I can hear it moving again.
I have heard it for a few nights now. Strange movements, scratching, breathing and every now and again screeching that makes my skin crawl.
I've told my mom; she thinks I'm making it up. She told me not to be silly.
There are no such things as monsters.
It's so dark around me, I can only just make out the ceiling above me, square and white.
It's moving again, louder than before.
I'm too scared to call for my mom, what if it hears me?
I press my eyes shut and hope the noises disappear. Was that a thud? And now the screeching starts. It runs through me like ice. So loud and incessant, interrupted by deep breaths like hiccups.
I cannot stand it, why does my mom not hear it?
Is there movement in the darkness? Oh no, don't let it find me.
I curl up in a ball, keep my limbs together and pretend that if I cannot see the monster then it cannot see me. That should work!
I bravely squint through my eyelids, wondering if the monster's gone.
What is this?
It's bristly and round, with insanely huge eyes, and it's staring right at me.
I whimper “Mom?” but nobody hears me.
The creature's not moving, but something else is.
Fingers, long and pointy, appear from the darkness.
They make their way towards me.
They're getting closer, fumbling around.
“Mom! Mooom!” I'm hysterically crying as the fingers grab me and pull me from underneath the bed.
(c) Patricia Green
It’s an overcast Friday lunchtime when the white van slews to the kerb, the side-door slides open, and two men wearing baby masks haul you inside.
You’re bundled to the floor, a gag is placed in your mouth, and a hood pulled over your head. You’re wearing your best suit and you’d cleaned your shoes only the night before. The van smells of disinfectant. Your hands are tied behind your back, but you aren’t assaulted. No one speaks.
Fack, you think. Fack, fack, fack. You should have shouted or screamed. The gag tastes of vinegar.
The van stop-starts through heavy traffic and waits at lights. You roll gently from side to side and feel slightly travel sick. Perhaps it isn’t vinegar.
The road noise increases and you guess you’ve cleared the city. Maybe you’re heading south, maybe you aren’t. You could struggle or kick. You could think up sensible, rational questions. You could offer a bribe – you have some money saved, and although your da’s not rich he’s doing okay – or even a threat. However, you sense nothing would make any difference.
You lie there, rolling gently, like on the ferry. Later, you’re meant to be going to Roisin’s engagement party and you still haven’t bought her a present.
The sound of other traffic wanes, but the van keeps going. Slower. A side road, or a private road, undulating and weaving.
The van stops.
Birds call in alarm. Wind soughs in the trees. You feel thirsty, and you’ve eaten nothing since a boiled egg at breakfast. Life seemed very dull, then, very humdrum. Egg with soldiers, work, Roisin’s party. Now, you’ll be the centre of attention, not Roisin.
One of the men grunts as he yanks open the van door. But still no one speaks. You wriggle into a sitting position and turn to the fresh air. You’re so grateful to the twittering of the birds. You could buy Roisin a budgerigar from the pet shop at the end of the Falls road. You’re surprised you’re thinking of the party and a gift for Roisin.
You’re pulled out of the van and you sprawl on the floor. You smell pine – a pine wood. You’re hefted to your feet and you sway back and forth like a drunk. You’re going to get so drunk at Roisin’s party. Drunk as an English squaddie.
The sliding door slams shut and the van drives away. You miss the van – ridiculous. You try to explain it to yourself: nothing bad, not really bad, had happened in the van. You know the van. The forest is new. And what you can’t see is new, too. You should concentrate on the here and now, be less of a flibbertigibbet as Roisin accuses you.
You miss the van, you miss Roisin. You feel like crying.
The gag is yanked from your mouth.
‘Fack,’ you scream. ‘Fa-ack!’
They wait, you wait.
A rope is tied around your tied hands and you’re pulled forward – and again. You get the idea – walking. You’ve done it before. You try to keep your spirits up, not to ask questions, not blub, not be a nuisance. You’ve read things, scare-stories and suchlike.
You walk for twenty minutes, stumbling occasionally but not falling. You guess there are two men, but there could have been one, or a dozen. You wonder if this is it. Please, God. Even if you aren’t a regular at his house, you go occasionally just to please your mam. Perhaps God is a woman. Perhaps so many things.
A flat hand thumps your sternum. You stop, wait, like a good citizen. You are a good citizen, not a perfect one, certainly not in everyone’s eyes. But half of them, give or take.
A door creaks open and you’re pulled inside. You wait like a dog. Someone tip-taps down a flight of stone steps. You’re pushed forward. You toe the first step, like a swimmer. Ease a foot down, then another, and slowly you descend. It’s cold and smells musty. You hear running water. Twelve steps, you count, think you’re being clever. Top of the class. You have exams, you had once been top of the class, but nothing matters any more. Qualifications, money, a cool haircut. Only self-defence and seeing through a mask matter. Henry Sugar had once stared at a candle so much that he could see through playing cards. If only you’d done that.
You’re pulled forward again, not far, the length of the van. The lovely van. You’re pushed down into a chair. You’re tied to its back with rope. Please, you say, can you have a glass of water.
The hood’s whipped off.
You blink in the dim light, and see a dark figure retreating up the steps towards a small oblong of daylight. You’re sitting in a damp cellar. Bricks are piled in a corner and plastic sacks line one wall. A baseball bat rests on top. It’s stained from use.
You can’t believe this is happening. You’re a no one, you aren’t affiliated. You don’t go to meetings or take part in parades. You’ve done nothing.
Someone clomps down the stone steps, and a pair of rubber boots come into view. Then a pair of stocking-clad legs and the hem of a chequered brown dress. You know that dress.
She reaches the foot of the steps. She’s wearing the dress you helped her choose. You almost want to laugh. But you don’t, you wait.
‘So it is,’ says Roisin. She leans against a dank wall.
‘Mind your dress.’ Roisin doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. The silence intensifies the cold. ‘What is this place?’ you ask.
‘An old air raid shelter.’
You nod, knowingly, but knowing nothing of any value. ‘I haven’t slept with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
‘I’m not.’ Roisin stands away from the wall and brushes down her sleeve as if she’d thought of it herself.
‘Shouldn’t you be preparing for your party?’
‘It’s off. This is my party, now.’
You look around, at the weeping walls, the old bricks, the sacks of you-don’t-know-what. The baseball bat with its yellowish staining.
‘What are we – what am I – doing here?’
‘Think,’ says Roisin. ‘Have a really long think. Take all the time in the world.’ She doesn’t sound like Roisin. It sounds like someone you haven’t been dress shopping with, haven’t shared many a cocktail hour, haven’t slept on each other’s shoulder going home on the night bus.
You shake your head.
Roisin tut-tuts and wags a finger. ‘Do you remember taking a trip?’
‘Not really,’ you say, and you shake your head a second time.
‘O’er the water.’
Your stomach lurches as if you’re jumping off the high board.
Rosin picks up the baseball bat and prods the wall. If you weren’t seeing it with your own two square, you wouldn’t be believing it.
‘You were spotted at Larne. The pair of you.’
‘It’s legal, now.’
‘Doesn’t mean it’s right.’
Of course it’s right, you want to scream. Of course it’s bloody right. It’ll save untold pain and injury and danger and humiliation and wasted lives for countless numbers of women and girls. You’d campaigned for it, and told everyone you knew to write to their MP. Including Roisin.
‘Why’ve you never said if that’s the way you feel?’
‘I’m a sleeper.’
Her expression was brief but you saw the smirk. She was proud of the word, proud of her role, proud. Proud. Fack. You begin to feel angry, and you wriggle in your rope shackles. ‘So now you’re going round fingering the people who once considered you as a friend. A close friend. My best friend.’ You spit on the floor.
