A disciple of the down and out with an interest in endurance and how each and all attempt to survive and cope with life’s collective complications. Currently writing a novel titled ‘Mind the Gap’ after recently completing his first collection of short stories, ‘Soapsuds Island’, the characters and events of which are based in his home town of Acton, West London. Recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University.
He crossed the finish line and reached for the water, fingers fumbling with the bottle cap, limbs lurching across the turf. It was over. He’d made it. Now he could return a hero, a winner, and he would tell them all about his journey, the trainers which fell apart, the beer that bound his nerves, the satisfaction he felt at doing something meaningful. Smiling, he would assure them he was okay. He was tired, but that was normal, and when he finished his final pint and left the pub, he would lay in bed and think about his friends, the both of them, dead.
Collapsing on the seat of the train, his muscles sore and rigid, he watched the buildings flash by outside. He looked around the carriage, examined the advertisements, counted the stations, and disappeared within the pattern of an empty seat. Witnessing the passengers come and go, he wondered if they knew, or would ever care. Today, he achieved something. He wanted to tell someone. He wanted to nudge the woman next to him and point at his medal. He wanted her to acknowledge his achievement and thank him, in her own way, for what he’d done. And he had done it. He had, no matter what everyone said behind his back.
At Ealing Broadway Station he remembered the Whetherspoons pub and the countless evenings he once enjoyed with – and without, his wife. He remembered how it was, all those years ago, but tonight he wouldn’t talk about her. Tonight he was happy, with a medal to prove it. If anyone asked he would explain, holding back the truth, or what could pass as true. They were his reasons, his explanations, his friends. No one needed to know about him, or them, or anything beyond the medal. And so it was, as always, altered. Moving from pub to pub permitted different lives, different pasts, and different people. Better people. All of them nothing like him. It was a habit he developed following the divorce, honesty and deceit indistinguishable to strangers, their opinions open to his approach. Within such conversations he was a new man, liberated from his life, and finally set free. The world was full of wonder, full of life, and he wanted to live. But more than that, he wanted his friends, the ones that left him behind with nothing but beer and bedsits. Nothing but memories of who they were, and who he was before the cancer claimed them.
Entering the pub he calculated the quantity of pints he could purchase with the money he’d raised in advance of the race. He would pay it back, of course. And anyway, it was for charity, for research into cures and treatment, the very things he could self-administer. It was too late to make a difference, to save his friends, or somehow, save himself. All that remained was the promise of another pint, and tonight he’d drink for them. He leaned on the bar and looked around the pub, nervous should he recognise someone from his past, someone who might reveal his real identity and call into question the person he pretended to be. Satisfied with the outcome of his search, he waited for the barman to approach, his tongue coarse and dry. The medal clanked against the edge of the bar and he reached down and wrapped his fingers tightly around the bronze medallion, the pressed metal cold to his touch. Having ordered his pint he waited, resigned to silence, the barman unwilling to indulge his conversational advances. Carrying his pint he approached a vacant table tucked away in the corner of the pub, his glass already half empty. Here he would recline in his seat and stretch his legs, the prospect of another beer soothing the ache within. Tonight he had money in his pocket and a ribbon round his neck. Tonight, he was Terry. A delivery driver for the Royal Mail. Married with two children, both of whom no longer lived at home. It was his birthday; fifty three years. Two years from retirement, and happy.
As he sipped from his second pint he swallowed hard, surprised at how quickly the pub filled up. Friends and lovers out for the night, toasting their companionship, joking and laughing and embracing, unafraid to show affection in public, unlike the years of his youth. He first met John and Harry at Stamford Bridge; an FA Cup game in 1972. They began talking during the match, the referee the target of their scorn. After the game he joined them for a drink in their local and at the end of the night they exchanged numbers and arranged to meet the following week before kick-off. For thirty years they remained friends, attended weddings, baptisms, Holy Communions, and finally, funerals, with his the last to come.
After his third pint he could feel his thoughts veering towards his wife, so he tried to think about something else and reached for the medal. He closed his eyes and thought back to Greg’s stag do, back in ’83. They flew to Berlin on a BA flight, and it was the first – and last – time he travelled in such style. It was a pretty standard stag do; alcohol and cocaine and seedy strip clubs, but it was also the best time of his life, and on the last night as they sat in a cellar bar drinking vodka, they vowed to remain friends forever, a promise none of them could keep. Thinking back to Berlin he remembered the prostitute. He remembered how they lay in bed, his head resting on her lap as she ran her fingers through his thinning hair, her lips sculpting an unfamiliar lullaby, the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. In the morning he told his friends he’d fucked her good, discovering for the first time that little lies were worn like shields, her name etched in his brain and given to his only child, the daughter that was never born.
Looking up from his beer he spotted Jerry, the brother of his ex-wife, walking towards him, so he downed his pint and stared into the empty glass. ‘All right Mick,’ Jerry said. He looked up and nodded. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
‘What you doing here? I didn’t know you ventured out this far?’
‘Just stopped in for a quick one.’
He realised he was still holding the medallion. ‘My medal.’
‘You did a walk for charity? You?’
‘Yeah.’ Mick let go of the medal and reached in to his pocket to secure the money for another pint, but as soon as he pulled his hand out he realised his miscalculation. Within his palm lay seventy two pence, nowhere near enough for a pint, let alone a four-pack. How did that happen? Where did the rest go? And then he remembered the whiskey chasers and the sausage roll that prevented his gut from unravelling on the pavement. He could feel Jerry watching him count the money, over and over again, and when he finally looked up, the choice was clear.
‘I bet the girls love that,’ Jerry said, and without answering Mick pulled the ribbon over his head and pushed his prize across the table. This was the man with whom he’d bonded, all those years ago when family meant everything to him. This was the man who comforted him in hospital when the birth went wrong, who told him everything would be okay, who almost made him believe it. This was the man who never failed to help, who was always there, before the beer, and after. This was the man he wanted to be, the man he tried to be, and failed with every single story. He watched Jerry put the medal on and lean back in his chair. It was just a piece of metal. It didn’t mean anything, not really. He’d finished the walk. He’d done it. If no one else believed him, so what. They never believed him anyway. As Jerry rose from his chair to order their drinks, Mick thought about his wife, his friends, his Nadia. He thought about everything he’d lost, or maybe never really had, the biggest lie of all his life, the one in which he drowned, every, single, day.
The myriad of scuffs reach out across his worn leather shoes – like a maze, he thinks, and momentarily loses focus. Then he remembers. Katrina. He checks his watch and realises she’s late. She’s never late. Looking through the wire fence he stares at an old lady pushing a chequered shopping trolley along the pavement, the plastic wheels shuddering along the rutted paving slabs. He follows her slow progress, fists tight around the handle bar, spine bowed and crooked, head stooped towards the ground. Steadily, she struggles on, despite her inability to see the path ahead, fully trusting, or without a choice.
When Katrina phoned last night he could tell something was wrong. He could hear it in her voice. When he asked her what it was, she said she had to see him. She had to do this in person, not over the phone. For the remainder of the call he fought against the questions and rambled on about his day, the parts she hadn’t shared, and would otherwise never know. When the details were finally exhausted, she sighed and said goodbye. I love you, he replied, as the dial tone whispered without affection.
For the rest of the evening he was restless, unable to alleviate the tension bulging beneath his skin. Something was wrong, but no matter how hard he scrutinized the variables, none of them made sense. Nothing made sense, and as he lay in bed trying to decide what it could be, he wondered whether it was, somehow, his fault. Everything was his fault, according to his mother, even her drinking. Eventually, he fell asleep, and awoke more tired than before, the sheets drenched with sweat, his brain deciphering the daylight.
Sitting alone on the bench he can’t understand it, and struggles to accept what’s happening, even though he doesn’t know what it is. All he knows is that he wants to stay with her forever, despite his age and inexperience. She is the one, and he wants to be a part of her life, beyond the present and the promise of tomorrow. This is it, his chance at happiness, and he’s fucked if he’s gonna give up without a fight. He will not let her go. This, he knows, is worth it.
Unbuttoning his collar he pulls at the knot of his tie and leans forward, elbows pressing into his knees, the palms of his hands gross and sweaty. He wipes them on his trousers and stares down between his legs, a solitary ant treading circles, over and over again. He notices a bottle cap; Budweiser, and instantly feels the craving for a beer. And a cigarette. Or a joint. But he has neither, so he looks up and searches between the mass of moving bodies for the one which makes him happy, the one that makes his world a better place, more than any addiction he’s witnessed, and survived.
Finally, he sees her, walking through the crowd towards him. She is as beautiful as always, though when he looks harder he can see the stress etched across her face. He tries to smile but she looks away, and before he knows it, the fear is back. The prospect of abandonment grips him and he doubles over and clutches his stomach, his lungs tight and heavy. Relax, he thinks. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. Come on, breathe, calm down. Stop being stupid. Stop it. Now. It has to be something else. It has to be. Please, let it be something else. Anything else. Right. That’s it. Enough. Whatever it is, you’re about to find out. Get a grip. Man up. Grow some fucking balls.
He stands and nervously moves towards her, his feet weighted by trepidation. When she reaches him he leans in for a kiss but she turns her face, his lips landing on the bow of her cheek. ‘Hi’, he says, and waits for a reply which doesn’t come. ‘Sit down.’ He gestures towards the bench. ‘I’ve saved you a seat.’ As he waits he notices the old lady walking down the road again. This time she lifts her head and looks at him, her eyes gleaming beneath a knotted rain bonnet. She smiles at him, and just like that, he understands. He gets it. There’s nothing left to do but face it all head on, be it up, or down, or neither.
‘What’s wrong?’ He asks, and watches Katrina sit on the bench. ‘What’s happening?’
‘I’m pregnant.’ She replies.
And there it is. Not a what. A who.
‘I don’t know.’ She inhales deeply and shakes her head.
‘I…’ He tries to think of something to say, but before he can she bursts into tears and all the words just slip away. She’s pregnant. Katrina. My Katrina. Pregnant, with my baby – our baby. A baby. Fuck.
He sits beside her, and out of nowhere, thinks about the tree. He thinks about their first date, then the second, and third, and the one after that, until they found themselves beneath the tree, no longer under pressure to talk. He remembers staring up at the branches, listening to the wind, and settling on the sky. When he pressed his palm against the bark and closed his eyes, he could feel it pulse beneath. It survived the storms, the bombs, the people; grew stronger every day. It was old, ancient even, but age was nothing, nothing but roots.
He reaches out, takes her hand, and squeezes hard to let her know he’s in it for the long haul. The bell rings and it’s the end of recess. Three more hours of teachers and tiring lectures. Books and blackboards and words that mean nothing, not anymore. The lessons are bullshit, none of them about what to do, about how to cope, about how to be a man, even when the boy is still emerging. They stand together to join the forming lines of other kids, the ones with families, siblings, parents. I will be a good father, Darren whispers. The one I never had.
Photo by Aleksei Drakos
SNAKES AND LADDERS
On her upper arm, curling around her bicep, is a silver snake.
‘Is anyone sitting here?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she replies.
I eat my sandwich and stare at the snake, its scales glimmering beneath the light.
‘That’s a beautiful bangle,’ I say.
‘The snake. It’s beautiful.’
‘Oh…’ she looks down at her arm. ‘Thank you.’
I take another bite of my sandwich and chew on the stringy salmon. Her skin is so smooth I want to touch it. ‘Do you work around here?’ I ask.
‘I’ve never seen you before.’
She looks up from her book. I place the half-eaten sandwich back in the crumpled packet and wipe my mouth. ‘What are you reading?’
I clear my throat. ‘Any good?’
She examines the cover. ‘Not really.’ I notice another snake dangling from her neck. ‘You like snakes?’ I ask.
‘How can you tell?
‘Well…’ I point at her necklace and realise she’s not wearing a bra.
‘Yes, I suppose I do.’ Her hand reaches for the necklace and she twists the tiny snake, slowly rubbing the pendant between her fingertips. I try not to look at her breasts. ‘Do you?’ She asks.
‘I’ve never really thought about it.’ I reply. ‘Do you have any more?’
‘I do.’ She closes her book and places it on the table. I want to ask her where they are, but I don’t. A loud clatter disturbs the relative stillness of the cafe, and we look across the room towards the commotion. A man and woman stand by the bin, brushing their clothes and apologising to one another. I watch him reach for his wallet and offer to buy her another drink, but she shakes her head and steps aside as a waitress sweeps up the mess. He apologises once more and the woman nods her head, gestures that it’s okay, and leaves him standing there. When I turn back to the table I notice I’m being watched.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘No, go on. What is it? Have I got something on my face?’
‘So what is it?’
‘I was just thinking.’
‘Why did you sit here?’
I think about the question, and consider my answer. ‘The seat was free.’
‘So was that one over there.’
I spot an eyelash next to my mug, so I make a wish, and blow.
‘I didn’t realise.’ I notice that she’s finished her coffee, but before I can ask if she wants another one, her telephone rings. She answers and whispers into the mouthpiece, occasionally looking at me. I watch her lips move and imagine how they might feel pressed against mine, her mouth open, tongue moist. She has a small ring in her left nostril, which sparkles as she speaks, and a splatter of freckles that covers her cheeks. She looks like something out of a magazine, only better because she’s real. I reach under the table and pretend to search for something in my bag, examining her legs as I rummage around. When I sit up the telephone call is over and she’s watching me, waiting. ‘Finished?’ She asks.
‘Yes,’ I reply, and straighten up in my seat.
‘So…what do you do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘For money. Work.’
‘I’d rather not talk about work.’ I say.
‘What would you like to talk about?’
‘What do you do for pleasure?’
‘Avoid work.’ She smiles. ‘How about you?’ I ask.
‘Yes. What do you like to do – apart from reading?’
‘I like to travel.’
‘I thought so.’
‘Your tan. Looks like you travel.’ I remove my glasses and clean the lenses with a microfiber cloth I keep in my wallet. ‘Have you just got back from somewhere?’
‘I was in Valencia for a couple of days.’
‘I’ – a waitress appears at our table and picks up our empty coffee mugs, placing them on a tray and wiping down the surface with a chequered cloth. We watch her in silence, her earrings flapping in the air as she leans over and works the cloth from one corner of the table to the other. She nods and walks away, and I notice the woman opposite me staring at her as she rounds the corner of the counter and disappears behind a door.
‘How old do you think she is?’ She asks.
‘Twenty, I guess. Maybe twenty-one, or twenty-two.’
‘Do you think she’s a student?’
‘No maybes. What do you think?’
‘What is she studying?’
‘Yes. Why, what do you think?’
‘I don’t think she’s a student at all.’
‘So what is she?’
‘Why do you think that?’
‘Her eyes. They look sad.’
I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’t.
‘What about him?’ I ask.
‘The guy in the pink and white striped shirt. Pink tie. Over by the corner table.’ She turns around and examines the man, tilting her head slightly as she considers the possibilities.
‘A travel agent. Middle management. Married. No kids. Gay.’
‘What makes you think he’s gay? The pink tie?’
‘No, the way he holds his spoon, and the fact he can’t stop staring at that other guy outside.’
