#0023 – Lady Liberty

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

023

Sean looked out gloomily at the churning waters of the Hudson. It heaved and undulated like a great turquoise beast, like a rug lousy with cockroaches, breaking wetly against the dirty white hull of the Lady Liberty with the regularity of a war drum –slap-slap-slap!

The morning had broken grey and drizzly, last week’s out-of-season warmth forgotten already. Sean wished he had brought a jacket; his voyage aboard the ferry had been buffeted by off-shore winds the moment he had stepped aboard, scything through his bones like an icy knife. Thank God for small mercies; he had remembered his hat, at least.

He crossed his arms on the railing before him and hunched forward. He peered down and watched the Hudson slough past in a choppy blur as the ferry picked up speed, its destination – the towering Statue of Liberty – reaching for the sky, cloaked in a chilly embrace from the morning fog. His day’s work weighed heavily in his mind. A knot was forming in his stomach, cold and hard like chipped flint. A gull pinwheeled above him, emitting a plaintive shriek that echoed his own mood. “Couldn’t have put it better myself,” he muttered, to no-one in particular.

The coach journey south from Maine had been a strange one, a mixture of warm nostalgia and cold regret. The landmarks that signposted this journey from his youth were dilapidated and fading, long-neglected tombstones falling into disrepair. His fellow passengers had chattered noisily, excited by maiden trips to the Big Apple, conversations pregnant with promises and plans to catch a show on Broadway, perhaps, or stroll through Central Park. Or ascend the Statue of Liberty. Sean glanced across at her, and shivered. He had rarely given much thought to her before – he wasn’t one for the more obvious tourist attractions – but now she was his whole world.

Sean turned away from the river, sank down to the deck, and leaned back against the railing. He missed her terribly. Whenever it felt like his attention was elsewhere, that he had managed a moment of distraction, her face began forming in his mind, creased with her customary smile. He had always been close to his mother, but more so now that she was gone; her death had broken that hardened shell of daily detachment that forms over strong bonds. But his love for her was now exposed and raw, and it hurt him like hell.

It was his cousin, Jennifer, that had found her, and Sean was thankful for that; if it had been himself, he did not know how he would have reacted. The windows of her bedroom had been flung wide open to the elements, but Jennifer hadn’t gotten any response when she had knocked on her door. Jennifer had called the police and the fire brigade, who had broken down the door. They found her on her bed, curled up as if sleeping, her face resting lightly on her hand. She had slipped away in her sleep, they said. There was very little pain.

It was rare that he heard from his cousin – even though she visited his mother often – and when she called, he was immediately concerned when her name flashed up on his caller ID. A chill swirled round his heart as he answered. On hearing the news, he had remained silent for a moment, deaf to Jennifer’s questions, to her muffled sobs. He felt the blood in his face drain away, felt a numbness seep through his hands. He hung up the call without a word and dropped his phone on the desk. It skittered away noisily. Then he caught the first coach out of Maine, with only the clothes on his back and the money in his wallet.

Lady Liberty began to approach the dock, and the noise from Sean’s fellow passengers began to grow louder in excitement. The hull bumped softly into the wooden harbour, and the ramp gave a harsh metallic bark as it was lowered. Sean fell in line and set foot on Liberty Island. He followed an elderly lady in front of him as she ambled her way up the jetty and out through the gate, looking up at the American flag snapping aggressively in the wind. Beyond the stars and stripes, the towering green bulk of the Statue of Liberty emerged from the mist like a kraken, torch proudly held aloft.

Sean skirted around the lawn surrounding the pedastal, not yet bringing himself to tackle the climb within the edifice. Instead he turned back to New York, barely making out the skyline across the water, splintered shadows in the morning gloom rising from the shoreline like a collection of broken teeth. Around him, disposable cameras clicked and whirred, children exclaimed at the statue, cheerful fathers requested sons and daughters to say “Cheese!” He turned to his right to watch a mother kneeling before her son, buttoning up his duffel coat with care, ruffling his hair affectionately once she was done. The little boy grinned happily and instinctively wrapped his arms around her, in a spontaneous expression of love that nearly cleaved his heart. He felt his eyes brim with tears and turned away hastily, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Not now, not yet.

Again the seagulls banked and glided above him, singing their mournful songs, occasionally swooping down to snatch some unattended morsel from a bewildered tourist before veering off again with its prize. Sean watched one fly up into the expansive grey sky, following the curve of the statue’s copper robes, and perching itself at the very tip of one of the blades of her crown. He watched it open its beak to scream once more, but Sean couldn’t hear it from way down below.

It was time, he decided at last. He began to walk, his legs filled with lead, towards the stairs that led up to the statue, to the line that had formed at the base, to the death that awaited him far above.

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#0022 – Jack

April 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

022

It happened at least thirty times a day, but it always startled Margaret without fail. The train rumbled overhead, and the room began to shake. Behind the bar, pint glasses began to clink wildly. She feared for the Martini glasses every time, swinging precariously from their hooks above the counter. In the corner of the lounge, the lamp bobbed its head, making the light flicker on the walls as if it were the flame of a torch.

It was so quiet. Outside, the harshest snows for a decade still blanketed the village, making the roads icy and treacherous. She didn’t blame tourists for not venturing out tonight, but even her regulars had not braved the weather. It was only her and her cook, Steven, rattling around in the kitchen at the back of the bar, trying to sound busy. He wasn’t fooling her. He hadn’t needed to make anything all day, except a tuna and cucumber sandwich for her. He couldn’t even claim to be cleaning – he had done that yesterday, in a whirlwind of nose-burning chemicals and elbow grease. The kitchen was the cleanest it had ever been, and ever would be. She was thankful to the snow for that, at the very least.

