Saturday, 7 October 2017

Jimmy's Room - part 3

Dawned on me tonight how I’ve never seen Jimmy outside his room. Remember wondering for a while – and still now – if he’s got some sort of problem. Like agoraphobia or whatever. After seeing him again just now, I’m more certain than ever.

Was a good night at the start, listening to tunes and playing Tomb Raider. This time it was mostly Jimmy, I and Led Zeppelin, an old band Dad used to like when he was younger. There was this funny moment when we imagined if aliens were observing the planet to study human behaviour and they’d homed in on us. The two of us sat there, listening to seventies metal and generally chilling out. How the aliens’d be deciding that of all the people on campus, we were the ones who knew what the score was. Who were using their time in the best way possible. (Doesn’t sound as funny as I write it now but at that moment we were finding this scenario hilarious.)

Then, just as the night was ending, the worst thing happened in that Jimmy said he was leaving university. The situation is, he hasn’t been to a single lecture since getting here (he’s supposed to be studying political science).

When I asked “Why not?” he simply replied that he hadn’t felt like it; like his heart hadn’t been in it. His course I mean. At least I think so. But anyway he got a letter last week kicking him out.

Jimmy didn’t seem particularly bothered when telling me. Said it was fate and probably a sign he was meant to be doing something else. Said he’d miss halls and the friends he’s made, but that he’ll still visit from time to time.

Bit strange to say I’d miss him, but finally said I was sorry to see him go, which sounded better I guess. Dawned on me again how I’ve never seen him anywhere but his room – a few times we’ve been out as a group, Graz, Jung, Adam and even Sean, but though Jimmy always says he’s gonna join us on such occasions, he never does.

Playing Tomb Raider with a random selection of people dropping in and out to say hello. Next term there’s gonna be none of that. A few weeks from now and it’ll be a blurred, “See ya later,” sort of farewell that won’t properly sink in until the option of going up there is no longer around.

Ahh, Jimmy’s room … I’ll miss it for sure. But at least now I’ll be forced to kill the addiction.

Reckon I’ll make cornflakes with hot milk before going to bed. For some reason I’ve got a real craving for cornflakes.

Saturday, 2 September 2017



I was at the stadium watching the laser ball when the message came through on my pad.

Powhlai district. Kyweir Street, Lane 32. 4pm. White male, mid thirties. 5 ft 8 and will be running.

A cheer from the crowd went up – twelve points to three but there was no time to collect.

Rising to my feet, I cursed under my breath. Less than an hour, which meant no going home, no laser pistol and I didn’t even know where Kyweir street was.

Weaving my way about the crowd and searching for a likely weapon, my eyes landed on a child’s plaything. A metal stick with the face of a clown; discarded momentarily. It would do, I decided, scooping it up. I tested its durability on the palm of my hand. By no means perfect, but it would have to suffice.

Down the steps to the subway, I caught the first train going south.


I know you” said the woman. “We’ve met before.”

I took in the short skirt and colourful leggings. Strands of pink hair about her face and shoulders. Moving away, I insisted that she must have got the wrong person.

No, it’s definitely you,” she insisted. Her hand went towards my arm and I pulled away. People were looking and I was beginning to get a headache.

Not me,” I mumbled.

Yes, yes, I remember now. We had a good time. If you ever …?”

No,” I repeated forcefully. “I’ve never met you,” I said, backing away.

Her eyes … they didn’t match. There was scorn. Fear. A bright pink smile was there to mislead me.

We could have fun again,” she mouthed silently, turning her wrist in the direction of my own.

I shuffled to the next carriage, avoiding the staring glances of the other passengers.

But later when the train arrived at Powhlai, she was there again as I was exiting the station.

You’re so familiar,” she soothed, backwardly pacing in front of my path. There was another attempt to grab my wrist; her eyes, they were full of hate.

I never forget a face,” she almost screamed.

But you’ve got the wrong guy,” I insisted. Quickly I made past her through the crowd, to the line of taxis. How much time did I have now?

Let me come with you,” she cried from behind me. “You’re going to Kyweir street, right?”

How the hell did you know that?”

