Friday, May 23, 2008

The Prince's Wood

Published 'Sierra Heaven' 1996

There was a Prince who loved the river flowing through the beautiful birdsong wood. Although the Prince owned the wood, he wondered if he owned the river or, at least, that part of the river flowing through his wood or, at the very least, the river-bed under that part of the river flowing through his wood or, at the very very least, the edges of the river-bank.

Such considerations regarding the rights of ownership stirred him further to consider things—and one such consideration related to the air directly above the wood's winding river. Indeed, what about all the air in the wood? And then, of course, there was the sky itself above the wondrous wood—and one must not forget the earth reaching from below the wood towards the Antipodes—and beyond.

The Prince sat in his beautiful birdsong wood musing upon considerations that fed further considerations until his brow furrowed.

And while he sat musing, he dabbled his toes in the flowing river itself and, thus, he mused not only upon the edge of the river-bank but also upon the edge of the selfsame river-bank both by subject-matter and position of his posterior.

He wondered if, at the very very very least, he owned his own toes.

But further considerations ceased as, suddenly, the wood erupted with squawks of birds scattering from the Prince's trees into the wide blue sky.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trooping the Colour

Published 'Footsteps' 1996

The disturbance at the dead of night was the sound of a nose-bleed. And Donald was so ashamed of the fuss and bother, he decided to make it up to his wife and, on the spur of the moment, said:

"How about going up to see Trooping the Colour in London, today?" He smiled, automatically fingering his nose which had caused all the trouble, testing if it had renewed its flow.

"Trooping of the Colour? You're not usually interested in all that brass band stuff and pomp and circumstance..."

Mary was genuinely bewildered by Donald's suggestion following close on the heels of their sleepless night with his nose - especially since he rarely took her anywhere. She recalled the way she had needed to baby her husband, after he'd woken up covered with blood. In the heat of the moment, his whole face and head seemed drawn out into the shape of a nose, not unlike a horse's. Indeed, she had wanted a bit of calming down herself, after the initial shock, but soon realising it was merely a nose-bleed, if a bad one, allowed her quickly to regather her matronly forces, as she vanished downstairs to find a cold penny to drop down his back.

"Come on, Mary, a day up in London will do us both some good. Blow away the cobwebs. And you always like seeing the Queen..."

The last time she'd actually seen the Queen in the flesh was on her succession to the throne back in 1952 - and, even then, Mary had not expressed a view one way or the other. She rarely did. It'd been far too hot, she recalled. Everybody was sweltering, kids flaking out - and, yes, plenty of nose-bleeds. It was funny how thoughts could run in circles, especially the thoughts of someone as round as Mary.

"We don't even usually watch it on television, let alone traipsing all the way up there to see it properly."

That was her last word on the matter, as she went off to see if she could dredge up any more kitchen chores to keep her busy.

Donald shrugged. He didn't even know himself why he'd plumped on the Trooping the Colour for an unfamiliar trip out. Perhaps it was because he had accidentally watched Beating the Retreat on telly the evening before. Soldiers threading between each other in always resolvable ranks. The bands keeping time to the unnaturally fast marches. Just a smidgin short of goose-stepping. Quick-fire changes of routine. All for what? Mary's phrase about "pomp and circumstance" came back to his mind as uncharacteristic of her. Other words like "ritual" and "ceremonial" came to him against all the odds of his feeble vocabulary of thought. The plush flags with motifs betokening brave actions in history. Killing fields where they cultivated the cropped corpses of men and horses. The officious shouts echoing across Horseguards Parade. The rigid stands-to-attention, held for periods on end. The endemic patriotism of the Englishman. And, again, he had to ask. Why?

He gingerly touched his nose again. Not as if he regularly suffered from nose-bleeds. The last one was as a teenager. The sweet sickliness at the back of the throat. The fear of a body drained of its fluids.

Mary returned bearing two cups of coffee.

"Perhaps, we ought to go out," she said.

"To Trooping the Colour?"

"Yes, why not? What time shall we get a train?"

Donald looked at his watch and absentmindedly remembered a dream.

Dreams were often either recurrent or obsessive, dependent on the guilt the dreamer felt and whether the dream controlled the dreamer or vice versa. A particular dream of Donald's, however, was sired by Obsession, out of Recurrence. The dream depicted his act of waking up to discover sleeping beside him, not Mary, but the Queen. The most frightening part of the dream was not the fact that the Queen was actually there beside him but that she snorted.

The air was like dead meat. Indeed, far from blowing away their cobwebs, the humid atmosphere festooned Donald's and Mary's faces with sticky strands of its own, with not even a single spider in attendance. Mary fanned herself with a folded Sun, as the train trundled northward through South London. The desolate expanses of British Rail land was a junkyard of disused tracks, whilst the rusting rails were still on equidistant parade for potential use. All the sleepers were worm-holed, except, Mary hoped, for the ones which the train clattered above. The scrawny trees trooped brown and green, with tower-block sentries as intermittent backdrop.

"Perhaps, it wasn't such a good idea, after all," suggested Donald, as he looked away from the fleeting frames of a no-man's-land where people lived and with which he dreaded getting acquainted. Central London was at least an oasis, where strangers, being straightforward cosmopolitans, weren't as strange as those true strangers of the inner suburbs. The sooner he and Mary reached London Bridge Station, the better. The sooner they returned home, even better. Excursions were probably a necessary evil, Donald thought. However, the less that people went out of their homes, the less evil would necessarily be evil. People wouldn't mug, murder or maim each other, if they stayed at home, considered Donald, studiously forgetting the domestic variety of violence. Yes, he hadn't hit Mary for several years now, even thought he physically loathed the tufts of old-lady hair that were now sprouting in odd patches on her erstwhile youthful face and body.

