Wednesday, 23 December 2009

An Exploration

Duller even than hypnosis, this,
the sky bulging with its charity
of snow. The crested, toothpaste-
topped houses are mountains
a team of dogs could not traverse,
or waves that have drowned kittens
and preserved mammoths. I think
about the warmth of pubs, and twinkling
Christmas songs, and the polar explorer
whose ring finger became a frozen
blood-sausage and snapped off,
about how he was miles away
in a room as warm as your loaf-
headed house before he noticed
the pain of a phantom thaw, the dumb,
numb sleep of a bit of himself
left behind in the linelessness of snow.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

She Still Collects the Eggs; He is Lucky

A man came to dry out the kitchen with something that looked like an industrial vacuum cleaner. It was easier said than done. The boy (let's call him that despite or because of the fact that he was twenty-two, only three years younger than the man with the vacuum cleaner) made two cups of tea and watched the water as it slowly left the kitchen floor by way of a fragile and papery pump. Watched the accident disappear. The girl was not there.

The boy caught the man's attention and mouthed the word sugar at him. He wondered if he had managed to convey a question mark.

The man nodded elaborately and raised two fingers. A peace sign. The boy put two sugars in the man's tea and two in his own.

The boy listened to the gurgled sounds in the pump where water commingled with air. Subterranean sounds. The man had one arm on the draining board. He drank the tea before it could cool. His stance was nonchalant and slouching. He was looking out of the window into the back garden and not at the tools of his trade.

He shouted, You've got some chickens out there.

The boy was thinking about that morning. He had come downstairs and his kitchen was flooded. Pavlov floating happily in his basket. Not howling.

He did not want to shout above the sound of the sputtering pump but neither did he want to appear rude. He said, Yes, we've got three hens. My missus likes eggs. He regretted using the word missus.

He remembered panicking, shouting upstairs to the girl, We're flooded, come down quickly. She had said, You'll have to deal with it. Call someone out. I'm late for work as it is. At first he had not known who to call. The fire brigade perhaps.

He watched the hens. They both watched the hens. Two of them plucked gravel from the ground in the outside run. The third was out of sight in the coop.

They sat down in the upstairs study where it was dry and the boy turned on the battery-operated radio. The living room was still damp. Bin liners on the floor. Out of sight the pump did its muscular work. News of a snooker match on the radio. On top of the blank television set was a small framed photograph of the boy and the girl on the outside deck of a ferry to or from Dublin or Dun Laoghaire two summers before. He had forgotten who had taken it.

He said, It was good of you to come at such short notice. You must be busy.

He had no idea why the he though the man would be busy. He thought about the last words the girl had said before she went left for work. Don't let him do a half-arsed job, and don't give him any money until we know it's been sorted out.

The man talked about snooker, and betting.

An idea came to the boy. Not a good idea, he thought. Yes, a good idea in its own way, I suppose. He went down to the kitchen and got two cans of lager from the fridge, which was still cold despite the electricty being turned off. He tiptoed on the still-wet floor.

He said, You want one of these?

The man said, You know what, I will. It's not often I get the chance to sit down on the job.

The man opened his can. It had a picture of a bear on it. They talked about whatever was on the radio, called each other mate once or twice. The boy looked at the photo on top of the television. Pavlov, shut in the spare room, barked. The girl looked happy. It must have been taken on the way out and not the way back. He thought he was lucky. They still had sex. Sometimes he thought of that picture, or of other pictures, while they were doing it. Pictures of her smiling. She still liked to collect the eggs every morning. No, not every morning, because the hens weren't that reliable, but whenever she could. To the extent that he no longer liked the omelettes she made. He had been lucky in Ireland. She had returned with him over the flat sea, although he was sure there were no photographs of that return journey.

He drank from his can, which was yellow.

He was still lucky. He had told her things she had never meant to find out in Ireland. It must have been the drink. That was where he had really started hitting it. Where they had really started hitting it. Or was it afterwards? He had been forgiven, in a sense. He thought about the duality of forgiveness, or the infinity. He felt betrayed by her forgiveness, although he thought he probably had no right. Downstairs the pipe slurped and sucked.

When the pipe had done its work the man hauled it dripping over his shoulder with the adroitness of a sailor and said, That's all I can do for now.

The ground floor was still too damp to be lived in but at least there was no standing water. The boy said, You don't fancy another can before you go?

The man said, No, thanks. Busy afternoon ahead.

Friday, 21 August 2009


'Pelvic floor: thirty-four.'

Nobody shouts out the word 'house.'

'Prince Harry: fifty-five.'


Old Miss does a little cackle, wipes the cackle-dribble off his bare knee and says, 'I'm a lucky boy. It's my lucky day.'

'Shut up, cunt-rot. Outdoor latrine: seventeen.'


'Saint Augustine: seventeen.'

'You done that one.'

'An' I'll do it again you godless gob of spunk.'

The Caller adjusts his headgear: he is wearing a pristine white apiarist's suit. The Old People are getting restless. The Caller calls.

'A girt big pair o'Bristols: number three. The number three, anybody?'


'Old Miss has got a girt big pair of Bristols alright,' says Sir James Hollyoak. ''Specially since he had his dick cut off.'

'He's just a fat fucker,' says the Au Pair, jealous.

'I'll have none of that language, slut. Cheese and chive: thirty-five.'


