From ‘ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR’, a collection of poems, available on Amazon.
I studied his eyes.
I wouldn’t have been startled
Had they shown signs of life.
They were half-open,
As if he’d suddenly found himself
In some deep repose,
Caught by surprise,
Still in there,
But, like a winter hotel,
Rooms to spare.
Flat and bloodless,
Stained his face,
Like unfed leeches,
Flopped across his teeth,
Healthy, straight and clean,
But too big,
Now that the rest of him
Beneath the mud.
His pinched and breathless nose
Skin shiny tight,
As if beneath the layers,
Instead of capillaries and veins,
Only wires remained;
He was no longer
Made by man,
As only man can.
Next to his bed,
His digital clock,
The numbers red,
Rolled on relentless.
It would still
Scream in alarm,
Until an arm,
To turn it off.
The duvet would
The door closed,
The day adjourned.
Fairies would fly
Kite of light
Between the blinds,
And settle as dust,
As even fairies must.
In the half-light,
With the creeping
Smell of formaldehyde,
In the shadow of
A wooden cross,
I laid him out,
Checked his shroud,
Put a pillow under
To help close his mouth.
I ran a finger
Across his hair,
Dimmed the light
To remove the glare,
Was content to declare
For the world.
WINIFRED IS DEAD
Winifred is dead!
Winifred is dead!
The last thing she did
Was sleep well;
‘Sleeping well,’ it read,
On the three a.m. check.
It wasn’t until eight,
When Molly went to
Shake her awake,
And she couldn’t,
That they realised
Winifred had died.
Let us not spread alarm,
But keep calm,
In her sleep,
Without a shudder,
Document the time and place,
The name of the last one
Who saw her face;
The GP who declared,
With consummate skill and
That she was now no more
Than a shake of his head.
Lay her out,
One last wash,
A comb of the hair,
Quick change of underwear;
Just beyond the door,
While relatives bleed by,
Fumbling through draws,
There isn’t more
To take away
From this gilded cage.
And, secretly, though they deny,
There are magpie thoughts
Of the inheritance,
By Winifred’s leisurely decline.
With two Asda carriers,
(Bags For Life),
They take the remnants away,
Noted down by the nurse,
On paper that came
From some cheap stationery place,
But is still
A legal record of what
Has gone today,
Just in case
They come back
To make a claim
For a non-existent
In black block stone,
Is all she had
Left to show:
Scuffed old shoes,
An open pack
Of corn plasters,
A cardigan, some blouses,
A paperback about
Some Horlicks light,
(Didn’t you know
She loved that at night?)
Some used lipstick,
A black and white picture
Of some girls and boys
And one pound fifty
In assorted coins.
Will make a stop
Her in the boot,
Like stolen loot,
And take her quietly away.
It would soon become known,
Around the home,
Just by a glance
At the empty throne,
That the queen was dead,
That a vacancy has arisen
For her still-warm bed;
Her chair at table,
Her adapted fork and knife
As vacant as her seat,
Waiting to enable
Some other feeble set of hands
In a couple of weeks
Someone will see her ghost
Glide along the halls,
At exactly the moment that she went
(Somewhere between three and eight, they guess).
She will have joined the floating hoards
Whose names are absorbed
By the peeling paint
And dirty dado rails
That line the walls
As she once did.
Winifred lives no more.
HER DOG WAS FAT
Her dog was fat and round,
With breath like a Turkish bazaar
And teeth that dripped bacteria
The way icicles melt in the sun.
Its legs were an addendum,
An aesthetic, no more,
Too small and weak to carry it far,
Except to its bowl where it sucked water
Like a toothless old man.
When it struggled onto its back,
It’s penis, like a sun-dried worm
Would pop out and scent the air,
No good for the purpose intended by God,
Hardly what one would call a real hot-rod,
It’s presence enough to make your hand stutter on the air,
Upon this well-worn mat,
You could place a friendly pat
Without catching some horrible disease.
The choice it seemed was clear;
You take the girl,
You take the dog,
With its knotted, dirty, wiry hair.
Maybe, in the dark, or in the shadows of the day,
It wouldn’t look so bad, so ugly,
So fifty percent decayed,
So like the woman at the bar,
Who said yes to me,
After I’d supped my thirteenth jar;
Who appeared, in the half light of desperation,
To be so beautiful, so warm, so acceptable,
To a man whose hormones raged so hard.
First couple of chapters of PRAXIS, a sci-fi, fantasy novel written with my writing partner Ian Makinson, available on Amazon (not Ian, the book).
The three robed figures approached each other and met in the centre of the atrium. They greeted each other cordially, yet with the air of people whose purpose was not to be seen in the light of day.
Their black silk robes glistened in the candle light, each robe adorned by their icon.
The female, her thin face sharpened by the shadows, looked stern. She lowered the hood of her robe and bowed her head. The other two, both men, did the same. They had about them an austerity that betrayed their innermost thoughts.
The man with the emblem of Earth afire, spoke first. ‘Are you ready?’
The other two nodded and they entered the room.
In contrast to the atrium, the lights of the room were blinding. They couldn’t see anything.
There was no breeze, but a constant whispering gave the illusion of wind fighting its way through the branches of trees or whipping at the ears of a field of corn. Deformed words were carried on the air, constantly muttering, moving on, never settling in the ear long enough to make sense, but enough to give the listener pause and, with that pause, perhaps give the words a way in through the ear and into the soul. After a few minutes the three didn’t hear it, even though there was still a murmuring constantly battered at their ears.
Thirty minutes later they left the room and returned to the atrium. The air of superiority with which they had entered the room had clearly been diminished, their confidence shaken.
‘You know what we must do?’ asked one of the men.
‘Yes,’ said the female. ‘I will liaise with the inquisition and between us we will hunt out any of the infection.’
The man nodded. ‘And you, Chancellor, how goes Project Enhancement?’
‘It has had its troubles Archdeacon, but we are on the verge of perfection.’
‘The failed attempts?’
The chancellor tilted his head and pursed his lips. ‘Being kept under…observation, under the tightest security. There have been some escape attempts, but none of significance.’
‘Very well. Keep me informed.’
The Chancellor bowed deferentially.
A secretary walked up to the Archdeacon. ‘A missive for you, Archdeacon,’ he said. The Archdeacon waved the communiqué away, so the Sister Superior took it and read it. She smiled at the Chancellor and took the Archdeacon by the crook of his elbow. ‘Archdeacon, a word if you please.’ Taking this as a cue to leave, the Chancellor walked away.
‘We have a problem.’ She handed the Archdeacon the document.
The Archdeacon’s face gave little away as he read. ‘I wondered when this would happen. The frailties of humanity hit everyone at some time. Very well I will act on this.’
‘You will eliminate M…’
The Archdeacon put his hand to the Sister Superior’s lips. ‘Be quiet! We don’t know who could be listening. Rest assured, Sister Superior, I will see to it that this problem disappears.’
‘Thank you, your Grace.’ She bowed and walked away.
The Archdeacon smiled; he really did enjoy the long game.
The twin suns, though past their zenith, still breathed ferociously upon the land. The long grasses danced in the pitiless, hot breeze and shimmied in the heatwave. The irrigation ditches broke up the sun and threw it back as diamonds. Small, distant figures worked the fields, their heads shielded by broad-brimmed hats, some planting, some picking. Come the rains, they would still be there, sowing and gathering, different crops but the same routine, forever toiling at the endless cycle.
Katyiana put a hand up to shield her eyes and surveyed the lands. It was Heaven and Hell. Without the sun and rain, there would be no crops; without the crops…well, they bought them their privilege and rank and their wealth, but sometimes it was difficult to enjoy.
When she was here, alone, on top of her hill, she could see all they owned and, for a moment, she would feel free, untouchable, the queen of all she saw. She would feel proud and, yes, noble, but always in the back of her mind was that thought, that one jolt of electricity, that told her their freedom had a price.
Katyiana put her hand on her son’s shoulder. ‘There’s nothing like the view at mid-afternoon. It feels so peaceful. Look at the way the shadows start to lengthen as the suns begin to descend; the way everything has a golden warmth. It feels…safe.’
She moved to a stone bench. Remi followed in silence. He always did. He was her shadow. He sat beside her. He had to jump a little to get onto the bench. At five years old, everything seemed big.
The white stone of the pavilion gleamed around them. She had had it built before Remi was born. It was her retreat, her thinking place. It was a sign of opulence, of power, of spirituality. It was her. Her husband, her own precious king, could have his throne, but this? This was hers.
She held Remi’s hand and pulled him closer. How little his hand looked, even beside her small hands.
She felt nauseated. She took a breath and held it. Unspilled tears blurred her vision. She willed them away, suppressed them.
‘I wish you could stay, my only son, but your Father insists we do our duty, hold fast to tradition. The Earth is calling for you, demanding you, commanding you.’ She paused and released a long, stuttered breath. ‘Remember, no matter where you are my child you’ll always be little Remi to me. Please remember.’
‘Mother, I’m going be the toughest Wounded Son there is.’ Remi puffed up his chest and held an imaginary rifle to his chest. ‘I will kill the enemy for the Supremacy. I will be brave and I will never cry, no matter how much they try to hurt me.’
