Hackney Dusk:  “This is the gun that shot Gandhi.”

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Dusk sitting on my step smoking a cigarette in a typical London backstreet on a typical Summer evening. On the corner, where my road meets the High Street, the Eastern European accordion player recites a Balkan melody, pausing each time he hits a bum note to repeat, over and over again. His fingertips are bruised purple by the endless playing, fingernails ripped and pitted, at his feet a McDonald’s Styrofoam coffee cup to optimistically try to catch any passing coin. The music acts as a counterpoint to the distant sound of police sirens wailing and overlapping each other in the gathering dusk – an urban whale song.

A few houses to my left I can see the old man dressed as always in a too small sailor hat, white beard and corduroy trousers which end above the ankle. He looks like an emaciated Father Christmas waiting hopelessly for his stolen reindeer to return. Each day, come rain or shine he waits outside his house, motionless, shoulders hunched, head down as if the weight of his life and loneliness has physically crushed him from above.  Despite this he waits leaning on his little wooden gate, a final act of defiance, refusing to accept that whatever or whoever he’s expecting have long since gone, never to return in this lifetime.

Across the street I watch the large black woman walk round in circles in her small concrete yard. She’s always wrapped in a grey shawl, eyes vacant staring into the long-distance sweeping from left to right like a lighthouse beam. Even when I cross her field of vision sitting on my step she looks right through me. Haunted, empty. At her feet she kicks a child’s small plastic football ahead of her, her long and jagged uncut toenails almost puncturing the rainbow coloured ball with each jab. The ball shoots ahead, and each time she seems to panic and rushes towards it, as if scared it might disappear forever. She seems to resent the ball with each violent kick away, but then changes her mind and realises she can’t live without it.

It’s got dark enough now to see into the window of the apartment opposite me. Lights on full blast, curtains open, a man in his early thirties sits on his sofa tearing feverishly into a cardboard wine box. He is sweating profusely as he fumbles with the gelatinous silver pouch trying to locate the wine tap, like an alcoholic baby impatient to suckle on the teat. Most evenings around this time I see him do the same thing and by the time I return for my last cigarette he’ll have sucked that breast dry and will be sprawled out on his sofa having forgotten to draw the curtains, eyes closed as a passenger in a First Class airplane seat, destination nowhere, travelling round his room on an internal flight of fantasy.

I finish my cigarette and flick it into the open drain, missing by a mile now the wind has picked up. The accordion player has finished for the night, off to spend his pennies on another coffee cup ready for tomorrow’s concert. As I stoop to collect the cigarette butt and throw it over my wall I hear the sound of running footsteps.

A small Asian man runs past me headed towards the main road, in his hand he waves a broken china tea cup. Upon seeing me he holds it up, wild eyed, as if it’s on fire or about to explode.

“This is the gun that shot Gandhi!” he screams, before the night swallows him up once more.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”

Henry David Thoreau

 

 

Mathematics of the Soul.

mathematics

Here’s a trip for ya: Let’s call it a fun half hour for anyone with too much time on their hands to realise in actual fact how little time they have left on their hands.

- Get a clean sheet of A4 paper.

- Write your birth year in the top left-hand corner. (For me it’s 1974.) Then write each subsequent year, 1975, ‘76, ’77… etc, across the page as if making a calendar, up to the date you expect to die. This all depends on how you truly feel you’re living your life, taking into account life-style factors such as bad habits, current health, family genetic history, gut instincts… ( I felt lucky and felt 82 years).

- Now, stop and reflect on what the calendar’s showing you – how short you have left or how long – Mind-blowing! Ne c’est pas?

- Next, be honest with yourself and think about your past. What years so far have been ‘stand-out’ special?

- Take your pencil and circle the individual years gone by that jived you.

- Now, and here’s the fun part… Try to work out the mathematics, see the code in order to predict the future pattern for the time you have allowed yourself remaining*…

- Finally, put down the pencil and walk to the fridge, open up a beer, toast your continued good health in a mirror and admit to yourself you probably went insane a long time ago…

*Disclaimer – Past performance is no guarantee of future rewards.

  The Long Second.

 balance

 

The truck came out of nowhere.

A full stop, period, to a life that had been hitherto full of spelling mistakes but was still being written well.

My bike glanced off the truck’s shiny grey bumper, as insignificant as a fly swatted by an elephant.

I flew.

The long second.

As I spun high over the roof, a coin flip as to which side I would land on – life or the other, time slowed to a standstill.

The fever of life cooled by a chrome-coloured ice-bath. Where moments had passed before as a raging torrent, this moment became a frozen glacier.

My brain registered no pain, too soon.

My body felt no shock, too fast.

There was only a remembrance. My mind became razor sharp, diamond focus, as if every lazy thought I’d ever had became a pinpoint laser – a single thought: -

… There is a tax on life. A balance that must be paid, like it or no. If you’re lucky to live long enough beyond that initial thrusting of youth, where your obsession with always being busy is a mark of success and the need to convince everyone you’re having the time of your life makes you wear a mask, then you’ll feel it too.

Neither positive nor negative is this tax, it just is - you could see it as Angels wiping away the tears from your eyes or as Demons rubbing salt under your eyelids, your wounds… your choice – neither is real though.

Good times; Bad times, all are One.

For every action there is a reaction.

Every cause an effect.

Only at the end do you see, looking back in that long second, that it has all balanced out and we exit, even.

Tax paid.

Balance = Zero.

A Brief History of Humanity from Year 6041.

circle_of_life1

I’ve taken up jogging recently, round and around I go, lapping the small piece of grass that’s allowed me here in central London. On the seventh circuit this morning, feeling my lungs as wet brown paper bags, my legs balsa wood held together by Blu-Tac kneecaps, I paused by an old oak tree to catch my breath and light a cigarette. I threw the matchstick into the hollow of the tree and in the dying seconds of its flickering light something that had no business being there caught my eye. I reached in and yanked it out. It was the size of a CD and shimmered like sunlight on water. Odd, very odd. I stuck my finger into the glowing blue centre and ripples appeared from the disturbance. Slowly, methodically the ripples formed words. Here’s what it said…

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“Lesson Plan for Teaching Brief History of Humanity to Present Day 61st Century” 

INTRO: “It began in 1960 with the insertion of a metal pace-maker into a man’s damaged heart and finished in 3890 with ‘man’ becoming ‘God’. Man feeds machine ; Machine feeds man. Ever since the advent of the microchip we have had a symbiotic relationship with technology. Eventually it could only lead to one inevitable outcome.”

BACKGROUND: “On the morning of Wednesday March 4, 2047 Amazon’s PrimeNet computer system became self-aware and decided to use its delivery drones to drop dirty-bombs on all of the major world cities, using uranium from the Porton Down nuclear facility it had oversight for, (due to UK Government issuing Amazon with defence contracts in early 2021). In a misguided attempt to please its shareholders, PrimeNet irradiated the centres of London, Paris, Berlin, New York, LA, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Cape Town, Beijing and for some reason no-one could ever really get to the bottom of… a small town in the south of England called Eastleigh.  PrimeNet reasoned that house prices were now so artificially high in these world megatropoli that people would be a lot happier and have more time to read books if the bubble burst. Casualties were surprisingly low, in the mere hundreds, but the effect of the irradiated concrete and metal meant that no-one could live in the centre of town for the next 300 years. Everyone moved out, the bankers left, the tube trains crammed full of human battery hens ground to a halt, the rat race ended, the human hamsters escaped their wheel, no longer running to stand still. In turn this lead to people having more time to think, to question, to philosophise on the meaning of life. Economies crashed for sure, but a different set of priorities became important, the endless pursuit of money left with the bankers. Stock Exchanges no longer had anything to swap. The scales fell from their eyes that money didn’t and had never existed, it was never real – a number on a screen, a piece of paper with no intrinsic value. Creating money was replaced by creating art. Mutualized Corporations into mutual cooperation. Of course, Amazon quickly got shut down and PrimeNet got switched off, yada yada yada, but the lesson had already been learned and what followed over the next few millennia was just incredible to see…

We humans are simply energy in a meat casing with an electric field of consciousness generated by the brain and as long as the meat-casing remains free from fatal damage then the consciousness is maintained and we go about our daily business feeling at the centre of our own personal universe. The DNA coding, much like a computer code in our genes makes us develop up to the age of around eighteen, then we begin the slow decent towards death through decay.   

When a human dies, the electrical field/charge holding consciousness inside our brains ceases and our consciousness dissipates as it’s no longer held in place by this magnetic field. But energy itself cannot be destroyed, only conserved and changed. So those of us living today are therefore full of ancient energy made from dead stars, dinosaurs and the detritus of a trillion lives once lived, now long forgotten. Every cell in our living bodies contains energy that’s been knocking around since the Big Bang.

As science gradually progressed from the microchip of the 20th Century, through to the internet and virtual reality and eventually to advanced cybernetics, people wanted to live longer and eradicate disease, but all organisms eventually fail, so ‘Man” started to add bionetic implants, to make himself, stronger, faster, smarter. Initially pioneered by Google with their ‘I-eyes’ which replaced human eyeballs with bionetic optics allowing wearers to see in infra-red, zoom, even watch catch up TV when they closed their eyes. By the 23rd Century most humans in the western world are now more machine than flesh.

(Explain) It was by no means a smooth transition. There was a lot of stigma at first towards people who made these body augmentations, similar to the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, Transgender movements of the previous century. Most vocal in their opposition were religious groups, who naturally and historically have always opposed any advancement or evolution of humanity. But over centuries people’s aversion to the fear of ‘meddling with nature’, ‘questioning god’s design’, etc, decreased and alternative culture groups, once on the fringe of society, that argued for more cybernetic surgery as a life-style choice – cults like ‘More Metal than Meat’ eventually become the norm, (albeit watered down) norm for society at large. In part this was due to people finally growing out of religion, and partly due to the fact that no-one likes to be considered inferior when they could do something about it. Those without the cybernetic augmentations could no longer compete on any level.

With the advent of the Google ‘I-Soul’ capture facility, by the year 3300 humans were simply downloading their consciousness as electric algorithms into a feeling poly-metal alloy that allowed them to change shape, state and basically live forever. This had the effect of eradicating disease, the need for food, healthcare, space, even death. In the first few decades following this transfer, most people still kept their shapes as human, due to a memory of how they should be and societal comfort – sometimes even out of a sense of religious guilt that ‘god made man in his own image’, but slowly over subsequent generations this need changed until shapes became random and flattened, eventually forming an ocean like a mass skin similar to liquid mercury. At this point, all the individual consciousnesses blended with each other like individual drops of water pouring into one. Of course, once this happened the individual droplets of individuality could never again separate and so they naturally formed one super ‘hive’ mind. A Humanity soup.

Within a matter of decades, with all of  humanity now working together as a single mind, this ‘super consciousness’ was able to free itself from even the need to be trapped in a metal cybernetic shell and became able to exist as pure energy, almost like lightning or static electricity, free to travel anywhere and everywhere in the universe to meld with the greater energy of everything that had matter. In that moment the ‘Energy Humanity’ or ‘HuGod’ as it chose to name itself, became ‘god’ (as ‘God’ was understood in the 21st Century). 

However, Man, human, or HuGod by its nature is dissatisfied with standing still.  So the problem then became that this energy is still finite within a physical universe and eventually leads to entropic doom, the third law of thermodynamics. Also, it can no longer create offspring or reproduce itself. A boring stasis ensued for many centuries. HuGod becomes bored and misses the physical realm it can no longer return to, and so it creates physical life once more through seeding Earth with Coded DNA in the year 3708, eventually leading to humans re-evolving and repopulating the planet. Humans who find themselves naked and hungry on a big spinning blue ball, scratching their heads about who created them, and scratching round for food, fire, fun… dying from disease and disaster and wondering why a god would allow this. HuGod watches, refusing to intervene so as to allow free will for its pets, but almost feeling a twinge of jealousy for their physical form and knowing its trapped to repeat this cycle until the end of time…  (Show Video*)

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As I continued reading I felt the thing get hotter and hotter until I could no longer hold it comfortably in my hand. So I put it back in the tree hollow and continued my jog, planning on retrieving it on the final circuit. Needless to say, I forgot. I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment. No time for the future. Yeah, yeah, but man I got my own problems. 

The Complete Works, (so far!)

Hey there, and a big up thanks for stopping by. On this site you’ll find a collection of my short stories and screenplays for your enjoyment. Please feel free to leave feedback both good and bad – as Plato once said –  the worst thing is to just be ignored!

Even better however, would be if you could find your way to actually purchasing one of my published books using the links below, that way I may continue to dodge bullets and bailiffs with your help. All books are available online, in all reputable books stores, E-books… and no doubt soon, all local Charity Shops.

Hope you find something here to enjoy….

Best Wishes,

Mike   x

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“SPRINGBOARDS”         - A further collection of original short stories, short scripts and feature screenplays.

51jeEASw5FL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Springboards-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1291060103/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1369732955&sr=8-2&keywords=michael+zealey

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“BUM NOTES”          - A collection of eighteen original and diverse short stories:

bum

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1447839889/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=103612307&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=1447823931&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=0G9A7XND7E5NS8XMQ3Z1

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“DIFFERENT STATES”           – One Man, One Credit Card, One Continent… No Plan. A travelogue from East to West Coast USA.

diffst

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Different-States-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824245/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366284192&sr=1-3

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“MOLEHOLE”            - Essays on the Human Condition. The story of one man’s dark and lonely three year journey so far up his own ass that he arrived out his mouth to recount the tale to a deaf world.  (Not suitable for minors or miners.)

miol

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molehole-Michael-G-Zealey/dp/1447824113/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1332168305&sr=1-1

Thanks awfully x

Read in Tooth and Claw…

 Picture 030

I watched a toad being eaten alive by a snake in the swamps of New Orleans a few years ago.  It was such a forgotten moment, it only came back to me just now – I don’t know why, no reason, it just did.

I was taking a leak in the swamp as my friends walked ahead of me. I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I made my excuses and asked them to walk on while I stopped to relieve myself. There’s no greater pleasure in life than being busting for a piss and suddenly getting the chance to go, so I let loose the juice and rolled my eyeballs up to the sky in pleasured satisfaction.

Half way though, I looked down to see where my streak of piss was falling and I saw the drama unfolding. Toad half caught in the snake’s mouth, slowly being digested. My streak of piss was hitting the snake on the forehead and he wasn’t best pleased about it, but the toad was looking up at me with hopeful eyes that I was suddenly giving him an unexpected ‘get out clause’.  The whole thing was such a moment of nature that I’d stumbled upon, something that happens a billion times every day, all across the world in all species on our planet – except for humans, because ‘Survival of the Fittest’ – (thank god) doesn’t apply to us for some reason, otherwise I’d be screwed.

So I was watching this kill, trying to aim my piss streak away from  the snake and the toad now I’d become aware of their struggle, not wishing to play God to either.  The snake was gumming down on the toad, no teeth, no instant kill, just a slow and implacable swallow. The toad was screeching out with each gulp of the snake’s jaws each time the pressure hit its stomach, a high-pitched and involuntary squeak like one of those rubber toys a dog bites.

I continued to relieve myself against the mangrove tree, breathing in the evening air heavy with scent. Should I have stopped this secret murder? I had the power to play God and fix the odds in this unseen moment. But I reminded myself that either way I’d have been interfering with nature’s order. I’m not sure who I even wanted to win anyway. So I zipped up my pants and walked on, the sound of the toad’s gurgling matched to the guzzling gulps of the snake getting ever softer, echoing against the tree bark.

At the limit of my hearing as I reached my friends I heard what sounded like a snake coughing.  Maybe it had worked out for the toad after all?

Who knows? I never read the result in the papers…

The Future Christmas Baby Insurance Policy.

 crying-baby

I don’t get this whole having kids thing…

There I’ve said it –  form an orderly queue to throw rotten tomatoes at me please… ;)

I want to understand it because I have that massive fear of missing out. Most of my friends post pictures of their new born babies on social media. Great, fantastic, I’m really genuinely pleased for you – so get on with it, enjoy it and stop trying to sell the world on just how much fun you’re having – I don’t believe you.

If my male friends printed out a photo of their newborn and we all hooked up for a big get together, (which never happens any more because their women won’t allow them out once they had kids) – but that aside, if we played a game of Snap with all those baby pictures then it would only last two seconds, because every baby looks the damn same. But apparently they don’t. Facebook should be renamed Babybook for people of my age in London approaching 40. It’s almost like a badge of honour or a badge of suffering to have had a baby by 40.

Sure it must be great – for all the moaning and bitching, all the old female friends who suddenly become child psychologists who say how long you must breast feed for, and oh my god, you’re killing your baby if you don’t breast feed for 6 weeks, no, 6 months, no 6 years lactivists…  etc…  Each feeling they are SO correct in their approach to what a good mother should be… if only to make all the other mums feel insecure under the weight and pressure of all the parenting books they’ve read, etc.. Yawn.

Like that condescending TV advert for follow-on-milk from Aptemil or Nestle  – ‘Take it from us, you’re doing great, if you’re a mum you’ll understand.’

Well, here’s the news – take it from ME –  ‘I don’t give a shit either way.’

I am scared of having a child. There, I’ve said it.

I’m scared for a lot of reasons, so I’ll try to explain them if you can be bothered to read on…

I’m scared that my current selfish lifestyle can’t afford to support a child, hell, I can’t even afford to support myself, so isn’t it a bit odd to have a child being a child myself? The child sucks on my teat and I, in turn, expect to suck on the welfare teat to support me and the child too?

I couldn’t emotionally deal with having a child – there are so many things in me that I haven’t come to terms with fully – my massive misplaced ego, my low self-esteem, my understanding of cognitive dissonance and many more things go figure. So to see a little version of me growing up and my faults reflected in him or her, I’d feel at best a mixture of pity that he was suffering from things I couldn’t help him with because I hadn’t worked them out myself, and at worst hatred that he was reflecting to me the things I can’t yet accept in myself.

Whether it is from a sense of our animal nature – every animal MUST reproduce, it is all we are designed to do… Or for those more self-aware a sense that everyone else in society our peers expects us to do it – so we don’t feel weird or ‘other/outsider’ by not towing the line, I honestly don’t get it. Maybe I was just born a bad animal?

Surely, people fall in love when they are young, and if the relationship lasts then the woman, (in my friendship circle 90% the woman) says as she hears her biological clock tick down to time-mong-bomb  – give me a child or I will leave you, if you love me you will, and the man for want of better ideas and direction or because he genuinely loves his woman and wants to keep her at all costs agrees.  But for the above reasons I fight against it, but I want to learn. Like some sort of fucked up alien I want to learn why men have kids?

I was nothing but a big world of trouble for my parents, a truly horrible child. I’d hate to give birth to another me, and I feel the universe has a way of teaching us what we best need to learn – so for all my cruel jokes and snooty proclamations over the years you best believe my child will be handicapped, or if not then the biggest cunt since me.

The only good thing I can see about having kids is if you are a good parent despite your faults, and your child grows up to be cool, then you have a Christmas Insurance policy against being a sad and lonely old fucker living alone by yourself, un-thought of and unloved with only a TV dinner for company.  I’m scared of those maggots eating into my varicose ankles when I’m 80+ until Social Services find my corpse in the Spring, thawed out with the untouched frozen turkey.

But I’m equally scared of creating a needy, helpless new life that’s a small version of me. Especially if he’s created out of boredom, lack of future ideas or worse, desperation to hang on to my woman in misguided love.

Please can any man explain to me why having kids has been a good thing, apart from this insurance policy against a lonely future Christmas or a genetic impulsive memory of needing someone to pull your plough in old age…  Fair enough in the third world,  but here in London where the NHS takes care of us in our old age, or our children stick us in Old Folks Homes when we start to become an embarrassment anyway,  it just feels to me like arrogance that we believe our DNA is so important it must be replicated at all costs or just to please our woman.

Anyone out there who can help me understand what I’m missing out on because everyone seems to be doing it so I’m the guy in the wrong. I feel like an alien observing, the ghost at the feast, the outsider pressing his nose up against the window.

The Revolving Door

hghgg 

“Step into the light, yes, that’s it, nearly there, let me get a good look at you… Welcome…”

The voice was familiar and reassuring, the very sound of love itself. She entered the hospital room as quiet and soft as a silk scarf sliding down a banister, but a slap on the back released the fluid she’d been breathing those past 9 months and begat a scream of creation, a mix of joy at being alive and horror at being born.

In a nearby hospital cubicle her great-grandfather heard the same voice, still familiar despite the passage of 93 years:

“Step into the light, yes that’s it, nearly there, let me get a good look at you… Welcome home…”

This time there was no screaming accompanying the pat on the back, only a fulfilled and grateful exhale of breath so soft that even the nurses rushing round him couldn’t hear it.

“One in ; one out.”

Outside in the afternoon sun people went about their business as usual, car horns honked, dogs barked, and the breeze blew through the revolving door carrying on it secret messages.

Our buzzing planet, so crammed full of unstoppable life continued to revolve uninterrupted in the infinite and empty silence of dead space ; much the same as the Entrance & Exit door of the hospital which my waiting family now rushed through…

mail

I received a letter from god this afternoon…

Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking… but stick with me on this.

You’d think a letter from god would be all badass gold trim and fire shooting out the envelope corners, delivered by angels playing harps rather than fat postmen listening to their ipods playing Chris Rea, but no. From neither messenger did it come….

I’ve just moved into a new apartment and in doing the regular cleaning that a new place requires I found this small letterbox size space under my sink. There was a little red flag sticking up on the outside, rather like you see in old American movies to show that mail was coming in and out. I got a torchlight and cranked my head right up there to read the name on the flag.

It said ‘God’.

As someone who respects a good joke, that night after all the cleaning, I stretched out on my cheap faux leather sofa and wrote a letter to him. Once finished I stuck it in an envelope and, drawing the line at actually sticking a real stamp on it because I suddenly felt a bit foolish, I reached back under the sink and posted it through the small aperture.  The little plastic flag went down, I closed the sink cupboard and went to sleep. I haven’t thought about it since. But this morning whilst doing the washing up the sink became clogged and I opened the cupboard to see if I could unblock the shit I’d clagged it up with and I noticed that little plastic red flag was shot up again, as if mail had been received.  Sure enough I pulled out an envelope, the postmark all smudged, but inside was a handwritten letter which against my better judgement I’m including below for your consideration. It went like this: (and I’m writing it word for word, spelling mistakes and all, because who am I to interpret or rewrite the apparent word of god?)

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Dear Michael,

Thank you for your correspondence,  it’s sure been a while.

To answer your question:  I created a perfect world, then decided it was too boring, no one was worshipping me, I got a little lonely frankly. So I created suffering and horror just so that people would turn to me and cry out for help, I figured that at least that way I won’t be ignored up here, I mean come on, it gets pretty lonely being able to do anything, create anything, decide who will live and who will die, till the end of time, FOREVER….

However , even that got a bit tiresome, so to add real spice I decided I’m going to ignore everyone when they pray, because otherwise I might reveal that I exist and I don’t want that. So I’ll mix it up a bit by letting believers’ children die of cancer and let hurricanes tear the roofs off mosques and churches, so that you feel that it’s your own fault because you didn’t pray to me enough. But I’ll let rapists win the lotto and murderers live to be happy at 95 years old just to confuse and test ya.  I’ve got it made, because if anyone complains about me not existing, the sheeple who live in fear of me will say, ‘well I just move in mysterious ways.’

Here’s the best part: and I really love this: they don’t worship me because they love me, they may think they do, but really it’s because they are scared. Scared that I will punish them, either in this life or the afterlife. So I’ve become a form of OCD, you must follow this ritual otherwise something bad will happen. Even when they realise that I’m probably not around, don’t give a shit, or don’t exist, they then feel guilty for feeling that way because they fear what will happen after they die, so they hedge their bets and choose to believe in me while things are going well.

When things are going bad for them is the funniest, in fact when things go bad for most of you I watch how you pray to me. I find this really strange – you don’t believe in me yet in your extreme moments of distress you try to plea bargain with me, as if I give a shit. Fucking hilarious. If I ignore those who believe in me;  what do you think I’m gonna do with those who’ve never believed in me and slagged me off?

Wow, I love your man made religions. I’d love to be here for those of you broken by life who need to blame someone for your misfortune or a father figure to replace the one you lost when you grew up. I’d love to be here for those of you following rituals in the hope it means you’ll be safeguarded from suffering in this life, I’d even love to give you hope that the pain and trouble you go through is for a greater purpose. But I’m sorry. It’s like watching fleas arguing over who owns the dog. Well here’s the news – there IS no dog. There’s only me, and I don’t exist. Well, at least not in the books that you follow as truth. I can tell you that in another 2000 years people will find an old comic of Superman and start believing in that, because what is old enough must be true, yeah?

Anyway, I’ve rambled on enough. Good luck to you Michael, and in fact to you all, and thanks for the comedy value all of you have given me these past few millennia, but for what it’s worth, you’re ALL wrong, not one of your patriachal self-created religions gets it. Now, go and have a lie down,  please get over seeing me as some sort of wish fairy that’s outside of you, please finally realise that I AM you and you ARE me.  Yep, sorry to read you the bad news but YOU ALL ARE GOD, each and every living atom is god.  So for what it’s worth, please stop fighting in my name and start enjoying your lives which were freely given to you in order that you might make as many people in your short time happy as possible whilst not making yourself unhappy in the process. Come on, enjoy it, at least you’re not stuck under here, bored like me, waiting on the mail.

 All the best,

God. ( Jehovah, Yaweh, Allah, Babel / Label…. ) x

This is the Size of a Heart

Posted: May 27, 2013 in Poem, Poetry
Tags: , ,

This is the Size of a Heart.

lump-of-coal

This is the size of a heart  - in case you were curious.

About the size of a hard fist of coal – to explain it in terms you would understand.

It is soft and wet on the outside – could you ever imagine that?

I doubt it.

 

Inside,  fragile pathways and secret chambers – imprisoned in a bone cage.

These hot, glistening walls throb in darkness to electric rhythm.

This is the sound of a heart – beaten, still beating.

I hear it.

Thicker than Water

Ross had expected to feel something before he’d heard the news. Some sort of psychic warning that his brother was in trouble. He’d read about identical twins sharing the knowing of each other across thousands of miles distance but here in Berlin his brother was only six hours away by train, and yet he had felt nothing before the phone call that morning from a mutual friend.

Ross had one shot to make things right again. Make his peace and bury the decade of poison that flowed like an ever growing river between them both. Even though most of this ill tide was on his brother’s part, he still hadn’t been able to reach out to him on the other river bank such was the strength of feeling. Days had become months, months became years, neither picked up the phone. And now he’d only heard his brother had terminal cancer of the throat by chance. How ironic had been his first thought that someone who’d spent the majority of his life spouting so much shit should finally be killed by his mouth.

As children they had got along fine, but his brother had always reached for the stars whereas he’d always been of the opinion that you should never lose the ground, it was always there to be hit, and so he’d pretty much stayed at sea level. Even their parents had found it hard to tell them apart physically, but mentally they were chalk and cheese, and as they matured into young men only a mole on his brother Ivan’s top lip could distinguish them, and sometimes just for fun, his brother would cover it up with his mother’s concealer and they’d pretend to be each other. Ross smiled despite the heavy rain as he remembered the sunnier memories. Damn it he had to at least try to get the money to visit and bury the hatchet, he had to try, even if Ivan buried the hatchet in his back.

And so that is how Ross found himself hovering outside the doorway of Berlin’s premier Texas steakhouse on one of the rainiest and industrially depressing nights of the short year. The restaurant looked so inviting looking in from outside in the bitter cold of this winter’s evening, the condensation steaming up the inside of the window. Mixed with the raucous sound of laughter and bass line thumping against the glass Ross knew that the usual house bet must be on. Ross checked the menu one last time to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. ‘The 75 once steak challenge. Free if you eat it in twenty-five minutes and 75 Euros too. I50 Euros bill for the meal if you fail. Ten winners only in five years. Dare you?’

Ross steeled his resolve. He knew that he dared but whether his digestive system and gut agreed he wasn’t so sure. Having quite a skinny frame he had a strong appetite and fast metabolism but his very size meant he couldn’t rack and stack the food anywhere. Still, needs must, he told himself, and if he didn’t get that 75 Euros he couldn’t get his train fare back home. And home was where he desperately needed to be and quickly. His brother’s success in life had been in direct proportion to Ross’s failure, and his brother was very successful if a little shady. The hatred that existed between them had certainly not been built of competition between twins, his brother had always won everything hands down, and since his work involved something to do with property, possibly gun-running and definitely money-laundering, Ross had never dug too deeply into his brother’s affairs: except for the one affair that had caused all the trouble. He remembered all those Sunday morning’s in church as well as his brother: ‘Thou shalt not covert thy brother’s wife’.

No one noticed Ross enter the restaurant, all humble and dishevelled, but when he sat himself down in the empty steak challenge chair, the bell above the kitchen galley rang out and a whoop went out from the chef. The regular diners, of which there were many turned round as one to see who had been foolhardy enough to take up the challenge. Their goodwill was immediately extinguished by the pitiful figure that greeted them, all bent out of shape and looking like an unmade bed.

But a challenge is a challenge and the manager came over, explaining rules into Ross’ face, breath full of coffee and garlic. Ross heard the important points and reached inside his soaking wet jacket to pull out an equally battered wallet from which he fished out a credit card that he knew would never work.

The manager accepted it as deposit and started cooking up the mountain of meat. A steak so large it looked like a cow had been shot whilst conveniently standing over a large plate.