The Au Pair gets up off the floor and removes her underwear, as if to prove a point. Old Miss gurgles as if he has vomit in his throat. The Au Pair sniffs her briefs and folds them into an equilateral triangle. The Caller, ever-patient, lift his mask and sets to work with a toothpick. He removes and savours a fibrous scrap of Bressingham duck breast.

The Au Pair pleads to the dimness of the room. 'Swap cards with me, swap cards with me, I haven't got any numbers yet.'

'I'll swap cards with you if you let me put my balls in your mouth for twenty-five minutes.' This is probably Sir James' proposition.

'Twenty minutes.'


'Twenty-two, starting now.'

'How do you know she won't bite 'em off?' The voice comes from the back of the room and almost certainly belongs to Jacques Derrida.

'Because she knows I might have AIDS in my blood. She may be a whore but she's not totally stupid.'

'Attila the Hun: twenty-one,' calls the Caller.

'Just my age,' says the Au Pair.

'You can't get AIDS from drinking bollocks-blood, any fucking idiot knows that. She'll bite 'em off, I tell you. Don't do it man.'

'She won't bite 'em off. She sucks bals all the time and I've never seen her bite any off. It wouldn't be worth her while. She wouldn't be able to swap cards with me.'

'Hey, did you hear me? When he said 'Attila the Hun: twenty-one,' I said 'Just my age.' It could mean that I am twenty-one or it could mean that I'm as old as Attila the Hun, whoever he is.'

'Shut up, slut,' says Derrida. 'We're talking about you, not to you.'

'In any case, she couldn't bite them off if she tried. She's got no teeth. She'd be there all day. That's why I like putting my balls in her mouth, not yours. It's the gums I like, see.'

'You're a pervert, man.'

'You can talk, Frenchy.'

Jacques Derrida blinks slowly and says, 'I do not like racism. We should not have to tolerate it in a place like this. All day long I listen to you vulgar bastards talk about balls and cunts and how much you hate the French. Well let me tell you I hate the English and I hate the Irish and I don't care which you are.' He throws his bingo card to the floor and says, 'In the absence of anything resembling a glove, consider that an invitation to duel, you spastic peasant.'

'I'll think about it,' says Hollyoak. 'In the meantime I've only got eighteen minutes left and the balls are not yet in the mouth. You'll have to wait, Pushkin. I've got my priorities.'

'Jailbait: number eight,' calls the Caller.

Hollyoak with his balls poised by the Au Pair's mouth shouts, 'House.'

'Go to hell, Hollyoak, you lying prick. You do that every time. You haven't even got your card.'

Derrida recedes. Old Miss rubs himself against a wall.

The Caller removes his headgear completely.

'That, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of this evening's entertainment. It looks like we have another rollover. That means each and every one of you shitbags has to stay here until next time.'

He leaves the room and locks the door behind him. Once outside, he flicks a switch and the room he has just left is flooded with a calming blue light and once more the Old People, at least the ones with eyes, can see each other.

Friday, 7 August 2009

First Thing

A sorry story: he woke without knowing
he had woken, still in the wide mouth
of a dream about a childless female friend
who was babysitting, at the end

of her tether. Their home town was a crater
full of smaller craters and fenced off
like a building site or an archaeological dig.
He saw two men by the fence,

they could have been friends of his,
or they were following her. Nobody
was tunnelling underneath, and when he woke
it was not like coming out of a tunnel,

it was more like dying after the war
had ended. He had no hard-on: sorry
because of this and because he went
downstairs to cook breakfast

and put his head in the cave of the oven, just
for a second or two, to see how it would feel.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

A Detective Story

I went into a noisy cafe where the seating was cramped and the clientele gratuitously ugly, bourgeois and complacent. There were many children. It was not the ideal place to conduct a murder investigation. Or indeed to begin writing a short story. This, however, is what I did. I began to write a short story about a moderately-respected police officer. A plain-clothes detective already descending from the dubious zenith of middle age. This gentleman - I believe I called him Inspector de Bleca - had a decent if not unblemished record and liked to think of himself as a homicide expert. Every homicide, he said, can be solved. Easily solved too, if you know what you are looking for. There is no perfect murder, he told himself and his colleagues on an almost weekly basis. But as you know, if you say the same thing too many times it becomes unbelievable or meaningless. This came to be the case with de Bleca's mantra. There is no such thing as the perfect murder, he said, but what his ears heard was something completely different, something that was indecipherable, uncanny and foreign. When his colleagues repeated it back to him it just sounded plain ridiculous. Over time he was beset by a suspicion that expanded like damp wood - a suspicion that every murder was the perfect murder and no murder was could ever be solved fully. The problem gnawed at him, as they say, and he began to lose sleep and weight. His eyes grew redder and blacker. He found an old hipflask that a great-grandfather or great-uncle had used in some small country's war of independence, and he put it to good use. All the usual actions of a man, possibly lonely, in the grip of a crisis. And like any man in the grip of a crisis, when the the solution came it was like a meteorite. He realised that he had to become, as it were, a scientist. He had to test his assumptions in a purely scientific manner. It was obvious. The only way to find an example of a homicide that would define or defy his idea of the perfect murder was to commit the murder himself. The mode of logic that had taken hold in him when the meteorite had hit told him that no man could ever possibly solve a murder that he himself had knowingly committed. This was perhaps not the answer that he had initially wanted, but he had to have proof either way. And if he were to solve the case, then of course he would be hailed as the greatest homicde detective that ever drew breath. Science dictated that his victim or subject be chosen randomly. He picked a street blindly from his local phone book and killed the first person he saw going into a house on that street. The subject was a young man who worked as an assistant in a local museum, but that fact is superfluous to the story, as is the method of execution which, it hardly needs to be said, was clean, silent and professional. How could it have been otherwise? De Bleca carried out the first part of his experiment at two thirty on a Tuesday afternoon in September on the anniversary of the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile and the 2001 attack on New York's World Trade Centre, a fact that wholly escaped his notice. The murder soon came to the attention of the police force for which he worked and naturally (it was a condition of his experiment) he insisted on taking up the case, despite the fact that he was due to take his annual leave. As you would expect, he threw himself into the investigation of the murdered museum assistant as if his life depended on it, which, in a way, it did. He worked harder than he had done since he was thirty-five. He devoted more thought, time and effort into the case than into any he had previously solved. He tried to put to the back of his mind the financial costs that were undoubtedly being incurred by his beloved police force in his name. But nevertheless the answers, somewhat predictably, eluded him. None of the facts in the case added up. Worryingly, there seemed to be no motive whatsoever. When, after months of wasted time and man power, his superiors told him to call it a day, he demured with a disappointment that was soon replaced by an inexplicably increasing sense of pride. I would like to continue but it is impossible. Mr de Bleca has ordered an Americano above the noise of children, finished writing in a notebook and placed himself under arrest.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Notes on the Existence of Myself, by Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile

