Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Drawstring

She reached behind her and adjusted the drawstring. Clive couldn’t see what she was doing because it seemed as if she were merely fidgeting. If he knew she was trying to signal to someone in the garden by means of the slightest movement of the curtains, he would have quickly moved her to another chair. As it was, she could barely reach the string and it had never properly worked even with someone standing up and giving it almighty tugs when the shorter evenings drew in. The curtains only worked by pulling them manually along the runners without the use of vertical pulley-systems.

Clive watched the pelmet shake. The girl was evidently creating this effect either by direct physical purchase between her and the curtain-rod or by mind over matter. The mantelpiece clock was shuddering nearer to the edge, threatening to fall off … but it always did this when it struck the hour. Clive had to re-adjust it every thirteen days before it could actually topple off. However, the coal scuttle had never before budged so significantly in the short space of time between him feeding the fire with more coal and the fire again threatening to go out. There must be a coaldust imp in there, he thought. All fairy tale stuff.

The girl had by now slipped her hidden fingers along the length of the drawstring after adjusting it short of obviously tugging upon it – then allowing it to fall back with the clatter of its dangling aglet against the glass of the window. Clive turned sternly towards her. On her lap was the kitchen cat looking plaintively up at him. The girl’s eyes, though, were icy. The cat had just escaped from the coal scuttle, judging by the black smudges all over its white fur.

One of the servants stood in the open lounge door with a tray in his or her hand. Clive couldn’t actually see the servant – other than the shape – because of the shadows thrown by the firelight. The standard lamp cast one slanting beam right over the face. Meanwhile, the wireless at a barely perceptible volume tinkled in the corner, either with music or the high-pitched voices of a Home Service play. The servant , having emerged from the rectangular wreath of the doorway, declared a feminine bosom as the tray was posited squarely on the tea-trolley – which proceeded to roll forward through some hidden momentum.

“Anything else, Sir?” piped the servant as she minced back toward the welcoming folds of shadow by the doorway.

“No, unless you have forgotten the strainer,” said Clive a trifle hesitantly. He did not want to give the game away. The girl had sat unnoticed near the window; the cat was also still on her lap, purring in tune with the wireless in the opposite corner. Whoever the girl had been abortively making signals to in the garden would, by now, be subsumed in the afternoon fog, fog that was fated not to lift until late morning tomorrow. Dusk was earlier every day – ad infinitum it seemed as the evenings continued to draw in – and he went over to pull the curtains together; but they stuck halfway.

“Let me do it, Sir,” called the servant bravely, it appeared, from the hallway, having no doubt heard the throaty catch of the curtain ring upon the rod. It sounded like a different servant from that distance. Clive shook his head absentmindedly, convinced in his own mind that such a gesture was tantamount to an answer for someone out of eyeshot. It worked – for the servant failed to turn up again. The cat scuttled from the girl’s lap and decided to preen itself in front of the dying warmth of the fire.

Something was riffling the inner layer of net curtains as it walked along the window ledge. He shuddered. In the garden with you, he mouthed. And with a flourish, he managed to tug the curtains together upon the grate and grind of a friction that should have swished along upon a coat of linseed oil. He had hated the cod liver sort when he was force-fed it as a child for the good of his health. He sighed as he blotted out the night and whatever haunted the garden. Houses, these days – even old-fashioned ones like this one with lit consoles masquerading as ancient wirelesses – could not countenance being haunted. Ghosts were too far fetched. Only the outside world, Clive believed, could harbour the shudders and fears of yesteryear. And now he had blotted them out with one clumsy curtaincall.

The girl had followed the cat towards the dull embers of the fire that lit the room like one huge crazy-paved eyeball.

He decided that he would have to put the light on in the room if the teatray of goodies were to be shared out upon and into individual items of crockery.

With the fire out now, who was coming down the chimney? Soot falling into the grate like droppings. Or something had been tugged up the other way through the flue. Clive shivered. He felt a chill working round him. It wasn’t just sickness. The girl had left for the kitchen: where she must work as an oven cleaner or cook’s assistant when she wasn’t dusting or acting as chambermaid. Light footsteps from the wireless gave the impression she was still in the room. Clive poured the tea with a gurgle more like oil than a scalding hot infusion of refreshment.

Servants were far and few between in these days of modern living, where both men and women worked all hours God had given simply to earn a crust - or a roof: or at least one slate per week eventually to make a proper roof one day. He could hear far off scrabbling as if workmen were erecting scaffolding above the house itself: to mend his roof. Builders from hell, the TV often claimed. Strange they should still be working during this season when evenings drew in so quickly … upon God’s drawstring.

(published 'Darkness Rising' 2002)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

End Of Season

The weed-choked tides slid greyly to and fro upon the litter-strewn beach. The morning had dawned brightly enough but now, by mid-afternoon, threatening clouds had built up; the Big Wheel, turning slowly at the end of a fore-shortened pier, was almost lost to the clammy clutches of the mist.

A few late departures of the deck chair brigade appeared decidedly lacklustre. With chip grease smarming their bodies like sun oil, they clambered up the shingle, with only a few words between them. Stern buxoms - with kiss-me-quick hats perched on their bee-hives - heaved themselves to the prom. Snow-chests - with rings in their ears and stale ‘bedroom’ eyes - shuffled along in their wake.

Suddenly, there was a loud ‘Halloo!’ from one of the beach huts. A shaven youth splattered out, limbs flailing like a wild pair of stockingless suspenders. He slobbered at those who had just evacuated the beach, pointed out at the sea and shouted so loudly his half-broken croaks seemed to come back off the waves like a series of echoey shipwrecks.

He ranted on of an enemy fleet that even now was slipping through the mist, its looming dark hulks of landing craft creeping in. Those on the Big Wheel could no doubt see them already, hence the screams they made.

The youth ran off towards the town, where he’d try to spread further panic and dismay...

One of the pleasure seekers on the Big Wheel was a man called Altin. He did not know why he had decided to have such a ride, for great heights to him were like great depths to Flat-Earthers. Every time that someone got on or off at the bottom of the Wheel, it seemed it was Altin who was left exposed, right at the very top, to the soaking of the down-towering clouds. As if the Wheel had only one way up, like the Christian cross.

And, then, during one of those inexplicably long stationary periods when he was thus aloft, he spotted a school of whales approaching over the sea, with jaws opening and shutting in rhythm to the waves. One was suddenly snorting as it beached itself upon the shingle. Another beached itself upon the first whale. The pier shook, as yet another lodged itself between the corroded pillars.

Altin closed his eyes in disbelief and actually became one of those whales, by several reincarnations removed. Except they weren’t really whales at all. They were the seabed come to life, chunks of it separating from Mother Earth as in some caricature of evolution. And if natural selection was involved they were surely the sweets left at the bottom of the bag.

The comedy came to a close, as the pier collapsed with all upon it. It was a happy ending, in a way, since the slobbering youths and deckchair dickheads had at last been pre-empted by, although a much deeper entropy, a far finer evolution, since sweets left at the bottom of the bag are often the best, when you’re eating them in the dark.

The whale-like creatures roamed the thinning, flattening Big Wheel discus of Earth Comestible. And the one that was Altin smiled its jaws beneath kiss-me-quick hats.

(published 'Beyond The Boundaries' 1996)

Thursday, November 17, 2005


He came out of the half-breeder barely quarter done.

The stigmatised flesh was clinging patchily to the alloyed knuckle-ribs like batter, his stomach-wall a naked silver shield. His calves and feet were however perfectly cooked; with no difference between his and those that real humans used to have. His head was an unveneered skull, neither bone nor metal, but a substance in between like reconstituted rhinoceros horn or, perhaps, an ancient recipe of soya and lava.

Whatever the state of his finish, he knew he had a name. Fagurchin was branded on his latest lobotomy-proof brain. Fagurchin he was, Fagurchin he believed he would always be.

More brain than sense.

More tattooes than taboos.

Police Constable Constable poked around the dustbins in the back alleys of the Scar, as if he had been doing it for some hours. His navy-blue uniform and round helmet blended in with the darkness, the glint of his buttons being easily mistaken for electric cats' eyes on the scavenge. Anybody near enough to listen to P.C. Constable’s mumbling investigations would have noted the odd curses, the intermittent whistle through a hollow tooth and the cluck of the tongue when he thought he had found some interesting trinket amid the rubbish. There was silence except for some Tinkers calling their wares into the night, mistaking the Scar for Shackletown. A heavy drizzle made the warm air seem like the inside of the policeman’s stomach. These streets had more houses than people, he mused. Many many more.

More brick than brain.

Sooner or later, Constable would feel the need to return to his own home for a breakfast that his wife had promised him as a special treat on their wedding anniversary. However, the Station Officer had told him to keep to his beat until at least half past Dark, when he would be relieved by his Sergeant who would continue the search. He wondered how anyone could be found in the dank murk, but he decided to loiter in the Scar until his replacement came en route via Shackletown. Constable laughed uncontrollably making any ghosts skitter into the Runs. Time was, he mused, when policemen were not allowed to tramp around on their own in quarters like the Scar. They'll even be allowing women officers here, before long.

More nattiness than nous.

But nowadays, unbridled crime was on the wane and he could not remember the last time that a gratuitous mugging had been reported. He supposed that this unparalleled period of relative lawfulness in The Scar history was due to the reduction in population in Shackletown proper. Most of the criminals had scuttled to the Runs where self-incubation kept them free of the Scar's stigmas and plagues.

So why was he on this godawful jaunt - tonight of all nights? True, he knew there were only three such policemen as himself (one a woman) in the whole Shackletown patrol and, so, the rotten jobs came round on the rota that more quickly. Above all, Constable wished he knew exactly what he was seeking tonight amid the disused dustbins. Suddenly, however, he spotted a crack of light between the drawn curtains of a tall terraced house which overlooked the backyards. One of the few squatters immune to the Scar's plagues was evidently holed up there - probably Fagurchin himself.

