Posts Tagged ‘Zealey’

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. 

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….

 

 

Going Down in the Drinks Elevator

 

21:43. A Thursday two weeks after Mardi Gras. Decatur Street. French Quarter, New Orleans. Present Day.

With the job gone everything else had followed with a certain inevitability, like a Louisiana mudslide gathering speed and swallowing everything in its shit-coloured path. To Saul Barstow it had seemed more like a car crash in slow motion only he’d long ago taken his hands off the steering wheel and petulantly folded his arms in defiance to the gods. When the impact of how he’d been living finally crashed home, Saul found himself without an airbag or insurance.

In the days that had followed him walking out on his job he’d initially felt a certain rush of freedom, but this was soon replaced by a lethargy. He told people who asked him, less and less now, that his get-up-and-go had got-up-and-left and he couldn’t be bothered to go look for it. Despite the absolute freedom that came from being answerable to no one he found he still needed a routine. But after the first year even maintaining that came to feel like a job. It was so boring buying the same old things each day, milk, bread, something for dinner, it became like a treadmill. Do the washing up, just more to do tomorrow, have a shave, the stubble always grew back. The absolute futility of it all! Why did it always end in lost these days, never found?

So he just stopped. He stopped looking, he stopped it all.

Only there was one thing he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop…

‘Hit me up again, barman, the booze is flowing like molasses round here…’

It was round this time he discovered The Drinks Elevator. It was usually to be found in the Apple Barrel, a bar half way down Decatur street, but these days he could mostly find it anywhere. He didn’t have long tonight, he had something to deliver. He picked up the massive rucksack and slung it on his back. He hated it, stuffed full as it was with unpaid bills, unfulfilled dreams and the general detritus of life washing round in a stagnant harbor like so much fetid flotsam. How much heavier the backpack felt when he thought of it in those terms. He became Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, but his only progress recently had been paying off his outstanding tab at the local liquor store. The nylon straps on the rucksack had become twisted and now cut into his shoulders as he prepared to leave the apartment. Hang it all he needed a drink! Now the weight was on his back again, he knew it’d be a miracle if he could remove it without one.

‘Fuck it. I’ll treat myself to the elevator. It’s a smoother ride and I deserve it today.’

Miracles are to be found in the little things he told himself as he tied the laces on his pumps. They don’t have to be thunderbolts or old men parting the sea with heavy stone tablets. Miracles happened everyday if we could only stop to look, but most of us were too busy or self-absorbed to ever notice. This thought always made him feel glad he was without gainful employ. He had the time to stop and look and catch a glimpse of the divine plan in the overlooked cracks. He recalled an incident from his childhood growing up on his parents homestead in the Ozark mountains, a frog was being eaten by a snake. He’d been darkly fascinated, unable to look away like the urge to rubberneck a car-crash, not really wanting to see the smashed bodies but transfixed all the same. It hadn’t been a fair contest, the snake had the frog bang to rights clamped between its reticulated jaws, and was slowly digesting it. The frog was reversing down the snake’s throat and each time it squeezed on the frog’s belly the amphibian let out a squeak much like a dog’s chew toy, getting more desperate with each life-draining squeeze. It wouldn’t be long now. The meal was taking place in the long grass at the back of the homestead, no-one else on earth was supposed to see this. Then for no reason the snake seemed to sneeze and let the frog go. The frog kissed its teeth to the snake and hopped off towards the mangrove swamp. A miracle for the frog, but of no real importance in the scheme of things, but a miracle nontheless. This was how he viewed the Drinks Elevator, it was his own little miraculous secret, his second chance away from the serpent’s jaw.

He walked towards the Art Deco elevator admiring as he always did the ornate doors. His phone began to ring, he didn’t need to look at the screen: whoever it was he didn’t want to speak to them, not now he had set his mind to the wheel. He pressed the button to call the lift, there was only a down button, there only ever had been a down button. With a groan of cables and badly oiled cogs the lift gently rose to meet him.

Inside, the attendant reached eye-level with him, touching his cap in respect and resplendent in his neatly pressed shirt and collar with jacket buttons so polished that Saul paused to check he hadn’t left any turkey sandwich between his teeth in their reflection.

‘Good afternoon, sir. A little early today aren’t we?’

Saul swung the backpack as he got in, intentionally hitting the man for not minding his own business.

Going down I assume sir?’ said the attendant, pulling shut the grayling. The interior was spotlessly clean, with paintings of great historic battles on each side surrounding a central relief of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

The elevator descended to the next floor and came to rest with an almost imperceivable bump. Through the grail Saul could see his ex-work colleagues busying themselves in what looked like a hotel banqueting suite. He could hear the chink of crystal glass and the deep murmur of convivial bullshittery. He didn’t usually bother getting off at this floor anymore, finding it far too formal, but he managed to swipe a large glass of white wine from a passing waiter without even having to step fully out of the elevator. The lounge speakers droned out a Burt Bacharach beat and the whole thing just screamed flakiness at him from his vantage point safe inside the cage. Those that were dancing did so in nervous jittery movements like the spasms of shot deer, all the while trying to hold on to their drinks and the next conversation, never really listening, using the time the other person was speaking to think about what they were going to say next. Saul didn’t feel up to mingling with any of them and instructed the elevator attendant to speed on down to the next level, resisting the urge to go straight to the basement, knowing that may well come in time.

As they rattled down to the next level the light became softer and the music more relaxed. Saul visibly exhaled with relief as he saw three of his acquaintances leaning against the bar. He exited the elevator and headed over to the polished wooden counter. He hadn’t seen any of them in a while and quickly fell into an easy conversation once the ice had been broken with a few swift shooters of Jameson’s. At the appointed time he returned to the elevator with a spring in his step, bouncing into the carriage so that the floor yawned on the metal cables.

The attendant was leaning against the picture of Venus, collar undone and buttons seeming a little less reflective.

‘Feeling a little better sir?’

‘Jack, I’m feeling a million dollars. Take me down to the third floor immediately.’

Saul took his phone from his inside pocket and rested it on the horizontal metal bar of the lift. He reached his left hand out to the room in front of the lens as if trying to grab all his friends and everything else in that moment, freezing time.

‘Good luck to you, sir’.

‘Luck’s just the door, you got to come in through the window.’

‘Well said, sir’, the attendant seemed to hiccup as the last syllable trailed off into a burp.

Saul felt like he was flipping a silver dollar whilst having his spats cleaned on the corner of Chartres Street as he’d seen his father do when they used to go to the races on a Saturday morning. Saul’s phone started ringing again, only this time faint from inside his pocket like an embarrassed cough, inconsequential, the signal fading as the lift descended.

Saul had become talkative and barrel-chested. ‘I’m like a stereo see? And the booze and the drugs are like my graphic equalizers, I adjust them up and down, trying to find the perfect alchemy of buzz with which to get stuck in to the action.’

The attendant moved Saul’s jacket out of the way of the closing doors. He flipped down the pulley lever and the elevator once more began its descent.

Saul heard the musical baseline before he could see his friends dancing in the dimly lit club. Green and blue strobes shone through the elevator door to cast strange shadows over his face. The air was thick with weed and tobacco.  Fairground music and gunshots.

Saul ordered up another round of shots and tried to dance. He almost convinced himself he was having a good time, but something felt missing. The more he tried to hoof it, the emptier he felt. Instead of feeling loose he began to feel a pitching queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He looked up at his friends who were gurning up at the strobe lights. How could he be feeling so separate right now? He could feel the hot salty lava building in his osophegus burning its way up, hellbent on an eruption. No, what was this bullshit? It was far too early! He hadn’t even drunk that much as far as he could remember. He tried to tell his friends that he was feeling a little off colour but they just seemed to look straight through him lost in their private dancing, only wanting to know about the next round of drinks and happy stories. Saul knocked back a large one for the road then on the excuse of finding the rest room he instead found the elevator. The attendant seemed surprised to see him back so soon.

