up at the driver in case he's clocked what's going on.

He is therefore only one to see the driver slump over the wheel. Jayden's scream is cut short as the bus smacks into the oncoming traffic...one, two, three cars, and then oblivion.

A Daily Observation


As I sit upon the clashing colours of emeralds and sapphires,
Dull, minuscule, particles jolt reaching across
To the other side:
A mixture of decades longing to escape
That tiresome journey they make each day.

Watching the condensation on the omniscient glass
Rise and fall rise and fall. I wonder how many others breathe
Their existence, their being, their woes, their memories
On that same spot as I do now.
Waiting for the right time to push

The tight squares of red stare intently in this direction
With the faded letters forming that imperative verb.
Commanding not just the driver leading this journey
But glaring back at me with ostensibly egalitarian authority.
I try to push back this intrinsic inspection.

A surplus of shapes surrounds my seat: a disjointed amalgamation.
From the right, a diminished beat of RnB straining to keep in time
With a cacophony of coughs and splutters with differing pitches.
In front, two bodies interlaced, knitted together with the wool of love.
Behind, a fierce foot tapping against the smell of stale tobacco.

My daily observation never fails to teach me.
We are together; we are separate.
We are the same; we are different.
We are constant; we are erratic.
It is easy to define us as a collective – what about the individual?

I am a dull, minuscule particle.
But do I jolt
To reach across to the other side?
No. Yet,
I am a mixture of decades longing to escape
This tiresome journey I make each day.

We were both on the same bus
but one of us wanted to get off
and the other was clinging on and crying.
It wasn’t me, but you.

You were on a bus and my bus
went past and our eyes met
in a detonation of desire
but we were going in different directions.
Too stubborn to change our minds.

I was on a bus and I saw you
from the top deck
I couldn’t get the driver to stop
in time and you’d gone.
Again. You’d gone again.

I missed the bus I’d meet you on.
That was my last chance.

We travelled on the same bus
our whole lives but never
spoke to each other.
Didn’t even touch with our eyes.

I’m not on any bus anymore.

Its been a while since we have had need to catch a bus. Living, as we do, in the countryside necessitates us having a car, but here we are, renting for three months in the city. It feels like we're on an adventure.

We feel intrepid. We laugh at ourselves for being so careful, so middle-aged, middle class. We recognise how inured we are from the everyday experience of the city. We've rented a nice flat in a smart part of the city. You have a meeting in town and I need to get some essentials - well, essentials for us - to make our stay more comfy.

We check carefully the bus timetables on-line, identify options. We're going to get separate buses back to the flat later. To allay any anxieties, we memorise street names of possible bus stops where we can alight.

We trace the bus company's map with our fingers millimetres from the screen of your lap top. We never touch the screen. When others unwittingly or unawarely do so it makes you wince and me hold my breath. We recite bus numbers and street names to one another, agree which bus and which route to take.

We're all set. Breakfast things cleared away, teeth brushed, lipstick on (me), briefcase packed (you), twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time. We have the correct change ready. We will need to change a note later for our return trips. Bus drivers don't give change nowadays we've been told. As one, we agree to leave the flat and get an earlier bus. Daring!

The walk to the stop takes us just eighty four seconds, not the three minutes anticipated by the bus company. We allow a number twelve bus to go past. You check the information at the stop and indicate, with a wave of your hand, the bus stop on the corner opposite where I am to get off when I come back. I nod, check the street name. It is as I remembered.

Our bus arrives. As the doors open, you gesture for me to get on first and follow immediately behind proffering our exact money to the driver asking for two tickets. He looks somewhat bemused. We realise we have broken some protocol. There are people waiting to get off.

I apologise, about to step back to the pavement, when a young woman barges past me and proceeds to shout obscenities and bang something hard against the side of the bus. I am not sure if the swearing is intended for me or the driver. You are worried about me, check I'm alright. I'm fine I say. Other passengers get off, walk away quickly. The driver gives you our tickets and we move down the bus and sit.

The young woman is still yelling and swearing and hammering at the bus. Everyone else is silent, keeping their heads down. It is like every movie I've ever seen where something is threatening. All of us trying not to draw attention to ourselves. She is wildly aggressive in her behaviour. And unpredictable. She's at the front of the bus now hammering with something on the windscreen. It is very loud and all the while she is screaming obscenities.

A youngish man who was at the bus stop with us tries to reason with her. The bus driver talks to her through his cab window. She proceeds to lie down in the road in front of the bus. Yelling and screaming. Cars swerve to avoid her.

I am frozen; rooted to the spot. I feel scared for her. I feel scared for all of us. This is not normal behaviour and I have no experience to call on to help or defuse the situation. As well, I feel guilty. We got it wrong. Did we unwittingly cause this with our too eager, gauche entry onto the bus?

Another passenger, an older woman, gets off the bus and persuades the girl to get off the road. I am relieved when, with more hammering down the length of the bus, the girl moves on. The driver pulls away from the bus stop at last.


Breaking habits of lifetimes of silent, solitary travel, the other passengers engage with one another. Off-loading their tension, making surmises about the young woman. They concur the poor wee lassie has some kind of mental health issue, they are universally compassionate, kind. The woman who intervened was praised for her bravery. She says she thought, being an older woman, the girl may take more notice of her. The younger man who had tried to reason with her acknowledged he had been a bit scared she might hit him. They chatter all the way into town, say goodbye to one another as they disembark at their various stops.

You and I hold hands. Silenced. We're the last off the bus. I ask the driver if he's okay, not shaken up. He tells me he's used to it. He's seen it all before.

We don't talk about it once we're off the bus. We find a lovely coffee shop, order our flat whites. You have an almond croissant and we talk about where I may pick up the things we've agreed to buy for the flat and our plans for the evening. Then it's time for you to go to your meeting so we leave the cafe and you walk with me down the road a bit to show me where I can pick up the bus for my return journey.

I spend a couple of hours enjoying being in the city, wandering round the huge department stores. I buy some placemats and a few nice mugs, a casserole dish and a knife sharpener. The knives in the flat are good quality but blunt. I can't be doing with blunt knives.

I have wandered away from where you suggested I get the return bus, but easily find a stop. I read the information and when the driver comes, double check by asking him whether it is the correct side for my part of town. I notice the street you've pointed out to me and the nice driver tells me it is my stop anyway.

When I get back to the flat I text you to let you know I'm home. I'm relieved when a few hours later I hear your key in the door.

We'll take a cab next time I expect.

ON A BUS

George sat on the top deck of the bus. His seat was level with the windows of a pub. A woman in a scarlet dress leant out of the window peering down into the street. He could see into the room beyond, lit by a bright glow, as if a party was in progress – music played and couples flitted past. Before he could make sense of it, the bus moved on and the incident was over. He slumped back in the seat and rubbed his eyes feeling all of his forty-two years at the end of another workday. Next evening, he took the same route at the same time but the bus went past in a second and the pub window was shut. He put the scene out of his mind.

When he got home, his mother put the tea on the table as usual and sat down opposite him. She wiped her wrinkled hands on a tea towel and looked across at him.
“Here we go” he thought, “another bleeding lecture.”
“Why don’t you go out a bit more Georgie? You’re always under my feet and yet you’re earning a good wage. Enjoy yourself!”
Her voice had a piercing tone and it grated on his nerves.
“Do you think a packer gets a good wage? Working from eight a.m. to half past five in a grimy warehouse? It’s a treadmill, I tell you. I’m fagged out by teatime.”
She rumbled on for a few minutes but he didn’t listen anymore. He read the Evening Standard, and switched on the telly. But when he went up to bed, he found himself thinking back to the mysterious window and the lady in the scarlet dress. What was going on that night?

*

The following Tuesday, he decided to find out. He jumped off the bus a few yards down the road from the pub. It was the Wheatsheaf, one of the big Victorian pubs with Assembly Rooms upstairs. Outside the Saloon a notice read:
“TANGO CLASSES TUESDAY 6 PM”.
He climbed the stairs and heard unfamiliar music. Dazed a little by the noise and the swirling couples, he stood in the doorway wrapped in his old mac and holding his cap in his hand.
The music stopped and a little woman came bustling over to him and took him by the arm. Her black hair, obviously dyed, was pulled back into a bun. She wore a tight blue dress and very high heels so she tottered as she led him in.
He could see the lines round her mouth wrinkle up like parchment as she smiled. Her body was as fragile as an old china doll in an antique shop. George had no time to explain that he was just curious. Everything moved so fast he couldn’t keep up.

“Just sit down, dear. Take off your coat and Doris will be over presently.”

He wondered what his mother would say when he got home late for his tea. He pushed the thought out of his mind.

The class was reforming for another dance and the little woman in the tight dress clapped her hands and shouted:
“Now change your partners and let’s try a little harder – just glide – glide.”

Her thin voice rose high above the chatter. The beat of the music began again and George watched as the dancers gathered on the floor. The male dancers clasped their partners tightly and it seemed like the women were trying to keep them away. Some of the men gleamed with sweat as they shuffled about. The women struggled along as if pushing a heavy load.

Several untidy old men sat round the room looking on expectantly, their knees spread out as if claiming a space. It reminded him of musical chairs when he was small and everyone waited for the chance to grab a chair when the music stopped. Eyes scanned the women hoping for the slightest hint of approval.
Then his attention was attracted to a younger woman who came over to him. She was the girl in the red dress he had seen the week before.

“Have you been here before?” she asked.
“Well no, not inside,” he said.

He realised it wasn’t the right thing to say because she frowned and cocked her head.

“What do you mean?”

He stood up and muttered the first thing that came into his head but she paid no attention and took his hand. He felt the warmth of her touch as she guided him onto the corner of the dance floor. At close quarters he reckoned she was about his age yet had worn well. He was amazed at the way she propelled him about like a parcel.

“One – Two – Slide. One –Two – Slide.”

He moved awkwardly. His partner scarcely reached his shoulder but she kept up the chant as they ploughed through the other couples. One or two avoided them with a quick change of direction but most suffered the crunch of his foot against their heels or toes as they moved around.When the music stopped she dropped his hand and wiped her palm against her dress in a furtive way.

“That’ll be enough for one session,” she said firmly and walked away to the other side of the room. He called after her, “Doris!”
She turned and seemed puzzled. He stuttered, “I just want to say thank you.”

She walked back. “For what?”

“For giving me a dance,” he blurted.

She laughed and he noticed for the first time that she had a nice smile.

“You’re a funny one! I dance with all the newcomers.”

“Well I mean...” but he couldn’t say what he meant,so he stopped. She smiled again and her eyes smiled too.

“Maybe I’ll see you next week then.”

*

During the week he wondered if it was worthwhile turning up the following Tuesday. He felt embarrassed by his clumsiness and the way she had to push him round the floor. Besides, the other men in the class depressed him; it was like joining a queue at the Job Centre. They were a sad bunch and he would be just the same if he went back. But as the weekend arrived, he kept thinking about the woman in the scarlet dress and how she smiled at him. On Saturday he bought a new shirt in the market and came home with it hidden under his overcoat. He told himself one last go would be OK, if he kept himself away from the general group of old losers.

On Tuesday, he left home with the new shirt still in its wrapper. He put it on as he left the factory at the end of the day. At six p.m. he was there. The room was empty. He sat for minutes before he heard the sound of high heels tapping their way upstairs.Through the door came Doris and she seemed surprised to see him.

“O hello! Wondered if you would come back.”

She went to put her coat away, not expecting any reply. He stood up but couldn’t think of anything to say, so he sat down again. As she came back he saw she wore a different frock – a bluish colour but it looked good on her. The music began and she danced with one of the younger men who showed off as he whirled her in an extravagant way. George hated the look of him, all shoulders and smarmy grin. The music stopped and before the dancers had moved off the floor, an old man was up and walking over to Doris to speak to her.
She stood for a moment and glanced at George. She gave a wan smile and George leapt to his feet pushing the older man aside.

“You said I could have the next lesson,” he lied.

“Yes, that’s right. Do you mind, Tom?”

The bald old man grunted but George grabbed her hand and stood waiting for the music to start. He forgot about the handkerchief. Then they were away, moving together to the beat.
He held her close, feeling her body moving with him to the rhythm of the dance. The soft warmth of her back and her lithe movements sent a surge of excitement through him. He couldn’t believe it when the music stopped. It seemed unfair.
“That was much better,” she said letting go of his hand. “You are relaxing more now.”

“It’s only because of you,” he blurted out.

She looked away and didn’t smile.

“Maybe you should dance with Alice next time.”

“No! I want to dance with you!”

His outburst startled her and she drew back a pace.

“You can’t,” she said, “it’s the rules, I only teach the new ones.”

For an instant, he wanted to protest. He wanted to tell her that he had never felt so happy in his life when he danced close to her. Then he saw her turn and smile at the old man she had rejected and take his hand for the next number.

He got his mac and walked to the door. Doris whirled by, turning the old man in time with the music.

“See you again next week?” she asked.

He didn’t reply but pushed through the swing door and went out into the dark. Outside, a drenching rain had begun, seeping inside his mac and soaking the collar of his new shirt. He felt for his cap but he couldn’t find it. He waited for the bus and when it arrived, he sat upstairs as usual. He saw his reflection in the glass, a damp figure with his scant hair plastered down across his forehead.
But he was smiling.

ON A BUS
A rural bus-shelter late on Tuesday 31 October in the year of our Lord 2017.

In these times of austerity, council cuts have blackened whatever lighting there used to be and I’m a small, cold figure surrounded by a depth of darkness the like of which hasn’t cloaked our village since the war. There’s fog, a dense pall of it, and I draw my coat tighter around my shivering body and am grateful for my thick black tights and fur lined boots.

It’s early evening and I’m waiting for the 350 bus into town, where I’m meeting friends for Halloween drinks. You would think we’d have grown out of it now we’re in our 30s, but life being what it is we all try to punctuate its drabness with the usual yearly round of revelry, don’t we? And I perhaps more than most. I who have closed off doors in my mind; locked them fast so that they should never be prised open to let what’s behind them see the light of day. I need the distraction that Christmas, Easter, summer holidays and all the rest of it provide. And I need the oblivion that’s to be found at the bottom of a glass.

A little group of five or six children passes by the shelter laughing and whooping and carrying pumpkin lanterns. I think how sinister their surely innocent little faces look as the light shines on them, and I’m stamping my feet on the ground to try and get some warmth into them when I hear the thrum of an engine in the distance. My mood lifts, hoping it’s my bus. A heavy goods vehicle is passing by the shelter on the other side of the road. I look up, and a double-decker bus is indeed making its way with unnerving speed towards me. The children’s voices are fading into the night as I bend my head and try to see the time by my watch, but the night is too dark. I have a torch in my pocket and I use it and look a second time. 9.00 o’clock. My watch has stopped this morning. I lift my head again and begin to raise my hand to request the stop. Then in shock I watch as the bus swerves sharply and disappears from view. There is no sound other than my heart, which is pounding in my ears. The bus must have suddenly run up against a wall of fog, and I feel a dread in the pit of my stomach as I wonder whether there has been an accident. Do I need to ring the emergency services? But before I can fumble with my gloves to rake my phone out of my coat pocket, the fog suddenly clears and all thought of the bus and its passengers leaves my head.

Because, walking out of the fog, towards the shelter, towards me, is Matthew Hodderton. Hodders. I had forgotten him over the years. But it is him. It’s been a long time, but now I see him again I would know him anywhere. There’s an awkwardness in his gait, and no wonder. He’s not wearing a jacket and it’s his white shirt against the black night that makes him visible to me.

“Hi Jessica,” he calls as he approaches me. “Do you remember me? We were at school together.”

He recognises me instantly, and, of course, I do remember him. He was in my class, and there was a time I’d hoped we might get together, be an item. But he was very young, and sporty. He only thought of football and cricket. He had no time for girls and that felt like a rejection. And so I handled that the best way I knew how. By paying back in kind.

“I’ve always so hoped we might come across each other again,” he says, “and now we have.”

He’s standing close to me now and bends to kiss my cheek. I let him kiss me, as I wish we had kissed when we were young, when we were still able to. In the distance I am aware of shouting and screaming – and I remember the last time I saw Matthew. His image comes to me now out of the depths of my fragile mind, where I had thrust it and slammed the door shut, all those years ago, rather than face the truth of what happened that monstrous, tragic day.

I look through disbelieving eyes and in turn I see him staring at me. We are caught up in time and hang frozen in the moment. Then the fabric jolts and I see a young boy, small for his age, but wiry and athletic, and his story is unfolding as my mind unravels. He was fourteen years old. Found hanged in the school gym, while the rest of his class were at school assembly. 9.00 am. “He who would valiant be, ‘gainst all disaster……..” we sing. I hear the words, and there is no escape for me as the door in my mind is flung open and I remember.

Unable to turn my gaze away, I watch you, Matthew, as you position the chair and string the rope from the cross beam to take your own young life - your life that had so much promise in it. You are so brave. You choose that brave way rather than face me day after day.

Now, forced with all the class to go to your funeral, I see your parents. Your mother is sobbing uncontrollably and your father is trying to hold her up, see her through this day and all the empty, tortured days to come. I hang my head as if in respect, but the truth is I cannot look anymore. I am not to blame for this, I tell myself. I raise my eyes and look straight ahead of me at the future. I will be OK. I am not to blame. And I see myself back in class, but I can’t see you there, not even your empty desk. There is no place for you. I have erased you entirely.
Then I know at last, and with a jolt of clarity that tears at my very being, that you were never going to be mine. Fate always had quite something else in store for us. And on this Halloween night fate delivers. And I scream inside as I hear the worst sound in all the world. My own voice, ugly and jeering,
“Matthew Hodderton, you stink. You’re so thick. Everyone hates you. You’ll never have a girlfriend. No girl would even look at you. Why don’t you just give up, you loser.”

We are queueing outside the main hall for school assembly, and I push you roughly out of line, as I have so often before. This is the last day of our story, Matthew. This is where it ends. And I dismiss you from my mind, as you make your way to the gym.

Time bends and warps itself into hideous shapes, and I hear ambulance and police sirens. A man’s voice pierces the darkness,
“Are you there, love? Stay with me. Stay with me.” But I cannot.

And then I understand.

There are no breaths left for me. And I watch myself leave the shelter, climb onto that 350 bus, pay my fare and take my seat, seconds before it hits the fog and veers onto the other side of the road into the path of an oncoming lorry.

Then I hear a voice, and it is your voice, Matthew. I hear it spit out its dreadful words at me,
“What goes around, Jessica.”

And the voice goes on and on against the backdrop of my fractured, dead soul. Endlessly. Down all eternity. And that dreadful, vile, accusing voice is mine too.

The universe first holds its treacherous breath and then hisses at me “What goes around comes around, and around……. “

On a bus
In the rain
Such a shame
I'm stuck in traffic.

On the bus with a guy to my right
Whose music pierces my eardrums.
Lord knows what is happening to his ears!
Still not going anywhere.

The bus has moved
But not so far.
I was lost in my thoughts...
Shopping. Petrol. Pack bags.

Dreaming of my holiday.
I can not wait.
The bus is slow tonight.
I'm going to be home late.

"Sorry Darling, the bus is slow."
I hate talking in public on my mobile phone
But needs must and I have to share
The fact that I am on the bus to nowhere!

Off the bus.
I have arrived.
Short walk.
Still raining.
Getting wet.
Am I home yet?
Only an hour late!

Thank goodness. We are becoming aware of all the plastic getting into the wrong places. It is in our seas, our oceans, in turtles, in birds, in us. It is everywhere.

There is a cycle: as people become galvanised to do something, that need is expressed in numerous, countless ways. Some turn to art: art created from plastic rubbish, to draw the attention of the people who still seem to be blissfully ignorant. The supermarkets that still package using plastic: the consumers who happily chuck it on the ground when they have finished with whatever the plastic had wrapped.

It has to be acknowledged that, in creating awareness of the problems of plastic, the most significant art of recent times has been created by the video camera and the operator behind the lens, who may be an individual or part of a larger, concerned, organisation. You will have seen terrible images of all species suffering at our hands, in places as far from ‘civilisation’ as you can imagine. The most memorable of these is in documentary form: Blue Planet. I was at a conference about the oceans a couple of weeks ago and Blue Planet was mentioned several times. Many people there had been galvanised into action by the images they saw.

If you class the medium of video as art, then video truly is turning art into action.

Looking ahead, how will this progress?

What the next concerns will be?

It will be interesting to see when we start panicking properly about the rest of the junk we tip in the oceans. Radioactive waste? Heavy metals? It is acknowledged that it is dangerous to eat many species of fish because of the high levels of toxic matter in their flesh.

Had you noticed that we tend to think of ourselves? If we eat the fish, it may not be good for us. How about the fish? Is it ok for them to suffer too, in these days of animal welfare. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t suffer. Will the medium of video teach us more about what we can’t see within the sea?

The unseen fish have sensors by which to be aware of their surroundings, just like birds. They swim in shoals, like birds fly in flocks.

I don’t believe it is acceptable to eat birds? I’ve not heard of folks eating blackbirds and starlings, except in nursery rhymes – though these songs were founded in fact. Many years ago, flocks of birds were caught in nets to be consumed. Would that be acceptable now? Perhaps in the future folks will reduce their consumption of fish when more is learnt about these unseen species, in the same way that many people now are vegetarians and – surprisingly to many, they function as well – in fact probably better – than those who eat meat.

Whatever your views, it will be interesting to see how the messages develop: what the messages will be and how they change. And how they will be conveyed. If a picture paints a thousand words, art, probably in the form of moving images, will inevitably be the way to convey that message to call us to action.

THE PIANO

I was quite amazed to see the piano on the beach. The tide's foamy fingers had already lapped around its legs which were slightly sunk into the soft, grainy sand. From where I was standing I could see that it was a baby grand. Its top was open, as if to embrace the warm, sea breeze, ready and waiting for the pianist. I could see him; tall, bronzed, with teeth gleaming in the last of the sun’s rays. He is barefooted but has not bothered to roll up the trousers of his evening suit. His bow tie is undone and nestles on his crisp, open necked, white shirt. The sudden breeze lifts the quiff of his blond hair and he smooths it down with long, tapered, fingers. He seductively smiles as he passes me, sits down on the piano stool and starts to play ‘Love Changes Everything’. I sigh. My favourite song.
I start to sway with the music. My long gossamer dress flows and caresses my legs. I am nearing the piano. I put my hand on the back of his neck. He looks up at me, takes one hand from the ivory keys and…..
“Absolute rubbish!” The words cut across my daydreaming.
“What?” I asked “Sorry. What did you say?”
A rather large lady was standing next to me.
“This picture of the piano. Rubbish. Why, the legs would rot in no time and how would it get there?”
“It’s only a picture.” I managed to say before she started again.
“And they call it art!” Her voice went up an octave. “My six year old grandson would have more sense than to paint a picture of a piano standing in the sea. Where are the vases of flowers and the country cottages? That’s what I came to see.”
I looked again at the picture. It was beautiful. I looked at the woman again. I wanted to ask her why she couldn’t see or feel the beauty and the calmness that it portrayed but, she was already moving on to the next room. I looked at my brochure. Oh dear. It was the abstract section. I wondered what she would make of that.
“How ridiculous!” came the cry.
I had not had to wait long.











You sit in a Parisian cafe
newspaper in hand
the click click click
showing you the bleak, the incendiary
the carpet of steel falling
on women & children (on a clear market day)
pushing humanity into a small space
a 20th century stable
three hours turning into a bloody century
turning into a nightmare of supermen marching
eating the dew off the meadows
eating the yellow stars
eating themselves

Then your brushes explode
toppling those false gods from their pedestals
exposing the disjointed, (ignited in suffering)
cradling the pain of war in their arms
as a fist’s shattered blade begins blooming
in this tight grey/blue room
holding inside itself, all Spanish bullrings
holding all torches, rising towards all small windows
holding inside, all the broken pieces of humankind
to hang together, on a free Spanish wall

They waved the bedsheet in the air and yelled over the truck engines and closed windows. The car in front of me rolled through the stop sign as I drove up to the intersection, the motley band of protestors on the grass to my left.

I hazarded a glance toward the small group through my car window. One of them waved at me. I turned my head forward, quickly, but then felt guilty. Cranking the window down, I glanced back at the man who had caught my eye. The thick Florida heat spilled into the car.

"That's Morty," I said aloud.

"You know him?" Della asked from the passenger seat.

I nodded, waving back.

"He goes to my church."

"He looks ancient."

I looked from Morty to the rest of the group and counted about nine of them with my eyes. Five women, four men, all over eighty years old. The woman in the back rested one of her arms on a walker and raised her other one in the air with an angry fist.

The car behind me honked.

The group cheered, waving their bedsheet enthusiastically. I looked at it for the first time, seeing the words brushed on it with blue paint.

HONK IF YOU PROTEST THE WAR IN IRAQ

The car behind me honked again, sending another wave of cheers. I grinned and lay on my own horn, then put the car in gear. Della hid her head in her hands.

#

They discussed their little protest on Sunday after services, and Esmerelda tallied the number of honks to a total of thirty-eight, convincing herself and the rest of the small congregation that public opinion was pacifist in nature.

I sat at the metal folding table, cradling my Styrofoam cup of coffee with my hands, wondering when I could gracefully duck out of the building.

"I wish we saw more folks your age out there holding signs," Esmerelda said, lowering her reading glasses and looking straight into my eyes.

If ever there were a time to discuss my fears on such matters, now would be my chance. These seasoned activists had seen their labors come to fruition through the sixties and seventies. I wanted to know how many of them had been arrested.

Morty shook his head at me, his earring glinting in the fluorescent lights above. I stood.

"I have to go. I have a petition to sign," I said, smiling at the group. I did not mention it would be anonymously.

"That's the spirit!" Morty said, his face breaking into a beam. "And, we'll be at that corner again on Wednesday if you're available."

I smiled at them all again, dumping my coffee into the trash as I left.

#

Smells of curry wafted in from the small apartment kitchen as the group of five young men tried to peel enough eggs to feed all of us. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed an egg.

"You boiled them for too long," I said to Ravin as I cracked the egg's shell. He smiled.

"I'll get it right eventually," he said.

"Abi can't get back into the country," Della said, plopping herself onto the sofa.

"What?" I asked, looking up from my mutilated egg.

"Yeah," said one of the other men, pulling eggshells from his fingernails. He was a friend of Ravin's; I hadn't yet caught the man's name.

"Well, why did he leave?" I asked. "With everything that's going on right now...."

"Wanted to see his folks over break," Della filled in. "If they don't let him back in within the month, he's going to lose his scholarship."

Half of my egg fell into the trash.

"That sucks. That really sucks." I threw the rest of the egg away.

We heard voices on the sidewalk outside the apartment walls. I paused, listening, as the outside conversation wafted in through the window glass.

"That's a lot of shoes, man."

"Shit, do you think? Should we tell someone?"

"I dunno...."

Their footsteps receded on the concrete. From the parking lot, a pickup truck engine revved.

#

During church, we took up a small collection for Douglas. He had attended the same art school as me, but he was in worse shape.

I lay a ten dollar bill in the basket.

"This means so much to me," Douglas said after services, hugging me in the open doorway. The heat gnawed at our necks, sending trickles of sweat down my back.

"Shut the door and save the planet!" one of the parishioners yelled from within. I pulled Douglas by his sleeve to the covered sidewalk and let the heavy metal door slam.

"I don't suppose you have any work you could pass my way?" Douglas asked, his eyes pointing to the ground.

"I wish I had something I could give you," I said. I had just enough illustration work to pay my part of rent. My one remaining client—the local bank—could drop me without explanation. Just like the last one had.

The door handle squealed, and Morty squeezed through the heavy metal onto the sidewalk.

"I wanted to give you this," he said, pushing a photocopied flyer into my hand. "We're marching next Saturday. You should join us."

I looked at the flyer as if giving it significant thought.

"It's local? Here in town?" I asked. Douglas took the flyer from me.

Morty nodded. "Yeah, you got no excuse this time."

"I'll consider it," I lied. Word traveled fast in small towns.

"Count me in," Douglas said, smiling at Morty. Of course Douglas should march. He had nothing to lose.

Morty reached out and took Douglas' arm.

"I'm glad at least one of you young folk is willing to defend what we worked so hard for."

I smiled at them both as I turned toward the gravel parking lot. And I felt my soul crumble under Morty's gaze as I drove away.

The artist’s pencil swept back and forth across the page, spidery lines appearing on the crisp sheet of paper. On the other side of her easel, the land stretched out across rolling hills, divided into neat squares with hedgerows and low walls. Dotted across the fields were flashes of bright stone where farm buildings and ramshackle old shepherds’ huts interrupted the hillside. She began with the easiest lines, working quickly to form the outline of the landscape.

-

As the walker stood beneath the shadow of the hill, he could feel the earth around him shifting to accommodate his presence. It was a low feeling, deep in his bones, whispering that the land had yet to settle. Here in the shadows, everything looked incomplete. The fields were devoid of life. The trees he could see from the corner of his eyes stretched as bare spindles over the land. The sky overhead was grey, and the grass at his feet washed of its colour as though the world had become an old sepia photograph. Ahead of him, an ill-defined path ran along the length of a low wall at the boundary of a field. He set his feet to it, and began to walk.

-

The artist scowled down at her sketch, and selected her eraser from the box at her feet. With small, gentle motions, she rubbed at the line of the wall until it disappeared, and blew away the curls of eraser left behind with a short, sharp puff of breath.

-

The dry stone wall began to disappear. Only from one end at first, tiny pebbles clattering to the floor and rolling away down the hill, then the larger stones began to sift away, all along the line of the wall. When the walker reached out to try to catch one of the stones, it crumbled to dust in his fingers and swirled away on a sudden breeze.