Oh, I know things,” she said, grabbing my hand and pointing at her wrist. Once again she attempted to match her pad with mine. “You’d be surprised.”

Just get away from me.”

You don’t know what you’re missing.”

I made it to a taxi. The door shunted upwards.

You’re not getting in,” I growled.

I won’t let you leave me.”

You’ll make a scene.”

I don’t care.”

I’ve never even met you.”

And wouldn’t you like to?” she smiled. But there it was again. The fear, the scorn. “I live near here. I could give you a discount.”

She pushed her body up against me. In the heat of the evening I could smell her sweat.

I have somewhere to go.”

Can’t it wait?”

The taxi moved along. A group of three androgynous teenagers had piled inside with a cackle of laughter.

The weapon hidden along my right thigh was starting to feel uncomfortable.

I have something to do. I’m sorry.”

Just a half hour,” she pleaded.

You want money?”

I want you.”


Another taxi had passed; this one occupied by a blind man and his robot.

You remind me of someone.”

But I’m not him.”

Oh, yes you are,” she laughed. “You’re definitely him.”

Two hands stroking my arm. Looking to a clock at the side of a scraper I saw that I only had sixteen minutes left.

I took in those hateful eyes. Something was wrong.

Who sent you?” I asked.

Who …?”

Why don’t you want me to get in this taxi?”

I need you,” she sang. She too was now looking over at the clock.

How do you know where I’m going?”

She began to scream. Fists pounded my chest as the crowd parted around us.

I won’t let you,” she wailed. “I won’t let you kill him.”


By the time I got to Kyweir Street my head was killing me. It was just past four and a crowd of officers surrounded the entrance to Lane 32. I kept my distance; with no wish for any further interrogation, I decided that whatever had happened had happened. A failed mission and no pay but at least, it seemed, the job had been finished. A backup I wasn’t told about – the risk had probably been too great.

Dropping the weapon into a nearby trash can, I took a left into Lane 29 and wondered if I’d in fact been lucky. The authorities would confirm my position as being far from the scene of the crime. I was safe for another day’s work. I hoped that whoever had done the task had been professional enough to distance themselves too. Six minutes past four, I confirmed, eyeing the pad in my wrist. The police had certainly got there quickly.

The sign of an eatery attracted my attention. Sky blue with faded orange writing: Lanka's Cafe. The name felt familiar and I swung inside.


It was a narrow place, about the width of the door going in. No tables, just a long bar with stools, most of which were taken. The sound was of sizzling food and shouts from the chefs; a tacky melody played in the background and the place smelt of grease and smoke.

I saw him immediately. Positioned there quietly with the coffee and pancakes I’d already decided to order. Just imagine for an instance what it would be like to enter such a place and see yourself sitting right in front of you – the person was me and I was him.

There’s no record of any such occurrence ever taking place. Superstitions tell us it can’t. That it would mean the end of the universe. A rip in the space time continuum. That it would be too much for reality itself to handle. But it must have happened somewhere, some time. Since travelling back became possible, there must have been instances … but as I stood there watching me and our eyes suddenly met, it was like a thunderous bolt had hit me for six.

Right in the stomach I felt it. There in the gut.

Turning back out and onto the side walk, I threw up whatever it was I’d eaten that morning.

About me the traffic of pedestrians swerved.

I retched up some more, my insides were convulsing. But eventually I manage to gather myself together. Standing straight, I wiped my mouth on a sleeve; thought about the figure I’d just seen. The same pasty face and parted black hair as my own. A different suit; the blue one I hadn’t worn in a while. The gold watch I’d forgotten to put on that morning. The same age, the same person. I wondered how long it would be before I was him. Thought about it some more. I’d have to report this; who knew what kind of damage our meeting had just caused.

A buzzing sound on my pad. I was striding along purposefully. Looking up at the zeppelins gliding between the scrapers, at the hover bikes buzzing past and at the people around me as we descended into the underpass, I wondered what I’d changed.

Credits deposited.

Credits for what? I thought. But of course. It had been me. “I won’t let you kill him!” she’d screamed. And I’d been questioned by the approaching officers.

Just a misunderstanding,” I’d assured them when she escaped into the crowd.

