disturbing fiction collaborations with DF Lewis

These stories have been published before on-line or in print.

The Sound of Children – Anthea Holland (fantasque 2000)
Variations on the Vile – Richard Gavin (Book of Dark Wisdom 2003)
Knuckledraggers, Inc. – John Travis (The Zone 1999)
Popper’s in the Wine – P.F. Jeffery (Lateral Moves 1998)
In the Belly of the Snake – Paul Pinn (The Edge 1996)
I Consume That of the Edge of Exquisite Taste – Craig Sernotti (Not Dead, But Dreaming 1997)
The London Fairground – Allen Ashley (The Heliograph 1999)
Harvest Time – Gordon Lewis (Enigmatic Tales 2000)
Three Suns For Yesterday – Jeff Holland (shown on-line)
Don’t Drown the Man Who Taught You to Swim – David Mathew (Redsine 2002, Paranoid Landscapes 2006)
The Fat Bat – Scott Urban (Octobyr 1998)
Tale With Unknown Collaborator – Carlton Mellick (shown on-line)
The Slippery Pearls – Mike Philbin/Hertzan Chimera (Masque 1995)
NITS – Paul Bradshaw (Voyage 1999)
Tungus – Jeff Holland (Rictus 1995)
The Shoal – Lawrence Dyer (shown on-line)
The Moon Pool – M.F. Korn (Eraserhead Press 2001)
The Quest of the Mouther – Rhys Hughes (Visions 1997)
The Swimming Pool – Tony Mileman
Disaffected Blood – David Price (Unhinged 2000)
Tiny Hooks and Dainty Door-Keys – Mark McLaughlin (Flesh & Blood 2003)
Mary’s Broken House – Dominy Clements (shown on-line)
The Winged Menace – John B Ford (The Evil Entwines 2002)
Finnegan Awake – Simon Woodward (shown on-line)
This Flight Tonight – Gary Couzens (Substance 1994, Second Contact 2003)
Remission – Anthea Holland (Roadworks 1996)

with Anthea Holland

The sound of children’s laughter washes over the parents who watch fondly as little Johnny jumps on his sister’s sandcastle, destroying it in one easy swoop. Around them the beach is full of sun-worshippers, soaking up the cancer-inducing rays as if their life (or lack of life) depended on it – perhaps it does.
Beach balls and air-beds, picnics and sand-flies, everyone is making the most of the unexpected hot spell, grateful they don’t have to spend yet another day following indoor pursuits – museums and art galleries are all very well, but you can have too much of a good thing.
Happiness, then, abounds.
But across the bright summer day darkness stalks.
Several blackened flocks of birds swarmed in like the burnt ghosts of some Biblical plague. A solitary yacht on the silent horizon seemed to have a Harrier jet balanced on its sail-tip.
Tracy – an Essex girl – stepped from the sweet-wrapper waves, felt her brow, browned by sunblock, and travelled deliberately towards her abandoned towel. There were several strangers kicking sand into her boyfriend’s eyes. He seemed uncharacteristically docile. She had experienced, a few weeks before, the sun’s partial eclipse on the same beach, with the same little Johnny kicking at the same sister’s sandcastle, but then the weird breeze and the subtle darkening had been pleasant enough. But, today, there was a sense to the salt in the air than simple holiday tangs. The darkening was slower, yet deeper. The tacky breeze strangely out of kilter with the yacht’s sawing motion. The pleasure pier a thickening daub in someone else’s work of art.
As she approached her boyfriend she could see that what she had thought were strangers kicking sand were, in fact, shadows of nearby beach umbrellas. She rubbed a hand across her eyes as if to clear away the image with which they had left her. It was just another symptom of the strangeness of the day.
She cast her mind back to the early morning and decided that everything had been fine then; it was only since coming to the beach this feeling of forth-coming doom had enslaved her. She had swum, hoping to wash away her gloom with the tide, but instead the water had seeped more misery into her skin and through to her blood stream, where she could feel it multiplying along with her corpuscles.
Her towel, awaiting her return, should have been welcomingly cheerful with its bright colours, but the red background today reminded her of blood and the patterns on it resembled piles of vomit.
And Brian, who had appeared so docile in the face of the sand-storm, still seemed quiet; in fact he was dead.
But not quite. The body was moving like a gentle sea-swell, covered as it was by a barely visible canopy of interlocking creatures that had evidently beached themselves upon selected holiday-makers. Several men with knotted hankie-hats and body-tattoos were still standing – bemused, like Tracy. Others, those without tattoos, lay under the same false skin as Brian’s, undulating as if with the enjoyment of soft sex. All the women still standing seemed to have tattoos, although more subtle than the men. It was as if the plague or swathe of evil darkness had made a definite choice. Tracy felt her own neck where resided the tiniest mauve love-heart.
Not that she immediately put two and two together. Or tattoo and tattoo. It was only gradually until the full force of the cull became clear.
Meanwhile, as if enjoying a game with his future kids burying him, Brian’s body gradually burrowed itself under the sand. As did all the others thus infected by plague.
But where were the other children? The place had been crawling with them before the diseased dark had settled. Tracy looked back towards the sea – silver with an ungodly twilight at the peak of noon – expecting to see bodies floating up and down with the sloshing tide.
Surely the children would have been exempt from this selective thinning out of holiday makers? Not many of them sported tattoos.
But the beach was sullenly quiet, as if waiting for punishment to be metered out in the wake of its misdemeanours. Only the ticking of the sand as it settled round the bodies burrowing beneath the sand remained to break the stillborn silence.
Tracy, her hand still covering the small mark on her neck, as if hiding it would make it non-existent, waited with the beach, holding her breath.
Tracy – herself a local girl – understood why the culling of holiday-makers might be a feasible – necessary even, event. Maybe that was why she had been spared despite the mark on her neck.
Was she confused as to whether the plague wanted fresh, unbranded bodies? Or just those blemished with dot-matrix. Or a mix of both. It little mattered now. She sudddenly recalled that Brian had a stylised totem-pole along the shaft of his penis. How could she have forgotten? And, yes, there was a big black eagle stain on his chest, wasn’t there, as if just settled upon its fodder from a fiercesome flock. So, what price tattoos?
The beach still heaved, like bugs beneath the skin, and Tracy wondered where it would all end? Where would the bodies fetch up – Australia?
A vision flashed in her minds of a silent golden beach the other side of the world, suddenly spewing forth bodies like vomit from a young girl’s mouth. Let them have the scum, she thought, we don’t need them here.
The children, the sound of the children, echoed in her ears as they waded waving from the waves.

with Richard Gavin

“Oh, this one I keep more for kitsch value than anything else.”
The comments of Alvin were in reference to the dust-frosted bottle, which Lillian, houseguest and latest object of Alvin’s desire, had lifted down from the tiny shelf where it had stood undisturbed for over a decade.
“Is that why you don’t store it with the rest of your wine collection.”
Alvin smiled, lowered the sample sip of the deep dark wine he’d been examining under the lamplight.
“Yes,” he began. “There’s actually a rather interesting legend connected to that particular wine.”
“Well, you’ve got my attention now,” Lillian said coyly as she extended her wineglass for a second helping of the exquisite vintage infusion of grape and godliness.
“Have you ever heard of Sight?” The woman’s bewildered look was reply enough. Alvin continued. “It was kind of a slang term people used back in the 60s. You might not believe it to look at me now, but back then I was a regular Yuppie.”
“You!” Lillian said with a shocked giggle.
“I wasn’t born forty pounds overweight and with a receding hairline, you know! I used to be quite the party animal. Took in more than my share of liquor and drugs. I know that sounds really sinister these days, but you have to understand that back in those days you couldn’t spit without hitting somebody who was eager to pawn off one type of hallucinogenic or another. Usually these chemicals were cooked up in somebody’s basement. Anyway, during this whole crazy era there were rumors afloat about a strange wine called Sight.”
“Why Sight?”
“Because, as one mad chemist once told me, it makes you hallucinate like a motherfucker, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“And that’s what’s in this bottle?”
“Apparently. I picked that bottle up for a song when I was in Rhode Island on business about ten years ago.”
“And have you sampled this infamous little spirit?”
“No. I smelled it and that was enough. I’m sure it’s turned to vinegar by now.”
To enforce his point, Alvin gripped the neck of the dark bottle and, with gritted teeth, freed the cork. He gestured to his guest and she waved the open bottle past her nostrils. The stench that wafted up caused her to choke. It smelled like a combination of rotted fruit and burnt hair. She handed Alvin the bottle. Her eyes were watering so profusely that her mascara began to trickle down her cheeks in black rivulets.
“Where did you say that came from?” she asked through a cough.
“A little old town called Arkham. It’s probably a full blown ghost town by now.”
They laughed. There was no need to explain about Arkham. They both retained a quiet distance from that place and it was daring of Alvin to bring up its name even with that tone of detachment … as if neither of them knew at what he was hinting with his pretence to be objectively passing on historical details about the wine. It was almost as if they were both ready to admit staging the conversation to save themselves from the encroaching shades of dusk.
Although Lillian was Alvin’s latest ostensible sexual target – there was a history. They had once been fetched from separate low backgrounds as children and brought up almost as brother and sister by foster parents – only to lose contact when the Arkham Authorities, under some mysterious sense of urgency, later took the pair of them away from that home and passed them on to apparently less sympathetic care … separate again and forever. Until now.
Serendipity had brought them together during a cocktail party after a rather wild concert given by a particularly mad violinist who thought he was a demon like Paganini – a performer who was also over-generously laced with the more outlandish ingredients of modern avant garde virtuosity.
Of course, Lillian was still much younger than Alvin. But now it didn’t seem to matter. They had indeed recognized each other at the party but neither seemed to dare acknowledge their dubious history. Even when the violinist himself – with the name Zenno or Xenno – managed to sidle over and talk to them (as if they were the stars of the gathering rather than himself), they shrugged off the connection his presence brought to bear upon their otherwise clumsy shyness at a social occasion. The wine was free flowing – as were the repercussions of their meeting again. Without even a single nod towards their past, they agreed to meet again. Alvin had done this type of pick-up many times, but there seemed more significance to this potential one-night stand, bearing in mind the provenance or vintage of the participants.
Tonight she was a houseguest. That seemed the only word to call her. Cold and unemotional enough. Seemed to subvert any undercurrent of destiny. The wine had been left out on show, almost with a finger beckoning from its unopened neck. Gave continuity to the earlier occasion of the concert cocktail party.
The day had pulled in its own shadows. The night was giving forth of versions that it favoured. The stylus on the pick-up settled into the dusty groove of Alvin’s favourite vinyl. Trills of flutes floated out and then other more unwholesome woodwind syncopations. His teeth had tugged slowly upon the ill-giving cork of the bottle: that tall slim vessel he had earlier planted for her random choice. A ritual that seemed set in the slow choreography of flirtation – renewing a love he at least had already dreamed about.
“The yeastiness of yesteryear,” he said, as he took in the bouquet. Even old Yuppies needed dutch courage. Better than those deep dark red draughts from the vineyards of Brown Jenkin. Those modern day gimmicks that equated rats with being rat-arsed. This was wine extraordinaire, from the deepest breweries of Azathoth’s ancient bubbling casks. He swilled the pre-taste in an unnecessarily large brandy glass then allowed Lillian to sample its dark savour from the same edge where his own lips had sipped. The precursor to a kiss.
Their wine burned a trail down both their throats, exploded in their bellies. Alvin was surprised at how he and Lillian had gulped down the Sight without the slightest sign of hesitation. In the deep recesses of his brain Alvin conjured a thousand dreadful possibilities of the damage the fetid spirit would wreak on his body.
But when Lillian’s wine-smeared lips found his, such fears were quickly forgotten. Their kiss was deep and almost impossibly familiar. Alvin was so overcome with emotion that he actually felt a lump forming in his throat and the beginnings of tears seeping from beneath his closed eyelids. Lillian’s passion was searing, all-consuming. As the cacophonous music throbbed forth from the stereo, the two of them melted into a bewildering mass of limbs and clothing and whispers and sighs. The Sight flowed like sacred ambrosia. Each feral gulp brought quickened the potent effects of the wine.
Alvin hadn’t even realized he was hallucinating. Not even when the oak panels of the ceiling began to bulge like splintery grapes. Some of them burst, sending a warm crimson spray over Alvin and his lover. Lillian’s body no longer seemed to be composed of flesh, but of some kind of otherworldly clay, one that is malleable not only to the touch, but to the very idea of contact and transmutation. He watched in amazement as the contours of Lillian’s body rippled and flexed, each motion carrying its own unique rapture. She offered Alvin the neck of the Sight bottle, clutching it in an amoebae-like fist, but he refused it, for it felt as though every nerve and neuron in his body was stimulated to the point of malfunction. And just when it seemed as though the ordeal had reached its peak, the effects of the wine ascended to a higher plateau.
When the experience was stolen by unconsciousness, Alvin felt relief just prior to feeling nothing at all.
Dressing him was akin to clothing a rag doll. Lillian struggled to pull the sleeves over Alvin’s noodley arms, the trousers over limp legs. She slung his arm around her neck and struggled toward the cellar stairs.
Lillian hushed her lover as he groaned and looked groggily about him. The one detail Alvin noticed before being dragged up the stairs was the fact that the bottle of Sight had been returned, albeit without half its contents, to its proper shelf.
“Where are we going?” Alvin asked as Lillian backed her car out of the driveway.
“To see an old friend of the family,” she replied, though her focus was clearly not on the question at hand.
Alvin’s mouth was coated with a disagreeable, coppery taste and every muscle in his body ached from strain. The brisk night air had managed to revive him slightly, but a late-night outing seemed far uglier compared to the warm bed that lay waiting back at his home.
The November rain splattered against the windshield but did not dissuade Lillian who drove with the confidence of one who’d traveled this route many times prior. The drab stone of the cityscape was eventually replaced with the lolling grasses of farmer’s fields. Gravel crunched beneath their tires as Lillian veered the car down a tiny side road.
The cottage stood at the end of the secluded path. It was quaint almost to the point of being impoverished, but the golden glow of lamplight brightened the windows with a cheeriness wholly uncharacteristic of the surroundings.
Lillian switched the engine off just as the silhouette appeared at the cottage window.
“Come along,” she said as she stepped out into the fog-padded woods.
Alvin inhaled deeply, forced the passenger door open. He lagged behind his lover as she sprinted up the muddy walkway and was greeted warmly by the shadowy figure that now stood in the doorway.
“Come in, come in before you catch your death!” Xanno exclaimed with a beckoning hand. Alvin halted abruptly. He looked past Xanno to Lillian who had already shed her damp overcoat and was helping herself to the tray of liquors that sat atop the battered baby grand piano. Reluctantly, Alvin stepped out of the elements. “Welcome,” Xanno said. “Here, let me take your coat.”
Alvin felt himself to be alone in the universe; he surmised that was because his mind was both the filter and the thing it filtered. Music was something that loosened up such stifling paradoxes.
Only music.
Xanno was the archetypal maestro, testing the notes on his violin in the same way as he fine-tuned his own appearance. Alvin could see that Lillian only watched the bow tilting back and forth across stretched gut; she was mesmerised by every action the performer had taken since the doffing of coats and the amenabilities of small talk. Actions never made the man, though. Something far more structural was needed, hung about with warps and weaves. Yet Xanno had a forehead that loomed backward into the grey mist of aura; white tufts of hair giving the arched dome the sense of vulnerability it needed so as to appear human. His suit was smart but not formal, hiding angular, bony appendages. Alvin could imagine Lillian imagining Xanno tucking his tails back in a primary flourish before resting his posterior on the piano stool, fingers poised as claws to pounce on the keys. Except violin-playing was more akin to a wondrous fluidity than the static pose of a pianist could ever be.
Xanno was actually both.
He often pressed hard on the neck of strings as if he were playing a keyboard, giving forth of strum and finger, sturm und drang – then sporadically putting his lips to the sound box as if he were double-tonguing a flute.
Alvin sent pining eyes towards Lillian. Having been apart for so many years and yet, before that, so close, almost as siblings – he felt nearer to another human being than he had ever thought possible, skull on skull, blending. The Universe was surely not as lonely as he had once inferred, not with soulmates such as Alvin and Lillian, tugging the open wounds of their sorrow ever nearer: stitching once worked loose now being resewn moment by moment with the weft and woof of the black crotchet creatures running along the bars of Xanno’s music.
“What is that music called?” asked Alvin, during one of the intermittent silences Xanno stared out. Alvin’s own voice, normally a typical attractive brogue, became a piping travesty: hopping from castrato to falsetto screech.
Xanno’s dome frowned like a runnelled stave. Even Xanno’s own name was uncertain. Xannophobia. Who knew? There was more to family than memory. A dread of the known was sometimes equal to that more familiar dread of the unknown. A paradox that Xanno or Zenno embodied. A reluctance to be fixed by name. Like all those Elder Creatures of the tenable as well as untenable universes, their names vibrating in and out of believability gave more resonance to their actual bodies moving in and out or reality. More credence for monsters in music…
There were so many queer innuendoes afoot. Xanno’s feet pedaled upon the floor. The bow was straggly with its own white tufts, so vigorous had been the wild scraping.
“The Cthulhu Cadenza,” he intoned, with a voice they now realised had never really been heard before. At the party, he had spoken in mumbling severity: so intense they had failed to notice how spread out the vowels were and percussive the consonants, underpinned with a Mittel European twang. Now there was a deep eternity about his timbre. Slavishly without race or caste.
If a Cadenza, then, Alvin thought, there were notes potentially surrounding it that were actually written down: stigmatised and replicable. The Cadenza was mere flair. The meat of music was elsewhere. Teetering on the edge of each sawing slope of the bow.
“I can Sight read music, you know,” he suddenly boomed, between the breaths of two silent rests. The statement came so unexpectedly that for a moment Alvin mistook it for an abstract lyric. But there was something in the way Xanno stared at him, into him whilst his fingers molested the violin’s neck. The composer was wordlessly prodding him, assessing an intimate nook of his being.
“I really am alone in the universe,” Alvin thought.
The music ended as unexpectedly as it began. Xanno’s head fell slack against his jutting collarbone. The rising and falling of the old man’s chest was a testament to the gusto of his performance. Lillian rose from the armchair, stepped into the tiny kitchenette and immediately returned to hand Xanno a glass of ice water. He emptied it before speaking.
“It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, isn’t it?”
Alvin kept the crazed player waiting for a reply simply because he did not realize the comment was directed at him.
“The music, you mean?”
“It all gets a little easier with time,” Lillian added. “Especially when you’re born to the Quest.”
“You sought out your own piece of the puzzle long before you thought of me.” As he spoke, Xanno started to show his age. Only Music could keep his muscles toned up.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”
“Oh, yes you do, through incarnation after incarnation,” said Xanno. “We each have our role to play in aiding Their return. You recover the wine of the Old Ones over and over again. That’s your sacred charge, through each of your human incarnations. Then the music calls us back again. It speaks to you, doesn’t it? Do you know why? Because, like you, it holds dead things close to its heart. That’s what makes this violin special. I can use it to play invisible music.”
“Invisible music?” Alvin stammered.
“The notes that hide between the notes of ordinary music. Sounds that ordinarily go unheard expect when sandwiched between other notes, which thereby give them definition. To the human ear they resemble nothing more than pauses, rests. But this instrument allows me to play those occult notes without having to mire them in some mundane composition. Invisible music. Do you understand?”
“As Sight is to the mind; allowing it to see what the eye cannot see, this music is to the ear; allowing to hear what should not be heard. It’s the sound of the naked universe. I don’t have to disguise it with rhythm and melody, because we both know what the universe really is – it’s raw and chaotic and does not want to be heard or seen…”
“Or conceptualized,” Lillian added with an unexpected air of authority. Xanno grinned. “Once you conceptualize, you create,” she continued. “So many universes exploding into being in a dissonant symphony.
“The universe is a paradoxical thing, Alvin. It simultaneously wants to remain mysterious, yet it endows its children with a burning desire to solve its enigmas. I know this is tough to drink in all at once,” Xanno said, though Alvin could swear that the old man’s lips remained still.
“Come along, dear brother,” Lillian said, gesturing toward a black throat of hallway that communicated the cottage’s living room with some unknowable abyss. “We’ve come this far, I think it’s about time we let our Minds dream that which should never be dreamed.”
Alvin and Lillian were the perfect pair. Brought up together then left to mature apart like fallow orchards, now fetched together again to enact the true fruition. Legally and morally and cosmically able to couple both as siblings and lovers.
Xanno read the notes on his music stand silently. He stroked his violin with equally tantalising silence. The ultimate music. Read from the stars by Gods for Gods. His huge rearing dome was full of Sight. As if the tufts hid huge bowling eyes. Alvin’s bruised handsomeness was sad to witness. He was past his prime – yet Lillian was still pretty as a picture. A poignant couple walking, nay, jigging, towards the aberrant maw of darkness into which Xanno’s bow drunkenly jabbed their path…
They felt heady. Sight filled them with a migraine of shimmering shadows. Each shade peeled off from the inner wall of night and followed – staggering as if having imbibed the silken silhouettes of deeply mellow stout. Each whispering giant of cast and fermented darkness shuttled through a million foreignesses: accompanying the happy hapless couple toward the shuttered room where the Complete Stranger squatted. So complete, it was a motherfucker to itself.
The face of the Old One was scored over, nay, scribbled with tiny black notes, all the crotchets and winged quavers upon their own soundless and unsound Quest to ratchet into the perfect music that would be the wedding march. Instead, the Old One offered up its twin udders like wine bottles for the couple’s suckling. Sight became vision. Alvin fled. Lillian was alone in the Universe. Not him.
He escaped with some relief to the antechamber. Xanno was standing there, fix-eyed, with his vintage violin ready-cocked for playing.
“Oh, this one I keep more for kitsch value than anything else.”
And the maestro entered upon some variations on the same theme.

with John Travis

“Love a coffee if you’re making one, love,” the men asked as Mrs Pinton left the house. She tutted and shut the gate behind her. She saw one of them eyeing up her windows.
“Hey, what about that coffee?” the other men laughed.
“Are you going to be much longer?” said Mrs Pinton. They’d been here for four days now. Where were they laying these cables to? She swore she hadn’t seen any of them work for the past day and a half.
“Don’t you worry about that love,” the coffee monster told her. “Not be long now.”
He turned back to his colleagues. “Okay, I think that’s us. I haven’t noticed any curtains on rings, except hers. Let’s get on with it.”
Together, they all vanished, equipment and all. It was as if they’d fallen through a dream.
Two hours later Mrs Pinton returned with full-to-bursting shopping bags. Looking around she breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God they’ve gone.”
She was just about to go into the house when she squinted at something on the pavement near the green box the men had installed. It couldn’t be snow – it’d all cleared two days ago, even the gritty stuff. She moved closer.
That’s not snow – what on earth is it then? She delicately placed her foot onto it, unsure of what it could be. If feet could feel, it was like stepping on sand.
A few seconds later Mrs Pinton vanished too, through the granular groundswell.
The craft came in at an angle, heading towards a crash which the silence made inevitable: except its tail led the way, its nosecone of a cockpit bringing up the rear.
Charlie Waters (descendant of a famous blues singer) pointed the craft out to his young friend, Pinny.
“Hoops and Hoooooos!” he screamed.
The craft crossed the lake and lurched into the nearby forest, ploughing down the strongest, tallest trees that had always flourished thereabouts. A plume of smoke – suprisingly meagre – trickled into the sky as the silence renewed its almost visible sway.
There was no wind.
For once, Charlie was shaken and at a loss for words.
Knuckledraggers, Inc. had started slots all round the town of Scarrow and green boxes had appeared in various inconvenient places. It was assumed that this was a firm setting up shop for a new TV network but nobody had seen the actual laying of cables; there was merely the faintest inference of such goings-on going on. The men were mostly taciturn individuals with dimples above the back of their low-slung belts. Only the coffee-coloured ones could talk at all, it seemed. Mr Pinton didn’t worry too much about the situation because greater affairs had hit his household: Mrs Pinton had failed to come back with the shopping. He had lodgers to feed. Also, Charlie and friend were calling in for brunch after a night’s teenage trek. Mr. Pinton had dubbed the friend Pinny. He’d always wanted a son like Pinny, you see.
Mr. Pinton no doubt tended to believe the latest pack-of-convincing-lies… a belief which, in many ways, is like life itself. A mood is ever the current one, isn’t it? And death the final certainty. But any happiness entailed, by necessity, eventual unhappiness. Unlike vice versa.
He may not even have thought all of this out but if he did, he probably put it at the back of his mind where forgotten memories flourished. He hadn’t lost his touch for words, however clumsy such words turned out. Yet it was perhaps his word against the world’s, but could either be believed?
He looked again at the pantry floor. Best just to lock it for a while, see if any ideas suggested themselves.
He’d heard Charlie and Pinny coming in the back door. From the kitchen he’d called out to them. “Have a look and see what you want to eat. Mrs Pinton’s not back yet.”
After a few minutes Mr Pinton went to the pantry. The boys stood inside, staring at nothing, which was difficult in such a confined space.
“Well, then. What are you having?”
“Has it been on the news yet?” said Pinny.
“Has what been on the news?” Said Mr Pinton.
Charlie took over. “Well…”
About five minutes later Mr Pinton stood there shaking his head. Would this pair never grow up? He’d listened as Charlie (and a surprisingly talkative Pinny) detailed where they’d been this morning, and how they couldn’t believe their eyes, and how they’d tried to pry it open, and the dust around it-
“Listen, lads,” Mr Pinton had interrupted at one point. “this kind of thing may work on your young friends, but not on me. Mrs Pinton is late and I’m really not in the m-”
Charlie stared at him. “You mean she’s not here? That’s what I was going to say. We walked back through Scarrow and the town’s half empty. The ground’s full of snow.”
“Now you’re being silly. I’ve been stood at the window on and off for the past hour-”
“Mr Pinton, did we have pepper on our food last night?” Charlie asked.
He thought about it for a moment. “I don’t think so, no.”
“Didn’t think we had. But that dust around it-” Charlie moved his mouth around. “Reminds me of pepper, that’s all. I’m sure I inhaled some. Pinny too.”
Pinny’s tongue chased around his mouth, inflating his cheek. It stopped under his top lip, and came out of his mouth in a downward motion, like a drawbridge over a lake. On the end of it was a small black dot, not unlike a pepper corn. Mr. Pinton watched as the lad slipped the tongue back in his mouth. Then another up the left nostril of his nose.
Mr Pinton let out a long sigh. He was just about to speak when there came from outside a series of metallic clangings.
“God!” put in Charlie. “We heard that all over the place!”
Pinton was getting impatient. “It’ll have to be tinned stuff, I’m afraid. When she comes back-”
There was a sharp cracking noise. Pinton turned just in time to see Pinny clamp his jaws shut. His eyes stared. Outside the clanging got louder.
Suddenly Charlie wandered past them both and went back outside. As Mr. Pinton turned back he saw Pinny sink to the floor, but not in the correct fashion. His arms went first, then his face, dissolving and dripping and bending like the view in a carnival freak mirror. His legs and torso slid towards the floor like wax from a melting candle. His clothes and shoes were starting to smoke. Pinton moved back over the threshold, standing in the hall, looking inwards. Within a minute the pantry floor was swilling around in some kind of runny psychedelic plasticine, turning, immediately, into fibrous vegetable matter of grey-green hue.
A few seconds later and the colour had bled from it, leaving shavings like flakes of white wood.
In his confusion he turned right instead of left and was looking out at the street. It was full of workmen again. Pinton saw one of the green boxes snap shut. He absently wondered where Charlie had got to.
Where Charlie had to go…
He saw the dust, the sawdust…
This ought to be presented as written by someone else pretending it’s Mr. Pinton. He’d have to get the body of it word-processed from this rough draft to carry off that little ruse, there being no hope of disguising his handwriting for such a length. Simply the end-signature would have taken eternity’s to get the tails and loops just right, in any event.
No, the creature from the backward-motion crash course in astropsychonautics had no real confidence in being able to comprehend Mr Pinton’s writing. But it would have to believe what seemed natural by the time it had finished scouring the contents. All it needed to do was simply reserve judgement till the very end, when it could compare the signature appended to the previous missives Mr. Pinton had sent it – all those lovey-dovey ones with pierced hearts summoning spirits but (in Mr. Pinton’s case) aliens to earth from outer or inner space.
Mr Pinton expected the creature’s signature was a template of its unsullieable soul.
Charlie Waters once recalled workmen in green Knuckledragger overalls exploring his mother’s wardrobe, to see if they could find evidence of his father’s strange hobby. The smell of mothballs, the deeper-than-usual coat pockets, the dark dresses – all were signs of something like forgotten memories: signs, in the end, of nothing.
When Charlie eventually tried to describe the craft to the firemen and ambulance drivers and police who had belatedly arrived (in that order) from Scarrow, the closest town to the secluded landing-spot, all he could keep saying were things like not a plane – wings wider than Scarrow Park – beautiful sight – beautiful, real beautiful…
And he cried at this their first lesson in beauty’s sadness. Beauty had a far greater store of grief than ugliness. Ugly people were usually cheerful and full of hidden talents. Beautiful people who tended to skim, smile and float lurched more heavily when their time was up. Pinny had been a pretty boy in this way. He was always just a nose short of Charlie’s head, most of him now having a preservation order thrust on him as a hot human curry for Scarrow’s famous Museum of Curiosities.
But if not a plane…
That was now, and this is then. What the Knuckledraggers were really intent on finding were Charlie’s father’s tie-pins and cuff-links, his wires, rings and prongs and, yes, his surgical umbrellas, steel enemas and iron mouth-stretchers, all representing his own unmistakable means of signature. Every tail and loop were in place and recognisable – even when they came to identify the stigmatised body itself, one gloomy autumn afternoon, in the bright mortuary.
“Did your father have plastic surgery?” was the chief Knuckledragger’s first question, pointblankly ignoring Charlie’s evident distress and wondering how such a tall corpse could have fathered somebody as short as him.
“Plastic? No it wasn’t – plastic,” Charlie answered, without really thinking, his eyes still locked upon the corpse who’d once given him birth. The body’s eyes were coppered. Nose bent out of joint by the fatal accident.
But this was all subterfuge, as it turned out. His mother’s wardrobe of clothes, ranked like starved orphans, strung like faceless body-puppets, was the very clue the Knuckledraggers had missed. With his father dead, he could now concentrate on factors that should have been too obvious to miss. His mother was indeed party to his father’s tricks. Their marriage actually hung on mutilation. Why the rents, otherwise?
But he put it out of mind. Friendship with Pinny. Boyhood adventures. Regular enjoyable suppertimes with Mr Pinton and Mr Pinton’s shopeasy wife.
Then the strangeness of vindaloo vines under the pavements…
The street seemed somehow louder that night than it had during the day. You could hear leaves swishing past on the pavements, and the faint humming of streetlamps. And, he was convinced, something else…
He’d tried all day to find out what had gone on after he’d left the house. Mr Pinton’s door had been found locked. The emergency services had been no good. The other doors that he’d knocked on were not opened, making him feel like a Jehovah’s witness.
The only thing he’d had to think about was one of the workmen he passed in a street down the road. The man looked uncannily like the man from the mortuary, and had looked away when Charlie had spotted him.
So he’d spent the rest of the day wandering around Scarrow, wondering why the town was falling apart and no-one seemed to care. Then as it was getting dusk he had a lucky escape. He’d kept passing those damned piles of grated snow all the day, deliberately side-stepping them; shoes were important to him. (although not in the way they had been for his father) Avoiding one such mass on the pavement, his shoe caught a stone which hurtled towards the patch of whiteness. As he watched it vanished downwards, snow and all, as though dumbwaiters were in attendance all over the town. Quickly he looked around for objects; he broke branches off trees, picked up tin cans, bits of gravel left behind by the cable layers – and one by one, dropped them onto the patches of snow. They soon vanished, leaving clean patches of stone behind.
He lost all track of time, and before he knew it, it was dark.
Charlie nodded in the hedge, waking suddenly. He’d been dozing, or at least hoped so. He’d dreamt there were metallic clangings under the pavement, like being stood at the top of a mine. He looked at the other side of the street. There were two green boxes, their metal dull and cold in the night. Tree branches fanned them from above.
Then there was a noise from below. It was movement of some kind, to-ing and fro-ing like people rushing around a shopping centre. His eyes were automatically drawn to the boxes opposite. Slowly, one box door opened, then the other.
For a few seconds the view was blank; then, coming up as though in a lift, thin but wickedly strong looking wires snaked upwards towards the daylight, sprawling onto the pavements, creeping along onto the road. There were dozens of the wires; each one with its own destination in mind, spreading far and wide along the deserted street. Suddenly, a thin stream of liquid emerged from one of the wires – just like the snow! thought Charlie, nearly saying it out loud. Within seconds the pavement was sporadically covered in the stuff. Slowly the wires retreated, towards the boxes once more.
Then, a hand appeared above the lip of the floor, then an arm, a body and a pair of legs, clambering out of a hole far too small to contain it. Within seconds eight or nine people stood on the pavement as though awaiting further orders. Eventually, they made their way across the street, back to their own homes.
A police car took Pinny and Charlie to their homes on the outskirts of the Industrial Park, whilst the rest of the emergency forces planned their route into the mighty forest. From the boys’ story, the authorities had estimated roughly where the “craft” had “landed”. Strangely, there was nothing coming through on the mobile communication systems about airplanes being lost nor, even, reports of any UFO sightings. Only the noise of the crash itself – to the extent of making “naked eyes’ shiver in Scarrow – had stirred the seismic direction-finders, instruments which scientists watched around the clock in one particularly secret building on the Industrial Park, thus serving to alert the authorities…
Charlie did not sleep well that night. He dreamed of nine people emerging from under the ground of a dream!
He dreamed of Pinny and himself in a police car and then inside the craft which they had both seen swooping low over the treetops. There were countless faces – Charlie knew they were faces despite them not looking like human ones at all – and these so-called faces were speaking in a language that evidently needed no mouth to speak it – or ears to hear it, or, for that matter, a mind to make meaning from it. Strobes were set into the otherwise dark “ceiling” which cast an unsteady light that settled on the floor around them like dry ice.
“Gashes and slits!” announced Pinny, as if such familiarity and contempt would prove to be ingredients in a recipe for the great meal of waking. Life was like that, gobbling things, tucking into Mrs Pinton’s homely grub, sniffing freshly made coffee, oozing upon cherry-lip pies, absorbing experiences, supping on light, sipping darkness like fine old wine, sucking love from every crevice, cracking knuckles like walnuts, picking hate from between your teeth…
The morning brought a glorious dawn to Scarrow. The distant fringe of the forest was dipped in yeasty blood, almost fizzing with a glut of cuckoo-spit dew. The sun was redder than anyone could ever recall it. Charlie Waters glanced at the wall where a photo of his blues-singing ancestor leaned outwards. It had sat flush only yesterday. His toy soldiers, too, were no longer smartly ranked, since a couple of them had fallen flat on their faces.
He picked up his father’s old Mickey Mouse phone and dialled Pinny’s number. But damned if he could remember it. Indeed, there were no such things as numbers. Even the dial had been cleared of any suspicion of digits. He could see where they’d been scratched off. Flakes of paint peppered the top of my table. He tried to count his soldiers, as if to prove that numbers still existed, but found himself saying a sort of sad wordless music.
He picked up the phone and fingered the loose dial round in a random fashion, in the hope of getting at least someone at the other end.
The eventual rhythmic tone was like being held at the other end by a firm’s switchboard with meaningless musak.
Yes, Mr Pinton lied when he said it was him writing this. Death being the only certainty, Pinton needed to unpick the wire stitches of alternate generations. Pirouettes and harlequinades, cyborg primadonnas, peopled puppets, whatever beast of metal, wood and wire, none were his idea of deja-vu. Black hearted beads and corrupt pearls fixed on spikes were more owner-friendly, however, than dolls that blindly hugged you to death. Smuts for eyes, blade-chain hoops for alabaster necks. Giving birth to metal meat-hooks was never fun. Septic boils disguised as green cable-boxes on earth’s flesh… He couldn’t bear the prose to flee his pen like this.
The authorities reached a clearing in the forest. They could only judge the time by the angle of the crimson balloon in the sky. Wreckage was strewn everywhere. Pinny’s father – who happened to be Scarrow’s sheriff – scratched his head. He had long since lost his watch, in scrabbling through the undergrowth.
The other emergency teams were beaded with a sweat that looked more like snow than bodily salts. The heat was intense… if unmeasureable, turning the lake into an expanse of throbbing white muddiness.
Charlie’s dead father – who was also in the vicinity by virtue of his empathy skills – started crooning. He heard something in his ears that was not coming from without but from within. Strange for him, he couldn’t keep to the beat, not even to the beat of his own heart. So the tune came out decomposed.
Charlie clunked the phone down. He didn’t know where he was anymore. Turning away from the wall he walked back to the desk and stopped before the paper that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. He kept finding these things out one step too late, it seemed to him.
It appeared his late father was working on a thesis, of sorts. Charlie smiled at the rather flippant title “Decomposition’s for the young and old – can we really live alongside Them in ignorance?”
He shouldn’t be smiling, not really. He wondered if his father had ever shown this to anyone – he had died in rather odd circumstances after all.
The paper roughly detailed (and with much angry crossing and correction) cases of what his father termed “dissolution”. At the time of his death he didn’t know who the Dissolutionists were; or if he did, he never had a chance to write it down. He sighed heavily, like he had in mid-adolescence.
“Oh Dad, wh-”
He stopped suddenly.
The picture on the wall… the wall was there, and the wooden edge frame was there, and the protective glass was there…even his father’s guitar was stood to attention within the frame.
But his father wasn’t there.
It didn’t know what it was now. It couldn’t be expected to distinguish between itselves, not now!
Outside, a boil burst. Cables leapt from the warm earth like frying spaghetti, slapped the floor like daredevil pythons. A few fizzled and wriggled.
How long could the facade be maintained? It daren’t look in the mirror – it would probably bend the glass with the heat anyway. Suddenly it smelled other than its own brittle scent. It wasn’t the pen, it was too low down for the pen.
Below it, carpet fibres whittled away to embers.
He could only hope the boy would understand. He could cope with the incipient heat; but looking at the teams as their skins burned and the trees took on a greasy sheen – they would fire matchwood in all directions if unsprayed.
He had a vague idea that he was rebelling against type; the music sounded now like music played by one band, with each member in a different continent, all with badly transcribed sheet music, knuckles rubbing over the edges of a skiffleboard.
And a Chinese juggler can only keep all the plates spinning for so long…
As he ran Charlie could not keep his eyes from the streetlamps. Broad daylight gripped everything tightly, but those lights bore down on him, as though each one was fitted with…
He tried to put the thought from his mind. The forest was still some distance away, but he could not slow down; from time to time he’d look and see blank faces staring at him from house windows; people he’d known all his young life, now gazing as though he were an escapee from some grubby institution.
Images flitted through his mind in quick succession; of the Dark Room at school which only nine people were ever allowed into; electronically tagged waxworks in a chamber of horrors which seemed more disturbing than the exhibits themselves; the chain-mail fencing around a pond in a local park…
He tried not to think of cameras as he hurtled on through empty streets.
Mr Pinton looked at his face in his bedroom mirror. But it looked more like Pinny’s.
“Puppets and pokes!”
But even the letters couldn’t string themselves together and they came out as grunts and gushes. He tugged a girlie magazine from under his mattress, to test the value of verities in this fast-shifting world and gazed on a butchered abstraction of red orifices plastered in the middle of a page. He wondered how he’d kept this secret from his homely loving wife. Where was she? Where was everybody?
In the distance there was silence roaring back into the hungry sky, at exactly one moment of valedictory: the same abstraction, but this time with a signature tune in hues of blue. Charlie, guitar on lap, sits at the porthole wondering if the earth he left below was a desert or simply a huge biryani of ground greeness and sea-salt. Luckily, good people are on board too… like Mrs Pinton. “Love a coffee, love?” she says with more than just a motherly smile. She takes the knuckledusters off his aging fingers before kissing them.
Yes, you understood it even before you begun. Even without a sneaky look, you knew there was no signature at the end. Quill-points and knuckle nibs, without fluid for words, you see, may only quicken a midget marionette’s finger-joints: each with a ring, echoing more rings, rings piercing other parts. You press numberless needle-points into each prickly knuckle. And your mood is at the tail-end of hope, when you see, as well as no signature, there are sadly no x-kisses etched into the papery, peppery skin. Crosses and Creases! The only possible mood is the current one. And when you claim you possess not even a prick between two hardened knuckles, Pinnocchio, it’s your nose that grows longer instead.