"Makes a change," replied Mary to his earlier comment, with barely a pause for thought. Thoughts were not her forte. However, she hoped the railtracks held up as long as she was on them.

"Makes a change," echoed Donald.

Makes a change? What ever does she mean? Who wanted change, anyway. These days, even change itself had changed. The world could do with far less of change, to his mind. Routines were not half so bad as they were painted. Like Trooping the Colour. And the train passed the open goal of one end of Tower Bridge, temporarily closed to traffic, he assumed. Yes, he remembered. An initial study had reported that its girders were corroded and badly in need of repair. It had been originally built for horse-drawn traffic to cross the Thames. Come to think of it, only a few years ago, the Queen used to ride her own horse in the Trooping the Colour ceremony, side-saddle, with a stiff-brushed white feather standing up in her tunic hat. Now she was too old. The soldiers were more regimented in those days, too. More colourful, despite being seen by most of the population in television's black and white. No hint of governmental Defence cuts, then. Nowadays, the Queen was dragged behind another horse in a phaeton. Everything had a more burnished look in the Fifties, more spit-and-polish. Even trains were smarter. There had been a certain nobility in the blood. And no scandals.

London Bridge was bustling with visitors, many just idling at a loose end, some with intent on their faces, a few who decidedly had the air of being complete strangers, making Donald's hair prickle up on the back of his neck - and he saw at least one stranger who had more in common with an actual animal than a human being. Mary was oblivious to such concerns, wanting to sit down and have a hot drink. Yes, hot, despite the heat. Both Donald and Mary were dressed for cold weather. One of the few affectionately secret jokes of their marriage was Mary's hatred of the cold - on his behalf and well as her own. Indeed, they had not plucked up the courage to remove a few things, as had the cooler, if uglier, customers milling around them.

The question neither had yet asked themselves was why they had come to London Bridge Station. Victoria or Charing Cross would have been far more convenient, bearing in mind the venue of the ceremony they had come to see. And, here they were, looking for Bank tube, having eschewed the station nearer London Bridge for no accountable reason other than that the Northern Line was too deep for them. The Central or Circles Lines from Bank would be better, less claustrophobic, especially on a hot day, they thought. But they hadn't told each other the reason, in case the one laughed at the other's madness.

The truth, which neither could admit, was that they were lost. They ended up walking round St Paul's Cathedral in a rather desultory fashion. They returned home, without having the nerve to do anything else, nor even to partake of a tea and a fancy-cake. Neither mentioned to each other the original purpose of their trip to London, not even when they later saw the news and discovered that there'd been a terrorist bomb at the Trooping the Colour ceremony, which, thankfully, missed the Queen by a whisker, but had maimed one of the horses. That night, Donald dreamed that he was woken up in the dead of night by the sound of clattering upon the roof above their bedroom. Followed by snorting noises in the general direction of the skylight.

In the morning, Donald saw that the roof slates were covered in something black and evidently sticky. Some white tufted birds seemed to be in a parlous state as they tried to hop into the air from off it, only managing it at great cost to their plumage. The bits they left behind looked more like hair than feathers. Mary, who washed the pavement outside the house every morning, shine or showers, was quite aghast at this outrage. She looked accusingly at Donald.

"I'm sorry," said Donald. Which was exactly the right thing to have said. And they went indoors for a nice cup of tea. Mary's looks were similar to the Queen's, he had always thought. He squinted through a silver tea-strainer at her. She was the only person in the world who was least like a stranger. He later gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. The first for many years. She smiled, as if she knew the cold times were over. Or simply the smile knew.

At least Donald arranged a funeral with a token of pomp and circumstance: a local rag-and-bones horse borrowed for the morning, with tail-feathers and coxcomb mane specially groomed - and a bright red nosebag to discourage its head snorting around for chance titbits on the way to the crematorium.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Small Talk, Big Issues

(published '8th Issue' 1990)

The girl turned out to be seventeen, but she looked younger to me. She was working in a bread shop until her first University term began in October.

I had been staring meaningfully for days now, ever since first spotting her behind the crusty loaves and jam doughnuts. However, she had not met my eyes fully with hers, until one day I attempted small talk with her. I think it must have been on the subject of the amount of traffic in the High Street, since I always avoided mentioning the weather to anybody. In fact, I always think that people who hang a conversation on whether the sun is shining or not, are cheating somewhat. That’s mainly because, I suppose, the sun is ALWAYS either shining or not shining. Come to think of it, the sun is always shining, whether it’s behind cloud or not (or even when it’s night time).

She merely smiled half-heartedly and plopped the macaroons one by one into the brown bag, crunching up the saw-edged opening into a tight fuse of paper.

I think I must have bought more bread and its accessories that holiday than I would eat for the rest of the year. Eventually, she responded to my prattle with a willingness I would never have previously dared to expect. Her voice was as pretty as her face, although I do think it was the way that the bakery overall made her body strangely sexless which attracted me most. It was as if she had no pretensions to flaunt her charms, keeping them hidden like a surprise parcel for Christmas. I suppose she had no choice really, since all the girls in the shop had to wear such overalls. But the others seemed to be more careless with their top button or had bigger busts anyway as a result of nature rather than anything else.

I couldn’t see much of their legs behind the high counter, so comparison could not be made with my favourite in this regard.

One thing I could not explain was the fact that whatever time of day I arrived to buy bread, however long the queue was when I arrived and the speed it went through dependent on its demands, I was ALWAYS served by my favourite. She ALWAYS seemed to be the one who had just finished serving another customer when it became my turn. It was not intentional on her part, nor mine for that matter (how could it have been?), but this is what ALWAYS happened - without exception. And I visited the bread shop twice a day for a fortnight.

When my stay in the area was fast approaching its end (a particularly sunny one as it turned out to be, spending most of my free time lying on the beach), I decided I would need to pluck up enough courage to ask her out.