-

Perhaps a hedge instead, the artist thought, sucking on the softened end of her pencil, flakes of paint coming off against her tongue with a bitter tang. Something more organic amongst the rolling fields. She took her pencil from between her lips, laid the point flat against the paper, and began to ruche a line of bushes onto the page.

-

The walker stared. Along what had once been a wall, hedges erupted, spreading at speed from where he stood at one end of the vanished wall right along the edge of the field. They did not grow slowly up from their roots with their branches spreading out and tiny leaves unfurling in careful order. One moment, he had been staring at where the wall had been, and the next he found himself facing thick bushes standing as high as his chest. When he stretched his hand out to touch the leaves, he found them fresh and sticky with sap.

-

The artist paused with her pencil poised at the dip of the hill, and scanned her gaze along the curve in the landscape before her. Just a small change, a new lift to the earth. She drifted her pencil along a lilting line, pulling the slope of the hill up more sharply to drag the eye upwards.

-

The walker staggered. The ground beneath his feet shuddered, groaning and creaking like the bones of an old giant. Then the earth began to rise sharply, knocking him backwards off his feet. He found himself sliding down the hillside as it rose ahead of him, scraping his elbows and knees against tufts of jagged grass and thorned twigs stuck in the soil. His fingers scrabbled at the ground, snagged around the stump of a tree, and clung to it until the ground had ceased to shake. When he raised his head, he saw ahead of him the new slope, climbing steep into the sky.

-

The artist wet the tip of her paintbrush and began to sweep colour onto the page. Glimpses of sky became blue and grey and a gentle lilac. The grass washed through with sunlight-tinged green. Gentle dashes of a creamy white the colour of old bone coaxed the buildings from the hillside. The trees were picked out as sharp scratches of brown.

-

As he lay on the ground, catching his breath and slowing the rapid thud of his racing heart, the walker noticed a flicker through the blur of his partially closed eyes. There was a warmth suddenly suffusing his body, and he cracked open his eyes to find overheard the clouds had cleared away to reveal a summer sun, and with it the flush of colour returning to the land.

-

Her work complete, the artist set her paintbrush down and leant back, framing the painting against the hills beyond. While she had been working she thought she remembered making changes, but looking now at the painting was like holding up a mirror to the land. Hadn’t there been a wall somewhere that she had changed to a hedgerow? Squinting out at the hills, she could see nothing but hedges running among the fields. She had not thought that incline so steep before either, but looking at it now she wondered if she had imagined the change. Every detail of the land before her had been captured exactly on her canvas, each tree in its place, the fields all in line, even the grazing sheep seemed to be frozen as they had been painted.

There was only one small difference, she noticed, as she began to tidy away her materials. In the distance, the tiny figure of a moving man fled down the twisting path to the base of the hill.

He looked from side to side, eyeing up his enemies.
They were surrounded.
His companion shuffled nervously.
"I don't think this is the right place." His companion said, gulping.
"Stay focused Forthen," He said to his companion, and then to his enemies, "So... You've come back for another fight eh?" The chitter and squarks of the hideous birdmen hybrids responded like laughter.
"You will die this time. We have you surrounded. There is no escape." A hulking ugly hybrid had stepped forward as it spoke this, it's head violently jerking as it snarled at him.
"Not this time you filthy beasts" He said under his breath as he took three furious strides towards the hybrid.
Lifting his hand behind his head he drew out his long sword and with a yell that held all of his fury, brought it down upon the beasts neck. The head fell with a thump.

The chitter stopped.

Then from somewhere else came a horrible, gutteral cry. Then another. And another joined it until all gave voice to their hatred and malice.

The battle began.

Immediately three hybrids rushed towards him, others following. He faced them head on, swinging his mighty sword and felling his foes. He parried the first one, knocking its beastly clawed hands away and driving his sword straight into its chest. He had no time to watch his foe fall to the ground, for he quickly side stepped the second, turning his body as he did so and bringing his sword round to meet the creatures neck. It's head rolled away cleanly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his companion, Forthen, fending off two hybrids with his daggers.
He brought himself back to the fight.
'Focus!'
He thought to himself.
'Avoid the blue'
Again he side stepped out of the way of the third hybrid and slashed at the beasts arm. Those that had lingered behind had edged closer, eagre to get their taste of blood and battle.
Each step was calculated in his mind. Move. Stab. Avoid. Parry. Parry. Stab.
He was running out of breath. Behind him a loud cry called up.
"ARGH!"
The man turned, and saw Forthen being felled by a hybrid.
"FORTHEN!" He screamed. With all his energy he slashed his way through the hybrids that had encircled him.
'Come on!' He thought.
As a hybrid raised its sharp clawed hand to attack him, he tucked himself in and forward rolled onto the ground. Dodging the attack.

He felt a pop. And heard a clatter.

Standing he looked down. His shin guard was missing. He turned his head and saw it lying on the ground behind him.

"CUT!" An exasperated voice sounded. A gentle bubble of voices rose up as people made themselves busy. Resetting heads, adjusting the lights, cleaning the ground.
The man swung his arms down and relaxed.
"Can someone fix his damn costume please." The voice shouted over the noise. "Michael that was great. Roger could you give a little more pain when you fall. We need it to sound nasty."
"Sure thing." Roger replied.

Michael made his way back over to Roger. The two of them shared a brief chuckle and conversation while the rest of the crew carried on with their jobs. An assistant hurried over to Michael and placed his fallen shin guard back on to his leg.
The stunt guys positioned themselves back to where they were. Michael felt for them. It was hard in his armour, but was probably even harder for those guys in full suits.

"Alright everyone places please." The voice shouted again. "Lets try and finish this before lunch."
Michael gave a quick stretch of his arms as he settled himself beside his friend Roger.

"Alright and ready in three. Two. One. And Action!"

It had been a long, stressful day. My new boss was turning out to be less than supportive, and my team was way behind due to being short-staffed. I finally managed to leave the office and made my way to the tube station. Severe delays on the Victoria Line. Perfect. When the train eventually pulled into the station, it was wall-to-wall flesh but I crammed myself on anyway. And spent ten minutes stuck in a tunnel in the semi-darkness with my nose practically pressed into some other bloke’s armpit. Gotta love London.

I fell out of the carriage onto the platform at Highbury & Islington, jogged across to the national rail platform and looked up at the display. 19:18 to Stevenage - cancelled. 19:33 to Letchworth Garden City - cancelled. 19:48 to Hertford North - cancelled. Seriously? My head dropped to my chest and I felt like just sitting down right there and giving up. But it was back across to the other platform to wait for another delayed Victoria Line train. I switched to the Piccadilly Line at Finsbury Park and waited through the long haul all the way up to Oakwood.

As was traditional, I called home from Arnos Grove to find out if my wife would be willing to drive out and pick me up, but there was no answer. So I had to wait fifteen minutes for the bus and at last arrived home at about half past eight. I dropped my bag right inside the door and trudged into the kitchen, hoping to find a meal waiting for me, but instead found a folded note on the counter.

It read:

Darling,

Gone out for an impromptu girls’ night - hope that’s okay. Feed yourself and don’t wait up.

Also, see below list for everything that needs doing round the flat tonight - have fun!

Food shopping - Vicky completed
Laundry - Vicky completed
Feed the fish - Vicky completed
Empty the bins - Art to action
Change the air filters in the fish tank - Art to action
Wash up - Art to action

See you tomorrow!

Kisses,
Vicky

I sighed heavily, took off my jacket and set to work.

Pilgrimage to the End of the World

It's over
Sun-scorched and parched
I mouth my last prayer to Sun Ra
Crossed by mankind
The joke now on them
With us pitifully caught in the crossfire
Light years pass in a shimmer
Just like they say
Before I expire
I muster one final burst of energy
And inch my brittle body to the kerb’s edge
From here I admire
A stream of diaphonous pearly moisture dance
Upwards into nothingness
Just like they say
And the psychedelic swirl of oily moonstone
Atop the all but depleted Holy Puddle
A fitting trip to go out on

I saw you out there, that place we don’t trespass,
framed you as a work of art. Little old boy,
all back bones and slow descendings, drooping
oil paint on paint as my perspective altered
and a skin of my heart ripped off
because you’d forgotten our kind don’t go there
or you didn’t care.

Little painting of yourself that you’ve become,
dried colours, such texture that tears
at my feelings flailing like tentacles,
no, jellyfish tendrils, sting.
Sting. How did you turn to such hurting me, without meaning to?

I am over, without you. I will be done.
Image turned to wall
by you being out there, unprotected,
but you are mine, I’m yours, and surely
that’s a force-field against this life,
a hand-knotted blanket, soft, worn, softer,
we are each other, the oxygen in our bodies
drawn from shared breaths so deep, so long.

I run across
the frantic highway
and I pluck this image
of you from the harsh roadside,
stride back, you pinioned to me
too heavy, too heavy
but I’m invincible. Dissolving inside,
imploding as I lie down beside
you, muttering, crooning
please want to live.

Sheila picked up the receiver reluctantly, it had been a challenging day in the editorial office, the sub-editor had surpassed himself with raising idiotic objections to points of layout that Sheila had already approved of, had even sunk to querying the odd comma or full-stop, delaying the production of the final draft until Sheila had explained to him at length why she wanted things as she had directed.
When the phone rang, she had just got home and was in the kitchen, thinking about making dinner for herself and her husband Geoff, who was putting his briefcase away. She had been trying to relax and put work out of her mind and now she had to go out to the hall and listen to her poor old aunt going on.
Sheila sank down on the telephone seat. Rene, nearly 91, was still valiantly compos mentis, just about, but how tedious, Sheila sighed, composing herself to listen, her aunt could be, jawing on and on, telling Sheila things she already knew or had told Rene herself in the first place.
Rene considered herself a writer, having had a handful of short stories published in the '50s. She often asked Sheila if she could use her position as assistant editor to publish this or that story, written and laid aside years ago as inferior, and now discovered in a drawer as she constantly rummaged through her possessions.
Rene often invited her, but to her shame Sheila didn't visit her aunt very often. She was Sheila's mother's eldest sister, and the only one left now of a large family. She had outlived all the young'uns, as she called them, including Sheila's parents.
And here she was, Sheila reflected, spending her golden years sifting through old bits of paper from the past and reading her collection of Thomas Hardy novels over and over. Sheila could see Geoff through the kitchen door, starting to lay the table. She took a breath and told Rene once again how she worked for an engineering journal that wouldn't be interested in fiction stories, though she was sure they were excellent. She suggested two or three titles of popular women's magazines.
Geoff picked up the teapot and waved it at her inquiringly. She nodded. A cup of tea would definitely help but she ought to be getting on with the dinner. She tried to wind up the conversation as she always did by asking at the end, 'Have you found any photos of Mum yet, Rene?' As time went on since her parents died and as she got older, Sheila found herself missing them and wondering about their early lives.
Rene murmured in a vague way and Sheila could feel her impatience getting the better of her. Before her aunt could launch into another long story about relations between Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Sheila reminded her sharply, 'You know, you're always saying there was one day when the whole family went to the studio. I would love to see that photo!'
But her aunt hemmed and hawed. Sheila's exasperation was such that she very nearly came out with a curt, 'Sorry, got to go now, goodbye', when suddenly Rene became articulate.
'No, I'm sorry, Sheila ... but talking of your mother I found hundreds of letters between your parents the other day. Your mother left them with me when she was evacuated and couldn't take much luggage. She was going to have them back after the war but they had no room once you came along in that small flat. And in the end I suppose she forgot.'
'Letters - between my parents?' Sheila was stupefied. It had never occurred to her (she wondered that it hadn't) - of course there would have been letters! She wished she had asked her parents more about their lives. It was too late now and she would have to find out about the 40s in history books. Or was it?
'Your father wrote to her from the front, you see,' Rene was explaining laboriously, as if Sheila hadn't known he had gone to war. 'He was in the forces in Italy and Africa, he won medals, you know, he was mentioned in Dispatches!'
Sheila sat still. She no longer felt any compulsion to end the conversation and felt suddenly guilty at her impatience with the old lady.
'I'll come and see you tonight, Rene, straight after dinner,' she promised, her fatigue leaving her all at once. 'Perhaps we could read through them together and have a nice chat about the old days.'

Plasticity

I see you on a salt shelf
surrounded by mountains
surrounded by sea
your breath heavy, thick
your speech gurgling

Your hands held high
your braided hair, the only thing holding
& down from unclimbable cliffs
a darkness seeps in on everything

I morse code, can you turn
can you change your orientation
can you jump from greenish rock to greenish rock
over unctuous pools
& navigate tiny gaps (in teeth filled reefs) to freedom

She walked. I followed her. I nearly lost her, in the crowd. What would I do if I lost her? I would never see her again. I followed closer. I was behind her. She strode quickly, purposefully, through the crowd. I could barely keep up. I was right behind her, this unknown woman, as she reached the platform for the metro. There was a clatter of steel on steel, a blur of speed, a flurry of stale air and I caught a hint of her perfume as the front of the train surged past, pushing the air, her air, past me in a rush.

A squeal of tortured brakes, a rattle of doors and we surged forward, her in front of me, close. As the bodies surged, she stopped, in front of me. Motionless, she turned, faced me. Looked at me. Eye to eye, she looked at me face to face, in my eyes, unblinking. I didn’t notice if she had turned her whole body. I didn’t see her body. Only her eyes, unblinking, penetrating. I didn’t see the expression on her face. Only her eyes.

Then she was gone. I glimpsed her as the train left, a figure amongst the others, trapped within the steel tomb of the metro as it sped towards its terrible fate. My head told me I would never, never see her again and I felt a loss, as if indeed the train had fallen over an imaginary cliff, or plunged into an imaginary bottomless hole in the ground. I foretold I would never see her again. But I was wrong.



He played. He played and sang at the same time. I was captivated. Yeah, ok, you get plenty of guys who will play a guitar and sing at the same time. Thousands, millions. In fact most people would just love to be able to sing and play a guitar at the same time, even if they couldn’t: and there are as many people who just think that they can. But this guy did, he did, and in such a way that mesmerised me. The combination of chords and crooning which magically gave way to choral and classical then rock and pop and piercing, heart-rending lyrics. I had never heard anything quite like it. I moved forward, squeezing through the crowd, squeezing, sliding between bodies, large blank backs, sharp elbows. Somehow, I was at the front, he was in front of me. I watched his fingers as they stroked the strings, hit them, abused them, plucked them, drew artistry and life out of their coldness.

Then, suddenly, he had finished. I looked up. He was looking at me. Eye to eye, he looked at me, face to face, looked in my eyes, unblinking. I didn’t register his body, I couldn’t tell you whether he was wearing jeans, a shirt, or no shirt. Only his eyes, unblinking, penetrating. I didn’t see the expression on his face. Only his eyes.
Then he was gone. I caught a glimpse of his back, disappearing between the others in his group.



I saw her again. A couple of times. On the metro. A silhouette, a figure amongst the others, flashing past unseeing in the speeding window. A shadow on the platform, a brief glimpse. Then other times, and I wondered if I was imagining things. Everywhere I looked, she was there, on street corners, walking into shops, waiting at bus stops. I chased after her a few times but never was it she, this person, the girl I had seen. Maybe I hadn’t seen her at all.



He was there again, at the same small bar, playing his bewitching music. Each time, I watched, quietly from the back, spooked by his piercing gaze that first time. The mesmerisation of the music never changed. Why was he here? He should be playing to thousands at some sort of concert. But he was here, just feet away. I felt honoured, so lucky. I felt he was playing just for me. Then from the stage, far away the other side of the room, beyond the surging, dancing bodies, he stared at me, held my gaze. How did he keep on playing, and singing, while he stared at me. For me the world stopped. I could feel my synapses, my mind, shifting as he gazed at me.



Then, one day, out on the street, he was there. I didn’t go to him. He came to me. Somehow, I felt he was there before I felt his gentle hand on my shoulder. He was behind me, I could feel him breathing. I turned and as I looked at him, his was the same direct gaze as when he was singing and playing. But now he was silent. He smiled at me, a crooked, self-conscious smile.

“So” he said, “You like my music?”

I couldn’t at that moment frame a reply, too busy gazing in his eyes.

“You’re always there” he continued, “At the back, watching.”

I nodded.

“Listening. To my music.”

I nodded again. He looked sad.

“You’re the only one who does”, the disappointment in his voice touching me.

I wanted to say that I thought it was the most wonderful, powerful, soul-touching music I had ever heard and why wasn’t he the most famous musician I had heard of. But still I couldn’t speak.

“No-one else listens. They’re all busy moaning about their day at work, or sucking up to their boss, or trying to impress the girlfriend or boyfriend. I can hardly hear myself think. Or play. I just have to block them out.”

I finally replied, surprised. “I can only hear your music”, I said. “I’ve never noticed the crowd.”

He was pleased.

“You fancy a drink?” he asked.

Would I? Who cares about the drink, he was asking me to go with him, he was going to spare me time, all to me, just him and me.

So, we went to a quiet bar.

Later, when we parted, and he walked towards the metro, he reminded me of someone I knew, but could not quite think of at that moment.


She was on the metro, I saw her ahead of me. Was it her? Probably not. But I had to find out. I was behind her, and with the fewer crowds this Friday morning, people taking a long weekend, I was able to study her and see her, not just her eyes. Slim, boyish figure, neat hair, beautiful posture. Alert, intelligent. As she walked forward toward the train as it came in, I watched her move, graceful and lightstepped. I was sure this was her.

I was right behind her. I wanted to say hello, say hi. But what to say then? Couldn’t quite make it, make that brave step.

As the train stopped, the doors opened and she paused, she turned towards me, again. Met my eyes, gazed eye to eye. And smiled, grinned.

“Hey, you! How you doing?” she laughed.

I was confused.

“You getting on or what?” still laughing, smiling at me.

I was rooted to the spot.

“Waiting for the next train? See you tonight?” With that the doors shut and she mouthed “Bye” through the glass, then the train was gone and I was standing, stunned into immobility.


That night I saw her again. She played, and sang, at the same time, the mesmerising music, while she smiled at me, gazing at her, from the back of the room. Somehow, then, I was at the front, gazing up at her. Then, somehow, I was up next to her, facing the crowd, singing with her as she played.

We saw more of each other. Spent time together. Sat close together on the metro, explored the city, then out to the country. A couple of hours somehow stretched into a couple of days. It seemed so natural to sleep over at each other’s places, or simply together if we were away for the weekend. And, I do mean sleep, not in that clichéd way that seems sadly to be passe for more adventurous, carnal pursuits. I could not somehow abuse our relationship by even thinking of this aspect.

After a while, we knew each other better and in the sun and shorts her slim, svelt figure moved even more gracefully than on the metro platform.

After a little longer, with a smile, he turned and faced me when I accidentally burst into the bathroom when the door was unlocked. He had just showered, the room steamed up, his body moist and glistening. As I stared, confused, he just smiled and waited for me to say something.

Finally, she gently placed her hands around my neck and drew me to her, held me close.

For me the world stopped. I could feel my synapses, my mind, shifting as he; she gazed at me.

I held her tight, close, his damp, warm body soaking my t-shirt. I could feel her chest, her breast pressed against me, his taut stomach against mine.

Them, we were on the bed in the apartment.



So are you a guy or a girl? Man or woman? Do you decide one day to the next, each hour, or even each minute, which you will be? Or are you either? Or neither. How do you make up your mind?

Do you change your mind? How often do you change your mind?

Does it matter? All I care is that it is you, like everyone else, unique.

You are you, with your eye to eye gaze, your mesmerising music, your graceful girlish figure, your boyish curves, your beautiful, warm smile, your vulnerability.

Whichever you are, girl, or boy or it doesn’t matter: don’t change your mind.

Change Your Mind

“And five and six and seven and Change!”
The céilí band segued into the Tara Reel and two lines of eight dancers followed the call. Rod, at the head of the Boys line skipped a perfect dos-i-dos to meet his new partner Eileen, hitherto second in the Girls line. With crossed wrists they swung energetically for the next four bars to reach their new position at the tail of the line.
The Caller, Eamonn, wasn’t satisfied. He silenced the band with a brusque slash of his left hand.
“No, no, no! Y’r dancing like sacks o’ praties! Ron, Eileen, come back to the top of the set, at least there’s the one couple with a flicker of rhythm in their feet!”
Rod’s cheeks flushed as his name was mentioned. Backhanded compliment or not, Eamonn wasn’t known for fulsome praise and this was likely the best he could expect. As they returned to the head of the set he felt the lightest of pressures from Eileen’s hand. Technically (and by convention) they should have parted and returned separately to their start positions but Rod sensed Eileen had chosen to hang on to his right hand for those precious extra seconds. He’d always liked Eileen but had never had the confidence to tell her. Was his luck about to change?
St. Michaels set dancers weren’t just good, they were very good. This was entirely down to Eamonn’s demands for perfection. They’d won every award and competition worth winning in the county and nationally. Rod had enjoyed every minute of the three years he’d been with the team, but there was just one thing he regretted. The very nature of Set Dancing was that everybody danced with everyone else. It wasn’t like ballroom or Latin, where you had a regular partner. Some girls – Eileen, for example – were much better dancers than the others. The constant Change Partners was the one thing Rod didn’t care for, and he couldn’t see a way out of his personal dilemma.
“Dancers, you can take a break while I have a word with the band. Stay loose, don’t let y’rselves stiffen up!”
Because he and Eileen had been sprinkled with faint praise Rod had allowed himself to ‘zone out’ for a few seconds and the crispness of Eamonn’s last words brought him back to the real world. As the other dancers headed for tables dotted around the hall or the snack bar in the corner he felt Eileen’s fingers brush as if by accident against his. With a toss of her auburn curls she headed for the door, which opened onto a flagged outdoor patio. He risked a swift glance around the hall. Nobody appeared to be paying the slightest attention. He followed her lead, trying desperately to avoid attracting undue notice or ribald comment.
“We’ve not much time ere someone comes looking f’r us” Eileen began almost before Rod was through the door “So I’ll say my piece and hope you’ve time to answer.”
Half a dozen conflicting thoughts chased through Rod’s mind, but he was conscious of the fact that their absence would soon be noticed. He nodded, not daring to waste a second.
“You’re by far the best Set dancer I’ve partnered. Don’t ask me how I know this but I do, and you feel the same way too. I’m right, amn’t I?”
Rod blinked his agreement: he’d no time for more. Eileen’s hazel eyes sparked as she continued without pausing for breath:
“I love the Set dancing, the competitions and everything, and that’s not going to change! But if we were a Team of Two as well as being part of a set of sixteen …”
Rod found his voice.
“You mean like on Strictly Come Dancing …?”
“Yes! Now I saw you last week coming out of the Dance School with three or four other buachallí, and not a cailín in sight! And please don’t try to tell me none of yiz have found a girl to dance with?”
“Sure, the class only started a few weeks ago” Rod protested. “They said we should use the first lessons to change partners all the time …”
“Change your socks, change your mind, change partners …”
“ … and dance with me” Rod crooned in a passable tenor, eerily close to Fred Astair’s film version of the song.
“Oh, you great lump!” Eileen mock-scolded, with a genuine smile in her eyes. Sounds indoors suggested Eamonn had finished roasting the band, who were tuning up to continue.
“I don’t want to change the Set Dancing,” Eileen stated “but if you’d like to introduce me to the school next time you go, a few other things might Change. D’you mind?”

I just want to take that little girl and love her; look after her and tell her how special she is. Tell her what a wonderful life she’s going to have.
Except on the inside she didn’t have a wonderful life. Once she grew up she spent most of her adult life trapped inside a hell. A hell she created herself because she chose to switch off and live in denial.
But oh what a gorgeous and brave woman she became. She locked herself in a tower and built a moat around herself. This little princess grew up to be a knight in shining armour. She slayed her dragons by becoming successful at everything she did. She even won awards in her chosen field.
It didn’t matter how much she strived and strived to create this world where she was the best at what ever she did. The dragons just kept coming; breathing their fire on her. The higher she built her walls the stronger the dragons became.
Then one day this princess decided she’d had enough and she did the bravest thing of all. She decided to tear down this wall, brick by brick, and as she started to remove these bricks she noticed that one of the dragons, the fierstist and scariest of them all, was just standing there watching her. She stopped and looked right into his eyes and she just saw pure love staring right back at her.
You see; she always thought that answers were in the doing, in the achieving, but what she discovered in that moment was that the answers are in the being and that nothing is as scary as it seems.
When you stop and take a breath you discover that the very thing that you were afraid of is the very thing that will help you learn to love, grow and accept yourself for what you are

Dual twinlkes in the distance turned to a thundering scars out their driver's side window.

He didn't see any of their faces - the flimsy yellow dividers standing at attention allowed him to ignore the stalled horde to his left. Headlamps blinked on, horns blared out, as if announcing his arrival - and immediate departure - with a discordant and unprepared fanfare. He could only see the world coming at him as if through a pinhole, growing clarity at the center, smudges and smearing around the edges of the image. Sweat stuck to the steering wheel, his grip tighter than he intended it. Lines, cars, sidewalks, asphalt, pedestrians, all melted together.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

She sat there, here arms folded, her legs crossed, looking at the ground. The air was getting colder, the people warmer and warmer. Chills slalomed down her back as the wind grazed her neck. She stood up, hoping to catch a glimpse of what she was expecting to see.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

His vision was still blurred as he approached the intersection. He slowed. Oncoming traffic continued forward. Three cars in front of him waited patiently, as if for their curtain call, oblivious to the bolt of lightning tearing their way. He thought there was a chance to get around them - no. He held his momentum. He found an opening a split second later. The tires brayed as the engine roared through the corner, foot on the floor, sweat turned to glue.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

A light fabric, navy blue with small white polka-dots - her friends had all encouraged her to wear that dress. "Guys'll be HELPLESS when they see you" they'd said. She didn't think they were right. She was just cold. She rubbed her hands on her knees to warm herself.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

He hooked another right, weaving into the wrong lane to avoid a stopped car and some skateboarders. One of them almost didn't make it out of his way. He recognized the skater, but couldn't stop to apologize. The engine deafened his mind to the unimportant.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

"Where is he?"

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

This time it was a moving truck. He pushed into reverse. A couple pedestrians stopped to stare as he fishtailed his way back onto the main road. They looked at each other in disbelief as his taillights disappeared around the corner.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

A crowd was gathering nearby. A jazz band struck up some standards. The air filled with the light breeze, leaves rustling, harmonizing with the band as the people talked and laughed, their words mingling with the saxophone's tenor drawl. She stood up once more, this time on the phone. The sounds around her drowned out the conversation. As she pocketed the phone, her eyes darted to the sound of an engine wheezing over the solo, glimmering again with anticipation.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

He could smell something - like chalk, cooking oil, and plastic - was it the transmission? No time!

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The wind carried the piercing tones to the back of her neck, now covered with a thin brown coat. Her eyes darkened. One more look - to make up her mind.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

The supercharger screamed with the throbbing cylinders over the beat of his heart, the tires squealing to a halt just as the band called the song. There was to be no encore.

Can you change your mind?

My mind's a hoarder's house,
the general waste bit of the dump,
land revealed when the flood recedes,
carefully planted ideas sprout up
like bulbs, bloom, brown, die away,
so fast without you.

Peopled by forgotten faces sailing past
echoes long after tongues were stilled,
the evolving swamp of my perception,
you and me over-printed by encounters,
we're Russian dolls, selves inside selves,
yet once we used to fit so tight.

Can you - please?

My mind's now a search engine
focused on you, searing, your name
brings up your freezing hands
that day you gave me your gloves,
you redoing all my lopdiddy tiles, mouth
framing long months you don't take
my calls: here's what I did to you
buried on page four.

1618

He roots through the rotting mound of
organic matter
for half an hour in a smurr of rain,
hands burning with the cold,
stomach clenching with emptiness,
the stench of decay and failure
ever-present.

The booty after this shit-tip treasure-hunt?
A maggoty apple;
the near-flensed carcass of a fowl and
a hunk of damp bread, mottled with mould:
he intends to share this with his kin.

But he can always change his mind.

2018

He's been in the freezer aisle at
Waitrose too long; still hasn't seen
anything he wants. He considers
scooting outside to the Range Rover
to grab his gilet, but at that moment
spies Massaman Prawn Thai Curry
and Smoked Salmon Risotto.
Chucks them both in the basket.

He takes a shortcut home which
aims him past their favourite
takeaway. On the approach he
fancies he can smell cardamom,
garlic, onions and coriander. He glances
at the shopping bag in the passenger seat,
then indicates left - before it's too late.

He can always change his mind.

1618

His chest may heave and legs burn,
but that fades when juxtaposed
with the vigour
which sears from toe to scalp
as he jinks, swerves, feints and
draws back his foot...
to shoot? No, it's a pass, a neat-one-two
with Jimmy and then he's free to score.

He smacks the ball towards two girls in goal.
One, a shrieking, dirt-faced urchin, avoids it
but the other is
Jenny Templeton
and it hits her
on her perfect nose.
She gives him a withering stare
over her cupped hand
as if to say
"I'll get you later."
And he's sure he will try to escape.

But he can always change his mind.

2018

"Give me the controller!" is bleated
for the fifth time
but it is an older sibling's
right and pleasure to hold coveted
things always out of reach.
Tears threaten. Face contorts.
His laugh just gets wilder.

Even when trusted with childcare
duties for the first time, at sixteen.
Perhaps because the power has risen
to his noggin, or maybe promises
in the style of an adult, do not add up to
mature actions
when supervision
and correction
don't come home
until eleven.

Younger brother
stomps upstairs
huffing and still
bleating.
He peruses the choices:
GTA 5, Fifa 19, Spiderman.
In the end he plumps for Fortnite.
Puts on the headset and sees Thomas
is already playing, on the other side of town.

But he can always change his mind.

