Jake's racing car can fly and he often soars above the town where he lives, lifts himself above the constricting streets and travels far above, feeling the wind in his hair and the whoosh of delight in his belly as he rises, up and up, higher than everyone he knows. Sometimes he takes his mum along for the ride, because she deserves it. She screams and whoops along with him as they fly. Other times it's just him alone up there, cloud-dodging and dipping so that his stomach does flips.
He can fire rockets of rice-krispies at people too, at the nasty people, the people who dare to do bad stuff to him while he's flying. He takes aim, fires and peppers them with his rice-krispie gun, which makes them laugh and say sorry and be his friend again. He takes on bullies, thieves and the boy who always looks at him and laughs. That boy, Kev, the one his mum tells him he must feel sorry for. He does, actually, because Kevin doesn't have a racing car and although he's named after his dad, his dad isn't there and has never been there, when at least Jake knew his a bit. Kev has to laugh at other people to make himself feel better, so Jake gives him extra rice-krispie shots to make him smile.
At school Jake has all the advantages of an ancient brain, won when he travelled back in time and fought the dragon on Dragon Hill, the dragon who guards the good brains and only gives them to the worthy. He sets riddles and brain teasers and though Jake had the advantage of Super Intel, the questions and riddles were hard and he struggled. But he won, took on board the extra brain power and now he's top of the class - top of the school in some things - and the teachers call him Super Brain (but only quietly, because they don't want the other kids to feel bad. Jake doesn't boast - his mum told him that wasn't nice - so he's quiet with his talents and he ever so quietly comes top in most stuff. It helps that he has an on board computer to help him convert his thoughts to words, but the power of those thoughts is strong. He has the Force of the Ancient Brain taken form the Dragons who guard all the ancient brains in the world and make sure only the most deserving get them.
Jake even gets extra days off because his brain is so good. No, he doesn't have to go to school every single day - sometimes he goes to his special place where his on board computer gets recharged and his racing car checked and his bionic heart monitored. On these days his mum reminds him how absolutely lucky he is, and reminds him that his mates at school will be stuck indoors doing too easy maths. And he's lucky because he has other friends, too. His friends in his special place and boys with super powers just like him, and they are all brilliant, lucky kids.
It's an extra day off today. He asks his mum if she wants to fly but she looks unhappy and her mouth is set in a line and her fingernails are more badly bitten than usual. He knows something is up but he doesn't know what. Shes doesn't want to fly so he drives instead, along the bumpy stained pavements, jerky movements hurting his car. Flying is better but Mum says no.
They get to his special place and none of his friends are there. This makes him sad. In the special room where he can play with extra special stuff JUST for him and his friends, there's a young girl, and she's crying, and she's all alone.
When Jake's mum goes to the big yellow desk to say they're here, Jake drives his car over to her and asks her if she'd like a go. Her car is much smaller. But she shakes her head and says her mum's in the loo and she likes her own car. But she says chair, which Jake's about to tell her is wrong when her mum comes back, and Jake can see that she's been crying too. Jake's mum - who has superpowers when she doesn't mind people seeing, comes over and gives her a big hug and they go and stand in a corner so Jake can't hear what they're saying. Jake's got supersonic hearing though so he can drop eaves, which is what his mum tells him he mustn't do with his special powers. He gives the girl his best smile and drives backwards just a little so he can hear them.
'...was our last hope but they won't... no further treatment options.... can't believe it... so angry and feel so useless... America... money... what do I tell her?'
Mum sees Jake and send him a telling off eye beam so he goes back to the girl, who's stopped crying.
'What's your name?' he says.
'Molly,' she says. She has a lovely voice; soft and serene, like an angel, Jake thinks. 'I'm dying,' she says, matter-of-factly.
'Of what?' Jake asks, after a while when he doesn't know what to say. He's going to live forever thanks to his on board computer, unless that computer breaks and he has to go and have it fixed, or unless the computer decides he's ready for the next level. That's what his mum told him would happen one day and that when it did, he'd not be able to see her again but might get another mummy. he told her not to say scary stuff like that and she said that he had to know. That was about the time his daddy left for cigarettes (that mummy hated) and didn't come back. Mum told him the cigarette God caught him and took him away.
Immediately he feels sorry for the girl, because his life is going to go on forever and hers isn't, so he thinks he'll tell her a story, to make her feel better.
'One day,' he says, 'your racing car will be able to fly, just like mine and you might get an on board computer, just like me. But the people who make the computers have special powers and they have lots of jobs to do and one day, you might have to go back and help them with something, or get it fixed, or get it changed. Then you get to go and live somewhere else for a while and it's all a big adventure.'
The girl's eyes are on his and Jake feels all funny in his tummy. Her eyes are deep dark brown and they are big and shiny and he finds himself wanting to look into them. He can feel his super powers deserting him because he doesn't know what to say, so he smiles back.
'I like that story,' she says. 'I'll tell it to my mum.'
'Jake Bradley?' calls a voice.
Jake's mum appears by his side and she makes as if to push his car. He drives away from her and she does an awkward little fall forwards, regaining her feet just in time. Jake giggles and so does the girl. As Jake drives away he looks at her and she's smiling, and waving with two of her fingers. A super power wave; it's the one he does. She'll be all right, he thinks.
Jake's mum laughs too and follows him, jogging to keep up, as he drives to the Superpower Office - his mum's name for the place he goes and gets everything checked. Last time they were here they took some of his blood away in a tube to see how his superpowers were doing.
'Hello Dr White,' says his Mum, and then in a rush she says, 'Are the results back?'
Jake's got too big to lift now and he can't levitate like he used to, so he has a special machine to make him levitate. His mum helps him into it and swings him over to his bed, where he finally gets to rest after his day saving the world and flying. His mum helps him get changed.
She sings him the special song she made up for him about what a magical kid he is but at the end she's crying, just like Molly's mum. Jake knows what this means. It means they want him to go back and get his computer checked out and maybe send him somewhere else.
'I don't want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here, with you,' he says. His mum leans across his super-high bed and hugs him, hard. It hurts, a little. He can smell her perfume, the one she's worn forever, that she only uses a tiny bit of, because it's expensive. But Jake has a super-nose, so he can smell it anyway.
'You're too important to them, the ones who made your computer. You're too important and they want you back, to help teach other people about building new stuff. Because you're so special. I want to keep you here but you're too important. I can only keep you for so long.' His mum's voice goes all wobbly.
'When do I have to go?' Jake says, quietly, into his mum's sweet-smelling hair.
'Soon,' she whispers, and Jake feels her body wobble as well as her words. 'Not yet, but soon.'
She straightens up and wipes her eyes, gives him his super meds so that he gets to fly at night as well, and then leaves the room, leaving the door ajar and the light on so that if he wants to go for a magic night wander, he can find the way.
Jake's mattress rolls gently under him so he doesn't get sore bits, the thing that turns his air to super-air hisses behind him and he thinks about Molly. She was nice. Perhaps if he has to go and she's there, it might not be so bad.
He falls asleep and his dreams are colourful ad vivid, as they always are. In them he's with him mum, running across fields, jumping over grasses that sway gently in a sweet breeze. At one point his mum lets go of his hand and he's off upwards, floating away, up to the clouds. She's smiling at him and he knows that she'll be okay, because he can see her, and he'll always be able to see her. He floats upwards and hears his name being called in a soft voice that he knows. There's Molly, floating towards him.
'You're right,' she says. 'It's magical up here. Look at me! Look at what I can do now!' And with strong arms she pulls him close and kisses his cheek, and then she pulls him fast, over the trees and the hills and the fields. When he looks back he can still see his mum standing there watching, so he does an extra twirl just for her.
It'll all be okay, he realises now, in his dream. It'll all be okay, when it happens. He knows he must remember this to tell his mum when he wakes up for another day of sorting out bullies with rice-krispies. It'll all be okay and she's not got to worry or be sad. I'll tell her. And he goes back to his dream, where he and Molly have landed in a field and are running with strong legs across the grass, laughing together.
Where I come from.
The small sleek craft bobbed to the rhythm of the turning tide. Brigid watched the men load the provisions onto the currach. The two men would row the boat with its pitch covered canvas to the small island. The crew were locals she had grown up with on the island, and they engaged with a brother’s familiarity. Loading complete they helped her to the small stern seat, out of the way of oars and flying brine.
‘One small step for Brigid, one giant leap for mankind,’ the boatman joked, trying to sound like the voice from the moon landing the year before.
She might have married an island man if things were different. However, they clung to superstitious ways, all based on the belief that Brigid’s great-grandmother was a selkie. The story of how the seal shed its coat and took on a human form survived the generations.
The story detailed her Great-grandfather fishing and each day a seal swam behind him back to the shore. It was a pleasant distraction for the fisherman who had lost his young wife three months previously. They had enjoyed only one year of married life and no children had yet arrived. Seals often follow fishing boats; sometimes they even help themselves to a fish from the lines. But that was different. The seal followed him in a consistent fashion and showed no interest in food.
It was the summer solstice as the sun set on a balmy evening. Her great-grandfather returned from his day’s fishing and secured the boat above the breaking waves. When he turned around to throw a mackerel to the seal, a woman stood there and she carried her sealskin. Some strange sense deprived him of shock or fear because he knew he had been chosen by a selkie.
‘Dia dhuit.’ Micháel Bán greeted her in his Irish tongue. The Irish welcome means ‘God be with you,' but he wasn’t sure if God was with such changelings. She smiled, waiting to follow him. He put his wooden framed fishing lines on top of the fish basket and hoisted it on his shoulder, turning for home.
‘Fág sin mar atá sé,’ he said, resigning to ‘what’s for you, won’t pass you.’ He knew there was no point resisting the power of fate. The selkie followed at a short distance, her sealskin a glint of silver scales reflecting reds from the setting sun.
When the story was told to Brigid as a child, by her mother, she never mentioned such things as courtship or marriage.
‘For seven years they lived happily, and were blessed with two children,’ was all she said. Brigid’s father said nothing because it involved his side of the family.
‘That storm came from nowhere,’ her mother said.
She referred to a day Brigid’s great-grandfather fished his familiar ground south west of the island. His selkie wife could sense weather changes unlike another person. The storm came sudden. She watched the black clouds roll by as the wind rose. By the time it howled over her thatched roof she was on the rocks below, looking out to sea. She sensed the danger and fetched her sealskin from beneath the bed in the attic. Her heart weighed as heavy as the box of lead weights by the door as she pulled the skin about her body. From once she entered the water she could never return to dry land again. But it must be done; Micháel was the breadwinner with two children to rear. She kissed the children as they lay asleep in their beds and left them in the care of Micháel’s mother who had come to live with them.
As soon as she slid beneath the salty brine, she felt a peace that relieved her of earthly cares. Some familiar sense took her straight onto the bearing of the currach. The man rowed hard in a rising swell but made little progress, being constantly tossed off course. She swam beneath the water rising at the bow. Unseen by her man, she steadied the boat and helped propel it forward on the correct course. When they rounded the sheltered side of the island she slid beneath the waves unseen. From there, it was easy work for a man raised to the sea; steering a course through the breaking waves on the shore until he felt the sand beneath.
From that day, whenever the two children of Micháel Bán went to the strand to play, a lone seal watched over them.
‘That tale grew from two children that got friendly with a seal,’ others said.
These people paid no heed to tradition and reckoned Micháel Bán had married a woman from a distant island after his wife died. They recalled how she grew restless for her own people and would climb the steep hill to the back of the lighthouse looking west to her childhood home.
‘The woman returned to her own place leaving him to rear two children. There was some loss came over her.’ The loss inferred related to the mind.
Whatever the truth, it is the power of myth holds sway, and the reason nobody down Brigid’s family line had ever married an islander. She found happiness with Manus, a mountain man, when she left home to work on the mainland. Her mother no longer talked about the past, on Brigid’s monthly visits.
Still, her eyes always turned to the rocky headland where the lone sentinel seal waited, whenever she arrived to her island home.
The Knowledge of Birds
The superstitions of our grandmothers have a weight. Ancient myths and old wives’ tales are often told to us, stitched together and warped from so many retellings; we all know the bad luck of the black cat as we toss salt over our shoulders.
But do you know about the birds?
Birds know things: they warn us of the approaching thunderstorm and take to the air before the ground begins to quake; we should listen for the canary’s song, for when it is silenced we must run. And, most importantly, we must remember that if a bird flies into your home then Death will soon ride out to greet you.
Early-warning systems, that’s what birds are. They are scientists and almanacs and psychics and if you know how to listen they always sound the distress signal. I’ve been a good listener, but the birds around me are not to be trusted. They are liars, all. Many birds have flown in through my window and battered themselves around in the corners of my apartment, their pupils blown wide with mania, before I was able to usher them back out into the sky. Death has not yet come for me. The frantic flapping and tattered feathers littering my carpet are false alarms.
No bird came to my grandmother before she died. All of my misinformed messengers had come to the wrong place when she had needed them, and so she left without warning. She must have been startled the night Death appeared, unannounced, in her doorway. And she must have thought him rude when he lead her out into the starry desert, hand-in-hand, but she was too stoic to make a fuss. She went quietly, and I like to pretend she walked with her head raised, eyes scanning the dark sky for owls.
After arrangements had been made and executed, after family had come and mourned and gone again, I sat on the floor in the front room of her empty house. My fingers trailed over the spiraled pattern of the rug that she had woven many years ago and I thought about how I would miss it.
A clack-clacking from the open doorway raised my head. A roadrunner stood on the threshold, head cocked and tail tilted downward to brush against the floor as it stepped inside, its proud crest deflated. It knew it was late, and had come to tell me it was sorry.
The bird and I had nothing to say to one another, but we sat together in silence as the sun lowered the desert into night. Then it gave another clack from its long beak and turned back the way it had come.
The birds have no sense of time; they’re always too early or too late. One day, perhaps, they will get it right. I keep my windows open and wait, hoping that they will remember me when it is my turn to go, if only so that I can pass on just one more tale to those who will miss me. I will gladly leave their scattered feathers in the corners of my room and sleep.
tread the surface
of our little sea, perhaps these are too easily explained
as the Truth—
like Abrahamic myths
which turn temple sandstone sacred
and alternatively, blasphemous
to their ears walled off
from loudspeakers at noon, their butchers beating out
correct, meaty stories
not to be eaten
near their explosive Gold Dome,
while on the flip side
our yellow, green desert
braced by the account of hope over death
shreds existentialism across the hills.
My mum used to say in the measured voice
that she reserved for important life advice:
'If you haven't achieved anything
by eleven o'clock, the day is wasted.'
But this is a myth. There are days, it is true,
when I taste bitter freeze dried coffee
and wish only for the infinite potential
of tomorrow, the new sun through the crack
in the curtains. There are days I squander
the hour before the bars open their doors,
knowing the only decision I need make
is whether to leave at five; I know every person
in the room by name. There are days I sit
in the park, observe the fragile, slender
stems of poppies swaying in the wind, petals
unfurling in slow motion. John Cage said:
'If something is boring after two minutes,
try it for four,' and I do. There are days I wander
the streets of this city, you know you have to look
up to see the real beauty of the buildings. I imagine
I am running over the rooftops high above,
leaping from balcony to balcony, looking for you.
THE DAY THE TOMB OPENED
One summer when I was eleven
I went out across the fields
Past the brimming orchard
Of wasps and tart green apples,
And on beyond the stream, to the tomb
Stone Age, they told me, a jumble of rocks
In a field. Grassy and grazed by cattle, five thousand years
Since its smoke-fumed funeral.
It was mentioned in myth, this place:
Warriors, queens, bards, battle, tragedy.
The sun was heavy on me
And the air still,
A silent afternoon, clicking with swallows
And early crickets, prickling with the promise of magic,
A wonderful sun-hot shifting of everything
I mounted the mound of the tomb
And a car passed on the road, my neighbours
The Ruanes, I think, before it grew quiet again
As I climbed around to the opening,
But started, for the briar-clogged stones
Were open, bright, tidy and clear.
I dropped to my knees and paused,
Afraid to crawl in, but thin beams of sun glare
Slipped through the gaps in the rocks and
I grew braver so on I went, bowing head,
And, crouching, ducked through the low stone door
Beyond; at once my head swam
And I feared, perhaps, noxious gas or something
So I reversed, but as I did I heard a sound
A solid and slow thump, or pound,
Something hard on wood.
I backed out and stood, but was stunned,
For around me on all sides stretched a forest
I in a grassy clearing, cropped short by a thin cow
Now standing by a small calf suckling.
Beyond them, still but singing with birds
In the sunlit heat, this wonderful woodland
Stretched, uninterrupted but for the thump
Of blunted axe on wood, I guessed, for I could see
That a single tree shivered
With each blow; then there was motion
Below, and the cow ceased her grazing to stare
Towards the dapple-dark forest
As a woman came stepping out, old and bent
Wrapped in furs; she looked with astonishment
Back. Then the air shimmered as in a great heat
And the forest lifted and it seemed I was again
In my own century, lush and green with meadow
With a white contrail raking the sky
Some lawnmower buzzing, the world bright
But I saw with surprise that I was not alone:
A girl stood on the crown of the tomb
Looking down, then a man climbed after her
And he seemed familiar, with his grey hair, broad shouldered;
He gasped when he saw me and said: ‘At last.’
‘Eh, hello,’ I said and the girl said ‘Hi.’
The man just stared, his eyes creased to cry or laugh
He said at last: ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘indeed I don’t.’ But I caught his eye
And felt a strange emotion.
He said: ‘I am you, lad. I am you, older.’
I blinked, but realised that other things were different
Too; there was a white building on a distant hill
Some trees had grown tall, others fallen
And I thought I had passed in a passage through time
He said: ‘We don’t have long.’
I: ‘How do you know?’
‘Because I remember this moment,’ he laughed,
‘From long ago! It’s good to see you.’
I said: ‘And you! Time travel! Do you’ve any advice?
‘From the future?’ He blinked in a way I blink
Scratched his head as I scratch, as does my dad,
And he spoke with me as the girl picked daisies.
The sun baked the summer scene
Butterflies dropped to the foxgloves
And a wren watched from the hawthorn above
As he spoke and I listened, barely understanding.
He had warnings, but hope
‘Have courage, stand tall, and all will be well
Life will be rough, but good, be tough
‘Do the right thing, that’s enough.’
His eyes were wet and mine were too
I said with a choked laugh: ‘Have we hovercars yet?’
He laughed: ‘Not yet! But… lad, will you do something
And go to your mam and dad, for me, and just look out for them.’
I said I would and the world shimmered for a moment
I nodded to the girl: ‘Who is she?’
He grinned and said: ‘She’s my daughter. She’s your daughter.’
Then we both said: ‘Jeepers!’
We hugged in a strange embrace and the air
Shimmered again and I was back in my own time.
My watch had stopped on my wrist
Crickets clicked nearby in the grass
And I wept, a strange happy sadness
Leaving my sun-hot cheeks wet.
City of Myth
The song of moon
in the Lost City of Atlantis
with magical lamps hanging from sky
Socrates' dialogue continues
on what justice is
Kallipolis encompasses beauty of a just
Rainbow of justice
imprinted on a sky bursting in colours
the city Plato envisioned in Republic
Will philosophers rule the city and poets banished?
the tragic loss of a city, a lost indeed
when virtuous poets banned
Is the city a paradise lost, Milton's lustful
vision of Garden of Eden? Does it embody
Plato's classical heaven as in Myth of Er?
The Eden that suffers not from assault
of natural disasters or climate change,
where lions and lambs play together
and poverty of soul filled with love
Utopian civilization in Atlantis is akin
to an afterlife
where peace drifts
Life is unmeasured where one lives
for soul's contentment
drinking cups of immortality
Atlantis exists for no one
for the poor and rich are alike
if she asks you what her name is
tell her it's justice.
A Varied and Inconsistent Account of Woman
I am Medea or am I?
Direct descendant of the sun
predominantly divine but only as long
as I had Jason’s love. I am all mortal.
yet do I die or do I ascend?
A ritornello of slain children’s voices.
Did I give the hero an unguent
to protect against flames,
then burn him with my jealousy?
Did I warn him an army
would rise from his sowing
yet fall for his farmer’s hands?
Did I put the dragon of doubt to sleep
so drugged by love,
I sailed away with Jason,
scattered bits of my brother’s body
to turn my father’s head?
A ritornello of slain children’s voices
cry down centuries.
Had my brother, the monster,
long begged me for death?
Did Jason filch his fleece
only because of golden me?
Was I both helper maiden and fool?
They said I had prophecy
so I knew what you’d make of me.
A ritornello of slain children’s voices
screeching cellos overplay an act
that may, or may not, have been me.
I am Medea or am I nothing more
than Jason’s shadow
squid-inked by men’s fear?
Power of Myth
Sandra didn't call
She said she'd call today
But she didn't call
This always happens to me
Whatever the plan or event
Bad things always happen to me
Everyone's better than I am
No matter how hard I try
The whole world's better than I am
I'm really bad at my job
My boss and my colleagues don't see it
But I know I'm bad at my job
All my friends must hate me
They say they don't but I can tell
Everyone who knows me hates me
She didn't call
I might as well give up on life
Because Sandra didn't call
Always fighting Fire
He looked like a little boy holding his father's hand as he tried to keep pace. Not that I had any memories of Declan walking hand in hand with his daddy since he had scarpered when Declan reached four. He was handcuffed to the left hand of a prison warder as the black uniform steered a direct line towards the prison van.
“Declan”, came the shout of a girl’s voice from the pavement opposite. She considered it safer to keep her distance, even with Declan secured to the arm of the law. He had received a life sentence, which wouldn’t have warmed his humour.
“I wish life meant life. Every right-minded citizen will express disgust at your actions.” the judge said.
Chloe is his girlfriend, and she shouted his name again. I thought Declan blew her a kiss but then realised he was miming a request for a cigarette.
I wore my good walking shoes although I had knocked the good out of them with my six mile treks every evening for the past three weeks of the trial. One last stroll to clear my head; in that town where I no longer walked unknown since they showed me up on the television every evening during the trial.
"Showed me up," is right. I would return next day to my little village by the sea and from the kitchen window watch the same waves pounding the strand. Neighbours would express their sympathy with my situation but I know they will blame me when they chatter among themselves. Perhaps they’re right. The prison van pulled out into the traffic and I started my walk in the opposite direction. Reality of his plight would hit Declan that evening. He had the diversion of the trial for three weeks, but would now be cut off from the world for maybe fifteen years, perhaps a couple off if he behaved himself which seemed unlikely.
Hard to believe how it came to this. It only seemed yesterday he held my hand tightly as we walked to his first day in school. He was the big boy then. Christy, his father, had walked out the year before. That changed Declan, ever since he realised his father wouldn't come home anymore. It’s hard for a woman to manage a boy’s full blown tantrums on her own. Besides, I owed him because he blamed me for letting his daddy run off. I found it easier to buy peace than to demand it, so I developed my gimmicks and games to remedy his rage.
“Let Declan win and I will give you all a special treat,” I would say to the other children, out of earshot. We paid the days he lost. You would see the change coming in his face. He would throw or smash anything in his reach. The other children stayed out of his way; mainly his cousins because no other children wanted to visit.
I bought the little chair because it looked cute. I had no plan for its use. But that chair earned its way over the next couple of years. I made a little throne decorated with nice coloured cloths and cushions, and a little footstool covered in red leatherette. Cousins came over to play the day after I finished decking it out. He lost a game and erupted. I got from the kitchen to find pieces of the game scattered all over the room and a child howling with a lumpy lip. The chair came into my daft head; first thing.
“I’ve got something special for my little man,” I sang, and all the time I made foolish sounds like playing one of them shiny instruments, and Declan paused mid swing on the curtains delaying his intention to pull them down. He pulled down the curtains so often I had attached a Velcro hem at the top. He yanked down the curtains, and I put them back up again. Same way as I got unbreakable glass replacements every time he broke a window. Firefighting became my best game.
“Who’s the king of the castle?” I chanted, arriving back during the ceasefire having retrieved the chair from its hiding place.
“Who’s a dirty rascal?” sings his little cousin; and her innocent response threatened to upend the ceasefire.
“No, no, no” I panted.
Declan shook strands of his cousin’s hair from his hand, as I raced to the punch line.
“This is the special throne for the king of the castle,” I said. “Who’s the king of the castle?”
No mistake in the response when I repeated the question and the children cheered his coronation. For the next four years I worked that plan. I knew the other mammy’s meant well when they told me about their bold boy corners, but they could see for themselves the calm after every coronation ritual.
The wind blew before me and it chilled. I had walked further from the town than on the other days. With the trial over I allowed myself try to make sense of everything. I shouldn’t have let him leave school early. He stacked shelves in the supermarket in town for a while, but early morning didn’t suit him, especially after the late nights, drinking outdoors with friends.
At sixteen we had the first visit from the police, with Declan taken in drunk after breaking a window. For his seventeenth birthday he got his first court appearance.
"Interfering with the mechanism of a car" the charge sheet read. He didn’t like that.
“Makes me sound like a pervert," he said “I tried to rob it, except the fucking thing wouldn’t start.”
Next time, his friend Costello got behind the wheel and the car started. Costello got three months, which made him worse. He came home as proud as a college graduate with a first class degree. He now had a reputation to keep. That’s difficult. There’s always some knacker trying to knock the hard man of his pedestal. The local losers wanted to hang out with Costello, the hard man who had done jail. Declan’s claim to hard man status only stretched to killing the Kilcoyne girl’s rabbit and hanging it on the family clothes line. Besides, he was eleven at the time.
They hung out drinking and smoking weed in the woods overlooking the supermarket. Handy that, for drawing up drinks from the cheap off-licence. I joined the Tidy Town’s Organisation because I owed them for having to clear up the broken bottles after the drinking sessions. I helped Declan to show his best behaviour since he got a chance in court after riding with Costello in the stolen car.
“One wrong move and you’re serving a month” the judge said, and I slept easier at the thought someone might keep control over him.
Easy sleeping soon got broken when the cat incident brought a new low. I remember him restless that day, so I could imagine him pacing with a nose itching for trouble. He told me later how a black cat came down, attracted by the heat. Before anyone could stop his messing, he grabbed the cat and chucked it in the fire.
“That’s not cool, Declan” Costello said when the girls hanging out all cried and snivelled.
"You’re disgusting, Declan," Chloe said.
"Ah, Chloe, I thought you loved me."
The girls left, with Declan still trying to put a brave face on things.
“If you play around the fire, you’ll get burnt” he yelled after them. Turned out that cat belonged to a neighbour of one girl, and she had played with it as a child which wasn’t long ago. She cried and told her mammy, and they dragged the police into it. Declan got his month in jail and missed the birth of his baby girl over that cat incident. He would have got an extra month if he hadn’t promised to volunteer at the dog rescue place. The dog people didn’t want to have him, which was understandable given his history with cats and rabbits.
Costello got it right when he called the cat burning a bad call. Declan should never have proved his imbecility beyond doubt. Only for the same Costello stood by him he would have been a loner too. They had done everything together; played as toddlers, started school, smoked their first cigarette and drank their first can of cheap imported piss. That meant they understood why they did things that didn’t add up to other people.
I blame the sons of my cousin came over from England for a holiday; two lads his own age.
“You’re a chav” The English lads told him.
When they explained the working model of a chav, he bought in. Next thing himself and Costello are wearing designer label shiny tracksuits stuck into their socks, tartan baseball caps and white runners; except the labels were fake as the macho image. Declan stood outside the chipper spitting on the pavement, primed for trouble.
“What you looking at?” he said to a man, heading in for his fish and chips. The guy didn’t like disrespect and approached Declan explaining.
“Something a dog dropped, that I'm thinking of kicking outa me way”. He replied, and up so close his spittle was on Declan’s face. Declan ran home; probably needed to change his fake pants.
Ever since Costello did jail Declan got left behind. The business with the cat didn’t help.
“You can’t burn cats without consequences," Costello explained.
He was then called him Little Pussy after some character on television. He had a serious chip of the old block on his shoulder that led to disputations over small stuff. Except he usually got a beating, and that made the chip heavier to carry. That’s why he waited one evening for a lad that had shown him up. He knew the guy would walk home alone after the pub and he lay in the bushes for him, armed with a thick lump of timber that left his victim in the head repair unit of a city hospital.
After the episode with the wood he carried a knife. The incident had caused a certain disconnect between himself and the family of the lad in intensive care. He accepted nature hadn’t numbered him among her great forces, which left him entitled to reduce the odds with the help of some tools. I warned him where that knife would take him but I wasted my talk as usual.
“Don’t be talking soft,” he would say, of any advice that didn’t suit him. He said it like his departed father. Just like his father he had a jackass or two loose in the top field.
It came as no surprise when I opened the door to two plain clothes officers
"Your Declan at home," they asked.
“No, I haven’t seen him since yesterday. I suppose he’s in trouble?” I replied.
“Maybe,” said one, like he’s weighing up if I am lying.
“Do you want to come in?” I said, matter-of-factly to emphasise my truth.
“No, it’s all right for now,” the second one said.
“We’re investigating a fatal stabbing of an elderly gentleman. They found him with several knife wounds, down a back lane this morning. It looks like he was attacked as he wandered home from the pub last night. It’s early in the investigation, and we’re still waiting on the state pathologist.”
The detective played safe, but I knew it was Declan. After all it’s what he had been training for.
The fire had been burning now for 5 months, 14 days, 22 hours, and roughly 12 minutes. The residents of Little Haverley had stopped counting over a month ago, but Amy had a tally that she kept on a notebook hung beside her front door. It was easy for her to keep track; the fire was the first thing she saw when she stepped out of her house. Under duress, she would admit that the minutes were a guess, but she was pretty sure about the rest. She had been in the house when the fire started, waiting for a tray of cupcakes to finish baking. The fire was not there when they went into the oven, but by the time she pulled them out an orange glow was shining through her kitchen window.
The fire engines arrived a few minutes later, pulling up at the end of her driveway and blocking her view. They had stayed there for most of that day, and the next day, and the next. Amy had almost scratched the paint of her car trying to reverse past them to get to work on Monday morning. Returning that evening, the engines had not moved, but the mood was much calmer on the street. A lingering smoky smell hung in the air, but the fire seemed to be under control, and a light breeze had blown away a lot of the ash that had settled like soft snow on the road. A small group of firefighters were huddled by the truck, talking amongst themselves in low voices and glancing back every so often to the persistent flames.
A week later, nothing had changed. Every morning, Amy would carefully manoeuvre past the fire trucks and return later in the day to find the fire still burning, and the firefighters scratching their heads as they stared at it, more disgruntled with every day that passed.
Eventually, the engines left, and did not come back. Not long after that, Amy received a note from the council through her letterbox assuring her that something would definitely be done about the fire. They just didn’t know what yet. Since then, she had grown accustomed to the orange glow that suffused her kitchen at all hours, and the soft background crackle that she could hear when the night was still and quiet.
In the fifth week, with no firefighters around to stop her from getting too close, Amy went out to judge the fire for herself. Her first thought was that it was disappointingly small. She had seen bigger bonfires on the 5th of November. This one was no taller than the bungalow next door, and she could walk around it in thirty paces. It didn’t feel much like a proper fire either. There was no searing heat emanating from it to keep observers back at a sensible distance. There were no billowing clouds of smoke. There were flames, a gentle warmth, an oaky scent in the air, and that was it.
The only other person who knew exactly how long the fire had been burning was Christina Lee, who posted an update to her Twitter feed with a picture of the flames and the words ‘Still on fire’ at nine o'clock every morning. Sometimes, just as Amy was leaving for work, she would spot Christina taking the picture, always from the same spot. If she took a few moments to watch, she would see Christina poke around at her phone for a few minutes to upload her photo, and then put it back in her trouser pocket. Then she would scrape her hair up into a scraggly bun and set to work.
From her car, an old Mini that was held together in places with nothing more than duct tape, Christina would pull a backpack and a notebook. After a cursory glance at the contents of the last entry in the pad, she would pull a box of chalk from the front pocket of the bag, and Christina would set to work circling the fire, crouched low to scratch her chalk circle into the ground. Then she would proceed to fill it with symbols and scribbled words, consulting her notebook every few steps. Amy had watched this ritual every Saturday morning while she prepared her breakfast smoothie at the kitchen window. She hadn’t mustered the courage yet to go outside and ask Christina what she was doing.
Today, Christina was taking more care than usual. It always took several hours for her to complete the circle to her satisfaction, but this morning she was inspecting every inch like it was newspaper print. Amy almost expected her to pull a magnifying glass out of her backpack and kneel down until the tip of her nose was scraping the tarmac. By the time Amy’s berries were blended and poured into a tall glass, Christina had managed to make it another shuffling step around the edge of the fire. Amy drank the smoothie down in four large gulps, tried not to choke on the seeds dotted through the creamy purple milk, and went to find her running kit.
When she returned from her run, Christina had managed to make it a little further around the circle. Unusually, she was also smiling. Amy was used to seeing a whole range of unhappy facial expressions on the other woman’s face, but she had rarely seen her crack out any kind of grin. She showered, dressed, and come back downstairs with a towel draped over her shoulders to find that Christina had made significant progress. Amy did not know what had happened after those first few steps, but suddenly the other woman was nearly three quarters of the way round the circle, the notebook discarded back at the halfway mark. Amy had several chores that she had been putting off for weeks, but she found herself leaning up against the kitchen sink, eyes fixed to Christina’s hunched figure.
At full circle, Christina straightened, put her hands to her hips, and then threw them up in the air with a gleeful laugh that Amy could hear even through the window pane. The source of Christina’s sudden delight was a mystery. Nothing appeared to have changed. The flames still licked the air to their usual height, throwing off scattered sparks, no smoke, no sign of growing, no sign of dying. Amy pushed away from the sink and went to her front door. Her notebook was unmarked today, but she paused before adding the latest line. Instead, she pulled open the door and walked down to the end of her drive.
Christina did not seem to notice her approach. She was crouching again, her hands pressed down on the floor at two points on her chalk circle. She was murmuring under her breath, words that had the cadence of speech but were no language Amy recognised. As she spoke, the wind began to whip up, gentle at first and then to a thundering gale that sent Amy’s door slamming shut and rattled the street lamps where they stood. Amy’s hair whipped around her face, obscuring her view of Christina for barely a second. Before she could push it away, she heard a hooting cackle of a laugh, and the wind stopped. It did not blow away, or die down slowly. It had been howling, and then Amy’s hair was limp again, and the street lamps had stopped shaking. She could hear Christina’s exhausted breaths stark in the still air.
When Amy looked up, the fire was gone. She stared at the spot where it had been, and looked over her shoulder, wondering if she had perhaps managed to get herself turned around in the wind. But behind her was her house, as she expected, and in front of her was nothing. No smouldering embers, no smoke trails. Only Christina, and her smudged chalk circle.
“You did it,” Amy said, staring at the place where seconds before there had been dancing flames. “How did you do it?”
“A little patience, dear, that’s all.” Christina wiped a hand across her face, smudging a white trail of chalk dust onto her cheek in the process. Amy drew closer, and stopped at the edge of the circle. The symbols that Christina had sketched out looked like a hybrid of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Norse runes, as if she had seen glimpses of both and had merged them together just to see what would happen. The symbol closest to Amy’s feet was a cartoonish bird, with several lines crossing its stomach and a dot of an eye in the middle of its head. Beside it was a loosely outlined flame atop a candle stick, and another abstract rune that Amy noticed looked distinctly like a pair of cat’s ears. Where the fire had been was just a scorched circle of grass.
“What if it rains?” Amy said. “And the chalk gets washed away?”
“That won’t be a problem. The fire’s out now, it can’t just start on its own” Christina said. She reached out with the point of her shoe and scrubbed at the circle of chalk until a thin sliver of tarmac began to show between the white edges. A loud crack split the air, sending Amy stumbling back in surprise. In the middle of the scorched grass, flames shot high into the sky. When they settled again, the fire was back, burning steadily as if it had never been gone.
They both stared at it in silence for several long seconds. Then Christina stooped to gather up her bag and threw it into the backseat of her car, where it hit the upholstery and bounced off onto the floor.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Amy sighed, went back inside, and scratched another pencil mark onto her tally. 5 months, 15 days, 13 minutes, and still on fire.
A Game of Two Halves
Love is a game of two halves. It always starts the same; two people each playing solitaire and professing their love for the game. Everyone acts like they love being single but nobody really wants to be alone.
One of the first things children learn is how to play games. Rule number one, never cheat. Childhood games are just training for the real ones we will play as adults. Girls play house, doll’s houses or turning grotty old sheds into homes and playing house with fictional families; minus the mortgages and bills. Boys race around in boxes or toy cars and bikes - minus the tax and insurance.
Childhood games have more of an effect on us than we realize. Boy, girl, mom ,dad, husband, wife. Soldiers or nurses. We fight with imaginary guns, imaginary wars. Fighting fire with imaginary fire. Biology and common sense betray us.
Gradually we grow and the endless war between girls versus boys evaporates. Kiss chase the game nobody really wants to win becomes the game everyone wants to play. Goodbye childhood, hello hormones.
Boy meets girl they start to fall in love and then the real games begin. Now it's a game of poker. She cancels a date. He acts like he couldn't care less. Let's meet again? Let’s not meet up again? (pleassseeee let's meet up again) He texts her before she texts him. Damn. She wins.
Now its a game of scrabble the perfect words picked meticulously. Every text written then deleted and rewritten. Birthday cards, emails, flowers with silky sweet messages, hour long conversations late into the night. Words are weapons, words win wars, words win hearts.
Then it's fancy dress: Hours in mirrors, makeup and preening, aftershave and hair sculpting. Perfumes picked and deodorants decided. Negligee and designer underwear. Shoes and high heels. Dresses and suits. Outfits taken on and off again, ten times before a final choice is made.
They spend the first night together. The poker face slips off with their clothes and they wake up in each others arms. You meet up again. I’ll message you she says (three days, seven hours thirty minutes) She message him before he messages her. He wins.
Then it’s hide and seek. Each of us hides who they are, as the other seeks to find out. She hides the fact that she's slept with one of his friends and had two abortions. He hides the fact he was a ‘ladies man’ and he’s cheated on someone before. She seeks out the person he used to be before she knew him - he does the same with her. They both hide the fact that neither of them can control their feelings.
Play pretend is such fun as a child - knowing how to play pretend as an adult is essential. She pretends to like a pretentious restaurant, he pretends to like a soppy film. She pretends she's not needy or clingy, he pretends he’s not jealous or gets insecure. He pretends to like her friends, and her friends pretend to like him. They both pretend to like each other's families, each others families pretends they like them. There Is no such thing as a neutral family! You never really gain a family you only ever borrow one. Families always pick sides in the end!
The world of employment. If you played Simon says as a child work should be easy. Just replace ‘Simon says,’ with ‘the boss says’
Now it's time to play Monopoly. Bankers, the property ladder and commitment.
Playing house was never this hard when you were a kid. Dolls are different from babies; they need real food not imaginary food. There's no off button when they cry. Their batteries never run out. Babies don't stay the same forever like a doll; they grow and grow and grow.
Grown up games are hard. It’s like playing Statues. Standing in the same exact position doing the same exact same thing. Don't move!
Thank God for Charades. He mimes the part of the doting father and loving husband she mimes the part of the loving housewife happy with her life.
Then comes Truth or Dare. He dares to lie, she dares to believe him. Once, he dared to cheat she dared to believe him. Once, he had the advantage of blind confidence she had the disadvantage of blind love. He obscured the truth in elaborate stories and simple lies.
Simple lies are always the best.
She dares to keep loving him, he dares to pretend to keep loving her.
She believed him once and he thinks she will believe him twice. He's a gambler on a winning streak. Gamblers get reckless.
She starts to hide the truth that she doesn't believe him any more and dares to bury it. Love makes a fool of us all but not her. She’s not a gambler. She knows when to quit. She's been playing eye spy for a while now. Women are the best at that game. She knows things.
Now comes Chess. The hardest game of all, a battle of wits and forward thinking. His mind verses hers. Some of the ways a game of chess will end. The options are: Checkmate no legal move to escape, or check which basically means a draw. Only civil people agree to draw - she's undignified.
Resignation either him or her may reign, conceding the game to the opponent. Bitter hearts will never concede. Forfeit: A player who cheats. That's the one she’ll choose. There were never lawyers or court cases included in childhood games.
Now he’s alone playing Blindman's Buff. He’s blind and disoriented. He reaches out to try and find his wife and children, but they are gone.
