Category Archives: Throwaway Lines

The curse of the Bell

“We’re leaving. There’s no future for us anymore. It’s too late to change what’s happened; it’s time to make a fresh start.”

The words were still ringing in his ears.

 Tick. Tick. Tick. Time was running out. The pressure was rising. No matter how he crunched the figures he couldn’t get it to work out the right way. Desperation was beginning to set in.

A bead of sweat fell from his brow onto his notepad. He stared into space as the sweat smudged his calculations. Time and time again he reached the same answer. The wrong answer.

He could feel the bands of panic tighten around his chest. He needed to get a grip. Some air would help. As he stood to leave the room he glanced at the photo on his desk. Picking it up, he rubbed his thumb over the glass, clearing the dust from the smiling faces looking back at him. Sighing, he placed the frame back on the desk. He had to work harder; he couldn’t afford to lose them.

It was dark outside. How long had he been working on this? The pain in his head suggested longer than he’d originally thought. He didn’t have time for this. Rubbing his brow, he turned to make his way back into the building. Headlights picked out his silhouette against the concrete walls. They were here.

 “We need to make sure we’re making the right decisions. It’s not like we can go back and undo the past.”
“It has to be right first time?” he’d asked.
“Right; no room for mistakes. Literally.”

It was too much. How could he make these kinds of decisions on his own? Of course he had models to fall back on. But we all know that these situations bear no resemblance to normality. We’re seduced by the simplicity of the curves. The bell tolls and we blindly follow. The consequences could be disastrous.

“We only have room for 5%. We must trust the curve.”

He sat back down at his desk with a thump. The dim light from his monitor highlighted the lines on his face as he waited for the answer to flash up on screen.  Tick. Tick. Tick. Fail. Again. They would be here any minute; this was his last chance to get this right.

Footsteps ricocheted through the empty building as his fingers tapped furiously on the keyboard. They were here to collect the list. His eyes desperately scanned the screen for her name. It had to be there; surely he’d selected the right parameters this time? Surely he’d be able to save his own family. There had to be a payoff for being the one who’d created the curve. Didn’t there?

He jumped as the door flew open. They were here.

“Is it ready Tompkins? We don’t have much time.”

“It’s ready Colonel. I’ve used the parameters you selected. The country’s top minds, movers and shakers are all here. You’re ready to go.”

“Good, get your coat. We’ll head off now. A helicopter is ready to take us to the launch site.”

“No. I’m not going. I have to stay here.”

The Colonel turned sharply. “What do you mean you’re staying here? You have your orders, just like the rest of us. We’re leaving in two hours, there’s nothing here for us anymore. We’ve wrung this planet dry.” His old mentor paused, anger flushing his cheeks. “You know that by staying here you’re signing your own death warrant. There’ll be nothing left after the evacuation. Even if you do survive, what will you live on? Mini Rolls and microwave popcorn?”

“I can’t leave them Sir. I won’t leave them.”

The thick silence was suddenly punctuated by the phone ringing. The Colonel turned and walked towards the door. The irritation in his voice softened, “Good luck Tompkins; you’re gonna need it!”

He ran for the phone, catching it just in time.

“Hi, honey? Is that you?” Her voice washed over him like a warm, soothing wave.

“Yes, it’s me. I’m here.”

“Is it true, what they’re saying on the news? They say we don’t have long, that the planet is dying. Is it true? Malcolm? Is it true? Is everyone going to die?”

He closed his eyes, searching for a way to break the news to her, to make it better. To tell her that all the years of hard work, lonely nights and broken promises were for nothing. How could he tell her that even after all of her sacrifices he still couldn’t save them?

“Don’t worry my love, I’m coming home.”

by Maria Ingram

Lesser-Known Saints of the Hellfire Club









Wang Gong

Two surnames, both of them false; the first name both emperor’s handle and the most common-or-garden variety in mainland China, the second rooted in imperial calamity. A pioneer of hand charming, and a palm-stroker of no small renown; in a short life Wang entertained the very filaments of global power. His country seat in Nether Mallow was drenched red and gold; in tribute, he said, to a life long ago. Many guessed him older than his looks would confirm. In conversation, he would appear, as from the ground, his suit millstone-pressed, his tongue slightly proud of his lower lip. He bequeathed the club a fortune, saying, “Find it all, seek it, guzzle every last scrap of knowledge. It’s all here. It buzzes in every sperm’s head. It meditates in the sleeping egg.” His last words were “Find my father’s father,” and a simple request for water.


One of the great mysteries of our time, the individual known as Bqaq was born, depending on who you ask, in one of three places. Experts from the Roma chapter claim he was found by nuns beneath a piece of Pompeian graffiti declaring “The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison”. Bogotá have produced documents on the discovery of a half-burned boy on the steps of the Primary Cathedral, and London herself lays claims to Bqaq. The diary of John Mears references “a scarlet, nigh-on demonic babe”, left at the door of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, ”splashing in its mother’s wretched gifts”.

As for achievements, only one is known, and this alone secured Bqaq’s beatification. The sovereign has always traditionally been our organisation’s enemy, however many of their offspring are members. On 1 January 1900, as the new century stoked its boiler, the man known variously as Berquaque, Boerkrack and Berukakku-san bought every man in a Mayfair pub a single-malt whisky, before pulling on a costume depicting Queen Victoria as a ‘scarlet lady’ and blowing himself up.