I am Jimmy Savile. My life has never been turned upside-down by slow inevitable death, or death that comes quickly and unexpectedly, by love that hits you like a sound wave or by unfathomable, creeping depression. I suppose you'd say I'm average in that respect, average to the point of boredom, but there are things that have happened in my life, in my sphere of existence, that are worthy of note. So think of these words, if you like, as notes on my existence. But before I go on, let me tell you a quick story. I used to have a rotweiler called Blue, but he died. He died quite young, in fact. I don't know how long they're supposed to live for but I'm sure it's more than six years. Anyway, I recently replaced him with a young doberman. When Blue was still alive I had a sign up on my window that said Blue Lives Here and a picture of him looking slightly cheeky but also quite scary. So when I got the doberman I decided to do the same for him. I put up a sign with his name on it: Evander Lives Here, but I didn't have any pictures of him except one as a puppy that the breeder gave me but I decided not to use because eight week old dobermans (or dobermen?) are considerably less formidible than fully-grown ones. So, to get to the point, I put the sign up without a picture to start with. It soon crossed my mind that people seeing the sign might not realise at first that Evander was a dog, and that, for a fleeting second, someone might get the idea that I am living in some kind of non-sexual union with the boxer Evander Holyfield, like Brian May lives with that girl who used to be in EastEnders. This struck me as funny and interesting and I made a point of observing peoples' reactions to the new sign. (Let me say at this point that my dog Evander was of course named after the boxer, whom I admire greatly in a strictly non-sexual way.) Well, you'll never guess what happened. The next day I saw my postman and the very first thing he said to me was 'Hey, Sir Jimmy,' (he always calls me Sir Jimmy. Polite lad.) 'Hey, you'd better be careful, people are starting to talk about you and Mr Holyfield.' He said it with a bit of a wink so as I could be sure he was only joking. So there you go. Proof of the strange and beautiful ways people think. And proof that great minds think alike. My postman is a genius. Anyway, that's the end of that little story. Back to the point. Physically, I'm not an old man. Not your typical elderly gent, by any stretch of the imagination. I was middle aged when Flock of Seagulls released their debut single and I feel no older than that now. I'm still a patron of the Highland Games. Look it up if you don't believe me; it's on Wikipedia. The tracksuit ain't for show. But I realise that people will look at me and see the silver hair and think it's grey, will look at me and think, He can't have that long left. I know otherwise. I know I've got a good few years left in this body. But the mind, that's another matter altogether, the mind. Who knows when that could go. I'm as sharp as a lemon at the moment but tomorrow I could wake up mad. You never know with the mind. I've seen it happen so often, especially in my line of work: the pressure gets to you. So to get to the point, that's why I'm witing this: to get down on paper, before I go mad, some of the important things in my life, some of the little, life-changing things that maybe you don't know about. And maybe you don't want to. But in all fairness, this isn't about you, is it? My life has been all about helping other people, and I just want to set the record straight. I may seem like a saint, but I'm no better than anyone else really. I'm just as selfish as any human - though humans aren't really that selfish compared with other animals. I've told a lie or two. I've played some songs on primetime radio slots when I knew full well that they were too sexually explicit for some of my listeners. I've never hit a woman, though I thought about it once: she spelt my surname with two Ls and when I explained her error she still would not believe me. I really wanted to smack her, but in the end I just told her to look it up on Wikipedia. It's a marvellous tool, that Wikipedia. Type in anyone's name and it'll tell you all you need to know about them, even if they're not that famous like Edwin Collins or Federico Garcia Lorca. Want to know the difference between a hacksaw and a coping saw? Wikipedia's your man. But that's beside the point, unless you're planning on doing some marquetry, in which case, good luck to you. Now I'm going to talk, or rather write, about myself - why is it that writers always say they are talking when really they are writing, and are the least talkative people on earth? I'll tell you a story about a writer, and it's also a story about me, so it chimes in nicely with what I'm trying to say, or what I'm trying to write. If there is anything to be learned from this story it is that you should never be a writer if you don't want to lose your mind. When I was growing up there was a kid in my school who used to write poetry. He was a big fan of Shelley and that other one, the queer chap. Well once upon a time, this kiddie, William something, came home and found his mother hanging in the stairwell for no apparent reason. William was understandably upset, but seemed to get over it pretty quickly. His dad, on the other hand, lost the plot. Started pissing it away down his local boozer, and ran out of money. He had to move himself and his sons from their nice suburban house to one of the back-to-back terraced houses we had in Leeds back then. I used to have to walk past the place on my way to school. To start with William used to join me. Then, to put it plainly, he got into poems in a big way, like his old man got into the booze. He got a bit more mental every day, then one morning I found him at the end of the row of houses walking repeatedly into the brick wall where the gap would have been if the houses hadn't been back-to-back. His forehead and his nose were all cut up. When I asked him what he was up to he said he was trying to reclaim space, something like that. Now you'll be expecting some kind of poetic resolution to this story, or something Freudian, something to do with wombs and his dead mother. But there was no resolution. I was too scared or shocked to stay with him so I carried on walking and never saw him again. I guess they carted him off and put him wherever they put mental kids in those days. Whatever, it didn't seem to put his dad off his stride. I don't think he even missed a darts match. Now, you'll excuse me if I cut this narrative short. I think Evander just shat himself on the kitchen floor. You can't blame him, he's still only a pup, really. But I will come back to this. There are still plenty of important things I need to say before I'm finished.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Veronica Stallwood's Talent for Customer Service


