#0013 Chinese New Year

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Trafalgar Square heaved. It undulated like an ocean, Londoners and tourists alike, spilling out into the surrounding streets like so many tributaries. Their combined chatter murmured in the air, punctuated occasionally by a staccato burst of laughter, or with someone calling out to a friend. The Chinese lanterns, strung up on pieces of wire that spanned the Square, bobbed in the wind. Those that carried red balloons with them, above their heads to avoid them popping, looked like blood cells coursing through capillaries. London was out in force alright, all ethnicities joining in the Chinese celebration. Any excuse to get pissed, David thought, wryly.

He was sitting on a bench overlooking the scene, alone, wrapped up tightly in a black parka. He had the hood up, and it was probably this that was deterring others from sitting next to him. He watched the celebrations unfolding below him with ambivalence and a cold detachment. These weren’t his people. They weren’t each other’s people either. They were strangers united under a tenuous banner, pockets of disparate groups sharing the colour red. Down to his right a Chinese dragon, fashioned from thousands of fiery streamers, wrapped itself continuously around Nelson’s Column like wool on a knitting needle. Huge saucer-like eyes peered out from a head twisted into a rather frightening rictus, no doubt hiding one of the sweaty volunteers underneath who had to carry the burden, stooped like a hunchback, for the rest of the day.

David allowed his mind to drift, his head lolling back onto the bench. His gaze settled on the grey clouds scudding across the sky, and his thoughts turned to Sanghee. A quiet Chinese girl who was a friend of a friend, Sanghee had lived in the room next to him during David’s second year of uni. Five guys and Sanghee. If she hadn’t been withdrawn and reclusive before moving in, such levels of testosterone and boorishness was sure to have kept her cooped up in the safety of her room. David had barely heard a peep out of her since she had moved in; the only sign of her even living there was the rice cooker on the kitchen sideboard, an implement that saw constant use. He might have even forgot she was living there if he hadn’t come home from the library one day to see an entire Chinese family sharing a meal together in the lounge. Sanghee had looked up and smiled at him, bowls of chow mein (he had guessed), in her hands, in a way that had suggested that he wasn’t welcome in his own lounge. He made his apologies and had gone upstairs, and cranked up his music to maximum, ear-deafening, volume. It had more than likely been The Black Keys, a favourite band of his throughout the latter years of his uni life.

Loud music wasn’t the only thing Sanghee must have heard. If she was a silent housemate, then David was more akin to a bull in a china shop. Fancying himself as something of a lad, it wasn’t uncommon for him to have girls over several nights a week. And not always the same girl. Some were, shall we say, less than discreet. It had been a carefree time for him. He had his looks, his creative talents, he had a world of opportunity opening up in his future, right in front of him; beckoning him to take the first step. As he looked back on all that fresh-faced optimism, those formative hopes and jumbled ambitions, he felt pangs of real regret start to lodge in his throat. Back then he had been a charismatic charmer, surrounding himself with fun and friendly people and always welcoming others into his life. Now he was sitting here on this bench, all alone, with nothing else to do, hood raised as a barrier against the outside world. He was a closed book, an inscrutable island. He had become more like Sanghee – quiet and reflective, keeping himself to himself and suffering through the sounds of others living their lives to the fullest.

He pulled back his hood, and spread his arms out over the back of the bench. It wasn’t too late, was it? He could recapture those former glories, couldn’t he? Above him, the clouds were beginning to break apart. A sliver of blue split through the blanket of grey. Sunshine begin to peek through. David wasn’t the superstitious type. If he was, he may have taken it as a sign, but he was far too pragmatic to believe in such things. No, his resurrection would need to be made of more solid steps, of tangible desire and industrious resolve. No more excuses, and no more introspection. The time for navel-gazing was past. It was time for the pheonix to rise from the ashes.

He smirked at his over-dramatic literary analysis of what, in all probability, would be a false dawn. Tonight, he would go home, eat a ready-made microwave dinner, and collapse on the sofa in front of his PlayStation. Thoughts of reform, vague promises of renewed effort; all of these would be forgotten in favour of the path of least resistance.

His reverie was brought to an abrupt halt when he heard a cry go up from the crowd below; turning quickly from distress to panic. A wave of commotion and excited babble erupted from a crowd of people congregated around Nelson’s Column. David squinted against the fledgling sunlight and noticed the Chinese dragon writhing manically amidst the thicket of people. It was on fire; the tail was lit up in flames, more brilliant in hue than all the fake plumage that it was charring to cinders along the frame of the dragon’s body. A pair of youths turned away from the dragon and broke instantly into a sprint, a trail of accusatory fingers and indignant yelling picking out their trail. Without thinking about what the hell he was doing, David launched himself from the bench and ran after them.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0012 Derek Chambers

May 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Wear these, you’ll need ’em,” he said, proferring some wafer-thin plastic coveralls in his hairy fist. Jason noticed the corners of the craggy bastard’s mouth turn up a fraction, splitting his face into a succession of deep caverns from his forehead to his chin. A cigarette dangled limply between cracked lips, revealing yellowing teeth underneath, and sending plumes of smoke up into a crisp Monday morning sky.

Jason reached out to take the coveralls slowly, savouring his hatred for his community support officer as he stood slouched against the railing, uniform sagging on his skeletal frame, fingernails grimy with dirt, salt-and-pepper hair hanging lank and matted against a leathery forehead. As the coveralls were exchanged, he reached up and plucked the cigarette deftly from his mouth and twisted over to flick some ash into the swirling waters below. He turned back to Jason, brought it to his mouth again. The derisive sneer that was forming on his features grew more pronounced, accentuated by a hacking cough that was more than a little punctuated by mocking laughter.

“Why do I have to paint them all red? Surely they are more visible when they are white?” Jason could barely get the words out, so deep was his level of distaste for this man. He had had the displeasure of his company far too often in recent months. Of course, he only had himself to blame.