I had debated whether to wait until the bread shop closed of an evening and follow her home. Then, at least, I would be afforded a glimpse of her without her overall, thus, perhaps, releasing me from my obligation to ask her out. Whatever the reason, I did NOT want to tarnish her innocence. That was the last thing I wanted. Still is.

In any event, I did ask her out and she said yes straightaway, filling me with wordless excitement and surprise. During our little chats over the bread exchange, we had never reached anything more personal than that she was going to University in October (so she must have been at least seventeen, I suppose) and that I was on holiday, whiling away fourteen days until work started again. I don’t suppose she guessed how old I was.

Of course, she never turned up for our date. And on the Saturday, the last shopping day for me in the area, she was not to be seen behind the counter. I asked after her, but one of the brazen hussies merely shrugged and said she was off sick.

I was off sick, too, the first few days after my holiday. The doctor said it was constipation resulting from too much starch and carbohydrates, next to no green things and lack of exercise.

As far as my emotions were concerned, they were left relatively unscarred, since, if I am honest, I had been relieved she did not turn up for the assignation. I know she exists somewhere or other on the face of the Earth, even if I never see her again. And because of our relative ages, that will be for at least as long as I shall live. The thought unaccountably gives me enormous pleasure.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Simply Sick Again

Published 'not dead but dreaming' 1996

She had been through the hoop time
and time again, what with a series of
life-threatening illnesses, together
with more than her fair share of bereave-
ments, accidents and shattered romances.

Yet she made light of them. Her
heart didn't sink. Her mascara did not
run. Everything, good and ill, was part
of life's rich and varied tapestry.

So, here she was--simply sick again.

In her delirium, she recalled an
occasion many years before as a small
girl. She was skipping rope with the
other kids, well past the time when
twilight had given up its ghost to the
moon. Indeed, the street-lamps did
little to disperse the enroaching

A tall man appeared at the entrance to
the cul de sac--swinging his own skipping-
rope in time with the children's.

She shuddered, remembering that time.
Today, she is in the process of suffering
her last illness, but she does not realize
how final it is.

Simply from past experience, she
fully expected there to be other ill-
nesses, other diseases queuing up to
infect her--like romances.

The sickroom door swings open and a
tall darkness stands silhouetted in its
frame; the tall darkness swings things
that look like tubes--in time with her
heart. A heart that skips a beat...

And later she might have wondered if
she were about to fall in love--yet one
more heavy romance--until the last saving
stitch dropped, making the embroidery of
life's tapestry run like painted tears.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Ulterior's Motive

First published 'Beyond The Moon' 1994

The building, once a skyrise block, now sprawled along the horizon. Its central manse prodded the clouds with the short temper of a bed-ridden schoolmistress, whilst its outhouses and stables crept window- and entrance-less from either side, curving gently to fulfil an ancient ambition of the shellac snake swallowing its own masonic tail.

Knowing at once that this was the only part of the city which had been made independent of reality during one of the Tangential Wars, Glock had clambered here through stilted, stunted avenues of trees. Being participants in the Second Suburban civilisation, the inhabitants were glued to screens, screens which reflected only fuller versions of themselves. He need not bother them. He took no pleasure in surprising the unsurprisable. Time travel was to them only second nature in the fictional worlds they now thought they lived through. Yet Glock remained a hero in search of his heroism, even if this particular area of history was merely a way-station for other less insignificant, more heroic times.

"Who are you?"

He was startled by the brightness in the abrupt feminine voice. Wishing that he had managed to be the first to bring the same question to bear, he surveyed the questioner's face: a wanton, pointed vixen-like animal with shirley-temple curls, and loins so thickly bushed, he wondered whether the voice had caused him to jump to conclusions.

"I am Glock," he answered. He would have added, "Glock, an Ulterior who has been commissioned by the Future to de-haunt that building", if he had not already learned the big lessons in life: say as little as possible: and don't tempt synchronicity. She looked unaccountably relieved.

He pointed to the conjoined crescent building, now etched in marquetry against the most stage-struck sunset he had ever seen. The edge of the sky was almost audible amid its various interfaces of tertiary colours. Not one single sun, but several, dipped together as a well-drilled chorus line, gradually silting into the dewy-eyed pastels and oils that this particular universe had seen fit to massage into its moving parts. These suns eventually came together as one, to take the curtain-call of night, their overall consistency fast changing from raw jam to wild honey. Finally, with a magnificent feat of prestidigitation, the now combined sun wore a black top hat which was courteously doffed for the final bow and, more quickly than Glock anticipated, became as big as the whole sky's bowl.

"Pretty, weren't it?"

He nodded. He had not wanted to enter the building during darkness but now it seemed there was no option. Other than untested options.

"You will come with me?" he stated, rather than asked.

"To help clean it?"

He nodded again, knowing what she meant.

She took his hand into her slenderly fingered paw and led him along an unmarked path. Her sparkling eyes told him that she could see better at night than him. His friends, who worked for the Future in the past, had obviously primed her and planted her here as his guide, and he was truly thankful for such sweet mercies.

The building had once been a large stately house. It was now unusual in one respect, something he had indeed already noticed but not sufficiently weighed. The side stables had no apertures of their own, which meant that they could only be reached via the main central manse itself. He imagined wicket gates leading from the grand entrance hallway into the bestrawn areas, where whatever unlikely beasts were reared did nuzzle and feed, hinnying gently to lull the other inhabitants towards sleep. The livestock was taken in and out via the ornate central doorway, since they had no stable doors to call their own. The marble staircases and costly parquetry must be peppered with their droppings. All surmise, yet surmise based on the Future's map of hindsight in his possession.