Hickam’s Dictum


Dad tells us why climate change is bullshit.
We eat and watch him teeter
along the edge of Occam’s razor, his faith
in the simplest explanation.

Climate change is too many things
for my father to believe in it.
He watches ice caps crack
like knuckles against palms,
while weathermen warn of record summers.
Papers print pictures of dead coral
and polar bears, but icons
soon turn cliché.
One hundred species die each day.

My ancestors fled from famine
from Ireland to London,
only to run again, to be Blitzed
into countryside.
I wonder where my children will flee to
and what from.
I wonder if there will be forgiveness
for a father’s sins
cast to his son.

Misunderstood

You make my problem yours
Taking the complexity of my feelings
Describing them to me
So I no longer recognise them

My desire to be strong in your eyes
Makes me weak

Trying to shrug off your understanding of me
Like an old coat
Worn and heavy
It doesn’t fit
It never did

Standing in front of the en-suite’s shaving mirror, Gavin Standall flicks his hair first one way, then the other. It looks wrong whichever orientation he chooses. Sighing, he moves to the bed of the guest bedroom, giving his laid-out new clothes the once-over. He shakes his head. They’ve been selected by Ash in the latest ‘Dressed By My Wife’ range. Smart but utterly inoffensive. No flowers. No alarming splashes of colour. Clad only in boxers, he considers himself in the free-standing, full-length dress mirror. He doesn’t get the chance to see his body in its entirety, as it were, not in what he considers to be his normal life. He stands a bit taller, sucking in his stomach. Not bad, he thinks. You’re not a bad-looking chap, Gavster. Donning the anodyne shirt, he feels itchy; something around the back of the collar is irritating his skin. It looks smart though, and that is the main thing, tonight. Clothes maketh the man, said the bard, after all.
He wishes it were true.
A woman in her mid-twenties and a lemon cocktail dress appears over his shoulder in the reflection. “Are you coming down or what? You’ve been up here an eternity,” she says, pushing on to the doorframe so her chest is thrust forward. The pose is unsexy though, confrontational; her black hair coils on her shoulders with serpentine menace and she makes no effort to conceal the irritation on her face.
Gavin turns and looks at his wife; cracks a lazy grin. “Sorry babe. Got carried away with my reflection.” He smooths an eyebrow, pouts. “Can’t blame me though, can you?”
Aisling Standall, née Sable, rolls her eyes. “Narcissist. Come on.”
He walks over to her, ignoring the fact that she’s half-turned away from him and seems to be pointing at the floor as if he’s a wayward puppy that needs to be brought to heel. He casually grabs her by the waist and spins her round, pressing her close to him. She seems annoyed at first, tense, but quickly regains her poise and smiles a wicked smile, one eyebrow raised. Waiting. Waiting for a line.
He looks around the back of him to where her right hand is resting on his left buttock. He raises an eyebrow. Meets her eyes. “If you want to sample the goods, sweetheart, you have to ask nicely.”
“Is that what you tell your female students?” she asks, smart as a lash.
“That’s classified,” he jabs back. But he said it without thinking. It doesn’t really make sense, or connect with anything previous, and she’s not impressed. He blows out his cheeks, pretends to consider. “To be honest…as long as their parents have signed the blanket consent form at the start of the year…I don’t see the problem.” He stares at her, straight-faced. He’s pretty chuffed with that. It bodes well for later on.
Aisling pretends to be disgusted, but he knows she’s secretly pleased. If he’s on this kind of form, there’s less chance of brooding, jaw-clenching, inexorable silence over dinner with her family. She flicks her head towards the door, that snake-hair seeming to move independently of the action. “Come on,” she says again. “We’re all waiting.” She extricates herself.
“Can I at least get my trousers on?” he asks. “That is, providing I fit into them. You picked them, after all.”
“Of course,” says Ash, ignoring the jibe. “You also need to brush your teeth.” And with a brilliant smile, she twirls out of the doorway and down the stairs.
Gavin waits until she’s out of sight before cupping his hand around his nose and smelling his breath.

The first person to greet him downstairs is not his wife, but Jeremy, Ash’s eldest brother. He is in his early thirties, with a pinched face and thin, brushed back hair that’s a colour somewhere between dark grey and brown. Gavin suspects he dyes it. Jeremy’s not unfriendly, but considering he’s probably sunk about three beers already, he’s not exactly brimming with bonhomie, either. They talk about inconsequential things while the rest of the family bustle around them: where Gav went on his earlier run, what Antonia has cooked for dinner. It’s best to keep Jeremy on these small talk topics. Anything to avoid him mentioning how much he earned last year. Gavin also wants a beer, and as if summoned telepathically, Jeremy’s latest partner sashays over with a couple of drinks for them both.
“Thanks Patsy. I’ll have to add mind-reading to your considerable list of talents,’ Gavin says, taking his first delicious swig.
“It’s not difficult,” says Patsy in her cut-glass RP accent. “You’re a man. He’s a man.” She spreads her hands. “Beer. It’s not like I’m choosing which wine to go with Vincisgrassi. Here, have a beef-flavoured crisp.” And with that, she’s away, and Gav is left clutching a bowl of snacks she grabbed from a sideboard. He offers one to Jeremy, who declines. Gav mulls over a quip about Patsy, but all that comes to mind is a comparison to Jeremy’s ex-wife, and that will go down about as well as shitting in his beer.
A silence spreads between the two of them, like a bloom of algae in a cold lake. It’s all the more awkward for its juxtaposition with the braying and festive banter from the rest of the party. Gavin can see Marcus Sable, Ash’s dad, through in the distance in the lounge, pairing his anecdote with some quite raucous gestures. Gavin thinks, not for the first time, how is such a flamboyant man partly responsible for raising such staid, ossified sons? Lucky that Ash inherited at least a bit of his sparkle. There she is now, raising her eyebrows at him. It could mean, are you behaving? Or why aren’t you helping? Or how long does it take to brush your fecking teeth?
Gavin has managed exactly four beers by the time Antonia orchestrates them all around the giant oak dining table. He is larger, somehow. He feels crafty, pugilistic. For once, he reckons, he can take on this entitled collection of Sables, and win. As he seats himself, Ash on his left, Jeremy on his right, his attention is occupied by the table before him. It is immaculately and tastefully laid. Ranks of gleaming cutlery flank designer plates; shining tureens and earthenware bowls contain the evening’s many dishes, and three bottles of red wine are uncorked and sit at equal intervals down the spine of the table, like funnels on the Titanic. Gavin gratefully accepts Jeremy’s offer of the nearest. He loves the glock-glock-glock as it pours into his glass.
Spirits seems high from the outset, matching the magnificence of the table and the food. Wine is sunk. Crispin, a naval officer and Ash’s other brother, sits opposite Gavin. He is quietly working through his tapas methodically, almost surgically. Crispin does not allow two dishes to co-exist on his plate. Gavin, pretending to listen to Jeremy’s explanation of hedge-fund investment strategy, is fascinated and amused by Crispin’s strategic approach to dinner. Gav knocks back the wine, shovels in his own, varied feast and gawks at Crispin even wiping the paella-juice from his plate with some flatbread, cleaning it completely before spooning on some patatas bravas.
Suddenly, as happens at these occasions, all the conversations limp to a halt simultaneously. Just as this happens, Crispin snaps his gaze up to Gav. “Have you got nothing better to do than watch me eat? You’ve been at it for the past fifteen minutes at least.”
Gavin chortles, looks around the table as if for support. Can you believe this guy? Everyone seems to be waiting for Gavin to respond. Nettled, he decides to change the subject. “So, Crispin. Have you been up to much on ship these past few months? Any brushes with death?” Gav knows he won’t get much change out of Crispin; the chemical reaction when they met several years ago led to an inert substance akin to stagnant pond water. But the alcohol has made him bold. This time, he’ll get somewhere. Make a crack. Volunteer an interesting fact he saw in a National Geographic documentary once. Something.
Crispin chews slowly, reaches for his wine glass. He’s in no hurry. Nobody has resumed their conversation, but he doesn’t seem to mind the silence. In contrast, it screeches at Gavin’s brain, clawing his attention onto the void he seems to have created. “No,” Crispin says eventually, and places another forkful of chorizo and pepper salad into his mouth.
Gavin snorts, throwing a look at Ash. Can you believe this guy? But she isn’t playing; instead has a neutral expression on her face. Mild boredom, perhaps. He turns back to Crispin, but before he can challenge this arid response, Marcus Sable, now on his best behaviour, clears his throat. “Surely there some high-jinks in Morocco, Crispin? Thought you were looking forward to that?”
Crispin shakes his head. “Didn’t make it there, in the end.” Chews, sips. Stares impassively at his dad. At Gavin. As if to say, it’s not my fault there’s silence here.
“No? Did Sandy take on different orders? Charlie end up somewhere else?” This from Antonia, his mother. She looks as immaculate as the table, does the Professor of Egyptology and part-time wondercook. Alexander ‘Sandy’ Collingbrook is the captain of Crispin’s aircraft carrier, the Prince of Wales, affectionately known as ‘Charlie’.
Another head-shake from the terminator. “Nope. Charlie went to Africa, but I got…called away.” Now he looks down at his plate, suddenly the awkward one.
“Oh?” says Ash into the silence. “Another ship?”
“No,” says Crispin, and spears an olive. He’s not meeting anyone’s eye now. Bloody hell, thinks Gav. It’s harder than lighting a fire by rubbing sticks together. “I, er…got sent on a mission.”
“Cool!” explodes Gav. Everyone looks at him. “What?” he demands. “It’s cool! Ethan Hawke, Jack Ryan, all that.” Ash grimaces, but Gav careers on, picking up speed. “A mission. So, where was it? Did you get parachuted into Iraq? Have a refresher on your sidearms training? Ordered to take someone out?”
Crispin is looking at him now, barely concealing his disdain. He takes a long drink from his glass before answering. “It’s classified,” he says quietly.
Gavin erupts into laughter. “Shut up!” he roars. “Wait…good one!” he says, pointing at Crispin’s deadpan face as if to say, ‘aww, you got me!’ “Classified. Classic. All that Call of Duty Black Ops you’ve been playing on the ship – got you thinking it’s high stakes, yeah?”
“High stakes?” asks Crispin, frowning.
“Yeah! You’ve been in the Navy what, two years? You’re telling me you really can’t tell your own family about some desk-job mission in Baghdad? What are you going to do, single handedly take out the remains of Al-Queda?” Gav slaps the edge of the table.
“Gav!” hisses Ash.
“What?” Gav says, smiling at her, then looking around. Everyone is looking murderous, or incredulous, or just plain offended. It’s then he realises how far he’s gone.
“Ah. Right, right. Sorry. Sorry, Crispin. It’s just…it was funny from earlier. When you said, ‘it’s classified’, I realised that I’d said exactly the same thing to Ash upstairs. Funny coincidence, no? Except she was talking about me shagging some of the girls I teach. I mean, what’s going to be classified, if not that…”

From the Cold...

He tries to come in - betrayed
he lines his pockets with worn petals (daffodils)
renders (in the finest stone)
uneven shadows of buildings, he has passed for years
filling his old hiding place, with wisps of red stamped documents

He knows, that canines wait outside
knowing his smell
his gait, his furtive face
his undesirable friends
re-educated or dead, before this year ends
he will face them
unable to climb the wall
his handlers & enemies have built
cult like effigies swinging from it's parapets
their flags eating each other in the darkness

CLASSI

He was a secret

Black with pleading eyes
and a sniffling nose
he had to be hidden

Classified they called him
and it stuck
even as she saw him for the first time
and wept tears of remembering
'But,
he's so like Sammie'
she had said smiling and crying
'It's my Sammie'

Funny how she could remember the name of her first dog
but not that of her first born son
but he didn't mind
not any more
For now his only worry was how to get
Classi in and out
without the others seeing.
No pets they had said
NO PETS.

He didn't care though
not really
to see her smile
to see her eyes shine
and the dogs tail wag
was all that mattered.

His wife squeezed his hand later in the car
as Classi slept
in the back
worn out by all the fuss.

And his mother slept
in the home
with a tennis ball under her pillow
and the faintest of grins on her ninety three year old
paper thin face.

Classified

This is a classified window
For all of us who value the truth
Of democracy not dictation
By the bureaucrats
Of days gone by.

And yet, what are we to be
If not classified
According to race, creed, religion
And of course gender or otherwise
Disability or otherwise, surely.

Why not we?
Why do we not rise up in arms?
Awakened and free
Today and forever more
Together more? Not we.

Why now, not together more
Not just classified
Like our forefathers
Imprisoned in buildings
Or our bodies, forever more.

An Apology at the End of a Relationship

So I am lonely and wrong,
my mouth forms the words
like whales breaking the surface
of water, pink inside grey caves.

I’m an expanse of ocean
away from tipping my sorry
into your warm ear, my tears,
rivulet nose to chin, drop off.

I need to be cold and wet
because this mistake scalded me,
my skin crisped away from my flesh,
everything was rendered down
to spears, blubber, whales.

Just as our feelings
are meant to become
secret from each other, my regret,
this is classified,
not for you to know.

Endings are aggressive things,
seagull shrieks and swoops,
this sorry tears me so, yet
it must emerge
though you won't hear it.

I pass your plaque each morning.
Alan Turing; Code Breaker, Pioneer,
born here.
You lived in this country like a bird
nesting in the mouths of gargoyles.
I don’t know where your death is marked.

When a kiss splits my lips,
when a touch bruises skin,
I remember you.

When I feel the love of another man,
when I feel its urgency and joy,
I honour you.

'It's classified, I could tell you
but then I'd have to kill you'
but he's no Tom Cruise
as he swaggers round the bar
thinks he's the big I am.

He takes a call, finds a quiet
corner where he hunches
looks up every few seconds
to check if anyone's watching
because he wants them to watch.

'Every message I get on this device,'
he says to the woman by the bar
that he thinks the most gullible
'every message is encrypted
with military grade security.'

When her boyfriend returns
he snarls as if to say:'I'll get my own
back on you later, mate'
but he'll be sitting alone in the park
eating a greasy kebab

Out of a newspaper with words
that he doesn't understand
that takes a political stance
that he neither rejects nor accepts
because his views are classified.











ATTACK AND RECEIVE

Clicking with weapons and slimed with sweat,
We hurry headlong upon the fortified foe
Swimming through flames of the bog-ablaze peat
Spear-blades glitter in the shimmering heat

We strike: six hundred, seven and score
Plunging knee-deep through the octopus mire
Swarming up ladders at the palisade walls
Enemies pouring from the wattle-daub halls

And fire; javelins and sling stones fly
Zipping through the midges and the dragonflies
We crest the spikes and fall into a murderous scrum
Eleven hundred bodies in the smoke-red sun

Exhausted: sweat-slathered shields and pikes
Twist amid the soldiers with their splattering gore
The terrified, bellowing masses of men
Stabbing and slashing, wavering, then

Collapsing; the enemy is staggering over
My warriors advance upon the village in flames
I seize my foes' prince and kick him from his feet
Begging for his life through his chattering teeth

I accept: his servitude with nine score slaves
Added to my queendom with his sheep-shorn hills
He wails and crawls before me to his wattle-daub home
I receive my reward: his wicker-wove throne.

The Light Within

A glow from the lantern shows a promise of a tomorrow. Tonight, in the darkest of memories, one light exists for me. When I see more faces, I see more light shaping hope for each other. The strength of light from the lanterns in a procession accentuates the love and comfort received. Those paper lanterns mean the festival is once again alive in this town that has survived a mass shooting. I can't put off those ugly memories that eat into my life. But there's a need for me to move on.

Holding my sky lantern slightly above my head, I see its mellow light dancing inside a bamboo frame. But I need to see the light on your face especially in your eyes. I look for you in the crowd. I look for you in the alley, but I only see black cats stretching their legs and yawning under a street light. The darker side of the night is on my back with sombre clouds trying to creep up behind me. Images of you sheltering me keep flashing on my mind. The bloody attack on students in the school cafeteria should not have occurred. I feel an anxiety attack coming on. I just need you to hold me close to your chest. I just cannot find you when I need you the most.

A fortnight ago, he pointed his gun at Christopher who had never harmed anyone in his life, not even a fly. He was not a stranger. He was just another student whose philosophy of life juxtaposed Christopher's candour. He was suspended from school for misconduct. And he came back with a rage that took the lives of my seven schoolmates. He shot Christopher with the first bullet grazing his skull and the second penetrating his heart. It was a bloody sight.

The attack is still vivid on my mind as if it had just happened. I stare at my trembling hands. I was under a table hanging on to my dear life. He had seen me with his cold eyes and he held his gun in both hands aiming at me. Christopher's lifeless body laid behind him. You stood up and faced him. You whispered to me to lie low while you engaged in a conversation with him. You confronted him fearlessly while I was shaking like a leaf on a tree whipped by wind in a storm. I could sense the numbness in my feet.

It was a chaotic sight with students fleeing to take cover with food trays dropping, chocolate milk spilling and corn on the cob being squashed. I caught sight of his smirk smile as he approached you. He stopped a rolling red apple with his soiled black boots. He could have just shot you there wincing from an emotional pain after the death of his mother.

You called him by his name. Both of you belonged to the school computer club. You once told me that he was a geek, rarely engaging with others and that he preferred to be alone. You attended his mother's funeral, and you said that it was odd that he wore a straight face, showing no emotion at all throughout the ceremony. I told you that people mourned differently. We never spoke of him again. When you mentioned his mother to him, he broke down right there at the cafeteria, but the gun was still held firmly in his right hand.

"She was all I had!"
"I'm sure she was a beautiful person."
"Yeah, she was."
"I'm going to see her real soon!"
"Put down your weapon!". I heard a voice of authority. I could not see the face.
"On the count of three, throw down your gun!", said the police officer.

He went berserk.

The police took control of the situation. Officers from the forensic department counted the bodies. After the heartless attack, I received news that you left with no traceable address.

Letting go of my lantern in the night sky, I see it glowing like the other hundred lanterns. I hope mine reaches heaven so that you would receive my heartfelt thanks for saving my life in the attack. I feel a radiant joy in my heart.

In a small town on the northern coast of France, two street performers lean on a rail of clothes two minutes before the start of their show. He takes a bright red dress and holds the hanger in front of his face but his eyes say 'this would look good on you'. She stretches out her index finger and moves it from side to side, and frowns theatrically. He takes a tiny pan and brush and scours the roped performance area for small pebbles and grit, fragments of daily life. She purses her lips and tilts her head because she finds this funny. He's not impressed. He takes a plate of peanuts and hands them out to the waiting audience, reaching as far over the rope as he can without falling. She mimes pushing him into the second row. She taps him on the shoulder and passes him a maroon tie, the sort he might have worn at school, which he knots roughly in a practised manner. She smiles then mouths 'no', loosens and removes the tie, then replaces it on the rack. He picks up a mirror to check his face. She places her hand on the back of his shoulder and pulls her green ballet shoes over her heels, running her finger around the edge of each shoe to ensure a perfect fit. He ducks but she catches herself. She walks over to the record player and puts on an old jive tune. She smiles. He smiles. They go behind opposite ends of the clothes rail and when they emerge they are perfectly in time, mirror images of each other's movements.

Red Poppy Boy (gets what's coming to him)

Out on the streets
without without
keeping your head down
staying hid after dark
until the pain poured through
until you got that street baptism
& seeds fell on you, like holy water
growing a hypnotic sleep in you

Now yeah yeah your like all the rest
an A1 stealer
all state receiver
a total syringe believer
fulfilling everything they said, at your birth
as your mother shook

Tracked forever by those blue flashing lights
your inky fingers spread
reprocessed front & side
attacking attacking, denying denying
junkie style

A slope they called it
But they weren't running were they.
On and on
Up and up

The last water gone
Like legs
with nothing left
except blisters, cramp,
tiredness beyond enduring

inch by inch
lamp post by lamp post
until the road levelled
and a sea breeze
cheered as beautifully as the crowd.

So I attacked
with all my 'I can do this'
as the line began to call
and I received a medal

The Great North Run
To die for …......

The Game

10.13 am

As I approach the finish line all I can see is Jed. He's shouting something but it's so loud I can't tell what. I can hardly think and I don't want to look to my left, to see if the person next to me is still level or if I've passed her. If we're level, we die. If I've passed her, she dies. If she's passed me, I die. Only One Winner, claims the banner and they mean it. Two winners means nothing. You can fight and fight to the very end but if you cross together... one of you dies. If you can take out the person with the grip on you at the very end... you claim riches beyond imagination. Safety. Freedom from hunger. Everything.

In Jed's eyes I see fear. I see terror. I turn, finally, forcing myself to look. She is exactly next to me, every fibre of her being matching every fibre of mine. Every movement. There is no rule to say I can't still attack her. But we are so close to the end - if I miss, I could fall, and she'd win.

The Guards have their weapons ready.

Time slows.

I fix my Semi eyes on the Guard at the front. His weapon is trained on me. Right on me. His finger, I can see, is straining on the trigger. And I see there is a Guard next to him, with his weapon trained on her, the woman next to me. I fix my eyes on Jed's, and I push myself as hard as I can, harder, harder, reaching for him.

The Guard's eyes are on me.

My life, such as it ever was, flashes backwards, streams out behind me.


10.01 am

For a second, she's ahead of me, but I launch myself at her and drag leg, legs first, to the ground. Every bit of me hurts, every part of me wants to give up. But I bring her down and I get up and I run on. I hear her grunting behind me and I know I am ahead, for the very first time. I turn, and this is my mistake. Something hits me square between the eyes and I feel myself thrown sideways. I believe I'm shot for a second, before seeing what's in her hands: rocks she's picked up from the path around us.

Crowds close in. I fight my way back to the surface, I haul myself up and I stand and I run. We are level. I can feel her breathing, changing the molecules of the air around me. Stealing my oxygen.

The roaring around me intensifies. People yelling, everywhere. Jed's family will be watching this in the bar. They didn't want to be here. Only Jed travelled with me. Jed who I'm doing this for. Jed, who will lose me if I don't win. Jed, who will lose.


9.45 am

The clock changes as I pass underneath. Screaming around me gets louder and I see why - the woman who overtook us (when there was still an us) is within my sight. She is stumbling, but her arms are raised. Celebrating early? Fool, I think. It's just she, and I. She is in the way of me winning. I feel my legs charge forwards, pulling the rest of me. My training has paid off - all of the pain, all of the effort is worth this ability to speed up, right when I need it.

I go as fast as I can, climb the wall, down the other side, over the water crossing, and up the other side. I catch her. She claws the air behind me - I swear I feel her fingers like ghosts as she misses.

I go, faster and faster. I hear her screech of anger and she launches herself after me. This is what neither of us wants. Two of us means-


8.24 am

Lungs are burning. Players have fallen all around and been held down, for one, two, three minutes. What happens is this: You bring someone down, keep them down and when you rise, they stay there. They have to. It's the rules. Then a Guard comes up and shoots them with that weapon; the one that wipes us out. Switches us off. Makes us nothing but a pile of organic scrap. But we all play the game. If you fall or are brought down for more than five seconds, you have to stay there. It's the rules. Only once, last Race, did someone try to run. It wasn't good, what happened. Rules are there to protect us.

And we don't break the rules. Except Jed and I. We have broken the rules. But nobody knows this. As far as the world knows, Jed is my owner. I am his worker. It is for Jed I race. Jed who owns nothing except me, and who is struggling with the payments as it is. Jed who has family in the red zones, who wants to get them out before they die. He clawed his way to the green zone but his time's almost up. Miss one more rental, and he's out. And the rental is due next week.

People say we Semis can't think, you know? Well listen. Listen to my thoughts as I run for my life - whatever it is - and Jed's life. I love Jed. It's not allowed, but I love him. It feels real. It feels like all the people describe.

Semis and People aren't allowed to do what we do. Jed says I am as real as he is. Make of that what you will...


9.11 am

I'm in the middle of the pack. I've kicked off several attackers. Nobody can bring me down because I'm strong. I've brought down several. No remorse, It's them or me. Them or Jed. I'm his only chance. For the last hour it's been a battle over obstacles and a battle over myself. I beat myself and I focus and I run. And I run.


8.00 am

The starting pistol is a foreshadow of the weapons that would take us down. It's a pop in the air, a crack and a pop and a bang, but not innocent like those sounds can be. A gunshot like the ones they hunt with. It's the thing we are most afraid of; a weapon that wipes us out. We begin and I focus on not dying. On staying here. Staying in the Game.


7.00 am

The biggest difference is that we don't sleep. To the trained eye you can tell us apart, but it's subtle, as we look as different from one another as People do. But we don't need to sleep. That's why we were made: we do the jobs that People don't want to do, at night, as they sleep. Only those in the green zones and upwards can own us. We're a privilege, a gift, something to be proud of.

Jed was given me by his employer, for meeting a bunch of targets. Right away, there was something. I felt it and he feels it. I work for him. I do everything he doesn't want or have to do. And if I'm finished, I learn and I train.

Several years ago, somebody dreamt up the Games. We race, and the winner gets everything. The losers die - although they don't say it like that, the games organisers. They say terminated. We are terminated if we lose. But one wins, and if she's the winner, her owner gets everything. That's how Jed described it to me. Everything, for himself and for his family.

Jed has taught me old world words like 'sexist'. It's why you're all female, he says. Sexist. There should be men-Semis as well. But the world developed like this and we 're created female and it doesn't bother me, not at all. It bothers none of us, actually. But it seems to bother more and more of the People.

These are what my thoughts are like before the Race. So that I don't have to think about Jed and what will happen if I die.

People say we can't think, beyond what we're programmed to do. Try listening to my head, I want to tell them. Not only do I have conscious thought, I have the capacity for love. And I love Jed. That's why I'm doing this.

Less than an hour to go til we start.




ATTACK and RECEIVE

Lady Bellamy wore diamonds.

"No well born gel would choose anything else!" She paused, "Of course, if he offered matched pearls that would be nice too!"

Jenny sat mute. How could she tell her mother what Jack had given her?
"But there are lots of other lovely jewels!"
"Such as? "

The interjection stifled any reply. How could a ruby ring match up to her standards? But Jack was so sweet and kind. He looked so dashing in his scarlet unifom and he swore eternal love. Anyway, the ring was the envy of the other girls.

"I hope you bear in mind the family name? Your father was a dear man and died in the service of our Queen. You must never forget he was 'The Hero of Mafeking.'

"No Mama, I think of it daily! How could I forget when you remind me every hour!"

"Go to, you pert child! Such common instincts! You'd do better to emulate the sweet young Dora who is the picture of decorum and virtue. Besides, she's the daughter of an Earl."
That meant a lot to Lady Bellamy, the widow of a mere baronet.

Jenny ran upstairs to her bedroom and sat down at her dressing table. A petulant image looked back at her. What could she do? Her fingers crept unbidden to the secret draw where she kept her most precious things. The ruby ring sat there nestled in its little mahogany box.

"Lovely thing!"

She jumped with fright. Dorcas, her maid stood at her elbow.
"Sorry Miss, I couldn't stop myself! It's lovely isn't it?"

"Don't tell Mama! She doesn't know I have it."

'Course I won't! Be more than my place's worth. And he's a lovely young man!"

"Do you think so? Yes, and he admires me so!"

For a moment, Jenny forgot herself and exchanged her inner most thoughts with her maid; the gifts he sent her and how they met secretly. All the while Dorcas smiled and encouraged her to talk. Soon conversation turned to her mother's resistance.

"Her Ladyship is a very firm lady. And she needs to be."

Jenny looked askance at her . "What do you mean?"

"It's no matter." Said Dorcas.

"Yes it is! You must tell me at once! Why should my mother be 'firm,' as you say?"

"Well, I don't know hows to put it," The old lady paused, uncertain how to go on, "mayhap she feels tardy about the past."

"About the past? Tardy? You know something to make my mother 'Firm'?"

Dorcas fidgeted; her fingers twisting her apron strings into a hopeless knot.

"Well my cousin Nancy came with her when she wed

"Yes I know, but this was before my time and the girl never stayed long. I know all that."

"Too true, she never stayed long! Your mother was firm indeed!"

"What do you mean? Out with it!"

Dorcas looked down and the last shade of a blush tinged her faded cheeks.

"Nancy was her dressing maid, like me to you. And she kept your Ma's jewellery from before she married. When she left, she was given all your mother's old jewellery, to be rid of."

"Well,so?"

" Nancy kept the best bit which was a garnet on a pewter ring. Not even silver!"

Jenny sat mute for a long time, then she spoke in quiet voice. "Who has the ring now?"

Dorcas said nothing but left the room. Within a minute, she was back and handed a small cardboard box to her mistress. Inside wrapped in brown paper sat a steel coloured ring with a crimson stone.

"Happen you might want it yourself?" Jenny nodded and without a word, took the ring and slipped it onto her finger, it fitted perfectly.

That evening, guests were invited. Lady Bellamy enjoyed her reputation as a hostess. The Fanshaws were there and most of the county families were represented at the table. Jenny came down after they had arrived. She looked dazzling in an evening dress of white silk and long white gloves.

"My Dear! What kept you so long? The guests have already arrived. Where were you?"

Jenny smiled. "I misplaced my gloves." She said, and moved to greet Bertie Fanshaw. Her mother's eyes followed her as she drew off her gloves to give her hand to him. The cheap garnet ring glittered in the candlelight.

"My Word! Where did you get this ring?" Bertie held her hand up for all to see.

Jenny smiled and turned to her mother.

"It's a family heirloom, isn't it Mother?"



Earth under siege:
We notice that the meadows grieve
Each summer that the swallows’ swoop
Is interrupted by the new-felled trees
Missing the myriad glint of insects dancing.
Yet we, inheritors, receive

As if the fruits need poisoned by our touch
And would not grow themselves
-Or by the hand of God if you believe-
Fruition may be freely given:
Climb up a northern hill
And find
The constant blaeberries!