Katyiana hugged him. ‘I know. You’ll be the biggest and the bravest and the best. And maybe one day…’
‘Oh, nothing. It’s not important. You just be the best. Make us proud. Keep still a moment.’
‘Ow!’ Remi rubbed at his head. ‘Why did you pull my hair, Mother?’
Katyiana put the hair strands in a locket attached to her necklace ‘It’s so I have something of you when I’m scared. A keepsake. I will hold this locket, think of you and all my fears will drift away.’ She smiled wistfully and brushed Remi’s hair from out of his eyes. ‘Now go. Your father has something for you before the big ship takes you.’
Remi jumped down from the bench and ran back towards the palace. He didn’t look back.
It was as if it was all nothing to him. An adventure. She had feared this moment from the day he was born. It had never left her thoughts. She had tried to prepare herself for it, had tried to reason with herself, scold herself, to divert her thoughts to something frivolous, to work harder and submerge her fears, but nothing had worked. ‘Oh, my boy,’ she said. ‘My darling boy. I will miss you so very much.’
A tear rolled down her cheek.
As Remi approached the main ballroom of his Father’s Palace, he could hear voices and chamber music intermingle to create a cacophony. There were many dignitaries here, stern jawed men and crying women. He didn’t know who they were, but he knew they were important because they wore uniforms or dressed smartly, held their chins up and bared their necks, strutted like peacocks, so aware of themselves. He had been to these functions before, when the big ships had come to take other children away to fight for the glory of Earth, for the Supremacy.
From somewhere in the hubbub, Remi heard his father’s voice, stern and yet still jovial and warm. ‘Ah, Remi. There you are, boy. Come here.’
Remi marched briskly to the small crowd that enveloped his father. He always ran to his mother, yet had always walked to his father.
‘I would like you to meet Fleet Admiral J’ktai. He is in charge of the ships taking all you boys to your new lives.’
Remi saluted a tall, wiry man. He had a bionic where his left eye should be. It made him stare unblinkingly, like an owl. Remi could smell the starch of his uniform and the sharp creases looked as though they could cut a man.
The Admiral leered at him. ‘So you’re the boy who will be joining the honourable Wounded Sons, eh? You do know what’s ahead of you, boy? The trials that will be set before you, hmm?’ He smiled at Remi, at least Remi thought he did, but in truth, the crusty old man’s face never changed, never moved. It seemed to simply flicker a smile and then dissolve in to something thin, hard and cruel. He bent to whisper in Remi’s ear. ‘I give you six weeks before you quit and want your dear sweet Mummy. Your whole family are quitters boy and bought nobility doesn’t buy your way into becoming a Wounded Son!’
He straightened up and almost-smiled at Remi’s father. ‘A fine lad if ever I saw one, Alessaunder. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have others I must meet.’ He bowed and evaporated into the crowd.
Alessaunder rested a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘That man is your ticket to success. Mark him well, boy. You’re shaking. What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, Father. I didn’t know I was shaking. I’ll control myself.’
‘Good, now is not the time to show emotion. You’re being ascended, my boy. It’s a great honour for you and the family. We will not show weakness to our honoured guests. Come, I’ll have you meet your training sergeant.’
He steered Remi through the crowd of diplomats and dignitaries, to an area where a huge man was holding court, all eyes upon him, his solid arms gesticulating wildly as he acted out his words, his eyes picking out individuals, hypnotising them, their fascination and awe etched upon their faces. He wore a simple cream smock fastened at the neck by a thick golden brooch depicting Earth.
Alessaunder watched and waited. He would not dare to interrupt. He did not want to interrupt. This was a great soldier, a revered warrior, his reputation founded upon glory, his temper and his loyalty, his valour and his military genius. He had created victory from certain defeat and his conquests had gone from truth, to legend, to myth. To simply stand and listen to him was an honour.
Eventually, the sergeant wound down, his story coming to an end, his onlookers far more exhausted by his tale than he ever was in the living of it.
Alessaunder stepped forward. ‘Sergeant Mendad, I would like you to meet my son and your new prospect.’
Remi looked up until his neck hurt. He had never seen a man so big, not even the cage wrestlers he secretly watched on the video transmissions were this big. The sergeant smiled, a genuine, affectionate smile that spoke of more than war and the lust to kill, but of the realisation that, if war had its place, then so did the hearts of men. Tightly cropped grey hair at his temples gave him an austere air. The crows’ feet that seeped like tributaries of wisdom from his eyes spoke of experience and survival.
He made Remi feel safe. The boy liked him at once.
Mendad went down on one knee, and inclined his head. ‘Pleasure to meet you young Master Orthesian.’ He held out his hand. Remi took it and found his entire hand engulfed by work-hardened, calloused flesh. ‘I’m sure you’ll do well. Your uncle has. He’s currently fighting valiantly for the Wounded Sons in the wars against the enemies of the Terran Supremacy. Someday you may even be in his platoon. What do you say to that?’
Remi looked Sergeant Mendad in the eye. ‘One day, sir, I will have my own platoon.’
Sergeant Mendad roared with laughter. ‘I’m sure you will. I’m sure you will.’
The landing pad heaved with activity; menials ran between boxes, weighted down like ants, determined to reach their goal. The normally quiet, pristine area was littered with boxes of supplies, each labelled, each echoing the destiny of its owner. Chancery menials checked off passengers and cargo as they embarked or were loaded on to the waiting transport. Trucks darted to and fro in an effort to load the cargo on time. Delays were unacceptable. Anxious, tearful parents wished their loved ones farewell. Fathers stood with their hands behind their back as if they were holding themselves from any show of emotion. The women, as if compensating for their husbands, knelt next to their children and held them, wept upon their shoulders, ran their hands across their faces as if to get a final image of their child set in their mind, perhaps to leave a final residue, a scent, of their child upon their hands and clothes.
The landing ramp opened and revealed the yawning chasm of the ship’s interior. Five Wounded Sons either side of the ramp formed an honour guard. Their armour gleamed. The maroon of the plasitech weave contrasted heavily with the white piping of their armour. They stood to attention as Sergeant Mendad made his way to the landing platform.
Remi stood with his mother and father. Katyriana fussed, yet tried not to dissolve as the other mothers had. Her boy deserved a better memory of her than that. ‘You have everything you need?’
Alessaunder gently tried to ease her away. ‘Let the boy breathe, my dear.’
Alessaunder unclenched the whitened fingers behind his back and reached into a pocket. ‘I have something for you my boy.’ He handed Remi a velvet package. His father never gave him things. Birthdays were his mother’s prerogative. In that second, he didn’t care what it was; a pip from a fruit or a passport to eternal life, he didn’t care, because it came from him.
With shaking hands Remi unfolded the velvet cloth. His eyes widened as he saw an antique made pistol, its barrel encrusted with ivory inlays showing the family crest. Its grip was made from the finest leather.
Alessaunder knelt down next to him. ‘My father gave that to me. He had aspirations for me. He wanted me to join the officer cadre of the Supreme Guard, but this put paid to that…’ He hit his left leg and dull metallic clang was heard. It was no secret that in his youth he had lost leg in a skimmer accident. ‘So I pass it on to you. Treat her well and she will protect you.’
Alessaunder stood and looked down at his boy. Had he stayed down there he would have held onto him and never let him go. He placed his hand on his head. ‘Goodbye, my only son. I am and always will be proud of you.’ He stroked Remi’s head and then strode away without looking back.
Katyriana knelt down and hugged him. ‘Your father loves you, you know.’ She kissed his forehead and smelled his hair. ‘Go, my son. Make me proud. Be a good marine. I will always love you. Please remember.’
Remi frowned. ‘I’ll remember, Mother. I will. Always.’
She gently pushed him forward to where Sergeant Mendad was waiting. She started to shake and turned away. She didn’t want Remi to see her cry.
‘Are you ready young Orthesian? Go now up the ramp and your squad leader will billet you. Today you embark on the greatest adventure you could ever have, serving the Supremacy.’
She saw him embark and then watched the transport ship gently heave itself into the sky and gradually disappear.
She stayed long after everybody else had gone.
Sybelle V – 300 Years Later
From afar, to anyone who knew of the world long gone, that dead world of old languages and ancient superstitions, this
place would have seemed warm, would have reminded them of the days of the ecclesia, the locis cultus, the sanctis, the holy sites that bound man and God, into which a man could step with the sins of the world upon his shoulders and leave cleansed as if born again.
Villages and towns, countries and continents, rose and fell to the sound of their bells. In the name of their God, men grew rich and powerful, held themselves high above those who fell at their feet. In the name of their God, men killed without discrimination, driven on by blood-lust and the cause of the just. In the name of their God men died, never to be reborn.
Yet in all this mayhem, faith held. These Towers of Babel stood strong as sanctuary and symbol, but like that great Tower, their one God came down and scattered them upon the face of the Earth and confused their languages, so that they would not be able to return to each other, would no longer understand each other’s ways or each other’s words. Their common goal, the elevation of their God, deformed into the elevation of themselves and somewhere, in the chaos that ensued, God was slain and Man lost his soul.