The first rule of any game is do not cheat.
He wishes he’d stuck to solitaire.
That was the trouble with living with a dragon, you were always fire fighting.
She did her best, she really did. But every time she coughed or laughed or sneezed, the whole house took a hit.
We tracked down some fireproof carpet on Dragonsbay and some wallpaper fron Scalytree and all the furniture was fire proof.
But occasionally a guest would be set alight which was at best a tad embarrasing and at worst rather dangerous.
We issued them all with a fireproof jacket when they arrived but even so it could be tricky to keep some of them from roasting. The fuel bills were great though and we never boiled a kettle so it wasn't all bad.
We had met by accident. There had been a lunar eclispse and for a nano second, earth and dragonland had been in the same orbit.
My wife, Granada hadn't heeded her mother's warning to stay inside their den and had fallen through the tiny gap that had opened up in space as the light and darkness had collided and had fallen into my back garden.
Fortunately she landed in the pond, otherwise I dread to think what would have happened. I heard the screams and went rushing out.
As luck would have it I live a long way from the village in a tumble down cottage, but I was terrified at first. But after we had both got over our initial shock, we began to learn each others language and as time passed we realised we were falling in love.
Exactly ten months to the day of Granada falling to earth, we were married.
The local Vicar took some persuading but so moved was he by our love that he graciously accepted our invitation to perform the ceremony in our garden with Sydney the bee keeper from up on the hill as best man and four good friends as witnesses and congregation. The Church warden gave Granada away and the only sadness of an otherwise perfect day was the absence of both our families.
I was deeply touched that Granada thought her father would have whole heartedly approved of her choice of husband and that her mother would have thought me charmimg.
No one had ever thought me that before so it was a very proud groom who took his bride by the arm and walked her to the reception in the old barn at the bottom of the field.
The press turned up at the last minute and our faces were splashed all over the tabloids but we didn't mind. We didn't go on honeymoon either. Happy in our own space, in our own home.
All the lonely years I had spent on my own were worth it.
I had nearly given up so many times.
Tired of the abuse that was hurled at me and the names I was called, I had moved out to the country. No one bullied me there or threw stones at me.
Fire hazard issues aside I couldn't have been prouder or more content. Who'd have thought it when I fell to earth all those years ago, that a little old troll and a beautiful young dragon could live happily ever after.
I' was shivering as usual on the station platform, making a mental list of everything I needed to get done that day at work, when I heard the mew. So high it was nearly a squeak, and I couldn't tell where it was coming from. There were no cats on the platform, which I wasn't surprised about, because would you hang around with a load of stressed commuters if you weren't forced to? Cats are much more sensible than people, I've always felt.
Another mew. Pulling my scarf up around my jaw, I looked down, and there it was. A teeny tabby, scrabbling at the sheer wall between us. It looked up at me, all eyes and scratty fur, and the next mew was louder and more drawn-out.
Everyone around me was numbing the cold with headphones or just phones; the hood of the girl next to me was emanating a tinny "tchhh, tcchh", her head nodding in time to the music. I checked the information board: still four minutes before the train was due. Occasionally other trains stormed past, too important to stop at the likes of this station, but they were usually on the middle set of rails, right? I thought they were...
The kitten mewed again; it was on its hind legs, front paws still trying to get a purchase on the brick. The nearest rail was just inches behind it's little tail.
I must have looked like a metronome, my head bobbing to the right to check for trains, then down to measure the distance. I was fairly certain I could get back up without any help, and if not, surely someone would break out of their self-imposed bubble to give me a hand.
One last check along the line, and I crouched at the edge of the platform, then dipped my legs down into the cut. The kitten startled, but perhaps it was too tired to run away. At any rate, it sniffed my hand and then allowed me to snuggle it into my arms. I stupidly landed facing away from the trains - although maybe that was a good thing, because it meant I wasn't going to waste any time here. For the fifteen seconds or so that it took to entice the kitten into my arms, plonk it on the platform (god, can you imagine if it just jumped back down?) and haul myself up on my bum, eighty per cent of my brain was screaming, certain I was about to be flattened and eviscerated by a train.
But that didn't happen, obviously. I picked up myself and the kitten, smiled at the guy next to me, who had taken off his headphones but made no attempt to speak to me, and marched along the platform to the exit. A guard strode past me, listening to a walkie talkie - they may have closed the ticket office, but I guess they can still get the staff out for emergencies. Assuming I was the emergency.
Back on the main road, I paused to text my manager to let her know I'd be late in. The kitten kept wriggling, so it took longer than usual, but finally I managed a coherent message with only one typo.
"Sorry," I murmured to the kitten, smoothing the fur over its head. "I'm all yours now."
This was a lie - I'd be heading to work as soon as I'd done something with the kitten - but my words seemed to placate it. Enough that we made it back to my flat without any problems. The kitten seemed exhausted, and my mind was buzzing with the enormity of what I'd just done. Memories of a friend who'd been threatened with arrest for crossing the tracks once to catch a train. And weren't the lines electric? I was sure I felt the vague memory of a pressure against my heel that might have been the rail. Then there was the voice, still screaming. "You could have been run over, you could have been electrocuted, you stupid, STUPID girl."
Mum always liked to pop back into my mind at times of stress. Which was all the time at the moment.
Too much going on. Too much work - ah, there was the buzz of a text message, probably my manager urging me to get in as soon as I could. I'd reply when we got back to my flat. The various love interests I was chatting to on various apps, but never quite got around to meeting. Not always my choice, but often. The gym I visited about once a month. The friends I was failing to keep up with. Dad...I needed to call him, instead of leaving it to Melly and Steve all the time. But not now, obviously.
I let the kitten go once I'd closed my front door again, and it shot down the hall and into the living room. I found it peeping at me from behind the sofa, and wondered what the chances were of it not having fleas.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" I wondered aloud. It didn't feel right, saying 'it' all the time.
Under the kitchen sink, I found a couple of tins of cat food that I'd kept after Maisie died. They were dusty, but well within date - not that I think the cat would have cared. When I returned to the living room with the bowl, it took about five seconds to come out of hiding and start lapping at the tuna-flavoured food.
I made myself a cup of tea and sat down with my phone, but the kitten jumped up onto my lap and settled in, purring.
Fleas? Who cared about fleas? I stroked the matted fur, and took the opportunity for a quick check under the tail. Probably female, then - she looked too young to have been done.
My phone buzzed again, so I swiped the screen to view the message.
"No problem, hon, just let me know when you can make it in. Hope all is OK!"
My manager, slightly more zen than I'd anticipated.
"Where are we re the Pappadocio contract? Update please?"
Co-worker one, less zen.
"Hear ur late, hope ur still ok for meeting at 12! Let me know. When are you coming in???!"
Co-worker two, even less zen. Always in a panic and getting me in a panic as well. He was the one who'd introduced me to the term "fire-fighting", i.e. only dealing with things as they turned into emergencies. The fact that he knew buzzwords like this didn't seem to make him any better at avoiding the issue. He was always fighting fires, and getting the rest of us involved, too.
I leaned back into the cushions and the kitten rebalanced herself on my thighs.
I'd need to take her to the vet, get her checked for a chip. Although by the look of her she'd been living rough for weeks, and she couldn't be much over a month old.
The vet was only round the corner, but the last time I'd been there was to have Maisie euthanised. I wasn't sure I'd be able to face that today. Certainly not if I dashed off to do a full day's work right now.
The kitten crawled further into the crook of my lap and closed her eyes. I looked at my phone again, and pressed Reply to my manager's text.
"Emergency a bit more complicated than I realised. Will have to take today off. Really sorry! See you tomorrow."
I sipped my tea, and on my lap, the kitten's purrs turned to snores.
'Muuuuuuuum! I dunnnapooooo!' The yell comes from the downstairs loo to where my second smallest, Evie, disappeared a while ago. I'd forgotten she was there. I'm stirring porridge and trying to breast-feed my six month old, Oscar, who's strapped into a baby sling, at the same time. The twins are fighting over a toy car and Sara, my oldest girl, has the look of contempt she often wears on these crazy mornings; the look which says, Why did you keep having children, Mum?'
I shoot her an imploring glance and nod at the porridge but she rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and bends back down over her cereal. I can't blame her. Days like this I ask myself the same question: why did I? Then there are all the magic moments that make up for it, the happy family chaos that is the soundtrack to my days and nights.
Dean and I always wanted a big family - granted, that was before he got his latest job that involves much longer hours but we need the money and he needed the promotion so-
'I'm coming,' I call back, turn, and promptly trip over the toy car which has now been thrown to the floor. I manage to save Oscar from being squashed and swear, softly, from where I've landed on my knees. Oscar, ripped from his breakfast, starts up an accusatory wail. I swear again, louder.
'I heard that,' Sara whispers.
'Sorry,' I mutter.
'Jesus,' I say, hoisting myself and Oscar back upright. He latches back on and is silent. The twins choose that moment to break into fist fighting and I grab Tom, the biggest and haul him out to the hall.
'Time out,' I say, placing him on the stairs.
'It wasn't me!' he says, indignant four year old voice full of fight.
'It doesn't matter, you two need separating.' I say, trying to be the firm but fair mum, when really I want to yell.
'MMMUUUUUMMMMMM!!!' Evie's voice has this incredible volume. It can make the hair on the back of your neck jump to attention. In supermarkets it's particularly effective at getting me to the front of queues.
'I'm here,' I say, managing the final two metres to the downstairs loo.
'My poo is huge!' she says, sitting sideways to show me and wiping poo onto the toilet seat. 'And I didded it in the toilet!'
'Evie-' I sigh, and bend over the loo. 'Well done.'
The clean up job is made more awkward by Oscar's hungry guzzling, but I manage it.
'Porridge is burning,' Sara calls flatly form the kitchen.
'Could you stir it?' I yell back.
'No,' she says. 'I hate porridge.'
'I told you, Mum, I didn't ask to be born into this madness.' She has the voice of a world leader when she wants to. She stalks past me and up the stairs.
'I'll remember that when you ask me for a lift to the park later,' I mutter, just loud enough for her to hear. I can't blame her, though. For eight years it was just her, and now she has four siblings under four. One day she'll love it, I tell myself, over and over.
The twins are rolling on the floor when I get back in and they scare the cat who runs under my feet at just the right angle for me to tread on her tail. She yowls, which makes Oscar cry. The porridge looks like a huge geyser, puffing itself about in the pan. The smell tells me it's beyond saving.
'Cereal!' I say to the room and grab all the boxes, several bowls and spoons and plonk them on the table. I take the burning pan outside and place it on the doormat where the chicken immediately appear, looking at me expectantly. 'Don't eat that yet, it's hot,' I tell them and lift it to the top of the log store. They'll get up there eventually but not until it's cool enough.
I turn to go back in and see two of the chickens behind me, running towards the cat's food bowl. One of them poops on the way.
'For goodness sake!' I say. Oscar has finished and is playing with my hair. I put him in his baby-bouncer and grab the kitchen roll, wiping up the chicken mess and chucking the kitchen roll in the bin in one smooth movement.
'Poo-pro,' I tell myself, and laugh. You've got to laugh. I tell Dean that often at weekends, when he has to face the chaos he's largely away from during the week.
The twins have got hold of the Frosties which means-
-Frosties all over the floor.
I open the back door again and in come the chickens, squabbling over the spilt food. I guess Frosties will be like speed to them but who cares. 'Express eggs,' I mutter, and laugh again.
'I'm glad you find this funny,' says Sara from the door. 'It's just... why couldn't I have stayed an only child?' She steps over the chickens and crunches through the Frostie mess and puts on her shoes.
'Have a lovely day, sweetheart,' I say.
'I will, because I'll be away from this,' she says, voice so full of disdain it drips off her tongue.
'I love you, Sara,' I say, fighting the urge to snap at her. As my friend Faye, mother of two teens tells me, this stage will only last for another six years...
Sara sighs and gives me a rare smile. 'I love you, Mum,' she says. 'Good luck.'
I'm still reeling in shock as she leaves for the school bus. She told me she loves me. A moment as rare as a hen's tooth, as Dean says. I smile. I'm doing something right, after all.
I step on light feet to the table to where Evie has poured milk everywhere except into her bowl, the twins are squabbling over the packet of cornflakes and Oscar has almost bounced himself off the edge of the table. I give myself a mental slap, lift him down and look for my coffee in the mess. I grab it and take two life-giving gulps. I glance at the clock.
Only 12 hours until the day ends...
After the twins have been dropped at Playgroup and Evie at Twos Time, I go home to deal with the chaos. Oscar falls asleep in the car so I park in the drive and leave the monitor on - safe in our small village - and go inside to sort out the house.
I make beds
and make a coffee, all before Oscar wakes. I bring him inside to a slightly less crazy house and play with him for a bit. Then it's time to pick up the other three and make lunch for us all.
It's a nice day and a picnic is always less mess so I put the chickens in the coop, pick the least chicken poopy bit of grass and spread out a rug. I bring out various healthy snacks, giving the twins and Evie jobs to do, regretting it instantly as Evie drops the apple slices, the twins spill the plastic jugs of juice and Petey, the younger twin, sits in the spilt juice to make mud pies.
I decides singing is the way to sanity so begin a slightly manic rendition of the Wheels on the Bus, to which my rabble join in at the top of their lungs.
By some miracle, I get enough food in them all to keep them going for the afternoon. They're all looking sleepy by now so I strap Oscar into the sling, stick the other three in front of the TV (I was never going to be the kind of mother who stuck kids in front of the TV but my God, the TV is my sanity). Then I face the clear up. I tip the rug's crumby contents onto the grass and let the chickens out again. I throw all the plastic plates into the dishwasher and switch it on. I remember there are some e-mails I have to send so whilst everyone's asleep or TV-drugged I grab my tablet and settle on the battered sofa in the kitchen with Oscar snoozing against my chest.
Whilst I'm typing I'm beginning to feel sleepy and I think, a quick nap never hurt anyone. I feel myself slipping away into the most delicious doze when...
'Muuuuummmmm! I dunnnnaaapoooooooo!'
I'm glad Oscar can't understand but I apologise to him anyway. He is woken by Evie's yells too, so I take him through to the lounge to place him on his rug where the sight I'm greeted with makes me want to swear Even More. Put it this way, the kids weren't sitting quietly watching TV.
The chocolate is everywhere. On mouths, hands, sofa, carpet.
Tom looks at me, brown smile gooey and happy. 'Yum yum,' he says.
'Where did you...?' And then I remember: last night Dean and I had left a family bar of dairy milk on the windowsill, after nibbling at it whilst watching a movie, during which we both fell asleep. I meant to put it away this morning but the there was porridge and Sara and poo and fighting...
'I'm coming,' I yell.
I grab the remaining stump of sucked-on chocolate and give the twins a wet-wipe each. There are wipes placed all over my house, always within reach.
'Clean. It. Up,' I say in my scariest voice.
Gulping, the twins grab a wipe each and wipe their faces and hands. It helps, a little.
'MMMUUUUUUUUUMMMMM!' We're back up to supermarket level. I run to the loo.
'Look at this one and I didded it in the-'
'Oh that's lovely now don't- Okay. Never mind!' I wipe my daughter, the loo seat, her bum. I wash my hands and her hands. I look at myself in the mirror for the first time all day and see I've still got yesterday's mascara decorating the area under my eyes.
'Bloody hell,' I mutter. I've been out like this. I take off my specs -
which makes me realise how dirty they are - and wash my face.
'Muuuuuuummmmm! Tommy done sick everywhere!' yells his brother from the lounge.
Somehow, I survive the rest of the afternoon. At around three I remember I've not got tea on and in a fit of domestic goddessness I conjure up a beef casserole. We eat it, I clear up the aftermath. Then it's another hoover, clothes in the wash, milk for everyone, Oscar to bed, Evie to bed, the twins to bed, all at different times with different stories.
Sara gets home from Drama in the middle of this and takes one look at me and pours me a glass of wine. I don't know whether to hug her or worry about what my daughter thinks of me but I don't bloody care because wine is exactly what I need. With the other four asleep I sit with Sara and look at her homework and talk about her day. With peace around her, Sara is lovely and chatty and my gorgeous loving daughter again. These are some of the best bits of my day. I'm doing okay, I remind myself. I can do this.
She goes up to have a shower and I fall into the battered kitchen sofa. The room is tidy; it smells like the house of a mother who cooks healthy food; everyone's still alive. I pour myself another glass and toast myself, put my feet up and lean back.
Dean arrives home in a flurry of cool air and practicality.
'Hello love,' I say.
He looks at me. 'Well, at least one of us has had an easy day,' he huffs. 'My day's been awful. I've never stopped. Wish I could just sit there with my feet up. You've no idea...'
Back in the days of the Timeless Ones, when the sky was black embers and the sun was too fearful to shine, there was a saying. It was taught to children as they grew; shared between friends over secret drinks; whispered in the darkness as a greeting. It was emblematic of the era. A true message of hope. Now, it is long forgotten. People have no need to speak it out loud - they have no need to think it to themselves, either. You may find it, if you are looking for it, graffitied in the back of some dusty old tome or scrawled on the wall of a crumbling building. But you will not know what it means. You will not understand its significance and will, very likely, just glaze over it with a mild disinterest.
It is a phrase lost to time. Lost to history.
"We are always fighting fire."
The origins of the phrase are unknown. The first to say it is certainly long-dead and those who spread its power to the world and who knew when it was first spoken have disappeared from this realm.
I am here to tell you, however, that an age is coming upon us where this powerful phrase will soon become needed again. There are signs that the Timeless Ones will reawaken. They will return to their thrones, with iron fists and crowns of flame upon their many heads, to rule us like they did once before. Relentless in their reign, it will become a new age of fire in which we are subservient. And I am very sorry to say, my dear friend, that you are the one who must fight back. You must fight the fire.
I am certain that this will make no sense to you. It has no reason to. That age is, as I mentioned previously, erased from history. You will not have been taught about it in school, nor will you have heard a war-scarred veteran mutter about it in the streets. But you must - and I mean this with the utmost urgency - listen to what I say and take it to heart. They are coming again and you must fight!
You are not, I'm afraid, the chosen one. You are far from it. But there has been, I will admit, a slight issue in regards to that. An admin error, if you will.
You see, the chosen one is currently unattainable. Unreachable. Potentially, possibly, very likely already dead. Our statistics and time management team made a calculation error that has thrown us off by a few decades. Well, not decades. They were about a hundred years off target. But that's not important. Not to you, anyway. What's important to you is that you are the next best thing we could find! I mean, okay, not the next best thing. The next best thing declined the offer and said she had quite a bit of laundry to do, thank you very much. The next next best thing was interested but wanted to bargain on his days off. We had to politely let him know that brave revolutionaries in world-saving battles did not get days off. He decided he would rather stick to farming as he could take the day off when he pleased.
That is all beside the point. We have found you! A glimmer in the oncoming darkness! A diamond in the rough! A fighter who will face fire! You will be our shining light in the violent, raging, horrifying war that is to come.
You will be given training, supplied with armour and weaponry, and - of course - given all the luxury treatments and gifts that a hero deserves. This includes, but is not limited to, a trusty-but-dim sidekick, a semi-tragic backstory, a romantic partner (your choice of gender) to rescue from the villains, and the respect of all across the land. I am legally required to inform you that you we will not be held accountable for any deaths that occur for the duration of this war, nor at any point shall we intercede if you or a loved one is on the brink of death. Your life is in your own hands.
Alongside this, there are some health and safety regulations which I have attached for you to browse at your leisure, as well as a pamphlet on the terms and conditions of your heroship which are a compulsory read. Please read them as soon as possible.
Legalities aside, this is an incredible opportunity which I am certain you will not pass up! As the final hope for humanity you will be able to do wonderful things. I implore you take up this position with great pride and honour. Your first mission, should you choose to follow us up on this offer, will be to rally a group of do-gooders and kind-hearted ruffians who are to accompany you on the first leg of your epic journey. Together, you will spread kindness across the world, leaving behind a message of hope (please refer to the beginning of this letter r.e. the message of hope) and beginning the revolution against the fiery darkness that is to come.
We will provide you with more information about your adventurous quest upon receipt of a response to this offer. If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can be reached by letter (simply write it, seal it in a blank envelope, and throw it into your nearest woodland stream) or by throwing your arms into the air at night and yelling "why me? why was I chosen for this task?" We will ensure we respond in a timely manner.
Lastly, there is one thing you must always remember. We are always fighting fire.
Doorbell snaps an elastic thought
irreparable, it’s lost under the desk
will only be found when I move
furniture, brain still broken
I open the front door.
She’s almost in my face, passive-
aggressive pose owns my mat,
my time, my thoughts, my faith
pink tongue flicks past cratered skin
wrinkles built by pursing lips.
I want to talk to you about
a very important event.
I know Jesus is coming
her tone as weighty as an avalanche,
the same sense my anger must be buried,
stifled, whited out, I can’t shout
how dare you force your fictions
down my throat?
They’re everywhere, people who know
what I should think, believe
please just go away
how can I be sure there is no god
when she’s a komodo dragon
breathing venomous fire.
He cleared his throat bent down and spat straight into the bag ladies face. The green phlegm dangled from her eyebrow like a Christmas bauble.
“You will be judged,” she repeated in her monotone voice.
The man laughed hysterically with the other bankers all dressed in their designer suits reeking of whisky and expensive aftershave.
The little old lady sat hunched against the wall between two banks her trolley full of rubbish parked next to her.The bag ladies blue eyes sparkled out from beneath the wrinkled dirtied face and matted grey hair. Long on one side and short on the other like she’d hacked it off.
She wore a man’s baggy flannel black and white shirt that was two sizes too big, dirty dark denim jeans, and men’s oversized pumps she had found in a bin.
The banker sniggered and beckoned to his mates to follow him leaving the bag lady in peace sat on her cardboard castle. Four cardboard boxes spread out over the pavement.
The old lady raised her sleeve and wiped the spit off her eyebrow almost robot like oblivious to the weary bits of sleet starting to fall.
There was an array of selection of mostly chipped and stained mugs spread out in front of her cardboard island. Most of them were covered in silly slogans, ‘you don’t have to be mad to live here but it helps,’ ‘world’s best mum’ ‘world’s greatest boss,’ ‘I love dogging’ ‘I heart Boston,’most of the cups were filled with change from passers by.
A young blond girl with a side ponytial approached the bag lady with her much taller brown haired friend, both dressed in sharp gray trouser suits and carrying brown leather satchels.
“Awww,” said the blond haired girl.
“Don’t you dare,” said the brown haired girl.
“You could end up like her,”
“You do end up like her! After six vodkas.”
The blond girl knelt down and emptied all the change from her purse into one of the cups and gave the bag lady a warm smile.
“You will be judged,” said the the bag lady.
“Its snowing and you just gave our taxi money to a tramp. She’s probably a millionaire!”
“Don’t be mean,” said the blond girl. ‘Its freezing.’
“What happened the last time you brought a tramp home?”
The blond girl sighed wearily and repeated the story
‘He urinated over our xmas tree and electrocuted himself.”
“Have a nice night,” said the blond girl cheerfully.”
“Have a nice night!? She lives in a box!” C’mon you bimbo. She gives me the creeps.’
The girls linked arms continued their journey through the wine bars on the high street ploughing into the strengthening sleet. The bag lady watched them walk away and spotted the local charity worker a balding man in a beige trench coat ploughing ahead in the snow.
“Hello my sweetheart,” he said kneeling on her island of cardboard. He pulled out a flask from his rucksack and poured a cup of coffee and handed it to the bag lady. She sat it down at her feet like a dog dismissing water before its food. He pulled out the sandwiches and handed them to her. She pulled off the cling film hungrily and started to take small bites.
“Why don’t you come with me? He said. “It's going to be minus tonight.”
“You will be judged,” she said softly.
“You take care. I'll check on you later,” he said pulling down his hat and crossing the road.
There was lots of reasons people dropped money into her cups. Some people had been brought up to be charitable, some people seemed to see her as a toll unable to pass without giving money. Some people did it to show off, some people did it just to get rid of their change. Some people did it out of guilt, guilty that she was sat there on the street and they were not. Some people gave her money simply to make themselves feel good.
To some she was invisible to some she was ignored. People crossed the road to avoid her or hid behind their technology, some people fumbled in their bags or pockets looking for imaginary items.
The little old lady was a mirror, that forced people to take a good hard look at themselves. Some peoples eyes were filled with pity and empathy some were filled with nothing but disgust.
Every day she watched the conveyor belt of people pass her. She listened to the rumours and urban legends she heard about herself.
“I heard she took an acid tab and never came down!”
“I heard her husband left her!”
“I heard her husband left her with five kids! The social found 'em all starving in her tiny flat. Took the little kiddies into care.
“I heard she was a millionaire but she lost it all to gambling”
“I heard she lost it all to drink and drugs!”
The young kids called her a witch. The witch of wenton high street.
The bag lady heard the sound of a bunch of teenage girls laughing. She stared ahead and braced herself. The girls were always much worse than boys.
The ringleader sat next to the bag lady, “Alright darling,” she said in a mocking voice. “I love your hair! Can i have the number to hairdresser babe.”
The girl poked her tongue out and took a selfie next to the old lady with her mobile phone. Each girl followed suit taking it in turns in laughter to take a selfie with the old lady. Some made being sick poses. Some made a gun shape against her head. Each determined to outdo the last. The final girl looked around quickly and flopped out her breasts in the bag ladies face. The girls were all holding on each other by this point screaming with laughter like a pack of hyenas.
“Oi! Oi! You lot. Leave her alone! I recognise that school uniform. St Josephs is it?” It was the charity worker again. He bounded across the street causing a echoing effect of braking cars and beeping horns.
The ringleaders smile dissolved quickly. She flicked the man a v sign and strutted past him her posse of friends following suit.
“You ok?” The old lady gave no response. “Here is a card. Its a local homeless shelter. Just go there if you need! You can even bring your trolley.” He put his card gently on top of the crap in her trolley.
She gave a little nod. The charity worker gave her a smile that could melt snow. Happy to think that he was helping.
She watched the little flakes of snow land on her oversized shoes. Her island of cardboard looked even more like an island now. The snow had started to sprinkle on the uncovered edges of the boxes looking like white beaches.
“Hello again,” shouted the banker from earlier much drunker than the first time she had seen him.
“I’ll give you fifty quid if you say something else.”
“You will be judged.”
“No something else!”
The bag lady stared into nothingness. The banker approached her little island unzipped his designer trousers pulled out his flaccid penis and started urinating in her mugs of money. He went from cup to cup smirking all the while his mates egging him on.
When he was finished he zipped himself up pulled out his wallet and took out fifty quid in notes then threw them in her face. She grabbed the notes quickly as they started to blow away then tucked them into her flannel shirt pocket.
She could still hear them laughing long after she could see them. Her diamond blue eyes surveyed the steaming cups of urine and money she was so deep in tough she didn't see two young boys run past. the latter yanking her trolley over sending its entire contents flying onto the snow covered pavement.
She got up on her knees and crawled over to her possessions. She carefully picked up each item. Old magazines, last week’s local gazette three boxes of foil a few different sized water bottles, packs of tights, different sized shapes and colours of shoes, two little barbie dolls, a child’s make up set, a torch, a mirror, a few tins of stewed steak and baked beans the charity workers had given her, a bundle of aerosol cans bound together by elastic
Everyone looked as they walked past - nobody stopped to help. She pulled the trolley back up and started to place every little thing carefully back in as if each item was made of china.
She heard the clunk of one of the bank doors being closed. She knew it would be the female manager, surrounded by powerful men and hating every moment of it. She had dark eyes,a sharp dark bob and pointy features the bag lady knew what was coming.
Depending on what kind of day the manager was having it would vary from a load of verbal abuse to a bucket of freezing water.
She knew just what the bank manager would say as she approached her the bag lady knew a lot of things.
She knew that the manager was having an affair. The hushed calls to her lover leant against the wall in between lunch breaks to her lover furiously chain smoking then cheerful calls to her husband minutes later.
The bag lady never talked - she listened and she watched.
“What the hell have I told you,” hissed the bank manager. “Bucket of water for you in the morning! And don’t you even dare say it. You're the one who’s going to end up in front of a judge!” she hailed a passing cab then she was gone.
The bag lady finished picking up her belongings picked up the pieces of cardboard and tucked them into the side of her trolley. She took one last look at the cups then wearily started pushing her trolley through the slushy snow people everyone parting on the pavement to avoid her.
After a while she started to get tired and she stopped under a bus stop. The little blond girl from earlier sat slumped against the bus stop barely conscious. Vomit covered half her suit abandoned by her friend. The little old lady unbuttoned her top shirt pocket and took out a crisp £20 note she tucked it into the girls blazer pocket.
“You will be judged,” said the bag lady.
She gripped her trolley and started pushing it up the high street disappearing into a swirl of snow. Nobody knew where she came from, nobody knew where she went. Nobody cared.
Pineapple on a pizza-a monologue
My son David took me to one of those fancy restaurants in Cardiff the other day. I asked what it was in aid of.
“Just want you to see a bit of life, mum.” He replied. “Get you out of the house.
I’ve seen a bit of life, I said. I’m not keen on it. His wife didn’t come. She never does. Bit of a stuck up girl she is. Well, she’s English. From Gloucestershire. Never liked their cheese either. I asked him how she was, just to be polite.
“She’s working, mum. She’s very high up in the company. She got a promotion last year. She deals with PR but she sends her love.”
I’m sure she does, I thought. It would do her good to be a bit more public with her relations. I wonder if they ever get together or do they have to make appointments. It’s no wonder I haven’t got a grandchild. They’re never together long enough but that may be a blessing in disguise, I suppose. I can’t have them calling on me to babysit all the time. I bought my David up the old fashioned way, always home for him. I didn’t have a career, which is what they call it now. No, my job was to be head cook, and nanny. I didn’t mind, not at the time. It’s what was expected.
“What are you going to have Mum?”
I’m not a fan of pasta but I like pizza and they had quite a selection.
“Did you bring your glasses?”
It’s not like I’m a million miles away from the menu, I said. A lot of the pizzas have olives and I’m not a fan. What’s a Hawaiian? I asked.
“You’ll like that, “David said. It’s got pieces of pineapple on it.”
I looked aghast.
A pineapple! On a pizza. That’s disgusting. He tried to shoosh me but I wasn’t having any of it. I like pineapple, I said. Don’t get me wrong. A pineapple upside down cake is always a favourite of mine although at the last Church bring and buy, Elsie Toplisss’ wasn’t up to much. Too much upside down and not enough pineapple if you ask me although the vicar thought it was wonderful, then again he thinks gay marriage should be celebrated in church. I’m not against gays mind, each to his own I say but in church. It’s not really the place is it. That’s what registry offices are for.
I had a margherita. No extra topping. David had a seafood one, you know the one, prawns, anchovies and bit of squid. You wouldn’t find that at Greens teashop would you, squid. I paid. He argued not convincingly and he never gets his money out. He has plastic of course but he’d forgotten that. Bank of mum, that's me.
I had a gippy tummy the day afterwards.
I blame the pizza. It tasted fine but it was Italian and their hygiene standards aren’t really English, are they? It did have a 5 on the health notice in the window but there again if it’s the Council that inspects these establishments it’s a story in itself isn’t it. We used to have a Liberal Council here, David Steel types and tweed jackets. People who you’d respect and stop to talk to in the street. Now it’s Labour and the Greens who run it and everything’s gone hippy dippy. I had a lady call once, last election time. I say lady but I’m not really sure what it was to be truthful. Young girl, hair’d never seen a comb for weeks or shampoo either. She had dyed purple hair and a pierced nose. Said she was canvassing on behalf of Labour. I said she could come in if she took her shoes off. Poor girl had a hole in her sock but it didn’t bother her at all. My Geoffrey, God rest his soul would’ve been mortified. I insisted she have a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. She said she took her tea black and that she didn’t eat chocolate as she was a vegan. I thought vegans were something out of Star Trek. My David used to love that programme.
I’m not Labour of course, but I’m polite. I even let the Mormons in occasionally for a chat. They’re so well dressed, much nicer than the Jehovahs. I think it’s their American upbringing. They do show respect and I think that’s where we’ve gone wrong in this country. Too soft. I’d don’t think we’d win a war these days not even against the French. She asked me if I liked Mr Corbyn. I thought she said Mr Corbett and said I preferred Morecambe and Wise. I realised my mistake of course but it may have been too late. She wasn’t best pleased. He’s got a beard hasn’t he? I said. I never liked beards. Our David grew one when he was seventeen but it was ginger and he shaved it off after a day.
“What about his stance on the nuclear issue and womens’ rights?” she said. I’m not sure, I replied. Is he still sleeping with that black lady, Diane something?
She didn’t think that was appropriate and excused herself. She never even drank her tea. I did offer her a pair of my late Geoffrey’s socks before she went but she mumbled something about not being a charity case which surprised me as her clothes did seem to have that charity shop odour about them.
I took milk of magnesia for my tummy. Disgusting stuff but it worked a treat.
David rang to say that they’re going through a bad patch. Are you off road then I said. He meant his marriage of course. I expected as much. She thinks they need some space and she’s going to stay with friends in America. That’s an awful lot of space, I said. Couldn’t she go into a spare room? What about her job, I asked. She’s left that, he said. Mutual consent. They gave her excellent references apparently. She may try to get work in New York, he said. Will you be moving too, I asked. I thought I heard him sobbing but I may have been mistaken. Not for now, he said.
I thought he said she told him she was in Lebanon but turns out she thinks she may be a lesbian. I really need to check my hearing. Doesn’t she know? I asked. You’d surely know if you prefer pizza with pineapple or without, wouldn’t you? He thinks I’m being disrespectful then says he thinks she may be but it doesn’t matter to him. He’d really like her back. I can’t think why. I just hope he doesn’t come back to live here. I’m used to living by myself. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with sharing again. Once a bird flies a nest you wouldn’t want it back, would you. It’s only a two bed semi and his bedrooms’ where I keep my knitting machine.
I’ve nothing against lesbians myself. I’ve read Women in Love and I’ve seen the film. I even had a girl kiss me once. I was sixteen. 1955. The girl in question lived at the top end of town. Pamela Roberts. Her father was a chemist. She was a year older than me, same school. Nice teeth and shoulder length blonde hair. She dropped her bag in the bus stop and I picked it up. A book fell out of it. I’d never really heard about D H Lawrence. She asked me if I’d read it. I said no. She asked if I’d like to come to her house that evening to read it. I’d have to ask my father I said. He said it would be good to make new friends especially with her father being a chemist so I went.
Their house was bigger than ours. They had a proper garden too. Her bedroom looked out over the river. Lovely it was. She started out with chapter one then I went back there once or twice a week and she’d read more. She had a beautiful voice. When it came to the kiss I think it was more a dare, I suppose. I think she put her hand on my breast too. They weren’t that developed. After that time I never went there again. They moved to Bristol six months later. I wonder what happened to her. An experiment, she called it. I remember now. I never told anyone. It wouldn’t do, would it. Some experiments are fine even if they don’t turn out the way you’d want them too.
I expect someone experimented with a pineapple pizza once.
Nothing but disgust in your eyes
the dancing laughter, love melts
understanding short-cuts flushed
out by bitter brine floods
as wormwood takes my tongue
I have swallowed gall
made my stomach somersault out
acrid waves that gorge my throat
cough up scunner on your pretty trust
I damaged, broke, made bleed
green-yellow of pigeon squit
arrowed beneath my clothes, porous
flesh lets it in, writes on my skin
in blood - betrayer, scum -
as I try to cover it with our quilt
of memories, each hand-stitched square
gets streaked with it, disrelished.
Awful warm sensation, not a hug a burn
as if I’ve wet myself in public, I burrow
behind reeking things, stuff mouth
with mud to stop more words,
yet it grits like old sand found
seasons later in summer shoes
I bury myself in shame.
NOTHING BUT DISGUST
All slick speed and bristling whiskers
Tail poised as a tiger,
Hips quivering in ready energy
Ears and eyes on the mouse before me
I was startled by a noise, my ears flew sideways
The mouse disappeared and I sighed
Resentment at the clattering mass
Of men, of course, staggering in full brawl
I darted under the boxwood bush
Pausing to sniff at another cat’s dish
Before vaulting with gymnast ease
To the garden shed roof, surveying the scene
Men, in odd clusters, bawling anger
One grabbed another by the shoulder
A third intervened and swift fists were flung
I sniffed and the reek of wheat-beer sweet
Rose from the night street
As the men stagger-danced, all flailing hands
And a bottle; one tried to hurl a wheelie bin
Which opened and emptied its filth upon him!
And I compared their clumsy squabble
With the wars of my kind:
All stalking ambush and blind fear
Slashing claws and standing fur
Furious swish of the pugilist’s tail
Hissed warning, teeth bared
All circling caution and stalking bravado
Then pounce and explode in splendid crescendo!
The drunkards below still bawled
One sitting down now, cradling a hand
Another dribbling blood and complaining like a child
A third slightly cut, the perfect imprint of mud on his butt
And the groups dispersed with the lingering
Stink of beer and queer shouted threats
I licked my lips, stretched, and pondered my many fights
All claws and teeth and daring assaults
And I felt, compared with the grand campaigns
Of cat – the routed rival, devoured rat –
Human fights must be the clumsiest and I felt
Nothing but disgust.
“See this one?” She points to a scar on her knee, a dark blemish marking her leg. “Tripped over a root when I was nine. Three stitches.”
“That’s nothing,” I say, and point to my elbow. “Fell out of a tree when I was seven. Five stitches. Grandma nearly had a heart attack.”
“Boring. We’ve all fallen out of trees. Check this one out.” She shoves her hand in my face, her palm nearly against my lips to show me two pale half-circles on the underside of her thumb, one inverted on top of other. “Bitten by a rat when I was twelve.”
“A rat?” I squint at the bite. The side of my head itches, as if my scalp can feel scrabbling claws.
“A pet rat, not a wild one from the sewers or anything.”
“Well, that would have been more interesting,” I say, attempting to play off my squeamishness. She gives me a look and crosses her arms.
“Alright, fine. Your turn, if you think you can do better.”
Of course I can.
I unbutton my shirt and let it fall from my shoulders. Oh, It's a good scar—a winning scar—and I grin when she gives it a low whistle. “Bucked off a horse when I was thirteen. Broke my clavicle in three places. The bone went right through the skin, like a knife through a rotten peach.”
She looks suitably impressed, but then she juts out her chin and smirks. She stands and pulls her shirt off over her head. “Car accident. The one my brother died in,” she says of the pink line high up on her side. “Had a birch branch in me the size of your arm.”
I will not be outdone. I stand and move close to her so that she can see the mark that had once split the side of my neck.
“Mugged over on Spring Street. He said he didn’t want to kill me because he liked my tits.”
She pulls aside her hair and shows me the old cigarette burns on the back of her neck. “Mom.”
I drop my skirt and show her the welts on the backs of my thighs, drawn by a eucalyptus switch from the back yard. “Dad.”
She undoes her jeans and slides them down her hips, showing me the scatterplot of puckered wounds that spill down her thigh. “Dog, from the next house over. Big German Shepard. Bit me nine times. The owner was drunk and she just watched. Just stood and laughed.”
“Scars from a rat and a dog? Maybe animals just don’t like you.”
“I can’t blame them.” She puts a hand on my shoulder to steady herself as she steps out of her jeans. “I don’t like me, either.”
"I like you."
She shakes her head with a sad sort of fondness, then prompts me with a haughty, “Your turn.”
The side of my head is itching again. I ignore it. “I don’t think I have any more," I say, a little embarrassed.
“Sure you do.”
I search my body for scars, hands sliding, searching, groping for the desired imperfections. My fingertips brush over my flat belly and remember the hidden wound, the one only she knew about, the one I never showed off.
I peel back the panel of smooth skin below my navel. Beneath it is a layer of flesh, streaked with rich, yellow fat. I peel that back, too. It is thin as a leaf and I marvel at the intricate web of veins as the light shines through it. More flesh is layered beneath, and yet more is layered under that. I lift each piece and fold it back like the pages of a book, revealing new depths with each flick of my wrist. I part my intestines and uncover the center of my femininity, the empty bud resting in the garden of my pelvis.
She cannot see the raw scrapes on the inside, where the failed sprout had been cleared away too harshly for the soil to ever bear fruit again. But still she nods, for she knows how deep this scar runs.
