Oleg Antonyevich makes a detour through Kensington Gardens to pay homage to Princess Diana before he gets on the tube. He feels conspicuous in his grey Macintosh because there is no sign of rain. It is one of those rare, sunny March mornings celebrated by the English Romantics whose volumes of poetry he once kept hidden under his bed.
At Kensington Palace, Oleg meanders past beds of flowering bulbs listing their names in his head: Shelley’s hyacinths, Wordsworth’s daffodils, Coleridge’s snowdrops. Snowdrops. He shudders despite his coat and the unseasonably warm day. Podsnezhniki: it’s the name Russians give to the corpses of the homeless, alcoholics and political dissenters that emerge when the snow finally thaws in spring.
Oleg checks his old Raketa wristwatch - he always leaves his iPhone in the office when he goes out on one of his jaunts - and heads for Bayswater station, even though Notting Hill is closer. It’s a thirty-minute journey to his destination but it will take him the best part of two hours.
An hour later, Oleg has completed a loop of the Circle Line and is back where he started. It’s getting on for lunchtime and standing room only on the District Line. The train lurches as it leaves the station, jolting the passengers packed inside. Oleg grabs the overhead handrail to stop himself from slamming into the woman in the seat below.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ she says to the friend squashed in beside her. ‘Look at this, Liz.’ She nods in Oleg’s direction.
‘Ignore the dirty bastard, Janie.’
Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre: English roses transposed into poison ivy.
Oleg looks down. His coat has fallen open. The woman has spotted the bulge in his trousers and gotten the wrong end of the stick. He could explain - he wouldn’t be arrested, unlike at home - but instead he decides to get out at St James’s Park and walk the rest of the way.
In Parliament Square, police hold back protesters brandishing EU flags as a silver Jag sweeps through the gates in time for Prime Minister’s Questions. Oleg carries on to Westminster Bridge.
Half way across, propped against the wall, a bunch of wilting lilies, wrapped in soggy
cellophane, marks the spot where a terrorist ploughed his van into a group of tourists two years ago.
Poor old Brits, no wonder they’ve started harking back to the past like his countrymen; it’s natural when one feels under threat. Oleg scans the sea of strangers surging towards him for bulging burkas and unkempt beards knowing that just because he doesn’t spot any, it doesn’t mean that ISIS isn’t here.
His gaze drifts towards the Eye as he heads onto Westminster Bridge Road. It had been disconcerting returning to London after thirty-five years living in other European capitals and at home: the skyline had changed but so had the people.
A princess still resided at Kensington Palace and a woman PM at Number Ten but he’d met Kate Middleton and Teresa May and they were nothing like Diana or Margaret: the powerful combination of tradition and progressive thinking that had seduced him in the eighties had ebbed away; the thawed waters of the Cold War frozen back over.
Oleg walks through Lambeth’s streets, bandy legged from his swollen groin. Outside the Old Vic he spots two policemen and crosses the road. Having swapped their tunics and pointy hats for stab vests and flat caps, the Met’s bobbies look as menacing as Moscow’s Omonovtsy.
Oleg zigzags through stationary traffic back to the sunny side of the street. The chafing between his legs is no longer a discomfort but a reminder that there’s no need for his pessimistic mood: what he has in his underpants will make the world a better place.
He arrives at his destination.
It is typical of young Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely - Oleg loves a British military joke - to pick a location within easy walking distance of his office. The millennials are lazy, unlike the public schoolboys of yesteryear; or perhaps it’s just that the Brits no longer rate his work. Well, soon they will both have a chance to show their metal.
The door to the Premier Inn slides opens. Oleg saunters past the self-service check-in machines to the toilets at the back of the hotel restaurant whose name has changed since he was last here, from Blighty’s to Babushka’s. He is staggered - and impressed - that London’s chefs have managed to transform the watery borscht and greasy pirozhki of his spartan Soviet youth into trendy, mouth-watering dishes.
Oleg locks the far cubicle door, climbs onto the toilet seat and drops his trousers. He lifts the loose polystyrene ceiling tile above his head with one hand, takes the padded envelope from his underpants with the other and slides it into the roof space. He gets the sort of buzz he hasn’t had in decades, knowing this is big.
On his way out, Oleg ignores the young man, whose cardigan actually does fit rather nicely, washing his hands in the sink.
Outside, the weather has changed. It’s cool and cloudy, and Oleg is starving. He passes Starbucks and goes into the greasy spoon he likes on the corner of the street.
As he tucks into his egg and bacon banjo - more military slang overheard in the corridors of the MOD - Oleg imagines Oliver Cardigan-Fitznicely back at his desk in Vauxhall Cross, taking the memory stick from the envelope, inserting it into his computer. Calmly observing a scene of debauchery that would make most people flinch.
He looks around the café. Grey faces, hunched shoulders; the proletariat looks glum. Oleg drains his mug of tea, brewed until bitter, pushes back his chair and strides towards the counter, searching his pockets for his wallet.
‘Evryfink okay vif your meal?’
The accent sets Oleg’s heart racing but he retains his composure as he finds his wallet and looks up. The waitress is tall, slim, a brunette. She has the look of a supermodel and her nametag reads Melania. He hasn’t seen her before: she must be new.
Oleg pulls out a ten-pound note, changes his mind and gives the girl a twenty. Tells her to keep the change. Tells himself there’s no need to feel guilty. Collateral damage – like Melania, like the bystanders in Salisbury - is inevitable. His staff in the rezidentura will despise the betrayal but they understand the rules. Just as he understands what comes next: a false identity; a new address; a life looking over his shoulder waiting for the stab of an umbrella, the odd tasting cup of tea.
On the pavement, Oleg checks the Raketa passed on to him by his father the day he followed in his footsteps and joined the KGB. Cardigan-Fitznicely should be on the phone by now, making the arrangements. Oleg tightens the belt on his coat. Dark clouds have eclipsed the tip of the Shard and the temperature must have plummeted because he’s shivering.
He’s light-headed, wheezing too, by the time he reaches the rendezvous point at the wobbly lamppost on Westminster Bridge, but elation takes over as he spots the motor boat with a green Harrods bag tied to its mast powering down the Thames.
The extraction plan has been reviewed many times over the past few years. He never dreamed it might actually be put into practice.
Oleg takes his off his coat - with relief because now he’s hot and sweaty - and climbs onto the parapet. A faraway voice shouts ‘no, don’t do it’ and he giggles. The whole of London would be singing God Save the Queen at the top of their voices if they knew what he was really up to.
The boat slows down. Psychedelic circles swirl before Oleg’s eyes. His heart pounds and his ears are ringing. His organs are shutting down. He might not even make it to the safe house where Katya will be waiting with the girls. The boat bobs on the water below. The captain looks up and salutes, signalling that he’s a hero and that it’s time to go.
Oleg dangles one foot over the edge. The sky is black with snow clouds. Soon, he too will be a podsnezhnika lying on the boat’s padded-out deck. He has no regrets. He’s sad about his family but glad about the rest. He trusts the Brits to use his kompromat to expose the world’s biggest threat to democracy: Russia’s greatest agent, Donald J Trump.
Oleg Antonyevich steps off the bridge.
(c) Anita Davie
My seat is hard and unforgiving, and no matter how much I wriggle, I can’t get comfortable. All part of the torture, I guess. No sense in worrying about the comfort of a condemned man.