Constable had a lot for which to thank Fagurchin. That man with teeth like wingnuts had an almost laughable scare quality straight from ancient horror films. Fagurchin often scuttled on all fours like the run-down robots. Fagurchin could still conduct a one man crime wave without one blink of a pierced eyelid. He was probably the last villain in the Scar, a token crook, without whom the unnatural order of things would eventually collapse. So, respectfully, Constable plodded on, fearful that the curtains would abruptly flick apart revealing Fagurchin staring coldly out into the night. Constable did not want any excuse to make an arrest.

The man in the room had tears in his eyes, but he did not cry. He merely sat, listening to the large invisible clock. He was waiting for a call, but there were fewer and fewer to make telephones ring as the days passed. The last call was outside of living memory.

Being a Police Sergeant was more boring than death, or what he imagined death to be. Ah, he could hear the light tread of Police Constable Wendy Finn heading for the outside exit.

"Wendy!" he called with his voice.

The footsteps re-tracked. He could imagine her holding breath as she poised looks to meet another's.

"Yes, Sarge," she said, her head round the edge of the door.

She was pretty for a woman Police Constable. He could discern the suspicion of masacara removed from around her large victoria plum eyes. She had been masquerading as a tart in Shackletown, before coming on her second duty.

"Come in, for a moment."

"Have we got time? You've got to relieve Constable Constable - he'll be wondering where you are, Sarge."

"It's just that I want a few words in your ear, before you leave." The Sergeant nodded knowingly, as if he wanted to imply that she was going into the Scar, that night, instead of himself. Inference would be less of a shock to her than being told pointblank, he foolishly believed.

Police Constable Finn came out into the open and fully entered the stuffy room. Her thick dark skirt was deeply pleated, hanging below her knees, but the Sergeant knew that during the weekdays, when off duty, she wore short flimsy frocks and natty nylons. With his binoculars from the top of one of the Towers he often spotted her strolling through the Spare which he knew like the back of his hand - an area of no man's land between Shackletown and the Scar was the only way he could describe it to himself. It was once a recreation ground, during the heyday of Shackletown.

"Have you the right amount of money to keep you going, Wendy?"

She shrugged. She did not care to answer. In fact, like most who survived the first onset of the Scar's plagues beyond the Scar's catchment area, she considered it bad taste, almost prurient, to talk about money. What one had in one's purse was sacrosanct, not to be divulged in any circumstances. True, she appreciated the necessity of keeping a healthy balance, but there was no excuse to bring it into the open, especially in front of a colleague.

"The job pays too much," she finally ended up saying, blushing to the ends of her blonde hair. She felt in the side pocket of her skirt to see if the purse was still there, joined with an umbilical fuse to the wiry spaghetti of her innards. The plagues had brought different bodily functions to those who had survived them. But, in her case, the stigmata and mutations had never really taken, never completed themselves. And she was too rich for the half-breeder. The odd plumbing of her pipes and tubes ever ached when she was tired and often seeped real blood, reminiscent of those times when representatives of her sex were prone to natural childbirth.

"You know, Wendy Finn,” said the Sergeant, “I'm not going to last much longer. I believe you originally came from a well-heeled family in Shackletown, but my own background is tin baths and outside lavatories. I did make good in old-fashioned computerised finance, turning over other people's investments by hacking into the triggers of programme dealing. I spread the bid and offer prices wider and wider. Created commodities from thin air and sold them on the nod, collecting other transparent dirigibles from other free-loaders to sell on further nods. I am a Tinker made Trinketer. But my upbringing is beginning to show. I'm cracking up. Why do you think I'm part of this policeman charade, otherwise. So, I sent Constable Constable off into the Scar, to enable me to have a clear run with you, Wendy, sort out a few things, syphon your conscience, as it were. You know, switch off the lights and see if we can feed off each other's metabolic systems. We've both got a lot of goodness left to give each other..."

Thus, her original inference was wrong. As had been the Sergeant's implication.

"What a godawful bastard you are, Sarge. You sent Constable Constable off into the Scar, unprotected, on a wild goose chase - he probably believes he must arrest Fagurchin on his own! Where will that leave us? Up Queer Street. And it seems neither of us are going to relieve him..."

Despite the events having already happened differently, she nearly added - but decided against it for fear of even more unlikely events transpiring as a result.

The Sergeant wished she would call him by his real name: that would at least show he had a remnant of charisma in her eyes: showing she saw him as a person rather than what he really was: and what the Sergeant really was - was someone with two minds, neither of which liked the other.

He looked towards where he thought the clock should be, with some guilt. Such guilt gave him a hard-on. He thought of P.C. Constable still peering into the Scar's unlit dustbins with no hope of finding out the nature of what he sought.

"Call me George, please,” suddenly announced the Sergeant.

"Look, Sergeant,” she replied, “there's no point in trying to use me to absolve your lack of pedigree. There's no hope for our union. My mother was a Shackletown lady born and bred - and my purse is full to bursting..."

There, she had said it, simply, clinically, and even the Sergeant could have no cross purposes. They were both swimming against the tide of forces that neither fully understood. His tears made his eyes shine like jewels, but their riches were fraudulent.

More salt than sparkle.

Constable Constable stood at the end of an iron-gridded terrace once called Lloyd Street Gardens. He would be late for breakfast, but his wife would forgive him, as she always did. She was a real doll, he thought, and at the end of tonight's duty, they would snuggle up in everlasting mutual metabolism and coitus quietus: permanently on a plane of drifting between death and life, for an eternity of love. Education had taught him that love was the goal of every man and woman worth their salt, since, behind each of the unlit curtains - curtains that hid the dead eyes of the Scar - there percolated many single living dualities whose loving was their very singularity. Purses under the beds like soft chamber pots, connected direct to the bladder.

Constable Constable finally gave up waiting for the Sergeant and returned towards Shackletown for the last time.

Constable Constable and his wife were to become one of the last pairs fully to couple off (after the anniversary breakfast), leaving the Separates to wander the sirocco-swept Scar forever or until they managed to die.

Wendy Finn had left the Police Station; the large clock had timed her departure to the minute. The Sergeant had ceased teardropping ... accepting that there had never been an even number of people. He had been granted the unbearable fate of pulling the odd short straw. He would be the only Separate left. There would be no point in resorting to the Runs, for they were full of living corpses, breathing the earth. Or so he thought.

Wendy Finn, perched on the edge of an ill-ribbed bench, overlooking the empty slides and roundabouts of the Spare; she craved for poverty and cursed her ancestors in Shackletown for the rich blood that now soaked the lacy frock she had put on to look like the pretty little girl she had always wanted to become. Soon she'd break the curse of foregone conclusions and stray into the Scar to see if she could find Constable Constable - or, at least, someone looking like him.

The terraced twouptwodowns along the periphery of the Spare did not now have even one yellow crack between curtains, since Fagurchin was prowling between those dustbins which Constable Constable had previously scoured. Fagurchin lifted the garbage lids here and there, intent on finding the discarded riches for which he had seen the policeman seeking - items worth less (so, effectively, worth more) than a disused brain - or a wind-up doll - or a fancy-dress police helmet ... an expected event or, better still, an unexpected one. The deepest sadness was at the borderline, where none were spared.

More dead than dying. The only vampire worth staking to a cross.

(published 'Heliocentric Net' 1997)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Deep One

They used to come in seething shoals. Now they came in frisky ones and twos, snouts snuffling out dreams to dream. Not exactly werewolves, but more the slightly flesh-corrupted ghosts of similar beasts, new-smoked from cthulhoid burrows towards the seas of slumber.

Sometimes dreams failed to supply sufficient sustenance - and, yes, in dream, all words often sounded alike: or sometimes like poetry masquerading as both sense and nonsense. Then, of course, there was nothing to boast or swell the chest about. And, having let wasted valuable time in rehearsing such pretentious dreams, the Platonic Form of Dream itself began to dream - having first dragged the dreamer inside its darksome burrow. Corpses had thoughts, too, but could not pack a pen - which left their dreams unrecorded. Meanwhile, there were three snores in the bed where there should only have been two.

Gerald had crept between the sheets, as he had done for years in search of a dream-blurred unconsciousness upon the Plateau of Leng. He lay beside his wife, expecting to awake next morning, unless death interfered. If death was indeed to end his life with a loving care, as he always hoped, he would need to die during sleep's dream of surrogate waking.

That night, as usual, Gerald had stirred fitfully to the echoes of time's small numbers tinkling amid his own ears' tinnitus - insomnia, nostalgia and amnesia, all bed-partners within his amorphous blight of a soul. He listened to his dear wife's nethermost confusion of snores, but there had surely been three snorers, counting himself. Now, fully awake, there were only two. He coughed in an embarrassed attempt to halt further widening of his dilemma. However, he could not be certain about doubt, let alone about certainty.

His wife's snores were complex at the best of times - a combo of nasal bong-bongs, tongue-clucks and teeth-grates, together with the uncanny out-of-body Jew's Harp of the spirit that twanged a mere inch from her lip-bursts. Yet, even this mish-mash of physical frictions could not account for the startling cannonade of snores from beyond his wife's recumbent form. Gerald leaned over the familiar valley of wifely breasts and covered the strange third party with the echoing coffin of his own mouth and kissed its breath away with a slobbering slug of a tongue. The white tombstones (albeit gappy) were epitaph enough. Then nothing but whisperers in the darkness.

"You don't look right today, Dad," said Sarah out of the blue.

"Yes, I've been feeling a bit achey."

Gerald finger-combed what was left of his hair and winced at the sun-burnt tenderness of his scalp.

His wife gave a glance at his daughter, as if to say - typical. Just when the family holiday was just round the next corner. He always felt peculiar at such times. He threatened death as a corollary of every excuse.

