Liquid measures

I’m lying on my back in Finsbury Park. There were some people here a minute ago, but they’re gone now. I can’t remember what they wanted.

The sun’ll be up soon. A plane edges between the clouds. I want to flag it down, but my arms and legs feel heavy.

“I’ll get you the money,” I say, finally. “I love you.”

*

I took a tumble down an escalator once. It was Warren Street Station and, I have to say, a fucking long way down. I clattered into eight or nine steps during my descent, swearing as I hit each one.

Being drunk saved me, the doctor said. A sober man, instinctively stiffening or sticking out a hand to steady himself, might have broken every bone in his body. All I damaged was my dignity.

I take my seat at the bar.

“Guinness please, Ray.”

I came in here on the day I moved in. Fed up of unpacking boxes, I snuck out for a lager. Ray told me my drink was on the house. With those words, he imprinted himself – and the pub  – on my heart for life.

On match days, this place is full of football fans. Every other day, the clientele is made up entirely of dogs and alcoholics.

Ray pops my glass, two-thirds full, on the bar to settle.

Just the one, then home for a sandwich and a kip.

My phone rings in my pocket. I flick it onto silent.

*

The rain is tapping out a beat on the car roof. There’s a gentle slush as we plough through puddles. In the back, a little girl is singing.

Penelope Jane Archer. Lady Penelope. Four years young, and already top dog in every sphere of her life. She catches my eye in the mirror, half smiles and looks away. Even at her age, she’s worked out that she has to ration these moments.

We slept at my mum’s last night. I put Penny to bed in the box room, then headed straight out. I woke up on the sofa at five. Penny was up at seven.

I feel sick. I should have had that round of toast.

“Daddy?”

She’s leaning forward in her car seat, neck craned.

“I’ll be with you in one second, Pen,” I say. “Just let me get off this roundabout.”

I take the exit gingerly.

*

“Nottingham. Now that was a tumble.”

It’s 1.15pm. I’ve got a few pints on board and I’m warming to my theme.

“What happened in Nottingham?” asks Ray, placing another Guinness on the bar. Next to it, a whisky chaser.

“What happened in Nottingham, Raymond, was the greatest piss-up in recorded history.”

It was Matt James’ stag do. We were in the queue for a club. I’d had enough, so I was trying to sneak back to the hotel. Matty was having none of it. He tried to drag me back into the queue. We wrestled for a bit, then I made a run for it. I got about a hundred yards and then went arse over tit on some cobblestones.

“I’m alright, I’m alright,” I kept saying. I’d bitten through my tongue and my bottom lip. Someone put me in a cab, blood pissing from my face.

Matty had to call Laura the next day.

“Adam’s had a little accident,” he said, “But there’s nothing to worry about.”

*

The rain’s stopped. Penny and I are walking up the drive, hand in hand. My head is really thumping now. I want to lie face down in the front garden.

Penny’s first in, throwing her coat onto the floor.

“Your coat doesn’t live there, Penny.”

“Hang it up for me then,” she says brightly, half way to the TV already.

“Laura?” I yell.

I can just make out her muffled voice over the hum of the hair dryer.

“I’ll make a cup of tea,” I shout back, heading for the kitchen.

“Dad? Can I have some juice?”

“What’s the magic word?”

“Please.”

I need some painkillers.

*

The night Laura and I got engaged, we were hammered. The next morning, we had to check with each other that it had actually happened. We bought the rings in Greenwich that afternoon, afraid that the magic would wear off before our hangovers did.

“Adam?”

A voice from the pool table.

“Yeah?”

“You’re on.”

*

I’m in the kitchen, pouring myself two fingers of cooking brandy. I’m hoping it’s going to take the edge off.

Laura appears at the foot of the stairs, pulling on a cardigan. I knock my brandy back, drop the glass in the sink, and then turn to greet her.

“What are you doing, Adam?”

“Looking for the painkillers.”

She opens the cupboard above the microwave and passes me the Ibuprofen.

“Were you out last night?”

“I had a couple down the Stags.”

She knows I’m bullshitting, of course. She used to volunteer in a drop-in centre for smackheads. The nurse told her everyone lies about how much they’ve had. Drug addicts double the amount, drinkers halve it. After she told me that, I started dividing my beer intake by four to be on the safe side.

“You out tonight?”

“Don’t start.”

I open the cutlery drawer. It’s full of tea towels. I want to pull the whole drawer out and fling it at the wall.

“We need to have a chat about money, Adam.”

Oh, Christ. I pull my tea bag out with my fingers and drop it in the bin.

“I need to pay Lindsay,” she says. “By Friday.”

“Jesus, that came round quick. Well, pay her then.”

Lindsay’s the child minder. Her daughter’s in the same class as Penny at school.

“I paid her last month,” says Laura. “It’s your turn.”

“How much?” I ask. I know that I have two £20 notes in my wallet, which I borrowed from my mother before we left.

*

I’m weaving along Seven Sisters Road, past the unlikely parade of B&Bs that overlooks the park. I’ve just spent half an hour trying to open my front door, without success, so I’m heading back to the pub. I reckon I’ll make last orders if I get a wiggle on.

I fish my phone out of my coat pocket. Five missed calls. One Mum, four Laura.

Time to bite the bullet.

I hit ‘call back’, crossing the road towards the pub. But on the other side, in between me and the Stag’s Head, stands a gang of underfed teenagers. One particularly scrawny specimen breaks away from the group and heads over towards me.

“Oi, mate, have you got 80 pence?”

I pocket my phone, turn and start walking back the way I came.

*

“Laura, I can’t give it to you because I don’t have it.”

We’ve been over this twice already. Then, Penny’s at the kitchen door, all snot and tears. Laura and I look guiltily at each other.

“Daddy, this juice is stupid!”

My jaw hardens.

“Just drink it, Penny.”

“But it tastes funny.”

“Penny, you will have what you are given.”

Penny flinches. I feel instantly and utterly crushed.

“I’m sorry for shouting, sweetheart,” I say, crouching down.

I take the cup out of her hands. It did look a bit musty when I poured it out.

I take a sip. There’s a sharp sting at the back of my throat. I think I’m going to throw up.

It’s not squash. It’s vinegar.

*

I’m sat on a bench, surrounded by what’s left of my kebab. I have to talk to Laura but I can’t make my phone work. I’m on the point of taking it to pieces when I hear footsteps.

Shit. It’s Skeletor and his mates. I get up and start walking. But I’m heading away from the park gates. This isn’t good.

“Oi, mate.”

I speed up. Their footsteps quicken too.

“Oi, batty man. I’m talking to you.”

My heart’s pumping. Then, a cry from behind –

“Let’s do him.”

Time to sprint. But my legs tangle up beneath me. Suddenly, I’m face down on the Tarmac. I try to crawl away, but someone’s elbow digs into my neck. There are hands in my coat, in my jeans. I cry out, but it’s like my mouth is filled with cotton wool.

And then, something else. Another feeling. Something warm is spreading out from inside me. My fingers and toes start to tingle and my breathing slows.

The hands stop.

“He’s pissed himself,” one of the teenagers says. “That is fucking RANK.”

The kids are backing away now, forming a circle around me. One of them has my phone held up in front of his face. Jesus, he’s filming me. I push myself up onto my elbows, but then slump back down again.

They’re laughing. For a second, I think they’ve finished with me. But then, I hear one of them taking a run up. Something hard and cruel slams into the side of my head.

Once.

Twice.