with PF Jeffery

When Marjorie ran off with the bird cages, I, for one, expected never to see her again. After all, thieves rarely return to the scene of their crimes.
It was only when my wife suggested we actually sought the thief out in her lair, I began to have my doubts. However, it was unlikely that the trail would be hot enough to follow.
“We trusted her, didn’t we? Gave her the run of the house and all that.” My wife swept a flick of hair from her eyes. She had suspected Marjorie of many things, but pilfering was not one of them. I found my wife more attractive than Marjorie, but looks were not everything. I maintained that the wormcast of Trill in the middle of the living-room carpet was not proof positive. After all, clues were suspect, too.
In the end, I decided to go off on my own, leaving my wife to look after things at home, in case anything turned up there.
I arrived at a godforsaken seaside resort the main road of which along the front became the dead end of a roofed precinct, with downgraded cafes and amusement arcades where the sun couldn’t reach. It didn’t seem to matter, though.
My wife was accompanying me, really, or someone who looked very much like her. In the end, we decided there was no need for someone to stay at home. After all, it was not important – just bricks and mortar together with a few memories which would fade in time.
We determined to find something to drink in the precinct. Spoilt for choice, we walked into an open-fronted establishment which appeared to be an eating-place with set tables, as well as a bar. There were many empty seats and I did not predict being questioned by an officious lady who purported to be an employee of the establishment.
“These tables are only for chance visitors, unexpected customers,” she said, looking straight at me and pointblanking my wife.
“Chance visitors?” I said, expecting her to explain further. I felt confident because I was in the right of things. There was a feast of vacant tables, after all.
“If you like, I’ll go off and find Jane Clifford…” She said this as if she assumed we knew who the dickens Jane Clifford was.
That must be the manageress, I thought, without giving too much away. In the end, I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and, taking my wife by the hand, left the establishment for the dowdy arcade outside.
Imagine my surprise (and delight) when we saw Marjorie, with her back to us, staring into a Cut Glass and China shop opposite. If it hadn’t been for the officious lady, we would have missed Marjorie altogether, since she immediately swept off like a bird of prey. I even began to wonder whether we’d seen her at all.
Jane Clifford munched breakfast as slowly as she could since, as soon as she was seen to finish her last mouthful, she would be told to clear the tables and start the washing-up. With luck, there would only be a handful of customers today, what with the weather and the rest of it. The couple she had watched earlier perched on bar stools had been quickly seen off. She had almost recognised them from a past which was not exactly her own … like younger versions of her Popper and Mommer. It was a pity drink had addled Popper’s mind which had meant he had addled Jane’s with his silly talk and ways. She would cry tonight, on Marjorie’s shoulder. She enjoyed crying more than anything. It was a way of life with some people…
The rain could be heard teeming upon the precinct roof as if the sky was full of weeping angels. Jane laid her dirty plates one on top of the other and slowly got up. The wind brought the sound of the sea nearer. The customers were mainly casual in such a place. Once seen, always forgotten. The passing trade like wind blowing itself out. A small living, but hard work. Still, she had been born with a greasy spoon in her mouth.
Marjorie was the only person Jane Clifford knew capable of keeping sea-gulls as pets.
Jane Clifford was chagrined to see that the middle-aged couple had returned to the cafe. Perhaps their previous reception had been insufficiently hostile. Worse – they had the effrontery to sit at the same chance visitors’ table. She started to devise a piece of invective worthy of their crass behaviour.
Before Jane Clifford had time to compose her speech, much less deliver it, Tracy Pritchard went to the table. Tracy Pritchard, strident sixteen, and an Australian soap opera fan, would have been better employed in a baker’s shop – at least in Jane Clifford’s opinion. Wrapping seedy bloomers while discussing boy friends was the highest thing to which her kind could aspire. She had not even attempted a professional waitress sneer let alone a chipped varnish nail in the doughnut cream.
In any case, Tracy Pritchard had been hired on the strict understanding that she would serve only regulars. Not, of course, that there were any regulars – not in a place like that. Nor did the fact of this couple coming in twice make them regulars. A regular had to be profoundly grateful for the dishwater tea and, if Jane Clifford could help it, no one would so much as order the doubtful beverage.
Jane Clifford stared aghast as Tracy Pritchard wrote something on her pad. Returning to the counter, Tracy Pritchard took the sticky bath bun which had been the principle ornament under the glass dome since the end of the season. It had been earmarked – if a bun can be earmarked, rather than fly specked – for Marjorie’s sea gulls. Tracy Pritchard placed it on the table.
“This table is only for chance visitors,” Jane Clifford told them, snatching up the bun.
“Easy, lass. Like I told the other girl, we are chance visitors.”
“Then Tracy Pritchard had no right to serve you – she deals only with regulars.”
“And you?”
“I serve chance visitors.”
“Then can we have the bath bun?”
“No – you’ve been here before – so you’re regulars.”
“In that case Tracy Pritchard had every right to give us the bun.”
“No she hadn’t – it’s reserved for Marjorie’s sea gulls.”
“Marjorie? Not…?”
“No, she is not the Marjorie who took the bird cages. Don’t be stupid. How could anyone fit as big a bird as a sea gull into one of your cages?”
“That’s true, lass, but…”
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something in Jane Clifford’s story that didn’t make sense. The little doors in the cages were made for nothing bigger than budgies. Inserting a sea gull would surely involve dismembering it first. What would be the point in feeding a bath bun to a dismembered sea gull?
On that score I couldn’t fault Jane Clifford’s protestations. Perhaps it was a sixth sense that warned me something was wrong. My wife was quite correct – there are more Marjories than one in this world. All the same, I started to follow Jane Clifford when she left work.
Three times I was arrested. Indecent exposure? – surely not. I pleaded guilty only to indecent concealment. The magistrate was very decent about it, and gave me three months.
In between slopping out times in the converted sea front hotel, there were visits from local dignitaries. The mayoress lectured me on the true significance of the borough motto. When the president and sole member of the sea gull fanciers’ club made the rounds of the cells, I didn’t expect to see Marjorie. She looked older now, but still had Trill beneath her nails.
“So, Jane Clifford was lying,” I said.
“Not entirely, I am a different Marjorie every day. Some Greek bloke taught that one cannot step in the same stream once.”
When she made that typical throwaway line, I couldn’t help thinking of all those single women often seen talking to themselves in barely patronised out-of-season seaside cafes and wondering whether they were merely different versions of Marjorie.
“But why did you take the cages, you wicked girl?”
“I loved both you and your wife equally. Perhaps I pitied your childlessness – not that I was young enough to do anything about it. You were too long in the tooth to appreciate it, in any case… Not so much in the body as in the mind…”
“I couldn’t bring myself to tell my wife that you loved me – nor the nature of my reciprocation.”
“Well – just go straight when you’re released. Promise me that much.”
“Go straight where? In any case, none of this explains about Jane Clifford…”
“Even waitresses need love. Even caged birds…”
“I suppose all that explains the bird cages and the endless holidays away from home and the way I treated my wife. I tagged her leg, so I’d recognise her if I came across her in unusual circumstances. Not that she was a homing pigeon, nor a foreign bird of prey, nor even a budgie with a jingly mirror…”
Marjorie had already gone. I stared through my barred window at the rain drenched esplanade, feeling as though I were a caged bird. Don’t they call the likes of me jail birds? I wondered about the holiday makers who had once paid to stay in this room – did they, too, feel imprisoned?
I could see Marjorie leaving what had once been the hotel lobby. She pulled her collar up against the October gale. It looked as though she was heading for the pier. Far above, the sea gulls wheeled in the gathering storm.

with Paul Pinn

Flash of gantry, flash of panty; the slow blur of London suburbs. A woman with post-mortem skin, dressed in sea-hues, sits opposite a man with toxic psychosis. When viewed directly, her eyes are the colour of dirty traffic lights, but opaque and decidedly odd when viewed obliquely. The man views obliquely, and as the train leaves Euston for Birmingham, the sun momentarily escapes from Victorian clouds and the woman says:
“Now it chooses to shine.”
And she rubs her foot against the man’s leg, smiling dysfunctionally rather than suggestively.
Flash of gantry, flash of gallantry; the man lets the latter pass, smiles, says nothing. The woman puts on yellow headphones, closes her eyes, tilts her head sideways, drifts into the realm of other people’s creations.
Flash of gantry, flash of caution; she looks more attractive when asleep, or pretending to be. Her lids hide the suspicious elements of squinty emptiness and translucent madness.
The slow blur of London suburbs is never-ending, and within its dreary rain-splashed conformity there are dark hints of an eternity to come, a never-endingness of London suburbs merging with other suburbs all the way to Birmingham and beyond, not a green or brown field to be seen, right up to the border with Scotland, and perhaps later, into the sea, and who knows, maybe all the way across the big puddle to Birmingham, Alabama; or east and south to Oslo and Rome.
Flash of gantry, the man absorbs: the slow trawl of a Tesco Superstore sprawled between the flash of anonymous stations. Its car park is full of cars but devoid of people. The stations are devoid of both.
The woman stirs, smiles at a point midway between the man and herself, and looks out the window. Her eyes appear divergent in their posturing, their focus, their proportions. Alien eyes, they catch the man writing in a notebook.
“Can I read what you’ve written?” the woman inexplicably asks.
“No,” replies the man, playing the same game.
“Why?” she snaps back, now too late to retract.
With a sharkish smile, he replies: “Because it’s about you.”
“Really?” She’s as incredulous about his answer as her question.
“Yes,” he confirms, in the full swing of the unexpected conversation. “It describes how I commit unspeakable acts on your chained body over the course of three days, then chop you up, bit by bit, until you die.”
The woman’s eyes narrow, part viper, part scorned. She watches him produce a book from a pocket. It’s called The Serial Killers by Colin Wilson and Donald Seaman. He holds it up high as he reads it, to make sure she sees the unavoidable title. A city-slicker with ashen hair and a complexion to match, sitting next to him, says:
“Do you like scaring young women?”
“Yes. But only when they invade thc silent eternity within me.”
“What do you mean – the silent eternity?”
“What I mean,” says the man impatiently, wishing the city-slicker had missed the train, “is what’s it to you?”
The woman opposite swallows her headphones and laughs like a wounded hyena.
It’s his turn to turn the conversation.
“Now it chooses to shine.”
She smiles, having healed her wounds with the dead hyena’s laughter. She’s no longer afraid of him, a fear that originated upon touching his leg with her foot – as if fear was something that could only be transmitted socket to socket. Now, she realises he’s simply a chauvinist, one who can only express his hatred of the opposite sex obliquely – even if all mouth and trousers.
She sinks back into her re-gathered head-set and expands into the wide-split sound of Eno. Yes, she’ll call the man Eno. A name as good as any. Nobody has a monopoly on a name. Eno. One backwards. Like Red Rum. Or Blue, she wants to scream.
Eno knows he’s being thought about. Her closing of the eyes doesn’t fool him. Still, plenty of opportunity for day¬dreaming later. Here and now, today, the suburbs temporarily slip into slide-away construction works – in tune with cities like Houston and Detroit. “Cities like” – because he’d never been to America. He lives a “life like” – and flinches a cross between a cringe and a shudder at a sudden flash of country.
A flash of cuntry. A flash of a flash. A flashback. A flushforward. Then again watching the lids of squinty emptiness flirt with her own upper cheeks. He senses the music from the “it is, it is. it is, it is,” of her tinkling ear-pieces. No longer Eno, but disco dancing.
The real One, him, he, resumes his self-conscious writing. He’s copying page upon page of The Serial Killers into his own notebook, believing he’s writing it for the first time. He has memorised whole chunks and doesn’t need to check with the book’s pages proper. Colin Wilson and that other guy, whose name he can never remember without the spine’s help, are imposters.
His life in the bush of ghosts, he knows, is ethereal, without the substance of touch. He will take Tiger Mountain and reduce them all to dust for laughing behind his back, before his face, in his fitful nocturnal interludes. He is a toxic psychotic. He has eaten bread, partaken of wheat, poisoned himself. Already the inner workings of his brain are trembling under the onslaught of bacterially produccd chemicals. Already his thoughts arc growing as dark as the dark side of the moon. Already he can feel the shift. Now it is only a matter of time before he is truly ready. The moon-train to a foreign Earth.
Country; cuntry: both now as threatening as each other. He’s never had the latter, and doesn’t like the former, imagining both to be equally spacious, equally suffocating. To destroy both would be comforting.
The woman stands, slips her bottom over the knees of the geriatric passenger beside her, and heads down the aisle to the toilets. Eno stares covetously at her walkman, the wire and headphones curled on the seat like a yellow snake he once met in a book. He wants to steal – no, possess – the music of his mentor. Instead, he rises, stuffs the Colin Wilson book and his own notebook in the wide, deep pockets of his oversized overcoat, and follows the woman. The city-slicker turns from ash to ermine as he stares disapprovingly at Eno’s back shrinking down the aisle.
By the time he reaches the malleable gristle at the interface of two carriages, the woman has gone, leaving him with a nagging doubt that perhaps Eno is not the One after all. He bites his lower lip, stares at a toilet door, then another, and wonders what Hannibal Lector would do. There are only two toilets here. Sniff her out, he decides, but his own imagination has never extended that far. Angrily he wishes he’d ate more bread, gathered a greater harvest of chemical dysfunction. He puts an ear to one toilet door and then the other, hears the ancient music of closet water and smiles.
Neither says engaged.
Yet she’s surely in at least one of them, he thinks, knowing, as he does, that the law of averages is not an average law.
He smells a rat.
Why has she kept both locks on vacant? Is this an invitation to him – or a paradoxical warning which she knows he’ll understand better than making it impossible for him? And, indeed, without warning, the city-slicker pushes past and enters one cubicle – snapping the slide-bolt to engaged behind him. Evidently on a slick kick, thought Eno.
Eno laughs, for perhaps the first time in his life.
So, the woman is in the crypt with the door still saying vacant. No need for laws to tell him that. He laughs again. A communal dysfunction is stirring every set of bowels by dint of simply belonging to travellers on the late fare express. The last rack track for Brum Bum. Hence, the lower belch squelch from the slicker behind the locked door.
But surely a squelch too loud for one person, even for somebody with the biggest load to shed. Without preamble, Eno ram-raids – bouncing off like a squashed medicine-ball.
From a whore of a law that opens its legals wide to anybody who cares to plunge real deep, Eno ratchets knowledge to the top of the mind. And, yes, that slick kicker does have a paperback face. He pulls the dog-eared book from his overcoat to check. Not Colin Wilson. But that other guy? Surely not.
A flash of gantry, cuntry – lavatory. A slash of thought.
He tugs the cord neatly slotted in the swaying stretched-stomach wall, knowing, indeed, that he is not, nor ever will be, the One.
The train screeches to a halt like a serpent dragster. He sighs with relief, because … well, because the cubicles aren’t allowed in use when stationary. And, with the side of his foot, he tries to tidy back the silting stew of blue-veined curds that inches out from under the engaged door.
Eventually, however, he screams. One short blast on the tunnel vision. Blue murder. A sanitary flush.

with Craig Sernotti

Blue eyes stared out at the setting sun and a multi-colored sky. A brisk air blew in from the ocean’s edge. Seagulls squawked and wandered aimlessly about the beach. An albatross dove into the water to catch its dinner.
He remembered when he too dove down into the sea of life to calm his hunger. His mealtimes lasted for many years, close to a decade. He longed to experience everything a man could, not caring for taboos. He tried to consume that of the edge of exquisite taste, and he enjoyed that which he feasted on.
Blue eyes had originally come closest to death when killing his mum during his own birth throes. Later in life, he tried to commit suicide. Not that he was unhappy, but thought it was an experience worth going through. The doctors got to him late, for brain death had already set in, but just in time to prevent non-existence itself.
From that point onwards, Blue eyes was a toy puppet on tangled strings: but the more his pupils strained upwards to see who controlled him, the more his eyelids’ own supporting strings were relaxed to lower the large lashes upon his roughed cheeks.
Blue eyes became the President’s play toy. Indeed, being completely disminded, Blue eyes suited the President’s moods. So, being such, Blue eyes was elected to the highest office . . . at the top of the lighthouse from where nobody could hear him screech like the gulls passing over an ocean.
Blue eyes was made Secretary of State, but then he croaked for real.
Having been a play toy, Blue eyes eventually became the President’s necrophile.
“Did you say light house, just then?” asked Someone called Else. “Don’t you mean white house?”
Blue eyes shook his head, feeling his dinner slop from side to side within his skull. “No, I said light house. We are by the sea. Can you not see the sea?”
“The sea?” said Someone called Else. “We are not by the sea.”
Around him, the setting sun melted into the horizon. The airborne seagulls, originally so lively, spiraled to the water below, their necks broken by invisible hands. The wind brought in a sulfuric acridness. A stygian blackness covered all.
“You know full well I hate being here,” Blue eyes stated.
“You don’t have much of a choice.”
Someone called Else was right, no matter how much Blue eyes hated to admit it. True, he had lived a questionable life. True, when given a chance to repent, Blue eyes remained quiet. True, a life of sin only leads to an everlasting danse macabre, to die and die again, but did he deserve this? A soul that wandered purgatory at a snail’s pace and a corpse for a body that served as the President’s sex toy? All Blue eyes wanted was not to experience a monotonous life. So what if he “sinned?” He only wanted to enjoy himself, to be happy. Was his desire such a damnable crime?
“I do not like the dark. That’s all.”
“Why?” Someone called Else asked mockingly. “Does it bring back certain claustrophobic memories?”
“You know it does,” Blue eyes muttered.
“Does the dark remind you of your mum?”
He took in a breath which proceeded to break itself upon the hard rind of his left lung. The sky was indeed blue (when did it change back?), the view afloat with dead seabirds, the sea itself a runnelled surface of unground concavities of lens, the fish papyrus stick-ups, the tea-clippers rope-riven stitch-ups of timber and sheet, the lighthouse a huge swathe of whiteness that funneled down like an untwisted torch-topped tornado.
Else was Blue eyes’ mum, as it was soon to dawn on him like a remembered, but yet untold, tale. And she proceeded to murmur about a deflated graveworm, one that lived at the clitoric core of the gull-peppered storm. But he heard not her words until she spoke with greater volume:
And, so, there lived once a highly prized leader of men, one who shouldered responsibility with the ease and lightness of uncluttered souls. He lived inside a huge bright light on the edge of bricks. Men worshiped him and stacked the bricks into a chimney which helped to tunnel-focus the bright light towards where they believed Heaven to be situated. But the light eventually espoused darkness and there coiled a massive one-eyed maggot from the tall flue . . .
“This is no tale for a child like me,” said Blue eyes, looking up into the equal blue of Else’s bowls of sight.
“No, my son, for you are now a man.”
And she continued:
The prized leader surveyed the light and dark of his land ritualistically. He set out to make an immaculate utopia, removing all who sinned and all non-believers with the sharpness of the one-eyed maggot’s teeth. Those who followed his ways gathered the deceased and mutilated and burnt them in bonfires. The bones of the dead embellished the walls of the cells that jailed the heretics. The few who pledged they would repent their wrongful ways watched as sinners were left to reside with the bones of the dead, as a reminder of their sacrilegious lifestyles. Those who refused the ways of Heaven, the teeth of the one-eyed maggot . . .
Mum recited her fable energetically, but Blue eyes did not listen. He knew of her wanton desire to bring about one frisson unforgettable, but her words had no affect on his poster or mental state. A single question ran through his mind: Am I man or am I child?
But then Blue eyes dreamed he was neither child nor man, becoming again a corpse with leather thongs for flesh, darned by great needles and sealed with the toughest bone-glue used for sticking tractor-soles to shiny uppers . . . then playfully side-kicked by the President’s boot into the sea. And such immersion, after a tandem of eternities, eased the stiffness allowing a tiny blind maggot to wriggle through one of the lace-holes into the primordial waters lapping America’s East Coast.

with Allen Ashley

Everywhere round here was steeped in evil-smelling history. That was the outside world. Jack Barker’s less than pristine epidermis also harboured more than a few metaphorical skeletons, with no sign of an impending population DECREASE.
The best part of this ride was the steep gradient up from Poplar station and the sudden lurch leftwards into Heron Quays. It was like a slow-motion roller-coaster. It was a shame that all London’s public transport couldn’t offer as much fun but, hey, the guys were working on it.
Something gripped the inner wall of his stomach. Maybe it was a pang of conscience over poor dear Deborah; maybe it was simply gnawing hunger primed by the burger banners strewn semi-magnificently across blinking Canary Wharf. Since The Change, Wednesdays had become Home Cuisine Day at the sprawling platform market. Jack was looking forward to a plate of jellied eels and custard. The dish was a reputed favourite of Good Queen Bess, long may she reign. It was unfortunate that she wasn’t so partial to baths and showers, he thought seditiously.
It was time to alight. There was, as always, business to attend to.
The station was called Island Gardens or something like that, because a wag had half-rubbed out the letters. Furthermore, Jack wasn’t a Barker. This was all too clear as he glanced at the bundle of his own recently delivered letters (all still unopened) bearing an addressee who had, by all accounts, half-rubbed out his own name by adding and subtracting strokes in the same hand and in the same rare ink until “Jack Arkenshaw” had been left. Deborah was not a problem, after all. Jack Arkenshaw had never met anyone with a such a pretty name, whilst, no doubt, Jack Barker had.
His face was tightening, too. Bugs and lice left like rats leaving a sinking skin. Several bones prodded his trousers like rebel knees. Deborah’s friend Gas Street Basin (a creep with crawlies) suddenly appeared at the end of the platform. He held out another letter towards Jack. This had the Royal insignia embossed upon it and a sealing-wax seal that was so over-the-top Jack wondered why it didn’t bark or have flippers.
“Oi, Gas, that’s not for me…” Jack pointed at the addressee.
“It’s says Jack, don’t it, it says Barker, don’t it and, by the way. I’m Mister Basin to the likes of you.”
“I’ve changed my name by inferred Deed Poll to Arkenshaw.”
At this moment, more rail-rollers coasted both sides of the narrow platform, letting loose from the beeping doors almost thousands (or so the milling-about made their number seem to Jack) of city changelings, all (or, at least, most) of whom turned their smart faces from the sight of these two patchy pest-loaders idling the time of day in pidgin Shakespearean.
Jack wondered if any of these slickers believed that he and Basin could be exchanging important Royal passwords in the guise of chitchat. There was so much suspicion and double-agentry since the latest RRR outrages. Everyone you spoke to was only half listening so as to partially eaves-drop on innocent but soon-to-be guilty bystanders. The Virgin Queen, God bless her cotton socks, was not averse to shelling a few shillings for subversive overheards.
“Prithee, sire, you pay me scant attention,” accused Basin.
“Sorry, pal, things on my mind,” Jack replied, scratching last week’s lice Out of his hair. “Is that it with the missives?”
Basin’s smile was as broad as the newly habitable span of Waterloo Bridge, belying his Whitechapel Murders mystique. “You leave my missives out of this,” he spluttered, handing Jack a kid-skin pouch suitably swollen with double-sided sovereigns.
A sudden whiff of kipper reminded Jack that he had yet to breakfast this brightening morning and that if he could juggle the complex connections of DLR, tube and trolley bus he could meet Deborah for lunch at Fish Street Primary. In her white-ribbed polo neck, black skirt, tights and sensible shoes she presented as a prim little school miss; alone with her Bethnal Green beau and a tin or two of Thames oysters, could be as demanding as a tax inspector. Or should that be inspectrix? No matter. Jack simply hoped that he had not overplayed his role as her bit of rough last Tuesday.
His stomach rumbled as the carriage doors closed. Kippers and tongue, now there was an interesting dish –
“Oi! Barker, Arkenshaw, whatever you name is – I want a word with you!”
He didn’t have to turn around to recognise that gruff Southerly voice but he felt he ought to turn round anyway. Just for self-preservation’s sake.
“You can call me what you like, but what, this sunny morn, can the devil I call you?”
This question was Jack’s only way to negotiate the tendrils of terror that coiled plainly, if not plantily, from the other’s gruff voice. Jack had begun to see, you see, words as real matter.
Things on my mind.
Jack recalled his own earlier statement of fact when speaking with Gas Street Basin.
Basin himself had, by now, made a slouching bee-line for the station exit, dragging half-said reluctancies in his kippery wake like the shrunken leprosies of erstwhile life. Gas Street Basin could not brook competition and Padgett Weggs’ arrival on the narrow platform was bigger than the newly revamped Bow Lottery or, even, the League of Cock-fights as far as competitions were concerned.
Meanwhile, Jack’s previously insidious semi-revival of Barkerishness in his soul had diminished to merely another obstreperous kneebone, and the seemingly incorruptible return of his Arkenshaw persona again made him forget cute Deborah and the problems he had with her monthly irregularities. Only Jack as Arkenshaw would be match for Weggs.
Weggs was such a smelly individual, not only did his breath smell but also the words borne upon it. Jack knew that Weggs’ mother (the Virgin Queen’s old Nanny) was in touch with Great Old Ones, creatures from the stars that the Elizabethan cabals had done much to stifle rumour of. Nevertheless, many of the Court in-crowd had let slip implications that needed very little inferral. They said – in so many words – that the Ripper murders in Whitechapel were simply tokens of something far more nasty. And here was Weggs, no doubt, with the latest instalment.
“My mother says tonight’s the night, Jack. And none of those…” Weggs head-pointed at the bundle of missives in Jack’s hand “…will be any good when spoken words are as dependable as written ones.”
Padgett Weggs was dressed in a brown-stained cape that had seen better, if blacker, days. His business was in septic tanks so this was obviously his work clothes. Having rushed straight from work to this centre of all known meeting-points on a DLR station platform, Padgett Weggs caused Jack to realise that all bluffs were over and cliffs did not exactly hang but hover … and, giving Jack a Wensleydale grin, the malodorous Weggs offered, “I used to be a water colorist until I found my true calling. Rather like dear old Adolf, don’t you think?”
Something gripped the inner wall of Jack’s stomach.
John Dee, re-instated black magician to the court of Queen Elizabeth (“I’m not black and I don’t do conjuring tricks! How cheap do yoy think I am?”) picked up his crystal ball and gave it a thorough shaking.
“A rosebud by any other name,” he muttered.
He scratched absently beneath his black skull cap. There were things on his mind.
“A plague on all plagiarisms!” he cursed before continuing his ruminations.
Life was more complicated than ever. Seven years on from The Change, the world – or London, at any rate – ought to have settled under the New Royal Order. Perhaps it would have, were it not for the duplicitous mercenaries like Dee himself. Last night he had received a missive from The RRR – republicanism, revivalism, reductionalism – promising that they now had the technology to guarantee his safe passage through a Reality Shift back to London Before, even if he had been dead there for the span of three tortoise lives. Maybe he wanted it, maybe he didn’t.
What he really required was decent cuisine of the hog’s head and devilled turnips variety and then another date with that prim little schoolma’am Deborah. Talk about a mistress of disguises! She’d even done a turn with the Victorian Cat’s Meat Man, Blasphemy Fitzworth, during the pantomine season. Of course, Dee could whip up potions to seduce any woman in the land, living or dead, but it was much more fun to do it in the old-fashioned way, like a mere mortal. Not that he’d revealed his true nature to the maiden just yet.
A headless chicken crowed thrice. Time for a break.
Something gripped the inner wall of his stomach.
Gas Street Basin had by now returned to Brum City in the Mudlands. He had only managed this in a hot air balloon called Titanic. Coach and hard-shouldered horses were subject to piracy and other delays. His delivery done, he set about writing missives to himself as to how he’d missed his chance to continue as a protagonist. After all, Padgett Weggs was not a place like Basin was. And places often found it hard to move.
Meanwhile, Deborah was holding fort at Fish Street Primary (erstwhile Temperance Halls). Her audience sat hamfisted, oyster-bottomed and turtle-necked. They were there to hear how the Governors of the School were dealing with the threat of Great Old Ones: a threat to age all the youngest infants before they’d even appreciated the lump of coal and tangerine in a Christmas Stocking…
In her Head Girl role, Deborah was allotted the job of placating the parents’ concerns with the sheer innocent, almost unpubescent beauty of her manners. Imagine, the furore that erupted when the unsightly sight of Jack Barker and Padgett Weggs farted through the skin of air at the back of the Assembly. Deborah tried her damnedest not to recognise them – nor, for that matter, be recognised back.
“Deliveries under hand and seal are due,” she trilled. “I think these unlikely gents, despite their demeanour, are the best the Royal Mail can do, bearing in mind that messengers are often simply murdered for the message they bear. Expendables, they merely must be.”
Weggs reddened with rage. To him RRR was reading, riting and rithmetick.
“We are the barers of the over-tunicked,” he shouted over the turned heads of the audience. “Dee has said that Reality by Regal Appointment has shifted far too far. It is time for reprieve. The creatures that hide, wing within wing, above the smoggy clouds are merely here to oversee a reductio ad absurdum of all our ways and wayfares. Even as I talk, the overblown Titanic tilts towards Brum, with Blasphemy Fitzworth aboard, disguised as a mislocated place. He knits innards, as his vehicle floats towards the Spaghetti Canal Basin.”
Jack did not know where to put his face, his stomach turning over to make whatever was inside think twice. Jack assumed, indeed, that Weggs was obviously on a reality shift quite beyond the snatching.
Deborah gave a headmistressly cough and called the meeting back to order. To Jack’s nose schools smelled the same in every reality: stale farts, cheap floor polish and slightly mildewed sugar paper. Cat’s meat dinners often wafted through the windows…
There were two spaces on the starboard bench. He dragged the dewy-eyed Weggs across with him and was seated amidst the cod philosphers of Fish Street Primary.
“Now, where were we, or are we, or whatever?” Deborah enquired.
A raised hand: “I was asking whether the school agreed with a return to traditional values.”
The speaker was Sean Scalp, a sales rep for the publishing chain PUNS R US, but that’s not vital information for Primary Source purists.
“Yes, well,” Deborah mused, “these things are always in something of a state of flux. Which reminds me: the school outhouse/games shed has become another weak spot. Do you think you boys could do something about it? I’ll make it worth your while.”
“I think she means us,” Jack muttered, nudging his companion in the ribs.
“I’m not really a handyman, Miss,” Weggs offered, “more a painter and decorator, if you catch my drift.”
A glacial stare and an Antarctic voice: “Just get on with it sonny, or there’ll be no tuck shop for you for the rest of term – and very little on the corporal side, either.”
The overhead light bulb had failed again but there was a couple of torches just behind the wooden door. Jack moved his thumb forward an inch and illuminated a stomach turning scene of swirling spells and missives; in short, all the lost letters of the last literate generation.
“Got a plug or a plunger, Weggsy?”
“I dunno, I ‘aven’t looked in my trousers since Thursday.”
Jack cuffed him round the ear, something he should have done weeks ago. It was strange how being back inside a school building brought all that infantile behaviour back to the front brain.
The more reflective part of his mind, however, realized that his onions were in a pretty tight pickle. He owed sizeable debts to the mafia controlled lending firm Hall and sundry and here he was desperately fighting for the love of a good woman. Worse still, his main adversary was the evil mage, the secret power behind the throne…
“‘Ere, Barker-on-shore,” quoth Weggs, “whatever happened to my fried guppy on rye and a pina colada for the lady?”
The overheard light bulb had indeed failed bug-wise.
Dee was, with ears agog, sitting within the floating city as it skimmed in from the Mudlands. The hawky-talky was on the blink. His stomach plucked on next to nothing. Basin Fitzworth had only managed his John Dee persona at the last switch of the light fairground, forgetting to feed his stomach before the transmogrification gripped. Now, with hunger gnawing itself for the last prestidigitative pill, Dee, nee Basin, nay ne Basin, was homing in on that part of London where his Mistress the great Queen Bess flaunted herself as a precocious whelp-girl, head-girl, help-girl, monitor, nay monitrix.
Jack Are-You-Shaw-You’re-Barker saluted with the shadowy shave of his wave so that the low-slung sun wouldn’t scorch his optic fuses. The huge Mudland city would soon blot out not only the sun but the whole sky, turning it into a night with man-made stars. Like hair was fair, the ground was light.
This eclipse of all things God-given was doubtless the preamble to…
“Blimey, Jack O’Lantern, my dear geezer friend, that great shape in the sky is not a city let slip from its earthen shackles, but a Great Old One in disguise.”
Weggs was ever the one who extended his interjectons into long soliloquys. He teetered, indeed, on the brink of Heron Quays, as another light railway trundled past – this time without stopping. They weren’t light enough to float, thought Jack, who was now staring at the bounding figure of Deborah as she chased them from Fish Street, in the wake of the non-stop service. She used the narrow gauge as a groove for her own lightly narrower hips. In real life, she was wider than a barge. Queens were never narrow, at the best of times.
She wanted a painting done. So, with switch in hand, she pursued Weggs so that she could persuade him into depicting perfection. Only perfections were Platonic Forms and only such could float. Painting was the next heartstop. Or so she thought.
She had not yet noticed the darkening of the sky where her erstwhile toadee lurked.
Sean Scalp relaxed back into the desk. He was small enough to masquerade as a pupil, but his spigot stiffened as he dreamed of Deborah’s fresh forest glade which he had discovered behind the bikesheds. Inside his head, two pigeons, one called Shake, the other Spear, debated various dramatic lines; some quite beautiful but discarded by one or other of them, never to appear in the Canon; some clumsy and awkward and likewise discarded; others, nearly as good as the best, lasting towards a Globe’s posterity that perhaps never lived to read or see them acted. Scalp was Deb’s amanuensis as well as prickler, and that geezer, what-was-his-name, Simon Dee could go and feast himself on oodles of jellied eels and custard till Kingdom’s creamy come. A floating city was never going to land, because cities could never float in the first place.
Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. Intruders, in the school. Probably corporeal pupils who’d been expelled come back to wreak their vengeance. Or bugs come to listen to their own extinction. Rats, Ruminants and Reptiles. The electric doors slid open….
The light show was about to begin. Every character was the same character. We are all Jungian archetypes, chips of the Great Old Block. Horror unleashed. Crippling knees in the stomach. Alternate Worlds spun like lateral thoughts gone wild. Smells and name-changes were all that we had to prove we had existed once upon a time.

with Gordon Lewis

I picked my way slowly up the crumbling stone staircase winding within the tower of a ruined castle. My throat constricted with fear as I ascended, knowing that when I emerged into the sunlight I would be terrified by the height, not just that of the castle wall, but that it would be accentuated tenfold by the prominence the old Norman castle was built upon. I edged out of the opening at the top, keeping my back firmly planted on what was left of the wall. I surveyed the scene as I did 30 odd years before, when, as a 16 year old lad, I had no fear of heights. Nothing had changed except my age. I was trying to recapture the time I stood atop the tower without fear, aiming to perform a daredevil stunt just to impress a group of girls picnicking within the precincts of the castle. It was just one of the girls I really wanted to impress, a girl named Dorothy… Dorothy Smith, the girl we boys called “Goldilocks Dora”. The girl with the startling blue eyes and golden hair, so unobtainable to us lesser mortals. It would have been fantastic just to say – “I once walked out with Dorothy Smith, the prettiest girl in the world.” So she seemed not only to me, but to any of the adolescent boys for miles around.
More than three decades later I stood there again, shaking with fright, in spite of undergoing therapy to try and conquer an accursed phobia. Something to which I had become a victim after an accident that left me lying in a coma. A coma whence I was lucky to emerge, not just alive, but in fairly good physical shape… but leaving me with a morbid fear of high places… Acrophobia they called it, something I had to live with the past 3 years before leaving Fremantle in West Australia to visit my birthplace, to satisfy a longing, or as Welsh people say, my “Hiraeth” for the homeland.
I composed myself to a degree, knowing I had the opening to the top of the stone steps within inches of my feet. I just wanted to look again at that perilous crossing over a narrow parapet, to what was left of the castle keep, approximately 40 yards away from the tower. It seemed impossible that it was I (albeit a younger me) that made it across without falling. Not many had succeeded, especially without the aid of ropes. One young man had fallen, luckily breaking his fall before landing on the steep grassy slope, to go tumbling down to a small copse at the foot of the hill. He however, was confined to a wheel-chair for many years, recovering to walk, but only with the help of crutches.
The day I successfully traversed those hazardous yards long ago I recalled with clarity – just like an action replay of the whole occasion. My plan was to move along just a few yards, pretend I was going to “chicken out” after stumbling, but holding on, whilst calling for help (not that there would be any). I wanted an audience… so attracting the attention of the girls, in particular “Dora of the golden hair”.
All went according to plan… Regaining a foothold, I continued along the parapet, in front of my captive audience. I had no fear and I just knew I was going to make it… And make it I did, to reach the tower. My energy was spent, but I was so elated, I recovered quickly to make the comparatively easy descent to the inner court yard, expecting some kind of applause. But there was none. All except one of the girls walked away to continue with their silly picnic. I didn’t mind, for the one remaining was my Dorothy… or so I thought!
Her vivid blue eyes were flashing, not with excitement, but anger as she spoke… I think for the first time directly to me on a one to one basis. To say I was taken aback would be putting it mildly, as the girl of my dreams said those fateful words.
“You silly bloody fool, Denzil James. You could have broken your neck, which is a pity… Go back and do it again, this time you may kill yourself, and a good job too… I’m tired of you ogling me in Chapel every Sunday! What makes you think I could walk out with you, is quite beyond a joke.”
Crestfallen, my world in tatters, I walked away like a whipped cur with a tail between the legs, until I looked back to let my eyes traverse the parapet I had inched along; at least I had accomplished something
Mind you, when I recall what I looked like then, it’s hardly surprising she wouldn’t give me a second glance. Forced to wear those silly steel-rimmed glasses to correct a problem with my eyes, and like most of the boys of my age, I was cursed with the adolescent acne, earning the nick-name of specky-four-eyes.
There was never another opportunity to try to impress that lovely girl, for soon after that episode in the Castle, I was devastated when the news came that Dorothy was leaving the area. Her father had secured a good position in a mining area of Yorkshire. Within weeks they were gone. Dorothy was now more remote than ever. My intention to smarten myself up once my eye treatment was succesful, and acne was no more, would be to no avail.
It wasn’t across a crowded room I saw her face. That face that had haunted me over the years… At least it looked like the face I remembered, though more than 30 years had passed since I saw her looking up at me from the courtyard of that ruined castle near the Welsh border. I had returned to London after that brief Welsh visit to my birthplace, to re-live the days when I was a foolhardy specky youth.
The face I saw, older of course, was featured in a life-sized portrait of an attractive woman in the window of a fashionable London book store. It was an enlargement of the dozens of photographs on the covers of books displayed, in neat arrangement around an announcement advertising a book-signing by the author of the book; just three days away from the day I stood there gawping at the photographs in amazement.
Though the name was not that of the girl I knew so long ago, I was convinced it was she, none other than Dorothy Smith… that was…!
Had I not gazed on that younger face from a distance, obviously something of which she was aware, even though she called it “ogling”. Those vivid blue eyes were still there; everything about her was how I imagined the girl would be – but there was the name – obviously a pen-name with a play on the words of her maiden name. The title of the book too was reminiscent of those heady days of Autumn in farmlands around the Brecon Beacons where we grew up, “Once upon a harvest time” it was entitled, and Dora Goldsmith was the writer of the book displayed. The photographs just had to be of “golden-haired Dorothy Smith”, the girl I knew over three decades before.
One thing was certain, I would be at the book-launch and the signing that followed, but waiting for a quiet moment when I wouldn’t be hustled along in the rush for a signed copy… if indeed there was a rush… but, of course there would be a rush even though I now knew nothing about the author.
It was quite impossible to get anywhere near the pre-sales party, it being an invitation only launch. I was surprised that so much interest had been aroused by the book, so had to content myself with biding my time, impatient to prove that I was right in my assumptions.

I crossed the busy London street to find a place to eat; apart from feeling hungry by this time, there were three hours to kill, even before the scheduled time of the book sale. I found a window seat in a rather swish restaurant opposite the book shop, where I intended to spoil myself, celebrating, I hoped, a momentous occasion.

Money was of no consequence and, I supposed, no matter how rich and famous Dorothy had become, I would not be overshadowed by her success. My wealth had accumulated, not just by my own efforts. My father had been a a small-time builder in his birthplace at the head of the Swansea valley. Deciding there was more room for his skill on the continent of Australia, he applied for entry for himself and his whole family. It wasn’t on just a whim that he decided to uproot us all; he had found out that his skills would be well accepted in the growing country of Australia. Some months after Dorothy Smith left the valleys, I was on my way… half the world away to Perth in the antipodes.