But Sarah thought there was something different about her Dad this time. She had also noticed that her father was not the only phenomenon showing signs of strangeness. The aeroplanes had been flying low, with wider wings, throwing darker shadows, filling the air with incessant drones. Not that this had happened all at once. Nobody had admitted noticing. Except little Sarah. And then only to herself.

Gerald was indeed not right. In fact, it did not look like her Dad at all. Which didn't mean to say he was someone different. How else could she explain it? After all, she was too young to know everything.

A scrap of bacon hung precariously at the corner of Gerald's mouth, as he scanned the newspaper which had lately grown so small it sat in his hand like an instruction pamphlet, covered in nothing but headlines. He slowly turned the pages, tutting as he came across scandals he found disgusting or which stirred envy or even opened up new vistas. Lurkers on all thresholds in all townships. Or so the scaremongers said.

Sarah's younger sister Pauline had long since disappeared. Not even their mother had questioned this event. The postman had stopped delivering bills. Perhaps, the outside world no longer existed, except for the proof provided by the TV. The serials were never-ending, which thankfully gave the lie to Sarah's greatest fears.

"Your face looks like a burnt bacon, Dad," said Sarah.

Gerald looked at her quizzically. Never mind. They would soon be flying off for a holiday in the sun, she thought. A resort near Innsmouth.

The hotel receptionist was neither old nor young, but that said nothing about her age. It felt as if she had appeared ready-made from a dream - but Gerald knew it was not really a dream at all, even though he was asleep at the time. The room he had booked was reputedly haunted and he rather fancied seeing a ghost, never having believed in such phenomena before, he said. The receptionist humoured Gerald more than he humoured her, he guessed - and, with a guffaw, he gambolled into the chosen room, clutching his night things. Ghosts were so much more preferable to full-blooded monsters.

There was, of course, neither ghost nor monster. But there was the indeterminate woman, attractively and sophisticatedly dressed, who spoke of things he could not later understand, although he was convinced he understood them then. And a little girl who was rather too pretty to be his daughter was soon to be lost on the beach.

Gerald would later hasten to add that he had felt no sexual yearnings for the woman - thus, thankfully, it was not one of those despicable dreams which he had suffered as a boy.

"Did you sleep well?" the woman asked Gerald. He told her that his body felt full of a lumpy bed's aches. But there was silence. Nobody there. The woman had spoken to a bulging suitcase, because speaking to herself would have been deemed madness. "I've got your bacon sizzling downstairs," she added. She had a huge fin on her back, which made her breast-harness bigger than any dreamable brassiere. Tinnitus the background of waves. Her daughter Sarah had been filleted off the bone for evening dinner, on the menu as "fresh-caught and stuffed with fucus".

(written, published 1992?)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Monkey Who Did Not Like Its Hat

Davenport had always lived a long way from London, but when he was 17 he decided it was high time to hit the smoke.

Whilst a baby still fresh from crawlout, he’d never heard of a place called London. However, on slipping free from his mother’s arms for the first time late one Sunday afternoon, he spotted a yellow photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral glued to a tin where, he later learned, his mother kept stale biscuits for the Trick-or-Treaters each Halloween.

This being the first picture he’d ever seen, Davenport’s brain kept a little bit of itself devoted.

He thought the dome of the cathedral a hat. He knew all about such things, for his mother always wore one with a tortoiseshell hat-pin.

School taught him a lot more about London. That there were City people, quite different from the normal ones like Davenport and his mother or like his school friends and even the teacher. That trains went below the pavements like horizontal chimney-sweeps. That it was bigger than all the world’s other cities put together. That, most important of all, it had mighty churches sowing the skylines like threadbare forests of faith. And the one the teacher pinned on the blackboard was...


The train loitered through the countryside as if it had lost its way. Davenport was sitting in the corner of the carriage, pretending to read a book, as his mind reacted to scenes it had not yet experienced. The book was by W. Harrison Ainsworth, and the print on the pages was in blocks of foreign black.

Use Town was the place the station ticket-puncher had mentioned as being the train’s destination. Near London it was, he was assured. Use Town may even have one of those underground trains. The train he was now on might even change into an underground one, come London.

There were three other people in the carriage; a woman with a large flowery hat in the luggage rack, a man up there with her who sniggered a lot and a little girl in the other corner on the seat who was evidently someone’s daughter.

Davenport stared at the girl. She must be 12, only five years younger.

‘Is it Use Town this train’s going?’ he asked. This was the first time he had spoken on a train.

‘USETON,’ she mumbled, after a tunnel.

‘Is it near London?’ he asked.

‘It’s IN London, it’s part of London. A big station.’

‘Does the train go underground there — I want to go to the city to see a big church, you see?’

‘No, you’ll have to change.’

Davenport pondered. He’ll have to change. He nodded, understanding perhaps for the first time.


The hubbub of the big station was more surprising than he expected. It hit him like a chain of those summer storms chasing each other around the hills surrounding Davenport’s village back home. The little girl told him where to go. He hadn’t realised that he could have relieved himself on the train.

The man and the woman who had been in the luggage rack, Davenport saw, had turned themselves over to the station lost property office — they evidently were even more bemused than Davenport.

To his horror he lost his little friend in the crowds. And the crowds in Useton seemed not to be at all like the little bunches that automatically formed during gaines of ‘Denno’ in the school playground of his childhood. For here they were constituted of unco-ordinated bodies in sheer exi-fugal selfishness. Davenport found himself party to a particularly large one led by a gangling youth with ear-rings — and this crowd violently careered from one end of the concourse to the other like Davenport’s demented Uncle in the padded cell back home.

Eventually he was expelled by the crowd outside Smiths, where a policeman was standing guard.

‘How can I change?’ asked Davenport, without fear or favour, for policemen were friendly back home.

‘Spain off, you bugger! I’m soddin’ well not going’ to tell YOU anything!’

This was like a foreign language to Davenport.

But, evidently, the policeman was not impressed with Davenport’s reaction, so he decided to try the soft touch, as an alternative:

‘Well, young man, see that over there — that’s what they call Dosser’s Bar...’

And he pointed to a joint bursting to the seams with ill-dressed miscreants tipping wine-glass after wine-glass into their thirsters.

The policeman continued

‘Go in there and I’m sure they’ll give yer a drinky on the ‘ouse...’

Davenport wandered over to the evil-looking place and a great stench of pee met him like he remembered the boy’s toilets in the playground back home. And amid all the dirt and the foul language, he spotted his little girl friend from the train, who was asking one of the customers to interfere with her.

Doubtlessly, Davenport can’t recall much about it least of all the motives that must have taken hold of him unbeknownst, but he took the girl’s hand, dragged her out into the concourse and delivered her up to the policeman. Who forthwith took her away to apparent safety.


He reached the City with the help of a friendly-seeming taxi-man who took pity on him after finding him in his empty bonnet pretending to be the engine. Davenport’s Uncle evidently had a lot to answer for.

The taxi-man knew EVERYTHING about London; where to go, what to do when you got there and, most important, how to change.

Davenport had used up all his disposable assets on the train journey, but he had a tanner left. The taxi-man knew the A to Z like the back of his hand and, for the tanner, he agreed to allow Davenport to follow his taxi on foot. But he couldn’t get it started, for some reason, so he palmed Davenport off with some complicated misdirections... And off Davenport went, on his own.

However, before he rounded the final corner away from Useton, he turned to wave goodbye to the taxi-man. But he’d gone… no doubt for a snifter with the dossers.


All roads lead to St. Paul’s. And, after several hours, a tired and hungry Davenport arrived before the mighty edifice of his childhood dreams.

The enormous dome lifted into the blue sky — if nothing else, Davenport had chosen a nice day for his trip — and the sides of the pillared building had statues dotted about like rock-climbers. But it was the dome to which his gaze kept returning: the huge hat of his childhood with a crucifix-pin rising from its peak.

He was in awe. If he had not changed at Useton, he was certainly changing now. Sublimity filled his head, gorgeous rhythms of faith and desire.

Then he heard the flapping. From somewhere beyond the dome, a mighty bird as big as the cathedral itself must have been slowing its motion for alightment. Davenport still could not see what made such a noise — it was probably Concorde (the teacher had also once pinned a picture of this wondrous jet liner on the blackboard back home) with new found leather wings and spindled snout

But what eventually loomed above the dome was simply a monstrosity. Its face was the Devil’s own Halloween mask, with skin in leprous folds, wild staring eyes swimming in pools of blood, champing beak of yellow splintered bone and wattles of sickly fire. Its nose was indeed like Concorde’s, but drooping from it were swelling globs of regurgitated spew surpassing by far the produce of the vilest fount of slime in the ranks of nastiness...

The ribbed, webby wings suddenly filled the sky, as if the earth itself had unfurled them.

Davenport called out for his Mummy — he wanted to be back home more than he had ever yearned for the tit when a baby.

He felt a small hand slip into his and, looking down, be saw the little girl he’d met on the train (last seen traipsing off with a policeman) smiling up at him.

‘I didn’t let him,’ she mumbled mysteriously.

‘Good,’ replied Davenport, without really understanding why. They wandered off together to where they thought Useton would be.

But before they rounded the corner, he turned back to find that the cathedral must have been nothing but a figment of his imagination. A bank stood where the monster had been. London was evidently a city of false pretences.


They ended up at the zoo which, after all, could not be far from Useton. There they saw a monkey wearing a hat with the words “I LOVE U”. It threw it into the air and the girl picked it up and put it on.

But Davenport had disappeared when she turned to show it to him. So she went off to find the lost property office.

(published 'Krax' 1989)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Dark Miscegenation

"Don't you believe in ghosts any more?" asked Clement's mother, while fingering the tiny cross hung at her throat—as if she believed it would protect her from those very ghosts.