I glance at the couple sat opposite me. They look pale and worried, a mirror image of
myself no doubt. We briefly make eye contact but then look away, neither party willing to initiate a conversation, despite our shared fate. You never know who might be listening.
Besides, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see one another again. Better to maintain a position of detached aloofness. If you build attachments in this place it will make their suffering more unbearable.
The couple’s two young children are playing contentedly at their feet, seemingly ignorant of what awaits them. Their parents must have decided not to tell them what was happening; I’d have done the same thing. It’s better that way, otherwise they could turn hysterical. All that screaming and crying could cause a panic that would ripple through the rest of us in no time.
Then it could turn ugly. I must be strong. I must control my ever-rising tide of fear for the sake of the children if not myself.
A middle-aged woman with a stern angular face, her hair tied back in a severe bun, eyes us all suspiciously from behind her highly polished and organised desk. A stickler for rules and conformity no doubt. She has a mean look about her that suggests she doesn’t tolerate dissent.
She’s seen it all before and knows what’s going through our minds. To her we’re just names on a list. Cattle. There is no compassion in those cold dark eyes.
Her menacing gaze turns in my direction and I quickly look away, not wishing to draw attention to myself. I stare off down the long sterile corridor opposite me. The passageway is painted magnolia with just a couple of abstract paintings punctuating its blank walls.
Our detention room is quiet save for the occasional telephone call which is efficiently answered within three rings by the woman behind the desk. Even when she is on the telephone, she is scrutinising us, watching for anything that might disturb the well-ordered environment which she oversees. Even the two children play quietly at their parents’ feet.
The tranquillity is suddenly broken by a child’s pitiful wailing from down the corridor. What are those monsters doing to her? Nobody says or does anything. We are all too frightened, too worried about our own well-being to intervene. It’s the way of society nowadays to look the other way.
A young girl of perhaps no more than ten years of age, comes scurrying down the
corridor towards us, quickly followed by a distraught looking woman, presumably her mother.
The woman grabs hold of the girl before she makes it to the door, tantalisingly close to freedom.
She whispers something in the child’s ear and after offering an apologetic smile to those watching, leads her back down the corridor.
This time I briefly lock eyes with a middle-aged man sitting in front of me and to the left.
We don’t speak but the look we exchange speaks volumes. He looks as terrified as me and ready to bolt. If I make a break for it, he’ll follow, I’m sure of it. Who knows, perhaps if enough of us make a move, some will get away. I wouldn’t want to be one of those left behind though.
There’d be consequences.
Perhaps sensing our growing unease, the woman behind the desk stands and glowers in our direction. She is larger than I thought, and like an iceberg, most of her bulk was out of sight.
She is formidable, intimidating and she knows it. She is not a woman to be tangled with. I quickly flick my gaze in her direction and then back, silently warning the frightened man who has his back to her. He surreptitiously turns to look. When he turns to face me again the colour has drained from his face.
Satisfied that she has cowed us into acquiescence, the woman sits back down sporting a smug grin. I smile as I imagine I can hear her chair groan in protest, but quickly stifle it. It wouldn’t do to look happy. She’d jump all over it in an instant. Nip it in the bud before it spread.
A pretty, young girl in a loose fitting and unflattering two-piece blue uniform comes
marching purposefully down the corridor and without looking up from the clipboard she is carrying, calls out a name. It’s not mine. I breathe a sigh of relief as the man opposite me gets slowly up. His wife clings to his hand reluctant to let go, testing clipboard girl’s patience. The ogre behind the desk starts to once again ease her bulk out of the chair, perhaps sensing trouble.
The man smiles at his wife and gently pries open her fingers. Then after gently ruffling the hair of his son, he follows clipboard girl down the corridor without looking back. I try to smile reassuringly at his wife, but I can tell that my gesture is in vain. She knows what awaits him. What awaits us all. I admire her fortitude. When my turn comes, I hope I meet it with as much courage and dignity as her husband just did.
As if sensing her mother’s anguish, the young girl climbs onto her mother’s lap grasping a book she has picked up from the floor and asks her to read to her. Reluctantly the mother begins to read a story about a frog which couldn’t jump. Her voice is thick, laden with emotion, though her daughter doesn’t seem to notice. We all listen; it is something to pass the time and distract us. The woman behind the desk glares at the young mother, irked by this unexpected disturbance. Any louder and the mother will draw a swift and pitiless rebuke from the overseer.
Time drags. There aren’t many of us left. After the third reading of the story, much to
everyone’s unspoken relief, the young girl finally gets bored and resumes her place on the floor next to her brother who is still playing with his action figure. Lost in his own fantasy world populated by superheroes and power-hungry villains, he is oblivious to what is going on around him.
Soon it’ll be my turn.
Some of those called have met their fate with courage. Others not so much. One man
tried to run but didn’t get far. His wife caught him and persuaded him to come back. Perhaps she shamed him into staying, I don’t know. She was heavily pregnant and couldn’t run. No chivalry there, just a self-preservation instinct. Shamefaced, he had accompanied clipboard girl down the corridor unable to look any of us in the eye leaving his wife to face the looks of pity and understanding.
I turn and look at the heavily populated fish tank to my right, the occasional burst of air bubbles the only noise. After a few seconds one of the larger fish, an orange one with a thick black stripe encased within two narrower white stripes, approaches the side of the tank and seems to stare out at me. He is as much a prisoner here as I. How many people has he witnessed taken down that corridor of dread I wonder?
The sound of soft footsteps on the laminate flooring catches my attention. Clipboard girl has returned. I avert my eyes as she calls out a name. No one moves.
My nerve gives and I look up and find that from behind her desk, the fearsome woman is staring directly at me. Clipboard girl speaks again and this time I hear my name slowly enunciated. I reluctantly get to my feet.
Praying that my trembling legs will support me, I follow clipboard girl down the corridor towards the sounds of torture and pain.
Halfway along the corridor I pass the mother and young girl from earlier. The girl looks up at me with tear-filled eyes. Her face appears swollen and she is clearly in discomfort. My heart breaks at the cruelty and pain they have inflicted upon her. I vow to go down fighting. I won’t make it easy for them.
Clipboard girl stops and extends her arm, inviting me to enter an open door, as if I have a choice. I take a deep breath, swallow nervously and enter.
Inside, another girl dressed in a similar uniform as clipboard girl, turns and smiles
warmly, momentarily unsettling me. It must be some sort of psychological ploy to make their victims more malleable. Good cop bad cop.
She takes my coat and gestures towards a black leather reclining chair. Still smiling she tells me to take a seat and that the dentist will be with me shortly.
Nodding timidly, I do as I’m told and settle down to await my fate.
(c) Jeff Jones
Another day at the office.
Another fine day at the office.
I am in the office kitchen, making a pot of office coffee. Office coffee is the finest coffee because it is free, and because the smell or it overpowers the smell of the mouldy washcloths that live in the office sink. Sometimes, I will wait until I get to the office to have my first cup. It is a thrill. On those days, the bus ride into the office is a dream. On those days, I live in fog. On the bus, I don’t notice the bumping and rubbing, I don’t notice the breath or the sneezing. I float to work on a cloud, my body clunking along behind me as if by happy accident. On those days (which is most days) I take off my coat and rest it on the back of my office chair. I stretch my arms once, twice, and, if I arrive at work in good time, throw in a well-earned third. After my stretches, I walk to the kitchen and start to brew a pot of office coffee.