A chaste and modest man by club standards, Benjamin ‘Oberon’ McBride championed more intellectual pursuits than most members. His fifteen backgammon trophies still glitter on the smoking room mantel, and it is said that he communicated with the dead grandmasters for tips. Fond of the company of his fellow man, he never married. Upon his death (misadventure) a note was found addressed “To my darling Hereford”. Into this he had poured out such passions as had lain dormant. The only Hereford in the club records had died five years before McBride was born. And where McBride’s blood had fallen, a curious reaction had caused two shapes to form: a skull and a butterfly.


Eventually unmasked as a woman, the Kiel-born Sonnenschein (real name Lutzi Abendroth) was six-foot-two and an unmatched procurer of girls. No evening was complete without a dozen firm-thighed ‘sunbeam’ dancers, and indeed the club’s membership octupled during her tenure. Acting as Herr Blitzen (a private joke at the expense of the English), she made a thoroughly handsome rogue, and talked many a pious virgin into the red shoes of the Hellfire Club. The writer’s grandfather remembers a breathy confessional in which a young shipping heir confessed to unnatural feelings for his fellow man. How relieved he was to discover the truth! When Abendroth’s skirts were figuratively raised, following a tip-off from one of her lovers, fierce debate was raised on her eligibility for membership. In the end she was banished, but immortalised. Her image, in full gentleman’s garb, still hangs in the hallowed Dashwood Gallery.


A sommelier without rival, Baron Karl Wovenbad was a robust man known for his boxing abilities. In contrast to his sporting, jolly demeanour, he often claimed to be able to summon the Morningstar himself. Such claims were often made under the grapeleaf, and affectionately mocked. Wovenbad, growing tired of being called a liar, called a meeting of the monks and set out the letters of the alphabet on the floor. Henriksson tells us that he “raised his arms and called out in a shrill voice, asking the devil to come out and greet his disciples.” When, after an hour of trying, no demon appeared, Wovenbad retired to the water closet. He did not return. Upon his body was written “Sleep and sleep”.


Dmitri Bubasarin, a native of St Petersburg, was rumoured to be a friend of the Tsar. As a club member, he was active, with mutinous interests. Despite a strong accent, he was able to talk anyone out of the room; numerous attempted raids by the police would end with the uniforms bowing deferentially out of Bubasarin’s imposing presence. He was known as a satyr of the first order. According to Pan, minute-taker for the Knights of West Wycombe (one of our pseudonyms), he would routinely stand naked upon the club’s antique chairs and bellow that he was hungry for love. He would then proceed to repeat this ‘shop’ call in seven languages, ending always in his native Russian.

Bubasarin’s sainthood was a surprise to all but those present on Walpurgis Night, 1907. When the police made their monthly visit, and he was dispatched to field their queries, he pulled from his pocket a great handful of feathers and a pocket knife. Before the officer, he stripped to the waist and proceeded to whittle each quill, before stabbing it into his shoulder blades. All the while, he laughed maniacally. The pain and blood loss eventually won, and Bubasarin fell to the floor like a shot pheasant. Three of the feathers can be found in the archives, the dull brown bloodstain never cleaned away.

By Kirsten Irving

Over Time








Thursday March 21st 2013

I hadn’t told my wife. Work knew of course.

Well, they had to really; I was hardly there.  I should come clean to her one day. One day.

But the Doctor thought I was getting better so why put her through all the pain? Not after what she’d been through with her Dad. And the fact Toby’s being bullied at school. She didn’t need any more straws on her camel’s back. No way.

Didn’t seem right to tell her about tests, tests and more tests. Yes, there was an outcome after each one. The tumours had responded. Or they hadn’t…those were the main ones. Infliximab seemed to be doing the trick for the problems I already had, but the more serious things on top weren’t good. And there were side effects to that drug. Strange ones. Steroids helped, but they had side effects too.

Trying to keep up with work when in hospital wasn’t ideal. Too many people coming in and out; it was noisy and just down the corridor from the main A&E. But my business needed to keep breathing too, so I had to do it.

The nurses always said I was working too hard. Crohn’s leading to bowel cancer was common. And in a lot of cases of early Crohn’s flare ups were related to stress. But I kept saying, this is more serious than just Crohn’s so it’s not from stress. They just looked at me with disdain. Even Doris; the friendly one.

I was getting cabin fever in my room… (Note to self: I’m mildly claustrophobic) …so I went for a walk. I know it’s somewhat sick, but I sort of, in a dark way, enjoy walking around hospitals. Looking into rooms at people in various states of disrepair. ‘Enjoy’ is probably the wrong word. It was more to do with intrigue. Similar to when you walk around a town at dusk, just before people have drawn their curtains or shut their blinds and you can see into their homes. It’s a morbid fascination. And that word is more apt here I suppose.

Then I hear what sounds like Toby crying. He can’t be here, can he? But then I see him. I have to hide. He’s with Samantha! Bloody hell. I wonder, why isn’t she at work? Toby’s bleeding. Why?

So I hide behind a screen and listen.. Someone’s coming. It’s ok; it’s the nurse. I just pretend I’ve lost my pen.

“Pen? You working again Richard? You should be relaxing. Your kind of treatment takes a lot out of you. And you shouldn’t be down here. You’re staying overnight this time aren’t you?” She says, more telling me than asking. She’s a big lady and she’s lovely. She looks at me longer than she should.

“What’s wrong with the kid then, Doris?”

“Oh…he got hit at school – with a cricket ball apparently. Pretty bad. But he’ll live. You walking back with me?”

“No it’s ok. Can I just stay here for a bit? I’ll be back in 10.”

Really? Mmmmn. I bloody know where that ball came from. Carl Smithson, the little shit.

The Infliximab doing its worst again. Feeling faint. I get up to see if I can see them. I can, so I scuttle back behind the screen again and listen to Sam consoling him. I sit on a pile of old magazines. (Heidi Klum has a different view of the world for a while.)