‘Everything alright sir?’

‘Take me down Jack, life should be lived on the knife’s edge but I’m feeling as soft as rancid butter all of a sudden.’

‘Perhaps you should slow down a little sir? Take some water on board perhaps?’

Saul waved him away with his hand.

‘Fuck it. Don’t tell me my business. You’ve been doing it all evening. What are you, my wife now?’

The attendant didn’t answer. He simply closed the sliding door and yanked on the down lever. With his back turned to him, Saul couldn’t see the sly smile on the increasingly aging face of the elevator attendant. Saul was looking into the reflective glass of the elevator doors. Not for the first time he didn’t recognise his own reflection. He stared into the bloodshot eyes and didn’t get any flash of self. How he imagined himself to look in his mind’s eye was at total odds with the reality now presenting itself. When did he get so old? Some haggard version of his father looked back through the frosted glass as the outside neon lamps streaked past as the elevator fell further.

His heart always skipped a beat as he approached the fourth floor and saw the orange sunset strike him in the ankles like a welcoming searchlight through the slats of the elevator door, gradually ascending to his thighs, then his chest and face as it reached level. He saw her silhouetted against the sun coming through the roof-terrace, vines thick with succulent grapes and her looking like the most succulent of all fruits. Saul’s feet left behind the sticky metal floor and touched pampas grass. The Mexican evening felt hot on his bald patch as he walked towards her. He was suddenly overcome by nerves, he hadn’t planned on stepping off at level four tonight, he’d felt too self-conscious and worthless to delve into this memory, and yet, here he was, walking towards her, the sound of the ciccadas mixing in his ears with his own pumping heart, but as he got closer he fancied it was actually the croaking of frogs.

She was pouring some of the new season olive oil onto an end crust of the morning’s bread now hardened in the dusk. Her usually jet black hair had found the heart to melt to a russet in the strong sunset. He walked across the veranda and pulled back a metal chair making it grate on the dirt floor.  He sat down, facing her, feeling the bougainvillea wrap itself around him as he lent against the fence.

He stared straight into those blue whirlpool eyes, he knew she saw him even though she continued to stare off across the valley munching on the oil-soaked bread. Feeling keenly the inadequacy of words Saul tried pure telepathy. He looked at her and tried to find the honesty of himself to connect with the honesty of her.

‘We couldn’t even be in the same room to begin with, do you remember? It was so strong, the electricity between us, it was like bringing two lightning bolts to a magnet, the whole room would get so electrified people’s hair would stand on end when we kissed.’

He studied those eyes trying to see a flame get started, but all he saw was his own memory of the two of them intertwined like a medicine snake in those black pupils, from that black past. Nothing more. Fuck it, now he had a new medicine and a new snakebite he didn’t need her. Time to get back to the thing he could always rely on. Memories were lies anyways, like old movies he could re-edit again and again in his mind choosing with each viewing what scenes to leave out until they played perfectly, according to his iron will.

He walked quickly back to the elevator unhappy with this surge of unwanted emotion. The attendant was there as usual with a kind word:

‘I wouldn’t dally here if I were you, sir. Time is a-wasting’.

Saul tried the same telepathic look into his eyes, but they were opaque and emotionless, like a snake about to slough it’s skin. He suddenly felt like a frog unable to escape the jaws of the elevator. He allowed his gaze to lose its intensity and fall down the attendants uniform. It was looking bedraggled, what buttons hadn’t fallen off were now sullied, none of their proud sheen remained. They were unpolished and unloved; yet so was he. Damn if he didn’t need another drink already. The sweat had broken out on his forehead and he tried to rally the woozy attendant.

‘I like your style Jack, respectful. You know what, I’m gonna tip ya right now, just send me down quick, uh?’

Saul rooted around in the pockets of his slacks. Feeling nothing folding he moved to his jacket inside pocket and pulled out a cheque book. The cover had been torn into neat rectangles from the rolling of numerous joints. He flicked open what remained to find nothing but stubs.

‘I seem to be a little light tonight, I’ll get you on the way back up.’

The attendant continued to stare blankly at him.

‘Ok then, good… I always say…’ Saul’s voice had been battered down by the booze to a mumble and he gripped the handrail to steady himself. Caught in the sickly glow of the elevators strip lighting he cut a broken figure, cowed by every bottle he’d ever drunk being smashed over his head in the morning.

‘…Just take me down the drain, Jack…’

The eyes of the attendant flickered open like a TV screen being switched on. He reached his hand up to the lever, now carved in the shape of a snake’s head and let it hang over the snout.

‘Are you sure sir? It’s still early. I was told you had business to attend to?’

‘No, the basement is best ways tonight, Jack, the game’s not worth the candle.’  .

The attendant’s legs buckled as he raised himself up on his haunches to depress the lever.  He still looked a little queasy round the gills but a good belch seemed to correct it enough for normal service to be resumed.

‘Mind the doors please. Going down.’

He reached for a rope cord hanging  from the wooden slats and yanked. The meat-packing service lift closed horizontally. And as it slammed shut, Saul saw that the attendant was now just wearing an off-white vest. the hairs on his sunburned back turned silver in places.

The elevator felt like it was free-falling snapped loose from controlling cables. It shot down to the basement with such force that it knocked Saul off his feet and into the air where he and the attendant hung for an instant as if strange Cosmonauts engaged on a sling shot round the Sun. When the metal cage slowed to a bumpy halt just before the smash, Saul found himself on his hands and knees. There was a silence. He could hear the burb rising in his throat before swallowing it back down, feeling the need to remain straight, in front of the attendant.

Until it had stopped he hadn’t even been aware of the tinned music in the elevator, but now it was gone it was almost like there had been another person in the room. On his knees Saul heard the tinkle of soft harpsichord notes, as if plucked on a metal wheel.

The elevator doors remained closed and he looked over to the attendant slumped on his corner stool, sound asleep. Saul called out to him to open the doors, no response. He got up and shook him by the lapels, still no response. Feeling justified in the circumstances he slapped the attendant round the face, softly at first, then harder. He remained stone unconscious.

Saul smelt he’d reached the basement before his eyes caught up. A heavy scent of rich myrrh, cigar tobacco, opiates and just enough astringent disinfectant to add an undeniable piquancy. He felt he was home again. As if loaded with explosive charges, his backpack jettisoned off his back and shot against the door control lever. Like a troll’s sickly yawn the elevator doors creaked upon horizontally. Saul rubbed his sore shoulders.  It sure felt a lot easier without that weight on his back. As he left the elevator he hoped that whatever had been in the sack wasn’t important or urgent, he couldn’t remember now, but no matter, he comforted himself with the knowledge it was usually there neatly stacked by the elevator in the morning.

The attendant was slumped in the corner without the strength to lift the elevator shutters. Saul yanked on the cord and stepped through like a child in a sweet shop.

He gave a last look over his shoulder to see the elevator’s shutters transforming into the metal jaws of a bear trap. They snapped shut like a robotic mouth on a breeze of necrossing halitosis. He moved through the wooden cellar, the smoke so thick it was as if everyone inside were fish being slowly smoked. To left and right the kippers were kipping, stretched out on their opium-den stained mattresses, stained with the life force of all who’d rested there as it had been sucked out of them, never to be returned. Saul sucked in the thick chocolaty air. He was back amongst his people.

