Snakes and Ladders

On her upper arm, curling around her bicep, is a silver snake.

‘Is anyone sitting here?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she replies.

I eat my sandwich and stare at the snake, its scales glimmering beneath the light.

‘That’s a beautiful bangle,’ I say.

‘Sorry?’

‘The snake. It’s beautiful.’

‘Oh…’ she looks down at her arm. ‘Thank you.’

I take another bite of my sandwich and chew on the stringy salmon. Her skin is so smooth I want to touch it. ‘Do you work around here?’ I ask.

‘Sometimes.’

‘I’ve never seen you before.’

She looks up from her book. I place the half-eaten sandwich back in the crumpled packet and wipe my mouth. ‘What are you reading?’

‘A novel.’

I clear my throat. ‘Any good?’

She examines the cover. ‘Not really.’ I notice another snake dangling from her neck. ‘You like snakes?’ I ask.

‘How can you tell?

‘Well…’ I point at her necklace and realise she’s not wearing a bra.

‘Yes, I suppose I do.’ Her hand reaches for the necklace and she twists the tiny snake, slowly rubbing the pendant between her fingertips. I try not to look at her breasts. ‘Do you?’ She asks.

‘I’ve never really thought about it.’ I reply. ‘Do you have any more?’

‘I do.’ She closes her book and places it on the table. I want to ask her where they are, but I don’t. A loud clatter disturbs the relative stillness of the cafe, and we look across the room towards the commotion. A man and woman stand by the bin, brushing their clothes and apologising to one another. I watch him reach for his wallet and offer to buy her another drink, but she shakes her head and steps aside as a waitress sweeps up the mess. He apologises once more and the woman nods her head, gestures that it’s okay, and leaves him standing there. When I turn back to the table I notice I’m being watched.
‘What?’ I ask.

‘Nothing.’

‘No, go on. What is it? Have I got something on my face?’

‘No.’

‘So what is it?’

‘I was just thinking.’

‘About what?’

‘You.’

‘Go on.’

‘Why did you sit here?’

I think about the question, and consider my answer. ‘The seat was free.’

‘So was that one over there.’

‘Was it?’

‘Yes.’

I spot an eyelash next to my mug, so I make a wish, and blow.

‘I didn’t realise.’ I notice that she’s finished her coffee, but before I can ask if she wants another one, her telephone rings. She answers and whispers into the mouthpiece, occasionally looking at me. I watch her lips move and imagine how they might feel pressed against mine, her mouth open, tongue moist. She has a small ring in her left nostril, which sparkles as she speaks, and a splatter of freckles that cover her cheeks. She looks like something out of a magazine, only better because she’s real. I reach under the table and pretend to search for something in my bag, examining her legs as I rummage around. When I sit up the telephone call is over and she’s watching me, waiting. ‘Finished?’ She asks.

‘Yes,’ I reply, and straighten up in my seat.

‘So…what do you do?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘For money. Work.’

‘I’d rather not talk about work.’ I say.

‘What would you like to talk about?’

‘Surprise me.’

‘What do you do for pleasure?’

‘Avoid work.’ She smiles. ‘How about you?’ I ask.

‘Me?’

‘Yes. What do you like to do – apart from reading?’

‘I like to travel.’

‘I thought so.’

‘Why?’

‘Your tan. Looks like you travel.’ I remove my glasses and clean the lenses with a microfiber cloth I keep in my wallet. ‘Have you just got back from somewhere?’

‘I was in Valencia for a couple of days.’

‘For work?’

‘No, pleasure.’

‘I’ – a waitress appears at our table and picks up our empty coffee mugs, placing them on a tray and wiping down the surface with a chequered cloth. We watch her in silence, her earrings flapping in the air as she leans over and works the cloth from one corner of the table to the other. She nods and walks away, and I notice the woman opposite me staring at her as she rounds the corner of the counter and disappears behind a door.

‘How old do you think she is?’ She asks.

‘Who?’

‘The waitress.’

‘Twenty, I guess. Maybe twenty-one, or twenty-two.’

‘Do you think she’s a student?’

‘Maybe.’

‘No maybes. What do you think?’

‘Probably.’

‘What is she studying?’

‘English Literature.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Why, what do you think?’

‘I don’t think she’s a student at all.’

‘So what is she?’

‘An actress.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘Her eyes. They look sad.’

I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’t.

‘What about him?’ I ask.

‘Who?’

‘The guy in the pink and white striped shirt. Pink tie. Over by the corner table.’ She turns around and examines the man, tilting her head slightly as she considers the possibilities.

‘A travel agent. Middle management. Married. No kids. Gay.’

‘What makes you think he’s gay? The pink tie?’

‘No, the way he holds his spoon, and the fact he can’t stop staring at that other guy outside.’

I watch Mr Pink for a few seconds and realise she’s right. Every so often he looks up from his paper and gazes at the man outside. Our man is wearing a wedding ring, his fingers pressing down on the keypad of his mobile phone. ‘Okay, one more.’ I look around the cafe. ‘What about her. The woman in the yellow jacket.’

‘A lecturer. Loves her work. Divorced. Two kids. Happy.’

‘What does she teach?’

‘Art History.’

‘What are her kids called?’

‘Harry and Lloyd. She won’t admit it, but they’re named after the characters from her favourite film; Dumb and Dumber.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’ I look at the woman in the yellow jacket and imagine her sitting on a sofa once her kids are asleep, a bowl of popcorn on her lap, watching Dumb and Dumber and laughing out loud even though she’s seen it countless times before. ‘And what about me?’ I ask

She rests her elbows on the table and leans forward. ‘You’re in a relationship, but you’re scared.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s not going well. Your job is demanding, and you spend a lot of time away from home – away from your wife.’

‘And?’

‘And you’re drifting apart. You’re trying to introduce some excitement back into your relationship, but you’re not sure it’s working.’

‘Is it?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure. Do you love her?’

‘Yes. More than anything.’

‘So tell her.’

She’s right. I remove my phone from my pocket, compose the text using capital letters; I LOVE YOU. X, and hit send. I watch the progress bar bulge until the message is delivered, and I sit back and unbutton my collar. ‘And what about you?’ I ask.

‘You tell me.’

‘Hmmm.’

‘Go on.’

‘You’re lonely.’

I wait for a reaction, but there is none. We sit silently for a while, each of us considering my assessment. She runs her finger around the rim of her water bottle and stares into the clear liquid, and I am about to apologise when her phone vibrates. She picks it up, reads from it, and smiles. I look around the cafe. ‘Check it out.’ I say and nod towards Mr Pink. She turns around and spots the guy from outside sitting with our friend. They are laughing, holding hands under the table, the wedding ring no longer in sight.

‘You were right.’ I say.

‘I’m always right.’

I want to keep the conversation going, but something tells me it’s over.

