Inktober 2019 – Flash Fiction
I used to go to the attic to ring you.
It’s where I first listened to Guns n Roses, a safe distance away from my parents so they couldn’t hear the swearing. The carpet up there was green and thin like paper – forgotten about.
The phone in the attic was old fashioned, heavy and the colour of cold rice pudding -with a skin. My parents had hidden it when the officials came to collect the telephones. It was like the telephonic equivalent of Anne Frank.
To dial your number, which I knew off by heart, I had to rotate the dial with my finger. There was significant resistance and it required force to turn it for each number – close to the maximum force my index finger could exert. The act of calling you – or anyone – meant something. It required effort and purpose.
We would speak for hours. And I would coil the ringlets of the thick telephone cord around my finger like a secretary in love.
Then I called you one evening, always after six when the phone calls were cheaper, and you didn’t answer. The phone kept on ringing.
I hung up and it clunked with a finality I didn’t like. I tried again and again before heading downstairs. In the kitchen, my parents were doing a crossword. I didn’t speak to them. I placed the cassette of Appetite for Destruction in the ghetto blaster and pressed play.
It was an automatic response, muscle memory. She would turn the cold tap on full blast for two seconds, then fill the pint glass and empty it completely. Fill it again and drink a long sip before refilling it from the still running tap.
It wasn’t a deliberate act or a routine that was attached to any specific logic, it was just what she did.
And then one day, she turned the tap as usual and what came out of the tap wasn’t water. It was thick and black like tar.
She let it run, filled and emptied the glass like she always did and then took a long sip. It didn’t taste like water either. She filled the glass to the top again and turned the tap slowly off.
She went to sit in her favourite chair and fell instantly asleep. The glass sat there on the small dark wood table with the chip on the top and seemed very content that it was the very blackest thing in the house, and maybe the world.
The squirrel trap was six inches in front of the cherry laurel and 32 inches behind the birdbath. A mallard garden ornament with the head snapped off and crudely reassembled rested in the grass 52 inches to the west. To the east, he sat in his deckchair watching, silently chewing on a piece of broccoli that he had just extracted from between his molars with a vigorous flick of the tongue.
He had started with a selection of mixed fruit and nut from Lidl. The squirrel didn’t go for it. It mocked him with a high pitched chatter and then dislodged yet more pebbledash from his garage wall.
Next, he tried Cashews from the cornershop. The squirrel didn’t take the bait. It smashed a plant pot with a swish of its tail and bounced gleefully off.
A fistful of rice and the squirrel dug up his lawn.
Packet of peanuts and it ate the fresh buds off the sycamore tree.
Expensive walnuts from the health food shop and the squirrel danced in the birdbath.
He watched the trap without blinking. His ex-wife’s moisturiser – the most divine smelling thing that he knew – smeared across the best bloody quarter pounder you’ll eat in your life from the burger van by the B&Q near the tip.
On top of the burger and moisturiser, he’d sprinkled brown sugar that he’d pinched from a cafe he’d visited on a coach holiday and kept ever since as a keepsake. If it didn’t go for this, the squirrel was an idiot. The man waited, chewing his cheek raw.
The temperatures never get above zero here. A year or two in and you get used to it. You learn to breathe normally, extending the sharp, shallow intakes to measured, oxygenating breaths. You wear the correct clothing and know when to stay inside. The dangerous mistakes you made in the first months seem a long way away.
Living with the freeze is actually ok. The cold becomes companionable after a while. It’s always there, morning, noon, and especially night.
When it comes to people, you sometimes crave solitude but you’re always at peace with the freeze. It doesn’t intrude into your thoughts or demand anything from you at all. It’s just there.
Some faces in the village have been entirely sculpted by the cold. Features eroded by vicious winds, flesh split apart by deposits of errant moisture that had instantly frozen. These people are known as the elders and understand the deep cold better than anyone. They talk constantly to each other, but you never catch a word they say. I don’t know if I’ll ever become one of the elders, even if I were to survive another forty years out here. The freeze doesn’t get to me like it does them. Not yet.
The Lego tower was now taller than the Shard. Nobody knew who was building it or how.
Each morning at first light it had grown by another storey.
There was no uniformity to the colours of the bricks in the tower. Data scientists using artificial intelligence and a team from NASA with a quantum computer proved that it was entirely random.
Planes leaving London City airport now had to take a different route to avoid the tower that was officially the tallest structure in Europe. An exclusion zone had been set up for helicopters and drones.
When the tower reached a mile high, the Mayor of London declared it ‘a triumph of ingenuity and subterfuge.’ The police and army called it an act of terrorism. Politicians debated it fiercely in parliament.
And then one morning, the tower was no more. People openly wept. Newspapers published memorial issues. Children built small towers in their gardens and windowsills in solidarity. Everyone waited, and quietly wanted, for another structure to appear but it never did.