He found his personal corner, decorated with the posters of all his ego’s past triumphs. A small crystal screen was embedded in the ceiling of the four-poster bed, surrounded by plush Bedouin drapes peeling out from the centre  like petals from a rose. The screen intermittently showed flight departures to places he wanted to visit, interspersed with pornographic movies of people he dreamt of laying. He lay back on the cool silken pillow and reached for the tube containing the dark juice. It hung from one of the posts of the bed at eye level like an emergency oxygen mask on a doomed flight, Saul pulled down on the plastic tubing to start the flow of the thick molasses liquid, bringing the suction cup end to his lips he began to gulp down the yoghurty silt directly into his brain stem. He lay back on the soft mattress and released a belch into the sunken world lit by candlelight, as the medicine took its effect, the room felt almost religious but instead of the cold stone draft of his childhood religion this was some priestess cult and her temple was warm and womb-like, pulsating with living tissue. This was the place he really wanted to get to each time he took a sip or gulped a slug. This was always his end game and ultimate destination with everything stripped from him, pared away like the layers of an onion. Here he was at the most basic level, uncluttered, not responsible, just being, uninterrupted by the external demands of a world he couldn’t quite figure out. His right hand slipped off the bed and trailed on the floor. His knuckles felt cold rock there at the bottom.

The plasma screen sparked into life and She appeared on the screen, but not as before, now she seemed perfect to him, like a memory remade as he wanted her to be.

‘There is a silence at the heart of all great things’ he said to himself.   Through the membrane walls that separated each cubicle thin veins containing the juice crisscrossed pumping it into individual areas. From the next chamber a voice could be heard. Saul came back into focus to realise it was addressing him.

What brings you here then, you’ve still got a bit of fight left in you haven’t you?’

Saul answered as if from a warm dream, ‘’I’m like a Faberge egg, see? I spent years making my outside as intricate and shiny as possible, but I neglected my inside and when the hammer blow came the shell shattered and there was fuck all in there.’

A mellow laugh that seemed to contain all the understanding in the world came through the leathery membrane back at him.

‘You and everyone else here I’d guess’, the voice said in mellifluous tones, ‘Don’t sweat it. We all paid the entrance fee one way or another. How long you in for?’

Saul took another long pull on the juice before answering.

‘The night only, my bag will be packed somewhere, ready for the morning.’

Saul turned his head to look through the membrane on his other side, the walls seemed more yellow and stained, the face was a blur but he could still register a spastic movement from within. He felt it was his turn to do the asking,

‘And what brings you here..?’

The voice came back shrill and with an uncomfortable edge that immediately bristled the hairs on the back of Saul’s neck.

‘Hard to remember now, this junksuck kinda blue-rinses the brain after a while, don’t it? I recall it was something to do with not being able to be myself. I was so soft inside like last harvest’s cotton, but I could always hide that and put up a killer front, boy could I sell it to ‘em. Mr. Humpty-Dump, but it was all painted shell, inside there was an empty cold wind blowing round a small, scared kid. The real me, huh? Someone took a sledgehammer to the shell one day and the kid inside wasn’t ready for it. The shell didn’t count for shit.’

Saul sucked on the tube starting to feel absent-minded. The story sounded familiar somehow but he couldn’t place it. The pages of colourful comic books from childhood flapped through his brain. Perhaps that was where he’d heard the story? The rice-paper pages flew from the comic and flapped away like tropical butterflies. Saul reached out with his hand and tried to catch one.

‘I’m sorry for you mister. That sounds a real bummer in the summer.’ Saul caught an escaping butterfly and squeezed its stamen between thumb and forefinger releasing a yellow viscous liquid. He tasted it, all sugar and spice.

‘Bah, it’s just another tale of the bottle. We’ve all got one here.’

Saul brushed the dead butterfly from his fingers, ‘How long you here for?’ he asked.

‘Same as you… according to your medical notes… for all time!

Saul was unsettled by this.

‘I can leave anytime I want, pal. I choose to come down here.’

‘Sure you do. How many drinks has it been today so far? You’ve got to commit to get this deep in my friend, they don’t just give a key to anyone.’

‘Bullshit! I’m the fucking landlord of this place! Look at the walls, this is all my stuff, look what I’ve been over the years, you can’t talk to me like this..!’

The laughter from the next cell was so vile that the membrane itself reverberated like the albumen of a rotten egg, releasing a foul stench into the room. He felt like he was inside the stomach of some unspeakable creature being slowly digested.

Saul ripped the tube from his mouth causing it to hiss and spit the remaining globules of juice from his mouth where it landed at the foot of the bed like congealed pork fat. He got up and attempted to shake the dream from his unresponsive body, moving tortuously as if suspended in glue. He stumbled back to where he knew the elevator to be. But all he found was a smooth keyhole. He reached for his cell phone to see no signal, both he and the phone were out of range tonight, not possible to be connected at this time.

He banged on the smooth metal teeth until a small slit opened horizontally in the mouth of the shut bear trap. He recognised the sneaky eyes of the elevator attendant.

‘Hey Jack, thank the lord it’s you! Let me in won’t ya? It’s time to go.’

But the bloodshot eyes of the attendant just stared back at him.

‘You can only visit here so many times, sir, before you can’t return.’

Saul shoved his fingers into the slot and tried to open the door himself.  The attendant pushed the metal slit against the chubby reaching fingers like a guillotine.

‘I must insist sir. There’s nothing I can do… it’s the rules.’

Saul retracted his fingers sensing the futility of this tactic. The attendant relaxed a little and stopped his finger execution.

‘Of course sir, you can always buy your way out, but it takes time… forms have to be approved and signed off, payment’s made, you understand? It’s a long old crawl back up otherwise I’m afraid.’

Saul gave himself a near fatal headrush as he leapt in the air,  ‘I have money!’’

He began jumping up and down on the spot, the sound of jangling coming from his trouser pockets. With a new found confidence he reached in and grabbed a rich handful from both left and right, thrusting them proudly into the slit for the attendant to inspect. But again that awful mocking laugh that he’d heard before came from the cubicle way back where he’d come from. The membranes rattled like the glottal of a fat businessman.

Saul looked down at his hands to see nothing but old beer caps, corks and damp cigarette papers falling to the ground in a jumbled incoherent mess.

The attendant slammed shut the slit and Saul could hear the elevator ascending, the un-oiled cage squeaking above the sound of croaking frogs.

Fanjo Blake and the Mermaid

It was the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and fifty-two when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In order for the new calendar to work the King’s mathematicians and scientists had decided that eleven days needed to be lost in the transfer period. So, for those eleven days the country lived out of time, in a limbo. Many strange things were reported during those ‘lost’ days and here is one of them…

 

Millendreath Cove. Southern Cornwall. All Hallows Eve. 1752.

Under cover of night…

She looked so beautiful to him caught on the shoreline, on the dividing line between their two worlds. She was more beautiful than the northern lights, more hypnotic than running water, more necessary than salt, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she glided towards him from out of the boiling sea.

Fanjo Blake dropped his heavy bag of gold, which had hitherto been the most precious thing in his life, until now. For here was something infinitely more desirable and rewarding, perhaps almost sacred: a word Fanjo had heard many times before but never really understood. But now, as she floated towards him, eyes twinkling in this Hunter’s moon, he felt he finally knew what those priests had always been ranting about. Here was something perfect. Each word that slowly formed on her lips was given breath through the most incredible, beguiling voice. Angelic yet suggestive, promising dark pleasures amongst the brilliant light. She was all women yet more than any one woman could ever be. And oh that voice! That sweet voice drawing him in powerless, as inviting as a warm bed after a hard day’s ride. The song promised him a warm and watery velvet blanket to keep him snug, as she would cradle him in her arms whispering her soothing lullaby. A few more steps and he would cross the terminator into her world and how readily he embraced the change…

 

A few hours earlier…

The Menac Ale House. Hangman’s Copse, far above Millendreath Cove.

The rain had been coming down hard all night, sharp jagged drops that left a dent in the thatched roof of the old pub. So heavy was it that the smoke from the fire was being battered back down the chimney and into the room of the candle-lit tavern. Periodically a stray drop made it down the stack and hissed onto the crackling logs shooting violent sparks across the room. One such hot cinder landed on the boot of Fanjo Blake and he kicked it away before it could scar the leather. He returning his attention to his dinner on the large oak table, skewering a fatty piece of meat with his rope-cutting knife and chewing on the beef brisket like it was a prison sentence. He swallowed the gristle and felt it catch in his throat. He began to choke.

