“To the beach!” said Butch Henderson over his shoulder, sitting in the front of the taxi that was taking us to Teluk Bahang. His Malaysian wife Suna, who sat in back with me, gave me an inquisitive look, to see if I was OK tagging along with them, the odd man out.
Impressed with my hat, Henderson bought one for Suna and him when we stopped at Batu Ferringhi to pick up some suntan lotion along with some fruit, snacks, drinks, plus a plastic ball to play catch. At Teluk Bahang, a Chinese fisherman, Ah Khoo, agreed to take us to and from Pantai Kerachut. With piles of fishnet scattered about the deck, the boat turned out to be more suitable for fishing than for passengers, a detail we had overlooked. Making the best of the situation, Henderson plopped down on the deck and gestured for Suna and me to do the same.
I stretched out my legs toward Suna, who was sitting across from me. She playfully
nudged me with her foot.
Later, Henderson nudged me with his own foot and said, “See how that guy keeps his left leg up like he’s part flamingo? Wonder what’s wrong with him?”
“Didn’t he say something about stepping on something?” I said, glancing at Suna for confirmation.
“A stingray,” added Suna.
“Aren’t those babies poisonous?” asked Henderson. “I hope he’s not going to die on us. Got a show tonight.”
“Not that you’d be missed,” said Suna.
“Not that I’d be missed.”
After passing the lighthouse at Muka Head, Ah Khoo rounded the bend….In the distance a beautiful, empty stretch of beach beckoned us like a mysterious lover. When the boat came nearer, I had this overwhelming sense of déjà vu. That empty white beach, those slanting coconut trees, that verdant green hill, that majestic blue sky….I had seen it all before on the ceiling above my bed.
“Honey, we’re home!” said Henderson, and kissed Suna full on the lips.
Unable to bring the boat all the way in without getting stuck, Ah Khoo asked us to wade in the remaining distance on our own.
“Now don’t forget to come back and get us,” said Henderson, holding up his towel and slippers so they didn’t get wet. He tapped his watch. “Seven o’clock. Got it? We wouldn’t want to get marooned here. There doesn’t appear to be a bar in sight.”
Ah Khoo laughed. “No worry, I come back.”
The boat was soon gone leaving the three kilometer stretch of beach just for us.
After dropping our belongings on the soft sand, we peeled off our clothes down to our swimsuits. Henderson didn’t stop there. Grinning like a schoolboy, he dashed naked for the water and called back, “Last one in is a rotten egg.”
Amused, Suna shrugged. “Modesty never ran in Butch’s family. I have to think twice.”
Suna unfastened the top of her bikini, followed by the bottom.
Henderson called from the water, “Hey, Steve, you coming in, or are you just going to
stare at my wife’s beautiful bod?”
I lowered my trunks. “You heard what the man said. Last one in is a rotten—”
Suna got a jump on me, but I caught up with her and we reached the water in a dead
heat. As we swam out to Henderson, I kept thinking about Suna’s breasts, mentally comparing them with the ones I saw in my dream-cum-reality. They seemed just right for her body; not too large, not too small, not too uneven. Patricia used to complain that her breasts were lopsided and too large for her frame, worried they would cause her back pain later in life.
Suna splashed water into my face. She tried to flee, but I caught hold of her foot. In her struggle to escape, she landed a kick to my stomach and broke free. I was about to give chase when I noticed Henderson swimming toward me.
“Paradise. This is absolute paradise,” said Henderson. “Quick, pinch me so I know I’m not dreaming. On second thought don’t…it may lead to something. We’re both naked.”
Henderson dunked himself. He resurfaced and banged one side of his head with his palm; then the other, dislodging the water from his ears.
“If only we had a dozen bare-chested beauties sashaying around us, stuffing grapes into our mouths, this really would be paradise.”
I agreed, though I was thinking of the bare-chested beauty a coconut’s throw away.
“Actually,” said Henderson, “what I could go for is a pizza…. Yes, that’ll be an extra-large pepperoni and two dozen bare-breasted beauties to go.”
Henderson fetched the plastic ball….Our game of catch soon turned into Monkey-in-the Middle… Sunas' breasts would flop every which way as she charged toward me while trying to take the ball away. When it became obvious to her she would forever be the monkey, she gave up and the game fizzled out….We retired to our towels, put on our swimsuits and clowned around by taking goofy photographs of each other and then applying generous doses of suntan lotion over our bodies. Henderson buttered up Suna’s front, while I worked on her back. She returned the favor. Her light touch reminded me of what I had been missing all of my life: a pair of soft, patient hands that could do no wrong. With Patricia, everything had to be quick as
if the meter were running.
Later, after feasting on the fruit and biscuits, Henderson nudged Suna and said, “Shall we do a little exploring, my dear?” Suna caught my gaze as if to make sure it was all right.
“You guys go ahead,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m a big boy.”
I watched as Butch and Suna strolled away, wishing it was me and not Butch leading Suna by the hand to look for some hidden nook, some convenient hideaway, far away from prying eyes. I couldn’t blame him. Pantai Kerachut was perfect for making love.
Bored with lying around, I dug my toes into the sunbaked sand and wandered off in the opposite direction. The only footprints around were the ones I was making. It felt good to be out on my own…away from Patricia, away from Copycat Boston, away from everyone who had ever placed demands on my time. Moments like these where I felt oneness with the world came far too infrequent. I needed this, if only to catch my breath, to reflect on my life with Patricia, and to think about my future without her….I then toyed with the idea of settling down in Penang and trying my hand as an expatriate, never going back to the life I knew. I dug my toes a little deeper into the sand and pushed on.
The longer I walked, the more I enjoyed it: the sand beneath my feet, the sunshine in my face, the waves eager to rush in yet reluctant to leave, the crabs scurrying from hole to hole in their elusive quest to stay dry. What I enjoyed most was the anticipation, the not knowing of what may lay ahead, perhaps even a treasure that beachcombers from years past might have overlooked. What I found were seashells. Small colorful shells that my eyes gleaned from the sandy carpet. I picked up the ones I liked only to replace them with those of a superior quality.
When the seashells became difficult to juggle, I recruited my hat to carry them in.
I returned to the towels, but neither Butch nor Suna were around. Ah Khoo wasn’t expected to arrive for another hour, so we still had plenty of time….I considered going for swim to cool off, but instead I inspected the seashells that I had collected. I knocked out the sand and arranged them inside the tote bag, careful not to damage any, especially the sand dollar in excellent condition.
Fifteen minutes passed and still no sign of Butch and Suna. The last I saw they were
heading for the boulder outcrop at the far end of the beach. Judging from the distance I just came, it was a good twenty minute walk. Maybe longer. I didn’t like the idea they were cutting it so close. What if something happened to them? Unable to get that thought out of my mind,
I slipped on my T-shirt and sneakers, grabbed the plastic ball, and headed in their direction, sure that at any moment I would see them in the distance.
But I didn’t.