Both my brother and I took to the life and the business of property building in a land hungry for well built new homes in the booming years of the mid twentieth century. The construction firm my father joined went from strength to strength, taking him with his two sons on his coat tails to eventual directors of a successful enterprise, all of us becoming rich beyond expectation during the 3 decades of frenzied building for those in need of fine homes. My father died after 25 of those years, and I succeeded him as managing director, until I met with an unfortunate accident. Nothing as spectacular as falling from a high building, but a freak accident whilst out riding. My horse was spooked by a snake, and I tumbled off his back to strike my head upon a rock. I lay in a coma for several days to recover without a great deal of damage, except that the brain injury had brought on acrophobia. Not something that would affect my life to any great extent, but a good reason to retire early to realise a cherished ambition to travel the world, making my first priority, a return to the “Land of my Father’s”. I had remained a bachelor, not that there had been a lack of suitable partners, but I had been disinclined to tie myself to one woman. Certainly, I was not carrying a torch for Dorothy Smith; I had forgotten all about that teenage crush… that is, until I saw those photographs of her, and knowing she was across that London Street, and soon, I would confront her – not as the specky-faced, bespectacled young Denzil James, but as a bronzed, well- built, set-up man of 50 plus with a Welsh-Australian accent. Of course I knew she was most probably married or committed to a family, but at least we could be friends, anyway. What I wanted to see most of all was the expression on her face when I confronted her.
There was no pressure for me to leave the restaurant. I had ordered several courses and it was way past 2 o’clock when I had the final coffee. I paid my sizeable bill and walked out into the May sunshine to head for the book shop, to what I hoped would be a very pleasant and eventful meeting.
I wandered around the vast book store, occasionally glancing into the department organising the sale of Dorothy’s book, waiting for the moment of a lull in the sale – the moment that didn’t come. I decided to tag on the end of a small queue, hoping that no one tagged on to me, but I was unlucky in that respect… then it was my turn.
“Whom shall I make it out to,” said the author, with the distinct lilt of a Welsh accent, certainly more than I had been left with after mixing with the folk “down under”.
“Could you please write to: You bloody fool Denzil James. I hope you break your silly neck.”
There was moment of shocked surprise before she looked up into my eyes, and I knew I struck a chord – knew for certain that it was definitely the woman into whom the girl I knew as Dorothy Smith had blossomed.
“You… You,” she stuttered, completely taken aback. “You’re not the Denzil James, the one with those funny glasses and all those spots?”
“Yes the one, but not quite the same. No glasses or spots, the one that couldn’t keep his eyes off you in chapel. Or was it ogling you called it?”
Aware that those behind me were getting restless, I quickly urged her to meet me later, in the same restaurant across the street.
“Please say you will, if only for old time’s sake… there is such a lot I want to tell you, certainly so much I want to know about your obvious success at this writing career of yours. You certainly have made a name for yourself, even if you have changed it from the old days. But somehow I knew you would be as brainy as you were beautiful.”
She became embarrassed, and something behind those blue eyes told me all was not as it seemed; there was just a hint of sadness too, as she hurriedly scribbled something on the flyleaf of the book I placed before her. As she handed it to me she said:
“I am scheduled to finish here at 4.30, I’ll meet you outside the store soon after that time… Thank you for buying my book…” she said as she attempted to smile at the customer behind me…
As I left the book store, I suddenly wished I had never attempted to meet Dorothy Smith (aka Dora Goldsmith) – things (or, especially, people) rarely lived up to long-held expectations. It was like remembering a jewel and finding a fossil; I had been blinded by her entourage at the signing; I could not help fretting over the trappings of her fame and, now I realised what it was, over her mock willingness to extend any contact with a mere punter, like myself, a punter who had, by some accident of fate, known her in a more impressionable epoch – more impressionable for both of us.
During one’s youth, one spreads seeds in a seeming fertile ground with the (perhaps unthought) hope of harvest in the future. Each act an investment. Each human-to-human touch a search for something other than itself.
Now was the time to cash in. But was there? Only a woman I hardly recognised – someone who had never been able to spy the worth beyond my specky skin. So why should she spy anything but the crust of my middle age? Would I ever dare give her the pleasure of meeting me after she finished with the book signing? I would simply slip away. That would be best…
I found myself at the entrance to a tube station. Even in the pre-rush hours it was as if I was being borne along on the wave of the ever-hurrying London crowds, to find myself descending to the depth below the streets of the city, not knowing where I was heading. In spite of the milling crowd I felt I was not alone, as if someone was watching my every move. A feeling I had sensed ever since leaving the street of the book store.
I teetered on the edge of the platform. The vertigo of acrophobia had never attacked me before at such a low level. Heights were comparative. But, here, simply a few feet above the throbbing rails…
I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. I turned to see if this were a precursor to some “care-in-the-community” eccentric, teasing with his (or her) fingertips before finally shoving me into the path of the approaching train… or was it somebody helping me to regain my balance…?
I somehow imagined it would be Dorothy, having followed me from the book launch… eager to renew our encounter. It was not her, Or it was her. I couldn’t be certain. A figure peeled off from the crowd before I could focus on the details that made a shape into a recognisable person. It was as if the rest of the eager passengers regrouped so as to protect the departure of whomsoever had thus helped me from the dizzying edge. I tried to recall the vivid blue eyes and the angry words scolding a certain Denzil James for his foolhardiness…
I determined to return, after all, towards the uncertain venue she had half-heartedly suggested for our meeting. Either she would be there or she wouldn’t. Either I would be there or I wouldn’t.
Perhaps two strangers would meet each other, instead.
Whatever the case, within the scope of the next hour, I would reap what I had sowed.
I found myself out in the daylight again, but having wandered aimlessly from the Street I needed to be in by 4.30, I had become disorientated, then uncharacteristically decisive, I looked about me for some prominent feature above the skyline of the stores opposite. I reached the curb edge with the traffic flowing like a slow wall of water. My head whirled and I felt the same sensation I had experienced dozens of feet below my feet. I swayed like a tree in the wind as, again, I felt that presence, the touch on my shoulder. Was it restraining, or urging me on? A taxi-cab pulled up just feet away from me, and as it discharged its fare, I became its next passenger. Remembering the name of the famous book store, I called out its name to the cabbie, and we became a part of the traffic tide.
I kept looking at my watch as the minutes ticked away towards the time of our meeting, and as half past the hour of four was minutes away, I was almost pleased we were not going to make the meeting. I accepted that Dorothy Smith would remain the girl I knew – I would never know the woman she had become… Did I really want to know the woman? Maybe it would shatter the illusion of the golden-haired girl Dora.
It was almost 5 o’clock when I paid off the cabbie. I walked to the entrance of the book store just to look once again at the life-sized portrait of the woman, the writer whom the girl had become. The window was empty around the portrait, so her book must have been in great demand. The book…? Where was the one I bought? I suddenly realised I hadn’t picked it up after Dorothy had signed it for me… Did I really want to read it? Of course I did; at least I would one day display it with a touch of the theatrical, showing it to friends, whilst boasting that I knew her when she was a slip of a girl.
Of course it had to happen… I turned to enter the store to see if my book had been left for me… and there she was, walking towards me, smiling a strange smile, forced in some way as she nervously glanced at the young man who was ushering her along.
“It was nice to see you again Denzil. Sorry… can’t stop, I have left your book with the manager.” Then pointedly she added. “I wrote what you wanted on the flyleaf… Perhaps we will meet for a longer chat one day.”
The stern-faced young man’s eyes were restless. After he examined me closely, his eyes were darting around… looking concerned, as if waiting for something to happen. Behind them, was another watchful man, almost a clone of the one holding Dorothy by the elbow. I managed a hurried “thank you”, before they hurried past me and into a waiting car.
With that she was gone… At least I had the book. Perhaps there would be something within to indicate when we could meet… there had been a wealth of meaning in that last thing she said…
There was indeed a sheet of paper between pages 112 and 113 (a sheet of similar size and quality as the book’s pages themselves). I assumed it was entirely blank until I discerned – in faint 4H pencil lead – the word “Hiraeth”. (I imagined the barely tangible person I sensed was watching me when on the underground station platform had started to gently write it, leaning on the paper hardly at all). It was a clue – or rather, a spur – for an indefinable longing… to understand, to find, to renew, to re-enact… Love would always be a memory, unless I grabbed it as it came around again like a comet…
This word “Hiraeth” which I found faintly written in the edition of Dorothy’s book I now owned (and as yet, not read) a word teasingly etched upon a wayward leaf, should have drawn me ineluctably back to the valleys and hills of Wales. After all it was a Welsh word. It could have meant something important, yet tantalisingly distant, dizzingly swaying above in the highest heavens. It meant a lot. So much more if there had been a date for a meeting where this tale began. The word seemed to encapsulate the steel rimmed specs, the specky skin, the spooked horse, the archipelagos of acne. Yes, the pitted map of a visage so familiar to mirrors and the still waters of ponds.
No, I was not drawn back to Wales, though I had spent a good part of my life in Australia, that huge sprawling continent of the lowest common denominator… I now needed more focus, more point. And, strangely, I was drawn towards France (Paris, in particular) yes towards the Eiffel Tower. I knew I was aiding and abetting Fate, an often pointless Fate, but there was (in my dreams at least) a vision of that sharp-rearing, age-seasoned, land-locked, sun-gilt sword of tapering, surging power skywards…
Our assignation (Dorothy’s and mine) I just knew (how? – I still don’t know) was to be in the vicinity of this tower. But, first, imagine my journey towards this all-important venue. I took the ferry – eschewing the Channel Tunnel, a route too reminiscent of the recent “fright” in the depths of the London subway – but I still managed to sense sidelong, sloppy shapes and figures going in and out of focus as they seemed to follow me about on the vertiginous deck, caused by the surge of those ever present cross currents beneath what appeared to be an unusual English Channel millpond and most real passengers were above deck, in the fresh air. I tried to shrug off my paranoia about my pursuers. They seemed to have specky skin, although it was difficult to determine whether there were any other distinguishing features. They reminded me, somewhat, of the lower-scale employees of the family firm in Australia – people I had usually no contact with, but now they were coming home to roost…
I tried to blot such people from my mind – as my train from Calais approached the purlieus of Paris.
It was quite dark when the train pulled into the Paris railway station, and once again I had to rely on a taxi-cab to whisk me off to the hotel I had booked to stay in. It had been my intention to visit one or two places of interest that evening, but “Maytime in Paris’ wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The view of the distant Eiffel Tower at night was just a blur of twinkling lights – and the occasional flash of lightning – through a curtain of lashing rain… there was always tomorrow, and I had all the time in the world, or so I supposed.
I lay on my bed, not yet prepared to retire for the night. I remembered I had only skipped through the book I had bought; it really wasn’t my “cup of tea’; historical romances were something I never could get interested in. I had accepted that the faintly written word “Hiraeth” was not a message at all, and my reason for this Parisian visit was for another reason entirely.
It had been suggested by my mental therapist that my condition need not be permanent, and that I could cure myself gradually by “biting the bullet” so to speak. His prognostication was that on my trip to the other side of world I should visit high places that were tourist attractions where there were others enjoying the experience, old and young alike without fear, hopefully helping with their presence. Providing there was easy methods of access, I would gradually become used to being not afraid of heights… Places like “The monument to the fire of London in Pudding Lane” – the castle near my birthplace – even “Snowdonia” in North Wales – and the real reason for my visit to Paris, “The Eiffel Tower”. The Welsh castle and The Monument I had already tackled, and I have to say, they had not helped that much. I was not at all comfortable, but I had at least reached to the top of both, but without looking down! Not even a quick glance. It was my intention to take the lift (just a stage at a time) up the Eiffel Tower, but something made me hurriedly alter my plans.
I knew nothing of the woman Dorothy had become, so I turned to the very last page of the book, or rather the notes on the protective jacket, where it was normal for a brief pen-picture of the writer to appear; something I had hurriedly read just once before. There was no mention of a relationship, family or such, just a brief synopsis of her career. Success in journalism and the books she had written in her beloved Wales… not in the area we both grew up in… but Snowdonia, by amazing coincidence, Llanberis, the place I intended to visit again, determined to reach the summit of Snowdon… the easy way…by the mountain railway that began its ascent to the top from that little Welsh Parish at the foot of the mountain. But why the haste…? There were some words indenting the print from the reverse of the glossy book jacket. Turning the flap over there were two words of Welsh… “Mehefin Pedwar”. I racked my brains trying to remember the Welsh lessons at school. I had been brought up in an English speaking household, but I remembered numbers in the Welsh language, also the days of the week and the months of the year. What Dorothy had written was the date “June 4”. Could it mean she would be in North Wales on that date? I couldn’t for the life of me see a reason for all this secrecy. It could only mean she wanted to be there without having “minders’ hurrying her along… and she did say “we will meet” again. Perhaps I was assuming too much… grasping at straws… but I had intended a trip to Llanberis… the Eiffel tower would still be there… unless it was struck by lightning. June the fourth was only a week away… So I argued – why not the ascent to the top of Snowdon first? There would be a greater incentive, wanting to be there with Dorothy.
Like life itself, one can never really recall each turning. We are a series of different selves as we take our rite of passage through each of our sea-changes… And, in a similar vein, I cannot now exactly remember how I switched directions, how I abruptly lost interest in Paris and the impossible (to me) challenge presented by the imposing Eiffel Tower, an architectural wonder of the world which I had before described floridly and (in hindsight) so inappropriately whilst there.
No, it was Mount Snowdon where I was bound. I had been there before, staying in a small Guest House in Llanberis itself, where a banner had been stretched across the street welcoming back one the town’s brave inhabitants from his stint in the Gulf War.
This time – incredibly – I was led, by the nose, as it were, to another guest house establishment (the previous one where I had stayed having become something quite different concerned with mountain rescue) – and I was quite stunned to see a nameboard above the door spelling out “HIRAETH”. This seemed to be a very apt name for someone’s home, even better than “Cartref”. But for reasons too obvious to labour, it was most remarkable that I’d been attracted hither of all places.
In the backyard, I noticed a frightened horse. It whinnied, then snickered, as I tentatively walked down the crazy-paved path towards HIRAETH and from within, there echoed the yaps of a tiny-sounding dog.
It was in the evening of June 3rd and I knew my suitcase held that all-important book. It was as if I feared not recognising Goldilocks (as I tutored myself to think of her) if I did not possess her older effigy, albeit by means of a two-dimensional photograph on the back-flap of the dust-wrapper.
I knocked. I hadn’t booked. Like before, I depended on serendipity to ease my way through life. I had travelled wide over the current Britain – on the off chance of resting my head, even at the height of summer (as now); more often than not I landed on my feet and found a comfortable billet.
The woman who answered my knocking upon the door of HIRAETH was a homely, plump Welsh woman who spoke with that delightful lilt so familiar in the Land of my Fathers. She wielded a huge rolling-pin and flour was peppered over the ample folds of her black apron. I was pleased (but not surprised) to be told that there had been a late cancellation and I was smartly shown a delightful ensuite room with a view of the mountains, a room tastefully and traditionally decorated.
After exchanging small talk and a little bit of Welsh bonding, she left me to unpack. I shivered. For the first time since arriving in Wales I felt apprehensive. Goldilock’s minders etched against the rearing horizon as they trooped up a distant mountain flank. It was only imagination, I hoped. More suitable for my dreams-to-come than waking reality.
The years since I left Australia seemed but a passing phase. Idly following my nose (rather than being led by it), I had achieved little, except visiting parts of the old country I had not had the opportunity to experience before I was whisked to a world away by my ambitious father. I had been ready to return to Australia until the day I saw Dorothy’s photographs in that London book store. Why was I pursuing the notion of meeting her on a one-to-one basis? Curiosity, I supposed, intrigued by the feeling all was not well… Why had she taken the trouble to leave a message in Welsh? A message obviously intended for me. She would have surmised I would turn to the book’s jacket notes, the most natural thing for an old acquaintance to do.
I strolled about the village of Llanberis, re-acquainting myself with the bar of the inn near the rail terminus, after checking the times of train departures for the main summit among the five peaks rearing skywards from the village.
“Dinner is at half past seven,” Mrs Morgans informed me as I left the guest house. “A lovely bit of Welsh lamb specially for you,” she added, her button-nosed face wreathed in smiles.
I was ready for dinner long before that time, impatient for the dinner gong to ring out, as I sat in the small but comfortable lounge at “Hiraeth”, a name appropriate, as I could smell the dinner being cooked, reminding me of the days when I was a young man. I whiled away the time by reading “Once upon a harvest time”, laying the book closed upon the low table at my side as Mrs Morgans entered to inform me that dinner would be right on time.
“Oh… I see you reading that book… written near here it was… I wonder how Mrs Rees-Powell is coping, waiting until the men who killed her husband are captured?” She spoke English with quaint deliberation, it being her second language.
“Mrs Rees-Powell?” I queried. “Who is she, what has she to do with the book?”
“Why… that is the proper name of the authoress… look you – she was the only witness to the killing of her husband… In danger, she is until they catch the men who broke into “Plas Bryn”… the big house on the road between here and Bettws-y-Coed…”
It began to fit! I wondered what June 4th, the very next day would bring.
The dining room was less than half full, and having commented upon it to the diminutive waitress, I was informed that most of the guests this time of year were booked for bed and breakfast. Llanberis, though a popular place as a stopover because of the terminus for the rack-railway climbing more than 3,500 feet to the five peaks of the mountain. The thought of being up there three times as high as the Eiffel tower sent a spasm of fear through me, but I was determined to set out on that train in the morning, even if I kept my eyes closed.
I set aside these negative thoughts, prepared to enjoy my food, turning my back to the window as the sun etched shadows of the mountain behind me.
Mrs Morgans had been right about the lamb; I had forgotten how delicious Welsh lamb was, compared to anywhere else in the world. I complimented her as she appeared at my elbow. As she left, she said:
“Oh, by the way, Mr James, I heard in the village, our famous writer was seen entering “Plas Bryn’ this afternoon, escorted by the Police she was. I wonder if she is out of danger at last… It has been a terrible time for her…”
When I retired for the night, I wondered if I would be beset by dreams. More than enough had happened to colour my sleep, I was sure – but my room at Mrs Morgans’ place possessed a restful ambience, with pastel shades and subdued ornamentation (not that such things would matter once I’d turned the lights off). In any event, I laid quietly on my back for a while, not even attempting to fall asleep. Thoughts autonomously swirled around my mind (normally a bad omen for dreams or even nightmares later in the night) and these thoughts centred around Goldilocks aka Dorothy Smith aka Dora Goldsmith aka Mrs Rees-Powell. How many more names would I eventually learn about as I traced the paths of destiny set in motion by that book signing session? Then my mind remembered the rumours of dark dealings and murder, implications of which piled up as they stemmed from Mrs Morgans’ few words before dinner. Perhaps those so called “minders’ I’d sensed on the tube platform, again on the tilting ferry and, yes half glimpsed this very day as they scaled a Mountain in Indian file, perhaps not “minders’ at all but inimical creatures, ones that were more mixed up with murder than minds…
All fading in my own mind, as I had a full-blooded dream (instead of dozing thoughts) about St Paul’s Cathedral back in London, that grimy grim city where I had renewed my contact with Goldilocks. I almost felt like a character in a book, perhaps one of her books, as I clambered up to the famous Whispering Gallery and, with my condition almost overwhelming my faculties, I spreadeagled my body against the curved wall as I painstakingly circled the inside of the great Dome – my front turned to the vast echoing auditorium below. The cathedral’s mighty organ bellowed; I could hardly discern the hooded figure within the distant plinth as it struggled with the stops. Then my eyes almost zoomed in to spot a white glare instead of a face, an insect proboscis instead of a nose, wiry feelers instead of fingers and large riding boots pummelling away at the pedals…
I woke with a start. I remembered that the organ had suddenly stopped towards the tail-end of the dream and I heard whispering as I pressed my ear to the cold gallery wall. The words were Welsh.
The morning had already broken and Mrs Morgans presented me with eggs sunnyside up, grilled kidneys, mushrooms and, surprisingly, some waffles drenched in molasses. I politely nibbled as much as I could stomach and mentioned to Mrs Morgans that today – June 4th – I was to complete an ambition of mine (a rigorous challenge for one afflicted with my condition) taking the mountain train to the summit of Snowdon. Imagine my disappointment when she announced she’d heard rumours that urgent engineering inspection was going to prevent train journeys for today.
“Ivor told me. They’re having to check the edges,” she said.
“Check the edges?” I shrugged, not bothering to query further.
“And, oh yes,” Mrs Morgans continued – as she placed a platter of rather fatty looking back-bacon in the centre of the table – “Mrs Rees-Powell the writer is making a presentation to our local war hero in front of the pub opposite this evening. Everybody’s going. They’ll welcome a stranger or two, why don’t you come with me?”
I nodded non-committally. I had already decided I was going to climb up the mountain. Even at my age, I’d heard people who had made such a climb – more an uphill walk than a climb. A long walk, yes, but I had been told, the slopes were, in the main, not too severe.
Mrs Morgans broke into my thoughts again… “Sorry I forgot the bacon, there’s plenty there, help yourself…” she said as she made to leave to attend to others.
But I was already replete, and I wasn’t partial to bacon that was not grilled to a crisp. The sight of the fatty bacon did nothing to help the queazy feeling in my stomach already churning at the thought of what I resolved to do when I left the guest-house.
With that Mrs Morgans returned to my table; she seemed to have adopted a motherly feeling for a fellow Cymro as she suggested the following:
“If you intend tackling the walk up the mountain, call in the Rescue Centre and they will check if you are properly equipped. Of course they are really more concerned with the more adventurous climbers who take the dangerous routes, but one of the men there has helped people with fear of heights. Actually he is a cousin of my late husband. He is called Glyndwr Morgan, tell him I sent you, and, by the way, a donation to their work will help, but not compulsory, mind you.”
She was a dear old soul, inclined to run on a bit perhaps, but I decided I would take her advice. But she hadn’t quite finished with her guardian-angel performance.
“You’ll find a little packed lunch for you, you’ll probably need it when you sit quietly looking at the magnificent view from the top.”
My heart turned over at how easy she made it all sound, but not enough to put off my resolve. So with my stoutest shoes on my feet and dressed sensibly, I made for the Mountain Rescue Centre, and to my polite request to speak to Mr Glyndwr Morgan, I was surprised to hear the man say:
“You’re speaking to him, people call me “Glyn”, and before you say anything, I know who sent you – Mrs Gwen Morgans – she is the only one who uses my full name.”
I told him of my full history and the blow that caused this stupid fear of heights. That I had already started a self-cure therapy and questioned if I was wise to tackle the obstacle of the mountain.
“I’m walking the track myself ahead of the engineers today, setting off soon, why don’t you tag along with me, chatting with someone is the best way, and I have to tell you, I was once bordering on having a phobia of your kind. You really should not try and do it all by yourself and you are most welcome to come to walk the track with me.”
I was buoyed up by his suggestion, almost looking forward to the idea. There was something about the man that inspired confidence, and I accepted his suggestion readily, at the same time asking if I could make a contribution to the Centre’s funds… and this was gladly accepted as I stuffed some paper money into the box on the desk.
When I queried how long it would take, he said it would be around tea-time when we arrived back at the centre. The weather was set fair and he envisaged no problem, and when I mentioned the evening’s presentation, he said:
“Never fear, I want to be there too. With bells on… Sergeant Jenkins is a relation of mine…”
I was beginning to think everyone in the village were related in some way or another; perhaps this chappie knew the lady I was hoping at last to meet for longer than a brief exchange of words. But would that be enough? I had other matters in front of me…
It was perhaps amazing how I could even envisage such a climb – walk – hike – trek – call it what you will – to the summit of Snowdon. Almost as if I had already met an imposssible challenge by even considering such a feat. My father, as I mentioned earlier, was a builder, a Master Builder. The Eiffel Tower and St Paul’s Cathedral lodged in my mind as symbols of his achievements “down under”. Humanity, in some shape or form, had constructed such wonders of the world – and my father had been a vital component in this great march of humanity. I felt that, somehow, they were his buildings…
I glanced at the imposing bulk of Snowdon against a dull-gilt sky and I imagined a structure upon which the mountain had been hung like a theatrical backdrop. God’s Structure, if not man’s – reaching downwards into a heavenly antipodes…
I smiled and placed more money into Glyn’s box. I shook his hand and he seemed to know instinctively that I did not need him for what I was about to undergo.
The breakfast still lay heavy on my stomach. But I had no real physical need to scale the mountain, I had already accomplished this feat in my head and my eyes could see clearly for the first time – as if I had been dizzy all my life – but now the giddyness had left me, I could recognise it for what it was, what it had been.
The sun now silhouetted the mountain with an unimpeachable clarity, strands of gold sliding along its flanks. A corona’s promenade.
I smiled and I prayed as I saw a golden-haired angel pushing a wheelchair towards the pub opposite Mrs Morgans’ Guest-house. A specky-faced man was seated in the wheelchair, seeming to be pedalling hard with his feet in riding boots… as if, ridiculously, he believed this action helped his minder push him along.
I closed the dust-wrapped book, with a longing. Irrationally I dreamed of a spooked horse. The harvest was over…
Yesterday was history… Tomorrow… A mystery? But somehow I knew I would reach new heights – unafraid – a hand, smaller, softer, clasped in mine…
Hiraeth and Heaven were one.

with Jeff Holland

The thunder rolled around the tops of the towers and the lightning danced crisp glass shards between sky and ground
Turner pulled the durna skin over his head and watched the city through a curtain of drips. In the morning he’d go in and see if any damage had been done. Tough shit if it had, how the hell was he supposed to repair it when all the power was down?
He felt, rather than heard, a movement behind him and before he even had a chance to react Lorni was underneath the skin and snuggling into his armpit.
Ignoring the overpowering stench of the animal’s wet fur Turner swore softly at the beast and tried to get some sleep.
Two of the three suns were visible when Turner awoke and the durna skin steamed in the heat. There was no sign of Lorni but Turner didn’t expect there to be.
No one had quite worked out how the animals did it but certainly it was something to do with telekinesis
They thought where they wanted to be and were there.
If not for that ability Turner doubted that they would have survived. As it was they still died quite spectacularly when their thoughts were inaccurate and they tried to occupy an already occupied space.
Amid the distant hills – where, much earlier, he had sun-breakfasted – he saw large loping shapes. Peculiar how he only ever avoided danger by the skin of his teeth.
He dug into his pack and extracted two breakfast packages, set them for “sun’ and laid them out to activate.
While he waited he used storm water puddles to freshen up.
After a hasty meal Turner slung his few possessions into the pack and set off for the city. Every so often Lorni would burst into view, scamper around Turner and disappear again.
As the city approached, Turner heard thunder return. An unusual morning storm created a black backdrop to the grey-brown turrets and beacon-tops from where the oddly sporadic wailing of muezzin broke the silences between the sky’s grumbling peals.
Eventually arriving at the iron studded gate, Lorni, now upon hind-legs, scuttled beside Turner. Once within the city walls, of course, Lorni would not be able to come and go with such freedom.
“Oi!” shouted Turner.
“Oi!, Oi!” came the high-pitched voice from beyond the gate.
Turner’s own voice was still oily with the remains of his sun-baked breakfast. Indeed, he had rubbed some of it on his nose – but no need for such precautions today in view of the unseasonable darkening of the weather.
The gate suddenly groaned, gaped open – swifter than any hinges could possible allow whatever their lubrication – and a lightning shaft spot-lit the most beautiful woman Turner had ever seen. Not many of her charms were left to the imagination, yet, surely, this was none other than Rachel, the sprite who had been only two knickknacks short of an apple scrumper when he’d last seen her.
So stunned was Turner, he failed to keep reckon upon Lorni whose feral flanks were literally flickering in and out of existence before trying to cross the gate’s threshold.
In the end Lorni’s mind flickered as much as her body and she disappeared.
“Who else?”
“But … but … you should be, what? Nine? Ten at the most.”
“I am ten, Turner; and twenty seven; and forty three. You don’t know, do you?”
“Rachel, you always were bright but you’re leaving me now.”
“Time is irrelevant now, Turner. It’s as we always thought.”
“You’re from the future?”
“The Council Elders sent me to find you.”
“Me? Why me? Hang on. I’m not really getting this. What’s been going on?”
“Mainly it’s due to you, Turner, you and Lorni. When you bought Lorni back after –” (she paused) “After this job, we found out how the natzin do it and, with a bit of training, found we could do it as well.”
“What, teleport? That sort of thing?”
“Exactly. It’s easy to do but not very easy to ensure your arrival point. The natzins can absolutely clear their mind and concentrate on one physical place. They’ve also got an instinct for empty spaces. At first bits of people were landing up all over the place. It was worse than wars. No one does it any more but we can think a “when’ instead of a “where” quite successfully.”
“You mean just think of a time and off you go?”
“Something like that. Look, we haven’t got long and there’s work to do. I’ve literally been looking for you for ages.”
“Hold on. Hold on. If you can think yourself through time why don’t you find me earlier on and give us both a break? Better still, why don’t I come back from the future myself?”
“You can’t, Turner. You die before we find out how to think and I can’t physically find you before now. Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
“Okay. I’ll buy it. What’s the job?”
“Two jobs, Turner, not one. Yours is to get power back on to the city. Mine’s to make sure Lorni is with you.”
She could see the puzzlement on his face.
“When you travel-think you leave trails.”
She moved past Turner and out through the gate. He watched her; the sun’s rays glistening on her own sun-oiled body.
“And you can stop thinking that, Turner. I’m your partner’s clone, not your partner.” And she shimmered into where/when.
Turner sighed. Obviously the force field was still intact so he let the durna skin fall where he stood despite the impending storm. Just before he closed the gate Rachel materialised beside a rocky outcrop.
“Turner, I nearly forgot. The reason for all this is the durna. Someone’s been tampering with their gene pool. They’re becoming intelligent very quickly.”
And she was gone.
Turner tried to imagine the huge, vicious durna with a brain and he shuddered as he slammed the portal shut.
It suddenly dawned on Turner that the small natzin and the mammoth durna were one and the same beast at different evolutionary stages. A thought which could be taken further … except Turner’s mind failed to encompass the implication. Why, for example, did Lorni herself sometimes progress over the ground on all fours like the natzin and, then, later, on hind-legs? Turner did not have time to dwell upon this frightener of the duration dilemma – because, following a gap in memory, he found himself at the top of one of the city’s beacon towers – adjusting a lightning conductor. It had no doubt been a long, painful climb: his legs ached and his chest pumped. The citizens below were forming strange patterns with the haphazard journeys between chores. He soon spotted – even at this height – Rachel and Lorni weaving between the Indian Files of pail-toters and swill-maids, as if creating an invisible fabric upon the loom of chance. But Turner knew who was who. Something told him.
Amid the distant hills where, much earlier, he had sun-breakfasted – he saw large loping shapes. Peculiar how he only ever avoided danger by the skin of his teeth. The feeling was that these shapes smelt Turner’s actual absence – which was unusual since most prey tended to be revealed to predators by tangible body-stench. Turner wondered if these shapes were simply in pursuit of his mental residues rather than of the thing-he-was. He laughed as the rod ratcheted into position upon the beacon-tower – ready for the next storm. The muezzin renewed their wailing, as if such muezzin had merely been plugged back in. Turner laughed again as he began to prepare for his descent.
“That was quick” announced Rachel, as he arrived, even before he could blink an eyelid, on the ground. But his next blink revealed that she now appeared to be at the optimum age for bedding. And no sign of Lorni.
“Where’s Lorni?”
“It doesn’t matter, John,” and she moved towards him, an oiled temptress glistening in the pre-storm sunlight. Turner reached for his knife and lunged forward in one smooth movement, all the time trying to screen his mind from outside probes. He aimed the sharp point just below the swell of Rachel’s left breast and plunged lengthways into the dust of the street. The muezzin changed from its religious wailing to a harsh, metallic laughter, which echoed and boomed around the spires and towers.
Turner picked himself up, sheathed his knife and peered around the empty streets. He was used to people playing with his mind but to get it so wrong as to use Rachel sexually against him was pathetic.
He quickly made his way back to the generating room knowing only that the impending storm, was his best chance of restoring power. He cursed his memory loss. Now that was a good touch. He no longer knew if he’d sited all the conductors or only the one he could remember.
By the time he viewed the city from the generators’ observatory one sun had vanished completely while a second played hide and seek behind the black clouds. With the third sun gleaming from a clear sky behind him, the effect of the shadow movements below was almost strobe-like.
With a deafening crash the storm broke. Turner watched with pleasure as strike after strike of lightning hit the myriad conductors around the city whilst the rain ran helplessly off the force shield.
Stepping away from the window Turner watched the gauges mount slowly and inexorably towards the red line.
With one eye on the gauges and the other on the storm Turner anxiously pleaded with any and all Gods to let the storm continue long enough to recharge the city. The gauge, still short of the red line, was moving slower and the rain was easing.
Hoping against hope for a final gigantic strike Turner threw the switches.
The feeling was that these shapes smelt Turner’s actual absence – which was unusual since most prey tended to be revealed to predators by tangible body-stench. Turner wondered if
Nothing happened
Then, slowly, a deep thunderous, vibrating sound crept into his belly. He looked up at the gauges to see them heading for the empty mark, quicker than a meteorite. One last gigantic clap of thunder and the sharp electric smell of strike told Turner he’d succeeded.
The rumble stopped and, street by street, the lights came on.
Turner sighed with relief, punched the co-ordinates into the computer and settled back for the long journey.
On a distant hillside Rachel turned to the huge durna behind her.
“Look, Lorni, I told you he’d do it.”
The durna watched intently as, like a woman picking up her skirts, the city raised itself onto its airbed and set off slowly for the distant mountains.
The loping shapes curtailed their furtive antics as soon as they had tracked Turner’s tussling mind to its fox-earth. Turner, had, indeed, just been through here … and not even the fluidity of time could cover his mating-call. These beasts could sniff out the most insignificant moment in the most insignificant minute if such a moment in such a minute merely revealed a suspicion of their prey.
They surrounded the city, pretending to be Red Indians stalking a slumbering wagon-train – except, of course, the so-called wagons did shift, even when their wheels were stuck fast in the solid mud of unbudgeable duration. But now the wagons actually floated on air like the constituents of a flowing wedding-gown, one whose gems glinted with thunder-sparks.
Most of the shapes eventually slouched off, but not before leaving one chosen from themselves – a misbred cross between a durna and a natzin – to eavesdrop upon a particular constituent of the city. This constituent was a power-house on metal bogies wherein, supposedly, those who wailed and chanted now sat silently with their fingers in sockets, waiting for the next shock to restir their spiritual concatenations.
“How can we keep up this vigil?” asked a feminine voice from within.
Surely, this was no muezzin, since all muezzins were men.
“Please, let me, Rachel. There are only a few precious moments before the points change … they are sweeter than the sweetest pippins.”
A sucking noise ensued, as the shaggy ear-wigger outside shifted its rump to gain further purchase upon the sounds of this special moment.
Then the shape recognised another shape similar to itself curled like a huge, furry whelk upon the wagon’s porch-step … as if guarding the canoodling couple inside against intruders.
It was Lorni!
And Lorni was a representative of every single creature to which and from which the aeons of evolution derived. Even the surreptitious shape felt itself part of the onward spawning Lorni-cycle – and, thus, if Lorni was ripe for raping, it would be tantamount to the raping of oneself. But, at this point in the ruminations, Lorni stirred as Turner and Rachel left the caravan (for caravan was what Turner and Rachel called it in a moment of unvarnished truth) … and the couple took air by the only river the city boasted, where pylons stretched into the sky yearning for one more short circuit with the next trip-switch sun that was set to rise. Solar flares, indeed, fussed like curlicue glow-worms upon the dark horizon. Stars spurted like expensive fireworks. A romantic sight, it was, but then Lorni dissolved to the pangs of muffled wailing from a muzzled muezzin. Rachel vanished, too … watched by a tearful Turner who now sat astride the shaggy cross-breed that had been simply lying in wait for its own turn with Turner, its horns being bony earth-wires within tantalising air, antlers that teased out atoms of electricity even when there were no storms that could z-track sunbursts.
Eventually, despairing of Rachel coming back through the aeons of time upon Lorni’s broad back, Turner turned the steering of his own natzidurnic steed towards the caravan of Catafalk, the onion seller.
It never ceased to amaze Turner how Lorni could pick her way through the hordes in the market place without ever even annoying anyone, let alone trampling on them. As the thought entered his mind, he remembered Lorni as she was this morning. He leant forward and ruffled the fur between the beast’s ears.
“I shan’t be sorry to get back to linear time, Lorni, and that’s no mistake. I don’t know whether I’m going or coming back.”
Turner could see from the crowds that the power was on and was able to judge from Lorni’s rolling gait that the city was on the move. Somewhere, in the depths of his memory he was sure that the city would reach the mountains, sure that in the distant past of the future he had left his planet to … to …
He couldn’t remember who was going to win, the harmless thought eaters, the natzin durnas, the Council of Elders or … or something else just on the shadowy edges of his memories.
“A thousand good pasts to you, Sir Turner.”
He’d either dropped off or the time had jumped again.
“Catafalk! It really is good to see you. Who are you cheating today?”
Catafalk looked suitably insulted.
“Good Sir, I cheat no one. I sell only honest onions.”
“Tell me, Catafalk, does time here ever slip at a convenient place? I mean, why can’t time slip now and take me to the end of this meeting? I really have no wish to put up with your stench, your lies, your onions or your over-priced information.”
“To move time wrongly would open your future to the thought eaters, Sir. A wrong move at the wrong time and you’d jump forward to being a zombie.”
Catafalk found himself talking to a crowd of curious onlookers with no sign of Turner or the huge beast he called Lorni.
“Oh, shit!”
He muttered to himself and, surrounded by jeers from the taunting crowd, he crept into his caravan.
Once inside he moved swiftly and surely, uncovering the comm-set and powering up. The lights barely glimmered before Catafalk started thinking.
“Rachel, he’s still here, about half way through the time but I think he’s losing control. He doesn’t seem to remember what’s shifted or when.”
“Be careful, Catafalk. He could be bluffing or Lorni may have been gotten at. Does she show any signs of the thought eaters?”
“I didn’t see any signs but they were only here briefly.”
“Okay. Watch out for him for us and look after Lorni too. There’s a possibility that the thought eaters may try to insinuate a mate into her life.”
The connection broke and the screen went dark. Catafalk looked around the tip that was his caravan and silently wished he were back in the clean, antiseptic shrine of the Elders’ Council Chamber. Unlike Turner, though, he didn’t wish for the worlds of linear time. He found not knowing when he was coming next quite exhilarating.
He gazed into the mirror and, not quite satisfied with his reflection, dipped his fingers into a pot of evil smelling grease which he daubed across his cheek and throat. Nodding at his reflection he resumed his place outside.
“Onions. Three perpa a birt. Three perpa a birt.”
He prodded the steaming mass of onions with the curved blade of his knife.
“Hey, Catafalk. I’ll have two birts if they’re any good.”
“How can you insult me so, Citizen? Take five birts. They’ll never be this good again.”
“At three perpas they need to be platinum.”
“I’ll give them to you for 14”
“13 and my wife goes hungry and my children starve.”
“You have no wife let alone children, Catafalk. They can’t stand the stench.”
“Why, thank you, Citizen. May a durna fancy your daughter. 13.”
“13 and the sauce goes free.”
“Done.” Catafalk filled the birts and pocketed the money.
“And two change.”
“Why, bless you! I clean forgot.”
“Catafalk, nothing’s clean about you.”
“A thousand good pasts to you, Sir Turner.”
He’d either dropped off or the time had jumped again.
“Catalfalk! It really is good to see you. Who are you cheating today?”
Catafalk looked suitably … surprised.
“You know this is about 10 minutes ago, don’t you, Turner?”
“Oh, Christ! It’s not, is it?”
“If the thought eaters had been here you’d have shit out, Turner.”
“Who are you, Catafalk?”
“I’m just a poor onion seller, Sir.”
“I’m not fooled, Catafalk. What’s going on?”
“You just watch out for Lorni. You don’t want her up the spout, do you?”
“Catafalk, you just tell Rachel I still need one more storm to reach the mountains. No, don’t say anything. Save the lines for the punters.”
Turner wheeled his animal away and into the crowd. Three shadowy figures emerged from the alley and hungrily sniffed around Catafalk’s caravan.
Turner wondered if
The thought eaters were a rat race apart. Catafalk kept onions merely so that they would turn rotten and attract such scavengers, attract them with a mulchy stench.
The return of Turner the durna. The return of Turner the durna.
The costermonger’s cry was more rhythmic than any “three perpa a birt”.
The loping shapes were only ever avoided by the skin of a rodent’s eye tooth.
And after sniffing around the onion-seller’s caravan, the three loping shadows took direction for their home base. They had checked out that he was earning perpa for his birt and thus the dirt on him regarding his social benefit entitlement. But Catafalk usually avoided discovery in this respect by dodging around those crucial minutes in each day when the welfare laws were tightest upon time-hoppers. Turner was one such loping shape himself intent on nabbing crooks and other loping shapes. Little did he know that he thus tracked himself …
Another shapely shadow followed in the wake of Rachel, sure that this Rachel was Turner’s mate. Two could live cheaper than one. Entitlements for couples were not as great as double a single. Lorni was a snuffler-out of scandals, too, although her huge bulk was often too noticeable to be of any use for camouflage. She yearned for her natzin beginnings, when muezzins were paid to keep quiet, rather than punished for it. Wailing was never very holy at the best of times.
Turner shrugged.
Stars spurted like expensive fireworks.
There was only one pylon that was still working. It sprayed light into the dark expanse of sky, like the most expensive pyrotechnic of all, it wrote letters with the help of comets, stars, moons and wayward time-hoppers:
The exclamation mark was a flash of lightning dropping a thunderbolt.
He turned to see who was fussing about soft straw.
“?” Queried Turner.
“Yes, O wondrous one, I wish to introduce myself.”
Turner squinted through the scintilla of near-to-dying fireflies and discerned the huge shoulders of a natzin with pippin breasts like mildewy cookers. If this were Rachel, time had not been good to her. Yet the voice was sharp and bright, as if a young woman were in the mouth conducting the passage of words.
“!” exclaimed Turner.
“Your silence speaks volumes,” said the natzin. “I am Lorni and Rachel both, the shape in which each emerged from the primaeval slime of time – lopers Lorni and Rachel both, in the shape each emerged from the primaeval slime of time – both and each…”
The loping shapes curtailed their furtive antics as soon as they had tracked Turner’s fussling mind to its fox-earth. Turner had, indeed, just been through here … and not even the fluidity of time could cover his mating-call.
“Three herpes per dirt. Three herpes per dirt.”
These beasts could sniff out the most insignificant moment in the most insignificant minute if such a moment in such a minute merely revealed a suspicion of their prey. Catafalk and some rogue muezzin surrounded the city, pretending to be private dicks stalking a slumbering gypsy encampment – except, of course, the so-called wagons did shift, even when their wheels were stuck fast in the solid mud of unbudgeable duration. But now shanty-houses actually floated on air like the constituents of a flowing scarf of stars and thunder sparks.
Most of the shapes eventually slouched off, but not before leaving one chosen from themselves to think itself the universal person.
As the sun faded into three purple bits, Turner sobbed. He burrowed his hands into the shaggy natzin shape upon which he would try to sleep, searching for handholds on romance. The distant grumbles of just one more storm’s thunder sounded amid undercurrents of muezzin complaint. Finally, he set his supper for lightning and pulled the durna skin over his head. If this were Lorni, it was tantamount to eating a thought before having thought it.
“At the end of every day every self is the same self.”
(from THE OPTIMUM HOLOCAUST by Rachel Orchard)