She tightens the cap on the bottle of water and dumps it in her bag. Opening her book she flicks to the back page, writes something down, and closes it. ‘Well, I have to be going.’ She stands and threads her arm through the strap of her bag. ‘It was nice to meet you.’

‘You too,’ I reply.

‘Perhaps we’ll see each other again some time.’

‘I hope so.’

I get up and hold out my hand. She takes it and we shake, eyes fixed, her skin as soft as I suspected. I watch her leave and sit back down. As I reach for the bill, I realise she’s left her book, so I pull it towards me and open it. There, on the last page, is the address of a hotel and a reservation number, underlined by a sketch of a snake, scales shaped like hearts, and the words I’ve waited for: ‘I love you too.’

*

Illustration by Henry Davis

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Blindness

You wake up, exhausted and sore. It’s five thirty in the morning. A Monday morning, the one you hate the most. You sit up, rub your eyes, and sigh. Finally, you get up and navigate your way through the darkness of the room. In the bathroom you shower, shit, and stare at your face in the mirror. Half naked, you descend the stairs and enter the kitchen. You turn on the kettle, prepare your lunch, and watch the neighbour’s cat piss on your plants. Carrying your coffee you scale the stairs and return to the bathroom. You comb your hair, brush your teeth, and spit blood into the sink. Back in the bedroom your partner is still asleep. You try to to smile, but your expression is flat and rigid. You check the time. You’re late. Again.

As you march along the pavement, eyes focused on the slabs ahead, you realise you forgot your sandwich. Idiot, you think, and keep walking. At the bus stop you stand to the side, away from the others. The timetable indicates a mixture of minutes, none of which make you feel better. You decide to take a different bus, hoping the express nature of its route will be worth the extended wait, but when the bus arrives you realise your mistake. No one gets off, and no one gets on, and you watch it pull away without you. You check your watch, review the timetable, and stare at the empty road ahead. Eventually, another bus arrives and you force your way on, reach for a handrail, and fail. The driver stamps on the brake and you bump into the man beside you. You apologise, but he doesn’t believe you, and tuts. The bus lingers at a stop to regulate the service and you bite your lip, engulfed by conversations you can’t understand. You try to reach for your headphones to drown out the voices, but it’s impossible, your hand wedged between the bodies. The bus lurches forward and you lock eyes with another passenger, both of you recognising the look; it’s too early, too tiresome, too familiar.

At the train station the same man in the same high-viz jacket thrusts a newspaper into your chest, just like he does every morning, even though you never, ever, take one. You wish, for once, that he would recognise you. You wish he would see you approach and think, aha, it’s him, the guy who doesn’t want one. You wish he would leave you alone, but he doesn’t, and you find yourself apologising, though you’re not sure why. You wonder if you all look so alike that you’re impossible to distinguish, an erratic blur of duty and obligation, forever on the move. Then you wonder how many people acknowledge him and accept a paper, and how, if at all, this makes him feel. You decide that tomorrow, you will take one. You will take one and say, thank you, have a nice day. Perhaps he will have a nice day, if you wish it. Or perhaps it won’t make a difference. Perhaps it’s just a job, and you’re just another person, on what is, as the newspaper suggests, just another day.

In the ticket hall you buy the wrong ticket and forget the receipt, the acquired possibilities devoid of destinations you might ever wish to visit. The train is delayed and you look at the screen, your fingers fiddling with the shrapnel in your pocket. A woman barges past you, smacks you in the leg with her bag, and positions herself directly in front of you. You feel the urge to push her over the yellow line and onto the tracks, but you resist, as always. The train approaches and you try to judge where the doors might stop, but you’re wrong, and join the back of the queue. Eventually you board the train, book in hand, distractions at the ready.

A man appears on the platform and you stare at him, wondering why he doesn’t get on. His face is covered in sweat, his chest heaving, and you find him unsettling, until finally you realise; he’s blind. You shake your head, appalled by your pitiful awareness. How did you not realise? How did you not see? You feel sick. Disgusted and ashamed. What a terrible person you must be. He’s still standing there, and you want to help, but you don’t know how. You examine the other passengers, hoping for guidance, but nobody acknowledges him, or you, or the specifics of the situation. This isn’t right, you think. Not right at all. By the time you decide to act he’s already on board, standing opposite you, smiling. You smile back, open your book, and read.

After a few pages you give up on the book and return it to your bag, avoiding eye contact with the man in front of you, knowing, shamefully, that it doesn’t matter anyway. You wonder where he’s going. Who is waiting. Why. You come up with countless possibilities but none of them make sense. You cough and the man jerks, startled by your presence, and you want to say something – anything at all, but the words won’t come. You look outside the window and watch without feeling; the same tracks, the same buildings, all of it the same as yesterday. Every miniscule, exceptional detail, lost on you. You think about the man, unable to see what you can see, yet smiling, still. You feel an irrational sense of guilt, disgust at your appalling lack of appreciation, as if, somehow, your life is better than his. It’s a stupid thought, ignorant and foolish – horrifying, in fact, and you know this, but you think it anyway.

The train arrives at the station and people gather in the gangway. Someone is listening to music and you recognise the song, a popular tune from your teenage years. You remember your first job in Safeway when you fought on pallets of toilet paper and smoked joints behind containers in the backyard. You remember your colleagues, your friends, all the people you no longer see, and increasingly forget. You wonder what they’d think of you now, a shirt and tie above your faded leather shoes. This is what you are now. You. The person who advocated independence and despised commitment. All you ever wanted was freedom. Then you met your partner, and, well, everything changed. You don’t know how it happened, but it did. The career you once envisioned drifted out of focus. Auditions became less frequent, agents less forthcoming, and acting less and less enlightening, until at some point, somehow, the dream was dead. Now here you are. An adult. Married and mortgaged. Settled down. Responsible. Your best performance yet.

Someone nudges you from behind and you realise the doors are open. You stand back and let them pass. Between the blur of bodies you see the man, steadfast and unsure, sweating once again. This time you will do something. You will help. Just as you’re about to ask if he’s okay a woman appears and gently guides him down from the train and on to the platform. He’s okay, you think. He’s okay. As soon as you step off you’re swallowed in the stampede towards the turnstiles. The clock reads ten to nine. There is no way you will get to the office on time. Your boss will be angry. She will use that tone of voice you hate, and you will apologise and promise never to be late again, even though you know you will. At the gates you remove the Oyster card from your wallet and step forward. As you press the card down on to the scanner you notice the lady who was helping the man stood beside you. What? Wait a minute. How? You look back towards the man, nervous and anxious, hoping, despite the odds of observation, that someone else is helping him. Your fears are confirmed. He is on his own; abandoned on the platform. His stick is down beside his leg. He is heading straight for a large steel pillar. He can’t see it. You can. No. Please. Stop. You shout, but it’s too late, and you can’t bear to look, you can’t bear to see it, so you look away, his nose disintegrating against the metal, his walking stick crashing to the ground as you pass through the turnstiles, fall in line, and disappear into the crowd.