But somehow I’d managed it anyway. The job had been completed and he was dead, just like he was supposed to be. The job had been done and it was I who had finished it.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Stranger

I remember the first time I saw him he was passing me in the street and he shouted to me, “Hello, handsome man.”

I liked the way that sounded. It was a complement and I replied with a smile.

The next time our paths crossed he shouted the same thing.

Hello, handsome man.”

Hi,” I replied, walking on.

It took me a while to realise he was a neighbour. Two houses down from mine. One night I saw him go in there, a residence that unlike my own town house, was shared by lodgers. Through ground floor windows I saw abstract art and a faraway television showing the news. Near to the house was a bench I’d begun to settle down on from time to time when the evening was warm. The street was quiet on those summer nights. I’d enjoy a beer or two there; watch the passing cars and think about nothing.

One day, coming home from work I noticed him there on the same bench.

Hello, handsome man,” he’d said.

Yeah, that’s me. The handsome man.”

Where are you from?”

You know, around …”

A beautiful evening.”

That it is.”

I carried on walking, got to my door, shoved the key in and turned the lock.


Now and then I’d see him coming out of our local convenience store. Dirty shorts and T-shirt, a satchel round his shoulders and plastic bag swinging by his side. There was something about him. A sadness. Pity. I’d begun to avoid our little exchanges when I could.

Sometimes, however, I was lonely myself. On one such night I spotted him while out for a walk. I’d wander the streets to get out of the house, get away from the computer, the TV, get out into the real world for a half hour or so.

He was there, coming straight for me.

Handsome man,” he bellowed.

How’s it going,” I replied.

We talked about the weather, the hot summer we were having. Then somehow or other we got onto the subject of UFOs.

Up there,” he warned me. “They are watching.”

Oh yeah?”

They’ve taken me.”

Taken you?”

Before,” he answered, his friendly expression sliding into that of morbid sorrowfulness.

I backed away.

You, be careful,” he warned.

Sure,” I answered. Then: “So, you’ve seen them?”

I did,” he replied, looking down at his satchel. “But I have ways. Ways to make them stop.”

I asked if he took medicine. A cousin of mine had heard voices. He’d been put on medication. I considered the possibility of helping this man. Reporting him … but to who?

He began to wave a finger at me. “They are watching!,” he shouted. “Watching you. Watching us!”

Yeah, sure.”

You just be careful, handsome man.”

I looked at my watch; reassured him that I’d be okay.


An argument broke out on my street. Unable to resist the temptation to sneak a look at what was going on, I carefully slid open a window.

It was him, shouting at the drivers of two cars that were having trouble passing each other in the narrow road. Parked cars either side, it was a phenomenon not uncommon in the street in which I lived.

Ordering each driver to back up, to move forward, to drive more carefully … his shouts were met with embarrassed politeness. This was not his business, but who were they to argue? Best not get involved.

Inside the convenience store one evening I ran into my boss. We got to talking, an awkward conversation about work.

Hello, handsome man.”

My neighbour,” I stated, by way of introduction.

Ahh, hello, there,” said my boss. “Neighbours, then. And what is it you do?”

He sees UFOs,” I muttered by way of explanation to this dishevelled figure. To excuse whatever words he might come out with.

I live two doors down,” he exclaimed happily, while my boss shrank away in horror.


Again I’d pass him. Some days I’d stop to talk, other days I’d just smile. I began to wonder how hard it would be to make friends with this man. I was lonely myself, so why not strike up a partnership of sorts. I’d have to set down rules though. No hassling me every day. It would have to be on my terms. We could wander the streets after dark, take in a beer or two. Or we could become best friends, why not? I’d be doing him a favour. I could change his life.

Hello handsome man,” he shouted, his satchel clanging by his side.

Hello,” I’d reply, walking on.

Soon, however, I started to notice a change. There were a set of drunks who’d gather at the park, who’d sit outside the convenience store with their cheap wine and angry banter. I noticed he was sitting with them more often than not. He’d found friends, I was off the hook.