“I win, then.” I am confident in my victory, but I can not bring myself to smile. She shakes her head again.
“Not yet. We each have another hole to share.”
She digs her fingers into the center of her chest and tugs at her ribcage. It comes apart pulpy, like a ruptured section of orange. She plucks out her heart, holding it in one cupped hand so that the ripe juice runs from between her fingers. She points to a tear in one of the meaty chambers, sticks a finger in it to show how deep it goes.
The itch is maddening.
“How did you earn that one?” I ask. I don’t want to know. This has gone too far now and I want the game to be over. We are too bare already.
“You don’t remember?”
I don’t. I don’t remember it at all. I would never hurt her, never like this. The hole in her heart is not my doing and it frightens me in the same way that her nakedness frightens me. It’s not her shed clothing, but the openness of her cracked chest, the inflating-deflating sacks of her lungs, staring into the very meat of her that makes the bile rise.
The itch on the side of my head overwhelms me and I finally allow myself to scratch, desperate for any distraction. My fingers push through hair and, failing to meet the expected resistance of my scalp, dig into soft wetness.
“You did that, too,” she says, breathing in the smoke of my sin. “One wound causes another. One tree falls and knocks into its neighbor, until the whole forest has collapsed and decayed.”
She takes my hand and guides my slicked fingers into the opening, following the bullet’s path. And I remember the bathroom. I remember David Bowie on the radio and the shower running because I wanted to block out the noise of it; I didn't want her to hear. I remember wiping the hot fog from the mirror so that I could see my face as I placed the muzzle.
I remember the crack of gunfire as I pull our fingers from my collapsing mind.
She must hate me, for what I did to her, for what I did to me.
But when I can bear to look at her I see only kindness in her, a blood-splattered forgiveness that holds no trace of anger or--worse--disgust. Her bare arms are open and I fall into them, face nuzzling into her wet warmth until I can feel her lungs press against my cheeks when she inhales. My nose brushes against her spine and my hands reach down into her abdomen, gathering her precious organs to my chest as I weep for us.
She holds me and together we descend into our private darkness, with no thoughts spared for loss or sadness. There is only us. Every part of us. And we have all of eternity to heal our wounds.
News streamed from a faraway place,
Outside our comprehension, presents
Technicolour fireworks and concrete
Homes exploding again, sometimes
In slow motion, often without sound.
Nobody ever sees what happens to
Glass ornaments of sentimental value.
Blood is flowing in droplets through the air,
Unseen by the long range lens of the camera
Thickening on impact for a photo opportunity.
Do we even know which side we're on?
If such numbers were repeated here we would
Scream for revenge, spare no expense to find the
Guilty, the perpetrators of violence, their aides.
Until we value every human life as equal,
Silence the guns, value life over land,
True peace will remain out of reach.
The Schosse Moskovskoye ran alongside the Volga for a while
We looked for somewhere to rest
Somewhere with beds
That slightly repulsed
The river was a metal ribbon
Lying lead like through the leafy ground
The vastness of Russia
Was all around
I found the perfect amount of comfort and fear in this
I sat in the hot tub
Imagined cutting them off there
But the river
Would be better with it’s
Chill solidity and unforgivingness
People I looked at
I thought they knew
Their eyes knew
And they smiled with respect
For my pilgrimage
I felt terribly at home
In that my home was nowhere
So it could just as well be here
I loved the river
I wanted to drink it
I stepped to the bank
Dipped an empty vodka bottle
Drank deeply of the water and bits of dirt
The history and tragedy of the land
My hand shook a little with the cold
I pulled my trousers down
I crouched and baptised myself in the Volga
And lit a cigarette and drank some more of it’s ory juice
Under the stars
No, it was cloudy
It doesn’t matter
I wept a little into the river
It felt like such a perfect thing
Such a perfect thing
There was nothing but disgust on his face
and fury in his eyes
as he stared at the food on the plate in front of him.
He had given her every chance
but she would have to go.
Could no – one in this God forsaken country cook?
He called her in,
then strangled her.
He would bury her along with the rest in his favourite place
and begin again the tedious business of writing an advert for the paper.
'Cook/Housekeeper wanted, to live in.'
Maybe it would be sixth time lucky.
DUST (nothing but disgust)
She looks down at me
Eyes dull, nothing but disgust
No empathy, no pardon
I may as well be dust
She doesn’t ask me questions
She has made up her mind
No facts. Except I scare her
She’s intimidated, disinclined.
But why is it she fears me?
For I am just plain me
Is it because I sit here?
Alone, disliked, beastly
But she doesn’t know my reasons
She doesn’t understand
She lives in her ivory tower
Away from my cold land
She can’t see the pain I’m feeling
The hurt that my mind holds
The day that I lost everything
The day it all unfolds
For once I was a princess
Dancing, golden, in his eyes
But with the scream of metal
All I hear are cries
Now I sit here waiting
And beg upon the street
I look in their eyes for kindness
But often feel defeat
I live in hope that one day
In disgusts place there will be
A look of admiration
For the girl I want to be.
It wrenches the heart
And turns the blood cold
When day after day
Such stories unfold
Of fathers molesting
Their own progeny
Dear Lord just how
Depraved can they be?
How do they face the terrified child
Who had at him just happily smiled.
Now, her eyes dilate with fear
Everytime that he comes near.
He muffles her screams as she cries in pain
But he is relentless, he does it again.
To all appearances she might look alive
But the innocent spirit of the child has died
I drive a blue Ford Focus
I drive a Ford Focus. It's the most popular car in the UK other than a Volks Golf.
I used to drive a Fiesta, which is third most popular but the Focus has a little more speed. It also has the appearance that makes it look a lot of other models.
From my point of view that's good.
I could buy something a little more sporty. God knows I can afford it but a BMW or Jaguar attracts attention doesn't it?
No, a Ford Focus is just right. It's quick and unobtrusive, especially in the dark. I drive a lot at night.
It's dark blue. All my cars are dark blue. It's virtually invisible. You don't believe me? Look, try this tonight. A car goes by when you're walking home at night. Can you tell what colour it is in the dark? If it was white then you'd probably get it right, but dark blue? Could be black, could be dark green or red even. You really wouldn't know, would you? So you see. There's method in my madness.
Why am I going on about cars? Well, I do my homework see, if I didn't, well I'd be in solitary in Strangeways or some other shithole. You see, there's always a white van reported in abduction cases. Read the papers carefully next time.
"A white van was seen driving..."
"Police want to talk to the driver of a white van..."
Ninety nine times out of a hundred it's just some poor sod driving home for lunch, but people still remember the white van. That got me thinking about how I could make myself as invisible as can be. A blue Ford Focus is the closest I can get.
I live in Manchester. There's a lot of children in Manchester. It's a great place for a small car because there are a lot of little side roads. I know them all. Little shortcuts and little alleyways where it's too narrow for cop cars. I have little maps in my head where I can turn and where there are dead ends. It pays to know this.
I buy all my cars from the web. Great invention that. The web! I can see the world from my little bedroom. Anywhere I want and I don't have to pack anything. I can buy anything and I can talk to anyone. I do that. Talk a lot that is. You're invisible on there as well.
I don't use my real name. Well, you wouldn't would you, not unless you were stupid or something. I use various aliases and I use different computers too, although not in internet cafes and libraries. I've heard they monitor those and that will not do.
It's very easy to slip into a different persona. Sometimes I'm Dave Hibbard, a 23 year old from Hartlepool. Dave's ex army. Served in Iraq did Dave. Got wounded too! A lot of girls like Dave. I guess it's that macho man appeal. I'm also Steve Allen, a 16 year old from Liverpool. Steve's in a band. The Wheelies. They play garage music. Then there's Andy who's 17 from London and Chris, 15 from Brighton. He's the most popular of all. His dad owns a club in Spain. A lot of kids are impressed by that.
I'm thirty three, by the way.
It's remarkable how many people open up when I'm on the web. All their little secrets are divulged, bit by bit. Despite all the warnings. kids think they're invincible. You mustn't really interrogate them or that can ring alarm bells. Just throw them a little something and it's amazing how kids will open up to you?
I make certain I take my time. Rushing into a meet is simply not on. Six months is my absolute minimum time. It took two years to arrange a meet with that little Amy from Moss Side. It was on Crimewatch the other week. I'm nearly as famous as the Yorkshire Ripper.
Arrange a meet, pretend not to turn up, follow them. That's my mo. That's modus operandii. It's Latin that is. When the time is right, bang! Offer them a lift. Tell them you're a relative, fathers' cousin, their mothers' sisters husband. You know things about them because you've had at least six months to store it all up. They're always taken by surprise. Never make a fuss, especially when you start talking about some family stuff. They don't see me as stranger danger. I know too much information.
Why don't they listen to the warnings about talking to strangers? Stupid buggers. They don't see me as a stranger and as for witnesses, well they don't really see me at all.
No one sees a blue Ford Focus...do they?
Too much information.
‘Without my compass north could be anywhere.’ Said the boy.
Jodi was the boy’s name and he had just checked the compass app on his phone. He knew about navigation; like the equator is situated at 0° latitude, and Greenwich is the Prime Meridian. Mostly he liked to check map coordinates and write them in his red notebook. Mum said it was all to do with him being on the autistic spectrum. The coordinates for the White House are 38.8977°N 77.0365°W.
Earlier he had arrived at the New World Retail Park with his mum. They looked in all his favourite shops.
‘I need to go to the toilet,’ he said.
‘Can you wait until I finish buying shoes, Jodi?’
‘I can go by myself, mum’ he said.
‘Ok, but be careful. Just follow the toilet symbols. I’ll wait here in this shop for you,’ his mother said, trying new shoes.
‘Yes I’ll follow the man pictures,’ Jodi said.
He went across the corridor and down two flights of stairs. Then there was another area with shops. The lights were very bright, and the flashing ones hurt behind his eyes. People were rushing past him. They were too near and it was like they were pushing him. A man on a yellow machine with a flashing orange light came around the corner. The machine made a loud noise as it cleaned the walkway.
There was too much happening. There was a lady walking along, banging her noisy high heels, the ones he had told mum not to wear. They sounded like the time dad was hammering and Jody had to cover his ears and run into the road where a bicycle had knocked him down. He had to stay in the hospital for two days. Dad doesn’t hammer nails anymore.
Jodi put his hands to his ears and ran towards the toilet signs. There was a whole line of signs high up on the wall; drawings of a man, a woman, and a wheelchair. Another green sign had a light and a man running. The man was in a hurry somewhere just like Jodi, so he followed that sign. He pushed the bar on the door at the end. The door opened and he ran into a back lane. He saw white lights and flashing orange ones on a lorry that made loud beep-beep–beep sounds as it reversed down the lane. The driver stopped and jumped out when he saw Jodi.
‘What the hell are you doing,’ he said. He said a lot of other things but Jodi’s head couldn’t keep up, so he covered his ears and danced up and down.
The driver man stood quietly and started to nod his head gently. He held up the palms of his hands and they nodded with his head.
‘It’s OK; let’s relax’ the driver said, ‘I understand. Are you an autistic boy?’
‘Mum says I’m on the spectrum.’ Jodi said.
‘Great,’ he said. ‘My sister has a boy just like you.’
‘I can’t play with him today,’ Jodi said,’ I have to find my mum now.’
Jodi ran between the lorry and the wall out to where the lane met the street. He remembered the rule for when you can’t think because there is too much information.
‘Breathe deep and count to ten.’
After he had counted three times he remembered what he should do. He took out his phone and pressed compass on the touchscreen. When he came into town with his mum the compass said they travelled south, and north is opposite. He would have to go north to get home. He found the compass arrow that pointed north, and he could find the coordinates for where he stood, but right then he just needed to find his mum.
He closed his phone and walked up the street to the corner. He would need to find the 44A bus.
‘Are you going North or South?’ he would ask the driver. Then he would show the driver the coordinates from his red notebook; the ones for the bus stop nearest to his home.
When he went around the corner he saw the entrance they had used earlier. He remembered because there was a robot beside the door, but mum said it wasn’t real. He went inside through the automatic doors. The lights were still too bright and hurt behind his eyes; the smell of cooking hurt his nose and all the noises were still going on. Every time the auto doors opened someone said, ‘thank you for shopping at New World Retail Park,’ and then the loud music continued. The ladies were still hammering their high heels, and a voice roared, ‘buy one get one free.’
He walked towards a man wearing a uniform.
‘Have you seen my mum,’ was what he planned to say, but the uniform came running towards him.
‘You Jodi? We’ve been looking everywhere for you,’ said the uniform.
‘Do you have coordinates for my mum?’
‘Stay with me please’ and the man started talking into his radio. Jodi was about to cover his ears when he saw mum running towards him.
‘Oh, Jodi!’ She said, ‘Thank God you’re all right.’
His Mum only ever says one thing at a time so that’s fine with Jodi.
‘Let’s go for a coffee and cake,’ she said, and this time she took Jodi’s hand.
They sat at the back where the café was quiet and not too bright.
‘The lorry driver has a sister and she has a boy just like me. I might get to play with him sometime’
‘You had me worried for a while, Jodi.’ Mum said.
‘Are you having a nice day, mum?’ Jodi asked.
‘At the moment I’m having the best time ever.’
‘Dad will be pleased.’
‘Why do you say that, Jodi?’
‘Remember? Dad said, “You and Jodi have a nice day out. It will do you good, darling”.’
‘You are so right, my love.’
‘Dad is having a nice day too.’
‘How do you know Jodi?’
‘I looked back at our house and dad was at the window with his toolbox. He waved and smiled at me, and I waved at him. Then he took out his hammer.’
The coffee and cake arrived. It was lovely and quiet and mum just smiled as they ate the nice cake.
‘Thanks mum,’ Jodi said.
Then he took out his small case that contained his red notebook, a pencil and his phone. It was time to get back to recording the worlds’ coordinates.
Bryan crunched carefully through the crisp snow his hot breath escaping his mouth then dancing around his face taunting him. He clutched the big red parcel tied with tight brown parcel string.
He’d wanted nothing more than to stay in bed this morning. His alarm had screamed at him to wake up and he stretched across the bed to hold Julie - then the usual realisation came that she wasn't there.
Dreams were crueler than death. They gave him back Julie then snatched her away again, over and over - the cancer only took her once. He had peeked through the curtain and shook his head at the falling snow. He would never entertain the notion of not going into work. People needed him.
He had such pride in being a postman, being part of an institution, a cog in British society. He wasn't the most exciting man, living the most exciting existence but he always saw his job as vital to people.
He saw the huge importance of how his little job played a bigger part in the grand scheme of things.
His original ambition was to be a policeman or fireman but he had neither the brains or the physique. He had applied to the postal service and been accepted.
He wore his uniform with dignity. Being a postman wasn't as exciting or brave as being a paramedic, fireman or a policeman, but it was just as important and the uniform was just as iconic.
The big red Royal Mail van was just as recognisable as an ambulance or fire engine. Synonymous with Britain. Britishness. The monarchy. Everyone trusted their postman.
“Any post for me?’’ Squawked Mrs Gibbs wobbling down her path like a penguin snow shovel in one hand.
“Not today Mrs Gibbs,” said Bryan cheerfully. “You still waiting for that million dollar cheque hey?
“Ohhh I wish,” chuckled Mrs Gibbs.
“Expect I’ll need a wheel barrow to deliver all those valentines cards come Thursday,’’ Bryan said with a wink.
“Ohhh your a sort,” cackled Mrs Gibbs. “One man's enough. Fifty years and once he ever got me one valentines day card. Said happy birthday on it. Pissed as a fart!’’
“She in at number 42? There’s no answer.’’
“Think she’s back on the….” Mrs Gibbs looked carefully from side to side. Then made a miming motion like she was drinking from a huge bottle of wine.
Bryan shook his head, “See you tomorrow Mrs Gibbs,”
“God willing my love.” Then she was back to her snow shovelling her tight grey perm bouncing up and down.
Bryan believed that being a postman held more responsibility than most jobs. He helped people pay their bills, delivered good news and bad. He made people smile on their birthdays with mounds of cards.
He delivered the isolated and elderly a christmas greeting that made them smile. He found time to chat to people who never had the chance to chat to anyone.
“Morning Eric,’’ said Bryan walking the sulky teenager from number thirteen who was too engrossed in the music blazing from his walkman. Kids and their gadgets!
When Bryan had become a postman ten years ago in 1986 he wouldn't have believed the machines and gadgets they had to work with now we're even possible. He reckoned they would all be replaced with machines one day!
“Morning Bryan,’’ said little Lucy. Well not so little anymore she had a nipper of her own. She tried juggling her little boy on her hip as he wriggled while trudging through the two inch snow.
‘’How’s the teething?’’
Lucy pulled up little Luke's lip to show him his first tooth and beaming proudly.
“He’ll be chasing the girls before we know it!’’
“Don't even joke,’’ said Lucy
“See you tomorrow!”
Bryan could see the big red box looming on the corner as he made his way towards his van. He always marvelled at the british icon.
He saw it as a big red beacon of knowledge. Bryan loved the way it stood stiff and upright always maintaining its air of britishness. Wars, snow, rain, the darkest British days in history and the brightest - the post box never flinched, never wavered, never crumbled.
He had always thought of the pillar box as a big red confessional box for paper. It had held so much information and secrets in their bowels over the years. They knew if you were rich or poor. In debt or well off. It knew if you were in good health or bad. It knew if your faithful or unfaithful. Bryan felt privileged to be the guarder of peoples confidences.
You might not know the man you see walking his dog, or the lady who runs the corner shop, or even your neighbours very well but all your secrets shared the same bed and traveled together in the same postal bag. Your mail new your name and it knew where you lived. The big red pillar box had had a big mouth but it never talked.
He returned the big parcel into the back of the van and got out his keys.
He scooped the mound of pink, red and white envelopes into his bag. Valentines day! What a load of rubbish! Him and his Julie never had time for all that rubbish.
One letter in particular stood out as it floated into the bag. He was sure he was seeing things at first. He plucked the letter out of the pile and held the card up, it was a red envelope, and it was addressed to his wife. He finished emptying the post box locked it up then got into his van.
He opened the letter gingerly to be confronted by a big red valentines card with two kissing bears on the front emblazoned in a love heart. How bizarre. He opened it carefully and a three page letter floated onto his lap.
He picked it up and started reading. The letter started by asking, why she had ended it that way? How much he loved her! ‘how he couldn't stop thinking about her since she had ended it a year ago. The man talked about the special places they met. How they’d told each other things they’d never told anyone. (Everything except what her husband did for a living) Did he even know she had a husband?
The man started describing the things she did for him in bed that still made him wild with excitement. How he had new job offer down south and he wanted her to join him. The things she did for him in bed that still made him wild with excitement!
Bryan couldn't read on anymore that was too much information. He crumpled the pages into his hand and held on to them tight.
He sat there his face bright red his mouth wide open just like the pillar box next to him. He unscrewed the letter and looked at the return address at the end of the letter. The letters started to blotch as tears dropped onto the paper.
Bryan turned the keys in the ignition and made his way through the snowy suburban streets towards town.
He sped recklessly along the roads running red lights ignoring speed limits. The big box in the back flew from one side to another.
He turned the corner his tyres screeching nearly ploughing into a huge removal van coming towards him. He swerved just in time mounting the pavement on the other side of the apartment block The one he was looking for.
They were new trendy apartments. Modern. Expensive. Everything he wasn't and couldn't afford.
He got out of the van and opened the back and got out what he needed. He marched across the door and looked at the numbers on the buzzer. He buzzed the correct number and waited for a response.
“Hellllllo,” echoed a man's voice from the speaker.
“Postman. Special delivery,” said Bryan as cheerfully as he could manage.
“I couldn't use your lavatory,” said Bryan sounding desperate
“Sure.” Bryan heard the mechanical buzz of the door being released immediately without hesitation.
He started the long descent up the stairs and untied the parcel rope from the box he was carrying. Just like paramedics, policeman, and fireman, everyone trusted the postman!
Blood. Lots of blood. In the boat, in the sea. Coming out of the soldiers' heads and their bodies and their legs. Silent screams. Fountains of water. I don’t know how the camera didn’t get hit in the underwater bit. The bullets buzz through the water fast-slow, like angry wasps. That is a metaphor, I think. Mr Moncrieff taught us that last week. I want to think about that instead.
I ask Brain if I can think about metaphors, but he’s not helping just now. He *rolls eyes*, which I think means upset, or you’re stupid, or you stink – Damien Knowles did it in Computing yesterday when he called me ‘retard boy’, and Miss Schaffer didn’t even send him out. Brain also *curls up top lip* and tells me it’s similes. I don’t mean metaphors, I mean similes. If I listened I would know. So to punish me, instead of helping me think about metaphors or similes or whatever they’re called, Brain decides to carry on with the blood and killing and dead soldiers getting shot as they try to get out the boats on to the beach. Dead-dead-dead-dead-dead -
‘…Jonni! Are you listening?’
Most of 2B1 are looking at me. I can’t compute so many expressions at once, so I look at who spoke. I’m pretty sure it was Mr Moncrieff. He has *slant-down eyebrows* which I’m nearly eighty-five per cent certain means a bad thing. He spoke loud. Yes, probably bad. Angela Turnbury does a little laugh and a few others copy her and I curl up inside myself. I nod, looking at the table and a bad drawing of a willy.
‘What did I just say, then?’ Mr Moncrieff speaks in my direction. A few jeers. Brain throws a protective arm around me. I can’t move. Mr Moncrieff sighs. ‘Second year, that’s enough. I said ENOUGH. Jonni, just try to keep focused on what I’m saying. OK?’
I don’t like this. I don’t like all the eyes on me and I must be doing the muttering thing because the noise around me gets worse and Mr Moncrieff comes right over and tells me to wait behind after class. I stay quiet and nod again, but Brain holds up a red thing, it’s like a huge red sheet or something and it makes me feel burny and hot.
The rest of the lesson – something about imagining I’m a superhero – passes superquick and I’ve tried to do work, I really have but the hot feeling stopped me. At the end, the rest of 2B1 file out and Angela Turnbury does *squinty eyes* - I think that might mean she likes me. I read once that’s what cats do when they like a human. Then she’s gone. Mr Moncrieff asks to see what I’ve done today. I show him.
‘It’s not your best work, Jonni,’ he says. Not my worst, though! He coughs and stands over me. Hands on hips. He is very tall. ‘It’s not easy without Mrs Foster here, is it?’
Mrs Foster is my support for learning worker. ‘She’s been away. She’s been away for a while. Months, I think,’ I say.
Mr Moncrieff’s mouth turns up and then goes straight again. ‘It’s not been quite that long,’ he says. ‘But we both miss her, don’t we?’
I nod, very fast to show him how much I miss Mrs Foster. Brain doesn’t give me any words. He’s sitting with his arms folded.
Mr Moncrieff coughs again. Has he got the ‘flu? I heard people can get dead from that. The upside-down head of a soldier comes down slowly from the top of my vision. I try to concentrate on what Mr Moncrieff is saying but the blood leaks down the screen and I feel tilty. It helps if I just concentrate on the wall, the picture of a man with a beard saying words like “Wild Goose Chase” and “In a Pickle”, the picture says he invented these words but how can he have, it must have been the first people to speak, and they were before pictures. The blood and the dead soldier have gone. I feel less tilty now. Mr Moncrieff is looking at me and not speaking. He was saying about “change.”
‘What do you mean, change?’
‘Jonni, it’s just that you’re…well, you’re thirteen now.’
‘A big boy.’
‘Yes, in some ways you are. Do you know about puberty?’
‘Puberty.’ I try the word in my mouth. I’m not certain I’ve said it before, but I think I remember something about it in PSE. ‘Is it when you get hairs? Hairs. I – I think that’s it.’
Mr Moncrieff’s mouth twists and turns up again. ‘Yes, that can be part of it, Jonni. It’s more that you will get all sorts of emotions-’
‘Emotions?’ I’ve heard of this.
‘Yes. Feelings. You may not be able to deal with all of them at once. It can be an exciting time, but also a…confusing time. I just see how you act with Angela, and – and other girls, and I think maybe it’s distracting you in class. What do you think?’
I don’t think anything. I can’t. There’s too much information trying to get in. Brain is holding up the red sheet again. It’s bigger than last time. I start the muttering thing and I’m trying to say I’ll be late for my next class but I can’t remember where it is and I stand up anyway and move towards the door and out into the corridor. Red-red-red-red-red.
Mr Moncrieff shouts after me but I move superquick and I’m up and away from English but I can’t remember where the stairs go. I flinch away from the older boys and girls as they whizz and laugh past me. Bullets in the sea. Fast-slow wasps. I get to the top of the stairs and grab on to the balcony rail. I look at the tiny boys and girls down in the concourse, shoving and shouting and walking. I feel mixed up and upside down and supertilty. I think I see Angela. She’s a long way down.
If I turn dead, will I feel anything?
The doctor stood before me, shadows like bruises smudged under his eyes, his hair in disarray and what appeared, I realized as my heart lurched sideways, to be a fine spray of blood across his pristine white clogs.
"Sir, your wife was presenting with cerebral edema, raising the intracranial pressure beyond the safe limits for normal body functioning."
His words washed over me, the medical jargon unable to penetrate the fog of confusion and tiredness that engulfed me.
"We got her to the OR in time for a decompressive craniectomy but-"
"Wait, I don’t understand," I interrupted, holding up a shaking hand. "This is too much. This is too much information. When can I see my wife? I want to see my wife!"
I could feel the bubble of hysteria that I’d tried so hard all day to swallow rising in my chest, threatening to break free.
"Sir," the doctor began slowly. "Let me explain. When your wife was brought in, she was suffering from a severe head injury. The trauma had caused her brain to swell, putting too much pressure on the soft tissue. We opened her skull to ease the pressure and give her brain room to swell without causing damage but… Sir, there was nothing more we could do. Your wife is dead."
Those were the words that sank in.
The doctor’s face swam before me, my knees giving out so that I stumbled backward, searching out the hard plastic chair that had become my only comfort in the last 8 hours.
"But…" I started, words failing me as my own brain grappled to comprehend the magnitude of the doctor’s final sentence.
This morning suddenly seemed like a different life. Harsh words shouted across the cluttered kitchen table, a senseless argument that left us both feeling hurt and foolish.
I’d made to leave, but she beat me to it, slamming the kitchen door in my face, then the front door, and finally the door of her brand new SUV. I didn’t even go to the window to see as it roared into life and carried her away down the street.
What was already set to be the Monday from hell worsened as the traffic downtown crawled, windows rolled down against the already muggy heat of the day; fumes rising in a pall over the metallic caterpillar that lay sluggish on the freeway.
I flipped on the radio, scanning through channels to drown out the unwavering thump-thunk of rap music that leaked through the tinted windows of the Escalade in the next lane.
"It’s 09:30 am and this is the traffic update on KALX-FM. We’re seeing some holdups on the 72 through Whittier due to a pile-up on the southbound freeway this morning, but they’re getting that cleared up and everyone should be on their way soon. Downtown we have the regular morning rush-hour traffic and are expecting a clear ride to the coast by 10. That’s all from me, catch up for more at 11."
"Brilliant," I’d thought, skipping on to the next station, "Some jackass has to pull out without looking and foul up Monday morning for everyone."
That slip road was notorious for accidents, and it was almost always the careless driver merging that caused the accident.
It wasn’t until I finally pulled into work forty-five minutes later that my cell-phone buzzed in my pocket. Lara’s name flashed up on the screen and I answered with a self-righteous air in preparation for her apology.
But it wasn’t Lara on the other end of the phone. Instead, a gruff male voice replied, dousing my insides with ice, the smug feeling replaced instantly with… what? Jealousy? Rage? Confusion? I had no time to process the thoughts that flooded my head before the unknown voice resolved itself.
"Sir, you’re listed as the emergency contact for this number, could you tell me your name and relationship to the person who owns this phone?"
The EMT took a series of personal details, efficiently assessing the situation, before confirming my worst fears.
"Sir, we have your wife with us. She was involved in a crash on the 72. We’re on our way to PIH, I suggest you get here as soon as you can."
Almost as soon as the EMT had finished speaking, I had thrust the key back into the ignition, wheels spinning as I raced out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.
From the moment I arrived at the hospital, time seemed to slow, minutes sliding past like cold honey. I checked my watch obsessively, pacing the wide, sterile hallways, rank with the metallic tang of sickness, numb with helplessness.
Every so often a junior surgeon or a scrub nurse would stop by, each update giving a flare of hope, only for it to be dashed as they hurried away again, somber frowns etched into their faces.
I knew what was coming as the doctor pushed open the door to the waiting room, his head bowed, his defeat weighing down on his shoulders. But even as he battled with his reluctance to break the news, hiding the truth in plain sight behind an armor of medical terminology, nothing could have prepared me for his closing words.
"Your wife is dead."
Picking up my coat from the floor, I pushed past him, somehow finding my way to my car. I floated home in a dream, the doctor’s words on a loop in my head. At home, I stumbled into the living room, ignoring the kitchen door that stood ajar, revealing debris from this morning’s abandoned breakfast, still strewn across the table.
Without thinking, I sank down onto the couch, resting my head in my hands, that bubble of hysteria rising once again in my chest. Only this time there was nothing to stop it. A howl filled the room, guttural and raw, and it was only as I paused to draw in a ragged breath, I realized the sound had come from me.
In the silence that followed, I heard the scrape of a key in the front door, the latch clunking as someone closed it carefully behind them. Someone tentatively pushed open the door, revealing herself as the kind old lady from next door. Holding her hand, with tear stained cheeks and a look of worry on his young face, was an eight-year-old boy.
Looking up at me on the sofa, his mother’s soft, brown eyes wide and brimming with fresh tears, he reached for my arm and spoke in a quavering voice.
Nicole Peters hung her coat up by the front door for the last time. She was leaving on an early flight heading for Sydney, Australia, and had no intention of coming back - well at least not unless her Visa card maxed out.
She was hoping for pastures new - a silver lining - slightly greener grass even…, anything really was better than here. She couldn’t take it here anymore, not like this. Knowing you’ve been beaten is one thing, but walking into your house to see the love of your life pleasuring your best friend is a whole other ball game.
Well… EX best friend ……….in fact friend is probably too good of a word for her too…
Bitch!... that’s more like it.
Nicole checked her bags for the millionth time, she’d had them packed for weeks but still had that ‘missing’ feeling; the one where you know you’ve forgotten something, you just can’t remember what it is.
She could hear her mother in her head saying, “passports – check, money – check, tickets – check, smile – double check,” that was before she had lost her tickets to Cuba and nearly missed her own flight.
She missed her mother so much, it had been eight years since she had lost her fight with cancer and Nicole’s heart still ached the same it had the day she died. Maybe that’s what the ‘missing’ feeling was - after all she had practically lived with that feeling ever since.
Nicole was happy to be seeing her father again. He wasn’t very impressed when she called to say she had resigned from her job of ten years and given notice on her house to up and leave the country. But at the same time I think he was happy she was going to stay. They hadn’t seen each other in two years and after he had remarried he thought she would never forgive him enough to visit. Especially after she had found out about his new girlfriend by picking up the landline before he moved away and overhearing them discuss their previous night’s lustrous antics; that had been way too much information.
A broken heart can overshadow other wounds, well it had in Nicole’s case, she couldn’t wait to fly three thousand miles to the other side of the globe, as far away from Andy and the bitch as she could. It had seemed ironic to her - to choose her father’s place to go to after Andy had cheated. Her mother had only been buried for a year before he was fooling around with his neighbour Ms Pickett - the barely dressed blond from three doors down. Or ‘Dolmio Doxy’ as she’d call her; she dropped off at least two lasagnes a week, clearly thinking since her mother had passed away, they had no ability to work a cooker.
Oh how the neighbours had gossiped. They always loved to gossip. When her mother died – gossip, when her father left with Ms Pickett– gossip, when she met Andy – gossip.
Nicole just had one last thing to do before she left. It wouldn’t take long, then she would have her revenge. The taste of sweetness instead of the rotten taste of the peachy life she once had, now spoilt.
She opened her laptop, connected her phone via the USB port and watched as the data uploaded to her screen. Clearly Andy hadn’t noticed the CCTV she had had installed at their house. She had been frightened by a recent bout of break-ins in the neighbourhood, so decided to do something about it.
During her anger of seeing them rolling around naked together on her expensive Egyptian cotton sheets, it had slipped her mind to mention the cameras capturing everything inside and out that she could view directly from her phone app. She had kept it to herself, pretending nothing had changed – whilst secretly making her plans; booking her flight, ending the lease on her house and resigning from work. All things Andy had no control over.
Nicole, selected the video and images she required and inserted them into an email with the subject:
IMPORTANT FOOTAGE OF YOUR WIFE!
She hovered over the ‘send’ button for a moment, anticipating the reaction at the other end. Understanding too well the pain he would feel.
He had a right to know…
She hit send.
Andy would be crushed. The bitch would be destroyed.
The following morning came round fast. Andy had left early for work and Nicole knew the email wouldn’t have been opened yet, it had only been sent at 1am and it was still so early.
Her taxi arrived and she felt the first of many weights lifting from her shoulders as she jumped inside. Wishing away the minutes until she would land in Australia and start her new life.
Watching out of the window as she drove through the town, she saw the familiar church building she had found solace after her mother’s passing. She felt a twinge of heartache imagining the pastor opening the email to see his wife, the bitch, in bed with another woman - Andy. The love of her life. She’d risked so much to be with her. Oh how the neighbours had gossiped.
Nicole smiled to herself; free of the whispers, free of the deceit – miles away from earshot.
Knowing how the neighbours will gossip once again.
Imogen is stood, headset on, in the Dictionary Acquisitions Hub. It’s going to be another late night, she can tell.
The first few entries go without incident: Jovial – no problem, Jowl – piece of cake, but it’s Joy that catches her out. Just her luck to get caught with a feeling.
Her implants, set to pick up her every thought, surge with data, flooding the hard drives with all the information her mind can throw at them. So there she is – caught in the unsynchronised frenzy of a sensory noun/verb visual definition.
The virtual space around her goes black. She can feel the beat of it: the ones and zeroes pulsing though the fabric of the cloud. It will be the definition first.
Letters fizzle into place before her:
Joy: a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.
Oh crap, Imogen thinks. That’s only going to lead to …
Alex. She’s sitting in front of her at the patio table, a finished meal and half a bottle of wine between them. She’s just proposed, and Imogen’s not even sure she’s heard her right, but then no, she’s sure, of course she’s sure, and the emotions tumble out of her. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, she’s saying, and they stand up, not caring about spilt wine.
Black once again. A new word. The first of the sensory synonyms.
‘It is an absolute delight to meet you, dear!’ (one of those poncy gala dinners after graduation.)
‘Oh, so kind of you to say so,’ Imogen says to … she’s already forgotten the woman’s name.
‘You and Terrance must come and play golf with us one weekend. I was saying only yesterday that –’ the lady has spotted someone more interesting. ‘Must dash.’ And she’s off. And the room is fading.
‘It is my great pleasure to announce the winner of this year’s academy award, Imo–’
Oh yes, that one wasn’t real. Just a childhood daydream.
… Great pleasure …
Michael likes it when she’ on top, and Imogen likes being on top. It’s not like it was with Darren. With Michael, she can actually talk about it, and he’s the first person to make her feel good about her body. Even their messages are enough to get her – oh god, it’s already happening, she’s –
Imogen is back at school. Becka is beside her and they’re colouring in the same picture. Becka is in charge of the left, and Imogen the right. The result: a half-house/half-planet Saturn. Unlike Natasha, who always takes these things seriously, Becka doesn’t care. ‘I’m going to colour the windows purple!’ she says with a glint in her eyes.
They’re standing on the beach, Imogen, Alex, Sarah, Dennis. They’re high on something but whether drugs or real life she cannot tell. The cold tide laps at their feet and they huddle into a circle. ‘Ready?’ Dennis says, ‘Not yet,’ from Sarah. ‘Now?’ Dennis says. ‘Not yet.’ ‘Ok, but now?’ They break, screaming up at the clouds and rushing naked into the cold North Sea. How amazing to be alive.
The hiking shoes are digging into her blistering feet. She marches up, air rasping through her lungs, tears in her eyes, muscles aching, but the top of the mountain is right there. And the next step is all it takes. She’s done it. They all said she was crazy to try but she’s done it, and the world is spinning around her and Imogen falls to her knees.
As it spins and it spins and –
The word "collocation" appears before her.
Alex is driving her in a convertible. Yellow. Sweeping through the countryside with Beethoven’s ninth on full blast just for the hell of it. Her heart pounds, she feels heavy with the weight of something she can’t define, but at this moment nothing else matters: just the two of them being there, going much too fast to be a part of anything or anyone else.
Love will tear us apart. Joy in music, joy in singing into Jessica Franco’s eyes; alcohol and possibly other substances coursing through her system. She’s never heard of the band, decades before her time, but it doesn’t matter. She’s falling in love.
(Tears fall from her eyes – the present Imogen’s eyes, that is – and pass into a tube. Somewhere, a record is logged in binary ones and zeros.)
Dance with joy.
When she hears she got the job as Sensory Archivist. She’s standing in line at a fast food restaurant, oblivious to the stares.
‘You’re my –
Pride and joy,
Her mother, named Joy –
Standing before her. Imogen struggles to focus on her face. The look she gives her after hearing the shocking news, the smell of her perfume, the feeling of her mother’s baggy green coat, her paintings decorating the house, and boots, so many boots, missed appointments, jewellery, rings on her fingers, long fingers, long arms, sweeping Imogen up and smiling.
‘You know you can tell me anything, dear.’
Alex’s introduction. Sunday dinners. Scaldings. Late nights. Early mornings. Cups of tea with one and a half sugars please, not two. More and more, an endless torrent of memories before Imogen is pulled back to reality.
The room is black but for a single flashing message:
ERROR – too much information.
Imogen pulls off the headset and checks her watch. It’s ten past eight.
Tomorrow she will start over.
The image stared at me from the screen: everything I was worried it would be; everything I was anxious it would make me feel; everything I was fearful it represented.
Why did I look?
Temptation gets the better of all of us eventually.
Sometimes you get a gut feeling. Female intuition? Sixth sense? Paranoia? Whatever you want to call it, sometimes it is just there.
For me there were no suspicious receipts, unexplained weekends away, sudden interest in the gym or one of the other many 'tell tale signs' you might read about in gossip magazines. For me, one day I just got a feeling.
You could say that I had been too trusting, too naive, that I had let things slide, that I had stopped trying. It's easy after ten years of marriage to become too comfortable, too complacent, too certain of the future - which let's face it - is far from certain.
We have no children. No plans to. Always said we were having too much fun just the two of us; that three would be a crowd. That our micro family was everything we needed. Oh the irony.
His behaviour barely changed. He still kissed me every morning before rushing out of the house; he still messaged me at lunch saying he couldn't wait to see me later; the romance didn't dwindle. Something just felt different.
That it when I contacted Katie. I found her details online one sleepless night. Her website guaranteed the upmost discretion and after a short email exchange I knew she was the one. I gave her his schedule and left the rest to her.
Three weeks later Katie contacted me. Her investigations had been expensive but thorough. Despite this, all she could give me was a name. No assurance of definitive answers or actions; just a name.
There would be no use looking at a phone; I know him; he's too smart for that. So I resorted to the preferred medium for many distrustful spouses and I searched on social media.
The filtered face that stared up at me from my phone screen was concerningly beautiful.
Suddenly I no longer wanted to know. This was too much information.
She was using a different name.
She was my sister.
A young man on the news
White headphones on, talking to camera
A student activist
400 injured in recent weeks
32 casualties today
The same word repeated
A need to communicate
From one place to another
A call for action
An international language
Of human suffering
A steadfast determination
Spoken in words
Conveyed in the eyes that look straight into camera
All within a 2 minute news segment
From London the news presenter responds
“We wish you all the best, very much”
“Thank you” the young man replies
You sent me a message from your skin
too dark to see if you’re calling me
but each cell of my bones jangles
your eyes touch mine, too wetly.
Dankness possesses my skin
but the skin’s not really me,
it's porous, protects against
nothing – everything gets in.
You want me to remember –
was I there the first time?
Those other times all stacked like cards?
I can sense the bruises
of your moods that will turn brown,
I'm the wrong way round
when you say I don't feel
but I hear your hairs scream
at the touch of your brush.