with David Mathew

‘It’s about someone who discovers the secrets of the universe as he’s drowning.”
Nathaniel looked up. “What is?”
“The story I’m writing,” said Paul with a pinched expression on his face. “You could pay attention you know, Nat, it wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Sorry. I just can’t make these figures balance.”
“Then leave them unbalanced – like the rest of us,” Paul replied. He honestly believed that he was being witty. “Do you want some squash?”
“Yes, please. And put some vodka in it while you’re there.”
Paul couldn’t resist a crack as he left the room. “Yes, you’re always better at eyeing up figures when you’ve had a few drinks, aren’t you, dear.”
Go to hell, thought Nathaniel. What had he missed? He returned his attention to the towering totals on the sheets of paper before him. Talk about drowning by numbers! He’d be having a word with a few of the team on Monday, that was for sure. Look at that! Bloody Katie: her expenses were always good for an extra few notches up the blood pressure pole, but putting flowers on her claims now, was she? No way. No way, Jose. What did they think he was, some kind of drip?
“Here.” Paul laid down a glass, which did drip…
“For crying out loud, Paul, not on my papers!” Nathaniel transferred the glass on to a homestore catalogue, but when he wiped at the ring of moisture on the training cost breakdowns for the Marketing Department, the numbers merged and ran like mascara.
“Look at that! Just look at what you’ve done!”
“You did it!” Paul argued. And then, more hysterically: “You did it!”
“Just leave me alone, Paul. Go away, right now. Right now.”
“You can still read it.”
With a cavernous breath Nathaniel controlled his temper. “Did I explain to you, Paul,” he said, “just how important these figures are? I have here the entire financial autopsy for my silly little company for the current financial year. Are you with me so far?”
“Don’t patronise me, Nat.”
“Please listen. There are no copies because Acquisitions decided, in its wisdom, to buy a tinkertoy German model of copier, and we’re waiting for the engineer to fix it. Again.”
Life was usually full of copies, but at the moment he didn’t even have an ancient xerox or bakelite gestetner, let alone a dark scanner.
Paul had decided once more to plead for reason. “But you can still read everything,” he said, with an angular whine to his voice… which Nathaniel could all but ignore these days.
“And this is an auditable document,” Nat said. “Believe me, an inspector loves this sort of incompetence. Inspectors love giving companies like mine a kick in the shins.”
Now that reason had been proven dysfunctional, Paul would resort to spiky self-defence. He said, “You’re just being melo.” This was his abbreviation for melodramatic. And once he had made this announcement he left the room.
Nathaniel cradled his head in his hands. Hair’s thinner, he noted and he sighed. Correcting fluid needed thinner. Just as life these days lacked a splash of toner.
Pages rippled. By now the burning sensation that leaked across his abdomen when he was stressed was in full flow. I am falling to pieces, he thought. Numbers were bleeding in the whites of his eyes, like floaters. He sighed again.
What was it that Iraqi leader had said? Something like: “They will drown in their own blood.”
Mid-evening. I still have a few hours, thought Nat. I’ll have a bath. Calm down.
So deciding, he all but winched his bodyweight up the stairs on legs that had no strength. In the bathroom, Paul was admiring his dental work in the mirror. They shuffled in the poky room without a word being exchanged. Nathaniel drew the bath. Firmly wedged in the heat and the plastic a few minutes later, Nat was nodding off and was surprised to hear a knock at the door. Paul had brought him his drink as a peace offering. Paul leaned over and kissed Nat’s bald spot. The place where he was at his most vulnerable; a wafer between him and God.
Nat fell asleep dreaming of numbers that scuttled about the table like insects.
Gravity wanted his bones. Over the course of ten minutes, Nat slid down the soap-lacquered side of the bathtub, and the water licked at his chin. Let me in! Water entered his ears with a pop and a suck, and Nat coasted an inch or two deeper. Unguented water lapped around his lips; they were a puddle. Nat opened his mouth, and swallowed.
He was dreaming of a star. A star that would look in-place on top of a Christmas tree, but it was embedded into the cushion of the night, slightly wonky. It looked like a drunken king’s crown. The star flapped its prongs like an undersea lifeform. It was encrusted and barnacled… and it was singing to Nat.
Straining to hear the words made Nat twitch his head to one side. Water leaked against his tonsils. He coughed. I’m drowning, he thought – but the realisation brought no sense of panic. No sense of anything at all. Nat was drowning… but he couldn’t drag himself away from the star. It was singing the secrets of the universe, but for Nat it was like someone was whispering through a gale. And he wanted to learn.
He came awake with the suddenness of a window blind snapping.
Disappointment rang in his ears as he coughed up his lungs.
Mid-evening had become midnight – and Nat escaped the bath, with some post-suicidal reluctance, noting that Paul had not sloped in to see if he was all right. Very soon he was slug-a-bed, and Paul – who had been feigning sleep – leaned across and kissed Nat’s bald carapace. Kissed his baby’s cap.
The next morning Paul was up and at ‘em early – it was an unusually early start for fiction writers, at any rate. Ordinarily he would wait until Nat had brushed himself down and left for work; Paul liked to believe that creativity was only waiting for mid-afternoon to flourish. Yet Paul was off today at the crack of doom, it seemed. His story still needed a hero, after all.
“What was that story of yours called?” Nat’s words from the bed yawned in the face of a half-waking conversation, yet somehow he pretended that he was socialising after a good dinner and a basinful of wine … or even a bathful of it. He felt rotten to the core, having recently watched his past life fleet before his mind’s eye on that brink of soggy suffocation, a suffocation that his fitful ablutions would ever now bring forth once more. He was usually up much earlier than this for work, and even at the weekend.
“My story called? Well, it hasn’t got a title yet. Any suggestions?”
“The only thing I can suggest right now is going back to sleep.”
“But I’m not tired.”
“I was talking about myself,” said Nat.
Leaving the room, Paul said, “Just for a change, like” in his most put-upon voice.
Go to hell, thought Nat, trying to part the waves of sleep’s red sea.
Meanwhile, without any announcement that he was going out, Paul grabbed his coat from the bannister newel, and ventured out into the cruelly cutting Mondayness that surrounded their lovenest. He had almost forgotten why he, a creative person of the last bed, was up so early – without even the mid-term pregnancy of a Full English Breakfast. He thought of Nat, the business man, forever sucking his pencil over columns of sexless figures. Ever rising inordinately early (except today) for the chorus of dawn traders and hedge fund managers on talk radio. Something was happening to Nat, Paul was sure of it.
Paul was after someone. Someone who only flourished and luxuriated in the rarified world of bleary-eyed Monday mornings. Someone who would be the protagonist of his drowning story. And someone who spent his or her whole life existing on the bread-line of earliness, during hours so small they even defaulted and diminished to the white dot on an old-fashioned TV screen.
Eventually, after much tussling with the palate-corroded fixing of his face in the steamed up bathroom mirror, Nat climbed into his car, and hissed a prayer into the rearview mirror. The car had been playing up for the last fortnight, and even now, as it started, it went into a series of gulps or curtsies. But finally the engine mumbled an acquiescence. Nat reversed out into the avenue. His head was full of two jealous sets of information, but the one he must concentrate on for now was that of the financial liberties being taken by certain members of staff.
He parked. The engine coughed at him as he got out of the car and dragged his chubby briefcase free. A sideways rain was falling; the wind was nipping chips out of his temples. The lobby was warm. He was greeted by ancillary staff, and returned each greeting warmly, fully conscious of the relevant name no more than a minute later. He climbed the stairs.
Surprisingly Katie Lenglert was waiting in his outer office. “Good morning, Nathaniel,” she said, her accent like a tickle. Nat had always found her attractive. “Would you have a moment?”
“I was going to be calling for you this morning,” Nat replied, non-committally. “Could I just have a moment to get a coffee.”
“I’ll get it,” Katie replied. “Black, two sugars, yes?”
“Yes,” Nat replied. She knows she’s up the Swannee, he thought. Bit late now for all that, love, he went on. Your goose is cooked. Never mind a disciplinary; you’re lucky if I don’t call the police. He hung his coat, played his voicemail and checked his diary. The coffee came, in the hands of a contrite Katie Lenglert. As she sat, Nat realised that she’d even chosen a short skirt for the occasion. He wanted to put his hand up to see if she wore suspenders, because he couldn’t quite see. The thought of Paul stopped him, as it always did, when he found himself sinking into that sexual lounge lizard mind-set where everybody of every gender under the sun was yearning for his fumbling attentions…
Beating about no bush whatsoever, Nat said, “It’s about your expenses.”
Katie paused. “What is? What about them?”
Nat frowned. “Isn’t that why you wanted to see me?”
“No. Have I done something wrong?”
“Well, you haven’t done much right, to tell you the truth,” he replied. “But why did you want to see me?” If not to apologise and beg forgiveness.
“Well…” she said weirdly “…it’s about your destiny.”
“Excuse me?” Was Destiny an account that the firm was working on?
“You heard me. Are you sure you know what shape your destiny’s taking?”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Nat said.
“It’s about the dream you had last night.”
“The dream?”
“That’s right. It’s time, Nathaniel. And would you do me a favour and stop repeating?”
A considerable effort was required not to do so. The dream from last night was a nice warm wash, and it flowed through him now: he had heard the heavens, jamming on an odd karaoke. Suddenly Nathaniel had the impression that he hadn’t woken up. In an attempt to restore some order he went on, “There are serious errors of judgement on your expenses forms.”
To which Katie’s reply was unequivocal. “Fuck my expenses form,” she said. “You’ve got close, and you don’t even know you’ve done it.”
“Done what? Close to what?”
“To the secrets. Jesus, Nat. Wake up.”
“Go slowly.”
“We’ve been watching you for some time now.”
Rooted in Nat’s breast, there was still a sense of curdled pride. That was something like the sentence that he had intended to use. Once more he attempted to redress the balance of superiority. “I could say the same thing,” he mumbled lamely.
“Yes, Nat, keep going.” She sounded weary. “Even in the face of something bigger than your ego, you can’t quite bring yourself to stop being a putz, can you?”
“Sticks and stones.”
And Katie shook her head. “I’m beginning to find you pathetic, Nat. Just listen. You’re close enough for us to be able to use you. Don’t bother with any witty repartee, for Christ’s sake. We’ve been waiting for a while.”
Deciding to bite, for the sake of a peaceful morning if for no other reason, Nat said, “Okay. Who’s “we”.”
“Paul and I.”
“Paul who?”
“Your partner – Paul. The man who shares your bed every night?”
Jealousy rang its silly bell. The French for Venetian Blind was Jalousie, he somehow recalled from school French. “And how the hell do you know Paul?” Nat asked, blinking.
“Aren’t you warm in here?” Katie enquired.
“Getting warmer by the second. Answer my question, if you’d be so kind.”
“Okay. Here comes the difficult part.” Katie paused. “I met Paul under the sea – the North Sea. It was bloody freezing, I can tell you. And then again I met him in a stream; this was a few years later…”
Nat interrupted. “You know, I could call for security.”
“We drowned, Nat. Paul and I drowned.”
Nat’s eyeballs swelled. He was cross, but he had got to the point where he had to know the answers. “Explain your understanding of drowned,” he said.
“I mean, he and I took water into our lungs and we died. Is that clear enough?” Katie met Nat’s gaze with full hostility. Then she softened. “Sorry. You might imagine, talking about the day you passed away on is hardly a happy topic.”
“I can imagine.”
“People talk a lot of nonsense, Nat, about those moments,” said Katie. “It’s not a tunnel of light – or at least it wasn’t for us. It was very much like an acceptance. And do you know what I saw? I saw a constellation of stars, and I heard voices: they were trying to tell me something. But I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t get there.”
“Where does Paul fit into this?” Nat asked.
“Well, at the time he didn’t fit in anywhere: I was nine years old. Family holiday in Scotland. Unbelievably, I still think, I decided to go into the water. Anyway, the rest writes itself. I found the Chamber, although it was only years later that I heard it called that.”
“And what is it?”
“It’s the room you go to when you’re drowning, to put it simply. You go there, and only part of you comes back. My parents dragged a nine year-old’s body from the waves, but part of me took up residence in the Chamber. If residence is the right word. Imprisonment might be closer to the truth. You’re in there until another poor bugger ends his life in the same place.”
“And this was Paul, right.”
“Well, I don’t want to burst your bubble,” said Nat, “but Paul’s never even been to Scotland. We have a conversation like this every time I say how much I liked going up there as a student. He says he’d rather have his nipples chewed off than go to the frozen north. I don’t feel I’m misquoting him with that either.”
Katie crossed her legs, as if she knew that Paul was diminishing to a blind point of light, and would not be able to protect her from Nat’s advances… unless she bolstered up the image of Paul with further fictions. “The man you now know of as Paul might never have been to Scotland, but a part of him has, and that part died. His name was Jim, or James. He was an artist. He did the dumb artist thing. Woman doesn’t want me – what the hell? I’ll kill myself. And he did that.”
“So what was your name, before you were Katie.”
“Jean,” said Katie. “Are you trying to trick me?”
“I’m just waiting you out, Katie, and trying to see where this is all going.”
“I already told you where it’s going. It’s going to your destiny.”
“Forgive me, I forgot.” There was no disguising the bitterness in Nat’s tones. “So he came to rescue you, did he?”
“That’s right. He drowned in exactly the same place, so he was able to do that. The part of me that’d seen the skies and the part of him that had seen the skies were freed from the Chamber, and we joined the composite bodies that you know and love: Katie and Paul.”
“I don’t love you,” said Nat.
“And you don’t know Paul,” said Katie. “But that’s by the bye. We’re both of us made up of drowned souls, Nathaniel, and we’re trying to get home – we’re trying to find the way to the place you saw in your dreams.”
“How many souls? How many souls are inside you?”
“Thousands. Another one joins – a man for Paul and a woman for me, it always seems to be – every time one or the other rescues the other one. Do you follow me?”
“In Scotland?”
“No. There are millions and millions of Chambers in this country alone. Where there’s water, there might be a drowning; and where’s there’s a drowning there’s the possibility of a Chamber. And then the possibility of a subsequent rescue.”
There was no conversation for a good few seconds. Nat despised being spoken to by his staff in any tones other than respectful ebullience, but he couldn’t stop himself listening to this woman – nor looking at her – nor posing the dangerous question.
“So what do you imagine this all has to do with me?” he asked.
Katie’s reply was immediate. “You’ve been going there regularly since you were a child,” she said. “You’ve been going there, but you’ve forgotten it all. What we want to know is how the hell you’ve been doing it without a single drop of water entering your mouth.”
Nat’s number was up. He had snapped.
Snapped and became two. Or even three. Or more. The audit trail was vague but certainly discernible amid the trial and tribulations of his own blind past, now clarifying, crystallising… A lifetime flashes before your eyes, they say, upon the point of drowning … but they (whoever they were) had got it the wrong way round; only upon waking from that dead core of nothingness into existence did a full lifetime fleet by and become your own…
Nat touched the top of his head and felt a path to the brain … a brain called Paul or Jim, he wasn’t sure; yet it was sticky to the touch and the touch itself sent his eyes revolving like a fruit machine’s barrels, and his mind cascaded into a waterfall. The woman cost far too much. She knew no economies of truth.
The universe of straw, clutching, grasping the nettle that was Nat. He tipped his head back on his neck and poured the hot coffee into his mouth, with the cup an inch from his lips. He had to drown; he had to go now. The coffee gurgled in the throat-well, and Nat spluttered.
“Come with me,” he said, standing up with coffee printed on his chin.
Katie stood. She smoothed her skirt. A worried expression was on her face.
There was something very restrictive about the uni in universe, and until now a secret had been kept about quite how private it was. Nat stepped forward and took Katie in his arms; her expression changed to a madwoman’s rictus of rage. However, no words could Nathaniel hear; his ears were full of water, and blood, and singing.
Closing his eyes allowed him to escape to the letting Chamber, where he could unsquare the circle and do himself a favour: he could write words, a bathful of words, which would fizz like his early morning nosebleeds, when he’d try to swim under the waves for too long – until his head would ring with the pressure.
And the pleasure: the ecstasy of the lightshows behind his eyes.
Paul, Nathaniel knew, would have been so proud. But Paul had died a long time earlier.

with Scott Urban

Hal hadn’t even noticed the thing when he first entered the ill-lit loo but of course his bladder, filled to just short of bursting, didn’t allow him to concentrate on very much other than the imminent voiding, willed or unwilled. Indeed, even as he pushed through the door and jogged across the the tiles, slicked with excreta, bile, snot, and Lord knows what all else, he felt thick, glistening, yellow globules of urine slip through his urethra and humiliatingly dampen his boxers. He only barely managed to unzip his fly before the braided piss-stream splashed against the urinal backwall. The relief was better than holding a paycheck, better than digging into tenderloin, better than an orgasm at the height of extended lovemaking.
Then he thought the thing was a massive stain, right at eye-level above the flush-handle. He thought perhaps some barbaric teen, heedless of health concerns, had thrown his turds against the wall, either as a sign of rebellion or else simply to see if they would stick. But then Hal saw that the thing, although shrouded in shadow, had a distinct outline, definitely formed in nature.
Although Hal was not very up on nature, he could tell it was a bat hanging in front of him in the public toilet. Not an obvious diagnosis, though. The thing was bloated beyond a normal bat shape, its huge glistening wraparound beetle-wings swelling in and out around a fox-sized, fox-shaped inversion of its supposed body. Hal had heard that the dizzy effects of being left upside down – unless you were an expert in preventing it – were caused by the blood rushing to the head. Well, this bat thing actually dripped blood, in a relentless rhythm to the grimy tiles, from the tip of its skull-cap; yet, otherwise, the creature looked fit and well, sort of smirking with its leathery human-like lips.
Strangely, Hal’s mind recalled the after-effects of spinning. He had always known the knack of stopping the world to whirl: a knack which, for him, was a childhood-bred instinct rather than a conscious manoeuvre. Today, all previous bottled-up giddinesses seemed to take their vengeance in one fell swoop. And he hadn’t even been spinning. The entire world – indeed, this sliver of reality itself – seemed to veer wildly off-kilter.
“All right,” he thought to himself, “okay: you can handle this; it’s a bat, a bat in the loo; swollen, pregnant, yes, an obese bat; just don’t make any sudden moves, anything calculated to startle, frighten, stir up trouble; take a step back, young man; if you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you (I hope)…”
And he wanted to take that step back, more than he wanted to climb on top of that bosomy starlet he had watched on the videotape last night, the one who had haunted his dreams until, almost dejectedly, he had given in and half-heartedly masturbated with her face in his mind, but, BUT, he was still in the midst of his long overdue tea-dump, flooding and filling the basin of the pissoir. He couldn’t turn off the flow, couldn’t cork it up (so to speak), and, product of the proper academy upbringing that he was, he couldn’t – no matter what the threatening circumstances, no matter what the sordid environment – risk spraying his own shoes or the already crap-encrusted tiles with his apricot-smelling water.
“O Mr Fat Bat,” he pleaded, half to himself and half to the nocturnal mammal slowly raising its vertical head to the horizontal, “please don’t notice me, please don’t desire to have anything to do with me, please don’t touch me or brush me or infect me with rabies; I’ll zip up and be done and out of your way quicker than you can say “Jack Sprat”, assuming, of course, that you’d want to say that, could you say anything at all…”
But before he could terminate his voiding, shake the last droplets out of his Prime Minister, he noticed the force of his stream was so broad, so forceful, it sent glittering, golden uric mist up into the face of Mr Fat Bat, whose pinkish earthworm tongue curlicued out across its chiropterean lips to lick up Hal’s groin-warm and, indeed, still steaming piss.
In a renewed bout of giddiness – concurrent with a sudden unplaiting of the now backward braiding stream – he wondered if wordly hemispheres had switched. But he did not wonder for long. The black thing of utter batness seemed to become a surgical umbrella, albeit one of giant bloated proportions in comparison to the size of the hose that Hal continued to wield like a fireman trying to douse a city-wide conflagration in the basin. He winced as the umbrella’s sharp blood-swamped end entered tip within tip, widening, in a slow-motion process, his tiny piercing-for-piss till his whole organ threatened to rip asunder scrotumwards. Then the creature opened up like a fibrously ribbed bloom so as to scrape poison from the root of the penis, scouring, rasping, gashing this outer innard…
Hal recalled his previous life in one fell swoop, as a drowner would. Not that anybody who’d truly drowned could ever vouch how such a phenomenon was so all-encompassing. It not only incorporated one’s own life but those of countless others, too … as if random Jungian archetypes of the Collective Unconscious managed to seep through at the point of death, along the flow of gulpless rictus: an invisible bloodstream upon which voyaged many mishandled memories….
Hal’s sense of sight multiplied the fat bats within the shimmering enamel surrounds, so that many of them dangled from every possible point of purchase, such as from pull-chain flushes, coat-pegs, cubicle door corners, strange previously unnoticed spouts, sniffing snouts, plaster trophies…
Each time he tried to centre upon a thought, another slipped into its place.
He should never have called Susan a fat bat, should he? When he first knew her, she had been more like a svelte sleek seal. But that had been before the binges. He was never entirely certain exactly what it was she ingested that caused her to balloon, blossom, blimpify. She didn’t eat any more than he did at shared mealtimes, but their grocer’s budget grew to astronomical proportions, although he never saw any additional provisions in the larder than when they first joined households. When pressed, she only admitted to unspecified “cravings’ and would immediately change the topic. There was no way he could keep an eye on her during the day, and she adamantly refused to consider counselling, physiological or psychiatric, stating “it was something she would have to muddle her way through.”
And muddle she did or, rather, waddle; for her formerly seductive buttock-jiggling flounce became a ponderous cellulitic clomp, almost drayhorse-like in its resonance. It was about the same time Hal began to notice that tiny possessions he’d owned for decades – childhood knickknacks, small desktop photographs, cufflinks, and whatnot – were disappearing. Nothing major, nothing glaring, nothing that he himself might not have moved and simply forgotten in passing; and yet, taken together over a series of months, a startling absence of personal ephemera vacuumed into some extradimensional dustbin he could not access nor even locate.
It seemed rather low, even quisling, to cast a disparaging eye at Susan, either for her increasingly-ovoid proportions or the whirlpooling-away of his collectibles. There was a time during which Susan had been the testosterone-goal of many a young man, and he had felt honoured by her attention and even the opening of her orifices. But now, winsome years down the road, he nearly wished another had caught the candied-apple of her eye, for he saw her, ounce by ounce, transformed into the proverbial white elephant he could neither love nor sustain.
Thoughts were like fish he could never catch in a fast stream.
Take, for example, the dreams he had of Susan which, in hindsight, were not dreams at all. Her fatness had not shown the typical symptoms of swelling limbs and bulging, pre-bulimic belly; the fatness had sooner spread like a huge skirt – ribbed and winglike – around her waist, dangling to her feet. He had plumped a hand up this skirt – as he had once done as a callow youth during the high season of courting – only to find himself testing out the throbbing muscles of membrane where her genitalia used to nest.
If he had woken from this dream, he failed to recall whether he had remembered it or not. The thoughts were too slippery, too eel-like.
Today, in the ill-lit loo, nothing could seem more real-like. Were this a dream, Hal would never be able to wake up because the bat would have sucked him dry of sleep: and without sleep, it was not possible for there to be any waking at all.
The stream was slowly slowing, almost backstreaming like a narrow weir. He felt his erstwhile vasectomy sear his blood-vessels with the accumulation of aborted sperm seeds … whilst unfertilised milky slime managed to seep out amid an otherwise unpleasant orgasm-of-silting at the tail-end of the streaming piss. Just thinking of Susan made him and his organ wince.
The bat felt dizzy as hell, mainly because it wasn’t thinking with its own mind. It had, by now, managed to enter as far as Hal’s vasoconstricted reservoir that stagnated at the foot of the brain-stem. Here, thoughts of Susan bubbled and seethed. Even Susan herself somehow seemed to be lolling in this inner jacuzzi, blowing gigantic raspberries directly from her mouth into her own back vent. She looked like a fermenting foetus. One of the bat’s priapic wing-tips reached out to see if it could locate any incipient orifice so as to establish ingress and dig further within this semi-farting Susanness. Coitus within coitus within coitus…
Hal switched off the TV. The Prime Minister had been fulminating about some political mayhem that was brewing in the Middle East. This was England. One was allowed to snooze in front of the news in England. In America, one had to listen and keep on listening, in case you missed anything. Hal was not sure which, if not both, was worse (or better): massacres or orgies. Anyway, Susan would be home soon and it would be time to cook her favourite fry-up. As long as she could still get through the front door.
Hal wouldn’t be needing the TV any more anyway. He’d only turned it on momentarily to try to help himself remember just what had been so important about it all only 24 hours ago. But the garish images, so brilliant and flickering against eyes which now craved shadows, seemed to emanate from some source light-years away; he felt no personal connection to those talking heads which might conceivably have been speaking an alien language.
He sighed with relief as he ascended the wall. His anatomy was no no longer fashioned for simple primate slouch. Rather than a vertiginous maelstrom of dizziness – exactly what he would have experienced in such a peculiar position only a short time ago – he felt comfortable, even ecstatic, at a perpendicular perspective on the unlit flat. In his earlier incarnation, he had shied away from whirly-gig carnival rides, ashamed of the possibility of inverting his digestive system along with his seat and spraying himself and others in eye-burning chyme. But now such fleidermaus manoeuvres seemed within his reach, and he rather fancied the prospect of barrel-rolls and loop-the-loops and stalls, all carried out personally, “on the fly”, so to speak.
Nor did he feel handicapped at the lack of illumination; topographical data streamed into his consciousness continually, the consequence of hypersonic chirps echoing back to his enlarged and newly sensitized aural whorls and eardrums. Dependent from the wooden ceiling crossbeam, he felt more comfortable, more “at home” than he had in his previous 37 upright years. There was no way he could “get hurt” in this enclosure, this den; every square centimetre was acknowledged and registered without having to engage the frontal lobe. He had no eyes in the back of his head (though it could scarcely have rendered him any more distinctive in appearance), but – edgeworn cliches to the contrary – his 360 degree awareness left him without a blind spot.
There was, of course, no longer any conception of “Susan’ as he had previously held it (just as, similarly, all “Halness’ had departed from this plane); notions such as “spouse”, “fuckmate” and “sperm-dump” were not only forgotten but might as well have been trashbinned by the Deity for all the good they did this figure freshly clothed and risen anew in a baptism of piss and excreta. They were difficult to call “memories”, what now faded in and out of his cerebral cortex, such as it was; “Susan’ now connoted “warmth”, “orgasmic explosions in the curly-fringed middle” and “cuddly nestling”.
Where once had been “Hal” was a man-shaped void and the necessity to feed and burrow.
Something metallic bit into the front key-hole.
It was a key. The house had come home, at last. And wanted ingress. A fat house, with orifices to spare. With a gently oodling sewage-system whose pipes plumbed from wine-womb (where the best bottles of red were laid in soothing ranks only for them later to spill throatfuls of menorrhagic Susanness) to the short-hop antics of the dizzyhead attic. Kleptomaniac bats in the belfry. The house’s own clitoral key turned upon itself: spinning, spinning, spinning the foundations so that the walls couldn’t keep up. Sprays of unsalubrious fluid and sludge hitting the fan. Cascading through the fat fanny of his hellish Hallish brain.
The world whirled on regardless with Prime Ministers and Presidents battening the hatches on their affairs of State before even they were tossed off

with Carlton Mellick

The sitting-room, with a large looking-glass on one of the beetle-green walls, was gradually crowding up with various relatives. Christenings were times of happiness – but most of the old dears were as glum as mythology.
The proud parents weren’t able to attend this reception (nor the newly baptized baby), a fact which, in Margaret’s discerning eyes, seemed to defeat the whole object. She was tantamount to a child herself, but none of the foregathered maiden aunts would own up to owning her. The sitting-room was a small one. A particular aunt called it a “lounge” and would defend this name to the death. Others proposed “the front room” as better. Yet others, “reception room,” something which, at least, seemed appropriate today of all days. “Drawing-room” was smartly discarded. “Living-room” given scant regard. “Parlor” was not even considered!
Little Margaret, always a one with words, had christened it the Belfry.because there were a lot of old bats in it today – but that was her secret.
Indeed, Margaret had a literal wealth of words and little did the aunts realize how richly her eyes saw them from between buzz-browed frowns. If they had, they would have deemed her “rude” – their vocabulary failing to stretch to the more colorful expressions often generated by such exceptionally irritating precocities as Margaret.
Yet, now settled in the sitting-room, the various aunts decided it was time to light up. They tugged cigarettes from their persons (some to be stuck into mouths, others into elegant holders), whilst a few were fetched from slender silver cases with springy metal straps holding the cigarettes in place. An aunt or two even fingered their smokes as if they were prime cigars, listening to the crinkle as they roll-pressed them near highly ear-ringed ears. Eventually, with all finally poised for lighting up, they motioned to Margaret to begin her duty. And, indeed, the girl lifted a box of heavy-duty Lucifers from the coffee table – and struck the first splint against the box’s sand-papery edge. A huge plume of flame engorged and, one by one, she walked amid the aunts and ignited their ciggies. There transpired a rhythmic drawing in of breath as the curdly gray began to circulate around several wrinkled lungs. Prongs of smoke emerged from nostrils. Some inhaled so very deeply, Margaret wondered if some evil magic was afoot when the smoke assumed bat-like or wayward demon shapes. Then, the room began to fill with a choking fug, mystifying even the china ornaments.
Margaret’s throat felt scratchy and her chest raw. In those days, nobody had ever heard of passive diseases but, if nothing else, the room kept its thoughts to itself, with no words to muster except empty ones. The mirror on the wall, though, may have boasted a smoking-room within its pales.
Margaret did actually smile, as if memories were too forward. The past, she thought, was not even in its infancy, the present had hardly yet been blessed and the future surely ripe with expended time. So – as she sat balancing a precarious sandwich plate on her lap and trying to blot out the argumentative angst of aunts – she dreamed of older times when rooms would fill with a silkier smoke in the shape, not of demons, but of elves and fairies. Rooms where the paintings on the walls were real enough to emanate the sounds and smells of the worlds they depicted; rooms where miniature civilizations flourished beneath the crab-wood tables and unicorn-fur beds; rooms where every shaker of pepper, every melted gob of candle, every crumpled piece of diary paper within the wastebasket was utterly saturated with animation. Objects were alive enough to even speak to you at times, or sing soft hymns on early Sunday mornings before dressing properly for church.
Margaret quivered as she came back from her thoughts, interrupted by a claw of smoke snaking up a nostril. She sneezed and rubbed her wet nose with the icy backside of her little finger, attempting to avoid any eye contact with the old women suffocating the room.
Dropping her vision to her knees, Margaret discovered a miniature dragon-like creature perched upon the sandwich plate in a solemn, statue-like manner. However, it seemed to be made of wood rather than the scales of a normal dragon. And instead of wings, the little creature had two collections of live mosquitoes, dozens of them huddled together to make their mini wings form larger ones.
The small oddity was just sitting on Margaret’s lap like a kitten, almost purring, and shifting its tail slightly within the demon-smoke surroundings. Margaret’s lips curled a thin smile as the dragon cocked its puppet-like neck in her direction, slip-slithering its long aluminum tongue at the mushroom and cheese sandwich between them. Her thumb involuntarily smoothed against its polished breast as it snatched a mushroom from underneath the bread. Her face lit up amazed, her eyes wandering every delicate feature of its wood-patterned body, as it gobbled the mushroom down.
She looked to the aunts in smiles, bright red cheeks, and back to the pet dragon. Postponing the future was just a few seconds away. Meanwhile, the room, with all the smoke generated by maidenly lungs, changed shape or setting – becoming, paradoxically, more claustrophobic and larger in apparent size. Framed at the door, one of the rarer male relatives stood, gripping his pint-pot of beer: a stripling of barely sufficient age to be indulging any approach towards alcohol. But the Christening was his scapegoat, no doubt. Margaret had recognized within herself a certain attraction towards this individual, although she knew that he was strictly. . .
“Uncle Tim,” she shouted into thin air, interrupting her own thoughts. He smiled and withdrew into the hall. She wondered if she would be permitted to follow him . . . to test out that smile. But, no. One of the aunts was pointing at her empty plate, as if she required Margaret to fetch it from her. There were also vague calls to empty the ashtrays and other less determinate duties. Placing the dragon upon a vacant cushion – where it proceeded to preen – she caught a glimpse of a hairy or furry face at the lounge window. It smiled and vanished. A withdrawn future often played tricks with her fancies, she found. Only at certain stages of youth was it possible to dwell for any length of time at such turning points. There was rarely an optimum moment to think thoughts she was too young to think.
She wavered through the throat-tickling haze, feeling as if she waded. Picking up the proffered plate, exchanging small talk with a forgotten cousin (who sat under the dining-table), returning a lost ball of wool to a toddler who had been allowed free range despite the precariousness of health apparent in its pinched face – Margaret cast a worried backward look at the dragon which was now cleaning tiny dead wings from its underbelly with a forked tongue.
“Want a breath of fresh air?” asked Tim who had returned to the door.
“Yes, go for a walk, Margaret,” said one of the aunts, a kind-looking one who only smoked to be sociable.
“Fetch some more mushrooms,” said another, not wanting Margaret to waste the trip.
To reach the outside, she needed to negotiate the hall where a number of home-lovers had congregated. That was her own name for them. She often christened things in a language that was indeed English but rarely with the same meanings most others would have understood. In any event, these home-lovers parted to let her pass. One playfully tugged at her ponytail. Some said naughty words in devilment. She ignored them, her glance, though, indicating, in no uncertain terms, that she’d tell on them later, when back re-lighting the aunts in the smoking-room.
A burst of sigh-emotions vibrated through her blood as Margaret stepped into the sunlight, taking in a deep breath to clean a fist of weight from her lungs.
“That’s better,” said Uncle Tim, twisting his limbs as if he’d been in a coffin all day.
The courtyard overwhelmed Margaret as usual, the colors so brilliant she could taste them and hear what they had to say – something dreadfully important mixed with things meaningless. Scorpion-designed walls smeared across the sky, creeping with spider vines and secret panels. The vegetation on a variety of levels, textured to resemble dancing party couples swinging around each other, the roots swimming through red soil.
And in the center of the courtyard, taller than the dancers and walls, a scraggy coff tree resembling a bearded old man who Margaret christened “the wizard,” and she swore it was full of magic.
“Do you want a bone pear?” Uncle Tim asked Margaret, picking two white orbs from the old wizard.
But the girl took back steps. “I’m not allowed to.”
Uncle Tim had a bite of one of the strong-goo fruits, smile-saying, “Don’t worry about them. Bone pears rot to the ground if you don’t eat them right away.”
Margaret still hesitated, turned to read the time on clocks growing from a rose bush.
“Come,” Tim said, stepping from Margaret. “I have something to show you.”
She dropped the already rotting marrowfruits with a sigh of disgust. Uncles were meant to be responsible when in charge of their nieces and Tim had squandered any trust she might have harboured simply by this silly promise that things only rotted after they hit the ground.
She was determined, however, to give him another chance. She mooned up her face, imagining a smile for him to share. He seemed temporarily ill-footed by her forgiveness but, shrugging off any finer feelings, he took her by the hand towards the huge glass aviary which, instead of containing the flutter of birds, seemed, from the outside, full of smoke – interlacing cylinders of pipework blurring and bifurcating in increasingly crazy patterns more in keeping with Hallowe’en bonfires than strict geometry lessons at school.
Tiny bat-like creatures speckled in and out of existence with the ghostly interference of uninvented screens – reminding her that the aviary was madder than a belfry. It had a mind of its own. Thoughts were pixels. Dreams were tree-like flower-fairies between whose tresses flickered the wings of the selves that had yet to become full-fledged bodies.
Tim steadied her by the shoulder as if she knew he knew that a young child’s mind was far more precarious than that of a new-bearded loafer like him.
He was a full-blooded home-lover, too, she guessed – never to go on adventures away from this their communal past. Margaret felt him lead her from the aviary backwards to the house; neither of them, it seemed, could tear their eyes from what they’d never have.
Yet there was a further vital stage in their rite of passage. Margaret somehow knew that they had to explore all the rooms in the house, one by one, name by name, till they found the only flue that the future could coil back along towards their past.
She knew Tim was short of Time … that they were racing against it. Only an avuncular such as Tim could combat the aunts in their own territory. Bravery proudly sat upon his face but she wondered – in an unchildish yet child-like way – if anybody could ever feel that their own life had room enough for the future. She sensed a smoking dragon beneath his clothes.

with Mike Philbin / Hertzan Chimera

Foetus of shotgun wedding, neatly pared from bone and sauced with umbilical noodles in laughing gravy.
This glorious hors d’oeuvre opened the feast celebrating the now famous nuptials of King Aspinall and Lady Antoinette of Petty France – a feast fated to end all feasts.
In the brass-lined palace kitchen, it looked like a bomb had hit – or at least some wet, exploding liver during a pate de foie gras process that had gone spectacularly wrong. Aye, the dirty work was well under way yet two of the blood-spattered hired hands, habitual squabblers who went back a long way, were making things difficult for the head chef.
“…l’enfant des cuisses coupe don’t usually wriggle that way,” enunciated chef Lammerbacker, the words enshrouded in a blue plume of cigar smoke.
“Well the butcher’s boy who brought them assured me they were as dead as joints of beef,” mewled his sidekick after gobbling noisily on a scratching of rancid leftovers.
“In that case, dear Akengraft, you’ve been diddled on the griddle and done to a turn.” The bitter acid of each taunting syllable, dead faces striking the cracked bell of his co-worker’s broken spirit.
“Of course,” he blathered on, “I’d finish the job myself but…”
Meanwhile, the head chef himself had noticed the chattering pair’s purple moment revelling in the place of paring like kids in a sandpit and was bemused by the rather abrupt furore and hobbling departure of one of them; he’d forgotten the chap’s name. But on busy days like this, he forgot his own name.
“Mr Lammerbacker!” roared the head waiter from the galley door, his voice an explosion of gulls.
The head chef then remembered.
“Ah, yes, Herr Capitain…” saluted Mr Lammerbacker, how he enjoyed riling up the obese goose. “We shall be serving up the main course any…moment…now.” His closing words hesitant as he kept a beady eye on executor Akengraft’s progress.
Akengraft (!) came the sidekick’s name to the head chef as if by telepathic means. Why did the palace employ such no-good blockheads.
Meanwhile, meanwhiles piled up. Lammerbacker himself, having sent Akengraft off on a wild goose chase, was investigating and prodding with his thick, tobacco-stained tongue a wild fillet de pamplemouse de vierge de Charonne. Its veiny surface still throbbed, pulsed, jerked away from the intrusive tip of his tongue, appeared to breathe. Like a large wing with the texture of a bronchial lung, it would soon try to flap away no doubt. The thing about fillet de pamplemouse de vierge de Charonne (or any provincial town for that matter) was that they were the most complex cuts of meat in the business. Every ruptured cartilage, pubic interface, bone deformation and rolling expanse of subcutaneous gore and fashion-victim’s underbelly harboured a sweetspot for a roaming tongue that was more saw-edged than a ripped tendon in prime bone stew….
“Well, Lammy…” for that was the disdain he held for his bullying co-worker. “That was a nifty piece of work I just succeeded in putting to bed,” announced a panting, sweat streaked Akengraft, as he returned with a wattle depending from the slobbery corner of his mouth like Fra Diabolo.
“Coxcombs!” shrieked Mr Lammerbacker as if he were trying to invent a new swearword, his eyes a-warning-flame.
“Gentlemen.” They lurched to comical attention as the head witer hollered this shocking overstatement. “The rapide kayak de cochon, where the flash-fry may I tell the royal couple is THAT?”
Lammy and Akengraft reddened.
“Me and my pal, sir…” Akengraft blundered.
“It’s a bit slow today,” Lammerbacker clucked.
“Well, you couple of bumbling saps at sea, there’s nothing for it – the fish course will have to intervene…” the head waiter checked his running menu, “Gargoyle des espadrilles espagnol…is THAT it?”
He pointed towards a bent and broken Coitus-de-Interruptus Chaser that lay splayed on the steel surface, ready peeled for sucking the meat off.
Lammerbacker winked at Akengraft as their blushes subsided; then, turning towards the steaming head waiter, replied in his most regally sarcastic tone, “Unaccustomed as we are to the meddling of sugar daddies, I’d have to say OUI-OUI.”
After all, he thought, the baby-wailing starters had to be redeemed – as it were – because the palace nursery was where this couple of beau champs intended next to have their kicks for broken pricks: other fine old messes from appetising young ones.
As the duo-headed prophet of gore and misfortune might have put it – You can take a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.