In the evenings she can sometimes find the time to sit down and think to herself: I am Helen Applecross, I'm happy in what I do, I've got great legs and men still want to sleep with me. The fog outside the closed sash window cannot get at her bones (she isn't really old enough to be thinking about her bones, is she?) but she can sense its disarming physicality, its muscularity. She hears a siren, a couple of drunken shouts. Night sounds. She thinks that a thick fog should muffle sound, hide its location and identity like it hides the visible edges of the world. But tonight the city's noises seem focused, have a diamond clarity that cuts through the glass of darkness and the window.

She feels the autumn clambering up on her, lazy and drunk.

She stops writing, takes a handful of cotton-wool to the street-lit window and begins to remove the day's mke-up in the orange relection. Soon the fog is inside and out - the window becomes misted with her slow, polite, female breath. Female, she thinks, and it is almost as if she has spoken out loud, the word adding its own peculier vapour to hers, forming an ambiguously bordered circle on the glass like an ecliptic penumbra. She leaves her face half-cleansed, returns to the desk, flicks through a pile of paper.

As a branch manager she has to write annual appraisals for the team of shop assistants working under her. She likes to give each one a personal touch, to steer clear of jargon, but after nine years she finds herself writing pretty much the same thing for everyone. On the piece of paper with Veronica Stallwood's name and details on it she writes:

Your talent for customer service is natural. You have a superb rapport with our regular customers and an innate ability for making people feel comfortable. If you were to stay with the company in the long term I can forsee a career at management level, and would be happy to...

She lets the pen drop and a fine, uncontrolled diagonal line of ink flashes across the sentences she has just written, stopping at the nadir of Veronica's capital V. Veronica, she thinks, is a ridiculous, eighties-sounding name.

Veronica Stallwood is twenty-four and likes to fuck. She lives with a man seven or eight years older than her, and she likes to fuck him. She also fucks the eighteen year old shcool leaver who works in the food hall, stacking cans with autistic precision. She has a sports science degree and, as she often says to Helen, she's not afraid to use it. Her birch-like body is a source of pride: the kind of b ody that looks like it could never give birth to children, not because of any sterility but because of its bearing. Veronica is in charge of her physicality. Motherhood, in her opinion, takes away a woman's power over herself to some degree, makes her body a tiny bit unknowable by passing its ownership on to somebody other than herself. In her spare time Veronica coaches football to primary school kids: this, she thinks, is the only motherhood she needs. On alternate weekends she takes coke until her nose bleeds. She likes order; perhaps this is why she likes the autistic boy.

Wishing she could write this down Helen goes to the kitchen and eats a single, gigantic spoonful of fruit trifle from the fridge. She makes a coffee and feels a subtle thrill of rebellion curl itself around her heart as she decides to add a large slug of Baileys. She started drinking Baileys before it got trendy, now the girls in the shop always get her a big bottle for Christmas. For some reason she envisages a graph showing how much Baileys she has consumed between 1980 and the present day: a steady line for the first six years or so, then a gradual decline, a trough coinciding with the last two years of her marriage, and a sharp increase after her divorce. She guesses that her current intake is about thirty per cent higher than in those first years.

Without having to pretend she rates the years of her marriage as the best of her life. She is not ungrateful to her ex-husband. She grew to dislike him and soon realised that the feeling was mutual. Although she had been the first to fuck around she feels no guilt. They do not speak to each other but both are on good terms with their children, a girl and a boy, both now in their early twenties. Andrew is her favourite, though this never used to be the case. He works hard doing something she doesn't understand, something to do with printing and engraving. Cally is a musician, probably takes more drugs than she should and has an expensive London gym membership she never uses. They both live out of town and Helen knows that she has transferred some of her maternal instincts to some of the younger girls at work.

