Shake is an amazing Bristol-based illustration event and online community. Each year in September, it hosts #shaketember – a month of daily prompts for artists to respond to and post on Instagram. It’s a celebration of a global community of illustrators and creators, spanning a wide range of styles. Check out and follow the #shaketember hashtag for a wild ride of visual talent and originality.
Unfortunately, I do not have any skill when it comes to visually artistry, so have used the prompts to inspire flash fiction and short pieces of writing. I’ve rounded them up here:
Clarence joined the space race after a three day Twitter argument with a fascist.
There could be nothing more futile in the world, not even a homemade rocket aimed at the stars.
The technology that powered the Apollo mission was the equivalent to that found in a mobile phone. On remembering this fact, Clarence dug out an old Nokia from a cardboard box that also contained a lock of his first girlfriend’s hair, a trio of badly painted Warhammer orks and a marijuana pipe shaped like a toffee hammer.
Clarence wasn’t just joining the space race, he intended to win it. As he cycled to his pervert-uncle’s farm, he held his breath and steered around the potholes as training.
After cleaning his wounds in the pig trough, Clarence made a deal to teach his uncle the internet in return for a three-day loan of his truck.
Safely back home, Clarence recorded the all-important message on his Fisher Price tape recorder before strapping it to the front of the truck along with a megaphone. It was perfect – part Dalek Kate Bush, part call to prayer.
“Metal. Appliances. Washing machines. Fridges. Space paraphernalia. Microwaves. Metal.”
Clarence drove a carefully planned route that took in all of the country’s space centres and aeronautical research facilities along with a few suburbs. In 48 hours, he collected two Zanussis, a Hotpoint, a SMEG and a mangled BMX. And a shit tonne of space stuff.
For three years, Clarence worked day and night building his shuttle, learning the science, until finally, it was ready.
On a quiet bit of Weston-super-Mare beach, Clarence strapped himself in, adjusted his helmet and powered up the Nokia. This was it.
The countdown began.
The familiar Nokia ringtone sounds out.
Clarence opens his eyes and rips it from the dashboard. It’s NASA. He had lost the space race.
My hands itch so bad in the night that I have to get up out of bed, walk down the hallway to the bathroom and put them under the hot tap until the water is scolding and takes the itch away. They don’t feel like my hands after that; podgy, swollen and red. I walk back to the bedroom and arrange them on the pillow and watch them. Sometimes I fall asleep, other times not so much.
The other night after I had scolded my hands and got rid of the itch, I was walking back to the bedroom when I noticed a light come on outside through the landing window. I peered through the blinds. The thin man from two doors down, the one with the dog, was out in the garden, down on his knees on the lawn.
The light from his kitchen was just enough for me to see that he was digging at the ground with his bare hands, scrabbling like an animal. I watched him for five minutes or so, frantically going at it, with soil piling up around him. Then he stopped and simply sunk into the earth, the whole top half of his body disappearing underground. He became very still then. I watched some more but it was clear that he was sleeping.
I walked back to the bedroom, got into bed and watched my hands on the pillow until I too fell asleep.
Fruity: the history of our relationship through fruit
On our first date, you ate a banana from your handbag in a non-sexual way. We told each other half-remembered facts about potassium and the vitamin c content of kiwi fruit.
When we first kissed, I could taste your cherry lip balm. I mentioned it a week later when we had kissed many more times, and you laughed and said you didn’t ever use lip balm.
When I met your parents for the first time in the Chinese restaurant by the train station, I ate the decorative lychee on my plate out of nervousness.
You made me a salad that contained perfectly thin segments of orange and I worshipped you like a goddess.
The fresh watermelon that the old man with the gammy leg sold us on the beach each day was divine. We let the juice run down our chins onto our exposed skin. I pressed my mouth to your thigh, pretending to suck up a drop that had landed there.
In our flat, we had a blueberry feature wall that clashed with everything that we owned. We were stupidly proud.
We bought a fruit bowl together with joint-Christmas present John Lewis vouchers. We spent £23 in the organic greengrocers filling it with wonderfully coloured fruits.
You added pomegranate seeds to our online shop without discussing it with me and I started an argument. They were too expensive and my molars couldn’t cope with them.
I started noticing fruit flies in the kitchen and it made me angry – the burnt orange of their bodies became my least favourite colour. I stopped not killing insects and dispatched them gleefully.
I watched a YouTube video on how to peel a pineapple with your bare hands. ‘This girl is completely annoying but…’ I wrote when I shared it with you on Whatsapp. You read the message – but didn’t reply.
The day before you told me you didn’t love me anymore, I bought cheap pears that were as hard and unforgiving as granite. Three days after you moved out, I went to throw them away and my fingers went right through them.
Margaret looked like a woman that believed in horoscopes. Her clothes were thick and itchy, all man-made fibres and rainbow colours, and her hair was a tangle of wild grey curls with dyed pink tips permanently frothing on top of her round head.
Seeing Margaret scoot around the office on her ergonomic chair, a folded newspaper on her lap, was the highlight of our day. She would pull up alongside you and tap you once on the shoulder – hard enough for you to recoil, not quite hard enough to hurt. She started her rounds at eleven each morning.
Lifting the newspaper up from her lap with a flourish, she would start to read your horoscope to you. She knew everyone’s sign off by heart. As soon as she began speaking, the nasal quality disappeared from her voice and it became sonorous and soothing.
For those two minutes, you would feel like nothing else existed apart from you, Margaret and your future.
Although people poked fun at Margaret and pretended to be annoyed by her interruptions, the two-minute horoscope reading was the best thing about working there.
The horoscopes were just so good. They weren’t like the usual nonsense, none of that generic BS. They always, always turned out true, uncannily so.
In between sending emails and taking phone calls, we’d discuss the previous day’s and how the readings had been so right.
Then one Friday, Margaret got made redundant along with Geoff from accounts and the creepy guy that sucked the pens you lent him before offering them back to you.
We missed Margaret a bit, but mainly we missed the horoscopes. Someone suggested buying the newspaper and taking it in turns to be Margaret.
On Monday, the newspaper was purchased and we all excitedly waited for eleven to come round. When it did eventually arrive, we had a problem – not one of us could find the horoscopes. We each flicked through the paper front to back but they weren’t there. It was the same on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.
On Friday, Lydia called the paper. The woman told her that the paper had never published horoscopes, that they didn’t go in for that kind of rubbish.
I am my dad in the pub standing at the ockey, spreading the sharp souring tang of the complimentary cheese and onion sandwich against the bass notes of ale that line his mouth, blinking the cigarette smoke from his eyes, blocking out the swirling guitar solos from the jukebox, about to check out on double top.
I am my grandad before him, in the same pub, at the same ockey, drinking mild, smoking a fag, shutting out the tinny plinks of the piano in the saloon bar, blinking away the horrors of the Great War, lining up a finish.
I am the dart playing contestant on Bullseye, taking aim on a speedboat and a life changed forever.