That is what I am doing right now. Brewing coffee for the office. Actually, more to the point, I am choosing a mug. I am looking through the shelves, leafing through the options. I decide on a peaty looking fellow, brown, with a chipped handle and no visible stains. This mug is one of my favourites because very few people use it. They don’t use it because the chipped handle is very sharp, and people don’t want to get blood all over their paperwork.
I have a secret about this chip. I chipped it myself by clanging it against the metal filing cabinet in the copy room. I smuggled the empty cup into the copy room underneath my shirt. I asked the copier to print a new copy of the latest reports, and then clanged the mug handle against the cabinet when the copier was at its loudest.
“Mmm, can’t wait for a cup of morning joe!” said my co-worker, Ken, who I ignore.
“Save me a cup, would ya? Ha ha.”
Ken also drinks his morning coffee in the office, but he always waits until I come in, because he is scared to use the coffee machine on his own. He made an attempt once, during his first week, and did such a poor job that coffee sprayed on all the walls and all over his new shirt and tie.
Everyone thought it was a great day, except for Ken.
I pick up my peaty-brown mug gingerly, careful not to touch the serrated edge of the handle.
The hot body of the mug is burning my finger pads, but I don’t care. I walk slowly back to my desk and set my mug of office coffee next to my office keyboard. I reach into the top drawer of my personal office desk, and pull out a roll of white tape. I turn the tape around in my hands for a few seconds, trying to find the end.
I find it.
I methodically roll the white tape around the index, middle, and ring finders of my left hand.
The tape is there to protect my supple, fleshy fingers from the jagged, tooth-like handle of the mug. I am not left handed, but I do use my left hand to drink my office coffee. I use my left hand, because most people in the office use their right hand. By using my left, I automatically reduce the amount of lips that have touched my side of the coffee mug by about 80%. I also do it this way because it is also easier for me to tape my left hand than it is for me to tape my right.
It is a good system.
I put the white tape back into my office drawer. As I close the drawer, I leave my taped up fingers on the lip, slowly squishing them, testing the tape. It is doing its job well. I hardly feel any pain from the corner of the drawer, but I do have to stop squishing because my circulation is being cut off. I pull my fingers out of the drawer, and rest them on my office keyboard.
The perfect office day.
I take a deep breath in, filling my lungs with the fumes steaming up from my fresh mug of office coffee. Other people are in the office now. I can hear them clacking away at their office keyboards, I can hear them answering their office phones. I turn my head to look at my own office phone. It does not ring very often. I do not like the sound it makes when it does.
It sounds like this: “Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing!”.
I pick up the headset, and navigate through the office phone’s menu. I am hoping to change the tone of the ring. I want it to make more of a “Bluuuung!” sound. This sound is not an option, I quickly discover. This is a shame, because I think the “Bluuuung!” sound could make a lot of people a lot of money.
I reach back into my office drawer and pull out an office notepad, and an office pen. I use the pen to write my new sound idea on the notepad, in case I get the opportunity to bring it up and the next office meeting. Usually, the office meetings have very little emphasis on the office phones, but I am feeling optimistic that I will be able to add my item to the agenda.
I reach my taped-up left hand towards my peaty brown coffee mug, and gently lift it towards my lips. I catch my own reflection in the murky office coffee, and notice that my hair has come uncombed. As I adjust my coffee mirror to get a better look at my uncombed hair, I catch the reflection of Ken’s face, who is now standing over my shoulder. I set my peaty-brown mug back down on my desk, and swivel in my office chair so I can face Ken and hear what he has to say.
“Nothing like a cup of morning joe!” he exclaims, smiling at me.
I nod my head in slight agreement. Ken walks back to his office desk and sits down. He looks at me again while raising his own mug, which is red and popular, and takes a thick sip. He sets his popular mug back down on his desk, smiles, and starts clacking at his office keyboard.
I turn back to my desk. I breathe in, deeply. The office coffee fumes settle my nerves, which had just started hopping around inside of me. I feel my bus fog roll densely in, coating arms, my legs, my eyelids.
“Brlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing! Brlrlriiiing!” my phone shouts, booting my cozy fog over the wall of my office cubicle and into someone else's.
I hope my fog does not roll too far away as I answer my shrieking phone. The voice on the other end of the line belongs to Ken, who is making a light hearted crank call. I hear him snicker into the earpiece as he mumbles something about my having won a cruise. He is referencing the
vacation time that I booked out months ago.
It is not really much of a joke.
I hang up, strongly. I reach out quickly to grab my mug of office coffee once again, only faintly aware of the dulcet tickle and drip now tapping into my ears. I look down to find the tapping, and notice that there is blood on my paperwork. Bright, cherry, pooling blood. It’s on my shirt sleeves too. It’s on my wrist. It’s flowing from the index, the middle, and the ring finger of my right hand, all of which are expertly chewed and torn from the razor blade of a handle on my peaty brown mug. I loosen my grip, and let the strings of flesh rip away from the ceramic.
The peaty brown mug falls onto my paperwork, crashing into bits, spilling my murky office coffee into the well of cherry blood. In the distance I hear Ken’s footsteps, and maybe some sobbing, or maybe laughing, or sighing. I think he feels bad about his phone call. I feel my special fog roll back over me, pulling down my eyelids, weighing down my arms, my legs.
I lower myself down further into my office chair, and wait.
(c) Seamus Easton
LORNESSE, ANTARCTICA, YEAR 2318
The girl stood on the 50th floor, staring out through the glass to the city beyond. A labyrinth of skyscrapers protruded through the artificial clouds, the countless white lights illuminating the gentle fall of filtered snow onto the streets. She had been confronted by the view of Antarctica’s main city countless times before, yet it never ceased to amaze her: the millions of people going about their daily lives with only a few metres of sea ice keeping them from the cold dark waters.
Just last year, she'd been on the other side of the world. England. So small on the maps compared to this icy continent she found herself on, yet she remembered it being so much more crowded, especially in London. Not to mention the lack of ice shelves, the occasional penguin and a massive glass dome over the sky, protecting the city from the elements.
On Finals day she'd been given a plane ticket to Antarctica. The only way to get into Antarctica was by being invited. And the only way to get invited was to be the best. She had been among the rare few in each country whose Trial results showed them to be the very best of their generation. A first generation girl, her friends had called her, like it was her new title. Everyone knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime - to live and work in Lornesse District Capital - the capital city of Antarctica. And now, exactly a year later, she stood in the heart of the continent, and she still couldn’t believe her luck.
"Alissa!" A voice called from the stairs, pulling her out of her daze. She reached for her purse and had a last minute look at the mirror. Deep green eyes stared out of an angled olive-toned face. Diamonds glinted on her ears and wrists, contrasting the floor length jet-black dress that hugged her figure.
"Alissa! Where are you?" A tall young man in a deep blue tuxedo hurried through the door and suddenly stopped, his eyes fixed on Alissa. "You look amazing."
She saw his reflection on the window pane, then turned towards him. He had streaked his tousled dark hair with gold dye. "So do you Martin. Nice hair." She raised an eyebrow. "Excited for tonight?"
"I mean, It's only our future careers we’re going to find out. Why would I be excited?," he asked, winking at her.
"Umm, I don't know. Big party, free minibar. Ring any bells?"
"No, not particularly."
Alissa glanced at her watch. "We’re going to be late."
"You got everything?" She nodded.
"Cool, let’s go", he said, and they headed towards the elevator. Once inside the marbled box, their microchips sent instructions to the lift panel to take them to the ground floor. Ten seconds later, the couple stepped out of Block 1A, arms interlocked, and made their way towards the city stadium.