The empty room was crowded with other members of the Victorian family—a funerary gathering, with too many children under the age of ten for comfort. Clement grimaced at the thought of the ensuing hours of small talk and big arguments. Yet, despite the numbers, there was currently a deathly hush, as the grown-ups balanced the chinking of their cups against the nibbling noise caused by an inconsequential cucumber sandwich, underlaid with the snickering of the log's flames from the hearth.

The children maintained an uncharacteristic modicum of good behaviour, even including the boy who had dared wear a bobble-hat at the earlier ceremony. They were crouched on the floor peculiarly staring at an empty corner of the room.

Twins Archie and Annabel had given up squabbling, once one of them at random had been given what Clement considered to be a rather vicious clip round the ear by their otherwise prim and proper mother. After all, in those days, punishment was worth the effort.

Clement had arrived at the funeral on his own. His mother lived in the opposite end of town, pretending to her neighbours that she had always been a Spinster, thus concealing the evidence of Clement as fruit of her erstwhile marital loins. Indeed, she had ignored her son during most of the day's proceedings—other than the initial pleasantries which she had a way of making quite unpleasant.

Clement surveyed the others. They surveyed him, too, with the usual embarrassment that people have about returning silent stares. Most of them were unmentionable creatures whom Clement would not have even granted a second glance in the town's market. The simple fact that they once had blood-ties with him in various devious ways surely did not make them worthy of consideration. He would rather be friends with those donkeys on the sands, when his mother and father took him to the seaside every Whitsun.

"Ghosts, mother?" he said, as if the words fitted in with what had already been said earlier. He fingered his cufflinks, echoing her earlier perfomance with the crucifix.

"Yes, Clement, you were always going on about ghosts. If you're so clever, where's Auntie Rita now?"

His mother swept the room with her heavily braceleted arm, as if to conjure up some wraith masquerading as the remnants of that day's buried body. She ignored the steely glances from some of the grown-ups who evidently condemned her tactless remark.

Clement had found it difficult to remember who Auntie Rita had been. Some long-lost distant relative born not only on the wrong side of the blanket but also quite the wrong blanket? One who wanted to be called Auntie because of some perverse logic as to respectability? Or was she his mother's sister, as simple as that? Whoever she was, he laid the blame at Auntie Rita's door for today's irritations. At least, at a Christening, one could curse the babe in question. Or, at a wedding, stick pins into metaphorical dolls of the bride and groom. But at a funeral, the proximate cause of yet one more family gathering was already dead. But, he knew, as the old saying went, there was no rest for the wicked.

With corpses as scapegoat as well as subterfuge, families, like nations, had wars, bitter, twisted and, yes, mercenary. Why would they all be haunting the living-room, otherwise? If not for the reading of the Last Will and Testament...

So that explained the gentleman in half-moon glasses who sat uncomfortably on the sofa between Archie and Annabel. The family lawyer, no doubt. But the man also had the stigma in his eyes and the caste of complexion which typified the rest of the room's crawling life. Clement winced at his own words. He hadn't chosen them. It was as if someone else described the scene. Clement was no culprit—he was sure. Yet the family did stem from a particularly nasty form of ethnic cleansing that had transpired in Old Europe, before Clement's birth. Yet nobody had heard of ethnic cleansing in those days, that, at least, was true. But it gave him no excuse for racial slurs.

"I don't believe in ghosts any more, Mother."

Clement had broken another icy silence. Her accusation could not have remained unchallenged. Who knew what concertina of destinies would have been set in motion, otherwise? The supposed lawyer coughed—either because he had a frog in his throat or he genuinely wanted to let slip the dogs of war with the Will. It turned out to be a frog, since the man pawed at his own chest as if he fought for breath—or someone else's breath, Clement unaccountably thought, in a moment spawned by surrealistic private humour.

Still the children silently stared at the empty corner of the room but one of them was eventually instructed to fetch the lawyer a glass of water. Upon recovering, he maintained that a piece of cucumber had gone down the wrong way.

Gone down the wrong way?

Which was the right way? contemplated Clement, as he fingered his own throat and discovered the tiny cross he always had hanging there, against his better judgement. Habits died slowly—and a habit, inculcated in the younger Clement by his mother and father, was particularly hard to kill. Not that he believed in God any more. Well, not that God in whom his mother appeared to place so much faith.

The children were now becoming more and more fractious. Who could blame them? The whole affair was being drawn out to unncesssary lengths of fitful silence. At least, their encroaching wheedles and whines relieved the heavy atmosphere. Nobody had dared broach the Will, not even the so-called lawyer—a man who looked remarkably like Clement's late father when he was younger. Yet, Clement's father had been a cleric: or a lower-rank verger or sexton or, maybe, at a push, a curate or something. Certainly not a deacon. Some shame had come on the family when Clement was too young to appreciate the repercussions. A minor peccadillo with a female creature which flaunted itself on the seaside rocks (near the donkey-ride).

Clement couldn't believe in ghosts. He never would. He didn't dare.

He snatched the long toasting-forks from either Archie and Annabel (he was unsure which shape was which) and jabbed and spiked the air of the dark living-room. He then squatted in the empty corner and tugged harder at the cross-chain, hoping it would make him dark, too.

Friday, September 16, 2005

An Ounce of Three Castles and a Packet of Blue Rizla

He was called Nagl. I originally came across him in a dream.

A concert pianist, of the first water - I can remember his fingers curved upon the keys, their nails long uncut to give the notes extra bite: every line and facet etched with the prehensility of dark genius. God, by comparison, would be a huge white sagging barrage balloon floating tetherless across endless turgid oceans.

I woke with the dream still plastered to the back of my skull, where my brain had sprayed it with all the force of cinemascope. The wordy pretentiousness stuck, too. At least for the duration of the Sixties.

I then met Nagl in real life. I was introduced to him at a party: evidently not as old as I had thought in my dream.

. "How are you?" he asked, as if we'd met before.

"Very well, thank you... Excuse me for being rude, but are you a pianist?"

He glanced down at his own fingers and I noted in the darkly fizzing lights that the nails were long and yellowy white.

"I play the piano, yes, but only for my own amusement. But how do you know?"

I shrugged and asked him to dance. Our small talk had been close to either grinding to an embarrassing halt or entering dangerous realms.

As we jabbed our hind legs sporadically to Mr Kite, I heard him, during breathless interludes, mention a few composers he liked playing, especially Scriabin. I nodded although, of course, I had never heard of the composer.

We parted on good terms, both of us promising to keep a weather eye for each other at future parties.

The following night, I dreamed of him for the second time. On this occasion, I was nearer to the front of the auditorium, standing amongst several others as we jostled to obtain the best position nearest to the pianist. The orchestra's tuning up was particularly frightening, but I put this down to the dream. The audience suddenly broke into cheering uproar, as Nagl (for it was indeed him) had marched to the podium with the conductor.

As the noise subsided, he squared himself on the adjustable stool, after having flapped out his tails from beneath. He made a few running chords along the slipstream of the keys...

He turned towards us. I was captivated, convinced that he was staring straight at me with piercing white eyes. He began speaking about the music which he was about to perform. Some of the audience asked him questions on style and interpretation. Most unusual. Pre-performance talks were quite common, but separate from the musical event itself, customarily held in a different venue an hour or two before the doors opened on the concert proper.

Eventually, I found myself asking a question, much against my better nature, even though I was conscious of the impatience of the orchestra members and their conductor (the latter being a maestro in his own right).

"Would you like me to buy you dinner after the concert?" I asked, my voice croaking with nervousness.

Nagl smiled and nodded. With some relief, I noticed the conductor raising his baton...

I awoke, bitterly disappointed that, after all the preamble, it would never be possible to hear the music. Nagl's description of it was more than just a little tantalising.

My disappointment continued at the next party. Nothing to be seen of him anywhere, unless he was one of those neckers in the dark corner. But if he were hiding, it could only be because he wanted to avoid me. I recalled the dream ... and the wicked smile.

The next time I slept, I merely collapsed into darkness, with the sense of fingers touching me all over. Yet, it was too blurred and forgetful to warrant the name dream. I was still obsessed with Nagl's inscrutability. Nagl this, Nagl that. I was bemused, in love and, peculiarly, wistful.

The next day, I tried to contact some of my friends (fellow guests at this season's parties) but none of them could recall him. But, I said, he had been the soul of the party. Surely nobody could have failed to note his striking pose, the glistening dusky face. How could I be so mistaken? Even now, I recalled the feel of his hand like claws as I twirled him round in an old-fashioned jive. The famous composer's name which he had mentioned as enjoying, however, had gone completely from my head. I wished I had written it down. But it was too late.

Nevertheless, I did dream of him again. This time, sleep was conducive to dreaming, I knew that straightaway. As soon as I planted my head on the pillow and closed my eyes, I felt him creeping up from the background. On all fours, I imagined. Or on his belly.

The first scene was a restaurant. We only had eyes for each other, so the waiters had to make do with cursory signals as to our wants. The menu lay between us on the table like an unread score. The candlelight brought out the matt swarthiness of his skin. His eyes were gentler than I ever remembered.

His fingers were hamfisted away from his piano, more pedestrian. He dropped his cutlery with unsightly clatters. Dreams only speak of visions, not sounds, I realised, thus easing my earlier disappointment at not catching the music before waking.

Whatever its ingredients, the meal was strangely unsatisfying. Afterwards, we left to go to his home. As he paid the bill, I promised to meet any further expenses of the evening. Eventually, after much toing and froing, we arrived at a large rambling house on the edge of the city ... with several staircase chimneystacks silhouetted against the moon-stained sky, like suprlus lumber that couldn't fit into the house's countless attics. The spiralling iron fire-escapes strangled the two end towers with the Devil's own jewellery. Dream talk, again. I shrugged in my sleep.

We had passed, on our way, a huge liner in dry dock still being worked on by overtime repairers at the dead of night. Several derelicts were sleeping nearby in the heat of the spotlights. Having reached the house, Nagl took me by the hand through the vast front entrance into a gorgeously draped hallway, where a toady helped us off with our capes.

