Showing posts with label Booklet 9. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 9. Show all posts

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Oasis by Tanvi Nagar

She pictured the forests-

She heard the moonlit darkness call 

Inside the darkness, she felt 

She would have solitude and calm. 

So she walked into the jungle 

A little light was all she had 

The trees loomed

The animals cried out 

The winds blew strong.


It was then that she began to realise 

That she had understood it all wrong

The darkness was an oasis of its kind 

It couldn’t bring more light 

All it would do to her was misguide.

So she turned back and made her way 

The anxiety loomed 

Pain made her cry out 

The winds blew strong.


This time she wasn’t running away 

Fighting 

Struggling 

Growing 

A warrior in the making. 

Hotel Kasbah by Beverley Byrne

 Imagine being trapped in an accordion playing Old Macdonald Had a Farm on a loop.  That’s what it was like on the bouncing oven of a bus from Tangier to Tetuan.  Amidst the menagerie of clucking chickens, a mewling kitten and the oinking piglet in a basket beneath our seat, infants whined and veiled mothers babbled.  We thwacked at blowflies drunk on the simmering gravy smell of body odour, manure and stale garlic. Between my breasts, a greasy oil slick slithered. The kid behind me fiddling incessantly with my plaits needed a slap. 



     ‘Your blond hair certainly attracts a lot of attention,’ whispered David, a pretzel of discomfort beside me. It was ok for him. Liquorish curls and molasses skin made him look like he’d been born in Morocco.  Limping off the bus, I breathed in hot dust and unglued the kaftan from my legs. We made for the nearest cheap hotel. The Hotel Kasbah.


     ‘Is there anyway I can make your stay more comfortable?’ The hotel manager fixed chocolate eyes on my hair. Tall like a pine, in western clothes, he showed us a shabby room with long shuttered windows overlooking minarets and a ziggurat of rooftops. It had a bath.  Nirvana.


    They call Tetuan the White Dove.  Snow blind from from the city’s wedding cake white walls, we retreated to the shade of the medina maze where pomander spice scents mingled with fruity detritus and high meat. Mangy dogs and insistent men wearing medallions materialised from dingy doorways.  They followed us asking questions. ‘Allemagne.  Pay-Bas?  Oh English. You want come my cousin’s shop?’


     I was a pale pied piper.  When one youth with a bum fluff moustache asked David if he’d swap me for his sister, we abandoned British reserve and hurled abuse.  Outside the Mosque, a veteran English tour guide was herding a group of perspiring Americans.  How, we asked, could we prevent this pestering? ‘Dye your hair or just tell them to bugger off,’ he laughed. ‘The Moroccan army was the only one issued with running shoes.’


      Back at the Hotel Kasbah, the hotel manager inclined his head and lowered his voice. ‘You want something special, I get for you.’  


       An indolent heat made a sauna of our room.  I lay in a cold bath. ‘Dare we ask him?’  I said.  


      ‘Undo your plaits and I bet he’ll do it for you,’ David replied, handing me a mouse coloured towel. 


      Some hours later Mohammed, as we’d been invited to call him, knocked on the door.  He held a tray bearing a bottle of gin, an ice bucket, four tonics and a small silver paper packet. David thanked him and handed over a bundle of filthy dirham.  Mohammed remained, grinning expectantly in the doorway. ‘Would you like to come in, Mohammed?’   


        He sat on the only chair, rifle stiff; hands on knees.  We perched on the bed and offered gin.  He refused, placing a hand over his heart. Small, hesitant talk revealed our intention to visit Fez.  


       ‘I go Fez tomorrow.  For business,” said Mohammed. ‘I drive you. You stay in a sister hotel there. Two days, I come back for you.’  It seemed like a great idea on half a bottle of gin. 


      When Mohammed finally left, David rolled a joint.  We stretched on the bed like baked starfish.  The sinking sun’s fuschia rays prowled the room as the eerie muezzin wail ebbed and flowed across our bodies. David’s fingers painted misty watercolours on my skin. We were shifting sands, seaweed, and mother of pearl.  Dolphin sleek, I dived deep.


     I woke at dawn with Vesuvius erupting in my guts. I pictured the ice in my gin, a dissolving cube of invisible assassins. Coiled on the bathroom’s uneven black tiles, I fought the fist twisting my entrails. David found me in the morning, shaking like barley. The hotel manager was waiting for us, he said. Could I make it? I swallowed two Diacalm and set off on new born lamb legs to pack my rucksack.


      Mohammed drove his big dusty Mercedes at warp speed. I lay on the cracked leather back seat, my stomach a bag of writhing worms.  Snatches of desultory football based conversation drifted from the front seats. I gulped warm air humming from the vehicle’s inefficient air conditioning.  After a couple of hours rocked by reckless driving, I needed a loo. Screeching to a halt in a petrol station, Mohammed filled the tank whilst we went to find facilities.


     Walking back to the car, sunshine settling on my shoulders like a pelt, I realised I’d forgotten to buy water. David offered to go back to the kiosk. He shuffled off, hands in pockets.  I flopped on the back seat.  Mohammed climbed in the driver’s seat and twisted around to look at me.  Drawing his lips back in a lascivious grin, he turned the ignition and gunned the engine.  


       ‘Wait for David,’ I wailed as the car lurched forward. Sitting up, I saw David, elbows and knees pistons pumping, running across the forecourt and into the path of the accelerating Mercedes.  Mohammed screeched to a halt inches from David who banged both palms on the bonnet shouting, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’


      Wrenching open the passenger door, he glared at Mohammed who shrugged his shoulders and grinned like a viper.  ‘Only moving car from pumps.’


     ‘At that speed?’


       Mohammed revved the engines again.  It sounded like a threat.  ‘No need Mr David,’ he said breezily.  ‘It’s OK.  We go Fez now.’  

 

      ‘You must be joking,’ David said, contempt in his voice ‘We’ll make our own way thanks.’ 


    ‘As you wish,’ said Mohammed, inclining his head as if indulging a child. 


     David shot me a meaningful look and said, ‘Come on Mel.  Give me the rucksacks.  Let’s go.’


     I tried opening my rear door.  It was stuck. I slithered across the seat and tried the other one.  My fingers, sticky with sweat, tried flicking the lock release button up and down.  Mohammed’s face leered at me in the rearview mirror.  


     ‘Open this door,’ I screamed.  David banged on the window. Casually, Mohammed reached for a switch on the dashboard.  The door suddenly released sending David reeling backwards.  I flung the rucksacks onto the ground and clambered from the car. 


      Spinning tyres spat gravel over us as Mohammed accelerated away.  The rear door was still swinging open.  It slammed shut as he zigzagged across the forecourt before the Merc pulled out onto the black tarmacked road and disappeared into a shimmering heat haze.


     We heaved on our rucksacks and trudged to the mud baked roadside.  Traffic thundered past shrouding us in sooty fumes and pirouetting dust devils.


     ‘So what do we do now?’ 


     ‘I haven’t a clue,’ said David, ‘I’m still wondering why he didn’t try offering me his sister in exchange?’


    ‘Cheeky,’ I laughed, giving him a mock slap on the cheek. David caught my hand and pulled me to him.  He held me tight, breathing into my hair.  We broke apart in time to see a bus heading towards us.


    David ran into the road, waving his arms.  Brakes squealing, the bus slalomed to a halt beside us.  The door wheezed open.  I clambered on board.  Behind me, David whistled a tuneless version of Old Macdonald.


   © Beverley Byrne

Taking the Floor by Claire Barnard

Sarah lay on the floor, the varnished floorboards smooth against her skin.  She let herself lie still in the warm patch of sunlight.  This was all she wanted.  She’d given up.  No more fighting.  She told herself she didn’t have to make an effort to be here.  She didn’t have to do anything to stay alive.  Her autonomic nervous system would keep everything ticking over whilst she absolved herself of all responsibility.  Nothing else mattered.


    Outside the sun glared.  Reggae music pulsated from the house next door, the bass notes vibrating beneath her.  It was another laid-back summer day, right for doing nothing, for being unemployed.  But Sarah was having trouble just being.  She didn’t know what she was going to do.  She’d already spent next month’s rent and there was no sign of any more work.  All her appointments had been cancelled.  She’d had another grant application turned down.  She hadn’t even been offered an interview for that job.  It all had ended in nothing.  Her life seemed to have disintegrated and now she had ground to a halt.  She couldn’t keep trying, pushing, forcing herself to have another go.  She’d had enough.  But at least she didn’t have to make herself breathe, her heart beat, or her mind think.  Although little seemed to be happening in her mind.  She’d run out of ideas.  All she wanted was to stop and stay stopped.  Her body was agreeing with her.  The last thing she wanted to do was move.  As for dancing that seemed laughable.  

    What was the point?  As a dancer what was she but a gnat tracing patterns in the air?  The other day she had seen a cloud of midges whirling beneath the Eucalyptus tree in the back garden as dusk was falling.  She could, if she had enough patience, chart their individual trajectories and perhaps see the pattern in the whole.  Had any scientific research been done?  Maybe they were communicating by dancing like bees do.

There was too much movement in dance.  Too many acrobatics and too much gratuitous spinning, as if the dancers were afraid of stillness, like a garrulous person is scared of silence.  They had to fill the space, to keep moving, on and on: as if fearful that the audience would realise, if they stopped, that the preceding flurry of choreography had been empty, signifying nothing.  Only the stillness, the silence was full, was inhabited.  Then the dancer could be seen.  

How many dancers could truly stand still?  She remembered a performance where, amidst a stage full of moving bodies and with one dancer constantly running a figure of eight around him, a man had stood with his back to the audience for a full half hour without moving a muscle.  Not at all effortful, it was as if he had just arrived and had neither the intention of moving nor standing still.  He was just there.  It was simple and beautiful and arresting.  His presence repeatedly drew the viewer’s eye back to him, elegant as if he was practicing Zen and the Art of Standing, without drama, without histrionics, without spectacle.  Sheer grace.   

    This is a dance, she thought, even if it is motionless.  Did she have the nerve to do her own still-life show?  After all it was still life.  How long would an audience wait expectantly before one of them shouted,

‘Get up and dance you lazy cow!’

Five minutes?  She imagined herself prostrate on the stage against a video projection of clouds moving across a cerulean sky. Exhausted dancer.  Depressed dancer.  Dead dancer.  Or was she just resting?  