"Thank you, thank you!" David Morris, overseer of first generation 23.02, said over the
applauding crowd of 17 year olds, his amplified voice booming across the stadium. He waved a hand, waiting for silence to descend.
"Welcome to your Assignment ceremony. You’re here tonight because last year, you were selected - the best, most talented minds from around the world." The camera zoomed in on his face. "Your microchip implants indicated that you have the greatest abilities of your generation, both mentally and physically. Now, we’ve been assessing your performance in the different placements you’ve done over the last year. Tonight, based on that, the government department you’re best suited to will be revealed, after which the stage is yours." Morris paused as the whole stadium thundered with applause. "At 20:00 hours, every 17 year old in the world will have their job specification sent to them via microchip. Ladies and gentlemen, you have exactly two minutes exactly before your results come in!" The stadium erupted with
Alissa sent a message via MC to Martin - although she was standing directly next to him, there would be no hearing her over the sound of the crowd.
Well, in 1 minute and 47 seconds, I'm sure the knowledge of your future department will temporarily distract you.
Alissa curled her lip. How long is temporarily?
As long as you want it to be, darling. What department do you think you'll be in?
Alissa thought for a moment. Either Covert Operations or Military. She grinned sheepishly. I might have stumbled across my department recommendations list.
Mmm. On Morris’ central computer.
The central computer which you have to get into the Staff Block, sneak into his office and bypass all the security protocols to access?
Alissa considered for a moment. Yeah. That one.
Martin elbowed her playfully. To be honest, if they don't put you in Covert Operations then the system must have malfunctioned.
I don't think that’s possible. For the system to malfunction.
Anything can malfunction, Alissia.
Well I guess you’re an expert on that kind of stuff.
What do you mean?
I also might have stumbled across your department recommendations list.
Oh really? What did it say?
Spoilers! She winked at him, and just as he was about to demand she tell him, David Morris’ voice sounded on the speakers. "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!" The crowd joined in. "Six! Five! Four!
Three! Two! One! Zero!" And with that, there was complete silence across the stadium as thousands of messages were broadcast to the crowd’s microchips.
The voice of Ovra, the government AI, filled her head.
Alissia Lucas of First Generation 23.02.
You have been assigned to the ACO: the federal department of Antarctican Covert Operations, with the role of field agent. You will arrive at the department tomorrow morning at 0600 hours for your initiation. We hope you will enjoy the rest of the evening and use it as an opportunity to get to know your future co-workers. Congratulations and good luck.
Alissia opened her eyes and looked up at Martin. He stood silent next to her, eyes shut. Alissia could tell that his microchip was still engaged. The transmission should have been over by now.
A few seconds later, he opened his eyes and met Alissia’s worried look. He began to smile and then suddenly swooped her into a hug. Alissia gave out a squeal and burst into laughter. Just then, the lights around the stadium flashed up, signalling the start of the dance.
Let’s go. Martin grabbed her wrist and pulled her along, down the stairs and onto the dance floor where a crowd was already forming. He put a hand on Alissia’s waist and they began to dance.
"So..." Martin stared at her intently. "Was it Covert Operations or Military?"
She let out a breath she hadn't realised she’d been holding. "Covert operations. I'm going to be a field agent."
"I'm going to have to watch what I say around you then, Miss Spy lady."
"You should. Give me any opportunity to report you, I’ll jump on it," she smirked. "What department are you in?"
"Same as you but different job. I’m a Technology & Weapons Developer."
"So you’ll be designing my guns?"
"You have no idea," he said with a grin.
COMMANDER DIANE RAE
I entered a white panelled corridor, the sound of my high heels echoing loudly off the polished floors. A large window on the left reveals a stunning view of the ice plains 30,000 feet below.
Across the deck, one of four rotors whirr at a dizzying speed to hold the airship up.
My comms unit beeps and Williams’ voice crackles over the speaker.
"Commander Rae, we have several hostiles in the air heading straight for the Lornesse DC. How soon can you get to the bridge?"
"I'm on my way now. Have we got counter-missile defense up yet?"
He clears his throat. "It's still being prepped for launch, Ma’am."
“Damn it. What about the city’s dome?”
“Already activated and on defensive mode, Ma’am.”
“Good. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
I hang up as I approach a frosted glass door and place my palm on the scanner. COMMANDER RAE flashes green on the monitor, and the glass panels silently slide open.
The Control Base is a hub of activity. Uniformed men and women sit at rows of monitors that reach across the room, their screens filled with maps and weaponry. Squads of military personnel just docked in from the air jets are waiting by the bridge where Commander Williams, Head of the Antarctic Air Force, relays orders. A young man in his thirties, he stands well over six foot. Silver buttons shine against a deep blue military jacket, and close shaved hair emphasises prominent cheekbones. He turns in my direction and nods, before dismissing the troops to head over.
"What happened?" I ask.
"Ma’am, missiles were detected approaching our borders around 20 minutes ago, at 8:49 pm. More worryingly, their trajectory indicates they’re heading towards Lornesse DC stadium."
I do a quick microchip search. "There’s an Assignment ceremony being held there right now." I look at Williams. "That’s hundreds of thousands of 17 year olds we’re talking about."
An airman tech steps in. "Sir. Ma'am. The counter-missile defense system is up and running. Requesting deployment."
"You have your orders then. Fire."
(c) Joanna MacInnes
Julian Rama Mayson did not imagine that his holiday to Malaysia would end up with him having an incestuous fling with his cousin, but the fact was that it happened and she had allowed it to. Amy was seventeen and she was a girl of the tropics, slender with a sharp face and an athletic body. She was like a gazelle with golden skin and she wore make-up with a flick on her eyelids.
Rama had not seen her since she was little, and he could not remember much from his last trip except that she was the eldest daughter of his Uncle Wei Leong and his wife Rebecca, and they lived in a large home on the hills of Bukit Jambul.
He had been so bored at his grandmother’s home in Tanjung Bungah that he thought he was going to get depressed if he didn’t go out, so Amy invited him to a New Year’s Eve party in Belissa Row. It happened outside a club and he had waited until she came out of the bathroom.
Then he tapped her on the shoulder and lured her to a corner outside. He leaned onto her, and she pushed him away. But then she laughed and kissed him back.
That night, she took him back to her room, and though he couldn’t be sure what had
happened, he remembered her driving him back in the early hours before her parents could find out.
“I want to stop by Kek Lok Si, if you don’t mind,” she said in the car.
The sun had started to rise and Rama could hardly open his eyes.
“What’s Kek Lok Si?” he asked.
“It’s a temple. On a hill in Air Itam.”
She parked the car and they got out at the foot of a 30-metre tall bronze statue. It was Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and she looked over the inhabitants of the hillside and the island with her eyes closed.
Rama followed Amy into a temple hall, where nuns in saffron robes sold beaded
bracelets, jade amulets and this year’s talismans. He watched patiently as Amy walked to a table with little drawers labelled ‘wealth’, ‘health’, ‘studies’, ‘career’, ‘friendship’ and ‘love’. Inside were strips of ribbons, a different colour for each category. She took out a ‘love’ ribbon and headed outside to tie it to a bonsai tree.
“It’s the New Year. You should make a wish for yourself,” she said.
“I’m alright, thanks. Here, let me take a picture of you with it,” he offered.
“No, of the both of us,” she said.
She took out her phone and gave it to a passer-by.