I watch Mr Pink for a few seconds and realise she’s right. Every so often he looks up from his paper and gazes at the man outside. Our man is wearing a wedding ring, his fingers pressing down on the keypad of his mobile phone. ‘Okay, one more.’ I look around the cafe. ‘What about her. The woman in the yellow jacket.’
‘A lecturer. Loves her work. Divorced. Two kids. Happy.’
‘What does she teach?’
‘What are her kids called?’
‘Harry and Lloyd. She won’t admit it, but they’re named after the characters from her favourite film; Dumb and Dumber.’
‘Yes.’ I look at the woman in the yellow jacket and imagine her sitting on a sofa once her kids are asleep, a bowl of popcorn on her lap, laughing even though she’s seen it countless times and knows the jokes by heart. ‘And what about me?’ I ask
She rests her elbows on the table and leans forward. ‘You’re in a relationship, but you’re scared.’
‘Because it’s not going well. Your job is demanding, and you spend a lot of time away from home – away from your wife.’
‘And you’re drifting apart. You’re trying to introduce some excitement back into your relationship, but you’re not sure it’s working.’
She’s good. ‘What do I do?’ I ask.
‘Do you love her?’
‘Yes. More than anything.’
‘So tell her.’
She’s right. I remove my phone from my pocket, compose the text using capital letters; I LOVE YOU. X, and hit send. I watch the progress bar bulge until the message is delivered, and I sit back and unbutton my collar. ‘And what about you?’ I ask.
‘You tell me.’
I wait for a reaction, but there is none. We sit silently for a while, each of us considering my assessment. She runs her finger around the rim of her water bottle and stares into the clear liquid, and I am about to apologise when her phone vibrates. She picks it up, reads from it, and smiles. I look around the cafe. ‘Check it out.’ I say and nod towards Mr Pink. She turns around and spots the guy from outside sitting with our friend. They are laughing, holding hands under the table, the wedding ring no longer in sight.
‘You were right.’ I say.
‘I’m always right.’
I want to keep the conversation going, but something tells me it’s over.
She tightens the cap on the bottle of water and dumps it in her bag. Opening her book she flicks to the back page, writes something down, and closes it. ‘Well, I have to be going.’ She stands and threads her arm through the strap of her bag. ‘It was nice to meet you.’
‘You too,’ I reply.
‘Perhaps we’ll see each other again some time.’
‘I hope so.’
I get up and hold out my hand. She takes it and we shake, eyes fixed, her skin as soft as I suspected. I watch her leave and sit back down. As I reach for the bill, I realise she’s left her book, so I pull it towards me and open it. There, on the last page, is the address of a hotel and a reservation number, underlined by a sketch of a snake, scales shaped like hearts, and the words I’ve waited for: ‘I love you too.’
Illustration by Henry Davis
You wake up, exhausted and sore. It’s five thirty in the morning. A Monday morning, the one you hate the most. You sit up, rub your eyes, and sigh. Finally, you get up and navigate your way through the darkness of the room. In the bathroom you shower, shit, and stare at your face in the mirror. Half naked, you descend the stairs and enter the kitchen. You turn on the kettle, prepare your lunch, and watch the neighbour’s cat piss on your plants. Carrying your coffee you scale the stairs and return to the bathroom. You comb your hair, brush your teeth, and spit blood into the sink. Back in the bedroom your partner is still asleep. You try to to smile, but your expression is flat and rigid. You check the time. You’re late. Again.
As you march along the pavement, eyes focused on the slabs ahead, you realise you forgot your sandwich. Idiot, you think, and keep walking. At the bus stop you stand to the side, away from the others. The timetable indicates a mixture of minutes, none of which make you feel better. You decide to take a different bus, hoping the express nature of its route will be worth the extended wait, but when the bus arrives you realise your mistake. No one gets off, and no one gets on, and you watch it pull away without you. You check your watch, review the timetable, and stare at the empty road ahead. Eventually, another bus arrives and you force your way on, reach for a handrail, and fail. The driver stamps on the brake and you bump into the man beside you. You apologise, but he doesn’t believe you, and tuts. The bus lingers at a stop to regulate the service and you bite your lip, engulfed by conversations you can’t understand. You try to reach for your headphones to drown out the voices, but it’s impossible, your hand wedged between the bodies. The bus lurches forward and you lock eyes with another passenger, both of you recognising the look; it’s too early, too tiresome, too familiar.
At the train station the same man in the same high-viz jacket thrusts a newspaper into your chest, just like he does every morning, even though you never, ever, take one. You wish, for once, that he would recognise you. You wish he would see you approach and think, aha, it’s him, the guy who doesn’t want one. You wish he would leave you alone, but he doesn’t, and you find yourself apologising, though you’re not sure why. You wonder if you all look so alike that you’re impossible to distinguish, an erratic blur of duty and obligation, forever on the move. Then you wonder how many people acknowledge him and accept a paper, and how, if at all, this makes him feel. You decide that tomorrow, you will take one. You will take one and say, thank you, have a nice day. Perhaps he will have a nice day, if you wish it. Or perhaps it won’t make a difference. Perhaps it’s just a job, and you’re just another person, on what is, as the newspaper suggests, just another day.
In the ticket hall you buy the wrong ticket and forget the receipt, the acquired possibilities devoid of destinations you might ever wish to visit. The train is delayed and you look at the screen, your fingers fiddling with the shrapnel in your pocket. A woman barges past you, smacks you in the leg with her bag, and positions herself directly in front of you. You feel the urge to push her over the yellow line and onto the tracks, but you resist, as always. The train approaches and you try to judge where the doors might stop, but you’re wrong, and join the back of the queue. Eventually you board the train, book in hand, distractions at the ready.
A man appears on the platform and you stare at him, wondering why he doesn’t get on. His face is covered in sweat, his chest heaving, and you find him unsettling, until finally you realise; he’s blind. You shake your head, appalled by your pitiful awareness. How did you not realise? How did you not see? You feel sick. Disgusted and ashamed. What a terrible person you must be. He’s still standing there, and you want to help, but you don’t know how. You examine the other passengers, hoping for guidance, but nobody acknowledges him, or you, or the specifics of the situation. This isn’t right, you think. Not right at all. By the time you decide to act he’s already on board, standing opposite you, smiling. You smile back, open your book, and read.
After a few pages you give up on the book and return it to your bag, avoiding eye contact with the man in front of you, knowing, shamefully, that it doesn’t matter anyway. You wonder where he’s going. Who is waiting. Why. You come up with countless possibilities but none of them make sense. You cough and the man jerks, startled by your presence, and you want to say something – anything at all, but the words won’t come. You look outside the window and watch without feeling; the same tracks, the same buildings, all of it the same as yesterday. Every miniscule, exceptional detail, lost on you. You think about the man, unable to see what you can see, yet smiling, still. You feel an irrational sense of guilt, disgust at your appalling lack of appreciation, as if, somehow, your life is better than his. It’s a stupid thought, ignorant and foolish – horrifying, in fact, and you know this, but you think it anyway.
The train arrives at the station and people gather in the gangway. Someone is listening to music and you recognise the song, a popular tune from your teenage years. You remember your first job in Safeway when you fought on pallets of toilet paper and smoked joints behind containers in the backyard. You remember your colleagues, your friends, all the people you no longer see, and increasingly forget. You wonder what they’d think of you now, a shirt and tie above your faded leather shoes. This is what you are now. You. The person who advocated independence and despised commitment. All you ever wanted was freedom. Then you met your partner, and, well, everything changed. You don’t know how it happened, but it did. The career you once envisioned drifted out of focus. Auditions became less frequent, agents less forthcoming, and acting less and less enlightening, until at some point, somehow, the dream was dead. Now here you are. An adult. Married and mortgaged. Settled down. Responsible. Your best performance yet.
Someone nudges you from behind and you realise the doors are open. You stand back and let them pass. Between the blur of bodies you see the man, steadfast and unsure, sweating once again. This time you will do something. You will help. Just as you’re about to ask if he’s okay a woman appears and gently guides him down from the train and on to the platform. He’s okay, you think. He’s okay. As soon as you step off you’re swallowed in the stampede towards the turnstiles. The clock reads ten to nine. There is no way you will get to the office on time. Your boss will be angry. She will use that tone of voice you hate, and you will apologise and promise never to be late again, even though you know you will. At the gates you remove the Oyster card from your wallet and step forward. As you press the card down on to the scanner you notice the lady who was helping the man stood beside you. What? Wait a minute. How? You look back towards the man, nervous and anxious, hoping, despite the odds of observation, that someone else is helping him. Your fears are confirmed. He is on his own; abandoned on the platform. His stick is down beside his leg. He is heading straight for a large steel pillar. He can’t see it. You can. No. Please. Stop. You shout, but it’s too late, and you can’t bear to look, you can’t bear to see it, so you look away, his nose disintegrating against the metal, his walking stick crashing to the ground as you pass through the turnstiles, fall in line, and disappear into the crowd.
Illustration by Henry Davis
Atticus sat in his hut, thinking.
Ida hadn’t returned last night, or the night before, or the night before that, and when he tried to recall the last time she had, his mind shot a blank. He simply couldn’t remember.
When the doctor diagnosed him with the onset of Alzheimer’s, Atticus prescribed his own medication. For fourteen years he had been dry, but now there was no reason to resist the call of moonshine and tobacco, not anymore, not when the bedrock of his sober life now slept beside a friend.
He couldn’t remember if the arguments began before he broke the seal, or after, but it made little difference beyond the details, the most important of which, the bottle was always empty. Returning to the ritual of his therapy was easy, easier than the secrets and lies and infidelity, and easier than the empty bed above. In the months which followed his diagnosis he worked at being drunk, the windmills and pumps he once repaired were left to weather the winds alone, his own storm swelling within.
At first he merely encountered difficulty remembering the small things, names and dates and schedules slipping from his mind. Insanity, he knew, was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but he couldn’t remember the doing, and the result was always the same; he was going insane.
Soon he was unable to complete the simplest of tasks, confused by time and place, unable to understand visual images and spatial relationships, mumbling and stumbling and losing things, his wife the one he mourned the most, a victim of the condition he couldn’t control. His moods shifted beyond the rational, explanations erratic, the truth an admission he would not utter. So he withdrew into the bottle, the world beyond no longer one which acknowledged his new existence. But he didn’t blame Ida for leaving. He didn’t blame her for wanting something, or someone, better. The fault was his, and every day he blamed himself, those days on which he drank, and remembered who he was.
Looking at the purple hat hanging from the back of a chair beside him, Atticus struggled to identify its owner, the object a strange companion in the confines of the room. As he reached out to grab it he knocked an empty ‘shine jar over and watched it slowly roll along the table, finally disappearing beyond the precipice and landing on the rutted floor beneath. He looked back to the hat.
A flash. A memory. A woman.
Screaming. Fighting. Crying.
He closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead, and sighed.
Tainted. Tore up. Weak.
Eyes open he remained unable to recall the specifics of the fight, or whether there was a point at which either of them had ever been right. He stared at the open fire, flames quivering and sparks and embers soaring from the pit, each one bright and beautiful, but not for long. Beside the hearth lay a shattered vase; the fractured pieces weaved between twisted stems and brittle leaves, petals starved and empty. The crack in the plaster where the vase exploded against the wall had grown, its crooked tendrils reaching out towards him, his hunched silhouette flickering in and out of permanence.
He reached under the table and picked up the jar, slowly twisting it before his eyes and examining the distorted moonlight contained within the muddy glass. Placing it down on the table he ran his tongue against the encrusted surface of his teeth. He was thirsty, hungover and hungry. Staring at the empty tumbler he tried to remember where the ‘shine was hidden, the hut an awkward jumble of useless junk, each cupboard filled with unfamiliar items and fragments of a life he hadn’t lived. Everything he touched belonged to someone else, and as he wandered around the room the fury of displacement rose within. He was lost inside a stranger’s home. None of it made sense. The furniture. The foreign faces on the wall. The suitcase by the door.
He was looking for something but he couldn’t remember what it was. He couldn’t remember what he wanted. He couldn’t remember…he couldn’t remember…he couldn’t…
A photo…a house…a…woman…and…a…man…
Atticus examined his reflection in the shattered glass above the faded image. He looked beyond at the man within the photograph. The scar above his eye. The crooked nose. The smile. It was him. Younger. Thinner. Happier. And the woman. Hiswoman. His wife. Ida. He caressed her face with the flat of his thumb, gently, tenderly, until a jagged piece of glass sliced his skin. The frame fell from his grasp and crashed to the floor, rupturing into smaller shards as a bead of blood landed on the photo, slowly soaking into the aged print. He stared at his wife, the coldness of her eyes, the blood on her face, something, finally, familiar.
Inside the pantry he stuck the last bottle of ‘shine into his jacket pocket, and found what he was looking for. Back in the front room he surveyed the remnants of the man he used to be and walked towards the table, the fallen frame crunching beneath his boot. Lifting the purple hat from the back of the chair he ripped the plastic flower from the rim and threw it into the fire. He lit a cigarette, placed the hat atop his head, and pushed through the smoke. The smile, this time, different.
Atticus stepped out into the night and exhaled beneath the branches, a windmill whistling in the distance, the shovel cutting through the snow.
He remembered now.
Ida had come home.
Photography by Ryan Licata
A CHRISTMAS GARROL
I was sitting there staring at my shoes when a penguin came up to me and tried to sell me a small child for Christmas. I looked down at them both and considered the question. Just as I prepared to articulate my concerns the penguin slapped the boy with his flipper and threw him inside a cardboard box. Twelve red breasted robins descended from above and hastily tied an elaborate ribbon around the circumference of the cardboard casing. Before I could adjust my spectacles to ensure I was sighted correctly, the penguin turned into Morgan Freeman and marched away, narrating his exciting journey into an incredible true story.
Back in the office I pushed the box under my desk and waited for the telephone to ring. I picked up the stapler on my desk and counted the unspent staples remaining in the chamber; forty seven. Folding an internal mail envelope into tiny squares I stapled it in each corner and ran a line along the edges until the border was complete. I checked the chamber once again; 12. It seemed like a satisfactory number so I returned the stapler to its place beside my UHU stick and turned towards my computer monitor. In preparation of my duties I flipped my mouse over and scratched the dirt from the tiny circular rubber pads attached to its underbelly, methodically scraping, wiping, and blowing. Satisfied with my industry, I rested.
I awoke several minutes later to the sound of Christmas music booming from the overhead speakers and I hummed along until my phone began to ring. Switching the volume setting on my receiver to mute, I finished the final verse and stared at the flashing light on the handset. Regrettably, the caller was persistent, so I picked up the phone and initiated company protocol.
‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Hello. My reference number is; 13-1-14-4-19.’
‘Thank you. Please wait one moment while I access your order.’ On the other side of the office Pat was battling with the Xerox machine and I observed him tussle with the paper tray, the jam not clearing despite his determined efforts. ‘Right. Here we go. Am I speaking with Mrs Buck?’
‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address and postcode please?’
‘It’s 44 ZSAFPM Road, E4 7DX.’
‘Great. Now what seems to be the problem?’