Now being indoors, I felt I should instruct the toady to take our capes to the derelicts who would need them more.

I was shivering. I awoke to discover the covers had slipped from my bed. The pillow was sodden with tears ... my tears. I could only hope against hope that the next night would see me dreaming again with a vengeance.

During the day, I purchased an ounce of Three Castles and a packet of Blue Rizla. I needed a good smoke.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, I wondered if there was in fact a building at the edge of the city similar to Nagl's house in my dream. I had never seen one with so many tall smokestacks, far too many in truth for the number of rooms they serviced. Mouth to mouth resuscitation, I mused. And the fire escapes so plentifully supplied, too. Surely it would not be too difficult to ascertain the whereabouts of such an edifice.

I was due to attend another party that evening and I determined to make enquiries with some of my more outlying bosom acquaintances. In the dream, which was now fast disappearing into a forgotten memory, Nagl and I had travelled to the house in a black taxi. There should be an underground entrance quite close, I assumed, the city being undermined with regiments of tube tunnels and Victorian sewer systems.

The party was a dead affair. People laid about half-drugged to the gills. One crazy individual, whom everybody called Rabbit, told me stories of his youth which he threatened would make my hairs curl. I looked for Nagl, not really expecting him to be present at such a lousy gig. Rabbit's ramblings were something I could have done without, but I humoured him with grunts and nods.

Then I saw Nagl. He was standing by the bar, in close conversation with a blonde. His shining skin sent pins and needles through my muscles. I could not get up from my squatting position near Rabbit, for my legs had gone dead. And even if I could, would he welcome my intervention?

There was a police raid. I even forgot Nagl in the havoc. Luckily, I was released with a caution, as I was, for once, clean as a whistle. They couldn't stand a charge up on Three Castles, could they?

Amid the milling turn-out on the pavements outside, I suddenly recalled Nagl ... and the blonde. Could that two-headed shape glimpsed disappearing around the next turning be them? I followed quickly, brushing aside Rabbit's invitation of a walk into the city centre in search of a late-night club. Instead, Rabbit tagged along with me, much to my annoyance. I did not have the heart to cut him dead.

Eventually, I collapsed into my own bed. Rabbit borrowed my bedroom floor, as he had done once before.

Dreams would be hard to come by that night, especially in my current frame of mind. However, gradually, I was back in Nagl's house. He sat poised before a Grand, smiling round at me. I think I must have been sitting in an armchair, artfully positioned so that I could benefit from both the best acoustics of the chamber and an unobstructed view of his arched hands upon the striped reptilian keyboard. The moment his tapering fingers touched, my hair stood on end. The music thrilled me beyond measure. I realised this must be his own composition, because it spoke Nagl in every semiquaver. I was privileged to be an audience of one as a song of pure genius was played for the first and last time. I was no longer the lonely lost soul who lived inside my head in real life.

The fingers, each one a bone in drag, moved across the pulsing keys. His face, even in the full light of the art deco lamp standard, was a shadow of itself. Each drop of sweat was as black as a spade on an ace.

The music's beauty was unbearable, its ugliness unimpeachable. I yearned for it to finish, so that I would be able to approach and tentatively fondle his body, he mine.

The keyboard became a sweat-slicked hide, swelling up so that his fingers actually moved inside it, as if he reached for the innards of some serpentine creature. Thus, the bizarre harmonies sounded from within our heads, not from out inward - as dreams dictated.

Piecemeal, the music tailed off, with an ending as unsatisfying as the restaurant's food we'd only just consumed. I vaguely recall leaving the music room and climbing the many flights of Nagl's stairs, his talons exquisitely embedded in my palm, as he led me ever upward.

I heard others making an unsightly clattering upon the fire escapes outside but could not tell whether they went up or down. They shouted something about a pirate uprising, but I couldn't be sure.

I fell into Nagl's arms as he dragged me into his vast four-poster, only to be swaddled by silk sheets. And I never saw the creature he must have become, only felt it like a child at a party guessing what the mystery object was in the otherwise shapless bag. The act of sexing insects wasn't a starter. Snakes on heat were two a penny. This dream cost a million souls to stage it...

I woke to find myself pinned to my own sodden mattress by Rabbit. I let him have his way, because love is stronger than hate, and less lasting.

Not long afterwards, the Sixties abruptly ended with a lurch towards blander decades. I assume Nagl still drifts from party to party, no doubt fibbing about being a concert pianist and owning a large house in Hampstead. I can no longer have dreams. Yet I hope Nagl can dream of me.

(published 'Peeping Tom' 1991)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Dark Hem

Asquew bought HABLA USTED as an investment.

Its corner turrets were imposing, but it was a pity a TV satellite dish had been erected on one of them. The disused balconies were choked with a plant-life which didn't evidently need real ground for its roots. He decided to leave repairing the chimney-stacks until the house's future was settled. Planning permission for the place to be converted into offices was not out of the question and he mentally listed out the necessary changes, including communication systems and toilet facilities. In the meantime, he decided to allow his three Aunts to live there at a reasonable rent since they had all recently been widowed and made cheap caretakers.

"Do you think the roof leaks?" asked Mildred to the other two who were sounding-boards rather than an audience.

"It hasn't rained for ages," piped up Louise, as if that were an answer.

"Those chimneys don't look too safe to me, so I reckon we should ask him to do something or other about them," continued Mildred, using a non-sequitur as a conversational ploy.

Tania didn't say anything. The three women were sitting in one of the front rooms where the paltry cul-de-sac's lamps outside seeped sufficiently indoors, leaving the switching on of the electricity to the very last minute.

"Can't you put your knitting down for a while, Mildred and give me a hand with my crossword," said Louise.

"Only if you help me ball the rest of my wool later."

Meanwhile, Tania stoked the open coal fire which also helped to illuminate the room, throwing three Auntish shadows across the garish wallpaper. They had already taken down the diagonal ducks, as such knickknacks were not to their taste. Well, at least, Tania did not object to them being taken down. Louise had hung a picture of her late husband upon the ducks' faded outlines. Mildred was the shy one, on the quiet. She had always dressed like a spinster, even when she was happily married. Her eyes were often settled on the medium stare, showing only whites from certain angles, as if she were examining the insides of her head. Most of the day she dressed in a dowdy house-coat and wielded a tickle-duster. She did not even change come the evenings. Her husband's name was Bob. Asquew remembered Bob, particularly. Louise was more certain of her identity than Mildred. Self-assurance was not exactly correct, but more a selfless definition of purpose. Her clothes were ever immaculate, usually twin-sets with cascading pearl necklaces and heavy tweed skirts, whatever the weather. Unlike Mildred, she rather enjoyed wearing high heels, even at home. Her husband was Nigel, an uncommon name for the times. Asquew never knew him, since Louise had met Nigel in Kuala Lumpur where they had settled after marriage. No one stood out as memorable.

Tania didn't say much. Whilst Mildred overcame her shyness by strange remarks, Tania was silent most of the time, mainly because she had very little to say ... a credit to her. Her clothes could not be characterised, since she wore different outfits according to mood. If each choice of apparel was evidence, then she was not only in a state of near continuous flux but also varied between a very wide spectrum of emotions. Tonight, she wore a bright red silk scarf at the throat, providing contrast to the black cocktail dress, grey fish-net stockings and, like Louise, high heel shoes, all specially sported for the short evening. Her husband was Fred whom Asquew thought was a bit of a prat. Fred, Bob and Asquew had been drinking friends, and Fred had often ended the evening by drinking himself silly and slapping the other two on the back as if he thought they liked him. Bob and Asquew had separate get-togethers, without Fred.

So, Mildred was shy but relatively talkative, showily domesticated, somewhat reflective, widow of Bob. Louise was forceful, confident, unreflective, member of the twin-set brigade, widow of Nigel, had lived in Kuala Lumpur for most of her life. Tania was quiet, but not shy, changeable moods and costumes, unshowy in her tasks, widow of Fred (prat).

Asquew's mother, Deirdre, another sister, had died in giving birth. None of them were memorable. Particularly Deirdre, who did not figure much at all.

Asquew stood on the pavement opposite the house. There were not many houses in the cul-de-sac, the only other one being an even larger (but without the turrets) close to the railway embankment. That other house had also been on the market, when he was negotiating for HABLA USTED. HABLA USTED was not Asquew's name for it, but the nameplate was still above the front entrance, and the Aunts had not complained. One of them even wiped it over daily. He had been upset by Bob's sudden death. In fact, it was one of those deaths which lingered in the mind, since he had been on holiday in Spain with Mildred and, forgetting for a moment that foreign traffic went the wrong way, he had stepped boldly into an on-going motorbike and, mercifully, died without further preamble. From then on, drinking just with Fred, out of duty to habit, was barely bearable. And now with Fred gone by means of an abrupt heart attack, Asquew was again a free agent. Being an only child and unmarried, his simple concerns were the three Aunts and the furtherance of his money-making. He had even given up drinking, since he had nobody with whom to share visits to the pub. Saved a lot of loot this way, too.

Yes, HABLA USTED was a bit of a monstrosity. The sooner the satellite dish was removed the better, but that would not help a lot. The chimneystacks were indeed outlandish, far too tall. In Victorian times, he assumed, they liked smoke to be carried up as far as possible before letting it go. This evening, one of the chimneypots was puffing paltry amounts which stayed put in the still air like grey cotton-wool around the cluster of TV aerials. From time to time, he saw one of the sisters fiddling with the curtains of the front room. They did not pull them across fully, but only halfway, a fact which mystified Asquew. In any event, he was finding it impossible to remember which Aunt was which. He had to mull over their attributes in his mind. One of them had been abroad for most of her life, married to someone or called Nigel. So the one Bob always kissed goodbye before going to the pub, she must have been...