He’d pass me in the street with a plastic bag full of beer cans. Instant noodles. There was a lady who worked at our store who I noticed had begun to chat to him whenever he was in there. Before he’d been served with coldness, a glacial apathy … but he’d become more respectable, acceptable. A local, friendly drunk.

He’d pass me looking worse than ever and I was often the first of us to acknowledge the other.

Hello,” I’d say.

Handsome man,” he’d reply with a glazed expression.

And we’d both walk on.

But one time I saw him in the supermarket at a table drinking a coffee and I joined him for a moment, saying I had somewhere to go, someone else to meet. I couldn’t stop, just wanted to say hi. There was a queue and I had a minute to spare.

My son,” he said. “He lives in America.”

Oh, so you have a son,” I replied. “That’s nice.”

He’s a good boy. Very handsome.”

And your wife? I almost asked but didn’t.

Studying there.”

Oh, yes?”

He’s very smart.”

Of course,” I stumbled. “I mean, he must be.”

The last time I saw him he was with two older men playing chess in the park. He wasn’t playing, just watching. It was nice, I thought, that he was allowed to sit with them. I wondered about what his life had been like before. If he really did have a son. What he’d been like as a boy. Sitting with other kids in the classroom, the same as everyone else. From what I knew of my cousin, common forms of schizophrenia and such types of madness could hit in at puberty, other kinds more often than not hit you in later life. But as a child, he’d had a mother and father and friends at school. He’d had hopes and dreams. One day, when he was older …

It must have been over two months when it finally dawned on me that I hadn’t seen him in a while. Where had he gone? Whatever happened to that crazy fellow who always used to call me handsome man? I had a suspicion that he might have died. Either that or moved away. I wondered if he’d been committed. Cured.

That guy,” I said to my neighbour. A retiree who often stood outside smoking by his front door. “The one who was …” how to put it? “A bit crazy. Haven’t seen him in a while.”

My neighbour peered at me through a cloud of smoke. “Two doors down that way?” he coughed.

That’s the one.”

Dead, so I heard.”

He died?”

Bad heart. He was young and all.”

Older than me but younger than my neighbour. Must have been in either his forties or fifties, though I decided to not bother with asking for any confirmation over his age.

His heart?” I said instead.

Drank, you see.”

Sure, I guess he did.”

Not mad. Just drunk.”

But he was a bit, you know, I think he had mental illness. Maybe that’s what –”

“– No, not mental illness. He was a drunk.” My neighbour spat on the floor. Stubbed out his cigarette.

At the end he was, sure,” I insisted.

No, no, always. His satchel. Full of it. Drink like that, it’s bound to get you in the end.”

About a week later I walked up to the woman in the store, the one who’d been nice enough to chat with him from time to time in the last few months of his life. I wanted to tell her, just in case she didn’t know. He’s dead, I wanted to say. The news, I felt a strange need to share it with somebody. I wanted to find out more, about who he’d been. Had there been a funeral? Who, if anyone, had gone?

Would you like a bag with that?” she asked.

I hesitated, open-mouthed. This woman, I didn’t want to shock her with talk of dead neighbours.

Sure,” I said instead, handing her the money. Giving her the best smile I could manage, I picked up my stuff and walked home alone.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Jimmy's Room - part 2

Now I’m not saying every night is as great as all that. Sometimes it can even get a bit boring, especially when it’s just me and Jimmy. And then there’s what happened a few nights ago, which was downright strange.

Started off all right. There they were, Jimmy and Sean, sitting on the bed playing Mario Cart as though they hadn’t moved since the last time I’d been in there – imagine it seemed to them as if I’d only gone downstairs a few moments before, at least, that was the way it felt. No need to even say hello. It was simply, “Got some gingerbread,” and “Cooool,” and, “Have a try on this, Bradley.”

At first, as I say, it was just like normal: but over the next few long minutes of nothing I began to realise that something was kinda wrong. It’d been a tiring day with three lectures and an extra maths class, maybe that’s why, but pretty soon my head was in a right mess.

Paranoia set in and suddenly Jimmy and Sean were plotting something against me; literally plotting – they’d been waiting all day and now I was here they were gonna do something terrible, like, I don’t know what. Kill me?