No, she was still moving.  Her mind was still conjuring up images of movement.  Still telling her onwards, onwards.  And her body knew of these ideas.  Even though she meant to be still, her muscles were primed for action.  She couldn’t keep secrets from them.  She tried to stop thinking, to sink into emptiness, to give up everything.  She didn’t need plans.  She didn’t need choreography.  She didn’t need hope.  She just needed to stop.  

The reggae thrummed, moving her sympathetic nervous system with the force of its beat.  She didn’t want to hear music, to be driven by its rhythm.  She needed her own motivation back, her own direction, but for now she would just stay here.  

As she lay there, wondering if it were possible to think of nothing, she focussed behind her closed eyelids and the pink and black there developed into clouds of a soothing violet-blue.  She’d forgotten about this.  It always made her feel peaceful.  But even here there was movement, the blue swelling and receding and deepening in hue.  It began to hypnotise her, to put her in a trance as if she were meditating.  She became more relaxed and thought she might fall asleep.  Although that wouldn’t help anything - everything would still be the same when she woke up.  

    Time passed.  She finally stopped thinking, fretting, and wondering.  She drifted into a kind of suspension, barely aware of where she was, the music enveloping her in an aural blanket.  


She awoke at twilight, to the sound of the front door slamming and footsteps in the hallway.  Karen, her housemate, was home.  Sarah sighed.  Would she really have to deal with Karen’s depression about being caught in a job she hated?  There was some comfort in their camaraderie of misery but Sarah really wanted someone to look after her.  

    Her stomach growled loudly - she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  She sat up without realising she had intended to.  Surprised at herself, she stretched her aching limbs like an awakening cat.  It felt good.  It all still worked, if somewhat reluctantly.  She remembered it was Karen’s turn to cook.  Soon there would be the enticing aroma of frying onions.  Her stomach rumbled again.  Her appetite was telling her that she still had a responsibility to herself.  

She went downstairs to meet her future.

© Claire Barnard

The Neighbour by Lynne Couzins

 Ester sat in her armchair, needle poised above her embroidery, counting each head as it thumped onto the floor above. There would be a pause, then the sawing would resume.  The new neighbour, a middle aged, grey haired, smoking man liked DIY, liked hammering and sawing, pounding and dragging.

As the days turned to weeks Ester found her mind wandering.  Sometimes the saw was the gasping dying breath of his latest victim.  Sometimes he was an executioner sawing off people’s heads.  She didn’t know who the people were or what they had done but she was certain they didn’t deserve to be beheaded.

The noise wheezed and grated through all her days.  The days piled up like patchwork squares around her chair.  They were a puzzle that she tried in vain to piece together, to form into a cohesive pattern but they warped and twisted and defied her shaking hands.  Occasionally she wondered if she was going crazy and still the saw shuddered and juddered through the ceiling and down the walls and across the floor into her slippered feet.  She thought maybe she had turned to stone, was a statue of herself sitting in a red armchair, and that the vibration of the saw might eventually cause cracks to run up her legs, to spider across her whole body until she shattered.

She woke in the dark to a door slamming somewhere in the building.  She lay listening and heard a rhythmic swish, swish, swish.  She got up and crept to the window.  She could make out familiar shapes in the garden but the woods at the back of the flats were inky black.  The swishing seemed to be rounding the end of the building.  The grey haired man came into view dragging a large sheet of thick plastic behind him.  She could see a winking red glow as he puffed on his cigarette. He stopped to open the gate into the woods and vanished into the darkness, the noise trailing away behind him.  Ester waited, swaying slowly from foot to foot.  She thought she heard a muffled thud and thought of all the beheaded in the flat above her.  Then an uneven rasping, gasping sound was coming back through the woods.  The man appeared walking backwards hauling a great swathed lump along. Ester wondered if this was a new victim, clubbed and felled and pulled helpless into his lair.

She lay long into the night, shivering beneath her blankets.

After breakfast she knew she would have to mount a rescue mission.  She couldn’t just sit counting any more heads.  Her feet had swollen from sitting immobile in her chair for so long and her shoe laces refused to tie so she pulled on her stretched slippers.  Her hair hung lank around her shoulders.  She armed herself with a broom from the hall cupboard, then wondered if she looked like a witch.  She wrapped a thick black shawl around her shoulders and hoped it would disguise her trembling.  

Ester pounded on his door with the broom handle and jabbed it towards him when he opened the door.  

“Where are they?” she cried, “what have you done with them?”

Her voice sounded thin and cracked and dusty.  The man stepped back in alarm as she swept in through the door.

“I heard them all,” she said, “every one.”

“I’m sorry about the noise” the man stammered, shuffling along the hall behind her like a chastised child.  He was running his hand nervously through his hair, leaving it standing in sweaty clumps.

Ester became aware of a trail of dirt on the floor, earth and bits of bark.  She followed the trail through the open living room door and stopped, wide eyed, looking around in bewilderment.  There were no heads, no victims.  In the middle of the room was a workbench and on the bench a huge log with it’s centre hollowed out.  She turned slowly.  All around the edge of the otherwise empty room were little houses made from logs and tree stumps. Fairy houses, enchanting houses with tiny furniture and windows.  She stepped forward and peered in through a window.  There was a spiral staircase inside with an ornate bannister, all carved from twigs.

“You make these?”  She was breathless with surprise and relief and awe.  She let the broom drop.  

“They are beautiful, so skilled and perfect” she said.  Tears prickled behind her eyes.  The man smiled.

Ester sits in her armchair embroidering tiny bedspreads and drapes, listening to the singing of the saw and the staccato percussion of the hammer as the craftsman creates fairy worlds from fallen trees.

© Lynne Couzins

A Letter by Joe Bedford

‘Gil.’ Gilbert (the object of my spite, my idiot spouse) is hunched over his typewriter, scribbling in the open novel beside him, muttering indistinctly something like ‘bollocks, bollocks, bollocks’ until I enter. I put the coffee down on his desk. He looks up (one second, no longer) then returns to the sheet in front of him.
‘It’s wonderful! It’s impossible,’ he twitters, not to me but to the novel or its writer, his beloved idol Georges Crepe.
I feel I know him well, Monsieur Crepe, since he’s the only thing Gilbert will discuss, but I refuse to pick up the book. He’s obsessed with it, not due to how exciting or enlightening it is (he tells me the story itself is, in effect, of no consequence), but due to ‘the genius of its linguistic composition’. These were Gilbert’s words, of course – this is the kind of rhetoric which dribbles out when he condescends to open his gob.
‘Yes,’ he told me one night without prompt, ‘Georges Crepe joins with the elite pedigree of writers...’ (he mentioned five or six), ‘who, in striving for perfect form, constrict their writing so severely they even refuse themselves the use of common letters. The Greeks were the first...’
But I never listened to the end. Why bother to write books without the letter E, or revise nursery rhymes by dropping their I’s or O’s or U’s? Whether Poe intended to exclude the letter Z from those long, mind-numbingly repetitive poems of his or not, honestly I couldn’t give two shits. I’d be over the moon to discuss it nevermore.
‘Excuse me, Gilbert.’
His coffee is going cold. But he’s still twittering.

Unhelpfully, Gil’s new-found love for semiotic show-offs did not stop with subjective enjoyment. When he found Georges Crepe, his obsession took off. Right now (the sky is grimly grey over Dulwich this morning), with Gilbert relieved of his job in the city, he is busying himself with his little mission: the pulling of Crepe’s novel forcibly (even violently, I think, judging by the blood vessels bursting behind his eyes) from French into English, continuing to exclude the letter of Crepe’s choice. This is why he is here right now, eight o’clock in the morning, juggling the book with his own copy of The Complete French Verbs, peering into the white sheet currently occupying his typewriter, ignoring me completely.
This bothered me before. Not now though.
‘Gilbert. Coffee.’
He looks up, doesn’t see me. ‘Hm.’
He thinks he'll be up for the Scott Moncrieff Prize. It’s possible he will, but by then, I’ll be gone.

Over the course of the summer, Gilbert’s entire spoken lexicon diminished slowly into grunts. His sole focus lies there in front of him, impossible for me to overcome. I flicked through his unfinished script once, while he telephoned his grubby little four-eyed mistress from the university. It looked like complete nonsense. I did however see one simple, pressing truth. The Missing Letter (Gilbert’s working title, obvious enough) would provide my pretentious spouse with enough fuel to see him right through the winter. I, conversely, would be left with the dishes. My soul cold like unfinished coffee.
‘Gilbert, I’m popping into town for some bits.’
He expects me, in this silence, to get on with my lonely life, the life destined for the wives of ‘men of letters’, expects me to fetch him something to glug, something to smoke, something to chew on whenever he needs it, or otherwise to be quiet, or knit, or go outside.
‘Join the book club if you’re bored,’ he suggested.
Well, bollocks.
I took to messing with him in September. Just to give me something to do.

It’s simple enough to put his newly-pressed trousers on the bed with two loose socks connecting the knees, or to present him his chips in groups of three, joined by the tips, but more difficult to get these little jokes of mine noticed. I smuggled his missing letter into every sentence I could muster, responding to his murmurs with ‘Eh? Eh?’, which he mistook only for mock Scouse. I stopped dressing properly, took to my duties in the nude, dusting his desk with my knickers, until the next door neighbours telephoned to tell me they could see ‘everything’ – the word slipped through the receiver with its own unique gusto. But even these frolics were not enough either to relieve my boredom or force Gilbert to recognise me or my misery.
He doesn’t respond to me, doesn’t even see the coffee beside him. I grit my teeth.
‘Should I fetch you something from the shops?’
Still nothing. Well, so be it.
I bend down to collect my keys (dressed, of course) before tip-toeing to the bedroom door. When my fingers close over the knob, I decide it would be stupid to ditch this little silent despot without giving vent to one or two of my subdued feelings. It couldn’t hurt.
‘Gilbert...’ I begin, but he’s engrossed in his book.
His neck twitches, his typewriter ‘tip-tip’s, his pencil skitters down the side. He is obviously busy, too busy for worldly chores, too submerged in the depths of genius to look, even to look, in the direction of the girl he once fell in love with, before Georges Crepe, before The Missing Letter. His work is his world, the whole of it. It is complete, wholly his. It builds for him the purpose to which every ounce of thought, every ounce of energy, his entire being, everything in life, is directed. It fills him entirely, or else empties him out.
I’d like to tell him these things, something of how I feel, but no. I exit in silence.
Down by the front door, my new life is pending.