The dildo in the underwear drawer is made out of what looks like some kind of semi-transparent solidified green lava or ectoplasm. She used to get it out for a laugh when friends came round for evenings of junk food and pink chardonnay, but when she is alone in her house it becomes a malign totem, imbued with a power she can't access, glowing radioactively in its nest of knickers.

Sometimes she sleeps in the living room and wakes in the early hours, the voices of BBC News peeling away from her dreams.


Helen is in the skirt and blazer that as a manager she is entitled to wear. The other girls have to wear the standard dress suits with British racing green trim, subtle enough and well-tailored, but a uniform nonetheless, a nail in the coffin of individuality. She is above them, in sheer tights, her hair tied back because that's how it looks best, not because of health and safety regulations. Old school friends come in and can't help telling her how good she looks for her age. One elderly man, a connoisseur of pocket handkerchiefs and women in knee-length skirts had once remarked 'If only I were twenty years younger...' and she had finished the sentence a little later in the company of a couple of co-workers, not without some satisfaction.

And she is in her skirt and blazer, above the eighteen year old school leaver, the one who is fucking, or being fucked by, Veronica. She is in the food department on her lunch break; he is on the floor with a split packet of wild rice, reaching under the shelves with a dustpan and brush. When she came into work this morning she had no idea that she might want to sleep with the boy.

'Hey, what you doing down there?' She is sitting on his kick-stool, her legs together at an angle.

'Rice. Somebody dropped it. It doesn't matter.'
'You ought to transfer to mens' clothes. It's less messy. There's a positin coming up, you know.' She resists the urge to say 'I could put in a good word for you.' He still hasn't turned his face up to her. From above his shoulders look broad, almost powerful. His polo shirt is the same green as the trim on the girls uniforms. He is one of them.
'I like food.' She sees him as an adult male for the first time as he says this. It's those three words and all the pointless unmeant meanings they contain. 'There's a Yank who comes in asking for capsicums and zucchinis and rutabagas and it's only me that knows what he's going on about. And I wouldn't know the first thing about clothes.'
He's looking at her now. He has moved, is sitting cross-legged and looking at her. At her face. She moves her legs and he keeps looking at her face, then makes as if he wants to go back to sweeping up the rice.
Helen doesn't stop him. She doesn't lean forward and whisper something vaguely suggestive to him, or part her legs an inch, or nudge him with a coquettish foot, although she thinks unthinkingly of all of these things. But something stops him from returning to his dustpan: a feeling, perhaps, that a conversation with one of his superiors should not be cut off so abruptly, although he evidently wants it to be. She says: 'You're friends with Veronica, aren't you?'
'Yeah, she speaks to me. She went to school with my sister. She's pretty cool.' The conversation is over. Helen gets up and adjusts her hemline.
'Don't forget what I said about clothes. It's an easier job. You know where I am if you do change your mind.' As she walks away from him, down the World Foods aisle, she imagines herself in his mind at that moment, looking at the backs of her legs as they get smaller, wondering what she had spoken to him for and if she wanted to sleep with him. She refuses to turn around just in case he isn't looking at her at all.
There is a glass of Baileys in her hand as she gets ready for bed. On the desk are sheets of paper, one for each employee in her charge, in a pile with corners lined up diplomatically. The information they contain is like a collection of thematically linked short stories: terse, literate, subtle and unintentionally autobiographical. On the top of the pile is Veronica Stallwood's report. With blue ballpoint Helen has shaped the futures of a bunch of young women, animals of a different species: harsh, promiscuous primates. She has power over them, but only a vestigial power, or a power that is useless because she is to old or scared to use it. What she has written on each of the sheets of paper - in her handwriting that slopes like a line of poplars bent by a prevailing wind - is basically the same. Variations on an ancient theme. Go forth and multiply.
The voices in the street have become louder, bawdier, and have separated into male and female strands, seeking, or so it seems to Helen, to outdo each other in terms of harshness and violence. She hears a voice that could easily be Veronica's and goes to the old single-paned window, opens it to hear better. Below her a fat girl is puking wholeheartedly into the gutter while another who could be her twin encourages her with a pat on the back. Their two male companions have gone on ahead and are arguing about where to go next. It is nearly three o'clock on a Thursday morning. The year is 2009. The act of shutting the window takes on an importance that Helen doesn't really understand. It is almost as if she is trapping the gift of her femininity, keeping it from being sucked into the night and wasted. In three minutes the town hall clock will remind her how late it is although she knows full well how late it is anyway and is purposefully stalling in the thick, dull moments that are her own before she switches off the light and hands the night over to the keen, procreating army of idiots on the street, and the things that live in her cupboards and drawers, and in the pregnant pieces of paper on the desk.