*

Illustration by Henry Davis

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Branches

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Atticus sat in his hut, thinking.

Ida hadn’t returned last night, or the night before, or the night before that, and when he tried to recall the last time she had, his mind shot a blank. He simply couldn’t remember.

When the doctor diagnosed him with the onset of Alzheimer’s, Atticus prescribed his own medication. For fourteen years he had been dry, but now there was no reason to resist the call of moonshine and tobacco, not anymore, not when the bedrock of his sober life now slept beside a friend.

He couldn’t remember if the arguments began before he broke the seal, or after, but it made little difference beyond the details, the most important of which, the bottle was always empty. Returning to the ritual of his therapy was easy, easier than the secrets and lies and infidelity, and easier than the empty bed above. In the months which followed his diagnosis he worked at being drunk, the windmills and pumps he once repaired were left to weather the winds alone, his own storm swelling within.

At first he merely encountered difficulty remembering the small things, names and dates and schedules slipping from his mind. Insanity, he knew, was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but he couldn’t remember the doing, and the result was always the same; he was going insane.

Soon he was unable to complete the simplest of tasks, confused by time and place, unable to understand visual images and spatial relationships, mumbling and stumbling and losing things, his wife the one he mourned the most, a victim of the condition he couldn’t control. His moods shifted beyond the rational, explanations erratic, the truth an admission he would not utter. So he withdrew into the bottle, the world beyond no longer one which acknowledged his new existence. But he didn’t blame Ida for leaving. He didn’t blame her for wanting something, or someone, better. The fault was his, and every day he blamed himself, those days on which he drank, and remembered who he was.

Looking at the purple hat hanging from the back of a chair beside him, Atticus struggled to identify its owner, the object a strange companion in the confines of the room. As he reached out to grab it he knocked an empty ‘shine jar over and watched it slowly roll along the table, finally disappearing beyond the precipice and landing on the rutted floor beneath. He looked back to the hat.

A flash. A memory. A woman.

Ida.

Screaming. Fighting. Crying.

He closed his eyes, rubbed his forehead, and sighed.

Atticus.

Tainted. Tore up. Weak.

Eyes open he remained unable to recall the specifics of the fight, or whether there was a point at which either of them had ever been right. He stared at the open fire, flames quivering and sparks and embers soaring from the pit, each one bright and beautiful, but not for long. Beside the hearth lay a shattered vase; the fractured pieces weaved between twisted stems and brittle leaves, petals starved and empty. The crack in the plaster where the vase exploded against the wall had grown, its crooked tendrils reaching out towards him, his hunched silhouette flickering in and out of permanence.

He reached under the table and picked up the jar, slowly twisting it before his eyes and examining the distorted moonlight contained within the muddy glass. Placing it down on the table he ran his tongue against the encrusted surface of his teeth. He was thirsty, hungover and hungry. Staring at the empty tumbler he tried to remember where the ‘shine was hidden, the hut an awkward jumble of useless junk, each cupboard filled with unfamiliar items and fragments of a life he hadn’t lived. Everything he touched belonged to someone else, and as he wandered around the room the fury of displacement rose within. He was lost inside a stranger’s home. None of it made sense. The furniture. The foreign faces on the wall. The suitcase by the door.

He was looking for something but he couldn’t remember what it was. He couldn’t remember what he wanted. He couldn’t remember…he couldn’t remember…he couldn’t…

A photo…a house…a…woman…and…a…man…

Atticus examined his reflection in the shattered glass above the faded image. He looked beyond at the man within the photograph. The scar above his eye. The crooked nose. The smile. It was him. Younger. Thinner. Happier. And the woman. His woman. His wife. Ida. He caressed her face with the flat of his thumb, gently, tenderly, until a jagged piece of glass sliced his skin. The frame fell from his grasp and crashed to the floor, rupturing into smaller shards as a bead of blood landed on the photo, slowly soaking into the aged print. He stared at his wife, the coldness of her eyes, the blood on her face, something, finally, familiar.

Inside the pantry he stuck the last bottle of ‘shine into his jacket pocket, and found what he was looking for. Back in the front room he surveyed the remnants of the man he used to be and walked towards the table, the fallen frame crunching beneath his boot. Lifting the purple hat from the back of the chair he ripped the plastic flower from the rim and threw it into the fire. He lit a cigarette, placed the hat atop his head, and pushed through the smoke. The smile, this time, different.

Atticus stepped out into the night and exhaled beneath the branches, a windmill whistling in the distance, the shovel cutting through the snow.

He remembered now.

Ida had come home.

 

 

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Photography by Ryan Licata

A Christmas Garrol

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I was sitting there staring at my shoes when a penguin came up to me and tried to sell me a small child for Christmas. I looked down at them both and considered the question. Just as I prepared to articulate my concerns the penguin slapped the boy with his flipper and threw him inside a cardboard box. Twelve red breasted robins descended from above and hastily tied an elaborate ribbon around the circumference of the cardboard casing. Before I could adjust my spectacles to ensure I was sighted correctly, the penguin turned into Morgan Freeman and marched away, narrating his exciting journey into an incredible true story.

Back in the office I pushed the box under my desk and waited for the telephone to ring. I picked up the stapler on my desk and counted the unspent staples remaining in the chamber; forty seven. Folding an internal mail envelope into tiny squares I stapled it in each corner and ran a line along the edges until the border was complete. I checked the chamber once again; 12. It seemed like a satisfactory number so I returned the stapler to its place beside my UHU stick and turned towards my computer monitor. In preparation of my duties I flipped my mouse over and scratched the dirt from the tiny circular rubber pads attached to its underbelly, methodically scraping, wiping, and blowing. Satisfied with my industry, I rested.

I awoke several minutes later to the sound of Christmas music booming from the overhead speakers and I hummed along until my phone began to ring. Switching the volume setting on my receiver to mute, I finished the final verse and stared at the flashing light on the handset. Regrettably, the caller was persistent, so I picked up the phone and initiated company protocol.

‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’

‘Hello. My reference number is; 13-1-14-4-19.’

‘Thank you. Please wait one moment while I access your order.’ On the other side of the office Pat was battling with the Xerox machine and I observed him tussle with the paper tray, the jam not clearing despite his determined efforts. ‘Right. Here we go. Am I speaking with Mrs Buck?’

‘Yes.’

‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address and postcode please?’

‘It’s 44 ZSAFPM Road, E4 7DX.’

‘Great. Now what seems to be the problem?’

‘The fairies.’

‘What about them?’

‘They’ve gone rogue.’

‘I see you ordered package number four.’

‘Yes, but what about the fairies?’

‘What happened?’

‘Everything seemed fine. We released them from their cages and they flew around and zapped things. Like in the commercials, you know. Changing stuff.’

‘Yes. Then what?’

‘Then the Red One started on the Egg Nogg.’

‘It does say in the instruction manual to keep the fairies away from alcohol.’