I’d love to be able to put my arms around him. Them, even. Nine years of marriage and I love her more than the day I saw her dancing round her (fake) designer handbag to ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’. But I’m not telling her things have got worse. I’m just not.

About twenty minutes passed.

From the crack between the curtain and the metal I can see Toby, all stitched up. They’re leaving. That makes me feel faint again.

I watch them go down the corridor, hand in hand. Both leaving a mesmerizing reflection in the spotless hospital floor.

No wonder I’ve got three missed calls from her on my (silent) phone. Poor Tobes. Oh well, she knows I’m busy and thinks I’m staying in a Premier Inn miles away tonight; out with Derek and the new lead in Oxford. Well, I’ve got to get that ‘contract’ haven’t I? And I’ve got to pay the mortgage.

Need to go back and type that email. Could call them… but they frown on that here.

Back in my ‘not very MTV’ crib. Nurse gives me some more tablets. And loosens my tie some more. I lie down. And then sit up to send that email. Then lie down again.

Really tired now. Even though it’s only 6.37 p.m.

“See you Tuesday Richard,” squeals Doris as she disturbs my nodding off. She’s got a few days off. Visiting her son in Yorkshire.

Can’t wait to see Sam and Toby tomorrow.


Samantha looked up at the Doctor. A lone, large tear had made its way to the end of her nose.

 The Doctor looked back with an understanding frown and nodded at her to read on.


Tuesday March 26th  2013

Feeling pretty lousy today. But at least that new contract’s sorted…


By Daniel Headey







Anyone sitting here, love? Cheers. Didn’t fancy standing all the way to Wimbledon – not in these shoes anyway, soles practically hanging off, look! ‘Scuse me talking, you probably want to read your book.

What is it you’re reading?

Don’t know Tony Morrison – is he good? Not a reader myself, not exactly a brainiac. Debs always said that, if she’d wanted brains, she’d sooner of married Rex here than me, ha! Eh, boy? Debs was always on the ball like that, quick, quick, quick.

My brains was the problem though, because I was bloody stupid. Pardon my French. You think: you’re young, you know it all, like you’re the boss. But when work dries up, and it’s beans on toast every night o’the week, and nappies cost Christ knows what, you realise you had no idea how hard it is, day in, day out.

I remember going to the Ladbrokes on Chapel Market, thinking: ‘I can sort this out.’ That’s what you think to yourself, every time.

Oh – your stop already? Well, it was lovely talking to you anyway. Enjoy the rest of your day, yeah?

Course, mate, have a seat. Where you off to, then?

I’m off to see the wife, actually. Well, we’re kind of separated. But we’re going to sort it out.

It started one morning last week, at Old Street. Everyone buzzing round like blue-arsed flies, like. I’d already seen some of the usuals: a guy who’s always there bang on nine o’clock, immaculate in a three-piece suit. The kids who dress like cartoon characters, off to bed while the rest of the world is waking up.

And then, my favourite: a gorgeous black kid, about six or seven, bit scruffy, always with his mum. I liked him because he always smiled and waved at me, every time he passed. It was like he didn’t realise yet that I was one of those losers you’re supposed to ignore.

Right then Debs phoned me. Said she missed me – missed what it had been like, before – and said how if I went to the doctor she’d help me, and maybe we could sort things out. And I was there, with the biggest, stupidest grin on my face, saying ‘anything, I’ll do anything love’.

When she hung up I was – what’s that word? Elated. I felt like I was full of sunshine. And I just wanted, I dunno. Just wanted to make a good decision. I took off my watch – it was only a cheapo, and the battery had died ages ago, but it was still shiny – and gave it to this kid, a gift, like. And he beamed. Course, his mum came dashing over, dragged him away, threw a few coppers in my coffee cup so as not to look too judgemental, like.

That night, I slept under my ratty old blanket like I was tucked up in the Ritz. You know what I mean?

Debs is one of those special people, though. I always knew she was capable of that, that amazing belief, that forgiveness.

My dad, he always said that people live up to your expectations. Saying that, he didn’t seem surprised when I told him Debs was gone, she’d taken Jack, and I was sleeping rough in Old Street station.

No mate, you go ahead and reply. Nice phone, that, bit fancier than mine, ha!

Anyway, couple of days later, I arranged to meet Debs at McDonalds, in Kings Cross, at six. To talk things over, talk about the future. I’d ‘borrowed’ a new T-shirt from Peacocks that morning, you know what I mean, and washed my hair in the gents. I had butterflies, like it was our first date or something! If I’m honest, part of it was excitement – but there was another part which was nerves. ‘Cause there was this voice in my head, saying: you do always balls it up, though, don’t you?

That’s when Jimmy came along, saying, let’s have a drink. I said, nah, Jimmy, I’ve got to keep it together today. But he said, go on, we was gonna toast my new life – come on, you know you want to, you know you’re going to have one in the end.

And I thought: yeah, just one.

God knows what time it was when I finally called Debs. But she was screaming at me, saying: I called you twenty times, I waited an hour, and nothing… And you’re pissed, I can tell from your voice, you’re pissed. And it was all just this raging whirr until she said: ‘I didn’t expect nothing else from you. You’re the worst dad.’ Swear to god, that was like a wrecking ball. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember feeling like I was going to throw up or pass out or something, and then the line went dead.

Next morning, on that dirty blanket, I felt like my skull was sheet metal, being hammered out of shape. Mouth like the bottom of a hamster’s cage. The usuals whizzing about, three-piece suit, cartoon kids. Jimmy there, snoring, oblivious.