Glock had indeed learnt, before embarking on this mission, that he was due to reach a cross-section of reality which was entirely independent of history itself. Unscarred by the Tangential Wars, it was thus teeming with such refugees and dossers that could not bear the brunt of chronology. It supplied haven of hindsight, even, for those who could not gain purchase upon any credulity elsewhere: for those whose outlandish exteriors were denied existence within most healthy precincts of time, since nobody really wanted to believe in nightmares. It was Glock's job to visit such pockets of resistance and rid them of any wrong-headed creatures inhabiting them.

He had no illusions. He was not brave. Knowing that hindsight was fighting from his corner, how could he possibly be defeated? Furthermore, he had a few old school-tie contacts amid the corporate machinery of FUTURE (Fate's United Timekeepers & Ulterior Reality Erasers). .

"I've got a key."

He could have hugged her. She knew her lines very well.

The double-doors swung wide open even before she could insert the key. Things were working out almost too well (despite the inopportune sunset). He was cruising upon a clockwork of well-oiled domino ratchets.

They stepped amid the candleflames that might have been lit to welcome them. The stench inside was quite unbearable: a heady ripeness which they could almost see hanging in the waxlight like honeycombs rotted right through. The dynastic oil paintings queuing up the winding gone-with-the-wind staircase dripped with a phlegmy-green pigment, particularly from the mouths and snouts of the depicted subjects.

"How do we get to the stables?" he asked, ever eager to get on with the job in hand.

She darted towards an antechamber and, by the time he had caught up, he found her scrabbling in the maw of a tall fireplace. The lizard-skinned ashes, he could just see, were sticky, and some dead flames were clinging to her behind like boiled sweets. He had always imagined corpse-fire to be more like flowers. This was the first time he'd seen it. Hindsight had never been able to deal with such impossibilities as cold fire.

With a teeth-grinding noise, she removed the back of the engorged chimney. Giving him her tail to hold, he followed into what he now took to be the stables. There were snorts and snuffles from every quarter: lambent eyes played peeky-boo with each other: feelers tickled his face as if he were on an old-fashioned ghost funround. How was he to see in such darkness, how cope with the exorcism of mutant reality with merely the sense of touch at his disposal?

"Are we in the stables, now?" he whispered.

"No, these are where the pets are kept. The wildstock is further into the side sheds."

He knew for a fact that he was not here to obliterate household pets. But he was now unsure whether she had learnt her lines correctly. Unaccountably, he half-mistrusted her.

With no warning, even to himself, he took his Lewis-gun and sprayed a splatter of ectoplasmic pellets in all directions of the sane compass, willy-nilly. The gnawing purrs and drowsing undergrunts became squawks and squeals of outright terror. The eyes extinguished one by one, each with a gut-wrenching sob. The noise screeched on: it could almost be seen as great swathes of darkness billowing like black flames of shadow: then tattering: finally silence. It turned out, more by Fate than Future, that he had managed not to hit his guide. But he could tell from the yellow wells that were her eyes rising up before him, that she was stricken with unconscious grief.

He felt her tail tug him on. Now she was not speaking. A female stoniness had settled on their relationship ... at least for a while, he assumed. More by Luck than Judgement, they reached the outmost stables by daybreak, tired and hungry. A silvery light filtered through the cracks of the wooden walls.

"But there's nothing here ... "

Only straw and a small empty manger, he noticed.

As he spoke, he swung his arms in unison, like a love-shy schoolboy. She stared at him fixedly. Her cunning-looking features snickered. She tweedled her whiskery snout: the saucy minx needed her rump smacking, he thought. Abruptly, with a flash of her flanks, she leapt upon him, scrambled up his uniform (using the silver buttons as gains of purchase), wrapped him round the chest with her pulsing limbs and forced her snout into his mouth, with the fever of some passion he could not comprehend.

Glock, with an Ulterior's body, wielded a vast crosspult, one loaded with a chunky lump of frozen ghost-vaccine: sprung upon a band of elastic spiritfire - and several bodily hair-triggers ready-cocked. Whether he was snooked accidentally into judder-recoil or, whether, indeed, he himself tipped the balance in all conscious righteousness of motive, he did not, nor want to, know. Less by Fuck than Fudge, Glock's grapeshot ricocheted beyond reality's range and brought, if temporarily, cross-concertinas of event into play...

He placed her in the single manger, where she flopped lifelessly, the maw in her furry belly having flooded with what looked like raw jam. Reluctant tears gleaming in his dark eyes, he curled himself up in the straw nearby ... waiting, waiting, waiting for the Future to send another less human Glock to rescue him from these trammels of out-history.

Tenderly, he shuffled some straw over the were's body in the manger.

Visages of Jade

First published 'Dreams & Nightmares' 1991

“Ask for me in my head,” said the doll to her mistress.

The girl tilted it and allowed the liquid to drip from the slowly blinking eyes.

Her toys ever spoke back to her, after she had already articulated their words in the mind’s eye. The doll’s name was Myrtle. The teddy Teddy. The Jack-in-the-box’s she’d forgotten. The rocking-home never had a name at the outset, which didn’t seem to matter today as the weather was so hot and she was spending most of her waking hours in the outside. The sky was so blue and the trees so green, she thought she was in a children’s picture book. A pop-up one, at that.

Rag harlequins and hand-puppet pierrots were stuffed into the toy cupboards of her memory...

Her elder sister was lounging upon the sunbed, the green perspex peaked hat making her face even greener and stranger than the colour of the grass, the skin down to the sharply pink nostrils dyed a hallowe’en mask.

The younger girl shook herself free of thoughts and returned to Myrtle. The doll was staring uselessly into the sky, for her mistress had left her in a position where the eyes could but open. A silver helium balloon, freshly released from a birthday party nearby, resembled a jet-liner shark, but with the waggling of its tether soon became a sperm...

It’s strange the way Myrtle thought, thought the girl.