‘What about them?’
‘They’ve gone rogue.’
‘I see you ordered package number four.’
‘Yes, but what about the fairies?’
‘Everything seemed fine. We released them from their cages and they flew around and zapped things. Like in the commercials, you know. Changing stuff.’
‘Yes. Then what?’
‘Then the Red One started on the Egg Nogg.’
‘It does say in the instruction manual to keep the fairies away from alcohol.’
‘They turned the manual into Egg Nogg.’
‘What am I supposed to do now?’
‘I will send an emergency response unit over to you as soon as possible.’
‘How long will that take?’
‘It depends on the extremities of the emergency.’
‘Well, they have just zapped my daughter and turned her into a stapler.’
‘A stapler you say?’
‘Never mind the practicalities, what shall I do in the meantime?’
‘I would advise that you avoid making them angry.’
‘What happens when they’re angry?’
‘You won’t like them when they’re angry.’
‘I don’t like them now.’
‘Well, just try to wait it out. The response team will be with you shortly. Might I suggest you get off the phone now, before they realise what you’re doing.’
‘They already have. And it’s not a phone, it’s a fish.’
The phone went dead and I looked at the clock. It was only half past ten. I decided it was time to check my emails. Awaiting my attention were 32 unread messages, so I deleted 31 of them, still unread, and pondered on the remaining email; ‘Announcement: Scheduled Upgrade to HighView system has been completed.’ This seemed important, so I read the email again. Yes, the upgrade had been completed. I ignored the subsequent content about ‘system failure’, ‘power outage’ and ‘warning’, and turned my attention to a speck of stubborn dirt imbedded beneath my nail. Following several attempts, I successfully removed the dirt, rolled it into a ball, and flicked it towards Miriam’s desk. I had no idea what HighView was, and though the email encouraged me to contact a member of HR should I have any questions, I refrained from sharing any knowledge of my existence. Instead, I deleted the email and congratulated myself on my efficient professional progress. To celebrate, I put a new roll of sellotape into my desktop tape dispenser.
Beneath my desk the box thumped against the side of my drawers so I gave it a gentle kick and decided it was time for a cup of tea. In the communal kitchen Miriam was talking to Pat so I nodded at them and flicked the switch on the kettle. Not having the most intimate relationship with my colleagues had its benefits, the main of which was that they were never entirely sure who I was or what I was paid to do. I preferred to keep it this way and delegated a great deal of time to ensuring that such a working environment was sustained, often creating area graphs to determine suitable periods at which to visit communal areas, and line charts to record my movements. I used a scattergram to measure any variables, such as weak bladder and/or hangover, and a radar chart to display my observations of co-workers circulating habits. After analysing all this data I was able to navigate secure paths through the office, stealthily avoiding conversation, and more importantly, work. So far my labours had proved instrumental in my professional permanence, and two pay rises and a promotion later, I can safely say the lavatory cubicles are the ideal location to expedite advancement.
As I waited for the kettle to boil I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. ‘I need to call facilities.’ Miriam said. ‘I mean, it just fell from the ceiling, straight into my cup of tea.’
‘What was it?’ Pat asked.
‘I don’t know. I thought it was a fly and pulled it out, but when I looked closer, it was like a tiny bit of grit or dirt or something. I mean, we can’t be expected to work in conditions where filth is falling from the ceiling.’
I cleared my throat and checked my nails. I had done a good job. Thorough. The kettle finished boiling so I started to pour the hot water into my mug when Pat tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Are you the engineer?’ He asked.
‘What?’ I replied, squeezing the tea bag against the edge of the mug.
‘The photocopiers’ been playing up and I thought you might be the engineer.’
‘No. I’ –
‘That’s Kevin,’ Miriam interrupted. ‘’He sits next to me. Say, you haven’t noticed things falling from the ceiling have you?’
‘No.’ I replied. ‘Sorry.’
Pat was staring at me, his eyes narrow and sternly focused. ‘Did you hear about Steve?’ Miriam asked him.
‘Sorry?’ He shifted his attention back to Miriam.
‘Steve. Apparently he’s gone AWOL. They didn’t pay him for that commercial and he’s taken the truck and disappeared. Nobody has seen him since last week. They’re saying he’s really pissed off about it, I mean really pissed off.’
‘Well, wouldn’t you be? That’s the most famous commercial we’ve ever produced. I’d be pissed off if I was him.’ Something about Steve and his unpaid wages sounded strangely familiar, but I couldn’t recall why so I dismissed the issue and threw the tea bag in the bin.
‘Are you sure you’re not the engineer?’ Pat asked me once again.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Well, if you see him, can you tell him the copier needs fixing?’
‘Sure thing.’ I retrieved some milk from the fridge and added it to my tea. ‘Consider it done.’
‘But what about Steve?’ Miriam asked.
‘Fuck Steve.’ Pat said. ‘That was my milk, buddy.’
‘Really?’ He was now frowning at me, his arms folded above his rotund midriff.
‘Sorry. I thought this was a communal kitchen.’ I said and sipped my tea, the scolding brew burning my tongue.
‘It is, but that,’ he pointed at the carton, ‘is not communal milk.’
‘I’ll remember that. Sorry.’ I put the milk back in the fridge and walked away, leaving them to consider how another piece of dirt had landed in Miriam’s tea. As I made my way back to my desk, I scorned myself for such sloppy behaviour. I had made a cardinal error. Interaction with colleagues was strictly forbidden and against my code of conduct. It was rule number two, closely succeeding rule number one; Shirk the Work, or rather, work solely to maintain the pretence of effective and efficient management of professional responsibilities. These two rules were a firm example of my conscientiously acquired multi-tasking skills, and I performed each with admirable efficacy. However, the recent exchange left me frustrated. Now my name would be known – that is – until it was forgotten, and the most effective way to ensure this occurred was to arrange a re-location. Back at my desk, I logged a call with Facilities and expressed my cause for concern regarding the unpleasant smell emanating from my neighbouring co-worker. I was provided with assurances that a full investigation would take place, and pleased with my resourcefulness, I pushed a banana to the back of Miriam’s drawer.
My telephone began to ring once again, and in light of my previous blunder, I decided to answer it and appear industrious. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘My order number is 2-15-15-20-19.’
‘Thank you. One moment please.’ I waited for the customers’ order details to appear on my screen. ‘Right, here we go. Is this Ms Lampoon?
‘I see here that you ordered package number two.’
‘And what seems to be the problem?’
‘The problem is that my house has been robbed.’
‘Oh my. And how did that happen?’
‘You tell me. It’s your family.’
‘It’s not my family. It’s the family you ordered.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t order a family of thieves.’
‘Every family has its problems.’
‘But now their problem is my problem.’
‘I finished my shift in the hospital and when I got home, rather than setting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house, they left me with nothing to decorate. They took everything. Even my slippers.’
‘Not your slippers?’
‘Yes, my slippers. What am I supposed to do now? I have no family and no possessions. All I have is an empty house, which is precisely what I didn’t want. That’s why ordered package number two; The Family Christmas.’
‘This is rather unusual.’
‘I would hope so – though whether it is or is not doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is that Christmas is tomorrow and I have no food, no fridge, and no family.’
‘I see, well, I will log your call and send a response team over to you right away. I can send you a replacement for the replacement?
‘No. Thank you.’
‘Perhaps you might like an alternative package? Free of charge, of course.’
‘I would sooner forget about the whole thing.’
‘That can be arranged. We have a fantastic new package -‘
She hung up and left me to log a request for our response team to visit her empty property and tally the items which no longer existed. Having completed the necessary procedures, I leaned back in my chair and looked at my desk. Despite my proficient conduct, my desk had become somewhat cluttered, so I decided to conduct a pre-vacation clean, knowing full well that in doing so, I would appear both efficient in my swift completion of designated duties, and conscientious. I began by testing all the pens within my desktop organiser, one by one separating those with ink, from those that no longer functioned. Next, I gathered all the paperwork on my desk and ripped each sheet into tiny pieces, aware that the noise would not go unnoticed and confirm my status as an organised and orderly employee. I then shredded all the paper, which was mostly blank, and re-organised my array of stationery and various office supplies. The paperclips were placed in the left compartment of the desktop organiser, the pins in the right, pens in the middle, and a large elastic band around the perimeter. Once this was done, I wiped my desk down with an anti-bacterial cloth, re-aligned my keyboard and mouse, and raised and lowered my office chair until I was sufficiently comfortable to absorb the remaining hours of my working day. Now that my working area was clean and comfortable, I peeled an orange.
Before I could commence the calculation of my copper coins, my telephone began to ring. I glanced around the office and reached out to press the mute button on the handset, but I became aware that Miriam was watching me, as she tended to do upon discovering her hole-punch had been sabotaged, again. Reluctantly, I answered. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Fuck my order number. You can take the order.’
‘I don’t want him.’
‘Peter bloody Andre, that’s who.’
‘Did you order package number three?’
‘What? Yes. I think so. What has that got to do with anything?’
‘It explains Mr Andre.’
‘I didn’t want Peter fucking Andre. I wanted the goddamn Winter Berry Glistening Gateau and the pork loin crackling joint. Not Peter Andre. What the fuck is he doing here?’
‘I’m afraid he comes with the package.’
‘But we didn’t get a package. All we got was him, and now he’s walking around rummaging through our cupboards and eating our food. He even finished the Graham crackers. The fucking crackers, man.’
‘Can’t you just let him out?’
‘No. That’s the other problem.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s a bunch of old women hanging around outside my house going on about how gorgeous he is.’
‘Can’t they take him away?’
‘That’s what I said but he just started making some stupid brain explosion gestures and talking about what’s not to like about a Strawberry Daiquiri Dome. He’s insane.’
‘To be honest, sir, I’m not sure we have any protocols to deal with Peter Andre.’
‘Well you bloody well better come up with something. What am I supposed to with him?’
‘Let me think.’ I realised at this point that I should probably speak with my manager, but not knowing who that might be, nor desiring for them to know me, I decided to use my initiative. ‘Listen, I know a lady who would probably love to have Peter Andre in her house.’
‘Yes.’ I proceeded to tell him about the previous caller, which was technically against regulations, but I figured I could solve two problems with one Peter Andre.
‘But how do I sneak him out with all those old women hanging around?’
‘You need a diversion. Have you got any Michael Bolton CD’s in your house?’
‘Why the fuck would I have any Michael Bolton CD’s in my house?’
‘What about Cliff Richard?’
‘Okay, well, this requires some improvisation. Wait a second.’ I opened up my web browser and commenced my investigation. Once I was ready, I hit the pause button and commenced operation Abolish Andre. ‘Right, now, turn the loudspeaker up on your phone up and go and stand by the window.’
‘Okay, now what?’
I hit play and sent the Coronation Street theme tune booming through his speakers. ‘Look outside. Is it working?’
‘Shit. They’ve gone.’
‘Of course. Now, do you remember the address of the woman I told you about before?’
‘Yeah, course. Listen, thanks for your help fella.’
‘You’re welcome. Have a great Christmas.’
He hung up and I stared at a post-it note stuck to my monitor. It was blank and covered the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, which had now reverted to sleep mode. My screensaver was a smiling lady dressed in Christmas attire stood before a giant decorated tree. In the background Santa was flying overhead, presents falling from the back of his sleigh down towards a group of carol singing children gathered at ground level directly beneath him. Something about this festive scene struck me as rather peculiar, if not entirely problematic and downright dangerous. The children were unaware of the presents tumbling though the sky, one of which was a colourful set of Joseph Conrad Kitchen knives, plummeting blade tip first. I looked back at the mother and wondered whether this was why she seemed so happy. Perhaps her Christmas wish had finally been granted.
I looked at Miriam’s desk and considered the countless decorative items spread across the polished oak veneer, all of which were strategically displayed to reinforce the reasoning that she possessed a personality. There was a miniature Eiffel Tower, a squidgy pink pig, a frazzle-haired troll, three porcelain elephants, two plastic plants, some sanitary wipes, a bottle of hand cream, a purple Christmas Tree, and a signed photo of Russell Brand. Behind this oversized framed photo several images of unsmiling children leaned against a chrome desk lamp which illuminated a sad looking man I presumed to be her husband. Turning back to my desk, I examined my own presented personality, and recognising a lack of exhibited identity, I seized my UHU stick and turned it upside down.
On the other side of the office I noticed a congregation of co-workers gathered in a circle staring at the 42 inch plasma television attached to the wall. This television was forever fixed on the BBC news channel, a tactical manoeuvre recently introduced to verify that the world was unquestionably worse beyond our dull prefabricated walls. Somewhat curious, I decided to take a closer look, and as I approached the television I noticed the Xerox engineer standing by the entrance to our office. Being the obliging operative that I am, I enquired about his business, assured him the photocopier was in full working order, and sent him home. As I approached the huddled group I carefully maintained a safe distance, thus ensuring that my presence was not mistaken as a sign of conversational commitment. ‘I can’t believe it.’ One of them said. ‘I can,’ another replied, so I looked up at the television to identify the divisive cause of faith.
‘Holidays Are Coming; NFH employee crashes truck into company headquarters and refuses to exit vehicle. It is believed the dispute is surrounding unpaid wages for what is quite possibly, the most famous commercial ever filmed.’
I spotted Steve sitting in the cab of the iconic Coca-Cola truck, smiling. The footage cut to the exterior of the building; the destroyed front façade and vast NFH logo dangling from above the pulverised entrance, severed electrical cables flickering dangerously and piles of rubble and debris surrounding the rear of the truck. It was a fabulous festive fuck up. Admiring the spectacular window dressing, I suddenly developed a warm affection towards Steve; a man admirable in conviction, and marvellously determined. Good old Steve. Steve. Shit. Steve. Finally I remembered. Of course. Immediately I returned to my desk, located the envelope, and hid the unprocessed wage slips in Miriam’s gym bag.
My telephone began to ring and I answered without delay. ‘Good afternoon. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’
‘Thank you. Please wait one moment.’ The customer’s details appeared on my screen and I acknowledged the data displayed before me. ‘Is this Mrs Poppins?’
‘Yes.’ A female voice replied.
‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address?’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t have an address. Not anymore.’
‘And why is that?’
‘Because the people in the package blew it up.’
‘Can you explain to me what happened?’
‘I was hoping you could explain it to me.’
‘You need to tell me what happened.’
‘War. That’s what happened?’
‘In the Banks’s house.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Neither do I.’
‘I’m afraid you will have to be more specific.’
‘I opened the box – like it said in the instructions – you know; Christmas is Sharing – and then all hell broke loose. Even Bert couldn’t help.’
‘What was in the box?’
‘Well, it wasn’t a bar of chocolate, or a cracker.’
‘So what was it?’
‘A bunch of soldiers. Shouting and screaming. Gunfire and grenades. Explosions. All of it spilling out into the front room. Bayonets and bullets aimed at Jane and Michael. Death and carnage everywhere. In my house. ’
‘Oh…I…I don’t know what to say.’
‘You better say something because I’ve got a very angry German General standing beside me.’
‘Er…’ I racked my brain to remember my German lessons. ‘Hallo…Frohe Weihnachten.’