I mean it all went from me happily eating Mum’s carefully sliced gingerbread pieces, pleased to’ve decided to go up to Jimmy’s room, them playing Mario Cart and us all getting on really well; me thinking that maybe I had two great friends here and how much better it was in Jimmy’s room than downstairs by myself … but like I say, before long the whole feeling on this night was kinda different from most and I needed to get out.

Thoughts of escape swirled confusedly round my head before finally I mentioned the firework display on campus; asked if they were up for it. Then without even speaking to each other they were silently refusing, showing a complete lack of interest.

Sean changed the CD and in my paranoid state I couldn’t understand why he’d chosen this moment to do so. Then it occurred that it was a two player game and when was the last time they’d given me a turn? Could’ve only been a minute before; the state my head was in, I had no idea and was becoming convinced they never let me have a go so what the hell was I doing sitting with them? Why the hell should I put up with that?

In a blur I stood up, saying I had to go see the fireworks, trying my best to be polite and not cause a scene – which of course I wasn’t doing, but with the condition of my emotions at the time, simply leaving the room was a mammoth task.

Next thing I remember was walking over grassy fields in the pitch black, finally finding my way to the top of the hill and being rewarded with the best firework display I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Fireworks after being in Jimmy’s room is awesome, I’ve gotta say. Stood there at the edge of the small crowd that there was, gaping up at the sky, completely taken aback by the whole experience.

Funnily enough (and quite randomly) Jung was there too. All at once I’d found myself stood next to him in the dark. Can’t remember exactly what I said but his reply was something along the lines of, “Man, you so wasted,” which I thought was quite funny. Although when I was laughing and saying, “Yeah man,” he didn’t seem to be finding it as hilarious as I was.

Same with the fireworks. I think he considered the whole thing pretty lame.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Jimmy's Room - part 1

Nicholas knocked just now to ask if I’ll be joining our floor’s Xmas dinner. First I’ve heard of it. Apparently he told everyone a few days ago but I was a, “Hard man to track down.” Dunno why, spend enough time around here. Guess I’ve either been up at Jimmy’s or asleep – make a point too of not coming back to halls between lectures if I can help it.

Man, we’ve only just had Guy Fawkes and now it’s an early Xmas. First term’s almost over and it’s gone like a train.

The rule of only going up to Jimmy’s twice a week has gone a bit Pete Tong, as everyone seems to be saying these days. Gotta admit though, it’s well nice to have somewhere to crash out – once the evening sets in, sitting in your own room with no one to talk to can get a bit depressing.

Last night we had a European Championship soccer tournament on the X-box. Sean wasn’t there, apparently he’s got a new bird, but Graz joined us and we finished off the rest of Mum’s gingerbread. Bit of a shame it’s gone now but they were so grateful and appreciative; totally worth it.

Jimmy put on the Radiohead album and we sat there in the semi-darkness, music bouncing around the walls. Jimmy, with his long hair and hippie-speak – all slow, thoughtful and intelligent – so easygoing I reckon he’d welcome anyone who happened to stumble by.

As always a few from their floor were in fact paying a quick visit before going to bed. One was this really fit girl (called Cherry of all things), wearing this tiny dress and after she went, we were talking about how nice her legs were and laughing about this a lot for some reason.

Giggling fits, cool tunes and the best part is I know I can go up whenever I want. Jimmy seems to love my enthusiasm for his music too. Reckon he finds it entertaining how I’m coming across all these bands for the first time. Used to feel a bit naive but when I admitted as such, he was like, “Nah man, uni’s the place to discover this,” and said he was kind of jealous.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Story 4

Thinking back now, it was a ridiculous thing to do. But I ran.

In a blur there were trees, parked cars and scooters, the air rushing about me. Why was I running? What was I afraid of? Had I seen a ghost or had the guy simply not been dead? But a dreadful fear overwhelmed me. I ran from the people who had killed him. Ran from the murderers who lay in the shadows. I was being watched, I could feel it. Either I’d been witness to a crime or I’d entered the ghostly other world where the dead could walk amongst us. Faces in the darkness observed my every move. I ran like an idiot. Ran until I could run no more.