All that was left were dusty, silent icons, echoes of worship, great stone memorials to myth and legend and man.
In such gothic halls walked the millions; unthinking, unaware, there only to do what they were programmed to do, to worship a new transcendence – the Chancery.
Elmond, for some unknown reason, enjoyed his life. He felt a deep contentment when he awoke at the start of the day and this feeling rarely deserted him to the cusp of sleep.
He took pleasure in the journey to his pinpoint place in this giant honeycomb of toil. He revelled in the scent of parchment that clung to the air like the skin of dead time. He closed his eyes and smelled the almost subliminal whiff of electricity that burned through invisible strands in the walls and in the ground. He loved the velvet silence, especially when it was broken by the ricochet of footsteps or the distant creak of a door or the hum of machinery that vibrated minutely through the floor and up through his feet and almost thrilled his diminished brain into life.
He was at one with his world.
Yet he should not have been. There should have been no thrill, no contentment, no pleasure, no oneness. No feelings at all.
Sometimes he would feel the small scar on his head and wonder at the significance of it. They all had it, like a badge, a birthmark; one small, oval pockmark at the back of his head, as if someone had at one time drilled through his skull. Sometimes, when he was tired, it hurt. If he pressed it, massaged it, the pain would subside.
By observing those around him, he could see the difference between him and them. Never did their fingers circle that small hole on their head until the pain drained away and the sheer relief from it replenished their depleted reserves. Never did he see them stop to stare at the great arched, stained-glass windows or look towards the pencil thin shaft of light that shone like Hope through a minuscule gap in the paintwork. Never did he see them lift a head towards the door that creaked. Never did he see them walk as if there was a lightness in each step that could only come from a desire to be at their destination and start all over again. Never did they hurry home to taste forbidden fruit.
Never, he was certain, did they feel the same ecstasy as he did when he was cataloguing the old data or running his thin fingers over parchment, feeling for the wrinkle of ink that stained it and trying to imagine, to touch, the hand that set down those words that so excited him, made him feel so alive.
Yet, they must never know. He must never show his…what? What was this he felt? How did he feel? It was certain death to be caught feeling, questioning, knowing. Yet he did and it scared him and filled him with terror and he knew that he must suppress these thoughts, these feelings and keep them to himself. No one must know that he knows.
If it was from a drill, this hole in his head, did they not go deep enough? Or did the fact that they all had the hole mean that they were all his brothers, that they had the same genes and the same scars? Was he genetically deformed? Was he a monster, hidden in its shell, waiting for the quietest of days when he could explode from his shell and taunt and maim and take the world?
There was shame in such thoughts. There was a sensuous delight.
Down here among the old dusty parchments of the old world and the electronic data slates of this new world, he felt he belonged.
The parchments were in a language that no one but the most senior of civil servants could, or were permitted, to understand; yet he understood them. For years he assumed that everyone did. He never mentioned that he understood them, because he thought it was normal. Then, gradually, he noticed that no one lingered over the slates and parchments; their dead eyes merely passed over them like dark clouds across an empty land. They filed them and moved on. Elmond had never mentioned it because, quite simply, they never talked to each other. The lack of social awareness to which they had been adapted was his good fortune, had probably saved his life.
He didn’t know where he had acquired this ability to translate old languages, to interpret them, but he knew it was some sort of gift. Or curse.
He had learned many things about the Supremacy and its history. Some of the documents he guessed were thousands of years old. Compared to the boring routine data slates which consisted mainly of Terran taxes for food, ore and manpower, these musty parchments actually told him about the system in which he lived.
Elmond was a menial in this governmental web. Every day he plugged his cranial implants into the colossal computers and input the relentless flow of data slates. He had figured out the minimum he had to do daily without causing suspicion. This left him time to enjoy reading the old texts and learning.
If he was ever caught doing this he would be mem wiped and put to work in a foundry where his life expectancy would be months, but there was an indescribable pleasure in reading about the flora and fauna of different worlds, of the lives of other races, of their habitats and their place within the Supremacy’s universe. He read of the exploits of the legendary Enhanced and dreamed of what it would be like to hunt foul aliens and heretics, to be something, someone; to make a difference.
Only one other had gained access to his secretive world and in that moment, when she had declared herself, he had believed himself to be as good as dead.
At end of day, with a parchment concealed down each arm and one other hidden beneath his cloak, he had left upon the orderly tide that carried them all away from their work into the tributaries of their non-work lives.
The further from work they went, the thinner the great river became until it was little more than a trickle.
Elmond had sensed that someone had stayed close to him since they had left their computers. He knew they were there because they had fallen out of step. Everybody in the mechanised outpouring from work had the same monotonous walk. Out of necessity, to keep the throng moving, they all fell into the same pattern - left, right, left, right. Those who fell out first were on the outside of the torrent so that their leaving did not disrupt the flow; the closer to the middle you were, the further you had to walk. It made sense.
Yet Elmond had heard this trippety-trip behind him, as if someone was changing pace and place to keep up with him. Twice he had felt the softest nudge against his back as whoever it was had failed to keep in time.
Eventually, few remained.
‘I know what you did.’
A whispered, female voice.
Elmond walked on, his pace unchanged, willing himself to do what he thought would be the natural thing. Ignore it. Nobody talked to the likes of him, therefore, logically, this voice was not for him.
‘I saw you. First your left arm, then your right and the final one…well. I can only think how uncomfortable that must be.’
Now his heart-rate rose. Now he felt beads of sweat ooze from him like worms. Now he felt light-headed and wanted to run, to disappear, to wake up and feel the damp, cold relief of a nightmare.
His steps faltered. If this was a test, he had failed. They would sense his sweat, hear his heartbeat, know that the misstep was an admission of guilt. This was his trial. His journey home had been his trial and his last stumbling steps had been his guilty plea.
Somehow, he reached his sparse quarters, which lay within one of the grey, imposing monoliths into which the workers darted at the end of their day. The footsteps behind had fallen in time, but had never left. At the entrance he stopped. He hung his head, defeated. He wished that he didn’t have to go to the foundry, that whoever it was would shoot him now and leave, so that his body could be taken away and disposed of by the cleaners and it could be as if he had never existed.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’
A short story from my book COMMUNIQUE, a collection of poems and short stories, available on Amazon. Feedback always welcome.
Everyone has a moment in their life when they have nothing to lose, when it no longer matters. The difficulty is recognizing it and seizing it and seeing it through.
You have to make it matter, of course; if it mattered before, it matters now, more than anything. It matters more than TV, more than making sure the grass is cut, more than settling down in comfort and privacy and listening to your favorite album or reading your favorite book, more than cleaning the car, more than family, wife, children, dog, whatever. Just make it fucking matter; bring up the blood-boiling passion that gave you an ulcer, that made you feel as if you’d wake up shitting blood, that gave you that unrelenting pain behind your right eye and left you stranded and alone in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and too tired to stay awake. Remember that limbo, that not exactly being dead but not being alive either, that not being of consequence any more, that excruciating pain that nothing can touch because it doesn’t really exist.
When you see that moment, like a crippled old friend come loping round the corner, hug that fucker and don’t let it go, cause you’re gonna need it, brother. You are really gonna need it.
I had bought an ice-pick, a Browne-Halco 7 1/2”, for a dollar forty off some internet site. I bought that one because I liked the handle. It looked long, long enough to curl your fist around and solid, like it wouldn’t break the first time you had friends round and you end up going to the garage for a fucking hammer and spraying bits of ice across the kitchen. That’s when you find out who your friends really are, when the fuckers slip up on a piece of ice on your kitchen floor and decide to sue. They tell you not to worry, of course, the insurance will pay and they’ll toss you a few bucks towards your next vacation, but they forget that your payments go up because you made a claim and the insurance company want to send someone to investigate, blah blah blah…whatever.
They’re all fuckers.
It was stainless steel, too. For some reason that little fact caught my eye. I thought, ‘stainless steel. Excellent.’ Then I realised, after I’d ordered it, well, it would be wouldn’t it, otherwise it would go rusty, which would be dumb in an ice-pick, which lead me to ask, if that’s the case, why would they need to mention it in the first place. You should be able to assume that an ice-pick will not rust and on this assumption, assume that it’s made of stainless steel. I was going to go back and look and some others, just to see if they were made of some super-strong plastic or something, but I never did.
Why’d I buy an ice-pick? It seemed the right thing to do at the time. I had considered other options, like waiting until winter and finding a really large icicle, the kind that hangs down from the front of peoples’ houses, popping it in the freezer until such time as it was needed, then using it without fear of consequence. I mean, they melt, right, so nothing gets left behind. But then I thought, no, because you just didn’t know when the temperatures were going to drop enough, although they were pretty reliable in this part of the world, then you’d have the problems of storage and what if you set out to do what you have to do and got diverted for some reason and the damn thing melted or what if it slipped from your hand at the vital moment cause you had hot hands and you only half did what you had to do and ended up struggling and all that shit.
No, an ice-pick was better, safer, more reliable.