‘They turned the manual into Egg Nogg.’

‘Oh.’

‘What am I supposed to do now?’

‘I will send an emergency response unit over to you as soon as possible.’

‘How long will that take?’

‘It depends on the extremities of the emergency.’

‘Well, they have just zapped my daughter and turned her into a stapler.’

‘A stapler you say?’

‘Yes.’

‘How practical.’

‘Never mind the practicalities, what shall I do in the meantime?’

‘I would advise that you avoid making them angry.’

‘What happens when they’re angry?’

‘You won’t like them when they’re angry.’

‘I don’t like them now.’

‘Well, just try to wait it out. The response team will be with you shortly. Might I suggest you get off the phone now, before they realise what you’re doing.’

‘They already have. And it’s not a phone, it’s a fish.’

The phone went dead and I looked at the clock. It was only half past ten. I decided it was time to check my emails. Awaiting my attention were 32 unread messages, so I deleted 31 of them, still unread, and pondered on the remaining email; ‘Announcement: Scheduled Upgrade to HighView system has been completed.’ This seemed important, so I read the email again. Yes, the upgrade had been completed. I ignored the subsequent content about ‘system failure’, ‘power outage’ and ‘warning’, and turned my attention to a speck of stubborn dirt imbedded beneath my nail. Following several attempts, I successfully removed the dirt, rolled it into a ball, and flicked it towards Miriam’s desk. I had no idea what HighView was, and though the email encouraged me to contact a member of HR should I have any questions, I refrained from sharing any knowledge of my existence. Instead, I deleted the email and congratulated myself on my efficient professional progress. To celebrate, I put a new roll of sellotape into my desktop tape dispenser.

Beneath my desk the box thumped against the side of my drawers so I gave it a gentle kick and decided it was time for a cup of tea. In the communal kitchen Miriam was talking to Pat so I nodded at them and flicked the switch on the kettle. Not having the most intimate relationship with my colleagues had its benefits, the main of which was that they were never entirely sure who I was or what I was paid to do. I preferred to keep it this way and delegated a great deal of time to ensuring that such a working environment was sustained, often creating area graphs to determine suitable periods at which to visit communal areas, and line charts to record my movements. I used a scattergram to measure any variables, such as weak bladder and/or hangover, and a radar chart to display my observations of co-workers circulating habits. After analysing all this data I was able to navigate secure paths through the office, stealthily avoiding conversation, and more importantly, work. So far my labours had proved instrumental in my professional permanence, and two pay rises and a promotion later, I can safely say the lavatory cubicles are the ideal location to expedite advancement.

As I waited for the kettle to boil I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. ‘I need to call facilities.’ Miriam said. ‘I mean, it just fell from the ceiling, straight into my cup of tea.’

‘What was it?’ Pat asked.

‘I don’t know. I thought it was a fly and pulled it out, but when I looked closer, it was like a tiny bit of grit or dirt or something. I mean, we can’t be expected to work in conditions where filth is falling from the ceiling.’

I cleared my throat and checked my nails. I had done a good job. Thorough. The kettle finished boiling so I started to pour the hot water into my mug when Pat tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Are you the engineer?’ He asked.

‘What?’ I replied, squeezing the tea bag against the edge of the mug.

‘The photocopiers’ been playing up and I thought you might be the engineer.’

‘No. I’ –

‘That’s Kevin,’ Miriam interrupted. ‘’He sits next to me. Say, you haven’t noticed things falling from the ceiling have you?’

‘No.’ I replied. ‘Sorry.’

Pat was staring at me, his eyes narrow and sternly focused. ‘Did you hear about Steve?’ Miriam asked him.

‘Sorry?’ He shifted his attention back to Miriam.

‘Steve. Apparently he’s gone AWOL. They didn’t pay him for that commercial and he’s taken the truck and disappeared. Nobody has seen him since last week. They’re saying he’s really pissed off about it, I mean really pissed off.’

‘Well, wouldn’t you be? That’s the most famous commercial we’ve ever produced. I’d be pissed off if I was him.’ Something about Steve and his unpaid wages sounded strangely familiar, but I couldn’t recall why so I dismissed the issue and threw the tea bag in the bin.

‘Are you sure you’re not the engineer?’ Pat asked me once again.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Well, if you see him, can you tell him the copier needs fixing?’

‘Sure thing.’ I retrieved some milk from the fridge and added it to my tea. ‘Consider it done.’

‘But what about Steve?’ Miriam asked.

‘Fuck Steve.’  Pat said. ‘That was my milk, buddy.’

‘Really?’ He was now frowning at me, his arms folded above his rotund midriff.

‘Yes, really.’

‘Sorry. I thought this was a communal kitchen.’ I said and sipped my tea, the scolding brew burning my tongue.

‘It is, but that,’ he pointed at the carton, ‘is not communal milk.’

‘I’ll remember that. Sorry.’ I put the milk back in the fridge and walked away, leaving them to consider how another piece of dirt had landed in Miriam’s tea. As I made my way back to my desk, I scorned myself for such sloppy behaviour. I had made a cardinal error. Interaction with colleagues was strictly forbidden and against my code of conduct. It was rule number two, closely succeeding rule number one; Shirk the Work, or rather, work solely to maintain the pretence of effective and efficient management of professional responsibilities. These two rules were a firm example of my conscientiously acquired multi-tasking skills, and I performed each with admirable efficacy. However, the recent exchange left me frustrated. Now my name would be known – that is – until it was forgotten, and the most effective way to ensure this occurred was to arrange a re-location. Back at my desk, I logged a call with Facilities and expressed my cause for concern regarding the unpleasant smell emanating from my neighbouring co-worker. I was provided with assurances that a full investigation would take place, and pleased with my resourcefulness, I pushed a banana to the back of Miriam’s drawer.

My telephone began to ring once again, and in light of my previous blunder, I decided to answer it and appear industrious. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’

‘My order number is 2-15-15-20-19.’

‘Thank you. One moment please.’ I waited for the customers’ order details to appear on my screen. ‘Right, here we go. Is this Ms Lampoon?

‘It is.’

‘I see here that you ordered package number two.’

‘Yes.’

‘And what seems to be the problem?’

‘The problem is that my house has been robbed.’

‘Oh my. And how did that happen?’

‘You tell me. It’s your family.’

‘It’s not my family. It’s the family you ordered.’

‘Yes, but I didn’t order a family of thieves.’

‘Every family has its problems.’

‘But now their problem is my problem.’

‘What happened?’

‘I finished my shift in the hospital and when I got home, rather than setting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house, they left me with nothing to decorate. They took everything. Even my slippers.’

‘Not your slippers?’

‘Yes, my slippers. What am I supposed to do now? I have no family and no possessions. All I have is an empty house, which is precisely what I didn’t want. That’s why ordered package number two; The Family Christmas.’

‘This is rather unusual.’