The bus will be outside in ten minutes. I hover in the corridor, shoes on, fleece slung over my elbow, my pulse quickening. Is this horror I feel, or impending joy? Without thinking, I rush into the kitchen, rip the old electric bill off the fridge, whip the lid off my pen, begin to scribble. The words come quickly, smoothly, without the slightest drop in rhythm. It’s these words he’ll remember me by, these words which will drive him completely, irreversibly bonkers.
I check the clock. I study the letter. I smile.
I slip my key on top of the letter, scrutinizing it one more time. It would be glorious to be here to witness him discovering it but by then I will be in Luton, queuing up for the flight desk, or else window-shopping in duty-free or even, if he doesn’t come down till this evening, one kilometre over Western Europe, clutching my ticket to Moscow or New Delhi or Timbuktu or wherever Gilbert’s money will get me. I think, wherever it is I end up, I will enjoy exploring my freedom.
The door sighs when I come to open it. Behind me, the letter on the counter is the only thing left of Gilbert’s wife.

Dearest husband,
Read and understand: an unhappy marriage, diagnosed as terminal, contaminates a relationship, shatters personalities and, ultimately, causes heart attacks. A fact? Plausible as anything, although admittedly unverifiable. Clearer: a husband can disregard a partner, and a woman can always ascertain a man’s apathy. An agonising playact can take a decade and, lacking warning, abruptly draw a final curtain. An everyday happening, perhaps, a break-up, and continually unpredictable. Actually, at a glance, inevitable: shams are always revealed as false. Masks fall, personas vanish. Appearances alone cannot maintain a marriage.
And literature? Lipograms and all that? An eternal fraud, especially amongst egotistical, delusional, phallocentric authors. Mental masturbation - all faux-intellectuals can manage. Cowardly, almost certainly, barely concealing a rapidly-ageing attitude, that same falsehood that says literature demands acrobatics. Realise: a basic narrative can alter nations. An authentic yarn can quash dictators and tyrants. A solitary, uncomplicated image has a value metafiction can rarely command. Understand that and literature may, miraculously, last another millennia.
Anyway, that was a distraction. What a middle-aged, married woman can learn demands a summary. Admire an aphorism: make happiness a primary goal. That means avoiding impracticable situations, and ultimately abandoning unnecessary baggage. After all, bastards are what bastards are, and all arseholes are exactly alike.
Adieu, adios and arrivederci,
Anna



© Joe Bedford

The Incidentals Table by Liz Breen

Vincent Frobisher is losing his sight. He lives in an old town house with large bay windows overlooking a green with mature trees which rain cherry blossom each spring. 

He reaches for his walking stick every morning and climbs out of bed with the determination of an arctic explorer. Today, I will conquer the stairs and make it to my study once more. 

With each step he’s reminded of his youthful disregard for future infirmity. He never thought this day would come. This day has come. 

The living-room reeks of camphor. The moths are back and eating the upholstery. The place needs a good clean, a spring clean. But who will come? Nobody will come, because no one knows that Vincent lives without company, conversation, help, or laughter. 

The local newspaper’s on the mat. Its headlines are a depressing reminder of a world Vincent no longer inhabits, nor wishes to inhabit. There is still time to hear the sea, the coast is not far, and to fly a kite on a windy day. There’s still time to enjoy the scent of roses that lingers after its wearer passes, and prompts a pale memory of Livvie. 

Vincent picks up the newspaper, leaning on his stick for support, praying it will hold him long enough to reach an upright position.



The armchair, placed deliberately facing out towards the green, gives Vincent his only real connection to people going about their lives: running, walking, laughing and occasionally shouting. Dogs bark, and the birds sing most days. Thank goodness the birds sing. 

The newspaper advertisements are the only things Vincent is interested in. There’s the curry house at the nearby parade of shops offering twenty per cent off each takeaway order. Then there’s a new tattoo parlour opening up above the barber’s shop. Vincent smiles and thinks how amusing it would be to get a tattoo at his age, even though he dislikes them intensely. He picks up the magnifying glass on the incidentals table. Livvie always called it that. Your incidentals are getting everywhere, Vin. I’m getting you an incidentals table! Her voice still comes to him, when he closes his eyes to catch forty winks. It’s not your glasses, Vin, it’s time to shut your eyes and listen instead. 

The personal advertisements are selling a wide range of items: prams, lawnmowers, paddling pools, dog baskets, and offering services, language tutors, personal trainers and cleaners. He could get a cleaner. He should get a cleaner, a local woman who could dust his books, hoover the rugs and scrub the bathrooms back to Livvie’s standard of cleanliness. Livvie didn’t want people ‘who did’. She told white lies that made Vincent laugh. Veronica at Bridge Club was regaled with fantastic tales of an imaginary housekeeper named Joanie, who was worth her weight in gold.

The telephone sits on the incidentals table next to Vincent’s water tablets. He picks up the receiver and dials the number of the Mick & Stan Cleaning Company.

The conversation lasts only a few minutes. A lady named Joanna will come tomorrow morning at eleven to assess the required hours and agreed tasks. The hourly rate is ten pounds, twelve for a ‘deep clean’. Vincent says thank you four times, which he regrets as soon as he puts down the 

receiver. Nobody likes a ninny who’s too emollient. He scolds himself. Vincent is reminded of Joanie, how strange that the real cleaner has a similar name to Livvie’s fictional one. 

*

Joanna will have to wait. He needs time to reach the front door. 

- Mr Frobisher?

- Yes. Please come in. It’s - Joanna - isn’t it?

- It is. This is my ID badge. It’s not a brilliant photo, but you can see it’s me. 

Vincent puts on his glasses hanging on a gold chain around his neck, to ensure they’re never mislaid. The woman in the photo bears no resemblance to the person standing in front of him. Joanna looks stern and pale in the photograph, but she’s smiling now, plumper than her ID badge shows, and younger looking, too. 

Joanna declines a cup of tea, and departs immediately after conducting her thorough assessment of the house and what’s required cleaning-wise. She won’t be doing the cleaning herself she says. Joe will be coming to clean, and will be helping him with the paperwork, the forms that need filling in because ‘offline’ is how Vincent prefers to be. Computers are confusing. I much prefer paper, Vincent insists.

*

Joe will have to wait, too. The walking stick isn’t for speed, but for safety. 

- Mr Frobisher?

- Come in. It’s - Joe - isn’t it?

Vincent leads Joe into the front living-room, with the shelves of books and the smell of camphor, the chewed upholstery, and the view of the pink confetti trees. 

- Wow. Your books, so many… I love books. I read all the time.

Joe is young. Maybe he’s a university student, earning some extra money. He has thick brown hair. He’s skinny and tall. He has it all to come.

- Take a look. Borrow some books, if you like, and bring them back when you’re finished reading them. Treat the house as a library.

Joe puts down his zinc bucket of cleaning materials and approaches the shelf where the best books, the favourite books are kept. Vincent can’t read their spines from where he stands but, like braille, if he goes over to the shelf, he can touch the books with his eyes closed and recite their title and author. 

Joe is standing in front of Vincent’s Dickens’ collection. He takes down, A Tale of Two Cities.

- I’ll get started on the cleaning, and may I take a proper look at the books afterwards?

- Of course. You still have time to read all the great books… Make it count. I shall guide you, if you like. Avoid reading anything that doesn’t nourish your soul. If a sentence trips on your tongue, it can’t rip out your heart.

Vincent hopes Joe will come each Wednesday at ten and clean the house until it’s easier to breathe. 

Vincent is taking a nap in his chair when Joe gently taps his shoulder. 

- I’m finished, Mr Frobisher. You need more toilet roll, and bleach. I can pop out now and get them if you need me to. I can bring back the receipt and add it to my invoice. 

- Please, call me Vincent. Did you know that Vincent comes from the Latin, vincere, to conquer? You are so kind to offer me help, Joe. I sometimes make it to the shop myself. My shopping is usually done by the woman who lives next door. She thinks I live with my wife. I call out to Livvie,  The shopping’s here, darling. 

- Where is your wife?

- On the desk, in my study. Well, the urn is. I like to pretend she’s still here. Do you think I’m mad?

Joe sits down in the matching armchair beside Vincent and looks out at the pink blizzard.

- Do you read anymore, Vincent?

Vincent decides to be honest. Joe knows. There’s no book on the incidentals table. The glaze is getting worse. He looked at his face in the mirror last week, just inches from the glass, and saw an old man with squinting, opaque eyes.

- Did you make my bed?

- I did. You’re wise to sleep downstairs. Good, big house this. A lot for just you. I took the initiative and rounded up all the plates, glasses and mugs, and washed them.

The mug on the bedside table has stayed there for three years since Livvie died. Joe wasn’t to know. Vincent should have said not to touch it. He made her tea in bed that morning before she left for her doctor’s appointment. The receptionist called out Livvie’s name four times but she didn’t answer. She fell asleep in the chair and never woke up. A peaceful, gentle death, the doctor said. She’d been in the right place, at least.

Vincent takes off his glasses. He’ll remember the awe Joe has for his books. He doesn’t see the dust, just the gold.

- Will you return? Will you clean for me every Wednesday?

- How else will I be able to borrow your books?

Joe gets up and goes over to the shelf.

- Read to me, please. Directly left of, A Handful of Dust you’ll find a copy of Great Expectations. 

Joe settles down in the armchair and opens the book.

- My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

© Liz Breen

Weakender by JP Seabright

 This story of sorts began all out-of-sorts on the Friday night before the morning after, with that queer excitement of hope, happiness and the promise of passionate fulfilment. Or at least the possibility of spending the weekend doing something different with somebody indifferent. 

It started in a bar in the fashionably seedy part of town, wearing cheap black and white ‘go faster’ stripes and drinking expensive Red Stripe lager, whilst sending keen glances to all the dancing queens. It finished in a club in the old-fashioned seedy and downright dodgy part of town packed with dykes in drag, businessmen in bras, and plenty of sex, Lycra and Sellotape sticking the rest of our suspect sexualities together.  