And then – nothing.

by Rhys Williams
@rhyswilliams2
http://www.rhyswilliamsmusic.com

Blame Not the Outcast One

I brought great wealth and glory to my kingdom. Even the lowliest peasants took bounty from my purse. But when a pestilence ravaged the land, my people turned against me. I told them our curse had blown in upon a foreign wind and that it had chilled me also. But they poured their ire upon my head and blamed me for the misery that befell them.

They told me to repent of my greed and they fashioned a crown of paperclips and they stapled it to my scalp. They slashed my robes with scissors and they stripped me of my honour. They said my algorithm was witchcraft and denied knowledge of the glory it had brought them. And when I was dragged from my city to the black friar’s bridge, my acolytes knew me not. And when my person was cast into the water, they called upon the river to cleanse me of my sins, as if they had not sinned also.

But I have resources they cannot imagine. I fought the fetid current and I dragged my body to the muddy bank. I splayed myself under the sun, drenched in the slime of the river, and there I did restore my senses, and there I did hunker down to bide my time. I fished with tin cans and lived off scraps of river waste and the charity of sandpipers. And I waited for the day on which my luck, like the tide, would turn.

Anon came a vassal seeking my crown. He told me that my kingdom had been smashed and ground to dust, that my assets had been sullied and sold, but the storm had passed and it was time to build anew. Those who had once taken it upon themselves to judge me had been judged in turn. A higher authority had cast them unto the winds, as they did deserve. Those who remained had chosen this envoy to seek me out and to beseech my return, so that I might bring glory to them again.

What you say unto me is what I foresaw, I told him. You despoiled me then and now you beg me to come with you? Be gone from here.

Yet he beseeched me further. The journey to this place has been hard and I have suffered greatly, he said. His conveyances had been seized, his palace by the water taken from him also. If you return, he said unto me, we together can restore what never should have been destroyed. I am your true acolyte, your only heir. Let me fulfil the destiny that is mine alone.

I told him that he was a fool. That my crown was a crown of scabby jewels. That the blows I had received had left me scarred and made of me nothing. That my sole liquidity was the slurry of this river and the only bonds I held were owed to the sandpipers. But these lies would not induce him to relent.

If you will not build the kingdom with me, give me your algorithm, so that I may prove my worth, he said. And now I saw his purpose.

What do you know of my algorithm, I said unto him.

They say it gives the initiated a power to direct great fortune, such that it flows like this murky river to enrich whomsoever is chosen, he said. Let me wield it in your name. I will punish those who brought you to this pitiful state and restore your great treasury. And when I am done, your kingdom will be fit for your return.

But why would you do this for me, I enquired?

I do it not only for you but for myself also. For is it not just that I too should secure my portion? See, have I not learned your ways?

And I saw the taint of sickening venality in his eye and I heard the note of righteous entitlement in his voice, and I admired him for it. I will give this to you, I said. I see now that you are my heir indeed.

I unravelled the scarf I wore about my neck and upon which I had inscribed my algorithm. I held it aloft so that he might admire the runes and equations that marked its beauty, but not so close that he might divine their meaning. Take this, I said unto him, it is truly yours.

He gave me his thanks and he reached for the scarf. And when he did touch it with his trembling finger, I took my rod and blinded him. You are a false heir, I said. I will wait here a while more. And I cast him screaming into the oily water, and watched him float away with the current.

I returned to fishing the river scraps with my tin can, prepared to wait for a more suitable supplicant and, on the very next morning, saw one approaching.

So they have sent a bride to tempt me and to tend my wounds, I said unto her. The fools; they know nothing. But I let her approach nonetheless. She wore grey and her hair was tied back from her face. Her heels sank sharply into the mud and she stumbled as she came towards me, like a young thing learning to walk. I offered her not my hand. She stopped when within a stone’s throw.

May I approach you, she beseeched. What do you seek, child, I said unto her. I have come to heal you so that you may return to your kingdom, she said.

And what, pray tell, makes you believe your ministries shall succeed where others have failed?

She moved closer and I readied myself with a stone. Do you not recognise me, father, she asked? I could not but laugh. Father? You are no child of mine. Call me father again and you will feel the cold of this stone on your temple.

Come with me, she said, I will care for you.

You care not for me, I said. It is my crown and my algorithm that you covet.

She said that I was wrong, that we might build a new Albion.

I told her this was foolishness and I cast my stone. She fell to her knees.

She lay in the mud until the sun was low and the river kissed her feet. Then in the sky I saw something to behold. The stars flashed blue and blue again and the muddy banks were bathed in their light. Has a worthy seeker come unto me at last, I called out?

It was then I saw a banner of true knights clad in black. They wore boots of ebony and their suits were studded with silver fastenings. The voices of the invisible host crackled and fizzed in the air about them. I gathered a handful of my sharpest stones and rose to my feet.

Steadfast knights, I said unto them, is it for me that you are come? Approach no further and declare your intent. Seek you my crown? My algorithm.

One of them knelt beside the stricken girl child and placed a hand upon her forehead. He whispered a prayer into his breast and covered with an ashen blanket her body, but not her face.

He commanded me then to go unto him. I asked him his name but he answered me not. Yet I knew he was the one, and so I did walk towards him, a great joy in my heart. Now shall my kingdom be restored, I declared.

by Neil Baker
@neilbaker

 

With Serge, To Angle

Come on, Serge, think! Didn’t Paolozzi also do some designs on the platforms somewhere? Serge couldn’t remember. The Paolozzi sculpture outside Euston station was hard to miss, being so big and metallic and lumpy, like a mound of abruptly melted silver coins. As Serge and Hazel boarded the eastbound 18 bus at Baker Street, he longed to impress her with his knowledge of modern art, but in fact he had no knowledge of modern art. Serge only knew about the Paolozzi piece because a friend of his claimed it had magical powers, and always touched it in a particular way when passing, depending on which direction he was headed. Nonsense, certainly, yet Serge could see why someone might imagine it to be so.

It was hardly the first time he’d tried to impress Hazel, but this felt special. The whole treasure hunt was a silly idea, one of Mick’s attempts at ‘team building’. Hazel had already heard that the clues eventually led to a jazz club in Stoke Newington where there’d be food and drink and music and, with any luck, no cheesy speeches by the boss. So it was all a feeble sham. But Serge’s attention was gained when Mick announced they’d be doing the challenge in pairs, and gripped when Mick mentioned that Serge and Hazel would be a pair. He suspected Mick of mixing it, of knowing that Hazel would most likely be indifferent to the prospect of a couple of hours in his company. Mick always called him ‘Surge’ and made numerous bad puns, rather than allowing him to be ‘Sairzh’ as he should be and, indeed, always was when Hazel addressed him. For her part, Hazel seemed pleased to be Serge’s partner for the treasure hunt.

As the 18 rolled along Euston Road and a thin September rain stained the broad windows on the top deck, Serge held on tightly to the tatty bus driver’s log card which they had won from the preceding treasure hunt location, where it had been sellotaped to the back of the apron worn by the man making sandwiches at the café next to the Planetarium. Serge had bought Hazel a pretzel and a coffee but nothing for himself, preferring the vicarious pleasure of watching her eat. He glanced again at the log card and re-read the clue: BUS 18 TO EUSTON STATION FOR BUS 73 OR N73. The addition of ‘OR N73’ he took to be Mick’s dig at his treasure-hunting skills, the suggestion being that he would be so slow he’d only get to Euston in time to catch the night bus. But that idea was also a seductive one, if he were to be with Hazel.