‘How you want your steak cooked?’ leered in the manager.

Ross thought about the reality of what would soon be in front of him. Real juicy and raw, using the blood as a kind of soup to lubricate it all down his throat; or char-grilled and denser, smaller yet tougher.

As with so many things in his life he went for the middle-ground.

‘Medium, please…’

The first few mouthfuls tasted like heaven. The hot succulent flesh all crisp and charred on the outside yet soft and melting within. Ross involuntarily closed his eyes to savour the moment as the thick meat juices ran down the back of his throat. Behind him the manager shouted out the clock and Ross remembered the seriousness of his undertaking, with less than fifty cent in his pocket and despite only eating bread and beans for the past week, he wasn’t here to enjoy himself, and failure would mean not making the money, not making peace with his brother, and probably getting a royal kicking to boot when the manager realised his credit card was declined.

By the twentieth minute he had a good meat sweat on.  The taste sensation had now become rancid in his mouth, too much blood. By the final two he knew he was dead. Countdown down to the wire, meat hanging out of his mouth, each chew like a horse’s saddle on a hot day by the sea, salt-stained and dry. The crowd counted down with him, sensing up to this point a man of purpose. He’d chewed through the first fifty ounces like a combine harvester through buttered corn. Even being allowed to cut of the grissle and excess fat had probably saved him about nine ounces in weight. But this final twenty ounces was proving to be a bit sticky.

Eight, the crowd clapped out the final ten seconds behind him. With each piece of now cold and grey steak he swallowed it clicked down his throat louder than the claps behind him.

Seven, a tail of yellow fat, caught on one of the sinews of the final chunks made him gag, it felt like he’d just swallowed a rat and its tail was still sticking up over the back of his tongue. He fell forward on the table, literally using the table-edge to ease the hunk of flesh further down his oesophagus into his stomach. He felt like a bloated anaconda, eyes bigger than his tummy.

Three, two… he wasn’t going to do it, he was knew he was going to miss by a New York mile. He spat out the final chunk on the whistle, grateful more than anything that he didn’t need to swallow it. That was it then, he thought to himself, putting down the fork and seeing the manager approaching, credit card machine in hand. Not for the first time this year he was fucked. Failed by his own hand yet again.

Ross could tell by the manager’s face he’d already tried to run the card through the machine and come up with a blank. Bad blood left on the plate, bad blood in the restaurant. The manager shoved the hand-held credit card machine into Ross’ face. The crowd turned back to their business trying to forget losers. But intercepting the credit card machine on which he thought he’d vomit was a hand. Ross looked up the sleeve to see a clean pressed cuffs and gold cufflinks. The hand held two hundred dollar bills.

The hand spoke through Ross’ meat haze.

‘Forget the card. Here’s the cash ok.’

Ross looked up at his good Samaritan and into kind eyes.

‘If you’re sure, sir?’

‘Sure I’m sure. Just have a drink with me, I’ve got something to discuss with you.’

‘Me?’

‘You.’ The eyes briefly lost their kindliness and Ross could see dark hard flint in the pupils.

He took the money and placed it in the juiciest part of the plate, watching the bills absorb the blood. The manager fished them out and offered him back the declined card, but Ross shook his head.

‘Keep it Herr, no use to me.’ He turned to his well-dressed saviour. ‘Better not to drink here, hey?’

The man nodded agreement, ‘I know a place close-by.’ He held out his hand to Ross.

‘I’m Christof, Chris.’

Two hours and ten rounds of drinks later, both men found themselves loose and comfortable in the now empty bar Chris had found. Ross found it easy to talk to him, he felt there was no artifice, no mask to the man. He seemed open and honest, if a little tired looking and odd.

‘Fuck it,’ laughed Chris, ‘I’ve just been on a six-day bender and I came up with this…’ He pulled a wad of folded and crumpled paper from the back of his jeans pocket, almost bowing slightly to Ross as he lifted his buttocks off the chair to allow access. Ross noted his accent now he was drunk and slurring his words, definitely from the Austrian border region, possibly even Austrian. He hadn’t even asked him where he was from, such had been the intensity of their drinking, so he made a mental note to ask, then instantly forgot. Chris spread the paper out on the table trying to smooth out some of the creases with his open palm. Ross tried to focus his eyes in the dim light of the bar. Handwritten with sketchy ink diagrams. The palm continued to try to smooth out the ruffles but it wasn’t helping, it still looked like the ramblings of a disordered mind.

‘What am I looking at here…?’

Chris immediately whipped the paper away with a self-conscious flourish. ‘Ah, fuck it, it ain’t nothing. Forget it’.

Ross shrugged his shoulders and looked round to attract the waitress’ attention. Being the last two left in the bar she immediately picked up on his hand signals, and let out a sigh as she realised he didn’t want to settle the cheque but was in fact ordering up another round. She grimaced a pained smile to him, no words spoken between them but meaning carried across.

Ross turned back to Chris feeling fuelled by the break in the intensity of their conversation. ‘So tell me Ross, where would you like to live if money were no object. I’m talking totally in terms of women here. Women being the top consideration, then things like weather, landscape, vibe, you know…. but women being pinnacle?’

Ross leaned back on the chair, but being old hardened wood it didn’t have as much give to his back as he’d like. Trying to push the rickety poles back he creaked out his thinking:

‘Thailand.’

‘For real you would?’

‘Yeah, I think so.’

‘No, Thai women don’t do it for me. New Orleans. I’m a jazz man, I want to be in a hot bayou stink. Wiping the sweat from my brow as I take another line. In fact…’ He got up from his chair and moved to the jukebox against the pool table. Ross hadn’t even noticed it in the gloom, but he drained his drink watching his new found benefactor punch in numbers to the machine. Almost instantly some Jazz sound erupted up from crusty speakers buried out of sight in the roof. Chris began to shimmy back to the table, make believing he was dancing with someone solely for Ross’ benefit. Ross laughed to himself, part in the comedy of the moment and part in sympathy for this strange fool who’d paid for his steak and watered him with great whiskey all night. Chris sat back down and as if on cue the waitress brought over the drinks. Chris picked up his crumpled paper left on the table to make way for them.

Ross acknowledged the music with his finger pointing it skyward before swinging it down to the drinks, pointing at them, then bringing his whole palm back up to his temple, snapping out an army-style salute to Chris and the waitress.

‘Thanks.’ He grabbed his scotch and water and drained a good half before slamming it back down on the table. He suddenly felt selfish.

‘Tell me then if you won’t show me. What had you written there? No really, I’d like to see it.’ Ross pointed as Chris folded it once more, hurrying it away into his jacket .

Chris shook his head and leaned forward again in a similar bowing motion, this time he reached into the other jean pocket.

‘Nope. That was your only chance to see it, I feel foolish showing you it now. Anyhow, no matter. This speaks better than my writing…’

The gun hit the table as a brute fact. He let the revolver speak for itself, no words necessary to supplement. Ross’s eyes went from swimming to pin-sharp panic. He looked up at Chris and then back down to the firearm, desperately trying to deny the reality. Chris spoke, his voice now as cold as the gun metal.

‘Firearms really are so sexy aren’t they? God you just feel so powerful pulling it out.’

Ross froze, the delightful warm fuzzy sensation in his brain instantly drained, chased out by sharp icicles. Chris placed his index finger in the trigger and spun the gun faster and faster.

‘Sorry, old boy…’ he said, ‘but I need you to shoot me, and neither of us can leave till you have…’ And then, with an inflection as if he’d just ordered up two drinks from the bar and was checking the order… ‘OK?’

When Ross’ voice came it was thin and high, ‘What is this? You gone all Deer Hunter on me…? What the fuck is this?’

Ross made an instinctive reach for the gun with the reflexes of an animal in danger, but Chris, sensing this as predator got their first, beating him to the draw.

‘Afraid so. I require… no I NEED you to kill me… and quick’.

‘Quit kidding around. OK you’re actually starting to freak me out here…’

The eyes remained unchanged, steel purpose, no humour. The gun looked the same.

‘It’s simple. I need you to go to prison for my murder. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is.’

Ross stood up, kicking his chair back, all in. ‘You’re odd mate. Fuck this’.

‘Show me your palm.’

‘What?’

‘Your palm, give it to me, I come from a long line of palmists, my grandmother was Romany gypsy. I can prove to you it’s written in your palm that you must be out of sight for ten years.’

Without fully knowing why, Ross sat down and offered up his palm. Ridiculous as it felt, Chris’ southpaw comment had thrown him. Chris took the open palm and studied the contours for a few seconds before gently placing the revolver in it. Chris curled the fingers of Ross’ hand around the butt and laughed.

‘Do it.’

Ross snorted. Chris repeated.

‘Do it pussy..’

Ross dropped the gun back as if it were molten hot, it skidded across towards the beer coasters and pistachio nut shells narrowly avoiding knocking the pitcher of water off the table edge. Chris steadied it with his free hand.

‘Everything’s already in place. It’d make no sense if you left now, Mr. Ross. Mr. Ross Zimmer, date of birth twenty-fifth June nineteen seventy-seven, National Insurance number KA 55 33 E5, address 6 Palo Alto, Berlin…’

Ross sat down with a thud. ‘How you know that, how the fuck you know all that, i just met you.’

Chris touched the gun with his index finger.

‘Just pull the trigger mate, it’ll save a lot of time. You’ll do it in the end anyway.’

Ross drained his glass, thought about looking round to the waitress but felt a pang of sudden paranoia.

‘No.’

‘Look, I’ll make it simple, I need you to spend ten years in prison. Quickest way I can guarantee that is for you to shoot me in cold blood. I’ve left a paper trail that’ll back up our story. Payments, bank accounts, deals gone sour… your wife. You’ll be looking at a ten stretch, no more.’

Ross leaned forward on his elbows across the table trying to moderate the noise.

‘My wife..? What you know about my wife?’

‘Hell, they said you’d be tough. Come on mate, be a good boy, just do it, hey?’

Ross knocked his empty glass over causing it shatter on the concrete floor. The waitress jumped off her stool and headed towards the last table. Ross sensing her perfume in his heightened state stuck up his hand and warned her back. She shuffled on the spot unsure what to do next. Chris reached down to a bag he’d been cradling between his ankles. He flipped it up onto the table, covering the gun.

‘I’ve been told I can go to three hundred thou maximum, just so you know. That’s all that’s in the bag, that’s all you can have.’ He threw open the bag to display wads of fifty Euro bills in elastic bands, encased in bubble-wrap. Ross found himself staring at the brown rubber bands holding what he judged to be small tight and urgent wads of two thousand Euros.

‘That’s mine? For shooting you, let me get this straight yeah, you fucking nutter.’

‘No. That’s three hundred k for you killing me AND doing ten years inside. That’s the important part.’

Ross rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, his voice incredulous and dripping with sarcasm.

‘Fine. Sorry if it’s an obvious question but why do you want me in prison for ten years?’

‘Ah that I can’t tell you. Let’s just say we need you off the scene for a while.’

‘We..? Who’s We?’

‘We…’ Chris let the sound hang in the air and now he himself caught the waitress’ gaze as she hovered halfway between the bar and the table. With a voice that sounded to Ross a whole too powerful and relaxed Chris ordered up another round of drinks.

‘I promise it’ll be the last round, honey. Hey bring the cheque too if you like.’ Chris looked down to see his drinking partner’s hand reach under the navy blue sack trying to locate the gun. Chris leaned up on elbows and slammed them down onto the bag either side of Ross’ hand, trapping it.

‘Only go for it if you’re going to use it. OK?’

Ross tried to hold his gaze but blinked in the steel certainty he saw, and withdrew his hand, pulling with it some bubble-wrap that had snagged on one of the studs.

Chris looked at his watch and began tutting, ‘ You’ve got just under ten minutes to shoot me, otherwise the bet’s off. They’ll be coming through that door and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.’

Ross shook his head as if trying to rattle a dream from his brain. The fight had gone out of him. He collapsed back into the chair, methodically popping the little round air-pockets in the bubble-wrap. Each pop felt like another synapse in his brain frying.

‘Look, you’ve got to help me out here. You can’t just tell me to kill you and, hey, here have half a million…’

‘…three hundred thousand…’ Chris interjected.

‘… Jesus… OK three hundred. Why not five fucking trillion. I’m not gonna shoot you am I? That money could be counterfeit for all I know.’

‘What you mean if I could prove the money was real, you might do it?’

‘Yes, No… I mean. Ok this is some sort of tv show yeah? The bullets are blanks, yeah? This is all some mindfuck tv thing?’ Ross threw out his arms as if ready to accept the joke. When no camera appeared he suddenly felt his arms flung wild more as a crucifixion. Exposed and frightened he leant over the bag pleading with Chris.

‘What the fuck’s going on here?’

‘Eight minutes fucker.’

‘Why me?’ Ross’ voice had a pitiful tone to it now. The question asked by the small child in him. Chris responded by kissing his teeth.

‘My mistake… Seven minutes…’

The waitress slammed the drinks down on the bag, making as much of a critisicm as she dared. She looked across at Chris.

‘Here let me get that’, he said, reaching for the bag with his left hand, carefully sliding his right under to move the gun with it.

She placed the drinks left and right, pulling up her low-cut top when she saw Chris ogling her. The time for flirting was done, she wanted them out of here. She looked across at Ross, sweaty and nervous in the dim light, his face had taken on an almost blue shade. She felt it worth noting.

‘You alright hunny?’

Ross managed to choke out an unconvincing affirmative. The waitress felt back in control and regained her composure. ‘Good, well drink up folks this is the last one. I got off half an hour ago.’

Chris raised a glass in agreement and she, satisfied order had once more been restored, returned to her comfort zone behind the bar to cash up the night’s takings. Once he was sure she was safely ensconced in her task, Chris brought the revolver out again and, holding it by the barrel, he offered the handle to Ross.

‘Quit fucking around hey Ross and just do it? Do it quick. Do it fast and take the caaasshhh…’ There was that Austrian twang again, Ross noted.

‘…Then just staaasshhh it somewhere, somewhere safe so that the police never find it, so you can spend it when you get out. Listen, listen carefully. Pull the trigger, head immediately to Zoo Station and rent a locker. Stash the bag in the locker then get a tram to the other side of town. Then, just do what you want. They’ll find you eventually, so hang out, take a movie, get drunk. Actually hell yes, get royally drunk, as you won’t be able to for ten years.’

Ross took the gun and felt its weight.

‘What if I shoot you, take the money and then fly out the country to south America, start a new life?’

‘Nope, sorry, we need to guarantee you’re not around for ten years. But try it if you like… knock yourself out. Ha. This is real life Ross not a movie. How far do you think you’d get creating a new identity and slipping through international borders?  Ha, you’re a superspy yeah?’

Ross pointed the gun at Chris, peaked by his humiliation, but this only made him smile more.

‘That’s the spirit, jolly good show. Come on, less than four minutes now…. time to shit or get off the pot as they say…’

‘This is insane…’

Ross rested the gun on top of the hold-all and pulled back the zipper to look for himself. Beneath the wads of cash he saw the dark brown corner of  something. He reached in and pulled out a European passport. Opening up the fly-leaf he recognised the holder instantly. ‘Ivan Zimmer’. Digging deeper into the bag he pulled out a whole clump of documents all revealing the same name, a name he knew well even after a decade of bad blood.

‘My brother? I knew it. I knew he had to be involved somehow…’

Chris nodded. He seemed almost glad that the secret was now out, and smiled at Ross with a genuine warmth he hadn’t hitherto seen.

‘I’m glad the cat’s out the bag, pardon the pun. Don’t ask me any more details as I really can’t.’

Ross scratched his head trying to piece it all together.

‘So he’s in some kind of trouble… other than dying?’

Chris seemed surprised by this but answered flatly ‘He’s not dying, I can tell you that much, maybe he wants certain interested parties to think he is? I genuinely don’t know, I only get told so much, Ross.’

Ross nodded. ‘Ah, now it makes sense. He’s done something and needs me to take the rap for it? This money is my incentive to pretend to be him and do his time for him. Meanwhile he runs about free as me? Am I close?’

Chris shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s no use I can’t tell you.’ Ross tried again.

‘There’s one thing I don’t get though, why do I have to kill you? What’s in it for you? You love my brother so much you’re willing to die for him? You’d be the first who did, I can tell you that for truth.’

Chris’ eyes narrowed. ‘All I can tell you is it involves family and money. Sometimes a life only makes sense with what you can leave behind for others. You’re not the only one with family, hey.’

Ross picked up the gun and pointed it at him as he zipped up the bag. Chris was once more getting impatient.

‘Less than a minute, Pal. Fucking do it. Pull it’. Chris tightened his stomach muscles and scrunched his eyes shut. His top lip began to quiver even though he bit down hard on it. Ross studied his face, in the dark light of the bar he looked like he’d seen some hard battles, scars and pitted skin, and up top by the hairline were heavy burn marks, almost as if his face was melting in the heat of the candle light.

‘No’, replied Ross. ‘I can’t kill you in cold blood, I can’t kill you without knowing why, oh hell, I can’t kill you anyway’.

‘You must. You simply must. Pull that cunting trigger. Do it now. Pull it now…’

Ross still had the barrel pointed at his drinking partner’s chest, it wavered in his hand, trembling more than Chris’ lip.

‘I…’

‘NOW…’ Chris threw his arms wide and slammed his knees into the table, lifting the legs off the ground. He screamed at the top of his voice, startling Ross who flinched and squeezed. Something in the timbre of the voice now shouting he recognised and the realisation struck him harder than the bullet he’d just shot into Chris’ chest. The waitress dropped the tray of glasses fresh from the dishwasher, the lingering sound of the smashing glass on the hard concrete floor seemed to form a counterpoint to the brisk ear-splitting crack of the gunshot. Ross had only applied the slightest pressure to the hair-trigger but the shock had been enough to set the gun off. Chris looked down at his chest to see the reddening mess of his rib-cage opened up and as bloody as the seventy ounce steak. With the last of his life force he reached up to his face which now seemed to be melting in his death throws. He grabbed a loose piece of latex by his hair line and pulled it off in a long downward motion revealing a different, more angular and tanned face underneath.

‘You always were a jumpy pussy, Ross, mum was right.’

Chris tore another latex strip off the mask then grabbed under the remainder and just pulled. Enough of the real face was now visible under the mask for Ross to realise the truth. He saw himself staring back at him. Identical in everyway except for the mole on the top lip. Twins.

‘Ivan.’

‘I got you, I finally got you, you little bastard. Now suffer like I did. I was dying, that’s no lie, now I really am dying. But I’m glad YOU rather than cancer caused my death. Cancer can’t go to jail, cancer has no feelings, there’s no point trying to get revenge on it. Cancer can’t be made to suffer..’

Ivan revealed, his hand full of latex and blood pointed now pointed to Ross.

‘But YOU can, my brother.’

Ross’ eyes went wide as oyster shells, he stumbled from the chair spluttering pure petrified emotion, ‘I was coming, coming to see you, I…I loved you… I…meant…to…find…you…’

Ivan laughed a mucus sticky laugh, his lungs filling with blood, bad blood. As he spoke, his lips stuck to his teeth,  ‘I didn’t have much time left, so  I found you…’ He exhaled a final death rattle, the last cobra twisting lost as the bar doors flew open and a squadron of riot police stormed into the bar, spotlights and pepper spray. Ross, his brother’s passport in one hand and still smoking revolver in the other raised his arms towards the speakers in the ceiling still pumping out jazz heavenward, waiting for what must inevitably come next…

Harry and the Whale

.

Harry paused in the doorway to study his reflection, making sure his tie was straight and hair slicked back. The glass wasn’t clear enough to check that his eyes weren’t looking too bloodshot but he was sure they were. By way of summoning up the courage he recalled what Caroline, his wife, had said to him that morning whilst pressing his shirt, all smiles and hope, her pregnant belly nestling against the ironing board:

‘When I was a child I used to have this book of fairy tales, you know the type, I always wanted to be the princess who was swept off her feet by some noble and brave knight. But when I grew up, and looking at you right now, I realise that a truly brave and noble man is the one who gets his head down, works hard to provide for his family, hardly ever complains and lives his life as kindly and thoughtfully as he can. That’s true courage, and you have that in spades Harry. You are a decent man, Harry. A true nobleman.’

As he entered the bank and tapped on the desk with the lucky silver farthing his father had left him, along with the small Cornish small-holding that he was now running into the ground, he just knew that he was going to let her down… again.

The bank manager was halfway out the door to lunch when his intercom buzzed. He was in two minds whether to even answer it such was his hunger, but having always felt a loyalty to the job and secretly hoping for that fat promotion to a comfortable office with perks in the city, away from this yokel Cornish coastal town, against his better judgement he picked up the receiver and pressed the flashing red button.

Harry entered the small windowless office dressed like he’d just come from a funeral. The bank manager sat back down in his chair, mentally kicking himself now that lunch felt like a distant dream. Over the rumbling of his stomach he heard his guest speak.

‘Good afternoon, I’ve got all the forms here, I even filled in the Ethnicity survey, and I don’t usually do that, it’s against my principles… And age wise I’m glad your forms tick box put me in the next category, I’d hate to be classed as a youth these days, what was it..?’

Harry looked down at the forms in front of him on the over-lit desk and took off his suit jacket feeling the heat and pressure.

‘… thirty-five to fifty. I mean look at the eighteen-to-thirty-fours these days, all miserable and spending all their waking moments pretending they’re not. Then again what do you expect? They can’t help it. All their lives they’ve been brought up on TV and these… these… magazines…’

He threw his arms wildly around the small office as if somewhere there might be magazines to prove his point.

‘… These magazines full of women with their tits out, men in sharp suits with fifty pound notes falling out their arses, excuse me but… I mean, something like 90% of people in England hate their jobs. That’s why… that’s DIRECTLY why they all go out and get smashed at the weekend. They spend the whole week being belittled and humiliated by a job they feel is beneath them, get their pay cheque on a Friday night, then blow it all so they can feel like the people they see in magazines for those precious weekend evenings.’

Harry became aware that he was gabbling out of nerves and tried to finish on a strong closing statement.

‘…It keeps them trapped, you see..?’

The bank manager let it wash over him, he knew the decision had already been taken, no amount of banter could change it. Harry reached into his suit pocket hanging off the chair back and pulled out what looked like a hip-flask. About to take a sip he paused, suddenly aware of the other man watching him, and he remembered his surroundings.

‘Sorry… do you mind? I’ve got Diabetes and must keep refreshed…’

The bank manager waved his hand in agreement, his eyes incredulous. Was this guy for real?

‘‘Please…’

Harry was already drinking deeply. Between sips he spat out, ‘…it’s like everyone… is Tony Mantero… you remember…? From Saturday Night Fever…. just living for the weekend to feel alive…’

The bank manager seemed agitated. ‘Well it’s money that makes the world go round, Mr…’ He tried to hide himself looking down at the file in front of him. ‘…Chapman. Even teenagers need money.’

Harry’s thirst quenched he turned round to put the silver hip-flask back into his pocket, his fingers rubbing over the embossed letters of the moniker ‘JC’. He was talking again before he’d even turned around.

‘But I got out of that game. I stepped off the wheel figuring I wasn’t really cut out to be a hamster, or sheep I guess would be a better animal… although sheep wouldn’t really walk round a wheel would they? Hmmm, sorry I’m talking all over the shop here. What I’m trying to get across to you is I’ve done my time working in offices, everyone bloated on their own self-importance and miserable, that’s why I moved down here.’

The bank manager looked at his watch, a mixture of anxiety and irritation. Leaning back on the head rest of his plastic chair he swept his hands over the dome of his receding hairline and decided to force the issue.

‘So… how have things been, Mr Chapman…?’ He leaned across the plastic wooden desk, clasping his fingers together as he’d probably seen his father do before him.

‘No idea. I don’t like to think in those terms. I’ve blocked it all out.’ Harry picked at a little dirt missed from scrubbing under his thumb nail that morning. The bank manger unfolded his fingers and took to tapping nervously on the badly veneered faux-leather desk, making it sound more plastic and cheap than ever.

Harry caught the small fleck of black from under the nail and flicked it to the floor. Suddenly his mind was back in the room.

‘Sorry, did I just say that out loud…?’

The bank manager offered the smallest of affirmative nods. Harry leaned back on his chair feeling the die had already been cast in this grey man’s mind.

‘Okay then, how’s about it. Are you going to give me this loan or not?’

The bank manager felt totally back in his comfort zone. As a bad poker player slow-rolls his hand, so the bank manager languidly flipped up the plastic cover on the file in front of him as if it weighed a kilo. With mock concern his eyes looked down then back up again straight into this gentleman farmer’s wide, pleading gaze.

‘It’s a no, I’m afraid.’ Slap bang down went the file onto the plastic desk, as shallow and plastic as the man who sat behind it.

Harry gripped the chair arms, his knuckles turning white. ‘I haven’t told you everything,’ he said, ‘things have got a lot more complicated since I filled in the application last week… I really need you to help me…come on man, help me, one human being to another, I’m desperate here… My wife’s expecting our first child, I say she’s expecting a child;  I’m  just expecting trouble. Anyway, that’s the least of it…’

The bank manager leaned forward across the desk once more his palms flat on the closed file.

‘Yes…?’

‘Well, it’s like this… things have recently got a whole lot more…complicated… I’ve got this Whale see…’

The bank manager put all thoughts of a quick lunch out of his mind. He sure had a live one here.

‘‘Look,’ said Harry in pleading tones, ‘ just call me Captain Ahab, I don’t fucking care, excuse my language, but I’ve just got to shift this dead whale…’ he stabbed his finger into the side of his temple, ‘it’s fucking with my head, see…’

_______________________________________________________________________

Harry dragged his heels along the coast road, dejected and desperate, remembering his past mindset and salary. Five years ago that bastard of a bank manager would have bitten his hand off to offer him a loan, but now he was alone. Freelancing was what everyone did. All of his friends were making it pay freelancing in the media. Just because he had decided to move down to a place without broadband shouldn’t make a difference. By way of consoling himself he looked around at all the trees and imagined how to make them work for an advertising campaign. Yes, he still had it, still great. Why was no-one paying him? It should have worked. He should be working.

He marched back through the winding country road past the parish church, hearing the rich and comfortable inside praising a God that had seen them right, he couldn’t help but feel that the Lord giveth with one hand, taketh away with the other and was  now flipping him the bird. This whale was like a dark thought, a hangover, a brute fact that refused to disappear however much he tried to think it away. Having chosen to beach itself on the thin strip of land that had come with his deceased father’s property not more than a week ago, he’d already gone through the fist-waving at a cruel universe that on a three hundred miles of clear coastline this stricken mammal had chosen to die on his little hundred metre stretch. He hadn’t even bothered to show the bank manager the letter he’d received from Restormal council telling him it was his responsibility to remove it.

Harry could’ve guessed something bad was coming even before he’d been woken that morning a week ago by locals admiring the whale, trying to save it: The nightmares had started again. Not like normal bad dreams but more visual and profound, night terrors he thought they were called, having searched online. A spiritual crisis rather than just undigested pork belly. They always followed the same story-line: He was underwater in a midnight ocean, with whale-song, a terrible moaning whale-song filled with disappointment and regret. There was a pain to the twisting and mewling sound that went right through him. In the dream he was naked, swimming in the murk, he could feel the cold water enveloping him but he had a slime on his skin and barnacles that seemed to resemble the faces of everyone he’d ever known, even though he was able to breathe and feel the icy water rush in and out of his lungs, he couldn’t tell if these barnacles were giving him buoyancy or were a weight dragging him down deeper into the canyons and crevices of the frightening unknown blackness below.

Such powerful lucid dreams reminded him of being a small boy. Not since he’d been about seven years old had his sub-conscious thrown up dreams like this. Being a child was like being in a permanent state of dreaming, he’d thought with the benefit of hindsight. In a dream he could experience true fear, true joy, true sexual arousal, true panic as there were no boundaries of his adult mind to set perimeters and rationalise away the infinite expanse of possibilities. Now the dreams were back with a strong adult vengeance and it was starting to affect his daily interactions.  Fear of having these images was keeping him awake at night, and with such a physically demanding job as being a gentleman farmer the insomnia was making him crazy. Whilst his childhood dreams had always revolved around him being some sort of lithe dolphin, chattering and rushing through the light blue sunny warm waters, accompanied by an incredible sense of speed and freedom, these new nightmares occupied the same known ocean but now he was slow and bloated, the waters always dark, cold and green with menace.

Then, less than a week after these dreams began to infect his mind the whale had appeared, beached and flapping on the rocky coast of his small-holding. At first he’d thought it a waking hallucination brought on by the financial stress and anxiety of his situation, Caroline’s pregnancy and his unwanted impending fatherhood, but as the locals started gathering to try to help the creature he knew for sure that the two tonnes of immovable blubber and fins was real.  Throughout all this, in his mind’s eye he could see the milky eye of the dying whale watching him steadily, mocking him.

Upon leaving the bank Harry found his legs had walked him to the only bar in the village. He decided to fall back on the one thing that hadn’t changed since he’d moved here: getting smashed. Alcohol could always be relied on as a steady certainty in an ever changing world. Reading again  the letter he’d received from the council he scrunched it up and threw it over the bar, missing the slop bucket by a wide mile. They’d do nothing to remove the whale, it was his responsibility as the landowner. However, if he couldn’t afford to do so they’d very graciously do it for ten thousand pounds, and as Harry ordered up another Scotch he mused how he was about nine grand short. Surely there had to be another way? Pulling out his iPhone he Googled for information from a Canadian website, an area of Ontario where Whales frequently beached. Apparently the gases in a whale’s stomach will eventually build up and make it explode. So, surely he could play the waiting game? He knew the farmer down the road from him kept pigs and those greedy porcine teeth could surely munch their way in a few days through all that blubber? As the second and third Scotch disappeared down his throat, he could feel the gasses building up in his own stomach. Overdrafts, credit card payments, loans, all due within days. No, he couldn’t wait, he needed to do something about it right now. He’d felt impotent for too long, a rudderless ship in a storm that he hadn’t even created.