She was able to hear the shrill voices from beyond the end of the orchard garden.

The chants of oranges and lemons made them seem outlandish: faceless children celebrating the turn of someone’s epoch. She wished it’d been possible to invite her.

The elder sister revolved on her spit, baking nicely in the over-ripe sun. The dark verdure had by now stained down the neck in ribbed smuts of seaweedy ozone.

The younger girl tried to budge, hoping in the end that someone would turn her face downwards into the grass, for the brightness hurt.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Look, Don't Touch

(published 'Not One Of Us' 1991)

William Fitzsimmons sat in the hamburger cafe, scrutinising the other customers bent double over their scratchings.

He speculated on the forces that had brought all these people, including himself, together at this single point in endless time. Why them? Why him? Why now? Why even why?

On the face of it, several people had arrived here to become inextricably mingled in this cheapskate, overlit, uncharacterful spot in the limitless universe. The number of other more deserving venues they could have chosen, for such an important conflux of destinies, was breathless.

William forked up a shy sliver of lightly fried egg and, chewing ruminatively, he tried to concoct a background for each of his companions in eating. But their identities at first escaped his grasp...

The dour-faced lady, with skewed spectacles, had been staring emptily into space, sporadically sipping at her cup of drink: the odd tinkle of less than best china picking itself out from the under-rumble of the cafe.

She sat straight opposite William ... but he was not the object of her gaze. It was something behind him, by the look of it. He turned quickly, only to find a reflection of the back of his neck in the wall mirror. He did not question it: nor the fact that he could no longer see the lady because his own image in the mirror was in the way. When he turned back, she had in fact gone; she had even cleared away the cup and saucer herself: a tidy mind, if even a vacant one, William mused. But surely she'd not had sufficient time to depart during that split second turn of his head.

He pictured her walking along the drab tawdry streets, umbrella unfurled against the endemic drizzle, her tears borrowing sparkles from the car lights. Her flat was a lonely place without her. It needed to be filled with a presence: to allow her meticulously arranged sticks of furniture to rally round and become more than just a soulless space of unassigned reality. For it was, at heart, a home.

She placed a small saucepan of milk on the back burner of the old-fashioned gas cooker: prepared to watch it swell into a mass of tiny cream-frothing bubbles for yet another drink. Almost erotic. But never consummated: she removed the saucepan just before its seething contents reached the boil and poured it sizzling upon coffee granules ... which in turn gave up their ghosts in running smears of brown.

William decided not to follow that train of thought to the conclusion which he feared he might reach. Instead, he turned his attention to another customer ... and this one did not look as if he were about to leave. Nor had the lady, for that matter.

The oval plate was piled up in front of the man with three burgers in their baps, tips of half-raw onion poking out from the sides like tiny children's lisping tongues.

The man had once been a father, but had killed such creatures who had made him such. There HAD been blood on his hands. William could see it also in the man's redshot eyes: evidently couldn't sleep because of the thoughts: those haunting thoughts which, real or otherwise, had used the man's mind as their own.

The man removed the lid of each bap and audibly squirted tomato sauce upon the wrinkled brown flannels within. Then, taking a knife, kindly provided by those that ran the cafe, he surgically separated a large wadge of "meat" and bap from the rest, speared it with the selfsame knife, opened his mouth as wide as it would go, showing a flap of the body which should be heard rather than seen, and enveloped the morsel in folds of munching flesh.

William could now hardly see the man's mouth: the lips were tantamount to a meagre rind of skin and the slit between them closed up like a healing scar. The cheeks bloated in and out. The eyes bulged, pricks of blood at their corners...

William turned away. He could bear it no longer. Staring hopefully at his own plateful as a source of comfort, the coiled frankfurter, with notches cut out along its length, looked almost akin to a diseased body part. In front of his eyes, it begun to unbend, eventually shifting a fresh tomato- half nearer to the edge of the plate. The tiny mound of softened onions weltered.

He could not endure eating any more. So, he looked towards the corner where he had not noticed before a young woman in a smart mackintosh sitting reflected by the interface of two wall mirrors. With a certain amount of relief, he convinced himself she was a nice person. The face was open and innocent, as well as disarmingly pretty, as she returned his glance. Was that a hint of a smile upon those carefully red-painted lips? The eyes, even from this distance, he could discern, were delicate birds' eggshells. The nose completed the inscrutable picture of Mona Lisa's second cousin, with an even more beautiful sister-in-sheen either side of her.

William had fallen in love with her even before setting eyes upon the young woman. It was as if Fate had once given him an advance glimpse, in a dream so readily forgotten as remembered, a memory never experienced until now.

The subtle mutual recognition lasted only for a second or two ... before a sharp-suited gent with a huge neck sat down between them. She spoke to the man as if she knew him and had been expecting his arrival Now, there was no doubting the quality of the smile.

William collapsed in upon himself. What he had previously managed to eat turned uneasily in his stomach, the various odds and ends melding as the chutney fermented.

It was getting late. The other customers had been leaving the cafe in dribs and drabs, without him really noticing. Whatever the rubbing together of various destinies had served to accomplish, it had not prevented any of them from extricating themselves from William's web and taking up their lives from where they'd left off before entering the hamburger cafe.

His last tale, evidently, was to be spun around the only customer he really knew to the bottom.

He pictured himself ambling through the same curtain of drizzle behind which the dour-faced lady had already disappeared. Then, fumbling for his keys which always turned up in the last pocket that he searched: inserting each key into the complicated lock system with which his wife had insisted burdening the flimsy front door: entering the gloomy hall where the dead bulb still faced downward from the dangling flex: keeping watch upon the steep stairs for a sign of anybody or anything waiting to cross down past him as he climbed up: finally, shaking himself free from the drag of the overcoat which, in turn, collapsed to the dowdy linoleum with the whimper of a huge drowned dog.