----------------------------

Blue fingered fruits sweet on the tongue...
My easy life
Jumped at me
A long year back

First people of the land , Dakota,
Gathering as they need,
Fight water’s safety
For our whole earth’s balance
Held for untold years
Despite the devastation of the plunder
Of an unthinking younger brother...

Oil slides to soil their rivers now.

I weep my futile tears
As they...they fight my cause
A cause they don’t deserve to have to fight
Or I deserve to win...

A fight
That was never a fight
Back then,
Before this measured time
Simply a way to love to serve in safety.

My childhood sacred text instructs
The guardianship of kings
That cares for
And maintains…

We –with our plastic-toys,
Bombs that kill the earth with the children-
We have lost the way.
I pray
That in these darkening days
The visioned may prevail-
The earth itself deserves your ways.

---------------------------------


Beside the wire the driven fields are stabbed,
A thousand daggers ranked against the soil.
No room for poppies here, or swifts, or voles
To find a shelter in the busy wheat .

An upturned mistle-thrush lies where it lived.

A small child told me solemnly
How caterpillars have no place
“Because I farm and they eat up our food”.
At six ,an eyebrow raised
At thoughts that they might share.

I tramp the barren tracks
The tractors made
And wonder how we turned
The giving earth our slave:
Packed earth admits no green

And yet...
From this assault comes sweetest bread to share,
The joy of porridge at the winter’s table.

My place is fortunate, is laid.
The aching land keeps yielding harvest home.
And so I get
To walk beside the promised peaceful waters.
We build our hope, our gains are set
Against the famine that we might not meet,
Dry places...

We kill, we pray,
We thank what gods we may

And eat.


“So hit him back” my Dad said.

I didn’t fancy that idea.

But I was fed up with picked on by Grimes, the tall boy with the pimples and the grey skin like he’d escaped from the graveyard. I suspected the mud on his shoes was from his very own grave.

So, the next day, I faced up to him.

“He’ll respect you for it” Dad said. “You hit him back, he’ll not do it again. Neither will anyone else, they won’t fancy being hit, either.”

Dad’s words seemed far away as I looked Grimes in the eye. He was tall, I was small. I felt even smaller than usual.

His eyes had a strange expression in them, amusement, slight interest.

“So what you looking at?” he said to me, half sideways to his cronies who smirked and stared me in the eye, in a small circle.
Between their sweaty heads I could see the rest of the playground, life carrying on as usual, ignorant of my little world crowded in here amongst these humid beings.

What would Dad say now? So, “You, I guess”, I replied to Grimes.

“You guess? You couldn’t guess your way out of a paper bag.”

Grimes continued mumbling, inconsequential meanderings, the cronies sniggering at his non-clever comments.

Tedious.

Then, the inevitable “So do you know what I’m going to do to you now?”

Whether I answered yes or no was of little consequence.

I decided I would let him hit me first. After all it was wrong to be the one to hit first.

But, I also decided, on the spur of the moment, that I was fed up with being hit.

So I hit him.

I hit him as hard as I could, the way they do in the action films, arm flung back, then follow through on the forward swing with my full weight, crack into the jaw. My fist exploded with pain and for a moment his eyes registered surprise. Then, he laughed. He had not been thrown back through the window of the classroom to fall to the ground two storeys below, outside beyond the shattered glass. He had not even fallen backwards. He had not even given me the satisfaction of just slightly rocking on his feet.

He just looked at me.

Not moving.

He was going to hit me.

So I hit him.

Again.

And still he stood there, no reaction. There was no satisfying blood, no terrifying crack of bone.

He was really going to hit me now.

So I hit him again, and again.

I rained blows against his head. He chuckled. His bony chin, his pointed nose, were sharp on my soft fist. My little, soft fist burned and my knuckles shrieked in pain.

I stopped, breathing hard.

He was going to kill me.

No.

He turned to his cronies. He said, “Did you see that, boys?”

They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.

“He attacked me. He shouldn’t have done that, should he boys?”

They grinned and nodded their heads, silently.

No, he was not going to kill me.

No, not him.

He was walking away, hands jauntily in pockets.

I was left alone, facing the cronies.

He didn’t need to hit me, with his cronies there. He didn’t need to dirty his hands, with his friends to do the dirty work for him. His own delicate hands would remain undamaged.

They, his friends, his sweaty friends, advanced towards me.

That’s the last time I take my Dad’s advice.

“Why do you always have to leave crumbs in the butter? Is it really so difficult to remember to scoop them out when you’ve finished making your sandwiches? And can’t you empty the bins when they’re full? I do all the cooking and the washing up and the laundry on a daily basis, on top of my job. Is it really so much to expect you to complete your one chore regularly? Last summer, when we had that maggot infestation because it was so hot and the bin wasn’t emptied, who was it who had to deal with it? Me, of course! The toilet seat was up again when I went into the bathroom just now. You know how much I hate having to put it down before I go. Can’t you just remember to do it? And you left the window open again. If it had rained overnight, the upstairs flat’s overflow pipe would have flooded right into our bathroom. And then the downstairs neighbours would have been on to us to pay for their repairs. It’s not like it’s difficult to shut the window before you come to bed, is it? Speaking of which, do you really have to make so much noise when you finally decided to go to sleep at 2am? You know how light a sleeper I am, and it takes me such a long time to get back to sleep once you’ve woken me up. It doesn’t help that I have to listen to your snoring while I’m staring at the ceiling. And I tripped over your shoes again when I was getting ready for work this morning. Why do you have to put them exactly in my way? Isn’t there somewhere else they could go?

“And speaking of things being out of place, what’s this envelope doing on the dining table? Is it something you’ve forgotten to post? Not a bill, I hope. I don’t want an angry letter from the electricity supplier because you’ve failed to send a payment. Why are you grinning at my like that? What’s so funny about not keeping up with the bills? Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll just open it and see for myself, shall I? What’s this? Tickets for something? A two week Scandinavian cruise? Oh my god, really? And what’s this note with it? ‘I know you’ve been having a tough time lately with your brother being in the hospital, so I thought some time away would be in order now that he’s better again.’ Wow, that’s amazing! You’re so good to me! I don’t deserve you, really I don’t.”

Escaping to Mars
Copy and paste the stars
Coral reef's dead
3 d print one instead.

Attack and receive,
Planetary grief
What’s that aroma?
Weed’s legal

Tacoma

Park after dark
Boarded façade
Not hurricane ready?
Get out or hold steady.

Draft dodgers remarks
Only for laughs
Distracting attention
From sessions intentions

When shall we leave?
Brechtian trees?
And enter the forest
Viridian morose.

All that’s forsaken
Ailing capital nation
Won’t pay her workers
Never ending furloughs

Autocrats greed
Attack and receive
If you're paying attention
Just click donation.

His words are on mine, pushing violently against the screen. The tension is enough to make my phone crack - but it doesn't.

I want you.
All of you.

Lungs feel crushed under miles of arousal. Room tastes of hot stars. We are not allowed.

I receive these attacks, these forceful blasts of passion, because what else can I do? What else can we be?

It's like this for hours, vowels pushing up into the glass, lightning fast. Forbidden.

My thumbs work double-time, pushing hard against the touchscreen that can't be touched hard enough. The deeper I press, the deeper I NEED to press.

I want to ...
... so hard that ...

Glass flies up into my face. Eye whites bleed. Nose stings. Lips suffer.

I wanted this. I wanted this.

His barrage of words strikes like a snake
as she turns her soft ear towards his
list of petty charges, tasks undone,
nods as if giving his complaints weight,
her possessions grasped in an everyday mugging,
she gifts him more.

He invades her space, steps on her toes
she can't match his dance, shrinks at each touch,
his onslaughts are unprovoked but
she has forgotten how to take offence
or shelter from what is now a blitz
her soul shrapnelled before the killer blow.

Little mother, dear sister, beloved daughter,
the kindest of friends, broken, possessed,
he’s made this martyr, this furtive shadow,
a scurrowing thing - his perfect wife.

Mother, you grew me from a tiny seed
You'd sacrifice a meal so I could feed
You gave me the air to let me breathe
The person I turn to in times of need.

Mother, how on earth can I thank you
For all the selfless things that you do
Not giving up on me, seeing this through
Planting a foundation, on which our love grew.

Unrivalled dedication
You were my medication
Without any hesitation
My saviour, my salvation.

Never did you give up on me
The good in me you forever see
Just like you, I long to be
You gave to me my heart's key.

If the sky was dark you'd make it bright
When I couldn't see you gave me sight
If I surrendered you'd make sure I fight
When my tears fell you'd hold me tight.

Mother, you showed me right from wrong
Held my hand down the road so long
The bond we share has grown so strong
In the hall of best Mom's you do belong.

When my tears fell like autumn rain
You'd dry them all to ease my pain
Washing my worries down the drain
At times, your own feelings you'd feign.

One fine day when you are here no more
I know you'll be waiting at heavens door
The sunshine in the sky will forever soar
My mother, gave me love from her very core.

Planters

Come with me, out
the winter shadows encroaching
but we still have time
ticking ticking, to plant

Let me see your hands, like mine
calloused from previous failures

But we still remember, a fierce scented garden
fruits heavy, lush vegetation
& us, our arms outstretched
touching the endless sun

GONE TO SEED

It was all but a wilderness. Where once grass had grown, pristine and proud, flanked by bordered beds whose obedient shrubs stayed dutifully within their allocated square of soil.

Birds had flocked to feed and children laughed as they had looked for newts and fish who swirled and swam in ponds protected by a heron made of plastic.

Roses rambled carefully against wall and trellis and butts collected water when it rained. Tomatoes never failed and plums aplenty fell in time for jam as runner beans fed family and friends and even won a prize that year when....

When did it go to seed?
When did clarity get swamped by weeds of fear and snails slither over all the leaves of certainty?
When did colours blur, blooms die and fragrance fade beyond recalling?
When did blight begin to bite and bindweed choke and why can't I remember when the garden started failing.
And Dementia dug in roots and thrived.

Whatcha whatcha watcha. Haha. Ha ha.. ha ha!
Get away from there. You don't belong here, you.
His hair was gone from the top of his head, and the grey strands that remained upon its sides were not easily distinguished from the dust in the room. A grandfather clock ticked in one corner, the only thing that still existed from the time before. I had made sure to wind it, it was my only task beside that of the feeding. But now this stranger had come, this dark thing which shone my situation clearly upon me: for how perfectly he fit. I wished he would go away.
'Don't touch the glass.'
His face turned and I pulled back from the sight. He frightened me, and I was no longer in charge of my own room.
'Go on!'
He raised his claw and I scurried away, into the dust cupboards left untouched. I began to weep.
'There, there, pal,' he said. I wondered if he wanted to call me large, but that would have been too much a compliment. If he were candy he'd be not the type to say it. If he were candy...
'Ha ha ha! You're pretty deep, and going deeper,' it said.
It did not mind existing here, maybe it was better than the place it had come from. But why did it have to come. Things were becoming worse than before. Things were beyond redemption! Why did I stay so long?..
It wasn't Mary's death that brought me here. I was bad before then, and I didn't get much worse after- I don't think. I stopped going out, I remember that much. I never went out again, not even to her funeral. I feel like I should have gone, but there was no question of it. I gave up, I came into the basement, I went dark far away from the old stuff. I ran away, and I stayed here. The light from the top of the staircase, from the little triangular window, frightens me. The wood all along the staircase if frightening. I don't go near it. I stay in my corner, near the desk where the computer sits and used to work. Behind the meshed rolling chair I hide in the cramped space beneath the desk, sometimes looking at the wood to shield my eyes.
But now that new one is here. He has long claws, and he doesn't mind being here. I think he likes it. He doesn't want to leave. I saw him lighting a pipe, but he looked at me and I pawed up against the back of the desk. I don't know how often he uses it. Most of the time he doesn't move, I don't think. But it's hard to tell when I don't look. He has frightening eyes, and he's a killer. I can't die like this, can I? No, no, no no no. mmm. Why did he have to come? I needed more time...
He ripped me forth yesterday, or the day before. He stuck a white needle in my arm, injected me with drops of his foul mixture. I struggled hard, and the needle pierced deep into my arm, not releasing its content but ripping and twisting inside. I screamed horribly, twisting and flailing in jagged pain. It was horrid, horrid. I'm still out of breath.
The thought of escaping him to the surface is unthinkable. First I would need to escape him, and he would surely lunge at me as I went. Then was the staircase and the kitchen. No... I caught a glimpse of him when his back was turned. His skin is brown and grey, like mine, but he hunches more, and he isn't afraid. He moves in ugly ways, not caring if I see. When he notices me he flings toward me, and oh how I hate the sight. I wish he would go away. I really wish he would go go go away... But he won't... I can't look around, I can only watch the wood of the desk and the bit of grey floor beneath. Noises shudder through me, and when I let me head vibrate against the wood it soothes me.
'Good boy.'

Winter is coming

We spend the last days, lifting dead things
a sign of things to come
you nod distracted
in the corner cattle gather nervous
their breaths cooling the branches of a dying sycamore

We walk slowly to the house
behind the walled orchard
crows feed on fruit, left too long in the autumn air

In the yard all is oil, grit & old tyres
but we know soon, vast clouds will come
drowning our fierce black soil
leaving us alone, seeded in our own damp thoughts
In rooms eaten dark, by endless winter

The wind blows. The shadows darken. Night begins to fall.

A seed drifts on the breeze, skittering and skirling on its wayward path. There is nowhere here for it to take root. The city sprawls in every direction, offering only tarmac and concrete as a bed. The seed starts to drop, but another gust of wind give its flight new life and it carries on its journey.

The seed had no agency. It is at the mercy of the elements. It can only go where it is taken, land where it falls. It takes each flurry and twist as it comes, never questioning its fate or struggling against the forces that shape its movements. It does not know where it will eventually come to rest, nor does it care.

Nature has a purpose, but this seed is unlikely to fulfil it. That doesn’t stop its progress through the twilight, though. It floats on, ready to burst forth in all its tremendous potential if given the slightest chance. All it needs is a crack in the pavement, a sharp left turn towards the park, a bird to snatch it from the air and deposit it later somewhere life might find a way.

Watch the tiny seed as it wends its way. Invest in its future. For, if such a tiny thing can survive in this hostile world, surely there is hope for us all.

Like Penelope, each home I weave
is soon unpicked.
It is difficult to live young
and uninterrupted in this city
when you are pushed to new places,
your relationships as sudden and consuming
as algal blooms, as delicate
and brittle.

I can’t say we’ll meet again;
a fact we spent weeks with.
We hoped knowing would be enough
to turn our aches lukewarm
like tea left too long to cool.
When I hesitate at the door
you tell me heartbreak is a fever,
that I need to starve
to break it.

You found me at a time I needed to be found.
I found you at a time you were broken.
Two broken puzzle pieces that could not fit until mended,
but where's the glue?
I found mine but my glue cannot work on you.

You found my core and you took a seat.
You left your print with permanent pen and said see ya later.
I tried to erase that pen but it didn't come off.
I tried to erase that pen with another pen by colouring over it but that pen rubbed off.
That pen was weak.
You found my weakness and I found yours.
I read books and my weakness became my strength.
You let your weakness define you to the point of destruction.
You found excuses and I believed them.
I found a way out before I sank.

~ Grown Siblings / Arriving at Everything ~

Your first words were also mine,
Found near the tree, in the mud,
Given up to be polished and smoothened
In our Celtic flesh and blood,
Until moods broke across our rooms,
Thrashing waves, a high bright moon,
Then the floating and sinking,
The cigarettes and the drinking
Raised us up, eyes closed tight -
Oh! Awoke us to horror of the night.

Grown now, I see your knotted face,
Folded in secrets from this unwinnable race,
Our empire fallen, things put up again,
Smiles mounted to reach the other's unknown game,
I want to see you though, by the copper beech tree,
When I was you and you were me,
Just before you caught the butterfly, or did I?
All above us our secret sun-moon sky,
Once more, among the fallen autumn seeds,
Before I went to get a jar as you set the insect free.

Gone To Seed...

I'm looking into the distance, yet see now view,
I am clenching my fists but feel nothing but air escape my lonely fingers,
My strength has filtered through my pores and left me.
What's beating in my chest is cold and displaced,
Broken pieces crumble, rattling around the cage that is my ribs.
A prison of pain and trapped emotion.
I have lost myself. I have gone to seed.
There's an ache somewhere - I cant explain it. Crippling my senses.
I smell only burnt feelings; an ash of a once fiercely burning fire.
I hear only emptiness, the echo of a silent scream.
I taste only regret and bitterness; a self mutilation.
My feet beneath me provide little support to their weeping corpse,
Connected to bones that are weak - brittle.
I am walking into the distance, no path, no direction.
Yet... I am standing still.

Someone She Used to Be

Her parched naked skin
sat helpless like a hapless
torn, tattered brown dress
drooping, sagging worn out breasts
that once a soldier's, husband's
fiery, brooding nest
swung lowly, lonely haggered
without the marked respect they once wore.
Her bony fingers fallen like Autumn leaves
lay wrinkled and lifeless on her unmoving lap.
Fragile, feeble feet barely touch the floor
that once she trod with trying trepidation
and danced daintily with glee
when her husband returned from war.
Eyes once a glistening, glowing grey
now lulled soulless, lost
in transition of a life once lived
to one demising into a diminishing memory,
a glint of someone she used to be.

Longshore Drifter

It seems my ways don’t suit you said
packing your mournful expression
into my old, ripped bag
thrown over your shoulder
both of you familiar but
bolted, gone to seed.

Like the words I wanted to spew out,
embed in your flesh
but I could not mouth them
while they still burnt.

You must have struggled
getting free of me
you aren’t big enough
to make this hole.

Even in the stretched afternoons
when we lay bellies exposed
our needs nestled
like sleeping puppies.

You offered yourself knowing
your core was empty, blown away
only your outside was entire.
Streamed in then out
pledging tidal permanence.

You lay me down
in quicksand
if I struggle at all
it submerges me.

Hacker

Taking your time decoding/coding every line
url smile is oh so alphanumeric
as you break & infiltrate
slithering down snakes n ladders
talking that machine talk, to your friends
your zero ones

Reprogramming history, the present
relegating voices to still mediaeval forests
de-sending the written Word
(blackened/redacted)

You rising are the future
you on/off/on………..
have total control

I test it every day, every hour. The way it responds to sound, light, trauma. The taste of food and sadness. The smell of wine and insincerity. Traffic and souls breaking. Sometimes, red is the colour of him leaving, sometimes rust. Scraping noises can initiate childhood, while buttery textures press heavily on the most unwanted parts of time. All these hours, these responses, these causes. Cores. These sharp cores of memory, reaction. This core is like the core of a fruit, but sweeter, stronger, deeper - distressingly - and shimmers in the gold of night. It goes like this:

suffer in pools of dim light
or flashing darkness

See how it works? I test it every day, every hour. This machine inside that can't be a machine because how can something industrial feel like stars with scalpels set on fire that twist maniacally through every organ with flesh still intact? How am I intact? They say it's the brain so why do I feel it

here and
here and
here?

Songs play at 2am in venues lit with dreams. Dreams are an accelerant. They light the starry sky of consciousness. They accelerate. People rust in private places. I am a person. I am a place. The site is not being tested, it is being lived.

The tests are not tests. They are in-breaths of lash curls and coffee dates. Splinters of sleep and corners of a sentence I'll never recall. You can't test something so unstable.

At 22:37, I feel alive. All these perfect syllables.

TESTING THE SITE

Hushed mutters as the wise woman arrived
Head in antler helmet, wrapped in rags of
Hare skins, feet leather-clad,
The crowd settled and stared

She gestured and a brand of ash,
Smoking and gleaming red in the glooming dusk,
Was passed to her hand
Streaming a line of smoke behind

She hunched, and silence spread
As she huffed breath on the ember, and sparks
Flew from her fingers: white-gold first, then amber,
Scarlet, violet, grass-green fire

That whirled and twisted thrice around her,
Probed the grassy flattened heathers
Tested, tasted, hither-thither
Sought for magic in the rain-damp meadows

Testing the site for spirits
Testing for gods and goblins
(The old farm withered so the family'd moved
To the heathery hills by the gushing river)

The sparks settled and the field fell to dark
But one spark, emerald-bright, sputtered
And the ground shivered, opening dark
A woman’s pallid face peered from the earth

The crowd gasped, but the wise woman stilled
Them with a wave and signalled a huntsman
To approach, a clutch of pheasants by the throat;
She seized one and flicked a blade from her rags

Slashing the dead bird and splattering blood
To the night-blackening grass
She bowed, murmuring in the tongue of the dead
To the peering lady in the earth

The woman within blinked assent, vanished,
And the turfs sealed. The wise woman sighed,
Staggered slightly and steadied herself
The huntsman rushed to spill a cup of water on her

Bloodied fingers and then
She pointed to the soil and spoke:
‘One sleeps here who would not be woke,
Spill blood each new moon and her wrath

‘Will be stilled. Your family are safe
In this heathery field.’
The crowd relaxed like a loosening bow
And chattered, moving to and fro

To their tools of bronze and stone
For the wattle and thatch
And by the rising star-light
They raised the home’s timbers.

In her mind, she was never going to be ready. As the train passed by the estuary, the knot in her stomach tightened, and the earache she’d been suffering from since that morning flared. What was she doing? The eccentric site manager had told her everything was fully prepared, but she was painfully aware that didn’t include her.

A group of teenagers further down the carriage pulled her attention to them with their flamboyant dress and rowdy Ebonics. She wondered where they were going. Was there some Eden for disaffected youth along this line? She glanced at her watch. They probably weren’t heading anywhere productive at 11am on a Thursday. Especially not since two or three of them were wearing elf ears.

Her stomach roiled. She regretted the eggplant lasagne she’d had for dinner the night before. The packaging had looked enticing in the store, but it had barely been edible.

Her phone squawked. The message notification was supposed to be the call of a majestic eagle, but the tinny speakers made it sound more like a constipated emu. She glanced at the screen. It was the site manager, checking she was on her way. She passed the phone from one hand to the other a few times, musing on her options.

It was an important test, and she was an integral part of it. But she was having serious doubts about what they were trying to do. Ever since that construction worker had disappeared the night they first broke ground, she had started to wonder if they were doing the right thing. But there was so much time and effort involved now, not to mention the money the investors had been pouring into the project. She couldn’t turn back now. Not with so much at stake.

She tapped a few keys on her phone.

“Be there in five. Make sure we’re good to go as soon as I get there.”

The Diabetic Dragon

Injections don't burn
as much as others’ reactions;
their faces when they hear.
They think I'm a tethered
maiden, bound to be
devoured.

I'm learning a
strange language
that no one likes, blood
glucose, ketones, hypos
these words keep spilling
into your blanking void.

Injection after
injection of
rejection, your face
as the needle glints.

Have I become
the dragon?
Now I don’t share,
speak, breathe without
checking if it will hurt.

Click, click.

The circle spins.
Try again,
reload,
wait.

Wait.

Click. Nothing.
Blank space,
a void.

Click.

Ring.
My call is important.
My patience is appreciated.

Click.
Check.

It clicks.

Plug the router cable into my computer.

Click.

From before he was born; stretching, pushing against, folding himself up, testing the site, the parameters, the womb encasing him, the body.

He stretched, spine uncoiled, arms hung low with heavy hands, now pushing against horizons.

Occupying a body, both internal and external space, muscles and arms, organs, a face To have control and not; heart beating in his sleep, racing as he runs; rhythmically and then irregular. A gash is felt across his hand, tumours and diseases grow pain free.

His body ages, its gorgeous youth -- its wealth, wilts. The body becomes merely functional, to move things from one place to another, a dry mouth to rearrange all the words that he has already said.

How do you test this site? How can you stretch your body beyond your height? Think thoughts wider than the dimensions of a heavy brain? Skyscrapers, taller than giants on the shoulders on giants. Dwarfed, unable even clean the windows of such a nauseating unnatural height.

Limited, his body cannot carry him across distance or water, limited in his inability to exist alone, his inability of photosynthesis. Not sure if evolution has started to regress. His weakened immune system, the promise of old age accompanied with rising tides, levels of dementia.

How can he fulfil, make the best of this body and place, this site? Is there a way to feel the landscape? To feel the body. A kind of irony, only being able to feel the body through the body. Other bodies through his body all sensations through the body. He only knows the feeling of a rock through the feeling from skin, the feeling from skin, through the nervous system. Something calming about the limitation of the site. If cracked, unhinged, he fears the infinity that would ensue.

Miriam gently tapped the side of the glass bottle to keep the three items in a perfect rectangle, admiring her freshly painted
nails, just as the checkout conveyor moved forward. She always used self checkout except when buying alcohol, they're all so young at this store and it takes so long to confirm what she knows, that she's well over eighteen. Of course anyone interrogating her shopping would jump to conclusions. But what they couldn't know was that she had perfected this, maximum pleasure with a cast iron guarantee that it fell short of making her sick. She had a phobia about that physical act, had done ever since her sixteenth birthday.

There was a symmetry to how the items filled the carrier bag too, so when the checkout girl put the crisps in first she involuntarily pushed her hand forward. Wine first, she wasn't fussy, but someone had advised her that six pounds was the perfect compromise between quality and price. It looked French. Then the ice cream. Always the one where you knew the couple were going to have sex back in the nineties. Vanilla. In the space that remained, crisps, but only paprika flavoured. Why were these so hard to find in England?

The film was always the same, the Breakfast Club. She knew all the words. She knew that she would follow the dance around the library with only her arms, her body warm under the green blanket that was already a year or two beyond its useful life. She knew that at the end she would raise her - ah but she always wanted that final scene to be a surprise.

Only then, filled with the four things that gave her the greatest pleasure in life, would she allow herself to check the site - she used only one - to see if her new photo had elicited any messages. It wasn't as if she were trying to be misleading, she just wondered whether she would get more replies if she used her younger sister's photo. Everyone told her they looked the same.

Miriam checked the clock on the dashboard and worked out that she could log on at five to eleven. She pressed her foot hard against the accelerator pedal.

TESTING THE SITE

I turned on the monitor and saw the bulbous face of a Neb appear on the screen. He was reading something with his front feet propped up on the desk.

"Come in Commander. Report your position."

He swivelled two of his eyes towards the screen but I saw his third eye was still scanning the script out of sight below the desk. Nebs are inquisitive creatures and we have to watch them carefully to stop their minds wandering.

"All good here Chief." His voice came through the translator box with a cheery tone. "Just passed Orion and looking smooth."

I hate this nebular slang but the machinery cannot convert it to proper Martian speech so I have to put up with it.

"Give me co-ordinates please."

I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice but who knows what it sounds like at his end of the system? The trouble is, we can't fit in the flight deck of the space craft, so we have to employ these Nebs to fly the thing.

"Well, I reckon we're about half way to Earth at this point of time," --- Where does he get these expressions from--"and may land in a few hours’ time."

"You do realize that this is a vital mission, don’t you? The fate of the Martian race depends on a good landing and restocking with nutrients.."

I hoped that might stiffen it up, but its blobby shape wobbled a bit and I took that for a nod but maybe it was just wobbling. It's so hard to read their minds.

"Pass me to the Supplies Director."

It rolled its upper eyes and leant forward in the control seat, reaching for the transfer button. Another round moon shaped face appeared on the screen, this time it wore a blue earing and I recognized Neb Three.

"Step back from the monitor," I said, "I can't see around you, and stop shouting into the microphone."

His voice was blaring out from the translator and his words seemed slurred. As he moved clumsily away from the screen, I caught a glimpse of a canister he was pushing out of sight.

"Have you been drinking Officer?" There were red patches on its cheeks and the top of its head was pulsating.
"Not a drop, Sir. I was just checking the shtock and slipped - thatsh all."--the voice seemed slightly indistinct but I put that down to the translator box.

He gave a salute with one of his flaps and then sat down suddenly on a barrel of neutrant stacked against the spacecraft wall.

"I am watching you. You realize I will be reporting every detail when the mission is concluded?"

I thought it said “Whatever...” but the transmission cut at that point and the screen went blank.

By my calculations, the ship should have been within two hours of Earth's surface and I sent out the exact co-ordinates needed to bring the craft down on the ground. Then the task would be simple enough even for the least efficient of Neb workers. All they had to do was scoop up as many earthlings as they could find and head back to Mars quick as a flash.

When the screen revived, I saw the shape of the planet looming in front of me. It was bright and mainly blue which meant that there was plenty of water and oxygen on the surface. Just what we wanted, well-nourished earthlings to fill our containers and restore our fading organisms.

I watched as the screen filled slowly with the image of this wonderful planet. I could hear the babbling voices of the crew in the background shouting with excitement in their primitive Nebbish way.

"Now!” I shouted into the intercom, “Activate the landing sequence!"

There was a flurry of action in the space capsule and much shouting and squealing among the crew, but the image of the planet seemed fainter with every minute that passed. Soon the blue orb shrank in size and faded from the screen.

"What the hell has happened?" I shouted into the intercom.

A Nebbish fat face loomed up on the screen. Its blob wore a stupid expression.

"Well," It said, "The Earth moved."




Autumn's Soliloquy

Marmalade crusted leaves trail blaze
September's soddy equinox.
Tumbleweeds fall head over heels
stumble over each other
fumbling like a newly wed lover's
faux pas, falling helplessly
to feed their unappeasable palate.
Galoshes crunch sycamore's
golden syruped tapestry
esconscing Summer's
fast fading façade.
Rustic butterscotch melts into
milk chocolate and burnt orange rays,
while pumpkin pastel palettes
blend fresh mango marigolds
mingled with chilli and
sundried tomato leaves.
Autumn's soliloquy omits
no secrets in her harvest of
comforting cosy cornucopia trails
and heartens our hope for change.