‘I would hope so – though whether it is or is not doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is that Christmas is tomorrow and I have no food, no fridge, and no family.’

‘I see, well, I will log your call and send a response team over to you right away. I can send you a replacement for the replacement?

‘No. Thank you.’

‘Perhaps you might like an alternative package? Free of charge, of course.’

‘I would sooner forget about the whole thing.’

‘That can be arranged. We have a fantastic new package -‘

She hung up and left me to log a request for our response team to visit her empty property and tally the items which no longer existed. Having completed the necessary procedures, I leaned back in my chair and looked at my desk. Despite my proficient conduct, my desk had become somewhat cluttered, so I decided to conduct a pre-vacation clean, knowing full well that in doing so, I would appear both efficient in my swift completion of designated duties, and conscientious. I began by testing all the pens within my desktop organiser, one by one separating those with ink, from those that no longer functioned. Next, I gathered all the paperwork on my desk and ripped each sheet into tiny pieces, aware that the noise would not go unnoticed and confirm my status as an organised and orderly employee. I then shredded all the paper, which was mostly blank, and re-organised my array of stationery and various office supplies. The paperclips were placed in the left compartment of the desktop organiser, the pins in the right, pens in the middle, and a large elastic band around the perimeter. Once this was done, I wiped my desk down with an anti-bacterial cloth, re-aligned my keyboard and mouse, and raised and lowered my office chair until I was sufficiently comfortable to absorb the remaining hours of my working day. Now that my working area was clean and comfortable, I peeled an orange.

Before I could commence the calculation of my copper coins, my telephone began to ring. I glanced around the office and reached out to press the mute button on the handset, but I became aware that Miriam was watching me, as she tended to do upon discovering her hole-punch had been sabotaged, again. Reluctantly, I answered. ‘Good morning. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’

‘Fuck my order number. You can take the order.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I don’t want him.’

‘Who?’

‘Peter bloody Andre, that’s who.’

‘Did you order package number three?’

‘What? Yes. I think so. What has that got to do with anything?’

‘It explains Mr Andre.’

‘I didn’t want Peter fucking Andre. I wanted the goddamn Winter Berry Glistening Gateau and the pork loin crackling joint. Not Peter Andre. What the fuck is he doing here?’

‘I’m afraid he comes with the package.’

‘But we didn’t get a package. All we got was him, and now he’s walking around rummaging through our cupboards and eating our food. He even finished the Graham crackers. The fucking crackers, man.’

‘Can’t you just let him out?’

‘No. That’s the other problem.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘There’s a bunch of old women hanging around outside my house going on about how gorgeous he is.’

‘Can’t they take him away?’

‘That’s what I said but he just started making some stupid brain explosion gestures and talking about what’s not to like about a Strawberry Daiquiri Dome. He’s insane.’

‘To be honest, sir, I’m not sure we have any protocols to deal with Peter Andre.’

‘Well you bloody well better come up with something. What am I supposed to with him?’

‘Let me think.’ I realised at this point that I should probably speak with my manager, but not knowing who that might be, nor desiring for them to know me, I decided to use my initiative. ‘Listen, I know a lady who would probably love to have Peter Andre in her house.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’ I proceeded to tell him about the previous caller, which was technically against regulations, but I figured I could solve two problems with one Peter Andre.

‘But how do I sneak him out with all those old women hanging around?’

‘You need a diversion. Have you got any Michael Bolton CD’s in your house?’

‘Why the fuck would I have any Michael Bolton CD’s in my house?’

‘What about Cliff Richard?’

‘Fuck off.’

‘Okay, well, this requires some improvisation. Wait a second.’ I opened up my web browser and commenced my investigation. Once I was ready, I hit the pause button and commenced operation Abolish Andre. ‘Right, now, turn the loudspeaker up on your phone up and go and stand by the window.’

‘Okay, now what?’

I hit play and sent the Coronation Street theme tune booming through his speakers. ‘Look outside. Is it working?’

‘Shit. They’ve gone.’

‘Of course. Now, do you remember the address of the woman I told you about before?’

‘Yeah, course. Listen, thanks for your help fella.’

‘You’re welcome. Have a great Christmas.’

‘You too.’

He hung up and I stared at a post-it note stuck to my monitor. It was blank and covered the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen, which had now reverted to sleep mode. My screensaver was a smiling lady dressed in Christmas attire stood before a giant decorated tree. In the background Santa was flying overhead, presents falling from the back of his sleigh down towards a group of carol singing children gathered at ground level directly beneath him. Something about this festive scene struck me as rather peculiar, if not entirely problematic and downright dangerous. The children were unaware of the presents tumbling though the sky, one of which was a colourful set of Joseph Conrad Kitchen knives, plummeting blade tip first. I looked back at the mother and wondered whether this was why she seemed so happy. Perhaps her Christmas wish had finally been granted.

I looked at Miriam’s desk and considered the countless decorative items spread across the polished oak veneer, all of which were strategically displayed to reinforce the reasoning that she possessed a personality. There was a miniature Eiffel Tower, a squidgy pink pig, a frazzle-haired troll, three porcelain elephants, two plastic plants, some sanitary wipes, a bottle of hand cream, a purple Christmas Tree, and a signed photo of Russell Brand. Behind this oversized framed photo several images of unsmiling children leaned against a chrome desk lamp which illuminated a sad looking man I presumed to be her husband. Turning back to my desk, I examined my own presented personality, and recognising a lack of exhibited identity, I seized my UHU stick and turned it upside down.

On the other side of the office I noticed a congregation of co-workers gathered in a circle staring at the 42 inch plasma television attached to the wall. This television was forever fixed on the BBC news channel, a tactical manoeuvre recently introduced to verify that the world was unquestionably worse beyond our dull prefabricated walls. Somewhat curious, I decided to take a closer look, and as I approached the television I noticed the Xerox engineer standing by the entrance to our office. Being the obliging operative that I am, I enquired about his business, assured him the photocopier was in full working order, and sent him home. As I approached the huddled group I carefully maintained a safe distance, thus ensuring that my presence was not mistaken as a sign of conversational commitment. ‘I can’t believe it.’ One of them said. ‘I can,’ another replied, so I looked up at the television to identify the divisive cause of faith.

‘Holidays Are Coming; NFH employee crashes truck into company headquarters and refuses to exit vehicle. It is believed the dispute is surrounding unpaid wages for what is quite possibly, the most famous commercial ever filmed.’

I spotted Steve sitting in the cab of the iconic Coca-Cola truck, smiling. The footage cut to the exterior of the building; the destroyed front façade and vast NFH logo dangling from above the pulverised entrance, severed electrical cables flickering dangerously and piles of rubble and debris surrounding the rear of the truck. It was a fabulous festive fuck up. Admiring the spectacular window dressing, I suddenly developed a warm affection towards Steve; a man admirable in conviction, and marvellously determined. Good old Steve. Steve. Shit. Steve. Finally I remembered. Of course. Immediately I returned to my desk, located the envelope, and hid the unprocessed wage slips in Miriam’s gym bag.