She rose from the chair and made her way behind the bar. Jack had always tended to the drinks. He had been mighty fine at it too. He had specialised in cocktails, of course, particularly Old Fashioneds and his own favourite, a Manhattan. She had always favoured white rum, though. Whiskey had always been too strong for her. One particular night in her early twenties had illustrated that beyond all doubt. She gave a small, dry chuckle at the thought of that night as she slid the bottle of Bacardi from the shelf and set it on the bar in front of her. She poured herself a good glug, before topping it off with a half-empty bottle of R-Whites she retrieved from underneath the bar. She served her customers from the tap, but it was too syrupy for her. She always favoured R-Whites for her own drinks.

The door to the kitchen swung open with a squeal, its ancient hinges screaming in protest. I must oil that, she told herself, for perhaps the thousandth time. Just another chore to add to the list. Jack would have had it done months ago, she knew. He had always been on top of things; bustling around in his overalls, a dirty bar towel folded over in the front pocket, always wearing his faded old flat cap.

“Mind if I join you?” asked Steven, wringing his hands nervously in front of him. “Not much more I can do back there tonight.”

Margaret favoured him with a smile. It was a tired one, but it put her young cook at ease, she noted. “What do you like to drink, Steven?”

“Er.. I’ll just have a pint of lager if that’s okay? Fosters.”

She regarded him coolly for a moment and tutted softly. “No, no, no. You’re getting too old for that rubbish now, don’t you think? I’ll pour you Jack’s favourite.”

Steven fell silent. As Margaret turned back to the liquor shelf he crossed quietly to the bar and pulled out one of the stools. “Ok, Mrs. O’Toole.”

“Oh, please. It’s Margaret. You know that.”

They were quiet for a time. Steven watched her assemble his drink, with more confidence than he had expected. As she finished off the Manhattan with a few dashes from the crumpled old bitters bottle, Steven asked, “So, do you think we’ll have any customers tonight?”

She sighed, and pushed the drink over to him. “I shouldn’t imagine so, do you? We haven’t had a single person come through those doors in three days now. I have ten rooms, all empty. And even my deliveries aren’t risking the trip because of the roads.”

Steven took a sip of the Manhattan, and then tried really hard not to show the wince. He wasn’t used to whiskey either. Margaret saw anyway, and she broke out in a chuckle so loud that it surprised him. He smiled back at her. “Sorry,” he said.

“Oh, don’t be. Jack used to be exactly the same. Do you know he ordered one of those on our first date? Oh, he hated it. He tried not to show it, like you just did. I guess he wanted to impress me, but yes he hated every single drop of it.”

Steven was hesitant. He hadn’t seen her like this since she had hired him. But he knew how difficult it must be for her to talk about Jack. He took another sip while he deliberated on what to say next, and instantly regretted it.

“He finished it though, and then he ordered another. He was the nervous type, you see. Always making sure his hair was in place, always staring into the bottom of his glass. I guess he needed the stiff drink to calm his nerves.” She paused, and took a sip of her own drink. Her eyes were glazed over, staring into space over Steven’s shoulder as she remembered.

“He was sick as a dog that night, he told me on our next date. Oh how I laughed. He tried to impress me, and I found that very endearing. It’s not like how it is with you kids these days. All crash, bang, wallop. Drunken nights out, whirlwind romances, that sort of thing. Back then, it took a long time to get to know each other. But that was the best part, you see. It meant we learnt to really cherish each other. And, you know, he ended up loving those Manhattans.”

Steven felt a brief urge to defend his generation, but decided to let it pass. This wasn’t the time. Instead he took another sip, slowly this time, really tried to savour it.

Overhead, another train coursed across the tracks. The room shook once more.

“I miss him so much.”

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#0021 – The Key

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

021

“Which one is it?”

Aaron looked down at the key for perhaps the twentieth time that day, and ran his hand across the digits embossed there. He checked the beach huts, their numbers rusted from decades of salty air and the occasional crashing wave. “Err, the yellow one, I think.” They stopped in front of the doors. The paint was remarkably bright considering how long the hut had sat neglected on the front. Maybe someone was employed to maintain them? “Exciting,” Fiona exclaimed, as she turned the collar of her jacket up against the wind. Aaron couldn’t tell whether she was being sarcastic or not.

The lock came away with a shrill screech of metal, and Aaron pulled back the doors with a flourish. He had been waiting for this for weeks. First there was the funeral to attend to, of course, and then he had felt obligated to stick around for the sake of his family. His Mum had taken it pretty badly, as had her sisters, and he had stayed home longer than he had anticipated to make sure she was alright. The ride south had taken awhile too; Fiona had insisted on stopping to sight-see along the way. They had made two overnight stops when Aaron had intended to make do with one. But they were here now, finally. The coastline of Hove spread away from them in both directions as far as the eye could see. No-one else was about, which was unsurprising given the hour. Fiona had also insisted on stopping to watch the sunrise send its first wan rays of light across the sea.

The sight inside the hut took them both by surprise. A mass of jumbled furniture, blankets, trinkets, damp cardboard boxes, tool chests and vintage signs lay stashed within, piled and packed in like Tetris pieces. Bric-a-bric and tat, Aaron thought at once. They exchanged a glance. “Cheers Grandad,” Aaron said, with a rueful grin.

The newer stuff was at the front. Aaron hauled down a mouldy box filled with vinyl LPs from the top of a tatty chest of drawers. “Chris Rea, Simply Red… a lot of early Michael Jackson stuff,” Aaron said as he leafed through the albums, crinkling his nose against the smell of dust and damp.

“Runs in the family, eh?” Fiona jibed. She had meant to poke fun at him, but Aaron merely nodded. He closed up the box and cast it aside, warming to his task. The chest of drawers was next to be excavated. One of the handles snapped off as he pulled it out. Fiona began to help, daintily reaching up and plucking the topmost book off a stack of paperbacks that leaned drunkenly against the side of the hut.

“Don’t strain yourself will you?” he chided. Her answer was to fling the book at him. It caught him a glancing blow on his shoulder and spun away into the gloomy depths at the back of the hut. “Oh, very mature.”