After their time at the temple, Amy treated him like winter. She pretended as if nothing had happened between them, which made Rama feel horrible. Over the next few dinners she ignored him and avoided his gaze completely. He recalled that she had a boyfriend named Justin, but he didn’t think that he and Justin had to be mutually exclusive in her life.
On his last night in Penang, he absolutely had to know. They had had a family dinner at Sunset Bistro in Batu Ferringhi. It was by the beach, and the adults had commenced their drinking. When Amy went to the bathroom, he followed her and pretended to order a drink at the bar.
“Can we talk?” he asked, when she came out.
She was washing her hands at the sink and looked up. “Sure.”
They walked to the beach, where a black ocean ended only where one could no longer see.
“That wind is unnatural,” she said.
“Lots of things are unnatural,” he said.
She looked at him. That night she wore a shawl over a black dress. In the darkness, she looked alluring.
“Look,” he began. “I know nothing can happen between us.”
Amy closed her eyes. “Rama.”
“I know. Well, we’re not related by blood, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Still. Can you imagine the talk? I would be disowned. Exiled.”
“So come with me to London.” Rama held her hand, but she shook it away.
“We need to forget this ever happened.”
“So what was that at the club?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Rama, we’re cousins,” she whispered, as though it was a tragedy. “What do you want
“I want to know that you feel something for me.”
“I don’t know what I feel.”
“So why take me back to your place?”
“You were so drunk. You couldn’t even stand. And for the record, nothing happened.”
“That’s not true!”
“Maybe you going back to London is the best thing right now. So we can both forget all this.”
A whistle came from the restaurant. Uncle Wei was waving at them in the distant. It was time to go home.
Rama did go home, but how could he forget? He was never the same again after his trip to Malaysia. The weekend before going back to Middlesex University, he went home to see his mother in Essex.
“Your uncle is coming to visit,” she said, sitting on his bed. She held a letter in her hand.
“When?” He pretended not to be interested and busied himself with things to bring for his last semester.
“I’m going away in September,” he said. “To Liguria, remember?”
“Oh yes. But I’m sure you can spare some time for your Uncle Wei. Him and Amy were so good to us in Penang, showing us around and taking us out for dinners. Amy has been accepted to Bristol.”
Rama looked through the books on his desk. There was Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’,
Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’.
“Did something happen between the two of you?” she asked.
“You and Amy. I always thought you liked your cousin.”
“I do,” he said. He was not sure if his mother meant ‘liked’ in a certain way. Either way, he was telling the truth.
Rama started to go downstairs to fix himself a bacon breakfast, but his mother gave him the letter.
“Made some friends in Malaysia, I see?”
Rama took it from her. There was no sender’s address, but the postmark was inked with the words ‘George Town’ over a stamp of a Malaysian fruit.
“Who writes letters anymore these days?” he muttered.
“Romantics,” his mother said.
“When did it arrive?”
“A few weeks back,” she said, heading downstairs.
He tore it open to see a letter from Amy. I’m starting Psychology at Bristol University in September. See you in London, hopefully? A x
There was a picture of the two them at Kek Lok Si, next to a bonsai tree with multicoloured ribbons tied to its branches. Rama had looked so burnt, wearing a white shirt and dark blue jeans from the night before in the club, one hand in his pocket and the other by Amy’s arm.
He put the photo on top of his book collection, just above Hemingway’s ‘The Torrents of Spring’ and headed down for breakfast.
The first place he took her to was Harrods, its Food Hall stocked with English biscuits and tea. Amy looked like she had put on weight, but she was nonetheless beautiful in an angora cardigan with skinny blue jeans.
He remembered how he had felt when he was in Penang, out of place and totally
dependent on her to bring her around. It had only been nine months since his trip, and yet time seemed to have passed by so quickly. Now he was repaying her kindness, making sure she felt at home. She strung a Nikon around her neck, and Rama obliged her by posing with the Harrods bear.
He took her outside to Brompton Place, where they sat on a wooden bench that looked out onto the courtyard of a church. He bought her coffee, and she swept strands of long hair as she ate a chocolate muffin.
“Are you excited about Bristol?” he asked.
“I am,” she said.
There was a lustre in her eyes because the sun made everything look lighter, though
Rama was sure that her skin tone had not changed. One thing he was certain of – she was sure to lose her tan in Bristol.
“The weather is good today,” he said. “I’ll show you the real London when you have
more time. It’s over in the east where I live.”
“How are things with Justin?” he asked.
She paused. “We broke up. Just after you left.”
“I’m sorry, Amy.” He wasn’t really, but that was the right thing to say. He didn’t want to
Rama held her hand, and she let him. She brought the warmth with her from the tropics, and he wasn’t going to let her go again. Besides, he was on home ground now and he had the upper hand.
(c) Wan Phing Lim
After school, I have to play outside. Mammy’s at the factory and Daddy’s in England looking for work. I’m not allowed in the house on my own because I can’t be trusted.
Me and my best friend, Rosemary, sit on the pavement, poking sticks in the soft tar. It’s getting all over our hands and we’ll be in trouble, but we’re bored.
“What would you do if you were rich?” Rosemary asks.
“I don’t know. How do you get to be rich, anyway?”
She thinks about it for a minute. “I guess if you were famous, you’d have lots of money.”
“But how do you get to be famous?”
We both stab furiously at the tar for a few minutes, neither of us quite sure how to go about being famous.
Then Rosemary says, “Well, if you got your name in the paper, you’d be famous, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, but only important people get in the paper.”
We wander round to the backyard, where there’s a cold-water tap. It doesn’t wash the tar off but we manage to get our socks and shoes wet.
I have a good idea. “What if we gave money to the hospital like Mr. Brown did? He got his name in the paper.”
“Yeah, but Mr. Brown’s not rich, is he?” Rosemary objects.
“He’s richer than us, though, because he’s got a car and a job.”
“My daddy has a job.”
“But he doesn’t live with you and he hasn’t got a car.”
“You’re right.” Rosemary sees the sense of what I’m saying. “But where will we get the money to give to the hospital?”
I look at Miss Barr’s apple tree in the garden next door and the branches which hang over the hedge into our garden. She goes mad if we pick her apples and I’ve been told time and again not to touch them.
“We could sell apples on the corner to the people coming out of the factory.”
Rosemary follows my gaze and gasps, “Susie, that’s stealing!”
“No, it’s not, because they’re already in our garden. So, really, they belong to us, don’t they?”
She always believes me and I always get my own way. Rosemary’s pretty but I’m the smart one.
Too clever for my own good, Mammy says, which is very nice of her.
I climb on the dustbin, with Rosemary hanging on to my legs, and pick the apples I can reach, hitting the far-off ones with a stick so that they fall to the ground. Some of the apples have marks on them. That’s all right. We can turn them upside down.
We find a cardboard box in the shed and carry the apples to the corner. It’s throwing out time at the factory. The women frown at us and hurry past. The men laugh as if we’re funny and give us pennies. Sometimes they don’t even take the apples.
One of the men says, “You’d better watch out, your mammy’s coming.”
All the apples are gone anyway and we trail behind Mammy as she heads for home. Rosemary decides she’s in charge of the money and counts it. “Two shillings and thruppence. It’s not much, is it?”
It seems a lot to me.
“They’ll be delighted with that at the hospital. We’ll take it up on Saturday morning.”
She looks doubtful and I have to give her a pep talk.