My telephone began to ring and I answered without delay. ‘Good afternoon. You are through to The National Festive Helpline. This is Kevin McCallister speaking. Can I take your order number please?’

‘19-1-9-14-19-2-21-18-25-19.’

‘Thank you. Please wait one moment.’ The customer’s details appeared on my screen and I acknowledged the data displayed before me. ‘Is this Mrs Poppins?’

‘Yes.’ A female voice replied.

‘Can you please confirm the first line of your address?’

‘I don’t have one.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t have an address. Not anymore.’

‘And why is that?’

‘Because the people in the package blew it up.’

‘Can you explain to me what happened?’

‘I was hoping you could explain it to me.’

‘You need to tell me what happened.’

‘War.’

‘What?’

‘War. That’s what happened?’

‘Where?’

‘In the Banks’s house.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Neither do I.’

‘I’m afraid you will have to be more specific.’

‘I opened the box – like it said in the instructions – you know; Christmas is Sharing – and then all hell broke loose. Even Bert couldn’t help.’

‘What was in the box?’

‘Well, it wasn’t a bar of chocolate, or a cracker.’

‘So what was it?’

‘A bunch of soldiers. Shouting and screaming. Gunfire and grenades. Explosions. All of it spilling out into the front room. Bayonets and bullets aimed at Jane and Michael. Death and carnage everywhere. In my house. ’

‘Oh…I…I don’t know what to say.’

‘You better say something because I’ve got a very angry German General standing beside me.’

‘Er…’ I racked my brain to remember my German lessons. ‘Hallo…Frohe Weihnachten.’

‘What? What was that?’

‘Happy Christmas.’

‘There’s nothing happy about it?’

‘Yes there is. The war is over. Erm… Der Krieg ist vorbei.’

‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’

‘Frieden, Friede.’

‘Frieden who?’

‘Nur ein Löffel Zucker hilft der Medizin, unten gehen.’

‘Löffel Zucker what?’

‘Is he still angry?’

‘Who?’

‘The German.’

‘Actually…no.’

‘Good. I’m glad I could help.’

‘Wait. What am I supposed to do with all these dead bodies?’

‘Viel Gluck.’

‘What?’

‘Good luck.’

I put the receiver down and ripped the cord from the back of the phone. There was no satisfying these people. I mean, what did they expect? A perfect reproduction of a televised representation? It was all in the small print, even in German.

I decided it was time to go home and logged off my computer. Picking up the box from beneath my desk I moved among desks towards the exit. I was waiting for the lift when a door to an office I had never previously noticed opened and a rotund gentleman with a pink tie called my name. ‘Kevin?’ he asked. I paused. ‘Mr McCallister?’

‘Yes.’ I replied.

‘Can you step into my office please? It won’t take long.’ I followed him into the small office and looked at the empty chair facing the desk. The man gestured for me to sit down, so I did, confused and rather concerned. ‘Don’t look so nervous.’ He smiled. ‘I’m Jeremy Peedle. Your department manager. I know it’s Christmas so I won’t keep you long. Basically, Kevin, I just got off the phone with Peter Andre.’ He leaned back in his chair and straightened his tie. ‘He had some very nice things to say about you. Some very nice things indeed. Well, this led me to examine your file and I must say I was quite astounded.’ I cleared my throat. ‘As a consequence of my review, and with the full backing of the Board, I would like to offer you the position of office manager. Effective immediately. You don’t have to give me an answer right away, however, I can assure you the financial remunerations are more than generous.’ He handed me a contract and I scanned the details of the proposed promotion. ‘Think of it as a delayed reward for your continued hard work.’ He rose to his feet and guided me towards the door. ‘One more thing. I have also arranged for you to receive a small bonus in your next payment. Happy holidays.’

‘Thank you,’ I said and shook his hand. He closed the door behind me and I stood motionless looking across the open plan office floor. My floor. I couldn’t believe it. Bonuses. Rewards. Promotion. Me. Office Manager. To salute my managerial elevation, I returned to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and finished the milk.

When I finally got home I greeted my dancing cardboard friends and navigated my way through the countless traps I had lain around the house. My parents had left for Paris twenty three years ago and I remained at home, alone, ever since. It was a rather strange situation at first, but once I became accustomed to my own companionship, I made sure the necessary allegations were administered by the correct authorities, and in accordance with the law, my parents never returned. Satisfying myself that everything was in order, I returned to the front room, placed the box on the coffee table, and poured myself a large glass of wine. Removing the contract from my satchel, I examined the figures once again. I noted the specification which stated I would be granted my own office, and in accordance with my desire to delegate from a distance, I approved the detailed proposal. I decided that my first act as manager would be to take a vacation. Whilst I was away, Miriam would take charge of all my duties, and upon my return, this would continue. I would manage my diary with scrupulous attention, ensuring I remained forever busy – too busy – and thus unfortunately unable to engage or interact. I had been rewarded for my rigorous approach to obligation, and hence there existed no rational reason to modify my methods. The plan was working. My next stop; Parliament. ‘Keep the change, you filthy animal.’

 

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The Tutti

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Jack Darkins sits in the front seat of his Ford Focus trying to concentrate, his eyes raw from exhaustion and his tongue parched despite the tasteless chewing gum stirring in his mouth. He’s parked the car far enough up the road not to be seen but close enough to see, and he studies the street as his thumb gently rubs the plastic filter of his artificial cigarette.

What he really wants is a proper cigarette. He wants to feel the burn pass through his throat and down into his lungs. He wants to see the smoke escape his parted lips and encircle him in the scented smoke of B & H Gold, the cigarettes his father used to smoke before he disappeared.

He can remember the last day he saw him in the airless basement of their rented flat, a temporary accommodation advocated by the lawyers, the law itself in question. It was the only solution, they advised, telephones disconnected and blinds drawn, detox initiated and cold sweats and cramps disabling the rage of asphyxiation.

When reports of the ‘Crack-head Composer’ first surfaced he was shielded from the details, protected from the news which set up camp outside the house and fought to reveal the exclusive nature of his decline. He was only eight years old, but he remembers the shuffling maids as they disposed of drained syringes and singed metal spoons, carefully eradicating the evidence of addiction.

In the weeks that followed he was taken from his father, adopted, and eventually left an orphan. He was given a new name, a new family, and new bruises and abuse. Eventually the world lost interest in a damaged man and his infected music, a reputation ruined, his legacy destroyed by savages and sickness. Everything was gone and all moved on, everyone but Jack, the final treatment fixed within his fist; a .40 calibre prescription long since overdue.

Confirming the coast is clear he steps out of the car and moves, head down and collar up, shadows shifting on the concrete slabs ahead. He reaches the door and examines the locks. They are aged and worn and offer little resistance to his acquired skills, practiced for such exact intent, a pupil firmly focused, slow, precise, and perfect. He listens from within, hinges settled once again, locks and latches sealed, the boy a man, and angry.