with Paul Bradshaw

Pediculus Humanus.
As she slept they multiplied, from hundreds to more hundreds, thousands to more thousands, spreading through her caramel-coloured follicles, less than microscopic in size, squeezing through root-holes and entering into the no-man’s-land beyond. Now millions and increasing, they swarmed in all directions, chewing away tiny chunks of her brain tissue, sucking the blood, minute claws gripping and holding on to whatever they encountered in the darkness. Busily they continued, eating her very dreams, robbing her of all thought and perception, rendering her a mere vegetable. Unfeeling and unliving, and minus threequarters of a brain. When satisfied they scattered, fleeing that bloodless, brainless place.
Mrs Cricklehouse arrived once a month, armed with a frightful menace and a monopoly on largeness. She was all flabby and blubbery, huge and chinful, as if she had spent her entire lifetime demanding this obesity. She held on to a deadpan and mean-looking expression as if her death depended on it. She treated smiles with disdain, and did not appear to even attempt producing one. The children reckoned her scowl could frighten even the dead. They also fancied that the pockets of her apron were filled with nits, and that she would gleefully delve into those dark interiors and scatter the tiny beasts all over someone’s head.
Peter openly trembled whenever she came. He shrank back into his seat until all that could be seen was his fear. He dared to gaze at Mrs Cricklehouse, but only in between fits of shaking. His Mum had told him not to be scared of the nit nurse, just as she had told him not to fear the dentist and the black creatures that lurked in the wardrobe at night. Creepy crawlies and crawly creepies he could stand, and all the terrors of a child’s existence. Yet Mrs Cricklehouse created an anxiety in him, a feeling of dread that felt like a demon tugging at the strings of his soul.
“The nit nurse will see you now, Peter,” said Mrs Fenton with a smile of pure madness spread across her awesome, glossy lips. The same lips that, according to rumours, often met those of the headmaster Mr Crabb, but only at opportune moments, such as inside the broom cupboard.
Quaking terribly, Peter reluctantly got to his feet, and then felt his legs quiver. His teeth chattered. His heart banged horribly. His anguish increased. His face turned warm and red. Because of his short trousers the knocking of his knees was evident. He felt like a puppet that had lost all its strings, all its equilibrium. He gripped the edge of the desk and steadied himself. But still his nerves were in a tangle, dancing some strange dance inside him.
“Peter, the nurse is waiting,” said Mrs Fenton. And then, seemingly in order to infuriate him and the rest of the class, she scratched the chalk against the blackboard, creating some mathematical equation that disinterested the whole group of frightened souls.
Mrs Cricklehouse looked at him, her bulging eyes surrounded by oceans of flabbiness. He considered diving into the ink-well, anywhere to escape from this hideous torture. The prospect of becoming a boy of dripping blue did not dissuade him from this thought, but the practicality of it did, or rather the non-practicality. He started to walk. It was like moving in a dream, slow and death-like, as though he were stepping across the bed of the ocean. And with a blubbery shark not far away. Mrs Cricklehouse started to twitch. Peter noticed this, and forgot to breathe for a second or two.
Unfortunately for him he arrived within feeling and burrowing distance of the nit nurse. He wanted to scream. Especially when he considered what had happened to Wendy Aspinall.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said the shark, devoid of all emotion.
Peter thought this to be one of the biggest lies ever told. Before he had the chance to prepare himself, Mrs Cricklehouse reached out with her icy hands and delved into his field of follicles. She really hurt him with her large probing fingers. They were like thick, pink sausages with elongated fingernails, scratching over his scalp, taking strips of skin away. He winced as she rooted around with a devilish abandon, plucking and tugging at his roots. She was like a madwoman, intent on discovering just one tiny louse, one excuse to force him into some kind of unpleasant treatment and humiliation. His fear increased as she searched with frantic eyes, until he hopelessly listened to the trickle of urine that was escaping down his bare legs.
Wendy Aspinall was of course the key. She had not been at school now for several weeks under the rumour that her Uncle was in prison for whatever prevented his niece’s attendance… but Peter had other rumours up his sleeve, one of which was that Mrs Cricklehouse had, on a previous visit to the school, delved a little bit too far – actually beyond Wendy’s skull – in search of the pesky pipsqueaks which swarmed in most heads of hair, the authorities implied, like all the decimal points in God’s arithmetic.
He shuddered at the thought. Maths homework was worse than anything. He would suffer most tortures if the end result was avoiding the stranglehold of sums and such forth. Even the inopportune wet down his legs was bearable, when the long dry summer made it look like sweat. He had in fact escaped with very little aggro because the school bell had gone before the nit nurse had even begun to dare dig her nails into his ears. Nobody had noticed his predicament. He now relished the plump hot dogs his Mum dealt him out on his plate, rubbery hoses of meat running in grease, which he pretended were the Cricklehouse digits that either added up to grown-up grub or a delightful dream of come-uppance. Cheap at half the price. He gave himself a big hand for surviving the day.
Particulus Vulgarum.
The dream was shared. Boy and girl with minds conjoined. The tiny killer bees that were once snowstorms on the edge of Hell gnawed towards a tubular column of gristly tumour which both brains shared between them. These wild wild wens of weirdest insignificance of size needed not only the healthy blood of healthy children but also the greyer, greener nodules which these children’s potentially older bones and flesh would nurture come the onset of later adulthood. Nits that travelled time in hunt for incubations of easy disease.
Peter woke with a start. He wondered if Wendy was awake too. Nobody was allowed to visit her after the so-called incident with her Uncle. Mrs Cricklehouse was not even on the same wavelength of his half-dozing dreams. She was a busted flush. He hoped her knickers sagged with the pests she sought in others. He laughed. Mrs Fenton and Mrs Cricklehouse both played fast and loose with Mr Crabb but this was neither here nor there vis a vis the all-important matters of the universe. Threesomes were not considerations given even the geometry of unholy triangles.
The night was long at this moment. At others, it was short. But at this precise moment it was long. He knew this as he tried to delve back into a dreamless sleep. Communion with Wendy again amid the shifting hexagons of full-blown slumber was more than a drift away. He sat up stock still against the bedhead. Watching the curtains – embroidered by his Mum in better days – blacken over with a deeper, more granular darkness.
Morning comes to everyone, and as the light of day swallowed the darkness of the previous night Peter clambered clumsily out of his dreams. Another school day beckoned, and he thought he heard a screaming inside his head. He escaped from the bed-mites – an altogether more vicious breed – and embarked on his unholy preparations. Teeth to be cleaned, features to be washed, fears to be quelled. Although he never really managed to achieve the latter. He imagined holding Wendy’s hand again, that soft, soft grip, like clutching heaven. This was a dream he didn’t wish to leave behind in his bedroom.
It was sunny but cold, as he stared out of the big windows at the trunks of the trees. He was sure that the barks formed faces, and that they were grinning his way, giving him further nightmares. Heaven seemed so far away at this tiny point in his existence of childhood and quasi-innocence. He then heard a voice, and looked up to see Mrs Fenton, spectacles sliding comically down the bridge of her nose.
“Composition time!” she declared – but Peter didn’t want to believe her.
Young heads bowed in concentration and wild thought. Peter tentatively glanced out of the window, and noticed the bark-faces displaying gruesome smiles of malevolence – if they ever existed at all. Reality was so confusing. So he ducked his head on to the blank page, and clung to his pen, and an hour later the page wasn’t blank at all.
He created a child-like tale he called Nits Are Not Nice. He poured his fears out like blood from a jug. Yes, out they tumbled, like drunken acrobats, hitting the paper to form words that Peter could hardly spell. Wendy was in it. And the abominable Mrs Cricklehouse. And the nits – the lousy, lousey nits.
“Peter!” Mrs Fenton called out, so suddenly that Peter almost escaped from his skin. “Ink-wells!”
He looked up and discovered her face, all unnatural colour and cosmetically camouflaged, eye-lashes with lives of their own and lips all shiny with gloss. A memory came to him like a bolt of thunder, albeit a silent one. Stephen Kelly was absent with leave due to chicken pox. At least it had nothing to do with nits, Peter thought, as he ventured from his desk and passed all the half-empty, half-full ink-wells on his way out of the room. Being substitute ink monitor was the most important thing in the world, according to him.
And so he returned, armed and dangerous with a severe amount of Quink. Like someone consequential he shifted from desk to desk, unsteadily pouring from the dark blue bottles, filling each well with sustenance and life. What authority he had! But then he came to the silent seat, the dead desk that belonged to the delectable Wendy. He shivered and froze, froze and shivered. Could he see a ghost in that seat? A small girl with pig-tails and a smell of bubble gum? No! His Mum had told him that ghosts don’t exist.
“Shall I fill Wendy’s?” he shouted in a quavering style to Mrs Fenton.
“Fill them all, Peter,” she instructed, with a tongue of unhidden menace.
Peter obeyed, but his hands were shaking, and when he heard Wendy’s spectre-like voice whispering to him he dropped the bottle to the floor. Crash, and other sound effects. A dark pool of Quink crept around his toes as the class gasped in unison, uncontrolling their laughter and exasperation.
“Peter!” cried out Mrs Fenton. “Fetch a mop at once! Hurry!”
Peter pitied Mr Fenton as he departed from the classroom in a shocked haze. “It’s not fair, everything happens to me,” he told the corridor as his shoes squeaked on the shiny surface of the floor. He wished he could be an adult, to travel in time to those far-off years. He attempted to look into the future but only got as far as Tuesday. Then he opened the door of the cleaning cupboard and was unhealthily greeted by something akin to the Devil.
Was that my own scream, he wondered as he studied the ugly creature inside the cupboard. Despite his Mum’s warnings, awful things did seem to exist in the darkness. The first thing he spotted was exposed flesh, as naked as someone in the bathtub. Goosebump-covered skin, all thick and trunk-like. Sumptuous thighs and jiggly breasts. And the monster had two heads, which resembled those of Mr Crabb and… Mrs Cricklehouse!
This was definitely his own scream. He gazed at the both of them but his eyes were outnumbered. He lowered his stare and noticed that the nit nurse was tugging at some long portion of skin that belonged to the headmaster.
“What is it, Peter?” said Mr Crabb in a voice that was strangely high-pitched and vastly unlike his familiar booming tone.
“Well, get on with it then, lad!” said the headmaster, his eyeballs resembling something Peter had seen during an episode of The Outer Limits.
Mrs Cricklehouse continued pulling at the thing as Peter reached into the grey interior in search of a mop. He saw one – the thick grey strands of its head looked like Medusa’s hissing serpents. Peter invented an image of those dashing tongues, spitting venom as an army of lice advanced, reaching out lizard-like to catch and devour the hideous, flying bugs. He didn’t realise he was doing some tugging of his own. The pole end of the mop was caught between bra strap and shoulder, and as he tried to pull he noticed two lumps of the nurse’s flesh were wobbling around like pink jelly. Suddenly it came out with a pop, sending other cleaning utensils crashing into the murk. Mrs Cricklehouse gave Peter a haunting stare which caused him to flee in fright. And as his feet clunked against the creaky floor he could hear Mr Crabb’s loud and fantastic cry of sheer orgasmic ecstasy.
Humanus Peccatum.
The girl tried to drag herself from the vegetative process that dreaming had become. There were long black stringy hairs coiling wispishly from the turnip and she wondered if her side of this thick-skinned nodule was uniform and undistinct from his. And, if so, was it Peter who shared such stark oblivion of the spirit or was it some other boy who yearned to grow Crabb-like given the half-measures of evolution and fate?
Stephen Kelly woke from his pox-ridden fever wondering whose dream was which. There was nothing worse than yielding his ink monitor spot to such a yellow rat as Peter Pipkin. Stephen knew – Stephen simply knew – that submission to the ill-scrawled sick-notes that Ma Kelly had regularly scribbled just for the sake of his gratuitous excusement did not actually make him feel any better. This time, though, he was truly sick. And nobody who was anybody believed it. For years, it seemed, he and Ma Kelly had concocted several fictions for him of period pains and mad cows and alzheimers and pop-off strokes to get himself out of games – and now a real dead-eyed disease darn well stitched him up, and nobody (including Crabb, Fenton and that old scritch-owl of a nit nurse) gave any credence to even his real doctor’s mad map certificates of verifiable vileness.
On top of which, that godawful bad-apple kid called Peter Pipkin had not only usurped the gurgling fill-ups of Stephen’s rightful ink-wells but also started dwelling in the same semi-detached dream, the gangrene growing on the plaster party-wall between Stephen and sweet Wendy. It was as if being officially ill was tantamount to being sent to the equivalent of Coventry in a bone-boring suburbia of pitch-black dreamland, leaving a young pretender to hold hands with the only girl Stephen had ever kissed (albeit only on the petal of her cheek).
It was when Ma Kelly came clucking home from her job in the cellar of the DSS that Stephen finally slipped into an uncommon unconsciousness, belying even the worst scenarios of the quink-blotted medical certificates that had been issued like thick-cut confetti. He was indeed approaching a non-existence whence even the most enlightened lesson of neo-revivalism would not trick him into believing he was about to be reborn – poised on the spur of death, sadly without having first remembered his first day at school when Ma Kelly abandoned him to the smirking trainee teacher in mini-skirt and to the smell of plasticene and pissy pants.
The relative symmetry of the Fenton/ Crabb/ Cricklehouse boobs-and-cocks creature and the more sedate Wendy/ Peter/ Stephen papier-mache dream combo struck him like a bolt out of washable blue. The genderskins, upon scrutiny, were ill-defined. The art of mental arithmetic was not even half of it. Until he drifted back into permanent black.
Peter had stopped scribbling in his red glossy exercise book, the one with the weights and measures listed on the back cover – waiting to be scolded by Mrs Fenton for not putting his rough work in the rough book first. But he didn’t like the way the nib spluttered on the cheap knotty paper in the rough book. Nibs Are Not Nice. He chuckled at the alternative title. Wendy’s Uncle was staring over his shoulder in cold scrutiny. But when he looked round there was nobody there. Only the blackboard.
The inevitable came expectedly.
“Peter Pipkin!” yelled the Fenton third of the lust triangle.
Peter’s ears popped up like burnt toast from a toaster, minus the stench and the smoke. Mrs Fenton went on to admonish him, her voice as cold as the swirling sea in mid-December, and as venomous as the wobbling jelly-fish that lurked beneath the immediate surface. Or as hungrily, spittingly evil as the collection of nits that existed somewhere in the hell-world of Mrs Cricklehouse?
She exasperated him by yelling across the classroom, angry words flying from her pink-lipsticked mouth accompanied by dollops of feminine phlegm.
“What about the rough book, Peter?” she cried. “The rough book first! Do this again. Do it all again!”
She then shoved the red glossy book into her authoritative desk, not-nice nits and all, shutting it thunderously, awaking all the sleeping bark-ghouls outside. Peter was not pleased. He collapsed into his rough book, clutching his wooden stick of a pen like he would clutch his personal dreams. The words he produced looked like navy blue spiders spread across the blotty page. A Louse is in My House, he wrote. And then his thoughts wandered.
Meanwhile Mrs Fenton began to read out Belinda Buttershaw’s offering, What My Mummy And Daddy Do In Bed At Night. Peter listened, and wondered why it was that grown-ups like to play such strange and remarkable games, forming gruesome flesh-monsters like the Crickle-Crabb he had seen in the cleaning cupboard. The children produced a gaggle of girlish giggles as the teacher’s words were flung through the air. He regarded Belinda’s production as vile rubbish. And she got top marks for that! How cruel is this world, he thought.
“Daddy was humping Mummy and I saw his bottom,” read the talking, bespectacled sex-thrill.
Peter snorted, and settled back into his lice-inspired creation. He couldn’t think normally, for he recalled the incident with the Quink like an awful flashback in an equally awful film. He wanted Stephen Kelly to die, a horrible, heinous death, so that he and he alone could become the King of the Ink. He had ambitions, you see. He looked across at Barry Inglethwaite – the milk monitor! Yes, not only did he have this Quinky, quirky desire, but he wanted to be in charge of the clinking silver-tops. Barry Inglethwaite possessed an untidy mess of Beatle-style hair, as thick and black as dark fog. Ideal for a swarm of nits…
At playtime Peter crept back into the deserted classroom, his head swamped with desire. He cherished his gleaming red exercise book, hence this clandestine activity. He could smell the silence, his nostrils sniffing the nothingness that existed in the air. As swiftly as an advancing louse he lifted the creaking desk-lid that belonged to the Fenton femme fatale. It was there! And so he snatched it, and pressed it to his skinny bosom. Within those pages were private and intimate scribblings that referred to the darling delectable Wendy. But… there were other things inside that desk.
Scrawled notes in ink that was not Quink. Lots of them. Neatly piled atop each other, quivering like scared rabbits in damaged hutches. Peter, grasping his curiosity tightly, poked his head into the gloom and read the first message.
“Stephen won’t be in today. He has the Marburg virus. Ma Kelly”.
Peter let out a gasp before studying the next note.
“Please excuse Stephen from games. PMT. Ma Kelly”.
Incredible, thought Peter, as he rustled around inside that desk, reading each and every detail of the messages from Stephen Kelly’s guardian.
“Stephen has venereal disease”… “Stephen has mumps”… “Stephen’s penis fell off this morning”… and so on. Until he discovered a discovery so almighty that Peter frowned and scowled simultaneously.
“Stephen is now a vegetable, his skull dripping with lice, infected with those pipsqueaking parasites. They are sucking him dry, absorbing his blood like nit-vamps, eating away his notions and ideas, his dreams and thoughts, his sanity and the waves inside his brain. I doubt if he will ever again function as a normal thinking person. He is merely… a husk. An inhuman non-human. A crushing example of something that is perhaps not living. Ma Kelly”.
It was at this striking moment that the door opened. In stepped two figures. Peter glanced across the room, and immediately anticipated the oncoming formation of another befuddling flesh-creature, for the two were none other than Mr Crabb and Mrs Fenton.
His silent scream non-reverberated around the creeping walls. He slumped quietly to the polished floor, hiding his small bulk behind the enormity of the teacher-desk. And he watched, and listened, his ears agog.
The Fenton vamp swept away her spectacles in an entirely melodramatic manner, before demonstrating that the rumour was true – their lips did meet at furtive moments of opportunity. After several embarrassing (for Peter) seconds their mouths parted with an alarmingly fervent sucking sound, like a sink-plunger being tugged from a plug-hole.
“I have something to tell you,” she whispered feverishly into Mr Crabb’s nostrils as their features pressed together.
“Tell me you want me!” enthused the lecherous leech of a headmaster, nibbling at the eyelids of Mrs Fenton.
“No!” replied his wanton love-bomb. “We are with child…”
Peter was aghast. How did they know I was here, he wondered, as he misinterpreted the hushed words of his teacher. He closed his eyes tightly, and awaited some wrath. It didn’t arrive. Instead he heard the plaintive sound of a door slamming shut, and then emotional sobbing, and then shouting along the corridor, followed by quietude of an easy nature. He opened his eyes to find that the air inside the room was his alone. He swallowed a whole lot of it as he reached into the desk and filched the whole bundle of lame and feeble excuses scrabbled in the Ma Kelly scrawl. Then he fled from the room like someone frightened of something.
Espadrillus Vulvum.
Only in dreams could imaginary words conjure up real, if imaginary, diseases. The trio of young minds welded together where infected gristle met the three overlapping slabs of grey matter. Whirr-winged bluebottles (swilling back and forth, inside their transparent brittle bodies, with discoloured unwashable blood) swarmed larger and larger; together with the numinous nittles whence they’d grown. Greenish sludge swirling in from every corner of the cavernous skull. Whirlpools of spinnage.
But Peter hated spinach… as much as lumpy custard, stale bubble-and-squeak and unseasoned parsnip. He was not disturbed by the last dream with the sludge, because he’d not had it yet. But he surely would, he feared. Having fled home, chased, in his mind, by floating, flapping mini-sheaves of sick-notes; he stole a deliberate detour, and ended up tramping quietly on familiar garden-ground, creeping like weeds to peek through the Wendy windows at a silent-movie scene, but in colour. Glued eyes gaped in awe.
He had to see her; but not such as this. Her frail form was sprawled across the decaying settee, which was an unsightly brown colour. She was wearing the blue dress with the white spots, her chicken pox dress Peter called it. Lice leapt around her head, her baldy, baldy head, devoid of all hair and opened up like a spliced coconut. Her eyes were staring and inhuman, like those belonging to a stage puppet, big and bold. Peter winced; such horrors are not for small boys such as this wanton dreamer.
Kneeling before her was the Uncle, as ugly as a two pound coin. Slowly he leant across and extended his black tongue, inserting the hideous thing into Wendy’s cracked abyss of missing brain. Nits jumped and skipped like insect athletes on steroids. The Uncle captured a tongueful, and tucked the leaping lot back into his gaunt mouth, chewing as if there was a tomorrow. He continued the measly meal, ridding the girl’s head of all nit-like mites, his dark tongue gleaming with saliva and plastered with insignificant hair-pests. Wendy did not move. She remained still, lifeless and liceless.
Peter hoped that he was dreaming; hoped that she was dreaming. He ran home like a lonely long distance runner, then collapsed into the front room, missing the sofa by quite a distance, staring at the carpet-bugs eyeball to eyeball…
Only one as young as Peter Pipkin could experience such adult visions of lust and lice and still be able to consign them to the simple pigeon-hole of imaginary nightmares. That way he could survive. Even if he had slightly suspected that some of the things he’d endured recently were real, he would have completely gone off his sweet-tousled head looking for another body with which to stow his soul.
His face was so close to the front room carpet and its intrinsic tufts, he could delve even beyond its surface bugs and mites of common pestilence. There, deep within the pile, were other, smaller faces. Joined to squiggly lines that masqueraded as their bodies. He saw sorrow etched like a tracery of rivers upon their expressions. Stephen was there, his features sown with oniony warts. Wendy’s embedded with amethyst-hard teardrops. Ma Kelly and the Uncle creature together weaving scribbly hair between the pitiless punctuation of sums. Cricklehouse, Fenton and Crabb making even worse faces than their own, as they melted in and out of vision with the sausage-filler maggots of their unbridled foreplay. All a language that knew no end.
Anoplura Lethalis.
The dream was somewhat strange. Peter was back in his rightful Pipkin place in the class, behind the pig-tails and smell of bubble gum. Stephen was refilling the ink-wells with Quink. Mrs Fenton leaning against the blackboard, slightly squiffy as ever. Mr Crabb was coming through the sun-shafts into the naughty babbles and squeaks of the form-room, accompanied by a scowling Cricklehouse woman. All was well with the world. All in its rightful pecking order. He tugged at one of the tails and laughed. Then he tugged at the other…
…and it came off in his tiny hand. It came off! Like a mad fool he gazed at the clump of woven hair, which was attached to the wiggy thatch that had covered her scalp. The familiar baldy head, gaping wide open, showing all the dark insides that lurked within. And lice too. Hopping and bouncing as though on hot coals. A parade of parasitic pestilence. He opened his jaws to scream, but gagged, like a clown without japes.
He watched as Mrs Cricklehouse approached the Fenton witch, blood-lust overtaking sex-lust. Her chubby fingers disappeared inside the pockets of her apron, seconds later emerging like behemoths from the salty ocean. She opened her clenched fists, and out sprang an army of nits, attacking the with-child vamp ferociously, attaching themselves to her hair wildly, delving and burrowing and helping themselves to bits of skin and blood and brain.
“You will not have his child,” she cried in fury. Her own tummy-bulge was barely noticeable, hidden by fatty Cricklehouse flesh, as she trundled between the desks, chins wobbling fiercely. Showers of lice were spread over pre-pubescent heads, like a farmer scattering seeds of evil. The children shrieked like off-key castrati. Stephen’s face was already a glaze. Wendy was beyond lice. Peter saw young heads split open quickly as the nits nested, blood-maps forming on shiny facial skin. And then the nurse was above him, her shadow falling across his shaking bones.
“Nits are nice,” she professed, before casting a lethal dosage of pests upon his dark locks.
Both triangles were shattered, the ones of dreams and lechery, geometrical creations crushed by the lice-like gatecrashers. It didn’t take long for him to join the brain-dead. He discovered that dead dreams don’t exist, just a black, bilious void of everlasting nothingness. Lice are not nice, he insisted, as his silent screams rang out across the mountains of Hell. And the last thing he felt was a black tongue scraping inside his skull.

with Jeff Holland

It exploded out of somewhere into nowhere, I think….he thought. That’s what it seemed like. How do you describe ecstasy? How do you describe colour, music, light, emotion, an idea?
It would solve the problem – problems? No, just the problem. He didn’t even hate Cheryl; not even dislike her; she was just part of the problem. So, what’s the problem?
My life, he thought, everything to do with my life.
So change it!
I can’t.
Why not?
Because, because, because Cheryl holds the whole fucking lot to me like a bloody great heavy cloth over me, over my whole life.
So kill her!
There, that’s what came from nowhere. That’s what’s ratting around in my brain.
He dropped the still smoking cigarette into the empty beer can and heard its tinny echo sizzle around the can.
Kill her. Kill her. Kill her as sleep overtook him.
How could he describe sleep, dream, sleep, dream, death?
Easy as squashing a mouse underfoot?
That’s fucking hard.
The day he chose to kill her she was due to die in any event. So why that day? Belt and braces?
Never leave anything to chance.
Cheryl often called men rats.
She’s the rat now, he thought, and if I corner her she’ll pounce at my throat, ripping it out.
Then I’ll need a zip for the rip.
Knowing Cheryl, though, she’d more likely dive into my mouth and burrow noisily…
The room was black. Her sleeping shape rose and fell with the tides. He determined to wake her by turning over and sighing grumpily.
“Can’t you sleep?” she asked.
He shook his head. A pointless action in the darkness.
“You’re so restless these days.”
He nodded.
He never had a restful night – not since the earliest possible days when his mother used to rock him to sleep with a rendition of Three Blind Mice.
Clumsily gripping another blinking beer can and self-consciously blowing smoke saucers, I stood at the door watching the two shapes as they continued to pillow-talk the night away. I was wondering how I had managed to escape from nowhere into somewhere. My night apparel was a sweaty sodden poultice, my whiskers itchy. Ecstasy was not even in the starting frame.
“There’s something in the room,” she suddenly said – merely that – with the loudest whisper she could muster – and she huddled nearer to the male shape that shared her bed.
“What you mean?” he asked, as he welcomed her familiarly into the warm crook of his arms.
“I can hear breathing.”
“That’s me.”
“No, it’s not you. It’s different.”
I smiled – for now I knew that the thing I had left beside Cheryl in the bed had indeed fooled her into believing it was me.
There in the dark I held my breath and watched. Would they do it? How good was I? Would she believe?
The shape of her hand under the bed clothes moved across my thigh and I watched myself tighten up. Not an “Oh dear,” or a “Not now, Cheryl,” but just a tensing of the muscles, a slight change in the facial expression.
She sighed and turned over. GOD, I WAS GOOD!
Satisfied, I turned and scurried away down the stairs, squeezed through the rotting wood of the back door and into the damp night.
Under the elder bush, dripping in dew, I paused and sat upright. I sniffed the air, but could not smell them, I turned my head first this way then that way but I could not hear them. I peered into the darkness. Even when the moon burst from the clouds, covering the land in eldritch light, I could not see them. But they were there!
I turned and nibbled on the scarlet fungus that grew only now – and only here, deep beneath the elder bush, invisible to elder Gods….
But those I could not hear?
Where were they? Even the Great Old Ones had voices that could actually be distinguished from simply Nature or the Universe talking. But THESE!
They were barely functional – inchoate, primal, unguentary…sounds on the brink of becoming sounds, coming from inside the shed at the bottom of the garden.
Being an unhandy-man, my tools were stowed there in a random care-free fashion, fork and spade clinging together for dear life, hammer and screwdrivers in no fixed abode, nails thumbed deep into rotten wood…
The voices suddenly claimed that one of them was Cheryl.
In the same way as I was me.
Since she was to die today whatever else happened, why bother killing her? Beer and smokes were something that allowed me to rise on my hind-legs and call myself man.
Let her choke on rivets and drill-bits, I nearly said.
But, by hearing me nearly say it, they became aware of my preening presence in the garden. And I knew the would-be rodents in the shed were jealous that I had reached the fungus-sucking stage first – before them, before Cheryl!
That was it, that’s what they were saying, I could hear it quite clearly. That was freedom, that was life. The human condition was but a passing aberration and I had come out the other side – yet still whole. Tonight was the untidy watershed. Despite the blood lust, I had felt called to the garden so that I could relish a tantalising postponement of the kill. The air parted like a fibrous curtain and, through that opportune opening, I could see my future, my only future.
Quickly I rejoined me in bed and snuggled up to Cheryl. She stirred and moved – like a contented fat hog. Contented since, against all the odds, she had not died on time.
With the merest residue of Human-beingness, I left the following morning for my last day at work. By lunch time a migraine of which I was the carrier was so bad my boss just had to let me go. I said “Goodbye, God” to the churlish bastard….
At home, once more I prepared for the night. I had little to do, gather and secrete the funguent, then act normal whenever Cheryl was around. Now, no mistakes – although a day late, her death was inevitable amid the tangled tendrils, the belt and braces of my soul…
At our accustomed 10:30, we retired for the night.
With the sound of her very first snore I reached within myself for the plumpest, juiciest fungus and rammed it into her gaping maw. She choked and coughed as I fed the fungus…
I stuffed it up her nostrils with my paws, poked it into her cheeks as if I prepared her face for a pantomime: Cinderella’s ugliest sister.
She cried and shook and swallowed and dribbled and screamed silently and I sat on her chest and fed the fungus…
Still she struggled, so I popped my head into her yawning mouth, using it to push the fungus deeper…
Something in me couldn’t resist. I bit her tongue. I ate her tongue and replaced it with fungi. Even my own innards were indistinguishable…
At last her breathing stopped as it was sure to stop. I ratted rapturously away. My body needed a little blood letting into the empty beer cans which I had stowed higgledy piggledy in the shed…. then, to take my rightful place with the Old Ones. And being my rightful place, it was his, too.
Quietly, Cheryl crept down the stairs to the back door, a door so rotten it was more like curtains and she crouched, in the moonlit garden, nibbling the scarlet caps.
Her throat dredged a gut-rot sorrow when she heard rattling in the shed. But, with my tongue, she laughed.
To be really free, she needed a man! A man to kill!
The thought exploded from everywhere. God, it would be good!

with M.F. Korn

Dropping out of the sky on to blue-green piedmont of the prettiest little moon they had ever seen, the crew awoke from cold-pak plenty stiff-jointed. The craft landed by its brain pretty as a picture on to sod grass the color of rust. Sensors affirmed the stench of ripe vegetation but nothing serious.
Barber belched some chemical air from cold-pak. “Damn, I hate that gunk they stuff us with…”
The craft opened up by itself. “Hey, we ain’t ready yet! Let a man stretch for a second!”
The men drank electrolyte kool-aid and stuffed themselves on ham-paste.
“So we made it, it looks like…” said Manly.
“Look at that view!”
The ripe stench of the air invaded their lungs. There was a dark blue hill as a crest on the flat horizon, miles long, tapering down to a lake of emerald green.
The various modern accoutrements of survival worked almost in the same way as religion did – kicking in at the synapses before allowing the rest of the body to escape along the rootcanals of the teeth.
Cluella was the last to waddle sodwards. She was on board for a reason other than cooking or cleaning or giving sexual favours. She was there simply because she was in charge – and knew WHY they were there in the first place. She was pot-bellied, she had incipient whiskers, but she was all woman.
Manly and Barber waded towards a subsection of the lake which had wandered beyond its margins, radiating veins of silt like centrifugal strawberry ripples. These two men hoped they would be ignored by Cluella, the rest of the crew being better suited to answering her demands: clones without templates whence cloned.
Manly wielded a Wellman sprouting vestigial cold-paks. Barber merely sported a knowing smile.
“I know it’s some kinda water, but I wouldn’t drink it, Barber.”
“We got plenty. All we gotta do is a little geology-lookin-around.”
“This is my last trip with Cluella runnin’ the show. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Well, rumor has it she’s a woman underneath that flab…”
“I wouldn’t take you up on that.”
They squatted in their environ-jumpers by the shore.
The sky boasted two suns, one yellow and small and the other red and plump, pregnant, about to burst.
“Sure is a pretty place.”
“Get out the seismo, Barber, I gotta take a wee-wee.”
“Yeah, I think there’s plenty of ore that we’re lookin’ for around here. This moon is bustin’ with em.”
“Precious, or industrial?”
“Both, friend.”
Manly picked up his Wellman again after zipping his jumper. The lake was now tainted with human despoiledness.
“What about the hills?”
“I dunno. There’s something weird about that.”
“Watcha mean?”
“Can’t put my finger on it.”
A six-legged fawn was down the shore about quarter-mile.
“I wonder what the wildlife tastes like?”
“We’ll find out. I’m sick of paste, it gives me the squitters somethin’ awful.”
“Oh yeah.”
“Oh yeah.”
There were some misaligned echoes making the whole conflab noisier than a million door-hinges opening wide on harsh articulate rust. Their chest dictaphones (deliciously old-fashioned as they were) seemed only to be able to record the echoes, not the master voices. So, when, Cluella, later that night, in her privacy pod, checked up on Barber and Manly by listening to the tapes, she wondered if she were going mad. Both men – as a matter of record – had sunk in the quicksand and, even now, were fast approaching the Moon’s Node. The tapes spoke of harmony and delight, rather than the catcalls of despair as one might have expected.
Cluella stared at a photo of Barber. She admired his clean chops. And empty sidebeards. She rubbed at her own grizzled chin and prayed that Barber might return. She had wanted Barber to wield the Wellman, not Manly. Now it was too late.
“Miss Cluella, Miss Cluella!”
It was just as if the pod’s door itself spoke through its lock by means of a tongue-shaped key. She knew however it was Dirkly Measles. The only one she trusted to share in her passions for other members of the crew.
“Yes, Dirkly.”
“Well, Miss Cluella, there’s music going on near the lake.”
Music? She queried the key.
“Not sure, Miss Cluella,” answered the lock.
She waved her hand in irritation. She was not even in the mood to wonder how the dictaphones had been saved, if not the men themselves.
The men barely got any shut-eye that night. Cluella did because she snorted EZ-gin by the tubeful. Also, even though she fancied Barber, his death didn’t set her back too much. There were the other men still around. That night, the insects danced in tempo to something almost silent. The moon thrived with bugs, for that matter, it was aplenty with every fauna and flora. The ship sat on its haunches as the violet night sky skittered on the horizon. Something was going down by that lake. Something unnatural.
The morning erupted like a pustule of yellow and red sun. Cluella had Dirkly’s hashbrowns and more helpings too. The men’s eyes were swollen with no sleep.
“Who wants to go on a search party? Huh?”
“Oh, Cluella, I don’t feel much good, now…,” said Sonny sheepishly.
“Me neither,” said Wexler, the skinny tadpole of a boy.
“Well, you’se two are my pick. Get a goin’!”
“Aw, come on now. We don’t know what happened to Barber and Manly! They didn’t even have time to fire cold-pak on anything. It’s like they never saw it comin!”
“I ain’t got time for this. Get a goin”.”
“I know why you ain’t making Doug go. Cause you…”
“You shut your trap! Your dirty trap! Git!”
The men adjusted their jumpers for temp. Muttering, cursing, not looking back at Cluella laying like a lump of fat in her extra-extra-large jumper on the swallowchair, they exited the craft. Most men, not just two, after all. Nobody, not even Cluella, remembered why the search party was called for, in any event. The best thing was to assume Barber and Manly were dead: less complications, that way. They didn’t have a doctor nor a nurse nor, even, somebody halfway-trained in first aid.
There was only one working Wellman left and the honour of wielding it was unaccountably granted, by Cluella, to Wexler. Despite his physique he managed to use only one hand in the manoeuvre, as he wheeled it gyroscopically to generate power. He yipped with high-pitched delight.
The other men looked askance. With the irreversible disappearance of Manly, many hoped to wield the Wellman. It is said, however, that the art of leadership stems from mis-delegating … and they all laughed, as telepathically, they ran through yet one more side-splitting satire: a ritual of analogies and false metaphors which gave a bad light to any of Cluella’s decisions, even to good ones. She deserved little respect, today, as she had scraped her face too harshly, with skin rawly flayed and the resultant loosening of flaps making a very untidy sight.
Dirkly Measles, meanwhile, buffed up all their shoes with see-through bird-muck polish. Jollity was back on the menu. Better than Dirkly’s insipid hashbrowns, any day.
It was at this precise moment that, abruptly, Cluella decided it was the optimum flashpoint of making the expedition’s mission statement. Curdling her throat with coffee cantatas, she proceeded simply to enunciate the quest.
“Menfolk, we have landed on this pretty, but, by all accounts, mischievous moon to search out the lair of a creature called the Slug Ouroboros.”
“A wha-a-at?” said Sonny, who himself was almost as big as Cluella, with a sweet redneck twang.
“It’s a huge slug a couple miles long; you can’t miss em once you see em. It ain’t small like your peepus, Sonny…”
Sonny didn’t answer. He knew better.
“What colour is a Awraburrows?” someone asked.
“Ouroboros. They are dark purple. Black purple.”
“Why do we want to find one?”
“Well, we’ll probably find em in pairs.”
“But why?”
“Some hotshot gov science men all top-secret said just get um. They never said why, but I think it is because they bend time or sumthin. Or bend light or gravity or some shit.”
“Wha-a-a-t?” said Sonny.
“You’d have to have a brain ta understand, and not be stupid as all shit like you know you are, Sonny.”
Wexler was birddogging the terrain. The whole crew had gone scouting except for Cluella stuffing her gut with a stowed-away pak of chocolates, almost stuck in her swallow-chair, watching Soap-opera mini-holies.
The men cautiously made it to the shore of the lake.
“Ah don’t see nuthin! This is bullcrud, I’m tellin’ you crappers!”
“Just look for mile long rubbery-like slugs, two of em. And shut your yap.”
So Wexler was actin’ all bigshot, now, the men thought.
They stood by the shore that tapered down from the purple-black hill of some length.
Then, a body in the crew – nobody now, even in hindsight, could name which one – stated that the Slug Ourboros was not x miles long, rather it was x miles round, being an endless grub.
“A maggot ring?” queried sheepish Sonny.
“A circular worm, blimey!” said Doug.
“No,” said Cluella, suddenly emerging from a brown study which had even survived the most arrant sudsy serial on her cabin fever scale of screen to eyeball. “It is not a worm, nor maggot, nor grub. It is a slug. A bullet that’s been shot within a time-loop, making it seem slimy.” Her voice couldn’t keep up with her explanation.
Wexler, dropping the Wellman with a crunch of audible pain on its part, scratched his head. A bullet, going round and round, never meeting its target other than its own backside – becoming gooey and oozy as a result? He couldn’t enunciate the words. The question hung there on an interrogative hook, waiting for a bird of prey to swoop and tussle it to the ground.
Spear-carriers, in the shape of the craft’s more nameless crew, came to the rescue and set off on the now forgotten search party for folk even more forgotten than lost. Meanwhile, Doug, Wexler, Sonny and red-cheeked Cluella banded themselves into a select group: ready to scour the moon for an oily equator of gunfire.
“Wait!” shrieked Dirkly Measles, lugging the door behind him (the only door, a moveable one, that their craft possessed). “You might need this, if there’s a cave or other craggy abode needing to be shut against the dangers of the night.” He secretly thought, though, it would make a good stretcher-bed, specially for an Illwoman fast turning into which he deemed the monthly vestiges of Cluella to be.
Cluella, knowing that any moon (not only Earth’s) affected femininity more than genes, signalled her agreement to Dirkly’s attendance and the five of them set off.
Wexler having more knowledge than the others, came to an epiphanal moment. As he imagined putting his hands on a towering blubbering mass of otherworldly slug flesh, the thing itself jolted and earthquake tremors were suddenly felt by all. The mass of engorged living meat was moving wildly, in huge-mass rhythm, one section at a time!
They come in pairs, huh? He remembered Cluella barking out back at the now-abandoned ship. So this mass is TWO in number! The pair of behemoths is cleaved together, either one inside the other or both occupying the same space at the same time, a physical anomaly, but again, Cluella said all that gibberish about bending gravity, time, light, etc.
He blurted out to the others still standing there, while Cluella fumed as usual, “There’s two slugs! And they are screwing!”
“Screwin’?” blurted Sonny. “Makin’ funny business?”
“Yep, they apparently breed for a long period of time, but they themselves are the epicenter of their own time disturbance, so they are in essence, screwing outside of time or something. I haven’t figured it out yet…” he trailed off.
“No shit!” Cluella said, now supine on the door, feeling PMS bloating from the strange gravity of the paradisio moon. “Some gov man said they screw for sumthin’ like 3000 centuries. That earthquake was just another orgasm!” She then muttered, “More than I get from you bastards…”
“Screwin’ for a damn aeternity!” Sonny hawped, and the other four roared with laughter. The slugs went to town surrounding them like Saturn’s rings, where now sweet lucid mellifluous music swept over them like siren’s vocalises.
It was when clean-cheeked and fresh-faced Barber appeared, having escaped his close shave with moon-mud, that she swooned. So, now, she happily saddled herself upon the ultimate Wellman and rode its circular cock like a fairground ride, round and round and round, using blood as lubrication.
“Slugfugging!” the others laughed. Cluella later laughed at her dream from atop the abject ship’s door laying on the mushy ground beneath her own mass of quivering, shivering-with-excitement, flesh.
The moon winked. Its cage of silence was perfect, almost musical.

with Lawrence Dyer

Ewan wasn’t intending to go around via the seawall, he was in a hurry – after all, he had to grab a bite to eat and then get back to the shop. So why was he now taking the long way round from where he parked his car every day to the wooden seaside villa he lived in?
The wind was strong and as he reached the top of the steep earthen slope of grass and wildflowers that was the seawall he was rocked back by the full force of the cold air. He squeezed moisture from his stinging eyes and threaded his way down the other side between the tall clumps of alexanders that grew there. Across a short run of saltmarsh he could see people at the edge of the high tide.
It wasn’t especially unusual to see people there. On the seaward side of the earth barrier it was a nature reserve that attracted birdwatchers and walkers. Even at this time of year when the wind was strong and temperatures were low. It was the stance of the people that caught his eye. Many of them were crouching at the edge of the sea, just above the reach of the rolling waves whose energy was dissipated into the saltmarsh with each surge forward. Crouching? What were they looking at?
He made his way across the marsh, thoughts of having lunch and getting back to work gone from his mind. And then he was behind them, twenty or so people strung out along the edge of the high-tide bank of shingle littered with broken driftwood, sun-bleached food containers and fragments of rope. What were they looking for?
But he could feel it too, though he could not say what it was, exactly. It was like something was out there, just out of view, and if you crouched down and looked into the waves you just might spot it.
Echoing the stance of the majority, he found himself participating in an instinctive fanning out among the flotsam; perhaps each of the frozen crouchers believed the others could see something.
But Ewan could see something for himself. The wind was not the only sound, not the only maker of movement.
Elaine Urquhart glanced at her watch: Ewan was late coming back. Not for the first time that week she considered she would have to let him go… Her gaze flitted around the displays of her gift shop – china cats, fridge magnets, sets of place mats, postcards of muddy local views… She realised only too well that not many novelty-seekers came to this part of the coast, following the recent proletarian fad to swarm abroad upon cheap packets. Meanwhile, bird-watchers and other naturalists were more interested in the bookshop down the road from her than browsing through a cornucopia of manufactured trinkets of transience that was her particular Aladdin’s Cave. Even straightforward walkers did not seem to have much need for such seaside trivia. She would certainly have to let Ewan go, even if things did pick up. He would probably have some weak excuse when he came back late from lunch again. Most of the locals, she had soon recognised, were not particularly bright buttons, Ewan being no exception. She was once a glamorous power-dresser in the city; now she was selling children’s pastels to draw with, something they could get much cheaper in Smiths. How did she end up here in the back of beyond?
She reached among the spider-webbed flotsam in the dark recesses behind the counter and painstakingly retrieved her Award for Excellence in Business (represented by what was esoterically known as the Pepys Medallion), reminding her of the city and the chattering classes of which she was once part. Lifting the hem of her skirt she tried to wipe off the dust and muck, but it was encrusted in the folds of the zephyr-like figurine. Each setback had seemed a minor one, a rallying point to move forward from, insignificant in itself. But setback had bred setback, until… here she was. She would have to try more bird books and maps, she decided, make a window display perhaps, compete with the bookshop. But, as her eyes flittered over the small stand of untouched nature books already languishing in a corner of her shop she realised she had no energy left for any of it… What this place needed, what she needed, was something big to happen, something that would put her back in the centre of things.
Exhausted, Ewan pushed back the pile of open text books and charts, sending several large tomes somersaulting onto the floor with a thump that stirred him back to some sort of reality. He looked at his watch. Damn! He should have been back at the shop an hour ago. Elaine would be annoyed with him again, threatening to sack him as she so often did. He hated the way she looked at him on such occasions, as if he were a mere object amongst the colourful trifles on display for the visitors who too seldom set the bell above the door jangling. He had never told her about his Phd in marine biology, not that it would have made any difference, for she seemed to despise everyone around her regardless of what they might have to offer. Picking up his jacket he headed for the door of his wooden villa; he knew he could not afford to lose his job.
But today thoughts about Elaine Urquhart’s treatment of him melted quickly away as he strode along the shingle path outside, for he was still heady with the excitement of what had happened back on the shore. Once the wind had died down and the people drifted away he had hurried back home where he had resorted to what he did on any occasion of an anomalous sighting, delving into his private library of marine creature records and books, trying to match up what he had seen with what others had seen and recorded in their scientific notes. But even as he had done so he had known it was futile. Searching through his books was a kind of programmed response he indulged in whenever anything new came up, a pat reaction intended to bring comfort and take the edge off his acutely painful excitement. But this time it had not calmed him – could not calm him. For he realised with a jolt that he could not say he had actually seen very much at all – he could not really claim that he had seen anything useful. It had been much more about what he had felt…
Feelings needed to be dwelt upon, but not immediately described, not initially categorised even as feelings. A real scientist now turned scientist manqué, Ewan needed to gain wings as a child-like human being with blurred indestructible edges, so as, later, to be able more safely to land unseen among a detritus of empirical flotsam and then secretly itemise these findings via wild hypothesis towards conclusive theory. His outward airy-fairy slowness of demeanour hid a very sharp operator beneath and this smarter side of Ewan simply knew that Elaine Urquhart was very much a similar individual as himself. She was not just the business woman burnt out on too many cocktail parties in the city now turned remaindered soft-sell coastal recluse yearning for relief from the rat race at the expense of her standard of living. Ewan’s astuteness had indeed recognised the baggage behind the baggage. Elaine had not let slip a tiny thing about her past. He had spotted the crazy jagged-edged life of the city behind the dull eyes that wanted to forget such a life. He had earlier dowsed, too, for even bigger riches within the woman, and, in some inexplicable way, this process was associated with his current mood following today’s sighting of – of what? An undefined shoal of some sort, perhaps. A brightness he was trying not to explain but to contain.
He fathomed that one thing Elaine lacked was a similar astuteness about the nature of Ewan. She was inferior in scrying him compared to how he could scry her. There was safety in the mental fire-wall he knew he possessed. But how did such protection stop anyone probing him but, at the same time, not prevent his own antennae probing out? …. He really must stop moidering – as his Scottish father used to say – and get back to the shop! He had already assumed he had shaken off his feelings about (or for?) Elaine … so why did they keep creeping back?
That day’s walkers had to cope with adverse weather. The day had started non-descript, if windy, but now, with the onset of a dull dank dusk, there was a sudden shaft of humidity (as part of a renewal of wind) amid the beginnings of a thunderstorm that seemed unnatural in view of the otherwise prevailing chilliness. Often on this part of the coast, the elements were very much mix and match … and contrast: its own climate: rarely covered by the men in sharp suits in front of maps on TV screens.
Jock Clarke, having arrived earlier in the day from an area of the country that got more mention, headed towards the Clay Pigeon pub, hunching his shoulders against the relentless whining wind, as he relived, with some mystery of forgetfulness, the unexpected gathering on the bank to “see in’ the shoal. He was accompanied by his wife – to him a featureless woman in peggy duffle-coat and plodding wellingtons.
Inside, the pub was unusually quiet, and at first he thought it was empty, but then he picked out, one by one in dark corners and gloomy places under the heavy beams – old timbers from shipwrecks – the people who had been scattered along the shore. They sat in silence, mostly cradling pints of beer. It was strange the way he often bumped into the same people down here, mostly Scots like him, but also a few Welsh and Irish, a mixture of bird watchers and nature lovers who seemed to congregate on this south-eastern shore on an almost yearly basis. It was strange, the more he considered it. It was as if the Celtic peoples were returning to the land that had once been theirs, back in the sixth century, before the Saxons came, before this place became the land of the East Saxons, later shortened by the passing of the years to “East-Sax” and in modern times to Essex – now a land that only dreamed of its past.
“Well, the Scots are here in force again!” He spoke the words jocularly to his wife, but she merely nodded as they approached the bar and from the depths of her duffle-coat muttered “Aye.”
But that wasn’t it, he instinctively knew. Why they came here had nothing to do with Celts reclaiming the land of their ancestors. It was something else, something he couldn’t put his finger on. He put his wife in a corner where she would sup her stout quietly and returned to the bar to try ordering.
“Oh Mr Clarke,” a soft Scots voice spoke beside Jock as the barman stood waiting for him to order. He felt a hand on his arm. Looking down he saw a face he recognised from a previous year, one of his countrywomen, though he did not remember her name.
“Will you buy me a drink?” the old woman asked, looking unblinkingly into his eyes. “I think I need one.”
“Well, aye, I suppose so. But are you not here with your husband?” Jock recalled seeing the woman in the past with a man who dressed as she did, in a much-cracked waxed coat and green stalking boots, though her husband had lacked the assorted fairy brooches that adorned her lapel.
“Nooo,” the woman crooned. “James has joined them, he’s gone now.”
“Gone? I don’t understand.”
“He’s gone away with them.” She looked at him as if informing him of a simple matter of fact. “He’s gone away with the sea-folk…”
Jock stared at her. “The sea-folk?” he repeated woodenly.
“Aye, the folk who live under the waves.”
Jock stepped away from her. Had she gone mad?
Ewan burst into the shop, his usual feigned simplicity cast aside; he was ready for a confrontation. “Look, Elaine,” he began. “I know I’m very late but –”
He stopped when he saw the way she was looking at him – or rather looking through him, the way her eyes seemed to focus on something still and remote. She was gently smiling, with sadness or happiness he could not tell at first, and her hands were knitted tightly together, as if in prayer.
At first he could not take in what he saw. Elaine Urquhart smiling, Elaine Urquhart looking almost humble, not berating him for being late?
“What’s happened?” he asked, his voice gentle now, an unexpected wave of compassion overtaking him in the face of her soft sad silence.
“It’s started,” she began in a voice Ewan could not recognise. “I think he’s finally here…”
Then Ewan saw that it was not sadness in her face, but a kind of remote ecstasy.
“Who is here?” he asked, barely aware that he had asked the question.
For a few moments she did not answer, her eyes still fixed on that remote point beyond Ewan, beyond the shop and the backs of the beach huts opposite. In the silence Ewan could hear the calls of the local children riding their bikes up and down outside. When Elaine did speak her voice was full of awe. “It is the Lord himself. Lord Abernawavy, the greatest British entrepreneur that ever lived…”
Ewan’s face contorted as a tide of emotion welled up inside him, taking him completely by surprise. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. He was shouting now, completely out of control, and he didn’t know why. “What utter crap! What was in the sea wasn’t some ridiculous businessman!” He banged his fist down on the shop counter. “It was the White Whale itself – the one everyone’s been searching for for three hundred years! The long-lost, damned-to-hell-extinct White Whale itself!”
A grumble of thunder seemed to accentuate the ensuing pause.
“Ewan, I’ve got to let you go. You have no sympathy with…”
She fanned a finger upon its arm in an arc of vicarious betrayal by her shop assistant for the stock-take she would now need to embark upon to prove some intangible point beyond her earlier focus on a named business-man she used to know in the city.
“Elaine…” He had softened his earlier tone, grown unsure of his own ground regarding the White Whale. This was the first time he had addressed her with “Elaine”. “What we’ve seen in the sea – the shoal,” he continued, “the shoal is made up of pinpricks of coloured light – in marine biology they, call them “plankton pixels’ – and they tend to shape into things each of us want to see – that has to be it. I for one am convinced I saw the White Whale. Melville symbolised this in his mighty novel…”
Elaine Urquhart was staggered. Here was a gormless local making references to things surely quite beyond his nous. That was almost more shocking than anything else.
The Clay Pigeon was full of undercurrents of conversation, in even softer tones (if grumblier) than Ewan’s new approach to explain things as more low-key even while they still panned out in real time within his mind.
Ewan and Elaine had in fact arrived together at the bar, unnoticed by Jock, because he was still chin-wagging with locals in the vicinity of the counter-kegs. Ewan and Elaine used the same corner-table as Jock’s duffle-coated wife, Megan, so as to continue their conversation from the shop amid a remarkable genesis of empathy between them, all fire-walls forsaken. Megan had by now been furnished with her stout which she sipped forlornly as she eyed the strange couple who had unofficially joined her. They ignored her attention … as if she wasn’t there at all. She heard them talk of esoteric matters, although she would never have used that word to describe these matters. An esoteric word. She glimpsed aurally (rather than heard) references by the couple to shoals and whales and mermen … and flotsam that actually lived and breathed although appearing, on the surface, to be items of ill-cut lumber and other household waste from the caravan-people who also populated the area. Not locals as such, more travelling undergrunts or usurpers.
As she listened, Megan began to feel more and more comfortable with these strangers, which surprised her rather, all the more when their conversation felt so much above her. They seemed “posh” – as she would have described them to Jock – above her station in life, part of a world she didn’t understand and even despised. Yet she felt increasingly warm and happy in their presence, listening to the swelling and subsidence of their conversation, to the rise and fall of the tide of their expressed thoughts. And it was very like a tide. She could almost hear the sound of the waves through their mutterings and chatter; what they said became much less important than the rising and falling of their voices. She felt as relaxed as on a summer’s day, on the beach with her parents when she was a child, the shoo and hiss of the breakers: a calming background story that soothed and modulated the pulsing of her blood until her heart beat almost at one with the waves.
Ewan had never felt like this about Elaine before. He had never imagined there was so much to her until that moment in the shop when she had opened up about her dreams and about what she thought she had seen. She had tried to cover it up again, it was true, by telling him she would have to “let him go”, but he quickly saw that she hadn’t the strength to make it come true, that she didn’t want to make it true. At least not any more. Not since the coming of the shoal. Ewan did not know if there was any connection between the two things – there certainly couldn’t be, it made no sense – and yet he felt instinctively that the connection was there. How could “plankton pixels’ change people? He didn’t really believe it could be plankton anyway; that didn’t add up when he thought about it; it was just another of his explanations provided to give comfort in the face of uncertainty and the chaos of not knowing. He still didn’t know, and the long conversation he had had with Elaine before she fell into a comfortable stillness – a conversation about flotsam and things in the sea and unexplained forces – had brought them no closer to understanding what was happening in the outside world. Yet, in their inner world they had somehow reached an understanding of their own, a meeting of emotion rather than minds, and now Ewan slipped his hand into hers and felt the reassuring squeeze that told him he had judged her mood correctly.
When Jock returned from the bar with a second pint of stout for his wife he was surprised to see her occupying a table with two strangers – two strangers who seemed very much in love to judge from the way they sat close to each other, hand-in-hand. More surprising still was the way Megan leaned towards them along the side of the table. Now divested of her duffle coat she looked different somehow, more like she had thirty-five years ago when he first met her through a mutual friend standing outside the pencil factory where she had worked. The years of his grudging toleration of her, his indifference to her life and what she wanted from it, seemed stripped away, though he could not account for it, and he saw again the strong-pretty-giggling girl he had “fallen for” that day. Yet she was not giggling now, she seemed to be staring in rapt admiration at the couple on the other side of the table.
Confused, he plonked down the pint glass in front of her. “Megan,” he said, to draw her attention away from the couple. When she did not stir he spoke more firmly. “Megan!”
Her gaze turned to him and it was like a spotlight being turned into his face. But not the painful glare of intense light, rather the warmth of a love and emotion he had not felt with her in decades. Reeled in by this sudden force, unable to help himself even if he had wanted to, he drew down towards her, sat beside her, his hand in hers. He too could hear the shoo and hiss of the tide now, it was battering at his ears and at his mind, absorbing him into its glow and power. There was a moment of harmonious stillness at that corner table in the pub, then with a mutual exchange of affectionate looks, the two couples reached across the table to each other and a moment later all four sat hand-in-hand, staring into each others’ eyes.
Outside, across the huddle of low houses, across the litter-scattered road beyond, across the slew of long sea-grass bent in the wind, there, on the other side of the seawall, something in the high tide was swirling and thrashing at the heavy iron lid of the sea-drain, lifting it, coming through it, finding a way into the land.
Alexanders seemed to flourish in this part of coastal and saltmarsh Essex. John Evelyn wrote in 1699: “The gentle fresh sprouts, buds, and tops are to be chosen, and the stalks eaten in the spring; and when blanch’d, in winter likewise, with oyl, pepper, salt, etc by themselves, or in composition: They make also an excellent vernal pottage.” And edible plants and the pottage were something that haunted Ewan as, later that night, he clumped about the shingle beach (no doubt innocently crushing such plants) in search of novelty sea-sparklets that had kept him awake, as if calling to him through a thin veil of aborted dream. His head was still swimming with drink, but that served to anaesthetise him against the shooing darkness, or seemed to do so at first. It was an autumnal pottage where all things (including bits of living fish and mammals) were disguised as vegetable ingredients, including a misplaced understanding of flotsam or fauna that had encouraged an almost fibrous growth of emotional bonding between people, a vaguely touchable understanding that really should have warned them later to renew their firewalls. Ewan and Elaine, in particular. Jock and Megan, too. Very sad but there was never really any future in mutual imaginings with the other sentient and non-sentient creatures that the four of them had tried to bring to bear upon their own selves in pursuit of life’s shared hopes and aspirations.
So not only edible plants, but living ones, too. Ewan stared into a sweatily dank yet cold darkness that seemed to be made visible by wave-sounds and thundery grumbles. There were things that touched his face gently. Caring touches? Dangerous touches? He failed to know for certain. A huge white shape suddenly looming – or, rather, blooming as a white stain into black. Human-fleshy at one moment, but blubbery or teeming with ambergris at the next. And as Ewan merged into the night’s other flotsam during a few seconds of exquisite deliciousness in which he felt its tendrils invade his body and claim him as part of it, he heard the fearful bark of what sounded like an officious businessman – but a bark which was soon overtaken by that of a seal or walrus; then there swarmed closer the chattering classes of Pepys and Evelyn, the stride of horse traffic, a kaleidoscope of ancient novelties, the tinkling of bright eyes … and Ewan now knew for certain that Elaine had finally let him go.

with Rhys Hughes

“He is incorruptibly, deliberately cold, as required by the temperament of precision; but beyond this quality, everything else in him is indefinite.” From THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES by Robert Musil.