I based the following poem on a true story - that of PJ Haverty, a survivor of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in Galway, Ireland.

PJ is a close friend of mine who has spoken openly about his search for his biological mother on numerous occasions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_F7PQ-lGtk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZxrflq2LIU

The Tuam Mother and Baby Home is subject to investigation see www.mbhcoi.ie

The poem:



Do you know who I am?


Three knocks on the door,
“Don’t answer that, its Maureen”
The young nun opens anyway,
“You signed the document, I cannot aid”
Sobs Sr Carmel, an 18-year-old maid.


The teenage nun closes the door on Maureen,
And Maureen screams;
“I just want to know where my baby is!”
“He’d be seven years old today”.


Later that night Sr Carmel sneaks out,
To the hospital where Maureen works,
She leaves an envelope with a name and address.


Later that week, Maureen drives east of Tuam,
and enquires as to the name and address,
enquires of a farm boy – his hair and clothes in a mess,
and then realises that’s who she’s after.


She turns the car and stares at him,
And drives into the sunset.
He puts the milking cows back in the shed,
Perplexed by the strange lady he met.
Maureen then hits for Holly Head.


That was nineteen and fifty eight,
She never came back,
That was her fate.
She married and had family,
But she never forgot her ordeal in Tuam.


On one September day,
Many years and miles away,
At the age of eighty seven,
She attended Mass in London.


On one September day,
Many years and miles away,
A sixty-year-old Irish farmer,
Boarded a plane in Knock.
Knock to Gatwick.


In duty-free he resists with all his might,
The temptation of whiskey,
Somewhere between day and night,
A news-bulletin sounds,
"They are testing the site,
Where 800 dead babies were found in Tuam".


While he dodged his way through airports,
Maureen prayed to St Anthony,
On the last day of the novena,
Her son to see,
Before she went to heaven,
Terminally ill aged eighty and seven.


Having crossed over the foam,
He bought some flowers in a supermarket,
As his family over the phone,
– relayed directions.


She got out of a taxi and made herself tea,
Then tended to the roses.
Inside a small garden,
Behind an old rusty gate.
She prayed once again for an end to her wait.


A breeze blew the leaves,
As she takes from the roses,
The ripe rose hips.
She pretends she doesn’t notice,
The man up the road,
Diligently following google maps,
As he stares at her.


Until,
He is one side of the old rusty gate
and she the other.
Staring.


“Do you know me?” He asks.
“I knew you” she told,
“Since the moment you turned the corner at the end of the road”



lukesilke98@gmail.com

"Sir, when I grow up, I'll like to play cricket for my country."
"I meant a real job. What's your ambition?"
"To be a professional cricket player."
"You mean a professional cricketer. You got to pay attention to articles 'a' and 'an', Ginger. Ah, there goes the bell! See you all next week."

Rushing out of Mr Timothy's class, the children were soon outside the whitewashed Intermediate School building. Their sturdy legs carrying a globe of knowledge fuelled their senses with wonder while some dragged their thoughts and lumped them to the ground as soon as they saw their parents. Some got on an amber school bus while others were whisked off in their parents' cars. Ginger had to wait for her mother who was always late to pick up her and her brother, Jim. She had to keep an eye on her brother who loved to wander off. One minute, he was tying his shoelace and another minute, he was pretending to fly with his arms spread out. Ginger sat quietly on the swing reminiscing about her English lesson. She had to do a presentation on Monday. Parents were invited to the class to watch their children present, and Ginger felt unease thinking about it.

Her mind wandered. She imagined a commentary of a cricket match: here's Ginger taking a shot. Oh, what a shot! What a dramatic end! White Ferns wins the World Cup!

"Ginger, where's your brother?" The voice startled her.

Jim with a sunny complexion came running into his mother's arms. Ginger heaved a sigh of relief. Jim was talking endlessly about a puppet play at his primary school throughout the journey while Ginger watched her mother drive through a busy street passing by a sushi restaurant, Turkish cafe and Korean eatery. She loved the blend of international cuisine in this part of the town.

"Hey sweetie, how was school?"
"The usual."
"Nothing exciting ever happens, huh?"
"Oh, I've got a letter inviting you to my presentation on my ambition on Monday."
"I don't think I can make it. I'm on morning shift!"
Ginger's eyes sparkled with delight but said in a hoarse tone, "Oh, it's okay, mum. Not a big deal."
"Perhaps, I'll ask Wendy to switch shifts with me. Yes, I'll do that!"
"But mum, you need not do that. It would be over before you could even spell my name."
"Oh dear, you need to polish on your performance and practice and practice!"
Ginger mumbled under her breath that it was a presentation and not a performance.
"My daughter, Dr Ginger Oliver!"
Her mother was struck by excitement, while Ginger's shoulders drooped.


Back at the school, Timothy was munching a crisp Gala apple that he had bought at the Wellington Farmer's market. While marking his students' essays, he lifted up his reading glasses and made eye contact with the new physical education teacher, Lydia.

"Lydia, care to join me for tea?"
"That would be lovely. I like mine with milk."
"The pantry is all yours. There's fresh milk in the fridge."
"I thought you -- ah, never mind. I'll make you one if you like."
"I'm good here. I've already a cuppa here. You'll find biscuits on the shelf."
"Thank you. Timothy, how was your day today?"
"Well, there was an incident in class."

Mrs Meddlesome stopped typing an email and cried out, "Mr Timothy, you must tell us all about this incident!"
"Yes, you do know Ginger, don't you?"
"Of course. The tall girl with sun-kissed freckles who sits at the back of the class. Her mother never turns up on time! What did she do?" Mrs Meddlesome dropped her weight on the red sofa.
"She wants to be a professional cricketer! Imagine a girl wanting to be that!"

Lydia was flabbergasted upon hearing that. She sipped her tea before giving a resounding reply. She dropped her china teacup onto the floor, and it shattered into pieces. Mrs Meddlesome jumped up quickly to avoid the tea staining her white blouse.

"Oh, Lydia! You got to be careful with those cups. They're Mr Timothy's wedding gift."
"I'm sorry, Timothy."
"Don't worry, Lydia. My wife wouldn't need them in her grave! The mop is over there. You do know how to use it, don't you?"
"Yes, Timothy. I can certainly make tea and mop!"
"Sorry, Lydia. You remind me of my daughter. Her mother--bless her soul--had done everything for both of us and we are quite lost without her!"

Mrs Meddlesome cleared her throat. She had to get back to her email but since gossips nourished her day, she wanted to hear about Ginger.

"Mr Timothy, you were saying something about Ginger."
"Yes, Ginger has a presentation on Monday. All the children in the class have some decent jobs to talk about while Ginger could only think about playing crickets!"
"Goodness me!", said Mrs Meddlesome.
"Aren't teachers suppose to encourage their students to be whatever they aim to be?"
"Look here, Lydia. Teachers have to guide their students to be on the right path."
"I'm afraid I've to agree with Mr.Timothy. He's a senior teacher who has seen his students graduate from universities and take up high posts in the government sector and corporate world. Cricket has no future! I cannot imagine Ginger running around in a courtyard with a racket, hitting a fluorescent yellow ball to play and doing that for a lifetime!"
Lydia and Timothy looked at each other and said simultaneously, "That's not cricket!"

On Monday, Ginger was feeling nervous as she waited for her mum who was still not around. Her mother's absence had taken a toll on her that made her feel melancholic although the classroom was filled with enthusiasm, as children and their parents took their places. As Ginger started to speak, her mum wearing a black t-shirt with a white fern logo walked into the classroom. Ginger's eyes welled up in tears. She recognised immediately the logo representing the New Zealand women's national cricket team. In high spirits, she delivered her presentation of her interest in becoming a professional woman cricketer. Loud applause rained in the room. Mr Timothy walked up to Ginger and said to her, "I'm proud of you today! Perfect delivery. But, mostly I admire your courage in speaking what you believe in!"

"Mum, how did you know that I love cricket and that I admire White Ferns?"
"Oh Ginger, I received a call from Lydia, the cricket coach at your school. Lydia said you could join the cricket camp this weekend. I'm sorry I didn't ask you what you like and assumed that you still liked becoming a doctor. "
"It's okay, mum. I love you. Shall we move to Auckland where I could study at the secondary cricket school in Auckland?"
Chuckling, Ginger's mum said, "Did you say Auckland? We'll see about that. First, let's go home and watch a cricket match together while enjoying a sushi takeaway."
"Oh yes, marvellous!"







I've never done anything like this.

I'm shitting myself, if you want to know. But I don't think I've got a choice, have I? I've been trying to think of another way but there isn't one.

I found the card in the lobby of the cop shop after they'd interviewed me. God knows what they were doing there, a pile of cards for a medium. But it was just what I needed.

'The Curtain' is on Church Street, which seems pretty ironic to me. Churches and mediums don't get on that well, do they? I dunno. Not my bag, either of them. But here I am, outside a medium's front door. Looks ordinary enough, chipped blue paint, door knocker, letterbox. I decide I'll do a little test - if she's psychic or whatever, she'll know I'm here, right?

I stand there for five minuted before deciding to leave - she's never opened the door so she must be crap. Just as I'm turning away, though, the door opens.

'You not coming in, Steve?' says a voice from inside somewhere.

Now I'm shitting myself even more. I never told her my name, see.

'Come on. I won't bite.'

A face appears, a white face with shitloads of make-up. Hair's all over the place. Like a crazy birds nest. She's short, with necklaces pulling her down even more. I can't tell how old she is. Somewhere between thirty and fifty?

I swallow, and walk back to the door. She disappears ahead of me down a dingy corridor and I, against my better mind, follow. I shut the door behind me. She leads me into a room off to the left and holds the door open, indicating a chair with her other hand.

'Sit down,' she says.

We sit either side of a small round table, with a - yes, honestly - crystal ball in the middle. I almost laugh.

'Tell me why you're here,' the woman says.

'Um,' I begin. I've forgotten, for a moment, which version of the story I need to tell.

'My gran,' I say, and feel shit all over again. She shouldn't have died. But... She was old.

'Your gran?' prompts the woman.

'My gran died. And she, er, had some money, and I need to know where to find it.' I could kick myself so hard. How bad does that sound?

'Right. What was her name?'

'Mary. Mary Knight.'

The woman takes my right hand and holds it in hers. She shuts her eyes for a moment, then opens them and they flutter a bit, almost in time with the flapping of my heart. Feels like it wants to fly right out of my chest.

'There's a Mary here. Mary says... that can't be right. Was your grandmother - murdered?'

Oh, fuck. She knows.

'No!' I say. 'No, no not at all. She fell and slipped in the bathroom and hit her head and was left there because we didn't all go and see her until it was too late.' I'm aware I might be babbling.

The woman's gaze is piercing. She looks straight through me.

'She knows you had something to do with it. She's not stupid, she says. You and those no-good friends of yours. The drug friends.'

'It wasn't me,' I say.

The woman appears to be listening to the air in the room.

I feel my arms prickle into goosebumps. I want out of here, but my hand's still caught in hers and it's like steel.

'Your grandmother says she knows it wasn't you, she knows you'd never hurt her. But she knows you told them there was money in the house. And that's how she ended up dead, wasn't it? Your "friends" went to find it. You've got some nerve, coming here. But here's the thing, your grandmother is very forgiving, and she would actually like you to have the money.'

'What?'

'Yes, I thought that too. Crazy woman. She says you have to look under the patio. But when you find it, you've got to use it to do good.'

I nod. Yes. I'll tell her anything at all. I don't care, I just want the money. She looks nuts, anyway. Half not here.

'She wants you to give half of it to charity. Said that's what it was for, she just didn't get around to doing it.'

I nod. 'Anything she wants. Can you tell her I'm sorry?' And I am. I never meant for any of this to happen. And she'll never know if I don't give it away, will she?

'And you need to give me the names of these friends of yours. No, don't worry, they'll never know it came from you.'

'Um.' I think. Telling them would be my death sentence. But then, once I've got the money I'm outta here. Gone. On a lane. They'll never find me. So I give her the names.

I give her double her usual fee, too, when I leave. I walk out of that front door, and leg it to my gran's, where I get a spade from her shed and begin the job of lifting the patio.


++++++

'Absolutely disgusting,' I say down the phone, seconds later. 'Honestly, I've never felt such bad vibes off of someone. Can you believe he sold out on his own grandmother? Beggars bloody belief.' I hang up. That's one half of the job done.

The names are slightly harder, but I've got contacts. I track down the pub they go to, call and lo and behold, they're all there. My lucky day. I tell them, via their 'leader', Steve squealed. Like a little pig. Squealed them all in. The leader swears a lot, drops the phone and there's the sound of running feet in my ear. I hang up the phone. That's the other half done.

Only then do I take off my wig and raise some of the necklaces over my head. They bloody weigh me down. I chuck the wig and the jewellery into the bin. I won't be seeing Steve again and I doubt he'll have time to tell anyone about what I look like, but still. Don't take unnecessary risks.

I ring the police back to confirm I've got the little shites. Hopefully it'll work like this: Steve starts digging. The 'friends' turn up. The police catch them all. I've done what I can. Let's hope they don't stuff it up, be nice to get scum like that off the streets.

I ruffle in my drawer of everything for the next batch of cards.

What do you need to know, from the other side?
Come to Mystic Mags to find out...

There's a new phone number for a new SIM card. I'll drop these off at the courthouse and pubs, later. I know where to go, where the scum hang out. I follow the cases and if the police and I agree, we make sure the right people find me. It works fine.

There's just one bit the police don't know; the real reason I gave up police work all those years ago.

'Mary? Are you here...? About this money...'





Shackles of Love

The tangerine smells heavenly especially when I peel the skin with my dainty fingers painted in henna. Each segment of the orange tastes sweet with the juice filling my mouth and running down my throat. I spit out the seed and it lands inside an empty pizza box. I drink up the remaining cold coffee just to feel its bitterness on my tongue. The aroma of the fragrant tangerine lingers as I pick up what is left of my life after Raj's betrayal. The reality of the fruit's sweetness contrasts with the bitterness I feel in my heart.

Tonight, I will leave the dishes undone. The greasy pots, pans, ladle, plates and glasses fill the sink. I will even leave the kitchen as it is with crumbs on the cutting board, bits of dough stuck to the side of a bowl and a wine glass rim stained by my ruby red lipstick. In the dining room, a table has been set for two. I had placed two plain white dinner plates and wine glasses on a white linen table cloth. An unscented white candle in a glass holder is in the centre of the round table. Its mellow candlelight on white rose petals in a glass vase elevates the romantic presence. I simply love the combination of white and glass. The dinner will be a pleasant surprise for my husband, Raj. I wait eagerly to celebrate my second wedding anniversary with him. The time is 7.00pm. Raj is not here.

A year ago, I caught him talking for hours on his phone and he said they were business deals. I believed him. But the calls at late nights became too frequent and I grew suspicious with the manner he spoke. He lowered his tone to a low pitch and sometimes his deep voice varied to be a sing-song tone.

I remember clearly it was the month of June last year. Raj was in the shower when a ring tone 'Hello' by Adele was getting louder. My heart beat faster when he came out of the shower with a bath towel tied around his waist. He grabbed a hand towel to squeeze his black hair dry. Then he dried his wavy hair with a hair drier while staring at his reflection in the mirror. Raj had well-toned muscles. He caught me staring at him.

'Sunitha, I need to head back to the office. I've a case to prepare for tomorrow.'
'Who is Lola?' My voice trembled.
'How do you know Lola?' His face flushed and he quickly turned back to face me.
'I answered your call while you were in the shower.' I tried explaining to him.
'Don't you know better than answering my calls? Don't ever touch my phone!' his voiced turned ugly, 'Now get out of this room!'

He shut the bedroom door with a loud bang and locked it from inside. He was conversing for a long time behind the door. Before I could apologize, he left home in a rush and I saw him driving off in his car. From the 7th floor of our apartment, I gazed at the silhouette of the night skyline of Kuala Lumpur where Petronas Twin Towers stood out. I was trying to make sense of the skyline, the neon lights, the black cat crossing the road and my life.

The drama did not end there. The next day after a long tiring day at office, I came home to a shocking sight of my bedroom with shirts, pants, socks, papers and coins scattered all over our bed and the carpeted floor. His closet and drawers were empty while his luggage and sports shoes were missing. It seemed like a hurried get away. His phone was dead. He did not leave me a note.

I called up my papa and asked him if I should lodge a police report on "missing person". Papa advised me to leave the matter in his hands after I told him about Lola. The detective whom papa hired reported to him on Raj's whereabouts. He was still in town and was commuting to work from a hotel. He was spotted with a woman at several locations in the city. Black and white photos of Raj and Lola were spread out on the coffee table. The close proximity shared made me cringe. Papa had made an arrangement to meet Raj at his hotel lobby to confront him on the matter. I did not want the meeting to turn ugly. I begged papa to allow me to join him but instead he asked me to prepare for my first wedding anniversary. I decided to celebrate it with a romantic dinner. Papa promised to bring Raj home. I told myself I could forgive Raj and take him back into my life.

I cannot believe a year has passed. Tonight is my second wedding anniversary. I braid my long hair, pin jasmine to it with the stringed buds falling slightly over my right shoulder. I wear a pink sari with gold embroidery and place a red bindi on my forehead. I look outside the window and see oil palm leaves rustling in the wind. This oil palm estate is miles and miles away from Kuala Lumpur. My eyes sweep across the untidy kitchen. I glance at the pizza box. I can still smell the aroma of the tangerines despite the musty smell of the dining room. Then my eyes linger on the white candles on the table set for two for the candlelight relaxes me. The wall clock shows 8.00pm. I am ready to meet my husband.

I walk downstairs to the basement where a step of the staircase creaks. It is not pitch dark as a faint light from a bulb falls on a figure behind iron bars. I meet my husband's cold eyes who takes some time to recognize me. His cage of bones jitters and his lips swear. His dark eyes were sparkling in fury.

Raj has been locked up for months now in the basement after he refused to come home on our first wedding anniversary. Celebrating our second wedding anniversary together seems deeply moving to me. But he looks so distraught that I cannot have a proper conversation with him. He chokes back tears while speaking to me. I stare at the shackles around his ankles. I glance around at the sunless room equipped with a wooden bed with no mattress, sink and toilet bowl. I feel overwhelmed by the severe condition he is in and actually feel pity for him.

'Let me out, Sunitha! It's been a year! Please forgive me!' he said. His voice changes from a gruntling harsh tone to a pleading tone.
'You did not come home last year! You humiliated my family by taking a mistress.'
'Lola is ..I mean.. was my girlfriend. I agreed to our arranged marriage because of my mother. It was her dying wish that I marry you. I had no choice,' he said.
'I need to know whether you love me.'
'No...,' he said.
Raj's reply came too quickly and he realizes to his horror his mistake.
'Well, I'll see you again next year. You're safe for no storms visit here and no man too except of course for the faithful workers whom I've hired to take care of you!' I said.
'Wait..don't go...please..please don't leave me here!' He cries in anguish.

I go up to the kitchen, peel a tangerine, put a fleshly carpel in my mouth, crush it and lick my lips. The flame of the candle has long died. As the clock strikes twelve, I leave the bungalow, drive out of the oil palm plantation and never return. No one needs to know that my husband is paying a price for his betrayal of my love and trust.




Edith

Steve was sitting inside the screened veranda of the hired cottage just short of Taho in California. Steve and Edith had rented this cottage to spend a month of summer among the beautiful surroundings of Lake Taho. Steve was now touching seventy and had retired from active life as an electrical engineer, Edith had also retired from her school where she used to teach maths. Steve could see the meandering trail in front of the cottage going down to the tiny valley. Fir and pine trees lined the path on both sides. Wildflowers like Yarrows covered the ground, Pussytoes and Arnica. He could see the dull sun just above the winding pathway in between two mountains. As he looked, he thought he saw a fried egg sunny side up kept on a vertical plate. A small boy ran past the cottage and headed down to the valley in his grey shorts and bright yellow tee, and he had a small cap with some logo and a bobbing red scarf around his neck. Behind him, was an old man, in a black jacket trying hard to keep the boy in sight.

He remembered the days when he had combed the beach at Taho and dared to swim in the strong winds that lashed the surface. Edith had kept a watch on him and had forbidden him to venture far from the shore. He recollected that a swarm of Lahontan trout had started chasing him and had even nibbled one of his toes before the rescue helicopter crew saved him. Edith had kept screaming at the trail of blood from his foot till the doctors reassured her that he would be fine in a couple of days. He was taken to a hospital but could not recollect its name. He looked around searching for Edith. He hated the crabs on the shore they always bit him, he could not remember a day when they had not had a go at his feet, the purple ones were nasty. He saw Edith just outside the house collecting the wildflowers to put in the clay pot on the dining table. He wondered why the water turned violet and even started bubbling when the flowers were placed into the bowl. Edith always made broth at night and put wild mushrooms and turnips in it along with small fish and eggs and served it with garlic buns dipped in butter. He wondered what had made so many silk moths fly around his house? It was not so dark yet, and he could still spot the roses five cottages away as they swayed hither and thither in the wind. The pattern on the ground made by filtered sunlight changed with the breeze, a bit troubling at times and it made him squint and wince.

He could see the yellow of the egg sliding down slowly as the plate turned dark. He wondered about the orange glow at the far end of the trail it did seem to get brighter and brighter. He wheeled his chair for a better view and realised it could be a forest fire, undoubtedly it was, as he could see the commotion among the Jays and Chickadees flying past his cottage. He frantically looked for Edith and manoeuvred his wheelchair out of the wicket gate shouting. He heard a low thunder as some raindrops slammed his face, what the heck! Hailstorm, relieved he rushed back to the safety of his veranda. He wondered if he saw a bear Crisscross among the towering trees….he shouted: “Verdammt Edith wo bist du!!”

steve...steve…he thought he heard someone calling him …

(Steve had been admitted to Westmead Public Hospital, Sydney, Australia for a neurological disorder, all his tests were normal including the dream mapping which had been done during the day. Sylvie was trying to wake up Steve from his induced dream state. Steve had never set foot outside Australia, he was being clinically investigated for a language disorder…he had started speaking German one fine morning, a language he had never learned. Sylvie had no idea who Edith was, during the past 51 years of their marriage she had never heard of her.)

There is a need to know what we ought to know about what we do not know…

They call him twenty-six, it’s not his name or even his rank but those details are private - held in a top secret file by the men upstairs - on a need to know basis, and me? Well I didn’t really need to know did I? he’s at least four years my junior, though the crows feet in the corners of his eyes and tense frown lines between his bushy brows tell me he’s seen a lot - a lot more than any of the other younger recruits. There’s a softness to his eyes that isn’t visible unless you look for it, behind the scowl and stubble lies the expression of a man that’s tired and worn, but was happy and free once upon a time. He reminds me of my sister, carefree and full of life - she’s waiting back home for me, the brother who probably isn’t ever coming back. It’s not the first promise I’ve broken.

He calls me thirteen, as do the rest of them - except he says it in more of a friendly way unlike the other recruits addressing me in a formal manner because I’m the only thing between them and deportation. I remember being one of them, a nineteen year old fresh out of training with my eyes to the skies and aspirations for a brighter future. A few months on this battlefield and they’ll all look as tired as twenty-six, he’s been here the best part of a year and though it took him a while to learn his place in the ranks he’s doing better - no longer a scally lad out to cause trouble, instead a dedicated part of the force. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had my job one day, though I don’t plan on getting my head blown off any time soon.

Each night one of the lads is on watch-duty, sitting outside the camp observing the landscape, fully armed and waiting for any unsuspecting mods to try and creep up on our sleeping crew. It’s not unusual for the rest of us to be woken by the sounds of gunfire ripping through an alien body, the unmistakeable sound of a dying mod screeching. It’s enough to make every hair on your body stand on end, the only thing scarier than a mod zoning in on you is the inhuman sound it makes as the life is ripped from its shell. Twenty-six always finds an excuse to join me on my watch, something about being too wired for sleep or needing a smoke. It’s pleasant company and I quite enjoy listening to him ramble about everything and nothing, it takes me away for a while - takes me back to the village where I grew up, where twenty-six would be my best friend and we’d play football and tell jokes and we wouldn’t be looking over our shoulders for the next attack.

It’s a quiet evening in the third-quarter of the year when he tells me he’s going home with me. He says that once our service is up and we’re dismissed from the ranks we’ll set up home together, that all of this will be just memories and we can have a decent chance at a life outside the battlefield. It’s the first time I’ve genuinely smiled in the best part of a decade, it fills my entire being with hope and ambition. He breaks the code, whispering his birth name quietly over the thick silence of the desert and I don’t hesitate to tell him mine, ignoring everything I’ve been taught to just share this moment with him, its ours and it’s set in a quiet corner of my mind as one of my best memories.

He’s gone by the fourth-quarter.

Body mangled and charred from the deadly rays of a mod neither of us had seen coming. I watched the life drain from his eyes and his skin desaturate before he convulsed and never regained consciousness. One of the youngsters - thirty-two with a keen sight - blew the head off the enemy within seconds as I dropped to my knees and willed myself not to cry over the remains of my best friend, soul-mate, future. The lads let me have a quiet moment, they don’t ask and it’s probably because they already knew that this man had half of my heart and I, his. He’s buried in an unmarked grave, it’s standard procedure so that any remaining mods don’t locate the body and begin to harvest his organs and any other remains. They’ve done it before but apart from it feeling disrespectful and wrong, it would completely break me to know they’d tampered with his final resting place.

By the time we reach the final leg of the desert it’s fourth-quarter again and it’s been a year since I lost him. We’ve had new recruits since then and the original crew have either been discharged or killed, I don’t have a reason to leave now - no future to go home to and so I stay when they all change over. I feel colder, more hardened since his death - like all the life has gone from my eyes and my heart is a stone, it’s clear in the way the lads look at me that I don’t have the care that I used to, there’s no passion - it’s just a job, a duty. There’s a bright-eyed blonde who transferred a month ago, he’s constantly at my side like my own personal shadow and if I hadn’t had my heart ripped in two I might have been a bit more interested but he seems oblivious to my nonchalance.

He’s taken to partnering up with me on my night-watch, it reminds me of twenty-six but I never mention it, just let the new lad ramble on about anything he wants and feign interest. It’s when he asks my birth-name that I’m thrown, it’s nostalgic and something warms inside me as I remember the moment we shared a little more than a year ago. But then I’m reminded that I lost him and I couldn’t save him and if I’d only paid more attention maybe he wouldn’t be lying in an unmarked grave and instead we’d be setting up home together. My heart grows impossibly colder as my eyes flick up at the expectant blonde, muttering my response with no emotion

“That’s on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know.”

Myrna

An hour to live and I dreamt of Myrna.

That dream evaporated when a priest entered my cell and sat on the solitary chair holding his Bible with as much reverence as I once held Myrna. I swung down off the top bunk and hit the floor. I stretched my legs a little, trying to exercise the stiffness in my knees. Pulling out a pack of Camels the priest 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 the bunk. “Small Plains, Wyoming. Picket fences and apple pie.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Could’ve been, should’ve been.”

“How’d you find yourself here?”

I blew a smoke ring and watched it hit the ceiling.

“I met the devil, Father. A devil with red hair, cleavage deeper than hell and legs that never stopped growing. Her name was Myrna."

He smiled. "Tell me more."

"More? You're a priest. Why do ya need to know anymore?"

"Curious, I suppose. The Bible is full of such women but I've never been able to understand the hold that some women have over men."

"That's why you're a priest. Huh, well 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.”

“Bad luck.”

“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.”

I smiled.

“Got word my mother died and wind blew me back.”

“God works in mysterious ways, my son.”,

“God or the devil? The 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 dropped my stub and ground it under my shoe.

“No but 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. She told the cops she came home and found him dead. 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.”

“Plausible…but you argued your side of the story”

“Eventually. I thought she'd have something else to say, to get us both out of this mess but she knew what she was doing. She turned up in court each day in black. Real demure. No make up. You'd have thought she was Pollyanna with tears. The jury thought so. She'd planned this from the day she walked into the gas station. I was a means to an end. Now you know.”

“God help you, my son.”

“Save God for the next guy she gets her claws into, Father. 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.”

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried out
hand said it was nowt,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock now knew
down the hand flew,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
frock cried don’t touch me
hand didn’t flee,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried more
as they hit the floor,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
when the frock dived,
the hand revived,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
the frock cried six,
that hand it split,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
bloody hand ran up the frock,
frock froze for seven,
8, 9, 10, 11,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
the hand ran up the frock,
as twelve bells twanged
the frock unhuman,
tickly sickly block.

Tickly sickly block,
Such silence said the frock.
Hand laughed: You tease me so
this is need to know!
Tickly sickly block.

My Masterpiece

The oil painting of sunflowers was radiant with brilliant yellow strokes resembling the sunflowers in my garden. Ten tall stems with with large flower heads attracted birds and insects. I was roused to embrace a celebrated mood because I could finally do a painting of these flowers just like Vincent Van Gogh who painted them using vibrant chrome yellow. But I won't make the same mistake that he did when he used white pigments to lighten the yellow that eventually turned to brown. Surely there were better quality of oil paints today than in the 19th century. All I was thinking was to go out to the garden, cut some sunflowers, place the tall stems in a glass vase and start painting. But first, I had to go out to buy milk and eggs. When I returned home, I saw no sight of my sunflowers!

I called my son, John who rushed to my house. I had to make chamomile tea to calm my nerves. I offered him a cup and began telling him what transpired last year after his father's death. I recalled very clearly the morning when a heavy downpour did not stop me from making an appointment with an art tutor. Alan was a retiree just like me but I knew nothing about him apart from that. My wet shoes squeaked as I rang the doorbell of his art studio.