The friends I had arranged to meet had pulled out at the last minute, but by then I had pulling in mind and couldn’t not go. At the door of the club (which should have etched over its hallowed arches but doesn’t: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’) the buxom bouncer eyed me suspiciously as I arrived alone. In this town, queers go out and about with peers for fear of recrimination. 

The club was hot, but the girls were not, and my casual fuck-me looks were returned with serious fuck-off stares, and I had no luck at all. And that was that. 

I walked home feeling stoned, cold, tired and lonely, but awake enough to kick myself for having missed another ‘now or never’ opportunity. But I don’t kid myself, I know that now, unless I am pissed, it is never. These days a night on the town results in too many tears, and not enough beers, and as the years go by, I’m not getting any younger, just colder and tireder. And as I lay in bed, the ceiling whirling around my head, I stared into the gloom while the big lights and bright city burst into my room. I was thirsty for a drinking partner, I craved a friendly raver, someone to share the limelight on a lager and lime night.

Saturday. 

If only I had a hangover, at least then I’d have an excuse for self-abuse, but instead I’ve got hang-ups which aren’t nearly so easy to sleep off. But as a self-confessed insomniac, there was no chance of that either. All that was needed to complete my sense of self-pity were cigarettes and the weekend newspapers. As any drama queen will tell you, the first drag of the day is a beautiful thing, and though I had been a fag hag in my time, in my before life, my closeted hetero-speculative world, I’d never inhaled, so there wasn’t any permanent damage. 

I leave the unchristened sanctity of my attic room and walk down the stairs hoping to avoid the stares of my housemates on that real walk of shame: being empty-handed with no acquired last-night lover in tow. No love bites or lost keys or scribbled phone numbers to show off one’s queer credentials. I tread lightly, the stairs creak, but I know where their weakness lies, and I am as stealthy and nimble as a panther in heat. Either they’re all still asleep or, as this is unlikely, since it is already early afternoon, and they are not the sleeping-in sort, they are all out for the day. 

Lucky me, I have the place to myself. Again. I am in the top room, three flights up, because no one else wanted it, so I took it gladly, happy to spend my evenings staring at rooftops and television aerials. The irony of being the madwoman in the attic was not lost on me at the time.   

Outside I breathe air, fresh air. As fresh as the polluted city streets can provide. I prefer to walk this city at night-time, to explore its secrets, its hidden parts. Uncovering it slowly like a new-found lover. Returning to those areas that turn you on time and time again. And sometimes, with the force of a heat-seeking missile, flinging oneself brazenly upon the city’s darkened decadent undiscovered naughty nooks, carefree crannies and sticky corners. But that was last night, I missed my chance, I lost my oomph, and returned home empty handed. And now I need something to soothe my despondency and improve my disposition. 

I walk to the nearby corner shop. Ahmed raises his eyebrows at me as I enter. I was in here last night, buying cheap fortified wine with which to lay down a foundational layer of inebriation in the comfort of my own home, before roaming the streets for affordable drinking dens. It’s almost as though he was expecting me. 

He places a cigarette lighter on the counter in front of him. One of those cheap translucent ones. Yellow. I’d prefer a different colour, I may mention this when I get to the till. I smile at him and wave my hand in a vague gesture, half hello, half suggesting ‘I’m still looking’. I am still looking, but I don’t know what for. What am I looking for? Biscuits, perhaps. Some more Earl Grey tea? Do I need some kind of carbonated caffeinated beverage with which to perk up the rest of my day, I wonder? No, I think not. Way too much excitement. It would only be making promises to my body that I am not able to keep.  

I don’t know what I’m looking for. Something to ease the growing hunger inside, something to get me through another night. Something. And then I find it. 

She walks in. I look up. She is radiant. She is the sun and the moon and the stars and she is looking at me. I look down at the gum-studded shop floor. I am not looking my best, wearing Holy jeans, a T-shirt and flip flops. 

My heart stops. What should I do? I should run and hide and never return to this shop, this street, or this city ever again. Shame creeps up my face, whilst sweat trickles down my back. I raise my eyes again, slowly, nervously, hoping she has moved away. 

She has not moved away. She has taken a step closer and she is smiling at me.

Hello, she says.

Erm…hi, I reply. Gulping back years of disappointment and embarrassment. 

I saw you last night, she says.

Did you? I reply.

Yes, at the club, she says.

Yes, I reply. Do you go there..? And then I stop, aware that my already apparent idiocy is about to turn into sectionable lunacy. 

And because she has taken my hand. 

I follow where she leads me, leaving my no-longer required lighter on the counter. I feel lighter, somehow.  

Kiss me, she said. 

So I did.

Take me, she said, back to your place. 

So I did.

Hold me, she said. 

So I did.

I held her all afternoon and into the star-spangled night.

And at 3am, exactly 12 hours since her eyes first transfixed mine, she got up. 

I have to go, she said. 

And she did. 

Into the star-crossed night.

Call me, she said.

© JP Seabright

Werewolves by Jessica Brown

 I look down at Sam’s black shiny shoes with the thin, black laces. I can see my face in them like a mirror and there is a little mark on the front. I don’t think he wears them a lot. I shift my eyes to my shoes: my white converse. The ones I drew on with a blue pen the time I sat outside the Head teacher’s office. Mum said they were “inappropriate” to wear to a graduation ceremony, and that all the boys there will be wearing their smart shoes. But after I didn’t eat my breakfast or drink my orange juice, and locked myself in my bedroom for three hours and twelve minutes, she let me wear my white converse with the blue pen on them. 


I remind myself of what mum told me to do on the drive here.

“Walk on stage, shake the head teacher’s hand, smile, walk off the stage.”

“..Hey!” 

A woman I have never seen before touches me on the shoulder, smiling. I didn’t like it. I look at her hand, still on my shoulder, and I look up.

 “Brace yourself! You’re up next, sweetie.”

 I don’t know what she means by “Brace yourself.” 

I crack my knuckles to stay calm. The man on my right that smells like onions and has sweat down his face, leads me onto the stage, and I lift my head up towards the many people. The lights were hot and the stage was big. My heart beats faster and faster. A fat man wearing a plain red polo shirt with creases standing near the far left back exit has a video recorder. I think it is a Canon XP. I wave at him. Then I see my Mum and Dad, sat on the fifth row, three seats in from the right. Mum has tears coming out of her eyes, which means she is crying, which means she is sad. I don’t know why she is sad because when she left me backstage she said she was “happy” and “proud”. 

The Head teacher grabs my hand really hard and shakes it. Dad once told me that a woman’s emotion changes all the time and very quickly, mainly at a specific time of every month, but I think he means Werewolves. Mum isn’t a Werewolf. I don’t think she is. But the Royal Family are Werewolves. It is said Queen Victoria was the first in her line to carry Haemophilia and the only explanation is that she was bitten by a Werewolf because I found that in 1821…

“Smile for the camera, Paul!”

I jolt. That stupid man with the stupid plain red polo shirt takes a photo of me with the head teacher with his big stupid camera.  

“You did so great!” 

My mum is dabbing her eyes, as she hooked her arm into mine. We stroll down the centre of the hall, closely followed by my Dad, talking to Peter Smith’s Dad. I didn’t like Peter Smith. Peter Smith had blonde yellow hair like the sun, I didn’t like yellow. That means I don’t like pasta, cheese, lemons, sunflowers, potato, Thai curry - Mum cooks it every Friday night- yellow jelly beans, yellow starbursts, and yellow M&Ms  - I have to give them to Sarah. Sweetcorn, the Yellow Pages, yellow chicks - baby chickens- yellow hair and yellow bananas. Every yellow banana needs to be destroyed. I don’t know why I do not like the colour yellow. I do not mind all the other colours. In my black folder, the colour sheet says that in the world and in different cultures, different colours mean different things.  They say Red means anger or love, Green means fresh and natural, and white means pure and innocent. I don’t know why colours have meanings. They shouldn’t have meanings. They’re just colours, to make things look nice. Just because a boy picks a Red flower for a girl does not mean he loves her. The boy just likes Red. When Susan came to school with a blue lunchbox in Y3, the girls in our class called her a “Boy!”. But I don’t know why? The sky is blue. Does that mean the sky is a boy? It can’t be a boy because the sky isn’t a person.  

So, my favourite colour is Black because Black can mean anything. It can be a black dog, a black night sky, a black chocolate cake (Mum made one for my graduation), my black folder, the black ground. Black is not confusing like the other colours. I do not know why I do not like Yellow. Mum says it was because when I was a baby, she dyed her hair from black to blonde at the hairdressers, and when she came home, I did not recognise her and so I screamed and cried for many days screaming

 “I want my real Mummy back!” 

Then a week later, we went to Asda to go food shopping, and when I saw the Bananas, I screamed and cried again and so Mum had to put the Bananas back. I just don’t like Yellow.

“Hey! Paul! You got into Cambridge? That’s fab! What are you going to study? Are you going to do Science or something? I always knew you would do Science? Or are you doing Computers? You’re good with Computers aren’t you? Sarah Whittaker says that...”

 Peter likes to talk a lot. But Dad says I have to make an effort to talk to people or I wouldn’t make friends, and I needed to make friends when I go to university. So I nod and smile like people do when they’re not really listening. Peter stares at me with a funny face.

“What?” I ask.

“I said, are you moving into the halls or staying at home?  It’s a long way for you to commute, but I heard your Mum and Dad might move to Cambridge?” He smiles.

 “No they’re not. Dad says they don’t have enough money now. So I have to sleep at the University on my own.” Mum and Dad start waving to me from the hall entrance.

 “You’re going out for dinner, your Dad says. You better hurry cos’ traffic is going to be murder out of the car park. Good luck at Cambridge, pal! You’ll do great. Don’t worry; you’ll make plenty of friends. Just don’t make friends with the snobby shits.  You’re a funny lad and they’ll only take the piss out of yer.” He pats me on the back really hard.

 “…Who did you murder?”

“What?”

“What?”

“Paul! Come, on! We need to get out of here before it gets really busy!” 


……………………………………………………………………………………


Mum,  Dad and I go to The Bungalows and Bears pub for tea. I have an American burger with no cheese and no onions but lots of red ketchup and salt! The burger makes my mouth turn all watery, tingly and salty so I guzzle down the biggest pint of Cola! Mum has a large Greek Caesar salad with a drink of vodka and lemonade, whilst Dad has a large steak and chips and a pint of lager. 