“Is that a parrot in your pocket?” Lucy lisped, “or are you just pleased to seed me?”
It was a question which coloured Godfrey’s cheek crimson: a blush which, combined with his green shirt and yellow cravat, turned him into a macaw himself.
He stuttered, “It’s a parrot actually, though I do have an erection in my other pocket. My back pocket, that is.”
Raising a plucked eyebrow, Lucy continued, “well, I’ve always fancied a cockatoo.”
A restrained lady, she forbore from further puns about peckers and nuts. These lingered unsaid, and unlicked, on the Surinamese air, humid as hot marshmallow, sticky as maté tea spilled on an anaconda.
Godfrey clutched his groin and announced, in a shrill voice: “Put the cleaver down, cocoa bean. Not on your life, you’ve plumbed my wife. Just a dalliance, wasn’t my idea. Foul rascal liar! Don’t cut it off, it’s the only one I’ve got. A chopper for a chopper. Leave me alone, there goes my bell-end…”
Lucy stood with arms on hips and sighed. Godfrey was muttering, “Shut up!” to his lower regions. He hopped and strutted and grimaced; his coat flapped like wings. Was this the true parrot fashion?
“Godfrey, who the hell you talking to?” thaid Lucy, taking up the envelope he proffered as soon as her lips unparaphrased a password about a pocketeet. The air was then one huge chicken-wing that fantailed outwards, crowing drunkenly that it belonged to a god who could make feathers speak easy.
“Don’t worry, it’s only small talk,” announced Godfrey, whose cheek was a deeper shade of crimson as he ducked under yet another wing the air had become. “Just open the envelope, and we can see where the trail leads.”
“All well and good having a trail, but a trail to be a trail needs a pearl and a dean…”
“Nobody said it’s a shiny fossil that we’re after beyond Surinam’s Crest or even a dog collar. Only a random quest knows where its rainbow ends.”
Lucy, hitching her pencil skirt to the stocking-tops, slit the envelope upon a sharpened suspender-belt clip. But before she could read the enclosed yellow parchment, the air itself flew into the sky with a cackle. And both Godfrey and Lucy donned their face masks.
“It takes a good deal of pluck…” Godfrey began, wondering if his Pan image was marred by a mask that was identical to his real face. One good thing, his privates were communing quietly together now, since even pube talk needed air.
They eventually decided to push on through the forest, which was already choking in the vacuum. A clearing opened round them, as the vegetation withered and died. In the centre of the widening circle hovered a yogi, oily and wise and rather spicy among the wrong Indians. He wore a goldfish bowl on his shaved head, full of water and fish.
Using sign language, Lucy said: “He looks like Sri Yuvaraj Beliram, the sage of the tilted scales. He once weighed justice and coriander and found them frying in the balance.”
Godfrey replied: “But he died two hundred meals ago! This must be a mirage, some sort of exotic illusion.”
Lucy silently snapped her fingers. “Without oxygen there can be no life. And life is what gives meaning to the passing of time. Thus we are in a region devoid of time, where the past and future can impinge on the present! He’s certainly no phoney fakir…”
The yogi nodded slowly, anxious not to upset the fish, and gestured at the ground below. In a graceful loop, large lettered cards surrounded him. Lucy and Godfrey knew at once they formed a sort of Ouija board for a Hindu hoodoo. So they ganesh’d their teeth.
With his thumbs, Sri Beliram flicked cardamon pods onto the letters in deliberate order. Squinting, Lucy saw they made a sentence: “MY QUEST IS TO CONQUER THE TEMPTATIONS OF THE FISH.”
“Does he mean flesh?” Godfrey wondered.
Lucy sighed. “Sole? Does he want to heel us? I don’t understand it. The past really is another country.”
Godfrey shook his head. “No, no, Surinam is the other country. They do things differently here. That’s worse.”
Godfrey shook his name, shook his mane, shook his Codfrey, until Lucy couldn’t differentiate him from any one of the various miners who were surfacing from the depths of an approximate coal mine. They were large animal creatures who sported wagging human appendages as well as leonine heads. The leader was carrying a cage with a dead goldfish in it.
“OK, OK, I know it was meant to be a canary,” the leader said upon noticing Lucy’s mocking finger.
The rest of the bunch were struggling to keep their lungs still. Having them on the outside of their bodies, their lungs looked like perfect pig-bladder moths, except one particular set of custardy lungs displayed the butterfly beauty of its panting wings…
Sri Beliram, noticing this fine pair of translucently yellow bellows, aimed a chili bean dart and cast it upon the lamina meniscus of the vacuum. And it squarely speared the butterfly, thus venting its left ventricle, allowing the breath within to propagate the otherwise expended atoms into a new swansong of air.
“Come on, you lot, only a random quest knows its rainbow trout’s end,” Sri the yogi said.
Godfrey snatched off his face mask, Lucy straightened her pencil skirt, the critter with the cage snorted at the now blossoming wind and they all followed Sri towards Lankhmar, with only the tiny gills of Godfrey’s trouser-snake keeping time to their steps with wet hisses.
They passed from jungle to uplands, a region of ribbon waterfalls which giftwrapped the mountains. Toothless caves in the young rock led to a sheltered valley where the houses of a rickety town stood on poles in a steaming lake. There was a market fringing the shore. In the foggy distance, saurians snapped at gliders.
The aircraft were bringing in produce from every corner of the country’s pentagonal economy. Cocoa and lutes from Onverwacht; pepper and bicycles from the towns of Marowijne; priests and submarines from Paramaribo; shoelaces and machetes from the Sipaliwini Reserve on the Brazilian border; radium and jokes from the disputed lands beyond the River Litani and the Tumuc-Humac Range.
Godfrey and Lucy browsed stalls while Sri Beliram blew disapproving bubbles in his helmet. “Something smells fishy,” he tutted. “This is no innocent casbah. Are we among slavers?”
“Yes, yes, a slave-market,” nodded a German trader. “Buy them now, before the morning Jew evaporates.”
“I’ll have a ghetto,” squawked Godfrey’s parrot.
One stall was manned by a potter with the hands of a weaver. Polite as a polyp, he introduced himself as John Gor’blimeysworth, exiled king of Redonda. “My ascension was the start of a new era. But I was deposed and now must sell endings to earn my tea.”
“Cheer up maté,” punned Lucy, inappropriately.
The endings in question turned out to be the genuine articles. They were provided by impatient readers who skip to the climax of this story, looking for rhymes or reasons, and then return to this point to sell the dénouement to the exiled monarch.
“I’d like to hear it,” said one of the bestial miners.
Upon the stall were gathered wax figures, representations of every member of the company, save Sri Beliram, whose image cannot be moulded. They were connected by strings to the king’s fingers and danced to his delicate touch like fevers.
The wax images of Lucy, Godfrey and the others were shown standing in front of a tiny stall upon which were smaller figures, which in turn were standing before yet smaller puppets.
And so on, and so on, and so on…
“That’s not the ending, that’s now!” Godfrey protested.
The king of Redonda shrugged. “Best I can do. All the ripe endings have been snapped up. New batch expected tomorrow.”
The German trader leaned over and said: “A slave-market, just as I told you. You’re condemned to be free!”
Another stall was postmarked “THE WEIRDMONGER”. A strange name for a trestleful of cat’s meat – with Blasphemy Fitzworth himself beaming behind it running his fingers through sinewy strands and gristly melts.
“Cheap shit! Cheap shit!” was evidently Feemy’s new Ratnerok salescry instead of his more legendary GOUT CAT, SPOUT CAT, WATCH THE WHISKERS SPROUT CAT!
But, by now, the rainbow cortege had left the market and was heading towards a distant bivouac. The critter, who had surreptitiously left his canary-cage with one of the stallholders in part-exchange for a soupcon of speech, announced:
“Hey, you three, that there place is a harem for scarums!”
Lucy was beside herself:
“Men are beasts! That’s all they can think about. Sex and more sex!”
Sri Beliram, who had changed his name by inferral to Lankhmar in honour of the quest, was slightly more together, when he responded:
“A harem, yes, but one in which it looks as if the breasts fly around like birds.”
Godfrey shrugged. For him, autonomous breasts were a smidgin more frightening than they they were enticing. The king of Redonda, whose harem it was, noting Godfrey’s squeamishness, said: “But it’s a great sport clay-breast shooting…” but not before Godfrey had interrupted with: “Ah, I see, they’re only clay ones, so perhaps we can mould them into Sri Lankhmar’s shape…” until he was himself interrupted by the sight of several pigeon-chested women beckoning to them from inside the approaching harem-aviary.
By now, the critter, the parrot, Lucy, Godfrey, Sri Lankhmar, the king of Redonda, Feemy Fitzworth, not to mention the trouser-snake, were more timid than toe-larks, having seen that the faces on the harem’s loose-limbed lovelies were puppets being tugged by hair into grimaces.
One even had whiskers.
“Mouser!” ejaculated the king with a surge of recognition. “Your chest is nothing but a front!”
The said Mouser pulled another face. It was a godawful world where just about any quest was enough for him to follow. But, in his case, to follow was to be instrumental in actually leading them away from the ending they would have otherwise reached. Harem in tow.
Unknown to all, including Lucy, Lucy misheard his name as Mouther.
All the same, they allowed themselves to be enticed into the womb of the bivouac, which was a marquee shaped like a flaccid dodecahedron, the most perfect of the Platonic solids. When they entered through the air-lock, their bodies increased the inner pressure just enough to make the sides of the tent stand rigid.
“I prefer making love in a tetrahedron,” said Lucy.
“I prefer making love in an allotment,” said Feemy. “I like fresh, young lettuce.” He licked his horrid lips.
In the lobby, a group of veterans dressed in uniform were waiting their turn. They oiled their shotguns and talked about old times, when they visited bordellos in Mandalay, Samarkand, Havana, Tangiers, Cairo, Shanghai, Vaduz and Birmingham. “No Platonic solids in my day,” mumbled one. “We had to make do with irregular shapes!”
“Bloody scalene pleasures, what?” chuckled another.
“Bloody scalene whores!” returned the first. “Morals like Euclidean theorems! Buttocks like Venn diagrams! Nipples like Lobachevskian corks! Found their G-spots easily enough but I tickled and tickled and just couldn’t locate their {e to the power of minus j Theta} spots!”
“Isosceles beavers! Need a bit of Fourier Analysis, eh?”
The king of Redonda jerked a thumb and explained: “The co-sines of our fathers. They’re all that’s left of the Male Joy Division, used in the last Surinamese civil war. They gather here periodically to awaken old memories and raise a flagpole or two.”
“Disreputable!” Godfrey and Lucy wrinkled noses.
The Madam of the establishment came in with two sacks. She cleared her syphilitic throat and announced that one held clay-breasts while the other held a family of pelicans. “Take your pick!”
As the soldiers raised their firearms, Sri Lankhmar rushed forward and snatched the second sack. He liberated the pelicans, who pecked the fabric of the tent and caused it to deflate with a deafening explosion. While the birds flew out, seeking refuge from the cruelty of men, harem and occupants were flung high into the clouds. Except the clouds were little more than teasings of cotton-wool that were stuck high in a tree like bits of fluff, where a nest of three fledgling chicks were succubating their breasts for future tweaking by the harem-aviary’s clientele. One spoke through its beak as if the words were formed by human lips, tongue and teeth:
“Where’s Mouser?”
The voice was bird-like with a cute lispiness without actually lisping. The other two chicks pouted as best they could but then made a complete fist of simpering. Why they were expecting Mouser was anybody’s guess, since they seemed entirely shocked by the abrupt arrival of the others questers in the treetop. Lucy decided to intervene at this point since she was slipping groundward from branch to branch:
“This is fast becoming a guest quest and Mouther has decided to become its object rather than a follow member. He thought, I guess, that with a tangible purpose akin to tracking a fox to its earth, the quest would become rather more than its erstwhile condition as a cerebral paper chase which only wispy Greek Muses (or cast-off characters from previous doodlings of our twin creators) would find attractive enough to join. Now, we can expect more men and women of substance like Godfrey and myself…”
Luckily, most of this mouthful of unworldly wordiness remained unfinished as Lucy, its perpetrator, together with the rest of the shifty shipless shiftless crew of goats, monkeys, quare fellows and kings, tumbled into a pile of golden scales at that very moment being weighed in the balance by one of those Greek Muses which Lucy had been so scathing of. The fishy stench was worse than the right old stink raised by the previous sentence ending so very uglily in of. Which of the two textualisers took responsibility for such dross was the very quandary the Muse was alchemically testing with equal measures of…
The debate was short-lived, since Feemy Fitzworth and John Gor’blimeysworth simultaneously equated the mutual spotting of Mouser’s tail flicking from the saddlebag of a Marowijne bike as the next stage of interruption in the meanderables of the rainbow quest.
“A follower may follow, a leader may lead but only the alchemick fallowness of miscegenation can eventually sauce our capon capers.”
With the inference of unalloyed pleasure at the tale of Mouser’s Muse, the cheering group God-sped after the narrow-saddled bike, wondering who or what it was that pedalled towards a segment of the out-stretched horizon which was geometrically furthest away from the rest of the sky-line.
The chase was arduous and required a better judgement of scale than what is needed to tailor socks for a giraffe. They followed the Mouser’s bicycle down a road crammed with cars headed to the west coast. From the centre of Surinam, the only west coast available is the one located over four political borders, across territory belonging to Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela and finally through the Colombian jungle to the Pacific. There would be only one chance for a rest – Bogotá, with its sad cafés, unsung in any ballad. A difficult journey.
Needless to say, the drivers were adventurers and traders, carrying cages of mothers-in-law to the galleys.
“Fool!” Godfrey cried, as the Mouser and his unseen abductor joined them and wove a way between incumbent automobiles. Exhausted, the troupe abandoned the quest for a while, sitting by the roadside, counting their blessings. Between them, they had twenty-four.
The sun set like a juicy hat. In the oblique light, a crescent moon no wider than a cough emerged from behind a wispy cloud, like a scimitar dancing in an exotic show. The company sighed.
“Perhaps we should split up?” suggested Lucy. “If we concentrate on different projects, the sum of our achievements may add up to success in the greater quest! It’s worth a fly!”
As if this word was the key to escape, the parrot undid Godfrey’s fly from inside, flew out of the gap with a triumphant squawk and headed in a direction opposite to that taken by Mouser.
The tier-eyed parrot gone, the trouser snake was left to mourn its fellow nestling’s bifocal biflycation. But soon falling asleep, it dreamed of the two textualisers (one young yet oaken; the other moonish and over-seasoned) carving a word upon an Andean peak: an “o” with a polo-dibbler and “f” with an ell-cross and skewer-ankh. Their ambition was to make as many forms of “of” as there were sentences to end them with.
Meanwhile, the company’s splitting-up was tantamount to a random coming-together, as it turned out. Godfrey and Lucy were the first to find themselves in the same quadrant of the horizon, followed closely by Feemy, Sri, John, the critter et al, in that order. There were two coasts and the company’s bearings were such that none now knew the westernmost version. What was more, a street bisected the two coasts as if it were a long, straggly city leading between the furthest reaches of Pan America. The plumbing and other amenities for such a city were a real headache. Populations needed spreading every whichway, thus to prevent chasms forming from service tunnels.
A multitude of bikes (one of which doubtless smuggled the Mouser in its saddlebag) negotiated the ley-line that stuck up like a fin between the pavements. The gaudy shops tilted, the street-lamps lightly kissed across the thoroughfare, urban trees wickerworked the width and darkened the piecemeal sky, kerbstones crepitated, gutters grooved deep and deeper still…
A pageant, with spectacular floats, managed to move along from behind the phalanx of bikes. Godfrey was agog, because there were people cheering from every window of the City street. He had assumed any inhabitants would be under their bedcovers, dreaming that they were only dreaming, because, otherwise, they would find themselves rats in a sinking City. Many were even crowding into the open, risking their steps to the subsiding sidewalks. Children tugged grown-ups to see the wondrous carnival, uncaring of the leaning steeples that both churches and cinemas once boasted at strict right angles. Once crooked oldsters preened themselves upright in mock stances. Spires aspired to retro-launchers.
A large magic carpet – typical of ancient oriental imagery – skimmed by. With one of its threadbare margins nearer the ground than the other, its starboard tassels dragged along a gutted groove of trees. And, upon this float – the actual one bringing up the pageant’s tail – sat Lucy, beckoning the rest of the company to jump aboard. She frantically pointed at one of the bikes that happened to be free-wheeling (pedals spinning, spokes blurring) into a side road or, at least, a side road that had once been a narrow blind alley to a shop’s backyard or merely an irrigation tunnel turned turtle as well as bottomless.
“Mouther Ho!” she shrieked at the others.
They slumped, they clambered, they skinned their teeth, they clawed their nails and they festooned themselves around by worried tassel and teased fray.
The carpet rippled like an intestine down the alley, avoiding rusty ladders and suspended buckets: all the surplus or expelled goods which a shopkeeper might like to season in the rain. The store’s backyard was an irregular polygon, which boded ill for questers who sought augurs in the cut of a fitted geometrical shape. The rear door of the shop was yawning like a cake; in went the bike, followed by the rug, Lucy at the helm but Feemy barking directions into her ear.
“Backthread driver!” she sneered.
The interior of the shop was gloomy, illuminated by the bike’s lamp and a phosphorescent circle far below. While they watched, the lamp fell in a perfect arc toward the eerie shimmer.
A chill updraught of salty air nearly capsized them. The shop-floor seemed absurdly deep and fluid. Lucy descended at a gentle rate, hugging the wall of jagged rock which dipped a toe into the darkness. Snakes and bats played a deadly game of hide-and-seek among the crevices; unused to low temperatures, John Gor’blimeysworth moved closer to Lucy, displacing Feemy, who reached into his pocket and retrieved a lettuce. Frozen hard, like a polar explorer’s gums, it made a fine tool for fending off snakes which took undue interest in the carpet’s pattern.
Godfrey had studied geology in Lima, where he learned all there was to know about limestone; also with the Sandanistas of Nicaragua, experts on sandstone; and with his grandmother in Torbay, the foremost authority on granite; not forgetting Rachel Mildeyes, the living proof that loess exists. Several perspectives on one discipline gave him a metamorphic edge over his colleagues, who led sedimentary lives. He knew the fissure was not a purely natural formation.
“The shop-floor subsided into the sewers,” he cried, “which in turn collapsed into a metro-tunnel, which broke down into the communication conduits and so on. Fractured water-pipes flooded the depression, making a subterranean lake inside the store!”
A splash indicated that the bike had connected with the water. Then as eyes adjusted, they saw the pool was full of swimmers, customers from forgotten shopping-expeditions. They were racing each other to the bike, which bobbed fitfully, kept afloat by the buoyant contents of its now sealed saddlebag. In the very centre of the lake, other swimmers sat aboard the oldest paddle-steamer Lucy had ever seen, made from galvanised baths and toy windmills, held together by shoelaces and brass screws. They greeted the arrival of the bike with cheers and applause, beginning an impromptu party to celebrate the visitation.
“Aqua-scavengers!” breathed Feemy. “Pooling their resources!”
“I wanna me milk mummy, I wanna me milk mummy,” thcreamed Lucy, suddenly aware of the object of the quest. Not Mouser. Not Mouther. Not even Mother. Lucy was in desperate search of an erstwhile wet nurse called Mrs Gray, the one who had given succulent suck even until the age when Lucy had begun her own pert breasts. And this was no part gimmick on Lucy’s party. Nor was it a random fol-de-rol for a rainbow quest’s dubious end. This was dead serious.
“But, gor blimey, Luthy!” complained Godfrey, his face serious with Sri, beamy with Feemy, critical with critter, carroty and parroty and snakey and cat’s-meaty and pan-fried all at the same time, each toe a lark, each eyeball a softmarine from Paramaribo, each finger a hard-headed puppet, thumbs shiftless blunt-ended polygons, trouser-snake a mere penis, mind just one of many bubbles blown by a carouserful of children with names like Pansy, Chelly and Lettuce. “Do you mean to say…?”
“Yes, Godders old man, I loved Mrs Gray, I adored her, and she is in that saddlebag, a human soul seeking opportunities for outward manifestation despite the death of the body it once co-habited.”
“But the tail hanging out of…?”
“Merely a loose end.”
And Lucy pinched her nose as she ducked under the water searching for an air pocket, each of her clay frontages with a nipply beak eager for a taste of either justice or coriander. Godfrey Fitzworth, losing blasphemous qualities one by one, found a torn and empty envelope upon his person and dried his tears upon it, blotting the address in the process. He saw, in the pan-Surinamese distance, other questers still in search of a whisper from a lisp. Or a ley-line shark ploughing through geomantic anglefish. Or a vegetarian whisker on a sprout. Or a precisely blurred cartilaginous carving of …

“Most memories are false, but when I am faced with the only true memory, which is death, I have then no need for it.” (From Rachel Mildeyes’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY, posthumously published on 20 August 1990 as revised and completed by Allen Ashley and HP Lovecraft)

with Tony Mileman

A fire destroyed Craxby Baths years ago. This always made the kids laugh back then. For how could fire destroy a swimming pool they all asked?
She never had fond memories of the baths. The chilly water, goose pimples on maggot-white arms and legs, the emerald snot floating like jellyfish (which once caught in her long, dark hair). The roof had caved in like a charred ribcage. She remembered seeing the water through the shards of glass, a black quagmire chocked with the burned debris.
They later drained the swimming pool of the charred, dark water (“what did they do with the water, nan?”). Her nan replied to a different question, “they’re going to re-open it, my little budgie (she always called her “my little budgie” until the fungal infection, after leg surgery, found a way into the deepest, most reptilian parts of her brain).
The swimming pool never re-opened. The windows were bricked up, the roof left exposed to the sky. A steel door replaced the entrance. Graffiti covered the walls. It became an open tomb while a new pool opened up in the new “Leisure Centre” a mile or so to the east in the dullest part of town.
The replacement pool was indeed an estimated mile or so away – or perhaps nearer by dividing the whole journey there and back by two while bearing in mind that my tired swimming legs and heavier towel and cossie made it seem further on the way back than what it seemed on the way there. The whole shriek-echoing place carried a pungent chlorination to the back of the throat as I waded my old feet through the disinfectant troughs towards the glistening tabulated blueness of disturbed motion typifying such a modern pool. I tried to fight off an equally modern phobia intervening between it and full enjoyment, with the help of my still supple aptitude towards swimming great lengths.
But it was really the old Craxby Road pool that caused me more pleasantly to reminisce about itself and about my nan. I transferred such images to the new scenario with a single swish of memory – as if the deep end at the Leisure Centre hid the charred remains of a shipwreck still entwined with the burnt bones of passengers and crew … or pirates. Strangely, this sort of relaxed me and diluted the phobia about the new pool. The shipwreck was my translated image of the old baths – transmitted by deep sewer networks beneath the streets that I walked to reach the Leisure Centre. And the woman at its kiosk – smilingly eyeing my rolled-up towel before giving me a ticket to swim – was possibly my nan again now sadly overcome entirely by the ulcers she once suffered in real life.
It is raining now as she heads toward Craxby Road. The rain is heavier and darker than this morning’s; it splatters like bird guano upon her suit. In her mind’s eye is a photo of the Craxby Baths, which seems much older than it should be (“the last photo they took, my little budgie.”) Where is that photographer now, she wonders? Floating dead naked, stomach overstuffed with rot; or drawing birds across the city? When she looks up from the puddles (“it’ll rain until morning when there are bubbles floating in the puddles, my little budgie”), a man is loping toward her. Smoke covers his face. Panic almost stalls her until she realises these grey clouds reflected in the glass visor. As he passes, twisted horse teeth smear within the darkness (either he is gritting his teeth hard inside or grinning at her foolhardiness). He carries a heavy gun. She should hurry too, she muses.
“Did they really ban whistling in public buildings, miss?” one of her third-year students sobs over and over. She is not able to say that someone lied to her. The thirteen-year-old’s face is bruised, something is broken beneath. Blood encrusts her ears. Another school-girl is bent double, deep scratches along her arms. She is vomiting a carroty fluid over her shoes. She later bled blood as dark as mud, and before she drew the birds and White Face took her, she became quite still and repeated that awful mantra, “the universe is an army. The universe has cancer. The universe is an army. The universe has…”
She hurries onward to the baths, where, she is sure, all this started and will finish.

Thronging outside a newsagent’s, covered in more plastic than flesh, are two adults and a group of children. She passes quickly not wanting to stare too long into the shop chock-full of lifeless burned cats or rats or… A beheaded dog lies on the pavement, placed inside a pentacle of graphitic migrating birds.
The Council van was parked outside the Leisure Centre. That meant the pool would be closed today for draining. The kiosk was empty. I tucked my towel deeper into my armpit as I decided to return the way I came but not before impulsively diverting to Craxby Road. I counted the number of steps – mentally calculating when I would be close to the old pool. Craxby Road Baths no longer seemed to be situated in the same area of the town when I and my nan knew them in its hey-day. And it was a wreck compared to its earlier glories, derelict, while squatters still clung to it insides. I needed to lose myself before being able to find it – and only the careful attention to distances allowed any hope of establishing its whereabouts. The echo of shrieks was never convincing proof to believe I was getting warmer. Or colder.
She saw that Craxby Road today was lined with Avian Vanguards neatly parked beside the old building where people – in the earlier parts of the century – could have baths. “People couldn’t bath at home, my little budgie,” nan told her, “so they had to use the cracked china troughs in Craxby Road to keep clean.”
She imagined or was it a dream? She saw the inhabitants of the houses trooping with towels and loofahs towards Craxby Road – wondering if the hot cisterns would be in sufficient working order to scour the dirty feathers off their bodies as fire would. Leaving only open sores or ulcers, but anything was better than feathers. Or if the water would dribble from the clanking taps into the stained bath-shaped vessels with a temperature worse than hot or cold – tepid, lukewarm, insipid, sluggish – unclean even before it touched their waiting bodies.
She hugged her towel and counted her steps towards home. No longer a dream. The Avian Vanguards meant that cleaning was happening inside. Looking for thin pancakes of white scum, some of it with features, others not. There would be no ablutions today. She’d have to wait till the authorities had finished their inspections. She heard the shouts of excitement as others remembered the good old days when they used to be able to swim from one end of the bath to the other.
Someone stepped in her way, a man with a gun which at first she mistook for a towel (or was it a cat, denuded of fur, its skin moist and pale?). His voice broke her reverie, muffled as though speaking through a heavy blanket. You can’t go this way…road blocks, love. Go back, go home to Craxby Baths, she was sure he said.
The mist of confusion began to clear. She turned to the vans. Within, the laughter was nothing of the sort. People were bawling inside. Fists, she was certain, being thrown against the sides. At the far end of the road, a slow procession of individuals carried lifeless animals. They clutched the corpses of cats and birds, fishes and lizards, and dogs, both large and small (some to bare breasts as if the dead creatures were suckling babes).
“Go back home, love, while you’re still okay. We can’t gas them all.” And now behind his visor there was something wrong in his eyes.
She glanced at the bundle of fur that slipped from her towel. A dead white rabbit. “It’s not mine, I found it. Please don’t…”
How did this all start?
She is writing her diary by candlelight a week before White Face made its appearance everywhere. It was mid-January and throughout the power cut a snow storm battered the town. All the schools were closed for a few days, and later, the streets were filled with a black slush that made walking a filthy exercise.
How did this all start?
The lights flickered before the power returned; yet, she kept the candle alight until it burned down to the wick. Later, just before she slipped into bed, a breathless telephone call came from her brother.
“They’ve gone bloody weird.”
“Pete, what are you talking about?”
How did this all start?
She is at school now. Disturbed and starting to be very frightened. None of the children are at their desks. “Miss, look at them.”
There are masses of spiders climbing upon each other until a foot-high on the floor. Woodlice and smaller insects are joining them and tiny red mites too (which as a child her brother mock-battled). And in the playing fields, above the darkening sky are birds, hundreds of thousands of them swirling and screeching. Soon, they take to the field, and construct a tower out of their own feathered husks that reaches high into the sky.
How did this all start?
Her face is turning paler as she babbles about whistling being banned. There are more rapes and acts of violence being reported. More shootings. Airspaces, including both the US and UK’s, are closed down. The Prime Minister is unable to make his scheduled appearance on television. Towns are being sealed off.
Later, that thirteen-year old’s face will be an untainted milk white colour, it will be difficult to distinguish her eyes as the irises follow suit. Her body will discard its hair. She will have trouble standing. She will start vomiting a carroty-like fluid. She may bleed from every pore of her body…or repeat that awful mantra…or seek an animal to strangle…or draw pentagrams to ward off White Face…or …simply to watch the towers.
How did this all start?
With magic?
How did this all start?
I look back to the beginning where my writing started off scrawled and then gradually matured as the years took me … as they still take me. Older, the writing neater and joined-up, yet the words themselves never seem to grow up. Except “chlorination”, “mentally diverting”, “compuslively calculating” do not seem within the grasp of my weak vocabulary even now.
White Face was what, as a child, I imagined floating like a flat slipperiness, an ultra-thin mask halfway between the surface and the pool’s bottom, bouncing like a fish, if fish can bounce. Or a creature more suited to the air that found itself water-logged – unable to rise – like a huge dragonfly hung heavy with water – within water. Yet, all the time, it was a human face, a ghostly haunter of my dreams, as well as my living moments, my enjoyable moments in Craxby Road pool. Thinking of my nan. Who would welcome me home with a bigger fluffier towel to dry myself even drier, followed by a hot mug of seed broth which she’d heat over the gas stove while crooning budgie endearments within my hearing.
“Ok, nan?”
“Yes, my little budgie. Was our Pete at the pool?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t seen him there. Only that slippery curdling fronds of a face – White Face. Telling of futures when all birds like it would be drowned and put out of their misery.
I sipped the hot seed broth while nan put sand down on the floor.
“Miss, did they really ban spitting on the top decks of buses?”
The teacher looked askance. How did the child remember such banning signs? How did it know what it seemed to know, mentally calculating the odds of prediction? It’d be later telling everyone how it used to have a weekly bath in public, with spectators urging the loofahs into all the dirty corners of the body. Avian Vanguards would be in the street outside to take the dirty hordes to and fro. The clanking cisterns. The bubbling that occurred more by accident than by any ambition to be a modern jacuzzi. A ramshackle spa where the walls were wood planks threaded with leaking light and the water almost dry to the touch, so hot it was. Or, if not hot, certainly full of baked sand to help it stay down and not float away. A dark and frightening sauna with towels so threadbare they were hardly worth the absorption.
Such a frightening vocabulary, that child.
The bell rang for end of lesson and the kids shrieked off into the playground – including the one with the words and longer memories than it had the right to remember, slowly following the others towards the dank, dark, dirty lavatories which abounded in schools before an Act of Parliament would later clean things up. The Prime Minister would continue to appear on TV every night till either the past or present or some form of retrenched time could establish itself as some kind of believable future after the bird plague.
A dead white rabbit…
From the cold, slotted window she looks across at these bare hills. There is a swamp nestling there in the deepest reaches. There are birds flying too and fro from the marshy ground. White birds with long, sharp beaks.
There are tales of dragons in the darkness.
In two-thousand years’ time there will be a housing estate and a shopping centre there. The world will be scoured of mysteries, only the odd interlocking of cells and in years so distant, there will be creatures, hunched and swimming through the dark soil, with the distant reptilian minds of Homo Sapiens; and the relics of the shopping centre, mobile phone and broken school pottery, ten million years old, slowly fossilising.
Where does time go? she heard a voice say….but she could not place meaning to the sounds.
Her hair is long and grey as a witch’s should be. Her room is a cell, although not a prison. Across her stone desk there is blood, feathers, cat innards and potions. There is a cup of bone filled with feathers and thick dark oil. It is there that she stirs the visions of what could and might be. The swimming pool. Craxby Road. Bird Plague. Cat Plague. Tongue Plague. AIDS. Beeton’s Disease. Ringletts. The Second Purge. Earth Disease. The Dark Wind. The Cancer of the Universe. The Imagining. The teacher in the future. The Time Stealer.
White Face.
She tries to put words to the images that she sees. He has asked for this, this King, this Warlord that she is servant to.
Her lover.
When he is filled with the potions, he sometimes takes her. Makes her squat while he heaves his prod against her, spilling his seed against her scrawny back, or deep within her. He enjoys her stories.
She takes a pot of silver salts, and takes one look across those undressed hills. She knows that in the future it won’t be the birds that will change Mankind, but White Face…and now White Face is but an imagining, a seed nestling within her womb. She will nurture it, feed it, let it free one day.
Sometimes she sees it, or a distant cousin in the rivers.
“Chrushlitheg eth, pjinest oigerthtfurst.” Her voice is low as she whispers these words into the potions. She takes her finger and stirs it within a pot of sticky and moist grubs that had lived in the deepest marsh. They split and burst over her nails.
“Hithflegur frenit, anbo burtha.”
She licks her finger, spits coloured saliva into the pot of silver salts.
The crystals liquefy.
Soon the visions start and she will try to form these images into words. She is content that a story, of sorts is taking place, themes and images, senses and touch, a mixture of hell and waking dreams. A story fit for a King.
Once upon a time there was a dead white rabbit…
She glanced at the bundle of fur that slipped from her towel. A dead white rabbit. “It’s not mine, I found it. Please don’t –”
A gun butt is angled, comes swinging toward her. She sees exploding stars and when she opens her eyes, she is splayed on the moist road, hot sauce leaking across her face. The world see-saws. Knee-length boots around her. Someone kicks her in the stomach. Voices muffled. Her voice or theirs?
The dead, milky-white eyes of the rabbit meet hers.
The haze of decay reeks into her nostrils. She groans and gags. Pain fills her stomach. She cannot move her arms but she can feel the blood, like scabs, on her face.
There are other people in the net, secured like a shoal of fish from a deep-sea trawler. She is on her side, at the top. Most have White Face. Their faces are pale, eyeless, puddings.
There are animals in the net too. Squashed beside her is a dead Alsatian. There is a pentagram sprayed in purple on its fur.
There is movement and she hears the throttle of an engine. The smell of exhaust. The net is lifted high above Craxby Road. Air cools across her body.
She catches a glimpse of the procession of manic individuals. They are being directed down the road into various side alleys. They carry dead animals. She sees soldiers with guns on tripods. The streets are piled with corpses. There is a distant rattle of machine gun fire.
It’s not mine, she whispers to the dead dog. I can still think. They made a mistake. I don’t have White Face.
But when she starts to panic, and screeches so loud it hurts her throat, all that comes out is a stream of nonsense words.
“Chrushlitheg eth, pjinest oigerthtfurst…Hithflegur frenit, anbo burtha.”
Once upon a time there was a dead white rabbit…
The King’s head looks out upon the hills. Its eyes have gone, its tongue too. The body was sawn in half while he was strung upside down.
The castle burns.
The witch is being dragged, unclothed, to the swamp by the tribe with faces painted purple. She doesn’t scream nor make a fuss, not even when they wrenched out her finger nails and sewed up, with thorns, her sex.
They force her to the soft ground. She sees grey clouds. A cool wind upon her face. She can smell the coming rain. They take heavy rocks and smash her arms and legs. She feels the bones break sharp within the flesh. She cannot now move even if she wanted to.
Someone has found a tiny chick in the bushes. It is a grey creature, with a short beak.
They return to her. She does not struggle as they force her legs apart, the thorns uncoming in a mess of blood. Her sex is open like a wounded mouth.
She dreams of White Face. Wills it to speak to her. She knows it will have great power. She has seen its cousins in the rivers, in the blood of animals. Seen its conjuring tricks.
Seen it change things.
They push the bird into her. Deep and…
They take her to the swamp.
She closes her eyes as they swing once, twice….and thrice.
She splashes into the water where two thousand years hence will be Craxby Baths.
She opens her eyes and sees the Craxby Road Baths as a bird would see it, before the Bird Plague, before the Morning Madness, before the Rituals that they thought would end the Plague.
Did they really think that spraying pentagrams would end this mad pandemic?
After all these years there is a swamp at the bottom of the swimming baths. The water is dark and greenish. There are plants growing there too. She discerns the bodies within, human, children, dog, cats, hundreds of dead birds from the Avian Towers.
“What did they do with the water, nan?”
The net of corpses, these animals and White Face infected, swings over the Craxby Baths.
As the net is released she gives a tiny gasp. She tumbles like refuse with the mass of corpses. As the water rushes up, all she sees are white faces.
And within the white, there is a larger face. A monstrous face. It is moving. And as it moves it takes with it the space – she cannot understand this image, but the space is being eaten – and the colour of the water changes. And within her last seconds, she sees time and space being polluted as she splashes …..bodies thump thump thump thump…
She is drowning. She had felt the bird’s frantic movement within her womb. It is silent now. She heard its squawking within every cell of her body. This chick and the seed that is White Face.
As she floats downward she sees the surface of the swamp. Rippling and hurting with time.
And that day White Face was born, and White Face lived a thousand years in the swamp. It made itself a crown on its five-hundredth birthday. A crown of bird’s feet. And once it made itself a set of teeth from bird beaks. It feasted on leeches and the pudding of the swamp. And in winter it dressed itself in feathers. And on its thousandth year it slithered into the soil, to rest, to wait, to breathe in the way to change.
And one day, one day so foul and pure, White Face decided to explore the world.
To change it as its own.
White Face sits on the table its long ears missing. I am in Wonderland where every turning is Craxby Road. Dishes of Tandoori birds swimming in red-hot chili sauce for my TV dinner. White Face is a doughy char-striped bready face which I have poked the eyes out for … my nan. But where did it all start?