‘What? What was that?’
‘There’s nothing happy about it?’
‘Yes there is. The war is over. Erm… Der Krieg ist vorbei.’
‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’
‘Nur ein Löffel Zucker hilft der Medizin, unten gehen.’
‘Löffel Zucker what?’
‘Is he still angry?’
‘Good. I’m glad I could help.’
‘Wait. What am I supposed to do with all these dead bodies?’
I put the receiver down and ripped the cord from the back of the phone. There was no satisfying these people. I mean, what did they expect? A perfect reproduction of a televised representation? It was all in the small print, even in German.
I decided it was time to go home and logged off my computer. Picking up the box from beneath my desk I moved among desks towards the exit. I was waiting for the lift when a door to an office I had never previously noticed opened and a rotund gentleman with a pink tie called my name. ‘Kevin?’ he asked. I paused. ‘Mr McCallister?’
‘Yes.’ I replied.
‘Can you step into my office please? It won’t take long.’ I followed him into the small office and looked at the empty chair facing the desk. The man gestured for me to sit down, so I did, confused and rather concerned. ‘Don’t look so nervous.’ He smiled. ‘I’m Jeremy Peedle. Your department manager. I know it’s Christmas so I won’t keep you long. Basically, Kevin, I just got off the phone with Peter Andre.’ He leaned back in his chair and straightened his tie. ‘He had some very nice things to say about you. Some very nice things indeed. Well, this led me to examine your file and I must say I was quite astounded.’ I cleared my throat. ‘As a consequence of my review, and with the full backing of the Board, I would like to offer you the position of office manager. Effective immediately. You don’t have to give me an answer right away, however, I can assure you the financial remunerations are more than generous.’ He handed me a contract and I scanned the details of the proposed promotion. ‘Think of it as a delayed reward for your continued hard work.’ He rose to his feet and guided me towards the door. ‘One more thing. I have also arranged for you to receive a small bonus in your next payment. Happy holidays.’
‘Thank you,’ I said and shook his hand. He closed the door behind me and I stood motionless looking across the open plan office floor. My floor. I couldn’t believe it. Bonuses. Rewards. Promotion. Me. Office Manager. To salute my managerial elevation, I returned to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and finished the milk.
When I finally got home I greeted my dancing cardboard friends and navigated my way through the countless traps I had lain around the house. My parents had left for Paris twenty three years ago and I remained at home, alone, ever since. It was a rather strange situation at first, but once I became accustomed to my own companionship, I made sure the necessary allegations were administered by the correct authorities, and in accordance with the law, my parents never returned. Satisfying myself that everything was in order, I returned to the front room, placed the box on the coffee table, and poured myself a large glass of wine. Removing the contract from my satchel, I examined the figures once again. I noted the specification which stated I would be granted my own office, and in accordance with my desire to delegate from a distance, I approved the detailed proposal. I decided that my first act as manager would be to take a vacation. Whilst I was away, Miriam would take charge of all my duties, and upon my return, this would continue. I would manage my diary with scrupulous attention, ensuring I remained forever busy – too busy – and thus unfortunately unable to engage or interact. I had been rewarded for my rigorous approach to obligation, and hence there existed no rational reason to modify my methods. The plan was working. My next stop; Parliament. ‘Keep the change, you filthy animal.’
Jack Darkins sits in the front seat of his Ford Focus trying to concentrate, his eyes raw from exhaustion and his tongue parched despite the tasteless chewing gum stirring in his mouth. He’s parked the car far enough up the road not to be seen but close enough to see, and he studies the street as his thumb gently rubs the plastic filter of his electric cigarette.
What he really wants is a proper cigarette. He wants to feel the burn pass through his throat and down into his lungs. He wants to see the smoke escape his parted lips and encircle him in the scented smoke of B & H Gold, the cigarettes his father used to smoke before he disappeared.
He can remember the last day he saw him in the airless basement of their rented flat, a temporary accommodation advocated by the lawyers, the law itself in question. It was the only solution, they advised, telephones disconnected and blinds drawn, detox initiated and cold sweats and cramps disabling the rage of asphyxiation.
When reports of the ‘Crack-head Composer’ first surfaced he was shielded from the details, protected from the news which set up camp outside the house and fought to reveal the exclusive nature of his decline. He was only eight years old, but he remembers the shuffling maids as they disposed of drained syringes and singed metal spoons, carefully eradicating the evidence of addiction.
In the weeks that followed he was taken from his father, adopted, and eventually left an orphan. He was given a new name, a new family, and new bruises and abuse. Eventually the world lost interest in a damaged man and his infected music, a reputation ruined, his legacy destroyed by savages and sickness. Everything was gone and all moved on, everyone but Jack, the final treatment fixed within his fist; a .40 calibre prescription long since overdue.
Confirming the coast is clear he steps out of the car and moves, head down and collar up, shadows shifting on the concrete slabs ahead. He reaches the door and examines the locks. They are aged and worn and offer little resistance to his acquired skills, practiced for such exact intent, a pupil firmly focused, slow, precise, and perfect. He listens from within, hinges settled once again, locks and latches sealed, the boy a man, and angry.
The hall is wide and chaotic, unopened mail and sealed magazines strewn across the floor, shoes scattered along the flaking skirting boards, hats and scarves hanging from a cluttered coat rack, a solitary umbrella leaning in the corner. To the side of the stairs is an open door and he removes the pistol and inches towards it, careful of the creaking floorboards. The air is thick and oppressive, the musk of cat-piss festering around him. Peering around the door frame he grips the gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.
Stepping into the room he examines his surroundings; the furniture regal yet close to ruin, Chesterfield sofas ripped and worn, dark mahogany cabinets overflowing with books and long forgotten souvenirs, a bureau brimming with disjointed files, the walls covered with crooked empty frames, the floor on which he walks barely visible beneath layers of sunburnt newspapers. Even the ceiling is stained and yellow, white pigments long since altered and overcome.
The dining room is exactly the same; the table and chairs concealed by stacks of paper and tomes of periodicals, dirty plates and upturned mugs spread among the chaos, crumpled clothes suffocating in every corner. Walking towards the patio doors his foot catches something hidden beneath a pile of newspapers and he picks up a broken walking stick, aims his gun, and lifts the edge of the paper. Instantly a vile smell invades the air and he winces and covers his nose with the back of his hand, the paper falling back down on to the decomposing corpse of a cat. He holds on to the walking stick and backs away, the maggots and worms engraved on his eyeballs, demise and decay already in action.
The kitchen is littered with empty tins of food and punctured packets of ready meals and discarded take away containers. Milk bottles and cardboard cartons lay crushed amid the drained bottles of inexpensive wine and whiskey, dirty dishes and grimy pots and pans overflowing from the filthy sink. He decides not to enter and examines from a distance; an abandoned litter tray overflowing in the corner, coagulated faeces and bile festooned with flies and insects, wrappers and bags and broken glass scattered across the floor, a myriad of mice entombed in traps, the house itself a shrine to time.
The guts of the ground floor confirm the existence of only one inhabitant, the man he’s monitored for the past six months, alone and abandoned, upstairs. He turns and walks towards the hallway, feet carefully carrying him to the bottom of the stairs, a piano playing in one of the rooms above. With his back against the wall he ascends the staircase, cautiously climbing one step at a time, his jaw tense and muscles tight.
He pauses several steps from the summit and cranes his neck to look between the bannisters; three separate doors leading away from the empty landing. He knows from the floor plan that the door to his left is the bathroom and the remaining two are bedrooms, the one to his right the source of the current spring of music.
There it is. Years of exhaustive investigation leading him to this street, this house, this room. All the miles of trampled asphalt, sleepless nights and surveillance, dead ends and dead people, all about to end, one way or another. He thinks back to the day he lost his dad, that day unlike today, his to regulate and transform. Today, he will have control. He will make the choice; death or life, decide.
Moving across the landing he glimpses a shape within the room, a shadow cast onto countless sheets of music strewn across the floor. He waits, inhales, and enters. The room is empty bar a grand piano positioned in the centre and a hunched figure sat before it; long grey-streaked hair cascading down his back, his clothes ill-fitting and loose atop his hunched and crooked back, hands and fingers dancing across the keys. He inches closer, lifts his arm, and points the gun. The music stops.
Without turning the man picks up a pencil and scribbles furiously on the crumpled sheet before him, flickers of graphite leading the composition along the lines and filling those beneath, dashes and dots and swirls of instruction flowing down the page, down and down and down until the final set of words: ‘The End.’ He stares at the sheet, rain smashing against the window, a leak somewhere up above echoing in the distance, the gun now pressed against his head. Gathering the scattered staff paper he forms a pile and places it on the stand, the title page empty bar a grainy photo of a baby, crying. He turns the first page and begins to play the piano, his hands moving sinuously across the keys, fingers gently ushering tender secrets into life, flesh and bone bewitched. He pushes his head against the barrel of the gun and their fingers work in unison, hammers striking, notes uniting, the tutti tamed at last.
The Soundtrack for ‘The Tutti’ is Charlie Parr’s ‘Midnight has Come and Gone’
He sits on the front pew and looks up, the Son of God hanging high above, his flesh punctured by crooked nails and a sharpened rusted crown. He examines the detail of the sculpture and sighs, the seeping wounds reminding him of those that never heal. Leaning back he averts his gaze, eyes exploring the ceiling rose overhead and tracing the undulation of each furrow until he falls asleep, church bells ringing overhead. Moments later, he wakes, confused and sore. A crow caws outside the blessed building and he closes his eyes once more, wishing the world away but wholly aware of his surroundings, the walls fractured and uneven between enormous stained glass windows, faint arcs of colour drowning in the dusty air, a heavy oak door creaking in the distance, arched and still ajar.
Looking down at his feet he tries to remember the last time he shined his shoes, lesions cavernous within the faded leather. He checks his watch and wipes away the faint traces of a fingerprint, the task distracting him from the precision of the time beneath. Soon the procession of tailored guests will pass through ancient arches, their fingertips hovering over holy fonts, ripples of emotion ruffling their bedecked exterior. They will slowly take their seats and examine their surroundings, mentally assessing, physically performing. The organ will exhale and interrupt the whispers, cuff links and cravats motionless at the altar, muscles tense beneath stiff suits. The father of the bride will walk beside his adult child, arm in arm and proud, unsettled by the evolution of his parentage, his role diminished by the shadow of another man; a stranger. The mother will sit among relations, nails painted, make up pristine, fascinator bright and beautiful, like the daughter she adores, and mourns. Friends and family will prod and gesture, opinions muttered, eyebrows raised. They will listen to the vows and wonder, hoping for the best, fearful of the worst. They will converse and feast together, attentive and composed, secret sentiments saved for home. And finally they will leave together; new love, old love, no love.
Gravel grinds beneath approaching tyres and he wipes his palms on the fabric of his trousers, anxiety permeating from within. The drone of an engine dissolves and voices filter out into the expanse of emptiness above, birds flying high and higher still, no limit to their freedom. The hymn book in front of him is brittle and yellowed and he wonders how many people found solace in the songs. He wonders if any of it makes a difference any more. Looking up at the crucifix and the man who died for the survival of humanity, he can’t help but question why. There was a time when answers were not needed, when doubt was silenced by the strength of faith alone, but now, thirty four years later, there is no end to the uncertainty. Identifying the instant he lost his faith is difficult, the circumstances blurred between a cacophony of confusion and distress. Work was ruining the integrity of his idol, murderers and rapists and thieves and cheats excusing actions and admitting on advice, occasionally punished, most often, not. One case in particular haunts him still. She was only girl. Eleven years old. Innocent and undeserving. Seventeen years ago today. Thinking about it makes him nauseous, the horror of her mangled corpse an unimaginable discovery, like the existence of a God who fails, the living left to weep as one, condemned and cast aside.
He hears the muttering of hushed voices and erratic slapping of small feet, echoes of existence scampering along the walls and fading into far off corners. The guests are gathered outside the church, politely enquiring and waiting for the bride, her carriage weaving through the streets, the cracks beneath concealed by the passing of her dreams. His headache returns and he rues the decision to abstain, the taste of wine forgotten on his tongue, sweat rolling down his skin and soaking into his shirt. Years ago there was a means by which to alter the shape of what might come, but now it is too late. There is nothing to be done. Nothing he, or anyone, can do. Too much time has passed. This is the way it is. The way it has to be. Cherish and obey. Forever and ever. Amen. He bows his head, closes his eyes, and finally confesses, the prospect of forgiveness empty like the prayers, the God above not his, or hers, or faithful.
A horn bellows from the distance and he knows the time has come. Behind him hurried footsteps approach, louder and louder, each explosion sending tremors through his spine, nerves wrinkling deep within. “Are you ready?”
A car door slams. People cheer. The organ whistles. A wedding waits.
He fastens his collar, affixes his cross, and stands.
The Soundtrack for ‘Confession’ is Charlotte OC’s ‘Strange’
‘It’s dangerous out there,’ he warns, shoveling a Mars Bar into her mouth. ‘Trust me.’
Unable to respond, she chews and swallows as fast as she can, teeth grinding, beads of sweat leaking from her skin and trickling down her sullen face. Her hair is damp and stuck to her forehead, stagnant in the breeze emitted from the fan beside her bed. She looks at him, eyes dry and swollen, tears no longer possible.
‘You’re better off here.’ He un-wraps another mars bar and winks. ‘I’ll look after you.’
This isn’t the way it always was. When they met she was fit and healthy. She was a different person, in more ways than weight alone. They would walk together, hand in hand and happy. They would visit and vacation and travel to places near and far away. They would tease and joke and laugh until their muscles throbbed, their aches soon soothed by love’s warm and soft embrace. It was a time of friendship and boundless affection, until the boundaries broke and crooked walls closed in, crumbling brick by errant brick. Now, as she lies motionless atop the special mattress and strengthened frame beneath, cushions plumped and propped beneath her head, she is more uncomfortable than ever before.
‘Come on. Eat up.’ He pushes the chocolate into her mouth. ‘That’s it. Good girl.’
It wasn’t long after they married that things began to change. The dates beyond their gates vanished; replaced by evenings sealed behind the curtains, fast food and fizzy drinks flowing in their veins. Excursions out gave way to couches and cushions and conversations controlled within a box, widescreen inches imitating life, the living still and lifeless. When clothes no longer fit and elastic ceased to stretch, she finally weighed herself, and fainted. It was too much. She was too much. Too big. Too disgusting. All flappy and fat and foul. She woke up on the freezing bathroom floor, saliva pooled beside her mouth, her head sore, horrified.
‘Swallow it all.’ He mimics her chomping mouth. ‘Every last bit.’
She told him she wanted to lose weight. It was time to change. She tried to reason and explain, but he said nothing, the television flickering in the distance, an empty popcorn packet silent on his lap, fingers twisted into twitching fists. The room remained silent until he got up and stood before her, his face inches away from hers, eyes wide and angry, the word; cunt. Her will to lose the weight was countered by expletives and accusations. Shouting and screaming. Jealousy and suspicion. Phone smashing. Broadband disconnecting. Covert spying and curfews. Anger and abuse. He was her new life, he said, be happy, and eat.