“We have to make a start, or we’ll never be famous. Wait til our names are in the paper; everybody will be talking about us.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Rosemary clears off for her tea and I go in to wash the dishes from this morning while Mammy cooks.
The lady at the hospital on Saturday morning is very smiley and laughs a lot.
I nudge Rosemary. “See, I told you they’d be delighted.”
“And what are your names, may I ask?”
The lady has her pen out. This is it; we’re going to be famous!
We split up at the corner of my road. Rosemary’s going swimming in the Bann this afternoon with her brother, Adrian. I’m not allowed to go to the river, because I can’t swim. But it’s all right. I’ve got an Enid Blyton book from the library and I get sixpence on a Saturday for sweets.
I help Mammy with tidying up and peeling potatoes for dinner, even washing the dishes afterwards without being told to. When I’m famous, she’ll be saying how good I was about the house.
I’m a good way into The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters and the Famous Five are showing the police how to do their job when there’s a knock at the door. I ignore it, until Mammy shouts, “Get the door, are you deaf?”
Sighing loudly, to make sure she hears me, I make my way to the front door. Norman, from across the road is outside. I know from the look on his face he’s got something he’s just dying to tell me, but I won’t ask him and put on my patient face to stare him out.
It’s a waste of time, anyway, because he blurts straight out with it. “Your friend, Rosemary – she’s drowneded!”
He’s so stupid, the same age as me and he can’t even read yet. I tell him, “First, it’s drowned, not drowneded. And second, if she was drowned, she’d be dead.”
His mother (he doesn’t say Mammy like ordinary people) comes running across the road after him and grabs him by the arm.
“Come away, Norman,” she says and looks at Mammy, who’s come up behind me. They do that thing grown-ups do, talking without saying anything.
I feel sick, like I’d eaten too many of Miss Barr’s apples.
Mammy brings me back into the house and talks to me ever so soft. It’s true. Rosemary got drowned in the river.
“But she can swim. It’s not true. We’re going to be famous.”
I shout at Mammy and slap at her arms. When she cuddles me instead of scolding me, I know it’s true.
The Chronicle comes out on Friday.
There’s a list of people who made kind donations to the hospital. Me and Rosemary are at the bottom of the list with two shillings and thruppence. Over the page, in among things about people who got born or married or died, there’s a picture of Rosemary in her school uniform.
Underneath it are lots of nice things about her and how sad it was she got tangled up in the weeds. I find a bit that says how much her friend, Susie, misses her. I expect Mammy put it there.
Anyway, Rosemary is more famous than me because she got a picture as well as her name printed twice. I don’t mind.
Being famous isn’t at all like I thought it would be.
(c) Jacqui Jay Grafton
Valerie was stressed. George knew this from the worry-lines on her baby-smooth brow.
“This is very important to me,” she told him for the fourth time that morning. “Mrs Pinkerton is the wife of the—”
“Regional manager. I haven’t forgotten.”
“In this town, a woman like her can make or break you.”
He nodded sympathetically. He hated seeing Valerie so worked up.
“It’s vital I make a good impression,” she went on.
More sympathetic nodding.
Valerie surveyed her domain. The house. The front room to be particular. The poshest part of the house and therefore reserved only for visitors of social standing. Valerie had dusted, hoovered and wiped since dawn. Windows scrubbed with vinegar-sodden newspaper. Curtains changed. Even the fake coals in the electric fire were rearranged for maximum aesthetic appeal.
No wonder she was stressed.
“Honey, why don’t you take a couple of your pills and have a nice laydown.”
She glared at him as though he were an exceptionally stupid dog.
“The polishing won’t do itself.”
George put a comforting arm around her. “I’ll do that. You have a kip before she comes. I’ll polish the mantlepiece, the windowsills, the shelving, the coffee table and the sideboard.”
Valerie thought for a moment. “You are a love,” she replied, kissed his cheek and
disappeared in the direction of the medicine cabinet.
Alone, George studied the wood and Formica surfaces. What could he do to tease out the shiniest lustre from them? A sheen so bright, Mrs Pinkerton would be dazzled into submission.
Of course! Out in his shed, he started concocting. He mixed beeswax and coconut with a generous dash of linseed oil, a killer blend! Only one problem remained. The goo proved a solid lump. George racked his brains. How could he dissolve it into a liquid state?
“Methylated spirits,” he cried triumphantly. One of George’s trusted remedies for all
household ills. He stirred in the purple saviour until the gelatinous dough magically melted. It achieved perfect fluidity. He reached for the atomizer…
Augusta Pinkerton was a bird-faced woman with a fashion sense stuck in the previous decade. Her floral print dress was as dull as it was bright. She perched on the sofa, sipping tea and chirruping on about social undesirables. There was a look of disdain stamped upon her beaky face. Valerie sat opposite, murmuring agreement in full sycophantic mode. George hid behind DIY Monthly, pretending to be deaf.
In keeping with her name, Pinkerton’s cheeks began to glow. Actually, they were reddening like sores. And then came the tiniest of sneezes.
“I seem to be catching a cold,” she said, nose twitching. Another sneeze, a third, and more, each louder than the last.
“Are you alright, dear?” Valerie asked. August sneezed heavily in Valerie’s face.
“Dear God, I hope it’s not my allergy,” Pinkerton cried, rising to her feet.
Valerie wiped the snot from her face and replied, “Excuse me, I run a tidy establishment. Not a speck of dust in my house.”
“It’s not dust, you idiot,” Pinkerton snapped, in-between increasingly violent sneezes.
George felt a sinking feeling. “It wouldn’t happen to be methylated spirits? Your allergy?”
Pinkerton nodded desperately, floods of mucous pouring from her nose. She tried to speak, but the sneezing was too much. She gestured to the phone.
“Shall I call a taxi?” Valerie asked.
“A—a—ambulance,” Pinkerton stammered.
“George!” Valerie screamed. “She’s going into anaphylactic shock!” Sure enough, the
woman’s skin went from red to corpse-white. Her lungs gasped in a rapid but shallow frenzy.
“Do something,” Valerie screamed.
It was too late. Mrs Pinkerton dropped like a stone; heart imploded. She was as dead as Valerie’s career options.
(c) Ian C Douglas
Sitting in a café by the Serpentine with a gin and tonic should have been the perfect way to end the week, but there was a problem. The call heralded trouble.
Cynthia, my lab assistant, had found something odd in the samples we’d been sent from the Institute of Developing Deadly Diseases. Could I return to have a look?
‘I know it’s Friday but...’ I could hear the concern in her voice, ‘... if this is what I think it is.’
If Cynthia was the sort of woman to panic every time something odd came up, then I’d have ignored it. She was quite capable of dealing with things. She’d had to. I’d fallen apart when my wife left me. Drinking too much. Late mornings and stupid mistakes. She’d had to do a few cover ups. Patience was running thin.
With a sigh I headed back to the lab. It’s a private lab and IDDD depends on our
discretion. They pay us enough for that privilege. So, much as I wanted to ignore it, I knew my Friday evening was now taken care of.
Our lab is well concealed. At the front is an expensive photography exhibition. The only people interested are lost in the city, or with more cash than sense. I mean, who the hell pays 2k for a photograph?
I keyed in the code, entered and changed into my white coat and mask before entering the lab. Cynthia met me with worried eyes.
‘Sorry, Phil. It’s...well look for yourself.’ She pointed to the microscope. One glance and I could feel my heart rate increase.
‘Smallpox? But how? All known samples are held in high security units. This can’t be
smallpox. Where did it come from?’