Despite heading straight for the boulders, each step I took seemed to take me farther away. Twenty minutes passed and I was barely halfway there. What would Ah Khoo do if he arrived and none of us was present? How long would he wait? It was foolish paying him all the money in advance. What if the poison from the stingray prevented him from coming back?
Before long it’d be dusk, then nightfall. Out here, without light, it’d be totally black.
I quickened my pace…I began to jog. After a while, my legs felt wobbly and my right side began to ache. Sand had crept into my sneakers and was irritating my feet. I sat down, out of breath, and emptied my shoes. Perspiration poured off me like rain.
The beach had tapered inland significantly. The jungle seemed awfully close, intimidating….A piercing shriek jolted my attention. One shoe on, the other off, I stared at the cliff-like wall of jungle where the noise came from. I hurried into the other shoe, tied the laces and stood up. Another shriek rang out…followed by another. The sounds came directly from the jungle and grew in frequency. About halfway up the hill, I detected some movements…. Something dropped from a vine and landed on the sand—a good-sized monkey. It advanced several steps toward me. Curious, it stood up on its hind legs. I kept still. More monkeys scrambled from tree to tree, making wave-like movements through the foliage. There seemed to be
hundreds of them. Mesmerized, I watched them, wave after wave….I expected more monkeys to drop to the sand to join their friend, but none of them did.
The monkey kept a wary eye on me and the plastic ball, my only weapon. Perhaps it
thought I was holding fruit. The monkey started to run on the sand parallel to the jungle. It leapt back into the greenery and disappeared.
I glanced at the time. It was getting late….Ignoring the pain at my side, I jogged the
remaining distance. Upon reaching the base of the boulders, I called out, “Butch! Suna!”
No one answered….I found a foothold, then another and climbed among the giant
boulders. There were dozens of them that curved blindly around a bend. Soon the stretch of beach was out of view.
Again I called, “Butch! Suna!” Again no reply.
On the far side of the boulders, hidden from the sea, was a cave opening, an ideal hideaway. I peeked inside the shallow cave fully expecting to see Butch and Suna. The sandy cave was smooth and dry but also empty. I came upon a second cave, wider and deeper than the first. It too was empty. I glimpsed the mouth of a third cave up ahead, and then a fourth.
How many more caves are there?
Frustrated, I moved onto the next one. Like the first two caves, the third was empty.
The fourth was not.
With a mixture of relief and annoyance I stood at the entrance as Butch and Suna lay side by side covered with sand, their clothes cast aside. One body light, the other dark. I called out their names as seductively as the Sirens yet failed to wake either of them. Not wanting to disturb their privacy by coming any closer, I rolled the plastic ball and it struck Suna on the leg.
Instinctively, she reached for her clothes to cover her body.
When she saw me gazing at her, she looked back at me without speaking. It was a longing look, a desperate look of desiring what neither of us could have….During our game of Monkeyin-the-Middle, Suna’s hands and body were all over me. I wanted those same hands and that body over me now….To hell with the consequences. To hell with Ah Khoo’s boat. To hell with the rest of the world.
(c) Robert Raymer
The wan autumn sun bounced off the rain-splattered asphalt leading to the large lumber and hardware store entrance. John steered his Toyota pickup down the ramp between the lines of dark-haired, dark-eyed men who positioned themselves as work supplicants, attempting eye contact with the incoming drivers who aimed for parking stalls in the large lot. These workers in-waiting were not always clean-shaven, but their clothes were clean and their dignity remained intact. Their labor was a commodity in demand for do-it-yourselfers who needed strong backs for their hard labor.
Eva had warned John against starting his garden project so soon after his doctor told him about his heart condition. “No heavy lifting, straining or stressing,” Dr. Osborne had instructed.
The instructions also included losing weight and getting more structured exercise, and actually taking the blood thinners he had prescribed. Although he was skeptical about conventional medicine, John knew Eva was right and he promised to take his health more seriously.
“Sure,” he had promised Eva. “I’ll start soon. But I’m also going to start my project in the garden while the weather holds.” What he started was reading and thinking about the meds the doc had prescribed. And all their side effects and how dependent on them he would become.
So he decided to wait just a little while before taking them.
The workers’ wait to give an honest day’s labor for an honest wage lasted often over half their workday. But they hoped to get a day or two or even a week of work. That would put food on the table and gas in their old cars. These men chose not to stand on freeway ramps. They carried no signs asking for handouts. Their status caused them to look over their shoulders
John’s white Toyota pickup with a bed liner bore a recent and distinctive sticker his
nephew had given him: Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder was a popular extreme obstacle course young folks did who wanted more than just marathons and Iron Man competitions.
As John slowed his descent down the narrow lane into the parking lot, some of the
waiting men moved toward the driver’s side.
“Hola, senores,” middle-aged John smiled and waved to the assembled workers, his grayhairline losing out to his naked scalp line. “Hola, senor,” came the response in chorus.
“Yo necesito, uh…” and that was the end of John’s abbreviated Spanish language skills.
“It’s okay, senor, we know some English,” responded one of the men. “And we’re here to help you,” answered another.
“I am called Jesus,” a medium sized man said with a thick mustache to go with his thick dark hair. He pronounced it ‘Haysoos’, so John didn’t connect the name with the Savior. Jesus had been hanging back, but he crowded his way to the front of the waiting men. Pushing through this crowd of men was merely one in a series of obstacles he had overcome since leaving his village in the south of Mexico. Having made it to this driveway was proof that he was a “Tough Mudder.” The difference was that instead of a ribbon or handshake, he hoped he and his family could survive and pull themselves out of poverty. Jesus and the others had their hands and their eyes open and their backs ready, but they didn’t want a handout.
“Hello, Haysoos,” John greeted the man leaning on his door as he noticed his size and
strength. “Why don’t you meet me down in the parking lot and we’ll talk.”
And they did talk. They agreed on ten dollars an hour and one and maybe two days work.
Then John headed into the store to get the supplies he would need to finish the job he’d started the previous summer, while Jesus waited by the pickup.
When they got back to the worksite, John and Eva’s back yard, John showed Jesus the task at hand: to move several river rocks from where they had been dumped to the site of a small depression in the soil, the designated space for a promised pond and gurgling fountain for his Eva. He would surprise her. She would come home and see the progress he and Jesus had made.
“I have a hand truck and a wheelbarrow, but these stones are damned heavy.”
“Si, senor,” Jesus responded as he moved to the rock pile and lifted one on the hand
truck. Jesus was wiry and strong, but John could see the rocks were a two-man job and hurried to help. After working with Haysoos on three medium-sized rocks, John felt something he had felt before. Before he had gone to the doctor and before he had promised Eva to slow down and work smart and before he had hired Jesus and had learned how to pronounce his name.
What John felt was a pain in his chest and this time he noticed how much he was
sweating. He thought, “I guess I’m not a very Tough Mudder.” Then he felt dizzy and he felt out of breath. First one knee buckled and then the other. He felt himself falling. He felt his vision blurring. Then he felt nothing.