Things so insistent I see them
scuff rising from leather grain,
oil rainbows in fraying water,
dust in sun, competing voices shrill, machines bark
warnings, smells transform to touch, I flinch,
suck in so they're shouting in my head.
I haven't even left the house.
Don't make me shower,
that sound like hoovering
the earth out hollow, battering me
with sharp water swords.
Sssh, sssh you say as I shriek,
shriek, shriek for silence.
You say you understand.
You can't – there is no route to find
with your one-sense filtered mind –
you’ll never find your way
around my fractured currents.
I leave no personal mark in time.
There is this:
The rain patters out on the glass
And wind rumbles down the chimney
And I know that the woods will grumble
Wet in gloom, slick and chill
Leafless rain-greased bark
Invisible in night-black dark
And I know, that that matters
And the other things:
The tv screen
The workplace, the office
The coffee, chitchat
Drinks, beers, organic treats,
All those things:
The not seeing friends
The losing friends, the hopelessness
Insurance, tax, NCT, the hoops
Of modernity: mechanics, plumbers
Electricity bills, pensions, cautioning bankers
Worrying facts of adult life,
I know that all this fades in the face
Of the falling night
And rising November winter whine
The murderous rain, the indifferent wind
The tangled lying roots and swamping mud
The reality is wild
Out there it is wild
And in here it is wild
Manifest as calm
One fist, one hand.
Some people, when asked what superpower they would like, express a desire to fly. Where does this come from? Were we once an airborne species? Is the desire to glide on thermals rooted so deeply in our genes that it has survived thousands, possibly millions, of generations?
Others, when asked the same question, express a desire to live underwater. To swim just above the seabed, extracting oxygen from the water through gills. Is the desire to be permanently bound by water so deeply seated in our genes that it too has survived thousands, possibly millions of generations.
If there exists within our genes traces of both, is our true ancestor the union between fish and bird?
Our first reaction is to say that this is impossible.
Then again, most children cannot imagine the physical act that led to their own procreation. Just the thought is too much.
Perhaps we have too much information these days. We know that we emerged from subtle evolution. We can see the bones of our ancestors in museums and archeological sites. We can trace the way these bones changed over a long period of time.
The science tells us that a union between a fish and a bird is impossible.
But in the past few months there have been scientific articles about crayfish - the marbled crayfish - that is exclusively female and can reproduce without a male. Moreover the entire species descends from a single animal from the mid-1990s. Every specimen has three copies of each chromosome. This means that each offspring is a clone of the mother.
It's a freak of nature, a random occurrence. But it shows that the unexpected can happen, in unexpected ways.
Isaac Newton postulated that everything in the universe obeyed certain laws of physics - most notably his three laws, which we learn at school. Then along came Einstein, and more recently the laws of physics have been rewritten by Chaos Theory. A single event can have profound and far reaching effects. It's the butterfly effect.
We don't see the butterfly flapping its wings, but we do see the resultant storm brewing as it approaches.
Perhaps the fish and the bird are the butterfly?
Ruby looked at her nails, at the trouser legs of the person next to her, anywhere but at the sweat-sheened, earnest face of the preacher. He was nearing the climax of his sermon, gesturing and imploring and haranguing like a pro.
‘…if we are dead to ourselves, therefore, we are alive to Christ! We should not presume to be like God, but thanks to His grace, we are raised up and can share in His ineffable goodness…’
This guy was totally different to Simon, the usual speaker on Sundays. He was a ‘visiting preacher’, some itinerant, non-denominational man of the cloth. He looked like a used car salesman. Where Simon was always approachable, straightforward and sometimes even funny, this bloke was staggeringly, seriously intense. A high-octane holly roller. Simon would never have used words like ‘ineffable.’ Ruby felt like getting up and walking out. There was a Costa over the road. Yes, why the hell shouldn’t she?
Maisie. That’s why. Her friend, who’d been coming to this church for how long now? Years, wasn’t it? At least since her breakdown. When Maisie became a Christian, Ruby had been astonished at her friend’s new outlook on life. She seemed, not just happier but more vital. More intense, like someone who’d found a reason to live after suspecting there wasn’t one. At first, Maisie wasn’t up for talking about it, saying that Ruby should come along if she wanted to experience what the fuss was all about. But Ruby had declined – it wasn’t for her, the church-on-a-Sunday thing.
Then Maisie’s church had run an Alpha course. Ruby thought that was a more approachable environment, and agreed to go along. Within the friendly, low-key atmosphere, she’d made friends with Dan and Sharon, Sven and Hope: all people her own age and willing to talk. To talk about why God would have allowed a situation like Ruby’s dad leaving when she was five, and then, in later weeks when she’d got to know everyone a bit better, why she lurched from relationship to relationship in the search for a man who would stick, a man who wouldn’t bugger off when things got serious.
The talks on Jesus had been interesting; helping to overturn a lifetime’s prejudice that he’d just been some crackpot prophet with a funky line in magic tricks; like an ancient Derren Brown. Ruby had sung ‘Colours of Day’ along with everyone else at Primary School, but no fire had been lit up and no flame allowed to burn. Her mum, an eccentric, nervous and above all bitter woman, had understandably wanted nothing to do with God, and in fact had been, embarrassingly, the first mother to request that Ruby’s promise at Girl Guides be one with all reference to the Almighty removed. But now, hearing about this wise, enigmatic man-who-apparently-was-also-God, Ruby began to melt a little inside.
Simon had delivered most of the weekly talks, and it was the one on ‘How and why should I pray?’ that rocked Ruby’s world. She thought she’d give praying a go – nothing to lose, as it were, and she was still hurting from a particularly nasty break-up with a guy called Tony the week before. She asked Simon if there was a special formula or incantation that God responded to better than others. He laughed, and said there may well have been, but if there was one, then he hadn’t found it. Instead, he suggested, Ruby should speak to God naturally and conversationally, as if he were someone she’d known all her life.
‘All my life? I’d barely _thought_ about God until coming here.’
‘But he’s known you all of your life,’ said Simon, serious now. ‘You should open up – nothing’s hidden from Him. Nothing you say will shock or surprise Him.’
‘But…what should I pray for? I don’t want anything. Well – nothing except peace of mind.’
‘Then you should pray for that,’ said Simon. He looked as if he was about to say something else, then thought better of it.
‘Do…do I have to close my eyes?’ asked Ruby.
‘You don’t have to, though some people find it helps them to block out the other distractions that might be around.’
‘Ah,’ said Ruby, as if she could connect to this. ‘Like getting into the astral plane, sort of thing? Tuning out the fuzz of existence?’
Simon looked a little confused. ‘Not…not really. Just tell God what’s on your mind.’
Ruby shrugged. ‘In for a penny,’ she said, and closed her eyes.
It didn’t take long before she was overtaken by the most amazing feeling of self-negation she’d ever experienced. She didn’t know the term ‘transcendent’, but if she had, she would have used it. Her current stress from work, the residue of the bust-up and consequent end of her and Tony’s relationship, melted like a snowflake landing on a warm rock. She mentally pushed out towards the God she’d heard so much about, and something answered. Something like a much bigger sense of the universe, something underpinning everything, a sort of skein over the fretwork of the stars, of atoms, of quarks, something that understood and maintained and destroyed and spoke into being.
She sat, breathing softly, lips moving gently, connecting with what she began to think of as God. It was a true gear-shift, an epiphany, a reveal of the curtain of the cosmos to show, not cold indifferent space, but a deep, thrumming love that said ‘I WON’T LEAVE YOU OR FORSAKE YOU’.
Ruby reached out, and from then on, wanted nothing more than to be in that place.
The preacher’s rhetoric was climactic and fierce, and it cut into her reverie suddenly, like a band saw through a piece of balsa wood. ‘We ALL fall short of the glory of God, and this is rightfully so. To deign to come near to his unadulterated goodness, to turn our own human sins around into something approaching divine – that is not for us to manage. It is His prerogative, once we have accepted God into our lives, to shape us into holy vessels, ready to contain His spirit. I am but…a work in progress. You,’ and here, he seemed to look directly into Ruby’s eyes, ‘are a work in progress. Give God the steering wheel of your life, and He will do the rest. Amen.’
With that, there was some singing, and then ministry time, where people with various ailments were prayed for, but Ruby just wanted to go. She had a thousand worms crawling around her mind, stopping her from even the most basic conversation with the other church members.
‘Maisie,’ she said to her friend, apologising with a raised hand to the older couple that Maisie was talking to. ‘I’m just gonna head over to the Costa over the road, okay? Will I see you there, or…?’
‘Yeah, no probs, see you over there. I’ve got a few more folk I need to see,’ Maisie said. Her brow crinkled and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial level. ‘Are you…okay?’
Ruby looked past her, towards the ministry going on, the people being prayed for; the peace they were no doubt feeling, that she wasn’t. ‘Yeah, fine. Fine. As long as I keep saying that, I’m sure it’ll be the truth, eh?’ Maisie looked sympathetic. ‘I’ll see you over there.’
Sat with a large mocha and an Empire biscuit, Ruby checked her phone but it was devoid of notifications for a change. What was everyone doing? Surely someone in her friendship group had some sort of trivia that needed commenting upon, or liking, or sharing? She tried to banish feelings of loneliness, the idea that since she’d become a Christian, she’d lost all sense of pursuing a fun life, a life of spontaneity, and that her friends had rightfully shunned her.
Suddenly, Maisie was in front of her with a cup of tea on a tray and a slice of tiffin. Ruby said with a grin,‘Makes my selection look lame. You can’t beat a tiffin. Don’t know what I was thinking.’
‘Hey, I’ll go halfers with you,’ said Maisie.
‘Don’t worry about it – I should stick with what I chose in the first place,’ said Ruby, with the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that the conversation had turned to encompass much more than biscuits.
Maisie sat down, cupping her tea in both hands, her mocha-brown wavy hair wreathed in steam. ‘So…you seemed a bit out of sorts after the service,’ she said.
Ruby played with the wooden stirring sticks she’d pulled out of the serving area. She always put them on two fingers and pretended they were skis. ‘It’s what the visiting preacher was saying…’ she managed.
‘Which bits?’ asked Maisie.
‘All of it,’ said Ruby, nailing her friend with a piercing look. ‘I signed up for this, right, because God gave me a reason to focus on myself, getting _me_ sorted, before I pissed away my life on another crappy relationship or credit card binge. Yeah?’
‘Sure…’ said Maisie, a bit flustered. ‘I know you were well pleased after the Alpha course finished. Simon was saying you’d changed so much in those first few weeks…’
‘I had, right? I…I _am_ changed. It’s just that stuff the visiting preacher was saying. I can’t buy into that,’ said Ruby, taking a sip of her mocha and shaking her head.
‘He can be a bit full-on. I remember him coming last year – he ran around the church, dispensing the Holy Spirit like some kind of martial arts move…it was terrifying.’
Ruby nodded. ‘But it’s not just him. I was looking around, as he was going on about how we need to humble ourselves continually before God, that we shouldn’t presume to know His plans for us, and we need to hand over control to Jesus…anyway, all I could see was Hope and Sven, Frank and Rachel; people like that, all nodding away, eyes glazed….I mean, it’s like being reprogrammed, right? It was all a bit…bovine.’
‘That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?’ said Maisie after a moment’s silence.
‘I didn’t say _you_ were looking glazed. I think you’re as worried as me.’
‘Worried? What about?’ said Ruby with a puzzled smile.
‘This ‘work in progress’ thing he said,’ said Ruby. ‘The analogy is like you’re a passive piece of inert stone, being chiselled away at by God…with no say in the direction of your character, or your life…’
Maisie made a ‘pffft’ noise. ‘Come on…who’s going to stop Ruby from being Ruby? Even God’ll have a hard time changing your mind from how you think things should be.’
Ruby held her friend’s gaze for a moment. ‘Hey. If God wants to tell me to change my ways, I will. But a load of sweaty middle-aged men exhorting me to do so? To stop me trying to direct my life? No thanks.’ She drained the last of her mocha, stood up, got her umbrella ready for the onslaught of the rain. ‘I’m on a quest, Mase,’ she said, and as she said this she wondered what she was really saying. It seemed to be coming direct from somewhere previously untapped. ‘I’m on a quest, and I’m following a map I drew years ago.’
Maisie stayed seated, looked awkwardly up at Ruby. ‘I know – it’s not been easy for you. With – with your dad, and everything.’
‘Fuck _that_,’ said Ruby, suddenly full of vitriol. ‘I was talking about my own map. Not some…blank, creased scrap of paper left by a walking turd. Or even the bloody _labyrinth_ that my mum scrawled for me. I promised myself I would find my way out of this. Mine. So all this ‘give over control’ and wait for God to shape everything into a perfect…picture…’ she tailed off, choking back a sob, eyes suddenly brimming, and marched out into the awful rain.
A is for art. You took me to all those galleries I loved. You feigned interest. Stood by my side hand in hand. The only art you were versed in was the art of deception.
B is for broken. Promises, a rib, wine glasses, knuckles. Me. My heel that one time you carried me all the way home laughing and giggling
C is for cliche. Love at first sight. I thought you were my soulmate. You Loved me all the world's you’d say. perfect for eachother. Everyone goes through bad times. Opposites attract. Time heals all wounds (It does not - scars are forever) C is for charm and control. if you don't have the first one you’d never be able to achieve the second.
D for desperation. People like you smell it. Like sharks smell blood. Desperation has its own kind of odour. Part loneliness, part longing.F is for fear. Fear of you taking away everything I am. Everything we had. Fear of being on my own. I didn't realize how fearful you had crafted me to become It was you, it wasn't me.
E is for excuses. I made them for you over and over and over. You made them yourself also. You were good like that.d crafted me to be.
G is for gluttony. I couldn't get enough of you. I binged relentlessly on you. Overdosed. You fed me a version of you.
H is for Help. I hope you get some you need it. By the the time i needed it, it was too late you had me. Hooked.
I is for illusion and isolation. I was under the illusion I wasn't isolated.
J is for Jump. I’d jump when you raised your voice. Slammed or broke something. I still jump. J is for Justice. Do survivors from broken relationships ever get justice? I dont think its justice if you get to love again. I'm too scared to love again that's (In) justice.
K is for knees. I spent sooo long on them trying to please you or begging so you wouldn't leave me. There is no pleasing someone like you
L is for love and loneliness. You make sacrifices for one so you don't experience the other. It's possible to experience both at the same time.
M is for mood swings. You had good ones and bad ones, mostly bad. Missing; My self esteem, you.
N is for Nachos. The thing you always ate if we ate out. You eat them on our first date. You were crazy for them. If i hear the word i can't help but think of you. Sometimes i even smile. Narcissist.
O is for overdose. That is what you did the first time I threatened to leave.
P is for please. Please don't leave me. Please stop. Please come back. Please Not again. Please believe me. Please not here. Please love me.
Q is for question. You asked them constantly. Where are you going? Who with? Where have you been whose number? You don't love me anymore do you? I have a question - you could have had anyone? Why me?
R is for rage. Never visible always present. R is for Romeo. As in the song ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire straits. That was our song.
S is for sex. Amazing until the end.
T is for toxic. As in toxic relationship. I know that now.
U is for undo. Unraveled. Untangled. Umbrella. you always held it over. Give me your coat at the end long nights out. There were some good times. I can't think about the good times its a slippery slope.
V is for victim. I promised myself I’d never be a victim. I was too strong. Self assured. I’m not a victim am I?
W is for Work. As in work in progress. That is all I'll ever be now. There is only one me, one life one here and one now. I’ll be trying to fix myself forever but it sounds better if I call myself, ‘a work in progress.’
X is for kiss. You would always put three at the end of your messages. XXX. I'd wait holding my breath waiting for your replies. At the beginning I couldn't eat or sleep. Now it's over I can't eat or sleep for different reasons. There's a fine line between the feeling of anxiety and euphoria.
Y is for you. You changed me. You took my confidence. You hit me. You took something from me. You took the real me.You probably weren't aware you were doing it, little by little. You don't know where it is, I don't know where it is. But it's gone. You You You
Z is for zipper. Me undoing yours. Greedily, impatiently,urgently. Having each other anywhere anytime. You could you could still have me. I'm not cured of you. Will I ever be? I'm trying I really am. Like I said I am a work in progress, after you, that is all I will ever be.
Rue de l’auteur, 2018
He stubs out the cigarette in a stained mug and pulls his battered black leather notebook towards his. Hair flopping artfully over his furrowed brow, he peruses the yellowing pages and wishes desperately that he could read his own tortured scrawls. It’s a problem, he thinks as he stares through the murky window out to a Parisian skyline. It’s a problem that he remembers the angst and the torment and the jocular prods at modern society, but none of the words that formed them. And it’s a problem that he can’t even read his own writing.
The phone rings. It’s one of those black ones with a dial that you have to spin to call numbers. He loved it when he saw it and spent half his first monthly wage on it and now hates the way it makes his fingertips slightly numb and he can’t remember how to call London. Luckily, London is calling him.
‘Steve, hi,’ he says into the mouthpiece (a phone with a mouthpiece, he had been so proud!)
‘I have been trying to call you for six days.’
‘You have? Sorry, it’s been mad at work here.’
‘Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me to keep David on board when you’re swanning around in Paris not picking up the phone and doing god knows what with god knows who and providing us with actually actually nothing?’
‘God knows whom,’ he mutters into his dusty black mouthpiece.
He hangs up the phone with assurances that, yes, he is worth it, and yes, he will meet the deadline this week, and yes, he has some magic on the way for Voice of London but right now it’s just a work in progress.
‘Fuck,’ he says, putting the handset back and lighting a cigarette that really should have a stronger filter.
The problem is, he thinks, I’m in Paris just 120 years too late. No chance I’ll find a rich patron or a beautiful girl with consumption-racked lungs to break my heart. How am I supposed to write anything at all?
He reaches into a holey tweed jacket and finds an iPhone – not, of course, in regular use. He swipes right.
He looks out from under bushy eyebrows to the dark Seine and curls his lanky frame around his second lager. It’s then that she
pops the question.
‘So,’ she says, coquettishly skimming a fingertip around the rim of her wine glass (sauvignon blanc with just one cube of ice). ‘You say in your bio you’re a writer. What are you writing?’
He straightens his tie and shifts on the wicker chair. Why do they have to make these so uncomfortable? He tries to silence the Lancashire part of his brain that misses a good old stained velvet bar stool.
‘It’s a bit experimental, a bit rogue,’ he tries. He can see he’s piqued something in her interest she can’t define. ‘I like to play with language, to upturn the conceits of the reader. It’s a work in progress but I expect to have something in the Voice of London in a week or so.’
He reflects later that he’s not really sure how this manages to get their bras on his chairs and their accumulating unanswered messages in his inbox. Post-coital smoke curling out of his lips and her figure curled in dishevelled bed sheets, he still can’t read his own words.
‘Mum,’ he croons into the mouthpiece of the apartment phone.
Excited babble hits his ear.
‘I’m fine. Yes, I’m eating enough. Yes, work’s going really well. They think I should have a big one in soon.’
His bare feet are cold against the floorboards. Outside, the strains of an accordion mingle with the shrieks of Montmartre tourists.
‘I can’t tell you what it’s about. It’s a secret. It’s a work in progress.’
She hangs up and he dreams of a playstation and a labrador and a pint in a Preston boozer, falling asleep on his own incoherent scribbles.
Paris was always the dream.
Work in Progress
This work of mourning
is like the combing
of my cat’s long coat.
Beneath her halo of hair
lie layer upon layer
of felted armour.
I cannot touch her skin
or tell where it begins.
Cautiously, quiet times,
I go in , slow and gentle -
teasing out tangles
of the wadded weight
around the secret heart ,
holding at bay the hurt
and the long nightmare.
The new strands may be healed;
I comb before they weld
to what I keep in wraps-
that whole deep ugly bundle of dead thoughts.
I dream my losses through the endless nights
I comb my patient cat.
She rarely cries.
Work in progress
“An intense, indescribable feeling of supreme satisfaction caused by that moment, that elusive split-second when you can take a Work in Progress file and re-label it ‘First Draft’ followed by a WordCount and maybe even a Working Title!”
Peter added a smiley eMoji to the update on his Facebook page and hit “Enter”. He was amazed to see an immediate flurry of ‘Likes’ recorded. Had he succeeded in acquiring a small number of devoted Followers, insomniacs who had nothing better to do than log onto his Blog page at stupid o’clock on a winter’s morning?
Word Count: 101,357. He was sufficiently experienced from earlier publications and realistic enough to accept that the first round of edits would still feel like savage, death-dealing, brutal surgery, akin to performing brain surgery with nothing more than a machete and a tin-opener, but he’d been through that particular agony more than once. It was something he personally knew he’d never be able to treat with equanimity or indifference: and yes, it still hurt …
Has he made the right choice? Is this specific Work in Progress relevant to or even reflected in the day’s main news, or current affairs? It’s a commonly held opinion that Comedy is the most difficult of all genre to write successfully. This is especially true of Political Satire, which was what his Submission was intended to be. Mixing his metaphors with wild abandon, he wonders if he has perhaps shot himself in the foot by attempting to sail these uncharted waters?
He scans the titles of the remaining WiPs on his hard drive. Complete works, all of them having been subjected to at least one thorough Draft. Some of them had also been Submitted and Declined – he disliked intensely the alternative epithet, “Rejected”.
This one, his latest baby, was about to flex its wings and attempt to fly the nest for the very first time.
He contemplates the variety of genre he has experimented with while developing his own distinctive style of writing. Historical, Family Saga, Alternative History: Romance, Thriller, Sci-Fi and Fantasy were all represented, plus three shorter works aimed at younger readers with a more limited Attention Span. His one regret, he doesn’t feel he has the ‘insider knowledge’ to write a quality Western, which is almost the only form of entertainment his elderly father watches on TV.
All the same he has his own standards, his own principles. Well-meaning friends often suggested to him that there were big bucks to be earned by writing Smut, aka Porn or (to give it its ‘Sunday Name’) Erotica. Steadfastly he refuses to contribute to the sleaze peddled by the ‘top-shelf’ toilet paper masquerading as magazines.
The self-doubt and hesitation lasts but a few seconds. Recently he’s discovered a small but reputable publisher which doesn’t posture behind a pretentious London postcode. Somehow he knows his proposal for a novel challenging the oft-repeated mantra that civilisation and culture did not exist north of the Watford Gap, where the Savages still wore woad and dragged their partners to the matrimonial bed by their hair.
Yes! He boots up his laptop and opens a fresh page. The Cover Letter he is about to compose will see his Work in Progress transformed to Words in Print, a Wonder in Preparation? …
I don't write poetry. So please forgive the cheesiness of this. I'll try and work on it a bit before pressing send but it'll probably be quite bad!!! I write short stories, long ones mostly, and today I'm just not quite there in energy to hit the keyboard that many times, so I've slowed down and written an excuse for a poem.
Work in Progress
I'm an unfinished picture, the detail not quite there
I'm a roaring angel, my expression one of dare
Staring fear in the eye, tempting it to try
To shake my foundations and make me cry.
I'm the whistleblower, the one you didn't see
I'm the one who'll dob you in if you hurt those close to me
Writing a letter fearlessly, tempting you to lie
To hide the truth inside your mind, indignantly deny.
I'm the one who fights her demons day after day
I'm the one whose confidence never knew the way
Shining out to the world, saying I AM HERE
To take you on and do my bit and hold those I love dear.
I'm the one who beat disease, for now anyway
I'm the one if it comes back to it I'll gently say
Beating you was a journey, one I had to take
To find out who I really was, one again I'd make.
I'm the one who'll try anything, maybe just the once
I'm the one up for anything, sometimes I have won
Scribbling as often as I can, I'm in my content place
To express all I can about life, about this race.
I'm the one who likes to help sometimes far too much
Councils, causes, charities, mates, schools and such
Practising saying no, sometimes it's difficult
To remember life's mine too, not just by default.
I'm the one who's cried at night, many times before
I'm the one who gets it when you say you can't take more
Living's the hardest thing you can do, this I understand
To ask for help, yes you can. Here, take my hand.
I'm the one who can't write poems, not very well at least
I'm the one stories come to - never famine, feast
Writing's what I love though today I've just no time
To write longer stuff, so here's some wobbly rhyme.
I'm a work in progress, for marks I do not care
I'm having a bit of fun, just something to share
Recognising you might nod along, in certain parts
We're all one family, all one race, we're not so far apart.
So if you think this ain't so good, it's fine, mark me down
I hope I've made you smile a bit, hope not made you frown
The rhyming's getting worse, I see, it's time for me to go
I've 1000 things yet to do today, and the world to show.
My god, even by my standards that was pretty awful!!! Dilemma - press 'submit' anyway or try to make it better. I think it is probably beyond help. Wish I'd tried a flippin' story now!
There's a bit of time left. I wanted to write about who I am and why I am and where I am. Life's been a crazy journey, all of it so far. I wanted to write a list of all the things I am and turn it into a poem but I'm just no poet, as you can see above.
We are all works in progress. I wanted to somehow write about where I was compared to where I've been as the last decade has been stuffed full of more lessons than I wanted or thought I could deal with. Turns out most of us can deal with most stuff that life chucks at us. The best is yet to come, but the worst is probably yet to come too, as they are both sides of the same coin. Hiding from life and not opening yourself up to all the millions of possibilities out there is pointless. This is the biggest lesson I've learned. I was a fearful kid and a fearful adult, so I systematically took on every fear I had and dealt with them. For example: Every year for four years I've held the biggest tarantula I can get hold of. Still makes me want to faint and be sick but I don't shake as much. This year's session is on Sunday, in Glasgow.
I was terrified of dying, so life gave me two life threatening diseases to deal with - and I'm still here! And far less afraid. You can look for danger around every corner - you still won't see it coming as it'll be from above or behind. So absolutely pointless worrying about it. Head up, feet forwards and all that.
I've learned to speak my truth, which has been painful and awful for some of those concerned and I still don't know how it will pan out. Some truths get buried and will dig their way our regardless, or make you ill in the process. You have to just let them out. Open the box, see what happens. I'm living this, right now.
With writing: a few things I've learned that I'm going to pass on. Just WRITE. Anything, any time. Find your unique voice (mine's NOT poetry!!!) I send each story that I think's good off somewhere. Sometimes they do well first time. Sometimes they don't. I then send them off again. Rinse, repeat. I'll do this up to five times, and then I might retire the story to the File of Doom on my desktop, where it will never see the light of day again. Several times, my stories have found a home on their fifth outing to the world. Read things aloud. Read a lot. Write what hasn't been written yet - what book or story would YOU like to read? Everyone writes different ways. I never plan yet I thought you had to. Often I have absolutely no idea where a story is going. Don't necessarily start at the beginning. Try anything - even poetry, even if you know it's dreadful.
My writing plan three years ago was to get in 10+ anthologies and then try to find an agent. Ha ha!! My plan changed after getting in more than the required number of anthologies and I bought myself a mentorship program. No, I didn't have the money, but I have a credit card and there was an offer and I know the money will come in as my small holiday let business always does well in the spring/summer. I'm learning so much from my mentor - my collection of stories is very much a work in progress.
The biggest life lesson that I've had to learn painfully and slowly and bravely, was to love myself. I literally didn't like who I was for 35 years of my life, with the odd reprieve when I'd let myself off and decided to be proud of myself and then spend the next fortnight berating myself for being arrogant. I hated myself as a kid. I thought nobody liked me - and I mean, nobody. As an adult it got worse then better, but the basic mental foundation I had was, 'you're crap'. It took nearly a decade to properly work through this and it was scary, but hell it was liberating. I now like who I am. If you don't like who you are, work on it. As a teacher the first thing I work on with kids is self-esteem.
The world is going crazy - do your own tiny bit to make it better.
These have been some of my works in progress. A tiny insight into who I am. A ramble about nothing in particular: a work in progress, that I may come back to one day and do something with.
Hope you're having a fabulous weekend. Do something crazy/something that you're scared of....
With love! Me.
Today I feel like a work in progress; here I am, nearly fifty and still waiting for that light bulb moment to happen, when suddenly the path forward is lit up and clear. My life has been one stumbling disaster to the next, but with just enough success to keep going. There are money making hobbies and jobs, all cast aside in the wake of my constant search for the next big thing. I watch the world outside the window as I fail yet again to finish the website I am working on this week; this week’s new venture. Today, I am being a Virtual Assistant, but so far, I am stuck on my virtual website, this is not uncommon when it comes to my big ideas, I often fail to get past step 1. Ideas are great, but I can never work out how to get from the idea to reality. I have high hopes that this could be the one though, but maybe I say that every time. I look at the success stories and wonder how do they action their ideas; I am all about the ideas, but I guess we all have to start somewhere. One day that idea will become real; the clock is ticking though, could today be the day?
I have worked in bars, in offices, in restaurants, in schools, on planes (that was a fun one), taught adult education classes, trained as a masseur; but here I am at a crossroads, junction, or is it a roundabout – who actually knows? A crossroads would suggest that I had a choice of roads to take, instead I think I might have hit a few road blocks; diversion necessary again. You would think that by now I would have it all worked out, all that change should have given me the confidence to just put myself out there, but instead the anxiety of life caught up with me. It stalled everything; the dark dog of depression took over my entire being, smothering me, feeding off me, dragging me into the dark depths of it’s world. Everything about me seemed worthless, every skill, talent, ambition counted for nothing. I felt like a spent shell of a former human being.
For months I have lived with that dog, followed all the self-help options, taken the drugs, and today I feel brighter, the dog is just sitting at the end of the road now, no longer close by, but he is waiting to pounce at the next failure, he will not leave my sight, possibly not ever.
On my dark days; moving around is a challenge, painting on the smile for the children is painful, appearing normal is almost impossible. I am all about the front though; every morning, I paint on the face, expression and all, I tidy the hair, I dress up the body that I so despise, then I go through the motions of life. Even on my good days, this is the routine, there is a front to me that some see as arrogant and confident, but the real people see anxious, stressed and terrified of being judged.
But it is not my time to check out of it all, not yet, I need more time to get this thing called life right. Yes, it is two steps forward and one step back, but I have got to finish what I started. If only I knew what it was that I started, then I could move forward towards the end plan.
As I look out across the street, I see the old man at number 44. Wearing a dressing gown and slippers, he is aimlessly wandering up the street, do you think he has got it all figured out? A man I don’t recognise appears next to him and guides him back to his front door; I watch as they slowly go through the door and close it behind them. He is there, his work in progress is so close to completion, I wonder if maybe he wants to take it apart and start again before it is too late. I contemplate being his age and wonder when the acceptance of being happens, will I still be questioning every thing about me and my life then?
I remember being young, all those years ago and thinking getting to 30 would be this huge milestone; it was so far in the distance that I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like. Yet here I am almost 20 years past that milestone, well on the way to yet another one. I am a wife, a mother, a massage therapist, a business owner, but am I success at any of it? What is success; is this life really about success? As I age, anything but gracefully, I am starting to believe that getting from the a to b of life is all that matters. Life is about the human interaction, the stories that I tell, the stories that I hear, the experiences that I have, they will all go to the grave with me and, if I am very lucky, they will live on in my memory.
I waste more time staring at the screen, day dreaming about what ifs and maybes, while I wait for inspiration for the website I am designing to come flooding in. Suddenly, I am jolted into a more conscious state by a buzz from my phone; it is the reminder about the meeting I have with a potential client. It could finally happen, this is a prestigious client, if I can convince them that my age is a sign of experience and not the wasting away of a human, then I could be on my way to success. It is good that today is a brighter day, I need to be on my A game for this one. The preparation is under way; the face, hair and clothes have been carefully worked on to present an appearance of a successful business woman, the folder is to hand with the relevant paperwork, the sales pitch has been practised repeatedly in front of the cat. He seems appreciative of it and even gives the occasional squeak in his appreciation. I am not good with over preparing though, as I falter over my words, lose my flow and then become a jabbering wreck with verbal diarrhoea. I work better under prepared, going with the flow, but that is not the most professional way forward. Today is all about professionalism.
I take one last look in the mirror, there is little more that can be done for this face, it is neat and presentable, that will have to do. As I collect my bag and keys, I stop for a second and look around the house, when I come back I might have that contract in the bag, this could be the idea that reaches reality. As I unlock the car, place my bag on the passenger side, then climb into my seat. Seat-belt on, like the thousands, or could it be millions of times I have done before, it is a day like any other after all. I set up the sat nav with the postcode; it is a journey I have done many times before, but direction and route planning are definitely not strong points for me, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. My mind turns to my prepared speech, as the autopilot of years of driving kicks in, I say the words that will begin the presentation out loud, practised and confident, hoping that the speech will flow quickly into a conversation with the clients. Realisation hits me; I have been driving for ten minutes and I don’t remember a thing about the journey, that’s not uncommon for me these days, I drive everywhere, it’s second nature to me. But sadly, I don’t see the car pulling out of the side road into my path until that very final second. My responses are fast, totally automatic, no time for thought, I swerve dramatically to avoid the car in my path, my heart is pounding, my hands tightly grasping the steering wheel, my breath is short and sharp, but it is OK, I missed it. I am on the wrong side of the road now, I must steer back, I can see something ahead of me, turn now, turn now. Blackness; nothing now. Work completed.
on hot, rainy mornings
the air humid, heavy
and thirteen thousand miles away
and your cold mountain evenings
I convince myself our souls are eternal
or at least less ephemeral
then this life leads us to believe:
for I cannot fathom this story,
nor can I find a way
to crawl through this chasm you have chiseled
so I tell myself
we are a work in progress
and I promise,
I will be looking for you next lifetime.
For this week's entry, I have reworked a poem that I wrote aged twelve. I have kept language and core themes, but have updated the subject to make it more current. I hope this shows my progress as a poet! The first poem is my entry, and the second poem is the original - so you can see it for comparison - please don't mark the second:
Poem one -
On Berlin’s cold streets, time unfolds
as slowly as a winter bloom.
On these streets, I don’t need what I used to.
No comfort, with knees on concrete
at Ruhleben station.
No pride, with arms outstretched in supplication.
No coins, just words
so sharp they cut the breeze.
I left war in Syria, but it followed.
When I cough, my lungs burn
like my children, my chest jolts
like my home under mortar.
I left war, but it won’t leave me.
When our boat fell into the ocean,
one man was too slow to surface.
I watched him breath brine while my cousins choked,
spent hours waiting between their corpses
like a splinter in a giants palm, its fingers thrusting through waves
clad in lifejackets.
To stay meant war,
and war meant death.
Death is not glorious.
Poem two -
Full of pain, cough and chest ills now,
Surviving this… how oh how.
Flames and boom being left behind,
The horror embedded inside my mind.
Once cheerful and happy,
The war’s made its mark.
Weary and sluggish, they need lots of rest,
My men, my friends, they are the best.
Gas, I scream!
They stagger around gas masks on their heads,
One single man is too slow.
He breathes it in and the lights in his eyes started to go.
Engulfed in thick smog I have gone blind.
Death would be better I have made up my mind.
My friend runs towards me coughing and choking,
His death was not kind, he is finally at rest.
I will never forget those events in the war.
How would you feel if you saw your friend die on the floor?
The wagon takes his body across the land,
Blood on his chest, blood on his hand,
A jolt sets him off,
Death from a single cough.
War is not great.
It is a cover for murder.
War is not glorious.
Death is not glorious.
Work in Progress
Neither raw materials nor
completed projects, you fear us
becoming either of those things.
Or do you just fear us today?
No monetary value
- quite the opposite –
you laugh at our cost
but your eyes are bitter
about the money, the personal
prices paid. Are we too much?
Partially completed but looking
all wrong, no reflection
of your long-held expectation.
Who snuck this version of us in?
You don't approve of it.
Will we ever be accepted
into inventory? We’re all afoot,
well under way in false forms,
perils in the pipeline.
Might this be your fault?
we’re advancing, cutting-edge, in vogue,
up and running the other way,
realizing wretched selves.
You cry out our names, arms
and we turn, under revision kids
letting off steam before
we run home to you,
fit back in to the selves you knew.
Finding the emptiest carriage, I shrug of my leather jacket and settle into my book. I go through phases of liking certain things. Once I watched a Del Torro movie, this kick started a Gothic horror phase. Rodriguez's Planet Terror set of my grind-house phase. Short lived that one - the gore set off my anxiety. Like every kid, I had the Harry Potter one, although less of a phase, Hogwarts has a place in my heart. Recently I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. Now my jam is 'star crossed lovers'. What I like to read reflects my phases therefore I am reading F.Scott's exquisitely written The Great Gatsby. It is everything.
The train snakes through my bleak little part of the world and I escape to the Glitz and Glamor of New York City, 1922. Belonging there more than I belong here. Each time the train draws to a stop at a new platform I tear myself away from 1922 to study the people boarding the train in 2017.
At six on a Friday theres plenty of suited and booted types with grimaces and sagging shoulders, headed home after a shift. Then there is the young guys dressed in the latest fashion, shiny white trainers and polo shirts, headed to a bar. Men dressed better in the 20s. They pile onto the train, voices booming, stinking of lynx. Apes. Men had more integrity then too. Others who board, its harder to tell were they are headed but its easy to make their story up. Everyone on this train has one thing in common. They are all headed somewhere.
I am the odd one out. Dressed in a figure hugging black halter dress and knee high tan boots I look like I could be headed to a bar, perhaps a date. It's a ruse. I'm going nowhere. The train is my destination. A peaceful place to escape to another time, where I don't have to listen to my mum and Brian the Big Neanderthal scream at each other.
I'll ride twenty miles to the end of the line, then I'll ride it back. Sometimes I'll repeat. Until I've had my book fix. Then its home to bed. I cant say I don't make use of my unlimited train pass, £96 a month for some fucking peace.
'Fucking Peace'. It's what Brian shouts when I'm in his line of sight being perfectly quiet and inoffensive. 'What does it take it get some fucking peace around here.'
"Piss of Brian," I mutter to myself earning a bemused look from a lady sitting nearby. A blush attacks me.
When the train grinds to a halt, close to the end of the line I glance up, ready to play my observation game. We are far from the outskirts of the city were I live in a crammed apartment with Mum and Brian, we're in the country villages now. Only one person is boarding at this platform.
He's dressed a bit scruffy in faded denim jeans and scuffed sneakers, once expensive, now past their best. His red hoody drowns his skinny frame. His face is something else though. Sharp cheekbones and a jawline chiseled by Michelangelo himself. (I went through an art-history phase...mad boring looking back now) What draws me in is his eyes. Scorpio eyes, burning with intensity. They bring the promise of danger. I cant make out the color in the fading September light. I have to know...him.
He boards two carriages down from my own. As the train pulls away from the desolate platform I make my way through the carriages until I find him sitting in a four seater booth. One with a table. His eyes are glued to his mobile screen.
I slip into his booth, directly across from him.
His eyes dart to me, gray like the ocean on a stormy day. They say, there is countless empty booths. Why sit here?
A very real blush attacks me, "You don't mind if I sit here do you? Some weirdo is chatting me up. I'm creeped. I told him I was meeting my boyfriend on the train."
It appears I am a story teller as well as a story reader.
He smiles, the dimple in his left cheek is so deep I could drink from it. I'd guesstimate him a bit older than me, twenty?
His speaks in a husky voice, I have to lean a little closer to catch all his words. He smells like beer, cigarettes and Jean Paul Gautier. "No worries. He gives you any more hassle i'd happily deal with him."
Despite his skinny frame, I wouldn't rule him out in a fight. There is something hardened about him.
His gaze returns to his phone but I notice his eyes flick up at me and quickly look away again. He wants to talk but i'm going to have to make the first move.
Desire for adventure in the real world, not in the pages of a book makes me bold. I stick out my hand, "I'm Madilyn by the way."
He takes my hand, "Jamie."
His eyes scan me, lingering were the fabric of my dress stretches over my chest. I catch a lot of boys looking there. My tits are ample for my petite frame, are easily my best asset.
"Where are you going tonight looking that hot?" he flashes a dimple. I want to stick my finger in it.
Hoping I sound mysterious and intriguing like the 'cool girl' in a novel or a movie I shrug, "Here and there."
"Here and there huh?" He raises a dark eyebrow "Don't suppose you want to come to a party with me?"
This throws me. I had expected perhaps a few minutes of harmless flirting with a hot stranger before parting ways forever. Maybe he'd give me his number but I'd never call. Heroines in books had the balls to do that, not me. "I have a boyfriend."