I am me in a fun fair, flicking a compacted mound of candy floss in the recess above my left front tooth with my tongue, ignoring Rhythm of the Night by Corona that booms out from the waltzers, squinting away the neon that flashes around me, singling in on the ace of diamonds and my one chance to take home a goldfish.
My dad releases the dart.
My grandad releases the dart,
Gareth from North Shields releases the dart.
I release the dart.
Across time, our steel-tipped hope flies true, and lands. We are all winning tonight.
Sebastian was buying a Hawaiian shirt – he was categorically not a Hawaiian shirt kind of guy.
For Sebastian, colour was something to be enjoyed in the flower beds of National Trust gardens and not emblazoned upon some frivolous ill-fitting apparel. To wear a loud shirt was to draw attention to oneself like a strutting peacock in search of a mate. It was arrogant, flamboyant and had the vulgar aura of sexual confidence.
When it came to sexual confidence, Sebastian had none. He had been married 17 years and during those years, the bedroom was a place to sleep and read only.
Like Louis XVI, it had taken him the best part of a decade to perform his marital duty and only then strictly for the purpose of procreation. Pleasure was an oak leaf sticker stuck to the windscreen of his pale grey Ford estate, something to park on the drive and never enter the home.
Sebastian very much admired the work of Capability Brown – there was so much to enjoy in his gardens. He sculpted the landscape with finesse and subtlety, bringing elegance and practicality that you didn’t ever find in nature.
In Sebastian’s most daring fantasies, he liked to imagine himself as a Victorian plant-hunter, collecting rare species from across the empire.
Head to toe in smartly tailored beige slacks and shirt, a white fedora and a knapsack, he steeled himself against the heat and the unhelpful chatter of the natives, to carefully extract shrubs from Himalayan hillsides and delicate flowers from the foot of great rice paddies.
The gardens he planned in his mind contained precise gradients of hues – the gentle lilacs of the Verbena Parterre aspiring to the more confident purple tones of Syringa Vulgaris, calming yellow dahlias aside the buttery elegance of Ranunculus Asiaticus.
Of course in Victorian times, Dahlias were symbols of marriage, strength in togetherness. Perhaps he should opt for a more appropriate plant.
‘Cashier number two please.’
Sebastian quickly emerged from his flight of fancy and walked towards the young lady behind the till, awkwardly proffering the obscene kaleidoscope of palm trees and parrots, dangling the new him into the most uncertain of futures.
I told Olivia that they were having a hat party at number 27. I’d counted twelve of them already and it wasn’t even 9 pm.
Olivia did not look up from her magazine. She just grunted her grunt.
I could see more arriving now, slender figures in assorted headwear, dramatically silhouetted by the entrance lamp. A chap in a top hat that actually had to duck to get in – I chuckled – Olivia grunted again.
Everyone that walked up to their door had something different on their heads. They sure knew how to throw a party at number 27.
Olivia grunted again and put the magazine away in the rack and selected another.
More guests were arriving now. There’s Churchill and Jackie O, Croc Dundee and HRH.
A trio in flat caps looking like the Shelby’s. I knew Olivia watched Peaky Blinders. Another grunt. A couple of cloches, a fedora and look – Sherlock.
“I went with a man who wore a hat once – was with him for a year or two – tallywhacker like a ten-pound trout.”
I closed the curtains and went to get a handful of Bombay mix.
Racing, Homing and Carrier are the surnames of my best friends. My name is Pete Feral. Together, we are the Pigeon Gang.
The four of us hang out in a treehouse in the woods behind the industrial estate near the sewage works. We come up with plans to save the world. These plans never quite come off.
We planned to stop traffic in central London to protest the fact we’re rapidly and needlessly killing our planet and causing the catastrophic death of countless millions all because we blindly uphold a superstructure that is designed to protect the status and wealth of a few pointlessly rich individuals, but we got cornered – for six hours straight – by tourists that wanted their photo with us.
We planned to distribute supermarket food waste to the homeless but someone dropped a Greggs’ sausage roll and we spent twenty frenzied minutes sorting out the mess till the cops showed up and moved us on.
We planned to build a case against a network of ruthless human traffickers that were running girls out of a taxi cab firm in the railway arches south of the river. Our cover was blown though when we were all simultaneously mounted by a bunch of randy local grease merchants.
The Pigeon Gang continue to meet, but the plans have been scaled down of late. Sometimes it’s simply enough to survive.
The skies were electric the night you decided to die.
I looked out at the bloated orange-brown clouds, gathering, threatening something.
You said you were going down to the market to buy fruit for breakfast.
The storm was going to be cataclysmic – part symphony, part celestial battle.
You would be soaked and shiny as soon as you stepped out; your sweat making the water slick and shimmering on your skin.
You told me that you’d be back soon and that you loved me.
Sat on the bamboo chair on the balcony, I re-read the same paragraph – I was scanning the words but their meaning was lost to the charged air.
I noticed that you didn’t tie your hair up with the frog bandana or collect your tote bag like you did every time you went to town.
The clouds bubbled over now, a rapid boil of orange-pink-brown, and the raindrops started to fall.
I frantically searched the bedroom floor for a t-shirt and my keys – I found your keys on the side with your purse.
The sky lit up and the window panes shook.
I was out the door, down the stairs four at a time, and running towards the square.
You weren’t there.
The lightning forked and the sky cracked like a vase.
I ran towards the river, wading through water and sewage, losing a sandal.
The thunderclap made me gasp – hollow like a cough.
I saw you.
You were there, hugging your knees and rocking back and forth on the slick sides of the Mekong.
I scooped you up and squeezed you into me, and you screamed and screamed as the lightning struck around us.
I feel guilty whenever I experience pleasure. Any pleasure at all. It sucks.
When I first kissed a boy, I didn’t sleep for days. Not because I was replaying the moment our lips finally met or anything soppy like that, and not because I was worrying that my mouth was somehow the wrong type of mouth for his thin, darting eel of a tongue. I was guilty because there was a brief second within that saliva-sharing awkwardness that I found pleasurable.
When I won my school’s spelling bee – D-I-S-I-N-G-E-N-U-O-U-S – I nearly exploded with guilt.
When my grandparents bought me a Megadrive with Sonic for Christmas – guilt every minute of every day for three months solid.
Graduating top of my class. Guilt.
The sound of ice cubes cracking in a glass of water. Guilt.
Seeing a dog with its head out of the window, eyes wide, tongue swinging. Guilt.
Sun on my face, Iris Murdoch novel, melodious birdsong. Guilt.
Beach holiday. Guilt. Mountaineering adventure in Nepal. Guilt. Bringing clean water to a village in the Gambia. Guilt.
My favourite dinner – ham, egg and chips – Wiltshire ham, thick; chips drowning in vinegar; eggs, two of them, runny. Sick with guilt.
Wedding day. Guilt. Birth of son number one. Guilt. Selling the business I founded for seven figures. Guilt. Birth of son number two. Guilt.