Rain Mazurka

It was like the opposite
of love: at first we didn't see
any beauty in it,

not me at least. It was a finger
up at the sky, an evening of drips,
light only in its own light:

a non-sun remiss behind
everything it could find -
air, clouds, spires,

the fuzzed invisible
horizon. The ferocity of walking,
water making new insane angles

out of anything, the way
you pulled me out of the house
as if you knew something,

carrying your face like a dish
to catch water - drinking
with a closed mouth.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Salt Marsh at Porlock

A childless shelduck shuttled
up from the half-colours
of plants in the half-land
between water and earth –

leaves rough as dogs’ paw-pads,
grass turned to salt, and there
a rough bone of wall
like a denial, a proof

that someone with hands,
and blood, womb and gritted teeth
once lived here, houses dying
with the trees blown light

by the salt-wind. I took
a photograph, but the sea’s
chemistry aged that too,
turned the stump-perched crow

to a scratch of charcoal
on a bloodless vein of light.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Three Men

Something - a motor vehicle or it could be a pony and trap - stops outside the wooden building, the large shack with bad drainage (a shack with drainage, however bad, is a good shack in this city. Or does the very fact that this shanty (which happens to be an obsolete word for showy or flashy) has the ability to dispose of or at least pass on its own liquid and semi-liquid waste preclude it from that genus of building that includes amongst others shacks, huts, shanties and bothies? There are other factors which may prove to be obstaculous to this particular building's induction into that group, as we shall see later.) The nose of the motor car or pony is impolitely close to the slanting layers of pine that overlay each other to form the front wall of the building (wooden or metal construction is a prerequisite for a building that has designs, so to speak, on being known as a shack.) It appears to be constructed in such a way that it could contract back in on itself concertina-wise, perhaps at the press of a stainless steel button somewhere in its nonexistent garden. Release of the same button, lever or knob would cause the shack to re-erect like one of the wobbly-kneed toy donkeys sold in Mediterrainean resorts, rewinding with slapstick alacrity into its former glory (if either a pine shack with bad drainage or an inebriated donkey can be described with or without irony as glorious.)

A man jumps from the vehicle. Partly as a result of his diminutive stature it appears that he is leaping bravely from a considerable height. He wears a long coat, or a cape, which follows him from the vehicle at its own, much slower pace. It is longer than he is but has a stiff, aloof awareness of its own existence which keeps it from dragging in the grey sewage of the hut, like a pheasant's tail feathers. He opens the door to the hut just enough to fit his fat usurer's gut through but does not close it after him. From the sunlight he has let in we can see that the shack has a partition with a low closed entrance, creating a front room and a back room (this is the second serious blow to the building's aspirations. We hear about one-roomed shacks in folk songs and read about them in books by certain authors keen to impart realism into their work. However, we seldom hear of a two-roomed shack. The fact that we call a one-roomed shack a one-roomed shack presupposes the existence of a shack of two or more rooms. At least they must exist as ideas. But it would seem that they are, in actuality, a rare and possibly moribund phenomenon.) The front room contains a plant pot brimming with moist earth but devoid of any plant life, a low wide seat and an ancient velocipede of the dandy-horse type. These objects have no importance. The man only notices them because their positions have changed since his last visit. The plant pot is on the seat. The pedalless bicycle is up against the wall and no longer lying on its side like the victim of a stabbing.

The man shouts, Velasquez! You here?

Billy-boy, come through and shut the fucking door, Velasquez replies jovially. This part of the conversation bears all the hallmarks of a personal ritual. In fact it may not even happened on this occasion, or only happened within the minds of the two men. Hence the lack of speech marks.

The short man enters the second room. It is lit by an oil lamp. On the walls are carved - or rather scratched certain zoomorphic designs vaguely resembling cave paintings or hieroglyphs. One clearly depicts a donkey rendered in eight straight lines. There is a newt with a zigzag pattern on its back, fornicating pigs, scarabs and swans engaged in battle. Over all this, encased in glass and mahogany, is a lovingly stuffed mistle thrush, holding in its beak the rotten twig of some unidentifiable tree. A mediaeval mappa mundi is spread on a hexagonal table. Velasquez looms over it with a stubby builders' pencil. He appears to be making corrections.

'How is he?' asks the short man in the long coat.

'He's keeping quiet,' says Velasquez. 'You know as well as I do that he won't say anything.'

'That's because he doesn't know anything.'

'Who does?'

Both men laugh. Velasquez, suddenly attentive, almost desperate, looks up. 'What was the score, Billy-boy? Who won the game?'

'No need to worry. The Mets won, nine to two.'

'Ha. That's nice. The Mets always win. Predictability is good. One of the few good things about foreign countries.'

'They call it the land of the free.'

'Freedom is the mother of predictability. Give these people their individuality and they run away from it or keep in itn their homes, locked away with their drawerfuls of dirty postcards. They turn their homes into museums, places of death, full of the vestiges of their freedom, pinned up in the dark, fading like a collection of moths. But, damn them, they have their baseball, and I envy them that. I suppose we really should celebrate.'

He pours twoglasses of rough bourbon from a crystal wine carafe, spilling a drop on his map, and hands one to his colleaugue. He then takes two items from a hook on the wall. They look like short dog leads, one made of leather, the other of cold, oviform links of silver chain. He also picks up a hornbeam mallet of the type used to hammer tent pegs into the ground.

'Animal, vegetable or mineral?'

'I'll take the metal one today, I think.'

'You Jews can't get enough of your silver,' says Velasquez. 'That means I get to go first.'