I tried to make a good impression on Alan. I had my floral dress with lace collar pressed with a borrowed iron, got my hair permed and, dyed black. I had painted my thin lips with a rosy hue to make me look youthful but I could do nothing about my wrinkled face. My petite body and slightly hunched shoulders did garner unwanted attention from strangers who thought of me as a helpless old woman. I didn't want Alan to think of me as one either.

I wanted to learn about composition, texture, colour, light so I could produce an oil painting like Van Gogh. Alan was surprised that I only wanted to learn to paint sunflowers. His composed face made him look younger although his shoulder length hair was grey. Alan showed me a workbench yet I eyed the easels with mounted canvases. He handed me a charcoal pencil and a drawing paper.

'Mastering an oil painting takes years but if you're only interested in painting sunflowers, I could certainly instruct you but first, let's see you sketch some sunflowers for me.' He left me alone to draw sunflowers using my imagination.

Framed works of minimalist paintings hung on the four walls of the studio. Large glass windows let in the morning sunlight after the rain had washed the broad streets. Some of the window glass pieces were in shades of red, blue and green. The beautiful architecture of the front studio connected with the landscape. Through a glass window, I saw maple trees shedding their leaves and standing naked while the ground was scattered with yellow, red and orange leaves while some were turning brown. Raindrops and dew on the leaves would make a perfect canvas but I stubbornly devoted my heart in painting sunflowers.

Several art students were working on a still art arrangement of green wine bottles, a glass bowl of black grapes and, a white linen napkin. Soon they left after picking up their coats and umbrellas. Only Alan and I were left in the studio with an instrumental music playing softly in the background. I concentrated fully on my sketch. Working on this art was like a therapy as I could keep loneliness at bay. Being a widow was not easy for me as I missed my husband.

Alan lifted his round rim glasses to his forehead and said, 'Are these sunflowers? They look more like daisies to me.' He heaved a sigh and said, 'Come back on Saturday at sharp 9.00am, not a minute late.' I was kind of perplexed because I still had half an hour more. He apologised saying he had to close early and asked me to bring a bouquet of sunflowers next week if they're still available in fall. I heard him say under his breath that daisies cannot bloom into sunflowers in a day or ever. I walked out as gracefully as I could. I contemplated on quiting but I was determined to learn.

It was weeks before I could actually master drawing sunflowers that looked "alive" with their own characteristics and I loved the ones that tilted their flower heads to soak up golden rays of light. I also fancied the flowers that drooped shyly. I admired the pencil sketches but I could not wait to paint.

One evening when I stepped into his studio, I noticed that all the framed paintings were missing from sight. I closed my eyes and imagined the minimalist painting of squares of different sizes and lines on the bare wall. I startled when I saw just one easel in the studio and there were boxes piled at one corner. I thought Alan might be redecorating his studio.

'I'm ready to paint in oil,' I said.
'Yes, I think you are.' he said and led me to an easel with a white canvas. There were tubes of Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White and Burnt Sienna alongside turpentine, palette and paint brushes. Using a charcoal pencil, I sketched the sunflowers that I've mastered. I was excited in doing my first painting.

After instructing me on painting in oil, he said, 'I'm afraid this will be our last class.' I was dumbfounded.
I fumbled, 'I've not even started painting yet and even if I do, I won't be able to finish my painting.'
'Girl, sorry..Freda, tell me what you see outside.'
There was a blanket of snow, rows of trees dressed in snow and a Christmas tree adorned in lights. A family strolling by with their hands full of shopping bags. I didn't describe what I saw instead I waited for him to continue.
'I miss that!'
'You miss snow?'
'No, I miss my family in London. I'm closing my studio to be with them.'
My eyes once again glanced at the almost empty studio. I asked him, 'Are you not coming back?'
'Yes, I've sold my studio. I'm sorry. I'll refund your money!'
We said our farewells. I did not paint that day! I felt the biting cold wintry weather as I lumbered along the snowy street with a heavy heart.

In spring, I received a delivery from a florist here in Manchester. They were sunflowers from Alan with a message saying: 'When you've finished your masterpiece, let me know. I would like to exhibit your work at my studio.' My eyes welled in tears and my legs sprang to twirl around.

John interrupted my thoughts, 'Did you call me over to tell me your sunflowers were gone? I left my job because I thought that something dreadful happened .. I thought you had hurt yourself!' He did not stop but continued nagging for the next two minutes.

I stared blankly at him.
'Someone stole my sunflowers!'
'So, what's the big deal?'
'Stealing a million pieces of my heart!'

John felt sorry for me and comforted me. We went out together to the garden.
'Are you making a police report?' I asked.
He scratched his head and said sheepishly, 'If that makes you happy, mama.'
'Mama, why do you love sunflowers very much?'
'The best thing that ever happened in my life is your father. He always got me sunflowers. He left me a letter saying that even when he was gone, he would still be here in spirit in the presence of sunflowers!'

I stood in admiration of a painting at an art gallery in London. It wasn't as good as Van Gogh's Sunflowers but I felt it was a masterpiece, my one and only love-abiding work.


When we were children we talked about ways of stealing a million. I had strict rules. No one should get hurt so the million couldn’t belong to somebody. That was impossible so maybe a very, bad person you said. We thought of the baddest person we knew. That person changed, bad seemed to get darker as we grew older. At the beginning it was a gruff teacher we called Mr. Gremlin but that was when we didn’t really understand how rich you had to be to have a million.

In our teens we turned our attention to Mrs. Davies. She and her ugly daughter lived alone in a big house with a long. thin strip of garden to the side. If you so much as played on the pavement in front of the house she shouted at you. She threw things too turning annoying her into more of a challenge. Several times a week we would dash to the bottom of her garden and back ducking the stones she lobbed. The daughter never left the house so we didn’t actually know she was ugly but why else would she sit inside with the curtains drawn and her face obscured by a hood?

The stones got sharper, more like flints and when one cut your cheek we began to plot in earnest. The daughter worried me but you said she would probably be glad to get out of that house, she was a prisoner there. Once we got the money we’d pay for her to have surgery, make herself beautiful. That made sense. Sometimes people have to be made to do things for their own good. That’s what Mum said when they took Dad away.

What I couldn’t work out was how to make Mrs. Davies give us her house. Whichever way I came at it she didn’t seem to be in the picture anymore. She wouldn’t do it voluntarily – she hated us. I thought we’d better check what her current will said so I broke into her house at night. I didn’t take you because someone always seemed to get hurt when you were around.

It was easier than I’d imagined. There was a spare key under a hideous frog plant-pot by the front door. You’d have thought she wanted to be burgled but I took nothing, just rifled through the papers in her desk, got lucky again and found her will. The next day I showed it to you. As we’d expected it left everything to her daughter. The witnesses could have been a problem but we knew both of them died last year. ‘So Ugly Daughter gets it all.’

‘Not for much longer,’ you said and got to work creating a will that favoured you and me. By the time you’d finished it was only the names that distinguished the genuine one. ‘Now,’ you said, ‘all we have to do is make her like us so people will believe she meant this.’

We never worked harder than we did that summer. We trimmed her overgrown hedges, did her shopping, washed her car but nothing softened her attitude towards us. It was your idea to try and befriend the daughter. I’d left school and was doing nothing so you sent me in. I waited for Mrs. Davies to go out and knocked on the door. There was a shuffling sound like something inhuman was creeping down the corridor.

She was nothing like I’d thought. Her hood covered a frail elf-like face but she was pretty. Too pale and thin but she gave no impression of illness. ‘Hi,” I started, ‘my name’s Jess. I’m doing door-to-door friendship.’

She didn’t reply but shrank even further back from the doorway to indicate I should enter. I went into the dark house. It smelt of cooked cabbage. I followed her into the front room. The curtains were drawn. She stopped and faced me. ‘I’m Ellen. This is my house.’

It felt as if she knew what we had planned. Her stare made me face the part of the scheme I hadn’t wanted to think about. In order for us to inherit Mrs. Davies would have to die. You were planning to kill her. All that rubbish about imprisoning her daughter was a fiction. I had no idea why Ellen was housebound. ‘Why do you never go out?’

To my surprise she laughed. ‘Have you made up stories about me? I used to do that when I was young. I can’t go out in daytime. I’m allergic to sunlight.’

‘But can’t they do something? Give you some drugs?’

‘They’ve tried but nothing’s worked so far. It’s awful for Mum always having to sit in the dark. She’s petrified kids like you might break a window or something, put me in danger. I’m sorry she shouts so much.’

‘That’s OK. We didn’t know. If we’d known we wouldn’t have.’ I meant it too but I didn’t think the same was true of you. As we got older you'd changed. Sometimes your intensity scared me. My friendship with Ellen took over from my hanging out with you. She and I started writing stories together. At first you did the illustrations but you soon got bored. By the time we were published you’d left town and we'd dropped your rubbish drawings.

I heard you were in prison for a while. I tried to get in contact but I was so busy at the time. Ellen couldn’t do any of the publicity because of her condition so I seemed to live in hotel rooms in big cities. I thought of you but I never made contact. Then last night Ellen called to say her mum had died.

Ellen and Mrs. Davies never moved despite all the money our books made. I wonder what happened to that forged will. I'm not too worried because I’d put the genuine will back in the desk ten years ago. If you turn up and try to make a claim I only have to confess to our childhood prank. There's no reason for me to feel this dry-mouthed panic.

Somebody is hammering on my door.





STEALING A MILLION

Monte Carlo? Listen! I'll tell you about Monte Carlo.
I'd set it up good. Everything seemed just right; the timing, the punters; the setting. How could it fail? The casino was full and the croupiers on duty. The Cote d'Azur never looked brighter.

I planned this for over a year. Finding the right player is always the difficult part. I need glamour and skill; star quality and good knowledge of casino games.

After months searching the gaming houses of South America, I found Mario in a flophouse in Buenos Aires. He was thin and dirty but I could see his style had not deserted him. He still possessed that spark he had as a first class gigolo. He smiled when I outlined the game to him and I'd found the man.

Alexia was never a problem. Her auburn hair and full breasted figure had been a feature of six or seven magazine covers before she fell out with Harvey Weinstein and lost her contract in Hollywood. When I rang her she was 'resting' in a motel in downtown San Diego, a long way from the bright lights. She had been 'resting 'for quite a few years.

"You sweet man! Of course I can make it to Monte! I'm having a break from filming and would be happy to help. What's the gig?"

I outlined the plot and she jumped at the idea; two days later she was in Nice looking at dress shops at my expense.

As they sauntered along the boulevard leading to the Grand Casino, I knew they looked the part. Mario wore his tuxedo with elan, his long black hair pulled back into a shiny knot like a bull-fighting torero and his slim figure completed the image. He smoked a cheroot in a jade holder and strolled with the studied ease of a rich sportsman. Alexia took his arm and they made the picture of a celebrity couple as they walked up the long flight of steps to the main entrance. I was their chauffeur in black cap and dark suit, carrying an aluminium briefcase.

"Good evening," The major domo bowed and presented an orchid to the beautiful Alexia, "May I ask you to sign in and I will take you to a table."

His smile was warm but his eyes were like flints. I warned Mario that the staff would check on them and I provided him with the name of a Spanish bull fighter who was fighting in Mexico at that time.

A dark suited clerk took me aside and examined the briefcase; it contained one hundred thousand US dollars. His fingers flickered over the notes like the touch of a butterfly, then he nodded to me and I closed the lid. We were in.

The money belonged to me. If you think I have a hundred thousand dollars -think again! It was made for me by Luigi Macron in Lille. Of course it would not fool a Treasury Official but good enough for a quick show at the guichet of a casino and it worked perfectly. The clerk issued a chitty for chips to that figure and I drew them from the counter and handed them ostentatiously to 'my Boss.' They made a pretty pile as he sat at the big roulette table. I positioned Alexia at the far end of the same table with a few chips so that when she leant forward to play, she accidentally showed her cleavage . When she did, no man could watch Mario and no woman would take her steely eyes off her.

My role was to spend time in the basement like a good servant, chatting and gossiping with the others. I held the briefcase tightly since the Company would not accept responsibility for punter's assets. I sat apart and no one watched me as I pinpointed the fusebox for the lighting system. The plan was to switch off the interior lighting and 'top hat' the winning numbers at the best table.

Give me a moment and I'll explain.

If you can quickly add extra chips to the winning counters, then you can make thirty five times the stake on each coup. It takes quick hands and good timing but two working together make it easy. How do you make the switch? Kill the lights for a second and it's done. We had set it up for midnight plus five minutes and I watched the clock.

Just before I moved to the switch I felt something was wrong. The staff around me began to gather round the screens showing the gaming tables. Then one screen zoomed in on the table where Mario sat. His hands filled the screen; in his fingers you could see three 100 dollars chips ready to flick onto winning numbers as soon as the lights went out.

What could I do? What would anyone do? I pulled the switch. There was uproar in the basement and I slipped upstairs to the Gaming Salon, holding the briefcase. Within a few seconds, the emergency lighting came on and I confronted bedlam.
What had been the sophisticated social scene, was a madhouse. At every table glamorous women old and young were grappling with each other or stretched across the green baize to reach any chips still lying on the table. A man in a wheelchair barged through the crowd to reach one of the Baccarat tables, scooping up chips on his way.

Alexia? I found her under the gaming table, half naked, struggling with an ancient crone who managed to snatch the chips Alexia had pinched from the croupier.
There was no sign of Mario. His chair was empty and his pile of chips had disappeared. The Casino staff were struggling through the swarming mass to reach the tables and rushing to close the doors to the Gaming rooms. I squeezed out just before they closed and ran downstairs with my briefcase.

Before I got my head together, a burly Gendarme grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out into the street.

"What's up Monsewer?" Says I.

He gave me a sickly smile, "About five years, I reckon."

He pointed to the briefcase and the fake dollars.

"But I can explain," I said.

He shoved me into a van and we drove off. As we passed through the square, I peered out of the window. There, at a café, sat Mario with a large plastic bag; it bulged with what I knew to be casino chips. He looked content.

You see, it all depends on the staff you pick. I struck out this time but in a few years I'll be out and give it another go. You've got to keep playing the game, haven't you?



The Encounter


The battle cry was heard in high spirits on my own land but now with the raining of arms, the heart was not as valiant as it should be on this foreign land. I did not join the army to kill soldiers although they were my enemies. My aim in my life was to be of service to my comrades here on this battlefield and to anyone who needed medical aid.

My heart sank when I heard of the Kandahar massacre that happened a week ago on 11th of March, 2012. A US Army Staff Sergeant murdered sixteen civilians and wounded six Afghans. Nine of them were children. I knew him since we came from the same neighborhood in Ohio but I had no contact with him until I met him in February. I had been here since 2011 being assigned by the US Special Operations in Afghanistan as a cultural mediator but my core work was to serve as a trauma surgeon at the medical camp here. I racked my brain wondering whether I could have seen some signs to stop the terrible atrocity. My whole body trembled as I felt as if I was bare-knuckled out of the ring of humanity. The punches that knocked sense into me were buzzing in my ears. Why did I feel cold perspiration running down my spine? Why was I blaming myself when I had nothing to do with it?

A heavy air of gloominess hung in Panjwai where the killings took place as mourning prevailed after the Muslim burial rituals. The lips of relatives voiced out the dying of their loved ones as fate but grief-stricken hearts could not accept it as such because they blamed the presence of soldiers even if they were there to fight against the Taliban's uprising in Afghanistan. I remembered the words of the mother, Safia, who had died in the brutal slaughter: 'Sufferings have been embedded in our lives. Here, the music of joy does not come from the heart because even a lullaby is sung in fear. Sound of blasting rockets and explosions have instead become the cursed music in our lives!'

In January 2012, Safia's family had welcomed me into their house. It was their custom to welcome guests with respect and to offer food and drinks. I removed my shoes at the door. I was invited to sit on the floor and to dine with the family. It was a simple hearty meal of naan, a flat bread; Badenjan, an eggplant dish; Shorba, an Afghan soup; Lassi, a sweet yogurt drink and tea. I was not used to eating with my hands but I managed somehow. Her son, Azfaar who spoke reasonably good English, Pashto and Dari worked as a translator at the medical camp. I would be at a loss without Azfaar, an eighteen-year-old lad who helped me to communicate with the Afghan community and learn their customs. We had grown to be friends though I did not treat him as a buddy when working.

The head of the family, Abu-Zar shared stories of his life as a farmer before he became disabled after being shot in a crossfire. He spoke of the hardship experienced under the Taliban rule. Abu-Zar said, 'My daughters had to stop schooling because girls were not allowed to pursue an education.' He looked at his girls with loving eyes and continued, 'Sanaz here wants to be a doctor. She wants to be like you giving service of life.' His voice trailed off to a whisper and then bloomed with excitement. He kept pouring tea into my cup.

Just days after the tragic episode, sorrow had changed into rage for the villagers blamed the rich countries with power of creating a war whereby innocent people, their flesh and blood, were wounded or killed. Like in a game of chess, they were pawns that were sacrificed in a game of war. They were casualties of war in which their existence were merely recorded as numbers. I wondered how many lives had to be perished before peace had a chance to sweep across the land.

Sergeant Jasper who brought in a soldier with a battle injury to the medical camp warned me of violence from the local people. And he said, 'You should realize by now that you don't belong here. Why put yourself and others in danger here? The military has made a wrong judgment by sending your kind here! But you're welcomed to my quarters, at least you could put yourself to some good by entertaining the boys!' He laughed mockingly.

My eyes blazed and I told him,'Go screw yourself!' I left in a huff to see to the soldier with a bullet wound.

After performing his Fajr prayers at his mosque, Azfaar, wearing a long white cotton shirts that hung over his baggy trousers and a kufi cap came to the medical camp and met me saying he would not be returning to the camp to work. I wanted to hug and wish him my condolences but he was in a hurry and never looked at me in the eye. He even returned the books I lent him. There was a deep sadness that came out from his throat as the hoarseness of his voice was a testimony of a wounded heart. His cold demeanor cut deeper than words.

It was midnight and the temperature had dipped especially when a cold breeze nestled in the medical camp. Like Florence Nightingale, I moved from a soldier with an amputated leg to another who was blinded in his left eye. I did not carry a lamp like her but there was something that glowed here and I think it was hope. Some faces grimaced in pain, some had blank looks and some revealed a serene hue while fast asleep. After the routine check, I was ready for bed. My eyelids closed but the sound of footsteps woke me up. Walking to the doorway, I stood there peering into the darkness. The sky was a blotch of dark blue ink bleeding and spreading out wildly. In this part of the world, quietness was a rare joy at night with the silence being broken by the howling wind passing through the desert; whimpering cry of the men in my care; or sounds of gunshots. I heard the calculated footsteps again and I caught sight of a shadow. I was about to raise the alarm when I recognised the lean figure.

'Azfaar, what are you doing here? How did you get pass ...?' He hushed me with a gesture.
'Dr. Lily, I cannot be seen here. Can we go somewhere?'
'Sure, let's go to the room at the back,' I said while pointing to the room where I did my surgeries.
'No, I cannot be seen in a room with a woman.'
'We keep the door open,' I said with an authority in my voice and he nodded.

On my way to the room, I caught a glimpse of me in the glass door of the white medicine cabinet. The reflection took me by surprise. Auburn hair was styled into a pony tail and my blue eyes stared back at a stranger where I had changed from a scrawny timid girl in my teens to a bold trooper but now I did not seem to recognise myself. I must not reveal the trembling of my hands.

When we were seated facing each other, he said, 'My heart hurts a lot...' At that point, I tried holding his hands but he pushed my hand away. I steadied myself on the chair while feeling remorse because I could not cure his pain. His tears flowed wetting his cheeks and lips. And I cried with him. He then let me touch his fingers and slowly I clasped both his hands. Calmness filled our hearts softly and gently as time passed.

When Azfaar finally left, it was past 3am. Sergeant Jasper caught me by surprise. I was not sure how long he had been standing there.
'What was he doing here at this hour?'
'Were you spying on me?' I asked.
'Don't reply a question with a question!'
'He's mourning. Half of his family members are dead.'
'I know that. I asked you what he was doing at this hour. What kind of solace was he looking for?' He jeered at me.
'Don't you go there! That's beneath you. He wanted to talk to me without being seen by others.'
Jasper came closer and licked his lips. I could smell his strong body odor. I squirmed my way out and went straight to the ward.
'I can report you.' His voice trailed to an echo. I did not turn back and I whispered to myself, 'So can I.'
The soldier lying on the bed with his head bandaged said, 'Don't worry, ma'am. I won't let no man take advantage of you.'
I smiled and said, 'That's sweet of you. Living my life as a "combat woman" comes with all these undesirable advances. It's no big deal.'
I thought to myself, 'I can surely protect myself. I won't shoot to kill but I can still aim especially if it's an enemy within my own...'

Be Life's Worst Enemy


"Do you work for Life?
I don't. Life works for me."

Life puts me in
my overalls and
sends me off
to work.
She whispers in my
ear, she'll
make sure I get
my pay.
He makes me climb
tall buildings
and then fall all
the way.

Once Life asked me:
Do you care?
I said of course.
I used to FEEL the face
of Life
but now as well as that
I SEE.
That makes it so much harder
when I say:
Of course I care.

Life drops me off a precipice
only to haul me up again:
no harm done -
but really, what was that FOR?
The impact of the sea below
sends shocks all up my spine,
and every time the rope comes down
I wonder should I take it?

Life fills me up and
sucks me out, but every time
I'm empty, she bribes me with:
the future.
One day when I fell down again
I thought of all things that
I could tie.

I tied a noose.

He pulled me up in time to see
me throw it round his neck.
"I don't work for you,
but you DO work for me."



Are you in the Service of Life?
You should let life be free.


SERVICE OF LIFE

Dr Glendenning was old. He was so old he was called Norman, he reflected sadly.

Dorothy had always told him he looked young for his age, but she was gone and there was no-one now who loved him enough to lie to him.

That autumn evening dusk was falling as Norman said a brief and final goodnight to his practice receptionist – young and new to the job. He picked up his battered old Gladstone bag and carried it for the last time out of his surgery to his car. He was a cliché-ridden old fool, he knew, but he had feelings for that bag. It was like a faithful friend who had served him day in day out as he tended his patients, working tirelessly to extend their lives, to make them more comfortable, more liveable.

“We’ve devoted ourselves to the service of life, you and I. That’s what we’ve done, my old friend.” And he placed the bag carefully on the passenger seat.

Now his own life felt unliveable, and he knew there was nothing in that bag of tricks, faithful servant though it was, that could change that. Over the coming days he would do his best to downsize. That’s what they called it these days, wasn’t it? No point hanging on to stuff. Dorothy’s belongings should have been gone through 3 years ago when she’d died. Now it would be far more painful; but it had to be done.

Dr Glendenning was facing a lonely retirement.

*****
At the other side of town Jean Barker was carefully wrapping up her old dinner service in newspaper and placing the little parcels carefully into two so-called Bags For Life, though it was never clear to her quite WHOSE life - hers or theirs. If it was hers then, yes, they had served her well for a couple of years now, and played their part in saving life on the planet. But, like the dinner service, they were going to the local charity shop with her this morning.

The service had been her wedding china, first wish on Joe’s and her wedding list back in the days when people still asked for such things. It was meant to be her dinner service for life, but since Joe had gone she couldn’t bear to look at it, and in any case all she needed now was a single place setting. Her meagre pension didn’t stretch to dinner guests and anyway she had so few friends left. No-one she could share a meal with.

So, arriving at the High Street, she pulled up sharply and drew in her breath. She knew she shouldn’t have been looking in the shop window, let alone swiftly digging her purse out of the depths of her bag, but she’d spotted a briefcase. It was beautiful. Crafted from the butteriest soft tan leather, pre-owned, clearly well-loved and, like a favourite pet, regularly fed to keep it supple and with a glowing patina to its coat – “Well,” Jean thought, “I mean its hide, of course.” Endowing the bag with puppy dog properties before she’d even touched it was a sure sign of love. Yet it was twenty pounds, her food budget for the week.

The bell over the shop door tinkled like pennies falling from heaven and Jean watched herself walk in. There was no-one at the counter, neither in front of nor behind it, but she could hear rustling and busy chatter in the back. Clearly the assistants were sifting through sacks for treasure and she wondered whether every morning for them was like the Christmas mornings she remembered from being a child, so long ago. A sturdier bell sat on the counter, more redolent of For Whom The Bell Tolls. Jean rang it and thought, “it tolls for thee”. She was beginning to feel rather jaunty.

A busy, smiley woman appeared, looking as though she had just found the treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She greeted Jean cheerfully, and in response Jean carefully handed over her donation and received the woman’s effusive thanks.

“Also…….could I look at the briefcase in the window, please? The lovely soft tan leather one”.
Jean breathed in deeply, feeling the desire to describe it to please her own ears, even though there was just the one bag on display.

“It is twenty pounds, but isn’t it beautiful,” said the assistant, and she carried it carefully from the window and laid it before Jean, who made a show of opening it up, looking inside and checking out the zips and closings. She knew immediately that even had every fastening been broken beyond repair, it would have made no difference to her. Once she held the case it was hers and, flinging caution to the wind, she thought, “Food! Who needs it anyway!”

“No need to wrap it,” she said. “It’s fine just as it is. It’s a bag so it’s made to be carried.” She paid up with her weekly budget, said a very cheerful goodbye to the woman and strode off, swinging her purchase as she went.

Briefcase and Jean continued to swing happily along the High Street home, both of them tipping a wink at any passing stranger whose eye they happened to catch.

Once back behind her front door, Jean touched the bag again. Stroked it. It was her bag now and, although she might go a bit hungry for a few days, she had no regrets. She knew her parents had always hoped for better things for her. A career where such a bag might be a requirement. A solicitor or a teacher. But she’d ended up being an ordinary school dinner lady, serving hot meals to the children in the hope she was giving them nourishing food for life, just as much as the teachers themselves were.

Jean drew herself back to the present, placed the briefcase gently on her sofa and considered what she would put in it. It didn’t really matter. She had fallen in love with it. That was all that mattered to her. She finally had the bag that might have been an accompaniment to a glittering career.

Jean’s lunch that day was a banana. Dinner was a tray meal of beans on toast. Most enjoyable, and she felt perfectly satisfied. The bag watched from the sofa and it felt like they were instant friends. The zipper seemed to turn up at the corners and form a smile. Jean’s bag was as happy as she was.

As the week wore on her kitchen cupboard began to look rather empty and her stomach felt the same way. By the time Friday came, she was reduced to an old can of asparagus soup a year or so past its sell-by. She had no bread to dip in it and as her bag watched her its zipper now turned down as if to say “Look what I’ve done to you by coming to live with you.”

Jean and the bag both knew it wasn’t the bag’s fault, but only she knew she had to return it to the shop and get her £20 back. She still had the receipt, though she hadn’t expected to need it.

That Friday night Jean comforted herself by hugging the leather to her one last time. She went to bed sad and hungry and waited for the morning to come. When it finally did come it was a sunny one, and Jean placed the bag carefully into an ordinary carrier. Returning it to the shop felt like a betrayal that she didn’t want the bag ever to see. She needed to hide its face.

Jean hung her head on their walk down the High Street and, reaching the shop, opened the door and stepped inside. Pennies from heaven tinkled, and For Whom The Bell Tolls and Tutankhamun’s treasure would await them inside. The mood of the shop would be unchanged, but impressions can fall on one in such different ways.

Jean’s mouth, this Saturday morning, was downturned and she daren’t even think about the bag’s zipper as she took it out of the carrier. So it was a surprise to her when, removing it very sadly, she saw that it was again smiling. “Unbearable,” she thought, and, returning to the puppy dog imagery, “like an unwanted Christmas pet, it doesn’t know it’s going to be returned.” And she waited for its zipper to droop as she approached the counter.

This time there was someone both in front of and behind it. Behind, the assistant had clearly not just found treasure this day, and was shaking her head apologetically at the man who stood in front. He was an unremarkable man, the most noticeable thing about him being the set of his shoulders as he clearly took in some bad news. He paused, and then he turned to leave, passing Jean without a glance, looking only at the floor. Pennies from heaven sounded again as he opened the door and left. It was her turn now. The assistant’s eyebrows went up interrogatively.

“I’d like to return this briefcase, please.” Jean lied. She didn’t like to at all, but she proffered the bag and the receipt.

“This is unbelievable,” said the assistant, and Jean could see it was, for the expression on the assistant’s face clearly said that the unbelievable had indeed happened. Jean couldn’t say she was really surprised, as it also seemed unfathomable to her that anyone should be returning such a beautiful thing. Then the woman was turning and running out of the shop, leaving the tinkling door open behind her. Jean stood perplexed, the bag still there on the counter quietly awaiting its fate.

There was some shouting in the street and – did time stand still? Did the universe hold its breath? Whatever was happening out there, the next thing she was aware of was the return of the woman shop assistant. She looked happy; she looked radiant; she beamed at Jean. Jean beamed back, out of sheer politeness, as she knew of no other reason to beam on this dismal day.

She cast a tentative glance at her bag, soon to be hers no more, and its zipped expression was inscrutable. However, she had the distinct feeling it was looking over her shoulder beyond her. Jean turned around and there behind her stood the man, the unremarkable man, who had left the shop minutes before in such obvious disappointment.

“I understand,” he spoke to Jean, “I understand that you are returning this bag to the shop.”

Jean inclined her head. “I love it,” she explained, “but I can’t afford it.”

He smiled his ordinary smile. “The bag was a cherished possession of my late wife, Dorothy. It sounds whimsical, I know, but she always felt that bag devoted itself to the service of her life. She was a teacher, you know. And, well, she just got these ideas. Anyway,” he said, suddenly recovering himself,” I thought I could part with it, but it turns out I can’t.”