He saw the bodies of his wife and children lying side by side in the marital bed, their endlessly sluggish blood filling all the crevices under the floorboards: eager to start the sprinkler system that his wife had always wanted. He sniffed. No sign of that smoke needed to hide the ripe sweet savour of bodies too long dead. The fire he had left smouldering on purpose had burnt itself out before catching. The hamburger cafe smelled more like a crematory, in its own way: more like a charnel house than even a charnel house.

William Fitzsimmons came back to himself in the cafe. He had in fact never been a father nor a husband, neither loving nor loved ... with nobody so close to him that he could muster sufficent hatred to slaughter them. The loneliness was more than he could bear.

He may have to kill himself, as some kind of consolation prize in the league of passions.

There may have been no need, of course, if, soon afterwards, all the customers in the hamburger cafe on that particular evening, including him, died in severe pain of complications derived from food poison.

But no such luck, good OR bad, would allow him a way out. Only the ability to wander the city streets, staring at God's children.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ancient Ponds

(published 'Dementia 13')

The moment Doug entered the room, he knew something was eating under the table. It was the sound of chomping and licking of lips...

The flat had not been tenanted for long and, as far as he was aware, he was the first person to rent its newly furnished conversion. The fact that it was an old house was belied by the dogs' dinner appointments and Art Nouveau decor of his living area. From the window he could see that the garden remained peppered with the stagnant pools of an unusually wet summer. He had often thrown his used tea bags from his kitchenette - in his mind, scoring according to which pool he managed to hit. The waste disposal unit was not good enough for Doug.

He scowled. The lease said 'No Pets', well, in so many words... and here was something or other having found its way into the living quarters...presumably from some other part of the large rambling house. Perhaps, the new tenant in the converted attic, whose arrival was indicated by a removal van stationed outside when Doug had gone off to work, had smuggled in an unknown animal.

Various thoughts fleeted through Doug's mind, as he stooped to investigate: why the removal men left odd items on the pavement, such as a piano stool and a magazine rack (whilst they went off for breakfast?); the old woman waving from her front plot, one of those downward movements of the hand that expressed exasperation at the sort of things that go on these days and the calibre of people coming to live in the area; why she should strike up even a nodding acquaintance with Doug, seeing that he was a recent arrival in the area himself.

His hands rested like splayed spiders in front of his knees, as he bent his head beneath the tassels of the tablecloth.

Doug had been brought up by sunday schoolteacher parents in a peripheral area of London which only got into the A to Z by the skin of its teeth.

He never liked animals then. He had been under no illusions as to their parasitic ambitions, even as a small child...their wheedling, whiskered faces... filling laps like warm liquid, their tea-brown eyes raised in self-seeking pity.

If the grown-ups were not watching, Doug would sooner strangle than stroke their glossy pelts. Or boil them for stew. He imagined their upturned weltering faces rearing on shafts of seething gruel, mouthing a silent pain. Chile Con Carne often had bits in it that one could turn into tiny faces, just with a little effort of the imagination. He would often stare into his hymn-singing mother's cooking bowls, forming nightmares for his dreams.

He snapped out of it.

The past is just another dream.

He shook his head vigorously... trying to clear the brain of fuzziness. He blinked his eyes to clear them of the overlarge lashes. But they were attached to something other than moveable skin.

He looked down: a large bone conjured the tatterdemalion of residual he sank his jaws closer to the knuckle.

The old woman from across the way wandered over to fish the ancient ponds. Witnessed only by the new tenant in the attic, with tea-brown eyes.

The last thing Doug ate was his own tail.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Craters of Gills

Published 'Year 2000' 1994

Isabel herself swung an axe at a mighty bole. The sun lifted in unseasonable speed above the other shaggy trees, stage-lighting the forest-clearing in readiness perhaps for the grand re-entrance of a hero-buckler. Her voice picked out heart-felt ditties - ditties from those shanty song-cycles often forced out between oldster's crooning lips in despairing lullabyes, at dead of night when the deep pan moon floated into antique windows.

She kept a weather eye on the inn, where Mad Madge would even now be speaking half-truths to nobody but the ghosts. Then, wiping her face with the bottom of her blouse, Isabel turned in the other direction to see whether the ferry across the river was back in action. Old Ferdinand had been poorly for some days, so the cargo-stacks queued along both banks further than she could ever remember those henges to stretch. But most important of all, there was one area she scanned with more anxiety than the rest - the forest path along which her beau Claude had earlier departed with the earthenware jug. She hoped he would soon return it, brimful with the sweet coolness of golden spring wine.

Not long since dawn - even so, the giant silver welkin-fish which emerged opposite the sun were surprising for their punctuality. These were the carving mysteries of the heavens above, which Isabel had never questioned because, like the sun itself, they were simply always there. Her ancient parents, despite the blind spot of their lives between childhood and old age, said these smooth-lined fish had always brooded in the sky's heartlands, visiting Earthen by-ways within certain tolerances of timing. The plumes of fire from tails and gills were the strangest ingredients of welkin-fish flight. Isabel would often place her hand in mock salute above her big brown eyes, thus shading them from the glare, whilst keeping watch on those she suspected kept watch on her.

Today, again, she dabbed her watering eyes with the end of her blouse, fleetingly revealing the underswell of young breasts. At the back of her mind, she was intrigued and amused by the contrast between the ferry on its rust-cranking cross-river chain and the sleek silver creatures frictionlessly forging the sky.