‘We’ll repeal the law.’
‘Ballsacks,’ you shout.
She smiles, the old Rosin, and then it hardens. The new Roisin.
‘And what exactly is this?’ you say. ‘You’re hardly the hard man of the organisation if that’s not too grand a word for it. The outfit. The gang.’ Your mind’s racing as you speak. ‘Or is this your initiation? Break your once best friend’s legs, and you’re in. Or maybe promotion to lead your own cell. Rosin, you’re a shit. But, you go right ahead and swing. I will hunt you down to the corners of the six counties, to the corners of the island, the corners of the globe. I will hunt you down and rip your facking nails out.’ You’re surprised at the venom in your voice.
Rosin’s surprised, too. She glances behind her, looks up the steps, checking, you assume, her backup is still there.
She hefts the bat, swings it back and forth.
You steel yourself. You’re coursing with adrenalin and you’re ready. Your life is about to change, you’re ready. You’re more than ready. You’re excited. Your rootless existence and your uncertain future are over. You have found a cause, and fack, are you going to give more than you’re going to get.
(c) James Ellson
As the eastern sky turned red, Tisca got up from her bed. The soft wind caressed her skin as she gazed at the large, purplish-blue flowers through the bedroom window. The rays of the summer sun caught the zigzagging wings of the Himalayan quails and pigeons which created patterns across the sky in Darjeeling town. She looked at the snow-capped peaks that dazzled brilliantly. Her eyes twinkled with happiness as she glanced at the lush green slopes and the distinctive tea plantations that dot the surrounding slopes. Suddenly, Tisca remembered that she had a romantic meeting with Aryan.
Tisca bounced into the streets of Darjeeling soon afterwards in a yellow tunic. The fresh and fun walk boosted her spirit. The young girls shopped until they dropped. She strolled beneath the clear blue skies. A sweet smell floated in the air, and everyone got crazy over leisurewear.
Aryan arrived in his black SUV. His vigorous frame appeared shapeless and frayed as he peered through the car window. The professional painter looked stark-stylish in a sporty summer jacket. Suddenly, a feeling of happiness seized Tisca.
“Hi honey, are you ready to roll?” Aryan asked his fiancee in his sexy baritone, stepping off his car. His self-consciousness didn’t irritate Tisca. “Yeah love,” she replied.
That time Ash arrived. Her breasts swung under her clingy yellow frock as she walked, her shapely legs surged ahead in perfect grace. “Bye mate, till tomorrow,” Ash waved to her friend, giggling. Tisca waved to her as Aryan drove off from the hustle and bustle of Darjeeling town. She stared at the old street lamps that lit up the vague houses.
Tisca gazed at the thick streaks of red which stretched from the western horizon to the surrounding hills. When dusk settled over the hills, the temperature dropped filling the evening air with a nip and freshness. After some time, they reached a luxurious resort.
Tucked away right under the nose of noisy Darjeeling town the swanky resort lay like a love letter, waiting for a wandering soul to stumble upon it. Aryan and Tisca entered an expensive suite of the resort after a sumptuous dinner. The ornate living room dazzled them.
On the morning, Tisca stood by the balcony door looking absently at the blurred distance. She soaked some morning sun as a nippy breeze gently touched her face. The stormy moments of the night appeared and reappeared before her eyes. The birds twittered delightedly.
Aryan slept through the morning. Tisca took great pleasure in looking at the excess of beauty. The sun rose higher in the clear sky.
Aryan’s naked frame made a pale outline on the frosted glass of the hotel toilet when Tisca got in. She entered into the toilet while Aryan took a bath.
Through the windowpanes of the suite sunrays streamed in comfortable and warm. “Get ready, candy-floss,” Aryan said in a cheerful tone as he stood in front of the mirror. “Yeah darling,” Tisca replied, tittering. “Let’s chat and chill over coffee,” proposed Tisca. “Sure babe,” Aryan drawled. As the clock struck eight, Aryan drifted across the hotel lobby towards the car park.
Aryan drove past the monastery as the car crawled towards Darjeeling town. Tisca gazed at the greens with a heavy heart, as good times always pass quickly. “You are home, babe,” Aryan said. His voice woke Tisca up from dreaminess.
“How was your date?” Ash asked, smiling wryly. Tisca only smiled. The memories of the tumultuous night in the resort kept coming back to her all the time.
Tisca enjoyed the calm of the afternoon as the sun played hide - and - seek behind the clouds. The lone dove startled her when it cooed. The music teacher’s soprano voice streamed through the humid air into her ears when Tisca crossed the music school.
The sun set slowly, turning the sky into a shade of tangerine. The night grew darker and darker. After some drinks Tisca and Ash dropped their clothing and stood bare before each other. Only a dim blue light emitted from the night lamp. Tisca turned it off.
Tisca's eyes opened suddenly in the middle of that night. She came out on the Juliet balcony. She gazed at the flickering lights of a sleepy Kurseong town. A light breeze provided relief and freshness. It enveloped the whole universe. The lights rippled and danced. Overwhelmed, she gazed upwards till her neck ached.
Suddenly, Tisca heard the familiar sound of footsteps behind her. “What’s up?” Ash asked. Her voice broke the absolute silence. “I’ve missed my dates,” Tisca croaked. “Don’t delay to consult your gynaecologist,” Ash suggested. “I’ll do that,” Tisca replied.
Elegantly decorated, with a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, the clinic, distinguished itself by its comfort. The doctor examined her. “You are pregnant,” he said, “congratulations.” Ash came to the rescue of her friend. “I owe you a party, sissy,” she said. Ash pretended to be delirious with joy as they hurriedly left the room.
Tisca's throat dried up. Her whole frame shook violently when the faces of her dear ones appeared before her eyes. An eerie chill went down her spine. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Arrange to meet Aryan tomorrow, baddie,” Ash suggested in a sympathetic tone. “Thanks mate,” Tisca said, wiping her tears with a handkerchief.
Aryan absented himself from his office the next day. The dream of spending every single beautiful day together with him for the rest of her life thrilled Tisca despite her restlessness. Ash and Tisca drove off towards Aryan's residence along the stunning scenic beauty. The charming bungalow soothed their eyes. The hustle and bustle of Darjeeling failed to touch the solitude of the double-floored bungalow, perched on a hillock. Two security guards watched over the huge iron gates. Tisca slipped in a small piece of paper. A butler greeted them. “Don’t worry. Go ahead,” Ash said, parking her Harley.
The ground-floor piazza of the house let in the sky, and the greenery reached in through the large bay windows. The soft, expensive materials, rich and plush furniture and other luxuries failed to lessen Tisca's unease. She perked up when a bone china cup containing a sparkling clear liquid of a light straw colour was handed to her at the posh bungalow. It tasted mildly astringent, and it had a faint woody aroma. Every sip of that warm tea filled her mouth with freshness. Suddenly, a gorgeous woman appeared. “Hi, I’m Rose, wife of Aryan,” she said in a husky voice.” “Is he in?” Tisca queried. “No, I’m sorry,” the woman replied.
“Looking gloomy, sissy!” said Ash, when Tisca came out. She kept quiet. Ash drove on until the riders reached their door. After a while, Tisca gazed blankly at the blurred distance through the open windows.
Aryan turned up late to his office the next day. Tisca entered the room while shafts of light streamed into the cubbyhole through the window. The green tea plantations soothed the eyes. Aryan agreed to meet his lover at the old restaurant.