Jean’s heart felt as though it would burst with compassion as she watched him buy back Dorothy’s faithful old briefcase with a crumpled twenty pound note. A charity shop never loses. The bag settled itself happily in the man’s hand and he smiled at her, a grateful smile and then a welcoming smile. It was sad but somehow hopeful.

He seemed to her a very unremarkable man. As ordinary as beans on toast. And yet, he looked most enjoyable. Yes, Jean felt sure she would be perfectly satisfied.

And the briefcase? Well, its zipper was hidden from view, but, as they told each other some years later, Jean and Norman had known it was smiling again, knowing it had once more been of service.

This one is different:

Caria has birthed him herself - she's quicker each time; it's a boy; she is alone and is holding him.

The midwives will be here any minute, along with the Corp, to take him away, to give him to the family who've been successful. She never knows their names - just in case all of the security doesn't work, and she ends up going back on her agreement - so she cannot ever find him. She doesn't usually ever get to see their faces.

She gazes at the tiny fists, bunched together; she drinks in his features, committing them to memory. She strokes his soft downy head, drying already. There's a cloth next to her and she begins to wipe him clean, before an overwhelming urge grabs her. She unbuttons the birthing gown and places the baby against her chest, breathing catching in her throat, an ache for him beginning deep inside and radiating out to every single part of her body. She wraps her gown around him and tears fall fat and wet down her cheeks. This in itself is a miracle; she's not cried properly since she arrived and she wonders if the drugs are wearing off, perhaps affected by the rush of hormones, the rush of womanhood that is usually staved off by the injections they give her, the moment they take the babies away, the moment the midwives-

-the midwives! They will be here, any second. But as the thought hits her with a sickening crunch, she hears her tab beep with an incoming message. It's right there next to her and she twists around to reach it.

It's from Lulu, the head midwife: LATE. DUSTSTORM. HOW IS LABOUR PROGRESSING?

Caria looks down at the baby. His mouth is moving, his head wobbling, in search of her breasts which are aching in return. It's entirely natural as she helps him nuzzle towards her and take her nipple in his tiny mouth. She cries harder - with wonder, with joy, for she's never been told about any of this - as he sucks. She lays back, and thinks.

Quickly, she messages back: Slowly. Nowhere near birth. Do not worry.

She lays the tab aside and looks around the room, her eyes flicking side to side, taking in everything she owns. Then she gets the urge to push again and she's confused; there was only one fetus inside her this time?

It's the placenta. It lands with a plop on the floor and the cord, slippery against her stomach, tightens. She doesn't know what to do - they never tell her anything and there's always a green cloth in front of her so she can't see.

She tries to sit up and pain makes her gasp, pain between her legs, in her muscles, in her arms where she pulled on the birthing rope above the bed. She grimaces and pulls herself to a sitting position; cradling the baby inside her gown, not interrupting his sucking. She looks at the cord. It is pulsing with a life all its own and she watches, fascinated. What is she supposed to do with it? She wriggles to the edge of the bed and peers over, feeling woozy at the sight of the huge burgundy lump at the end of the cord. She knows it is the placenta; she's heard them say it in previous births, but what is she meant to do with it?

Her underwear and trousers are on the floor where she threw them as she felt the baby begin to come. She stands, and feels ill again at the rush of blood that slides down between her legs.

The midwives bring everything. Pads, cloths, towels. She has nothing except what she herself owns. Still holding the suckling baby - as if she's been doing it all her life - she grabs a small towel and holds it between her legs, pulling her pants up over the top. She gets her trousers on - too large for her already - over the top and stands, trying to avoid the blood. The placenta lurks on the floor but she notices the cord has stopped pulsing. She knows the cord has a job and she knows what it is, but the baby is breathing and crying. They don't tell birthers much, - possibly so they don't understand enough to try and keep a child - but she's worked a lot of it out. Her own navel, the cord attached to the baby (she's seen it twice, as the cloth lifted, caught on a sleeve, and she saw a glimpse of wet, shiny, tiny stomach, with the cord still attached.) She's never seen what happens next but it must come off somehow, or she's still have that thing - that large, bloody placenta, still attached even now. She shudders, and dizziness overtakes her.

The baby has stopped suckling and looks as if he's asleep. She puts him down on the bed and lays one of her t-shirts over him, tucking it in at the sides. He is very quiet. In the past, she's heard them scream. She gazes at his face, at the tiny nose, the crescents of his closed eyes, his soft cheeks. And that ache inside her comes back.

+~+

They've told her this will be her last. She's given twelve living children to the corp's families. They call her a miracle. When they died, the babies, and there were seven that did (she thinks of this differently, now, looking at this boy) there was a hush in the room, and an extra efficiency behind the green cloth.

She's treated well. Here on this new planet, she is treated better than most corp's employees. She gets a large apartment and a car, so she can drive herself to see the midwives. She is allowed quite a lot of freedom as they tell her she must stay fit, so she's allowed to walk in the 'streets', between the 'buildings'. She walks and thinks about this new world and in the past, she's felt happy that she's a part of it, happy that she's playing a part in its creation.

Lately though, she's felt mostly tired. Mentioning it to the midwives meant an increase in injections, which meant she'd feel better for a few weeks, but then it came back and back. And they said she was finished, thank you very much, and that she'd be driven to one of the outlying settlements and given a different job.

+~+

The idea arrives so fast it's as if it has always been there. First, she grabs a cooking pot and scoops the placenta into it, placing it next to the boy on her bed. Then she hefts down the bag they've given her to pack (she was meant to be leaving next week) and stumbles around the room, dizzy and sore, filling it with as many of her possessions as she can. There isn't much and there's still space in her bag when she's done. So on to she laces all the extra towels and cloths she's allocated, the pots and knives, and the gun. She always had a problem with the gun, given as extra protection - against what, she had no idea - but they insisted she learn how to use it and they insisted it stay in her apartment.

There's a beep from the tab.

ETA = 10 MIN

She rushes faster, grabs the keys to her vehicle, runs outside and throws the bag in the backseat. Then she panics: where is she going to put the baby in the car? Her gown is flapping around her shoulders and she flings it off and onto the back seat. She rummages in the bag for an outer shirt, runs back inside, thanking stars she lives on the edge of the settlement and has no near neighbours, and gently lifts the t-shirt from the baby. She puts it on and slides him inside, back close to her where he belongs. He is still quiet but she's no time to worry about this. She pulls on the outer shirts and buttons it tightly, wrapping the baby in against her skin. The cord trails out of the top of her shirt and she pushes it to the side, grabs the pot with the placenta, and leaves, getting straight in her vehicle and closing the door.

A wave of dizziness hits her and she realises she's not eaten for hours, that she's hungry, that she's forgotten to pack food.

She grabs the pot again and stumbles back inside, finds the small bag she arrived with and fills it with everything from the kitchen that she can fit in.

Surely ten minutes have gone. Her heart is hammering a frightening, off-beat rhythm and she hears the whimpering sound before she realises she's the one making it.

She gets back into the vehicle, checks the tiny face tucked against her, feels his breath, and starts the car.

Nothing happens.

She looks at the dashboard and sees the wrong colour lights:

There's no fuel.

'No no no no no,' she mutters, thoughts wild. Why is there no fuel? Unless... do the corp DO this? Do they make sure, each time she gives birth, that she is, essentially, trapped? 'WhatdoIdo, whatdoIdo?' she tried to arrange her thoughts but she's so tired, so sore. The feelings take over the thoughts inside her.

And then instinct kicks in.

+~+

The search takes five minutes.

'Sir, she's gone. Birth mother thirty-five is not here. And there's evidence of a birth.' The head midwife's voice shakes. She listens.

'No, Sir. There was a dust storm in section five. Nothing we could do.'

She listens again. She hangs her head. 'Right, Sir. I will be there in fifteen minutes.' She turns to the second midwife and the corps' employee, only on his second ever birth job. She takes a breath.

'Although not our fault, this will not go down well. We could end up in Malland. Nobody messes up like this. We should have known she would go quickly. We should have been here this morning.'

'What's Malland?' says the corp's employee.

The head midwife stares at him. 'Where were you in part two of the training? One Chance Only, that's what the lesson was called. No second chances, not up here on Earth Two. Malland is a huge, barren lump of land past the outer settlements. It's where you get sent if you fuck up. And we just fucked up. Now come on, we have to go and lead for our lives. Malland is death. No food, no water. Well, we don't know. Nobody ever comes back to tell the tales. One way flight, they drop you and that's it. Cheaper, and a good lesson, apparently.'

Caria waited until their vehicle started up and silence came back. The baby, directly below their feet, had stayed silent.

Another miracle.

She climbed out of the storm shelter, pulling the pot and her bag after her.

Now she knew where she was going. All she needed was some transport.

Malland.

'It'll be okay,' she whispered to the tiny, downy head. 'It'll be okay.'

And she started walking.

Channeling Mother Theresa

How can you help?

Not that way because
if you help
you make me feel
a lesser thing than you.

Clear that I’m in need
but even though I fell
I’m not yet broken
by the concrete of depression,
not in need of fixing,
I’m as whole as you,
perhaps greyly more so.

I watch you channel
Mother Theresa,
we both suck it in,
you think then say
how can you serve?

Those words, that giving
yourself unknots me.
You loan me your strength,
feel my drowning,
cup your arms under mine,
pull us back to shore.

I choose not to hear
your labored breath,
ignore the sting of salt in eyes,
don’t feel your feet kick
but lie quiet in the lifejacket
of my best friend’s soul.

Burn The House


Nicholas flicked the salmon-coloured lighter in his left palm. The heady bursts of flame kept his mind distracted off his nerves and his brow only tinged with sweat.

His eyes peered up as he walked across the carpeted landing to the mocking portraits of old headmasters. If they could talk, would they speak at this act of undoable vengeance? Nicholas knew exactly what they would say and on that thought, his head filled with the words of the teasing, the jeering, the berating, the chiding and then the exuberance of what he was about to do.

Barr his shallow breathing and the patter of his shoes against the floor, there was only a dull silence and Nicholas noticed the pattern. Corridor, wall, stairs. Corridor, wall, stairs. Corridor, wall, stairs. All the doors were closed at night but they were always closed to him. He shuddered with each step as he crept down the stairs and caught sight of the main doors, the varnished wooden arches making it seem further away.

Nicholas remembered coming in those same doors when he first began at school here. He was only in second year, how had this happened to him? How had this happened to him so quickly?

His first he had come through overwhelmed with the hustle of the boys bustling around, laughing, hoking, the older ones smoking. Going to and fro, finding rooms, re-uniting, introducing themselves. The only dis-ordinary thing about Nicholas compared to the other first years was the worn gold, leather-strapped wristwatch. He had scourged it from his father's pile of ''old clutter''.

Finding his room was quick and upon entry, he saw his roommate had already arrived and unpacked. ''Jack Frederick'', the young boy stuck out his hand. ''Nicholas West'', he shook it back. It was an instant friendship, at first it was because they were too nervous to not get along but they shared many common interests and saw each other as brilliant conversation partners. Overtime, Jack became ''Jackie, my boy'' and Nicholas became ''Alright, Nick?'', the school's way of claiming them as their own.

Even though only their classes were scheduled; curfews, wake-up calls, set meal times and the distance to the nearest town from the school lulled them into a silent routine. From Monday to Friday, after homework was completed, evening were spent a certain way for each weekday, the same way each week.

Monday and Thursday were spent in comfortable silence over cups of tea; hot chocolate on the good days, and good fiction books. As with every school, new students were encouraged to join as many social clubs and societies as they liked. Nicholas had been forced to attend piano lessons since the age of five, but grew a love for it and his ''natural affinity'' brought him to the school's orchestral society every Tuesday. Meanwhile Jack proved himself to be a skilful painter and sketch artist in the Art Association. All boys were ''encouraged'' to play one sport, particularly for the school. Nicholas spent as much time as he could in the pool when abroad, not really wanting to do it for the school, he was cajoled on the team when caught by the swim coach in the pool one evening. Jack, bless him Nick thought, had the same urge to run after a ball as a dog, this lured him into training with the school's football team every Wednesday evening. On Fridays, both boys united at the school's writer's society, which being some distance away from their dorm gave them a fifteen stroll to discuss and immersively debate on their preferred pieces, styles and lives.

The weekends had been so great. Saturdays were for trips into town, where they would often go to dances with girls from the sister school. Lively, long-legged girls and the music was just so brilliant. Nicholas hadn't realised how good those days were while he was living them. Every Sunday morning, like a ritual, he and Jack would play a game of chess against each other. Both intellectuals, Nicholas delighted in awakening Jack's competitive streak. Sunday afternoons were spent in the music chamber, a dusty, dimly-lit room where Nicholas would practise playing piano, Jack sketching and painting internal reflections and Edward reading, but the former two would take breaks to write.

Edward, yes - Edward! Edward the high-riding prefect who caught everyone's attention with the air of mystery that hung around him like the deputy headmaster's cloak. A walking, talking stereotype Nicholas thought: rich daddy and hot mommy had a privileged son who acts artistic and illusive in his pathetic attempt to be non-conforming and rebellious. He hadn't always seen Edward in such a bad light, when the older boy had taken them under his wing, there had been no questions, no doubts of ulterior motives.

He had first noticed Edward on that first day, head perched on his hand, elbow resting on the banister, coy as anything. He seemed to take a shine at the other two boys' quiet artistic intelligence, deeming them good enough companions. Was it weird a boy in his final year should spend time every Sunday with a pair in their first? Yes, but neither of them could have guessed what was coming.

That shook Nicholas out of his nostalgic daydream, back to flickering the lighter. He tried it on the edge of a burgundy crushed velvet curtain but it just scorched and smouldered and turned, why couldn't he make it ignite? Why couldn't he start a flame? Why did it just turn black, representative of apathy that wasn't in his nature but forced upon him by the demented circumstances of his school and therefore his life. His head filled with the haunted echo of that song, the horrid school anthem meant to band brothers together but only succeeding in setting him apart. ''The flame of our house will never been down. We'll stand like King's underneath the house's crown''.

''Nicholas? Queen? What are you doing up?''. Nicholas turned around and there stood Edward, just closing his door behind him. It came back then - the electric sound of the firework and the deafening sound of the scream. His blood ran cold and his heart pounded in his ears, there would be no point in burning down this lest Edward was there to see it . ''Nothing'' was all Nicholas could utter, what a stupid reply. Bringing himself to look Edward in the eye, he could just about muster an accusing glare. Suddenly all the anger rose to his eyes and he clenched his right fist, not that he would've thrown a punch. Or maybe he would've if pushed.

And that dreaded nickname - Queen. His peers cruelly hooked their talons to any vulnerability they could find, transforming heaven to hell in a matter of instances. Mr. Willingsworth, a slightly sadistic science teacher in Nicholas' opinion had an annual competition to see which of the first year boys could dissect a rat the fastest. Sounds just slightly abnormal, right? Well, no-one sold rats in the nearest town, so they boys were left to hunting for them in the woods. All was well, until the boys grew bored and decided to come up with more inventive ways to kill them, some of which were rather enduring. Nicholas couldn't quite stomach it, and called them savages, one of the boys laughed ''Men, be chivalrous in front of the queen!''. The nickname stuck, but in comparison to the ''kings'' the boys believed they were, it became a rift between them. ''I think you did it'' Nicholas, finally managed to speak. Edward tensed and then his face softened ''It's okay, you've every right to be upset''. ''No...no, I know you did it! I know you did it you lying -'', Nicholas trailed off ''I have no proof, no-one would believe me''. ''It's normal to want someone to blame'', Edward stepped back, ''but I would have never tried to hurt him''. ''Shut up! You're a liar!'', Did his voice really just break? ''Look, I'm not making this any better for you, I'll go back to my room''. Nicholas stayed silent as Edward crept back in.

Then went back to navigating through the halls and corridors of the residential house, he caught a glance of white outside the window and saw snow-covered fields where Jack played football and they both walked across to the writers' society. There had been no white outside on the night of the incident, just heavy darkness.

Nicholas remembered it quite vividly then: Jack leaving, saying he needed to empty their bin into the one outside. The two silent minutes passing. The screaming sound of the firework and then the actual scream of pain from Jack, ripping the atmosphere. He remembers running downstairs, boys coming out on the hall to see what ad happened. Running out the door and seeing the shape of young boy lying on the ground - Jack.

The local newspapers went crazy for the story ''Schoolboy dies in tragic firework prank''. Had it been an accident? Had it been intentional? Had it been targeted at Jack or just left for anyone? Had there been been that full the night before or was Nicholas just paranoid?


''Nicky''. Nicholas froze, only one person had ever called him that and he wasn't around anymore. ''Nicky, don't do this''. And there he was, the translucent figure of a young boy with charming features and a lotto-winning smile. Nicholas hadn't noticed he stopped breathing until he gulped in some air. ''I have actually lost the plot''. ''Nicky, it's okay, I'm happy''. Nicholas laughed ''Happy! How could you be happy? You're stuck here''. Jack just shook his head, ''I enjoyed those days last year too, we may have been trapped, but it was the most freedom I'll ever know''. Nicholas hesitated and then asked ''Tell me then, was it an accident or did someone set you up?''. Jack shrugged ''I can't tell you, but no-one wanted me dead Nicky''. Nicholas felt his throat choke up, this was just too much and he went back to flicking his lighter. ''Please stop, I love this place, it was everything to me!''. ''Love it? It's made me miserable!''. Jack just smiled at him ''Here, where I am, it's still those days, they don't end, you'd be happy here too!''. Nicholas turned on him ''You're in some weird heaven, I'm in the real world, this is what it's really like!''. ''It's nice and bright where I'm standing'' Jack had a glazed look in his eyes, like he was truly contented with life.

Nicholas chose to ignore him, still failing to burn anything, just singeing the fabric of the tapestry. He was at a loss ''I can't burn down anything, How could I burn down the school?''. Jack looked at him sympathetically ''You couldn't, but it will you''.

Suddenly Nicholas saw a flash of bright fiery light, then everything went black. When he woke up, everything was painted in a golden hue and he felt happy like never before. When he turned around Jack was laughing ''Come on Nicky, we'll be late for the writer's society!''.




Edward would find Nicholas in the morning, no bruise, burn or injury exactly as he was when he saw him last night.


BURN THE HOUSE


Eyes meet and lips touch
passion ignites, together
we burn the house down.

BURN THE HOUSE

I don’t care. I don’t know how to. But I’ll just keep watching........

I’ve heard a story that in the old days there was something called “insurance”- house insurance, or house and contents. Whatever. Apparently you paid money every year to some people you didn’t know and you never saw, but who promised to give you back enough to replace your house and all your stuff if you happened to burn it down. And people fell for that! Seems getting your house burned down wasn’t a thing that happened very often at all and so a good living could be made out of taking money from all the people who were AFRAID they would burn their house down when very few ever did. Can you believe it? I reckon myself that that story is highly improbable, . I mean what’s “afraid” even mean? Seems to me that THEN there must have been a thousand and one reasons your house might burn down. Today there’s basically just the one reason. And nobody’s house ever got burned down for any other reason.

I’m told that in years gone by people would move house fairly regularly, just for a job, or a school or maybe just to be near family. I don’t suppose you could exactly say they didn’t think twice about it; no doubt there were still things to consider. They must’ve thought, “Can we afford it? Does it have enough bedrooms for all the family? Is the garden big enough?” Even, “Is the aspect suitable?” You can hardly credit people gave such things headroom, can you?

Life must have been so different before THEY arrived. Nowadays all anybody has ever considered in living memory is would THEY like it. Would THEY think to move in. Would THEY want to inhabit it. Would THEY want to take it over.

It’s said they prefer some houses to others, but nobody seems to know why that is. So nobody knows whether to expect them in their own house. Everybody keeps a bag packed.

One thing’s for sure – if they do want your house, they WILL take it. And the only way to be rid of them is to burn the house and everything in it. Including them. Then you just have to move on and try to rebuild your life.

I asked my mum once whether people couldn’t just share the house with them. After all, they’re barely visible. Barely there at all. She looked at me like I might be going mental or something.
“Callum,” she said, “You don’t share your house with these things. They do say one or two people have tried it, and………” and she shook her head as though the end of the world was just around the corner.

“What, mum? And what?” These were the days when I still had questions.
She looked at me with her empty eyes.
“When they take over your house, what people used to call your “home”, it becomes unbearable to be in it. You can so easily catch the infection from them. There are things called grief, joy, despair, anger, love, sadness, fear, anticipation……….oh a whole bunch of stuff that they bring with them, that would eat away at the very bricks and mortar and eventually bring about the collapse of the whole structure. You’re still young, Callum, and it’s hard for you to understand – hell, it’s hard for ME to understand - but a long time ago it’s said that these love and grief things, and the rest of them, whatever they are, would bring about the collapse not just of the house but of a human being too if we got infected with too many of them inside ourselves. People used to get broken, apparently. Like they were THINGS. They called it ‘breakdown’”

She closed her eyes and I wondered whether she would sleep. Then she spoke as if in a dream and she told me about a time, before either she or I were born, when we actually FELT things. She said we felt these things like joy, fear, curiosity – oh and many other things.

I didn’t know what she meant really. I never “felt” anything in my life, other than cold, hungry, tired maybe. She said the things we felt were called “emotions.” She said she knows emptiness and has to eat or sleep when she remembers my great-grandparents and how their faces would change sometimes, and sometimes funny noises would come from their mouths, like the sound of drains gurgling, and sometimes water would come from their eyes and run down their faces.

She’s dead now, my mum. When she died I slept for a long time. When I woke up I was cold. I turned up the thermostat and I was OK.

So, here I am on my own, and I think I’ve got them in the house. I think I’ve seen their odd little faces out of the corner of my eye. They lurk and multiply in dark corners just waiting for the time to be right.

I met a man once who told me he’d had them. He’d burned his house and taken to the road with his one bag. Even his spare shoes were now worn and leaky, but he just kept walking. It was all there was left to do, he said. If he hadn’t burned his house the neighbours would’ve burned it for him……..with him in it! Nobody wants them in the neighbourhood. They might be catching.

So, now I reckon I’ve got them……..and I don’t intend to burn any damned thing. And I’m keeping it dark from the neighbours. They’re not to be trusted. I learned that from the walking man.
I won’t burn my house down.

I feel the matches in my hand, but I won’t use them, will I.

My mum told me that one night the Emojis just left our screens. When people woke in the morning there were no Emojis left to be seen. They went and they took our “emotions” with them. And then they invaded our homes. I dunno. It seems about as improbable to me as the insurance thing. I mean, that they ever lived on our screens!

So I’m sitting here in the dark wondering what their next move will be.

I don’t care. I don’t know how to.

I’m just sitting here………..waiting.

My mum would have done it this way. My mum’s dead now.

I can feel water start to come out of my eyes and run down my face.

The Puff

He packed tobacco in his Billiard Churchwarden pipe and lighted the top layer using a lighter with a name engraved on it. After charring the tobacco, he tamped it. Mason puffed, drawing slowly and deeply while seated on a rocking chair in late autumn. He looked up at the drifting clouds and assumed that the moon peeped behind the veil of clouds. When silence crawled up to his feet, he gave a sigh and contemplated on one particular night that was painted vividly on his mind.

It was an autumn night thirty years ago when he was coming home after being away for three months on a roadshow. Mason was the lead guitarist in his band that mostly played love ballads and the band was popular with many young Australian fans. Their last stint was successful with a big turnout of fans at their live performance in Sydney. But his joy was short-lived when he arrived at his house in Brisbane.

He stared at his smoldering house with the last gold sparkles of flames teasing and dying. The fire department had done their best but nothing could be saved as Mason looked helplessly at his mansion which had burnt down to ashes. Fortunately, there were no casualties and that relieved Mason. He was warned not to go near his house as it was not safe to do so and since he could not do nothing there, Mason decided to put up at his grandparents' house which was at Currumbin Valley, ten miles from the main road.

His grandpa, Noah was a grumpy old man and complained almost about everything. But when he learnt of Mason's loss, he was lost for words. Noah made a pot of black coffee and smoked his pipe. The kitchen was filled with a vanilla flavour of the tobacco. They did not wake up Mason's grandma who was fast asleep upstairs. They walked up to the front porch where Noah sat on a wooden swing while Mason leaned back in the wicker chair with a red pillow cushion. Few words were exchanged between them and Mason just needed that to feel the comfort of the presence of his grandpa and the silent night, well not entirely silent with the creaking sound of the swing and the wind ripping off the last leaves.

Mason woke up to the song of a lyrebird, a mixture of its own song and mimicry sound of koalas. He drove back to the site where only three months ago, his house had stood tall and tears welled up in his eyes. Wearing black gumboots, he walked around the site and each part of the house gave him a memory to hold on to. It was where he shared fond memories of growing up before his parents moved to Perth. Being the only son, the house was given as a gift to him. It had four rooms and his favourite was the living room where his mother would play the piano and he would strum his guitar. She had taught him music and that was the most precious gift he treasured. His mum had tried calling him several times but he was not ready to speak to her. Mason knew he would break down.

He wanted to know desperately how the fire started but it was just all too soon for the fire experts to come to a conclusion. There were reports to be made and a lot of paperwork to be dealt with and a lot of time spent just waiting. He met up with his lawyer and then his music manager. Two of his band members joined him for lunch to help him sort out the problems that arose with the recent misfortune. He had to also meet up with some fire inspectors who had a long list of questions for him. Mason suspected that it was a case of arson and the investigators were trying to pinpoint that the arson was committed by him because Mason was the one to benefit as the house was insured for a large sum of money. Although they did not accuse him, they were building up a case that Mason was responsible for he had debts and was facing financial crisis.

'Where were you when the alleged incident occurred?'
'I had told you and the police that I had flown in from Sydney.'
'Yes, but you had flown in four hours before the incident. We've checked with the airport authorities. There was no delay. How did you travel from the airport?'
'My manager picked me up in my car and I dropped him off at Blue Lagoon pub. I headed straight here.' I was annoyed answering the same questions.
'Mmmm...you should have reached your home before 10.00pm.' The fire inspector gave Mason a hard dark look.
'I was too tired. I pulled up not far from a farm ...Billy Joe's and I slept off. I woke up when my phone rang... and I rushed here but it was too late!'
'Is there any evidence to support your account of what happened?' The guy in dark blue suits and tie queried him in a monotonous tone.
The man in long sleeve check shirt interrupted, 'Mate, my daughter is a fan of yours. She loves that song "Why me?". We need to ask you these questions because as you know it's a part of the procedure in our investigation. Would you like a drink?'
'No, thank you.'
'Can you tell us whether you have an alibi?'
'No, I was alone.'

After a few more questions, they let him go. Mason headed to a pub and downed Bourbon Collins served in a tall glass with a straw before driving to Noah and Mia's home, a house built near a creek.

He was met by Mia who hugged and kissed him. She invited him for tea and served him lamington which was dipped in melted chocolate before being covered in desiccated coconut, just the way he liked it. Mason asked Noah to go for a walk with him along the creek where the flowing water had washed and smoothed pebbles and rocks over the years.

'What do you have on your mind, son?'
'Is this yours?' Mason asked while handling him a lighter with Noah's name engraved on it. He had found it on the site and also found a tin of kerosene in Noah's truck.
Noah turned pale. He swept his forehead with his shivering hands and he fumbled for words.
'I did...did it for you!' the words were slowly uttered.
'Why..for goodness sake, why did you burn the house?'

Noah sat down and balanced himself on a rock. He said, 'I had no choice for I did it because I thought it was the only way to help you out of your debts. Your money lender came knocking on my door and said that he would harm Mia and me if I do not pay the interest you owned them. I cannot afford to live in fear. I know you would never sell the house. I didn't think thoroughly and acted based on my feelings. I regret doing it!'

'You should have come to me or gone to the police!'
'There was too much at stake. I'm sorry...I'm terribly sorry.' He wept like a little child.
'I'm sorry too for giving you such anguish that you'd to resort to destroying what I loved the most!'
'Will you forgive me, son?'
'Yes, grandpa!'

After a few months, the case was closed due to the fact there was no evidence. Mason was paid a sum of money by the insurance company that helped him pay off his debts. He left the band and opened a music studio in Perth where he taught music. He never returned neither to Brisbane nor to Currumbin Valley.

Rocking his chair, Mason puffed out his clouds of thoughts and they became entwined with the autumn breeze.