Suddenly I had my hands round his throat, screaming: you effing bastard, Jimmy, do you know what you’ve done? He was too shocked to fight back, eyes popping out of his head. Rex was whimpering, and I was all snot and tears, and there was blood on my knuckles.

And then it was like I exploded. Debs and Jack didn’t exist for me anymore, and I was scum, and everybody else was scum, and I was shouting that the whole world was nothing but scum.

The last thing I remember is station guards putting their hands on me, and me kicking and screaming as they dragged me out of Exit 1 and kicked my sorry arse down the City Road.

I always thought my old man was wrong about people living up to your expectations. But that was only because he never lived up to mine.

Maybe mine weren’t really expectations, though. Maybe mine was only hopes.

Anyway, it was yesterday morning. Back on the blanket with Rex. I’d woken up really late, probably around lunchtime, since there seemed no point in waking up at all. No sign of Jimmy this time.

And I looked in the bottom of my coffee cup, see if there was enough for a bacon sandwich, and there it was amongst the coins: my watch. My crappy old watch. Just the same – but this time, the hands were moving. Half past twelve it showed, matching the station clock for the first time in its pathetic life. And next to it, a note, in what looked like a six- or seven-year-old’s writing, that said:

people are awesome

 I tell you, I did not expect that.

I stared at that watch for what must have been an age, only looking up to see if the kid and his mum were passing by. But no sign. And I sat there until it went dark, thinking – maybe he’s right, you know? Maybe he’s right.

No, she doesn’t know I’m coming. So, it’s gonna be hard. But that’s life, you know? Ups and downs. And I really believe things are going to be OK. I’m not going to balls it up any more.

Anyway, this is my stop. And look at my watch – I’m half an hour early!

You have a good day, yeah?

by Kate Baxter

Hugh Dalton and I







Hugh Dalton and I have known each other for twenty-three years now. Of course, I have the higher IQ, although he was always too pigheaded to admit it.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair on the old boy. When it came to chess, he was in a league of his own. I had always thought of myself as a talented player, so naturally I was overjoyed to have stumbled upon such a worthy adversary. The hours we spent testing each other’s nerves, calling each other’s bluff, battling it out over black and white. And the look on his face each time I beat him. You should have seen it! All puckered up like a pit bull’s arse. Poor Hugh. He never could take losing to a woman.

Hugh could have been anything he wanted to be, you know. I used to tell him he should go for the top job – an Eton boy with an Oxford degree and a fine head of hair like that; he would’ve been a shoo-in. But he wouldn’t listen. Whenever I tried to give him even just an ounce of friendly advice, the pit bull’s arse would reappear, all red and puckered. So when I found out that Hugh was joining my department I was naturally both delighted and disappointed.

No, there was never anything romantic between us. Although I must admit I was a little surprised when he told me he was going to propose to Amelia Atherton-Jones. You could practically hear the two brain cells clacking together in that empty skull of hers. I just couldn’t understand it.

I tried to hide my distaste for the matter but the way Hugh looked at me changed. You see, Hugh was the only person who ever really saw through me, which was simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage for both of us. Over the years I’ve often felt his gaze on the back of my head, catching his stare in my peripheral vision. We’d become very close, he and I. We even used to leave each other little messages on the Post-It Notes we keep in the office. It became a sort of running joke, so we just carried on doing it.

Yes, three weeks ago – just before he left for Vienna. You see, I was on the verge of a major breakthrough in my research and naturally I wanted him to be the first to know.

Well it was really quite unlike him. He had always acted as if we were indulging in a permanent game of chess – constantly trying to anticipate my next move and better it however he could. So I was expecting to see the pit bull’s arse again at any second, but it never reappeared. Instead, Hugh got himself all excited, asking question after question after question.

After that it wasn’t long before I realised Hugh was planning on stealing the glory for himself. I overheard him telling a mutual colleague about my discovery, claiming it was his. I couldn’t let him put one over on me like that, so I invited him to my place for supper and confronted him.

No, of course not. Hugh was a good sport. He knew he’d been rumbled, so he apologised and that was that.

Why should I hold it against him? We both knew how this little game of ours worked. In fact, I think I might have even been a little disappointed if he hadn’t at least given it a good go. That would have been an insult to my intelligence. Neither of us had ever expected the other to bow out gracefully.

He finished his supper, we said goodnight, and he left for Vienna a couple of days later.

The last note I left him? Yes, it said: ‘Have a lovely trip! x’

No, I don’t know why he didn’t return.

What are you implying?

I’d like to have a lawyer in the room before I say any more.

by Steph Smith



The skin of my back






I guess it starts like this for all of us. Brought together in a cardboard box, with maybe 49, 99 or even 499 other identically formed neat paper wrappers – some of us brown, in my case white – we’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen next.

None of us have any idea, of course, because none of us have been here before.

All we know is, we’re going to get stuffed.

How do we know?

Well, you know how stories get passed down. No one doubts them, especially not this particular one. We know that’s what we’re in the world for.

Of course, what we don’t know is how we’re going to get stuffed, or by whom.

Several of us firmly believe it’s our destiny to fulfil some dignified duty in the world of business; that we’ll play some small but significant part in securing a valuable contract or a commercial alliance that will change the fortunes of a global enterprise, bringing wealth and prosperity to all those who work there.

Some of us are particularly keen to help those whose job is to keep their businesses on course in turbulent times, and to ensure the right direction is maintained through those rare periods when world trade becomes as close as it ever gets to harmonious.

Others aspire to grander things.

They’re the ones who hope they might fall into the hands of someone rich or famous – an oligarch or a fêted celebrity – and help create a lasting link between two beautiful people whose gilded lives connect in opulent, scented rooms filled with flowers. They hope to help such people share the love of which they sometimes speak. “Darling, you looked wonderful last night!”