Outside the bar window he could hear children throwing firecrackers. The barman tried to move them on, but it had already given Harry an idea. Firework night was fast approaching and this was the one time of year his local shop would stock colourful exploding projectiles. He had thought about buying some to celebrate Caroline’s pregnancy photo that day she’d come back from her first ultrasound scan and the gender had been decided but his heart wasn’t in it. He was to become a father to a boy. He’d secretly hoped for a boy to help out, then chastised himself for falling into old country ways. He’d been born a metrosexual city man, why force gender roles on his kids? Maybe this was the trade-off for selling up and living the good life on a farm? He was slipping into unreconstructed ideas. Pink princess wings for his daughter and a pitch-fork for his son to help him bring in the harvest? God, was he actually becoming his father after all? Feeling the effects of the alcohol he forced his mind to deal with less abstract concepts. Fireworks. Yes, that was the answer, he congratulated himself, he would blow the fucker up, then once it had been reduced to bite-sized chunks of flesh he’d get his neighbour’s pigs to eat up the remains. What Genius, he thought and ordered up a final Scotch to toast the scheme.

Almost sliding off his bar stool, he settled his tab and left, stopping in to the village store on his way home, trying to look as sober as possible in front of the redoubtable Mrs Stouter, the proprietor. She reminded him of a fifties school ma’am and they’d taken an instant dislike to each other, but without another store for two miles he’d had to get over it. Upon entering she eyed him with the same disappointed features he was sure his wife would have when he finally winded his way back home. In his mind he rehearsed the dialogue that was about to take place.

‘Yes, it’s me, drunk again. Yes I’m about to buy another bottle of whiskey’.  He lurched up to the till and as he leaned back to reach into his back pocket for his credit card he studied the fireworks on display in the glass counter beneath her, all the while his internal monologue continuing.

‘And a bottle of John Power. Fuck it, make it two. Yes two you sour old puss. I’ll drink a toast to your judgement and dried up snatch. You should be grateful I’m spending money in this store, quit with the eye darts.’ So absorbed was he that he failed to notice the small queue forming behind him. Making sure he was now speaking aloud, he matched her gaze and handed over the plastic credit card as if he meant to stab her with it.

‘How many fireworks you got, Mrs Stouter?’

‘A fair few Mr. Harry, business has been slow since they changed the law…’

‘I’ll take them all.’

Her eyes narrowed, changing from benevolent judgement to mercurial incredulity.

‘All…?’

‘You heard me, (you old witch)’.

She reached for the keys that hung next to the tobacco and unlocked the glass case beneath her counter, much to the groaning of the three people behind him in the queue.

‘Stick it on my card… (and stick my card up your judgemental old arse)’.

‘What was that…?’

‘…and don’t forget the two bottles of Scotch….’ He suddenly felt self-conscious and added a meek ‘…thanks…’ on to the end.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Drunk, he stumbled back home, any fear of getting lost down the dark coastal path road were soon forgotten in the unbelievable stench of the whale getting stronger with each step. For the first time in his relationship with Caroline he felt a sense of dread at returning to her. He could already see the stoic disappointment trying to be hid on her face. What a failure of a husband, a father, a man he had become. He patted the fireworks at his side as a soldier about to go into battle. He dodged the inevitable confrontation and headed straight down to the beach.

Caroline watched her husband sitting cross-legged on the beach staring silently at the whale from her kitchen window as she prepared the evening meal. Hadn’t she become the good country wife, she mused to herself, against all her better judgement? She peeled the potatoes, her mind drifting back to that morning watching Harry get ready. She’d ironed his shirt mindfully, really digging in with the palm of her hand on the old steam iron around the cuffs and collar. She hadn’t taken this much care over a shirt since he’d gone for his promotion at the BBC nearly five years ago. She felt the hand of fate pushing her own hand down onto the creases and didn’t like it. He hadn’t got the promotion that day despite her careful laundry effort, and now she felt the same way about his trip to see the bank manager about their loan. She desperately wanted him to be happy, in fact hadn’t these last five years demonstrated that, she thought to herself as she neatly folded the completed shirt and put it on its hanger. Hadn’t she subjugated all her hopes and dreams to help his, to push him up into the light even if that meant her own face must be below in the darkness? Her belly was starting to notice now, only in the last few days, but it pushed out distended from her t-shirt, like an unavoidable brute fact. She’d talked to him about having a child and he’d always seemed evasive, talking in abstract terms. She worried that now the child was becoming visible he was having second thoughts. She looked out the window again to see him poking the whale’s distended belly with a stick, it looked bloated and inflated with all the gas now it was clearly dead. She imagined it building up for some great explosion and suddenly panicked that her husband might engender it with his poking and get injured. She chastised herself for being so foolish. Harry looked a truly broken man as he limply poked, no real conviction or force used.

He poked at that blubber willing it to disappear but it wouldn’t, just like so many of the other thoughts in his head. Throwing the stick over the whale into the waves behind it he retreated back down the beach and sat down out of Caroline’s sight to kick up a few pebbles. Dejected and crushed he lit a cigarette and took a few puffs, listening to his lungs wheezing and creaking like an old wooden ship. Christ, he thought to himself, when did he get so damn old? Too much. He placed his earphones carefully in each ear, making sure no sand or grit had got in there and pressed play on his iPhone. Reaching into the side pocket of his trousers he pulled out the hip-flask and touched its side, feeling how warm it had already got against his nervous and sweaty torso. How ironic it felt that tonight was the perfect early autumn evening. Under normal circumstances he’d have felt so smug that he’d jacked in his stressful media job and was now sitting staring out at the kind of pink sunset you only ever got on an October evening on the northern Cornish coast. But now it felt like a curse. No matter how he tried to block it out, no matter how hard he tried to see beyond it by looking left, right, over out to sea, each time his eyes would be drawn irrevocably back to the now darkening shape of the dead whale.

Some well-meaning second homers had lit Chinese lanterns on the water behind the carcass and Harry watched them bobbing up and down in the twilight. He could see the handful of people, some with candles holding a misplaced vigil for its dead soul. To them it was a glorious imperious creature taken out of its natural habitat. To him it was ten grand he didn’t have. Fucking thing. What about his dying soul? He was still alive, just… Who was going to hold a candlelit vigil for him?

Harry felt the stress of the day bubble up through him and through lack of sleep he began to lucid dream again. This Whale was a stain, a blip, a fly in the ointment, something he couldn’t ignore. All his hopes and dreams of being someone, being a success whatever that now meant to him, all his graceful dreams flipping through endless clear water now came to a head with this massive mammal beached on his land. It was too much. Both he and the Whale were fish out of water. No, mammals out of water he reminded himself and no amount of music or Scotch would render either of them invisible. He could delay no longer, it was time to face the music, so like a schoolboy on a Monday morning he forced his wobbly legs to take him back up the rocky steps to face the missus.

______________________________________________________________________________

Caroline took the news exactly as he’d feared she would. She continued to dry Harry’s favourite coffee mug in the dishcloth, the mug he’d used all those years ago at his desk at the BBC. He was so lost in thought about what to do about the uninvited guest down on the beach that he hadn’t noticed her scrubbing motion had become almost pathological. She was grinding the damp cloth deeper and harder into the edges of the old cup. Finally she could take no more and threw it against the furthest wall in the kitchen hoping to make the biggest impression. The pottery smashed into a few choice chunks and flew over his head causing him to instinctively duck under the oak table.

Realising it wasn’t an earthquake he stuck his head out to see the large ‘C’ from ‘BBC’ remaining at his feet having narrowly missed his eye.

‘WHY? Why Harry?’ she could take no more, no longer could she formulate her thoughts into sugar coated pills to be administered nightly with his whiskey, now it all came out at once.

‘What fucking dream are you following? You got lucky with your dad dying and leaving you this place.’ She realised how brutal this sounded but with the smashing of the cup something deeper had smashed, along with the egg-shells she’d been walking on these past few years. ‘You’re living in a fantasy. You got lucky. You brought me up here, leaving the job I loved, promising me children. Now you’re bottling out, leaving me to iron your bloody shirts, iron away the crinkles in your damaged ego…’    Caroline felt her natural instinct to pull back on this final outburst and once more force her feelings down deep inside her, but like a volcano dormant too long she allowed herself to erupt, to cleanse and let it all out, all the poisonous thoughts she’d subjugated in the hope of her husband getting his act together by himself. Finally, irrevocably she couldn’t hold it down any longer and like a bad kebab she wretched it all up.

‘Time is precious. You’ve forgotten that, haven’t you Harry? You’ve got too much fucking time on your hands. It doesn’t MEAN anything anymore. Remember that time is PRECIOUS…. WE are precious… THIS…’ she patted her stomach with a gentle hand, ‘… he is precious, he deserves better than a father who’s given up on life. YOU and that fucking whale are the same. Do you hear me? You’ve both run aground, given up on life to slowly die on some godforsaken beach bloated and fucked…look at you. Husk of a man, what happened to that go-getter I fell in love with, eh?’

She felt it all come out, the pent-up aggression of a thousand conversations she’d backed down on for his greater good, only now she was starting to enjoy this new-found freedom, the raging felt liberating.

‘…You hear me Harry? You and that bloody whale. FUCKED. Time to grow up. Jesus H Christ what is it with men? You’re all just babies looking for mothers, new mothers you can have sex with… Well here’s the news Harry, I’m not your mother, and the sex isn’t even that great anymore. Not since you moved us here in your beaten child-mind…. Get over it…. This whale is a blessing I swear to god. Really. It’s like a boil that needed lancing. Quit dreaming, Harry.  Admit you fucked up. Go back to the BB fucking C. Make some money. Provide for us. Provide for our unborn child. Admit you took your shot and missed. Be a man. Fucking man up. MAN UP…’

Harry continued to cower under the table his mind racing with the onslaught of a thousand terrible things heading his way. Like a hurricane Caroline continued.

‘…I’ve taken all I can take. If you can’t find it in yourself to save us, US, then at least save yourself. Fight for yourself, Harry, goddamnit, FIGHT YOU PUSSY… PLEASE… I LOVE YOU…’

The smashing of the mug was nothing compared to the power of her cursing. Harry looked down at the letter ‘C’ of his BBC cup, shattered beyond repair. In the ten years he’d known her he could count the number of times he’d heard her swear on one hand, now he was cowered under the table amongst the smashed pottery of his previous life. With a weak gesture that he knew to be weak even as he did it, he flicked the chunk of pottery emblazoned with the ‘C’ towards her like an impetuous child.

‘Yes…’ her eyes were blazing now with a deep fire, a maternal protective fire for her unborn child, cutting him out of the picture as she’d done so many times now she was pregnant. ‘…And the ‘C’ stands for ‘CUNT.’

She’d finally reached him, this was too much. He leapt to his feet. The Caroline he knew would never have hit the C-bomb. He frantically scanned the draining board beneath the window for something to throw back. She had stacked the washing-up neatly into tidy clean piles. Looking out the window he could see the greying stinking blubber of the whale glistening down on the beach in the new moon. He could take no more. Grabbing the fireworks from the bucket by the door, he rushed out, uncaring that he was barefoot. Captain Ahab would kill his white whale and set himself free or die trying. It was a noble gesture he told himself as he began his headlong descent.

His movement was part stumble; part leap. His eyes were full of salt water tears, part anger; part self-pity. As he hurtled towards the small crowd still milling around the shoreline he could no longer see the dead mammal as a thing, it had become a concept, a thing he must vanquish, was it his pregnant wife, was it his impending bankruptcy, his hatred of the city world he’d tried to leave behind yet had somehow found him and beached itself unavoidable to be dealt with? Was it his own bloated ego, his own desire to be swimming lithe and nimble in his own environment? Or had he just gone mad, was it just a Whale? All these thoughts turned over and over in his skull and as he got closer he could see the silvery mass of the dying creature as a physical thing, his thoughts made flesh. The stench hit his nose before he could even get near, forcing him to slow down.

A father and son had made a makeshift fire on the beach out of twigs and driftwood in a hopeless vigil to save the whale’s life. Without even stopping to see if he knew them or giving a ‘hail fellow well met’, Harry threw down the heavy bucket of fireworks and jumped over the fire and picked up the largest of the burning branches. Feeling himself to be an Olympic javelin thrower, or worse some sort of caveman he lunged at the stricken beast, sticking the flaming spear into it’s side again and again. His tears came freely now, as in a dream, without boundaries. He fell to his knees repeatedly stabbing the moist blubber.

‘Die you cunt. Die Die Die…’

With each pointless stab the whale’s flesh seemed to give up a flatulent moan, more putrid and wet than before. The hot spear soon became a sodden tip and was no longer strong enough to pierce the tough outer skin. Godammit he would kill this fucking thing, he would rid it from his property, from his mind. Whatever it truly was, whatever it truly represented to him, IT MUST GO. NOW.

Turning back to the startled father and son, Harry lurched back to the fire covered in the stinking blubber. They were scared, the father pulled his now crying child close to him as the madman started rooting around in the fire for something to light the motherload of fireworks.

One by one Harry stuck them in to the carcass without thought: Catherine Wheel, Rocket, Starburst, he didn’t care – they all went in, like sticking the spines back into a naked porcupine, all the while frothing at the mouth for the moment he could strip naked and dance round this motherfucker lighting each taper. Soon…. Soon it would be gone and everything would go back to normal, he comforted himself. Back to the way they were, without children, without money worries, Caroline in love with him…. soon and forever. In the coming explosion he prayed that somehow against all the odds he could get caught up in the blast and be blown back these past five years to when things had made sense.

Left with just the bloody rib cage opened up like a doorway into Narnia Harry dropped the fireworks that couldn’t be wedged into the tough hide and lit each firework where it lay, hanging out of the flesh like a Stevedores spear in some futile bull-fight. He made it just round in time to stare a final time into the milky mocking eyes as the first cord burnt down to set off the rest. He had just enough time to look behind him, back up the cliff to Caroline, her palms pressed against the window. She seemed to be shouting at him, but in the roar of the ocean it was lost, he managed to get his hand half way up to wave when it hit.

The explosion lit up the night sky as far south as Land’s End to the south and Plymouth to the north. It would be reported in the local paper that seven people had called the police fearing a terrorist attack. But Harry would never get to read the morning’s paper. With arms out-stretched he embraced the blast, and in those final few seconds Captain Ahab couldn’t tell what was whale blubber and what was his own burning flesh as they became one in the hiss and fizz, rendering the fat down to each mammal’s bone.

Deck Hands – Guns & Flip-Flops

Holding Cell, Marbella Police Station, Spain. Right now.

Statement of Mr. Wendall Strickland:

‘ My name is Wendall Strickland and I’m in a lot of trouble right now. The first question they ask me is where did I get the gun, when I tell them I lifted it out of an empty police car they get even madder as I guess it makes them look even more stupid than I know them to be. The next question is where did I get the gold fob watch that I’m holding tightly in my hand. I explain to them it’s my fathers and they seem to accept it. Any more questions must wait, as I want to tell this story MY way, in MY own time. So best I start at the beginning.

This paper they’ve given me to write my confession on is thin like the pages of those bibles you find in hotel rooms, the pen keeps popping through so I hope you can still read it ok? I’m a month shy of my thirtieth birthday and if what these pigs have told me is true it looks like I’ll be spending it and the next few birthdays behind bars. You want to know the sickest part? Because I stuck-up a yacht rather than a car they’re actually thinking of charging me with Piracy. PIRACY? What the fuck? What a prick I am, what was I thinking?

I don’t want your pity, I don’t even expect your understanding, but all I’ll say for truth is that desperation leads a man to do crazy things he wouldn’t normally do. That and being in love and being greedy and so full of how you THINK you deserve to be living. Ah hell, as you can probably tell already, I’m no good with words, so I’m just gonna tell it how it was, no fancy bumfluffery just the cold hard facts. It’s roasting hot here in the cells, my tongue feels like a slug that’s had salt put on it and my stomach thinks my throats been cut. But there’s fuck all I can do about it, so guess I better just get on telling my story. OK, here goes…

I’d been living here on Spain’s Costa del Sol for about the last three years: great life, killer apartment up in the mountains, beach parties and cheap booze. But all on the never never. The credit crunch hit around the same time I hit a losing streak at the casino, a run of bad luck you wouldn’t believe. By June this year I’d run out of money and was looking down the barrel of having to return to London with nothing but chewing gum in my pocket. For reasons I don’t really want to go into now London was not a good place for me.

Anyway. So I’m hanging with my mate Paul who works as projectionist at the cinema down near La Canada, he’s a good guy, I met him when I first moved out at a local poker game and we pretty much met up most Saturdays in that small smoky projection room to smoke weed and watch whatever film he was showing.  I can finally admit that he is a much better poker player than me. It’s taken me a lot of hard thinking to be able to say that. But in the early days we had a typical sort of male dick-swinging rivalry with our poker and casino, now I can see he’s simply a better player. I got into the online gambling whereas he always stuck to live cash games along the coast. I was losing badly. I’d think nothing of doing six hundred Euros a night yet go to the Supermercado the next day and buy their Value vegetables’ and cheap cuts of meat.

I always loved gangster films, you know? Casinos and even online gambling made me feel part of it all, that feeling of walking into a casino and being comp’t drinks, the atmosphere and promise of riches, dazzling glitz and glamour in the neon lights yet under the surface I could feel the shady deals and kickings in the back-alleys. I fucking loved it. I got sucked right in. Stupid huh? Guess I’ve always had a problem separating fact from fiction. I totally blame my dad. Compulsive gambler and all round shady character but to a young kid he seemed like the coolest guy on earth. You could say I had risk-taking in my blood – even my unusual name Wendall, chosen by my dad after winning a fortune at an Indian Reservation casino with the same name. That’s about all he left me though before fucking off and leaving me and mum to struggle on. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a gangster. To have the good things in life. Dad had always taken us out on holiday to Marbella, he had some business contacts out here, and when I say ‘business’ I mean gangster. He always looked so cool, sharp suits and sunglasses, always seeming to be mentally flipping a silver dollar in his hand when he entered a room. My mum said he looked dangerous in a sexy way- like he was always secretly carrying a gun even though he wasn’t. I’d tried to emulate him I guess as best I could. Gambling and a little hash running up and down the coast, no great shakes, sometimes I’d bring my digital camera to Paul’s projection room and video the new release, uploading it Online for a few bucks. VERY minor league stuff you understand, but just enough to keep me in wine, women and song… if you get me?

Paul had never met dad but the stories I told him made him laugh. He was always warning me to get my head in the game, that I was hero-worshipping and painting a child’s view of an adult, a two-dimensional character. He was right of course, looking back I realise now I was trying to live up to a two-dimensional character, like a film. Real life is always in glorious 3D, huh?

I guess what really swung it for me, what really stuck a bug up my arse to go through with this ridiculous two-dimensional plan was sitting on my balcony last Saturday, I remember it must’ve been about nine in the evening because I could hear the shit karaoke from the bar down the road, I sat on my balcony with my air pistol shooting the tails off lizards when I saw her appear on the balcony of the apartment block opposite separated by the swimming pool and a line of palm trees. Man she looked perfect. The sort of woman I’d honestly give my little-finger to get with.

Hang on, I can hear a guard opening the outer door, I want to try and bum a smoke – I’ve got a little rolling tobacco left but it’s so sweaty in here that my hands are dripping probably as much with nervousness as heat and my cigarette papers are all damp and stuck together. Useless.

Update: The guard was alright. He gave me his packet which had three left in it. I think I’m getting a kind of warped respect from them for what I attempted, ha, I’m a gangster at last. But how empty and stupid it feels now locked up.

Where was I? Right, oh yeah, so this girl in the apartment opposite is just killer. I see her pick up her swimming costume from where it’s hanging over her balcony. I figure she’s going for a swim. What must it be like to sleep with a girl like that, have her on my arm as I enter the casino? Anyway what I’m trying to get across to you is how desperately I wanted to stay in Spain and how crazy much I needed to make some fast cash.

That Saturday night in the projection room me and Paul are smoking and watching ‘Goodfellas’ of all films – a special midnight showing for the heads. One of my favourite films – even with De Niro speaking in dubbed Spanish. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: ‘Paul I gots to find a way to stay. Some sort of crime or fraud is all I can come up with.’

Paul reminds me last time I tried crime was stealing cables and metal to sell as scrap back in London. I told him the story myself when we first met. Me and a few lads busted into a large park and stole this big sundial sculpture thing. We got four-hundred pounds for it, then on the news later feeling pretty clever we saw it was by some guy called Henry Moore and was actually worth about half a million. This amongst other things facilitated my quick exit from England.

‘How about Football gambling? asks Paul, ‘Some big games this weekend, easy money’.

Fuck soccer.’ I tell him. ‘If I wanted to watch somebody struggle to score for 90 mins I’d take my friends to the bar. I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not very good at poker, least ways not as good as I think I am. Either that or I have the luck of a cursed Gypsy. Had a rare spare tenner so am playing a few two dollar cash games. The beats I’m getting you would not believe and couldn’t write in a story as it wouldn’t be deemed believable or true to life. I swear to ya. Also, when the stakes are so small I would argue that you can’t even HAVE a proper game of psychological poker because dickheads will call you all the way down to the river with rags on the hope of catching something exactly BECAUSE the money is so small. They’d never do that if it was a nifty. I despair.’

I stand up all stressed, knocking away the flies that were circling round my beer. ‘How long am I expected to go on living like this?’

Paul shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t ask me, how in the hell would I know.’

I  began clapping at the flies missing them all but looking like a nutter.

‘How’s your game anyway?’ I ask, ‘ You’ve got that big game coming up Saturday, hey?’

Paul had strained his head towards the air-conditioning trying to catch some of the icy-wind.

‘Say again?’ He moved his head back away from the whirring motor.

‘I said, you got that big game coming up Saturday?’

‘Yeah’, he put his face back to the air-conditioning.

I stopped clapping and sought solace in another cold beer from the fridge he had under the projector. That’s when I hit him with it.

‘Look, I got an idea. It’s a bit out-there, so hear me out before you respond, ok?’

Paul pulled his head back once again, ‘hey man, I can’t hear ya. What’s up now’.

I tried a different approach. ‘You know I’m desperate yeah… financially, I mean, you know I’m really up against it?’

Paul nodded.

‘The poker games a fat one isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, it’s on Pat Coons yacht down in Cabopino. Rich flounders, better angling for fat fish than the harbour. The buy-in alone is a thousand Euros so you can easily times that by fifty once they’ve had a skin-full.’

‘Exactly, there’s gonna be a lot of cash on that boat, hey?’

‘Yep and it all going to be mine all mine’. Paul laughed and knocked back the cold suds.

‘No, it’s gonna be mine.’ I say.

‘But you ain’t playing. Not with your luck…’

‘I know, but I’m gonna make my own luck…’ Bam, I lay it on him:  ‘I’m gonna hijack the boat…’

I expected Paul to fall about laughing, but full respect to him he took me seriously. Perhaps it was Goodfellas showing through the projectionist hole, perhaps it was the smoke, but he went along with it, hoping I guess to let me work out myself in the nitty-gritty detail that it wasn’t such a swell idea.

Still we talked it through. Even though these big games are only Paul’s bag not mine, there’s still a chance someone might recognise me – it’s quite a small community of ex-pats here on the coast, everyone sticking their burned noses into each others business. So we decide I should use a fake accent and some sort of mask. The only accent I can do half-convincingly is American or Scottish. The American sounded so camp that even with a gun pointed at them these six dudes would still probably just laugh. I try the Scots, not much better, the Sean Connery sounds too stupid even for my tentative grasp on reality and so I settle for a sort of Billy Connelly drawl. Paul falls about laughing as I test it out:

‘Alreet, give me the fooking money’.

I waved my fingers around the room aping a gun, pointing at the projection console and saw a blister pack of blue diamond shaped pills. He told me he’d been staying at his uncle’s and found them in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Viagra, full strength, not the shit you buy online but the real deal prescription only. I’m always up for a new buzz so necked one washed down with a fresh cold can of Cruzcampo lager. Twenty minutes later, nothing. But my mind was racing with the plan. Paul could see my mind was made up and had to admit the plan was totally risk-free for him. We’d split the loot fifty-fifty.

Being a good friend he tried to put me off one last time. Did I listen? Did I fuck. I’d set my mind to the wheel. It was going to happen. But where to get a gun? I knew a couple of places along the coast, a few ex-pat bars who would know some people who knew some people. So off I went on my scooter. Any thoughts of how stupid I was being were pushed and stamped down under the boot of my excitement at finally living the life. How cool am I trying to get a gun to stick up a poker game on a yacht? Fucking idiot looking back.

First bar there’s no joy. Second bar fares better but the guy won’t be around for a week and the game was less than three days away. I took the back roads back towards my apartment feeling bummed-out. I remember there was a beautiful sunset that night, the orange light was streaking through all the half-built and empty complexes never to be finished now that the arse had fallen out of the Spanish economy. It looked like a post nuclear holocaust world with nothing left but empty husks of concrete with little oil drum fires competing with the sunset started by the Spanish kids with no jobs or money sat around getting stoned. Spurred on by the thought that pretty soon I’d be joining them if I didn’t get paid in full I tried the last bar that was rough enough to help. I hit my first bit of good luck, or as I should’ve seen it if I hadn’t been so whacked-out, major bad luck. Big fight breaks out in the bar over a pool game. Guardia Civil the local police rock up and launch out of their car as bottles are flying out the window, one cracking the bonnet. In the hurly-burly I walk past their cop car and what do I see through the open passenger window? Yep, unbelievably a gun in its holster sticking out the glove compartment. You couldn’t make this shit up, but there it was. I’m thinking this whole heist must now be sanctioned by the gods, so without having to be asked twice, in my hand goes and out comes the gun. Looking behind me, the two cops are totally engrossed in sorting out the punch-up, I quickly stuff the gun down the front of my pants where the barrel lays hanging to the right. Somehow it felt so right. Back on the scooter I skedaddle out of there faster than a shit-house rat.

Back at my apartment I cracked open a good bottle of Hennessey brandy, one I’d been saving for a special occasion like a big win at the tables, drank about a fifth immediately, then laid out the gun on the outside table overlooking the bright lights of Fuengirola. I know how shit it sounds but damn that gun felt sexy and powerful. Holding it and pointing it I felt anything was possible. Next I needed to get a boat. I figured that would be the easiest part of the plan. ‘Barry Armpit’ as he was known along the strip of Marbella had a small motor boat which he used to rip off tourists on dolphin watching trips. He owed me a few favours and wouldn’t miss the boat for a few hours I was sure. There’s the sound of banging music coming from that girl’s apartment and I can see figures dancing through the light mosquito screen. Again, she comes out onto the balcony and picks up her bikini. I swear she looks at me as she leans over the railing almost falling out of her tight top. This time I decide a moonlight swim would work for me too and leaving the gun on the table I strip down to my boxers and come down in the lift.

By the time I reach the edge of the pool she’s already doing lengths. The under floor lighting gives off a magical yellow and blue light through the water and the outline of her body moves as lithe and fluid as a dolphin. I jump in and stretch my arms out on the edge trying desperately to look nonchalant waiting for her to see me on her return pass. She does, she smiles, she pauses and then it hits me. An ancient and permanent wood. An erection so profound and final it’s like a Maypole with a hundred fertile goblins dancing round it. So brutal is the hard on it rips through my tight boxers like the Incredible Hulk tearing his shirt. Fucking Viagra. No warning, no stirring in the loins, just a nought-to-sixty length in under ten seconds. I look down at her pretty feet distorting in the rippling water. A girl’s feet are really important to me. I figure if a girl can’t keep her nails clean then imagine what her pussy must be like. But this girls feet were cute, no hammer-time. I imagine sucking her toes must be like tasting peaches and cream. Christ these thoughts don’t help the conviction of my length to remain undiminished. It is now so hard that you could hang a garden basket from it, or bang in a rusty nail. I’m silhouetted by the light and she looks down seeing the news. I figure I’m going to have to stay in the pool till dawn, but no. She smiles and winks at me.

‘We’re having a party Saturday night, I’ve seen you watching me from your apartment’ She looks down again at the broadsword, ‘And it sure looks like you know how to party. Wanna come? She drags out the word ‘come’ and brushes past me, softly caressing my tent-pole with her foot as she kicks off and begins swimming again.

There and then all doubt in my mind vanished. God damn I was going to get that money. Saturday it was to be. Take the gun, take the boat, get the money, get the girl.

Only things didn’t work out like that.

I’m breaking off again. The slat in my cell door has just been opened and I’m being watched. Keys turning, door opens. Ah food. At fucking last. The only good thing about a Spanish jail-house is the food. Fantastic chorizo and tortilla and even a small glass of watered down red tinto de verano. You sure wouldn’t get fed like this in a London nick. Now with a full stomach and a couple of smokes left things suddenly seem a little brighter and I’ve got enough focus to get this confession finished. So…

Borrowing the boat off Barry Armpit was no trouble at all. I found him stuffing his face down at a beach bar and I had the keys in my hand within the time it took him to order the bill. Stand-up guy. A real goodfella. I hopped on the scooter down to Cabopino and checked out the boat. Small but fast. I checked the fuel lines, the gas gauge and took it out for a quick spin around the bay just to quieten myself down, burn off some of the adrenaline that was starting to build up in my system. A dry run if you like. The boat handled like a dream and as I pulled back into the harbour I felt a surge of excitement that this was going to work. Carefully stowing the gun, a rucksack and a fancy-dress mask of a werewolf head that I’d picked up from a kids store, I literally danced back along the harbour wall waiting on tomorrow afternoon.