He couldn't bother to put names to faces. As a businessman, he had enough to do keeping track of his contacts. And his contacts had wives, too. After all, the Aunts were simply house fillings, until he had made decisions relating to HABLA USTED. He did, however, have a soft spot for them, and widowed Aunts of their age were surely intended to be at least a trifle batty.

Round the corner from the cul-de-sac was one of the pubs he used to frequent with Bob and Fred. He fancied a little tipple, despite the abstinence of the last few months, and he left the environs of HABLA USTED, whilst considering the intricacies of setting a fair commercial rent for office premises in this otherwise residential area. He liked summarising, totting up, drawing tentative conclusions...

Asquew's mother, Deirdre, had married early in life. His father, Tom, was a stocky fellow made even stockier by the heavy lifting and carrying he did at the docks. He drank too much and knocked his wife around when he had finished drinking. He loved her too much to mark her face. But her bottom was often black and blue, criss-crossed with fresh red welts. Tom was not as bad as had been painted, Asquew thought. At least one of Deirdre's sisters had kept a soft spot for Tom. Asquew suspected, Deirdre was in the dark as to whether Louise, Mildred or Tania were at the guilty end of Tom's canoodling - that is, before one of them went off to Kuala Lumpur.

Asquew had enough problems ridding himself of his own feelings about Deirdre's death, without taking on anybody else's. The whole affair was too complicated to consider as a whole ... like HABLA USTED itself which, because of the railway, the trees and the high wall around the cemetery opposite, there was never any one vantage point with a complete view of the roofs, stacks, turrets and windows.

Asquew felt that human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints (even if some were misguided) to obtain as true a picture as possible. Tom, after all, was never so black as he was painted. He took one last look for the night at HABLA USTED before submitting to the desire for a drink. But who was that man at one of the half-drawn windows? Not a question he wanted asking, exactly. How could an impossibility happen? The male figure once seen, was gone, and could easily have been mistaken for one of the three Aunts. He decided not to follow it up. He had enough problems and he shuffled slowly, almost against his own will, towards the Spread Eagle pub.

Mildred tried to get the others to bed. She liked making sure the fire was damped down (after Tania's careless poking), lightly Ewbanking the carpet to paddle-brush up the odd macaroon speck, turning off all the lights ... an endless list of chores if she tried to tot them up. She had certainly had enough chat about Kuala Lumpur tonight to last her a lifetime. If all the so-called facts about that godforsaken place could be paraphrased and documented it would be as good as having visited the place oneself. She thought she knew London well enough by having happened to live there all her life - but Louise's Kuala Lumpur ... it almost seemed she knew it better than London, by virtue of being one step removed. Mildred shrugged - at least they didn't have A-to-Z maps of Kuala Lumpur. Or did they? She would rather not know.

In any event, Louise had already retired for the night. Only Tania to go. And there was no getting through to her. She was as inscrutable as a dead trout on the fishmonger's slab. Still waters ran deep. Tania had a lot going for her, if only she would come out. Not exactly shy. More stuck-up. She took after Deirdre, in that respect.

The nights were drawing in and, as Tania eventually gathered herself together, Mildred squared up Louise's crossword book on the coffee table and bagged her own spools of wool. Upon undrawing the curtains ready for morning, she shuddered as she imagined a figure lurking near the cemetery opposite. Could that be somebody undergrunting in the newly plumbed bathroom upstairs? It was surely to be a long time before Mildred could find a slot for her ablutions. That came from sharing a bathroom.

A goods train trundled by, not allowing Mildred to hear Tania's mealy-mouthed "good night". Asquew would doubtlessly come tomorrow to collect the rent. She would ask him for a rent book. Even witn relations, one should have things above board. The house shook with the train's passage, en route for London Bridge Station further up the line. Such sounds accentuated loneliness. She wondered if there were trains in Kuala Lumpur. Louise had never mentioned them. So, probably not. Despite everthing, Mildred felt happy and secure, convinced she could see her whole life, past and future, from all angles.

When Tania died peacefully in her sleep, the remaining two sisters expected Asquew to allow them to stay on at HABLA USTED, but they couldn't each afford half of the total rent he was previously charging.

Asquew smiled. The sisters were pets. They knew where their bread was buttered. At least, there was no possible motivation for them to have wanted Tania's death. Where money was concerned love often relegated itself to second place.

"Yes, you may continue at your current individual rents." He couldn't help making it sound business-like. Mildred nodded a thank you, for once at a loss for words. Louise tried to think of a word for her crossword but, as usual, she failed. It had seven letters and the gaps could only be vowels. The puzzles had been even more difficult when she lived in Kuala Lumpur.

Tania's last costume, the one she wore dead for the funeral, was not exactly a tour de force... Louise couldn't finish the memory. Tania had only passed away two weeks ago and what was a fortnight between sisters? Bitchiness was only one step removed from mental cruelty. You cannot divorce a blood relation.

Asquew decided he had at least buttoned down the identity of the remaining Aunts. Two were easier to handle than three. But he couldn't avoid the memory of the face he had spotted between the curtains the night of Tania's death. If only recognition could reach that far. Not a police matter, more a family one. No good thinking such thoughts. It made no sense to think.

He had indeed visited the Spread Eagle, but at the last moment decided to order a mineral water instead of a beer. He had never really believed in drinking on his own. Fred had been such a prat, but he was useful as a drinking-board. The fizzy water didn't seem to have a flavour, but it was equally obvious that he had lost his taste for life ... even as far back as when Deirdre died giving birth to his nameless dead sister.

Mildred looked at Asquew. In the old days, men had been men. Bob, her husband, had been quite a bit older than Asquew. He had been a man's man, whatever that was supposed to mean. Asquew would never be a proper man. He pretended to make money, but often ended up owing it. Take this house for example - dearly bought with Deirdre's money. He would be nowhere without that little windfall. Everyone seemed to die at convenient moments for Asquew. Even Tom, his father. But that was another story. Somewhere along the line, a family tree would have to be drawn up with no gaps. Like most crossword puzzles, the clues were sure to fit together.

Mildred and Louise did not talk after Asquew had left. The roof, he promised, did not leak, but a man would be coming round to clear the balconies and dismantle the satellite dish. With the docks closed down, there was a lot of unemployment in the area and many odd job men about. Time for an early night, thought Mildred. Slots in the bathtime rota were getting easier to find. First a bit of light Ewbanking to break sweat.

How someone like Louise could have married Nigel, it was all like a dream now ... with the added confusion as to the identity of the dreamer.

Kuala Lumpur looked more like London, for an oriental city. Amid all the mosques, there was one which appeared remarkably like St Paul's Cathedral. And the muezzins sounded as if they were wailing out newspaper sellers' calls rather than anything to do with religion.

Louise wandered amid the Persian market, feeling carpets, running necklaces over her hands, tasting spicy titbits ... and, there, there was Nigel, like a knight on a white charger. Except he was selling cigarettes in a booth in Leicester Square...

Mildred awoke from Louise's nightmare.

She was in a cold sweat. She could hear something or other moving about on the roof above her bedroom. She went to the window but the cul-de-sac's light opposite was nearly out. The satellite dish glinted, as if it might be slowly revolving. One of the house's turrets was close to her bedroom's bay window, but that night it seemed like a separate building, a lighthouse or folly. She was convinced she could see half of the moon shining through between the turret and the mainland of HABLA USTED.

Mildred wept, knowing that death was not as distant as it used to be. But all her tears would need to be eked out ... for Ruth (who was lost at the age of two in an accident with scalding water), for Louise (yet to be lost), for Bill (lost in the First World War), for Deirdre (lost in fruitless childbirth), for Tania (lost in her bed in this very house), for Hubert (lost in the Indian Ocean during the second world war), for Tom (lost from the top of his crane at the docks), for Nigel whom she never knew (lost through a terribly painful oriental disease), Fred (lost in his pint of beer at the Spread Eagle, as he always predicted he would be), for Bob (lost in suicide), for Asquew (who would leave no formal children of his own but was a rogue father nevertheless), finally for Mildred.

Mildred knitted out the clicks of night for a while. Or was it Louise? Even Tania? None were memorable enough to count (or list).

An undergrunt outside as the dish was manhandled away in the dark.

(published 'Chills' 1996)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Deathless In Venice

The House of Extra-Mural Studies had darksome towers rearing at each corner and Hyacinth Manning had promised to have me initiated there by its top Faculty. She picked me up at the gondola derrick, but she seemed different by night from what I remembered by day - for she was now literally dripping in her late husband's jewellery and sporting a waxen moustache she evidently (but mistakenly) considered to be fashionable.

We strolled, hand in hand, along the sidewalks, kicking dents into the kerb-paddlers who floated near enough to warrant such treatment, their exhausts really zoning us out, but we suddenly found ourselves amid the terracings of a night market, where some demonsters were demonstrating their wares to us few curfew-hoppers who were still about.

Hyacinth felt the thickness of one demonster's ornamented billy-bob.

"Try it!" she was invoked by the demonster and, if I had seen him by day, I'd've thought that the world'd gone crazy. Yet now, by night, he seemed to fit in better, since he wore a moon-mask and preened himself in black cockerel tights. To my growing horror, Hyacinth took the whole billy-bob into her mouth and gulped deeper than a simple swallow, whilst the demonster became grinnier than a round smile.

"Quicker than fast food," she scoffed - and we trended towards what we thought was the Main Street, following an esoteric streetwise slope of the land, eventually ending up, via several unaccountable ley-lines, in sight of the House of Extra-Mural Studies, the four topmost turrets of which vanished into the dark-choked sky. Yet the intrinsic body of the building was barricaded against us by wide canals and by the still inhabited two-up-two-down terraced back-to-back houses which belched chimneyfuls of smog from several silhouetted sets of stairway smokestacks.

"Well, we know where it is, but how to untangle these blind-alleys, rat-runs and back-doubles to get there?" I pondered.