Tisca shivered in the unusually cold weather, but it was nice and warm inside the small restaurant. The soft and melodious notes that floated in the air charmed her. Aryan walked in while the sun disappeared behind the hills. “I’m pregnant,” Tisca said, bluntly. “Are you serious?” Aryan asked as an expression of shock and disbelief crossed his face. Absence of further response signified his disapproval, and a deafening silence descended. Aryan looked pale as if he was unwell. A canopy of mists floated over the valleys dimming the distant lights. All the lights in the restaurant suddenly went off, plunging the building into darkness.
“Aren’t you happy?” Tisca said as the power returned within a second. “Come on baby, abort it,” Aryan said casually, sipping a cup of coffee. His facial expression changed in the blink of an eye. A fearful and unfamiliar look replaced the old swagger. Aryan’s face grew pale. “I have decided to keep the baby,” Aryan dashed out through the glass door, his feet thumping softly on the carpet.
“I have walked out on Aryan,” Tisca said to Ash in a quavering voice. “Oh my god!” exclaimed Ash. “He has never loved me,” Tisca muttered in anguish and anger.
Tisca found Facebook posts dull and boring. One morning Tisca froze on her touch- screen mobile.” Ash, please come here,” Tisca cried out, alarmingly.
Ash ran to the study from the kitchen. “Are you okay, bud?”
Silence reigned in the room. Tears trickled down uncontrollably as Tisca clung to her. Embarrassment and extreme grief created a lump in her throat. Her voice choked in the anguish of a loss that knew no recompense.
“What are these, dear?” Ash said looking at the morphed images Aryan had uploaded on Facebook. Her anxious voice broke the silence.
Life was pretty hectic, and she couldn’t run away from it.
Moonlight came in through the curtains, lighting up Tisca’s body and soul.
(c) Dipayan Chakrabarti
Iain Richardson snaps on his headphones, grabs his bike and pedals furiously towards the seafront. Can he make it to the arches in five minutes? It’s chancy, not because of the distance but because of the constant need to weave through human traffic.
Brighton is full to bursting in the May sunshine. By Iain’s reckoning, approximately a million festival-goers, tourists and English language students have flocked to what is fast being termed London-by-Sea. And not one of them is paying a blind bit of attention to the cycle lanes.
Iain has long since found through trial and error that a combination of ringing the bell and shouting “Move!” in his low Ulster tone is the best means of clearing the way. “Excuse me” takes too long, and the bell by itself fades into the background noise of seagulls and chatter. After a dicey seven minutes he slews to a stop, scattering stray pebbles with his back tyre, right outside the intentionally graffitied arch that is home to WeBike4U.
He’s in luck – it’s only Joe who sits waiting.
“Alright?” Iain asks as he grabs the logbook, scribbling the time as 1.59pm to make it less suspicious.
Joe looks up from his makeshift desk, scratching his ear. “Yeah, mate. Up for a bit of a workout? Boss man’s left you all the ball-aches.”
Iain scans the list. Only two of the deliveries are in the BN1 area. Most are uphill in Kemptown and the furthest is twelve miles away in Seaford.
He mutters a curse and loads the delivery items into his courier bag. Seaford’s a pick-up: he’ll leave it till last, then freewheel his way home. Or, more likely, to the King and Queen pub.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Her nose twitches, then her entire body shudders.
Dark and damp and cold. Something dripping from above. A dull ache spreading across her right shoulder.
Where am I? What am I doing here? What time is it? What day is it?
She bites down panic. Takes a deep breath. Forces herself to assess the situation.
Both her legs are curled under her, and from the smooth cold contact it feels like a concrete floor. Possibly tiles or polished wood, but probably concrete. She can move her toes, her feet, her legs. Her hips have a bit of free movement, but there is something restrictive around her waist. A harness?
Her arms are bound tightly in front of her from elbows to wrists, tied with something thick and coarse. A picture flashes in her mind of one of those ropes you always see coiled up on the deck of a boat.
No headache, but no memory either. She thinks back. A tumble of dreams get in the way, then slowly, mistily, she pictures walking across Palmeira Square towards the recruitment agency. Did she reach her office? She isn’t sure. Possibly drugged, possibly too stressed to think straight. She puts it aside for now.
Another deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
There is a faint smell of petrol. Is it coming from the drip? Or is the dripping sound water, and the petrol more of a background smell?
She decides, for the sake of her own sanity, she’s in a garage with a leaky roof. She can’t see a thing, but there’s no blindfold. She squeezes her eyes shut and counts to ten, slowly, then opens her eyes. Turns her head and swivels her torso to look right, then centre, then left.
Is it her imagination, or is it more grey than black to the left? Possibly. Straight ahead is darkest, so she’s probably facing a wall.
The drip, drip, drip is the only sound. Can she – should she – make another?
Nine down, two to go.
Iain wipes the sweat off his brow with the back of his arm, then checks the delivery details. Bell Tower Industrial Estate, Unit 3B.
He packs the list away and sets off, cycling towards the huge Lidl on the corner. It’s a short distance from there to the sprawl of low concrete buildings that make up the myriad units of the industrial estate.
Everything is grey: the road, the buildings and even the sky. The bright day has given way to an overcast, muggy evening, the air turning humid and heavy.
Iain chains up the bike at the first stand he sees and sets off on foot with the parcel, the better to spot the unit numbers.
3B is not a promising sight. The drab unit with its corrugated iron shutter is locked up tight. Deserted.
Iain bangs his fist on the shutter. The whole thing reverberates with a hollow clang.
Then there’s a tap on his shoulder and he nearly drops the parcel.
“Hey, I’m Mark. We didn’t expect same-day delivery! Give me a sec.”
Iain turns to see a large, friendly man with short grey hair, clad in a red and yellow Hawaiian shirt. Mark smiles broadly and stoops to deal with the padlock. The shutter makes an almighty clatter as it shoots up towards the ceiling.
The revealed microbrewery looks festooned for a party: every available surface is draped with coloured fabrics, and bright posters adorn the walls. Even the steel fermenters sport spirals of bright bunting, like summer’s answer to Christmas tinsel.
Iain hands Mark the parcel and smiles back. “Nice wee place you’ve got here. I just need you to sign this form.”
They move towards a makeshift table that looks like it’s been cobbled together from driftwood. A few scattered crates clearly serve as chairs when the tap room’s open. Mark scrawls his signature and hands the proof of delivery form back together with a bottle labelled “Summer Lovin’ IPA” in swirly green and pink letters.
“Ah, that’s grand!” Iain says appreciatively.
They exchange goodbyes and Iain retrieves his bike, reluctantly packing the beer away for the end of his shift. He feels ready for it now, but it’s a good ten miles from here to Seaford, and the mugginess is sapping his strength as it is.
He selects a trance channel on his phone and turns up the volume for the long, slow climb ahead. The peak rush-hour traffic has passed, but the backlogged buses are trying to make up for lost time. They make their displeasure at having to give way on the stretches without a cycle lane well and truly known.
“Bastard bus, bastard bus,” Iain mutters to the tempo as he pedals. Exhaust fumes swirl, negating any sense of benefit from the sea view.
As he nears his destination, the climb gets steeper, and Iain’s legs are screaming at him by the time he turns off the main road. He finds the cul-de-sac on the third attempt.
Professor Alec Dockett’s house is set back from the rest, the huge front garden complete with a pond. Iain parks his bike in the driveway and crosses the well-manicured lawn. The pond is incongruously wild, with tufts of weeds, grass and rushes, and a scummy surface that means it’s impossible to tell whether any fish are swimming around in it.
Iain makes for the porch, spotting through the glass door that there is a box awaiting collection. He opens the porch door and is engulfed by a greenhouse-like warmth as he steps forward to ring the bell. As he waits, he is uncomfortably aware that sweat is beginning to dampen the piece of paper in his hands.
The front door swings open to reveal a tall, bald sixty-something wearing a smart shirt, black trousers and shiny black shoes.