with David Price

I jammed the brakes too hard, almost sending the car into a skid.
Breathing heavily, I wound the window down and gripped the steering wheel. A few deep breaths brought my heartbeat down to a semblance of normality, and if I’d sat there long enough I might even have got the colour back into my cheeks.
I threw the door open and dry-retched, but it was an involuntary reaction, almost like a tic. I’d spent a lot of time being sick over the last few weeks!
But I’m fine now – over the worst, taking things easy…
But hardly avoiding stress!
My hand shook a little as I turned the key in the ignition. Get this over with, I thought, the sooner the better.
As I pulled out onto the road I cursed my own stupidity. I was only visiting my sister for a few hours, where was the harm in that?
But dearest Gretchen had always been a little strange.
“Mike, come in. You’ve changed.”
It was hardly a subtle greeting; chemotherapy doesn’t exactly do wonders for a man’s appearance.
“Thanks Sis,” I said with irony.
In the living room I took a seat, wondering what the hell I was doing there. We may not have been sibling rivals, but we certainly hadn’t gone out of our way to keep in touch over the last few years.
As she made coffee I took in the room. Simply furnished, dull wallpaper, a carpet that disconcertingly resembled diarrhoea. The passing of time certainly hadn’t improved her imagination. As to Gretchen, she really was stuck in a time warp. At thirty-three she still looked like the fourteen-year old girl I’d said goodbye to when our parents had split up; short, dumpy, a mass of frizzy raven hair which made her look as if she’d had an electric shock – an impression reinforced by ridiculously thick, milk-bottle glasses which gave her a permanently startled appearance – and olive skin, which was her only attractive feature. Only a few telltale lines under the eyes and around the neck hinted at the passage of time.
Then I caught sight of my own reflection. Painfully thin, I looked like a skeleton in jeans and a leather jacket. The baseball cap, now resting on the table before me, did little to cover up my thinning hair. Self-consciously, I ran a hand over my head. Yes, still growing. I just wished like hell it would grow faster.
Gretchen returned with the coffee and two hideously sticky buns, which looked like curled-up dog turds coated in icing sugar. Even to be polite, I couldn’t see myself eating one of those.
“So, Michael,” she said, easing herself into the seat on the opposite side of the coffee table, “I expect you’re wondering why I asked you here?”
I shrugged and sipped my coffee. It was a natural assumption, and she was obviously going to tell me.
“Well, I heard of your little … problem.” She smiled. Sitting, as she was, with the sunlight on her face, her eyes had disconcertingly vanished in the glare from her spectacles. If she hadn’t greeted me at the door, I might have suspected a cunning disguise.
“What thin hair you have, my dear.”
As to my little problem …
“Yes, I’ve had a touch of leukaemia … nothing to worry about at all.”
“You know what I meant.”
Typical Sis, shrugging off sarcasm like dandruff.
“Sorry. Only recently, I’ve become a recipient of the jobseekers allowance. In other words, I’ve just been fired. So, after weeks of spewing my guts up, losing my job, and very probably losing my house, I’m sure that having a chat with you about my “little problem” is going to do me a world of good!”
A little rough on her, I knew, but just thinking about the day I lost my job was enough to send my blood pressure soaring. It had been a bad day from the start. Then, as I lay in my sickbed (puking for England, tubes sticking in and out of me), good old Sandy McBain paid me a visit.
“Sorry but – you know, we couldn’t keep your position open any longer, and – you know … sorry. We’ll pay you off, of course we will, but … you know.”
I knew; ten years service, then dismissed with a few grand to tide me over.
Gretchen, infuriating as ever, just smiled.
“Still got a temper, then? Life does have its ups and downs. It’s what you make it.”
“The old home-spun philosophy? Just what I needed.”
“As my husband used to say …”
“Ah, the late Jan Rodzenko. The catch of the century.” Rich, eccentric; don’t ask me what he saw in Gretchen. (Although, from what I’d heard, he wasn’t – strictly speaking – a ladies man. Beefcake sir? Not “alf!) Gretchen had been his secretary. Being an organized type of girl, old Jan must have married her in lieu of hiring a housekeeper.
“As I was saying …”
“Look, Gretchen; it’s nice to see you again …”
“We make our own fortune in this world. So Mike, I think it’s time we got our heads together … for once in our lives! Now lets drink this coffee. There’s somewhere I want to take you. You drive, I’ll direct.”
And just to keep the peace, I agreed. Ten minutes later we were heading up the dual carriageway, the soothing music of Enya drifting out of the car stereo. All well and good, but then we were wending our way through a twisting country lane, the car headlights barely penetrating the gloom. And when she finally said, “Alright, Mike, right here,” we might as well have been in the middle of nowhere. I was about to ask if we were lost when she stepped out of the car, so I killed the engine and joined her.
“Come on, Mike,” she said, smiling conspiratorially like we were both six-years old, “I’ve got something to show you,” and she led me into the mist. Within seconds we’d lost sight of the car. Totally disorientated, I found myself completely in her care. As a swirling mist enveloped us, I realised that I was putting my trust in someone that I really didn’t know at all.
Yet … if I didn’t know her at all, what had happened to my sister, the one I always knew as Gretchen? She who, up to when I was twelve, had been a fitful companion, often cruel, rarely friendly, never more than just a creature with which I’d been burdened by the accident of birth. Why had I, the younger one, been beset with an even crueller fate; a fate that some called blood-rot? I couldn’t help mixing up my thoughts out of sequence. Why had we even needed to part?
But she hadn’t been that bad, all those years ago. As we negotiated the roily mist, she grabbed my hand, ever the elder sister. And I recalled the times she’d acted similarly, when I was in trouble, lending a helping glance, rationing out her smiles for just such an occasion. And as the coolness of the night veritably hit my heart for the first time, she squeezed from her rosebud mouth the sweetest smile it had been my pleasure to witness in anybody … ever.
“Don’t worry, Mike. I’m not doing this for spite. This is real. This is us.”
I nodded, pretending to follow her gist. I didn’t want to surrender her good will for anything, least of all a misunderstanding; ever since the sticky bun, I’d been hers to do with what she wanted.
I suddenly recalled our parents. A fleeting glimpse of their loving faces, overlapped by more bitter versions; wrinkled by years of acrimony and disappointment. Fleeting, because we’d reached the destination my erstwhile sister had evidently intended us to reach. Erstwhile, because she was a stranger. A stranger, because she’d brought me to a place I couldn’t quite define as anywhere. Indefinable, because it may have been a gothic castle; it may even have been a dream version of my own home where I lived with my wife, whose face had crossed the same stages of love and disappointment as my own mother. Even my illness, the blood-rot … hadn’t achieved a reunion of spirits. She went even colder, did my wife, as if she feared her own circulation would be polluted by mine. Well, that was the gist of it.
No, it was none of these types of places. It was more a bivouac. A billet, maybe; a makeshift abode; essentially temporary, as if Gretchen had managed to erect it herself, with her own feminine hands. A venue … for what?
The catch of the century.
The phrase echoed and re-echoed. I wondered where I’d heard it before. A catchphrase to end all catchphrases.
The planks inside were pasted all over with scenes from famous cricket matches. Grace and Bedser. May and Edrich. Trueman and Compton. Even a modern, rather avant-garde daub depicting Ian Botham. There were stumps planted in the ground in threesomes; an obstacle course, as Gretchen and I staggered towards two wicker chairs. A weird, dream-like arc of light that seemed to emerge from one poster’s depiction of a bowler’s arm was directed straight at the kitchen table, where squatted several red pods that reminded me of cricket balls. I sat down, placing my baseball cap on the table. On the front, The Marylebone Cricket Club logo, the letters MCC combined in the middle. It seemed that Gretchen knew of my little passion. Had I been blessed with a normal childhood, this room might well have resembled my old bedroom.
But life hadn’t been normal since the day I was born, and although things had been good (once), I now recalled how my father had fallen into decline after losing his job at the docks; the struggle to get by, the bad times as his addiction to alcohol got increasingly out of hand.
Then Gretchen ran away from home. Three days of worry before she was found sleeping rough on the streets of London. When they brought her home, dad took the belt to her. I now know that this was neither the beginning, nor the end of her abuse.
Then came the dreadful day we returned home from school to find the police cars outside our house. Father, it seemed, had attacked our mother while in the grip of delirium tremens. It was the end of a family.
Blood-rot. A father’s blood rotten through alcohol, a son’s blood rotten through disease.
My father’s death had been a squalid affair. A shambling drunk walking the streets, he’d punched out the window of an off-licence to get another drink. I almost hope he enjoyed that malt more than anything else in life, for when he punched out that window he’d been too drunk to notice (or too drunk to care) that he’d cut his arm open. Bleeding to death in a drunken stupor had been a fitting end.
I was overcome with an almost unbearable melancholy as I thought of our mother; existing rather than living out her last days in a “home”, her mind and spirit broken. If disaffected blood spreads its poison like this …
But that line of thought will help no-one. My wife, Alice, can stay with her mother; my colleagues at work can go fuck themselves! My father may have brought the rot into his blood, but I didn’t.
“Why are you standing at the door, Alice? Come closer; touch me, even. It’s leukaemia, you’re not going to catch it off me.”
But it’s like the pictures you see on television of third-world countries; too much suffering and you just look away from the sufferers. It’s so easy just to look away, pretend it’s not happening.
“But Alice, dear, this is happening, and it’s happening to your hubby.”
Gretchen places a hand over mine. Wringing my hands in agitation, I must learn to control my body language.
“Just wool-gathering,” I grinned.
“No, Mike, you were facing up to the past. It’s the only way. If you’re going to put things right, you have to accept that they went wrong in the first place.”
“Ho, they went wrong, Sis; did they ever!”
The point hardly seemed worth mentioning. It was a fact, one I could hardly escape from.
“Gretchen,” I said, “You’re telling someone who looks like Marley’s Ghost that life is a bitch!”
She pulled something wrapped in a napkin out of her pocket. Shaking it open, she revealed the uneaten sticky bun.
“In all our lives,” she said, “we’ve never shared anything – except our parents, of course, but that was hardly a matter of choice.” She broke the bun in two, offering one half to me. “Lets eat this bun.”
And I took it, biting into the sticky texture. The taste wasn’t unpleasant; at least I could hold it down.
So there we were, acting out a disconcertingly normal scene; a room, a brother and sister eating a sticky bun; you’d think that normality had been the norm.
The bun eaten, Gretchen stood, picking two of the red pods off the table. Without being told, I did the same. They had a soft texture, like wax.
“The balls in your court, Sis; after all, you made the catch of the century.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t think why I said that … yet it seemed so true. Indeed, why does anybody ever say anything – because they think it’s appropriate in the circumstances. I had, it was true, been wool gathering. Enough time to count sheep when you’re dead, I say; so, because it seemed that both of us had exhausted the conversation of any further direction, I sank my teeth into the red pod. For the life of me I couldn’t think why I did that … yet it seemed so right.
We’d sorted out life, hadn’t we? Chewed over the communal fat. Given body to the bodiless. Fleshed out some skeletons. Given provenance to some ghosts. Ghosts can’t get the blood-rot, can they? Not part of their territory. But, after all, I started this as a ghost story, so why not give us the ghosts we could toy with and shudder at? Give us the Kirlian aura and we’d sure bowl a googly straight back! Nothing could make us take our eye off the ball. What better than two closely related people – who, nevertheless, didn’t know each other very well, despite the common antecedence of their souls – for loosening the knots of fate?
My line of thought unravelled amid the sound of clacking needles in the bivouac.
“What’s that?” whispered Gretchen, unpicking the noise with a knitted frown.
“It sounds like Grandma knitting a cardigan. Do you remember her? Nobody could get anything over her.”
I laughed, then almost cried. Those had been happier days, when matriarchs were all the fashion. She’d held us together for, it seemed, an eternity, until even she couldn’t patch up our parents’ marriage. She was the one with the treat, like a sticky bun or a bag of pear drops.
I then recalled gripping the steering wheel. A sticky bun I’d hated because it was one that my Grandma had once given me; no wonder it was uneatable. Elapsed time. Enya. Memories were both distant and immediate. Dad had taken me to my first cricket match. Before his malt blood fizzled over the edge. Before he hit our mum with a hard red fist. Before he went to that fairisle jump-off place called death …
There were many men in cloth caps watching the match, none of them jobseekers. There was no such thing then. Either you were in work or you were not. No fancy titles. But there seemed something that lifted you out of one’s own class with cricket. Soccer was too down to earth. Not hands-on. More a boot in the face that the city centres later became full of. Cricket was thoughtful, laid-back, civilized. I recalled Sandy McBain, without actually knowing what part he played in my life. Jan Rodzenko. Who was he? Someone who wrote this and later translated it into several other languages for others to wonder why he’d bothered in the first place?
As I picked the red spaghetti from my teeth, I knew the blood-rot had at last come to the surface, spewed up from the deepest seat of sorrow, an exploding pod of remorse and regret. I knew this was the stickiest wicket of all, a full toss batted high with nobody underneath to catch it. Being dead, but not being able to properly die.
“I’m a ghost after all, Sis,” I said.
“No, Mike, we all are,” she said, kissing the arc of air I’d just become.
Totally disorientated, I found myself completely in God’s care. As a swirling mist enveloped us, I realised that I was putting my trust in someone that I really didn’t know at all.
Before long the enshrouding mist thickened, nothing existed beyond the confines of my own body. I called Gretchen’s name and reached out, but no comforting sisterly hand awaited me. I pressed forward, for any direction would do.
Weakness stole over me, I became drenched in sweat. But then I looked down and saw that I was bleeding profusely, the thick red substance leaking as though from a thousand wounds; stomach, chest, arms and legs. I fell to my knees; all that poisoned blood pooling around me, skin becoming withered, desiccated, like a calf that had been dead for a week. In no time at all I was drained, falling forward, hands before me, forehead to the ground as though kow-towing to some mighty emperor, every last fluid ounce of that dark, life-giving substance sinking into the ground as though absorbed by a giant sponge.
“For God’s sake, I’m dead! Why do I have to die again?”
In a moment of revelation I see myself in a hospital bed.
I’m in a coma, the music of Enya playing softly in the background.
Standing by the (death) bed, my wife and Gretchen comfort each other as the doctor switches off the life-support machine. On a screen, a long, continuous white line signals the end of my life.
Do I see this as it’s happening?
But then I see myself five years ago; at the church, proud as my bride-to-be walks down the aisle in white. I find it unbearably painful to watch.
I remember,
knitting needles –
A convalescence home (where people never do!) –
An ill-attended funeral for my father –
A night on the tiles to celebrate my twenty-first birthday (Just as well I enjoyed it, I was only going to get another five!) –
My life over.
Then a soft hand slides into mine.
The voice could not be more familiar, or more comforting. I look up, into my mother’s eyes.
“Come, Michael.”
She leads me forward.
To show me Heaven?
But what she leads me to is a vision of Hell, a scene of the crucifixion. A corpse, stretched out on a cross – green, putrid; but unmistakably alive, or at least animated. And blood, which should have dried up, is still coursing through the veins. Horribly fascinated, I step forward.
So bad people are made to suffer for their sins.
My mother slashes his wrist with a talon-like fingernail; the blood begins to flow.
“Drink,” she says, and I clamp my mouth around the putrid flesh, drinking deeply of my father’s blood.
And as the blood courses into my body and fills my veins, I begin to experience a final vision.
In the living room of a suburban home, a mother is changing a baby’s nappy. In one corner of the room, a young girl is watching a soap opera. In another, a man is drinking whisky straight from the bottle.
“He came at a bad time,” my father says of me.
“It couldn’t be helped,” my mother responds, but my father mumbles on. An enforced three-day week is causing hardship, the money’s short. “The kid’s timing was lousy.”
One hour later and the bottle is nearly empty – and my father is very drunk … drunk enough to stagger over to the baby, pick it up and throw it across the room. The baby rises like a perfectly struck cricket ball. Mother screams but Gretchen jumps out of her seat, arms out before her
(The catch of the century!)
and grabs the baby with a simple skip, pulling him to her chest , and safety.
And now my father’s blood is replacing my own, filling my veins, feeding me. No longer does my body look wasted, or ravaged; no longer is my complexion pallid. When there is no more blood I stand back, strong, and as healthy as I’d been in the days before the blood-rot set in. And my father, now drained, begins to crumble and fold, like a badly made papier-mâché doll being crushed in an invisible fist, sinking into the mist, sinking from sight with a crackling sound like dying embers. His salvation is a long way off.
I stood there for some time, alone. Maybe we’d all meet again one day, who could tell?
Up ahead is a faint light, so I set off in its direction, finally letting go of my hold on life.
Somehow, I knew that I’d see them again … even disaffected blood runs true.

with Mark McLaughlin

Uncle Ratskin and I sat on top of his house, smoking cigarettes and fishing for pigeons.
You see, we’d locked ourselves out – again! – and so we’d climbed up onto the roof via the heavy vines on the north side, to while away the time pigeon-fishing. We kept our equipment on the roof, the best place for it. Sooner or later Ratskin’s girlfriend, Nibbles, would come strolling by, swaying her abundantly child-filled belly, to and fro, to and fro. Nibbles had a key. Every now and then we would peer down longingly over the edge at the front door, to look for Uncle’s pregnant pretty, and also perhaps to gaze forlornly at that naughty front door, which gently sloped away from us like a forgotten promise. Beyond that door lurked tasty beers… Well, inside several doors, including the fridge’s.
I think Uncle Ratskin’s front door locked itself sometimes, just to tease us. Neither of us could remember locking it – we were only going to be out of the house for a moment, to look at some books I had in my car. I’d been to a yard sale, and had three boxes of dusty books in the back seat of my old Pontiac Grand Am.
The sky that afternoon, looming above us roofbound pigeon-fishers, was the same dark greenish-yellow as a rotten yolk, and in that regard, it suited my companion, for Uncle had always been considered a bad egg – by friends, by family, even by the diseased old man who sold him dirty magazines. Something about crouching on shingles suited him. And me, come to think of it. With or without cold beers. Perhaps we were related to gargoyles, who are known for their roof-squatting.
Pigeon-fishing is not what one would call the sports of kings, but at least it put meat on the table. Uncle would get out the fishing poles, tie the smallest hooks possible on the ends of the lines, butter the hooks and then roll them in bread-crumbs. He would then dangle them over the edge of the roof – up to ten poles at a time – so that the hooks dropped down to rest on the sidewalk below. The final step was to drop a few bread-crusts near the hooks, to draw the gluttonous pigeons.
That was our diversion on that yellow-skied day. There was no danger of passers-by stepping on the hooks. Pedestrians were a rarity on Uncle’s block – except of course for Nibbles, and she knew to look out for the hooks.
Uncle lived in a ramshackle house near some abandoned warehouses. From his roof, all one saw were crumbling buildings, the rusty frameworks of derelict cars, trash-choked lots, and indeed, pigeons, scratching and picking through the weeds for grubs. And of course, down below we could spy the sloping door to the very house upon whose roof we squatted. Well, at least we had the rain-gutters, in case we had to drain the lizards, so to speak. True, we’d never had to use the rain-gutters in that fashion on earlier locked-out occasions, but it was nice to know they were there – ready, willing and able to oblige such bladder-related contingencies. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t have cold beers to hasten the process.
We’d caught three pigeons that afternoon, and Uncle insisted on staying a bit longer – he said he wanted five, enough to make a good pigeon lasagna. Nibbles was nowhere to be seen, anyway.
“I don’t think I’ve had your pigeon lasagna,” I said. “I’ve had your pigeon pizza, your pigeon burgers, even your pigeon sorbet, but the lasagna? No. What do you use for the noodles?”
I asked that last question because Uncle’s recipes often entailed substitutions, to make use of ingredients he had at hand. I dare not tell you what he used in place of cheese in the pigeon pizza.
“There’s a butcher shop a few miles that way,” he said, hooking a thumb westward. “They simply throw out the tracheas after they cut up the pigs. Such shocking waste! The pigs themselves would squeal with outrage and dismay, if they had enough life and brains in them to know! Trachea tissue has that lovely crispness, and can be served al dente.”
He threw more breadcrusts down upon the hooks. We always kept a tin box of bread crumbs hidden away with the pigeon-fishing equipment. Sometimes the crumbs got a little moldy, but the pigeons never minded. “While we wait for more pigeons,” he said, “I think we should talk about door-keys.”
“If you really believe we must,” I said. I didn’t mind Uncle’s recipes, but I just couldn’t swallow his theories on doors and their keys. It all seemed like so much subterfuge.
“Now, a beaded door…” Uncle said. “The key for that can be tricky. It’s a dainty thing – but it locks up the way tighter than any bank vault.”
“A beaded door? That’s more of a curtain. And anyway, how can it be locked? One simply has to part the hanging beaded strings and walk through.”
“Oh, is that a fact?” Uncle said with a cry of triumph, reeling in a flapping fourth pigeon. “Is that the last much-vaunted opinion on the matter? Is that the word of the Holy Lord Himself? Well, my boy, I beg to differ! Especially if the beads be of the amber variety. Amber: it’s fossil-old, and permeated with secrets! Why, if the beads are amber, one can lock time in or out – and don’t roll your eyes, not at your Uncle Ratskin! I won’t have it!”
I looked over the edge for Nibbles, and caught sight of that sloping front door again. The color of its stained wood was a deep, soulful maroon. A rich, seasoned color, heavily sown with darker strands and knots of shade and shadow. A lovely color for a door, really.
“Your front door looks a bit like a bead curtain – or rather, a braided one – with all its twisty woodgrain,” I said. “What sort of wood is that?”
“The rarest of all timbers,” he whispered. “Hellwood! The key-hole is no bigger than a pore in a demon’s skin. In a way it isn’t a door at all, for hellwood is a tricky substance, one that flows like a fluid yet seems to present a solid barrier. More akin to a bead curtain – just like you said! It can rattle and hiss like a snake when taken off-guard – take it from one who knows!”
“Uncle Ratskin, is that Nibbles coming down the sidewalk?”
I should mention, Nibbles isn’t my aunt – in fact, she’s only five years older than me. They call her Nibbles because she has a problem with low blood sugar, so she always has to be nibbling on something. Uncle was introduced to her at a party eight months ago and impregnated her on the very night they met. He can be rather charming when he puts his mind to it. Aunt Belphra died two years ago. She had been an extremely tall, thin woman, with thin hair, large eyes and wide cheekbones. She’d looked rather like an indignant praying mantis.
“Indeed it is, my lad. Dear sweet Nibbles!” He waved down to her. “We’re locked out again, my dear! We’ll be right down!” We put away our pigeon-fishing equipment, collected our birds and scampered down the vines.
“Glad to see you’ve caught us some dinner. I’m famished! Or should I say, we’re famished!” Nibbles said, rubbing her belly. She reached into her purse and pulled out the thin key that unlocked the hellwood door. The end had five crooked little prongs on it, like the fingers of an old man’s hand.
And so she opened the door and in –
– we went.
But doors are funny things. It brought us back to the roof. Hadn’t we just flown down?
Uncle Ratwing and I sat on top of his coop-complex, picking bugs out of our feathers and fishing for humans.
You see, we’d locked ourselves out – again! – and so we’d flown up onto the roof to while away the time human-fishing. We kept our equipment on the roof. What better place for it? Sooner or later Ratwing’s girlfriend, Pidgy, would come strutting by, swaying her fat, feathery egg-filled belly, to and fro, to and fro. Pidgy had a key. Every now and then we would poke our beaks longingly over the edge at the front door, to look for Uncle’s egg-bearing honey-hen, and also perhaps to coo forlornly at that wicked front door, which gently sloped away from us like a forgotten threat. Beyond that door lurked tasty bird-seed juice, stored and aged in sewn-up human-skins to give it a salty tang.
I think Uncle Ratwings’s front door locked itself sometimes, just to spite us. Neither of us could remember locking it – we were only going to be out of the coop-complex for a moment, to look at some things I had in my wagon. I’d been to a junkyard, and had three boxes of old dusty pictures, from the long-ago days when those monkey-faced humans ruled the world. The little horrors used to smear and streak fatty chemicals around on flat surfaces to make pictures. Paintings, that’s what the things were called. I liked to lay the paintings on the ground, fly over them and fire my poo-poo on them, to see if I could hit the faces of the humans depicted on them. One of the paintings was a chubby female with a funny smile. Another was a young male human dressed in blue.
The sky that afternoon, looming above us happy human-fishers, was the same dark pinkish-grey as a decomposing human baby, and in that regard, it suited my companion, for Uncle had always been considered a nasty little rotter – by friends, by nest-mates, even by the diseased old crow who sold him hallucinogenic beetles. Something about perching on shingles suited him. And me, come to think of it. With or without salty bird-seed juice. But of course, we were descended from pterodactyls, those majestic sky-monarchs of ancient times.
Human-fishing is not what one would call the sports of eagles, but at least it put meat on the table. Uncle would get out the fishing poles, tie the smallest hooks possible on the ends of the lines, and then stick lit cigarettes on the hooks. How the humans loved their ciggies. He would then dangle them over the edge of the roof – up to ten poles at a time – so that the hooks dropped down to rest on the sidewalk below. The final step was to drop a few smoking cigarettes near the hooks, to draw the nicotine-loving humans.
That was our diversion on that pink-skied day. There was no danger of passers-by getting their wings tangled on the fishing lines. Pedestrians were a rarity on Uncle’s block – except of course for Pidgy, and she knew to flutter around the lines.
Uncle lived in a ramshackle coop-complex near some rickety old structures where humans used to store their silly things. From his roof, all one saw were crumbling buildings, the rusty frameworks of the wheely things humans to travel in, trash-choked lots, and indeed, humans, scratching and picking through the garbage for old porno magazines. The humans, they like to look at pictures of each other sticking bits of themselves into other humans. Time-wasters, that’s all they are. And of course, down below we could spy the sloping door to the very coop-complex upon whose roof we perched. Well, at least we had the rain-gutters, in case we had to make some nice runny poo-poos. True, we’d never had to use the rain-gutters in that fashion on earlier locked-out occasions, but it was nice to know they were there – ready, willing and able to oblige such cloaca-related contingencies. Perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t have any bird-seed juice to hasten the process.
We’d caught three humans that afternoon, and Uncle insisted on staying a bit longer – he said he wanted five, enough to make a good human salad. Pidgy was nowhere to be seen, anyway.
“I don’t think I’ve had your human salad,” I said. “How do you make that?”
“Very easy, really,” Uncle Ratwing said. “Shred some human skin with your talons until it’s just tender pink strips, then shred some human guts, and then toss them all in a big bowl with some nice fat grubs, dead mice and some bird-seed. Then set it in the sun for a few hours to marinate. That’s very important. That way, all the flavors mingle into a sumptuous delight to tease and tantalize even the most discerning beak. Oh, and I’ll probably powder a few human bones and sprinkle that on top, for calcium, so Pidgy’s eggs will have nice hard shells.”
He threw more cigarettes down upon the hooks. We always kept a carton of cigarettes hidden away with the pigeon-fishing equipment. Sometimes the ciggies got a little stale, but the pigeons never minded. “While we wait for more humans,” he said, “I think we should talk about door-keys.”
“Always talking about door-keys!” I said. Locking doors seemed like such a bother. Pigeons never stole from each other. But then, I suppose locks were necessary to keep those prying humans out of the coop. Still, I hated trying to turn a key in a lock with my talons. A good way to break a claw, if you asked me.
“Now, a beaded door…” Uncle said. “The key for that can be tricky. It’s a dainty thing – but it locks up the way tighter than a vulture egg.”
“How can a beaded door keep a pesky human out? One would only have to part the hanging beaded strings and shamble through.”
“Oh, is that a fact?” Uncle said with a caw of triumph, reeling in a flapping fourth human. “Is that the last much-vaunted opinion on the matter? Is that the word of the Great Egg-Layer Herself? Well, my hatchling, I beg to differ! Especially if the beads are composed of amber. Amber: it’s a gift from the time of the pterodactyls, and permeated with secrets! Why, if the beads are amber, one can lock time in or out – and don’t ruffle your feathers, not at your Uncle Ratwing! I won’t have it!”
I looked over the edge for Pidgy, and caught sight of that sloping front door again. The color of its stained wood was a dark, disturbing maroon. A sinister color, heavily sown with sickening strands and knots of shade and shadow. An awful color for a door, really.
“Your front door looks a bit like pulsing veins, with all its twisty woodgrain,” I said. “What sort of wood is that?”
“The rarest wood of all,” he whispered. “Hellwood! The key-hole is no bigger than a flea on a human’s hairy ass. In a way it isn’t a door at all, for hellwood is a deceptful substance, one that flows like blood yet seems to present a solid barrier. Never underestimate it! It can growl and hiss like a mongoose when taken off-guard – take it from one who knows!”
“Uncle Ratwing, is that Pidgy strutting down the street?”
I should mention, Pidgy isn’t my aunt – in fact, she still has a wee bit of hatchling fluff around her wingpits. Why she’d consented to bear the eggs of a flappy old thing like Uncle, I’ll never know. Still, he can be rather charming when he puts his mind to it. Aunt Belphra died two years ago. She had been a stately old bird, with angular wings and large, commanding eyes. She’d looked rather like a tasty praying mantis.
“Indeed it is, my lad. Dear sweet Pidgy!” He flapped a wing at her. “We’re locked out again, my dear! We’ll flutter right down!” We put away our human-fishing equipment, collected our catch in our claws and flew down to the ground.
“Glad to see you’ve caught us something to peck on. I’m famished! Or should I say, we’re famished!” Pidgy said, rubbing the egg-bulge in her belly. She stuck a claw under her left wing and pulled out the thin key that unlocked the hellwood door. The end had five crooked little prongs on it, like the finger of some disgusting old human.
And so she opened the door and in –
– we went.
But doors are funny things. It brought me back to the roof. Hadn’t I just crept down?
Aunt Belphra had just finished gnawing off Uncle’s head. She still held his thorax in her shiny green forearms.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” I said. “I was looking forward to spending some time with him. He was going to teach me how to catch and cook spiders. He was going to share his recipes with me.”
“Sorry,” she said as she tossed the carcass off the roof. Though she was a bit on the old side, she was still one of the loveliest praying mantises in the city. “You’ll have to excuse me, but I do enjoy a bit of husband-fishing every now and then.”
She then picked up a pole and began to dangle a hook in front of me. A hook with a nice fat black widow spider on it.
“No, thank you,” I whispered. “I’m just not that hungry.”
“In that case,” she stated, “I think we should talk about door-keys.”

with Dominy Clements

The past is often hidden amid the skirts of time, but I do recal that the room was broken. Its ceiling was the only part that remained smooth, uncracked – although mottled with an archipelago of stains in the vicinity of the rose. So you see, they never told me about Mary. She could tempt anything, even fate.
The ledge of the room’s mantelpiece was sundered, part of it thickly crumbled upon the lower hearth area whilst the other part – with jagged edge – was still proud to the chimney breast. I merely described its bald state to Mary, as if to palm it off as customary.
She was barely out of her teens, in those days.
“But,” she asked, “is the mantlepiece the only bit of the room that you quaintly call – what did you say? – broken?”
I had not been led to expect anything of Mary other than cold objective logic. Indeed, I cannot recall ever being warned about her at all. Despite her age, her maturity was unimpeachable. I didn’t know she had even been listening.
“No, Mary … as you can see,” (and I tentatively circled my arm like a compass pointer) “the floorboards have given way in several places … and the mirror leans at more than 45 degrees from its wall … and the window is twice as big and far more disjointed than it was when originally built – if gaps such as windows can be built.”
Mary laughed or, rather, gave a slight snicker.
My shaky pointer made its way through the said window. She evidently found my jokes rather crude, although, that day, I felt myself nearly witty enough for her steadily growing maturity.
“There, Mary,” I persisted, “you will see even the washing-line is broken.”
“It’s not. The washing is still hanging on it and the rope is propped up by the wooden pole.”
Her words, to my ears, were rather gawky if words can be gawky. I shrugged off her response with my own: “The washing-line is broken because something is missing from it.”
“Do you mean there is a gap along it?” she piped, taking the wind from my conversational sails.
I gave a brief nod.
Mary thought for no more than a beat, and then pursued her advantage. “Let me make a prediction’ she said, in a careful tone, but one which betrayed supreme confidence: “The roof is broken, isn’t it?”
“Yes’ I replied, taken further by surprise, but somehow expecting this consequence to our strange conversation. “Yes indeed, but how do you know that?”
“Because the ceiling is whole. Everything else is broken or useless or gapped, and a ceiling is no good without a roof above it. So; the roof must be broken, and the ceiling is useless, even though it’s not broken.”
“I’d say something that is useless is automatically broken,” I suggested. “Its meaning is broken.”
Mary had indeed tempted fate. She had tempted me to skirt the dreaded art of philosophy, even to enter full-bloodedly into its realms of pretentious thought.
I was not an Estate Agent. Nor she a prospective client to purchase property. We were just parts of a dialogue like Plato’s Republic. But why Mary had been chosen to face my own version of Socrates, I’m sure even Plato could be pushed to answer. Most philosophical dialogues, after all, were conducted by men, in my experience. Mary was the arch temptress, far more the tempter than the male orientated Serpent. She was perhaps Eve to my Adam – wielding the apple of philosophy in the guise of knowledge. All this without the benefit of being undressed.
Seeing her face again turn towards the gap that was disguised as a window, I saw, too, that the washing-line writhed and wriggled from makeshift prop to pippin tree.
“Shall we go outside?” said Mary, all innocence. “I bet we could fix the washing-line. At least that would be a start.”
“We can’t go outside” I replied sternly. I knew why this was important, but could feel the sand already pouring away from under the moral foundations of any argument I might be able to come up with. My words seemed to have lost all heft.
Mary was already edging away from me, as if I wouldn’t notice. “But I want to see what’s missing – you know, from the line. I need to see the gap – maybe you could fill it; with a knot?”
I couldn’t undermine Mary’s apparent need to tinker with this delicately balanced environment, but her focus on that one convoluting object brought its own tangent towards a return to the status quo.
“You will never be able to See what is Missing, and a knot is not an option, but in any case; I don’t mind the gap,” I replied, thinking myself so clever. “Stand clear of those doors – move right down inside, please…”
I had not been expecting anyone else to be in the house. I hadn’t been told about Mary. Pre-warning is pre-arming, they say. There was a gap in my preparation for visiting the Broken House. She’d already asked me to come outside to assess a gap. I somehow wished we could go upstairs, to make the assessment there. The business of philosophy, like the business of business itself (if I had been an Estate Agent, which I wasn’t), surely didn’t often offer such salacious prospects that this blue-stockinged lady called Mary currently offered. The “Mind the Gap” joke was simply my way to divert guilt from my own weakness in risking the mental acrobatics of philosophy for the sake of more crudely physical ends. If I had been told about Mary, I may have come up with a better pre-emptive method than a silly joke.
I followed her – at an imposed loose end – into the garden. I audibly hummed and hahed, as absent-minded as a professor of philosophy I once knew for real.
While she inspected the washing-line, I took the spontaneous opportunity to glance back at the roof. It was not exactly broken but heavily weathered, with two ribbony strips of the deepest discolouring like tearstains reaching down (across the cheap rough tiles to the guttering) from a staring pair of dormer-windows.
I looked, to see Mary engaging with the ever elusive ends of the washing line like a young puppy – reverting to the child she really was underneath the artificial decking of all of those serious, spider-web thoughts.
Turning back to the house, I became engrossed in the shifts created by this new point of view. Ancient and deteriorating on the surface, the structure seemed sound enough. The gap in the window seemed invisible from the outside, and, peering into the darkness beyond, the lame angle of the dangling mantlepiece seemed not so much broken, but conglomerated into some kind of hideously ornate Corinthian hearth.
Sundered from its function as a shelter, the roof no longer over our heads seemed to have settled into its own survival mode. As we stood outside under the open sky, I at once felt regret in the sensation that the house would no longer admit our return, while my intuition told me that, should we once again force ingress, the state of dilapidation would reign once more. Fed up with pretentious arguments and the prodding of Platonic property developers, the house was in retirement, and had gently spat us out for the last time while red clouds gathered beyond the trees in the garden.
Clouds are just the sky’s bleeding gaps, I thought.
“You spend a lifetime wondering which cloud is the last cloud you will ever see,” Mary suddenly announced.
And my dormers wept. Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight, my mother often used to say, when rocking me to sleep with her own body. I was now so old, I couldn’t get back in. Couldn’t get back to where I belonged.

with John B Ford

Being a shy person, yet fascinated by all things strange and macabre, I immediately became very interested when I heard of the mysterious events which had taken place within the Manifold Valley. In recent weeks there had been reports of an unknown creature wandering the valley in the time of dusk, and also the more sinister case of a woman going missing while out walking her dog during the twilight hours. Apparently the dog had managed to return home by itself, but was noticed to have obtained a singular kind of wound. This was later established to be a bite from an animal of unknown origin. With all these facts coming to light, I could not help but investigate. Well, I had no bosom friends, nor even co-carousers, to keep me at home – so I was often crazy enough to venture further abroad than most.
The moon had already risen when I walked down into the valley. I picked my way carefully between the many yellow gorse bushes which populated the sloping banks. Reaching the bottom, I began to walk the narrow pathway beside the river, and it was at this time when it first struck me how oddly quiet the whole valley was. Not the merest sound of any nocturnal animal or bird came to my ears; only the sound of the river’s flowing water came to break the spell of absolute silence. With this fact I noticed just how much on edge my nerves had become, for at times I would lower my hand to my belt and feel the handle of the sheath knife which I carried for my own protection. Not that I ever remembered I had it, when actual danger threatened!
After following the main path for about two miles, I branched off to the right, over a stile and into open fields. Finding an ideal place to make camp, I took off my backpack and erected my one-man weather-tent. This done, I collected dead wood which I found in abundance beneath a nearby hedge, and then went about building up a fire for the night. Some ten minutes later I was sipping tea and warming my bones beside the fire’s roaring flames, when very suddenly an eerie light flickered into life upon the opposite side of the valley. It appeared to be of a luminous green in quality, and with greater study I realised it to be the outline of some slow-moving figure that walked along the ridge.
For some seconds I watched this figure, intrigued by its presence, but soon came a quality of great unease to envelope me – for with one swift movement its body turned to face my direction. It was now very obvious to me that it had noticed my fire, and that whatever it was peered down in constant observation of it.
I continued my own observation for perhaps a full minute, but as I did so a sense of mounting fear began to grip me firmly. It was very soon when this became justified, for suddenly I saw the eerie green glow of the figure spread outwards and form into the unmistakable shape of two giant wings. The Thing then took to the air with a remarkable swiftness and headed in direction straight across the valley towards my small camp. At that, I ran with all my speed across the field and concealed myself inside a small ditch beneath the far hedge.
Only seconds later and the Thing descended from the sky, landing very menacingly in the glow of the fire. With this, I discovered for the first time just what it was, for the firelight now played upon the death-black skin of a huge man-like bat. Within the black skin of its face I saw two emerald eyes which now gazed upon my tent, and quickly the mutant bat strode towards it. There then came a sudden sound of ripping canvas followed by an eerie sigh; like that of disappointment when the tent was found to be empty. The bat then turned towards the open field and I saw its emerald eyes begin to scan the darkness, this causing me to lie flat within the ditch to avoid being detected. Though after some seconds of menacing silence I heard the sound of flapping wings, and cautiously looking up, saw the bat rising into the night sky and heading towards the south of the valley.
When I returned to my tent I found it ripped to shreds, and in shining my torch upon the areas surrounding it, found a patch of muddy ground displaying the large claw-like marks of the bat’s feet. The danger I was in was now very apparent to me, but still I was taken by such intrigue that I could not help but continue my investigations. So it was that I gathered my belongings back into my backpack, then began to walk towards the south of the valley in the hope of a further sighting.
Returning to the main path beside the river, I continued to follow this for about three miles or so without another sighting. But still the eerie silence reigned all about, and now it seemed to me that a spell of pure evil had fallen over the entire valley. This evil, I felt, was tantamount to permeating my very reticence of soul and being.
I had walked just a little way further when there came a deep rumble of sound, all the ground about me shaking as though under the stress of a sudden earthquake. The force of this was such that I now had to lie flat upon the ground to avoid being toppled over, but from the steeper areas of the valley I heard many landslides and rockfalls begin. A sudden fall of shingle was quick to partially cover me, and with this I began to panic that I may be crushed to death or buried alive. Following this a pile of heavier rock reigned down on my head, and in the next instant my eyes filled with darkness.
I don’t know how long I remained unconscious, I can only give thanks to God Almighty that my mouth remained uncovered to enable me to breathe. I was shivering with cold and my head now ached sorely where it had taken a gash from the mini rockfall. But as I forced myself upwards and the shingle and small rocks fell from my body, I was once more to look upon the green luminous figure of the winged menace. I saw that it was now about a quarter of a mile onwards from me, and high up on the valley side to my right. Yet as I continued in my observation, I grew astonished to see the outline of the mutant bat apparently enter within the side of the valley itself.
By this time the moon had been half shrouded with cloud, and so it was that with very great care I made my way through the dark, slowly ascending the valley at an angle which would bring me to the exact place I had last sighted the bat. The gash in my head felt astonishingly of similar configuration to that in the rockface, except the latter was large enough to allow ingress of shapes even bigger than my own body. I absentmindedly fingered my wound to trace out this sense of scale-to-scale symmetry.
I do not know how I mustered sufficient foolhardiness, but I shrugged off any temporary physical ills. My backpack hurt my back, so I decided to manhandle its increasingly unwieldy bulk in my arms, as a mother would when carrying her baby. I squeezed through the gash, not without avoiding abrasions that actually penetrated my clothing. Evidently, I had misjudged its irregular width, if not its length. Soon, I was taken aback with how I continued to fetch illumination with me, by power of my eyes alone – as if they were self-serving beacons. I can only describe what I felt. The truth may have been quite different. However, what indeed I am certain about is that the sense of evil I had felt in the valley carried with me. I knew I pursued a greater evil, but in a sense it was to rid myself of the evil already clinging to my soul, that I pursued my current course. I needed my prey to absorb the evil I couldn’t jettison, absorb it within the carapace of its own even greater evil. Yes, the mutant bat was the prey, not myself; why else would I be following it to its imputed lair?
The sides of the gash continued, without widening or narrowing, remaining equally craggy and irregular, so it was dog’s chance of a journey, as I pushed the backpack before me into deeper and deeper realms of straitened purpose. I knew the darkness around me was welling up into veritable coagulants of opacity, yet my eyes managed to penetrate them with uncanny force of vision. The silence was unbearable, however. Worse even than the bruises that seemed to make the insides of my clothes feel soggy. Silence, when you know there should be sounds, as your prey cannot be far ahead, made you think that the curse of deafness was the first fit punishment that your foolhardiness had fetched. But the valley had been silent, too, hadn’t it? You were simply following its echoes.
You wonder how long you have been struggling through this endless slot or silhouette of the gash in the rockface. It seems interminable centuries, but it can only have been a matter of an hour or so, if that. Maybe mere minutes. A part of you remained discrete: allowing thoughts to develop autonomously: recalling Manifold Valley, the seeming necessity of the quest, the missing woman, the dog’s strange wound, a past life lived but not yet ended, dreams of loves had and then lost, the ultimate kiss – and what was that but the kiss of death? Manifold didn’t seem word big enough to encompass the growing implications. Surely, there was something you or your thoughts were missing…
Whatever the case, these thoughts were vilely interrupted by a stumbling motion into a wider, taller area of rock-pocket. The words jarred more, now, but that was because things were meant to jar. A green effulgence lit up the chamber. Ah, that made more sense. It fitted some in-built context. Cobwebs swagged from corner to corner, often in tangled, dusty swatches. The sense of smell was invaded with bouts of rank foetor more fitting for the charnel house or ill-managed abattoir. The bundle you carried, almost like a token of obeisance, wriggled in your arms like a living entity, whence much of the cocktail of stenches emanated. Yet, not all. The worst was yet to hit your nostrils. A bouquet of the valley’s fresh, green savours poisoned by a decay that you knew would invade it come the end of the world: the extreme contrast between the two being the most noxious ingredient of all.
Sounds began to make themselves known, too. They had been the shy wallflower for far too long, and would no longer be the gooseberry when the best dance was yet to be danced. They took you in their thunderous embrace and twirled you within an archetypal twister that, underground, felt far worse than on the plains of Middle America. Hungry gobbling noises from hellish captives, once the belles of the ball in the town where you grew up. Piquant flutes piping plaintively from even deeper hells, knowing that there was no longer any point in bellowing. Shrieks and sucking noises of inturned kisses. Baying animals. Roaring were-creatures. Yet, all in the head. The silence still prevailed.
During the eye of the storm, you glimpsed again the tall bat with wide wings ribbed-out like a demonic angel of resurrection. Simply that. No more. Why over-egg the cake of retribution?
You retraced your steps as best you could, having left the bundle, that had been once disguised, you believed, as a simple backpack. But what was that on your back? You turned … and turned again. You felt behind you with clumsy fingers. It certainly felt like your own backpack, with homely provisions and trusty tomes for late-night page-turning. You began to regather control of your own thoughts…
I left the gash at about daybreak, if something so imprecise can indeed be made more imprecise by uncertainty. I felt the wound in my head, knowing that it had begun to knit back into what would one day be a scar: a map of my adventure. That woman she had returned, but not her dog. That was it. I’m sure that’s right. My memory is intact. Nothing has been taken away, nothing given. I am my own self again. Cleansed. Sure of myself. Ready to face the world. Jutting my grim chin before me. Seeking a bride at one of those town balls that I’d rather not have attended in the past. Now I relish the chance of a dance.
As I crest the last brow of the valley, I can even hear the skim of distant wings and the shape of a shadow over me as it yaps farewell. I suddenly recall my sheath knife with some misgiving at missed chances … and, unaccountably, with some foreboding.