‘I got you something.’ He removes a Bacon burger from a bag. ‘Just the way you like it.’
Ignoring the change in his personality was impossible, his eyes forever fixed, suspicion and mistrust conspiring in his head. She sat beside him on the sofa, clutching her expanding rolls of fat, trying to understand how and when it happened, trapped and scared and silent. A week later she was called in to her managers’ office, informed about her poor performance, and fired. It didn’t matter, her husband said. Work was not important, not now that she had him. It wasn’t long before family visits and friendly phone calls ceased, dial tones dead and doors forever locked. She wanted to tell them. She wanted to tell someone, anyone, but she didn’t know where to begin. She didn’t know what to say, or how. It was her fault, all of it. Soon enough the need to leave the house was gone, together with all she knew of love. There was no one left. No one but the figures on the screen, the comfort of the food, the world outside, spinning.
‘How about some drink?’ The glass of Coke balanced before her mouth. ‘Drink it up. Good girl.’
The vigour she once possessed was assimilated and extinguished, leaving nothing but exhaustion. And now, staring at the ceiling, she has no idea how much time has passed, no knowledge of the world beyond. Fact and fiction merge and everything blends into nothing. The dreams. The nightmares. The faces on television repeating the same atrocities over and over again. The war. The riots. The recession. The never-ending crisis. The fear and hate and hurt. Day after day. Year after year. Present, past and future, fickle and capricious. Germans. Russians. Christians. Muslims. Atheists and non-believers. All of them blown to bits by shards of shattered dreams, hope wilting in the ashen soil on which they tread, leaving her behind.
‘There’s a funny smell in here.’ He presses down on the nozzle of the air freshener. ‘That’s better.’
She watches the perfumed particles burst into the air above, tiny scented shapes falling down down down until they land on her bare perspiring arms, chemicals masking uncleanliness and decay. Trying to work out how long she’s been stuck in the room, she thinks about forgotten facts, anything and everything which might help, though none of it does. She can’t remember the last time she left the bed, the dignity of independence suffocated beneath her rippling folds of fat. The day she let her dreams dissolve, her grip on life was lost. She ate, and ate, and ate. Chew and swallow. Chew and swallow. Cry. Everything she once resembled was now reduced to bedpans and soapy flannels and shame and isolation. Only this remained, all 58 stone of her, lying in a bed, lonely and lost, entombed. But not for long. Not anymore.
‘Hhhmmmrrmmmm.’ She whispers.
‘What did you say?’
‘I can’t understand.’
He leans over and aims his ear towards her trembling lips. She pauses and examines his unshaven skin, inches away from where she lay, the vein on his neck inviting. She musters what energy remains and bites down as hard she can, muscles clenching, jaws locking, blood seeping from his punctured flesh onto her fattened face, the pain, for once, his. He fights to break free, flailing limbs unable to focus on his freedom, empty wrappers crunching beneath his feet, Coke spilling and staining crumpled sheets, blood pressure dropping, heart rate increasing, shock and dread deepening. She tightens her grip and holds on, her hunger, almost, quenched.
The Soundtrack for ‘Heartburn’ is Xavier Rudd’ s ‘Follow The Sun’.
The shakes make moving difficult, but I struggle on, the need to leave the hospital more pressing than the pain. I’m on the brink, the doctor says, risking ruin and extinction, but I’m still here, somehow. I don’t need doctors or nurses or charts and graphs to show me what’s wrong. I can feel it, deep inside, beyond any scientific remedy. Even God himself has left me to it. He didn’t give up, I did. Not that there was much to renounce. When you have nothing, there is nothing to lose. Many ask for grace and good health, but for me, it’s all in vain. What is the point of praying if words are worn beyond repair? If minds and muscles are withered and weak, why stick around and sulk? Life without the drink is dull and listless. I no longer remember how I used to live before the booze. I know there were particulars which must have existed, such as parents and brothers and lovers and friends, but that was then. I realised long ago that remembering didn’t help. Memories were muddled, deformed by years of disciplined avoidance. Thinking about how things used to be was corrosive, more than the whiskey which appeased the past. Now, I’m on my own. But it’s all right. I’m okay with that. It’s the way things are. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I’m not interested in your sympathy. I don’t need it. Save it for someone else. Me, I just want a drink.
I leave Charing Cross Hospital and wait at the traffic lights. I watch people pass and vehicles vanish as vital signs flash and flicker. Everyone has a place to be, eventually. An old woman stands beside me, breathing heavily and holding a flaming cigarette between her fingers. Her eyes are sunken and her skin is loose and wrinkled. She looks tired and frail. Exhausted. I try to light a cigarette of my own but my shakes are still too strong and I can’t work the flint properly. I consider asking for the use of her cigarette, but I figure she deserves to be left alone. She’s done her bit, and now it’s up to Him. I notice the hospital tag on her left wrist and wonder whether she’s been officially discharged. She takes a long drag of her cigarette and coughs violently, ash falling from the smouldering end and disintegrating in the humid air. Leaning on the lamppost she steadies herself, until she catches her breath and sucks on the filter again. She has her crutch, and I have mine. We all have something which makes the world a more bearable place to live, or makes us better suited to live within it. We all have the hope of happiness, however strong or out of reach we think or feel it is. It pushes us on, even if we don’t know where we’re going, or if we’ll ever get there. Me, I don’t drink because I hate myself, or you, or anyone else. I drink because I like it. Similar to the way you like your infant child which soils itself, or your lover who disagrees, or the job which underpays. It’s the kind of ‘like’ which debilitates and invigorates in uneven measures, though mine are generally 60ml and frosty. I’m not a bad person. I’m not a thief or cheat or murderer. I’m not a man of ill intent. I’m just a man, a person, me. So here I am, and there you are. Different sides of the road, waiting together.
Inside the shop the air is thick with incense, indiscernible scents circling between the narrow aisles and laden shelves. Whilst I wait behind the customer in front of me I examine the gleaming bottles of alcohol which line the wall. I look at the reflection on each bottle, a mirror of the world beyond, contorted and bent and out of shape, perhaps the way it really is. I finally reach the guy behind the till and point at the small bottles of own brand whiskey which I know won’t taste great, but will at least take the edge off till I get home. I pay the man and exit back onto Fulham Palace Road where everything moves on, like it always does. I take the first turning on the left and let a mother and child pass me by before unscrewing the bottle and taking a hit. I expect my brain to shut down, but it doesn’t. The doctor was wrong, this time. I know the wet brain will come eventually, but not yet, it seems, so I finish the bottle and throw it in the nearest bin.
Now that the hospital appointment is over and I’ve got a couple of miniatures in my pocket, I’m in no rush to go home, so I make my way to the park not far ahead. Once I pass through the gates I look for a bench on which to sit. Choosing one situated away from the main path, I lower myself onto the weathered wood and feel for one of the miniatures in my pocket. I take it out and examine the tiny bottle fixed within the folds of my open palm. My fingers trace the lettering on the label until my dirty nails work at the corners, peeling and pulling and rubbing the bottle clean. I look at my reflection in the glass, my eyes staring back at me, searching. Long ago, this man inside the bottle was a husband, a lover, a friend. He was a father too, and by definition still is, somewhere.
There’s a group of kids playing football and I watch them run around and let loose with their fluorescent orange boots. I remember my first visit to a youth centre my parents encouraged me to get involved in back when I was young and healthy. Once they’d dropped me off and satisfied themselves that everything was all right, they departed for the other things they wanted, often more than me. I spent a while looking at the other kids playing table tennis or darts or five-a-side football, until I found a quiet corner and awaited my parents return. It was at this moment that another kid sat down next to me. I looked at him and smiled. He didn’t. ‘You don’t belong here.’ He said. Looking around I knew he was right. ‘Where do I belong?’ I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. Forty seven years later, I continue to ask the question, the answer waiting, still.
The Soundtrack for ‘Wet Brain’ is Radio Moscow’s ‘Sweet Little Thing’
SUNRISE OVER CAPADOCCIA
Capadoccia. What a place. What a beautiful fucking place. Look at all that bumpy shit. Look at those weird houses in the middle of the sand. They’re incredible. And look at those things. They look like giant penises, don’t you think? Look at them all. Is that what you think they are? Some symbol of fertility. Some warning to ancient visitors about cocks. Huge hard cocks. I bet they are. I bet that’s why they’re there. Must be. This is brilliant. Look at the little man down there. Why is he..oh…he’s taking a piss. He’s waving as well. Can you see that? Can you see him? Look. Down there. Right there. ‘Hello’. Come on. Wave. Say hello. Do you think he can see us? We can see him, so I suppose he can. I wonder why he pisses outside. Do you reckon he’s lost his toilet? Is that why? Or maybe it’s blocked. Or busy. Or perhaps he just likes the breeze. I’d piss outside if I lived here. No. Wait. That’s not true. Or maybe it is. Fuck knows. Would you? Would you piss outside? Would you drop your knickers and piss outside. Out in the open with all these people watching? Would it bother you? Would you mind? Could you do it? You’d have to squat. Spread your feet out so they don’t get splashed. I don’t know how you do it. Not that I think you do do it. I’m just saying. It must be hard. Being a woman. Pissing. I don’t think I could do it. I’d probably fall over. Face first into a puddle of piss. Can you imagine? Fucking hell. Anyway. Enough about piss. Forget it. Man. This is awesome. We’re in a fucking balloon. A bloody air balloon. This is amasing. Don’t you think so? Don’t you think this is fucking amasing? Are you having fun? Are you enjoying it? I mean, what’s not to enjoy. We’re together, right? You and me. Doing what couples do. Going on holiday. Looking at shit. Talking about stuff. Trying to have fun. Are you having fun? I am. I mean, I always have fun when I’m with you. I feel like we’ve got a connection, you know. Like I can be myself. Like you won’t judge me. I mean, I know we’ve only been together for a few months, but I feel like I’ve known you forever. Like we were meant to be together. It sounds like a cliché, but I mean it. I really do. It’s weird isn’t it? Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you feel like that too? Of course you do. It’s beautiful. Like you. Like us. The people we are. How we met. How everything happened. Would you ever have guessed? I wouldn’t, that’s for sure. I still can’t believe it. I see you and think, wow, what’s she doing with me? What have I done to deserve her? I think about it all the time. All I have to do is look at you and I feel lucky. I’m the luckiest man alive. I mean it. I really do. Is that how you feel about me? No. Don’t answer that. I can tell. You feel the same don’t you? Is that why you’re so quiet? Is that why you look so serious? I mean, look at us. Here, in Cappadocio. Our first holiday together. Flying in the sky in some huge fuck off air balloon. Me and you. Fingertips inches away from clouds. It’s like heaven, isn’t it? Imagine it. Us. Together forever. Every day. Every night. Marriage and kids and grandkids. All the fun and laughter. Everything we’ve still got to look forward to. There’s so much of it. Think about it. Shit. Sorry. I know I’m moving fast, but I can’t help it. I want you. I want us to live like a proper couple. Plan for the future. Be ready. Ready for anything as long as we have each other. So how about it? What do you think? Do you want to move in with me? Why don’t you move in when we get back? There’s plenty of space. Think about how great it would be. God. That would be perfect. Like a dream. Fuck it. Do you know what? Fuck everything else. Fuck what other people think. I don’t care what they say. They don’t know shit. None of them do. Only me and you know. Only me and you matter. I don’t care about anyone else. Fuck ‘em. I want you. Only you. You know what? Why don’t we get married? Come on. Let’s just do it. Let’s get married. Right here. Now. I mean obviously it wouldn’t be official, but I can propose. In fact, consider this a proposal. Look. I’ll get down on my knee. Wait a sec. Right. There you go. Now. Will you marry me? Will you be my wife? Will you do it? Will you? What do you think? Will you marry me? Hey. Are you okay? Is everything all right? What’s wrong? Is it something I said? Did I say something wrong? Shit. I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. Fuck. Forget I said anything. Ignore me. I’m an idiot. We don’t have to get married, or even move in together. We don’t have to change anything. Things are good the way they are, aren’t they? Wait. Stop. What are you doing? Where are you going? No. Please. Don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t.
The Soundtrack for Sunrise Over Cappadocia is the ‘Villagers‘ ‘Occupy Your Mind’.
RUST AND HOME
He removed the chequered laundry bag and lifted it onto his emaciated shoulders. Looking at the untamed shrubbery and sprawling weeds, it was clear how vastly things had changed, hidden roots now firmly settled beneath the parched and fractured soil. The last time he walked along this path he was seventeen years old, his parents were still alive, and timber gates and varnished doors were forever free and open. Now, security cameras and perimeter sensors warned him not to get too close as vast walls stretched along the streets, their peaks adorned by sharpened razor wire. Streetlights illuminated the smooth tarmac as curtains flickered behind modern sash windows, their voices whispering and fingers warning. He could imagine their reaction to the sight of his shabby clothes, uncultivated beard, and long greasy hair. He was a sight for sore eyes, his more so than most.
Halfway up the path he put the bag down and wiped his brow with the back of his arm. Reaching into his pocket for the weed he’d harvested in the field beside his barge, he looked across the stretch of open land towards the tree on which he once had fun. The tree house was gone, together with the swing, and as he looked closer still, he realised it was sick. The wounds in the bark were covered by cankers and fungus, and the protruding orange horns pointed directly at him. He remembered sitting between the branches and looking up at the stars, comfortable on his own, yet yearning for more. He remembered that humid afternoon when they met. He could see her now, the summer dress; bright yellow with blue flowers scattered across the fabric, thin straps on bronzed shoulders, a birthmark beneath her left ear, hair the colour of honey, the scent of her skin; watermelon. He lit up and tried to forget. But it was no use. The place was swamped with memories of how things used to be, who he loved, and lost. For these reasons he never returned. It was easier that way. Not easy, but better.
The last time he saw his parents was five months ago. They came to visit him where he’d moored and tried to move on, as far away from people as possible. He invited them in and waited, recognising what they wanted, but knowing he no longer existed. As the kettle boiled on the gas cooker, his parents assessed his home and tried to understand, but they didn’t stay the night, and he was glad. When they left he felt guilty about his conduct. He didn’t mean to be so distant, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to ask and answer, to be attentive and engaged, but he’d done it before, and failed. He knew they cared and visited to ensure he knew, but he was out of reach and no longer able to return. Watching them drive off into the distance he began to choke, standing in the swelling cloud of smoke, tears streaming down his haggard face. They disappeared around the corner, eyes watching him from the windscreen mirror, hands waving farewell, forever. He returned to his barge, sat on the roof, and stared into the vast expanse of trees beyond, his fingers tracing ancient scars as mosquitos sucked what little life remained. Now, finally, he was back, along with everything else.
He was scheduled to meet the solicitor tomorrow morning to go over the paperwork and begin the process of adopting an orphan life, but he would sooner skip it all and return to the dark and dirty water, back to where he belonged. He never wanted any of this. Not their money, nor their property or possessions. It meant nothing to him, and he felt uneasy knowing it meant more to the myriad of other mourners, the ones that always wanted, always needed, always grieved in jaundiced clammy skin. The only thing he wanted, was them, alive, again. But it was too late. There was nothing he, or anyone, could do. Words meant nothing now, and all the things he could have said that final day, now raced through his head, leaving him weak and unwilling to move. He knew what remained within the house. He knew what waited, and he didn’t want it. He didn’t want anything. He never had, apart from wanting to be left alone, and now that he was, he had more problems than ever before.