The hall is wide and chaotic, unopened mail and sealed magazines strewn across the floor, shoes scattered along the flaking skirting boards, hats and scarves hanging from a cluttered coat rack, a solitary umbrella leaning in the corner. To the side of the stairs is an open door and he removes the pistol and inches towards it, careful of the creaking floorboards. The air is thick and oppressive, the musk of cat-piss festering around him. Peering around the door frame he grips the gun, his finger hovering above the trigger.

Stepping into the room he examines his surroundings; the furniture regal yet close to ruin, Chesterfield sofas ripped and worn, dark mahogany cabinets overflowing with books and long forgotten souvenirs, a bureau brimming with disjointed files, the walls covered with crooked empty frames, the floor on which he walks barely visible beneath layers of sunburnt newspapers. Even the ceiling is stained and yellow, white pigments long since altered and overcome.

The dining room is exactly the same; the table and chairs concealed by stacks of paper and tomes of periodicals, dirty plates and upturned mugs spread among the chaos, crumpled clothes suffocating in every corner. Walking towards the patio doors his foot catches something hidden beneath a pile of newspapers and he picks up a broken walking stick, aims his gun, and lifts the edge of the paper. Instantly a vile smell invades the air and he winces and covers his nose with the back of his hand, the paper falling back down on to the decomposing corpse of a cat. He holds on to the walking stick and backs away, the maggots and worms engraved on his eyeballs, demise and decay already in action.

The kitchen is littered with empty tins of food and punctured packets of ready meals and discarded take away containers. Milk bottles and cardboard cartons lay crushed amid the drained bottles of inexpensive wine and whiskey, dirty dishes and grimy pots and pans overflowing from the filthy sink. He decides not to enter and examines from a distance; an abandoned litter tray overflowing in the corner, coagulated faeces and bile festooned with flies and insects, wrappers and bags and broken glass scattered across the floor, a myriad of mice entombed in traps, the house itself a shrine to time.

The guts of the ground floor confirm the existence of only one inhabitant, the man he’s monitored for the past six months, alone and abandoned, upstairs. He turns and walks towards the hallway, feet carefully carrying him to the bottom of the stairs, a piano playing in one of the rooms above. With his back against the wall he ascends the staircase, cautiously climbing one step at a time, his jaw tense and muscles tight.

He pauses several steps from the summit and cranes his neck to look between the bannisters; three separate doors leading away from the empty landing. He knows from the floor plan that the door to his left is the bathroom and the remaining two are bedrooms, the one to his right the source of the current spring of music.

There it is. Years of exhaustive investigation leading him to this street, this house, this room. All the miles of trampled asphalt, sleepless nights and surveillance, dead ends and dead people, all about to end, one way or another. He thinks back to the day he lost his dad, that day unlike today, his to regulate and transform. Today, he will have control. He will make the choice; death or life, decide.

Moving across the landing he glimpses a shape within the room, a shadow cast onto countless sheets of music strewn across the floor. He waits, inhales, and enters. The room is empty bar a grand piano positioned in the centre and a hunched figure sat before it; long grey-streaked hair cascading down his back, his clothes ill-fitting and loose atop his hunched and crooked back, hands and fingers dancing across the keys. He inches closer, lifts his arm, and points the gun. The music stops.

Without turning the man picks up a pencil and scribbles furiously on the crumpled sheet before him, flickers of graphite leading the composition along the lines and filling those beneath, dashes and dots and swirls of instruction flowing down the page, down and down and down until the final set of words: ‘The End.’ He stares at the sheet, rain smashing against the window, a leak somewhere up above echoing in the distance, the gun now pressed against his head. Gathering the scattered staff paper he forms a pile and places it on the stand, the title page empty bar a grainy photo of a baby, crying. He turns the first page and begins to play the piano, his hands moving sinuously across the keys, fingers gently ushering tender secrets into life, flesh and bone bewitched. He pushes his head against the barrel of the gun and their fingers work in unison, hammers striking, notes uniting, the tutti tamed at last.

*

The Soundtrack for ‘The Tutti’ is Charlie Parr’s ‘Midnight has Come and Gone

 *

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Confession

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He sits on the front pew and looks up, the Son of God hanging high above, his flesh punctured by crooked nails and a sharpened rusted crown. He examines the detail of the sculpture and sighs, the seeping wounds reminding him of those that never heal. Leaning back he averts his gaze, eyes exploring the ceiling rose overhead and tracing the undulation of each furrow until he falls asleep, church bells ringing overhead. Moments later, he wakes, confused and sore. A crow caws outside the blessed building and he closes his eyes once more, wishing the world away but wholly aware of his surroundings, the walls fractured and uneven between enormous stained glass windows, faint arcs of colour drowning in the dusty air, a heavy oak door creaking in the distance, arched and still ajar.

Looking down at his feet he tries to remember the last time he shined his shoes, lesions cavernous within the faded leather. He checks his watch and wipes away the faint traces of a fingerprint, the task distracting him from the precision of the time beneath. Soon the procession of tailored guests will pass through ancient arches, their fingertips hovering over holy fonts, ripples of emotion ruffling their bedecked exterior. They will slowly take their seats and examine their surroundings, mentally assessing, physically performing. The organ will exhale and interrupt the whispers, cuff links and cravats motionless at the altar, muscles tense beneath stiff suits. The father of the bride will walk beside his adult child, arm in arm and proud, unsettled by the evolution of his parentage, his role diminished by the shadow of another man; a stranger. The mother will sit among relations, nails painted, make up pristine, fascinator bright and beautiful, like the daughter she adores, and mourns. Friends and family will prod and gesture, opinions muttered, eyebrows raised. They will listen to the vows and wonder, hoping for the best, fearful of the worst. They will converse and feast together, attentive and composed, secret sentiments saved for home. And finally they will leave together; new love, old love, no love.

Gravel grinds beneath approaching tyres and he wipes his palms on the fabric of his trousers, anxiety permeating from within. The drone of an engine dissolves and voices filter out into the expanse of emptiness above, birds flying high and higher still, no limit to their freedom. The hymn book in front of him is brittle and yellowed and he wonders how many people found solace in the songs. He wonders if any of it makes a difference any more. Looking up at the crucifix and the man who died for the survival of humanity, he can’t help but question why. There was a time when answers were not needed, when doubt was silenced by the strength of faith alone, but now, thirty four years later, there is no end to the uncertainty. Identifying the instant he lost his faith is difficult, the circumstances blurred between a cacophony of confusion and distress. Work was ruining the integrity of his idol, murderers and rapists and thieves and cheats excusing actions and admitting on advice, occasionally punished, most often, not. One case in particular haunts him still. She was only girl. Eleven years old. Innocent and undeserving. Seventeen years ago today. Thinking about it makes him nauseous, the horror of her mangled corpse an unimaginable discovery, like the existence of a God who fails, the living left to weep as one, condemned and cast aside.