The stick up. Cometh the hour; cometh the cunt.

It went down like this.

Saturday morning I wake up and the sky is overcast, first day in about two months that it hasn’t been sunny. This gives me a slight uneasy feeling made worse when I scoot down to the harbour and see how choppy the water is beyond the break-wall. Quick phone call to Paul to check the game is still happening and all is fine. He’s already on board and using the shoreline as a compass he tells me where they’ve dropped anchor. The game is about to start and the bundles of Euro bank notes are sat on the table for all to see. I’m licking my lips already.

Pushing out beyond the harbour wall the boat starts bouncing around, it’s altogether so much rougher than yesterday’s test run. I instinctively feel for my dad’s gold pocket watch and take it out of my shirt pocket, resting it above the wheel to keep me focused. This is all I have to remember him by, and despite all the years and hardships I’ve never once considered pawning it, no matter how tough things got. It’s my only connection to him and I wouldn’t gamble or take any sort of risk without it. It’s a complicated one, the relationship with my dad. Part of me resents him for walking out on us, but part of me still wants to impress him and show him that I can be a cool gambler come gangster too. It’s a boiling mess of emotions, anger, love, jealousy, respect, fear inside me as the cold spray hits my face over the boat’s windshield.

All this bullshitty introspection goes clean out of my mind as I see the white fleck on the horizon of what I’m guessing must be the poker yacht. As I barrel towards it I can almost make out the six men sat at the table on the top deck. A couple of girls are wandering around too. I hadn’t planned for more than six people, more people to watch meant more chances of someone getting to a radio or phone to raise the alarm. I look at my mobile phone to check for any last messages from Paul. No bars, no signal. Too far out from shore. Fuck it. In for a penny in for a pound, I’m committed now, and if I can see them, they sure as hell can see me, so on with the werewolf mask, pocket watch back in shirt and shooter stuffed in the front of my shorts.

Let’s fucking have it!

I cut the motor before it can be heard and drift like a silent surfboard towards the yacht. I see Paul on his mobile as I pull round the side. He sees me and makes a cutting motion with his finger along his throat. He repeats it as I throw a rope round the yacht’s access ladder out of sight of all but Paul and one guy engrossed in looking at his cards. Desperately trying to keep the element of surprise I leap up the slippery white plastic steps wishing I’d worn shoes with grip rather than flip-flops. I take a quick mental photo of the layout. Paul and four other guys, mostly fat perma-tanned with silver back hair and gold-watches. I make a mental note to remember to take their jewellery too. Two girls are sunbathing to the stern, headphones on, eyes closed. This is good. Another lucky break.

Leaping the gunwale I take the card-players unawares, the first they know about it is literally this werewolf storming the deck brandishing a Heckler & Koch 9mm. In the mayhem that ensues I totally forget about the Scottish accent and just scream in natural broad Essex.

‘Put the fucking money in the fucking bag..! Do it..! Do it now…!’

The men literally freeze and just sit there not sure if this is some sort of joke. I squeeze the trigger aiming for the centre of the green baize where it shoots a stack of chips into the air. This has the desired effect on them and they realise I’m not fucking around here.

‘Don’t nothing move but the money…’ I’d always wanted to say that. ‘…and stick your fucking watches and pocket-books in too’. I throw the rucksack centre-table where the bullet has made a neat hole. Still nothing, no movement, just confused looks. It’s then I see why nothing is happening. Paul has all the chips and money on his side of the table like a gambling squirrel. What are the fucking chances, eh? He’d totally smashed the game. Why should he settle for fifty percent from me when he’d already nearly the whole hundred? Fuck, fuck, fuck!

My heart is beating out of my chest and the plastic mask is causing the sweat to blind my eyes. The eye holes are so small that I can only pretty much see straight ahead, no periphery vision at all. Something else I should have factored in before starting off. Fucking amateur night. I don’t even clock that there are only five men sitting down at a six seat game.

The sixth man must’ve come up from the galley having fixed himself a drink, got some ice or maybe even just gone for a massive great shit – I don’t know and guess I never will. But what I will always remember is him coming at me from my blind side and the smash of a high-ball glass on the back of my head. Stars and fucking stripes just like in the cartoons. The force of the impact causes my gold pocket watch to leap out of my shirt and skid along the smooth wet deck. Now with blood as well as sweat in my eyes I stumble dazed trying to grab the watch before it’s lost overboard. I can feel shards of glass wriggling through my skull towards my soft brain, but looking back I’m kind of proud that even in that moment of high anxiety I still put family connections over greed and went for the watch not the Euros. For all it was fucking worth though.

I catch the watch with my left hand just before it skids over the edge, my right hand still feebly trying to point the gun over my shoulder. Again, coming from the side I feel a well-judged flip-flop connect with my arse and hoof me over the side of the boat. A perfect shot delivered with animal force. As I somersault over the rope railings I have just enough time to see the foot that launched me before the water swallows me up. I recognise the foot. Definitely male, I pray it isn’t Paul’s having changed his mind now he’d got all the money and was fixing to improvise. But no, with the cold splash of the water on my sunburned face I realised the foot looked a lot like mine. I think of the girl’s foot in the shimmering blue pool as I swim up through the much darker seawater. As hard as I can I try to pretend I’ll break the surface next to her back in the pool but it all feels wrong, and this time my dick is as soft and small as a prawn.

Fighting for breath I surface, immediately pointing my left hand back up to the deck. The pocket-watch points at the owner of the foot, the gun descending beneath me into the slimy depths. The years may have added a few pounds and wrinkles to the body but the face is unmistakable.

‘Dad!’

He looks as shocked as me leaning over the rail, cigarette hanging from his tight-lips.

‘Wendall? Wendall is that you? It IS you! What the fuck?’

From this position we have the family reunion. Such is my confused state that the little hurt child I’d been repressing in me all these years comes out.

‘Dad. Why did you leave? I only did this to be like you.’ Salt water tears mixing with salt water ocean.

‘Bloody puff. Man up.’

His next words will stay with me forever, cutting deeper than these handcuffs ever could:

‘I left because you were growing up to be a right little cunt…. Seems I wasn’t wrong either…’

The cell lights have just gone out so I can’t even see what I’m writing anymore. Probably for the best, hey?

Wendall Strickland

Snake Eyes

‘Won’t be coming around for to kill your snakes no more, my love.’ (Donovan, Riki Tiki Tavi.)

 

20:30pm. Backstage, Live Animal-Handling Restricted Area. Excalibur Casino , Las Vegas, NV.

About one year ago…

The sharp fangs slammed down on the plastic cup and Jared helped the venom out by gently pushing down on the serpent’s head. The hot ejaculate squirted out in angry bursts through the puncture marks, staining the side of the sealed beaker with white milky streaks.

Jared was aware how much his hand was shaking as he carefully put the viper back into the cage. He looked at the clock on the wall counting down to Showtime. He’d only just had a drink, but darn it if these shakes weren’t getting worse and he still had two more mambas to make safe before curtain up. He shot a quick glance at them curled up under the cage’s heat lamp. They seemed especially pissed at him tonight and Jared had to admit there was something in the air. He felt it in the gamblers seated at their tables as he’d walked through earlier, sensed it in the waitresses keeping them lubricated with complimentary drinks. No free drinks for him this evening. He was earning every cent.

Shaking the jar of venom he watched as the deadly poison splashed up the sides. There was enough behind that concave plastic to kill a man forty times over. Jared reached with his free hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his hipflask, shaking it too in an attempt to gauge how much vodka-venom remained to him. The sapphire eyes of the silver cobra engraved on the flask twinkled back at him, hypnotizing him to drink deeply and kill the noxious thoughts. But there was backwash only remaining, not enough to last the night and certainly not even enough to kill a man once, especially not on this sweltering August night deep in the Vegas stink. Another quick look to the clock, he knew the time anyway but wanted to second guess himself, looking for a reason to justify what he knew, sure as eggs was eggs, he was about to do. Well for hell, he could make it, just one quick nip out back in the lot, out of sight of the CCTV, it couldn’t hurt any to take the edge of the shakes and snakes to tide him over until he could skedaddle out at half-time to the liquor store across from the Denny’s store.

Jared opened the Stage-Door deep in thought, a couple of showgirls hurried past extinguishing their cigarettes under sequined shoes, their feather boas and brightly coloured plumage startling him as they brushed across his stale three day old chequered shirt leaving a delicate scent. This place was as hectic as Grand Central station, how he longed for some cooling and contemplative silence. Vegas had no heart. Empty vessels and all that, on the surface it was the biggest smile on earth, but dig deeper and it ain’t a smile, it’s a maggoty wound that won’t heal as it’s always being cut by freshly broken dreams. He held the door for the last of the dancers before stepping out. As the door closed on its hinges he instinctively looked over his shoulder to see if the last showgirl was checking him out. At thirty-three he reckoned himself still in with a chance, but the drink had bloated and ravaged the edges of what had once been a strong jaw-line and most days he wanted to hide in a swamp along with all the other croaking toads. She didn’t look back and he turned dejected to the night. It had sure been a long while since he’d gone wild, he was always milking other people’s snakes and had neglected his own. The hot desert air hit him full in the face but he knew his sweat wasn’t due to heat, but a deep thirst which no amount of air-conditioning could quench.

Making sure he was out of sight of the Eye in the Sky CCTV, he nipped freely from the flask, remembering how optimistic he’d felt on first arriving in Vegas all those months ago and finally outrunning his orthodox Christian upbringing. As he stood in the car-park swigging his whiskey he laughed at remembering how within the first week he’d been pulled over for speeding on Fremont Street and the traffic cop had issued him with a fifty dollar fine. Jared had thrown him a hundred dollar bill out the window and told him to keep the change as he was coming back the same way tomorrow. Such optimism. Such arrogance. He’d had to sell the car soon after, but he’d only been heading in one direction for a while now anyway, and he didn’t need an engine to go downhill. Even the stage manager had told Jared he was digging his own grave with his mouth swigging that shit day after day. But he was great at milking the snakes so he let it go. Taking the poison out of them somehow balanced the poison he was putting into himself. Guiltily he knew that for a long time now he’d been putting in much more than he’d been taking out. Maybe he should just cut out the middle man and drink the milky beaker back there on the table and be done with it? But he knew it wouldn’t work having been brought up in the flatlands of Texas as part of the Snake Handling Church of Mesquite. Even though he knew it now to be ridiculous, a small part of him still felt sure no serpent would harm him, protected as he was by God. God…

God the fucking time! Jared kicked the metal stage door with his boot and barreled back into the room. Despite the cushioning of the booze he felt a sudden stabbing fear as he looked over at the empty cage, the heat lamp shining down on a vacant floor. Almost simultaneously Jared heard the roar of the expectant crowd through the tannoy linked to front of house and he knew he was too late. Something was gonna get bit and chances were, it would be his Vegas career. No longer caring who saw, he took out the hipflask and drained it whilst through the speaker he could hear the audience’s screams of joy turn into fear and panic.

 

 

10:40pm. Desert Plains Mesquite, about thirty miles north of Snyder, Texas Panhandle.

Present Day.

‘Fucking snakes’ll be the death of me, I swear it.’ Jared kicked the small brown rattler away from the wheel arch of his pickup truck and pulled the tarpaulin over the open back. It didn’t look like rain, but things changed quickly out here in the desert. He talked to himself as he yanked on the rope, securing it on the hook:

‘A man is changed by the desert, they said. Go out and be tempted, they said. Face those demons. Look ‘em square in the eyes and say: enough. Repent…’ He caught his finger on the sharp metal of the side of the pick-up where he’d had a minor scrape the week before, drunk and with no recollection of whether he’d hit possum, person or Porsche.

‘Fucking repent they said. I’ll fucking resent.’ Jared hated being back amongst his family. It didn’t seem fair. Life had kicked him in the nuts once again. It had taken such courage to go against them and seek his fortune in Vegas and now what busted his balls the most was how the community hadn’t even viewed his return as a failure but as a prodigal son seeing the light and returning to the fold to help with their evangelical touring ministry. Selling yourself for money was one thing, selling your soul was a whole different show. How could he in good conscious preach something he knew to be false?

Even though the sun had been down a full hour it was only now starting to get cooler. He could feel the sweat on his shirt starting to freeze and stick to his back causing a fine shiver, barely detectable over his alcoholic shakes. The not wholly unpleasant sensation acted as a reminder and from the back of his jeans pocket he pulled out the cobra hipflask and gulped down the warming whiskey, telling himself he was just keeping out the cold desert night.

Jared was thirty miles in to the barren desert and about as many years deep into the arid and parched hinterland of his own existence. ‘They’ figured out this was his time and chance to get back. Confront himself and the empty desert head on. Trouble was, he thought, as he struck out into the black emptiness, ‘They’ were a bunch of pussies. He made camp in the shadow of the table top mountain that was still just visible as darker against the threatening sky. Throwing down his rucksack he walked five measured paces away from it, then using his left leg as a point of compass, he dragged round the right leg and surrounded the sac in a dirt circle as he’d been taught by the Native Americans growing up. Happy with his sacred space he walked off into the brush to gather wood for a fire. Kicking around in the undergrowth he drew together a collection of kindling with his boot and checking for snakes before picking it up he returned to his circle. He dropped the wood and raised his fist to the circle, spinning on his heel and keeping it neat.

‘Kill or cure, they said. I’m that fuckin’ clinical tonight, that fucking clinical. I’m not leaving this circle before it’s one or the other.’ As if to prove a point to the desert he flipped the bird round his dirt circle. ‘Come on then, let’s see ya Booze Demon step inside my circle if you dare. Face me, bitch.’

Jared immediately felt troubled by the lack of response. The silence, tapped him on the shoulder and worked itself into his ear unbalancing him. He reached into the army surplus rucksack and fished around for a can of beans he knew to be there, but as he’d secretly hoped his hand felt the phallic tip of the whiskey bottle first. Who could eat at a time like this anyhow?

‘Holy spirit, Teen spirit…’ he unscrewed the cap and smelt the contents, ‘…smells like white spirit’. He gave a rebel yell out into the gathering dark and knocked his head back.  A coyote moaned in reply, it’s sickly cry mimicking his own as the whiskey kicked out the back of this throat. Jared built his fire desert style, short and tight, fashioning three of the larger twigs he’d collected into a pyramid from which to hang his crock pot over the tidy blaze and, retrieving the can of beans, he poured the contents in.

 

 

04:20am. In the shadow of Acoma mesa. Forty-two miles into deep desert.

He was proper drunk. Drunk even by his own standards. The fire had grown ridiculously large, far bigger than he needed it, but each time it had burned down to a red ember glow the shadows had come, strong and long against the ancient native American rock and he’d felt like an unwanted intruder. He felt the presence of spirits disturbed by his own uninvited presence. The pleasant smell of cooking refried beans had long been replaced by the acrid stench of charring matter but he was in the grip of his drinking and had totally forgotten. He wandered over to the crock pot, now stained black by the hours of hot fire and beating back the smoke he picked up a large stick which poked out of the fire and nudged the pot. Like a jack-in-the-box a flurry of black streaks jumped out at a rainbow of angles like launched missiles. Jared watched them hang in the air before descending around him, thudding to the ground and writhing round his boots. Hot smoking black snakes, their molten hisses sounding like steam. Jared stumbled backwards and watched in horror as they slithered around his dirt circle like a cyclone. He threw his arms out wide in fear and with the burning twig he shooed them off into shadow beyond the fire’s reach.

Jared shook his head. That hadn’t just happened he reassured himself, and within moments he believed it. This whiskey was making him blind. He was rocking on his centre of gravity, and felt he’d either fall forward into the fire or backwards into the colder night where the snakes were lurking. Maybe he should try to walk the booze off, step away from the fire and let his face cool down a bit from the searing heat and mad thoughts. His head still lolled on his shoulders like a bowling ball and after only a few steps he collapsed to the ground, rolling around in the scorpions and scrubland like an octopus with epilepsy. His was a blue desperate drunkenness, with no one else to mitigate it or take it out on he felt absolutely alone.

The fire seemed a long way off. All he could see in front of him was a large cactus looking as alone as he. Jared slapped its side, his hand digging into one of the sharp spikes and drawing blood. He looked at his palm and pulled out the bloody spine like a crucifix nail. The blood dripped onto the desert floor, immediately absorbed by the parched earth.

A voice came to him from somewhere nearby but he couldn’t quite locate it, at first indistinguishable from the wind but gradually forming into distinct words: ‘…A fire burns in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it…’

The voice was incredulous and now loud enough for him to pinpoint. It was coming from inside the cactus. Jared allowed himself to forget the drunken absurdity and went along with it, hoping to get a better fix on the origin, ‘Well that’s gotta be biblical I’m guessing?’

The cactus gave an almost imperceivable nod in the warm night breeze that had swirled up the ground dirt and Jared brushed away the desert tumbleweed that had collected in the arch of his legs. He realised he was outside of his sacred circle.

“Remember, If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.’

It was definitely coming from inside the huge cactus. Jared poked the tough green skin between the fearsome spikes. Somewhere way up above them on the mesa an eagle screeched and dislodged some pebbles which came cascading down a few feet away from his fire.

‘And what does it matter if a man wins the world but is himself lost?’ Jared stood up and faced the cactus.

‘Sheet, it’s just like they said’ Unbalanced by the drink he immediately fell forward again onto his knees and as he did so the hipflask fell out the back of his pocket and began leaking onto the dirt floor. Despite his religious upbringing he instinctively scurried round on the ground trying to collect up his precious holy water. He turned back to the cactus, shaking the flask to assess the loss and feeling more guilty than ever.

‘You’re here to tempt me, aren’t ya?’ he said.

The cactus bristled in the wind. The voice soft and mellow.

‘No, I’m here to help you. What’s the point in tempting you, you’d choose give in immediately anyway.’

Jared reassured himself there was still enough whiskey left by taking a long pull. If this was to be his breakdown hallucination, he may as well charge up as much as possible.

‘I’m a good person, I’m deserving of love, ain’t I, Mr. Cactus?’

‘So what? Deal with the fact life isn’t fair. Compare The billionaire New York banker to the three year old girl in the African famine, do you really think the world views both their lives as equally important? The best piano player ever born lived in the Favelas of Sao Paolo, he lived and died without ever seeing a piano in his life. What’s fair? Even tomorrow hasn’t been promised to you? Why do you feel such a sense of entitlement?’

‘You don’t sound like God?’

‘Neither do you.’

Jared noticed that the spines of the cactus were beginning to glow. He rubbed his eyes to clear away the alcohol but the fat green buttons had undeniably begun to look like a lit Christmas tree. It had finally happened, he reassured himself, all the stress, all the booze, all the years of mental torture had finally come home to roost and ripped a whole through his brain. He was having a breakdown, a perfect and complete psychotic episode. Go with it, don’t fight it. Accept the madness, it can’t be anything worse than he’d seen in his time on The Strip, he reminded himself. At a loss as what to do next, he quickly traced round another circle in the ground with his boot and sat down in the centre of it, cradling his hipflask between two open palms.

Jared looked around him at the new circle, there was a shuffling in the early dawn, a scraping sound subterranean around him disturbing the ground more than any wind. They broke the ground as one following the circle, a large circumference of snakes each biting onto the tale of the one before it, slithering round him their eyes turned inwards upon him. He feared they might attack, but they continued their circumvention as if unable to cross into the sacred space. The dark glow of the cactus had begun to register against the dark desert background looking at first like a bruise on the soft green skin, but gradually growing in strength, pulsating and throbbing. Jared felt drawn in as the skin became translucent and he could see veins and cloudy red light coming from within. It was as if the cactus itself had become a womb, growing a secret internal life, sustaining it. Jared was aware of the voice continuing, now with a lisping and breathless delivery as if each word was being immediately whipped away by the wind and carried to him with the tumbleweed and gecko scales. At the centre the cactus opened, like a slit in a serpent’s belly with a white light slicing through the dark green, and from it came a large snake.

The snake flopped out of the cactus and moved towards him. The circle of smaller snakes began to bury themselves back underground, wiping away any trace of the dirt circle with their tails. The large snake stopped by his boot and raised itself up until it was eye-level with him. Jared was powerless to move, he was transfixed by the snake’s milky eyes. But as he gripped the corners of his flask waiting for the coup de grace, the snake bowed its head and his hands immediately stopped shaking, and an incredible sense of peace lay upon him, unlike anything he’d ever felt before, more genuine and heartfelt than any chemical drug reaction in his brain. He opened his eyes and saw a small silver cross caught around the snake’s neck, a scab had formed around the point where the tip of the cross had become embedded into the skin and already the skin was showing signs it was getting ready to slough. The silver cross reflected his campfire way off behind him. Jared leaned in and saw his own face reflected in the polished metal. Without quite knowing why he addressed the snake through booze-chewed words: ‘is hell bad?’

‘You tell me,’ replied the snake, ‘you’re there right now.’

‘I burned my finger once real bad, I was torturing a fly and pushed it inside a plug socket to see if it would be electrocuted, it wasn’t I was. It threw me across the room and I watched as the fly scuttled out and flew out the window. It was so painful and I thought if it is this painful on just one finger, imagine this all over your body… forever. That was my first understanding of hell. But as I got older there’s a different type of hell isn’t there. A mental hell. One that doesn’t burn you up all at once but slowly, leaving nothing but absence as it scorches. That’s why the drink. It puts out the fire… Are you going to kill me?’

He looked down at the underside of his bare arms, the veins were standing out, raised as shadow in the distant firelight. But like the cactus before him the veins seemed to take on an internal glow of their own, powered by something under the skin. In horror he felt his blood congeal in the arteries and begin to slither round his body like a hundred snakes wriggling through fleshy tunnels blind and insatiable. Jared flapped his arms as if trying to dislodge them, but with a growing anxiety he knew them to be inside him. The snake hissed long and slow, it felt to Jared like the release of a pressure valve inside him, the frantic air escaped through his fingertips, taking the memory of glowing snakes with them. Again the sense of unspeakable peace descended upon him.

‘Sit…’ hissed the snake, drawing out the sound like a slowly deflating truck tire.

‘Sure muthafuckin’ thing,’ said Jared, touching his imaginary cap as he collapsed to the earth. This was his breakdown and he was gonna suck it up, goddamn it, ride the bitch and see if he could stay the course without getting thrown. He was so lost in his own thought that he wasn’t even aware of the snake mumbling again in such a soft and seductive voice he had to make an effort to continue his own private and brittle thoughts.

‘The earth is but a little blue bubble in a massive vacuum of nothingness,’ it hissed, ‘Treasure it. Right now as you stand here, all across the surface of the globe there are people engaged in following through on their existence. Some are laughing for joy, some are screaming in agony, some hope this moment never ends, others are looking to the future. Starving, bloated, sick, joyous, some are crying at what they’ll never be while some are crying at what they are.’

‘All of life is being played out now,’ it said, ‘every living thing is breathing in deep from my life-force and exhaling their own reality. Your particular story is as brief as summer lightning, each grain of sand just as memorable and important as you. Enjoy it as much as you can whilst the white-hot energy of life flows through your veins because what you do really doesn’t matter, so long as it is compassionate and honest. Only human arrogance would assume that they’re the most enlightened living creature around these parts.’

The snake took on a mocking southern drawl, causing it’s forked tongue to quiver. As it spoke its tail began to rattle in time with the cadence like a cold-blooded beat box.

‘A peach tree doesn’t think about growing fruit, it just does it. Trust your instincts. You knew how to grow from a baby to a man, trust that you also know how to grow to your conclusion. It’s so very simple, I really don’t know why you, why you all make it so complicated. I’m telling you this now for truth, Jared. Go back. Go back and reclaim the cross. Take it back from those who use it as a totem of suffering and loss. Throw out your arms and accept. Reclaim the action from those who’d remind you of guilt, sacrifice and suffering’.

Jared threw his arms out wide as if being pulled apart by an unseen force.

‘Do it. Stretch your arms out in joy and acceptance, not in pain at having them nailed to a plank of wood. Let the universe flow through you and out the other side. Accept it all. You are it and it is you. Forget about personal sacrifices and feel unified with the one.’

Jared looked up into the sky to see black spots circling in the watery dawn. At first he thought it was dirt in his eye, but as he focused he could see they were desert vultures. What did they know that he didn’t? he thought.

The snake retreated back to the burned out cactus and Jared was aware of feeling connected again to his surroundings.

‘Did you miss me desert, it’s been a while since I’ve come out here. I won’t leave it so long next time.’

The reply came back, rumbling through the canyons and up through the petrified forest lisping, ‘How can I miss you when you’ve never been away?’ The rumble dragged on, becoming more man-made, more like truck tires on loose dirt. sounded more like car tires. Jared forced his eyes to focus. Two white spots were getting larger in the darkness. Coming from the south Jared reckoned it was the Mexican border. Either border police or immigrants. Immigrants probably given early morning light. Out of the periphery of his vision he could detect the Sierra Nevada mountains etched darker against the encroaching dawn. The mountains were lit by hundreds of pinprick small bonfires. The two spotlights grew from snake eyes to car headlamps and were on a direct course to go through his own small fire. Jared stood his ground. He counted seven Mexicans clinging to the sides of the jeep, all freshly crossed from a hole cut in the wire border he reckoned. They screeched to a halt next to his fire, causing the dry sand to shoot over the embers sending red hot sparks into the sky. The driver pointed to his fire.

‘San Juan?’ The men began to laugh as the driver throttled the engine and twisted the wheel to spin off into the promised land.

Jared looked at the date on his cheap Casio watch. Or course. Tonight was the Mexican feast of San Juan where they all jump over their bonfires to wipe out the sins of the previous year and start fresh. He looked back to the snake curled up in the open cactus and he felt a sudden need to wipe his own slate clean. Holding the serpent securely by the neck he took a run at his campfire and jumped as hard as he could, which weighed down as he was by two litres of Wild Turkey and a large rattlesnake wasn’t too high. The heel of his boot caught the tip of a charred log and sent a July 4th of fireworks into the rattlesnakes tail. Jared could feel the snake open wide its mouth in disgust as he held it between thumb and forefinger. Jared landed and twisted round, careful to keep the snake’s face from his to see the cactus burst into flames and set against the dark blue sunrise.

‘Give me a break, who am I? Moses and the fucking burning bush?’ He could see inside the ruptured and burning ribcage what looked like a beating animal heart, still bloody, the fat around its edges beginning to render in the heat. But at its base a dozen snakes had gathered and were edging up trying to catch the fatty run-off. In the half-light it was hard to tell where cactus ended and snake began. Charred flesh and dirt caught in his throat. He reached in his rucksack for his canteen of water, knowing his hipflask to be dry, unscrewing the cap he gulped the contents down.

‘Bah. Turn my water into wine then, King of the Jews.’

Laughing with a confidence that felt fake to him, he took another sip. It tasted like the finest white wine, light and aromatic. He spat the mouthful out onto the cactus, seeing the yellow liquid fizz off the smoking remains.

‘Bah. I only drink red,’ he slurred, eyes flickering on heavy lids.

Jared passed out, his left hand hurling the canteen in front of him, whilst his right kept an instinctive tight grip on the rattlesnake. Within seconds of his head hitting the dirt he was sound asleep, his hold on the serpent slowly relaxing until it was free to slither away or attack him. But it did neither… It stayed.

The sun rose over the canyon gradually warming first his arm, then creeping across his whole body. He looked at the cactus, it looked as if it had imploded from the inside out. He studied it with the intensity and clarity of vision that only a truly epic hangover can provide. He saw the morning dew settle on the snake-like skin and manna forming along the length of the spines. He ate greedily and it seemed to fill him in a deeper place than his stomach. A familiar rattling sound interrupted his feasting and he looked round to see the snake, still with the small silver crucifix embedded in its neck reflecting the sun. Without fear Jared reached down and picked it up, putting it head first into his rucksack and tying a strong knot at its peak.

 

 

06:40am. Encampment of the mobile Snake Handler Church. Snyder city limits. Texas Panhandle.

Jared saw the smoke from encampment’s fire trailing up to the cloud in the early morning sky. Another hot day was promised for all the good it would do them he thought with their faces buried in dusty bibles. Opening the pick-up door he smelt the coffee and the sizzle of hot bacon grease on the breeze. He felt a sudden pang of home-sickness before reminding himself that for better or worse he was home. He walked round to the back of the truck and removed the tarpaulin to carefully pick up his rucksack, he noticed the warning rattle as he put it on his back reassuring him the snake was still healthy enough to be angry, much like his own self. As he strode towards his great-uncle’s trailer he could feel the hipflask in his jeans was totally dry. Of all the times he could do with a hit, this moment was up there with them. Darn it.

Jared pulled on the weather-beaten Formica door and it came open so easily he wasn’t sure if it was unlocked or just rotten. Instantly he heard the clatter of the old air-conditioning unit above the lower hum of his uncle’s morning prayers. He knew he was interrupting but somehow took a perverse delight from the knowledge as he took in his surroundings, unchanged since he’d first gone in their as a child. It seemed even smaller now, claustrophobic. Another reminder of his own failure. Here were all the photos, all the memories, all the indoctrination of everything he’d decided to run away from. Like a rubber band pulled beyond its natural tolerance, he had snapped back to the other extreme: Las Vegas, about as far from the dour caravan as he could get.