His three male companions took to slapping him on the back and laughing, but Fanjo being of a disposition to never be made a fool of, knocked over the plate and kicked back his chair. With his hand he reached deep into his throat and retrieved the trapped brisket. With a terrifying cough that silenced the entire room he pulled it out and threw the lump of congealed fat across the table where it skidded leaving a glistening slug trail in its wake. Able to speak once more he snarled in the direction of the landlord.

‘Barkeep, you’re food is trying to kill me, and god knows there’s enough that walk abroad this night trying to do that.’

The tallest of his companions joined in the culinary critique: ‘This chitterling isn’t fit for ship rats. If ye can’t trust your food, what’s a man got left?’

A short pudgy man hurriedly appeared from behind the bar carrying four flagons of scrumpy cider.

‘Here you go Misser Blake. On the house, so to speak. It’s the good stuff too, not what I give them regulars. I’m sorry about the fare. Cook hasn’t been worth a spit since the accident.’

Fanjo stared up at him from bloodshot eyes. This alone was enough for the barman to squirm and end the conversation.

‘Look, I don’t want any trouble, alright? I was just saying, that’s all.’

Fanjo grabbed one of the tankards from the quivering man, the frothy cider spilling over the brim like waves over a ship’s bow. The Innkeeper noticed Fanjo’s fingers like blackened tree stumps gripping the pewter tankard handle and imagined them around his own throat.

The four men huddled together, shutting the grateful Innkeeper out of the conversation and fell into a game of ‘knife-finger’. Fanjo put his own hand over that of his companion’s and took to stabbing the knife between their splayed fingers at ever greater speed and recklessness.

‘Keep your hand still, Red, the more ye squirm the more chance of a strike, and you’ll be needing all your fingers if you mean to please Rebecca later, eh?’

All four fell about their bench lost in laughter at this. Fanjo let the joke run its course before becoming conspiratorial and beckoned them in to a closed huddle once more.

‘Enough. We must talk of business, my men. The Grey Guinea is charted to sail past this very cove in the witching hour’.

At this the blood drained from all the faces of Fanjo’s companions. The man who had been under the knife felt compelled to break the painful silence that had descended, seemingly across the whole inn.

‘I ain’t going wrecking on All Hallows Eve. It ain’t right. Especially in these strange days of no date. God have mercy on their souls, no-one should have to die during this age.’

Fanjo put his knife back in his leather jersey. ‘You don’t believe in all that do you, you old fuckfinger? Where’s your stones, does Miss Rebecca have them safe in her keeping already?’

‘And what if I should do? It’s All Hallows Eve you salty dog. Everyone knows that the souls of all them’s been lost at sea are given licence to walk amongst the living for the hours of darkness on this cursed night.’

A wind had got up and caused a loose shutter on their alcove window to slap against the glass. Fanjo shuddered involuntarily and then, fearing to look foolish in front of his drinking partners, he drained the rest of his ale and slammed the pewter tankard hard on the table.

‘The dead can reach out for the living. I’m reaching out for the easy gold.’

The nearest to him spoke up, nervously flicking the pewter tankard with his rotten thumbnail.

‘Then you go alone Fanjo. The devil plays a strange tune tonight and I’m not of the mood to dance to it.’

The men buried their faces in their thick coats. Fanjo stood to leave.

‘Hang you all. I’ll go alone then.’

The nearest tried again a final time.

 ‘Fanjo, be reasonable man, it’s madness.’

‘Aye I’m sure you’re right, but I’ll have riches to comfort me in that madness. You bottlers carry on eating this rancid chitterling if ye so feel inclined. I shall be feasting on plump goose come sunrise…without you.’

Before he could be hushed into silence one of the seated men spluttered out, ‘She won’t be there you fool.’

With reflexes that would have made a man twenty years younger proud, Fanjo spun on his leather shoes and pulled his knife. He rushed back to the table and turned the blade to the man’s throat where he let the Adam’s apple throb against the cold edge.

‘Say that again, fuckfinger, I dare ye’.

The man’s eyes turned a sickly yellow and his voice came in timid squeals:

‘Fanjo, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known she was on that ship. None of us did, not even Straw Peter.’

Fanjo pressed the blade deeper into the soft neck , the steel making a cut into flesh.

‘Be it All Hallows Eve or not, I go the same. She’s lost to me, understand? I will take what’s coming to me at the appointed time.’

Fanjo pulled the knife away from the quivering man and thrust it back into his jersey.

‘Least said, soonest mended. I know you speak from the heart, but maybe it’s time ye learned to speak with your head. I want things I can hold in my hand. Gold. You can’t pay for a woman with memories.’

He moved to the door and unhooked his heavy sou’wester, throwing it on. He paused in the doorway to fill the bowl of his clay pipe and reaching into the fireplace he pulled out a glowing ember with his bare hands. His colleagues were impressed into silence as Fanjo lit the pipe, the ember glowing a fierce red causing his eyes to glint with a devilish intent. He unhooked a lantern and waved it at the barkeep before leaving.

‘Landlord. I shall be requiring this tonight.’

The barman offered up an obsequious grin, unable to look into those glowering eyes, and returned to cleaning his tankards.

Fanjo stepped out into the cold Cornish night air. The rain had stopped to be replaced by a low hanging cloud that was rolling in off the sea. He turned his collar to the wind and sucked on his pipe, fighting the hissing of the bowl against the damp. After a few steps Fanjo turned round and looked at the inn, so warm and inviting on this of all nights, the windows steamed-up with the condensation of laughter within. He fought against the urge to return and set his mind to the task ahead. As he turned he was sure he saw her face in the smoke from the inn’s chimney stack as it rose to mingle with the fog. He banished such thoughts and reached the cliff path where he knew the tools of his trade would be waiting in a hidden fissure in the rock. Candle, wick, fuel. All that was needed to trick the ship into crashing onto the jagged rocks below.

As he reached the head of the path, rough stone steps hewn out of rock, unseen and unknown to anyone who wasn’t right upon it, he looked up and saw a large fog bank heading in from the east. He reckoned it was the vanguard of a storm front moving in. A good omen for his work. His light would seem even more tempting to the ship out there in the oceanic night, and when he’d lured it to the rocks the salvage would be all his. Goose breast for breakfast.

As he walked carefully down the steps he reviewed his position, he was almost glad his partners had decided against coming, no-one else to split the profits with. But by hell it was a troublesome night. The fog had descended like a cobweb and he could barely see his boots strike the steps, each one taking him deeper into the mist. He reached the coastline and turned back on himself to a small alcove behind the stairway. He pulled away a large dried kelp to reveal the kerosene lantern and the flint and tinder box. There was enough wood left from the last wrecker’s fire to quickly get a blaze going. This was good.

The fog allowed sound to carry better than usual and he could hear the groaning of a large timber frame in the distance. The ship must be close. He must act now. Fanjo was suddenly troubled: would they see his fire in the fog and crash onto ‘Old Kernow’ a fearsome basalt rock that jutted out from the brine near the entrance to the cove, or would they miss it altogether and carry safely on with their journey down to Penzance unimpeded, his fire as invisible as charcoal?

His train of thought was interrupted by a higher pitched noise. At first he thought it was a whale, but there was a definite human lilt to it. Hiding the lantern under his arm he turned towards the crashing waves and began stumbling across wet black rocks, fearing the unknown slimy creatures in the large rock pools winking at him by the light of his candle. The noise was comforting like a lullaby he’d heard once as a child. His mother had sung a sweet song to him years ago when they were nearly shipwrecked on his father’s fishing boat in a storm, on a night much the same as this one. He’d heard his mother singing and he knew not to be afeared, he had total faith in her to keep him safe. That was how the song sounded to him now, enveloping, wrapping his mind in a drowsy blanket. He followed the voice. It was only when the water reached up to his knees that Fanjo realised he’d walked out to sea. He knew this shoreline well, a few more steps and the shelf dropped away to bottomless ocean.