The only time I experience pleasure in my life and don’t feel even the faintest scrap of guilt is listening to my favourite music:
It Wasn’t Me.
Life Is A Rollercoaster.
Would I Lie To You.
My Heart Will Go On.
Who Let The Dogs Out.
As Long As You Love Me.
Heaven Is A Place On Earth.
Movie Poster (or the imagined living room of the woman I fell in love with on the 10:37 train to Hastings)
An Ercol chair, all dark graceful curves, sits beneath a tall bookshelf filled with orange and red-spined books.
There is a Persian rug full of deep red mathematical ferns that conceal tiny William Morris-esque birds only revealed by their gently psychedelic plumage.
A 1960s drinks cabinet shaped like the prow of a boat, containing only Japanese whisky, sails across the varnished floorboards.
Two boxes of 45s sit on a shelf above a red and cream Dansette record player. When I eventually look inside the box of singles, it contains all the vinyl from my Discogs wantlist.
A candle the size of a tree trunk and smelling exactly like Miss Mills, the art teacher I had a crush on, sits in the hearth.
The sofa is brown leather stretched taught on a chrome frame, deep and wide enough for two, and with an Aztec-style quilt draped across it.
An A Bout De Souffle movie poster – the one with a painted side-eyeing devastating beautiful Jane Seberg – hangs on the wall.
The train pulls into the station – my carriage is empty. You are nowhere to be seen, disappeared along with your perfect living room. I walk to my bedsit with the single window that looks out on the rusting air conditioning units of a rundown hotel. I open the door and kick the mattress over to the far wall and fire up the stove for a brew.
It was after midnight and another in a long line of no-good days had passed. Gaz had just smoked his last cigarette and was contemplating searching his desk drawers for coins to buy a single fag from the newsagents. The rain battered the windowpane and he could see the headlights of the cars in the street making heavy work of the inclement weather down below. Who was he kidding, Gaz wasn’t going out in that. It would be another night on the beanbag.
Gaz pulled at his five-day beard growth and swept back his dry bleached blond hair behind his ears, and rooted around for a joint end in the mound of ash and butts. He hadn’t had weed since Riggs had been in town – what was that a fortnight, a month, a year ago?
Pouring himself another Bells, Gaz tried to summon the motivation to face the painful glow of the blank screen. He had to finish the press release for the Less Than Jake-Vans collab – it was his last paid work and the deadline was a week past. RAD – the skate and surf PR agency Gaz founded in the nineties, was dying – scrap that – it had been dead for years.
Gaz was flat broke too. He only made rent on his one-room office in the eighties tower block in the most deprived part of the city by giving foot rubs to the landlady and letting her trace her finger around his six-pack – a legacy of his healthier surfer days. He hadn’t seen a wave for the best part of a decade. The electricity had been cut off. He charged his laptop from a broom cupboard on the 19th floor and stole internet from the Costa across the way.
Gaz was about to drop to the floor and the familiar discomfort of the beanbag, when a light tapping sounded at the door. Squatters dicking around again, he thought. Or Dahlia coming to collect her rent – he shuddered.
A silhouette moved into the window – a dame, and a fine one at that. Dahlia it was not.
“Come in,” Gaz rasped.
The woman who walked in was a knockout. Mascara streaked her cheeks and she was drenched to the bone. Gaz took her Dickies jacket and hung it on the radiator, knowing it had zero chance of drying.
“What’s your story, miss? You’re on the wrong side of town at the wrong time of night to not have a story. You better make it quick, I’m about beat.”
Punctuated by sobbing, the woman told Gaz that a very valuable skateboard had been stolen. The board had been designed by her grandfather and had been used by Rodney Mullen to perfect the move that became the kickflip. It was worth a small fortune and it was hers when the old man finally croaked. It had gone missing from the family home – no sign of a break-in, middle of the night. Her elder sister hadn’t been seen since and the police were doing jack. Insurers weren’t paying out unless they had proof of robbery. She needed that board back.
Gaz stood up and removed his Etnies cap from the hatstand and pulled it over his eyes. The mention of a reward and he was all in, but there was more to it than that. Gaz was no mug – he knew straight away that she had taken the board. The rip in her purple tights was no ladder, and he could smell the wax on her the moment she walked in. Why was she offering cash around for a missing board that wasn’t missing? And why him?
Sylvie looked up from her crossword to see a sparrow hawk swoop down and catch a brambling in its beak, snapping its cocktail stick spine in two. Feathers floated slowly to the lawn to form a campfire of mellow oranges, smouldering in the mid-morning sun.
She had planned to do an hour of yoga on the lawn after she’d filled in thirteen down and finished her freshly masticated juice, but that wasn’t going to be possible now. The double-glazing had shielded her from the sounds of killing and dying, but the majestic brutality of the aerial violence had shaken something loose in her.
Perhaps she’d go down for a sea swim, lose her breath to the briny bite of the September waves. She could read Donna Tartt in an oversized hoodie and let the salt dry hard on her skin.
She could always hike up to Old Harry Rocks and set up her easel – try to capture the incremental transition from green to yellow, sun-scorched late summer hues to early autumnal rust. It was a challenge that she returned to each year. Her summer house was full of part-finished pastels.
Sue from book club was running a heritage walk around the old town and some of the girls from the U3A would be there. Sylvie could catch them up – hopefully missing the heritage but not the Chablis and olives at the wine bar.
There was that unopened Fellini box set and the ironic onesie – both of them Christmas presents and representing the good and ugly sides of the gift scale. Herbal tea, a bowl full of macadamias and La Dolce Vita.
Terry would be at the clubhouse. He always was. He would buy her lunch and ply her with Gordan’s in the hope she would succumb to his amorous advances. A warm goats’ cheese salad for lunch would roll into evening drinks and salt and vinegar crisps and end with a tipsy walk along the lane to the bobbing beam of her phone torch.
Sylvie was still considering her options for a lazy day as darkness clambered down the rear fence and spread itself across the rockery.
Soon it was pitch black outside, though Sylvie could still see the embers of the feather-fire burning like a beacon – a warning.
Gary had lined the walls of his shed with tins of baked beans and Heinz tomato soup. Stacks of chow mein super noodles were arranged on metal racking like library books. It was nearly time.
The filing cabinet was heavier than he thought and he struggled to push it against the door. It contained two ring binders. One contained all the people that had wronged him in his life – from the boys that bullied him in junior school to Maradona to the regional head of Allied Dunbar. In the other, he kept a record of all the types of people that weren’t normal. Each one of them had a sheet of lined A4, arranged alphabetically – atheists, blacks, catholics, dykes, europeans, french, gays…
Doing his best to ignore the prickling sting of sunburn as the neck of his t-shirt scraped against his forehead, Gary removed his top and stood in the middle of his shed. He had worked up a sweat and that was something to be proud of.