“Professor Dockett?” Iain asks. “I just need to you complete this collection form.”
Iain rummages in his pocket for a pen. He makes to pass it over together with the form, only for his face to be met with the firm press of cloth.
The alarm wakes me at 7 a.m. sharp. I wash, shave and dress, choosing my best suit. I eat two rounds of toast, savour every teaspoonful of the soft-boiled eggs. Brew real good coffee.
My wall calendar shows me what I already know – today’s the red-letter day. I smile. There’s plenty of time. It’s been a productive week.
I clear away the breakfast things and pad into the office. I wake up the laptop and double-click on the Word document. It picks up where I left off. I scroll back past Iain and go over the final lines of Jessica’s section.
“The drip, drip, drip is the only sound. Can she – should she – make another?”
Well, that is the question. I want Jessica to choose correctly. But it has to be authentic – I can’t take the decision for her.
I navigate to the desktop, double-click on the infrared camera icon. It instantly picks out Jessica.
“Yes,” I hiss. Just as I’d hoped.
I close my laptop, grab the key to the basement and get to work.
(c) Carrie Hynds
I know all about you.
It was all too easy. You invited me in, even gave me a nice cup of tea. And a little plate of biccies. Bourbons as I remember. So very suburban. You thought I was doing you a favour and all for only £40 an hour.
I didn’t take anything when I left, and you thanked me profusely for my trouble. Promised to keep in touch in fact. You were very impressed with my work.
You were relieved to have found me you said. Discovered me through a little ad in the parish magazine. You can trust the parish magazine can’t you. Much better than sticking a pin in the small business pages of the telephone book. Don’t know who you might get.
It helps that I looked the part as well. Computer nerd chic, styled by Microsoft. I’m not sure if that phrase means much to you, but some people might use it to describe my appearance. My trainers are clean and have no logos, my jeans are well pressed, my shirt and jumper are colour coordinated. No threat there eh? Smart and professional. Somebody you can put your faith in.
Now let me tell you how it worked. I need to share the beauty of it and you won’t let on will you?
That would be wise. Remember, I do know all about you.
So, your computer went down¼only I should imagine that’s not the phrase you used. I guess you said to your wife, (and it’s normally a wife, I don’t get many ladies calling me out,) something like,
“Don’t use the computer Sue. Its got one of those bloody viruses or something. Been on it for hours and can’t get anywhere with it.”
Sue to you, Suzy to her friends, Susan when she’s being more formal. Yes, I know a lot about her as well. And a little word to the wise at this point, as I’m mentioning your wife. Keep an eye on the bills. The amount of time that woman spends online shopping, well it beggars belief. I guess all the packages normally get delivered when you’re out at work, so you don’t notice what she has been buying. I know it’s none of my business, but I don’t want you to have any more nasty surprises.
Then, when she asked you what you were going to do about it, I imagine you said, “ I think I’ll have to get a little man out.”
A little man like me. Well, you’re not going to lug the thing to a shop and pay a small fortune for it to be repaired. No, a little man will do. More discrete as well.
So, you chanced upon my advert and gave me a ring. I answered and we made the appointment. I couldn’t get to you for a day or two. I’m a very busy man, you would be surprised how many people share your problems. I suggested you unplugged the computer and perhaps popped down to the local library to use theirs in the meantime. Free internet access for one hour a day. A bargain. That appealed to you.
I arrived and you showed me to your office, your private place. Most of the men I visit have a space like that; it might be a study or a bedroom, it’s normally somewhere tucked away. Anyway, I switched on and investigated the problem. Then it was out with the usual spiel.
“You’ve got some nasty stuff on here.” I said.
And you replied with,
“I don’t know where I might have picked them up. You don’t do you.”
“It’s okay. Nothing I haven’t come across many times before. We’ll just try a few things,” I said.
Then I dazzled you with my expertise. Click, click, click. Of course, most of this is just for show but you’re not to know that are you? You trust me like you trust the dentist, or the little man who fixes your car and gravely tells you that you need an expensive new part.
Click, click, click. You hovered and then you offered me that cup of tea. You hovered some more. After about an hour, (funny how it always takes that long every time,) I pronounced the job done.
But here’s the clever part. You probably didn’t think anything of it, imagined it was all part of the service.
“If anything else goes wrong give me a call. I’ve loaded a little program that will let me access your computer remotely. Saves me having to come out here every time,” I said.
You agreed, you were grateful and you didn’t suspect a thing.
So, now I’m back home and I’ve got free access to your computer. Well, you’d have to be a saint not to be tempted to do a little eavesdropping. It’s better than the telly I can tell you. The stories I could tell. And, before long, I know which websites you visit and when you log on, the e-mails you send and to whom.
And not only you and your wife. Did you know that your lovely daughter was using your computer? Perhaps you do. Perhaps you let her use it for her schoolwork. That’s all well and good, but do you know what else she uses it for?
Nasty things those social networking sites. Maybe you’ve read about them. People pretending to be something or somebody that they are not, prowling around in cyberspace, grooming their victims. Don’t worry- I’ve been keeping an eye on her for you. In loco parentis you might say. All very innocent at the moment but you’ve got no idea of the freaks that are lurking out there. Scary isn’t it.
But look, what I’m doing is totally harmless. Nobody gets hurt and, generally speaking, you’re none the wiser. Just a bit of harmless fun.
Well, it was all harmless fun, fun for me at any rate. I thought of it as a perk of the job, that’s all. But things have changed. I’m afraid I haven’t been totally candid with you up to now. You see, I’ve been¼approached. Seems I may have been shooting my mouth off a bit. My secret is out of the bag. Don’t worry- not your secrets, not yet anyway. ( I suppose you could sue me for breach of contract, if we had one! )
I’m not stupid, I didn’t deliberately tell anybody what I was doing. You don’t really want people to know that you’re hacking into your customer’s computers. But, maybe at a party or down the pub, my tongue was loosened by alcohol and the person I told, told somebody else and¼well, you get the picture. End result: I’m busted.
There are people out there, I can’t be more precise I’m afraid, who are prepared to pay rather a lot of money for your information. Not just yours you understand, you haven’t been picked out as anybody special, but details of all my clients.
So what do I do? Take the money and betray my customers? That might be the easy option but they’re not going to leave me alone after that. I’ll be in their pocket, an accomplice to their crimes. I don’t want that and I don’t want to betray anyone. I’m in a bit of a quandary. I should refuse.
Who am I kidding! I have no choice. It’s one of those offers you can’t refuse. Does that sound too melodramatic? I don’t really know who they are. Am I the only one or am I just a little cog in the wheel of some criminal master plan? Who knows. I’m a bit out of my comfort zone here.
I’ve got till the end of the week. Then they want lists of bank details, credit card numbers, passwords¼peccadilloes. All of it. From everybody. I can’t deny that they have dangled a pretty big carrot but along with it comes a bigger stick, if you get my drift. I don’t expect any sympathy. I’ve only got myself to blame.
Why don’t I get the police involved? I suspect you’d be as keen on that as I am. They’ve got far better hackers than me working for them. Soon be able to find out what I’ve been up to. And where does that leave me? In the same boat as you. Without a paddle.
But there is one last option I’ve been weighing up. Trash the computer and disappear for a while. Shouldn’t be too difficult and my guess is that I’ll soon be forgotten. I’m not naïve enough to imagine that I’m the only one doing this.
So what I’m really saying is that I’ll be out of commission for a while. Please don’t try to contact me. But be reassured. As far as we’re both concerned, I know nothing about you.
(c) Paul Warnes
A single click.
He was far too familiar with the sound of the office door at this point. How effortlessly it had slipped open with a gentle push of his palm.
