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.
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.
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 put on the Big Breakfast on our rented TV-VHS combi. 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. I will eat these on the short walk to junior 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 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 then whatever colour you select 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 trip and headbutt the hobby horse – a behemoth of a thing 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 really 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 completely 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 5p. 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 skills.
Pilchard pizza, strawberry angel delight and then one hour of Commodore 64. The game I want to play takes 46 minutes to load. I play it until I hear the knock from below that signals bedtime. I read Hardy Boys with a torch until the rechargeable batteries run out.