He lifted the bag once more and forced his feet to move, his soles scraping the uneven gravel beneath. Staring down at the multitude of tiny stones he remembered when his parents paid to have the house and all its land renovated and restored. He remembered the designs and landscapes, the builders and decorators and gardeners working for months to finish on time, proud of their work, and jealous. He remembered the man who told him he was lucky, and it stayed with him for years, until he was the man and any luck was long gone. It was no different now, standing before the door, faced with all that now belonged to him, together with his one good eye, the other crushed beneath the wreckage of his first and only car, her dress devoured by flames, the new smell; death.
Turning away from the entrance he walked along the path to the back of the house, leaving his bag and keys behind. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the ground, each step laden with remorse, until he finally reached the barn. Raising his head he looked at the rusted shack, a place of bygone beauty, all old and worn and real. It was like it always had been, and would forever be. Shelter from the storm, protection, safety, home. He reached out, yanked the padlock free, and disappeared into the darkness.
The Sountrack for ‘Rust and Home’ is Willy Mason’s ‘Restless Fugitive’
A FORGOTTEN COLOUR
I want to repaint my house, but I can’t remember where I live. It’s been a long night and I’m tired. I’m nowhere near my home, wherever that might be, if it even exists. I don’t recall the details, the precision of place lost to me, like everything else, gone. I left my soul on the Great West Road near Chiswick roundabout, along with my shirt and shoes and car. It was 8.15am. Monday morning. Another weekend gone. The week looming. Tarmac tunnels. Roundabouts. Traffic lights. Trains and planes and people. Horns and humans quarrelling. Cranes creaking. Water pipes burst and leaking. Engines fuming. Sweat seeping. Knuckles whitening. Seconds ticking. The fly buzzing before my face. Back and forth. Over and over again.
Not this time.
I opened the door and got out. Cars honking. People shouting. Pistons whistling. I stood beneath the gargantuan advertisement board and wondered what it meant. The man smiling. The woman loving. Their life, different. I continued to walk. Into Gunnersbury Park. Northfields avenue. Boston Manor Road. Several back streets. An alley. The canal. I reached the bridge and stared into the filthy water, the twigs and punctured footballs floating in the algae, the fish struggling to breath, the cans of special brew drained and empty, the world beneath dark and undisclosed, a man looking back at me, wondering who I am, where I’ve been, where I’m going.
I’m coming, I whispered.
The sun behind my back.
The water warm.
The soundtrack for ‘A Forgotten Colour’ is The Audreys ‘Baby, Are You There’.
RETURN TO SENDER
Friday 1st February 2013
Today I opened your letter. When I saw it lying on the matt in the hallway I was instantly intrigued. You see, I never receive letters, not anymore. I have nobody to write to, and nobody to write back. When I picked up your letter and stared at the stamp and return address, the elegant hand writing clear atop the creased envelope, I knew I had to open it. I tried not to, but I have tried many things. I took it into the front room and sat down on the sofa. Philip was talking on the television but I couldn’t concentrate. The only thing I could think about was your letter. I couldn’t help but wonder what was inside the envelope. I felt certain it was important, confidential, perhaps. News of births or deaths or marriages and merriment. Perhaps it was an ultrasound scan or a photo of a lost loved one settled and still inside a coffin. Perhaps it was an invitation. A ticket. Escape. I looked at it resting on the coffee table and wondered what made you write the words within. Why now? What did you need, or want, or offer? I wondered why you didn’t know that Terry no longer lived here, or perhaps he didn’t tell you, or he did and you forgot. Your identity was a mystery which weighed heavily on my mind. Perhaps you were a parent trying to reconcile. Perhaps you were a son or daughter seeking forgiveness, or finance, or fresh blessings for new beginnings. Perhaps it was bad news. Your last chance. Now, with me. My mind would not cease its considerations of the hidden scenarios and their impact and importance. The pain. The joy. The hope or broken dreams. The possibilities were endless. Or at least they should have been.
It was wrong of me to open it. I should not have done it. But life is lonely. Years ago I had a special friend to whom I used to write, but she ceased communications and the letters disappeared. I continued to write to her, but she was gone, lost to me forever. She changed her number. Moved house. Forgot about me. I tried to do the same but her face haunts me still. The horror of my history follows me incessantly and there is no end to it. Even the pills don’t work anymore. But I still write. It helps, most of the time. Perhaps that was what lay inside. Someone else’s search for solace. Perhaps there was more honesty and love within the envelope than I had ever known, and soon enough, I needed to know. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There it was. In front of me. So close. So near to revealing all its secrets. To me. Only me. So I flipped the envelope over and noticed the lip was peeling away. It was too easy. With a flick of my finger it came loose. The envelope was open. It was too late. The deed was done.
I sat there for an hour reading your letter. Over and over again. Absorbing every sentence and letting the words filter through me. I wanted to feel every emotion expressed within. And I did. I cannot explain the immensity of my experience. It was truly extraordinary. I continued to read long into the night as the stars and moon settled above. I was unable to put it down. I didn’t want to. Soon I could remember every word without the presence of the paper and the markings of your pen. It was inside me, and when I finished, something changed. I couldn’t be sure what it was, but when I finally returned the letter to its envelope, everything was different. I was different. Later that evening, unable to sleep, I tried to decide what to do. Should I keep it or send it back. Should I try to explain or refrain. I thought about my options and the possible outcomes, but it was impossible. So here we are. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me. I know what I did was wrong, but your words have changed my life. Thanks to you, I am no longer lonely. Perhaps you will write back. Perhaps not. I can only hope.
The Soundtrack for Return to Sender is Crooked Still’s ‘Ain’t no Grave’.
I light up a cigarette and inhale, the nicotine rushing through my veins and calming my nerves, the lamppost propping me up as I stand on the street and look up at my old study, the indistinct movement within making me feel uneasy at the thought that someone else is in there. The light is on and I can see someone moving around, a shadow passing between the open curtains, the glass filthy and barely secured by the rotting panes. I haven’t been back here in over forty years and as I stand at the roadside examining the new shops, it’s remarkable how vastly things have changed. I wipe away the faint trace of a tear, kidding myself that it’s the effect of the wind, and suck heavily on my cigarette, the need for a stiff drink rising within.
The figure moves inside the room again and I throw my cigarette down onto the pavement and step on it, the grit grinding beneath my boot as I twist my toes to extinguish the remaining embers, the ash momentarily staining the asphalt before the rain washes it away. I flick my collar up and lift my shoulders closer to my chin, the chill trying to catch me on my skin and remind me that I’m stood outside at six in the morning, in the middle of January when the sun is somewhere else, comforting someone else. A car crawls by and I stare at the head lights, my pupils straining at the glare but readjusting accordingly beneath the dark sky, the stars gradually disappearing amid the increasing illumination of the stirring city. I light another cigarette and cup it in my hands so the rain drops don’t kill it, our lives inextricably allied, for the moment at least. I inhale and close my eyes. When I open them the room is still there, as it always has been, despite my disappearance.
Behind that unassuming window, mere metres away from my present position and with only the uneven tarmac and aged bricks between us, is the tiny bedsit in which I wrote my first novel. It was 1973 and I was fresh out of University, eager and impatient with my mounting inspiration. I was informed about the bedsit by a friend of mine who was moving back up north and in a couple of days I was packed up and standing on the doorstep, my few possessions stacked beside my feet, the Olivetti tucked under my undernourished arm. Within a week I was settled, the abandoned furniture carefully positioned among the cracked and pealing plaster, the rattling pipes beneath the boards and faulty kitchen faucets welcoming me into what would become, and remain, my only home. I had finally arrived, and I was ready.
After a couple of weeks I developed a strict routine. I woke up early and worked until my stomach began to cramp and I was forced to walk the markets, haggling for food and striking deals with sellers who eventually became my only friends. After I’d eaten I would resume my work and type until the evening when darkness descended and flickering flames ensured I never froze. Every day it was the same. I sat behind a stolen school desk with my back pressed against a distorted plastic chair, the ashtray full and overflowing, my fingers battering the keys. I went on like this for months, the paper piling up amid the plumes of smoke and stirring shadows. I locked myself away from the distractions of the world outside and wrote about my own, and when it was finished I sent it off and waited, hopeful but not naïve. I continued to write and found myself a part-time job waiting tables in a little Italian Restaurant in North Ealing. I made enough money to pay the rent and random bills, and what tips I made went on ribbons and paper and the beer that soothed my throat and made the smoking sweeter. The stories piled up and the practice was doing me good, I was getting better, I could feel it. I was getting closer.
On the 16th April of the following year I descended the stairs to go to work and saw the envelope lying on the matt, brushed aside by the opened door, crumpled and creased and waiting. I picked it up and immediately recognised the logo. This was it, I thought, and tore it open with little regard for decorum. I read the words and stood there, stuck to the dirty floor and trembling. I read the letter again. I couldn’t believe it. They liked it. They liked my novel and wanted to meet. They wanted to discuss publication. They wanted me. I’d done it. I’d finally done it. I stuck the letter in my jacket pocket and left, my mind focused solely on the pint waiting for me at the bar, my toast to impending authorship. I got drunk and continued to do so until the book was published and I could hold it in my hands, and weep. Staring up at the window, eleven novels, two Pulitzer prizes, several films and a play later, I wonder where it all went wrong. I wonder why I left. I see my reflection in a parked car and shake my head at the sight of my stupid hat and silly Barbour jacket. This is what I wanted to be. Him. I look up at my old flat and wonder if I would do the same again, if I would willingly position myself here, forty years later, knowing what I would leave behind. Despite it all, I remember when it happened. I remember typing the final sentence of that novel, the feeling of elation at realising I had finished, that I had actually done it, and done it the way I wanted. I remember sitting back and smiling, the droplet from the faucet echoing in the room. I reach for another cigarette but realise I’ve got none left, so I turn to walk away as somewhere in the distance a telephone rings.
The soundtrack for Stirring Shadows is Elephant Revivals’ Quill Pen Feather
She sits in the car and waits. The boy runs out of the nursery gates and hugs his father. He lifts a piece of paper and holds it up to the towering elder carer, his eyes wide in wait of scrutiny. The father looks upon the page and points, his question considered as he kneels beside the child and listens, tender and attentive. The boy nods and smiles and she shifts in her seat to get a better view. It’s a drawing of a man and child stood beneath a sun. She closes her eyes.
The boy hugs his father and the man lifts the child on to his shoulders. They walk towards their car, the strides of the man uneven and erratic as the child bounces up and down and laughs, waving goodbye to his friends as they depart. When they reach their car, the father sets his child down and he jumps through the back door and settles into the seat. He secures the boy beneath the belt and closes the door. For a moment she thinks he sees her, but he gets into the car and starts the engine. She slides down in her seat as the car passes her parked position and she watches it disappear in her mirrors. It’s 15.45pm. Home time.
After a further twenty minutes she shifts the car into gear and drives towards her rented flat, the uneven road passing underneath, the clouds hovering overhead. She fidgets behind the wheel, her fingers tight around the worn rubber, waiting at the traffic lights as the cars behind begin to beep, the lights green, again. The car moves off, her mind travelling a different, darker course. She thinks about her impending shift in the hospital, a night of caring for others and monitoring their recovery, wondering if they’ll make it, knowing she never will. She thinks about her walks along the wards and those that wait within, scared of what she might reveal, her most horrid truth hidden deep within. She thinks about the day she left, wishing she never had, wanting to return, but knowing she never can. She thinks about Colin, her son.
At home she heats up a bowl of soup and sits at the small dining table in the corner of her kitchen. She waits in silence for the soup to cool, the rubbish van passing outside, later than normal, but normal nonetheless. Placing a napkin on her knees she stares at the fridge, wondering what it might look like with photos of Colin and her together, their faces bright with joy and fondness, the man behind the lens loving, like he used to be. She wonders what it might feel like to see the smoothies and yoghurts and babybells and varied children’s treats inside the fridge. Chocolate delights reserved for after dinner during their favourite cartoons, the plates waiting in the sink, unimportant. She wonders how his breath might sound as he falls asleep on her lap, her fingers running through his short brown hair, the television flickering silently in the dark. She wonders countless things, each and every day, the answers hiding, her heart alone and hungry, like she no longer is.
The bowl has cooled and she sets her spoon down on the table. She looks at her hands, at the evidence of all the years given up to isolation, wishing she could get them back, wishing she could make the choice again. But it’s too far gone now. There’s no return. She knows the truth of where she is, and how she got there. It was her decision, and she made it on her own despite the loving a man she left behind for fear of death and desolation. And now, sitting in her silent flat, she knows her gift is greater than the grief. It’s better this way, she whispers, as the tears roll down her face and fall into her uneaten soup, the ripples spreading like the cancer will. The sickness is for now supressed, the therapy and drugs merely delaying what will come, eventually. Her experience makes nothing easier and she knows that if through some unearned miracle her health returns, the life she knew will not. She walked out and left them there, her husband and her infant son, unsure and afraid. There’s nothing she can do now. It’s too late. This is how it has to be.
She steps into the shower and stands beneath the scolding water. The steam rises and fills the bathroom, but the warmth she craves within is long since drowned and withered away. She recalls the time she held him in her hands, his tiny heart beating for the life he had yet to live. She remembers the feel of his flesh on her quivering lips, his eyes unable to comprehend the shadow of the shape above. That’s all I ever will be, she thinks, a fuzzy shadow fading with each passing day. She remembers crying when the doctors confirmed that Colin was healthy, that there was nothing wrong with him, that he would lead a normal life. She remembers wanting to keep it that way. She remembers sitting in the car outside the hospital, knowing she would never return, the fear of understanding forcing her further away. She thinks about it every day, the lives she left behind, the life she lives, alone.
The pain in her head subsides and she stares into the mirror, yearning to hear the voice of someone else, anyone, but there’s no one left. She thinks about Colin’s birthday and wonders when he might ask his father for a memory, a moment from a time when she was someone else, someone better. She wonders what his father might say, whether he will try to explain, or if he’ll admit to unknown answers and apologise. She wonders if he’ll hate her, more than she hates herself, or whether he might fight for a forgiveness she doesn’t deserve. She decides it doesn’t matter, her thoughts depleted by her definitive decision. It will soon be over. Finally. Only God can save her now, the pills disintegrating in her stomach, the rubbish van disappearing, her soup frozen like her heart.
The soundtrack for Colin is The Villagers’ The Waves
BRING ME MY SHOTGUN
Will stands by the entrance and fucks his luck. Why me, he thinks, and inhales deeply before entering the large office. The radio is stuck mid-station and static reverberates off the mahogany furniture and ripples across his skin. The office chair is turned towards the window and the dim light from the desk lamp sends shadows skulking into corners. Will looks around and feels smaller still, his tiny Elfian body compressed and consumed by the brooding artefacts within the aged walls. Dust begins to settle around him and he can feel the tiny fibres and dead cells invading his nasal mucosa, his sinus’ pulsing and preparing to incite a brain burn. He rubs his nose and moves towards the desk, the floor creaking beneath him, his presence accordingly pronounced.