‘In our usual batch from IDDD but no label or identifier.’ Cynthia raised an eyebrow.
‘What do we do now?’
I scratched my head. I needed to be sure before we went any further. If it really was
smallpox, then we’d have to inform the authorities and wait for the shitstorm to follow.
‘Where’s the rest of the sample?’
It didn’t take long for us to check that it was all contaminated with what was a deadly
virus. It had been sent with our usual delivery. Who had done that and why?
‘You need to go, speak to the Institute.’
Cynthia was right. Another trip out of the city. IDDD’s well hidden. Big house in the
country. No-one would believe what goes on there. Top secret. It’s the sort of place you want to avoid, and where you don’t ask questions. But - there was no choice. I had to find out what was going on.
It was dusk when I arrived. You’d never guess that the place was a cover for top
scientists to perform their magic. They produced vaccines and pathogens. I didn’t have clearance so was wary about my welcome. I needn’t have worried. They saw me coming and the door opened before I could ring the doorbell. A tall attractive blonde smiled at me.
‘Dr Boyle. Welcome. I’m Selina. We’ve been expecting you.’
A glance showed that this was no ordinary place of work. I didn’t know where they did the science stuff but from what I could see it looked like one of those old country hotels. All comfy armchairs and log fires in the winter. I almost expected a corgi to be sitting on the sofa.
‘Drink? Beer? Wine? Spirits?’
Remembering the gin and tonic I’d had earlier I decided more alcohol was not conducive to a clear head.
‘Low alcohol lager, please.’
‘I’ll just be a moment. Please feel free to look around.’
The room was large with a bay window to the front and what looked like original oil
paintings on the wall. Whoever had put this together had plenty of cash, that was for certain.
Selina returned with a tray. A can of lager and glass and what looked like fruit juice. Placing the tray on a low coffee table she gestured with one perfectly manicured hand. I opened the can to a stream of froth. Damn. She passed a box of tissues and smirked as, feeling like a fool, I mopped up the beer from my hand and the table. While I did that, she poured the beer into the glass and handed it to me. She raised her own glass in salutation, and I did the same, taking a greedy gulp.
‘So, Dr Boyle. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
She crossed her legs and leaned forward exposing more cleavage than I’d expected so I didn’t want to say what was on my mind. But, there were other things I needed to know.
‘Who are you and what the hell’s been going on here? We’ve got something that looks suspiciously like a phial of blood infected with smallpox. Sent from here. That’s lethal stuff. As far as I know the only samples are held securely in Russia and the States - so what’s in my lab?’ I could feel my voice rising. There was something dodgy about this set-up. She raised one perfectly arched eyebrow.
‘The sample is a synthetic form of horsepox. We’ve been developing a virus. We think we may have a smallpox replica.’
‘Christ.’ The implications of that statement were huge. Smallpox could wipe out a city, a country. A weapon of war.
‘And do you have an antidote?’
She shrugged her shoulders as if the question was insignificant.
‘Possibly. We need to test it.’
I frowned. This was big stuff. Why the hell was she telling me?
‘So, how do you find your job, Phil?’
I was startled by the use of my name. Only Cynthia and my wife, ex-wife, used the short version. Everyone else called me Philip or Dr Boyle or even just Boyle. The change of direction unnerved me further.
‘It’s hard to say. Things… have been... well... I’ve felt a bit vulnerable since my wife...’
Something about her made me want to spill my guts, unleash my frustrations with the work, the secrecy, the demands on my mind, my time. She was a good listener. I’ll give her that.
Ten minutes later it had all been laid out bare - no holds barred. At the end I felt released, cleansed even.
She tilted her head to one side.
‘The virus,’ she said.
In my unburdening I’d almost forgotten why I was there. ‘Yeah, what about it? Do you
have a vaccine if that thing gets out?’
‘We’re hoping you can help us with.’
‘Hey, I just analyse the bloods and write reports. I know nothing about how to make, or fight, a virus like that.’
‘No, but we’ve been working on it.’
I nodded and smiled. That was a good sign., wasn’t it?
‘We think we’ve perfected a vaccine. We know, from Cynthia’s reports, that your
behaviour has been somewhat erratic of late. You’ve no relatives, your wife left you and you’ve taken to drinking.’ She shook a finger at me. ‘Tut tut. Not good. But we’ve an idea how you can redeem yourself, become an important member of the team again, in fact.’
My gut twisted. They knew everything. So much for loyalty. I thought Cynthia had kept quiet about my little misdemeanours but apparently not. I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts I barely registered what she was saying.
‘So, you see, we want you to play a major part in this development. We’d like you to
They were offering me a way back in - a way to regain my status. I nodded. My head was so fuddled it felt like blancmange.
‘We want you to be part of the experiments.’
‘We’re going to infect you with the virus and then the vaccine. See how effective it is.’
That’s when I discovered my legs weren’t working. She just smiled. I was beginning to hate that smile.
‘There’s no point in struggling, Phil. I slipped a paralysing agent into your drink.’
She opened a silver embossed box on the coffee table and, as I watched, removed a
syringe. I was helpless. I didn’t even feel her roll up my sleeve and stick the needle into my arm.
Now, I don’t know where I am. It’s a room with a window, triple glazed with bars on the outside and shutters that close at night. All I can see is a roof top and sky. I’ve lost track of time.
They’ve talked to me through an intercom system. Food and water provided through a chute. A shaft to throw away debris.
The bathroom is the only place I have privacy, so they haven’t seen the pustules yet,
itchy and red. The fever has started. She told me they’d given me the antidote. I hope she was telling the truth. Otherwise I guess I’ll never have a drink by the Serpentine again.
(c) Jacqueline Harrett
Jo had been sent to the shop with exactly the right money for his cigarettes. If the price had gone up and she went home without them, Jo's husband would hit her. So she hoped that they were still on offer.
A tag was bright on the wall she walked beside. JACK, in yellow and orange, unashamed sun-colours. Jo imagined being Jack, and seeing herself as something colourful to share with the world. Yellow, orange. She never wore them. Just the dark, baggy clothes that Simon picked out for her.
"You're too old for bright colours," he explained. "And you don't have the figure. You'd
look like an old whore."
That was after he'd thrown out her favourite dress. It was a soft blue and Jo had felt
happy in it.
Now, without realising, Jo had stopped in front of the tag.
"Graffiti. Disgusting," Simon always said. "They're animals. They should be birched."
I'm just glad that someone, somewhere, isn't ashamed of who they are, thought Jo.
She smiled at Jack's tag.
It smiled back.
The colours curved at the ends, and Jack was now grinning at her.
Oh great. Now I'm going mad.
But it wasn't scary and it didn't feel wrong. Jo had a sense of friendship and understanding.
She blinked away the tag, and trudged on through the greyness of wet streets.
Sanjeev's shop was brightly lit and he smiled a welcome. It hadn't occurred to Simon
that Jo might be friendly with the owner. Naturally Simon was racist as well as everything else, and he assumed that Jo, as a white person, would be too.
But Jo smiled at Sanjeev. "Twenty Bensons, please," she said. "How's Pritti?"
"As pretty as her name and as sweet as a wasp," sighed Sanjeev, and they both laughed.
"You'd be lost without her."
He named the price.
It was a penny more than the week before - the offer was over.
Fear hit Jo like a punch, and the weight of life dragged her face and shoulders down.
She put what she had on the counter and whispered, "Can I owe you the penny?"