He proceeds to the back of the room where a young man or boy sits sweating in a long-backed wooden chair. His hands are clasped behind him. We cannot make out in this dim light whether or not they are tied, but it is reasonably safe to assume that this is the case, particularly if we consider the fact that his ankles are visibly bound to the beautifully turned oak of the chair legs. Of course, it is possible that the young man has found a way to file the rope around his wrists to a snappable thinness without his captors having notced and is only waiting, full of the instinctively opportunistic fervour of the young and - in both senses of the word - disabused, to rise and seethe into the light, making his his escape whilst simultaneously planning his revenge. Let me tell you now that this wholly plausible scenario has not taken place, nor will it, at least within the structure and timeframe of this narrative (which in any case does not exist outside of itself, a fact that condemns our unnamed hero not only to an existence (if existence is the correct word) of infinite toil and pain within the cheap gilt edges of this roughly sketched prisonscape, but also to a rasping, gut-cleaving pointlessness) and that Velasquez and his buddy have no truck with plausible scenarios, preferring instead to deal in certainties.

Velasquez makes the ghost of a genuflectory gesture, adjusts his tricorne so the one apex is pointing directly in front of him, and says, 'The holy spirit,' then beats the young man repeatedly across the thorax with the piece of leather, keeping time impressively and moving like a lumberjack felling a tree. The young man's shirt hangs on to him like a desperate woman and is caked with the hard brown blood of previous beatings.

Velasquez's next sentence is pleasant and bored: 'I invite you now to speak.'

We can see the man's whole body convulse in peristaltic movement, the epicentre of which is his enlarged Adam's apple as he attempts to swallow something: blood or a lack of saliva or unwanted words. He remains silent.

The small man in the cape, called Billy-boy by his accomplice but not by himself or anybody else, takes over. At every blow Billy-boy's face grows more contorted. He reminds the onlooker of a stunted tree clashing with the pinioning arms of the prevailing wind. He speaks as he works: 'Look at this, what a position to get oneself into,' and, 'For the love of a being far greater than I, all we need is a word.' His eyes fill with water. Every stroke he makes is harder than the last, more painful to him. After the last he collapses to his knees and whispers, 'I wish I could be free of this place.'

Velasquez rests a hand on his shoulder. 'Don't we all, Billy-boy. Don't we all.' Then to the captive: 'I suppose it's too much to ask...'

The man, who is barely conscious, replies with what appears to be a shudder, but could just as easily be a shrug. From the other side of the billiard ball that is lodged in his bloody gape - a rudimentary gag but an effective one - comes a gurgling, laughing noise.

Friday, 13 February 2009


The two girls were called Lutra and Glis-Glis. Meles wasn't sure whether they were southern European, north African, south-east Asian, Argentinian or what. Lutra looked as if she might once have belonged to one of the indigenous Lapp tribes of northern Scandinavia, except that she was too dark-skinned. But maybe that was just her tan. After all, she had spent most of her adult life by the shores of the lake.

Meles reclined on a long handmade wicker chair that looked a little like a picnic basket turned on its side. Out on the improbably named Tomb Lake a large fish-eating bird cackled and trod water, occasionally jabbing its beak at the treacly surface and spearing a small bottle-green fish. Meles watched Lutra watching the bird. The bird was joined by another. Lutra called to Glis-Glis in a language Meles did not understand; Glis-Glis was sleeping, slightly curled, on a towel on the sand. Lutra slipped into the lake with lithe soundlessness and swam quickly out to the two fish-eating birds. The birds squabbled and prodded each other in a half-friendly manner. Glis-Glis turned in her sleep. She had a compact, lovely form, Meles thought. Not as classically beautiful as Lutra, but lovely, really lovely.

Meles didn't see the birds depart but they were gone by the time Lutra reached the spot in the middle of the lake where they had been fishing. Lutra's back formed an arc and she tumbled forward and down under the surface of the thick-looking water. Meles looked back at Glis-Glis and she stirred and opened one eye.

'Lutra fishing again?' she said in that accent Meles could not pin down. 'Always fishing, that one. Learned it off the natives.'

Meles lit a cigarette and Lutra emerged from the water. Sure enough she had hold of a fish, a green-grey fish about six inches long. She swam towards the other side of the lake where the curved trunk of a dead tree broke the surface like the head and neck of a monster. Lutra climbed nimbly onto the tree and crossed her legs. She hit the head of the fish once on the trunk. It went still instantly.

Meles was not surprised at Lutra's behaviour. He had seen some gleeful, girlish madness in her, even back at the hotel.

Glis-Glis stretched out supine, a book - Elizabethen poetry - propped against her small bag. She read out loud in her own language. Meles realised that she was translating directly from English. He looked at Lutra, who was now floating on her back with her eyes closed, slowly drifting shorewards.

Glis-Glis was still speaking, but was no longer looking at the book. She had made her way down to the water's edge. Reluctantly she put a tiny bare foot into the water and quickly removed it. She made a sound that Meles could only describe as a disgusted sneeze and went back to her towel.

'She's mad,' she said, gesturing her head in Lutra's direction. Lutra was now only a few metres from land. 'You hear that? You're mad, Lutra. Mental.'

Lutra laughed and ran out of the shallows like Ursula Andress then shook her head like a dog as she came between Meles and Glis-Glis. Meles shivered, not without pleasure, as the water fell on him. Glis-Glis made the sneezing sound again.

Taking Glis-Glis's bag and causing the book to fall open on the sand, Lutra found a hair band and tied her hair back into a ponytail.

'Let's build a fire,' she said. Glis-Glis smiled and nodded in assent.