“It’s not your place to question that, now is it, son?” drawled the officer, straightening up in a vain effort to become more imposing. “Now why don’t you just be a good little boy and take that paint and your little paintbrush there and just get to it? Believe me, this is a cakewalk compared to some of the shit that I had planned for you, son.”

“Son”; always with that patronising, humiliating “son”. If Jason had a pound for every time he’d heard this son of a bitch call him that over the past year, there’d be no need to keep shoplifting. But that wasn’t going to happen, so the shoplifting would just have to continue. The officer – Derek Chambers, 62, divorced – gave a final smirk and a derisive wink. He flicked the butt of his cigarette over the railing into the river. He turned on his heels and walked away without another word, already reaching into the pocket of his jacket for another cigarette. Jason watched him walk back towards his car, and then took out his own packet of smokes. He lit one up with a match, took a deep drag, and sighed heavily. It was going to be a long day.

Morning slowly oozed into early afternoon, and the April sun burned the clouds from the sky. Jason was aching. He’d applied himself to his ornery task with a diligence that surprised even himself, crouched forward on that sodding stone jetty, knees raw and with pain lancing up his spine, but a quiet sense of satisfaction creeping over him that Derek would have no grounds for further bullshit. The water had whipped at him constantly, savaged by a sudden gust of wind and drenching him from hat to boot. Derek had been right – he had needed the coveralls. Even his beanie was soaked through. Hopefully, now the sun was shining, he had a chance of respite from his damp and dishevelled fate.

The painting itself had been pretty pleasant, if he cared to admit it. The steady rhythm he had fallen into had allowed his mind to wander, to settle on things that most definitely needed to be settled. There was his Mum, of course. Unemployed, penniless, miserable. It broke him to see her like that, even though she tried her best at all times to marshall herself before him, and smile away his protestations. Then there was his girlfriend, Sasha, pregnant now. Shitting herself about telling her parents and not wanting Jason to tell his own. Well, his Mum anyway. Dad had fucked off a long time ago. With the weight of the world bearing down on his shoulders, it was small wonder that he’d resorted to shoplifting. Small things at first – a loaf of bread and teabags for his Mum – but soon escalating up to CDs, DVDs and gadgets. Anything that he thought could raise a few quid on eBay, Jason pilfered. Trouble was, he wasn’t particularly good at it. Hence his close association with Derek.

He paused, and pulled the soaked beanie from his head. He slicked a hand through his hair in a vain effort to dry it off and laid the paintbrush down on the upturned lid of the paint pot by his foot. He wondered suddenly how it had managed to get like this, why life had dealt him these breaks. His childhood had been happy, serene even. His aptitude for school saw him receive glowing reports from his teachers, and grades to match. All were agreed; Jason’s future was a bright one.

And then he’d gone. Just like that. One morning last year, Jason awoke to find his Mum sat at the kitchen table, head in hands, shoulders shaking uncontrollably as her sobbing wracked her body. On the table, a brief letter, in his Dad’s hand. Hardly a word of explanation about where or why. Just an empty apology, devoid of grief or regret. He had been surprised at how deeply it had affected his Mum, how systematically grief and apathy had destroyed every facet of her life. He sighed again. Sacrifices, he told himself. Things are different now, roll with the punches. He began painting again.

Half an hour later, he heard Derek’s car pull up at the end of the jetty, watched his crumpled form saunter down towards him. Surprise, surprise, another cigarette was dangling between his lips. “Now then, son. You managed to get this done all by yourse-,” Derek words were cut short by a sudden curse. Jason watched him lift up his boot, and saw the paint lid stuck to his sole.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0011 Three’s A Crowd

January 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Even as he saw the tram doors yawn wide open before him, promising safety within the carriage, Mikael was convinced he was going to die. Every fiber of muscle in his legs was alive with pain; his lungs were fire. It was the agony of the break-neck run through the backstreets behind City Hall and the dash across the courtyard that was crippling him the most; the deep knife wound in his stomach felt distant somehow, even as his own blood spilled out over the fingers pressed tightly against it to stem the flow. He heard screams all around him as bystanders began to realise what was happening, crowds of panicked people parting like the Red Sea before him. Over and above this commotion, he heard the relentless pounding of heavy boots on stone, chilling his heart like ice. He snatched a quick glance behind him. They were perhaps thirty yards away, but gaining ground, faces twisted with pure hatred, oblivious to the commotion that they were causing.

Then, the unthinkable. His leg gave way beneath him, and Mikael collapsed to the ground. Pain lanced up his arm as his elbow struck the flagstones with a sickening crunch, his fingers coming away from his stomach. Blood, his blood,  splashed across the ground, a grisly Pollock painting in the cold light of a Wednesday lunchtime. A wave of nausea came over him, as an indisious black fog seeped slowly into his vision. He blinked quickly. Still his sight was darkening. Is this death? he wondered. The sound of screaming came to him again, right beside him, but this time sounding muffled to his ears, as if its owner was shrieking into a pillow. He propped himself up on his broken elbow to see all five of the gang members bearing down on him. “Cut that fucker apart,” he heard Johan say, the knife with which he had stabbed him still clutched in his white-knuckled fist, slick with blood.

***

Anya’s mother opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom gingerly, her nostrils immediately assailed by the fetid stink of cigarettes and alcohol. The watery rays of the sun were trying to permeate the gloom within the room, without success. She surveyed the damage – the debris littered on the stained carpet at the foot of the bed. An empty bottle of vodka, several crumpled beer cans, and an overflowing ashtray; the detritus from another mis-spent evening.

“I think it’s about time you got up, Anya. It’s past midday.” She had tried to say it gently, with as much patience as she could muster, but the words still came out angrily, their relationship fractured by so many similar mornings. She saw Anya stir in her bed, the darkness moving slightly as her daughter raised her head to regard her mother’s silhouette in the doorway.