By mid-morning, they had moved around half of the items from the hut to the pavement. Dog-walkers and runners were beginning to pass them by. Occasionally somebody would ask them if they were doing a jumble sale. Aaron just shook his head and moved them along. The weather began to improve. The granite clouds that had accompanied their work for most of the morning began to dissolve, exposing a blanket of cerulean blue beneath. Aaron sent Fiona up the beach a ways to an ice-cream truck for a couple of Cokes.

“Why did your Grandad leave the key to you, do you think?” she asked when she returned.

“Dunno. He always felt closest to me I think. Maybe he knew I’d be most interested in what was in here.”

“Maybe he knew you were the only one of his grandsons who would gladly wade through a load of old shit,” she teased. Her eyes were sparkling as she took a swig from her can. She looked beautiful today, he thought to himself.

“You’re a load of old shit,” was his reply. He sat down gingerly on the back of an old leather rocking-horse that he had uncovered, half-expecting it to collapse underneath his weight. One of its eyes, an old button of indistinguishable colour, was dangling from its socket by a lone piece of thread. Its woollen mane was matted with dirt and grime. Aaron watched a spider crawling across it, no doubt livid that it had been thrust out into the sunlight.

For a moment, Fiona and the sea melted away, and he was back in his Grandad’s living room the night before he died. He heard the tinkling of crockery from the kitchen as his Nan made him the cup of tea that he hadn’t asked for. His grandad was slumped back in his favourite armchair, looking pale and gaunt. And old. So very old. The only thing that seemed full of life to Aaron’s eyes was his big, bushy beard, which struck him so much like Santa’s beard that it took him all his willpower not to break out into hysterical and ill-advised laughter. Minutes of silence elapsed, punctuated by the ticking of the gold-plated clock that had lived on their coffee table since the dawn of time. His grandad, quiet for most of the day, suddenly seemed aware of his presence and grew lucid. He stirred in his seat and opened his mouth to speak. Aaron had to lean closer to catch the words. “Over there. In that wooden box.”

Aaron looked over at the old box on the mantelpiece. He rose and unclasped its lock. Inside was a rusty old key with a number embossed on it. “What’s this?” he mused, turning it over in his hands.

His grandad blinked slowly. “So you can know the truth.”

Now, Fiona was talking to him, but he did not hear the words. He rose from the rocking horse and turned back to the hut. Aaron bent to his task.

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#0020 – Rolling Pin

November 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

She watched her husband’s blood pooling on the floor as disinterestedly as she might watch coffee swirl in a cup; her eyes were glazed over, her breathing calm and rhythmic. It started to drip into the grouting between the kitchen tiles, and a bright red latticework began to form from the organic puddle beneath his head. The mortal wound glistened wetly, punctuated by chips of his fractured skull floating in a thick red soup. His eyes were glazed over too; his in death. One of his cheeks had split open and was caved in grotesquely – her first swing had only glanced his face. She had never come face-to-face with death before.

For a moment she did not stir. The rolling pin she’d used to end her husband’s life was still clutched loosely in her right hand, blood-stained and dripping, forming its own puddle at her feet. The brilliant white finish of their kitchen, completed in a whirlwind of sawdust and power tools only last month, now resembled the killing floor of an abattoir. Last night’s dinner plates lay smashed in a dozen pieces by the sink, the first victims of the short struggle that culminated in his murder. Cooking books were strewn across the counter, pages folded over and torn, which they had careened into amidst the struggle. Early morning summer sun streamed through the slats of the window blinds, and beyond, she made out the mountain reaching like a pointed finger towards the sky beyond a lush green carpet of trees. But for the corpse on the floor, the scene would have been an oasis of calm; an idyllic Iberian paradise.

All was deathly silent, save for the coffee machine gurgling away on the kitchen counter. Her husband had flipped the switch to start it only minutes before, the first step of his daily breakfast ritual, not for a moment realising that he would never drink his morning coffee, or anything else, ever again. He had hardly seen her coming. She could have ended it in one stroke, but he had looked up at the last moment. She doubted whether she would ever forget the image of his eyes so wide in terror as she brought the makeshift weapon crashing down onto his skull, felt bone splinter and break upon impact. She brought her hand up to her stinging forehead and brought her fingers away wet with her own blood. Her husband had clawed at her ferociously, his nails inflicting several gashes above her eyebrow, before she had felled him.

Finally, she stirred herself to action. She stepped over her husband’s lifeless body and crossed the room to the deep granite sink, the kitchen tiles surprisingly cold on her bare feet for this time of year. Her dressing gown billowed open as she walked, the belt torn loose during their frenzied tussle. She eased the rolling pin into the sink and tightened it around her waist before turning to the task at hand. Slowly, she spun the rolling pin under a stream of hot water, the blood swirling around the basin before sliding down the plug hole. Amelia would be home from her friend’s house within an hour, she realised, with a glance at the clock ticking silently on the wall above the fridge. She couldn’t allow her daughter to come home to this scene. Amelia loved her father dearly, even if she herself couldn’t say the same. I don’t feel regret, she noticed with curiosity. Had it really come as far as this? That she could kill her own husband and not feel an ounce of remorse?

She put the rolling pin on the draining board and picked up her mobile phone from the kitchen island. She flipped it open with a practised flick. As she punched in three digits and put the phone to her ear, she stooped over her husband. She reached into the pocket of his linen trousers and pulled out a battered leather wallet. He’d had it for years; she had bought it for him on their sixth anniversary. Inside, she had left the photo of the CAT scan that brought Amelia into their lives only weeks before. There had been tears glistening in his eyes as he discovered it hidden inside the wallet. He hadn’t said a word, but had leaned over and kissed her tenderly. Amelia had changed everything. For good and ill. But her husband had changed everything again. And now she had changed everything forever.

The dialling tone sounded once in her ear, then crackled as it connected. A female operator was at the end of the line, her tone curt and dispassionate.

“What’s your emergency please?”

She stepped out onto the veranda and was instantly struck by how beautiful the day was. The sun was beating down fiercely, her flowers opened in full bloom to drink it in. The wall was warm like a hotplate as she she sat down on it.