I tried lager once, when I was eight years old. Uncle Matt held a glass up to my mouth at a family BBQ in the summer. I remember it because it was a really hot, sticky summer and I always kept my t-shirt tucked up into my armpits because I didn’t like the sweat touching me. I took a sip of the lager and as soon as it hit my mouth, I had to pant like a dog because it felt like a bomb had exploded in my mouth. I had to drink three pints of water to make the disgusting taste go away.

“How’s your burger taste, dear?” asks my mum as she squeezes a slice of lemon over her salad. 

“Tastes like burgers.” I reply with my head down. 

“I wish you wouldn’t write at the table, dear. It’s not good manners, I’d like to talk to your face whilst I’m talking to you, not the top of your head”. 

I lift up my head. She had stopped squeezing the lemon over her salad and was now looking at me with her knife and fork in her hand. 

I chew at my pen top. ”It’s my university diary. The one you told me I should start to keep me calm. I’m using the new diary Aunt Jackie bought me in Waterstones on Sunday.” I take a bite of the burger and tap the pen on my pint glass.

“Great idea, darling, but a restaurant isn’t a suitable place to start it. Besides, you haven’t started University yet. You do not go for another two weeks, why don’t you begin it then?”

 "Sweetie, maybe we should start bringing up the whole, you know, girls and university thing?" says my Dad. 

"There will be no Werewolves at University, Dad. Don't worry, I have already looked into it."

© Jessica Brown

Ding Dong Dung by Cindy Pereira

Cindy has opted-out of Online Publication

The Death of an Actor by Steve Goodlad

As the scene begins, he’s looking out of a window at a backdrop of Paris. It’s the Eiffel Tower in case we are too dim to place the accent and the scant props. There is tinny music apparently from a faux gramophone; a thirties Jazz band in case we don’t locate the era. As the lights come up, he moves to centre stage, checks his tie, his monocle, lights a cigarette and awaits his mistress who will be; “utterly divine”. He is the perfect kid-gloved cad.

At the curtain call, his eyes seek me out, flickering to the gallery and he bows. He bows again to the leading lady bearing flowers (the same bunch as yesterday he tells me later), then steps back again, re-joining hands with the rest of the cast. 

In the dressing room afterwards, he pours us both a finger of whisky. I am not his son anymore it seems, so am allowed the illicit drink but not the second larger one he pours for himself a little later. His make-up is only half erased and he looks like a sad clown with white eye-rims emphasising the pink sclera. I think it is me that makes him sad, he sees the life he should have had, had he remained faithful to the woman he loved, the family holidays we never had. The football matches we could have gone to together, sharing an interest. He misses all that now that he can’t sustain the alternative, the life he did have. The life I can only guess at.

I take the towel from around his neck and wipe away the greasepaint. He used to have a dresser to do these things he says, to make him presentable and that he didn’t leave in his costume suit. He invites me to “his club” for drinks, but I tell him I have to catch the last train. Just as well he says, that he can’t afford to pay off his slate.

He does insist however on seeing me to the station and I enjoy the short walk, the bonhomie of his company, of what it could have been like. It is autumn and the mist swirls in as I walk to the platform, and when I look back, he is waving as though suspended in dry ice, the brim of his fedora shadowing his nose. I am left wondering why he seemed so uncharacteristically sentimental.

When the police knock at the door, it feels like no surprise. In my dressing gown, I think I am being appraised, to see what I amounted to. I ask them where he is and am told the hospital but sadly there is no rush. “Wasn’t he in Casualty in the early days?” he asks and for a moment I am confused. He looks like he’s taken a punt in a pub quiz to lighten the mood a little and I gratify him with a nod. I don’t mention his Hamlet at the RSC or John Proctor when he toured the Crucible and finished on Broadway. His “triumphs” as he called them after years of bit parts in soaps and an advertisement for margarine.

The undertaker applied make-up and made him into a younger self, his head thrown back, almost in laughter. He looks like he has a healthy tan, that I’d never seen before. I tell them to seal the lid before anyone else sees him.

The recording starts too late, the choreography of his later work with amateur lighting and vintage sound system that can’t drown out the squeak of the wheels of the trolley on which his coffin sits. Then he wobbles away from us on rollers, through the foul flaps and the curtain descends for the last time. I remember how calm he seemed in that final scene, just for me on the station platform, like the old days when it was him leaving and me waving with less dignity.

A few mourners linger after the service. He is remembered unfavourably by some. His phrases too well cut, his rejection of their “hand-outs” still ringing in their ears. There is polite indifference and an apology about not having time to make the wake.

I cleared his apartment and took two dozen suits to the charity shop. Who would want a white barathea dinner jacket that had never been worn and no turn back cuffs on his shirts and trousers with no turn ups? He used to sniff at my turn-out. To him, clothes were a kind of wit. You either carried them off or you looked ridiculous. In his eyes, I was the latter. I keep one suit as his only legacy apart from settling his many accounts.

I dignified his death with an obituary in The Times. No reporter picked up on it despite the coroner's conclusion of possible accidental death from a mix of alcohol and sleeping pills. There was no note, no final goodbye except that cameo on the station platform; one of his own plays. The last time I saw him. I must have been looking too far away or I must have been looking too near, a wealth of detail if only I had looked, but nothing conclusive it was decided.

Now that I am the same age as he was at the height of his career and I hold him up like a mirror to look over my shoulder, I am given to wondering about the man who walked in on us that day, the actor with two families and no fixed abode. He told me that I burst into tears as I didn’t know who on earth he was. I once found his name in the library Who’s Who and copied the page out, his forgotten plays and television appearances, his brief biography followed by a personal note: sports; none, charities supported; none, hobbies; none, address c/o Spotlight.

Now that he has walked out on us again, I feel no wiser, as I sit here like an actor waiting to go on, I wish I could see again that stubborn unforgiving man that goaded me for not striking out and using the creativity and flair of my youth. Now that I am grown, with children of my own, to offer me their own disappointed obedience, I feel for him. Our children left us both because we were so wrapped up in our own ambitions, too wise for them to laugh and admire their made-up plays. 

I recall he bought me a present to assuage his frequent absences. Him running behind me on the path, a smell of whisky in his sweat, holding the saddle steady and launching me off on my own. That is where I found myself and learned to be.

I never wanted to step into his shoes. I told him once that I wanted to be an actor and he slapped his knee and shouted; “no you don’t, you don’t give a damn about the theatre or me”. He reminded me about my pronunciation, my local accent wouldn’t “cut it”. If I made the mistake of pronouncing: “bath” as if it rhymed with “hearth” he would calmly demolish my qualification for the stage. He went on to tell me how at my age he had seen every show in London and emphasised how passionately he wanted to act. “Can you say that?” His widows peak was like a judges black cap as he laid down the law. I had thought that all acting was just showing off, playing make-belief and pretending. “I could learn” I said. “You can’t teach acting” he responded, “it’s a gift not taught”. I never considered it again.

Now that I look unlike the boy on the brand-new bike, who wobbled down the path. I still hear him calling; “keep pedalling, keep pedalling”. When I look over my shoulder, he is nowhere to be seen. Now that he’s no longer “stopping by”, today or any other day, I realise how far death takes men from where they were and yet how soon it brings them back again.

Now that I am old, that I have some resemblance to him, I put on that warm grey wool suit. I feel a nice indifference with life. I sweep my hair straight back the way he wore it during his life and death. His fierce forehead, still doubting the intelligence of people he encountered, too serious for filial piety, with his air of sealed regret. I commute to my life in a family law court; of conformity, legislation and policies.  I never did land the job he was looking for; “dabbling in other people’s lives, rescuing abandoned children”. I wonder if he heard himself sometimes?

I walk to the station and I see him walking towards me, the stiff-backed theatrical man again. He pauses for a moment in close up, lights a cigarette and I find myself playing the perfect kid-gloved cad.

© Steve Goodlad

Change Matters by C.R. Berry

Melanie Cox had just got engaged to the man of her dreams, Luke Piper. He’d whisked her away on a Disney cruise and proposed on a beach on Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. He’d even arranged for a live band to serenade her with I See The Light from Tangled and for Mickey Mouse himself to come and deliver the ring.

That magical moment seemed so long ago now that Melanie was back mindlessly crunching numbers in an office that was sparse and clinical and couldn’t be less ‘Disney’ if it tried. Still, Luke was planning something big for her birthday tomorrow and it was likely to be another dazzling and heart-meltingly romantic affair. Last year he’d surprised her with a Beauty and the Beast-themed afternoon tea, complete with Mrs Potts and Chip crockery and Lumière-supplied candlelight, and front row seats at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End to see The Lion King.

Melanie text Luke. Just one. One clue.

Luke replied a moment later. The information booth is closed.

Not even one?

You like surprises.

It was true. She did like surprises. But she also liked knowing things. It was a genuine dilemma.

Just a teeny tiny one.

Alright. I’ll give you a teeny tiny clue...

She waited. Her phone told her he was typing another text.

It’s to celebrate your birthday.

She chuckled. I know that!

He sent her a smiley with a kiss in it. That’s all you’re getting.

Melanie noticed her colleague, Lara Driscoll, glaring at her from the other side of the C-Suite, probably for being on her phone. Even though both of them were executive assistants promoted to the C-Suite at the same time, Lara fancied herself Melanie’s boss and acted like it, forgetting that her detective chief inspector days were behind her.

Melanie ignored it, replying to Luke. Lara’s giving me daggers again. I’m sooo gonna tell her where to go soon.

Yes, do! She needs bringing down a few pegs. Remind me what time you’re working till tonight?

10. Wish I wasn’t. Wish I was at home, snuggled up with you.

Soon, baby. I love you.

I love you too. So much. So much. How could she have got this lucky?

“Do you have enough work to do, Melanie?” said Lara Driscoll, sitting down at the computer next to her, her patronising tone like a fork scraping a ceramic plate.

Melanie winced. “Plenty, thank you, Lara.” She threw her a sarcastic smile stretched taut over gritted teeth.

“Why are you on your phone then?”

“Because—oh wait, I just remembered, it’s none of your business.”

“Actually, I—”

That did it. Enough was enough. Swivelling her chair towards Lara, she muttered sharply under her breath, “Actually you nothing. I’m going to say this once and once only, Lara. You’re not my boss. So quit acting like you are or so help me”—she picked up her mug, dregs of her cappuccino sloshing about inside—“I’m going to break this mug over your head.”