As he admired his handiwork, the bunting came loose and floated to the floor. Standing on a crate of Stella, Gary stretched to secure the long line of Union Jacks to the far corner of the shed roof. Other than the pictures of his ex-wife on a bucking bronco in Benidorm and Churchill with his legendary cigar, the bunting was the only luxury item.
Gary ripped open the last box and started to stack the tins of spam alongside the filing cabinet until the last of the light disappeared. He hummed Rule Britannia as he stacked – in truth he felt like singing it loud and proud but he didn’t really know the words.
The final act was to superglue up the lock – no one was getting in or out.
He was finally ready for the snowflake apocalypse.
Gary would survive; normal would prevail.
At the back of the sock drawer, he found the Y-Fronts that would change his life.
They were powder blue with white piping – pretty unforgettable – although he didn’t remember buying them. They looked like the kind of underwear a lacrosse-playing jock would wear in a locker room as he talked trash to his teammates about a girl that he secretly liked. He watched too many films.
How had they got there? He’d worn boxer shorts every day since the age of ten . These looked like they would fit him now.
What kind of man wore Y-Fronts? Was he that kind of man?
He cautiously raised them to his nose and sniffed. They smelt of detergent – not the one he used, but the chemical approximation of a meadow-fresh breeze.
Gingerly he stepped into them, placing first his left foot and then right foot, before pulling them up. They cupped his testicles reassuringly. After repositioning his penis, something he did with care and a mild affection like you might move a snail to safety from a path on a rainy evening, he found that they were comfortable enough.
He walked over to the mirror and clenched and unclenched his buttocks. The cotton responded appropriately – clinging, momentarily revealing form. He felt sexy and sure of himself; something he had not felt in years.
He applied some of the aftershave he reserved for weddings and, more often than not of late, funerals. He finished getting dressed – even ironing a clean shirt to put on.
As he walked to town, he felt a constant but not unpleasant tightness around his crotch that was a reminder of his manhood, his newly discovered sex appeal. He decided to take a detour to see if the tomato lady was in her garden.
In a summer blouse, kneeling on a beach towel, she was carefully attending to the yellow-green orbs that filled her miniature polytunnel. Rather than casually throwing a comment about the weather over the low red-brick garden wall in her direction like he always did, he stopped and started a conversation.
Leaning on the low wall, he held her gaze and listened as she spoke. To his utter amazement, he found himself asking her out for a walk one evening.
Three months later, two days shy of his eighty-seventh birthday, they were married. The love between them was so radiant that it could be seen from space. She wore red and he wore his powder blue Y-Fronts.
disappointing BIRTHDAYS – AGE 1 to 16
One year old
No memory – disappointing.
Two Years old
No memory – disappointing.
Three years old
My parents hire a clown.
Four years old
I fall off the bouncy castle and break my wrist.
Five years old
Leon shits himself in his LYCRA superman suit.
Six years old
Eleanor goes into anaphylactic shock – the cheese puffs were made of peanuts, apparently – an ambulance arrives and everyone is in floods of tears.
Seven years old
My mum cuts my fringe before the party and I hate it – I hate her for doing this to me.
Eight years old
Gareth calls my dad a cunt.
Nine years old
My mum organises a game where you have to eat doughnuts without licking your lips, and we all do it, and it’s so hilarious and we’re all laughing, and then later I hear Alicia saying to Cass that it was babyish and we weren’t in nursery anymore.
Ten years old
Kirsty breaks my CD player and we have to listen to my dad’s cassette collection – we play musical statues to the Best of Bread and I want to die.
Eleven years old
We are on a family holiday in Greece and my drunk fake uncle gets the restaurant to sing happy birthday to me even though no one speaks English.
Twelve years old
I buy some cheap hair mascara from Superdrug and it turns my hair the colour of diarrhoea.
Thirteen years old
Lisa wears the same top as me and refuses to change it, even though she only lives around the corner.
Fourteen years old
The table for Nando’s was booked for me and my eight best friends – no parents – I talked about it casually every day for a fortnight but then my dad goes and loses his stupid job and I have to ring everyone the day before and tell them it is off.
Fifteen years old
I vomit Kiwi Mad Dog 20/20 out of my nose and it burns, burns like my love for Damien, who doesn’t even know I exist.
Sixteen years old
I get my first scratch card and I win – £1000 – I do an embarrassing dance around and around the community hall, high-fiving everyone, until my grandad with a shiny two pence and his glasses on his nose slowly but beyond doubt reveals my mistake.
Cops: Choose Your Own Adventure
A report comes in of a black man buying cigarettes from a convenience store with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Your partner turns the squad car around and drives towards the scene. From the passenger seat, you look out the window and your heartbeat quickens.
You see the other squad car and pull over. A handcuffed black man is on the floor being restrained by two officers.
You rush over and drop to the floor, placing your left knee on the black man’s neck.
The man speaks. You hear him say: “I can’t breathe”. It’s been two minutes.
You decide that the man is calm and does not pose a threat. You remove your knee from his neck and let him live. Turn to page 84.
The man says: “I can’t breathe” again and again. Onlookers are shouting for you to stop. It’s been three minutes.
You decide to remove your knee and let him live. Turn to page 84.
You hear the man say: “Please please please” and ask for his mother. It’s been four minutes.
You decide to remove your knee and let him live. Turn to page 84.
You hear the man say: “Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead”. It’s been five minutes.
You decide to remove your knee and let him live. Turn to page 84.
The man is silent. A woman in the crowd pleads with you to stop; she says she can see blood coming from the man’s nose. It’s been six minutes.
You decide to remove your knee and see if he will live. Turn to page 84.
You realise that the man has lost consciousness. They can’t find a pulse. Your knee has been on the man’s neck for seven minutes.
You decide to remove your knee from the man’s neck. Turn to page 84.
The body is motionless. Your knee has been on the man’s neck for over eight minutes.
You have nowhere to turn.
A Special Place
I’m going to be completely honest with you, I’m feeling nervous, pretty uncomfortable if truth be told, about telling you about my special place.
You know why? I mean why would you know, that’s a stupid question.
It’s because I need it.
Like really really need it.
If I couldn’t go to my special place when I had to, I just don’t know what I’d do. It’s special, you know. Like totally special. And it’s mine.
I’m guessing you won’t tell anyone else about it. You’ll keep it to yourself. And that’s reassuring to know. I don’t want everyone knowing about it.
There’s a campsite behind a pub. It’s pretty much just a field, not even a particularly flat one as far as fields go, and there’s a concrete shed with a toilet and a shower in it. There’s loads of daddy long legs in the shower, suspended from the thick cobweb that hangs around the light fitting. Some of the daddy long legs have been dead for years. They turn to dust if you waft them with a towel. Others are still twitching, trying to free their pencil-line limbs from the tacky grey web. It’s pretty disgusting and definitely not my favourite place.
I’m stalling. Obviously, I’m stalling. Sorry, I’m nervous like I said.