“You have asked for me, Sir?”
At the desk sat his boss, a burly man with a cigarette between his lips. His hand scribbled something down before he became aware of his employee. His gaze wandered behind him, waiting for the door to fall shut.
Then his boss huffed, smoke poured from his nostrils. His pen tapped against the desk as if to fill the silence between them.
“This is the third time this month that you’ve been sent up here”, he growled before he gestured for his employee to take a seat across him. Once he did as told, his boss let out another growl. “I’m starting to believe that you’re not taking this job seriously, Mr. Alucard.”
At first, he only blinked at him. He couldn’t care less for the threats of a human, but even the Lord of Darkness had his bills to pay. Rent wasn’t exactly cheap these days, so Dracula had to resort to jobs that wouldn’t give away his identity right away.
This time, it was a food joint, of all places. He’d rather hunt for victims than new jobs, so he couldn’t snap at this pathetic excuse of a blood bag and risk losing his occupation.
Thus, he let out a long sigh before he shook his head, his gaze lowered. His boss now clicked the pen and Dracula could practically feel his piercing glare.
“I certainly meant no disrespect, Sir… It is just that my…” Dracula rotated his hand in the air, looking for the right word before the movement stopped and he glanced back up. “… My condition is not the best influence.”
“Yes, yes! That rare skin condition and everything else that comes with that! I’ve already given you nightshifts only!” He stuffed the cigarette butt into the overloaded ashtray and Dracula crinkled his nose as the other huffed the rest of the smoke in his direction. “But you can’t use your mental and physical health issues as a cover up every single time!”
For a moment, Dracula could only watch his boss fish for yet another cigarette in his box, lift it to his lips and light it. He narrowed his eyes as he gritted his teeth, then Dracula pushed his shoulders back to regain his neutral expression.
“I am not here to defend myself with this condition. It is simply a reality that I cannot ignore even if I wished to… Surely, it is difficult to imagine for you, Sir…” Another deep exhale and his gaze trailed off, not focusing on anything. “The darkness that dwells in one’s heart and soul—”
“Stop it with your speeches!” The boss puffed some more, and his features were blurred by the smoke. “Don’t try to distract me! You’ve not taken the appropriate steps to follow a costumer’s complaint!”
Dracula blinked against the accusation, nothing stirred in his expression. He merely folded his hands in his lap and kept his eyes locked on him.
“You must be exaggerating.”
However, Dracula knew what incident he was talking about.
It was during his last shift that he had been approached by a woman at his counter. Or rather, she had stomped there, her face red from anger; an unsettling contrast to the dark rings underneath her eyes. She had slammed her tray on his counter, the many items dared to topple off.
“I’ve specifically asked for no pickles on my burger!!”, was her request.
Dracula had slipped one finger underneath the top bun and lifted it for a second before he glanced back up.
“There are none, Madam.”
“But there are!! I’ve bitten into it and tasted the strange vinegar flavor, so somebody back there fucked up my order!”
Another sigh. His eyes had darted down at the pitiful sandwich, a singular bite indicating that it did only take that much for her to imagine the pickled vegetable to be among the ingredients.
“Have you checked the circular meat patty for the pickled slices?”, he had asked instead, and it had taken less than a second for her face to heat up even further. The lady pulled up her shoulders in growing rage before she crossed her arms.
“Psh! As if I’m touching that thing with my new manicure!” And yet, she had been less cautious of said manicure when slamming her palm on the counter next. Dracula didn’t flinch and had watched a couple of fries falling off the tray. “I demand a refund!!”
Naturally, Dracula could have just taken her order back and asked the staff to make a new one. He could have simply agreed to her claim to keep this customer from exploding right before him, but the facts didn’t line up with his knowledge.
The simplest research could have done the job and yet, the lady before him couldn’t even manage a task so simple.
And he didn’t enjoy being wronged.
Dracula had shot her the fakest smile that he could muster before he had gestured for her to come around the corner.
“Of course, Madam. Would you like to discuss this matter with our honorable manager to resolve this issue?”
His eyes had focused on hers, the iris changed into a bright gold. Only an exhale parted his lips, this hadn’t taken much of his energy. The customer’s gaze had hung with him for a second, becoming lactic, then she had shaken her head to snap herself out of her stupor. The color on her cheeks had slowly returned to normal as she searched for her breath.
With a slam of a fist, Dracula was dragged out of his memory; the sound led his gaze back up to his boss who was practically chewing on the cigarette butt at this point.
“The manager said that you didn’t bring anybody in!” He retracted his fist once he got his attention back. “Instead, a co-worker of yours stated that she left the restaurant in a daze afterwards! And without filling out a customer service report!!”
“Well… Madam stopped complaining, did she not? With no complaint present, it should not affect our current sales.”
His boss leaned back in his chair and took a long draw from his cigarette. Once again, the smoke framed his round face as his expression softened a tad.
“That might be correct, but that’s not how you handle these situations! They are paying customers after all”, he grumbled, a bit of ash was tapped off at his lip’s movement. “It’s part of our store’s policy! An unhappy customer fills out a report, no matter if they’re expectations are met or not!”
Dracula watched the flakes sit on the dark wood of the desk as if waiting for a little spark of flame to eat into the material. Yet, nothing stirred on the surface, so he looked back up and cleared his voice.
“I merely felt like the situation needed some… De-escalation. And, in the end, Madam has not returned to these facilities for revenge. I didn’t think that it needed further… Investigation.”
“That’s true, there’s no online review to slander us… You’re still supposed to follow our policies though.” A frown was upon his brow as he looked the other over and he narrowed his eyes. “After that encounter, you were also seen lounging in the back with cherry coke and stained your work uniform with it, too!”
“Yes…”, Dracula murmured under his breath, “Cherry coke…”
The boss’s features softened, then he pressed two fingers against his temple and closed his eyes. His thumb clicked his pen again in a quick rhythm.
“Look… I know it’s difficult for you to find a job, but…” With a sigh, he opened his eyes again and grimaced; it was past midnight at this point. “If you keep messing up like his, I don’t know how much longer we can keep you. After all, you may not be the right fit for us…”
“Sir, if I may…” His thin lips stretched to a cold smile. “You have every right to call out my shortcomings, but I assure you that my skills are… Valuable for your establishment. Wouldn’t you agree… Sir?”
His boss couldn’t even consider looking for his ashtray when his eyes were caught by a dull shine. He was captivated by it, his thoughts slipping away behind his mind, shutting them off like a door that opened and closed with a soft click.
When his cigarette dared to slide off his mouth, the boss shook himself and tightened his lips around the cigarette as he scratched the back of his head.
“R-Right… But this is your last chance, you hear?”
Dracula’s smile grew into a smirk and he gave a light bow.
“Ever so kind of you, Sir.”
(c) Nathalie Roos
He was definitely up to no good, Bob Randall decided as he studied the man leaning against the pharmacy wall a few paces in front of his car. Thirty-six years in the police had left Bob with a keen nose for trouble and that wasn’t about to stop just because he was now retired.
Retired? Put out to pasture more like. That new Chief Inspector had it in for me from the day he turned up in his wide-awake suit and flash car. Jealous of my record, that was his problem. Past it indeed! Wet behind the ears…
Bob had gone neither willingly nor graciously into retirement.
After staring intently at the man for a couple more minutes, he decided that he didn’t recognise him. Bob never forgot a face and that was why he had such an enviable arrest record. Okay, so he’d never caught any major criminals or thwarted any serious crimes, but he’d felt the collar of many a petty hoodlum who could well have gone on to be criminal masterminds for all he knew. It wasn’t his fault that the town he found himself stationed in wasn’t a hotbed of crime. Besides, he preferred it that way. Good, grass roots policing, that’s what he’d provided.