Mick had hired Serge some three years earlier to work in the production department at Flower Mountain Publishing, based on two floors of an anonymous block on the North Circular Road. Serge had risen to become database manager, looking after countless customer details. Whereas now they dealt with blogs and Facebook groups and search engines, they used to print glossy directories in which articles by ‘industry leaders’ sat cosily opposite their own companies’ full-page ads. Flower Mountain Publishing had come into existence in the late 1970s, once Mick had quit playing the harmonica in a psychedelic blues band. Hazel, who joined in 1981, was Mick’s longest-serving employee. Now glorying in the title of vice president for sales, she was canny and convincing on every call, often toying with executive assistants before unflinchingly pitching their bosses while using an inventive array of made-up names and histories. Serge would confess, if pressed, to feeling uneasy about the way she acquired a PhD here, or a board position there, if it were needed to seal a deal, and he was positively queasy when she rang a well-known business owner, as she had loudly asserted beforehand, to pitch him for a fling.

He held her empty coffee cup for her as they disembarked a stop early (his mistake) and took her abuse for making them walk in the rain to be good-natured. Soon they were approaching Paolozzi’s Piscator from the Euston Road. Serge paused to consider the possible benefits of following his friend’s superstitious habits. It was ridiculous – after all, this was the same friend who had paid a company to publish his ‘shock exposé’ of the banks and insurance companies where he had worked. It was entitled A Review of Lycanthropy in the Financial Services Sector. Yes, it was ridiculous, yet Serge was willing to do anything that might make Hazel notice him more.

Where was Hazel? She must have gone on, perhaps grumpily or just without noticing that Serge had stopped. OK then, what was it again? East first, if going north… or was it south? It didn’t matter, of course, Serge knew that, but something about the shape of the plinth struck him as odd, just as he made two touches on the cold metal façade, before stepping to the other side.

He looked around dizzily for a moment, as if he’d lost his bearings. Wasn’t that Sharon, head of accounts at Flower Mountain Publishing, up ahead, at the top of the stairs leading down to the 73 bus stop? It looked like her. She seemed to be beckoning, so Serge, aware that Hazel was nowhere to be seen, walked quickly towards her. But Sharon must have ducked down the stairs and disappeared, or boarded the 73. With Hazel, perhaps! Serge broke into a half-hearted jog, only to find no bus at the stand. He stood, nonplussed, suddenly aware of his own pulse and the way the drizzle seemed to form a shield around him, screening out the litter-strewn bus stop and imprisoning him momentarily in his interiority.

When the bus arrived, Serge boarded immediately, grateful to be out of the rain. He inquired if this was the 73 to Stoke Newington, and was surprised when the driver indicated that he should hand over the scrap of duty log which he still clutched. He did so. Producing a pen, the driver added a few more words, just below the lost and extra service mileage line, before handing the card back to Serge. He wrote TO ANGLE STATION, apparently in the same hand that had written the instructions BUS 18 TO EUSTON STATION FOR BUS 73 OR N73. And yet the driver was not, as far as Serge could tell, Mick, or any other employee of Flower Mountain Publishing. The bus doors closed and the driver’s attention turned to the road. Serge looked around. Nobody was sitting downstairs. He thanked the driver and climbed, swaying, up the stairs. Plenty of room on top too. Just me then, he thought. He slumped into the front seat with a mixture of regret and relief. As the bus bumped and trundled, he was soon asleep.

Suddenly aware of sunshine, Serge shifted uncomfortably and wiped drool from the corner of his mouth. He felt himself redden, only to recall that he was no longer with Hazel. Or anyone else, he ascertained, squirming round to see empty seats behind him. The sun was of the early morning variety, tentative but warming. Looking out of the window he saw a long, grassy bank and a low castle wall. With a twist of his stomach, he knew he was in Cardiff, and that the bus was stationary. He jumped to the stairs and took them two or three at a go, arriving by the exit doors just as the driver was getting back on with a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. Silently he nodded to Serge, put down the tea and proceeded to eat.

“Where are we going?” Serge demanded.

“To Angle Station,” said the driver, “as promised.”

“And where is that?”

“Along the road a way, on the Pembrokeshire coast,” came the reply, “over by Chapel Bay.”

“And what is there?”

“The Katherine.”

Serge looked blankly at him.

“The old lifeboat. Your ferry.”

“Ferry?”

“To take you to the other side.”

The driver finished eating, wiped his hands on his jacket and returned to the wheel.

“To Angle Station,” he cried; and the engine shuddered.

by Ezri Carlebach

What’s Left Behind

I remember that summer was a time when love became a verb, and not just a noun.

You remember instead how days started overflowing with too many adjectives. Life was upholstered so tightly with beautifuls, and specials, and happily ever afters that you thought you might suffocate.

I remember the joy of throwing off punctuation, of no full stops, or comma breaths, or even brackets to keep us apart.

You remember evenings spent reading an encyclopedia so you could fill yourself up with facts. You even read our car manual from cover to cover once, wanting to understand the mechanics of how a fuel gauge works.

I remember feeling like a heroine in a Barbara Cartland novel. I’d rush home from work to turn the flat into a stage set, standing in the doorway to see how it looked through your eyes. Once I lit a scented candle, arranged roses in a vase, and sat waiting for two hours for you to come home. I had to blow out the candle and relight it three times so that it would stay fresh.

You remember the first time you had to step outside for air. That’s all it was, you kept saying. You needed some plain air. Nothing else. But it was still shocking – to both of us, I think.

I remember how symbolic everything was – the little child who ran up to us in the park, the surprise nine-month extension on our lease when the landlord decided to stay longer in Hong Kong, the angry white swan whose river nest we had to tiptoe past one summer afternoon.

You remember how it rained a lot.

I remember how every detail in every day became stories we could share. Even our dinner parties went on until morning as friends competed with each other to spin out their narratives.

You remember the way I’d keep pouring drinks so no one would leave. You didn’t mind because even that delicate balance between people getting drunk and people being boring was better than the gap they left behind when they went home.

I remember catching your eye sometimes and knowing that even this moment will become a story we’ll tell one day.

You remember the day you first got scared. You may have been uneasy before, but you’d always felt that you could leave when you wanted. Turn over the page and start again.

I remember not seeing the need for a sub-plot, all those irrelevant twists and turns when the answer is there, right in front of everyone’s eyes.

You remember banging your head against the wall as you complained your history was being rewritten in front of you, with even stories of your childhood featuring me now. You said that of course I wasn’t there when the swan the ten-year-old you had been feeding bread to gave chase until you had to climb that tree to escape.

I remember wondering why you always had to be such an unreliable narrator. Surely this was how we both knew to tiptoe past that swan.

You remember fighting the urge to give up, and to let someone, anyone, me, take over your story. You could put your head down then and just listen to what your life had come to.

I remember how it felt to have lost the plot. To have lost control of my characters. To see the words transform themselves as they left my pen and started marching away from the lines I’d set.

You remember exactly the shock of the moment when you first met her. How, at first, it felt as if you’d forgotten how to move on your own. But then one day, you took her to a bookshop and there, in a corner pressed up against the cookery shelves, you read each other so closely that it all made sense.

I remember telling you how this isn’t how it is supposed to go.

You remember showing me how every message can have a different interpretation. Take Bill Man and Van Thanks, you said.

I remember that there was only one way to understand this, that the Man and the Van were owed some thanks. Instead of money, I said. Because gratitude and love are the only things that matter.

You remember reaching across me and putting the punctuation in. Bill, Man and Van. Thanks.

I remember that even as I crossed that first imperative comma out, I knew it was too late. Bill was on his way.

You remember filling the van right to the roof with your things, leaving nothing behind.

I remember knowing, even as I watched the van indicate and pull away from me, that you were wrong about that. Even the slightest narrative leaves a trail.

You remember winding the window down and taking deep gulps. You were already deep into your new story, but somehow the air didn’t taste as fresh as you’d hoped it would.