The harsh sound of seagulls squawking pulled him back to land.  In the blackness with only the moon shining off the water they looked like great bats swooping. Tars, Cormorants, they circled above him like vultures expecting food. It must be cold out there tonight, Fanjo thought to himself, with the birds being so close to land.

He stepped out of the crashing waves and returned inland to light the Wreckers Fire. In the glow of that false fire he saw his shadow stretch out across the fog and out into the deep water. He looked at the silhouette of his wide brimmed hat and out of that centre she rose, the water falling off her like autumn leaves.

He knew the face.

Fanjo walked to the shoreline and called out across the cove.

‘It’s you.’

She smiled and continued singing.

Fanjo was dumbfounded, ‘You were the most beautiful on land, of course the sea must honour you as a mermaid.’

He felt the water lap against his knees, soaking the course fabric but still he waded out towards her. She swam closer, almost open him now. Only the tips of his boots could scrape the rocky sea-bed and the occasional strand of seaweed caught in his beard. She brushed it away and touched his shoulder, gently pulled him towards her. He could feel the cold droplets of brine on her warm face and smelt ozone as he moved his face through her matted hair. His mouth was about to find hers when she suddenly pulled back, shaking her head.

‘Just a little further, Fanjo my love. Come…’

Her palm moved to the nape of his neck and gently pulled him towards her, cold droplets of water ran down his collar, making him tingle.  He allowed her to lead him further out, unaware that he was now having to tread water. His voice came in breathless spurts as he struggled to keep his mouth above the tidal water line.

‘I’m so sorry my darling. I didn’t know you were on that ship. How could I? Your letters said the next month.’

With her other arm she reached out to him, placing her finger to his lips.

‘Just a little further Fanjo my love…Come…’

With the last of his strength he brushed the finger aside.

‘You must hear me. Living by the permission of another is no life. I’d rather live one day free than a life as a slave. That’s how I came to be a wrecker. You knew that when we met. So many things I’ve wrecked. Ships and people both. Forgive me.’

He looked up towards the fog bank and saw it spread from Jamaica Point all along the coastline to Highwayman Cove. The green algae that always hugged the rugged shore had become fluorescent green in the fog. He turned his head back out to sea and back out to her. Her breasts rose and fell with the wave crests and on each descend the water sank low enough to reveal two perfect nipples protruding out against the cold. Fanjo reached out for her and grabbed her left breast. He closed his eyes and relinquished the last of his fading willpower to her completely.

Even through his leather glove the breast felt strange. It was hard and splintered. Cold. Not the warm heart he remembered. Fanjo opened his eyes to find her changed. Her whole countenance had become frozen and glazed, almost wooden and as surely lifeless as the drift wood from his last wreck. He dived underwater forcing his eyes to stay open against the salt water sting and was horrified by what he saw. What mermaid was this? She had no tail, she had no anything. There was nothing to her beneath the waterline. She bobbed around like a fisherman’s buoy before beginning to sink as if her wooden skin had finally become too waterlogged. She was too heavy for him to hold and her breast slipped from his hand as she descended beneath him into the green darkness to become once more only a memory.

With a crippling fear Fanjo realised how far out to sea he had allowed himself to be dragged. He boiled in the water, foam and bubbles all around him like a black cauldron. He splashed back towards shore, but something made him turn round. Her face was breaking back through the fog, but this time something followed her. He heard a creaking, a great mass of ancient wood moaning against the storm. She was attached to something high up and clear of the water. A large pole pierced the fog like a needle, and as the mist parted he saw her fully revealed. She was wooden and painted, the paint cracked on the maidenhead. Behind her, the huge hull followed and was upon him. Fanjo braced for impact, fearing diving down into the water and trying to get under the ship more than facing what was coming to him. The impact was brutal and decisive as the hull of the Grey Guinea slammed into him following his fire.

The first breath of the cold water felt ecstatic, filling his lungs with thousands of sparkling jewels which descended to form bars of ice-cold gold in his stomach. Fanjo finally had such riches inside him as they weighed him down below the surface, whilst all the while that enchanting song echoed beneath him, calling him deeper and deeper to give an account of himself and the things he’d done.

 

Pushing Milgram’s Button 

 

Porton Down Military Research Installation. Wiltshire. March 1953.

My hand hovered over the button, tracing a circle over the smooth polished plastic as if I was trying to excite a large nipple. I applied a gentle pressure to the button feeling the give as soft as wiping a butterfly’s wing.

It was round, red and set in the centre of the master keyboard, my first thought was what a cliché! Who had decided that all dangerous buttons should be round and red? It’s as if the cartoons we saw as children still informed our serious adult decisions, even in a sphere as sombre and humourless as the British Military.

A gruff, impatient voice barked at me over the tannoy system:

‘Are you gonna press it or just romance it, son?’

I looked up from my chair at the white walls of the medical facility. It was like looking at the inside of a plastic beaker, featureless and uniform. Against the blandness of the magnolia walls the only thing standing out was this damn red button. In front of the chair on which I sat was the console containing knobs and wheels, and at its heart – the button. Above this was a large two-way mirror looking through to the adjoining operating room in which I saw a man tied to an electric chair.

I could see him, but thankfully he couldn’t see me. My eyes were drawn to some writing in the bottom left corner of the mirror: ‘Armalite 3’. Very, very bulletproof. I was guessing the man tied to the chair in the other room wasn’t. He was restrained by a set of wrought iron manacles tied to everything but his right hand from which a loose chain hung. He was sitting quite motionless but with eyes that looked directly into mine from a battered and bloodied face. The aluminium bowl on his head fit snugly round his forehead and I could see a glimpse of wet sponge poking out from just above his left temple to help the electricity conduct straight to the brain, causing minimum suffering when the button was finally pressed. His eyes burned into me through the two-way mirror, it was unnerving in the extreme and I could bare it no longer.

‘Sarge, are you sure he can’t see me?’ I addressed my question to the tannoy above the entrance door. The speaker crackled into life.

‘Can I see you? No. He can’t see you either. Over.’

‘It’s just, he seems… to be staring straight at me. Over…’

The voice came back, angry now.

‘Son, just press the goddamn button. I’ve got lunch. Don’t make me wait, it’s turkey today.’

This was the moment I thought I’d been waiting for. But now, sat here in judgment like King Solomon I wasn’t sure I could actually follow through. My mind seemed blank with rage, but one thought kept pulling at my coat tails demanding to be heard: Where did forgiveness figure in all this? Surely forgiveness was the most noble of all human emotions? Besides, there was something decidedly gutless about pressing the button out of sight, so clinically  and cold. Could I honestly run into that room and stab him face to face? Could I cope with feeling his head loll on my shoulder as he fell forward, the dying breath leaving him, eyes turning milky as I watched?

Who was I kidding? Definitely not. But perhaps it’s like being a carnivore. If I chose to eat meat in the form of a colourfully packaged hamburger, so surely I should have the honesty to slaughter the cow too? It’s only fair and honest. I reminded myself that what sat before me through the glass was no more than an animal. A wolf in human clothing. No, he was worse than an animal, he had a choice and free will to rise above his carnality, an animal has only instinct.

‘I’m giving you a direct order, son. Press it.’ Harsher this time.

My voice responded automatically, as flighty as a winged sparrow, desperate.

‘I’m not sure I can, Sarge, I need to gather my thoughts…’

The tannoy distorted to white noise as the shouting reverberated off the shiny walls.

‘You said you wanted this? Stop wasting our fucking time and do it’.

‘I need time, sir. I need to build up to it.’ My voice became strangled by emotion, ‘It’s in cold blood..!’

The door below the tannoy was thrown open and all two hundred pounds of Sergeant Gregory Fitzpatrick charged into the room like it was Dunkirk all over again, guns blazing. He was dripping in sweat and medals. He stamped his polished boot down hard on the floor like a terrifying baby.

‘Now listen here you wormy piece of maggoty shit. For Christ sake, MAN UP will you?’