‘Santa…’ Will steps closer and waits. ‘Er…Santa.’
‘We have a problem.’
The chair slowly spins round and Will attempts a smile, unsure of whether his lips are listening.
‘What is it?’ Santa removes an electronic cigarette from his mouth and blows the smoke out into the stale air. He throws it into the bin and strokes his beard, looking across the table at the little man and his wide-eyed complexion.
‘Bobski the Builder has gone rogue.’
‘He’s gone rogue.’
‘What do you mean he’s gone rogue?’
‘He’s killed twenty seven people.’
‘Hmmm.’ Santa tops up his tumbler and stares at the dark liquid. ‘Twenty seven, you say.’
‘How did this happen?’
‘The chip inside his face fucked up.’
‘His face fucked up?’
‘No, the chip in his face fucked up.’
‘Now that is strange.’ Santa raises his hand and feels his worn and wrinkled face. ‘My face fucked up a long time ago. That’s why I wear this beard.’
Uncertain how to respond, Will nods and indicates an understanding he lacks. ‘What shall we do?’
‘Grow a beard.’
‘No, I mean about Bobski the Builder.’
‘Ah, yes. Let me think.’ He removes a packet of cigarettes from his desk drawer and taps it gently against his open palm . ‘You know, I never understood why we didn’t put the chip up his bum.’ He lights a cigarette and shakes his head. ‘Why is that?’
‘He didn’t have a bum.’
‘Well why not?’
‘Why would he need one?’
‘He’s a toy.’
‘Toys poop. Like those baby dolls. They poop everywhere. They don’t stop pooping. I even found some in my eyebrow. Right here.’ He points at his left eyebrow. ‘It was there for three days. I thought I had cataracts.’
‘Yes, but they’re meant to poop.’
‘Maybe Bobski was too. Maybe that’s why he went mental.’
‘Maybe it is.’
‘I couldn’t poop for three days once. Nearly exploded.’
Will stands there and remembers the time he couldn’t stop pooping. It was after the Christmas gift run in Peru. Once the last present had been delivered they set the slay down and he’d taken a stroll among the locals, mingling with the mortals and their wine soaked wishes for merrier mornings. He bought a hot dog from a hairy street vendor and suffered the shits for three solid weeks. There was nothing solid about it.
His stomach convulses and he knows the conversation requires a return to the matter at hand. ‘What shall we do?’
‘Send in Paul the Butcher.’
‘He’s had a crisis of confidence.’
Santa finishes his drink and slams the empty tumbler onto the messy table top. ‘What are you talking about man?’
‘Paul. He’s troubled.’
‘That’s absurd.’ He begins to rummage around in the scattered lists of Christmas longings that litter his desk. ‘If anyone’s troubled round here, it’s me.’ Locating a crumpled packet of crisps he pours the contents into his mouth and frowns at the uninspiring nourishment. ‘Look at me.’
Will looks at the red faced man and waits for further instructions.
‘What do you see?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I see the same thing every day. Same beard. Same hair. Same hat. Same clothes. Same shit. Day after day. I can’t get a haircut even if I want to.’
‘Coca-Cola. They’ve got me by the balls.’ Santa pours himself another whiskey and leans back in his creaking chair. ‘And if it’s not them, it’s Mrs Claus. She hates me more than I do.’
‘I don’t believe that.’
‘We haven’t had sex in 127 years.’
Will tries to think of something to say, but falls short, once again. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not your fault…unless…’ Santa sits up in his chair and leans over the desk towards Will, his eyes fierce and swiftly focused. ‘Unless it is.’
Will contemplates the accusation and Santa considers it compulsory despite the long lost need of love.
‘No. Of course not. Never.’
Beyond the window snow begins to fall.
A deafening silence spills into the room and Will and Santa stare at each other, unsure of how the conversation careered from mountain tops into qualm and carnage. The clock beside the door indicates the expanding emptiness and neither man moves to fill the burden of banality.
They remember the wedding. The best man standing beside the groom, crying. The increasing visits and whispered words and smiles and secrets. The long lonely hours and cold dinners and empty beds. Loyalty and former friendship. Betrayal.
Will shifts on his feet and fears the old man’s smile.
Santa sets his glass down. ‘I have an idea.’
‘Yes?’ Will replies, suspicious and unnerved by Santa’s silent contemplation.
‘I know what to do. But first, let us drink.’ Santa pours himself another glass and fills a second for Will. He hands it over to the little man and sits back in his seat. ‘Cheers.’
They clink and drink, slowly, soberly.
‘Now bring me my shotgun.’
The soundtrack for Bring Me My Shotgun is The Trouble with Templeton’s Bleeders.
SEND HER AWAY
‘Send her away.’
‘Send her away.’
I look around. ‘Who?’
We’re alone. ‘There’s no one here.’
‘Of course there is.’
I check. ‘No…there’s no one here.’
‘Send you away.’
‘Because I like it here.’
‘So why don’t you go away?’
‘Because you’re here.’
I look at the clock. ‘What time is it?’
‘It’s time to go.’
‘I don’t know.’
The minute hand stutters back and forth.
I watch it twitch.
‘Can you hear that?’
‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s an elephant.’
‘In this room?’
‘There’s an elephant in this room?’
I scan the room.
‘I can’t see it.’
He looks around the room.
I look around the room.
‘Send him away.’
‘He’s already gone.’
‘What time is it?’
I check the clock.
‘I knew it.’
My eyes hurt.
‘What number are you?’
‘Twenty three. You?’
He rummages in his pockets.
‘I’ve lost my ticket.’
I found a ticket.
‘Did you hear me?’
I think about it.
‘Maybe the elephant took it.’
‘Maybe you took it.’
‘Why would I take your ticket?’
‘Why would the elephant take my ticket?’
‘I didn’t take it.’
‘Neither did he.’
He tries to get up but can’t.
‘My legs don’t work.’
‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘I’m not sure.’
He tries again.
‘They still don’t work.’
The telephone rings.
‘Are you going to answer it?’
‘I wasn’t planning to.’
‘Maybe you should.’
‘Maybe you should.’
‘I can’t move.’
He’s right. He can’t.
I walk towards the phone.
I pick it up.
I pause to consider the question.
I hang up.
‘Who was that?’
‘What number did they want?’
‘A different one.’
‘Is that what they said?’
‘They didn’t have to.’
‘So how do you know?’
The phone rings again.
‘Maybe it’s them?’
Maybe it is.
I pick up the phone.
‘Is it you?’
‘It is me.’
I nod at him. ‘It’s them.’
‘We have your elephant.’
‘They have your elephant.’
He thinks about it.
I think about it.
‘Send them away.’
‘Are you sure?’
I hang up.
The numbers change.
I check my ticket.
‘Number twenty three.’
‘Do you have a ticket?’
I sit back down.
The walls are cracked.
The paint is peeling.
I remember when I was twelve years old. It was during the summer when school was out and days were long and life was optimistic. Mum and dad were at work and I was supposed to go to go to Nan’s for lunch. I left the house and decided to take a detour, so I walked down Sunnyside Lane and along the gravel path towards the canal. It was a warm day so I took my jumper off and tied it around my waist. I picked up a stick and continued walking, the ducks swimming in the dark and dirty water beside me. Not far down the path there was a clearing where I knew rabbits roamed, so I stepped over the crumbling wooden gate and carefully moved through the long grass. I waited and waited but nothing happened. The rabbits were hiding so I began walking along the edge of the clearing beside the bushes, picking blackberries as I moved along. There was a noise from within the bramble and I tried to look through the branches to see if it was a rabbit, but my view was limited so I pushed my way into the foliage. Dusting off my dress and picking leaves from my long hair, I heard the noise again, this time closer. I stood there listening, still, waiting. Twigs snapped behind me. I turned around. There he was, a metre away. I could smell the alcohol and sweat seeping out from his skin beneath his torn and tarnished clothes. I tightened my grip on the stick as my tiny knuckles whitened and waited for my command. Neither of us moved. We just stood there, staring at each other. His lips parted to reveal his uneven teeth. I think it was a smile but I wasn’t sure. The cars continued to pass on the motorway, the relentless whine of exhausts the only sound between us. My eyes began to hurt. He moved closer. Slowly his hands began to rise towards his torso. I inched backwards. He started laughing. I didn’t. Suddenly he stopped and stared at me, his eyes dark and cast in shadow from the trees above. I waited, unsure of what to do, what he might do. Then it happened.
The light above flickers.
The numbers change.
‘Number twenty three.’
I check my ticket.
He looks at me.
I look at him.
We sit in silence.
I remember things.
The phone rings.
We stare at it.
I answer it.
‘The elephant’s gone.’
I hang up.
‘The elephant’s gone.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Why didn’t you ask me?’
The clock twitches.
The numbers change.
We look at the elephant.
It’s too late.
The soundtrack for Send Her Away is Ben Sollee’s – ‘Dear Companion’
STUCK IN TRAFFIC
The air was getting thin and so were we. We were hungry and weak. Exhausted from the trek to the meeting point and the sharp and sudden farewells to loved ones we might never see again. Family and friends watching us leave, hoping we might change our mind and stay, wishing things were different. A gathering of grief and fear standing beside the idle truck, knowing that in reality, there was no alternative. Knowing that from the moment doors slammed shut and engines spluttered into standby, things would change forever and nothing would be the same again. The world was moving on and we were stuck within in, travelling across the land searching for a place to stay, a place to call a home away from home, a place to die alone.
I’d taken my place beside the other men and we sat in silence as the miles continued to slip away outside. It was hot and uncomfortable and I sat there motionless as a fly buzzed overhead and landed on my sweaty skin. I watched it slowly crawl across my arm, its tiny legs balancing between my hairs as it roamed around my rough flesh and finally paused to wipe its face. The man next to me scowled and shook his head and when I looked back the fly was gone and the sound of its wings was lost amid the grinding of the dogged gears beneath. I could feel the sweat escaping from my pores and as I leaned forward a bead of perspiration ran down my nose and hung there for several seconds before falling to the ground between my feet. I stared at the tiny puddle and wondered how many of my cells would perish and whether I would miss them. I breathed slowly and carefully, sucking in as much air as I could and holding it there, waiting for it to repair the life within, hoping it would but unsure of whether there was anything left to heal.
Despite how long we’d been stuck together, none of us spoke. There was nothing to say. Thinking was enough. I wondered how the others got here. Why they sought a change. What it was they left behind, or who. In the end, we all left something behind, whether we wanted to or not. Desire did not exist. There was no choice. There was only the road ahead, forever damaged and broken, like us. We were all the same whether we liked to admit it or not and this journey was all we had. A final chance to make things right. To do something which might make a difference before our days were done. There was no way to tell when it might happen, how it might happen, or why, but we knew it would, and in the meantime moving meant more than our mortality. There were things we needed to do, people we needed to please before the road ruined us for good. We were human after all, even if we tried to ignore it.
We started to slow down and the man next to me made the sign of the cross and began to whisper psalms of preservation. He pulled out a small copy of the Bible, his hands unsteady and trembling, the nerves within contorted by the calmness of the silenced engine. We sat there and looked at one another, unsure of what was happening, whether we had finally arrived or whether this was as far as we would get. We waited and listened. A door opened. Voices. Footsteps. More voices, this time louder. The man next to me pulled out a photo from within the pages of the Bible and stroked it, the tips of his dirty fingers caressing the fading image of a little girl stood beside her smiling mother. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, the photo clasped between his hands and holding him together. The rest of us sat there silently as the voices vanished and stillness descended once again. I held my breath and thought about my parents. I thought about the home I’d left behind and the fading health of those who’d helped me live longer than my youth. I thought about their diminishing endurance and how the hills were all they had now that I was gone. But I had to leave. I had to find a way to pay them pack, to show them it wasn’t all for nothing, that I was worthy of their love.
The engine started up again and we began to slowly move over the uneven terrain. I released the air from within my lungs and sat back, the craving for a cigarette greater still despite the tightness of my chest. Placing a cigarette between my lips I wondered how long we had left to go. I wondered whether this trip would be worth the money. There was no way to tell. Stories were common but trust in truth was rare. I sat there and looked once more at all the people sitting beside me, all of them different – all ofus different – yet all searching for the same thing. I wondered if we’d ever find it, and if we did, what would happen once we had. I wished we would. I wished we all would. God knows we deserved it. Maybe not all of us, but enough to justify the faith. Finally the tyres ceased spinning and the engine died. Footsteps stirred the ground outside. The lock unfastened. The door opened. It was time. We had arrived. This was it. This was our new beginning. This was England. This was hope.
The soundtrack for Stuck in Traffic is Fred Eaglesmith’s – ‘Carmelita‘
Loving Rapunzel was easy, killing her wasn’t.
It all started a couple of years ago when I went to audition for a West End production of a children’s fairy tale. I’d been waiting with the other hopeful actors outside the audition room when it happened. We were all reading over the lines and performing our own preparations when she walked through the heavy doors and stood silently between the aging architrave. I looked up from my script to see she was staring at me, her eyes bright between the bold mascara and long dark lashes. I smiled and went back to my script. She stepped into the room and sat down beside me, her fur coat brushing my bare skin and sending a surge of shivers up my spine. I shifted in my seat and couldn’t help but notice her long legs stretching out from underneath her dress and down into a shiny set of red high heels, a tiny feather tattoo curling around her ankle and disappearing out of view. I couldn’t believe how smooth her legs were. They were like something from those daft Dove adverts only she was real, sitting beside me, waiting for her turn to tempt and tantalise. I looked at my own dull legs and pulled my skirt down.
I’m Rapunzel, she said. The Real Rapunzel. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t. Looking at her from such close proximity I was struck by her ferocious beauty. She was incredible. I had never seen anyone so perfect. I knew that if she could act even half as well as she looked, there would be no point in attempting to audition. The rest of us were fucked. It was as simple as that. I nodded and found myself staring at her moist lips, the bright red lipstick accentuating her perfect white teeth. She told me she was from Knockemstiff, Ohio, her Midwestern accent rippling through the room and adding to her enticing aura. I could tell the other guys were checking her out, and in turn, comparing us. But there was no comparison. Beside her, I felt uglier than ever. I just love your hair. She said. I tucked a loose strand behind my ear and looked away. Even though we were technically competitors, it didn’t feel like it. There was no competition. She had already won.
After our auditions we went to a café and got to know one another a little better. She was single. Lived alone. Loved Marilyn Monroe, Tim Burton, and sex. All kinds of sex.You’re so pretty. She smiled. I just want to eat you up. Two bottles of wine later, I let her. I’d never been with another woman before, but for some reason, it just felt natural. Rapunzel looked even better naked. Her body was everything mine wasn’t. Slim but shapely in all the right places. Firm and tight and smooth. Proportionally perfect. She even tasted good. We spent the next two days together holed up in her appartment, shut off from the world beyond as we explored each other’s bodies and discussed the details which made us different. It was during the third day that she got the call about the part. It was hers. I came to realise there was little she didn’t get if she truly wanted it, including me. But I was just the beginning. I was just the foreplay.