“Get the fuck out of my room.”

Anya’s mother closed the door and walked away down the hall. She tried to tell herself it was just a phase her daughter was going through, an extended period of teenage angst. Inside, her heart was breaking.

***

It felt as if her head was filled with sharp glass. The sunlight, weak though it was, was burning her bleary eyes. She heard her mother’s soft footsteps on the hallway carpet grow quiet. She was surprised to find that she felt no remorse. She felt only loathing for her mother, and for herself. The previous evening was something of a blur. She remembered the discussion with Mikael, the look of fear that had crept across his face. His skin turning pallid, his eyes glassy. She remembered downing the beers once he had left, and, unsated, the trip to the off license and the bottle of vodka. She remembered passing out, fully clothed, leaning against the end of the bed. She remembered waking in the early hours of the morning, groggy and frightened. Most of all, she remembered the pregnancy test. It was still lying on the floor. She wondered idly if her mother had seen it, but didn’t care either way. The situation couldn’t get any worse anyway.

How could she have been so stupid? She raised herself on her elbows, and a wave of nausea flooded through her. She tore the quilt off her clammy body and jumped out of the bed. She made it as far as the door before she realised the bathroom was too far. She turned to the bin by her desk, and noticed the empty box for the test resting atop the rest of the rubbish before vomitting into it.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead, and collapsed down on the floor. Her hair was lank against flushed cheeks. Her stomach felt hollow. Gooseflesh broke out up her arms. A quiet, creeping sense of helplessness settled around her heart. It was only then that she noticed her mobile flashing on her bedside table. She uneasily got to her feet and snatched it up, flipped it open. A new message. From Mikael. That feeling of helplessness mutated into one of panic as she read the message:

Johan knows that it’s not his baby. He knows about us. He wants to meet me at City Hall. I’ll meet him. I have to be the bigger man about this. I wont let him near you again. We’ll make it work, I promise. I can be a dad. We can make this work. I love you. I’ll call you in a bit. He’s not going to be happy. xx

She snapped the phone shut, and the room fell silent. She was acutely aware of the dull throb of her heartbeat, thunderous in her chest. From downstairs, she heard the kettle boil. The muffled voices of some TV show as her mother tried to go about her daily routine and forget about her daughter destroying her life in front of her face. The silence was shattered by the sudden screeching of sirens as an ambulance careened down the road outside her window.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0010 On The Banks Of The River Moskva

June 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Picture a bridge. This bridge arcs across the dark, icy waters of the Moskva River as it picks its way through Moscow in the heart of Russia. In this scene, the city is in the grip of an impossibly bleak, hopeless winter. The sun is choked by a blanket of white; darkness descends in the early evening. The streets are empty before dusk, the Moscow citizens retreating to warm corners in their homes to hibernate each night and look out into the black void with reflective eyes.

Underneath this bridge, picture a girl. She is sitting on a slab of frozen stone, its surface slick with ice and black debris from the river beneath. She has her knees drawn up to her chest, and her arms wrapped around her shins. She struggles for warmth, but even with the hood up over her head, lined with fake fur, she fails. A face as white as porcelain, and just as delicate, peers out from beneath the hood. Her eyes are glassy as she watches the river churn past her in angry torrents, lapping noisily against the concrete pillars of the bridge as it careers downstream and merges into the Oka River.

She has come here every evening for a week, a daily ritual almost mechanically observed. As a watery sun begins to sink behind the grey, ashen horizon, she heads across the muted city, carefully clambers over a stone balustrade as cold as frosted glass, and gingerly slides down the shallow, slippery granite to her churning retreat. And he always follows.

Picture a boy. He stands shorter than the girl, which isn’t helped by the fact that he tends to hunch; an unconscious consequence of being ostracised by his peers. Onyx-black hair falls thickly over his forehead, almost obscuring his vision, but kept long in a vain attempt to hide the wine-red birthmark that rings his left eye. It preys on his mind and he finds it difficult to think of anything else. The kids at school are merciless; they call him ‘freak’ and hurl stones at him as he crosses the playground from the school gates, desperate for the comparative safety of an empty classroom before the bell tolls. His is a lonely existence. But she is different to the others. She doesn’t point at him. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t throw stones. She keeps to herself, hood always up.

She knows he is there. She has known it every night, even though she doesn’t acknowledge his presence. Not because she wants to be mean to him, but because communicating with him will somehow break her own reverie, her own vague reasons for coming down here beneath the bridge. She knows he is in love with her, even if he doesn’t himself, with a certainty that can only be borne out in the black-and-white minds of youth. It comforts her that he is there, on the other side of the stone platform, even though she ignores him. He validates her decision to come down here, makes it less alien to her.

He sits awkwardly on the lip of the platform, one leg dangling over the edge, no more than a foot above the hostile waters of the river. He fumbles with a button on his coat, and snatches the occasional glance over at her. He can’t see her face, only the fur that lines her hood, and the gentle arc of her arms as she hugs her knees to her chest. She intrigues him – a loner like himself, but a self-made one. She offers him a tiny island of formless hope in a sea of misery. He desperately wants to go over to her, but knows that the very last thread keeping him from sinking into a bottomless pit may snap if she, too, rejects him. So he sits. And waits.

Picture the rain. It rolls in in pregnant black clouds. The last fading rays of sunshine are snuffed out by a blanket of stone, and against this sullen backdrop, the weather breaks. It falls in icy shards that lacerate the choppy surface of the Moskva river, sending up a thousand plumes of spray, giving the impression that the water is boiling. They both hear the rain crashing against the sweeping curve of the bridge above them as it creates an eerie echo in their secret cavern. The air becomes still colder. He glances over again, this time fascinated as she exhales a breath that crystallises into mist.