I remember imagining how your new love would throw open the door to your new home. It’s beautiful, I knew she’d say, and special. Here’s where we can live happily ever after.

We both remember. That’s three words only, like Man and Van, but together, it’s a life sentence.

by Sarah Salway
@sarahsalway

Wet Paint

I sort of clocked them as I got off the bus, but I didn’t pay any attention. A gaggle of geezers in orange Hi-Viz vests.

But these days, any time, you can’t go more than 10 metres without seeing someone in a Hi- Viz vest or jacket, sometimes an entire Hi-Viz outfit. Like a pair of pyjamas. Or a Halloween costume. So you don’t pay attention. Every time I see one, or a group of them, I think ‘Thank Christ I’ve got away from all that’.

It was a gorgeous morning. Not a cloud, but not too hot. The ‘Bank Holiday’ weekend tomorrow. Quiet on the street at 8.00 a.m., but Jazid is already there, waiting.

“Jaz!” “Fellah!”

We do spuds. I don’t know why. It’s not like we’re ten or anything, but we always do spuds.

As I opened the office I thought, where does the phrase “Bank Holiday” come from? Is it, like, when the people in banks have a holiday, then we all have to have one as well? Whether we’ve arranged one or not? And if it is, how come banks get to arrange our holidays? What’s so important about these banks, anyway.

My keys jangle brilliantly in the lock. I love the hefty clang of the plate glass door as it swings back onto its frame, like a cymbal. It always feels like a crazy sample in a house record. Since I started doing this job and getting all the money I’ve put the two together: the clang of the door and the money I get.

It was the usual smell of polish, solvents and incense left behind by the cleaners.

The rule – sorry, policy – is that the first person in has to put the coffee on, to make an inviting scent.

The coffee was actually vile. Evil, even. You’d never want to drink it. But the smell was nice, and Fliss said that we’ve got to have the right ‘atmosphere’ when punters come in. That includes an inviting scent.

Punters never actually came in, of course: they only ever e-mailed or rang from their iPhones. But, whatever! Fliss was the boss. The big boss. So when she said it, we did it.

“Do the coffee, man,” I told Jaz.

Jazid’s a dude. I like him: young, sparky, always wearing a good suit with a fat tie. He’ll do well. Already has: exceeded his targets every month since he joined

He’s come from Leeds. “I’m seekin’ me misfortune,” he said. “I’m the fookin’ anti-Dick Whittington, me.”

Strict Muslim upbringing, and still a Muslim, although not always completely observant. A bit chubby, smooth face, and these fat eyes that make it look like he’s about to fall asleep.

But there are no flies on him. Sharp as a nail. Brilliant on the phone. And incredibly charming with the prospect at the property.

I was looking forward to Friday. It was just going to be me and him in the office. Everyone else had taken the chance to make the long weekend even longer.

I didn’t have anything to do, anyway. And after ten years I think “Bank Holidays” are some of the best days in London. No one around – time to wander – nice weather – just stay away from Carnival

Last year, last ‘Bank Holiday’ weekend, Fliss arranged this party at her other house in Kent. Well, it wasn’t exactly a house. More like a castle.

And it wasn’t exactly a party either. We all had to turn up at the Embankment to get on coaches at ten o’clock on Saturday. Everyone in the company, from our office and all the other branches. I sat on a bus for two hours and ended up at this country place. We got stupid little glasses of wine and canapés. I hate canapés.

The week before, I told Emma I wasn’t really into it and I had other plans. She said it wasn’t optional. It was part of being in the family, she said, and if I didn’t go, then there would be questions about my commitment.

This year Fliss sent out an e-mail. Or rather an f-mail, as she or someone in her private office cleverly decided to call it. Because of current market conditions, it said, sadly there will be no summer party this year. It would send out the wrong message to our clients.

Result, I thought. That’s the kind of message I want to hear. There was loads of moaning. But I was relieved.

We got the coffee going, the workstations sparked up, Sky News on the plasma screens, checked the e-mail. All that morning stuff. Even though there was just us two, we had to make it look like the place was humming.

August is always weird. You get your leads, like usual. But most of them – half at least – just don’t answer. It’s crap. Then the ones that do mostly want to tell you about their holiday: either just been on it, or about to go. In Barbados or the Maldives or the Seychelles or even the Isle of Wight. Never understood why it always seems to be an island.

It can be great or it can be shit, August. But once you get to the end of it at least you know it’s over.

I made my calls and non-calls. All the time I was on the phone I was kind of watching the geezers over the road, painting that hoarding.

It used to be a really nice old Victorian factory. In the 70s, the council bought it and rented units out to small businesses. But a couple of years ago they sold it, and in a fortnight the developers knocked it down. Now they’re building a massive mixed-development: expensive flats at the top, cheap ones in the middle, shared ownership at the bottom, with some offices and shop units on the street. They’re going up all over the place, these deals.

Now and again another bloke would come out. He had a yellow Hi-Viz jacket, and a clipboard. He wanders around talking to the painters, the orange-men, writing stuff. I can see the geezers talk back, but only as much as they have to.

We tried to get the marketing on that development, but like lots of new-builds they said they’re doing it themselves. “Good luck”, said Fliss.

It looked like a real drag. A hundred meters of hoarding, three metres high. With paint as thin as water, probably. And outside it was at least 70 degrees in old money. Like I said, I was glad to be out of all that.

But it was gorgeous. The sky was as blue as it can get, and I could tell from the waft of the struggling sapling by the frontage that there was a bit of breeze.

I took a notion, as Mum used to say.

“Jaz! mate!”

“What?”

“You done all your calls?”

“Yeh. I fookin’ did ‘em an hour ago.”

“What you doing now?”

“Angry Birds.”

“Right. Fuck that. Take your tie off, get two of those chairs from the back and I’ll see you outside in a couple of minutes.”

I divert the office phone to my mobile, bang out of that door and stride up to the corner shop. Two minutes later: Jaz and me, in the sun, on our folding plastic chairs.

I hold out a Red Stripe to Jaz.

“‘Ang on, man! It’s Friday. I’ve got prayers laters. I can’t be drinkin’ no fookin’ lager!” “Ah, come on, Jaz. You weren’t exactly worried about it last Friday.”

“Don’t mention last Friday, man.” He pauses, looks at me and grins. “Alright, give it.”

We burst our cans and toast each other. It was pure gold. We traded war stories: cheeky deals, backdoor romps, close shaves, intimate encounters, who was getting what. We laughed, loudly and a lot in the beautiful August sun.

There was no warning. We were both fuzzed by the ‘Stripe, the spliff, the warmth.

I was looking a mile away, thinking about my mum and Selma, the way we used to dance to “The only way is up! Baby!” Jaz was gazing at a beautiful girl in a short summer dress as she sashayed past in special shoes.

I see them coming just in time, jump out of the chair sideways, like a fly.

They look at me. I look at them. I weigh the odds and make the calculation instantly: there’s no contest. Not only outnumbered, but also outclassed. Even maximum threat and instant violence wouldn’t work for us here. They have so much more form and anger and heft than both of us, put together, multiplied by ten.

Jaz is too late.

The big one, a tall, tall guy reaches out with his leg, an athlete, and tips him over backwards.

The second and third ones have the paint. Bright blue and watery, but it makes the point. Jaz gets both barrels. Both buckets.

It’s slow motion as they pour it – chuck it – over Jaz, sprawling on the ground. Like that thing on telly ages ago – liquid and solid, both at the same time. Pure colour. Gleaming in the sun.

The fourth one steps forward. He’s holding his arms behind his back, like a bouncer or a maitre’d. He brings out a sheet of paper.