Anyway, we have a tent pitched in this field, pretty close to an old tree and a ditch full of brambles and stinging nettles. It’s a small tent and only just big enough for my dad and me.
There are so many noises at night in a tent. They’re so loud and completely strange and fill your head with weird colours and shapes. It’s like the sounds have crawled into your brain and kicked your normal thoughts and any sleepy feelings out your earhole and are just there running around in all the space, making nuisances of themselves.
Anyway, at some point I fall asleep in the small tent with my dad by the tree in the bumpy field because the next thing I know it’s morning and there’s light coming into the tent and this crazy loud noise – even crazier than all those night noises.
I roll over and pull my arm from out my sleeping bag and wriggle up the tent zip just enough to push my head out to see what’s going on.
And right there is my special place.
Chin wet with dew, looking out at a huge red hot air balloon, slowly inflating just five metres from our tent.
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains but I refuse to fall – death stalks me, I can smell its stale breath on the collar of my shirt and feel its cold squeeze on my neck as I sleep, it hasn’t taken me though; I should be grateful to some higher power but I believe in nothing – it is only the simple fact that one foot moves forward and that the other follows that I consider myself to have any agency in this world, everything else is blank, barren; the lice in my blanket jump and dance like circus fleas, my flask is empty, my feet are more blister than anything else, but still I walk a step ahead of oblivion and towards her
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’ and it took everything I had not to lie beneath it and let the drops fall into my open mouth in the hope they would give me strength to carry on; there was no body, no massacre in the heavens, but the blood kept coming, the hard ground had become soft, the blackest mud sticking to my soles, mother I’m coming for you
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley and I couldn’t walk on by; the way to him was dark and narrow, and despite not caring what happened to me, I was afraid; through unnatural sludge, I walked further down the alley until I found his body shaking, prostrated on the ground, two giant shoes askew in the filth, he couldn’t catch a breath, I took off his big red nose and squeezed his shoulder and asked him about you: I didn’t like clowns and I didn’t like towns, they made me long for the maddening loneliness of the wilderness – from the outside the bars where you drank all sounded like nests of insects that if disturbed would eat me alive – why had you passed this way, mother?
I met a young child beside a dead pony, I asked what happened but the child turned away, there was death everywhere now and there was no shock left to go round; picking up a stick I drew a smiley face in the dust and did a lazy jig, pretending to trip before walking on down the track, the kid threw a rock and it struck me just above my right ear and it didn’t stop ringing for days
“I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’,” I tell mother, I know she can’t hear me but I feel I need to say something – I should never have come looking for her, should never have found her – her face stays the same, a walnut shell, tiny rivers of firelight flowing through the tributaries of her face, a face I will never see again
I was out walking in the woods behind my house when I came across a ladder. It was in a clearing just beyond the giant sycamore and the pollarded maples. The ladder was one of those old wooden ones with rounded rungs.
The strange thing was it just went straight up, I couldn’t even see the top; it wasn’t leaning up against anything either, nothing seemed to be holding it in place.
I looked around for a while, for people waiting in bushes, thinking it might be some elaborate prank or part of a film set. Nobody was around. I got down on my hands and knees and brushed away leaves and twigs with my hands looking for a little plaque or piece of white card with an artist’s name and a single italicized word like Ascension or Success or Snake. I didn’t find anything.
I shouted hello – something that feels deeply strange in a wood. I half expected the plants, the ferns, the fungi, the mulch-dwelling bugs and ancient trees to join the animals and millennia of ghosts to roar back at me. Again, nothing.
I put my hands on the ladder and gave it a rattle. It felt solid enough. I climbed three steps up and shifted my weight forward and back – it didn’t move a millimetre. That was it, my mind was made up, I was going to climb it.
Rung by rung, I made my way up the ladder. I expected that as soon as I got above the canopy, I’d see some sort of poster or screen – a ‘congratulations, you’re the seven hundredth and thirty-second person to climb the ladder. Find out more about the project @ladderascension #ladderascension’
There was nothing of the sort. I was simply above the trees looking down on miles of greens, yellows and browns. It was pretty wonderful actually; I could have made my way down satisfied. Of course though, I carried on.
I got a good vantage point of my house and the football stadium, the hospital incinerator and TV tower. A few minutes later and I could see the mountains to the north and the estuary to the west. It was stunning.
It got a bit hairy when I went through the first couple of clouds – that was something else. But I just went with it, and then there were no more clouds, just a mystical tundra of white beneath me, stretching as far as I could see.
I kept on climbing the ladder. Occasionally I’d need to rest and flex my fingers, shake a leg, bend a knee but seeing as I’d been climbing for over three hours, I felt pretty good.
At some stage, I started to think about heaven. It started as a funny little thought but then became pretty all-consuming. If it was up here, I was bound to be getting close.
What would I do if I came face to face with an angel? Or God even? Was my soul pure? Had I done enough good in my life? I mean, I had been an arsehole at various points in my life, a real shit to people that didn’t deserve it, but I’d also been kind and loving and generous. I hadn’t started a war or killed anyone or anything like that.
Each rung that followed triggered a new episode of ‘my life as an arsehole‘ to play in my head: smashing a glass in anger against a wall; cheating on my ex with an ex; lying to my best friend; stealing money from the company safe; bad-mouthing pretty much everyone to everyone else; shouting at the bouncer; saying the most hurtful thing to her every time we fought; getting him fired; not returning her calls; breaking his leg.
I was still climbing the ladder, but I hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on around me. I started to pay attention because I was finding it harder and harder to breathe.
It was dark now, black, and I was being slowly crushed on all sides. Something was filling my nostrils, my ears, my eyes.
There were no angels, no heaven here.
I struggled on, pushing against whatever it was, scrabbling for each rung with all I had. And then it was over. My head and shoulders emerged and I could breathe again. I climbed the last few rungs and emerged from out of the ground. I was back where I started, in the woods at the foot of the ladder. The sense of relief was intense. I knew I had a chance to be better.
A DAY IN THE LIFE IN 1993
I wake up and run downstairs. My body is pure energy – sparks fly from my fingertips and lazers shoot from my eyes. I skid into the living room and turn on our rented TV-VHS combi. The Big Breakfast is on and I watch Zig and Zag with a massive bowl of Frosties. They’re not my favourite cereals – they’re not even actually that grrreat! – I only picked them because they came with a free neon spoke for my BMX.
Once I’m done splashing milk all down my Count Duckula PJs, I change into my school joggers and my special T-shirt that changes colour depending on my body temperature. I put on my Clarks and my mum hands me my lunchbox. Thick brittle bright yellow Bluebird plastic with a lush Lion-O, sword drawn and ready, on the front – Thundercats ho! I know exactly what’s in it: a Penguin chocolate bar, haslet sandwiches, a packet of Tangy Toms and a flask full of squash that despite looking indestructible like the detonator of a nuclear bomb from a Bond film (by the way I love James Bond, Roger Moore is my most favoritest), it’s guaranteed to leak and soak all my sandwiches by lunchtime.