I’d considered an ax, but there are problems inherent in the size of the things, let alone needing swing room, concealment etc. A hatchet would do, but in a confined area? I wasn’t so sure. What’s a hatchet if not a little ax? They’re both about force and that was possibly not going to be in abundance.
Anyway, that’s how the whole thought process went. I thought of a car, a railway line like in the old black and white Buster Keaton movies, poison (so many practical drawbacks), electricity, drowning, strangling, hanging, you name it, I lay there awake at night, the wife’s breathing sounding like the distant sea, thinking about it. The problem was I was either not brave enough or not strong enough any more.
I used to be strong. I used to be able to throw sixty-five kilos over my shoulder and still walk with a bounce, but not any more. When I look at the kids nowadays and see what they’re able to do, they astound me. I don’t mean the fat kids that spend their days stuffing burgers and shakes and God knows what shit down their throats. I mean the ones that go to the Olympics or play sports on a regular basis or have tough, physical work to do. The kids who are fit nowadays mean it. In my day, we were fit because it was like a way of life. Most of us did physically demanding work and played sports because that was all we had to do. You were out all day, except for the readers and the clever kids. You didn’t have a car, so you walked or caught the bus and then had to walk from the bus stop to wherever you were going. And you didn’t mind because you liked the fresh air and saying hello to people, even complete strangers and looking at all the new stuff in shop windows and picking out your next birthday or Christmas present until next week when their display changed and there was something else you wanted. It was great.
Today you have two distinct varieties of kids. Those ones who are just fat because they spend their time chewing shit and staring at their X-Box and then there’s that other type that I mentioned who are fit because they mean to be, because they want to be. It’s a different kind of fit to what we had. They still use cars more than I ever did and don’t walk as far, but they go that little bit extra to achieve that fitness. They want to be fit. They have something to aim for. Most of them anyway. Some of them take those steroids and end up half-human, half-lab rat, with hunch backs and spots and tempers that make them less stable than half a pound of uranium on a hot day. It’s the ones who go that bit extra that I like. They usually have the good manners that come with self-discipline and a sort natural understanding of their place in the world. It’s like they don’t have anything to prove. I’ll always cheer those guys on.
It’s the cheaters I hate, like the cyclists, pumping those drugs into themselves. There’s so much money involved in all this crap nowadays, I think pretty much everything is fixed one way or another. Horse racing, always has been, always will be. I often wondered about boxing. Probably. I don’t know about baseball. I’d like to think not, but you never know.
Then the ice-pick arrived in the post and I had to hurry to get it before the wife picked it up and said ‘package, honey’ while she stood there shaking the shit out of it. ‘What could it be? What is it? What have you ordered?’ And I’d have to fumble about and say it was nothing and hope to be able to run away into the garage with it, pretending it was just another man-toy (is what she calls tools) or just unwrap the damn thing in front of her and once she’d found out what it was, I’d have to kill her.
She is a fine woman. I mean that. I know a lot of men sort of nod their heads and curve their mouth with an invisible pipe between their thumb and forefinger, as if they were some sort of 1950s trouser-pressed wise man and say, ‘She’s a fiiiiine woman, that one’, as if they’d only just noticed it after two hundred years of marriage or if they felt they needed to boast a bit in front their friends or work colleagues, but I don’t. I know she’s a fine woman, so I don’t have to tell anybody that. I am confident in that fact. And when I say fine, I don’t just mean good, like some men do, or useful or handy to have around, like toilet tissue, sort of useful until disposed of, I mean she is fine in a dictionary sort of way; of superior quality. I think that says it all. Of superior quality. The very best a person, man or woman, can get.
And she’s proved it, time and time again. She would understand all this, if I took the time to explain it to her, but I don’t want to. I have a plan and I don’t want that plan brought to a halt, not this late in the day. It makes me feel a little guilty, sneaking around behind her back, but it’s for the best. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Or me.
We both have a list, you see. We both have this list we keep in our heads, of people that one day we’re going to get even with or kill. It’s a release. You know, ‘one day I’ll get my own back’, knowing full well you won’t, but it makes you feel better, just putting their name on the list, just in case…
We have some names in common, probably more than we think, sort of like that Facebook shit, Facehate you could call it if you want, but we don’t discuss it. As lists go, they are mutually exclusive. I don’t ask her about hers and she doesn’t ask me about mine, though I suspect she has a considerable number more on hers than I do on mine. I also suspect that she pretty much knows the name of every single person on my list. The reason for that is she clings onto hate, whereas I tend to erupt and then simmer and then let it die down, sort of naturally fade. I think the whole clinging onto wrongs is more of a woman thing. They hold onto petty hates, petty slights, take them a whole lot more seriously. That’s why they make such crap politicians, cause they take it all too personally when it’s not. It’s a game, we all know that, but with the women it’s a fine line.
Anybody on my list really has to earn their place and very few people have achieved this. I suppose that could be interpreted in different ways. It could mean that I’m too quick to forgive or that I’m weak and gullible and would rather avoid confrontation or that you really have pissed me off and are going to pay.
Those are all true. Except for the last one. I just don’t have the fucking energy anymore.
But, I was at my moment, nothing to lose, so I’m going to do two things.
One. I’m going to start smoking again. I gave up twenty-five maybe thirty years ago and there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t missed it. I loved smoking. There was no better time than when you took those five or ten minutes out to go and have a smoke and just think. If you were pissed off, you usually calmed right down. The cause of your anger just faded with the first drag and by the time you reached the end of the cigarette it was usually pretty much gone. If you’d been in some sort of spat, by the time that nicotine was pumping through your blood, you’d pretty much managed to see both sides of the argument or plain didn’t give a fuck anymore and peace was once more with the world.
I think I was a better person when I smoked. Sure, I couldn’t breathe and I stank like a crematorium, but I was easier. And thinner. I gave up watching my weight after the first fifty pounds had strapped itself round my waist like a suicide vest. Things tasted better, they really did and because I couldn’t have a smoke after my meal, well, I’d just carry on eating. But there was nothing to replace a cigarette. Not gum, not patches, even alcohol, because as soon as I had a drink, I wanted a smoke. Nothing worked. I loved the taste, I loved the smell, I loved the calm, I loved the routine, the reliability. Certain times of day were smoke time. It gave me structure. And no matter how shit things were, the smokes were there for you, your own pocket therapist to calm you down, to put things in proportion. If a problem wasn’t solved by the time you’d reached the filter, then it probably wasn’t going to go away and you’d know then that it needed a different approach. Another cigarette perhaps.
So, number one, I was going to start smoking again.
Two, I was going to take out my list and, like Earl Hickey, cross one off, only, unlike Earl, I no longer gave a fuck about Karma.
Hence the ice-pick.
The problem had always been that karma-type thing. Payback. What you do today will come back upon you sevenfold tomorrow and all that shit.
I admit, I had been afraid to ‘express’ myself the way I would like to because of the catholic inside me. Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go to church and I didn’t read the Bible and I didn’t cross myself whenever something holy was supposed to have passed through the atmosphere. But I had done all these things and still held them sort of sacred. I liked churches, the more traditional the better. I liked their peace, I liked what they represented, the something higher than us, the hope. But I never liked the established church. It is based upon oppression and superstition and exists only for profit and power. It was built by people for people.
I have read the Bible. I didn’t enjoy it all, but some of it I did and it is a damn good piece of story-telling if nothing else, but it’s a method of control so, despite its undoubted wisdom, it’s not something I cling to. I never was baptized, I never took the blood of Christ and never tasted the body of Christ, I think saints were just people who did something good, maybe only once during a whole lifetime of deceit and got elevated in the hysteria.
This was me. I needed more than faith and I was too much of a conspiracist to accept anything at face value. Too cynical. Too bruised.
I prayed in hope of an answer. I don’t believe I’ve ever received one but, like the lottery, if you don’t have a ticket…
I had reached the moment though. If I didn’t do what I had to do then, even if only in the last few seconds, I knew I’d regret it. I had to have some sort of settlement of the debt.
So there I sat in my car outside someone’s house waiting for my moment to come, praying.
That was this morning. Four, maybe five hours ago
Other people’s garages are strange. Ours is a garbage dump. There is no order to it. If there’s a space on the ground, it gets filled with something, sometime. There are indiscriminate paint marks on the walls where I’ve checked out the color of a spray paint or tested it to see if there’s any left. If someone comes along in a thousand years they’ll think they were the first communications of some sort of cement blockcave-dweller. They’d stand there in their sweaters and cardigans with a pipe perched two inches from their lips, their brows furrowed by the enormity of their find. Right up until the moment when they found I wrote ‘Fuck Bush’ just below the shelf where I keep…well, anything that won’t fall off. I know there’s a book about how to improve your golf swing on there, which I’ve never read. There’s a house brick on top of it. I don’t know why that’s there, but it just seemed to appear one day and for some reason I never threw it out. There’s also a manual for a 1981 Honda Prelude. I never owned a Prelude so, like the brick, it’s a mystery yet to be solved. I have read bits of it. It’s a pretty good manual.