As the weeks went by and I spent more time with her, I could tell I was dangerously close to losing myself entirely. I didn’t think about the fact I was falling for another woman, but I did think about whether she felt the same. I needn’t have bothered. I love you too. I wanted to believe her. You’re mine. It was true. All mine. I was weak. I’d lost control. This had never happened to me before. I’d never loved so resolutely. So completely. So far from any sense of logic. All rationality was gone, replaced by longing and lust. I was hooked. Rapunzel was my drug and I was high on heels and suspenders and vibrators and dildos and all the filthy stuff we used to enjoy. Just the two of us. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t long before the reviews announced her entry into eminence. Her face was soon in magazines beside the other beautiful stars and fashion sought her frame for profit. Dates and dinners and social engagements increasingly kept us apart. She started taking drugs and soon the arguments began. She swore and swiped at me, her preened nails serrating my flesh as blood soaked the sheets of our violent love. But I couldn’t stop. Neither could she. Soon she was seducing directors and sucking sex through her sweaty skin, the drugs pulsing through her buried veins as the girl I loved slowly disappeared and sought to take me with her. Just try it. I missed her so much. For me.
Days descended into darkness and it wasn’t long before the plaudits ceased their praise and the perfume of success was lost amid the scent of heated spoons and sordid sex for cents and satisfaction. Rapunzel was replaced and her reputation ruined. I remained by her side and pressed down on the plunger in the hope things would change, but her heart was paralysed by painkillers and poison and the fists came down with greater malice and revulsion. The fame and friends were gone. Money was scarce. Nothing remained. There was only us. Rapunzel and her lover, destroying one another. I tried to fix her – fix us – but it was too late. There was only one way out for both of us.
I stood in the shower and looked into the mirror.
Don’t do it.
The radio hummed between my hands.
My Rapunzel and me.
We let go.
The soundtrack for Loving Rapunzel is Milo Greene’s – ‘What’s the Matter‘
THE ANGRY BEAVER
As I awoke, I discovered I was no longer asleep. It had become hard to tell. I was no longer sure. Everything was dark. Day and night were one and the same. Dreams were delusions, and reality was worse. I was tired and weak. My mouth was dry and I could no longer feel my lips. Everything was sore. I couldn’t concentrate. The blackness spread and seeped into my head. I was infected. My mind found difficulty in devising logic. Explanations and understanding were long since lost. For as long as I could remember my life had been a lack of living. There was nothing I could do. No one I could talk to. Nobody who cared. Until I met Mr Johnson.
I had been trying to remember my birthday when I heard her speak of him. She sounded different. Happy, perhaps. I wasn’t sure. I had never experienced such sensations. I had no knowledge of joy or satisfaction. I was unaware of its power. My familiar feelings were matched by my relentlessly dark surroundings. Shadows were my only friends. I was lonely. Desperate. I longed to have a conversation. I wanted to engage with another voice and experience the thrill of recognition. I needed to know that I existed. It was after dinner that he appeared. I had no idea how he got there, but there he was. I was struck immediately by his posture and the gravity of his presence. He knew things. I could tell. But before I could ask, the darkness descended once again.
I have thought about it endlessly. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he choose me? What did he want? But the questions did not help. I could not understand the meaning of his appearance. It was confusing and entirely strange. I was lost. In more ways than one. I began to realise that things were changing. My hair was different. My skin softer and scented with fresh aromas. I felt unusual. I could sense that something was about to happen, but I had no idea what or when it would. I searched for answers but only silence acknowledged my cries. It wasn’t long before I realised that Mr Johnson was inhabiting my every thought. I was becoming obsessed. I wanted to know when we would meet again. I needed to know.
I listened out for any further news about Johnson but everything had gone silent. She was no longer discussing him and all I could hear was the radio. I didn’t want to wait any longer. It wasn’t fair. Why was I forced to spend what time I had alone? Why couldn’t I decide for myself if I wanted out? I was fed up of being trapped in this depressing darkness. I was tired of feeling lonely and having no power to change my circumstances. There must be something I could do. There must be some way I could break out and see the world for what it was. Experience the colours of life. Admire the clear sound of music and conversation. Learn about the millions of things of which I had not knowledge. Simple things. Things I had every right to witness. It was time to make a stand.
After a while I was able to have a shower and the cleaning of the days perspiration and discomfort somewhat soothed my mood. I was able to breath fresh air and I sucked it in as hard as I could. I knew that it would not be long before the darkness returned so I tried to enjoy the little pleasures I was granted. The radio continued to play and I was made to dance along to the repetitive beat, I knew it was coming. The shift in mood was palpable and as her voice filtered through the steam, I realised tonight was the night. Tonight everything would change.
I heard the doorbell go, and after several extra puffs of perfume, we were all stood in the hallway anticipating and hoping for a wonderful evening. It was about time. Dinner was served and they ate and spoke about work. I couldn’t hear the exact details of entire conversations, but it seemed they were getting along. Laughter echoed off the walls and wine glasses clinked more frequently. After dinner we sat on the sofa and as the music played softly I could sense the warmth of a hand close to me. It wasn’t her hand. It was different. Stronger. More purposeful. My skin rippled. I wasn’t sure what it was doing. What did it want? I tried to understand what was happening but before I could develop my erratic thoughts I felt it right on top of me. I tried to get away but it was impossible. There was nowhere to go. Slowly it began to move up and down. Fingers pressing down and moving around. I was trapped.
Then it stopped. I could feel the ground beneath moving until the sound of springs arose as we fell on top of the bed. Everything got more intense. The hand was rougher. Strange sounds emerged from nowhere. Moans and groans and the rustle of clothes. I had no idea what was happening. This had never happened before. Everything was strange and different. I was unsure about what to do. Then the darkness was lifted. I was free. The light stunned my eyes but when I finally opened them, there he was. After all this time, I could finally see him. I was horrified. Angry. This was not what I expected. I could not bring myself to speak. All of a sudden he started forcing himself on me. I tried to resist but he was too powerful. I couldn’t do anything. It was too late. I couldn’t move. I closed my eyes. Mr Johnson was a brute. He ruined me. Blood was everywhere. I waited for the darkness. Take me now, I pleaded. Hide me. Please.
The soundtrack for The Angry Beaver is Elephant Revival’s – ‘Ring Around The Moon‘
THE LAST TWO PEOPLE LEFT ON THE NIGHTBUS
It’s been three years since my mother ate Bruce. Three years since I heard him whimper and was forced to drive a cleaver deep into the back of her head. I remember watching her fall to the ground and feeling nothing as I buried the blade further into her skull, the inactive brain matter disintegrating and spreading out all over the abandoned pavement. Eventually she stopped moving, by which point it was Bruce’s turn to die, again. As I looked back towards my mum and stood over her ravaged and rotten body, I tried to recall the good times. The mornings in the garden with dad and Jenny, the warm croissants and fresh coffee, the laughter and long summer days, but they were lost to me now. I felt nothing. The only thing I experienced was hunger and exhaustion, and occasionally fear, but even that was rare, especially since there was nothing left to fear. There was no point in being scared. They would get you soon enough. It was only a matter of time.
I stand at the window and look out at them as they gather and circle around the bus. I look at their faces and wonder what they used to do, whether they had a family, and if their life was better then, or now. I used to create entire backstories for them and imagine what their lives used to be like prior to the outbreak, but that was before one of them snuck up on me whilst I drifted from reality and let my guard now. Now I know there’s no such luxury as imagination. All there is this. Us and them. The here and now full of dead ends and darkness and nights of restless sleep and nightmares. There’s no escape, and whether you’re awake or trying not to be, the horror of the city and its occupants prevents any return to what was known of comfort. The distant memory of mortgages and bills and the struggle for survival in a world consumed by greed and formulaic fiction seems so stupid, particularly when you’re faced with the reality of where it got us, of where we are after all our supposed progress. Thinking about the absurdity of all our old concerns of confinement in cages by immoral suits and small print would make me smile, if only I could.
One of the deadskins has found a weak point in the window and it won’t be long before the seal goes and they find their way in. I look at Jenny and she’s still unconscious, her hair covered in blood and stuck to her face, hiding the torn flesh, the bite. It’s my fault. I should never have agreed to let her listen to that CD. I don’t know what came over me. It was a basic mistake. A complete lapse in logic, but I guess I missed the sound of music too, only it wasn’t music; it was the sound of death and devastation. All it took was an oversight in the inspection of the volume control and thirty seconds of the track to notify them of our exact location. Three years of secret and silent survival wasted. All the effort and emotion of ensuring the safety of the only person left that meant something to me, squandered for nothing more than a pained desire to see her happy, to make her realise what it meant to be human, even for a second. And now she never would. She would never know anything anymore. Soon enough, neither of us would.
The last time I had any contact with anyone else apart from my sister was eight months ago, back when there were six of us and sticking together gave us all a purpose, a reason to try and put another deadskin down and take out as many as we could, as quickly as we could, with as little risk as possible. But there was always a risk. A risk that led to ruin and the diminishing of our group until there was only Jenny and me. We got ambushed during a food run and there was no alternative but to separate. It had happened before and we knew where to meet and when, but I took the fact they never showed up to mean they never would, and after a week we moved on. There was no choice. Residency was not an option. The deadskin’s were dumb, but they were also determined. I hear a crack and check the window. The seal’s gone and fingers slowly push through the tiny gap, dead flesh serrating and shredding to pieces on the shattered glass. It won’t be long now.
I remove the knife from my pocket and look over at Jenny. It’s still hard to believe this is the way that things will end. After all the books and films and games about zombies and the undead, nobody ever thought it would actually happen, but all it took was for the brain to realise that it was already dead, and the collapse of the banks merely speeded up the spiritual revolution. Women and children burnt alive to force fear and end the insurrection. But it didn’t work. The people were finally united, and together they marched for liberty beneath the bombs of chemicals and carnage. I look at them now and wonder whether this is freedom. I wonder whether this was worth it, whether the same decisions would be made again if choice was something real and true, but even now they march together, side by side and strong. At least it meant something. Jenny’s leg twitches. She spasms and convulses. The deadskins sense her re-birth and scream and shake the bus with greater glee to let me know my time has come. I watch Jenny get to her feet. Finally our eyes meet. So this is it. I put the knife down. Jenny and me. Forever.
The Soundtrack for The Last Two People Left On The Nightbus is Ray Wylie Hubbard’s – ‘Moss and Flowers‘
NEEDLE IN THE STAFF TOILET
‘Ra-Ra Rasputin, lover of a Russian Queen.’ I just about get to the toilet before my arse explodes and Boney M break into their final chorus. As soon as I sit down my insides blast out and all I can do is grab at the walls and hope to find some stability. This is fucked up. I try to think of what it was I might have eaten last night, but all I can remember is the beer. I can’t even remember where the fuck it was I was drinking. I know it wasn’t at home cause I woke up at some birds house and it wasn’t until I gathered some kind’ve focus that I realised how unwelcome I was. She said something about pissing on a cupboard but I couldn’t understand what she was on about. I don’t know why she would’ve pissed on a cupboard. Mind you, she did look like a crazy bitch. She even tried hitting me on the head with a wooden spoon. Luckily enough I managed to grab it off her, just before I punched her in the face. At least I think it was her face.
My arse lets out another stream of shit and I remember that film with Steven Segal where he’s under siege and that bird from Baywatch pops out of a cake with her tits all hanging out. I have no idea why I remember that. The only thing that ever popped out of one of my cakes was Bernstein, and he was something else entirely. In fact, I don’t even know who he was. Come to think of it, it wasn’t even my birthday. I think it was my Christening and Bernstein was my priest. At least I think he was a priest. Or maybe he just liked wine and children. I lean over and let it all stream out. There was a time when I wouldn’t have minded sitting in a shitter and shitting, but I’m at work and I should be working. But working at what? I don’t remember ever having a job.
I stare down at the floor and notice something strange. It looks like someone’s feet but I lean over and realise they’re my own. Something’s not right. The angles are all wrong. I look around. Fuck. I’m shitting in the urinal. I’ve also pissed into the sink on the other side of the toilet. That kind’ve impresses me until I realise there’s a guy there and I’ve pissed all over him too. Why didn’t he say anything? What a dick. Oh, right, that’s me. I wave. Yep. That’s me. My butt cheeks are wet and I suddenly feel concerned that I’m sitting in my own shit. This strikes me as a bit of a problem. Not for me, but in case someone else comes into the toilet. They might start asking me questions and I might get nervous and let loose again. I have to move. The cubicle is directly in front of me so I grab at my ankles for my jeans and waddle over into the cubicle and lock the door. I sit down and wish I had something to drink. I need a cigarette.
I sit there for a couple of minutes trying to decide whether to smoke until I hear the door open.
‘What the fuck! What the fuck is this?’
‘There’s shit everywhere!’
I’m not sure if they I know I’m in the toilet so I decide not to light a cigarette.
‘Who’s in there?’ Bollocks. They knock on the door. ‘Who’s in there? Is that you Neil?’
John Travolta comes through the speakers singing about wanting something and I’m not sure I understand what it is. I think it’s got something to do with shaping a cock, but it could be a nut.
‘Neil? Is that you?’
I have no idea who Neil is. I wonder if perhaps he pissed on the cupboard. I can see the shadow of the guy on the other side of the door. He doesn’t move and neither do I. I have to say something. Anything. ‘Er, yes, it is I.’
‘What the hell happened out here?’
‘I don’t know. What happened?’
‘There’s shit everywhere. ‘
‘Yes. Shit, that’s what I just said.’
‘That’s terrible. There’s shit in here too.’
‘Esmerelda won’t be happy.’
Who the fuck is Esmerelda? What the fuck is going on? Where the am I? I remember it was a relatively sunny day. There were people around. There was crying. Tears and shit. What am I gonna do? This guy is waiting for me to say or do something. I fart.
‘Sorry. You’ve caught me at a bad time.’
‘You sound different.’
I can’t remember what I used to sound like. I think it was a little like Lloyd Grossman looking through a peep hole. Peepy Peepy. I think about that hangover film and wish the bearded dude was my friend. Him and his little monkey would be able to help me out. Them and the little Chinese guy with the tiny penis. I wish they were my friends. Maybe they are my friends and that’s why I’m in this fucking mess. My mess.
‘Are you all right?’ The bloke asks. I have no idea how to answer. I drop a turd. ‘Did you hear something?’
I listen. All I can hear is him. I want to be alone. Whatever happened to your love? I can’t hear no fucking SOS. This is bullshit. I wish I understood. I stare at my arm and notice a needle. A fucking needle. A sewing needle. In my arm. I’ve got a massive gash running down my forearm and it looks like I’ve tried stitching myself back together. ‘There’s…there’s…’
I panic. I shit. ‘There’s a…’
‘There’s a fucking needle in my arm.’
‘This is Needle Neil’s. Dipshit.’
The soundtrack for Needle in the Staff Toilet is Seasick Steve’s – ‘Didley Bo‘