He holds it over Jaz and lets it go.

It sort of floats down. Like a seed or something. From one side to the other. Then back and forward and back again. More slow motion. Landing on his face

“WET PAINT”

The fifth one. Suddenly I recognise him. From school.

There is a stink of solvent from the paint, exhaust from the road, the drains. I feel faint.

Snizzle, we called him. Skinny, big pointy nose, freckles. He didn’t get it as bad as some of the others because he was clever and kept himself to himself. Invisible most of the time.

He sticks his face right into me as Jaz slips and swears in the paint on the pavement next to us. There wasn’t an inch between Snizzle’s nose and mine.

And I could feel his breath on my eyes. Smell it, too. Strange. Bitter. Chemical.

“You two: you reckon you’re all over it. Well so are we.”

He says it gently, quietly. Almost like a blessing.

He cocks his head and quickly brings his left hand up. I flinch, expecting the punch. Instead he holds his thumb and forefinger right in front of my eye, a millimeter apart.

“There’s nothing but a breath between us.”

***

 by Malcolm Blythe
@malcolmblythe

Mr Freeman

April 2nd 2009

Dear Sir

I am writing to you to share my feelings of disappointment, disgust and loathing at your latest film, King of Justice, which I endured on its maiden screening last night. The script was passable. The production was of expected quality. However, there is one decision you made that may well humiliate the African film industry. You know the decision of which I speak. I cannot even begin to understand what you were trying to achieve.

The subject of your film required the utmost in respect. The figure portrayed is a man revered across this continent and across God’s globe. He is good and clean. You showed no respect, no reverence, and you should be punished accordingly.

I wish to never again see your name attached to a Nollywood film.

Sincerely

Mr D. Igbinedion

London, England

*     *     *

February 14th 2009

Dear Mr Oparison

I write to you to express my interest in acting in your film King of Justice, which promises to be another Nollywood blockbuster.

I have excellent experience within movie studios across Africa, from Lagos to Cape Town. This experience has predominantly been within the maintenance and repair side of the studio. However, I have heard and seen actors perform and liken myself to a young Desmond Dube, but with the gravitas of a young Anayo Modestus Onyekwere.

I am confident that I am right for the King of Justice. It would be my honour to portray my, and my family’s, hero.

Sincerely Yours

Mr James Jombo

 

February 16th 2009

Dear Mr Jombo

The role in King of Justice of which you speak is a cameo and it has already been cast. However, we thank you for your correspondence and wish you well in your future pursuits.

Yours

E. Oparison

Nollywood Movies Sky 329

 

February 16th 2009

Dear Hollywood

Greetings from the beautiful country of Nigeria in Africa.

African movies are becoming more popular year after year as Nollywood and Afroculture spreads around the world. Recent successes like One God One Nation have led to a surge in new investment. Interest in Nollywood Movies in the United Kingdom, for example, is soaring. It is because of this success and the opportunities it creates that I write to you.

We are soon to release a new movie in the UK on Sky 329 and we are looking for an actor to play a very important role. We wish to ask of your studio whether one of your biggest stars is available. The filming will last no longer than one week.

We would like to send you the full script for King of Justice.

Please confirm receipt of this correspondence and inform our studios whether the opportunity to be the first to cast King of Justice is agreeable with you.

Yours in Greatest Respect

Mr Emmanuel Oparison

Head, Nollywood Movies Sky 329

 

February 21st 2009

Dear Mr Oparison

Thank you very much for your kind and quick response. It was my pleasure to write to you. However, I still feel I could be ideal for the part of Nelson Mandela in your latest blockbuster, King of Justice. Please reconsider your casting.

I am available in the coming months to demonstrate my abilities. I hope you will afford me this opportunity.

Yours in Hope and Expectation

Mr James Jombo

 

March 2nd 2009

Dear Hollywood

Filming has now begun on King of Justice and, as yet, we have not cast an actor to play the most important role. Many leading actors in Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Cameroon have auditioned and impressed us. However, we are holding out for our dream actor from Hollywood Studios.

We enclose the full script. Please call when you have read it and we will discuss the terms for your actor.

The matter is fairly urgent.

Yours Humbly

Mr Emmanuel Oparison

Managing Director, Nollywood Movies Sky 329

 

March 9th 2009

Dear Hollywood

Please call immediately regarding the casting of King of Justice. The film will be screened on Sky 329 in less than four weeks.

My cell number is [removed]. We must arrange the flight and accommodation now.

Yours in Expectation

Emmanuel

Nollywood Movies Sky 329

 

March 13th 2009

Dear Mr Freeman

Your colleagues at Hollywood Studios have advised that we contact you directly regarding a role they consider a major opportunity for you to enhance your international acting career.

The film is called King of Justice and we would like you to play Nelson Mandela in the final climactic scene. The film covers both his early years as a political activist, his middle years on Robben Island and his later life as President. The final scene focuses on Mr Mandela as President, looking back. We see you as the perfect man for the role.

You may contact me at my home address.

You might also try my work address:

Mr E. Oparison

Nollywood Movies Sky 329

[Address removed]

My cell number is [removed]. My email address is [removed].

I admire you and your films.

Yours Sincerely

Mr E. Oparison

 

March 16th 2009

To: Emmanuel Oparison

Subject: Re: We need Freeman!

Mr Oparison

Regarding your message concerning Mr Freeman. I think it will be a mistake and could offend a lot of people. Not only is he ill-suited to the role but as yet he is not signed for the film.

We are nearly out of time. I would strongly advise you reconsider and recruit a local actor.

Yours sincerely

Tolu

 

March 23rd 2009

Mr Oparison

I find your lack of response bemusing. Please have the goodness in your heart to speak to me about how I convince you to cast me as Nelson Mandela.

Yours

Mr James Jombo

 

March 23rd 2009

To: Tolu

Subject: Re: Re: We need Freeman!

Tolu

You have the audacity to make these suggestions. You are employed as an editor and as nothing more. Know your place.

Mr Freeman arrives tomorrow and has kindly agreed to film for one day. Then he must return to Hollywood Studios, where he is very busy. I cannot be there to direct as Mr Abassi would like us to celebrate our seventh year of working together. However, Mr Freeman is a professional and I am sure will not require my guidance.

You will receive the film for editing this week. You have the full script. Edit accordingly.

Mr Oparison


March 25th 2009

Mr Jombo

You are right. I should give you the opportunity to take on the role of President Nelson Mandela in my big-budget blockbuster, King of Justice. I should take an enormous chance on you and your history in fixing toilets. I should rebuff Mr Martin Freeman and his keenness, inform him that he is not up to standards and employ you. You are clearly better suited to the role.

See you at auditions. (We have now finished filming.)

Do not write to me again.

Yours

Mr Oparison

Nollywood Movies Sky 329

 

March 27th 2009

To: Emmanuel Oparison

Subject: king of justice, cut

Mr Oparison

Please find enclosed a cut of King of Justice for your viewing. It is as you asked.

Yours

Tolu

 

March 27th 2009

To: Tolu

Subject: king of justice, cut

Tolu

I do not have time to review this. I trust that it is in order. Please send out immediately to our colleagues in London for screening next week.

Thank you.

E

 

April 3rd 2009

Dear Emmanuel

For seven years, I have considered you my first director. First because you are the man who comes first to my mind when I need a director who understands understatement, subtlety, nuance, character, emotion, strength, closeness, distance, love, heart, body, mind, feeling, life, death, culture, engagement, distance. Everything. First because for seven years you have placed yourself in pole position on a grid filled with some of Africa’s – and the world’s – finest directors. First because you have never let me down as a director and you have never let me down as a friend.