Edward and I had been going out for about six months. Good old Steady Eddy from first period Sociology. In the beginning I had enjoyed escaping to his house where we'd snuggle and watch Game of Thrones Boxsets. We'd had sex four times now, on top of his Darth Vader duvet. Each time missionary, each time over fast. Not like the movies at all.
Lately I'd been ghosting Steady Eddy's texts. Struggled to see what I liked about him in the first place. His breath tasted like gravy when we kissed and his room reeked of damp clothes and sweat. I'd been meaning to break it off for a while but with him being my first boyfriend I wasn't sure how. I assumed if I ghosted him long enough he'd get the idea.
Jamie laughed, "I have a girlfriend. I asked you to a party, not to fuck."
His eyes bore into mine, waiting for an answer. They seemed to say, c'mon I dare you.
The usual Madilyn would have smile politely and said, no thank you.
But a new Madilyn was emerging, she was a work in process but I knew she should be bold and daring.
"Is your girlfriend going to be at the party?" I asked coyly, my leg brushing against his under the table.
He smirked, "No."
The train pulled to its final stop, the end of the line.
"Let's go." I said.
Work in Progress
SHE awoke. Unable to move, bound by black restraints, they covered her pert breasts and olive skinned legs. She began to panic, hysteria overriding any rational thoughts. She was naked. A bright light above her caused her to tightly shut her eyes, she missed the feeling of familiar. She began to breathe slowly, all these possibilities of what had or was going to happen to her caused her to moan aloud. She turned to her right side, a wave of relief hit her. Her boyfriend's body in the exact same way as hers.
'Babe?' she whispered, fighting back the tears, begging for him to hear her pitiful cries. 'Babe, please oh God wake up!'
She began shaking, her whole body erupting into panicked shivering. She began attempting to pull at the restraints, every inch she moved the tighter they became. Her hands began to claw at the slab below her. Thats when he awoke, he looked confused, panicked and had fear engraved into his dark eyes. He looked over to his girlfriend, mute, unable to think of any words to make the situation plausible.
'Are you okay?', he gasped looking down to see his naked body. 'What the hell is going on?! Don't worry, listen to me were going to get out of here okay?'
She whimpered, 'I don't remember how we got here, I don't understand any of this.'
His eyes darted around the room trying to pick up any clue or hint of their location. That's when he saw it, a sign on the door, 'WORK IN PROGRESS.' He took a deep breath, visions of their bodies cut open with organs splayed next to him caused him to shout 'Goddamn it!' He pictured several scenarios, was this a serial killer? An apocolypse? Had they been drugged together?
He felt a sharp pang in his side, before yelling out in pain.
Thats when He entered, a man of maybe 35 years old, dark skin, deep eyes. He didn't speak, he just casually walked over to them. Expressionless. They both cowered, embarassed by their naked form and inability to cover themselves.
'Please don't hurt us, we promise not to tell anyone about this, honestly... Please, just unstrap us.'
She became alarmed as he picked up a clipboard and began ticking off on a list. 'What the hell is going on!?You evil evil man, let us go! We don't want to be part of your sadistic shit!'
Suddenly, the restraints loosened, he picked up the clipboard and walked out. She swore she could hear him laugh as he left the darkened room. She didn't have time to blink, before her boyfriend had grabbed her arm and lifted her up. She embraced him, skin on skin. A rush of euphoria hit her, like she had dodged death, reborn with a new passion for life, her love and herself.
'I love you Adam, but right now I'm so creeped out by this dude, we need to get back home.' He kissed her head, she always loved that. Taking her hand, she followed him through the exit picking up two sheets to cover their modesty on the way out.
The sunshine caused her to squint, but she had never appreciated the smell of fresh air at any time more than now. She took in her surroundings, it was like she was in a backyard, but an extremely wealthy backyard. Trees upon trees lined the sides, she could see a plentiful of wildlife, rivers, and greenery that filled her heart with warmth. 'This is beautiful' she whispered, turning to Adam who appeared enchanted by the various fish swimming in the river.
She became mixed with emotions and feelings all at once, hunger, pain, sadness, relief ran through her soft form. Turning, she saw tomatoes, potatoes and fruit growing from nature, she grabbed an apple, her mouth salivating at the thought of taking a bite.
Adam turned and shouted for her to stop, 'Wait, don't! We don't know where we are, there could be poison!'
Her heart longing to take the sweet liquid, but her mind repeating Adam's statement. 'It's okay Adam' she said, her mouth open, gripping down on the apple.
'EVE!' Adam cried.
Hopes and Kernels
The sun -
blistering hope springs maternal.
The Colonel of Truth slaps down
a quivering bleached-white poppy,
recalling his act of Remembrance
in Yorkshire – Pud –
buds open inside his dry mouth
giving him a piece of peace.
Hope springs internal.
His mother’s hands spread a cloth
dotted with hand-painted Yorkshire puds
around his shoulders where she found him
in Hope Springs Recovery Centre,
I’m standing naked in front of the full length mirror that resides in my bedroom, criticising every part of my ugly body. Where could I lose some weight? My thighs, my bottom, my waist? I mark each part with a long, thin line, that slowly oozes out of the skin. Pain is what makes it all worthwhile, this work in progress. Trying to sculpt my body to how I want it to be. Everyone else in my peer group is thin, why can’t I be too? I exercise daily, I skip meals, and when I do eat, I exercise some more to burn off those unnecessary calories.
I’m in control of how I feel and what I eat, I’m sure I am. Why doesn’t anyone see that? My friends tell me I’m getting too thin, that I’ve lost too much weight, but I haven’t. There’s no way I have as I see myself in front of the mirror every day and there I am, with too much fat residing on my bones. I’m lost, constantly in a state of confusion. What is happening to me?
Red. Black. White. Blue, blurring past as time itself stretches out in front of me. How did I get here? Standing on the cold concrete curb, the balls of my feet over the edge, waiting in anticipation for my next move. Do I step back, away from the traffic and to safety, or step forward in front of one unlucky car bringing everything to a standstill?
What is the point in living, but then again, what is the point in dying? I’m stuck in this limbo, unsure of what move to play next. I hate myself. The way I look, my thoughts and feelings telling me I’m too fat when everyone else is telling me I’m too thin.
If I step back, it’ll be like nothing ever happened, like I wasn’t here at this point of desperation. If I step forward, what would it be for? To hurt myself? Kill myself? What will the person I step out in front of feel? What if it doesn’t kill me and I’m stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, still feeling the way I do now? What happens then?
I close my eyes, listening to the sound of the wind whistling through my ears. A blaring horn from an articulated lorry resounds in the distance. I breathe in the stench of exhaust fumes from the cars rushing past me. I breathe. In. And out. I can feel the beating of my heart hammering in my chest as I make my decision. Forwards or backwards. Safety or danger. I lift up my foot and take a step forwards.
Rivulets of sweat dribble down his back as he reaches across the table for the margarine. Even that small action results in more clammy liquid heading for his arse-crack. Could he sweat any more? What did they reckon the body was comprised of; seventy per cent water? At this rate, his percentage will be zero by teatime. He'll have sweated out every last drop of moisture. He will be a dessicated husk.
A dirty plastic desk fan languidly shifts hot air around their room.
"Are you going to check on the air-con situation?" asks Violet.
Glenn doesn't answer immediately. He chews stale bread and stares out of the dusty window. "He said to come back later," he says eventually.
"It _is_ later," Violet says, pouring warm lemonade into her glass.
"He meant later than this. It's only been what - three hours?"
"Nearer four. You've got to keep on at these people. It's not like they care. You think they're gonna care?"
He hates her when she gets like this. He shifts greasily in his chair and rakes back his matted fringe. "By 'these people'," - he does air-quotation marks - "do you mean Greek people? Because that is denigrating an entire race."
"Den-i-gra-ting," she says, rolling the syllables around her mouth like a curse. "Being nasty towards? Slagging? I love your daily university challenge," she says sourly.
"I'm -" he begins, but Violet hasn't finished.
"Why do you always do that?" she asks the table. "Use a bigger word when something more straightforward will do. You _could_ just call me stupid. It'd save time."
Glenn raises his eyebrows. "I just meant that you should try not to use cultural stereotypes."
"I knew what you meant. By 'these people', I actually meant folks who manage shitty three-star holiday apartment blocks, yet drive around in brand-new Mercedes. But yeah, why not the entire Greek nation? These are people who leave the top floors of buildings permanently unfinished in order to avoid paying tax. They are not going to give a rat's arse about our broken air-con unless you put a rocket up them."
He's too tired for this. Even without working air conditioning, she slept like a drugged narcoleptic. He was up half the night. But it’s always been like this. He always used to struggle more than Violet in the days after the kids played competitive insomnia in their formative years. "Fine," he says, in the universal it's-not-fine tone. "I'll go after we've cleared up lunch. Just let me finish my roll, would you?” He forces a smile. “I'm imagining it's moussaka."
Violet doesn't reply but begins to violently stack the table's contents. She moves towards the door, and as she shoves meat and cheese into their tiny fridge, she's muttering to herself. Glenn is unable to take much of this. "Are you speaking to me, or yourself?" he says.
Violet straightens up, face glistening with sweat. She mops it with a teatowel. "You. The moussaka comment. Not funny."
"I'm sorry. But the restaurants _are_ mostly air-conditioned around here."
"We've got a fucking budget, Glenn! Why can you never let petty, shitty arguments go? Why must you always rake it over like a cat in a litter tray?" She storms past him towards the balcony.
His heart roils and churns inside him. He thinks of how to change the subject while he munches the last of the roll and stares at her intransigent back. He mentally clicks through a few options, dismisses them all miserably, then falls back on the mundane. "Any cooler out there?" he calls, fanning himself with a magazine.
He hears her mutter something, then she yells back through the patio door, "No, it's still Daunte’s Inferno!"
"Dante's, you stupid bitch," he murmurs to himself, then instantly regrets it. What's happening to him? Why can’t he get a grip? He wonders why he’s so jittery, so worked up. Actually, he knows the reason, and it isn’t the bloody heat or lack of sleep. Well, not directly, anyway. He gradually realises that Violet has returned to their room and has been stood, watching him, for some moments. She is cast into shade by the air-bright glare of the searing Mediterranean afternoon. Despite this, he feels her eyes lancing into him.
"Your bit of stuff's outside on her balcony," she says in a flat voice.
His bucking heart empties and fills up with blood. "She's about eighteen," he says, dismissively.
"Eighteen? She's barely _in_ her teens, Glenn. Trust you to try and make her legal. Anyway, you should come out and stare some more. Y'know, like you were this morning. It’s okay – I think her parents are in another room."
He knows he should resist. But he bites. "I was _not_ staring at her this morning. I was looking at the balcony one over."
"Oh. Was there a fourteen-year-old on that one as well?"
"No-one was there," he says, not rising to it.
"Wow. Interesting. Good job there was some intervening entertainment, eh?"
"No-one was there all morning. The curtains stayed drawn and they have been since we got here on Saturday. The manager told me he can't move us to a new room with working air-con because they're all full. There’s nobody in that one; why can’t we have that?"
Violet laughs. "You've come all the way to Crete on holiday with your wife, your kids are at home, and you turn into a weirdo. A curtain-twitcher.” She puts on what she thinks is a funny geek-voice. “Ooh, look at that room, no-one's in there!" She laughs some more, but it seems close to hysteria.
He sighs and grinds his teeth, first one way, then the other. He goes over to her. "What's wrong, Vi?" he says. She says nothing. He can see her face now, and it is serious. "Come on, I can tell. What's the matter?"
"Don't lie to me," he says in a sort of low, urgent grunt. She takes a step back. He moves forward. "I've known you for twenty years."
"Twenty-two," she corrects him dully, making it sound like the announcement of a stretch in jail.
He shakes his head. "Just say it. Tell me what's wrong."
She looks away. Looks down at her hands. Then, slowly, deliberately, as if she’s reciting a rehearsed speech, she says, "I’ve had enough. Glenn - it wasn’t working before we came away and being here has just confirmed that we’re...dead. Dead in the water. Don’t tell me you don’t feel it too?” She seems almost tender as she says this, but it’s the wrong context, and tears are brimming in her eyes.
He feels taller somehow; enormous. He can feel the blood pounding in his ears. Is it relief he feels? The guilt that had been filling him up seems diluted now; dispersed in some larger emotion. Why shouldn’t that be relief?
Violet runs her hands through her hair, dragging it backwards over her skull. The action stretches tight the skin of her face, and she looks translucent, like an underwater creature. She looks at the ceiling, and says, “The room two doors down isn’t empty. There’s...a man staying in there.” She now looks at him. Her voice is a parched whisper. “Ask me how I know.”
Glenn blinks. “I don’t think I will,” he says. He marches over to the door, past the small table where they’ve had their cheap lunches. Past the fan, recycling the same stale air. He opens the door, and turns back. She’s a silhouette again. Hardly real. “She is eighteen, by the way...and better than you ever were,” he says as casually as he can, and heads towards the stairs, and the cool of the restaurant.
Anger to order
The teacher has been working on emotions again. Last week we had love.
‘For your next assignment do anger,’ she said.
‘like?’ said monosyllable Maloney. I could kill him the way he can say a single word and the teacher knows it’s an important question.
‘Good question Maloney,’ said the teacher, ‘Write in any literary form about something that makes you angry.’
‘No bother,’ said tough nut Tom, well out of earshot of the teacher, ‘I’ll write about you, ya feck.’
I headed home and for once I was going to do my homework. Wouldn’t you? Write about what makes you angry; piece of cake, thank you very much. All the way home and on into the evening I thought about what makes me angry. I gave Maloney permission to tell me what he thought made me angry. I promised I wouldn’t hit him no matter what he said.
‘Me,’ he said with that one word again.
‘Yes, I know that, but what about you?’ I asked.
‘Everythin’,’ was Maloney’s useless contribution, getting me nowhere.
The mother was putting on her coat when I arrived in.
‘What makes me angry?’ I asked.
‘You’re just a little bollix,’ she said.
‘Fair enough,’ I said, ‘but it’s homework, so I’ll need more.’
‘Well I’m getting my nails done and I’m late.’ She said.
I waited until my father came back from the bookies and I asked him.
‘Have people been saying stuff about our family?’ he asked.
I explained to him about the homework. Problem with having a mental defective for an auld fella is you can explain to him, but you can’t understand for him.
‘So, what makes me angry?’ I repeat.
‘You’re nature’ he said.
‘What about my nature?’ I asked.
‘You don’t have any.’
Waster. First time I ask him for help with my homework, and that’s as good as it gets. I started to think about places that piss me off.
‘Where would I get angry?’ I asked Mrs Malone next door as she cleaned her windows.
‘The cop shop,’ she said, squeezing her squeegee. All the neighbours know about my relations with the police, but they don’t know how they wind me up and make me say the wrong thing so they can thump me.
I couldn’t really write about pulling the notice board off the wall in the police station, so I tried to think of other places, but apart from the cop shop I couldn’t come up with anything. My sister came in.
‘Why do you think I get angry?’ I asked. She ignored me and I remembered that she’s not speaking to me since I told her she should consider a new hair style.
The more I tried the harder it got. You know how it is when you are bursting for a slash, maybe after stashing a flagon of cider inside you? You go into the gents toilets and there’s a geezer standing either side of you at the bowls. Your bladder is so close to exploding, that you are thinking of calling in the bomb disposal squad to render the device safe. But you just know, though the bladder may burst, there is no way you can go while those two miserables manipulate their genitals on either side of you.
‘Excuse me, I need my space to pee,’ is hardly something you could chance saying at such an unguarded moment, when your boxers are half way to your knees. Anyways, that’s what it was like trying to produce anger to order.
I mean, only that day the little tosser from Mother Akenhead Mansions was staring at me. Bloody freaks me out that does. In fairness, I think he was only trying to count the number of body piercings I have visible to the public, because his lips and his finger was moving. No matter; I’m freaked out, so I bend down and nut the little tool right between the eyes. That stopped the lips moving, like, instant.
‘I didn’t say nothing’ he said.
‘I know, that’s the problem,’ I said. ‘Just say it next time’
I really was trying to do the homework, and of course you know what happened. I finally realised there is nothing makes me angry. I know I get ratty about stuff, but there is no anger about anything.
So tomorrow I’ll tell that thick teacher what she can do with her ‘show me emotion, tra la la la, la….’ If she doesn’t like it, I’m telling you, I’ll clock the bleddin’ waster, and I’m out of that stupid kip of a school. Forever.
Beckie had tucked herself into the corner. Although it meant she had to bide her time if she needed the bathroom, wait for the others to move from their chairs, it did hide her from Gary’s line of sight. If she leant back into the shadows, dipped her head forward and shook her hair over her eyes, she could hide her expression.
‘It wasn’t bloody rape though, was it?’ Gary complained. ‘It’s just all about getting money from celebrities. Suing ‘em. Innit?’
There was a general murmur of agreement from the other guys, while the girlfriends busied themselves on their phones. Beckie closed her eyes, inhaled the stale beer and beeswax aroma of the Coach and Horses and let it out again.
‘I mean, if she went back to his hotel, she knew what she was gonna get, right?’ Gary continued.
‘All twelve inches!’ Andy piped up, Beckie glanced his way and swallowed nausea. Why did he do this? He was a decent guy. Why was it when he was around Gary he felt like he had to turn primitive.
‘And if she wanted him to stop, all she had to say was no, right? It’s a short enough word. Just two blood letters! What was her problem?’
Beckie folded her hands in her lap, but her thumbnails continue to worry against the bitten skin of their opposite number. She could say something. She could say something that would render the whole bloody table silent. Let them feel the shame of what they were saying. But that would be nothing to the shame she’d feel, sharing a wounded part of herself that she was huddled around, keeping from the light.
Beckie had learned it was no good saying no when she was just 8 years old. When a figure had stumbled into her bedroom through the darkness, the smell unfamiliar (whisky, she knows now) and only his voice revealing who it was. Daddy. He wanted to play a game. Their little secret. She said no. It didn’t change anything.
Beckie had heard people use the word no, she’d seen it work. But for her? No was a hollow thing; a porcelain cup, a house of cards. One shove from someone else, and her ‘no’ just shattered.
Why hadn’t the woman said no? Because she’d learned it was easier to live through the certain horror of a yes, than the unknown consequences of a no.
‘They say no all the time when they mean yes, don’t they?’ Gary asserted. ‘I mean if he raped her, then I’m a bloody rapist a dozen times over.’
Beckie’s thumbs found her way into her mouth. She chewed until she tasted blood.
Exhaling fruit-flavoured steam, Dan pulled his coat around him his widening middle. Perching on the edge of the railing, he eyed Sophie speculatively. She arched a perfectly shaped brow in return.
‘Can I ask you something?’ he said.
‘You just did,’ she replied with a smirk. He liked that. He liked the way she always had an answer for everything. She was way out of his league, though. She was easily an 8, and he was James Corden without the sense of humour.
‘Ha ha. Very good. No, I was just…you know all this thing about enthusiastic consent. If you’re with a new person?’
‘Ooh, Dan. Have you met someone?’ Her hands went to her hair, grasping the length that fell down the side of her face. Immaculately painted nails dragged through the black strands, and Dan felt the blood rush from his head to go south.
‘No. Yes. Never mind. I just…I mean, it’s just bloody awkward, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel…romantic, any more. It’s like you have to stop every five minutes and get a form filled out in triplicate or something. You have to be so bloody careful, not to put yourself at risk.’
Sophie’s smile froze. Her false lashes flapped a couple of times, lips pressed against each other briefly. She thought about her walk home from work last night. It was less than a mile away, if you used the alleyways, but now it was darker she walked the long way around. Sticking to the street lights.
She changed out of her heels and into trainers so if she needed to run, she could. Running was her first defence, but it wasn’t everything. She’d started self-defence classes but had wanted more. Now she did Krav Maga twice a week, and hit the gym three times a week for strength and stamina.
When she ran, she ran on a treadmill like one of a dozen hamsters at the local gym. Safer than running the streets, especially in winter. Not that the gym was without it’s dangers. Just last week she’d ended up alone in the weights area with a huge guy. The noises he’d made when he lifted were unpleasantly sexual and she’d caught him checking her out her via the mirrors. When she’d gone to leave, he’d tried to strike up conversation. Called her a bitch when she didn’t answer him.
Clearing her throat, Sophie reinstated her smile. ‘Sorry. Miles away. Yeah, you do have to be careful.’
Flashing lights on the drive again. Net curtains twitching, opposite. Lou was trying to control her shaking hands, but if she got them to be still, the shakes just seemed to spread out until she was trembling all over. Her eyes darted everywhere, mentally listing what she needed to do to make it look like this had never happened. Pick the chairs up. Clear up the gravy, congealing as it slid down the cupboard door. Dave would have to sort out the hole in the door, but she could wipe away the blood. Was it his or hers, she wondered.
And make-up, of course. The good stuff, that she kept at the back of the cupboard. It was meant for birth marks and pigmentation, but it covered bruises too.
‘Lou, he’s in a cell. But the only way we can keep him there is if you tell us what happened,’ the copper was the same one who’d been here before. He’d told her his name, but Lou couldn’t remember. Didn’t do to remember other men’s names.
‘I fell,’ Lou said, stuffing her hands under her armpits.
‘Lou…’ the policeman let out a sigh, some layer of professionalism sliding away. He leaned towards her, forced her into eye contact. ‘Lou, I don’t want to come out here and find you dead, one day. I’ve seen it happen before. Please?’
The shaking took control of her. God. If she told them the truth. When he got out. There’d be nowhere for her to hide. Nowhere. He’d whispered to her once that he’d killed his ex. They’d never found her. He’d left bits of her up and down the M1. Lou didn’t know if it was true or not, but she didn’t want to test him.
‘I fell. That’s all. Now please go, so I can get this place tidied up.’
15th October 2017. 1:21pm. @Alyssa_Milano tweeted:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.
And all round the world, countless women read the message, or a version of it passed on by someone else. And they thought, ‘Could we just say it?’ And they did.
Just Say It
At first, the uniforms bothered her. But she's used to them now, used to how the colours change. The white ones give her meds; the green ones come and fix her up and the black ones ask her questions. They ask over and over and over. The same stuff. She always looks at them but it's not good enough. They want more than she can give and so the days go by, uniforms blending, degrees of pain, inside and out and a rhythm to her days that she can't quite get into. She's constantly off-beat.
The beats get more regular, with time - how much time, she's no idea - and the backgrounds move. She comes in and out of memories and dreams and sees she's somewhere different. First it was all white; disinfectant-tainted air in which she was prodded and stuck and stitched. Just like her mama's sewing, pretty crosses to keep in her blood. The white place, she learned, as the drugs got weaker, was a hospital. Black uniforms on the door and she wasn't sure why for days, if not weeks. There's no way to measure time without Dodger and his rituals. Monday Prayday Tuesday Drugday Wednesday Cleaning Thursday Theiving, Friday PartyOParty Saturday and Sunday Worshipping Dodger in the way he liked, curtains closed, everyone together. Weeks ran together but she knew where she was in them. They all did.
She catches up with the beats and the colours and sees she's in a yellowish house with other people and lots of white uniforms, sometimes no uniforms. But the doors are locked, and this makes her happy.
The questions get more frequent and louder as her thoughts get quieter. She starts listening more and hears things:
Laura Milne, there for five years, teenage runaway.
Hasn't spoken since she was admitted.
Her ears hiss and bite with this last word. She hates it and wishes they'd stop saying it.
One days she wakes, and Dodger is sitting on the edge of her bed. She is so glad to see him she cries and he takes her in his arms and holds her the way he used to, the way that told her she was Number 1.
'You keeping me a secret, like I told you?' he says. She nods and he smiles, his pupils black and deep and beautiful. He is such a beautiful man. Makes her feel so special. She opens her mouth to say Yes, but he clams his hand around it and forces it shut. His eyes grow larger and terrible, then, and closes her own, to block him out, and tries to scream.
When she next opens her eyes, the room is full of greens and whites and she's had a needle in her arm and she's floating.
The drugs in here are okay. Not a patch on Dodger's, but he had his own chemistry, his own magic and the stuff he made blew you away. That was one of the reasons she loved it so much. Tuesday Drugday was the day they got some supplies to last them the week, just the daily stuff, to take the edge off the too-bright lights of the world. In the evenings, if you'd been good, Dodger opened his box of tricks and you could help yourself. She was often good. Often got to have that box of tricks. Dodger had outside customers, too, and sometimes she got to be good with them, as well.
In this yellow place there are things that make you go soft and forgetful and pain-free, and things that send you to sleep, and things that blur the world. It's no a bad place. She doesn't have to do anything.
'Laura,' says a new voice.
She opens her eyes. A young clean man with short short hair is there, sitting next to her. How did he gets in?
'Laura, I'm Doctor Sharman. I've come to talk to you, if that's okay?'
She stares at him. He's so different. Like Dodger's opposite. Dodger is dreads and colours and metal and smell. This man smells like disinfectant, like the first, white place.
'If you want me to go at any time, press your buzzer. Is that all right?'
He shuffles some papers on his lap.
'You've been here for two weeks, now. You were in hospital for about a month, and in all that time nobody heard you make a sound.'
She looks at him. And? she thinks.
'We thought that your voice box was damaged, but last night, Laura, you screamed in your sleep.'
She remembers Dodger being here and what he said. But why did she scream? Dodger was kind and she was good.
She stares at him. She picks up her buzzer on its long snakey wire. The man glances at it, then looks back at her.
'All we want to know,' he says, 'is what happened. You lived at The Temple, Roger's commune. Do you remember?'
Her finger touches the button. This time, he keeps his gaze locks on hers.
'Something bad happened, Laura. We want to know what you can remember. We want to know if you know where Roger might be now? We heard you scream and this means your voice still works. And now that your arms are better, we can give you a pen for you to write it down, we can-'
She presses the buzzer as hard as she can.
Whites come in, look angry eyes at the doctor and usher him out.
'Now now, Laura, calm down. That's it keep you - calm down Laura - Fin get me a D - Laura, keep - OUCH - jab her, quick!'
She can see Dodger watching from the shadows behind the door as the warmth draws up from her arm and spreads over her whole body and takes her back to softness and flying falling sinking down and down and down. The last thing she sees is Dodger smiling at her, nodding and smiling.
She's back at the The Temple, listening to music and dancing, trying Dodger's new stuff, giggling as it takes hold, grabbing her friend's arm. Her friend? It's a new face. Sharon. It's Sharon!
And when she opens her eyes properly, that Doctor Sharman is there again, with two whites either side. He's got a photo of Sharon - how funny, that she was just thinking about her. She smiles and looks at him. If Sharon's in the room, everything will be fine.
'Do you remember this woman?'
Before she can stop herself, Laura nods. The man smiles a strange, full smile and glances at the two whites. She knows she's done something wrong and she hangs her head.
'That's good, Laura. That's really good. Thank you. I'm going to ask something difficult now. Do you remember what happened to her?'
And Laura hears the music in her head again, the thump-thump-thump of bass that reverberated all through the house and her chest and made her feel sexy and good and on fire as she danced and Sharon danced, as they danced together, with Dodger, swaying into each other and being real, as they always were real, as Dodger told them they were, not like everyone else Out There...
She looks at the man.
'Do you remember what happened to her? ' he says again.
There's the colour red, crept into this yellow place and she can't think why. She hates red, has since-
Hands, holding her. Needle, float, away.
This time her dreams are dark, frightening lies of hell. How she imagines hell. All her friends. Faces she's not seen, faces at The Temple. Dodger doing something. A drug he made. Not going well. Dodger doing something wrong. RED RED RED RED.
This dream changes and she's no longer in The Temple, she's back in the yellow place and there is Dodger, sitting on her bed.
'Tell them, Laura. Tell them what you did,' he's saying. 'Tell them what you did, with that knife. Tell them how you cut. Tell them...'
But she shakes her head. Your knife, she's thinking. Knives. Lots. Your red. Your knife. Your worshippers. Your-
Dodger laughs. 'Me? It wasn't me, lovely girl. It was you. Don't you remember? I stopped you. I grabbed the knife. It was you. Not me. tell them it was you. Tell them it wasn't me. Tell them it was you. Tell them it wasn't me. Tell them to let me go. Tell them it wasn't me...'
The voice goes into a loop in her head. She tries to beat it out of her, to stop its red insistence because she knows it's wrong. Dodger- What did her do? She remembers him with the knife. But - but he grabbed it from her. He told her so. And she promised to protect him, she remembers now, as Black uniforms arrived and she lay there warding off the black in her mind. 'Protect me, and we can start all over again,' he says. And she looked around and she saw-
-the hospital. And she'd done something bad. And Dodger got taken away. And then she was here and they want her to tell them what happened.
When Doctor Sharman comes back, he's with a tall lady.
'This is Inspector Stubbs,' he says. 'We really, really need you to tell us what happened. We have a man in custody, but we can't keep him in custody - we can't keep hold of him - unless you tell us what he did. We found him yesterday. Please, Laura. We know what he did, we just need you to say it, so we can lock him away somewhere safe. Just tell us what he did. Please. Or we have to let him go. He's a dangerous man, Laura. You know how he kept you all there. Do you remember what he did? To all of you? How he drugged you and stabbed and-'
She's transfixed by his voice. It's different from last time. This time, he really needs something from her, just like Dodger's customers. Those ones she had power over. That sweet power. Good girl, Dodger used to say. That's it, good girl.
She looks at the man, and the tall lady. This doctor and this inspector and she knows they're the enemy. They're the ones Dodger used to protect her from. We're Real, he used to say. And she knows that anything else is just noise in her head.
Her voice is quiet and scratchy, and feels strange, out in the open after so long inside her.
'It was me,' she says.
JUST SAY IT
They were in ‘Wallis and Alexander Beautiful Wares’ shop. A tea cup glowed in citrus yellow beside cramped eclectic china. Its delicate bony handle saying ‘sip nicely please’.
‘I’m not sure we’ll handle the numbers’ Theresa Duncan was mentally cross-checking details. ‘Oh yes, I removed uncle Vincent’s invitation. Yes, that got rid of about five people with three children’.
Her only daughter’s wedding buffett to be held in their three-storey house was under control. Abby need not fear.
’Fraaaayser no more guests!
For Fraser, there could never be too many people at a wedding. And that went double for little kids who after all were a low-cost item able to be punch drunk on ice cream cones. It was about the light he saw in every person's eye. To which she’d say ‘you’ve got no filter’.
He nodded at her and wandered off towards a masculine looking wicker fishing basket.
‘oh look filter papers included’ she called out holding up a duck blue coffee pot… ‘looks vintage! Nineteen seventy!’
Fraser worried Theresa Duncan. His emotions, his flights of fancy. Thank God her capacity for logical thinking kept him sorted out. It ensured their life as a couple had structure. Nevertheless every now and then she made sure he was consulted otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.
‘Fraaazzz what do you think of this one with the orange stripe?’ She knew she would get what she wanted. On cue, he replied ‘ darling just get what you want’.
‘Orange plates are brilliant’. Straight away forty-six were ordered.
His foraging now took a profound turn in the form of an antique picnic basket with the name Gloria Jensen engraved on its silver label. It bulged with classy silver cutlery, red rose plates and a pink enamelled flask. That’s it!-- a picnic buffett. Lying on a blanket (away from their vogue magazine house), munching on a chicken wing. Eating a piece of lemon frosted wedding cake while gently swinging. He could suggest it. Why not? No invoices had been paid. Forty-six-year-old Abby loathed the idea of being a young bride with an at home wedding buffet.
Now, how to broach the topic with Theresa? ‘Darling I was reading in Tattler’s that Emma Watson is having a picnic wedding. Pretty swish don’t you think? Or ‘Theresa you know Sam the one I go to Bali with every year, well he has a child who insists on having a volley ball wedding. Sam’s twisting himself into a knot about it because his loaded ma believes all weddings should be in a church. What do you think he should do?’ That would at least test the waters.
Jesus, he just needed to say it. Just say it? the words were possessing him..He was nineteen. His world was his parents and his brain had not yet stopped developing. Theresa cried day and night—the only time in the last forty seven years.
‘It may be nineteen seventy son but a fuck before marriage is still wrong especially when you get my princess pregnant. Now you need to do the right thing by her mother and me and marry her next Sunday’
Theresa’s father will kill you if you pull out now.'
Go on 'just say it. You have to do it.
Christ I’m standing at the alter I need to just say it..‘All I have to do is say it. I don’t need to feel it or believe it’. ‘I…
‘Hey Theresa you know what?
‘ I don’t like the idea of a wedding buffett at home. In fact, I don’t like the idea of being married period. Perhaps we should break all the china in this shop. Perhaps Abby should just live with Kelvin. Perhaps you and I should try NOT being married. . watch me I’m buying Gloria Jesen’s picnic basket right now and going for a picnic with the seagulls in Watson's bay.'
Everything is numbers,
Not everything in sequence,
Are we all just digits,
All just fragments in the universe,
All combined in one organic structure
Called the earth,
Are we the products of chance and probability,
A coincidence in time,
Our perception of reality,
Our understanding of ourselves
Like the understanding of language
A complicated sequence of inputs,
From the unknown has brought
Us into existence,
What is this,
A mathematical equation,
A lot less complicated,
Once we let go of the logical stats,
And give into the unknown,
That we are not “just another number”
But we’re the living breathing equation of life,
We are immeasurable and will continue
Forever and ever,
Creating the world and the universe,
We are creation,
Not an equation.
“You still blame me don't you.
Ater all these years you still think it was my fault and that if I'd closed the gate Betsy would still be alive.”
I couldn't speak . The effort of trying to deny it paralysed me and words wouldn't come.
“ It was forty seven years ago and I was only six years old Godammit.”
He was getting angry now and still words couldn't find their way out of my mouth
“Why don't you just say it mum
YOU BLAME ME FOR EVERYTHING.”
He turned to go, but suddenly like a volcano erupting a string of sentences escaped from where they had been trapped for so long:
“I blame myself, not you. Not you Michael. You were a child. It was me. It was my fault.Please don't go. Please”
“Michael turned and looked at me, tears glistening from his eyes. A mix of love and hatred. Need and disappointment. Anger and compassion all stared back at me. Now it was he who couldn't speak.
“See you next week ” he finally said and closed the door behind him.
The tea he had brought me had gone cold and the birthday present lay unopened on my bed. How it was that I had reached eighty I couldn't fathom. Neither could I remember how long I had lived in this room. It wasn't home I knew that and I knew that there was a garden at the back because a girl came and wheeled me out there when the sun shone and wheeled me back in when it turned cold.
I lived in a cottage once. Thatched roof and roses around the porch. An AGA in the kitchen and chickens in the back yard. The children loved to collect the eggs. Still warm they were sometimes, freshly laid. Little miracles.
Michael wanted to be a farmer. He announced it one morning aged four and a half. In his wellington boots, with straw in his hair he already looked the part. Made Stan smile, which was something I can tell you.
It was the war that changed him from the bright cheery lad I had married into a silent unreachable man I tried to please and to understand. The only real joy in his life was Betsy. Blonde hair, blue eyes and a chuckle that filled the cottage with music.
She was two years younger than Michael. Followed him everywhere from the time she could walk until the time she..........
Four years old and we had to bury her in the churchyard and leave her there. We buried Stan in the same place five weeks later. He hung himself. Couldn't live without Betsy his note said.
Hard on Michael that was. Hard because in spite of everything he loved his father. He knew Betsy was his joy, but when Stan had a good day and said 'Well done lad. You'll grow into quite a man' Michael would puff out his chest and walk around the cottage with pride and happiness radiating from his eyes.
We left the cottage shortly after Stans death. Couldn't afford to stay. Broke both our hearts and yet it was probably for the best. Too many memories.
We stayed local so Michael didn't have to change schools. I got a job in the grocers and we muddled through. He never did become a farmer though. Went into banking. Don't know why.
Funny how I can remember things from so long ago and yet not what day it is.
Oh yes it's my birthday.
I reached for the present Michael had left me and grappled with the floral wrapping paper Chocolates.
I smiled, but not with any pleasure.
Every birthday and every Christmas he bought me the same box of chocolates.
I put them back on the bed and lookd again at the photos on my little sideboard.
Betsy was smiling at me as she did every day.
Betsy who had followed Michael out into the lane because he hadn't shut the gate properly.
Betsy who had fallen into the stream and drowned.
Betsy who had been conceived
while Stan was away …...
No I didn't blame Michael.
A Little Bird Told Me
A Robin came in through a hole
And brought me in his coloured bib
He gave me orange when all I had was blue
His world and mine reflected in his wet coal eye
A moment just for me
Something like a smirk
The beginning of a game of wait and see.
We fall like winter nights
Before our walk becomes a run
And when our voice seems lost at sea
The winds will blow it home and round it off
So we may speak again
But gentler this time
Hope is a sunrise every dawn
And dreams the eggs we carry in our hands
All we have to do is keep them safe and warm
And never leave them down
One day they'll hatch
And we'll look up and watch them fly
Higher than we thought they ever would
To wheel and soar until their time is done
Until they're spent and we are truly gone for good
We come to know ourselves through many means
In amongst the many parts at play
So cut the ropes that lash us to the worst in us
And free the strings that sound the notes so we might finally say
That even though our lives are tiny fleeting things
And we must fight to keep the wolves at bay
These are our songs
Sung in our time
So that love will always win the day .
Staring at a Hedgerow in Spring
Mum and child staring
at a hedge; minutes slope past
in silence. I move on
as daughter howls at the loss
of view or the hedge’s voice.
I’m ashamed to see
how small your memory shrank
dug deep by winter
blinked back to life by spring’s prompt
the violets’ purple nudge.
Had my time again
I’d give you defensive words,
say sorry in advance,
explain there's pain while I still
clutched your hand in mine.
Would have said to you
the darkness comes, the night reigns
I couldn’t change things,
make life fair or protect you
from your piteous surprise.
Just Say It
The first time he asked the question it was to ActionMan. Will you marry me? he said as he sat with his blonde curls in miniature rollers, long straight legs stretched out beneath a black mini-skirt, size 4 feet soaking in soap water in preparation for the weekly pedicure; slender hands resting calmly on the arm rests, permanently manicured finger nails. ActionMan stood before him, drenched from his recent diving trip wearing that sexy short wetsuit in the middle of the salon. With his harpoon. Back then, ActionMan had flung goggles, snorkel and weapon aside, thrown himself at Barbie’s foot bath, grabbed her delicate tanned plastic hand in his larger but equally tanned plastic hand, kissed it over and over and pledged his eternal love. From the bottom of his hollow plastic chest. Barbie had squirmed with pleasure.
Much later, when he had asked the question as Philbert and not Barbie, Ken, seated in front of his bejewelled mirror in the dressing room, had looked at Philbert standing there behind him. Very briefly. And then gone back to applying his sticky make-up from the paint-size buckets. ‘Some timing’, he’d said. No goggle, snorkel and harpoon flinging had taken place. What Ken had meant was that he’d not brought the purple and gold lamé dress on time as per request. But Barbie thought she’d just picked the wrong moment to ask.
Barbie had always suspected that ActionMan’s devotion would be short-lived. Soon after accepting the proposal he made out with little sister Skipper in the backseat of Barbie’s own pink Cadillac. Skipper didn’t have a car but ActionMan had a jeep, so why couldn’t he have kissed Skipper in that? Barbie had asked. ActionMan had explained that he’d lost the keys on his diving trip in the bath tub. Unfortunately, that was his only action activity because after noticing he was permanently dressed in the wetsuit, Barbie’s mum had donated the rest of the wardrobe to the neighbour son’s Superman.
Barbie’s wardrobe on the other hand was well-stocked. And it was the pearly white bridal gown in particular that she longed to bedeck herself in. My, was it magnificent! The tulle skirt, the organza drapery, the lace body, the translucent veil. The shiny satin. It was simply stunning. Barbie would dress up every Saturday afternoon, parade around the beauty salon, where Skipper and Cindy would ah and ooh and she would be in love with her own mirror image.
After ActionMan admitted his betrayal, Barbie threw Skipper in the rubbish bin and harpooned ActionMan in the chest. Philbert had to prick a hole with the nail scissors first to get the harpoon through ActionMan’s moulded muscles, but once inside it was impossible to get out. The spearhead butterflied and the harpoon was sticking out of ActionMan’s chest. When Philbert’s mum discovered her brand new Sansome lipstick no 8 Hot Fire had been utilised in the special effects department of her son’s bedroom, on the speared but grinning plastic doll, ActionMan went the way of the rubbish bin where he joined Skipper in filthy bliss. Philbert went the way of the school counsellor. Well, she was the nursery nurse.