Lara’s eyes snapped wide, but she fell silent, shook her head disapprovingly and returned to what she was doing. Melanie’s knees jittered. She hadn’t meant to lose her cool like that, but the woman had been twanging on her last nerve for weeks now. At least her slightly ungraceful outburst seemed to shut her up.

A moment later, the door to the CEO’s office opened. With her usual effortless elegance, Miss Morgan emerged on three-inch stilettos that looked like they could puncture steel, a tumble of coal-black hair spilling over her ruffled collar blouse and charcoal jacket.

“Listen up, people,” she announced.

The C-Suite quietened immediately.

“Time Travel is about to embark on an urgent assignment in Ancient Rome. In ten minutes the building will be locked down and the Shield will be raised. It shouldn’t be for any longer than two hours, but I’m afraid those of you who are due to finish their shift at ten are going to have to wait.”

Damn it. Melanie contemplated asking Miss Morgan if she could finish early, then thought better of it.

As Miss Morgan returned to her office, Melanie texted Luke. Looks like I’m going to be working later than planned. Sorry baby. Don’t wait up.

A couple of minutes later her phone buzzed. Don’t work too hard. Wake me up for a cuddle when you get home. Love you.

Not long after, the main lights dimmed and a big, red, pyramid-shaped lamp at the centre of the ceiling came on, flushing everything and everyone crimson: the lockdown light. There was one on every floor, there to tell staff that the Shield was up, the building was sealed, and that if anyone were to leave, they risked getting absorbed into an alternate timeline. The Shield protected them all from potential changes caused by in-progress time travel assignments. Once assignments were complete, the Time Travel Department would establish whether it was safe for the Shield to be lowered, which meant confirming that any permanent changes to the timeline were minor and had little to no effect on the company or its goals.

Just over two hours later, at 10.43pm, Melanie’s eyes stuck to the clock and counting every second, Miss Morgan stepped out of her office to announce, “Mission accomplished. In a few minutes the Shield will be deactivated and the lockdown will be lifted. Those of you who were meant to finish at ten will be free to go.”

Melanie gave a small, subtle sigh of relief that would’ve been a lot more obvious had Miss Morgan not been standing there. As soon as the CEO was gone, she texted Luke. Leaving shortly, baby.

Her phone vibrated. I’m still awake. Reading in bed, keeping it warm for you.

Melanie smiled. Then the lockdown light went out and the main lights flooded on.

 

Melanie didn’t notice tender bruises and copious cigarette burn scars appear on her upper arms and legs. None of her colleagues saw her eyes become shadowed with sleepless bags. Nor did they see her skin pale or her hair lose body and colour.

She checked her phone, but wasn’t waiting for a message from Luke anymore. Luke Piper wasn’t her fiancé. Ian Venables was. A permanent change to the timeline had occurred, just not one that substantially affected the company. In other words, it didn’t matter. A staff member ending up with a different fiancé was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Melanie read Ian’s text. Tell me the truth. Where have you been?

Her heart rate climbed as she typed her reply. I told you. I had to work later than planned.

I know that’s what you told me. I called your office to make sure. Couldn’t get through.

She couldn’t tell him why. Not the real reason, anyway. No one but select staff, with clearance, knew that the company had invented and was using time travel. Like I said, we had a problem with the phones.

Bullshit. You were with that dickhead again. Don’t even try to deny it. I saw the way you looked at him at your works do last week.

A knot of dread and panic balled in Melanie’s gut. He’s a colleague. Nothing more.

You fucked him, didn’t you. You’re a lying whore.

I’m not doing this again. Let’s talk when I’m home.

You can talk. To my fist. BITCH.

He’d been drinking again. Please not tonight. She hoped the fact that her birthday was tomorrow might earn her a reprieve.

She tossed her phone in her handbag and headed for the kitchen, passing Lara Driscoll on the way. “Miss Cox, did you finish that inferential analysis?”

“Yes, Miss Driscoll,” Melanie replied. “It’s in your inbox.”

“I hope there are no errors in it this time.”

Melanie swallowed hard. Miss Driscoll was scary when she was mad, which was why Melanie had double-checked, then triple-checked, before submitting it. “No, ma’am.”

“Good. Enjoy your weekend.”

She wouldn’t, but hey-ho. Relationships weren’t always plain sailing and Ian was a far sight nicer to her than her previous boyfriends. “Thank you, Miss Driscoll. You too.”

Melanie walked into the kitchen, poured the dregs of a camomile tea down the sink and placed her mug in the dishwasher, grabbed her coat and left the building to embark on the ten-minute walk home to a fiancé who, for all his flaws, she loved with all her heart.

© C.R. Berry

Molly-Dolly’s New Clothes by Elaine Peters

Emma went through the front door into the hall.  She knew exactly where everything was.   It was imprinted on her memory and in her heart, this house she’d lived in for so long, so long ago.

She peeped into the cloakroom.  There was a new gleaming white suite whereas theirs had been green.  In the living room the wallpaper and carpet had gone.  The room looked bigger with plain walls and what looked like floorboards. She liked it. 

Emma drifted upstairs to the bedrooms.  First into hers and Steve’s; it too looked very different but she didn’t want to linger.  The other large bedroom was Mark’s and Simon had slept in the smaller single.  The boys’ rooms hadn’t changed that much, still showing signs of male teenage occupancy, posters on the walls, clothes on the floor.  But their boys had never had all these strange electronic games.  She pushed open the door to their spare room and found herself in a pink fairyland with fluffy toys and dolls lined up on the bed.  If baby Anna had lived she might have had a room like this.  She’d never been able to part with her tiny layette.

‘Mum, I’m cold,’ a voice broke into her reverie.  A little girl of about six was sitting at a miniature dressing table combing a doll’s hair. 

‘Well, put a jumper on,’ the reply floated up from below.

‘Hello,’ Emma said, ‘that’s a pretty dolly.  What’s her name?’

She was surprised when the child dropped the doll and rushed out of the room.  She hadn’t meant to frighten her.

She picked up the doll and gave herself a mental shake.  I must remember, things are different now.

Downstairs in the kitchen Julie was busy chopping vegetables.

‘Hello, sweetie,’ she greeted the little whirlwind that was her daughter, Ella.  ‘What’s the hurry?’

‘Mum, there was a lady in my room.’

‘Nonsense, darling.  No-one’s been in.  Mrs Johnson only comes on Wednesdays.’

‘I know Mrs Johnson, Mum.  It was someone else.  She’s there now.  She’s got on funny clothes.’

‘Stay here.’  Julie ran upstairs and tiptoed to Ella’s room.  Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open. The room was empty.  Molly-Dolly was sitting on the dressing table stool staring into the mirror with her deep blue eyes and impossibly long lashes.  Julie went from room to room checking for an intruder.  She felt a little foolish as she realised she still had the knife in her hand.

‘You must have been dreaming, Ella,’ she said as she went back into the kitchen.

‘No, Mum, there was a lady.  She spoke to me but I didn’t hear her properly.’

‘Well, there’s no-one there now, Ella, so run along and play.  The boys will be home soon.’

Ella ran upstairs to get her doll.  

‘Mum, look!’ she skipped back into the kitchen fifteen minutes later.  ‘Do you like Molly-Dolly’s new jacket?’

‘It’s lovely.  Where did you get it?’

‘The lady put it on.  I didn’t have it before.’

‘Now don’t be silly, Ella.  There is no lady.’

Emma visited the garden.  She approved of the new patio but the lawn was in bad condition.   The magnolia tree and the hydrangea had grown well.  She stepped through the back door into the huge new kitchen.  A young woman was stirring something on the stove and the little girl was watching television, her doll on her lap.  She looked up and smiled.

‘Thank you for the jacket, it’s very pretty,’ she said.

‘What did you say, Ella?’ her mother looked up from the saucepan.

‘Nothing, Mum.  I was just saying thank you for the jacket.’

‘My pleasure,’ Emma whispered.  ‘Goodbye, my dear.’  She was glad there was a nice new family living there.  It was their house now and she wouldn’t be back.  

Julie went to close the kitchen door.  ‘It’s getting cooler,’ she remarked.  ‘Summer’s nearly over.’

In autumn the patio was strewn with fallen leaves of gold and brown and winds whistled round the house trying to find a way in through the new well-fitting windows.  Peter put aside a whole weekend for renewing the loft insulation.  It was high time, as Julie had reminded him, they had been in the house over a year.  He made countless trips to the local tip with stuff people keep just in case they want it again.  

He brought a small cardboard box into the kitchen and put it on the counter.

‘Look inside,’ he told Julie.

‘Is that clean, Peter?’ Julie asked.  ‘I don’t want…  Oh, wow!  They’re beautiful!’  Julie gently lifted out a tiny baby’s smock, beautifully embroidered with exquisite stitches, then a pink cardigan, obviously hand- knitted.  They reminded her of something - Ella’s doll’s jacket that had appeared so mysteriously a few months ago.

‘Ella,’ she called.  ‘Come and look at these!’

Ella bounced into the kitchen with Molly-Dolly under her arm.

‘Oh, there they are!’ she cried.  ‘I remember now, the lady said there were some more clothes but I forgot!’  

‘There’s more,’ Peter showed Julie an envelope.  Inside was a torn off page of a newspaper showing a date some fifty years ago and a photograph of a couple with two boys smiling into the camera.  ‘It’s a sort of time-capsule,’ he explained.  ‘They must have put it under the insulation when they had the loft done.  Maybe we should do the same; sort of carry on the tradition.’

‘There’s no baby girl,’ Julie noticed.  ‘Perhaps the photo was taken before she was born.  Anyway, Molly-Dolly will be the best dressed doll in town!’

Winter drew in sprinkling diamonds of frost on the lawn then covering the whole garden with a blanket of snow.  The children shrieked with excitement as they raced around flinging snowballs at each other.  And when they all trooped inside, the old house felt bright and modern, the rooms warm and friendly.  There were no ghosts here.  

© Elaine Peters

The Book of Revelations by R.T. Hardwick

 ‘Darling, so glad you could come.’

‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’

‘Did you have a difficult journey?’

‘Snow’s about six inches deep, but the old Mitsubishi didn’t let me down.’