“You know, it’s, it’s like, it’s husky”
“What do you mean ‘husky’?”
She did not like her husband very much.
“Well, your voice, it’s kind of gravelly, raspy, but you know, in a sexy way – husky.”
She did not know. She had never considered her voice to be anything other than her voice – an abstract constant. It didn’t always sound like her voice admittedly – on answerphone messages and videos that people sent her over WhatsApp – but she was fine with it all the same.
“GRAVELLY. RASPING. You make me sound like some piece of constructive site machinery. What the fuck, Gareth!”
“I said raspy.”
“Raspy. Rasping. Fucking Rasputin! I don’t give a shit. You’ve upset me.
Is this how you describe me to your work colleagues? Buttoned up in your M&S pinstripes and shiny sodding shoes? The Mr frickin’ big stuff that you are, on all of twelve pounds an hour.”
She was really angry now and wanted to cause him pain.
“I don’t talk about you at work.”
“Well, that’s a relief. It’ll mean you won’t need to bother telling them that I’m leaving you.”
When she said the words, she did not feel regret or that she had gone too far. They were the words that she should have said months ago and they resounded only with truth. But she was struck by one thing in that moment, and that was the timbre of her voice. It seemed deeper, more guttural than before. Husky even.
He fell in love easily. It was a character flaw. Two dates in and he would feel his heart breaking free from its tethers, ropes pinging from the ground when they laughed together, shared a certain look or a brush of the hand, and there it was, a swollen fluttering heart drifting off into the wide blue skies of the future. Marriage, a small wedding with close friends and family, a cake made of the cheeses they loved; three children, a curly-haired squad, two girls and a boy. Caravan holidays. Graduation ceremonies. Then the empty nest and the rekindling of passions.
The women were always polite about it. They could sense that he was someone that loved easily and with conviction. It would give rise to a sequence of rapid de-escalation. They would reply to only one in seven text messages and the next date would be the cinema or a lunchtime coffee. There would be no more dates after that.
She was different. He didn’t love her. Three dates in and his heart remained in its rightful place, beating a steady beat. They talked and laughed, and their hugs at the end of long evenings were close and fulfilling and always just right. When they were apart, they texted back and forth in little bursts. The exchanges were witty, warm and undeniably flirty.
On the seventh date, he went back to her small but delightfully cluttered flat. They drank expensive cocoa and cuddled in her bed, and he still didn’t love her. He kissed her on the cheek as the morning sunlight fell upon it as she slept.
On their seventy-third date, they independently drew up lists of their favourite cheeses and laughed so much when they matched identically. It was sometime around this point that he realised that love was something altogether different to what he had previously thought and he much preferred this.
Margaret became frail on the 17th of November. We all saw it – it was obvious. One day she was normal Margaret, eating doughnuts in the breakroom and laughing to herself as she did Sudoku, and then she was frail.
I wasn’t the first to say something – no, that was Gary from accounts. He asked Margaret if she was ok and Margaret replied that of course she was. Maybe Margaret hadn’t realised she was now frail.
We all agreed that the first week was the hardest for us. It was the shock of Margaret becoming frail so suddenly.
There were a few changes around the office. We started to be nicer to her for starters. She was included in all of the coffee runs, even the early morning one despite the fact she had never paid into the kitty. The call centre girls stopped making fun of her knitwear or at least did it quietly so she couldn’t hear. The practical jokes ended pretty much straight away.
The thing with Margaret was that she didn’t really suit being frail. Her strength had been one of the best things about her – the way she could just let the nasty comments ricochet off her was something to be admired. Slouching and vulnerable, frail Margaret was a bit of a downer if truth be told.
On the seventh of December, Margaret stopped being frail. It took us all by surprise. She was taller, bigger and more like old Margaret when she walked into the manager’s office. We looked at each other.
It was Gary that noticed the first car on his lunch break. The blue Polo had a deep scratch all down its right side – a proper gouge. A Skoda Fabia, a BMW estate and a new red Mini had all been done the same. Gary screamed when he saw that his Audi TT had been savaged on both sides.
Everyone ran down to the car park then and started screaming along with Gary. Even the few that cycled were screaming because their tires had been slashed. Nobody could believe what was happening.
I always walked into work so didn’t take part in the screaming. I was scanning the car park for Margaret. She wasn’t there of course. I knew that I’d never see her again.
The sex swing in the living room was impossible to ignore. It hung from a ceiling hook like a spider, a predatory arrangement of shiny black leather and gleaming stainless steel.
It was the first time that he had been invited to her parents’ house. He had been keen to make a good impression and had even ironed a shirt and spent over ten pounds on a bouquet of flowers, unprompted. On seeing the swing, everything he knew about good first impressions evaporated.
The parents were very welcoming and relaxed in a non-try hard way. They had cooked a meal that carefully accommodated his dairy intolerance and even opened wine despite it being midday.