“Hello? What’s your emergency please?” asked the operator, for a second time.

She remained silent as she opened up the wallet, clutching her phone between her chin and shoulder to free up her other hand. Her husband’s bank cards were filed neatly at the front, useless now. She prised open the final pocket at the back, where she had hidden the CAT scan so many years ago. It wasn’t there, of course. She imagined he had removed it many years ago. Instead, she found a passport photo of a man and a woman, the woman kissing the man on the cheek. Both were smiling from ear-to-ear. The man was her late husband, happier than she had ever seen him, happier than he had any right to be. The woman wasn’t her. She turned the photo over and saw the words ‘Love you’ written in blue biro.

“I’ve killed my husband,” she said into the mouthpiece. For a moment, there was a deep silence, and she heard her heart thud in her chest. Then her life changed forever.

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#0019 – Better Left Unsaid

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

It had been hot that day too, Sophia remembered idly. Warmer than this even; the air had been so dry it had felt like kindling. An azure sky bluer than sapphires, pregnant with the fierce intensity of the sun. Of course, the sea hadn’t been there. Nor the beach, complete with all-invasive sand that no amount of showers could cleanse. And nor her sister, laying down in the early afternoon heat and crisping up nicely, like a shoulder of pork.

Sophia had tried to relax. She had brought a library’s worth of books, two trashy (and over-priced) magazines at the airport, and even her nephew’s old school Gameboy – proferred to her solemnly by little Aaron, peering up at her with eyes like saucers – in order to take her mind off her own thoughts; and nothing had helped. She looked out at the sea, her thumb stuck deep inside her book to keep her place, watching the restless energy of the waves and feeling their movement echoing inside her. She let out a long sigh, which tapered into a short, retching cough. She looked down. If Anna had heard her, she didn’t show it.

She surveyed her sister’s pink skin and tutted inwardly to herself that she could see so much of it. She was so brazen; clad in a skimpy bikini whilst she herself cooked in a heavy one-piece. The holiday to Greece had been Anna’s idea, of course. Time out, she had said, rest and relaxation, a reprieve. She had never vocalised what it was intended to be a reprieve from, and the word had hung heavy in the air between them, formless, like smoke. They had barely spoken since, but that wasn’t really anything new. They had been drifting apart for ages, with Sophia heading off to university last Autumn, and Anna staying behind in their hometown, punching the clock in some shitty office by typing columns of numbers into spreadsheets. Before, Sophia would have mocked her for her lousy job, with the air of haughtiness of the sibling who has it all, who’s made a real fist out of making something of herself. Not now though. Never again, in fact.

It took the throaty shouts of a bronzed, fat Greek man selling friendship bracelets to finally rouse her sister from her sunbathing. He stalked across the sand in front of them, his body covered in coarse black hair and shimmering sweat. A gold chain hung down so low from his neck that it nearly circled his nipples. When he caught sight of Sophia and Anna watching him in barely-concealed disgust, he flashed them a toothy, salacious grin. “Beautiful bracelets for beautiful girls?” he asked in broken pigeon English, his stomach heaving over elasticated swimming shorts. Anna’s extended middle finger was the swift reply, and the man strode off hurriedly, smile melting away into a frown and a string of Greek swear words. Anna turned to Sophia and gave a slow smile of her own. She had enjoyed that.

Anna stretched her arms out straight upwards, towards the sky, as if she were offering herself to the sun goddess, and let out a long, deliberate yawn. She spun herself in a neat semi-circle on her beach towel and then reached into her bag. She pulled out a bottle of suntan lotion, most of its contents smeared around the lid and down the sides. “Can you put some of this on my back please, sis?” she asked.

She laid down on her stomach, nestling her head in the fold of her arms before thinking better of it, reaching behind her, and undoing her bikini top. “Even less clothes, huh?” Sophia asked, dryly.

“Get over it,” came Anna’s terse reply. She hadn’t even looked up. Sophia decided to get over it.

The high heat of the afternoon began to melt into a cooler dusk, and the bright expanse of sky that stretched high above the sea deepened into a fabulous tapestry of mauve and ochre. It was so beautiful here, and for half a moment, she wished she could have been here in happier times, when her heart was not so leaden and her mind not so jumbled. The walk back up to the hotel was lengthy and painful, sandy rock steps roughly hewn into a tumbledown cliff navigated in open-toed sandals. Sophia already regretted bringing the ones with a heel. Her skin felt tight and dry, like parchment rolled out across her bones. Anna was essentially a walking lobster, with two giant milk saucers encircling her eyes where she had failed to take off those ridiculously large aviators she favoured. It was enough for Sophia to break out into a grin; an alien sensation. It felt good to smile again. It had felt like years since she had. She kept it hidden from Anna though, a secret she thought better left unshared.

Later that evening, they sat opposite each other at a dinner table in the hotel’s restaurant, the heavy, pristine-white tablecloth chafing against the raw skin of her knees. A chilled bottle of wine, which tasted shit-awful in truth, gently perspired between them. Sophia idly watched a rogue drop of water slip down the smooth contours of the bottle from lip to base. Anna sat in a threatening silence. She had already voiced her displeasure at how long they had had to wait for their meal, although thankfully only at her sister. Sophia shied away from conflict, particularly when they were supposed to be enjoying theirselves.

She considered the word derisively. Enjoyment. Precious little of that. Like a ship that had left the harbour and shrank towards the horizon, her happiness had set sail on its final voyage. It was a crushing feeling, and for one panicked moment, the blackness inside her threatened to break the fragile dam that held it in place. She glanced up at her sister, and was startled to see that she was looking directly back at her. No, thought Sophia. Better left unsaid.

 

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#0018 – Saveloy

October 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

“So, do you think you might wanna fuck me tonight, then?”