I shove some Monsters in My Pocket into my pocket along with some broken biscuits from the big cardboard box in the treats cupboard. I will eat these on the short walk to school.
At school, I read The Outsiders by S.E Hinton and help build a robot. I also write a poem about Victorians.
At break, a girl runs over to me giggling and places a fortune telling fish in my hand. The transparent red fish curls up into a tight spiral in my palm.
After consulting her notes and the mood ring that glows on her index finger, she tells me that it’s over between us. I hadn’t realised we were even going out, but that doesn’t stop the colour of my T-shirt quickly changing around my now broken heart. I call her frigid – whatever the hell that means – and run off to play What’s the time, Mr Wolf?
It seems everyone is telling fortunes today. The posh girl with the American dad (actually Canadian) is taking appointments behind the bin with her Magic 8 ball. A consultation costs a Push Pop – and you only ever get one question and three goes at getting the right answer.
I much prefer the homemade paper fortune tellers. Pick a number. Pick a colour. Pick a number. Pick a colour. And it always says ‘you smell like poo’. At least you know exactly where you’re at.
I try to climb the rope in P.E and fail for like the trillionth time. I decide to do skipping instead, but instantly trip and headbutt the hobby horse – a beast from the last century made from some hardwood, probably now extinct. They write me up in the accident book, again.
At lunch, I play Super Cars Top Trumps and marbles until Pete, the weird kid, forces me to intersect the fingers of my closed palms with his closed palms. He unpeels his clammy hands and then closes them again, he tells me to do the same and to look at the fanny. I decide that fannys look strange and that Pete is definitely not my friend.
In the afternoon, I carry on my project about Egyptians. A few of us sneak off to the toilets together and play the paper towel game. You get a paper towel, soak it in water and then scrunch it up and throw it as hard as you can at the ceiling. Whoever’s stays up there the longest wins.
After school, I go to the sweet shop and buy ten pence worth of Blackjacks and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bubblegum complete with free transfer tattoo for five pence. I get home and put the transfer on my cheek, pressing it with a hot flannel until I feel my skin itch with its acceptance.
There are still thirty seven hours left of the day, so I head outside to play football in the street. Some of the kids go off to play knock and run, but I’d much rather practice my skills.
Pilchard pizza, strawberry angel delight and then one hour of Commodore 64 before bed. The game I want to play takes 46 minutes to load. I play it until I hear the knock from downstairs that signals bedtime. I read Hardy Boys with a torch until the rechargeable batteries run out.
Read more retro thoughts about slow Sundays as a kid.
Photo by Eva Wilcock on Unsplash
The two of us
Photons from different galaxies
Dancing miraculously in step
My mirror, my twin
You and I
Like two poles
Spinning happily, repelled
You know each of my glances –
the precise meaning of all
1127 of them
You sense when
something isn’t right
You travel on vapour trails
Arrive on the high pitched
trilling of a songbird
To let me know you’re there
When you’re actually with me
You make everything better
Like an acupuncturist
Your hugs hit
And release me
You know precisely
to tell me to shut it
– fuck it –
Or just bloody go for it
We’re unlikely friends
You and I
And I would have it
no other way
Iconic Fashion Trends
My grandmother’s wardrobe was my favourite place growing up. She never wore any of the clothes that hung inside – they just floated there luxuriously, so chic, unable to tell their stories, almost haughty with their secrets.
When I was little, I used to instigate games of hide and seek so I could hide in her wardrobe. I would conceal myself amongst the folds and frills, the crinoline and chiffon, press myself into silks and furs for as long as possible.
When she found me – which she did with increasing speed, she would be angry. In a quiet voice, she would tell me to get out right this second when all I wanted was to stay in there forever, lost in the patterns.
When I was ten, I was desperate to play dress up with her wardrobe. The mink coat, the Mary Quant scarf, the Chanel ready-to-wear black dress. I was tall for my age and my grandmother had always been petite – they would fit and I could do a fashion show for her and dad. I promised to be so, so careful. “Oh my dear, I’m sorry,” she said, and she closed the wardrobe firmly, like she always did.
When I was sixteen, I wanted the burnt orange Biba mini-dress to wear to prom. I wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted before. It was one dress for one night and she never even wore any of it anyway. It was such a waste. I hated all the dresses I was supposed to wear. Everything my step-mum picked out was trashy and cheap. “Oh my dear, I’m sorry,” my grandmother said. I guess she could see it all coming: the dancing, the boys, the contraband Archers, the tears and bloody knees. She was right not to let me have her beautiful dress.
When I was 23, I wrote her a letter – she liked to send and receive letters – and I explained that I would very much like to wear her tiered blue Liberty dress with the sunflowers to my graduation. I explained that I knew how special her clothes were and how it was one very special day. And that anyway, she would be there watching on – to make sure nothing happened to it. It would be a way of me acknowledging all her support and encouragement over the years.
She wrote back and all I could hear in my head as I read her spidery handwriting was, “Oh my dear, I’m sorry.”
When I heard my dad’s voice on the phone, I knew she was gone.
Six weeks later and I travelled back home on the cross-country train from Sheffield. I found my dad pretending to be busy behind a pile of black bags, his eyes puffy and looking old. I gave him a hug and cried salty tears into his jumper.
I was allowed to keep what I wanted, he said. And I hugged him slowly. I felt sad but wanted to feel sadder, I wanted to wait, to have time to be respectful, but of course, all I wanted was the wardrobe clothes. I ran upstairs to her room like I was a kid again. I opened the wardrobe door and got in. I buried my face in her clothes and inhaled.
When I left the wardrobe it was dark outside. My dad was waiting in the car. I walked out to him, carrying a small parrot figurine. He smiled at me and nodded – he approved of my choice.
Once upon a time, there was a little pig that lived happily in the muddiest of muddy pigsties.
The little pig spent most of his time daydreaming – travelling to the most amazing places in his imagination. The pig loved to get his friends together and tell them about the incredible adventures he went on in his mind.
Then one day, the little pig woke up and his mind was completely empty. There were no daydreams and no stories to share.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he said sadly.
The little pig trotted slowly over to the ducks that were bobbing up and down on the pond.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he told them.
“We’ll help you find it! Tell us what it looks like?” they quacked.
“Well, it looks like a carpet of bluebells in a wood in spring, like the end of a rainbow, like a Brazilian carnival through the eyes of an eagle, like the inside of a parrot’s tummy, like all the sweets in the world erupting from a volcano.”
“No problem! We’ll look for you,” quacked the ducks.
The little pig thanked the ducks and wandered over to the cows, who were sitting under a tree in the field.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he told them.
“We’ll help you find it! Tell us what it sounds like?” they mooed.
“Well, it sounds like children having a water fight in a cave, like an octopus playing a hurdy gurdy, like Otis Redding’s soulful scream, like a waterfall in Wales, like a steam train in a tunnel, like a dolphin reading poetry.”