Finally I stopped. A parked car next to me. My hand touched the smooth surface of its rear door as I attempted to support myself. I breathed heavily, rapidly. How far had I run and for how long? I turned to see the 7-11 in the far distance. I’d left all my stuff inside – there I was, empty-handed, no cigarettes, no dried mango. Even my half finished beer had been left behind.

It was a black SUV and as I stood there, I noticed the quiet shadow of someone in the driver’s seat. For some reason (or for obvious reasons) this scared the shit out of me and I jumped back, away from the car.

Still feeling that I was being followed, I began walking, slowly, naturally … feigning nonchalance, I zig-zagged along the road; lit another cigarette – only two left now; but I’d find another 7-11, start again. There were plenty of them around and there was no way I was going back to the first one.

The tarmac under me sparkled in the street-light. I looked up at the pitch-black sky. No stars, there’s pollution in this area. My area. The place I call home. But where the hell was I? Nothing looked familiar.

Behind me a car alarm sounded. Head down, I continued walking. The air was thick with heat. My t-shirt damp.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Story 3

Inside the 7-11 I was still shaken up. Everything seemed bright and, for want of a better word, normal. Unnaturally so. The modernity of the place, the strangely upbeat music coming from the hidden speakers, the cool, fresh temperature; rows of ready made meals and snacks. Beef and chicken stews, curries, cardboard burgers and pasta; sushi wraps, salads and yoghurt. I stood in front of the vast range of chocolate bars looking for something with a strawberry centre, trying to get rid of an image of a man with a severed arm lying beside a river. Focussed on what to buy my girlfriend.

Absent-mindedly I went over to the fridges, took out a Heineken beer can, opened it up and took a sip. My gaze flew over the shelves of noodles, stationery, pet food and bathroom essentials to the middle-aged female cashier. Busy with a clipboard, she didn’t seem bothered that I was drinking before paying. I took in her freshly pressed uniform and wondered if it was her first day on the night shift. The ice cold beer trickling down my throat felt wonderful as I took in another sip.

Looking around for other customers, I realised I was the only one in there. It was almost three o’clock in the morning; who would be around at this time of night? It wasn’t as if we were anywhere near the city.

Okay,” I said to myself. “Calm down.”

It was none of my business and nobody had seen me. I came here to buy some drinks and snacks and that’s exactly what I was going to do. My eyes moved to the cashier, her clipboard, a stack of magazines and the wall of cigarettes behind her.

Get some water, another beer, chocolate bar for the girlfriend, a sandwich or two …” I went over to the snacks section and decided on some peanuts for myself.

Now, what else do I need?” I said loudly with a fair amount of false nonchalance. “Cigarettes of course, got to replenish my stash. And dried mango, that was it.”

I doubled back to the snacks section and picked up a packet of fruity goodness.

With my arms full of delights, I went over to the counter to pay.

Couldn’t sleep,” I said.

The middle-aged cashier replied with a disinterested, “Mmm.”

Must be the heat,” I continued. “Summer, eh? It’s a killer.”

Shit, bad choice of words. I didn’t want to say anything suspicious. Didn’t want her to remember me. Why the hell was I speaking to her at all?

Three hundred and twenty-six,” she replied, making eye-contact for a fraction of a second.

Shit again. Wasn’t expecting it to be as much as that. But no matter. Not as if I couldn’t afford it.

I pulled out a 500 dollar note; handed it to her as the till burst open and she scraped out my change.

Receiving the money into the palm of my hand we briefly made eye contact again: I felt like I should say something more to this lady; no doubt she’d know what to do. Call the police over; she probably even had a button behind the counter for emergencies.

I found a body,” is what I almost told her. “By the stream. Over there, in that direction,” I would have said, gesturing and pointing wildly at the glass windowed entrance.


The sound made when the sliding doors are disturbed. Scared me so much, I almost dropped the change all over the counter. But it was nothing but an old man, stinking of rice wine and stumbling in for more. His feet were bare and purple. Sandals, loose shorts and a greyish t-shirt that had seen better days. Let’s face it, everything about the guy told me he had seen better days. His tufts of oily hair, his patchy forehead, his blistered skin and bony joints. His severed right arm dripping with blood. The guy went straight to the booze section, just like I’d predicted, and took up a bottle of the cheapest rice wine there. The really bad stuff that’s only really any use if you use it for cooking. The one that comes in a tall, thin bottle and if you drink the whole thing it’ll get you pissed soon enough.