Even as the words came tumbling unchecked from his mouth, he surmised that it was probably his worst chat-up line ever; and there was a long and illustrious legacy of those, make no mistake. Five years of spectacular failure with the fairer sex, coalesced into one alcohol-fuelled moment of hope, delivered in the midst of a stinking, bustling chip shop. A horrified glance also confirmed that the girl on the receiving end of such a lady-killing bullet was halfway through chomping down on an enormous saveloy, bulbous and shockingly red, making the situation a million times worse.

It was the beginning of fresher’s week, and Jack had struck gold, or so he had thought. A bumbling, gangly mass of hair, acne scars and awkward mumbling, Jack was a self-proclaimed outcast, and the first days of a four-year course in Graphic Design had instilled in him a range of uncomfortable emotions. First, there was a sense of creeping dread, gently enfolding itself around his heart and chilling his genitals. It had mutated into a paradoxical strain of panicked calm, as he tried to convince himself that whatever will be, will be. Then, in the final hours of the comfortable rut he had settled in, as his parents drove him along the coast to drop him off in the dilapidated digs that were to be his home for the next twelve months, that “calm” had become a piercing, world-consuming terror.

She had changed all that at a stroke. Bravely entering the communal kitchen within a few minutes of getting his room key, she had looked up from the rickety old table with a big grin and proclaimed: “I fucking LOVE your hat.” It was a ridiculous hat. Made from crinkled brown leather and dirty sheepskin, with floppy ear-flaps, it was the kind of hat that only required a pair of goggles to complete the sepia-tinted aviator look. Jack never did live on the cutting edge of fashion. He had frowned at her in confusion, sensing an imminent putdown. But her smile was genuine, and it had made his heart plunge down into his stomach, and his pubic hair stand on end. She extended her hand, porcelain-white and slender-fingered. “I’m Kirsty.”

Kirsty’s porcelain-white skin was now a violent crimson as she stood stock still in the middle of the chip shop, rapidly approaching the same shade as the saveloy that was now perched precariously on the end of a little wooden fork in front of her. The other girls from the communal kitchen, in various stages of ingesting their own dirty post-pub suppers, were equally silent. “What the fuck did you say to her?” asked Justine, after what felt like an age. That bitch. Jack had hated her from the start; all false eyelashes and make-up applied with a spade.

The night had gone so perfectly, too, which made his clanger stand out in such stark relief. Emboldened by cheap beer and sleazy rock music, Jack had slowly begun to relax. They had gone out as one big happy family; Kirsty, himself, and the other boys and girls of Hamwick house, floor 3, kitchen 1. Boasts were made, shots were consumed, guards were lowered. From across a row of flaming sambucas, against a backdrop of heaving bodies dancing to the beat, he could have sworn that Kirsty had been watching him, eyeing him up and down, taking stock. He had winked at her, a truly brazen, cocksure gesture that he never knew was in him. She had smiled broadly, brushed a stray lock of blonde hair away and downed her shot. With another lingering look directly at him, she had sauntered back to the bar. He watched her.

“Never gonna happen, mate,” Ben had said. Jack had made fast friends with Ben on account of him studying a similar course to himself, and with the first few days of fresher’s week already behind them, was probably his most trusted confidante. But Ben was wrong. It was going happen. Kirsty was different. She saw something in him that none of the others had seen. She saw past his clumsy flaws and his awkwardness in almost every social situation. It made him bold. It also made him brash. “Wanna bet?” Jack had said, with a smirk.

The night had drawn inexorably to a close, and Jack had felt his confidence ooze out of him with every passing song. As today ticked over into tomorrow, the beers came too thick and fast, and that cocksure arrogance that had briefly elevated him above his own self-doubt soon gave way to drunken lechery. He stood at the edge of the dancefloor, statue-like, feet like lead. All he had to do was talk to her, lead her off somewhere, go for a “chat”. But five years of rejection hung like an albatross around his neck. Ben watched on from the sidelines, confident that he would £20 up when the sun rose.

The saveloy was resting on Kirsty’s uneaten tray of chips now, and Jack’s last desperate gambit for love and money hung thick in the air between them, an tangible as the smell of chip fat permeating newspaper. She still hadn’t breathed a word. The saveloy fell off the mountain of chips onto the floor, comically rolling away from her. Kirsty then turned on her sparkly high heels, and sailed out into the night. The other girls dutifully filed out behind her. Jack stood mute as Ben came over and ruffled his mop of tousled hair. “Very smooth, mate. You owe me twenty sheets though.”

Jack reached into his pocket. He had kept the note back as the night had drawn on; he had expected this all along. As his fingers found his wallet, his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a text.

Come to my room when you get back. Hurry 😉 xx

He held the phone up to Ben’s face. And winked for the second time that night.

Image is for illustration purposes only. Photo credit: Amy Massey.

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#0017 – 23.04 To St. Pancras

September 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

In seven minutes and thirty-four seconds, Pierre will become a hero. Not that he knows that right now, of course. Right now, his noblest thought is which way to screw his wife when he gets home to give her as much pleasure as he will get out of the exercise.

Our hero has had a long day, and is gently wilting in the luxurious black leather of his First Class seat on the 23.04 Eurostar from Paris to St. Pancras. His eyelids are nearly fully closed; his head is beginning to loll forward onto his chest in the first blissful waves of a sleep of pure exhaustion. His forays to the French capital, which have been increasing exponentially lately, are always tiresome affairs, but today’s whistle-stop tour has finally broken him, setting a deep malaise in his middle-age bones.

He imagines his wife’s silhouette appearing in the frosted glass of his front door, framed by the glow of candles from somewhere within, as he fumbles hurriedly for the keys to his castle. He feels her soft embrace and basks in the comfortable familarity of her smile. In his slowly-deepening dream, he hears himself ask about their son, but he’s already safely stowed in bed, he is told, and the salacious grin of his wife makes his heart pound faster.