Hyacinth shrugged and forged on, with me in her wake.

The grinny demonster hopped from zone to zone, dropping the more unsavoury parts of its body into the sidelines: but as soon as one part went the way of its predecessor, another grew for chucking.

By the time of which I speak, the citizens had grown accustomed to such busy busy busy critters riddling the streets with turnippy tumours as well as more dicky-dory appendages. Yet they welcomed this offure for their gardens: for, once planted, such demonster discards zip-sprouted as interlocking cauliflower-trees bearing, within days, great big dollops of putrid fruit.

"Enough to keep us going in these hard times," would say my old Ma, as she harvested the over-rich ruptures and melonheads from the meshed and mushy vines of her own particular zone. And, indeed, only the demonsters could straddle the zones. One zone was was as distant from any other zone by time rather than space - and, naturally, it was the commodity Time of of which the citizens such as Hyancinth and I (and my old Ma) had scant supply. "Give me just one hour extra before I do die," continued my old Ma, "and I'll use it to do good for others - but things being like they are, I've got no time even for myself." She was no doubt announcing this to her neighbour as they both tried to lean over the zone fence to gossip from opposite directions.

"Times are hard here, too," came back the usual response from a woman who patted her hair-style in an attempt to prove the existence of something or other. The demonsters took such conversations from zone to zone, zip-betweens toting message pads like there were no tomorrows.

One day, the demonster that Hyacinth had made more grinny than a circular Cheshire cheese entered burn-up on a specially energetic gambol between two tight interfaces. Thus, in transit, it dropped its scorched beer-belly into a field that was close by where my old Ma was pegging up my old Pa's pants on the washing-line, despite him having, in one zone, already died whilst, in another, he wasn't yet born.

The sight of something falling thus from the sky stirred my old Ma into saying something to at least somebody. "Blimey, another flipping flying saucer!" she told my old Pa's ghost which was probably just the wind ballooning out the pants into some figment of shape. A fresh wind, at that, for a change, she thought - with a grin.

The zones nudged each other in the night, like an audience at a saucy film. And from the tightening ancient furrow between the erosion of two chafing histories, there bloomed a bloatful of blood atop a mighty tree-stalk of mottled knotted flesh - one which threatened to encroach on another universe altogether. Infant demonsters clambered it like a school of zip-spiders, apparently zoned out and seeking a more likely reality. Their arcane cries of "Oo-Fo! Oo-Fo!" echoed endlessly down the corridors, betokening a game they used to play only in jungles.

Hyacinth and I, needful to say, never reached the House of Extra-Mural Studies or, to be more precise, we are still looking for it. It's day by now, of course, and everything around us takes on the customary tawdry welter of last night's meals brought back on a tide of nausea. The back-to-backs huddle looser and, eventually, we can see a possible way through a yardful of step-ladders - to the rear of the House of Extra-Mural Studies.

Yes, the sun's spiked on one of its towers like a lump of orange phlegm. Hyacinth's moustache runs down her chin like a Bogarde of Bogies in a blind Venetian beach-alley. This gives her the appearance of a child in fear of its parents, having gobbled up all their chocolate. Her jewels are now seen for what they are, simply slave-chains. Her tongue slips the prison of her mouth and scuttles along the kerb-gutter like a demonster's sickest afterbirth. Naturally, this prevents her speaking and, entirely dislocated, she dashes herself against the wall of the House of Extra-Mural Studies - without avail.

A prison always keeps its walls firmly shut to prisoners. Even a Zone Manager, as Hyacinth was training to become, can end up spider-whipped against the bricked-up bars, if a forced entry is attempted. Yet Hyacinth is more grinny than a demonster. I'm quite grinny, too. Stoics to the last. Being the person she is, Hyacinth's destiny is to be entrapped on the outside - among all the mixed-up kids and unredeeming lunacy that being on the outside inevitably entails. As for myself, if I weren't so grinny as an oval oo-fo, I'd be weepy, thinking of my old Ma who wanted me to become a better person than my old Pa - and, really, being a good person actually means being one. Equally, death can only follow life.

(published 'Hallow*Zine' 1996)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Both Sides Of Midnight

There must have been a full moon the day I was born. If it were not for the screaming, the doctors would have heard themselves tell each other that it couldn't be judged where my body ended and my mother's began. Her extraordinarily fulsome pubes and my fur, at the best of times, were difficult to distinguish apart, even by stroking, let alone at eye's length. And, growing up, you see, dear soul, meant my memory became longer and longer, its starting-point disappearing, as it did, beyond the womb itself - like a limitless umbilical of dead-end thought: dead at both ends.

Some people are so moribund towards the middle of their life, they may as well have died properly in some otherwise unplanned schoolyard playtime accident in their youth. But those, like me, who live life to the full, do not have sufficient time to worry about such concerns. I always knew, without even trying, exactly what sort of creature I was. Life, you see, was not only constituted of waking hours but also sleeping ones. I lived existence to the full, not merely life. I gritted my teeth and stared God full in the eye and expected Him to pray to me, whilst at my school, they taught us that praying should actually be the other way round. I laughed. Yes, I laughed - not out loud, but behind my praying hands, as lessons came to the end for the day, and we were told to perch our tiny chairs upside down on the desks - ready for the school caretaker's broom. My chair, however, I always balanced legs down on the sloping desk, the way God meant it to sit - more precarious, true, dear soul, but much more thrilling to see whether it toppled before Miss Crossbrow saw my wicked prank.

I had a special school friend whom I tutored in my ways. Harry was his name. There was often a pinafore-frocked girl tagging along with him and she was called Tara. Neither of them, of course, possessed the nature of the thing that I'd been born as. Neither of them, come to that, suspected anything untoward from their point of view with regard to myself - nor that on some days I slept even less than simply not sleeping.

Yes, on nights when dreams became real, instead of placing my palms flat together in mock prayer to God, I coiled them into conch shapes and horned through them - a baying, a howl, a wail, a roar, a siren screech: or all of these things at once. But now I'm older, wiser and fully aware that, if I am to go on living an existence worthy of you, dear soul, I need to make human dreams as real as mine: so that their dreams can later flesh out my own dreams when the need comes - since it is true, you see, that without such sustenance, I must eventually release hold of the umbilical universe, having by then only brittle claws to cling on with.

Harry married Tara. I sometimes wonder if it was my doing thay they fell in love in the first place. With my presence making them second best to each other, this factor became common ground between them.

Later, I grew to need their protection as a couple. When the three of us were still ten, I whispered secrets in their ears, first to Harry, then to Tara, secrets which inevitably became their own secrets from each other, dire secrets, deadly secrets, secrets that bound them inextricably to you, dear soul. Thus, I should not have been surprised when they invited me to live with them as their lodger, after the marriage. But they had, by then, forgotten the childishness of secrets transferred at playtime in the schoolyard. Humans always devalue their past that way. Only special creatures like you, dear soul, can remain endebted to your circle of durations: pasts, presents, futures, all wheeling around the moment that is none of these things, the continuous moment of fear and sorrow, the core moment which the evil of joy cannot possibly besmirch.

Yes, Harry and Tara became my step-parents, in all but name - and their own eventual children were my siblings despite these siblings calling me Uncle. It was as if Harry and Tara instinctively felt some responsibility to the lost soul that had once befriended them when they needed it most amid the dream-ringed islands of childhood.

If Harry and Tara remain mere names for cardboard cut-outs, I shall not be able to cast them into the roles I have in store for them. Even actors need the underpinning of their own personalities to bring to their parts. They require strengths and weaknesses: the latter to prove them real, the former to stiffen the vessels they will provide for my dreams, dreams that might otherwise burst like bubbles. So, yes, dear soul, we must spend some little time fleshing out Harry and Tara.

Meanwhile, I escape into the monthly punctuations of my endless night. But you have no need, dear soul, to be put through such ordeals. You simply watch, for your own benefit, seeing the creamy-pink skin choking and sprouting wiry fluff, as if the pores are lakes of sea and the flesh an intertissue of connected islands ... and the monsters bristle their backs: a hirsute archipelago of antipodal angst. Yet you feel my teeth with your finger-ends, fast finding my fangs with your claws. Swabs of tangled hide corrode your throat, worse than gagging on cotton-balls. Pubes forest out into bouquets of undead passion-flowers. You hear the Devil bending your ear: not praying to you, as God sometimes did, but urging, exhorting, whipping you up into a frenzy of fur...

Harry and Tara, inside the house, hear you howling from the other side of the parlour window. They shrug. They believe all their children are tucked up safely together in the nursery upstairs. Like most people nowadays, they stay home at night, for the simple fear of going out. The television keeps them indoors, not only through the sheer delight of its entertainment but also with its frightening depiction of the so-called evil that lives outside both sides of midnight.

The beast they hear every month within the precinct of their garden is, they believe, just another case in point: probably one of the many unemployed on a drug gig. Tara shrugs. She has shrugged so often, her shoulders are level with her once beautiful eyes. She turns up the volume of the mind-snatching television and then, as if in challenge, tries to speak above it:

"There's never anything on."

Self-evidently, there is at least something on. What she means is that there's nothing on she wants to watch, but watch it she does, nevertheless. Harold nods in agreement. He has nodded so often, his nose is in his lap.

He says nothing: Shall I try another channel?

And without waiting even for a silent reply, Harold remotely zaps out, eyes glazed, mind in suspended animation ... finger pumping uselessly upon the numbered pads of the remote control. The scratching on the parlour window goes unnoticed. The rising shrieks from the nursery, too. A nightmare of rough schoolyard play. Followed by a dream of Father Christmas coming down the vestigial chimney like Red Riding Hood in drag. The Soot Queen.