Lutra collected small sticks that had been stranded by evaporation just above the water line. Meles searched further inland along the line of woodland for larger pieces of wood. Glis-Glis screwed up some pages from a fashion magazine and formed a rough cone over the top with the smaller sticks. Lutra took a Zippo lighter from her friend's bag and had the fire going expertly within seconds. Glis-Glis sat close to the fire, palms outward, despite the warmth of the weather. The towel was damp and cool and Meles sat on it and flicked through the little green book of Elizabethen poetry, not reading it. The pull of the water exerted itself on Lutra again, and she slipped back in, telling Glis-Glis not to let the fire go out.

Meles said to Glis-Glis, 'Doesn't she ever stop?'

'I think it's a kind of illness,' she replied.

'What, like ADHD?'

'Something like that. She could have been an Olympic swimmer. Probably a gymnast too. She eats too many sweets.'

Glis-Glis almost seemed to be asleep. She had picked up a piece of wood and was turning it mechanically, peeling the bark with her thumbnail. Every time she removed a piece she flicked it with her thumb into the centre of the fire and watched it combust, rear up and disappear in an instant. She sang a low, wordless tune for a short time, finishing on a long, sustained note. Lutra reappeared, scolding Glis-Glis for letting the fire burn low. She shook herself like before and the black and silver shards of water from Tomb Lake glittered and kissed in the fire. She went back to the side of the lake and picked up three greenish, purplish fish by the gills. She called, 'Look what I have caught. We can cook them on the fire. We don't have to go back to the hotel. The food there is mediocre.'

Glis-Glis was about to say something in return but checked herself, crossed her legs, shook her head and smiled.

Meles said, 'Is that allowed?' and Glis-Glis smiled more.

Lutra threw the fish down on the sand and said, 'Glis-Glis, get some life into that fire, old girl. Meles, come with me. Come on. Chop chop. God, I feel like Mary Poppins with you two.'

Glis-Glis obeyed and Meles got up.

'Where are we going then, Miss Poppins?'

'To the woods. We need some vegetables.'

He followed, barely able to keep up.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The Items Required to Write a Short Story

The cathedral organist was testing out the monstrous pipe organ, testing up and down, down and up, testing the entire range of the instrument. David rubbed an eye. Some of the bass notes were present in his stomach rather than his ears. Sound reduced to nausea.

David mounted a set of three low red stone steps, and sat on the top one. He was sure that this part of the cathedral was called something other than simply steps: all the features of churches had names that were different from those of normal buildings. Chancel. Nave. Transept. Until he had started researching a story set in the cathedral he had had no idea what any of these were.

A teenaged Chinese girl was edging around the inside perimeter of the building, one hand constantly in contact with the brickwork, the other holding a camera in front of her, as if it were an auxiliary eye. She reached the great girth of a flying buttress - another term David had learned from research - and let her camera hang on a cord around her wrist, using both hands to feel around the base, groping as if blind, drinking the coarse sandstone through her fingertips. She took up her camera once again, stepped back and photographed the lower portion of the buttress.

David photographed the Chinese girl. The unseen organist hit his highest note, and began to descend again. A small boy kicked a stone off an unknown bridge into an unknown waterway in the centre of Copenhagen. He rubbed his eye, bored, waiting for something to happen, he didn't know what. He tried to kick another stone, but his feet weren't there, so he shrugged as the Chinese girl rounded the corner into the north transept and disappeared. David whistled an imperfect counterpoint to the organ's scales without realising he was doing it and stood up slowly, swinging his camera in increasing circles. He pushed open two heavy glass doors, sat down at a table in the cathedral's little cafe, took out his notebook and pencil and began to write. In an unseen part of the building a Chinese girl bit her lip in soft appreciative thought as she ran a hand along the angle of a wall, unaware that she was being photographed by a young man in a checked shirt who was in turn unaware that in Copenhagen a boy on a bridge thought himself into non-existance.

On the bus David looked through the various items in a plastic carrier bag. These were his notebook, a book about neo-gothic architecture, a pack of arborio risotto rice, two fine ballpoint pens, one HB pencil and the Lonely Planet guide to Denmark. He took out the notebook, the guide to Denmark and one of the ballpoints, and flicked to the required page in the guide, preparing to make notes as the young boy reappeared on the Copenhagen bridge. Where had he been? He felt he may have been floating somewhere over the cold, sprawling low-rise city, although he had no actual memory. He felt he knew the patterns of the streets and the incisions of the waterways, the green splatters of parkland and the great grey harbour. A knowledge of the names of things came back to him, or to him for the first time. He knew the heaving waters of the Ore Sund and the umbilical ribbon of its bridge, Hans Christian Andersson's Boulevard and the Langebro, where he had stood forever while David sharpened pencils, looked at foreign maps.

Some time after midnight. A young Chinese girl wakes, finds herself fully clothed in a cold building, her camera broken on the floor. She is aware of someone watching her. She move in the direction of the exit. In front of her: row upon row of pews, like a barrier. She attempts to negotiate the pews, finds that they have been arranged to form a maze. Their wooden backs are taller than she is. She heads towards the middle.

David woke early. It was not yet light. He reached for his notebook, intent on continuing the story he had researhed the day before. But he instantly felt the cold drowning death of writers' block. Doodling an intricate maze in the dark, he thought about his dreams and decided to write them down.