He glanced at his watch and started to jot down a few details in his notebook. It wasn’t police issue of course, they wouldn’t let him take one, said he wouldn’t need it as he pottered around in his garden or did whatever retired policemen are supposed to do. But old habits die hard and he’d bought himself something nearly as good at his local newsagent. Once a copper always a copper. Just because he was sat in a supermarket car park waiting for his wife to come out of the nearby health centre, didn’t mean he could turn his back on a potential crime.
After noting the time and a detailed description of the man, he went back to observing the suspect. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong yet, so the title ‘suspect’ was a little presumptuous, but Bob was sure he was guilty of something or soon would be, so the title would stay. The man appeared agitated and was pacing up and down outside the pharmacy. Every time the health centre doors swept open, he would shrink back around the corner and watch the people walk by. He was definitely hiding or waiting for someone.
The list of potential crimes that this man might be about to commit, flashed through Bob’s mind, but one by one he disregarded them. He could be waiting for the security van to come and collect the pharmacy’s takings, but if so, he was too early. That would suggest poor planning and an amateur or desperate man.
Mind you, at £9.15 a prescription maybe I should be arresting the pharmacist for extortion instead. Bob smiled at his own joke, but the smile vanished when he remembered he was no longer allowed to arrest anyone. Perhaps he’s waiting to mug someone on their way out?
Again, Bob dismissed the idea as unlikely. Why would anyone choose to mug someone leaving a pharmacy? All he could do was wait and see what transpired and be ready. He glanced at the health centre doors, then at his watch and tutted. They must be running late again.
Meanwhile the man had shuffled round to the front of the pharmacy and his eyes kept darting between the health centre and the car park. Bob tried to follow his gaze whenever he looked towards the parked cars just in case he had an accomplice waiting for him nearby. However, unless they were a young mother with three children, all of whom were noisily demonstrating their displeasure at being forced to go shopping, or an old man of about eighty who Bob thought even he could outrun, there was nobody obvious.
The health centre doors whooshed open and a woman with a young child came out. The child was sobbing, and Bob wondered whether he had just visited the dentist or been given some sort of jab by a doctor. Whatever he’d endured, he hadn’t enjoyed it.
The suspicious man slowly melted back around the corner.
Two young boys approached the man from behind noisily bouncing a football as they walked, apparently startling him. Bob watched as they stopped and asked the suspect something. The man looked at his watch and said something to them, but instead of thanking him and walking on, they lingered until he showed them his watch.
So, they couldn’t understand him and had to be shown the time.
Bob jotted down in his notebook that in all likelihood the man was foreign.
As they walked away, the boys glanced back over their shoulders at the man, before pulling faces and then bursting into laughter. Something about how the man looked or sounded had clearly amused them. Bob made more notes.
A white van with its radio blaring suddenly crossed Bob’s line of sight, before stopping abruptly. The driver ground the gears noisily before trying to reverse into a space, which was clearly too tight for his vehicle. Shouting an obscenity that was audible even above the thumping music coming from his radio, the driver abandoned his attempt at reversing and sped off before roaring into an open space fifty yards farther away. Bob shook his head in disgust at the man’s reckless driving and disregard for pedestrians.
If I were still in the job, I’d be taking you down a peg or two, sonny.
He turned back to face the pharmacy and was alarmed to find that the suspect was no longer there. He was about to climb out of his car and investigate when the man suddenly reappeared from inside the pharmacy.
Was he casing the joint?
The health centre doors whooshed open again and Bob noticed a flustered looking woman with two teenaged children emerge. The man saw them too and made to disappear, but before he could, the boy spotted him and shouted something Bob couldn’t hear, before hurrying over to him.
The woman was clearly angry and began remonstrating with the suspect whilst occasionally turning and looking at the health centre. The suspect stood there, not saying anything, whilst the children looked on impassively, the girl more interested in whatever she was reading on her phone. Bob began to wonder if this was going to turn into an ugly domestic dispute. He hated domestics, they rarely ended well.
The woman suddenly grabbed the man by the arm and started to drag him towards the health centre and Bob tensed; if the man was going to lash out, it would be now. Bob readied himself to rush to her assistance, once he could lever himself out of his car that was, but the man was still reluctantly allowing himself to be towed towards the health centre and wasn’t putting up a fight.
Bob’s car passenger door suddenly flew open startling him and making him gasp in shock, much to the amusement of his wife Margaret as she climbed into the car clutching a green and white paper bag filled with her medication.
“Sorry, love, did I make you jump?” she said laughing.
“Yes, you did. I didn’t see you come out.”
“I came out of the chemist. They’ve got a door inside that leads through to the health centre.”
The family had disappeared into the health centre.
“I’m sorry I was so long, but the dentist is running late. Some bloke’s meant to be having root canal treatment, but he did a runner. I was talking to his wife and apparently, he had his numbing injections earlier and then popped outside whilst they took effect, but never came back. His wife was really embarrassed. Seems her husband is scared to death of dentists but is in agony and has to have the treatment. That was them outside a couple of minutes ago. I think they’ve dragged him back in, poor love. Anything exciting happen whilst I was in there?”
“Er, no, don’t be silly, Margaret. What on Earth could happen in a supermarket car park on a Wednesday afternoon?” replied Bob trying to mask his embarrassment, as he surreptitiously put his notebook away.
Perhaps I might enjoy the garden after all.
(c) Jeff Jones
There’s not much to tell really, but before I explain what happened, there are two things you need to know about Jacko. First, he’s very good-looking...no, not just good-looking – really handsome. Tall, dark and handsome. Like a Mediterranean-style Latin lover. Or a movie star. He’s done quite a bit of male modelling – online advertising, catalogues, local promotions, you know. He’s even been in a couple of bands round here: lead singer, though he can’t hold a tune. And he’s with a film agency, so whenever they’re filming a TV series round here, he’s often one of the extras. I don’t think he’s ever had lines, but you can easily spot him in the crowd scenes. The second thing is that he’s not too bright. Oh, he’s not stupid, more immature I suppose – he doesn’t always realise when people are joking, now and again he can be selfish, and he sometimes misunderstands what’s going on. I’ve wondered if the two are related...you know, because of his looks maybe he doesn’t have to try as hard as other people, maybe he thinks he’ll get what he wants or things will come to him anyway.
As a result, a lot of people don’t always take him seriously. I don’t mean that they laugh at him or they dislike him. Not at all. I’d say they tolerate him. He amuses them – up to a point. He can be annoying for sure, but there’s no malice in him. His real name’s Sean, except that his parents spelled it Shawn and when their mistake was pointed out to him, he started to call himself Jacko – don’t ask me why – and the name stuck. Everyone in town knows him, and he knows everyone. Not surprisingly, given his looks, he has a reputation as something of a ladies’ man, although it’s hard to find many girls who’ve actually been out with him. He’s a year or two older than most of my friends, so when I ran into him that Friday night and he asked if I wanted to go along to a party with him, I was a bit surprised. But I went.
‘Whose party is it?’ I asked, as we dodged the cars racing across the newly-opened bypass.
‘Oh, a couple of girls I know.’
‘Will I know them?’
‘And you’re sure they won’t mind me coming?’
‘Course not...you’re with me, aren’t you?’
‘Shouldn’t we take some drinks?’
We’d stopped off for a pint at The Green Man, and it was nearly ten o’clock when we reached the flat, which was above a hairdressing salon. The girl who opened the door stared unenthusiastically at us.
‘Hello, Jacko,’ she said. ‘Forgotten your drinks again?’