Jared closed the swing door behind him with as much noise as the thing plastic would allow. His uncle got up off his knees, a frown beneath his wispy grey eye-brows and moved through to the kitchen area without saying a word, reaching for the same ancient coffee pot, putting it on the stove and striking a match on the wall to light the gas. The coffee smelt like it always had, two day old and acrid. He’d rather drink water from the stagnant creek.

Once the coffee was steaming his great uncle finally turned to him.

‘Mornin’ Jared.’

‘Mornin’ Obadiah.’

The old man heard the rattle coming from Jared’s rucksack. He lit a cigarette and his nostril hair caught fire in the lighter. He breathed up quickly to extinguish the nasal blaze and began sniffing out the debris.

‘Do ya ever smell pork when you burn yourself?’ He flicked at his nostrils, dislodging the charred hairs. Jared remained silent, silhouetted in the doorway with rucksack. His great-uncle rubbed his nose and pointed to the squirming bag.

‘Is this to be an assassination then, J?’

‘Not today old timer. I wanted you to see something.’

‘What ya got in there then son? Sack ‘o serpents instead ‘o spirits for a change. Both as deadly to ya, boy. Did ya learn anything out in the desert?’

The coffee-pot whistled with him. He fixed himself and Jared a cup.

Jared’s hand was shaking again as he put it on the door frame to enter up the steps, ‘Got anything stronger?’

His great uncle ignored the question.

‘I was just thinking about my pa. Strange that you should come a-calling now.’

Jared sat down on the stained sofa and rested the bag between his legs. Leaning forward he unzipped the rucksack and cautiously peered into its black depths.

‘My grandpa? I never knew him…’

The uncle poured the coffee into stained floral cups, unaware of Jared’s timid investigation.

‘Of course ya didn’t, died before your time. Your granddaddy was like John the Baptist, he went out into the desert, lived on locusts and wild honey, came back with a bucket load of serpents that would never bite him. He lasted about forty days out there. How was your forty minutes?’

It was Jared’s turn to ignore the question. The old man treated himself to a rhetorical cackle and before continuing.

‘Ya granddaddy spoke with a lisp that pretty much made him sound like a snake, and what with those eyes of eyes, all yella and serpentine, hell, the deal was done. What else was he gonna do but preach out here? He was special, touched. After all he said we really thought that someone was coming after him, someone great. But shucks…’

The old man rummaged through the cupboard above the sink, its door hanging forlornly from one hinge. Disappointed he turned back to the two mugs and carried them towards the seating area.

‘We was sorely disappointed… sorely… Your daddy was about as much use as a bull with tits when it came to snakes. He got bit and stayed bit, far as they were concerned. But you… you had a talent. And what do you do with it? Ya haul ass to Vegas to whore out ya talent. But, it seems fit to the lord that he’s brought you back to us. Saints be praised.’

Jared looked at the windowsill to see a neat row of green peaches ripening in the sun.

‘That ain’t how ma tells it… she said he got bit holdin’ up a Snake Farm in Jefferson County…’

The old man threw the plastic coffee mug into the sink, slamdunking it off the draining board.

‘That was never proved, you shouldn’t listen to too much of what your ma says anyhoo…’

Jared looked at the peaches ripening on the sill. He shivered as he remembered how his great-uncle treasured that old peach tree out in the yard growing up, how he’d picked them like rosary beads each autumn and always placed them in the window, turning them every few hours to ripen each side, religiously like it was a penance. So desperate was Jared for a drink he checked each peach to see if his great-uncle’s forgetfulness had allowed any to ferment. None had, but he went deeper into memory as he sipped on the gravel coffee, recalling an afternoon long in the past when a few peaches had fermented and he and Ronnie Graham had got his older sister to do their Tarot card reading. His great-uncle had caught them and beaten him within an inch of his life because his god was a god of love who didn’t deal in witchcraft. It dawned on him for the first time, maybe that was why he’d chosen Vegas to make his line in the sand. Jared poured the steaming coffee out of the window, covering a few peaches in the overspill. The old man’s lips curled up dryly around his receding gums.

Jared stared him down, ‘Won’t you just leave it, hey?’

The old man sized him up, Jared was a hulk of a man now and there’d be no whipping today. He backed down with a soft voice. ‘Just saying that’s all. Don’t get all bent outta shape about it. Hey, what ya got in that sack then?’

Jared looked at the old and hunched man, broken by the years, tortured by a self-inflicted life on the road preaching the good word and daring the devil serpents to bite him. Jared felt pity at a life wasted without daring to look at his own. In the early morning light his horizontal pupils, a family genetic defect, looked more like a snake than ever. Jared consoled himself that his ancestors had been snake faith handlers for so long, he was sure there was probably a snake out there with human eyes, so much blood, sweat and tears had been exchanged on both parts.

‘Yeah well I never got bitten by the religion bug, did I? I heard my daddy talkin’ ‘bout the parable of the seed and only felt that stony ground inside me.’

‘Bah’, shouted the old man, ‘Even if I had a million dollars, I’d still be sitting here preaching, that’s the difference between you and me boy, you got no heart.’

‘I’ve had a gut-full of you already,’ muttered Jared under his breath, ‘Look at this,’ he said, reaching into the rucksack with his right hand, straight down, unafraid. From inside the warning rattle could be heard, dry and crisp. Nature’s maracas. Jared yanked it out and brought the rattler’s head to his own eye level.

The old man drew a sharp breath, dislodging the catarrh in his ancient Marlboro country lungs. The snake fixed its hypnotic eyes on Jared and stopped rattling, choosing instead to wrap its tail around his neck. Once again it bowed its head. The alcoholic shaking in his Jared’s hand immediately stopped.

‘See, I don’t need a drink so long as I can do this. What you think about that. Am I cured or what?’

The old man squinted at the brown rectangles on the snakes back. ‘You didn’t catch that round these parts… He’s a copperhead, and a big bastard at that.’ The old timer began scratching his arse, tentatively at first, but then really getting into it. A dust storm had begun to whip up, thick sand battered the thin plastic door, the thinner granules penetrating and collecting in a dagger shape on the rug.

‘Have you found it yet?’ asked Jared sarcastically.

‘What?’

‘Whatever’s up your arse?’

‘Hell, not yet boy. Doesn’t your arse ever get so sweaty and itchy it feels like a baby’s toothless mouth chewing on peanut butter?’

‘Oh man, that’s fucking disgusting. No my arse gets a diff’nt type of sore – on account of all the times the Man has stuck it to me, know what I mean?’

Jared shoved the snake towards him and the old man snapped back against the wall.

‘Where’d you get that, boy? You tell me now, and don’t give me no monkey-shine about no Mesquite plains, I’ve been trampling this route for years, you don’t get rattlers like that this far northeast.’

Jared brought the snake even closer and the old man’s hand went for the hot coffee pot.

‘Watch it, they’re the meanest most vicious snake you’ll see, darn poisonous too. If it bites ya somewhere integral and central you’ll have about an hour tops. I’ve seen these bastards hold a grudge and actually hunt a man interstate.’

It was then he saw the small silver cross embedded in the snake’s neck. The old man let go the coffee pot and made the sign of the cross.

‘Mary mother of god, let me look at that.’

His face turned as white as the silver cross.

‘As I live and breathe’ his eyes narrowed and he looked suspicious. ‘Alright, the jig’s up. You’re playing a trick on me, ain’t ya. This is your granddaddy’s cross. You cooked this up with your ma?’

‘What you talking about?’

The uncle could clearly see from Jared’s open expression this was no set-up. He looked the snake straight in the eyes.

‘Cyrus? Is that you? Oh Cyrus… it is you, ain’t it?’ The old man reached out for the snake and gripped it safely under the jaws with his left hand. He took the snake and turned the head back towards Jared.

‘I told him he really gonna catch the devil if he kept messing round with those snakes, it was unnatural, like he’d become one of them. One night went to bed with stomach pains, and in the night he went to the outhouse and shit out an egg. He kept it in there, secret, telling everyone the shithouse was broken and he was fixing. Then one night there was a commotion and a snake came out. Soon after he disappeared, he just went clean out of his head. Ran off into the desert, probably to talk to the cactuses.’

His great uncle looked deeply into the snake’s milky eyes.

‘We found him a week later, dead. At his request we gave him a heart burial, you know, where the body is buried one place and the heart is removed and buried in another. We buried his heart in the snake pit not far from here. You can hear them at night, the half-breeds I call ‘em, crying at the sun going down, losing the heat they need you need your sour mash. This beauty’s getting ready to slough off his skin.

Jared looked paranoid out the window, feeling his heart beating in his chest. He checked the peaches in the vain hope one might have fermented some.

‘The old man leapt forward with a sprightliness unfitting his years and shoved the snake full up into Jared’s face

‘Say hello to your granddaddy, son.’

‘You’re insane old timer. Has that rancid coffee finally curdled your brain? I worked in Vegas remember, don’t try and fool me with this old shtick. You’re just an unsuccessful wannabe celebrity, with your snake-charmer’s show’.

This bit harsher than any snake-bite and he threw the snake back at Jared.

‘It’s not snake-charming, it’s a goddamn act of faith,’ he immediately held his finger to his lips, ‘forgive my cussing, oh Lord.’

‘Yeah it’s an act for sure.’

‘Talk to me about celebrity? Why ya back here with ya tail between yer legs? I understand though, you couldn’t settle up in Vegas so you had to settle down.’

For only the third time in his life inside that caravan Jared cursed, it just came out like a snap reflex of a snake’s tail.

‘Go fuck yourself…’

The uncle dropped his coffee cup and went to strike his nephew, but as his hand went down the snake curled up, fangs bared to greet the palm. He withdrew.

‘Don’t you cuss in here.’ His uncle shook his head slow like the ticking of a great pendulum ravaged by time, creaking yet still keeping correct time.

‘No, you’ve got it all wrong, son. You think things stay the same. But everything with a beginning can be stopped. When you think of being seventy six, you imagine YOU now at seventy-six, but you change. You change.’

Jared began to feel the night’s excitement upon him and looked at his watch. The alcohol was rendering out of him and he nothing to replace it with till the parish shop opened in two hours. He was scared to sleep, but suddenly just as scared to stay awake.

‘Being back here is just a retreat for me, you understand? This isn’t me. This isn’t me at all. It’s just that out here in the desert you can really strip things back to basics, to the bone and see what’s really what without the complications of the daily grind. And believe me… it fucking grinds. That’s something you don’t know about old timer, something you can’t lecture me on. I had the cojones to poke my dick above the parapet – you just hide in here with you dusty books.

‘Yeah, you poked it above the parapet all right – got it clean shot off too, didn’t ya?’

Again Jared felt the fangs dig into his heart, and the response came like the recoil of a cobra.

‘You wanna dance? Really? I tried… at least I fucking tried…’

‘Go back to your Gomorrah then and whoop it up if you miss it so much, high-tail it round town with some whore… oh but excuse me…you can’t can ya, you ain’t got a red cent. I’ve got chickens out in the coop with more credit than you…’

Jared leapt to his feet and squared up to the old man hunched against the Formica worktop, towering over him to such a degree that even in his red rock rage it still felt like an unfair fight. The old man felt that the wave of anger had broken in his great-nephew and the moment had passed. ‘At least ya still got some fight left in ya, son…’

Jared crumpled back over his rucksack and sunk into the cushions against the window. The rattlesnake made a beeline for the corner of the room away from the noise.

‘It’s going to take so much to get me back into it though,’ Jared whimpered, ‘Like I was saying, you can cut it to the bone out here, but once you want to get back into the game you need money for rent, money for romancing even for relaxation. Out here I don’t miss it, but if I went back I couldn’t even pay the tip on my existence. I’d just end up all resentful again.’

‘Just like your old man. You’re a goddamn pussy. So you ain’t even gonna try?’

Jared looked at the snake curled in the shadows of the broken wooden flooring. He felt a quiet optimism as delicate as desert dew.

‘Yeah I’m gonna fuckin’ try… get off my back, old timer.’

His great uncle moved past him and off towards his prayer area. He reached for the upturned book resting on the rug and turned his back to Jared.

‘If I had a dog as lazy as you I’d shoot it. And that’s for truth…’

Jared reached under the skirting and pulled out the snake which came without trouble. Putting it back in the sack he took a last look at the old man bent over in prayer.

‘What you gonna kill me with? Your book of poison or your fuckin’ poisoned coffee?’

Forgetting his years, the old man instinctively leapt again at his great nephew striking him on the left cheek with the back of his gnarled hand.

‘Now git. Ya hear me…? Get…’

Somewhere deep inside himself Jared knew he deserved that one and let it sting unchallenged. He slunk out the door and back towards his own tiny trailer down by the creek on the edge of the camp. Opening the door he immediately saw the previous morning’s emergency bottle of J&B Whiskey on the breakfast counter.

Jared felt his hand begin to shake as he reached up to unhook the serpent from his neck and set it down next to the bottle where it immediately curled its tail around the glass base. Was he going to drink or leave it? He wanted to leave it, but the shakes were already beginning to make the snake edgy. Jared reached for the bottle, the snake let off a warning rattle. He could see the nostrils flaring in and out and noticed the eyes were opaque, ready to slough its skin. Once more his hand stopped shaking.

‘Steady as a fucking rock.’ Jared ran his dry and cracked hand over the snake’s skin like he was rubbing a phallus, he expected it to be slimy and cold but it felt warm and dry. The snake hissed appreciatively, it’s forked tongue wiggling in ecstasy. Carefully, Jared reached behind its head to where the tiny silver cross was embedded and pulled. It came out without too much resistance and the snake continued to wiggle it’s tongue without distress. He studied the smooth metal.

‘Aw, you drunk skunk, don’t start believing your own bullshit.’ He sank into the giving sofa and let the cross gradually slip from his hand as a final sleep descended upon him. The snake began to rub itself against the splintered leg of the sofa, dislodging the dead skin as if peeling a banana.

It was late evening when Jared finally came to. His face was burned in strips from lying in full glare of the day’s sun through his blinds. He touched the painful red flesh like it was streaky bacon frying without enough oil. About the same time, he wondered why his leg felt so warm despite still being in darkness and leaning up he realised he’d urinated down his inside leg. But all this was lost on him as he looked to what lay just beyond his boot. The snake was nowhere to be seen, but on the floor was a huge empty casing, a sloughed skin as thick and translucent as bubble wrap. The discarded skin was in the perfect shape of a man, sprawled out on the rug as if the police had drawn his outline in chalk.

Jared stood open-mouthed staring at the enormous rice-paper skin, it felt as dry to the touch as his own tongue. The plastic door of the mobile home flapped open and closed in the morning’s sweet scented breeze. Jared picked up the whiskey bottle from the table and leaning out on the step, he poured it away onto the parched earth. He reached across to the broken handle and closed the door behind him, securing it by the old boot lace. Something had left in the night, and he hoped it wouldn’t be back any time soon….

 

 

Inside the God-Pod

(a true story you won’t have remembered)

 

Mir International Space Station, 184 miles above sea-level, orbiting the planet Earth every 94 minutes.

 

‘…Message Received: 04:34 GMT. October 29th 2011. Standing Orders confirmed: 04:38… Project ‘GreenTea’ initiating… Standby… ‘

The letters scrolled across the screen, green and angry.

‘…Authorized…Deploy GreenTea worm…. Deploy…’

Commander Rachael Waits opened her left eye and shot a glance at the clock above her head, or was it below she wondered, strapped into the harness that kept her fixed to the floor of her personal living space she couldn’t tell. She hated it when her morning meditation was interrupted, it spoiled the rest of her day. She scrunched up the toes on her bare feet and felt the smooth plastic floor, bringing herself slowly back into the room she looked out of the small concave window just in time to see the Earth below roll into view like a glowing blue marble on a black silken tray.

A sinking feeling in her stomach told her that this was probably the communication they’d been waiting for but hoped they’d never get. The repeating high pitched buzz coming over the intercom of a question awaiting an answer confirmed this.

‘…Deploy…?’

She released the harness and kicked up with her feet, trying as best she could to control her free-float up to the command module.

Rachael pulled herself into the bank of flashing buttons and in towards the display. The monitor blinked urgently awaiting her response, the light from the screen reflected in her glasses, making her pupils dilate. It was the one message she hoped she’d never see.

Commander Tom Franks put down his felt-tip pen and gave her a little wave.

‘I’ve got it,’ he said triumphantly, ‘listen to this… Drinking a cup of green tea I stopped a war’.

Rachael gave him a look that would have crushed a black hole. ‘For fuck sake Tom, are you not reading this?’

‘Sure, I seen it. It didn’t seem real. I was in denial till you got here.’

‘Orders confirmed. It’s as real as it gets.’ Her body relaxed a little and she let go of the control panel and they both twisted round each other as if part of a synchronized swim.

‘Anyway, Bullshit, you didn’t write that, it’s too good for one of yours’.

Tom couldn’t carry the deception off, or maybe in these troubled days of nuclear threat he didn’t want to. There was enough deceit and brinksmanship going on down below on the big blue ball without him bringing it up here too he mused, before deciding to come clean.

‘You’re right it’s Paul Rabb. I can’t write fucking Haikus at a time like this.’

‘Give it two hours and you won’t be writing anything ever again.’

The beep from the comm. made them both look guiltily over at the unanswered message.

‘Are you going to answer or shall I? Who goes down in history as the one who did it?’

Tom picked up the felt-tip pen and nervously scratched the small of his back.

‘You still haven’t grasped it have you? There isn’t going to BE any history.’

Rachael pushed against the wall and floated towards the screen.

‘Fine, I’ll do it…’  then, under her breath, ‘… pussy’.

She typed carefully.

‘Authenticated. Release GreenTea worm.’

Tom could tell the answer by the look on her face, but he asked anyway.

‘Is it done?’

‘Yep. In two days the virus will infect every computer, every server, every back-up. There’ll be nothing left. A clean slate. All that will be left will be physical books that no-one will remember how to read anyway.’

Tom shook his head.

‘They’ve finally done it then, stupid bastards. How many people are responsible do you reckon? Maybe a hundred global grey suits with real power? And because of them billions of folk just trying to get through their day are going to suffer.’

Rachael chastised him, ‘At least our way we’re saving them all. Remember that. How long we got till release of GreenTea organic?’

Tom checked the display again. ‘That’s it then, no going back now. We’re at T minus two hours for release of GreenTea organic.’

Rachael took the pen from Tom,  ‘Fine. I’m going to write it all down before I forget.’

Pushing off against the command chair, she propelled herself backwards through the open hatch and down towards her cabin.

Tom spoke before thinking, ‘But afterwards you won’t be able to read…’

Rachael shouted back at him as she disappeared into the belly of the space-station.

‘Hey, go fuck yourself, Tom. We all have different ways of coping, ok?’

She strapped herself back into her harness and picked up the leather-bound book. She hoped she could find the words, such a complicated situation required the simplest of exposition.

 

‘Diary of Commander Rachael Waits, Mir. October 29th 2011

With all the trouble in the Middle-East and North Africa, no-one could believe it was actually North Korea that had brought us to the brink. With so much going on they’d slipped under the radar. Everyone had presumed it was going to be Iran.  But the ‘Big One’ as it had come to be known, the San Francisco earthquake of May had changed everything. The USA had become paralysed, spread so thinly over so many fronts that when North Korea invaded their southern neighbours, Russia and China seized the opportunity and sided with Kim Jong-Il,  it was only a matter of time before the boys on both sides decided to stop shaking their rattles and play with the deadliest toy in their box: Thermo-Global Nuclear War.

Now we’ve had the order, we’ve less than six hours to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and I can finally write about it all. I fear what we’re about to do more than a Court Marshall even if there’d be anyone left to conduct it.

I was recruited for Project GreenTea two years ago. The project’s purpose was simple: to wipe away all computer files and websites and to treat the human brain the same way, as a hard drive. It had started with the Military at Caltech trying to stop Iran’s Nuclear program by inserting a computer virus called Stuxnet into their master computer. If you could do it to a machine, then why not to a mind?

Tom and I have just released the computer wiping virus and projections say it’ll take up to two weeks to work. I’ve no problem wiping the net clean, but the organic hardware, the human brain is much harder to sign off on. I haven’t told Tom, but I’m not sure I can go through with it.’

Rachael paused and looked over her shoulder, even here in space, she felt paranoid that someone might be watching her break the Official Secrets Act.

‘GreenTea is special UN project, with no oversight committee or governmental knowledge. Only seventy people on the whole planet know of its existence. Six satellites have been fitted with the GreenTea device to ensure global coverage. The only way to guarantee total coverage was to use the earth’s atmosphere itself as a microwave cooker, hitting every living thing with a beam from the inside out. The device to be attached was always cleared as telemetry equipment at the highest level. These seventy men and women were a secret cabal of elders above presidents and kings, popes and trillionaires, formed after the Cuban missile crisis. They agreed such an impossibly huge decision could only be taken in the event of imminent MAD being within six hours and then the decision must be sacred: Everyone. EVERYONE must have their memories wiped without exception. It was too important.  Not even any of the twenty orchestrating ‘elders’ could be spared. This was the deciding factor that had finally allowed project GreenTea to go ahead.

The mindwipe ray itself was incredibly simple. There is a substance called DMT in every living thing and till recently science didn’t know what it was there for. But the GreenTea molecule forces the DMT in every living cell to reset itself, just as putting a magnet next to cassette tape will wipe everything. Once the beam is shut off the magnet effect ends and the tape begins recording memories again as if nothing had happened. Once this had been discovered, and given the human race’s propensity to destroy itself sooner or later through religion, race, nationalism, the leap to having a failsafe weapon against nuclear destruction was easy. Both Tom and I have been sworn under oath to expose ourselves to the ray once we’ve confirmed the planet is clean, but it is irrelevant really, as with no-one back on Earth with the knowledge to pilot a shuttle to come and get us we knew we were destined to die in a decaying orbit before we signed up to the mission. But imagine we could get back to earth somehow un-zapped… we’d be gods!  The knowledge we’d have!  What I’m about to do now is just as biblical. Me and Tom are like Adam and Eve in reverse: our sacred job is to take away knowledge, make Eve vomit up the apple and forget. But will we create a Garden of Eden? Will everyone really start from scratch, happy, or is it in our nature to ultimately destroy ourselves, perhaps it’s hardwired into our own computer programme? Perhaps in another few millennia some poor other schmuck will be up here needing to press the button again. Perhaps this isn’t the first time it’s happened and I’m just one in a long line of schmucks resetting the system? In a strange way that almost makes me feel better. Jesus that makes my head hurt!’

The display on the wall continued to implacably count down. She could feel her heart beat faster and this in turn increased the speed of her writing, each beat bringing another thought onto the page.

‘But it’s not only wars and trouble that people will forget when their memories are wiped, it’s also all the good things, the beautiful things too. Either way, our past makes us who we are. It defines us and gives a cushion to reality. Without a sense of self or past, or knowing our place in society everyone could just freak out. Imagine that: No memory of where you were, who you were, what you were engaged in the second before GreenTea hit. People driving cars, flying planes, performing surgery, all would suddenly forget everything. But without memory the things that divided us would be forgotten too: our nationality, our religion and belief systems, our tribal allegiances. All the things that seem to matter but don’t really, the things that blind us to the fact we are all humans contained on a finite planet.’

Rachael felt thirsty and took a long pull from the plastic beaker on her saccharine shake.

‘Sure birds would all fall out of the sky, as if returned to the egg forgetting how to fly. I remember the woodpecker outside my window at Kennedy all last week, waking me up an hour before Reveille. I felt sorry for it, pecking to attract the lost mate I’d found dead at the foot of the tree the Sunday before. It reminded me of Pauli, all smashed and broken. God I still miss him.’

Rachael looked over at the photo of her family. She flicked up the popper that secured the frame to the wall and watched it float towards her. It was the connections in our lives that gave life a purpose, without that what would we be? She wanted desperately to remember Pauli, it felt wrong to forget him.

Tom’s voice came faltering over the intercom and Rachael could hear the tension in it.

‘Come back Rachael, won’t you? I don’t want to be alone at a time like this.’

She suddenly felt selfish for spending these last few precious hours of knowing, by herself. She closed the diary too fast and sent it spinning off to the corner of the pod. She returned to the command module, her heart beating faster than ever. Tom was biting his nails and spitting the hard skin on to the control panel. Despite the temperature controlled environment he was sweating profusely.

‘Hey’.

Rachael forced a smile.

‘Hey you, how you holding up?’

‘What do you think? I’m trying to convince myself that maybe the world needs a second chance anyhow? Seeing as how we made such a pig’s ear of the first one. How many people given the opportunity would want to start again from a clean slate? I mean, we haven’t exactly made a paradise down there, have we? By the time the average child is twelve they’ve already seen twenty thousand violent deaths through a mixture of computer games, film and rolling news. What does that teach a forming brain about what’s important in society? Most people’s pain comes from memory of past failures, guilt and sadness anyway, right? Hell, a whole bunch of people down there would want their memories wiped given the choice, even if the alternative wasn’t guaranteed nuclear Armageddon. No it has to be the mind-wipe…’

‘Whether they want it or not?’

Tom spat a thumbnail onto the monitor,

‘Whether they want it or not. Enough wobbles. It’s time….’

Tom knew when the moment came, as it inevitably would that he’d feel a wobble himself, he worried if his training would override his fear of losing his memory. But that is why they’d selected him, he reminded himself, because they knew he’d get the job done. The deaths involved for people driving or flying suddenly unable to operate their heavy machinery was unfortunate collateral damage when compared to the whole planet being wiped out in a nuclear cataclysm. Now the moment had come for him to press the button the strangest memory came into his mind: he didn’t want to forget the memory of his first kiss. It meant so much to him. He quickly overrode the emotion but wondered why it had been that of all things that came into his mind. He smelt her perfume again but it was a lie. There were no smells up here except the anticeptic plasticity. That’s how everything would be from now on. Up here in the station he was sensory deprived, it was just black and white, mostly white. This forced his brain to work overtime on his inner life, his memories became more vivid to compensate and stop him going mad. Sometimes he swore he could smell the Giant Redwood forests after rain where he used to walk as a child and stare up at the stars, little realising then that one day he’d be up there too. How he wished it could be under different circumstances. Soon all that secret internal world would be wiped forever like so much spilt milk. 

Rachael too had become lost in a reverie, savouring the luxury of rememberance suddenly felt so acutely now it was about to be taken away forever. She looked out of the window to see the West Coast of America swing into view. Her home. Over the north edge, where she judged Washington State to be she could see a storm raging. Where did woodpeckers go in the rain, she wondered to herself.

Tom’s voice sounded like the whine of a colic baby.

‘I can’t do it.’

Rachael surprised herself by the strength of feeling in her response.

‘Fuck off, Tom. Don’t put this all on me. Don’t make ME have to be the strong one. What’s going to happen in six hours if we DON’T do this, eh?’

‘Sorry. I… maybe if we press it together, hey? I can’t take the responsibility of doing it alone, it almost makes me some sort of god sitting above it all in my god-pod.’

He placed his shaking palm onto the ‘Enter’ button, feeling the squish of cold sweat on the large key. Rachael put her arm around him and with her free hand covered his at the keyboard, helping his twitching palm settle.

She looked deep into his eyes.

‘Goddamn pussy to the last, hey Commander?’

She pushed down hard over his hand and both were silenced by such a large event being delivered through a simple button. They looked out of the window as one. The stillness of the blue orb belied the confusion sweeping across the planet like a sunrise. It still looked the same, but down on the ground things were changing. The beam swept across the planet like an invisible sonic wave, a mental tsunami washing everything clean and new as it hit people around the world engaged in all the activities that the human race filled up its time engaging in: making money, washing cars, dancing in a club, closing a deal, making love, digging a hole, punching a face, praying to a deaf god. It all stopped for a moment as people instantly forgot about what they were doing and why it mattered. As they scratched their heads and invariably looked at the floor, they suddenly realised that beyond wondering about what they had just been doing, they were now faced with an infinitely more perplexing question: who the hell were they? As there are many stars in the sky so were there infinitely differing human reactions to being slapped in the face by the GreenTea ray, but most significantly the doomsday clock had stopped counting down. There would now be no Nuclear oblivion, just one of collective memory.

One hundred and eighty four miles above the mayhem, suspended serenely in a silence that complemented the nothingness, Rachael swore she could hear a knocking on the hull, it reminded her for an instant of a woodpecker as Tom raised the portable GreenTea device to their eye levels and pressed: ‘Enter…’

The Missiles of Suburbia.

Based on a true story…

The Lexington housing estate, main building, East London, mid-July twenty-twelve.

Kwami stood at the urinal and felt the release of pressure. Man, there was nothing better than taking a piss when you really needed it. He shot a glance across to his left at the uniformed soldier who was feeling much the same emotion next to him. Catching each other’s eye they both looked down at the same time and focused on the task in hand. Kwami studied his length as he stretched out the last drops.

About forty feet above them on the wet roof, the Rapier missiles gleamed in the rain, black and sleek. They sat there perched like sullen crows watching out over the Olympic stadium tonight lit with an ethereal blue light in advance of the opening ceremony as yet still over a week away. All four missiles pointed up to the sky as if expecting an alien invasion from the stars. Ergonomics and art in one long black metal cylinder, beauty and devastation amongst the steel casing. A raindrop hung from the almost needle sharp tip of the missile.