He didn’t hear Jesus calling to him, asking him if he was okay. He didn’t notice when Jesus took John’s phone from his pocket and dialed the three digit rescue number. Jesus never learned CPR in his village so far from here. So John wouldn’t have recognized what a desperate, inexperienced Jesus was doing in concern and fear and anger as tears formed in his eyes and his inexperienced fists started flailing and pounding on John’s chest as he pleaded, begged, prayed to his namesake Jesus to save this nice gringo man.
As it happened, John was lifted high above the ground while sirens blared and
disembodied voices and radio chatter assaulted his senses with the prize of a new life. Jesus, the Tough Mudder, forever looking over his shoulder, moved hastily away from all the uniforms of officialdom.
(c) James Stark
I am sitting in the window of a café, in Norwich, nurdling the dregs of a cappuccino. The framed notice on the wall next to me, its words digitally printed in a swirling calligraphic script, tells me that this place is rumoured to be haunted.
I look out onto St Stephen’s Street: cluttered bike-racks, bus stop, Argos. It’s Saturday, a decorated December mid-morning. The bright sun has burnt off the frost. Shoppers, dressed for the cold, have their top buttons undone, scarves loosened, gloves removed. They carry bags of what might be gifts. They talk and laugh, beyond the glass, emitting small ghosts of steam from their shining faces. Life goes on.
I’m here on a pilgrimage, of sorts, to deliver… I’m not sure yet. An apology? Or, an
acknowledgement, at least? To earn some sort of… atonement?
I have imagined: boldly standing up at my table, announcing my intention to read out a short document, then doing so.
But I can’t. I don’t know what holds me back: fear of seeming foolish? (Certainly, I’m not comfortable being the centre of attention…) Not wanting to cause an upset? Shame…?
I’ll just have to read it to myself, under my breath; say the words in my head. It’s nearly the same thing.
From my pocket I remove an envelope, grubby with smudges of fine grey-brown dust.
Finger prints; some of them mine, some older. Rubbing my fingertips together, I feel the disintegrating matter of personal history.
I pull out a single leaf of brittle, yellowed, writing paper. The top-left corner is flaking and frayed where it’s been bent and scratched – by a paper-clip, I suppose; this page must have been attached to others at times during its past 50 years or so. There’s a deep brown stain smeared across it, beneath which the fading ink is even harder to read. The handwriting is spidery and uncertain.
My father (after whom I am named) recently passed away. Eighty-six. I discovered this letter “in his papers”. Originally – before I even existed – it was found next to the mess of his father’s body. Gave himself both barrels, apparently. A dark, family secret; a chronic embarrassment… “not in front of the children”.
“It all happened long before you were born,” was all I could get out of my parents for
years, as if that made it any better.
I shudder, imagining the fleeting presence of his victim. As far as I can tell from my
research, I am now sitting in what was once the front-room of her home.
Handling the paper with care, not wanting to touch the stain-that-must-be-blood, I read aloud, in my head:
November 20th 1956
Please try to understand: things were difficult for us during the war. Farm labour didn’t pay me well. Your Mother was too ill to work, but even had she been able, her hands were too full with you children. We struggled to keep you all fed. I really wanted to keep you in school – especially you – but we just couldn’t make ends meet.
I fell in with a rough crowd; black market and the like. With so many people putting in extra shifts, homes were left empty for hours. There were many opportunities.
April 27th, 1942. The Baedeker raids. A big terrace-house on St. Stephen’s took one
through the roof. I was first on the scene. Whole place burst open. The flames had almost blown themselves out, didn’t get a hold again until later. The upstairs’ furniture was all broken and littered about downstairs. I just walked in and helped myself: money, ration books, silk stockings, a watch.
There was a bed, looking like it had just been made, standing on its chunk of bedroom floor, crushing a couple of lounge-chairs. Hoping to find something underneath – a suitcase, or a box, perhaps containing valuables packed in readiness for evacuation – I peered beneath the bed-frame. And there she was, all bleeding, moaning, trapped and helpless. The daughter of the family: Mary. She looked at me; knew me, too. She managed just one word: my name. I ran. Yes, I left her there to die.
Every day since then I have been haunted by the thought, hearing her voice, over and
over… I pray that she was able to leave this world before the flames caught hold again.
I am so sorry.
May God see my true remorse and forgive me. May He grant me some peace.
‘Robert,’ someone says at my shoulder, in hushed tones.
I turn, see only the rough bricks of the stripped-back wall.
I look the other way, the echo of my name still whispering in my ears. There’s no-one
there – but I would swear, to a priest, I’d just heard a woman’s voice, close by.
I peer around the room, hear the chatter of conversation, a gaggle of laughter, the
clatter of crockery, the gurgle-hiss of the milk-steamer; all the slurps and satisfied sighs of imbibing humanity, rushing me back to the here-and-now.
There’d been a faint sound, accompanying that voice… a wash and back-wash, like sea in a shell; background radio static. I notice its absence, hear the return of everyday life, its ordinariness crowding out of my mind the memory of someone quietly saying my name… my father’s… and my grand-father’s name.
I shudder, and although the logic in my brain tells me the smoke I can smell is from the kitchen, from overcooked meat, I suddenly feel the need to escape.
On my way out, I am stopped short by the sight of an old photograph, its sepia image
hung by the door, framed in dark, distressed wood.
“The Residents of St Stephen’s Street, Circa 1942,” standing in a row.
My gaze is drawn to a pale young woman, at the right-hand end of the untidy line,
turning away from the camera, from the others, as if about to leave. Trapped behind the glass, a pattern of tiny flies traces a join-the-dots “M” beneath her feet.
(c) Jeremy Hubbard
One final check round the room.
Three o’clock on a Thursday was an odd time for a visit, but it was the only downtime between my part-time jobs that suited Jo. More unusual was the one-to-one rendezvous in my bedsit with someone about my age and attractive.
It had been a jokey idea at first. On Friday, a big group of us - mostly staff from the pub we both worked at - were queuing for a club after our shift. Jo’s bunch were up ahead. She was refused entry because of her ripped jeans (both knees, like wide smiles). Her pal, Beth, joked that I could sew them up, given the upholstering training of my youth. A few days later, during a slow shift, Jo and I ended up arranging the visit.
At 2.58 Jo texted to say she was nearby.
Of course, I had tidied up. The main task was to clear my junk off the armchair so there would be a choice of places to sit. The bed as the only option might be awkward. Jo mentioned a boyfriend once so I was surprised when she suggested coming to my place. I didn’t know what she was thinking, and I didn’t have the skills or inclination to ask her straight out.
She knew that I was single. In conversation I was very much an ‘I’ person rather than a ‘we’ person. Not out of choice. On the contrary, it was about time I found someone, or someone found me.
The door buzzer went. As she came up the last few steps, I noticed the offending jeans. I should have guessed she would wear them. I would have put them in a bag.
A quick hug and she came in.
‘Oh my God!’ almost a shout. ‘This is amazing. What is this place?’
I lived there. I was used to it. Sometimes I forgot.