The second time Barbie asked Ken, Ken was a Kerry and it was an attempt at harmonising with his conventional environment that drove Philbert to commit the sin against his true identity and ask a girl. Well, she was a woman, in fact the school nurse tending his strained ankle after a cruel tackle by the school rugby team captain’s wing man, Nelson Barley. He was big and he was butch and Barbie was a bit too close for comfort so he got a booted whip over the foot. 'Ah, that boy’s smell' was the last coherent thought Barbie had before fainting with pain and being trundled off in the caretaker’s wheel barrow to the nurse’s room. While hallucinating from the heavy drugs Nurse Bellows had injected in him (a regular blood thinner to prevent swelling) Barbie thought Nelson was cradling his face in his powerful arms and declared his eternal love (Nurse Bellows was forcing fluid down his throat). Feeling thus overwhelmed with relief at having his precious feelings of undying love returned he did the only sensible thing a man could do and said Will you marry me? The nurse snorted humorously and squeezed his cheek. 'Yeah sure darling when you’re 20 years older and my old man has bit the grass.' The last bit confused Philbert in his flimsy grasp of reality and sent him into a spinning wheel of purple, blue and magenta blades of grass whirling round his dizzy head which went so fast he vomited all over his rugby shirt. The event did have the effect of spreading the rumour he was in love with the school nurse which left more than a few male teachers relieved but didn’t fool any male students who’d seen him naked (and erect) in the changing rooms.
Girls suspected nothing. Not even in high school when he dated them all because they always said yes. Who wouldn’t? He was funny (joking about the boys’ inane dress sense), considerate (would never criticise their choice of clothes when out shopping for a party, only make clever and always very accurate suggestions for better choices), and infinitely understanding about their hair issues (too short, too long, the wrong colour, the wrong style, etc.). He only asked because he was lonely and it didn’t look good to ask any of the boys. He’d tried asking them over to play, go for ice cream, play hockey in the park, but no matter how he phrased it, his sentences always sounded like he was asking them out on a date. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in the sunshine for a bit?’ ‘How do you feel about a two-man match of footie?’ It wasn’t that he didn’t try, he was just somehow unable. To speak properly, to walk properly, to think properly. ‘You’re different is all’ said his Nan. ‘Don’t listen to your mum, she don’t know nothing.’ So he stopped listening to his mum but when he started listening to other people, they were saying pretty much the same. That was why he stopped listening altogether.
Only as an adult did he start to listen again. It suddenly happened, although it was probably quite gradual but it felt sudden, that someone said something slightly unusual and he enquired and discovered more people saying similar things until one day he realised he was now surrounding himself by people who said the sorts of things he had always thought. This was when he found himself working as a costume assistant at Spandexa’s Supernight SingerWringer Club in Glasgow’s cobbled Hoar Row, or Gay Alley, depending on who you were referring to the place. Possibly so named because of the atmosphere, which was quite festive, but Philbert couldn’t be sure. It had been a slow gravitation towards this particular magnetic pole over a number of years, from the distant northern hillside town of his childhood; an almost imperceptible, and certainly unaware, progression from miniature Barbie dresses to full grown human sized sequin heaven. It was Paradise!
He dated all the boys because they always said yes. No mothers or nurses or teachers (well there was a teacher from his old high school but Philbert ignored his imploring glances), and sadly, no giggly girls either, but at least no one to speak the unspeakable anymore: you’re not right, it’s not how boys are, should be, behave and so on. Whatever it was he did wrong. So although he felt more right he still did things wrong. He somehow picked the wrong dresses, delivered them to the wrong actors (if you could call them that), used the wrong colour thread when mending a ripped hem.
And with Ken he got the timing wrong. But he was besotted and unable to combine two thoughts into coherent thinking whenever Ken was about. Of course Ken didn’t answer to that name, it was Candice, but nevertheless, Candice had no time for Barbie.
Then one day there was a girl with silky brown hair and Barbie latched onto her like glue to silver glitter and she to him like a marble to a hole in a slanting street. She was a city girl and knew Glasgow like her own nether regions, explored inside out. Not all exploring had she done on her own, but she’d always requested to be fully informed of any new discoveries, and so she had been. By rich company directors and factory workers (who’d saved up six months of wages for a special occasion) alike. It had led to her theory that ‘life is a series of accidental convolutions.’ Nothing was really created, she used to say to Barbie in his secret get-up behind the three rails of show gear at the end of a night’s work when they’d share the leftover booze dumped in the corner by the ‘stars’ because they were gifts from the wrong admirers, and Barbie would be in his bridal wear. It was a different combination every time though, depending on what was available and unused. And it wasn’t strictly speaking bridal wear, just variations of white, cream, beige, pearly, satiny, the only criteria that they filled Philbert’s heart with a warm golden glow. Or it was the half bottle of single malt, he couldn’t be certain. ‘You never really know what’s around the next twist or turn, full of surprises is life, yeah.’ When Cindy was on a roll there was no stopping her but mostly she ended up lamenting her lot in life while mascara ran black streaks down her cheeks and onto her barmaid uniform which didn’t matter much as it was black. Barbie always had to be careful not to throw his arms around her at this stage because he was wearing white. He just ended up comforting her with soothing liquids out of the little paper cups the stars used for mouthwash. The unused ones of course.
When sober Cindy would come home to the little two-bed she was sharing with Philbert they would cook spag bol and play backwards-spelling Scrabble. That was about once a month. Then they would talk about futures, something Barbie had always dreamed of but in predictable monochrome and she in ice cream flavoured pastels. One as unlikely as the other. Once they’d each mentioned a parent, Barbie’s pink-mouthed grey-haired mother and Cindy’s foul-smelling belt-wielding father. She couldn’t fathom what he was doing away from his family when they’d been so good to him. ‘Good is not quite the correct term. They might be nice people but convention rules. Convention, prevention, intention all seemingly good but not particularly considerate of individuality.’
‘My dad had nothing against individuality, so little in fact he’d beat it into me.’ You’re not like the rest of us, he’d shout turning purple from the strain of bending over her lying flat on the floor. You slag, you whore, you... ‘Oh you know it was kind of all the same. So yeah, I’m individual and I have a very special place men love and pay lots for, it’s my gift to them. Besides, my dad is dead.’
Her future was a pink fluffy tail and the ears to match at a pink mansion in a far-off place she’d read about where the trees were lime green, the pool water turquoise and the towels baby blue. And everyone lived in bliss. Instead of burgundy curtains, brown floor paint and murky yellow wallpaper, where Bliss was the name of a lubricant.
‘You know how you make dreams come true?’ said Cindy one day.
‘You mean ‘come true’ true’? Barbie asked.
‘You just say it. Say what you want, and pop it happens. Just say it.’
Barbie closed her eyes and said it. ‘I am Barbie, and I am married to Ken. And we are the happiest couple on earth.’
'Some people seem to be able to make fast decisions. It's seen as a strength, a badge of honour, a flexing of powerful mental muscles. But I always knew that I needed time to come to a decision. Maybe it's the way my brain is wired.'
Nat Brase placed both hands on the plinth and surveyed the audience, then the bank of TV cameras directly in front of him. All the expectant lenses stared back.
'I seem to take more information into account when I make a decision. The connections in my brain are longer, not slower.'
Nat was the clear favourite in this election. Regarded as highly intelligent, his campaign had been measured, free from the slightest whiff of scandal, refreshingly boring.
'There was a time when I felt rushed into making decisions, and those decisions were always bad. At the sweet shop, with a long queue behind me, I would choose the wrong chocolate bar.'
Nat stretched his back upwards to emphasise his above average height, lifted his chin to highlight his strong jawline, and shook his fingers out of view. He breathed in and out several times, slower and slower each repetition.
'I learnt how to buy myself time. I learnt how to create the space to make the right decisions. I can do this.'
A make-up artist was brushing the final minor adjustments to the host's face, then dashed off. Nat kept his eyes focused on the space in front of him.
But Nat could no longer focus.
Nat looked to his left and saw his nearer challenger. Then to his right, he saw the candidate who should have withdrawn long ago.
'I lead by consensus. This is just a question of repeating what has already been discussed. Focus.'
The host touched his earpiece, the room went completely silent.
"But what if the unexpected happens?" asked the host. "What if Manchester's water supply is poisoned and becomes undrinkable for months?"
The first voice was to Nat's left. "Of course we would spare no expense. We would requisition all the bottled water in the country and send it to Manchester. No man, woman or child would get sick. We would do everything we could to keep the city supplied with clean, healthy, drinking water."
The audience applauded vigorously. After a short respectful pause the next voice was from Nat's right.
"As long as it's not London's water." A shocked silence. "No seriously, I'd do the same, I'd find clean drinking water for all those Mancs."
"Nat Brase," announced the host. "As the likely winner, you're going to be directing policy. What would you do?"
Nat ran the costs of the various options through his mind. There were problems with each option. He could do the maths, he just needed time to optimise the results.
"First thought, best thought?" continued the host.
Nat lowered his head, his brain firing with the complex options available to him. He foolishly looked across to his advisors and knew that the host had clocked this.
"What's so hard about the question Mr Brase?"
There were just too many options. The infrastructure was complex, the budgets unclear, he wasn't sure how quickly the bottled water suppliers could respond. Supply chains weren't his strength. Which reservoirs did Manchester get its water from?
"Just say it!" demanded the host.
"Just say it!" demanded the voices left and right.
But Nat just wasn't sure what he would do without further analysis.
I once worked all night for a cheap bottle of wine.
But then came a time when
I used to love to hear the monsoon rains
Outside the door of the cabin
while inside we called people on Skype
all over the world, to ask them
how their water networks grew;
You were bored, frustrated, angry
But I was happy there. So few
things, and across the road the beach
and the warm sea, and the rest of the
world miles and miles away, us
just hanging on, in there with a thread
of wifi, careering round the island
on miniature scooters, sliding down water
falls on rocks smooth as the beginning
of time in the mountains, and really nothing
could be better but you did not love it.
Now I work all night for a cheap bottle of wine.
Sitting in the corner, trembling and scared; sitting in the corner just wanting to be heard.
Feeling small and incredibly meek, needing the strength and courage to speak.
The inner lion had slowly died; battered bruised and empty inside.
It is like I’ve come from the land of Oz; lost is my courage, no fight for my cause.
Worn down by demons that come from him; burying deep within my skin.
A screaming vulture, on my soul he does prey; so many times I ask ‘Why do I stay?’
I want to run, I want to hide, but inside I am fearful and anxious; my thoughts they collide.
The thoughts are dark with no light in sight; the future does not appear very bright.
I want to reach out, seek solace and sanctuary, but huge is the worry of peoples' disdain; being disbelieved and made to feel yet more hurt and shame.
Thus, despite my inner feelings of despise; always back I go to this cruel and warped marital reprise.
But how and why is this the case? Only eight months ago I was draped in new bright white lace.
Then it was different, carefree and charmed, doe eyed and drunk on a cocktail of bliss; giddy and excited by his touch and his kiss.
I dreamt and longed for a future of love bestowed; surrounded by children and family woe.
The woe was real, the woe was now; how quickly the jewel was ripped from my wedding crown.
How could I have been such a poor judge of character? my beau had deceived me, he was clearly an actor.
I could not meet his expectations, hence he quickly so often lost his patience; so long ago it seems since all those marriage congratulations.
I was not the obedient ego masseuse he required; quickly it became apparent the relationship had expired.
My heart is heavy and my mind full; how did I end up in this emotional cull?
Gone was happiness, gone was fun, ambition had left, my mind become numb; my life feels like nothing, a null.
My spark had gone, the lint had died; each day I prayed for the flame to be revived.
His eyes had changed they were stone and set; Is this the worst? I fear, not yet.
What have I done to deserve being made to feel so glum? before it was blissful, romantic, and fun.
Now there is nothing but spite and hate; only joy when he sees my eyes red and tearful, providing more bait.
A shell I am of the woman once was; why does life not have a rewind, or even a pause?
My head crammed with insults and obscenities; my self-belief worth nothing but pennies.
The continual criticism causes anguish within; I’m either too fat, too ugly, or disgusting and thin.
I try to mould into the desired requirement; eager to please and change the alignment.
I feel myself slipping into the abyss; and I wonder would I even go amiss?
My friends have stopped calling, tired of one to many excuse; thinking I am love sick and deliberately obtuse.
In the public eye we are the perfect match, joint at the hip; always attached.
Yet, if I falter in my role, once home, dire consequences will unfold.
I know what I should do but I fear whispers, stares, public glares and backlash; denouncement of my ‘tale’ as utter trash.
No one will listen, no one will care; it feels all so incredibly isolating and unfair.
It is all my fault for daring to dream, of a future so fruitful, happy and free; no longer am I the cat who got the cream.
As I sit in the corner whilst my feelings mull; together myself, I know I must pull.
I look at the stick that has caused such imminent fear; the two lines of blue are evidently clear.
So now there is going to be more than me, and thus this toxic bubble must be burst; on this my thoughts most definitely agree.
How and when? Where do I go? Frightened and scared, I do not like going against the flow.
I want to retract into a safe catacomb. If only I had those red magic shoes, three clicks and we would be in a safe new home.
The innocence hidden inside is pure and oblivious; yet must be protected from his heart of tin, and nature that is just so supercilious.
So courage I must muster; I must not fluster.
Stand up, get up, run and run; stand up get up run and run.
Seek support and shelter; finally find refuge from the emotional pelter.
Trap the mouse, lose the squeak; feed the lion and learn to speak.
Up for the match.
I heard mother’s footsteps approaching, getting louder. They were the footsteps of a mother who knew where she was going and what she wanted there. I flew from my perch on the ladder, and into the hallway pulling the door closed behind me, just in time to crash into her. I am knocked back and on the first breath that becomes available I address this immovable object.
'No, No, you can’t go in yet,' I spurt.
'What? I want to know how you’re getting on in there,' she says with an intent that indicates she might very well go through me.
'I... I... I’m not finished,' I’m stammering again for the first time in two years.
'I didn’t expect you to be finished,' and I know from her certainty she has been calculating times.
'I want it to be a surprise,' and I exhale the words trying not to betray my desperation in keeping her from the room with its one freshly painted wall. She twists her mouth to the left, with her eyes turning right, the way she does when weighing up whether she is buying a dummy.
'Ok,' she says, each letter lasting a full minute, 'I’ll be back in an hour.'
Hours earlier my mother had spread out the old newspapers, covering the whole floor. She even laid the papers out the hall, as far as the back door.
'You understand the job?'she said.
'And remember the price of that paint. If you spill it you’ll be paying for the rest of your life.'
I hadn’t a notion of spilling anything, but ‘Pussy Willow’, as the paint was called, had started making me nervous. As if the stakes weren’t high enough already.
'Here’s the deal,' she had said before going on to spell out the small print.
'You get this room painted, that’s two, maybe three coats, and clean up everything after you. Then you can book your seat on the bus to the Connaught final, in Tuam Stadium on Sunday. You’ll have the money in your pocket to cover the lot. Now get going, because time is money, and money makes everything go round’
It was time for the throw in, and mother had clearly marked the pitch. Anything she thought important enough not to get ruined is covered, which doesn’t include my hands. I hinted that a pair of gloves might not go astray.
'Don’t mind your gloves. You won’t have a proper feel for the brush with gloves.'
I didn’t say anything but I’m thinking, I won’t get to feel the soft hand of Sal Moore in mine this evening either, if I have pussy willow all around my fingernails. Mothers don’t realise there are bigger things to think of than the proper feel of a brush for a lad that turned fourteen on his last birthday.
She finally leaves; the ball is in, and the game is on. She had shown me how to cut in with a small brush at the junction between roof and ceiling, without making a mess, and it was here I would start. It was when I reached over the dresser, from my precarious stance on the small stepladder, that I saw the page from the ‘Mayo News’ special sports supplement for the Connaught Final. This page carried a picture and a report on the team that had beaten Galway ten years previously. I had read the first column when I realised I should be painting. Then I realised I had been pressing the brush against the glass of the dresser while engrossed in my reading.
I rushed to get the damp cloth she had left in case of such an accident. It is boring and time consuming removing paint from the three leaves of a glass inlaid shamrock, and near impossible to clean around the strings of a harp which some fool of a glass worker had inlaid in a fancy fashion. Still, I am in the first quarter with time on my side. No sooner was I reaching over that foolishly decorated dresser again, than my eye is caught by the black and white team photo. I carefully match each name to the player in the picture although I was only five when the game was played. I finish this poor waste of my time only to find that the streaks of paint I had casually applied to the wall had dried in a pattern not unlike the strings of the harp I had earlier cleaned from the glass. The thick lumps are as stubborn in their refusal to flatten as the hair on your head after getting out of bed.
I know I am against the clock, but an image of Joe Corcoran, carried on page two, fetching a ball from the very sky’s above, set me racing across the room, followed by a leap high in the air. Except in my mind I had not travelled the length of the room but forty yards of Tuam Stadium. I was on the fifty, the ball firmly in my hands, having been fetched from way above the reach of the great Mattie NcDonagh. I swung, kicking the ball over the bar, the crowd roaring, but sadly upended the bucket of water I had recently fetched from the well, and flooded the goalmouth.As I dry up the goalmouth I can feel time ticking away. In fact that point was scored going into the last quarter.
Then I felt the circular economy grind to a halt, as I heard my mother return. I had bought extra time but knew the game would not be won in injury time. After our sideline discussion, I hadrushed up the steps so fast that I almost fell and that was when the idea took hold. What if a heartless mother was to find her first born son on the floor not knowing was he dead or alive? There would need to be a short interval where she thought he was dead, followed by the relief of realising he was only unconscious, with at worst a bit of brain damage? No, I decided not unconscious, just stunned, or otherwise I might end up in hospital and ruin every chance of getting to Tuam Stadium on Sunday.
I would first rush the painting of the second wall; far better to have a mother face the near death of a hard working boy rather than a slobber of a son. She would be so relieved at been spared the expense of a funeral that she would surely spend the small outlay required to ensure his attendance at Tuam Stadium come Sunday. My mind is made up and even as my head paints the picture of my heroic near demise, Pussy Willow races across the wall at a fervent pace.
I decided I would fall from the ladder as I started the third wall. Of course I would not risk injury by falling from anywhere but lay myself on the ground, before kicking over the ladder, hoping that the racket would bring my mother running to learn of my fate. My mother did come running as I also gave out a desperate yelp like a kicked dog as I knocked over the ladder.
'The paint, the paint,' she is yelling as she enters the room and takes a leap over my mangled body on the floor. I come to at that precise moment and feeble was the voice that answered the leaping lady.
'I didn't spill the paint' is my plaintive dispatch from death row.
'I’ll spill your blood,' she says with passion, but not the kind of passion that will get me to Tuam stadium on Sunday, as she continues to roast my mangled body.
'How many times did I tell you not to fall off them steps?' she says, starting on her warm up routine.
'I’ll finish it myself. Take some feeding down to the hens, and don’t trip over one of them on the way you heedless amadáin.' She says this knowing it is a low tackle, since feeding the hens is a girl’s job.
There was nothing for it but to suffer a full recovery. No money would circulate from my efforts. As I splutter my way towards the yard I can hear the stream behind the sheds spill over the stones. It puts me in mind of the four fresh salmon my father placed in the submerged little crate that we use to keep our fish cool and fresh, with them safely away from the public eye. I had held the net with himself on the opposite bank in the early hours waiting for the salmon to run with the flowing tide.
'You’re alright,' the father would say, 'it’s not a sin, but it is again’ the law so be careful.'
Being careful meant been risen from my bed at five o’clock in the morning, taking the net from its hiding place to pull the river with my father. I was thinking hadn’t I earned a salmon for myself, and wouldn’t Michael Dearg like a fresh salmon? The same Michael Dearg that owned a motor car and never missed a Connaught Final. I picked the best of the four salmon from the submerged crate and put him in a plastic bag that said 10:10:20.
I was getting back to myself now and even left the bag aside for a minute in the top meadow, while I scored two crucial points for Mayo from way out on the wing. That left me warmed up nicely to make my case for a seat with Michael Dearg.
'Does your father know?' He inquired, eyeing me carefully. I didn’t blame him for showing caution, for wasn’t I a bit afraid of the father myself.
'No, this is a fine pollock my father gave me for helping,' I replied.
'I suppose she’s a pink pollock so?' And Michael Dearg winked with his reply.
He knew we were always told to say we had pollack, because killing pollock was not against the law, like salmon poaching.
'No point in admitting to a crime” the father would say.
‘He’s a Pollock anyways’ was my cautious reply.
‘That’s the main thing; gets us all off the hook, including the fish’
‘That’s right Michael, didn’t I take him off the hook myself abroad in the curragh?’ and this time I wink, both of us knowing the fish never suffered a hook in his life.
‘I suppose a man would be coughing up a few bob for the like of her,’ is Michael’s first shot in making a bargain.
‘I was hoping you might have a seat for me to the Connaught Final on Sunday’ and my heart quickens as I open up the play.
‘Does your mother know?’ He says this like a man would rather trample the eggshells under a hatching swan than risk offending my mother.
‘She said I could go if I found a seat,’ I lied, which is a sin but not against the law like snaffling a salmon.
‘That’s a bargain so,’ he says and spits on his hand before stretching it out. I slap the outstretched hand just like the men do after selling a bullock, and the deal is sealed.
‘Be down here at ten o’clock on Sunday morning. We’ll have the breakfast on the road, and seeing as you’ll be having another salmon for me before the summer is out, I’ll even pay for your ticket’
‘If I’m still alive,’ I say foolishly, but my mind is on the issue of returning to my mother on Sunday evening.
‘Ah now, my driving is not that bad,’ says Michael laughing, knowing his reputation as the worst driver in the parish. I laugh with him, happy that at least I didn’t draw his attention to the more likely cause of death at the hand of my mother late of a Sunday evening.
It’s a disgrace, thundered Garret as he ran, ashen faced, to Bob’s office. Bob, the Big Bad Boss, as Garret called him, was rudely awoken from a reverie, “What have I told you about knocking, Garret, go back out close the door and knock before you come in – like any civilised person would do”. Garret started to reply… “B’but Bob…”, “Get out and knock”, said Bob.
Garret did what he was told, he walked out closed the door, counted to ten and then knocked before going back into Bob’s office. “Now”, said Bob, “what’s’ the problem this time Garret?” Bob had christened him gloomy Garret but hadn’t told anyone as it would be unbecoming of the managing director. Garret had a letter in his hand and thrust it dramatically on the desk in from of Bob, “read this” he said. Bob started to read aloud, “Notice of Summary Judgement”, “sure it’s just more legal nonsense” he said, “put it with all the others, by the time anything actually gets to court I’ll be retired”. Bob wasn’t far wrong, they had had lots of legal letters over the previous 12 months and his policy of ignoring them seemed to be working, anyhow he was getting close to retirement – “just two more years” he thought, and he would be free of the Magic Roundabout Company.
“This is different” said Garret, “we can’t ignore this one. A Summary Judgement means they will get an order this week and then if we don’t pay they can close us down”. “nonsense” said Bob, just get the lawyer fellow, Justin, is it? He can make them adjourn it and it will go away!”. Bob was a born optimist, unlike Garret who explained again, “Look, either we pay it or we’re out of business and we can’t pay because we have no money so what should we do?”. Bob was used to doom and gloom from Garret, “you aren’t giving me great options here Garret, are you? Call a meeting, get Teddy and Sam up here now”. Teddy was the Operations Director, the girls in accounts thought he was cuddly like a teddy bear but Garret thought he was a bungler who had caused a lot of the problems in the company by not delivering on time or by making roundabouts that didn’t spin properly. Sam was the sales director, “sneaky Sam” Garret called him because he always seemed to have some hidden agenda or some scheme going on that no one else knew about, Garret didn’t trust him.
“Should I get the nice sandwiches from Crusty’s?” Garret asked, he loved their sandwiches and couldn’t really afford them except when he could get the company to pay because they were for Board meetings. Bob looked over his glasses at Garret “you want to buy posh sandwiches when we can’t afford to pay our bills, what kind of a finance director are you?” Garret got out of the room fast and went to find Sam and Teddy to bring them back for the meeting.
“Okay” said Bob, “we have a situation, a Summary Judgement situation. Garret you explain.” Garret explained the position and made it clear that if they couldn’t find a solution they would out of business very soon. Bob asked for ideas. “What about having a big sale” said Sam, “big adverts in the papers and on the internet and get loads of sales, that would get tons of money”. Garret sighed and looked disgustedly at Sam, “you do know it takes us six months to make each roundabout and our customers are local authorities, what would be the point of having a sale?”. Sam looked a bit embarrassed, he realised his idea wasn’t so brilliant after all. Teddy thought he would suggest something to take the pressure off Sam, “if we use cheaper parts and less bearings in our roundabouts, I’d say we would save lots of money and then we could pay the bill”, he looked pleased at having made a valuable contribution but shut up when he saw Bob throw his eyes up to heaven and the others shake their heads.
“Does anyone know anything about this “Balls Bearings Company who are looking for the judgement?” asked Bob. “I know John Balls” said Teddy, my daughter is friends with his daughter and is going to her birthday party on Saturday”. Bob had an idea and asked for John Balls number.
Bob came back into the meeting room after making his call, he was beaming. “Well, that’s sorted” he said. “But how?” asked Garret. Bob explained, “I’ve promised him a roundabout in his back garden, to be delivered before his daughter’s birthday. We will give him our display model, it needs to be replaced anyway. He has agreed to knock ten grand off our bill and give us six months to settle it”. “we are saved…for now!”
He explained that John Balls hadn’t wanted to put them out of business, “in the roundabout business, what goes around comes around” he had said. Yes “a circular economy” Bob replied.
The Last No
Staring out the window
waiting for your call, the Queen
of the circular economy,
my favourite client.
A balance-sheet of murdered dreams,
bitter pith stuck in teeth.
Your self-esteem balloons backwards,
next door’s snowman melts upon the lawn.
Clock ticks its rhythm of if onlys,
this, that and the other
hadn’t happened or, at least,
not quite then. I wind it again.
A year ago they feted you
now a contagion of noes,
neighbour chucks stones at our hedge,
doesn’t care what’s there.
I can’t wedge the pieces in a way
that stops them toppling.
I have no answer for you –
is that why you don’t call?
"The Dome is like the Earth's atmosphere: closed. Nothing gets out. Whatever we put in stays there and so we live knowing this, having known it since we were children, taught to be careful and 'live lightly'. The Live Lightly campaign came as a direct result of studying what went wrong, in the pre-Dome days, when chaos ruled and we lived with heavy feet upon the Earth. After the Domes were built order was restored and life continued. Those who didn't or couldn't belong lived outwith the Domes and everyone else took their place inside. This meant..."
Mia stopped typing and yawned. Why did she have to write this stuff? Everyone knew it. It wasn't as if she had a choice about what she was going to do, so why bother graduating? She gritted her teeth and made a growly annoyed sound, chucking her Tab onto her bed where its light died as it automatically shut down. Mia jumped up from her chair and paced the room. She tried the door, but it was, of course, locked. Study time didn't finish for another hour and unless there was an emergency she was stuck.
'Boring boring boring boring...' she muttered. Until study was over her Consul wouldn't work so she couldn't chat with anyone. Her M and F, her givers and the only people she was allowed to communicate with, were busy at work and wouldn't be back until after Meal 4, so she was stuck.
She threw herself back on her bed and did a bit of mindmonitoring, just in case anyone peered at her through teachercam. She could pretend to be studying, but really, she was floating about in her mindlocker, looking at her thoughts.
She thought again how pointless her essay was. She wasn't leaning anything new, simply parroting back at the teachers what they all knew. Brainwashing, Nico called it. She didn't agree; to her it was more a lack of imagination. 'Imagination is Dangerous!' read some of the Mindads glowing around the dome. They also said things like 'All for One' and 'Collective is Directive', which, as far as Mia was concerned didn't even make sense. Her least favourite of all was 'Know Your Place: Wheel of Life For All'.
As well as living lightly, they were all taught about the wheel of life early on. Givers would be told which slots were open and all education was to be towards that particular role: in Mia's case, as a Grower. She was preceded by a Seeder and followed by a Composter. She'd started training on some of her College days and she hated every single minute. Growers were stuck in the bowels of the Dome, under harsh lights, and they had to wear stupid coveralls to stop them wrecking the growing cycle. Her wheel of life, for her whole life, would begin and end in the growers' corp, as stuck in place as the plants she stuck in pots.
At least as a composter she got to work with people. Okay they were dead but learning hot to turn them into food was interesting. You added vegetable matter and certain minerals and what came out supplied more compost than was needed. And the seeders, they got to work in the lab, experimenting with new species, making up plant names, looking for immunity to the ever changing disease cycle. Then there were the cooks, not much change from the pre-Dome days, the washers, who made sure everything got reused - even that would have been more interesting than simply putting things in pots, day after day after day. When she graduated she'd be cutting and grafting, but that would take ages.
Deep in her mindmonitoring, Mia huffed and sighed.
Her givers were both Organisers, the ones who made sure that the Wheel worked properly. 'If one spoke in the wheel breaks down, Mia, the whole wheel stops turning.' How often had she heard that? She got it, she totally got it. But it was so DULL. In her dreams, Mia fantastised about breaking a spoke. Just to see what would happen. She told Nico once, and he was horrified.
'They watch you, Mia,' he'd said. 'They'd kick you out. You'd no longer be a Domer. Look at what happened to Nils...'
Nils was too stupid though, Mia thought. Unlike Nils, she knew where the cameras' blank spots were. She could cause a little chaos out of sight, easily. It was so tempting - and nobody would know it was her... When Nils was caught tempering with the genetic computer, to make more females, he was cast Out. By law, everyone - including his givers - had to turn their backs on him and walk away, whilst he was pushed out of the airlock into the Outer world, where, it was said, the radiation was too strong to survive for more than a year. Nils had shouted that it was rubbish, and that he'd made contact with some Outers and that all the Domes did was support their own crazy ideals to produce water, which the Heads then hid away and stored, for those times when the water ran out.
Mia was unsure about all of this. She was more curious than afraid, but she knew she'd not be caught. She just couldn't quite decide what to disrupt - where to cause her tiny bit of chaos.
The water makers gathered condensation on hotter days, urine from individual room-pots as well as other things and turned it back into drinking water. Without water, they'd all die, so she'd leave well alone. Unless...
The food - if she could sneak into the Seeders' bit she'd mix things up a little, but it was nearly impossible to get in there. The composters were a grim lot, she'd like to get in there and lay a few practical jokes - say put some toys in, just for fun, but again they were too highly guarded. And anyway, there were hardly any toys left.
She'd quite like to change the curriculum, ask students to write about something other than the boring history of how we began living in Domes, but the passcodes were inaccessible to anyone her grade.
The programmers' lives were a mystery - they were hooked up to Consuls and stayed there for days on end - she didn't like that idea at all.
So what could she do? Everything went around, and around. Everything in the Dome stayed in the Dome.
And this was where her idea came from.
She leapt off the bed and finished her essay, rushed its boring ending and came to the same conclusion that everyone else did: Domes were Life. Do not disrupt etc etc. She E'd it to her teacher and waited for her door to swish open, freeing her from her room.
The first person she came across was Nico.
'You'll never guess what?' she said.
'What?' Nico said.
'I read a memo from the Heads. Our water ration is being increased!'
'Really?' said Nico, her not so bright, talkative friend.
Mia skipped off, and went to the Rec area, and waited.
The rumour took only two hours to get back to her, by which time there was a palpable frission of excitement in the still air of the Dome. Mia giggled - she'd rarely - and not since Nils - experienced anything other than the stale, everyday experience of everyone all playing their part of the game of Dome Life, running the Wheel.
By eveningtide, there was some anger. This came from the Heads, who stated that the water rations would remain the same due to lack of clean rainfall in the area surrounding the Dome. It rained only 27cm a year, and it was acidic, undrinkable. The anger came from the seed of unrest that grew and grew as people considered that actually, they'd never had enough water. They were being denied this vital part of life.
By nightfall, Mia was afraid of what she'd done. A man had been Outed for hitting a fellow Domer who stole his share of water. His givers verbally attacked his victim's givers, backing him up. There were more thefts. Heads appeared on Consuls imposing a curfew and a ban on bathing. The swimming pool was closed.
Things progressed quickly after that. The last time there was any unrest in the Dome it was when water had run out, before the water circle was established. With the water circle, there was always enough. Suddenly, enough wasn't enough. People broke the curfew. Meal 5 was not made. The water for the plants was stolen, and things wilted fast.
Mia ran to her room and mindmonitored until she had an answer - but by then it was too late.
Domes saved humankind, but they were also very claustrophobic places and it didn't take long for things to go wrong. Mia asked herself over and over what she could do. She thought so hard she gave herself a headache. She went to her water tap, turned it on and - nothing.
She shook her head. There was only one things he could do now - own up and risk expulsion from the only home she'd ever known. She sat down at her Consul.
she began. And then she explained, and apologised. And finally, she understood why she and her fellow pupils were asked to write the same essays, over and over. It was to remind them how they were all going to survive. So she ended her letter with part of her essay:
The Dome is like the Earth's atmosphere: closed. Nothing gets out. Whatever we put in stays there and so we live knowing this, having known it since we were children, taught to be careful and 'live lightly'. The Live Lightly campaign came as a direct result of studying what went wrong, in the pre-Dome days, when chaos ruled. After the Domes were built order was restored and life continued.
The only way life can continue is if we remind ourselves of this, daily. I have learned my lesson. I do not want to be Outed, but if that is the will of the Heads, I will submit, for I have caused a spoke of the wheel to break, and for this I am sorry.
She ended her letter and E'd it to the Heads' address - the one everyone could access, at any time.
And then she waited.
When the knock came she was calm. She opened the door to a quiet Dome. The First Head stood outside, flanked by some officials and both of her givers, M and F.
'Mia 314?' The First Head said.
'For what you have done, you will be punished in the following ways...'
You Name It
If naming gives me power,
I pass that power to you,
For whom the name is more than any meaning in the thing
That, in our nouns, may run or hunt or grow or feed
(But who knows how it calls these to itself).
Words may seem beginnings ,
And a Word create a world-
Of dreams and love and countless images of peace...
And yet we know a name is just a name-
For goodness knows that roses smell, as Juliet said, the same
By any name that humans may desire.
For sure, the ones who would dispute the names
For what a thing should be
-A country bounded, claimed by several lands-
May, in their lack of care, create a war :
“Let’s use OUR language, change the native word”
(Create a new mistake to bring us wealth,
Make shabby all our hopes , with grasping wordless rule) ,
And so doing, twist the notion of sweet life,
For only hearts may plumb
That depth no names may net...
And so, my friend indeed, I give to you
That power ...
That power I thus renounce to take your hand.
I trust you use it only for delight-
Creation’s friend, when names enhance the light...
School class photos have a distinct brand of nostalgia about them. Stage-managed and disingenuous, they capture little of the real world of the adolescent: that ever-moving, high-octane, raucous domain. Bagging up some shabby clothes for the charity shop the other day, I discovered one of mine: Carseknock High, 1979, 3B2. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Still can’t. I keep glancing up at it now, as I try to write this.
The photo is a smorgasbord of half-remembered faces: there’s Jemma Elliot, finest girl in the class. Sigh. She regards the camera with a cool expression that suggests she knew damn well how gorgeous she was, even then. Next to her, my eye drawn to the juxtaposition as if a circus freak had popped up next to a lingerie model, is Louise Spriggs. Unfortunate. Then there are the dead eyes of Spencer Derby, who joined our reggie class that year. In the photo, he’s sitting next to our tutor, Mrs Markham. She looks terrified, and I don’t blame her. He was something else, alright. But then I remember what happened to Spencer, and it involved Graham Torrance (back row, toothy smile, massive) and weirdly, Louise. I stare at Graham, his huge grin echoing across the intervening decades. Nothing remarkable about him other than his size. Rugby player. Not in my circle. He seemed a nice enough lad.
Carseknock Academy wasn’t always the jewel in the crown of West Lothian’s secondary schools. Attending there, I remember the old sign, ‘Carseknock High’, with the ‘C’ and the last ‘k’ spray-painted out and the second syllable turned, inevitably, into ‘knob’. The current headmaster, something Francis I think, had the good fortune to arrive as the school was being changed into an ‘Academy’ and the good sense to raise the sign high enough on a pole to deter would-be graffiti artists.
Rude signs aside, during my time, the buildings were in dire need of improvements, there were fights daily, teachers were frequently threatened by pupils and I lost count of the arson attempts. It’s a miracle I got out alive, let alone with five Highers. And to think I’ve become one of the most respected lawyers in the city, on several Parliament steering groups and with the ink drying on the deeds to a holiday home on the Cote d’Azur. (No thanks to Arseknob High.)
So. Spencer Derby came in our third year, and went into the remedial class, with Louise and about four others. Remedial, as it was called before the word acquired any pejorative connotations. A bit like ‘spastic’, which is what most people called Louise. I remember her as having wiry, scraped-back hair of an indistinct brown, no friends, an unfortunate habit of breathing loudly through her nose, and crossed-eyes bridged by thick black NHS specs.
Louise was bullied by most in our year, I’m ashamed to say. The usual extra jostling in the corridors and freezing out of any social group (cool or nerdy; it didn’t matter, she was so low on the food chain). Adults tend to forget how unkind kids can be. But I’ve never forgotten, because that year Spencer arrived and made everyone else’s efforts seem amateurish. He was quite big for a teenage boy, with a slow, deliberate way of moving that could turn fast and violent in an instant. He rarely did any school work, his brain instead used for muttering sly and vile insults to anyone who fell into his cross-hairs. He knew he could have anyone in a fight, and proved as much by sending Aaron Davis, the hardest boy in the year, running home to his mum with a busted nose in week one. Spencer had come from some island through in the West – we used to joke that he’d been quarantined there for the good of society, but had escaped to wreak havoc on the mainland.
Spencer made Louise’s life even more hellish. He robbed her dinner money, mimicked her walk and her stammer. He called her every horrific name he could think of – he really was quite talented at this – and got away with it all; in class, in the corridors, the playground, wherever. The teachers at Carseknock were as scared of him as we were.
Around that time, there had been a spate of muggings in the community, marked by their unusual violence. Victims had been left with facial injuries even after readily handing over their wallets or jewellery. The assailant was known simply as ‘Mr Balaclava’, and the police were looking for a man of medium build, medium height. The only other thing they had to go on was that he always used a knife and – now and again – wore bright red gloves.
Naturally, we all speculated as to who this could be. Various brothers and uncles were weighed up, defended, brought back into the frame again. We were kids, we were rubbish at it, but we liked playing detectives all the same. At assembly, our headmaster, Mr Scripps, a thin man with a brown suit and a stoop, warned us to not walk home unless in groups of three or more. Mr Balaclava was the bogeyman of Carseknock, it seemed, and nobody could stop him.
One day, I was leaving the school late after Chemistry study class. Everyone else at the study class was well gone, because I’d stayed even later to talk to Miss Fletcher, one of the teachers. I came round the corner of the Sports Hall and found Louise Spriggs, sobbing and trying to pick up her glasses, the frames having been snapped into several pieces. Her bag had been emptied out and her things scattered around. Trampled into the mud. Wrecked. She was also holding her wrist, making the retrieval of the glasses extra difficult.
I’d never spoken to her while it was just the two of us. I picked up some of the pieces and tried to help mend her glasses but it was useless. I don’t think she knew who I was. I didn’t want to touch her and I felt helpless, like a bystander. ‘Spencer?’ I said, and she just nodded.
Just then, coming out of the Sports Hall after using the gym, Graham Torrance strode straight up to us. Now, Graham wasn’t Louise’s pal or anything, but surveying the wreckage of her school life and noticing she’d had her arm hurt, not to mention her ruined glasses, he quietly confirmed the identity of her attacker as I had. Standing there in the fading light, I perfectly recall the intensity of his gaze and his bunched jaw muscles as he approached us. He seemed even bigger than usual. ‘Do you want me to sort him out?’ he asked Louise, dropping his kit bag near my feet. The zip hadn’t been fastened properly, and I remember looking into it.
‘W-what do you mean?’ stammered Louise. ‘What could you do?’