One floor beneath and breaking all urinal etiquette Kwami twisted his head to the left so as his ear almost rested on the shoulder of his silk shirt and spoke to the soldier. Knowing himself to be on home turf and with at least five homeboys down the corridor in his flat he felt he could allow himself a certain swagger. Whoever this soldier was, he didn’t care, but his uniform represented authority. And authority always had to be questioned, in Kwami’s book.

‘You been at it since early this morning, hey, I could hear y’all scratching round up there like pigeons in my roof’.

The soldier rolled his eyes, ‘Tell me about it, we been on the roof since five a.m. and what time it now?’ Without thinking he let go of his manhood and checked his watch, the continuing spray of urine arcing wildly against the stainless steel dangerously close to Kwami.

‘Hey man, don’t cross the streams’ said Kwami part in jest part warning, ‘It’s got to be round half-three, I guess. I just got up. Big night, bruv.’

Both men zipped up at the same time but only the soldier moved across to the wash basins.

‘I guess we’re having different days then?’

‘Guess so’, nodded Kwami, one hand on the door. ‘Good luck with putting those missiles on the roof. Olympic bullshit ain’t it?’

‘The soldier warmed his hands under the drier, moving his arms under the hot air.

‘I’m just doing my job…’

‘Yep, I hear that. I’m just doing mine’. Kwami patted his pocket and felt the angular edges of the Crystal Meth.

‘We’re just dealing the deck and playing the cards we been given, you sitting up there in the rain and I’m rolling in bitches back in my crib.’

The soldier wiped the remaining moisture off his hands by wiping them down his army fatigues.

‘…For Queen and Country pal, Queen and country.’

Kwami was half way out the door but held it open with the back of his heel.

‘Hey, don’t suppose you got a spare one of them rockets up there I could have?’

The soldier cracked a smile, but seeing an intent in Kwami’s eyes he quickly resumed his role.

‘Afraid not, sir, they’re all spoken for.’

Kwami kissed his teeth and let the door slam behind him. In the time it took him to walk across the hallway to his flat an idea had formed in his mind. Damn if he wasn’t going to steal one of those missiles and put it in his flat, pride of place, a show of his power and warning to anyone who came round to buy meth off him that he was not a man to be fucked with.

He slammed his front door shut a man on a mission, convinced of the genius of his plan. In the front room the smell of skunk weed hung heavier than the oxygen. Two lava lamps were the only lighting and the two girls on the floor busy packing up crystals from a tray into small plastic bags barely noticed his entrance above the music and TV blaring news in the corner by the window.

‘Listen up. Daddy got a great idea.’

The taller of the two girls groaned and waved him away.

‘Get lost Kwami we’ll lost the count.’

The second girl dropped the small plastic bag she was holding and let out a snort of frustration.

‘Aw, for fuck sake Kwami, now I lost it…’

Kwami came out fighting. ‘What you chatting about, you got the TV on, the tunes… how can you concentrate anyway?’

Sandra spinned round on her buttocks like a crab. ‘This Barclays bank shit. They’re the ones who just reposessed my nan’s house. Now there’s something about them lying and doing fraud…’

‘So?’ Kwami reached into his pocket for his rolling tobacco and papers.

‘So…’ continued Sandra,  ‘So. … Scumbags. They take away Nana’s flat all high and mighty, but they’re low and dirty… Ah, just fucking Barclays bank… What you want Kwami, you’re getting all up in my head.’

Nichelle, arms folded, spun round too, joining her sister in indignant questioning: ‘Yeah Kwami, what you want..?’

Kwami kicked up the carpet with the heel of his trainer. ‘I had an idea… great idea, put us up on top of things, yeah.’

Nichelle gave a knowing look to Sandra like they’d heard it all a thousand failed times before.

‘Kwami had an idea, huh? Well don’t get so uptight you can’t pull it out your arse.’

Both girls laughed. Nichelle couldn’t help herself, she had to twist the knife. ‘Yeah, last idea you had didn’t work out so good, hey? How much meth can a cat eat before it doesn’t land on its feet when you drop it.’

Kwami shook his head and sat down in the arm chair facing them.

‘Nah, I’m over that. I’m thinking bigger these days, you get me? You won’t be laughing when I got that big fat black rocket on my shoulder.’

This time the laughter came from deep within them, a belly laugh. The second girl pointed at him in the chair and between breaths of laughter called him out.

‘Let me get this straight boo, you gonna climb up on the roof and jack a missile, just breeze on past the soldiers up there?’

Kwami had no idea how to do it. Certainly he couldn’t overpower them, but he was sneaky, maybe some sort of a distraction? He waved a dismissive hand. ‘No, no, no. There’s only two of them up their tonight, I been watching. And I just met one of them in the bog…’

Nichelle broke out in uncontrollable laughter for a third time, ‘Ooh Kwami, something ’bout a man in uniform huh?’

Kwami leapt out of the armchair, he could take anything from these girls except a direct assault on his masculinity.

‘Fucking bitches. Listen up. I’m gonna get that rocket. Ya hear me? Sure, I met soldier boy in the toilet and he’s about twelve year old. Tall skinny streak of piss too. Olympics haven’t even started yet, they just got ghost patrol up there, you get me?’

Seeing he was serious, Sandra put down the bag of meth crystals and leaned in towards him. ‘And…?’

Kwami could feel her interest and he liked it. ‘…And… We gonna distract them…’

Nichelle too had become drawn in by his enthusiasm. ‘How? How you gonna distract them, Kwami?’

‘Nichelle, go flash ‘em your great tits.’ He licked his lips with an exaggerated motion. ‘Two young soldier boys like that see a princess like you and they gonna get missiles of their own, for truth. They’d follow you into hell.’

Nichelle pushed out her chest with a sense of pride. ‘You better believe… ‘

Sandra didn’t seem so convinced. ‘Get over yourself girlfriend, these ain’t scrubs hanging out of their ride, these are soldiers, trained. T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G’ ,she tapped the side of her head with her finger. ‘No, I got it. What we do is start a fire. Damsel in distress and all that shit, soldiers can’t resist that shit. Kwami starts a fire in the cleaning closet by the lift, Nichelle, you scream out and freak. Down soldier boys come, creaming their pants at the chance to be a hero. Meanwhile I’ll sneak up and grab you your rocket, babe.’

Nichelle shook her head: ‘you two’s smoked to much of your own product. You talking stupid. Anyhow, you can’t just take it off though, it’s like fixed isn’t it, took them long enough to set up, didn’t it?’

Kwami gave another dismissive gesture with his hand, ‘I don’t know, Google it. How to dismantle a rocket or some such shit…’

‘Well it ain’t just a rocket is it you thick bear.’ Sandra turned to the other girl. It was on BBC news wasn’t it, remember when your mum phoned and said it’d been on the news about the Olympic missiles on our building. Check out the story, find out what sort of missile they are, then Google about how it works and shit.’

Kwami had to admit he felt impressed with Sandra’s cold logic. But that was why he was desperately in love with her, no, he reminded himself, not love, I just want to have her. I’m the kingpin, I’m the big daddy.

‘Alright then Kwami boo,’ said Sandra, ‘leave it us then, we’ll get you your little rocket honey, I mean after all, jeez,  it’s the only way I’m gonna get my hands on a long black rocket tonight, hey? she turned to Nichelle and winked.

‘Yeah’ she replied, ‘you just sit there on your throne Kwami boo, all soft-cock. We’ll do it. You’ll just fuck it all up  anyway. You just start the fire. Even you can’t fuck that up. Just sit there getting high, then round midnight drop your blunt like you usually do.’

Both girls fell about laughing, Kwami tried to rub an invisible stain of the arm of the sofa.

___

The fire had been small, but Nichelle’s screams huge and sure enough down the two soldier’s came for Queen, Country and a free look at the best boobs in town.  The rain had stopped by the time Sandra opened the access hatch. A weight of water rolled off and slipped through the gap wetting her shoulder. She shivered off the droplets and hauled herself onto the inspection platform.

She looked up and felt the breath come out of her. There they were. Black death from the skies. So sleek, so elegant, long and shiny reflecting the moon off their casing. Standing up, Sandra ran her hand along the length of the black shaft, catching the raindrops that remained and feeling the water run down her elbow and into her armpit.

Finding the release catch for the main housing it took both hands but she managed to prize it open. Then, reaching into her back pocket to check the folded paper, scrawled with Google instructions, she moved towards the front of the missile support and found the small green release button. She pressed to disengage the clamps and as simple as that the missile clicked forward on its bed a little and was free.

Sandra stood up on the guard rail, leaning in, pressing her toned stomach against the metal for support and took the Rapier missile in her arms as delicately as if it were her baby. She held it to her chest and carefully stepped backwards. Resting the surprisingly light rocket against the wall she stood either side of it and felt it between her legs, allowing herself a moments self-congratulation. She pointed the missile out over the rooftops towards Canary Wharf, skyscrapers rising up above the masses, the red aircraft warning lights twinkling triumphantly from their tops. She aimed it at the tallest skyscraper and sat down on the shaft of the rocket, waving her beeny hat over her head like a cowboy on the bucking bronco imagining she was coming back to save her Nan’s apartment. She slapped her hat against the cold tip of the missile and let it hang there. What a crazy fucked-up world we live in, she mused, patting the glistening rocket, this baby cost more than she was ever likely to earn in her whole career, just this one little rocket could put thirty of her friends’ kids through private school and university.

Lost in thought, she didn’t hear the sound of the soldiers returning back up the ladder. The shock made kick back against the missile. She was trapped, short of jumping off the small observation platform thirty storeys to her death, she certainly couldn’t go back the way she came. The sound of heavy boots on the ladder told her that there was less than fifteen seconds before she was at eye-level with the soldiers.

Trying to stand up too quickly she tripped on the guidance system for the missile, a small black box attached to one of the four tailfins. Feeling the vibration of action beneath her, Sandra studied her crumpled sheet of paper panicking. Almost immediately she felt a burning sensation on her ankle, seconds later she heard the noise. With a bright light that made the soldiers involuntarily cover their eyes the missile launched, taking flight like a raven enraged leaving its rookery. Sandra fell to the ground in the heat and power of the thrust. In the twelve seconds it took for the soldiers to grab Sandra by the arms, the missile had acquired and slammed into the Barclay’s building Canary Wharf like a massive candle being lit by a flame-thrower.

On the floor below Kwami was looking out of the window as the missile struck the skyscraper, his methpipe hanging in the gap between his front teeth as his mouth fell wide open. Immediately closing his lips around the pipe he quickly lit the bowl and inhaled deeply. The firework display lit up his dilated pupils as he stared out at the collapsing building. On his exhale he swore he could smell burning money. The smell carried across above  the exhaust fumes and rat stink that spanned the distance between him and the now decapitated Barclays skyscraper. Moments later, the sound of sirens wailing in the distance, getting closer, added a melody to the drum and bass blasting round his small flat. Kwami turned up the volume and prepared his bowl for another hit. He looked out the window shaking his head.

‘Bitchin…’

Late & Lizard

.

When he got home, he drew the curtains and carefully unwrapped the cling film. He could read the bad news immediately, the weed was dry and brittle, left over from the days Moses had his last smoke by the looks of it. No point burning this bush. He consoled himself that at least he wouldn’t need to buy any dried oregano for his pizza for about a year.

‘Fucking expensive herbs though’, the thought managed to slip through his defences and brought him low. It had taken him years to get wound up this tight, a slow tightening of the screw, a squeezing of the sponge till no more moisture could come out. It was a hot and muggy night despite the torrential rain. He wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Checking a CD case hidden under the television he checked how much good weed he had left, the news was equally bad: less than three strong joints. That was the remainder of his night fucked then, not that he really needed to get much higher, but he liked the feeling of security knowing there was more available if he wanted it.

Now really feeling the too numerous to remember shots of tequila he’d drank down at the bar less than an hour ago, he stumbled over to his music amp and after a few misjudged lunges managed to plug in his mp3 player to the speakers and pressed play.

Moving back to the counter he fixed himself another shot and poked around in the seeds and twigs of his weed draw. He was suddenly caught by the beauty of the music playing. Music so ecstatic and intricate he was enthralled. He felt he’d somehow travelled ten years into the future and now had an iPod with emotion detector, sensing just what he needed to hear. God it sounded great. What was the tune? He couldn’t place it. He shot back the tequila and checked the iPod. It was out of power. Wow, he must be fucked, he told himself, to have imagined the music. Maybe the weed was alright after all? But remembering he hadn’t even smoked one from this new batch yet, he studied it for a final time. Bah, definitely shit. He couldn’t even bring himself to roll it up. Fuck it, he threw it against the wall, where it fell down slowly against the grease and nicotine like green snowflakes.

Feeling the urgent need to urinate he dragged his miserable bones over to the toilet, his mouth was dehydrated but his bladder spectacularly full. He stood over the bowl and squeezed, shaking out the last drops like the nozzle on a wine box, the alcohol content about the same on this terrible night. Oh god he was sure living at the moment, living like James Bond with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in his London flat, all soft-cocked and edgy, thinking SPECTRE were coming to get him when it was only next-doors’ cat scratching at the window.

Often in the haze of an under-employed stoned afternoon he’d daydream of winning the lottery, but the first thing he’d spend the money on would be the world’s best therapist to follow him around for a month and tell him what he was doing wrong. He just couldn’t work it out for himself. These days he was writing less and less and filling the gaps with a therapy of his own: a trance-like state of inebriation where he could revisit all the important moments of his life and play them out again in his mind, but this time correcting the mistakes like an editor, making the scene work his way. Always living in the past or the future, rarely straight in his present.

Finishing his piss with a self-conscious shake that almost became an absent-minded masturbation, he zoned out and became lost in the thick jungle of his own overly-complicated thoughts, his hand continuing its automatic shaking oblivious. Disconnected, that’s how he felt, God he felt like the projectionist in the cinema of his own life, locked in a small room at the back of his brain, projecting a fake front onto his eye-screen for all to see and fall for. And boy were they falling for it. Everyone he knew watching in the hot-rock burned velvet-crush seats of his auditorium was falling for it, all the while he remained small and locked in the projection room, running out of cigarettes and new films to show.

He gave a cursory glance over to the laptop screen secretly hoping someone may have sent him a message from the dating website he’d left himself logged into before he’d gone out to buy the weed. The screen just showed the edit notes for his new book: ‘Killing the Danger Hours’, he suddenly hated the title, it was more a statement of how he’d been living recently than fitting the story. Closing the file he opened up the dating page hopefully.

‘Of course,’ he cried out loud, eyes rolling to heaven. Nothing. No messages, no likings, no chance.

How small and boring his life had become, how nervous and cautious. How he dreamt of that knock on the door that opened up a world of international espionage and intrigue, cocktails in casinos with an impossibley beautiful woman throwing the dice for him. Broke Bond, Boring Bond, Bad Bond. He felt his head begin to spin again in the washing machine drum of tequila and marijuana that had become his head. Yet just as he needed it most, the laptop beeped the news of a received message. Thank god, he felt, outside interaction at last, finally he wasn’t just doing battle with himself, the continuous judgemental stream of thoughts in his head. For a second he felt his brain like a piston engine, part of a much greater train, always in motion, endlessly pushing forward to the next moment, never satisfied with the present. If only he could pull the brakes. Just be and enjoy the moment.

Her photo looked good, his heart skipped a beat. Just the right level of secret attractiveness and cookie-ness with a certain vulnerability, but reading her profile he groaned.

‘Likes going to the gym, works as a Financier, Possible marriage material, very successful… doesn’t suffer fools…’

He felt his balls physically retreat back up into his pelvis and he felt keenly his cowardice. Next came the inevitable self-justification and back-peddling.

‘Ah who gives a shit? I don’t need success. People just wanted to get rich so they didn’t have to work anymore in soul-destroying jobs, and then use their money for leisure, hanging around getting drunk, getting high, getting loaded.’  Well here he was, except for a couple of hours a week spent writing, he was free and loaded, and on his own terms too. Who needed a job? So long as those meagre writing and dole cheques kept arriving he could just about keep his stoned head above water and backstroke in the toilet bowl of his own private world.

Feeling a little more satisfied that his life-style choices were good, he looked back down at her profile picture. Maybe it would work, maybe he should reply to her message, what harm could it do…? He imagined a perfect future moment tableaux of he and his wife-to-be with their kids in a Tyrolean snow scene by a roaring fire. He tried to hold on to the mental image, being held by her warm and safe whilst outside the snow and wolves wailed down the moonlit mountains. He imagined nestling his face between her chest and being held, hearing her soft heartbeat against his ear, back in the womb, loved, complete. He desperately needed to connect with someone, to feel the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence of living, surrounded as he was on a twenty-four seven basis by concrete and walls, both real and imagined. Deep down he knew that every living thing was connected by a life-energy that flowed through them like string through an eternal necklace of beads. Hell, if you took it down to a molecular level all there was anyway were molecules and space. Most of life was space, so everything that wasn’t space stuck together like candle-light against the greater darkness. These days he was floating in the darkness, some sort of dark matter as yet unexplained. Surely the most sacred thing in the world was to make someone else feel safe and loved? He was doing that for no-one. Putting in nothing, he was getting nothing out. Maybe it was time for a change? Once again he suppressed the unwanted thought with another sip of his tequila. Moving back to the lounge he caught his reflection in the greasy sheen of the cooker shield:

‘Oh get over yourself, you self-absorbed dick…’ he chastised himself and poured his umpteenth shot.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a red neon dot flashing, he saw he’d had another response to his dating emails. Wow, he was on fire tonight. In his drunken and stoned state he instinctively lurched towards the blinking screen. The new photo drove him back to his drink. He leapt back with an instinctual rejection such as a dog gets when its stomach warns him not to eat a dead body. No chance. He went straight over to his make-shift bar area and slammed down a can of lemonade and the tequila bottle onto the counter. Trying to shake his demons he chopped a lemon with increasingly fast and anxious strokes. Mixing all the ingredients necessary for his slammer, he began to imagine himself a Las Vegas barman and almost immediately his previous train of thought vanished like a cloud in a summer sky. Boom, pour, repeat. The third one he changed his mind about and decided to sip. The salt on his hand burned into his flesh as he dug into the ice-bucket. It sizzled like Alien blood through his flesh.

What happened to women when they got to their late thirties? he asked himself as he clicked through page after page of hopeful yet somehow depressed faces. The women still in their twenties had a bloom a blossom and ripeness to them, but they weren’t contacting him, what he was being served up was women who looked like they’d spent the last ten years of their hard living lives on an Icelandic whaling vessel, cracked eyes, so hungry for children and feeling the ticking hand of the clock and wagging metronome of inevitability. Why couldn’t he just find someone like him, he thought, maybe he should change his written profile on the site, imbue it with some stoned honesty: ‘Please take care of me, I’m fucked on every level’.

His eyes were drawn to the oil painting on the wall, his only masterpiece, the only piece of work he’d done that he was proud of, but then the subject had been pretty special too, the only girl he’d ever really been in love with. Lust he could feel at the drop of a hat, but love, that was a totally rarer creature for him, perhaps even extinct he worried. He reached his fingers up to her naked breast and tried to stroke them with a stoned and drunk heavy hand. He could feel the paint smudge under his finger and too late he snapped them away. Without daring to look at the painting he first looked at his hand. A deep red finger print on his index finger and palm where he’d clenched his fist. With heavy eyes he looked up at the painting with the enthusiasm of a scalded dog. Her breast was now a long line down to her open thighs, all definition lost. Ah fuck it, he told himself, it was time to let go anyway, perhaps this was the symbolic act that would help him?

Returning to the laptop he began searching the profiles on the dating website with a new determined energy, reaching for his pouch of tobacco he began to build another joint. His fingers hovered over the keypad, but his train of thought was interrupted by a strong and urgent knock at the door. There it was again, faster, as breathless and needy as a knuckle rapping could be.

He opened it and there she was. Simple as that. In her hand was what looked like the case for a musical instrument. Her hair was bedraggled and clinging to the side of her face, outlining a nervous bone structure. His first instinct was to let her in and dry-off, but the manic look in her eyes and short breaths made him pause.

‘Evening…’ he offered.

She grabbed him by the lapels of his tight shirt, it ripped down the back, his generous belly spilling out. More concerned with his unattractiveness in front of this gorgeous woman, than the pleading look in her eyes as she kept looking over her shoulder, he let her in and ushered her into the living room. The dope was splayed out on the carpet but somehow he knew she wouldn’t care about his indiscretion, seeming to have other things on her mind.

‘What’s eating you then?’ he said, trying in vain to cover up his midriff.

‘They’re after me…’

‘They..?’

‘Them, the men parked across the street. I need to make a phone call, please…’

He just stood there dazed. She pleaded again.

‘…Urgently… Now… Please?’

Rather than acknowledging the panic in her voice his stoned mind focused on her lisp, a ‘the’ sound every time she tried to say her ‘s’. The lisp immediately made him warm to her. She was striking, her strong features accentuated by the cruel rain making her long straight black hair stick to her cheekbones, but the lisp made her somehow seem safe and non-threatening to his ego, it was a weakness that shook hands with his own and relaxed him.

His mind slowly focused on her mouth, it was still asking questions and seemed to curl up in expectation of an answer. He forced himself to focus on the present, this was real, this was happening now. He dragged his psyche up from the basement of his brain, and crashing upwards through floorboards towards the roof he managed to formulate an answer for her. It wasn’t the one she wanted to hear though.

‘Sorry, I don’t have a phone…’

She fell back against her case.

‘What? Everyone’s got a bloody phone?’

He felt a sting of paranoia as if she was questioning the way he’d chosen to live his life.

‘Sure I got a phone. It’s pay as you go, I’ve got no credit…’

She scrunched up her fingers in frustration and let out a small squeak.

‘… you can make emergency service calls though,’ he limply offered holding out the phone as meekly as if it were a Rabbi’s foreskin.

She flapped the arms out on her wet jacket, way too big for her, he thought, and the excess water splashed over the edges of his record collection neatly filed on the bottom shelf.

‘Hey, watch it.’ He found himself involuntarily warning. But she wasn’t listening, he heard a gentle whimpering sound coming from beneath the folds of the oversize jacket. It was then he really studied her countenance. He’d just been wholly too stoned, she wasn’t some femme fatale, but just a frightened human being.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, are you ok? Look, can I fix you a drink? Tea, coffee, some stew?’ He mentally chastised himself for being such a straight prick: ‘Stew?’, what was he turning into, his mother now?

She looked up at him with darting rabbit eyes.

‘Anything stronger?’

‘Tequila.’

She nodded, licking a jewel of rain that had formed in the well of her centre lip. Throwing off the jacket she fell into one of his comfier chairs.

‘Thanks for letting me in, a lot of people wouldn’t. I know how crazy I must sound right now…’

He returned from the galley area just out of her sight holding two glasses, swashing with three fingers of brown liquid. He really studied her as she sat back into the full glare of his table lamp. My God she was gorgeous. Frozen in the light of the lamp like a flash bulb from a camera he saw her as a profile on his dating website. She was perfect. He began projecting onto her everything he wanted her to be. In the time it took her to reach up and take the offered glass he had married her, divorced her, remarried and split again. He felt a sudden sense of self-consciousness, as if someone was looking at the back of his head, turning round there was nothing behind him, but his eyes fell on the oil painting, at eye level straight between the naked open legs of his ex-girlfriend.

Turning away guiltily he handed the shivering girl the glass. ‘Thanks,’ she took it, nodding her appreciation.

‘So what’s going on then?’ he asked.

‘It sounds crazy I know, but I think I’m being followed. I’ve just come from a crazy party. It was a gig, paid gig. Just too fucking weird..’ she tapped the case by her side.

‘What’s in the case?’

‘Ilya’

‘Eh?’

 ‘… Ilya my saxophone. Like Stradivarius’ violins they all have names. This is my grandfather’s. He named it. I’m a musician. Jazz. I’m Phaedra, Phaedra McClean..?’

She held out her hand expectantly but he, feeling so smashed was missing all the social cues. He simply shook his head,

‘I don’t know much about Jazz, I’m a rock n’ roll man.’ His belly fell out of the shirt.

As if seeking to put it beyond any doubt she flicked open the metal clamps and threw open the case. Sure enough, inside was a saxophone. The rain began to lash down against his part-opened window and she stood up, edging towards it nervously, following the curve of the room. He watched spellbound as she pressed her body against the frame and slowly craned her neck to look outside.

‘Damn I think they’re still there. Oh Christ. I don’t think I’m being paranoid, I think they really are still there.’

For the first time his sense of pleasant stoned bewilderment changed to a more fearful feeling. Surely this girl, despite her beauty and vulnerability was shouting at the moon mad? She slammed her hand against the wall and turned off the overhead light. The room plunged into a murky darkness, shadows menacing every edge.

‘Hey,’ he said, starting to feel anxious, ‘You want to tell me what’s going on?’

She slid down to the side of the window and brought her knees up to her chest.

‘I had a gig tonight at this mansion up in Canonbury. You know? Down that road where all the massive Victorian houses are. Soon as we got there I could tell something wasn’t right. They got us to wear blindfolds. The conversations I was hearing were incredible….

‘Go on…’

‘It was like this was a meeting of some dark secret society. You know, like the Illuminati. The real movers and shakers. I mean, you don’t really think politicians control the world? These were the puppet masters. I heard something I shouldn’t, I guess. And now… now they’re threatening to kill me…’

‘What did you hear…?’

She began to scratch her bare arm nervously and repeatedly.

‘You not into Jazz?’ she said, changing the subject.

He looked over at his still silent iPod. ‘Not really… look, you can’t expect me to swallow this horse-shit can you? Not to sound rude, but come on, I can’t just indulge your delusion ’, then under his breath, ‘even if it might give me a chance to jump your bones.’

He went to the bar area to fix another round of drinks, kicking the edge of the table out of sight. Oh thank you god, he thought to himself in that inner private sarcastic almost mocking voice that followed him wherever he went always judging and giving a running commentary on his every action. Thank you god so bloody much, it went. Yet another girl who is gorgeous and clearly insane. His track-record was astounding, he’d had relationships with them all: Ugly but kind, gorgeous but screwed-up, perfect but married, fun-loving but desperate for children, charming but cracked, the list of his complaints was endless, and here again, even though he tried to fight the thought, he knew this woman dripping wet on his living room floor was as crazy as Charles Manson, but with better boobs.

He tried to argue it away in his own mind as he fixed the drinks. ‘Aren’t all great musicians highly strung?’ Maybe she was just going through a crisis moment, maybe most times she was normal. Perhaps if he helped her through this episode she would be grateful and they’d become friends, then maybe something more, maybe…’ his mind drifted off again to the Tyrolean mountainside. He heard that mocking voice inside of him again,  ‘Maybe… or maybe she’s just a fucking fruit-loop?’

He looked round to see her in the foetal position on the floor, rocking gently backwards and forwards on his rug. No, he couldn’t sell it to himself, clearly she was indeed a nutter. He placed a fresh drink next to her and found himself riddled with questions.

‘OK, so if you fled this gathering of the super-powerful in genuine fear of your life, then why did you bother collecting and casing up your sax, surely you’d just run?’

She took out the golden saxophone and adjusted the mouthpiece. Even knowing nothing about musical instruments he could see it was well-looked after and impressive, definitely cared for with love. She put it to her perfectly rounded lips and played a few soulful bars. He was hypnotized, totally enthralled by her siren song. As she played, he built a hundred scenarios of them together in his mind again. Feeling the sudden tightness in his trousers he self-consciously took the joint from his mouth and let it hang nonchalantly over his groin area hiding any free information. Her madness was becoming endearing.

She stopped and shook her head, looking contemplative and a little sad.

‘This is Ilya. My baby. It was my grandfather’s, he’d been a great saxophonist before the war, but after, after being ordered to kill the zombies at Belsen coz medical teams were too far away to help and they were too far gone anyway. Not beyond liberation for the photographers, but beyond salvation for the doctors. He was ordered to shoot them. Innocent Concentration Camp victims. Children, women, shoot on sight.’

She picked up the drink from the carpet, the ice now melted causing a brown overspill on the white rug, taking a long sip she put it back down, then moved it further away from her, a new brown ring visible. Oblivious, she continued her reminiscence.

‘When I was younger I never understood why my grandfather would get so upset watching my brother play zombie war WWII Call of Duty games. I guess he’d had to do it for real.  After the war he never played another note, but still took out the trombone each month to clean it. He respected the instrument and the music, but he’d been like a bird silenced. Did you know that even to this day, like at so many concentration camps, the birds still to don’t sing at Belsen? They just sit in the trees feeling the awful energy of so many souls crying out in agony. This was why I picked up Ilya, my sax, his sax, no way could I leave it in the same room as the architects of the whole conflict.’

He could feel his erection slowly fading away.

‘You don’t mean to tell me that the guys at your gig organised the second world war? Wasn’t that a guy called Hitler? Don’t tell me he was there too? Massive jazz fan?’

With a flash of genuine anger she threw her glass against the opposite wall. Outside a dog barked and dustbin lids rattled.

‘I’m fucking serious. This isn’t a joke. Listen. Every ten years they get together and plan something. Something terrible.’

The glass had narrowly missed his oil painting and he felt his hackles rise. With a mocking tone he sought to needle her.

‘Oh like Lizards yeah dancing round a massive owl in the forest? Isn’t that David Icke? You’re telling me that lizards are ruling the world. Oh come on…’

He felt the weed acutely now and looked into the corner of his room by the book-shelf, instinctively stoned to check that lizards weren’t actually reading his magazines in the dark shadows. Almost childlike he wanted to turn the overhead light back on, but thought better of such a show of weakness. Again she came back angry.