There were framed photographs of his girlfriend on the wall – she looked different, smoother and slightly swollen behind the glass. He could see magnets from Spanish islands arranged on the fridge, a bowl of potpourri on a mahogany occasional table, and a sex swing in the living room.
Everything else was so normal that he questioned himself – perhaps he was hallucinating. He examined the ordinary books on the ordinary bookshelves. There wasn’t a volume of erotic short stories, no Marquis de Sade, not even a Michel Houellebecq. Just John Irving, Ali Smith, Jonathan Coe, Dickens, Mitford, the Nation’s Favourite Love Poetry.
A steaming beige Le Creuset dish had taken pride of place on an attractively but informally laid table.
As they sat down to eat, the sex swing remained in plain view through a set of open double doors. The buttock support caught the sunlight for a moment. Still nobody mentioned it. He didn’t get a look from his girlfriend. Not one that said ‘don’t ever mention this’; ‘just don’t even go there’, not even a ‘what the actual fuck, I’m so sorry and I’ll explain.’
He remarked on the tenderness of the beef and how nice it was to have freshly baked bread. Her mother explained in detail that it was a part-baked baguette from a budget supermarket and he imagined her rocking to and fro with her ankles around her ears and her anus puckering in anticipation.
The sex swing had become a gas planet of incalculable energy, suspended in the now cavernous space of his mind. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about it. That was the worst thing. It screamed movement in all of the naughtiest angles – the kinaesthetic chaos of intercourse. The stirrups tightened on his consciousness yet somehow he continued to talk about the weather.
The meal eventually ended and they all exchanged hugs and goodbyes. It had been a lovely lunch in many ways.
As soon as he got outside, he took a deep breath and realised he was shaking. He turned to his girlfriend with eyes that pleaded for an explanation.
“I’m sorry the beef was so tough. You did well not to say anything,” she said and reached out her hand.
The pattern on the shirt was spectacular. It told stories without words.
A man and a woman alone in an enchanted forest searched for meaning. They embraced by a tree and then ran off in separate directions. Sometimes they sat together back to back on the mulchy ground and felt the rise and fall of each other’s hungry bodies.
When the shirt snagged on a nail that he’d been meaning to pull out with pliers for years, the couple came tumbling out of the fabric, freed from the enchanted forest. They’d been lost for so long, trapped in the same space without a way out. They both cheered and he heard them; only just though above the pounding of his annoyance.
They kept him up at night with their excited chattering and endless games. Sometimes they would climb up onto the bed and sleep on the pillow next to him. They all got some sleep then.
Occasionally, he would find them in the fridge, pale and reclined on the condiment shelf. Despite it all, he was pleased they had escaped his shirt and even more so that they had stayed together through it all.
The snow was falling and the parrot was already pulling feathers and swearing. It did not like the cold and liked the gas fire even less – it looked at him funny and made a noise like a lorikeet on heat.
He’d eaten all the good seeds the day before yesterday, long before the snow had come, and was now left with crap you wouldn’t even feed a pigeon. In protest, he threw the seeds across the room using his beak and occasionally his claws – he enjoyed the sound they made when they landed on the tins of buttons that lay about the place. It was also pleasing when the husks landed in the thick knit furrows of Daddy Yellow Face’s winter jumper. The majority fell to the disintegrating shag of the rug. It crunched whenever Daddy Yellow Face went wandering the room looking for a lighter or a biro or whatever.
Daddy Yellow Face didn’t go out when the white stuff came from the sky. The parrot found it stifling – like he couldn’t relax or be himself. Yellow Face put on an extra jumper – always the green one – and drank more whiskey from his favourite chair. The parrot had no options available to shield himself from the cold or aggressive misery that surrounded him.
The parrot did have a cage though. He only used it occasionally to sleep. He preferred the rim of the frilled mauve lampshade, especially for shitting. It was from this position that he first noticed that the white stuff was not in fact snow, but ash.
The world was on fire and it fell around them.
Daddy Yellow Face wasn’t afraid of going out in the snow, he was watching the world die. With a crossword and a fag and seed in his sweater, he watched the world die.
At the bottom of Elsie and Florence’s garden lived a dragon. The problem was that this was also where the chickens lived. Florence and Elsie loved the chickens. They gave them fun names, not nice normal names like humans have.
Each day they would tell the chickens magical stories as they fed them their dinner. Florence would be a powerful princess who beat up all the baddies and Elsie was a strong knight who always had a clever plan. After dinner and with their story coming to an exciting end, the sisters would check for eggs.
The first chicken went missing on a Tuesday. The second on Wednesday, and the third and fourth on Saturday. Mummy told the sisters that the chickens had found a way to leave their home and go on a big adventure – probably inspired by all the stories the girls had told them.
By Monday all of the chickens had gone on an adventure. Elsie and Florence looked out of the window, thinking about all the adventures the chickens were having. Although they were happy for them, the sisters missed spending time with the chickens.