He hears the muttering of hushed voices and erratic slapping of small feet, echoes of existence scampering along the walls and fading into far off corners. The guests are gathered outside the church, politely enquiring and waiting for the bride, her carriage weaving through the streets, the cracks beneath concealed by the passing of her dreams. His headache returns and he rues the decision to abstain, the taste of wine forgotten on his tongue, sweat rolling down his skin and soaking into his shirt. Years ago there was a means by which to alter the shape of what might come, but now it is too late. There is nothing to be done. Nothing he, or anyone, can do. Too much time has passed. This is the way it is. The way it has to be. Cherish and obey. Forever and ever. Amen. He bows his head, closes his eyes, and finally confesses, the prospect of forgiveness empty like the prayers, the God above not his, or hers, or faithful.

A horn bellows from the distance and he knows the time has come. Behind him hurried footsteps approach, louder and louder, each explosion sending tremors through his spine, nerves wrinkling deep within. “Are you ready?”

A car door slams. People cheer. The organ whistles. A wedding waits.

He fastens his collar, affixes his cross, and stands.

*

The Soundtrack for ‘Confession’ is Charlotte OC’s ‘Strange’

*

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Heartburn

rorschach1

‘It’s dangerous out there,’ he warns, shoveling a Mars Bar into her mouth. ‘Trust me.’

 

Unable to respond, she chews and swallows as fast as she can, teeth grinding, beads of sweat leaking from her skin and trickling down her sullen face. Her hair is damp and stuck to her forehead, stagnant in the breeze emitted from the fan beside her bed. She looks at him, eyes dry and swollen, tears no longer possible.

 

‘You’re better off here.’ He un-wraps another mars bar and winks. ‘I’ll look after you.’

 

This isn’t the way it always was. When they met she was fit and healthy. She was a different person, in more ways than weight alone. They would walk together, hand in hand and happy. They would visit and vacation and travel to places near and far away. They would tease and joke and laugh until their muscles throbbed, their aches soon soothed by love’s warm and soft embrace. It was a time of friendship and boundless affection, until the boundaries broke and crooked walls closed in, crumbling brick by errant brick. Now, as she lies motionless atop the special mattress and strengthened frame beneath, cushions plumped and propped beneath her head, she is more uncomfortable than ever before.

 

‘Come on. Eat up.’ He pushes the chocolate into her mouth. ‘That’s it. Good girl.’

 

It wasn’t long after they married that things began to change. The dates beyond their gates vanished; replaced by evenings sealed behind the curtains, fast food and fizzy drinks flowing in their veins. Excursions out gave way to couches and cushions and conversations controlled within a box, widescreen inches imitating life, the living still and lifeless. When clothes no longer fit and elastic ceased to stretch, she finally weighed herself, and fainted. It was too much. She was too much. Too big. Too disgusting. All flappy and fat and foul. She woke up on the freezing bathroom floor, saliva pooled beside her mouth, her head sore, horrified.

 

‘Swallow it all.’ He mimics her chomping mouth. ‘Every last bit.’

 

She told him she wanted to lose weight. It was time to change. She tried to reason and explain, but he said nothing, the television flickering in the distance, an empty popcorn packet silent on his lap, fingers twisted into twitching fists. The room remained silent until he got up and stood before her, his face inches away from hers, eyes wide and angry, the word; cunt. Her will to lose the weight was countered by expletives and accusations. Shouting and screaming. Jealousy and suspicion. Phone smashing. Broadband disconnecting. Covert spying and curfews. Anger and abuse. He was her new life, he said, be happy, and eat.

 

‘I got you something.’ He removes a Bacon burger from a bag. ‘Just the way you like it.’

 

Ignoring the change in his personality was impossible, his eyes forever fixed, suspicion and mistrust conspiring in his head. She sat beside him on the sofa, clutching her expanding rolls of fat, trying to understand how and when it happened, trapped and scared and silent. A week later she was called in to her managers’ office, informed about her poor performance, and fired. It didn’t matter, her husband said. Work was not important, not now that she had him. It wasn’t long before family visits and friendly phone calls ceased, dial tones dead and doors forever locked. She wanted to tell them. She wanted to tell someone, anyone, but she didn’t know where to begin. She didn’t know what to say, or how. It was her fault, all of it. Soon enough the need to leave the house was gone, together with all she knew of love. There was no one left. No one but the figures on the screen, the comfort of the food, the world outside, spinning.

 

‘How about some drink?’ The glass of Coke balanced before her mouth. ‘Drink it up. Good girl.’

 

The vigour she once possessed was assimilated and extinguished, leaving nothing but exhaustion. And now, staring at the ceiling, she has no idea how much time has passed, no knowledge of the world beyond. Fact and fiction merge and everything blends into nothing. The dreams. The nightmares. The faces on television repeating the same atrocities over and over again. The war. The riots. The recession. The never-ending crisis. The fear and hate and hurt. Day after day. Year after year. Present, past and future, fickle and capricious. Germans. Russians. Christians. Muslims. Atheists and non-believers. All of them blown to bits by shards of shattered dreams, hope wilting in the ashen soil on which they tread, leaving her behind.

 

‘There’s a funny smell in here.’ He presses down on the nozzle of the air freshener. ‘That’s better.’

 

She watches the perfumed particles burst into the air above, tiny scented shapes falling down down down until they land on her bare perspiring arms, chemicals masking uncleanliness and decay. Trying to work out how long she’s been stuck in the room, she thinks about forgotten facts, anything and everything which might help, though none of it does. She can’t remember the last time she left the bed, the dignity of independence suffocated beneath her rippling folds of fat. The day she let her dreams dissolve, her grip on life was lost. She ate, and ate, and ate. Chew and swallow. Chew and swallow. Cry. Everything she once resembled was now reduced to bedpans and soapy flannels and shame and isolation. Only this remained, all 58 stone of her, lying in a bed, lonely and lost, entombed. But not for long. Not anymore.

‘Hhhmmmrrmmmm.’ She whispers.

‘What did you say?’

‘Hhhmmmrrrmmmmpppphhh.’

‘I can’t understand.’

‘Hhhmmmppphhh.’

‘What?’

He leans over and aims his ear towards her trembling lips. She pauses and examines his unshaven skin, inches away from where she lay, the vein on his neck inviting. She musters what energy remains and bites down as hard she can, muscles clenching, jaws locking, blood seeping from his punctured flesh onto her fattened face, the pain, for once, his. He fights to break free, flailing limbs unable to focus on his freedom, empty wrappers crunching beneath his feet, Coke spilling and staining crumpled sheets, blood pressure dropping, heart rate increasing, shock and dread deepening. She tightens her grip and holds on, her hunger, almost, quenched.

*

The Soundtrack for ‘Heartburn’ is Xavier Rudd’ s ‘Follow The Sun’.

*

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