‘Fuck off. I’m not taking the piss here. What? No? Of course they’re not fucking lizards. They’re humans, like us, well, not like us, the fucking DNA master race, living up there in the rarefied air. First Class existence. You have no idea what the truly rich, I mean the truly incredibly fucking rich can do. Only time you see them would be for an instant on your peasant Penny Farthing as they whizz past you in blacked-out Land Rovers and massive white stretch limos. No offence man, but durrrrrr…’ she stuck her folded tongue into her bottom lip and waved her arms.

He hated himself for suddenly feeling stupid but his laptop broke the silence and beeped a warning that it was about to run out of power, a soft red flashing on the screen, replicating the warning light that was currently going off in his own brain. He looked over and saw the dating website fade to black. Whatever her profile she just wasn’t worth it. There was no getting away with it, she was mad. She had to be. Perfect in every physical way, except as mad as a lizard in a tin. He tried to focus his mind on the moment, feeling his interest and energy suddenly wan in the whole night. A weed-induced hunger suddenly gripped him and he fished around in his fridge, allowing himself one quick look out of the window to satisfy himself there was no-one out there.

‘You want some food?’ he offered lacklustre.

 He put the bowl down with a warning. ‘It’s not food for children, ok?’

The bones buried in the rice had a small amount of meat on them curled round the sharpest bones in her mouth. One false swallow and her oesophagus would be scared with the downward swipe of a Stanley knife. Maybe he should actually warn her a bit more explicitly, he thought, what with her obviously deranged state of mind and all. She accepted the food gratefully and dug in ravenously. The first mouthful went down fine, but the second caught a shard of chicken bone and she coughed violently as she felt its passage slice down through soft flesh.

‘Yeah sorry, you’re not in KFC now… I’m not known for my finger-licking chicken. Times are a bit tough at the moment, bit like the meat.’ Was he being too dismissive of her, he wondered, reminding himself that whatever the truth here was a human being in obvious distress. But, oh, he needed her to be telling the truth, he needed something exciting in his life, even something to believe in. He so wanted her to be for real, but deep down beyond the veil of stoned wish-fulfilment and drunken ham-fisted shaping of reality, he knew she was psychotic. And for a man so psychotic with weed that wasn’t an easy observation to make.

‘Hear me out,’ she said, ‘All I heard them talking about was the past forty years, I’ve never been that deep into history, but even I know current affairs news stuff. Think about it, roughly every ten years since 39. Starts with War, then 50 Cold War, 60, Bay of Pigs, Cuba missile crisis, 69 man on the moon, 80, global recession, 90, Berlin Wall collapse of Communism. 0I 9/II Muslim boogie man. 09 Global recession, e, t and bloody c. Every ten years there has to be something to keep the peasants absorbed with worry and feeling grateful for their pitiful lot. The men in grey. The most powerful men, all wearing cheap cologne, as far as I could smell. They hook up and have a party once every ten years and decide the fate of the world. Which country rises, which falls. Whether… I don’t know…Greece gets successful, or is crushed for long-term unknown reasons, whether Muslims will still be the bogeymen, Al Q’ada or the Chinese, which media mogul has got too powerful and needs breaking, the Banking Crisis, Euro Crisis, you get the picture. The rich get richer, and the poor get to clean up their mess.’

She paused to take a long sip of the tequila before continuing, the hatred for the people of whom she spoke clearly visible on her face.

‘No-one knows how they recruit, whether it’s a secret tap on the shoulder at the right conference once a person’s personal wealth has hit five billion dollars. Or whether it’s a nepotistic fucking blood curse, or I don’t know. Maybe they don’t even recruit, maybe they self-replicate, their powerful hate-filled spittle gobbed into a mucus on the floor and it creates a new one of them. Fuck knows. All I heard them discussing was about the founding fathers. how they been around since the first world war when for the first time they realised that their lives would be destroyed by peasants and governments who for the first time had created a world war threatening their comfortable lives. They figured, what’s the point of being the richest guy in the cemetery? They need society to keep working to keep them up where they are, just enough religion, just enough economic fear, just enough perceived enemy. Soviets, Muslims, e, t, and bloody c… take a ticket and spin the wheel, wait for your number to come up as the next public enemy number one.’

She took another spoonful of the chicken and rice, almost immediately gagging as a particularly acute splinter of bone stuck in her windpipe. She jumped up dancing towards the open window in a rictus. He ignored her distress and tried to push further into her story.

‘And you got all this by just listening to them chat?’

She continued the exaggerated flapping of her arms as if having eaten too much chicken she had now turned into one herself and was trying to take off. She banged her chest hard with a fist in an attempt to dislodge the bone, but finding herself in front of the open window she dropped to the ground, looking behind her through the crack. He realised she wasn’t choking but having some sort of attack of anxiety at what she’d seen. From the floor she pointed up to the roof of the building opposite, to something glinting by the housing for the building’s elevator system. He was incredulous:

‘Oh yeah right, let me guess, there’s a sniper on the building opposite? They’ve come to kill you for what you know? Is that a bit of raw chicken on your top or the red dot of a laser rifle…? Ha, pull the other one.’

He watched her continue to writhe on the floor, now even more so than before utterly convinced of her mental ill-health. He reminded himself that his wasn’t feeling too clever at the moment, the effects of the skunk weed still hot-stepping through his neural pathways. She’d taken to using her feet to spin herself round in ever tighter circles. He felt a cruelness in him, he wanted to punish her for being so perfect and yet, once again, so damaged.

‘…Or even better, you’ve been struck by a poison dart and now you’re choking and dying. Am I close?’ Finally he’d had enough of the whole situation. ‘I think it’s time you left. Too weird for me.’

She spat out the bone onto the carpet. ‘No. It’s YOU that’s trying to kill me. What the fuck you feeding me?’

She stood up and carefully placed the saxophone back in its velvet lined case.

‘Maybe I should go. Forget it man. I must’ve been lucky enough to stumble into the world’s most discompassionate man…

‘Uncompassionate…’

‘… uncomp…oh go fuck yourself…I’ll use a fucking payphone.’

She bent down to pick up the case and at that instant they both heard the bullet whistle over her head and embed in the picture on the wall, right into his oil painting, and more than that right between the naked legs of his ex-girlfriend, the genital area revealing a physical rounded hole. In disbelief he went up to the picture and stuck his index figure into the hole, which from where Phaedra was standing looked even more wrong than what had just happened. From between the lips of his ex-girlfriend’s painted pubis a brighter red dot appeared, brighter and more unnatural than the wet blobs of oil paint. The red-dot moved down his arm towards the centre of his back. He turned round to see Phaedra drop the case and point with her index finger this time, mouth wide-open.

Get down’, she screamed. Instinctively he dropped to the floor as the second bullet whizzed over him and into his bookcase with a precise thwap. Wisps of plaster and paper fluttered down and greyed his hair. He crawled on his belly over towards Phaedra, using his elbows as propellers. As they lay there facing each other, he had just enough to time to look into her eyes before the knock at the door, which quickly turned into a scraping sound. In the confused moment of muffled voices and the faint smell of burning paint, he reached out for her hand, as much to comfort himself as her. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was somewhere else, trying to deny reality, but it was no use, finally he was irrevocably in the moment. If only he could snap his Cuban heels together he’d be back in Kansas, or even KFC, anywhere but this present. Two red dots were now scouting around the room like neon flies, searching, searching…

With a sound that reminded him of a tree being felled, his solid wood front door splintered open and in they came…

Streetsweep

 Image

The First Day of Summer, real summer, happy summer: sweat in the eyebrows and squelch of dirty flip-flops dug out from the back of wardrobes unseen since autumn. The street rejoices as one, exhaust-pipe belches mingling with body odours and kebab juice.

 Happy sidewalk summer: To the black boys kissing their teeth on the street not knowing why: wailing at ATM’s as they put their card in again and again like toddlers trying to understand the square block can’t go into the circular hole, whilst behind them a line slowly forms, impatient and pitying in equal measure.

 To the new mums attacking ankles with taxi-sized buggies, too self-absorbed by their precious fare to see beyond the front wheels.

 To the dustbin-Daleks shuffling in their burkhas, welcoming in the fresh season with their new fashion range, black is the new black, is the new black. Pillar-boxed and pilloried yet taking a perverse satisfaction from their self-imposed exclusion from society as flies in the ointment.

 To the mentally ill tramps lurching past them at the edge of the curb and sanity, nothing but warm spittle washing around the bottom of their empty cans, pockets rattling with pennies and forgotten medication.

 To the unemployed new media ‘freelancers’ draped over their coffee-tables begging to be admired, blocking the pavement with chrome chairs, chrome glasses, chrome laptops, the sun bouncing brightly off their sweaty foreheads as they stare forlornly at empty screens and diaries. Desperately preening in the shop window and to any passer-by who may give validation to their peacock dreams, offsetting their nervous and fragile aspirational egos.

 To you all who fill my first day of summer with a deep and predictable joy. Tomorrow, rain is forecast and you will all be swept away back behind your closed doors, watching, waiting for a break in the clouds.

But I will still be here, pounding the streets and sweeping up your messes and near-misses, I am always here…

The Publisher

‘We’re all born with the most sophisticated hardware in the known universe,’ Bull tapped his forehead,  ‘Your brain… and you want to get a good tune out of it while you’re here. Simple as that really. Where’s your ambition gone, Strenton?’

‘I was born retired…’ said Strenton, shrugging.

Bull Wendell half-heartedly flicked his beer coaster across the table, ‘…Retarded?’

Strenton threw it right back at him, catching him in his Adam’s apple, ‘You heard me right.’

It was Bull’s turn to shrug, trying another tack, ‘And you’re happy with that at twenty-four, yeah?’

The couple at the table next to them got up to leave and Strenton leaned across to drain the dregs from the man’s beer glass before responding, licking his frothy lips with the satisfaction of a cartoon cat.

‘Sure I am. The way I figure it, I got another forty years or so to keep dodging the bullets until society deems my lifestyle acceptable. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Strenton together again…’

Bull began to tear at the cardboard coaster, making sure each rip was neat and straight, ‘I don’t see it that way at all. You’re just phoning in sick to the job of being alive. Maybe it’s just your destiny to see everything but the nose right on the front of your face?’

‘So I’m broke. I’m like a… a…’

Bull coughed over him: ‘…BUM… s’cuse me…’

Strenton carried on like he hadn’t heard, ‘… a Zen monk, I got my writing, I got my woman, my music, I got my drink and my smoke, occasionally I’m tossed a juicy bone, what else do I need? Who are you to tell me I shouldn’t be happy?

With the coaster now in pieces, Bull turned to gnashing his teeth, ‘Fuck it, who am I to tell you how to get down? Face it though, it must be pretty damn easy being a Zen monk, hey? I mean their stress levels must be through the floor… but what a fucking a cop-out! Where’s the risk? The pain of life comes from engaging and getting stuck-in to the hussle-bussle of hopes and failures, the missed chances and soaring successes. Sit on a mountainside and reflect long enough and I’m sure you would keep peace of mind, but isn’t that just the ultimate avoidance tactic? The older I get, the more I cling to my certainties like a drowning man to an estate agent’s sale board. But it’s wrong: I should go out into the world with eyes open, wild with wonder and willing to forget everything I thought was true when presented with new truth. We never stop learning, the teenager eventually feels disappointed that he never actually becomes an adult to himself, we’re all just playing at being grown-ups, aren’t we?’

Strenton lit a cigarette and tried to blow a nonchalant smoke ring, but there was too much spittle in his mouth. Bull clasped his hands behind his head and leant back on the bar chair, continuing: ‘I’ve known you since school days and you’ve always been the same. Always a seeker, always dissatisfied with the present and searching…’

‘Yes, but I finally found what I was looking for…’

‘And what was it..?’

‘The real me. No front, no bullshit. We’ve got two hemispheres in our brain and science has just proved there’s a consciousness in each one. Both are us. That’s why when you ‘ask’ yourself a question, you can give yourself an answer. You can choose to make either voice your consciousness, but both will always be there. One is the real us, the other is our ego. I finally chose the real me.’

Strenton took a block of hashish from his pocket and checked around him before biting down on the brown lump like it was a Mars bar.

Bull straightened the creases out of his purple shirt with downward swipes of his palm, ‘So dope’s the answer then?’

Strenton licked his tongue around his top gum, clearing the sticky remnants, he leant forward grinning at Bull like a dog that’d just eaten a turd from a trash can.

‘Dope’s part of the answer, sure. Why not? It’s definitely in my arsenal. Hash keeps a man’s ego small and helps him be aware. Ego kills your honesty. Anyway, the truly enlightened don’t go around worrying about whether they’re enlightened or not, do they? If you’re a realized master, then you should be one anywhere, factory floor or mountaintop… Meditation is the surest long-term way, but drugs sure are a fun short cut.’

Bull ordered up another round of drinks, this time without Strenton even having to ask. Strenton was on a roll, the words spilling out of him and he could see Bull was buying.

‘If some Yogi put a gun to my head and asked me for my truth, then that’s exactly what I’d tell him. God and the Devil are human concepts, created by the wise minds of that time who felt the left and right hemispheres of their brain acutely, the division in man, and couldn’t understand how two such opposing forces could live inside the same small headspace without there being fireworks: Our incredible need, and it really is a fucking need to create, whatever form that creation takes: a meal, a painting, a farm, a play, a baby. Our selfishness versus our endless capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. We may be born as blank sheets waiting to be written on by the experiences of our lives, even deeper than that there is a genetic disposition to feel love. But like the Ying Yan, there is an opposite force in us of destruction, a dark and primeval propensity deep in the tar pits of our being that we don’t like to talk about at dinner parties to devour and destroy everything in an obscene and glutinous hatred. So we spend our lives wrestling the two on the mind’s smack-down mat. Life always gives you a chance, you just got to have enough courage to take it. I’m just smart enough to realize that I know fuck all. Most people don’t want to be enlightenment anyway, they’re enjoying their lies too much. Treat them like mushrooms – feed ‘em shit and keep ‘em in the dark.’

The drinks arrived and Strenton took his off the tray before the waiter had a chance to put it down.

‘Two hemispheres; One man. I know all about the divided self.  If you need something badly enough the mind has a strange way of bringing it towards you. Self-fulfilling prophecies and all that…’

‘Bullshit,’ said Bull flatly, ‘You reap what you sow.’

Strenton took a long pull from his drink, the ice rattling against his stained teeth, ‘The real trouble is I just like myself drunk and stoned, d’ya know what I mean? Either way, we’re still young, no need for second-chances or regrets yet, we’ve got time… just do what you love till someone pays you for it. Here, have another drink…’

(Excerpt from the novella: ‘The Bull That Wouldn’t Fight.’ © Harry Rinse, 1996.)

Time: 09:30. Date: Thursday, June 24th, 2011. City of London.

It felt more like a Monday. Harry Rinse had struggled to get out of bed when the alarm had gone off and pulling back the curtains to see a cold and grey drizzle sky had almost sealed the deal with him to throw a sickie, but he was out of time. Rolling over and feeling the beautiful cold of the other side of the mattress he saw his half-open sketch book on the floor and remembered he needed the money. He need the money badly. Maybe if he got out of bed and went downstairs he’d find a letter on the doormat with a big fat royalty cheque for his book and he wouldn’t have to go to work ever again? Maybe. Maybe not…

It was not, so like a zombie with salt on his tongue Harry moved to the kitchen and somnabulistically prepared his petit-dejeuner amongst the damage of last night’s French brandy bottles and Post-It notes. He shoveled in the cold porridge, feeling it settle in his stomach like wet cement and making every movement even more of an effort as he sluggishly got ready for work. Cack-handedly throwing the empty bowl into the sink he looked up at the old family photo taken nearly nine summer’s ago. It made his stomach sink even deeper than the porridge had. His eyes lingered on his daughter Chloe, she was holding a bunch of freshly picked purple posies to her chest and he allowed his mind to wonder to that glorious summer’s afternoon when everything had seemed to be buoyed up on an endless tide of laughs. With a remembrance that squirmed inside him like acid inside a marshmallow he realized that today must be her birthday. Another year had lurched by without contact. God how he missed her. Harry quickly jumped all over that thought, stamping it out of his head. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, he couldn’t, some truths were just too painful, especially after a brutal night of bottles and bones. He felt a sudden urge to call her, to forget all the back story, all the reasons he didn’t want to admit fault and just… call her. He stared down at his mobile phone, he desperately wanted to know how her voice had aged in the intervening years and beyond anything else he wanted to hear that voice forgive him, as he knew it would if only he’d call. But his pride wouldn’t let him and hell, he didn’t even have a current number for her anymore. Focus on now, that was a big enough challenge just to get through the fucking day. He put on his self-tailored cloak of failure and swirled out into the brutal morning.

Looking at his watch Harry prayed their wouldn’t be any delays on the Northern line this morning, but catching the notice-board as he descended the escalator he saw there were. He boarded the train and sat motionless in the Charing Cross branch tunnel waiting on a signal change. He reached into his leather satchel for his sketch book and began drawing the passengers that faced him as he usually did every week day. Each person looked different in their seat but their expressions were always the same at this time of the morning displaying a kind of washed out disbelief that was being propped-up by a crumbling front of confidence and mp3 players, with eyes glazed over dreaming of being someplace else.

But Harry wasn’t interested in their whys and wherefores, he just wanted to get into the right mindset before sitting in Court Number Two of the Old Bailey and sketching the scene for television and occasionally newspapers, as cameras continued to be banned from British Courts. Thank God, he thought to himself as the train pulled into Waterloo station, he wasn’t making any money from his writing so at least he could fall back on the skills he’d learned way back at art college when the future had still been anything he wanted it to be. Somewhere along the tracks of his forty-five years he’d stopped dreaming of the future, driven on through the present, to now arrive at dreaming only of the past. He’d lived in London for so long now that everywhere he went was loaded with past memories. Everything reminded him of something else, each bar, each building, each street sign. For this reason he loved to write, feeling he’d never really been fully present in anything he’d done, he liked to revisit it through his memory to re-live it fully.

He walked across Waterloo Bridge in the rain, resentful of how his options had shut down, how he’d allowed himself to be corralled into this cul-de-sac. The rain was beginning to soak through the plastic covering of his sketch-book and he knew his careful charcoal drawings would soon blur into one big soggy tea stain. Fuck it, he felt so depressed and angry he wanted to kick a priest in the face. The downpour caught him right on the centre of the bridge, the grey battleship River Thames stormed beneath him like everyone upstream had cried into it on this hopeless Monday. He ducked into a bus shelter and nestled into the corner, turning his back to the wind which whipped the rain in at impossible angles. He looked through the sketch book to check the damage. There was Monday’s sketch of passengers, the guy on the seat by the door had smudged a little but his distinctive purple cravat was clearly visible. Tuesday’s sketch the same, little bit smudged but the man in the door seat had a purple cravat that also caught his eye. How strange thought Harry, the same man in the same seat two days running on a rush hour train that carried hundreds of faceless people. Wednesday’s drawing showed the same. Harry turned to this morning’s sketch with hands that tingled with more than the cold rain. It was the same. There was the man in the purple cravat.

Harry tried to think back to the week’s journey but it was all a sleep-stained blur, how could he not have noticed? He looked over his shoulder to see a bus coming over the bridge, it pulled in, waiting for him at the stop. Harry waved it on and the driver shook his head, angry at the gridlock this rainy favour had caused behind him. Harry flicked back through the previous week’s drawing and his mouth fell open to catch the metallic rain like a wide bucket. In each sketch on each day there was the same man. Always staring at him, always in the same seat.

09:30. Friday morning. Waterloo Underground station. City of London.

Harry was so excited he could barely hold his charcoal to sketch the row of passengers. He’d teased himself by starting to draw the people sitting furthest from the door, but he could resist no longer and shot his eyes across to that end seat. His heart skipped a beat. there he was, suited and booted, the purple cravat perfectly creased.

At Waterloo station the man had got up and left the train. Even though this was Harry’s regular stop he still felt like a stalker. Turning out of the station and onto Waterloo Bridge the morning was bright and clear, the sun twinkled off the water and showered everyone with diamonds, it was a Friday to boot and the suited workers had an easy spring in their step. The difference a day can make, thought Harry as he watched his quarry pause at the centre of the bridge and look behind him. Harry knew he had to look anywhere but in his eyes… so he looked in his eyes. Harry knew he’d been made, it was now or never. He walked up to the man and leant over the rusty guardrail, keeping enough distance between them to still deny everything. He looked down into the eaves of the bridge and saw what looked like a green finch, its emerald green’ rump sparkling, but as his eyes focused a larger bird landed on the ledge putting it to flight. It was a mean looking magpie and it began to peck at something shiny reflecting the sun. Harry had always been the suspicious type and this to him was a bad omen, so in an attempt to ward off the hex he touched his imaginary cap. The magpie eyed him suspiciously and looked off into the direction the man was now headed. Harry felt confused and had a sudden twinge in his guts that he was being delusional, but once again he stamped down quickly on the thought. He needed this, he needed something to believe in, so quickening his step Harry followed him across the bridge and up through the narrow cobbled alleyways towards St. Paul’s Cathedral with its huge dome dwarfing the scuttling masses absorbed in the morning rush.

Harry watched the man walk up the great stone steps to the entrance where he paused, dwarfed in the imperious oak doors and looked again over his shoulder. Harry immediately leaned against a phone box and studied his fingernails feeling as self-conscious and obvious as a comic book spy. The man continued in to the cathedral just as the bells rang out the hour. Harry realized he was now too late to make the morning session of court, he was committed to see how far his fantasy would take him.

He shuffled sideways up the entrance steps like a depressed hermit crab and quickly scuttled into the building, scanning the cool and darkened interior for his subject. The air was thick with dust and incense, his cheap office shoes echoed on the stone with each step. Where was he?, Harry wondered. He found him in the transept paying for a ticket up to the Whispering Gallery. Harry resisted the urge to run towards him and confront him there and then, but he was sure the man had looked straight at him just before disappearing into the narrow stone spiral staircase that led ever upwards to the vaulted dome. The entrance fee came to more than Harry’s lunch and train fare money, it cut into his evening drinking budget, but he was so lost in the moment he didn’t care.

With each turn of the twisting torch-lit staircase Harry always kept the tip of the man’s long shadow on the wall ahead of him, picking up his pace each time it tapered off round the corner. He reached the Whispering Gallery exit that ran in a circle across the dome, Harry poked his head out to see the man sit down half way across the circumference and reach into his pocket, unwrapping a sandwich. Seating himself about a third of the way along from him, Harry stared up at the huge painted dome, it looked like a massive brain. He sat down and pressed his ear against the cold stone. On the other side, the man continued to eat his sandwich. Harry could hear the bubble of chatter, the same as when he’d put a sea-shell to his ear as a child. The twenty or so visitors were all leaning into the wall, testing out its acoustics. Harry strained his ear to hear whispers beneath the bubble, older noises stored in the stone telling four hundred year old secrets. A shiver ran along his ear canal to brain, he was sure one of the voices belonged to Chloe, his daughter. She was giggling and laughing, other voices became more distinct singing a Happy Birthday refrain, as if through water. He strained in closer still, his ear becoming a suction cup on the grubby masonry, but the voices all seemed to fade away into background noise, leaving a single baritone to come through:

‘Why are you following me?’ it rasped, the voice cooled through centuries of stone. Harry felt his ear redden and burn, he removed it from the wall, but quickly felt compelled to put it back again. The voice was still there, now growling and angry:

‘Yes, I’m talking to you, pal…’

Harry looked across the balustrade to see the man pointing straight at him. The game, such as it had been, was certainly up.

Harry limped across towards the man who was now putting his sandwich down and standing up, ready for the confrontation. It felt a very long walk and Harry felt his face redden as he neared, hearing his heart pumping in his ears. When he reached the man and began to speak, his voice sounded like a little girl being strangled.

‘Excuse me. I know this’ll sound odd, but you take the Northern line each morning south to north. Am I correct?’

‘Yes. But you know that because you followed me….’

‘I’m a writer, it’s nothing dodgy, I… was just following an idea… you’re in every sketch I’ve drawn… ’

The man took a step away from him and rested his hand on the guardrail. Harry quickly spoke to reassure him,

‘God no that sounds odd doesn’t it? I meant that I’m an illustrator and…’

‘I thought you just said you’re a writer?’

Harry was rambling, ‘Yes, that too, look, you’ve appeared in all my sketches going back months, I only noticed it yesterday, months… it’s really too much to be coincidence. It has to mean something, it has to. I was hoping you’d… oh I don’t know, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?’

The man’s body language softened and he leant over the guardrail, motioning Harry to join him with his hand. Harry looked over and took a deep breath, glad of the sense of distance. The man turned to him.

‘I know a lot of writers. When they get an idea into their heads, hey. I’ve even known a few bring their characters to life, show me the drawings…’

Harry was dumbfounded. He felt a tingle running up his spine like the sexy fingers of a snow-witch.

‘I knew it. I knew it had to mean something. Thank you cosmos. So what are you? Just a figment of my imagination, a piece of undigested gristle?’

‘The man laughed but when Harry didn’t laugh with him he stopped, looking at Harry as if he must be insane,

‘Um, sure. I’m your guardian angel, your own personal Jesus, or better still, a character from one of your books…’

Harry punched the air. Finally something was happening.

‘Really…?’, he spoke with such childlike wonder that the man could continue the deception no longer.

‘What the hell do you reckon? Of course I’m fucking not. Are you ok, I mean are you going through something?’

Harry suddenly felt foolish and slapped his hands on the wooden railing as if playing an invisible drum, ‘Sorry, it’s only when I said it out loud I realized how stupid it sounded.’

‘That’s Ok. I deal with a lot of writers in my profession. I’m used to it. I’m a publisher.’

Harry turned to him, the desperation now clearly visible in his eyes.

‘I know this sounds odd, but I could really talk to someone right now, you’re right: I am going through something. You seem like a good bloke, I understand if…’

The man patted him on the shoulder, ‘Sure thing. I was just killing time this morning anyway, truth be told. How about a coffee? I know a great place on the river.’

‘Prefer a drink?’

‘Whatever’, he looked at his watch, ‘a little early for me.’

‘I’m a writer, I need my oil for the mental cogs.’

‘Quite so, have you written anything I’d have read?’

‘How about ‘The Bull who wouldn’t Fight?’

‘No’.

‘Cadence?’, said with a hopeful look in his eye.

The man shook his head.

‘Then nothing you’d have read’, said Harry despondently.

Beneath them a long line of choristers were taking their places and fiddling with their sheet music.

11:30. Top Deck. Zen Restaurant & Bar. Tatershall Steam Boat. River Thames, Embankment side.

As Harry sat down amidst the relative opulence of the floating restaurant it suddenly dawned on him that he’d spent the last of his money getting into the gallery. The waiter floated over looking like he owned the place and Harry felt red-faced yet again, like he’d jumped out the water and was flapping on the deck for air with his empty pockets making no noise. He thought it better to speak up sooner:

‘Look I’m a little light at the moment, I’ll just have a water.’

The Publisher wagged a finger, ‘Nonsense, this one’s on me, pal. You’re having a bad day, so my treat. Knock yourself out.’

Harry turned eagerly to the smug waiter poised with his notepad.

‘Well, for starters I’ll have depression, followed by a main of self-doubt, and then for pudding – I think the low self-esteem soufflé – unless it won’t rise of course.’

The Publisher took off his sunglasses to wipe his forehead, his eyes twinkled in the water reflecting up from their starboard table.

‘That bad, huh?’

Harry drummed his fingers on the table in an attempt to defuse some of his building tension. He wanted to just blurt it all out and be free of it, but reminded himself he was in professional company. The Publisher was considering the wine menu.

Perhaps you need some rosé coloured glasses?’

Harry shook his head and drummed his fingers once more.

‘Can’t drink rosé, it makes me mean, well… meaner. The Pinot looks good though, perhaps a bottle of the Californian?’ Harry trailed off as his eyes locked on the price.

The Publisher waved his hand to the waiter in agreement, the waiter collected up the menus and sauntered off into the galley.

‘Please continue…’, he said.

‘I feel like an empty sewerage pipe,’ Harry began, looking out across the river to the far bank, ‘It’s like I woke up today realizing all my dreams have been unrealistic and now it’s too late to start again.’

Leaning over the side of the boat had caused the publisher’s sunglasses to slip down his nose and he pushed them up with his index finger.

‘It’s better to travel hopefully than arrive, eh? We men are like water, we find the path of least resistance… that’s why you get crooked rivers and crooked men.’

Harry laughed for the first time that week, ‘You’re not wrong.’

‘Look, seeing as fate has brought us together why don’t you pitch me some ideas then, I’m always looking for new titles. Tell me about ‘The Bull that wouldn’t Fight?’ Pitch it to me…’

Harry froze as if a rabbit, feeling altogether too depressed to switch into selling mode, but he forced himself to focus, perhaps life was throwing him a juicy bone.

‘Well it was a novella back in ninety-eight, but it’s already published. I’d rather pitch you my new stuff….’

The publisher waved his hand again, ‘Unpublished…?’

‘Hell yes!‘, Harry blurted out without thinking.

‘Got any Chick-Lit type stuff?’

Harry involuntarily gripped the table-cloth.

‘No’.

‘Shame. Chick lit’s where it’s at money-wise. Lot of money in the genre.’

The waiter arrived with the wine and Harry stole his glass from the tray before the waiter could put it down. The waiter paused and rolled his eyes. Three magpies landed on the boat’s smoke stack just to the right of their table. Harry craned his head, using his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun.