‘Where did you get all this? It’s like … I don’t know. A Bedouin tent or a medieval castle - they have tapestries, don’t they? But it’s more William Morris.’ I just let her talk.
There was something like love in her face. I caught a touch of it as her eyes met mine on the way round the room. She was wide-eyed, mouth half-open, with the start of a smile.
‘I had no idea,’ she said.
‘You can keep looking while I mend your jeans.’ I said.
‘Can I look round first, and touch them?’
She went over to one by the fireplace and placed both hands on it.
‘I love this one. It feels so soft.’
The late-spring afternoon sunshine gave gallery-quality illumination to the detail. It was one of my favourites, too; a forest scene with something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream about it.
‘Where did you get them?’ Jo asked.
‘All over. I just find them.’
She pointed at a pale brown canvas, lower down, by the chair.
‘Why’s that only got one bird?’ she asked.
‘That’s mine. I mostly repair them – sometimes I have a go. I gave up on that one.’
‘Why? I like it. It’s funny.’ She knelt down and ran the palm of her hand over it. She would be getting the feel of the soft gentle bumps of the wings.
‘The canvas is too thick for the thread. It took me the robin to find out. It’s a reminder not to make that mistake again.’
‘We all make mistakes,’ she said.
I gave her a tour. She had points of reference from her college course - an arts foundation year with a few weeks of photography, then fashion, ceramics, and so on.
She found another one to get lost in.
I stood close by. She smelt of honey shampoo. Her hair under the dry outer layers was still wet. The sunlight showed up the flaws in her skin. She must have had an adolescence like mine.
Her nose ring was golden-coloured, maybe real gold. Her eyes jumped about the tapestry. Her pupils were large, with a hazel ring around them – green and brown, overlaying a base of glowing amber.
She must have sensed me studying her. She locked onto my eyes in her innocent, open, carefree way. It was her most common expression.
I reciprocated with some verbal frankness.
‘I was just looking at the colours in your eyes.’ Hopefully, she would respond to that.
‘Would you like to embroider them?’ It seemed a serious question, then an ironic smile broke out.
‘It’s a funny way of saying it, but I would, actually.’ My voice was croaky. I thought of making tea. Too much directness for me.
‘Yeah?’ she went. ‘That could be interesting.’
Her eyes began to sparkle. She caught her own smile, biting her lower lip that released itself slowly then popped back out to a pout. She had no make-up on, but her full lips were cherry red.
She laughed and threw her head back. Her brown hair swung round. The darker wet bits showed and must have felt cold on her throat.
‘Maybe we should get on with what I’m here for,’ she said. ‘Shall I take them off?’ she asked.
‘I can do it with you wearing them,’ I replied.
She sat in the armchair and I knelt in front of her. She leant forward so she was sitting up quite straight. She clasped her hands, almost in prayer, keenly watching me.
‘Maybe you should rub your hands - like a doctor - if they’re cold,’ she said, with a
mischievous cheeky grin that made her look years younger for a moment.
I did feel like a doctor, inspecting a wound. I played along, although I already knew the prognosis. A patch would be best, but she didn’t want that. After some explaining, she compromised and agreed to let me sew a dark-blue corduroy patch to the inside. The jeans would have to come off after all.
She took them off sitting down, with a total lack of self-consciousness, and put her coat over her legs like a granny rug.
I sat on the bed and got on with it. I could see her looking round the room.
‘I knew you did upholstery, and I knew about your apprenticeship, but this is something else. You could display this.’
I smiled politely.
‘People would pay to see your collection,’ she said.
That was funny.
‘No, really,’ she said.
We were back to our pub-shift banter.
I focused. One of the tapestries caught her eye and she was up and wandering about, peering and stroking them. Her coat slipped as she walked around.
She came over and sat next to me. The mattress wasn’t great. It sunk and rocked us close together so that I nearly pricked myself. She didn’t notice. She leant against my elbow to watch.
‘It’s so funny to see you sewing.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. I finished off and secured it; turned the jeans back out and handed them over. She looked satisfied, if not happy. She dropped her coat on the bed and pulled her jeans on.
‘It feels warmer. No draughts.’ She was happy again. ‘Thanks. Look, I’d better go.’
At the doorway she threw a final glance around the room, smiling, eyes shining, her pupils dark and large, her mouth hanging half open again.
Her hazel eyes rested on me. ‘I had no idea about this part of you.’
I felt her hand on my shoulder. She leant in and kissed me on the mouth.
When she stayed there, for some reason I counted, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand …
‘I’m leaving my boyfriend this week. It’s been coming,’ she said.
‘Maybe I could come again next Tuesday?’
‘Yes, sure,’ I said.
She skipped down the stairs.
I closed and then leant on the door. Sun beams were falling about the dusty floor.
I always thought I was mad to collect the rugs and tapestries and wall-hangings. But it was the best thing about my life. You get so used to everything being shit, you treasure and cling on to the good stuff.
I wondered what Jo was really like.
In the following days we stole secret kisses at the pub. She didn’t wait until Thursday to visit.
After a month she went back to her old boyfriend, who I never met. She kept him hidden, like I did with my tapestries. I gave her the robin on her last visit. It might serve her as a reminder of past mistakes, as it had for me.
In the autumn I got together with Jo’s pal, Beth. I moved in before long. Beth had a proper job and a new-build flat with white walls covered with framed posters. I left my tapestries under a bed, in suitcases, at my parents’.
I never saw Jo again. But we heard that she had gone to Leeds to study textiles.
(c) Robert Scott
Taking the elevator back to his hotel room Jeremy flipped through the pictures on the camera display. Wearing a dark blue suit and tie, the tall man still resembled a quarterback more than a businessman. Silver streaked through his short beard and hair, giving him a distinguished look.
He had shadowed his target at a distance and had captured a few good shots of her from across the park. Already a foreign agent tried to place her under surveillance and that had meant the word has gone out within the intelligence community of their breakup. Jeremy felt justified in keeping an eye on her, and if truth be told he was not willing to accept it being over.
For the last three years, Erin thought Jeremy was a low-level government clerk in Israel, however, he is anything but. After twelve years in counterterrorism, Jeremy has recently moved into covert operations. Where he was sent for missions, the words plausible deniability for the Israeli government would be invoked, should he ever be compromised.
The elevator opened up at the seventh floor and keeping his eyes constantly scanning back and forth, Jeremy walked down the hall to the stairwell and descended to the sixth floor.
Ingrained habits to avoid detection and to help shake anyone following were automatic, especially when he knew that at least one foreign agent was closing in.
After he walked the full length of the hotel, he took the stairwell up to the eighth floor and stood outside his hotel room. The sign still hung on the door handle, asking that he not be disturbed. He had a quick look at the top and bottom of the door on the hinge side.
Before leaving his room, he had taken a few precautions: a small piece of paper was wedged into the door hidden from sight and a long hair was stretched from the door to the frame and held in place with a little spit on either end. Should the door be opened the paper would fall or be displaced, and the hair would separate and hang down.
Both of these marks were in place, and not triggered.