The rustle of a passenger passing by on his right briefly wakes Pierre from his slumber. He clears his throat anxiously, in that way that all people do to prove, in vain, to their fellow passengers that, no, of course they weren’t asleep. He clasps his brown leather briefcase closer to him, checking the locks absent-mindedly; a gesture he repeats so often each day that he no longer notices he’s doing it. Across the table from him, a sleeping couple gives him solace that he’s not the only tired passenger tonight, whilst also deepening his desire to get home to his wife. The girl rests her head on the man’s shoulder, brunette locks framing a porcelain-white face studded with freckles of auburn, and he rests his head on hers in turn.

It is at this point in our story that the life of our hero is changed irrevocably, never to be the same again. The door to the carriage slides open with a low hum, a now-familiar sound to him as a veteran of Eurostar journeys. There are perhaps eight or nine rows of seats between his table and the door, so he initially dismisses the sight that follows as sheer exhaustion mixed with his failing eyesight. Pierre blinks a number of times, a watery film in his eyes blurring his vision briefly. He looks again, but this time there is no mistake. Two men, one built like a mountain, the other the same build as Pierre, stand at the end of the carriage. Over their heads are black balaclavas, through which they are breathing menacingly. The motorised door slides shut behind them, and the mountain-sized man begins to speak, as if that were his cue.

‘Listen up,’ he barks. His voice has a rough edge to it, as if filtered through gravel or cracked with years of cigerette smoke. It instantly turns our hero’s veins to ice, his legs to jelly. ‘If you do what we tell you, and don’t kick up any stink, this will be all be over real soon and no-one will get hurt. If somebody tries to be a fucking hero, we’re gonna turn nasty. You don’t want this guy to turn nasty, believe me. He’s a real fucking killer.’ He gestures over his shoulder to his accomplice, and it’s only at this point that Pierre notices the long cruel arc of a crowbar protruding from his massive, ham-sized fist.

In the  next moment, three things happen simultaneously. The other, smaller man grabs the nearest passenger – a frail-looking woman with badly-dyed hair – by the arm and barks an order in her face. The mountain reaches around to the small of his back and draws a gun from the waistband of his jeans. And Pierre remembers what he has in his briefcase.

‘I said, empty your fucking money in the bag!’ the accomplice screams. His fingers dig into her arms, producing bright red welts. She tries to stifle back terrified sobs, but fails miserably. She scrabbles in her handbag for her purse. ‘Don’t pretend you haven’t heard me, bitch.’

Most of the passengers in the vicinity of the robbers have their arms up, and our hero can hear them whispering, and their muffled tears. A young black guy immediately to the right of the mountain tries to get up in a sudden lunge for the pistol-wielding honcho, but he moves quickly for a man of his size. He brings the arm holding the pistol up sharply, his elbow connecting solidly with the youth’s nose. There is a sickening crunch and a splatter of blood, but these are mere flesh wounds as the mountain then twists round and brings the crowbar down onto the man’s legs. He howls in pain and doubles up over his knees. Screams erupt from his nearest fellow passengers. The mountain leans down. Pierre can only just make out the words. ‘You try and be a hero again, motherfucker, and I’ll kill you.’

It’s at this point in our story that Pierre rises gingerly to his feet. The couple sitting opposite watch him in horror, mouths agape, slowly shaking their heads. Our hero reaches down and plucks his briefcase from the table. He takes a step down the carriage, the briefcase clasped in both arms over his chest like a shield. He hears the unmistakable click of the safety being released on the man’s gun. ‘Don’t take another fucking step, mate.’

Our hero stops. ‘Wait,’ he says, his voice low and steady. ‘I have something in here you might want to see.’

He unlocks the clasps on his briefcase and folds down the lid. The robbers stare in amazement. Then all hell breaks loose.

Image is for illustration purposes only. Photo credit: Amy Massey.

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#0016 – The Bar

September 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

The pint of beer slowly perspiring on the table before him would be his last. So he was determined to enjoy it, he decided.

It was miserable outside. A humid morning had given up to the merciless onslaught of a savage storm. Rain lashed at the window by his side, illuminated in drops of high-definition by occasional sparks of lightning. It was apt weather really, but it didn’t accurately reflect his mood. He was surprisingly calm and collected. His fingers did not shake as he reached forward and took the icy glass in his hand.

He’d been coming to this bar for the last twenty years, he surmised with a rueful grin. Of course, it hadn’t always been done up like this. Flashy neon signs for brands he didn’t care for. Polished chrome bar rails that showed every fingerprint that had ever touched them. These things had replaced the home-spun charms of the bar’s glory days; kitsch tankards and faded photographs of the bar’s previous owners. His memories of them were still sharp, even if those images had not been. Roger and Alison had been dear friends of his; relationships forged by countless conversations held across the bar as he sat perched atop the scruffy stools, the stuffing spilling out of tears and cigarette burns. He missed them, truth be told, the pair of them tragically killed in a car accident close to five years ago now.

He’d been coming back here out of respect. Or was it obligation? Of course, he hadn’t always come alone. His wife Rosemary had been his constant companion. They had shared many drinks and meals at this spot by the window, even if the table itself had changed over those years. As summer afternoons had receded into autumnal evenings, they would look out on the coastal road that picked it’s way along the rocky front outside and watch younger couples than themselves caught up in their own private worlds. Watching lovers walk along the promenade arm in arm, with smiles radiating on youthful faces, had always brought a smile to Rosemary’s own features. She always had been sentimental like that. She had always had an empathy that surprised him; able to so closely entwine her emotions with others.

He sighed deeply and removed his battered baseball cap, yellow and stained with age, and laid it gently on the table. Such reminiscing was thirsty work. He took a full swig of his beer, grimacing at its tangy aftertaste. He smoothed the remaining strands of snowy hair across a head studded with liver spots, a constant reminder during his morning shave of the inexorable passage of time.

His wife had been soppy alright, but he would be lying if he said his own heart was made of harder stuff. A born romantic, he would often surprise Rosemary with thoughtful gestures. Weekends away and fulsome bouquets of flowers were par for the course, obviously, with any old joe able to pick a bunch at a service station or book online these days. More subtle gestures had cemented their marriage, like when he had gone through a phase of hiding love letters in pages of books she was reading or, during their courtship, when he had turned up at her workplace in a horse and carriage, courtesy of a couple of mares from his father’s stable.