The garage I was now in was the absolute opposite of mine. It was like an Intel lab. I knew that if I dropped an over-ripe banana on the floor, it would probably come up without the bruising. That floor would reverse time so that anything that fell on it would, when picked up, be shiny and sparkling and as good as new.
That would be good. I’d place the wife there in a heartbeat, lie down next to her and do it all over again.
The shelves were those metal ones, that you order and build, like the building sets you had as a kid. I could not be bothered even as a kid to do anything that required time and patience and any form of dexterity. I may as well have been born with five thumbs on each hand. I can’t write for shit and if I pick up a screwdriver I go into some sort of anaphylaxis which causes me to drop the damn thing every three seconds.
The shelves were like, compartmentalized. You know how some people have their CDs or vinyls ordered by name or group or something that only they can understand, like producers, picture and non-picture discs, year of recording, anything that only they understand so they have their own little secret from the rest of humanity. It’s kind of perverse. This is what that garage was like. I stood there for a few minutes in the half light and tried to figure out how they had done it, but for the life of me I could not.
I was pretty sure that the rest of their house would be like that. A space for pants, shirts, sweaters, which in turn would be broken down into turtle-necks and V-necks, dresses, broken down into perhaps evening dresses, sun dresses, pool dresses, shopping dresses, house dresses, long dresses, short dresses. And their kitchen. Holy shit. Imagine the fun you could have in there, just with the herbs. Sigmund Freud would break his fucking pencil and turn to bus driving, I swear.
Would their lives be as segregated? He was he and she was she. Knowing her as I did, I would have guessed so. My guess is he wouldn’t’ve had much say in anything. I don’t know him, never seen him. I just have this picture of a sort of recessive gene, all the worst things, all those little quirks that come out every four generations or so, the knitted eyebrows and buck teeth, one nostril twice the size of the other, one pupil staring like a black hole while the other twitches and flickers like an uncertain sphincter, all wrapped up a huge bundle of soft hopelessness. Maybe not even hopelessness. Worse. Acceptance. Every now and then he creeps into the garage, his hunchback following him like an unborn wish, and he meticulously places things where they belong knowing that, at any random time, she’d be along to check that everything’s in place. At first glance, you’d think that the garage was him, an extension of his personality, then you realise that he has no personality, that it drowned years ago in the flood of her love.
For some reason, people don’t often lock their cars when they garage them. I guess they figure that to have put it behind a locked set of garage doors is enough, so her car was open. Strangely, when their partner goes out first, they leave the garage open, because they know the remaining partner won’t be long after them and will close the garage when they leave. In this case, at least. Early mornings for a week, you notice these things.
I tried the car door and it gave under my hand. The smell of pine hit me.
Without looking I knew that she had at least one of those fucking pine-tree air-fresheners hanging on her rear-view mirror. There’s something about those things that drives me crazy. The fact that it’s such a bad fake pine smell is one thing. It’s like a tree-whore just sat in your car. And I don’t like things dangling from my rear-view mirror; they’re a distraction. That’s a personal preference, I understand, but it’s still something else I hate about them. Worst of all though is that air of middle-class, my-shit-don’t-stink haughtiness. I think I’m probably being completely unreasonable here. There’s nothing wrong with people not wanting their cars to smell. Indeed, I carry a small aerosol in my glove box for just that reason. But it’s concealed. Once every six months, maybe, I’ll use it. Or as required. After I’ve picked up a take-out or something. But to have it on display, all the time, telling people that you do not want your car to smell of them seems somehow exclusive, snobbish, as if you don’t want the rest of the world to mar your perfection, as if you’re too perfect. I’m pretty certain this is unreasonable, but I’ve never liked those things.
Anyway, I shuffled into the back seat. It was a blue Chevy Spark. There was a time when American cars had had something about them, a personality, an individuality, now they’re just this homogenous mess, like the thousands of specks of dog turd in the park, completely indistinguishable.
As expected, it was clean and tidy. There was not a fleck of dust to be seen. It was almost as if I was inside a bubble, infection free.
I removed the headrests and stowed them behind the seats. I figured if I removed one, she would be more likely to notice, but less likely to notice two. People are like that. I might need room to maneuver.
I took the ice-pick out of my jacket pocket and sat back.
I was probably a bit early.
She wasn’t due out for fifteen minutes.
It was the internal garage door that snatched me out of my thoughts. I had sort been playing with the ice-pick, rolling it over and over in my hands, wondering if the handle was man-made or machined, knowing full well it was machined but thinking how nice it would be if someone took the trouble to hand-make each one, you know how you sort of drift to nowhere when you’re waiting for a train or something and all you have is time.
She unlocked the door and pulled it open and light from the hallway fell across the hood of the car. It was enough to give me a mental finger-click, so I instinctively ducked as low as I could behind the driver’s seat. It’s at moments like this that you suddenly realise that your planning isn’t as good as it could have been, but I got away with it.
I heard her lock the adjoining door and step towards the car. Even in the short distance she walked, in that garage her footsteps echoed as if we were parked up in the fucking Andes. The clicks of her heels against the floor were like a Goddam machine gun. She always had this sort of business-woman air about her, as if she was too good for the rest of us. Evidence the pine. I always had this picture of her in my head in what they like to call ‘power dress’. You know, short starched skirt (or pants), jacket with single button done up, dark in colour, for the figure and so’s they don’t appear too frivolous by choosing bright colours. Plus they want to mix with the business-men who are drawn towards dark clothes from birth and more often than not probably had pin-striped fucking pajamas. It’s all about being taken seriously. The heels, clickety-fucking-click against the fucking floor, are a warning. Make no bones about it. What it says is ‘I’m coming. Either be prepared or get out of my fucking way. The lady train approaches and I will cut you down!’.
This is what I heard and imagined as she opened the car door and shuffled her pert behind into the driver’s seat.
‘Hi,’ I said.
She dropped the keys and screamed, not loudly, but in that see-a-ghost way. I think real screams are actually more stifled than in the movies. I think people are better at controlling their reactions than we give them credit for.
‘Leave the keys where they are. Put your hands in your lap. Keep quiet.’
That sounds smooth, but it wasn’t. The truth is if I hadn’t kept my sentences short I’d’ve tripped over them like an octogenarian over a skipping rope. I was glad I hadn’t gone for the icicle. By now it would have been in pool at my feet and I would have looked like I’d pissed myself.
She did as she was told. I didn’t think she would. I thought she would just leap out of the car and be prepared to kick the shit out of me. But she didn’t. I heard her take a deep breath which shuddered as if it was passing through a valve.
I sat up and looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were looking down at her lap. She dared not look up. She dared not look into the mirror.
‘Know who this is?’ I asked.
She shook her head quickly, like she was shooing away a fly.
‘Would you like to take a guess?’
She remained silent, but she was shaking. I could see her hands cupped together, flapping like fish. And her left knee wouldn’t keep still. Her hair was in one of those bobs and I’m pretty sure was dyed black. It shimmied as she shook. I’d like to have seen her face, but there was no way without her lifting her head up to the mirror.
I took a small piece of her hair between my fingers and she jumped a little, electrified, gasped, her fear fuelled by her anticipation, and pulled her back, so as her head was where the headrest would normally have been. She made no attempt to fight me.
I rested the tip of the ice-pick against the back of her head, possibly broke the skin, at the place called the foramen magnum. The big hole. This is the opening at the base of the skull where the brain and spinal column meet. I researched this. That little dip around the hairline at the back of your head. Right about there. Some people call it the flea pit. I heard that if the pressure inside your skull becomes too much, with a tumor or hematoma or if you have an infection which causes swelling, your brain can be squeezed out of this hole. That’s what I heard. I bet it fucking hurts, whatever the cause.
She was so scared she didn’t even try to pull away. I could see her face in the mirror now. Her eyes were closed. Her lower lip quivered.
‘Open your eyes,’ I said.
She didn’t want to open her eyes, I could tell. Like hiding under the bedclothes. Monsters can’t get you if you hide under the bedclothes.
I pressed a little harder and felt the sharp end go ‘pop’ as it went through her skin. She almost put her hands up that time, almost put up a fight, but as soon as the idea crossed her mind, it died like a midnight deer on the Interstate.
My wife, she’d’ve been out the car by now. She’d’ve either kicked me to death or got herself some help. This one, she had nothing.
‘Open your eyes.’
She opened her eyes. Couldn’t help but look in the rearview. At first she couldn’t make me out because of the lack of light, so I slid forward to the edge of the seat. ‘Oh, Christ!’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
From the bedroom. ‘Is that you?’
I throw my jacket over a chair. ‘Who else?’
‘He’s an ugly bum.’
‘Would you were that ugly! Where’ve you been?’
‘Out and about.’
I’m standing at our bedroom door. She looks like shit. ‘Did you take your tablets?’
‘Yes, I took my fucking tablets! Where’ve you been?’
‘Just ticking stuff off your list.’
She looks at me and nods, searching for something in my eyes. ‘Did you get…’
‘Yes, I got…’
‘That too. You need anything?’
Her voice has no strength. ‘Twenty years?’