A rumbling peal of thunder makes them both start violently, the boy even emitting a muffled cry. It is enough for the girl to turn her head to look at him for the first time. He snatches another glance, quickly turns away again when he notices her looking. When he gathers the courage to look again, she is still turned to him. He keeps his gaze steady, his eyes locked with hers for the first time. They look at each other for what feels like an age to him, but in fact lasts only a few moments. A smile begins to spread slowly, oh so very slowly, across her lips. It takes a second crash of thunder to turn their heads.

He looks out at the river, marvelling at how angrily it rages. It smashes against the riverbanks as if possessed by wrathful demons. The heavens continue to empty, the rain falls in unbroken sheets of ice, and it feels as if the entire world is ending. But inside the boy, a tiny flame, long since extinguished, sparks into life once more. He carefully brings his leg up onto the platform, and only now notices that it is soaked to the skin from the rain splashing from the balustrade overhead. He rises to his feet and slowly walks over to the girl. She doesn’t turn to him, but he can see her body soften; her vice-like grip on her shins relaxes.

“What’s your name?’ he asks, on the banks of the river Moskva.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0009 The Big 8

April 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bacon. Eggs. Sausages. Hash browns. Beans. Mushrooms. Fried bread. And toast. They call it the ‘Big 8’ around these parts, and you’ll still get change for a fiver. But, boy, you better be hungry. They even do a ‘Big 16’, which is exactly what it says on the tin, but even I’m not that insane. I’ve only seen it done once, by Tom ‘Tubbs’ Tiverton, but he was physically incapable of moving for a whole half hour after he’d shovelled that last rasher of bacon into his gob. And he never wasted an opportunity to tell us how it ‘repeated’ on him for days. Yeh, I know; not a pleasant image.

I’ve taken to eating the ‘Big 8’ every day this week. It’s become a ritual for me, an almost meditative state. Each morning, at around half nine, I head to the Frank & Beans Cafe on Wheeler Street, a copy of the Guardian tucked under my arm. I nod to the cashier, whose name I forget. She fixes me with a hateful stare every time though, the old witch. Would it kill her to raise a smile? Actually, judging by those wrinkles and hair whiter than Santa’s beard, maybe it will.

I then sit down at my favourite table – the one right in the back. It’s not a large cafe, so it’s not as if I’m in some far-flung darkened corner, but it does allow me to survey the entire cafe over the lip of my paper. The chair I sit on has its faux-leather cover torn from each side. The stuffing is clearly visible, and even that is turning black with dirt. I’m probably not helping that much; I swear I’ve worn this pair of jeans day in day out for perhaps a month. Never have they seen the inside of a washing machine in all that time. In fact, they even have a large hole in the groin area from repeated use. To those that point out the offending opening, I crassly joke that the large girth of my penis is responsible for tearing a hole in the fabric. Rarely do I get laughs in return, even polite ones.

So this morning I was tucking into my fifth ‘Big 8’ of the week. I inherited my Dad’s metabolism – I could eat crap every day for a year and still have a 30″ inch waste. I claim that it’s a curse to those who stare incredulously at the calories upended into my mouth, but who are we kidding? It’s one of the greatest gifts my old man ever gave me, and that includes the white suit with flares he got married in. The less said about that gift, the better. About halfway through the first sausage of my breakfast, dunked in the runny yolk of one of the eggs, I remembered what I was supposed to be doing today. After a week of lounging around after being laid off from work, today was the day I’d earmarked to work out what the hell I was supposed to do next. Easier said than done. I’ve always been pretty wishy-washy when it comes to my own career path. I just can’t decide what to do, you see. I have grandiose plans, half of which are inflated pipe dreams. But this morning, well… this morning everything changed.

I had glanced up from my breakfast, the sauce that the beans had been swimming in was smeared over my chin. As I wiped it away with a napkin, I noticed the old lady sitting in front of me, resplendent in a dark brown leather cap. It seemed a strange fashion change, totally at odds with my admittedly stereotypical views of what I imagined old ladies should be dressed in. It stirred deeper, more sheltered memories; unspoken half-truths that comprised a darker side of my cheerful mentality. Prejudices that really hadn’t been examined in the cold light of day, but hidden behind locked doors in my character. As you can well imagine, having such deep thoughts whilst halfway through a fry-up, and triggered by something so trival as a fucking leather cap, was more than my mind could realistically compute at half nine on a Friday morning. I reached over for my cuppa, as if the bottom of a mug held some further clarity.

It dawned on me this morning, as I placed the mug back down on the plastic veneer of the table, that I’m old before my time. I’ve been shutting myself off from my own life, erecting barriers to everything around me, desensitizing myself to the pleasures of company, of compassion, of life. I’ve been made redundant because I’m lazy; my endeavours are started in some burst of frenzied passion, extinguished in minutes like a sparkler going out on Bonfire Night. Half-baked ideas discarded with only nominal effort expended into them, whilst big opportunities are shrugged off in a haze of apathy. It was a sobering thought to digest, even as the ‘Big 8’ was slipping down real easy. The woman in front of me had gotten up by this point – she had obviously finished her breakfast. I smiled to myself, imagining she had just polished off the legendary ‘Big 16’ without thinking about it, scoffing at the young whippersnappers who heaved and struggled through it; pretenders to her crown. All morning, my mind was turning over ideas like that, examining them for the first time, outdated prejudices abandoned in favour of fresh perception. It all sounds like so much bullshit now, but it’s exactly what I needed.