He chuckled softly, and savoured more of his beer. A passing waitress – Sarah? Sandra? – favoured him with a smile. Yep, he’d been a softie alright. But there’s no doubt it had paid off. He had loved her fiercely, and she had loved him back, from the first time she sat with him in that resplendent carriage, right up until the twilight hours of that dreary September evening last year when she had passed away in her bed, him perched on a rickety wooden chair beside her, her frail hand clasped in his own.

He glanced again out of the window, distorted by rainwater. Afternoon was beginning to succumb to a deepening dusk, punctuated by the fragmented glimmer of red and white headlamps glistening on the road. There were no couples sauntering on the seaside this day. No memories being made along the promenade. A man with a briefcase and an inverted umbrella, screaming obscenities in the wind, sloshed down the pavement in a comedic bow-legged dance in a vain effort to not put his expensive loafers down into ever-widening puddles.

He drained his beer quietly. The months since Rosie’s death had been hard, but he was feeling happier now he had come to his decision. A load had been lifted, and he wondered bemusedly why he hadn’t thought of this solution before. An old Van Morrison number began to filter over the stereo system; an odd choice for a trendy bar, but a welcome one all the same. Rosie had always loved Van Morrison.

He reached into his frayed old windbreaker and produced a crumpled sheet of foolscap paper. He spread it out on the table before him and smoothed it out with a gnarled hand, before taking a fountain pen from his other inside pocket. Twisting off the cap, he suddenly found himself wondering what he would write. The details hadn’t really been thought through, he realised. He brought the nib of the pen to the paper regardless, and soon the words began to flow.

Dearest Rosie, he wrote. I miss you so deeply that I can hardly form the words. All I know is that I am too tired to live this life without you anymore.

From across the bar, the waitress watched the old man write quietly at the table by the window as she wiped the suds from a clean pint glass. A half hour passed, his beer long since finished. She was about to go and ask him if he wanted another when he rose slowly from his seat, the letter clasped in his hand. It was the last time she, or anyone else, ever saw him.

Image is for illustration purposes only. Photo credit: Amy Massey.

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#0015 The Wait

May 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Luke, will you stay with me if… you know, if it turns out positive?”

“Of course, babe,” he replied instantly. “Of course I will. You don’t even need to ask – you know I will.”

She didn’t know, and the truth was, neither did he. This was uncharted territory now, and shit was very definitely hitting the fan. Luke turned away from his girlfriend Sheena, and resumed staring at the frosted glass pane of the reception desk, directly in front of his vision; a blank canvas that allowed his mind to wander. He tried to piece together the events that had led them to this waiting room in the doctor’s surgery, to this decisive crossroads in their young lives, to a test result that would likely change everything for both of them and shape all that was to follow for the remainder of their lives. But no images came, just a flurry of fragmented memories and seething regrets. They had been so stupid.

A nurse appeared in the doorway, her soft-soled shoes barely audible against the polished wooden floor. He felt Sheena tense involuntarily in her seat at the sight of her, and then relax again as the nurse called out for another patient. Luke watched a frail old man rise gingerly from his seat in the corner. He picked up his walking stick from where it was propped against an adjacent armrest and took a few tentative steps towards the nurse, who looked on with an expression of well-worn patience, forged from years of practice. The old man suddenly coughed violently, faltering where he stood. The nurse crossed over to him quickly, and with words of encouragement and sympathy, quickly extracted him from the waiting room. Wow, thought Luke, it really sucks to be old.

“Because, you know-” Sheena began softly, turned towards him now as he watched them walk away. “I’m not sure I could cope without you. I’d be lost without you.”

Luke looked at her closely, watching as her pretty face began to crumble as the gravity of her situation dawned on her. Her eyes were sparkling with the onset of tears. Strands of her fiery red hair were falling down from behind her ear to rest against her cheeks. She was so frightened, and it terrified Luke to accept how vulnerable she was, and how much she was relying on his strength to carry her through. He managed a wan smile and brushed the strands of hair back from her face. This display of tenderness surprised them both, and Sheena’s face broke with emotion. A huge tear rolled down her cheek, dropped off her chin and splashed silently into her dress. “Baby, I promise. Honestly, I promise.”

The seconds ticked slowly into minutes, which in turn became an hour. They had long since lapsed into silence. Sheena had busied herself with a magazine in an attempt to distract herself from what lay ahead, but Luke was too restless to concentrate on anything other than the ticking of the clock, and the fragmented silhouettes behind the frosted glass window. Finally, his patience ran out. He got up quickly, so quickly that his white slip-on trainers squeaked against the floor. He was momentarily aware of all eyes in the room suddenly resting on him, this intrusive noise shattering their collective introspection like the firing of a starter’s gun, before slowly settling back into their own private reverie.

He crossed over to the reception desk and gently rapped on the glass pane. It slid back immediately, and a middle-aged woman – Brenda, judging by her nametag – greeted Luke with a plastic smile and eyebrows raised. “Erm, yeh hi. I was just wondering how long it would be? We’ve been here for over an hour now and loads of people have gone in before us.” Luke tried to remain calm, but could feel his rising impatience and fear choking his words, clipping off his sentences.

“Just a moment please,” she said, turning to her monitor. Her fingers clacked over the keys of her keyboard ferociously. Luke took a second to gawp at a huge wart that had seen fit to grow above her upper lip and below her nostril, like some oozing black bogey that had slipped unbidden from her nose. He grimaced involuntarily at his own thoughts. If she saw it, she didn’t let on. ‘Doctor Flowers is still with his patient I’m afraid, sir. He shouldn’t be too long. Would you like me to pop my head in and see how much longer he’ll be?”

“Please,” came Luke’s terse reply, punctuated for him by the window sliding shut again, with Brenda’s silhouette receding into a myriad of broken colours in the room beyond. He returned to his seat, sitting down noisily and with a too-loud sigh.