I think of the clean floor in that garage. ‘Just twenty? I’d want you younger than that. I remember when you were twenty-three and I could get my hands around your waist. Touch fingers.’
‘You’re an asshole!’
‘Yeah, but I’m your asshole.’
She turns her head away and looks out the window. ‘Sunny. Warm?’
‘Yeah. Summer’s coming.’
‘I’ll miss it.’
‘I’m going to make some coffee. You want some coffee?’
She shakes her head. It looks like it’s going to fall off its axis, she’s so thin. ‘No, thanks.’
‘Okay. I’ll be back.’
She nods again and closes her eyes. I look at her and wish I’d appreciated last summer a little more.
The first chapter of my novel, A KIND AND GENTLE MAN, available on Amazon. Feedback always welcome.
Conrad Borscz gazed vacantly at the freshly turned soil. He took a handkerchief out of his dark suit pocket and wiped it across his almost hairless head. The iron-grey, close-cropped horseshoe of hair that circled it shone with moisture. The heat was overpowering. Twice he had wanted to pass out as the vicar had droned incoherently away over his wife’s hidden body and had managed to stay upright only by bouncing unobtrusively on the balls of his feet. His calf muscles were beginning to ache.
He felt a hand fall upon his shoulder and turned. It moved down his arm and sneaked into his palm. Its grip was dry and firm, not soft with sympathy as anyone might have expected on such a day. His own hand fought limply back, too listless to give anything in return.
Conrad smiled weakly, his eyes half-closed against the sun that hovered above the man’s head and turned him into a faceless shadow. ‘Thanks for coming,’ he sighed. ‘It’s very kind of you.’
The man, who continued his vice-like handshake, moved round, a step towards the wrought-iron gates, seemingly reluctant to stop for too long in the cemetery. He grinned broadly; a gold tooth winked at Conrad as it caught the sun. ‘Absolute pleasure,’ thundered the man, a tad too buoyantly. ‘Glad to be here.’ He received a jab in the ribs from the woman who stood to his left.
‘So sorry, Con.’ The woman’s soprano voice emerged from behind a rigid smile. ‘Absolute disaster. Pretty little thing like that. So many good years ahead of her. You must feel absolutely rotten.’ Conrad nodded. The woman looked at the skies and wrinkled her eyes at the bright blueness. There were no clouds, no hope of relief. ‘Hot bugger of a day too,’ she puffed, her flushed cheeks full with a gasp.
Conrad wiped the handkerchief across his head again. ‘Yes. You and Charles, will you come back? For a drink?’
‘Love to Con, but so sorry darling. Off to the Mackeson’s place. Bit of a party later. Said we’d pop in and give them a hand.’
‘Oh, right, that’s fine. I understand.’
‘Jolly good. Pop along later, if you feel like it. Charles and I will be next to the bar as usual.’ The woman snorted a laugh.
‘Absolutely,’ chortled Charles. ‘Need a stiffy after a morning like this. Come on Muriel. Best be off before we melt.’ He gave Conrad a pat on the arm and tugged his wife away. ‘Chin up, old boy,’ he called after him.
Conrad lifted a hand and waved. ‘Thanks again.’
Others had started to leave, glad to have used Charles and Muriel as a shield against any emotional crossfire, service sheets alive in their faces as they tried to beat away the heat like so many mosquitoes. Some waved or tipped their heads at Conrad, some swiftly shook his hand, mumbled, pointed at the sun, their cars, and drove away.
Conrad watched as the last car disappeared from sight, their dust filtering slowly back down to the dry road, as if they had been no more than dust-devils, nowhere to stop, nowhere to go.
He felt relief at the sudden isolation. He had never been one for crowds, for the flotsam of accompanying problems that inevitably dragged him into their wake. He and Mary had never sought company outside of each other, had never needed to.
He turned back to the grave, to the piles of sun-dried soil that littered the sides, which occasionally gave way and threw tiny balls of dirt into the hole, which in their turn fell hollowly onto his wife’s final home.
Only the nameplate on the coffin shone up from the blackness, the only confirmation to Conrad that there was anyone in there at all. It was all too unreal, too big to understand.
In the hospital, as he sat at the side of her bed, had seen her, touched her, kissed her, held her cold hand until his warmth had seeped from him to her, given her false life in his whirlwind mind, but nothing had come, nothing would come. He had never known such stillness. He had left her, alone, for the first time. The nurses had waited patiently outside the cubicle, moved in as soon as he stepped out of the door, clean sheets and towels and sticky tape piled high upon the trolley, there to clean up the debris of his life.
And now, as the unkind and oppressive sun beat down upon his pounding head, as he heard childish screams a hundred miles away and the call of an ice-cream van, as he felt too alive to feel good, he prepared to leave her alone again, for the last time.
‘’Scuse me guv. You finished?’
Conrad turned quickly, alarmed at the crack in the silence. ‘I’m sorry?’
The bare-chested and heavily tanned workman looked blankly at Conrad. Behind him was a mechanical digger. His vested workmate sat at the controls, ready to fill the grave.
The workman withdrew a cigarette from between his lips and stamped it into the dirt at the graveside. ‘Lunchtime, mate. We don’t hurry up, we go into overtime, and we got too much to do after. See? It’s a matter of timing.’
Conrad looked at his wife’s grave and then back at the workman. The connection clicked and he started, electrified by what the man had said. He took a step back. ‘I’m sorry…I didn’t realise…’
The workman’s heavy paw stained his shoulder. ‘That’s alright, mate. It’s a bit rough. We understand.’ With a wave of his arm, the digger advanced, bit into the dirt and started to shovel the soil home.
The workman nodded towards the grave. ‘Wife was it?’ He had to shout above the noise of the digger.
‘Yes it…she was. My wife.’ Conrad wanted to tear his eyes away from the work of the digger, to deny the scene before him, but he was trapped by the need to see it through, by his fearful and overwhelming desire to avoid the guilt of desertion.
‘Right.’ The workman lit another cigarette that he pulled magically from behind his ear. ‘Well, you go and get yourself a couple of pints. In fact, get yourself well rat-arsed. You’ll feel better for it, take my word.’
‘I don’t drink,’ said Conrad, too low for the man to hear.
The man cupped his ear. ‘You what?’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ Conrad gestured to his car with his thumb. ‘I’ll be off then.’
‘Righty-ho, guv. Go and get a bit of this weather. Probably be it ‘til next year.’
Conrad nodded and walked away. He heard the earth fall solidly above the noise of the digger and tried to shut off his mind, to say that it wasn’t falling upon his wife, that it was just an empty box, that tomorrow he would kiss her goodbye before he left for work.
As he got into a waiting taxi (he had left his own car in the garage, could not face driving today) he took out the handkerchief and wiped it across his head again. Then he wiped his eyes, quickly and just once, before the noise of the overworked diesel engine crashed into the still air and he was driven away.
When Conrad reached his house he saw two cars parked outside. Relief swept over him as he realised that someone would be inside. His desire to be alone had become tempered by the fear of loneliness on the short journey home. He paid off the driver and walked quickly to the door.
In the lounge sat three people. Two of them, unrecognisable to Conrad, watched the news. The third stood and came across to Conrad, his arms wide.
‘Victor.’ sighed Conrad with relief.
‘Hello, my friend. How are you? I hope it wasn’t so bad.’
The two friends embraced. Victor kissed Conrad on the cheek and pulled him close. Conrad felt the boniness of age, the unshaven chin that never seemed to become a beard, and smelt the garlic of which Victor Kivlenieks was so fond.
The two men separated and Conrad looked at his friend. ‘You’re thin, Victor. Are you neglecting yourself?’
A smile crossed Victor’s pale, narrow lips and lit his skeletal face. ‘I am as thin as I always was. I was not born to be fat. I am a cheetah, not a plump old lion.’
Victor’s Polish accent filled Conrad’s ears and flooded him with warmth. It was true, Victor had always looked like walking death, but he had always possessed the strength of ten men. His sparrow face hid an eagle’s fire that could be seen in his eyes, and his thin wiry frame belied the steel within.
Victor placed his hands on Conrad’s shoulders. His face changed from joy to sadness in an instant. ‘I am so sorry I missed the funeral. The train was cut. Those bastards at British Rail, or whatever they call themselves now, stink like a long dead rat. I really wanted to be there. You know I loved her.’
‘Oh Lord, Victor, I know. And Mary, she loved you too. She spoke of you often before she died.’ Conrad pulled Victor to him again and held him tightly. ‘I missed you,’ he said softly.
‘And I you. If only the end had not been so fast in coming. I wanted so badly to be there. For your sake if not for hers.’
‘It’s alright,’ reassured Conrad. ‘It was enough to know that you existed.’
Conrad guided Victor to the sofa and sat him down. Victor dragged an ashtray across a glass-topped coffee table and lit a cigarette.
‘Would you like a drink, Victor? I have just about everything, I think.’