I’ve known others who see themselves as the bearers of diplomatic news. They long to pass through the corridors of power, moving swiftly from hand to hand, dying to have their throats slit by pearl-handled knives.

And there are others, less ambitious, less crazy – but no less worthy – who know they are destined for a less exotic passage.

They’re the ones who expect to carry that quotidian brand of information, which – these days – is so often conveyed by the modern electronic processes that threaten our very existence; messages mailed but never posted.

Humble, they see themselves as the packhorses of our world. The faithful servants who, unquestioningly, do their master’s bidding without demur. The simple workers who remind us that, sadly, much of life is mere drudgery.

There are some, of course, who relish the prospect of getting into trouble.

They’re the ones who end up carrying forged or illegally obtained banknotes of every denomination, or the details of murderous assignations; the blackmail notes and the compromising photographs; the fraudulent identification papers and the lovers’ secret billets-doux.

They have no morals.

And there are yet others who, high-minded and above such scurrilous activities, are of a more pragmatic disposition.

They know that – unless they are lucky – they will have to carry bad news.

They’ll be the ones that inform the luckless that time is running out, that the tests were negative and their surgeon’s prognosis was right; the ones that have to listen while despair fills the air as examination results are learned; that have to hear the rage of drivers who know they were going too fast, but hoped they hadn’t been spotted; the muffled oaths as the realisation dawns that the credit card payment was missed and the interest has stacked up.

Most of us, of course, are resigned to being marked – our pristine exteriors despoiled, some would say – either with characters made with inks of every hue impressed upon us by hands of every age, or by writing machines whose role it is to deposit information on our skin as if it were a surface invented for their exclusive use. No feeling in their caress, only ink to impress some other sort of machine.

Of course, there is the chance that some of us will bear on our backs the marks of genius; the hastily drawn sketches that – in the hands of experts and skilled craftsmen – become the icons of their age, the buildings and bridges that shape cities and join communities.

We see it all and, in my time, I had every bit of it.

I embraced and conveyed the scribbled news that love was shared; that, though continents and oceans might have separated two hearts, nothing could stop them beating as one.

I heard the voices of those who, excitedly, discussed the great adventure.

I could imagine the sights they would see, the foods they would eat, the people they would meet, the laughter they would share and the hopes they would carry from the altar of an English church to the shores of the China Seas and beyond.

I knew the joy the journey would bring.

I even knew the initial cost and could guess the profit.

I was a party to the marriage of two minds and the sealing of two fates.

And then, like all my kind, I was torn open, rejected; cast aside with nothing more than a three-word reminder and a sterling figure tattooed on a scrap of my back; discarded, to be trodden underfoot by passing strangers; left to drown in the rain, fearful – even terrified – as the noisy traffic swept by, day by day and night after night.

But I wasn’t surprised.

That’s how the story ends for every envelope.

We’re all stuffed, one way or the other.

By Francis Glibbery












Emilko looked up from his comic. The man opposite was smiling at him. “Is it a good read?” he asked. Emilko nodded and looked down again, quickly.

Then, because the man had a friendly face and it was nice to speak Polish to a stranger, he looked up again. “It’s about a kid and his grandad and the adventures they have,” he said. “My Grandad sent it to me. With a letter.”

“He sounds a nice grandad,” said the man, getting up as the train pulled in to Bounds Green. “See you.”

As the train doors closed and they picked up speed into the tunnel, Emilko thought about his Grandad. He was nice. He often sent him gifts: not big things, not like an iPad or anything, but small, funny things. Like the comic or monster masks, or joke toys, like finger bandages covered with pretend blood.

There’d always be a note, like the one that came yesterday with the comic. Scribbled in a hurry, with crossings out, asking about things they’d talked about on Skype. About tests at school, whether his tadpole had turned into a frog, how Arsenal was getting on. That sort of stuff.

He told great stories too. Emilko actually thought they were better than the ones in the comic, which were obviously written for kids who weren’t yet seven-and-a-half. Whenever they went to Bochnia, his Grandad would tell him stories as he went to sleep, in the backroom of the house where he and Grandma had always lived and where Emilko and his parents stayed when they visited. Fighting to keep awake, he would see Grandad’s rolled-up cigarette glow bright, then almost dark, bright, then almost dark, as he talked. Always sitting by the window to blow the smoke out, so he could say he wasn’t smoking indoors.

Emilko suspected Grandad’s stories were not entirely true but he bundled in enough facts to make you think they might be. So, the morning after he’d told a brilliant tale about his own grandad who, in one shift at the Bochnia mine (the oldest salt mine in Poland, his Grandad said), had not only sculpted a statue in the underground church of St Kinga and lassoed a bolting pit donkey, but had walked the full 4.5 kilometres of the pit tunnel with an injured friend on his back; the very next morning he produced a creased photo of Grandad Salty in a helmet, on a donkey, next to a man with a bandaged arm…

“Your grandma says too much salt’s bad for you,” Grandad had said, as he put the picture away. “Well, salt’s kept our family in work for generations. And even now the Wieliczka and Bochnia mines are closed, they’re still bringing thousands of tourists here every month, to spend money in the shops, hotels and restaurants.” Emilko thought of the tour buses that ferried tourists from Krakow to the Wieliczka mine, which was bigger and more famous than their local, Bochnia one. Some went straight back to the city afterwards, others went on to another place, a place that Grandad never mentioned.