“What was that?” said Florence.
“What was what? ” said Elsie.
“There behind the chicken house in the bushes. I saw something,” said Florence.
“What did you see?” said Elsie, staring at the bush.
“Something big and red and scaly with giant teeth,” Florence said with wide-eyes.
“Don’t be so silly, that sounds ridicul…”
Elsie stopped speaking and let out a squeak instead. She looked at her sister and said:
“I think we have a dragon living in our garden.”
Now the thing is that Florence and Elsie didn’t pretend to be strong and clever and brave in their stories, they were strong and powerful and brave. This meant that they marched straight out into the garden to speak to the dragon.
When they reached the end of the garden, the dragon had disappeared.
“Excuse me Dragon – can you come out from where you’re hiding and speak to us,” said Elsie in a loud voice.
“And be quick about it!” added Florence in an even louder voice.
Nothing happened. The sisters looked at each other and nodded their heads. They knew what they had to do. With big steps, they walked up to the bush and jumped in.
It was a bit scratchy in the bush and smelled like Daddy’s socks. But they kept on walking. Suddenly, they were on the other side. And what they saw was so amazing, they couldn’t believe their eyes.
All the chickens were there along with the enormous red scaly dragon. They had swords and magic wands and were performing a play for some other animals. Three foxes, a family of badgers, a fluffy owl and two old hedgehogs watched, all with big smiles on their faces.
Elsie and Florence sat down next to the badgers and watched the performance. Although the sisters couldn’t understand the noises, they recognised the story. It was one of the stories that they had told the chickens. It was all about an old man who was lost in a forest after pixies had stolen his glasses.
A chicken – Bumblebum – did an excellent impression of the old man while two smaller chickens – Fraggle and Cracklesnap – were playing the cheeky pixies.
The old man had stumbled across some bad men. They were swishing swords around and shouting, practising for an attack on a small village. The old man asked them to leave the village alone. This made the men angry, very angry indeed.
Just as things were about to get ugly, a fairy appeared from behind a tree. It was the dragon of course.
The animals all cheered and Elsie and Florence joined in.
The fairy waved its magic wand and all the bad mens’ swords turned into flowers. The play had ended.
The chickens and the dragon took a bow. All of the animals clapped and made noises. It really was a fantastic performance.
Elsie and Florence quietly sneaked away as the clapping continued. They went back through the bush into the garden and down into the house. They were happy now and were going to do their best to keep what they had discovered a secret. Who needed eggs anyway?
I’d bought 1977 on cassette the day it came out. Ash were one of my bands.
The three of us had listened to Trailer on repeat, sat on the roundabout outside the Rockin Emporium, sharing headphones. But this was something new.
One of the first times I listened to 1977 was in the car with my dad. He was driving to a remote enclave of Wiltshire to see Mick the brickie that he worked with. Mick was a batsman for a village cricket team. He was short and stocky with a big black beard – he could have existed and fitted in at any time in the last millennia.
The x-wing fighters shot across the car speakers. The opening chords of Lose Control following soon after. My dad visibly recoiled. I recognised the restless energy in the music and decided it was mine.
The trees on the B-road formed a tunnel and the leaves blurred around us. I sang along to Girl From Mars under my breath and felt like I was somewhere far away.
We pulled up in a small car park by a cricket pitch. My dad left me in the car with the engine running. I turned the stereo up so loud that the windows rattled.
There was a point when Elizabeth could still get into the conservatory. This was a long time ago, perhaps a decade. Maybe more.
For the last few years, she kept the doors to it locked and hoped that no more windows would break.
The plants were out of control and she had no idea why. She hadn’t used any fertilisers or additives, just water and the occasional encouraging word. There was plenty of sun of course, but that didn’t explain it.
It had claimed two of her cats and a lone great tit that had flown in through a broken pane. Those were just the ones she knew about. She could still see the skull of Bilbo through the intense knots of green, pinned by a great vine halfway up the far wall.
There was a horticulturist that had come to advise on the matter. She assumed that the horticulturist had simply left without a word when they had seen the extent of the problem and knew it was beyond their expertise. She didn’t blame them.
At night as she lay in bed, she could hear the creaks and groans of those enormous fleshy tendrils as they fought for space beneath her. Sometimes she imagined the sounds as the snapping of bones, often her own. She did not sleep so well any more.
Selling the house was out of the question and she couldn’t afford to move out. One particularly fraught summer, she’d considered camping in the garden but felt it unsafe. If plants talked, then she’d be a goner by morning for sure.
More than once , she’d contemplated torching the whole place, setting the house ablaze. She held onto this as a remote fantasy that she would occasionally indulge in, like unravelling a boiled sweet and slowly sucking upon it.
One afternoon on returning from a particularly depressing appointment at the bank, she found it impossible to open her front door. She pushed her shoulder against it and leaned in with all her weight. Nothing. She gingerly opened the letterbox and peered inside. A creeping fig poked her in the eye.