It was enlightenment, or ‘satori’ as the Japanese say (I’ve been studying Buddhism lately) – at least it was as much enlightenment as a guy wearing month-old jeans could muster anyway. I rose from my feet and slapped down the princely sum of a tenner, and then practically skipped out of the cafe. On the way out, I gave the cashier a salacious wink and my biggest shit-eating grin. And, wouldn’t you just know it, the old witch actually smiled back.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0008 A Real Heartbreaker

April 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

God, I wanted her. And she knew it, even then. I’d just taken her picture, you see; I was commissioned by the student paper. I was doing all of the nightclubs, and I can tell you now, it was a fucking chore. Being sober as a judge and watching everyone else drink away their night, becoming drunk as pigs. You would have hated it. Anyway, this particular night I was in Kaos. A real dive. They even scattered sawdust across the floor of the dancefloor in this place, and the stench that came out of the men’s toilet was indescribable. I paint quite the picture, don’t I?

So it’s all the more surprising that in the midst of this shithole, I found love. Yeah, it’s corny, I know. I’m almost ashamed to say it myself. You always said I was incapable of it, didn’t you? Well it finally happened, and all because of my camera lens. It was early on in the night, so drunken incidents were mercifully few, and I’d spotted this group of girls messing about in front of the huge mirror that comprises one wall downstairs. I readied myself to take the shot, but the girl closest to me threw her arms up behind her head and pouted like a model. I knew immediately it was unusable as a photo – my editor had expressly said he wanted candid shots – but I was smiling as I took the camera away from my face.

I wasn’t expecting her to come bounding up to me. She half-skipped across, a smile breaking out on her face where her pout had been moments before. It was an electric smile, a real heartbreaker. “Can I have a look?” she asked. As she said this, she reached up and touched my arm as she turned to stand next to me to look down at the camera screen. It was a throwaway gesture, I know, but that touch will stay with me forever. It was brief, over in a flash, but lingered with me for the rest of the night. So, I showed her the picture. She looked down at it for a moment and I watched her frown. She said, “Hmm, it’s not my best.”

So I tried to be all gentlemanly, didn’t I? It’s what I do best, right? Don’t laugh, it is! I assured her that it was a great picture, she looked like a model, yadda yadda yadda. I thought I was pulling the whole thing off, but she just stood looking at me dig myself deeper into this giant hole. She had her arms crossed over her chest the whole time, this smile spreading over her face, and one eyebrow raised. She giggled at me once I’d paused mid-flow in my stream of bullshit and told me I was cute. I thought she was hot even before this exchange, if that’s what you could call it, but now I was falling for her. God, I wanted her then, let me tell you. Then she said something that I didn’t catch – I was too busy drinking in all the details, but I did hear her call me Clark Kent. Which was funny. I did have my glasses on, after all. And I was taking pictures.

I mumbled something with a stupid smile on my face, but again I can’t remember if it was witty or moronic. Whatever it was, she had seemingly had enough, because she said she had to get back to her friends. I’d forgotten all about them. I glanced over to the mirror and saw them watching all this unfold, smirks on their faces. One of them gave me a little wink. When I’d turned back to say something to the girl, she had already headed back to her friends. Well that’s that, then, I thought. I tried to slink away all cool and casual, but some fat bastard chose that exact moment to walk into me with his pint. He spilt pretty much half of it down my sleeve. I heard one of the girls tittering away behind me, and I wanted to punch this stupid guy in the face, I was so angry.

I didn’t. I kept some composure. I checked the camera to make sure it hadn’t got wet and retired to the men’s room. The bogs weren’t blocked and there was no puke on the floor yet. Thank god for small mercies eh? I wiped down my sleeve with some paper towels. It was completely soaked. I did my best to repair what damage I could and headed back outside. I hadn’t got many pictures yet and I really needed to crack on if I was going to be able to produce any decent shots for the editor in the morning. But, despite knowing this, I headed to the bar at the back – which is the quietest – and propped myself against it at the furthest end. I switched on the playback feature on the camera to steal another glance at the picture. It actually didn’t do her justice, you know. She looked much prettier in motion, so to speak. But still, I looked at that photo and sighed at another missed opportunity. The ‘gentleman’ had struck out again.

But then I hear this playful, “Hi Clark” at my shoulder, and she’s right there. I was embarrassed, as you can imagine, and fumbled for the power switch to get the fucking photo off my screen. It was too late, of course, she had seen me staring at it. This was awful. Just awful.

“Checking me out were you?” she asks me. Again the playful tone. I felt my face go as red as beets, and I mumbled some shit about just checking through the shots I had already. She nodded sarcastically.

“How about I buy you a drink, Clark?” she says, and then she adds, “I’m Lois.” It was the first time I had laughed all night. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0007 Stanley Knife

April 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Stanley flicked the switch on, off, on, off, on, off, on. The light in the shed was blinding, almost surgical, in its luminance. He glanced round to make sure everything was as he had left it last week. Dusting off his sleeve, he headed over to the workbench, pulled out his red leather stool and eased himself down onto it. Outside it was a crisp but bright March afternoon, with air that fills the lungs and reminds you you are alive. But for Stanley, this Saturday was to be devoted to his toolshed.

He got to work. From the right-hand drawer, he produced a fresh shammy from the boxes lined up in neat rows. From the left, he withdrew a bottle of white spirit. He reached up and took the wrench on the farthest right from its peg, turning it over and over in pink, fleshy fingers before meticulously laying it out on the top of the workbench, perfectly parallel to the edge nearest to him. Wrench, he intoned in his mind. Wrench, wrench, wrench. He twisted the cap of the white spirit bottle three times to the right, then turned it back twice the other way, then another three times to the right. The cap popped off. He upended it gently onto the new shammy and then bent over the wrench. Four wipes to the right, another three to the left, then turning it over to repeat. Done. He pushed it to the back right corner of the workbench. First, he must clean them all, and only then would he replace them on their pegs.