Graham nodded grimly to himself, jaw muscles working away. In his bag, I’d glimpsed a pair of bright red gloves. I took a few steps away.
‘You name it, love. You name it.’
Heart pounding, I awake jarringly, drenched in warm sticky sweat. My stomach is twisted in a knot as if I've awoken from the worst nightmare. Something feels wrong, deep in my bones.
I reach in the dark for the bottle of whiskey I keep on my beside table and drain the remainder of the bottle in one swig. The digital clock on the bedside table tells me it's 6am, but sleep isn't on the cards. Covering my naked body with a cashmere robe, I retreat to the sanctuary of my home office. Settling at my desk, I figure throwing myself into the tedious process of editing will shake the feeling of dread, however with each tick of the clock I only grow more apprehensive.
A little after eight, the shrill ring of my phone causes me to jump out of my chair. It's Mom. Then I just know something is wrong. My thoughts immediately jump to my father.
"Mom," I can hear the strain in my voice.
"Eric, darling. I'm sorry-"
"Dad? Is Dad ok." I interrupt, fearing the answer I'm sure is coming.
"Dad is fine. Eric, it's Ada. There was an accident...she passed away."
Suddenly it's like a black hole has opened up inside of me, sucking in every bit of joy I've ever felt and ever will feel again.
Ada. Ada. Ada.
The girl with the dimpled grin and mass of dark curls, too big for a girl so small.
Ada, I fucked up.
Seven years have passed since I've been in Willow Springs, the farming town in the middle of nowhere I was born and raised. My BMW feels out of place, cruising down the winding, country roads. I drive with the windows down, appreciating the fresh air, you just can't get in NYC. Here the houses are few and far between, divided by rolling fields of green and fields of golden wheat.
My heart clenches as I drive by the blue house with the white porch. Her house. I can't help but picture her in her trademark, denim dungaree's. Barely seventeen. That wild hair secured in a ponytail. Her mom screaming at her come back this minute, young lady as she sprints towards my truck. Wicked grin on an angels face. Blasting Tom Petty we speed of as her mom looks on, the colour of beetroot. She throws her head back laughing heartily, always the little firecracker.
Seven years and I still know these country roads like the back of my hand. I drive by Shake Shack, an authentic 1950s diner and the only decent place to eat in this town. Ada and I spent many nights here, the summer before I graduated, sharing fries and a chocolate shake. Her favourite, not mine. I always preferred vanilla. It was all I could afford. The waitress on close would have to force us out the doors at midnight, still we didn't go home. We'd park my truck in a lovers lane and lie under mismatched blankets in the trailer, star gazing.
These kind of views were impossible in NYC. in Willow Springs, with no light pollution you could see the skies above in all their glory.
Ada would point out all the constellations. Cassiopeia, Orien, Delphinus. She said one day we'd have babies named after her favourites.
I would just nod along in agreements, thinking no star could shine as bright as Ada when she was excited. Or how my favourite constellation was the freckles that dotted her nose and cheeks.
One night under the stars she asked me, "Would you do anything for me?"
"You name it."
"Never leave me."
"Never, ever." I sealed the promise with a kiss on her nose.
It was true then.
I drive past a tiny, rundown house. The red paint peeling off the weathered wood. The lawn over run with weeds. The white picket fence in ruins, collapsed on the jungle lawn.
My parents house. Could I face them?
Growing up Dad broke his back labouring to pay the bills. Mom worked two jobs to put food on our table. Growing up I didn't have much but I was loved. When I moved to New York I forgot all about them. When I found relative success as a book editor all I did to thank them was a phone call every other month. I could have used my money to help them fix up their house but instead I blew it on high class liquor and high class whores.
When did I become an asshole? Or was I always one.
Back then Ada didn't seem to think so...
I think back to the last night I seen her, seven years ago.
I'd graduated high school that summer. Ada was about to begin her senior year.
We'd made love, for the first and last time.
We lay naked, under blankets, under the stars, in the trailer of my truck.
Her eyes shone brighter than I'd ever seen and I couldn't figure out how to say what I needed so I just sort of blurted out, "Ada. I'm leaving."
Her brow furrowed in confusion.
"Whatcha mean you're leaving?" Her voice a sing song drawl.
"New York city, Ada. I got an internship."
"When are you leaving?"
She shot up suddenly, exposing her naked breasts. Small and perfect like the rest of her. Then she snatched a blanket and wrapped it around her body, "Why are you only telling me now."
"I only found out I got it this week and I didn't want to ruin the end of summer."
"Is it me?" Her voice took on a note of unfamiliar hysteria "Are you leaving because of me? Don't you love me."
"Ada, Ada, Ada. Calm down. Of course I love you."
"You promised you wouldn't leave me." She lets out a long, sorrowful wail, breaking down into tears.
"Ada, I'm not leaving you, not forever anyway. You can join me in NYC after you graduate." I placed a hand on her bare shoulder.
This seemed to calm her down a little. "Can't we go after I graduate?"
"Ada, I wish. But this internship won't wait. By the time you graduate I'll have a good set up in NYC and we can start a life together. A better life than we'd have staying here."
Her eyes lit up and she threw her arms around me, squeezing me with alarming strength for such a small girl, "NYC! You and me Eric!"
"Yes, baby you and me."
I meant it at the time.
For the first few months we kept in touch. Emails, phone calls and promises I did not keep. Life went on for Ada in Willow Springs, as life always goes on in Willow Springs. Life for me was a whole new adventure. I was an eighteen years old boy country boy discovering NYC, parties, cocaine and whores for the first time.
Six months in and an email everyday and phone call every week dropped to an email a week and a phone call every month. 'I'm busy with work' was an excuse she bought. I figured by the time her graduation rolled around I'd be ready to settle.
Only I wasn't. I was immersed in the party boy lifestyle.
"A couple of years, Ada. I just need a couple of years."
"Fuck you, Eric." Was the last words she spoke before slamming the phone down on me. Its what I deserved.
One night four years, after I first moved to NYC and three years after I last heard Ada's voice I began to contemplate life, with the help of too many whiskies. When had I became so shallow? I fantasied about making love to Ada under the stars, our summer romance only lasted six weeks but they were the most significant six weeks of my life. I figured, if she wanted me, I was ready for her.
Hah. Who was I to assume she'd wait?
To nervous to call her I drunk dialled my mom under the pretence of catching up. After shooting the usual shit I asked,
"Remember Ada Appleton? How is she doing?"
"Ada, she had a baby last month. A girl. Cassie. Short for some god-awful, weird name. You know she was eccentric."
"A...A...Baby? Is she married?"
"No, no husband. Or boyfriend. Just Ada and the baby. Her mom being the crazy catholic she is, is appalled of course. Threw Ada out."
"Mom, I gotta go."
I drank myself to sleep that night and many nights after that thinking about Ada alone with a baby. I could have tried to step in and sweep her off her feet, take care of her. I loved her and had the financial means. Truth is, I wasn't ready to raise a baby. Especially one that wasn't mine.
So Ada and I were destined to walk different paths and I tried to forgot about her. Still when I dreamed, I dreamed of her.
Snapping back to reality I look up at the tattered red house I grew up in. I imagine Dad in his old, leather armchair watching the football. Mom slaving over the stove cooking up her famous Mac n cheese. God, it’s been to long since I seen them. Hearing their voices on the phone every month didn’t cut it, I needed to see their faces.
Stepping out of the car I walk towards the front door. It’s too late for me and Ada but it’s never to late to be happy. It’s time I came home.
YOU NAME IT
From the window, I can hear the murmur of the stream running through the garden and into the cool basin of the pool below. It sooths my fever and sleep embraces me.
Waking later, I can feel the breeze from the Ocean and the curtains move slowly as if fanning the room with their gentle sway. Now it is dark and the fireflies begin to hover and buzz outside the casement. There is no movement of human life other than my breath; the calm rise and fall of my chest as I lie in the bed.
Does this mean I am alone? Alone in the great house among the trees? How did I come to lie here? Faint images of figures like pages from a picture book pass through my mind and vanish in a fading stream of memory. Were they real or just imagination? I look from side to side, testing my vision in the enveloping gloom. No, there is no one there. Merely shadows cast by the few pieces of furniture beside the bed; a rattan chair, a stool made of dark wood and a china jug sitting on small table.
I test my limbs; first legs then arms. What force restrains them? There is no movement in them, yet no pain, just patient stillness, as if the brain told them to be at peace. This must be death, coming so quietly after the fever and sealing my body in its eternal state.
But my brain is alive; I can hear the gurgling stream. The faint stirring of the breeze touches my cheek and my thoughts run on as I lie here. I am alive but motionless like a waxwork figure in an exhibition. As if on display for visitors; a curiosity in some human museum where sightseekers gawp.
I must get up. I have to show them I live. Someone is coming. The door opens and figures approach the bed. I can hear them talking.
"He seems at peace. It won't be long now."
"Can you name it?"
"It's the calm of death. It's called serenity,"
Touch me! Save me!
She's the Dark Lady,
she takes you away for a very long trip when you less expect it.
Were you planning your next holiday?
I'm sure you'll find good company in Hell .
It's very cozy, I heard.
She's the Peace Bringer,
comforting you after all the pain,
Where do you think you're going?
Maybe now you'll be able to rest:
She's the Grim Reaper,
Who's harvesting your soul now, Soldier.
Tell me, was the Enemy so different from you?
Was He's soul less valuable than yours?
She's the Banshee,
Who's shriek you have mistaken for a fox.
But your old Gran knows,
Old people always know, don't they?
She smiled and prepared your favourite dish.
She's the Unknown,
She's the Darkness,
and the Light,
She's Delicate like a kiss,
and Raging like the sea during a storm.
She's has more names that you can remember,
and one day your name will be on her lips:
'Cause She has never forgotten yours.
“You can name it “
“What! I don't want anything to do with it”
“Oh mum” nine year old Jessica whined. “Dad said if you named it you would bond with it.”
“Well your Father was wrong and he was wrong to go behind my back and let you have an animal without talking it through with me, Where is he anyway?”
“He's putting the car away”
“Hiding more like because he knows I'll be furious.
It will have to go back”
“No way Mum No please you can't do that”
“I think I just did Jessica so you can tell your Father to get the car straight back out and take this thing with you.”
“It's not a thing it's a hamster”
“It's a ratty micey thing and it's not staying in this house”
Jessica could see her mother was serious and tears started to form in her eyes,
“Crying will get you nowhere” Janet said rather more sharply than she meant, but it was just too bad. David should never have let Jess bring it home It really was the last straw.
Jess couldn't move she knew her mother was getting angrier by the minute but she couldn't quite get her legs to work either and she stood there helplessly holding a small box from which noises were beginning to emerge and out of which to Janets horror two ears, two eyes, a nose and whiskers appeared.
She took an involuntary step back and demanded that her daughter take it back to the shop immediately in a voice that would have scared a Tyrannosaurs Rexa let alone a little beast that weighed less than five ounces.
Terrified the hamster leapt out of the box as Janet and Jess screamed simultaneously, Janet in horror and Jess in concern. David who had been standing outside the door counting to a hundred and then another fifty had been hoping that if he counted high enough the crisis might pass and Jess would win her mother round. But when he heard the screams he knew that his best laid plans had gone seriously wrong and he was in deep trouble.
Going into the living room he found Jesss scrambling on the floor trying to see where the hamster had fled to and Janet barking orders from the kitchen doorway
Seeing her husband her rage instantly reached the next level of decibels and intensity,
“This is your fault. The bloody thing has escaped and goodness only knows what damage it will do. You pull one more stunt like this and I swear David you'll be packing your bags”
Jess in the mean time was desperately looking under the sofa and behind the television but the hamster had well and truly disappeared.
It took two hours for David and Jess to get sight of it and then like a Tom and Jerry movie they chased it from one hiding place to another. Thankfully Janet had gone to Waitrose for a free coffee, leaving them to it. But she was sure to back any minute and as much as he loved his wife, David knew if they hadn't caught the escapee by then there would be disastrous consequences.
Suddenly Jess gave a whoopee of joy, “I've got him. I've got him, look he's there Dad and he can't get out.”
David could see a little fluffball wedged between the pile of books he had kept meaning to put away and the statue of Buddha which was so heavy it was there for life
He watched as Jess carefully put her hand into the space and gently picked up the hamster who seemed resigned to its fate and didn't struggle as it was put back into the box in which it would be transported back to the pet shop. Jess was just going to get back up off her tummy and ease herself out from the corner when she said excitedly 'There's something else here hang on a minute dad.
Triumphantly she pulled out a ring. It was Janets late mothers and it had been missing for months. Janet had worn it a few times then lost it which had caused her great sadness as it had been her mothers favourite.
Just as Jess retrieved the ring Janet came through the door
“Have you caught the wretched......"
She didn't finish the sentence because she spotted the gold ring in her daughters hand.
“The hamster found it” Jess said.
Her daughters eyes were pleading with her and she could feel her husbands gaze fixed on her too.
The hamsters future was hanging in the balance and she suddenly found she couldn't speak.
“Please mum” Jess said
“Alright alright” her mother gently conceded
But you name it!
"Did you decide on a name?" He asked. His words were soft, hesitant and he didn't look up from the bundle in his arms. It was small, about the size of a loaf of bread. Maybe it too would crumble, if you squeezed it hard enough.
She shrugged and looked away, staring instead at the hospital wall, a sheet of pristine white that was turning grey as the days light fled. Maybe if she jumped through the window she could flee with it.
"How about Jessica?"
Jessica was her middle name. The loaf of bread that would go bad in a matter of days would not get to share her name.
He sighed and the bundle wriggled against his chest as if it could sense his pain. Shouldn't it be crying? Maybe it enjoyed their pain, its father certainly had.
The low whir of the hospital machines filled the silence. The deep ache between her legs flared and a tear escaped when she winced. She hated that he'd hurt her there again.
"Darlin' please." He stepped towards her, bringing the bundle with him. She rolled onto her side, blocking them both from view. He told her last month that he thought she should name it. After they'd chosen the adoption agency. She'd argued it would just get given a new name but he said that didn't matter. The name wasn't for the baby, it was for her. To remember. But she didn't want to remember.
"What about Tallie? You love the name Tallie."
She did love the name Tallie. It was what she had called all of her dolls when she was younger. There was Tallie One and Tallie Two, twins that she'd gotten for christmas when she was five. Then there was Tallie Three when one week later Tallie Two had been left behind at the airport and no doubt met an explosive end. Of course at the time she'd thought Tallie Two was travelling around the world having adventures. Maybe she could leave the loaf of bread at the airport.
"I don't want to call it Tallie. That's what I'm going to call my daughter."
He didn't know how to respond to that. Not when he was holding her new born baby. She felt so right nestled in the crook of his arm. He looked at his wife lying on the hospital bed. The sheets stuck out at the thin angles of her limbs and her hair was matted to her neck from the effort of giving birth. Any hope he had that she would be better once the baby was born disappeared as he watched her. She thought it was a monster because of who it's father was but any part of him was usurped by the part that was her. She couldn't see that though.
"You name it," She said. "I'm not going to."
The gayest man I ever met just saved my life. Any problem with accepting that is obviously mine, his girly scarf around his neck has nothing to do with me, I know it's wrong to hate it. Yet he could see what I was in the haunch of my shoulders, the granited skin. However hard I scrub, the filth from my job embeds itself in me.
He saw my eyes slide when he asked if I wanted help. He heard the butch tone in my reply. That old just trying to work it out line. I’d worked it out. I knew this puncture, this late for work again was the end of the line. Some jobs just unweave you, it’s only afterwards you can name what got unknotted.
‘I’m Thomas,’ he said in an east-european accent and offered an immaculate hand. ‘I can help.’
It alarmed me, how clean that hand was, how different to my mangy paws. ‘Dave.’ I hit his fingers with my knuckles. ‘Think I saw a nail in that tyre. Guess it’s done its work.’
Sympathy settled around his mouth as he examined the wheel. ‘Ah. You couldn’t afford to fix it? Once I did that and it blew on the Deathly highway you call the M25. They say you review your life in the seconds before it ends. I thought I’d die but just let a tiny sigh escape and said oh well.’
Surprised I drew my head back into my hunched shoulders. ‘Really? You look like you’ve got it made. I can’t believe you were ever as strapped for cash as I am. As useless at life.’
He unscrewed the bolts deftly then wiggled the wheel off before his head jutted towards me like an ostrich. ‘Cash and hope, Dave, cash and hope. They are often the same thing. I have been so poor I lived like clichés. You name it. Circumstances reduced me to nothing at all in immigration centres; both ends never meeting when I was released; poor as a church mouse after years of people not wanting to know.’
‘A church mouse?’ My mouth twisted to defend myself against that image. We used to have mice, they’re ingenious horrors.
He produced a tube from the boot of his Audi, inserted it in my tyre, pushed a button. ‘Sorry. Wrong words perhaps. I keep trying to fit in with your culture. How you name it. But I stumble over it so much. You are tolerant but you have these reactions like white zits – they explode. I am afraid sometimes.’
White zits. I nodded my head calculating how long it would take to get to the job. I’d set off early. Could probably just scrape in on time. ‘What if we’re scared of what we don’t know. Let’s name it – I was scared of poofs and foreigners then you came by.‘
He squeezed then patted the tyre, removed the magic tube and put the wheel back on. The bolts were expertly tightened before he removed some wet wipes from his glovebox and painstakingly cleaned his hands. The tyre looked good as new. ‘I was your worst nightmare then. And now?’
I offered him my grubby hand. To his credit he took it without hesitation. Where he'd touched me the dirt on my hand had smeared. ‘Now I think I should be more scared of what I’m doing to myself. If got you wrong what else is there?’ I said.
‘When I was low I tried to imagine how I could get where I wanted to be. Some of it seemed quite easy but most was hard. I found doing anything towards my dream helped my self-esteem.’
Self-esteem. People like me don’t have that kind of luxury. I watched him take his Audi key out of his pocket, waited until the road was empty and hit him twice in the guts, as hard as I could. He went down, hit his head on the kerb and lay still. Like I said, he saved my life. If I’d turned up late with that pile of shite I’d just nicked as a get-away car it would have been my last job. A classy Audi would create a much better impression. He'd helped my self-esteem no end.
Heaven on Earth:
in five sips
Light, swirling clockwise,
deepest dark well beneath
the crema transports to glowing mornings,
early, the campanile chimes,
a smile as the cup clinks on its private saucer;
my mind alert once again.
A long afternoon, finger tips sore with demonstrative tapping,
a keyboard of letters,
shortened, from A to G,
each time we push further into the convoluted
confusion as dots leap up and down,
and yet in my head I hear something so different
as fingers might dart and dance;
I sip deep, the fox across the mug stares,
but the scent of himalaya,
de-parches my shrivelled throat.
rise slowly through a slice of citrus,
my taste buds;
the bitter juniper,
the cut quinine;
a long slow sink
how can you be both transparent and thick as velvet?
your flavour, frosted blackberry intense
sucks me into your depths
as I sip and sip again,
I cannot let go as I fall
into your morello stupor.
The path keeps climbing,
dragging me upwards
as sweat drips down my legs;
I'm parched, exhausted,
I want to lie down
and never move again,
my tongue, dog-like,
wants to hang out and pant
but we have to keep pace;
the onward march
through pines and scragged rocks,
scratch brambled cables
grab and trap,
gold-starred, blue-skied shrine so far,
And all I want,
all I want right now is to tip
down my nose
down my chin
down my throat
I half close my eyes against the sun and hear magic.
There, in front of us bursts the pounding spring,
its heart beat-bubbling into our hands.
Galathor looked around, shaking his head sadly; the place was a shell of its former self. He could remember when it`d glittered like it was internally lit by a thousand suns, now the tarnish was already setting in and heaven wasn’t heaven anymore. God was earthbound and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Earth wasn’t even supposed to have a mammal population. It`d been constructed by a small start-up called Raptorcorp, they`d billed it as the largest reptile Zoo in the Universe, filled it with all kinds of dinosaurs. It`d been very popular, species came from all over the Galaxy to visit, but then came the asteroid and wouldn’t you know it they didn’t have asteroid insurance, I mean who in their right mind doesn’t have asteroid insurance. Well they didn’t have the money to rebuild so the place was abandoned, and as everyone in the known Universe knows, if you leave a planet untended for long enough you get a mammal infestation, and where there are mammals there are God`s.
As UDP`s (Universal Deity promotions) agent for this end of the Milky Way he tried not to get emotionally attached to his clients, but Jay had been different, he`d been Galathor`s first God. He could remember when Jay was nothing more than a talking bush deity with a nervous habit of setting fire to himself as he spoke. It`d been Galathor`s idea to turn that into his shtick, claim he did it on purpose, but now it was all coming to an end. God`s need true believers and his had evolved, moved on, discovered the God of science, and without believers God`s lose their lustre.
Usually God`s retired to one of the rest homes, most of earth`s had gone to Kallor3, a nice place if sitting around talking about the glory days was your thing, apparently it wasn’t Jays.
He`d suggested making a few personal appearances, prove he really did exist, rebuild the brand, so to speak. It had fallen to Gallathor to point out the flaw in his plan.
“It`s all very well and good moving in mysterious ways,” he`d said, “but what`ll you say when they start asking about all the kid cancers and floods and earthquakes, millions of people dying every year. I`m telling you Jay I`ve seen it all before and it never ends well.”
This had convinced him, but he still didn’t want to go to a nursing home for the God`s, “I visited Zeus there once,” he`d said, shaking his head slowly, “And the way those nurses talked to him..”
So he was moving to earth, the problem was where. The obvious choice was back to where it all began, but it would`ve been kinder to just obliterate the planet and be done with it, that whole region was a basket case these days.
Shelly Cordell, who worked for Gods`R`Us, UDP`s principal completion in the region had piggy backed in on his original idea, setting up a God of her own, linking him to Jay, like they were one and the same but with minor differences. Talk about yer excreta meeting yer spinning blades, the whole place had turned into a tinder box.
Oh he`d filed a complaint with the Deities jurisdictional council, but those wheels turned slowly, 1400 years and counting, and now it was all over; by the time they`d ruled Jay would be a nothing but a historical footnote, it made him mad.
Choice number two had been Italy, but in Galathor`s experience the heads of a church never took kindly to their boss suddenly showing up after a few thousand years, and Deicide was always a messy business.
South America had the rainforests which he`d said would play havoc with his hair, North America was full of lunatics. Yes Canada was nice but freezing in the winter, and there was his arthritis to consider, which left out most of the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere had its own problems, India was already lousy with Gods, and the Chinese, well they had a strict no Deity policy, they`d have hunted him down in less than a week, and it made him shudder to think what they`d`ve done to him.
“Which leaves..” Galathor`s finger stabbed at Australia.
“Oh me no,” Jay had exclaimed, “Too many creepy crawlies.”
Galathor hadn’t been surprised to discover Jay was an arachnophobe, most people would be surprised at the number of hang-ups your average God had. The whole cloven hoof thing came about because a pig had dug him up one day when he was in the shape of a bush, he`d come this close to being eaten alive, just a picture of a pig could bring the old boy out in a cold sweat.
And that was how they`d settled on New Zealand, they bought him a couple of hundred acres on the side of a mountain, God`s, he knew were partial to mountains. Built him a nice house, all the amenities, a few of the angels staying behind to tend to him.
None of the Archangels of course, there was always a lot of demand for them, Gabriel had already hooked up with a promising Deity on Lezzathor theta, better salary and all the hot and cold running cherubs he could want; he`d always known there was a kink in that guy.
Galathor stayed until he`d gotten the old boy settled in, made sure he had everything he needed and promised he`d drop by any time he was in the neighbourhood.
A lie, but one Jay chose to believe, besides Galathor would be far too busy representing the new guy, if he was any judge, and he was; the God of science had few millennia in him.
In Hereford Cathedral, hangs the Mappa Mundi.
Seven hundred years since ink bled from vellum
to give continents, warped
like tattoos collapsing on old men.
Its world is bound by wonders.
The Golden Fleece shimmers in the north,
like sunlight off the Avoz Sea,
while the south congeals, thick
England guards the west,
protection from an endless ocean.
Jerusalem holds the centre.
Paradise is to the east.
The Mappa Mundi tells me to walk the breadth of Europe,
to fight through holy lands,
and cross seas as slim as rivers.
It tells me Heaven is here on Earth,
that it never left me,
even though I buried it with you,
There is a moment
When you are radiant.
A mermaid of beauty.
When your hair becomes silk
And body suspended in weightlessness.
A turquoise life not lived
By any other.
You alone rule.
A moment, when you are power.
Undefined. Away from the worry of life.
Sovereign in a kingdom of scales and shells.
A moment of strength
Silk turns to eels -
Slithering in. Ensnaring.
And although there, for a moment
You are a goddess,
An empress undersea,
That first gasp of air -
The burn of oxygen elixir -
That is Heaven on Earth.
All the colours of the past revealed by the curling paper. She laughed at the walls stripping like she used to. At least they revealed more attractive selves than the present day – her clothes were better looking than her flesh.
Something stuck in her teeth again, between the two that reminded her of an old couple, leaning on each other. Nothing should come between them, particularly not old vegetable gristle trying to resist its final journey. She teased it out with a silver toothpick and the bleeding started. Everything was on its final journey now, even her teeth.
She swallowed, savouring the tang of iron, such flavour. Each day she was more aware how much of her was water but it smelt and tasted so strong. Outside the wind berated the windows so she couldn’t hear the fighting. Most days the metallic sounds of war dominated, words spelt out by bullets now the dialogue's stopped.
The walls of her room groaned as if tortured while her building struggled to pull itself out of the ground, free itself from this cursed street. The sign above the apartment entrance crashed to the ground, half-buried by rubble. Just the last three letters of Olympus showed. She laughed at her own stupidity believing she might find her paradise here.
Yet it was once Heaven on earth. Not this cringing apartment building with its grandiose name but only a few streets away. A street-level house, a garden full of fig trees and flowers. Scent, colour and personalities too large to remain earthbound long. They’d risen like balloons, off on their journeys somewhere better but were the trees still there? Who'd hurt a tree?
Did she still believe the other side wouldn't, out of spite? She wasn’t sure. So many of the stories had worn too thin for purpose. She could see right through most of them. You get what you deserve, expect rewards if you work hard and don’t complain. Lives were torn as easily as tissue paper. As pointlessly, there was no overall plan. People were no better than wasps in a jam-jar, stomping the weaker down so they didn’t drown.
Yet that was how her enemies wanted her to feel – trapped in a tiny jar - about to go under their feet. If she believed that they’d won. She raised her chin and pulled the blind back from the window. The silence was so unusual she wondered if her hearing had gone. The wind had dropped and taken all the clamour with it, the shooting and the shouting. Her city was still and it was still her city. All of it not just these few streets.
She put her creaky boots on forcing her feet inside. Her outdoor shawl fastened she clutched her purse and her stick. For once the lift responded to her request. She hesitated before entering it but she had to die somewhere of something. To her surprise she was outside the apartment block before she’d realised she was going straight out. She was in the quiet street, blinking at the sun, thrown by the absolute silence.
She started walking fast, small steps that propelled her forwards with each touch on the ground. she didn’t slow even as she crossed an invisible border, the divide between her people’s territory and the enemy’s. Could they tell by looking at her she held different beliefs? Were they using her clothing to sort her, staring down their cold barrels, making up their minds?
She walked faster, almost running now, her breath catching with the shot of pain each step delivered. She stopped, retraced a few steps and swayed in front of a row of houses, a rubble-filled garden, the skeletons of fig trees. One hand covered her throat, the other reached towards the blackened branches. A fierce whine broke the silence and she leapt forward, fire-working blood.
Her last thought was of her childhood, of belonging, of being back in the sanctuary her parents created. Here but not here. Heaven on Earth.
Heaven on Earth
“0800 – CREDO – 1111. Believe in yourself: how can I help?”
Somehow he knew, unlike all the other telephone Helplines this was the voice of another warm, living person, not an impersonal, emotionless robot voice preparing to shunt him into a queue, listening to the first eight bars of Vivaldi’s “Winter” repeated ad infinitum or ad nauseam Even the silence itself felt somehow inclusive, shelter rather than shadow – perhaps brought about by the unmistakeable sincerity in the Voice which greeted him.
There was no irritating background musak to grate on his eardrum, nor any suggestion he was wasting precious time. The smooth, creamy contours of the brief ensuing silence lapped gently at his battered and fragile nerves, easing his pain.
“I don’t know if anyone can help me, really.”
Was it his over-sensitive imagination, or did he hear the faintest of creaks suggesting whoever he was talking to had eased back in his chair, ready and willing to lend a sympathetic ear for as long as it took? A faint spark of Hope trembled deep inside. He continued:
“Lately it seems every decision I make has ended in sorrow, failure or worse. Let’s say I’m driving to a meeting, at a junction I can turn left or right, it’s the same distance either way. I turn left – and someone sideswipes me, the car’s a writeoff.”
“I booked a holiday – first time I’ve been away for a couple of years. On the morning of my flight there’s an Air Traffic Control strike in France, I lose everything. Even travel insurance said their policies didn’t cover industrial action.”
“I decided to propose to my girlfriend. Then she rang, took me out to dinner, said she hoped we would always remain ‘friends’ – and introduced me to her intended Wife …”
“Recently I was offered a new job; closer to home, much better pay. I worked my notice, started the new job last week – today they went belly-up, so no job, no pay, not a penny redundancy, and I don’t qualify for Job Seekers Allowance either! I don’t know where to turn, it’s been like going through Hell on Earth …”
His voice broke. What could have been an eternal second of grief-laden tragic silence and dark despair loomed, then receded as the calm Voice of the operator caressed his ears, easing his fraught fears with simple, unfeigned sympathy and solace.
“You’ve certainly had a lot to deal with, and I won’t try to claim I “understand how you feel” because very few of us could make that claim. I believe, in order to feel another’s pain, you must walk in his shoes for a while.”
“Tom was born with greatly reduced hearing in one ear and none whatsoever in the other. Scans and X-rays showed that, although the ear was perfectly formed on the outside, the internal mechanics of an eardrum simply weren’t there.”
“Despite being denied the opportunity to hear true ‘stereo’ sound, Tom developed a love of music and was determined to make it his career. There was nothing wrong with his manual dexterity or his natural abilities, and by the time he left school there wasn’t an instrument he couldn’t play – all without anything more than a minimum of formal lessons.”
“But regular work was hard to come by, even for those without disability problems. Tom drifted from one music festival to the next, surviving on what casual work he was offered as a ‘session musician’. One summer he found himself at Christiania, a ‘semi-official’ autonomous ‘Hippie kommune’ just outside Copenhagen, in Denmark.”
“After playing a set, he could see the crowd responding enthusiastically, clapping and cheering. Frustrated he could only hear ‘faint praise’ as reward for his talent, he took out a penknife and publicly sliced off his useless left ear, tossing it in a bucket of ice on the stage.”
“Medics were there within seconds: Tom (and the bucket of ice) were rushed to the nearest hospital. Tom was fully conscious, and insisted he was in no pain, that the ear itself was merely ‘dead flesh’ without function, and that he did NOT wish to have it re-attached.”
“The blood which seeped out of the ear into the ice gelled into tiny veins which spread to resemble a network of delicate fibre-optic radio cables. Puzzled by this, hospital technicians continued to ‘top up’ with ice to protect the ear and the blood vessels.”
“When Tom convinced the doctors he was fit to be discharged, he discovered that for the first time in his life he could hear everything around him in full, glorious technicolour Stereo! His decision to remove the obstacle in his life had transformed his personal hell into a very real Heaven on Earth.”
“I cannot promise you the same Happy Ever After: but where there is Life there is Hope.”
It happened a long time ago, or so my grandmother told me. It was in the winter when she was a girl that her father entrusted a story to her. It was true he said. But whether that was the same as it being factual she didn't know. He had pulled up two chairs and put them by the fire after supper one evening and begun:
“You are of an age now to be a guardian of a secret. Your mother is gone and I have no son and as much as I grieve for that you have been as loyal and dependable as any boy could have been. We've worked hard the both us keeping the farm going, but I'm tired now and you will be leaving me soon. So listen carefully little one for that is still how I think of you even though you are nearly a grown woman.
There was civil war in the land and your enemies were under your own roof. Neighbour saw neighbour hung without flinching and the church stood by protecting its wealth, doing nothing to save the parishoners who it fleeced week in week out.
One day a monk, close to death who had been beaten and viciously stabbed crawled into a barn on this farm. It was centuries ago and he died the next morning but he told a tale to the farmer – my great grandfather that made his blood run cold.
The devil had come to earth and was changing hearts and instilling hatred into every soul that succumbed to his seductive words and promise of riches. He went in disguise as a juggler travelling around the fairs and bewitching children and adults alike with his quick hands and wonderful showmanship. Only one person recognised him and that was a child. She saw with eyes of truth and clarity. She warned her parents, she warned her friends but no one believed her. What did a girl know? And a blind one at that?
Fair after fair. Village after village and then city after city fell into the hands of the juggler. Whenever he moved on he left men and women who had given him their hearts and souls in charge of ensuring that hatred bewteen neighbours flourished and the civil war claimed more and more lives.
Eventually men and women of prayer in abbeys and convents realised the danger the earth was in and sent monks and nuns around the nation speaking out against the divisiveness of the juggler. Some listened to their message but most did not and many of them were beaten, some killed.
The juggler grew more daring and performed in castles and palaces alike before finally arriving at the gates of the great city of London itself.
It was here the devil made his mistake.
He fell in love.
The woman in her early twenties with fair skin and golden hair was already married but the devil didn't care, he was besotted. He stirred up a group of men in a tavern one night and they beat the womans husband to death, falsely believing he had stolen from their purses. Consoling the widow and using his charm and assuring her that he would care for her he smiled and relaxed, thinking the woman his own. She however was truly grieving and despised the juggler though she pretended otherwise. She planned to kill him, take his earnings and move back to her family in the countryside of Kent.
The devil finally saw through the womens false affirmations and a battle boke out as had never broken out before in his own soul. Enraged he provoked more and more riots and yet so in love was he that he couldn't bring himself to kill the woman and desperately tried to convince himself that she would fall for his charms.
The woman fled and travelled back to Kent under the protection of three monks who were returning from a pilgrimage in the capitol, going back to their abbey near sevenoaks.
They almost made it to safety but the devil had stolen a horse and gone after the woman catching up with the quartet just a few miles from her family farm. He unleashed a terible violence and hatred that had never been seen before. He dashed two of the monkks to pieces and tore out the heart of the woman. No one would have it if he couldn't. The third monk had hidden and crawled away to a barn where he later told the tale.
The last bit of which I will now share with you little one. But first I must have a drink for my throat is dry and my eyes`are heavy.”
The girls father drank the mulled wine that she brought him and closed his eyes for what seemed like an eternity. The effort of telling tne story had taken a lot out of him and he had aged.
Finally he opened his eyes, passed the mug back to her and continued the story.
“The devil exhausted by the violence and with the body of the women he loved at his feet, moved under a tree and slept. When he woke he found himself looking into the face of another. He went to lash out but the gaze held him and his arms hung useless at his side.
"It's not too late” her voice said, “not even for you.”
The devil laughed, his cockiness and self assurance instantly returning. So she wanted to save his soul well that was a mistake. He went to stand but his legs gave way.
Why won't you let go?” she asked and in that moment the devil knew he was beaten. He howled and the animals and birds and everyone who heard it cowered in fear. It was a terrible sound. The sound of a thousand men going to their deaths. The sound of pain and longing and hatred. It was a hideous sound that turned the sky black and dried up streams. It was a sound that moved his companion to the marrow of her bones and as the devil looked up he saw tears rolling down the face of a little blind girl. It was more than he could bear and he tried to reach out his hand to dry them.
The blind girl though vanished from his sight and he hung his head in shame.
He buried the bodies of the monks and the woman he loved and untieing the horse shooed it away and went and lived in a little hut on the edge of a field..
He lives there still little one and the blind girl watches over him”
“What is the secret I'm to be guardian of? I don't understand. If the devil is tamed and being watched over there is no danger is there? What has this story to do with us?”
“The hut is on our land little one. It is at the spot where the field becomes wood. It is a spot no-one ever goes to for nothing grows there and no light penetrates the trees that overhang his living space”
The girl got up and walked over to the small window.
“Is that why you always told me to not to play there?”
“Yes. No one knows if the blind girl will die or if the devil will regain his power and no one must ever go to the hut to see.
This farm will be sold soon and you will move to the home of your husband but it is your task to pass on the secret to the next generation who will live here. It is a burden but you must find a way. Then if the terrible things that happened all those years ago begin again they will know that the blind girl has died and they must seach for someone new who can move the devils heart and once again bring peace. For that is heaven on earth little one. You must watch and wait and not leave it too late. Do you understand ?
“Yes father “
The girl said as tears rolled down her face. For news had reached her yesterday that fighting had broken out in the neigbouring village.
Brothers had fallen out with each other and three of them had been brutally beaten and killed.
Everyone always talks about 'Heaven On Earth' but I never thought there would be Earth on Heaven. Heaven on Earth is bliss, it's beautiful, it's peaceful, it's good. Earth on Heaven is horror. It's cracks in the clouds which people fall through, it's thunder in the sky which pounds in your head, it's a soul, lying in the dirt, bleeding blackened blood.
I drop to my knees and brush strands of hair from the little girl's face. The shimmer that we all have up here is fading, turning her stunning silver hair, grey. Like that of an old lady's on her death bed. This girl has already died too young once, she doesn't deserve and she shouldn't be able to die again. If I just look at her face I can pretend she is sleeping but the blood running from her chest seeps into my jeans. A human's blood is hot and sticky but a soul's is cold, like the water from the deepest part of a lake, where colour is gone and nothing lives. The girl's skin turns translucent as the dark liquid leaves her body. I can no longer pretend she is sleeping and my heart burns.
Normally, by the time I find the bodies, they are already dead. Their souls a black puddle by their sides. She is not even the first child I have found. I've been hunting the killer for so long, following the trail of bodies she's left in her wake, that I have seen every type of soul that has had the misfortune to die twice.
She kills because she is angry. Her life was taken too soon so she takes those of others in return. I think it started out a twisted search for justice as she hunted for the man who sent her to heaven. He was her third kill and he was one of the few souls who was still alive when I found him. He was crying. He said he was wrong, that he shouldn't have touched her, that he shouldn't have hurt her but if he had the chance, he'd do it all over again. Then he laughed and the last of his bleeding soul spluttered from his body. It wasn't hard to watch him die. Not like it is now.
Pressure is building on the bridge of my nose as tears gather in my eyes. My hand shakes as I smooth my thumb over her cheek, wiping away a smudge of blood. I don't know why she continued to kill after she got her revenge and I don't know why I continue to hunt her when finding the souls she kills is slowly killing me. I don't think I can watch another soul slip away but I no longer think I can stop her from killing.
Normally, by the time I find the bodies, they are already dead. But this little girl is a fighter and she is holding on. She has strength, more than me and she is so, so young.
I pick up the knife from the dirt and slice a line down my palm. I grit my teeth and hiss. I place my hand over the wound on the girls chest and let my soul bleed into her. The colour returns to her skin as it drains from mine. My vision blurs and I see her open her eyes.
"What is your name?" I ask.
She draws in the air that leaves my lungs.
"Rebecca," She whispers.
My body sways but I keep my hand on Rebecca's chest.
"There is a woman, Rebecca, the woman that did this to you. She is doing the same to others. You need to find her Rebecca, you need to make her stop," I tell her.
The muscles in my arm give out and I collapse onto the ground beside the little girl. I close my eyes and the tears that had gathered there fall. I shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have asked that of her. She was too young to be hunting a killer but she was also too young to die again. I couldn't watch her die again.
Heaven on earth
The night is cold and I feel very alone. Staring straight into the middle of nowhere. Staring into the twilight zone.
Sleep leaves my head quicker than a partner on a one night stand. Scratching my head. Trying to understand.
My room feels empty. Feels so cold. You are on my mind. Thinking about you never gets old.
Oh, how I wish you were here right now. Melting in your arms is all a matter of when. Not how.
Why did we have to fight. When we were always able to understand. We were on top of the world. Ruling with our own master plan.
Now you are my piece of heaven on Earth. Gone but never forgotten. Spirit in the sky. Lighter than a piece of cotton. Refuse to let you go. Always be engraved in my heart. Loving you is all I need to know.
Words can hurt. Every story has it’s start. What can take a lifetime to put together. Can take a few minutes to pull apart.