Holding the white plastic passkey against the sensor, the LED light flickered green and the door clicked open. He reached down to pick up the small piece of paper as he walked into his room.
After the door closed behind him, the Mossad agent froze while he slowly looked around. The sudden adrenaline surge caused his heart to beat faster and his muscles twitched with contained energy.
Everything seemed exactly as to how he had left it with one exception. Laying in the middle of his bed was a piece of paper, folded in half so that it would remain tented.
After he crossed the room in three long strides, he picked it up.
Thank you and have a nice day.
The smiley face on the end at first infuriated him, then it caused him to chuckle as he thought about the situation. He was outplayed, it doesn’t happen often at his level.
As soon as he wondered about the ‘thank you’ part, his stomach seemed to drop and a feeling of dread washed over him.
Throwing down the note he darted over to the bathroom and slid under the counter, looking up.
The silenced Glock 17 that was hidden under the counter, the only weapon he had smuggled into the city, was now gone.
Moving to the small couch in the seating area, he pulled the cushions off and shoved his arm down the back-seat gap and reached up inside the backrest cushions.
The small laptop he used for work was no longer there.
This can’t be happening…
Leaving the couch cushions on the floor, Jeremy opened the closet and pulled down his camera bag. The largest telephoto lens inside the case wasn’t real, and he popped the end open and tilted it down to look inside.
His lockpicking tools, backup passport, identification, and currency were gone.
Everything else was expendable and could be replaced. The missing laptop, however, spelled his death sentence and the consequences would be dire.
The Trident Spear cut through international waters without any problems or issues. The new class of Triple E container ships is considered the largest ocean-going vessels on the planet and they can easily hold over 18,000 twenty-foot containers. The Danish company, Maersk, is the largest shipping company in the world and handles mainly shipping between Asia and the States.
Nestled within the foredeck stacks lay three blue containers, only one thing separated and identified them from the others. Above the lock and sealed gate end of the shipping containers, a small half-sphere of polished black glass was secured into the metal siding, that was transmitting signals to a satellite. Three separate signals were being relayed out, and after bouncing around various servers and computer systems across the planet, the tracking results were easily displayed on the screen.
William Richmond leaned back in his office chair and picked up a secure satellite phone, dialling a number from memory. The MI6 agent resembled a librarian more than a covert operator with the short white beard and bifocals perched on the end of his nose. The phone was answered immediately after the first ring tone.
The voice was crisp and with that one Chinese word, a ‘no-nonsense’ tone was expressed quite clearly.
“The laptop was secured. Everything is all set on my end.”
“The General is prepared. Are you ready to change the world?”
Without waiting for a response both parties disconnect. Keeping all calls below a ten-second duration ensured that they would not be traced.
William gently placed the satellite phone down on the antique desk and took a deep breath. It was too late now to change his mind.
Typing in the activation code, the devices within the three shipping containers began the countdown as they approached the Port of Los Angeles.
(c) David Darling
“To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.” Lord Byron
Losing all dignity, I am dragged slowly across the uneven floor. The rough, filthy carpet scratches harshly against my rubbery face as the boy tenderly, silently steps towards the decaying window. I can feel the fear emanating from the core of his being: I am not the victim here.
I shan’t repeat the screaming swearing his parents threw at each other. The expletives flew across the room quick enough to cut skin and penetrate the soul before self-defence was possible. It would’ve been a shocking attack for a thirty year old, let alone a five year old.
Flinching back from the sight, he searches desperately for a place to hide. There isn’t anywhere.
No furniture, no cupboards, all of his favoured hiding places don’t exist here. In blind terror he runs to the lone furnishings, two tattered, opaque net curtains. They appear to have been sliced by the fingers of a blade, or ripped by the pure anger of a previous visitor. Nonetheless he saw them as a solace from the danger and burrows into what’s left of them, forcing me to come with him for protection, for reassurance. As he attempts to conceal us in the disintegrating folds, their putrid smell burns a brand into our nostrils: “inadequate” it reads, echoing the views of his parents and society whenever they look upon our scraggly, matted hair and ill-fitting clothes.
However, it was a slight haven from the open confrontation of the world
and gradually I heard the decrease and quietening of his heartbeat to a more natural level, quiet enough so that we could hear a door slam and a car drive hastily away outside, setting it racing, pirouetting again.
Now truly alone, the silence weighed down on our small shoulders, menacingly encompassing us instead of offering a friendly difference. Behind me, his breathing stopped, held in by nervousness, unreasonable self-inflicted punishment and fear for the inevitable pain of what would happen next. The heaving gags ripple almost uncontrollably through him, showing his body’s desperation for oxygen, but he will not give in, this I know. I can hear the voices ringing around his head, echoing his parents’ cruel words “you deserve this.” Five more minutes and his body would force him to let go of the only thing he can control in his desperate life, sagging
victoriously into a faint against the wall and inhaling deeply. Only then would the mask of tension fall from his pain-stricken face.
I wait until the moment has arrived.
My opportunity has come. I shall put him out of his misery now, take away the pain entirely, for he has endured it far too long. He will thank me later, I know it. All those sleep-deprived years will be recompensed now and he’ll be free to live a pain-free childhood.
Easing my podgy body from his slackened grip, sitting up and panting for a moment for it has been so long since I’ve moved that my body has seized up and the effort of it is excruciating.
Summoning my strength, I focus on what needs to be done and slowly slip my hands around his neck, using my bandana to choke the breath, the life, from him. His body suddenly erupts into life, arms wind-milling, flailing, failing to stop the assailant. Failing to stop me. He “never tries hard enough”, my thoughts quote his parents as he finally gives in.
Now I drag myself slowly across the uneven floor, its rough, filthy carpet scratching my porcelain legs. Reaching the open window, I haul myself up, over the threshold and plunge into the unknown of the car park below. I shall join you now; you will never be without your favourite dolly...
(c) Tesni Penney
Cold freezing mist swirled around our legs, circling us. It had crept up from the north side and snaked its way across the top of the mountain. We might have been the only people left in the world; everything beyond the mist was another universe.
‘I’ll take your picture,’ said Dan, striding away from the cairn where we had halted,
catching our breath before the wind turned the sweat on our skin to a chill. I turned towards him and watched him step backwards. A few more steps and he would be swallowed up, sucked into an abyss. The wind whipped my hair across my face like tiny rats’ tails and I forced myself to smile for the camera.
‘One, two, three,’ he called.
‘I know you’ve been cheating on me,’ I shouted into a gust of wind.
But Dan didn’t hear and only gave me the thumbs up as he walked back towards me.
Then we heaved our daysacks onto our backs and walked through the mist down the mountain.
The pool was sapphire blue, water diamonds sparkling inside it as sunlight caught its ripples.
Dan paused at the side, long enough to garner attention, before diving into the depths. Then he swam underwater from one side to the other, surfacing only to refill his lungs. I sat on a sun-lounger, a book held up to shade my face and so I could ignore him.
