Posts Tagged ‘Mike Zealey’

The Complete Works, (so far!)

Hey there, and many 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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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…’