Claude was longer than usual making my anticipated entrance and the grain of the wood seemed set against her strokes. Her skirt fell about her legs as if it had a sculptor's will of its own, the complex pleats changing like a map in motion above the pretty ankles. She was bare of feet, long since transformed by weathering into the appearance of fine-textured wood themselves. The other men who shifted around between fresh-cloven boles had only eyes for her, deeply jealous of Claude’s place in her soul. None noticed the hovering of one particular welkin-fish, in a proximity of which history had never spoken, even in the books which none now ever opened for fear of the pages being found welded together like spongy wood. The fact that none could read or write was another, secondary, factor.

The glinting underside passed over her head and then roofed the river. Even Old Ferdinand could be seen emerging from his hut, face raised at an impossible angle, curved fingers crabbing at the back of his neck. His ferry was the only way to cross - and his croaking words could be vaguely heard despite the roaring fires which cindered the tree-lines on the opposite bank. Mad Madge tottered from the inn, her drink slopping out of the tureen in her hand. She waved a fist at the intruder, her words, too, heard, but misheard, beneath the seething of the other welkin-fish even now settling upon the river's wide kiss.

Where was Claude? Isabel accepted everything in life, but not my absence. Adventures were pleasurable risks - whenever he was about to calm the nerves and stroke the nape. But, now, all was coming apart in her hands, fingers in snail shells to her smarting eyes. This squeezed prison of sight could thus discern pointed faces at the holes neatly arranged along the silver flank. Never even thinking that, one day, she, of all people, would be called upon to write new history books, the moment passed without her truly realising its importance. The humming monsters soared again into the sky, their plumes of fire eventually forming a corona of tails around the story-book sun.

After hours into days into bigger units of time than could be countenaced by brief existences such as Isabel, Claude’s body was eventually discovered near the spring. Her tears had already dried in advance of real sorrow's proof source and inner pain. She knelt beside the man she loved. Claude, was it? Wiping a sprig of hair from the tearless sweat, she kissed his dislocated lips with a passion that could only dig her deeper towards his mollusc soul. Claude had believed that the spring's golden flush held wondrous qualities of mind-change and, thus, it was his favourite haunt. His face was quite beyond recognition, but his buckled skins, freshly sliced each morning from dew-damp boles, were still clinging to his thews. His bone-case had become one with rank decay, however, my eyes blindshot and his inner carcass a taxidermist's false start.

Isabel married Claude, as had been planned, the corpse being supported (by the best) on limp limbs at the woodside altar. He was then placed to rest in the marriage cot, whereby for the years ahead, Mad Madge would help Isabel with the regular ablutions and worship of the human-soaked quagmire. As the age-blotched moon dipped to peep beneath the eaves, the two women crooned shanties, eager for the renewal of the river's rusty cranking - where Isabel never again chose to venture.

Not being able to read nor form words, her previously overheard recitations from the old books she had made to Mad Madge had merely been ad hoc pretence. Thus, the new history assigned to Isabel remained unwritten - even though the neatly slivered wood paper had been specially supplied for so doing by the forest workers who loved her. But the history was written, eventually - that is, when I, child of Isabel, spawned from my father's prolonged rigor-mortis on the wedding night, grew up and taught myself to write out her lullabies.

The silver welkin-fish have not returned, no doubt blaming the sky for an earth they now cannot surfly. Yet, at dead of night, ancient moons tend to ghost their way overhead into my dreams, with dead-pan eyes and , yes, craters of gills.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Pansy Pie

(published 'Cloth Ears' 1990)

There was a little girl, not much older than twelve, I guess, in a red dress, who came to my attention when I was selling cat’s meatfrom pub to pub for their bar food.

She skipped up to me and asked:
“What have you got in yer cart, mister?”

“I’ve got fat pipings of meat scraped from me ol Mum’s innards,” I joked.

She giggled an “Ooooh!” but, not really seeing why it was funny, questioned me again: “How much it cost, eh, mister? I’ve got a pretty shiny farthing in my pinny - is that ‘nuff for a tasty chewy bit?”

“It’s nowt a pound! But less of your questions, young missy. What your name then?”


“Pansy Floppy-Pants??”

“No,” she screeched in uncontroll¬able mirth, “Pansy PIE.”

“Pansy Pie?” It was my turn to laugh - for this name suited her down to the ground. Her face was as round as an apple pie, with a large spam forehead and eyes like large brown meatballs in lashings of milk.

I began to like this little mooncalf, despite her cheek. I decided o pull her leg.

“Who cut yer hair like that - your dentist!? Who set out yer teeth like broken fence-posts - the hairdresser, I suppose!”

She did not laugh.

She dipped her hand into the bottom of my cart and pulled out a particularly stringy clutch of valves from my mother’s lower endings. She also picked carefully into my tray of gnawing bones and positioning them carefully amid the other mess in her hand, she held it all up across her face.

“Is that any better?” she said, quite seriously.

A tear welled at the corner of my eye, for the pity of it all. I scuttled off to the next pub on my roster.

But she followed me, that little scare-flesh, through the encroaching murk of an early dusk.

My eyes flowed with something I could not explain. I turned round and looked at the dear Medusa of my heart - and realised that with no doubt I had fallen in love with her dripping mask.


Matthew Shakewell, the landlord, shook my hand as I arrived athe Jackass Penguin bar.

“Hi, Blasphemy!” he said to me, “how’s things? Got some juicy meatenings for my hungry microwave? It’s jawing on a wadge of used pork scratchings at the moment. It needs a lump of your choice cuts to suck…” He laughed.

I put my hand into my seeping canvas bag and pulled out the tenderest, pinkest steaklets. Shakewell whistled between his teeth and paid me a wow of a gratuity, which I immediately returned to him in exchange for a pint of the very best and a shovelful of scratchings.