The House with a Mezzanine
When I was a child, Iza was my best friend. We lived on the same street, in small houses without facilities, as was the case in Poland at the time, in the 1970s. The difference was that we had a farm, an orchard and plenty of farm buildings where one could hide and play, while there was not much space around Iza’s house. The lack of space was do with the fact that her father, who was a builder, kept extending the house with verandas, balconies and other such additions, which ate into the already small garden and courtyard. He also made sure that the whole property was as saturated in concrete as possible. Concrete was his personal signature. He played with this material in the same way children play with plasticine. Even his way to render their garden unique was to erect a miniature concrete chapel dedicated to the Holy Mary, decorated with plastic flowers. Trees were of little importance to him, so he never pruned them, unlike most of his neighbours, but despite that, they had the best plums in the neighbourhood and their branches bent on the street, inviting the passers-by to pick them.
Inside the house walls were always in transition. Floors went up, ceilings went down or vice versa, to allow for an extra room, to extend a ceiling or divide a pantry into two areas. Needless to say, the house did not look particularly well-proportioned and made his wife and daughters restless. But they could not do much about it, as he was a tyrant, and Iza’s mother took pride in enduring her husband’s building excesses. I called Iza’s abode ‘the house with the mezzanine’, borrowing this title from Chekvov, partly on the account of the shape of her house and partly because she reminded me of Leda, one the characters of the story. Iza was not as stern as Chekhov’s Leda, but like her, she was filled with a sense of rightness. She was a natural social conservative; she condemned homosexuality, prostitution, and letting children to play unsupervised. Looking back, I cannot understand how we survived as friends, given that I could not stand such behaviour. The answer might lie simply in the physical proximity of our houses; we had nobody else to play with on our street.
True to her vocation, Iza became a teacher, and later a headmistress in a large school in a different part of Poland, still in a province, but more affluent than our region. Since her promotion she acquired various habits, which reflected her new bourgeois status, but also confirmed her provinciality. She no longer went out of the house in slippers or with wet hair, and what we called Sunday clothes became her daily attire. She stopped visiting neighbours without telephoning them first, and she got herself a car, which she used even for short distances. Asked why she did not use a bike, she replied that she forgot how to cycle. No wonder, she gained weight and even looked older than her real age. Her matronly look fitted her views, which she presented in a solemn way, indicating that under no circumstances would she change them. Because we both lived far away from our family homes, our contact became less regular. Still, we tended to see each other every summer, when we visited our families. Usually Iza came to our house as she did not like me to visiting her. When her father was still alive, I was thinking that this was because of her father, who in old age started to talk nonsense. But even after the death of her parents, she did not like me to go there. At the time I was not sure why, but didn’t dare to ask her. I told myself that maybe she did not like the atmosphere of the empty house. At this stage, she started to call it her ‘summer retreat’, suggesting that she went there in the same way the townies go on holiday, although for us it was not going away, but coming home. Since the death of her mother the main reason to return were her visits to the church and the graveyard. She paid handsome money for church services for her parents and in summer she used to leave for church as early as half past five in the morning, to make sure that the priest did not squander her money, which she expected him to do when she was not checking up on him.
For many years Iza tended to visit our village with her husband, who stayed there for the whole duration of their holiday. Later his visits got shorter and then he stopped coming. We learnt that he lost his job, but the rumour was that he survived financially thanks to playing the stock market and engaging in some shadowy businesses. Eventually he left Iza for a younger woman who lived in the same tenement block. The year it happened Iza did not come to our village in the summer and the next year I was there so little that I missed her. When we met up again, it was already over two years after her divorce. On this occasion she invited me to her house, most likely because she did not want my mother to listen to our conversation. As I expected, she wanted to talk about her ex-husband misdemeanours, going through them with a precision of an accountant. She mentioned that he was poor with money, unreliable, he easily got into conflicts with people, he had a younger brother who was even worse than him, and he had diabetes and was infertile. He was not good from the start and things only went worse with time.
I showed Iza sympathy, but then told her:
‘Almost every woman on our street wanted her husband to die, including our mothers. And you managed to get rid of him before he died. Shouldn’t you be happy about it?’
‘No. All my life was about putting up with him, like my mother was putting up with my father. Now there is nobody to pay me for my suffering. And he is lucky twice, even though this woman is obviously a whore, and a stupid one, for that.’
There was no point to tell her to find another man. For women in our village men were like purgatory, which for the lucky ones might lead to a heaven of widowhood. Only an idiot would like to go through purgatory twice.
‘Who knows? Maybe this woman will make him pay for your suffering. This often happens in life.’
‘This never happens to me. People always harm me and get away with it. You too’, said Iza.
‘What do you mean?’, I asked.
‘Do you remember the copybook with silver and golden paper for making cutaways? You once gave it to me and then changed your mind and wanted to get it back and you sent your grandma to take it back. She told my mother that I stole it from you. So my mum spanked me for thieving.’
‘I don’t remember it. Anyway, it must had happened forty years ago, if not more.’
‘But I remember it well: the shame, the humiliation. And you never apologised. You always did what you wanted and your grandma defended you no matter what, so you grew up moody, spoilt and condescending. You didn’t even need to say anything. It was enough that you came to our house and looked at it in your patronising way, like a princess visiting the servants’ quarters. You were always so selfish and insensitive, yet you always had such an easy life.’
‘I wouldn’t say my life was so easy’, I said. ‘But never mind.’
I tried to change the subject as the atmosphere was heavy, but it took me a while to find a new subject. Eventually I asked:
‘What will you do with the house?’
‘I will sell it. I never liked it. These small rooms and silly extensions are embarrassing and there might be even asbestos in these walls. I always wanted to have a house with large rooms, a proper garden and grass around the house, as you had. Maybe I will buy the house of Szs., as it is also on sale.’
‘What you do if nobody will buy it?’
‘I will burn it. I cannot live with this monstrosity.’
I did not find the house monstrous. On the contrary, on this occasion I liked it as never before. With the small rooms and low ceilings and filing cabinets full of crystal glasses and decorated plates, it felt like a doll’s house. Only now I realised that Iza’s father’s grand ambition was to build a simulacra of a manor house. Probably Mr. B. got the idea from watching Polish television series where one could see frequently such houses. This was reflected in the appearance of the house front and the style of the furniture and pictures hanging on the walls – he was trying to buy ‘vintage’ stuff before it was fashionable. Just the house’s smallness and the fact that it was always under construction obscured this fact.
I planned to pick up some plums from Iza’s plum’s tree which, despite being very old, still produced plenty of fruit, but after learning about the debt of silver paper lost my courage to do it. Back at home I told my mother about Iza’s plans to swap her house for that of the Szs., and she was very disapproving, as she disliked when people from our village did not know their place, metaphorically or literally.
It turned out that Iza’s plan could not materialise, because the potential buyers of her house did not have enough cash and could not get a mortgage due to its ceiling being several centimetres too low to satisfy some health and safety requirements the bank required. Iza was thus stuck with it for time being. I thought it would add to her sense of injustice and made her even more bitter, but when I met her two years later, she was much more content with her life. Her ex-husband got stroke and was now semi-paralysed and Iza discovered the pleasures of travelling. She even mentioned that in-between visiting Barcelona, Paris and Milan it was nice to visit the house with the mezzanine to chill out. Even the plums tasted better after comparing them with the fruit elsewhere and she planned to plant new trees in autumn.

At night she sat on her bed, worried what would happen if her father knew. She couldn’t imagine making him angry, she felt like she could bury herself in an earth hole instead and never return. Just like the stories. ‘The earth opened up and swallowed Sita’ Grandma had narrated once.
Shinu too would ask mother earth to swallow her.
When her father smiled it felt like all they said about God and angels was real. He could fight all monsters. He was strong. He sang her lullabies on most nights before putting her to sleep. She loved daddy. That’s why she couldn’t disappoint him. Mama rarely acknowledged her, it felt like he was all she had.

A throbbing part of her, shuddered under her skin, the other parts turned into Jell-O. Under all the squirming fluidity that got stuck and yet continued to run scared inside her, she slept. The blanket of night stars wove dreams above her, they were like shadows she was too afraid to touch. She slept like a hollow dark pit beside a patch lush green land. In the morning, she wet her bed. Again.

Shinu was almost five years old then. ‘Just’ almost five years old
Pre-school had begun and mornings in their house-hold were rushed. Mama would cook, be busy in one thing or another, daddy would get Shinu ready for school, make sure she drank milk and take her to catch the school bus. Daddy would often carry her on his shoulders and run, propped there she would look at the road that raced behind her fast running father. Once she would get on the bus, he would wave at her and she would wave back at him. It was the same thing each day, Wake and run. She liked sitting by the window, air breezing on her face, her mind always ran with the clouds
‘Study well’ Daddy would say. And when she would, he would bring out a bar of five-star chocolate from his pocket. Its sweet taste would fill her for days.

School was fun, daddy made sure she studied well. Shinu scored well in all her tests. She liked to draw, learn math, and most of all she enjoyed stories. Story books for children, anecdotes, short stories- she would want them all. Daddy would recite them to her in the evenings, slowly, often making her repeat words, or write spellings. The evening smell of spices and incense would fill the drawing room where they would sit on the floor beside a wrought iron bed.

‘Because – write- B.E.C.A.U.S.E’ he would say in his baritone
And Shinu would scribble with her pencil on a squared notebook
Ship- S.H.I.P

Words were forming in her mind and stories were making their way in her heart.

Every day, after school Shinu would go to a day-care centre. Her parents, both had full-time jobs and would pick her from there after their work. An old couple- day-care grandparents and their son. There were two other children at the day care- much older, they too would sit around the house until their parents came from work. They were too old to play with her, so she would be alone. Shinu didn’t like staying in her school uniform, she would want to change from it as soon as she returned. The old man, who she referred as day-care grandpa would change her out of her school clothes and into fresh ones. She would wander from one room to another or sit on the floor and draw on an old slate till her parents would return to fetch her.

‘Where is my darling’ Daddy would shout from the door of the day care centre and Shinu would run to him.
She rarely got permission to play outside. Afternoons had a dreary light about them. She would watch from the window; tall coconut trees, a small empty enclosure with children playing and a street out front with vehicles passing. Day-care grandma would rarely let her outside. So, she would watch.

‘When you get older, you too will be able to go out and play. So, grow up already’ Day-care grandma would say. Shinu would hate that she was small, she would envy others and she would wonder when God would make her grow.

Day care grandma was kind but strict, she would feed her everything she would otherwise be picky about.
Every evening around 6 pm her parents would fetch her from day care, she would get to play outside for a short while until it would get dark, which would be too soon, according to Shinu. Then, there would be homework. Loads of it.

One afternoon, day-care grandpa asked her if she would like to go out to play. Of course, she wanted to. Day-care grandma wasn’t home that day. Shinu was overjoyed, she wondered what it would feel like to be everyone on the playground.

They walked out of the apartment, he held her hand while crossing the road, she jumped up and down excited. The skies were clear and it was breezy. Daddy would be back soon, she would tell him all about her day. They left the ground on the other side, she asked day-care grandpa, ‘where are we going’?

‘You’ll see, there, you can play as much as you want’, he replied.
There were trees, it wasn’t a park but a dense unkept enclosure of trees, it wasn’t far from her house. There was a tiny temple somewhere in that wilderness. Logs of wood. That was it. No children, nothing.

Where do I play? Shinu asked day-care grandpa confused. There wasn’t a ground even. Fallen leaves everywhere, dried leaves, wet soil. It was a strange place.
He looked at her with his cold grey eyes and pulled her close, pressed his mouth on hers, it smelled like foul betel nut, she struggled under his firm hold, he slid a hand inside her skirt it kept grazing her thigh, her waist, her buttock.
Shinu squirmed and said she wanted to go home breaking into a scream almost. Mama had warned her ‘Never let any strange man touch you. Never let anyone close to you.’ Surely it was her fault. She cried again.

The wilderness kept her scream. Her small body died many innocent deaths in that helpless moment. Her small heart would remember it all in the years to follow. Over and over again.
‘I am playing with you. If you tell daddy, he will punish you. They will throw you out of your house. Then where will you go? He will hit you. He will never love you’, said the old man nonchalantly.
‘No, daddy will never do that’, she cried
‘Wipe your tears, and don’t repeat this to anyone’, insisted the ‘day-care grandpa’.
Evening closed Shinu gravely in the darkness of her dark wings.
That night, she sat on the bed worried. The next morning, she wet her bed. The next day, she stayed close to day-care grandma.

‘Come, play with me. Or else, I will tell daddy’, said the day-care grandpa again a few days later.
Shinu refused to go.
‘Common, we are friends. I won’t tell him if you go with me’
She didn’t want Daddy to throw her out, she wanted daddy to love her, she didn’t want him to be angry, so she went.
The day care man would touch her and do things with his hands to himself. It made her nauseated, it made her uncomfortable. She could never tell anyone. She had no siblings. Her mama was indifferent and Daddy was strict. She was ashamed.
Days ran like the speeding school bus. They stole her playfulness, took away her shine and her need for attention grew. Unfortunately, the world was too busy to notice, Mama was pregnant, Daddy was busier and her own grandparents who adored her were away. She continued staring out the window, looking at children playing – vehicles passing.
The new term at school began amidst heavy rains. They were taught to make little paper boats in school during the craft hour.

‘Children, make a wish and release your boats’ their class teacher instructed
‘Wishes are boats, they carry your messages to God’ teacher told them.
When Shinu left little paper boats into small streams, she knew what she wanted. She wanted to be away from day care grandpa. She prayed, she wished, she wished some more. She wanted to become like she was before he touched her. She didn’t want to feel ashamed, she didn’t want daddy’s anger.

That year, Shinu’s brother came into the world.
They had to switch from that day-care into another one. Once, then twice. In the years, she forged friendships, scored good marks in school and received five-star chocolates from Daddy. Shinu was seven then, almost eight.

When she entered the new day-care premises, she saw: A swing, a garden, and a vet clinic. It was like a dream. Surely, she would get to play here, she thought.
The house, in her first week she realised was filled with mean aunties, and lazy uncles. The premise was large, the house was big, it smelt of burnt wood and fallen wet almonds, it had a dark room in the corner. A back-yard where aunties washed utensils with ash. Shinu dreaded the darkness of the room. But, it was a good place for hide-and-seek.
She hid there once, while another girl searched for her, there in the dark she didn’t notice uncle sitting on the floor. When she did, he smiled. She saw he was wearing only an underwear and the smell of his sweat dampened the dark room. He pulled her close and touched her. Nausea gripped her insides like a loose damp cloth, it clung to her throat.
‘You like it’ he asked
‘No’ she said and ran. It began all over again.
Shinu would play outside, near the cotton tree, on the swing. He would call her inside, blow cigarette smoke on her face and squeeze her arm.
‘The swing you play on, its mine’ he would say pressing his mouth onto her small lips, he would bite them push his tongue inside her mouth. He was too strong, too tall, what if he crushed her arms? She would close her eyes shut and wish it over. Later, her lips would feel numb, she would rinse her mouth again and again. She didn’t want daddy to notice.
She was too scared to tell anyone. Who would believe her? She was only eight.
That year she made many paper boats. When it rained, she released them in tiny streams and wished –Burn the dark-room, Burn the house.
When the rain drenched her, she let it. That day she had stayed out in the rain for too long. Little Shinu fell sick.
Her parents decided that the day-care was irresponsible and they pulled her and her brother out.
Many years later, she would pass the houses that broke her childhood into pieces. ‘When you get older, you too will be able to go out and play. So, grow up already’ she would hear each time she passed. It had been long, she would smile sadly at the irony. Each time.
Even years later she would wish. ‘Burn the house that buried my childhood…’ In the following rains, a little heart missed many dreams. Shinu grew older, she understood the world and its workings. She understood her past and learnt to release herself from the shame she carried as a child.
Over the years, life taught her many lessons. The past is the story that makes our present, she realised in her late twenties, therefore, only we carry the power to release our past from the story of our present.
Shinu changed cities, grew older but she never told daddy about what happened. Once in a while, she bought herself a herself a five-star chocolate. Its sweetness hadn’t changed in all the years.

For a split second the crowd pixelates back into individuals. There’s little Eve in the middle, all angled bones and darting eyes, her spiky hair spraying sweat as she dances. A gleaming droplet hits Sean close to his lips and he rubs it into his own solid face before his tongue claims it.

His girlfriend, Gwen, points her chin away from him and drops her shoulders back as if she’s summoning something. Demons, perhaps, to do away with Eve and her liquid charms. Gwen’s movements become an eruption of arms and legs, uncontrollable, possessing feet of space in front of her. Ben moves closer to Gwen, slips into her rhythm, dodging her wind-milling limbs. Something contagious is on the dance-floor tonight, it’s spreading and I’m the only one who sees it.

Now it’s reached Nick and his feet stomp the beat along, punctuating the bass notes. His facial expression reminds me of a two-year-old who’s just discovered they can do something. Poor Nick, I'll let him have this freedom tonight, let him believe he has decades to dance. I turn the volume up a tremor to pull them closer in, give them relief from their lives.

Mona sways with her eyes closed as if she doesn’t want the outside world to be there, as if it’s safe only in her own head. She hasn’t yet realised her mind will destroy her. She should keep her eyes open and never hide inside. Already she’s missing the beat, nodding on the downs, adrift. She's lost, even I can't reach her.

James moves away from Mona flinging his head round and round as if trying to throw it off his neck. He senses something, I can tell, he’s trying to clear his ears of the tune but it's a bug burrowing deeper inside. His mouth opens and closes on no sound.

My friends morph back into part of the heaving, undulating crowd. Their features indistinct, their faces inhuman. They slam the floor as hard as hailstones, whirl like dervishes, become other, not themselves. They flit in and out of the music and the lights as if someone shot a film that’s been ripped into pieces and patched together again. They aren't people, they are dance moves consumed by the dark frenzy of sound. It is eating them alive. The noise builds relentlessly and their breaking bodies coil around it, tighter and tenser than flesh should get. Nobody’s breathing, talking, drinking. All they are is carriers of this parasitic dance.

You think I’m a devil, the devil perhaps, the pusher of the drug that transformed these kids, the corrupter of innocents, a predator. You’re both right and wrong - I’m just the DJ.

When Helen saw the ring she knew straight away it was for him, though he'd never worn one before. Maybe it would get in the way. She worried - briefly - but bought it anyway. They had a special ceremony at home before the wedding. Wine. Candles in the candelabra he'd fished out of a skip for her in their final year of music college.

It was a joke. At the time it was a joke. "With this ring..." Amazingly, it fitted perfectly. Patrick had beautiful hands. Agile fingers, always warm, alive. Well, they were his livelihood. Those hands were what had attracted her to him. Cupped round a cigarette as he lit it for her in the flapping wind. Lightly holding the stem of the glass as he poured the wine, twirling it as he held it out for her to take. Stroking her. And of course on the piano.

She made him close his eyes. She loved him then. "With this ring..." His eyes, laughing, then suddenly solemn, brimming. He kissed her. They stood for a long time. "It's a magic ring... when you twist it, I'll be with you - even when you're on the other side of the world." He twisted it, and Helen tickled the back of his neck, bringing up goosebumps.

Turning round, he wound his hands in her hair. "What else can it do?"

"Oh... it'll keep watch over you. Punish you if you hurt me!" He kissed her hard, scraping her with his bristles.

"Like this?!"

After the separation she kept the candelabra and he kept the ring. But moved it to the other hand. She'd become weepy and vindictive. they both should have seen it coming. With the amount of travelling he had to do and his career had really taken off even more than they'd anticipated. Only, she had wailed that he shouldn't have lied to her. He hated to cause pain. Of course he had to lie. What else could he do? But she couldn't forgive him. Sometimes she phoned him. Sometimes they still slept together.

Back in town tonight, he was looking at her through a long beer. She asked "How is it with - Simona?" and smiled her pained smile. Heavy with misery. "Let's not talk about her tonight" said Patrick, raising his glass.

Being with Helen made him feel lighter by contrast. Still young, still agile, buoyant and carefree. The glow from the golden beer bubbles seemed to light up the black slippery streets as they left the pub. "Not that way... this way... there it is." A radiant yellow skip floating on the dark tide of the November night. "Oh Patrick" she said, a little wearily... "are you still into this?" But Patrick was already in. A muffled exclamation, rummaging.

Patrick appeared at the lip crouching, turning, hooked his fingers under and swung with one easy motion up and over. Hung suddenly suspended by his right hand for a frozen moment. Till something softly gave. "Ack!" he had said, and landed roughly on knees and elbows mooing like a cow. "MMMmmmmmnnnnggg.... NNnnnngggg."

In the hospital they'd sedated him. Simona was going to come, but Helen would stay till then. Patrick shouldn't be alone. While she was waiting, the finger arrived. They'd sent one of the ambulance guys to look for it. It seemed as if she was expected to identify it. She had to bite the inside of her cheek not to smile. They couldn't fix it back on, they explained. It was too messy.

The finger was on a piece of cotton wool. The ring was there too. "Must of got caught on the metal rim" said the ambulance man, grimy from the skip. "Dead unlucky. He'll be OK though."


WITH THIS RING

Nigel held the ring in the palm of his hand feeling the weight of it. The weight of pain and blood, anger and fear, crimes past and present.
He hated that ring. Just to look at it turned his stomach. Typical of his Grandfather, the old bastard, to leave it to Nigel in his will.
“Did I ever tell you how I got this ring lad?” he’d ask, every time Nigel was taken to visit him.
“Yes Grandad, lots of times.” But it didn’t stop the old man and he laughed and told the story yet again. “Me and me mates had got separated from the rest of the company and we was tryin’ to find our way back to the others.”
“Trying to find something to pinch you mean.” Muttered Nigel’s dad under his breath but the old man ignored him and carried on. “Well, we found ourselves in this ruined chateau, nothing left of it really, just a few walls. We was poking about in the rubble when I spots this bit of cloth so I pulled at it and a few bits of brick fell away and there was a bloody dead Nazi and I was pullin’ at ‘is uniform!” He laughed. “A dead bloody Nazi! Can you believe it!”
“Yes dad, a dead bloody Nazi, we’ve heard it a thousand times,” Nigel’s father got up and stamped out of the room. “I’m going to the pub, I can’t be bothered to listen to all this crap again. I’ll be back in an hour. Just behave yourself.”
”Dad, dad, can I come with you? Please?” But the door had already slammed shut, leaving Nigel alone in the house with his grandfather. The old man held out the signet ring to the boy. “Here y’are, lad. Take it.” Nigel shrank from the heavy lump of gold in his grandfather’s hand. “Go on lad, take it, it’ll be yours one day. When I’m dead.” Then he laughed and carried on with the story he told Nigel every time the boy was brought to see him.
“He’d been dead a fair while and the rats had had a good go at ‘im. I was pullin’ ‘is sleeve, and I saw this flash of gold on ‘is ‘and – well, what there were left of it- and there it was, a bloody great signet ring. “You won’t be needin’ this any more my lad.” I says to ‘im “So I’ll ‘ave it thank you very much.” And I pulled it off ‘is ‘and, but ‘is whole bloody finger comes off with it!” The old man roared with laughter, as he always did.
Nigel sat, petrified. He knew what would happen next. What always happened next, when he was alone with the old man. When his dad was down the pub. His mum never came with them on these visits. Nigel had heard her telling his dad that wild horses wouldn’t drag her to “that disgusting old pervert’s place!” Of course, an argument followed when she told her husband how his father had repeatedly groped her whenever she’d been to his house and she refused to see him ever again. So Nigel was taken 4 or 5 times a year by his father and he dreaded every visit, particularly those when his father went off to the pub for an hour or so – which was just about every time.




Nigel had tried for so many years to block out those memories but when he saw the heavy ring with the double-headed eagle design it brought them all flooding back. He still didn’t know why he’d kept it all this time, hidden at the back of a drawer. He hadn’t looked at it for a very, very long time but developments at work had stirred up dark thoughts and when he got back home he’d taken it out of its’ hiding place.
The weight of it, physically and emotionally, bore down upon him, as his grandfather had, all those years ago and now, now what? Revenge? Impossible. The old man was rotting in his grave. Retribution? Maybe. Drawing a line under it all? Who knew? He’d joined the Police as soon as he was old enough and when he’d been asked at his interview, why? Why did he want to join the Police? He’d answered “I want to protect the innocent and bring offenders to justice.” They’d thought he’d given that answer because he thought that’s what they wanted to hear, but it was the pure, unadulterated truth. It still was.
Then yesterday he’d heard that a notorious but time-served paedophile had been released and was coming to live in the area. Of course, his exact identity and whereabouts were supposed to be a closely guarded secret, for the man’s own protection, but again, of course, everyone in the station soon knew. “If the bastard does get himself done in I’m not going to be crying at his graveside.” Andy, Nigel’s sergeant had spat in disgust. Another copper agreed. “Bloody pervert! Deserves a bloody good beating.” Nigel stayed silent.

Three days later, a body lay on the slab in the mortuary whilst the Pathologist and the Officer in the Case went over the list of injuries. “Somebody really went to town on this one.” The Pathologist remarked, “Ruptured spleen and kidneys, broken bones everywhere and his face is beaten to the proverbial pulp. Interesting thing though,” the pathologist pointed to a photograph he’d taken of marks occurring all over the body. “Looks like whoever did this was wearing a very heavy ring. It’s rather distinctive, see the imprint of the double-headed Eagle? It’s quite obvious in some places.”

WITH THIS RING

The advert had seemed harmless enough.

Do you need an additional income? Ring us on..........

And an impossibly long number followed.

Jack noted down the number and turned disconsolately away from the newsagent's window. He found it hard to believe he'd reached his thirties now and things had come to this. It seemed no time since he'd been a child and had had no responsibilities at all, other than to be the good boy that every parent wants their son to be.

He was a young man of some talent and skill, but a young man in need of an income. Any income, never mind a second one. The market in homemade furniture that had kept him going had dried up, and there was no longer a living to be made out of it; not even online. He'd do anything really. Well, almost anything. So as soon as he'd got home and made himself a coffee he'd called the number from his ageing mobile, and talked to this bloke who ran a delivery firm, with the strapline "You ring, we bring." OK, it was cheesy, but the bloke sounded like a genuine guy and they'd hit it off on the phone and, in short, that's how he'd found himself, that particular Friday, charged with delivering this huge package to some address he'd had difficulty deciphering, and for substantially less than minimum wage.

He was, in fact, struggling to remember the details of the job, and exactly what the remuneration would be, and the more he thought about it the more the facts seemed to elude him. But then he'd had a hard night that Thursday. It was enough to make anybody feel a bit hazy about the task in hand.

He'd been meant to be meeting his mates at the pub, but fine mates they'd turned out to be, as not one of them had turned up! Well, one or two had, but they hadn't wanted to sit with him and they went off and drank at a different table, away from his. Not bloody one of them wanted to know him now he'd hit hard times!

Jack felt bitter.

Anyway, what he did know was that it was a bloody hot day, and this shapeless thing he'd picked up from the address he'd been given was weighing him down fit to kill him. He hadn't bargained for that. And he didn't know whether he was imagining it, but the damned thing seemed sometimes to writhe and squirm as if it would suddenly burst loose from its wrapping. And once he was convinced he'd heard it groaning.

But sometimes it was still, and at those times it felt to Jack as if it got lighter to carry.

"What the Hell's in it?" he wondered. "Well, as long as I get paid, it makes no difference to me."

And yet - here he paused and scratched his head in puzzlement - and yet he seemed to think some sort of deal had been involved other than just a monetary one. Jack felt shit scared.

"Oh,man! Think! What have you started here, mate? What have you let yourself in for?"

His heart sank further as he heard his mother's voice pipe up, "Whenever you engage with a stranger you shake a dice. Just saying........" Mothers,eh! So why had he felt so inclined to shake that dice? Well, his mother knew a thing or two about human nature, but he knew better. Or so he'd thought......then.

Jack decided he wanted out.

He delved in his pocket for his mobile, found the number that had been in the ad and dialled it again. He didn't need this job. Whatever he'd been promised, it wasn't worth it. If only he could remember what he HAD been promised. He'd just tell the bloke. He couldn't MAKE him do it.

The number wasn't recognized. He rang it a few more times and it was always the same. Then he lost connection. And then his battery packed up.

So Jack felt he had no choice but to press on. He was tired and he was thirsty. He wished for the umpteenth time that he'd never started the bloody job. And to make matters worse there was a horrible smell coming from the package now. It smelled of rotting flesh. It smelled like death, really. But it HAD to be got to where it was going and then everything would be OK. Jack thought he could remember being told that much.

"Well," he thought to himself, "God knows, I need the money! But I suppose there's a limit to what I'll do to get it." And he wondered whether there actually was. He didn't want to get mixed up with the police, though. He came from a decent family and he'd kept himself out of trouble so far.

Jack felt trapped, and as the day wore on it seemed to him like an eternity. He shifted his load from shoulder to shoulder, but he felt like his back was breaking. He put it down from time to time and took a breather. Then he thought he might poke a small hole in the wrapping and take a quick look at what was in it.

Plucking up his courage, he stuck a grubby finder where he thought he could make a way in. It felt disgustingly moist and putrid in there, and as he pulled his finger out he thought, "Something's gone off. Well, I'm not to blame for that. I should never have been given the thing to deliver on such a hot day if it was liable to go off!"

But still he felt the responsibility of it on his shoulders.

He picked the package up again and carried on his way, ever more exhausted and thirsty in the heat.

Once he bumped into this bloke and thought he would ask if he'd got anything to drink on him. But when he did the bloke just spat on him and carried on. "Well, I only bloody asked," he shouted after him. But the bloke never turned round. It was like Jack didn't exist.

So when, dripping in sweat, he finally saw a crowd of people up ahead, instead of thinking. "One of these might take pity and help me," he found himself thinking, "Screw them! I should've listened to my mum."

Now the crowd was pressing towards him, surrounding him and jeering at him, and Jack finally sank to his knees under the weight of his enormous burden. "I've really had it now," he thought. And he let go the package as he prepared to die.

As it hit the ground the wrapping burst open and, as the crowd stepped back in shock and horror, it spilled its contents for all to see.

The creatures were nameless and faceless. There seemed to be millions of the buggers and they all ran and hid their shame in any corner, under any stone, they could find. The smell was rank and they were hideously formed, beyond imagining. Jack closed his eyes fact, but he could still smell them. And see them.

And then suddenly it happened. And he couldn't.

Jack never saw it coming, the ring of thorns they forced onto his head, It was agony. The blood ran freely down his face and blinded him, and he cursed his employer for the lousy liar he was.

"Why have you done this to me?" he cried out. "I only ever asked to be like every other bloke and earn an honest living."

And then the Heavens opened and Jack looked up through his bleeding wounds and saw every human soul. And he heard the answer come back,"With this ring we crown you King. You are dying for us, so that we who were dead can have eternal life."

Then Jack bent his head and remembered. Ordinary, ten a penny bloke that he was, he had been carrying the burden of the sins of Mankind through time and space, forever. Had it been worth it? You bet your life it had! And he would do it again. And again.

And down all eternity he heard the voice of Man cry out to him in its torment and loneliness, "Help us Lord." And He heard Himself reply, "I will be with you always, to the end of the age." Then everything went black. And it was OK.

In fact, it was all just as the bloke had promised.


My Notes