“No problem! We’ll listen out for you,” mooed the cows.
The little pig thanked the cows and trotted over to the sheep, who were frolicking on the other side of the field.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he told them.
“We’ll help you find it! Tell us what it feels like?” they baaed.
“Well, it feels like the inside of jelly, like a hug from a sumo wrestler, like a cardigan made from cobwebs, like the heat from a hedgehog’s hairdryer, like midnight, like brown bear fur stroked the wrong way.”
“No problem! We’ll feel out for it for you,” baaed the sheep.
The little pig thanked the sheep and trotted over to the goats who were all balancing on a large rock.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he told them.
“We’ll help you find it! Tell us what it smells like?” they bleated.
“Well, it smells like candy floss from a fun fair on a Friday night, like freshly cut grass, like hot toast with marmalade, like rocket fuel, like masala chai from a chaiwala’s cup, like a Martian’s burp, like Christmas morning.”
“No problem! We’ll sniff it out for you,” bleated the goats.
The little pig thanked the goats and trotted over to the chickens who were chatting in their coop.
“I’ve lost my imagination,” he told them.
“We’ll help you find it! Tell us what it tastes like?” they clucked.
“Well, it tastes like fresh strawberries, like salty sea air inhaled from the bow of a fishing boat, like pancakes, like ice cream made from sunrays, like a mound of marmite moulded by a marmoset, like chocolate snow.”
“No problem! We’ll taste it for you,” clucked the chickens.
The little pig trotted back to his sty and squidged himself into the thick mud. Nobody had found his imagination and he felt sad. He missed his adventures.
The little pig closed his eyes and to his amazement his mind was filled with so many wonderful things. The pig had found his imagination after all, with a little help from his friends.
The four earworms that ruined my life
It should have been me – Yvonne Fair
At my best friend’s wedding – he’s the groom – this song comes into my head during the reading of the vows. The song is so loud and so persistent that I have to act upon it. I jump up in the church and tell him that I love him. His bookmaker uncle escorts me out and hurls me against the gravestone of an Edwin Herbert. I didn’t actually love the groom but they’ve never given me a chance to explain.
Killing in the Name of – Rage Against The Machine
Dishevelled and sweaty, driving home after a squash game, I get pulled over by a police car. My left rear brake light is out. They clearly don’t like the look of me and pull out the breathalyser. Zack de la Rocha’s voice jumps into my head, loud and angry. ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,’ I scream. I can’t stop screaming it, even at the station when they book me for resisting arrest and throw me in the cell.
Too Drunk To Fuck – The Dead Kennedy’s
Liam, Cass, Olly and Bianca’s house party, second year of uni, easter blow out – there’s a soundsystem, DJs, hash cakes, a punch with no mixer but at least seven bottles of own brand spirits, magic mushroom soup, but most importantly Sian from my sociology module is here. For five hours, I dance and philosophise and hallucinate and giggle and against all the odds find myself naked in a bed with Sian. It is a dream, she is divine, she is naked and impossibly she wants to have sex with me. Jello Biafra comes into my head and everything goes flaccid. For months after, life is hopelessly flaccid.
Nine to Five – Dolly Parton
My first job as a nurse on A&E and although my shift starts at 3pm, Dolly gets into my head and that’s it – as soon as the clock strikes five, I walk down corridors filled with patients – blood gushing from wounds, foreign objects sticking out of rectums, arms in homemade slings – and straight out those double doors and to freedom. And unemployment.
‘How about you be a father to your three children rather than spending every night out hunting ghosts?”
Des removed his backpack and placed it on a chair, exhaling through his nose noisily.
“We were close tonight, Moira. I tell you, we were so bloody close.”
“Well while you were out playing happy snaps with a paranormal disturbance, I was cooking, cleaning, wiping the blood, shit and tears that flow from your offspring. You don’t think I want a hobby? Another life outside of all this? I’d love to be doing hot yoga or learning how to do cryptic crosswords or buying a juicer and sitting on my fanny. You need to know that I’m drowning here – I can’t get air into my lungs to breathe, and you’re, you’re, you’re in a fucking cellar with a candle and a microphone for eleven hours straight.”
“It was right there with us – we all felt it – it was the equipment that failed. We got nothing, but it was there alright. I just need proof and I’m out – it’ll be done then.”
“I’m delighted for you Desmond, really I am – what it must be like to have the capacity to feel anything other than total crippling exhaustion. But it’s got to stop. Right now, it ends. No more of this nonsense. The love we had, we have, is pretty ghostly, like pretty much doesn’t actually exist. You start being a father, taking the boys climbing, to rugby practice, change Gem’s nappy once in a while.”
“Just one video, one photograph, and I’ll make it all up to you I swear. This is not a hobby, it’s bigger than you and me, the kids. It’s everything.”
The door slammed; Des reached for his backpack.
I was on my third cup of coffee in my usual seat by the window. It was a slow day, not much happening. Tina looked tired – today was a low energy day for her. The cafe was busy enough but flat.
And then this man walks in and he’s extraordinarily looking. I can’t take my eyes off of him. You see everyone in this sad place wears clothes because they have to – there is no semblance of style or pleasure, just dull practical supermarket sweatshop get-up.
And well this guy, he’s something else. He’s wearing these purple flared trousers, a tailored denim shirt with red roses embroidered on the back and this snakeskin belt that glistens under the strip lights like it has just crawled out from under a rock and wrapped itself around his middle.
Five minutes later – I’m still staring – when another man walks in wearing the same outfit. Exactly the same outfit.
I wait for them to acknowledge each other, embrace, perform an elaborate handshake.
They don’t even look at each other. I try not to scream – what’s the deal here? what’s your story? They go to separate tables and act completely normally. My eyes dart from one to the other, I can’t help myself.
One orders eggs and coffee. The other tea and a sandwich. I watch each man closely as Tina delivers them their food.
I order a slice of apple cake because I need an excuse to stay and observe them for longer. Tina smiles knowingly as she brings it over. She’s seen them too.
One of the men leaves and the other stays and reads a newspaper for an hour – orders another coffee.
When he leaves, I get up and say goodbye to Tina. I decide to walk home rather than take the bus. The apple cake isn’t sitting right. It takes me an hour.
That night I can’t sleep. I keep thinking of those two men. I can’t get my head around it.
The sun eventually comes up and I know I should be heading back to the cafe but I can’t get up out of bed. I can’t do anything but think of those two men.
Catnaps & nine other working from home productivity tips to master in 2020
- Catnap – a quick forty winks leaves you feeling energised and ready to re-focus on your day’s tasks. Anything over two hours is not recommended and always remember to tell your colleagues you’re on a client call.
- Snack – Start the day by hiding all of your favourite snacks in random locations around your house or apartment. This means that every time you feel the need for a snack – on average 4 minutes and 27 seconds according to a recent survey – you have to engage your memory. Memory skills are essential to getting ahead in business – everything from knowing the name of a client’s dog to remembering what you actually get paid to do. And nothing beats the feeling of finding a chocolate hobnob in an old pair of trainers, especially when you know that your memory muscle has just had a serious workout.