Circles of blood patted onto the tiled floor, like dripping ice-cream. Pat, pat, pat.

About to approach us, the guy seemed to be struck by a sudden thought. Something he’d either forgotten or just remembered, and he stopped right there, about ten feet from my shadow.

Noodles!” he shouted, then began to laugh. “Forgot the damn noodles, didn’t I.”

His voice was loud and rasping and I stood there, rooted to the spot. Open mouthed and staring, there was nothing I could do to pull my eyes away.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

guest story - On the Button by Rachel Carter

“Zophar, listen.” Luna crouched before him on the pavement. “You can get out whenever you want, okay?” Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of the other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
“Did you Anti-Germ your hands?” Another nod.
“Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?” Zophar patted his backpack.
“And mask? Remember which pocket?” More nodding.
His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
“Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.” He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground.
“One last button test, perhaps Luna?” he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
“Yes. Quick button run-through,” said Luna. “Tell me again.”
“Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.” Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list.
“Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.” He touched his cuffs next. “Panic buttons. Now can I go?” The five-year old jiggled impatiently.
“Anytime at all, if you are worried,” continued Luna, “if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?”
“I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?” 
“Okay.” Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. “Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!” She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. “And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!”
Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. “Good luck. Come home safely,” she whispered.
Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being. This was better than birthdays. There were other children here. The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
“Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,” came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of “I want to go home,” “I don’t like this,” while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. “They’ll soon get domesticated,” she had said. “Everyone learns eventually.”
Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. “I can hold my breath loads longer than that.”
“Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,” said another boy.
“He goes swimming?! Wow…” Zophar stared.
“Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.” The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. “Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.”
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.
“Why are your buttons so big?”
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
“No! Don’t!”
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
“Please wait until your car arrives,” said a voice.
From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. “And remember:” she said, “shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.”
Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.
Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Unfinished Story #3 part 1


London to Beijing. January. 2004.

I look down through the window, beneath the clouds at the rough, mountainous terrain of Mongolia, wondering what it would be like to crash land in the middle of nowhere; if I’d end up having to eat any of my fellow passengers; whether we’d get rescued by a bunch of tribesmen on horseback; or pretty tribeswomen who’d take us back to their tents, forcing us to be their slaves.

The girl beside me is Asian, fairly attractive, and I guess she’s just entered my daydreams.

She’s from Beijing, her name’s Anna, she’s the same age as me and has been studying in England for over a year. We talked about how I’m now doing what she did. Except it’s kind of the opposite. Ha ha. I’m on my way there, she’s on her way back. Ha ha. Except she’s been learning English and … well, I’m a teacher and she’s a student so that’s kinda flipped around too.

“A teacher?” she asked, impressed.

“A TEFL teacher,” I replied. A twenty-two-year-old English teacher, trained for one month on a Mickey Mouse course with a Mickey Mouse certificate in his backpack, about to start his first real job in Asia’s famous capital. And ever so slightly shitting himself.

“So, can you speak Chinese?”

“Yeah,” I say. “A little.”

“Ni hao ma?”

“Ni hao.”

“Ni chu Beijing jiao yinwen duo jiu?”

I’m having to use my phrase book to write this down. My Chinese isn’t as good as all that and rather embarrassingly I had no idea what she was on about. She laughed though, a little patronisingly, and explained that she’d asked how long I’d be teaching in Beijing.

“Six months,” I replied, to which she feigned mock surprise.

“So short.”

Anyway, I’m not going to write the whole conversation down. We swapped emails and chatted for a while about the places I should visit, things I should eat and how as an Englishman I’d be happy to know that the beer is cheap. How I’m starting a Masters next autumn but six months feels a long time for me because this is my first time to be going abroad for more than a couple of weeks.