"Of course! Just forget it. It's OK!"
Jo could feel Sanjeev's embarrassment and pity like slaps on her hot cheeks. He had
seen her bruises, when Simon had been careless.
"Thanks," she said, her voice husky, and she fled.
Her feet dragged on the way home. Simon would be there.
A red graffito caught her eye across the road. It was a space invader, a happy little thing.
Jo remembered the game: rows of aliens moving down the screen, only to be shot and destroyed. Yet still they came, a crowd of them, and they always won in the end.
Jo found this strangely cheering, and again, in spite of everything, she smiled.
The space invader smiled back and waved a red arm, or perhaps tentacle.
There are decent people in the world - friends you haven't met yet.
The thought popped into her head as if the alien had spoken.
I ought to be frightened by what's happening to me, thought Jo. But I'm only frightened with Simon.
Jo saw Jack laughing at her husband, and the invader pushing him away inexorably,
Further along the wall was a stencilled image - a political thing of a man in a balaclava, holding a bunch of flowers.
"Hello," said Jo.
The figure bowed to her, and offered her the black ink flowers.
Suddenly Jo could smell honeysuckle, lilacs and roses. Oh, so long since she had smelled them.
She reached her front door.
The key turned in the lock.
Change is possible, thought Jo. She could feel a strength rising in her. I am not as
helpless as he thinks. The possibility of colour and disobedience. She wouldn't mention the price increase. And Jo knew where Simon kept his secret stash of cash. Tomorrow, while Simon was at work, she'd get the locks changed and phone a solicitor.
She could do this.
Jack laughed. The invader jumped up and down with glee. The balaclava man danced.
All along the wall, graffiti applauded her, a crowd of letters dancing, figures waving, faces cheering.
(c) Cathy Bryant
My heart has been tilted off its axis and it’s free spinning and I have not yet calculated if it will land in fear or excitement but I know that I need to walk faster or I will miss this train. Legs scorched in the cold air, I wonder if the houses that face the main road recognise me as the lady that runs for trains. I hope they do. I hope they would notice if I died or moved away. If a child would ask about me, with a mouth full of questions and over-cooked broccoli it’s small hands covertly dropping carrots to the unfaithful dog. Children notice things like that. I hope.
I’d better concentrate, listen and ask questions not just invade the conversation. Again.
He’s a Nice Man you see. I no longer know what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure it still has the same currency as before. That’s if I trust my sister’s judgement. Which I don’t. But I must, because I need to challenge myself before I become too comfortable with being a hermit.
My hermit routine is almost perfect, like I’ve lost the flavour for any meal other than
porridge. Which I eat every morning. At the same time. Even my body won’t stay in bed past eight.
The bus I had been waiting for passes me, collecting people like a politician collects his thoughts: consciously planned and today I was not in his favour. A man beeps his horn at the red eyes of the bus and then from his mouth hurls gum onto the road.
He’s a Nice Man, she said. I don’t think he is the type of man to do that, but I’m not the most perceptive when I’m drunk. And I was drunk.
I blame the straws; it’s like a race to get to the bottom before the clock strikes midnight and I’m drinking papier-mâché.
Horn Beeper’s chewing gum joins the pattern on the road, kissing the words: ‘traffic’ into the hard cushion of tarmac. My toes go numb. I am nervous. We’ve had sex already, but I am nervous. He either feels cornered into the date or wants me for sex. There’s no middle ground.
Which seems unfair. I’ve pushed him into a hyper-masculine-lack-of-feelings or a hyperfeminine-fragility. But I can’t think in anything less than extremes.
I have a tendency to be optimistically morose and verbose sometimes, but that’s why I know I will make it to the train. I stretch my legs two steps at a time forever grateful to the rich fuckers that made trousers popular.
It’s Spring and the birds are alive. That’s what they’re telling us. They’re calling to the still drowsy buds to wake up, even as the sky burns a tragic death into the horizon. I check my phone to see how many milliseconds I have until the train. But mainly to see if he’s texted me to cancel. He hasn’t. I punch up the stairs as the train closes in.
I enter the stale warmth of the first carriage with a Woman whose bag is at an angle that makes her look like she has an erection. She sits a few rows away but I can see her in the train’s reflection. Her cheeks are taught, her corners turn down, brows in and if her eyes look up I would see the second before tears walk out.
‘Hi there, my name is Vera. Can I help you?’ No.
‘Hi there, my name is Vera. How are you feeling today’. Sounds too much like a phone
Maybe I could give her tissues. If I had tissues. I’m not the sort of person to bring tissues.
Or rather clean ones. In my backpack I have used scrunches of toilet paper worn by friction into fragile threads or hardened clumps.
Instead I look out. Give her privacy. I think I’d want privacy.
It begins to rain outside and two seagulls slip through it: single file wings smooth like a pebble on a beach.
We stop on the tracks to let a train pass, it’s carriage so long that time stands still. The
baby in the expensive pram waits till the train fades, before it lets out a wail so high my ovaries shrivel.
I used to want children. My children with the Nice Man would be attractive, tight curls and caramel skin. I’m getting ahead of myself, dropping feelings like I’d dropped my not-quite lingerie. That won’t happen again, I promise my reflection in the window. I want him to like me.
Mechanical blue cranes fish for something in the network of scaffolding. Soon to be but not yet. That’s what London feels like here: Soon to be but not yet. Uneven brickwork, graffiti walls, broken windows and thousands of chimneys all with new signs promising construction.
The train stops suddenly and no-one notices mayhem flicker near some kindling. We all think another train will pass by. The dog ten legs away from me quivers, legs rigid, ears up. No train passes by. But we wait.
The Man with gold statues hanging off his lobes whispers too loudly to his lover and we all enter a shared world of panic.
There’s a Man with a Knife on the tracks.
We all gradually get up.
Uncertain if we are safe in this metal can. Metal is thicker than flesh I think. But I’m not sure anymore.
Feelings are written in the air.
The Driver cracks open the speakers to tell us that we are ‘experiencing minor delays due to an obstruction on the track’.
The Driver does not know that we can see the man with the knife, but I’m sure the
carriages behind feel relieved.
The Man with the Knife on the tracks wears no shirt and is stabbing the air. His stomach is four beers pregnant with grey chest hair that hangs straight.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen straight chest hair. If he was closer I could see that it was in fact a trick of the light and was curled like everyone else’s. Like the Nice Man’s.
He is closer. They are straight. He is now stabbing the side of our carriage and the
Woman with the Erection Bag is suggesting we emergency open the door on the other side, whilst the Man with the gold statues on his ears is feverishly arguing that we go to the next carriage down. The dead light catches the gold swaying with his fear. His lover is a photograph, long limbs frozen in fear. His body had rejected both fight and flight.
I cannot feel my toes.
The Man with the Knife and Grey (straight) Chest Hair is at the door to our carriage and seems to be fiddling.
The Driver gives up the pretence and tells ‘carriage one to embark into carriage two as calmly as possible.’
I shuffle in time to the scurry of others.
The expensive pram has been left.
The dog is barking.
The carriage door locks in a way that makes us safe from the Man with the knife but
makes me suspicious of what would happen in a fire.
The drama climbs off unsatisfied. The police slowly arrive and we recover our private ignorance of each other. We are strangers again.
But I think I’m giddy.
So I arrive late.
And we have sex.
And I don’t cum.
And I take the train home.
He’s a Nice Man.
(c) Magdalene Bird