So why, dear Lord, why why why did you think it a good idea to celebrate one of the greatest achievements of one of South Africa’s greatest ever leaders, a man who has fought for the rights of black people everywhere, for Africa, a man who lived a life in prison for his political views, for his maverick thinking, for his love of his country, by casting Tim from The Office?

You have turned Nollywood Movies Sky 329 into a joke. You have turned the world’s media against us. We have been accused of a new form of racism. People now spit at me on the streets of Lagos. One man yesterday told me I have ruined his son’s life. His son is four years old.

I have no option but to terminate your contract with Nollywood Movies Sky 329.

Please never return to the studios. You no longer have friends here.

Yours

Mr Abassi

*     *     *

March 31st 2009

Dear Mr Oparison

Do you mean Morgan Freeman?

Yours

James Jombo

Cell: [removed]

by Rob Self-Pierson
@twintownman
www.twintownman.com

 

 

 

Husband My Foot; Wife My Arse

We would catch other people’s cast-offs and take them home with us. Feed them up and make them ours.

The first one I remember was early in our story, our second or third trip out. In a rural Scotmid, a cashier who’d learned English from the locals was having problems with the barcode scanner. Exasperated, he held out my pork pie, saying, “Eet no gaun, lady. Eet just no gaun.”

You squeezed my arm. I had to leave you to pay; had to exit the shop and erupt.

“Eet no gaun, lady. Eet just no gaun” found its way into our codex; from an over-filled dishwasher to bedroom antics.

That had been your habit: appropriating fragments of overheard dialogue. But it became mine, too; taking on behaviours as a means of endorsing you, of saying, I want to be yours. It was a way to offer all of me, and you accepted.

I steeled myself every time I took a layer off, that this might be the time it got too much. I’d been used to showing all that there was of me to someone who decided he didn’t want it – who could handle the discomfort as I covered myself, gathered what was mine and left.

You asked for more.

Life gives no warning of the moments that will change the shape of everything. On a day that was so much like any other up till that point, we met. I immersed myself in the culture of us and you got comfy in the space I cleared for you.

Until one day you didn’t come home. Went, before you could see my hair begin to grey. Robbed me of sex while my tits still stand to attention and the Sunday morning horn still overwhelms. I wasn’t ready to go without. Why should I?

This is how we decided to grow old together:

Me: Will you still shag me when no-one else wants to?

You: It would be my great pleasure. Here. (You held your crooked finger towards me.) Pinkie promise.

A thirty-six year-old Glaswegian bar manager with three-day stubble saying ‘pinkie promise’ is worth a guffaw. You reddened, because you’d said it in earnest. After explaining that you’d paid your way through uni as a summer-camp counsellor with Bunac, in Wisconsin, or was it Wyoming, you sang me to sleep with teen-girl name games:

Lara Lara bo bara

Banana fana fo fara

Me my mo mara

Lara!

I woke you up with the same. My brain had worked out the rules during sleep.

William William bo billiam

Banana fana fo filliam

Me my mo milliam

William!

Is it wrong that I like being the woman you changed for?

Before me, you said, you couldn’t get close to a thing you thought was beautiful. When you’d tried it, all that had happened was that it became less it, and you became less you. Your hand on the Henry Moore in the park spoiled both. Not so with us. Your hand on me brought us both to perfection.

You were the type to seek and search; to plant seeds in life and then not want what sprouted from them. But you kept wanting me.

This is how we decided not to get married:

You: Only three more days till you move in, Lala. It’ll be good, mm? Both of us here. Yeah. And it, well, it doesn’t mean, um, you know, it’s not going to mean, rings.

Noticing I hadn’t burst into tears you carried on, “Not that you don’t need taking in hand, oh Christ, you definitely do. I’ll make an honest woman out of you. Just not, as a… husband.”

Me: Husband? Husband my foot. It’s a man I need. Hear me?

I scored big points for that. It was the first time I’d picked off a bit of someone else’s conversation and kept it tucked away till the right moment. A woman talking on her mobile in the bar, when I was waiting for you to finish a shift. You were pulling a pint. We caught eyes but couldn’t make more of it.

Producing it from my hiding place for our shared pleasure made you roar. You reached for me and pulled me into your laughter. Our mouths ha-ha’d in the other’s ear.

We knew why you’d said what you had; knew why you could claim me but not marry me. We weren’t long back from a weekend at your parents, where your father had done nothing without asking permission. “Is it okay if I pop out for the paper?” “Where shall I sit? Here?” “What do you want me to do, dishes or dog walk?” “Where does this go?”

I don’t know what his punishment would have been for non-compliance, but he wouldn’t have removed himself from his choices if the consequences were minor.

It terrified you.

Husband.

When you realised you were safe on the ringless arrangement, you became cavalier; beefed up the role. Reinforced it, to make sure I knew you weren’t joking; weren’t ever going to be changing your stance.

If I was doing something vaguely DIY, like hanging a picture, you’d say, “What you need is a husband. A husband’d do that sort of thing for you.”

And I’d say, “Husband my foot. I need a man.”

Turning over the soil in the veg patch I’d marked out, you opened the upstairs window and called down, “It’s a husband you need for that.” And I shouted up what you wanted to hear, bending lower over my spade.

You knew what I was saying with those purloined words: “You are all the man I’ll ever need.”

I didn’t want to be asked permission. I wanted the full you, not an obedient version. I wanted the person I met, not the person I could mould.

Your posture lifted when I spoke, because you heard the truth in the script. I need a man. And if it was your day-off, if we didn’t have anywhere else to be, I’d add, “Know where I could get me one of those?” And you would show me there was one right there in the room.

It could be shocking to other people. Hearing us speak that way.

“Coffee for you or your wife?” a waiter might ask.

“Wife my arse,” you’d say. “This is my woman.”

My woman. Like a Spaniard. Mi mujer. I surged as her, because who wants to give up the status of woman to become a wife? Who would want that?

You didn’t need a boss.  Or a spouse who only stays because she made vows.

And here I am… the woman who is staying because she curled her smallest finger around the hook of yours.

And you fucked off. Took up cycling to get fit and a truck driver turning left didn’t see you.

You have ruined films for me. You have taken all the men on screen and made them you. All the skin explored, all the domesticity, is ours. You have turned me into every woman touched and woken. Every woman grieving.

I’m further along than I was. There are bright days. You are the smear on the windscreen that only shows itself in damp weather.

Friends are feeling brave enough because it’s been two years. “Why don’t you get out there? You shouldn’t be on your own forever. Not at your age.”

A pinkie promise is a pinkie promise.

by Kate Tough
www.katetough.com

 

Docile creatures

See it all started with Charlotte’s birthday party. Charlotte was his granddaughter. Old John, he took some photos of her unwrapping presents, like you do. He put them on his Facebook. He wanted his sister to see. She was fond of Charlotte but couldn’t get to the party. Her dog had to go to the vet with its bowels. He uploaded the snaps to help her feel part of things, part of the family. It’s funny how these things start.

Now John was a quiet bloke, thoughtful you might say. But he had a few mates, and a few of them were on Facebook. They would have seen the photos. And his work associates. And friends from the bowling and the darts. I guess there would have been quite a few of us, now I think of it.

But I was the one who saw it. Those journalists, they always asked John who it was, but he always said he couldn’t remember, or he just didn’t want to tell. But we knew, me and him. I remember it clear as a bell. I looked at one of those party photos and I added a funny comment, because I’m a bloke with a sense of humour. Sharp like. I remember typing it: “Nice panda”.