One chapter later and a shadow appeared above me. He dripped water all over me as
he leant down and kissed my cheek, shaking his hair like a puppy. ‘Enjoying yourself?’ he said, smiling with his perfect aligned teeth. Without waiting for my reply, he strode off and posed again at the poolside. Once he had dived in and began his underwater strokes I decided to answer him.
I walked to the edge of the pool. His body wriggled under the surface, refracted by the light waves travelling through the water. I stood there, imagining throwing a spear like a stone-age hunter, trying to catch a seal.
‘I’m going to leave you,’ I called to him. But he carried on his sub-aquatic journey,
unware of my declaration. I returned to my sun-lounger, pulling it into the shade of a hibiscus tree, and holding up my book to block out the idyllic scene, playing out in front of me.
We raised our glasses to each other as the bubbles raced to the surface. The restaurant was as quiet as a museum, only the murmur of polite diners and the clink of cutlery. The waiting staff prowled, looking for empty plates or a stray napkin to be scooped up from the carpet.
‘Happy anniversary, Emily,’ Dan said, smiling. Then he winked; a remnant of our past
flirtations which I had once found charming. Now it seemed like a shortcut, an invitation. ‘I’m interested, are you?’ it said. I wondered how many women it had worked on.
‘Ten years,’ he mused. ‘Did you think we would last that long?’
I drained my glass. The honest answer, until a year ago, had been yes. We were the
perfect couple with the perfect house, holidays, life. But then the scales had fallen from my eyes; wrenched unwillingly would be more accurate. A quiet warning word in my ear from a friend, the possessive attachment to his phone (always on silent, always password protected) the things I found in the pockets of his jeans that no married man needs. But I was stuck, trapped in that land between staying and leaving. I had needed time. Paperwork had to be gathered, precious possessions transferred to a safe place, arrangements had to be made. And I’ll admit, I thought about putting up with it, turning a blind eye. But once the day came when the touch of his hand on my skin made me twitch I knew it was over. It was just a case of biding my time.
Everything in the house was neat and tidy when I left. I even hung up the washing and left him milk and a microwave meal in the fridge. My letter explaining my decision was on the kitchen table, instructions not to contact me and my lawyer’s address for him to pass any paperwork onto. Putting my case in the boot I felt a lightness in my heart I hadn’t felt in months. Freedom was a plane trip away; my three month job contract on the other side of the world could be extended if it suited me, or I could go somewhere else. I locked the front door behind me, and
then backtracked. I twisted my wedding ring off and placed it on top of the letter, letting the door slam behind me as I stepped back outside.
When my phone rang I nearly ignored it. But something made me look at the screen and press the green button.
‘Emily, it’s Dan. He’s been taken to hospital,’ Dan’s assistant’s voice was breathless and
panicky. ‘You need to go there straight away.’
I drove to the hospital in a trance. ‘This is not happening,’ pounded through my head as I walked into the A&E department. Down corridors and round corners and then Dan was there, lying prone in a bed, machines whirring and clicking. Nurses recorded numbers from screens, checked drips, padded around the bed silently. I stood in the doorway, stuck between going in and walking away.
A doctor appeared behind me and led me down the corridor. ‘A stroke,’ she explained.
‘A serious one. There’s a good chance he will pull through but there may be some damage.’
I looked at her blankly. This was not part of the plan.
‘I know it’s a lot to take in,’ she said in a reassuring voice. ‘But there is rehabilitation.
With some modifications he may be able to come home. We can support you, to help him recover.’
She pressed a leaflet into my hands and disappeared.
A nurse led me back into the room and sat me in a chair by Dan’s bed. His eyes were
closed and I wondered if he was dreaming, or hovering in another world, a blank dreamless state that only the very ill visit. I glanced at the leaflet, its paper glossy under my fingertips. The lines of letters marched like ants in front of my eyes until I folded it and put it in my pocket.
Time ticked by. I looked at the clock on the wall and thought about how I should be
checking in, answering security questions and putting my watch and jewellery in a grey plastic tray while I walked through the scanner. I phoned the number on my ticket and told them I wouldn’t make my flight. The voice on the other end was polite but curt; it was an everyday occurrence to him. For me, it was my future slipping away.
I stared at Dan. He was motionless, like a copy of himself. He was never normally still for a moment – he had always been a whirlwind of action, decisions, adventures. Now he needed me. In sickness or in health. Those were the words we had said to each other. For better, for worse. This was when it counted.
‘I brought you a cup of tea,’ said a nurse. She had a stud in her nose, a blue dot against pale skin. I took the cup, even though I never drank tea. I couldn’t taste anything anyway.
‘These things can come out of nowhere,’ she was saying. ‘Can’t predict them.’
I nodded. A tear slid down my cheek. She passed me a tissue and left the room. I let the bleep of the machines synchronise with my breathing. I took Dan’s hand in mine and lay my head on the cool white sheet. I felt the smooth gold band on his ring finger as I slipped into my own thoughts.
Later, the kind nurse with the stud in her nose touched my arm. ‘You’ve been here all
day,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go home and get some rest?’
‘Yes, I think I will,’ I said and stood to leave. Leaning down, I kissed Dan’s cheek. Then I picked up my handbag and left. The car was exactly where I had left it, my case still in the boot.
I turned on the engine and drove.
I would probably need to buy a new ticket. But I was getting on a plane, one way or
(c) Catherine Ogston
When she opens her eyes in the morning, he’s still there, sprawled next to her, almost tangible.
She doesn’t dare to blink, afraid he’ll disappear into the thin air, like so many times before. She always hopes he’ll seep out of her dream and into this alternate reality she creates in her head.
And in it, it’s an ordinary Saturday morning, and they have just woken up together. The room is stuffy with remnants of sleep, just like back then, when they shared it every night.
“Hey,” she says, clearing her throat and lifting her head from the pillow, smudged with the makeup she forgot to take off last night.
“Want some coffee?” she adds when he remains silent, his dark eyes scanning her face. She gets up and sits on the edge of the bed, groping with her feet for her slippers.
“You have to let me go,” he says before she shuffles out of the bedroom, her back stiff and straight.
“I dreamed of you again,” she says, looking at her chipped nail polish as if it contains the secret to life. Or death. Or this thing in between. The coffee machine he bought a week before he died softly purrs and the rich aroma floats through the sunlit kitchen. It’s difficult to keep heart-wrenching hope out of her voice. Every time she wakes up next to him, her mind is split between a shaky pretence at normality on one side, and the underlying fear this would be the last time she sees him, on the other.
“So that’s what’s keeping me here,” he says. His voice is indistinct barely audible, just a shadow of the vocal timbre she knows and loves.
“Where would you go, anyway?” she says, giving him a slight smile.
He reaches out to her smeared cheek and lets his fingers hover a fraction of an inch above her skin. She's quiet underneath this almost-touch, determined to take what she can. She wishes she could brush his hair away from the wound on his temple, a splotch of red on his pale skin, the last thing his body remembers.
This is the moment I want to live in, she thinks. When she closes her eyes, she sees their life together stretching ahead of them like a shimmering wave they can ride on forever if they just lock their hands and never let go. Stay, she beseeches him in her mind. I want to keep you and hide you from the world and time.