‘I’m not a soldier. I haven’t been trained to kill like you. This is a big deal to me…’

He leaned in so close to the side of my face that I could see the individual blackheads on his nose tremble with each syllable uttered.

 ‘And what he did to your sister wasn’t a big deal?’

This hit the right nerve in me and I turned my face full to his, our noses striking like the first blow of a death-duel. Fitzpatrick seemed pleased his bullet had hit home.

‘What kind of man are you?’ he sneered.

My hand moved to the button but in doing so I involuntarily looked up straight into the eyes of the prisoner tied to the chair in the adjoining room.

My hand lost its will to power, and limped flaccid back down to the desk where it flapped like a fish in a keep net, gasping for breath.

Fitzpatrick was all up in my face again, but the moment had passed. He resigned himself to a sign off.

‘You’re goddamn pussy. I knew it’.

I rested my hand back on the wooden chair arm.

‘Look, I know what you’re trying to do, but you can’t goad me into killing a man’.

This reignited the powder keg.

‘You don’t know shit. I shouldn’t have to goad you, you should be WANTING to do it. He raped your sister for crying out loud! What else does he need to do man, to get your blood up?’

I thought about her, how she must’ve waited at the bus stop for my car that night. Wondering why I was late. When his car pulled up she must’ve been thankful. I imagined the brief conversation that must’ve taken place between them, what he said, how he’d said it. Then the journey, trusting, grateful, how relieved she would’ve been to be out of the rain and warm inside his car. Then, how his tone would have changed… her disbelief turning to sudden fear as the reality dawned. And then later, in that dark lay-by, the sense of detachment she must’ve felt as he tore at her delicate clothing with his dirty fingernails. His foul breath upon her, all fillings and abscesses. The large sphinx tattoo she’d said he had on his left arm as he’d pinned her down on the passenger seat and violated her.

‘DO IT…’, the sergeant’s voice mixing with his.

‘Do it. Press the button’.

Yes! No… things would never be the same again. I would be a murderer for all time. No, even worse, I’d be an executioner. As I’d first sat down, the surgeon had told me that a man’s beard still grew for up to a day after he’d died. It’s as if the body takes a while to catch up with the news. I tried to remember my shave that morning, thought about staring into my eyes, alive, so alive with rage at this man. When she’d knocked on my door, eyes all bruised, lips broken and bloody I’d have killed him there and then if he’d been in the room. They’d have called it a crime of passion. But now, here in this antiseptic theatre so cold and calculating I wasn’t sure I had righteous rage on my side anymore.

But oh the reasons we find with ourselves to justify the unacceptable. I thought again of her, of a time before he’d touched her. I recalled a day we’d taken a few years ago out of the bombed out city to pick strawberries in Kent. Happier times. I remembered the feel of each small fruit in my hand as I shook the soil from the foliage and put it carefully into the green plastic trays. She was next to me, picking too, but pausing every now and again to sneak another plump berry. She turned to me in that yellow flowered dress she always wore when she was excited. The smell of fruit hung heavily around us, and we with not a care in the world. She turned to me, her hands stained red with strawberry juice and held them up to her face… screaming. Uncontrollable screaming…

The sound of rotor blades ripped the air causing the loose paper in Fitzpatrick’s clipboard to spill onto the floor. He yelled at the soldier standing guard by the door who’d been watching the helicopter land through the open window with troops deploying out of its tail gate.

‘Private! Shut that fucking window immediately. In the name of god, they’ll ruin everything.’

I watched the soldier slam shut the window, not enjoying the sudden silence that returned hermetically to the room.

Fitzpatrick let me have it with both barrels, ‘Are you not even listening to me, boy?’

My eyes turned again to the man behind the two-way mirror. I studied each contour of his evil twisted face, the haughty eyes, the cruel curl to the bloodied lips. He seemed to be mocking me, even now. My head was consumed with thoughts of this man and my sister together. How she must have tried to resist his superior force. How it must’ve hurt. I tried to steamroll this thought to the sidelines of my mind. Could I forgive him though? I was brought up a Catholic, filled with guilt for things I had no part in thousands of years ago. But for all that, the central pillar of Christianity was to love, and forgive. Surely my conditioning would mean I have to find it in my heart to forgive?

‘Please…’ I implored the human being behind the military uniform. I could feel my eyes well up. This seemed to have a profound affect on Fitzpatrick and when he next spoke his voice was mellow, almost paternal.

‘Tristan, you know I’m only doing this because I’m a friend of the family, so to speak. Do you know the risks I’ve taken in having him brought here, nobbled off the street in broad daylight, and so close to the base? Look at him, look how much we’ve ruffed him up. You’ve got to finish what you started now. Remember, it was you that came to me whining about needing justice in the first place.’

This caught me off guard and I thought back. It seemed so long ago now. I couldn’t seem to remember anything before this room, that was why they called it red mist, I suppose. In fact, ever since the rape I’d just been living on a kind of nervous energy, totally single-minded and blinkered, to the exclusion of all other desires. The one desire that remained, that carried me through the pain was the need for… for…

Like a powerful alignment of the planets and stars, all my cluttered thoughts lined-up as one behind the single idea that came back to me now as clear as crystal.

…Revenge!

‘DO IT’. This time the voice came from inside myself. A bubbling tar pit deep inside me, belching up a sulphurous bubble to burst by my ear drum.

‘Do it’

In unison they came, inside and out, Fitzpatrick was pointing at the button.

‘Do it NOW’.

My stream of thought becoming a single waterfall crushing all else. ‘If I didn’t do it now I’d always be afraid from this day going forward. I’d always be smiling sickly at strangers for fear of their strength, and there’d be nothing I could do about it, because when I’d had my chance to stand up and be a man… I’d shit it.’

‘Do it’. The voices were coming from everywhere.

‘Ok… I will fucking do it…’ The anger, the fear, the hate, it burst through my pipes, rupturing into my brain.

I looked straight into the eyes of that bastard, straight into his very soul. I wanted him to see me when I pressed it. I wanted him to know it was me behind the glass. Look at me. LOOK AT ME GODDAMN IT!

My right hand slammed down on the button, my palm hitting dead centre.

Nothing happened.

I wiped my spittle-coated lips and pressed again. But this time I noticed a red stain smeared on my hand. I studied it, seeing the fine lines on my palm standing out against the red background like a Japanese print. So red. Red like strawberries? I wiped my lips again. No, it was unmistakably blood. I tried to raise my left hand but it seemed glued to the arm of the chair. I followed the line of the hand past my wrist and up to the bare arm where I could see the tattoo of a large sphinx twisting out of sight under the sleeve of my shirt.

My heart beat so loudly in my ears that I barely heard Fitzpatrick as he ordered the soldiers into the room whilst continuing to speak into a small tape recorder.

‘Record notes. Serum version 6 has proved successful. Repeat… prisoner test positive. Serum 6 is a go.’

I looked up again into the mirror and now saw Fitzpatrick standing behind me,  the two soldiers set to work releasing me from the electric chair I was strapped to. They untied the manacle on my left hand and unhooked the chain on my right that had allowed me just enough movement to reach the button. I understood now.

Fitzpatrick looked at his watch. ‘Lunchtime. I’ll leave you privates to mop up. When you’re done take this piece of shit back to his cell.’

‘Hey Sarge, what he do anyway?’ asked the shorter of the two guards untying my leg manacles.

Fitzpatrick retrieved his clip-board from under his arm and flicked through a few rice-paper pages.

‘Rape. And not only that, he raped his own sister, can you imagine..?’

Waiting for Gordo

Posted: February 1, 2011 in Short Stories
Tags: , , , , ,

Waiting for Gordo

 

A frozen bench on Hampstead Heath,  London.  19:45.  January 30th  2011. 

 

‘So what’s your secret to long life then?’ Alfred took the weight off his feet and collapsed onto the bench.