There was a gentle knock on the door; it opened a few inches, and the head of his wife poked itself in. She smiled warmly, cherubic cheeks framed by curls of salt and pepper hair. Her make-up was all fixed, and Stanley caught the faintest hint of perfume tinge the air inside the shed. It was her shopping day with her friends. Every Saturday, like clockwork, almost immediately after Stanley had sat down to his weekly ritual, Deborah would collect her handbag from the sideboard in the kitchen, drop her car keys inside and get behind the wheel.

“Hi,” she said warmly. She pushed the door open and walked over, a cup of steaming tea in hand. She laid it carefully down on the workbench, mindful not to spill any of its contents on its pristine surface for fear of distressing her husband. Immediately, Stanley reached over and aligned the handle of mug parallel to the front edge of the workbench.

She stood over him a moment longer than usual, one hand bent backwards and resting on her hip, the fingers of the other lightly resting on the coarse red fibres of Stanley’s favourite sweater. He looked up at her slowly, faintly irritated at this continued disruption, but finally managing a curt, “Thank you”. She looked back at him evenly, the smile still on her lips but now faltering. Then, she gave a little cough, clearing her throat. As she did so, she moved her hand to his head, stroking his hair.

“I’ll be back by six,” she announced simply. She turned on her heels and left the shed without another word, the hint of perfume – was it Chanel? – lingering once again. Stanley immediately got up and crossed to the door. He opened it up and closed it again four times. Once he was satisfied, he returned to his work. He took a cautious sip of the tea and instantly regretted it; it was piping hot, and he burnt his tongue. He reached for the next wrench.

As he worked, a vague, unwelcome sensation began to settle over Stanley. Something didn’t sit well in his stomach. He tried to dismiss it as his usual anxieties, another by-product of the OCD that that led him to his quirky behaviour and rigid rituals. But this felt different, somehow. Then it struck him. The perfume. In all the Saturdays he could remember, Deborah had not once put on perfume to go shopping with her friends. As the realisation of this sank in, he began to tremble. He felt his face grow hot, felt it go as red as his jumper. A flush of humiliation clamped over his heart like an icy claw as visions of the worst possible scenario flashed through his mind. His breath came in shallow, rapid swallows. Then, as abruptly as the attack had started, it began to subside. Stanley clutched hold of the edge of the workbench, his head bowed. He took a long, cleansing breath. Then he took a second sip of his tea.

A third wrench came off its peg, and he applied himself once again to his task. He lost himself in his ritual, moving with mechanical precision, every swipe of the shammy clinically dispatched. Outside, the afternoon sun began to sink in the sky; shadows in the shed began to lengthen. His tea, long since forgotten, grew cold. As he began to hang the last of the wrenches back in its place, he heard the crunch of tires as a car climbed the gravel driveway behind the garden fence. He cocked his head and listened, and heard the car door slam shut. He rose from the stool, walked to the door. He closed it behind him and then turned the key back and forth in the lock until he was satisfied. He walked briskly over the lawn to the gate in the fence that led out onto their parking space. He stood looking over it, at his wife leaning against the side of their saloon, legs crossed, her hand holding a mobile phone to her ear. She was giggling softly, but turned away from him. He couldn’t see her face. “Yes, I love you too. You know I do,” she whispered. “But I have to go. I’ll speak to you soon.”

She turned just in time to see Stanley’s face break, and watched as he collapsed onto the path.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0006 Mrs. Feltham

March 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

“Your father will be back in a minute. He’s just gone up the road. You know how he likes to read the Sunday papers. The kettle’s on though.’ Marie Feltham stood at the open window, leaning down on the sill with her arms folded beneath her, looking out and up the road where her husband had climbed up to the newsagents in the village. To her daughter, seated behind her, she looked old. The veins on the back of her hands stood out like knotted ropes on the bough of a ship weathered with age. Her dress was worn, almost threadbare; the pink fuchsia print faded and lacklustre.

Mrs. Feltham finally turned away from the window, a smile creasing the corners of a wrinkled mouth. She left the window wide open, as ever, and Elaine was grateful she was still wrapped up in her duffel coat. Her mother’s flat was always cold, which was ironic considering it was above a shop which sold fireplaces; all because of the perenially open window. She worried about her catching her death constantly, but despite her advancing age, she never seemed to take any notice of the deep chill that permeated her surroundings with an icy gloom.

Elaine continued to study her mother as she chose her favourite armchair – grimy and beginning to lose its stuffing like a soldier spills guts out of a mortal wound – and settled herself into it. She sighed contentedly, reaching over the arm and producing her knitting needles from her sewing basket. She never once looking up at her daughter. The rhythmic clink of the sewing needles were loud as cannon blasts in that silent, frozen apartment. From the kitchen, these sounds were accompanied by the plastic thhhck of the kettle switching itself off, the water boiled. Marie didn’t look up. Elaine rose from her armchair and headed out to the kitchen. ‘Jack will love this sweater. Green is his favourite colour. He feels the cold quite keenly, you know’.

Her mother’s words sounded like they came from a faraway place, thick and muted, as Elaine reached up and opened the cupboard where her mother kept the teacups. Marie must have heard her, as she called out from the living room, briefly distracted from her task. “Make sure you get a teacup for your father.” Elaine reached up and pulled out two teacups, both of them fancy and ancient, decked in gold trim and intricate floral patterns. The insides of each were stained brown from decades of containing tea for her mother and father. She reached for the sugar jar. Two for her mother, half a teaspoon for her. Her eyes were beginning to fill with tears as she carefully placed a teabag in each cup. She held the kettle steady as she poured in the water. She could feel the heat of the metal against her cheeks. A teardrop splashed on the counter. Chiding herself inwardly, she wiped her sleeve over her eyes.