Going out to run errands feels too risky, so she keeps postponing it until it becomes inevitable.
What if this is the last time she sees him? What if this is the inevitable full stop at the end of the sentence they have been weaving together ever since they met, the sentence that ended so abruptly? When she closes the door behind her back, she runs down the stairs to prevent herself from going back in to check if he’s still there.
She finds him where she left him when she comes back home with bags loaded with groceries.
The way his eyes go wide when he sees his favourite cereal brand, the way he licks his lips as if he could taste it, brings her to tears. She cooks vegetable soup with noodles he loved so much, and he watches her eat, stating that’s enough.
They don’t discuss what happened that night. They don’t discuss what-ifs. What if she hadn’t left him alone that weekend and gone to visit her mother? What if he liked her mother enough to go with her? What if with his best friend hadn’t started a bar crawl with armed thugs? It’s pointless. She knows a harmless accident can turn into a tragedy in a blink of an eye. But sometimes she feels like she died with him that night.
“I can’t imagine a nicer boy,” her mother says. She’s perched on the kitchen chair, sipping her coffee with an absent-minded indifference. Behind her back, he’s frowning. His death didn’t fix their relationship. She sometimes wonders if her mother believes he’s responsible for getting himself killed. “Works in a bank. Recently divorced. His mother and I are in the same book club. He’d be perfect for you.”
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, he hums to himself, his long face crumpled in a frown.
“Mom. It’s too early. I’m not looking for anyone right now.”
Her mother’s bright lipstick is settled into the creases of her lips.
“I’m just saying. It’s a tragedy, but it’s been a year. He’s gone, darling. He’s not coming back.”
My grief, my rules, she wants to say. Her smile is vague and fails to reassure her mother.
“I hate it when I have to agree with your mother,” he says, looking at her with new
determination. She’s always loved his stubborn mouth, but right now, she wishes she could slap him.
“So I should go for the banker guy? Is that what you’re saying? It’s so nice to have your blessing!”
She’s scrubbing off the lipstick stains from the rim of the mug with unnecessary force. The porcelain is old and stained, and she lets it slip out of her hands, hoping it would shatter and break his silence.
“You don’t need my blessing,” says the ghost of his voice.
She turns to look at him, indignant, on the verge of tears.
“I don’t know how to do it.” Her words are sharp, coloured by fear. “I don’t know how to be without you. I miss you. I miss us. What’s the point of anything if you’re not there to share it with me?”
There’s so much sadness in his eyes she can’t bear to look at him.
“I’ll always be a shadow in your purest delights and all your scars. You’ll never be free of me, even if you want it; even if you go for that banker guy,” he says, and she chokes on a sob and presses her palm to her quivering lips. “I have no other home now. Just you.”
Hugging him feels like hugging a cloud, and even if her heart trembles with fear and resignation, underneath it all there’s a sliver of hope. He shares her pillow that night, holding her hand until she falls asleep, and even though she can’t feel his touch, she knows he’s there.
When she opens her eyes in the morning, his side of the bed is empty and undisturbed. She runs her fingers over the cold sheets before she gets up and shuffles into the bathroom, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She’s all alone in the silent apartment and she takes a moment to taste this new state of being unalarmed, unafraid, of being at peace. There’s a faint trace of red on her temple and she touches it lightly. It’s there to remind her that a love larger than life leaves permanent scars, but you love them, too, since they make you who you are. It’s there to remind her he’ll always be with her.
(c) Clare Adams
Wink’s swinging on the gate, barefoot, all knees and elbows, her thin face grinning as her dad comes along the lane. London still had lanes then and old clapboard houses with wooden verandas. Nan sits, shaded and grim-faced. She’s not harsh, just keeps her lips pulled tight to hold in her dentures.
‘What I’d give for an apple,’ she says, remembering back in the day when the old Queen was equally grim-faced. She rests her needles, watches Wink, skinny as a boy, long bare legs hanging from her summer frock, washed pale from Sunlight soap and line drying. No beauty, poor little Wink. Like a li’tle monkey face, Nan thinks.
Ethel and Jess are rattling crockery, cutting bread and butter in the half dark of the lean-to kitchen. There’s a smell of tomato plants and the buzz of bees round the honeysuckle and the mint taking over the place – the child’s upside down on the gate now, flashing her long brown thighs.
‘Oi, Wink,’ Nan shouts, ‘stop flashing your knicks!’ Wink turns her head, still upside down, sticks out her tongue. ‘Cheeky beggar,’ Nan mutters.
Wink tilts her body, delighting in the swing of her arms... the world is upside down!
The world’s right! It’s up! It’s down!
The late afternoon sun scorches the white paint of the veranda, polishes the shiny dish of blue sky. The worlds at her feet! She stretches out, somersaults off the gate and lands, perfectly poised, in front of her dad. He puts down his toolbox.
‘Watcha,’ he says, squinting into the sunlight. ‘Is tea ready poppet?’
‘Dad,’ she says, ‘Look at me!’ and cartwheels towards him. He catches her feet, hoists her up his body.
‘What’s for tea Nan?’ Dad says, looking up at the veranda and sliding Wink down onto the dusty ground, where she does a handstand and casually drops into a bridge shape, flicking her long legs, coming back to standing. She’s like golden brown rubber.
In a few years she’ll dance all night with a string of men on leave. She’ll whirl in her artificial silk, round and round to the sounds of the big bands, the curls sugar-stiff in her hair and even spend a delirious week holding hands in a Lyons tea room, ignoring the sirens, making plans, that all come to nothing when he goes back to his regiment. And his mate lets slip there’s wife at home... and kiddies. She never catches another one, can’t say why. She’ll stay, looking after mum and dad. Nan’ll be gone by then, lungs like wet woollies on the line.
(c) Karon Alderman
As well as having elephant-like ankles, my ex-wife had a memory like one. I nudged things in the kitchen — an inch to the left one day, then two to the right the next — just to gauge her reaction.
Then, once Alison cracked, I’d get my real payback.
I’d gone to such efforts to please her when I was alive, following the instructions on her cleaning spreadsheet and settling for the title of fourth-most-important man in her life (behind her sixty-year-old lover and her two poodles). Most of my headaches had come from Alison’s daily allegations or those yapping dogs, so it was a surprise to me when I met my maker at just fifty. I’d been in good health, then suddenly, bang, a brain aneurysm.
Back in the kitchen, Alison fed Benjamin and Gerrald their one scoop of biscuits each. Another act of my rebellion was to switch their food so the portly one kept piling on the pounds, while his brother ate the high-fibre pellets. Alison must’ve thought that Gerry was also sneaking doughnuts on the way to work. After the dogs finished, she disinfected and stacked their bowls in the designated place, then wrote a to-do list for him. As she had the week off from her job as an events planner, she left for her morning power walk instead of the office. I suspected she just walked to the bakery and back. I wished I could follow her, but I’d been tasked to stay behind to complete my mission.