This had gone too far. She stomped round to the back of the house just in time to see a cheese plant and a maranta leuconeura come together in her bedroom, splintering her ottoman into a thousand pieces.
She walked slowly to the garage and picked up the petrol can for the old mower. Mentally she unwrapped the sweet. She started to splash the petrol onto the conservatory.
Popping the sweet into her mouth, she lit the match and flicked it towards her home. The sweetness oozed onto her tongue and she closed her eyes. She felt the warmth spread across her face and smiled.
Gary’s a legend.
A bloke’s bloke. A proper laugh.
Bit crazy, mind you. Wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him or nothing.
Or leave him alone with Stace – bit of a playa, ain’t he? Got some moves.
Fists like ham hocks and a jaw like a concrete bus stop.
Sometimes he takes it too far. I mean we all get carried away after a few shandies and sherbets and all that but… well, it comes out in the wash. Love and war and all that jazz.
Stace laughs at his jokes more than mine but I know she’s just being polite. He’s a funny fuck anyway. Like I said, a right laugh.
He’s a big lad too. Got a bit of extra padding and that, like we all have, but he’s hench with it. Strong as an ox. Stace says I look small next to him – I take it as a compliment.
Anyway, legend that he is, he’s coming round our gaff next week to replace the shower. I’d said it’d be better to wait till I was there and back from Hull – to lend a hand, but he said he was a busy man and to take it or leave it. Stace seemed happy enough and just wanted it doing. Like I said, Gary’s a legend.
This story starts in a remote area of China’s Western provinces and finishes in Ashby de la zouch service station.
There are only two characters – a bookseller on the search for the next crossover success and a Tibetan monk.
The only dialogue recorded is as follows:
‘You must be Kelsang?’
The question mark is for the pronunciation, as the bookseller instantly recognises the man’s intense eyes from the photograph.
‘That is me. And you are Peter Brookmere of Penguin Random House.’
‘Your English is really excellent.’
‘You are kind in your praise. Shall we go meet the murderer?’
The murderer seems to be a third character. That’s what you’re thinking to yourself. They are not. Twist time – the monk is the murderer!
The two men, both in their fifties, retreat to a restaurant on the main road through the town. Yak milk tea is placed on the sturdy wooden table next to a large manuscript. Buffalo momo appears shortly after.
Peter asks if he can take a look. The monk nods calmly.
The first line is a good one:
‘I never thought that killing a man would change me as much as it did, nor did I imagine I would enjoy it quite so spectacularly.’
What is fiction? What is fact? What sells? Who cares? Peter’s mind is racing. This could be it. His career back on track.
Contracts are drawn up – translation rights for 12 languages agreed – and faxed over at great inconvenience for all involved. The paperwork is signed and the two men sit smiling at each other. An open-backed van loaded with buffalo carcases revs its engine.
Sixteen months later and Peter and the monk are browsing the bestsellers in a small W.H Smith store in Ashby de la zouch motorway services. They are travelling back from the final night of a six-city book tour and taking the opportunity to stretch their legs. The book has been a critical and commercial success, despite it being absent from the shelves of this particular retailer.
Peter feels weary, but a sense of satisfaction and near contentment. His career is on the up. The monk feels quite the opposite until the precise moment he plunges the needle-thin blade between Peter’s ribs and into his heart, killing him instantly.
It was her nan’s. She’d been drawn to it for as long as she could remember. As a young child, she had treated it with a reverence not befitting her age or temperament, or that the ornament seemed to deserve. At just over six inches tall and made of a solid resin, the elongated figure was intricately carved but ultimately ugly and rather dull.
When she posted it to her Instagram – #kitsch4ever – she didn’t expect much. It was more a way of her marking her nan’s passing and cataloguing her new possession than a move for likes and new followers.
When the likes hit 1000, she told all her friends. This was crazy. If there was such a thing as an ornament influencer, she was it.
The comment appeared twenty-four hours after she’d posted the image, somewhere around 3200 likes. It simply said: “You need to know something about this object. Call me on +3317738384742.”
You did not call strangers from social media. It was a rule. You also never responded to comments unless they were completely inane.
Three hours after the first message, another appeared: “This is IMPORTANT. It is essential you call. On the base of the figure, you will find three small symbols. The middle one looks like a house with an X in the middle.”
The symbol was exactly as described. She needed to find out more now. Breaking the rules, she DM’d the commenter.
To her surprise, they responded straight away. As she read the small black text, the hair on her neck stood on end. It was impossible, she told herself. She should never have messaged that crackpot. She re-read the message, over and over again.
The ornament was on the mantlepiece in the other room, she was certain of that but she now felt compelled to check on it.
It wasn’t there. Just as they had said.
She’d left it on the mantelpiece and now there was an empty space next to the art Deco vase.