Had I lost faith by pushing you away. Feeling lost and hurt but deep down wanting you to stay.
Was it the right time. Was there someone else on your mind. Hard to admit at that moment I was wrong. Now drifting into nowhere for so long.
Now you are my piece of heaven on Earth. Gone but never forgotten. Spirit in the sky. Lighter than a piece of cotton. Refuse to let you go. Always be engraved in my heart. Loving you is all I need to know.
Never could imagine the day that I would think about losing you. Now I don’t know what to do. I’m broken into a million pieces. How each day the pain never eases. I miss you more that my words can express. How much I love you. Is all I can ever stress.
Life is short. Memories are made and can never be bought. How I can wish to start all over again. Meeting you. My lover. My soulmate. My best friend.
I pray we will be together soon. Starting over our love affair. But for now it’s this bedroom ceiling that I stare.
Now you are my piece of heaven on Earth. Gone but never forgotten. Spirit in the sky. Lighter than a piece of cotton. Refuse to let you go. Always be engraved in my heart. Loving you is all I need to know.
She feels him walking beside her
She can’t see him anymore
The fog is too dense
She is standing at the crossroads
He wants her to take the right path
She needs to move on
While she stands still the world revolves around her
It will take some time
But she will move on
She feels his love
Showing her the way
Their love is strong
Their love will never die
But he did
He is in Heaven
She is still on Earth
John took the keys from the little bowl 0n the shelf under the till and walked towards the door to lock it. Catherine was moving between the tables with a pink cloth, giving them a last wipe.
“Can you stay for a drink, Catherine, before you head off to Achill?” John asked as he reached up to bolt the top lock. Catherine lived on an island 45 minutes drive from the pub.
It had been a big evening for them. A couple, Brian and Shauna who had grown up on Achill, gone off to college, fallen in love, and moved to Dublin, had come in for a drink.
They were all from Achill and goodwill had flowed between them all as delicately and surely as a nerve. Catherine had been careful to busy herself for little bursts as the couple told the story of falling in love and marriage. John on the other hand, who hadn't been back to Achill, other than for Christmas Day, for 23 years, had been unselfishly curious, the curves and heights of the happiness they described had seemed as inaccessible to him as Venus standing on a clam. He enjoyed the story, asking for gaps to be filled, and atmosphere to be explained in ways that kept the four of them locked into conversation for two hours, Catherine responding to Brian’s slight nod whenever he and Shauna were coming to the end of their glasses.
John made his way back across the bar and asked Catherine to stay for a drink again, adding, “It would just be nice.”
Catherine threw the cloth in the sink and said yes.
John smiled as he turned to the big Jameson dispenser on the wall, and poured himself a generous helping. Catherine filled a glass of wine from the end of the bottle Shauna had been drinking, and bent down to throw it in the recycling box.
John noticed suddenly how small Catherine’s frame was as she straightened up. She always dressed well, John thought. She wore tight clothes, and now in her leather trousers, low cut top, and her efficient, self restrained movements, she looked lovely. There was something about Catherine which let her away with her clothes, she wore them in entirely different way to a woman in the city, or even from the TV. She just didn’t seem slutty, John thought, it came off as an act of generosity, like an aunt who remembers to warm the visitor’s bed with a hot water bottle.
And now at close to fifty like him, Catherine was a little frayed, which had the effect of softening men around her, their own instinct to harden sapped by something too recognisable, sapped by the evidence of the effort of survival. Her nose was always a little red around the nostrils, which gave her the appearance she was at the beginning or end of a cold.
“What did you make of those two then?” John said.
Catherine lifted the bar top and sat on the stool Brian had been on. John leant against the back of the bar.
Catherine had turned off the main lights as part of her last wipe routine so they sat under the warm glow of the few left on overhead. Outside, the street was quiet and the air was almost warm.
“They were lovely weren’t they John? So happy. And she was beautiful.” Catherine offered.
“I hope they drove carefully on the road out. He’d four pints in him,” John said.
“Ah yeh, sure he’ll be grand.”
They sat for a moment in silence, then Catherine began, “I’d love for my girls to go to college, I’ve been into the school to talk to about it – “
“You could have gone to college Catherine,” John interrupted.
“I had no idea back then John, as soon as I was out of school, I was helping in the shop and then marrying Seamus, and then having kids, and the mother, and the aunts, and I wouldn’t have had time for it anyway.”
“But do you ever feel trapped out there Catherine?” The words fell from John’s mouth.
“What sort of question is that John?” Catherine started wiping crumbs John couldn’t see from the surface in front of her.
“No, look, sorry Catherine, I mean look at me, I left, left my father high and dry, I haven’t gone to college and fallen in love, no one finishes my sentences, that clearly wasn’t my lot, but I suppose we are like three points on a line.” John said.
Catherine looked at John. He went on, “You stayed, I’m stuck in 45 minutes away in Westport, and that pair went off and started again.”
“Good for them,” Catherine said.
John folded his arms and looked at the floor. He was a little annoyed now that Catherine wouldn’t admit to whatever was keeping her busy when Brian and Shauna told the story.
“Catherine, do you love Seamus?” he said.
“What kind of question is that?” Catherine took a final swig on the glass of wine, and went around the bar to pour herself another one, leaving John’s question unanswered until she was sitting on Brian’s stool again.
“Of course I do,” she said.
“But I mean, what is that Catherine?” John said, looking her in the eye.
“We have two beautiful girls and a lovely house, and we don’t cheat on each other,” Catherine said.
“But I mean love, Catherine,” John could feel something stirring in him, “I mean to die of passion not boredom, not duty, or stillness, or popping in to see the mother in law, I mean the thing that keeps you up at night, that could mess everything up if you don’t respect it. Look, I don’t have it, I have something terrible, I am sat here on my own, but when those two sat here tonight I saw it and I do want it. And I know you noticed it, so talk to me, we have known each other since we were eleven.”
“Ah, John” Catherine was holding the stem of her glass.
“I don’t know, I think, Catherine, well, I’ll tell you what I think and you can tell me what you think. I think there is some truth in the notion that people who have lived close to each other, like on an island for generations, can actually lose the ability to love each other, or when there is no love around them, they become really good at just empty “living”, like sheep, Catherine. Maybe for the women, their hair styles become more tightly done, but always a version of the time when they had once felt alive, when they were about 22 or something.
“The number of people on that island that have just knelt to the business of their routine and left things beyond that unnamed, forgotten or distrusted -
“Men, like my father, leak out into their workshops, onto the land and into the bars. They are all together in their experiences, in the details of their routines, in the small variations of their routes from breakfast to lunch and lunch to dinner. And women, what do the women do? Drift into their homes, become carers and fixers. And this man and that women marry each other and both find a meaning in fulfilling the roles passed down to them by older generations and see them as fixed and essential as the seasons or the tides.
“And you know what Catherine? Then couples just forget about each other. And they get lonely. My dad loved my mum, I mean he loved her, I think the way Brian and Shauna were in love here tonight, then she died, and he just took on his role on the island and he was left with nothing. No other options. The man rotted. And he had started rotting into me.”
Catherine had been staring at the wall behind the bar, and swallowed quickly as a silence began.
“Ah pet, nothing rotted into you, you are a great man. At the end of the day, it is very hard when there is a death in the family like that, and you, only a baby at the time. God help us, your poor father probably just felt the weight of the world on him, and never really pulled himself together.”
“Yeh,” John said.
“And I don’t know, I don’t feel Seamus and I have forgotten about each other. I mean we still have a healthy life, you know, physically, I suppose.”
“Well that’s good,” John said.
The bar was quiet again. Outside the wind was still and the evening had relaxed into night with the quiet slip of the tide from the shores of the islands around the bay. Silent long legged flies had slipped through windows which had been accidentally left open, and somewhere across town a woman picked up a phone, buoyed by something in the air, to call an old friend and forgive herself.
“I mean, OK, a dream, if I could have a dream life, what would happen?” Catherine said, mainly to smooth over the fact that she had mentioned her sex life.
She pointed at the bottle of red wine beside John and he passed it over to her to top up.
“Dream John." She swallowed looked up and to the right. "Well. I suppose, I have this dream that the likes of Pierce Brosnan or Liam Neeson, might come to the island and fall madly in love with me. Actually, I have it intricately thought out,” Catherine placed both hands on the bar and leant over to John, speaking across the top of the wine glass.
John clung to his whisky, holding it close to his lips, as Catherine explained how it would all happen.
Finally he said, “Prince Charming, coming to sweep you off your feet Catherine O’Malley, I can perfectly understand that”.
Catherine laughed, “It keeps me going. It’s just nice to feel desired, you know, I suppose the rest of it is just detail.”
“Oh, I know, Catherine laughed, “It keeps me going. It’s just nice to feel desired, you know, I suppose the rest of it is just detail.”
John turned and filled his glass again with whisky.
“Or being a marine biologist,” Catherine suddenly said. “Another dream is that I am a marine biologist leading research into whales.”
John raised he eyebrows and pulled his chin back to question her.
“Really," Catherine said, "I absolutely love whales, dad used to fish for basking sharks in Keem and I guess, it was through that. I have seen some amazing documentaries. It's a whole other world, with a whole different set of rules., and the fact that it is all underwater. I love it."
John smiled and said, "I feel the same about the land, I suppose. Just knowing it is out there, the sheer beauty and chaos of it, it makes me feel ok. But it was just when I saw those two tonight Catherine, I was so curious about that love, it feels so far away from me. Like they knew each other and you could see they made love or whatever, but it was in their laugh.”
Catherine, now on her fourth glass of wine, was on a roll.
“John, I’ve never told anyone this before, but sometimes I dream about whales, but that I am a whale, moving in this enormous shoal, and I have a whale partner, who feels as if he is part of me, I read somewhere that whales have all these hyper sensitive ways of feeling, so they have a bigger emotional spectrum. Anyway I get this strange, like, erotic flicker about the whale, you know, because of the size of them?”
“Catherine, your fantasy is shagging a whale?” John was laughing.
"No, John, I am a whale too, you devil, it’s..” she was laughing too much to finish the sentence.
“I know,” said John finally, “it’s about feeling."
We walked out one winter's morning,
The first snow we had.
It fell, still - slow, round and heavy,
Like drops of sleep.
Nothing stirred in the aching trees
Or patient lanes --
But a reverent silence.
Striding out in giant's footsteps,
Where crops struggled up black goblin hair,
We felt the wind bow down our backs
Like a godly hand in a cold cathedral,
And hurried home.
Yet by four, sunlight ran like butter
Across a line of hedges,
Down the plump, pillowed fields and drip, drip, dripping
In the churchyard.
The old spring lambs leapt and butted,
And then a skylark rose -
A gladening prayer,
In a sunset pink, new
Cynthia found the “Swifff, swifff.. swifff, swifff” of the roller as she ran it up and down the wall quite therapeutic. She`d always hated the mauve Robbie had painted his living room, found it unsettling in fact, and when she`d asked why he`d done it, all he could manage was a shrugged, “Dunno, just felt right.”
She had wanted to do the clean up as well, but George had said no, “There`s specialists for that kind of thing!” he`d insisted.
She`d been surprised, not by the fact he hadn’t wanted her to do the clean-up, but that he`d said no, he`d never refused her anything in their eight years together. And when she`d persisted he`d rounded on her, “I said no damnit, you’re not going near that bloody place until it`s been professionally taken care of.”
This outburst had shocked her more than the refusal, he was the most placid man she`d ever known, that he had snapped at her like that showed just how upset he really was.
But now three months later, three months and four days she corrected herself, she was still counting the days, she supposed that would stop in time; here she was applying the third coat of magnolia sure that this time the old colour would be obliterated once and for all.
She thought back to that day, the phone call from the police, a kind almost sympathetic sounding woman, identifying herself as, “Constable Dawkins,” asking her if she knew a Robert Simmons. Of course she did he was her brother, her only brother as it happens, a stab of fear biting into her heart.
“I`m afraid there`s been an incident,” the constable said.
“What kind of incident?” Cynthia heard the panic in her voice, making no attempt to suppress it.
“It`s best not to discuss it over the phone, if you could come down to….”
But Cynthia had already hung up, grabbing her car keys from their hook by the front door as she hurried out.
There were a pair of squad cars parked outside Robbie’s cottage, an ambulance pulling away from the gate, no lights, no sirens, travelling within the speed limit, it was in no hurry to be anywhere.
When she tried to go through the gate, an officer, who`d been deep in conversation with a man in a tweed jacket, reached out and held it closed, “Sorry Ma`am,” he said, sounding anything but. “This property is off limits.”
She vaguely remembered telling him she was Robbie’s sister, that she wanted to talk to him, and if he didn’t get out of her way she`d…..
It was then the man in the tweed jacket, its leather elbow patches reminding her of the way her mum had sewn patches onto her own fathers jackets, always muttering, “I dunno how he does it, every flippin one of em,” as she did. Said “Might I have a word Ma`am.”
Then to the officer in uniform as he passed through the gate, “It`s alright Bob I`ve got this,” making sure to pull it shut after him as he did, and taking her by the arm led her away. Not forcefully, no, but there was a gentle insistence in his grasp. She wanted to protest, half turned as if to go back, but he was an irresistible force and she was no immovable object, made easily manoeuvrable by dread.
“What`s happened to my brother?”
She wanted to know, and yet wanted to be lied to, wanted to scream, “Tell me he`s alright,” even as she knew he wasn’t.
He told her a little, leaving out the gruesome detail, that iota she would discover by accident, overhearing two of the officers by the gate as she lurked, sucking on her third fag in ten minutes.
“Christ what a mess,” said the one who wasn’t Bob. A young, thin man, he`d just come out of the cottage, face chalk white, looking like someone in desperate need of fresh air. “Can you imagine what it must’ve been like, to take a knife and drive it into your own throat, dragging it across like…”
He stopped when officer Bob grabbed his elbow, fingers digging into the joint, giving a, “Owww, what the fuck?” as he did.
“That`s his sister,” Officer Bob hissed, and they both looked at her, standing there, one arm tucked under her breasts, other arm resting on the fist, hanging straight out in front of her, smouldering cigarette held loose and forgotten between limp fingers.
Afterwards came the questions. They` d found a plain clothes female detective to interview her, a pretty brunette at least five years younger, and three stone lighter than her. she read her questions from a prepared list, never looking up, never making eye contact. Delivering them in a bored monotone, the tape deck on the desk between them recording everything they said.
“Did he do drugs?”
Cynthia admitted he`d been known to smoke a joint or two, there`d been no point in lying, they were bound to have found his stash by then.
“Did he drink?”
“Now and again, never to excess.” Another lie.
“Was he on any medication?”
“Not that I was aware of.”
“Had he appeared depressed recently, talked about suicide?”
“No. never.” She shook her head to underline the point.
“Any history of mental illness in the family?”
She`d snapped then, would have leapt across the desk between them if George, who`d been holding her hand throughout, hadn’t felt her tense and interjected, “I think that’s quite enough for now. My wife is very upset, she`s just lost her brother, perhaps we can come back and finish this another time.”
The brunette, Cynthia couldn’t remember her name, had looked up from her list of questions for the first time, a look of genuine surprise on her face, “Come back. But we`re nearly done.”
“We are done,” George had said in a cold voice she`d never heard him use before, and had never been more in love with him than she was in that moment as he helped her out of the chair with a soft, “C`mon love, let`s get you home.”
Of course the story had been all over the papers, “Another suicide in house of horrors” being one of the more restrained headlines; she had avoided the tabloids altogether.
She was well acquainted with the story; how the previous owner of the cottage, Gary Thompson, a widower, had murdered his two children while they slept, then slit his own throat with the same carpet knife. The papers drawing grotesque parallels between the two events; making great play on the fact that both he and Robbie having taken their lives in the same room.
Which was how her brother had gotten the place so cheap. There`d been demands that it be demolished, but there had been ten more years on the mortgage and the bank, who had taken ownership by default, refused, and as always money won out.
She`d complained more than once about the chill that seemed to permeate the place and Robbie, seeing how uncomfortable she was had always jokingly claimed the place was haunted. But he`d usually been high or drunk when he did, so of course she`d discounted it.
Cynthia stood back from the wall, studying it for patches; arching her back, hearing it crick loudly, she was unused to such physical activity. No, it all looked fine; she glanced at her watch, nearly twelve. She`d have a cuppa and a bickie, tackle the last wall afterwards. There was a whole pack of fig rolls in the breadbin and she decided she`d earned at least four, to hell with the diet.
While Cynthia waited for the kettle to boil, she hunted through the cutlery drawer for a teaspoon and was surprised to find a breadknife. She`d thought the cops had taken the lot of them away, certainly they`d taken the wooden block, the knife he`d used on himself had come from, that and the rest of the set.
She picked the knife up and saw it was a thin bladed thing with a cheap plastic handle, not one from the set at all. That set had cost him over a hundred pounds in Debenhams, and that had been during their last sale. Heavy bladed, wickedly sharp things with wooden handles, they`d been. This thing, she decided, must have been a refugee from his flat. She pressed her thumb against the serrated edge, finding it almost blunt.
She was about to drop it back into the drawer when she heard three loud thumps coming from down the hall, “Thump…. Thump..thump” and her heart went into overdrive. She stood still, listening, trying to hear above her pounding heart and the rumble of the kettle, then they came again, four this time, “Thump..thump…..thump..thump” it was coming from the living room she was sure of it.
She debated going out the back door, making a run for it, but thought that was foolish, what if it was nothing, besides she`d left her mobile and car keys in there. So with the dull bladed knife held out in front of her in one shaking hand she went back to the living room, pausing when two more thumps erupted from it as she approached.
Holding her breath she sidled up to the open door, peeked quickly inside before pulling her head back again, the room was empty; so what, she wondered was making that noise. Braver now she stepped into the room, waving the knife back and forth ready for anything, or so she thought.
When the thumping started again she gave a small shriek that quickly turned to relieved laughter, it was one of the windows.
She`d opened them to ventilate the room while she painted. They were old fashioned wooden ones on hinges, and one of the smaller ones that opened horizontally had slipped its catch and was flapping occasionally in the breeze.
Relaxing, letting her hand drop to her side she started towards the window then a hand, cold and hard clamped across her mouth, another grabbed her knife hand, squeezing painfully. Eyes wide with terror, her breath escaping her nose in quick “Hhifff, hhifff`s” she tried to scream, but all that came out was a quiet “Mmeeeehh.” Panicking, she lost any ability to think, simply squirmed and kicked, her runners meeting nothing but air, all she could think was, Oh God, Oh God, please don’t rape me, please…
She forgot all about the knife until he forced it up to her throat, his hand still clamped over hers. She tried to pull it away but he was too strong and she stopped struggling, thinking it better to get it over with, hoping it wouldn’t hurt too much. She was still thinking he was going to rape her right up to the moment the blade bit into her skin and he began to saw it back and forth…. back and forth.
“Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the future, welcome to the new world order and welcome to a world where the best of us survive and repair the fractures of our broken system”.
Sian O’Brien was at the top of her own world, she looked out at the polished crowd, the room hummed with the best and brightest and the champagne bubbles popped in celebration as the new world order had finally been passed by the global senate, she finally felt a inner confidence that the world could be repaired with the best of humanity at its helm.
“Cassie!! You gotta get down, stop sticking your neck out Cassie, and yes I mean that literally as well”.
Cassie bent down further behind the expensive coats of the designer cloak room, she rolled her eyes at her friend Thomas who was definatly the sensible one of the two of them and felt the pure disgust pump through her veins again as she looked out as the rich people summit in front of her, officially called the 1st World Order Summit 2057.
“Your mum looks good, obviously being a billionaire agrees with her”.
“Joe, you are disgusting, who cares how good she looks, her soul is vile”.
“Hey I was only saying the drugs obviously work, her soul though, man her is probably someone else’s by now”.
Cassie sighed she wasn’t sure she could disagree with him, her mother was someone else this day, mind, body and soul.
The world had been in meltdown since the mid 2020’s, torn apart by war and starvation, even the western world had succumbed, over populated and greedy, everyone turned on each other, Cassie had read all the books and reports on the world crisis, humanity had lost its own soul in those awful days. A strange world had come out of it, most people had nothing and would kill for something, some people had everything and controlled the rest of the world and the world was one state now, one movement and one evil power.
However even Cassie was surprised when it was her mother the great scientist started a new chapter again which brought on further darkness when she happened upon a cure to the cosmetic issues of ageing and became an overnight billionaire as the rich maintained forever youth, no wrinkles, no grey hair just a youthful glow. Cassie used to think her mum was a hero, no more worries about ageing for anyone, you merely ran out of life span but could still feel like the twenty year old in appearance, it made it hard to work out who you should be dating though on the downside though. The powers that took over wouldn’t let it stop though, what good was youthful looks with a ageing body and after Sian nearly lost her mother to cancer the lure of money and the power of grief turned her and she allowed the evil powers to woo her in an effort to save her own mother from the rigours of illness they had persuaded her to help create the new world order.
Cassie sat alone back in her apartment, there were planks of wood covering the door, the streets were no longer safe in this part of the world, her mother told her if she allowed her vision to succeed she would be able to take the planks down as that would be enough for all.
She stared at her globe, it was an antique from 2018 and showed how the world was before it all went wrong, all different continents and countries, freedom and life, sure they didn’t have it perfect but at least they weren’t all carbon copies of each other competing for every morsel of life, some people even looked better as they aged heaven forbid. Cassie felt that little knot in her heart again, the pain of fighting the powers again and heartbreak at losing her mother when she heard a faint knock on the old panels of the front door and she immediately reached for her gun, another relic from by gone days.
“Who is it?”
“It’s your mother, let me in Cassandra”.
Cassie crept up to the door past the piles of stinking clothes and piles of propaganda leaflets she had help to create to stop the evil taking over, surely everyone having nothing was better than a few having everything, no matter what their IQ or so called abilities.
“What do you want mum, we have nothing to discuss, if any one sees you here I’ll be done for”
“I need to tell you something, you’re not as pure as you think you are Cassandra”.
Cassie felt her stomach drop, she knew her mother was beyond help but she rarely lied to her daughter and this sentence didn’t bode well. The days of transplant from organ donations being enough to share with those in need had passed, the population had too much illness in it, too much demand and people died waiting for the register to grant them a new heart, liver or lung. This awful demand allowed evil in, the new world order was created where the old with a high IQ or achievements would be given the transplant along with her mothers image restorer to keep them alive and to help repair society that Cassie’s ancestors had destroyed.
That’s when it had started, the civil war began and the resistance grew as people with low IQ or and mental or physical illness were used for organs, they were put to death for their organs as a ‘necessary trade to keep the world in repair’, everyone knew it was population control as well as rich greed for long life and maybe immortality one day as the organ cycles got more advanced. Some people even volunteered, if you gave your heart your family was given food and a house, homes were rare these days, camps had took over and for your family to have a home was a great mark of respect to the new world order.
“Cassandra if you will not let me in then let I’ll shout it through this door and to your petty friends, you had a heart transplant when you were two years old, they let you on the program as I was a gifted, you were an exception to the new world order, the last exception as a gift to me”.
“I am not an upgrade, and if I am it’s your fault, you were the one who went along with them decided harvesting low IQ humans was ok you are disgusting”.
Tears started rolling down her face and she felt disgusted with herself even if she wasn’t too blame and then she heard the cough from another person.
“Erm Cassie you need to let us in”.
Cassie’s heart if indeed it was ever hers dropped, Thomas was outside, and he must have heard everything, she would never be accepted by the resistance if they new she had used an innocents heart.
Cassie opened the door and saw two very different faces, Thomas full of doubt, her mother full of hope she would get her daughter back.
Thomas had approached Cassie as he knew her being the founder’s daughter would convince many others to join the resistance but he couldn’t deal with any cross implications of Cassie being a upgrade, he would have to go it alone into the new world order, maybe he was as selfish as Sian O’Neil.
One Year Later…
I know you still wish to be the soul leader of the resistance me despite my assurances I knew nothing of my upgrade only being a child and my mother never telling me until it suited her aims and seres for me to join her revolution but I need you to know I am still part of the resistance. I have been offered a further upgrade this year as my heart has started to fail me, my mother knew of the life span of my original and knew it was time for my upgrade but I have said no.
I’m not sure how long I’ll be around as I haven’t accepted the upgrade and the normal waiting list is ten years now for us resistance fighters but I want you have my diary, it tells you everything that I have ever knew or felt.
Please don’t give up on the resistance, you can keep up the fight and bring back the old order of the world before it fell into madness.
Cassie spent the next year trying to convince her doubters that despite her being a upgrade she didn’t know and didn’t agree, some turned on her, some stuck with her but her heart finally gave up, it was devoid of any fight left and as her mother still tried to upgrade her again she continued to fight against it, the last she saw was the grainy video footage sent to her by one of her old comrades of Thomas starting her new world. She never quite understood why he set her aside so quickly until she received his letter apologising and he had let fear overcome him, he had reached out but it was too late for her to rejoin the fight. She felt hope as she watched him speak to the resistance nation but also a lot of fear as it may just be the start of a new great war. The old world would take a lot of time to rebuild but she knew the resistance could do it with old hope new worlds are born.
“Welcome to the new world order guys, oh no sorry I mean the old world order!”
Thomas looked out at the mismatched group in front of him, they forced a laugh at his crude joke, every conceivable part of society looked at him; they looked frightened and rightfully so.
They were starting again and no one was safe but sometimes old is better than new and sometimes new can be turned into old and sometimes old was ok and with that firm belief he stepped forward into her new camp in Central Africa, he felt the pain in his own heart for Cassie and pain at his sedishness, he had let old ways overwhelm him but he found new hope for forgiveness and sent her an invitation over to come join them when he received a battered old diary via his network of resitance spies, looks like the good old days were never coming back, she had rejected her upgrade and saved a life, she was more than he could ever be uograddd or not.
Cassie’s diary is now on display in the 2057 New Beginnings Memorial Museum.
The King In The Rushes
It seemed that each day started now with that scrabbling at the door. Doxy was getting more and more impatient as her pale hairs grew. His eyes slowly opened to the thought that patience was a thing that stoicism bequeathed to you; a little grace that tempered your ideas of your own significance. As he stretched out for the mug he was grateful for the cold tea because there had been times when he had had a lot less. Maria was still in the land of nod of course; the young needed their sleep. But sleep faded as the dark light made a headstone of his window. Gradually, an old man, his daughter, and a cat prepared themselves for the whitening skies of a March morning.
The cottage unwrapped itself carefully. A fire was lit. A tin of salmon was opened in the yard. Water whispered to itself in the blackened kettle on the range.
Soon she came in with the boiled egg, and the pint mug was filled. As it smoked on the chair beside the bed, he felt ashamed again at the depths of his infirmity. Age was unforgiving, it was the black eye of a shark in a mirror; a predator through and through. He thought back then to his youth, when he had nothing- and everything, and it seemed like just a moment ago.
"Are ye for getting up Daddy? Seanie is coming after school for his dinner because Bernie is workin' late up at Cross again this evenin'."
He couldn't see her. He couldn't see the small manifestations of worry and regret that sharpened the creases of middle age; but he could hear them. He realised that she needed his help with the boy. When he came they would sit and talk by the fire. They would be 'thick as thieves' for an hour or two. Maria would have this house to herself soon enough, he knew.
"Aye, I'll get up about two then; I've made another little hat for that doll that he's got."
"Don't call it that, sure ye know he hates it when you call it that."
Old Johnny smiled. He understood his Grandson's obsession with the toy soldier: the doll in army green. Who would have thought little boys and girls so similar? Any parent that paid any attention at all, he supposed. We're all so similar really - searching for the same things in different ways. Besides, the boy was almost ten - and that would have to be old enough. Old Johnny smiled ruefully as the room contracted around him, and the cold air of the mountain snaked in through cracks and windows and gaps in the doors. He wondered would it be soft or hard for him when it came? But the thought was scarcely born before sleep smothered him like the warmth of a nestling hen.
Her face swam before him. She was so like her mother: the auburn hair that fell like feathers; the features fine and sculpted, so unlike his own heavy head. Even in old age it still retained remnants of the strength that had made him seem imposing for a time.
"What?" She enquired softly.
"You're the image of your Mother." He said.
When the boy came running in, Johnny had the old pipe going. He had watched the plumes of smoke warping and rending themselves asunder, and thought of the clouds high above.
"Hello Seanie - what's it like outside today boy?"
The boy seated himself across the hearth and regarded his Grandfather steadily as muffled clatters and bangs from the scullery announced that cooking had commenced.
"Ah, it's just rainin' as usual. Look at that Granda, that's his jungle hat."
Seanie produced a bundle of leaves wrapped in green darning wool from the depths of his jacket pocket. The old man could smell the Spring air steaming off him. It was the smell of rebirth; the smell of life. He nodded a smile.
"Well, I made you a hat for him too. But then I thought that I might have a better thing for you, if you're interested?"
"You make the best stuff Granda! Is it another gun, like the pipe cleaner one?"
Old Johnny gazed at the boy's eager face and glimpsed, for a heartbeat, the pursed lips of his brother Tom the day that he had left for France. His Mother had the last of her life sucked from her. He remembered being glad that his Father had not lived to see his eldest son wear the uniform of the enemy. But he was hurt in ways he couldn't express. He used to wake up sobbing like a child.
"No, it's a different thing Seanie; you remember how you always used to ask about how I got this big scar on my head here?"
"You said it was an accident."
The old man leaned closer, and the orange glow from the flames bestowed a black etching on the ragged puckers of the glossy seam that stretched from his collarbone almost to the crown of his bald head.
"Well that was a lie lad. The truth is, and don't you tell your Mother or Auntie Maria I told you this, the truth is - I was shot, and near killed, up there behind the house. Way up on the mountain there."
The boy's shocked countenance was tinged with a kind of wonder; a facsimile of awe with dark edges - good, but bad too.
Old Johnny held up his forefinger to forestall the blizzard of questions.
" Just listen now, and I'll tell ye quick before the grub is ready. It was nineteen and twenty, and I was seventeen. Our column had been out on the mountain for a time and had orders to ambush an army convoy. Now, we had word that they'd be comin' at the beginning of the week, but we'd been lying up out there for nearly six days before we heard the sounds of their engines climbing up towards the pass."
The old man held his hand up.
" No questions now Seanie, there's books down there at the library that'll tell ye all about them times. All I have is this story for ye. Anyway, like I was sayin', they came then alright. Jesus, it was a terrible night and the fog was alive. There was bullets flyin' and men roarin' and God knows the Mountain had never heard a noise like it. I was young and full of badness, for me own Brother had been killed fighting for the British in the trenches. Anyway, when I ran out of bullets, I ran like the clappers. Now - whether it was one of theirs, or one of ours, that clipped me - I'll never know. It was like getting punched by a giant. There was a big flash and that's all I can tell ye. Next thing I know, I came to in the middle of the moor, lyin' face down in the reeds, in a scrape in the ground. Now, in them days we used to all smoke cigarettes; we had a trick that would keep the matches dry by dipping the heads of them in candle wax. When I woke, all that was on me mind was the need for a smoke. I didn't know how bad I was hurt y'see. All I can mind, before I passed out again, was takin' a couple of pulls on the fag and lyin' back with the matchbox on my chest, openin' my mouth to catch the rain for I had such a terrible thirst on me."
The child sat like a mannequin; a plaster boy - the firelight dancing in his eyes.
"I could have died of exposure, or loss o' blood, or both, I suppose. But I had a dream. A little man, about the same size as your soldier there, did wipe my wounds down. He was as black as coal. On him he had the skins of the Whitteret: a long coat and trousers, and on his head he had a crown made of rushes. Tall at the front it was, like a bishop's mitre. Anyways, he got up on my chest and poured something, out of a little article that he had, into my mouth. When I came to again my matchbox was gone and there was a taste in my mouth like all the flowers of the mountain. I sat up straight then, and about a minute later I hears a shout, 'Johnny, Johnny!', and there was my old pals runnin' like divils across the bog to me."
"What happened then Granda?" The boy stammered.
"Well, my pals told me that I'd been lyin' out for two nights, and they couldn't look for me for fear of the soldiers that were crawling all over the place. They had given me up for dead. But another attack on the police barracks down in Cross had drawn the soldiers away, and so they all came down out of the mountain to look for my body. They took me away between them up to an old hut and nursed me for three weeks. I had a fever y'see. I nearly died a couple o' times, but they kept me warm and fed and eventually I got better. I was young y'see".
The old man paused and took an opened tin down from the mantel.
"Look there now Seanie. What do y'see?"
The boy peered into the tin and discerned the remains of a faded yellow matchbox.
"What is it?"
"Well, it's the end of me story. Y'see, I know that the little man healed me. But it wasn't my broken head that he fixed; it was my broken heart. I wanted to die out there in the moor, for I was soul-sick for my brother Tom. Anyway, my last night in the hut came upon me, and I laid down on my back beside the fire and fell into a sound sleep. This time the little man got up onto my chest again and left my matchbox back. He made a little bow, and jumped down, and that was that; he was gone. Well, ye can imagine, when I awoke, the surprise I got when I saw it there - just where he had left it in my dream. I couldn't get over it. All my matches were gone. But the little lad had left something behind for me. Somethin' old for somethin' new, maybe."
"What was it Granda?"
"Take a look, an' you'll see." Said old Johnny.
Slowly the boy slid the drawer of the matchbox open, and there was a little knife made from the tooth of a fox. It was bound in strips of leather so artfully entwined as to create a criss-cross pattern that dazzled the eye. In the pommel was a mauve stone the size of a pinhead.
"That's the blade he used to cut out the pain in my heart Seanie, and very soon - it'll be yours."
"Why do you think he left it for you?"
"We're always at war, Seanie - one way or another - all our lives; but peace lies inside us - if only we can find it in our time. The blade is a killer and a saviour both I think. That little knife always makes me think; and in thinking, we find new ways of seeing old puzzles. D'you understand me?"
Old Johnny laughed.
"Well then, let's just say that it's a gift from a King."
"The King in the rushes Granda?"
"Aye, the King in the rushes."
My brother demolishes
our childhood home
new on old, new on old
rip the memories apart,
tear your cells out of that ruin
his lips pressed tight together
as he eclipses you.
A scattered pack of cards,
dog-eared spades, missing hearts,
your fist’s clubs. They say
diamonds are made
from heat and pressure,
otherwise they’d be
Got twisted by your love,
both of us, torn apart
made stronger by hurt,
you card shark,
An ancient language
My warm skin
Grazing cool stone
I read with my fingertips
My body understanding
What my mind cannot
But in commune
Offering my hand
To the past
To those compelled to write
To make legible a world
You lost your virginity at 2pm
so no-one would be suspicious,
walking two miles to the older man
you sourced online.
He watched you undress before he kissed you,
studying your smooth skin
with the intensity of a man with microscopes for eyes.
The sky darkened as you sauntered home,
the summer sun leaving as reluctantly as you.
If I had the chance would I put a new head on my old body?
No I wouldn’t!
I would have someone else’s memories for a start.
My memories and experience have helped define the person I am today.
I wouldn’t be me.
I would no longer recognise the people I know and love.
They would be in my life but not in my head.
Those in my head would no longer be in my life.
I would see the world through different eyes and I might not like what I see.
I have lived with this head and body for some time and I think I am quite comfortable with them
On the other hand,
My old head on new young shoulders.
Now that might be worth considering!
“You should listen to me. I know what I’m talking about. I may not know the steps you’re doing but I know the dance. It’s not so different. It’s just faster. Either that or I’m getting slower. Either way, you should mark my words, young man.”
With that, Ernie reached for his stick, which was leaning on the wall by the table. It was an instinctive movement, something finishing a point made him do. It used to be he’d wipe his hand over his face but when he’d got the stick it had seemed, easier somehow. He had no intention of getting up or moving, he didn’t need the stick and he retracted his bony fingers before they reached the smooth wooden surface of the handle.
“I love hearing your stories Grandad, they’re amazing. The times your lived through, it’s crazy.”
Ernie fixed his eyes on his grandson, he was wasting his breath. This kid was going to do the same things he’d done, was going to make the same mistakes. It’s the same story down through the eons. With every generation there’s a software update but they only change the hardware periodically. Eventually, the new software is on old architecture and it’s redundant. New on old equals frowny face.
“You hear them but you don’t listen.”
“No, I listen Grandad, I love your stories, I mean, sometimes it’s a little hard to relate to them, you’re talking about your way of life, 50, 60 years ago so things aren’t the same any more but I’m fascinated by them. All the times you lived through, it’s crazy”.
Ernie sighed and lowered his eyes, wistfully thinking “Ah, this kid. He is me and I was him. He doesn’t hear a single word I’m saying, only what he’s listening for.”
“Do I got to spell it out, kid?”
Wilson, that was the Grandkid’s name, looked sharply at his Grandad, startled by the seriousness of his tone.
“Spell what out?”
Again Ernie reached for his stick. This time he pulled it from the wall and leaned forward on it. Bringing him closer to the table.
“What did you think that story was about, son?”
“It was about you, climbing a mast in a freezing storm because the radar had stopped working”.
“Is that it?”
“Well, what else is there?”
“Ok. That’s what the story was about. But what were we talking about before I told it to you. Why did I tell you this story”.
“Oh I see. Well, we were talking about... You know, I can’t remember!”
“Ha!”, Ernie laughed. “and he tells me he listens to me”.
“No wait, I’ve got it, we were talking about.... No. No I haven’t, sorry, Grandad, what were we talking about?”
“I don’t even remember myself now, son. Some foolish old man wisdom, that was all. It doesn’t matter anyway. You’re a good boy. You’ll do right in the end.”
I look around and feel like I'm on another planet. Everyone walking with their head down, staring at a screen, checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, what is all this. I walk the streets feeling free of this constant interruption from the back lit screen. It's great to not feel the tremendous stress of this new world. Don't get me wrong, phones have a place, but no way do I want to be constantly tracked and expected to respond immediately to this stalking that is going on. If you don't respond within seconds then everyone gets upset, adding to the overload that people are constantly dealing with. Sometimes I feel odd, when people talk about their smartphones! why don't I use one? I don't use one because I have a perfectly good phone at home that has an answerphone, and if someone needs me they can leave me a message. Surely this is how we managed before? nothing went wrong. I don't need to call someone while I'm in the supermarket to ask them what flavour yogurt they want, I can make a decision. I also don't feel the need to tell someone I'm on the train, I know that I'm on the train, I've been doing it for years.
Give me the choice of the slow old ways anytime, I can walk peacefully without disruption, I can think my thoughts without having to constantly be in touch. If I'm meeting someone I can wait, if they are late, it doesn't matter, I will wait until they arrive, there really is no need for this stress. I don't need an app to tell me what time the train is coming, I can look at the board at the station. If I see something that is advertised, I can write it down. If I want to take a photo I can use a camera.
This has become a serious addiction and I want to scream, put the phone down, look up and see what is around you, it's beautiful, it's interesting. Talk to strangers, talk to your friends and lovers, don't ignore them while you are busy texting someone else. One day that person will be gone and you will be wondering why. Pay attention to the here and now.
I am not a fan of the new on old, please bring me back some sanity and human behaviour. As they say pretend it's 1995 and talk.
Dearest Pop Pop,
Mum has been a little sad this week. I think she misses you. It has been a particularly windy week and I have caught her a couple of times standing at the back door with her eyes closed, hair spiralling around her like she is right there next to you. The back garden an ocean.
I can't wait to sail with you Pop Pop. Even Dad says it is fun and he doesn't normally use words like that. He did go on to tell me, in too much detail, what the swell does to his stomach though. Don't worry I won't do to you what he did to me. Though I doubt that you even get sick anymore do you? Thankfully I inherited your's and Mum's tums and I can eat things like bread and read in a moving vehicle until my heart's content. I cannot imagine a life without toast or reading on the train Pop Pop. When Dad is grumpy I always try and forgive him quickly because of this. His life is that little bit more difficult than ours.
Do you like my hand writing Pop Pop? Mum bought me a proper pen and then she showed me how to tea stain the paper so it looks old. It looks quite cool don't you think? Dad says we should roll it up and put it in a bottle as well but Mum just laughed and said something quite rude about where he could put his bottle . Trust me Pop Pop it is no place for a letter.
Anyway. Happy Birthday Pop Pop. Not long now. My birthday, then Dads and then we will be seeing you in the summer. You are the best present we could get Mum. Dad says your cheap too.