Bruce Catterick took off his fedora, shook the snowflakes from his coat and hung both on the hat and coat stand in the hall.  He smoothed down his suit and straightened his Guards’ tie.  He was a man of early middle age, well over six feet tall, handsome from some angles, and rangy with it. 

‘Come in and meet the other guests,’ said Sally Graham. She slid across the floor like a pair of closing curtains and led the way into the lounge.  

‘This is Bruce Catterick,’ she announced to the assembly.  There were murmured greetings from the twenty or so people in the room.

‘How do you do?’ said Bruce.  He took up a position just inside the door.

‘Sally, who are these people?’

‘Oh. Just a few odds and sods from round here. A dentist, a quantity surveyor, two chartered accountants, chairman of the Rotary, the vicar, the Member of Parliament for East or West somewhere or other.’

‘I don’t feel comfortable amongst this mob.  I don’t know anybody.’

‘You know me.’

‘Well, as long as you stick to me like glue for the duration.’

‘I’ll try, Bruce, but I’m the hostess.  I’m supposed to circulate.  Your usual poison?’ 

‘Yes. Scotch.  With ice.’  

‘Which scotch would you like?  We’ve seven different malts. Would Talisker suit?’

‘Talisker would be fine.  Better make it a double.’

Sally handed him an expensive crystal glass.

‘Where is the Great White Leader, then?' asked Bruce. 'Having his weekly audience with the Queen? Teaching Tiger Woods how to use a mashie niblick?’ 

‘Henry’s in the conservatory.  He’s discussing business with some of his City friends.  It’s about shares in Rio Tinto Zinc, or something.  He’ll be through shortly.’ 

‘That sums him up to a T, doesn’t it?  A nouveau riche windbag expounding words of wisdom to as rascally a bunch of sycophants as you’ll find this side of the Kremlin.’

‘Don’t be so jealous.  You’ve nothing to be jealous about.’

‘Don’t I?  You live in a wonderful home.  Your drive’s nearly as long as the M3.  Christ, you even have a bidet in your bathroom.  I bet the bloody thing once belonged to Louis XIV.’ 

‘Darling, don’t exaggerate. The bidet came from Harrods.’

‘Your mansion in leafy Godalming beats my three-bedroomed shack in Staines.’

‘Well, you did choose to be a middle manager in, what is it, a company that makes valves?  You could have gone into the City.’

‘What, like Henry and his business fiends?  Never in a thousand years.’

Henry made his grand entrance.  Bruce looked at him.

Jug-eared imbecile. 

Henry was short, bald, and gave every appearance of being Mr Pickwick’s great-great-great grandson. He did have rather large ears which gave him the appearance of a Californian leaf-nosed bat, albeit an unfashionably plump one.

‘Henry, I want you to come and meet Bruce Catterick.  He’s a friend of mine.  We met at the badminton club.’

Henry waddled over and extended a hand like a seal’s flipper.

‘Pleased to meet you.  I hope Sally’s looking after you.’

‘She is, thank you.’

‘Badminton, you say?  Dab hand with a shuttlecock, are you?’

‘I’ve had my moments.’

'Where are you from, Mr Catterick?’

‘Originally Accrington.  Now Staines.’

‘I wonder which is worse.  Oh, there’s Snetterton over there.  I have to tie up some loose ends with him.’

Bruce surreptitiously raised two fingers at Henry’s retreating back.  Sally smiled.

‘You mustn’t think ill of him, Bruce. He’s suspicious of anyone with a northern accent.  Something to do with flat vowels.  He thinks everyone north of Hemel Hempstead is working-class.’

‘Ee bah gum, is that reet?  Well, Ah’ll go to the fut of our stairs. Wukking class, indeed.  The bloody barmpot.’ 

Sally laughed.  It sounded like someone tuning a ukulele.

‘Come into the library,’ said Sally. ‘It’ll be more private there.  Can I refill your glass?’

‘No, one’s enough. I’m driving.’

‘Soft drink, then?’

‘I’m fine, thank you.’

They walked along the passage and opened the door into the library.

It was a spacious room, decorated in a tasteful dove grey with a deep red pile carpet to deaden any noise.  Bookshelves covered every wall.  They were crammed with books of all shapes and sizes.  Bruce picked up a volume at random.  It was a first edition, bound in Moroccan leather.

‘The Collected Short Stories of Maxim Gorky.  Does he read any of this stuff?’

‘Of course not, darling.  He confines himself to the Financial Times and the Economist.  Maxim Gorky never made anyone any money.’

‘They say Stalin had him bumped off.  The death certificate read ‘pneumonia’ but not everyone believes that,’ said Bruce.

‘I don’t suppose it bothered Gorky as he lay on the undertaker’s slab.’

‘Gorky was an idealist, a romantic, a poet, like me. Your husband is a money-grubbing capitalist hack who, more by luck than ability, has made a fortune by conning people.’

‘Bruce, darling, look at everything he’s given me.’ 

‘Everything except love and affection.’

‘Darling.  Love and affection are such overrated concepts.  I love material possessions.  I want luxury in my life.  I need expensive things, jewellery, perfume.  It’s surely not too much to ask.’

‘I suppose that’s why you laughed out loud when I gave you that bottle of Calvin Klein Euphoria toilet water last Christmas.  Euphoric you certainly weren’t.’

‘Bruce.  I can’t help it if I normally use Creed’s Aventus Eau de Parfum on my skin.  You wouldn’t want me to look like a withered old hag and smell like a manure-heap now, would you?’

‘No, except that stuff’s more expensive than saffron.’ 

‘What do you think of my outfit?’ asked Sally.

‘I think you look ravishing.  I love that purple velvet dress you’re wearing.’

‘Velour.’

‘I love that purple velvet velour you’re wearing.’  

Sally tut-tutted at the feebleness of his joke.

‘What about my necklace?’

‘It suits your complexion perfectly.  What are those stones – they’re as deep brown as your eyes.’  

‘Smoky quartz.  Henry had a little man in Cavendish Square make them up.’

‘I suppose he asked the jeweller to go and dig up the stones himself.’

‘You are silly.  A nine-year-old in Mozambique did that.’

‘What about the chain?’

‘It’s twenty-four carat gold. I think the necklace cost about ten thousand.’

‘You see this watch?’ Bruce exposed a shirt-cuff and brandished his left wrist. ‘Twenty pounds from Henry Samuel.’

‘Your point being?’

‘It tells the bloody right time, doesn’t it?’

‘Darling Bruce, I’m beginning to think you’re a closet Marxist.’

‘No, I’m not.  I’m just pointing out the waste, the extravagance.  Oh, I know your necklace is exquisite, but then, so are you, and yet you’re throwing your life away by staying with him.’

‘You shouldn’t judge me too…’

‘Harshly?  No, I could never do that.  I think you’re the victim of circumstance, that’s all.  Your husband’s lack of love and affection also applies to our so-called friendship, does it?’

‘That’s below the belt, Bruce.  It’s unworthy of you.’

‘I thought you and I…’

‘Had something special?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘You always need reassurance, don’t you?’

‘Just a little pointer in the right direction, that’s all.’

‘Anyway, you get plenty of that from little wifie, tucked up nice and warm in Dunroamin.’

‘Actually, it’s Mulberry Lodge.’

Sally laughed. ‘That’s ironic.  How many mulberry trees do you have in your ten square yards of garden?’

‘None.  If you must know, mulberry’s cultivated as a shrub, rather than a tree.  In Staines, anyway.’

‘We have several in our garden.’

‘Courtesy of the Emperor of China, no doubt.’

‘Courtesy of Sutton’s.’

Bruce shook his head.  What a woman! What a mind! What a waste! 

Sally regarded him thoughtfully.

‘Poor Bruce.  You want the world, and you can’t have it.  You think it’s at the end of your fingertips, but it’s really on the planet Neptune.  You’re reaching out but you’re just grasping thin air.  Go back to little wifie in Staines and count your lucky stars that you’re where you are and you’ve got what you’ve got.’

‘Thank my lucky stars?  Lucky?  I’m the unluckiest man in the world.  It’s not a question of wealth, or who you can get to suck up to you.  It’s a question of emotional ties, of wanting, no, longing, for something with all your heart and knowing, if there was just a spark, just a frisson, I could realise my dreams.’

.  ‘Does any of this really matter, Bruce, darling? What was it Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca? Something about life not being worth a tin of beans?’

‘His actual line was: “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”’

‘There you are, you see. Three little people.  You, me, Henry.  None of our problems are worth a hill of beans.’