“What did she say?” asked Sheena, her magazine perched on her knee, the next page held between her fingers.

“That he’s still with his previous patient,” replied Luke. “This is becoming a fucking joke.” He cracked his knuckles – a sure sign that he was becoming frustrated. Sheena reached over the armrest and stroked his arm.

“Try to be patient, baby,” she coaxed. Her words made Luke feel a pang of shame. Here he was blowing his top and being soothed by his girlfriend, when it was he that should be the one offering comfort. He looked over at her. She smiled again at him in encouragment. The long wait had seemed to restore some of her resolve, even as it eroded his own. The enormity of their situation was beginning to creep over him again, breaking his skin out in gooseflesh and making him sick to his stomach. He made a conscious effort to pat her hand as it rested on his arm.

“She’s just asking now,” he explained. “I’m just going to pop out for some fresh air.”

Outside the front entrance, a line of taxis were queuing. Luke stood and stared at them for an age, and then finally gave in.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

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#0014 “Daniel son”

May 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ben felt Dion’s knuckles crash into his chest again, pounding his solar plexus and instantly driving the wind out of his stomach. It was the third such punch in quick succession and his ribs began to flare with pain. ‘For fuck’s sake!’ he cried, stepping back and lowering the sticks he held in each hand.

” Well, you’ve got to focus, man,” Dion said, spreading his arms wide in a ‘what-do-you-expect’ gesture. “You’re guard is all over the place”.

“But why? You’re teaching me how to defend against guys with big sticks aren’t you? Not attack them. So surely you should be carrying these things?”

Ben heard a snigger over to his right, a sound he had heard so often at his expense, that the laugh triggered his blood to boil like some kind of Pavlovian response. “Listen to Miyagi, Daniel son!” Justin was mocking him again, a smirk playing out across his cherubic little face.

“It’s Daniel-san, you fucking moron. You know, like how the Japanese address each other. It wasn’t even funny the first time, but if you’re gonna keep saying it, how about you fucking get it right?”

“Ooooh, time of the month, Ben?” crowed Justin. He lifted up an arm and idly bounced his own stick on his shoulder, licking his lips in glee at the response his piss-taking was getting. There was no love lost between the pair; mutual dislike had swiftly mutated into outright hostility throughout every one of Dion’s coaching sessions. Ordinarily, the abuse would have stopped Ben from turning up at the Karate lessons, but he needed this. He was tired of running away from his fear. He needed to toughen up, to stop being afraid.

“Alright, guys, that’s enough,” barked Dion, turning from Ben to Justin and back again. “You’re both here to learn Karate, not to give each other handbags. If you don’t stop your bullshit bickering, I’m gonna cancel these meet-ups, and to be honest, I really need the cash.”

There was a momentary silence. Ben half-turned away from the situation, gingerly rubbing his chest. He lifted up his hoody, and inspected his ribs. Sure enough, bruises were already beginning to form, spreading like a sickly fungus over his skin. Overhead, he heard a plane slicing through a murky sky. He kicked a rock away, with force, anger still simmering.

“Yes, sensei,” Justin said, finally. He offered a little formal half-bow that concealed yet another smirk. Ben shook his head incredulously that he was still keeping these antics up. “Fucking prick,” he whispered under his breath. Dion heard him.

“Just settle down, Ben,” he said, holding out a hand to indicate his pupil cool off a bit. “Let’s try this again. You need to get into the mindset of the attacker before you can even think about your defence against him. That’s why you’ve still got the sticks. Justin will have to do the same, trust me.” He shot Justin a glare to reinforce that he wasn’t joking about this.

Ben readied the sticks again. This time he set his feet properly, raised his right hand just above his left. He tensed his muscles, allowed a steady rage to percolate under his skin. He imagined himself squaring off against Justin on a darkened night in the town centre, jumping out on the little tosser, ready to smash his teeth into the pavement. With this in mind, he lunged forward with a start, bringing the stick around with all his might. He was expecting the impact of wood against skin, half-fearing that he’d been too aggressive in what was only a lesson, after all. Instead, he felt a dull ache in his wrist as the ridge of Dion’s hand cracked into it. The stick went spiralling away from his weakened grip. A moment passed, and then Dion’s left fist came in once, twice, three times; two slugs to the gut and a third once again smashing into his solar plexus. A cluster of white spots exploded in front of his eyes, and his legs buckled. He slipped on the mud and sat down heavily. Pain lanced up his spine as his coccis struck the ground. Rage descended like a sudden black cloud, even as he doubled over in agony.

“This is bullshit, you fucking coon! Stop fucking hitting me!” The word had slipped out before he could hold it back, and he instantly regretted his mistake. Dion snapped. A switch inside his mind had been flipped. He was all over Ben in a moment, his heavy black trainer careening into Ben’s stomach. Ben felt the air evacuate his lungs. He coughed reflexively, but the trainer came in again, even harder than the first time. Dion stooped over him, his frame momentarily blocking out the light. Ben was dimly aware of him picking up the one of the sticks that had fallen from his grasp. The next thing he knew, a white explosion flared up across his vision as the stick cracked down on his temple. He heard Justin’s cry dimly, as if from a great distance away, and felt a warmth on his face as blood began to pour from his skull. Dion’s face was twisted with an intense hatred now, and a deep terror suddenly filled Ben’s veins with ice. Fuck, he thought. Fucking hell.

The stick came down again, and again. Each blow brought a resounding crack as the weapon bludgeoned against Ben’s skull, a sickening sound that reverberated around the hill. Ben was aware of a buzzing in his head, as his vision began to fade. Sounds started to run into each other like treacle. White stars punctuated a heavy black veil that began to slowly descend from the sky. His breath came in broken staccato gasps. With Justin’s strangled cries coming to him from a whole world away, blackness engulfed him and then, nothingness.

Justin looked down at Ben’s broken body for just a moment more, then turned tail and fled for his life down the hillside.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

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