Sometimes, as he walked along the long Underground tunnels, Emilko imagined he was Great Great Grandad Salty working in the mine. He would close his eyes almost completely, so he could see just a sliver of light, thinking what it must have been like 450 metres under the world, with only a candle and a pickaxe. If you got in trouble down there, what would you do? What if you dropped your candle into one of the underground lakes, took a wrong turn, and stumbled down a tunnel no one used anymore? How would you ever find your way out? You wouldn’t get a signal that far down, so you wouldn’t even be able to text for help.

The time he visited Wieliczka mine, with Grandad and Grandma, he had raised this question. Although surrounded down there, even in the churches, by crowds of people, many talking in very loud voices, it was hard to imagine being alone long enough to get lost. But Grandad, of course, had a story. Had Emilko not heard of the poor miner who got lost long, long ago and whose groans and wails could still be heard, 600 years later, rising from the shafts during a full moon and whose tears of anguish, they said, were the source of the underground lakes…?

As Emilko opened his mouth to challenge what was – surely – nonsense, his Grandma stepped in and whisked then off to the underground restaurant, where she had suddenly decided it was time for an early lunch. Later, in the souvenir shop, he heard her scolding Grandad for “sowing nightmares in Emilko’s sensitive little head”. But it didn’t stop Grandad making a low, mournful howl in his ear as they crossed the wooden bridge over the lake. As always, when Grandad mucked about, it didn’t scare him, not really. He knew it was just Grandad, pretending.

“Hey dreamer, time we changed,” said his Mum. Slipping off the seat, his comic rolled up in one hand, he took her left hand with his right. The indicator board said the Victoria train would come in two minutes. Grandma wasn’t what you’d call a laugh. She was nice, kind. Fed him dumplings and chocolate-covered plums, brushed his hair, scrubbed his cheeks after – and sometimes during – meals and always made sure he was warm. But, no, she wasn’t a laugh.

They got on the train. This time there were no seats. Packed between a tall thin man and a small fat woman, he could just about ease out his comic and, if he folded it from top to bottom, manage to read a couple of frames on one side, before turning it over to read the other.

Mum said Grandma was lonely. Grandad had always travelled a lot with his job but, before, there had been the kids, she’d said. Now, she and Dad had come to London with him and, just three months ago, Auntie Alicja had moved here too. Grandma was low, Mum said.

Emilko thought about his Auntie and how, even though they were old, grown-ups pretended. Not about fun things, like being a miner, but about weird stuff. When Auntie spoke to Mum and Dad about her plans, she was one person: she was full of London, of the flat she wanted to find, how she was going to become better at English, so she could move on from the bar and really use her degree, how the old country was for old people. But when she spoke to Grandma on Skype, her words become more slippery. She was a different person.

“Will you be home for good by Christmas?”

…“Well, I’ll definitely be in Poland for Christmas.”

“I hear another of your friends had got married, to a boy from Krakow. Are you keeping up with your old crowd?”

…“Yes, I saw the wedding photos on Facebook. But it’s amazing how many old friends are now over here.”

…“When are you coming back to look for a real job?’

“When are you coming over here to see us, Mum?”

And so on. Not answering questions. Pretending.

It reminded him of once when Mum had asked Dad if he liked a new bright green dress she’d bought. He’d blown out his cheeks, scratched his shoulder and said it was a very vibrant colour.

His Mum saw right through it. He thought Grandma did too. But they pretended they didn’t. Nothing was said. Like Grandad never mentioned the place where the tour buses went, after Wieliczka.

By Rebecca Dowman 


Going Out With a Bang




He regretted it as soon as he’d said it.

Rapping it out.
Flailing his arms.
Carelessly pounding the worn keyboard.
Distortion souring the microphone.
Feeling the rhyme collapse.

He saw the contempt in her mouth.

We’re done. Told you before.
There’s nothing you can say.
Get some pride.
Him and her.
He saw now there was no comparison to 9/11.
No lasting monument.
No helicopters in the dark.

He was the one truly devastated.

And the emergency services weren’t coming to kiss
it better.

They Do it with Mirrors








Young Robert reported to me on Friday.  The market was on Saturday.  It’s Sunday now, the lad will be mid-Atlantic, I’d imagine, and I’ve changed my name.

I was Margaret, and it’s been my kind of weekend.

*  *  *

I’d known it was coming.  There’s only so long, even in the Secret Service, before somebody starts to have suspicions that you just might be drawing salaries from more than one source.  Between one day and the next, you can go from trusted operative to bad apple.

Looks like they twigged right after sending me Robert for field training.  Being of a sometimes literal nature, I’d taken him to an open air flea market, in a field, to practise … well, to be honest, to practise helping me trawl for bargains.  I love a good flea market, me.

I was just having a rummage through some old sheet music when the lad gave me a nudge that nearly knocked me sideways.

“Margaret!  Look!  It’s her!” he hissed.  And it was!

I grabbed his elbow and got us out of sight sharpish, round the back of a fish and chip van.

“That’s really strange,” he muttered.  “They told me there’d be no contact for at least a month.  While I was training with you.  You know, for security reasons.  But there’s the Chief!”

“Heavens!  Do you suppose it could just be a co-incidence?”  Yeah, right, because this was a woman who ALWAYS bought her handbags from car boot sales and market stalls.  I peeped out and saw she was fingering a selection of ethnic mirrored satchels and shoulder-sacks hand knitted out of recycled tractor tyres.  There was a look of bemusement on her ineluctably aristocratic face.  They should never let these people out of the office, I thought, but then again she was the Chief of the Secret Service.  Who was going to tell her she was about as clandestine as a pterodactyl on a duck pond?

Robert chewed his lip.  “No, I don’t think it can be a co-incidence.  I think it must be some kind of emergency.”