It’s true I never loved the dogs, but I was mortified when they were poisoned. I’m no
murderer. The silly pair got into a packet of my slug pellets that must’ve looked like their kibble.
Her pets eventually recovered, but Alison blamed me and wouldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. Now, I needed to make her sorry, or I’d end up stuck with her for eternity, just as the new one was.
The new one was Brian, a Brigadier in the British Army, with ruddy cheeks and a public-school voice. Alison always hated my ponytail, so I’m not surprised she went for a short-back-and-sides type. Even though they had married, they didn’t see each other much. I think they actually preferred synchronising schedules to living together in domestic bliss. When I started my haunting a couple of years ago, I wondered where Brian would fit into the pecking order, but he soon had the dogs well drilled.
They were the perfect fit. Alison valued cleanliness and order, and Brian liked classical music and tin soldiers. I’m not kidding, he was even more serious about his battlefield arrangements than Alison was with her coordinated cushion displays. Brian had his miniature field guns and artillery and Alison had her Dustbuster.
While I waited for Alison to return, I twiddled my thumbs in the kitchen and thought back to the moment after my death — my transformation from patsy to poltergeist. When I woke up, I was standing in a white room, and it wasn’t Saint Peter I heard, but a computerised voice.
“Appearance, communication, or movement?” it asked, in a soft American accent.
All I could see was blinding white. “What? Where am I?”
“Nowhere. You do not exist in a physical form. Now you must choose the method for your haunting of Alison Ba—.”
I recognised the voice. “Stephen Hawking?”
“The Intel ACAT system has been selected as the most appropriate voice to represent your creator,” it replied. I suppose I did always admire the man. His wife supposedly bullied him too.
“Homicide victim eight-one-nine, you must now choose appearance, communication or movement.”
The voice sighed. “You were murdered, and have therefore been retained to haunt your killer until atonement is achieved.”
I knew things had been going badly between us, but murder?
“Your wife added concentrated slug poison into your food, drinks, and cosmetic products. You had a stroke.”
Talk about a toxic relationship. “She really must have thought I wanted the dogs dead . . .”
“You must now return to the scene of the crime, to haunt her conscience.
“Won’t she be going to prison?” I asked.
Another robot sigh escaped. “A brain tumour was discovered during your autopsy, and what with your advancing age, the police didn’t—”
“Alright, Stephen, don’t rub it in!”
After careful consideration, I chose the power of movement. I certainly had nothing to say to Alison, and I’d always maintained that spirit mediums were a hoax. What The Great Stephen didn’t tell me, was that I couldn’t leave the house until Alison was sorry for her crimes.
I planned to exact the perfect revenge, taking my time to send her over the edge, but after a prolonged campaign of gaslighting, I needed to turn up the heat. Today was the day I would end it.
During the Brigadier’s leave, I’d been hard at work shifting things around, making ever more obvious movements of Alison’s things, and playing fast and loose with The Brian’s belongings.
Every time he went to the toilet, I made sure to lift the seat up and splash a small puddle on the floor. I left lights on all over the house, ironed the creases out of his slacks, took in the waists on Alison’s trousers, and shortened the dogs’ leads by one inch per day. The tension had increased, and over the course of one week, they went from cuddles on the sofa, to sleeping in separate beds. While Alison watched evening reruns of Midsomer Murders, he sat with his spectacles perched on his nose studying maps of various historical battles on the table.
Moving The Brigadier’s tin soldiers around was the most fun I’d had in years. I’d quite
forgotten that I was supposed to be concentrating on Alison. He was so careful where he placed the miniature guns, horses and flags, attaining military precision with the use of a magnifying glass.
Alison returned and I put my battle plan into action. I really stuck it to Brian’s troops, switching armaments, toppling soldiers left and right, and even removing all of the brigadiers from the scene.
“Alison, darling,” he said, “have the dogs been in here?”
She paused her cleaning of the microscopic honey droplets I’d left on the floor to attract ants.
“Don’t be silly. Gerald’s with me, and Benjamin’s in the garden. Look.”
“Hmm. It must have been them nosing around where they don’t belong.”
Alison pointed a finger. “And I suppose it was them who left the toilet seat up again.”
The Brigadier didn’t like that accusation. He was used to giving orders, not receiving them.
“Nonsense. I always leave the lavvy as I find it. And please don’t touch my pieces.”
Alison mumbled that his piece wasn’t in any danger of being touched and went back to her cleaning. The Brigadier left to inspect the latrines and rid himself of the charge of leaving the seat up. While he was gone, I quickly rearranged the battle of Waterloo to make it look as though the French had won and Napoleon was buggering The Duke of Wellington.
When he returned, his face went redder than the British uniforms. “This is not a game, woman!”
Alison marched into the conservatory. “What is it now, Brian? Honestly, you and your bloody toy soldiers.”
The Brigadier picked up the nearest piece to hand — a lead field gun about the size of a King Edward potato. “Stay out of here!” he commanded, launching his projectile.
He didn’t mean to hit her, of that I’m sure. But, it clonked Alison right on the head. She stumbled backwards, crashing into the kitchen like a concussed rhinoceros, knocking over the dogs’ food in the process. Kibble everywhere. I watched in amazement as she struggled for footing, and slipped on the wet floor. Her head slammed on the edge of the freshly-wiped kitchen counter and she went down. Alison held her temple, groaning, and rolled under the table, leaving a slimy trail of blood on the lino. She stared up at the underside of the table and probably wondered why someone had stencilled the logo for Slug Away onto the wood. Even if they found a brain tumour when they performed her autopsy, it wouldn’t explain the hole in her head caused by the fall.
The Brigadier was beside himself. He even left The Duke of Wellington to the mercy of Bonaparte and rushed in to administer CPR. The dogs barked and ran around in circles, before hoovering up the biscuits on the bloody floor.
Alison was dead in minutes. If that wasn’t justice then I didn’t know what was. I couldn’t have hoped for a better result. I even did a little jig on top of her body.
The Brigadier phoned the police and turned himself in. It wasn’t as if the dogs could exonerate him. Brian wouldn’t be able to play with his tin soldiers in prison, but at least he’d be used to the strict routine.
With my mission complete, I left the house and felt myself floating up to the white emptiness f Stephen Hawking’s voice machine. Mission accomplished.
“Haunting unsuccessful,” said the voice.
I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean? She got exactly what she deserved.”
Stephen sighed. “She did not atone for her crime.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m happy with the outcome.”
There was a long pause like he was calculating something. “Manslaughter victim three-four-nine will now haunt the agent of her misjustice.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said.
“And she has elected to appear, through selected visions, until justice is served.”
It couldn’t be. I felt a headache coming on and screwed my eyes shut. My temple pounded, and not because of the bright white surroundings. Please no. When I opened my eyes, I saw a plump, perfectly turned-out events planner, wearing a pressed suit and a name badge that said Alison Baker. She had a dustbuster in one hand and a miniature metal cannon in the other. As she looked up, she raised her eyebrows as if to say ‘hello, you.’
(c) Phillip Charter