The sirens ripped through the silence and then she could hear the screaming. It was too late. There was nothing she could do to save them.
This jumper is a misfit
And so is this shoe
I think I might be a misfit
What can I do?
These trousers are a misfit
And so is this top
I think I might be a misfit
Can I make it stop?
This dress is a misfit
And so is this vest
I think I might be a misfit
Is it for the best?
These dungarees are a misfit
And so is this bra
I am a happy misfit
I’m a misfit superstar
Flat on his back with an egg on his head, Billy Graham wasn’t nearly so funny and tough when unconscious.
It had all kicked off in the playground though. The dinner ladies wailed like fornicating foxes as fists and knees went flying. A Magic 8 Ball got pulverised by a retreating Doc Martin shoe, its predictions mashed into the gravel never to be untrue. Mood rings all turned purple and fortune fish flopped free – futures were uncertain and swimming upstream. The girls cried fat tears into thin cardigans as they hid behind the yellow bins.
Gareth was dunked in the pond, his fringe emerging flecked with frogspawn and algae. He’d swallowed a stickleback and needed to get even. Ollie had kicked Paul in the nuts and wedgied James till his Y-fronts snapped. Daniel was slapping Sanjay with a beanbag whilst Sanjay smashed a lunchbox over Seb’s head.
Ricky remained out of sight in the corner behind a bush. He was a sure shot with a slingshot as Billy Graham now knew.
The soft, cloying mud pulled at her boots as she headed towards the shore. She knew that she could go no further than the lapping waters, and that regrettably, this was the end of her journey.
With the resistance from the mud, the tiredness of her limbs and the weight of her soul, it was impressive that her body moved at all. A gull swooped down from the pencil-grey skies and she stopped to observe its erratic patterns.
She had left her home three years prior with nothing except the clothes she wore, her bank card, a bottle of water and a stack of photographs that were now pressed to her chest.
It started as an epiphany of sorts – a crippling inertia suddenly transformed into an undeniable need for movement.
There was no plan. Her decisions were based on the calm she felt being alone in nature. She sought solitude amongst trees and brooks and overgrowth. The chatter and rustle of birds in search of sustenance calmed the restlessness in her. The subtle variations of colour in the fauna sang to her like a gospel choir.
She was losing energy every day, given more of herself to the breeze, to the mulch, to the earth. But still, she continued onwards. From woodland to riverbank to park to motorway sidings. Some days it was wildflowers and startled deer, on others it was urban decay and traffic cones bobbing in canals.
Reaching the shore came as a surprise but also felt inevitable and right. She was pleased to see the horizon so ugly and exposed. Her arms were stretched towards the sky and her head was turned down.
The photographs floated on the surface of the brown water. The tide took them briefly away only to return them moments later, with purple and orange halos and faces blanked out. The weight was lifting from within her and her legs twitched with something new.
Gerald Shinewater welcomed the cold drab October night with a whistle. Drizzle swirled around him as if desperately lost, attaching itself to his beard in its panic. He didn’t mind.
The small Wiltshire hamlet was still sleeping, curtains pulled tight across sash windows, and pimpled, podgy bodies flat out like corpses under goose down duvets. Boilers chuntered into action and radiators murmured sleepily as they began to fill. Calm and still, blissed and ignorant in the deep dark comfort of night. And lo! he was strutting down the middle of the road, unafraid of Land Rovers or tractors.
Gerald hopped the stile like a champion racehorse and set off up the hillock at a trot. He sang a song in a Bovrilly baritone, inventing words as he went. The cold made its way up his trouser leg but he shook it out with a little dance. Pied Piper at the crack of dawn, bursting out of a stifled yawn. On he went.
On the horizon floated a gossamer thread of ghostly silver. Please, come now. New day – a special thing, lucky to be alive, most thankful. Gerald dragged his rough hands down his face, forcing droplets of water to fall to the ground. A bird, somewhere to the south, chortled out an atonal phrase. Schoenberg, my feathered friend so challenging you are this morning. Let’s get on with this, shall we.
Top of the hillock now, higher and mightier than thou, Gerald Shinewater sat upon the stump of a yew tree. Woodlice and grubs behind the bark, industrious super highways under his arse. What have we?! Silver now gold and pink gold and a wedding band around the finger of the world. Ascension, rising dawn – fire and blush and tropical sweets. All the riches, strawberry kisses and acid test pleasure domes smothering the dark horizon. Glory to the new day, Gerald lets rip an hallelujah as his treasure overflows.
When I was seven, my feet didn’t point in the right directions. It was a problem with my knees.
It meant that I had to go to a specialist in the hospital and walk up and down cold epoxy corridors as they observed me under fluorescent lights. They took notes on clipboards and made me wear grey plastic inserts in my shoes.
Back then, I was a riot of awkward angles and errant energy, a skeleton marionette hanging from a one man band’s drum kit.