“You’d better go and show yourself, then – find out what she wants.  I’ll stay out of sight.”  Even over the strong hot-fat-and-vinegar smell of the fish and chip van, I could smell a rat.

The lad squared his shoulders, to the best of his ability.  “Right,” he said, and stepped out from cover.

What followed was a classic piece of street theatre – a ballet, almost, of such extraordinarily stylized non-nonchalance it had me reaching for my loose change.  Robert, whistling (I swear to God), sashayed past the bag stall and then pretended to notice something over his shoulder so that he could go by again.  The Chief, not realising he had already seen her, started to call out, thought better of it, coughed instead, looked down as Robert looked over, looked over as he looked away, finally grabbed a scrap of paper and a pen from the stall counter, scribbled some words on it and practically threw it at Robert’s feet before turning tail and mincing off, doubtless to where her driver had parked the Mercedes and was currently guarding it against short-sighted plebeian graffiti artists.  In his eagerness to pick the paper up without visibly bending, Robert managed to step on it, crumpling it even further before finally scooping it up sideways and skedaddling back behind the fish and chip van.

“Got it!” he told me.  His puppy eyes were huge with excitement as he smoothed out the scrap and read the words:

£104 – 00

He read them twice and then drooped like a rain-soaked daffodil.  “But this doesn’t mean anything.”

What do they teach these kids?  I’d got the message immediately, even though it was patently not meant for me to be reading!  I swung into action.

“Come now, Robert.  Don’t you think the Chief of the Secret Service knows what she’s about?”  Ha!  “Well then, assuming this is more than just some throwaway lines on a scrap of paper, what do you think she’s trying to tell you?”

“I don’t know!  Unless, maybe it’s in code?”

I nodded encouragingly.  “And …”

“And to crack the code I need to know what code it is?”

“Good!  And what code is it?”

“I don’t know!  She didn’t say.”

“Well, no, because then someone who shouldn’t might over-hear, which wouldn’t be clever.  But didn’t you notice?  It was the mirror bags she spent longest looking at.  By a good 97 seconds.  Doesn’t that suggest anything to you?”

The boy swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing like it was Hallowe’en in his skinny neck.  “I … I didn’t … I don’t …”

I took pity.  “She was telling you the message is in mirror writing.  Backwards.  To read mirror code, you hold the paper up to a mirror.  Leonardo used it.”


I sighed.  “Da Vinci.  Never mind.  Do you have a mirror with you?  You can borrow mine …  Now, what does the message say?  Ignore the 088, by the way.  That’s just the printed number on the receipt pad.”

The boy was charmingly awkward, juggling the paper and my makeup mirror into relationship to each other, the tip of his tongue poking pinkly out as he concentrated.

00 – 401£

“But – that’s gibberish!  I mean, look at it – it doesn’t tell me anything!”

“Hmm … well … Let’s consider it a bit at a time.  KRAP RAC … a not-very-good car breakdown recovery company?  Or – no, look, move the space over a bit and you get K.R. Aprac!  Didn’t I read something about somebody with a name like that?  Sounds foreign …”  I checked the lad out of the corner of my eye.  He was frowning, but he was nodding as well.  Plant a seed – watch it grow, I thought to myself with an unbecoming smugness.

“2102 – could that be a street number?” he suggested.  “North American maybe?  They have long street numbers.”

I nodded and gestured for him to continue.

“And REBOTCO could be a company called Rebot …  But that’s not enough to go on with – where, exactly, in North America?”

“Well, I would think that 00-401 most likely refers to the far western end of the Ontario Highway 401, which would be Windsor, Ontario – though in fact I don’t believe there is an actual Exit 00, so perhaps that is to do with the currently not-yet-finished extension of the Highway over a new bridge to Detroit.  And then there’s the £ sign …  Blimey!  What do you bet it’s something to do with smuggling currency across the border?!”

Talk about your wild surmise – the boy was as high as a peak in Darien.  “And LLATS,” he squeaked.  “That could be somebody’s name, too!  L. Lats, maybe.  That sounds foreign as well …”

“So the opposite of BAG, which means grab, arrest, bring in, is GAB, which means …?”

“Which means somebody – maybe somebody called Lats – has been shooting off their mouth!  Gabbing out of turn!”

“And since we’re talking about a border town – Windsor’s just across the river from Detroit, as I’m sure you know – this is something big.  Something of international importance.”


“Gosh with socks on.  They must really think a lot of you, young Robert, giving you such a big case so early on.  I’m well impressed!”

He blushed like the dawn.  “I couldn’t have done it without you, Margaret.  I … don’t tell anyone, but I really didn’t notice the thing with the mirror bags.  If you hadn’t helped me I’d still be trying to read the message frontways.  And even now, there’s still one more thing I don’t get.”  He pointed at the word paid with the squiggle under it.

diap?  That’s do it and promptly.  And under it is her signature.  Her secret signature,” I added quickly, on the off chance the lad had ever actually seen the Chief’s autograph.

Robert folded the scrap of paper carefully and put it into his pocket.  “Right.  Well, then, let’s go.”

“Good luck,” I said with a friendly smile.  “There’s a bus stop just along the way.”

He paused.  “But – won’t you be coming with me?”

“No.  The message was for you.  I don’t think I was even meant to see it.”  And that’s the truth!

“Wow!  My first solo case!”  He surprised me with a kiss on the cheek, and then he was off, heading for the nearest airport and a flight to the new world where sinister money-laundering foreigners were spilling the beans about Rebot, somewhere in the 2100 block off the 401 in southern Ontario.

He really was a sweet boy.  I hope he doesn’t get into too much trouble.  I’d love to be a spider under that table, when he tells them what he thought the message said …

Oh, and my name, before I changed it?  That would be Margaret.  Margaret Stall.