I could no longer foist myself on Harry and Tara - nor blame them for the strange twists of reality dressed up as imagination. They'd never be able to be vessels for anything but themselves. I wanted to smash through the couple's double-glazed windows and somehow prove I wasn't snug as a bug in a rug with the rest of their children upstairs - although, dear soul, you were up there, weren't you, aren't you? Nuzzling those very children: disguised as a pet puppy dog with praying paws - a chip off my old furry block. You were to be a Christmas present from Santa Claws. And, with a smile of near compassion, I snuck away into another part of the benighted suburbs to find stronger story characters than Harry and Tara.

The Lady of Night: your real mother of death: she opens her largest valve and draws in the umbilical blood-vessel upon which you've been threaded since that terrible day in the schoolyard when your neck snapped beyond redemption of either pretend play or priest. The Lady of Night pushes your huge bristly outer innard so that it is now within you: whilst snatching out the previous contents of your body, dear soul, to make room for it - those human contents that made a simple kind wolf into a person-tainted monster.

Meanwhile, having found more human creatures to flesh out elsewhere, I wonder whose soul you wield now, dear zombie.

(published ‘Enter The Realm’ 1994)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Backseat Dreamer

Many of the vehicles had been abandoned with no regard for the white lines that marked out the allotted spaces in the carpark. The snow that had covered the area had subsequently melted, thus giving an excuse for careless parking.

A shapely woman in a scanty frock approached the barrier, whereupon the ticket-dispenser machine thought she was a thing on wheels and handed her a reminder of the date and time printed on a stiff hard-to-lose card. She forthwith flicked it away into the darkness, as if participating in one of those ancient school-playground cigarette-card games—the blind-man's buff version.

She remembered that she sought a car (one with its headlights switched on) and a registration-plate matching the letters and numbers tattooed on her left breast—a combination she'd meticulously memorised the night before. If she ever turned into a nameless corpse, her compatriots would be in no doubt that it was her. The whereabouts of such a corpse would indicate the successful outcome of her mission—or not.

Yet none of the cars were alight. They simply squatted there like extinct baby-pods of prehistoric monster berserkers. She wandered in and out, unworried as to the floweriness of her own thoughts' language. She had been brainwashed only to take the illogical for granted. Amid the haywire aisles of scattered metal, she peered through the windows to ascertain the nature of any occupants and, if there were any, whether they were still alive and communicado. Not that she really wanted anything but an empty car. But the confusion derived from her training to seek that for which she did not seek, in the hope that such obliquity would lead her—by accident—to the thing she actually sought without knowing she sought it.

The sky had just started to activate sprinkler-systems of disabled snow, which seeped as sleet into her skimpy clothes, making her shiver...

The headlights came on suddenly. Not merely one or, even, two. All the cars broke their vows of silence and erupted into a life which, if the very beginning of the world had been witnessed, this would appear to be its obverse at the very end of time. An abrupt awakening as a prelude to death. She was caught in the cross-glares, eyes blinking, heart thumping, her mind full with memories of those shafts of twirling lateral light stirring the war-stricken night of her youth.

Having used confusion as a subterfuge for clarity, she could hardly recall how she had clambered into one of the cars and driven it from the car park. Even without the all-important card, the barrier had lifted of its own accord, knowing that, if it had not, it would have been smashed to smithereens. Even stones did bleed in certain phases of the cold blue moon.

She steered quickly through the slanting icicles of rain, her high-heeled feet playing the engine like a bass organ. She knew the bomb in the boot may also have had a life of its own, its short fuse matched to her own feminine one.

The streets through which she drove were completely unfamiliar but, at the same time, she knew exactly when to take certain turnings. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she thought she could discern the dark shape of someone sitting in the backseat. Yet, darkness, when it saw fit, could take whatever fumbling form it wanted.

Ah, there was a bridge: a mock-gothic affair which the street lighting moulded from almost nothing, so as to allow the river (or was it a railway track?) to be traversed as the crow (a very special crow) would drive. Was she mad? She felt an embodiment of someone else's dream. She felt calm, as she was certain that she had been warned about the encroachment of such madness. Madness was what made the job so dangerous. She would need to compare notes.

Driving to a halt at the brink of the bridge, she turned to see who may have been backseat-driving. But nobody there, only a pile of what appeared to be unwanted rubble from a building site.

She left the car and walked round to the rear where she could see tyre-tracks in the snow leading up to the back-wheels. The sleet had in fact resumed its snow disguise after settling. The marks were more akin to skids, as if she'd screeched to a halt and, on returning to the front, she saw why: the inky cut was just out of sight beyond the gaze of the headlights. The bridge was a cartilaginously cantilevered mass of pulsing flesh, ribbed further with engorged veins, parts fluted with perfectly linear tumours, other areas haphazardly sown with knobbly cancers beyond even the manufacture of crazy modern sculptors in clay or any other medium, and the pinions and stanchions upholstered with scarlet haunches of clumsily sawn meat—all being wrapped by snow and, conversely, dyeing it.

Tentatively, she first-footed upon the near edge of slimy gristle. It moved under her, as if hurt by her stilletoes. She shuffled forward, testing all the time, because the snow made nonsense of the structure's hidden strengths—like walking on a hammock, but with underlays of breathing, if not burping, animal-fat.

Halfway across, she looked back at the car, which immediately doused its lights as it trundled engineless in her wake. She was thus left invisible to anybody keeping watch. They could only guess whether she had reached the other side, before the boot blew...

Morning brought communal waking, with news of yet another car-bomb outrage. "Carnage leads nowhere," said the Prime Minsiter on the wireless. Nobody, however, appreciated the kindness of the terrorists in arranging for the mayhem to pre-date the bombblast. It lent a certain inevitability, if not an excuse.

Beneath the snow, there was a conical piece of rip-edged flesh with a coded message (D679 BBY) branded upon it. It was never discovered, so nobody would have to face such mystery; nobody would need to explain how a dream could leave bits of itself in the real world. Whatever the case, no party admitted responsibility.

(published 'Rictus' 1994)

Friday, July 22, 2005

And More

The reflection in the mirror
Turned her stomach. A scrap of paper,
As if stuck to the glass—
She could reach to peel it,
But felt nails clinking on the hard surface.
Tantalisingly beyond reach.
Even in backward mirror-script,
She could sense its stomach-turning.
Man came into the bathroom, a stolid individual—a fireman
Of the first water, with brylcreemed hair.
The marriage had indeed been a series of fire-fighting.
The odd burst of flame from a once moribund fire in the old days' coal-grate. The sudden ignition of a garden bonfire after hope had been given up of it ever catching. The chimney fire streaming smoke and setting all the local kids a-goggling—as they ceased, momentarily, their game of hopscotch or hide-and-seek. The conflagration that beset a local factory—a memory from childhood that would remain beyond the reach even of the final fire of all: a seething furnace which nothing at all could douse.
The marriage and more.
Now old, the man still retained
Deep respect for anything untoward.
Alert for any emergency. Lack of imagination
Prevented him being scared of anything.
Sanity was his watchword.
Approaching the mirror,
Devastated to see the reflection
Of a woman's face—blushing
To the roots.
He no longer had stomach for it.
Wife cremated only yesterday;
Not even left a suicide note.
And more.

(published 'Edgar' 1999)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Princess And The Rose

A collaboration with P Jeffery & B Lewis

Published 'Broadsword' 1995

The princess, wandering amid beds of bright flowers and along avenues of cool fountains, paused to place her nose to the delicately involuted petals of a rose. In the soft earth at her foot was a double slotted depression, as though a pig had rooted amongst these royal bowers. I felt sure that the princess had failed to observe the mark. Lurking in the shadow of the trellis where the honeysuckle twines, I observed all. Such is my station.

For sixteen seconds, and the twelfth part of a seventeenth, the princess paused, nose to petal. I measured the time by the pulse at my wrist. All has to be set down to twenty-four decimal places in the royal accounts. Once, I recall, old Scalthwaite had forgotten to carry a nought - well, the less said about him the better.

The princess passed on her way, and it was time for me to leap from cover. Four seconds later, the slots were obliterated and the spilt rose pollen swept away. A droplet of fountain spray clung to the wrong leaf. That, too, I righted.

When she stopped by the lily pond, I was under the water, staring up. If she saw my eye, unwinking, she must have taken it for a fish. A willow leaf circled downwards. More mess to which I must later attend. As she walked towards the house, I levered myelf from the pond - not forgetting to ensure, of course, that its surface was left exactly as I had found it.

I knew she would not turn back, because she never did. Despite her carelessness, she was most precise in her habits. One walk around the garden and it was time for her slumber. Never would she discover me fussing in her wake - since that would make her late for Scalthwaite who kept a strict reckoning of her whereabouts. In her world, the timetables were more awesome than anything - even than God. But that didn’t mean she could skimp on her allowance of minutes for praying to God, of course.

But suddenly, she spotted me climbing from the pond and returning an autumn windfall to its stalk. I was aghast. How would she view me? I knew myself to be uglier than most misplaced things.

“Why have you been cleaning up after me for all these years?”

Her voice was even lovelier than her face, if that were possible. It was the first time I’d heard it.

“Because - I love you, sweet princess.”

I noticed that she winced as if my voice were tree bark become sound.

“Follow me,” she instructed. “At least you seem to be experienced at that.”

Her soft steps took me to the lily pond where she wrapped me in her smooth arms. However, she had trodden accidentally upon her beloved rose. She screamed as she saw the petals drop slowly from the flower’s crimson heart. Her body shook with horror, threatening, 1ike the beautiful bloom she was, to crumble in the process. Crying, I stroked her hair in the crazy belief that it might revive her - but clumps came out in my hand. I shall never forget the way she smiled her last smile as I scuttled off to allow Scalthwaite and some other servants to carry her inside. But he had overestimated the number of servants required, in view of the lightness she was fast becoming.

A smile is not the mouth. It’s what a mouth does. So a ghost is not its body. Merely what a body does. I grab my broom and decide to answer this renewed call to duty for the residual moments of my own life, because now I truly sweep what makes me weep - watched, if only by her smile.