John was all confused at first. He didn’t get it. The cuddly toy Charlotte was holding up for the photo was a ring-tailed lemur, not a panda. Anyone could see that. You didn’t need to subscribe to National Geographic. He posted a comment back: It’s a ring-tailed lemur, mate, not a panda. I know, I know, I said. But look in the background, there’s a panda, on the oxygen cylinder.

When he looked closer he could see what I was on about. There it was: Charlotte’s black and white snuggle bear: a panda. We had a laugh and a few other friends did too, but not much of one. It didn’t seem all that funny, or all that important.

Christmas soon came and John took the usual sort of family photos. Boxing Day, they were all on Facebook. He had some nice comments back about how happy they all looked and wasn’t that an awful jumper and hadn’t Charlotte turned a corner at last. And then he added a comment of his own: “Did anyone spot the panda?”

Thing is, just for a joke, he’d taken the panda that I’d seen in Charlotte’s birthday photos and hidden it among the tinsel and junk on the dining table. It’s there if you look hard, he said. He got quite a few messages back now. Some people said oh yeah I can see it and others said this is a wind-up there’s no panda there at all. And then there were all these other people we didn’t know who said tell me, tell me and stuff like that. They thought it was a game of some sort. They liked it.

It kind of snowballed from there. John travelled a lot to see medical people and he always took his camera with him and the panda. He would upload photos with the little bear tucked away somewhere or other. The photos would go online, and people would try to spot the panda. He said it brightened his day, made things easier. And she liked to see where he’d been, him and the panda.

As you’ll know, it wasn’t just family and friends and their friends who liked to play. Spotting the panda became one of those internet crazes you hear about on The One Show. People joined in from all around the world.

It’s true he found it a strain sometimes. There were people who spent so long spotting pandas they got obsessed. They awarded each other points and formed a sort of league. It was very competitive. He said to me once they don’t get it. But they love it, I told him.

And it quickly became more than a game. There were phone apps, merchandising, all sorts. You’d see people, trendy people, walking about with “Where’s the panda?” tee-shirts on. My favourite was this full-sized panda suit you could buy with “Can you see me?” written across the back. Blokes wore them on stag nights. John gave up his job at the garage. He was making good money from that panda. Most of it he spent on Charlotte.

Then we had that exposé in one of the Sundays. They’d found a bunch of idiots somewhere who’d been paying Chinese kids to stay online 24/7, waiting for new photos to go live. They’d spot the panda in seconds and earn a ton of points, they were that good. I know it all upset John. And there was a lot of money involved, gambling on the side. He’d get late night calls from people with dodgy accents offering bundles for a tipoff. He didn’t like that. Some of them got nasty. I had to step in to help run things.

I don’t know when the tide turned against him. I kept saying he needed to mix it up a bit, find a new angle. This panda thing is getting stale, mate, I said. There was competition, using other animals. There was this bloke from Germany doing a funny thing with a plastic shark. The TV said it captured the spirit of what Panda Spotting used to be. We heard Clooney’s people had second thoughts about the movie. I gave John a load of links, but he wouldn’t look. And all those photos of Charlotte in the hospital bed: who wanted to look at that? I said to him again and again: mate, if she’s sitting there holding the bear, it just don’t work.

Towards the end I offered to take over the business side entirely. He spent so much time with her, there was just basic stuff not getting done, golden opportunities missed. I said to him, mate, let me take care of it. I’ll look after things. I’ll see you right. He said okay. On my life he did.

That last day, when they switched her off, he called me from the hospital. He said he was going to the zoo. I told him whatever, you take some time out mate; stay away from the office, stay away as long as you like. I tried to console him. We were mates.

At the inquest, they said a lot of stuff about improved security. They said no-one should be able to climb into an enclosure that easily. They had this panda expert, too. He said they’re docile creatures, normally. But if a male thinks you’re threatening its family, it’ll go mental.

In his backpack, wrapped up with the camera and the bear, they found his final will and testament, written that day. He left me everything. But I’ll tell you the saddest part: he hadn’t bloody signed it. They’re saying it means nothing, it’s just a scrap of paper. But I won’t have it. It’s go to be worth something.

by Neil Baker

http://neilbaker.blogspot.com/

Ella does some remembering

SO A FORTNIGHT ago I walk in and there’s Ella, waving her arms about in the middle of the living room. I don’t notice at first that she’s using some kind of exercise contraption. It just looks like she’s flailing. She’s stepping up and down on two little platforms, while at the same time stretching out two huge black elastic bands with her arms. She is not very coordinated. Our electric fan is balanced on the telly, going full blast into her face. It is wafting her hair out behind her. She looks like she’s fending off an amorous octopus. She has her eyes tightly closed and has a loose, wide smile across her face. I’m about to back into the hall and come in again, this time making enough noise to break her reverie. But Ella opens her eyes.

Oh, Peter, she says. It’s just exactly like it felt when I was seven. I was running across the top of Box Hill. It was autumn. The ground was heavy and I had two kites – mine and Gemma’s – and I was trailing them both behind me. They were quite small kites but the wind was up and they each danced in a different direction and ached my arms all over and oh it was so exhilarating.

I miss the next bit over the whirring of the fan, and when I do start making out what Ella is saying again, she’s reeling off a list of other significant emotional memories that she wants to recreate. As always I say of course Ella. She says it’s called a Twist-Stretcher, by the way.

That night Ella tells me to be gentle, as her calves still ache from all the stepping. I imagine I am an octopus.

*      *     *

We spend most of the next day driving between the various out-of-town DIY stores, trying out the sample doorbells they have on display. This time Ella is looking for a particular sound, one she remembers hearing in a dream a few years back. I find comparing the various ‘ding-dongs’ to be surprisingly absorbing, once I get into it: some have rounded sounds, almost soft and fruity. Others are thin and spiky and unpleasant. I find myself wondering whether the sound of your bell would make a difference to how you thought of the person standing on your doorstep, ringing it. By mid-afternoon we have narrowed it down to three. Ella dashes from one end of the display to another, pressing her head against the fake doors. I try and help by asking what kind of door was it in her dream? Was it a big heavy old panelled door? Was it painted? Was it a plastic ringer, or an old brass one? Ella just looks at me and says oh no, it wasn’t a doorbell. It was a bird. For some reason this makes me angry. I go and sit in the car for a bit.

Ella comes out happy after an hour. She has the right one. She touches my hand as I’m changing gear into reverse and says ‘thank you, Peter’. We drive back via Quiet Lane and I pull in by the old bridge and tell her there’s a few buttons of hers I really need to ring right now.

*      *     *

Then Thursday. I get home to find Ella putting a geranium into the microwave. I hover by the kitchen door. She doesn’t notice me. She turns the dial just a little bit, about the same as to reheat a cup of tea. After about fifteen seconds, the microwave dings. She opens the door and sticks her head inside. There is a muffled sound. Ella is sniffing, loudly and deeply, like she’s trying to clear a cold by inhaling from one of those little menthol sticks.

‘No!’ she shouts, her voice muffled. ‘No, no no!’ She takes her head out and slams the microwave door. The microwave judders. She stabs at the controls, sets them to ‘high’ and twists the knob, this time for about ten minutes. The microwave whirrs away. She is standing with her hands on her hips. Through the crook of her arm, I can see the geranium, rotating slowly behind tinted glass. I cough quietly. Ella turns. She has soil on her face.

‘Oh, Peter,’ she says. ‘This one’s not working. It’s just not working.’

‘It’s OK,’ I tell her. ‘We’ll get it. I know we will.’