My strange limbs meant I struggled with swimming. I went to extra lessons at the Victorian baths to make things better. The floor of the baths was coated all over in a centimetre of gritty slime from decades of dirt, verrucas and urine.
Because my knees didn’t work, I was made an example of, forced to demonstrate my breaststroke on the side of the pool on a podium of floats. The other kids watched me from the water in disgust as the teacher told them all the ways I was doing it wrong.
It took time but I got better at swimming. And each time I received a colour award, my nan would buy me a Ghostbuster action figure.
Peter, Winston. Egon, Ray.
“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” I would shout as I played with my collection on the floor of my bedroom. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
They’re worshipping the dead at Stonehenge. Setting fire to fistfuls of herbs and plants, and pacing anti-clockwise around the giant stones.
They have travelled hundreds of miles to pay their respects to the ancestors. Their faces are gaunt, eyes sunken deep within their skills. A low drone emerges from them and resonates around the henge.
After an hour, they get back on the coach satisfied. That satisfaction doesn’t last long however and they bitch about the entrance fee all the way back to Frinton-on-sea.
Daddy was a bricklayer and here’s Dizzy with the glassblowers’ disease – broken buccinators and a bent up trumpet. Those bebop balloons of his burst out notes so high, so rare – the sound of surprise.
Stoned at a party, Stump and Stumpy took a stumble, dancing off the edge of the world and onto Dizzy’s trumpet. Bent out of shape yet that metal bird sure could sing.
Bang Bang and Dizzy goes Cubop crazy, Afro-Cuban bongo badness and a sound emerges, a movement moves.
Beatnik styles before a beat had been dropped, before a howl unleashed. Horn-rimmed and goateed, a melody emerges out of nowhere… and would you just look at those cheeks? The biggest in the business. Expanding like the consciousness of a generation, stretching into the unknown. Brave, freakish and free.
The taste of her shoulder reminded Francois of long, hot summers by the pool. The sweetness of unscented sweat, the soapy bitterness of sunscreen and the faint chemical tang of chlorine. It was delicious.
He parted his lips slightly and inhaled, sucking it all in. Francois wanted to be back there, reading a Victorian adventure novel from the dusty shelves, reclined and blissfully free of cares. Sugary drinks in ice-cold cans beading with condensation as he read about cursed treasure in remote jungles where wild natives with poisoned blow darts roamed.
The tip of his nose rested in the slight depression behind her left ear and his lips, now together, brushed near-nothing kisses against her neck.
The book would wait like a resting bird, feathers ruffled and breathing slowly in the gentlest of breezes as he dozed. The dreams were instant and wonderful, full of colour and plot and agency. He could gather the threads together and find his way back to a world he had left hours before.
He traced the internal angle of her clavicle with his finger as her back arched momentarily. There had been a girl back then too, a villager who brought bread and eggs up to the villa. She was mouse-like – freckles, brown eyes, light footed but a scurrier, busy movements even when seemingly still. They had gone for long walks in the meadows, holding hands for hours.
He wondered what had become of her, what had become of all of them.
It’s dark out and it’s raining too. I can hear it on the cars and the wheely bins. The walls are creaking and I don’t know why. In the darkness, there are so many noises.
I take out a cigarette and the flare of light from the match explodes the darkness. Shards of it lay everywhere. I ought to gather them up and pack them away or at least shake them free outside the window. I do nothing.
They say you’re back in town and I say I don’t care. It is a lie and they know it. I’ve been unable to sleep since I heard. I analyse the darkness and I smoke cigarettes and I listen. Sleep is always close but I’ve become afraid of it.
I still have a copy of your book – the one you dedicated to me. The fifth page in: ‘The light that guides me For Gerry’. The typeface was so you. Everyone saw it. A New York Times bestseller. Hundreds of thousands of people who don’t know that I stopped being your light. When did it get so dark?
There is a noise at the front door – the sound of a pointed knuckle slick with rain, tapping three times on the mottled glass unsure if it should be or not. It’s only you that knocks the glass and not the wood. I stub out the cigarette and imagine that I can hear you breathing. It sounds apologetic to me. You’ve found your way back. I turn on the light.
The coat hadn’t been fashionable for twenty years and wasn’t coming back in any time soon. They’d argued about taking it to the carboot and how much to sell it for. In the end, he had given up and conceded to his wife.
It meant a lot to him, the coat. He remembered how he used to feel putting it on. It fitted him so well, showing off his square shoulders and slim waist. The resistance of the leather when he bent his arms had always been reassuring, like he was wearing armour. It was warm and waterproof when it needed to be, and casual and cool at other times. Most of all, it reminded him of a feeling that he had lost – of existing in his body and feeling its potential. He could sprint and fight and fuck and fly with his body in that coat. Anything was possible then – today he only saw his body as a fragile shell, slowly falling apart, emptied of its power.