Bag me?  I don’t think so.

By Joan Lennon 


Coffee on Sunday









“To Irene I been phone you all .. today. I am very worried about you and I am upset, why you not come see me today. I want know what wrong”


Something back. That’s what I thought would be a good thing to give.

It’s only three hours on a Sunday. Make some coffee. Sit and talk. How hard can that be?

Volunteering at the drop in centre. Some people do church, some do hangovers. For a while at least, I thought this could be a healthy option.

Most of the drop-ins were outcasts from the city’s mental health centres. When the government decided that their bottom line would look better with mental health patients on the streets rather than in wards. They were out of their minds but they weren’t out of sight. These poor sods walked Ponsonby Road endlessly, driven by the voices in their heads.

That’s what the drug would do to them; give them runny legs. They had to keep moving when the sticky golden fluid electrified their veins.

Other times it would slow them like glue.

They were like survivors from the war. The first world war. But this was the 1980s.

So, while most of my friends slept off the night before, or just slept in, I unlocked the grimy doors of the drop  in centre next to the Salvation Army.  The worn grey steps doubled, for some, as a bedroom of the minimalist kind. On Sundays its odour was eye watering.

For a few moments I’d think, no one will come, then as if they’d been part of the furniture of the street, they’d appear.

Most of them ‘suffered’, such an understated word, from schizophrenia. In the two day training session for volunteers we learned the profile; one in a hundred, mainly male, the condition often appearing in their 20s, frequently highly intelligent.

Amongst the veterans he was the youngest. He didn’t want to be part of their fold. In his eyes you could see that he yearned for his other self. The treatment blurred his focus. The cigarettes settled the tremors, gave him something else to do with his busy fingers. Along with the instant coffee that looked like fine gravel, with the endless sugars and milk I’d buy in cartons.

Just sit, be with them. All they need is the company. Someone to listen to through the haze.

Timothy looked like a boy angel might, if his father was Tony Soprano.

From the first Sunday I arrived he began to share fragments of his life.

First of all, about how his father and mother are just so very busy travelling about the world, and that they do try to see him when they can and how his mother doesn’t really like the hostel that he’s staying at because it smells of gravy. But he doesn’t mind because seeing him only makes them sad or angry.

Last month he told me about his drawings that the teacher used to give him gold and red stars for and would pin up on the wall in front of all the children but one day after looking at his pictures she was very quiet and her smile was stiff. So he made a pile of his pencils and set fire to them. After that school was not a nice place to be.

She watched from the corner of the kitchen separate, scowling.

Dark, stringy hair that might have been ringlets in childhood.  Hazel eyes checking for shadows, and her skin sallow, yellow like her stained fingers.

I crossed to the window that overlooked the main road.  As a righteous non-smoker I was drawn to the air beyond the pane. I fiddled with the stubborn handle. This was not a window that opened often.

“Careful,” she called out gruffly, “you could get hurt.”

I gave one last shove and it creaked, opening only a few inches past the frame. Enough for a whiff of Sunday morning.

She leaned against the edge of the table; supporting it – it supporting her. I hadn’t realised quite how small she was. Her jeans and dark jacket hung loosely on her meagre frame.

“You’re new.”

“Ah, this is my seventh Sunday,” I said.

“Here to do good?”

“Well, I thought I could give some time, this is my neighbourhood.”

“Feeling guilty when you see us on your street?”

I flinched and fought the urge to debate her reality.

She finished rolling the flimsy smoke and slid it into the side of her mouth.

“What do you do when you’re not here then?”

I knew we weren’t supposed to share our personal lives with the ‘clients’. But I didn’t want to lie, and I had the feeling that she would know if I did.

“I’m a copywriter. I work in advertising”

“Addverrtiiising,” she stretched the word almost out of shape.

“Don’t know much ‘bout the words. I’m a graphic artist, did some designs in adverrtiiising. Mean world. Hard work. Dangerous games.”

“Mmmm” I nodded as if we were sharing a secret.

She shoved her hands deep into her jacket, seeking a lighter. She spotted Timothy watching us as he circled a spoon around his fourth cup of coffee.

“Be careful, you might end up like me,” she cast the words behind her like a threat or a promise, I couldn’t tell which.

This possibility was no stranger to me. It haunted the place between dozing and dreams and interrupted like an electric shock.  It was the thought that I tried to wash away with the odour of tobacco after each Sunday session.

He glanced at her before hauling his chair opposite mine.

Our composition could have been that of a slightly mismatched couple at any cafe, or a prisoner and their visitor. The wall between us was invisible.

“You know her?”

“First time we met, today.”

“Not like us,” Timothy said, bowing his head.

Today he tells me how the doctor explained to him that his mind was like a garden that grows too many weeds and instead he needs to grow chrysanthemums.

He brought me some, the next Sunday, an exhausted pink and possibly abducted from the corner shop.

“For you, and this.”

He fished out of his pocket some papers that he refolded before bowing and presenting them to me.

“Timothy, I don’t think this is…”

“I typed it myself.”

I held the crumple of paper like an injured bird and watched him drink his coffee, supping it carefully as if it were pure wisdom.

I knew that I needed to read his note just as soon as he left the centre.

I make myself a cup of the bitter brew and lean against the window ledge, the pages breathing in the autumn light.

Spidery scrawls shaped into long stems cover the first page. On the next, Timothy’s double spaced words tumble upon themselves as they spell out the news that his parents are flying back from Hong Kong next Saturday, and that this will be the perfect time for the two of us to go to their hotel and drink sparkling wine and tell them about the love that we have for each other, that will keep us happy forever and ever.

By Jane Berney