Victor inhaled deeply and spat out the smoke like a tired volcano. ‘I would like something soft. The doctor has said that I must not indulge myself anymore. No more Vodka. Ha. Cut off my balls, I said, and throw me into an orgy. It would be easier. He wants me to give up my heritage so that I can stay alive. Bastard. What does he know? I had my first drink at the age of two, my first cigarette at eight, and he wants me to stop, now that I am eighty-one. But I agreed, or at least I have compromised. And maybe lied a little. I smoke these shitty filtered things now. I have to smoke twice as many, but it is a compromise. So I compromise further. I don’t drink Vodka anymore. I drink whisky instead. As soft a drink as you can get without sucking a wet pillow.’
Conrad smiled. ‘That is what I would expect of you. Whisky it is then.’
Conrad went to a long covered table full of drinks and snacks and poured a whisky for Victor and a lemonade for himself. He sat down on the sofa next to his old friend and gave him his drink.
Victor held up the glass and examined the contents with disdain. ‘I have to drink twice as much of this shit just to get the fur off my tongue.’ Victor took a sip and let it roll around his mouth while he contemplated. ‘When I was young and first started drinking vodka, back when I was in Poland and not the refugee I now am, we used to drink the vodka cold, freezing, and the fumes that used to come off it were so strong that we used to drop grains of black pepper onto the surface of the drink,’ he rubbed his index finger and thumb together, ‘to stop our eyes burning.’ He held up the glass of whisky and tapped it gently against Conrad’s glass of lemonade. ‘To Mary,’ he said sadly. His large brown eyes seemed to moisten. ‘Who we loved.’
‘To Mary,’ echoed Conrad.
Victor drained the contents of the glass with a single vicious drag and handed it back to Conrad. ‘Another one. For Mary, one is not enough.’
Conrad got up and handed Victor the bottle. ‘Finish it, my friend. It’s no good to me.’
‘I’ll do my best.’ Victor poured himself another large drink and swallowed it. ‘What now? What are your plans?’
‘Well, I’m back to work tomorrow. They could only give me four days off. Compassionate leave. It’s all been a bit hectic I must say, but I think that the sooner I go back, the better.’
‘Are you ready?’
‘As I’ll ever be. It all feels a bit like a broken jigsaw at the moment. But I’m sure it’ll all come back together.’
‘’The worst is not so long as we can say this is the worst’. Is that it?’
Conrad grinned at his companion. ‘I’m impressed. Polish Shakespeare.’
‘English Shakespeare.’ Victor tapped at his chest with pride. ‘Polish man. When I first came here I made a point of learning his plays. It seemed the thing to do. What could be more English? It wasn’t until I started talking to people like that that I realised something was wrong. All the same, Conrad Borscz, it helped.’
‘I’m sure it did.’ Conrad put a hand on Victor’s knee and smiled warmly.
‘Your mother would have been proud of you, you know,’ said the old Pole. ‘You have done so well over the years. Civil service, house, the way you handled this unpleasant affair. You are as English as any Englishman.’
Conrad rolled his eyes. ‘I am an Englishman, Victor. I’m second generation. I’ve no memory of Poland. I have no inclination to see Poland. I’ve never heard anything good about it. All it ever seemed to be was heartache and silent revolution.’
Victor let out a small ironic laugh. ‘A truly English view. Me? I can remember the warmth in winter, even when we had no fuel for the fire. I can remember the love, even in the middle of all the hate, and I can still feel the revolution that burned like acid in our hearts. The Polish are people of passion and hope. Things have changed now, for sure, but even then it was perfect, in our hearts and in our minds, if not on the brutal streets. Your mother never really got used to English life. She could never get the language…’
‘She never tried…’ recalled Conrad, not without fondness.
‘Oh, I think she did. She was scared, that’s all. We were all scared. To come from the warmth of the Polish to the cold of the English was a shock. It was like diving into a cold sea after the comfort of the fire. If she had not left because of those bastard Nazis…well, I don’t know. I think she would have been happier to stay in poverty and simplicity than play the complicated games of privilege that the English so love to play.’
‘All I can remember is that she didn’t really want to integrate. I can remember coming home from school one day and one of her Polish friends was here, Mrs Falkowski, do you remember her?’
Victor nodded. ‘Remember her? I fucked her. She was an athlete, I tell you.’
Conrad reeled with surprise. ‘You and Mrs Falkowski? No.’
‘Her husband was an idle bum. She needed a man. I could not turn her down.’
Conrad laughed quietly. ‘You never fail to astound me, Victor.’ Victor shrugged as if he was being commended for an act of courage and had simply done what was necessary for his country. ‘Anyway, as I was saying, they were in the kitchen, huddled around the table, teapot in the middle with a cosy on, thick cigarette smoke in the air, and I came in, home from school. I remember that day well, because the kids at school had been calling me a Nazi, because I was a foreigner. I came through the back door, trying to hide my hurt, thinking that I must make the effort to smile for her, and she grabbed me and gave me a hug as big as her heart and said to her friend: ‘Ah, tu jest mój Conrad. Here is my Conrad. Isn’t he beautiful? Such a bright boy. He speaks English more now than he speaks Polish. He is more English than Polish. He has lost his heritage’. Of course I had. On the one hand I was a Nazi and on the other I was Polish. What was I to do? I tried to reply in Polish, but couldn’t remember the correct words, became tongue-tied and made even more of a fool of myself.’
‘It was difficult, I know.’ Victor gave Conrad a conciliatory slap on the back. ‘But it was bad for them. Your father was a good man. He found a job and tried to fit in. “Be grateful”, he used to say. “They saved us from certain death and gave us a home. We must do our best to give what we can in return”. And he did do his best.’
‘But he never learned English, Victor. Not very well.’
‘He did his best, Conrad Borscz. No man can ask for more. No country can ask for more. No child can ask for more from his father. He loved you very much. I know he didn’t show it so much, but he was devoted to you. He doted upon you.’
‘I know. I loved him too. I loved them both. I just wish…’
‘What? What do you wish?’
‘I don’t know.’ Conrad sighed deeply and met Victor’s eyes. ‘There was something missing from them.’
Victor laughed out loud. ‘Of course there was. It was their hearts. They had had everything they had ever known torn away from them by strangers, whose ferocity we cannot begin to describe or imagine.’
Conrad tutted and made a gesture that he had had enough. It was too grim, especially today.
The two men who had been watching the news walked by. ‘Thank you,’ said the taller one as they weaved their way past the tables and chairs and out of the still open front door.
Conrad watched as the two men left, then whispered to Victor. ‘I thought they were with you.’
Victor shook his head. ‘I thought you knew them. They were here when I came in. The front door was open.’
Conrad went to the window and looked for the two men, but they and the cars had gone. He shrugged at a quizzical Victor. Victor filled his glass again and swallowed the contents without a pause.
‘I’m going to get changed.’ Conrad pointed at the ceiling to say that he was going upstairs. ‘Help yourself. I won’t be long. I must get out of this suit.’
Victor nodded and shooed Conrad out of the room.
A moment later Conrad came down the stairs at a pace, his feet heavy and uncontrolled on the thick carpet that covered them. Victor’s face frowned as he moved to get up and go to the stairs, his first thought that perhaps Conrad had fainted with the heat and the stress and fallen headlong down them.
‘Those two men…’ Conrad waved his open hand at the door as he tried to catch his breath.
Victor rushed to him and held him under an arm. ‘What is it, Conrad? What happened?’
‘They’ve stolen Mary’s jewellery. It’s gone. Every last piece. The bedroom’s such a mess, Victor. Oh, my God.’
‘Shall I go after them?’
‘No. No. They’ll have gone by now. Oh, my God. That was all I had left of her. She had told me to take all her clothes to the charity shop.’ Conrad turned to his friend in panic. ‘Victor, I have nothing else. What shall I do?’
Victor pulled his friend over to the sofa, sat him down and held him close as Conrad began to cry. ‘They had to come, my friend, these tears. They had to come. Maybe they have been kind to you, these pigs. Wash your grief in tears. Drown the pain.’
Conrad held Victor tight, his fingers white against his jacket as they strained at the cloth.
‘She is gone,’ whispered Victor. ‘She is gone.’
This is the first bit of my novel, THE GHOST OF DORMY PLACE, available on Amazon.
This is the first bit of my novel THE SCARLET DARTER, available on Amazon. Feedback always welcome.
‘The Faeries went from the world, dear, because men’s hearts grow cold,
and only the eyes of the children see what is hidden from the old’
‘Do you ever think someone’s watching you?’ George tap-tapped the backs of her red leather shoes against the mossy wall.
Ellie frowned. ‘No.’
‘You’re scratching the back of your shoes. Mummy said that you mustn’t do that.’ Ellie hoped that would put an end to George’s silly thoughts. ‘Shall we go and play indoors?’
George tilted her head back to look at the vast, deep blue, summer sky. A cloud lumbered past like a white whale and made her feel as if she was flying high above the sea. ‘No, let’s stay out here. It’s a lovely day. We’ve waited so long for summer, it seems a shame to waste it.’
Ellie peered into the shallow, clear stream that chattered past the bank beneath their feet. ‘There’s a fish.’
George leaned over as far as she dared. ‘Where?’
Ellie pointed. ‘Just next to that shiny stone. See it?’
‘It’s a stickleback. I read about them. It is the smallest of Britain’s freshwater fish and they build nests.’