I then sat in the corner and slowly sipped at my drink. But when I happened to look into the surface of the liquid, I did not see the reflection of my own face but the imploring eyes of my lamented mother. And whan I looked up at Shakewell’s humming microwave, I caught a fleeting image of the wide, white poppy face of sweet Pansy Pie, somehow desperately trying to tell me something with her haunting eyes.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Done To A Turn

(published 'Dark Matter' 1999)

The parlour’s silence (if a place could be silent as opposed to the things in it) was broken only by the coal embers speaking in crumbling and hissing. A flame’s lick had the last word, before darkness wedded itself to the parlour’s silence and became a ghost of something that hadn’t even lived.

Only two hours earlier, the place had been full of family life. The children had squabbled over the best position by the fire, the high-collared woman remonstrating with a boy who was the worst offender - that the heat did reach the couch if only he would try it. Not believing even his mother, the little scamp pushed his sobbing twin sister into the empty coal scuttle and hunched himself closer to the fire. The older twins were rather scathing of the younger ones and squatted on both sides of their father’s wing armchair… he, who, in turn, drew long wreaths of a cigar into his lungs and puffed them out again, as if there were nobody else in the parlour - unread book resting on his knee, eyes glazed...

Lizbie sat in the opposite armchair, shivering a little. As she was the middle child, she was accustomed to being left out of most games by the four others. After their mother had left the room, Lizbie decided to entice the others into a game of Dares. She really wanted to play Blind Man’s Bluff, but It was not yet Christmassy enough for that. In any event, the last time they had such a rumpus, blindness became too close to fact for comfort and Mother sent them all to bed early without a candle, as a punishment for not using a blindfold nor even eyelids.

Charades was a possibility, or even Postman’s Knock or Sardines, since make-believe was that family’s forte and they never had real toys, you see, or even Christmas presents. Yet life was far too real for miming and everything seemed to end in unspeakable forfeits.

“I dare you to play Dares,” piped up Lizbie, taking a sudden advantage of a lull. The younger twins were staring icily at each other in the Eyeball game (where the ultimate forfeit was said to be an exploding head if you were the first one to blink), whilst the older ones played Cat’s Cradle with Mother’s wool across their Scroogish father’s lap; the fire had settled to the point of optimum heat. Father’s eyes were now closed, the cigar smoke uncoiling in fairy words above his shiny pate. The other children, by their lack of response, indicated passive acquiescence to the game of Dares. The parlour drew quiet.

“OK, I’ll start off...” said Lizbie.

“Why you? The first one to roll a six should go first.”

Lizbie ignored the interruption and pointed to the girl in the scuttle. “I dare you to... put your hand as close to the fire as it’ll make a scorch-mark on it.”

The girl, without demur, as if Dares possessed a form of religious sanctity, clambered from the scuttle and made her way to the fire, using knees as feet, her small run-up of a frock riding upon white thighs. Tentatively, she edged her clenched fist as near to the glowing coals as thought possible

“Cowardy, cowardy, cornflower custard,” chanted Lizbie.

The fist edged even nearer.

The older twins had by now entangled their father in the machinations of their Cat’s Cradle game, like a fly in a web. He did not seem to care: a very pliable father.

As there reeked cooked flesh, Mother returned with the trayful of Royal Tea. Crumpets done to a turn, so thickly buttered, they swam on the plate. Dainty triangular canapes, each with an anchovy perched for swallowing. A silver teapot dressed in its cozy finery. A tier of various cakes, each one so full of itself, it dripped its innards upon the one beneath. And finally, a tandoori hand, on a bed of pilau rice, each finger smoking like a cigar...

During the wend of night, there were only stone eyes. The man’s ghost In the shape of stale smoke spoke silently about the agony of its erstwhile body’s searing lungs. And the parlour rasped its chimney-throat clear of last century’s Santa Claus - who had once dared to stay there forever.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Hoop (5)

Written today and first published here

She was a Victorian lady turned by the designer museum into a model of the 21st century, with anachronistic props such as swish half-moon eye-shades that she sported on her nose and an over-large plastic hoop that she tried – in an ungainly pose – to spin around her bustle-skirted middle.

“Stand there!” shouted the queue-guide, as he paraded a small party of adults in jeans and T-shirts past the Victorian lady’s clumsy attempts to be both herself and a model of a modernity that she did not yet understand – hence these mis-choreographed cavortings labelled: “Welcome the missing back”.

The self-conscious audience stood ‘there’ as instructed and looked up at the epitome of an art ‘happening’ or ‘installation’: the biggest selling-point of which was that the lady was a real Victorian, still wearing the clothes she was wearing when snatched by a latter-day Time Machine and planted here today. Her spoken English was so quaint that it needed translation. With no evidence to the contrary, nobody had before realised that people must have used phonetics differently then.

Suddenly, unseen by the queue-guide and the rest of the audience-party, a little girl (just woken from bed judging by her appearance) passed along the edge of the gallery slowly bowling a hoop – a hoop smaller than the Victorian lady’s and made of wood.

The Victorian lady alone spotted this small plaintive figure and shouted with enormous passion a few sounds that could be configured into: “Petite Madeleine!”

And with an unlikely Proustian grasp of the Portuguese language shaped into an alien tongue, memories flooded back all skewed and warped. A Time Machine was evidently not a very efficient method to heal injustice or pardon guilt or secure innocence or order the correct course of events. Time Machines were the cause of their own non-existence. Once you had sufficient scientific know-how to create one, you simply knew that you would never believe that one could be created at all because disbelief in Time Machines would be suddenly inbred rather than learnt. Self-evidently.

The small girl was no longer to be seen.

The gallery was quickly emptied by the queue-guide, leaving the Victorian lady 'installation' alone with dislodged shades revealing a real blood-smeared teardrop streaking the white of one eye from within the eyeball rather than from outside it. The saddest sight of all. Tears that didn’t need tear-ducts to become tears.

The over-large plastic hoop later fell to the empty floor and rolled towards where the small girl had seemed to have stood by the wall, but toppled over with an echoey clatter before reaching.