‘Oh, hell! Blame him,’ he said, turning to me accusingly. ‘You said you’d bring something!’
He walked up the stairs, leaving me and the girl in the doorway.
‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered. ‘It wasn’t...I mean...’
‘It’s OK,’ she smiled. ‘I’ve known Jacko long enough to know what to expect.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, nodding. ‘I’m Simon.’
‘Is Garfunkel with you?’
‘Never mind. I’m Cressida. And before you ask, no, Troilus isn’t here either. It’s my party. Come on in.’
There were maybe thirty-odd people, sitting, standing, talking quietly, in small groups around the large living-room, and it took me some time to realise what was different. It was the music. Instead of the insistent bass rhythms of heavy metal and punk that smothered most of the parties I went to, I heard the music of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and others whose melodies I knew but which I couldn’t name.
I turned to Cressida.
‘It’s an anti-party,’ she explained. ‘I thought, just for once, wouldn’t it be nice to go to a party where you can actually talk to people, where you can have a proper conversation, where you don’t have to shout to make yourself heard.’
‘And where the neighbours don’t complain,’ I added.
They were a few familiar faces and I wandered around from group to group, joining in the discussions. It was pleasant enough, but to be honest, it wasn’t the most exciting party I’d ever been to, and after an hour or so I was ready to go. I looked for Jacko to tell him I was leaving and found him talking to Cressida in the kitchen.
‘Hey, come here,’ he called to me. ‘You won’t believe this! Cress – Water Cress – has four aunts. Tell him their names!’
She glanced at me and raised her eyebrows slightly.
‘Oh, you tell him,’ she said.
‘OK. You ready? Jane, Jean, Joan and June!’ He clapped his hands and laughed. ‘Isn’t that great? Jane, Jean, Joan and June! Who would call their kids that?’
It was the Water Cress line that irritated me.
‘You’d be surprised, Jacko,’ I said. ‘I’ve got four uncles – Barry, Garry, Harry and Larry.’
‘You’re kidding me!’
I shook my head.
‘It’s true.’ I turned to Cressida. ‘Maybe we should get them together? Sounds like they might get on.’
‘It’s worth a try,’ she agreed.
Jacko said little on the way home, but when we reached the crossroads where he turned left and I turned right, he looked at me curiously.
‘These uncles of yours,’ he began. ‘Are they your Mum’s or your Dad’s brothers?’
‘I was just joking, Jacko.’
‘Oh.’ He paused. ‘What about the aunts?’
‘I think she was joking, too.’
‘Well, I’m not sure. But probably, yes.’
We stayed there for a few minutes in the orange glare of the streetlights, watching the traffic. Although it was a clear night, he hunched his shoulders as if to ward off some invisible rain, and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. Several times he seemed about to say something, but never quite managed it.
‘Funny thing to joke about,’ he muttered eventually, and walked away.
Several days later, I spotted Cressida coming out of the library and we stopped to talk for a while. We saw Jacko coming towards us, and waved to him. He hesitated for a moment and then crossed over to the other side of the road, his eyes firmly on the ground.
‘Should we go after him?’ she asked.
But I said nothing, and we simply stood and watched him go.
I’m not sure what happened to him after that. I did hear he’d gone down to London, and a couple of people told me they thought they’d seen him – or someone who looked a lot like him – in a TV advert for a Do-It-Yourself store. Someone else thought he was working as a rep for a package holiday company in Majorca. Another person said he was a steward on one of the big transatlantic airlines. And Cressida’s younger sister was sure she’d seen him singing onstage as one half of a folk duo in Newquay.
‘They weren’t very good. And he’d changed his name,’ she added. ‘It wasn’t Shawn, or Jacko, or anything like that. Something foreign. Something Greek or Middle Eastern. Stavros, Spiros, maybe. The girl was called Celeste, I do remember that. Stavros and Celeste! That was it! Would that be him, do you think?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think that might be Jacko.’
(c) Ian Inglis
omething is wrong, and I know it. He’s been acting weird, and so has she. So I’ve done something about it. I’ve hired a private investigator. I found him online. His name is Jonathan, but that’s not really important.
I’m sitting with him in a coffee shop as we speak. He says he’s got something for me. He opens his bag and takes out a Manila folder. It has a big, thick stack of papers inside of it, all held together with one of those gigantic binder clips.
I open it up. There are photos, hotel receipts, transcripts of phone conversations, emails, text messages – the works.
It looks like I have no choice; when you find out that your husband is having an affair with your best friend, you don’t think, you just act.
With regards to my husband, he’ll get his later. But first, I’m going to deal with her.
When I arrive at the car rental place, I see all of the cars parked on the forecourt outside the entrance to the main building. There are smaller economy cars, like Vauxhall Corsas and Toyota Ay gos; larger compact cars like Ford Focuses; small SUVs, like Ford Kugas; sports cars and luxury cars, like Audis and BMWs; and they even have vans – everything from small to extra large. But that’s not what I’m after; I want something big and powerful – like a four-by-four. That’ll do the trick.
As I look around at all the cars, a short, balding man with grey hair approaches me. I don’t think he’s that old – maybe forty or forty-one. “Hi, there,” he says to me. “How can I help you today?”
I see that he’s wearing a name badge that says: PETE. He’s the one. “Hello,” I say. “I’m looking to hire a car.”
“Well,” he says, “then you’ve come to the right place. What sort of car are you looking for today?”
“Something big,” I say. “And powerful. Like a Range Rover.”
“Oh,” he says. “Are you planning on doing a bit of off-roading?” “Yes,” I say. “Something like that.”
“All right, then,” he says to me. “Why don’t you come inside, and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
I follow him inside.
“Have a seat,” he says. Then he says, “Can I get you anything to drink? Tea, coffee, water, milk?”
“No, thanks,” I say.
“How about a raisin and oatmeal cookie?” he says. “Baked fresh this morning.” “No, thank you,” I say.
I don’t need a cookie – I need a car.
“Okay,” he says. “Just let me know if you change your mind.” Then he starts typing something into his computer. “Hmm...” he says.
“Is there a problem?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any Range Rovers available for hire today.”
“Oh,” I say.
“But not to worry,” he says. “We have the next best thing. A Volvo XC-60.” “I really wanted a four-by-four,” I say to him.
“It’s still an off-road vehicle with four-wheel drive,” he says. “It’s just not quite as big as a Range Rover.” He turns his computer screen towards me so that I can see a picture of the car. It looks fairly big, but not as big as a Range Rover. “Is it powerful, though?” I say. “Power is very important to me.”
“Oh, yes,” he says. “It’s quite a car. It’ll do nought to sixty in eight-point one seconds, and it has a top speed of one hundred and thirty miles per hour.”
“That sounds about right,” I say.
“Super,” he says. “And would you like it in manual or automatic?” “Manual,” I say.
I want full control of the car.
“No problem,” he says. He types something else into his computer. Then he says, “Are you planning a trip somewhere?”
I have to think on my feet. “Yes,” I say. “I thought I’d take the kids camping. You know, just throw everything in the back of the car and go.”
“I know what you mean,” he says. “The missus and I like to go to a little place called Plush Tents. They’ve got everything you need there, and it’s great for families. We love it. We go at least once a year, sometimes twice. I think I have a card around here somewhere.” He opens his desk drawer and fumbles through his things. Then he hands me a card. “Tell them, Pete White sent you. They’ll look after you,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. I put the card in my pocket. Then I say, “So how much is the car going to cost?”
“That depends on how long you need it for,” he says. “Just the one day,” I say. “That should do it.”
“No worries,” he says to me. “One day’s rental should come to one hundred and twenty-nine ninety-nine.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll take it.”
“Great!” he says. “I just need your driving license, your passport, and some proof of address.”