Ellie jumped down and knelt next to the stream. ‘Like birds?’ The stickleback had gone. She picked up a stick and turned the shiny stone. A small green-brown streak bolted from the plume of unsettled mud into some weed and waited for the stick to reappear.
‘No, like fish. From weed.’ George shuffled her bottom and made herself comfortable again. ‘Have you found it?’
‘It won’t keep still.’
A dragonfly, its crimson body shimmering as its zigzag dance reflected the sun, zipped down to the water, bounced off the thin meniscus and rose again.
Captivated, George watched as it came up to her face and hovered before her. She smiled. ‘Hello. I’ve read all about you, too.’
The dragonfly, its transparent wings a cobweb blur, came nearer. Unafraid, George leaned forward and peered earnestly into its giant, lustrous eyes. ‘Odonata,’ she said. ‘You are a Scarlet Darter. Crocothemis Erythraea. Very rare. You eat other insects, fly at about ten miles per hour and you don’t usually go near water. So, what are you doing here? Were you thirsty?’
The insect gazed at her for a moment longer, then, as if it had understood every word she had said, sprayed a tiny, misty, mouthful of water into George’s face.
‘Oh.’ she squealed, shocked by the fine spray, and reeled backwards. The sea blue sky and the fluffy, clumsy white whale passed before her eyes as she toppled from the wall into the long grass at the end of their garden.
‘George? Are you alright?’ called Ellie from the other side of the wall. ‘Did you hurt yourself?’
The dragonfly darted down to where George lay, balanced delicately upon the air at the end of her nose, winked one of its huge oily eyes, then flitted off among the foxglove and roses that grew wild along the wall.
Ellie, her face as wide and surprised as the midday moon, appeared over the wall. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m okay,’ muttered George. ‘I just lost my balance.’
‘Would you like some help?’ Ellie scrambled up to the top of the wall, her stickleback stick still in her hand.
‘No, I can manage,’ panted George as she struggled to get up.
‘You’re wearing my knickers.’
They walked along the long worn path up to the house. The long, untamed grass that tickled their bare arms flopped back into place as soon as they passed.
The smell of bread wandered lazily to them from the kitchen. Mummy baked when the sun came out; cakes, pies, buns and most of all, most deliciously, softly, warmly, best of all, bread.
Ellie made a scene of sniffing the air. ‘Bread and jam for tea.’
George shrugged. ‘That’s nice.’
‘What’s the matter, George?’
‘That dragonfly spat at me.’
‘The one that made me fall off the wall. Didn’t you see it?’ Ellie remained silent. ‘A Scarlet Darter. I didn’t know they did things like that. It winked at me too.’
‘Insects can’t wink. They don’t have any eyelids. You told me that.’
‘This one did.’
Ellie sat on the doorstep and slipped off her shoes. ‘Don’t tell Daddy. He doesn’t like you to daydream.’
‘It wasn’t a daydream. It happened.’
‘He won’t believe you. He never does.’
George looked back down the length of the garden, the wall no more than a blob of grey toothpaste between the apple trees and the long grass. ‘I wish he would.’
‘I believe you, George. I always believe you.’
‘That’s because you’re only seven and you’ll believe anything. I’m nine. Daddy says nine year olds shouldn’t believe in silly things.’ She looked at the scuffs on the backs of her shoes, licked her finger and rubbed at them until they were no worse than before.
‘Then I want to be seven forever,’ said Ellie.
‘You can’t. We all have to grow up. Daddy says so. Come on. Let’s go and have tea.’
George and Ellie lay in the darkness of their rooms. The sound of the television drifted up the stairs.
Ellie turned over and pulled her door open an extra inch or two. ‘George?’
‘Are you awake?’
A fruit-filled belly laugh suddenly bloated the darkness. ‘Yes you are.’
George cackled. ‘What do you want?’
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Do you really think it winked at you?’
‘I thought it had.’
‘Then it must have. You’re too clever for it not to have. Daddy says you’re a blooming genius.’
George smiled. ‘We’d better go to sleep. We’ll only get into trouble if we’re caught.’
‘Okay. Goodnight, sister.’
George heard the hush of Ellie’s door against the carpet as she closed it again.
Outside, a cat screamed as if someone had bitten its tail.
‘Mum, where’s my toothbrush?’
‘I don’t know, Georgina. Has it dropped behind the sink?’
‘Then I don’t know. I don’t suppose you’ve found that hairbrush yet, either.’
‘Perhaps Icky stole it.’
Ellie spat minty froth into the sink. ‘Do you want to use mine?’
‘Will you clean it?’
‘Okay. I wonder where mine is. I used it at bedtime.’
‘Who’s Icky?’ asked Ellie.
‘He’s the one who does all the mischief around here. Mum says that if we didn’t do it, then Icky must have done it. It’s her way of saying that she doesn’t believe us.’
Ellie handed George her scrubbed brush. ‘What does he look like?’
‘He’s not real. She invented him.’
‘Oh. I’m going down for breakfast.’ Ellie skipped away.
‘Tell Mum I want porridge. With syrup on. And lots of milk,’ called George.
The back door was open when George came downstairs. The air was full of flowers and grass.
Her mother came over and kissed her on the top of her head. ‘Hello, darling.’
‘It’s a little hot for porridge. Why don’t you have flakes, like Ellie?’
‘But I like Porridge.’
‘Well, porridge is a winter food. In the summer it’s horse food.’
George tutted. ‘Okay.’
‘Good girl. What are you going to do today?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, I’ve got some work to do, so you’ll need to keep yourself occupied.’
‘We’ll find something, won’t we, Ellie.’
‘I’m going to find that stickleback.’
George sauntered to the back door. ‘Cats,’ she said.
‘I beg your pardon, dear?’ asked her mother.
‘Cats, Mummy. There are hundreds of cats in the garden.’
‘Oh, don’t be silly.’
Ellie jumped off her chair and ran to the door. ‘It’s true. Come and see. Come and see.’
Sally (that’s George and Ellie’s Mum’s proper name) put the box of flakes down and went to the door. ‘You’d better be…Oh. Good Lord.’
There were cats of every size and every age. There was every colour of cat that there could ever be, even some, perhaps, that there could not. Every cat, as if caught in a bubble, as if every other cat was, quite simply, not there, was flitting and chasing and dancing and behaving in the most extraordinary way.
George stepped out onto the grass.
Sally tried to grab the yellow ribbon of her summer dress. ‘George. Come back here.’
‘It’s alright, mummy. They don’t even know I’m here. I might as well be invisible.’
All around her, the cats were going mad. Purring and mewing and growling and spitting, twisting and turning, batting at the air, hopping and leaping and chasing their tails.
‘What is going on?’ whispered George.
Something small and red zipped past her ear; the Scarlet Darter. She followed its higgledy-piggledy flight as it buzzed from cat to cat. The dragonfly seemed to tease each one, to nip at their ears, to pull at their whiskers, to yank at their fur until they were forced to turn onto their back, to claw at the air in an attempt to catch the pest, then off it buzzed to the next cat, to do the same.
Then suddenly, it all stopped. Every cat in every bubble froze. They gazed, hypnotised, in front of them, then their heads wobbled and jerked and tilted, and then away they ran, every one of them, over the wall, the hedges, the fence, until the garden was as it had always been.
The sounds of birds returned.
The Scarlet Darter balanced in front of George upon a breeze that no one could feel. George took a tiny step towards it. It backed away. She stepped forward again and again it moved away.
‘You want me to follow you, don’t you,’ said George.
The dragonfly bounced away in the direction of the wall. George ran after it, through the long grass and the apple trees, past the foxglove and the roses.
‘George, come back.’ shouted Sally. ‘You haven’t any shoes on.’
The dragonfly came to a twitchy rest upon the wall. Next to it, laid out like a giant black caterpillar warming in the sun, was a cat’s tail; without a cat.
‘Yuk,’ yukked George. ‘This poor cat will fall from a dozen trees before it gets its balance right again.’
The dragonfly raised itself to an inch above the wall and circled the tail, then off it shot in its boastful flight.
Hesitantly, George picked up the tail. She had expected it to be as hard and as cold as an icicle, but it was soft and had warmed in the sun. The only blood was a tiny sticky patch that matted the fur at the very end, where it had been severed from the cat. ‘Poor thing,’ she said.
She put the tail back on the wall and turned back up the path to home. Ellie and Sally were still at the door. Sally had a look of thunder on her face. Ellie was eager to hear what her sister had found.
‘Oh, George.’ said Sally. ‘Look at your socks. Come on, get inside and have your flakes.’
In they went, out of the sun and into the shade, back to the table and onto the chairs.
‘Where are the flakes?’ asked Sally. She had a finger on her chin, as she always did when she was unsure. ‘I left them on here when you called me. Have either of you moved them?’
The sisters sung together. ‘No, Mummy.’
‘How strange. You’d better have porr…’ and as if from nowhere the porridge was…there. ‘Now, where did that come from?’
‘Maybe Icky did it,’ suggested George.
‘Maybe he did,’ smiled Sally. ‘Maybe he did.’