‘Always holding on to an extreme sense of bitterness’, replied George, ripping at the envelope in such a ferocious manner that he tore clean through the letter inside.

Sure enough it was another bill and this one had torn it, literally. A bailiff bill for over three thousand pounds arising from an original non-payment of two hundred, where was the justice? George stabbed the bill through its company logo and tossed it onto the pile along with a whole sack-full of final demand letters, all with an angry red border. He flicked the match with his thumbnail and checked to make sure it had caught before throwing it onto the pile of correspondence.

‘We’re both in our eighties yet they talk to us like we’re bloody stupid kids. I’m poor, not imbecilic. Do you know what I mean, Alfred?’

The bills ignited with a satisfying whoosh.

Alfred nodded his head sagely: ‘Bastards’.

Moving to the edge of the park bench Alfred leaned to the side, as much as his arthritic hip would allow, and picked up his hipflask offering it to his friend in the glow of their impromptu bonfire.

George responded, producing a small tartan thermos and unscrewing the dirtied yellow cap.

 ‘Well that hasn’t help over the years, has it? How about we have our last supper without the wine, eh?’

Steam rose from the flask. ‘Bovril’, he said proudly.

‘Why in the hell have you brought that?’

‘To help us keep warm, Alf.‘

‘We’re not trying to keep warm, we’re trying to freeze to death.’

‘I know, but there’s no sense in making it any harder than it need be, hey?’

Alfred shuffled back along the bench, facing away from his friend before taking a long and self-conscious hit from his hipflask. The last of the evening’s light had now disappeared into the trees and a silence had fallen, made almost supernatural by the snow.

‘Do you think he’ll bring it, Alf?

‘Of course he will. Gordo’s a lazy sod, but he’s also a greedy one, the deal is too good for him to pass up.’

‘What do you think it’ll be like…. the stuff?’

‘Like a stiff rum I’m guessing. Not really sure’.

From out of the silence below them the unmistakable crunch of boots on snow could be heard getting closer. Even with their failing eyesight the obese shape of Gordo was unmistakable waddling and panting towards them, his voice rasping and grabbing.

‘You better have the fucking money that’s all I can say. You’re killing me up here…’

George shook his thermos as a peace offering at the approaching fat man.

Gordo ignored him, ‘I don’t want your fucking tea, I want my money.’

George shrugged his shoulders and dug around in his overcoat pocket, pulling out a set of house keys. He held them straight up towards Gordo in the sign of a V and shoved.

‘Always a pleasure, Gordo. Don’t worry, a deals a deal with us, matey. Now look. This one is for the front door, and this the Chubb. Everything in there is yours…not that there is much, that’s why we’re here’.

Gordo stumbled up to the bench to get a better look at the keys.

‘Fine.’ He snatched the keys from the old man like a fox sneaking up on a chicken, sensing a trap.

‘Here’s your smack then. Although god knows what an old timer like you wants to be getting into that shit for at your age, sitting up here all alone’.

George inspected the paper wrap, poking around in the brown crystalline powder with his gloved finger.

‘I’m sure she looks fine, Gordo. Now toodle-pip, old son.’

Gordo didn’t understand.

‘Fuck off, pal!’

This he understood and grumbled off into the darkness to retrace his leaden steps. George and Alfred watched him go, relishing the contemplative silence once more. It felt good to be in control again after all these years, finally calling the shots if only for one last evening. It was unspoken between them but they could both feel it. Alfred articulated the sentiment first.

‘I won’t be missing him that’s for sure.’

‘Ah, fuck Gordo. What will you miss though? I mean really?’

Alfred took on that look he always got when he was lost in a pleasant reverie.

‘I guess it’s only right to talk about such things now. Ok then… I think I shall miss a sunrise in the country. The sound of birds outside my window on a spring morning, the white curtains billowing the smell of cut grass into the room, and knowing that I’ve got the day off. Or no, maybe I’d like to hear waves crash onto rocks again like where I grew up in Dungeness, a beautiful bleakness. A simple life. You?’

‘Simple pleasures my old son. I’d like to hear a woman moan in ecstasy again. It’s been a while. Last time I tried something like that I think she said: ‘ If you try to put that brittle ol’ twig anywhere near me I’m going to snap it off!’

Alfred cackled so much that he brought on a coughing fit, his bronchitis kicking against the cold.

‘The more you get, the more you got, the more you want some more,’ he spluttered.

‘Uh-huh. Isn’t that the truth of it? Applies to anything really. Money and trim especially, and we’ve certainly learned to get by without having much of either, hey?’  George unwrapped the package again. studying the brown granules.

‘It looks like gravy…’

‘Gravy for the brain?’

‘…and would you believe it, he’s wrapped it up in a picture of a spitfire!’

‘No, you’re reading too much into it again, as always. He’s just ripped a page out of a magazine. It’s coincidence.’

George conceded the point. ‘It’s turned. I’m getting a bit nippy now. What say we cook her up and see what all the fuss is about?’

Alfred watched his friend fiddle with the package. George’s mind drifted back to when they’d first hatched the idea of coming up here to end it all, rather than live a half life of only two bars on the heater but many more to their prison cell, having to beg for charity at every turn and always unable to pay the latest fuel bill. Was it really to be life at any price? His father had died proud and strong as an ox a week after his seventieth birthday having had four glorious years of retirement spending the money he’d saved, before exploding off the planet with a drink in one hand and a woman in the other. This was the correct three score and ten, but to endure a life rattling with pills, pain and frozen peas each night, what was the point? Was it some competition he was subconsciously taking part in to see who can be the oldest most miserable bastard in town? Who had decided that quantity must always beat quality? Why shouldn’t he be able to end it without guilt when he’d ceased having fun?

Deciding to freeze up here was the last choice they were free to make without asking someone else’s permission. Alfred’s voice had sounded so authoritative to him when he’d broached the idea last week, like it used to before he’d been humbled and broken by poverty.

Alfred snapped George back to reality. ‘Have you ever been really cold? I mean really, really cold? It’s not a bad way to go all things considered, numb and then pleasurably sleepy.’

‘Like this smack they always talk about’, responded George.

A large crow pecked at a copy of the Watchtower in front of them, trying to get enough paper to soften its nest.

‘Only thing it’s good for. Jehovah’s Witness, blow it!’ Alfred pointed at the crumpled magazine.

‘I didn’t witness anything! You don’t believe in afters then?’

‘Well we’re sure as hell going to be finding out in about an hour. Do you fancy a wager on it?’

‘What’ll you give me?’ George became exited.

‘First of all you’ve got to say whether you’re for or against’.

‘For’

Alfred slapped the bench with his gloved hand. ‘OK, I’m against, I’ll lay odds of ten to one that there isn’t an afterlife, or any of this enlightenment bollocks neither.’

‘Done. I guess it’s like changing a car tyre though. If you got the right tools to fix it then it ain’t a problem, but without them you may as well just shout at it’.

‘And you’re saying I wasn’t born with the right tools to find enlightenment, and you was?’

‘Bah, I’m not saying anything, Alf. Me teeth are chattering too much. I think in the moment we die we’re shown all the good things we did and all the differences we made in our life. Like a picture show, a final treat before the curtain draws. It’s a short show for some I’m sure.’

‘… a very short show.’

‘Anyways.  I don’t want to spend my last hour on earth arguing with you.’

‘No, I guess not. But you will be spending it with me. Who’d a thought it? All those years ago, things sure didn’t turn out as we planned, did they?’

George leant back on the wooden bench and stretched his arms, ‘So this is our death bed, death bench. It isn’t true what they say you know: I wish I had spent more time in the office, at least it was bloody heated.’

‘We’ve had a good run though. No complaints.’

’You’re kidding aren’t you? I’ve got a few complaints I’ll be raising  with the chief, thank you very much.  I never reached my potential, never really fulfilled what I could’ve, no, should’ve been.’