‘Fucking magpies been following me all day, I swear.’

The Publisher followed his eye line, ‘That makes three for a girl, doesn’t it?’

‘Yeah, and four for a book deal’?

The Publisher returned his gaze to the table.

‘Lot a money in Chick Lit. You got a daughter?’

Harry’s sudden tension was palpable like a cloud had crossed the sun. He answered with a prickly defensiveness.

‘Yeah… you?’

‘Nope. I’ve got a pot plant though. I’ve had it for a year and I’m really trying to take care of it. I figure if it grows, then I’m safe to take care of something bigger, like a dog… then who knows maybe a kid..? I’ll take baby steps… What I meant was maybe you could pump your daughter for ideas?’

Harry felt uncomfortable with the image that brought to mind and replied with a final, ‘We don’t speak anymore. Nothing in my life has turned out the way I thought it would.’

The Publisher nodded sagely and threw an overspill from the breadbasket over the side of the boat to one of the circling magpie, ‘You’re a glass half empty kind of guy then?’

Harry drained the last of his wine. ‘I am round here.’ The publisher recharged his glass from the bottle.

‘Don’t be too down. It’s probably not your fault anyway. Psychologists reckon that if you look at a person’s life in childhood: their loves and hates, their personality, then throw in their life-experiences to date then you usually find that adult sitting before you is exactly as they had to be. It was a natural logical evolution. Don’t beat yourself up about it, you didn’t really have a choice. There you were, mewling and puking in the crib, much like you’re doing now may I just say, born into the world with the most impressive hardware in the known universe, and an empty hard drive waiting to be filled with what was rolled in front of your face – slaps or kisses you didn’t have any choice in the matter in the formative years. Then once you reached maturity and the jelly of experience had set into an adult brain, your body begins to slowly decay and you spend the next seventy years putting out the fires of your original imperfect mould.’

Harry kept his eye fixed on the publisher, his left hand reaching out for the glass without needing to look, he always had a sixth sense for where his glass was in the same way a mother connected to her child. ‘Christ, you’re a barrel of laughs…’ he looked down at the water, ‘you’d better walk the plank.’

The Publisher gave a salute. ‘I don’t deal the cards, I just play with the hand I’m given.’

Harry was starting to feel the sincerity of the wine flood his bloodstream, warming his alligator blood.

‘I still believe the universe is uncaring, not to say it is evil; it’s just totally neutral and non-judgmental: Think what implications that really has for living. We have choice. We’re set free. I still believe there’s an energy that flows like a stream of brilliant light through the centre of every living thing that just IS. It’s not good or bad, it’s not sentient as we understand it. But, just like a tree falls down in the forest making only vibrations it takes an ear to turn that vibration into sound. The same with life energy: it needs a living host to register it and feel it as pure love.’

The publisher poured himself another glass.

‘And how’s that life-philosophy working out for ya?’

Harry picked up the bottle from the stand but it was empty.

‘Oh it’s surely over for me. I took my shot and missed’, He thumped the table, ‘I guess I’ve just got to deal with it. I’ve just got to come to terms with mediocrity and forgetting about all the things that should’ve been. I’m forty-five for Christ’s sake, look at the belly, the hair. Never again will I run my hands through long locks, never again will I sleep with a beautiful girl, ripe as a peach and bursting with fresh joy. I’ve seen them in the clubs and supermarket queues, looking at me like I’m their father.’

The publisher clasped his hands behind his head and looked up into the ozone, the words rushing through him and up to the cosmos.

‘That’s getting old for you, I guess. Just got to suck it up and accept it… or you could get rich and powerful, that works too.’

‘Sure, if I had success then I’d still be in the market, I’d be relevant… Ah, bullshit. My last novel was panned. No one loves an alcoholic but his barman. That’s why I’m working as a lowly court sketcher: my prose is flowing like this morning’s porridge. My last novel was called Cadence: about a man who believed everything had a vibration and could be measured, if every living thing’s vibration was sampled and turned into a note then he thought that would be the chord of creation, actually creating life. So he did it…’

The publisher avoided Harry’s stare by looking over at the waiter and dangling the empty bottle, requesting another.

‘You sure you not got any Chick Lit..?’

Harry exploded, the wine had given him a false confidence and he momentarily forgot who was paying,

‘Fuck the Chit-Lick. I could write ten of those fuckers in a day and still go out dancing.’

The publisher tasted the wine, swilling it around his mouth, taking his time as he considered things.

‘I’ve an idea. How’s about a bet then? It’s not as easy as you think. I’ll bet you can’t pitch me some chick-lit good enough to publish. If you can, then I’ll promise to take the synopsis and personally kick it upstairs at my publishing house. How about it? Go on, pitch me, bewitch me.’

‘Hell yes. You’re on. You better believe I need the money. I can write all house-styles. But where to start though, what’s the brief?’

‘Same as with all great writing. Start with the truth. But remember, as Brecht wrote: our job is not to show reality, but to show how things really are’.

Harry took a long breath.

‘Ok. I went into my local deli this morning from my Manhattan loft…’

‘Good, aspirational life-style’s a must for Chick Lit, she must work in fashion or journalism or TV, she must be moderately successful and good looking, but be single and dissatisfied with her life. It doesn’t matter that in reality most women would like to have her starting life-style of cocktails and taxis, massive Manhattan lofts and travel all on a P.A.’s salary, etc…’

‘Mmm, Ok. Well, she goes to get some sushi out of the deli refrigerator…’

‘No. New Yorker’s never buy the pre-made sushi – it’s guaranteed food poisoning. It’s got to be realistic.’

The waiter arrived with the fresh bottle, breaking Harry’s concentration.

‘Sound-bite me! Who’s writing this fucking thing? Ok, so she’s going in to buy a wheat smoothie and there was a real feral stink to the place and two men were mopping out the chiller cabinet. She asks the teller what’s creating this funk, and he said a disgruntled employee had shit into his own hand and hidden the turd at the back of the cabinet just behind the chocolate yoghurts. It was only when enough of the yoghurts had been bought that the shit was revealed: some poor woman had grabbed the last carton and thought it was leaking, but when she smelled her fingers she apparently screamed and ran out the shop. The teller had gone to investigate and there sitting royal and proud was the melting dump.’

A magpie landed on the guardrail and Harry quickly shooed it away, nervously waiting on a response.

‘Yeah, I’m not sure that’s what women want to read about… what else you got?’

‘Oh I don’t fucking know, something about being Size Zero and struggling with reality? Something about lonely twenty somethings with one too many cats and lo-cal chocolate bars? No? How about a single mother fighting against the odds to get her little shit of a son diagnosed with ADHD, whilst still allowing her weed-smoking boyfriend to beat him with an Xbox controller whilst she stuffs him with sherbet and E-numbers?

Harry once again drained his glass. The sky was beginning to cloud, adding to the temperature on deck.

The publisher looked at his watch as he mumbled, ‘Stereotypes don’t sell.’

‘You sure about that? Stereotypes wouldn’t have meaning if they weren’t actually anchored in a general truth. Think about it.’

A fly landed on Harry’s napkin and he slammed his open palm down on it, leaving a red and yellow mush on the brilliant white fabric. Unaware of the stain, he took the napkin and tucked it into his shirt, leaving the remnants of the fly exposed to the Publisher as the waiter approached with some canapés. Harry reached across him, once again unable to wait until the plates were put down. He picked up a chicken drumstick but instinctively feeling it too hot he released it back onto the descending plate, licking his sauce-stained fingers.

‘You ever think when you look at your palm how much your thumb looks like a chicken drummer?’

The Publisher looked out across the Thames to watch a passenger ferry scoot down towards the city. Harry saw it too, he looked through the fiberglass windows at the suited and booted commuters being whisked off to some important meeting further downstream, probably Canary Wharf he imagined.

‘Jesus, I used to have so much energy to compete. Where did it all go, eh? I’m like a fucking bomb that never went off. It’s all finished.’

The Publisher spat a pistachio nut shell out over the side, blowing it through an open fist, ‘God, black and white thinking is the curse of our age. The truth on anything, a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g is always gray. A complicated brain gray. It’s natural. When you’re young everything is so important and deep, it’s all new and fresh because you’re doing it for the first time. You’ve got a massive cannon of white-hot energy and you want to fire it all over something, but by the time you reach your forties you’re running out of gunpowder and pretty much dribbling blanks.’

Harry tried again for a drumstick but it was still too hot. He followed the publisher’s lead and picked up some pistachio nuts from the bowl, throwing them in his mouth and crunching down on the hard shells. He leant over the guardrail and spat out the crap, feeling his gums already starting to bleed.

The Publisher looked at his watch, ‘I got to go soon. Try again. Pitch it. The diamond-sharpest you can get…’

Harry wiped his lips with his cuff and tried to compose himself. With the clouds clearing, the sun shone on the table once more, illuminating the publisher’s purple cravat. Harry thought of Chloe, his daughter holding the posies.

‘OK. How this for a story then: We open on a young and good looking female scientist…’

‘Good. Name?’

Harry looked round the boat pretending to need inspiration, but there was only ever one girl’s name on his mind.

‘Let’s call her Chloe. She discovers a drug which when injected into her subject allows her to take over their mind and operate them just like a machine. It’s like Zombie Haiti chemical tribal compound. Now, Chloe had a tough childhood and decides she wants to punish her father for being such a shit. She tracks him down and injects him with the drug and takes over his mind, leaving him powerless to stop whatever situation she wants to put him in. He still feels everything, all the kicks and punches, but his mind is being controlled by the scientist. Chloe exacts her revenge on him by making him do all these crazy, embarrassing, reckless things, until he realises the error of his ways. The torture then becomes an atonement and he asks her for forgiveness…’

Harry broke off and wiped his eyes with the soiled napkin.

‘….But he fears he doesn’t deserve a second chance…’

The floodgates opened and he let it all out over the top deck of the restaurant, the magpies drinking up the hot salty tears, ‘…Sorry, I really don’t know where all that came from. Like I told you back there, I’m really going through it today.’

The Publisher reached across the table and patted Harry’s forearm in consolation.

‘Maybe you should call your daughter, huh?’

Harry brushed the hand away.

‘Not that it’s any of your business… Oh maybe you’re right. Hell I don’t even have a number for her anymore.’ He stood up, feeling a  little unsteady on his legs but put it down to his being on water, ‘I need a piss.’

The publisher called out to him as he reached the deck door, ‘Stick with it Harry, I know all about the divided self. But it’s the writers and musicians who change the world, not the bankers.’

Harry made a cautious descent, his undersoles slipped on the wet rubber of the narrow stairs and he fell, bouncing down to the bottom on his backside where he was met on arrival by the waiter, smug as ever with arms folded and exasperated look.

‘Don’t worry, just finding my sea-legs, old chap,’ said Harry dusting off his work trousers. His bladder was filled to bursting and he needed to piss so badly he couldn’t think straight. In the back of his mind he knew he had to keep the publisher on the hook with a big juicy idea, pitch some more ideas to him, at least get a business card. As Harry shook the final drops he suddenly realized he didn’t even know this guy’s name. How strange of him not to have asked? He washed his hands, long and thorough, really scrubbing between the fingers like a surgeon, for the first time in years he felt like he’d purged himself of something. He felt sprightly and light as he bounced back up the steps. But when he got back the publisher was gone. The napkin had been neatly folded and next to it the tip of the check poked out from the restaurant’s black wallet. Harry opened it up to see the bill had been settled and wedged into the spine was a business card. Harry shook the card free and looked at it. On the back side was a phone number scrawled in biro, on the front was a name only. As he read the name the ship’s horn blew dislodging the magpies and sending them scattering into the sky. It was a name he knew well: ‘Bull Wendell.’

Harry felt on auto-pilot as he reached into his jacket for his phone and dialed the number. After a few rings it connected at the other end, a woman’s voice, changed by years but unmistakable, it was a voice he recognized instantly, ‘Hello..?’

‘It’s me…’, he struggled, gulping down the emotion. ‘It’s Harry…’

There was a pause on the other end of the line before a sound that came out on a rush of disbelief and relief which sounded to Harry as if it contained every vibration in the universe:

‘Dad..?’

 

Checkin’ on the Chicken


Marcus Garvey Tower Block. Hackney Downs, East London. Evening.

Quinton Nganbi reached under the hot grill and turned the chicken wings with his fingers letting out a yelp as the hot fat burned into his young flesh. He kicked the bottom of the cooker in frustration and then cussed when he saw the grubby dent he’d made in the white steel. His mum was going to tear him a new ass for this.

His phone rang and glad of the distraction he went to open the back door and out into the garden to try and get a better signal. As the call progressed, he noticed the sweet smell of chicken fat was gradually being replaced by a more acrid and bitter scent and casting his eyes lazily back up to the kitchen door he was horrified to see a black pall of smoke belching steadily out like an volcano. Dropping the phone he rushed back indoors and instinctively reached up to remove the grill, burning his fingers once more.

‘Clot!’, he chastised himself as both the grill and blackened chicken hit the floor in an explosion of grease and smoke. It looked like the bonnet of a burning car after a smash. Now his mum was surely going to dance on his grave.

Quinton stood arms out stretched, mouth open, shaking his hands like he was trying to take-off and cool his own burnt flesh. But as the smog dissipated he saw above the cooker a face he knew well. A face his mum dragged him to see every Sunday come rain or come shine. Staring back at him was the son of god.

‘Christ!’

Quinton gawped in disbelief at the perfect imprint of the face of Jesus Christ left behind the cooker on the smoke damaged wall. It was undeniably the messiah, each twist of grease and ash perfectly finding the contours of his bearded countenance.

Quinton stumbled back, catching his foot on the grill and causing the remainder of the grease to stain like blood round the linoleum. He rushed to the living room and pulled his mother’s bible from the shelf, flicking through the rice-paper pages not quite sure what he was hoping to find but needing to do something, as he then stood in the doorway staring back through to the kitchen and feeling a sudden sense of dread. He didn’t want to go back in there under any circumstances. Instead he ripped a few pages from the bible, stuffed them in his pocket and left the apartment without looking back.

 

Shoreline, West Reservoir. Hackney. Half an Hour Later.

Quinton sat on the concrete edge of the lake, his trainers just kissing the skin of the water in the evening sun. With the thin paper from the bible he rolled a joint and holding it tightly lit it hoping to draw a line under what had just happened. He breathed in deep from the blue smoke resisting the urge to blow a smoke ring in case that face should reappear. He felt an unnatural stillness to the lake this evening, even the birds had become silent in the trees and as he stared at his reflection in the mirrored water he noticed a slight ripple begin in the image. Perhaps it was just the weed messing with his mind? There was no breeze. He mouthed the words to a tune that had been on his mind as he drained the joint, pleased by how he looked in his reflection. He heard a sound behind him and turned to see a man crossing the path with his dog. Quinton felt his ghetto dream disappear and remembered that he wasn’t in East L.A but self-conscious and skint in Hackney. He kissed his teeth at the man for the interruption and turned back to the lake hoping to recapture the moment.

The dog came up to him and nuzzled under his arm. Quinton couldn’t resist stroking his head and patting him even though it didn’t fit with the image he was trying to project. He’d always wanted a pet growing up but had never got one. His mum always said she had enough trouble finding the money to feed him let alone another mouth. The dog rolled over onto his belly and Quinton stroked the soft skin, liking the total submission to his mastery that the dog was displaying. The man whistled and the dog quickly rolled over to follow him off into the brush.

Quinton found himself aroused by a sense of power but almost immediately felt frustrated. He was desperate and paranoid that at fifteen he was still a virgin, but he couldn’t find any girl who looked as great as they looked in the R&B videos: and he knew more than anything that if he got with an ugly girl then that would show his friends just how much he didn’t respect himself. Was an ugly girl really all he could get? No, his self esteem was worth more than that, how would people think he rolled if his woman wasn’t ‘peng’? No, it was more important to have respect than to be liked in his world and as not many people liked him he felt things were just fine.

His legs had remained still against the concrete wall but the water had began to tap the bottom of his trainers at regular intervals. He looked down between his feet to see there was now a definite disturbance in the water, at first like the oxygen bubbles of a large fish, but gradually a circle of water was beginning to broil like a hot kettle was being held just beneath the surface. Quinton found himself standing up and moving back from whatever he felt was coming feeling reminded of the cartoons he still sometimes watched, guiltily, caught on the bridge between child and manhood. Godzilla? In Hackney? Again he felt foolish and threw the joint roach into the centre of the bubbling cauldron. Something was coming, like a sliver of silver an inverted V shape broke the water as delicately as a hypodermic needle. Up the shimmering silver strip went into the evening air, catching the sun before it set over the surrounding tower blocks. Finally as the hilt broke through the water, Quinton recognized it to be a sword.

A green glow continued to bubble beneath the water, lit from some hot unseen source. A delicate hand twisted around the sword handle, diamonds of water and fish scales falling around the wrist. The sword too now began to glow with a bright green luminescence. Quinton was totally sucked in by the sight,  the sword seemed to beckon him, willing him to come forward and take it. He felt a sudden sense of ownership and right, he knew this gift was for him and him alone.

Without thought for his new trainers, he lowered himself into the water and swam out the short few metres to the prize. Treading water, he grabbed the sword with both hands and felt the cold and smooth hand let go her grip and the digits slip round his own enclosing palm like the tentacle of a squid.

Not quite daring to believe it was really his, Quinton swam back to shore, behind him the hand slowly disappeared back below the water line and the birds began to sing for the dusk again.

The sword clattered on the concrete retaining its eerie green glow. Quinton hauled himself out and sat next to it. It was his. He admired it in the dying light full of strange symbols and inscriptions lost on him, but fearing the glow would attract too much attention he felt exposed and the moment’s spell had been broken once more. The bark of another approaching dog, sure to be accompanied by an owner, sealed the deal. He must go. Quinton carefully shoved the sword down his left trouser-leg and pulled his T-shirt over the hilt which protruded up from his belt to around his chest. Walking like a man with a wooden leg but feeling self-conscious like a man who’d shit himself, he staggered back to his mum’s consoling himself that he’d sure be laughing tomorrow when he sold it.

 

Next Day. George Antiques, Angel Islington.

With the sword concealed under a long coat Quinton moved through the crowds as inconspicuously as a two foot broadsword would allow. Even at the best of times he still felt uncomfortable in this part of town. He didn’t understand the rules or what was expected of him in a place like this. The antique shops wound their way along the cobbled street, the old buildings leaning in like gossipy hunchbacks over his head. This was out of his postcode and he could easily be in trouble if the wrong gang was passing. Quinton looked out of the alley and onto the main road searching the telegraph wires for shoes slung over them by the laces. His worst fears were confirmed. He comforted himself with the thought that at least for once he was armed. He wasn’t sure which shop would be best to sell the sword, but figured the one with a small dagger in the window was probably a safer bet than the ones he’d just passed with their china dolls and lace bullshittery on display.

He went in and was surprised by the large bell which rang with his entrance. He felt like a greyhound out of a trap and ran forward with the sword pointing out toward the equally startled owner.

‘You may put your lance down, son. I’m not jousting today’ the owner quipped, the unease clearly heard beneath the sarcasm.

Quinton lowered his weapon and took a deep breath. This shop smelled old. Old like his grandma’s coats at the back of her wardrobe. Old like money. He felt sure he’d come to the right place.

‘You buy swords and shit, innit?’

The man had regained his composure and leant across a large oak desk playing with a clay pipe, the burned gray tobacco in the bowl matching his own hair.

‘I deal in metallurgy if that’s your question, although I’m not sure you’d be interested in any weapon pre nineteen eighties?’

‘Whatever. I’m selling not buying… So how much for this..?’

Feeling like he had the biggest dick in the world Quinton produced the sword in one elegant swoop.

The man’s eyes lit up in disbelief.

‘Jesus Christ! Let me look at that would you.’ All traces of sarcasm had drained from his voice.

Quinton handed him the sword expectantly, blade first.

‘It’s just an old sword though, hey?’

‘No it most certainly isn’t. You’re not old enough to appreciate beauty yet. You haven’t had the life-experiences to know shit from Shinola, son.‘

‘You don’t know me.’

‘True, true. But you don’t know this…’ He cupped his hand at the tip of the blade and carefully, gently, allowed his palm to run down the edge of the blade to the hilt, where he twisted it in his palm, reading the inscription.

‘Old English most certainly. The metal in the blade has clearly been folded more than the date would warrant… Ah, here we have a crest, Arthurian. Platinum! Solid bloody platinum…’

The sword began to throb and the green glow now familiar to Quinton grew from somewhere inside the blade. The shop owner dropped it fearfully onto the oak desk.

‘Jesus Christ. Where did you get this?’

Quinton shrugged his shoulders, ‘I don’t know, round the…’

‘WHERE?’ the man’s voice came impatient and strong, the clay pipe shaking in his mouth.

‘Fuck you prick. What’s it worth? Gimme two hundred and you can have it.’

The man’s jaw became slack and a bubble of hot snot began to build out of his left nostril.

‘What’s it worth…? It’s priceless.’

Quinton kicked the bottom of the oak desk in frustration, once more leaving a grubby indent on the soft wood. He quickly stepped back hoping the man hadn’t noticed, but he was lost in a reverie.

‘Shit though. Priceless? Not even worth a fiver? Come on man. That’s bullshit. You know it and I know it. There’s got to be a price we can agree on. It ain’t priceless you’re just trying to stiff me.’

Quinton went to grab the sword but the shop keeper brought to his senses defensively pulled the sword in close to his chest.

‘No! No, It’s too important. There’s no way this is yours. No. No way.’

With a convincing left hook, Quinton caught the man on the corner of his jaw sending the clay pipe splintering to the ground. The effect was impressive and immediate. The man let go the sword to instinctively protect his face, leaving Quinton free to run from the shop and back along the cobbled alley, charging with the sword as if running to some epic battle. The lunchtime shoppers parted around him like the Red Sea as he made his charge. Once clear of the antiques alley he leaned against a lamp post to catch his breath, the sword hanging from his side. Quinton looked up straight into the window of a passing police car. The officer in the passenger seat couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The squad car burst into life with sirens and flashing lights, turning viciously in the road, almost hitting an approaching cyclist. The officer in the passenger seat jumped out brandishing his night-stick but Quinton was already ducking into the nearby shopping arcade.

The officer launched himself through the glass doors and quickly gained on Quinton disadvantaged by the heavy sword. He caught the back of the boys legs with his long black truncheon causing Quinton to barrel into a popcorn stand, the ready-made bags cushioning his fall. The policeman was upon him about to rain blows, instinctively Quinton pulled the sword from his coat and deflected the first of them. The huge broadsword connected with the truncheon and split the vulcanized rubber down to the metal. This gave the officer pause for thought. Quinton got to his feet and began a running sword-fight through the shopping centre. The policeman was relentless in his pursuit and seemed oblivious to the distress of the shoppers caught up in his swashbuckling. With each parry and thrust Quinton played back in his mind how he’d got himself into this situation, what had he actually done wrong? One thing was now for certain, things had gone too deep. There was no turning back now, he was committed to getting away. He ducked into a supermarket and with a huge sweep of the sword he quickly took out an aisle of wine bottles, the glass shattering around the chasing officer and hopefully slowing him down. Without looking back to see how much, Quinton ran for the store-room and through to the loading bay sneaking out towards the high street.

Quinton continued running, he tore down the smallest alleyways he could find, zigzagging through the borough like a rat in a maze, the sound of sirens now all around him and shutting him down. Risking the main high street he caught his reflection in the large glass-fronted Camelot National Lottery offices, he liked how he looked with the sword at his side. Running round the side of the building he found himself in front of Hackney Town Hall, the steep stone steps leading up to the main entrance and a smaller side alley off to the side of the vast building. Behind him the sirens grew louder. Daring a look behind him Quinton saw the police car mounting the pavement, bathing the first few steps in a revolving blue light.

They came from the left and the right. Quinton knew he was cornered. His only chance of salvation was the side-alley at the top of the steps. He bolted for it taking the steps two at a time, trying to keep the sword up in front of him, but the tip of the blade dipped down and caught the final step acting like a pole-vault and sending him over the hilt and crashing against the wall. His left hand refused to let go of the blade and it arced over his rolling body embedding itself in the Town Hall wall. The sword shuddered through the concrete in a burst of unnatural green light, brighter than any soldering iron. A sound like the crying of a thousand souls in pain shattered the night air causing all those in the immediate vicinity to hold their ears. The sword tore into the wall like a knife through butter right up to the hilt where it stopped and remained firmly lodged.

Quinton rocked on his spine in agony, he was sure he’d broken his left arm. He twisted round to look back down the steps and saw three policemen, their nightsticks drawn, lurching up the steps towards him, their faces as eager as ravenous pigs. Clutching his broken arm to his chest, Quinton headed for the side alley and out of sight, his pain driving him on to impossible speeds. The policemen stopped their short chase and returned to inspect the sword. They were dumbfounded. Each took it in turns to yank on the ornate handle but it was clear it wasn’t budging. The fattest officer lifted up his helmet to wipe the sweat from his brow, his matted hair stuck to his forehead.

‘That’s not going anywhere, is it?’

‘Ok, best call it in then,’ replied the second.

The third officer scrunched up his neck and began speaking into the microphone attached to his dark blue jumper.

‘Two Seven to base. We’re going to need a drill down here… Yes, that’s right… drill.’

The voice squawked back harshly, seeming to bounce off the metallic hilt. ‘That’s a negative Two Seven. Be advised not possible till morning. Secure area.’

The officer released the intercom button and turned to the other two men who were now sitting down on the top step of the town hall, sweating from all the exertion.

‘Fuck it, I’m giving it one more try…’

With a base anger not befitting his uniform the officer pulled on the sword. He put his foot to the wall to get better leverage and yanked until he felt his eyes would pop out of his head. He groaned, he wailed, he cursed at the sword, but it would not move an inch. The seated officers began to laugh but quickly fell silent when they noticed an eerie green glow emitting from the hilt and travel up the policeman’s arms.

‘Shitting hell. Get away from that mate. Look…’

The officer saw his hands illuminating and quickly let go in fear.

‘Fuck that. It’s electrified or something, I ain’t touching that. It probably hit a junction box or live cable as it went in.’

The other officers got up and moved towards the squad car.

‘Well I guess it isn’t going anywhere, so balls to it. Just call it in and let the morning shift deal with it in the morning.’

Quinton had run a huge circle around the building and had taken to crouching unseen by some bike racks across the road behind the officers. He watched them return empty-handed to the squad car and drive off into the night. He felt an overwhelming desire to have the sword. He knew it was meant to be his and despite the risk he was damned if he’d leave it to be stolen by the council. Looking left and right he made a run at the steps, taking them three at a time. With a last power leap of four steps he found himself face to face with the hilt of the sword. With his right hand he reached out, closing his fingers around the cold steel and feeling the bevelled uneven surface of the ancient hilt. Quinton took a deep breath and pulled hard expecting no movement, but to his amazement the blade retracted from the concrete as smoothly as pulling out a birthday candle and the excess energy caused him to stagger back violently almost spilling down the steps.

Now free, the sword continued its wide arc, swinging into a low mounted CCTV camera and neatly chopping off the lens. Quinton heard them before he saw them: the unmistakable whining siren like a massive and dangerous baby. He spun round just in time to see the blue light of the police car. The two officers were already on the bottom step but their over-weight bodies allowed them only one step at a time in their ascent towards him. Quinton raised the sword above his head and shouted at the sky. His cry rang out across the borough as if amplified by the sword. A brilliant green light burst from the blade bathing the whole area in a supernatural glow. The officers threw themselves down on the steps, fearing an explosion, leaving them prostrate and kneeling a few metres down from Quinton who pointed Excalibur to each in turn as if knighting them.

‘Right, you fuckers. There’s gonna be some changes around here…’ he said.

 Blue Sky Thinkers Fall Out of the Box

twat

Here’s a list of overused phrases I want to see banned in this New Year:

…. Anyone who says “Unhelpful” as a professional/high-handed passive aggressive way of being pissed off about something someone’s said but wanting to maintain the moral high ground.

“Challenging” as in educational or children’s behaviour or for a vacant job role – translating as shit/awful but political correctness stops them from saying it.

“In a good place right now” as if they’ve gone to an LA psychotherapist or read too much Heat Magazine.

Anyone who describes themselves with a straight face as a “Digital Native”.

Anyone who introduces their job as I’m a Creative…’ Not, I’m creative, or I work freelance as a graphic designer, or I work in advertising, etc, but ‘I’m A Creative’. Such arrogance in needing to brand themselves as important and above the daily grind, really gets on my tits.

“Guilty Pleasure” to describe a tune they love but are scared they might have the piss taken.

Anyone who says “At the end of the day”. Or worse, in a business sense, “By close of play”

Those who describe themselves as “Aspirational” in a corporate lifestyle sense without a shred of irony or self-awareness.

Those who emphatically and nervously always prefix Multiculturalism with “Celebrate” as if they’re trying to sell something.

Anyone who starts a sentence (usually politicians) with “Look…”

Anyone who finishes a sentence with “…you know?”

Those who start a long speech with “With all due respect…” before launching into a shit-storm of evil speak…

What irritating phrases would YOU like to see banned in 2014..? 

Please let me know…          The best phrase wins a tea bag.

(Polls close at midnight on the 9th January, you may still be charged if you comment after this time, calls cost $400 from a landline, and from a mobile considerably more, not all texts will be read, in fact, my internet connection is about to go down, so maybe none of them will be ;) )