© R.T. Hardwick

Crossed Wires by Jeff Jones

Six more minutes and it would be time to make the drop-off. Harris sipped his coffee. It was stone cold. Disgusted, he pushed the mug away. How long had he sat there – an hour – more? He stole a look at his watch and noted with satisfaction that another minute had passed. Animated voices made him look up just as a group of young men wearing matching football shirts entered the cafeteria.
By the time they had seated themselves he was already bored with trying to figure out which team they supported. Aside from the newcomers, there were surprisingly few customers considering this was a busy motorway service station, albeit late at night. There were three young girls dressed in business suits, two families, a couple of truckers and three guys sitting alone. One of the men looked up and caught him staring. Harris quickly looked away but not before noticing the man’s distinctive blue jacket.
Was he the one?
His thoughts were disturbed by raucous laughter coming from the football supporters who were now eyeing up the young girls and passing audible judgment on their looks. A screech of chairs told him that the girls had had enough and to a chorus of wolf-whistles, they made for the exit. Before leaving, one of the girls turned to face the lads and waggled her little finger in the air. The outburst of indignation demonstrated that the significance of her gesture had not been wasted. Smirking, she hurried after her friends.
Grinning at her audacity Harris accidentally made eye contact with the man in the blue jacket and swiftly looked away noticing as he did so that another of the men was also looking his way.
Get a grip, they’re just bored and looking around like you.
He glanced at his watch. Two minutes to go.
You can’t back out now – she’s already dead.
He nervously fondled the briefcase handle. Inside was supposed to be five thousand pounds, the balance of the transaction, but it was actually full of newspapers. If things went as planned the man would go to his grave never knowing he’d been duped.
Ten thousand pounds! Was that all she was worth? The thought bothered him.
Harris pushed his chair back, wincing at the screeching noise.
One of the men who had been sitting alone immediately stood up and strode purposefully out of the cafeteria.
Coincidence?
Harris watched him go and a few seconds later, followed him out, heading towards the lockers near the service station entrance. After checking that no one was watching, Harris placed the briefcase in locker 17, before placing the key on top of the lockers out of sight to passers-by. He then retreated to a predetermined hiding place away from c.c.t.v. coverage. As he turned he caught a glimpse of the man in the blue jacket, disappearing into the toilets opposite. He was now positive that he was the hitman.
All he had to do now was wait. The guy in the blue jacket would come out of the toilets and retrieve the case. Then Harris would follow him outside and take care of business. Then he was home dry.
As he waited, he gently caressed the gun concealed in his pocket. He had been alarmed at how easy it had been to hire a killer and then to buy a gun. No wonder violent crime was so rife! All it had taken was a few careful words in the right ears down at a pub known for attracting the wrong kind of clientele, and a guy called ‘Sharkey’ had arranged it all. Harris had paid him £2000 for the gun and as an introductory fee. He had also handed over £5000 for the hitman, the remaining £5000 to be paid tonight upon completion of the assignment.
The murder of my adulterous wife.
Sharkey hadn’t asked him why he wanted a gun when he was already hiring a hitman. Instead he had told him when and where to pick up his gun and had made the arrangements for the final money drop-off. That way, neither the killer nor he would ever get to see each other. It was better that way Sharkey had assured him. All Harris had to do was make sure he had a cast iron alibi.
Even now he couldn’t believe that Cathy had been unfaithful - again - but there was no denying it – on several occasions he’d witnessed the man coming out of his house and always on days when she thought he was working away. It was obvious she was having another affair.
He’d stuck by her through her depression and her last affair and this was how she repaid him?
Harris had arranged an unnecessary meeting with a client close to where Sharkey had said to make the drop-off and had booked himself into a nearby hotel. His alibi. Then, under cover of darkness, he had left and driven down to this service station as arranged by Sharkey. He would do what was necessary and would then return to the hotel. He didn’t like loose ends and as far as he was concerned, this killer was a loose end. Sharkey too.
Lost in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed the arrival of the man at the lockers. To his surprise, it wasn’t the man in the blue jacket. Harris watched as the man retrieved the key and opened the locker. He quickly withdrew the briefcase before putting something inside the locker. Then, after locking it again and putting the key back where he found it, he hurried out towards the car park.
Harris knew that he should follow the man before he lost sight of him, but was curious to see what he had placed in the locker. Perhaps it was proof his wife was dead. Harris dashed to the locker and unlocked it. Inside were two words cut out of a newspaper and stuck to a piece of paper. ‘Job done’. Harris smiled as he scrunched the paper up and after stuffing it in a pocket, he hurried after the killer to tie up the first of the loose ends.
Unnoticed, the man in the blue jacket followed Harris out.
The tall car park lights offered only limited visibility through the driving rain and Harris was just starting to panic when he finally saw his quarry some fifty yards to his right, heading to a sparsely populated corner of the car park.
The man stopped outside a blue Mondeo, put the briefcase down and seemed to fumble for his keys.
Harris withdrew his gun and shouted to the man to turn as he quickly closed the distance between them. Then all hell broke loose. From seemingly everywhere, car lights suddenly dazzled him, and he instinctively raised an arm to protect his eyes. Several voices barked instructions warning him they were armed police and that he needed to drop his weapon immediately.
Still blinded by the lights, Harris moved his right arm slightly, drawing a further barrage of instructions. Panic-stricken Harris half-turned and as he did so his gun hand lowered. The air suddenly filled with the noise of gunfire and Harris dropped to the ground.
Instantly people swarmed around him shouting instructions. Somebody requested an ambulance while another secured his gun. Harris found himself staring up at the man in the blue jacket and the one who had collected the briefcase.
“You’re...”
“Police, yes,” replied blue jacket.
Another face swam into view – Sharkey.
“Also police,” said blue jacket upon seeing Harris’ look of confusion.
Harris closed his eyes. “A set up?”
“You set yourself up, Harris, the moment you made contact with DC Price here.” Blue jacket nodded towards Sharkey.
“Then… my wife...”
“Alive, yes. Now don’t talk – an ambulance is on its way.”
The sound of a siren drawing nearer could now be heard but Harris knew that it was too late. As his life ebbed away, he couldn’t help but wonder who it was his wife was seeing. Strangely, he was pleased she was still alive. He still loved her.

***

A hundred miles away, Cathy Harris sat reading the private investigator’s report. She had been wrong. According to the investigator, her husband wasn’t having an affair after all, but he had met some very dubious people in a pub, though so far, he’d been unable to ascertain why. When he’d said he was working late, he invariably had been.
Cathy knew that her depression had caused her to become paranoid, to overreact. She had been looking for problems where there were none. Her suspicions were totally unfounded. He probably even had a perfectly good excuse for withdrawing £12,000.00 from the bank, reasons that had nothing to do with his busty new secretary.
Cathy looked at the bag containing her new silk lingerie and smiled. She had been wrong about her husband and would more than make it up to him when he got back from his business trip the next day.


© Jeff Jones

Author, Author! By Andrew Ball

 He opened his laptop and began to write:

“Pretty cool idea, huh?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That idea the Prof just gave us to think about for next week?”

“Do I know you?”

“Er... Not as such, no. But I'm the guy that always sits right behind you in Philosophy class.”

“Why?”

“Just lucky, I guess.”

“Are you stalking me?”

“Whoa! Absolutely not. I just thought we might talk about the class, you know?”

“Then why are you following me into the Ladies room?”

“Oops! Sorry. Go ahead.”

***

“Still here? Well, what were you saying?”

“That the Metaverse concept is pretty cool. You know, the idea that reality -- as we know it -- is actually a simulation. Like we're all characters in some alien's video game? Is that neat or what?”

“No; I think it's stupid.”

“Because?”

“What use is it?”

“Oh, you're a utilitarianist, are you?”

“A what?”

“It's a word I just invented. It means...”

“I can work out what it means, thank you. And you didn't just invent it.”

“Didn't I? Pity. Anyway, I think the idea that you and I might just be characters in someone else's story is really, really cool.”

“So you keep saying. But what practical difference would it make?”

“Er, well... It would give our lives meaning, for a start.”

“Helping some teenage punk alien get to Level Nine or whatever is going to give your life meaning? Gimme a break!”

“No, seriously; it would mean there's a plan... a purpose, even if it is only to get to Level Nine.”

“That's what religion's for.”

“I know, but I gave that up back in grade school, along with Santa Claus. Too much mumbo-jumbo. I mean, really... Flying reindeer? Without wings? How stupid do parents think their kids are?”

“So now you want to replace it with a Metaverse? That’s real mumbo-jumbo.”

“Well, maybe I don’t, if you put it like that. But look... How do you know that you and I aren't just characters in a story that some wannabe author is banging out on his keyboard for some writing contest, hoping to get some good reviews?”

“God! I'd better bloody not be. If I thought for one minute that I was just a figment of someone else's imagination, I'd kill myself.”

“You wouldn't be able to, not unless that was what the author had in mind for you.”

“Then I'd kill him instead.”

“Same difference. You'd have no free will at all, see. Fancy a coffee?”

“No.”

“Oh, all right... I guess. Are you sure?”

“Well, maybe I could go for a Grande decaf Chai latte.”

***

“I’m Andrew, by the way. And you are...?”

“Thirsty.”

“Well, Thirsty, here’s your tea. You know, I’ve been thinking. Just suppose for the sake of argument that we are characters in someone else's story. Do you see where that leads?”

“Umm... Where?”

“Well, how does the author of that story know they aren't just a character in someone else's story?”

“Or in a video game that some alien is playing?”

“Exactly.”

“So? What are you driving at?”

“Don't you see? It makes an infinite regression of stories, like a nested set of Chinese dolls.”

“But that's absurd! You can’t have infinite regressions.”

“Precisely. So somewhere, there must be a story that can write itself. It's the only logical explanation. And in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Occam's razor tells me it's most likely to be the one I'm living in. Goodbye Metaverse; welcome to reality.”

“But how could a story possibly write itself?”

“Well, don’t forget that an infinite number of monkeys could write Hamlet.”

“How long would you have to wait?”

“Oh, not long at all. Infinity’s a pretty big number, you know. In fact, one of them would inevitably get it down word-perfect on the first attempt, complete with stage directions and all. I’ll bet Shakespeare didn’t.”

“I think I feel sick. So, what’s your point?”

“My point is that random processes can -- and do -- produce complexity and meaning. In fact, all meaning ultimately comes from randomness if you dig deep enough.”

“You mean Hamlet was written by an infinite number of monkeys?”

“I guess you could put it like that. We just need to work out the pathways: learn how to spin straw into gold. I think it all boils down to the origin of meaning: where did the story come from?”

“Well, what if I wrote a story about you writing a story, and the story you were writing was about me writing the story about you? That would short-circuit the infinite regression and give you an information-feedback loop that could take on a life of its own, maybe.”

“That’s it! You’re brilliant.”

“I am?”

“Absolutely. Haven’t you had Biochem 301?”

“I’m an Arts major.”

“Well, let me explain.”

“Will it take long? I’ve got language class.”

“Finish your tea and I’ll walk you over there.”

***

“Okay, Andrew. Tell me why I’m so brilliant.”

“How much do you know about genetic information?”

“Umm... Absolutely nothing?”

“Well, it’s like this. There are these two different types of molecules. They’re called protein and RNA, but that doesn’t matter; you can think of them as two different stories. The important thing is that they write each other, which creates an information-feedback loop; just like you suggested.  They’re locked into this reciprocal relationship, you see, and that must be where genetic information originally came from.”

“Hmm... You’re smarter than you look, you know. And I think you’ve just given me an idea for the essay I’ve got to write on the evolution of language.”

“How so?”

“Well, it’s the same problem, don’t you see? How can a system generate meaning internally, as it were? Without it being injected from some external source, I mean. Suppose it emerges from the feedback between two interlocked stories? Reciprocal information exchange, if you will.”

“I think you’re headed for an A in your language class, Thirsty. Are you busy this evening, by any chance?”

“Yes, I’ve got to wash my hair.”

“Oh... okay.”

“But I guess I could do that tomorrow...”

She hit Save and closed her laptop. ‘There. It’s far from perfect, but it’ll have to do.’

© Andrew Ball