Eventually we ran out of things to say, which was a bit awkward, so instead of trying to keep our conversation going for the rest of our fourteen-hour flight, I pretended to fall asleep until she actually did fall asleep and now I’m writing this - staring out the window, feeling kinda lonely, deciding, albeit weirdly, that I’d much rather eat her than some dead old person.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Story 2

Still feeling the pangs of thirst I was thankful for the slight gust of wind blowing once I was outside. There was a cool, welcoming hush from the trees that seemed to offer excitement too; and I remember it was necessary to catch the iron gate at the last minute to stop it banging shut with a clang. It was as if I was being reminded to appreciate the wildness of outside.

I looked up and down the lane to see there wasn’t a soul in sight; although a second glance caught the familiar stray cat watching me from under one of the few parked cars along the way; two oval eyes reflecting the moon, stars; and a soft glow of street lighting.
I often enjoyed this time of night, the comfort of being alone; unnoticed by the neighbours. It had become my street; my world: quiet enough to detect the trickling of water from the stream; I could see bats swooping overhead; insects were crackling, buzzing and tap-tapping away in their nocturnal chorus.
I got down onto the floor and began meowing at the cat, trying to get it to come out; then giving up, let out a sharp hissing sound and watched, satisfied, as it scampered away, fast as a lighting bolt.
In the distance a dog was barking; then further still the noise of a car engine; ever so faint; but audible all the same.
I made my way to the end of the lane, walking freely and zigzagging around, picked up a stick, and then was searching absent-mindedly for snakes; maybe a rat: something interesting amongst the tall grass separating the road from the stream. The moon was clouding over but it was easy to see nevertheless: Despite there being no lights coming from any of the houses around, the line of lamp posts stood tall and proud. Like a troop of night-watchmen protecting the sleeping residents of our neighbourhood; guiding my path to the more inhabited, more civilized part of town. They nodded down to me with a wise understanding, an appreciation of my need to be on a mission for some thirst quenching rations.

In spite of myself and this thirst I lit another cigarette, the smoke hitting the dryness of the back of my throat with a bitter, though not altogether unpleasant sensation. I added a deep breath of humid air, opening my mouth wide, savouring the taste of microscopic water droplets on the back of my dry tongue. I allowed my mind to carry me briefly to the fresh air-conditioned oasis of Seven-Eleven, where along the wall fridges held all assortments of beers, juice, flavoured milk, a range of cool teas and iced coffees.

My thoughts concentrated towards the familiar ding-dong sound on entering, the trendy late night radio that would be playing. Not long now, I told myself. Gonna get myself a beer I reckon. Some fruit juice for after. A couple of bottles of water for the fridge and maybe a treat for the girlfriend: one of those chocolate bars with a soft pink strawberry centre. As for me I had a strange craving for some dried mango; something to suck on and chew whilst sipping the cool beer.

Imagining the condensation from the can (drips of water forming on the surface as soon as it was in my warm, sweaty palm) I hit at the grass once more, lost in deliberation, not noticing the man until I was almost upon him; almost tripping over his crumpled, awkward figure.

There was a pool of dark black liquid beside him which I immediately took to be blood. Allowing my eyes to further scan the scene I saw redder colours on the tips of the grass surrounding his body. His head was twisted sideways in an unnatural position and his left arm had been half severed from the torso; a wound I guessed to be the source of all the blood.

Somehow knowing that he was almost certainly dead I lightly kicked at his legs nonetheless: and then unashamedly was poking his face with the stick; just to be sure.

All this didn’t make me feel as disturbed as you might think. Most likely the reason for this is because he was old. Sixty or seventy at a guess. Also he was wearing a dark suit like bodies are often dressed in when you go to an open casket funeral and I was bizarrely drawing similarities to a great uncle who I’d only ever seen in such a state of death.

But unsurprisingly, after a few seconds had passed the reality of the scene finally hit me. In sudden shock I stepped back and dropped my half finished cigarette in the grass. Then swing around, searching for a sign of anyone nearby; curiously hearing a sudden splash of water from the other side of the river; and the noise of running footsteps which I couldn’t be sure was my imagination or not…

There was no one in sight though. Only the sounds of the insects, distant vehicles, dogs barking, my own breathing and the scratching of flint from my lighter as I sparked up a fresh cigarette, wondering what to do.