As she brought the tea in, she knew that Dr. Steinman was right. Her mother would have to be admitted to the nursing home; she was showing no signs of recovery. Although she was tough as old boots physically, her mind was beyond repair. Elaine placed the cup down on the stained mahogany table in front of her mother gingerly, but still managed to spill a drop on the surface anyway. Her mother continued to knit. Again, she never looked up. Outside, it began to rain, lightly at first and then turning to a downpour. Large drops of rain began to spatter on the windowsill. A rising wind agitated the ochre curtains hanging limply either side of the window frame. Elaine disappeared once more to the kitchen to fetch a dishcloth for the spilled tea. In the living room, the rain had wakened her mother from her reverie. She rose slowly from her seat and crossed once again to the window, looking out and up the road. She leaned on the windowsill, the rain penetrating her sleeves. ‘Your father will be back in a minute. He’s just gone up the road.’

Elaine came up beside her mother. She carefully laid an arm around her shoulder, wincing at how sharp the bones of her shoulderblades felt beneath her dry, stretched skin. “Why don’t we close the window, Mum? It’s raining now. And look, you’re getting wet.”

“But I want to look out for Jack. He’ll be home soon,” Mrs. Feltham replied. Her gaze were fixed out the window. Behind those vacant hazel eyes, Elaine couldn’t begin to fathom what was going on.

“We’ve been over this before, Mum, remember? Dad.. passed away… remember? Over two years ago…,” the words came slowly, broken like glass. Tears returned to her eyes; her lip trembled.

“He’s just gone to get the Sunday papers. You know how he likes to read his papers. He’ll be home soon. The kettle’s on.”

Elaine turned away from her mother, leaving her leaning on the windowsill, the rain outside beginning to matt her white curls. In her mind’s eye, she saw the broken body of her Dad, Jack Feltham, lying by the side of the road where it had been struck and knocked down by a motorcycle careening through the village. She saw the glow of police lights illuminating the blood slowly seeping from his coat. The lenses of his glasses, splintered and scattered across the asphalt. She saw her mother looking out the window, day after day, for someone who would never return. A piece of her mother had died that day, her mind snapping like a dry twig in an autumn wood browning with age and beginning to wilt. A piece of her had died too.

Her mother returned to her armchair. She picked up ker knitting needles. “Green is Jack’s favourite colour,” she chirped. With that, the dam broke and Elaine didn’t bother to hold back the flood of tears. She took out her mobile phone, and dialled Dr. Steinman’s number.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0005 Road Kill

March 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Something underneath the car clanked violently and immediately the vehicle began to decelerate. Alarmingly, smoke began to appear from the steering column and, taking the hint, Ethan hurriedly pressed down firmly on the brake pedal. The banged-up Ford Escort, a hunk of shit ever since he parted $600 for it a few months ago, eased to a halt on the hard shoulder. Ethan glanced in his rear-view mirror. No cars were coming up the road behind him. The trip had been plain sailing so far. He didn’t need this. He really didn’t need this.

Ethan reached for the door handle just as another plume of smoke hissed out from behind the steering wheel, acrid and thick. He stepped out into blazing early afternoon sunshine. The door slammed shut behind him, the Escort rocking violently in protest. With a sigh of deep exasperation, Ethan ran his fingers through the locks of a shock of blonde hair. He stood looking into the car for a moment, studying the smoke filling up the area above the driver’s seat, heart sinking further and further down into his stomach. This looked terminal. The fucking Escort was dead as a dodo, as they say. He sucked on his teeth, thoughtfully. There was nothing for it, of course. He’d have to call his father and admit to him that he was going to be late for his birthday celebrations. He would be pissed; they had already argued over it because Ethan had insisted that he couldn’t make it at all. Eventually, he had capitulated in the face of his father’s protestations. Now he was in for a whole new world of pain.

He reached into the pocket of his jeans for his cell-phone, flipped it open and hit speed dial 4, bringing the handset to his ear. The dialling tone began to bleat. A few seconds passed and then he heard a voice, gruff and rasping; the tones of a smoker of forty years, unmistakeably those of his father. “Hello?”

“Dad, it’s me. Listen, I know you’re not going to believe me, but I just broke down. There’s smoke pissing out from the steering wheel of the Escort.” There was silence at the other end of the line, and then a gravelly sigh, drawn-out and over-exaggerated.

“So, if you really didn’t want to come, you could have just fucking said so. No need for the bullshit.”

“I’m not bullshitting – I promise. There was smoke and I heard this clank, and now I’m broke down on the side of the road. I need to call the breakdown service. Dad, you know I couldn’t make this up if I tried,” Ethan finished wearily. Exchanges with his father had been a war of attrition ever since his Mum had died ten years earlier. He had moved out the following year, heading up to Banff to start a new career in web design, to forget about his grief and lay down fresh foundations. His father had resented Ethan for leaving him to cope with his own bereavement, alone in an empty house, with only fading memories for company.

“Whatever you say,” stated his father. The line went dead. Ethan held the phone to his ear for a second longer, then snapped the phone shut.

***

Three hundred metres further back down the highway, a beige-coloured Land Rover slowed to a crawl at the side of the road, and stopped. The hazard lights began to blink, barely visible in the scathing afternoon sun. A cloud of dust, sent up by the wheels of the vehicle, slowly settled back down to earth. A middle-aged woman sat in the driver’s seat, arms folded over each other on the steering wheel. A bad perm, dry as firewood, was occassionally ruffled by a stifled breeze wafting in from the open window. She squinted at the car up ahead through the windshield, identifying it as a Ford Escort. A man stood beside it, his head turned towards her since noticing her vehicle pull over. Slowly, she reached down to the passenger glove compartment, flicked it open with a practiced hand, and withdraw a battered pack of cigarettes from within. There was one left. She slid it out, clasping it between her fore- and middle fingers. She pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dashboard. It began to glow with an almost imperceptible orange halo. She lit her cigarette, drew one long, indulgent drag, and then stepped briskly out of the Land Rover.