It was cold the morning of the carboot as five a.ms in fields always are. His fleece didn’t cut it against the sharp-toothed remnants of night. He dragged himself up from the boot of their car with a slow moan as his knees cracked painfully.
The coat slid on easily, moulding effortlessly around his sagging frame, tightening and taughtening, broadening his shoulders. He flexed his arms and smiled.
His wife who had just finished arranging a small display of costume jewellery looked at him with a look that he didn’t recognise. She came over to him and kissed him deeply on the mouth, sucking his tongue for a brief moment and pushing herself into him. “Keep the coat,” she whispers in his ear. His body once more feels like his own.
The leopard skin shirt was a sign. The aviators covering the eyes and the jaw that moved left to right, right to left were also signs. You didn’t get men like him in China, but then again this was not really China.
We needed to get to the town before nightfall. And this outcrop was not a place serviced by buses or taxis. The few buildings were focussed around the crossroads, two dusty highways intersecting in the middle of an expanse of rolling wilderness.
The three of us knew that this strange man in his car was our only option, but also that without question it was a terrible option. The chances of us flagging down the large articulated lorries that sped through were zero.
We’d been watching the crossroads from a basic restaurant, where a single stove in the middle of the bare room provided limited warmth and even a more limited menu. Looking out the large window, we watched three vehicles pass by in an hour. Our faith dwindled and silence descended over us –
three white foreigners, laowai, tall and ugly and alien with wild eyes and backpacks. Each of us considered what it meant to be so far away from anything. The next moves weren’t lining up as they had done.
Outside and we could smell the yak skins drying under the watery sun. There was a fine dust in the air – it gave everything a haze of unreality. You couldn’t be sure of anything. In this dream world, the crazy man in his car that skidded to a halt metres from us made perfect sense.
He had the wide, wired eyes of a seventies frontman. You’d expect to see him emerging from a hotel room, cocaine around his nostrils with two blonde hippy chicks hanging from his arms. In a car, on the high Tibetan plateau, not so much.
For a place so deserted, things got crowded very quickly. Figures appeared from all over, wise men, elders, people that exuded trust. They implored us in mandarin and even broken English to not get in the car. ‘No Go. Bad man,’ they said, over and over. The man behind the wheel just grinned.
Before we had time to think, the three of us got into the car. With a squeal of rubber, we sped off into the unknown.
I watched her from my bedroom window. It was like she had been shot by a sniper. One second she was making her way up towards the shops and the next she was flat on her face. I could see the blood right away and there was lots of it.
I didn’t say anything, I just watched her. She twitched a little on the floor and then sat up against the Wilson’s new wall. Her blood was so red it looked fake. I looked up and down the street but no one was around. Why was no one around? She needed help.
I thought about calling an ambulance, but wasn’t sure if this was an emergency or not. I tapped on the window and then again, louder. She looked up and I waved. She waved back.
One of the dog owners would be along soon – they were always going up and down. They’d know what to do. I thought about making her a cup of tea with lots of sugar – I’d seen that somewhere. I knocked on the window again and made a T sign with my hands. She shook her head slowly. Maybe she didn’t like tea.
I knocked on the window quite a few times more. After a while, I didn’t even need to knock. She was already waiting for me to appear. I pulled silly faces that made her laugh and did the walking downstairs trick although it wasn’t my best effort.
After what felt like hours, a car slowed down outside and a man got out and went over to the lady. He held her hand and with his other hand called someone on his mobile. She pointed up at me and the man shook his head. I waved down at them and pulled a funny face. When the ambulance came, she gave me a tiny wave.
“You’re a catch. Look at ya – all your own teeth in your mouth, a fresh shirt on your back.”
“I don’t know, Derek. I’ve been out of the game so long, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. The rules are different. How about we have another half and a game of dominoes?”
“Forget about the bloody rules, you don’t ever leave a girl waiting. Not then; not now. I’ll box your ears if I hear any more of that talk. Now get going, will ya.”
“Look at me – I look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge. My hair is, it’s all wispy and this flab around my middle isn’t doing me any favours. I can’t meet her like this.”
“If you looked like a sack of shit, I’d tell you Tone. Most days you do, but not today. You scrub up well. Ok. You’ve scrubbed up well.”
“Thanks Derek. I owe you. You know, I’m going to buy her flowers and I’m going to open the door for her and I’m going to let myself fall in love and I’m going to let this be ok whatever happens.”
“That’s my boy. Now go get her, Tone.”
I squeezed the pear and it was firm;
it was made from basalt and sandpaper.
I squeezed the pear again the next day and it was firm;
it was made from diamonds and papyrus.
I squeezed the pear the day after that and it was firm;
it was made of meteors and masking tape.
For nine days, I squeezed the pear and it was firm;
it was made from granite and the palms of garden gloves.
I squeezed the pear and my thumb and finger met through it;
it was made of nothing but cruelty and disappointment.