I hand it over. I’ve come prepared.
“Perfect,” he says. “Let me just go and photocopy this. I’ll be back in three minutes,” he says.
He goes off. I just sit here and wait. Three minutes later, he comes back. He’s certainly a man of his word.
“All right, then,” he says to me. “Just to recap, you want the Volvo XC-60 with a manual gearbox for one day. Is that correct?” he says.
“Yep,” I say.
“In that case, that’ll be one hundred and twenty-nine ninety-nine, please,” he says to me.
I get out my credit card and pay. It all goes through just fine.
“Great!” he says. “Now let’s get you in that car!”
He walks me out of the building. I get in the car and start it. It is powerful, I’ll give him that.
“All right, then,” he says. “If there’s anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Okay,” I say. “Thanks for your help.”
“You’re most welcome,” he says. “Enjoy your trip.” “I will,” I say. “I will.”
I pull out of the forecourt. He stands there and watches me go. I give the horn a gentle beep as I drive off.
I get out my phone and dial the number. After a couple of rings, she answers. “Hello,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. “What are you up to?” “Not much,” she says.
She doesn’t know that I know, but I know all right, the bitch.
“Listen,” I say to her. “I’ve just got a new car. Do you want to go for a ride?” “Really?” she says. “I’d love to!”
Of course you would. You bitch, you skank, you whore!
“All right then,” I say. “I’ll come and pick you up. Wait for me outside.” “Will do,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll see you when I get there.” And then I hang up.
(c) Thomas Morgan
It’s a shame: we were so close. You could almost say we were inseparable. I know you were just a fraction older than me, by minutes, Mum said, so I always looked up to you, big brother. When I look back, I am not too sure why. I suppose I just liked basking in the kudos of having a twin. I was probably misguided. You always seemed to think quite highly of yourself but I assumed you had the right, being my senior. Mum and Dad always favoured you, I noticed. You got all the new toys and as we got older all the latest gadgets. There was nothing you couldn’t have. Spoilt, one might say. I did note that you didn’t feel quite the same way about me as I did about you. I suppose I was a nuisance, an irritation that detracted from Mum and Dad’s devotion to you. Don’t think for one moment I was jealous. I am sure you needed that reassurance whereas I didn’t so much.
I thought at school we would find more of a balance, but you found yourself an entourage who lauded you and you so enjoyed playing to their gallery. I felt quite alone sometimes. That was ridiculous, I know, because as twins, we had a ready-built stronghold of a friendship that could have taken on the world. At any rate, we could always stand up for each other. It was sad that I found you less and less there for me when I needed you.
I have to say you were particularly lucky with your grades. You always did precious little work to get those top marks. I am guessing that was why Mum and Dad made so much fuss of you. You were so lazy though. If Mum and Dad had known the half of it...,. I remember catching you several times copying James Merton’s science work. And am I right in saying you used to pay Philip Bremner to write your essays? I think you did.
There was one instance when I actually thought you were going to get in to trouble with Mum. Do you remember? You went to the shop on the way home from school and you stank of smoke. She went nuclear.
“What do you think you’re doing? Where did you get those cigarettes from?” she shouted.
“Tim Phillips gave them to me to look after. I haven’t had any. I’m giving them back in the morning,” was your snivelling response. “He wanted to hide them from his dad.” You always were a little whiner. I sometimes felt a bit ashamed but your daring somehow eclipsed that. I don’t think you realised you were digging a deeper and deeper hole for yourself, particularly when Mum found the burn in your trousers pocket. At least you never took your angry teenage angst out on me. I think Tim got as good as he gave on that score.
You were forever coming home with problems for poor Mum. There was the time you and Tim hung out in town until you persuaded, or bullied, Ben Carver to get that booze for you. I don’t know who was worse, you or Tim, but I’m glad you didn’t include me in your exploits. You both went off to that disused bus shelter at the other end of the green and drank yourselves silly. I think you only just about redeemed yourself with Mum because you had slept off most of it by the time you managed to get home. I distinctly remember that Dad was working away, which saved you, or I think you might have ended up in a different sort of school the following week. Tim actually did end up at some sort of reform school. It was only then you calmed down and started to grow up a bit.
Then the girlfriends started to line up. My goodness, didn’t you have a comprehensive selection? I’d always had the notion that twins could have a bit of game with friends, and even more so with girlfriends and dates. I have to say, your taste in girls was definitely a bit weird. There was that tall thin one with purple hair, to match her lips, who never smiled. After her, there was a cute blonde. I quite liked her. I wouldn’t have done anything about it, of course. I knew her time with you was limited: you were too superficial for her. She wanted a true and lasting relationship and we both know you weren’t very good with those. Then there was the one with all the ink. She got on well with Mum but I think she lost patience with you before long. I don’t blame her.
I used to have long conversations with her. There, I’ve not told you that before, have I? I felt a bit awkward then but now, it’s such a long time ago, I don’t mind saying. She used to confide in me about her hopes and dreams with you. You see, she really liked you. Don’t worry, I didn’t mess it up for you, you did that all by yourself. No, on the contrary, I used to try and tell her you were worth the trouble, that in there somewhere, was a sensitive soul looking for love. Star. That was her name, wasn’t it? And she was a bright star. I know she gave it her best shot with you but you tossed her aside like so many of the others. She was distraught, I would even say inconsolable at one point. We kept in touch for ages after that. I have to say I felt a bit uncomfortable but she seemed to need it. Sorry I didn’t say. It was difficult. I have never really been able to get through to you. I have tried so many times but you just seemed to block me out. You have no idea how much I wanted that brotherly bond over time.
You used to get those moods, do you remember? They were very dark and lasted for days - weeks, sometimes. I don’t know how any of your friends put up with you. Fortunately, I only had to deal with that for short bursts of time. That was a blessing, what with the way it all worked out. I know that got worse when Mum passed away. Dad was drinking a lot. I know he never got over her death. To me it was just another phase and that made it easier to bear. I even think I might have given him some comfort during that dark time. I hope I did. I know you didn’t think the same way otherwise you could have been there for him during those desolate days. All I remember at that time is when Dad got the vodka bottle out, you went down The Rose and Thistle and left me to deal with the fallout.
After that, you just bumbled along as best you could, experiencing an almost infinite number of temporary agency jobs. Unsurprisingly, no one would put up with you for that long. Of course, I understood why. You never showed any commitment. Your time-keeping was rubbish. Your excuses for your repeated under-performance would have had great entertainment value in any other circumstances. It was little surprise you ended up the wrong side of 40 with no references and a mountain of debt. Dad had his own problems, we both know, but you very likely contributed to his early grave. You know that, don’t you?
I felt mortified when you were picked up by the police and you spent the night in that cell, do you remember? The shame. I think you had been drinking at The Rose and Thistle with Tom Berrow. He was another bad influence on you. What on earth possessed you to try that smack he had though? I assume it was your first time. I like to give you the benefit of the doubt. I am unsure whether you deserve my faith in you. In any case, the police believed you so that was all that mattered. Thank goodness Mum and Dad didn’t live to see all that. Yes, I was there but thought it best to keep my counsel. I realise you didn’t know. Never very bright, were you?
The Rose and Thistle interspersed with a succession of one-night stands gave you some variety, but hardly the life we would have both imagined. I suppose that is how we have got to this point: our birthday.
Doubtless you didn’t think you would be 60 years old, alone and unloved, bringing flowers to us all at Mayview Cemetery. To our John, twin brother to Mark, who sadly passed at birth 23rd March, 1960, from your loving parents. That was a nice touch. I was hardly even here and yet I have a little space in this world. But nice of you to remember me.
(c) Vivienne Moles