***

Ethan watched the woman wave at him with relief. He could well be in luck. Maybe she could offer him a lift, or, if the gods were really smiling on him, she could even be a mechanic. He smiled ruefully; the gods had already shown him today that he was not currently in favour. He wondered why she had pulled up so far away, and made up his mind to go greet her. He began to walk back down the highway towards the hulking vehicle. It was splashed with mud. It needed a clean as much as his Escort needed a new engine. He watched her disappear around the back of it. She raised up the door of the boot, bent down, seemed to retrieve something. She placed a black box on the floor – he could just make it out beneath the chassis. She fumbled around for a perhaps thirty seconds as he approached. Further plumes of dust billowed out from around her boots.

He watched her straighten up, saw her raise something long and black as night to her face. It took him a few dumbstruck seconds and a hiss and fizzle of air centimetres from his ear to work out what was happening. It was a sniper rifle. She was shooting him. He half-turned on his heel, ready to bolt for his Escort. He heard another fizz, and then the world faded to black, never again to be lit by a scorching afternoon sun.

***

‘That makes seven,” she whispered softly, lowering her rifle.

Photo credit: Amy Massey

#0004 Retirement

February 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I envied him. That jolly bastard with his unmistakable mop of white hair, laughing heartily, cheap wine in a paper cup in his hand. 69p for one hundred. Booker. I knew because I bought them for myself at home. I just couldn’t be arsed to wash up any dirty glasses. The wine was foul. I was tackling it one dreadful sip at a time, wishing there was a sink in this office I could drain it into.

Frank was retiring. As of twelve minutes ago he was no longer Area Manager of Siemens Traincare Facility, a post he had held for forty years. Man and boy, as they say. His hi-vis jacket, always washed each weekend and brought in, gleaming, every Monday morning, would no longer hang in its customary place on the back of the office door. He was being clucked over by the gaggle of middle-aged women that mostly comprised our small office, imploring him to keep in touch, when really they didn’t give a shit either way. As retirement parties go, this was pretty dire. A turgid office celebration after working hours had finished on a cold Friday in a dark, wet February. Oh there were balloons, I guess; a random, haphazard collection of them hastily inflated and pinned lazily in a bunch on the wall. And cake. I didn’t even think there was cake at retirements parties? Wasn’t there supposed to be a gold watch or something? Something meaningful, something concrete for recognising the sobering fact that this man had given four decades of his life to the maintenance and upkeep of a bunch of trains?

I worked on the spreadsheets. Data entry. Occasionally, I was tasked with faxing invoices, a job that actually required me to leave my seat and walk to another part of the building. After lunch, this was the highlight of my day. Two years and three months I’d been here. This was supposed to be temporary. Stop-gap. But I still sat dejectedly on the bottom rung of a ladder I had no desire to climb. Tonight, I sat apart from them, the only one seated at his desk. Abruptly, Sandra let loose one of her infuriating laughs. I had steadily grown to hate that bitch, my immediate superior. She should have been mentoring me, at least pretending that she cared enough about my development to actually teach me a few things around here. Her heart wasn’t in it. Mine wasn’t either. I guess I couldn’t blame her; I gave her little to work with. But still, I hated that bitch.

The office door opened. Craig, Frank’s understudy, walked in briskly, all smiles. Under his arm was tucked a large bulky present, wrapped up in bright red paper, with a fancy yellow ribbon tied around it. Hard worker, that Craig. A jobsworth, and no mistake. He had every reason to be happy – he had been waiting for this day. Time for him to fill the big man’s shoes. Come Monday, it was Craig who would be Area Manager, and Frank would be a distant memory.

‘Okay then, everybody,’ he called out to the ten people assembled, by way of shutting them up from their banal conversations. ‘It’s a very sad day. Well, for us anyway!’ He laughed at his own joke. ‘I, for one, am going to miss Frank tremendously. He’s been an inspiration to us, and for me personally, and has led this team with a smile since he joined, I’m reliably informed, forty years ago. Yes, forty! That’s dedication! So, Frank, we got you a little gift. Something to remember us by.’

Frank broke away from the others, set his plastic cup on the nearest desk, and humbly accepted the proffered gift. He tore back the paper with one giant, calloused hand. I caught a glimpse of the box. It was a DustDevil. A fucking vacuum cleaner. ‘Now you can keep your home as clean as you kept the trains!’ proclaimed Craig. The women tittered. Frank, ever the gentlemen, accepted the gift with grace, smiling broadly and shaking Craig’s outstretched hand.

‘I’ll miss you all,’ he said simply. ‘Now let’s get this party started.’

Sandra took that as her cue to press play on the portable stereo she had brought in especially for the occasion. She had even made her own CD. Inexplicably, she had chosen Wham’s ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ as the opening track. I drained the rest of my wine in disgust, ready to make my excuses and leave. At that point, I noticed Frank walking over to me. He carefully laid his new toy, the fucking DustDevil, on the carpet and pulled a nearby chair over to mine. He hitched his trousers up, and sat down with an over-exaggerated sigh. For a moment he didn’t speak, just sat there adjacent to me, the pair of us looking on as the women started whooping and dancing.

“You don’t belong here.” He stated simply, as was his way. He turned to me, his eyes stern under his bushy, white eyebrows. “You came here over two years ago. I hired you. You told me you wanted to be a writer. You told me you just needed a job to put some money together. You told me this was temporary.”

“I know, but I…” I began.

“Let me finish,” he said, cutting me short. “Siemens has been good to me. I made it to the top, and I’m glad I did. But I had no talent. You do. You showed me your stuff. It’s not too late for you. But it might be, if you don’t get out of this place.”

Frank was right. I smiled at him. I rose, walked over to Sandra. She stopped dancing as she saw me approach. Uncertainty was written across her face. She hated me too, but that was alright.

“I fucking hate it here,” I said. “So, I’m gone”. I turned, headed towards Frank to get my coat. He was smiling, too.

Photo credit: Amy Massey