Alfred took another hit from his hipflask, wiping his lips before the cold could get to the residual liquid. ‘I’ve no complaints. You get out what you put in don’t you? I’ve got a few regrets though…’

‘Women, you’re talking about women aren’t you?

‘Ha. Sure I am… you remember Claire Riddick?’’

‘Which?’

‘Used to work in the butchers. Always stank of blood, but looked like a princess. I got her to go back to my digs once. But didn’t have the guts to make a move.’  Alfred’s eyes narrowed and he whispered conspiratorially, ‘I’ve never told anyone this… but I met her years later at a train station. She was all dolled up to go to some party. I diverted her for a drink and after about five gins she told me that if I had’ve made a move then she would’ve gone with it. Gutted.’

Alfred became self-conscious. ‘I’ve said too much, feel foolish now.’

‘We’re dying, Alf me lad, bigger fish to fry.’

‘Even so, tell me something for the balance of things’.

George took a deep breath and leaned forward on the bench, resting his hands on his chin,  ‘It’s the strangest thing for me to worry about after all these years, but I still do. My mother used to cook a stew each Sunday for the vagrants down at Marble Arch, you remember?’

Alfred seemed to nod but it might’ve just been the cold shaking him.

‘There was one Sunday morning when I’d come home from a drinking session, starved I was. And I ate all the juicy meat out of that pot. All of it and it was a huge pot too, mind. I fished around in that cornflour gloop with me bare hands till I’d got all of it, every last morsel.’

Alfred’s shiver turned into a belly laugh that seemed to warm the whole frosted bench.

‘Christ, I bet those tramps were cursing you that day!’

George shook his head, ‘I’m serious though, I mean those people had nothing. It was the one thing to get them through their week’s drinking, and I ate it out of pure greed.’

‘Jesus, you really are upset by it aren’t you? It happened over sixty years ago and you still can’t let it go?’

George flicked the cup of his thermos flask tetchily.

‘No, I can’t as it happens’.

Alfred gave a little play-punch to his friend’s shoulder. ‘Well, just view these last ten years as karma then. You haven’t even had the money to put a decent bit of meat in your belly since the Nineties, so think of that stew as your getting a head start on the lean years ahead, son.’

The last of the natural light had long since faded and below them the orange glow of an illegal bonfire was becoming visible. Shadowy shapes danced in the firelight and the sound of lager cans being opened carried up to them, mixing with the coquettish giggle of drunk girls. The noise dislodged a murder of crows sending them skyward, only slightly darker than the growing night. George watched them fly, he was reminded of when he and Alfred had been kids too, stealing road signs and sledging down this very same hill. They’d had such hope and energy then. Now that was all done with and he mused that although they might still get one last ride on a sledge it would only be bringing their frozen bodies down to the waiting ambulance.

George sighed, the world had got so complicated one day when they hadn’t been looking. Since that moment they’d just been passengers on the back of life, gradually getting more isolated and fearful. It had been a slow process of letting go control of the world around them and reverting back to some infantile state, dependent on others for everything. He wanted to share these thoughts with Alfred but couldn’t quite find the right words, he didn’t want his friend to think him foolish. Perhaps some things weren’t for sharing anyhow, he reasoned.

Alfred kicked up the settled snow with the toe of his scuffed boot.

‘I’ll tell you something. I remember when the snow was red with blood. You know what I’m talking about. The war. Poland forty-five, liberating the Concentration Camps. My battalion was first into Dachau, a particularly nasty one. I’ve never really talked about it. The dying prisoners, starved clean out of their minds, lurching towards us arms outstretched begging, no more than living zombies, and I was given orders to shoot them because we couldn’t save them. We didn’t have the doctors or even the food. I guess in a strange way it was a sort of compassion…’

His voice cracked and he quickly turned away from his friend to hide swollen tear ducts. He pointed down in the direction of the bonfire, ‘What was it all for, eh? What did we really fight to save anyway? Kids play war games for fun now and spit at me in the street. If they only knew what we’d sacrificed for them, what so many people lost so that they, they, can break into my house and shit everywhere. If they only knew, they’d switch off their machines and run into the street exultant to the sun, while it still shines for them.’

As if on cue a soundsystem started up from around the bonfire, spraying hot noise into the cold silence.  George threw his thermos flask in their general direction.

‘Bloody kids. Ingratitude is the worst of all. Even so, I envy them with it all ahead and to play for. Remember how it felt to be in heat? Everything’s sure frozen up now,’

‘It has been for years, my cock has been nothing but a sewerage outlet for as long as I can remember. Did joy and life ever shoot down it?’ Alfred looked for signs of life in the lap of his bunched-up overcoat.

Geroge licked the last traces of Bovril from his fingers. ‘If I’m honest I think I was always a bit of a wimp. Not about running into burning buildings or knocking a bloke out if he needed it, but with my feelings, you know. I was always too scared of getting hurt or being made to look foolish with the ladies. But hell I’d like to have one more day though, you know, in my prime. A day to run on the shoreline again with Katie, maybe finishing up at a fish restaurant on the beach at Brighton, watching the sunset and thinking about the endless years to come. Thinking about our future.’

Alfred nodded and looked up at the stars, which tonight seemed unusually bright and clear.

‘The future, I remember that. That’s one thing that surely ran out on us, I can’t recall the exact day it packed its bags and left but all of a sudden I wasn’t looking forward to a better time, I was only able to look back.’

George poked Alfred’s pocket.

‘Perhaps I will have that drink now. Life doesn’t seem so bad when you look back at it seeing the whole finished picture. I mean January 1965 was probably the best month of my life, and January 2004 was probably the worst, but it all blends into one now, doesn’t it. Nothing lasted forever, good or bad.’

Alfred passed his friend the whiskey, ‘It certainly didn’t’. He began looking through his empty leather wallet, cracked and worn through years of use.

‘Totally empty you see. Not a bean. Look at someone like Rembrandt or Van Gogh who died in poverty like us. Do you think if they’d realised that one day their paintings would sell for more money than their whole town was worth it would’ve brought them some comfort at the end?’

‘No, I think it’s just cruel irony that they died penniless depressed and hungry, like us. Unable to take anymore shit, just like us. At least we’re taking a stand like soldiers and going out fighting’.

George took another hit from the whiskey, sucking up the harsh sting. ‘Maybe things would’ve been different without the booze?’

‘Well we’d have got more things done. So it would definitely have been different… but better? Who in the hell knows?’

Without warning, the hipflask fell from George’s hand and he began to shake uncontrollably.

‘Alfred… I know I’m an old fool, but I’m scared, Alfred.  Hold…my…hand…’

Alfred reached across to his friend. He took the old and scarred hand in his own and squeezed it tightly. George could feel Alfred’s fingers tighten round his knuckles. It was unspoken.

‘No second thoughts, George? This is the point of no return for you.’

‘You too, Alf…’

‘No George, not me…. I went a long time ago, you do know that deep down, don’t you?’

George looked across at the empty bench next to him and hung his head.

‘Yes, I know really. I know you’ve gone Alf, I spoke at your bloody funeral didn’t I? I couldn’t have sat here without you, that’s all. I needed to pretend a little while longer, I just didn’t want to do this all alone, see?

George screwed his eyes up tight and lent his head on Alfred’s imaginary shoulder. He knew his friend wasn’t really there, but now with the stupefying cold it seemed to be getting easier to believe.

‘Of course, I understand old friend’, came Alfred’s soft reply, ‘don’t worry, not long now…’

George opened his eyes to take a last lingering look over what had been his allotted time.

‘Did I make a difference Alfred?’

‘I honestly don’t know George… but you made a difference to me.’

But George was now silent, his eyes glazed staring off into the middle-distance. His voice when it finally came was faint and dreamy, almost childlike.

‘Nighty Night then. See you in the morning old chum…’

No-one, no passing dog-walker or evening  jogger was there to see George falling slowly across the empty bench. as crumpled and out of time as an old one pound note.

 

 

 

 

© Michael G. Zealey