- Laundry – Problem-solving is a very desirable skill for professionals across all sectors. Your problem is that every single room in your house has festering piles of unwashed clothing in it. Seize the opportunity to solve the problem of your own slovenliness by putting them in the washing machine and staring at a rapid 1000 spin cycle for the next forty-six minutes.
- Watch Daytime TV – By watching daytime television you realise how essential it is to always be in gainful employment.
- Washing up – Agile methodologies are crucial to modern working practice. Experiment with different washing-up techniques – maybe do the cutlery first, try leaving the glasses to the end or even stack cups on top of cups to drain. You can also test your ability to pivot mid-way through a task by smashing your partner’s favourite mug.
- Look out the window – Understanding human behaviour and being able to empathise with a wide range of people and situations is vital to forming connections and healthy networks in business. The best way is through long term observation. [Note – This also works for birds if your home office faces your garden.] Extend this even further by visiting a local convenience store and engaging in participant observation, ideally around the purchase of chocolate or beer.
- Drink alcohol – Alcohol is a drug and a stimulant. It is also legal. Stimulants are great for getting work done to deadline and impressing your colleagues with your quick wit. Alcohol is also a depressant so will definitely stop things from ever getting too silly.
- Doodle – Nothing releases productivity like engaging another hemisphere of your brain. Drawing anything you like on any surface at all will light up the right side of your brain like a Christmas tree. Your left side will take note and before you know it you’ll be doubling-down and producing the best reports of your life.
- Re-organise your book collection – Self-organisation and self-motivation are vital to many roles. It’s also good to demonstrate that you are highly adaptable. Set yourself challenges by reordering the books on your shelves by size, colour, theme or perceived attractiveness of their authors in a strict time limit.
- Browse online shops – By endlessly surfing e-commerce websites, clicking on Instagram ads and scrolling through Pinterest for hours, you will find yourself realising what more money could do for you. And yes, it will ultimately buy you happiness. By seeing what you could afford with that next bonus or salary bump, you will find new levels of motivation and work at near 100% productivity for the remaining ten minutes of the day.
It was never my intention to fall in love with a serial killer.
I was researching my second novel. Apparently there wasn’t a market for my Miss Marple-meets-scandi-noir any more. I needed to find edge and up the kill count. A couple of murders and some moody beach scenes weren’t going to cut it this time.
A charity put me in touch with him. I was to write a letter introducing myself and not get my hopes up. He was serving life for murder.
It was all very formal at first. We wrote each other letters every week or so. It wasn’t the glimpses into the mind of a cold-blooded killer that I got, more the idle gossip of a polite penpal from Henbury-on-Thames.
Six months in and my novel-in-progress had about as much edge as a jammy dodger. I needed to do something to intrigue him, to stimulate the evil that lurked in him.
I started to share bits of my inner world with him – personal dilemmas, crisis of confidences, familial issues, fantasies. Things I hadn’t really shared with anyone – what harm could it do, I thought.
And it worked. The tone and pattern of our correspondence shifted. I felt he was revealing more of himself, the real him – although unfortunately it turned out he was actually a really rather sweet man.
The more I shared of myself, the more he proved to be perceptive, empathetic, and caring. I felt unburdened with each letter – a catharsis through pen, ink and hand cramp.
I knew he had killed his parents and his brother with an axe – it wasn’t something you easily forgot. I mean you didn’t get that in Guardian Soulmates. But I did start to see beyond it, far beyond.
The letters became daily, where we were forced into pre-empting what the other would say, the letter-writing equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences.
When he told me that he had been granted a fifteen-minute phone call due to good behaviour, my heart did something strange. I would actually hear his voice, not the one that read to me in my head.
Thankfully his voice was deep and warm, and he was just as perceptive and empathetic over the phone. He said all the right things. It wasn’t artifice, it was real.
Over the course of those fifteen minutes, he set me free. Years of stress and anxiety floated away. My heart was his and he knew it.
The novel they wanted never quite happened, but I kept on writing.
Casey had grown up the youngest of six in a dead-end town in Saskatchewan. He was a mistake, a happy accident, a small slip of a boy in faded hand-me-downs always just out of frame.
As a teenager, he’d inherited his grandfather’s old photography equipment. In truth, he wasn’t named in the will like his siblings had been, it was just that nobody else wanted the dusty box of cameras so it seemed only fair that Casey get them.
Casey went to the library and read all the books he could on photography. He made friends with the lady that worked in the camera shop in Regina and would help her out on Saturdays in return for rolls of expired film and the use of her tools. He’d watch her repair every make and model of camera, and would practice on his grandfather’s cameras sat quietly by her side.
On Sundays, he’d go north to photograph elks and gophers. Sometimes it took Casey fifteen hours to get the perfect shot but he never left without it.
He’d set up a darkroom in the shed and would develop his film as his brothers punched each other or took girls to the lake.
Casey left his family at the first opportunity. He went to college in Manitoba where he didn’t drink or do drugs but took photographs and studied hard. He went to the occasional party but gravitated towards the yard in the hope a coyote would come by.
When he was twenty-seven, Casey moved to Montreal. He was now a professional wildlife photographer – a very good one too. He had a National Geographic cover, two runner up spots in Wildlife Photographer of the year, and had two exhibitions of his work in up-market galleries in Toronto. Still Casey felt like he didn’t belong, that the world didn’t quite want him in it.
There was one shot that Casey wanted more than any other – cormorant fishing on the Yellow River in China. He had seen it in one of the first photography books he’d studied and it had been in his head ever since.
For thousands of years, Chinese fishermen had been using the birds to catch fish by tying small snares around their necks. The cormorant would take off from the raft, effortlessly catch a fish in its beak, but being unable to swallow it, would return to the fishermen with its catch. Casey saw himself as the cormorant, desperate for nourishment but unable to swallow. This shot would be his chance to break free.
Casey had arranged his trip via a tour company in Guilin. He was to accompany two elderly fishermen in late September.
Casey was picked up by taxi from his hotel at 3am and driven out to the river. He’d selected his grandfather’s Mamiya 7 II for the job – it felt right. He’d given it a full service before his flight and fallen in love with it all over again with its near- silent shutter mechanism – like the beat-of-a-butterfly-wing.
Casey stretched out along the raft between the two bemused fishermen. The cormorant had left its post a minute earlier and was now returning, the sound of its beating wings was getting louder. It came into view, fish in beak, majestic against the indigo sky – Casey pressed the shutter button. Nothing. Again and again, he pressed it but nothing happened.
Casey rolled over onto his back and opened his mouth to scream at the pre-dawn sky. At that exact moment, the cormorant left its post and flew over Casey, dropping the still flapping fish straight down his throat.
At last, Casey was sated.