It’s a happy feeling she’s after now. She has been talking about a moment when she was around eight or nine years old: she was standing on the back step of her grandparents’ house. There was a metal lean-to veranda. The veranda was full of geraniums. She says the sun was so bright and hot it had practically bleached out all the images – the memory is only a smell and a feeling on her skin. She says the heat came from all directions at once: it filled her ears, went up her sleeves, practically billowed her skirt. She says she’d never felt so happy, so safe, so purely in a moment as on that step, eyes closed, half-suffocated by geraniums.

Behind Ella, the geranium in the microwave gives a soft pop and collapses. I distract her by showing her the assortment of torches I’ve bought at the hardware store. We spend the rest of the evening shining them into her closed eyes from just a centimetre or so away. She says the black one is good as the light is strongest and it also warms her eyelids in just the right way – but it smells too strongly of rubber, which is getting in the way of the scent of the geranium petals we have so carefully stitched into the balaclava. I am frustrated and say we should stop. Ella says the balaclava is starting to itch anyway.

That night I imagine I am the hot fug of geranium heat, breathing over her whole body. I imagine this heat drying the tears I can taste on her cheeks in the dark. Ella asks me if she can take the balaclava off now. I pretend not to hear.

*      *     *

Now this evening. When I got home all the windows were open. The house was dark. I was shouting Ella’s name even before I was in the hallway. There was no answer. I could hear the sound of running water. I ran to the bathroom. The door was shut but not locked. Ella was sitting in the bath. The cold tap was on full but the plug wasn’t in. In the corner of the bathroom was our Hoover. It was all bent and the bag was torn open. Ella was in her underwear. Her skin looked funny. Her eyes were red, rubbed almost to bruises. Her lips were blue. My eyes finally adjusted, and I saw: all over her were stuck little ribbons of Sellotape, each little strip was also thick with the contents of the Hoover bag: clumps of hair; grit; dust. Ella was shivering slightly. And she was smiling:

‘Oh Peter, I’ve got this one,’ she says to me. ‘This is it.  This is how it felt. The first time you looked at me.’

She holds out the half-used roll of Sellotape, and gestures to where the broken Hoover has spilled its grey salad onto the lino, and to a patch on her belly that is still bare. I grab myself a handful and gently kneel down beside her.

by Nick Parker

http://theexplodingboy.com

 

The secret

This is what I do every Sunday. It’s a ritual. Like Church.

I watch as children pick at the wadding seeping from their seats. Like sores that won’t heal. The grimy fibres pool on the floor by their chair legs. The mothers don’t stop them. You can see it on their faces, in their eyes when they look up. It takes everything for them to be here.

Some of the boys overcompensate with confidence. They slouch on their chairs, hips forward, legs out, one hand in their coat pocket, the other texting on a BlackBerry. I see them chewing their lips. I see their eyes flickering at the other boys in the room. At the children. At the clock.

I shatter the silence by opening my can of Coke. Diet, Monday to Saturday. Full fat on Sundays. I sip it, let the bubbles singe my tongue. I gulp.

The warden comes in and opens the door for us. We queue, and one by one let a male or female prison officer wave the metal-detector wand over our bodies. Pat us down. Even the children. We all head to our regular tables. We don’t talk to each other. We don’t ask questions. That’s just the etiquette.

I watch Eddie bowl through the door. He walks slow, rocking side to side, smiling cockily when he sees me. His eyebrows betray his secret. He acts like he knows I’ll come, but I know he’s scared I won’t. Every Sunday, just a little, he’s surprised.

We don’t hug – we’re not the Brady Bunch. We sit and ask each other the same questions.

How are Mum and Dad?

Is the food alright?

How’s Benji doing?

Are they treating you ok?

How’s the shop?

The answers are always the same. They’re fine. It’s good. The dog’s fine. I’m good. It’s fine.

Every Sunday, the same.

But today I asked another question. I thought about your awkward smile and your cold hands. I thought about your dark eyebrows, and your ears – just a touch too small for your features. I thought about every conversation we had, in the darkness behind my eyelids.

I thought about when I first saw you and about when I saw you last. I thought about the two years of you coming into the shop, of me freezing with nerves and thawing once you’d left. I thought about the times you spoke to me and my clumsy words, tumbling out my mouth. Hiding in the store room, being sick in the small, damp toilet. Smiling as I rinse my mouth out. Closing my eyes and seeing your face.

‘Would you do it again?’

This wasn’t part of our usual agenda. My brother had to stop and think. But only for a moment. He spoke without a quiver of faltering.

‘Of course. I’d do it tomorrow.’

Eddie tried to move the conversation on. Our usual agenda was completely out of the window.

‘You’ve had a haircut.’

‘I haven’t.’

‘It looks different.’

‘Thanks. It’s not.’ I looked at my Coke can, he looked at my hands.

He stuttered, ‘I really would, you know.’

I looked up at him through my eyelashes.

‘You’re my sister,’ his voice was so certain, so assured. ‘I’d always do it again.’

Underneath my tights I felt the skin on my legs prickle into goosebumps. I rubbed the back of my neck and thought about the grotty note in my bag. Crinkled and crusted with a year’s worth of dirt. From the last day you came in. It rots, a dirty secret. Another one.

I think about you every day. I think about the nights I spent in bed, our conversations in the dark behind my eyelids. I think about the conversations you had with me, the ones I’ll never know about. In your room, behind the thin skin of your eyelids. In your dark.

Eddie doesn’t know about our secret lives, lived on our own together. He thinks you were just a guy. Everybody thinks you were just a guy. We know you’re not.

He looked uncomfortable. He ran his hand through his hair and looked at the grain of the table. ‘And you, you’re… now you’re…’

‘I’m fine, Eddie. Really I’m fine.’

He nodded. I saw the anger flicker across his face, storm through his veins. It only lasted a second. Then he’s calm. He looked up at me and smiled. He was Eddie again. The Eddie he was before I ruined him.

There were so many times before, when I wanted to tell Eddie about you. About everything you meant in everything you didn’t say. I wanted to tell him how you made me feel every time you came into the shop, when you smiled at me. I used to imagine the day you’d walk in and tell Eddie how you felt about me. Eddie would be protective at first, of course – he’s my brother. But he’d smile because he’d see how good you were, like I saw how good you were. Then we wouldn’t have to keep our relationship hidden behind our eyelids. Eddie would be happy for us. And we’d be happy.

I stayed for an hour, like I always do. We talked about things we always do. The holidays we went on when we were little. The caravan. Our old house and the fights we’d had. We talked about life when it was normal.

Then I left. And I came here. I’m sorry I haven’t been in a while, I’m worried someone will see me. Someone who’ll tell Eddie, or my parents. I’m worried I’ll see your sister. She looked so small at the hearing. Listening to Eddie explain why he did what he did. That’s when I felt guiltiest.

I still don’t understand why you treated me that way. I know we keep going over this. But I don’t. You acted like you didn’t know me. Like you were embarrassed by me. You pretended you didn’t love me. We never said it but we both know it’s true.

I’m sorry that I ruined Eddie. And I’m sorry that I ruined the way your family remembers you. I’m sorry that it happened. But you shouldn’t have treated me that way.

Eddie doesn’t know I lied. Nobody knows. Apart from you.

I’ll never be able to say the words out loud again. I’ll never be able to write them down again. There’s mud underneath my fingernails and across my cheek. It’s cold and damp and sticks my tights to my knees. It’s in my hair. It’s on this paper.

I’ll write the words down once, to admit them to you. I’ll say them into the envelope. Then I’ll place it, folded in half, into the small hole I’ve made in the soil above your body.

I won’t be able to come again. I can’t face it.

But I’ll still always think of you. And at least we’ll have the conversations behind my eyelids.

I love you.

You didn’t rape me.

by Bee Pahnke