Finnegan Awake
with Simon Woodward

A sigh hissed from Finnegan as he gazed back at the city. A grid abandoned to whirly-gig litter and weeds. The calls of newly-bold fauna were painted on the freshly-minted silence. He sighed again. Drawing phlegm into his mouth, he hawked onto the path and drew the saliva into a doorway in the dirt. He did this before leaving any city. His father had said superstitions die hard; his new superstitions were scalpel sharp. Brazenness and ballyhoo.
The Uprising was three years old and those remaining were still ignorant of cause, purpose, or meaning. Many argued that life had become so empty, so soulless and transitory, that the emaciated motes of peoples’ souls slipped though gravity’s caress. Only those with dreams of iron and hearts of stone were weighted to this spinning globe.
Whatever the reason, most people succumbed. Calm in sleep’s embrace they slipped away. Morning’s glint lit bodies as light as helium balloons bobbing against ceilings. Within hours they were nothing but withered sacks of contoured physiognomy crumpled on the floor. Those who slumbered alfresco floated into the night sky and disappeared into the absolute darkness between the stars, their bodies bursting like seed pods in the planets’ stratospheric fist.
He was no longer sure what had truly happened. Memory was a dangerous path to tread these days; all tangled with the vines of confusion and the loamy suck of fear.
Now and then were drifting apart. He struggled to care for tomorrow.
He left the abandoned city, looking for one with more meat. The Lithuanian Bison – if such could start off anything but a stampede – were, for Finnegan, representatives of the Rocks, Rivers, Reaches… Mountains, Woods, Trees (made of wood as well as making woods themselves). All seemed archetypes. He ran his head along the forest gutter, trying to sense the core’s lack of lease upon folk that had floated off.
Schemes and scallywags. Blimeys and blighters. He muttered. All curse that curled, coiled through the floaters’ senseless brains as they hugged others in the lightweight drunkery. Surely, surely, shores would side together, gang up, whatever the correct expression, leaving the flitter-folk with nothing but marginal channels of mock bonhomie and the thirst for greed, although nobody wanted either. The creatures mosey back into the musterings of humanity-with-a-soul. Hugeheaded things with things as things. Heavy enough to stay.
Finnegan licked his tongue with a finger-in-the-wind. If he were uncareful, he’d be the only human left anchored to earth. His sadness at his father’s death made this as certain as magnets and poles. He managed to stirrup up one of the more bulkless bison and traipsed upon it across the fast-depleting air-bubble lands. Until he came to an oasis where snow was as rare as sand: to reveal, this time, a city which had not yet succumbed to the seditious upsurge.
The city was ringed by a serrated wall – a set of jaws set wide to snap. Its buildings rose higgledy-piggledy ramshackle in precarious ascent, shying away from the space close to the perimeter. Over the centre of the city hung the huge sphere of a cyan balloon, so large that its shadow covered every building. A monstrous tongue of flame, white within purple within red within blue, like the tail feather of God’s own peacock, filled its belly with hot air.
The mad bustling noise of city life filled Finnegan’s ears as he approached the guarded city gates. What concrete-booted magic kept this populace anchored and safe within the walls? Answers lay within. He spurred his mount onwards even though it grunted in plaintive protest and glanced at him with the moistest of eyes.
At the city gate, a guard clad in asymmetrical makeshift armour challenged him from behind a line drawn in the sand. The bison moaned again then whined as it slowly deflated, a punctured life lowering Finnegan to the earth. He patted its great head then hefted its skin around his shoulders. The guard clanked warily from Finnegan’s path as he entered the city.
Within, many-coloured humanity thronged the streets. Hawkers yelled. Stalls spilled fruit and spice. Everywhere people. It seemed to Finnegan’s eyes that the population was little, if at all, depleted by The Uprising.
How so? he asked. The raw-eyed and jaudinced-skin face that slowly rotated to face him was eloquent enough reply. The woman shook her head, doll eyes rolling, and her eyelids slid closed momentarily. With tired fingers as dexterous as sponge, she unscrewed the top of a glass jar and gulped the steaming, pungent brew it held. Her eyelids retracted causing a tectonic shift in her facial muscles that opened crevices and craters. The fractal majesty of her irises refracted urgent, dead light.
Above Finnegan the peacock flame roared again and the city-sized balloon bellied and snapped eager to be airborne. Pulling the comforting stench and weight of the bison about his shoulders, Finnegan strode towards the palace beneath the flame.

The heavy-eyed king wanted his daughter, the Princess Latvia, to bear children. But she was a good sight uglier than the raw-eyed jaundiced creatures who sniffed beyond the palace gates. No floatsafe Heaven, no amount of riches could entice any man to consider even donating his male comeliness to a seedbank for her use. Perhaps this was because the potential suitors feared any subsequent fertilisation of one of her Royal eggs would produce reverse echoes of empathy – or deja-vu dreams of having spliced her for real.
Then, the King had an idea, the first idea he could recall having – and this very idea he had was that first ideas were always the best ideas.
His sole child, the Princess Latvia, was, of course, the subject of this idea since most of his attention was centred on the royal dynasty which needed to be assured. Her beauty would be enhanced, he felt, by weighty teardrops. Her eyes sparkling in sorrow often tempted a simpering pout to her thin lips which surely needed quenching with a kiss – or so he believed.
Yes, his idea was for her to crunch an onion as one would crunch a deliciously crisp pippin apple. And she carried out this tear-jerker of a ploy, with Finnegan, the last reluctant suitor, bowing his way – in a series of leapfrog manoeuvres – towards her ensconcement on the throne. Nobody knew that the floating disease had given this city kingdom the avoidance factor of miss-and-kiss because of the cast-iron coffins in which the city authorities buried their dead, hung beneath with claw-heavy bison-corpses to drag human souls even further towards some core other worlds couldn’t begin to boast. Leapfrog, therefore, was possible, without the suitors’ eyeletted tails being singed by the multifarious hot-air balloons (disguised as one) above.
“I’m the Archduke of the Khazars,” said Finnegan, this cringing prospector of beauty.
“That sounds more like a title than a name,” said the Lady Updown, the Princess Latvia’s great aunt, who had just entered the throne room. This Lady, a creature wielding a pointy prune-like face was overseer of such meetings, not exactly acting as a chaperone – for one was hardly required – but more as a facilitator.
“My real name, as shown on my baptismal certificate, is Finnegan Joyce, my lady, but rest assured I am what I say I am,” answered the Archduke of the Khazars, who bowed anew with relish towards the Lady Updown while pointedly ignoring the Princess Latvia.
“Pedigree?” said Updown with a subtle bend of her voice to betoken a question rather than a statement.
“Yes, of course, my lady, my pedigree is the finest calibre,” said Finnegan with a proud wag of his drooping backside.
“Seed count?” said the lady, with a further curve.
“Five tones in fifty, my lady.”
“Tackle torque?” said the lady with her voice now bent double.
“Beyond the Plimsoll Line, my lady.”
“Very good, very good, but what about your leanings?” with several curtsies with each eyebrow.
“I can travel the sexual spectrum from end to end, my lady. And below.”
“Right… right… not bad at all. But now, Duke, you will pray whisper your answer to the next question,” said the Lady Updown, leaning herself nearer to Finnegan so as to bend his ear, whispering the very next question to which she wanted the answer whispered back. It was a sad question that brought him down to earth. A question re the retrospective death of his recent father. Such a death, she said, surely meant any possible pedigree was now out of the window.
Unlike the zombie-faced masses – who were forced to deny themselves sleep (thus believing the possibility of the floating death) by ingesting the foul brew Finnegan had witnessed earlier – the aristocracy, with their battalions of herbalists, were able to rely on the most refined of narcotics. One such drug, being a cocktail of opiate and stimulant mixed with dyes, was administered as a tattooed eye thus regulating a steady release into the body.
Finnegan was eye-to-eye with such a tattoo, undulating on the Princess Latvia’s belly, as he tongued his way south over the Himalayan rolls of her girth. When his tongue flicked across, the tattoo lights spangled on his retina and he fancied that it pursed its eyelids in a wink.
The Princess’ squeals of virgin delight, something akin to those of a truculent piglet, assaulted his ear drums again. Her fingers worried at his scalp. Her heels gouged wedges of compressed eiderdown from the bolster. Onward he foraged, an army searching for succour on barren lands it has no true desire to conquer.
Finnegan had had no say in the instigation of these night manoeuvres, for Lady Updown’s whispered assassination of his created persona – the bogus Archduke of the Khazars – had accumulated with a threat to toast him with the deathly lick of the great peacock flame unless he consented to become the Princess’ consort. Of course, he could make no claim on her riches.
The Princess, enthusiastic but unschooled in the harmonics of sex, slipped from beneath Finnegan’s oral ministrations and urgently straddled him.
“Heavenly houris! Not like that, child!” cried Lady Updown from the umpires highchair erected alongside the bed. As fitting a woman of her years and experience, Lady Updown had been designated the Princess’ Privy Maid for Coital Correctness. With a flap of her spindly hand she sent the panting Royal to a shadowy neutral corner of the great four poster bed, then, reaching beneath her many layers of skirts, removed her girdle with a smack-warm sound.
“Observe the play of the vertical and the horizontal,” she instructed, as she slid onto Finnegan fulcrum and rode him soundly and inventively for a hundred strokes.
When the room’s candles were flat and spent, and Finnegan had spent seed on the Princess and her wizened adviser a dozen times or more, he closed his eyes and dived towards slate-wiping slumber.
Three breaths into his repose icy water cascaded across the flush of his chest and face. The Princess Latvia begged her consort not to sleep lest he be claimed by the sleeping sickness. All Finnegan’s claims of immunity fell on ears stuffed with fear. She would not and could not listen. She clasped him to her sweaty bosom.
“Ah, love begins to swell already,” said Lady Updown, sliding into a new girdle of soothing bison fur, winking at Finnegan and tiptoeing from the room.
“Follow me lover. I am a Princess, I will not allow this fate to befall you,” said the Princess stamping her feet like a testy bull and tugging Finnegan behind her.

Vandermeer The Tattooist had been annoyed to be disturbed at such a late hour, and until he discovered the rank of his visitor he had intended to use his needles for the creation of extreme discomfort rather than art. However, seeing the Princess in all her naked and corpulent glory, with the Archduke of Khazars standing behind her, similarly unclothed but considerably more bashful, he realised that any show of bad grace could lead to a swift and unnecessarily painful end.
Two hours later, dexterously twirling a needle between his porcelain fingers, he was pleased with his work and honestly rated this narcotic tattoo as a masterpiece. Finnegan’s hairy right nipple masqueraded as its pupil, while its iris was etched in Lincoln, emerald and mint, and the eyelids were lustrous mauve curves.
“Now we have an eternity of each other,” sighed the Princess wiping tears of relief against Finnegan’s hairy arms.
Above her evening crown of pewter and emeralds, through the arch of an open window Finnegan watched the monstrous flame ripping apart the night. But now, as the narcotic began to slide through his veins, setting his biology dancing to a feverish new jig, he saw beyond its colours to the geometry at his centre. Curves and angles sufficient to conjure up a face. Form enough to reveal his father’s profile. A profile slowly gyrating through treacle heat to face him.
Meanwhile, the Princess Latvia, squatting nervously on the edge of the bed, took a hearty bite from a huge onion, but she needed no false teardrop to mark her sorrow as she watched Finnegan greeting his dead father.
The King – who was himself an ear-witness to these events from an oubliette beneath the bed – decided that first ideas were no better than last ones.
And his daughter’s fart became his dying breath.

“Technically spent,” answered a pitiful Prince to his mother the forgetful Queen. By some quirk of Summer Time and sentence structure, he had been delivered from a prison to the palace a few daylight-saving minutes early.
“Never before has the heir to the throne been thus incarcerated,” said the forgetful Queen. “Such incrimination will never be spent, be it a technical spending of the sentence or be it not.”
It had been as long as exactly forty years since the pitiful Prince had been imprisoned for whatever crime, but he was only today being released. The mind-blotting duration since he had been convicted was quite irrelevant, making the imprisonment, if not the crime, still fresh in the minds of all subjects. Or so the forgetful Queen saw it.
“I can’t even remember what I did to be imprisoned,” pined the pitiful Prince in a prick of pique.
Whether the forgetful Queen remembered the exact circumstances, she kept them within her innermost sanctum. Meantime, she counted seeds in her counting-house. Some of which wriggled.
There was another member of the Royal family, as nurtured by the forgetful Queen, someone who was silent with a pink balloon tagged to her left ear. This was the forgetful Queen’s own mother (the erstwhile Princess Latvia) who had never been Queen due to suffering bouts of wind. The throne had thus missed a generation but, in the case of the pitiful Prince, there was no fruit of his own loins to whom the throne could be leapfrogged. The only possibility was a Princess, a distant cousin who was barely in the Royal bloodcourse – and, furthermore, a Princess who was said to be so tiny she’d sink into the throne’s rich upholstery and never be seen again. Or, worse, float off, as in those floating diseases which started around forty years ago and still prevailed wherever the light of the peacock flame was allowed to seep.
Whatever the case, the forgetful Queen saw that her own mother (the erstwhile Princess Latvia) was seemingly determined to break an eternity of silence, having suddenly taken a pin to the pink balloon. Popbang! And the pitiful Prince nigh jumped out of her skin at the awful earful. Indeed, a vessel in his eye did rupture, staining the white an unwholesome narcotic crimson.
“What was that noise?”
The King’s ectoplasm-clogged voice could be heard from the neighbouring bed-chamber.
“Oh, nothing dear, it was only mother, my mother and your erstwhile daughter,” called the forgetful Queen.
The ghostly King’s voice returned to its home – as he plied his spectral lungs with a well-aimed airful.
“Oh, nothing, dear, it was only mother …” mimicked the pitiful Prince with a sneer of sarcasm. There is a very fine line, after all, between being pitiful and being bitter, one often feeding off the other. His mother blamed it on the company he’d kept in prison, as well as, of course, the sardonic bison that still haunted everybody’s overlapping dreams.
Meantime, the forgetful Queen unexpectedly died, releasing barely a sighful of ancient air in the process together with an auraful of memory-specks. She remembered indeed that her own mother (the erstwhile Princess Latvia) had died years ago before giving birth to any children and she was as old as she was when she was as old as she had today thought herself to be. Senility was like that. A fine line. And each fresh memory was as if it had never been forgotten. The pitiful Prince abruptly realised that the very act of having been born was his only crime, incarceration inside a body being his life punishment, No wonder his mother, the Queen, had such a convenient memory that she could so easily forget her part in and around the crime. His fortieth birthday notching into position at some point in time during this very day, he unaccountably feared his own frame would collapse with the air pressure outside being greater than within. Indeed, madness was better than mindlessness, wasn’t it? He smacked his own hairful head with delight, knowing, too, that, therein, a Princess had stepped into the dynastic breach of the Khazars,a speck unpent from a pink-skinned prison, from that erstwhile umbilical-tagged balloon-blister of Royal burps, belches and bowel-pops. A speck that would outlast even the ultimate nothingness. An awful heirful.
But he smiled as the idea sunk in. At least as memorable as Royal unions (or onions) went.

Vandermeer the tattooist shrugged in suicidal desperation as he opened the flamelock to let in an awful airful. The Updown creature (who had forgotten she had once been destined to become a forgetful Queen by some miscegenation of come and comeliness) squirmed in hardened net-tendrils of venom-stain, only the strobe-hyperdermia work he had effected on her having kept the thus-stained body and soul together. She yearned, panted, screeched for Vandermeer’s own blunt needle-plait of twirling pink flesh to score her, to fill yet another palpitating would-be orifice with cumbersome layers of creamy pedigree as a ballast to the otherwise unwieldy floating of her bulk towards God’s tepid-flamed peacock that was all women’s (and some men’s) unsatisfactory climax in Heaven.
At the final resting-place in the upmost sky, tackle torques and seedcounts imploded into countless millions of pod universes. Beyond some apocryphal Plimsoll Line, a saggy ex-Princess followed every meta-Bison in case it had a meta-Finnegan on board. Or Father Up In Heaven, Give Us Your Daily Breeding; Rocks, Rivers, Reaches, Mountains, Woods, Trees …
The words themselves slipped through gravity’s caress. A certain neo-Lithuaninan Bison traipsed the fast-depleting lands of language. “My Father Down In Heaven, In His Pitiful Pink Prison …” ended the plaintive, prayerful muttering; hugeheaded things with things as things slowly sagged in forgetful Finnegan’s wake, as he sniffed the clean air of near-nothingness becoming nothingness itself.

with Gary Couzens

Ten minutes before he died, Andrew James Crichton selected a drink from the bar. A single Southern Comfort with ice. He pushed away the remains of his in-flight meal and gazed out of the window at the deep blue of the sky. At 30,000 feet he could look down at the clouds, thick and drawn up into ice-cream peaks, or single tufts like cotton-wool.
Five minutes before he died, he continued to sip at his drink. He switched on his laptop. Two minutes later, feeling distracted, he gazed up at the seatbelt sign, which was unlit. He was lost in a reverie for a minute and a half before he returned to the laptop.
He was so engrossed, all he knew was a loud roaring in his ears, intense heat and splintering, and a sense of infinite space around him as he fell.
Statistically more people are killed every year on the roads than in the air, but air disasters are more newsworthy. A car accident will normally kill at most four or five people, maybe seven or eight, but unless it’s a major pileup it won’t make the news. And because it takes place on terra firma, it’s more survivable. A plane crash will eliminate more than hundred people at once, and if your vehicle disintegrates several miles up you have no chance.
There’s a sick feeling in Jane’s stomach as she sits down and fastens her seatbelt. It’s not the wine she drunk the evening before, at their wedding reception. After they’d made love, Simon slept easily, strange bed and all, and woke up refreshed. Jane tossed and turned all night. It was the thought of this flight, her first since the bomb which tore apart that 747 and everyone on board. Including her father.
After the take-off, after that rushing of blood to parts of the body gravity normally fails to reach, Jane gains comfort from the ordinariness of her surroundings. A stretched-out hotel foyer. Simon, by her side, leans back. A man, across the aisle, tapping at his laptop. The plane’s hum of power, a throbbing which could easily be mistaken for a deep-throated central heating system. She relaxes. A honeymoon is not a time to allow an embolism into the mind: a memory of a father who died after surely comforting himself with similar ordinariness.
Statistically more people die before their predetermined mind-stop than otherwise…and so they hover onward like misbegotten memory forces – or anachronistic ghosts – blotting up further thoughts and, yes, memories. They skim and soar in the same air through which sleek metal monsters divert them into a mixed backwash of mentalities.
Peter Clayton had risen that morning, not knowing he was to fly later in the day. Business trips were often abruptly arranged by the Director in charge of his area. Based in London, Peter often flies to Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow or Edinburgh or Southampton. Not for him the nervousness of the infrequent flier; nor the boredom of the long-haul traveller. An hour to check in, an hour to fly, and he is at his destination, fuelled by plastic-wrapped food and airline coffee. All airports are basically the same – the details and language spoken may differ – but there is no plunge into disorientating strangeness. Later in the day he returns, sustained through the tedium of the meeting by company catering – all laid on, of course: keep the important delegates happy.
Today, Manchester; next week, Dublin, the location of the farthest-flung present, a pretty thirty-year-old redhead called Roisin, representing the company’s Irish holdings. A few months ago, in an overnight stop in a Glasgow hotel, in an access of loneliness he and Roisin made love. A moment in time, nothing more: a meeting of tired bodies and bored minds. Now and then he thinks of her: of her slim boyish figure, her small breasts and tight upward-pointing nipples, the sensation as her legs clasped his hips and he slid warmly into her. It never happened. The next morning they went separately to breakfast and were later debating fervently from either side of the meeting table. It never happened: he has a wife and three children he adores. He’s forty years old, with thinning hair, a developing spare tyre and a blood-pressure problem; Roisin is ten years younger than him, unmarried but with a live-in boyfriend of two years’ standing. The hurt they’d cause if what they did became known, and the consequent misinterpretation: they’d meant no harm, it was just a gesture of friendship. It never happened.
Jane watches the landscape veer away, as roads become lines and fields green and brown mosaic tiles – a flush of white as they break through the clouds. The sign ahead of her still burns its red message: FASTEN SEAT BELTS. Her hand inches sideways and meets Simon’s. He wraps his fingers about hers.
She remembers the dream she had sometime during last night’s fitful sleep. She was on a plane similar to this one. She tapped a passing stewardess on the arm. “Excuse me…?” The stewardess turned; instead of her face there was a skull. Jane screamed. She jumped past the stewardess, who reached for her, her bony fingers touching the fabric of Jane’s blouse but sliding off as Jane ran up the aisle. She reached the cockpit and tugged at the door –
“Excuse me, Madam, you’re not allowed in there – “
– and finally she forced it open. It was noisier in the cockpit, and as she half-stepped, half-stumbled in, the co-pilot turned. His face was another skull. And the pilot’s face too. As she stood there and screamed, she saw through the window the plane’s nose tilt downwards until she could see no clouds no sky just the ground rushing up faster faster and faster –
She woke up choking back a scream. Simon was there, holding her, soothing her.
“Are you okay?” Simon asks, bringing her back to the present.
The sky: an intense unbroken blue. The clouds below: a thick clotted white.
“I’ll get you a drink,” he says. “You’re shaking like a leaf.”
As he reaches past her to attract the stewardess’s attention, Jane lightly closes her eyes. Her blouse is damp under the armpits, her sweat glands defying her antiperspirant. Face your fears. Well, so far she has done this. That was her first take-off. Overcome your fears. As if by shining a light on them they shrink, become trivial, instead of letting them lurk in darkness, your imagination doing the rest. She feels light-headed. It’s the pressure: hold your nose and pop your eardrums. Well, if she is to overcome her fears, what better than an hour-long flight from Heathrow to Dublin? Short and sweet – soon be over.
Peter Clayton spends the hour’s flight reading through the paperwork he’ll need to get through before tomorrow’s meeting. He breaks for the in-flight meal – lamb chop and creamed potatoes and green beans – and towards the end of the flight gives up reading and stares out at the darkening sky over Manchester. He thinks of collecting his luggage after disembarking, then the bus into the city centre and the at-first-overwhelming largeness of Piccadilly Square, and then checking into the hotel. He’ll phone Helen, his wife, then there’ll be the evening to kill. Hopefully Roisin will be there; they’ll share a drink for old times’ sake. Old times: the memory of that never-mentioned, half-denied infidelity.
In fact she’s in the queue ahead of him, waiting to register. The only woman there, amidst all the anonymous men in suits. At first he doesn’t recognise her, not even when she turns to face him: her hair has been cut to collar-length and she’s wearing wire-rimmed full-moon glasses. It makes her look older, more like her actual age instead of just out of her teens. She waves to him and after she’s registered walks back down the queue to where he’s standing.
“Hello Roisin, how are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks. How was your flight?”
“Oh, nothing special.”
She touches her hand to his elbow. “You going to have dinner with me?”
“I had something to eat on the plane.”
Head-and-shoulders shorter, she gazes up at him with something he reads as disappointment. Atavistic gallantry gnaws at him.
“But I’m still hungry,” he says.
She smiles.
The meal doesn’t live up to expectations. Roisin, changed into a lavender-coloured top and black leggings, eats voraciously. Peter forces himself to finish his meal, knowing he’ll have to do some exercise to burn it off. He feels bloated as he stands up and they move to the bar. He has a second drink although he knows he shouldn’t; he feels himself become light-headed.
Conversation remains on the surface: how are his wife and children, how is her boyfriend Seamus (fiancé now), company gossip – the substance of many past face-to-face, phone and email conversations. As he slides into tipsiness, he slips his arm about her shoulders. He senses her discomfort, but she doesn’t resist. He thinks guiltily that he hasn’t rung Helen, but he feels in no condition to do so. At ten o’clock, Roisin yawns.
“Long day. I need to go to bed.”
He escorts her to her room, one floor below his. They say goodbye. He wants to kiss her; he’s tempted to reach out and put his hand on her breast. But he knows he shouldn’t. And he doesn’t.
Statistically, Andrew James Crichton was one of those exceptions that prove the law of averages – by accidentally dying at the precise moment he was meant to die – which made everybody else on the plane victims of synchronicity, spear-carriers in the unique drama of self-reality.
Soon be over. Jane notices that the laptop has ceased tapping.
She glances towards the man whose name she’ll likely never know. She can just discern the gold-embossed initials AJC on his samsonite briefcase, its black cuboid untidily tilted on the spare seat next to the aisle.
Probably an executive or maybe a politician. He probably needs to sleep. Such thoughts allow her to maintain equilibrium – as if altruism is an aid to safety.
Planes and spiders, her only known phobias, she thinks. No spiders on planes, though – unless they get in with the food or cargo. Do spiders have phobias? Her wandering thoughts are akin to returning to dream, but not quite.
AJC, she sees, is indeed sleeping, just as she must have done when dreaming for real.
Simon too now is sleeping. Sweet dreams, Simon. Sweet dreams, AJC – whoever you are.
Soon be over.
He should have made a move. Peter Clayton is only Peter Clayton by virtue of his impulses. His whole career up to the age of forty has been a series of unexpected moves from company to company, each one a slight jump up the ladder. His current job in itself comprises surprising changes of plan, with meetings galore abruptly cropping up for the firm’s troubleshooter – as he describes himself. He has sometimes spent a whole week chasing meetings without ever attending one of them. Ever a more important meeting around the next corner. Late cancellations. Sudden appointments. Chasing crises. Chasing shadows. Chasing…
Hang his blood pressure! Cabin fever, nothing more.
He needs a cuddle. Roisin now asleep just one floor below. What a waste of resources!
He hears the sound of long-haul aeroplanes plying their invisible paths above the Manchester hotel. Their droning – although a sign of humanity – enhances the night’s solitude. He thinks of Helen and the kids, nearly cries – but falls asleep before remembering why he wants to cry.
He dreams of a plane crashing. He watches from a creeky terrain as it banks steeply, then seeming to splutter to a halt. No sooner seen, it slices into some far-off trees with a splintering roar. It is up to him to scramble across the squishy marshes to save any survivors. He is horrified when he arrives on the scene. The flaming trough which the nosecone of the plane has divotted is at least a highrise-block deep. A number of passengers still trying to clamber out, despite the ferocity of the fire: they are flickering shadows, actually part of the living flame. The plane itself seems to have disappeared altogether. Surely it can’t have taken off again, after allowing the maimed and half-dead to disembark? The fire-pit created by the crash gradually relinquishes its imitation of a long vertical volcano, but dark perforations and fragile black sculptures of ash still float intermittently upwards from the former core. He squints into the sky where he can just discern the wrecked aeroplane gliding with the large black birds…
Peter Clayton is woken by a soft tap-tap on his bedroom door, as if someone is typing out a message. He hopes it’s Roisin with her own share of impulse.
“Come in,” he says.
As he fell, Andrew James Crichton thought: Is this what it’s like to die? Deep azure sky above him, sun shining bright on white clouds below. To his satisfaction he learned that what he was always told was true: his life flashed before him. He saw again himself at school, at university; he remembered how he lost his virginity at the age of seventeen; he met again his wife. He saw through a mist of tears his only child Jane pulled bloodily from his wife’s vagina, her first gurgling scream.
Then he fell into a cloud.
As far as he could see was greyish white. The only direction indicator was the sun, above him. He couldn’t breathe – a burning in his lungs – as he fell. And finally – a matter of seconds in real time – the white darkened, became red, then black, as Andrew died.
Minutes later his body hit the Atlantic.
And, somewhere else, someone drew out his life’s thread, lined up the scissors, and cut.
Her bladder full, Jane undoes her seatbelt and stands up. She glances down at Simon, asleep now. His head lolls to one side, exposing his double chin. You really must exercise more, she thinks. She doesn’t want to nag, but she sees Simon in ten years, after his sedentary job has taken its toll: puffy-faced, face mottled with broken blood-vessels, a spare tyre.
She’s a little unsteady on her feet, her legs numb from sitting down. The plane is on a tilt: the windows to her right face upwards into the sky, the sun burning out the blue; to her left, she can see through a gap in the clouds the Irish Sea, grey-green flecked with white. She can see individual waves.
She walks the length of the aisle to the toilet. It’s occupied. She stands there, stepping aside to let the stewardess pass. The stewardess – Jane can read her namebadge: GRAINNE O’HARA, a real Irish name – smiles at her.
“All right?”
Purse-lipped, Jane nods, smiles politely in return, and watches Grainne O’Hara’s retreating back. Professional to a fault: Jane is just one more nervous passenger. There are probably many like her.
The toilet door opens and a middle-aged man, with thinning hair, overweight, comes out. He smiles encouragingly at her as he returns to his seat.
I must look nervous, thinks Jane as she shuts the door behind herself. She’s always been small – her full height is five feet one – slim-built, looking younger than her years. She seems to inspire men to want to protect her, always older men. From her father onwards.
Her father. She rarely thinks of him now. She was six when he died: his face is a vague blur. The man in the old photographs is almost a stranger to her, even in the picture of him with her one-year-old self on his lap. She remembers more vividly her mother, racked with grief, bent over and crying. The grey shell of a woman she was in the ten years before she died.
After she has finished, she pulls up her underwear and straightens her skirt. She walks back down the aisle and sits again next to Simon. He is still asleep. She crosses her legs, reaches out and puts her hand on his knee. Let me protect you for a change, she thinks. She’s calmer now, but there’s still the landing to come and of course the return flight. But I’ve got this far. It’s not so bad.
She gazes out of the windows to her left. The plane is tilting in the opposite direction, lifting up and away from the seascape. In his seat AJC is still asleep.
The knock on the door again. “Come in,” Peter repeats, before realising that he’s locked the door from the inside. He stands up and opens the door.
Roisin stands in the corridor. Her hair is loose to her shoulders, and she is wearing a long bottle-green-and-red-squared dressing-gown. It’s open just below her knees, and he can see the lace hem of her nightdress and below that her slim hairless legs and her feet in blue fluffy slippers.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “There’s – just something. I can’t explain it.”
“Come in.”
Her words skitter from her mouth; she seems much less composed, much less poised than she is by day. He’s only seen her once before like this – that night they made love.
She sits on the armchair, he on his bed.
“Is it just because it’s a strange bed?” he says.
She shakes her head. “No, it’s not that. It’s not the nightclub on the ground floor. I’ve slept through worse than that, believe me. I just can’t sleep.”
“What’s on your mind, Roisin? Tell me. Is it Seamus?”
She shakes her head again, more vehemently. “No. No. I don’t know how to say it.”
Peter’s heart misses a beat. It’s about me. It must be. He swallows, takes her hands in his. “Just try, Roisin.”
“Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was in the cemetery.” Her hands grip his; she looks down at her lap. “And I saw a gravestone with your name on it.”
Peter’s stomach clenches.
“I woke up in a sweat. There were tears in my eyes. I realised how much I care for you. It scared the shit out of me.”
“Shhh,” he says. He takes her in his arms. She seems very small, very fragile. She slips her arms about his shoulders.
“Just hold me,” she says.
He rocks her gently, as he would a young girl. As he’s done to his own daughter. As to Helen, when something had upset her.
Tears track down from her eyes, down her cheek, drip onto his trousers. “Hey, come on,” he says. “Don’t cry.” There’s something about women’s tears that strikes deep to the heart of him, reduces him to inner trembling. And something erotic. He gently pats her back; she holds her clinch tighter. He puts his hand under her chin, lifts her face, leans down to kiss her. He moves his hand down, undoes one of her dressing-gown buttons, slips his hand inside. He pushes the fabric of her nightdress aside, and runs his hand over her breast. He hears her breath, sharply indrawn, in his ear.
Once can be excused as a lapse, he thinks. But not twice. Twice has to be deliberate.
He sits on the bed and undoes his shirt. He watches her as she stands, undoes her dressing-gown and pulls the nightdress off over her head.
Statistically, dreams are most often dreamed in pairs. Ranging from a couple entwined in bed to two individuals continents apart who may never become acquainted. The strangest element in this already strange waltz of sleep rhythms and mutual mind adaption is that the partner leading the dance forgets the dream when waking, whilst the one twirled and led remembers it.. Perhaps forever.
Peter does not ask Roisin what she dreamed tonight, if she remembers it. In the darkest hour of the night, he feels her warm smooth flesh slide over his own, tender and sensitised by the memory, the dream, of their lovemaking. A faint kiss on the cheek, a soprano whisper I love you in his ear. A sleep-bleared view of her pulling her nightdress on over her head, letting it drop to cover her nudity, doing up her dressing-gown. Tiptoed steps, the quiet opening and shutting of the door. The memory of her words in his ear, her sighed and gasped orgasm, his final inward thrust.
Guilt. He should feel guilty. If it was casual dalliance, just a fuck, then maybe he wouldn’t. When Helen rings him up first thing he’ll be cheerful, he forgot to ring her just one of those things you know how it is had a bit too much to drink you know how business trips are. But he knows his mood is fragile, a shell. What he and Roisin have done goes beyond a mere lapse, and sometime soon they may have to pay the penalty. They have made a mistake by making love a second time; they’ve bound themselves together too tightly now, and he won’t be able to free himself without leaving part of his flesh behind. And if Helen and the kids found out…
He and Roisin breakfast together. Next week they’ll meet again in Dublin, her home town. Perhaps if he were to arrive the night before…she’ll make some excuse to her boyfriend, say a girls’ night out, and she’ll stay with him in his hotel room… He nods; he knows he wants to, but he wonders what he’s doing to his marriage to Helen. Poisoning it from within.
Roisin is in good form at today’s meeting. Changed into a pinstripe suit, her hair gathered up at the back, her face subtly made up, she seems the model of a professional woman. But he can’t think of her now without seeing the image of her, naked, walking towards him, arms outstretched.
He wishes he could leave. Be at rest. No more meetings. No more treachery. But then what would he do, with a wife and children and a mortgage? No, he’s in a rut, no matter how comfortable it may be. What you regret most are the risks you don’t take. A lifetime of if onlys, until you wake up one day to find it’s getting dark and it’s much too late.
In his seat AJC taps into his laptop. The woman opposite seems nervous…has been all flight. A phobia for flying: understandable. He taps a key sequence and her file is presented before him. No, it’s not her time yet: there’s still part of the long string left. She’s only just got married; that’s her husband next to her. What a tragedy if she died on her honeymoon. So much potential. Future generations sleeping inside her, silent eggs in a full ovary. Conception on her wedding night: the traditional way. How romantic. AJC hasn’t been totally eaten up by cynicism.
He looks at her name, in bold type at the top of the file: DAVIES, Jane Mary (nee Crichton). There’s something familiar about her, something he can’t quite trace. He’s encountered so many men and women, they all tend to blur into each other…
He presses another key and wipes the display. He calls up another file.
Jane is looking the wrong way when it happens. She is distracted by Simon’s muttering something in his sleep, a disruption to his quiet snoring. So she hears a thump as something hits the floor and, as one with the crowd, turns to see what has happened. Behind her, wakened, Simon does the same.
At first something clenches in her stomach – what’s gone wrong something wrong with the plane am I going to die now like this? But no, the plane is steady, nothing interrupting its serene onward journey.
She sees a pair of legs lying in the corridor, and Grainne O’Hara’s green-beskirted backside as she bends over him. The other stewardess helps her lift the man but he’s too heavy for them; a male passenger helps out. Jane leans out into the aisle and watches as the three of them carry the passenger (collapsed? dead?) down the aisle out of sight. When they’ve gone, the passengers sit back in their seats, relax.
Jane sits back and closes her eyes. Silently she reaches out and clasps hold of Simon’s hand. “What happened?” he says.
“Don’t know,” she mutters.
She leans out and attracts Grainne’s attention as she passes. “Excuse me…is he going to be all right?”
“I hope so,” smiles the stewardess. “There’ll be an ambulance on the runway when we land. About ten minutes.”
“Fingers crossed,” says Jane.
Grainne smiles and walks past.
In a seat ahead, Jane can see an attaché case, lying unattended. Now she knows who the man is who has just collapsed: the one who used the toilet before her. A middle-aged man, balding, overweight. She can read the gold-embossed initials on the case: PHC. Jane thinks to call Grainne back, but doesn’t. Someone will notice it.
Whoever you are, I hope to God you’re all right.
“A heart attack. Or a stroke,” Simon is saying.
Jane nods.
“He’ll be okay.” A voice behind her: male. She turns, to see AJC sitting to her left, watching her. “It’ll act as a warning, that’s all, Jane. He needs to slow down.”
Jane says nothing, just stares in disbelief. How do you know? How did you know my name? But Simon didn’t hear: he distracts her by tugging at the sleeve of her blouse.
“Look, there’s Dublin.”
In the wonder of the sight – the illuminated, nighttime city from the air, laid out like a gigantic jewelbox – Jane forgets everything else.
I’ve got this far. It’s not too bad.
The plane banks – a huge dark kite – over the sleeping city. It is silent, as silent as most graves.
The man who collapsed – PHC – is let off first, carried off by two ambulance men on a stretcher. Then the other passengers disembark, row by row. There’s a buzz of conversation, brought about by the unexpected drama in the routine flight. Jane wants to confront AJC, ask him how he knew what she believed he knew – but she loses him in the crowd.
They collect their luggage and make their way out into Dublin Airport. They change some traveller’s cheques for Irish currency, have a coffee, wait for the coach to Busaras, the central bus station.
On their way out, a woman comes up to them. She’s about the same age as Jane, a couple of inches taller, in a sweatshirt and black leggings, with collar-length red hair and glasses. “Excuse me?” she says – and Jane notices her accent: she’s a local. “Were you on the flight from Heathrow?”
“Yes we were,” says Simon.
“Are you waiting for someone?” says Jane.
The woman nods, obviously glad for Jane’s perceptiveness. A woman-to-woman exchange, excluding Simon for the moment.
“He’s probably got lost,” says Jane. “He might be wondering around the airport looking for you.”
The woman smiles thinly, anxiety undercutting her goodwill. “Is this your first time in Dublin?”
Jane nods.
Simon says: “We’re here on our honeymoon.”
The exchange over, the woman smiles. “It’s a beautiful city. “I hope you have a great time.”
“Thank you,” says Simon. “Jane, there’s our coach.”
“Good luck,” Jane says over her shoulder to the woman as they make for the exit.

with Anthea Holland

All through the long days of my illness they were there – chitter-chatter, nitter-natter; their constant murmuring gave me no peace. They were never words I could understand but rather a constant undertone, underlining my pain.
Eventually I got better – over my delirium.
The voices will go, I thought – they were just part of my imagination – voices in my head.
Did they go? Did they Hell!
Now they were in the room, no longer confined by the bones of my cranium, they were “free-range” voices. Sell them to the “greenies”, I thought.
They followed behind me up the stairs and lurked in the corners of the room. Whispering, always whispering.
I found myself turning suddenly, hoping to catch a glimpse of them but always there were only shadows mocking me. Shadows of concealment, hiding….what?
Gradually the voices got louder, more distinct – or maybe I just got used to them.
I had thought there were only two – three, perhaps, but as I got to know them I realised there was a veritable platoon of voice-soldiers.
There was part of me that discounted these voices. But then, deep down, I knew that another part actually was creating them. Marching from my head in single file, when I least expected. To join the others already out there.
I suppose if I could control them, I would have done. Recovering ostensibly from the sickness that had ignited them was not even half the battle. There was another more endemic fever that did not even make me feel hot but which, at this very moment, was incubating further “voices-in-the-head”. They merely awaited their marching orders.
Life was a parade ground. We all acted our parts. We all went through the motions. From signs of the cross to simple salutes. Arcane signals. Plaintive looks. Funny handshakes. Regimental empathies of love or hate or both. Each ritual a path back to death.
I shook my head. There they were again. Thoughts that my head couldn’t contain.
The door bell went.
I decided to ignore it. Didn’t I have enough company already? There wasn’t room in the room for any more people, surely? It was bad enough if I tried to listen to the radio or watch TV; the whispers turned into a babble, drowning out the voice of that sweet little weather girl with the wide mouth.
They were quiet now. So quiet I heard the slam of the front gate as my caller left. Immediately I regretted my decision. Supposing the postman had brought a parcel – or, even better, maybe Littlewoods had brought me a prize check. No, that couldn’t be it, I hadn’t done the pools for years. Well, a friend perhaps – I did still have some friends, although most had gone awol after that incident in the park. I preferred not to think about that though and, as if they knew and wanted to blot thoughts from my head the voices came again. They began as a whisper, pianissimo, then grew in crescendo until they were suddenly double fortissimo, blotting out my thoughts, my brain, filling my head with a cacophony of sound.
The doorbell went again.
And again
I sat as seemly as I could manage. Hands folded in the shape they had already wrung. My ankle-length skirt sweeping the carpet – or trying to do so. My knees creating a cliff-edge above the pleated falls. If the caller were who I now thought it to be, I must assume as spinsterly a pose as possible. No giving encouragement where none would be needed.
But he had a key.
He was no chance visitor.
It was then I heard the voice at the letter-box. The caller calling, as callers should, when doorbells were merely deafer than door-posts, as mine was. No batteries, you see.
This time the new voice was not in my head nor from it. But the other older voices which my illness had made mingled and merged, causing confusions as to which was the real voice calling.
Yet how tell the real from the false? Especially when none of them were really false.
So what were they, then, if they were real?
“Melissa?” The voice came again. “Come on, Melissa, I know you’re in there. Open the door yourself, otherwise…well, I still have a key.”
It sounded like a threat, probably was a threat. But how could I tell? What was to happen was still ahead of me; the only things I could be certain of were in the past. Even the present seemed unreal – a residue, perhaps of the fever; of days spent wrapped between covers: the clock’s ticking like a maelstrom of petals falling from a tree of blossom.
“Melissa! I’m coming in.”
It sure sounded like a threat. Let him come, then. I was ready. No longer alone. Let him walk unsuspectingly into the ambush of my army.
I sat, demure, trying to compose my expression into that of a school ma’am who had just discovered a dog turd in her desk. He had been frightened of his teachers, he told me once – but these days nothing scared him.
Let him meet my voices then.
The door opened.
As soon as it did, I knew he hadn’t opened it. It wasn’t the man I remembered.
He’d become a stalker – albeit one who knew he was stalking prey he’d once possessed and was merely stalking simply for the hell of it rather than for the prize at which most stalkers aimed: attention.
Pay attention!
And the voices gabbled in my ears that they feared they were as nothing compared to the voice the stalker wielded. “Melissa! Melissa!” they hissed in warning. I shrugged. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that was not my name, but only the thing he called me. The very syllables were somehow the sound of illness itself.
Nor that the man was the originator of the very disease that had so selflessly carried with it your plaintive parade of pretty voices for my once loveless body to bear.
I spent most of the night picking his sores. Ranking them in pecking order. Counting them silently as they wept.


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